To see or not to see


That night in the barracks, Kirito took off his swords. As he folded his coat over them to make them less visible, he felt an unfamiliar twinge. The muscles in his hand were cramping up. He looked at them almost curiously. There was a blister forming on his thumb.

He laid down on his cot and stared up at the bunk above him when it suddenly hit him. What if this wasn't part of the game. What if this was real?

For a moment, he couldn't breathe. He looked over the sword hilts peeking from beneath his black coat. There was no way to actualize virtual objects in the real world.

Those were his swords, the Elucidator from a monster drop, Dark Repulser from Lizbeth's blacksmith shop. Both products of SAO.

Levi and Petra were too responsive to be NPCs.

No. The real world didn't have ten meter monsters running around eating people with impunity. He glanced out the window. Wherever this was, it definitely wasn't 21st century Tokyo.

They had been genuinely upset over the loss of the schoolchildren. Players weren't generally bothered by the loss of NPCs. The NPCs would simply respawn the next time someone started the quest.

There were players who never left the Town of Beginnings, who lived their lives practically as NPCs. They weren't any less people for all that.

He would have to find a way to sound them out. Carefully, so they didn't decide he was delusional. If this was real and he told them he thought it was a game, they would think him insane and if it was part of the game and he told them he thought it might be real, that wouldn't be any better.

In the morning, he sought out Petra. Her leg was still wrapped and she was still using a crutch. Healing crystals, healing potions, battle healing. If this was a game, she should be back to normal. Add another tally mark on the Real side of the ledger.

"Oh, I'm sorry," Petra said apologetically. "I can't talk this morning. I have to go to court."

"What for?" Kirito asked.

"You remember that cadet who could turn into a Titan? He's on trial today; the Military Police have deemed him a danger to the city and want him executed."

"You mean the guy who literally just saved your whole city and everyone in it." Okay, that settled it. Whether the scenario was real or not, the people in it had to be real. Computers and NPC's would never come up with something as stupidly illogical as killing the person who saved you simply because he had a unique ability. He'd find someone else to talk to.

Just as well, really. He's rather not have his party members doubting him.

He wandered around the base until he chanced upon Annie talking to a tall skinny guy and a broad stocky guy.

"Oh hey Annie, just the person I wanted to talk to."

" Kirito," she said cautiously. "You on your own today?" She glanced around for the Special Ops Squad.

"Yeah, they're all at that trial. Can't believe people are that stupid." Kirito shook his head.

"But they are," the burly blond guy extended his hand. "I'm Reiner. This is Berthold."

"Kirito," he introduced himself, taking the guy's hand. Reiner squeezed his hand hard as if testing how much force Kirito could take. Why were large guys such jerks? Surely by now they all knew that strength did not necessarily match size in the game. Kirito squeezed back, exactly as hard. Their hands started heating up from the pressure. Reiner nodded, as if Kirito had passed some kind of a test.

"Hey, can I ask you something without you taking this wrong?" Kirito said. "Can you guys log off and leave?"

" 'Log off?' " For a moment, Berthold had a vision of the Colossal Titan ripping up some trees and weaving them together into a raft to sail out of here, but before he could answer, Annie beat him to it.

"No. We're here until the mission is done."

Kirito nodded. "Yeah. Sorry to bring it up. It's just…"

"No it's okay," Reiner said. "We've all been here a long time."

Kirito almost looked wistful. "There are days when home seems more dream than reality."

"Kirito," Annie said firmly. "We will see this through to the end and then we will all go home."

Berthold looked over his shoulder at a passing patrol. "I hate to break this up, but we're supposed to be on duty. And now is not a good time to be drawing attention to ourselves."

"Especially not with everybody on edge because of that trial," agreed Annie.

"The object lesson here being never let on if you have a unique skill," Kirito added.

The all nodded curtly in mutual understanding.

•-|-—- -—-|-•

The trial was over by midday, much faster than anyone had anticipated. "If you're planning on coming with us, pack up your gear," Levi said to Kirito. "We're getting out of here before those self-important blowhards have a chance to change their minds."

"I take it this means they decided not to kill the kid who saved your city?" Kirito jumped off his bunk in the barracks and immediately began strapping on his swords. He really missed his menu. This having to gear up manually was getting annoying.

The Levi Squad plus two mounted their horses and moved out.

The newcomer was pale and nervous. He glanced at the party but as soon as anyone made eye contact, he quickly looked forward again. Kirito took pity on him. "I haven't been with these guys very long, but they're ok. They're not player killers."

The cadet kid gave a curt nod, but Oruo could resist teasing him. "You are a player, right?"

But before Eren could answer, Levi cut in. "He'd better be a player, because if we bet everything on an empty sea, we're all screwed."

Eren looked confused at their odd choice of words but decided not to say anything. He already felt awkward enough without having to ask about their in-group language.

At length, the scenery changed. Flat land became gently rolling hills. The farmlands by the city gradually gave way to a forest. Silence stretched before them, interrupted only by Oruo's pontificating. It was annoying, but at least it was noise.

The white castle was nestled between lush green trees. Kirito halted his horse to appreciate the artistry that had gone into creating it.

"An architectural marvel, don't you agree?" Oruo said in his most pompous tone. "Fit to be a royal residence, but more recently, our former headquarters."

"You seem inordinately proud of it," Kirito said. "Did you design it?"

Oruo snapped his head around. "How old do you think I am?"

"Positively ancient," Petra teased him.

"Older than the stones," Eld chimed in.

Oruo glowered at them. "At any rate, it was too far from river or wall, so now it's just set a place to hold our newest toy."

"You know, if you're trying to sound like the Captain, it's not working," Petra interrupted him. "You two couldn't be less alike if you'd been born separate species."

"If you're going to nag me, Petra dear, there is a bit more of me you should be acquainted with." He turned to smirk at her as they entered the courtyard, but the suddenly shift in weight combined with the change from dirt road to paved courtyard caused his horse to stumble, and his teeth came down hard on his tongue. Blood squired from his mouth.

"I'd tell you to bite your tongue, but you've got that covered," she answered tartly.

.

Eren dismounted and led his horse to the water trough so he could have a quiet moment to take stock of his situation. He was here; he was alive. He'd survived his court martial and end up where he'd always wanted to be. The Scouts' Special Operations Squad. The Levi Squad. Elite as they come. These would be his teachers, his jailers, and if he lost it, his executioners. He looked over the squad members one by one. Petra Ral: 10 kills to her credit, 48 kill assists. Oruo Bozad: 39 kills, 9 assists. Eld Jin 14 kills, 32 assists. Gunter Schultz: 7 kills, 40 assists. Kirito …um… uh was that his first name or last? And who the hell was he? He wasn't even in a Scout Uniform.

They turned their backs to him, in what Eren hoped was a gesture of trust.

"This place has gone to hell," Gunter said.

"It's been abandoned for years," Eld replied.

"In which case, we have a problem." Levi came up behind them and threw brooms at them.

"You want us to clean it?" Kirito sound disbelieving.

"You afraid of a little hard work?" Levi taunted him.

"If fear will get me out of it, sure. Why don't we just hire NPC's to do this? If you guys are short of cash, I've got some."

"I'm really liking this guy captain," Eld said.

"Get to work," Levi said sourly.

.

Annie looked around furtively. The Special Operations Squad had posted guards. Based on what they had been taught as cadets, the Scouts had figured out way too much about the pure Titans, and now that they had a Titan Shifter, they could well figure out the rest.

The people of Paradis must remain wretchedly ignorant. They were too dangerous.

If she, Berthold and Reiner could locate the Coordinate, they could have them wipe the Scouts' memories; make them start over from scratch. Right before we kidnap the Coordinate and drag them back to Marley, whereupon they could make everyone remember everything and turn against Marley. Not for the first time, Annie realized how poorly this operation had been thought out. It was best to take it in little pieces.

Eren was under guard, but not closely so. From her observations, he was cleaning the upper floors by himself. Maybe she could lure him out. They were friends, of a sort. She'd say she wanted advice of which regiment to join, or maybe that she'd found some information on Titan Shifting that she didn't want anyone else to overhear. That last had the advantage of being true. Once out of the building, she could grab him and run. But though she watched all day, he never came out. She bit her lip in frustration. Then Kirito came outside. Alone. Finally, something was going her way.

.

The castle was filthy, all right. That was one upgrade Kirito did not approve of. Nobody had thought to put virtual dust into Aincrad. He wasn't sure why Levi had been so opposed to hiring NPCs to clean the castle. But then again, if Kirito was having trouble getting into his menu, he might not be able to access the col to pay for the cleaning. Maybe it had been for the best. When he swept the dirt out the front door, he followed it into the sunshine. Once he had a breath of fresh air, smelled the scent of flowers in the breeze, and felt the warmth on his face, he decided sweeping the front doorstep still counted as sweeping.

.

Annie moved behind the bushes. Kirito's head immediately snapped around. Somehow, even with a light wind in the trees, he'd heard her moving among the leaves on the ground. He made eye contact. She nodded. He nodded back. She motioned for him to come over. He cocked his head but moved her way.

Now or never, she thought. She started to break cover. Just then, that woman from the Levi Squad stepped out. They were keeping tabs on him alright. Annie frantically motioned for Kirito to stop. She put her finger over her lips indicating he should say nothing then twirled her fingers for him to turn around. Kirito gave her a puzzled look but did as she asked. The cadets weren't supposed to arrive until tomorrow morning. There was no way to explain her early arrival.

There were no more opportunities to speak for the rest of the day.

She stayed hidden in the bushes. Her stomach began to complain about the lack of food. She'd grown soft, with all these regular meals with the cadets. She was a hardened warrior and before that, she had been starving on the streets; food should mean nothing to her.

.

The food on this quest was unimaginative, but decent, Kirito decided. Dinner was followed by coffee or tea and the arrival of Section Commander Hange. Low groans came from the men around the table as she launched into her plans for experiments on Eren.

"What sort of experiments?" Eren asked.

"Shut up," Oruo warned him under his breath, but it was too launched into her plan of discovery.

The Levi Squad beat a hasty retreat. When Kirito didn't move fast enough, Levi grabbed his shoulder and hauled him out of there. "Trust us. Once you get her talking, you can't make her stop."

Kirito took their word for it and opted for a bath. The feel of water in Aincrad was close but this module had it dead on. It almost made up for the addition of dust. Almost.

Instead of joining the guys afterwards, Kirito went to the barracks. He was the first one in the room, so he opened the window and stared out at the night sky. Asuna would've loved that bath. He wondered if she noticed his absence. Wondered what she was cooking for dinner. What she was wearing. Whether she was alone. He hoped so. What? No wait. He didn't want her to be lonely, but not not lonely with a guy. Not lonely by hanging out with Lizbeth. Or alone because she was getting a good night's rest. Yeah, that's was it; he just wanted her to be resting. Peacefully. Alone. She worked really hard. She earned it. He stared at the night sky, wondering if she could see the stars from whatever floor she was on. After a while, the guys came in the room, so he stood up, stretched, closed the window and went to bed.

.

Darkness settled. The cadets would be arriving in the morning and Annie wouldn't need to conceal herself, but her early arrival would have been for naught. For a time, there was nothing, then Kirito appeared at an upstairs window. He leaned out for a while, gazing at the stars, unmoving. Making sure she spotted him. Good. Then he straightened up and arched his back, leaning his head back into the room. Was he telling her Eren was in the room with him? Were they sharing a room? Were there others in there with him? No, there were shadows in the room, but they were the wrong shape to be Eren. Then he stretched his arms out to the sides, his extended fingers pointing. Was he telling her Eren was in the tower on the right or the basement on the left? Damn it. He needed to be more clear in his signals. She would have some choice words for him when they could actually speak again. The fingers on his left hand curled closed, while his right fingers stayed extended. Then he dropped his right arm. The gesture looked so natural, if anyone else was watching, they wouldn't see anything odd. Good.

A shadow moved across the wall behind him. He turned and close the window, ending the communication between them while discouraging the other scouts from looking for her. He thought of all the angles.

She carefully went over his signals again. What had he been pointing at? Then it occurred to her that the arm that have been pointed up into the right, had dipped there at the end. Was he motioning her to go over the castle wall?

The pen, the pen where they were holding the pure Titans. He was telling her to take care of them. If they couldn't get to Eren tonight, they at least needed to stop this line of research. Message received she thought.

She quietly made her way around the wall. The larger of the two Titans was still twitching, so she had to wait a couple hours to make sure he was solidly immobile. If she approached too early and he lunged, the movement would alert the patrol and she would be caught. But she used the time to good advantage, studying the patrol patterns of the Scouts so she could avoid detection. Kirito must've had a plan. He wouldn't of sent her in on a hopeless mission. She just had to figure out what it was.

The moonlight gleamed off the metal chains and collars that bound the Titans.

The chains. If she bent the links or loosened the locks, when the light returned, the Titans would begin attacking the people. The Scouts would have no choice but to drop them. Since the Titans were strong, nobody would think there was anything odd in them breaking their chains. Remove the threat without being detected. Kirito was very clever, she thought.

When enough time had passed, she moved in. She worked slowly to avoid making noise or sudden movement, and had to freeze every time one of the patrols walked past.

The chains were large and not easily bent; the locks were heavy and hard to pick. The patrols passed by every ten or fifteen minutes. The clock betrayed her. A faint pink began to creep into the eastern sky. Shit. She'd taken too long. She sliced the necks and ODM'd out of there. She would just have to apologize to Kirito later for messing up his plan.

.

"Commander Hange! Someone killed the Titans!"

.

Hange's screams filled the air, causing everyone to run to the Titan pen. Amid the chaos, Erwin put a hand on Levi's shoulder and pulled him to one side.

"Was Eren chained in his basement when this happened?"

"No," Levi shook his head. "But he was with Hange the whole time discussing her planned experiments. He could not have done it."

"I see. And the newcomer?"

Levi considered. "He was asleep in the barracks with my men. Gunther is a very light sleeper; it's unlikely the kid could have gotten up, geared up, gotten back in without waking him."

"But it is possible," Erwin said.

Levi shrugged. "We can check his ODM gear to be certain."

Erwin nodded. "Do that. And while you're at it, the cadets that got in this morning. Check everyone's gear."

"You seem almost disappointed it's not Eren or the newcomer."

Erwin looked grim. "If it wasn't them, it means we have a traitor in our midst."

.

Levi saluted Erwin. "We searched everyone's gear."

"But you didn't find anything," Erwin knew the answer before he even said it aloud.

"No."

Erwin took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Whoever killed those Titans, whether because they simply hate the Titans or because they are trying to handicap us, will likely to take a stab at Jaeger next. You need to get him out of here and don't let him out of your sight. Tonight during the recruitment speech, I'll bait the hook. I'll hint that we have more information than we do, that we have the secret to destroying the Titans once and for all. I'll scare off the half-hearted ones, giving us a smaller pool to sort through. We'll be left with only the truly dedicated and the traitors."

"You sure you want to scare off the new cadets?" Levi said. "Our numbers are down. We could use the extra manpower and a year is a long time to wait for the next class."

"I know," Erwin said grimly. "But if we net half, or even a third of the cadets, it will be too many to keep track of. We might not see them strike until too late. And if we lose Jaeger, we lose."

•-|-—- -—-|-•

The shell shocked cadets stood around the fire that night, watching the bodies of their fallen comrades burn. It was a stark reminder of the fate that could befall any of them at any time. Marco was somewhere in that pyre; Marco and so many other friends. Anonymous fuel for the flames. And tonight, the survivors would have to choose which regiment to join. Eren wasn't there, of course. His choice had already been made for him.

The seasoned Scouts kept their distance, allowing the new recruits to confront death in their own way. The Garrison regiment also stood to one side, mourning their losses in private while preparing to accept any cadets who chose that life. No one wanted to pressure the newcomers, especially given the stakes. No one wanted to live with the guilt should the new recruits not make it.

•-|-—- -—-|-•

The next morning, those cadets who chose the Garrison returned to the city to begin their duties. Those few who chose the Scouts were taken to the training ground to be evaluated by the veterans. All the veterans that is, except a certain small group.

"Gooood evening Levi Squad!" Hange's cheerfulness bordered on terrifying. "I've been out measuring the dry well. It's just about ten meters deep. That makes it perfect for our first experiment tomorrow."

"Which is?" Levi asked.

"We'll drop Eren down the well. Then he'll transform. The first experiment is just to see if we can communicate with him while in Titan form."

"But he's a fifteen meter Titan," Levi pointed out.

"Your point being?" Hange said.

"That if he loses control - not that you will," Levi glanced over at Eren " - but if he does, his arms are still free. He can attack us or even just pull himself out of the hole and be gone."

"Then you'll just have to cut him out without his legs like you were planning," Hange said cheerfully.

Eren turned pale, but only nodded.

"You can't do that!" Kirito protested. "You don't have any healing crystals. Unless you know what his regeneration rate is, that could be murder."

"We also can't wait forever," Levi said.

Eren's lips moved nervously before he could force the words out. "I'll take the risk."

Levi nodded sharply. "You'd better get some sleep then. Hange, take him down to his room, you can fill him in on the details as you go. But not so many details you give him nightmares and he turns Titan in his sleep."

"Don't you worry. We'll have a good little chat," she smiled at Levi and turned to Eren and motioned him out the door. "We'll stick to yes and no questions. Try to speak, but if you can't, just nod or shake your head. They will be simple questions, like can you understand me? Are you in pain? Can I cut into your flesh?"

Levi made an exasperated noise as their voices faded down the hall.

"I think I'll turn in too," Kirito said.

"Sit your ass down." Levi shut the door, closing his squad in the room. "Somebody killed the captured Titans."

"It wasn't any is us!" Petra said.

"Yeah, it was dangerous enough trying to catch them in the first place. If we didn't want them, we'd have 'accidentally' killed them then." Oruo echoed her.

"And I'm sure not looking forward to trying to catch any more," Eld added.

"You've missed the point," Levi said.

There was a brief pause before Kirito spoke up. "If someone killed those mindless Titans, what will they do to Eren?"

"Got it in one," Levi said, though he didn't sound impressed. "Which means our mission has changed. It is not just to keep him under control, keep him from hurting any people. Now we have to keep him safe, keep him alive. He is our only hope for retaking Wall Maria."

Kirito cocked his head. "Is that the goal of this quest? To retake the Wall and restore the safe zone?"

Levi threw him an odd look. 'Quest' was a hell of a strange term for it, but sure. "That's our goal."

.

The next morning dawned bright and clear. Eren held on tightly to the rope as they lowered him into the well. Once he was at the bottom, the Levi Squad backed off twenty paces so they wouldn't suffer steam burns. They clicked fresh blades into place, just in case.

Kirito leaned against a tree, dressed in his customary coat of black, crossed swords across his back and evaluated the others. Gunther and Eld were visibly tense. Oruo was feigning calm, but underneath he was no better than the other two. Petra was worried. Hange vibrated with excitement. Only Levi was unreadable. His expression was just this side of bored.

"I'll fire the signal flare once we've put twenty meters or so between us and the well so you can transform safely. Remember what we talked about!" Hange called down to him.

"I'm sure he'd rather forget," he heard Levi mutter.

All right, Eren told himself. This is just about communication. I don't need to do anything. Just breathe, just exist, just listen. Do exactly what I'm doing now.

The flare went up and he bit down hard.

.

They looped ropes under Eren's arms and hauled him out of the well. His hands were shredded from bite marks, there was blood smeared on his face, and his head was hung with deepest shame. The squad eyed him with silent condemnation. At length, Petra said softly, "C'mon. Let's get your hands bandaged up."

"They're not healing?" Hange said.

"Doesn't look like it," Petra answered him.

Eren would have refused her kindness, but at least it got him away from the accusatory gazes.

They watched Petra clean the wounds and wrap the bite marks.

"There's some plants in the woods around here that can speed the healing. I'll go get some," Hange said.

"Maybe you can only transform a certain number of times," Kirito said, voicing their worst fears.

They all turned their hostile gazes on him.

"I mean, in a certain time frame. You might need a break in between," Kirito added lamely. But he'd already said it; there was no taking it back.

"There's no signs of healing on his hands at all?" Levi asked.

"No, sir." Eren winced as he said it.

"No offense, but if you can't transform, you're no good to us." Levi said bitingly.

"Hold on a second," Kirito protested, "don't you mean he's no better or worse than everybody else?"

"If he can't turn into a Titan, our plans for Wall Maria go up in smoke."

"Have you looked at his hands?" Kirito said. "He tried!"

"And he failed," Levi bit back. His gaze slid back to Eren. "So figure it out! And yes, that's an order." He turned away and walked a few paces to get a hold of his temper. After a couple moments, Petra went over to try to talk him down.

The guys at the table leaned over their tea cups, but weren't really drinking.

"Don't worry," Eld said. "You'll get it."

"Although this is a hell of a way to find out you're more human than we thought," Oruo shook his head.

Kirito wasn't really good with people, but even he could sense the tension hidden beneath their calm words.

Eren picked up a spoon to stir his tea. It was a pointless act, but it meant he didn't have to lookup into their eyes. But as soon as his hand closed around the spoon, his hand spasmed painfully and the thick wrapping on his hand made him drop it.

"You alright?" Eld asked.

"Yeah." Forget turning into a Titan, I can't even handle a spoon. Eren leaned over to pick it up. As he extended his injured hand, pain shot through his arm followed by a visible spark.

The steam explosion knocked the benches over, along with the men sitting on them. They all leapt free in a fluid motion and drew their blades. They stared at the kid who only moments before had seemed so helpless, so normal.

But Eren wasn't looking at them. Instead he blinked at his forearm embedded in a wall of Titan flesh. "Why now?" He shouted at the arm.

"Calm down," he heard Levi say.

"I'm sorry, sir. I don't know…"

When Eren turned around, he realized Levi wasn't talking to him. The slender man had placed himself between Eren and the rest of the squad.

"Eren!" Eld shouted. "What do you think you're doing? No one gave you permission to transform!"

"I said calm down," Levi reiterated.

"Answer the question!" Oruo ignored Levi, raising his blades.

Eren's terrified eyes shifted back and forth between the two men.

"Later," Gunther said. "First, you need to convince us you're not hostile like your life depends on it." He flanked Levi. "Prove it or we kill you!"

Kirito shifted away from Eren and towards Oruo and Gunther.

"You so much as twitch that arm and I'll lob your head off," Oruo said.

"Try it and you'll find your swords on the ground next to your hands," Kirito adjusted his stance and squared off against the older men.

"Stay out of this, outsider," Gunther growled. "It's not your concern."

"You made it my concern when you threatened to kill another player."

"I can end you in a heartbeat!" Oruo said. Kirito wasn't quite sure if Oruo meant him or Eren, but it didn't really matter.

"You can try."

The way Kirito held himself, the way he focused not on the weapons but on their eyes told Levi that Kirito had fought duels. And was good at them. Levi had seen it a hundred times in the underworld.

"Oruo!" Levi raised his voice, "How many times do I have to say this…"

"Captain," Petra said, "You need to step away. You're too close."

"Right now, you're the ones who need to step away." Levi's voice took on its usually calm tone. "Do it!"

The squad looked at Levi but suspicion turned their gaze back to Eren.

"Better say something," Eld said.

"And don't try anything cute." Oruo said.

"Prove you're not hostile," Gunther said.

"This is your only warning," Oruo said.

A heartbeat passed. Then two. Kirito flipped the black sword onto his back then did something only Levi saw. He pulled three throwing picks from his belt on the small of his back. If the kid was even half as good with those as he was with the swords, he could disable the squad without killing them. Unbeknownst to the men, things had gotten more serious, not less.

"Errreeeenn!" The situation was diffused, not by Levi but by Hange, bolting across the grassy field. She shoved Oruo and Gunther off balance and dashed past Kirito in her rush to get to the half formed Titan torso. "I want to touch the arm! I want to touch the arm! Pretty please with sugar on top!" She reached for it.

"No! I don't think that's a good …"

But it was too late. She grabbed it. She screamed in pain. "Ow! That sucker is hot when there's no skin!" She looked utterly delighted as she stared at her reddened palms.

Levi let out an exasperated breath and covered his eyes before turning back towards the castle. Somehow Hange's insanity had put everything else back in perspective.

•-|-—- -—-|-•

"After dinner, Section Commander Hange and I have to go make our report to Commander Erwin." Levi's tone made it clear he was not looking forward to it and the six people in that room were a large portion of the reason why.

Levi scanned over his squad. "You remember what we discussed last night?"

They nodded.

"Good. Kirito will stand guard over Eren until I get back." Levi said.

"Sir," Eld said, "Do you really think he's the best choice?"

"After today," Levi said, "he's the only choice."

They glanced down. Their hands bleeding from self inflicted bite marks might have demonstrated their contrition to Eren, but they still had to find a way to make it right with their captain. They had disobeyed a direct order. They had not trusted their captain, their squad mates. They would not make that mistake again.

•-|-—- -—-|-•

When Levi and Hange arrived, they were only half surprised to find Miche and the rest of the the senior staff there with Erwin. The old guard. The survivors. It made sense.

"Well?" Erwin said.

"Not as well as we hoped, but not as bad as we feared." Levi said.

"He couldn't transform on command, but he transformed by accident later," Hange added.

"So he can't control it." Erwin tried to control his disappointment. He should have known better than to hope for a miracle.

"I think he can, he just doesn't know how to yet," Levi said.

"But we've discovered that motive is part of the trigger. The first time was… well… I guess he just wanted to kill Titans. The second time was to catch that cannonball to protect his friends. The third time was to move the boulder and seal Wall Rose. But when we asked him this time, he didn't have a goal."

"I see. So why did he transform?"

"To pick up a spoon."

"What?"

"He dropped it off the table and couldn't reach it." Somehow Hange made it sound like that was a perfectly normal reason to turn into a monster. "At any rate, we're going to test it tomorrow."

Erwin made a noncommittal noise, then paused to collect his thoughts before he gave them a look which told them this conversation was not to go beyond the group now assembled. "Five years ago, the Colossal Titan appeared, kicked in the outer gate of Shiganshina then vanished into thin air. Moments later, the Armoured Titan appeared, destroyed the inner gate and similarly disappeared. We now know it's possible for someone to change between human and Titan at will. We can safely say Eren Jaeger's ability is not unique.

"A few days ago, the Colossal Titan reappeared outside the walls of Trost," Erwin continued, "meaning he has lived the last five years outside, watching us, or inside the walls among us." Erwin turned to Levi and Hange. "You are certain this newcomer isn't a Titan shifter?"

They both nodded. "He will not kill or even tolerate the killing of another human being." Levi said.

Erwin accepted that for the moment. "Most likely the Colossal has been living among us disguised as a human."

"Are you sure Titan is the default?" Hange asked. "We know Eren was born human."

"If his loyalties lie with the Titans, it doesn't matter what he was born. But if he has been living among us, how did he get to the other side of the wall to transform?" Erwin's tone said he already knew, but he wanted them to work it out for themselves.

"ODM gear," Miche said. "Which means he's in the military. But why wait five years to strike again?"

"Five years," Hange said. "Because that's how long it takes to get through cadet training. That's why you scared away as many as you could during the ceremony."

Erwin nodded. "But having destroyed the outer gate, why didn't the Armored Titan reappear to break down the inner gate?"

"Could be dead," Miche said.

Levi shook his head. "Titans don't die on their own and no one reported killing it."

"Which means he was elsewhere or surrounded by people and didn't want to blow his cover," Erwin said.

"You think he'll blow his cover to go after Eren." It was a statement from Levi, not a question.

"He's too big of a prize not to," Erwin said. "And we're going to use that against them." Erwin pulled out a map. "We've discovered a stand of trees outside of Karanes District, taller than the Colossal Titan. We're setting up an ambush there. The Special Operations Squad will capture the attention of one or both of the abnormals and lead them there."

Levi squinted at the map. "That's a hell of a long way to ride with a Titan on your tail."

"We'll tell every unit where Eren will be assigned, but every unit will be told something different. We can narrow the list of possible traitors by where the abnormals appear. That will buy you time as they will then have to figure out where he really is. Once you get into the forest, we'll have Scouts posted to slow them down if they are too close."

"That could cost a lot of lives," Levi observed.

"We'll have to hope for the best," Erwin said. "Your job is just to outrun them. Do not engage unless absolutely necessary."

Levi mulled it over. "In that case, we should move Kirito into another squad."

"You don't trust him?" Erwin said sharply.

"He has a very high regard for human life, and a very low regard for stupid orders. If the abnormals start killing people, he'll turn and fight. So we reassign him for the mission or we tell him the whole plan."

"There's too much riding on this to trust an outsider." Erwin said. "I'll post him to the ambush squad."

•-|-—- -—-|-•

Levi sent Petra to relieve Kirito on guard duty. Eren would sleep better with Petra watching over him because Eren, like everyone, assumed that since Petra was nice, she was less dangerous. The woman was a grade A, badass Titan slayer, fully capable of taking out men twice her size. But in between combats, she was warm and friendly.

"I have a mission for you, if you're up for it," Levi told Kirito. "Escort duty. Technically soldiers, but they've never faced a Titan. You need to get them to their destination safely. I can't tell you more than that. You'll know who when you meet them; you'll know where and why when you get there."

"All I have to do is get them there safe?" Kirito wondered what the catch was.

"And keep them safe until we get there, if all goes well in two days' time. I'd send our squad, but we're needed to ride point on the formation." Levi wondered why he felt the need to include Kirito in Erwin's lie. He watched the kid go without even a complaint. Levi wasn't lying about the mission. They had to get the cannoneers out to the forest safely. The most experienced cannoneers all belonged to the Garrison Regiment; they hadn't faced Titans so they would need a skilled escort. If the mission was to be carried out secretly, Erwin couldn't send large numbers of Scouts with the ambush squad. But a small escort meant the most highly skilled Titan slayers and the Levi Squad was being watched. Levi could feel it. They would notice if any of his squad disappeared, but nobody would notice if Kirito, the outsider kid disappeared.

.

Shit! Kirito had disappeared. Annie paced around. She'd been watching, of course. The Levi squad had panicked, threatened to kill Eren. Kirito had intervened to protect him; he had to. Legend had it that if a Titan shifter died without being eaten the ability would appear in a random Eldian. There were as many Eldians on the island as there were in Marley. And even if it showed up in Marley, that wasn't any kind of guarantee. Many Eldians back home hated Marley, resented the repression and shame they were subjected to. That could be even more dangerous than having it reappear on Paradis. And then there were the Eldians who had fled to other countries. What would the neighboring countries do if they possessed the Attack Titan? No, Kirito had had no choice but to defend Eren, but he must have gone overboard, drawn their suspicions. And now they had removed him from the equation.

The original plan had been to let the Survey Corp move south to Shiganshina, and abduct Eren once they were there. It was difficult to transport an unwilling prisoner over hostile ground. If they could get him to go a quarter of the way there on his own, so much the better. But the Scouts must have realized there was a traitor in their midst, so Annie would have to take them out and capture Eren while they were spread out in their scouting formation. She hated adjusting her timelines like this, but there didn't seem to be any choice. She would get word to Reiner.


A/N:

Ok, so this is much later than I intended. Things just kept coming up, one after the other. And then there was the plot problem itself. I had intended to keep Kirito with the Levi Squad but then I was rewatching AoT where (Spoiler alert) they were riding through the forest, with the female titan hot on their heels. She was killing the rear guard, the squad was begging Levi to give the order to take her out, and Levi remains silent. Then Eren thinks to himself that he can take her on by himself and Levi gives that speech about doing as your conscience dictates ... do you trust your own instincts or put yourself in the hands of your comrades and trust them? ... so choose for yourself whichever decision you'll regret the least. And I thought, well crap. We know what Kirito would choose; he fight solo because he doesn't trust other players to make the right choices. He risked his life on multiple occasions to save other players. So either i have to completely rewrite what I had planned for the next chapter, or I had to get Kirito away from the Levi Squad for 24 hours.

Also,yes, I know, I have compressed the AoT timeline a lot, so Kirito isn't gone from SAO too long. Anyway, thatnk for reading and commenting. Makes my day.