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Wolves of the North

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By the time her sword was finished three days after beginning, Mikasa was exhausted to the point of being unwilling to talk. She managed to thank Franz and Hannah before giving up on words and walking toward Annie. Her face was smeared with as, as were her hands and arms. Annie took her hand regardless and led her out from the forge. The looks sent Mikasa’s way then were startled ones, as though they did not recognize her at all.

“‘M I that dirty?” Mikasa asked.

“Everyone knew you by the scent on your sword,” Annie replied. “They probably didn’t know who you are for a second.” She gripped Mikasa’s hand tighter, pulling her back from the direction she tried to go. When Mikasa looked at her in confusion, she said nothing and pulled her arm more firmly. Mikasa followed her lead through a roundabout path that doubled back and slipped through a few passageways that Mikasa had never noticed before. They reached the inside of Annie’s room through one such passage that opened through a wall, and Annie let go of her to lock the door.

“I don’t want anyone tracking you when you’re so tired,” Annie explained.

“Thanks,” Mikasa said, smiling. She looked at herself and asked, “Could I take a bath?”

“You should.” She gestured at the door to the bathroom, but headed to a different wall. As she opened another passageway, she said, “I’ll be back in a minute.”

Mikasa looked after her, at the way the wall melted back together with the barest effort. She went into the bathroom, stripping quickly and leaning her sword against the bathtub. She scrubbed off the ash and sweat, or as best she could for her face and neck without a mirror. Stopping the drain, she sat holding her legs with her chin on her knees. Though she tried to keep her eyes open, the hot water and steam sent her drifting, relaxing more and more. The door unlatching made her jump and reach instinctively for her sword.

Annie came inside with clothes bundled in her arms. The startled look on Mikasa’s face made her pause after closing the door.

Quickly, she took her hand from the sword and turned off the water. “Sorry.”

She shrugged and came near. Setting the clothes down, she sat on the edge of the tub and took up the washcloth Mikasa had set aside. “Look at me.” She meticulously cleaned off the smudges still on Mikasa’s face and neck. The blush that came up under her hands made her pause again. “What?”

“Um. You’re…cleaning me.”

“You’re dirty. Why wouldn’t I clean what you missed?”

Mikasa smiled, small with weariness. “Never mind.”

She finished cleaning her before speaking again. “Ymir wants us all to go to the next nearest town as soon as possible.” She held down a sigh at how Mikasa’s smile faded in confusion. “She wants to show off you and Christa specifically.”

“Why me?”

“To show that the south’s greatest wolf-slayer is working for her now.”

Mikasa looked at her knees. When she looked up, there was anxiety in her gaze. “I’m not being sent away, am I?”

“No. Don’t worry.” For a moment she was very still, and then she leaned down slightly. She sat upright immediately and gave Mikasa one more scrub before putting the washcloth down. She went to find a towel, and set it on top of the clothes. As she turned to leave, Mikasa caught her by the wrist.

“Stay,” Mikasa said. “Please. I’m not as jumpy with you here.”

Annie swallowed, looked back, and nodded. She returned to her place on the edge of the tub, and did not resist Mikasa lacing their fingers together. They sat together, silent and still, until Annie noticed Mikasa’s eyes closing. She smiled at this and tugged on Mikasa’s hand to wake her. Because Mikasa did not stand, only blushing, she rolled her eyes and turned away.

She listened then to the sounds of water draining and dripping, and of skin being rubbed dry with soft cloth. She closed her eyes to better focus on Mikasa’s scent, no longer weighed down by death. Traces of stress, sharp and burning, still clung to her, but it was a cleaner and richer scent that she breathed in. She opened her eyes on hearing Mikasa pick up her sword. The sight of Mikasa’s boots on her feet lifted her brow.

“Why are you wearing those?” she asked.

“Don’t you want me to go back to my room?”

“No. Take those off and get in bed to sleep.”

Far too tired to imagine arguing, MIkasa obeyed, setting her boots beside the bed. At first she sat upright against the headboard, sword in her arms as she was used to. She gasped when Annie took her by the ankles and yanked her into lying flat out. She protested incoherently against Annie taking her sword from her, but grew quiet as Annie lay down next to her.

Unable to swallow, barely able to breathe, Mikasa turned onto her side to look at Annie. Annie, in turn, reached out with a nervous hand and pulled her closer. They settled with Annie on her back and Mikasa’s head on her shoulder.

“Go to sleep,” Annie muttered when MIkasa did not breathe.

Mikasa exhaled, nodded, and closed her eyes. Setting her hand on Annie’s stomach calmed her, and she quickly fell asleep. Annie remained awake a few minutes more to hear her quiet breathing.

————

There were a few reasons Christa wanted to watch Ymir after giving her the hair clip, but she would have only admitted to one. She wanted to make sure the clip was fulfilling its purpose and keeping Ymir from scratching her neck. It seemed to do so the following day, because she never saw Ymir itching when they crossed paths. She remained unsure, as they did not speak overmuch that day.

The guards provided the reason why with their conversation. Discussions and planing were happening for an imminent trip of indeterminate length. While the destination was set, the departure waited on Mikasa’s sword to be completed. The revelation that Mikasa would be going caused most guards’ eagerness to waver. It took reassurances from Sasha of Mikasa’s oath for most to accept their assignments. Christa, in the meantime, asked Sasha where exactly they were headed and why, and took eager interest in the map Sasha showed her to explain.

“I’ve never seen a map of the north before!” she said. Rather sheepishly, she admitted, “I was taught it was all wilderness.”

Sasha laughed. “We don’t have cities like I’ve heard of in the south, but we have a lot of towns and villages and farmland.” She smoothed the map when it curled, pressing it down with a weight. Trailing her finger along the roads on the map, she spoke. “There’s a large farming town a day’s walk northwest of here. Most of our trade with them deals with food, though we’ve had a lot of recruits for the army and my guards. News spreads from them quickly due to their food trade. That’s why we’re going there.”

“So word of me and Mikasa will spread faster.”

“Got it in one,” Sasha said, smiling and rubbing Christa’s head. Because Christa looked at her with surprise, she pulled her hand away. “I’m sorry. I’m used to doing that with my guards.”

“No, it’s all right.” She smiled faintly. “Not many people touch you with such familiarity in the south.”

“Not even hugs?” Sasha asked.

She laughed. “Those I’m used to. Pets are something else.”

Grinning, Sasha rubbed Christa’s head again. “We’ll get you up to speed.” She returned to the map, drawing out a picture with gestures while speaking. “Once Miss Leonhardt tells Ymir that Mikasa’s sword is finished, six of my guards will start heading northwest, spread out on either side of the road we’ll take. Six more including me will go with you and your friends, as well as Ymir and her pack.” She thought. “I think Hanji, too. They want to talk to Mikasa, or so I’ve heard.”

“I’ve never met Hanji.”

“Don’t worry. They’re nice—just weird.” She continued on and said, “One of the people sent out before us will arrive first, so we’ll have places to stay ready for us. Six guards will patrol around the town while we’re there, and six guards will patrol inside it.”

“You’re more thorough than the guards I knew in Trost,” Christa said, smiling as she relaxed.

“I wouldn’t be captain if I wasn’t.” She stopped with sudden thought, and then looked anxious. “Do you have warm clothes? It’s going to be a lot colder there.”

“I do. I’ll be all right.”

Sasha continued to look anxious, and Christa did not understand why until two days later when they were miles away from the castle town. Though the road did not have much snow on it, the ground was frozen hard enough that her boot heels were loud against it. Christa kept her arms crossed beneath her cloak, marveling at how the cold turned all of their exhales into clouds.

Eren caught her looking nervously at his bare feet two hours into the journey, and he smiled as he went to her. “You’re not worried about me, are you?”

“A little,” she said. “You’re not cold?”

“Not really,” he replied. “It’s weird—I know it’s really cold out, but I don’t feel it like I used to. It’s like I’m always furry, even if I’m in this form.”

“What is it like?” Christa asked.

“Being a wolf?” He hummed as he thought, a low drone of one note. “Not bad. I thought I’d hate it a lot more. Have to admit it’s nice being this strong.” He grinned, holding out a fisted hand. “Hang on to me.”

She did so with trepidation, and gasped when he lifted her from her feet with no effort and kept walking. She clung to his wrist as he laughed.

“God, you weigh nothing!” He set her down again, grinning at her flustered expression. “Better to be a soldier when you’re this strong.” His grin faded at the strange way Christa stared at the ground. They walked for a time before Eren said, “Christa? What’s wrong?”

She startled and, blushing, stammered, “Oh, no, it’s nothing.” They both stepped away when a wolf with brown and black fur slipped between them.

The wolf looked up at Christa, and she heard a cheerful voice. Hello, Lady Renz.

“Hello,” she said. She looked closely at their fur before admitting, “I’m sorry, but I don’t recognize your coloring. Erm, are you Hanji?” She swallowed hard because the wolf, after changing to their human form, leaned in very close to her.

“I am,” they said. They sniffed lightly at Christa’s hair and neck before picking her up under her arms and carrying her along for a time. Setting her down, they said, “You’re the size I expected you to be. Tell me, is Reiss as small as you?”

“I—I don’t think so. I don’t really know.”

Eren moved to Christa’s other side, holding his hand above her head in a range not as tall as him or Hanji. “He’s about this high if I remember right.”

“Interesting,” said Hanji. “Any siblings your height?”

“I was his only child. Or the only one that lived past two years.”

Excitement filled Hanji’s face. “Is that so? Were these child born of your mother or someone else?”

“They were from his wife, not my mother.”

“I see.” They leaned in again to smell her more carefully. “Were you a sickly child?”

“A-a little.”

“Your scent just changed,” Hanji said. “Why are you stressed now? What’s wrong?”

“I, erm,” Christa said. “I don’t want to be offensive.”

They smiled. “It’s tough to offend me. What is it?”

“It’s—I’ve heard people call you ‘they.’ Is that the right word for you?”

“Yep,” they said with a smile.

“Oh,” Christa murmured, eyes wide with revelation. “O-oh, I see! I’m so sorry! We only use ‘he’ or ‘she’ for individuals in the south, and I was confused.”

Hanji laughed. “That’s all right. Thanks for asking.” They adjusted their glasses. “Then people like me would pick one of those instead because they would be told they’re wrong if they didn’t.” They sighed. “That’s terrible.”

“Maybe it’ll change when the north wins and more wolves go to the south,” Christa said.

“One would hope.”

“I’d like it if Mikasa could just get a wife without the church killing them both,” Eren grumbled.

Hanji bristled. “Your church does what?”

He jumped at the sharpness of their voice. “They kill people like Mikasa or Braun and Fubar, or at least they punish them in the worst possible ways. I thought you knew about the south.”

“I know about your military strategies and your physical abilities!” they said. “I didn’t know your church was a pack of savages!” They snarled out a sound of disgust. “And they think that wolves are a sin.”

Something inside Christa relaxed at the sight of Hanji’s anger. She set a hand on their elbow, smiling gently when they looked at her. “I wish I had known someone like you when I was younger. I think I wouldn’t have been so scared.”

Surprise took them a moment before they chuckled and scratched behind Christa’s ear. “You are every wonderful thin your father didn’t want, aren’t you. Well, we’re all glad to have you as our lady now.”

Christa blushed, looking down. “Th-thank you.”

Hanji considered this, grinned, and said, “Ymir most of all.”

The blush covered Christa’s face, so painful she hid behind her hands. Hanji changed back to their wolf form and trotted off, tail wagging back and forth. They came up behind Mikasa as quietly as they could, but Mikasa dodged to one side to avoid being leapt upon.

Looking not a little startled, they changed into their human form and asked, “How did you know I was there?”

“I heard you talking to Christa and Eren, for one,” she replied. “Also, Annie gave me a warning that someone was behind me.”

“You awful spoilsport,” Hanji said, giving Annie a pout. They looked down at Mikasa’s hip, sniffing a moment. “Not a trace of death anymore. May I?”

Aiming an anxious glance at Ymir and Reiner a few paces ahead, Mikasa drew her sword and passed it to Hanji. Hanji smirked on feeling its weight, and smelled the blade both in their human form and their bipedal form. They returned to their human form and handed the sword back.

“Remarkable how much lighter wolf steel is, isn’t it?” they said cheerfully. “And a good deal stronger.”

“It’ll be easier to use,” Mikasa said, sheathing the sword.

“All the same magic on it?”

She nodded. “Just in case.” She turned to see Reiner glaring at her from over his shoulder, sighing quietly. She expected to see the same from Ymir when she noticed Reiner, but gaped when Ymir slapped Reiner hard on the back of the head.

“Knock it off,” Ymir said, eyes and voice firm enough that Reiner was too baffled to argue. She shoved him lightly, saying, “Go walk with Bert a while.” When he had dropped back to Bertholdt’s side, she looked at Mikasa and crooked a finger. “Ackerman, come here.”

Mikasa almost stopped walking entirely. She looked at Annie, feeling herself go pale despite Annie’s nod. Breathing deep and even, she lengthened her stride and caught up to Ymir. “Yes, your highness?” She stiffened when Ymir suddenly put her nose in her hair and breathed in.

“Huh,” Ymir said, straightening up. “So that’s what you really smell like.” Smirking at Mikasa’s visible confusion, she went on. “It’s early, but I have an order for you when we get home.”

She walked with her shoulders squared. “Yes ma’am.”

“Teach Hanji and the guards your techniques and what normal soldiers did.”

“Would you also like me to teach them what I learned from Corporal Levi, your highness?”

“Whatever you’ve got. I want it to start getting back to the front lines.” She looked at Mikasa with curiosity. “Where is the bastard? The last we heard is that he was near the border stopping our advance.”

“He wanted to do what I was, which was trying to press into the north.” She smiled wearily. “I had a few direct letters from him where he insulted me and my battalion and said he could get to Utgard if the king hadn’t chosen my youth.”

With all seriousness, Ymir asked, “Do you think he would break the front lines and get here?”

Mikasa looked at her, at the intensity of her gaze. She lowered her eyes to think. After some time, she looked up. “Not with a frontal assault, and he knows it. Commander Braun has stationed his forces at the border too well for any invading force to get through without massive losses—I’ve seen the aftermath. But,” she said, “if he took a small, highly skilled force through a path like the one Annie had us on, he might be able to slip through the north and reach Utgard.”

Ymir exhaled slowly. “That so?”

“Yes, your highness. I’m sorry.”

She snorted a laugh. “What for? You just gave me incredible information. But now you gotta give me more. Is the bastard likely to do that?”

Mikasa hesitated. “It’s…hard to say. Levi is loyal to General Erwin more than he is to the king, but Erwin mostly follows Reiss. If they don’t order it, it’s very unlikely that he’ll act on his own. Since the king wants a full march through the north, he won’t take Levi away from the front lines.”

“And if Reiss changes his mind?”

“Then Levi would come to Utgard.”

Ymir frowned, clearly thinking. Some time later, she said, “Tell my pack and Hanji all of this, and you and Arlert try to figure out how the bastard would sneak into the north. Give them every option and possibility.”

She snapped a salute, hand at her brow. “Yes, your highness.” She returned to Annie and Hanji when Ymir gestured to dismiss her, blinking as Christa passed by.

Christa managed to catch up to Ymir, but found herself at a marked disadvantage with Ymir’s long strides. She struggled for a time, trying to catch Ymir’s eye and having to jog at times to keep up. Ymir, though, was lost in thought, hands in her pockets and eyes in the distance. She jerked when Christa put a hand on her wrist, looking down.

“Oh,” she said, and she slowed her pace. Seeing the pink flush on Christa’s face, she put her fingers on Christa’s cheeks. “Humans get cold way too easily.”

Christa smiled ruefully. “Don’t think I don’t envy wolves right now.”

“I can always carry you if you get too cold,” Ymir said.

“On your shoulder again?”

“Nah. There’s this human thing I heard about a long time ago.” She smirked, and then leaned over to scoop Christa up into her arms. “I think this is called a bridal carry or something.”

Christa stammered, blushing so painfully she was shocked steam did not come from her cheeks. She struggled to think past how warm Ymir was from so close, and tried to not lay her head on Ymir’s chest. Through massive willpower, she cleared her throat and asked, “Do you not have brides in the north?”

“That’s a marriage thing, right?” Ymir shrugged. “We don’t do marriage. We don’t need big ceremonies to show off our mates.” She looked at Christa with her head tilted. “But your church wouldn’t have let you get married to another woman, right?”

“Right.”

“Did…did you ever want to get married?”

Somehow bashful, somehow ashamed, she smiled weakly and said, “No. I’ve gone to a few weddings in the south, but I could never see myself as a bride, even with the right person. I like the northern way better.”

“Oh,” Ymir said, voice breaking. She coughed to one side. “W-well, good. We’d have to kidnap a priest for you if you ever wanted to get married.”

She giggled. “He’d have a very interesting story to tell when he got back.”

Ymir grinned. “I bet it would piss Reis off if we forced one of his priests to get you married to another woman.”

The smile on her face grew smaller; she looked down. “Ymir?”

“What?”

“I…I think my father really hoped you would kill me.” Ymir’s silence weighed on her, and she felt her eyes burn. A moment later, Ymir had pulled her closer, laying a hand on the back of her head.

“I know,” Ymir said in her ear. “I won’t.”

Unsure of what else to do, Christa nodded. They did not speak for a long while after that, Ymir only reacting when Christa’s head tipped onto her shoulder. She sniffed twice and rolled her eyes on smelling the sleepiness on her.

“Okay, no free rides for people using me as a bed,” she said, jostling Christa. “Down you go.” She set Christa on her feet, raising a brow at her. “Annie said you fall asleep easy when you’re being carried, but really?”

“I—I’m so sorry.”

She tapped a curled finger on Christa’s head. “Tell me if you need help sleeping instead of doing this goddess thing all the time.”

“I’ve been fine!” Christa protested. “You were comfortable!”

Ymir opened her mouth, but suddenly turned away to stare at the forest to their left, thick and wild and winding. Looking back showed the other wolves, Eren included, looking in the same direction. Sasha and Marco changed to their wolf forms after a shared look and dashed into the forest. No one spoke, but there was faint movement. Eren edged in front of Armin, and Mikasa set her hand on her sword. Ymir stepped in front of Christa, shoulders high.

Sasha and Marco returned in ten minutes’ time and went to Ymir. Both snapped a salute in their human forms, and Sasha spoke. “We picked up traces of bear around a cluster of broken branches and claw marks, your highness. Someone is trying to follow us.”

“How do you know that?” Christa asked.

“Bears wouldn’t come this far into the plains,” Marco replied. “And there’s no blood around.”

“It is my opinion that someone is masking their scent with magic, your highness,” Sasha continued. “Would you like for us to find them?”

Ymir looked straight up. Everyone followed suit and found snow was beginning to fall heavily. The wind picked up, and Sasha looked to Ymir.

“Can’t track anything soon,” said Ymir. “Stick close for now.” She picked Christa up again, muttering, “This time you can sleep. I want us off the road fast.”

Christa only nodded, holding tight to Ymir’s shirt as she quickened her pace. She did not try to speak after seeing Ymir’s eyes flick to either side of the road. There was deep concentration in Ymir’s face, in the way her ears twitched against the muffling snow. Peeking over Ymir’s shoulder showed her that the others were as watchful; Mikasa and Armin kept their hands on their swords. Briefly, she felt the urge to pray for their safety, but did not know who would listen.

The wind and snow were fierce enough that Christa took care to brush away what had gathered on her, as well as what she could reach on Ymir without blocking her eyes or ears. Ymir gave her brief smiles for this and bundled her closer when she caught her starting to shiver. No conversation came through the wind; the snow built up silence around them. The sky grew darker slowly with the hours that passed.

A spot against the landscape came into view ahead of them on the road, bounding through the snow. Christa’s chest tightened, but Sasha laughed and ran to the spot in her wolf form. She returned with a brown wolf, and Christa let out the breath she’d been holding when it changed into Connie. Though he was out of breath, he went to Ymir and saluted.

“Ma’am,” he said. “I informed the town of your—your visit. They—they’ve prepared rooms at the inn. I was worried when it started getting dark, so I came to meet you.”

A moment went by of Ymir looking at him steadily. Without accusation, she asked, “What’s your name?”

“Connie Springer, your highness,” he replied.

She rearranged her hold on Christa to reach out and patted him roughly on the head. “Good boy. Lead the way.”

He stared, eyes wide, but saluted again. “Yes ma’am!” He changed into his wolf form and did as ordered, ears high and nose up. They made good time against the weather and caught sight of lanterns within half an hour. Ymir set Christa on her feet, brushing off what snow she could before leading her forward. They were met by a stout woman, dark of skin and hair, and two taller and broader men who looked to be her sons.

“You grace us with the presence of you and your pack, your highness,” the woman said, bowing. “My name is Taisiya.” She blinked, leaning slightly to see Christa at Ymir’s side. She sniffed, held her lantern closer, and gasped at seeing her soaked cloak. “Please, we’ve prepared fine rooms for all of you. Come out of the cold.” She beckoned for them to follow her, and the two men changed into their wolf-men forms to flank them as they came into the town.

“Are you the leader here?” Ymir asked.

“I am,” Taisiya said. “I hope we’re good hosts for you.” She hesitated and slowed to match Christa’s pace. “Are you the messenger from the south? We’ve heard a little about you.”

“Yes,” Christa said, smiling as well she could through the cold. “I’m Christa Renz. Thank you for having us.”

Taisiya stared at her, glancing at Ymir. Ymir looked back evenly, and then rubbed Christa’s head gently. This only served to confuse Taisiya further, but she shook herself out of it when Christa flinched at a long rush of wind. “There’ll be good fires going in all of your rooms, milady.”

“Thank you very much,” Christa said.

She nodded once and said no more until they arrived at the large inn. The two wolf-men came forward to open the doors, watching past them until they were all inside. Servants came forward immediately, taking Christa, Mikasa, and Armin’s cloaks. The man that attended to Mikasa attempted to take her scarf, but stopped short when she frowned at him. They bowed and separated, going to the pairs that had formed without thought.

“We’ll have food prepared shortly,” said Taisiya. “For now, please warm up in your rooms.”

Ymir gestured to Bertholdt, catching the pack he tossed to her. Only then did she allow a young woman to lead her and Christa away. Up a flight of stairs and down to the end of a hall they went, the woman opening the door to a large room. She went inside first to drape Christa’s cloak over the tall grate before a blazing fire.

“I’ll return when dinner is ready, miladies,” she said, bowing and closing the door as she left.

Christa went to sit on the floor before the fire, shivering terribly enough that her teeth chattered. She watched as Ymir dropped the pack on one of the beds and went to the nearest window. She bolted it and ran her fingers along the seams, murmuring too quietly to discern her meaning. She did the same to the other window and the door before sitting down behind Christa and pulling her close.

“You’re practically frozen,” Ymir grumbled. She held Christa’s hands to warm them, curling around her.

“Th-thank you,” Christa said. “I d-didn’t know it could be so c-cold.”

“We’ll get you warmer clothes. Here, I’m gonna teach you something.” She brought Christa’s hands out before them. “Look at the fire. Imagine holding it.” She let go of Christa’s hands and said, “Now say ‘urome.’”

“Erm, all right.” She cleared her throat to quell her shivering and clearly said, “Urome.” She bit back a shriek when flames burst into life in her palms. “Oh God—Ymir, my hands!”

“No, calm down!” She caught Christa’s wrists, holding her still. “You won’t burn. Remember what I told you about what wolves are vulnerable to?”

“Yes.” She looked at Ymir, stomach twisting. “You’re not teaching me this just to warm me up, are you.”

“No. Burns take a lot more time to heal than cuts or broken bones, and they hurt. Do whatever you can to burn a wolf’s eyes and nose. It’ll give you time to run.”

“Are you that worried?”

“Do you want me to follow you everywhere?”

“Well…no. But is something wrong?”

“I don’t like people following us.” She stroked Christa’s hair. “Just giving you a weapon if you can’t use your knife.”

Christa stayed quiet, moving her fingers to see how the flames would react. She put her palms together, the flames slipping through her fingers to her knuckles. Sighing softly, she closed her eyes. “How do I make it stop?”

“Just think it. Look.”

She opened her eyes, finding the flames had gone out. She settled back against Ymir’s chest.

“Warming up yet?”

“Mm hmm. Thank you.”

Ymir propped her chin on her head and said nothing. They watched the fire, breathing slowly. The wind noise beyond the windows rose and fell, and Ymir laced their fingers together.

“I think you really confused Taisiya,” Christa said.

“By doing what?”

“Petting me.”

Ymir chuffed, ruffling her hair. “Don’t see why. You’re very easy to pet.”

She giggled. “I guess so.” She squeezed Ymir’s hands. “Do you have any idea who it could have been on the road?”

“Not really. Annie’s been trying to get to the root of a problem, but she’s waiting on a report from her best spy.” She shrugged. “Least it’s not the bastard. We’ll be fine.”

“Okay,” Christa said softly. She sat still, but soon turned about fully to face Ymir. She hesitated at the way Ymir’s brow rose, but spoke. “You called Mikasa by her name. Thank you.”

“I did it because Annie asked—” She stopped at the touch of Christa’s fingers to her lips, and her breath came to a halt as Christa moved closer. For a moment, Christa looked torn between speaking and leaning in. Laying her hands on Ymir’s cheeks steadied her, and she kissed Ymir more tenderly than Ymir expected of her.

She wanted to know that taste she’d been given glances of in their kisses, wanted to know how much heat was really in Ymir’s lips. She did not notice Ymir gently pushing her back, pushing her down, holding her hands to the floor and kissing her harder. Just as Christa started to push back, Ymir pulled back, drawing a ragged breath.

“I think,” Ymir said, voice weak and shoulders trembling, “I think we should…stop.”

Christa wanted to ask why, but the nervousness she saw on Ymir carried into her heart. She looked away, ashamed, and said, “I’m sorry.”

Ymir sighed and sat up, pulling Christa into her lap. She held her as Christa closed her hands tight in her shirt, but neither said a word until a knock sounded on the door.

“Miladies, dinner is ready,” the young woman called.

“We’ll be there in a second,” Ymir replied. She stood, helping Christa to her feet, and went to fetch the pack. Handing it to Christa, she said, “You can change if you want.” She turned on her heel when Christa nodded, and did not turn back until Christa touched her elbow. Ymir looked at her, clad in dry trousers and shirt, and opened her mouth. She closed it, a long sigh leaving her, and Christa felt her face burn.

“I’m sorry,” she said again, quieter than before. “I didn’t mean to offend.”

Ymir sighed impatiently, rubbing her forehead. “You didn’t offend me, fuck. I don’t want you to do anything that you’re going to regret. I don’t want to do anything that you’ll regret.”

She meant to protest, wanted to, but Ymir looked at her with such sternness that she faltered. Her eyes fell, but before Ymir could speak, she shook her head and looked up again. She said, “I don’t regret what we’ve done until now.”

Ymir said nothing. She ran her hand through her hair, fingers bumping against the hair clip. This made her pause, and she looked at Christa. Gently, she tipped Christa’s head back and leaned down to rub their noses together.

“Think really hard about everything, okay?” she said. After Christa nodded, she put an arm around her shoulders and walked slower to allow for Christa’s pace. The servant led them back downstairs and into a large dining hall lit mostly by the massive fire in a hearth on the far wall. Though the long table was laden with food, no one was seated on the benches. Reiner, having been staring longingly at the food, turned when the servant announced them.

“Finally,” he grumbled, but smiled as he spoke. “For being the fastest wolf I know, you’re way too slow to come to dinner.”

“And Bert warms up quickly,” Ymir shot back. “You think I’d let Christa stay cold?”

He looked at Christa, who smiled back at him. He smirked and shrugged, saying, “All right, fair point. But come on, we’re all starving.” He took a seat when she waved him on, and the others soon did the same.

“Sit at my right,” Ymir whispered to Christa. She went to Mikasa, catching her by the back of her scarf before she could sit next to Annie. To her baffled look, she said, “I want you over here.”

“I,” Mikasa began, but bowed her head. “Yes, your highness.” She followed Ymir to the head of the table, sitting at her left side as Christa sat on her right. Ymir slouched in the chair provided to her, looking thoughtfully at the food until Taisiya sat next to Christa.

“May I ask what brought you here, your highness?” she asked.

Ymir pointed at Christa and Mikasa with either hand. “Showing them to my country.”

Taisiya looked at them in confusion. “A messenger and a captured human soldier?”

Christa caught sight of the way Mikasa winced at her words, how she was doing her best to miss Taisiya’s eyes. A glance at Annie revealed that she was steadily eating, but her ear was turned toward them.

“She’s not exactly a messenger,” Ymir remarked, tearing into a large chunk of meat with hands and teeth alone.

Christa continued when it was clear Ymir would not. “King Reiss is, erm…actually my father.”

Taisiya’s eyes widened. “Your own father sent you here? You could’ve been killed on the journey!”

“Yes, but I’m just his bastard.”

“Regardless,” Taisiya said, putting a hand on her shoulder, “he should have treasured you. Parents should always treasure their children.”

She felt her face flush. “It—it’s all right. I’m happier here than in the south. Ymir and her pack have been good to me and my friends.”

Taisiya’s eyes when to Ymir for a second or two before moving to Mikasa. “I wouldn’t have thought they’d be kind to soldiers from the south, much less a prisoner of war.”

“We’re not prisoners, ma’am,” Mikasa replied. “I’ve sworn my fealty to Ymir and her pack.”

On feeling a heavy gaze, Taisiya turned to see Reiner watching them as he ate. She looked back in time to see Mikasa frown, weary and small, at Reiner’s scrutiny. She asked, “And who are you to swear anything to the queen?”

Mikasa did not respond. She fought the urge to look around the room, but could not help but turn toward Annie. Annie sat very still, looking at them from a barely turned face.

Ymir sighed, swallowed what was in her mouth, and kicked Mikasa under the table. “I brought you so you could tell people. Tell her your name.”

She paused only long enough to sit up straighter and looked Taisiya in the eyes. “My name is Mikasa Ackerman.”

Her eyes went massively wide. “The witch?”

She flinched. At length, she said, “I would prefer that no one call me that anymore.”

“You…you swore your fealty to the ruling pack?” Taisiya asked quietly. She leaned closer and smelled what she could at a distance. “But I don’t smell death on you.”

“I let her make a new sword,” Ymir said, picking off pieces of a loaf of bread and lobbing them at Mikasa. “Fair trade, her joining us for a new sword.” She snarled when an entire roll struck her head, looking across the table to Annie, who kept her hand outstretched until Ymir saw her. The look they shared was hard, but Ymir broke it with a light shrug and a passing of the bread to Mikasa.

She took the bread and ate, steadfastly looking at the table because she could feel so many eyes on her. Taisiya was the most curious of all, and she frowned when Mikasa would not look up. Turning to Ymir, she said, “I don’t understand, your highness. Why did she offer her fealty?”

“Because Reiss betrayed her and her family, plus Christa.”

“Betrayed her?”

“He sent her to get killed trying to kill me and my pack.” She smirked, ripping a chunk of meat off with her fingers and tossing it into her mouth. “Fortunately for everyone, all the humans like it up here. We’ve got two new soldiers to train our soldiers on southern techniques, one of their strategists to give us battle plans, and a very pretty little woman to help talk to people.”

Mikasa glanced up to see Taisiya’s eyes on her again, swallowed, and said, “I won’t cause any problems in your town, ma’am.”

“I’ll make sure of it,” Reiner said, smiling at Taisiya when she turned his way. For a moment, he raised his arm as though to throw the bone in his hand at Mikasa. Ymir outpaced him, flinging a piece of meat to strike him squarely on the nose. He coughed, rubbing his face, and stared at her. She raised a brow, waiting until he returned to eating before looking at Mikasa. The confusion on her face was even greater than Reiner’s, broken only by Ymir kicking her again.

“Stop worrying and eat,” Ymir said.

Unsure of what to say, Mikasa did as she was told. Christa ate as well, savoring the various types of meat, bread, and stew set out before them. She looked down the table, smiling at the sight of Armin, Hanji, and Bertholdt engaged in a conversation she only caught snippets of. From what she could tell, Armin was explaining the vast difference between southern and northern winters. Close to them, though Eren was staring moodily across the table at Reiner in between large bites of food. Annie, next to him, noticed Christa’s anxiety and jabbed Eren with her elbow.

Sasha and Connie sat next to each other between Annie and Mikasa, tearing into their food with just enough decorum that the wolves did not react. Marco was barely slower than them, and the rest of the guards were much the same. The wind outside the shuttered windows could not be heard past the sound of eating, the murmur of conversation, and the crackle of the fire.

When all began to slow and relax, Christa came to a thought she hadn’t considered. To Taisiya, she said, “I’m still trying to learn about wolves. Do you celebrate any holidays for Lady Mond?”

“We do, Lady Renz, but more in summer and fall for our harvests.” She looked at Marco with a smile. “I can still catch a whiff of mountains and furs on you, young man. What did you celebrate in your village?”

He swallowed quickly and said, “The first full moon of spring for the strength to hunt and the last crescent moon of winter to give thanks for a good year.” He smiled at Ymir. “What do you celebrate at Utgard, your highness?”

“The last crescent in winter, same as you. We have a few harvest days through the warm months. There’s also the crafter’s holiday on the half moon in the middle of the summer.”

“And the warrior’s feast on the last full moon of fall, your highness,” Sasha said.

Ymir smirked. “Right, the one you like best.”

“It’s when we give thanks to the souls of all who fight for the north,” Sasha explained to Christa. “To pray they rest well, or fight hard to return home. What do you celebrate in the south?”

“Lots of days for saints,” Eren said, leaning forward. “There’s…um…fuck, too many. Armin, how many holidays does the church have?”

Armin looked up to think, tapping his fingers against his mug of ale. “Fifty, if I recall.”

Fifty?” Connie spat. “What do you need that many for?”

Armin laughed. “Well, there are fifteen recognized saints in the southern church. The church establishes holidays for the birthdays, days of sanctification, and days of death for all of them. Add to this two blessed harvest days, two all-saints days, and the first of the year, stated to be when God first spoke to man, and that makes fifty.”

The wolves all stared at him with various levels of befuddlement on their faces. Eren snorted at this. “We didn’t say it makes sense.”

“What about the east, Mikasa?” Christa asked.

“It was somewhat similar to the northern holidays, though I can’t name every holiday there was. I liked the end of the year festival to show our love to our goddess.”

Eren grinned. “Because you got to win all the time.”

“Win what?” Annie asked, brow raised.

“Strength tournaments our town held. They had tournaments for children as well as adults because we got worked up watching our parents compete. I always won, no matter who I faced.”

“That so?” Reiner said, putting his arms on the table. “Want to test that against me?” He caught the roll Annie pitched at his head, passing it to Bertholdt without looking away from Mikasa. “I’ll even stay in this form, and you can do whatever little spells you have to try and make yourself stronger.”

Mikasa looked back at him with a faint frown. “I’d rather not.”

“Too scared to arm wrestle me, even?”

Annie snapped, “Reiner, stop it,” but Mikasa and Eren bristled. They looked at each other and nodded, both rising. Eren moved aside for Mikasa to take his place. She rolled up her right sleeve, murmuring too quietly to be heard as she rubbed her shoulder and arm. She put her elbow on the table and held out her hand. Reiner, grinning darkly, did the same.

“Don’t break anything,” Ymir said. “That includes her arm, Reiner.”

He did not reply, instead gripping Mikasa’s hand as she gripped his. Bertholdt set one hand atop theirs to still them, and they set to it the instant he let go. Reiner had been smiling until Bertholdt let go, but the force Mikasa used tilted his arm significantly. He grimaced, stopping her quickly and forcing their arms back up. In turn, she grit her teeth and pressed back an inch.

No one said a word, neither of encouragement nor to jeer. Most did not know what to say; Eren chose to hold his tongue. Christa, Armin, and Annie watched with anxiety writ in different amounts on their faces. Looking to Ymir did nothing, Christa found, as Ymir only gave Reiner and Mikasa her gaze.

Their arms were far too tense to shake, but beads of sweat stood out on their faces and necks. It went back and forth between Mikasa’s fist closer to the table to win and Reiner’s, but they did not move far from where they began. Minutes passed, and Reiner and Annie picked up on what the others could not. Reiner saw Mikasa flinch and felt her fingers spasm around his hand. Annie smelled the cloying ashen scent of pain coming from her.

Mikasa’s loss came with the bones in her forearm cracking. With her concentration gone from pain, Reiner was able to slam her arm to the table. He let her hand go slowly, watching as she panted and brought her other hand to her arm. Annie set her hand gently on Mikasa’s shoulder. Though he opened his mouth, he had nothing he could think to say.

“Reiner,” Ymir said, slow and cold. “What did I say about breaking her arm?”

He did not reply. Instead, he scowled at Mikasa and said, “You knew that would happen, magic or not. Why did you try?”

Mikasa paused in casting spells to mend the breaks, but did not look up. She said, “You challenged me. How could I not try?”

He stared and let out a long growling sigh. He glanced at Ymir, frowning at her raised brow. Looking at Annie only served to darken his frown, as she regarded him coldly.

“All right, I get it,” he grumbled, taking to his feet. “No more tonight.” Putting his hands in his pockets, he went to the doors and departed with a servant to guide him. For a few minutes, no one but Mikasa spoke, nor did they until she straightened up and curled her fingers slowly.

“Are you all right?” Annie asked.

“She’ll be fine,” Eren said, thumping Mikasa on the back.

“Mikasa once healed a bad break in my wrist during our training,” Armin said. “It was sore for a few days, but it was all right.”

Mikasa, meanwhile, said nothing and focused on checking her arm.

Sasha, looking nervous, leaned slightly to look at Mikasa. “That was really impressive, M—um, Captain Ackerman. I haven’t seen many people last that long against Commander Braun.” She held her breath when Mikasa looked at her, but relaxed on seeing Mikasa’s small smile.

“Bet I could’ve done it, too,” Connie said. He yelped when Ymir hit him on the head with a thrown piece of meat.

“Wanna try proving that against me?” Ymir asked. “Reiner and I tie a lot.”

Connie blanched. “Uh. No, your highness, I’ll be okay.”

“Come on,” Annie said quietly, standing and tugging on Mikasa’s scarf.

Mikasa stood, but paused on seeing how Eren stared at the doors, breathing deep and slow. She swatted his nose. “What did I tell you before about fighting for me?”

He narrowed his eyes, but soon nodded. When he had sat down next to Armin, she turned back to follow Annie out of the hall. They allowed a servant to lead them to their room, and Annie locked and barred the door when they were inside.

“Why did you do that?” Annie asked, words short.

“He challenged me.”

“You both knew he was going to win. You knew he was going to hurt you. Why would you take such a stupid challenge?”

“I wanted to show that I’m strong enough for that.”

“Show who? Or is it that you wanted to see if you’re strong enough to fight him?” She sighed when Mikasa turned away. She caught her by the hand, pulled her to one of the beds, and made her sit. Holding her by the face, she leaned close to whisper to her. “I asked Ymir to stop calling you a witch and to not send you away.”

Mikasa’s eyes widened. Whispering as well, she asked, “You did that for me?”

“I did. Now you need to stop being a childish idiot. I can’t always be there to stop you or Reiner. Understood?”

She drew a breath to speak, but flushed with shame and nodded silently.

Annie sighed again and ran her fingers through Mikasa’s hair. “I can’t believe you made captain before you turned twenty when you act like this.”

“Sorry,” she said in a weak chuckle. “I’ll grow up a little.”

“Good.” She brought her hands back to Mikasa’s face, fingers resting light on her cheeks to feel the blush that lingered there. She watched Mikasa’s eyes a long while, and then leaned down. Mikasa set her hands on her hips when she paused, tentative but steadying.

“Annie,” she murmured.

She kissed Mikasa with as much hesitance as there was in Mikasa’s hands. Mikasa kissed back, running her hands down Annie’s legs and pulling her closer by her knees. Annie came to sit in Mikasa’s lap, knees beside her hips. When they parted, Annie put her head on Mikasa’s shoulder; they held tight to each other.

“You have to swear to not kiss me in front of anyone before Ymir turns you,” Annie said, even quieter than before. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right. Reiner probably would kill me if he saw that.”

No denial of this came to Annie, and so she asked, “He didn’t break your arm too badly, right?”

“Just some fractures. It’s healed now, so don’t worry.”

She hummed flatly, and then groaned when Mikasa began to scratch behind her ears. Pleasure in her voice, she said, “Do that forever, please.”

Mikasa chuckled and whispered, “Can I have one more kiss?”

Annie nodded, pulling Mikasa to her by her scarf and kissing her softly. She drew back, but kept her eyes closed because Mikasa resumed scratching.

“You look like you’re going to fall asleep sitting up,” Mikasa said.

“We’ve been out on the road all day, I’m full now, and you’re better at this than I thought you’d be.” She reached down and tugged at the blanket, looking at Mikasa with a raised brow. Mikasa nodded, doffing her boots and taking off her sword. She set the sword against the wall, getting under the covers close to it. Annie slipped in beside her, nuzzling up against her chest.

“Good night,” Mikasa said, scratching behind her ears slow and steady.

“‘Night,” Annie replied, and both fell asleep soon after.

The weary air pervaded the dining hall as well, with Bertholdt taking his leave after yawning time and time again. Eren hauled Armin away from the table when, in the middle of a conversation with Hanji on the nature of the church’s saints, he paused to think and nearly fell asleep against Hanji’s shoulder.

Ymir looked at Christa, finding her watching the fire with half-closed eyes. Stretching until multiple places had popped in her back, Ymir stood and said, “Come on, Christa.”

Christa blinked, lifting her head. “Huh?”

“You’re going to fall asleep on a plate,” Ymir said. “Time for bed.”

She hid her mouth behind her hands to yawn, getting to her feet to follow Ymir. Her body was slow, shoulders weighed down. Ymir setting one arm across her shoulders did not help, but she did not lean against her. Once they were in their room, Christa tried to go to a bed, but Ymir caught her by the back of her shirt.

“Okay, why do I feel like you’re gonna break my nose again?” Ymir asked.

Christa sighed, tried to shake off her weariness, and turned around. Frowning, she asked, “Why did you let them fight?”

“Because Reiner needed to challenge her in some way.”

“Why? Why couldn’t you tell him no? You stopped him from glaring at her this morning.”

Ymir rolled her eyes and strode off to fall onto the larger of the beds. “Reiner has been ready to kill Ackerman since he learned who she is. You think that’s good for him?”

“Then why is it good for Mikasa to get her arm broken?” Christa demanded.

“I told him not to!”

“But you let them fight in the first place! How are they supposed to make peace with each other if you’re going to let him confront her all the time?”

Ymir sighed, snarling in the back of her throat. “Listen. We don’t ignore these problems like humans do. We don’t smile and lie that everything’s fine. Reiner loves us as a pack and respects me as a leader, but he’s not going to just let how he feels about Ackerman go because we tell him to. He’s hated her as his worst enemy for years. Why do you think that’ll be fixed in one day?”

“But—”

“I can’t stop them from fighting any more than Annie can. All we can do is keep them from outright killing each other until they get used to being on the same side. Just give them time.” She looked away from the ceiling to see Christa’s eyes lowered and an angry flush on her cheeks. The sigh she let out then was much softer, and she sat up. “C’mere.”

Christa did nothing.

“I’ll let you hit me if you’re that pissed off.”

“I don’t want to hit you.”

“You’re a shitty liar.”

Christa stormed to the bed and punched Ymir high on the chest, over her heart, as hard as she could. Ymir winced, coughing once.

“I guess northern food is helping you grow up,” she muttered.

“So I’m supposed to stand back and watch my friend have to be ready to fight and get hurt for who knows how long? I already destroyed the lives they had when they had to escort me here!”

“What?” She caught Christa’s wrist when she threw another punch. “Whoa, hold it. You feel guilty about what Reiss did to them?” Because Christa was silent, she sighed again and pulled her into her lap. “I’m pretty sure none of them are that unhappy here. Hell, Ackerman’s all but letting Annie lead her around by the scarf.”

“But they were soldiers fighting against your army.”

“And? They’ve shown they don’t care. Stop worrying.” She pinched Christa’s cheek when she did not respond, snickering at Christa reaching up and pinching both of hers in return. After taking her hands away, she said, “No one blames you. They blame Reiss, if anyone, and they’ll get their revenge by helping the north win. Seriously, stop worrying.”

For a few seconds more, Christa was silent. She chewed on her words before saying, “Ymir?”

“Yeah?”

“Can I make a request?”

“Go for it.”

“When I lead you and your pack into Sina’s throne room, will you let me hit the king before you eat him?”

“I’ll let you break his nose. You can headbutt him as hard as you want.”

She giggled. “Thank you.”

“Like I wouldn’t let you hit him.”

Christa hummed briefly and put her hands lightly on Ymir’s face to make her look down. “I’m sorry.”

She raised a brow. “For?”

“I hit you again.”

“Do I look pissed?”

“I supposed not.”

“‘Cause I’m not. I’m tired and so are you.” She shifted them, getting beneath the covers with Christa still in her arms.

“Erm, Ymir?”

“You’re gonna fucking freeze if you sleep on your own out here. Shut up and sleep.”

She held down her giggles, instead relaxing as Ymir pulled her close. The sound of the fire and the barest trace of wind beyond the windows set her eyes to drooping, and Ymir petting her hair sent her to sleep. Ymir, though, did not try to follow her.

————

When Ymir caught Mikasa glancing behind them for the fifth time in as many minutes the next morning, she slapped the back of her head. “Knock it off.”

Mikasa sighed, looking at Christa and Taisiya some feet ahead of them.

“If you’re mopey over me sending Annie with Reiner and Bertholdt, I’m going to bite you.”

“That’s not it, your highness.” She glanced again at Taisiya and dropped her voice. “We’re being followed.”

Ymir yawned and stretched. “I know. They’re just pups.”

“What?” She looked over her shoulder again, finally catching sight of the small wolves before they darted behind houses to hide.

Taisiya noticed Mikasa’s hesitation and turned in time to see a nose inching out from around a corner and smiled wearily. “All right, children, we know you’re there. If you want to bother our guests, come back with your parents to be introduced.”

Grumpily, the wolves padded away. Taisiya chuckled at them and said, “Our pups tend to look for adventure because it’s so quiet here. That’s why so many of us enlist or join the guard.” She gave Mikasa and Christa a smile, though anxious. “You may be the most interesting people to come here in years.”

“As long as no one attacks me, I won’t be that interesting,” Mikasa said.

“You accepting Commander Braun’s challenge was interesting on its own,” Taisiya replied. When Mikasa frowned slightly, she chuckled again. “All right, I see you don’t want to relive a broken arm. Here, we acquired something recently that you might be interested in.” She guided them to a large stable at the town’s eastern edge, and smiled at the surprise that appeared on Christa’s face.

“These are the horses we were riding!” Christa said, going to the brown horse that had been hers. “How did you find them?”

“They were out grazing with some of our cattle. It was probably too cold for them, so they were staying warm.” She laughed at how the horse eagerly accepted the scratches Christa gave it. “They’re fine horses, so we were going to sell them to traders from the east in the spring. But then we heard there were humans staying at Utgard. We can make them a gift to you, your highness.”

Ymir looked at Mikasa. “You want your horse back?”

“I’ll be fine walking as long as you don’t make me walk the five hundred miles back to the south.”

“Will Armin be all right without his horse?” Christa asked.

“It’ll be the same for him,” Mikasa replied. “And Eren won’t need a horse anymore. What about you?”

Christa thought, still scratching the horse. “I would feel strange if I was the only person riding a horse, especially on our way back. And it’ll help your town if you get a good price for them, won’t it?”

“You just like me carrying your spoiled ass everywhere,” Ymir said, smiling crookedly. “Not that I’m complaining, since you pay well.”

Christa went crimson, and even darker when Taisiya tried to hide laughter inside coughing. She hid her face because Ymir did not bother with politeness and laughed aloud.

“If you’re sure you don’t want your horse back, they can have them to sell,” Ymir said.

“I’m sure,” Christa said through her fingers.

“Good. I don’t think anyone minds carrying you when you’re so tiny.” She turned to Taisiya. “What else are you planning on selling in the spring?”

“Whatever we can spare of the steel we get from your forge, your highness. We’ll be sending people to barter before the last crescent moon of the year.”

Ymir nodded silently, glancing at Mikasa when she smelled a sudden spike of stress from her. Mikasa’s gaze was aimed at the entrance of the stable; her hand had moved to rest lightly on the hilt of her sword. A deep breath drew in an absence of scent. Mikasa looked to her on hearing her breathe in, and she nodded when Ymir raised a brow.

“Show me what you’re sending to barter,” Ymir said, starting for the entrance. “I might be able to tell you how to haggle.”

For a few moments, Taisiya did not move. “You—you would do that for us, your highness?”

“Sure.”

Christa smiled at her and at Taisiya, beckoning the latter to follow. She hesitated, though, on seeing that Mikasa had undone the clasps holding her scabbard to her belt and now carried it in her hand. Taisiya did not notice this and followed a few steps behind with Christa. Ymir stepped out of the stable and turned to look back at them.

Mikasa lunged forward, thrusting her sword into the eye of a wolf-man that jumped out and reached for Ymir’s throat. Though the blade was still sheathed, he shrieked with pain as his eye burst, and he stumbled back. Mikasa slammed the sword against the back of his head and he fell, unconscious, to the ground.

“Did Annie start teaching you tracking skills on your way up?” Ymir asked, impressed and smiling.

“I’ve been using a hunting spell since leaving the inn, your highness. It’s how I knew the pups were there.” She went to the wolf-man and rolled him over. Looking at Taisiya, she asked, “Is this anyone you know, ma’am?”

Taisiya could not remove the shock from her face entirely, but she closed her mouth as she came closer. She examined the wolf-man, studying the shades of brown in his fur. Tentatively, quickly, she lifted the eyelid on his good eye to see the gray of the iris. “This is no wolf I know.”

Ymir tilted her head back and forth as Sasha and Connie came across the pasture at a sprint in their wolf forms. Though Connie began to pace around the wolf-man, Sasha took one sniff of him and looked at Ymir.

Do you think this is the one who was on the road, your highness?

“I think he’s definitely related to it.” She waved Connie away, leaning down to tweak the wolf-man’s ear while murmuring. He changed into his human form, and Ymir looked at Mikasa. “We’ve got an hour before he can change back. Over the heart first.”

She nodded, drawing her sword and holding the tip to the man’s chest. Connie and Sasha took places on either side of him as Ymir moved to crouch at his head.

Looking deeply amused, Ymir slapped the man on the forehead, telling him to wake with a spell. He opened his eyes and let out a snarl, trying to get to his feet. This only drove his chest into Mikasa’s sword, and it cut into him a good two inches before he shouted and dropped down.

“Throat now,” Ymir said cheerfully. Because the man went perfectly still as Mikasa lay the blade on his throat, she grinned darkly. “You weren’t expecting her to be with me, were you.”

“Bitch,” the man spat.

“Who, me or Ackerman?” She thought a moment, murmured, “Either way,” and broke his nose with the heel of her hand. As he coughed and gagged on blood, Ymir drummed her fingers along his forehead. “Tell me who sent you.”

He sneered and spat in her face, just missing her eyes.

She rolled her eyes, wiped off her face, and grabbed his chin. “Don’t make me start pulling out your teeth.”

“Why?” he snapped. “Don’t want to look like a savage in front of your bitch from the south?” He let out a choked scream when she ripped out all four of his incisors.

“Don’t call her that,” she said evenly. “Tell me who sent you. Or do you want me to eat you?” Fear beginning to show in his eyes, he looked at Christa. Ymir followed his gaze and scowled. “Really? You’re going to beg her for help after calling her a bitch?”

Christa felt her chest tighten at the man’s imploring gaze, but steeled herself against it and frowned. The man’s fear rose sharply and he looked back to Ymir.

“She doesn’t look like she’ll save you now, huh,” Ymir said. “Too bad. You shouldn’t underestimate any of the people around me, wolves or humans.”

“Trust ‘em that much?” he asked, voice shaking. “You shouldn’t. Let me live and I’ll tell you about the traitor in your castle.”

Ymir smiled. “You mean the apprentice our seamstress took on a while back. We killed her before we left.” She chuckled at the flicker of shock and fury that crossed his face. “You’ve got two choices. One, you tell me who sent you and I kill you. Two, you don’t tell me, I kill you, and then I eat you because you pissed me off.”

He closed his mouth and looked down. Though he nodded, Sasha and Connie snarled. The man spat in Ymir’s face again, getting blood in her eyes. He spun over as she stumbled away, cutting along the side of his throat even as he screamed, “Urome!” He made to leap on Ymir with his hands blazing, but Mikasa shoved her out of the way. He bore Mikasa to the ground and his hands fell on her back. They burned through her cloak and clothes by the time he realized who was beneath him, and he dug his hands into her flesh after that to try and make her scream. She choked with pain, but did not give him the satisfaction.

Sasha and Connie leapt upon him, shredding the flesh of his arms with fangs and claws until he screamed once more and the flames died. By then, more wolves had come to investigate the noise, with Reiner, Bertholdt, and Annie at the fore. Reiner, in his wolf-man form, grabbed the man by the back of his shirt and wrenched him up into the air. He nearly dropped him on seeing Mikasa and her burns and Annie, pale and wide-eyed, went to her immediately.

“What happened here?” Bertholdt asked.

“We found who was following us on the road,” Ymir said, blinking out the last of the mess in her eyes. She looked between the man, panting with pain as his arms steamed, and Mikasa, lying still with her teeth clenched and tears in her eyes. Sighing, she went to Mikasa and sat beside her. “You’re a little stupid.”

“I’m sorry, your highness,” Mikasa said, tight with holding down pain. “I didn’t want to risk him burning your throat.”

“Yeah, yeah. Shut up a minute.” She held her hands over the burns, reciting spells to heal them. As the skin mended, Annie held Mikasa’s wrist. Eren, Armin, and Hanji arrived last, but still in time to see Mikasa’s wounds. The sight and smell hit Eren at the same time and he went stiff. He turned slowly to look at the man dangling in Reiner’s grasp. Armin noticed, went pale, and grabbed Eren’s arm.

“Hanji, please help!” Armin said.

Hanji turned an instant before it was too late, changed into their bipedal form, and caught Eren around the waist as he changed into his wolf-man form and tried to leap at the man.

“Eren, calm down!” Armin said as Eren struggled and snarled. “Ymir is healing her! Mikasa’s going to be fine!” When Eren continued to fight them, he let go of his arm and went around to his front. He sprang up to grab Eren’s muzzle and shouted, “Stop!”

Eren froze at this, looking at Armin as he held on.

“We need information. We can’t get that if you kill him without the ruling pack’s direction. Okay?”

Despite the fury that lingered in his gaze, Eren nodded and stopped struggling. Armin and Hanji released him, Armin moving to hold one of his hands. Ymir sat back when the wounds were healed, and Mikasa sat up gingerly. Annie checked her skin with careful touches.

“I’m fine,” Mikasa said.

“Good,” Annie replied, and she went to Reiner. Clearly, slowly, darkly, she said, “Drop him.”

“No, Annie,” Ymir said. “I want him to talk.”

Bertholdt came closer as a low growl rose in Annie’s throat, firmly leading her back to Mikasa. He asked, “Do you want me to try it first, Ymir?”

“Yeah. Mind if we use the dining hall at the inn, Taisiya?” Ymir asked. “It might get messy, but I want this to be a little more private.”

“Yes, your highness,” she said, quiet and shaken. “At once.” She took the lead, sending away any wolf not with the guards. Mikasa took Annie’s help in getting to her feet, and nodded to Eren when he retrieved her sword. They headed back to the inn, Reiner carrying the man by his neck. Though he looked back and saw Annie holding Mikasa’s hand tightly, he showed no reaction.

Christa walked close at Ymir’s side. She hesitated on seeing the way Ymir’s brow was furrow, but reached out to take her hand. Ymir blinked and looked at her. The pallor on Christa’s face made her sigh, smiling wearily.

“You’ll be fine,” Ymir said. “Stop freaking out.”

“I’m just worried about you and Mikasa,” Christa replied. “Thank you for healing her.”

Ymir nodded, getting her hand free to set her arm around Christa’s shoulders. She held her close until they reached the inn and the doors were barred behind them. Lifting her arm, she said, “You don’t have to stay for this.”

“Where would I be safer?” Christa asked. “Alone in our room, or with you, the pack, and all my friends and the guards?”

Softly, Ymir said, “You know what we’re going to do. Are you going to be able to sit there and watch?”

Just as softly, Christa said, “Yes.”

She studied the focus in Christa’s eyes, the way she did not tremble. When Christa reached out to hold her hand again, she nodded and led her into the dining hall. Inside, Bertholdt was ordering the guards to stand in pairs at all the windows and the hall’s entrance. Reiner had taken rope given to him by servants and bound the man to a chair so tightly the rope cut into his skin. Though Eren, Armin, and Mikasa had been ordered to sit at the long table’s bench, Annie circled around the man in her wolf form, hackles up.

“Annie,” Bertholdt said, raising a brow. She rumbled in her chest, but slowly turned and headed for the table. While she was not looking, Bertholdt caught Mikasa’s eye and pointed behind his own ears. She nodded and gently, lightly, scratched behind Annie’s ears when she sat down between her feet. This did not calm her completely, but she lowered her hackles and made no move.

Bertholdt took another chair and sat down before the man. “Tell us who you’re working for.”

“Fuck you.”

He sighed softly. “You know how this is going to end. Tell us who you’re working for and we’ll spare you from being eaten.”

“What, not my life?” the man spat.

“You attacked our queen and wounded one of our soldiers,” Bertholdt replied. “You know that you’re not going to leave this room alive. The only thing you’ll achieve by defying us further is getting us to eat you. Tell us what we want and we’ll give you a quick death.”

“I’m not telling you anything! I’m going to get out of here!”

“How? No one’s coming to rescue you.”

Rage made the man’s voice grow tight. “My allies would never abandon me!”

“Then why did they let you get captured? It’s very clear that we brought you here to torture and kill you. Why didn’t your allies try to help you before we caught you?” The man faltered, and Bertholdt took a deep breath. From beneath the scent of anger pouring from every inch of him came the burgeoning scent of despair, creeping with cold.

“You were ordered to follow us all on your own,” Bertholdt said.

The man said nothing. He stayed quiet when Bertholdt took his chin and forced him to look at Mikasa. “That is Mikasa Ackerman, the greatest wolf-slayer of the south. Even she acknowledges that she would probably be killed if she tried to go up against my pack. You’re barely an adult. You were ordered to try and kill us on your own. That doesn’t trouble you?”

The man tried to breathe, but it hitched. His shoulders began to tremble. Again, he looked to Christa, but now with desperation in his wet eyes. She took a breath, held it, and stepped away from Ymir. She went to stand beside Bertholdt, but did not reach for the man.

“Please,” the man whispered.

“You have to tell us what you know,” she said, keeping her voice gentle. “If only to punish your allies for betraying you.”

He grit his teeth. Again, his breath hitched. “I don’t know anything.”

Reiner strode to them and punched the man hard enough to break his cheek and send him and the chair to the floor. He righted the chair and grabbed the man by the throat. “You’re lying.”

“I’m not!” the man gasped. “P-please, I don’t know! M-my brother told me to come here! He’s the only one who’s given me orders!”

Reiner tightened his hold, lifting the man until the chair’s legs barely touched the floor. “Who gave him orders?”

“I d-don’t know! No one came to our home more than once! Sometimes it was someone finding us out on our hunts!”

“Then who gave you the order this time?” Reiner snarled. He lowered the man only because Bertholdt touched his hip.

The man panted when Reiner loosened his group, tears beginning to run down his face. “A crow! A crow came to my brother at dawn two days ago with instructions for us! My brother went somewhere else—headed north—but I don’t know where!”

“What did your brother do with the paper the instructions were on?” Christa asked. “Did you ever hold it or smell it?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know what scent you would look for! Please, he never told me anything other than we were going to make the north better! I don’t know who we were following!”

As the man began to sob, Bertholdt turned to Ymir. “I don’t smell any stress from lying. He’s just a pawn.”

Ymir regarded the man for a long while. She frowned faintly before looking at Christa. “What do you think?”

“Wha—me? Why me?”

“I want your opinion.”

Christa stared at Ymir, and then looked closely at the man. Her stomach twisted on itself, even as coldness crept down her limbs. Softly, she said, “Even if he’s not lying, you can’t let him live. They can’t see you as being soft.” She sighed and looked at Ymir. “All I’ll ask is that you make it quick.”

“Depends on what Ackerman wants,” Ymir replied.

Mikasa went still as Annie’s ears twitched against her fingers. “Me, your highness?”

“You’re the one he burned. How do you want to kill him?”

Mikasa could not think, and so did not speak. She kept her hands on Annie’s head to feel her fur.

“Why let her kill him?” Reiner asked, scowling.

“I like letting people get even,” Ymir said. “So kill him however you want, Ackerman.”

She nodded after a moment and stood, giving Annie’s ears one last scratch. As she went to the man, she drew her knife from the scabbard. He did not look at her, head bowed as his sobs became hopeless whimpers. Mikasa exhaled slowly through her nose, grabbed the man’s hair, and pulled his head back to expose his throat. She slit it with one fluid sweep of her arm, letting his head fall forward as he died.

Without meeting anyone’s eyes, Mikasa started for the door while wiping the knife clean on her ruined cloak. Sasha and Marco let her leave, jumping when Christa hurried past to follow her. She did not have to go far, as Mikasa had sat down on the first step leading upstairs. Mikasa stared at the floor, holding her sword close, and did not look up.

“Are you all right?” Christa asked. When Mikasa did not answer, she went to sit next to her. She set a hand gently on Mikasa’s knee, keeping it there though Mikasa twitched.

“I don’t know why it’s so easy,” Mikasa said. “Even when it’s humans, it’s so easy.”

“I’m sorry,” Christa said, but she did not know why.

She shook her head. “I’m sorry I did that in front of you.”

Smiling weakly, she patted Mikasa’s knee and said, “I’m getting used to it. In any case, someone had to do it. Thank you for making it quick.”

She made a flat noise, looking up at the sound of bare feet walking toward them. Annie came to them, settling on the stairs behind Mikasa. She put a hand high on Mikasa’s back and made her lean forward.

“Annie, I’m all right,” Mikasa protested as Annie checked her skin. “Ymir knows better healing magic than I do.”

Annie said nothing to this, choosing to press carefully on where the burns had been. She sighed and muttered, “I thought you weren’t going to be so childish.”

“She was making sure nothing happened to Ymir!” Christa said. “You can’t blame her for getting hurt while protecting your leader!”

Her eyes widened. She looked at Mikasa, but her gaze was not met. “You were burned…protecting Ymir.”

“Yes,” Mikasa said.

Bullshit,” said Reiner, harshly enough that even Annie winced. They looked up to see him approaching, still in his wolf-man form and showing his fangs. “I don’t believe it for a second.”

Annie started to move, but Christa got to her feet first. She spread her arms as a shield, and Reiner stopped walking from surprise alone. Christa said, “I know you won’t believe me, but you can ask Taisiya and she’ll say the same thing. All Mikasa was doing was making sure nothing happened to Ymir.”

“Protecting the wolf queen, huh?” Reiner snapped. “How’s that make you feel, witch?”

Mikasa frowned, but took a breath and slowly set down her sword. Looking him in the eye, she said, “Strange. But I’m getting used to it.”

His fur stood on end as he snarled at her, but the look of panic on Christa’s face made him stop short. He looked between them, and the sight of Annie holding onto Mikasa’s shoulder made his fur come down. He changed into his human form and went up the stairs without a word. They watched him go until another voice spoke up.

“Thanks, by the way,” Ymir said. Because Mikasa stared blankly at her, she clarified. “For getting me out of his reach.”

“You’re welcome, your highness,” Mikasa said.

She shrugged. “‘Ymir’ is fine.” She went to Christa, putting an arm around her shoulders even as the others gawked. “Go put on a different shirt already. You can rest until dinner.” She led Christa up the stairs and to their room. Christa stared at her after Ymir sat her down on one of the beds, watching her go around the room. Again, Ymir ran her fingers along the seams of the windows and doors, and Christa finally caught her murmuring. The spells she cast were to greatly reinforce what she touched, and she huffed a sigh when she was done.

“You can start shaking now if you want,” Ymir said, coming to sit next to her.

Christa thought to refute her, but the urge left her quickly. She took her feet from her boots and pulled up her legs to hold them to her chest. “Is this what it’s like for you? Always being on the lookout for people to kill you?”

“Yeah. It’s fine. That’s what we’re trying to fix.” She drummed her fingers on the bed. “I’m…sorry. About Ackerman. I wasn’t trying to get her hurt.”

Christa looked at her, baffled. “I don’t blame you. I don’t think anyone does, even Annie.” She watched Ymir for a few moments before her eyes widened. “Are you worried about me being angry with you?” She gasped when Ymir pushed her over by her forehead.

“No, you idiot,” Ymir grumbled. But she did not lie down next to Christa, instead staring at the door. They were silent and still, and this brought Christa’s thoughts forward. She sat up and moved closer, setting her hand on Ymir’s side.

“Are…you worried about me?”

Ymir said nothing. She sighed, flexed her hand, and laced her fingers through Christa’s hair.

“You are.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I am. A little.” She pulled them down, moving over Christa on hands and knees. The sight of a dark blush rising on Christa’s cheeks made her freeze. Swallowing hard, she leaned down and kissed Christa tenderly. She drew back, but stopped when Christa put her hands on her shoulders. Sighing, she dropped onto her side and pulled Christa close.

“Fuck you,” Ymir grumbled, petting her hair.

“Why that?” Christa asked.

“Because I thought I was used to not liking people other than my pack. Now I like you and I’m scared you’ll get hurt.”

“You can’t protect me from everything all the time,” Christa murmured. “You said it yourself. I’ll be okay.”

Ymir said nothing, instead holding her tighter and tangling her fingers in Christa’s hair. After a long while, she said, “I really want you to be.”

She paused before reaching up to put her hands on the back of Ymir’s neck. She inhaled, but did not speak.

“What?”

“Nothing,” said Christa. “I just wanted to know how much longer we’ll stay here.”

“We’ll get out of here at dawn. He probably was sent here just on his own, but we work better out of Utgard.” She nuzzled Christa’s head. “Hopefully we’ll get a report from Annie’s spies soon so I know who to hunt.”

“I hope so too,” Christa said softly, and went quiet as Ymir did the same.

————

Mikasa deposited her cloak onto the cloak onto the bed they had not used, going to the other bed to dig through her pack and find another shirt. She closed her eyes, brows furrowing, when Annie again examined her back.

“Annie, I swear I’m fine,” she said. “Please don’t fuss over me.”

“I don’t like burns,” Annie replied.

Mikasa turned about. “You can’t do this every time I get hurt doing my job. I’m going to get hurt and you know it.”

“It doesn’t mean I have to like it or not check that you healed properly.”

“This will be the third time you’ve checked after Ymir healed me. Does it look like there’s any mark left on me?”

“If you’re going to be an ass about it,” Annie muttered, turning to go to the other bed. She stared when Mikasa caught her by the wrist and forced her to turn back.

“I don’t want to lose you now either,” Mikasa whispered. “But you can’t act like I can’t handle pain because I’m human. I’ll be okay.”

Annie was silent. She did not resist Mikasa when she wrapped her arms around her. Her face summarily pressed against Mikasa’s chest, she mumbled, “I know that, but you still smell burnt.”

She smiled. “Let me change my shirt, then.” She let her go and turned, finding the shirt she needed. She pulled off the burnt shirt, tossing it onto the floor. Before she could put on the other one, Annie’s hands touched the small of her back. Her lips soon followed, kissing her spine gently. Mikasa inhaled sharply, hands closing tight in her shirt.

Because Annie slipped her hands around to her stomach as she kissed her back over and over, Mikasa dropped the shirt to clamp her hands down over her mouth. Somehow, despite feeling it build in her throat, Mikasa kept down her moan. By the time Annie stopped, she knew she was crimson from the tips of her ears to her neck, and she could not think to speak. She looked over her shoulder at the sound of Annie breathing in deeply, but said nothing.

“So that’s what arousal smells like,” Annie murmured. She took her hands away, saying, “Sorry. Go ahead and change.”

Mikasa picked her shirt back up and pulled it on, but she did not turn around. She stood twisting the hem of her shirt, face still aflame. Quietly, she said, “Annie…I’m still a human. Would you…um…never mi—” She went silent when Annie pushed her facedown onto the bed, turning to stare as Annie lay down beside her. She stopped breathing with the touch of Annie’s lips to her ear.

“I’ll still mate with you even if Ymir doesn’t turn you,” Annie said, just loud enough to be heard. “I just need to make sure Reiner won’t kill you afterward.” She drew back to look at Mikasa’s face and smiled to see her blush. “You’re pretty when you blush like that.” She put her face down to muffle her giggles because Mikasa’s blush grew worse. With her face hidden, she did not have to quiet herself as much when Mikasa pressed a firm kiss to her neck in retaliation. Mikasa heard the pleased sigh she made, and she took enough boldness from this to roll Annie onto her back and move over her to kiss her just as firmly.

Annie put her hands on Mikasa’s face, making her lift her head. “Not here and not now.”

“I know. Sorry.”

She shook her head, bringing Mikasa down for another kiss. “It’ll be fine. We can do this for a while.” She breathed in a smirked. “Until you fall asleep anyway.”

“What?”

“You smell exhausted. Lie down.” When Mikasa did not comply, she pulled her down on top of her, managing to rearranged them to like the correct way on the bed without making Mikasa lift her head. She rubbed the back of the ear Mikasa did not have pressed against her chest.

Mikasa lay still and silent to hear Annie’s heartbeat. Softly, she said, “Your heart is so much slower than mine.”

“I’m not a stressed out human. Close your eyes and calm down.” She moved her hand to Mikasa’s hair, stroking gently. Bit by bit, the tension drained out of Mikasa. Before she closed her eyes, she took off her sword and set it beside the bed. This done, she resettled on Annie’s chest and breathed quietly. Annie felt her go limp as she dropped into sleep, and made sure to memorize her weight and warmth before close her eyes to join her.