He was the last man left standing. He carried the living and the dead off the battlefield, untill his legs shook so badly he moved in uneven staggers, until he was so exhausted his dry heaves brought up blood, until the survivors begged him to stop.
On the third day after Eren’s death Reiner found her, wandering in silent shock; Eren’s blood on her face and hands.
Their one unwounded doctor had examined her after he’d carried her back, slung over his shoulders.
She lay under a thin blanket on a bed in his tent. The tents barely kept out the wind and the small braziers only eased the cold. Cold and hunger had replaced Eren as their greatest enemies.
He sat in a chair by the entrance and watched the doctor press his stethoscope to her chest, listening to her breathe. He took blood and other samples and then disappeared for a long time.
He added precious coal to the brazier, burning through a quarter of his week’s ration to raise the temperature enough to stop her shivering.
When the doctor came back, he looked drawn. Reiner’s heart leapt into his throat: Bad news.
“She’s been exposed to a slow-acting poison. I don’t know how. I didn’t find an entry wound. Maybe the bombs? Or maybe the Attack Titan? We don’t have an antidote. And with what we have available, our only treatment options would likely kill her faster.”
“I can’t tell you for sure. She might be fine for a couple days. She’ll probably be weak. It’ll take time for it to… set in. I’m sorry. Were you close?”
“We fought on opposite sides of the war. We killed the Attack Titan together. Close?” Reiner shook his head. “I don’t know.”
The Doctor—a stout, stolid Eldian military man—seemed unphased by his admission. Reiner supposed everyone left alive had history. “We may have room in the barracks soon. If you want to move her.” The doctor said.
“She’s Levi’s family.” Reiner said. “She’s fine here.”
The Doctor nodded. He gave Reiner a small cardboard box of medicine. “This will help the pain. She can have broths and fluids. I’ll alert the nurses about the situation.”
“Thank you.” Reiner said.
The Doctor nodded. He looked like he wanted to say something more.
“Yes?” Reiner urged.
“Sir. I… thank you. You’re the reason anyone is still here.”
“Not really.” Reiner glanced at Mikasa. “She is.”
“Well I don’t know exactly what happened. But I know for sure what you’ve been doing for us since.” The Doctor took Reiner’s hand and shook it. “Please take care of yourself.”
“Thank you Doctor.” Reiner said, shaking it back. He watched the Doctor leave, lifting the flap of the tent and exiting. Reiner stepped over to tie the tent closed again behind him.
When he turned around Mikasa had got out of bed. She was standing in the shift they’d borrowed from one of the women, her hair a mess, staring at him with her dark eyes. “I heard.”
Reiner breathed out hard. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s the cost of killing him.” Mikasa said. “I die.” She walked over to him unsteadily.
Reiner watched her move, so different from her usual feral swiftness, and felt sick. She made a grab for the pistol he carried around his waist. He caught her wrist before she touched it, lifting her arm and pulling her closer. “What are you doing?”
“Let me kill myself now.” She hissed. “I’m done what I needed to do.”
“What right do you have to stop me?” Her voice dropped low. “Traitor.”
Reiner almost let her hand go and let her take the pistol. What she said was true. He had no right to stop her. He remembered the moment he realized she would kill Eren, he watched as she’d swallowed her own misery and fear to destroy the one thing dearest to her for the sake of people she didn’t even know. “I don’t have any right to stop you.” He leaned close. “But It’s hard to kill yourself and if you get it wrong, you could just end up with more pain for your troubles.”
Anger flashed over her features. “Then you do it.” She caught his hand, lifting it. “You know where to aim right? You do it.”
He pulled his hand away in horror. She glared at him defiantly, then her face fell in anguish and she crumpled to the ground, on her hands and knees in front of him, weeping. She clutched at her chest with one hand. Repeating over and over again, “Kill me. Please kill me. I can’t live with this feeling.”
He finally crouched down beside her. “I’ve buried my mother, my aunt, uncle, Connie, I’ve had to help Annie bury Armin. We still haven’t found Gabi or Falco. Or Pieck or Jean.” He looked at his trembling hands. “I don’t want to take a life ever again.”
“I have nothing left.” Mikasa looked up at him, her face contorted with pain. “I’m going to die anyway.”
“We don’t know that for sure.” He said. “We might find something—“
“I don’t want you to find anything. I just want to disappear.” She fisted her hands in her hair. “Don’t make me suffer because you’re a coward.”
He looked up. Levi stood at the entrance to the tent. “I spoke to the Doctor.” He waved him out. “Let me take care of this.”
Reiner stood and hesitated. He glanced down at Mikasa who was stuck in her own private hell.
“She’s more my responsibility than yours.” Levi said. “I’ll take care of her for now.”
Reiner said nothing, he walked past Levi, lifted the flap to exit and turned to tie the tent closed behind him.
“Who are you calling a coward, brat? You think you’re the only one who’s done in someone they care about?”
He didn’t hear Mikasa’s response.
“Well if you don’t like me, I suggest you be nicer to him. I’ll kill you myself when I decide there’s no hope.”
He finished tying the tent closed and left.
— Fourth Day —
Reiner entered his tent in the evening. Levi was awake, lying beside Mikasa in the bed, clothed in his shirt and breeches. She was huddled against his back, asleep and shivering. Levi sat up as Reiner brought him the mug of tea he’d made, handing it to the smaller man. He took a seat on a box by the bed and sipped his own mug of coffee.
“I didn’t find anyone living.” Reiner clutched the mug in both hands to warm them.
“You need to rest. Sleep.” Levi said. “It’s been days.”
“Not yet.” Reiner sipped his coffee. “No one else can handle this work for as long as I can.”
“You can’t kill yourself doing this, Braun. I’ll take the night shift. I’ll help them comb through the rubble for anything that’ll help.”
“Are a lot better.” Levi levelled a hard look at him. “You can take care of her while I’m gone. Make sure she eats. Try to…” Levi looked at a loss, he fluttered his hands. “Lift her spirits.”
Reiner grunted. “Me? Lift her spirits? Should I let her kill me?”
“You’re a young man.” Levi stood. “She’s a young woman. You think of something.”
Reiner grimaced at the implications. He couldn’t mean that. “Huh?”
Levi clapped him on his shoulder. “I’ll be back at sunrise.” He left and Reiner heard the soft swish of him exiting, then the scratch of fingers against canvas as he tied the tent closed.
Reiner rubbed his eyes. He looked around his tent, avoiding looking at Mikasa. Eventually he opened his military issue duffle. He still had books he’d been reading in Marley back before he took part in the strike on Paradis. He pulled them out, looking at each in turn. It was surreal; he’d been reading them before the world had effectively ended. Lift her spirits? He chose a historical drama.
“I hate you both.” Mikasa said weakly. “You won’t kill me.”
“You’re his last family.” Reiner said, he stood, pulling off his great coat, folding it and placed it back on the box. He pulled off his shirt, leaving his undershirt and pants. “And I’m done killing.”
She recoiled. “What are you doing?”
“I’m getting in my bed.” Reiner shrugged. “Technically this is mine and Captain Levi’s bed—“
Mikasa stared at him in horror, clutching the blanket to her chest.
Reiner stared back, then snorted and laughed. “There isn’t enough beds to go around, we take turns. Although, he is pretty hot.” Reiner leaned close and winked. “Do you think I have a chance?”
Mikasa gaped at him. Then she hid her face behind her hand and made a sound like she was choking.
Reiner caught her hand, alarmed. When he saw the smile on her face he realized she was giggling.
“Levi? Doing something so unsanitary?”
He chuckled. The time she’d spent with Levi seemed to have calmed her. Or maybe she’d resigned herself to living a bit longer.
He pulled up his boot to unlace it. Once both were off, he put them beside the box and his great coat, lifting the blanket to slip in.
Mikasa looked at him, still taken aback and blushing.
Hm. Blushing. Reiner blinked at that. “There isn’t enough fuel to keep the tents warm and cook food. That’s why Levi was sleeping beside you. To keep you warm. If it bothers you, I can get one of the women instead.”
“A stranger.” She said softly.
“It’d have to be. Annie ran off. After we buried…” He hesitated. “Armin.”
“No.” She said and he couldn’t tell what she was responding too. Instead she sunk down against the bed, her head in her hands as her whole body shook.
“Hey.” He touched her shoulder, hesitated, then caught her and pulled her close. He let her sob, rubbing her back awkwardly. When the sobs slowed he pushed her back a bit, lifting her chin with his finger and thumb. “Hey. Don’t cry. My clothes stay on so there’s no need for you to worry you’ll despoil my virtue.”
“That’s not what…” She frowned and shook her head in annoyance.
He grinned sheepishly at her.
She huffed. “No, I don’t want a stranger. That’d be worse.”
He slipped in beside her and she laid on her side in the same position she’d been in when she shared the bed with Levi. A couple inches between them. He looked at her; she was still shivering. He sighed and turned over, grabbing her waist and pulling her close. She mumbled a protest but then the heat hit her back and he could feel her shivers relax away.
“You are now in the warmest spot in the entire camp. I wish I could be spooning myself right now. ” He rested his chin on her head. “Enjoy it. I can’t stay like this for long.”
“Why?” She asked muzzily, shifting in his arms.
“Because I will get a boner. Now.” He lifted the book, flipping it open to the first page. “Do you like historical dramas?”
“I like stories.” Mikasa replied.
“This is called ‘The Trials of Helos.’ Despite the stupid name, it’s pretty good. It’s not entirely propaganda. ‘The choice to go to war was made on a cold afternoon at precisely three o’clock but the world would not know for another four years…’” After a few pages, he’d started to stroke Mikasa’s hair out of an unconscious habit leftover from reading to Gabi to help her sleep. She’d had persistent nightmares at the start of her Warrior training. He stopped himself once he realized. “Sorry.”
Mikasa sighed, she propped herself up to look at him. “It’s okay. I don’t mind. Don’t you need to sleep?”
He took that moment to turn over onto his back. She resettled herself against his chest. Reiner looked down at her, surprised at how close she was getting, voluntarily. But then maybe the situation made it ridiculous to stay aloof. “The nurses or their helpers usually come around with dinner soon. I’ll be fine till after.”
He’d managed to finish the third chapter before the nurse came in with a mug of broth for Mikasa and stew for him. The nurse didn’t even raise an eyebrow as she helped Mikasa sit up and placed their food on a box serving as a side-table. Reiner thanked the young woman and after she left, frowned at the stew.
He picked up the bowl and tried to take a bite. As per his new normal, he couldn’t swallow it without choking. He tied to hide it by clearing his throat.
“Are you sick?” Mikasa asked as she sipped her broth.
“I wish they wouldn’t do this. I keep telling them not to. It just wastes food.” Reiner said.
“You didn’t answer my question.”
He stared down at his bowl of stew. “The Doctor has examined me and says he can’t find anything wrong. But it feels like there’s a… rope around my throat. All the time. I can’t swallow anything solid.” He put the bowl of stew on the table. The nurse would get it later. He’d have to tell her he was still having trouble and endure her quiet look of concern. She’d likely come back with broth. He smiled weakly. “Do you like the story?”
“Yes. It’s good.” She nodded, smiling back. “Armin liked reading. And he’d get me to read books with him. And then I started to like them too. Because he was so enthusiastic. Eren didn’t read at all. Not even with us.” Mikasa’s smile faded. She sighed. She glanced back at him. ”You read a lot?”
“Yep. I was a weak nerdy little kid. Not as smart as Armin tho.” He flipped the historical drama closed, his finger holding their place. “I used to disappear into stories. Does that surprise you?” His lips quirked. “Because I’m such an athletic hunk now?”
She groaned, slapping his shoulder. Then went silent for a long moment, “I miss Armin most.” She turned over, pressing her head against his chest. “I’m horrible.”
“I think that…” Reiner paused. “It’s fine. Armin dying was just unfair. Eren was a mixed bag for you, I’d imagine.”
“A mixed bag.” She repeated.
“You were in love with him right? But you hated what he did. And because of that… It might take longer to be able to mourn him.”
She breathed out hard. “I don’t have time.”
Reiner hesitantly brushed his fingers against her hair. “You don’t know that."
She didn’t argue. “What happens to the pain if we die before we can mourn?”
“I don’t know.” He got a little bolder, wrapping his arms around her shoulders, catching her behind the head, kissing her forehead. She didn’t resist at all and that worried him. He wished there was anything he could do to ease her misery. He lifted the book, opening it to continue reading, in the absence of anything better to do. “Helos replied to Abigail, ‘Of all warriors, time and patience rank highest...’”
He read till he couldn’t keep his eyes open. With her cuddled against his side, he was warmer than he’d been in days. Maybe years. He woke up when the Doctor came in to examine her, as she slept beside him. He was quick, efficient and, like the Nurse, said nothing about Reiner being in the same bed as a woman he wasn’t married too.
Desperation and exhaustion made a mockery of propriety.
“Get up.” Levi woke him up with a slap to the face. It wasn’t hard but it stung. Reiner slid out of the warm bed, standing up before he was fully awake.
“You were up in less than two seconds. Good. Very soldierly.” Levi shoved a mug of coffee into Reiner’s hand. In his other hand he held a mug of tea for himself.
“What’s going on?” Reiner took a swallow—shook his head hard to get rid of the sleep—and picked his shirt up from the box, buttoning it closed and tucking it into his trousers. He pulled his great coat on before he could lose too much heat.
Levi sipped his tea. “We found a map to supplies in one of the military offices. It’s in a bunker in the mountains about 10 miles from here.”
Levi leaned close, handing him the map. “Might have something to help her.”
Reiner nodded. “And only I can get to it.”
Levi sat down on the bed, pulling out his cravat and shrugging out of his jacket. “You can read this? I don’t get it.”
“It’s an elevation map. And yes I can read it.” Reiner examined the map. “I’ll have to get a compass from Onyakopon.” He took a final gulp of coffee.
Levi caught his sleeve. “They have breakfast out by the main fire.”
Reiner shook his head. “It’ll take me a lot longer to starve to death than anyone else.”
“But you can starve to death. Right?” Levi stared at him. “Go eat.”
“You have to take care of yourself. If you collapse we’re fucked.”
“I don’t…” Reiner shrugged helplessly. Even setting aside his problem, he didn’t want to survive at the cost of anyone else.
“Goddammit Braun. You will eat. That’s an order.” Levi slipped into the bed beside Mikasa.
Reiner blinked. Technically he outranked Levi; what was left of the Marleyan Army had appointed him General. And called him the “World’s Shield” with a reverence that made Reiner very uncomfortable. “Alright Captain.” He’d ask the nurses for a cup of broth.
Mikasa sleepily reached out for Levi as a source of warmth; it was cold enough her breath was misting.
Levi flinched away from her. “Don’t get familiar with me brat. I’m your uncle or cousin… or something. More importantly I’m your Captain.”
“Ugh, it’s you.” She opened her eyes and made a face at Levi.
Reiner turned to leave, opening the flap and tying it closed behind himself.
— Day Five —
Reiner opened the flap to his tent, careful not to spill the mugs he cradled against his chest. He didn’t know how Levi did it but the man was already awake and sitting up by the time he arrived. He handed him the tea he’d made. Levi took it and took a tentative sip. “You’re getting better at brewing tea.”
“Any complaints about my coffee?”
“Nah. It’s hard to screw it up.” Reiner sat down on the box. “How is she?”
“Getting weaker.” Levi said. “She’s still herself tho. Doesn’t like staying in the bed. Or being helped by the nurse to take a shit.”
Reiner grimaced at him. “Is it really necessary to say things that will humiliate her?”
“I got several crates from the bunker.” Reiner sipped his coffee. “Seeds. Batteries. Soil. The Marleyan Military was already prepared for an end times scenario. If we can make it through the winter we might be able to grow something to eat.” He closed his eyes. “It’s going to be hard.”
“Anything for her?”
“I brought the medical supplies up first. The doctors are going through that. The army engineers are helping with the rest.”
“Then I should go help.”
Reiner smiled. “Yes. You should go help.”
“Oh.” He clapped his hand on Reiner’s shoulder, leaning close. “Try to lift her spirits a bit more today.”
Reiner shook his head at Levi in confusion. “I’ve been reading to her.”
“That boring piece of crap?”
“It’s a classic. It has a lot of philosophical—“
“Yeah, that’s exactly what’s needed here. Philosophy.”
“I don’t know what you want from me. And in the absence of a clear directive, I have to trust my own judgement.” Reiner picked up The Trials of Helos. “It’s a good book.”
“It’s Marleyan propaganda.”
“It’s subversive. It just doesn’t… wear its heart on its sleeve.”
“I guess I’m not supposed to be sleeping anymore.” Mikasa lifted herself groggily up from the pillow. “It’s freezing.”
“I’m going to go get some work done. Hopefully Braun doesn’t bore you to death with his literature analysis by the time I get back.” Levi turned to leave.
Reiner growled under his breath after Levi had finally exited. He pulled off his great coat, folded it and placed it on the box, followed by his shirt and boots.
“Skin to skin is better isn’t it?” Mikasa asked.
He glanced back. “You want me to take off my clothes? You’re joking right?”
She didn’t answer.
He huffed, “I’ll take the pants off. You must be really cold.” He stripped off his government issue khakis and folded them, placing them beside his shirt. He was down to his undershirt and his boxers. He moved to slip into the bed, settling in beside her.
She sniffed. “Socks?”
“Socks stay on. You lose a lot of heat through your feet.”
She snuggled into his chest, lost in her oversized sweater that they’d found for her in the barracks. He was no longer surprised by her closeness. She’d seemed to decide being warm was better than being shy the day before.
He looked at the book. “Do you want me to read something else? Levi seemed unimpressed.”
“No. I like it. It has heart. But you don’t see it unless you listen closely.”
“Yeah.” Reiner smiled and nodded. “Exactly. It’s subversive because it’s about how history isn’t made by grand plans. But small unseen choices.” He opened up to the page he’d got to last.
“What?” Reiner looked at her.
“Grand plans. Like destroying the world?”
Reiner shrugged. “Well maybe the book is wrong.”
“No. It’s right.” Mikasa said. “If I’d chose to tell him I loved him when Eren asked me what I was to him, everything might have turned out different.”
Reiner opened his mouth to talk then grit his teeth for a moment. It took an effort to reply. “You don’t know that. You shouldn’t blame yourself.”
Mikasa looked distant for a moment. “Well I do.”
“Shouldn’t he have given you more chances?” Reiner offered lamely. “I mean if it was me I would have at least given you three. Dozens maybe.”
She snorted and laughed softly.
He frowned. “Besides if anyone’s to blame for Eren, it’s me. I was responsible for his suffering.” Reiner lapsed into silence; he felt desolate. Then he ploughed on. “We killed him.” His voice caught, the words came out in a strangled rush. The guilt felt like a claw clenching his throat closed. “I never wanted to kill him. I wanted to go back and take away everything I’d ever done to him. I wanted him to kill me and find peace.” He rubbed his eyes. “Why couldn’t he have just killed me that day?”
“I think he decided you were a victim too.” Mikasa said. “You told us he said to you, ‘we’re the same.’”
“Bullshit. I made the choice. He should have just killed me. Why drag the world into it?”
Mikasa waved away what he said. “The person who you hurt the most decided you were a victim too. Doesn’t that say something to you?”
Reiner stared at her. “No. Because I’m not a victim. And you don’t know that’s what he meant.”
Mikasa stared back for a moment, then her expression softened. She tapped the book. “Continue.”
Reiner took it from her and turned over so she could settle against his chest. He rubbed her shoulder, flipped through to where he’d left the book mark and searched for the place on the page they’d stopped at. “‘When deciding when a war starts, Archivists usually look to declarations by heads of state but Lady Abigail knew…’”
As he read, he stroked her hair, as he had the first day. Sometimes she listened, sometimes she cried softly. Eventually he moved to turn over—his body responded to her closeness, the intimacy with absurd predictability, even when she was crying. He spared a moment to hate himself for that. She caught his hips before he could turn all the way over. “I don’t care.” She said. “I know it doesn’t mean anything, it’s just a reflex. It happened whenever I’d do cold training with Armin or Eren or any of the others. I’m not a civilian; there’s nothing precious about me.”
Reiner hesitated then turned back over. “Did you ever do anything?”
She didn’t reply for a long time. “Eren was curious. It was before… before he left for Marley, I think he started to like me back. But when we played around, he seemed indifferent. Or distant.” She sighed. “There always a wall between us. Even when we were together.” She picked up the hand he had over her waist, threading her fingers through his. Fighting the cold had created an intense but chaste intimacy between them. “How about you?”
Reiner snorted. “Yes. I discovered that there are a lot of Marleyans that like to pursue forbidden fruit. Particularly when it comes to the Warriors.” He laughed ruefully. “It was mostly awful. You sure you want to hear this?”
“If you want to tell me.”
“My first time was after I got my vice Captaincy. We were celebrating in a bar by the barracks; I was completely hammered. Pieck baited me into it, point of fact. A Marleyan woman managed to corner me and get me up to a room above the bar. They have… hourly rentals. It’s a bit of a sordid scene, because it’s easy fishing. Lots of young men who are facing the possibility of dying. She was attractive, older… but when it was over, she got disgusted and angry. Said she’d report me for gross indecency by force. Maybe someone noticed us leave and said something. I don’t know.” Reiner frowned. “Zeke smoothed it over in the end. He was furious with me. He told me ‘it’s all fun and games till you break your teeth on the pit.’ I don’t even remember it being that fun; I didn’t remember most of it at all. And afterward I wondered if I’d actually done something to her and I just felt like shit. I never got that drunk in public again and I learned to play stupid whenever I got hit on.” He blushed and laughed at himself. “I’m babbling. Sorry. I should have kept all of that to myself.”
She shook her head. “I asked. It’s not your fault it was awful.”
“Well…” He sighed. “It could have been my fault.”
Mikasa glanced at him, seeming to weigh something. “Nah.”
“That easy huh?”
“You’re not taking advantage of me.”
He recoiled a little from her in horror. “Of course not.”
She turned around and caught his face between her hands. “You should.” She kissed his lips. “If you want to.”
He turned away. “No. You’re… not well.”
Mikasa sighed. “You’re right. I’m being selfish.”
“Selfish?” Reiner looked at her in surprise. “What? Why?”
“Because I’m dying.” Mikasa said, stroking his hair.
“You don’t know that.” Reiner choked over the words. “We’ll find something.”
She didn’t answer.
“Besides even if you are. So am I. I have less than two years left.”
She giggled. “Are you saying you want to me to take advantage of you?”
Reiner closed his eyes, grimacing. “Wait. This is hard to follow.” He opened his eyes, catching her hand and kissing her fingers. “I’m saying you’re not being selfish.” He turned over, propping himself over her on his elbows, kissing her, she opened her lips to receive him, sliding her arms over his shoulders, pulling him down. She no longer had that fierce strength he remembered and he felt a pang of pain in his heart at its loss. But she had a different sort of strength now. Resolve. He broke the kiss and held her face between his hands. “Because this could be my last chance too.”
She looked at him with her grey eyes softened with desire, glossy black hair fanning out over the pillow. She gave him a shy smile and a small snorted giggle: Like a kid at the seashore for the first time. Heat clenched inside him. “You’re so beautiful.”
He kissed her again and realized he’d loved her since he’d watched her swallow her own fear and misery to try and save what remained of the world.
—Day One —
The moment she killed him the world had erupted into a maelstrom; Reiner didn’t even know if it was the world or worlds, some mixture of the real and that twilight realm Eren had brought them to. Everything had shattered into a storm of shards. As he knelt, cradling her in his arms—Pieck and Jean, Annie, Gabi and Falco huddled behind him in the lee he carved into that horrific wind—he remembered her looking at him, her expression was raw and new, as if she’d never seen him before.
He’d held on, pelted by shards of someone else’s memories, until the unreality of Eren’s nightmare unraveling made him lose his grip on his sanity and they all were scattered.
Later he barely understood what had happened.
— Day Six —
Reiner was awake, propped up on a pillow, before Levi entered the tent. Mikasa slept peacefully against his naked chest. Levi stopped short at the sight.
Reiner blushed. “Sorry.”
“Why are you apologizing? I suggested it.”
He stared at Levi. “This is what you meant by ‘lifting her spirits’…?”
Levi scoffed at him as he sat on the box by the bed; he waited for Reiner to extricate himself from Mikasa’s arms and lower her gently to the mattress before handing Reiner his great coat and a mug of coffee. His other hand held a mug of tea by the rim. “Let me guess you feel bad now. You’re a monster. You took advantage of a sick girl. So what?” He sipped his tea. “You’re too selfless. I didn’t notice that before.”
Reiner shrugged into his coat, already shivering. “You were probably busy fighting me.” Reiner’s lips quirked around the edge of his coffee mug. “Or legitimately suspecting me of being a traitor.”
Reiner ran his hand through his hair. “I’ve spent so many years having nightmares about you two. And now I’m drinking coffee with you and, uh…” His blush deepened. “In bed with her.”
“You freaked me out too.” Levi said. “You’re like a fucking cockroach. Unkillable.”
Reiner nearly snorted his coffee through his nose and then swallowed wrong and started coughing.
Levi offered him a kerchief. Reiner waved it away, pounding his chest. When he caught his breath he spoke in a strained voice. “A cockroach? That’s harsh.”
“Don’t give too much of yourself.” Levi took another sip of his tea. He narrowed his eyes speculatively at Reiner. “But… you’re not going to listen to me are you?”
Reiner lifted his legs, sitting crosslegged on the mattress. He propped his elbows on his thighs and leaned over them, staring down at the floor. It was an habitual gesture that he knew made him look very much like a scolded child.
“I’ll find a place to take a catnap and get back out there.” Levi said. “You were on your feet for four days. Stay here. Rest. Or I’ll break your legs.”
Reiner chuckled. “You realize they’ll just heal.”
Levi finished his tea and stood. “Damn roach.” He turned to leave, pausing at the entrance to look back at Mikasa. “She’s brave.”
“You should tell her that.” Reiner said.
“Maybe I will.” Levi considered him for a moment. “You shouldn’t feel bad. I’m glad she finally got something besides the blowback from that piece of shit’s misery.”
Later Reiner would remember the sixth day as one of the only moments of near perfect happiness in his life. He burned every detail into his memory. The little sound she made when she was excited and happy, something between a giggle and a hiccup. The way she gasped and squirmed when he found a spot she liked touched. The feeling of being inside her as she held him; a feeling of peace and completion he’d never felt before.
They made love twice. He had to be gentle because there was now a gulf between his strength and hers. But through their intimacy they created a small world where the outside no longer existed. The waste around them disappeared; the hunger and cold receded and the misery abated. It was warm; An ember in the dark. He managed to read almost to the end of the book and he found an eager audience in her as they talked about what it meant.
In the evening the warmth was pierced. The sickness came on so rapidly it terrified Reiner. One minute Mikasa was smiling, her fingers laced with his as they talked about the subtext of the story and the next she was vomiting desperately into a bedpan that he’d got for her just in time. When she was done she lay, listless, dull eyed in the bed, her complexion like wet glass. A clammy chill enveloped him as he ran for a nurse.
— Day Seven —
“Here.” Levi pushed a coffee into Reiner’s hands. Reiner took it but didn’t move to drink it. He stared at the dirt. He was sitting outside the tent on the ground when Levi arrived. “What’s going on?” Levi asked.
Reiner ran his fingers through his hair. “She’s not keeping anything down. She says her skin feels like it’s on fire. She’s been crying in pain for hours. They got an IV drip started. They managed to find it in the supplies I got. They’re getting the pain under control.” Reiner rubbed his eyes. “They’re going to move her to the barracks with the children and the casualties. Once they get a stretcher ready.”
Levi said nothing. His face looked impassive, but Reiner could see the shock in his eyes. The mug of tea was in his hands, forgotten. “I promised her…”
“What?” Reiner stood up sharply. He pushed his coffee back into Levi’s hands. “To kill her?”
“I promised if there was no hope.”
Reiner breathed out hard and stalked past Levi.
“What are you going to do?” Levi called after him
“What I should have done. My job. I’m going to strip that bunker clean.”
“That’ll take weeks!”
Reiner didn’t answer. He left the tent without closing the flap. The edge of the Fort Salta plateau was a few hundred yards beyond the camp. He started to sprint to the edge, pulling his sleeve back. He didn’t have a knife so he bit his hand instead, barely feeling the pain even though he nearly need to break his thumb to bite through the skin. He jumped from the two hundred meter cliff face and willed himself into the hot embrace of his Titan. It formed around him, no armour, just the smooth skin of his fastest form, and he slid down the slanted side of the plateau, jumping off close to the bottom and hitting the ground running.
He ran and hauled crates for hours: Burning through his endurance into a state of exhaustion he hadn’t experienced since the days after their last fight when he’d spent every breath trying to haul the dead and the living out of the waste in both his Titan and human form.
On the fifth trip, Reiner collapsed at the top of the plateau, unable to pull himself out of his Titan’s nape. As he suffocated in the steaming coffin of flesh, he felt himself give in. Death would be fine. He heard the slice of a sword through skin and muscle. Felt a sudden gust of cold against his back.
Then strong hands grabbed him under his armpits, fingers digging in like hooks. He was wrenched out of his Titan with the sick sound of snapping flesh.
“You cannot kill yourself doing this, Braun. Do you hear me?” Levi growled in his ear. “The doctor looked over the manifest. There’s nothing there that can help.”
On the eighth day she lost her mind. She babbled about the future and the past, and worlds filled with sand and trees made of stars. She talked to people who were dead, people Reiner had never known: Carla, Grisha, her parents. Armin. Eren. She talked to Eren a lot, and Reiner listened to her talk to an Eren that didn’t exist and tell him that she forgave him, and understood him and loved him.
Sometimes while he sat with her and she said “I love you” he imagined she said it to him, but every time she had the same unfocused look in her eyes.
They were set up in a small room in the barracks behind the main airship hanger. It was empty but for a chair, Mikasa’s bed and a cabinet full of supplies. It smelled like old wood and dust and it was warm. The nurses came in often to check her and increase or decrease the dose of the meds slowly dripping into her from the IV.
In the evening, after hours of listening to her talk to no one, the madness seemed to recede for a brief, crystalline moment.
She was able to raise her head a bit and she smiled at him. Her eyes were drawn at the edges but clear, he grabbed her fingers. “How are you feeling?”
“I’m not in pain.”
“The doctor says it’s not long now. Are you scared?”
“Not for myself.” She lifted a shaking hand to touch his face. “I’m going to see them again.”
Knowing he had no time left, he kissed her hand, and said, “I love you.”
She smiled, “Thank you.”
He hadn’t expected her to say it back to him. Her gratitude was enough. Making amends by taking care of her had been enough. He nodded. He opened the book again to read, grabbing her fingers in his hand. “I’ll finish reading it to you. So you’ll know how it ends.”
He managed to finish the last line and have a few more minutes stroking her hair and holding her hand before she started to convulse. The Nurses were in the room in an instant, alerted by some kind of hospital telepathy Reiner assumed. He was ushered out of the room as they checked her vitals and started to administer more medication; one of them went to fetch the doctor.
He stared at the closed door, feeling like he was cut in half. Eventually he found a chair and dragged it over so he could wait.
He watched the Doctor and the nurses coming in and out for what felt like a day before things seemed to settle.
The Doctor came out. He stopped him, a hand on the man’s chest. The man looked harried so Reiner cut to the chase. “How is she?”
The Doctor shook his head. “She’s close to death.”
Reiner leaned close. “The day before yesterday we were… active. Could that have caused it to get worse?”
“Active? You mean…?” The doctor looked at him in confusion. “No. I don’t think so.”
Reiner let him go. Guilt clenched his throat. It felt like he was going to choke to death on it. “I should have done my job.” He coughed repeatedly, then fell on his knees, gasping for breath. He barely noticed when the Nurse came running for him.
Reiner buried her on the ninth day. Someone played a funeral dirge on a trumpet. He wore his dress uniform. There was a hot rush of white noise inside him the entire time. He remembered looking up and seeing Levi watching him.
Levi found him before he’d managed to walk more than a hundred meters out of camp with his rifle. Silently Levi had taken the carbine from him; Reiner let it go without a fight. Levi offered no judgement, just looked at him sadly but Reiner still felt ashamed. He fell to his knees in front of the smaller man, heaving painful, tearless sobs. Levi placed his hand on Reiner’s shoulder and Reiner grabbed Levi’s coat jacket, holding onto him like he was the only thing real in the world.
After awhile the dry heaves stopped; Levi urged him back up and shouldered the rifle. They walked in silence together to the camp, Reiner following him mutely. When they got to the edge of the lamplight, Levi kept going through the camp and because he had his rifle, Reiner followed.
The refugees looked up as Reiner passed. Up from cold meals of watered down soup, from tending to the infected wounds of family or strangers, up from pitiful fires made from fragments of wood; they looked up and as he passed them the desperation and defeat in their features lightened. Their eyes grew hopeful.
He knew hardly any of them, but they all knew him.
The Armoured Titan. A living symbol of Marley’s military strength. The World’s Shield.
“I failed.” Reiner said, low enough that only Levi could hear.
“I know.” Levi replied. “The weak die. The strong fail. ”
“They shouldn’t look at me like that.”
Levi shrugged. “Well, they do.”
They walked out of the camp to the cliff side of the Salta Plateau; in the darkness the scarred land just looked like a wind-swept desert. Reiner had now outlived everyone he’d ever fought beside, save Annie, but who knew where she was or what she would do; he’d outlived every friendship, every lover, every family member. He’d outlived his country, his duty and his loyalty. He’d outlived himself. All that remained was the light in the eyes of those he had passed; the symbol he had become.
There was no need to explain any of this because Levi knew it intimately. The strongest man in the world.
They stood together, listening to the wind and watching the stars. The stars hadn’t changed at all. Levi and him were what remained of both sides of the war, the last Marleyan soldier. The last Eldian soldier. In the end they had no one left to stand beside but each other. The absurdity of it stung. When Reiner finally spoke he couldn’t keep the anguish out of his voice. “Why did so many people have to die just for you and me to stand here like this?”
“Because they fought a war.”
“Why me? Why you?”
Levi looked at him. He shrugged. “We’re the strongest.” There was no bravado or pride in his voice. Just painful resignation.
Reiner let go of the breath he’d been holding. He looked out at the waste, the wind always blew without pause. There was nothing to stop it scouring the earth and turning up storm after storm of dirt and sand.
Standing beside Levi in silent understanding, looking out at what they had protected a bare few handfuls of people from, Reiner’s torment gradually unwound.
Eren’s vast destruction now left a wasteland of despair and grief and rage and he had to lead them all through it, even as he despaired. Because he was the strongest. Because he was a soldier.
It wasn’t peace, but it was some sort of solace.
Levi stared at the waste. His hands clenched into fists. “Five minutes or fifty years, you never get enough time. I want to walk out there.” Levi said. “I want to find where she died and bury her.”
“Do it.” Reiner said.
Levi shook his head. “Not yet.” He looked at Reiner for a long moment. “I’m still needed. We’re categorizing the seeds. Looks like I’m going to have to learn some horticulture.” He snorted. “She liked plants you know. Had a specimen garden.” He clapped Reiner on the shoulder and handed him back his rifle. “Goodnight, General.”
“Goodnight, Captain.” Reiner took the rifle. He watched the scarred land for any light. Eventually the harsh bite of the cold got Reiner thinking about the relative comfort of his tent and its tiny brazier and he started back to the camp as well. In the sand, his footprints covered Levi’s, all but erasing the smaller man’s.
-- The Tenth Day --
The next morning Reiner sat on the box in his tent, looking at the empty bed. He felt nothing; numb and paralyzed. In his hands was a cold mug of coffee given to him by Levi. He hadn’t touched it.
Someone entered the tent and he didn’t look up, not till they approached him and he realized from the step that it wasn’t Levi.
It was one of the nurses that had tended to Mikasa in her final hours. The young woman curtsied, “Sir. I have something for you.” She opened a pocket on her apron. “Turn to the last page. When we finally had her seizures under control she was lucid for a time. I’ve never seen someone with such strength of will. She asked me to write something for you.” She brought out Reiner’s book, the Trials of Helos and nervously handed it to him. “The last page sir.”
Reiner took the book.
“I’ll take my leave, sir.” The young nurse scurried off. Obviously shaken by being in the presence of the World’s Shield. Reiner closed his eyes. He would never get used to that.
It took him a long time to open the book to the last page. There he found something written in an unfamiliar hand. The name was written in Mikasa’s; the lines were shaky but distinctly hers.
Thank you for taking care of me. Because of you I understand why Eren did what he did even if you don’t agree. I can forgive and mourn him. I think he cared about you in his own way, and he wanted you to be free too.
I love you. I wanted you to see it written so you can’t pretend I didn’t say it.
I wish we had more time to see what could have happened.
But because I love you, you have to choose to live free for as long as you can.
PS. Tell that cockhole that the book was good. I’m glad you chose it.
Reiner laughed. He stared at the book in his hands. “Choose to live free? Free of what?” He said to the empty bed. “I don’t understand you at all Mikasa. I have over ten thousand people I have to keep safe. I can’t live free.”
He sighed and got a kerchief from Levi’s stack of kerchiefs. He wrapped the book up in it and put it back in his duffle bag. The pain lurked in his chest, sitting like a solid lump behind his throat, but for now it seemed content to wait.
He needed to move. He needed to do something with his hands. He got up off the box and walked out of the tent. Many of the crates of supplies he’d ransacked from the bunker still lay at the base of the Salta plateau. He could start by getting them up where they could do some good.
Outside he looked up at the thin white light of morning. The sky was not overcast but also not clear; just hazy, as if the dust from Eren’s passing hadn’t yet settled. Reiner glanced over the camp. It was still as ramshackle as ever; set up in the shadow of the largest airship hanger. Today however the people seemed a little more cheerful than he remembered. Some of the fuel, food and little luxuries had been distributed among them: all things he’d found trying to find something to save her. He’d given them hope while he lost his.
He passed the central camp fire and saw Levi sitting on a crate at one of the slap-dash tables in the eating area. Something compelled him to walk over and sit beside the Captain.
“So you’ve finally decided to join us for a meal?” Levi said.
“No I—“ The camp cook dropped a tin bowl in front of Reiner. It was full to the brim of hot soup made from canned ham and vegetables. He shook his head and picked up the spoon. “I’ll try.” He knew it was pointless; he wouldn’t be able to swallow properly. But as soon as the meat and salt hit his tongue he realized he was starving. His mind turned off and he began to shovel it in with an ungraceful desperation. The cook dropped a second bowl and a slice of bread beside him as soon as the first was licked clean.
Levi watched him. “This is the first time I’ve seen you actually eat. Not pretend to eat. Finally decided to start taking care of yourself?”
“I don’t need commentary.” Reiner replied around a mouthful of food.
“What changed your mind?” Levi dabbed his lips with his kerchief.
“Mikasa wrote me a letter. She called you a cockhole and she told me to tell you that the book was good.”
“Her dying words huh? Those are some interesting priorities.” Levi snorted and rolled his eyes. “That changed your mind did it?”
“And then she said something I don’t understand. Live free.” Reiner waved his hand as if he was delivering the line from a stage. He closed his eyes, resting his elbow on the table and leaning on it; the pain was making itself known. He shook it off: Not yet. He sopped what remained of his second bowl of soup up with the bread. “And I guess I have to live long enough to figure it out.”