Everything in Reiner’s life has been a series of attacks, violence inflicted and perpetuated; sometimes, even now, he forgets which side he’s been on. He remembers his childhood and how violence became more important than breathing, than heartbeats, than eating. But as he’s lived, the memories grow increasingly confusing, shrouded in a visceral mental cloud that he can’t ever quite part or clear.
He feels old, like an elderly man who can barely keep up with the world; somehow, though, this doesn’t bother him. Like an old man, he knows he’s going to die soon, and he’s ready for it.
Everything that’s happened seems very long ago, more like 40 years than four, and even Bertolt is a distant memory. Reiner’s one ballast, although Bertolt never understood how much.
In intervening years, Reiner has come up with only a few certainties. One is that he was losing his mind back then, and he hasn’t done much to regain it since; two, is that he’s glad Bertolt is dead, and he hopes Annie is, too; and three, they were never going home.
It’s a series of mundane moments that make him realize this, the experience of becoming a man without anyone at his side.
He figures Bertolt would’ve taught him to shave, since Bertl was always good at things like that, despite his timid nature. He was smart, smarter than even Reiner and Annie.
One memory Reiner doesn’t mind keeping—the only memory from their training days, well before joining the Survey Corps, when they were rag-tag kids whose parents forfeited them for citizenship—is that Bertolt liked to read. There weren’t many books in the Marley barracks, where children died every day as they weeded out the least suitable to receive the Titan serum and be sent to some foreign place no one ever wanted to ask too much about. Bertolt had a book that his mother had given him before they said goodbye—a small, tiny thing.
It had surprised Reiner at first when Armin had described a similar book his grandfather had owned; but then it wasn’t surprising at all. He sometimes thinks it might be the reason Bertolt and Armin were friends. Armin’s family were dissident seekers of knowledge and who were killed; Bertolt’s family was simply an entity he couldn’t recall after awhile, only small pieces like the book he had. Nonetheless, they had something in common, whether they realized or not. Hindsight is 20/20, though.
Reiner understands his own madness more now, in old age, how memories can be sorted and filtered. Many of his aren’t good, but since he knows he’s truly now on the brink of death, he keeps track of a few good ones from their days with the 104th.
One: the first time he and Bertolt kissed. They didn’t know what it meant, what they were doing, how childhood friendship had turned into something confusing and hot in shared breath, stupid teenagers at the time. But it’s a good memory, the shy kisses they exchanged before everything went to shit. Unlike the memories of friendship with the other cadets that were all lies, the press of lips with Bertolt—his body trembling in the summer air, a strangely beautiful moment when fireflies would hover just outside the barracks bunks, like some kind of dream—is a recollection that Reiner conjures often.
Two: the uncertain look Bertolt gave him before they let Marco die—murdered him really. The look wasn’t cold, like it was supposed to be, but full of painful indecision and screams. It was hot and bloody and painful and real in a way that no other death had been for them. Most of all, it was obvious Bertolt regretted it. He regretted it with conviction and in that indecision, Reiner now finds solace and grief; in Bertolt’s incredulous look of horror which Reiner simply allowed and reprimanded at the time, now he finds a memory that’s real. Bertolt mourned before Reiner could ever even begin to truly fathom that type of grief; so did Annie. He thinks back on that moment, despite its horrific events, as a reference point of honesty.
Three: the last time, just after they took Eren, Bertolt had wrapped his arm around Reiner in the tent on the Wall, shook his head and said, “I’ll come to you, run if I have to.” Conviction in his voice that was so rare, and Reiner had just nodded, allowed himself to be held while in his right mind. He’d wanted to weep so badly, but the violence faceted into his spine, the warrior always sitting on his back, had prevented it.
“I’ll come to you, too,” Reiner says now, in his head, face hard as he listens to Zeke in an dirigible. He wants to go so badly. “I’ll meet you.”
He is an old man at 20 who learned to shave by cutting his face too many times; he is a dying weapon.
And so he readies himself to run, and he will run, and run; he will keep this promise, but he doesn’t expect to find the summer air when he stops.