Reiner stops. Eren is around five yards ahead, moving on. Reiner has lost his count on how many times they did this: promenading in the forest familiar to both of them when they were cadets. Ever since his capture, time has turned into a river of forgetfulness, connecting fragmented memories to his imminent yet distant death. Then there is Eren, charging the rest of Reiner’s days with his undeniable presence.
Eren doesn’t live here. He just drops in irregularly, and sometimes stays overnight. Whenever Reiner is in heat, he’ll be there too. Reiner imagines Eren might have a family out there, and if not, why does he occasionally carry scents from neither of them? He wonders who the woman would be, and for him, a reasonable guess would be Mikasa, the invincible Ackerman who has only so many lives to value, and Eren certainly tops her list. Thinking of her, he would still feel the acute pain, when her merciless blade ripped through his arm, forcing him to transform in front of his befriended comrades. Then a voice from someone else would interrupt, leaving him with the impression he wasn’t fighting alone at that time. He was giving orders back then, but to whom? He wasn’t the only one transforming on top of that wall, but who else? The attempt to dig further gives him a sudden, severe headache each time; it suffocates him and vibrates through his whole system, echoing with every heartbeat and consuming his depleted sanity.
Eren wouldn’t stop until they reach the lake. He would find a dry spot and stand still, waiting for Reiner to catch up. They would sit down side by side on a blanket Eren brought, and they would not talk. What would they possibly be saying? Everything between them had already been exploited. There would be a few uncomfortable moments of quietness before Eren kissed him, more of a ritual gesture than manifesting affection. And he would allow him, not in a position to refuse or retreat. And Eren would fuck him, so hard that he couldn’t help crying out loud and shivering like the stars reflected in the lake—they would fall onto him during those clear summer nights, when a gentle puff of wind dried the liquids running through his face, leaving him with a momentary thrill of gratitude. As the final blaze swept through, Eren would bite him on the neck and leave deep and ugly scars which, if kept, would shock somebody by sight without a doubt.
But there isn’t anybody except the rotating guards, and their faces change too often for his degenerating mind to grasp. Eren is the only person interacting with the detained, and no one else has ever paid a visit to the small wooden house confining him. And when Eren comes, he wants Reiner here by the lake, where they can fuck like wild, desperate animals.
It took Reiner a couple of visits to recognise the lake. Once when clouds opened and a full moon’s brightness lighted up Eren’s pale, expressionless face beneath Reiner's quivering lips, it came back to the latter that it was upon on the hill by the same lake where they first learnt each other’s name. Reiner has found some poetic feature in the fact that most of their mating activities happen here, and that there seems to be a paltry little romance inside Eren’s restless avenging soul. As for Reiner, less significance attaches to that lake; however, a shapeless shadow keeps looming over the reminiscences of his youth on this picturesque land. There is a void, a lack of something with which can he only refer to the happiest period in his life as golden. For instance, when Eren vowed to exterminate all the titans, to whom was he responding? Reiner doesn’t remember himself leading the conversation back then. Armin was there too, but would Eren possibly be confiding to Armin? They were already close friends at that time—then the headache would strike again, preventing him from further speculation.
‘Eren…Eren!’ Reiner trudges forward, raising his voice to get attention. Eren slows down, and Reiner knows he has heard him. ‘I’m sorry…but I don’t feel well.’
Eren stops and looks over his shoulder, his mouth sealed, his forest green eyes blinking and his gaze travelling through the distance between them before landing onto the panting blond. Reiner lifts his head and manages to stand as tall as possible, resisting the urge to hold his gravid belly to meaninglessly counteract the feeling of his inferiority in front of Eren. Instead, he holds onto a nearby trunk. ‘I don’t think I can…keep on walking. May we go back, please?’
Reiner wakes up from a hazy dream, in which he saw children, lots of children, whose faces blurred, laughter vivid, at play on Eren’s favourite glade near the lake, and their cheerful voices lingering the moment he opens his eyes. It strikes him as weird because he hasn’t had any dream for a long time. Ever since he was isolated in this forest, dreams have abandoned him. He should not complain, because most of them used to be nightmares that bring back horrendous scenes he would very much like to dismiss. Now only Eren’s existence reminds him of his past, and he can’t dismiss Eren. However, the person sitting next to his bed is not Eren. For the first time in this shack, Reiner meets with another old fellow—if the term still bears any meaning—and he’s sure to have witnessed the person wiping away tears from that never-changing babyface.
‘Armin? Why are you here? I, eh, are you...are you crying?’
He gets no answer but a compassionate look from Armin. Those soft, teal blue eyes are again full of tears, but this time Armin has managed to hold them.
Now that Reiner comes back to himself, so are visions from his last consciousness. The shaking trunk. The chattering teeth. The lightning of a titan’s emergence. By instinct, Reiner sits up and lifts the blanket to check his belly. Funny how he no longer feels anything nowadays. No pain. No sadness. Nothing but some unrecognisable voices rushing into a vacuum at the centre of his being. He allows himself dwelling in the comfortable numbness for as long as he can endure before he turns to Armin again, arching his thin eyebrows for explanations.
‘You went unconscious after giving birth to a dead infant last night. Reiner, I’m sorry.’
Ah, that was indeed very unfortunate. But what is Armin sorry for? He has nothing to do with the situation here. Is it for that premature baby, for its depart from this cruel world? Perhaps. Armin has always been a kind boy, and this would be enough to make him cry. Still, why is he here instead of Eren?
‘Eren’s in town. He’s not…in a very stable state at this moment.’ As if reading Reiner’s mind, Armin sits up straight on his chair and starts talking. ‘They are taking care of him, and they think it’s safer that he’s not around...For both of you.’
‘Well, the military. A handful of officers aware of you being alive. They.’ Armin ducks his head. ‘The fact is they wanted to have you eaten right away. Given your critical condition, we thought you couldn’t make it...’ Another pause. Voice down. ‘You weren’t healing yourself after the delivery. Even if you got better later, they argued, it was obvious that you’d become weak, too weak to continue being a titan carrier. I’m sure they’ve been considering it for quite a while, knowing your time is close.’
‘They are not wrong.’
Armin tilts his face up and forces a thin smile. For a moment he stops talking, as if overwhelmed by conflicting thoughts. Reiner even believes he would start crying again, but he resumes with a flat tone. ‘That’s not how Eren sees it though. He got snappy, scared everybody and suspended the decision. They could do nothing but comply, you know, since his state of mind is crucial to us at this point—even though as far as I can see, most of them are simply afraid of him. In return, he agreed to go back and stay in town for now, to cool down his head. As well as his body, I assume.’
‘Perhaps they’d secretly send someone to eat me in the meantime.’
To Reiner’s surprise, Armin seems to take it quite seriously as he drags his hands down his face. ‘Are you looking forward to it, Reiner?’
Dear Armin, can’t you see? What I want doesn’t matter here.
‘I don’t know, Armin. Honestly I don’t know...’ He’d better stay alive, mostly for the sake of—‘How about Galli…well, the Jaw Titan? Are they planning to have him eaten too?’
That grumpy boy he took back from getting devoured by Eren. Unlike the rest of Marley’s warriors, he has a luxurious eight-year to live.
‘Galliard’s fine. Unfortunately, we still have to keep an eye on him, but he’ll stay fine under Eren’s watch. Such were the terms you and Eren agreed on—at least that’s what I thought.’
Reiner blinks. He still finds it hard to define the terms the both of them agreed on. He does remember himself begging for Porco’s life after their capture, and Eren, the conqueror, responded with a single phrase. ‘Just stay alive and be good.’
So he did. They placed him here, granted him the freedom to move around the house, and he was good. No titan tricks. No escape games. The only trouble he would possibly cause to his lowkey guards is his heat, because the list of Paradis’ prison supplies didn’t seem to include medications to suppress it; or it was merely some deliberate oblivion for Eren to fuck him conveniently.
At first, Reiner guessed it was all Eren had wanted. He guessed impregnation was just a side-effect of Eren’s relentless desire. He guessed Eren wouldn’t be happy with any substantial results from their copulation. He was guessing so much because Eren talked so little. Kids would probably talk to their dolls, but to Eren, Reiner might mean less than that. What is Reiner to Eren after all? A filthy, pathetic ‘traitor’ in the past. A disposable, docile sex toy with no future. Still, Reiner is pining to please Eren, with the hope that one of his fellow warriors’ life could hence be spared. At this stage, one is already better than none.
Once Reiner took notice of his conception, he would then hide in the bathroom, rip himself open, take out the barely-formed foetus and stay in there until the hideous wounds were steamed away. He did it two or three times, and even though he came out a normal man, the guards must have suspected the extremely long duration of his shower time. He should have known it was their duty to report any unusual circumstance produced by a titan carrier under detention. One day, Eren burst in to find the cramped bathroom stinking of flesh and blood, while a naked Reiner lay steaming in the wooden tub.
‘You heartless bastard!’ Cursed Eren in a sad voice totally strange to Reiner’s ear. Frozen by the unexpected intrusion and the furious Alpha’s overpowering scent, Reiner was expecting an assault like in the old times, but Eren just became wordless again, sagged down and sat on the floor, gazing through the vapour of blended sensations burning between them.
Reiner sat up. The complete silence is more startling than any violent action. He couldn’t help reaching out and offering his hand, not to the present, despotic Eren fading in his damp eyes—due to the steam and the pain, as he convinced himself—but to a younger Eren, maudlin, helpless and self-denying...His hand hung in the air before a gradual withdrawal, at the final apprehension that even given a second life, they wouldn’t change the path they had chosen, and that they would always be the person they had become. They were so much alike, and all their lives, they kept dragging each other down. Oh Eren, if only we were born to be friends than enemies!
‘Eren...if the child was born, what then?’ Asked Reiner, his hand clenched into a fist on the edge of the tub.
‘You mean the parenting part? The Queen would take over after our death.’ Eren stood up, giving one last secretive look at Reiner before he left the bathroom and closed the door. ‘Take your time. I’ll wait outside.’
Reiner raised no more question. On the green open country, a fine blond girl on a horse appeared in sight, bringing rescue to desperate soldiers. She’d make a great mother. Reiner told himself as he got out of the tub, put on his clothes and hesitated with his fingers on the doorknob. Eren was out there, ready for yet another round of reproduction.
No matter. From now on, he has to worry about one sole person. ‘And when Eren’s gone?’
‘Then I’ll make sure that Galliard lives. Now that we have pretty much the same years to go, it’s a promise I’m able to keep.’ Replies a resolute Armin, standing up, and the peculiarly sentimental Armin has evaporated with his inexplicable tears.
Why would you do this to enemies? Reiner doesn’t get it. With Eren, there is at least a so-called agreement.
‘Reiner.’ Armin steps closer to the bed, visibly uncertain of what he is about to do. ‘I came without authorisation because Eren doesn’t want us to meet. I know when there is a new shift, your guards will sneak off to the boulder behind your house and smoke together—absolutely nice view over there by the way. Thanks to your resignation, they probably find it unnecessary to stay alerted without a break, and that’s why I had the chance to come unnoticed. It’s time for me to leave though, and before I go, there’s one thing I’d like to verify. Just...out of curiosity.’ Armin clears his throat, brows frowned, and, carefully, and almost solemnly phrases his question. ‘Bertolt Hoover. Reiner, does this name mean anything to you?’
Reiner sits quietly on the bed, and Armin gets the expected answer from his blank face.
‘He had no right to do this...’ Armin mutters, bends over and puts a hand on Reiner’s forehead, and slowly he says: ‘Reiner, Eren went as far as wishing for a child with you. You might as well ask him about this name.’ Then he straightens up peacefully, as if relieved from an unspeakable burden. ‘Take care.’
As night falls, Reiner remains in his bed, stunned by scattered memories that keep flooding back. Moments from a smothered past continue to unfold themselves—good or bad, all glittering with the same name—rekindling his dim, shabby room, gradually filling the devouring emptiness inside him. The shadows haunting him begin to take form, and shatter, and reshape, introducing him into another world where the sun shines brighter and the rain pours harder and every sensation is more exquisite: joy more delirious; jealousy bitterer...and the heartache from loving someone is more agonising than the pain caused by a blade penetrating the chest. Surrounded by these quasi tangible mirages, Reiner weeps and laughs, drunk on the impossible bliss. Bertolt, you were my partner, my friend, my father and my son...I loved you and I love you and how on earth have I forgotten about you? I miss you so much...
Two weeks later, Eren shows up, slenderer, beard untrimmed, sullen as usual. The moment Reiner opens the door, he begins to complain about not seeing a single guard around. Reiner tells him they probably went smoking behind some boulder and that the view is nice over there. ‘Alright.’ Says Eren, amused, as he watches the slightly taller man for a moment before he glances away. Reiner flattens himself against the door for Eren to enter, but the hair-untied man only turns his back and sits on the steps at the front door, asking if Reiner slept well. Reiner stares at the small whorl on top of Eren’s head, evaluating the new situation. On an average day, they would skip the greetings and head to the lake directly.
‘Not so bad, thanks. What about you?’
‘Liar. You look moribund, Reiner—in case no one’s told you yet.’
‘Well, you look terrible too.’
‘With that beard, you remind me of that night at Liberio.’
Too bold. But the very word is out there in the open, gory and appalling, and Reiner doesn’t regret saying it.
Eren turns sideways, grim yet unimpressed by Reiner’s unusual saltiness. Then he stands up, draws closer and looks into Reiner’s eyes.
‘Why don’t you shave it for me then?’
It sounds more of an order than a request. Reiner can tell that his Alpha is in sharper needs today. As he follows Eren into the house, he recalls the only time Eren shaved him. It was not long after he was transferred here, and one afternoon they had sex indoors due to heavy rain. As they were lying against each other, both breathless after a fierce storm, Eren volunteered to shave Reiner’s beard on a whim. Naturally, Reiner let him. Eren made Reiner sit on a small square stool in the bathroom, held up his chin from behind and pulled back a little, and Reiner felt his head landed on Eren’s belly. The moment Reiner looked up and met Eren’s eyes, the latter looked away. For a few enchanted seconds, two or three little eternities pervaded by trifling tenderness, they stayed still, and Reiner could feel Eren had melted a bit just like himself.
This time, Eren is the one sitting in front, and the back of his head rests on Reiner’s belly that carried a baby a couple of days ago. As he picks up the razor and starts shaving, Reiner can still see the image—last time the two of them doing the same thing—their silhouettes glowing and trembling on his retina and their rare moment at peace squeezing his heart.
It only takes one thrust on the temple—meanwhile, he says to himself, if I do it fast with enough force and...
‘What are you waiting for, Reiner?’
‘Your hands are shaking. If you want to jab that fucking blade into my head, why don’t you do it already? I may not have time to transform if you’re ahead of me.’
‘You. You’ve been thinking about it since I entered this goddamn bathroom, haven't you?’ Eren looks up, his eyes wide-opened, marvelling for once. ‘What is it, Reiner? You’ve finally decided to hate me?!’ He rises fiercely from the stool, turns around and grabs Reiner’s wrist, his face half covered with foam, beaming with drunken rage and wild excitement, ‘You know what, that’s fine! That’s actually great! All this time you’ve lived like a corpse...I say some hatred may as well bring you back to life!’
Reiner doesn’t remember Eren being so vigorous either for a long time. Forced to drop the razor, he listens attentively to the sound of it hitting the ground, knowing something’s cracked inside him. The feverish scent from a heady Alpha starts permeating the air, strong enough to turn his knees to water, but he forces himself to stand firm and look Eren in the eyes as he hurls all his heart out: ‘What the hell do you want from me, Eren? Why don’t you say it at once? Here I am, all yours, woefully worn at the age of twenty-three, stuck in a murderer’s atrocious past, giving up on any sort of redemption, yet hopelessly eager to satisfy you. My body? Anytime. A baby? I kept it as you wished, and I’d do it again on your order. To avenge me, humiliate me, tear me open and make me taste as ten times agony as my deeds have caused you? No problem, go ahead...Now you’re telling me you want to make sure I’m not a corpse, that I’m actually living my fucking life? How can you be so sure, after you erased Bertolt from my head, knowing very well those were the memories keeping me alive? Look around, Eren, do you really call this a life? What a life it is to live, goddammit!’ Losing his breath, Reiner pauses, his heart pounding with grievance, and he tastes blood in his mouth. Then he realises he has taken the collar of Eren’s shirt with his free hand, and the moment he lets go of it, Eren releases his wrist too.
‘Your nose is bleeding.’
Eren takes one step back, again heavily-lidded—a tactic to hide away feelings, offering Reiner a handkerchief pulled out from his pocket. Reiner accepts it in confusion, feeling as though all his angry words have landed on a swamp and get swallowed without a trace. When he presses the handkerchief onto his nose, he notices Eren’s scent is evolving and the smell of an ongoing barrage is dwindling. Apart from his own blood, Reiner feels the lake. An almond tree in bloom swaying in the dusk. A woodsy breeze on a hot summer day. A raindrop on the naked skin. A butterfly fluttering away. Two overlapping bodies consorting one another in the rhythm which rocks the blue-green shadows of foliage. You’re not wrong, Eren. How wonderful life could have been if it weren’t for monsters like us!
Eren’s changing scent turns out to be appeasing. As Reiner continues wiping his nose, his legs stop trembling. If Eren is still reluctant to speak out, it is probably the chance to make him listen. ‘Look at you, Eren, you’re no more alive than I am. I don’t know what exactly you come seeking here, but clearly you couldn’t find it from me. Why don’t you just leave me alone and let them take my titan? It’s about time after all.’
‘Seems Armin’s already had quite some face-to-face with you.’ Eren bends down and picks up the razor, scrutinising it. ‘Are you looking forward to it, Reiner?’
All at once, everyone appears to care about his opinion. ‘What of it?’
‘Nothing. Just trying to catch up with your role-playing game here. I remember we used to do soldier and hero. What’s it this time? Martyr?’
There is no sign of contempt in his tone, yet Reiner doesn’t know how to react. Eren flings up his hands and shrugs before he turns to the mirror, about to restart shaving. ‘You really confuse me, Reiner. If you don’t consider life worth living, why would you bother to give your all, only for someone else to live?’
Fast exhausted, Reiner sits down on the stool and buries his face in his hands. For a long while, he remains still, not seeing where this conversation is leading. A rare, intense yet earnest conversation between them, like back in Liberio—he was the one to bring it up. Now he has thought everything over, and he is much calmer than before.
‘It’s different. My birth was a mistake, so is my entire life. Living is the happiest thing in the world, I know, but I don’t deserve it...’
‘And you’d bear whatever comes from me as punishment—that you already made clear back in the basement.’ Eren hasn’t said a word until he finishes shaving. After splashing some water on his face, he glares in the mirror with a great wrinkling of brows, his hands gripping the edge of the sink, seemingly annoyed by what he is about to say. ‘But I’m not your judge, Reiner, I’m your equal. One day you’ll go to hell, the other day I’ll follow.’
Reiner lifts his head. For once in a long time, his heart palpitates in melancholy like every living soul. You’re both murderers with little time left; you’d make a perfect match. Why does a flash from the Titan Forest cross his consciousness? Why do people tend to fold themselves tighter when their emotions get stronger? Why was he the one, instead of Bertolt himself, to decide for Bertolt his ‘perfect match’? Why do people prefer to lie, retreat and renounce, when they are overwhelmed by the disaster called love?
‘Reiner, do you believe in second life?’ From this angle, Reiner can only see the reflection of Eren’s face in the mirror, dripping and radiating with more frankness than it used to be. Here he is, again, the once aspirant, innocent adolescent who would proclaim anything wholeheartedly, telling the truth as he always does to the same person, however unwilling to confront him this time. ‘Or have you ever had the slightest idea to restart, say somewhere else, far away from here?’ Perhaps Eren doesn’t want to hear any answer, as he goes on without a pause, ‘I did...A life, under impossible conditions, in which we could stay friends. But then I asked myself, for Subjects of Ymir, wouldn’t it also be a life in which we remembered this one ? At the Coordinate where every Eldian soul joined one another, wouldn’t we still recognise our faces as abominable? You see, it’s easier to make you hate me...Me too I tried to hate you, my enemy, by turning you into a resentfully obedient cattle trapped in my territory, but at the end of the day, I realise that I—well, I...’
Frustrated by the lack of words, he turns around precipitately and kneels upon one knee, his now clean-shaven thus boyish face still dripping and his eyes glistening, as if expecting Reiner to complete the sentence for him by reading from the depth of their misty green. Reiner stays on the stool and opens his mouth, but nothing, not a single word comes out. You must be kidding me, Eren. This is not...This simply cannot be...
Magath once brought up a theory when they were watching warrior candidates in training. He told Reiner how Gabi’s hatred towards the Eldian devils sometimes disturbed him, although she was the most promising cadet in the group.
‘I remember how you used to express the same sentiment in exams when you were a kid.’ He jokes, ‘A family thing, isn’t it? I didn’t quite appreciate your zealotry back then either.’
‘Relax, Reiner. Look at her. No doubt she’ll make an excellent warrior. It’s just my raw thought, but if you hate something so much, you’re probably halfway in love with it already. The opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference...In this regard, I’d say Zeke Yeager surpasses the Brauns.’
For some reason, the Commander’s words echo in Reiner’s ears at this grave moment, reminding him of an armless, fiery-eyed and teeth-grinding Eren in the Titan Forest. All I can do is work; work hard to make sure that you die the most painful death possible ...—Oh Eren! It turns out that no matter how hard you’ve been pretending all these days, you’re not as indifferent as your half-brother after all.
Only a few seconds have passed as they look and look at each other yet it feels like as much duration as their entire lifetime—come to think of it, even that is not at all long enough—until Eren can no longer stand the silence.
‘So I’ve been thinking, after you...after we lost that baby, I’ve been thinking about another possibility of...playing the recommencement—in this life, right here. That time when you said you wanted to vanish...it keeps coming back to me and makes me wonder if there would be a peaceful end in this world even for lives as absurd as ours, and if there is, I’d like you to have it. Today...I was to talk to you about this before you mentioned Liberio.’
A peaceful end? Reiner would like to know if Eren really didn’t see the irony here. Maybe now he realises we are already in hell and nothing could be more excruciating than that. Maybe he’s looking for company, someone who understands, on the path to the coming death without consolation. Maybe at last, he just needs to forgive me so that he can forgive himself. All of a sudden, there is too much information for Reiner to deal with, and the urge to disappear has never been as irresistible. He’d rather Eren treat him as he used to; he’d rather meet those vacant eyes than have to face passion even compassion from his mate in their mating routines—he has been carrying too many burdens for too short a life, and emotion has always been the most unbearable of all. Now he becomes so tired that every sleep would easily be an eternal one. However, something in Eren’s keen, requesting look tempts him more than ever. In the end, he too has never changed. He was, and always will be—as long as there’s breath in him—the lonely little boy in desperate need of love and respect from others, for whom he’d always go through fire and water, even lay down his life if need be.
A burst of wild laughter from a deceased friend resonates around him as a sweet reminder that he isn’t the only fool ever lived in this incredible world. She too understands everything, especially this whole ‘role-playing game’. A faint smile flickers across his face. Reiner Braun, he tells himself, as he offers his hand to Eren who remains crouching on the ground. It’s the last time in your history that you have to be present. Look, there’s one last other left for us to care.
‘Get up, Eren. I’m listening now.’
‘Reiner, wake up.’
‘Eren?’ Reiner opens his eyes. ‘Hey. Here you are.’
‘Hey. How long have you been here all alone? Did you pass out again?’
Eren is bending over him, his hand withdrawn from Reiner’s shoulder the moment the blond regains his consciousness.
‘No. I just took a nap.’
Reiner looks around, still a bit dazzled from what he saw in his sleep. He rubs his eyes and looks again when Eren straightens up, staring at Reiner beneath his furrowed brows.
‘Had a dream?’
‘Yeah. Can’t remember it though.’
‘I hope it was a good one.’
For this sweet remark, Reiner flashes him a warm smile. Dreams have come back to him recently. The sweet smell of earth and grass under him merges with the sweet musky scent around Eren, and the sweet aura of the late autumn dusk dries a tear lingering at the corner of his eye. He must have slept for a long while behind this boulder—the view is indeed very nice here.
‘I didn’t know you were coming today; otherwise I’d wait in the house.’ Reiner explains and slowly gets up from the ground. ‘Let’s go back.’
‘Reiner, look.’ Eren stays where he is, pointing at the horizon where the distant mountains glow in the light of the setting sun. As its last brilliance burns out, the magnificence of the day gives way to a sudden nip in the air. Although neither of them has made a sound, Reiner grasps an echo, almost deafening from a remote ravine under the cloudless sky. He wonders if Eren, with all the magical powers he possesses, feels it too. Anyhow, he’s glad that Eren came today.
A peaceful end. For Eren, it means to die naturally, taking the final breath at peace—no broken heart, no punishment, no hurt. Nothing. A dead death that frightens no one.
‘I don’t want to eat you. No one’s going to eat you.’ That day when they stepped out of the bathroom, left the house and eventually arrived at the lake, Eren announced his plan. ‘Let’s wait until the Curse of Ymir drops—may it be thirteen fucking years or more. I don’t mind if I have to go searching for the Armoured Titan among hundreds and thousands of newborns—that’s what the Coordinate and the Royal blood are there for. While you’re here, I’ll bring you what you want, including medications for your heat. If you don’t like it here, we can rearrange—the best as we can. Think it over, Reiner.’ Pause and internal struggle. ‘Of course, nothing restrains you from refusing my proposal. Anyways, Galliard will live. For some reason, he’s under the Queen’s protection now. After all, his life has never been a bargain from my side…at the beginning, I was afraid you’d try to kill yourself.’
Perhaps those guards had served for the same reason. They were sent away after he nodded to Eren’s plan. Even if for Reiner, it was still dubious how someone like him would ever rest in peace, he had already made his decision back in that bathroom. Maybe, by the grace of Ymir, he hadn’t blown his head off back in Marley so that he could engage himself in this ambitious experiment at last.
It was four months ago. Eren has paid more visits ever since, and he has brought the medications as promised. Although Reiner no longer suffers from his heat, they would still go to the lake on a sunny day. Sometimes they would jump into the water, stark naked, rolling around into the shimmer of the lake. Eren even had a small boat made for them to float further, and Reiner likes it during the evening, when they lie in the boat under a canopy of stars, their eyes shut yet still seeing them twinkling, and for a little miraculous while forget the whole damned dark within.
Never again did Eren try to mess with his brain, nor did Reiner ask him about the motive to modify his memory. He guessed Eren himself had more or less figured out it was by no means a super idea. For as long as he forgot Bertolt, he forgot how it felt like to have a heart, without which Eren took him a dead man. Now that he remembers Bertolt, he remembers love as it is.
Love. Is it really the word Eren was stuttering for, the day he was crouching on the bathroom floor? And the intense feeling they have shared in the past few months? When darkness falls and surrounds them, all the uncertainty seems to have little importance. They may as well voice it, but when the word lands in the depth of their hearts, it’ll leave nothing but regrets. In the end, this feeling becomes so strong that they have lost clue of what it is; they only know that it is .
Aware of the evening chill, Eren wedges his hands under his armpits, heading back without a word. He will not wait for Reiner because he knows he will follow. Reiner will start walking far behind him, again, and like this, they will go back to the house. Recently Reiner stumbled and tumbled a few times, only then would Eren turn and return to carry him on his back. Not today. Not this time. This time Reiner will continue walking until they reach the house. And they will do it in the dark, both empty-handed, then an embrace. Where the light of life is flickering out, the fire of desire remains demanding. They are still young, so young before the immensity of what is to come. The whole world is burning, its end confirmed and stunning, and together they are falling with it, coveting and triumphing it, again and again, completing their lives half lived. And when it comes, Eren holds Reiner’s hands and fixes them above his head, their bodies shuddering in mad joy, their red-rimmed eyes locking on each other. ‘I see you.’ He repeats, ‘I see you, Reiner Braun.’
When the moonlight filters through the curtains, Reiner awakes. Next to him, Eren lies sleeping in serenity, his back skin reflecting the clarity of night. Reiner gets out of bed, walks to the window and opens the curtain. The cluster of stars looks identical to the one in his dream earlier today, inviting him to go home. Reiner lifts his hands and takes a good look at them—so fair and transparent that they are almost invisible. He is still in the midst of this world, but everything around him starts to fade away. Everything looks as unreal as his memories of this life, as if it no longer will be. All of a sudden, the urge of leaving something to those who still belong to this world has gripped him. He rushes to light up a candle and sit down behind the small desk in the corner of his room. In front of several sheets of paper, he wracks his brain for some last words without success. Gabi, you no longer need advice from an inept cousin on his last legs. Falco’s a good boy, as brave and smart as you, and you’re very lucky to have him along the way. Galliard, I wish I could write to you, but they made you believe my death two years ago. It’s better this way, and no one has to mourn twice the same guy. I heard that you got the attention of Krista and I’m still a bit jealous. Mother once told me that no one was totally unfortunate in his life, and for a long time I didn’t believe it. But look at you now, Porco! Mother. How odd that you’re such a distant sound at last. His eyes turn to the bed and dwell on Eren, the only person in this world of whom he can’t let go at ease. Eren, a lighter sleeper than he is, lying still on one side, facing the bedroom wall. But there’s not much left to say to him, and Eren understands it. Thanks for letting me have this moment of my own. Sorry I have to leave you alone on this arduous and hazardous voyage, but that’s the way it is. I hope one day you’ll save us, and that you and I will meet again. He watches Eren for one last time, and the phrase Eren repeated in bed offers him a certain relief. Finally, when he leaves the house in a nightgown, the sheet of paper remains untouched.
Under the bright stars, Reiner runs into the marvellous peace of the night. Neither the lake nor the boulder is his direction; he is going deep into the forest. On the passage to another world, he is not alone. Several steps ahead of him, there is a blond little girl. He saw her once hours ago; now she reappears as a long-lost friend. He follows her and her gracious messages, realising he has been happy, and he is happy still. The elapsing life continues to make huge sounds: noises from a 3D manoeuvre gear; much fanfare at the festival back home; the horn of a Marleyan ship entering the port; the front gate of Headquarters whistling in the wind—Bertolt used to wait for him next to it. And there he is again, at the age of eight or nine, smiling at Reiner. Their eyes meet, shining, full of love, and it shocks him how a dying heart still hammers so hard in his chest. But he lets the girl lead the way and keeps going. For a moment the stars above turn brighter than ever and burst into blinding luminosity all around him, embracing and caressing him until he recognises nothing but himself, for that moment he has waited instead of provoking it—big thanks again, Eren!—and for that moment he knows he’s free: nothing to lose; no one to risk his life for. The whole world shuts down as the silence of night reigns once more, and this is as far as we can go with Reiner Braun.