Mikari
by on May 17, 2015
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A Matter of Stature

Chapter 41: Vigilante

Everyone was gathered together listening to Erwin go over the previous day's simulacrum, discussing what was done right and what needed improvement. At least the pretend casualties were minimal. There was nothing out of the ordinary from the debriefing and it went by without any peculiarities. Afterwards, everyone went about their assigned tasks for the day, and you recalled you had to go to Erwin's office. When you got there, Levi was already present. You curiously took the offered seat, wondering what this was about. "This is not an official Survey Corps meeting," Erwin announced, "in fact, this meeting never happened."

Curious, you listened with attention, nodding your quiet agreement of silence. You weren't sure what this was about, but Levi was in on it, so if anything, it had to be worthwhile or he wouldn't be involved.

"As you know, there is a large quantity of food products stored in warehouses owned by Mona Lisa. The court has been unable to resolve the arguments between those involved in her business transactions and no one has been able to claim anything. As a result of that, a lot of the food is starting to go bad," Erwin explained, or rather reviewed, since that unpleasant truth was something you already knew. "Certain people from the Military Police," whom he clearly wasn't going to refer to by name, "have decided to take the merchandise and sell it illegally to several shops at Rose at a generous discount. Rose would benefit greatly from this transaction, but the missing goods will cause trouble... unless the warehouse happens to catch fire and the goods are presumed destroyed."

You were surprised, shocked even. Vigilantism wasn't what the Survey Corps were about, even if the cause was righteous. Part of you was excited, though it had a hard time showing through the surprise. "A fire," you mused, considering the risks. "Might be a bit hard to control."

Erwin nodded, smiling, as if satisfied by your reaction. You got the feeling he might have second thoughts about sharing this information with you if you seemed too eager. "Which is why the proper measures have been taken. What I need from you is absolute secrecy."

You nodded, "alright, I promise." An explanation of the plan followed. Some of the members of the Military Police had reached to the Garrison for illegal assistance and they had in turned reached to the Survey Corps. The system might be corrupt, especially in the Military Police, but at least this time the citizens of Rose who were suffering after Mona Lisa took over so much of the farmlands would catch a break.

The mission was simple, go to the warehouses and set them aflame, from the inside out to minimize the danger by burning a few small fires, rather than a single massive one. The fires would be put out quickly, but had to be allowed to burn just enough to serve as false evidence of the supposed destruction of the food, which would just be empty crates.

You would later found out that you father had called in a few favors from the Military Police to help make this happen and Erwin was apparently aware of it, but did absolutely nothing to stop him, you suspected he might have indirectly encouraged it given the special circumstances. Although your father was unaware of your involvement, which wasn't exactly part of the plan from the start.

You left for Sina soon after and made it there when it was dark. The horses were hidden away by members of the Military Police you didn't know, but Levi seemed to recognize. You had no ODM gear for the mission and instead of the scouts uniform you and Levi were dressed all in black like ninja, blending in with the night and with the remnants of the Gardenia guards.

Levi was sneakier than you when it came down to it and the less people involved the better, so you figured that as some point you'd have to split up, otherwise there would be no point in having two people in the same place doing the same thing. You arrived at a row of warehouses behind tall fences with a few ninja guards and a few Military Police officers. "The Military Police will ignore you or help you, the ninja won't," Levi warned. "Go to the side and you can go in from there, then set up the fires as planned."

"Got it," you nodded in understanding. You watched as Levi ran off in the opposite direction and and took off towards your own destination. There were a lot of Military Police guards on your side. One wordlessly opened the gate just enough for you to slip past the tall fence and you hurried to the first warehouse. You set the empty crates on fire and moved on quickly to the building next to it.

Unlike the first one, this one was actually locked. You were supposed to set them all aflame and the wooden area that held the metal parts where the lock was looped closed appeared to be suspiciously weakened. You concluded that you were supposed to break it, easier said that done. You used your special abilities to strengthen yourself and charged the door repeatedly until the wood gave out noisily and allowed you clandestine passage. You cringed at what a noisy ninja you were being and hurried to try to make up for lost time.

You set the crate aflame and hurried to leave, or at least that's what you were trying to do when the world turned into an invasion of noise and light, pain captured all your senses and you were thrown forward, flaming debris falling all around. You rolled back and forth trying to extinguish the flames that caught you and dragged yourself to your feet, stumbling to escape the approaching footsteps and shouting voices. You were surrounded by ninja, with the Military Police surrounding them, but not doing anything to detain them. The MP officer in charge started demanding their identities as well as custody of the intruder, you.

The ninja did not comply and instead responded by throwing smoke bombs at the ground and making seeing the direction of their escape impossible. You were lifted into the air by the ninja in ODM gear. This was a trap and by the looks of it the Military Police wasn't in on it. They were debating whether or not they should give chase or wash their hands of the whole incident, blaming it all on an intruder posing as a ninja. The MP wasn't exactly happy about having them around, it was their job to guard the goods after the course took them until it was decided who the legal owner was following Mona Lisa's death. The ninja also made their illegal sales harder to conduct.

After the smoke cleared, you looked around but saw nothing but the passing scenery and the ninja. The MPs were out, they had opted to stay out of this and blame everything on the ninja. It was a fine escape for them and the easiest way to get on the clear. Levi had been on the other side of the row of warehouses when the explosion occurred. He must have heard it, but you couldn't tell if he had followed the sound to its source on time to see the ninja escaping with you. Besides, how would he even know you were being taken? That explosion could have been anything and you were dressed as a ninja, blending in with them and the night.

You tried to move, but were completely numb. The explosion must have fractured something with the intensity of the impact and your body went on overdrive trying to heal you. You could feel your skin growing as hot as the flames with the speed of the regeneration. You were glad your burns were healing, but it was draining your energy very quickly and you had already used some of it breaking into the warehouse. You allowed yourself to go limp, until you were fully healed, you wouldn't be able to fight, that would only drain your energy faster.

This was supposed to be an easy job, no ODM gear needed, they didn't want any links to the MP or scouts or anything, as the ninja used slightly different looking ODM that you didn't have access to. You had a feeling that the trap wasn't necessarily from the MP, their contacts at the Garrison or Erwin might have been suspicious if it was. Besides, the MP wouldn't cause unneeded tension with people they negotiated with regularly, but what did the ninja have? With the Gardenia name basically doomed to fade away, their clan would be dissolved, unless they found a new sponsor.

You were taken through a tunnel by the five ninja and tossed to the ground, the ninja surrounding you. A familiar man emerged from the shadows with a dim lamp to make his features just barely visible, but you knew who he was. "Mustache," you growled in recognition.

"That's Don Rocco to you," the fact that he was showing his face meant that he didn't expect his prisoner to escape, or to live for very long. "You do seem to know who I am, even if you insist on addressing me with dangerous disrespect. I wonder who you are?" The ninja mask was yanked from your head, revealing your face for Rocco Montrel, alias Mustache, head of the Sina mafia, to see. "The dying girl? What a lucky break! I just wanted a list of the MPs that dared to steal my goods out of you, but it looks like I'll get so much more. Transport the girl to a secure location. Fredrick will have to show up and listen to my demands now."

"You won't get anything from my uncle! He's not a criminal anymore, he's not evil!" You argued in sudden burst of anger. Rocco have you a mocking look and motioned for his guards to take you away. Two ninja grabbed your arms and began to drag you away. You were healed by now and focused as much as you could in making your arms stronger, though they looked the same on the outside, their density and weight changed.

The ninja exchanged glances, as if noting that the skin that a moment ago gave in to the pressure of their hands was now much more solid, as if made of dense highly compacted muscle, but it was too late for them to react. You pulled your arms free from their grasp, grabbing onto the front of their uniforms in a swift motion and smashed their heads together. The other three ninja went on the attack, while Rocco shouted words of anger and disbelief. He was not informed of your abilities and had been tricked into believing that your illness had weaken the elixir making it all balance out into an ordinary human without the same abilities as Tony.

The tunnel was suddenly filled with smoke and someone grabbed you and pulled you away, "retreat." Levi, you didn't know how, but he actually found you and came in from the other side of the tunnel. He probably knew the mazes that led to the underground city better than even Rocco's people. You hurried through the smoke following Levi until you could see where you were going.

In the distance, the warehouses were burning, the fire was kept under control, not affecting the areas around it, but the fire fighters did a good job of pretending to struggle with it. Some of the buildings in the middle were left intact though, the fire not allowed to risk them due to concerns of the danger of more possible explosions. You and Levi made it back to the horses and retreated without any time to look back. The MPs blamed everything on the ninja and were detaining them to protect their own names. Rocco must have retreated in the midst of the commotion, not wanting to expose himself further.

You wondered if Rocco had Tony, but doubt that was true. Without the original sample of the formula, your uncle couldn't do much except be silenced or be used to capture Tony. The way Rocco had mentioned demands made you think he still needed Fred for something. A theory surfaced in your mind, what if Tony was with Fred the whole time? If Fred's days as a desperate experimenter were truly over, then Tony would be better off with him than with Mona. It was still hard to imagine Fred as cruel after he had been so kind to you growing up.

The next day at the scouts base, you and Levi went on with your normal routine as if nothing unusual had happened the previous night, though the scouts had their own theories about your tired state. You didn't have the energy to blush about their likely thoughts anymore, so you just let them be and went about your day. Erwin had been informed of the happenings and would take care of things regarding the MPs, though it was still troublesome that Rocco knew that you weren't exactly an ordinary human. For the time being, making a direct move would be too dangerous, so you had to let things be. In the mean time the scouts, you included, continued training for a mission they didn't know when they would go on, but they prepared for it as if it could happen at any moment.

xoxox xox xoxox

Chapter 42: Implications

Your head collided with the table above harshly and you let out an undignified, "ow," as your brain processed the implications behind the calmly spoken question. After recovering from the sudden impact, you turned your attention back to the spot you were cleaning on the table's underside.

"Well?" Levi inquired from a few feet away, momentarily pausing his task of cleaning under the bed to glance in your direction.

"What?" You blinked in confusion.

"Are you coming"?" Levi repeated, though the context of his question didn't quite sink in for you.

"Sure," you nodded with little fuss, then paused to add, "where are we going?"

"The bath," he reminded. Your head collided with the table above again when your brain once again processed the implications and furthermore confirmed that they were true. "Why do you insist on breaking the table with your head?"

You had asked Levi what he was going to do today, to which he replied he would clean the room and take a long bath afterwards, as it was his day off, unless there was something you wanted to do. You haven't really thought about it and couldn't come up with an answer on the spot, so you just joined him. "Oh, I thought you were kidding." You continued the cleaning while you allowed it all to sink in with a mixture of excitement and nervousness.

"You already cleaned that spot," Levi pointed out.

"Oh, right, looks like the underside of the table's all clean," you declared, not really analyzing if it was up to his standards or not.

Levi joined you under the table, looking at your work critically, "(Name)," he frowned in disappointment, "what did I tell you about corners?"

"Corners are the deadly ally of dust." You dutifully repeated, then hurried to go over the corners underneath the table where the furniture's legs were.

"You never answered," Levi pointed out while he retreated from under the table.

To your credit, you didn't bump your head a third time. "Oh, well... You know, I have to walk Fluffy, but if I'm back early then, yeah." You saw Levi nod from the corner of your eyes and stopped yourself from rambling further. 'I have to walk the dog?' You quietly thought to yourself. 'What a stupidly obvious excuse, now he probably thinks I don't want to. Of all the times I could've picked to suddenly feel insecure, why now?' You frowned at yourself as you attacked the wood with your cleaning cloth, then moved on to the nightstand, cleaning the top, sides and bottom.

"(Name)" you looked at Levi, though your hands kept moving as you did. "Clean, don't rip the paint off, just clean." he reminded. You realized how rough you were being with the furniture. Your right arm felt heavy, as if you've been putting your energy into its density without noticing. You nodded and returned to your cleaning. Levi had moved to cleaning the window, he loved cleaning windows, it was ridiculous, yet endearing.

xoxox xox xoxox

The day went by rather uneventfully, except Levi actually took note of your energy when cleaning and sort of complimented you, if 'aggressive cleaning' could be considered a compliment, too bad it was the result of venting frustration.

That evening you went to walk Fluffy, just because you said you would, and instead found Armin playing fetch with her. You decided that she was getting enough exercise as it was and let them be. Fluffy seemed accustomed to her new haircut. You didn't dye her fur anymore and the pink had gone away, she was completely white now. Levi had the "dust collecting excess fluff" as he called it, cut off. He coat was shorter now, but still fuzzy enough to clothe her from the elements. She was probably more comfortable with the shorter fur anyway, since the weather was becoming warmer.

As you walked on, Mikasa spotted you and after a moment's hesitation, hurried to catch up with you. You greeted each other normally, then she asked, "are you busy right now?"

"Not really," you replied, "I was just going for a walk to pass the time. Do you need anything?"

"I wanted to talk, mind if I come along?" Mikasa revealed.

"Sure, let's go," the two of you left, off to the streets of Rose, which were not too heavily transited at that hour. People were either home or at a few public establishments, bars and cafes, but they weren't walking down the streets and most of the shops had closed for the day.

Your first guess as to the topic of Mikasa's conversation was what she knew about you. Maybe she had gotten curious about your healing abilities and thought it was about time she received an explanation. She didn't bring up that subject though, instead bringing some context to the conversation. "You're married," she stated, and you wondered if she had somehow learned the secret origin of your arranged marriage. She paused, as if trying to rephrase her question in a way that didn't sound like she was prying.

You gave her an encouraging smile, "it's ok, whatever it is, you can just tell me."

Mikasa nodded and finally inquired, "I was wondering about how you... well, how you got Levi's attention."

"Oh..." You weren't even sure how to answer that, but tried to reply as honestly as possible. "He noticed I liked him and I guess he decided that I had traits that he liked and there was no reason why it shouldn't work. He did think of reasons why it wouldn't," you mused, "but none of them fit, so that just left the reasons why it would. I'm sorry, am not making a lot of sense, am I?"

"I understand what you mean," Mikasa voiced thoughtfully, "so Levi knew you liked him and he thought about it. How did you make him notice that you liked him?"

"I didn't," you admitted. "I think he noticed before I even realized it myself. Then when I did realize it, I was kind of in denial. I think my father knew it too before I fully admitted it. So then I told him," there was supposed to be a story that constituted your background with Levi, but you were too focused on the memories to think about how the slightly vague tale would fit with the previously established narrative. "Actually, I thought he didn't like me, but the only way I could move on was if I got everything out of my system and let the rejection sink in, rather than holding on to some vague hint of hope. It turned out better than I expected," you blushed at the memories. "I guess, his final reasoning was to not say anything if I didn't," you mused. Mikasa took it all in with a thoughtful expression. It wasn't hard to guess what she was thinking of. "So, are you going to confess to Eren any time soon?"

Mikasa stopped walking, a mix of denial and excuse ready on her lips, but instead she laughed, as if she knew just how hopeless it was to try to hide it. "I don't know," she admitted unsure. "Sometimes I think he likes me, but even if he does, that doesn't mean he wants to do anything about it. There's a lot going on and he's focused on that. He can turn into a titan, the future of the scouts is uncertain right now, not that it wasn't before. There's just so much to think about that I also think this may not be the best time to bring it up. I want Eren to know I'll wait for him as long as he needs."

"If you've made your choice, then you should tell him, you said it yourself, you want him to know. Besides, this isn't a big secret, he has probably noticed by now, especially after what happened at the Christmas party," you reminded, causing her to blush at the memory of when she and Eren kissed. That had also been the first time you and Levi kiss, not counting on the cheek, though it was still mostly for the audience back then, though perhaps not entirely. Either way, it was certainly real now.

Mikasa nodded in determination, "you're right, it's not like I'm asking him to do anything or even give me an answer. I can be subtle and just let him know that I'll always be there for him. Thank you, (Name) and..."

"You're welcome, and my lips are sealed," you assured.

xoxox xox xoxox

Mikasa and you headed back to the scouts base. Mikasa went to find Eren and you, having somehow gotten over most of your nerves, went on your way back to your and Levi's room. That meant that the two of you were walking in the same direction for part of the way. You passed in front of Eren's door first. You gave Mikasa a thumbs up and were about to move along, when the voices coming from the room gave you pause.

The door was carelessly left open a few inches, allowing the sounds of the conversation going on inside Eren's room to quietly flow out into the hallway. "And I just worry about it sometimes," Eren confessed. "You know, that she'll just get fed up with all the waiting and move on. But then there's a million other things I need to worry about too. I mean, I can turn into a titan and I don't even understand why."

"I don't think that changes anything for Mikasa," Armin's voice reassured from within the room. "If you're that worried about losing her then at least give her a clue. Let her know that she's not waiting in vain."

"And then what?" Eren inquired unsure.

"I don't know..." Armin initially replied, though Eren's sigh made it obvious that he wasn't being helpful and that prompted him to rephrase the answer. "Then you'll feel better and she'll feel better and nothing has to change right away."

"But will it ever, can it ever?" Eren's voice raised in volume as his frustration became evident. "I'm glad to be able to fight the titans, and I still want to get revenge on every last one of them, but I still don't know what I am or what I'll do other than that. Everything is just so uncertain and..." there was a pause and after a moment, he went on in a quieter tone. "Just what is she waiting for? I don't know what my future holds, so how can I ask her to wait? To wait for what?"

The door suddenly flew open, Armin jumped, Eren froze and you stood there in shock. Mikasa had pushed the door open with such force that it slammed against the wall and slightly bounced back, crooked on its weakened hinges. "I'll wait for you, no matter what," so much for being subtle. After speaking those words, Mikasa let out a breath, as if exhaling all her tensions, and calmly walked out of the room.

Eren stared after her in open mouth shock until Armin nudged him to move. Slowly at first, Eren took a few steps, then bolted with amazing speed, catching up to Mikasa further down the hall, in front of the stairs at the end. You couldn't tell exactly what they were saying, but there was blushing involved.

You looked at Armin, who was still getting over his shock. He joined you at the doorway and glanced at the couple down the hall. "I guess I'll give them some space," he decided. Smiling, he added, "you encouraged Mikasa, didn't you? Thank you, I'm sure they'll work things out, I'm happy for them."

"You're welcome, though I don't think I did much," you replied. "Mikasa pretty much had things figure out. I'm not sure what was keeping her from acting, or Eren for that matter."

"I guess everyone backs away from doubts or the illusion of doubt sometimes," Armin mused, which gave you something to think about. "Well, I'm going back to my room. I think I'll read a little, then go to sleep early, I have breakfast duty tomorrow, we're making pancakes."

You walked with Armin in the direction opposite to Eren and Mikasa, parted ways with him in the next hall after exchanging good nights, then kept walking until you realized you didn't know where you were going. Well, you had been heading back to your room, but Eren and Mikasa were parked right in front of the stairs and you didn't want to interrupt them.

xoxox xox xoxox

Later, you entered your room, feeling satisfied that things were working out among your friends. Levi was sitting on the bed, wearing pajama pants, the light of the lamp illuminating his well toned bare torso. He held several papers with various notes and illustrations pertaining to scouting mission strategies.

You didn't dwell on what the papers were other than scouts stuff and why he was looking at them, instead your eyes were drawn back to his exposed upper body and remained there until he spoke. "Are you just going to stand there?"

He didn't sound impatient, but you still rushed to reply, albeit it was too late to cover up your staring. "Of course not," you closed the door behind you and suddenly the reality of the situation sunk in. Levi's day off was basically over, long bath day had gone by, he'd shower tomorrow and not take more time for it than what was needed to be his flawlessly clean self. "You took the bath without me..." You concluded.

Levi looked up from the papers with curiosity, though he still maintained his ever present poker face expression, you had just gotten better at reading the very subtle differences in his face. "I thought you didn't want to join me. Where did you go to walk the dog anyway?"

"I didn't," you admitted. "I'm late because Mikasa and Eren were confessing their love at the stairs and I didn't want to interrupt them." You had checked in on them discreetly and seen them shyly kiss on one occasion. Every other time you peeked in from the other end of the long hallway they were sitting at the stairs talking with a variety of expressions, ranging from smiles, to frustration, to regret, to stubborn determination, to blushing like ripe tomatoes. It was like they were recounting their entire lives to each other, even though they've for the most part, witnessed the same things.

"It's about time," Levi concluded, not at all surprised by the well known fact that Mikasa and Eren liked each other. "I suppose I can excuse your tardiness."

"Eren's room was a few feet away, I don't know why they couldn't just talk there." You recalled the door and mentioned it in passing. "Eren's door needs some repairs, it partly came off one of its hinges and it's crooked."

"I move Eren out of the cellar and he not only prefers to obstruct traffic on the stairs, but breaks the door too? Maybe I should move him back." You knew Levi wasn't serious, though you still defended Eren.

"It wasn't really his fault, Mikasa broke it when she barged in to reassure Eren that she would wait for him as long as he needed. He was in his room talking to Armin at the time," you explained.

"And you and Mikasa were eavesdropping? You're corrupting my cadets," Levi shook his head in hopeless disapproval, though you could just barely detect a vague hint of amusement. "I might have forgiven you for being late, but I can't forgive this."

"My deepest apologies," you joked, then let out a breath, lamenting lost opportunities, it was ok though, it's not like it would be the end of the subject forever. "I'll make up for my transgressions tomorrow. I'm going to shower and go to bed. Armin let me know that there will be pancakes for breakfast tomorrow and I don't want to be late for that."

The next morning, you were late for breakfast...

xoxox xox xoxox

Chapter 43: Half the Things, or Maybe More...

The passing of the week brought at least some good news, though there were uncertainties that still remained. The whole drama with Mona Lisa was resolved, at least in what concerned the Survey Corps as well as the general public. Tony, Artie and Melinda where nowhere to be found and your father kept trying to sneak off to look for them, only to be dragged back and told not to get in the way of the investigation. He was detained a few days ago, as in officially arrested, though he was back home now. The bakery and atelier remained close with only your father occupying the structure.

You considered inviting your father to live at the scouts base and casually brought up the possibility during conversation, but before you could fully offer, he had refused. You didn't even have time to plan out how to ask Levi in your head, before you launched into an unsuccessful attempt to convince your father to accept the possibility. "He hasn't contacted me in a long time, if I'm at the base, the chances of him talking to me again will be less and he's the only one who knows..." Was your father's excuse for his adamant refusal. You realized that he was referring to your ever elusive uncle who had all but dropped off the face of the planet.

Though there were still a lot of things to think about, for the time being, you closed your eyes and tried to clear your head, focusing on the pleasant sensations of the here and now...

xoxox xox xoxox

"Wow, look at those numbers," Hange exclaimed as she examined a sheet of paper. "That soap is really selling and now that the government sorted out Mona's mess and the merchants has mostly quieted, the scouts are finally out of the red numbers and we'll get our normal budget back."

"Now that our operations are not longer frozen, we will likely need to go on a mission soon. Mona Lisa's influence on the farmlands went further than what we expected," Erwin frowned at how that situation had blown up in their faces. "The boycotts that Gustav was tricked into influencing which led to Mona's purchase and the later temporary ceasing of work, left the seed supplies very low for the next farming season. The higher ups expect the Survey Corps to prove their worth by making up for it."

Hange put the paper down on the desk between them and gave the commander an incredulous look. "Are you serious?" She shook her head, "so they're sending us out to get more seeds or something?"

"In essence," Erwin got up from his desk, walking to the window of his office. He opened it, letting some fresh air inside. "It may seem like an odd mission, but it may turn out to be vital for the people that are counting on that food supply. If the price of food continues to rise because of another small harvest it'll be bad for everyone, especially for Rose."

"I guess we'll have to bring back a lot of seeds then. If we can prove ourselves by coming back without casualties, then the Survey Corps' good name would have been defended and we won't hear complaints about failed missions and tax wasting from people anymore, or at least not as many complaints." Getting excited, Hange considered the possibilities further, "maybe I'll make an interesting discovery out there!"

"I'll have a meeting with all the captains this afternoon at 1400 to go over the details, the cadets are to be briefed tomorrow and ready by the end of the week," Erwin decided.

"Gotcha, I'll let Levi know when I drop this off," Hange picked up the paper she had been examining before and exited Erwin's office.

xoxox xox xoxox

Out in the hallway, on her way to give Levi the paper in his room, Hange saw Eren and Jean talking in front of Eren's room. "so, are you and Mikasa going out now?" Jean glared.

"Well..." Eren considered the question for a moment, a blush adorning his face. "Not exactly," he finally replied, though Jean's fleeting hope was soon dashed away by his next words. "It's more like a promise that we'll get married once the titans are all defeated."

"You what?" Jean loudly exclaimed, before collecting himself and trying to be rational. "You do realize that may never happen. She'll get tired of waiting for you."

"I'll make it happen!" Eren stubbornly argued, the volume of his voice and intensity of his tone raising. "Every last titan out there, I'll make them all disappear!" Jean took a step back, Eren could be pretty scary when he got all excited about fighting titans.

"Hey boys," Hange popped up out of seemingly nowhere, causing both Eren and Jean to jump in surprise. "Could you give this to Levi and tell him Erwin is having a meeting with all the captains today at 1400? Thanks!" Before they could reply to her request, she was gone, just as suddenly as she came.

Eren looked at the paper that had been shoved into his hands. It looked like some sort of accounting sheet. He shrugged, Hange said he had to deliver the document, not interpret it. "Let's go give this to Levi." His fierce tone and murderous atmosphere had dissipated entirely as he walked off towards the stairs.

Jean couldn't help it but to curiously follow. Eren could take care of the errand by himself, but he might as well tag along so he wouldn't think he was scared of him, or Levi, or anything. Besides, it's not like he had anything better to do at the moment anyway.

xoxox xox xoxox

Eren and Jean arrived in front of the closed door to Levi's room. They paused before knocking and listened to the sounds coming from the other side of the door.

"Hmm... That feels good... Ahh... Don't stop... This is so nice... Levi, you're wonderful!"

The two boys remained frozen, a pink tint invading both their faces. Jean swallowed his shock to find his voice and whispered. "Do you think he's doing that?"

"What do you mean that?" Eren whispered back, unsure if he wanted to know the answer.

"You know, that," Jean searched for an eloquent wait to phrase it. "Popcorn," he finally settled for the keyword.

"Popcorn?" Eren repeated in confusion, before recalling the time of Hange's Levi x (Name) fanfiction reading and how he had asked about popcorn at random to try to prevent Hange from asking an embarrassing question. "Oh! Popcorn!" After a moment's thought, Eren shook his head. "I still say that's physically impossible."

Jean puffed out his chest and bragged, "I bet I could do it."

"No one could do it," Eren insisted. "But that's not the point. Whatever they're doing, and I'm sure it's not... that... popcorn... whatever it is, it's still... private, so we shouldn't interrupt."

"No kidding captain obvious!" Jean exclaimed, perhaps a little too loudly. "If we interrupt now, Captain Levi will kill us."

Eren nodded in agreement, and thought about what they could do. "Should we push this paper under the door with a note about the meeting, or should we come back later?"

Jean paused to think about it, then decided, "let's come back later. If we push the paper under the door, he'll know someone was here and that paper," Jean pointed at the document Eren held, "might make him ask Commander Erwin who sent it."

"Then he'll say Hange and she'll say..." Eren's eyes widened in realization at the fatal mistake he almost made.

"Exactly, she'll say the names of the marked for death, us!" Jean completed.

"Ok, let's come back later than, good thing you pointed that out," Eren nodded.

Before Jean could comment on the fact that he saved the situation, the door to Levi's room was opened. The two boys jumped, then became still as statues in frozen shock and fear, as Levi demanded to know, "what are you two doing standing there?"

"We're sorry!" Eren and Jean recited in a shaky chorus before realizing that Levi was indeed fully clothed. They curiously began to try looking behind him, tilting their heads upward to see over Levi's shoulder, much to his annoyance.

"Who's at the door?" You curiously went over to the door. Your hair was covered in a particularly viscous shampoo, a towel draped around your shoulder to keep the stuff from dripping on your clothes. The sensation of Levi's fingers massaging your scalp was very pleasant (bless his wonderful neat freak hands!) and quite frankly you were not happy about the interruption.

"Just these two," Levi glared at them, which reminded them that they were yet to state their purpose for being there.

"We brought you this," Eren held up the paper like a mix between shield and peace offering.

Levi snatched the document and glanced at it before inquiring, "is that all?"

"We also have a message," Eren continued.

Realizing that he hadn't done anything to justify his presence there, Jean quickly intervened. "Commander Erwin will be holding a meeting with all the captains today at 1400!"

"I see..." Levi nodded calmly, his voice perfectly level, which made Eren and Jean let out a unanimous breath of relief. "Now tell me, why are your faces so red?"

Eren and Jean looked at each other, at a loss for words, their faces growing even more red at the memory of what they had assumed was going on behind the close door. Hair washing, was not their guess. Then they both grew ghostly pale at the fear that Levi might think they were eavesdropping and assign them some terrible punishment.

You curiously looked at the distressed young men and shook your head. "Was Hange reading weird fanfiction to anyone who would listen again?"Neither Eren nor Jean dared to voice a reply, but they both lowered their head, the red tint returning to their faces. You wondered if having their blood rush to their faces, then their feet, then their faces again so subsequently would be bad for their circulation. None the less, they didn't need to voice a reply, because their shamed expressions already spoke volumes. You spoke gently, since Levi was scaring them enough as it was. "You guys know that half the things Hange writes are physically impossible, don't you?"

Eren and Jean gasped in surprise, while Eren let out a victorious, "I knew it!" Before he could turn his attention to Jean and give him a big satisfying 'I told you so' as 'I told you so's often tend to be, he recalled the delicate situation he was in and bit his lip before he could speak any further, though thankfully, not hard enough to draw blood.

Levi's aura of extremely dangerous extreme annoyance was palpable, but before Eren and Jean could get an earful, you decided to show them some mercy and send them away. "Thanks for delivering the paper and message," you smiled sweetly.

"You're welcome!" Eren and Jean chorused as they unanimously saluted, perhaps out of habit as well as a sign of respect, since they were not about to wait for Levi to dismiss them himself before they made their hasty escape.

Levi let out a breath and shook his head. "Hange never learns not to meddle," he closed the door and suspiciously examined the floor with a critical eye.

"I didn't drip," you assured, before taking a seat again and waiting for Levi to continue.

"Your hair is already clean," Levi pointed out. "Besides, it's almost 2."

"Oh, right," you nodded, recalling that 1400 was 200pm. It was Levi's day off, but sometimes he had to do scouts stuff, there were no real days off for the Survey Corps after all. "I guess I'll go wash this off, have a good meeting." Making sure the towel prevented any bits of goopy shampoo from dripping off to the floor, you hurried to the bathroom, while Levi left the room.

xoxox xox xoxox

Hange was heading off to the Survey Corps captains meeting when she ran into Eren and Jean, who were having a very peculiar discussion. Armin and Connie were there, with Armin looking embarrassed and Connie constantly repeating, "you do have a point..." switching between agreeing with Eren and agreeing with Jean every time either of them said anything.

Since she heard her name being mentioned, Hange curiously walked over and asked, "what are you talking about?"

The four boys, who were huddled in a circle of perceived secrecy, jumped in surprise at her sudden appearance, seemingly out of thin air. Jean decided to end this argument once and for all and asked. "Are the things you write in your fanfiction really physically impossible?"

Hange laughed, "of course they are," her laughter continued to echo while the boys watched in shock, mouths ajar, eyes wide. "Only about ten percent of the things I write are actually physically possible, but it's still fun to write about the things that are not."

"Ten percent?!" Jean exclaimed in disbelief.

Confused by the discrepancy, Eren pointed out, "(Name) said half the things you wrote were physically impossible."

Hange's laughter ceased all at once as she blinked in confusion and shock. "Really?" Eren and Jean nodded in confirmation. "Wow, that's... wow..." She paused, another more interesting thought appearing in her mind. "Did she happen to say which half?" Both Eren and Jean shook their heads and Hange smiled mischievously. "I guess I'll have to ask (Name) later." With that said, Hange went on her wait to the captains meeting with Erwin.

xoxox xox xoxox

Later, Levi returned to the room he shared with you to find you had finished removing the shampoo from your hair and drying it. You were sitting on the bed, squinting at a piece of paper. It was the letter your father had given you, which went through the wash, as you had forgotten it in your pants' pocket. The water had messed up the ink and the words were impossible to read. You looked up from it, as Levi entered. "How was the meeting?"

"We'll be going on a mission next week," Levi revealed, "we'll talk about the strategy tomorrow, there will be a meeting with all the squads, that should be announced at dinner today."

"My first mission..." You recalled that you would be with Hange's team this time, though maybe you'd be with Levi in the next one. Stopping your thoughts from progressing further, you reminded yourself that the mission wasn't an occasion to hang out, lives would be at stake and you had to stay focused. You smiled, remaining positive, "I'll do my best."

"Just remember your training and be careful," Levi sat on the bed beside you, curiously examining the paper in your hands. "What's that?"

"A letter from my father, he said they were business tips for my eyes only. I forgot the paper in my pocket and washed it along with the pants. I finally got around to trying to figure out what it says but it's just impossible." Giving up on the blurry letters, you crumpled the paper into a ball and tossed it in the trashcan, you'd just have to tell your father to write up those business tips for you again. "Do you have anything else you need to do today?" You asked, "or anything else I need to do?" It was your day off too, but that would inevitably change if something really needed to get done.

"Not really," Levi wrapped his arms around you and you leaned into him comfortably, returning the embrace. He kissed you, both of you enjoying every moment of it, then whispered in your ear, "want to find out if more things are possible after all?"

xoxox xox xoxox

Chapter 44: Mirages and Explosions

You petted Knight's mane, hoping that the world out there didn't scare him too much. He was such a calm and loyal pet, you wondered how he would react to the sight of a titan. The gates would open soon, you saw Levi riding Cali close to where Eren and Mikasa were. You went over the formation in your mind, recalling your position. Hange didn't seem to be worried, she looked excited, like she couldn't wait for the gates to open. Your father was another story, his smile was clearly forced, his eyes filled with stress and worry, while he fought to keep any complaints he might have from escaping. "Be careful out there, princess."

You smiled in reassurance, "don't worry, I'll be fine." He nodded, trying to convince himself of it. "By the way, about the letter you gave me a while back." Your father tensed, you attributed it to the stress of your first mission outside the walls. "I kind of forgot it in my pocket and it went through the wash. I later tried to figure out what it said, but the ink was all blurry and I couldn't read a word."

Your father let out a breath as if something suddenly made sense. "It's alright, princess," he tried to look reassuring. "Maybe it's best this way, it was wrong of me to write that letter, cowardly. We should talk in person when you return. Whatever happens, remember to live without regrets, regrets will only enslave you."

"Ok," you nodded, wondering just what kind of business practices the letter had described.

The announcement was made that the gates were about to open and your father stepped aside to allow the scouts to pass. The giant doors parted, offering the first glimpse of the territory that once belonged to humanity before Maria's fall. The scouts began to gallop out, moving into formation as they did and the gate closed behind you.

Initially, the scenery wasn't too different from that which you left behind. The houses were a little ruined and clearly lacking maintenance, but they still stood, relatively undamaged. You heard the echo of barking up ahead, Fluffy was in the saddle bags of Erwin's horse, providing an additional warning in terms of what path should not be taken.

The formation had not yet spread to its full size, so you could still see most of the scouts. No flares were needed to direct the troops yet, since everyone was in sight of several others and could easily follow the pack. Hange shifted direction and you followed, turning down another street.

A titan, that had been apparently sitting, stood and towered over a building up ahead, though it didn't seem to notice the scouts rushing by behind the structure. It was only a matter of time before the sounds of the horses' hasty gallop was heard and the creature squeezed between the two tall houses in front of it to reach the street where the last of the formation was passing by. Fortunately, by then it was too late, as those assigned to support the scouts as they went further away from the wall got rid of the titan swiftly.

Erwin switched directions again to get back into position as you left the urban area. The expanse ahead had few buildings and they were in worse condition than the others, nothing but ruins. It felt as if you were truly outside now, though at least the visibility was better, albeit there were still a few places behind which titans could hide. Erwin should be aware of them though, even if Fluffy's barking was too far for it to carry all the way to your position in the formation.

Hange looked back, your eyes met hers, as if waiting for instruction, "(Name) fall back a little and keep an eye on your right."

"Ok!" You guided Knight to pace himself. You had been so focused on not breaking formation that you kind of did. Hange was in front of you, so you were concentrating on following her, but the space between you and the scout behind you had become too great, you were supposed to be in the middle. You allowed Knight to fall back in pacing until Hange became a dot in the distance and you could see a another dot behind you that you reasoned was Connie.

The formation didn't look this wide on paper and after the briefing you had imagined that you'd be riding closer to the other scouts, not as close as in the simulacrum since that had limited space, but closer than this. With this much space between the scouts it was no wonder the flares were used, it wasn't a convenience to make the communication faster, it was a necessity for the communication to happen at all. You looked to your right, towards the edge of the formation. You didn't see any titans out there yet.

You heard the echo of a flare being shot and looked ahead, but didn't see any smoke. For you to hear it, it must have been relatively close, but if Hange didn't fire it then who did? You looked back and saw red smoke, Connie had fired it. You hurried to relay the message with another red flare.

You had expected titans to come mainly from the front, but that one was right behind the formation. Fluffy probably couldn't detect it from further ahead and Erwin must be unaware of it. It was ok though, you assured yourself as you looked up at the red smoke of Hange's flare echoing yours. You could probably outrun the titan, this wasn't an emergency situation yet, being aware of the titan was only a precaution.

You rode for a while until you reached a forest. Some scouts positioned themselves to defend the area while other went into the forest to collect the needed flora. You hurried around on foot, trusting your companions to watch your back from the trees, stuffing everything that looked medicinal into your bag. Another group of scouts would be off in an area that used to be a farm, looking for different types of seeds.

You heard something that sounded like sniffling and wondered if someone had cracked under pressure. The whole titan situation was still kind of sinking in for you, since you had only seen them from a distance thus far. You put the backpack on and followed the sounds, hoping to reassure whoever was crying. To your surprise, you found a young man, his green eyes reminded you of Eren, but his hair was blond. He looked at you in a mix of fright and curiosity.

You noted with embarrassment that he wasn't wearing anything, though you soon realized that he had the same anatomy as a titan and your embarrassment turned to shock. "What... What are you?"

The young man smiled, and reached out to you, but before his hand could come into contact with your person, it began to dissolve into titan dust. He looked at it in distress and screamed, then ran to you, but turned to dust entirely just as he reached you. you yelled in shock and brushed the dust off, only to find that it had continued to become so thin that it was imperceptible. You thought you heard a flare being shot, but didn't see its color.

"(Name), are you alright? Did a bug crawl on you?" Hange was nearby with both your and her horse, curiously watching your odd little dance of dusting off yourself. "Titans are surrounding the forest, we need to move on," she reminded with concern. "Did you see the flare?" She placed her hand on your shoulder and smiled. "It's ok, we'll be fine."

She must have assumed it was just nerves getting to you, but that wasn't entirely the case. You shook your head, still shocked by the odd experience. "I saw a young man, he was like a titan, but the same size as a human. He was here, then he turned to dust." You looked in every direction nervously, but couldn't see anything like him.

"A human size titan?" Hange looked unsure if she should be excited or worried. This was Hange, why wasn't she bursting with joy at the discovery? Then you realized the cause of her doubt, she didn't entirely believe you. "Are you sure?"

You paused to think about it. The whole thing happened so quickly and it's not like you injured the boy in any way, why would he simply disintegrate like that? "To be honest, no," you finally replied.

"Better not dwell on it then," Hange decided. "Can you go back to the formation?"

"Yeah," you replied, trying to convince yourself of it. Was the boy really an illusion?

"Ok then, let's go, or we'll fall behind," Hange got back on her horse and you got on Knight, following her out of the forest and getting back in formation as soon as there was enough space to do so beyond the thick vegetation.

The formation continued moving forward. There was a more expansive area that used to be a farm up ahead. Once the scouts were done there, they could return home. There haven't been any casualties yet, so things were looking good overall.

You had galloped a good distance from the forest, changing directions at Erwin's command twice after that, even before red flares were seen. It looked like Fluffy was doing her job properly, no wonder she was able to guide Levi back before if she was this good at it. Why was she so good at it anyway? You shook the enigma out of your head and focused on the right, you were supposed to be watching for titans after all.

Your mind occasionally went back to the strange occurrence with the young man that might have been a hallucination, but you tried not to think about it. Loud footsteps echoed, followed by a louder animalistic growl of agony. The field to your right was relatively clear with few trees and vegetation. Across the vast expanse of grass, you saw a large titan rapidly running towards the formation screaming and flailing. That had to be an abnormal.

You shot a black flare in warning, but the creature was still coming and there was no time to wait for the order to change directions. You commanded Knight to speed up as much as possible. The titan had gotten close enough to be seen from Hange's position and she slowed down to allow you to catch up. "That one will tear the formation apart, there's no time to get away, we need to stop it," Hange decided.

Connie had caught up with the two of you by then. "Can we really take it?"

"We have to," Hange smiled at the thrill of the battle. "Alright, let's go, just like we planned. Connie and I will distract it, (Name), you need to sneak up behind it and take it down. Don't forget to make your arms strong when you slash to make sure the cut is deep enough," Hange reminded and you realized that she knew all about your special ability, though Connie didn't react, perhaps he didn't know. At this point it was both useless and unnecessary to keep it a secret, so it was for the best that Hange knew, as she was currently your captain. You assumed that Levi had told her at some point, since he knew you'd be in her squad for this mission.

You left the distraction to Hange and Connie while you went behind the titan, jumping off Knight and switching to ODM. The hook caught the titan's back, but it was moving around so much it was difficult to stay steady. you were slammed against its back when the hook retracted and fought to regain your bearings and make the final cut. You slashed across the back of the titan's neck to no effect. You made your arms stronger and tried again and again until you realize you were half way to decapitation and it still wasn't working. "It doesn't work!" You continued trying, slashing away as quickly and strongly as you could until the head came off.

"Lower!" Hange called out, narrowly dodging being hit by the falling head.

You cut lower down the neck and back. The creature was running away from the other scouts. Hange and Connie managed to hook onto its back just above the waist and began stabbing at the spine. Suddenly a big explosion echoed. The scouts from the middle of the formation had reached your previous position and were near the head. You thought it was cannon fire a first, but that didn't make any sense. You hadn't seen any cannons and it would be hard to hit the titan's weak spot from the ground. Besides, you were near the supposed weak spot and whatever they were shooting at wasn't there.

You looked towards where the head had landed in horror, there was a crater on the ground about as large as the head had been. The head itself was nowhere to be seen and there were bloody injured scouts, and parts of scouts everywhere. You felt sick , yet you couldn't stop looking at the terrible scene. Hange stabbed her swords into the middle of the titan's back and with a spray of blood, the beast finally fell. The monster's skin began to glow red rather than disintegrate.

"It's gonna blow!" Hange shouted. You didn't waste any more time and neither did Hange or Connie as they rushed away from the titan's body to take cover behind some nearby trees. Hange hooked her ODM to the trees and pulled herself forward much faster than her legs could carry her. "Follow me!"

You and Connie followed her example and reeled yourselves in towards the trees. You didn't stop at the trees, you continued running to put some extra distance between yourselves and the expected explosion. Spotting another three, Hange aimed for it and dashed forward, expecting you and Connie to follow, though you weren't sure you could hit a target that was so far. "Go (Name!)"

You shot your ODM gear, having no time to argue with Connie about who should go first. You missed the shot and shouted with frustration, "you go!"

Connie took aim and managed to hook onto the tree, where Hange was calling for you both to hurry. Connie tried to grab your hand to pull you along with his ODM, but you slipped out of his grasp and watched as he was pulled away, occasionally hitting the ground as he went. He would be bruised, but otherwise alright. Everything happened in seconds and you were thrown to the ground by the magnitude of the explosion behind you, titan dust, dirt and mud flying everywhere.

You picked yourself off the ground as Hange rushed towards you. Connie tried to limp over at a much slower pace, but finally gave up and sat on the ground next to an abandoned dry well. Hange arrived at your side and looked you over for injuries. "Are you hurt? Are you in pain? Describe it to me!"

"I'm ok... Just a bit tired," you should be covered in cuts and bruises, if the state of your uniform was any indication, but you were healing, which also meant using up your energy.

Connie's sudden shout caused you and Hange to look in his direction. Two young men identical to the one you had seen earlier emerged from their hiding place in the well and dashed towards you. They both had green eyes, blond hair and they weren't dressed, though their anatomy was the same as titans. One of them, the slower of the two, disintegrated with a creepily human-like scream of agony before he could reach you and the other one hugged you.

Hange's jaw dropped, "they're like tiny titans! (Name) why didn't you tell me it was for real?" She squealed in delight.

"I wasn't sure," you voiced in shock, as you tried to reclaim your personal space without startling the creature. What in the world was going on? You heard approaching horses. If there were any signal flares fired during the fight, you were too focused on it and didn't notice. You saw Levi riding on Cali, Knight was running beside him and there were several other scouts not far behind. Your stallion seemed to be alright, though his white coat had partly turned a muddy ground from all the dirt and mud that was thrown into the air from the explosion.

"You're not going to believe what we found!" Hange cheered loudly in place of a greeting for the other scouts.

Levi gave her a deadly glare as he got off Cali and approached. "Why is (Name) so filthy?" His glare intensified as his tone became dangerously threatening, "and why is there some naked guy hugging her?"

xoxox xox xoxox

Chapter 45: Tragic Enigma

"He's not some naked guy, he's a little titan!" Hange corrected with fascination, though that didn't seem to lessen Levi's glare towards the creature clinging to you. "Don't get jealous," she had the courage, or foolishness, to pat Levi on the back as she explained. "It's completely innocent, just look, see? He's hugging her like a child clinging to his mother, it's clearly not romantic in the least. I think it's sweet."

"Then why don't you get it to hug you?" Levi more so ordered than suggested.

"Great idea!" Hange rushed over and started cooing at the creature. "Come here baby, gimme a hug, it's ok, I won't hurt you!" She extended her arms invitingly, but the creature only hid behind you in fright. Hange approached, moving to his side, causing the being to move to the opposite side, using you as a shield against Hange. The motions continued until they were running in circles around you.

"Enough!" Levi interrupted, fed up with the antics. "We need to tend to the injured and regroup, and someone needs to explain why there was an explosion here too," he demanded. "Tie that thing up and take it back to the base if you want to study it. We don't have time to play with it now." The creature yelped in fear, Levi's harsh demeanor scared him more than Hange's fangirl approach. The being doubled over in pain and began to disintegrate without warning before Hang could tie him up. The titan dust became thinner until it was gone, the small particles carried away by the wind. That was the last drop of Levi's patient, "what the hell is going on?"

"We don't exactly know," you shuddered at the feeling of someone being there then not being there. Hange started crying hysterically, mourning the loss of the creature, while you continued to explain as calmly as possible. "We've seen three of those creatures and they all met the same fate. As for the explosion, the titan's head exploded after decapitation, then the whole body exploded after the weak spot was cut. Except it wasn't were it should be, it was lower in the middle of the back, but still in the path of the spine."

"I think it's a mutation!" Hange piped up excitedly, her tears suddenly gone.

"That mutation did a lot of damage," Levi stated, not that it was news, though you were still in shock and not yet able to think about it too hard. The part that was news was when he added in a serious tone, "and it wasn't the only one."

"Did anyone...?" You couldn't finish the question. Everything was going so well and then this had to happen.

"Yes... We're regrouping now, Erwin should be here soon with the others," Levi announced. So it was a whole new plan now. If there were exploding titans out there it had to be investigated. Even if there were casualties and this was not the mission that was expected, the scouts couldn't go back to the city now. What if one of those titans got too close to the wall, they killed it and it blew up a part of the wall? It was imperative to get a better idea of what was happening so that something could be done about it.

You opened your mouth to inquire further about who had died or been injured, but you decided against it and held your silence. Even if it wasn't someone you were close to, it would be someone with people who missed them, so the information wouldn't be a relief to everyone. Even so, you couldn't help it but to look in every direction trying to spot your closest friends.

You saw Jean helping Connie get his ankle bandaged, he would be out of commission for a while, though his leg wasn't broken, so it wasn't too much of a serious injury. Sasha was nearby talking to Krista, Armin and a few other people, she had a huge backpack on that made you wonder how she didn't fall over. She must have really been into the whole seed collecting thing and probably picked up a few fruits and vegetables along the way.

Eren was half listening to Sasha talk, then broke away from the group and sat on the opposite side of the well where Connie and Jean were, he must have witnessed something that disturbed him. Mikasa kept patting his shoulder, speaking soft words that you couldn't hear. She offered him a drink of water from a canteen, he drank then nodded at her and smiled, seemingly calmer after hearing her out. Just what had they witnessed?

The formation was set up for minimal casualties, Eren wasn't in any particular danger, aside from the same danger everyone else was in, but he wasn't the target this time as he had been during the female titan incident, so there was no need to hide a competent fighter away in the middle of the formation. Eren should have been right behind Levi on the left of the formation, with Mikasa behind him and Armin further back.

"What happened out there?" You finally asked Levi, keeping your voice level and quiet so as to not make a scene. You caught a glimpse of Erwin followed by several others. Hange went to talk to him, offering information about what had happened on the right side of the formation.

"A titan came up from the rear, we dodged all the ones coming from the front, but the rear and sides were exposed. Normally, we should be able to outrun those, but this was a very fast moving abnormal, it barreled through the center of the formation from the back. Your dog gave the alert, but because there were no flares from the scouts in the back, Erwin initially thought she was signaling a threat from the front. The titan broke towards the left suddenly and dashed out in front of Eren, no one was expecting a titan to come from the center of the formation." Levi discreetly looked, stepping closer and keeping the tone of his voice low, even if the scouts had in part witnessed these events, there was no need to rub it in their faces so to speak.

"Its feet were covered in human blood," Levi whispered in explanation, your eyes widening in horror at the thought of all the people the monster trampled. "It dashed out of the formation on the left and Eren shot his ODM gear at its back. The titan carried him away, Eren decapitated it and it tripped over its own head, which then blew off its legs. Eren got hurt, but not enough to stop him from fighting on, he's healed by now. He kept stabbing the titan until he found the weak spot on the spine in the middle of the back and Mikasa pulled him out of the mess before he got himself blown up. I was further ahead when this happened and didn't get any flare signals. I went back when I realized Eren wasn't following me just in time to see Mikasa toss him over her shoulder, jump on her horse and rush away." In any other less grim situation, seeing Mikasa ride off with Eren like that would have been hilarious.

"Fortunately, they were able to get far enough from the explosion that they didn't get hurt." Levi concluded his explanation by narrating a reaction that didn't really surprise you all that much. "I caught up to them, kicked Eren in the face and gave him a good scolding, then I came here."

"Poor Eren..." What was he supposed to do after realizing a titan had stepped on a bunch of people so quickly that no one even had time to give a signal? Seeing one of those monsters running away on feet that were covered in human blood would be pretty angering.

Levi would probably say that Eren needed to be more disciplined and not act so rashly and that it was better for him to get kicked in the face than to get killed. But Erwin finished talking to Hange and called everyone to attention, so he didn't have time to reply. The conversations going on all around quieted at once and you were left with an incomplete explanation from Levi as everyone gathered around to hear what was to become of the mission.

"Everyone, listen," Erwin called out in a loud commanding voice. "A new type of abnormal titan has been discovered. Any body part severed from this type of titan will explode. Their weak spot may not be the nape. If we encounter a titan and fighting becomes necessary, aim for the nape first, but be prepared in case it doesn't work. If it is ineffective, aim for the middle of the back over the spine. If you see a slight protuberance over the spine, cut there." Thinking back on it, there was a bump on the titan's back, but you were so shocked by the fact that the nape weakness didn't work that you didn't think to attack it, you barely noticed it at the time.

"When the titan is about to explode, its skin will glow red," Erwin explained. " This information is based off only a few opportunities to make observations, so even if the normal weak spot works and there is no indication of anything abnormal, everyone is to retreat away from the dead titan immediately in case it explodes. It is imperative that we learn more about this new class of titans before they get close enough to endanger the walls, but we must also warn the city of the danger. We will divide into two teams, one team will take the injured and the supplies we gathered thus far back to the city along with the warning of what has happened here. The other team will conduct a study on this new threat and try to gain as much information as possible about it."

After the explanation, Erwin proceeded to divide people into teams and explain further details about the new plan, while hastily writing a prompt communication addressed to Dot Pixis. Eren was not happy to be sent back to the city and the look on his face made it clear he was about to protest. Before he got himself into trouble and lost all the progress he had made in being given more freedom, he noticed the look Levi was giving him and swallowed down his words.

"You have to defend the city," you reminded in a whisper. Eren seemed to calm down, noting the logic in that. He clearly still wanted to go titan hunting, but he understood what needed to be done.

Mikasa wasn't happy to be in the investigation team, since Eren was being sent back to the city, but she was very skilled and had a better chance of returning alive after the investigation than most, so her assignment was no real surprise. Normally, Eren going back would mean that Levi would have to go back as well, since he was officially keeping an eye on him, but Eren wasn't expected to transform, let alone within the walls. If any titans approached, Eren was to assist the Garrison in stopping their advance outside the walls, before they got close enough to damage the walls if they exploded. Thus Levi remained outside of the walls.

Though normally the communication between the Survey Corps and Garrison wasn't officially frequent, if the situation required it, Erwin and Dot Pixis would reach an unofficial agreement and come up with a way to work together for the good of human kind. After Eren returned to the city, he would temporarily be under the command of Pixis, working alongside the Garrison to ensure that no titan even got close to the walls. The Garrison would, in light of the emergency, extend their reach beyond wall Rose, while the Survey Corps tried to figure out what was going on, to come up with a better solution to stop the new problem at the root, whatever that could possibly mean.

If the situation got worse near the city, the Survey Corps would have to return to help defend the wall, though in the long run a purely defensive strategy could only hold for so long. It was vital to understand what was happened and figure out a better way to combat it. It was unnerving that two exploding titans had been found so close to each other. The colossal and the armored were believed to be exceptions, but it was too soon to assume that the exploding titans were exceptions, and that was also part of what the scouts had to figure out.

The team that was to return to the city was sent on its way, consisting of a few escorts to ensure their safe return to the city, a lot of injured scouts and a considerable number of dead bodies. Those were not all the casualties though, as some were left in so many pieces that it was determined it was best to just report them as missing.

You realized then that the scouts from the middle of the formation that had arrived around the time the head exploded weren't necessarily there to offer help, but to seek it. Most of their neighboring comrades had been trampled and just as they reached the right wing spotters, fleeing too desperately and randomly to spare a moment to signal or notice signals, there was the explosion.

When Erwin finished slitting the teams it was unnerving just how few people there were left. The whole middle of the formation, save for the very front, was wiped out. It was terribly ironic because the part of the formation that was supposed to be the safest, in the center and towards the back, was the part that was annihilated first.

You were with the investigation team, as expected. Erwin gathered those who were left, while the other team retreated in the distance. "There is something else that we need to investigate aside from the exploding titans. There are some strange human sized titan-like creatures out there." You were wondering if that would be mentioned and what connection they had to the appearance of the exploding titans if any. "These beings have not shown to be particularly hostile, but we should still be careful around them just in case. If we find one of those creatures, our goal will be to capture it alive. (Name)"

You jumped to attention when Erwin addressed you, "sir!"

"I'm assigning you the task of capturing the human size titans if we encounter them again. If there's anything else going on at the time, make that your priority and leave the rest to us," Erwin decided.

"Yes, sir!" You saluted, you should have seen that coming, since the little titans had taken an inexplicable liking to you. Hange was right though, it was not attraction per se, it truly was similar to a frightened child clinging to his mother.

"Hange, go over the strategy, (Name) come here a minute," Erwin took you a few feet away from the group, leaving Hange to entertain them with a few additional details pertaining to her observations. Once you were far enough not to be heard if you kept your voices low, he went straight to the point. "Do you know anything about this?"

You noted that his tone wasn't really suspicious, he didn't seem to think you were hiding something, but wanted to ask just in case. "Nothing really, except what we've seen. I suspect that this may be connected to my uncle somehow, but that's just guessing in the dark, I have nothing to support that theory."

"And nothing to deny it?" Erwin inquired and you nodded in response. "Then we can't assume that he's involved and we can't assume that he's not. We can't assume anything really, today's mission has proven that beyond a doubt." He had a point, every expectation had been turned upside-down and twisted around.

You rejoined the group and everyone went on their horses. Many of the animals had been lost, but all those who stayed had a ride, since the scouts that went back to the city mostly rode in the wagons, save for the ones that were tasked with escorting the retreating group. Knight and Cali were alright, and Fluffy seemed to be doing ok despite everything that was happening. She was still sitting in the saddle bag of Erwin's horse, quiet and alert to any suspicious scents in the air. This was clearly not instinct alone, she was trained, and the fact that she was so youthful and healthy was also suspicious. You had Fluffy for years, a dog should begin to show its age by now.

The group changed tactics and instead of advancing, you investigated the area in the forest. That was where you first encountered a miniature titan and it was close enough to the well to assume that the creatures might have come from that direction. Besides, the forest provided a good cover, so if they or anything else, wanted a place to hide, that would be a good option. It wasn't guaranteed that the human sized titans were related to the large exploding titans, but it would be a very big coincidence if they just so happen to appear around the same time and in such proximity. Capturing one of those creatures and attempting to establish communication was the best strategy at the moment to get to the bottom of the ever growing enigma.

Speed was of the essence, especially since the creatures disintegrated and there was no telling just how many of them were left and for how long they would remain solid enough to provide clues. However, staying alive was also vital, so the already small group was again divided. A few would take to the trees to serve as guards, while the others traveled by land with the horses to search for the strange mini titan creatures.

To be Continued

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A Matter of Stature

Chapter 46: Flowers for the Dead

You spent what felt like an hour in the forest, searching for mini titans, going deeper into the forest than you had earlier. A few three to five meter titans came by to disrupt the mission, but they were normal, human eater, non-explosive titans, that were swiftly dispatched by the scouts on guard duty.

"What's that?" Levi noticed something and got off Cali to check. You looked over as he searched the nearby bushes, having spotted a color that didn't seem to belong among the green vegetation. He pulled out a slightly mistreated but still in good condition bouquet of roses with a sky-blue ribbon tying the dozen roses together. Peculiarly, the thorns had all been removed and the roses looked fresh, as if they were picked relatively recently. "Someone was here," he concluded, and it wasn't a scout, since there was no reason for anyone to carry a bouquet of roses to a mission, plus there weren't many medicinal plants in that area of the forest, so none of the scouts should have gone that far before.

"Aw," Hange popped up behind Levi, going into all out shipping mode. "Did you get those flowers for (Name)? How sweet! "

"That's right, four eyes, I came all the way out here early in the morning, across the mutant titan infested field and hid these flowers in this bush. Then I went back to the city, just in time to go out of the gates along with everyone else and cleverly led the expedition to this very spot, so I could find the flowers and present them to (Name)." You laughed at Levi's smart mouth while Hange looked like she was considering making the feat the plot of her next fanfiction.

After the moment of distraction, Erwin took a moment to examine the bouquet, but found nothing out of the ordinary about it, except its location. "Hange, you're sure none of the scouts came out this far?"

"I'm pretty sure," Hange replied. "They would have passed (Name) or me on the way here and it would have taken them a while to rejoin the formation when we left the forest. I mean, it's not 100%, but it would be difficult to slip by and come all the way here, just to leave these flowers behind."

Why someone would take flowers to a battlefield made no sense what so ever, but it was at least a vague clue. "If these flowers were purchased in town, then that could give us a clue about who was here and we'll know where to direct our questions," Erwin theorized.

You kept looking at the flowers with curiosity. There was just something about them that seemed familiar. "So, are you going to give them to (Name)?" Hange inquired once again. "I know they're evidence and all, but she's looking at them."

"I was thinking they remind me of something." You clarified, so that no one would get the silly idea in their head that you were actually being distracted by flowers in the middle of the mission, though you still appreciated Hange's attempt to lighten the tension brought by the uncertainty.

"Of what?" Erwin asked with interest, as if looking for clues.

You shrugged, making it clear that you didn't think it was a particularly important detail. "We used to have roses like this at Sina. My father would always give me a bouquet on my mother's birthday in remembrance of her because they were her favorite. He'd remove all the thorns too."

"Flower shops might not always do that," Erwin mused unsure, glancing at another of the scouts for confirmation. "What do you think?"

"They don't," the man replied with certainty. "Trust me, I know," he showed his hands with small cuts on them, as if indicating he had to do a similar task recently. You tried to recall the man's name. His light brown hair and amber eyes didn't particularly stand out in your mind, but after a while you were able to put a name to his face. Raphel, you had heard about him before when the scouts were abuzz with the news of his engagement. His bride to be had gone to see him off at the gate and he had given her roses before leaving on the mission. You caught a brief glimpse of her, but your mind was occupied in other things and you couldn't conjure a clear picture in your memories as to what she looked like.

Tarok shook his head at his friend's clumsiness from his perch up in a tree, the tension in his eyes not easing at the lighter moment. You didn't know him too well either. You just knew that he had been in the Survey Corps for quite some time and he had a wife and two young kids at Rose. They lived very close to the gates and had been there to see him off as well, boldly declaring that they would one day be going along outside with the scouts. Though Tarok's wife was surprisingly supportive of their declarations, Tarok himself usually gently suggested that they might want to pursue a different career path. You got the impression that he assured his family so much so they wouldn't worry about him, that he assured them a little too much and the kids thought that being a scout was a lot easier than it actually was.

That was all there was, just the seven of you. Erwin, Levi, Hange, Mikasa, Raphel, Tarok and you, the others were either dead or at Rose. You could almost hear the wheels in Erwin's head turning. Did he suspect your uncle, did he see the flowers as a connection to your family? Yet the question still remained, why in the world would anyone carry a bouquet of roses into a battle field? The team was still looking around and quietly deliberating when Fluffy started howling and squirming to get out of the saddlebag on Erwin's horse.

Everyone took it as a sign of danger and looked all around to determine where the titan was before figuring out where to head. Strangely, there was no sign of any titan anywhere. "I'll take a look higher up," Mikasa offered.

"Alright," Erwin agreed, while he went to get Fluffy out of the saddlebag, keeping a firm grasp on her leash.

Mikasa returned from the tree top, "if there's a titan out there, it's not too big, because I didn't see anything above the trees," she informed.

You curiously looked at Fluffy, she was set on pulling Erwin in a specific direction, a fact that didn't go unnoticed by the others. When there was danger, Fluffy barked and ran away, or in this case, when she was carried away from the danger, she calmed down, sensing that she was heading to safety. She never really tried to indicate which direction to travel in, she just wanted to be away from the danger. Plus this was a different signal, why was she howling like that and pulling the leash so adamantly? "Be on the lookout everyone," Erwin reminded. "Let's investigate what our little friend found."

The group began to head deeper into the forest. Through thick vegetation, Mikasa spotted a titan and alerted everyone. "It's just sitting there," she observed.

"(Name) keep her quiet," Erwin gave you Fluffy's leash, which you held tightly, wrapped around your wrist.

You did your best to calm your pet. "Shh, it's ok Fluffy, shh, be quiet now, we know the titan's there, it's alright." You spoke softly and petted her. She seemed to get the message and calm down. The strange thing was that she was leading you towards a titan and not away from one this time.

"We'll approach carefully, I think there might be something different about this one," Erwin theorized, though he couldn't guess exactly what was different.

Hange was bursting with excitement, as expected of her. "Can I go first?" She jogged in place, hardly able to contain herself.

"Slowly, don't startle it," Erwin cautioned. Hange nodded and slowly approached the titan.

As soon as the creature saw Hange, it stood. Now that the titan was standing up, you could distinguish a female-like appearance. It's skin looked very pink, with a few patches missing in seemingly random patterns, showing red muscle tissue. Her lower right jaw had all the skin missing from it, leaving her teeth visible and her left eye seemed larger than her right. Her legs seemed larger than they should be in comparison to her thin arms, and her fingers were disproportionately long. The titan was not a pretty sight except for one detail, her translucent strands of hair that reflected the light and displayed a show of colors like a prism. Her hair was magnificently beautiful, making the rest of the creature's grotesque appearance more obvious.

"Hi there," Hange smiled, "I'm Hange, can we be friends?" The female titan dashed away. "Wait! come back!"

Fluffy started pulling on her leash again and howling, insisting that the titan should be chased after. "I really think there's something strange about that one," you reinforced the theory.

Levi nodded in agreement, "even for an abnormal, running away from humans like that is strange, and four eyes wasn't even as creepy as she usually is this time."

"Hey!" Hange pouted in frustration. She expected the titan to try to grab her or bite her because that's what titans normally did, even when she tried to be friendly to them, but this reaction caught her off guard.

"After her!" Erwin galloped forward in pursuit, with the whole team taking to their horses and following him. "We can't let her escape, she may hold too many answers!" The slow advance was forfeited in favor of a chase. Even if the move was risky, you simply couldn't afford to lose the suspicious titan, yet the thick vegetation didn't make the chase any easier.

The group slowed down in a clearing in the forest. Fluffy had stopped her howling, the scent of the long haired titan woman too far for her to react to it. Erwin frowned in frustration, realizing that he had no idea where she went. She was small enough not to be seen above the tree tops and very agile. Even the way she ran was unusual, as if each step was more like a jump of which she landed on the tip of her toes. She deliberately avoided stepping on any bushes and left no significant clues to her direction on the grass. She could have turned in any direction and it would be practically impossible to tell. This titan was definitely smart if she knew how to run away without leaving a trail of broken branches and flattened bushes. It was also further a testament to her agility and precision if she could actually put such a strategy into action with such speed.

"We lost her," Erwin acknowledged in frustration. "It's risky, but we'll have to fan out and find her. She's too suspicious to let her get away, she may be human and if we can get her out of her titan form, we might have all the answers we need."

"Over there!" Tarok suddenly called with urgency, pointing behind a nearby tree. Everyone looked, expecting to see a sign of the female titan, but instead there was another of the human size titans there.

"I'll go," you got off Knight, leaving Fluffy inside the saddle bag and approached the young man. He looked identical to the others, blond hair, green eyes, titan anatomy, scared expression. His eyes were fixed on you as you approached. "It's ok, I won't hurt you." When you got closer, he dashed to you and hugged you, as if seeking protection. "Shh, it's alright, no one will hurt you." You petted the creature's head reassuringly. He began to pull on the sleeve of your Survey Corps jacket, glancing in a certain direction as if wanting you to follow. Fluffy was quiet, the female titan was nowhere to be seen and this strange creature apparently had something to show you.

The being's attempts to make you follow were not lost to your companions. "Let's go with him," Erwin encouraged you to play along with the creature's wishes for now.

You let the little titan lead you away, a putrid smell suddenly invading your nose. Fluffy was still quiet, though she surely noticed the scent, this wasn't what she alerted to though. She was watching out for titans and this was the scent of dead humans. You didn't recall anyone dying in the forest, plus the smell was too pungent to be that of a recent death. The body, or bodies, had been lost in the forest for a while, but how was that even possible if this was the first Survey Corps mission in some time? Did they die in the last one so long ago? You didn't recall anyone mentioning the forest then, so it couldn't be.

You wrinkled your nose in disgust as you and your companions pressed on deeper into the heart of the forest. You spotted something white and red on the ground that seemed out of place with the rest of the scenery. Levi walked ahead to investigate what the thing was, with Hange joining in observing the item. She curiously picked it up, aware that Levi wouldn't be too fond of touching the blood stained thing, even if the blood was dried up by now. "It's a hat," Hange announced with perplexity.

The little titan kept pulling you further ahead, while Levi took a moment to look over the bushes near the hat in the opposite direction, his hand covering his nose and mouth at this point. Levi called Erwin over in a tone that you knew he was forcing to be soft and calm. Whatever he saw was not a pleasant sight. He might have discovered the body of the unfortunate owner of the hat, a white chef's hat...just like the one Artie would often wear.

The little titan was pulling you further ahead, the body was not what he was trying to show you, but with a cold chills running up and down your spine, you were drawn to the place where Erwin had gone to examine the findings. You took the small titans' hand and gave him a forced reassuring smile, you couldn't lose him, but you couldn't ignore this. You walked with him until you saw the body, he must have died at some point after the scouts' last mission and before this one. The body was starting to decompose but you could still recognize him.

"Artie?" You felt tears running down your face as your hand went limp. The small titan let out an earsplitting wail and cling to you, hiding his face from the sight of the dead body, in terror. Erwin said something, but you didn't quite catch it. Levi came over to lead you away from the scene, the small titan moving along with you, his face buried on your shoulder. Hange had gone to look around and came back to say something to Erwin and point in another direction. You didn't have to see it to know it was there, no doubt about it, she must have found Melinda's body.

The small titan fell to his knees, arms wrapped around your waist, he wailed with his face against your stomach. You patted the creature's head absentmindedly, his blond hair passing softly between your fingers, then he looked up at you with those terrified green eyes and something clicked in your mind. In one fatal whisper you were able to identify them, him, they were all the same, "Tony?"

xoxox xox xoxox

Chapter 47: The City Calls

Fluffy started barking, snapping you awake from your many confusing thoughts. Mikasa located the titan, seven meters tall, normal, it hadn't spotted the group yet. The small titan suddenly looked alert, he looked through the foliage at the large titan ahead and began to dash towards it. "No!" You ran after him, "come back here!" The little titan reached the large one and bit into its leg. The large titan growled and grabbed the little one.

Levi hooked his OMD onto the large titan's shoulder and cut off its arm to free the little one. You pulled the small titan out of the severed arm, holding him so he wouldn't throw himself at the large one again. You caught a glimpse of Melinda's body from the corner of your eyes. It felt wrong, but you forced the little titan to look. He screeched in fright and hit his face on your shoulder, but at least he wasn't running away anymore.

Hange came over with a rope to tie up the little titan. Meanwhile, the large titan had ran away, flailing randomly. Levi's ODM came off its shoulder with the movement, a piece of flesh attached to it. He voiced a few choice words of frustration and disgust as he removed the titan remains from the hook and retreated with the rest of you in case the arm exploded. The arm did not explode. "I'll finish it," Raphel offered, running ahead.

The titan reached a river and ran into its waters. Raphel hooked onto its back as a strange bump slipped down the titan's spine from the neck to the middle of the back under its skin. Raphel flew closer carried by his ODM, then the titan glowed red and before anyone could react, it exploded much faster than the other explosive titans had. Raphel was too close, he was blown apart, while the rest of you were thrown to the ground by the shock of the explosion, broken branches and flying rocks assaulting the group.

After the explosion, there was a deadly silence, then the little titan screamed and dissolved into dust that soon became imperceptible. Trembling, you began to get up. Your eyes widened in horror when your realize that there were droplets of blood on your clothes, Raphel's blood.

The six remaining scouts regrouped and tried to make sense of the situation. Levi was angry, wishing he had finished off the titan faster, you could see it in his face, even if he didn't say it. It didn't make sense that the arm didn't explode but the titan did. Tarok was in shock, Raphel had been his best friend, a sort of adoptive younger brother in the Survey Corps.

"Everyone, stay calm, we need to figure this out," Erwin tried to get everyone back on the mission.

"The little titan bit the big one," Hange reviewed, "the arm didn't blow up, but the titan did," she paused in thought. "Alright, I'm coming up with a theory here. The little titans turn the big titans into explosive titans, they also change normals into abnormals at the same time. The little titans are the cause of the explosive titans. The arm didn't explode because the big one was just recently bitten and it took a moment for it to take effect."

Hange's theory was interrupted by Fluffy barking again. Mikasa took to the trees to spot the titan. "Two of them, about four and five meters, abnormal!" She paused as if something caught her attention, "three small titans, two on the five meter, one on the four meter!"

The scouts hurried to take care of the threat. Fluffy wouldn't stop barking and Knight started running, Cali following after him. The other horses ran in different directions, but there was no time to chase them, the titans were upon you.

"Capture the small ones before the large ones blow up!" Erwin ordered, the scouts were simply too close to the answers to let them go.

ODM hooks flew and everyone hurried to pry the little titans off the large ones before making any cuts. At least the large titans didn't have them in their hands. The five meter was doing a strange dance as it tried to get the two little titans off its ankles, while the four meter seemed confused by the pain on the back of its shoulder. You grabbed one of the little titans off the five meter and Hange pried off the other. The little titan recognized you, and having satisfied the irresistible need to spread the mutation, he hugged you, seeking the familiarity and security of a vague recognition. The one Hange had pulled off ran to you as well, and the pair made it difficult for you to further take part in the battle.

Levi pulled the third one off the four meter and carried the squirming human size titan to the ground, looking rather comical since the little titan was taller than him. As soon as Levi put him down, the creature joined his twins in clinging to you. "(Name), get out of here!" Levi urged.

"Going!" You fought to run away, the little titans clinging to you. You make yourself stronger to escape thier grasp, "let's go, follow me!" They didn't question it and dashed after you as you led them away from the area that you knew would be soon filled with explosions.

"I want to make an experiment!" Hange announced, "Let's take one of them to the river!"

"Take the smaller one," Erwin decided, having some idea of what Hange's experiment might consist of.

"It's dumber than a rock," Levi was standing on its head and the titan just hopped around. It knew something was wrong, but couldn't figure out what. Levi dangled one of his swords in front of the titan's face and it began to chase after it, allowing Levi to lead it to the river.

"Yahoo! Ride that bad boy!" Hange cheered, chasing after them. At the same time, Mikasa, Erwin and Tarok kept the five meter busy until you had retreated with the three little titans and Levi and Hange ran off with the four meter.

As soon as the coast was clear, Erwin finished the five meter titan and the scouts retreated away from the explosion. Twigs and pebbles flew everywhere, but everyone was far enough not to get injured aside from minor scratches and bruises. Another explosion sounded off from the river, it was the four meter titan.

Buried under the hugs of the three scared mini titans, you felt something nuzzling your shoulder that wasn't one of them. You looked over to see Knight, Fluffy was still with him and Cali was nearby. "You came back! Good boy!" You wanted to pet him in appreciation, but your arms were currently busy trying to keep the little titans calm, so you just leaned your head against your pet.

"Aw there's so much love for (Name)," Hange and the others arrived at your location. She elbowed Levi tesingly, "looks like you have some competition, cowboy." The three little titans went from clinging to you like scared children to dissolving into dust. The experience sent shivers down your spine and made you wonder where the original Tony was and how these little titans came to be as parts of him. "Alas, they love you and they leave you," Hange threw her arm on her forehead and leaned her head back dramatically. "I guess you better stick with Levi after all." She sighed in disappointment, "I really wanted to experiment on these little ones. I had even started to think of names for them. My sweet children, why do you abandon mama so suddenly?"

You couldn't help it but to giggle at Hange's antics despite everything that was going on. Part of you couldn't help it but to imagine Levi in a cowboy hat, riding on a titan's head, it was a pretty amusing mental picture.

Ignoring Hange's dramatics for the time being, Erwin consulted Levi about the results of the recent experiment. "What happened?"

"The titan exploded as soon as it came into contact with the water," Levi informed. The experiment had been a success, even if the three little titans were lost.

Erwin nodded and considered the next move. "We need to know how things are at the wall." He held out his binoculars, "Mikasa, you're a fast climber." He didn't have to say anything more before she disappeared in a blur of motion, off to the tree tops, binoculars in hand.

Mikasa looked towards the edge of the forest and the wall beyond. A few little titans were exiting the edge of the forest, five of them, they rode on the head and shoulders of a ten meter abnormal and there were several other large titans nearby. The little titans jumped from one large titan to another, biting them and spreading their infection. Some were grabbed and eaten, though if they had the poison in them, then being consumed would probably have the same effect as the bites. Further ahead closer to the wall, several abnormals were running towards it. A few explosions were seen in the distance, the scouts that had gone back and weren't injured were fighting alongside the Garrison, the soldiers appearing as fast moving dots in the distance.

Then she saw him, in a cloud of titan steam, Eren's titan form appeared. The advancing giants were too many and Pixis determined that the wall would be in grave danger if the explosive monsters were allowed to get any closer, wall Rose was in an all out state of emergency. Mikasa was back on the ground in a flash. "We need to go back, Rose is in danger, there are too many titans, even for Eren."

"He transformed?" Erwin knew that Eren's titan form was for emergencies. If Pixis determined that it was time to send him out to battle, then the situation was more serious than he expected.

"Yes, I saw him. I saw five little titans, some were taken out and there were only three left. The large abnormals, there were more than a dozen of them, five to fifteen meters. I think most if not all of them are explosive," Mikasa explained with urgency.

"The secret of the explosive titans and the human size titans is in this forest, but wall Rose will fall if we don't go back now," Erwin decided. "We're heading back, we have the secret of the exploding titan's weakness. If we can prepare some kind of water cannons we can take them out from afar and minimize casualties and damage to the wall. This information is too vital, even if there are still too many secrets to be discovered in this forest, we must ensure that the discovery is known at Rose. We can't afford to split up and risk being unable to deliver the message, we're all going back for now."

No one had a single word of protest. The group hurried out of the forest, Tarok kept whistling, trying to attract the attention of the runaway horses in hopes that they would return. Aside from Knight and Cali, two other horses returned. There were four horses, six scouts, Erwin, Hange, Mikasa, Levi, Tarok and you. "(Name), I want you to deliver the message," Erwin decided. You were still needed to get to the bottom of the little titan mystery, so he assigned the safest position to you, or safer by comparison at least. "Don't fight the titans, just head for the city as fast as you can and leave the fighting to us. Go with Levi for now. Everyone, we'll ride as close as possible to the titans, then switch to ODM and open a path for (Name), our mission is to get her to the wall. (Name), as soon as you're close enough, climb the wall with ODM and deliver the news of the exploding titans' weakness to water, take the dog with you if you can."

"Hange, you and I will take the front, I got the left, you go right of (Name)'s path," Erwin continued. "Levi, you're in the center in front of (Name). Mikasa and Tarok make sure (Name) isn't stopped from behind, if you think any potential pursuers are far enough, then you can assist us in opening a path, it'll be your judgment call as needed. We can't trigger any explosions in (Name)'s path. Leave the slaying to Tarok and Mikasa when there's enough distance." He address them with the precaution, "Tarok, Mikasa, if you do slay any titans, make sure you can get away on time and don't set up any chain reactions. (Name), I'll have to borrow your horse." Erwin got on Knight, "Hange."

"Right behind you, literally," Hange hopped on as well behind Erwin, but Knight was a well bred strong stallion who could speedily carry them both.

"Go in front (Name), since you'll have to ride on your own when we get close to the titans," Levi helped you up onto Cali's saddle and handed you the reins. You took a deep breath and calmed your nerves, mentally preparing yourself for the next part of the mission. You closed your eyes, giving yourself a short moment to focus. You felt Levi's strong arms wrapped around your waist, his chest pressed against your back, and felt reassured.

Erwin gave the signal and the Survey Corps galloped out of the forest at full speed. Erwin and Hange speed up in front, Knight carrying them so fast that it was like his hooves spent more time in the air than touching the ground. Cali followed Knight with you and Levi. Mikasa and Tarok flanked you left and right on the other two horses. After making it out of the forest, you could see just how many explosive titans there were. There were more of them running towards the wall now and it had only been a few minutes since Mikasa estimated their count.

Eren was fighting hard. You saw him grab a three meter, squeezing its nape until blood gushed out. The dead titan began to glow red and Eren threw it at a fourteen meter nearby, blowing off its head. Pieces of the head flew in every direction, creating smaller explosions. It was clear why the Garrison had to fight away from Eren. There were simply too many explosions going off near him, but that also meant that he was basically fighting solo in that area and was severely outnumbered.

You drew closer to the titans and Erwin and Hange simultaneously switched to ODM, flying left and right, distracting the titans enough for you to dash by. They kept moving forward, opening a path for you. You felt Levi disappear from behind you as he switch to ODM. The rope of his ODM wrapped around a titan in front of your path, choking it. The creature was forced out of the way and you dashed forward, while Mikasa and Tarok made sure you weren't followed. Knight was temporarily disoriented with the loss of his two passengers, but as soon as he saw you dash by on Cali, he ran to catch up to you and ran next to you towards the wall.

You could see Eren to the far right, you couldn't run by him or you'd get caught in the explosions surrounding him. At least it looked like he was making progress, though you were concerned about how bloody his titan looked.

"Yahoo!" Hange had her ODM wrapped around a titan's jaw in its mouth. "Onward my explosive steed!" It took a very special kind of person to still be able to have fun in a situation like this. Silly fanfiction aside, you couldn't help it but to look up to Hange after this.

You heard explosions from behind, Mikasa and Tarok moved forward, leaving the explosions behind, though there weren't too many, as they were careful not to set up any chain reactions with exploding limbs that were blown off by other explosions. The wall came ever closer, and the closer you got the more Garrison soldiers you started to see. You thought you caught a glimpse of Jean and Sasha too, but the blur of colors around you were moving so fast that you weren't sure.

Hoping that Knight and Cali would know to stay safe near the wall, as soon as you calculated that your ODM gear could reach the wall, you shot the hook, pulling yourself towards it, while carrying Fluffy. You released the first hook and shot another to the top of the wall, half running and half jumping on the wall as you were pulled up. The Garrison soldiers on top of the wall working the canons thankfully noticed your advance and as you reached the top of the wall, a hand was extended to get you over the edge.

You accepted the help, your breaths heavy with adrenaline, the words were already spilling from your mouth before you even noticed that the one who had helped you up was Dot Pixis, "I bring important news! The weakness of the exploding titans is water!"

"Water!" Commander Pixis exclaimed, his eyes glancing at the clear blue skies for a split second. The chance of rain on that very day was basically non-existent. "You heard her, we need to prepare water cannons now!" Pixis was suddenly rapidly giving order, the Garrison soldiers moving quickly to accomplish what he commanded.

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Chapter 48: Casualties of War

You looked at the battle field you left behind from the top of wall Rose. Knight and Cali were pressed against the wall, they were scared, but they were smart enough to stay close to the wall, you didn't think you could get them over, so unfortunately, they were stuck waiting out the battle until the gates could be opened. The horses Mikasa and Tarok were riding might or might not have gotten blown up or trampled, you didn't see them anywhere. Erwin, Levi, Mikasa and Tarok were as alright as they could be, you trusted in their skill, they were close to the wall, surely they had the sense to go back inside before they ran out of fuel.

"I'm going back out," you announced to no one in particular, since Pixis was busily running about, directing the Garrison. You checked your gas tanks, noting that they were nearly empty and reasoned that Erwin, Levi, Mikasa and Tarok's ODM gear tanks would be in the same conditions. It would be both foolish and useless to go out before refueling, so you went to look for more fuel.

"C'mon Fluffy," you held on to her leash to make sure she didn't get in the way of the running soldiers. She seemed to understand that she was safe on top of the wall and didn't bark at the titans nearby. You knew she was valuable to the scouts and more so valuable to you as your pet, but you didn't have time to take care of her, so you resolved to lock her in Pixis office on top of the wall. She was well behaved enough not to mess anything up in there and her new collar indicated she belonged to the scouts in case anyone from the Garrison wondered why there was a dog there.

You could hear Fluffy whimper behind the door, wanting to go with you, but you just couldn't take care of her at the moment. You glanced at the battle field. Erwin, Levi, Mikasa, Hange and Tarok were doing alright and they were moving closer to the wall, ready to go on the retreat, mindful of their remaining fuel. You wanted to wait for them, but felt that you shouldn't be standing still when there were so many people running around nearby.

You went looking for fuel to refill your ODM gear and rejoin the battle, but a Garrison soldier you didn't know called out to you. "Hey scout, give us a hand over here." You wanted to refuel and go back to where Levi and the others were, or at least stay on the wall where you could see them, but it felt wrong to refuse since you didn't exactly have something absolutely imperative to do.

"What do you need?" You asked, rushing over.

"We need to get these pipes ready to get the water to the top of the wall, help us assemble them and make sure there are no leaks," the Garrison soldier explained.

You nodded, "ok," then went on the task with automatic motions, while your mind was just outside the walls where Levi and the others were.

The pipelines were swiftly completed with team work, and water started being pumped to the top of the wall. With your task completed you were once again free to look for fuel, or look for Levi and the others, since they must be within the walls by now.

You returned to the top of the wall, searching for them and watched as the water cannons were fired and explosions started going off in the distance. The few remaining scouts that weren't injured and the Garrison were advancing with long hoses aiming the water at the titans, making them blow up away from the walls. More injuries followed when the chain reactions got out of control, but the exploding titans were finally being pushed back. You looked all around the battlefield, but you didn't see Eren anywhere.

You noticed someone climbing over the wall a few feet away and saw Mikasa peeking over, her attention on something next to her out of your view. You rushed over to help her over the wall and caught sight of Levi emerging on top of the wall beside her, his attention in the same area as Mikasa's. Upon getting closer, you realized that Eren was there, he must have been cut out of his titan after the giant sustained too much damage and became unable to fight on. You grabbed onto Eren's arms and helped pull him over the wall, falling into a sitting position with the mostly unconscious, but still living Eren falling on your lap.

"Thanks," Mikasa nodded at you as you passed Eren to her after she got herself completely over the wall. Though you initially expected her to throw his arm over her shoulder and half drag him while keeping him upright with her other arm around his waist, she opted for the much more practical bridal style of carrying the unconscious Eren, sometimes you forgot how incredibly strong she was. Was it just something about the Ackermans that made them stronger than the average human? That was a mystery for another day.

While Mikasa took Eren to rest, you took a moment to catch up with Levi. "I locked Fluffy in Pixis' office, I don't think he'll mind. Sorry I didn't rejoin the battle after delivering the message, I got caught up helping assemble the pipes and haven't even refueled yet.

"It's better that way, we need to get ready for the next expedition. (Name), this won't be easy, unless we stop this problem at the root, the battle won't end. We're pushing them back, but we haven't stopped the attack. I need you to go and rest now. Eat, sleep, your energy must be dangerously low by now and you can't get dizzy and faint during our next expedition," Levi insisted seriously, though you could feel the caring concern beneath his stern tone.

You nodded in understanding of the importance of being prepared, you were feeling tired but ignored your exhaustion because there was simply too much to do. "When's the next expedition?" You asked, guessing that it was soon if Levi was so adamant about you having a quick recovery.

"As soon as this wave of titans is suppressed, we're rounding up the scouts and returning to the forest," Levi explained. "Go rest now, consider that an order as a scout."

You nodded and put on an overly serious face as you saluted, "yes sir!" You continued normally, "I presume you'll be resting as well?"

"I'll rest enough," Levi replied, "now go, I need to take care of a few things first. You can rest at the medical center near the wall, I'll go find you later."

You nodded, knowing there was no use in arguing. At least if you were well rested, you'd be able to fight more strongly and that could make the difference out. You couldn't risk not being at your best and dragging your friends down, so you focused on the future and went to the medical center near the wall.

You expected the scene at the emergency clinic to be grim, with lots of injured people. The explosions meant plenty of blown off limbs, guts and gore that you rather not think about. The image of the pieces of Raphel were still fresh in your mind, plus it was something that happened right after you had seen the dead bodies of Artie and Melinda, how did they even get there? You felt that you needed to see your father and dashed out of the medical center and towards the structure that was once a bakery atelier and now it was simply your father's residence.

The place wasn't too far from the wall, it was still a good distance to run and having a horse would have been very convenient, but you managed on foot. You tried to open the door, to knock, to call out, but no one answered. Frightened, you went around the building and broke in through the back door, using your enhanced strength. You dashed through the house with growing worry, but you found nothing out of the ordinary. There were no signs of a fight, but there were also no signs of your father.

You focused on the fact that there were no signs of a fight. Your father was probably elsewhere. Maybe they moved him somewhere safe in light of the state of emergency near the wall. Feeling stupid, you went out and observed just how empty the streets were. You knocked on the neighbor's door and received no answer, you tried the next house with the same result. You let out a sigh of relief, feeling like an idiot. Of course, everyone that lived too close to the wall was either evacuated, or left of their own accord for safety reasons. At worse, your father was probably in a sea of people rushing to Sina. He'd probably come out of the experience with a few bruises, but surely he would be fine.

You hoped no one robbed the house, though you tried to make the backdoor look as intact as possible before leaving. You'd have to apologize for your outburst later and explain yourself. The stress of the mission must have been really getting to you if you were knocking down doors for no reason. Levi had told you time and again during training to stay calm and you thought that you were putting it into practice, but clearly you haven't been doing well enough if this happened. You resolved to do better as you rushed back to the medical center.

You arrived at the clinic out of breath and went in. Soldiers were still buzzing about near the wall, That, and the noisy explosions in the distance indicated that the battle was still going on. The medical facility was filled with many injured people, though they were unknown to you at a personal level, you did recognize a few of them from the scouts. The younger recruits from Eren's class had taken to you like a big sister, so you ended up hanging out with them the most. A few names floated in your mind as you saw the injured scouts, several of them were wrapped up like mummies, leaving only their faces visible, yet even then there were faces that were left unrecognizable by the injuries.

You saw Connie sitting on a bed, he couldn't walk without pain, but his injury wasn't too bad and he would recover. Still, he wouldn't be joining any expeditions any time soon. On the bed next to Connie's rested Jean, loudly snoring like a horse. "He dislocated his shoulder, but he's all patched up now and will recover," Connie explained. "There was this nurse with long dark hair that he tried to flirt with, but she just thought that he wanted the attention because he was in pain, so she gave him a sleeping pill to ease his suffering." Connie shook his head ruefully, his hands over his ears, "and he became the cause of my suffering."

You couldn't help it but to giggle," he really does sound like a horse."

"Yeah," Connie sighed hopelessly and laid back down on his bed. "If you see any pretty nurses that happen to be carrying sleeping pills, send them my way."

You smiled and assured, "will do!"

You continued exploring the clinic, looking for more of your friends instead of resting like you should. "(Name!)" You turned in the direction of the voice and saw Sasha. "I'm so glad you're back, here, I'll share my candy with you." She looked left and right before handing you a lollipop. "I stole them from the head nurse's office," she whispered.

You were glad to see that she was alright, though she did have bandages wrapped around her head. "I'll keep the secret, thank you," you hid the lollipop. "Are you doing alright?"

"Yup, I'm fine, the doctor said I had a concussion, but I feel fine really, so I offered to help the nurses take care of patients," once again, Sasha looked around to make sure no one was listening in on the conversation. "Hospital food really isn't so bad," she whispered. She pulled out a bread bun wrapped in a napkin from her scouts jacket which was buttoned up to hold the food. "Here, take this, there was some guy staring at me back there like he suspected something. I gotta go eat the other two before I get caught. See you later (Name)."

"See ya, and thanks," you shook your head, laughing quietly. Maybe that guy was staring at her because she looked like she had three boobs before. You saw a nurse with long dark hair and wondered if she was the girl Jean had flirted with earlier. Either way, you mentioned Connie's request for a sleeping pill and she said she'd take one to him right away, the concern in her eyes sincere, though just the same regardless of the subject of it.

No one questioned why you were eating a bread bun, or why you were eating a lollipop afterwards, they were too busy taking care of the patients around them, or crying in agony depending on the situation. You wondered how you were even able to keep the food down, though you arrived at the answer quickly enough, because you had to. You couldn't slow down, you couldn't take in the tragedies, your job as a scout wasn't done.

You jumped as a woman nearby screamed and your head snapped in her direction. You recognized the man consoling her as Tarok, his poofy black hair still messy from the battle, and realized the woman was his wife. Her clothes were torn and dirty, stained with blood, a cut on her arm was bleeding, but she wasn't cooperating with the nurse who was trying to tend to her, pushing her away instead. Tarok's brown eyes were closed tightly, his teeth pressed together. His hand drew circles across his wife's back trying to sooth her, though he seemed unable to speak, as if attempting to do so would cause him to break down too. A tear silently fell from his eye, then another, you nearly tripped as you stepped back from the scene unnoticed, catching only a glimpse of a bloody form on the bed behind them, a doctor hunched over the form, looking sad and apologetic.

The doctor exited the room where Tarok and his wife were, white coat stained with red. "Doctor," you hurried after him. The elderly man pushed up his round glasses and gave you an inquisitive look, though he didn't stop walking, he had patients to tend to. "What happened to Tarok and his wife?"

The doctor let out a long sigh and glanced at the wing emblem on your uniform. You had a feeling that he was only sharing this information with you because you were a scout, as was Tarok, so you were comrades. "I don't know exactly how it happened, but from what I heard, a titan exploded and tore another titan apart. A limb from the other titan was thrown over the wall by the explosion and it exploded inside. The wall itself wasn't significantly damaged, but a house a couple of streets from here was partially destroyed. There were two children upstairs. Their mother, who was downstairs at the time, survived with minor injuries, but the second floor was damaged badly and the children didn't make it. People started leaving their houses after that and heading to the inner edge of Rose."

Your eyes widened in shock. The doctor didn't wait for you to speak. A new batch of injured soldiers was brought in and he went off, following the sounds of pain. You hurried down the seemingly endless halls, though it wasn't really that much of a huge building, it just felt like it was. People weren't safe, you realized, not even inside the walls. That was something that the residents of Maria learned years earlier.

"Excuse me, miss scout." A nurse called out to you. "This way, please," she signaled for you to follow her.

You curiously followed, swallowing the lump in your throat, "what's this way?" You cleared your throat self-consciously when you realized how choked up you were.

The nurse didn't comment on the shaky sound of your voice and instead offered an answer to your question. "Commander Erwin said that all the able bodied scouts that don't already have orders should be prepared for another expedition. The others are over here."

You nodded, at least now you were going where you were supposed to go. "By the way, miss..."

"(Name)," you supplied.

"(Name)," the nurse repeated, as if making a conscious effort to memorize it. You reached the destination she was leading you towards, spotting a few scouts resting in a room with several beds and a table with food. "Have you seen Raphel?" The nurse asked just as she stopped in front of the room.

It was her, his fiance, the memory of when he gave her the roses before going outside flashed before your eyes. You lowered your head, tears threatening to escape, but you took a deep breath and pressed on. "Raphel was the one who initially discovered the exploding titans' weakness to water. He's a hero."

You didn't have to tell her anything more, she understood that he wasn't coming back. Tears began to stream down her face for a few seconds before she bit her lip and managed a small "thank you," then she walked away, off to tend to the injured.

As you entered the room, you felt exhausted in more ways than one. Krista, Armin and two men you didn't know very well were there. you could probably name them if you tried, but you didn't feel like trying. Krista was as quiet and solemn as the two men, none of them speaking or moving, like statues. Armin looked up at you, as you entered and you sat on the bed next to his. He was the only one who acknowledged your arrival. His eyes turned towards the entranceway again as footsteps indicated a new arrival.

Mikasa entered the room and paced around, before sighing and taking up the bed on the other side next to yours. "Who could nap at a time like this," she breathe, speaking to no one in particular.

"How's Eren?" Armin inquired.

"Same as when you went to see him, exhausted, too dizzy to stand, but insisting that he wants to fight," Mikasa informed. "Levi arrived just as the nurses were getting on my last nerve reminding me that all able bodied scouts had to prepare for the next expedition. I don't like it when Levi scolds Eren, he's far too harsh, but at least I know Eren will listen and rest as he should, after Levi gives him an earful. If we're leaving soon, I don't think Eren will be able to come with us."

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Chapter 49: The Calm Before the Storm

Another person entered the room where you and the uninjured scouts were, Tarok silently took up the bed on the opposite end of the room. He laid down and closed his eyes wordlessly, as if hoping everything that happened today would turn out to be a nightmare. Long heavy minutes passed and the food on the table remained untouched. If Sasha had been declared able bodied despite her concussion, it would be entirely gone by now.

You reminded yourself that the scouts that were not present were not all dead. Some were hurt badly, but many only had minor injuries that prevented them from being able to use ODM gear, but they would recover in a few weeks. You waited in silence until Levi appeared at the door. He glanced around, his eyes met yours for a moment, then went to observe each of the other people in the room. Mikasa stood up, ready to solve the enigma and lessen Eren's burden in the war. You and Armin followed and got to your feet, along with the two men, whose names you couldn't recall, and Tarok. Krista snapped to attention, noticing after several silent seconds that Levi was present. She stood and waited for instructions.

"So this is all there is, you'll just have to do," Levi remained at the door, not bothering to fully step into the room.

Someone appeared behind him energetically saluting, "Captain Levi, sir! Sorry I'm late, it took a while for me to convince the doctors I was okay!"

Levi stepped aside, allowing Sasha passage to the room. She spotted the food table, staring at it hungrily. "Is this for us?"

"Take it with you if you want it, we're going back to the base for now. (Name), Mikasa, Armin, Sasha, Kyle, Neil, you'll be going on the next expedition. We will likely leave today in the late afternoon," Levi explained.

"Sir, what about me? I can fight," Tarok offered.

Levi took another look at his face and refused, "you will fight, but not today, for now, you can assist in the preparation." Tarok looked like he would protest, but never said a word. He knew Levi could read people very well. Tarok had lost his focus and would be a liability, or an unnecessary casualty. Krista was still waiting to be assigned a task, "you too, Krista."

She nodded and replied with a quiet, "yes, sir."

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Since you were going back to the base to rest anyway, you took a moment to stop by Eren's room. Mikasa and Armin tagged along, though they had seen him recently, Levi was there as well. The others went ahead to the base to begin the preparations, with Sasha running ahead. Eren seemed stuck between being asleep and awake as he nibbled on a muffin, or more like his body was demanding sleep and his mind refused to allow it. He turned his head towards the entrance of the room, greeting everyone with a drowsy, "hey... Is it time for the next mission?"

"Only if you dream about it," Levi replied.

"Rest up, Eren," you reassured. "Leave the rest to us. You've already done so much. I saw you fighting the explosive titans, you really saved the city."

"I don't think I would have lasted much longer if the water weakness wasn't discovered." Eren swallowed the last bite of his muffin and gripped the blanket, his green eyes taking on that all too familiar look of stubborn determination. "I have to become stronger and defeat all the titans!"

"You have to be alive for that," Levi reminded in a tone that seemed to say, 'behave or I'll kick you.'

Eren nodded, "I know... So, you're all going?"

"Yes," Mikasa nodded. "Armin, (Name) and Sasha are all going," she mentioned some of the people Eren was familiar with.

"Oh yeah, Sasha came by a minute ago," Eren recalled. "She gave me a muffin, told me to get well soon, said something about making sure the bacon was ready to eat before the mission and ran off."

You chuckled along with Mikasa and Armin, that was the typical Sasha alright, always thinking of food. "Let's go, we're moving Eren to the base too," Levi informed. You had thought they were going to keep him at the clinic for observation for a while longer, it seemed that Mikasa and Armin had assumed the same thing.

Eren stood up, a wave of dizziness rushing to his head. He stubbornly steadied himself and took little steps towards the group. "Ready," he smiled, an uneasy, sleepy smile.

"Too slow," Levi determined. "Mikasa, carry him," Eren opened his mouth, but before he could protest, Levi continued, "Eren, don't complain, those are orders." Eren nodded and obediently allowed Mikasa to pick him up bridal style, she was all too happy to comply.

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The group returned to the base. You passed by the stables and saw Hange with a few horses, among which you recognized Knight and Cali. "They're here!" You went to pet them, glad that they were safe. "How were they brought in? I didn't think they would open the gates."

"They're good horses and we need them. After the titans were pushed back, we put them on a cargo harness and pulled them over the wall," Hange explained. "Our Fluffy titan tracker is inside. I'll get them all fed and ready to go out again. I can't wait to solve this mystery, so many answers so close!"

You nodded, your determination set, "Right, we'll figure everything out."

Going inside the base, you actually felt reassured. There were a lot of injured people around you, but at least you were able to confirmed that they were alive. The deaths had been slightly less numerous than with the female titan incident, but the injury count had been far higher which resulted in the vast majority of the scouts being left unable to fight for several weeks until they recovered.

You passed in front of Eren's room on the way to yours. Mikasa went in to put Eren on his bed. He had fallen asleep in the way and kept nuzzling her shoulder. She put him down and nearly fell over as his arms had become so firmly locked around her shoulders that he didn't let go, even in slumber. She gently began to pry him off until she managed to set him down and cover him with the blankets. The movements must have been just enough to slightly wake him. His emerald eyes opened slightly for a moment and he mouthed something that you couldn't quite catch. Mikasa seemed to understand though and smiled, blushing. They were so cute together.

You continued on your way with Levi and went up to your room, then just stood there unsure. "So now what?" You asked impatiently.

"Now you rest and recover. It's possible that by the time the current wave of titans is pushed back, it might be the late afternoon or well into the evening. Normally, we would wait until morning, but if another wave of explosive titans comes we don't know when we'll be able to push them back. Eren will likely be out of commission for at least a couple of days and it doesn't look like it'll rain any time soon. If we keep waiting, we may very well dry up the water supplies before the next rainfall at the rate that we're going. It's not just the area near the gate that's under attack now, the whole wall is in danger and the titans keep coming. We can't afford to lose whatever solution may be hidden in that forest," Levi explained. You nodded, but you still didn't know exactly where to start, you were tense and ready for action, unable to unwind. "(Name), relax, save that fight for later, we need everyone at their best," he hugged you. You pressed yourself against him and tried to relax, though the thought of rest felt alien to you.

"It's weird, like I can't not be alert," you mused.

"You've been on an adrenaline high for hours," Levi acknowledged. "But you need to recover now, I don't want you getting hurt if you're not at your best later." He kissed you, drawing you into the familiarity of his taste. "The life of a scout isn't easy, but..."

You mused on that, you saw many things that were not easy to witness, but hiding away from them wouldn't have made them cease to be. "It's the path of freedom," you finished.

"Every mission, is a chance to make every other mission that came before it worth it," Levi held you close as he spoke, his breath tickling your ear. "Now rest, so that you may be at your best." He kissed you again, easing you into a relaxed state that you didn't think you could achieve with all the tension in the city.

You started getting out of the ODM gear belts, it was easy now, but you had been a tangled mess at first. You had still been having a little trouble with the belts when you and Levi had first become a real couple. As part of your training, he insisted that you should be able to get in and out of your ODM gear quickly. You got bored of trying to practice getting yourself in and out of the web of belts, so Levi had let you practice on him. It was much more entertaining that way, and you diligently put on and took off and put on and took off the ODM gear belts until you could do it speedily.

You took a warm shower with Levi, then rested. You didn't think you'd actually fall asleep, but for now, there was nothing else in the world except you and Levi. You closed your eyes, your head resting on his chest, his arms wrapped tightly around you, then surprisingly, you drifted off to sleep.

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"(Name)" You shifted slightly, your eyes closed. "(Name)" There was movement near you and the next thing you knew you were sitting instead of laying down, your pillow seemed set on getting up. "Wake up, (Name)," Levi kissed you, pulling you further away from the grasp of slumber. "It's time to get up, you didn't hear the knock on the door or anything?"

You yawned and shook your head. Apparently someone had been at the door to remind Levi and you that it was time to get up. He got out of bed and started to change into a Survey Corps uniform. You blinked, trying to make yourself wake up and your senses become focused, if only to enjoy the show. The gears in your head must be stuck or something if watching Levi change right in front of you wasn't snapping you awake right away. Then you recalled all that happened and realized why your subconscious wasn't eager to bring your recent memories to light right away. More awake now, you got out of bed and stretched, then began to put on a uniform. you saw that it was still light out, though the sun was noticeably lower in the horizon. "Is it still the same day?"

"It is, the sun will likely be setting by the time we head out, but the Garrison is finally making a breakthrough and we can't afford to waste the opportunity. Too many Garrison soldiers are injured and the Military Police is putting up plenty of resistance to joining the light, only a few of them decided to assist the Garrison. Eren still isn't ready to fight again, if another attack like this happens tomorrow, Rose will be in serious danger. Even if night falls while we're out there, we have to go now, we need to end this," Levi looked determined not to let the titans take over Rose.

You nodded, "right, we'll get to the bottom of this tonight and stop it for good." You had to believe you could or the battle was already lost. You tied your hair into a ponytail, then folded it in half because it was so long. Your hair grew very fast, as if longer hair was a side effect of your healing ability, with your body wanting to replace not only damaged skin but your hair as well. You'd have to cut it soon, or it would get in the way, it already kind of did, since it was knee length. For the time being, you tugged the folded up low ponytail down the back of your jacket underneath the emblem of the wings of freedom.

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Levi and you headed downstairs to the mess hall, where Sasha, as promised, had some generous portions of bacon with a side of mashed potatoes ready for the squad. The mess hall was full, though not everyone was there to get food, some where simply there to see off the squad, since traveling to the gates was not so easy for those that were hurt.

After the meal, you and Levi stayed at the mess hall for a while with everyone until Erwin returned from the wall. According to his calculations, an opening would be possible soon. He rounded up the squad to go to a briefing room. Erwin, Levi, Hange, Mikasa, Armin, Sasha, Kyle, Neil and you were the only people there.

Erwin began the meeting. "After this meeting is over, we will head to the gates and wait there until the gates can be open. The city appears darker because of the walls, but we may still have some rays of light to work with on the outside. The titans are normally less active at night, but we have learned that what we think we know is not set in stone. Furthermore, it takes titans some time to become less active under normal circumstances after sunset. We will be dealing with the possibility of an attack in the darkness. Our destination is the forest. I expect that it will be dark by then. We have a full moon tonight, but that won't be of much help in the darkness of the forest. This operation will be extremely dangerous, but we cannot afford to fail."

"When we reach the forest, we must stay close to each other and alert to even the smallest sound or hint of movement. We cannot allow the titans to surround us. If a titan attacks in the forest, we must slay it swiftly and retreat before it explodes. The explosion will at least clear away some of the vegetation, making the battle field slightly easier to work with. If we find a small titan, we must protect it from being eaten or killed by the large ones. (Name), it'll be up to you to establish communication with the small titans, we will be returning to the same spot as earlier." Erwin pointed it out on a large map for everyone to see. It was the spot where Artie and Melinda's bodies were, they had to be left there in the rush to save the city.

"We must also be on the lookout for a female titan with long translucent hair. We have reason to suspect that she is human, though she may not be in control of her actions in titan form. Neither the small titans nor the female have been hostile to us directly, but we must still be careful. The small titans transform the large ones into abnormal explosives. If we are fortunate, that fate has not yet befallen the female," that was another reason why the mission couldn't wait. "There is something to be found in that forest, something that the small titan was trying to show us, we need to see what that is, the future of the city, of human kind, depends on it." The meeting continued with a discussion of a few strategies, formations, and theories of what might await.

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After the briefing was done, you, Mikasa and Armin stopped by to see Eren for a minute before the squad went to the stables for the horses, which had already been prepared. You hopped on Knight, no longer needing to have him kneel so you could get on. Fluffy was on the saddle bag of Erwin's horse like before, since he was leading the expedition.

"Who put this here?" Levi pointed at the bouquet of roses tugged into Cali's saddle bag.

"I thought it might be a good idea to bring some fresh roses, I had the thorns removed and everything," Hange replied. "I mean, think about it, the roses were out of place, what if there's some significance to them? We might as well take them just in case."

"I doubt they'll be useful," none the less, Levi left the roses where they were. With everyone on their horses, the squad went to the gates.

xoxox xox xoxox

The atmosphere near the gates was heavy. It was all part of the same day, but it felt like a much longer time had passed. Lamps shone from all around and the squad carried some lamps as well, though they were currently off to save oil. The city still felt very dark in the shadow of the walls and you know that it was only darker behind each layer. Several long minutes passed and you were starting to feel impatient, there were explosions in the distance and pipes all around, going up to the wall and beyond. It looked like several small pieces of titans must have been thrown over the wall at some point, as the buildings nearby looked damaged, but the wall had held up with only minor damages.

Dot Pixis came by and exchanged a few words with Erwin, then left. More minutes passed and as the light continued to fade away. Then suddenly, the announcement was given that the gates would be opened. As soon as the gates opened, the Survey Corps squad rode away full speed, careful not to step on the pipes that were extended beyond the wall in an effort to stop the titans further from the gates and make it safe to open them and have the scouts head out.

The sun was suddenly in your face again and you blinked and squinted trying to become accustomed to the light. The difference was disorienting. It was night time in the city, but outside, without the walls to block the light, the days were longer and there was no dark hour in the evening between sunset and the time when the moon and stars would become visible. Beyond the multitude of pipes, the scouts advanced to the Garrison blockade. They Garrison didn't have the casualties of the Survey Corps or the high requirements of the Military Police and a result they were the most numerous branch of the military.

Many Garrison soldiers stood at the blockade and you actually caught sight of a few MPs as well, though only one for every twenty Garrison soldier approximately. You dashed past the blockade that still defended against the exploding titans, draining away the city's water supply to protect its walls. Explosions went off left and right, but the Garrison had established a good defense with the water, so there were no casualties for you to see this time. The scouts continued getting further away from the exploding titans and into a clear expanse of land.

A few abnormals, most likely explosive, ran by, but the group was able to dodge their path in a mad dash for the forest. It came to the point where Fluffy just stopped barking, giving up on directing the crazy humans who insisted on rushing straight into danger. The forest loomed ahead.

xoxox xox xoxox

Chapter 50: Into the Darkness

The sky held on to its last few rays of light, but the oranges and purples were replaced by pitch black as soon as you entered the forest. "Lamps on!" Erwin ordered. Everyone turned on their lamps and continued on, speeding through the forest in hopes that the constant movement would make it less likely to get caught in a fight.

Then Fluffy started howling, and shortly after, she appeared, the strange female titan with translucent hair. She dashed towards the forest's edge and sat there, looking towards the horizon as the sunlight dissipated from view. She looked at it in sadness, as if the night brought nothing but sorrow to her.

"After her!" Erwin changed course, with the whole group following after him.

An abnormal titan headed for the group, but the female shouted with an echoing voice like a siren from a fairytale and the titan's face suddenly changed its lost expression, instead looking haunted. The abnormal, then dashed away from the forest, it's eyes losing the focus they had momentarily gained at the sound of the strangely melodious yet haunting voice.

Erwin halted the advance at the edge of the forest. "Let's approach her carefully."

Hange got off her horse and began slowly walking toward the female titan, speaking softly. "Hello there, don't run away this time. Let's be friends."

The titan spotted Hange and the scout froze so as to not startle her. The titan studied Hange, then her eyes moved to the other scouts a few feet behind her. She observed them all, slowly moving back.

"She's going to make a run for it, we'll have to trap her," Erwin voiced quietly and everyone started getting ready to put the plan that was discussed during the briefing into action.

"Wait," Hange called out with urgency, despite not raising the volume of her voice too much. "Look at her, look at her eyes," she stepped back and turned her head to follow the titan's gaze, "the roses."

Levi noticed that the titan was indeed looking at the flowers peeking out of Cali's saddle bag. "There was something to this after all?" He took the bouquet and approached Hange slowly to hand her the flowers.

The titan moved, taking a stepped forward this time, looking at Levi with curiosity. "She's not running away. That's it, come to us, we're your friends." Hange took a step forward and the titan took a step back. "No, no, don't go, its ok, I won't hurt you." The titan didn't entirely seem convinced. "Levi, you go, she seems to like you best."

"Or maybe she just likes the flowers," Levi stepped forward slowly, holding out the bouquet.

"I hope (Name) doesn't get jealous," Hange joked as she stepped back.

The female titan looked at the flowers, her eyes becoming focused on them. She reached out and could see Levi becoming more alert, ready to jump out of the way if she decided to attack. She reached out with her thin hand, her fingers double the length of what they should proportionally be. Levi held the flowers out for her to take, but she instead held out her hand, palm up. "Really? You think I'll just walk into your hand?"

"I think you should," Hange encouraged.

"Fine, but I'm chopping off your freaky fingers if you try to grab me," Levi cautiously stepped onto the titans hand. The night had fully fallen and the light of the full moon and stars only provided short range, limited visibility, the lamps didn't do much to expand the range.

"You heard him, titan, no one's allowed to touch Levi but (Name), so don't get grabby." Hange wouldn't be Hange if she didn't come up with those silly teasing jokes in the middle of all this danger. But honestly, she did kind of have a point, Levi was yours.

The female titan lifted her hand so that Levi was right in front of her face. She examined him as if looking for some hint of familiarity. Then she lowered her hand again and waited for Levi to hop off.

"That was strange," Hange voiced quietly, as if referring to a specific detail, rather than the experience as a whole. "The way she was looking at Levi was as if she was trying to figure out who he was."

The titan took the flowers from Levi and looked at him sadly, backing away in disappointment. Then she wailed loudly, as if in pain, and jumped high over the tree tops with amazing speed, hopping from one tree to another.

"We can't lose her!" Erwin shouted, "horizontal formation, we can't try to communicate again, we need to capture her now!"

Leaving the horses behind for the time being, the scouts rushed through the forest with the speed of their ODM, trying to stay as high as possible not to lose sight of the titan, though that was easier said than done. The scouts were spread out in an horizontal formation, they couldn't travel next to each other with the limited light of the lamps attached to their ODM gear, or they would risk not seeing their allies and accidentally hitting them with the hooks.

The titan sunk beneath the vegetation and the scouts followed, lowering themselves to chase after her. you haven't crashed into this many branches since your days as an ODM gear rookie. You heard a pained grunt from somewhere to your left and a thump, as if someone had hit a thick branch, and fallen to the ground, but you couldn't stop now. Anyone who fell had to get up on their own, it felt cruel, but the scouts simply couldn't jeopardize the future of the city to help one of their own. Levi had told you to trust your comrades to be alright, or you might unintentionally render their efforts in vain, recalling that, you pressed on.

"Does anyone see her?" Erwin called out after a while. You could see a hint of the light of his lamps further away to the left, though they were hardly visible through the flora.

Levi was a bit closer, to your right, but still a few feet away. You looked in every direction, then joined the chorus of voices declaring that they had lost track of the titan.

A tense moment of uncertainty passed and the group was about to head back for the horses, when Sasha suddenly shouted, "a little titan!"

"Don't let it get away!" Erwin moved forward and slightly to the left, mindful not to get in anyone's path, redirecting the formation to position itself to advance towards where Sasha was.

"I got him!" Sasha called out. The other scouts reached her position and regrouped. The squirming little titan calmed down as soon as he saw you, his arms reaching for you like a toddler wanting to be picked up, despite being as tall as a man.

You stepped forward, briefly glancing around to see who was there and who wasn't. Mikasa, Armin, Sasha, Kyle, Levi, Hange and Erwin were there. Neil was missing, he was the one who fell earlier. You weren't personally acquainted with him, but you hoped the quiet young man of ginger hair and olive green eyes was alright.

"We lost Ral," Kyle voiced, looking around the group. Kyle was a tall man with platinum hair, light blue eyes and a prominent chin.

"He'll catch up with us," Levi looked towards the darkness of the forest, hoping that he was right.

The surname Ral sounded familiar, then you remembered Petra Ral, who had been in Levi's squad before you met him. You didn't hear anything about her having a brother in the scouts, so perhaps Neil was her cousin. You knew it had been difficult for Levi when his squad was wiped out, though he tried not to show it, to move forward with the scouts that remained. Now another member of the Ral family was in danger of never returning home and you knew Levi would feel responsible for him if he didn't turn up alright.

You woke from your thoughts as the little titan started pulling on your sleeve to show you something. You followed along, taking his hand firmly so he wouldn't run off. He felt reassured and willingly held on to your hand. The scouts followed you, positioning themselves in a circle around you. A suspicious sound was heard, they were footsteps, but they were not the footsteps of Neil catching up with the group, those steps belonged to a creature that was much larger.

"A titan!" Levi and the others maintained their position around you.

For a moment, you considered joining the fight as soon as it was determined where the titan was, but then you recalled the plans discussed during the briefing. You had to play your part and trust your allies to do their part as well. You picked up the surprisingly light human sized titan and took to the trees to keep him safe from the large titan. You wondered if the female had returned, but you doubted it. The little titan didn't seem to care about the large one, so it had probably already been bitten.

The titan came into view, it moved like an abnormal, but it wasn't too big. You moved out of the way with the little titan knowing what would follow. You heard the sounds of battle as you focused on moving forward, then you heard Levi confirmed that the titan was slain and the others began to move away from the it. You knew what was coming, you counted in your head like you were told to during the briefing. Erwin and Levi had spent some time observing the battle from the wall and determining how long it would take for the titan to explode.

You landed and dropped to the ground after the count was done, tackling the little titan down as well. It wouldn't be safe to try to put more distance between yourself and the titan now that it was too close to exploding, so you stayed low and covered your head as previously instructed. You heard more people dropping to the ground nearby and the titan exploded.

Everyone started getting up, mindful of the fact that the small titan could disintegrate any minute. You got up, brushing debris off yourself. Levi must be annoyed with how dirty everyone was already. "Bones!" Armin exclaimed, causing everyone to jump and look at where he was pointing.

Erwin and Hange went to examine them, "human," Hange observed, there were bits of flesh still attached to them and they stank terribly. "Not recent."

Your first thought was to worry that someone just got blown up and you looked at everyone to confirmed they were still there. Mikasa, Armin, Sasha, Kyle, Levi, Hange, Erwin... Neil was still missing and your next thought was to fear the bones were his, but then Hange mentioned that about them not being recent. "Oh..." You felt sick. "This was the area where the bodies were." Those who didn't know what you were talking about must have assumed the bodies in question were from scouts that had fallen in action earlier, but Raphel wouldn't have decomposed so much yet, plus he was further ahead, the bodies that were torn apart had belonged to Artie and Melinda.

The little titan didn't seem to understand what was going on and offered no reaction other than tugging at your sleeve impatiently. You felt Levi's hand on your shoulder and steeled your resolve to move on, taking the little titan's hand and allowing him to guide you to whatever he had been trying to show you. The small titan led you towards the river, where more gore awaited, it was the site of Raphel's death.

By the lamplight you could see Armin's face turning a sickly shade of green. Sasha was pouting and rubbing her stomach, as if regretting eating such a large meal before the mission. Mikasa was frowning in concentration, forcing herself to focus on watching out for any dangers that may lurk nearby. Kyle looked disturbed, but relatively focus. Levi looked like he could set the whole forest on fire with his deadly glare. Hange's studious eyes were locked on the little titan, her expression uncharacteristically serious. The lamplight gleaming off her glasses and made her look like a mad scientist from a horror novel. Erwin kept his eyes forward, in the direction the small titan was going, occasionally glancing around and looking back just in case.

The tension could be cut with a knife as you drew ever closer to the possibility of answers upstream, walking next to the river. Then as you climbed over a fallen tree on the river's edge, you yelped, perhaps more so in a startle than real pain, and most of your companions jumped.

"What is it?" Levi asked impatiently.

"I'm so sorry!" Sasha suddenly exclaimed, though the exchange made little sense to everyone else.

"It's alright, it wasn't your fault," you assured her.

"What just happened?" Kyle asked in utter confusion.

"I held on to that big branch on the tree trunk while jumping over it," Sasha pointed at it, "but I ended up grabbing (Name)'s hair too."

"I think it was tangled up in the branch anyway from when I jumped over," you thought aloud. "I didn't even realize it got out from under my jacket." With all the high speed moving around and all the leaves that brushed against your head, it was a miracle the long ponytail didn't get tangled up sooner.

Levi shook his head, "It's just going to get in the way."

You'd feel rather silly if you ended up getting hurt because your hair got tangled up on something and it would be painful if a titan grabbed it. "Yeah, you're right, I should have thought of that earlier. It looks like we're here though."

You untangled the ribbon that was supposed to be holding you hair folded out of the mess of dirty locks, while the little titan stared into the hollow fallen tree. You caught a glimpse of Erwin looking into the tree and glance at Hange for clues. She examined the area, but found nothing at first, yet the little titan seemed adamant on not going any further. Shrugging, Hange crawled into the hallow tree trunk, lamp in hand.

You managed to free one of the ribbons and left the other one in, only pulling it down slightly to leave some room between it and your neck. "Levi, could you cut it off?"

You tugged at the ponytail in indication and Hange popped out of the tree, more dirty and scratched than when she went in, just on time to comment. "Woah, Levi, you better feel honored, (Name) must trust you a lot if she's letting you cut her hair." At least she was her normal self again.

Levi quietly cut your hair with one if his swords. You felt odd, lightheaded without the weight of the ponytail constantly tugging at the back of your head. Levi initially said nothing, but reach over again and cut off a few loose hairs. "That's all that can be done for now." He decided.

"I know, I don't expect it to be perfectly straight." You tied your hair with the ribbon again, in a small ponytail that when just below your shoulders. You dropped the long ponytail on the ground and, since you were so close to the river, the water carried it away. It got stuck on some branches and rocks a little further downstream, but by then your attention was turned away from it and back to Hange and her findings.

Hange held up what appeared to be an ordinary piece of fabric. "This is all I could find in the tree trunk."

You looked at the little titan. He had sat down beside the hollow tree and didn't seem to want to move. He had been so eager to take you to that spot, but now that you were there, he just sat down and didn't do anything.

Kyle shook his head hopelessly, "looks like we're not any closer to the answers after all." None the less, he began to examine the ground and nearby trees for any signs of anything.

"Tony," the little titan looked at you and you wondered if he recognized the word. It was odd to refer to this being by the name that belong to the child that was similar to a younger brother to you. "Is there more that you want to show us?" The small titan stared at you blankly. He seemed confident that you weren't abandoning him and didn't cling to you like the others did, but he made no motion to form any sort of response or signal. "Do you understand me?" He looked at you like a person looking at a bird singing, the meaning was indistinguishable, but the sound was pleasant. "Artie, Melinda, (Name), Anthony." You recited a few names, including your own, trying to get a reaction from the small titan, then sighed in disappointment. "He doesn't understand words, it's just my face that he seems to know, but he doesn't know his own name or mine."

Kyle shook his head, palms raised upward to indicate he had nothing to show after looking around. A moment of silence overtook the scouts. Erwin seemed like he was about to speak, but Armin piped in first, "it's blue." Everyone looked at him as if waiting for elaboration. "I mean, it's light blue, it's not a piece of fabric from our insignia, and besides, it was inside the tree, so it has to belong to someone else. That is, I don't think a scout would crawl into a tree when climbing would be safer."

"Right," Erwin agreed. "Someone left flowers earlier and now we find a piece of fabric. Looks like we'll have to continue our search and do some detective work at the same time."

"I think they're different," Mikasa suggested.

"Different?" Sasha tilted her head in curiosity as to what she meant.

"Yes," Mikasa shared her theory. "The female titan ran away, but the roses had her attention for a while and she took them when she escaped. What if the flowers are a signal of sorts for her?"

"You're onto something," Hange agreed. "She did look at Levi as if trying to figure out who he was."

"She must not be able to fully recognize people right away," Levi mused. "What would have happened if I turned out to be who she was expecting?"

There was no answer to that question yet, but the question itself provided an argument in favor of Mikasa's theory. "There is someone out there who would approach the female titan for some reason, perhaps Fredrick. I see where this is going and I agree," Erwin confirmed.

"Ah, I get it now," Kyle nodded, "if you have the guts to offer a titan flowers, you wouldn't be hiding in a hollow tree."

"Tony..." you whispered softly, a hopeful, perhaps too hopeful, theory forming in your mind. "Is that it?" You asked the little titan, though he didn't understand you. "Were you trying to lead us to the original?" As expected, the creature offered no reply.

To be Continued

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A Matter of Stature

Chapter 51: Raging Fire

"We'll have to explore this whole area, there must be another clue nearby," Erwin decided. Before he could speak another word, the little titan disintegrated. It wasn't all that surprising by now, since they always met the same fate before.

Following the occurrence and a few stares from the people who were seeing it for the first time, Fluffy dashed by full speed. Levi whistled loudly and she returned. You blinked in surprised, she listened to him more than even to you, though she was supposed to be your pet. The horses must have taken this as a signal to come because three of them arrived on the spot, though you thought you saw a few more running around nearby. At least Knight and Cali were among the ones that came back, you were fond of them and didn't want them to get lost.

"We're changing tactics, we'll have to move slower on foot to search for clues. Horizontal formation, be aware of your surroundings and don't stray from the group. Keep an eye out for anything suspicious." Everyone got into formation and once again Erwin began to lead the expedition. You alternated between looking at your surroundings and at the ground in case there was anything that served as a clue, though it was difficult in the darkness. The three horses and Fluffy were taken along, she was quiet and calm for the most part. Another of the horses found the humans and instinctively sought after the safety of their company.

After a while, Fluffy started howling, which meant that the female titan with translucent hair was nearby. The group followed her head, but came face to face with an abnormal titan and it was very tall. Fluffy was still howling and pulling on her leash. Erwin picked her up and dodged the titan making a grab for her. It looked like following the scent of the female titan was taken as a priority over dodging the other titans, a fact that the scouts had been unaware of before.

Levi's ODM gear pulled him to the tree tops, then he dropped down, spinning rapidly. His blades cut from the back of the titan's head down its spine, to wherever the weak spot might have moved down the spine. "Take cover!" Everyone ran away. You forgot to count, but dropped to the ground and protected your head when you saw the others do the same. The explosion sounded off and once again you were assaulted by branches and rocks that were thrown by its magnitude.

After the explosion was off, it became evident that Fluffy wasn't an infallible titan tracker, but a creature trained to have priorities. As everyone got up and stretched their sore bruised limbs, Erwin voice what was already on your mind. "It has to be Fredrick." It was the name he had taken on later, his previous name held no meaning, as if his previous identity never existed.

The scouts advanced in hopes that retrieving the human within the female titan brought them answers as well as the whereabouts of Fredrick. He must have trained Fluffy to find the female titan and used the roses as a signal for her to try to recognize him, though he seemed to stop needing Fluffy at some point. If he occasionally took her from your home at Sina when you were younger, there was no way for you to know, since you were drowsy and disoriented most of the time during that era of your life.

Fluffy kept howling, but that didn't mean the female titan was the only one out there, so the scouts advanced with caution. The group arrived at a clearing where the light of the moon and stars shone through, illuminating the terrible scene below. The translucent haired female titan was there, wailing quietly in a terrible, haunting agony before the body of a man, two bouquets of roses placed over the cadaver.

"Father..." You felt your entire being go numb, then a burning pain overtook you as tears flowed down your cheeks. You rushed towards the body, as if needing to confirm beyond the shadow of a doubt that it was him and he was dead. You thought you heard Levi say your name, but you didn't stop until you fell to your knees next to him. "Father!" The female titan didn't run away, her face showed shock as she stared at you, then anger as she picked up your father's body, cradling it in her hands. "You monster, did you do this?" For a moment, fury almost overtook you, but then you saw how protective the titan was of him, even in death. "No... It wasn't you... I'm his daughter, I need to know who did this!"

From the corner of your eyes you could see Mikasa, Armin, Sasha, Kyle, Levi, Hange and Erwin surrounding the female titan. They planned to get her tangled in their ODM gear ropes and cut out the human inside. The monstrous looking, yet gentle titan woman stared at you for a long moment and finally lowered her hands, doubt still evident in her eyes. You looked into your father's face, he looked like he was sleeping, but his face was very cold and he held no hint of breath or pulse. He presented no wounds, as if he had passed away in sleep or rendered unconscious and killed by poison.

The ODM gear was fired and the scouts moved quickly around the female titan. You jumped back just in time not to get tangled up in the ropes and watched as she fell to the ground. The monster got angry and screamed in a deafening roar that left your ears ringing. Loud footsteps were heard from every direction. The titans were coming and the scouts were surrounded. In another surprise twist, the female's translucent hair moved like tentacles, grabbing the scouts by surprise and throwing them in different directions. Her skin gave way easily and ripped out with the ODM gear hooks as you as the others were thrown through the air.

You shot your ODM gear to prevent hitting the ground harshly and it hooked onto a tree. You pulled yourself towards it, leaves and branches scratching at you, then you felt something large grab your leg. You sliced away the titan's hand, freeing yourself from its grasp and moving out of the way of the explosion. The explosion of the fallen limb damaged the titan's legs, though not enough to blow them off. You shot your ODM gear and missed in the darkness, then shot the other side and moved out of the way just in time to dodge the titan making a grab for you with its other hand. You went around and cut downward, from the neck to the spine, until your swords hit a bump. You deepened the cut there and a spray of blood gushed out, followed by the telltale red glow. You moved out of the way, counting down to the explosion and took cover.

That was one titan down, but there were others nearby. You heard a few explosions in several different directions and didn't know which way to go. Your heart was racing and your mind was foggy. You had moved on pure adrenaline powered instinct during the fight, you didn't think, you just reacted. You wanted to scream at the top of your lungs, the world just wasn't making sense to you anymore, life seemed dead set on stealing everything from you. You fell to your knees on the ground, trembling in rage and confusion and punched the ground. Then another explosion echoed, and another after that. the scouts, your friends, your comrades and your lover were still fighting. You took big deep breaths. you couldn't think of anything but the fight now, 'focus, figure this out, save them, avenge father, live, I have to live to do all that,' you told yourself as another titan came close enough for your limited light to illuminate it.

xoxox xox xoxox

Armin got to his feet after being knocked down by the aftershock of the exploding titan he had just slain. He was breathing heavily, absolutely terrified, but refusing to die. His hands trembled as he gripped the ODM gear controls on the swords' handles and considered his next move. There had been another explosion nearby, it seemed to be the closest, so he reasoned he should head in that direction to try to regroup with the others. He moved a few steps and suddenly, saw the light of someone's lamps, and in a blur of motion, Levi had landed in front of him. "Captain Levi," Armin hurried to meet him, searching for guidance on what to do next.

"We need to regroup with the others and retrieve the human that's controlling the female titan," Levi began to move in the direction of another explosion.

"Right!" Armin quickly followed, moving from one tree to another.

There were three consecutive explosions nearby, which made Levi change course. Then another two sounded off in a different area, but it was further away. Footsteps came from the side and Levi halted his advance to get rid of the titan that had began to chase after them. "Armin, go ahead and-" He stopped cold.

Armin looked at Levi, then at the approaching titan and gasped. Something was hanging from the side of its mouth by the hair. It was a human head that looked all too familiar. "(Name)..." Armin let out a quiet terrified whisper.

Levi dashed forward in a spin attack and sliced the titan into small pieces that glowed a threatening red. Armin knew it was time to retreat, he forced himself to do so and trusted Levi to do the same. After the explosion had passed, Armin picked himself up from the ground and searched for Levi. The captain was standing a few feet away, looking more enraged than Armin had ever seen him. The blond boy silently approached him with a trembling voice and disbelieving tears, "c-captain..."

"Get out of the forest," Levi ordered darkly. "Find the others and tell them to get out of the way. I'll bring the culprit out if I have to destroy this whole damn forest." Armin's eyes widened, but he dared not speak a word of protest. "Go!"

Armin managed to choke out a frightened, "yes, sir!" and moved in the direction of the multiple explosions that had gone off earlier, as another went off in the same place. Whoever was there was clearly giving the titans a very tough fight.

Armin moved forward, towards the area of the explosions. The fight seemed to be over and he thought he caught a faint light in the distance, belonging to someone's lamp, but then it went out. "Hello?" He swallowed the lump in his throat and tried to call out again, managing to make his voice loud enough to be heard this time. "Is there anyone here?"

"Armin!" A familiar voice replied from the darkness.

"Mikasa!" Armin called back. He halted his advance in a precaution. He couldn't see her and didn't want to accidentally hit her with one of the ODM hooks if she was up in a tree. "Where are you?"

"I'm right up ahead, I can see your lights," Mikasa called back. "I lost one of my lamps in battle, a titan swallowed it, and the other one had a leak, so it's out of oil now."

"I'm heading over to you," Armin moved a bit closet, calculating Mikasa's position, then dropped down and advanced on foot. He spotted Mikasa climbing down from the tree she had been in to meet him on the ground as a series of explosions sounded off in the distance. "Here, take one of my lamps," Armin removed one of the lamps from the side of the ODM gear and gave it to Mikasa, the explosions catching his attention with growing alarm. "We need to get out of here, we need to find the others and retreat. Levi's planning to destroy the forest to bring out the culprit."

"What? That's crazy, he can't destroy the whole forest by himself, how is he going to-" Mikasa was interrupted by something that looked odd in the distance, like a glow. She looked in that direction, feeling as if there was something there. "Wait," she went up to the tree tops again to have a look and came down with the news. "The forest is on fire!"

"He really is going to destroy it..." Armin whispered, expression shocked. "It's (Name)," his voiced trembled at having to deliver the news. Mikasa looked at him, bracing herself for the worse. "(Name) is dead."

xoxox xox xoxox

You made your way around the forest, trying to meet up with another of your companions. There were many explosions some distance away, clueing you in to which way to go. The sound of flowing water made you realize that you were near the river, though you had move upstream in the course of that last fight, the titan moved very erratically and it was difficult to hit him. You looked at the hand on the edge of the river and shuddered at the sight. You flexed your left fingers over your face over and over just to feel and see that they were indeed there. The regeneration had really taken a lot of energy, plus you were already tired from all the running around. The nap and meal you had before the mission was starting to wear out.

You caught sight of a light upstream. The group had not passed by this area before and you wondered why there was a light there. You went to examine it and found a cave on the river's side on a little hill and several empty bottles at the river's edge. You climbed up the hill and noticed the cave was more like a tunnel, with a smaller opening in the opposite end. The lamp on the ground had been abandoned, so you picked it up, extinguished it and took its oil for your own lamps. You turned one off to conserve oil since there was no immediate danger and investigated further. The cave branched out in the direction away from the river a short way inland in a dead end.

You crawled into the little cavern, reasoning that no titan would be small enough to fit, and if one reached into one side of the cave, you could exit out the other, not that they could see you there while you were investigating. There were several supplies at the cave. You examined the supplies and found a bottle of water. You were thirsty and weren't about to drink the river water with all that fell into it, so you drank from the bottle. The water was clear and tasted normal, so you reasoned it was fine.

You rummaged through the supplies some more. Maybe your uncle was camping out here, maybe he would be back. You felt nauseated at the sight of food, though the food itself was perfectly fine. You just didn't have an appetite at the moment, but you were tired and the sunlight was not present to empower you. You knew you could use the energy boost, even if it turned your stomach, so you forced yourself to eat some bread and cheese. You realized the bread was wet, though it had been dry when you picked it up. You dried away your tears and swallowed the rest of the sandwich. You heard more explosions go off and footsteps nearby, yet the steps were light in comparison to a titan.

After killing at least twenty explosive titans one after another and starting a fire when he lost one of his lamps in the fight, when five of them foolishly decided to gang up on him, Levi had to take a moment to catch his breath and organize his thoughts. It simply wouldn't do to become too reckless. He spotted a little cave beside the river and went in, there didn't seem to be any titans nearby, but at least this way he would be harder to see. He sat down, his back against the cave's stone wall. His breaths were heavy with exertion, his uniform was torn in several places and his swords and equipment were filthy. "I won't forget you..." he whispered under his breath. "I'll win for you... I love you (Name)..."

You jumped out of the little cavern and tackled Levi in a hug and kissed him, drawing strength and determination from the fact that you still had him in your life and you also had friends that you could still make many memories with. "I love you too!"

When you parted, Levi spent a good long moment staring at you in shock. "You're alive..." He pulled you close again and kissed you one more time.

"Of course I'm alive," you voiced, when you stopped for breath. "What ever happened to trusting your comrades to be alright? I'll probably be sad and disturbed by all that happened for a long time," you admitted sadly. "But you were right, every mission, is a chance to make every other mission that came before it worth it. I'm not going to let any of this go to waste, not my father's life and not any of their lives."

"Yes, that's right, we'll make sure no sacrifice is in vain," Levi agreed. The image of the titan and the head made no sense to him now. "It's not that I didn't trust you, I was convinced you'd be alright until I saw a titan with your decapitated head in its mouth. A wound like that wouldn't have been possible to recover from."

"I'm sure it wouldn't be," you held up your left hand, the sleeve torn at the end. "I got hurt, but I'm alright now and I'm certain I didn't get decapitated, so that wasn't my head you saw. But if you did see a head, that means that one of the others is..."

"No, it was yours, Armin saw it too, there's no mistake, unless..." Levi paused for a moment, considering another possibility. "Could it had been the head of a small titan that looked like you?"

"Tony has the same abilities I have, but how in the world would they make a titan of me, I've been with the scouts the whole time. I don't know, but I would imagine a sample of sorts would be needed," you mused.

"That's another mystery to solve," Levi looked towards the direction of the fire, the wind had stopped carrying the smoke, instead filled with the scent of burnt flesh. A strange mist, as if loaded with titan dust invaded the forest. "Looks like the fire was put out, but by whom? Let's investigate."

xoxox xox xoxox

Chapter 52: Say Goodnight To Your Prince, Fair Lady

Erwin examined the surrounding area. He couldn't see any of the others nearby, but the sound of the explosions told him that they had to be close. Every time he tried to advance towards them though, he would run into a titan, slay it, then run for cover from the explosion and try to advance again, only to repeat the process. Ten titans later, the Survey Corps commander was finally making progress. He stopped upon spotting something on a branch that gleamed against the light of his lamps. He investigated and found a headband that split into three bands on the back, attached to square goggle-like glasses.

"Hange!" Erwin called out, but received no reply. He searched the surrounding area for any signs of her, but there was nothing. He took the glasses with him and moved forward, keeping an eye out for the light of lamps nearby. He stopped when he saw some light from the corner of his eyes and advanced towards it. The light was on the ground, he approached to find ODM gear on the ground and nearby a pair of legs hanging from a tree trunk. "Hange?"

"Commander? is that you?" Hange's voice echoed in the hollow tree she was stuck in. "Am I ever glad to run into you! Well sort of run into you. First I got tossed in the air, then there were those exploding titans, then I lost my glasses, then I found Tony, but he wouldn't come out of the tree, and now I'm stuck in the tree."

"You found Tony?" Erwin inquired for further information. He felt a bit odd talking to Hange's behind rather than her face, but she carried on with the conversation as if they were facing each other normally.

"Oh yes, he's here with me inside the tree, but he's sleeping and won't wake up no matter how much I call him. He's definitely alive though, I can hear him breathing. I think he was sedated," Hange theorized.

"Let's take him with us and regroup with the others," Erwin decided. "When he wakes up he may have some answers."

"Alright, let's go!" Hange cheerfully agreed, though she didn't move an inch. A silent moment passed and she began to move her legs as if running in place.

"Stay still, I'll give you a hand," Erwin instructed. He attempted to pull Hange out of the tree, but ended up pulling off her boots. He fell back on the ground, boots in hand.

"You're supposed to free me, not undress me," Hange reminded jokingly.

Erwin set the boots aside next to the ODM gear. Some people thought that most of those who joined the Survey Corps were crazy, and while Erwin wouldn't go that far, he knew for a fact that there was a fair share of insanity, anger issues, odd obsessions and randomness. He tried again, this time pulling Hange by the waist. "There's no way a grownup could fit into such a small hole, even if you took off your gear. What possessed you to try?"

"You don't know what you can do until you try!" Hange cheered, despite her less than favorable position, especially if a titan showed up now. Finally, Erwin managed to pull Hange out of the tree, falling to the ground with Hange sitting on top of him and hitting his head on a rock. "Ah! Fresh air! This feels good, thanks for the help com-" She turned her head back to look at him, noticing that he was knocked out. "Oops..." She turned around and began looking for her glasses, Erwin mentioned that he had them, but where did he put them?

Hange found the glasses and lamented the fact that Erwin's falling body crushed them. Then she heard a voice calling her name "Captain Hange!" Armin came rushing over, waving frantically, as if he was about to take flight without the use of ODM gear. "We need to-" he stopped mid explanation and examined the scene before him in more detail. His face paled, "is the commander...?"

"He's not dead!" Hange got up and moved Erwin to a sitting position and examined the back of his head, her hand coming back stained with blood. "He probably fractured his skull, but he's still breathing," she frowned apologetically. "I'm so sorry about this, Erwin."

"What did you do to him?" Mikasa asked suspiciously, with dubious curiosity, unsure of whether or not she wanted to receive an answer. "And why are you out of your ODM gear and boots?"

"I didn't do anything," Hange pouted. "What do you think I would do?"

"Experiment," Armin and Mikasa replied in unison.

"Well I didn't," Hange put on her boots and ODM gear after propping Erwin's limp form against the hollow tree. "Is that really what it looked like?"

A 'bandit pillaging a corpse' would be an accurate comparison, but Mikasa held her silence about that.

While Hange geared up again, Armin took a moment to explain the situation, his voice raising in pitch as he panicked more with each word. "We need to get out of the forest. (Name) died and Levi's burning this place down."

"What?" Hange exclaimed, her face shocked. "Are you sure?"

"She got decapitated," Armin whimpered. "Levi and I saw her head."

"Poor (Name)," Hange frowned, her teeth gritted to hold back tears. "We better tend to Erwin, take Tony and regroup." At Armin and Mikasa's puzzled looks, Hange elaborated, "Tony is in the tree." She tried to wake Erwin but he was out cold. "C'mon commander... It's no use, he's in dreamland. Help me move him." They moved Erwin out of the way, then Hange peeked inside the tree where Tony was still sleeping. Instead of repeating her mistake, this time she cut an opening and got Tony out. "Here you go," she handed the boy to Mikasa.

"Alright, Commander, time to regroup," Hange positioned Erwin and picked him up piggyback style. "Geez, you think I was heavy when I fell on you? Try carrying yourself." Bent over from the weight on her back, Hange wobbled forward. "Alright, since Erwin is knocked out, that puts me in charge, let's go, we need to regroup, save all the scouts we can and get that boy to the city, he may have the answers we need. By the way, what's that smell? Is Sasha making barbecue in the middle of the mission?" Hange's joke seemed to lack its usual energy this time.

"That's probably Captain Levi burning titans and everything else in his path," Armin theorized.

"Well, let's meet up with him," Hange decided. "Having Levi on the team will make it much more likely that we'll actually make it."

"Um... Want some help with Commander Erwin?" Armin offered.

"Oh no, you have a more important job," Hange tried to smile. "Grab one of my lamps and add it to your ODM gear, I'll be fine with just one. You're going to be keeping the rest of us safe from titans, so you should have the double lights. I can barely see three feet in front of me without my glasses in the darkness and Mikasa is our best chance to protect Tony, so she has her own mission. This is your mission Armin, be our bodyguard. Mikasa, if the rest of us fall, you need to get Tony back to the city at all costs."

Mikasa looked as if she was about to protest to the idea of going ahead without the others, but Armin nodded, as if indicated he didn't mind if he had to be left behind. Mikasa sighed and nodded uneasily. It was vital to obtain the answers that Tony had.

xoxox xox xoxox

"Ugh..." Sasha stumbled away from the bushes where she had emptied the contents of her stomach. Her mouth formed a marked frown, her eyes watering with disgust.

"Are you quite... done?" Kyle called from a few feet away. At first he wondered why Sasha had made an emergency landing and darted towards the nearest bush, but the answer became clear. Sasha nodded, her frown very much present. Kyle pulled a small item from his jacket pocket and offered it to her, "here, have a mint, to get rid of the taste."

Sasha never refused food, so of course she accepted the candy and put it in her mouth with a sincere, "thanks." As if exploding titans weren't bad enough, she had to deal with seeing horse guts and a dog head. The little titan tracker had made it far, but it was the end of the line for her. "(Name) is going to be so sad. Her dog and her favorite horses are all dead."

"They served us well," Kyle took a deep breath, then immediately regretted it and covered his mouth and nose to shield them from the putrid smell in the air. Someone had to have started the fire, though it seemed to be out by now. Though the titans exploded, there were no sparks involved, they just blew apart, the shockwave ripped whatever was too close apart and sent it flying in every direction. "C'mon, we can still turn this around, so don't lose hope, alright?"

Sasha nodded quietly. "Can we walk?" She requested, her stomach still felt queasy and she wasn't quite up to flying through the air with branches assaulting her body just yet.

"Actually, I think that might be best, let's save up our gas, but we need to be careful in case more titans show up. Let's save up our oil too, one lamp each, opposite sides," Kyle suggested.

Sasha nodded, "ok," she turned off the lamp on her right, as Kyle was walking to her right and he turned off the lamp on his left. "Where did you get those mints?" The candy was supposed to last longer, but Sasha couldn't help herself and bit into it. "They're delicious!"

"My mother owns a candy shop in the edge of Rose, close to the gate to Sina," Kyle revealed. "Here," he pulled out a little bag from his jacket. "You can have the rest."

Sasha's face brightened as she received the candy, "thank you!" She began tossing one white and red striped ball into her mouth after another until her cheeks had expanded to contain them, making her look like a gluttonous chipmunk.

Kyle laughed at the sight, recalling when he did that in the past. "My mother always gives me a bag of mints to take along before a mission because they're my favorite. When I was a rookie, I used them to calm down before a mission and kept stuffing my face until the taste of the mint was so strong I couldn't think about being nervous." He didn't do that anymore, having gotten accustomed to being a scout by now, but his mother still gave him a bag of mints whenever he was scheduled to go outside the wall.

Sasha smiled, her mouth full of candy. For a while, all that could be heard was the sound of Sasha's chewing, impatient with letting the candy melt slowly. Kyle quietly mused that she must have quite the set of teeth if she could do that. The explosions in the distance lessened, as the titans that had been summoned by the female were mostly defeated. This was a different mission with a more aggressive approach. The point wasn't to move to a specific place, but to uncover the mysteries that hid in the forest and the less interference there was running around, the better.

The sound of footsteps was heard and Sasha and Kyle turned on both them lamps and took to the trees in preparation. "They're coming at us from both sides!" Sasha realized.

"I'll take the right, you take the left, we cut, then retreat, if we move fast we should be able to do it more or less at the same time, so the whole titan will blow instead of having to deal with explosive limbs falling on us if one dismembers the other." Kyle called out from his tree.

"Got it!" Sasha swallowed the crushed candy, feeling the strong taste of mint run down her throat. The titan from the left, was fast, though smaller, and it arrived first. Sasha shot her ODM gear to the trees above then swung down to cut down the four meter titan's back.

Kyle's target seemed to have deviated its course slightly, but he wasn't about to let it get away. He gave chase, catching up with the seven meter tall monster and cutting down its back until blood sprayed out as the weak spot was hit.

Sasha lost sight of Kyle for a moment as she retreated, "Kyle?"

"I'm here, go!" Kyle's voice came from behind her. They ran to put some distance between themselves and the coming explosion.

Sasha heard an explosion and felt Kyle tackle her to the ground, causing her to land with a heavy thump, followed by a sharp pain on her right shoulder. "Ow... Kyle?" He made no reply or motion to get up. "That hurt! Kyle?" Sasha dragged out herself from under him with difficulty, her back felt oddly wet and her shoulder was in a lot of pain. She gasped when she realized why he wasn't moving and what the pain on her shoulder was.

A multitude of blades were stabbed into the area all around. One of them had gone straight through Kyle's chest and stabbed her shoulder. More blades in various sizes were stabbed all over his back and limbs, as well as on the ground around them. This didn't make any sense, if there were this many swords and daggers laying around, they would have seen them. Unless they were... Inside the seven meter, that's why it moved so slowly. Sasha trembled as shocked tears ran down her face, if Kyle hadn't been running behind her, she would be dead.

She took big breaths of air as she got to her feet and stepped back. She gulped and took a step towards the body. "Sorry, but I have to..." Trying her best to ignore the pain on her shoulder, Sasha took the gas and oil Kyle had left. "I have to go now, I have to warn the others..." She sobbed, "thank you for the candy and for everything," then she ran away, in the direction they had been heading before.

xoxox xox xoxox

"A titan!" Mikasa suddenly exclaimed.

"I'm on it," Armin took to the trees with Mikasa watching him go. She gave Hange an impatient look.

"Let's trust him," Hange insisted, moving forward at a slow pace with Erwin on her back and taking cover behind a tree, motioning for Mikasa to do the same.

Armin darted past them, not seeing them behind the tree and dashed away, then dropped to the ground as the explosion echoed and the shockwave sent ripples of energy through the air. Hange and Mikasa had to hold on to the tree, as well as hold Erwin in place or they would be thrown back. Distance and staying low to the ground was the most effective way to avoid the strange shockwave, it was quite the unnatural explosion. Armin got up and looked around. He spotted the others and ran over to them. "Three meters, I actually got it!" It wasn't too big, but solo kills weren't Armin's thing, so it felt like a big leap forward. "Is everyone alright?"

Hange and Mikasa looked like they had headaches, they didn't get hit by the debris, but the shockwave somehow made their heads vibrate in a painful way. They nodded as they groaned in pain, but they soon noted that there was an additional set of pained sounds in their chorus. Erwin was waking up.

The commander rubbed his aching head and stood dizzily. He was a bit disoriented, he remembered finding Hange's glasses, then there was a blank and the next memory was what had to be a dream. He had found Hange, but she was wearing bunny ears, had a grandfather clock on her back and kept repeating she was late. He noticed that he was, not only in the company of Hange, but also Mikasa, Armin and a sleeping Tony.

"Oh good, you're not in a coma," Hange let out a breath of relief. "We were just on our way to regroup with Levi. Tony's still unconscious. (Name) is dead and Levi's gone Eren."

"What?" Mikasa snapped suddenly.

"Titan kill kill vengeance crazy," Hange explained, with Mikasa frowning and glaring.

"The fire was put out though, so maybe he didn't start it after all, or not on purpose?" Armin theorized. "He did want us to get out of the way, but maybe that was just because of the explosions from the titans."

"Either way, the explosions stopped now," Mikasa got to the point. "And if the stench is any indication, we must be close to where the fire was."

"But who knows where Levi ran off to now?" Hange wondered. "We need to catch up with him and help out, this forest is too much for any one scout to handle, no matter who it is. Operation Levi's Heartbroken Titan Kill Kill Eren Style Vengeance Craze must go on!" She shouted.

Erwin stared at her for a moment, "Hange... Did you hit your head when you lost your glasses?"

"Yes, and my headache hasn't gotten any better," Hange admitted.

"That explains it, looks like you got a pretty bad concussion, you always act like you're drunk when you have a concussion." Erwin shook his head, which was still pounding. His memories had fully returned by now and he remember the tree incident. He wasn't sure what was worse, Hange getting stuck or him getting hurt trying to get her out. Of all the ways for the Survey Corps' commander to get injured, this was not the most likely scenario.

"But I didn't kiss you, or force you to kiss anyone," Hange argued in favor of her fragile sanity.

"What?" Erwin gave Hange a suspicious look. He had forgotten about the events of the Christmas party due to his hangover powered amnesia, so he assumed she was talking about something that occurred while he was unconscious. He gave Armin and Mikasa suspicious looks, but they shook their heads and remained silent.

xoxox xox xoxox

An explosion sounded off nearby, which in itself stood out because the explosions had lessened recently, but what stood out even more was the voice of a man who blamed the titans for everything that ever went wrong under the sun. Levi darted towards the sound, with you following close behind. Four titans, from four to eight meters tall approximately surrounded Neil Ral, who was looking quite bruised, but very much alive. Just as two of them attempted to grab him at the same time, Levi flew between them on his ODM gear and snatched the other scout away. They landed away from the four monsters and you wondered if you should go on the attack, even if it meant setting off a chain reaction. A rain of explosives could be very difficult to escape.

"We'll get them all at once, so that the explosion is done and over with," Levi decided. "Neil, can you still fight?"

"Y-yes!" Neil looked like he was still surprised that he was actually alive. After being surrounded, he was sure this would be his end.

"I'll get the two in the middle, you get rid of the one on this side," Levi told Neal as the titans moved towards their prey. "(Name) get the one closest to you! I'll be the distraction, cut all the way down the spine ." With no time for further explanations, Levi pulled himself to the tree tops then jumped down in the middle of the area. The titans tried to surround him, two of them exposing their backs directly to you and Neil respectively.

You hurried to dispatch your target, trying to time it along with Neil. As soon as Levi saw the two of you were in position, he pulled himself forward, passing next to one of the titans, then went up its back, spinning rapidly and in the same motion, went down again, spin cutting the titan in front of the first. The four titans began to glow red and the three of you darted away to put as much distance as possible between yourselves and the explosion. you nearly ran into Sasha, who had dashed out of the tree line as if death was on her trail, though it was on all your trails really. "Run!" You pulled her along.

"No, no! Behind the trees!" Sasha tugged your arm, pulling you away from the straight line you were running in and towards a thick tree. "Everyone!" Levi and Neil followed, taking cover behind trees and the explosion passed.

You rubbed your aching head. "We could have gotten a few more feet away," Levi approached you and Sasha, followed by Neil.

"I know, Captain, I'm sorry, I know distance and being close to the ground usually works best against the vibrations, but-" Sasha was cut off mid sentence as another titan arrived.

The new arrival measured at least seven meters and was heading straight for the group. Levi dispatched it swiftly, and the group once again began to run as it glowed bright red. "Behind the trees now!" Levi shouted, Neil seemed to be caught off guard by the seemingly contradictory strategy, but Levi managed to pull him behind a tree just as the titan exploded.

"You... went behind... the trees...?" Sasha dizzily asked, in way of inquiring if everyone was alright. Her head, as well as everyone else's, were pounding with the strange vibrations of the explosion. Though it was only a minor inconvenience at first, and the headaches were attributed to the noise, the Garrison and Survey Corps who fought beside them to push back the explosive titans, found out the hard way that enough of those vibrations sometimes somehow caused concussions, though no one really understood how.

Though not everyone noticed right away, Levi did put trust in the other scouts and never disregarded what they said without explanation. "Now I see what that was about," Levi pointed at the opposite side of the tree and Neil paled, realizing he almost wasn't out of the way on time.

"Darts? Poison darts?" You guessed, as you looked at the metal needles stuck to the tree.

"Most likely," Levi agreed, because regular needles just wouldn't be troublesome enough. "Is this the only new problem you were trying to warm us about?"

"No," Sasha replied, still surprised that there were more things coming out of the exploding titans. "The other one had swords and daggers inside and..." She trailed into silence.

"Sasha, you're bleeding!" You took note of the big red stain on the ripped fabric on her shoulder. It was hard to see with so little light and at first it looked like it might have simply been a mud stain.

"Yeah..." Sasha placed her left hand over her injured right shoulder. "One of the swords that came out of the titan stabbed straight through Kyle and got to me. He... didn't make it. Fluffy and the horses are also gone. Are we the only ones left?"

"No," Levi replied, a little too quickly, though he had his reasons. "We've survived this far, the others are skilled too." Yet he couldn't lie about it. "It's highly likely at least some of them are still alive." Some, but not necessarily all, it was a sad thought, but a truthful possibility. "One thing is for sure, Fred, or whoever is behind this," though at this point it felt unlikely that the culprit was different. "Is getting desperate, he knows we have him cornered and is trying to get rid of us, we can't back down now."

You understood where Levi's logic was coming from. Thinking about it, there was no way the titans could naturally produce swords and needles. Someone had somehow put those things inside the titans, someone who was done hiding and would do anything to get rid of the Survey Corps.

xoxox xox xoxox

Chapter 53: The Past is Put to Rest

You continued looking for the others with Levi, Sasha and Neil. Sasha's shoulder had been tended to with the limited resources. At least she wasn't bleeding anymore and the wound was cleaner, though she would still need proper medical attention as soon as it became available. You reached the area where the fire had been, and found a few titan bones that were already dissolving. Someone had tossed a few titans into the fire to smother the flames, they didn't explode though, it was another strange peculiarity.

"Hurry! We need to carry out Operation Levi's Heartbroken Titan Kill Kill Eren Style Vengeance Craze!" Hange announced loudly, as she reached the area where the titan remains were finally fading into nothing.

"What did you say?!" Levi snapped. It wasn't him that shocked everyone though.

"(Name!)" With Hange leading the pack, followed by Armin and Mikasa, you were soon surrounded and drowned in questions, while Levi's protests went unheard, at least until they realized the questions were overwhelming you and they went to him for answers.

"Weren't you burning down the forest in a heartbroken rage?" Hange questioned.

Levi raised an eyebrow, examining Hange's crazy, or rather, crazier, expression. "Concussion?"

"Yes," Erwin confirmed.

"Either way, burning down a forest in a fit of rage is more like Eren's style than mine," Levi pointed out and Mikasa pouted. "That would have destroyed the evidence."

"(Name?)" The familiar voice caught your attention and when the group parted to grant you passage, you saw Tony with Erwin, the real Tony. You immediately went to him, a million questions that he didn't understand spilling from your lips. You silenced yourself at his confused expression and waited for him to speak. Having just regained consciousness, Tony was still very drowsy. "It hurt... No more... Please... Mama... Papa... Make it stop..." His eyes focused on you for a fleeting moment. "(Name)..." Then he got that terrible lost expression again, "it hurt... it hurt... stop... please... not again..." It was haunting.

"It's ok, Tony," You hugged the little boy, trying to sooth him. "You're safe now, no one will hurt you anymore." You didn't know what it was that he went through, but it must have been terrible. It became evident that Tony wouldn't be able to provide any information any time soon.

Heavy footsteps were heard, signaling the approach of another titan, it was about seven meters tall and moving very slowly, which made it suspicious. "It'll probably shower us with blades and needles, run ahead, I'll get rid of it," Levi offered.

"Blades and needles?" Erwin inquired in confusion.

"You'll see what I mean in a second, just pick a thick tree and stay behind it," Levi easily avoided the titan's hand and landed atop its head. He stayed there, giving the others time to move away, then spun, cutting all the way down the spine. Subsequently, he retreated to find cover. The titan exploded, but no blades or needles came, instead there was gas. "It's a trap, run!"

Everyone ran as fast as they could, you still had Tony in your arms and lagged a little behind. Levi easily caught up to you, taking the boy in one arm and your hand in the other. The scouts kept running and coughing. Everything was disorienting, the imagery was wavy, the sounds echoed and every movement seemed to send a painful jolt of electricity all over your limbs.

Suddenly, the group stopped running and at first you were at a loss as to why. You realized that the gas had dissipated and more distance wasn't really necessary, but that wasn't the only reason why they stopped. The ground was covered in blades and Kyle's body was nearby. The group had run in a random direction trying to get away from the danger and ended up where Sasha had been before.

You recognized the blades, they used to be mounted on the walls of a room back at Sina as collectors' items when you lived with your father. Most importantly, you recognized the man, "Fred... Fredrick Facio, why? Why did you do all this? I didn't want to think you were evil, but you are!" Everything was out of focus and your head was pounding. A strange echo was all around and your eyes kept watering. You could only guess that everyone else was in the same conditions as you, trying desperately to recover from the effects of the gas.

"That's not my name," his face changed from that of the doctor to a different face. He slowly approached the group with a bottle in hand. "This isn't my identity either, I'm not your uncle, girl, and I have no value for your life, I only wanted your blood to restore her, but it's too late." Once again his appearance morphed into something else, a face unknown to you. "Your father didn't know his brother in law well enough and the whole time he thought I was who I claimed to be. If only I had killed the fool on the day he stole her from me!" He shouted angrily and laughed at the same time, as if he had gone mad.

"Your uncle died a long time ago, brat, I took his place. I'm the one who should have stayed by her side, and you, the vile monster who stole her life, you should not exist! It's been too long, she's already lost, she can never return, her original form has been all but fully consumed within that monster. You're useless to me now, no improvement on the formula can ever reverse her fate! It's over, after all these years it's finally over, but I won't fall on my own. My final gift to her, after keeping her hidden for so long beyond Maria... My final gift will be to avenge her from all those who would do her harm. I wanted this to be your death, a slow painful poison for a normal human, something faster, but maybe worse, for someone like you, but it doesn't matter anymore."

He tossed the strange bottle at you and in your shocked state you struggled to catch it. It almost slipped out of your hands, but Levi managed to grab it. The unknown man began to change, titan mist surrounding him. Levi and Erwin were the first to charge forward, but a strange shockwave sent them back as the transformation was completed. A four armed twenty meter tall titan with short white hair towered before the scouts.

"Sasha, take Tony and get out of here!" Erwin shouted. Sasha knew she wouldn't be able to properly maneuver with her injured shoulder, she could barely move her right arm as it was.

"Hold onto this too," Levi gave the small bottle to Sasha. She wasted no time in picking up Tony with her good arm and ran away as instructed, trying to keep the boy safe.

As you watched them run and tried to focus on the battle, you suddenly came to a realization. You recalled your father's words from that conversation that felt so long ago. "I brought her roses often..." "My most stubborn rival, stabbed me in the back..." "I don't know what ever happened to Julius..." "The possibility of childbirth would shorten her life..." "Occasionally, she would say my name or yours, though she never recognized her brother..."

"Julius," you concluded. "You're Julius!" The man who had killed your uncle and stolen his identity. He had manipulated your father through his pain and controlled him with fragile hope. Your father's past rival for your mother's affections, he never truly let her go. Then that meant that the female titan with translucent hair was...

The four armed titan picked up some of the daggers that were on the ground and began to throw them. The scouts either got out of the way or batted them away with their own swords, but the thrown blades kept coming. It was you, Levi, Neil, Mikasa, Armin, Hange and Erwin versus the four armed titan. The monster soon ran out of blades to throw, but it was evident that he was only toying with the scouts, as it wasn't a very effective strategy in the first place.

The scouts moved to surround the titan and shot their ODM gear. Levi tried to climb up his back, spin cutting his spine, while the others attempted to keep the creature's four arms busy. Neil was captured in one of the monster's hands and Armin in another. Mikasa began to cut Armin free, but had to retreat as another of the being's arms tried to grab her. While one arm was busy trying to grab Mikasa and the other attempted to capture Erwin, you took the opportunity to cut Armin free, while Hange did the same for Neil.

Levi cut all the way up to the titan's head, but found nothing resembling a weak spot along the spine. He attempted to blind the beast to buy some time, but the monster batted him away. Levi dodged just on time, but Julius managed to grab onto his ODM gear cable and pulled him back. Erwin, Hange and Mikasa led the charge towards the face, narrowly avoiding being grabbed, while you, Armin and Neil tried to keep the arms occupied without being captured. Julius jumped and spun, causing all of you to be tossed around, attached to his body by the ODM gear cables, until the cables came off, with broken flesh and the scouts scrambled to shoot the hooks again to avoid a fatal fall. Julius kept spinning to stop everyone from advancing and focus on Levi without interruptions, as he had been deemed the most dangerous opponent.

Free to use his four arms against him, Julius managed to grab Levi while everyone was still trying to recover from all the spinning and climb back up from the ground. You desperately tried to reach him, fearing that he would be crushed to death. Sasha's battle cry echoed as she darted up full speed on her ODM gear. Julius had disregarded her since she was injured, but she wasn't out of the fight yet. To your surprise, a familiar yet strange woman was on her back, operating the right side of her ODM gear. The woman was a small titan that looked like you. Sasha sunk one blade into one of the titan's eyes, while the woman attacked the other. "Sorry to disobey orders, but I had to deliver our ally! Slice him up and blow him up!"

The sudden attack was sufficient for Julius' grip to loosen around Levi just enough for him to attack within the titan's fist and cut his way out. Sasha retreated to take care of Tony, while the little titan who looked like you bit the four armed titan until the monster finally crushed her into titan dust in his fist. The whole situation was very confusing, but you knew that human sized titan came from you. Erwin, Hange and Mikasa moved down to cut down the titans' feet and limit his movement. Armin, Neil and you followed, while Levi spiraled all around the monster, looking for the weak spot. After Hange cut off the monster's toes they started to glow red and Sasha's words suddenly made sense. "Everyone to the head!" Erwin led the way up the back, cutting off an attacking hand on the way.

The explosion from below blew off more chunks of the feet and lower legs, causing the titan to fall to his knees. Everyone continue cutting off chunks of the creature. You thought you heard Hange yell, then fingers glowing red fell. You saw a slight bump moving through the titan's torso and it caught your attention, though it was far from your position near the left shoulder. "Over there, near the left side of the waist!" You hurried to the spot, though it kept moving until it was in the front of the abdomen. Levi had already moved towards the head to prevent the eyes from regenerating, while the rest of you were busy preventing the limbs from growing back.

The titan's legs were severed to the knees and the scouts kept batting the pieces of flesh towards the arms. The pieces were small, as were the explosions, but the shockwaves felt like they were piling up and it was hard to focus with your painful headache. The scouts tried to catch up to the suspicious bump that was moving across the titan's body, while keeping the explosions going. He had turned into an explosive titan because that little titan that looked like you bit him.

Though it seemed that all human sized titans had the appearance of a young adult, if she was like you, then she should have a similar mindset, even if she didn't have the full intellect of a human. She knew what she was doing and wanted to help everyone, but where had she come from? You pushed the thoughts away for the time being. Sasha should have some answers about that she could share later. What mattered was that the Survey Corps were finally making progress.

Feeling trapped, Julius appeared, breaking through the skin of the titan's chest while it laid on its side. Neil rushed over to attack, but Julius pushed himself with the stubs of his legs and four arms and began to roll over, throwing everyone into a tangled mess as he flailed around with what was left of his limbs. Neil managed to grab Julius' true body and prepared to stab him. All the flailing had slowed down everyone's progress in catching up to Julius true body, Neil had simply been close by, suspiciously close to where Julius happened to emerge.

"It's a trap!" Levi tried to warn him. Julius jerked strangely, the titan's spine cracking as he did, though he seemed mostly unaffected by it, the titan was already broken. The sudden movement delayed the scout's progress, with a few ODM gear hooks ripping off pieces of skin and coming loose. The titan's skin was oddly thin, as if there was hardly any substance to him despite his large size. The skin broke off easily, so the hooks couldn't be shot from too far away or they would lack the force to go in deep enough to support the scouts.

"Neil, get out of there!" Everything happened in a split second, but it felt like an eternity. Levi's ODM gear hooked nearby close to where Neil was trying to stab Julius, struggling against the strong mutant, who held the scout's arms motionless. The titan rolled, the ground approached. Neil let go of one of his swords. Julius thought he had forced him to let go and released Neil's fractured arm to grab the discarded weapon.

Neil said something that you couldn't hear and reached for the hook of the ODM gear that carried Levi towards him. He pulled it out from the fragile skin and released it. The titan finished rolling and Neil disappeared under him, while the rest of the scouts were left on his back. You would later find out that Neil's last words were "my choice." He knew that Levi was trying to save him and knew that he would likely die trying. It would take some convincing, but you would eventually make Levi understand that no matter what the Ral family may say, Neil's final action proved that he didn't hate him or blame him for his death or Petra's, at least not anymore.

The titan was still for a moment, "this is our chance!" You reacted to Erwin's voice and continued the efforts. Though Julius had likely succeeded in killing Neil, his sacrifice bought precious time for the others to attack and it couldn't be wasted.

"No!" Sasha called out in terror, "Tony!" Her voice cut through all the other sounds and you couldn't help it but to look in her direction. She was trying to catch up to Tony. He seemed to have recovered somehow, but he was strange, he was glowing as if he would explode. It happened before he even reached Julius, who was suddenly regenerating rapidly, his hair going from white to ginger, as if he had somehow absorbed Neil's very life to heal himself. You realized the trap was different from what you had thought, Julius meant to allow someone to reach his true body, not to kill them but to steal their life energy for himself.

Tony blew up in a rain of guts and limbs that you couldn't comprehend. From each piece there materialized a human size titan. The little titans joined the attack, devouring the flesh of the large one until they tunneled through to the torso. Levi was the first to reach their position as the small titans jumped inside the large one. He looked inside for a moment, considering his strategy, then, seeing as the inner walls were not as hot as he would have guessed, he jumped in. Shocked, you hurried after them and threw yourself down the opening followed by Mikasa. You caught a glimpse of Erwin in the fleshly tunnel entrance, but the skin closed up before he could go in.

You later found out that Tony remembered something, he said that Fred cut off his arms and legs over and over and used a strange liquid to turn them into little titans. He drank the poison that was meant for you, Sasha had been caught off guard and couldn't stop him, a fact that she felt terribly guilty for. You tried to reassure her when you heard about what happened, trying to focus on helping your friend move on rather than the terrible things that happened to Tony in a past you couldn't change.

You told Sasha that there was no way she could have guessed Tony would do something so crazy. That regardless of who was with him, it would have happened the same way. You reminded her that she had warned the group about the exploding titans being filled with weapons, made it so that Kyle's sacrifice wasn't in vain, brought the little titan you to the fight and turned the whole battle around by blinding Julius' titan. That had also been a vital factor to Levi's survival, which you were especially grateful for.

If the small titans were formed from limbs, then the titan of you must have been made from the hand you regenerated. Julius had been camping in the little cave near the river, he must have dropped some of the same liquid Tony drank into it. The head that Levi had mistaken for you, belonged to another human sized titan of you, it must have formed from the hair you had Levi cut off earlier. Clearly, the effects of external and internal contact with the substance were different, though the details about what it was remained unknown.

Inside the titan it was dark, moist, hard to breathe and all around stinky and disgusting. It began to move just as the lamps were starting to give out. Julius true body was inside, while the others were fighting his titan form from the outside. You knew the only way to finish him was to destroy his true body and it was only a matter of time before he destroyed all the little titans. The large titan didn't change, so simply being killed inside it wouldn't make it one absorb any energy.

You saw what was left of Neil's remains near the bottom of the torso cavity, he looked like he had been torn apart by human sized bites. You realized that Julius ate his flesh with his true body to pass that energy onto his titan. You saw Mikasa nearby and approached her, the two of you automatically agreed to cover each others' backs. You kept looking for Levi but didn't see him, his lamps must already be off, yours only had a little oil left because you had found some to add earlier at the riverside cave.

Several explosions came from outside. The scouts began to focus on blowing holes through the torso, even if it meant the limbs would grow back without the constant attacks aimed at them. The area outside had been completely cleared out by the fight and the faint light of the full moon and stars began to shine through the holes. You finally spotted Julius, moving rapidly in the thick walls of the titan's torso. Levi was chasing after him, but every time he tried to stab him, he would go through the flesh, moving to a different area with great speed. Levi had been the one closest to the gas trap, he inhaled the most gas and even though he made an effort, he wasn't quite up to his usual speed. Mikasa and you, tried to trap Julius between the three of you, but he was too fast and the lack of proper illumination made it hard to track his movements.

A loud voice you had heard before echoed and a series of explosions followed. A large hole was blown on the torso and the cause became evident to you. The female titan, your mother, she brought several explosive titans, attracting them with her voice and was destroying them to attack Julius. The scouts fighting outside had retreated, giving her room to continue her assault. Her long fingers reached past you and grabbed Julius just as he emerged from what was left of the torso in front of you. His true body was separated from what was left of the titan and the female bit off his head.

Julius' lifeless human body fell from her mouth and you felt yourself fall to your knees. "Is it really over?" You looked at the female titan, wondering just how much of the situation she really understood. It had been years since she last saw you, so she couldn't recognize you. Yet you had addressed her husband as father, did she truly understand you were her daughter? After all this you thought she had to. "Mother..." Her strange long hands reached out for you, but you didn't move an inch, then suddenly, something in her eyes changed and in less than half an instant Levi had sliced off the long hand. "What?" You were confused at first, then you saw it. The face of Julius became visible on the female titan's forehead.

The titan that was once your mother screamed, but the explosive titans wouldn't heed the commands, that power was your mother's, not Julius', and he didn't know how to use it. Somehow, before his brain died, in the split second when his head was in her mouth, he attached himself to her titan body and his brain used it to survive. The titan jumped and contorted strangely in mid air, and from where the creature's heart would be if it were human, it pulled the remains of a body with its one good arm. The body, or rather the torso, as the limbs still hung from the titan's chest, was human and badly damaged. It was bony, with too many patches of skin missing, but you knew the face was that of a woman, your mother, what had been left of her, which could never be human again.

The titan that was now under Julius' control, jumped and twisted in the air to dodged the hooks of the ODM gear, but the scouts didn't stop in their attack. He couldn't be allowed to run away and recover, even if the scouts were tired and injured, their lamps were out of oil, save for one of yours, and all their ODM gear was out of fuel. The scouts kept throwing the hooks by hand, trying to tangle the enemy together. The explosive titans no longer listened to the translucent haired titan's commands, but you still ran the risk that Julius would figure out how to hit the right vocals to mount a full scale attack given enough time. "He's gone mad, we won't get any information out of him, don't try to capture him, kill him the first chance you get!" Erwin shouted, this enemy was simply too dangerous.

Eren's words rung out in your head from when you last saw him right before leaving on this, your second official mission with the Survey Corps. "Don't forget, they are the prey, we are the hunters." Tonight your prey would burn. You smashed your remaining lit lamp into the long translucent hair just as the titan managed to jump away. The flames spread and the titan fell, rolling on the ground, with the fire spreading to the flora all around, yet they couldn't be put out from the monster's body, fire was this titan's weakness. You watched it be consumed, reduced to ashes that turned to dust. You watched your past burn to nothing, everything you used to know was now gone. You felt Levi wrap his arms around you and held onto him tightly. It was finally over, truly over, but you still had him and your friends.

Thunder crashed in the distance and a few droplets of rain unexpectedly fell. The forest was filled with exploding titans, so the scouts retreated in a hurry, leaving the forest before the downpour began. Hange seemed to be amused by the escape, cheering, "giddy up, Erwin!" while he carried her piggy back because she had fractured her leg in combat. The titans, which had mostly gathered in the forest began to explode. Out in the open, the scouts avoided them all easily and headed home.

Garrison soldiers came to meet the group as soon as they were spotted and took them back to the city. You sat on the wagon close to Levi. You had a lot to say, but you couldn't quite say anything yet. For now, you just wanted to be close to him and let the fact sink in that the battle had ended and the enemy, at least this enemy, was defeated, even if the war against the titans would have to go on.

Finally, the scouts crossed the gates of Rose. The place felt drastically different than it was when you left, though it had been only hours ago. The losses were hard, but the mission had been completed and many lives had been saved with the sacrifices made. Wall Rose continued to stand, and humanity continued to live within it because of the Survey Corps. Though Eren was still recovering, he was far too stubborn to stay bedridden, he and Dot Pixis were right next to the gate when you, Levi, Mikasa, Armin, Erwin, Hange and Sasha returned.

xoxox xox xoxox

The room was filled with light, but you didn't feel like getting up. You were back home in your warm bed, with Levi's arms around you in a cocoon of blankets and didn't want to be anywhere else. You looked at Levi, who lazily opened his eyes when he felt your head move. "Morning... What time is it?" You asked sleepily. "Do we need to get up?"

"Not morning," he replied. "It's about noon, but we don't have to get up today. The Survey Corps are on break." Technically, they were on recovery rather than on vacation, but the point was that they could take a break.

Last night after getting home you got cleaned up and went to bed. You were just too tired to think, or talk, or do anything. You felt that you wanted to say something, but you didn't know what. So much had happened, but simply stating it wasn't what you wanted to say. Levi already knew what happened and it would be easy to figure out how you felt about it. You didn't want to be told it would be alright, because you knew nothing would be the same again. You closed your mouth after producing no words.

Levi kissed you and you allowed yourself to focus on the sensation of his lips, his taste, his body pressed against yours in a tight embrace, the arm that held you around the waist and the fingers that ran through your hair. "It's never completely ok, but it does get better," Levi finally broke the silence and you felt that you could believe in those words, they held hope, but not unrealistic hope.

"I know it will, we'll make it better. That's what the wings of freedom do, right? In the end, even if I look back and think I should have done things differently, how would I have made such a choice without knowing what I know now? And a different choice means a different situation anyway, so the whole picture would change. What I mean is... is... I'm not making sense, am I?" You trailed off, you didn't understand the logic of your own thoughts anymore, if there was even any logic left. You tried to say something that would put everything into context, but you couldn't find your voice and instead occupied yourself in rubbing your eyes to dry them.

"You don't have to keep it all in," Levi held you tightly as you finally spilled the tears you held back in the battle field. "You are making sense, you understand, I respect that about you. You know that regret is not something that you should hold onto, it only brings more regret. You already know, the best way to honor the past is by granting the wishes made for the future. If I held onto regret, I would probably be dead by now. I would have focused so much on regretting setting off that stupid gas trap in the forest and been unable to make any choices in battle anymore, or even the choice to make up for it. Don't stop making choices for fear of regretting them, don't stop living. I know that's what should be done, even if doubts come sometimes, I know it."

You mused over the meaning of his words. Levi was right, this was something you already knew. Your father had regrets, he knew how heavy they were and raised you to live with none, always telling you that the best way to remember your mother, was to grant her wish for your happiness. Throw away the bitterness and keep the lesson that leads to a better choice next time. You slowly calmed down and took a deep breath, finally lifting your face from Levi's shoulder. "I'll grant my father's wish for me, to live a good life, a happy life, with no regrets, it's the least I can do for him, that's the choice I make today, to honor that wish. It's not an easy choice, but I won't regret it. I'll also do my best to remind you not to be held back by regret. Making the past worth it... Making a better future... Making every present moment count... That's what we do..."

"That's how we're free," Levi agreed. "I'll remind you of that too when you need it... (Name)," he looked into your eyes. "I almost didn't allow myself to love you because I thought I might lose you one day, but I'm glad regret didn't steal this moment. Whatever happens, this is something I won't regret." He kissed you again, allowing you to focus on what you did have, rather than what you lost. You allowed yourself to pour all your love and passion into each other, to live in the moment and to make another precious memory together. Levi and you would live by your choices and live without regrets.

End?

xoxox xox xoxox

Bonus Epilogue

(It's up to the reader to decide if the bonus is part of the story or not. I wrote it just for fun and it has a much bigger those of silliness than the rest of the story.)

You finished maintaining your ODM gear and polishing it, Levi would be proud. "Ok, I'm done, now we can play!" You looked around, but didn't find the one you were looking for. "Oh, oh..."

Levi showed up at the door to the equipment room and you smiled sweetly at him. "Hi Levi, look how shiny my ODM gear is!" You could tell by his expression that he wasn't amused. You pouted, "are you mad at me for some reason?"

Levi shook his head hopelessly, "(Name) I told you to keep a closer eye on him." Ah, so he had been found, good.

"I was, but I swear, that boy can teleport!" He couldn't do that really, a fact that you were immensely grateful for. The child was already a handful as he was, though you still loved the adorable chibi. "He didn't break anything, did he?"

"He got all dirty!" Levi exclaimed, as if it was an irreversible tragedy. "How is he even capable of getting so dirty so quickly? He doesn't get that from me."

You laughed lightly and gave your husband a quick kiss, "don't worry, he'll grow out of it." Every day you assured him that it was perfectly normal for a toddler to get a little dirty when playing. Yet every day Levi would worry that he was doing something terribly wrong and raising his son to be a slob. It was ironic that was the only thing he complained about, it wasn't exactly the worse thing the boy had inherited from you.

Levi finally took a moment to examine your ODM gear. "Not bad," he commended, running his finger on the gear's surface as if inspecting it for dust. "It looks like you're done with your assigned tasks for today, and Eren is giving our dear little mischief maker a bath, so we both have some free time right now."

You and Levi decided to make the best of that free time in whatever way happened to occur to you after you returned to the room you shared. On the way there, Levi told you exactly how he found your son, which was another alarming yet amusing tale for your collection of favorite memories.

xoxox xox xoxox

"Weeee!" Hange exclaimed as she was thrown through the air and caught in a fit of cheers and giggles.

"Put that down, it's filthy!" Levi scolded with urgency. Kids run around, it's normal, they trip, it happens, they scrape their knees, it's nothing serious... under normal circumstances.

The titan put Hange down, pouting with his overly cute baby face. "Aw..." Hange had a similar expression, as she had been enjoying the 'experiment.' "We were playing."

Levi glared at her, then turned his attention back to the titan. "Change back," he ordered impatiently. The titan only pouted some more, his eyes watering slightly. Levi took a deep breath and tried to calm down. 'It's ok, he's not too big yet...' though he seemed to be getting bigger. 'We're behind the Survey Corps base, no one from outside the scouts saw, it's still a secret...' "Look, I'm not angry at you. Change back, I know you can do it. C'mon, I can't pick you up if you're like this."

The titan seemed to calm down, and in a puff of titan mist, he disappeared, it was a special ability he had to turn back at will, though he still needed a trigger for the initial transformation. Where the titan used to be there was only a small toddler. He looked a lot like his father, having only inherited your eyes... and a manifestation of your 'special condition.' The little boy ran to Levi, lifting his arms in an indication he wanted to be carried. Levi picked up the boy and examined him. "I told you to be careful, look how dirty you got. You're a year old today, you should be getting used to keeping yourself clean." Levi continued the losing battle of trying to keep a toddler clean. His son only giggled in amusement at his neat freak father's attempt to clean his face, which had bits of chocolate on it. With all the sweets the scouts gave their little 'nephew' it was no wonder he was always hyper.

Though you and Levi had many friends that were quick to volunteer themselves as honorary aunts and uncles, dealing with a toddler who could turn into a titan wasn't easy. At least his titan form wasn't too big yet, though it had been proportionally growing along with him. You had initially thought that your child was the same as you and he would grow out of the transformation phase. However, your abilities were a modification of titan shifting and though you weren't a shifter yourself, your genetics carried the possibility. The boy's trigger was blood, it was the same as Eren's and all known shifters. It didn't help that kids tend to have an uncanny ability to hurt themselves in the most harmless of situations, it was simply the nature of being a child.

Fortunately, it was also in a child's nature to learn quickly by instinct, so it didn't take him long to get used to retaining his human consciousness while in titan form and he could change back into a human at will. Pain was still too much of a distracting factor for him to hold back the titan transformation, but he should be able to control that when he got a little older, until the possibility of scraped knees was no longer any more dangerous to him than to any other child.

Eren, Mikasa and Armin rushed over. "I found Eren!" Armin announced. The blond had a smear of dough on his cheek and a kitchen apron. He had witnessed the transformation from the window and ran off to find Eren, just in case.

"I'll stop him from running off! Don't worry, uncle Eren is coming!" Eren made a motion to bite his hand, but stopped when he realized there was no danger.

"The situation is under control," Levi informed.

"That's good..." Armin breathed. "I should get back to helping Sasha make the... you know what." Armin slipped away to the kitchen, refusing to say the word 'cake' though the birthday boy was probably too young to care whether or not the cake was a surprise, as long as there was cake.

"If you really want to help, give him a bath." Levi handed the one year old boy over to Eren.

"Didn't he already have two baths today?" Mikasa recalled, it was only the afternoon.

"Three," Levi corrected as he went off to find you. You had better done a fine job with your ODM gear maintenance to have lost track of the tiny titan shifter. He turned back for a moment as Eren, Mikasa and Armin walked off with the boy. "Don't make a mess."

"Aw, you won't make a mess, right?" Eren cooed at the little boy.

"Bubble!" Was the toddler's only comment about the whole situation.

"I was talking to you, Eren," Levi clarified and Eren only laughed nervously.

Mikasa recalled the occasion quite well. The little boy loved playing in the water and kept asking for more bubbles. Eren, being the sweet uncle he was, kept adding more bubbles to the tub until the bathroom was flooded in soapy foam. "I'll make sure the bath goes without incident," Mikasa offered. At least (Name) and Levi's child was generally careful in titan form and haven't had any accidents so far. Perhaps that time he stepped on a lego barefoot while learning to walk traumatized him. Mikasa sighed happily, picturing the day when she and Eren would be running around trying to stop their own child from stepping on people.

End

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