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Wolves of the North

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The rain continued on for another solid week, but one one felt the need to complain. Pups loped through the muddy streets and hills, but their parents could not begrudge them their filthy fur. Within the castle, the pack relaxed with each other in Ymir’s room after their hunts and the subsequent doling out of the meat they’d caught to townspeople and castle staff alike.

It was Christa who spoke the seventh night, coming out of her dozing as Ymir held her. She asked, “Does it rain like this through the entire winter?”

“No,” Bertholdt murmured, stretched out next to Reiner in a mound of cushions and pillows. “The storms come and go, especially here. This should be over in another day or two.”

“Getting sick of it?” Annie asked, sitting enfolded in Mikasa’s arms. They, too, were in a pile of cushions, and Annie looked utterly pleased.

“Oh, no, that’s not it,” Christa said. “It reminds me of winters in Trost, honestly. I just…was wondering about what we’ll be doing when the rain stops.” More quietly, she added, “I was wondering if we’d be training.”

Reiner chuckled, sprawled with Bertholdt while his eyes remained closed. “Eager to learn how to use all your new strength, huh? I don’t blame you.”

“Mikasa should tell all of us about Levi, I think,” Armin said, rubbing behind Eren’s ear while Eren nodded off in his lap. “She knows more about him than anyone else here.”

Ymir glanced at Mikasa, smirking at the sight of her fast asleep with her cheek on Annie’s head. “Maybe when she’s not unconscious.”

“Is she asleep on my head again?” Annie asked.

“That she is,” Bertholdt said. “I think you carry her to bed more than she carries you.”

“I’m fine with that,” Annie said, smiling. Her smile vanished from startled confusion when Mikasa tipped over and fell onto her side, pulling Annie down with her.

Armin snorted with laughter before putting a hand over his mouth to smother his voice. “Th-that’s what she does when she’s really comfortable. I haven’t s-seen her do that in a long time.”

Annie stared up at the ceiling for a moment before turning in Mikasa’s arms. She looked at Mikasa while she slept, smiling again at the way her brow was not furrowed.

“Reminder that none of you are allowed to mate in here,” Ymir said, voice growing fainter as she drifted. “Go back to your own rooms for that.”

Bertholdt rolled his eyes, but pushed himself upright. “All right, if you’re going to give subtle hints like that to leave, we’ll go.” He stood, helping Reiner to his feet. Armin did the same with Eren, and they made their way out of the room.”

“That means you too, Annie,” Ymir muttered.

“I know, I know.” She put her hands on Mikasa’s face, rubbing below her ears in a way that made Mikasa twitch and open her eyes. “Come on, it’s time for bed.”

Mikasa sighed and mumbled, “‘Kay.” They got to their feet and left, closing the door softly behind them.

“Hope you’re not wanting me to get up and sleep in the bed,” Ymir said. “This is way too comfy tonight.”

Christa smiled and settled back against her. “We’re close to the fire. This is good.” They sat without speaking, barely moving but to breathe. Though Ymir fell asleep a mere minute later, Christa could not do the same. The noise of the rain against the shuttered window was loud enough on its own, but she could even hear the wind sweeping through the sodden trees on the mountain.

A stubborn weariness settled in her bones, and she sighed because she knew she was still too awake. Blinking against the burn in her eyes, she lifted her hands to look at them. She whispered the spell to grow light flowers in her palms, but then spoke again to say, “Iyeko.” One by one, she picked the petals from the flowers and sent them floating into the air with soft puffs of her breath. She did this until the petals dotted everywhere she could see on the ceiling, and settled again to imagine they were a scattering of colored stars.

Because it would not have been the first time it happened, she was prepared to go without sleep. Ymir shifted and stirred beneath her, however, sniffing quietly. She exhaled through her nose, hands moving at Christa’s waist as she woke.

“Whoa,” Ymir said faintly. “You really got that little levitation spell. That’s pretty.”

“I’m sorry if I woke you,” Christa said, shoulders falling. “I couldn’t sleep.”

“Rain getting to you?” Ymir asked.

She went still a moment before rolling over to look at Ymir’s half-open eyes. “Is it normal for rain to keep wolves awake?”

Ymir smiled. “Are you kidding? Moms usually have to cover their pups’ ears during storms when they’re little. We can’t get relaxed with the noise—gotta learn to ignore rain.”

“Did it happen to you?”

“Fuck yes it did. Lady Mond only knows how I ever slept my first two winters.” She stroked Christa’s hair. “You’ll get used to it, I promise. C’mere.” She pulled her down to rest with her ear to her chest. “Don’t want you getting sick because you’re not sleeping.”

“What happens when wolves get sick?”

Ymir groaned. “Lady above, fuck your morbid curiosity in the middle of the night.”

“I’m sorry! It’s been on my mind since you told me wolves can get sick! I didn’t think wolves could, so I…I was curious.”

She groaned again, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. “Okay, fine, one lesson before you let me help you sleep.”

“Thank you.”

Grunting, she patted her head. “Wolves can get colds like anything else, coughs and sniffles and that kind of thing. Same goes for the flu. Normal healthy wolves get better in about a week for both, but pups take a little longer and you want to watch them just in case it gets bad. We can get pretty sick from bad meat, like we eat a carcass that’s rotten.”

“Then that’s why we eat fresh or cooked meat.”

“Exactly. Tastes better, too. The two to really worry about are illnesses that get deep down in you and kill you on the inside. Hanji says that one of them is a weird fluke—they can’t figure out what causes it. It’s not food or tainted water, you just get sick.

“It starts out like a normal cold with a runny nose and coughing. But then you start getting stuff coming out of your nose and eyes. Bad pus and a nasty color and smell. It’s worst when you start having seizures. Then you need medicine, a healer, or Lady Mond’s blessing.”

Christa sat up slightly to look at her with raised, furrowed brows. “Isn’t there a way to wipe out the disease?”

“Not unless you can go through the entire north and cast a spell to prevent every single wolf from getting it. Gotta get every pup, too, and you can’t track every birth happening.” She yawned, saying, “Every healer is taught the spell and the potion to cure it right when they start learning the trade. You just have to get checked when you get sick. It’s okay.”

“All right. Erm…you said there’s another one to worry about.”

“Yeah, and fuck the critters that bite us to pass it along.”

She stared. “Wait. Rabies? Wolves can get rabies?”

“Shit, that’s in the south? What do you even do with rabid animals?”

“Kill them when they show signs of it and carefully burn the bodies. We have no medicine or cure for it, so we have to kill humans that are infected so it doesn’t spread and cause an epidemic.” She grimaced. “Oh God, is it just as bad for wolves?”

“Yeah. It starts like a cold again, but you start getting stuff in your nose and eyes and you start frothing really soon. Even when you’re a human. A fever comes with it, and you start biting everything. Then it’s seizures, an even higher fever, and then you’re gone ‘cause you can’t breathe through the foam and pus.”

Christa gaped at her in horror. “Can…can you at least cure it?”

“Yeah, but that’s gotta happen quick. The sooner the better.” She felt Christa shiver, and she sighed heavily. “Okay, before you start panicking, I’m gonna tell you that we all keep a really close lookout for rabid animals and every single person in Utgard gets protected from the other disease—me and Petra go out to cast spells on newborn pups and anyone moving in. Lesson’s over now. You’re gonna have nightmares about it if I keep talking. Come on, look at me.”

Christa sighed, chest shaking, but lifted her head. She expected Ymir to hold her face and murmur a spell for sleep, but Ymir pulled her closer to kiss her. She inhaled quietly, touching Ymir’s hand. When Ymir broke the kiss, she put her forehead to Christa’s and whispered a spell to seal her body against both diseases.

“There,” Ymir said. “You’ll be just fine. I can teach you the spells and the potions to cure and prevent both of them, okay? I’ll do the same spells for the others tomorrow after breakfast.”

She smiled, feeling warmth in her chest. “Thank you.”

“Not a problem. Now shush and go to sleep.” She spoke another spell to give Christa sleep without dreams, kissing her once more. Christa lay down, eyes already closing. Ymir smiled and closed her eyes, and they fell asleep at nearly the same time.

————

True to Bertholdt’s prediction, the rain stopped the next day. The clouds parted over the mountain, leaving behind bright sunshine that took off enough of the chill of the wind to be called warm. The meal served at midday was warm stew, thick and hearty with meat from their hunts. Mikasa finished eating first and sat toying with her spoon, looking at nothing.

Sounding distracted, she asked, “Is there any steel left after the bartering?”

Bertholdt lifted his head, swallowing what was in his mouth. “There should be, yes. What do you need?”

“Examples.”

Reiner raised a brow. “For?”

“Training.”

Christa sat up straighter. “We’re going to start today?”

“I think we should,” Mikasa said. She thought a moment before standing up. “I’ll check with Franz and Hannah.” She kissed Annie’s head quickly and walked away, all the while looking pensive.

“She’s right,” Eren said. “She’s the only one who’s really seen Levi in combat. I wasn’t in that squad at all.”

“Do either of you know what he looks like?” Annie asked. “No one’s been able to give good reports because they get killed or they have to run before they see him.”

Armin hummed, scratching at stubble he’d forgotten to shave. “If I remember correctly, he turned fifty-four last winter. You can tell at a glance that he’s older because his hair and beard have gone gray. Honestly, though, the one time I met him with other officers in the strategic corps, I couldn’t tell. He’s healthy and strong enough to seem the same age as Mikasa.”

Ymir frowned, glaring at the table. “Of course he is. I can’t tell you how much I want to rip out his heart.”

Reiner smiled darkly. “Crush it right in front of his face, yeah. I’d pay to see that.”

“No offense, but that’d be pretty hard,” said Eren. “One of his nicknames in the south is ‘the crimson whirlwind.’ Three guesses on the color, but I don’t get ‘whirlwind.’”

“I’m sure Mikasa can explain,” Armin said. “She spent a full year under Levi’s command. Was it at eighteen, Eren?”

“Yeah. I hated that year.”

“At least she knows,” Annie said. “That’s better than any of us can say.”

Bertholdt nodded and smiled to tease. “You picked a good mate.” He laughed when she flicked a piece of bread at him. They waited for Mikasa to return, finishing their meal to pass the time. It took a long while, but Mikasa returned with two pieces of broadly cut, blunt steel with leather wrapped handles.

“Sorry,” she said. “Hannah had to wrap these for me.”

Reiner stared. “What the hell, are you going to teach us swordplay?”

“No, these are both for me. Where can we go to train?”

“We have a huge room for it on a lower level of the castle,” Annie said. She stood up and gestured for them to follow her. They went even further down than Hanji’s library, and Reiner pushed open a heavy section of wall to let them inside. Ymir tossed light into recessed scones all along the walls, revealing a room as massive as any courtyard for a castle. The floor was wood, covered in places by worn furs.

“Well,” Armin said, looking around with admiration. “This will work quite nicely.”

“All right,” Ymir said as Mikasa led them to the center of the room. “So what’s with having two of those?”

“Simple,” said Mikasa. She took one in each hand, holding them up as swords. “This is how Levi fights.”

“Wha—a sword in each hand?” Reiner asked.

“Yes, and both swords have permanent bone-cutting spells on them.”

Bertholdt frowned. “But southern steel is heavier than what you’re holding. He’s able to outpace wolves with two swords at once?”

“He is.”

“What the fuck,” Ymir murmured. “How fast is he?”

Mikasa sighed, mouth twisted. “He’s…when I trained with him, he was as fast as Annie is, if not faster. I don’t think he’s lost any of that since then.”

The expression that came to Annie was one mixed between indignation and unease. “Mikasa, I’m one of the fastest wolves in the north. Please tell me the bastard is that fast because of spells.”

Unhappily, she shook her head. “He’s that fast on his own.”

Reiner sighed in the back of his throat, crossing his arms. “Okay, we get that he’s fast and strong. You need to tell us how to kill him when the time comes.”

She nodded and said, “Can you change to your bipedal form? I need to demonstrate.” He did so as the others stepped back, and Mikasa put down one piece. She said, “On a basic level, humans and wolves fight in fairly similar ways. They push straight forward as much as they can.”

She slowly thrust the steel forward, looking at Reiner significantly. He stretched out a hand in a false swipe, and his hand reached her face before the steel touched him.

“Since wolves are faster and have much longer reaches,” said Mikasa, “humans figured out that was a stupid approach. Most combat tactics in the south revolve around increasing reaction time to get soldiers to dodge. It’s much harder to block with your sword and then get in another full swing for an attack.”

She nodded to Reiner, and he moved faster to aim at her head. She brought the steel up to push his arm away and down. Before she could lift it again, he tapped her nearer shoulder with his other hand.

“My technique is in between this and Levi’s,” she said. “I decrease my recovery time by turning with my sword and using the inertia to swing hard as I come back around. The turn gives me a chance to dodge as well.”

Reiner moved at her next nod. He reached out, letting his arm fall when she tapped the steel to his wrist. Though he brought his other hand up, she turned with the block, leaning to dodge his hand. Coming back around let her put the steel to his throat.

He smiled ruefully when she stepped back. “Yeah, I saw you take plenty of heads that way in the siege. Then the bastard’s attack is worse?”

“Levi takes it a step further by having two swords,” Mikasa said. She retrieved the other piece and went to Reiner’s side. “Because he has two swords with bone-cutting spells on them, he can carve huge pieces out of his enemies. I’ve seen him nearly cut a wolf in half at the waist.” She put the swords at angles forming a V at Reiner’s back, drawing them across his side to stop at his stomach.

“Oh, that piece of shit,” Ymir snarled. “He figured out how to do damage that can’t heal quickly and kill us while we’re on the ground.”

“Right,” Mikasa said. “Almost every time he spins after blocking, he does an enormous amount of damage to the wolf or another wolf coming at him. It’s incredibly hard to change directions like he can in the middle of a turn—I twisted something in my knees when I tried to do it more than three times in a battle.

“The worst thing a wolf can do to try and hurt him,” she said, “is leap directly at him in wolf form. He’s barely as tall as Armin, so I understand the urge. But all he has to do is cut your front legs off with one sword and then follow through with the other to cut your throat as you come closer.” She looked at them severely, stopping on Ymir. “I don’t care how fast any of you are. If you attack him like that, he will kill you.”

They all nodded, faces grim and brows low.

“Armin?” Eren said. “Any strategies against something like that?”

Armin took a deep breath as he closed his eyes. Exhaling slowly, he tilted his head forward. He thought and thought for three solid minutes before opening his eyes. “Mikasa, I know you said it twisted your knees, but can you execute a direction change like Levi does? Going as fast as you can, I mean?”

“I’m pretty sure I can.”

He nodded, smiling. “Everyone, watch her and see if you can point out any moment where there might be an opening to attack.”

They spread out around her, watching from different angles. She rolled her shoulders to stretch them before settling with the steel upright. Her gaze grew sharp, focusing on a point that did not exist. The first motion was a swipe of her left arm to block an attack, and the second was her right arm slashing at a throat.

Mikasa let the momentum of the second blow carry her into a spin, bringing both pieces down, up, and around in an arc that could cleave someone in half from the head down. Before she could make another revolution, she twisted her legs to plant her heels at an opposing angle, doing the same with her arms to cut through a torso at the chest.

She did it once more to slash up from the right hip, and they could all but see her foe cut from waist to shoulder. Mikasa put down the steel, wincing as she flexed her knees.

“It’s not as bad as I remember, but I still don’t know how he can do that so often.” She looked around, meaning to ask if anything had stood out, but received rather startled stares in return. “What’s wrong?”

“You’re faster than before,” Christa said. “It was a little frightening.”

“And you had your murder face on,” Eren added. “I sure as hell don’t want to fight you when you look like that.”

Mikasa sighed. “Armin said as fast as I could. I didn’t mean to scare anyone.”

Ymir coughed into her fist, looking embarrassed. “You’re fine. We just haven’t met many wolves faster than Annie.” More quietly, she grumbled, “I’m glad I’m still fastest.”

“All right, but did anyone see an opening?” Armin asked.

From opposite sides of Mikasa, Annie and Reiner said, “Yeah.”

Mikasa’s face brightened. “Where?”

Annie stepped closer, guiding Mikasa through the first spin. When her arms began to rise again, she put her fingers at the top of her back at her shoulder. As Mikasa continued to turn, she ran her fingers down and across the length of her back.

“It’s a tiny window to attack, I know,” Annie said, “but getting to his back otherwise means you’re praying he doesn’t start spinning again.”

“What I saw was on that last twist,” Reiner said. “There’s a second where you have to rearrange your arms and get your right hand back under your left. I think someone could get close enough to grab his elbows and break his arms.”

“You’d have to catch him before he just keeps going around the back,” Bertholdt said. He hummed, hand on his chin. “What about long range attacks? Sasha’s amazing with a bow—we could get her to teach us.”

Mikasa shook her head. “He wears leather armor with magic that makes it almost as strong as iron. Unless we his his head or his neck, it won’t help.”

“Fuck,” Ymir said. “I know he’d catch me before I finish saying any death spells. I’d have to hit him with it, anyway, and I’m not throwing it in close range with all of us nearby.”

“That means any other spells to hurt him or hold him still could hit someone else if you miss, right?” Christa asked.

“Yeah. Spells over distance like that are either thrown or set up like a trap. Traps are hard because you have to drive your prey right into them. I don’t want to risk it getting sprung on one of us because of a bad step.”

“And there’s always the risk of him not keeping his arms together like mine were,” Mikasa said. “I’m used to doing that, so I tend to move that way with weapons.”

Christa blinked with a sudden thought. “Mikasa, does that bone-cutting spell also make swords able to cut metal?”

“It’ll cut into metal more than it usually would,” Mikasa said, thinking. “I’m not sure how quickly it would dull the swords.”

“You’re not thinking about armor, are you?” Eren asked. “Metal armor slows you down way too much to use.”

“No, I was thinking about something I saw in Trost.” She lifted her hand, putting her palm outward. “I remember a merchant from the east showing off what she called ‘tree claws.’ They were pieces of iron or steel that covered your palms and had claws in a row near your fingers. It was to help in climbing trees, but what if you could use them to stop Levi’s swords?”

They all gaped at her. Slowly, Annie turned to Mikasa. “Did you ever see those when you lived in the east?”

Mikasa stared at her hands, brows low. After a few moments, she said, “I did. I remember them—people used them to work on cutting high branches.” Her brows rose as she smiled. “Those could work! All we’d need to do is figure out the right dimensions and thickness for the metal!”

Reiner, looking more excited than Christa had ever seen him, swept Christa up off her feet in a hug that crushed the air from her. “White wolf of fortune, that’s what you are!” He put her down gently, letting out a shaky laugh. “Don’t have power or strategies for us, my ass!”

Bertholdt still looked stunned, and he ran his hands through his hair. “I’ve never heard of something like that before—of course we’d never think of it. We wouldn’t even think to block swords at all.” He looked at the ceiling. “If that works…we could make it in wolf steel and send it to the front.” He blinked, shook his head, and sat down. “Lady above, I—we don’t have the steel for the whole army right now, but…wow.”

Smiling uncertainly, Annie said, “Is this how humans feel when they discover something small but amazing?”

“More or less,” Armin said.

Eren nodded in agreement, though he looked at his hand closely. He traced his palm and his fingers. “We need to pick which form we’ll use those in. Our bipedal forms have way bigger hands than our human forms—we can’t switch back and forth.”

“And it depends on which form you fight best in,” Annie said. “I’m more comfortable as a wolf, but I can try these as a human.”

Ymir turned to Christa. “Can you sketch these things? I’ve honestly never seen or heard of them before.”

“I think so,” Christa said. “I remember them being simple.”

“Then we’ll go bug Hanji for paper and a pencil,” Ymir said, grinning. “Let’s go.” They headed out and back up, Annie opening the door in the wall. Hanji, sitting at their large table and poring over maps, did not look up when they entered, nor did they react when Bertholdt said their name. It took Annie going to them and taking their glasses for Hanji to look up.

“Oh,” they said, taking back their glasses as Annie offered them. “Hello. Did you need me for anything?”

“I need to borrow a pencil and some paper, please,” said Christa.

“Ah, I see.” They rummaged through the mess on the table, finding a sharp pencil and a few loose pages. They let Christa sit in their chair, watching with great curiosity as she sketched out the tree claws. Head tilted, brows raised, they asked, “What on earth are those things?”

“They’re pieces of metal with claws that you put on your palms to help climb trees,” Christa said, “but I thought maybe we could use them in battle against swords.”

Hanji’s eyes grew unfocused with thought. They moved their hands in minute ways. After a moment, they said, “By the Lady’s eye. Shaped correctly, they could be an incredible shield.” They smiled and scratched behind Christa’s ear. “You wonderful girl!”

Christa smiled, blushing, and passed her sketch to the others. “I remember it being somewhat contoured to the palm, but would that work?”

“It would be better with some kind of curve or catch at the bottom,” Armin said. “Otherwise, it would be easy to cut along the palm and straight to the arm.”

“I see.” She considered this, took another piece of paper, and sketched the tree claws again with the change. She passed it over, saying, “I think claws to match the top would work best.”

Mikasa nodded as she looked at the sketch. “It would allow us to force the sword in either direction.” She rolled the paper up carefully and said, “I’ll take this and the steel to the forge and make a few of them.”

“You’ll make Franz and Hannah happy to have a new, unique project,” Bertholdt said.

“I’m not sure how long it’ll take,” Mikasa admitted. “This is something I’ve never made before.”

“We trust you,” Reiner said. “If you can make a sword like yours, I’m pretty sure you can make these things.”

“We’ll figure out things to do in the meantime,” Ymir said. “Go make them.”

Mikasa nodded and headed for the way they came in, steel and paper in hand. Annie caught the back of her belt and pointed to a different wall.

“This way is quicker,” she said. She went to another hidden door, Mikasa following close behind, and they vanished down the hall.

Christa muffled her giggles, but still said, “I didn’t think Annie would be so awful at subtlety.”

“Wolves are very affectionate by nature,” Hanji said. “I’m not surprised at all.”

Bertholdt chuckled. “Though it remains to be seen how long she’ll wait to ask Mikasa about pups very seriously.”

Eren looked at him blankly. “What?”

Reiner grinned and roughly rubbed Eren’s head. “You’ll find out.” To all of them, he said, “Let’s take a break from hunting and enjoy the sun for a while.” He laughed when Bertholdt slung an arm around his shoulders and led him away.

Armin took Eren by the hand, smiled, and said, “I’d like to have a day out holding your hand in public, if that’s all right.”

The smile Eren gave him was so gentle and adoring that Christa blushed at the sight of it. Eren said, “That’s definitely okay,” and they headed out the same way they came.

Looking rather serene at the sight of them, Hanji sighed and said, “I think Petra would like to be in the sun.” They left Christa and Ymir with a wave, and Ymir snickered when they were out of sight.

“And that,” said Ymir, “is everyone basically saying ‘we’re going to go fuck now.’”

Christa blushed darkly, but still giggled. Without thinking, she asked, “Do you have a way of saying it without saying it?”

Ymir went wide-eyed and crimson. “Uh. Well. N-not yet?”

Embarrassed to the point of panic, Christa put a hand over her mouth, and through her fingers stammered, “Oh—oh God, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to embarrass you, I don’t have a way of saying it either and—”

Ymir shushed her while holding back laughter. “We’re so shitty at this.”

The sight of her smile made it easier to laugh again. “I know. I don’t mind.”

She stroked Christa’s hair before glancing about. Quietly, she said, “I’ve got a secret warm and sunny spot in the castle. Can I show you?”

“Of course.” She waited as Ymir pinched out the candles on the table, holding out her hand in the dark. Once Ymir had taken it and they’d started off, she asked, “Is it really a secret?”

“Yep. I haven’t shown it to anyone else—even Annie hasn’t found it. I like having a place in the castle where I can be alone, and now you can have it, too.”

Christa smiled and squeezed Ymir’s hand. Ymir squeezed back, and led her up narrow stairs in the direction of the mountain. At a landing that turned sharply to the right, Ymir stopped them.

“That way,” Ymir said, pointing at the rising stairs, “leads to a way into the mountain tower. What we want is this.” She went to the corner between both stairs and pressed on three separate stones: one small stone on the floor, one in the crease between wall and floor, and one in a wall.

The only sign that anything had happened was a faint, cool breeze touching Christa’s heel. She turned and sniffed, finding and following the scents of wind and warm fabric. Running her fingers carefully in between the stones of the wall opposite of the stairs heading upward, she found the source of the scents and pushed on the wall. It turned inward silently, and she went inside with Ymir closing the wall behind them.

Light filled the room, soft and warm as it came in through slatted windows high in the tall walls. It was smaller than the quarters they shared, but cozy because of it. A large bed took up most of one wall, and it was covered in sunlight. Books were scattered everywhere, stacked lopsidedly in a bookcase and on the floor.

Though the books intrigued her, the bed was too enticing. She went to it to sprawl in the sun, smiling at the warmth on her stomach. Ymir moved over her to keep from blocking the sun, settling on her side near the wall.

“Did you make this room?” Christa asked.

“Nah,” Ymir said. “I don’t know who did, since Zilya didn’t know when I ate him. The wolves who made Utgard probably made it for the rulers to take a break in. Them and their mates, I think.”

“I can see why,” Christa said. She stretched slowly, not minding in the least that her shirt rode up to expose her stomach to the sun. “It’s nice to be alone in the sun like this. With you.”

Ymir smirked, slipping her fingers up Christa’s shirt to rub her stomach. The way Christa relaxed entirely under her hand made her laugh. “You’re really pretty in the sun. What was that thing Annie said you were called in the south? The golden land of the land or something?”

Christa nodded lazily, eyes half closed. “I guess that’s not correct with my coat now.”

“Still works with your hair.” She brought her hand up to push on Christa’s nose. “And now I get to see you in here.”

Smiling, she rolled onto her side to run her fingers over Ymir’s cheeks and the freckles on them. “These seem a little darker in the sun. Does that happen in the summer?”

“Yep. If the others are outside in the summer sun long enough, they all get some freckles. Annie gets ‘em on her cheeks, and Reiner and Bertholdt get some on their shoulders. I just go a shade darker.”

“I like it,” Christa murmured. She moved to kiss Ymir’s face, lingering on her cheeks. Without hesitation, she kissed her lips. Barely pulling away, she whispered, “Can I see what you look like in the sun?”

Ymir chuckled despite the blush on her face. “Yeah. Can I see you?”

Christa nodded, reaching for the hem of Ymir’s tunic. Shy and tentative, she worked the tunic up and off her torso. She blushed badly, but kept breathing. As she put her hand on Ymir’s stomach, her fingers trembled.

“I,” Christa said, “I’m sorry if I’m nervous.”

“You’re fine. I’m not that calm, and I know you can smell it.” She swallowed hard, cleared her throat with difficulty, and said, “But…um…I want to be your mate. I want you. Is that okay?”

Christa felt her heart in her throat, not from fear but from relief. She nodded and put her head in the crook of Ymir’s neck. Kissing her freckles, she said, “You know what? You were right. I’m asking to be your mate after all.”

“I was being a smartass back then, but I’m glad.” She nuzzled against Christa, laying both hands on her backside and squeezing. At Christa’s startled, pleased gasp, she grinned. “Wow, I wanna hear you moan so much. You’re fuckin’ amazing.”

Feeling daring, Christa pushed Ymir onto her back and sat on her hips. The sight of Ymir, smiling and bare to the waist, made her mouth go dry. She leaned down, even as her shoulders shook, to kiss Ymir’s breast. Ymir inhaled quickly, and again when Christa’s lips brushed her nipple.

“This—this is okay, isn’t it?” Christa asked.

Ymir sputtered a laugh. “Yes, it’s fine. You seriously don’t need to be this nervous. No one’s gonna get pissed.” She thought and then snickered. “We’re probably gonna get teased, though.”

“I think that’s okay.” She took a breath to relax before leaning down again. Not with hesitance but with curiosity did she kiss all along Ymir’s chest, touching the freckles dotting her skin with soft presses of her tongue. She paused to kiss her nipples as well, feeling heat in her ears when Ymir exhaled slowly. As she moved, Ymir ran her fingers over the back of her neck. It sent chills down her spine and across her skin; she whimpered against Ymir’s collarbone.

Christa hesitated when Ymir tugged on the back of her shirt, but sat up when Ymir did the same. She lifted her arms to help Ymir take off her shirt, but drew a quick breath when Ymir lifted her legs to bring Christa up to her height. They looked at each other’s eyes; Christa thought Ymir’s were brighter from the blush beneath them.

“You’re turned on again,” Ymir said with a grin. “Even if I couldn’t smell it, I can see you’re red all the way down to your breasts.” Very gently, she brought her hands up to hold Christa’s breasts, thumbs rubbing her nipples until they hardened. She smiled as Christa bit her lip and set their foreheads together. Tilting her head, she kissed her to see what her lips tasted like.

Unsteady with her legs starting to weaken, Christa put her hands on Ymir’s shoulders. She felt their curve and the tiniest coil of her muscles as her hands moved. Carefully, she broke the kiss to bring her lips to Ymir’s neck. Her focus stayed on the side of her neck and the path to her shoulder, giving them open-mouthed kisses and soft bites.

Each bite made Ymir’s hips twitch; she tipped her head to the side to give Christa more of her skin. Her hands did not slow or stop, but grew bolder and her touches firmer. Christa muffled a moan on Ymir’s shoulder when she took her nipples between thumb and forefinger and toyed with them.

“Let me hear your pretty voice,” Ymir said in her ear. “Please.”

She could not think of what to say, but a faint pinch grew from her a whimper holding Ymir’s name. Ymir groaned and repeated herself, sucking air between her teeth when Christa dug her nails into her shoulders. She lowered her legs, meaning to push Christa down onto her back. Before Christa could stiffen with panic, Ymir froze completely.

“Shit,” Ymir said softly. “Sorry, sorry, I know it still freaks you out.” She took her hands away to rub hard at her head, growling out a sigh. “Fuck, I’m sorry, I don’t know what I’m doing, I didn’t—”

Before Ymir could stop her, before she could second guess herself, Christa pushed Ymir’s legs apart, pulled one of her legs up between her own, and set her thigh between Ymir’s. As Ymir opened her mouth to speak, Christa cut her off by rocking against her. Ymir choked at Christa’s thigh rubbing between her legs, hands clenching in the sheets.

“It’s okay,” Christa whimpered, rocking on Ymir’s thigh as her head fell forward. “It’s—it’s f-fine.”

Fuck,” Ymir grit out, sweat beading on her back. “Christa, fuck.” She opened her eyes long enough to see Christa’s hips moving on her thigh and put her hands on them. Unsure how to think anymore, she dug her fingers into Christa’s hips, rough through her trousers and tight on her belt loops, and pulled her into a faster, harder rhythm.”

Christa put her cheek to Ymir’s, panting and moaning in her ear. She clutched her shoulders, wanting to bite down to muffle herself. At the same time, listening to Ymir’s groans and desperate whispers poured heat into her, and she could not give that up for the world. She felt her hips shiver, and again when Ymir’s legs clenched around her thigh. One last rock on Ymir’s leg was enough to make her come, her fingers digging tightly enough into Ymir’s shoulder that she broke skin.

The steam of the wounds healing gave her focus again, and she rocked her leg against Ymir while she trembled and calmed. Ymir’s grip grew tight enough to break the stitching on her belt loops, and she whimpered on Christa’s shoulder as she came. Christa stopped moving with her, stroking her sweat-dampened hair until she lifted her head.

“Wow,” Ymir said. “Um. That…I liked that.”

Christa smiled and kissed her. “I didn’t know if you would. I just knew I like it and I hoped for the best.”

Laughing weakly, Ymir said, “To be honest, I didn’t think either of us would have any fuckin’ idea what to do.”

“I don’t know what to do about our clothes, though.”

Ymir glanced down to see darkened wet spots between their legs and on their thighs, as well as Christa’s snapped belt loops. After a few seconds, she shrugged. “Nap until we dry off, I guess.” Her smile returned. “Then we can go back to our room and be ready to have more fun when we take a bath.”

Giggling, she said, “I’d love to.” She kissed Ymir and softly, shyly said, “I love you.”

Just as shyly, Ymir replied, “Love you, too.” She bundled Christa up in her arms to lie down, and Christa traced shapes in the freckles on her chest until they drifted to sleep in the sunlight.

————

“I feel like you finished making those things in the middle of the night so you wouldn’t have to show them to everyone,” Annie said a day later. She sat on the edge of the tub with her feet on Mikasa’s thigh, Mikasa rubbing at her own shoulders.

“More or less,” Mikasa admitted with a smile. “My shoulders ache right now, so I didn’t want to test them.”

She smirked, wetting her finger to paint a warm line on Mikasa’s neck. “Now who’s lazy?”

“Me, but I wouldn’t mind you joining me while the water’s still hot.”

Annie considered this a moment before standing up outside the tub to take off her clothes. She settled in Mikasa’s lap, leaning against her chest while Mikasa wrapped her arms around her.

“Did you know you have a way of sitting where I can tell you’d be wagging your tail if you were in a different form?”

“I’m not surprised. You looked like that when you finished working.”

“I know. It’s easy to get used to having a tail.” She pulled Annie a little closer, setting her chin on her head. “So perfectly tiny.”

“No, you and everyone other than Christa are just tall.”

Mikasa smiled, said nothing, and nuzzled against her hair.

Breathing slowly, Annie flicked the water. She said, “I wonder if our pups would be somewhere in between.”

Mikasa stopped moving. “What?”

“Haven’t…haven’t you ever thought about that? Having children?”

“Yes, but I wasn’t going to have sex with a man for that.”

“Then how do you feel when I tell you Ymir knows a spell that lets two women have children of their own?” She waited in silence, but the longer Mikasa went without answering made Annie’s heart sink further. She tried not to sigh, looking down to stare at her knees.

Sounding utterly lost, Mikasa asked, “You’re not playing a trick on me, are you?”

“No,” Annie said. “I’ve thought about having pups for a long time, and I want to have them with you.” She went quiet, unwilling to turn around when Mikasa resumed her silence. However, when Mikasa’s hands came onto her shoulders, shaking slightly, she turned.

Mikasa stared at her, brows high and eyes wide. “You’re really not playing a trick?”

She looked back, uncertain of her expression. “I’m not. Why would I lie about something this important?”

After another long moment of silence, Mikasa smiled, pulled Annie to her, and kissed her hard. “My answer is ‘I feel incredibly happy about the fact that we can have pups together.’” She laughed, putting a hand on her head. “Oh my God. I—yes. Yes, I want to have pups with you.”

Annie smiled, feeling relief spread all the way to her toes. “Thank our Lady. I thought you’d say no.”

“No, I just—I didn’t know that was possible. So—wait, how does that work? What are wolf pregnancies like? Who’s—”

Annie put a hand over her mouth to cut her off. “I’m carrying them. We can discuss the rest in the morning.”

Mikasa pushed her hand away. “You realize that I’m going to be up all night thinking about it, right?”

“I know where to scratch your back to get you to sleep. Come on.” She tugged Mikasa out of the tub with her. When Mikasa stood by in a daze, Annie laughed and tossed a towel in her face to get her to focus. Though Mikasa asked her questions as they dressed and got into bed, she only shook her head, saying, “Tomorrow morning.”

“You’re horrible for telling me this before we go to bed and expecting me to sleep with no info,” Mikasa grumbled.

“I know,” Annie said lightly. “Too bad you didn’t finish working before now.”

Mikasa smiled ruefully, letting Annie roll her onto her back. Though she fully intended to stay awake until she got more answers, Annie scratched up and down the length of her back. She took her time at the top of her back and the base of her spine, and within a minute, Mikasa was fast asleep.

“Told you,” Annie murmured. She pulled the blanket over them and curled up against Mikasa’s side to sleep. In the morning, she woke to find Mikasa had moved in her sleep and was wrapped around her just as much as the blanket. Her shifting was enough to wake Mikasa, who looked at her with a sleepy smile.

“I think the pups will like sleeping on you no matter which form you’re in,” Annie said, voice rough from waking.

The sleepiness vanished from Mikasa. “Oh wow, I didn’t dream that.”

“Not even a little.” She kissed Mikasa’s cheek. “You can ask me all your questions now.”

“Were you serious when you said you’d carry them?”

“Mm hmm.” She wiggled out of Mikasa’s arms, getting out of bed to dress for the day. Because she did not follow her, she retrieved clothes for her as well. They dressed for a time before Mikasa could think of another question.

“How long do wolf pregnancies last?”

“Four or five months.”

Mikasa stopped buttoning her white shirt. “That’s it?”

“Versus?”

“Humans are pregnant for nine months.”

Annie shuddered at this, pulling on black denim trousers. “That’s too long. Four and a half is best.”

“I’ll have to get used to that, I guess.” She thought, and then asked, “Is it like human pregnancies at all? Do you get sick in the morning? Or really hungry?”

“Yes to the second, but getting sick can happen any time of day. It usually only happens for the first two or three weeks. Mothers get more defensive, but our mates tend to get a lot more aggressive. You’ll probably bite someone if they get too close to me later on.”

Mikasa frowned, lifting Annie’s hair when she pulled on her loose shirt. “I wouldn’t do that.”

“You say that now, but I’ve seen quite a few wolves who were normally calm bite someone else for getting too close to their pregnant mate.” She tied her hair up in a ponytail, considering Mikasa’s hair. “Do you want to borrow a tie or two?”

Mikasa checked her hair, finding it was reaching toward her chest. “I keep forgetting to ask Eren to cut it.”

“I think it’s pretty like this. Here.” She made Mikasa sit on the bed, tying her hair back when it was in reach. She lifted the tail over her scarf. “What else do you want to know?”

“Will you still be able to shift and fight?”

“Yes, but I shouldn’t after three months. It’s better for me and the pups if I’m in my wolf form for the last four or five weeks.” They left their room, hand in hand, but Mikasa grew too excited and lifted Annie onto her shoulders to ground herself.

“Humans have midwives to help a mother give birth,” she said. “Do wolves?”

“We do. Mina’s family all does that, and Mina was doing that until Ymir and I came to her. I can ask her to stay to help when she gets back.”

Mikasa grinned, lifting one hand for Annie to hold. “How will the pack take this?”

“They know I want to have pups, so they’ll be happy. Reiner wants to be an uncle. What do you think the others will do?”

“Eren might panic. Armin should be excited, and I think Christa will be, too.” She chuckled. “It might even make her start thinking.”

“That’d be interesting. Ymir might panic, then.”

Mikasa laughed. Not paying attention as she walked them into the dining hall, she asked, “What can we ask Ymir for?”

“What’re you going to ask me for?”

Mikasa stopped short, turning to see the rest of the pack at a table and already eating with no one else around. She could not think of what to say when Armin waved at her and Eren and Christa smiled.

Annie grinned crookedly at her hesitation and said, “She wants to know what we can ask you for when you help me get pregnant with our pups.”

The gleeful bellow Reiner, Bertholdt, and Ymir let out as they leapt to their feet was loud enough to echo through the empty hall. Bertholdt plucked Annie from Mikasa’s shoulders before Reiner and Ymir tackled her, the both of them as the trio began to wrestle on the floor. Bertholdt spotted the others standing up and set Annie on her feet. Christa rushed to her and hugged her as tightly as she could.

“Annie, that’s so wonderful!” Christa said. “You two will be such good mothers!”

Armin took Christa’s place in hugging Annie, pressing a quick kiss to her brow. Quietly, he said, “We’ve all talked about being parents, but we never thought it was possible. Thank you.”

Annie blushed at this, unable to hide it when Eren looked at her closely. To her surprise, he blushed as well.

“Um,” Eren said, “c-can I be an uncle? I get it if you tell me no since I was such a dick to you when we met. But I’d really like to be an uncle to your pups.”

Annie smiled and tweaked Eren’s nose. “All of you will be their aunts and uncles. But if you upset them, Mikasa will break your knees before I break your arms.”

“Sounds just like your styles.”

As they spoke, Mikasa managed to lock Reiner’s arms behind his back and pinned Ymir by the neck with her legs. They stopped struggling, laying there laughing. Reiner ground his knuckles against Mikasa’s head when they all sat up.

“You ass!” Ymir laughed, punching Mikasa’s arm. “We thought she’d get to seventy before she found the wolf for her!”

“Your pups are going to get so spoiled,” Reiner said. “How many are you going to have?”

“Um,” Mikasa said, blinking at him. “I…I’d thought about two a few years ago. A boy and a girl.”

“I can do that,” Ymir said. “Twin pups might run you into the ground.”

“We’d be fine,” Annie replied. She went to Mikasa and scratched behind her ear. “I’m glad you want that.”

“So you want to do that right now?” Ymir asked, slapping low on Annie’s stomach. She grinned as she caught Annie’s punch. “I promise I won’t do that when you’re pregnant.”

“Let me eat something first,” Annie said. “I feel I’d get sick without it.”

“What happens in all of this?” Armin asked.

“You’ll see,” Ymir said, patting his head as she stood. “We weren’t done eating.” She gestured for them all to follow her back to the table. Christa did her utmost to not bother either Annie or Mikasa with questions, and she could see Armin struggling to do the same.

Eren, however, only took the time to cram a few more pieces of venison and buttered toast into his mouth, chew, and swallow them before laying into them. “What d’you want to name them?”

Mikasa, a piece of venison in her mouth, looked startled and turned to Annie.

Annie looked back calmly before raising a brow at Eren. “Since we hadn’t talked about what we wanted to have until now, we hadn’t thought of those yet.” She picked up a piece of toast and said, “But I like ‘Matvey’ for a boy.”

“That’s a handsome name,” Christa said. “I’ve never heard it in the south.”

“It’s a very old name in the north,” Bertholdt said. “‘He who is watched by our Lady.’ It was Annie’s father’s name.”

Annie said nothing, taking her time in chewing her toast.

Out of sight, Mikasa set her hand on Annie’s knee. “I like it,” she said. “What do you think of ‘Ginko’ for a girl?”

She thought, swallowed, and said, “I think it’s pretty. It’s an eastern name, right?”

“Hey, I remember that name!” Eren said. “You said it means ‘child of the silver sky!’”

“Right,” Mikasa replied. “That’s the name our goddess takes when she walks on the earth, so I’ve always thought it would be a good name.”

Annie chuckled. “I didn’t think it would be so easy to pick names.”

“If you were having just one pup,” said Armin, “it might have been harder.”

Reiner, sitting next to Christa, smirked after catching her scent. “Maybe you and Ymir will fight about it when your time comes.” He laughed when both Christa and Ymir went crimson, patting Ymir’s head.

She swatted his wrist, avoiding everyone’s gazes. Rubbing the back of her neck, she asked, “Annie, are you done eating yet?”

To spite her, Annie took another piece of venison and took her time in eating it. Mikasa smiled at her and at Ymir’s aggravation, sneaking in another piece of toast. When they had finished, Ymir went to sit on the floor nearby with a knife in hand. Annie led Mikasa to sit before her.

“So who’s carrying?” Ymir asked, waggling the knife between them. “Annie, still you?”

“Still me.”

“You first, then.” She gave Annie the knife before cupping her hands and whispering a spell. When Mikasa stared at them, she said, “You’ll cut yourselves and drip the blood in my hands. A spell later, Annie’s gonna drink it.”

“Ah,” Mikasa said. She watched Annie push up her sleeve and cut a deep line down the inside of her arm to her wrist. The wound closed slowly enough for her to drip a good amount of her blood into Ymir’s hands. None of it slipped through her fingers, and she murmured another spell. The blood took on a darker luster, but its color lightened.

Mikasa took the knife to cut herself, taking care when dripping her blood into Ymir’s hands. To her surprise, the drops did not splash on landing, instantly absorbed into what was already there. After she pulled her arm away, Ymir murmured once more, longer and more complex. The mixture became a lighter red, but the light from the windows gleamed deeply crimson within it. She looked at Annie with a raised brow.

Nodding, Annie moved closer. She put a hand on Ymir’s wrist to steady her, and she opened her mouth to let Ymir set the tips of her middle fingers inside. Very carefully, Ymir tipped her hands up to pour the mixture into her mouth. Annie swallowed as slowly as Ymir poured, and she closed her eyes when the last drop fell into her mouth. Ymir pressed her lips closed with her thumb, whispering the last of the spell in her ear.

A tremor went down Annie’s spine, and she opened her eyes after a moment. She looked at Mikasa, blinking when Mikasa leaned in and sniffed her hair.

“You’re not going to smell a difference already,” Annie said, pushing her away by her face even as she smiled.

“I don’t see why I can’t check,” Mikasa replied wryly.

“Trust me, it worked,” Ymir said. “You won’t see any changes for a week or so unless Annie starts getting sick sooner than that.”

“I’ll be ready,” Mikasa said.

“Wait,” Eren said. “If you’re out here and not in the forge, does that mean the claws are done?”

“They are,” Mikasa said. “I’m sorry—I got caught up in this when Annie told me about it.”

“I imagine any of us would be,” Armin said. “May we see the finished product?”

“Let me get them. Wait for me at the edge of the forest.” She kissed Annie on the cheek before heading out of the hall. The others followed behind her, but made their way out of the castle. Christa walked next to Annie, wanting to giggle at the tiny smile on Annie’s face.

“How long have you thought about having pups?” she asked.

“Probably since I was about your age,” Annie said. “I only started thinking seriously about it in the last ten or fifteen years.”

Armin smiled, but there was little warmth in his eyes. “I remember the first real conversation we had together about having families of our own. We were all sixteen and about to go our separate ways in the army. None of us knew how we could ever go about it. God, I don’t know who was more torn up about it.”

“After our first battle, Mikasa and I told ourselves that having kids wasn’t the best idea,” Eren admitted. “We figured we’d get killed on the front lines, so maybe it was better that we couldn’t have kids.” The sadness in his smile faded for eagerness when he looked at Reiner. “Ten gold says they like me as an uncle better than you.”

“Be ready to lose that, Jaeger,” Reiner said, holding out his hand. They shook, Eren punching his shoulder when they let go. The forest was reached soon after, icy snow crushing underfoot. Mikasa came at a jog a few minutes later, a rucksack clanking with metal innards on one shoulder and another blunt piece of steel in her other hand.

“I managed to make pairs for myself, Reiner, and Annie without using too much steel at all,” she said, setting everything down. She opened the bag and handed metal gloves to Annie and Reiner. They slipped their hands through a curved band of metal on the back, flexing their fingers to check the fit.

Mikasa pulled on hers as well, saying, “Eren, can you help demonstrate?”

He nodded and took up the blunt steel. Moving to where she pointed, he lifted the steel.

“There are two methods for using these against a sword,” Mikasa said. “Or at least that I can think of right now. First is for catching the sword vertically between the claws.” Eren moved when she turned to him, bringing the steel over his head and swinging down at her. She lifted her right hand, palm out, and caught the steel on her palm between both sets of claws. She twisted her arm and shoulder, and the captured steel was wrenched from Eren’s hands.

“That’s good leverage,” Reiner said, checking the length of the claws. “You might even be able to break a sword that way.”

“Depending on the sword, I think it’s possible,” Mikasa said. “The other way is catching the sword in your hand and forcing it in a different direction.” Eren swung the steel in from the side, and she caught it in her palm in the empty space between the claws. Bringing her hand up or down pushed the steel in the same direction when the claws came against it.

Annie examined her gloves, finding the claws thick and blunt near the palm, but hooked and razor-sharp at the tips. “And these can double as weapons?”

“They can, and they can be used for their original purpose.”

“To climb trees?” Bertholdt asked.

“In a way,” Mikasa said with a smile. She looked at the nearest trees, smile widening when she spotted a low branch. She went to it, giving herself space to run. Checking the fit of her gloves one more time, she sprinted for the trees. She leapt up and caught the branch with the claws. Her momentum made her swing around the branch, the claws cutting grooves to let her move. Popping the claws from the wood with a twist of her hands sent her flying in a high, fast arc away from the tree. Mikasa turned in midair, hitting another branch feet first and stopping herself with the claws.

“I think that might be useful if we need to escape an attack in a forest,” she called down to them. “Humans are extremely slow when it comes to climbing trees.”

Ymir stared up at her. After a moment, she said, “That looked so fucking fun.”

Mikasa blinked, looking at where she’d swung from and where she’d landed. “Well…it was, actually.”

Eren laughed. “Toss ‘em down and let me try!” He did as she had done, but could not quite match her arc. He managed to catch the branch she sat on, but burst out laughing all the same. He climbed to a different branch, saying, “You’ve gotta try this!”

Annie took his challenge first, moving to a nearby tree. She considered the angles before running and leaping at a tree. She jumped again from there, catching the branch Mikasa sat on and spinning up and around it to land lightly next to her.

“Huh,” she said. “That was fun.” She smiled, sat down, and took off her gloves to toss them to the ground. “Christa, Armin, you can try with those.”

Chuckling, Armin bowed to Christa. “After you.”

Eagerly, she put the gloves on and went into the trees. She sought out a branch low enough for her, checking behind it. Satisfied, she took a running leap at the branch, caught it to spin, and launched herself at the tree behind it. Her feet hit the trunk, and she dug the claws in to stop her fall. She climbed to the nearest branch and sat, cheeks red and heart pounding.

For the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon, they played around with the claws, swinging and chasing each other. Christa could never beat out Ymir’s speed, but she did not mind giving Ymir the kisses she asked for as a prize.

Though they laughed and swung until they were too tired to do either, Christa could see in all of them what she knew was in her as well. None of them had tried to forget what—and who—the gloves were truly for.