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Like Always

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When Annie lets it slip that she knows Bertolt’s address and then refuses to give it to him, Reiner very nearly leaps across the café table to strangle her, but he restrains himself.

Instead, he asks, “Why not?”

“Because I know what you’re going to do,” she says coolly, “You’re going to show up on his doorstep and force your way into his life.”

They’ve talked about this.  They’ve talked about this so many times that Reiner has lost count, and he remembers nodding in agreement to her arguments.  It’s best that they keep their distance from the others.  If the Jeager kid or his adopted sister or one of the Survey Corps members Annie killed back then chooses to approach them, then fine, but otherwise they need to stay the hell away from them.  Reiner, too, is haunted by things he did in a life he is no longer living.  His dreams are vivid and terrifying; he is as tall as a building, as strong as a hurricane, as sturdy as a mountain, and he uses his powers to destroy.  Sometimes he wakes up thinking his hands are covered in blood, and he scrubs them raw in the shower, sometimes until he really does start to bleed.  It helps.

When he first met Annie again—he met her gaze in a crowd because his eye was drawn in her direction for no real reason—they sat down at a bar together and he drank until he was loose-lipped enough to tell her about the nightmares and all the faces he remembers, and Annie nodded and made the occasional sound to show she was listening but never told him anything.  Honestly, he’s glad she didn’t.

Reiner heard that Marco Bott woke up one day and just started screaming, and that he screamed until his throat was raw and he couldn’t scream anymore.  Sometimes, they’ll see someone who looks a little like him from behind, and Annie will jaywalk during rush hour to avoid him.

Annie brings it up again and again without provocation, as if seeking forgiveness, and Reiner doesn’t tell her that she’s asking the wrong person for it but he thinks she knows.  He agreed with her, agreed to avoid them at all costs unless they reached out to him first. 

But that was before he knew Bertolt was somewhere in the world again.

“This is different,” he insists, “I get why you don’t wanna see the others, but Bertl….”  He chokes on the nickname.  “Bertolt would understand; he went through the same things we did.”

“Which is exactly why you need to stay away from him,” Annie says firmly, “Listen to me, Reiner.  You and I handled getting our memories back alright, but Bertolt isn’t like us.  He never was.”

Reiner is almost offended.  “He was strong.”

“This has nothing to do with strength,” Annie says.  “I heard that Historia has started a career as a fashion designer, and she’s doing pretty well for herself.  Everybody’s kept their distance, and she doesn’t seem to remember a single thing.”

“She probably has dreams.”

“She probably does, but I think that’s better than remembering every single painful moment.”  Her eyes narrow.  “I mean it, Reiner, stay the hell away from him.”

“Alright,” Reiner says heatedly, throwing his hands in the air, “Fine,” and they part not long after, unable to look at one another.

She knows he’s going to track Bertolt down, and she wants absolutely no part of it.

*

When Reiner first started having dreams, he began to remember Bertolt as this handsome, stoic but ultimately timid young man who would always act as the voice of reason, reminding Reiner not to get too attached because they’re going to kill these kids.  He remembers him being calm and collected at almost all times, his constantly unamused mask breaking only when he caught Reiner with the other trainees, partly because he had literally just told him he shouldn’t be doing that and partly because, Reiner thought, he was jealous that his attention was elsewhere.

Bertolt was adorable when he was jealous.  He was normally so serious, but he would get this almost perplexed look on his face, like he didn’t understand what was going on, almost like he was pouting.  He’d be so annoyed with Reiner, acting like he didn’t want to see him, and Reiner would cram himself into the bunk with him and wrap his arms around him, whispering that he was thinking about Bertolt during the day. 

Bertolt came apart under him beautifully, and it was so worth making him mad.  Reiner wonders if that’s part of the reason he spent so much time with the trainees, aside from how much he genuinely came to enjoy their company.  It’s not that Bertolt wasn’t strong; they were all strong.  But Reiner had always been the strongest, and he had always protected Bertolt.  That was just how things were for them.

Weeks would go by, and Reiner’s dreams would become more vivid and more detailed, and finally, he would realize that they weren’t just dreams when he met Annie.

That’s when they changed, and Reiner wondered if he was remembering things correctly.

*

It takes all of ten minutes for him to figure out Bertolt’s address.  There are only two “Bertolt Hoovers” listed in the phonebook, and one of them lives not half an hour away, in a loft apartment near the community college.  Reiner looks him up on Facebook and finds a kid who dropped out last year, and the photo makes his heart stop. 

The same short, dark hair.  The same weary eyes.  The same smooth, elongated face and, if the photos of him standing next to classmates is any indication, the same height.

Reiner can’t contain himself.  He quickly scrawls Bertolt’s address and phone number down on an index card, throws on a jacket and runs out the door, driving like a madman.  It should take thirty minutes to get there, but he makes it in fifteen, and soon enough, he finds himself panting in front of Bertolt’s door, staring hard at the buzzer and trying to take deep breaths.

This is it—it’s been so long, but he’s finally found him again.  He’s nervous, afraid that his heart will break if Bertolt doesn’t remember him, but his desire to see him is stronger.  He tells himself it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t remember, if he never remembers.  They can start over, and that would be okay, too.  He steels himself, inhales, exhales, and presses the button to ring the bell.

Nobody answers.

He tries to calm down, checking his watch and wondering if he might be out.  Bertolt isn’t a student anymore, but he could still be at work.  Maybe he can come back later.  He realizes the door is open just a bit and knows he should really go back down the stair and head home, but he has this terrible feeling of urgency in the pit of his stomach, like he needs to be here now.  He looks both ways down the hall and then slowly steps inside.

Bertolt is standing in the middle of his loft on a chair facing away from him, fiddling with something.  Reiner feels his heart catch in his throat and isn’t sure what to say, or if he should say anything, but his name passes his lips before he can stop it, a strained, “Bertolt,” barely above a whisper.

Bertolt hears it, turning to look at him and recognition flashes immediately in his eyes.  “Reiner,” he whimpers, seemingly overcome with emotion. 

He’s fitting a noose over his neck.

Reiner realizes what’s going on just as he kicks out the chair from underneath himself.

*

Reiner makes him tea—Bertolt keeps chamomile in his cupboard, and Reiner wonders if he’s anxious in this life, too—and Bertolt takes the cup with a soft, “thank you.”  Reiner comes to sit beside him on the couch as close to him as he possibly can while leaving room for Bertolt to breathe, unable to stop himself from staring at the raw marks the rope left on his throat.

“You remember?” he asks.

Bertolt nods.

“How much of it?”

Bertolt stares down; not into the tea, not into anything.  His gaze is empty.  “Everything,” he says brokenly.

Reiner mulls over the significance silently.  He’d been so worried that Bertolt wouldn’t recognize him and then ecstatic when it turned out he’d already recovered his memories; he hadn’t once stopped to think that maybe it had all come back too quickly and that it might be too much to handle. 

Like Marco, he thinks with a shudder.

“I’m sorry,” he says and reaches for Bertolt, slowly, making sure he has time to refuse him if he wants to.  Bertolt doesn’t flinch away, and Reiner lets his hand settle on his shoulder.  “I’m here for you.  You know that.”

Bertolt doesn’t move.  He doesn’t even look at him.  “It’s okay,” he says hoarsely, “It’s okay.  I’m okay.”

He’s not.  Reiner lets his hand rest more heavily in reassurance.  “I won’t let anything happen to you,” he says firmly, “I’ll protect you, just like before.”

Bertolt finally turns, his expression equal parts frantic and despairing, trying to tell Reiner that he doesn’t want to be protected; he just wants it to be over.

Reiner refuses to see anything like that in his eyes.

*

“It’s okay to have bad days,” Reiner says, pretending he’s talking to himself.

Bertolt doesn’t protest when Reiner’s things start appearing in his apartment seemingly overnight, when he opens the closet door and finds his shirts on the side he doesn’t use.  He never once protested or told Reiner to leave, but he didn’t exactly welcome him, either.  Bertolt silently tolerates his presence, and that’s more than enough for Reiner. 

“What kinds of things do you like to do?” Reiner asks one morning.

“I don’t know,” Bertolt murmurs, “Uh.  Reading, I guess.  And I started gardening lately.”  A question as simple as his hobbies leaves him floundering and looking lost.  Reiner feels pain in his heart. “I guess that’s it.”

“Why don’t we grow a few house plants?” he proposes, “And we can go to the bookstore later, pick up a few things.”  He smiles at Bertolt; Bertolt stares back.

“Reiner,” he says slowly, “I don’t want you to hate me.”

Reiner takes his hands in his and holds his gaze.  “I could never hate you.”

Bertolt just shakes his head.

*

Reiner wraps his arms around Bertolt when they sleep.  The bed isn’t really the right size to hold them both, but they used to cram themselves into those damn bunks, and even fucked in them from time to time, so he manages.

He dreams of Bertolt; of a stormy night spent outdoors after they’d fled their former comrades, huddled in a long-abandoned building somewhere in Shiganshina.  Ymir was propped against in the wall in a silent, dreamless sleep, the rhythmic rise and fall of her shoulders the only indication she was still breathing.  Reiner had been staring at the ceiling for more than an hour, unable to find any rest, and he glanced over to the side when he heard a sharp intake of breath.

Bertolt was lying on the hardwood floor curled into a ball, his back to Reiner, and he was trembling.  “Bertl,” he’d whispered, reaching out to touch his shoulder and gently shake him awake, “Bertl, wake up.”

Bertolt went still then, and Reiner realized he wasn’t having a nightmare.  He was crying.

“Bertl,” he said, sitting up and turning to the other boy, “What’s wrong?”

 “Nothing,” he heard, and rolled his eyes. 

“Bertl….”

There was a long silence, broken only by the patter of rain on the roof overhead and the occasional rumble of thunder in the distance.  “I’m…scared.”

“Huh?”

Bertolt let out a shaky breath.  “I’m scared,” he mumbled, “Of losing you.  Of being alone.  Of dying.  It sounds dumber when it say it out loud.”

“It’s not dumb.  It’s okay to be scared.”

“No, it’s not.  We’re not supposed to be scared.”

“Bertl, listen to me.  There is nothing wrong with being afraid.”  Reiner sighed.  “But you don’t have to be afraid, you know.  I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”

“You can’t make promises like that,” Bertolt whispered, “We can’t know what’s going to happen.”

“You’re right.”  Bertolt stiffened at first when Reiner laid down again, wrapping his arms around Bertolt and resting his face against the back of his neck, but after a moment, he relaxed again.  “But I know I won’t ever leave your side.  If something happens—if it really comes down to it—I won’t leave you.  I’d rather die beside you.  Is that better?”

Bertolt is silent for a while.  One of his hands rises to meet Reiner’s, and he laces their fingers together.  “It’s pretty morbid.”

Reiner laughs.  “It’s the best I’ve got right now.  Honestly, though, I don’t plan on either of us dying.”  He pulls Bertolt’s hand back towards him and kisses the tops of his knuckles.  “I’m going to protect you, like always.”

Bertolt started to cry again, but when Reiner asked, he’d insisted that it wasn’t because he was sad.

Reiner wakes up, cheeks wet with tears.  He finds Bertolt still asleep in his arms, and holds him tighter.

*

“Things have to get worse before they can get better,” Reiner says, more to himself than to Bertolt.  Ever since the time he found blood dripping down the drain after a shaving accident—and Bertolt had been insistent that it was just an accident—he isn’t allowed to do anything unsupervised. Reiner sits behind him in the bath and rubs over his neck with the washcloth, and Bertolt sits motionless, listening to him hum.

“Sorry,” Bertolt whispers brokenly, his voice just like the one Reiner hears in his dreams, weak and fearful and not like the Bertolt he thought he remembered, “It was an accident.  It really was.”

Reiner shushes him.  “It’s alright,” he soothes, “I’m here”

“But…Reiner….”

“I know, I know.  I understand.”

Bertolt is starting to wonder about that.

*

“Where have you been?” Annie demands when they run into each other at the grocery store.  “I texted you a million times the last couple days, did you lose your phone or something?” 

“No.” 

She squints at him, suspicion obvious on her face.  He shifts his weight between his legs uneasily.  His shopping basket is full of produce, a head of lettuce, a bundle of carrots, garlic and some tomatoes, things he doesn’t really know how to prepare but is willing to figure out if it means Bertolt can start eating better.  “You look like shit.  What happened?”

“What do you mean?”  Her eyes narrow into a glare, and he’s sure she knows he’s lying.  Even though he’s been so fixated on Bertolt rather than himself, he notices when he looks in the mirror the dark circles under his eyes and how pale he’s gotten.  “It’s just been a long couple of days, that’s all.”  His heart starts beating faster anxiously.  She can’t know.  She can’t possibly know.  He’s just being paranoid.

After another long, silent moment passes, she backs off.  “You need to take better care of yourself,” she says with surprising gentleness, and he’s almost offended, as though she’s insinuating that he isn’t strong enough to handle a few days without sleep.  Of course he is; he’s strong, he was always the strongest of the three.

Wasn’t he?

She glances back over her shoulder once before she leaves, still skeptical, still searching for something, and he breathes a sigh of relief when she’s gone.

*

“You have to hit rock bottom before you can start climbing back up,” Reiner says hollowly, speaking to no one in particular.

It’s been almost three weeks since he first found him.  Gone is the senseless clutter he first walked into; Bertolt has him now, after all, and Reiner has kept the place impeccable, helping decide what he should keep and what he really needs to get rid of.  Things are going to get better any day now, Reiner is sure of it.  They’re actually looking up now, he thinks, as he peels an orange for the fruit salad he’s preparing.  He’s taken care of food, as well, throwing out all of the instant cup ramen and potato chips he found in the cupboards and replaced them with fresh ingredients, and he cooks for him every day, for every meal.  Bertolt doesn’t have to say he appreciates it; he already knows.

“Reiner, please,” Bertolt says hoarsely, “You need to stop this.”  Reiner sets the plate down on the nightstand and sits across from him on the bed, putting a fork through a piece of melon and holding it up to his mouth. 

“Fruit salad for an evening snack,” he says with a thinly-stretched smile, “Dinner’s a surprise, but I promise you’ll like it.”

“You’re not yourself,” Bertolt insists, “I know I’m…I haven’t quite been myself either, but you….”

“Shush,” Reiner says, and pushes the fruit against his lips.  “Eat up.  Everything’s fine.  Just you wait and see, everything will be fine any day now.”  His eyes don’t see Bertolt; they’re seeing a young man who looks just like him in a dream from two thousand years ago.  “Any day now.”

Dust dances in the sunbeam that streams through the window, one that Bertolt thought about throwing himself out of weeks ago.  He can’t even think about it anymore, though; not with Reiner here.  Reiner needs him, after all.  Back when it was the three of them, when Annie was around, Reiner was undoubtedly the strongest.  Bertolt remembers having moments of weakness when he buckled under the pressure of the mission given to him, times when he broke down when no one was around to see.  It made him feel better knowing Reiner was there.

But he also remembers Reiner and Annie doing the same things, quietly shutting down when the burden of the terrible knowledge they held proved to be too much, and unlike him, they couldn’t just pick themselves back up.  It was then that he realized that it was not Reiner but Bertolt himself who was the strongest.

Reiner had protected him from others since childhood, and in turn, Bertolt had protected him from himself, keeping him going, preventing him from forgetting to take care of himself. 

 “I love you,” he tells Reiner.

Reiner falters, the hand holding the fork starting to tremble.  “Love you, too, Bertl,” he says quietly.

“I’m going to protect you like always,” Reiner said to him a night two thousand years earlier.

After he’d already fallen asleep, Bertolt had whispered back, “Me, too.”

*

A week later, Reiner and Bertolt are sitting in a restaurant downtown, and Annie's across from them, disapproving glance fixed on Reiner.  “I never should’ve said anything.”

“No, it’s alright,” Bertolt says quietly, “Really, I’m glad things worked out this way.  I missed you both.”

Annie’s gaze softens.  “Yeah.  It’s probably good things went the way they did.”  She smiles, just a little.  “You look better when you’re together.”

Reiner smiles and puts an arm around Bertolt’s shoulder, and he leans into the touch.  “Now we just gotta get you hooked up,” Reiner jokes, “I hear Mikasa’s single.”

She rolls her eyes.  “Shut up.  Worry about yourselves.”  She smirks.  “You better take good care of Bertl.  He’s tall and lanky, and he has the kind of face girls like.  If you don’t watch it, one of his classmates is gonna ask him out, and she’ll probably be cuter than you.”

“A cute girl couldn’t do what I do to you,” Reiner growls, and Bertolt’s face flushes.

“Jesus Christ, I was kidding,” Annie laughs, “You’re gonna break his shoulder if you squeeze any harder.”  She glances at Bertolt, smiling.  “You take care of this idiot, alright?” she asks, ignoring Reiner’s protests.

Bertolt smiles back, planting a kiss on Reiner’s nose to get him to stop complaining, “Of course,” he says, “Just like always.”