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Wolves of the North

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Of all the many things Christa expected to love about Adhara, she didn’t expect to be so enamored with her floppy folded-over ears. Adhara flicked them and turned then in such a way that Christa smiled every time she caught sight of it. When Adhara began to hear a week after her birth, the twitching only increased, and her small, happy barks did the same.

“Well, look at you!” Mina said when she visited. “You’re a wiggly little thing!”

“She likes tickles,” Ymir said, rubbing Adhara’s head.

“Seems she likes everything,” Mina said, and she offered her hand to be sniffed.

“She’s just happy to wake up every day,” Christa said. The sound of her voice made Adhara bark and hurry to her for a cuddle. “You’re such a happy little girl.”

“And she’ll have new friends really soon,” Mina said. “She’s reacting to when I put a hand near her eyes. I might only be another day or two before she can see.”

“Hear that, kiddo?” Ymir said, leaning down to rub her nose against Adhara’s. “You’ll get to see soon!”

Adhara barked, tail wagging as Christa rubbed her ears. Everything she did the next day spoke of impatience, and she was displeased by growing sleepy late in the morning the day after that. Ymir cuddled her close to make up for it, scratching her back until she fell asleep. When Ymir drifted off as well, Christa took the chance to take a quick bath.

As she dried her hair, dressed in clean clothes, she heard faint, tentative scratching on the mostly closed door. Draping the towel over her shoulders, she went to carefully open the door. Ymir sat some distance back, grinning, and Adhara sat before the door, looking up at Christa with bright green eyes. She wagged her tail, and then faster when Christa gasped and sank down on her knees to see her.

“Isn’t your mom pretty?” Ymir asked.

Adhara yipped, bouncing on her paws.

“Ymir, she has eyes right between ours!” Christa said. “Adhara, you’re so pretty!”

She sprang into Christa’s lap to lick her chin, looking utterly pleased when Christa giggled and hugged her.

“Hey kiddo,” Ymir said. “D’you wanna meet people today? We’ve got a whole pack that wants to meet you.”

“Are you sure you won’t bite them?” Christa asked, grinning.

“I’m sure, shush it. And you know you want to show off how cute she is.”

Christa rubbed Adhara’s cheeks. “Ready to meet everyone?”

Adhara barked, and then yipped with confusion when Ymir picked her up and carried her into the bathroom.

“You and me need a quick bath,” Ymir said. “Just to look nice and make your coat good and soft.” She set Adhara down to strip, letting her go to look about the bathroom. Christa showed her things while Ymir scrubbed herself clean. When Ymir waved to her, Christa picked Adhara up and carried her over.

“If you’re like Christa,” said Ymir, “you should like this.” She began to pour warm water over Adhara’s back, careful and slow. Adhara blinked before sinking down onto her stomach and relaxing completely.

Christa giggled, kneeling next to the tub and touching Adhara’s nose. “Don’t fall back asleep, sweetheart. You’re not even out of the tub.”

Adhara barked indistinctly, but sat up when Ymir made her. She kept still through the bath, and through being dried off as well. Once she was set on her paws, though, she scampered away into the bedroom. Christa when after her as Ymir dressed, staying close to keep an eye on her. Ymir followed soon, but paused to cast spells to protect Adhara from illness.

“Be good for a minute,” Ymir said. “I’ll be back real quick.” She smiled when Adhara barked in parting, heading out and downstairs. The first wolves she met were Matvey and Ginko, Ginko carrying a small, brightly colored ball for fetching games. Her smile became a grin.

“I got something way more fun than fetch,” she said. “Help me find everyone.”

They looked at her blankly for only a second or two before gasping.

“Do we get to see Adhara?” Matvey asked, breathless.

“You said we could see her first if we were good!” Ginko said. “Please? We’ve been really, really good!”

“I know you have, so yes. C’mon, I know everyone will want a turn to see her, so bring ‘em outside our room.”

They both cheered and rushed off in different directions. Ymir snickered, tracking down Mina to let her check Adhara’s eyes. She waited in the hall, laughing outright when Matvey and Ginko came at a run with everyone trailing behind them. Annie caught the back of Ginko’s shirt when she tried to go for the door.

“Remember what I told you?” Annie asked.

“Be nice and don’t roughhouse,” Ginko said, entirely focused. “Because she’s little and doesn’t heal like us yet.” She smiled when Annie rubbed behind her ears.

“And Matvey?” Mikasa asked, kneeling down to meet his eyes. “What did I tell you?”

“That I have to be extra nice because I’m the first male wolf she’ll meet,” he said, “and I need to not scare her.”

“Good boy,” she said, kissing his brow. “Okay, you two go ahead.”

They nodded, going to the door with Ymir. They went inside ahead her, looking around when she closed the door. When they heard a bark, they looked to Christa in time to see Adhara spring out from behind her and pounce on Mina’s fingers. Ginko put her hands over her mouth to muffle her gasp, but Matvey did not hide his smile.

“Kiddo, look who I found,” Ymir said, walking forward and beckoning for Matvey and Ginko to follow.

Adhara turned, but her tail stopped wagging from surprise. She looked at Matvey and Ginko with uncertainty, but barked softly and started to inch forward. Matvey tugged on Ginko’s sleeve, the both of them sitting down. The closer Adhara came, the more her tail wagged. When she was close enough, Ginko held out her hand to be inspected.

“Hi,” she said. “I’m Ginko.”

Adhara sniffed her knuckles closely before stepping in to nuzzle her hand. Ginko grinned, scratching behind Adhara’s ears.

“You’re so cute!” she said. “I didn’t know wolves could be red!”

“It’s a little more uncommon,” Mina said, “but not as much as white pelts. It’s really pretty, don’t you think?”

“Yeah!” Ginko said. “And she’s really fluffy, too! Matvey, go ahead and pet her!”

Adhara turned to look at Matvey. He hesitated, but waved at her. She yipped.

“Hi,” he said. “My name is Matvey. You’re really cute.”

She yipped again. Wagging her tail, she went to him, ignored his hand, and crawled into his lap.

Mina snorted with laughter. “Wow. You and Ginko took way longer to get used to Eren and Reiner.”

Matvey smiled, cheeks turning pink as he began to rub Adhara’s back. “You really are fluffy and soft.”

“She likes you!” Ginko said gleefully. “Aw, she’s snuggly, too!” She giggled when Adhara squirmed out of Matvey’s lap to crawl into hers.

“She knows you two are part of her pack,” Ymir said, sitting with them. “Right, kiddo?”

Adhara barked, moving to sit between all of them. Matvey and Ginko took turns petting her gently, giggling when she caught their fingers in her mouth to play a tugging game.

“I don’t think she wants you two to leave,” Christa said, smiling. “Mina, do you think it’d be too much for her to have more than two visitors?”

“I think it’d be a good bridge for her, honestly. Two wolves near her size and age will help her be more comfortable. And she can always go to you or Ymir if she’s too nervous.”

“Adhara?” Christa said. “Do you want to meet more people?”

Adhara barked, bouncing on her paws.

“Who should we let in next?” Ymir asked.

“Mama and Mommy want to meet her,” said Ginko to help. “And also check on Christa.”

“Adhara, d’you wanna meet our moms?” Matvey asked. “They’re nice, too!”

She yipped, tipping her head in a small nod.

“All right, Annie and Mikasa next,” said Ymir. “You three scoot in further from the door.” She waited until they were sitting with Christa and Mina before going to the door. She opened it to lean outside. The pack was still in the hall, and each of them looked up quickly when the door opened.

“Annie, Mikasa, come on,” Ymir said. “Matvey and Ginko are staying.”

“Why do they get to stay?” Eren asked.

“Because Adhara likes them that much,” Ymir replied with a smirk. “Come on.” She let them inside, grinning smugly at the way they stared at Adhara sitting on Matvey’s lap.

“Your pup is red,” Annie said.

“Cute, right?”

“I don’t think I’ve seen one,” Annie said. “Not for a long time, anyway.”

“I get why Eren and Armin wanted to steal our pups,” Mikasa said. She waved as they approached. “Hi, little one.”

“Mommy, she’s so soft!” Ginko said. “Pet her ears!”

“Let her sniff first,” Mikasa chuckled, sitting down. She held out her hand, letting Adhara sniff her fingers. Adhara sat back and lifted a paw to place it on Mikasa’s palm. Mikasa smiled and put her thumb lightly on Adhara’s paw to shake.

“It’s nice to meet you,” she said. “I’m Mikasa.”

Adhara barked.

“You’re pretty polite for a nine-day-old pup,” Annie said, sitting down next to Mikasa. “Then again, one of your moms is Christa.”

Adhara turned to look at her, but let out a startled yip. She hurried out of Matvey’s lap to go behind him. She stopped at the sight of Christa, whined in confusion, and then toddled backward. She looked from Annie to Christa and back before whimpering.

“Shh, shh,” Annie said. “Come here and smell—I’m not a double.” She set a hand on the floor, palm up, and waited patiently for Adhara to come to her. Once Adhara had thoroughly sniffed her hand, she said, “I smell much different, right?”

With a yip, Adhara tried to crawl into her lap. She relaxed when Annie picked her up and set her on her leg. Her tail wagged while Annie rubbed her back.

“Did me and Matvey get confused when we met Christa?” Ginko asked.

“No, you were just confused by new people in general,” Mikasa said. “You were happy to sit in her lap once you knew how she smells.”

“Pup eyes aren’t perfect on the first day,” Mina said, “so she probably got scared by there being two small blond women with their hair tied back.”

“Don’t worry!” Matvey said. “Me and Ginko will keep you safe!”

Christa kissed his head. “And she’s lucky to have you.”

“Miss Mina?” Ginko said. “Is it still gonna be another month till we can play?”

“Yep,” Mina replied. “She has to be old enough before going outside. But you can come play in here in eleven days when she heals like an adult.”

Christa saw Ginko opening her mouth to plead and said, “No sooner. You can visit, but she isn’t big enough to go out.”

Ginko pouted, but said, “Okay.”

Adhara looked up at the dejection in Ginko’s voice. Very carefully, she crawled out of Annie’s lap and across Mikasa’s to sit with Ginko. Ginko’s smile returned as Adhara licked her cheek.

“Lady above, you have a sweet pup,” Annie said.

“Looks like you passed down more than me,” Ymir said, smirking at Christa. She turned to Adhara and said, “Right, kiddo? You take after Mommy more.”

There was a strange bitterness in her voice that made everyone freeze, and Adhara looked at her with distress. She left Ginko’s lap to toddle to Ymir. She struggled to climb up into her lap, whining, and Ymir quickly picked her up. Before she could take her hands away after setting her down, Adhara caught her thumb in her mouth and held her still.

“Uh,” said Ymir.

“Told you she doesn’t like you talking poorly about yourself,” Christa said.

Matvey and Ginko looked at Ymir in shock. Ginko said, “Why would you say stuff like that? You’re her mom too!”

“Um,” Ymir said, “don’t…don’t worry about it.” She lifted Adhara to rub their noses together, smiling when Adhara licked her cheek. “Love you.”

Adhara yipped, licking her cheek again before Ymir set her down on the floor. She promptly rolled onto her back to request belly rubs, and Mikasa took the opportunity.

“We should let the others visit before she gets too tired,” Mikasa said. She laughed when Adhara patted at her fingers. “You’ll like everyone.”

Annie played with the tip of Adhara’s tail, smiling when she rolled over to jump on her hand. “You’re a silly pup.”

Annie’s thumb in her mouth, Adhara looked up and wagged her tail. She let go to lick Annie’s knuckles. Matvey, looking nervous and shy, tugged on Annie’s sleeve.

“Mama, she’s really nice,” he said quietly.

“I know,” she said, ruffling his hair. “Keep being nice to her.”

“We will!” he and Ginko chorused.

“We’ll get the next pair,” Mikasa said. “Eren somehow managed to down Reiner in a wrestling match, so it’ll be him and Armin next.”

“Tell Jaeger no flipping out,” Ymir said.

“He’s good with pups,” Mina said, “calm down.”

Ymir stuck her tongue out, but Christa thumped her side. Annie snickered as she and Mikasa went to the door to swap places. Armin and Eren came inside slowly, waving when Adhara saw them. She wiggled, chuffed, and looked at Matvey.

“They’re male wolves like me,” he said. “They’re nice, I promise.”

“Can we come say hello?” Armin asked.

She yipped, but went to sit in Christa’s lap. She waved a paw at them, and they came to sit down. Armin leaned in slightly to examine her coat.

“What a pretty color, Adhara,” he said with a smile. “Eren, have you ever seen a red wolf?”

“Once, yeah,” he replied. “During that year Mikasa was with Levi. They were the leader of a squad that kicked my regiment’s butt for three days before we retreated.” He leaned down to meet Adhara’s gaze. “Hey, little princess. Can we pet you?”

Somewhat tentative, Adhara got down from Christa’s lap to go to them. She sniffed each of their hands before going to Armin. She climbed onto his leg, propping herself up on his chest to snuffle at his thin beard. He waited for her to stop before rubbing her cheeks.

“Well, aren’t you soft!” he said. “That’s a brand new pup for you.” He laughed when she started to wag her tail. “You’re going to have so much fun, you know that?”

“Does she like tickles?” Eren asked.

“Yes, but not if you startle her,” Christa said.

“I can wait.” He smiled when Adhara looked at him, patting his leg. He helped her keep balance as she crawled into his lap from Armin’s, and once she had settled he began to scratch her back.

“She’s giving you two a run for being the fluffiest pup,” he said to Matvey and Ginko. He snickered when they stuck their tongues out at him, giving Adhara a quick tickle. She yipped and wiggled, making Eren, Matvey, and Ginko snort with laughter. Armin barely contained his laugh, giggling behind his hands when Eren tickled her again.

“Eren, st-stop,” he laughed. “I’m gonna cry if you make her do that for too long.”

“Fine, spoilsport.” He gave Adhara a quick nuzzle and smoothed down her fur. “You’re energetic for a little one.”

“She’ll crash in a little while,” Ymir said.

“How can you tell?” Ginko asked.

“So you see how she’s pawing Eren’s knee a little?” Christa asked. “She does that when she’s getting tired.”

“Should we let her sleep?” Matvey asked.

“Kiddo, can you stay awake to say ‘hi’ to just two more people?” Ymir asked. When Adhara barked, she chuckled. “Okay, quick visit for Reiner and Bertholdt. Go swap.”

Eren set Adhara down, scratching under her chin before he and Armin stood and went to the door. Adhara toddled back to Matvey, crawling into his lap for a hug. She turned when the door closed, going stiff and puffing up her fur at the sight of Reiner and Bertholdt. She whined and hid her face in Matvey’s elbow.

“Adhara, it’s okay!” Matvey said. “They’re nice, too! They’re just really big!”

Reiner blushed darkly, stammering, but Bertholdt smiled and moved closer. He knelt down, beckoning Reiner to do the same.

“Adhara,” Bertholdt called in a sweet voice. “Pretty girl, look over here.”

She whined again, but turned when Ginko scratched behind her ears. When her eyes were on them, Bertholdt lay down and rolled onto his back to show his stomach. Reiner soon did the same, and he waved at her.

“Hey, itty bitty princess,” he said. “D’you wanna come here?”

Adhara looked at Ymir and Christa, squirming.

“It’s okay,” Ymir said, smiling. “They really are nice.”

“Go on,” said Christa.

Adhara hesitated, but crept from Matvey’s lap and across the floor. She sniffed Reiner and Bertholdt’s faces carefully, and lightly at their ears. With Reiner’s arm and shoulder so low, she was able to climb up onto his chest and snuffle his chin. He lifted a hand for her to inspect, only petting her after she’d licked his thumb.

“You’re a brave pup,” Bertholdt said, rolling onto his side. “I know I’m too tall.” He offered a hand, giving her cheek a rub when she had licked his knuckles.

“Now she knows you’re both nice,” Christa said. “She’ll be fine the next time you visit.”

Reiner lifted his head when Adhara slowly lay down on his chest. He chuckled at her sleepy eyes. “Guess you crash pretty fast when you don’t have a sibling to split attention with. But it’s nice to meet you.”

She barked faintly, and then her head dropped onto his chest as she fell asleep. Ymir bit her tongue to stay quiet as Christa stood up. She gathered Adhara into her arms to let Reiner stand, and Bertholdt, Mina, Matvey, and Ginko stood as well.

“Can we pet her goodbye?” Ginko asked.

Christa smiled and went to them. While Ginko did give Adhara a gentle pet, she also leaned down to kiss Adhara’s head. She looked at Matvey expectantly, and he mirrored her actions with a smile.

“‘Bye,” he whispered as they both waved. They all slipped out of the room, closing the door silently. Christa, rocking Adhara slowly, went to sit in Ymir’s lap. Ymir reached around her to rub Adhara’s ears with such tenderness that Adhara wagged her tail.

“You’re such a good mom,” Christa said, leaning against her.

Ymir said nothing, but nuzzled against her hair.

————

When storms came eleven days on, Christa was reminded of her first winter as a wolf and what Ymir had told her. Adhara, like both of them, could not sleep while it was raining. She tried her best to nap when the rain stopped, but it always started back up within thirty minutes’ time. By the time night fell, she hadn’t taken a proper nap all day. The scent of distress on her was enough to make Ymir ferry her over to the bed before she could cry a moment longer.

“Here, kiddo, I’ve got a trick.” She lay down on her left side and patted beside herself.

Still whimpering softly, Adhara went to her. Though she started to curl up morosely against Ymir’s stomach, Ymir tapped her own chest.

“Put your ear here,” Ymir said. “So you can hear my heart.” When Adhara was settled, Ymir lay her free hand over her other ear. “There you go. Now close your eyes.”

Adhara looked into the dark a while longer, blinking slowly. She shifted to rearrange her ear before closing her eyes. Within a minute, she had drifted off to sleep. Ymir smiled and looked up to wink at Christa. Christa did not speak, only smiling in turn and holding Adhara’s paw while they all slept. In the morning, Adhara woke without moodiness or fussing.

“Is that what your teacher did for you?” Christa asked.

“Yeah. Best thing I can think of.” She rubbed Adhara’s back while she lay drowsy and still. “Doing better?”

Adhara barked, but did not move.

“Attagirl,” Ymir said. “We’ll do that for naps when it rains, okay?”

Mama, said a soft, slightly scratchy voice.

Ymir stiffened. She looked down. “What?”

Adhara snuggled against her. Mama.

Ymir’s jaw dropped.

Christa giggled. “You’re the one who said she wanted to be called ‘Mama.’”

Adhara turned to look at her. Her tail wagged. Mommy?

It felt as though she had been kicked in the chest for how it ached then. She moved closer, laughing faintly when Adhara met her halfway for a nose rub. She whispered, “Hi sweetheart.”

Adhara’s tail wagged faster as she started to lick Christa’s cheeks. Mommy!

“Oh wow, she’s talking,” Ymir mumbled. She blinked, grinned, and began to tickle Adhara. “You smart little brat! You’re gonna talk all the time now, I bet!”

Adhara giggled inside their minds, rolling around before making an escape to the safety of Christa’s arms. She looked expectantly at Ymir, waiting for a chase, but Ymir had gone still. Her smile weakened, and then grew small and sad.

Christa sat up, bringing Adhara into her lap. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t,” Ymir said, “I don’t know know exactly how much life I’ve stolen from other wolves. But…I know I’ll outlive both of you. I don’t wanna see that.”

She stiffened and pulled Adhara closer. “I don’t, either.” She struggled, and then asked, “Don’t you know any way to give some of that time up?”

“My teacher only knew how to steal it, not give it. And I didn’t think I’d have a reason to want to give it up, so I never tried to figure it out.” She sighed, staring at Adhara. Her brows lowered; she scratched the back of her neck as she thought. “But it doesn’t mean that someone else won’t know. I can try to find a shaman while we’re away from Utgard. Even if they don’t have a spell, I can get an idea for what to do.”

Adhara wiggled out of Christa’s arms to go to Ymir. Mama?

Ymir shook her head before smiling and picking Adhara up. “I’m the best magic-user in the north. I’ll figure it out, kiddo, so all you have to worry about is being happy like normal, okay?” She rubbed Adhara’s nose with hers. “I promise.”

Tail wagging once more, Adhara barked and caught Ymir’s nose in her mouth. Mama!

“That’s new,” Ymir remarked.

Christa laughed and gently opened Adhara’s mouth. “Come on, you’re hungry.” She changed to her wolf form to feed Adhara. When Ymir changed as well, she looked up.

It might take me until she’s twenty, Ymir told her alone. But I know I can figure it out. I’m not leaving you two behind.

Christa stretched to lick her nose. I trust you. We both do.

Nuzzling Christa’s head, Ymir relaxed. She waited for Adhara to finish eating, checking her muzzle for a mess. Adhara beat her to it, licking her mouth clean and hiccuping only once. She looked at Ymir with her tail high.

Play!

Of course that’s your other first word. Ymir caught her by the scruff and hopped to the floor, starting to roll around with her. Adhara giggled madly every time Ymir tipped her over, growing even more gleeful when Christa joined in and started to tip Ymir over in turn. Ymir made her falls dramatic, whimpering and waving her paws. Adhara licked her ears to rejuvenate her.

After a time, Ymir sprang up onto her paws on her own. She bent down to bump her nose against Adhara’s. Wanna play a trick?

She pranced, barking.

Okay. Matvey and Ginko are going to come say “good morning” like normal. When they do, I’ll open the door really fast and you jump on ‘em and say “hi.” Wanna do that?

Adhara nodded, tail wagging hard.

Christa shook her head, but her voice was amused. You’re turning her awful so soon?

You can open the door if you want, Ymir replied.

For a brief moment, Christa was still. She turned and went to the door, changing to her human form. Ymir changed as well, sitting on the floor to watch with a massive grin. Adhara paced in front of the door, looking thoughtful. She jumped when someone knocked on the door, but quickly arranged herself, shoulders low and tail brushing the floor.

“Good morning,” Matvey called through the door.

“Can we say ‘hi’ to Adhara?” Ginko asked.

Christa took the doorknob and held up three fingers. When she had counted backward, she pulled the door open quickly for Adhara to dash forward and leap into the hall.

Hi!

She slammed into Matvey’s chest, knocking him over while Ginko yelped. Adhara leapt away, giggling as Matvey lay stunned on the floor. Ymir sat cackling in their room, and Christa held onto the door as she laughed. The sound caught Annie’s attention, coming into the hall as she was tying up her hair. She finished making a bun before raising a brow.

“What just happened?” she asked.

Adhara rushed to her. Hi!

Annie looked at her before looking at Matvey, upright with a blush on his face. She looked back to Adhara. “Did you tackle him?”

There was no sternness in her voice, and so Adhara nodded.

Annie knelt down. “That was a good tackle. He’s much bigger than you.” She patted Adhara’s head. “Good job.”

Matvey blushed even darker. He took to his feet, but stared at the floor. He fidgeted, only looking up when Ymir crouched down to whisper to him and Ginko.

“Little pups need to have wins against bigger wolves,” she told them. “It’s nothing to be embarrassed about, okay?”

He nodded, rubbing at his cheeks to make the blush fade. He and Ginko went to Adhara, and Ginko asked, “D’you want to come to breakfast with us?”

Adhara barked, nodding. She turned when Mikasa came into the hall, Armin and Eren emerging from their room soon after. Tail high, she ran to Mikasa first, bouncing up to put her front paws on Mikasa’s thighs.

Hi!

“Good morning,” Mikasa replied, taking Adhara’s paws. “Look how tall you are already! I wonder how big you’re going to be when you can change to your human form.”

“Hey, little princess!” Eren said. “You’re out of your room!”

She rushed to prance around both him and Armin. Hi!

Armin laughed and leaned down to rub her ears. “I think you’re even happier than normal today. Let’s go to the dining hall—it smells amazing in there.”

She yipped and hurried over to Matvey and Ginko. She licked Matvey’s hand when she was between them, and he scratched her head. They set off for the dining hall, meeting Reiner and Bertholdt at the doors. Adhara ran at Reiner and jumped, and he caught her with a laugh.

“Good morning, princess!” he said. “Ready to explore, huh?”

Hi!

“That’s a ‘yes’ if I ever heard one from a pup,” Bertholdt said, sneaking in a tickle. “Come on.”

Adhara went straight into the hall when Reiner set her down, looking around and sniffing nonstop. A few other wolves were up already: Sasha, Connie, Marco, and Petra. They chatted about the rains and how the bartering had gone before the year ended. Sasha stopped mid-word, sniffing at a scent she did not recognize. She turned, spotting Adhara stretching to sniff at a bench. Adhara noticed her and wagged her tail.

Hi!

“Oh no,” Sasha said, grinning, “you’re adorable.”

Connie turned around on the bench, still sitting but facing Adhara properly. “Hey there, fluffy! I haven’t seen a red wolf in years!”

She barked and went to them, sniffing the hands they held out. When Marco and Petra came around the table, she sat down and waved a paw.

Hi!

“Mina didn’t tell us you were this cute,” Marco said. “And you’re so friendly, too.” He rubbed her head, laughing at how hard her tail wagged.

“How old is she now?” Petra asked. “Twenty days?”

“Yep,” said Ymir. “Pretty, right?”

Very pretty.” She knelt down to scratch under Adhara’s chin. “I think even southern soldiers will say so.”

Her statement made Matvey take Mikasa’s hand and tug gently. “Are we still gonna go to the south?”

“We are,” she replied. “We’ll go in a little over three months so Adhara won’t get tired out too quickly.”

“Can you and Ginko help to keep her safe and happy on the way?” Christa asked.

They both nodded without hesitation, going as far as to salute her as they had seen the guards do. Adhara saw this and tried to mirror them with a paw, but tipped over when her balance failed. Not at all discouraged, she got back up and went to Matvey and Ginko for a hug. They gave her this even more readily than nodding.

————

When another storm came along thirty-two days after Adhara was born, Christa offered her two options for human clothes in their room. The first was a deeply green dress, and the second was a green shirt and dark denim trousers. Adhara looked between them, torn enough that her ears drooped. Christa smiled.

“Can’t pick?” she asked.

Both look comfy.

“How about this? Since you’re going to go and play outside today, the trousers will keep you from getting scrapes on your legs and knees better than the dress. And when you come back inside and clean up, you can change into the dry dress.”

Adhara thought and nodded firmly. She sat down, looking at Christa and waiting.

“You have to change into your human form first, kiddo,” Ymir said with a laugh. “Think that you want to look like us.”

She thumped her tail on the floor as she thought. Eventually, she closed her eyes tight. Steam came off of her, clearing away to reveal a small girl darker of skin, covered in freckles, and with red hair that had no place being so chaotic for how short it was. She blinked and looked at her hands. She grinned, holding them out on display.

“I did it!” she said.

“You did!” Christa said, giggling. “Oh, look at you! I think you have more freckles than Mama!” She moved closer to help Adhara dress, sneaking in a kiss on her nose when they had gotten both her trousers and shirt on. Adhara paid her back with a kiss to her cheek, shrieking with giggles when Christa tickled her.

Ymir went to them, kneeling down to look at their faces. “She’s got my freckles, but those cheeks and eyes are all you. Kiddo, you are way too cute.”

Adhara wrapped her arms around Ymir’s neck for a hug. “Hi Mama.”

Ymir held her tight. “Hi Adhara.”

Christa ruffled Adhara’s hair. “Want to see your friends now?”

“Yes please!”

“Hang onto my hand until you’re used to walking,” Ymir said. They made their way from the room, carefully going down the hall to steady Adhara’s legs. They stopped before Mikasa and Annie’s room, and Adhara was allowed to knock politely. Ginko opened the door, and she only took one look at Adhara before going wide-eyed and smiling.

“Hi,” Adhara said with a wave. “Can we play?”

Ginko didn’t bother nodding before she ran back into the room to retrieve Matvey. They were followed by Annie and Mikasa on their way back, and they were kept from running off with Adhara in tow.

“Hang on,” Mikasa said. “Just because she’s big enough to change doesn’t mean that she can go on your normal adventures.”

“Aw,” Matvey and Ginko said.

“Why don’t we go outside so you can play tag?” Annie asked. “The rain shouldn’t be too cold.”

Adhara held her hands out to Matvey and Ginko, smiling brightly. “Please?”

They took her hands and started to lead her off. Their mothers followed close behind, Christa moving behind Adhara when she hesitated at the sight and sound of rain at the door outside.

“It’s all right,” she said. “It’s water.”

Taking a deep breath, Adhara went to the door with Matvey and Ginko. She crept outside and stretched out her leg to put her foot in the rain. The sensation of the water made her blink, and she moved into the rain entirely. She giggled when the rain fell on her nose and ears, walking out further. She stopped and looked up, seeing the mountain.

“What’s up there?” she asked, pointing.

“Stuff to hunt!” Ginko said. “Rabbits taste really good!”

Her gaze swung out toward the town, and she went toward the houses she saw. Matvey saw that she was not paying attention to the edge of the walkway, and he hurried to take her hand and keep her from going further.

“Be careful,” he said. “It’s really far down.”

She looked at where he pointed and jumped in surprise. She squeezed his hand, moving closer to him. “Thank you.”

He smiled. “You’re welcome.”

“But there’s stairs over there so we can get down,” Ginko said. “C’mon!”

Adhara nodded and followed them down the stairs. She froze at the feeling of mud on her feet, pausing to wiggle her toes briefly. Ymir came up behind her, tapping her shoulder.

“Why don’t you jump in that puddle?” she asked, pointing to a large puddle nearby. “Those are fun.”

After nodding, she went straight to the puddle and jumped in. The splash made her laugh, and the laughter only increased when Ginko joined her. Grinning, Matvey went to them and gently patted Adhara’s shoulder.

“You’re it!” he said, skipping backward.

Faster than Ginko could react, Adhara pushed on her arm and said, “You’re it now!” She ran off, giggling as Matvey laughed and Ginko stood stunned. Blushing bright red, Ginko chased after both of them.

“Ymir, I think we’ve made a trickster,” Christa said.

“It’ll help her keep up with bigger wolves until she grows up more,” Annie said.

“Not to mention that it’s pretty funny when she keeps surprising our pups,” Mikasa said, nudging Annie’s side.

“I’m just glad they all get to play in the rain like normal now,” Ymir said quietly. “They don’t have to be brave for us.”

For a few seconds, none of them spoke. Annie spoke first to say, “Not anymore, no.” She smiled and squeezed Mikasa’s hand.

Christa meant to do the same with Ymir, but spotted Adhara heading around a corner without looking. She crashed into a man’s legs, falling hard to the ground. When she sat back up, mud on her face, she looked up in confusion. She and the man stared at each other. The man knelt down to her, brushing the mud away.

“You all right, little miss?” he asked. “That was a tumble.”

“‘M okay,” she said. “Sorry I hit you.”

He smiled. “Not a problem. Here, up you get.” He set her on her feet and patted her shoulders. Adhara gave him a quick hug before running toward Matvey and Ginko. Christa gave the man a smile as she passed, and Ymir nodded in gratitude. The pups chased each other further and further through town until they reached its edge. Seeing Adhara was out of breath from running and laughing, Matvey let her catch him entirely and hang on in a hug.

“You win!” he said. “You’re really fast!”

She giggled as best she could for exhaustion.

After a quick survey of the horizon, Ginko said, “Adhara, look! You can see where it starts to snow!”

Adhara looked, peering through the rain. She blinked as confusion came to her. Turning to Ymir and Christa, she asked, “Why’s it doing that?”

“The ground and the air here are warm because of hot water under the ground,” Christa said. “But it’s cold enough over there for snow.”

She thought, nodded, and asked, “Can we go over there?”

“Sure,” Ymir said. “D’you wanna walk or be carried?”

“Walk, please,” she replied, reaching for Ginko’s hand. They went along together, Adhara looking into the sky when it grew colder. She looked down quickly when the rain became hail, but it was not long at all before the hail stopped and the snow began. The feeling of snowflakes on her ears and cheeks made Adhara slowly come to a stop. She looked straight up into the snow, but did not speak for watching it fall. Matvey and Ginko felt her teeter and kept her from falling over.

“Pretty, huh?” Ginko said. “I wish we could watch without falling down.” She gasped with a thought, looking at Annie. “Mama, what moon is it tonight?”

“Half moon going toward full,” Annie said. “It’ll have to clear up before you can see it.”

Grinning, Ginko told Adhara, “Maybe you can see Lady Mond in the sky tonight and say ‘hi’ to her!”

“Can I?” Adhara asked Christa.

“If the clouds are gone, of course,” Christa said. “Even if we have to keep you awake a little longer.”

Adhara smiled, but blinked when Mikasa walked past them by a few long paces to look around.

“Adhara, come here,” she said, beckoning her closer. Once Adhara had gone to her, she knelt down and made a snowball. She rolled it away, and Adhara’s jaw dropped when the snowball tumbled down a hill she had not realized was there. Eagerly, she did as Mikasa had done and sent a snowball down the hill. Though she looked at Mikasa with the intention of hugging her, Mikasa changed to her wolf form and sank onto her belly.

Go ahead and get on my back.

She hesitated.

“It’s okay,” Matvey said. “It’s really fun.”

Looking perplexed, Adhara climbed onto Mikasa’s back and held onto her fur when she stood up.

Hold as tight as you need to. She went to the edge of the hill and leapt out lightly. When she landed, the snow broke away under her paws, sending them into a slide that left Adhara wide-eyed and speechless. Mikasa turned in wide curves to make it last, spinning at the end to face the hill.

“Can we do that again?” Adhara asked faintly.

Mikasa laughed. Sure. Keep hanging on. She carried Adhara back up the hill, bringing her to Ymir and Christa.

“Don’t look so smug,” Annie said, rubbing Mikasa’s head roughly as Ymir picked Adhara up. “You fell the first seven times you tried that.”

“When can I do it?” Adhara asked, tugging on Ymir’s shirt.

“Not for a while, but I’ll give you rides until you’re tired.”

Adhara’s face brightened, but she yawned massively.

Ymir saw her dejected pout and laughed, saying, “We can do one more. Come on.” She set Adhara down, changing to her wolf form so she could climb up. Once Adhara was steady, she went to the edge of the hill. She leapt out into a slide, springing up into the air every so often to make Adhara laugh.

Better, right? she asked when they stopped.

Adhara nodded, laying down to hug her.

Ymir chuckled and started to climb up the hill. She stopped after looking up. Oh wow. Adhara, look. I think Matvey wants to impress you.

She did as she was told, seeing Matvey looking down the hill in his wolf form. He considered it a few seconds longer before leaping out to slide. The first half of the hill went smoothly enough, the snow breaking away readily under his paws. When he picked up speed on the second half, however, his front paws hit frosted over holes, and he pitched forward into a fast tumble. He reached the bottom of the hill unhurt, but with a thick layer of snow caked on his fur.

I’m okay! he called up the hill. The reassurance was lost in the sound of Annie, Mikasa, and Ginko all laughing hard, and he laughed as well. He stood, shaking his legs to try to get the snow clumps off. Adhara saw that they were too tightly packed on, and she carefully got down from Ymir to help him. Once the worst of the snow was gone, Matvey changed to his human form to get it out of his hair.

“Are you really okay?” Adhara asked.

“I’m fine,” he said. “That didn’t even hurt.”

“Yeah, but you two are looking pretty cold now,” Ymir said. “Come on—let’s get back up the hill. Matvey, climb on my shoulders.” She knelt down to let him do so, picking Adhara up as she stood. She went up the hill, smiling at the way Adhara burrowed against her. When they arrived, she crouched slightly to let Mikasa take Matvey.

“That looked fun!” Ginko said.

“It was, but it was really cold and we’re all wet from the rain,” Matvey said, and there was a faint chatter from his teeth as he spoke. Mikasa immediately pulled him close and kept an arm around his shoulders.

Ginko frowned at the still falling snow. “Well…maybe it won’t be raining tomorrow.”

“Good girl,” Annie said, rubbing behind one of her ears. “Let’s get inside to dry off. I think Adhara needs a nap.”

Adhara mumbled a protest, but fell asleep in the middle of it. Ymir rolled her eyes in lieu of laughing, passing Adhara to Christa in order to create an umbrella to hold over them. She made another for Matvey and Ginko to walk under, shrugging her shoulders when Mikasa and Annie waved her offer away. They returned to the castle, splitting off to their respective rooms to clean up. Adhara barely stayed awake through her bath and changing into her dress. She was gone completely by the time Christa put her on the bed, breathing slow and soft with her cheeks still pink.

“I don’t think I’ve seen a happier pup,” Ymir said, sitting down to rub Adhara’s back. “Didn’t even cry when she ran into someone.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen that,” Christa said, sitting on Adhara’s other side. “Every child in the south would cry when that happened. Me worst of all.” She meant to speak further, but Adhara pawed at the bed in her sleep. Christa put her hand in reach, smiling because Adhara caught two of her fingers and pulled her hand close. She leaned down to kiss her head, and she whispered, “I love you, Adhara.”

Ymir smiled at them both, but suddenly began to snicker.

“What?” Christa asked.

“I have a tiny mate and a tinier pup,” Ymir said. “It’s funny.”

Christa only shook her head. She ran her fingers over Adhara’s hair, soft after the bath. After a long time, she said, “She’s going to have an adventure soon.”

“Yeah,” Ymir said. “Not many pups get to see a war end.”

Christa paused to take a deep breath against the anxiety that rose in her throat. “What if Erwin double-crosses us when we get to the frontline? He said in his last letter that he’s going to have another potential ally there, but he’s going to have the wolf queen and the commander of the northern army.”

“Reiner’s ordering a ceasefire, not a retreat,” Ymir replied. “And he’s ordering another four hundred wolves from the brigade around Utgard to come with us to the frontline. They’ll be up in the mountains or right there to guard us. I’m willing to talk to Erwin and whatever friend he has there.” She glanced at Adhara. “I don’t want her growing up the same way either of us did. No joining armies, no being used as political pawns, no more seeing burned towns.

“Besides,” she added, “if the south is as desperate as Kirstein said, I think Smith will figure out a way.”

Despite her lingering nerves, Christa smiled. “You’re right. And even if you’re not, I can tear off Erwin’s other arm if I need to.”

Ymir managed to bite down on her snort of laughter. “You need to say something like that in front of the king. I’ve gotta see his face when he hears it.”

“I’ll definitely think of something,” Christa said cheerfully, and she kissed Ymir when she leaned down.

————

Three months brought the spring thaw and the reappearance of pup-capable prey on the mountain. Ymir and Christa handled all of Adhara’s hunting lessons, but she was allowed out on small hunts with Matvey and Ginko.

“It’s good for pups to learn to hunt in a pack,” Annie said one evening as the pups feasted on stew made of rabbits they’d caught. “They’re more used to working together by the time they can catch large prey, and they’ll be better at knowing their surroundings.”

Adhara tugged on Christa’s sleeve. “Do we get to hunt on our trip?”

“We do,” she said. “But we’ll still stay at inns along the way.”

Adhara grinned, softly said, “Yay,” and continued to eat.

“We’re leaving tomorrow, right, Mommy?” Ginko asked, looking at Mikasa.

“Yes, and you two need to actually sleep tonight,” Mikasa said. “It’s nearly three hundred miles, and you need to rest well.”

“It’ll be strange with all of you traveling,” Armin said. He chuckled, shaking his head. “I got spoiled with nearly two years of being with you and Eren.”

“It won’t be that long,” Annie said, flicking a piece of bread at him with a smile. “And it’s not like we have to hide what we’re doing this time around. All my reports have been saying that everyone is more than ready for the war to stop now that the bastard’s dead.”

Her words made Reiner freeze with a spoon in his mouth. He left it there as he dug through his pockets. Grinning, he pulled his right hand from his back pocket. He put his spoon aside.

“Knew I didn’t lose it,” he said. “Mikasa, here.” He tossed a pin made of silver to her. She examined it, finding it to be a rectangle with black engravings. At the top was a half moon, round side up, and two stars made of four intersecting lines each stretched to the bottom. Before she could ask what it was, Annie took it to see.

“What, just brigadier?” she asked, raising a brow at Reiner.

He rolled his eyes. “That’s our highest field rank. I’m not taking her out of active duty yet—she’s too young.”

“Wait,” Eren said, “you’re promoting her?”

“Why wouldn’t I? She would’ve made colonel for the siege alone.” He thought. “You and Armin can—”

Eren held his hands up. “Look, you can name me a captain if you want, but not any higher. Leave the real leadership to them.”

Ymir laughed. “Captain Jaeger and Colonel Arlert. I like it.”

“What is that?” Matvey asked, pointing to the pin.

“It’s a military emblem,” Annie said, handing it to him. “Officers like Reiner and Mikasa wear them when they meet with people on important business. It tells them what rank they have in our army.”

“And this one means brig…brigadier?” Ginko asked, looking at it in Matvey’s hand.

“Yep,” said Reiner. “Half moon and two stars means that she has command of a full brigade. And see how the moon is round on top? It means she commands the brigade closest to Utgard.”

“What’s a brigade?” Adhara asked.

“A large military force,” Bertholdt said. “In the north, brigades are made up of five hundred to eight hundred wolves. Mikasa’s brigade is…I believe seven hundred and forty-six wolves strong.”

Mikasa stared at him, mouth slightly open. Eren was much the same.

“Mommy?” Matvey asked. “What’s wrong?”

Armin cleared his throat quietly. “Well, her old battalion in the south was only ever ninety men strong at the most. This is a large promotion.”

“Oh please,” Ymir said, waving a hand. “You’ll be fine.”

“And you’ll get to know some of them on the trip,” Reiner said. “Four hundred are coming with us, and that includes the four majors right below you. They want to meet you after everything you’ve done.”

“Oh,” Mikasa said softly. “I—um. Thank you.” She took the pin back when Matvey held it out. She looked at it, soon beginning to smile. Annie leaned against her, her own smile somewhere between proud and smug. Matvey and Ginko grinned as they ate, both hugging Mikasa tight when they all got up. While they managed to sleep that night, Adhara lay awake between Christa and Ymir, tugging on Christa’s shirt when she finally spoke.

“What’s it like in the south?” she asked in a whisper.

Christa pulled Adhara closer to hold her to her chest, stroking her hair. “It’s warmer, in some places. People live much closer to each other. Towns are bigger, and there are large cities. The capitol, Sina, is very big.”

“Did you know Mama when you came here?”

“I knew…what I’d been told. I was told very horrible things about Ymir. They were lies people told to make her sound like a bad person, and it scared me.”

“But Mama’s nice. She loves me and you and the pack.”

“Which is why I said they were lies,” Christa said gently. “So if you hear any southern soldiers saying horrible things about Ymir or our pack, you can look them right in the eye and tell them they’re lying. Don’t try to bite them, though, okay?”

“I promise,” Adhara said. She paused, a thought coming to her, and asked, “Are we gonna be safe?”

“We will,” Christa replied. “Don’t worry about a thing.” She kissed Adhara’s head. “We’ve got a big trip ahead of us, sweetheart. Get a good night of sleep.”

“‘Kay,” Adhara murmured. “Love you, Mommy.”

“Love you too, Adhara.” She smiled at the soft, happy giggle Adhara let out before drifting to sleep. They all were well rested when the morning came, and Adhara stuck close to Matvey and Ginko as the last preparations were made. When Ymir came out of the castle last late in the morning, bearing one long box and one square box, they went to investigate.

“Ah ah,” Ymir said, handing the boxes to two men waiting by Reiner. “Not presents and not for pups.”

“But what are they?” Ginko asked. “I can’t smell anything.”

“You’re not supposed to,” Reiner said. “Let’s call them proof of the bastard’s death and leave it there.”

Matvey and Ginko paled, and Matvey picked Adhara up to carry her far away from the boxes. Ginko covered them from behind, making sure the boxes did not move. It was baffling enough that Adhara could not think of what to say all through the departure. She held onto Matvey’s hand with Ginko on her other side, all of them watching Ymir and Reiner give instructions to those remaining in Utgard. They stood quiet and still while Reiner kissed Bertholdt goodbye and Mikasa hugged Armin and Eren. Not until they were a long distance from the castle did she find the words, and she took Ginko’s hand as well.

“What’s wrong?” she asked. “What did Reiner mean?”

“Before you were born, there was a demon that tried to kill everyone,” Ginko said with the utmost seriousness. “He was the scariest thing in the whole world.”

Eyes widening, Adhara looked at Matvey. “He was really a demon?”

He nodded. “He nearly killed our whole pack. But Lady Mond wouldn’t let a demon kill us, so he lost and got killed instead.”

Ginko saw the way Adhara grew tense, and so squeezed her hand. “He’s not gonna come back. It’s just scary to remember him and we don’t want you near anything that smells evil like him.”

“Oh,” Adhara said, and she smiled. “Thank you.” She thought. “Have you ever been to the south?”

“This is the farthest we’ve been from Utgard,” Ginko said. “But Mommy and Christa have told us about it a little.”

“My mommy told me a little, too. What’re humans like?”

“They’re all different,” Matvey said. “Some are nice, some are mean. Uncle Eren said there was a stupid rule where two men or two women couldn’t love each other without getting in a lot of trouble.”

Adhara stared at him. “Huh? But…they love each other. Why would they do that?”

He frowned and shrugged. “It’s stupid. Maybe we’ll change it when we win.” He jumped when Annie strode up on his other side and rubbed his hair.

“It’s hard to dismantle a religion,” she said. “But we’re going to try and start making it better.”

“You were listening?” Adhara asked.

“That’s my job,” Annie said. “Still, we’re going to leave a lot of things to the south. It’s something we’re offering to make them surrender peacefully.”

“What’re we gonna ask for?” Adhara asked.

“For what we wanted from the start: more land for wolves to live on. We’re also going to have King Reiss removed from power and get someone who won’t start the war again. I’ve been working on finding someone, but I need to talk to Erwin about it.”

“Was that why you were reading letters all the time last month?” Matvey asked.

“It was.”

“Did you find anyone?”

“I have a few leads, but we’ll see.” She looked at them. “Are you doing all right?”

“‘M not tired,” Adhara said.

She nodded. “Just tell us when you get tired or hungry. Matvey, Ginko, same for you. And don’t wander off on your own, okay?”

“Yes Mama,” they chorused.

“We won’t,” Adhara said.

“Thank you,” Annie said in turn. “I think I need to go watch Mikasa now, so be good.” She moved to walk near Mikasa, watching as two men joined her and offered her their hands in greeting.

“Ian Dietrich,” the first man said. “First major of the brigade. It’s a pleasure to meet you, ma’am.”

“Mitabi Jarnach,” the second man said. “Second major. I’ll admit I never thought I’d be shaking your hand.”

“I never thought I’d be in this position,” Mikasa replied. “But I’m glad I am.”

Mitabi regarded her closely before laughing. “Well, at least you’re on our side in the end. We really are blessed.”

“Excuse my curiosity,” said Ian, “but…what was it like against the bastard?”

“As bad as you’ve ever imagined it might be,” she said. “And worse.”

Mitabi glanced at the pups. Quietly, he said, “The blonde girl and the boy…they look old enough to have been around when it happened. Are they yours?”

“They are,” Mikasa said. “Annie’s and mine. They were there with us that day. They met Levi.”

Ian put a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry it happened. It must have broken your hearts to have to fight the bastard in front of them.”

Mikasa smiled. “We didn’t, actually. We left them with Christa and lured Levi away.”

“Christa’s the blonde woman up in the front?” Ian asked. He hummed when Mikasa nodded. “You put them in good hands—you can see it in her from here.”

“She said she’d protect them, and that was more than enough to make it easy to fight.”

“And now the only thing to worry about is if Smith will agree to the terms you present him with,” Mitabi said. “Think he will?”

“He’ll have to if he wants to stop the war with as little bloodshed as possible,” Mikasa said coolly. “Because none of us are going to let Reiss have the final say.”

“Meaning what?” Ian asked.

“We have reliable information saying he wants wolves wiped out. That’s not happening.”

Ian smiled. “Eld and Nanaba will be happy to hear you speak like that. It really is a relief to have you as the new brigadier.”

“They’re the two other majors?”

“Yes ma’am,” Mitabi said. “Ian and I head the corps to the east and north of Utgard, and Eld and Nanaba are west and south. They’re meeting us at the next town on the road ten miles on.”

“What kind of formation do you have your wolves in?” she asked.

“Thirty at a distance either side with twenty more making regular rotating trips in,” Ian said. “Scouts report to us every half hour, and everything has been clear so far. Eld and Nanaba will have their wolves do the same rear and front once we meet them.”

Mikasa looked at the pups, smiling at the way Matvey and Ginko were carrying Adhara along by her hands. The sound of their giggles made her sigh softly. “I’m glad.”

“The little redhead is Ymir and Christa’s pup, right?” Mitabi asked. “You can tell by her face.” He chuckled. “I was confused about why they’re coming along, but they’re just too little to be away from you all for so long.”

“We’ll keep a close eye on them,” Ian said. “Nanaba’s scouts will give us an idea of where they’ll be safest at the frontline.”

“Thank you,” Mikasa said.

He shook his head. “We protect the wolves of the north, from pup to adult. It’s the very least we can do to thank your pack for ending the war.”

Mikasa only smiled, and they fell into an easy silence broken by scouts reporting on schedule. When another five miles had passed, Ginko felt Adhara slowing down, hand slipping out of hers. She looked at Matvey significantly, and let go of Adhara’s hand when he nodded. Matvey held tighter while Ginko went to Christa and Ymir. Christa slowed down to get to Matvey and Adhara.

“Sweetheart,” Christa said softly, “you look pretty tired.”

Adhara looked up, blinked, and reached for Christa with a small, exhausted whine. Matvey let her hand go so Christa could pick her up. Christa nodded to him and to Ginko as Adhara wrapped her arms around her neck. She returned to Ymir, rubbing Adhara’s back.

“Mommy, my feet and legs hurt,” Adhara mumbled.

“A lot?” Christa asked. “Be honest—we can make it stop.”

She thought, but shook her head. “‘M okay.”

“We’ll stop for the day soon,” Ymir said. “Mommy and I will carry you until bed, okay?”

“‘Kay,” Adhara said.

“You did great,” Christa said. “You walked almost the whole day. That’s much better than I ever did coming to the north.”

“Really?”

“Absolutely. I had to ride a horse the whole way and I wasn’t that good at first.”

“Tell me the story?”

Christa chuckled. “Sure. Are you comfy?” Once Adhara had nodded, she began to talk quietly. Adhara listened with half-closed eyes, blinking slower and slower until she kept them closed and fell asleep. She remained so until they reached the inn they would stay at, struggling through staying awake while dinner was prepared and served.

Matvey and Ginko were not much more awake at that point, yawning and leaning against Annie and Mikasa at the table. They all ate well, but it only went so far in giving them energy. While the pups managed to stay up until sunset to listen to the pack talk to the leader of the town, Adhara fell back asleep with her head in Ymir’s lap.

“Sorry,” Ymir said, picking Adhara up. “Gotta get her to bed.” She left the room, getting upstairs before she realized Annie had followed behind her, Matvey and Ginko nearly asleep on their feet as they held her hands.

“Let’s not leave them on their own,” Annie said.

Ymir smirked. “Yeah. She’d be scared if she woke up alone.” She led them to the room she, Christa, and Adhara were sharing, and she set Adhara on the large bed with a pillow under her head. Matvey and Ginko climbed in after her, curling up around her protectively. Annie pulled the covers over them, smoothing out the blanket after tucking it in around their shoulders. The pups settled immediately, and slept through the night to let their aches fade away.

————

A day had been agreed upon to meet on the frontline: halfway through summer, the day after the seventh month’s full moon. The wolves of the brigade near the south ran ahead when they were a day’s walk away from the front, fewer scouts returning as they broke away into the mountains. One hundred and fifty went into the hills, the remaining two hundred and fifty positioning themselves around the frontline. Camps had been set up out of human sight, but more than close enough to smell and hear. There was deep anxiety in the human soldiers, barely masked in the evening by alcohol Mikasa said was forbidden on the front.

For the three days they had to wait after arriving early, Christa lingered close to the edge of their camp. It left her able to hear the pervasive, gently broken by the sound of swords being fumbled with. Soldiers would draw them to sharpen them idly, but hastily put them away after only one or two strokes of the whetstone. There was almost no conversation to be heard, but she could tell how many soldiers were there by scent and sound. Just as Mikasa had said was standard, there were seventy human soldiers beyond the southern border, waiting with levels of fear that even Adhara could smell and recognize.

On the last night, Reiner joined her in her survey. His ears twitched even more than hers, though she breathed more deeply. He looked into the hills to watch the wolves in the shadows. There was some restlessness in them, but not a shred of fear. He spotted Ian in a patch of moonlight out of human sight and lifted a hand. Ian lifted his in turn, holding out his thumb and first three fingers while keeping his pinky curled to his palm. Reiner nodded, closing his hand before lowering it.

“They’re not drinking tonight,” Christa said. “They’re too scared about tomorrow.”

“Evidently there’s an officer who’s been going around all day taking the alcohol and dumping it on the ground,” Reiner said. “I appreciate it.”

Christa sighed softly, looking up at the cloudless sky. “It feels like forever since I’ve been in the south. Now I’m here with five hundred wolf soldiers and my pack to end the war.” She rubbed the back of her neck. “It’s ridiculous, but I’m still worried something is going to go wrong.”

“You’re holding onto the fear the bastard had us feeling,” Reiner said, scratching behind her ear. “All of us are, in some way or another. But we’re going to come away from this the victors, and we won’t spill blood unless we have to.” He smiled. “You get to give Adhara a peaceful life. And you’ll be leading us straight into the throne room, just like you said you would.”

“I’m glad I can keep my promise.”

Reiner kept himself from laughing to maintain the night’s quiet. “We all are.” He took a deep breath and patted her on the back. “Come on. It’ll be an early morning and a long day.”

She nodded without hesitation, returning to the tent she, Ymir, and Adhara were using. Both of them were already fast asleep, and she curled up with them to do the same. Dawn came quickly, and every wolf woke at the same time. The pack dressed in clean, officious clothing, Reiner and Mikasa putting their pins over their hearts. The pups were dressed neatly as well, and they moved to wait at the very edge of the southern border, still out of sight of the human soldiers.

“Hello?” a familiar voice called. Jean stepped into view, hands in the air and with no weapon on his person. “I’m here to escort the northern envoy to General Erwin. I’m unarmed and alone as promised.”

“Hi Mister Jean!” Matvey and Ginko called.

He turned at their voices, smiling and relaxing. “Hey kids.” He looked at Ymir, Mikasa, and Reiner. When they had nodded, he lowered his hands and came closer to salute them. “Lieutenant Jean Kirstein, reporting for duty. I’ve picked a squad of six to help escort you to the general.”

“Lead the way,” Mikasa said.

He turned, meaning to do so, but paused at the sight of Adhara at Matvey’s side. “Who’re you, little lady? Matvey and Ginko’s new sister?”

She shook her head. “I’m Adhara.” Pointing to Christa and Ymir, she said, “I’m their pup.”

His brows shot up to his hairline. “O-oh. I’m, um, sorry for my rudeness, your highness.”

She boggled at him. “Huh?”

“Kirstein, you don’t have to call her that,” Ymir said. “She’s just a pup now—‘Adhara’ is fine.”

“A-all right.” He cleared his throat. “Come on, I’ll find you three a good spot in a bit.” He led them away, again lifting his hands when he went over the border. Christa and Mikasa went first after him to see what lay ahead.

Not a single soldier had their sword drawn. Some had no weapon on them at all. Every soul stood still with a different level of fear. Those that recognized Mikasa let their mouths hang open and their spines relax. One man among the closest six, tall and with a scraggly mustache to match his short blond hair, let out a wheezing breath and ran up to throw his arms around her. She hugged him in turn.

“You’re really alive,” he said, starting to cry. “We were so scared you all were dead.”

“I’m okay,” Mikasa said quietly. “And so are Armin and Eren. They’re holding down the fort at Utgard.”

He let go, wiping at his face. “So what Jean said was true? Reiss betrayed you and you joined the wolves?” When she nodded, he chuckled weakly. “You three have always made the right bet.” He noticed Matvey, Ginko, and Adhara peeking out from behind the outcropping of rocks. “What on earth made you bring kids here?”

“They’re too small to be away from us that long,” Christa said. She nodded to the pups, and they, Ymir, Reiner, and Annie came forward with the brigade’s majors following. Mikasa gestured to Matvey and Ginko, setting her hands on their backs when they came to her.

“I want you to meet someone,” she told them. “This is Sergeant Hannes. He helped me, Armin, and Eren when we were very young. Hannes, these are my pups, Matvey and Ginko.”

They smiled and waved, and he was too flabbergasted to do anything but wave back. After a time, he cleared his throat delicately and asked, “Who…uh, who’re you with? The, um, the commander?”

Matvey and Ginko snorted loudly with laughter, hurrying to put their hands over their mouths to muffle the sound.

“What’s so funny about that?” Hannes asked.

“Reiner’s our uncle!” Ginko said, giggling. She turned, pointing at Annie. “That’s our mama!”

Hannes turned to Annie, staring as she walked to them with a smirk on her face. He blinked, cleared his throat again, and offered Annie his hand. “Sorry for the confusion, ma’am. Glad to meet you. My name’s Hannes.”

She took his hand and shook. “Charmed. I’m Annie Leonhardt.”

He nodded when she let go, looking at Matvey and Ginko. “All right, kids, I’ll help watch you while your parents talk.”

“Me too?” Adhara asked, holding on to Christa’s dress.

He sank down on one knee, saying, “Absolutely, kiddo. What’s your name?”

“I’m Adhara.” She pointed at Christa and Ymir one after the other. “I’m their pup.”

“That’d make you a bonafide princess, then. All right, let’s get on over to that tent.”

Jean nodded and led the way, moving through the camp. The sight of the pups put some soldiers at ease, as did Mikasa’s presence. Ymir, Reiner, and Annie did not look coldly at anyone, keeping calm through the stench of stress and fear. The pups did well until they reached their destination, a large and carefully pitched tent made of dark green tarp. A tall man with a shaved head, a short black goatee speckled with gray, and frigid eyes stood at the tent’s entrance. Adhara felt a chill go up her spine, and she hid behind Matvey as Ginko went to his side.

Jean and Hannes saluted the man, and Jean said, “Major Shardis, sir! We’ve brought the northern envoy as requested by General Erwin!”

Shardis looked at them closely, severely. He looked at Mikasa. “Ackerman. This is a much larger entourage for you since your days in my boot camp.”

“I’m only serving my pack, sir,” Mikasa replied. “And we would like to end this before it escalates any further.”

He was silent for a time before moving aside and holding the tarp door open. Before she went inside, Christa went to the pups.

“Stay out here with Jean, Mister Hannes, and Nanaba, okay?” she said. “We’ll be right inside if you need us. Just ask the major to let you in.” The statement earned her a raised brow from Shardis, but she frowned at him until he sighed and nodded. This done, she went inside with the rest of the adults, Ian, Mitabi, and Eld taking up guard positions around the tent. Inside, an open panel in the top of the tent let in the summer sun, making the table in the middle of the room completely visible.

Two men sat there, and they both stood immediately. The younger of the men, despite missing his right arm, stood tall with his shoulders squared. His blond hair was cut neatly, but it was shot through heavily with gray and silver. There was stubble on his face; his eyes, for all their focus, were weary. The older man was just as tall, but slimmer and bald with a thick gray mustache. He, too, looked utterly exhausted, but he saluted them all the same.

“Please forgive my rudeness,” the younger man said. “I don’t have a good method of saluting people anymore.” He bowed briefly before saying, “I am Erwin Smith, general of the northern divisions. Thank you for meeting with us.”

“And I’m Dot Pyxis,” the older man said, “general of the middle divisions. Please sit so we can talk peacefully.” They sat, but looked at Mikasa in confusion when she stayed on her feet, holding the two boxes.

“We’ve met your terms to meet you, General Erwin,” Christa said. “I’m here, Ymir’s here, and Mikasa has the proof of Levi’s death in those boxes.”

Mikasa set the boxes down before Erwin and Pyxis, breaking the magic seals on them to pry off the lids. The longer box was given to Pyxis and the smaller to Erwin. Pyxis opened the box, looking inside to find Levi’s swords, chipped and blunted. Erwin opened the other box with hesitation, freezing when he saw Levi’s severed head, bloodless but recognizable. Breath frozen, he put the lid back and closed his eyes.

“I preserved it,” Ymir said, voice flat. “Just in case I ever needed to show it to someone.”

Erwin said nothing, eyes still closed.

“Want to tell us why it’s so important for Christa to be here?” Ymir asked, leaning forward. “We’ve got a hunch, but I want to hear it from you.”

“I had hoped to have her stay in the south to help transition power out of the king’s hands,” Erwin said.

“Because I’m the only heir to the throne,” Christa said.

“That’s the size of it,” Pyxis said.

“I will do no such thing. My home is the north, and I am not going to abandon it. One of our terms is that power in the south will leave Reiss hands completely. We want no one who would stir the war up again.”

Erwin’s face fell before hardening. “You realize that you could cause a civil war if you force us to abandon the royal family.”

Annie smiled unpleasantly. “Is that so? Word has it is that your citizens don’t actually like their king, much less love him. I’d think now would be the most opportune moment to change your country’s leadership.”

Pyxis looked at her with a raised brow. “How do you know that?”

“I ask the right people the right questions,” she replied. “That’s all you need to know.”

He regarded her for a few moments longer before laughing. “All right, fair enough. I’ll admit, Rhode Reiss is not well liked. I’ve personally heard a few people saying they’re glad he hasn’t had any children come of age so something can change. It started in Trost about a year ago, and it’s picked up steam in these last few months.”

“What are you suggesting?” Erwin asked, tapping his fingers on the table.

“Not military rule, if that’s what you’re hoping,” Reiner said.

He shook his head with a long sigh. “Having any of us in power would make civil disputes worse. We would be too easy to demand war of. We need something else.”

“Then why not take an idea from the east?” Annie asked. “They seem to do fairly well with an established prime minister with a parliament of citizens to vote on things.”

Erwin thought. He put his hand to his chin and ran his thumb over the stubble there. “That might be a good transition from the royal family.”

“If I recall correctly, there are a few noble houses that have made their own rumblings about wanting to make peace with the north,” Pyxis said. “There’s the Dreyse house in Karness, the Rheinberger house in Stohess…and Duchess Ilse Langnar in Mitras has protested the war ever since she took control of her house five years ago.”

“I like Langnar, personally,” Annie said. “She was happy to speak to a friend of mine a few months ago. Rather receptive to the idea of helping the south make peace with us by taking up that position.” Because Erwin and Pyxis stared at her, she took a letter from her back pocket and slid it across the table.

Erwin read it first, passing it to Pyxis with a startled expression on his face. “You’ve been moving forward with this plan without knowing if we’d agree?”

“Why wouldn’t we?” Mikasa asked.

He floundered for words, came up with nothing, and eventually said, “Fair.”

“Langnar is a good choice,” Pyxis said. “We can give her the position if she wants it.”

“All right,” Christa said. “Do either of you have other terms for us before we formally state ours?”

They both looked at the table. Erwin lifted his eyes to Christa and asked, “If I told you a term of our surrender was for you to leave your father alive, what would you do?”

She frowned, going silent.

“You’re going to ask for his life?” Ymir asked, sneering to show her fangs. “Reiss tried to get me to kill his daughter for him, and he threw away his soldiers to try and get them to kill me. And you, Smith, sent them to die without so much as an argument. It pisses me off enough to leave you alive when this ends, but why the hell would you ask for Reiss?”

“Because,” Pyxis said quietly, looking at Christa, “how you deal with him will cement the south’s view of you and how the north decided to end the war. Make a spectacle of it, you’re a bloodthirsty tyrant. Be too gentle, and you’re a coward. What will you do?”

Christa sat unmoving, staring at both him and Erwin. No one spoke. After a long time, Christa exhaled slowly. “I promised Reiner that I would lead the pack into the throne room and watch while they ate my father. But we’ve all decided to do something different to keep people from thinking wolves are just savages. I’m going to expose him as my father and order him to sign the instrument of surrender. If he refuses, he dies. If he agrees, he gets to live in exile with no power.”

“And if he does something foolish?” Pyxis asked.

“Meaning what?” Reiner asked, leaning forward.

“The king isn’t exactly sitting easily on the throne,” Erwin said. “No one’s made any official statements about Levi’s whereabouts, but the fact that your troops haven’t been pushing forward recently despite every reason to do so making people…confused.”

Pyxis snorted. “Be honest, Erwin. Hopeful is what they are. My men hear it plenty—people are praying the war can end soon and with much less bloodshed. And I, for one, agree.”

“That so?” Ymir asked, smirking.

“I am an old man, your highness. Sixty-eight years as of spring. I’ve seen the entire war, and I am more than willing to concede when it was the south that destroyed a northern town unprovoked.” He chuckled. “I’d say that I’d ‘leak’ the fact that we’re in negotiations, but there are plenty of rumors going around already. The king is too nervous to ask us directly if the rumors are true.”

“What d’you think?” Reiner asked Erwin.

“I’m in agreement with General Pyxis,” Erwin replied. “You have my surrender. Let’s hear your final terms.”

Annie took another folded piece of paper from her back pocket and opened it to read. “We’re willing to leave the rule of the south to humans in the structure we discussed earlier—we won’t ask for a wolf in power. We’re also willing to let you maintain your army, so long as you never take up arms against the north.”

“All right,” Erwin said. “These are acceptable to the south.”

“Our demands are these,” said Annie. “First, the border is to move one hundred miles south of its current location directly from the mountains, and with one hundred and fifty miles out to the east and west. Second, trade is to be reestablished between us with our steel trade receiving a fair premium. Third, any laws or sanctions that are discriminatory against wolves are to be immediately rescinded, and wolves will receive the same legal privileges as humans.

“At the same time, any status recognized in the north will be recognized in the south. Mates of the same gender will not be punished under the south’s religious laws. Humans will be granted their respective privileges in the north. The north will punish any hateful acts against humans as the crimes they are, and we expect the same protection for wolves in the south.

“Finally,” she said, “the Reiss house will be removed from power and will not be allowed to be part of the government. Rhode Reiss must formally acknowledge that Christa Renz is his daughter born out of wedlock, Historia Reiss. He will bow his head to her for trying to get her killed multiple times.”

Pyxis laughed, clapping politely. “Well said! As general of the middle divisions, I agree to all of your terms! I willingly surrender.”

“As general of the northern divisions, I also willingly surrender,” Erwin said. “I will work with whoever you send to reform the border in order to make the transition peaceful.”

“Who else do we need to have sign the instrument of surrender before we can take it to the king?” Reiner asked. “The commander-in-chief, the general of the southern divisions, or both?”

“Commander Zackly will surrender when he sees your terms are fair,” Pyxis said. “General Dok will complain, but he’ll surrender all the same.”

“In all honestly, your highness,” said Erwin, “we can end this in the time it takes to get to Sina.”

Christa stared at him, heart beating hard in her chest. “What?”

“General Dok is stationed sixty miles southeast of here on the road toward Sina,” Erwin replied. “Commander Zackly is in Sina itself. If we send correspondence by hawk today, they can meet us outside Sina without alerting the king. We could march straight into the throne room without having to wait for their surrender in Sina.”

She continued to stare, mouth going dry. No one spoke, all eyes steady on her. Under the table, Ymir put her hand on her knee and squeezed very, very lightly.

Christa smiled. “Please send the letters, General Erwin. I would like to show my daughter to Reiss.”