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Wolves of the North

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A rule was established that allowed the rest of the pack to visit for most of the day, but only every few days and only two or three other people at a time to keep the pups from being overwhelmed. Ginko and Matvey were overjoyed on these days, eager to play for hours at a time. When Christa made a pair of fabric balls large enough to play fetch with, they all but passed out after an hour of running around the room.

They were both completely captivated when Armin found a small stack of picture books in Hanji’s library. While his reading lessons were followed closely, either Ginko or Matvey would go off to play with someone as a break. Armin was never put out, as the pups traded places often.

Nineteen days after the pups were born, the visitors were Ymir and Eren. Ymir and Annie tossed a ball back and forth for Matvey to chase, and Eren and Mikasa sat reading to Ginko. Matvey caught the ball and went toward Annie, but stopped suddenly and sat down. He dropped the ball and looked at Annie intently. He barked softly, but the next bark was louder and longer. Annie smiled when he shook his head and licked his nose.

“Matvey,” she said, “more like this.” She howled, holding the sound for him to hear. He yipped when she inhaled, moved closer, and then howled along with her. The way she smiled at him made his tail wag rapidly, and he rushed forward to catch her sleeve and tug.

Very good,” Annie chuckled, reaching to rub his head.

Mama!

Everyone in the room froze, and then looked at Matvey. He let go of Annie’s sleeve and looked at her with nothing but happiness.

Mama! his voice said again, clear and bright.

Annie stared, eyes wide. Blushing, smiling, eyes growing wet, she reached out to gather him up into her arms. “That’s right. I’m Mama.”

Mikasa smiled at them, but looked down when Ginko put her front paws on her knee and bounced.

Mommy? said her voice, warm and smooth.

It nearly made Mikasa fall over. She recovered and smiled even more. “Hi sweetie.”

Ginko wagged her tail as she climbed into Mikasa’s lap. Mommy! She barked and tilted her head back to howl. Matvey joined her, making the adults laugh.

“You win for ‘cutest pups’ this year,” Ymir said.

“Ginko, can you say ‘Eren,’ too?” Eren asked.

She looked at him blankly.

“What about ‘uncle’?”

She chuffed, putting her nose down to think. She looked up when Matvey barked. Turning back to Eren, she barked once. Eren.

Eren barely managed to not squeal aloud.

Ymir caught Matvey looking at her closely. “Don’t worry about saying my name, fluff butt. It’s a weird one for pups.”

He yapped, wiggled, and his voice was steady. Ymir.

She stared. Disbelief in the sound, she laughed. “I guess I’ll shut up, then.”

“They’re gonna keep you awake because they won’t stop talking, I bet,” Eren said, reaching to tickle Ginko’s sides.

“That’s fine,” Annie murmured, cuddling Matvey closer. “As long as no one teaches them to be rude.”

Ymir held up her hands. “Hey, I’m being as polite as I can.”

“You’re fine,” Annie said. “I mean someone other than the pack. Like Connie.”

“Connie swears in front of them and I’m hitting him,” Eren replied. “Wait, is that going to be tomorrow that they can leave the room?”

Mikasa smiled. “It is. No one crowds them, though.”

“That’ll be exciting,” Ymir said. “Fluff butts on the prowl.”

“Just not too far at first,” Annie said. She closed her eyes when Ginko called, Mama! to her. “I love you two so much.”

They barked, tails wagging so hard it made their rears move. Before the next sunrise, though, Ginko popped awake, but Matvey woke at her first moody whine. Their waking was common enough that Annie and Mikasa did not startle if they woke and the pups were already wandering around the room. The pups went down the ramp Reiner had built for them, getting to the floor silently.

Matvey went to the door, paving in front of it. There was no scent beyond the door, and no one was knocking politely to come in. He looked at Ginko, his ears drooping. She rumbled back and looked up at the doorknob. They had both tried to reach it on previous mornings, but they were still too short. Ginko chuffed, but stretched up toward the knob by bracing herself on the wall next to the door. She rumbled again, and then spoke only to Matvey and the door.

Open!

Something popped, and the door opened a fraction. They jumped back, sniffing hurriedly. There was still no scent, and no one’s shadow came through the open fraction. Matvey pawed at the door until it opened enough to slip out into the hall. Ginko followed close behind, and they began to examine their surroundings.

Every inch of the floor was sniffed, rug included. The walls were of great interest as well. There were no new toys to be found, and it left them somewhat perturbed. Their decision to go further down the hallway and the turn they could see was all but made when another door opened slowly. They turned about, tails wagging when Ymir leaned out of the room and smirked at them.

“Knew it,” Ymir said, She went to Annie and Mikasa’s door, sniffing at the knob. “Which one of you told it to open up?”

Ginko sat down and lifted one paw proudly.

“I see.” She went to her room and closed the door. “Matvey, can you open this door like Ginko opened that one?”

He went to her and propped himself up against the wall. He considered the knob, head tilting from side to side, before he spoke to it.

Open!

Something popped again, and the door opened slightly. He dropped down, looking up at Ymir. She chuckled and scratched his ears.

“Oh, your moms are gonna hate me,” she said. “Here, we’re not going anywhere until they get up, okay? This is gonna freak them out enough.”

The pups froze. Their tails fell, but before they could turn toward their room, the door was wrenched open and Mikasa ran into the hall. They barked, panicked, at the way Mikasa was pale and trembling, and they ran to her when she dropped to the floor.

“No one took them,” Ymir said. “They’ve got magic.”

Mikasa said nothing for a time, checking the pups for injuries even as they whimpered and said Mommy again and again. She looked up and weakly said, “Magic?”

“Yep. Parents really hate finding out this way, since the pups are usually quite a ways off when they realize the door’s open. They both can do it.”

“Not that reassuring,” Mikasa said, struggling to keep panic out of her voices. The pups whimpered even harder, and she sighed. “Please don’t sneak out when Mama and I are asleep. You don’t have fangs yet, and you could get in trouble if you’re all by yourselves.”

They nodded, and they both piled into her lap as an apology. She rubbed their backs and looked up slowly when Annie came out of their room.

“Why are you all out here?” Annie asked.

“Did you really come running out here without waking her up?” Ymir asked. She snorted laughter when Mikasa nodded. “Annie, you have two lock-pick pups.”

Annie looked at Matvey and Ginko. They looked back, smelling of guilt, and she rubbed her eyes. “Ymir, did you do that on purpose?”

“Nope,” Ymir replied. “That’s all Lady Mond.”

Annie sighed and went to kneel in front of Mikasa. She pressed on the pups’ noses. “Promise you won’t do that again. Mommy looks like she’s going to freak out.”

They whimpered one more time, nodding.

“Good,” Annie said, kissing their heads. “Come have breakfast before we go wandering together.” The pups followed her back into their room, tails between their legs. Ymir went to Mikasa and nudged her hip with her foot.

“C’mon, breathe,” she said. “I was staying up to catch them if they could do that.”

“I thought you can’t use magic in your wolf form because you can’t say words,” Mikasa said. “How could they open the door?”

Ymir sat down. “When you’re this little and you have magic, you can do maybe one or two really simple things. I’ve only ever seen pups able to open unlocked doors.” She thought. “Well, I think I was able to do that and break small glasses, but I’m not normal. Seriously—just lock the door at night and tell ‘em ‘no.’ They’ll be okay.”

“I don’t want them getting hurt,” Mikasa said, looking at the open door. “It scares me more than anything.”

“They’re your fluff butt babies,” Ymir said. “I know. But they’re healthy and they’ve got a whole pack that loves them. We’ll never let them get hurt worse than accidents they get themselves into.” She smirked and pushed Mikasa’s shoulder with her fist. “And if something really bad happens, you and Annie will go berserk and take care of shit.”

Mikasa laughed faintly. “There’s always that, yeah.” She rubbed the sleep from her eyes. “Thank you for staying up for them.”

“No problem. I won’t teach them dangerous spells for a long time. Years, probably.”

She laughed again. “Thanks.” She turned when she smelled the pups coming back into the hall. They still looked intensely guilty, and so she waved them closer. When they had gotten into her lap, she said, “I know you’re sorry. It’s okay—I promise I’m not mad.”

They wagged their tails cautiously.

Annie came out after them, wearing clean clothes. “Why don’t we take them to the dining hall so we can have breakfast? There shouldn’t be too many other wolves at this hour.”

“I like this plan,” Ymir said, grinning.

Mikasa nodded and went to change. By the time she returned, Ymir had woken Christa to join them. They set out at a slow pace to allow for the pups’ investigation of their path. As they drew closer to the dining hall, the pups grew intrigued by the myriad scents that lingered from previous meals. They went into the hall first, stunned by its size. As they began to roam, Christa spotted only one other person in the hall, sitting a table and staring down at it.

“Hanji?” she said, heading toward them. “What are you doing up so early?”

Hanji turned, putting their glasses back on properly. “Oh, hello. I wanted to get out of my library for a little while.” They turned further, brows rising at Annie and Mikasa. “Wait, are the pups in here now?”

“They are,” Christa said with a smile. “They’re right over there, if you want to say hello.”

“Lady above, do I ever,” Hanji said. They swung their legs over the bench and stood, heading over with a broad grin.

Christa would have followed, but she saw what Hanji had been poring over. It was the map showing the front line and where wolf and human forces were stationed along it. It did not seem to be changed from when she had last seen it months ago, but there were also pages of notes in Hanji’s neat script alongside reports from the front. She looked through them, but found nothing that stood out until she saw word of Mikasa and Eren’s old battalion.

The battalion was no longer in position to try to break through wolfen defenses. According to the reports, there did not appear to be any such effort being made, nor had there been since the winter. Even Levi’s battalion was not working to that end. All reports were stating Levi was noticeably more aggravated than he was last spring, and his battalion was low on morale for it. She knew when Ymir came up behind her and read over her shoulder, and thus did not jump when Ymir put a hand on her back.

“Can you get Hanji to come back without making the pups nervous?” Ymir asked. “I want them to tell us about this.”

Christa nodded, took a deep breath to push away her nervousness, and went to Hanji. They were making Ginko chase their finger in a tight, fast circle, grinning while Mikasa did the same with Matvey. They looked up when Christa came near and Ginko tipped right over from dizziness when Hanji’s hand stopped.

“Whoops!” Hanji said, helping Ginko sit up again. “Sorry, little one, I didn’t mean to stop that quickly.”

Ginko yipped, blinking slowly. She went to Annie with unsteady steps, flopping against her leg. Annie smiled and rubbed Ginko’s cheek.

“You can play again later,” Annie said. “Go on and talk to Ymir and Christa.”

Hanji smiled and scratched behind Annie’s ear for a moment. They followed Christa back to the table, smile fading slightly.

“Well,” they said, “it’s not exactly bad news.”

“It’s strange, though,” Christa said. “Why would they stop trying to advance? Do you think they’re low on troops?”

“Could be that,” Hanji said, “could be they’re really reeling from Mikasa being gone. It might explain why her battalion moved. But it bothers me that the bastard wasn’t moved into that position.” They sighed and rubbed their head. “Christa, is a human older than fifty considered really old?”

“It’s getting there,” Christa said. “Honestly, at least a few people I knew were surprised that Levi is still in active combat when he’s almost as old as the king.”

“He’s gonna reach a breaking point,” Ymir muttered. “He’ll get pissed enough to do something if they don’t give him an order.”

“And that might be what the king really wants,” Hanji said.

“No,” said Christa, “he wants the satisfaction of giving the order. I’m sure he’s just waiting for the best time.”

“I’ll have to ask Mikasa and Armin what that time might be,” Hanji said with a sigh. They looked at the map. “But it looks like we still have time to post sentinels at likely entry points to the north.”

“We can discuss it when the pups crash for a nap,” Ymir said. “They already scared Mikasa—they don’t need to smell all of us stressing.”

“Point,” Hanji replied. They watched the pups for a time. Very quietly, they said, “They don’t need that at all.”

————

The first experience the pups had with inclement weather came when they were thirty-two days old. They were in the hallway with the rest of the pack, Mina joining them to help encourage the pups to change into their human forms and the clothes that had been made for them. It was a difficult task, as both pups were perpetually distracted by the sound of heavy rain on the roof. Matvey looked at Annie.

Can we go look?

“You can’t go outside yet,” she said patiently. “You need to be a little bigger.”

He plunked his rear down and howled with moodiness.

Mikasa started to laugh, but Ginko and Matvey looked at her so pleadingly that she stopped. She looked just as pleadingly at Annie, and once the pups swung around to join her, Annie blushed and closed her eyes.

“We can go just outside the front door so you can see what rain feels like,” Annie said. When the pups yipped and bounced on their paws, she added, “After you change to your human forms and we get you in your clothes.”

Both pups sat down hard again. They stared at their paws, but Ginko looked up at Mina. How do we do that?

“It’s not too hard,” said Mina, “but you have to concentrate the first few times. Just concentrate on ‘I want to be in my human form.’ It helped me to focus on having hands like my mother.”

Matvey looked at Mikasa’s hands, and Ginko looked at Annie’s. They closed their eyes tightly, and steam came off of them in almost the same moment. When it cleared, they sat on the rug, entirely nude and human. They looked at each other first, baffled at the sight of each other without fur. Annie laughed and went closer with their clothes.

They received dark blue denim trousers, wiggling their legs at the feeling. Matvey picked the green shirt, and Ginko liked the blue. Annie let them cling to her hands as they got used to walking on two legs. She led them to Mikasa so they could all look at each other. Their hair was short, wispy, and fine. Matvey’s solid black hair was interrupted at his left ear by a crescent of gold, and Ginko’s gold hair had a jet black crescent around her right ear. Both of them had noses on the larger side.

“Hi Mommy,” Ginko said, waving her free hand.

“Hi Mommy,” Matvey echoed.

Mikasa smiled and gave them her hands to hold. “Hi babies. You’re already a couple of feet tall!”

“Can we go outside now?” they chorused.

The rest of the pack snorted with laughter as Annie’s head fell forward.

“Well, if they’re that determined,” Reiner said.

“Just outside!” Ginko said.

“Please, Mama?” Matvey added.

Annie rolled her eyes, but the effect was ruined by her smile. “Yes, we can. Hold hands while we go, okay?”

Matvey hurried around Annie to hold Ginko’s free hand tightly. He held out his other hand to Mikasa, clutching her fingers when she stood up. They all started out, the pups in the lead with the adults around them. Near the entrance to the castle, the pups started to walk faster because the rain noise was louder and they could smell so many new things.

As they rounded the corner to see the door outside, though, the sky brightened with lightning before thunder rattled the air. Matvey and Ginko clapped their hands over their ears, staring outside with wide eyes. When the thunder faded, they lowered their hands slowly.

“That’s thunder,” Bertholdt said, walking toward the door. “You’re okay.”

Mikasa patted them both on the back. “Go ahead. The rain should be warm right now.”

They nodded, but took each other’s hands before making their way outside. They hesitated at the door, looking to see where the rainfall started. Matvey stretched out his hand slowly, ears twitching when drops fell on his knuckles. He drew his hand back so they both could smell the water. Satisfied by this, they walked out into the rain.

Ginko giggled at the water on her ears while Matvey knelt down to slap at puddles. The adults joined them, taking up places by the stairs and the edge of the walkway around the castle. Matvey looked up first, going to Christa and hanging onto her hand to look past her.

“Are those houses like Armin talks about?” he asked, tugging on her hand.

“They are,” she said. “Other wolves live in them.”

Ginko hurried to join them, closing her hand in the fabric of Eren’s trousers. “Are there other lil’ wolves like me and Matvey?”

“They’re bigger, but yeah,” Eren said.

“Can we go play?” Matvey asked.

Annie opened her mouth, but did not speak. She looked at Mina, a question in her gaze. Mina smiled and moved to whisper in her ear.

“They’re big enough,” she said. “They’re healing like adults now. Just don’t let them go places alone.”

“All right,” Annie sighed.

“And don’t look like you’ll eat the other pups if they roughhouse, okay?”

“All right, all right.” She took a deep breath and went to the pups. “We can go play. Do you want to see if anyone is outside right now?”

“Please!” they said.

Ymir grinned and picked them both up to put them n her shoulders. “Then I’ve got a present for you two. I know a little girl who loves playing out in the rain, and she’ll probably drag her little brothers out with her. C’mon.”

She carried them along, easily traipsing down the stairs with everyone following close behind. Ginko and Matvey held hands, setting them on Ymir’s head, and peered around as they went. Everything smelled astonishing, from the mud below to the wet wood around them in the houses. They jump when they heard a splash of mud, looking forward when Ymir turned a corner. Their eyes widened upon seeing a trio of children, two boys in their wolf forms and one girl in her human form. They paused in playing a three way tug-of-war to look at them.

“Hi!” Ginko and Matvey said brightly.

“Hey,” Ymir said. “Noelle, wanna ask your moms if you and Viktor and Ivan can play with these two fluff butts?”

Noelle’s smile nearly split her cheeks. She ran through the door left open for her and the boys. Within ten seconds, she was dragging Elsie and Johanna back outside. They looked at Matvey and Ginko with curiosity.

“Hi!” Ginko and Matvey said again.

“You’re really cute!” Noelle called up to them. “‘Mir, I wanna say hi to them!”

“Okay, but they’re smaller than you,” Ymir said. “Be nice, all right?”

“I will!” She stepped back as Ymir knelt down, restraining herself admirably as Ginko and Matvey were set on their feet. She waved first, waiting for them to wave back. Once they had, she nodded to Ivan and Viktor. They changed to their human forms and waved as well.

“Look at you two!” Elsie said, crouching down. “Lady above, Miss Leonhardt, you have amazingly cute pups!”

“What’re your names?” Viktor asked.

“Matvey!” he replied.

“Ginko!” she said.

“Hi!” they said together.

Noelle put her hands over her face and said, “Stop it! You’re too cute!”

Johanna laughed. “Sweetheart, you said the same thing when you met Ivan and Viktor when they were little pups. You were cute, too, you know.”

“But I wanna hug ‘em really hard and it’ll make Miss Leonhardt and Captain Ackerman mad if I do!”

Mikasa and Annie blushed and looked down.

“Just not too hard, kiddo,” Ymir said, snickering. “You’ll be fine.”

Ginko held her arms out in an offer. Noelle hesitated, and so Ivan stepped forward. He sniffed at Ginko’s hair, starling when she did the same. Once he had calmed down, he gave her a hug. They smiled after letting go, and Noelle stepped closer. Still, she hesitated again, and Ginko and Matvey shared a look. They hugged Noelle at the same time, giggling because she panicked for a moment.

“Oh no,” Elsie said, hiding a laugh in her hand. “You two are very brave! You’re going to be going after rabbits in no time!”

“Can we play first?” Matvey asked.

“Absolutely,” Johanna said. “Noelle, boys, be very nice, okay?”

“Yes Mom!” the trio said, and while Matvey began to play tug-of-war with Ivan and Viktor, Ginko set into a game of tag with Noelle. The adults watched them for any signs of weariness in the pups. Mikasa relaxed as Matvey and Ginko laughed and shouted in the rain. Annie held onto her hand, rubbing her knuckles with her thumb.

“When can we take them hunting?” Mikasa asked.

“They can come with us in a month.”

Mikasa smiled, and chuckled when Reiner nudged her side with his elbow. Her smile dropped when he did it again and harder. “What?”

“I need one or both of you to come with me,” he murmured. “As long as you don’t scare anyone.”

They turned without speaking. A gray wolf sat some distance down the road, staring at them. The wolf was unnaturally still in the rain, light brown eyes intense.

“Mikasa,” Annie whispered, “come on.” She pulled on Mikasa’s hand, the three of them slipping away without catching the pups’ attention. Reiner led them to the wolf, keeping his face impassive. The wolf changed to their human form, a gray-haired woman who adjusted her glasses before saluting Reiner.

“Major Rico Brzenka reporting, sir,” she said.

“At ease, major,” he said. He began to frown. “You’re off your mountain.”

“I am, sir.”

“And I’m sure you’re not here to say you’re resigning.”

“No sir. I’m afraid I have bad news.”

He sighed through his nose. “Let’s hear it.”

“The reports we sent back two months ago are no longer accurate, sir,” Rico said. “We don’t know where he is.”

All three of them froze with the ice that filled their veins. Behind them, the pups stopped playing.

“The bastard?” Annie hissed. “You lost track of him?”

“He withdrew from the front line three months ago, Miss Leonhardt,” Rico said. “The last reports our recon and your spies brought back said his battalion was more toward the west of my mountain, where no one is stationed.”

“Why not?” Mikasa asked.

“Because I’m not going to station troops on lands of our allies,” Reiner said. “The viable paths through that part of the mountain are under the rule of the western kingdom.” He closed his eyes. “Fuck.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” Rico murmured, eyes falling. “I thought it would be best to warn you myself.”

“Thank you, Major,” Reiner said. “I mean that. You may have given us the warning we needed.”

Rico nodded, but her gaze turned to Mikasa. “So the message really did come from you.” She offered her hand. “Do your best, Captain.”

Mikasa took her hand and shook. “Thank you. Keep holding the line. I’ll do my best to join you to break through.”

Rico nodded, offering her hand to Annie. “I’ll make sure to spread the word to give all info and clues to your spies.”

Annie shook her hand. “Thank you.”

Rico turned to Reiner to salute him once more. “I’ll take my leave, sir. I’ll pray for your strength and safety.”

A small hand closed around two of Mikasa’s fingers. Matvey whispered, “Mommy?”

Rico looked down, face twisting with sorrow for a moment before she could make her expression blank. She said no more, nodding to Reiner before changing to her wolf form and hurrying off.

Annie did not jump when Ginko took hold of her thumb and said, “Mama? What’s wrong?”

There was a long moment where Annie said nothing and stared into the middle distance. She turned and knelt down, wrapping her arms around Ginko and holding her tight. Ginko smelled the terror on Annie and started to cry.

“Mama?” she said, voice shaking. “Wh-why do you smell w-weird?”

“I’m sorry, Ginko,” Annie said. “I’m scared. That’s all. I’ll be okay.” She hugged Ginko even tighter. “You’ll be okay.”

Mikasa picked Matvey up when he began to cry as well. She rubbed his back as he hid his face in her scarf. “It’s all right, Matvey. I promise.”

Reiner murmured, “Let’s get inside. We all need to talk about this.”

They nodded, following him with their pups in their arms. The others did not ask what had been said. It was enough to see Reiner’s grimness and the way both Annie and Mikasa were clutching Ginko and Matvey.

————

“We can’t hide in the castle,” Ymir said that night in her room. Her voice was soft for the pups, sleeping in their wolf forms after crying the rest of the day. She looked at them a long time before closing her eyes. “He’d kill every single wolf in town and in the castle before getting to us.” She bowed her head. “I won’t do that. I can’t.”

“You’re not fighting him without me,” Mikasa said, holding Matvey close.

“I need the whole pack,” Ymir said. “I can’t ask you and Annie to leave the pups in here alone.” She rubbed her eyes. “There’s no way I could put them in danger.”

“And we can’t let you take him on alone,” Annie replied, rocking Ginko when Ginko hiccuped in her sleep. “We have to be with you.”

“Mikasa,” Bertholdt said, “would he kill pups?”

She managed to not squeeze Matvey. “I don’t know. I never heard him talk about pups. No one in his battalion ever talked around pups…at least around me.”

Christa, hands twisting the fabric of her shirt, swallowed hard. “What if…what if I protect the pups while you fight him?” She swallowed again when Annie and Mikasa looked at her. “Look, I know I wouldn’t be any real help against Levi. I can’t beat any of you for speed, but I know I can stop human soldiers. I swear I wouldn’t let them get hurt.”

Annie looked at her for a long time. She cradled Ginko’s head against her chest and, eventually, nodded. “We’ll start training again tomorrow.”

Ymir leaned closer to kiss Christa’s head. “Magic, too. I’ll give you weapons.”

They all went silent then, remaining so for the rest of the night. Ymir had Reiner and Bertholdt clear the floor so she could create a pad for them all to sleep on. The pups were curled around, held close and steady by Annie and Mikasa. Ymir sent all of them to sleep to relieve some of the stress scent coming from them, and when the morning came, Ginko and Matvey woke first. Looking at each other, they spoke only to each other’s minds.

Matvey, Mama was scared. She licked her own nose.

Mommy was, too. He looked up to Mikasa’s face, ears drooping. What d’we do?

We gotta not cry.

After thinking, he nodded. He wiggled closer to her to nuzzle his nose under her chin. They remained awake like this until their stomachs rumbled and they whined without thinking. Annie woke at the sound, stretching her arm out to cover both of them.

“I’m sorry about yesterday,” Annie said. “It’ll be okay.

The pups replied, Okay, Mama.

Annie smiled at them, playing with their ears before reaching to pull on Mikasa’s sleeve. Once Mikasa had opened her eyes, Annie said, “Let’s get breakfast.”

Mikasa nodded, and their sitting up woke the others. After Ginko and Matvey had changed to their human forms, they all went to the dining hall. The rain had stopped, and it was early enough that they were entirely alone. Reiner went off to ask the cooks to make a massive breakfast, but the smile he gave the pups on returning was weak. Armin watched them as they sat in Annie and Mikasa’s laps, and he took in the expressions on everyone’s faces.

“Matvey, Ginko,” he said. “There’s a man named Levi coming here. He’s from the south, like me, Eren, Christa, and Mikasa. He’s a corporal in the southern army, which we were part of.”

“Is he a wolf?” Ginko asked.

“No, he’s a human, like we were once.”

“Aren’t humans less strong than us?” Matvey asked.

“Levi is an exception, like Mikasa,” Armin said. “He’s very strong. He’s very dangerous. And he hates wolves more than anything.”

Matvey turned in Mikasa’s lap, looking up at her. “Mommy, does he hate me and Ginko, too?”

She sighed. “I don’t know, Matvey. I was only part of his battalion for a little while.”

“Is he gonna come all the way here?” Ginko asked.

“He is,” Armin said. “We’re going to start training to fight him. I want you to know that even though he’s scary and dangerous, we’re going to protect you.”

“Christa will protect you when the bastard comes,” Annie said. “Mommy and I have to help fight him.”

Ginko turned to look at her. “You both do?”

“It’s going to be all of us, kiddo,” Reiner said. “We need your moms to help.”

For a few seconds, Ginko and Matvey looked at Annie and Mikasa. They turned to Christa.

“I won’t let anything happen to you,” she said without hesitation. “No matter what, I’ll keep you safe.”

They looked at her, remembered what they had told each other, and nodded without arguing. Breakfast was brought out soon enough, just as massive as Reiner asked for with a long day ahead. Ginko and Matvey ate well, managing to relax as they were held close and passed large pieces of bacon, venison, and pastries.

Very little was said that day in terms of conversation. Everyone listened closely to their respective teachers, Ymir for Christa and Mikasa for the others. Ginko and Matvey sat by in the clearing they were taken to, watching and managing to not flinch when sparring matches drew blood. When the light faded, though, they were apologized to by every member of the pack.

As it had been with the siege, no wolf was lied to. The townspeople and castle staff were warned, and they were given leave to take their families from Utgard. Those with younger pups did so, but promised to return home. Johanna and Elsie were among them, letting their pups say goodbye to Matvey and Ginko. Many more remained, adults of good health and strength and all the new guards. They swore their loyalty, and the small measure of comfort that gave was clung to.

Every four days, the training was put on hold to rest for two days. On those days, Armin, Mikasa and Reiner discussed strategy while they all played with the pups. Matvey and Ginko craved these days and the chances to be held close. They did everything they could to make their pack smile, whether by chasing their own tails or the constructs of smoke and light Christa made for them. It never failed to give the adults some piece of mind.

The ground beneath them grew dry and warm as weeks passed and spring was left behind. Matvey and Ginko grew with the grass and the flowers in their clearing, losing puppy fat and gaining inches of height and hair. Their hands and legs grew steadier, and Christa taught them to light fire in their hands for caution.

A night came a month after Rico arrived when Ymir woke Christa while the others slept. For a long while, she said nothing and held Christa close. Christa held her in turn, head on her chest.

“You remember the end of the year?” Ymir whispered. “Our offering to Lady Mond?”

“The light flowers, I remember.”

“Remember what I did to keep the flower in bloom?”

“You opened a path between the magic in your body and the tray.”

Ymir nodded once, swallowing hard. I want you to know the spell to close that path. It’s ‘umrakibash zuinish rosut,’ said twice.”

Christa repeated it in her mind until she could not forget it. Because she could feel Ymir’s hands trembling, she said, “Tell me the best healing spell you have.”

“It’s ‘debreleh,’” Ymir said. “Just once.” She sighed, hiding her face in Christa’s hair. “I wanted to have a pup with you.” She shook her head, and her voice weakened. “I know we can’t, but—”

“Shh,” Christa said. “It’s not the fall yet. We’ll get there.” She shifted, pulling Ymir down to the bed to hold her head to her chest. “We can’t be afraid in front of the pack. Not us. Please don’t cry in front of anyone but me.”

Ymir coughed out one feeble laugh. “Shouldn’t I be telling you that?”

“I’ve done enough crying,” Christa replied. “If I don’t cry, then no one will worry about me and get distracted.” She ran her fingers through Ymir’s hair. “We can do this. It’s you. It’s our pack.”

Ymir said nothing, but wrapped her arms around Christa and nodded against her chest.

Any report that came to Utgard that summer carried the same message: “no sign of the bastard.” No strange deaths were reported from around the western mountains; nothing gave up a clue to his whereabouts or the path he was taking. The summer ran cool that year, the heat in the ground made mostly by the hot spring beneath it.

Once the pups grew large enough and strong enough to start climbing trees at six months old, Mikasa beckoned them over to learn something.

“Levi has a bone-cutting spell on his swords,” she said, “but anyone with him won’t. This is going to be a last resort for us, but it’s better than the alternative.” She lifted her arms, putting the upper arm of one in front of her throat and crossing the forearm of the other before it.

“Something like this will get the blade stuck in the bones of your arms,” she said, “and stop it before it reaches your throat. You can do it on either side of your throat and however it works for your body. I want us all to get in the habit of guarding our throats if anyone says ‘necks.’” She knelt down in front of Matvey and Ginko. They looked back, hair recently trimmed to come off their ears and eyes. Mikasa smiled for them and set her hands on their cheeks.

“Promise you’ll do that?”

They nodded, saying, “We promise.”

Summer faded away, and the rising chill of fall bit at them with the wind. By then, Christa and Ymir had joined in on the physical training, and Matvey and Ginko watched closely. They could not always keep track of their mothers, and Ymir was even more difficult. Resting days were much preferred, as it meant they would see the pack smile for a time.

The sky was often blue that fall, with brisk winds to rustle leaves and grass around them. Their clearing tended to gather large amounts of fallen leaves from other trees, and Reiner and Bertholdt took great joy in introducing Matvey and Ginko to the notion of leaf piles and the art of jumping into them. They laughed harder than they had in months as they jumped into the dry leaves and popped back out.

Annie laughed as Ginko stuck leaves into the hood of her shirt before pulling it over her head. Matvey showered Mikasa with leaves, giggling when she tickled him. Reiner and Bertholdt busied themselves with making another pile, even larger than the first with Ymir helping to gather leaves. Eren sat with Armin, their backs to a tree. Christa watched, smiling, as Ginko helped Annie pick flecks of dried leaves from her hair.

“Mikasa?” a man’s voice called through the trees, wavering and lost.

Mikasa went still, eyes widening. She glanced at Eren and saw his startled expression. Mouth going dry, she kissed Matvey’s forehead, wrapped her scarf around him, and whispered, “Stay here.” Rising to her feet, she cast the spell to make her ears appear rounded. She headed in the direction of the man’s voice, reaching the edge of the clearing as a man her height stumbled out of the forest.

He was scruffy, unshaven for days and his hair in need of a cut. His garb was southern military, heavy black trousers, tall boots, and a brown leather coat over a shirt, but everything was filthy and peppered with tears and holes. He looked at Mikasa blankly for a moment before smiling in relief.

“Mikasa!” he gasped. “Oh thank God! I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”

“Jean?” she said.

He blinked before hastily saluting her, right fist over his heart. “Lieutenant Jean Kirstein reporting, Captain Ackerman! I’ve come to bring you home!”

She stared at him. “You’re what?”

“I—Mikasa, you’ve been gone nearly a year! You need to come home!” He reached for her hand, but she pulled away.

“How did you get here alone?” she demanded. “Who led you here?”

Jean laughed tremulously. “I—the whole battalion helped me! We’re all worried, even about your asshole brother!”

Mikasa snarled, grabbing his shirt with one hand. “You are not allowed to lie to me, Kirstein! We haven’t gotten a single report of southern troops on our land all summer! Tell me how you got here!”

Growing pale, Jean blinked rapidly. “I—I—Mikasa, I’m here to help!”

She opened her mouth, but went stone still when two hands took her free one. Heart pounding, she looked down and saw Matvey looking up at her.

“Mommy?” he asked in a voice made soft by fear. “What’s wrong? Why’re you yelling?”

Mikasa let Jean go, dropping to one knee to look Matvey in the eye. “Go back to everyone else now, Matvey. Please.” She pushed him gently, standing to look at Jean. Jean, however, stared at Matvey. Sweat built on his brow and his eyes widened.

“Run,” Jean whispered.

“What?”

He tried to push her back, to turn her around, all the while saying, “Run. Run—take the kid and run!”

She did not let him move her. Her blood grew cold. “Jean, please tell me you didn’t—”

“Kirstein.”

Mikasa stopped breathing because she recognized the low voice that came from behind Jean. She pushed Jean aside, but could move not further when she saw the man that stood leaning against a horse in the shade. His scent began to creep back into the world, burning and thick with iron. She finally understood what it was to smell death, so much like flames and ash mixed into blood. Her feet somehow remembered to move as the man started forward.

As soon as Matvey caught the scent, he grabbed Mikasa’s hand with a whimper. She turned, but her gaze rose on catching movement in the branches overhead. Her heart fell when she saw light gleaming on metal, but she raised her voice to shout, “Necks!”

Soldiers cast off all spells of illusion and stealth as they leapt out of the trees, swords drawn. Annie grabbed Ginko when she tried to hide against her, throwing her into Christa’s arms. She dropped onto her front, crossing her arms behind her neck. A man landed on her back, cracking her spine and driving two swords through her bent arms. It pierced her upper and lower arms, pinning her with no leverage.

Reiner and Bertholdt were knocked to their backs by two men each. Their legs were stabbed at the knees, and their arms were locked with swords through their upper arms and shoulders. Ymir was assaulted by three soldiers. While one disabled her legs and another locked her arms, the third thrust a sword into her mouth when she tried to cast a spell. She bit down on the blade to stop it, but could not let go.

Eren and Armin were held at sword point and kept from standing. Christa did not have a blade aimed at her, but she had to keep Ginko from struggling out of her arms.

“Mama!” Ginko sobbed, reaching for Annie. “Mama!”

“Ginko, don’t move!” Annie said, grimacing at the twist of a blade. “Stay there! I’ll be okay!”

Matvey did not move or speak, barely aware that Mikasa was trying to urge him away. It was only when Mikasa shook him hard that he came out of shock, but he could not help but clutch her hand and follow her as she stepped away from the man coming toward them.

The man was short, his hair and rough beard gray. He wore a dark green cloak over boiled leather armor that looked black. He wore a sword on each hip, and he sneered at the clearing as a whole.

“Why did you try to warn her, Kirstein?” the man asked. “Got a sentiment hard-on for your old captain?”

“N-no, Corporal,” Jean said, lifting his hands.

“Then why?” He directed his sneer at Mikasa. “You’re a traitor and you still gave me more than this piece of shit. I’ve got the whole pack now.”

Jean grimaced, eyes closing, and rushed to say, “I warned her because there are children here, sir!”

Levi inhaled and exhaled slowly. “Your point?”

“I—I thought we should let hem go.” He swallowed hard and reached down to push Matvey away from Mikasa. “Go, kid—go on and leave the adults alone.”

Christa adjusted her grip on Ginko to hold out a hand to Matvey. “Sweetheart, come here. It’s okay—come here to me.”

Matvey stopped breathing. He looked around, legs stiffening because he had never smelled anything like the blood and pain and fear. He gulped down a breath when Ginko said his name through tears, and he started to creep toward her and Christa.

“Corporal, are you serious?” the man on Annie’s back asked. “They’re little hell spawn. Kill ‘em before they get big.” When Annie snarled violently and tried to throw him off, he stomped on her back and twisted the blades in her arms. She continued to fight, eyes growing panicked.

“They’re children!” Eren shouted, only stopped by Armin holding him back. “You can’t do that to them!”

“Corporal, please, don’t do this!” Armin said. “They’re completely innocent! God casts judgment on those who harm the innocent—you know that!”

“Kill the little runts and be done with it, Corporal,” said the man holding the blade in Ymir’s mouth.

“Don’t touch them!” Bertholdt roared, straining against the swords holding him. “Don’t!” Near him, Reiner struggled just as much, but he could not speak for fear.

Matvey struggled not to listen and to not look at the soldiers surrounding them. He focused only on Christa and Ginko, inching closer to Christa’s outstretched hand. He only looked at her and her unwavering gaze. Still, he could not help but to stop in his tracks when the man bellowed, “Shut your mouths!” Matvey turned as footsteps came toward him, looking up to find the man staring down at him. His eyes widened; fear filled his spine with ice.

“Wolves beget vengeance,” the man said. “Pups are worst. Their lives end here.”

All the blood left Mikasa’s face. She rushed forward, reaching out with her left hand. She grabbed the man’s shoulder, pulling him away from Matvey as she said, “Levi, those are my children!”

Levi’s eyes twitched, his body moving. Mikasa barely realized that he had drawn one sword and sliced off her left forearm. It had only begun to hurt when Levi moved again. He spun, one leg rising up to slam hard against the side of Mikasa’s head. She hit the ground face first, stunned blind. She pulled what remained of her left arm beneath her, but before she could start to get up, Levi stomped down on her head hard enough to crack her skull. Mikasa went limp.

Mommy!” Matvey and Ginko screamed. Matvey ran to her as Levi stepped away, dropping to his knees and shaking her shoulder desperately. Tears running down his face, he said, “Mommy, get up! Please get up!”

“Your mother was pathetic,” Levi said. “All of you are. So distracted by your little half-breed asses that you never noticed us hiding above you the entire morning.” He sighed, long suffering, and cracked his neck loudly. “Let’s make this fast, shall we?”

Matvey turned to him, scowling to show his fangs. “Stay away! I’m not gonna let you hurt her again!”

“Who said anything about her?” Levi replied. He began to lift his sword.

Christa put Ginko on the ground, shot to her feet, and shouted so loudly that everyone froze. “Corporal Levi! I order you and your troops to lay down your swords and surrender immediately!”

A few soldiers began to do as she said before Levi glared at them. He turned to face Christa, brow raised. “Who’re you?”

“Christa Renz,” she said.

He snorted. “Oh. You. The little pain in my ass noble.”

“My real name is Historia Reiss,” she shot back. “I am the only living heir to King Rhode Reiss, and I am the rightful princess of the south. My word is royal law, and you will lay down your sword.”

Levi looked at her with a lazy tilt to his head. “Did that wolf from Trost make it all the way back here after she got away?”

“She did.”

“She tell you what I was doing in Trost?”

Her hands closed into fists. “You burned down the Renz house.”

“And all the people inside,” he said, and he began to walk toward her. “I know who you are, Princess Reiss. Erwin and I knew from before you were sent here in the first place. It was Erwin who suggested that you bring that ‘treaty.’”

“But you and my father sent me and Mikasa here to die.”

“Smart little bastard, aren’t you. And now I finally have the order to kill every last one of you, signed and sealed by the king himself.” He stopped near her, sneering again. “So what is it? Slaves to wolfen pleasures? Cowardice making you bend over for them and beg for more?”

She smiled coldly enough for his sneer to falter. “Is that what makes you so loyal to General Erwin? Or is it my father you bend over for?” She flinched when he slashed a deep line into her cheek, clapping a hand over the wound.

Levi showed her the blood on his sword. “This is why I do it, Princess. Every drop of wolf blood on the ground cleanses the world of them a little more. The blood of traitors like you is just as good.”

“I see,” Christa said, and she saw Mikasa’s left shoulder twitch behind Levi. “Then Lady Mond will be sure to take away your hunting grounds when you die today.”

Though he had started to turn away from her, he stopped and turned back. “They’ve even got you believing this pagan shit? There’s only one God in the world.”

“Our lady is completely real,” Christa said. “She may have given us our greatest blessing by letting you get here.”

“How’s that?” he drawled.

She smiled. “Who better to kill you than us? You won’t leave the north, alive or dead.”

He gestured to everyone else. “Who do you expect to do that? Ackerman’s dead and I’ve got every other useful person pinned down. Shut your mouth and wait your fucking turn, Princess.”

Christa’s smile widened when he turned away and headed back toward Matvey and Mikasa. Matvey stood up before Mikasa, arms spread in a defiant shield. Before Levi raised his sword, Christa said, “Gandrilé.”

Levi spun in time to see Christa lift a hand filled with lightning. He moved to dodge, but Christa threw the bolt in a different direction. Her aim was true, the lightning striking the head of the man holding a blade in Ymir’s mouth. He shrieked, skin and hair burning as his eyes boiled and burst. He stumbled away to die, letting go of the blade. It fell out of Ymir’s mouth entirely.

Fury filled Levi’s face, even as he went pale. “Don’t let her speak!”

Ymir grinned as the men pinning her scrambled, drawing their swords from her body. She shouted, “Dloh koryoe!” The men shrieked as well when their skin ignited, and their shrieks stopped abruptly when Ymir stood up and broke their necks. She turned to Levi, wounds steaming and healing quickly.

“You want me that bad?” Ymir said. “Then you better fuckin’ catch me!” She turned, changing to her wolf form and sprinting away.

No!” Levi bellowed. He whistled to his horse, sheathing his sword, and climbed up into the saddle when it arrived. “Kill the rest of them! I’ll get the bitch queen!” He rode off, spurring the horse and snapping the reins. While all eyes were on Levi, Matvey sprinted to Christa. She held him and Ginko close, and they clung to her.

“Mikasa!” Christa said. “I’ve got Matvey and Ginko now! Get going!”

“Shut your fucking mouth!” one soldier shouted. “You just killed one of ours!” He drew his sword, meaning to move forward. He stopped when a low, horrible rumble rose in the air. They all turned to stare at Mikasa as the rumble grew louder and became a full-fledged growl. The soldiers gasped when Mikasa shifted, and again when she pulled her left arm out from beneath her. It had regrown, and it was patchy with fur. Her fingers were too long to be human, and they were capped with steaming claws.

She was on her feet in an instant, but off them just as quickly as she leapt at the man on Annie’s back. She grabbed his head, bringing it into her knee hard enough to cave in his skull. As the man dropped, she took the swords from Annie’s body. She turned to face the men holding Reiner and Bertholdt. Her lips pulled back, showing that all her teeth had become fangs. There was no white left in her eyes.

Before the men could falter at her rage, she sprinted at them. Whirling with a sword in each hand, she cleaved through one man’s throat so deeply that his neck broke on impact and let her cut his head off. The next man’s spine stopped the blades, but Mikasa kicked him off of Reiner and pulled out the swords holding him down. She did not bother to take them with her when she charged at the men holding Bertholdt.

One soldier had presence of mind to slash at her, but she dodged and smashed her knee into his hip to break it. He fell straight into her grasp, unable to fight when she cracked his head open on her other knee. The last soldier tried to run, but she grabbed his coat, heaving him up and over herself to drive him headfirst into the ground. His neck snapped, and she let go to take the swords from Bertholdt.

Armin and Eren, taking the chance, changed to their bipedal forms to tear out the throats of the men pointing swords at them. As Reiner and Bertholdt changed to their wolf forms and gave chase to Levi, Mikasa ran to Annie and helped her up as her spine finished healing. Mikasa gestured to Eren and Armin, and they ran in their wolf forms while Annie kissed Matvey and Ginko’s heads.

“Do exactly what Christa tells you,” Annie said.

They nodded and held tighter to Christa.

“Annie, go,” Christa said. “We’ll be fine.”

Annie kissed Matvey and Ginko one last time, whispering, “I love you. We’ll come back.” She changed to her wolf form and ran after the others.

Mikasa knelt to kiss the pups as well. “Keep my scarf warm, Matvey.” He nodded, and she said, “I love you both. Be brave.” She stood and said to Christa, “Ten left, not counting Jean. Run if you have to.”

Christa smiled and shook her head. “We’ll be fine. Go help Ymir.”

Mikasa turned to the soldiers, eyes landing on Jean. “Kirstein, if you so much as touch my children, I will eat your heart.” She changed to her wolf form and set out at a run that left her a blur.

“I want you two to stay behind me,” Christa murmured. “I won’t let them near you.” They moved as she told them, and she looked at the remaining soldiers without fear.

“Try that magic trick again, you little bitch,” said one soldier. “I promise you won’t get a third chance.”

“I won’t need magic like that,” Christa replied.

“What, are you gonna pick up a sword?” another spat.

“I don’t need anything like that, either,” she said. “I can kill you all without one.”

Her casualness made one man snap. He drew his sword and ran at her, bellowing the whole way. Christa changed to her wolf-woman form, arm long enough to grab the man’s wrist before his sword reached her. She snapped his wrist and pulled him in as he howled. One hard bite ripped out his throat, and she threw the corpse aside with ease. She let his flesh drop from her jaws.

“Who wants to be next?” she snarled.

————

Mikasa ran hard to catch up to the others, following their scent. Levi’s reek was thick in the air, as well as that of his horse. Ymir’s scent was almost completely buried beneath these, but there was no sign of her blood. She caught up to Reiner and Bertholdt first, passing them, Armin, and Eren to reach Annie at the head of the pack.

Is everyone healed now? her voice asked.

Just fine! Reiner replied.

Good! We need to get Levi off his horse! It’s battle-trained, so it won’t throw him if it’s scared! Eren, Annie, I want you to break its back legs on my signal! I’ll get its throat while Levi’s looking at you!

I managed to get a reply from Ymir before! Armin told her. She’s starting to zigzag to let us catch up!

All right! Stay ready for my signal! She increased her pace, and Eren and Annie did the same. When they could hear the horse’s galloping hooves, Mikasa veered away from the path and ran even faster. As she vanished in the trees, Eren and Annie focused on the horse’s gait.

We go on when the back feet are on the ground! Annie told him. Stay out of his reach no matter what!

You on the right, me on the left! Let’s get him! They kept their heads low, watching for the horses’s hooves. A curve was turned and they finally caught sight of Ymir and Levi. Ymir was keeping out of Levi’s range, but shot from side to side to make the horse’s gallop shorter than it could be. She gave no sign that she knew they were there, but she did not smell of fear.

Now!

Eren and Annie bared their fangs and surged forward. With no room to spare, they each caught one of the horse’s back legs without being kicked. Levi swore as the horse whinnied and came off its front legs in panic, and they twisted their heads to break the horse’s legs.

“You pieces of shit!” Levi shouted, starting to turn in the saddle. He stopped when the horse jerked suddenly and started to drop down. Turning back let him see Mikasa rip out a chunk of his horse’s throat with her fangs, but she leapt away before he could draw a sword. The horse fell as it died, but Levi jumped out of the saddle to keep from being dragged down.

“I liked that horse, bitch queen,” he said, taking off his cloak. He stared when he realized there were two wolves with black fur. His brows lowered at the sight of the pack as they arrived. “Those useless fucking idiots.”

Ymir changed to her human form, smirking despite her heavier breathing. “You’re not that useful yourself, asshole.”

Mikasa changed to her human form, taking pleasure in his shock. “You probably should’ve gone for my throat, Corporal.”

Levi sighed through his nose, glancing at Armin and Eren as they changed. “Unbelievable. Your treason even goes against God now.”

“I’m really sure God wouldn’t want you to kill kids,” Eren said. “So you can fuck off about betrayal.”

Levi rolled his eyes and drew both swords. He watched Mikasa take the clawed metal gloves off her belt and pull them on. “What the hell is that?”

“Try to cut me again,” Mikasa replied, watching Annie pull on her gloves as well. “You’ll find out.”

His brow rose. “You get a little metal in your hands and you think you’re tough shit, huh?”

“I don’t see you trying to cut me again.”

The muscles in his neck corded for a moment before he dashed at her. Months of sparring with Annie and Ymir made her ready for his speed, and she caught the swords he swung at her side. The metal of the gloves stopped the blades completely, leaving Mikasa unharmed. Levi did not stop to look surprised, instead twisting to reverse his movements. He sprang up to aim a kick at her head with both legs. She swayed to dodge, and he turned his fall into a roll as he slipped his swords free.

Reiner lunged in his wolf-man form to try and catch Levi with his head down, but Levi was on his feet too quickly. He ducked under Reiner’s hands and smashed his boot into Reiner’s ribs. Snarling, Reiner ignored the pain and swiped at Levi’s chest. His claws only managed to scratch lines into the leather; it felt more akin to clawing at metal. He jumped back when Levi slashed at his head. When Eren and Armin in their wolf forms tried to catch Levi’s legs while he was still, he jumped away from their fangs.

Bertholdt was there to greet him, aiming a punch at the back of his head. Levi ducked and spun, swords heading for Bertholdt’s exposed side. Annie tackled him in her human form before he could land the blow, but he twisted in her grasp the moment they hit the ground. Arms out to either side, he swung in to cut through her neck. With her gloves on, she was able to stop the blades.

Levi wrenched upright and snapped Annie’s nose with a vicious headbutt. She reeled, coughing on the blood that flowed down the back of her mouth. Mikasa and Ymir shot forward in their human forms as Levi began to swing his swords again. As Mikasa pulled Annie out of harm’s way, Ymir grabbed Levi’s legs. She heaved him up off the ground, intent on crushing his ankles and slamming his head into the dirt. He curled in on himself and cut off most of her fingers, using his greaves as chopping blocks. She let go with a snarl, and he managed to curl enough to get his feet on her shoulders and leap to safety.

“Right,” Ymir said, showing her fangs. “You’re just like Mikasa said. Too much of a tiny fucking coward to do anything but run around dodging everything.”

“Funny,” Levi drawled. “I seem to be the only one inflicting damage on anyone. Is the definition of ‘coward’ different here?”

“If it doesn’t include ‘child-killer’ like it does here,” Annie said, wiping the blood from her face, “then yeah, it’s different.”

He snorted. “Please. Wolves kill human children. I saw it myself when I was a kid.”

“So it’s all a big revenge scheme for you?” Reiner asked.

“No, just cleaning up. But I know this is just a stalling tactic. After the little princess’s stunt back there, how could I not?”

“Then why let us do it?” Armin asked.

Levi smirked. “Why not let you waste more energy healing completely? I know it’ll make you too tired to heal or fight eventually.” He cast the blood from his swords. “I’ll whittle you down until you bleed just like humans, and then I’ll cut your filthy fucking throats.” He looked Ymir in the eye. “But I’ll make sure to get the princess out here before I take care of you, bitch queen. No matter what, one of you gets to watch the other one die.”

Ymir snarled, changing to her wolf-woman form. Before Mikasa could tell her to wait, she charged at Levi, keeping low to guard her throat. She swiped at his nearest knee with her left hand, and he barely leapt back in time. As his feet touched the ground, Mikasa and Annie came at him on either side. He struck at Mikasa with both swords, but she caught them on her gloves. As Annie came closer, he dragged the blades against the metal gloves. It all sparked, and he spoke.

“Dripenda!” he shouted.

The swords caught on fire, but Annie did not flinch as he struck at her. She stopped the blades on her gloves easily, even as flames came off the blades at the sudden stop. Ignoring the fire that licked the skin of her face, she slammed her head against his. Only because he moved to meet her in the blow did he escape a broken nose, but he kicked her hard in the gut to gain a few seconds to retreat.

Ymir did not let him recover, moving in fast to tear at one of his forearms. The leather vambrace did not come apart, holding through the blow. It knocked his arm and loosened his grip. She kicked the sword from his hand, and the fire died as it flew through the air. She turned, intending to do the same to his other hand. She had to drop to the ground to avoid his other sword, and he kicked her in the snout to stun her as he ran.

Armin had sprinted to catch the sword, changing into his human for at the last moment. Levi caught up as Armin’s fingers touched the hilt. Sneering, he ran Armin through with the sword in his hands, nearly cutting his spine. He heard Eren’s furious bellow as he caught his other sword. The sword was set on fire once more as he spun about, but Eren had jumped to the side Levi turned away from. He landed a solid punch to Levi’s back, making him stumble long enough for Eren to grab Armin and leap to the lowest branches of the nearest tree.

“And you called me a coward?” Levi said, spitting toward Eren and Armin. “Wolves in trees—pathetic.”

“I think I hear an old man getting scared that we’ll hurt him some more,” Reiner said, grinning to show his fangs.

Levi scowled at him. “You idiots haven’t even managed to draw blood.”

“We will, trust me,” Bertholdt said.

“Come on, old man,” Annie said, beckoning him closer. “You owe me blood for attacking Mikasa in front of our pups.”

There was thick disgust in Levi’s face when he looked at Mikasa. “It’s bad enough that you turned your back on humanity but you whelped hell spawn with a woman?”

“Just keep insulting them, Corporal,” Mikasa said. “It’ll make me even happier when we kill you.”

Levi opened his mouth, but Armin dropped to the ground silently, found a sharp stone, and threw it hard. It struck Levi squarely on the temple, cutting deeply enough to send blood running down his face.

Armin smiled pleasantly and shrugged. “Looks like we’ve drawn blood, sir.” His smile faltered at the blistering rage that filled Levi’s eyes, and he changed to his wolf form as Levi rushed at him. Eren leapt from the tree in his human form, tackling Armin out of the way. His shoulder took the blow, a chunk of flesh cut away in place of Armin’s throat. Armin made to bite the back of Levi’s right knee, but Levi let go of his swords entirely to wrap an arm around Armin’s neck.

Mikasa rushed in before Levi could snap Armin’s neck. She got an arm around Levi’s torso, staring to twist him off his feet. The moment he was off the ground, he wrapped his legs around her and smashed his fists into her ribs. She winced as bones cracked, but ducked to avoid the elbow aimed at her head. He used the free second to let go of her with his legs, trying to use her thighs as a springboard to leap away.

Reiner ran in and kicked Levi in the ribs hard enough to send him hurtling toward the trunk of a nearby tree. Levi spun in the air to land feet first on the tree, and he pulled two knives from the scabbards on his belt as he jumped back down. He made a straight line for Eren and Armin, standing over his swords.

A feinted throw of the knives made Armin move to dodge and Eren to block, but Levi stabbed Bertholdt’s arm when he reached out to grab him. He slashed at Annie when she ran at him, but she angled her body to catch the knives in the flesh of her right shoulder. Sneering, he let her take them and kept moving. When Reiner tried to catch him, he repeated, “Dripenda!”

The heel he struck Reiner’s nose was covered in flames, and Reiner bellowed in pain as he dropped back. His hands were burning as he came at Eren and Armin, and Armin dragged Eren out of the way before a punch could fall. Levi reclaimed his swords, the blades catching on fire as he raised them.

Mikasa moved in, unafraid even when he kicked at her with blazing feet. She slapped at his legs to block him, but the claws on her gloves could not tear through the leather on his greaves. Without the weight of swords in her hands, it was easier to mirror his sudden changes in direction. She would stop one blow coming from below on the left. He he tried to strike with his elbow, she could sway out of his reach.

But despite her occupying his focus, he still reacted too quickly for the others to do more than claw at his armor for a second or two. Even when Ymir seemed to outpace both of them, Levi always blocked or dodged her movements. When he feinted two sword swings in a row to catch Mikasa out, he drove his elbow into the center of her chest. It stopped her breathing and set sparks in her shirt, but Ymir landed a kick to Levi’s chest to drive him back before he struck. She dragged Mikasa away, snuffing the sparks with quick pats of her hand. Mikasa coughed as she started to recover.

“He’s watching me too close,” Ymir muttered. The others kept Levi at bay, but they could not wound him. “He won’t let me near him. Not to mention that fucking armor.”

“Did—kff—you think—this would be easy?” Mikasa asked.

Ymir sighed. “Nope.” She took a deep breath and said, “Buy me time. I have an idea.”

Mikasa coughed once more and nodded. As she ran to rejoin the fray, Ymir changed to her wolf form and slipped away into the forest. She looked back briefly when she hesitated. Levi only had a second to react to Mikasa’s return, but it was still enough for him. Ymir closed her eyes tightly for a moment, opened them, and ran.

————

The gloves Christa had made for herself were fit for her hands when she was a wolf-woman. She knew she needed every inch of reach she could get, and she changed back to her human form only briefly to take the gloves from her belt. Matvey and Ginko followed her without question, both of them keeping an eye out for the other while hiding behind her.

One soldier had thought she would startle and jump away if he tried to cut her leg. She repaid his thoughtfulness by blocking the sword with one hand and ripping open thick lines in the flesh of his closer arm with the claws on her other glove. His scream and subsequent death by a torn through taught the rest.

Christa watched them as they formed a crude circle around her and the pups. They were not quite a rabble, but she was shocked to realize that they were not a squad used to fighting together. She turned toward a man that hung back from the cluster, dirty blond hair foppish when combined with his ascot.

“Are you Levi’s second-in-command?” she asked.

He scoffed. “Like he’d appoint one.”

“Then why aren’t you closer to us? Are you really a coward?”

“Maybe I don’t get my hands dirty.”

“And maybe I do,” Christa said, a growl rumbling up her throat. “Unless you’re all cowards.”

The man sneered, grabbed Jean by the back of his coat, and shoved him forward. “Here, then. The brave lieutenant of the south’s best battalion.”

Jean gaped at her. He gaped at the pups. Sweat rose on his brow as he drew his sword with a shaking arm. Christa narrowed her eyes, her growl deepening. He stared at her, and then at the pups. They looked back, and on their faces was blood he knew had come from Annie and Mikasa. Choking, Jean closed his eyes and threw his sword to the ground.

“I’m not killing kids!” he shouted. “I didn’t agree to that! If you fucks want that on your souls when you go to God, you deserve hell!”

The man with the ascot frowned and drew his sword. “Have it your way, Kirstein.” He rushed forward, sword raised at Jean. Jean did not have time to pick up his sword, but Christa moved faster. She stepped past Jean and hit him hard on the back with her elbow. As he landed on his face near the pups, she caught the man’s sword on her glove. Before he could retreat, she shredded his throat with her free hand.

Turning back around showed two men running at the pups. Christa bounded between them, catching both swords swinging from above. She snarled and twisted her hands as hard as she could. The blades snapped, caught in the gloves’ claws, and she took the opportunity of their stunned stillness to ram the flats of the gloves into their noses. Pulling her arms inward dragged the claws across their faces, and they fell to the ground half-blind and in pain.

Another man ran forward as Christa turned, but he carried his sword to one side with both hands. Christa swept in and kicked him hard enough to break his ribs and drive them up and into his lung and heart. She caught him before he dropped and threw him aside, but shouted in pain when a sword plunged into her back and went through her heart.

“Christa!” Ginko shouted, but Matvey did not let her run to her.

Snarling, Christa wrenched her body to break the blade. She stepped free, pulling the blade from her chest as she turned. The man gaped in horror and he could not dodge when she stabbed him in the heart in turn. She threw him on top of the two half-blind men as they tried to crawl away. While her back was turned, a man managed to slash through her left calf, cutting her tail as well.

She jumped away, changing to her wolf form in the air. Her gloves fell off in the process, but she focused on finding her balance on three legs She circled around the pups and Jean.

Get closer to them, she told him. I need to guard as little ground as possible.

He nodded and scooted to them. He flinched when they gripped his coat, but he put his arms around them as a guard so they could stick close.

She counted as she waited for her wounds to heal. Four men were dead, and two more were disabled. There was blood in her lung from being stabbed, and she saw at least one of the four remaining soldiers grin when she coughed it out. She circled again, testing her leg.

“The big guy to my left tweaked his knees on the way here,” Jean whispered. “He can’t change direction quickly.

She did not stop moving or turn to look at him, but she asked him, Why are you telling me this?

“Because I don’t want to go to hell for getting kids killed.” His breath wavered. “This is my surrender, your highness. Let me help this much.”

In exchange for your life?

“Yes,” he said. “Please.”

We’ll see. She tested her leg and found it healed well enough. Turning about, she dashed at the large man to Jean’s left. She went to his right side, but feinted at the last moment and went to the left. She saw the man grimace as his knees twisted, and she sprang up to catch his throat in her fangs when he was stuck. His neck snapped when she swung to the side. As she dropped to the ground, she saw another soldier running at her.

Though she meant to dodge, he swung his sword down at her head too quickly to fully escape. The blade cut along the right side of her face, scraping the side of her muzzle and cutting into her eye and ear. She yelped and jumped away. Blind on one side, Christa had to turn further to see the man’s next swing. She dove below the blade, changing to her blade to roll close enough.

“Urome!” she shouted, setting her hands ablaze. She got her feet beneath her and launched herself at the man. One hand closed around his neck and the other clutched his face. He screamed in pain, and she forced the flames down his throat to kill him.

“Behind you!” Matvey and Ginko shouted.

Christa grit her teeth and spun about, holding the man’s body out as a shield. Two swords stabbed into it, and she changed to her wolf-woman form to rush the body at the two men while their swords were stuck. They yelped, and both stumbled. Christa tore out their throats while they were down. Trying to regain her breath, she looked around for the two men she knew were left.

They had crawled out from beneath the body she’d thrown on them and were creeping up beneath Matvey, Ginko, and Jean with knives in their hands. Christa’s throat closed up as she changed to her wolf form to run faster.

Get down!

Jean reacted first, throwing himself on top of the pups as Christa leapt over them. She ducked down to catch their knives in her back. Before they could pull the knives out for another blow, she changed to her wolf-woman form. She caught them by their throats and ripped them open. The men dropped, and so did she. She wheezed, eye and ear still barely healed.

“Are there,” she said, “are there…any more?”

“Only me and Levi,” Jean replied, sitting up and helping the pups do the same.

“All right.” She grimaced, shoulders growing stiff. “Please get the knives.”

“O-oh, yes ma’am.” He pulled the knives from her back, putting them well out of the pups’ reach. Christa sat up gingerly, changing to her human form. Matvey and Ginko hurried to her, careful to avoid her slowly steaming wounds.

“Are you gonna be okay?” Ginko asked, eyes wide and wet.

Christa smiled and stroked Ginko’s hair. “I’ll be just fine, sweetheart. Don’t worry.”

“What about Mommy and Mama and everyone?” Matvey asked, clutching Mikasa’s scarf.

She reached out to hold his hand. “They’ll win. We’re going to wait right here until they come back. Okay? Just a little longer, and Mikasa and Annie will be here.”

They nodded and nuzzled up against her. She rubbed their backs slowly, turning to look at Jean. He looked back before bowing her head.

“I’m sorry,” he said, voice thick.

“I know,” she replied. “I accept your surrender. I’ll see what I can do about the others.”

————

Every blow landed on Levi—from a punch to the jaw to a kick on the side, was celebrated. However, they all kept count of what it had taken. All of them had lost at least one finger to Levi’s sword, and all of them had burnt patches on their clothes and wounds that healed at a crawl. The ratio of blood drawn still favored Levi, and they weren’t more how to adjust it.

Eren and Reiner took the brunt of it, always too eager to take any opening Mikasa could give them. Reiner had lost both hands, one at a time, and Bertholdt was cut deeply when he scrambled to pull him away before Annie could provide cover. Eren had lost most of one arm at one point, but Armin covered his retreat at the cost of pieces of himself.

Mikasa and Annie worked in tandem to keep Levi from gaining too much speed, catching his swords on their gloves or shredding his vambraces bit by bit. Fifteen minutes after Ymir had vanished, Annie ducked under Levi’s swords and caught the ties of his left vambrace in the claws of her gloves. She grinned as he scowled, and she ripped the ties to pieces.

“You little bitch!” Levi shouted. He whirled, getting in a full spin as the vambrace fell off. Mikasa grabbed the back of Annie’s shirt with her right hand and pulled her away. Her left hand she reached out to stop the swords. The blow landed, but the force of both swords took her off her feet and drove her to the ground.

Mikasa felt shards of metal drop into her palm and rolled away from the kick Levi aimed at her head. She looked at her left hand, heart stuttering because the glove had shattered, following the gouges that had been building up in it. There was no structure left to support the claws or give her a shield, and she threw the remains aside.

Fury made Levi focus on Annie, driving to take her feet from beneath her by any means necessary. He slashed high with one blade while aiming for her legs with the other. She blocked both swords, but Levi shot forward in a leap that brought his knee into the center of her chest. Her ribcage threatened to buckle; her breathing stopped as her diaphragm spasmed.

As she stumbled back, he sheathed one sword to draw another knife from the other side of the scabbard. Annie rushed to cover her neck, but she could not move quickly. Levi caught her hand over her chest, stabbing through her hand and the weakened palm of her glove to pin her hand to her chest. He pounded his fist against the bottom of the knife to push through her ribs and pierce her heart. A backhanded fist to the face sent Annie to the ground.

Reiner and Mikasa rushed at him with snarls, driving him away from Annie. Bertholdt hurried to Annie, helping her take the knife from her chest and hand. She coughed up the blood gathering in her lungs, looking down. The wisps of steam coming from her wounds were fainter and rose slower.

“Shit,” she wheezed.

“It’s the same for everyone now,” Bertholdt said. He looked around. “We need Ymir.” He closed his eyes tightly. “Lady above, give us all strength.”

Annie reached out to hold his hand. “Give me a little more time.”

“Right,” he murmured. He squeezed her hand before turning and changing to his wolf form. Though he meant to creep forward, he startled when Eren tried to take advantage of Levi’s back facing him. Eren ran in, silent in his wolf-man form, moving to tackle Levi. Levi whirled away from Mikasa’s block of his blades, slashing through the right side of Reiner’s chest as he angled down to cut out a chunk of Eren’s torso.

“Eren!” Mikasa and Armin shouted. Armin sprinted to Eren, desperate to carry him away. Levi raised his swords, but Bertholdt tackled him with force enough to buckle his armor and crack a rib.

“Bert!” Reiner choked out. “Run! Now!”

Levi snarled and did not let Bertholdt escape. He stabbed both swords into Bertholdt’s back, ripping them out to the sides. Bertholdt gagged, hurrying away until his legs gave out.

Levi stood up slowly, breathing heavily. He looked about. “And it falls to two.” He sighed noisily. “Three, counting the coward bitch. If she hasn’t abandoned you, anyway.”

Hey! I don’t see you coming after me!

Levi turned as Ymir leapt out of the forest in her wolf form. He smirked. “There you are. Nice timing, since your pack is on the verge of death.”

Ymir looked about. The gazes sent her way were not bitter or resentful, but relieved and hopeful. She closed her eyes briefly, and she would not look at them when she opened them.

I’m so sorry, she whispered to them.

There was no time for them to look confused. Ymir charged at Levi, and the world slowed down as Levi raised his swords. Ymir jumped, and Mikasa screamed for her to stop. She ran for Ymir, who had leapt directly at Levi with her forepaws out and her throat above Levi’s eye level.

Levi did not hesitate. He swung one sword, cutting off Ymir’s legs. As she came closer, he swung his other sword. Levi cut into Ymir’s throat deeply, and he stepped aside to dodge her body as it fell, lifeless, to the ground.

Mikasa had missed grabbing Ymir by inches. She stumbled to a stop, eyes on the ground. She lifted her head, but when she turned and saw Ymir’s body, she could not breathe.

“No,” Reiner said. He clawed at the ground, eyes welling over with tears. “No! No! You bastard! You fucking bastard!”

Levi cast Ymir’s blood from his swords. “That was simple. Now for th—”

Mikasa fell upon him, lashing with kicks and punches that dented Levi’s armor. She did not care that the skin on her knuckles was shredded to the bone after so many blows. All that mattered was that Levi knew pain from her and her fury. She dug the claws of her remaining glove into the armor on his chest, trying to tear through to his heart.

“Mikasa!” Annie shouted.

The warning in her voice made Mikasa pull her hand away to catch both of Levi’s swords. She brought her head back to throw it forward into his nose. Levi inhaled with his mouth closed, and she saw his tongue working behind his lips. She backpedalled, closing her eyes and turning her head.

He spat fire in her face, and it dug into the eye she could not turn away in time. She kept her scream behind her teeth and tried to run. Levi did not let her go, instead running her through with a flaming sword. It cut through her spine, burning the nerves in her and taking her legs from her. She fell, and as she did Levi drove the sword into the ground to hold her.

No!” Armin screamed, changing to his wolf form. He ran, reaching Levi before he could turn. He bit down on Levi’s exposed left forearm hard enough to break the bones. He shook his head so violently that he tore off Levi’s forearm entirely, managing to take his elbow along with it.

Levi stumbled, screaming with pain. He whirled on Armin, slashing his spine with his right-hand sword before kicking him to break ribs and send him tumbling away. Wheezing, coughing, he hurried to pull off the armor covering his upper arm. It revealed a system of belted straps along his chest and around his arm. He pulled the straps as tight as he could, making them into a tourniquet to steam the flow of blood from his ravaged arm.

As he did this, Annie got to her feet. She dropped her right glove, taking the knife with her as she went to Mikasa. She took the sword from Mikasa’s body, kneeling down to touch her cheek. Mikasa looked up at her with her good eye.

“Annie,” she said. “I don’t…I can’t feel my legs. I don’t know what to do.”

“I’ll try to buy everyone time,” Annie replied.

Mikasa’s eye widened. Her face went pale as Annie picked up her knife and stood. “Annie—no, Annie, please! Even if he’s wounded—don’t fight without me!”

“I need to buy everyone time,” Annie said. She turned away. “Concentrate on healing. And…pray that I make it back to you and our pups.” She walked out of Mikasa’s reach, eyes on Levi. “I’ll be damned. You had a trick up your sleeve even Mikasa didn’t know about.”

“You always need one against demons,” Levi said. He shifted his shoulder, face pasty and dripping with sweat. “God fucking dammit.”

“Looks like we’re going to win,” Annie said. “No one is going to treat your arm. You’ll probably bleed out in an hour.”

“More than enough time,” Levi replied. He lifted his sword, setting it on fire once more. “I’m taking you all with me to death’s gates, and I’ll kick you into hell.”

Annie said nothing. She walked toward Levi, and he toward her. It was her move that restarted the fight, a swipe at his right vambrace’s ties with her knife. He caught the blow on the pommel of his sword, forcing it back to swing for her head. She jumped back, but her legs buckled and made her tilt forward again.

The tip of his sword cut down her forehead and through her left eye. She grit her teeth against the pain and matched his next spin at a different angle. Before he could reach her again, she got her knife to something that had been too well guarded before. She stabbed his side in the weak space of the ties on his armor, dragging the knife through his flesh and every leather cord.

Levi screamed again, slamming the pommel against her head to retaliate. Annie fought against the blinking lights in her eye and spun to stab his other side and cut the remaining ties. The armor came apart, and she raked the back of his hand with the claws on her glove with mounting desperation to make him drop his sword. She grabbed the bottom of the front part of his armor and heaved upward.

She knew she failed because Levi ducked his head down to get free. As she came down on her feet, he was ready with an uppercut that took her off the ground completely. The back of her head hit the ground first, taking her ability to think and move. Levi retrieved his sword.

Annie!” Mikasa screamed, so loud her throat felt like it had torn. She tried to regain control of her legs, all the while pulling herself closer by clawing at the ground. When Annie still did not come out of her daze, tears welled over in her eyes. “Levi, please! Don’t kill her! Don’t kill anyone else! I’m begging you—don’t do this!”

“Just for that,” Levi said, “you’re next.” He tipped Annie’s chin back with his boot to expose her throat. He brought his sword to the side to swing. He stopped moving.

They all stared as he grit his teeth, straining against something they could not see. Annie’s eyes fluttered as she regained full consciousness. Her mouth fell open. Her eyes widened.

A hand closed around Levi’s wrist from behind. It was missing its middle finger, and its dark skin was patchy with black fur. Over Levi’s shoulder, a face loomed, and its honey gold eyes were wide and hateful. His wrist was crushed, and he dropped the sword with one last scream before he was wrenched about. His lips parted.

“No,” he whispered.

“Yes,” said Ymir. She pulled back her free hand and shoved it clear through Levi’s chest. She held his heart in her hand on the other side. As his breathing stopped and his eyes grew cloudy, she whispered, “We win.” She crushed his heart, letting it fall as she pushed his body off her arm. She looked at Annie, who stared up at her with disbelief on her face and tears in her eyes.

“Hey,” Ymir said. “Sorry. I…fucked…up.” She dropped onto her knees before falling onto her front.

“But,” Reiner said, looking at the wolf body nearby, “that’s not—how?”

“Annie!” Bertholdt said. “Is—is she breathing?”

Annie could not reply. She stared at Ymir, unable to tear her eyes away. When Ymir fell, Annie realized she was not wearing a shirt. Now as Ymir lay facedown and wheezing, Annie realized that from the nape of her neck to the top of her trousers, Ymir’s back had been skinned.

The shredded muscles oozed blood, and her exposed vertebra gleamed. Annie looked at Ymir’s face, seeing past her parted lips that Ymir was missing a fang as well. Annie inhaled weakly, feeling her stomach seize.

“Ymir?” she said.

Ymir opened one eye slightly. “Hel…p.”

Annie turned, but Eren had limped to Mikasa already. He turned her onto her back and dragged her over. She tugged off her glove, coughing to clear her throat. Annie propped her upright so she could lay her hands on Ymir’s back. When her hands drew close, however, visible arcs of red energy lashed at them from Ymir’s flesh. Ymir choked as Mikasa rushed to take her hands away.

“Christa,” Ymir panted. “Get—Christa.”

Annie changed to her wolf form and howled as loudly as she could.

————

Christa’s head rose, and Ginko and Matvey looked up as well. Christa shot to her feet as Jean looked up, her eyes widening.

“What did it say?” Jean asked.

“We need to go,” Christa replied. “Now. They need help.” She wiped at the blood on her face, eye finally healed completely. She crouched down to pick up the pups.

“I’ll carry one,” Jean said. “You’ll run easier.” He knelt down. “All right, kids? We’re going to your family. One of you comes with me so she doesn’t get tired.”

“Go ahead,” Christa said when they looked at her. “Quick now.”

They nodded, and Ginko went to Jean and Matvey to Christa. Christa led them at a run, following Annie’s directions and the scents she could track. The forest was thick with the stench Levi had brought, and the prints from his horse were easy to find and follow. Crushed leaves and snapped branches were everywhere.

Not soon enough did she find the dead horse. All at once, the scent of wolf blood hit them. She felt Matvey shudder. Christa kept them moving forward, but she had to keep herself from focusing on any one person’s scent. Through the trees to her left, she saw Mikasa, Annie, and Eren sitting together, and she turned quickly. Jean followed at once.

“Annie!” she shouted. “Mikasa!”

They turned, eyes widening at the sight of Ginko and Matvey unharmed. Christa and Jean delivered them straight to their mothers. Mikasa clutched Ginko to her chest, and Annie held Matvey tightly enough that her arms shook. They both wept into the pups’ hair, unable to speak.

“Christa, c’mon!” Eren said, grabbing Christa’s wrist. “Ymir needs help!” He did not have to pull her along after she caught sight of Ymir. She rushed to kneel at Ymir’s other side, turning Ymir’s head gently to face her.

“Ymir?” she said, patting Ymir’s cheek. “Ymir, look at me.”

Ymir opened her eyes. She smiled very slightly. “Hey.”

“Did Levi do this to you?”

“No.”

“Okay.” She reached out to set her hands on Ymir’s back, but flinched when energy snapped at her fingers.

“Close it,” Ymir groaned.

Christa nodded, brows furrowing as she thought. Reaching out again, she said, “Umrakibash zuinish rosut.” The energy came against her hands again, but it did not hurt either of them. She set her hands on Ymir’s back, repeating, “Umrakibash zuinish rosut.”

The nearby wolf body collapsed on itself in time with Ymir relaxing. It became nothing but a bloody black pelt with a strange construct of bones and fangs.

“Debreleh,” Christa said. Under her hands, new flesh began to grow on Ymir’s back. Her wounds began to steam and slowly heal on their own. Ymir smiled at Christa.

“You weren’t,” Bertholdt said, staring at the pelt and bones. He looked at Ymir. “That…wasn’t you?”

“It’s bits of me,” she mumbled.

Christa looked at the pelt for a long while. “Ymir, that’s what you were giving magic to?”

“Yeah. Flesh, blood, bone, and fang. A fake me.”

Reiner’s mouth fell open. He let out a laugh without realizing it. “You faked all of us out. You ass.” He laughed again, starting to cry. “You amazing ass.” He looked at Levi’s corpse and laughed even more. “You fucking did it, you stupid ass of a queen.”

Ymir smiled at the sound of his laughter. “Christa? The pups are okay, right?”

“They’re perfect,” Mikasa whispered, stroking Ginko’s hair. “Thank our lady. Thank Christa.” She laughed faintly when Annie pulled the both of them close as she held Matvey. “Hi Matvey. Hi Ginko.”

“Matvey kept your scarf warm, Mommy,” Ginko said. She nuzzled against Mikasa’s cheek, giggling when Mikasa kissed her nose. She held tight as Mikasa leaned to do the same, and she kissed Annie’s nose when Annie leaned down to her.

Jean stood by, staring at Levi’s body with an open mouth. “Mikasa? Is that…Levi?”

Mikasa turned quickly, holding Ginko tighter. “Why’re you here, Kirstein?”

Eren changed to his wolf form and advanced on Jean, growling.

“Uncle Eren, no!” Matvey said. “He gave up!”

Eren stopped, ears twitching. He looked askance at Jean. You surrendered?

“I don’t murder kids, Jaeger,” Jean spat. “And I didn’t want to come here to kill my old comrades in the first place. Maybe punch you again, but I’m not killing you.”

“What’re you going to trade for your surrender?” Annie asked.

“What about new info on the south?” Armin said, joining them. “I’m sure my information is out of date by now.”

“I think we can discuss it later,” Christa said. “We need to go home and rest.”

Bertholdt chuckled. “I’ll howl for wagons to be brought for us. And an honor guard.” He changed to his wolf form and limped to the edge of the clearing their battle had made. He howled, long and loud, to call for who was nearest. A reply came quickly, and he howled again to provide their location and their request. He limped back and changed to his human form to sit next to Christa.

“It was Sasha,” he said. “We’ll be joined soon.” He smiled, eyes stinging, and stroked Ymir’s head. “You really are an ass, Ymir.”

“Love you too,” she replied. “Love all of you.”

“Ymir?” Matvey said. “Are you gonna be okay?”

She turned her head to look at him and at Ginko. She smiled again. “I’ll be fine, fluff butts. Don’t worry.”

Christa checked Ymir’s back. The skin was regrowing well, and quickly with her help. Ymir’s middle finger was growing back as well, and her fang had returned. Christa felt her own shoulders slump with relief.

“You’ll be okay,” she murmured.

Reiner managed to pull himself over to them, wounds still healing. “We’ll all be great now.” He sniffed, rubbing his eyes. “Lady above. He’s…dead.” He pulled his legs up to hide his face as he wept from joy. “We did it.”

“Mikasa,” Annie whispered. “We made it. We’re all alive.” She put her head on Mikasa’s shoulder, laughing softly until she began to cry.

Mikasa kissed her head. “Now we just need to end the war.” She chuckled. “That’ll be easy after this.”

They all laughed, and then looked up at the wooden rattle of wagon wheels on uneven ground. Sasha, Connie, and Marco led the way, running up in their human forms.

“Ymir!” Sasha gasped. “Commander Braun—Captain Ackerman! What happened? Are you going to be all right?”

Connie turned as they came to a stop. His eyes fell on Levi’s body. He stared before drawing a strangled breath. He grabbed Sasha’s hand convulsively.

“N-no!” he said. “No way!”

Sasha gaped. “By the lady’s eye…it can’t be.”

Marco went to the corpse cautiously. He examined it closely and gave it a few quick sniffs. The wretched smell that still clung to the body made him gag and retreat.

“It’s a present for the whole north,” Eren said, grinning. “Courtesy of your ruling pack and especially your queen—one dead bastard.”

For a long moment, there was nothing but stunned silence. Sasha came out of it first, leaping into the air with a screaming hoot of glee. Connie caught her on the way down, spinning her around with howls of, “We got him! We got him!”

The guards drawing the wagons shouted, bellowed, roared with increasing joy. They embraced each other, pounding on each other’s backs.

“Long live the queen!” Marco shouted. He began to chant it, and all the wolves followed.

Christa smiled, and she found that Ymir’s back had regained all its skin when she checked again.

“Hey,” Ymir murmured, turning to look at Christa.

“What is it?” Christa asked, leaning down.

“Is this what it feels like when people love you as a ruler?” Ymir asked.

The question left her without words for a moment. She smiled once more and kissed Ymir’s head. She quietly told her, “It is. You did something amazing today.”

Ymir smiled. “Then I guess we better head back to town to let everyone else know.”

“We all deserve it,” Christa said, and she helped Ymir sit up to face everyone with a smile.