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Wolves of the North

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Christa greeted the day without grogginess in her bones. She and Ymir were the first of the pack to arrive, and Christa changed to her wolf form to show curious pups that they had not dreamt the previous day. Ymir chuckled at this, patting the pups that came close to her. On seeing this, the pups’ parents came closer to speak with her about their homes and possessions.

Reiner and Bertholdt arrived next, Reiner sitting to eat immediately. Bertholdt went to Christa and the pups, kneeling down to greet them. He rubbed his knuckles between Christa’s ears before petting each pup. Christa wagged her tail as she watched him, but paused when she caught his scent. It was different in a subtle way, and all she could think of was how it reminded her of Reiner.

Shy, she sent her voice to him alone. Erm…Bertholdt? Did…did you and Reiner, erm, mate last night?

Bertholdt looked at her with slightly raised brows, smiled gently, and said nothing. Christa felt her nose grow hot again and asked no more questions. They went to the table when the parents called their pups away, sitting with Ymir and Reiner on one side of the table. They ate slowly in the changed atmosphere of the hall. While the scent of grief lingered, there were more smiles and fewer still and silent pups.

Next to arrive were Annie and Mikasa, and though they walked side by side, there was the faintest tension in Mikasa’s shoulders as they sat down. Annie was relaxed, smiling faintly after yawning, and she pulled a plate of bacon before them. It took a nudge from Annie for Mikasa to reach for some.

Before she could take a piece, Reiner grabbed her wrist. She stiffened, going pale, when he pulled her hand toward him. Too quickly for Annie or Bertholdt to stop him, he sniffed her hand and fingers. Mikasa yanked her hand back the instant his grip loosened, panic in her eyes because Reiner stared at her with his brows low and his mouth twisted in a scowl.

“Reiner, you knew this would happen,” Annie said, passing Mikasa the bacon she had reached for. “Stop making that face.”

“But,” Reiner sputtered, “you—she smells like—” He broke off into a snarl and put his forehead on the table. He grumbled, “Dammit to hell.”

Bertholdt smiled and rubbed his back. ”You’ll get used to it.”

Ymir, smirking, kicked Mikasa under the table. ”Congrats.”

Christa knew her face was red, but could not stop smiling. She was barely able to hold down her giggles when Annie reached up to ruffle Mikasa’s hair. Armin and Eren arrived last, sitting on Annie’s other side in front of Ymir and Christa.

“Sorry,” Armin said. “Eren overslept and didn’t wake up when I knocked on his door.” He reached for a pastry, but hesitated when he noticed everyone staring at him. “Um…what is it?”

“Well…even I know that was a lie,” Christa said.

“Armin,” Mikasa said slowly, “you and Eren probably should’ve taken a bath this morning if you didn’t want us to know right away that you had sex. We can smell you all over each other.”

Armin blushed to the tips of his ears, but Eren said, “He got panicky when we woke up so late. We forgot.”

Annie smirked and turned to Reiner. In a sing-song tone, she said, “You owe me twenty gold, Braun.”

Sighing, Reiner scowled at her. ”Fuck you. You traveled with them. You had an unfair advantage.”

“I’m sorry, who was the moron who took a bet against the royal spymaster?” Annie replied. “Bert, you owe me fifteen, and Ymir needs to cough up five.”

“W-wait,” Armin said, voice high, “did—did you all bet on us? On me and Eren?”

“Once it was clear you all would be staying here and not getting killed,” said Annie, “I said you would ask Ymir to turn you to stay close to Eren, and you two would mate the night it happened. Reiner was stupid and said you’d never ask, Bert was slightly less stupid and said you wouldn’t mate, and Ymir made the least stupid bet by saying you’d wait a few days.” She smiled. “You all can pay me tonight.”

“Never take a bet against Annie Leonhardt,” Reiner grumbled.

“Twenty-three years and you still haven’t learned that,” Annie said. “Thank our Lady you don’t have my job.”

Armin hid his face in his arms on the table. Eren, chewing peacefully, scratched behind his ear. Mikasa stared at them, lips parted.

Noticing this, Bertholdt asked, “Mikasa, didn’t you know?”

“No, I did,” she said. “I kept their letters from getting into the wrong hands when we were on the field. I just…I didn’t think they’d ever get this far.” She smiled brightly, reaching over Annie to rub Eren’s head. “I guess it really was for the best that we were sent here.”

“We’re grateful,” Ymir said, hand on Christa’s back. Quieter, she said, “We’re lucky.” She smiled when Christa leaned against her. She took a piece of bacon to eat, popping the whole of it into her mouth before a pup bounded into the hall. It looked around briefly before spotting Ymir and dashing to her.

Ymir yelped when the pup leapt onto the bench and began to lick her cheek and ear. “Agh—kid, stop—what the hell!”

A woman hurried into the hall, looking harried, and said, “Dale, sweetheart, leave them be!”

Marco and Connie, a few tables away, looked up at the woman’s voice. Connie got to his feet, grinning, and went to the woman to hug her.

“Miss Maria!” said Marco, hurrying over. “What’re you doing here?”

“Marco, you could smell the smoke from Utgard for miles,” she said, patting his cheek. “I came to see if you needed things we could spare.” She looked around at gathered wolves, dejection pulling at her spine. “It’s as bad as I think, isn’t it.”

“We’ve got the pride of your village to thank for getting reinforcements,” Sasha said, coming over to pat both men on the shoulder. “And Mikasa to thank for giving us first warning.”

“Mikasa?” Maria said. “Mikasa…Ackerman?” She turned to where Sasha pointed, staring at Mikasa when she smiled. “But—why?”

“Why wouldn’t my mate protect our home?” Annie asked. She scratched behind Mikasa’s ear, smiling at the blush on her face.

Maria continued to stare, but gasped when Mikasa’s hair shifted and showed the point of her other ear. She came closer, stopping short on catching her scent. “You…but you were just a human when you came to our village. You’re a wolf now?”

“Yes ma’am,” Mikasa replied. “Ymir turned us.”

Ymir deposited the squirming pup in Christa’s lap, wherein he changed to his human form, a sandy-haired boy who appeared to be five years old. He giggled as Christa tickled him.

“Mama, she’s a wolf now too!” he said. “I smell it!”

“My goodness!” Christa said, laughing. “Are you the same little pup from a few weeks ago?”

“Uh huh!” he said. “‘Cept now I’m normal sized ‘cause Ymir helped.” He grinned at Ymir and said, “Thank you!”

Ymir smiled crookedly and tapped his nose. “Yeah, well, I’m still sorry I was an ass.”

“Your highness,” said Maria, “do you have enough timber for rebuilding?”

“Not from what we’ve been able to fix up. You didn’t have that much extra wood in your village, though.”

Maria smiled. “No, but my mate’s family leads the nearest logging town—just a day’s run from here. I’m sure they can spare enough for at least a few homes. I can guide whoever you want to send with requests, your highness. Today, if you want.”

Connie laughed and hugged her fiercely. “Always the perfect den mother, giving us stuff when we need it most!”

“Your highness, Connie and I can go with some of the garrison wolves,” said Marco. “All we’d need is a list.”

Ymir snickered. “You are such an eager bastard. All right, get together with Bertholdt and Hanji and figure out what all we need to build. Sasha, why don’t you and Mina take a team out to the farming town we were at? Maybe they can spare some food before the year ends.”

Sasha snapped a salute. “Yes, your highness! I’m sure they can provide something!”

“Good,” Ymir said, standing and stretching. “The rest of us can start using what we’ve got to make new houses. Reiner, make ‘em nice.”

“Of course,” he said with a grin. “If we left it to you, they’d fall over in a storm.” He laughed when she punched his shoulder, standing up onto the bench. Loud enough to be heard through the hall, he said, “I want everyone whose home was destroyed to gather in front of the castle. We’ll be starting with full rebuilds and moving inward toward where there’s less damage. If you have taken in pups, please tell us so we can build additional space in your homes.”

Once he had stepped down, Mikasa, Armin, and Eren stood up. Mikasa said, “We’ve got experience rebuilding, so you can station us anywhere, sir.”

He stared a moment before smiling uncertainly. “Are all soldiers from the south as multitalented as you?”

“No, our battalion was better than pretty much everyone,” Eren said, grinning.

Reiner laughed, rubbing Eren’s head. “I’d call you an arrogant bastard, but I’m pretty sure you’re right.” He sighed slowly, taking his hand away and looking at Mikasa. Quietly, he said, “I’m glad you were the ones sent here.”

Mikasa smiled. “So are we.”

He returned the smile. “All right. Mikasa, you stick with me to help direct building. Armin, Eren, you team up with Annie and Bertholdt when he gets out of the castle.” He paused and looked down when Christa tugged on his sleeve.

“Can I help?” she asked.

“Did you think you’d be sitting in here?” he replied with a chuckle. “You’ll be helping Annie’s team.” He chuckled again at her eager smile, but turned to Ymir. “That’s if you don’t want her all to yourself again.”

“I’ll be fine today,” Ymir said. “Gimme something to do and it’ll get done.”

“Good. I think we can make headway by sunset.” He patted Christa’s shoulder, soon heading out of the hall with Mikasa at his side. Christa went to Annie, bumping her shoulder with her own.

“Happy that Reiner’s trying so hard?” she asked.

“I am,” Annie said, smiling. Her smile vanished from being startled at Eren slinging his arm roughly around her shoulders.

“So if Mikasa’s your mate now, what’s that make me and Armin?” he asked.

“In need of a bath to get some of the smell of sex off you. That’s just common courtesy with wolves.”

Armin blushed again as they started out of the castle. “We’re never going to live that down, are we.”

“Not a chance,” Annie said, smirking. “If you’re talking about you being her brothers, then you’re my pack’s brothers as well. You’ll get to deal with Reiner later.”

“But—wait, I thought he was trying to get along,” Eren said, taking his arm away.

“He is,” Annie replied. “He wrestles with us, so now he’ll wrestle you.” She looked at Armin and Christa. “Maybe not you two.”

“Thank God,” Armin murmured. “I think he’d break my neck without realizing it.”

“No, he’s always aware of what he’s doing. For better or worse.”

“Well,” Eren said, cracking his knuckles and grinning, “maybe we’ll have some fun once we’ve got a house or two built up again. I’d like to have an arm-wrestling match with him.”

“I’ll let you arm-wrestle him if you can down me in a sparring match,” Annie said, and she smiled to show her fangs.

He stared at the challenge in her eyes, but grinned all the more. “Deal. Better tell your pack their spymaster is getting her ass kicked soon.”

“Uh huh. They’ll be betting on how soon I’ll put your face in the dirt.”

“Erm,” said Christa, catching Annie’s hand. “Do you think you could teach me to fight? Like we did in the mountains?”

Annie looked at her with a raised brow. “I thought that was a given. Eren can help again.”

Eren reached over Annie to pat Christa’s head. “You’ll have some power in your punches now. That’ll be good.” He grinned, turned to Armin, and easily hoisted him up onto his shoulders. “It’ll be like going back to training for you if you join in.”

Armin chuckled, resting his hands on Eren’s head. “You’re in a better mood than usual.”

“I like that we’re helping people,” Eren replied. “I really like that none of us are lying anymore.” He reached up to take one of Armin’s hands. “It feels like home here.”

“It does,” Armin said softly. He looked at Christa with a smile. “Better than Trost, isn’t it?”

She returned the smile. “Much better.” She yelped when hands caught her around the waist and lifted her from her feet. She was settled on Ymir’s shoulders with Ymir holding her knees to steady her.

“My blonde’s taller than your blond,” Ymir said to Eren, smirking.

Eren laughed. “Mine’s more handsome.”

“Mine’s more beautiful.”

Christa and Armin stared at each other, faces growing red, before bursting into giggles. Annie smiled and rolled her eyes, but let out a strangled gasp when she too was picked up and arranged on someone’s shoulders.

“Now my blonde is tallest,” Bertholdt said.

“Careful, Bertholdt,” Christa said. “You’ll make Reiner and Mikasa jealous that way.”

“They’ll understand,” he replied. He tilted his head back to look at Annie. “Do you remember that one time Reiner was on my shoulders and you were on his?”

“You mean that time Ymir basically threw me up there and we all nearly broke our necks?” she asked, laughing. “I do. We need to have more fun like that.”

“We’ll make time,” Ymir said. “Just gotta clean up.” When they reached the streets, Christa, Armin, and Annie were set on their feet. Ymir pinched Christa’s cheek. “I’m going to fix lighter damage around town. Howl if you need me.” She walked off with less weight on her shoulders, and the rest of them went to get orders from Reiner and Mikasa.

For the rest of the morning, Christa did as she was told and was taught how to build and mend. Armin took the lead in teaching her, and before the day was half over they, Annie, Eren, and Bertholdt had built the frame of a house. Though her arms and hands ached from hammering, sawing, and holding up beams, Christa could not contain her smile.

As she and Bertholdt fetched lunch for them, she looked around. Teams of wolves, garrison and townspeople alike, had managed to build frames for another three houses. She looked to Bertholdt, but her smile faltered at the faint frown on his face.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“No, it’s nothing terrible. But based on what you and Ymir were able to restore, we only have enough timber to complete these houses and maybe one more. And we haven’t got much in the way of furnishings.” He sighed. “I hate to leave pups without beds and blankets.”

Christa thought a moment before gently asking, “Is this what happened to the town you and Reiner are from?”

He smiled weakly. “Unfortunately. I had hoped we’d never have to deal with it again.”

“At least everyone has leaders who know how much this hurts and want to help fix things. You and your pack are more noble that any of the nobles I knew in the south.”

He chuckled, gaining heart. “Thank you, Christa. And thank you for helping us like this. We’re getting work done much faster with you and your friends.”

“That’s what you do with your pack,” Christa said, blushing and looking down.

Bertholdt smiled and tapped his elbow against her shoulder. “You’re right. I misspoke.”

She returned the smile before they returned to the others. They tore into their food with abandon, all the hungrier for their efforts. Armin and Christa ate somewhat slower, and so it happened as Armin was about to unwrap his second sandwich. He stopped, ears twitching, and looked toward the south.

Eren noticed and turned as well. Eyes widening, he swallowed forcefully and got to his feet. They all turned as he took a few tentative steps, finding a tiny black speck on the horizon. Very distantly, they heard the call of a hawk. Armin changed to his wolf form and howled for Mikasa to come as fast as she could.

Mikasa arrived at a run within a minute, looking where Eren pointed. Her face twisted with confusion before she climbed to the highest part of the frame they’d built. Putting her thumb and forefinger between her lips, she whistled a four tone melody. After a few moments, the hawk cried again, louder as it drew near.

She whistled once more when the hawk was close, holding out her arm for it to land on. It peered at her with great interest as she took the metal tube on its back. When Eren whistled to it, it nipped Mikasa’s ear affectionately before fluttering down to sit on Eren’s shoulder. Mikasa hopped down to the ground and unscrewed the tube’s top, shaking out the scroll within.

“Mikasa, who is that from?” Annie asked, touching Mikasa’s elbow.

She unrolled the scroll to find its signature, brows rising fast. Softly, she said, “It’s from Jean Kirstein.” She looked down before turning to Annie and Bertholdt. “Please bring Reiner and Ymir. We need to look this over together.”

They nodded and went off, Annie hesitating a moment. Eren frowned at the scroll, but stroked the hawk’s feathers when it squeezed his shoulder. The others came quickly, all of them staring at the grimness on Mikasa, Eren, and Armin’s faces.

“You need to hear this,” Mikasa said. She held the scroll open and read aloud. “‘To Mikasa, Eren, and Armin. Where the hell are you? It’s been weeks with no word about you. The battalion’s worried. They put me in charge, promoted me to lieutenant. I’ve got Levi breathing down my neck all the damn time.’

“‘Mikasa, please, we need you here on the front. No one’s confident enough to try and push forward without you and your dumbass brother. Our soldiers got scared enough to ask me to send this outside standard communication protocol. If the brass knew I did this, I could be court-martialed.’

“‘We’re all scared you’ve been eaten. Please, for God’s sake, say you’re okay and you’re coming back. Jean Kirstein.’” She sighed and looked at them all. “I need to respond, but I don’t know what to say.”

In perfect unison, Annie and Armin put a hand on their chins, other hand cupping their elbows, and looked at the ground to think. Annie murmured, “I was hoping the southern forces would be shaken without Mikasa, but it happened sooner than I’d anticipated.”

“We can absolutely use this to our advantage,” Armin said. “The battalion is considered the best sword and shield for the south. Destabilizing them would spread to the rest of the army. We just need the right words.”

“The right words for the bastard, you mean,” Annie said. “He was warning Mikasa with that bit about the bastard and the higher-ups. Whatever we send back is going straight into their hands.”

Armin nodded as he thought. “So whatever we send back is going to determine how the army acts in the short term. Maybe even the general public if we talk about Christa.”

“‘If,’” Annie said with a smirk. “‘How’ is more like it. We can’t miss a chance to get this to civilians.”

“You can’t do this to try and scare civilians!” Christa said. “They’re already scared of wolves! Can’t we try to tell them that wolves aren’t savages like the church says?”

Ymir grinned and rubbed Christa’s head. “You’re a good peacekeeper.” Grin fading, she added, “But I’ll bet they’ll suppress info about you to avoid unrest.”

Bertholdt smiled as a thought came to him. “They can’t stop information delivered straight to the populace by Annie’s spies. Christa, is there something of yours that someone from Trost would recognize as yours?”

“Well…I think I kept a handkerchief embroidered with my initials in my bag. My household would recognize it without a problem, and at least a few other people in Trost would as well.”

“Think they’d start spreading the word about you?” Eren asked.

“I’d think so, yes.”

“All right, there’s a start,” Reiner said. “Annie, how many wolves do you have stationed in Sina and Trost?”

“Eight in Sina, not counting Mina,” she replied. “Five in Trost, and two or three each in other large cities.”

Christa stared, mouth open. “But—there are wolves in Trost?”

“Mm hmm.”

“I never noticed anyone with ears like ours, though.”

Annie smiled and reached up to her ears, murmuring a spell. Their tips grew rounded, and Christa’s jaw fell further. Annie’s smile became a smirk. “All my spies know this spell. You never noticed it while we were in the south, did you.”

“But—” She looked at Armin. “But how did you all know the day we met her?”

“Her bare feet,” Armin said.

“Knew just by looking at her,” Mikasa and Eren said in unison.

Christa felt herself blush darkly, and more so when Reiner laughed and patted her head. He said, “Think of it this way. You did exactly what we hoped you’d do as a normal civilian. It proves wolves and humans can live together peacefully if no one calls us demons.”

She sighed. “Then we’d get word about me out through Annie’s spies? Won’t they have to leave their homes to avoid being interrogated?”

“That’s not a problem,” Annie said. “They know to avoid making too many connections to the cities. It’ll be a relief to come home.” She sighed softly. “That message should be one you and I work out. The soldiers can figure out theirs.”

“I think the truth is the best thing to send back,” said Mikasa. “Maybe not that Ymir turned us into wolves.”

“I agree,” Armin said. “Given the belief in the south that wolf bites can turn you, it could sound like it was a punishment.”

“Right,” Reiner said with a nod. “We’ll finish up our building for the day and work out what to send to the south after dinner.” He glanced at the hawk on Eren’s shoulder. “Is that…yours?”

“Yep,” Eren replied. “Armin brought him to the battalion and me and Mikasa trained him to be our messenger.” He chuckled when the bird nipped his ear. “All right, buddy, go hunt for yourself and come back when you’re done.” He held his arm up for the hawk to hop onto, letting him fly from there. “Back to work until dinner, then.”

There was a distractedness in the way Mikasa nodded, and Reiner glanced at Annie. She nodded before turning to the frame to work. He put a hand on Mikasa’s back and guided her toward the castle.

“What’s the story on this Kirstein guy?” he asked.

She sighed, staring at the scroll as they walked. “You know that Eren is too hot-headed to be a tactical leader. I needed someone as a second-in-command who wouldn’t throw themselves at a wolf in a blind rage. Jean had the ambition and proved he could lead without being stupid, so I picked him.”

“If he had the ambition, was he aiming for your position?”

“He talked about wanting his own battalion, not that he wanted to take over mine. You could tell he didn’t want that much pressure from the brass.” She sighed again and murmured, “Too bad for him, I guess.”

Reiner made her stop and turn to him, gripping her shoulders. Quietly, he said, “Mikasa, the day may come when I send you to the front lines to lead our soldiers against the south. I need your word that you won’t let your former battalion pass by you if you meet them in battle.”

The line of her mouth twisted. “I can’t lie to my soldiers by staying in my wolf form as a disguise. They have to know it’s me…and I want to give them a chance to surrender. I will give you my word to stop them, but only if you’ll give me the chance to convince them to lay down their swords. Please.”

He looked at her without blinking or breathing, studying her eyes closely. He inhaled slowly and found her scent to be dry and cut through with harsh heat. He said, “You’re nervous.”

“Yes. I fought alongside these soldiers for years—I don’t want to kill them. But,” she said in a quiet voice, “I can’t let any of you get hurt.”

Reiner let out a long, slow breath. “All right. You can give them the chance to surrender.” He smirked. “Unless it’s the bastard.”

She blinked as a thought came to her. “I wanted to start telling you and the pack about Levi.”

He straightened, ears perking up. “Let me hear it.”

“To start, he’ll be too proud to allow anyone else to fight at his side when he faces your pack. If you can disable his limbs, especially his legs, it should be easier to kill him.”

“Wait, where the hell are you planning to be in all this?”

She blinked again. Mumbling slightly, she said, “Well…with you and your pack. I just—didn’t know how to phrase it.”

After a long, heavy pause, Reiner sighed and rubbed the back of his head. “Look, if I’m putting you off about it, it’s just because I’m still getting used to you being on our side. What you did for us in the siege proved to me that I don’t have to question your loyalty anymore, and I won’t.”

He blushed and looked to one side. “And if Annie cares about you enough to mate with you…yeah, I can trust you.” He held out a hand and said, “You’re a wolf of Utgard, Mikasa, and you’re welcome to my pack.” When she had taken his hand, wide-eyed and awestruck, he grinned and said, “Your brothers are welcome, too.”

Mikasa stood very still for a long while. She smiled at Reiner, somewhat hesitant and somewhat shy. “We had given up on our family ever growing larger.”

He laughed and slapped her heartily on the back to get them walking again. “Well, get used to the idea of it getting even bigger later.”

“You mean Christa?”

“You’ll see when Annie gets more relaxed.”

She almost stopped walking out of sheer confusion. “Wait, what?”

But he grinned and would say no more on the matter, and so Mikasa abandoned her questions and thoughts to focus on planning what had yet to be built.

———

That night, they all met in Hanji’s library with ink and parchment. Mikasa and Christa sat on opposite sides of the table. Annie sat on the tabletop next to Christa, and Mikasa was on the bench on her other side. Mikasa was flanked by Reiner and Armin, Eren on Armin’s other side and Bertholdt on Reiner’s. In silence and firelight, they stared at the blank pages.

“What on earth do I even say?” Christa asked.

Annie sighed as she thought, drumming her fingers on the table and staring at the ceiling. “Let’s think. What would be the most effective way to spread this throughout the south?”

Christa thought as well, brow furrowed. “I think I have to write an actual letter to my household. Something that doesn’t look like I was forced to write it.”

Annie hummed. “You probably shouldn’t condemn Reiss that much. Ease them into hating him.”

“Openly,” Christa muttered.

“You’ll get to break his nose, don’t worry,” Ymir said.

“Then,” Christa said slowly, “maybe I should write a letter just telling them I’m staying here, and I’m safe and happy. More than I ever could be in the south.” She blinked and looked at Annie. “But who would deliver it?”

“I think Mina’s the best option,” said Bertholdt. “She could disguise herself before and after delivering it.”

Annie thought for a time before smiling smugly. “She’ll disguise herself, give the servants the letter and that handkerchief, promise that Christa is as happy as the letter says, and after leaving she’ll duck behind something to change into her wolf form. She can trot off after winking at them, get around another corner to change back, wave goodbye, and leave while changing how she looks. No one can track her after that, and the servants will know Christa’s with good wolves like Mina.”

Mikasa smiled at her. “No wonder you’re the royal spymaster. Even I would have trouble with that kind of switch if she was fast enough.”

“And that’s why she’s my best spy.” She patted Christa’s shoulder. “Go ahead and write what you think is best for them and we’ll work from that.”

On the other side of the table, Eren stared at Mikasa’s page with a frown. “Did you and Kirstein ever come up with a secret code that says ‘punch Levi in the dick’?”

Reiner snorted with laughter. “Much as I want to agree, we want this to be subtle. No suspicion that we’re forcing it out of her.”

Mikasa sighed through her nose, tapping one heel on the floor. She thought, scratched the back of her head, thought again, and then pulled her pen and inkwell closer. Holding the inked pen over the well a moment more to think one last time, she brought the parchment closer and started to write. The pen’s nib scratched lightly over the parchment as she went, clinking on the glass of the well when she got more ink.

In the end, her message took up most of the page, and she blew gently on it to dry the ink faster. When the lines no longer gleamed, she passed it to Reiner.

“‘To Jean,’” he read aloud. “‘Eren, Armin, and I are all safe here in the north. However, we will not be coming back to fight for the south. The message we brought from King Reiss stated that we were to become servants for Ymir and her pack. You know what that would really entail.’

“‘We’ve talked about how none of us really want to die, Jean. You know I’d never let my brothers die like that. We weighed our options and chose to swear fealty to Ymir, her pack, and the north. I know you won’t believe me, but we are safe here. We’re happy.’

“‘It would be wise to weigh your own choices, knowing what has happened to us. To me. To Christa Renz, who was sent here to be nothing more than a sacrifice, not a person.’

“‘Think about this, Jean. Think about this very hard, because there may come a day when I lead a battalion of wolves to face you. I would count on it. Captain Mikasa Ackerman.’” He hummed, rubbing his chin. “I’m fine with giving you the same title you had in the south, but this seems a little bitter and grim.”

“It’d be worse coming from Armin,” Eren replied. He went still when he noticed Mikasa’s shoulders shaking. Unsure of what else to do, he reached over Armin to scratch behind her ear.

Reiner put a hand on Mikasa’s back. Softly, he said, “You’ll still give them the chance to surrender on the field. We just need this to shake them up.”

“Then why does it feel like I’m betraying them?” Mikasa asked, voice shaking and small.

Armin exhaled slowly and wrapped an arm around her. “Because by definition, we are. We can’t help that. All we can do is hope that Jean understands the letter and starts to question things. He’s smart—he’ll tell the battalion we’re fighting for the north now.”

Mikasa said nothing, staring at the table. Annie turned and moved to sit in front of her. She set her hands on Mikasa’s cheeks and waited until she looked up.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know you don’t want your soldiers to die.” She inhaled at the plea in Mikasa’s eyes. Brow furrowing, she thought furiously. “All right. The letter we send with that hawk is going to get into the bastard’s hands no matter what we do. We need a way to get a message to your battalion more directly. Right into Kirstein’s hands.” Her brows rose and she turned to Reiner. “Get me a map of the front lines. One that has where wolves are stationed.”

He got up, searching through the clutter while Annie moved to one side. When Reiner returned and lay the map down, she asked, “Where was your battalion stationed?”

Mikasa studied the map before setting her finger on a point near the mountains at the western side of the wide border between north and south. “We were trying to find a path to push forward on the mountain or the foothills, but we had a stalemate with the wolves in the mountain.”

Reiner leaned close to see where she touched. Smiling, he said, “I’m not surprised. That mountain is the home of the western crescent brigade, led by Major Rico Brzenka. She’s one of the oldest and most unmovable wolves we have in the army. She actually sent communications when we took Utgard that she didn’t care who was in charge, she was staying on her mountain to make sure the south didn’t advance. I never tried to disagree.”

“Then I assume she’s brave enough to deliver a message to Kirstein?” Annie asked. “Even hand deliver it?”

“Oh, absolutely,” Reiner said with a grin. “Mikasa, is there anything she can say to make the battalion not attack her long enough to get the letter to Kirstein?”

“‘Captain Ackerman says swords on the ground, eyes up here,’” Eren said. “She drilled it into us so much that we don’t think about it anymore. If Brzenka shouts it loud enough, some soldiers will just flat out drop to the ground to do push-ups.”

“You have to tell her to keep her soldiers from attacking,” Mikasa said. “At least until she gets the letter to Jean.”

“It’ll be fine,” said Reiner. “Write up two letters, one for the bastard and one for your battalion.”

Mikasa started to nod, but went still. She smiled slowly and with dark humor. “I know exactly what to send to Levi.” She took another piece of paper and wrote a much shorter message. She passed it to Annie when the ink had dried.

“‘To the army of the south,’” Annie read, “‘know that we have followed King Reiss’s instructions and are now servants of Ymir and her pack. We will do our duty and fulfill the orders of our leaders. Captain Mikasa Ackerman.’” She smiled and ruffled Mikasa’s hair. “I wonder how long it’ll take them to realize that you’re fulfilling orders from the north.”

“About as long as it takes for word from the battalion and the Renz household to get out, I’d bet,” said Armin. He passed Mikasa another page to write a new message to Jean.

Annie turned at the tap given to her shoulder. Christa was on her feet, holding out her own message. She asked, “Does this work? I don’t want to reveal anything right away.”

She took the page. “‘To the Renz house and all others, please rest assured that I’m safe here in the north. I’m under the protection of the ruling pack, and I am glad King Reiss sent me to broker for peace. Please stay safe and happy, and do not fear for me. I am happy in the north, and I hope to help end the war between us. Sincerely, Christa Renz.’ This should be perfect.”

Ymir grinned. “Wish you could stick a ‘P.S. my old man is King Reiss, wreck his shit,’ don’t you?”

Christa laughed nervously. “Well…maybe not that harsh.”

“We’ll probably pass that info to the south fairly soon,” Bertholdt said. He smiled when Mikasa set her pen aside. “All right, let’s hear how you’ll sow discord in the army.”

Mikasa smiled and read aloud. “‘Jean, I’m writing this because I know the message I send with the hawk will never reach you. Let the battalion know that Eren, Armin, and I are all safe in Utgard. We were sent here on a mission we didn’t know about to kill the ruling pack. You know this would have meant our own deaths. Because of this betrayal by a man we once called king, we have sworn our fealty to Ymir and her pack.’

“‘Please know that we still want to end the war, and we do not want to kill soldiers needlessly. Weigh your own options, Jean, because there may come a day when I lead wolves against the south. I do not think anyone will want to face us. Keep the battalion safe and informed. Captain Mikasa Ackerman.’”

Reiner laughed and clapped his hands together. “That sounds like it’ll scare them enough!”

“It’ll get the message across to the battalion, that’s for sure,” Armin said as he smiled. “And I think the other message will work the way we want on the higher ups.”

“So that’s four houses you either helped build or direct the building of,” Ymir said, “one message to stir up the public, one message to dupe the higher ups and the king, and one message to destabilize a major threat. I like you assholes more and more every day.”

“We’ll take that as a compliment,” Eren said, smirking.

————

Over the next three weeks, aid of every sort came in from all around the north. Timber and the wolves to work on it arrived quickly. They listened to all requests and fulfilled them, and helped expand homes that had taken in pups. They built over what was needed, saying that extra homes and space for shops would entice wolves to come back to Utgard. All they asked for were new tools and good saws, and Franz and Hannah gladly paid.

Crafters came on their own after hearing of the siege, bearing their wares and tools and supplies to make things on request. Pups were given precedence, but none were left without beds and blankets, clothes and furniture, stoneware and dishes. Though the crafters refused any payment coming from the townspeople, Ymir and her pack forced them to take payment from the royal purse.

When these funds ran low and farmers came with food, Franz and Hannah presented their horde of steel, refined plates of it and the tools crafted from it, to barter. The farmers always took low payments, and always gave pups extra treats if they looked at something longingly enough. The pups did not have to be prompted to thank anyone and everyone that gave them anything.

At the start of the third week, Mina was given her instructions to stopover at the western mountains with Mikasa’s letter to Jean before heading back down to Trost to deliver Christa’s letter to the Renz house. Before she left, she brushed a kiss against Marco’s lips, the both of them blushing and smiling. Annie smiled as well, and made sure to cut off any teasing from Connie by flipping him onto his back hard enough to wind him. Mikasa sent the hawk off, watching as he flew away in an arc to avoid the heavy rainclouds coming in from the southeast.

All the work was finished just before the clouds rolled in, and the wolves were safe, warm, and dry in their restored homes when the rain finally fell. The air and the streets were rinsed clean, the scent of fire and blood and sawdust disappearing.

At the start of the fourth week, the new wolves were taught to hunt. Reiner and Bertholdt took Eren and Armin out to the deeper parts of the forest to seek foxes and bears. Annie and Mikasa headed out beyond the mountain for deer.

“What’re you wanting to hunt?” Ymir asked Christa as they stood at the stairs into town.

Christa looked out at the rain, heavier than the night before. “Can we even hunt in rain like this?”

“Yep. It’ll be a little bit of a challenge, but we’ll be good. What do you want?”

“Erm. Do you think there are rabbits and foxes closer to the castle than where the others are hunting?”

“Should be.” She smiled and scratched behind Christa’s ear. “Ready to give it a try and show me just how awesome you’ve always been?”

She blushed, but took a deep breath and nodded as her heart pounded. They changed to their wolf forms, heading out to the edge of the forest. Ymir led Christa carefully up into the foothills, telling her how to place her paws to keep from sliding. They stepped light and careful over clumps of wet leaves. Curious at the scents of rain and mud and growing things, Christa did not follow quickly. She sniffed at everything, barely noticing when Ymir doubled back to find her. When Ymir bumped their shoulders together, she looked up.

I’ve never smelled anything like this. I think I smell an animal marking. She moved to the roots of a tree and pointed at a spot with her nose.

Ymir went to her and sniffed carefully. She nodded. That’s a fox marking his territory.

If we can smell it through the rain, is it fresh?

Yep. Can you catch the scent?

She sniffed again and again, freezing when she caught it heading away from the tree. She turned, tail rising, and looked at Ymir. After receiving a nod, she started to follow the trail. She moved slowly, still uncertain how to place her paws to keep her footfalls silent.

Twigs should be wet enough to bed, Ymir’s voice said. Leaves’ll be quiet. Go on a little faster.

Oh, o-okay. What should I look for?

If he’s out mark, he’s probably out scrounging for food. We’ll look near trees for mushrooms and voles. Nice and slow around roots.

She licked her nose to briefly clear it of rain. Then do I just run at him when I find him?

Kinda. Pick out your path and run on it, and go for the neck. Catch him in your fangs and a couple hard swings or bites should break his neck. Easy.

Right. Okay. She moved on with slightly more speed. Twigs and leaves bent under her paws; she kept her tail low and still to avoid brushing it against anything. A few minutes of tracking later, and she froze at the sight of a fox eating a vole. She lowered her front, hind legs tightening as she thought of how to run.

One more thing. Foxes scream, so don’t get scared if he starts making noise.

Okay. She took a slow, deep breath, bunched her shoulders, and leapt forward. The fox heard one of her paws in a patch of drier earth and turned, but Christa slammed into its neck fangs first. The fox scratched hard on her nose, leaving bloody lines, but she fought down the urge to yelp and let go. She swung the fox by shaking her head viciously, and she only stopped when she felt its neck snap between her fangs.

That’s my girl, Ymir’s voice said, utterly proud. Fast enough that he couldn’t even fight.

Not much, at least. She watched her nose steam as it healed. Nervously, she put her paw on top of the fox’s tail before lowering it to the ground. She waited to make sure it did not moved before letting the excitement hit her. I did it! I really did it!

Ymir laughed, and then harder when Christa tackled her to lick her ears and face. In a burst of steam cut through by the rain, Ymir changed to her human for to sit up and rub Christa’s muzzle. “Finally sure you can be a wolf?”

I am! I never thought I’d be able to kill anything on a hunt, but—I did it!

“Atta girl.” She picked the fox up by the tail, looking at it closely. “Nice big adult. Good coat, too, so I bet he hid during the fires.”

The excitement vanished as a thought came to her. Did…did I just take a parent from its pups?

“Nah, I don’t think so. Even if Utgard is warm in the winter, it’s not the season for fox pups. They’ll be fine on their own. The question you should be asking is if you want to eat him here or save him for the castle to get his pelt first.”

Erm. Could I wait? I’d like to have his pelt.

She grinned. “Sure. I’ll carry whatever you want to save. What next?”

Do you think that fox had a den and a mate?

Ymir snickered. “What’s your nose tell you?”

She looked around, paused to sniff the fox, and padded off with Ymir in her wolf-woman form following. The den was easy to find with the fox’s scent, and she waited some distance away for any movement. Soon enough, another fox came along with a rabbit dangling in its mouth. She caught it unaware, snapping its neck on impact. Dropping the fox, she sniffed at the rabbit.

I really want to get a rabbit. But not for a pelt.

“What, are you asking me permission to eat one of your kills? Go for it.”

Christa wagged her tail briefly before following the rabbit’s scent. It was a much longer trek, as the rabbit had been carried a great distance. She found herself growing hungry and impatient, but forced herself to not rush ahead. The rain grew heavier as the day wound into evening, and she went completely still to try to hear past it. She heard the faintest rustle of leaves against fur a few trees away and bounded forward. She used a root to turn more quickly, but stopped short and turned back when Ymir shouted for her to wait.

A scent that was not at all a rabbit hit her, entirely overpowering. She turned and looked up to see a black bear staring at her. Despite the rain, her fur stood on end. She made no move at first, but slowly stepped back. The bear did not follow, instead lumbering off into a nearby cave. Christa lay down because her legs were weak from fright.

“You’re okay,” Ymir said, stroking her head. “That was the right reaction. No need to fight bears unless they attack or you want a pelt, especially when you’re fresh to hunting like this.”

Christa licked at her own nose to calm down. Wow. I knew bears had a strong scent, but that was…terrifying.

Ymir chuckled. “Seeing a huge bear for the first time does that to you. Want to keep hunting?”

Yes, but…can we go somewhere that doesn’t have bears?

“Sure. I think we can use Annie and Mikasa to get a deer of our own. This time I’ll help, okay? Deer are a little harder.”

Okay. She took one of the foxes to carry and followed Ymir to cut along the side of the mountain. From their vantage point, they could just see Annie and Mikasa through the rain.

See what they’re doing? asked Ymir’s voice.

Christa watched closely. Annie was inching toward a cluster of deer on one side, carefully hidden in the undergrowth, while Mikasa moved away and up on the other side. Is Annie going to scare a deer toward Mikasa?

Right. Annie’s fur is more visible, so she uses that to scare the deer and force one to her partner. Here, watch.

Annie shot into action, leaping at a large buck. It panicked as the other deer scattered, and Annie gouged its back leg with her claws when it tried to run. It ran nonetheless, and straight toward Mikasa lay in wait. She jumped at the perfect moment and caught the buck’s throat in her fangs. She wrenched hard to rip out its throat, landing smoothly as the buck collapsed.

Natural hunter, Ymir remarked. Good. All right, we’ll get one of those other deer the same way. You spook one and I’ll kill it. Ready?

Absolutely. They made their way down to the flatland, tracking the deer by their lingering terror. They hid the foxes beneath branches knocked down by the rain, and Ymir headed in one direction. Christa went carefully in the direction of the deer. She found a doe that looked ready to panic and moved closer.

Very suddenly, the deer startled on their own and the scent of fury came up on her right. She turned quickly, seeing another buck charging at her with its head and antlers low. Heart in her throat, Christa stared at the antlers and the gap between them. She turned, prayed, and sprang up and through the gap in the buck’s antlers with no room to spare. Balancing on its shoulders, she clamped her fangs down on the high point of its spine and shook violently enough that she heard something crack.

Get ready to jump down!

She let go as Ymir sprinted in and leapt to tear out the buck’s throat. Jumping down as the buck fell, Christa looked at Ymir with not a small measure of befuddlement. I’m—I’m sorry. I didn’t do that like we planned.

Holy shit, why’re you apologizing? That was great! Right between his antlers and onto his back! Fuck, Lady Mond must’ve blessed you with courage and luck when you were born! She went to Christa and licked at her muzzle and ears. You amazing little shit. You could’ve gone for the kill and gotten it just fine.

Christa smiled and licked Ymir’s ears in turn. Can we take him back to the castle?

Oh fuck yes we can! That’s something to brag about! She changed to her wolf-woman form to carry the buck over her shoulders, and Christa did the same with the foxes. The rain did not stop even after they arrived at the castle, and they went to the dining hall sopping wet. They were the last to return, and the kills were laid out on display. Reiner and Bertholdt took down a bear each, and Eren and Armin had half a dozen foxes between them. Mikasa was rubbing Annie’s hair dry with a towel, looking proudly at the buck on the floor.

Armin turned first, brows rising under the towel Eren held on his head. “I didn’t think you’d take Christa out for deer.

“We got the idea from Annie and Mikasa after I ran into a bear,” Christa said, changing to her human form.

Ymir set the buck down, careful to show its back. After changing to her human form, she spoke. “Okay, get this. So after some foxes and that bear showing up, we were gonna get a doe, Christa scaring it to me. But then this buck just fuckin’ charges at her. So what does Christa do? Run? Freeze up? Nah, fuck that.” She moved to the buck’s head, sweeping her arms through the space between its antlers. “She jumps through here, gets on his back, and gets her fangs into that nice chunk of flesh there. Kept him nice and still for me.”

Reiner whistled, grinning as he came close. “Would you look at that.” He measured the space with his hands. “Just big enough for you or Annie. Nicely done for your first encounter with a charging buck.”

Christa felt herself blush at the praise and stammered, “Th-thank you. I’m just glad I didn’t get it wrong.”

Annie lifted the towel to smile at her. “Now I know I don’t have to teach you how to judge spaces.”

“I vote huge venison steaks tonight,” said Eren. “It’ll be like coming up here again.”

Bertholdt laughed. “I’m sure that can be arranged. Here, you all go get changed and I’ll ask the cooks to work on it before I get out of these clothes.” They went off in their separate ways, Christa never once minding the way her clothes stuck to her skin. She dried and changed, meaning to go back to the dining hall. Her pace slowed when she realized the rain was dying down. She headed outside to look at the town.

The clouds had parted enough to catch the slimmest bit of moonlight the sky offered. There was nothing left from the siege, either in scorch marks or scent. She breathed in the scent of the rain, cool and hinting of the winter snow. Feeling slightly foolish, she looked around at the nearby soil. Smelling Ymir come up behind her, she stopped and turned.

“What’re you looking at?” Ymir asked.

“I wanted to see the town all cleaned up since the rain stopped.”

“For a little bit, anyway. What else are you looking at?”

“O-oh. No, it’s something silly I did in Trost.”

Ymir smiled. “C’mon, tell me.”

“I like to find flowers after a heavy rain. The type you find tells you something special.”

“Flowers, huh?” She thought, moved away a few yards, and sniffed. She smirked. “There’s some right over here. They didn’t get burned.” After hopping down to the ground some feet below, she called up, “Yep, nice and pretty like your eyes! C’mere!”

Christa followed her lead, smiling when Ymir caught her. Once Ymir had set her down, she looked to where she pointed. Though Ymir went to the patch of blue flowers, Christa could not move.

“I see these flowers all around Utgard,” Ymir said. “I think they grow really well because it stays warm. Did you have them in the south?”

“Yes,” Christa said faintly.

“What do you call them there? I think our name for it is lady’s lace, since Lady Mond weaves these into necklaces to wear.”

“We call them forget-me-nots.”

“So what’s it mean when you find ‘em after rain?”

Christa blushed painfully. “No, nothing. It’s just silly.”

“Aw, c’mon, I won’t make fun of you. What’s this mean?”

She bit her lip, sighed, and looked at the ground while she spoke. “The flower you find after a heavy rain tells you about who you’ll fall in love with. I always found magnolias in Trost, which meant I’d be with someone noble. I just took that at face value.”

Ymir’s cheeks turned red. “Um. What does it mean when you find these?”

“That…that I’d be with someone who really loves me for me. And that if someone brings me these flowers, they would be the right person.” She laughed, almost crying, and said, “It’s just a stupid superstition. Don’t worry about it.” She looked up when Ymir touched her chin. When Ymir set a small bundle of the flowers behind her ear, stroking her hair, she went still.

“That’s not too far off,” Ymir said, blushing even more. “So it’s not stupid.”

Christa stared at her before hiding her face in Ymir’s face and trembling. She did not move for a long while, and Ymir stood there holding her. Rain began falling again, though, and Ymir scooped Christa up to hurry back inside. Safe from the rain, Ymir put Christa on her feet and knelt down to look at her face.

It was wet with tears, red from her blush, and she was smiling so brightly that Ymir felt it was only right to kiss her. Christa giggled, put her arms around Ymir’s neck, and kissed right back.