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A/N: Thanks to everyone who followed, favorited, and reviewed! I couldn't write this without you :) Happy reading!
Chapter Eight: Crossing Paths
Tap, tap, tap... Karma stabbed her pen at the table with a vengeance. Tap... Tap... Tap... She was imagining it was something other than a table that she was stabbing. Someone more than something. Tap, tap, tap. She had just finished drilling out her millionth S.O.S. when that certain someone's voice interrupted her little distraction.
"Would you kill it with the S.O.S's, brat? Nobody's coming to save us, all you're doing is making my ears bleed."
Somebody actually knows Morse Code. Color me impressed. I thought he was only fluent in idiocy.
Karma paused briefly in her systematic message to look down the length of the table at Levi. Plastering a plastic smile on her face, she answered coolly, "Good. Mission accomplished." Turning her attention to the pen she was skillfully spinning in her hand, Karma continued. "The S.O.S. wasn't for getting us saved though. I was hoping to contact the Stupidity Gods and by some miracle get them to Solve Our Stupidity problem. In other words, you." A teasing smirk pulled at the edge of her mouth. "Ya know, if you think about it, getting rid of you would save us. I guess it truly is a textbook S.O.S. signal... Wow, Levi, how does it feel to be right for once in your life?"
From his chair at the head of the table, Levi sent a piercing death glare. He chose to ignore her jab when he coldly responded, "I was discussing something actually important here."
Placing both hands in front of her, Karma gave an award-winning surprised expression. "You don't say!" Her every word was soaked through with sarcasm. "What I was doing was very important, too! So, if you don't mind, I should get back to attempting to reach the Stupidity Gods, because I'm sure I've got as good of a chance of making that happen as your plan actually working!"
With that final insult out of the way, Karma put extra emphasis on slouching back into her chair. The shifter then pointedly clicked her pen before taking up her tapping again. A tense air settled in the room, perforated only by an incessant chorus of distress signals. All of the people seated in the Dining Hall turned to look at the Corporal's reaction. This had in no way been Karma's first episode of showcasing her displeasure. Levi's strained expression was very telling of this fact, showing the toll it was taking on him.
Clenching his own pen viscously, Levi zeroed in on the indentation Karma had created in his pristine table. With startling accuracy, the man whipped his pen down the length of the table to connect with Karma's, sending both pens flying off to clatter against the wall behind the young woman. Had anyone gone to pick them up, he would find that Karma's pen was snapped neatly in half. Karma's hand paused in the motion she had been meaning to complete, grasping at air.
Clearing his throat as though nothing had happened, Levi pressed on with what he had been about to say. "Anyway. The guards' personal logs are all clear in saying that there was never any indication of a disturbance—"
With blatant disregard, Karma turned confidently to Eren who sat beside her. She made sure to speak far louder than was necessary. "Eren, could I borrow your pen? I seem to have somehow misplaced mine."
"Enough." The malicious order from Levi's end of the table marked the beginning of yet another argument. Electricity crackled through the air, soon followed by thunderous insults being thrown across the room.
Hanji hunched over in her seat. "Ugh, they're at it again." She let out a sigh, collectively shared with the rest of the group. Hanji finally caved, giving into the resigned slouch that everyone around her was sporting. The two's antics had been amusing to her for quite some time, but that time had since passed. Pushing her glasses up, Hanji gently rubbed her tired eyes before discretely sliding her hands back to cover her ears.
They had all heard enough of the back and forth. Was it even possible for these two to agree on something? Not by the looks of it. Not since Karma's little outburst on the Wall yesterday. Maybe, just maybe, the two would've come to work cohesively had that tiny incident been avoided. Now that possibility was thrown clear out the window.
Both were now entirely convinced the other lived on a different plane of existence, far from any world of reason. Karma, as she had no problem repeatedlyarticulating, thought Levi was the epitome of stupidity for ignoring her warnings. Levi, on the other hand, dismissed Karma as an insolent, childish brat who jumped to conclusions. He had come to think of her claim of them being under attack as a Boy Who Cried Wolf scenario—it was the Girl Who Cried Titan Shifters.
"For the last time," Levi warned coldly, "You have no evidence. Nothing. You're asking for us to go against common sense, ignore the threat we've been pursuing even before your arrival, and worry about some figment of your imagination—"
"It's not my imagination!" Karma spat back spitefully. "It's common knowledge! Everyone on the Outside knows what those marks signify and makes sure to avoid them like the Plague. Not my fault that you're ignorant!"
Glaring menacingly, Levi was at his breaking point. "Give it a rest. Mark, tattoo, whatever it is, I'm sick of hearing about it. The only other person who saw it was Armin, and you don't see him having a tantrum over it, do you?"
No, she didn't. Karma had been well aware of that fact actually. Armin had been worryingly quiet after what he had seen. He was making up his mind, that she was sure of. With all the back and forth between Karma and Levi's black and white perspectives, Armin was stranded in a sea of gray.
He knew there was truth to both sides. Annie, Reiner, and Bertholdt, now with the surprise addition of Ymir, were inside the Walls. Levi had a right to be persistent in his search. But Armin's eavesdropping had given some validity to Karma's story. From what he had heard, Ymir had made it obvious that she saw this group of tattooed shifters to be just as big a threat that Karma was making them out to be.
Two threats. Focusing on one might put them in jeopardy of being blindsided by the other. This was what kept Armin awake all of last night. What was he supposed to believe? How was he supposed to know which crisis was more important?
Armin looked up from his hands that he had been fiddling with since he sat down. He had remained silent for nearly the entire meeting, choosing to tune out. Even now, he sat wordlessly, watching the intense showdown that Levi and Karma were having. Armin hadn't a clue what direction he was supposed to go in, but if he kept sitting here silently he knew exactly where they would get. Nowhere.
"Can't we just settle this already?" The blonde's voice cut through Karma and Levi's senseless noise, bringing silence. Every head turned to settle on a now standing Armin. "We'll investigate both. Call a private expedition, go out, look for evidence of either our shifters escaping or those other shifters scouting us out, come back, then decide. Two birds with one stone, no need to fight over what issue should take higher priority."
Armin swiftly rattled off his proposal in one breath. He was past caring that his bluntness might come off as rude or out of line. When he finished speaking, the hall was filled with an eerie silence as everyone let his words sink in before turning hesitantly to either side of the war zone. Karma and Levi were motionless. Then another came another explosion.
"Oh, for fuck's sake! YES! Listen to the little shit!" Auruo erupted, loud enough for the citizens of Wall Sina to hear him loud and clear. Waving his crutches around haphazardously before slamming them on the ground, Auruo continued spewing out profanity as he got up from the table and maneuvered his way over to the door. "Goldilocks here is the only one not talkin' straight out his ass! I vote for that fucking plan, and ya know what?!" He paused when he got to the door to look back at everyone and angrily gestured down at his legs in matching splints. "I. CAN'T. EVEN. FUCKING. GO!"
His point made, Auruo then stormed out—or tried to at least. Opening those heavy wooden doors while on crutches proved to be quite the challenge, prompting another surge of curses. Auruo eventually kicked the door out of anger before he finally succeeded in escaping the Dining Hall, hunched over in pain from his impulsive act of stupidity.
Nobody moved for several moments, until Petra couldn't stand it anymore. "That idiot," she mumbled under her breath as she, too, got up and breezed out of the Dining Hall in pursuit of Auruo, undoubtedly to ensure he didn't do anything else to make his injury worse. Uneasy silence settled again before the screech of a chair sounded out as Levi stood. Deftly gathering his papers, the Corporal turned to leave.
"Dismissed," he said stiffly before making his exit.
Whatever spell that had held everyone captive broke, and a collective worried breath could be heard being let out. One by one, the soldiers got up and went their separate ways, presumedly to their quarters to prepare. Calling the meeting to a close right then spoke of Levi's silent allowance of Armin's plan. While visibly reluctant, Levi probably couldn't deny that it was a reasonable solution. They'd most likely leave within the hour.
The room cleared out, leaving only four people—Eren, Mikasa, Armin, and Karma. It was only then that Armin collapsed backwards into his chair, incapable of standing anymore. Mikasa's hand soon rested on his shoulder, Eren leaning over to him in concern.
"Armin... Oi, Armin, you feeling okay? You've been acting strange."
The blonde's head fell into his hands, the sound of a strangled, dying animal escaping his throat.
Karma let out a low chuckle and mumbled under her breath, "That would be a no."
Armin lifted his head slowly, rubbing away the pain manifesting at his eyes and temples. Looking at his friends on either side of him, Armin gave an apologetic look. "Sorry, long day. Long night, too, I didn't sleep one bit." He rubbed at his eyes again, bringing attention to the dark circles under them. "Do you think you guys could start getting my expedition gear together for me? I just need a minute."
Eren and Mikasa shared a look that conveyed some sort of mental communication. "Sure, whatever you need, Armin," Eren said, laying a hand on his friend's head to ruffle his hair. As he and Mikasa were rising to leave, his gaze moved over to Karma. "You coming?"
And waste all of Armin's effort in trying to get us alone to talk? Karma knew the poor kid would likely have a mental breakdown if they didn't talk soon.
The girl just gave a sluggish shrug before waving them off. "I'll be there in a bit. It's not like I have anything to pack, right?"
"I guess not," Eren conceded. "We'll see you outside then?"
"Just follow the direction of Levi's death glares—couldn't miss me if you tried," Karma responded in mock excitement for what would undoubtedly be a long day.
Eren gave an understanding laugh in agreement before disappearing out the door alongside Mikasa. Karma and Armin now sat alone, the room beginning to feel eerily empty. When the silence verged on suffocating, Karma felt obligated to say something.
"So... Nice plan you came up with. I like it."
"Do you have a plan?" Armin cut back swiftly, the edge in his voice not affected in the least by Karma's compliment. "My plan won't help much if you come up empty handed. We'll be right back here tomorrow, fighting to figure out which issue takes priority."
Karma scoffed. "Well, it's obvious what the right choice is!" It didn't go unnoticed that Karma had dodged Armin's initial question.
"No, Karma," Armin stressed, "Nothing's obvious, not to us anyway."
"It will be soon," Karma said, anxiously biting on one of her nails, a habit that she had long since abandoned but now seemed to be back with renewed fervor. "And soon might be too late." Armin had nothing to comment on that, so Karma brought up something she guessed was weighing heavily on the youth's mind. "You don't have to worry about Annie and the others. Ymir was serious about them leaving. They'd be suicidal not to."
"Again, you're just assuming that these people, the—what did you call them?"
"The Marked. They probably call themselves something different, but that's what everyone else universally calls their kind."
"The Marked then. You seriously think that they're that big of a threat to just scare Annie and the others off?"
Kicking her feet up onto the table and weaving her fingers together so as to prevent any further nail biting, Karma squeezed her eyes shut in concentration. "'The best weapon against an enemy is another enemy.' Nietzsche said that, I think," the girl mumbled distractedly to herself. "Definitely some German philosopher. You read about him at all?"
Armin's jaw momentarily broke, his mouth left slightly agape. Finally finding the words he was at a loss for, "No, books about the Outside and our past are banned here... You read?" Armin asked unsteadily.
One look at Armin's shocked expression had Karma throwing her head back laughing. "Oh, come on! Did you think I was illiterate or something? I might do stupid things sometimes, but I'm not that stupid, as surprising as it might sound. There's not much else to do besides read when you're alone and dying of boredom."
Armin gave a delayed nod, managing to get his mouth back under control. "Actually, it's not that uncommon of a thing around here. Eren can't read."
It was Karma's turn to look surprised, though that surprise quickly transitioned into humored understanding. "Huh... That explains so much," she replied, joking good naturedly.
Armin covered his mouth to stop himself from laughing. The laughter caught in his throat quickly died when he remembered where he was and who he was talking to. The blonde shook himself back to alertness. He wasn't supposed to be leisurely chit chatting here. "But what does some philosopher have to do with any of this?" he asked, attempting to steer them back on track.
Some new thought must have dawned on her, because Karma's eyes began to bubble with anticipation. "Two things," she said, renewed strength clear in her voice. "First, to answer your question. You guys pose only a minor threat to Annie's group. None of you want to hear that, but it's the truth. They're out of your league, and without some sort of outside advantage, you would get steamrolled. Like it or not, the Marked make for a far more fearsome enemy any day. Take advantage of the situation. The best chance you have of being rid of Annie and the others is staring you right in the face. Let them escape in fear, don't waste any extra energy on a problem that's solving itself."
"And after? When we've dealt with the Marked, how do we know Annie and the others won't come back?"
Karma faltered for a moment. Armin had found the gaping flaw in her logic. To be truthful, the shifter hadn't spent a single moment wondering about the future after the Marked attacked for one simple reason. The dark truth of the infamous history of the Marked suggested there wouldn't be a future, period. Whether or not they focused their military attention toward this oncoming war, Karma knew it would make no difference. Their fate was as good as sealed the moment the Marked were sighted.
Somehow, she couldn't bring herself to admit that quite yet. She couldn't even admit to lying to herself, hoping this was anything but the death sentence it was.
"One obstacle at a time, Armin. We'll deal with the outcome when we get there," Karma responded as vaguely as possible, knowing very well that her answer was a shitty alternative to simply saying that she didn't know.
Armin heard her real answer loud and clear. Starting to get frustrated, he prompted, "And the second thing you mentioned?"
"Ah!" Karma sprung at the topic. Giving a grin, she said enthusiastically, "That would be a perfect plan I just came up with."
Pushing back in her chair, the shifter stood and leisurely stretched her limbs, a chorus of cracks sounding out as her every joint protested the movement after having sat for so long. Twisting her torso to hear the satisfying crack of her spine, Karma caught sight of the black, inky mess over by the wall.
"A plan?" Armin asked doubtfully as Karma made her way over to her broken pen's remains.
"Yep," Karma shot over her shoulder as she crouched to pick up the still intact pen—Levi's pen. Straightening, she turned to leave. Turns out, I might have some packing to do after all...
"We're gonna go reclaim my philosophy book."
"Our saddle is the black one, right?" Karma asked innocently as if she didn't already know the answer.
"What do you think it is? Fuschia? Of course it's black. Now hurry up and get out here." The distant voice of an impatient Corporal waiting outside of the stables made Karma smirk.
"Perfect," she whispered to herself. Her hand quickly pulled Levi's pen from a satchel she had hurriedly packed before rushing outside to meet everyone. She had been the last to show up, but that meant that she was conveniently alone in the stables for the stunt she was about to pull.
A short snap later, Karma found her hands covered in the slick liquid insides of the broken pen. Smearing the front half of the saddle in the dark ink, Karma felt her grin grown when the ink blended perfectly with the black saddle.
He won't suspect a thing, she thought, mentally giving herself a pat on the back. Not wasting a second, Karma moved over to the water pump and let it wash away the evidence from her hands. She then left the stables, saddle in hand, target in sight.
"Tch, took you long enough," Levi said, clearly irritated at being forced to wait.
Saddling their horse, Karma rolled her eyes. "I was washing my hands." A half-truth. "You complain when I'm not hygienic, you complain when I am... There really is no winning with you is there?"
Wordlessly, Levi mounted before reluctantly extending his hand down to Karma. "No," he responded gruffly, staring impatiently at his open hand. "You're lucky I even let you ride with me, brat."
Karma gripped the man's hand with more force than was probably necessary, hefting herself on top of the stead behind him. "Because I would be so disappointed if you didn't let me do something I was forced into doing," she shot back. Though Levi couldn't see her face, he instinctively knew that she was rolling her eyes.
"You don't have to ride this horse with me," the Corporal said disinterestedly, bringing his monstrous horse to a slow walk to head over to the others grouped not far away. They were already mounted and ready to go, quick to respond to Levi's nod as he signaled for their departure.
Karma's head jerked back in surprise. "Wait, what?" Last she had checked, Levi had been all about not giving her a horse of her own unless she was a "blind, deaf, quadriplegic that was directionally challenged" so she couldn't make a break for it. He was singing a different tune now? Was this supposed to be some sort of olive branch offering?
Huh. Maybe I should tell him about the saddle before the ink becomes impossible to remo—
Levi twisted to give Karma a piercing look. "I could always tie you up and have the horse drag you," he suggested darkly, looking over her shoulder and behind the horse as if imagining the spectacle. Reconnecting with Karma's eyes, Levi raised an eyebrow at her, daring her to see if he wouldn't make good on his offer. The man then returned to facing resolutely forward, leaving Karma to glare daggers into his perfectly straight back.
Let that ink soak right in, Levi, Karma thought vehemently. You deserve it...
"Southwest, and not another word out of your mouth unless you want to become a permanent mute."
"Ugh!" The exasperated sigh was accompanied with Karma throwing her hands up in the air. I give up! They had finally entered the land claimed by the titans inside of Wall Maria, but the Corporal then decided to steer the group in the opposite direction Karma knew she needed to go. As she silently screamed to herself, she gestured madly to Armin for some help.
"Er, Levi, she might actually be right," Armin spoke up hesitantly, hoping not to be caught in the verbal warfare. In all honesty, the boy had no clue if Karma was right or not, he just knew that Karma's plan partially required him going along with anything she said.
Karma flung her hands up as if to say I told you so! Not missing a beat, she leaned forward to Levi to pointedly say, "Because I was traveling southwest of here. If they were anywhere around there, trust me, I would've known." The lie flowed off her tongue naturally.
Levi brought his horse to an abrupt stop, causing Karma to crash into his back and the rest of his team to scatter and have to double back. He remained still as a statue, his attitude just as cold and hard as granite when he spoke. "We found you in the southeast."
A purposefully strained sigh. "Well, I didn't just magically appear there, now did I?" Karma antagonized. "I had gotten there just that morning... From the southwest. I'd been traveling eastward the whole time. I didn't find so much as a single shifter the entire journey, so, for the millionth time, I'm telling you that they must be staking out farther southeast where I didn't reach yet."
The shifter was speaking in slow, simple terms, as though she was lecturing a child. An audible grinding of teeth from Levi made it very clear that he didn't appreciate it in the slightest. Even still, he prodded his stead to move again, this time giving a tug on the reigns in the direction that Karma had been forcefully suggesting. As much as Levi hated to admit it, the shifter did have more information about the Outside than him, and it would be wisest to follow that information. That didn't erase the sour taste in his mouth when he gave in.
"My, my," Hanji quipped from her horse a good distance away, "Levi, are you going soft? That's the first time I've ever seen you let someone change your mind!"
"Hanji," Levi said in warning. As usual, the outspoken scientist didn't so much as blink at the caution.
Chuckling to herself, Hanji steamrolled on to poke fun at Levi's rare moment of compliance with Karma. "Maybe you're not hopeless! Next thing you know, you'll be adopting puppies, kissing babies, and retiring so you can act as a docile husband for your beloved wife!"
"HA!" Besides Hanji, Karma was the only one daring enough to openly laugh at Levi. "I'll pity the helpless puppies and babies, but whatever woman is crazy enough to marry someone who uses death threats as a way of saying hello deserves having to put up with you," Karma said to the back of Levi's head. She felt intense satisfaction when she spotted him tense up and clench his jaw.
"The rope is in the right side satchel, brat. Don't tempt me."
His threat didn't so much as phase her. "I could throw you off this horse just as easily as you could throw me," she said with an eyeroll. "Midgets don't weigh much."
"Easy, easy," Hanji lilted, attempting to hold together the shaky peace. She couldn't help smiling though, happy to have a companion in teasing Levi. "Call a temporary ceasefire for the sake of the newbies, would ya?"
Karma scanned around her for the fresh faced newcomers. Jean, Connie, and Sasha. Levi had obviously needed to pull aside the members in yesterday's search party after the incident on the Wall to get them all on the same page. The ones who didn't know about Karma being a shifter were quickly caught up on the situation and ordered into silence. They were all additionally offered to come along with Squad Levi on this mission now that they were informed and, truthfully, Levi needed all the soldiers he could get at the rate his problems were escalating.
One member of the search party was noticeably absent, however. Krista.
The petite blonde was apparently very well prepared to make her escape. She also happened to be very gifted in the art of forgery. After being sworn to secrecy, Krista presented an "official" order to the Corporal which showed that she was already meant to report elsewhere and couldn't accompany Squad Levi. It didn't take a genius to figure out that whoever Krista was actually supposed to report to must have also received a similar "official" order from Levi excusing her from her duties, leaving both men to assume she was with the other when, in truth, she was with neither. Most likely, Krista was waiting out in the sewers with Ymir and the others, looking for the best opportunity to make a break for it.
With how preoccupied Levi was about to become, Karma doubted he'd notice that Krista was missing for several weeks.
Focusing back on Jean, Connie, and Sasha, the shifter bowed her head apologetically. "Sorry for the terrible Welcome Wagon. Blame him," Karma said, nodding at Levi. "I'm sure none of us want to spend our Saturday afternoons being slowly baked alive like this." Fanning her face, Karma couldn't help but think that while being chained up in the basement sucked, at least it was cool down there. Her terrible mood probably resulted from the combination of this freakishly hot day and the pissy Corporal.
Sasha, too, looked withered, but she was likely drained for other reasons. "It isn't that bad out," the usually upbeat girl called over her shoulder, her words drawn out and more sluggish than normal. "Connie and I were both from rural villages and spent a lot of time outside. This heat won't kill us." A pause. "... Not eating might." In sync, both Sasha and Connie slouched over in their saddles. If she really strained her hearing, Karma thought she could hear the roar of Sasha's belly grumbling.
"For the last time, Braus, there was a titan chasing us. We couldn't afford to stop for lunch. Missing one meal won't kill you, stop acting like it will." Levi monotonously responded.
Leaning against her horse for support, Sasha twirled a strand of its mane pensively. "I'm as hungry as a titan... Maybe the titan sensed my hunger and thought I was one of them?" Her hunger had clearly reached her head, as could be assumed from her nonsensical thoughts.
Hanji smiled at Sasha's descent into insanity. "That's a nice theory!"
Levi's head snapped in Hanji's direction, sending a glare that screamed, Don't encourage her.
With Hanji's comment, Sasha threw her head back and wailed, "I'll keep attracting titans, and then we'll never be able to stop to eat!"
Levi let out a sigh through clenched teeth. Karma snickered, leaning farther back in the saddle to look around her. She happily noted several familiar landmarks that told her they were moving in the right direction. They were actually extremely close, Karma realized. Grinning to herself, she thought that Sasha was about to become very happy.
Sure enough, a minute passed, and Karma was able to make out the structure she was looking for. Nudging Levi, she pointed into the distance at the small lodge. "You're not gonna find a spot better than that to stop," she suggested as though she hadn't planned on them stopping here from the beginning.
Sasha immediately perked up, and let out a joyous yelp when she saw what appeared to be a small hunting lodge. Her reaction was to the pièce de résistance—a picnic table sitting invitingly in front of the building. With all the restraint the hyper girl could muster, she looked back at Levi, silently pleading with watering eyes.
No doubt hating Karma for pointing it out and putting him in this position, Levi begrudgingly looked around for oncoming danger. No titans in sight, the Corporal reluctantly gestured for Sasha to go ahead.
"Race ya!" Sasha called over to Connie. The two quickly took off, everyone else following behind at a slower pace, though it was clear that they, too, were eager to have a break.
Karma wasn't focused on the lodge anymore. Just beyond the building was a towering forest. Eyeing the treeline, Karma sardonically thought to herself, Welcome back to Home Sweet Home...
"Graduated a year early and transferred out from the Military Police..." Jean said, shaking his head before smirking. "I should've known better. It sounds like some bullshit story that I'd come up with to impress people."
Everyone at the table nodded, laughing at how true the statement was. Karma chuckled along, but she was noticeably absent minded, playing with a pile of peas on her plate. Petra noticed, and using her own fork, stabbed one of Karma's peas to snap her out of whatever trance she was under.
Karma blinked several times before looking up. "Huh? What were we talking about?"
"Your terrible cover story," Petra answered, munching on her stolen food.
"Aw, I thought it wasn't that bad," Karma said, returning to actually eating her food instead of rearranging it.
"It isn't possible to graduate early, Karma."
"Ohhh... Well, it is now, I guess," Karma joked, grinning to herself.
Hanji tapped on the table to get her attention. "So, on a different note, I was wondering," the scientist began, leaning forward and pointing behind Karma, "What was your inspiration for that?" she asked with a crooked grin.
Raising an eyebrow, Karma turned around to look at what she was pointing at. A good distance behind her stood Levi, back faced to the picnic table, on the look out for any threats. Her eyes scanned down to find what Hanji was talking about. Levi had gotten off his horse, and the ink from the saddle had gone with him. The back of his once pristine, white pants had earned a large, black stain which was on display for everyone except him to see.
"Ah," Karma hummed to herself, swelling with pride at her handiwork. "Well, he's just been so pissy lately, so I thought I'd let everyone see why."
It took a moment for Hanji to understand, but once she did, the scientist was a lost cause. Petra, after seeing Hanji's reaction and looking back to Levi, put the pieces together and immediately started laughing uncontrollably.
The guys weren't as quick. Eren quirked an eyebrow, and eventually asked, "What? I'm not getting it."
Mikasa had covered her mouth with her scarf to smother her slight grin, but momentarily lowered it to bluntly explain. "She's saying that she wanted to show everyone that the reason Levi's been so pissy is that he's on his period."
Wordlessly, Eren mouthed "oh" before looking back at Levi. He then looked over at a very smug Karma to say, "I think he's always on his period."
The shifter gave a snort of laughter before saying, "You're probably right, Eren."
"Why'd you go with black then?" Armin asked curiously, having figured out how she pulled the feat off. "Deep red ink probably would've blended into the saddle just as well."
"I thought black would suit him better," Karma mulled, smirking, "Considering it matches his soul."
A new wave of laughter crashed over the already hysterical Hanji and Petra, and Karma took this as her cue to stand. It was time to put the rest of her plan into action.
"I'll be back," Karma said, gesturing for Armin to get up as she slung her bag over her shoulder. "Supervise me?" she sarcastically asked the blonde as he stood. For once, having to have a supervisor for everything was going to come in handy. Both left the picnic table and Karma steered Armin in the direction of the treeline. Levi caught sight of them as they walked off and shouted after them.
"Going to take a shit?"
Such class, Karma thought to herself as she grimaced and gave him a farewell wave, one beautiful finger raised in the air as she disappeared into the forest. Now that they were hidden from the eyes and ears of the others, Armin was finally free to ask questions.
"What the hell are we doing?" he burst out, looking around as though he expected a titan to leap out at him any second.
"Retrieving my philosophy book like I said, remember?" Her response was relaxed, as though being in these woods had a soothing effect. Karma walked with new confidence as she weaved her way through the familiar trees. "My plan will work, don't worry."
"Retrieving a book isn't a plan," Armin moaned weakly to himself as he followed along.
They weren't walking long when Karma stopped and looked up. "We're here," she announced.
Armin walked around Karma to look at where "here" was. She was pointing over at a tree across the tiny clearing. "There's nothing here," Armin said, disappointment clear in his voice. He had been following her for nothing. This had all been a wild goose chase.
He was about to lean against a tree and give Karma a piece of his mind when she suddenly grabbed his arm and ripped him away from where he was standing. Not a moment later, a set of large teeth snapped shut where Armin's feet had just been.
"HOLY SH—" Armin was about to scream out in surprise, but was quickly muffled by Karma's hand over his mouth.
"Shhhhh! We don't want the others showing up yet!" the shifter hushed him. After Armin had calmed down some, she removed her hand and walked him over to a safe spot to show him what he had almost gotten his legs bitten off by. "This was my old guard dog I guess you could say," was all Karma supplied as Armin gaped at the four meter class titan pinned to the ground on the other side of the tree he had attempted to lean on. The creature's large, glassy eyes stared fixedly at Armin, and its breathing had picked up since noticing the blonde's presence. It continued to bite at open air, begging Armin to walk closer again.
"Guard dog?" Armin gasped after reminding himself to breathe.
"Yeah, well, guard titan technically," Karma said as she let go of Armin once she felt he wasn't going to collapse. "It's a common thing for rogues to use to ward off other titans. Titans are attracted to humans, so you keep a titan near to kinda cover up your scent. That way, not as many titans will flock to you."
Armin could only nod at her explanation as he took in the titan's appearance. All he could think about was a decorative display for butterflies that he'd once seen. How the titan was trapped to the ground with large wooden make-shift stakes reminded him of how the butterflies were pinned. Armin briefly pictured Karma's titan skillfully pinning the four meter class against the earth as though it was an art project and shuddered.
"I guess it gnawed through the neck restraint though, sorry about that," Karma apologized, slapping Armin on the back and spinning him around to once again to look at the tree she'd pointed at before he almost became guard titan food. "Anyway, welcome to my hideout!"
Taking off at a good speed, Karma lept onto a stubby branch and began heaving her way up the tree. Armin didn't follow her for obvious reasons—one near death experience was enough for him today. From down on the ground, he could just barely make out what she was trying to reach.
About twenty meters in the air, there appeared to be a blanket strung tightly between some branches. He couldn't see much else, but he supposed that was the point of the hideout, that it remained hidden. Karma had every branch memorized to climb her way up, and she was at ease enough with the routine that she even chatted with Armin as she made the treacherous climb.
"I wasn't staying here that long, and I was probably going to move soon. I had made up my mind that I didn't want to stay, and I wasn't willing to risk going to buy or trade anything since I never saw any Outsiders go inside the Walls." She paused to rip out a splinter. "That's usually how you know if a civilization is stranger friendly or not. If you don't see anyone go in it's best to assume the civilization isn't even aware there are other people and shifters out there."
Karma finally reached the branches where the blanket was tied in place, and she disappeared from view. "So there really isn't much here," her voice drifted down, "I was carrying everything else with me, and I ditched that somewhere before I transformed, so I guess that's lost for good." Karma reappeared again, this time holding stuff in her hands. "Which means that this is all that's left," she announced before tossing down down several objects.
With a series of thuds, the books hit the ground. Armin was all over them instantly, flipping through each with undisguised curiosity. There were four in total, varying in sizes and, Armin soon realized, languages.
"What are these written in?" Armin asked, looking up at Karma to see her sitting, legs dangling over a branch as she watched him pour over each book.
"You'll be able to read the philosophy one. It's in German," Karma answered, smiling at seeing someone so interested in reading. "That was the one I practiced learning German with."
Armin's eyebrows shot up. "Wait, German isn't your first language?"
Karma shook her head, then realizing he wouldn't be able to see that, replied in English, "No, and it was a pain in the ass to learn." She then switched over to say, "Americans spoke English. That's what two of the other books are written in. Well, one and a half. One's an English to French dictionary. I'm still working on that one."
Armin was awestruck for a moment. Now that he was paying attention, he could just barely notice a slight accent to Karma's words. Neatly masked as it was, it was undeniably there. "That's crazy," he breathed out. There was no way someone could become that fluent and even adopt an almost authentic accent without a native teacher. Maybe she did have one? Armin thought to himself. "Why did you even bother to learn?"
A half-hearted laugh echoed down. Karma licked her lips before responding. "I made a mistake once and went into one of those not stranger friendly civilizations. They didn't speak English, and English was all I knew. Long story short, they cut out my 'demon tongue'."
"They cut out your tongue?" Armin echoed, utterly horrified.
"Yep!" Karma answered with false cheeriness, her throat constricting at the memory. "I did not make that mistake twice. Almost choking to death on your own blood just has a way of motivating you to learn a new language or two." Karma thought back to being on the verge of death, unsure if her tongue would regenerate before she bled out. She didn't remember transforming, but she remembered exiting her titan far outside the city and how her titan's feet and hands were covered in blood that refused to evaporate. "I stick to stranger friendly civilizations that I know the language of now," Karma ended, her voice hollow.
Switching topics quickly, Karma decided to talk about the last book. "The fourth one's Swedish. I can't translate it, but it's basically all maps and pictures, so you don't really need to know the language."
Flipping open the second largest book, Armin saw hundreds of detailed maps, drawings, and even images of certain locations. On one page, he found something very similar to what Karma had drawn in the basement. There was a map of the world drawn over with a web of lines. Armin could tell from the cracked spine and worn pages that this was likely the book she'd used the most. The path she'd drawn in the basement had shown where she'd traveled, but here he could see paths splitting off, showing every possible direction Karma had once thought of going in. He could even see her future possible directions, one he guessed would go towards France.
Additionally scattered all over the map were circles and X's. Some circles were open, others filled in, all in a variety of colors. The X's were all in one color though. A bright red that matched the tattoos of the Marked. Armin noted that Karma's path had always veered clear away from the red X's.
Armin stopped flipping through the book, holding it open at this page. Here it is, he thought carefully. The proof you were wanting. It's all right here in your hands. Everything you were asking for Karma to prove is written here in black, white, and red. These guys truly are just as bad as Karma has made them out to be...
Karma didn't say anything as she watched Armin look at the map. She wanted him to reach the conclusion all on his own. The blonde didn't look up at her when he spoke again.
"Was it one of the Marked civilizations that cut out your tongue?" Armin asked stiffly as he looked at all the red X's covering the page.
"No," Karma responded robotically. "I wouldn't be here if they ever got their hands on me. I'd be dead if I was lucky."
Her words were truthful, but more disturbing than that, they were alarmingly close to what Armin remembered that Ymir had said. "He'd be as good as dead if you don't agree to help us." Ymir's words rang forebodingly in Armin's head. "Everybody will be. And if they aren't, they'll sure wish they were."
Again, Armin spent a minute just staring at the map.
"Ymir, Annie, Reiner, and Bertholdt... They're leaving?" Armin asked the question even though he felt like he now knew the answer. He still asked for confirmation.
"They're leaving," Karma told Armin. This time was no different than any other time she'd told him. But only now did he finally believe her.
Armin slowly nodded more for his own sake than Karma's.
"Where does your plan go from here?" Armin asked, knowing that there truly wasn't any other plan to follow now. Karma was the only one who knew what to do from here on out.
Armin closed the book and looked up at Karma. "Okay."
"I'll name him Benjie!"
"No. You're not naming it."
"Oh, did you want to name it, Levi?"
"Then Benjie it is! You like that name, Benjie?" There was a loud snap of teeth as a certain scientist almost lost a hand. "He likes it!"
Levi gave a tense sigh before telling himself to block out Hanji. The Corporal instead focused on the rotten, half eaten apple cores on the ground in front of him. He instinctively wrinkled his nose in disgust.
"They look a week old," he remarked.
"Then they must have left here a week ago." The conclusion came from Armin.
After setting everything up like Karma said, the blonde had yelled out for Levi, saying that they had found something. Armin now stood next to the Corporal, Karma's bag slung over his shoulder, heavy with the weight of the books it hid.
Armin had to hand it to Karma. The girl had planned the false discovery convincingly. The "packing" that Karma had done before leaving apparently involved diving through the kitchen's garbage for the oldest food scraps. The shifter had sealed those away in her bag to scatter over her abandoned hideout, making it seem as though people had been here up until a week ago. Of course, she wiped away any evidence that she had ever lived here by stuffing the books—books that Annie, Reiner, and Bertholdt would never have gotten ahold of—into her bag that Armin now held. "Benjie" was really convincing, too. Only a shifter could have done something like that.
"We don't know who 'they' are yet," Levi countered. "Could be Leonhardt's group. Could not be."
Levi was as critical as ever. "I suppose," Armin said.
Timing the Corporal's doubt perfectly, Karma called for his attention.
"You're gonna want to see this," Karma shouted down from her high perch. She watched with slight envy as Levi used his maneuvering gear to reach her with ease in three seconds as opposed to the strenuous climb that she'd been subjected to in order to get up here.
"What?" Levi asked as he looked around at the sparse belongings that had been left behind.
"I said sit down," Karma repeated as though it was a completely normal request. She herself was sitting down, and simply gestured to the space next to her. When he didn't sit, Karma rolled her eyes and explained, "You can't see it standing up. Sit down."
Eventually, he conceded and took his place next to her. Karma pointed in the direction for him to look. "It's a lookout tower," Karma said as Levi leaned to look where she was pointing. Sure enough, Levi spotted what she meant. Anywhere else in these woods, it was impossible to make out anything through the tree branches. Yet, sitting in this perch, looking at a very specific angle, Levi could clearly make out the distant Wall they had exited for this mission.
"How the fuck..." Levi trailed off as he realized he could see even more of the Wall by changing where he was sitting. Karma even got up from where she was sitting so he could move there and see what she saw. "The Karanese gate," he said aloud as though the thought didn't make sense in his head.
"They tore away the specific branches to see the Wall to make sure nobody was coming after them," Karma supplied. She had actually created this lookout for the exact opposite reason—to see if any shifters entered the gate. Not that Levi needed to know that. Karma then pointed down, Levi again looking where she directed.
Below, snagged in a thorny bush, was a dirty Scouting Legion jacket. "It probably was blown down from up here," Karma said as Levi stared at what looked like either Reiner or Bertholdt's abandoned jacket. Truthfully, it was one of Erd's dirty jackets that Karma had swiftly stolen from the laundry before leaving. Levi didn't need to know that either.
"If they left a week ago, they're long gone by now," Levi said bitterly after a long pause. He turned his back to Karma as though the sight of her screamed "I told you so!" even though she wasn't saying a word.
"Whatcha looking at?" The sudden voice caught Karma off guard, sending her swaying and nearly making her take a deadly tumble.
Sasha and Connie, who had been exploring the surrounding trees with their post-meal energy, had apparently decided to briefly stop to see what Levi and Karma were doing. Levi wordlessly moved to let them see the Wall from the lookout spot. After Sasha had her turn, Connie sat and looked at the Wall.
"Oh, cool!" he remarked. "I saw something just like this over in another tree."
Karma, of course, knew what he was talking about. But this caught Sasha's attention. Scanning the other trees in the clearing, Sasha immediately asked, "Which tree?"
"Uh," Connie looked around to find the spot again. His eyes lit up when he found it. "There! Wow, you can see it even better sitting over here," he said as he pointed it out to Sasha, Karma following his finger as though she didn't already know where the second lookout spot was.
"They probably wanted to to keep an eye out for threats in multiple directions," Karma reasoned. The purpose of her second lookout point was to see if any other Outsiders were approaching. She'd never had much of a use for it though.
Karma looked back over to Levi who seemed deep in thought. He was probably thinking where they were meant to go from this dead end. Internally, Karma celebrated. Between her fake evidence and Armin's reliable word, this had been convincing enough of a setup to make him believe that Annie's group was gone. Maybe now she could make some progress convincing him to prepare for the arrival of the Marked.
"Isn't that smoke?" Sasha's voice cut through Karma's thought process.
"Huh, yeah... That wasn't there before," Connie added, making Karma look across the clearing to the gap in the branches where the other two were looking.
Sure enough, Karma could spot a tendril of smoke that had begun wafting up into the air from deeper in the forest. Blinking several times to assure herself that she wasn't imagining it, Karma eventually elbowed Levi to get his attention.
"What?" the man snapped, not appreciating having his concentration broken.
Karma pointed in the direction of the smoke. "They found something."
For once, Karma had no explanation. Sasha, however, seemed to be an expert.
"With that amount of smoke it's got to be a smaller fire. It looks controlled. A campfire maybe?" Sasha guessed aloud, her wilderness knowledge coming in handy. "They must be burning green wood to get that amount of smoke from a campfire," she continued, her eyebrows furrowing. "That's a really dumb thing to do. You'd only use green wood for signal fires. They're either idiots that can't build a fire for their lives or—"
"Or," Levi cut her off, readying his gear to return to the ground, "They don't care if they're found. They feel like they don't have anything to fear." He shot a look over to Karma. "Looks like those are your shifters," he conceded.
Levi then took off, sweeping down to the ground towards the others. Sasha and Connie quickly followed suit, leaving Karma alone to awkwardly climb down the tree branch by branch. Her mind was racing a mile a minute. She couldn't decide if this was a good thing or not. Levi had seemed to accept that Annie and the others had cleared out, and that had just sounded like he was considering believing what she'd been saying about the Marked. He even sounded willing to go after them. And that was what Karma was unsure about. Any kind of run in with the Marked couldn't possibly end well.
As Karma was climbing down the final branches to the ground, she caught the tail-end of Levi explaining the situation to everyone. Among the gathered group, one head turned away from Levi to look at her. Armin's blue eyes were swimming with questions, but the minute he locked onto the expression on Karma's face he got his answer.
This wasn't part of her plan.
"No," Karma hissed in response, lashing backwards blindly. "I'll let you know when I can sense how many there are, okay? Quit asking every five seconds!"
Levi was silent, but his scowl voiced his displeasure. Karma closed her eyes in concentration and began slowly walking forward again.
Everyone was extremely tense. Karma couldn't blame them. They had no idea what they were in for, and that thought alone had everyone on edge. They had ditched the horses a few minutes ago, wanting to be as silent as possible approaching this unknown threat. The other soldiers were in the trees above Levi and Karma, waiting for any signals. Karma was the only one without maneuver gear, and that put her in a vulnerable position. Hence, Levi walking alongside her as she walked blindly, attempting to figure out how many opponents they were up against.
Karma had to constantly remind herself to clear her mind to focus better. Thoughts kept creeping up on her. Were these the scouts she'd seen at the Wall? Scout titans weren't that bad. They weren't Fighters. Levi's Squad could probably take them out if they were caught off guard and didn't have a chance to run... But what if they were Fighters? A shiver of fear ran down Karma's spine. Those were the ones you had to worry about. You didn't know what to expect with them. Karma had heard that Gifted shifters almost always were trained into Fighters. They'd be vicious and unpredictable.
Please, don't let it be Fighters, Karma pleaded internally. Levi's Squad would be dead the minute the fight starts.
The sun had begun setting, the temperature had plunged drastically, and the glow of the campfire finally came into sight. Karma slowed her footsteps. Levi held up a hand to signal for everyone above to hold their positions. He stepped closer to the shifter and waited for her to say something.
Karma's nose scrunched in concentration as she could finally feel out the clearing. A fuzzy haze for the most part, but one that eventually came into focus. She slowly became unsettled at the lack of presence she was feeling. Focusing harder, she was able to zone in on the form of a shifter hunched over the fire.
Small. There wasn't a harshness to the feel of the form. That usually meant the shifter was female. Her energy felt sporadic, unfocused almost. Maybe that came from inexperience. Young then?
Karma expanded outward again, trying to feel around for other forms. All she got was a sense of emptiness. She scanned the area three times to make sure, but all she could feel was the presence of the small girl. Confused, Karma's face contorted with uncertainty. Levi prodded her after she made the weird expression, unsure of what it meant.
"One?" The whisper almost sounded as though she was asking Levi for confirmation instead of the other way around. She swept over again. "One," she answered with more assuredness the second time.
"Anything else?" Levi asked as he held up one finger for the others to see.
"A girl I think," Karma added. "Young possibly. You can't underestimate the young ones though. Some are bred and trained early for the single purpose of being killers. Be cautious."
She felt a breeze behind her and knew that Levi had gone to repeat the information to Petra. A moment later, he was back beside her, blades at the ready.
"Follow my lead," the shifter whispered. No doubt, Levi wasn't keen about being ordered, but in a situation that relied entirely on Karma's gut feeling, he gritted his teeth and did as she said. Karma began circling to her left, Levi shadowing her. She steered them to be directly behind the girl, the best position to be in for a surprise attack. As they got closer, Karma's usual urge to flee had to be suppressed in favor of amping herself up for what could be a battle of life and death. But then the girl came into view, and Karma stopped dead in her tracks.
She was shivering. The little girl was trembling like a leaf at the mercy of the wind.
Karma could feel the fire's warmth even from this distance. The reason for her shivering couldn't be the cold. She was a tiny thing, thin to the point of looking feeble, and barely reached Karma's shoulder in height. A kid, twelve at most.
Karma gave a sideways look to Levi. She gave a slight shake of her head. There wasn't any hint of a threat. The overwhelming feeling coming off of the girl was fear. Nothing like the vibe one of the Marked would give off. This had to be a rogue Outsider. Karma motioned at her left wrist—the place the Marked titan's tattoos were—and shook her head, showing that she didn't think they were dealing with a Marked shifter.
Levi kept his blades drawn just in case, but waved at his soldiers to hold off. If it came down to it, Levi and Karma alone could probably take her on if she turned out to be a threat.
Karma began approaching again, slower. Noticing a twig on the ground, Karma gestured at it for Levi to get an idea of what she planned to do. She was going to let the girl react. That would be the deciding factor. Levi closed his eyes for a second, letting it be known that he wasn't a fan of the idea, but looking back at the small frame hunched over the fire caused him to eventually nod.
Bracing herself for the worst, Karma purposefully stepped on the twig. Snap! The sound echoed like a gunshot in the small space.
The girl whipped around, an instant nervous wreck. "Who's there?" She shouted out, one hand fumbling inside her jacket before withdrawing what looked like a tiny pocket knife. Her shaky arms held out the knife at the invisible threat.
Karma took several steps forward into the light of the fire, her hands held up. "We don't mean any harm." She spoke softly as though loud noises might scare the girl. The image of a startled animal poised to flee wormed its way into her mind, and Karma made sure to give a gentle smile and appear friendly. "We just saw your campfire and thought we'd come see—"
Her mouth was silenced as her eyes caught sight of what was unmistakably a half concealed red tattoo coloring the girl's knife-holding arm. Levi, perceptive as ever, reacted immediately upon sharing Karma's realization. Cutting in front of Karma, the Corporal brandished a clear warning as he stepped into the fire light. Tense with adrenaline and ready to attack, it seemed the time for conversation had passed. All it took was that knife drawing a drop of blood for a transformation and all hell would break loose. Karma was one step behind him, hesitating from sheer surprise at how wrong her gut feeling had been. How had she so drastically misread a Marked?
And it was in this moment of hesitation that the girl was sent spiralling dangerously over the edge. In an instant, she was backing away, pure fear and terror in her eyes.
"No! I'm not going with you!" She screamed hysterically, tears spilling out uncontrollably. The girl paid no attention to where she was hurriedly backing up. In her rush, her right foot was immersed in the fire and coated with searing cinders, but she just kept on backpedaling. No pain was going to stop her from getting away from them.
*** TRIGGER WARNING *** For those easily triggered by mention of suicide, skip ahead. *** TRIGGER WARNING ***
Far beyond that. Without a second of hesitation, the hand holding the glinting pocket knife was turned against its owner, tickling her throat with the promise that it would get the job done with a simple flick of the wrist.
Levi and Karma halted in place.
"I'm not going back! I w-won't hurt anybody. I can't hurt anybody! Not for you, not for anyone, and you can't make me!" The hysterical cry sounded almost like a plea, one that had been made countless times but never heard. Tears were flowing full force and hyperventilation had begun to set in, a panic attack seemingly taking over the girl.
With the blade to her throat, the words seemed sickly ironic. But, a single look at the shaking, loosely held knife spoke the truth. From the repeated clenching and unclenching of the weapon, it looked as though simply holding the blade was scorching the girl's hand. It had no place there.
"I-I'll do it," she shakily managed. "If my one death means even one person saved, I'll do it!"
Her mouth said one thing but her body screamed another. As much as she might want to, she was incapable of making good on her promise.
A pacifist, Karma numbly pieced together. Looking at the shaking, helpless child, it was clear there wasn't a harmful bone in her body.
I never thought I'd see the day, the shifter thought as she pushed past Levi, who had already lowered his blades at the reaction they'd stirred. A pacifist in today's cut throat world? Dead straight out of the gate. But yet, here she stands, alone and alive out in the wilderness... And a Marked pacifist of all things?! I never thought the possibility could even exist!
The baffling nature of it all was shoved aside as Karma approached once more, this time hands outstretched.
"No, no, no, it's alright!" Karma quietly reassured, sliding up her jacket sleeves to show bare, un-Marked wrists. From the metallic sound behind her, she could tell Levi had sheathed his blades and was doing the same. "We don't want to hurt you or take you anywhere. We're not from there, we promise."
The girl's eyes widened and overflowed even more. Shuddering gasps wracked her body, but now it seemed to be for a new reason. Every muscle went limp with what could only be described as overpowering relief. The threatening knife left her throat and instead hung forgotten at her side by a slack arm.
*** TRIGGER WARNING OVER *** Continue reading. *** TRIGGER WARNING OVER ***
Words no longer able to come out, the girl's mouth silently echoed Karma's. "You're not from there?"
Karma nodded lightly. "We're from farther inside these Walls. It's not a bad place, there are good people. We're good people. We were as scared of you as you were of us." Karma just kept softly talking, steadily getting closer. Now crouched down to the girl's level, Karma reached out to touch the hand holding the tiny pocket knife. Automatic instinct had the girl jerking her hand away, but Karma held on. Gently stroking the child's hand into relaxing, Karma felt the knife fall into her own hand.
"You are very brave," Karma whispered, using her other hand to lightly brush away tears from splotchy cheeks. "Someone like you doesn't need something like this."
There was a heated hiss as the little blade was tossed into the campfire.
Karma was jolted back at the force of the petite girl throwing her arms around her. Looking down, the shifter could only see a mess of blonde locks buried against her shoulder. The mini shifter's body heaved against hers as a new wave of tears crashed over.
"I f-found you," her hiccuping voice exalted low enough for only Karma to hear. Karma could feel the girl's trembling grin burning into her skin. "He s-said I should go stay with you instead. I didn't understand a single thing Lex told me, but I still found you!"
A repeated babbling of "I found you"s continued to flow, but Karma couldn't make sense of what had just been said. She'd been found... as though she was being search for? And someone—Lex?—had told this girl to search for her?
The strange thought was bubbling at the back of her mind as she attempted to soothingly stroke the girl's hair. She spoke unthinkingly. "Of course you can stay with me. You don't have to stay out here or with them anymore. You're safe now."
Boney arms clenched her tighter. "Thank you, thank you, thank you..." Before the girl started to sound too much like a broken record, Karma gave her a joking prod in the side.
"My name is Carmen, not 'Thank you,' so you can stop saying that."
A series of sniffles and a garbled laugh. "Anna," came the weak response. "I'm Anna."
"Well, Anna," Karma mumbled, looking up and out at the dark forest surrounding them and thinking of the even darker dangers that lay beyond them, "I'm very glad you found me."
Levi was good at many things. Killing? Sure. Cleaning? Definitely. Kids? Not a chance in hell.
The little things never seemed quite human to him. Maybe it was because he'd never exactly gotten the chance to be one himself. For whatever reason, the man around kids was bad news. Any encounter almost always ended with crying. It wasn't like he wanted that to happen. Then again, Levi could make grown men cry without even trying.
Hanji would poke fun at him for it, obviously. "You aren't gonna make any playmates if you don't stop scaring off your peers!" Hanji always chided before agilely dodging whatever Levi had on hand to chuck at her. The woman couldn't resist a golden opportunity for a short joke.
Anna wasn't the youngest kid by a longshot. But, considering her current mental state, Levi wasn't going anywhere near her for the reason that he'd inevitably make things worse. Levi had learned to keep his distance from kids. Anna was no exception. And her not being an exception forced him to make another exception. Karma didn't have to ride the same horse as Levi on the trip back. Hanji had automatically offered her horse to the shifter and without explanation took Karma's place on Levi's horse. From what any other day Levi would consider an unsafe distance, he watched the two shifters riding the chestnut steed.
Levi let them be. He could do that much.
Anna remained hidden out of sight by Karma, who was hunched over holding the girl. Levi watched Karma's lips moving by the girl's ear, undoubtedly saying something calming. She'd made quite a bit of progress in soothing the quivering mess of a girl that she'd coaxed out of the forest. Karma still seemed to hold Anna carefully, as though she was a fragile figurine that could be easily shattered. And Levi couldn't help but think that between the care and caution being shown that there was something deeper going on in Karma's head.
"She lost her sister to suicide, didn't she?" Hanji's solemn voice pierced Levi's train of thought, her own seemingly running along a similar track.
There it was. That was the missing link.
"Her father, too, if I remember right," Levi answered with a slight delay, still processing.
Familial. That's how it looked, Levi concluded as he studied the way Karma held their new addition. In terms of appearance, the two looked far from related, but they also acted far from how strangers would. And then there were the rare moments where Karma really looked at Anna—a look that suggested maybe Anna wasn't the only one who'd found something she'd needed that day.
It was a quiet, uneventful ride back. The group dispersed wordlessly upon their return to Headquarters, exhausted by the day's events. Even the Corporal, an infamous insomniac, retired early. He had intended to offer a spare room to Anna, but the little girl was already off in Karma's room, showing no sign of emerging anytime soon.
She'll probably sleep there. Kids do that kind of thing, Levi mulled distractedly as he draped his jacket over the back of a tall chair. Only now was he able to relax without the weight that his uniform carried. He stripped off his pants, the bed already calling his name.
And then he got an eyeful of Karma's handiwork.
"Three... Two... One... Meltdown," Hanji hummed to herself as she watched the hands tick down on her watch. Bracing for impact, Hanji leaned all her weight against the outside of Levi's door just in time to absorb the inhuman force of his kick on the other side.
"Hanji Zoe, move away from this door or so help me I will make you part of the woodwork." The commanding growl was accompanied with the whine of protesting door hinges.
"You're gonna have to try harder than that," Hanji laughed breathlessly, jolted again by another menacing kick. "You aren't disturbing those two tonight! You can wait patiently to have your tantrum tomorrow."
A much stronger kick suggested Levi wasn't one for being patient at the moment.
"Who said anything about Karma?" The question was punctuated with another kick. Levi's voice hissed menacingly out of the crack beneath the door. "I'll give her tonight. She'll get what's coming to her when it comes."
The kicking ceased. Hanji suddenly felt uneasy and rightfully so.
"You'll make a decent enough punching bag while I wait."
Hanji's eyes widened, realizing her mistake in coming here. "Levi, I didn't do anything!"
"Exactly! You didn't say anything! All day long!"
Before he was even finished, Hanji had dragged a heavy marble bust to take her place holding the door and was bolting down the hallway, knowing that the Corporal would be hot on her heals no matter the obstacle. Sure enough, Levi was storming down the main wing, hellbent on murder.
"Hanji," Levi snarled, "Come out here and die like a man you spineless, little—"
Levi nearly mowed down the person who unexpectedly rounded the corner, the words dying instantly in his throat when he saw who it was.
Anna stared up at him, wide eyed and looking like she wanted nothing more than to turn right back around.
"I couldn't find the Dining Hall." Anna almost sounded apologetic about getting lost. "I wanted to get a glass of water."
Levi stood there, unmoving.
The girl definitely looked better. Stable at least. The redness under her eyes had faded, some color had come back into her cheeks, and best of all it didn't look like she was that afraid of him. He hadn't made her start crying yet, so that was a good sign.
When Levi didn't respond immediately, Anna stopped craning her neck to look up at him. Head lowered, her face then scrunched up in mixed confusion. Levi's hand was half raised to point out the direction of the Dining Hall when she spoke up.
"You're not wearing any pants."
Bad sign. Really bad sign.
Levi took a moment to look at himself, realizing something he probably should have before he broke through his door—just as Anna had said, he was completely pantsless.
Running a hand back through his hair, Levi gave an unsteady nod. "They got dirty," he responded lamely. So much for giving directions. Instead, Levi now had to explain how wearing pants had completely slipped his mind while in mid-conniption.
"Ah, that's the clean freak for ya!" And just when he thought it couldn't get worse, Hanji came strolling down the hall, apparently having abandoned her hiding spot for the sake of entertainment. "He wouldn't put on dirty pants even at the price of traumatizing a little girl!" Hanji placed her hands on Anna's shoulders and gave Levi a teasing smirk.
The searing look Levi gave warned her to sleep with one eye open.
With Anna as her shield, however, Hanji knew Levi wouldn't dare try to kill her now. Easy out literally in hand, Hanji steered Anna around the fuming Corporal to walk in the direction of the Dining Hall.
"Let's go get that glass of water, huh?" Hanji asked energetically, excited from her small victory. But, wanting to rub it in just a little more, the scientist took a moment to give a backwards glance and saw Levi angrily returning to his quarters.
An impish grin spreading ear to ear, she shot back, "Looks like the ink didn't bleed through just your pants!"
SLAM. Hanji mentally noted that Levi would be needing his door replaced. Again.
"Don't mind him, he's been in a foul mood recently," Hanji told Anna as they approached the Dining Hall. She was about to go on and explain when Anna piped up.
"Oh, I know. Lex warned me that he was kinda weird."
Hanji stopped short, and instead of walking into the Dining Hall just remained in its entrance holding the door open. Anna ducked under her arm and left a confused Hanji behind as she darted over into the kitchen. The young shifter had already ducked back under her arm, glass of water in hand, and disappeared down the hall before Hanji got the chance to ask:
Who the hell is Lex?
A/N: There ya go! This took way longer than it should have hahaha I got stuck in a rut, I'M SORRY! I was just lacking creativity and I got so busy... But hey, I'm off to college now so that might mean a bit more free time!... Or not, it really could go either way X( But yeah, I'll be at RPI if any of you people would like to stalk me! And I've also got a Pinterest if you wanna stalk me there, too (Ella Heart - If that's too hard to find just search for the board called The Blessing and Curse that is Hope). I'm gonna start a board for the OC's of this story so you can get a feel for what they look like.
Sooo let me know what your favorite part of this chapter was! Favorite character, funniest scene, best insult, whatever you want! And please give me your thoughts on Anna. The perks of an alternate storyline is that I can make as many OC's as I want, and I totally plan to do just that!
And with the little element of mystery that we ended on, I wanna know your thoughts—who the hell is Lex?
Have a SUPERMEGAFOXYAWESOMEHOT day! :D