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Wolves of the North

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For all her excitement, a knot of anxiety twisted inside Christa’s gut as they drew closer to Ymir’s quarters. By the time they had arrived, her palm was clammy and slick with sweat. This did not go unnoticed, and Ymir guided her inside with a gentle hand between her shoulder blades.

“I’m not gonna hurt you,” Ymir said, closing the door. “We’ve established this.”

“I know,” Christa said, a tremor in her chest. “I’m just—what if I’m really bad?”

Ymir stared blankly at her. “Sorry, what?”

“What if—I don’t…I don’t want to disappoint you.”

Ymir blinked slowly, brows coming down as her lips parted. After a moment, she closed her mouth and sighed through her nose. A little gruffly, she took Christa by the elbow and led her over to the bed. She sat them both down, and sighed again when Christa looked at the floor.

“Hey,” she said. “Look at me.”

Christa did so slowly, only moving faster when Ymir put a hand under her chin and lifted.

“Why do you think I’m gonna be disappointed?” Ymir asked. “It’s not like I’ve kissed a lot of people in my life.”

“But you have!” Christa protested.

Ymir put a hand to her forehead, shaking her head. “The last time I kissed anyone was way before I took the throne. Years ago, all right?”

“Who?” Christa asked, and then put a hand over her mouth. “No—no, I’m sorry, that was rude, you don’t—”

“Annie.”

She was suddenly grateful that she had a hand over her mouth. When she felt she had recovered, she lowered her hand. “What?”

“I’ve kissed Annie. We were curious about each other.”

“Can I ask what happened?”

Ymir shrugged, easy and lazy. “It was too weird. We work better as a pack than as mates.” She laughed at the shock on Christa’s face. “You don’t believe me at all, do you.”

“I—Annie never acted like you two—”

“Think about it. Would we act like each we do to each other if we hadn’t been close like that?”

Christa went silent with thought. “I…I guess not.”

She ruffled Christa’s hair. “Don’t worry about it. I’m not pining after her or anything, and I’m not going to compare you two. I just want to kiss you.”

“O-okay.” She fidgeted, anxiety coming back. “Erm—h-how do we—” She drew in a sharp breath when Ymir reached around her and pulled her in close by her hip. This done, Ymir tilted Christa’s head to rest on her shoulder. “Ymir?”

“We’re gonna sit here until you stop freaking out.”

“I’m not, I just…erm.” She reached up and took Ymir’s hand from where it rested on her head. After bringing it to her lap, she held it in both hands and toyed with her long fingers and large palm. She pressed their palms together, unsurprised by the drastic different between them.

“You are so fucking tiny,” Ymir said, curling her fingers to bring the ends over Christa’s fingertips.

“You must have a thing for little blonde women.” She blushed when Ymir slowly lifted a brow, but as she began to stammer an apology, Ymir laughed and squeezed her.

“Looks like.” She slipped her hand free to stroke Christa’s hair gently. Bit by bit, Christa’s shoulders lowered as tension left her. She relaxed against Ymir, leaning against her more and more heavily. One hand she put between them; the other she put at her elbow. Ymir was utterly quiet, idly tangling her fingers in Christa’s hair.

“Can,” Christa began, and then went quiet.

“What?”

“Can I listen to your heart again?”

“What, seriously? Okay, here.” She moved to sit against the headboard, crossed her legs, and beckoned Christa closer. Christa arranged herself in Ymir’s lap, curling up so her head was nestled on Ymir’s chest. She closed her eyes to listen closely. Ymir’s heartbeat was different than before, still steady but faster. Her hand shook when she rubbed at Christa’s back.

“Are you nervous, too?” Christa asked.

“You’re rubbing off on me.” Sighing, she folded Christa up, lifting her knees and wrapping her arms around her. “So tiny.”

Christa giggled. “No, you’re just too tall.”

“You’re shorter than Annie. You’re tiny.” She pushed on the end of Christa’s nose. “Pretty, though.”

The compliment alone would’ve made her blush, but the hungry smile on Ymir’s face made her go crimson. “Th-thank you.” She looked at Ymir for a time, and fumbled through saying, “S-so are you.”

Ymir grinned, lopsided and showing her fangs. “Are you saying that because I did, or do you believe it?”

“You are! Why would I lie?”

She shrugged again. She began to rub behind one of Christa’s ears, slipping in a few gentle scratches. The sight of Christa relaxing into her touch made her chuckle. “Are you sure you’re not a wolf?”

“Unless my mother was good at keeping me in a human form my whole childhood, I’m sure.”

Ymir flicked at her hair. “You’d be a golden wolf, I think. Really beautiful.”

“Thank you,” Christa said. Very slowly, slow enough that Ymir could stop her, she reached up to run her hand along her hair. It was coarse, and she could feel snarls.

“What?” Ymir asked to Christa’s small frown.

“Didn’t you brush your hair today?”

“Um…no? Why would I?”

She sighed. “Because then your hair wouldn’t be all knotted up.”

“Who cares? It’s always a mess.”

“But—well…let me brush it, then.”

“Why?”

“I’d like to.”

Ymir rolled her eyes, but said, “All right.” She ran her thumb over Christa’s lower lip, slow and gentle and blushing badly. Christa blushed even worse than what she saw, and she breathed unevenly. Ymir snorted. “No wonder you never got a kiss before. You’d scare people off with how nervous you are.”

“I’m sorry,” Christa said. “I—”

Ymir put her thumb over both of her lips, cutting her off. When Christa was quiet, she tilted her face up slowly. Just as slowly, she leaned down. Christa let out a faint whimper as Ymir kissed her, soft and steady. Something set to trembling in her spine; she clutched the front of Ymir’s shirt for balance. She was out of breath when Ymir finally pulled away, but she did not breathe in. She stared at Ymir, uncertain if she was blushing or not.

“You okay?” Ymir asked.

Christa sucked in a breath and nodded quickly. “I—I’m fine.”

She grinned, as nervous as she had been in the throne room. “Does that mean you liked it?”

“Yes,” Christa whispered.

Her grin broadened, losing some anxiety. “Now you give me one.”

“What?”

All her anxiety returned, and came back intensified. “No, I’m kidding, you don’t have to!” She went quiet with a strangled noise at the touch of Christa’s hand to her cheek. Swallowing, she went still as Christa felt her skin. She tucked loose hair behind Christa’s ear. Taking another breath, Christa wetted her lips with a quick movement of her tongue. She sat up, bracing herself on Ymir’s knee, and kissed her. Ymir hummed softly and smiled when Christa soon dropped back against her legs.

“That wasn’t disappointing,” Ymir said. She laughed at the way Christa went entirely crimson again. “You’re adorable.”

Christa stammered, unable to think of anything to say. She settled on putting a hand to her lips and looking up shyly at Ymir. Ymir, blushing as well, ruffled her hair before picking her up and setting her to one side.

“Where are you going?” Christa asked as she got off the bed.

“To get a brush. You said you wanted to brush my hair.”

“Oh, yes, okay.” She waited for Ymir to return, catching the brush tossed her way. After Ymir had sat down once more, she moved to rise up on her knees behind her. Very gently, she started to brush her hair, working out the tangles and the snarls. Tentatively, she scratched behind one of Ymir’s ears.

Ymir groaned, spine curling as she relaxed.

“Oh, I didn’t think you’d like that so much.”

“Do it to Reiner if you really wanna see someone like it.”

“I, erm, I don’t think he’d let me near him. You heard what he called me.”

“Yeah, remind me to kick his ass later.”

“No, please don’t,” said Christa, laying a hand on Ymir’s shoulder. “He’s your pack. Don’t fight him about me.”

“It’s not fighting. It’s reminding him who’s leader.”

“But that’s no reason to be cruel to him.” Words then tumbled unbidden from her mouth. “What if I talk to him?”

Ymir looked over her shoulder. “You were just telling me you don’t think he’d let you near him. Why do you think he’d ever want to talk to you?”

“I’d like to try.”

She sighed heavily, itching the back of her neck. “You won’t cry if he’s an asshole, will you? I’d really kick his ass if he made you cry.”

She smiled, checking for more tangles. “I’ll be fine. I’d like to get to know the rest of your pack.” When she found Ymir’s hair to be smoothed out, she said, “There, all done.”

Ymir ran her fingers through her hair. “Okay, that’s nicer.”

Christa giggled, but fell silent when Ymir turned about and caught her gently by the chin. Ymir leaned closer, and Christa fumbled in saying, “Y-you said one kiss.”

She stopped moving, and then drew back slightly. “One more?”

Her surprise slipped quickly away. No protest came to mind. She had been unable to recognize the taste that had been on her lips when she licked them. Deep curiosity and the way her chest ached made her say, “Yes.”

Ymir kissed her more firmly, and she drew a sharp breath at the spark it sent down her spine. She did not know what to do with her hands, but eventually settled for resting them on Ymir’s shoulders. The thought to cup Ymir’s face in her hands came to her, but Ymir pulled away before she could do so.

“Erm,” Christa said softly. “Thank you.”

“Why ‘thank you’?” Ymir asked.

“Because I liked those. I…I’m glad you’re the one who gave me my first kiss.” The stunned look that appeared on Ymir’s face made her sink down into sitting. “What’s wrong?”

“You’re glad you got your first kiss from the wolf queen?”

“I’m glad I got it from you.”

For a few seconds, Ymir looked as though she would speak, mouth open and brows low. She slowly closed her mouth, and looked at Christa with an unreadable expression. She looked away, but looked back to run her hand through Christa’s hair. “Come on, let’s find Bertholdt.”

“Why him?”

“He always knows where Reiner is. You want to talk to him, right?”

“Yes, if I could.” She followed Ymir off the bed and out the door. “Armin said Reiner’s name is Reiner Braun and that he’s the commander of your army. Is that correct?”

“Yep.” She brought Christa back to her own room, letting her retrieve her boots and the new cloak the castle seamstresses had made her.

“What is Bertholdt’s full name?” Christa asked as they headed out to leave. “Is he a soldier?”

“Bertholdt Fubar. He’s my negotiator. He can get almost anyone to side with us. If they don’t agree, I use the info Annie and her spies gather to convince them. If that doesn’t work, Reiner’s army destroys them.”

“Is that what’s going on in the south? You can’t negotiate or blackmail anymore, so you’re going to destroy?”

“All we wanted was land,” Ymir said impatiently. “We didn’t even want to fight over it, but your priests started saying wolves are a sin and we need to be destroyed. The wolf king I killed started the war sixty-three years ago after an entire town on the border was burned to the ground and everyone was killed, and it’s been back and forth since then.”

“I…I thought wolves could only be killed by their throats getting cut.”

Ymir stopped suddenly, looking at her sharply. She looked about, waiting until the hall had emptied before leaning down to murmur in Christa’s ear. “Burning, drowning, sickness, old age, and our throats. Never tell any other human as long as you live, because I never want to see another burned town in my life.”

“I won’t, I swear.” She looked at Ymir curiously when she straightened up. “Ymir? How—how old are you? Are you as old as Annie?”

“Older,” said Ymir, and she started off.

Christa hurried to catch up with her. A question came forward on her tongue, but she decided against it because of the cool expression on Ymir’s face. She thought, and then asked, “How old are Reiner and Bertholdt?”

“Fifty-one for Reiner and fifty-four for Bertholdt.”

“Have they lost their families as well?”

Ymir glanced at her. “Annie told you about her parents?”

“She did.”

She hummed tonelessly. “Their families are gone, yeah. About forty years ago.”

“What about you?”

Without looking, without stopping, Ymir reached over and tweaked Christa’s ear. She only said, “I have my pack.”

Massaging her ear, Christa went quiet. She followed Ymir out of the castle and through the streets of the town. The sun was still high, but surely heading for the horizon and causing the shadows of the houses and shops to grow long. Ymir led her to the edge of the town closest to the mountain. When they came to snow ground, Christa held down on her sigh and trudged along dutifully after Ymir.

“Hey, Bert!” Ymir shouted as they drew to a forest. “Get out here!”

Christa gasped as Bertholdt abruptly leaned out from behind a tree. He smiled anxiously and said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“It’s all right,” she said, looking up and up as he came close. She blinked when he chuckled and patted her gently on the head.

“You are terribly small,” he said. He looked to Ymir. “Is anything wrong?”

“Where’d Reiner run off to?” she asked.

He gestured to the forest. “Bear-hunting. You made him angry.”

Bears?” Christa asked. “Will he be all right?”

Bertholdt chuckled again. “Reiner is much stronger and faster than any bear. He’ll bring home three pelts for the pack.” He looked between the two of them. “Did you need him?”

Christa let out a brief gasp when Ymir nudged her hard on the back. She fidgeted at the curious look on Bertholdt’s face, and then cleared her throat. “I was hoping to talk to commander Braun.”

He tilted his head, slowly looking to Ymir. He raised a brow when she only smirked. After a moment, he sighed, smiled, and looked at Christa. “Well, all right. Let’s go find him. Follow me.”

They started off, heading into the forest. It was dark within, and the ground was buried under snow. Christa did her best to keep up, but fell behind quickly. Bertholdt noticed first, and he stopped to let her catch up. Smiling again, he changed into his wolf-man form, carefully picked Christa up, and arranged her to sit on one of his shoulders.

Ymir looked at them, clearly amused. “What the hell are you doing?”

“She’s going to have to hurry to keep up with us,” Bertholdt said. “That’s hard with short legs and a long dress.” He looked at Christa with deep brown eyes, smiling as his wolfen face allowed. “This should be a little easier, right?”

“Erm, yes,” said Christa. She tentatively put her arm around the back of his neck, leaning in to keep from tipping. “Thank you, Bertholdt.”

“You’re welcome,” he said pleasantly. He sniffed the air and changed direction. Ymir followed, and they went deeper and deeper into the forest.

————

The forge was buried within the castle itself, cutting into the mountain. Annie led Mikasa through the halls, holding tight to her hand despite looks sent their way. They had reached a pair of large metal doors when Annie stopped moving.

“What’s wrong?” Mikasa asked.

Wait! Please wait!

They turned to find a wolf, brown shot through heavily with black, charging down the hall they’d come from. Though Mikasa tensed, Annie squeezed her hand before letting go and stepping forward. The wolf came to a halt before Annie, panting and looking eager. It slipped past Annie suddenly, circling around Mikasa and sniffing her with abandon.

“Hanji,” said Annie, “what are you doing?”

The wolf vanished inside a cloud of steam, and Mikasa found herself face-to-face with a person with their brown hair pulled back, glasses on their face, and wearing a hopeful smile.

“The wolf-slayer,” they said, starting to circle around Mikasa again. “The witch, Mikasa Ackerman. Barely older than twenty years and a highly regarded captain of Reiss’ army. I never thought I’d meet the girl who keeps slipping out of my traps.”

Mikasa slowly raised a brow. “You’re Hanji the strategist.”

They stopped in front of Mikasa and held out their hand. “Yes, Hanji Zoe. Very nice to meet you, miss Ackerman.”

Mikasa looked to Annie. Annie, in turn, shrugged and said, “I told you they’re weird.”

Mikasa sighed, but gave Hanji her hand. They shook briefly before Hanji used their free hand to point at Mikasa’s sword.

“May I see that?” she asked.

“Why?”

“I heard from Armin that you’re going to melt it down. I would like to know what it smells like.”

Mikasa could not hold back her baffled look, but recovered when Hanji laughed. She said, “Well…all right,” and drew her sword.

Hanji took the sword as a human and changed into their bipedal form to smell it closely. Though their snout wrinkled at first, they kept at it and sniffed every last inch of the blade, the guard, and the hilt. They examined the blade, flicking and tapping it with their claws.

“There’s magic on this,” they said after a time. “What is it?”

Mikasa hesitated. “It’s…a permanent bone-cutting spell.”

Hanji changed into their human form, eyes wide and mouth open. They grabbed Mikasa by the shoulders, shaking her hard. Grinning madly, they said, “I knew it! I knew there were magic-users in the southern army! Who taught you? What spells do you know? How many soldiers have a bone-cutting spell on their swords?” They meant to go on, but stopped when a wolf-woman Annie caught them by the wrists and pulled their hands away from Mikasa. They tilted their head back as Annie looked down at them, and smiled charmingly.

“Sorry,” Hanji said with a chuckle. “It’s very exciting to discover new things about our enemies.”

Annie sighed and let them go, changing back into her human form.

Mikasa took back the sword when Hanji offered it. After sheathing it, she said, “The only other person I know of who has that spell on his sword is corporal Levi. He taught it to me.”

Both Annie and Hanji grew tense, looking at each other. With an even voice belied by the dark cast in her eyes, Annie asked, “What else did he teach you?”

“A few spells for combat. He only did it because general Erwin ordered him to. Levi hates teaching anyone anything, and he barely made an exception for me.”

“Small favors, I suppose,” Hanji murmured. They then began to prod and pinch Mikasa, gauging her muscles. “Are there any spells on your body? Even if your sword has a bone-cutting spell on it, you’d have to be strong to use it well.”

“Not that I’m aware of. Levi wouldn’t have wanted an upstart like me getting any higher in the ranks, so he never taught me any spells to increase my strength.” She gasped when Hanji, in their bipedal form again, picked her up under her arms and held her well off the ground.

Hanji laughed. “You feel like you’re all muscle. You’re almost as heavy as some young wolves.”

“Put her down,” Annie said in a tired sigh.

They set Mikasa on her feet, but did not release her. “Annie, this girl and Armin are the best sources of information to enter the castle in decades. Can’t you let me examine her?”

Seeing displeasure growing on Annie’s face, Mikasa said, “It’s all right. If I can help, I will.” She stiffened when Hanji picked her up again and swung her from side to side as they laughed.

“You’re a good soldier,” Hanji said, setting her down and letting her go.

Looking impatient, Annie said, “You can’t do experiments on her. Humans don’t heal well.”

After changing into their human form, Hanji smiled. “I already know most of the physical and mental limits of humans. I want her methods and techniques.”

Annie crossed her arms and lifted a brow.

Hanji held up their hands, anxiety touching their smile. “Okay, maybe some experiments. She’s a fascinating specimen.”

“Like what?” Annie said sternly.

“Well, I’d like to know some of her limits, since she seems to be tougher than most humans. And I want to know what she meant by combat magic, and the limits of her magic.” They slipped behind Mikasa and buried their nose behind her ear, breathing slow and deep. They murmured, “Your scent’s like Ymir’s, but fundamentally different. Have you ever tested what you can do with magic?”

Mikasa stepped away from them, rubbing at her ear. “No. There were never many spells to pick up in the south, and I never got someone from the east to teach me more than healing and hunting spells before our battalion had to move out.”

“Fascinating,” Hanji said. “We’ll have to get Ymir to teach you.”

“Ymir wouldn’t teach her anything except how to set herself on fire,” Annie said.

For a few brief seconds, Hanji looked as though they would protest. They put a hand to their chin and sighed. “You’re probably right.” They thought, tapping their thumb on their chin. Their smile eventually returned, and they threw an arm around Mikasa’s shoulders.

“I know a good deal of magic, so we should be okay to test things until Ymir comes around,” they said. To Annie’s scowl, they said, “I promise I won’t hurt her. I wouldn’t dare harm a hair on her head, or that pretty little bastard of the king’s. Having either you or Ymir coming after me is a thought I don’t want to entertain.”

It took a small reassuring smile from Mikasa for Annie to relax. Frowning still, she muttered, “Fine.” Her frown slipped when Hanji reached out and scratched behind one of her ears; she tilted into the touch and smiled.

“Best way to charm our leaders,” Hanji whispered to Mikasa. “Though she’s not as bad as commander Braun.”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” Mikasa said as Hanji drew back their hand.

Annie exhaled slowly and turned to the doors. “Come on.” She pushed them open, releasing a wave of hot air. The noise of forging came to them, all clanging and hisses as red-hot metal was submerged in water.

Mikasa stared at the large forge and the workers milling about. “What do wolves need with a forge?”

“The things we make with the ore from the mountains are some of our most important exports,” said Hanji. “Haven’t you heard of wolf steel?”

“We were told wolf steel was weak and brittle. I assume that was a lie?”

Hanji grinned. “Our forge masters Franz and Hannah can lecture you on it more than I can, but wolf steel is some of the highest quality steel in the world. You’ll like the results.”

Mikasa looked at Annie, who shrugged and said, “We make a lot of money on it. It’ll improve your sword.” She quickened her pace to reach a tall man and a woman who only came up to his chin.

They startled on seeing Annie, but the woman stepped forward with a smile. “Hello, miss Leonhardt! We never see you here!”

The man smiled as well. “If you’ve got a special request, Hannah and I will do our best!”

Annie pointed lazily over her shoulder toward Mikasa. “She needs to reforge her sword. Make it better than before.”

Hannah went to Mikasa, holding out her hands. “May I?” She took the sword and examined it. After a moment of smelling it, she stiffened. “This sword has been used to kill a lot of wolves.”

Discomfort flashed across Mikasa’s face. “I would like to get the smell off of it. That’s possible if we reforge it, isn’t it?”

She bit her lip, anxious and uncertain, but drew a deep breath and smiled again. “Yes, that’ll get the smell off.” She turned to the man and said, “Franz, you’re best with single-edged swords. Come here.”

He went to her and took the sword. He tested its weight and balance, and made a cut on his thumb to check its edge. “This is a good blade. How old is it?”

“About five years.”

He nodded as he thought. “You forged this by folding it, right?”

“Yes.”

He nodded a final time, and then put the sword on his shoulder. “We’ve got just what you need. Do you want to get started now, miss, um—”

“Mikasa. And yes, if we could.” She followed him away.

Hannah, though, paused to say, “It’s going to take a few days, miss Leonhardt. I can send word for you when it’s done.”

“I’m fine staying right here,” said Annie. Before Hannah could speak against this, Annie changed into her wolf form and sat down.

Hanji laughed and patted Hannah on the shoulder. “You know she’ll stay out of the way. Go help Franz and Mikasa.” When Hannah had nodded and gone off, Hanji changed into their wolf form and sat down, facing Annie.

So the rumors are true. You’re protecting her.

Annie looked at them coolly and gave no reply.

Hanji lifted a paw and put it on top of Annie’s muzzle. I’m not Reiner. I don’t care if you like her.

You were telling her that she slipped out of your traps.

Hanji pushed down on her muzzle, slipping their paw away when Annie tried to bite it. You vouched for her when she asked to be turned into a wolf, or so Armin said. Did you lie?

What would I gain from lying to my pack?

Her.

Annie made no movement beyond blinking slowly.

Hanji sighed, moved to Annie’s side, and pushed Annie over. Before Annie could get back up, Hanji dropped down beside her, one arm draped heavy over Annie’s neck. Annie bared her fangs, but Hanji closed their mouth on Annie’s ear and tugged less than gently.

Their voice was frustrated in Annie’s head. Sometimes you four are barely better than pups. You and Ymir are the worst, honestly. Why is it a problem to be with her?

That’s a stupid question and you know it. It’s not like you and Petra, or Reiner and Bertholdt. It’s not even like whatever it is Ymir and Christa have. Her voice grew soft to Hanji. I want her to be safe.

But you want her with you, too.

Annie did not answer, looking at the floor.

Hanji took her meaning and let go of her ear. Reiner will be a tough sell.

Annie remained silent.

Hanji thought for a long while. When Annie heard them again, their voice was cheery. I have an idea. Put her in my care, and I’ll figure out some ways to make her look better to Reiner and Ymir.

Annie looked at them from the corner of her eye. Why would you do that?

You were the one who spared my life when Ymir took the throne. Why wouldn’t I help you?

For a few more moments, Annie was silent and still. She looked away and closed her eyes. All right. Do what you can.

Hanji gave Annie a lick behind one ear before changing into their human form. “Send word to me when she’s got her new sword.”

Sure. She did not watch Hanji go, instead concentrating on the sounds of the forge and the scent of Mikasa that she could still catch past ash, steel, and sweat.

————

“How the hell far did he go?” Ymir grumbled.

Bertholdt sniffed the air, and again when a breeze swept through the trees. He said, “Just a bit further. I think bears are starting to realize Reiner hunts them, so they’re not living so close to Utgard anymore.” He paused as Christa pushed a low-hanging branch out of their way. “Thank you.”

Christa smiled and let go of the branch when they were clear of it. “Thank you for helping us find commander Braun.”

“Can I ask why you want to talk to him?”

“It’s something about the way. Something I’ve been curious about for a long time.”

Bertholdt nodded and asked nothing more. He led them onward, soon reaching the start of a bloody trail in the snow.

Christa gripped Bertholdt’s fur. “That’s not from commander Braun, is it?”

He chuckled. “No, that’s bear blood. He found his prey here.” They followed the trail, and Christa took comfort in Bertholdt never flinching when the blood splatters grew larger and more numerous. Eventually, they reached a clearing where Reiner, in his wolf-man form, sat carefully skinning the pelt of an enormous black bear. Two more pelts lay next to him, their carcasses off to the side.

Reiner looked up on their approach, eyes widening at Christa perched on Bertholdt’s shoulder. He narrowed them when Bertholdt put her on her feet and changed into his human form. Chuffing, he resumed skinning the bear.

“What?” he said, voice tight.

Christa hesitated. Bertholdt gently pushed her forward, and she swallowed. “Commander Braun? May I ask you something?”

What?” he demanded.

“Are, erm, are you close to winning the war?”

He paused, glancing at her. He looked back to the bear. “Closer now that the witch is out of the picture.”

She bit down on her tongue and said nothing for a moment. She drew a slow breath. “What will you do to my father if you win?”

“Either Ymir or I will eat him.”

“I see.” She took another breath, deeper than before. “I hope you win.”

Reiner froze. Slowly, he turned to look at her. “What?”

“I hope you win, and I hope that my father isn’t killed before you and Ymir get to him.”

He stared. He stood, changing into his human form, and came toward her. She swallowed, but did not move from where she stood. Even when he leaned down and put his face close to hers, she did not pull away.

“You want your country to lose the war?” he asked.

“I want the war to end.”

“And you’re fine with your enemies winning?”

“You’re not my enemies.”

He exhaled through his nose. “So you want your father dead?”

“I want him defeated.”

“Why? Because he sent you to us as a sacrifice?”

Christa frowned, her shoulders starting to shake. “Would you have done that to your daughter?”

Reiner sneered. “Do I look like a coward? I would go with her if she really had to go to my enemies. Anyone who doesn’t is unworthy of their child.”

“Ymir said that you’d eat someone sooner than let them do what my father did to me. Is that true?”

“It is.”

“Then isn’t that what my father deserves?”

He was silent for a long while. “What would you do for us?”

“I…I have no strategies to give you like Armin, or power to serve you like Mikasa and Eren.”

“Tell me something I don’t know.”

“I would lead you all to the throne room in Sina. Give you safe passage like Annie did for us.”

“And watch while we eat Reiss?”

She opened her mouth, but found she could not trust her voice. Instead, she looked him in the eye and nodded firmly. She did her best not to stiffen when he put his bloody right hand under her chin and tilted her face. He sniffed softly at her temple, and moved behind her to breathe in the scent of her hair. Coming back to her front, he sniffed quickly at her lips.

Reiner straightened up, and there was curiosity in his face when he asked, “Did you kiss Ymir?”

Face, neck, and ears burning, Christa put a hand over her mouth and stammered into her fingers. She stopped, took a breath, and lowered her hand. “I, erm…I did.”

He looked at Ymir, who smiled smugly. He raised a brow, the corner of his mouth lifting. “I didn’t think you’d make her do that. What did she bribe you for?”

“No, it’s not like that!” Christa protested. “She was very sweet!”

Reiner and Bertholdt looked at each other before turning to Ymir. Her smile lost some smugness in the way a blush took to her cheeks. Reiner’s stoic expression cracked first when he snorted, and then he began to laugh.

“Shut up, Braun,” Ymir said.

“But she called you ‘sweet,’ Ymir!” Reiner laughed. “I’ve never heard anyone call you that!”

Christa caught how quickly Ymir’s frown darkened, how quickly she showed her fangs, and acted on a thought more than making a decision. She pinched Reiner hard on the side to make him stop laughing, and went to Ymir. Putting her hands on Ymir’s stomach, she waited for Ymir to look at her.

“Don’t hurt him,” she said firmly.

Ymir looked at her silently.

“Please.”

“He laughed at me.”

“Because of something I said.”

“So I should get mad at you?”

“If you have to get mad at all, yes.” She held Ymir’s steadily, hands not shaking on Ymir’s stomach. She blinked when Ymir sighed and took her by the chin.

“You got blood on her, Reiner,” Ymir said. She licked her fingers and cleaned away the blood on Christa’s face. “Don’t you think she’s too pretty to have blood on her face?”

Reiner grinned. “I thought she looked pretty good with your blood on her face.”

“She’ll do the same to you if you piss her off.”

Christa pushed Ymir’s hand away enough to turned toward Reiner. “Commander Braun, I swear I won’t.”

His grin grew larger. “Just to Ymir?”

“Only if she has to, I’d think,” Bertholdt said, winking at Christa. He laughed when Ymir pelted him with snow, and again when Reiner pitched snow of his own at Ymir. While they were distracted with each other, he struck a blow on both their heads with handfuls of snow. Christa stepped quickly aside as they began to lope around the clearing, throwing snow and tackling each other.

She watched, back to a tree, and wondered if it was all right. The tackling was rough, as were the subsequent escapes. Bit by bit, though, Bertholdt’s solitary laughter was joined by Reiner, and soon she could hear Ymir starting to laugh when her feet were knocked out from beneath her. A touch of daring took Christa. She crouched don and gathered snow in her hands. Forming it into a ball, she waited for the trio to come her way again.

Though her aim had been Ymir, she was spotted at the last moment. Ymir ducked aside, and the snowball landed on Reiner’s ear as he chased after her. He yelped at the cold, and spun to face Christa with his eyes wide. She stared back, heart knocking in her chest for being unsure of his expression.

“Did you throw that at me?” he asked.

“I—no, I, that—I was aiming for Ymir,” she said. “I’m sorry I hit you.”

He frowned, but curiously. He scooped up a large handful of snow, his hands long since cleaned off, and went to Christa. Before she could react, Reiner dumped the snow down the back of her dress. Christa shrieked behind tightly closed lips, and punched Reiner on the chest when she realized he was laughing. He ruffled her hair with a cold hand.

“Now we’re even,” he said. He sank down on one knee as she shook the last of the snow out of her dress. When she was looking at him, he put his hands on her shoulders. “I’m going to hold you to your promise about getting us into the throne room.

She smiled and nodded. “Absolutely, commander.”

He chuckled. “‘Reiner’ is fine, little lost Renz girl.”

“Christa,” she replied. “And I have three excellent hunters with me, so I’m not lost.”

Ymir leaned heavily on Reiner’s shoulders with her elbows. She grinned toothily at Christa. “I’m best, though.”

“Hey, who just took down three bears on his own?” Reiner said, pushing her off.

“They smell old. Did you pick off their elders?”

Reiner opened his mouth to argue, but Christa reached out to scratch behind his ears. He let out a startled grunt, but quickly groaned tunefully and smiled. When she stopped scratching and smiled back, he blushed. Looking over his shoulder at Ymir, he said, “You told her to do that.”

“Yep.”

He sighed, taking to his feet, and rubbed the back of his neck. He looked at Christa, who continued to smile brightly at him. After a moment, he smiled back and stroked her head. “Go on back to the castle. I need to finish skinning this bear.” He went to Bertholdt to kiss him before changing back into his wolf-man form and returning to the bear.

Though Christa would have stayed to watch in fascination, she was abruptly picked up off the ground. She did not startle or struggle as Ymir, in her wolf-woman form, settled her on her shoulder. Less tentatively than with Bertholdt did she wrap her arm around the back of Ymir’s neck for balance, and she did not flinch when Ymir put a large, clawed hand on her hip to hold her steady. Bertholdt looked at them with a smile, but said nothing as they started away.

“Maybe you should be my negotiator from now one,” Ymir said after a time. “You charmed him pretty fast.”

“What?” Christa said, laughing nervously. “No, I’m no negotiator.”

“It seemed that way at the town,” Bertholdt said. “I wouldn’t mind the help.”

“We still need to introduce you to more of the country,” said Ymir. She drummed her fingers on Christa’s hip, minding her claws. “Bert, how close is the next town?”

“About a day’s walk, if we’re taking the humans.”

Ymir tilted her head to look at Christa. “Do you know how long it’ll take to remake the witch’s sword?”

“You’d have to ask Mikasa. I don’t know anything about making weapons.”

“You ask.”

Christa frowned, pushing at one of Ymir’s tall ears. “It’s not like she’ll attack you for asking. Besides, she swore her fealty to you. She’ll answer any question you ask her.”

Ymir rumbled low in her throat, but stopped short when Christa gently scratched behind her ear. She patted Christa’s hip, and they went on in silence until they reached the edge of the first and the end of the snow. Ymir set Christa on her feet before changing into her wolf form and running off toward the town.

“Did I offend her?” Christa asked.

Bertholdt smiled and shook his head. “Sometimes she needs to just run. She’s probably going to go see the—um—sorry, Mikasa.”

Her heart jumped into her throat in ill-defined panic. “Oh God—why wouldn’t she take me? She hates Mikasa!”

He laughed. “I’ll bet you three gold coins that Annie is still with her. It’ll be all right.”

“Are you sure?”

He put a hand on her shoulder. “Here’s something about Ymir. She only kills her enemies or people who’ve betrayed us. Mikasa pledged her loyalty, and Ymir chose to accept it. It’ll be just fine.” He patted her shoulder when she gave him a small smile. “Now, would you like to see the town? You haven’t had much of a chance to see it yet.”

“Oh! Yes, if we could.”

“Good! It’ll give us something to do until dinner.” He led her back to town and through the streets, introducing her to anyone they came across.”

————

Annie sat on a far worktable, Mikasa’s scarf around her neck and over her nose. She drowsed to the sounds of the forge, chin creeping toward her chest. Her grogginess was so deep that she almost did not catch Ymir’s scent as she entered the chamber. Startled, she could only watch as Ymir strode toward where Mikasa was working with Franz and Hannah. She bolted to her feet and caught up with Ymir, grabbing hold of her sleeve. Ymir looked at her.

“What?” she asked.

“Why are you here?”

“I want to know how long it’ll take to finish her sword,” Ymir said, jabbing her thumb at Mikasa.

Annie stared, and then slowly let go of her sleeve. “A few days.”

“What, really?”

“Yes.”

She sighed, itching the back of her neck. She looked up at the vents in the high ceiling, at the forge itself, and at Mikasa again. “Are you two going to be in here the whole time?”

“Yes.”

Ymir went silent, looking once more to the glowing innards of the forge. She stood and thought, and Annie waited patiently. Eventually, she said, “Okay. Tell me when she’s ready to leave for another town.” Seeing Annie starting to scowl, she snickered and roughly rubbed Annie’s head. “Fuck, I’m not sending her away. I want to show her and Christa to people.”

Annie stared. “What? Why Mikasa?”

“Because,” Ymir said, grinning, “I want to show everyone that she fights for our country now. They won’t be so scared of her with a new sword.” She thought. “I guess I could show off the other two, too.”

“You…want to show off Mikasa?”

“Yeah. I’ve got Christa to charm people and the witch to show that even the humans of the south hate their king, and that their strongest soldier gave me her allegiance.” Because Annie still frowned, she sighed and said, “Would it help if I said this is also to try and make them all more appealing so they don’t get attacked?”

“Is that the truth?”

“Hey, no way am I letting Christa get targeted anymore. And I don’t want to lose a strong solider like the witch when—” She stopped abruptly, eyes falling on the scarf around Annie’s neck. She looked at Mikasa, finding her neck to be bare.

Annie stiffened and blushed when Ymir looked back to her, brows raised. She said, “She didn’t want to get sweat on it while she worked.”

“But why the hell are you wearing it?”

She did not stumble or stammer, instead staying quiet and closing her hands into fists out of tension.

Ymir slowly frowned, crossing her arms. “Well?”

“‘Well’ what?” Annie replied.

“Did you tell her to ask to be turned into a wolf?”

“No.”

“But you’d like it if I did that.”

She kept her mouth firmly closed. Looking as though it took a great struggle to accomplish it, she looked Ymir in the eye and nodded very slightly.

Ymir did not react, did not move, did not speak. She watched Annie, and Annie watched her in return. After a long while of silence, she softly asked, “What are you going to say to Reiner?”

“I don’t know,” Annie said, her voice even quieter than Ymir’s.

Ymir opened her mouth slightly, but said nothing when an anxious request came into Annie’s eyes. When her silence continued, Annie exhaled through her nose.

“I know,” Annie muttered. “I’ll figure it out.”

A moment passed where Ymir looked startled. Then, her mouth twisted and she put her hands to her forehead, snarling. She grabbed Annie by the wrist and dragged her to an empty corner of the room. She changed into her wolf form, sat down, and glowered at Annie until she did the same.

Ymir sent her words only to Annie. Why the fuck do you want her so much? She’s the witch.

Annie’s hackles rose. She’s not evil. She won’t kill our people unless they attack her or if we order her to. She isn’t the bastard, and she doesn’t think we’re monsters. All she wants is to… Her hackles came down; her eyes lowered.

To what?

To be with me.

Ymir’s ears pulled back for a moment, but she snorted and shook her head. She itched one ear for a time, sweeping her tail violently on the floor. Growling again, she clamped her mouth down on the length of Annie’s muzzle and held on when Annie startled.

What do you want me to do?

Annie stared, frozen stiff. What?

I know you hate the word “please” more than I do, but that’s what I need. Ask me to do something. She let go of Annie’s muzzle. Well?

She hesitated. Eventually, she chose her words. I want her. I want her to be safe. Here. With me. She hesitated again. Don’t call her a witch anymore. Don’t send her away or try to get her killed. The last word she sent to Ymir was barely more than a whisper. Please.

Ymir went still, tail stopping, and looked at Annie so closely that Annie’s ears began to droop. She tilted her head slightly, and then swept her tail back and forth once. She stood up and turned slightly, but sent a word to Annie. Okay.

Okay?

Yeah. Okay. Tell me when she’s ready to leave for another town. She padded off and slipped out of the room in her human form. Annie stared at the door, throat tight and filled with uncertainty. She let out a sigh lost in the noise of the room, and moved in closer to where Mikasa was working. Sitting on an unused worktable, she pulled the scarf over her nose once more and watched Mikasa.

————

Christa kept her hand in her dress pocket as she and Bertholdt came back to the castle, toying with what she had put there. Bertholdt paused at the door, looking to the sky. It was deeply dark, speckled with stars and clouds.

“Definitely dinnertime,” he said. He paused again, stepping a few paces away and sniffing. “Huh. Ymir left the castle again a little bit ago.”

“Oh,” Christa said softly, shoulders falling.

He turned, saw the dejection on her face, and went to pat her on the back. “It’s fine. She comes and goes at strange hours. Why don’t we find your other friends? I haven’t really met them.”

“All right,” said Christa. Still, as they went inside, she asked, “When do you suppose Ymir will come back?”

He shrugged. “Sooner or later. She doesn’t announce when she’s leaving like this or when she’ll be back.”

“What does she do when she’s gone?”

“Sometimes she hunts, sometimes she climbs the mountain to think, and sometimes she just runs until she’s tired.” He noticed her hand in her pocket and her small frown. “She’ll like it, don’t worry.”

She jerked her hand out of her pocket, blushing. When he smiled, she laughed nervously. Her laughing stopped when he rubbed her head, and he gestured for her to follow him. Deeper into the castle they went, seeking out Armin and Eren. They found the pair in the kitchen, raiding the dry stores with Connie’s help. At first sight of Bertholdt, Connie panicked, dropped the food in his arms, and bolted in his wolf form.

Eren casually bit into the dried meat he had pilfered, brow raised. Armin looked between him and Bertholdt anxiously, but Bertholdt only chuckled.

“I haven’t broken into the pantry in a long time,” said Bertholdt. “Mind if Christa and I join you for dinner?”

Eren stopped chewing. He looked askance at Bertholdt, but Christa smiled hopefully at him. He turned away, went into the storeroom, and returned with an apple and a piece of dried meat. He tossed them to Christa and Bertholdt respectively. Though he did not smile, he did not argue or try to force Bertholdt to leave. He listened while the other three talked, only interjecting by way of getting more food when their hands emptied.

Christa kept throwing glances at the door to the kitchen, but no one that came in did anything more than nod to Bertholdt. Though she was certain Annie and Mikasa would not appear, Reiner did not track Bertholdt down and join them. A part of her felt dismay when they separated for the night without Ymir having shown her face. She made no comment to Bertholdt as he escorted her to her room, her eyes on the floor.

“Reiner?” Bertholdt said as they rounded the last corner before her room.

She looked up in time to see Reiner at her door, straightening up and putting something hastily behind his back. Curiosity filled her as Reiner turned red and took a few steps backward.

“Reiner, what’re you doing here?” Bertholdt asked.

“Uh,” Reiner said. “Looking for…you.”

Bertholdt stared a moment before smiling and leaning down to whisper in Christa’s ear. She looked surprised but pleased as he stood up, and Reiner went red to the tips of his ears.

“What’s behind your back?” Christa asked.

He was silent, and then snarled a sigh and took long strides to her. From behind his back he pulled a folded up black bear skin, and he put it in Christa’s hands. She stared at it, brows raised and mouth open.

“Don’t want you cold at night,” Reiner grumbled. “Since you’re so tiny.”

“Thank you,” Christa said, faint with shock. “But…I thought you only killed three bears. Wasn’t it just for you and your pack?”

“What’s one more bear?” he said with a shrug. He frowned as Bertholdt grinned at him, but went ramrod straight when Christa hugged him. Startled, he looked from Christa to Bertholdt and back again before paying her on the head. Once she had let go, he smiled and said, “All right, it’s late. Better go to bed before Ymir comes to steal you away.”

She thought of what she carried in her pocket and felt her heart stutter. “Erm—did you see her again after we all left?”

“Who, Ymir? No, but she’ll be back soon.” He smirked. “Are you missing her?”

Christa stammered, but Bertholdt took pity by coming forward and putting his arm around Reiner’s shoulders. He bade Christa good night and led Reiner away, leaving her to herself for the rest of the night. When she dressed in the morning, she made sure to wear something with pockets.

Despite this, she did not encounter Ymir the entire morning, nor any of the ruling pack. She explored the castle on her own, seeing if she could find ways out of getting lost in the hallways and rooms. Servants and guards now recognized her by sight and smell, and they directed her when she was caught in a loop. Eventually, she went back into the town and to the streets.

Where people had been too anxious to speak to her the day before, they approached her now with great curiosity. She answered all their questions about the south, or what she could. The children that clustered around her tended to ask strange questions about how she hunted when she was so small and smelled of sweet things. They could not quite comprehend her status as a noble, or the concept of her not killing her own food. Still, they begged her for pets and scratches while their parents watched and smiled.

As they day turned cool and late, Christa contemplated heading back into the castle. She looked up at Castle Utgard, eating a pastry that a baker had given her as a present. Her eyes traced where the brick work faded into the mountain, so smoothly that she could not determine what had been placed by wolfen hands.

“L-lady Renz?”

She swallowed and turned around. A woman stood behind her, a small pup bundled in her arms. Fear showed in her face, in the slant of her brow. Christa looked at her for a few seconds before recognition hit her. She said, “You were in the town! Your pup—are they all right? Ymir didn’t hurt them, did she?”

The woman shook her head, but looked even more panicked. “He’s fine, but—milady, please, I don’t know what’s going on!”

“What do you mean?”

“Her majesty summoned me! She sent specific orders for me to come here and bring my son!” She clutched the pup to her breast, looking as though she would cry. “Milady, please, I don’t know what she wants with us! What—what if…” Her breath hitched. “What if she’s angry?”

Christa smiled as gently as she could, putting her hands on the woman’s elbows. “You’ll both be just fine. I was the one who hit Ymir. Here, did she say she wanted to see you today?”

“Yes. I’ve…been avoiding the castle.”

She stepped to the woman’s side and began to guide her forward. “Come on. She gets impatient. I promise you’ll be okay.” Despite the woman’s hesitance, she led her inside. She took a more winding path through the halls to give the woman time to calm down. There seemed to be more movement in the halls than before, heading inward. Just as the woman managed to lose the edge of her panic, Marco, on patrol, spotted them.

“Miss Maria?” he said, coming over. He smiled and rubbed the pup’s head. “Hello Dale. What’re you two doing here?”

“Her highness sent for us,” Maria said, shoulders drooping.

“So that’s why people are in the throne room,” he said, looking toward where he’d come from. He turned back and smiled as Maria trembled and clutched her pup more tightly. “Come on, miss Maria. Christa won’t let anything happen to you two.” He put a gentle arm around her shoulders and guided them both along. Wolves that had gathered curiously at the door stepped aside on seeing Christa, and she led the way when Maria hesitated.

Ymir sat stretched out in her throne, fingers laced over her stomach and legs straight. She stared at her toes, wiggling them idly, as Reiner and Bertholdt stood nearby. To Christa’s surprise, there were a large number of wolves in the room, including people from the town. Ymir looked up on catching Christa’s scent, turning her eyes past Christa to the woman huddled against Marco’s side.

“Your highness, your guests have arrived,” Marco said in a clear voice to carry through the room. All at once, the low drone of murmured conversation stopped. Maria stopped breathing, looking as though she would bolt. She startled when Christa took one of her hands and pulled her forward. They stopped before the throne, both bowing their heads before Christa stepped away.

Ymir stared at the top of Maria’s head, as she refused to look up and meet her eye. She sighed quietly, tilting her head. “Look at me.”

Maria flinched, eventually raising her head. She met Ymir’s gaze, but could not speak.

“What’re your names?” Ymir asked.

She swallowed hard, and managed to softly say, “My name is Maria, your majesty. My son’s name is Dale.”

Ymir was quiet for a long while. She looked at Christa from the corner of her eye, a twinge of anxiety visible in her. Christa smiled encouragingly, unsure but hopeful. Ymir smiled briefly, and to Maria she said, loud and brash, “I was an ass to your son. I’m sorry.”

There wasn’t a single person who didn’t look as though they had been slapped in the face, and Maria most of all. She stared, and then slowly looked to Christa. Christa, something peculiar swelling in her chest, came out of shock and smiled brightly at Maria. With slightly less fear, Maria turned back to Ymir.

“Your majesty?” she said.

Ymir held up a hand, lifting her first finger. “You can make one request of me.”

“Wh-what?”

“I’ll grant you one request to make up for being an ass. What do you want?”

Maria gaped. She looked down. After a long time of silence, she swallowed and lifted her head. “M-milady, I…my son.”

“What about him?”

“He,” she said, and hesitated. He snuffled against her chest, and she took a breath. “He…he’s a year and a half old. And he’s still so little.”

Ymir stared, something hard in her gaze. Flatly, she said, “He’s your runt.”

Maria flinched. “He—he’s my only child, your highness.” Fingers shaking on the pup’s back, she said, “Please—you’re so skilled with magic. Can…could you make him strong and healthy like you and your pack?”

After a moment more of staring, Ymir blinked. When she stood, her eyes were without an edge, something more gentle in them as she made her way down the steps. She paused, looking uncomfortable, when the pup spotted her and began to whimper. Christa stepped in and, wordlessly, brought them all to sitting on the floor. She shushed Dale gently, rubbing his ears and the scruff of his neck with one hand and letting him sniff the other. When he had calmed, Ymir lifted him slowly out of Maria’s la and put him in her own. She ran her hand the length of his back over and over, and then began to murmur to him.

Christa listened closely. As she heard it, Ymir bade to pup to cast off his weakness, take in no sickness, and become so strong he need not fear enemies. Even as she said this, Dale’s sleepy eyes grew clearer, more aware. Her spell continued, granting him growth soon to come to match his age and, with a touch of Ymir’s fingers to his throat, a gift of magic for himself.

She lifted her hands, and Dale took to his paws. He looked about, sniffing with excitement, before bounding off Ymir’s legs and into Christa’s lap. She giggled as he put his paws on her shoulders and licked furiously at her face. There was only enough time to pet him once before he leaped away into his mother’s waiting arms. She held him as best he could for his excited squirming, and looked up to Ymir with tears in her eyes.

“By our Lady Mond,” Maria said, voice shaking. “Your majesty, I—we—” She bowed as best she could seated and sobbed, “Thank you.”

Ymir shrugged, smiling crookedly. “He should be healthy for the rest of his life, and pretty strong.”

Maria straightened up to nod, smiling. Dale chose this moment to squirm out of her lap. He ran some distance before sitting down and letting out a howl. The wolves laughed, and Maria explained to Christa, “He’s not even saying anything. He’s just happy.” She laughed, disbelieving, as Dale sprinted back to her and tugged hard at her sleeve. She looked at Ymir and Christa both. “Miladies, I don’t know how to thank you.”

Ymir waggled a hand dismissively. “I was saying sorry. Don’t worry about it.”

“You should head home before it gets too late,” Christa said. “I’m sure everyone will be so excited to see him.”

She nodded, wiping the tears from her eyes, and took to her feet. She left with Marco as her escort, and Christa could not stop smiling. She could still see sharp surprise on many faces around her, including Reiner’s. Holding down on giggles, she looked at Ymir as she stood up. Ymir offered her hand, lifting her easily off the floor.

“Good, right?” Ymir asked.

She let a giggle slip past her lips. “Yes, that was very good of you. Thank you.”

A grin took her, showing one fang. “It’s not bad playing nice.”

Christa put her hand in her pocket and said, “I’ll do something nice for you now.”

“Huh?”

“Kneel down for a minute.”

Ymir looked at her skeptically, but relented with a sigh. Christa slipped behind her, carefully gathering Ymir’s loose hair. Before Ymir could grumble a question, Christa took the hair clip from her pocket and snapped it in place. She stepped back to Ymir’s front, putting her hands behind her back and smiling.

“I saw this in a shop when Bertholdt was showing me around,” she said, feeling her cheeks start to burn. “I thought you might like it, since you’re always scratching at your neck.”

Silently, slowly, Ymir put her hands on the clip. She took it off and brought it around to look at it. Her eyes lingered on the oval stone that the metal clip was attached to, deep and glossy black shot through with gold. When she looked up at Christa, her brow was raised.

“Erm,” said Christa. “Do…you not like it?”

“You’re giving me a present?”

“Well…yes.”

She toyed with the clip. “Did Bert tell you what this stone is?”

“No, but the shopkeeper called it wolf’s eye.”

She hummed. “It’s made from pieces of obsidian that picked up gold as it came down mountain rivers. It really only comes from a few places in the far north.” She turned it over in her fingers, rubbing at the stone’s glassy surface with her thumb. “I found it sometimes when I was a kid.” As she handed it back, she said, “Put it on me again.”

Christa’s heart jumped into her throat. She smiled, nodded, and put the clip onto Ymir’s hair once more. As Ymir stood up, she stepped back. “It looks really good on you.”

Ymir flicked at her hair before rubbing her bared neck. She smiled at Christa. “Thanks.” Before Christa could reply, she leaned down and kissed her quickly.

Christa squeaked, putting a hand to her mouth. Blushing badly, she said, “You didn’t ask!”

“What, I have to ask every time I want a kiss?” She dodged when Christa aimed a kick at her ankle, slipping in a kiss to Christa’s brow before laughing and dashing away in her wolf form. Christa looked after her, feeling like laughing herself. The cheer passed from her to every wolf she went by, even as most stared at her as though she were unreal.