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Wolves of the North

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Amidst the bellowing of the honor guard, Bertholdt took off his shirt to give to Ymir. He said, “Better than nothing. Your back should probably stay covered for a while.”

“Thanks,” she said, and when she struggled to pull it on, Christa helped her. She looked dully at her legs. “Can someone help me into a wagon? I think I’m screwed right now.”

Sasha, Connie, and Marco were closest and overheard her request. They saluted her.

“Allow us to help all of you home!” Sasha said. The other guards heard her and stopped chanting, saluting in unison. With the utmost care, they began to help the pack either stand up to get into one of the two wagons or lift them completely if their legs did not work. Mikasa accepted Jean’s help in lifting her and Ginko into the wagon, Annie taking Connie’s help to brace Matvey as she carried him in.

Ymir received the most careful handling, and only Christa was allowed to touch her back. When Armin, Eren, Bertholdt, and Reiner had gotten into the other wagon, the guards looked toward Levi’s body. Sasha looked at Reiner. He looked around in the wagon and grinned.

“Did this wagon come from the woodworkers?” he asked.

“Yes sir.”

“You forgot to get rid of everything in here.” He held up a pair of two-by-eights, and Eren picked up a long coil of rope. Reiner said, “Make a doll on a stick.”

Connie grinned and led the way in taking the wood and rope. Levi’s body was arranged on the beams, lashed to them at the neck, waist, and knees with the whole in his chest on display. The two largest wolf-men of the guards took up the beams, bracing them against their shoulders to lift Levi’s body up into the air. Marco looked at Jean, frowning at him.

“What do we do with this one?” he asked, jerking a thumb at Jean.

“I’ve accepted his surrender,” Christa said. “Treat him as a guest until we figure out what to do.”

Marco frowned a while longer, but he shrugged and said, “As you wish.” He headed to the front of the wagons and turned to smile at the pack. “Let’s go home.”

They started out, careful to avoid holes or roots. Christa helped Ymir sit forward to keep her back off the wall of the wagon. Ymir smiled at her, and at Annie and Mikasa. Matvey and Ginko had curled up in their laps, ears pressed firmly over their hearts to listen.

“Hey, fluff butts,” Ymir said. “D’you know how amazing your moms are? There’s no way we would’ve won without them.” Her voice nearly failed when they looked at her and smiled, but she still said, “Thank our lady you two didn’t get hurt.”

“You were saving that trick for a time like this,” Annie said, slowly rubbing Matvey’s back. “I can’t believe you never told me you knew how to do that.”

“You all would’ve told me not to do it,” Ymir replied. “There was no other way to trick him.” She looked down. “Just don’t let me fight for a while.”

“You’re staying in bed until you get tired of it,” Christa said. She smiled and rubbed behind Ymir’s ear. “We’ll be okay to let you do that.”

“Mommy?” Ginko said, pulling on Mikasa’s shirt. “What’s wrong with your legs? Why couldn’t you stand up?”

“I was hurt in the fight,” Mikasa said. “I’ll be okay in a little while.” She kissed Ginko’s head. “I’m so glad you’re safe.”

Ginko and Matvey both brightened. Ginko said, “Christa protected us! Right, Matvey?”

“Yeah, just like she said! We never thought we were gonna get hurt!”

Christa blushed when Annie and Mikasa looked at her.

Annie smiled at her before patting Matvey’s back. “You’re the only wolf I’ve ever met who deserves a white coat. Thank you.”

Mikasa chuckled. “And you couldn’t even hold a knife correctly when we met. Bless you.”

The edge of Utgard came into view after a time. A few wolves stood there nervously, but their anxiety vanished at the sight of the pack and the guards. When Levi’s body and its stench came into focus, all of them reeled and stepped back. They let the wagons pass, but followed close behind. Murmuring rose around them, increasing when they came to a main street filled with wolves. Hanji, Petra, and Mina were at the forefront, their jaws falling open. Sasha grinned and, using Connie’s offered hands as a launching point, leaped onto a roof.

“Everyone!” she said loudly. “I am overjoyed to announce this!” She pointed to Levi’s body. “That is who you think it is! Our leaders have done what we have all prayed for! The bastard has died here today, killed by our queen! Today is our victory, and we are going to celebrate!”

For a few seconds longer, no one moved. Mina broke the stillness by running up and leaping into the wagon to hug Annie fiercely, laughing as she did. Connie started a new chant of “Long live the queen,” all the townspeople joining him eagerly. For a moment, Ginko and Matvey looked around in fright at the loudness of the chant, but settled again when Mikasa and Annie rubbed their backs.

Hanji and Petra hurried over, Hanji setting a hand on Ymir’s shoulder. “You all look like you’ve seen hell. Let’s get you inside—stories can come later.”

“Thanks,” Ymir said.

Petra nodded and climbed into the other wagon, raising her hands. When everyone had quieted down, she spoke. “We will celebrate our victory, but our ruling pack needs to be attended to. Give them until tonight to rest and heal, but do not wait to be happy! Do not wait to howl to your family and friends and tell them it is safe to return home! The bastard is dead, and we no longer have to fear him coming here!”

The crowd cheered again, even more joyous than before. When the wagons began to be moved again, the entire town joined the honor guard. Sasha, Connie, and Marco went between the wagons, looking proud to be there.

“You two little snots have the most amazing moms!” Connie said. “They helped take down a monster!”

“You should’ve seen Annie at the end!” Armin said. “She got Levi’s armor off so Ymir could kill him!”

“And you tore off one of his arms so I could,” Annie said.

“Yeah, well,” Jean spat out, pointing at Christa, “she killed ten soldiers by herself without letting either of those kids get hurt!” He grew pale when gazes turned upon him. “It’s—just—no one should underestimate her.”

Sasha laughed, but not unkindly. “We haven’t underestimated her since she broke Ymir’s nose while she was still human!”

Jean looked at Christa with nothing less than horror. “You did what?”

“Broke Ymir’s nose, man!” Connie said. “Humans can’t hear for shit!”

He blushed darkly and looked down.

Eren looked at him for a long time before sighing. “All right, leave him alone. Christa said to accept his surrender, and that’s an order from the queen. Let’s just get inside.”

Jean did not look up, even as his shoulders relaxed minutely. The crowd did not bother to notice him, still carousing. Howls went up in waves from the edge of town, spreading the word and calling loves ones back home. The castle was reached, the wagons brought around to the lowest doors for supplies brought in by servants.

“Stick him up by the front doors up the stairs,” Christa said to the guards. “So everyone can see. But no one is allowed to do anything to the body for now.”

“Yes ma’am,” the wolf-men said, and they went off with Levi’s body.

Armin stood up slowly, legs shaking but able to support him. “Is everyone able to move their legs by now?”

“Ginko, can I set you down for a minute?” Mikasa asked. When Ginko moved out of her lap, Mikasa leaned forward to press on her legs. She could feel her fingers, and cautious flexes showed her muscles were hers again.

“Mommy, you’re okay!” Ginko said. She looked at Annie as the steam stopped rising from her face, smiling massively when Annie opened her other eye. “Mama!”

Matvey leaned back to see Annie’s face, smiling as much as Ginko. “You can see us again!”

“I can,” Annie said with a smile. “Let’s get down from the wagon now.” Matvey moved out of her lap so she could get down, and he and Ginko helped Mikasa get to the edge of wagon to stand up. They let Mikasa and Annie help them down, clinging to their legs when they were on the ground.

“Ymir, how are your legs?” Christa asked.

Ymir curled her feet, and then her legs. “I think I can get to our room okay.” She looked up at the others. “Pile?”

“What kind of question is that?” Reiner asked. “Of course we’re having a pile. Come on, I’ll carry you if I have to.”

I will,” Christa said. “Ymir, here.” She helped her move to the edge of the wagon, steadying her when she stood up properly. The sight of Ymir upright, even blood-covered and exhausted, made Christa’s eyes sting. She smiled, shook her head, and hid her face in Ymir’s chest.

“Thank our lady,” Christa whispered. Her breath hitched as she began to cry. “Th-thank our l-lady.” She clutched Ymir’s shirt, shoulders shaking.

Ymir smiled, pulling Christa closer. She said nothing, not trusting her voice when her own eyes sting too much. They stood, still and silent, and no one else said a word. Eventually, Ymir wiped her face dry and scratched behind Christa’s ears. Christa nodded and lifted her head, rubbing her tears away. She took Ymir’s hand.

“Let’s get upstairs,” Christa said.

“You all rest,” Marco said, patting Eren on the back. “We’ll handle everything until tonight.”

Sasha crouched down to pat Matvey and Ginko on the head. “You two have done great. You’ll finally get to really play again.”

For a moment, they looked as though they would cheer. Their smiles broke into yawns, and they looked up at Annie and Mikasa when they laughed.

“Let’s go take a nap before dinner,” Mikasa said, holding out a hand. Matvey took it, and Ginko took his. Annie took hers in turn, and they all headed up into the heart of the castle to rest at last.

————

By the time night came and they all came out of sleep, only the pups did not ache horribly. They were quick to pick up on the way Annie and Christa coughed with hands over where they’d been stabbed in the chest, and they kept themselves from running around. On the walk down to the dining hall, they held hands so Annie and Mikasa could do the same.

There was an ambient buzz of conversation behind the doors, piquing their curiosity. Sasha and Connie were waiting for them to arrive, grinning brilliantly as they opened the doors. The hall was packed full, many of the benches moved out of the hall to allow more to stand. Tables were covered with food and drink, and all the wall sconces and points in the chandeliers above were alight. As the doors opened, everyone turned.

Matvey and Ginko braced themselves for another roar of sound, but silence fell on the room instead. One by one, every person in the dining hall bowed their heads to the pack. When they lifted their heads, they began to applaud.

Ymir and Christa stepped into the hall first, hand in hand. No questions were asked at first, nor words spoken. They were looked at as though they were unreal but wonderful. Ymir was stopped suddenly by small hands clutching her trousers at the hip, and she looked down to see Noelle standing there with Ivan and Viktor. Ymir smiled and knelt down.

“Hey, you got big,” Ymir said, tapping Noelle’s nose. “But I guess it’s been a while since I saw you.”

Noelle said nothing and threw her arms around Ymir’s neck in a hug. She held tight until she could say, “Hi ‘Mir.”

“Hey there. Wanna see your friends?”

Noelle looked up. Matvey and Ginko had come over, and they waved in greeting. Noelle let go immediately to pull them both into a hug, Viktor and Ivan joining in.

It was guide enough for Reiner, and he lifted his arms. “Who wants to hear the tale of the bastard’s downfall?”

Every wolf cheered, but Mikasa saw Jean trying desperately to be ignored. He was pale, face drawn with exhaustion and a gnawing fear. She looked at Matvey and Ginko as they giggled and went off to play a game of chase with Noelle, Viktor, and Ivan. She nudged Armin with her elbow and nodded at Jean.

“Don’t let Reiner make Jean out to be an enemy,” she said. “He didn’t want to do this.”

Armin smiled, nodded, and went to join Reiner in the middle of the hall. As he went, he caught a mug of ale to lift in the air.

“Let’s all start with a few toasts!” he said when the cheering stopped. “The first, of course, to Ymir’s health! Long live the queen!”

“Long live the queen!” they replied, and those with ale drank a mouthful.

“Next is to the health of the pack! May they continue to be blessed by our lady!”

“And you too!” Hanji called back.

“Here, here!” the crowd said.

Armin waited for mugs to be lowered. “And finally, I offer a toast to the reluctant hero of the day!” He gestured to Jean. “Lieutenant Jean Kirstein!”

Smiles faltered for confusion. Jean went bone-pale. Reiner looked at Armin curiously, but did not stop him.

“Jean was part of Mikasa and Eren’s battalion in the south,” Armin said. “Mikasa’s second-in-command, in fact. We had sent him a letter advising that we would no longer fight for the south, as Reiss had betrayed us. Jean, I had a hunch when I saw you today. Did Levi find that letter and force you to come here to trick us?”

Jean looked at the wolves nearest to him before swallowing hard and nodding. “He did.”

Armin smiled more brightly. “But you wouldn’t go through with it. You tried to warn us to run away.”

“I’m not killing my comrades,” Jean said. “And I’m not killing kids.”

“He risked the same as us!” Armin said. “He risked dying at the bastard’s sword because he would not betray us!” He lifted his mug. “To your health, Jean, so we may have a true ally to help us end the war as soon as possible!”

The wolves shouted, “Here, here!” and drank down their ale.

Jean smiled tentatively, but yelped when his shirt was tugged on. Matvey and Ginko stood before him, Noelle, Viktor, and Ivan a few paces back.

“Can our friends say ‘hi’?” Ginko asked. “We said you were nice.”

“Um,” said Jean. He swallowed again, nodded, and slowly sat down. “Um, h-hi, kids.”

Matvey sniffed for a moment, leaning closer. “Why do you still smell scared? The monster’s dead now. Nothing bad is gonna happen.”

Jean glanced up at the nearest wolf, wincing at Marco’s impassive face. After a moment, Marco sighed, took a large plate of cooked venison, and put it in Jean’s hands.

“You’re fine,” Marco said. “Eat. You look like you haven’t had food in days.”

“Can we have some?” Ivan asked.

Jean smiled more easily. “Sure. C’mere.” The pups gathered around him, all of them beginning to eat. On seeing this, Reiner nodded and looked at Armin. Armin smiled in return, and they began to tell the story.

“You’re in for a treat,” Ymir said in Christa’s ear. “Reiner loves telling stories like this.”

“Armin was pretty good at it when he told me about the battalion back when we met,” Christa said.

“I’d be happier to listen if I had a chair,” Ymir said. “I’m gonna hurt for a month.”

Christa looked around, spotting small stacks of chairs in a corner of the hall. She fetched one and made Ymir sit down. Ymir tugged her over to sit in her lap, holding her close and resting her chin on her shoulder. They watched Reiner and Armin talk and gesture, the gathered wolves reacting with gasps, curses, and bursts of applause.

Armin bowed when Reiner told of his drawing first blood, wolves laughing at his cheeky audacity. Eren’s ferocity garnered cheers, and Bertholdt and Reiner received long rounds of applause for never backing down despite their injuries. The loudest cheers yet went up for Annie and Mikasa and their fearless speed against Levi’s swords. At a certain point, however, Armin and Reiner both faltered and looked at Ymir.

“What did you do when you ran off into the woods?” Reiner asked. “I get that you made a fake you, but I don’t know the rest.”

Ymir looked at him evenly for a time. There was no escaping the way the entire hall looked at her, and so she exhaled slowly. Inhaling, she said, “I needed to convince the bastard that I was out of the fight. He wouldn’t get tricked by basic illusions, so I went off to make as real a fake as I could.”

Her mouth twisted briefly. “I got away and cast spells to erase my voice and my scent, stop my body from healing, and open a path between my magic and the construct I was making. I…um. Skinned my back. Tore off a finger, and I got a fang, too. Bled a hell of a lot to make it convincing when he cut the thing’s throat. And…well, made a body. And I went back with it to get to the fight.”

Silence filled the room; eyes widened. Hanji quietly asked, “You skinned yourself?”

Ymir shrugged slightly, but said nothing more and looked at no one. She only looked up when Christa patted her leg. Every wolf in the hall had changed to their wolf form. One by one, they sat down. They looked up to the ceiling and, as though singing, gently howled their thanks to Lady Mond for giving them Ymir as their queen.

Christa took Ymir’s hands when they trembled at her waist, squeezing as Ymir’s breathing stopped. When the howls faded, she heard Ymir sniff once and laugh softly. As the wolves changed to their human form, Ymir smiled at them.

“Tell ‘em the rest,” she said.

Reiner and Armin bowed to her and continued their tale. There was a great collective flinch when Reiner spoke of how the fake body died at Levi’s hand. However, it faded for fervor when Armin told the crowd of Mikasa’s last assault on Levi and his own attack to take Levi’s arm. Tension rose in the telling of Annie’s stripping away Levi’s armor, and the mightiest bellow of joy went up when Ymir crushed Levi’s heart in her hand.

Applause rang through the hall on top of laughter, and many shouted more toasts to the pack’s health. Reiner and Armin bowed to the crowd, but Reiner stopped when Matvey and Ginko hurried up to him, looking distressed.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“You’re not telling the other story!” Ginko protested.

“Tell Christa’s story, too!” Matvey said.

“Uh,” Reiner said, starting to blush. “Well. Armin and I weren’t there to see what happened. We wouldn’t be able to tell that story.”

They stared at him in intense shock. They almost protested his statement, but looked at each other. After a moment, they rushed back to Jean, pulling on his sleeves.

“Please tell Christa’s story!” said Matvey.

“You were there!” Ginko said. “Please tell it!”

“Whoa, hang on!” Jean said. “You’re gonna make me drop this!” When they had let go, he gave the plate to Noelle. He stood up, rubbing his hands on his trousers, and went to where Reiner and Armin stood. He looked at Reiner, growing tense, but cleared his throat and lowered his head.

“C-Commander Braun,” Jean said.

Reiner patted him on the back. “Go ahead.” He stepped aside with Armin as Matvey and Ginko joined Jean. Jean cleared his throat again before turning to Christa and snapping a salute. This done, he turned to the crowd.

“I’m going to tell you a story about a woman who I was told was a tiny mewling coward!” he said. “Who Levi chalked up as nothing more than a spineless noblewoman sent here to die! I’m going to tell you how wrong he was, because if it wasn’t for Christa Renz, I am damn sure we’d all be dead!”

Christa blushed, and darker still when Matvey and Ginko nodded for emphasis. She looked down as Jean began to describe when happened after the rest of the pack went chasing after Levi and Ymir. The wolves listened very closely to Jean’s story, and not one of them was without a smile. Matvey and Ginko playacted alongside Jean’s words, even though it made Christa flinch when she saw them.

As Jean’s recounting grew more intense, the scent of eagerness filled the room. Ymir drummed her fingers on Christa’s stomach when Christa grew more embarrassed, chin on her shoulder. From the corner of her eye, Christa saw Annie nodding at what Jean described, and she felt her embarrassment stall. She looked at Mikasa and saw that she was nodding as well. Glances at Reiner, Bertholdt, Eren, and Armin let her see the same approval. Her stomach unclenched as pride came to her.

When Jean reached the end of the story, Christa going to the pack with pups safely in tow, his voice had gone quiet. He looked at Christa, unsure what to say. Ymir straightened up, setting her hands on Christa’s shoulders.

“You protected pups like they were your own,” Ymir said. “And you got all of us free to fight the bastard. You’re the one we should thank Lady Mond for.”

The wolves changed to their wolf forms before Christa could think to protest. They howled their thanks to Lady Mond, and the pups in the room did the same. When they had gone quiet, Matvey and Ginko ran to Christa and changed back to their human forms to hug her from either side.

“Thank you,” Matvey whispered.

“We got to see Mama and Mommy again ‘cause you kept us safe,” Ginko said.

Christa smiled and leaned down to kiss their heads. “You’re welcome.”

Reiner grinned at them and looked at the crowd. “Tonight is a night to celebrate! Eat, drink, and be happier than you have been in decades!”

Again, the wolves cheered, and they set into food, drink, and conversation. Jean looked panicked when Mikasa, Annie, and Reiner approached him. Reiner waved a hand slowly to stave off his worries.

“I just want to know how the bastard got all the way here with a squadron without getting noticed,” he said. “I need to know where a weak spot is.”

“Oh,” Jean said. “O-okay. Well—uh—after he pulled me out of the battalion in the spring, we went into the mountains over the border to the west. It took a lot of scouting from up in the mountains to see where everything was least populated, and Levi used magic to cover our tracks when we traveled at night. We were careful to avoid making contact with any wolves, since that’d get us discovered no matter what.”

“How long were you near Utgard to see where we were spending all our time?” Annie asked.

“Eleven days, ma’am,” Jean replied. “Levi decided when and how it’d be best to ambush you after that time.” He looked down. “I’m…um. I’m sorry for scaring your children, Captain. I would never hurt kids, so—I’m sorry.”

Mikasa regarded the scent of his guilt before gently backhanding his head. “If I was angry, you’d know it.”

He looked up at them, anxiety clear. “So…are—are you gonna kill me after tonight?”

“That depends on if you’re going to be an idiot and try to kill us,” Annie said.

Jean held up his hands, shaking his head. “No, not a chance. I’m not Mikasa—you’d all kill me in a second even if I had my sword.” He inhaled, faltered, and then sighed. “Look. About what Armin said about me as an ally. It’s…I’m tired of seeing my comrades die. I don’t want to die. Can I help you end the war?”

Annie raised a brow. “You’re turning traitor?”

“I don’t know how much you know about the southern army—”

“A lot.”

Fine, but no one believes the south will win. We were praying that Mikasa and Levi would turn the tide, but we all know that it’s a losing bet. Not when Reiss—” He stopped and lowered his voice drastically. “He wants every wolf dead, all right? A total purge of the north. That’s what he really wants in the end, and we all know it’s impossible. No one wants that.”

“What about General Erwin?” Reiner asked. “Based on what the bastard said, it sounded like he was at least interested in a treaty.”

There was hope in the way Jean smiled. “Maybe! Maybe if I go back with something from you, he would consider it! He holds the most sway in the army!”

“Get him to come to the front line,” Reiner said, “and Mikasa and I will talk to him. No tricks, no surprise attacks. I’ll call for a temporary truce so we can talk without anyone getting nervous. I think we all want this to end.”

Jean’s smile grew as he saluted Reiner. “Yes sir! Thank you!”

Reiner blinked as a thought came to him. “Huh. We need to find you a horse if you want to get back to the south before the winter comes. And an escort.”

“O-oh. Yes sir, please.” He looked around. “Who would be going with me, sir?”

“I think Sasha and Connie,” Reiner replied. “They’re a good pair for travel.”

“Yes sir, thank you.” He took a strangled breath when Reiner threw an arm around his shoulders and led him away to eat and chat. Mikasa chuckled as they went off, going quiet when Annie hugged her, face hidden in her chest. She smiled and held Annie close.

“We really did it,” Mikasa whispered.

“We did,” Annie said against her. She lifted her head when small hands tugged on her shirt. Matvey and Ginko stood next to them, smiling and reaching to be picked up. Annie laughed and picked Ginko up to put her on her shoulders. Mikasa picked Matvey up to hold him on her hip, sneaking in a tickle to hear him giggle. They moved into the crowd to find food and speak to those who wanted to talk.

Ymir leaned heavily against Christa’s back, both of them still sitting. Christa held Ymir’s hands at her stomach, rubbing her knuckles idly.

“You can go talk and eat, y’know,” Ymir said against her hair.

“Are you up to standing yet?”

“Not really.”

“Then I’m fine.”

Ymir smothered her snickering in Christa’s shoulders. “All right, I get it.” She pulled her closer. “Thanks.”

Christa smiled and leaned her head against Ymir’s. After a time, she said, “It’s fall now.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Well.” She fidgeted. “I know we’re all pretty much half-dead right now, but, erm…did you want to talk about a pup? Since we’re safe?”

Without hesitation, Ymir said, “Gimme a few days and I’ll be able to cast the spell. Am I carrying, or are you?”

“Me,” Christa said. More softly, she asked, “What do you think of one girl?”

“I like it a lot, but I don’t have any names that I’ve been thinking of.”

Christa smiled. “Me neither. A lot of the southern names for women I know all talk about the woman being faithful to God or obedient to her father. I mean—both of my names mean ‘devout child of the holy father.’ I don’t want that for her.”

“I don’t blame you. We’ll figure out a name.” She nuzzled against Christa’s cheek. “Now that we don’t have to worry about a demon coming here anymore.”

Christa said nothing, instead nuzzling back. She waited for Ymir to regain strength enough for the night, and the both of them stood up to join the others.

————

A great exhaustion filled Utgard after that night, most intense four days after Levi’s death. All the tension had vanished from the town, nearly six months’ fear washed away in one day. Only the various pups that had come back home with their parents had much energy to speak of, and it was such a relief to watch them play in the streets without fear that no one minded the slowness of all other things.

Mina was one such weary wolf, and Christa hesitated to bother her when she continued to find her sitting with Marco and half-asleep throughout the castle and the town. On the afternoon of the fourth day, however, she took a deep breath and sat down next to the pair on the stairs from the castle. The pups were at play again, running about playing tag with Matvey chasing.

“Matvey and Ginko have grown up so well,” Christa said. “You were great for them.”

Mina chuckled and stretched. “I barely did a thing. Their moms are ridiculously healthy.”

“What if,” said Christa, “a pup’s birth mother was sickly when she was little? Could that hurt the pup?”

“It might make them more prone to colds when they’re little, but it shouldn’t be a problem if the parents are attentive and the mom keeps herself and her milk healthy.”

“What if their birth mother is very small? Could that make a pup too little?”

“No, I haven’t seen a lot of small mothers giving birth to runts. That’s usually only if the litter is too big or if something was keeping the pup from growing well in its mother. If a mom is healthy during her pregnancy—rests well, eats well, isn’t stressed—nine times out of ten her pups are good and healthy.”

“I see.” She smiled, looking at the pups. She ducked when Matvey and the pup he was chasing jumped over her onto the stairs. While the other pup was able to turn and leap away smoothly, Matvey’s paws slipped on the stairs and he started to tumble. Christa turned and caught him before he could fall. She sat down and put him in her lap to rub his cheeks.

“Sometimes you’re too fast,” she said to tease.

Matvey changed to his human form to hug her in thanks, giggling.

Mina poked Christa’s shoulder. “So has Ymir already gotten you pregnant, or are you asking for the future?”

Christa blushed. “I can’t keep anything from you any more than Annie.”

“Nope. Are you pregnant already?”

“No, it’ll be tonight. I wanted to ask you about it.”

“Fair enough,” Mina chuckled.

“What’s ‘pregnant’ mean?” Matvey asked.

“It means a mother is going to have a pup,” Christa said. “So when you and Ginko were growing inside Annie, Annie was pregnant.”

Oh,” Matvey said. He thought, and his eyes started to widen. “Wait, are you gonna have a pup, too? Like me and Ginko?”

Her blush darkened. “Not exactly like you two. Ymir and I are going to have a little girl.”

His eyes went as wide as they could. “Can me and Ginko be her friends?”

“Of course you can,” Christa said, ruffling his hair. “I’m sure she’ll love you when she meets you—you’re both such sweethearts.”

“What’s her name?”

“We don’t have one yet, but we’ll figure it out.”

“Can I go tell Ginko?”

She laughed, nodded, and set him down. He sprinted off, shouting for Ginko to forget the game and stop running. Mina and Marco laughed at this, and Christa giggled at the way Matvey relayed the information to Ginko. Her giggles only increased when they ran back to her and sat down on either side of her, each taking one of her hands.

“Do you know what she’ll smell like?” Ginko asked.

“No, but no one knew what you two would smell like until a while after you were born.”

“How long will it be till we can meet her?” asked Matvey.

“Between four and five months from now,” Mina said. “A little bit before your birthday. But it’ll be about six months from now before she can really play with you.”

“Aw,” both pups said quietly, pouting.

Matvey brightened when a thought came to him. “Can we help teach her how to read?”

“Of course,” said Christa.

He grinned, and Ginko asked, “Will she look like you or like Ymir?”

“A little like both of us, I think.”

“I bet she’ll be really pretty like you!” Matvey said.

She kissed him on the head. “Thank you. I know she’ll be cute when she’s little.”

Ginko pulled Christa’s arm around herself. “You’re a good person to be a mom.”

Christa felt her smile drop from shock. “What?”

“You’re nice and you don’t get too scared when you need to be brave and protect people,” she said. “And you’re good at hugging.”

Her smile came back as she laughed. “Thank you.” She tickled them both. “You go back to playing, okay?”

“Okay!” they said, and they hurried away to rejoin their friends.

“Less anxious now?” Marco asked gently.

“Yeah,” Christa said. She chuckled, looking at the cloudy sky. “Still nervous, though.”

“I remember mothers getting nervous about new pups back in my village,” Marco said, “and for a lot of the same reasons as you. But no matter what, those moms loved their pups with all their hearts and it all worked out just fine.”

Christa felt the muscles in her back tense up as a thought of Ymir crying came to her. She took a slow breath and softly said, “That’s what we’ll do, too.” She stood up and smiled at them. “Thank you. I’m going to find Ymir and see if we can figure out a name today.”

Marco started, “Hey, what about—”

Mina pinched him. “Let them come up with it, for pity’s sake. You can help me pick names for ours when that comes along.”

He blushed and Christa laughed. She waved at them and headed back up the stairs. Cursory searches of the throne room, the kitchen, and their quarters turned up no sign of Ymir. Not at all discouraged, she headed for the hidden room. Ymir was inside, lying on her stomach on the bed. As Christa pushed the wall closed, she turned her head to look at her.

“Hey,” said Ymir. She smirked. “Got lonely?”

“A little,” Christa said, sitting down on the bed. “Can I check your back?”

“Sure. It feels better today.” She sat up and took off her shirt, turning around. She waited through Christa’s careful presses and touches, twitching when her fingers strayed too close to her spine.

Christa sighed. “I guess it’ll take more time to rebuild what you tore there.”

“Yeah. It…didn’t want to give. I had to pull really hard.” She was quiet for a moment. “Know what?”

“What?”

“I nearly gave up. Halfway down my back. It didn’t even hurt at that point, but I just sat down and stopped.”

She knew she had stopped breathing. “How did you keep going?”

“I heard Lady Mond telling me it’d all be okay. So I tried again and did it. But I was convinced I was gonna die until I had his heart.”

Christa reached out to take Ymir’s hand. “When I got stabbed through the heart, I really thought I was going to die.”

“Old human fears die hard, huh?” Ymir asked with a chuckle.

“Yeah,” Christa admitted, smiling. “I’m glad I put on a strong face and kept going.”

Ymir was silent again. “Christa?”

“What?”

“I love you.”

She moved to sit in Ymir’s lap. “I love you, too.”

Ymir grinned. “Enough to let me get you pregnant.”

Christa laughed. “Yeah, that much.”

————

There was absolutely no comfort in Mina telling her she had helped women with worse morning sickness than her after three solid weeks of it. There was no recognizable pattern to what made her sick, as the same food could be safe in the morning but leave her sick in the evening. It left her perpetually exhausted, but Ymir never wavered in fetching anything she wanted.

Mina only grew concerned when Christa continued to be sick into the fourth week and a carefully brewed pot of ginger tea did little to help. She sat with Christa as Ymir rubbed Christa’s back, all of them in Christa and Ymir’s bed.

“Can’t I just use some kinda magic?” Ymir asked. “I know spells to stop puking all the time.”

“I don’t like using magic unless absolutely necessary,” Mina said. “It’s always hard to tell what it could do to the pup without us knowing.” She rubbed her head as she though. “Dammit, the ginger usually works. It helped Annie.”

“Sorry,” Christa mumbled, head in Ymir’s lap.

“No, no,” Mina said gently, touching Christa’s shoulder. “All moms are different. I just had a long run of moms who were pretty uncomplicated before I started working for Annie, and I’m having trouble remembering all my tricks.” She took a deep breath, looking up at the ceiling. “Okay, if the normal ginger tea isn’t right for you, what can I mix with it?” Her brows lowered. “Wait a minute.”

“What?” Ymir asked.

“I just remembered something,” Mina said. She moved off the bed carefully to keep from jostling Christa, hurrying to the door soon after. “I’ll be back really soon!”

Ymir opened her mouth, but shut it before Mina closed the door. She looked down to Christa’s pale face and the way her mouth was slightly twisted. Chest aching, she said, “Sorry. I got you pregnant with the world’s pickiest pup.”

Christa exhaled laughter. “It’s all right. I’ve been ready for this since we finally talked about it.”

“Didn’t think it would be easy?”

She looked up with a small smile. “Come on, you’re the one who takes care of me when I bleed.” Her smile faltered. “I just don’t want to lose her because I can’t eat.”

Ymir blanched. “Nuh uh. I don’t care what Mina said—I’m using magic way before it gets that bad.”

“We’ll both be fine,” Christa said. “I’m sure Mina has a trick for this, and she’s getting it right now.”

Ymir’s ears drooped, but she did not argue.

Christa smiled again. “My nose is off right now, but I thought I saw Bertholdt in the hall when Mina left.”

“The entire pack is,” Ymir admitted. “We get nervous about you.”

“I’m not that sick.”

“We can worry, shut up.”

A thought made her heart sink. “The pups aren’t scared, are they?”

“They are, but mostly ‘cause they haven’t seen anyone get sick before. Once you get past this, they’ll be okay.”

“All right.” She lay still but for tracing idle patterns on Ymir’s knee. “D’you know what I’d like to do?”

“What?”

“Take her south with us when we end the war. I want my father to see what a little girl who has parents who love her looks like.”

“Right before you punch him?”

“In that timeframe, yes.”

Ymir laughed. “I wanna have her on my shoulders when you do that so we can both clap.” She smiled and rubbed behind Christa’s ear. “I really want to meet her.”

“She’ll be great,” Christa said. “I’ll take care of myself and make sure.”

“We both will, so don’t get all noble on me.” She pressed gently on Christa’s nose. “She’s gonna be beautiful.”

“As long as she’s taller than me.”

She laughed again, louder and more freely. “Yeah, you’re tiny as hell.”

“But even if she’s a runt,” Christa said softly, “we’ll love her.”

Ymir’s smile did not falter. “Yeah.” She looked up when a knock sounded on the door. “Come in.” Her brows rose to her hairline when Hanji was the first to come in, followed by Petra and Mina carrying a tray. Hanji sat down on the edge of the bed, lifting their glasses to look at Christa. They smiled with sympathy.

“That was the same face Petra had when she had four straight weeks of morning sickness for our pups,” they said. “Let’s see if my fix will help you two. Here, sit up to drink and eat.”

Though the notion made her cringe, Christa sat up. She lifted her hands to let Mina set the tray in her lap. A small pot of faintly steaming tea was next to a mug, and they were joined by a plate filled with square crackers smelling of salt.

“Is this more ginger tea?” she asked.

“It is, but with a bit of honey and lemon,” said Hanji. “That makes it more soothing on your throat, and that way you’re not prone to coughing or gagging. Just sips, though, and mix in nibbles on the crackers.”

“It’ll give your stomach something to settle with,” Petra said, sitting down. “We only figured it out because they’re Hanji’s favorite snack and they had them on hand.”

“Thank you,” Christa said as she poured a mugful for herself. She breathed in the steam, smiling at the tinge of lemon. A small sip was paired with an equally small bite of a cracker. She waited, but her stomach did not rumble with rebellion.

“Mina said you’ve been sick ever since yesterday morning, so that’s promising,” Petra said. “Take it nice and slow through all of that and you should be up to stew by lunch or dinner.”

“Thank you,” Christa said again. After another sip, she said, “I didn’t know you’d had pups. Do they live in Utgard right now?”

Hanji chuckled. “No, our boys are out fighting. Moblit’s a strategist near the eastern front who works with Annie’s spies, and Miche is the head instructor at the garrison furthest south.”

“How old are they?”

“Just about forty now,” Petra said.

“Were they very small if you had such a hard time?”

Petra let out the most long-suffering laugh Christa had ever heard. “Once we got me back to eating, they kept practically everything I ate. They were huge and healthy, and Miche is as tall as Bertholdt. You and your girl will be just fine. As long as she doesn’t kick you every hour on the hour every few nights.”

“They made it up to us by sleeping very well after they were born,” Hanji said. “Which is lucky, because Petra could’ve killed them after so many bad nights.”

Petra pinched their thigh. “I never would’ve and you know it. I bit you for giving me such rowdy pups.”

Ymir looked at Christa as Christa looked at her. Ymir went pale. “You’re not gonna bite me, are you?”

“Not right at this moment,” Christa replied, and she took the last nibble of her first cracker. She waited again, but her stomach only rumbled faintly from hunger. She smiled. “I think this will work.”

Both Ymir and Mina relaxed with heavy sighs. Mina said, “Thank our lady. Now I won’t be making everyone more nervous every time they see me. I’ll help Ymir make something really good for your lunch.”

“I’ll be happy if I can eat with everyone again,” Christa said. “I don’t want them to worry so much.”

“Make it through that tray and you should be fine,” Hanji said. They leaned in, stopped only by Ymir pushing them back by their forehead. Chuckling, they sat back. “Sorry. I have to admit that I’m curious about how pregnancy treats a wolf who used to be human. It seems to be tied to your general health and size though, so this isn’t too worrisome. Honestly, I think being a pregnant human would be much harder. All that happening to someone who’s not as tough as a wolf would be harsh.”

“It’s spread over nine months, so it might not be this hard the whole time.”

Petra went pale. “I’ll bet you’re happy it won’t be that long.”

Very happy.” She set her hand very gently on her stomach. “Especially because I get to meet her sooner.”

“She’ll be a winter pup,” Mina said. “She’ll need a heavier quilt for when she comes in after playing in the snow.”

Christa thought as she finished off another cracker. “I have an idea for that. I’ll get fabric later.”

“I get to watch you make it, right?” Ymir asked.

“As long as you don’t flip my pattern over.”

Mina, Hanji, and Petra laughed. Petra patted Christa’s knee and said, “You’re already looking better. We’ll let you rest, but Mina knows the recipe for the tea now if you need more later.” She and Hanji moved to leave, but stopped at the door because Matvey and Ginko stood their with their hands behind their backs. Annie leaned inside over them.

“Is it all right if they come in for a bit?” she asked.

“Of course,” Christa said. “Ginko, Matvey, come on in.”

Annie came in with them, hands on their heads. “Mikasa and I have been telling them that you’ll be fine, but they really wanted to say hi.”

“Hi Christa,” Ginko said, bringing one hand out from behind her back to wave.

“Hi,” she replied. “What’re you two holding?”

They looked at each other before holding out small glasses filled with forget-me-nots. When she took them, smiling, they smiled in turn.

“We thought,” Matvey said, “since they’re they same kinda color as your eyes, you’d like them.”

“I do,” Christa said. “I love these flowers, so thank you.”

“Are you feeling better?” Ginko asked.

“Much better from yesterday. I think I can come have lunch with everyone.”

They smiled even more, looking up when Annie set her hands on their heads.

“And that means you’re going to be patient until lunch and let her keep resting, right?” she asked.

“Yes Mama!” they said, and they waved at Christa before heading for the door. Annie smiled as she did the same, and Christa caught the faintest scent of relief after the door closed behind them. Ymir chuckled and played with Christa’s hair, letting her finish the tea and crackers. Once she had, Ymir and Mina slipped out of the room to let her sleep.

No one was happier than her when lunch time arrived and she was able to eat the fox stew Ymir gave her without feeling ill. The others were all visibly relieved: Mikasa and Reiner slumped where they sat when she was finished. Armin smiled, rubbing his head.

“Thank goodness,” he said. “We were starting to talk about making runs from the castle to find different things for you to eat.”

“It wasn’t that bad!” Christa protested.

“Mina was nervous,” Mikasa said. “Which made Annie nervous.”

“And when Annie gets nervous, we feel like panicking,” Bertholdt said.

Annie lifted her hands when Christa frowned at her. “I told them that they only should be nervous, nothing more. I knew you and the pup would be fine. Mina wouldn’t let you down, and Ymir wouldn’t either. You were just throwing up a lot more than we thought you would.”

Ginko, sitting next to Annie, moved so she was kneeling on the bench and leaned forward. “But you’re okay now, right?”

“Give her a few days to get back to perfect health,” Mina said, “but she’s in the clear, I think.” Because she saw Matvey open his mouth, she said, “And her pup is okay, too.”

Bertholdt smiled. “You’re so eager to meet her. Do you want another sister that much?”

“No,” Matvey said, brows low with confusion. “This is Christa’s pup, so she wouldn’t be my sister.”

Eren smirked. “What’s she gonna be, then?”

Matvey looked at him for a moment, blinked once, and said, “Cute.”

Reiner snorted with laughter. “He’s got you there, Jaeger.”

Christa smiled and said nothing, only paying attention to how her stomach was faring. It was finally calm, and the warmth of the stew was relaxing. She leaned against Ymir, closing her eyes when Ymir began to rub her back.

“Ymir, are you gonna carry her on your shoulders when she’s big enough?” Matvey asked.

“Of course I am!” Ymir said. “Why wouldn’t I? It’d give Bert someone as tall as him for a while.”

“Do I get to carry her on my shoulders?” Bertholdt asked.

Ymir regarded him suspiciously before pulling Christa closer. “No. That’s too high up.”

“Can I carry her?” Eren asked.

“No, you’ll drop her because you flip out too much.”

“Hey! I’ve never dropped Matvey or Ginko!”

She stuck her tongue out at him and ignored his indignation.

Annie rolled her eyes. “And I’m sure I don’t get to carry her with how you’re acting.”

“You’re fine.”

Reiner groaned. “Come on, what’s your criteria? Bert’s the safest wolf you know!”

Ymir stuck her tongue out again, but yelped when Christa pinched her side. “I’m trying to make sure she’s safe!”

“You can’t put her in the sky with Lady Mond,” Christa said. “She’ll be just fine with our pack and you know it.”

After a moment, Ymir said, “Fine. But no one picks her up really high until she can change to her human form.”

“Fair enough,” Eren said. He looked up toward the ceiling. “Another three months, huh? She’ll get here in the dead of winter. I wonder if we’ll get any response from Erwin before the last crescent moon.”

“We’ll just have to see,” said Armin. “I never spoke with Erwin, and captains at my level were never allowed to discuss his tactics openly.” He chuckled. “I think the higher-ups were worried we’d jinx him if we did that.”

“Didn’t want him taken out of the war entirely, right?” Reiner asked. “Couldn’t do that even when he lost his right arm in a fight.”

Ginko tugged on Annie’s sleeve. “Is he a monster, too?”

“No, he’s just a soldier trying to end a war,” Annie said. “We want to make an agreement to do that.”

“Will it help if me and Matvey and Christa’s pup ask him really nicely?”

Mikasa reached over Matvey to pat her on the head. “It could, baby. We’ll see when we get to that point.” She smiled and rubbed behind Ginko’s ear. “At least now we’re not in such a panic. All you two need to worry about is learning how to hunt and how to write, and figuring out how you’ll be nice.”

They looked at each other for a moment before starting up a conversation of whispers. It was so intense that they did not notice any of the stares sent their way. The conversation stopped as suddenly as it had started, both of them grinning.

“We’re gonna go practice hunting now!” Matvey said, and they hopped off the bench to hurry out of the hall.

“My turn this time,” Mikasa said quickly, and she kissed Annie’s cheek before running after the pups. Christa laughed at the way Annie muttered, “Not without me,” and rushed after them. It kept her spirits high for the rest of the day, and the fact that she kept dinner down as well would’ve been the capstone to her day. On leaving the hall in the evening, however, Ymir caught her hand.

“I wanna show you something,” Ymir said. “C’mon—the clouds are gone now.”

Though she followed along, she said, “The moon isn’t full tonight.”

“That’s better for this. ‘Sides, the next full moon is the first one of winter—it’ll be the right one to pray on for her.” She led Christa out of the castle and onto the mountain, looking into the eastern sky as they went. Some distance up, they came across a fallen tree. Ymir checked the sky again, nodded, and gestured for Christa to sit with her

“Do you have names for the stars in the south?” Ymir asked.

“Just constellations,” Christa said. She looked into the sky, pointing. “So that band of six is heaven’s bridge, and there’s a coil of eight called the dragon that’ll be over there later in the night.” She lowered her hand. “Why do you ask?”

“That thing you said at lunch about putting her in the sky with Lady Mond reminded me of something,” Ymir said. “Lady Mond brought the wolf who reached out to her into the sky with her so she could watch over us forever, and we call the constellation the first holy wolf.” She began to trace a shape in the stars. “There’s the tail, the back, the four paws, and the two ears.

“All the stars have names of their own,” Ymir said. “So do you see that really bright blue one near the moon? That one?”

“I do. I’ve always loved that star.”

“That’s the wolf’s eye. Its name is Adhara.” She fidgeted. “I thought…maybe that would be a good name. Do you like it?”

Christa took her hand and smiled. “I really do.”

————

The hawk arrived just before a storm another four weeks on, sighted by Armin as he came back from a survey of the elk herds to the north. He hurried inside to dodge the first raindrops, the hawk riding on his shoulder. Smiling as he went, he tracked Reiner and Mikasa down in Hanji’s library. They looked up from their maps, Reiner grinning at the hawk.

“Look at that!” he said as Mikasa took the tube the hawk carried. “Kirstein got an audience with the general already. What’s it say?”

Mikasa unrolled the scroll and started to read. Her brows lowered and came together. “What?”

“What’s wrong?” Armin asked.

Mikasa put a hand to her brow and began to read aloud. “‘To Commander Reiner Braun of the northern forces. I acknowledge your pack’s strength, and I am willing to speak with you about ending the war. However, I will only treat with you on the front line if these conditions are met. First, you must bring proof of Corporal Levi’s death. Second, I would speak directly with you and your queen. And most importantly, you must bring Historia Reiss with you. Send word to Lieutenant Jean Kirstein that you accept these requests and when you will come to the front line. I will meet you there. General Erwin Smith.’”

Reiner stared at the scroll. “He wants…Christa there?”

Armin stared as well. “But what on earth for?”

Mikasa lay the scroll down, face darkening. “I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t care. She’s not leaving the north any time soon.” She rubbed her eyes. “Well, she shouldn’t. It’s not my call.” She stared at Erwin’s signature a moment longer before rolling the scroll back up. “I’m going to talk to Christa and Ymir about this.”

Reiner and Armin only nodded as she left, their faces twisted with confusion. She headed up through the castle to Ymir and Christa’s quarters, knocking on the door. When Christa called to her, she opened the door and stepped inside. Ymir and Annie were on the floor near the fireplace with Ginko and Matvey, helping them read books without pictures. Christa was on the bed, working on a blue quilt, and she set the fabric she was stitching on her large belly.

“Mikasa?” she said. “What’s wrong?” She blinked as Mikasa sat on the bed and held out the scroll.

“Armin brought this in just now,” Mikasa said. “It’s from General Erwin. You should read it.”

Christa took the scroll after a moment, opening it to read. As she did, her mouth became a flat line and her eyes grew cold. When she had finished, she let out a heavy sigh.

“Of course he wants me there,” she muttered.

“Wait, what?” Mikasa said. “Why does that make sense?”

“What’s wrong?” Ymir asked.

“Among other things, Erwin wants Christa to be there on the front line to treat,” Mikasa replied. “He said that was the most important condition he had for us to meet.”

“Why would he want Christa there?” Annie asked.

Christa shook her head. “He doesn’t want ‘Christa.’ He wants Historia Reiss there, and I know why.”

“All right, what is it?” Ymir asked.

“The south has been ruled by the Reiss household for the last two hundred years,” Christa said. “Even if my father is less loved than usual, people put faith in the Reiss name and feel safe being ruled by my family. If Erwin wants to end the war, wouldn’t it make sense for him to offer someone else of the Reiss name to the south? Someone who would make sure the war doesn’t start again?”

No one spoke for a few seconds. Sounding scared, Matvey asked, “Are you gonna leave?”

“I will not. My home is here in the north with all of you. If he wants to talk to me, I’ll go, but not until Adhara is big enough to travel. Not a second sooner than that.”

“Promise?” Ginko asked.

“I promise,” Christa said.

Annie stared at the fire before standing up, carrying Matvey with her to the bed. “Let me see that.” She took the scroll to read, letting Matvey read along. She let go when he tugged on it gently, and she thought as he sniffed the parchment. When he sneezed, she automatically wiped his nose with her sleeve.

“He wants to talk to you, Ymir,” Annie said. “It sounds like he’s going pretty far rogue from Reiss. He must be as desperate as Kirstein said.”

Ymir sighed and carried Ginko along with her. “Matvey, can I have that?” When he passed it to her, she read it closely. She gave it to Ginko to examine when she was done, sitting down next to Christa. As always, she very slowly and gently set her hand on Christa’s stomach. She thought without speaking, looking into the middle distance.

“I’m fine with going,” Ymir said. “I trust the wolves on the front line to guard us in case Erwin tries anything. But I’m with Christa—no one’s going until Adhara’s big enough.”

“And we’ll be going as well,” Annie said, hands on Matvey and Ginko. “I need that information firsthand, and I’m not leaving them here without me or Mikasa.”

“Then Adhara will have friends with her,” Christa said.

“Bert, Hanji, Petra, Armin, and Eren can stay to handle the north when we actually go,” Ymir said. “It’ll be a slow trip to keep the pups from getting worn down.” She stroked Christa’s stomach. “She’ll need to be able to eat solid food to go that far. We probably won’t go until late in the summer.”

“We’re going on a trip?” Matvey asked.

“In a while,” Mikasa said. “Don’t worry just yet, okay?”

Ymir felt movement under her hand and grinned. “Hey, fluff butts, I got something better for you to think about. C’mere.” She lifted her hand as they scooted over. “Put a hand on her stomach.”

“Mama said not to do that yet,” Matvey protested.

“It should be fine now,” Annie said, chuckling. “Nice and gentle.”

They moved closer and gingerly put a hand each on Christa’s stomach. They waited for a time before something moved under Ginko’s hand. She yelped and pulled her hand away.

“What’s wrong?” Matvey asked, but he gasped when something moved against his hand as well.

Christa laughed. “That’s Adhara! She’s big enough to start moving around.”

They gaped at her stomach. Matvey asked, “That was her?”

“Yep,” said Ymir. “She’s gonna be wiggling every so often now.”

Ginko went to sit in Annie’s lap. “Did me and Matvey do that?”

“A lot,” Annie replied, stroking Ginko’s hair. “Especially before you were born. It’ll still be a while before Adhara comes.”

“How long?” Matvey asked.

“Mina said it should only be another two months, based on my hands,” Christa said. “And after she’s born, it’ll be ten days until she can hear and see. That’s when everyone can visit her.”

“Two months?” Ginko asked. “So…right after the last crescent moon?”

“Thereabouts,” Ymir said. “She’ll be a new year pup.”

“She’ll be just fine,” Christa said, setting a hand on her stomach. “In another month, I’ll change to my wolf form and I’ll stay that way until she’s here.”

“Mama, did you do that?” Ginko asked.

“I did. It’s better for pups to be born when their mothers are in wolf form. We can deal with the pain better that way, not to mention it’s easier to clean you with a wolf tongue.”

“It hurts?” Matvey said. “That’s not fair!” When he received blank stares, he demanded, “Why’s it gotta hurt? Moms love their pups, so why does it hurt the mom to have the pups?”

Looking baffled, Christa said, “It’s not a punishment, and the pup isn’t doing it on purpose. It’s…erm.”

“Matvey, it’s like this,” Annie said, beckoning him closer. “Here, clench your fists as hard as you can, just like I’m doing.” She closed her hands tightly. He did so, but when he relaxed, she shook her hand. “Do that as long as you can.”

He looked at her in confusion, but did as she said. In time, he winced and stopped. “My arms hurt.”

She reached down to hold his forearms. “Your muscles are working hard when you do that. It’s the same for a mom. Our muscles work hard to push the pup out of us so they can be born. It’s just muscle strain, and we get better.” She smiled, tweaking his nose gently. “All right?”

“Promise?”

“I promise. Besides, you and Ginko know better than anyone how tough Christa is. She and Adhara will both be okay.”

He nodded, smiling. “Okay.”

Ginko lifted her book and grinned at Mikasa. “Mommy, do you wanna read with us now?”

Mikasa smiled. “I think I’ve earned a break from work.” She moved to sit next to Annie, pulling Matvey into her lap with his book. “Show me what you two are reading today.”

They giggled, opening their books to where they had left off. Ymir chuckled, playing with Christa’s hair as Christa returned to her quilt. Every so often, Christa felt gentle movement from within her, and it made her smile each time.

————

It was, all things told, a winter rather similar to the previous year. The rains were heavy, but did not last long before heading out to different parts of the north. Mikasa and Annie took Matvey and Ginko out for runs further and further north to see the fresh snows and how adults hunted red elks. The pelts were given to Christa, and Ymir matched them with bear skins. Matvey and Ginko did their part by teaming up to catch a rabbit and a fox.

The gifts were greatly appreciated. While sickness no longer plagued Christa, it was altogether too easy to grow exhausted at the start of her third month. Changing to her wolf form alleviated some of the weariness, but no one begrudged her for being quiet and slow. Annie and Mina both assured her it was normal and told her to rest whenever she needed to. Nevertheless, she spent at least a few hours each day checking outside near the castle to ensure nothing was near the nest she was building.

Something she did not understand impelled her to remain inside the castle halfway through the second week of her third month. Mina smiled when this happened and began to spend the days with her, leaving only at night and telling both her and Ymir to howl if she was needed. Christa limited her checks to an hour a day, and only just outside her quarters, and she talked to Mina about the pups she had midwifed for before joining Annie’s spies. It helped to calm her, and Ymir was soothed enough to continue working with Reiner, Bertholdt, and Mikasa on the terms of the treaty during the third week.

It was at the start of Christa’s fourth month that Ymir went off for the library in high spirits. She told Christa and Mina, “We’ve finally got all the terms we want, so now it’s just me writing the letter back to Erwin.”

But you have such horrible handwriting.

“Yeah, and you can’t write at the moment,” Ymir replied, rubbing between Christa’s ears. “I’ll be careful.” She leaned down to kiss Christa’s head and whispered, “Love you,” before getting to her feet. She waved as she went, and Christa wagged her tail in turn. She settled in her nest, tail moving slowly on top of the elk pelts.

“Did you and Ymir ask our lady for anything specific on the last crescent moon?” Mina asked.

No, just that Adhara would be healthy and not too little.

Mina chuckled and scratched up and down Christa’s back. “She should be just right for how big you are and how long she’s taken. I’m wondering if she’ll be black or white. Maybe gray.”

Christa’s ears twitched as she thought. I’ve never asked, but does a black coat like Ymir’s mean something significant? I know my coat is for good fortune.

“Most coat colors do, yeah. Wolves with black coats have a reputation of being powerful warriors, but they’re protectors for their packs and for wolves in general. Did you ever wonder why everyone stopped being nervous around Mikasa once they saw her coat, or why everyone relaxes when Bertholdt is around?”

Oh. No wonder Ymir has a black coat, then. She protected the north from Levi.

Mina smiled. “That she did. I think Adhara would be good with black or white.”

I bet she’ll have freckles everywhere like Ymir.

“It’s very likely. Freckles pass down really well. So does magic, so you’ll have that to look forward to.” She patted Christa’s flank. “Take a nap before you do your checks for the day. You’ve been pretty tired.”

I know. I’m too eager to see her.

“You will soon. Go on, get some rest. You won’t be getting much later.” She reached up to scratch under Christa’s chin when she had closed her eyes, picking up a book she had brought with her to pass the time. She read as Christa slept, turning the pages too softly to be heard. The fire caught her attention after a time, and she took to her feet to add more wood to better warm the room. The last piece of wood that she meant to toss in missed the fireplace entirely, as Christa let out a startled bark behind her and her throw went astray.

“Are you all right?” Mina said, hurrying back to her.

I’m—I think so. I can’t tell if she kicked me really hard or not.

Mina smiled knowingly. “Settle back down and relax for me, okay?”

All right. She lay on her side, ears flicking when Mina reached between her legs to feel at her. She winced when pain gripped her. Ow.

“That’s not a kick,” Mina said, patting Christa’s flank again. “That’s a contraction. A pretty hard one, too.”

Her head shot up. Wait, what?

“Ah, ah. No panicking. We know for a fact that Ymir will do more than enough of that for both of you. She’s right on time, and there’s no reason to worry.”

Erm. H-how long will it be?

“Based on the contraction and how quickly they came one after the other? Not too long. I think she wants out.”

Oh. Well. C-could you howl for Ymir now? Just in case?

“Absolutely.” She stepped into the hall and changed to her wolf form. She howled loudly for Ymir and headed back inside. After changing to her human form, she leaned against the wall and counted aloud. She reached forty-one before something slammed hard into the door, and she opened it with a raised brow. “I would suggest that you not break down the door when your daughter needs to have the door closed for a while.”

“Sorry,” Ymir panted. “Lemme in, please.” She hurried inside, going to Christa immediately. “Hey, you okay?”

I’m— She stared at Ymir’s face and the black fingerprints on it. What the hell is that?

“Huh?”

She looked down, seeing more black on her hands. Ymir, what is that?

Ymir looked at her hands. “Oh. Ink.”

Why do you have ink on your face?

“It’s still on my face?”

Christa put her head down to laugh. Go wash that off! I don’t want Adhara to lick ink off of you!

Ymir blushed and went off to the bathroom without a word. She brought towels back with her, but her blush had not abated because Christa was still laughing. She muttered, “I knocked over the ink when I was writing and I guess I got it on my face, shut up already.”

But you never wiped it off?

“I would have, but Mina howled and I fell off the bench trying to get up too fast!”

Christa nearly choked, and she put her paws on top of her muzzle to try to stop laughing. S-s-sorry, I’ll s-stop. I can’t believe you.

Ymir nearly grumbled at her again, but Christa whined when another contraction took her. Her moodiness left her instantly. “Are you okay?”

“She’s doing perfectly,” Mina said, patting Christa’s back. “You kept her mind off the contractions for a while, so thank you.”

Ymir said nothing, chewing the inside of her cheek. She relaxed when Christa licked her hands, sitting down properly at her side. “Just a little bit longer, huh.”

Yeah.

“Not long at all,” Mina said. “Tell me what you’re going to do one more time.”

Tear open the sac she’s in, chew the umbilical cord closed, and clean off her nose and mouth. Then lick her chest and back to get her to breathe.

“Perfect. You’ll be fantastic.” She felt between Christa’s legs again, tilting her head to one side. “Which is good, because I was right about her wanting out.”

Ymir turned to gape at her. “Wait, seriously?” She grinned when Mina nodded, but said nothing. Instead, she changed to her wolf form and lay down, nuzzling Christa’s head and licking her cheeks every so often. It kept Christa calm through the contractions, barely doing more than whining briefly. The last contraction, though, made Christa yelp and look back.

“There we go,” Mina said, ferrying a pup in a placental sac up to Christa. Ymir took to her feet, shuffling back to give Christa space. After taking a deep breath, Christa tore open the sac, nudging it apart to get to the pup’s umbilical cord. She chewed carefully until it stopped bleeding, and then moved up to the pup’s muzzle. She cleaned the pup’s mouth and nose thoroughly, but moved on to lick her chest and back with hard passes of her tongue.

Come on, sweetheart, you can do it, please brea—

The pup coughed once, and twice more before starting to let out faint squeaking cries. Ymir bounced, tail raised and wagging fast.

Christa! You did it! Look at her, look! You’re amazing!

Christa chuckled and kept on cleaning the pup, only pausing to let Mina take the remains of the sac away. Mina grinned, patting Christa’s back.

“That was absolutely perfect,” Mina said. “Looks like she’s got a good set of lungs on her—nice and ready to live. Get her cleaned up so we can let her try and get some milk.”

Christa paused. Erm. I’m…not getting much else off her. Is there blood in her undercoat?

Brows raised, Mina gently parted Adhara’s damp, sticky fur to check its color. She let out a startled laugh. “Well I’ll be damned. I’ve seen red pups, but I’ve never midwifed for one. What a lovely color she has.”

Ymir peered closely at Adhara, sniffing at a distance. Her tail wagged even harder. That’s great for her! A brave little leader to come! She dropped onto her stomach, touching Adhara’s side with her nose very briefly. Lady above, just look at you. All ready to live in a safe north with a big loving pack.

Christa gave Ymir one lick before lifting her head. Okay, let’s see if she can get to me.

Right. Right, okay. She shuffled backward, laying her chin on the floor to watch Adhara’s progress after Christa turned her around. Her wiggling along was not much hindered by her floppy pup legs, and she reached Christa’s belly in short order. She yipped, snuffling on her belly, before finding a nipple to latch onto. She settled immediately, paws daintily working at massaging Christa’s teats for milk. As she suckled, her ears twitched.

Oh no, said Ymir’s voice. She’s so damned cute—she’s even cuter than Matvey and Ginko. She’s almost as cute as you. I wanna hold her! I wanna hold her already!

Mina laughed. “Ymir, slow down for her! Let her get her eyes open before you do any little games with her, all right?

Ymir released a drawn out bark, nearly braying as she rolled onto her back to squirm. But look at our little girl! She’s so cute and I want her to call me Mama because that’d be cute! She laughed and rolled over, hurrying to nuzzle Christa’s head. You made such a pretty little girl for us to love! You’re the best mom!

Christa looked at her, smiling. She had not expected excitement on such a level from Ymir, but she had deeply hoped for it. She relaxed completely, rubbing her nose against Ymir’s.

Well, she said only to Ymir, I think you’re going to be a fantastic mom just on your own.

Ymir went still for a moment before rubbing back. We’re all gonna be great.