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Wolves of the North

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The Renz house was small relative to the other noble houses in the kingdom. With no male heirs, the heading of the house fell to Christa when she turned sixteen. By the time King Reiss summoned her at age nineteen, she had come to be known throughout the other houses and the kingdom at large as an angel of mercy, donating much of the meager wealth of her house and her personal time to houses of healing and the poor. She knew well the things people called her behind her back: “angel,” “goddess,” and “the golden lady of the land.”

As she was escorted to the capitol city of Sina, she wondered if King Reiss had heard of these titles, and if he put any stock in them. For the brief time she had been alone in the carriage, she put her hands together and prayed to the god of the southern lands that he had at least heard of her efforts and deeds. It took three days to reach Sina from her home city of Trost, and on the first day she managed to charm the blond soldier into the carriage for someone to talk to. He told her his name was Armin Arlert and that he was a captain of the king’s strategic corps, a designer of the art of battle. He was joined by Mikasa Ackerman, the captain of the king’s greatest fighting battalion, and Eren Jaeger, brother to Mikasa and one of her men.

On the journey, Armin told her the things she had heard faint whispers of in Trost. She heard of the fantastic glories of Mikasa, Eren, and their battalion; how they rarely to never lost soldiers in the heat of the war against the north. She listened to his tales of the savagery of their enemies, the wolves; how they were creeping slowly southward despite every effort against them. She sat there and tried not to tremble in front of him, but gave up when he himself began to shiver on recounting the wolves.

Christa did not know what the king could want of her, could not even begin to guess. It had been her dream to meet him ever since her mother passed away on the day before her sixteenth birthday. As they entered the walled city, her stomach turned to poisoned stone from nerves. Obediently she followed the trio through the palace hallways, and silently she came before the king.

He sat on his throne without expression, face covered with a rich silver beard and body covered in regal red and gold robes. Even though he was seated and at a distance, he loomed over her and made her feel even smaller than she already was. She knelt before him, wearing her finest robin’s egg blue dress, and bowed her head.

“What humble service can I offer you, your highness?” she asked.

“We have a letter that needs to be delivered,” he said, voice deep and rumbling.

Confusion took her. “Would…would you like me to be a courier, sire?”

“In a sense. You, boy, give this to her.”

She looked up to find Armin coming toward her with a sealed scroll. She took it, keeping her fingers away from the crimson wax imprinted with the Reiss house symbol of a lion’s head roaring. “Who shall I deliver this to, your highness?”

“Ymir.”

The room went silent. Christa looked to Armin, who only stared back with wide eyes. She then turned toward Mikasa and Eren. There was strain in Eren’s face; looking down revealed Mikasa grinding her heel on top of his foot. He pushed her away and said, “Sire, Ymir will have her killed if she sets even one foot over the north’s border!”

“She is not so hasty as you, boy. We have sent her a crow. She expects you before the end of autumn.”

“Could this message not have been sent by crow as well, your highness?” Armin asked.

“It is too important. We will have the girl deliver it personally.”

Christa had stopped breathing the moment the wolf queen’s name had been said. Because she could feel the command in the king’s gaze, she meekly asked, “Am I to go alone, your highness?”

“These three will accompany you.”

Mikasa took a half step forward. “But your highness, the war—my battalion—”

He cut her off with a wave of his hand; she fell back and lowered her head. “They will be led by Corporal Levi. You will not be missed.”

Eren opened his mouth, rage in his eyes, but Mikasa again stepped on his foot. She said, “Understood, your highness. When are we to depart?”

“At dawn tomorrow. The end of autumn is already near at hand.”

“Are we to go on our own?” Armin asked.

The king raised a brow. “Are you unable to read maps, boy?”

Armin snapped a neat salute, left arm behind his back and the side of his curled right fist over his heart. “I am able to read maps, your highness. It’s just that we will be traveling slowly with Lady Renz’s carriage, and we will be entering into enemy territory. Are we to have no escort of Ymir’s to guarantee us safe passage?”

“There will be one that finds you behind the walls. We do not allow wolves in our city.”

Eren snapped. “A wolf? You expect us to go past the front lines holding a wolf’s hand for safety? They’ll betray us by nightfall!”

“You dare speak like that to your king?” Reiss said.

Mikasa grabbed the back of Eren’s neck and forced him to bow low at the waist. “He meant no disrespect, your highness. He is exercising the caution of a soldier.”

“He will do well to remember to whom he speaks.”

“It—it won’t happen again, sire,” Eren said between grit teeth.

“See that it doesn’t.” He flicked his fingers to dismiss them. “Gather your supplies and be ready to leave at first light. Go.”

Armin helped Christa to her feet and squeezed her free hand when she was up. They left the throne room and the palace entirely. Blindly, Christa followed them to the barracks, staring at the scroll in her hands.

Fuck him!” Eren bellowed.

Christa nearly dropped the scroll, and again when he grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her.

“You’re just gonna go?” he demanded. “You should burn that thing and run!”

The blood drained from her face. “He would brand me a traitor!”

“Better a traitor than dead!”

Armin gripped one of Eren’s arms. “He would kill her and you know it.”

Eren wrenched free of his hold and shook Christa again. “Which is worse, dying at the hand of the executioner or dying being ripped apart by the fangs?” He pulled her close to hiss, “You’ve never even heard of what a wolf does to a human, have you.”

She shook her head slightly, eyes wide.

“They devour us, flesh and bone alike. I have fought wolves who wear the skin of our soldiers as if it was leather. I have fought wolves whose mouths are stained with blood, even in their human disguises. They are going to do their best to kill us in the foulest ways possible, and they’ll go after you first for your soft body!”

Just as tears of panic and terror began to well in Christa’s eyes, Mikasa laid Eren out with a hard right punch to the jaw. As he lay on the ground stunned, Mikasa put a much gentler hand on Christa’s shoulder. She said, “I will not let that happen. We have been assigned to protect you, and we won’t fail you.”

Christa smiled a little for her and dried her eyes. “Thank you, Captain.”

Eren groaned as he sat up. “I still say you should make a run for it, but I’m with Mikasa. We’ll do whatever it takes to protect you.”

Armin patted Christa’s other shoulder. “You couldn’t be in safer hands, Lady Renz. Mikasa is the country’s greatest wolf-slayer, and Eren never gives up, no matter how many enemies he faces.”

“Hey, don’t sell yourself short,” Eren said. “You’d probably be able to negotiate our way all the way there if you had to.”

Armin laughed nervously. “I don’t know about that.”

“We’ll put our trust in this wolf guide,” Mikasa said, “however far that gets us before we’re betrayed.”

“You’re certain we will be?” Christa asked.

“Never trust a wolf if you want to live,” said Eren, crossing his arms.

“Caution is better than trust in a situation like this,” Armin said. “But for now we should buy the supplies we need. It won’t be pleasant if we’re stuck in the north when winter comes, so we should prepare for it happening.”

“I’ve heard that it’s possible to freeze to death in the north,” Christa said. “Is that true?”

“If you’re unprepared,” Mikasa said. “Which we won’t be if we go and buy what we need.”

They had to work quickly against the setting of the sun. They went all around the city to buy stores of food and clothes and cloaks that would withstand the cold of the north and its winter. They sold their horses for ones bred for longer and harder distances, and the carriage wheels were swapped out for ones designed for rougher roads. Christa was escorted back to her inn near the barracks after night fell, but she did not go to sleep. She stayed awake and looked at the sealed scroll.

It was important to the king to have it placed only in Ymir’s hands. He had chosen her to be brave, perhaps more than any soldier or hero the country had ever seen. He was asking her to venture into the wolves’ snowy keep because there was something to say. Perhaps it had to do with the war, which had lasted an entire generation already. Perhaps it was an entreaty for peace. This meant the king wanted to send her as a harbinger of peace, and he had chosen her over any other noble house.

Christa rationalized her fear away with these thoughts and greeted the dawn eagerly. She had been prepared to leave for hours before her door was knocked on, and she climbed into the carriage with a smile that baffled the trio. They set out from the city, but paused just beyond the north gate. When no movement seemed forthcoming, Christa opened the window and leaned her head out.

A blonde woman barely taller than Christa’s own short height stood before them. She was in black denim trousers and a white hooded shirt, hands tucked in the shirt’s front pocket. Curiously, her feet were bare, and Christa took her for a beggar until she saw Mikasa’s hand on the hilt of her sword.

From the driver’s seat, Armin called, “Are you our guide?”

“I am,” the woman said, and she began to walk forward. Christa saw Mikasa draw her sword slightly and heard Eren draw his entirely, and she felt her fear return. The woman did not paused and walked straight past Mikasa’s horse, which nickered nervously. She came to the door of the carriage and looked at Christa with hard, sharp blue eyes. “You’re the Renz girl.”

“Yes,” Christa said softly.

“Good.” In a flash she had climbed on top of the carriage. “Head north on this road until I tell you differently.”

“Get the hell down from there!” Eren shouted.

“Why?” the woman asked. “Is there something wrong with me sitting on top of your luggage?” When Eren did not answer, she said, “Thought so. Head north.”

Armin snapped the reins and set them to moving, Eren and Mikasa flanking them. They traveled for quite some time in a silence uncomfortable enough that Christa felt ill. After two hours, she steeled herself and decided to act the diplomat. Carefully, she opened the door and leaned bodily out to look at the top of the carriage. The woman sat with her legs crossed and her chin in her hand, staring out at the road.

“Miss?” Christa said. “May I ask what your name is?”

The woman looked at her from the corner of her eye a moment before looking back to the road. Loud enough that the others could hear, she said, “Annie Leonhardt.”

“May I sit with you?”

Annie looked at her again, and Christa was suddenly charmed by the fact that she did not try to hide the largeness of her nose. There was no movement or answer.

“Please?” said Christa.

Annie rolled her eyes, but stood up and moved to the edge. Crouching and stretching out one hand, she said, “Grab on.” Once Christa had taken hold of her with both hands, she lifted her easily onto the roof. They sat down side by side on the lone trunk and Annie resumed staring out at the road. Christa looked down at Mikasa and winced at the deep frown on her face. She shook her head when she saw Mikasa’s hand drift toward her sword again, and turned to Annie when both of Mikasa’s hands were on the reins.

“How far are you going to lead us?” she asked.

“I’m your ticket for safe passage into Castle Utgard,” Annie replied. “I’ll escort you all the way to the throne room.”

“Did you volunteer to do this?”

Annie snorted. “What self-respecting wolf would volunteer to be a shepherd? Ymir ordered me to get you from Sina to Utgard.”

“Then she hand-picked you?”

“I guess. Why? What do you care?”

“I’m happy. You seem like a very serious person, so I’m sure you’ll protect us.”

“Do exactly what I tell you and I won’t have to protect you at all.”

Christa was unsure of how to respond to this, and so went to a different topic. “Why aren’t you wearing shoes?”

Annie looked about. The road was empty in all direction, and the fields beyond the road were just as empty. She said, “Don’t scream.” All at once, a cloud of hot steam erupted from her skin, blocking her from view. When the wind swept the steam away, Christa was left staring at something she had never dreamed of seeing. Annie had become a yellow-furred wolf-woman, considerably larger than she had before in all respects. She stared at Christa with her blue eyes, still human-shaped but with black coloring where the whites had once been. She flicked her tail to strike Christa on the back. The action garnered her a strangled gasp. Another burst of steam came off of Annie’s body, and she had resumed her human form when it cleared.

“See how my clothes are still on me?”

“Y-yes.”

“If I’d been wearing shoes, they’d have been destroyed by my feet growing so large so quickly.”

“Why—why aren’t your clothes affected?”

“We think it’s a blessing from Lady Mond to preserve modesty. No one’s really sure.”

“‘Lady Mond’? Do you worship the moon, then?”

Annie sighed noisily. “Playing teacher to a puny child from the south wasn’t the task I was given.”

Before she could think to stop herself, Christa said, “You’re not that much bigger than I am, and you don’t look any older.”

Annie raised a brow at her.

Christa felt as though she had been stabbed in the gut with a knife made of ice. “I-I’m sorry. I’ve never spoken to a wolf before. I know nothing about your culture.”

Annie sneered. “I know all about what your kind say about us. You already believe I’m a savage dog. I can smell the killing intent off your guards. The boy still hasn’t put his sword away.”

She leaned around Annie and found she was telling the truth. “Eren, please sheathe your sword.”

“No. If she makes a move, I’m taking her down.”

“You’ll never make it to Ymir without me,” Annie said.

“Is that a threat?”

“Yes. Do you want to see how far you get on your own?”

“Stop it, the both of you!” Christa said. “Eren, we’ve been ordered to carry out a task by our king. She’s been ordered to do the same by her queen. We should cooperate and be safe together.”

“You can’t cooperate with wolves,” Eren replied.

“Funny,” said Annie. “The same is true of humans.”

Eren opened his mouth, but Armin called over his shoulder, “Lady Renz is right, you know! We’ve all been given difficult and dangerous tasks by our leaders. Shouldn’t we try to exceed what’s expected of us?”

Eren again opened his mouth, but stopped at the pleading in Christa’s eyes. Looking disgusted with himself, he sheathed his sword and spurred his horse onward. Mikasa went after him, and Armin sighed heavily.

“I’m sorry, Lady Renz,” he said. “Eren is—”

“A hot-headed idiot?” Annie suggested.

Armin laughed weakly. “I wouldn’t put it so harshly.”

Annie sniffed quietly. “Aside from the bloodlust on those two, you three smell the same. Even in our packs we don’t smell like each other as much as you three do.”

“Could it be because we use the same type of soap?”

“It’s not a soap smell.”

“We’ve been together as a family ever since we were children. Is that a factor?”

“Close family,” said Annie. “Do you sleep in the same bed with each other?”

“Fairly often, but don’t let anyone know.”

Annie raised a brow. “Are you trying to make a joke?”

“A little. I can just drive if it makes you uncomfortable.”

“Do that.”

“Miss Leonhardt?”

What?”

Christa did her best to ignore the fear instinctively called up by the animalistic snarling undercurrent in Annie’s voice. “I—I just wanted to say ‘thank you.’ You’ve come a long way to guide us. And I’m sorry for how Eren is acting. I’m sure it’s just a soldier’s caution.”

Annie looked at her a moment before humming flatly and turning back to the road.

“May I ask you a question?”

“That seems to be the only thing you’re good for, so sure.”

“You didn’t answer me before about if you worship the moon. Do you?”

“We like to say Lady Mond only has one eye, and when she blinks we become human. We don’t actually turn into humans or weaken or anything, but we still pray for her to blink quickly.”

“What are you weakened by, if not the moon?”

“Why would I tell you that in the presence of a man who wants to kill me?”

“Oh—oh, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean anything by it!”

“We already know the wolf’s weakness, Lady Renz,” Armin said. “A blade deep in their throat brings them down.”

“Good luck getting to a wolf’s throat,” Annie grumbled.

“Mikasa is very skilled,” Armin said.

“Why are we discussing how to murder my people? Do you think I want to play guide to people like you?”

“I meant no offense!” said Armin, voice pitching high. “I thought we were being frank! And it’s not as though the wolves are blameless. Mikasa, Eren, and I were all orphaned nine years ago thanks to a wolf attack on our town.”

“What town?” Annie asked.

“Zhinganshina.”

“Where is it?”

“A hundred miles due west of here. Or it was.”

“Well, I only ever travel the path I’m going to lead you on, so I’m not the one who killed your families. Stop treating me like I did.”

“I’m sure Mikasa is telling Eren the same thing,” Christa said. “Right, Armin?”

“I’m sure she’s telling him to calm down. Oh, here, they’re coming back.” He bade the horses to stop as Eren and Mikasa rode back to them. He asked, “Have we come to an agreement?”

“It’s the same as it’s always been,” Eren responded, glaring up at Annie. “You turn on us and you die.”

“I don’t feel like dying at the hands of the witch, so you don’t have to worry about a stupid move like that from me.

“‘Witch’?” Christa asked.

“The wolves call me a witch because they think I know killing magic to be able to kill so many of them,” said Mikasa. “I’m surprised word of me has gotten all the way to Castle Utgard.”

“Reiner can’t shut up about how much he hates you.”

“Reiner Braun?” Armin asked, snapping the reins and urging the horses onward again. “Isn’t he the commander of the wolf army?”

Eren laughed. “So she’s so incredible that your entire military is afraid of her? And you’re leading her right into the throne room of your queen!”

“And you’re going into the country of wolves with just one person to make sure no one kills you in your sleep,” Annie replied. “I think we’re even.”

“Please don’t fight anymore,” Christa said before Eren could snipe back. “It’s such a lovely day out. Can’t we just enjoy it?”

Annie looked at her with a raised brow. “You’re not asking me to make friends with you, are you?”

“Oh—no, I’m not trying to impose! I was only thinking that the weather is going to turn soon. We’re already in the middle of autumn and we’re headed north. Shouldn’t we enjoy the warm sunshine while it lasts?”

Annie examined her in silence.

“I know!” said Christa. “Is it true wolves have a form where you look like a dog?”

“Yeah…”

“Why don’t you change into that form and soak up the sun? I’m sure it’ll feel good!”

The silence did not lift.

“Is it uncomfortable to be in that form?” Christa asked, nervous about offending.

“You want me to relax?”

“Yes, exactly! We have a long road ahead, so we should start out well rested.”

Annie glanced at Eren and Mikasa. They made no move for their swords, though they met her eyes. Gaze lingering long on Mikasa, she eventually looked back to Christa. “Fine.” After checking their surroundings once more, she closed her eyes. Steam poured from her skin, and when it cleared, a yellow-furred wolf sat upright next to Christa. Annie settled on her stomach, eyes forward and tall ears up and searching for sound.

After a few minutes of silence, Christa leaned down and softly said, “Now I wish I hadn’t suggested you change forms. I’m so curious about wolves.”

You can keep asking me questions.

Christa stared at Annie, who stared right back. “Erm…was that your voice in my head just now?”

Yes.

Her eyes widened. “I didn’t know wolves had that ability.”

Only when we’re in this form. We can’t make human speech like this.

“That’s amazing! Is it magic?”

Probably. If you want to know about magic, you need to talk to Ymir.

A chill slithered down Christa’s spine. “What is she like?”

Ymir? She’s very strong and extremely fast. She’s queen because she’s the most powerful wolf in the north in terms of magic, and she and Reiner aren’t that far apart in strength.

“Is…is she nice?”

Annie chuffed a noise that sounded like a derisive snort. She’s a brute. She likes to wrestle with Reiner until they’re both bloody, and they tie more often than not.

“Then is she cruel?”

Annie regarded her with her nose raised. She might take pity on you for being so small.

Christa shivered. “I hope so. I don’t feel any ill will toward her.”

Ever own a dog?

“My mother bought me two puppies when I was a little girl. They were very sweet and obeyed me.”

Obey Ymir like your dogs obeyed you and you’ll be fine.

Christa frowned. “I’m not about to be anyone’s dog.”

Except your king’s.

“That's—that’s different.”

Another chuff of air came in time with Annie reaching up with her hind leg to scratch her ear. I’m sure.

“Then what does that make you to Ymir?”

A member of her pack. She’s our leader. I’m actually useful to her.

“And I’m useless to the king?”

You sure can’t win him his war. Can you even lift a dagger?

“I see no reason to carry a blade.”

We’re headed into dangerous territory. We’ll buy you a knife in the next town.

“But why?”

Even a weakling like you can get a knife into a wolf’s throat if you put all of your weight behind you.

“You think it’ll come to that?”

Better safe than sorry. I’m surprised your guards didn’t buy you one in Sina.

“I feel confident in their skills.”

Sure. We’re still buying you a knife before we reach the north’s border.

“When do you think that’ll be?”

Another ten days if we go like I want us to. I hope you bought warm clothes.

Christa smiled. “I suppose if I get too cold I can just cuddle up to you.”

Annie bristled, fur standing up along the length of her back. I am no one’s pet.

“I—I’m sorry. I meant it as a joke.”

She turned back to the road, but hit Christa hard with her tail. I am a wolf, not one of your childhood pups. You should make an effort to remember that.

“I will. I’m sorry.” Another great period of silence ensued then, carrying them through miles and miles. Annie changed back into a human when the roads and fields were empty again, and they soon came to a town.

“Hold it,” Annie said as Armin made to follow the path around the town.

“What?” Eren asked.

Annie jerked a thumb toward Christa. “She needs a knife.”

“Why?” Armin asked. “She has all of us to protect her.”

“It’s for caution’s sake,” said Annie. “You really want her left defenseless if something does happen?”

“All right,” Mikasa said, adjusting the crimson scarf round her neck. “I’ll take her.” She opened the carriage door on horseback and dismounted inside to help Christa down from the roof. She said, “I want to see everyone and everything exactly how it is when I come back. Am I understood?”

Armin and Eren saluted where they sat; Annie shrugged. Sighing, Mikasa led Christa into the town and, asking for directions, went to the blacksmith.

“What do you make of her?” Christa asked quietly as Mikasa perused the smithy’s selection of daggers.

“Leonhardt?” She set down one dagger and picked up another to test its weight. “I’ll be happier when we’re off this mission, but we’ve been given a good guide.”

“How can you tell?”

“Her eyes. She could tell our intent, but I can tell hers just as easily. She doesn’t want us dead, she just wants to get the mission done and for us to leave her alone. That’s the most you can ask for when your enemy is leading you home. Try to hold this.”

Christa took the dagger when it was offered, gripping it tight when the weight surprised her. “Isn’t this a little much?”

“The blade has to get through a thick pelt of fur and an equally thick layer of skin. It also has to withstand the speed and force necessary to cut from here—” She put her thumb at one side of her throat and drew a line over its front to the other side. “—to here before you’re grabbed or bitten.”

“How many wolves have you killed? I’ve heard it’s hundreds.”

“One hundred and four, currently. I imagine that number will increase by the time we reach Utgard.” She plucked the dagger from Christa’s hands and gave her another. “How does this feel?”

“Well…all right? Is there a feeling I should look for?”

“The proper blade will feel right in your hand.” She sighed again. “I would have made you a knife if we’d had greater notice.”

“You’re a blacksmith?”

“Every soldier makes their own sword. If we make it, we can trust our lives to it. It can be better to trust in the sword you’ve made than just your prayers alone.”

“Mikasa? Who do you worship?”

“The goddess of the east. My prayers to her to be given strength to protect what family I have left have been answered.”

“Maybe I should pray to her. The god of the south doesn’t seem to hear me.” She looked at the dagger in her hands and frowned. “I don’t think this works, either.” She looked at the table as Mikasa laid the dagger down. One in the far corner caught her eye. “What do you think of that one?”

Mikasa picked it up. “One edge, like my sword.” She put the dagger on the edges of her middle and ring fingers, raising a brow when it balanced easily. She flicked her fingers with some effort to toss it into the air, and slipped her right hand through the guard to catch it. Seemingly satisfied, she handed it to Christa. For her part, Christa fumbled with how to arrange her hand on the grip. Mikasa moved behind her.

“Like this,” she said, arranging Christa’s hand so her fingers were beneath the guard, knuckles aligned with the back of the blade. She held on to Christa’s hand and thrust out with it. “There, you’ve buried the blade. Now for the draw.” She brought Christa’s other hand up to push hard at the back of the blade, dragging it through the air with the opposite hand.

“That,” said Mikasa, “is how to kill a wolf. How does that feel?”

Christa had to bite her tongue because she knew well that Mikasa did not mean how it felt to be held like that. “Like—like I could hurt someone other than myself.”

“Good.” She let go of Christa and took the knife, heading off to the smithy. She came away five minutes later with the dagger and a belted sheath for it. They belted it to Christa before they left the shop. People gave them a wide berth upon seeing Mikasa’s sword on her hip, and they gave Christa odd looks when they noticed her dagger. True to Mikasa’s order, Armin, Annie, and Eren were unscathed when they returned. Annie got off of the roof and held out her hand. Fumbling still, Christa offered her the dagger.

“This will do,” Annie said, sniffing the iron and sneering. She gave it back and opened the carriage door. Climbing up, she leaned around to say, “Repeat it.”

“Remain on this road for the next fifteen miles, and then take the fork to the right,” Armin said. “There will be a town to stop at for the night three miles after that.”

“Good boy.” She got inside, leaving the door open. With little else to do, Christa had Mikasa help her into the carriage and closed the door behind herself. She sat upon hearing Armin snap the reins and looked at Annie. She was flat on her back on the other seat, legs bent right over left. Hands tucked behind her head and eyes closed, she looked as though she was already asleep. Christa, exhausted, settled back to drift off.

“Thought you’d be more cautious now that I made you buy a knife,” Annie said.

Christa forced her eyes open, seeing that Annie’s eyes were open and upon her. “Why?”

“You’re in a small box with a wolf. Wouldn’t anyone be nervous?”

“Well…I am, but…Mikasa trusts that you’ll do your job. You will, won’t you?”

Annie sniffed the air. “You’re terrified of me.”

“I am. I’m sorry.”

“Why?”

“I’m not giving you a fair chance. You’ve done nothing to me but get angry when I offended you. And the others are ready to kill you at a moment’s notice. This is probably the most unpleasant thing you’ve ever had to do, and I’m not making it easier. Can you forgive me? I’ll try to make it up to you somehow.”

Annie looked at her until Christa lowered her eyes. Suddenly, she said, “I gather information for Ymir. When she received a letter from Reiss saying he would send the head of the Renz house to her, she sent me to learn about you. They call you a goddess, you know.”

“I do know.”

“You’re soft. The wilder soldiers would love to devour you.”

Christa began to tremble, closing her hands tight on her knees. “Would…would you eat me?”

“I’ll eat weak humans, but not pathetic ones. You’re safe with me.”

“What about the others?”

Annie smiled, and Christa grew pale at the sight of her long, sharp teeth. “I’d love to eat the witch, but I don’t know a single wolf who doesn’t. The other two probably taste terrible.”

“Please don’t eat us,” Christa whispered, unable to raise her voice.

For a long time, Annie stared at her, face without expression. Christa tried and failed to fight down her fear, dropping her gaze to her feet.

“Not yet,” Annie murmured, and rolled onto her side to turn her back to Christa.

They traveled for the rest of the day in silence. Christa was unsure if Annie was truly asleep or just immobile. The only movement that came from her was when night creeped into the sky, and she lifted her head to sniff at the air. Closing her eyes, she changed into her wolf form and sat primly in the center of the carriage.

Here’s what we’re going to do. I will act as your hound in towns we stop at during the night while we’re still in the south. You may pet me.

“I thought I wasn’t allowed to touch you.”

We have to keep up appearances, and my not wearing shoes this time of year is a giveaway to what I really am. You may pet me and treat me like your hound while we’re in town. I expect to be fed.

“Of—of course. But…like a dog at the table?”

Scraps are fine. I would prefer that you order meat for me alone. Her ears twitched as the carriage came to a stop. You should also make sure no one else touches me. I tend to bite people without warning.

“Oh, please don’t do that,” Christa pleaded.

Then make sure you’re the only one who touches me.

“All right, all right.”

Annie inclined her head toward the door. Ladies first.

Christa, worrying at her lip with her teeth, opened the door. Eren was standing just beyond and offered Christa his hand for help down. He scowled upon seeing Annie as a wolf and made to shut the door, but Christa stopped him. Because there people around, she cleared her throat and said, “My hound comes with me, Eren. You know she hates waiting alone.”

He gaped at her. Eyes narrow, he whispered, “She put you under a spell, didn’t she.”

“I swear she didn’t,” Christa whispered back. “We have to keep up appearances. Please, Eren, just pretend she’s my dog.”

He sneered at Annie as she hopped out of the carriage. They regarded each other, Eren’s hand resting on the pommel of his sword. Annie did not wait for him to move, instead cutting between him and Christa to circle tightly around Christa’s legs and sit down at her side. She barked roughly and pushed her head under Christa’s hand.

Armin came away from tending to the horses, took one look at the situation, and laughed easily. “Milady, you and your hound. We can never separate the two of you.”

Mikasa came up from the door of the inn they had stopped at and said, “There’s two rooms to spare. They’re serving dinner soon.”

“Let’s get the trunk down and inside,” Eren said, climbing onto the driver’s seat. He and Armin got the trunk, carrying along to Mikasa’s lead. Christa and Annie brought up the rear, Christa feeling dwarfed by Annie’s large size.

“You’ve got quite the bitch there, girly!” a man said as they passed by his table. “Ever thought of breeding her? I’ve got a hound at my farm if she’s in heat soon.”

Christa put a hand on Annie’s back, feeling a low rumble building in her muscles. “She’s not old enough to breed yet.”

The man laughed. “At that size? She’d put out a fine litter. Let her come with me. I’d love to have a pup with fur like that.”

Christa looked down to see Annie’s hackles start to rise and stepped forward to hide this behind her skirt. Firmly, she said, “She’s not for breeding, not for you or me.”

The man’s brows rose in surprise. “All right, then, if you’re so dead set.”

“Come on, girl,” Christa said, stepping lightly after the trio with Annie quick to follow. They went up the stairs and to the last two rooms on the right.

“You and Armin take that one,” Mikasa said to Eren, pointing at one room. “Put the trunk in the other. We’ll be staying together.”

“But what about Annie?” Christa asked.

Mikasa looked at her blandly. “Dogs sleep on the floor unless you want to give up your bed.”

Christa looked at Annie, who looked at her with the same bland expression. They both were forced to step aside for Armin and Eren going into the room with the trunk. Armin and Eren rummaged in the trunk for fresh clothes before retreating into their room to change. Mikasa gestured for Christa and Annie to come inside, closing the door when they all were in the room.

“It’s the best we could do at nightfall,” Mikasa said. “It probably doesn’t compare to what a noble house had.”

Christa dropped down heavily on one of the two beds. She smiled. “It’s nice. I suppose we better enjoy it while it lasts.”

Why did you bring in the trunk?

Mikasa started, hand going for her sword. She stared at Annie, who stared back with her tail slowly sweeping the floor.

Well?

“Wolves can put their thoughts into another person’s head?” Mikasa asked, voice faint with shock.

If you want to put it that way. Answer my question. Why the trunk and nothing else? Are you that worried it’ll be stolen?

“It’s where we’re storing the message from King Reiss,” Christa said.

Out in the elements?

“We’re only headed into snow,” said Mikasa. “We’ll store it in the carriage once that starts.”

Annie padded over to the window and sniffed at the open seam. Are you ready for that now?

“Already?” Christa asked in a moan.

Mikasa frowned, going to the window and opening it further. A cold wind blew it, touched by humidity. She breathed it in until the wind died, and she closed the window completely with an even greater frown. “How many miles is it to Castle Utgard from here?”

Five hundred, and we’re heading straight to the mountains from here. Find her a horse, because that carriage won’t carry her much further than this town.

“Find us a different path,” Mikasa said. “There has to be a better way.”

Not if you want to get there before the winter. Do what I tell you.

Mikasa and Annie stared at each other, a muscle working clearly in Mikasa’s jaw. Desperate to break the tension, Christa said, “I can ride.”

“Lady Renz, riding for an afternoon is one thing,” Mikasa replied. “Five hundred miles carrying a pack through however many miles in the mountains with winter coming is another entirely.”

“It sounds like we don’t have a choice,” Christa said. “I can manage.”

Mikasa glared at Annie. “You’re sure there isn’t a better way?”

This is the easiest path. I scouted it out for horses specifically. There are no roads through the mountains wide enough for that carriage, and we have to go through the mountains if we want to avoid the front lines.

“Then it’s decided for us,” Christa said with a helpless shrug.

Don’t worry. There’s a stable here. And I’m sure someone will be glad to buy your carriage.

Still Mikasa glared, and Christa went to her to touch her elbow. “It’s really all right. Horses like me. I promise I won’t slow anyone down.”

Eventually, Mikasa relented. “If we really have no choice.” She opened the trunk and began to change into clean clothes. Though Christa, blushing, turned away to give her privacy, Annie watched her while sweeping the floor with her tail. Mikasa’s shirt came off and revealed a few scars here and there on her arms and sides. Annie tilted her head.

“What?” Mikasa asked.

You’re scarred.

“I’m a soldier. We all have scars.”

Don’t you know any healing magic?

“I know enough to close wounds. Scars are natural.”

I suppose they are for humans. I’ve never seen a scar before.

Mikasa pulled on new trousers and her boots and buckled her sword at her waist. “Then we’re all learning something today. Lady Renz, are you all right in those clothes?”

“I’m fine. And please, no more titles. The Renz house was never that important. Calling me ‘Christa’ is fine. And the same goes for you,” she said, nodding to Annie.

She chuffed air and shook her head, ears batting at the air. “Girl” is good enough for you.

Mikasa scowled at her, but Christa again touched her elbow. She sighed and gestured for both of them to follow her. “They’re probably serving dinner now.”

They joined Eren and Armin in the hallway and went back down to the tavern on the first floor after looking the doors. They occupied one of the last tables left, Annie slipping under the table to sit with her head on the bench between Christa and Mikasa. A girl came to them and they ordered; Christa received a strange look when she requested an extra plate full of meat for Annie. Food and ale arrived quickly after Mikasa explained about Christa’s name, and they all sank into eating to relieve the hunger of the day.

Fascinated, Christa watched Annie devour the meat off the plate on the bench, barely pausing to breathe at all. She did pause at one point, looking over her shoulder under the table. She looked up at Christa.

Tell the boy that the next time he steps on my tail, I’m ripping his foot off.

Christa looked at Eren with a frown. He responded by taking a drink of his ale with a cool expression. She said, “Eren, don’t do that.”

“What, drink?”

“Step on her tail.”

“I didn’t—”

“Eren, don’t lie,” Mikasa said. “We all knew you’d step on her tail if you ever had a chance.”

“But—”

“I saw you do it,” Armin said. “Let’s not fight at dinner.”

Eren tried to protest further, but stopped at the sight of begging in Christa’s face. “Fine,” he muttered into his mug, and took another drink. They finished in silence, Eren leaning back against the wall behind him with a groan.

You should think of this as your last good meal for the next month and a half.

Christa looked down to find Annie staring up at her again. Whispering, she asked, “Why?”

Because it’s going to be what we hunt on the way along to supplement your rations. She looked toward Mikasa and licked her hand. To her credit, Mikasa did not startle at this, eyes only widening briefly before she looked down. Do you have bows for hunting?

Mikasa nodded slightly.

Good. I don’t feel like hunting on my own for all of you.

With a raised brow, Mikasa lifted her head and set her eyes on Christa. Christa said, “I suppose we have no choice but to hunt if we’re going to go off the road.”

“Hunting?” Eren asked, sitting properly. “Are the rations going to run out that fast?”

“We’ll have to save those for the mountains when we can’t really hunt,” said Armin. “I’m sure we’ll have it easier with a proper hunting hound with us.”

“You’ll help, won’t you?” Christa asked.

Annie gave a brief bark and licked Christa’s hand as well. Reassured, Christa gently stroked her head. They got up from the table and returned to their rooms; Mikasa locked the door behind them.

You noticed, I assume?

“The three men at the table behind us?” Mikasa asked. “I did. I can’t believe they’d be so foolish as to try to rob us.”

“‘Rob us’?” Christa asked. “What are you talking about?”

“We’re on the road now. We have to be vigilant about highwaymen and thieves.”

And others who want to kill us for fun. Or my fur.

Mikasa smiled gently at the worry in Christa’s face. “You have nothing to worry about. I won’t let anything happen to you, and Eren and Armin are right across the hall.” She patted Christa on the back when she nodded once. “Let’s turn in for the night. It’s been a long day.”

Once Christa had changed into sleeping clothes and had gotten into bed, Mikasa blew out the lantern and set herself upright in the other bed, sword in her lap. Annie lay down by the trunk, and the room was silent. Christa fell asleep quickly listening to that silence, comforted by the sight of Mikasa.

When it happened, she thought she was dreaming. There was no reason for a man to be standing over her bed with a knife in his right hand and his left reached for her. Christa stared, wondering what she had done to deserve a dream that made her blood run cold.

A whip crack of snarling sound made the man turn, eyes wide. He did not have time to react more than that. With the faintest hiss of metal, Mikasa was up and off the bed, slicing off the man’s left hand. Annie came in from the other side, leaping fangs first into his throat. Wolf and man slammed into Mikasa’s bed, sending it across the floor. The man did not struggle when they stopped; half of his throat had torn away in Annie’s jaw. She let the flesh drop to the floor as she turned back around and charged for the door with more snarling coming past her bloody fangs.

A second, dim-looking man had stepped into the doorway on hearing the noise, and Annie ripped out his throat as well. The door across the hall was open, but Eren, sword drawn and blood, tossed his dead foe aside.

“Mikasa!” he called. “La—Christa!” He relaxed when they came out of the room unscathed, but stiffened again at the blood on Annie’s muzzle.

Footsteps started to come up the stairs; they could see light approaching. Christa looked from the light to Annie and quickly went to her, dropping to her knees and wrapping her arms around Annie.

What

The innkeeper gave a shriek when she saw them covered in blood. Christa saw the fear in her eyes when she looked at Annie, and hugged tighter until she was understood. Annie acted the concerned dog, whining and lapping at Christa’s face. The innkeeper relaxed visibly.

“Call for your sons or whoever it is that gets rid of your trash,” Eren said, aiming a short, hard kick at the head of one corpse.

“I’ll—my husband, I’ll get him.” She hurried away, leaving them in the dark.

“What time is it?” Christa asked, letting go.

“It should be dawn soon,” Mikasa replied. “Do you think you can sleep any more?”

Christa thought of all the blood and savaged flesh and shook her head.

“Let’s put you and the mutt in front of the fire,” Eren said as he wiped off his sword on the shirt of a dead man. “You can rest where it’s warm, at least.” He fetched a long green cloak from the trunk and draped it around her shoulders when she stared at the floor past Annie and made no move to take it. He helped her to her feet and led her and Annie down the stairs to the tavern. They passed the innkeeper on their way, and Christa spoke faintly to her.

“Could you heat a bowl of water?” she asked. “I’d like to clean my hound’s face.”

“At once, ma’am.”

Eren made her sit before the still burning fire in a chair he pulled over before striding away. There was nothing for it; Christa stared into the fire and watched the man’s hand being cut off and his throat ripped out again and again.

That was the first time you’ve seen death.

“Yes,” Christa whispered.

It scared you.

“Yes.”

Good.

Christa shuddered and closed her eyes. It was only when she heard someone say, “Ma’am,” that she looked up. The innkeeper stood there with a bowl of steaming water and a towel draped over one arm.

“For your dog,” she said when Christa only stared at her. She did not linger after Christa had taken the bowl and towel; Annie watched her hurry away. Christa got off the chair and sat in front of Annie, touching her chest to draw her attention.

“Please don’t bite me while I do this.”

I can clean myself just fine.

“Please? It’s the least I can do to thank you.”

Annie stared at her. Christa, already shaken and shaking, met her gaze somewhat steadily. Eventually, Annie sank down on her stomach and held her muzzle out over the bowl.

Get on with it.

Remembering when she had cleaned her dogs in childhood, Christa guided Annie to rest her jaw in the bowl, nose above water. She cleaned the blood from Annie’s fur and made her lift her head when she was done. Gently, she rubbed her muzzle dry, taking care to dry the spots where water had run down to her chest.

“Thank you,” Christa said, voice still soft.

For?

“If it weren’t for you and Mikasa, I’d likely be dead.”

Raped and dead, more like. I saw the way they looked at you and the witch during dinner.

“Then I should thank you even more.”

Annie chuffed a sigh. I have a job to do. I’d be leaving you to the mercy of others if it wasn’t for that.

“You really would?”

You’re not a member of my pack.

“Oh.” With some warning, she put her arms around Annie once more.

Let me go before I bite your ear off.

“Just for a second,” Christa said, pleading. “I was so scared.”

And you’re asking a wolf to comfort you?

“Just for a second.”

Annie sighed again. After a moment, though, she rolled her head against Christa’s.

“Thank you.”

You owe me.

“Will Ymir listen to me if I tell her you’ve done well?”

There were a few seconds of hesitation on Annie’s part. You would do that?

“If it’ll help you, of course.”

You really want to help a wolf?

“I do.”

Annie slowly swept her tail over the floor. If I keep protecting you and guiding you well, will you tell Ymir?

“The moment I see her.”

She squirmed slightly to make Christa let her go and looked her in the eye. Do you swear?

“On the life you just saved.”

For a few more seconds, Annie was stone still. We’ll shake on it when I’m in human form.

Christa smiled broadly and threw her arms around Annie to hug her tight. Annie took the embrace silently, and kept her eyes closed until the others joined them.

Chapter Text

There was a certain sense of shame Christa felt when the tailor had to roll up the legs of the heavy black riding trousers she tried on, and it only increased when she had to roll them up three times. She cut them, pinned them, and quickly sewed them with new cuffs. She did the same to two more pairs of trousers, and sold Christa three pairs of woolen socks, three heavy tunics that she pinned and sewed shorter, and a blue cloak that garnered the same shortening.

The sun had barely been up for twenty minutes before they had paid for their night at the inn and went to work. Eren remained with the carriage as the others headed into town for what they needed. While Armin and Mikasa shopped for packs and gear, Christa went to the tailor and the shoemaker. She came away from both wearing new clothes and knee high boots to match what the others wore. Annie, still wolfen, stayed close to her side even when she had been fitted for clothes.

They met back at the inn with their supplies, splitting up what was needed and what could be sold to lighten the load. They returned to the tailor to sell many of their clothes, and sold the carriage and luggage shortly after. The last part of the morning was spent selling off the two horses that had been drawing the carriage to purchase ones more suited for Armin and Christa to ride on. True to what she had said, the horses liked Christa so much it was difficult to pick one. But pick one they did, and they left the town with their packs laden heavy, the scroll buried in Christa’s, and Annie leading the way in her wolf form.

It did not snow that day, but the sun remained behind great iron gray clouds and the air was cold. Annie kept them moving against a wind frigid enough that they pulled the necks of their cloaks high on their faces and drew their hoods low on their brows. Annie’s pace was brisk; the horses trotted dutifully after her. Other travelers on the road raised a brow at the sight of horses and humans being led, but they did not put up a cry of “Wolf!” upon seeing Annie.

Very few breaks were given, and only to squat off the road or eat a ration. Much in the same way, very little was said. Mikasa, Armin, and Eren were grim after the previous night; Annie was completely silent; and Christa was too busy concentrating on riding well to try and strike up conversation. With the lateness of the year, they arrived at another town thirty miles onward just before the sun fully vanished under the horizon and the full moon came out from behind the clouds. Mikasa again procured the last two rooms at the local inn.

Once the door was locked behind them after dinner, Annie changed back into her human form. She sighed and sat on the end of Christa’s bed.

“Are you all right?” Christa asked, seeing her rub her feet.

“I’m fine. I haven’t had a chance to rest between trips.”

“Aren’t wolves creatures of endurance?” Mikasa asked.

Annie gave her a withering look. “Tell me that after three weeks of running with little sleep.”

There was faint admiration in Mikasa’s voice when she asked, “You ran the five hundred miles?”

“Mostly. I had to keep up with Ymir’s crow.”

Mikasa looked at her with a trace of a smile. “No wonder you were lazy yesterday.”

“Would you like the bed?” Christa asked. When both Mikasa and Annie looked at her in confusion, she said, “I’m sure it would be more comfortable than the floor.”

“Is that where you’re planning on sleeping?” Annie asked.

“I can sleep on our cloaks.”

“I know they call you a goddess, but show a little sense. You’re the one who has to ride for hours on end.” She started to continue, but gasped when Mikasa came over from her bed suddenly, picked her up under her arms, and ferried her back to the bed. The punch she aimed at Mikasa’s face when she was set down was dodged, though barely. “Don’t you ever do that again!”

“You can have my bed for tonight,” Mikasa said.

“That doesn’t change what I said! Grab me like that again and I’ll eat your right hand!”

Mikasa replied, “Try to do that and see how far you get with a cut throat.”

“Please stop,” Christa said, going to them and putting a hand on either woman’s shoulder. They continued to stare at each other, neither breaking the gaze until Christa stepped between them. She looked first at Mikasa, who looked past her still. When she looked at Annie, Annie turned away, eyes disinterested. Squeezing Mikasa’s shoulder, she said, “Thank you for giving her your bed.”

Mikasa hummed flatly and made herself a nest out of their cloaks between the two beds. She blew the lantern out and settled down with her sword in her arms, falling asleep in seconds. Christa watched her breathe for a time before lying down and looking to Annie. She put a hand over her mouth to keep from gasping. The backs of Annie’s eyes caught the light of the moon that poured in through the window, and shone bright green. Annie saw her shocked gaze and sighed, starting to close her eyes.

“No, please don’t,” Christa whispered. “Your eyes are beautiful.”

Annie raised a brow. “You say strange things to wolves. Are you planning on being this odd with Ymir?”

“What should I expect? You said she’s a brute.”

“I mean it. She’s vulgar and crass and takes pride in that.”

“Then she’s not like you at all.”

“No.”

Christa smiled nervously. “Well…I suppose it’s just until I deliver the letter.”

“I don’t think she’ll bite you, if it’s any consolation.”

“I hope not. I don’t want to become a wolf.”

“You actually believe that lie?”

“Can humans not be turned into wolves?” Christa asked.

Annie shrugged. “Maybe. It’d take magic I don’t know.”

“Would Ymir?”

She shrugged again. “You’d have to ask.” She rolled onto her other side, dragging the quilt over herself. “Go to sleep. The sooner we get to Utgard, the sooner I can rest easy.” She dropped off quickly, leaving Christa to listen to her and Mikasa breathe.

Christa watched the both of them for a while. They were similar in a way, slender but never looking frail. She could not forget their physical strength, and they cut commanding figures even as they slept. A soft wish crossed her mind, then. She wanted to take the place of Mikasa’s sword in her arms, or to press herself to Annie’s back beneath the quilt.

She smiled bitterly and pulled her own quilt up and over her head. The thoughts did not leave her until she fell deeply asleep.

-------

Born and raised in the flat land city of Trost, Christa knew mountains as shadows on the horizon. When they made better time than Annie planned and arrived at the foot of the mountains eight days later, she stared up into the misty peaks with her jaw hanging down. So long did she stare that Annie barked impatiently. Sheepishly, she spurred the horse onward, and they followed Annie up a stony trail single file.

The wind was worse in the mountains, battering them so fiercely that there was no hope to hold their hoods up. Even Annie was slowed by it, ears blown flat to one side. She turned her head back to look at them, and they heard her voice clearly.

We’ll get over the ridge to block the wind.

“How long will that take?” Mikasa asked over the noise.

A few hours if we move quickly. There’s no closer crossing point than that for the horses. She turned forward and walked fast against the wind.

They followed her, Mikasa taking the lead with Armin behind her. Christa came after him, and Eren brought up the rear. He was not allowed near Annie while on a horse, as he had shown a tendency to try to get his horse to step on her. Christa squinted for the wind in her eyes, keeping her head bowed. Her teeth chattered with the cold, which cut through her new clothes as easily as a blade. They went as quickly as they could with gusts threatening to tip them over in their saddles.

Once they crested the first great hill and cut through to the other side, the wind died at once. They were left with badly ruffled hair and frigid skin. Annie shook herself mightily and sat down to scratch her ears upright.

“Are we going to have to do that again?” Armin asked, patting his hair down.

Not until we cross to the other side of the valley and go to the other mountains there.

Mikasa looked out into the valley; a layer of mist kept her from seeing far. “How soon can we make a descent?”

Not for a few days. There’s no safe way down for a horse for miles.

“Let’s keep moving,” said Eren. Annie led them on, and they took great care on the path, as it was barely wider than the horses needed. With the wind gone, it was eerily quiet; Christa was sharply aware of the crunching of stones under hooves and the breathing of her horse. It was calming, and she stroked the horse’s neck instead of looking at the steep drop to her left.

It was dusk when they arrived at an alcove of stone large enough for them to make camp. With no wood to gather, they went without a fire. Annie, in human form, stared up at the waning moon and refused food.

“Aren’t you hungry?” Christa asked.

“I’ll wait,” she said, voice distant and eyes locked on the moon.

“More for us, then,” Eren said cheerfully.

Annie hummed flatly. Eren frowned at this, but concentrated on filling his stomach as well as was possible on dry rations and sips of water. Once their eyes had fully adjusted to the moonlight in the dark, they pitched two tents, Armin and Eren going into one and Mikasa and Christa in the other. Christa poked her head out to look at Annie, still so fixated on the moon.

“Did…did you want to come in?” Christa asked.

“No. It’s been a while since the moon has been so bright while I’m outside.”

“Do you gain strength in the moonlight?”

“More or less. Go to sleep. We still have a long way to go.”

“Good night, Annie.” Annie neither replied nor looked away from the moon, and Christa drew back inside the tent. She tried to settle to sleep, but could not help her discomfort at lying on stone. The grass that had made their bed the last week had been difficult to get used to, but rocks beneath her sleeping mat were another matter entirely. Eventually, she lay flat out on her stomach and stopped moving to keep from waking Mikasa, who had managed to fall asleep in her usual ten seconds.

Christa turned her head to watch Mikasa as she slept. It was uncomfortable, being in endlessly close quarters with someone so pretty. Annie did not help the uncomfortable feelings. Christa knew how awkward and twisted her attraction to the both of them was, and she had long since sworn to never act on or speak to her attraction to women. Who she happened to be was bad enough; she wanted no enemies in her life, let alone the high church. She contented herself by stealing these moments to appreciate how lovely Mikasa was, and to think on how beautiful Annie’s pride made her.

“Christa.”

She jerked awake at the shaking of her shoulder. Mikasa knelt at her side, her bedding already packed away. Embarrassed, Christa hurried to do the same to her bedding, getting it arranged in her pack while Mikasa took down and packed the tent. They set off behind Annie, who seemed to thrum with eager energy. Her tail was held high as they traversed the mountain’s path. Past Armin, Christa could see Mikasa sit forward in her saddle slightly, but could not make out what she said. There was no response to be heard from Annie, and Christa took it to mean that they wanted a private conversation.

“Hey, Christa,” said Eren.

“Yes?” she said, turning enough to look at him without pulling on the reins.

“Ready to go home yet?” he asked, smiling a little.

“No, I’m all right. It’s an adventure to go so far from home.”

Armin, overhearing them, chuckled. “You’re very positive, Christa. I’m glad you’re the person we were tasked to escort.”

“No shit,” Eren said. “Most other nobles would’ve pitched a fit about camping in the mountains.”

“I’m all right, though I’ll admit it’ll be nice to get off the mountain. Are you used to camping like this?”

“More or less,” Armin replied. “Our survival training brought us to these mountains years ago. But we didn’t use trails like this, so we’ve got no choice but to follow her to make sure we don’t get lost.”

Eren snorted. “She’s probably leading us straight into a trap.”

“Please give her a chance,” Christa said. “She’s done nothing but help us.”

“To trick us!”

Christa sighed. “Then why bother saving me the other night? She could have let any number of horrible things happen to me, but she did her job and kept me safe.”

“So did Mikasa!”

“But then don’t you see that they’re the same?”

“Don’t ever put Mikasa on the level of wolves!” Eren snapped, words so sharp they made Christa flinch. “They’re nothing but wild beasts!”

“Eren, calm down or you’ll spook the horses,” said Armin, patting his own reassuringly.

Eren scowled, but stroked his horse’s neck when it tossed its head nervously. Christa did the same and went quiet. There were no more words had between them until Annie brought them to a fast-flowing, crystal clear stream. Eren helped Christa off her horse and told her to dump out the dregs in her canteen before filling it with fresh water. They paused at the stream’s side to eat a ration. Mikasa caught Christa’s wince when she sat down on a rock.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“No, it’s nothing,” Christa said, smiling. “I’m just a little sore from riding.”

“You’re not getting saddle sores, are you?” Eren asked.

“Let’s go on foot for the rest of the day and we can check tonight when we make camp,” Armin said.

Christa felt her face burn. “‘Check’?”

Armin blushed as well. “I—I meant Mikasa can check!”

Her face burned even hotter. “Erm.”

“We’ve still got a long way to go,” said Mikasa. “Getting saddle sores now will be far worse than a little embarrassment.”

“N-no, you’re right,” Christa said with a faint laugh.

Going on foot is going to slow us down badly.

“If she gets saddle sores and they’re bad, it’ll be hard to walk at all,” Eren said, scowling.

I’ll just carry her on my back, then. Your horses can keep up with me.

“No, that’s really all right! It’s fine for me to walk!”

Annie changed to her wolf-woman form and came over to knock Christa hard on the head with a curled finger. With a deeper, rumbling voice, she said, “Not when we’re trying to beat winter. I’ll carry you.”

Christa gave in and mumbled, “All right.” They finished eating soon after and tied a rope to the reins of Christa’s horse to Armin to use in guiding it forward. Annie crouched down and Christa, wanting to die on the spot, climbed onto her broad furry back and was arranged like a child riding piggyback. They went off with Christa’s arms around Annie’s neck and Annie’s arms hooked under Christa’s knees.

“You’re tiny,” Annie said. “I take back what I said about you being able to kill a wolf with your weight behind you.”

“I can’t help that!”

“Once we’re in the valley I’m making the witch teach you how to use your knife.”

Christa sighed in defeat. “All right.”

“Stop sounding so upset. The first thing we learn as cubs is how to defend ourselves. It’s an overdue lesson for you.”

Christa hummed because she had nothing to say, and laid her cheek on the back of Annie’s shoulder. While her fur was coarse, it was still comfortable enough to rest her face there and close her eyes. Instead of dwelling on the ache in her rear, she focused on the smell of Annie’s fur. It was a cold smell, what Christa imagined snow smelled like. She liked it, and inhaled deeply and steadily to take it in.

When next she opened her eyes, the moon was out and they were drawing close to another alcove to stop for the night. She let Annie put her down and hid her burning face in her hands. Annie, changing to her human form, stretched her arms high over her head and yawned.

“How badly have you been sleeping that you slept that entire time?” Annie asked.

“It hasn’t been that bad,” Christa said through her fingers.

“Bad enough that you wouldn’t wake up when I said your name,” Annie replied. “You’re really a weakling, you know that?”

“Come on, be reasonable,” Armin said. “Nobles aren’t used to roughing it. I’m sure she just needed a rest after a week of hard riding.”

Annie shrugged and sat atop a rock. “Even your snoring was delicate.”

“I snored?”

“Sort of. It was kind of cute.”

Christa’s stomach did a strange flip. “Oh. Erm. I’m glad it wasn’t annoying.”

“If you want annoying snoring, you have to go to Reiner and Bertholdt. They have their own room half a castle away from everyone else.”

“Rooms, you mean?” Armin asked.

Annie raised a brow. “Why would mates live in separate rooms?”

“Then it’s not a sin for you guys?” Eren asked, sounding impressed.

“Why would that be a sin? Those two idiots love each other, so that’s all Lady Mond cares about.”

“That’s refreshing,” said Mikasa.

Eren laughed. “Too bad all the women are wolves, huh, Mikasa?”

She shrugged, busying herself with pitching a tent.

Christa felt her stomach do another flip. She opened her mouth to ask, but felt it too personal and closed her mouth again.

Annie, though, had no such reservations and simply asked, “You love women, witch?”

“My name is Mikasa Ackerman, Leonhardt. I won’t be offended if you use it.”

“Fine, Ackerman. Do you or don’t you love women?”

“I do.”

Annie smiled slightly. “Then we finally have something in common.”

Their frankness made Christa dizzy; she stared at the both of them.

Eren took notice first and laughed again. “You scared her! I bet you’re one of the blind faithful and want to turn them into the church!”

“N-no, that’s not it at all! I’m just…surprised.”

“Well, most of what the church says is a lie anyway,” said Armin, finishing the tent for himself and Eren. “So you’ll never have to worry about Mikasa coming after you in the night aflame with lust.”

“Can’t speak for the wolf, though,” Eren said with a sneer. “They’re just animals, after all.” Annie slid off the rock, picked up a stone, and threw it dead center at Eren’s forehead. As he slumped down, clutching his bleeding forehead, she spoke in a snarl that pulled back her lips and showed her sharp teeth.

“We only mate with one person!” she said. “We don’t act like humans who fuck anyone who gives them the slightest attention! We pick our mates with care to make sure they’re our best match for the rest of our lives! Don’t you dare call us animals!”

Armin and Mikasa grabbed hold of Eren and Christa burrowed under Annie’s chin before either of them could rush at the other. From so close, Christa could hear the horrible growling that was rising in Annie’s throat; looking down showed her that her fingernails had turned to claws. Not knowing what to do, Christa put her arms around Annie’s shoulders and hugged tight. Bit by bit, the growling died off until she finally relaxed and pushed Christa away. She changed into her wolf form and slipped behind the tent Mikasa had pitched.

Christa turned to see Armin holding Eren’s hand while Mikasa murmured sound Christa understood as Mikasa ordering the wound to heal. A faint golden glow suffused the ends of her right hand’s fingers, and she stroked gently at the broken skin. It mended, and Mikasa took her hand away as the glow faded.

Eren started, “But she—”

Mikasa clamped a hand down tight over his mouth. “We have been ordered to fulfill a duty. You are acting out of line, and you have been since we left Sina. If this continues, you will take every night watch until we reach the other side of the mountains. Am I understood?” When he tried to pull her hand away to argue, she gripped his face tighter. “Am I understood, or do you need to take all of tonight’s watches with no rations until tomorrow night?”

He stared at her in fury, but eventually nodded. She let him go and they neither spoke nor argued. Eren went to tend to the horses, and Mikasa went to Christa. Christa stared up at her, caught somewhere between suddenly bashful and deeply unnerved by what had just happened. Mikasa patted her on the shoulder and said, “Have something to eat. I’m going to talk to her.”

“O-okay.” She watched her go around the back of the tent.

“Christa, come sit here a moment,” Armin said. He smiled as she drew close and sat down next to him. He took out a ration of jerked meat from each of their bags and held out one for her. She took it and bit into it, and as she chewed at it, he spoke again.

“I’m not really going to ask you to forgive him for how he’s been acting,” he said, toying with his food. “He’s always been intense like this. He and Mikasa have never told me what happened the day they met, but I doubt it was good.”

“They’re not related by blood? Or by marriage?”

“No, the Jaeger family adopted Mikasa after her parents were killed.”

“By wolves?”

“The most Eren has ever told me is that they were humans worse than wolves. ‘Less than dogs,’ he said.”

“Oh. But—weren’t your families all killed by wolves?”

Armin smiled sadly. “Yes, back when we were twelve.”

“Then you’re all only twenty-one? But you seem so much older, and especially Mikasa.”

He chuckled. “I get the same feeling about our fine furred compatriot. I’ve heard wolves can live for centuries. You should ask her if it’s true.”

“I should? Why me?”

“It’s clear that she likes you more than anyone else.”

She knew exactly what he meant. It did not keep her from blushing and stammering, “No, no I don’t—no, she can’t. I mean—”

Armin’s brows rose. “You, too?”

“Please don’t tell anyone,” she whispered urgently.

He struggled not to laugh, though it would have been kind. “You have nothing to worry about with us.”

She shook her head and stared at her knees. “It’s wrong.”

“Is it wrong of Mikasa and Annie?”

She shook her head again and felt like crying. “They’re different.”

Armin reached out and rubbed her back gently. “It’s just like Annie said. It’s love, so it’s not a sin.”

Once again, Christa shook her head. “I don’t want God to hate me.”

“I think God is loving and man is stupid,” Armin said, still steadily rubbing her back. “The church is the entity largely responsible for the war on the north—they keep telling us wolves are an affront against God, but I don’t see it. There’s a reason for the wolves to fight us, but no one is sure what it is because of all the obfuscation and propaganda from the church.”

“That’s heresy,” she said, though without any heat.

He laughed. “I was roughed up more than once during my youth for what I say, and they attacked me physically because they had no good response.” He patted her on the back. “Life is too short to indulge in the hatreds of a church. I say you try to live happily. If that involves telling the truth and seeing what happens, all the better.”

She rolled the hem of her shirt between thumb and forefinger. “Do you think anything would happen?”

“The only way you’ll ever know is if you don’t lie and just let things happen naturally.”

She thought silently for a time long enough that Eren finished tending the horses and returned to them. He crouched down in front of Christa, nudging her on the forehead when she failed to look at him.

“Think she’d accept an apology?” he asked.

“You want to apologize?” Armin asked.

Eren shrugged, but said, “I’m not making this easy for us. We should probably stay on her good side if we want to get around safely. So,” he said to Christa, “do you think she’d accept an apology?”

“I suppose if it’s very sincere.”

“She might be too surprised to accept it,” said Armin. He laughed when Eren punched him on the shoulder. “You might as well try.”

“Please?” Christa added.

He grinned at her and ruffled her hair hard. “I guess I have to if the goddess wants me to. What’s her name, again?”

“Annie Leonhardt.”

“Think I should wait until her and Mikasa come out?”

“That would be the wiser gambit,” Armin said. “Eat something while we wait.”

He did so, and they chatted amongst themselves about how quickly the weather was turning. A little less than an hour later, Mikasa and a human Annie rounded the tent and joined them in a circle.

“Eren?” Armin said when Eren was silent.

Eren cleared his throat and looked at Annie. “I’m, uh, sorry.”

Annie raised a brow. In a flat voice she said, “Really?”

“Yeah, really,” Eren said curtly. “Can’t a guy be sorry?”

Annie looked at Mikasa, brow still raised.

“I told you he’d apologize,” Mikasa said.

Annie sighed and looked back to Eren. “You’re sorry for calling me an animal who can’t control herself.”

“Yeah.”

“Does this apology also count toward how you’ve been acting like I’ll betray you at any second?”

“Yeah.”

She regarded him for a long while with her chin in her hand and her brow raised. Just as he began to squirm, she said, “Then I apologize for breaking the skin.”

“You’re not sorry for throwing the rock in the first place?” Christa asked.

“No.”

“I would’ve done the same thing if I were her,” Eren said. “It’s fine.”

Annie held out her free hand. “Truce for now?”

Eren stared at her. “You want to shake my hand?”

She smirked toothily, an ugly thing. “I want to see how uncomfortable I can make you.”

“Fuck you! I can shake your hand just fine!” He grabbed her hand and shook forcefully. “Truce for now!”

“Now that that’s finally done with,” Mikasa said, “what kind of time are we making?”

Annie dropped Eren’s hand lazily. “We’ll be able to come down off the mountain tomorrow afternoon if we get moving early. If we keep a steady pace, we should reach the path up the other mountain in another two weeks.”

“And what’s our terrain after the other mountain?” Armin asked.

“I’m going to keep us in the forests and off the main roads. We can smell outsiders and I don’t want anyone at our throats before I can howl to the castle.” She looked at Mikasa. “You smell like death even upwind, and we don’t like that.”

“Hey, she smells best next to Christa!” Eren said.

“I mean she smells like a death dealer. It’s her sword. No matter how well you clean it, I can smell all the blood that’s been on it, even when it’s in its sheath.”

“Your senses are remarkable,” Armin said, smiling eagerly. “I know so little about how wolves really are that it’s a treat to talk to you.”

“I hope you’re not expecting me to tell you all our secrets.”

He held up his hands. “No, no, not at all! I just love to learn about the world and all the people in it.”

Annie lifted her head slightly. “‘People’?”

“Of course. You’re a person, after all.”

She hummed softly and put her chin back in her hand. “I am.” She looked up toward the moon and took a deep breath of the cold air. “Go to sleep soon. I’ll wake you early.”

“No food for you again?” Mikasa asked.

“There should be deer in the valley I can hunt. I’ll wait.”

“You better let us help,” Eren said. “The last thing we need is for you to be so tired from hunting that you get us lost or something.”

“Then I hope you’re a good shot, because I’m not fetching the arrows where you miss.”

Armin laughed. “You’ll have a good hunting partner in Eren. He never misses.”

“As long as he misses me.”

“We shook, didn’t we? You track a deer, I bring it down. As long as we get a fire going, we’ll eat deer steaks tomorrow night.”

“Go to sleep so we have more time to hunt while you can still see.”

Mikasa, having been eating a ration of meat, swallowed what was in her mouth and stood up. She tapped Christa on the shoulder. “Come on.” Christa followed her, confusion filling her. They went into their tent, Mikasa sitting down cross-legged on her sleeping mat. Christa did the same on hers, hands on her knees. After a few seconds, Mikasa said, “You forgot.”

“What?”

“I have to check to make sure you’re not getting sores.”

Christa felt a blush spread from her neck to the tips of her ears. “Oh. I—I did forget.”

Mikasa sighed softly. “I promise I won’t make anything strange.”

“N-no, I’m sorry, I’m the one making it strange.” She took a deep breath. “What do I need to do?”

“Just pull your trousers down enough for me to see where you hurt.”

“Erm…all right.” Wanting sincerely to be struck dead on the spot, she undid her belt and pulled her trousers down to her knees. She moved as Mikasa bade her to, lying on her stomach with her face in her arms. When Mikasa’s callused hands prodded carefully at her hurting flesh, she winced and drew in a sharp breath.

“Well,” Mikasa murmured, “it’s good we caught this now. Go ahead and pull your trousers back up.”

She did so, sitting gingerly. “Is it bad?”

“I want Annie to carry you for the next few days to let you heal.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It can’t be helped. You’ve never ridden this long. We’ll see about adjusting the saddle’s fit once you can sit up there properly again.”

“I really am sorry. I didn’t want to bother anyone.”

“You should have said something sooner, but we’ll take care of it. Try to get some sleep.” She got under her blanket, put her sword in her arms, and fell asleep.

Christa watched her again that night, still unable to parse what Mikasa had said earlier and what that might mean for her personally. Only as she fell asleep did she realize that Mikasa had changed how she referred to Annie. The thought made her smile, though she wasn’t sure why.

--------

Annie’s word proved true; they reached the path down the mountain at midday, reaching the valley floor before the sun was gone. She and Eren set out immediately and on foot to hunt down something to eat. Armin and Christa gathered firewood from a cluster of trees some yards away from where they made camp, picking the few apples that had not fallen off the branches. They returned with their arms laden, and piled the wood at the center of their camp.

Not long after the sun had set and they had started a fire, they heard footsteps in the grass and turned. Eren, grinning enormously, walked next to Annie in her wolf-woman form, a dead buck draped over her shoulder. Christa, fascinated, watched as they skinned and cut up the bled deer. In no time at all, they were cooking up great slabs of meat, and Annie in her wolf form devoured what they would not eat.

Christa ate with vigor, enjoying something she had never tasted before. It was warm in front of the fire, and she stared into the flames when she was finished. It felt as though it had been forever since her belly had been filled well, and looking at the others told of how their moods had taken a turn for the better with a good meal. Annie even came out of the shadows in her human form to sit between Mikasa and Christa, and they relaxed to the crackling of the burning wood.

“Annie?” Christa said.

Annie, legs stretched out so her feet were closer to the fire, replied, “What?”

“What is the north like? I’ve never heard stories about it.”

Annie looked at her a moment, but did not argue. “Quiet. We’re surrounded by mountains on all sides. Castle Utgard is built out of a mountain in the middle of the country. But we still have enough flat land to raise our meat and grow things. And there are forests with trees so high it’s hard to climb them in a single day.”

“Do you miss it?”

“Who doesn’t miss their homeland?” She looked at Mikasa. “Don’t you miss the east?”

“Sometimes. I couldn’t leave my family, though.”

“But I know how you feel about your parents,” Annie said, turning from Mikasa to stare into the fire. “Mine died in the war, too.”

Christa did what came naturally and put a hand on Annie’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry. Was it recent?”

“It was fifty years ago, so not really.”

Fifty?” Armin asked.

“Fifty-two.”

“Then wolves really do age at a different rate than humans!” Armin said, smiling. “That’s amazing!”

“How the hell old are you?” Eren asked.

“It was my fifty-eighth birthday this summer.”

“And you barely look twenty,” Armin said, scrutinizing her face. “Do wolves age at a third the speed humans do?”

Annie shrugged. “You’d have to ask Hanji. They’re the one who knows the most about the differences between humans and wolves.”

“Who’s Hanji?” Christa asked.

“A scholar at the castle. They're weird, to say the least, but they're really smart.”

“A wolf scholar?” Eren said. “I didn’t know you had scholars.”

“They're also a strategist, and they've been doing that since the start of the war.”

Armin’s eyes shone bright. “A strategist? Do you think they'll meet with me?”

“They won’t tell you our plans, you know.”

“No, it’s just that I want to talk to someone who does what I do! It’ll be incredible to talk to someone with more than sixty years of experience!”

“We’ll see how long you’re staying after you deliver the letter.”

“I hope not long,” Mikasa said. “It’ll be impossible to travel back this way with snowfall.”

“Isn’t it very cold in the winter in the north?” Christa asked.

“Utgard is built in a mountain with a hot spring below it. The castle and the town stay pretty warm.”

“That’ll be nice,” said Armin.

“It’s fucking freezing already and we’re in the middle of a valley,” Eren said. “The sooner we get to Utgard, the better.”

“We’ll stay in the valley for another two weeks, heading north against a river,” said Annie. “Then it’s a week on the other mountain before we can get into the forests that lead to Utgard. After that, it should be two weeks, maybe ten days if we go fast.”

“You’re certain this is the safest path?” Mikasa asked.

“It’s safest for you. I’d be going on main roads and staying at inns if it was just me.”

“Can you really smell our swords that strongly?” Armin asked.

“Yes, frankly, and didn’t you notice something strange?”

“Like what?” Christa asked.

“The last few inns we stopped at before the mountain were all talking about a rumor they’d heard. You didn’t pay attention?”

Mikasa frowned. “I thought I’d misheard, but I’ll trust your ears over mine any day.”

“What? What’s wrong?” Christa asked, feeling anxiety clawing up her throat.

“Word had it in the taverns that your king sent a peace treaty to Ymir.”

“But we don’t know that,” Christa said. “He didn’t tell us what his message says. And why would that be a dangerous thing to know?”

Annie sighed. “Because there are plenty of people on either side who wants to see the enemy completely annihilated, and a peace treaty will get in the way of that. We got lucky in the south because humans were scared of my fangs and their swords. Wolves are not so fearful. I want us off the roads to make sure we’re tracked as little as possible.”

“Are we in danger?” Christa asked.

Annie shrugged one shoulder. “Life is dangerous. It’s a little less dangerous right now.” She yawned and stretched. “Go to sleep. It’ll be easier riding tomorrow.”

“Eren, take second watch, and Armin third,” said Mikasa. “I’ll take first tonight.” She arranged her scarf high on her face as Eren and Armin went into their tent. Christa lingered, but went into the other tent after seeing that Annie and Mikasa would not move.

She pulled her blanket up to her chin and lay on her side to face the lit side of the tent. All she could hear was the faint crackling of the fire, but she was unsure if there was anything else to hear. Sleep came quickly on a full belly, and for the first time since leaving Trost, she had a dream.

It was a peculiar dream. She thought she woke on her other side with her face buried in Annie’s fur, hand on her back. Very muffled, she thought she heard Mikasa saying something. Letting out a breath, she snuggled in closer and fell out of the dream and back into warm darkness. Waking properly came from Eren shouting through the canvas, and Christa jerked violently to hear it. What she found on waking surprised her: Mikasa was not out from beneath her blanket.

“Are you all right?” Christa asked.

Mikasa groaned as she sat up. “I’m fine. I couldn’t fall asleep for a while.”

You couldn’t fall asleep? Are you really sure you’re all right? Should we rest for the day?”

Mikasa looked at her with the smallest trace of embarrassment before tossing her blanket off and beginning to pack. “I’m fine. I was just up late talking to Annie.”

“Really? About what?”

“She wanted to know about the east. I told her what I can remember.”

“How long did you live there?”

“Until I was seven. Then my family moved to my father’s home in Zhinganshina. Come on, get packing. We’ve made everyone wait long enough.”

Christa nodded and packed her gear with a practiced hand. They got moving quickly, and their pace was just as swift now that they were on flatter land. Christa was grateful to be on Annie’s back with how fast they were going; the idea of being on her horse made her wince.

It was a wide valley, but they traveled northwest until they reached a fast-flowing river. After crossing at a narrow point, their path kept them along the bank of the river; deer drinking from the water scattered on their approach. They kept moving for the entire day, stopping only to drink from the river or squat among the trees that littered the valley. Truly stopping came a short time before sunset, and Eren and Annie set out to hunt while the others made camp. Once they were done eating the deer Eren shot, Annie came out of the shadows and stood before Mikasa and Christa.

“Stand up,” she said.

Mikasa did so, but Christa looked at them both with confusion. “What are we doing?”

“Teaching you how to use your knife,” Annie replied.

Christa’s eyes grew wide. “But—but what if I hurt you on accident? I don’t know how to use it yet—I could cut you!”

“As long as you don’t cut my throat, we’ll be safe. And Mikasa knows healing magic, so she’ll be fine.”

Mikasa helped Christa to her feet when she did not stand, saying, “Do you remember how to hold it?”

Christa nodded and drew the knife. The weight was still so unfamiliar to her, and she could not help but stare at the blade, shining orange with the firelight.

“Now come at me,” Annie said, raising her fists.

“But I don’t want to hurt you!”

“I doubt you ever could. Come at me.”

Christa looked to Mikasa, who nodded wordlessly. Gritting her teeth, she held out the knife before her and took a slow step.

“What good will that speed do you?” Annie asked. “For the last time, come at me.”

Christa swallowed hard and ran at Annie. In the next instant, she felt and saw the world spin before landing flat and hard on her back. Dazed, the breath knocked out of her, she stared up at the starless, cloudy sky.

“Oh my god!” Armin said, hurrying over and kneeling at her side. “Christa, are you all right?”

“What the hell was that?” Eren said. “I’ve never seen a wolf do anything like that in battle!”

“My father taught me how to fight in this form in case I had to hide my identity in a fight.”

“What just happened?” Christa asked, sitting up slowly.

“Come here,” Annie said. She put her hand on the back of Christa’s neck and her foot at the front of Christa’s ankles. She pushed with hand and foot alike. “With the way you were running, it was nothing to flip you. Did you actually close your eyes before you tried to strike?”

“Well…”

“Closing your eyes on the strike is dangerous,” Mikasa said. “Keep them open next time.”

Annie released her and took a step back, raising her fists again. “You haven’t got any basics to even start learning the blade. Put it away.”

“And come at you again?”

“Yes. Try to land a punch on me anywhere.”

Christa sheathed her knife and looked closely at Annie. She lifted her own fists to mimic her, but drew them closer to her face in a guard. She closed the distance between them with a thrown fist, and gasped when Annie sidestepped and caught her wrist. She felt Annie’s foot come behind her knee and bend it hard and fast. With a hard wrench, she was on her backside with Annie crouched behind her and her own arm wrapped tight around her throat.

“Know what you did wrong this time?” Annie asked.

Christa shook her head slightly, barely able to move.

“You dropped your other hand the second I grabbed you. If you keep your other hand up, you could use it to punch if your main hand is incapacitated.” She picked Christa up under her arms and set her on her feet. “Do you know how to throw a proper punch?”

“That was the first punch I’ve thrown in my life.”

Annie hummed flatly and turned to Eren. “Mikasa said you were right behind her in hand to hand combat during training. Teach her to punch.”

“Me?”

“You want to be useful, right? And you,” she said to Armin, “you be her punching bag. Wrap your hands and let them be her targets.”

Hit him?” Christa said. “I can’t do that!”

Armin laughed. “No offense, but I doubt you’ll do more than give me a few bruises.” He went to his pack and dug out scraps of cloth, which he wrapped round his hands.

Eren sighed as he stood up. “Teaching a noble to punch. That’s a story to tell the battalion. Okay, hands up. Let me see your fists.” Within a few seconds of glancing at her clenched hands, he nodded. “Okay, good. You’re a good mimic.” He rearranged her fingers minutely and then held up his own fists. “Feel how they are? See mine? Always go for that feeling and focus on holding them up like I am.”

“Okay.”

He moved to stand beside her. “Okay, now punching isn’t just throwing out your fist. You put your weight into it, from shoulder to hip. Step into it.” He demonstrated, exhaling hard as he did. “Give it a try. Armin, give her a target.”

Armin stepped forward and held out his left hand. Christa looked at him uncertainly, but clenched her fists tighter when he nodded. She thought on what Eren had said and done, and punched as hard as she could with her right fist. Armin caught her fist in such a way that she felt how hard she had hit him. Her knuckles stung faintly and her heartbeat had stepped up in speed. She looked at Eren and smiled when he nodded.

For the rest of the evening, they trained her how to punch, how to hold herself, how to guard. This was how the evenings were passed for the next week. By the end of the week, she and Armin had begun to circle each other, Armin aiming light but swift jabs at Christa for her to block or dodge. Every time Eren praised her for being a fast learner, a burst of exhilaration made her shiver. Even Annie and Mikasa nodded wordlessly at her progress, and she fought down the urge to grin like a fool when she saw them nod.

On the eighth night, Annie did not let Armin wrap his hands immediately. She said to Christa, “I want to teach you this before we get on the mountain again.”

“What is it?” Christa asked.

Annie changed into her wolf-woman form, caught her around the waist, and draped her over her right shoulder. “If you’re captured, this is how a wolf will carry you. Try to draw your knife.”

Christa did her best, squirming and twisting in Annie’s tight hold to grab her knife with her left hand. She managed it, grinning when it was in her grasp. “Got it!”

“How far down can you reach with it?”

Christa, careful to keep the point of the blade from Annie, reached down as far as she could and patted with her free hand. “Here.”

“Good. That’s a good place to stab a wolf to get them to drop you.”

“I thought a wolf’s only weakness was their throat.”

Annie put her on her feet and changed back into her human form. “Stabbing anything in the back will at least hurt it. Try to remember where to stab, because you won’t have a way to the wolf’s throat when they carry you like that. They won’t be expecting a little woman like you to be carrying a knife under your cloak.” She turned to Mikasa. “Your turn. Show her how to use the knife.”

Mikasa stood up, and Christa was reminded that her method of teaching was close quarters and done by holding her. She willed herself to not blush, but knew she failed all the same as Mikasa guided her through forms and motions. They retired for the night soon after, but Christa did not close her eyes. She felt bolder, and so she took a deep breath and rolled onto her side before Mikasa could fall asleep.

“Can I ask a personal question?” she said.

“I suppose,” Mikasa replied. “What is it?”

“Have you had many lovers?”

Mikasa shrugged. “A few flings, but nothing’s lasted. It’s hard to not be able to go out for a day with your lover, or to not be able to hold her hand publicly.”

“I can only imagine. But you’re very brave to have loved a woman at all.”

She frowned and muttered, “I don’t see why one has to be brave for love.”

“I’m not saying you should have to be brave. I just admire you and Annie so much.” Before she could stop herself, she asked, “What do you think of Annie?’

Mikasa went very quiet and very still. “I think she is a dedicated and earnest woman, despite her attitude at times. And she is very pretty.”

All at once, Christa understood the faint strain in Mikasa’s voice. For a few moments, she was confused at her lack of heartbreak over the revelation. The confusion passed when she recognized being happy over someone else’s happiness, something she had known all her life. Whispering, she asked, “Do you like her?”

In a murmur equally as quiet, Mikasa said, “Yes.” She sighed. “Let’s go to sleep, Christa.”

“Okay,” Christa said. “Good night.”

They slept, and Christa could not help but study every last little interaction between Annie and Mikasa over the next several days. Things she hadn’t put much stock in—lingering glances, calling each other by first name—seemed to have much more meaning. When she returned to her horse, she noticed how often Mikasa sat forward in her saddle to have private conversations with Annie, running in her wolf form again. She tried to read Annie in the evenings when Mikasa was teaching her the knife and holding her close in her arms, but she could not parse the mild expression on Annie’s face.

Two weeks after arriving in the valley, they came away from the river and made their climb onto the other mountain. The wind, which they had mostly forgotten about, battered them violently. The only reprieve came at night, when Annie led them behind a large outcropping of stone. They slept cold that night without a fire; Annie warned against using the firewood they had gathered so soon and in such strong winds. After the sun rose and they traveled more miles, they cut through the mountain to escape the wind.

Here it is. The north.

With the wind gone, another eerie quiet prevailed. There was a great forest at the foot of the mountain far below. In the distance, shadows of more mountains could be seen. From their height and location, they could just make out farmland to the west of the forest, and specks of towns were scattered about. Roads stretched here and there, and looking straight north revealed a mountain in the middle of otherwise flat land.

“That’s where we’re headed, right?” Eren asked, pointing at the mountain. “The castle built out of a mountain in the middle of the country.”

That’s home. Come on, we’re staying up here for a while.

In an attempt to beat the deepening chill, they moved as quickly as they dared. While not truly treacherous, the path was again wide enough only for what the horses needed. Single file they went, and they did not talk because the color of the sky weighed heavily on their minds.

It was early on the third day of being on the mountain that it happened: snow gently began to fall. Christa saw Mikasa’s shoulders rise and heard Eren snarl, “Fuck,” behind her.

Keep moving. It’s just a flurry.

“What, can you smell how long it’s going to snow?” Eren snapped.

It’s too early for a lot of snow, even up here. Stop worrying about it and keep moving.

The snowfall ended before there was even a dusty layer on the ground, but the temperature did not rise any further that day. A small fire was built that frigid night, rationing the wood. Because they could not stop shivering, Eren and Mikasa wrapped their cloaks and arms around Armin and Christa respectively. Armin took first watch that night, bundled tight in his and Eren’s cloaks, and Christa and Mikasa went into their tent.

“Come here,” said Mikasa. She made Christa lie close beside her before laying blankets and cloaks over the both of them. When she gathered Christa in her arms, Christa was glad she was turned away because of how badly her face burned.

“What, erm, what about your sword?” she asked.

“I’m more worried about you freezing. I know this is strange, so I’m sorry.”

“No, that’s all right! It doesn’t feel strange at all.”

“Good.”

“But—”

“We’re safe. Annie’s been sleeping close to our tent.”

“Oh.” She did her best to relax then, closing her eyes and listening to the way Mikasa breathed when she fell asleep. It was comforting to know that both women were near, and she pressed close to Mikasa and managed to drift off despite the cold. When she woke next, it was to discover that she had her face buried in Annie’s fur, and she jerked back in shock. Annie lifted her head and Christa could picture her raised brow.

Mikasa asked me to stay in here with you while she did last watch. She thought you’d freeze.

“I’m not that delicate,” Christa grumbled. She rubbed at her eyes. “How long before the sun rises?”

You have a few more hours that you can sleep. Get some more rest. We have a long day ahead of us. She rolled slightly and pushed against Christa. You can get close to stay warm. She set her head back down when Christa burrowed up to her.

“Annie?” Christa said.

Go back to sleep, Christa.

“Do you think Ymir would let us stay for the winter?”

Are you worried about getting caught here?

“Snow’s started falling. How will we get back this way?”

I’d figure it out. Stop worrying and go to sleep.

“But—”

She’d probably let you stay. Go to sleep already.

Still tired and aching from riding and training, Christa did as she was told, but not before realizing she had been right. Annie’s fur did smell like snow. She was woken by Mikasa shaking her, and they got moving in a morning just as cold as the night before. For the rest of the journey in the mountains, they passed the nights in the same way. Mikasa would hold Christa until it was her turn for watch, and Annie would lie next to her for the time Mikasa was outside.

They came down from the mountain five days on without incident, and entered into a deep forest that stretched out north toward the lone mountain. Annie led them quietly, stopping every so often to smell the air or listen to the traces of wind that slipped past the trees. More often than not, she changed their direction upon doing this. When night fell, she would neither go hunting with Eren nor let them build a fire.

“Why not?” Eren said. “We’re hungry and freezing!”

“I smelled other wolves at the western edge of the forest. I want us to get deeper before we do anything that could really give us away.”

“How do you know they haven’t smelled us already?” Armin asked.

“I can smell better than most wolves. They won’t catch your human scent.”

“I guess that big nose is good for something,” Eren said, grinning. He dodged the branch Annie halfheartedly threw at him and laughed. He stopped laughing when Mikasa punched him hard on the shoulder. “Come on, it was funny.”

“I’m used to it,” Annie said, shrugging.

“I think you’re lovely the way you are,” Mikasa said firmly. When Annie looked at her with no expression, she met her gaze without flinching. It was quiet then, the others looking from one woman to the other with no one being willing to break the strange silence.

“Your scarf brings out the color in your face,” Annie said quietly, looking away. “It’s pretty.”

Christa felt like clapping, but kept herself to smiling broadly. Her smile faltered at the way Eren’s brows came low on his face. He took to his feet and pulled Mikasa to standing.

“I want to talk to you,” he said, dragging her along. Mikasa, frowning, pulled her arm out of his grasp, but followed him out of the clearing.

“They’ll get lost,” Armin said anxiously.

“They’re only going far enough for you two to not be able to hear them,” said Annie. “He wants me to hear this.”

“Hear what?” Armin asked.

Annie looked at him with a raised brow. “You’re the smart one. Tell me what’s wrong with your sister paying a compliment to a wolf and getting complimented back. He’s yelling at her.”

Armin sighed and put a hand to his brow. “This will end badly. She grew out of listening to him when she was named captain two years ago.”

For a few moments, Annie was silent, listening to what Armin and Christa could not hear. Then, her brows rose. “She told him to shut up and let her choose her partners on her own.” She looked uncomfortable and stood up, walking quickly away in the opposite direction that Mikasa and Eren had gone. Christa hurried to her feet and followed after her, hopping over roots and rocks to avoid tripping. She caught up to Annie, who had stopped in another clearing under the bright moonlight. She looked at Christa with her glowing eyes and looked miserable.

“What’s wrong?” Christa asked.

“What future do you see for a member of the wolf queen’s pack and the greatest wolf-slayer of the south?” Annie asked in turn. “Even if we did mate, do you think she would give up her life to live here with me? You humans may have flings, but that’s not what wolves do. It’s not what I do.”

“Why did you compliment her? You’re going to lead her on!”

Annie frowned. “Because I didn’t feel like breaking her heart.”

“Then you do like her?”

“Yes,” Annie said at length. “For the same reasons she told you she likes me.”

Christa’s eyes widened. “You heard? You’ve known how she feels about you all this time?”

“I have.”

“Why didn’t you act more distant? You will break her heart this way!”

“There’s no way this journey will help happily for any of us.”

“Why don’t you even try?” Christa asked, frowning. “What if she’s the one for you?”

Annie sneered at her. “That’s great, coming from you.”

“What? What’s special about me?”

“What do you want to be special about you? How do you want to catch our eyes?”

“I don’t understand.”

Her sneer darkened. “Do you think we’re stupid? Your little crushes on us are painfully obvious.”

Christa’s veins ran cold. “You—you knew that, too?” She took a step back when Annie advanced on her, and again and again until she was backed up against a tree. She flinched when Annie put a hand down either side of her head. The sight of her glowing eyes, green bright within the blue, made her shiver. Annie leaned close enough that Christa could feel her breath on her lips, and spoke quietly.

“This is what you want, isn’t it?” she asked. “For me or Mikasa to hold you close.” She moved one hand to hold Christa’s chin. “To kiss you.” She let go of Christa’s face when she saw the blush that took to her cheeks. “Would you give up your life in the south to live with a wolf?”

“I—”

“Don’t bother answering. You were the daughter of nobility. You were well-loved by your people. How could you ever—”

“I would.”

Annie laughed scornfully. “I’m sure.”

“I would! What makes you think my life in the south is so wonderful that I wouldn’t give it up for love?” Her blush darkened and she put a hand over her mouth.

The scorn left Annie’s face for surprise.

“No, that’s not the right word!” Christa said in protest. “It’s too soon for anything!”

“But there’s the hinting of it. Do you feel the same way about Mikasa?”

“I…do. I know it’s sinful of me to feel anything like this.”

“It’s not sinful. You southerners are idiots.”

Christa looked down, feeling sick. “I’m sorry. But—the both of you are such wonderful people.”

“So you want us to settle for you if we can’t have each other, is that it?”

“No, that’s—”

She caught Christa’s chin again. “Tell me the truth.”

“I don’t want anyone to settle! I want both of you to be happy!”

“You just wish it was with you.”

Christa swallowed hard and looked up to meet Annie’s gaze. “Yes.”

Annie looked at her a long time before leaning in close again and rubbing her nose against Christa’s. When Christa looked at her in confusion, she said, “It’s how we show affection.”

“Oh.”

“Come on, let’s get back before they start yelling for us.”

She caught one of Annie’s hands before she could go far. “Annie?”

“What?”

“If things were different, do you think you and I could have had a chance?”

“Maybe. But we don’t now, and that’s what matters at the end of the day.” She turned her hand over and clasped Christa’s fingers a moment before letting go entirely. “Come on.”

Christa followed her back to the other clearing, where the tents had been pitched and Eren and Armin were nowhere in sight. Mikasa sat by one tent, sword in her arms, and looked toward them on their approach. She and Annie stared at each other for a long silent while.

“Stay with Christa until I’m off watch, please,” Mikasa said.

Annie shrugged, but changed into her wolf form and followed Christa into the tent. They arranged themselves quietly, but Christa only pretended to sleep. Her heart ached too much to let her rest, and she held Annie’s fur as tightly as she could while hoping Annie would make no mention of it. When Mikasa came in from the cold, she continued to feign sleep and let Mikasa hold her. She now held no beliefs or wishes that Annie and Mikasa did not know what she was doing. She could not help it; the thought of them all being alone when there was some hope made it impossible to sleep.

Over the next few days, Christa only caught a few hours of sleep a night. This was partly due to her unhappiness for Mikasa and Annie, and the rest of the problem lay in how cold it was. Snow had truly begun to fall by then, and thin layer added upon thin layer to become two inches after four days. The fifth day saw a snowfall that doubled the depth. Only by being so deep in the forest and protected by the canopy did they escape being trapped.

The sixth day saw Christa losing the ability to get warm. She shivered violently even with two layers of clothes, and every gust of wind cut her to pieces. It was midday and the snow was falling heavily when Christa started to see colors and shapes. She panicked in her saddle and let go of the reins to try to sway away what she saw. She tipped out of the saddle completely and fell, landing on her side and cracking her head on the ground. She lay stunned and with the world spinning before her eyes. She was rolled onto her back and her shoulders were lifted, and she looked blearily up at Annie.

“Hi,” she said dimly.

Annie rolled up her sleeve to press the underside of her arm to Christa’s sweaty brow. “You’re really hot.” Scowling, she asked, “Why didn’t you say anything about being sick?”

Christa could not parse what was said; her head was splitting and the world was too cold to allow comprehension. “What?”

The others dismounted and came to them. Mikasa crouched down and touched her wrist to Christa’s forehead. She frowned, but only said a spell to put healing magic on her fingers. She touched the broken skin on the side of Christa’s head, closing the wound. She opened her mouth to speak.

A long, distant howl came in through the snowy leaves.

At once, everyone looked to Annie. Her face had gone taut, the color leaving her cheeks.

“What did it say?” Armin asked, brows low and voice hard.

“They caught the scent of her blood on the wind.”

“I thought you said you were leading us deep enough into the forest that other wolves wouldn’t smell us!” Eren said.

“The wind changed and it’s human blood,” Annie replied. She changed into her wolf-woman form and pulled Christa onto her back. “We need to get moving.”

“What else did it say?” Mikasa asked, gripping Annie’s elbow.

“To send the hunters.”

Christa did not understand why Mikasa, Eren, and Armin all looked so grim so suddenly. All that mattered was that Annie’s fur gave her some measure of warmth, and she clung to her as best as her trembling arms would allow. In less than a minute, Annie set off at a run with the horses galloping behind her. Christa drifted in and out of consciousness, marveling every time she opened her eyes at how the light changed so quickly. It was dim and then dark, dim again, and then dimness fading into the dark.

Everything and everywhere was noise. Christa, dizzy again, stared at Annie’s back and listened to her panting breath. Hooves crashed through the underbrush. Christa heard Eren shout something and was shocked to find she could understand speech again.

“How much farther?” he asked.

Annie came to a stop and sniffed in every direction. She tilted her head back and howled, long and loud.

“What the fuck’s wrong with you?” Eren snapped.

“I’m howling to the castle,” Annie panted. “I’m telling my pack to come to me.”

“But you just gave away our position!” Eren said.

“The wolves know who she is,” Armin said. “You did it to scare them off, didn’t you?”

Annie nodded. “Trying to. We have to keep going.” They began to run again, and the dark around them continued to deepen. Eventually, Christa thought she heard something else. She looked away from Annie’s back. Mikasa rode hard to their right, and Armin to their left. Turning back showed Eren behind them, and looking past him revealed a large gray wolf running close behind him.

“Eren, look out!” Christa said.

He drew his sword and turned in the saddle, slicing through the wolf’s throat as it became a wolf-man and tried to leap at him. Armin and Mikasa drew their swords as the sound of snarling and snapping began to rise. Seemingly at once, they were surrounded, and they were forced to stop. Annie put Christa on her feet, and she and the others formed a circle around Christa.

“What do you want?” Eren demanded.

“Your skin, boy!” said a wolf-man. He snarled when he was struck across the muzzle by a wolf-woman.

“The humans,” the wolf-woman said to Annie. “Give them up.”

“No,” said Annie.

The wolf-man laughed. “Give ‘em up. We’ll share.”

“No,” Annie said again. “Shut up,” she said to Eren when he opened his mouth.

“What does your pet have to say for himself?” called another wolf-man.

“I’m not her pet!” Eren shouted, voice breaking from rage.

“Shut up,” Annie said sharply, the vibration of a growl in her words.

“Why are we talking?” another wolf-woman said. “You know she’s stalling.”

“I want to know who’s with her,” the first wolf-woman said. She moved to stand in front of Mikasa’s horse. “What’s your name?”

Mikasa frowned and tightened her grip on her sword, but only started to count aloud, turning in her saddle to catch the eye of each wolf. When she reached the leader, she had counted seventeen. She swung down from her horse and held out her sword in a silent challenge. The first wolf-man charged forward with a snarl, but Mikasa dodged the arm he stretched out for her face. She drew a blade from the scabbard of her sword and slashed the inside of his elbow. As he shouted with pain, she cut through his throat with her sword.

It was a bold move that did not favor them. The other wolves fell upon them, and Christa watched in horror as they clawed and bit at Annie and Mikasa on the ground. Eren and Armin remained on horseback but, based on their shouting, Christa could only imagine that they, too, were gaining injuries. Her fear cut through some of the fever haze, and she clung to the fact that no one had fallen to the ground.

Everyone jumped at the horrible pained scream Eren let out suddenly. Christa turned in time to see him ripped off his saddle and thrown into the distance. She thought she saw blood spiraling away in the air as he went; she thought his left leg had been torn off from just below the knee.

“Eren!” Mikasa shouted, voice high with tension. She tried to sprint after him, but a wolf-man tackled her from behind. Before he could sink his fangs into the back of her neck, Annie wrenched him off her and tore out his throat with her fangs. Christa tried to go to Mikasa, to help her up, but she was caught around the waist, draped over a wolf-woman’s right shoulder, and carried away at a sprint.

Blinded by panic and dulled with sickness, Christa only struggled weakly at first. When kicking the wolf in the stomach had no effect, she went still. Something Annie had said nagged at the back of her mind. The wolf-woman shifted her slightly; her sheathed knife dug into her thigh. She remembered and began struggling anew, reaching desperately for her knife. Once it was in her hand, she swallowed hard and swung down harder.

The strike was true; the wolf-woman screamed and stumbled, her legs lost. Christa tumbled as the wolf-woman fell, and she scrambled away without looking where she was going. Everything was spinning again; she could barely breathe. Her gait slowed quickly, and she came to a stop amidst trees. Unable to hear anything past her own breathing, she began to turn around.

A clawed hand grabbed her by the head and smashed her face-first into a tree. While her nose snapped, it was not a hard enough blow to steal her consciousness. In the next instant, she understood why the wolf wanted her awake. After pulling off her pack, the wolf-woman dug her claws in deep at her right shoulder and ripped across her back down to her left hip. Christa screamed until the wolf-woman choked her silent. She was thrown through the air then, slamming against another tree and getting bark in the wounds.

Still, she clung to consciousness. Death, once an abstract to her, loomed close as she lifted her head and saw the wolf-woman advance. Her fear of death was infinitely greater than any pain and, somehow still clutching the knife, she struggled to her feet. The wolf-woman drew closer. Christa tightened her grip.

A voice deep, rich, and sharp as a sword rang out and said something. Christa understood it as a command to stop, but her limbs remained mobile. She ran at the wolf-woman upon seeing her look of wide-eyed shock and lack of movement. Doing as Mikasa had drilled into her, she plunged the knife into the wolf’s throat and cut through to the other side. When she drew the blade back, the wolf-woman slumped to one side and fell.

A hand tapped Christa on the shoulder. She spun about and stabbed as hard as she could. She was caught by the wrists and held still. When she ceased struggling and looked up, she stopped breathing. Eyes the color of rich honey looked at her from a face dark of skin and heavily freckled. Lank black hair framed that feminine face, and a smirk took the woman’s lips. Christa’s feet were swept out from under her and she fell onto her rear with a grunt.

In a burst of steam, the woman turned into a solid black wolf-woman, and she tipped back her head and howled. A chorus of howls met her. Soon after, more howls, now of pain, filled the air. The wolf-woman laughed.

Christa lost consciousness.

————

Her face ached, and she wasn’t sure why she was lying face-down on a soft bed. She tried to roll over, but a hand gently caught her shoulder.

“Mikasa?” she asked, cracking open her eyes.

A woman with her brown hair pulled up into a ponytail high on the back of her head smiled at Christa. “No, Sasha. Sasha Braus.” She brought Christa back down to her stomach. “Your friend had me get all the bark out with my claws before she healed you, but she said your back would hurt. Don’t lie on it just yet.”

“What?” Christa asked, confused. “Why?”

Sasha put her palm on Christa’s brow. “They did say you had a fever. Don’t you remember anything?”

A cold knot of tension coiled in her stomach. “We were attacked in the forest.”

“Yes, exactly! I thought you’d lost your memory for a moment.”

“Are we in Castle Utgard?”

“That we are. You’re safe.” She held Christa down when she tried to sit up. “No, we’ll see Ymir later. Rest until then.”

“What about my friends? Are they all right?”

“Don’t worry at all. You’ll see them when we go before Ymir.”

“But Eren—he was thrown off his horse. I thought I saw…was he injured?”

“He’s okay, I promise.”

Christa felt only tiny pangs of reassurance. “Can I see them before then?”

Sasha started to speaking, but stopped short and sniffed the air. She stood from her chair and turned to the door, putting her flat right hand at an angle on her forehead in a salute. The door opened and Annie came inside.

“Ma’am!” Sasha said. “Your charge is well!”

Annie waved a hand and Sasha moved aside, letting her crouch beside the bed. She offered Christa her hand when she reached out.

“Thank goodness,” Christa said, letting out a sigh. “Sasha said everyone’s all right.”

“She’s not lying. Mikasa sent me to check on you.”

Christa smiled. “You’ve been at her side, haven’t you.”

Annie did not reply to this. “Do you think you can stand? Ymir wants your message. She’s getting impatient.”

“I think so. Can you help me up?”

She did so, and Christa wobbled with dizziness a moment. Sasha steadied her on one side while Annie did the same on the other. Once she was stable, Annie went into the pack at the foot of the bed and retrieved the still sealed scroll. She put it in Christa’s hands, and the three of them when out of the room. A man and a woman standing outside the door saluted as they came out, and everyone they passed in the hallways did the same on seeing them.

Annie brought them to a room some distance away, and Christa’s heart rose at what they found inside. She hurried to Armin and Mikasa, sitting at Eren’s bedside, and hugged them each in turn. Mikasa patted her on the shoulder.

“I’m so glad you’re all okay,” Christa said, reaching out to hug Eren, who was sitting upright.

“We got lucky that the castle guard arrived when they did,” Armin said. He smiled at Sasha. “I owe you my life, captain.”

“You’re welcome!” said Sasha. “Happy to help.”

“All right, we can catch up later,” Annie said. “Ymir’s going to get pissed off if we don’t go see her. She wanted to see you all when Christa woke up.”

Eren sighed noisily and swung his legs out from beneath his blanket. He stood up on two bare feet and rose up on his toes to stretch. “Let’s go.” He went past Christa without putting on the boots that sat next to the bed, but Mikasa and Armin stood up to follow him before Christa could ask.

Annie and Sasha took the lead, with Christa flanked either side by Mikasa and Armin and Eren bringing up the rear. They eventually arrived at a pair of enormous doors, closed and blocked by two men. One was dark of skin and hair, and he was so tall that Christa, more than head and shoulders shorter than him, felt uneasy. Beside him was a man not quite as tall, but broad, muscular, and fair of skin and hair.

The blond man stepped forward, bent down close to Annie, and he rubbed their noses together. Smiling, he said, “You’re late.”

“They’re heavy sleepers,” she replied. She noticed how his smile turned over when he looked at Mikasa, and she stepped between them. “Stop it, Reiner.”

He rolled his shoulders and forced a smile back onto his face. “Sorry.” He turned to the dark skinned man and nodded. “Let’s get them in there, Bertholdt.” The two men pushed the doors open, revealing the large room inside. With night beyond the windows, torches in plinths along the walls and candles in iron chandeliers above were lit. At the far end of the room, at the other end of a long, lush red rug, was an ornate metal throne atop a three-stair raised space.

Atop that throne, Christa was shocked to discover, was the dark skinned woman from before, clad in a long-sleeved, green tunic and black denim trousers. She had draped her long body sideways in the throne, and did not sit up properly until they were closer and Annie, Reiner, and Bertholdt had left them standing before the throne. Christa stood clutching the scroll, eyes locked on the woman because the woman’s eyes were locked on her. Annie went to the woman’s side.

“This is Ymir,” said Annie. “Queen of the north, leader of my pack. Ymir, Christa Renz and her guards.”

Ymir waved a hand, and Mikasa, Eren, and Armin stepped away from Christa. She held out the same hand, curling her fingers. “Lemme have it.”

“Erm,” Christa said, “milady, I just—I wanted to tell you that Annie was very good to us and she—”

“I said to give me that.”

Christa stopped talking and went to her, offering the scroll and stepping back down the stairs. Relief washed over her when Ymir broke the seal and started to read, but it changed to shock at the dark sneering scowl that pulled at Ymir’s mouth.

“Read this,” Ymir snarled, holding out the scroll. “Out loud, so everyone can hear you.”

She went up the stairs and took the scroll. Clearly and loudly, she read aloud, “‘To Ymir, great wolf queen of the vast north. Our countries have long been at war, and countless lives have been lost. To usher in peace, I, Reiss of the south, send you a gift.’” Christa hesitated, but continued. “‘I send you my—’” She went silent, eyes widening and heart shattering.

“Read it,” Ymir said.

“‘I—I send you my…my daughter to be your wife, and three guards to act as your servants. I know they will do their duty admirably.’” There was no more to the letter beyond the king’s signature, but she stared at the scroll nonetheless. She did not jump when Ymir took hold of her chin.

“What’s your real name?” Ymir asked, still scowling.

“Historia Reiss.”

A low growl came up through Ymir’s throat. “So, little princess, your old man just sent you as a sacrifice to the wolf queen. How’s that make you feel?”

Christa looked at the scroll and, beginning to weep hopelessly, shredded the paper, threw it in Ymir’s face, and stormed out of the throne room without listening to any of the calls of either of her names.

Chapter Text

Armin cursed himself, standing over Eren’s bloody body. He had let them get separated, had not stopped Mikasa’s bravado before she got down off her horse. Now they were a clearing apart, their best fighters immobilized with Eren a bloody hash and Mikasa unconscious. Ten wolves still stood before them, five facing Armin and five surrounding Annie, hunched over Mikasa in her wolf form. Christa was long since gone, though he had heard her screaming through the trees.

The wolves were carefully surrounding him, slow and methodical. He could see the hunger in their eyes. He swallowed and lifted his sword in a guard.

A long howl came up from nearby, and he flinched and turned. The wolf-man in front of him lunged at the opportunity, and Armin, fear gripping him, could not bring his sword around fast enough. The wolf-man was crashed into by a wolf-woman, brown in fur, and she ripped out his throat with a swipe of her claws. The other wolves were fallen upon in the same manner, and they were laid out dead within five minutes.

The wolf-woman went to Armin and offered her hand. He looked askance at her, and so she changed into a smiling woman with her brown hair pulled high on the back of her head.

“I’m Sasha Braus,” she said, “captain of Castle Utgard’s guards.”

“Utgard?” he echoed dimly. “Then you’re with Annie?”

“Yes.” They both looked in Annie’s direction. Still wolfen, still bristling, she bared her fangs at two large wolf-men coming closer.

The yellow furred wolf-man lifted his hands. “Annie, it’s Reiner. You’re fine.”

Annie’s words were sharp, and she cast them to everyone still living. Don’t touch her. Especially you, Reiner.

“Me?” he asked. “Why me?”

“Don’t you think it’s obvious?” asked a voice from the trees. They all turned to see a tall, dark-skinned woman come out of the shadows, a bloody and unconscious Christa in her arms.

“How’s it obvious, Ymir?” Reiner asked.

“She’s scared you’ll go out of your way to kill this human after we just saved them.” She turned a grin toward Annie. “That human you’re guarding is Mikasa Ackerman, isn’t it.”

Tension filled the clearing as the wolves turned as one to Annie and the woman beneath her. She dropped her head and started to snarl, ears pulling back.

Ymir laughed. “I’ll be nice, just for that. No wolf but me or Annie is allowed to touch the witch. Understood?”

The wolves snapped her a salute, save Reiner. He stared at Mikasa’s sword, still resting in her limp hand. He only relented with the largest wolf of them, black with white fringes, laid a hand on his shoulder.

“Y-Ymir!” Armin said. “Milady, we have to wake Mikasa!”

Ymir looked at him with a raised brow.

“Your highness, please! Mikasa is the only one skilled enough in healing magic for—” His voice failed, and he stepped aside to gesture at Eren. Ymir came closer to examine him. His left leg had been torn off below the knee, and he was covered in bites and claw marks. She looked at him a moment before turning to Armin.

“You know he’s dead,” she remarked.

“He’s still breathing! Please, we have to try!”

“Her magic won’t bring back his leg. He’s a soldier, right? What good is a soldier with one leg?”

“Milady, I’m begging you! He’s my brother! Mikasa’s brother! Don’t let him die like this!”

Ymir sighed noisily. “What’s in it for me?”

Without hesitating, Armin said, “I’ll give you every piece of information I have about the southern army’s strategies and the defenses we have on the front line.”

Oh?” Ymir said with a smirk. “And who are you?”

He saluted her as a soldier of the southern army, right fist over his heart. “Milady, I am Armin Arlert, a captain of King Reiss’ strategic corp! I was privy to most of the strategies of the southern army, and I will tell you everything I know in exchange for our lives!”

Her smirk broadened, and she beckoned to Sasha. She gave Christa to Sasha before brushing past Armin and crouching down to Eren. She knocked her knuckles on his forehead. “Still in there?”

He looked at her, face drawn with pain, and nodded.

“You wanna live?” she asked.

He nodded again and grunted, “Wanna…live.”

“I’ve got only one way of saving you and repairing your leg. You know what it is. Do you still wanna live?”

He narrowed his eyes, looked down, looked up. At length, he whispered, “Yes.”

“You can’t go and get pissed at me later. I can’t change you back.”

He swallowed and nodded.

She held out her hand. “Shake on it.”

He clasped her hand and shook.

“Okay. Now open your mouth.” As he did, she turned into a wolf-woman and ripped out one of her own fangs. After this, she plucked out one of his incisors. Before he could clamp his mouth shut, she shoved her fang where his tooth had been, slashing her thumb on it so her blood dribbled down his throat. He swallowed, and she changed back into a human to speak to him in a language only she understood.

Eren seized violently once before going completely limp. His wounds stopped bleeding and began to steam. Ymir stood up and crossed the clearing to Annie. She waved her away and crouched down to lay her hand on Mikasa’s head. Before she spoke, she moved Mikasa’s sword out of reach. This done, she said a single word, and Mikasa’s eyes opened slowly.

“Clean up the girl,” Ymir said, jabbing her thumb over her shoulder. “I took care of the boy.”

Eyes bleary, Mikasa sat up and looked past her. When she recognized Christa in Sasha’s arms, tiny and damaged, she struggled to her feet and hurried over. She took brief notice of the way Sasha stiffened on her approach, but focused on Christa. She looked at Sasha suddenly, not commenting on how she jumped.

“I need you to pick the bark out of these wounds before I heal them,” Mikasa said. When Sasha looked at her nervously, she gently added, “Please.” She pulled off her cloak at Sasha’s nod, laying it on the ground for Christa to be set on. Changing into a wolf-woman, Sasha knelt down and carefully took the bark out of Christa’s back. Mikasa closed the wounds once they were clean, and she reset Christa’s broken nose. Barely a moment after she drew her hands away, Ymir, having turned back into a wolf-woman, picked Christa up off the ground and arranged her in her arms.

“This is the little shit that I’ve been waiting for weeks on,” she said to Mikasa’s baffled look. “She’s with me until we’re in the castle. And you are with Annie. Reiner!”

He came close, narrowing his eyes at Mikasa. “Yes?”

“You carry the boy. And stay away from Annie and her human.” He nodded, going to Eren and carefully picking him up. Armin yelped when Sasha pulled him onto her back. Annie looked at Mikasa, who walked across the clearing to retrieve her sword. Once it was back in its sheathe, she went to Annie, letting her turn into her wolf-woman form before climbing onto her back. They set off at a run for the castle, silent and morose.

————

Nearly a full day later, Christa paid attention to no one as she stormed out of the throne room. Ymir, stunned still a moment at having the letter thrown in her face, sneered and started after her. Annie slipped in front of her and blocked her path. Ymir grabbed her by her upper arms, pulling her up and off her feet to bring their faces level.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Ymir asked.

“Trying to keep you from scaring her anymore,” Annie replied.

“Why?”

“She doesn’t deserve it.”

“She does for disrespecting me.”

“She’s been betrayed by her father, and she’s been scared of you all this time. She doesn’t deserve it.”

After a long pause and a queer expression, Ymir put Annie down. “What’s your suggestion, smartass?”

“Let me talk to her. I’ll convince her to not shut the door in your face when you go to talk to her.”

Ymir considered her for a moment. She chuckled. “I didn’t realize you’d picked up two pets.”

“Ymir, please just let me talk to her.”

“All right, all right. Go convince her I’m not the devil.”

Annie nodded, turning sharply about and striding out of the throne room. She did not turn at the sound of boot heels catching up to her, knowing full well who it was. She tracked Christa’s scent all the way back to the room she had come from, and she nodded at Mikasa, who knocked on the closed door.

“Christa?” Mikasa called. “It’s me.”

It took some time, but the door opened. Christa stood just beyond, face dry but eyes puffy and red. She looked from Mikasa to Annie before turning her gaze to the floor. She sniffed once, quietly, and Mikasa stepped inside to wrap her arms around her. Annie followed, closing the door behind her. Christa clung to Mikasa, trembling but not crying. Mikasa patted her head gently.

“Ymir wants to talk to you,” Annie said.

“About the letter?” Christa mumbled.

“Right. Give her a chance.”

“To do what?”

Annie hesitated. “I don’t know.”

“What do you think she wants to talk about?”

“She’ll want an explanation about why you threw it in her face like that, probably.” When Christa did not respond, she put a hand low on Christa’s back. “I don’t know exactly what she wants to talk about. All I know is that she wants to talk to you, and it’s better if you give her a chance to explain what she wants. I told her not to scare you.”

“Do you think she will anyway?”

“Maybe. Look, Mikasa and I will wait outside the door while you two talk, okay? Please just listen to her.”

Christa sniffed again, but swallowed and let go of Mikasa. She nodded and tightened her hands to fists. Annie nodded in return, and she and Mikasa went to the door. When they opened it, they found Ymir standing in the hall with her arms crossed. Ymir looked past them and raised a brow when she caught Christa’s eye. She looked briefly uncomfortable, and then asked, “Can I come in?”

Annie, wide-eyed with shock, turned quickly to Christa and nodded.

“Y-yes,” Christa said, “of course.”

Ymir stepped past Annie and Mikasa as they exited the room, and closed the door firmly. She walked by Christa and sat down on the bed She pointed next to herself. “Sit.”

Christa hesitated.

“Fuck, I’m not gonna bite you. Just sit.”

She did so, keeping an arm’s length of distance between them.

“What’s with throwing the letter in my face like that, little Historia?”

“Christa.”

“What?”

“Historia is the name my father gave me. I don’t want to use it.”

“You don’t want to stick it to him by reminding him he’s got a bastard?”

“What good would it have done? He probably would’ve banished me, or worse.”

Ymir looked at her face, pale but for the two spots of red high on her cheeks, and hummed. “All right. Christa then. Why’d you throw the letter in my face?”

“Because…because I was angry.”

“And you decided to let it out on me. Do you have a death wish?”

“No, I—I don’t. I want to live, but…you’re going to eat me anyway, so it doesn’t matter.”

What?”

“You called me a sacrifice. And you’re angry with me, so—”

“If you acted like this with Annie the whole way, I don’t know why she likes you enough to argue with me about you.”

“N-no, no, I didn’t! But…you’re the wolf queen.”

Ymir rolled her eyes and itched the back of her neck through the hair hanging over it. “I don’t eat everyone.”

She was silent for a time, looking at Ymir from the corner of her eye. When Ymir looked at her, she set her gaze to the floor. Softly, she said, “I’m sorry I got angry at you, your highness.”

“You better be. I haven’t even done anything to you.”

“What do you plan on doing to me if you’re not going to eat me?”

Ymir sighed heavily and fell onto her back. “I was going to be pissed off.”

Christa turned to look at her. “About what?”

“The asshole I’m at war with thinking he could ever pick my mate for me. It’s not how it is with humans. We don’t do this arranged political bullshit that you humans do, because we’d sooner eat a wolf that tries to sell their child than let it happen. I’m surprised you still even call him ‘father’ after what he’s tried to do to you.”

Christa said nothing, taking great interest in her fingers.

“So I’m less angry because I feel sorry for you. You got fucked over by life. I’m not about to mate with you and then go fuck someone on the side.”

“But you’re still angry?”

“It’s not like I wanted to get human servants shoved into my lap. I figured I would keep whoever he sent with you just for fun, but he sent the witch into my castle. You think I can trust her?”

“But she’d never—”

“Say that with a straight face and believe yourself, and then I’ll think about believing you.”

Christa mumbled, “I know she wouldn’t.”

“I am the grand prize of the southern army. She’s the wolf-slayer witch.”

“She gets along with Annie.”

“That doesn’t make a difference to me. Your bastard of a father sent a weapon to me and said it was a gift. Don’t act like I should believe she won’t kill me. She probably has orders.”

“No, I swear! My father never said anything to her about you! Please, she’s done nothing wrong!”

Ymir snorted. “It’s not like you can go back, anyway, so I’m stuck with you even more.”

“So why not just send us away and let us die?”

Ymir grinned, slow and wide and showing her fangs. She sat up again, leaning in very close to Christa. “Because I do have a use for you.”

Christa shrank back. “What?”

“You want to live, right?”

“Of course I do.”

“So do I. Annie says that you were called a goddess in the south. I want you to be my goddess of the north and make people want to kill me less.”

Christa stared at her. “Your people want to kill you?”

“Did Annie ever say I was popular?”

“She—you’ll punish her.”

“Did she call me a gross jerk?”

“No, it wasn’t harsh.”

“It’s fine if it’s the truth. No one in the north really likes me.”

“Not even your pack?”

“They’re different. The people I rule don’t like me. I want you to make me seem more lovable.” She took Christa’s chin in hand. “If a sweet little thing like you is my mate, then I look much better.”

“Then I would be your mate?”

“In name only. It’s not like I’m going to mate with you when you don’t want it.”

A knot of tension uncoiled in Christa’s stomach. She relaxed visibly. “Oh. Th-thank you.”

Ymir smirked and knocked Christa on the forehead. “Who knows? Maybe you’ll ask for it one day.”

Christa blanched, but held her tongue.

“What do you say?” Ymir asked.

“What happens to us if I say no?”

With a shrug, Ymir said, “I don’t know. I don’t really feel like eating a girl with eyes like yours.”

“What?” said Christa. “What difference do my eyes make?”

“They’re blue like river ice. I like them.”

Despite herself, Christa blushed. “Oh. Erm. Thank you, your highness.”

“You can call me by my name, you know.”

“I’m—well, I’m scared of offending you again.”

“Just don’t throw shit in my face anymore.”

“No, I won’t, I promise.” She though. “What will you do for me and my friends if I say yes?”

“Put you under my pack’s protection. The others are my servants now.”

“But what about Mikasa?”

Ymir raised a brow. “What about the witch?”

“That’s just it! Wolves want to kill her! Can’t you make sure they’re all protected?”

Ymir rolled her eyes. “They took care of themselves just fine on the way here, didn’t they?”

“Until we were ambushed by almost twenty wolves! Ymir, please, I can’t stand to see them get hurt because of me!”

For a few moments, Ymir regarded her silently. Christa did not flinch or turn away from her, meeting her gaze head-on. Ymir eventually smiled, and she reached out and ran her fingers through Christa’s hair. She said, “All right. As long as you say yes, I’ll put them under my pack’s protection, too.”

“Thank you.” When Ymir tilted her head slightly, she said, “Oh, erm, right. I’ll do what you want.”

“And I’ll make sure no one touches a hair on your pretty head.”

Christa could not stop herself from asking, “You think I’m pretty?”

“Have you gone even one day in your life believing you’re not?”

“It’s just that you were so angry over my father’s letter. I thought that you were offended that he sent me to be your wife. Do, erm, do you—are you not bothered by that?”

“I know you southerners think it’s some big sin, but you’re all a bunch of idiots. If your old man thought it would insult me—and I’m sure that’s what he hoped—then he’s out of luck.” She pushed Christa down on the bed, putting her hands either side of Christa’s shoulders and grinning. “You’re a pretty little woman, and I like pretty little women.” She laughed at the way Christa blushed crimson from chest to ears. “Oh, I see! You want women, and since you’re from the south you always hid it! You sad little thing!”

“Stop laughing at me!” Christa said. “It’s not funny!”

“It really is!” She rubbed Christa hard on the head. “You’re adorable.” She sat up properly and offered her hand to Christa. “So we have a deal?”

Christa sat up and tentatively gave Ymir her hand. “Deal. Remember what you said about my friends.”

“Yeah, yeah.” She rose from the bed, stretching with her arms over her head. She turned in time to see Christa looking, wide-eyed, at her toned back, revealed by the way her shirt had ridden up. Grinning again, she asked, “Like what you see?”

Christa blushed even darker than before. “I’m sorry, I won’t do it again, I—”

“Wow, someone needs to teach you to calm the fuck down. There’s nothing wrong with looking.” She turned and started for the door. “It’s late, so go to sleep. We’ll talk more in the morning.”

“Ymir?” Christa said quickly.

Hand on the doorknob, Ymir turned back. “Yeah?”

“Thank you for not eating us.”

“Sure. Now go to sleep. Guards will be outside all your doors.” She left without another word. With little else to do, Christa got under the covers. Thinking again, she got out of bed and found her pack. Her knife was inside, and she put it under her pillow.

————

It felt like she had barely fallen asleep when she was woken by a long, loud howl outside her door. She bolted upright at the first crash against the door, and she was out of bed with her knife in her hands on the second. The fourth crash knocked the heavy door off its hinges, and two wolf-men came in, trailed by a wolf-woman.

Christa stood shaking, retreating as the trio advanced. She waited for them to recognize her as human, to realize she could not possibly be their target. When they continued to advance, she grit her teeth against fear and took a step forward. One of the wolf-men laughed at her. She ignored him and took another step.

Faster than any of them could react, Ymir sprinted in through the broken door, slid between the wolves, and turned into a wolf-woman to slash out the throats of the wolf-men with her claws. The wolf-woman hesitated as her compatriots crumpled to the floor.

“What, I’m not good enough anymore?” Ymir asked. “Who said you could go after my mate?”

“Your mate?” the wolf-woman said. “You took a human as your mate?”

“Since when have I given a shit what wolves like you think?” Ymir shot back. “You’re dead.” Before she could take a step forward, Christa caught her by the elbow.

“Wait,” Christa said.

“What? Why?”

“Show her mercy.”

“Fuck that! She wants to kill you!”

Christa would’ve protested, but stopped short at the wolf-woman’s snarl. She and Ymir turned together as the wolf-woman started toward them. Just as suddenly as Ymir had appeared, a wolf-man, brown of fur with white fringes, came through the doorway and through himself on the wolf-woman. She twisted beneath him, kicking at his stomach and thighs and gouging his flesh. Seemingly unfazed by this, he grabbed her muzzle and wrenched hard enough to snap bone. As she howled with pain, he slipped his fangs in beneath her jaw and ripped out her throat.

“I was wondering when you’d show up,” Ymir said.

The wolf-man turned, looking first at Christa. When he saw Ymir’s bloody claws, he began to growl low in his throat. She narrowed her eyes in return, but stepped away from Christa.

“What are you doing?” Christa asked, heart jumping into her throat.

“He’ll attack if I don’t back off of you.”

“But—” She gasped as the wolf-man came toward her, backing away until she was against the wall. He followed, and he reached out of ruer.

Eren!” came Mikasa’s voice from the hall. The wolf-man flinched and turned. Mikasa, bleeding badly from a cut high on her right cheek and wielding her bloody sword, dashed past Ymir and put herself between Christa and the wolf-man.

“Eren, stop!” she said. “This is Christa! You know you don’t want to hurt her!”

“You idiot, put down your sword!” Ymir said.

Mikasa looked at her, half raising her sword instead. The wolf-man moved, and Mikasa did not lift the sword to strike. He grabbed her by the throat with one hand, lifting her off her feet and slamming her against the wall. Half-conscious, Mikasa dropped her sword. He did not release her, instead tightening his grip.

“Eren?” Christa said. She grabbed his free arm, tugging hard. “Eren, let go! Please let go of her!” She took a breath, panic setting in, and jumped when claws on yellow-furred hands plunged into Eren’s eyes. He screamed and let go of Mikasa, and Christa dragged her away when she was limp on the floor. Eren swiped blindly at the air as Annie paced around him, waiting while his eyes healed. When he could see again, she had stopped, and now stood between him, Mikasa, and Christa.

She lifted her fists; he charged at her. Though he was larger than her, she did not move an inch backward. She struck him with fist and foot and claw, making him yelp like a startled pup. The wounds she made on him steamed as they healed. More than once, she broke his ribs by bringing her knees into his sides. He could not touch her in the slightest, and his rage began to subside. Behind them, Mikasa stirred in Christa’s lap. She sat up and looked at Annie’s back.

“Annie?” she said, dim with stupor and confusion.

Annie turned sharply, and Eren tried to run past her when he saw Mikasa. Before he could get far, Annie twisted, grabbed him by the looser skin on his back, and bodily hurled him across the room. He hit a wall headfirst and crumpled. In his unconscious state, he returned to his human form, steaming pouring from his body. Annie changed as well, going to Mikasa. Hair down, clad in sleeping clothes, out of breath, she knelt down and took Mikasa by the shoulders.

“I told you not to go after him,” she said. “Not when you had your sword.”

Mikasa said nothing, looking at the floor.

Ymir, changing to her human form, came to them and bent down to offer Christa her hand. “Told you I wouldn’t let you get hurt.”

As Christa reached for her, a response on her lips, Mikasa moved. She shot to her feet, pulling back her fist for a punch that was aimed squarely at Ymir’s head. Ymir scowled at her and drew back her own fist, but Annie tackled Mikasa from behind and bore her, face first, onto the floor. Mikasa struggled against her, fury in her eyes, but Annie held her down.

“Don’t make me fight you for my pack,” Annie said, desperation in her voice. Mikasa faltered at this, looking over her shoulder and finding a plea in Annie’s eyes. She stopped struggling, but the tension did not leave her body. She turned to face Ymir, who had crouched down near them.

“This is your fault,” Mikasa spat.

“I saved his life.”

“You turned him into a monster!”

Ymir flicked Mikasa hard on the forehead. “That wasn’t a monster. That was a scared little kid.”

“What?”

“You humans were the ones attacked, so he’s scared of what happened in the forest happening again. He’s scared of how strong blood smells now. And more than anything else, he’s scared of your sword. It reeks of death, and when you got close to Christa, he was scared you’d kill her.”

“He knows I’d never do that!”

“He’s like a newborn pup who doesn’t know right from wrong. You’re expecting him to be a perfect wolf like Annie when he was changed just yesterday.”

Mikasa had no words, and so she grit her teeth and closed her eyes tightly. She looked up at the strangled gasp Eren made as he regained consciousness and sat up. He looked first at his hands, and then patted himself down. When he inhaled deeply, he turned about to look at them all.

“Oh, God, Mikasa!” he said, scrambling to his feet and running over. Annie got off of her back when he dropped to his knees, moving away in time for him to pull Mikasa up and into a tight hug.

“I’m sorry!” he said, panic tightening his throat. “God, Mikasa, I’m so sorry! I was so freaked out by everything and I just wanted to make sure Christa was safe and then I smelled your sword and I lost it! I didn’t want it near her! I shouldn’t have attacked you, but I was just so scared! Please tell me I didn’t hurt you!”

For a long time, Mikasa was still and silent. Then, gently, she pushed Eren away and got to her feet. Ignoring his call of her name, she walked past Ymir to retrieve her sword. Though she bent down and picked it up, she let it fall from her fingers and sank down to the floor. Drawing her legs up, she buried her face in her knees and began to cry.

Eren slumped where he kneeled, looking ashamed. Ymir caught the twitch in Annie’s shoulders, hooking her foot under Annie’s rear to push her to stumble toward Mikasa. Though she shot Ymir a dark look, she went to Mikasa and sat down next to her, putting an arm around her shoulders. After a moment, Mikasa leaned against her.

Ymir turned suddenly, looking to the door as Armin, Reiner, and Bertholdt came in. She asked, “They targeted the boy like I thought they would?”

“They probably hoped to catch them before they delivered the letter from Reiss,” said Bertholdt. “We should make an official announcement about them tomorrow.”

Armin, looking between all of them, put a hand over his mouth and went pale.

Ymir noticed. “What’s on your mind, Arlert?”

“Can I ask you something, milady?”

“Go for it.”

“Did…have Mikasa or Eren tried to attack you?”

Ymir’s eyes narrowed. “The witch just did.”

“With her sword?”

“She tried to punch me.” She advanced on him. “What do you know, boy?”

“I’ve been trying to figure out why the king so readily gave up his daughter, bastard or not, and his greatest soldier the way he did. I think I know why, now.”

She grabbed him by the collar of his shirt, pulling so he was up on hie toes. “Talk.”

He held up his hands, voice wavering with nerves. “The king wanted an in with you. You would, in theory, be calmer with a wife like Christa. You would let your guard down if we were your servants to use, but you probably would not be kind to us because we’re skilled human soldiers. He hopes that it would eventually be to much for us to bear, and we would try to kill you. He must think Mikasa is the only one who stands a chance of killing you and your pack—he gave up her life to try and take yours.”

Ymir, Reiner, and Bertholdt turned as one to look at Mikasa. She did not look at them, but Annie got to her feet and stood before her, teeth bared. Ymir dropped Armin and went to Annie, pushing her aside to grab Mikasa’s shirt and lift her off the floor. She shoved her against the wall.

“Is that true?” she asked, words pitched low and dark. “Is that your plan?”

Annie grabbed one of Ymir’s arms and pulled it away from Mikasa, but Ymir twisted free to pin Annie to the wall by her throat. Mikasa, fear showing in her eyes, swung her leg up to kick Ymir’s elbow. Hand spasming, she let go of Annie. With a snarl, she changed into her wolf-woman form and brought her hand toward Mikasa’s throat.

Christa ran to them, grabbing hold of Ymir’s arm and pulling with all her might. When Ymir turned to look at her, fangs showing, she swallowed her fear and said, “You swore to me that my friends would be safe if I agreed to do what you want! Please let her go!” Ymir did not do so, and Christa pulled at her arm even harder and said, “Let her go!”

Ymir stared at her. Slowly she closed her mouth, and slowly she set Mikasa on her feet again. She stepped away from Mikasa, eyes still on Christa, and changed back into her human form. Without breaking her gaze, she began to speak. “Reiner, you guard Arlert. Bert, go with the boy. Annie, take care of the witch.” She turned her arm about to grasp Christa firmly by the wrist. “You come with me.”

Without listening to the small entreaty Christa made for her to wait, she dragged her out of the room and through the blood-spattered halls. Christa fell quickly into line behind her upon seeing the blood and dead wolfen bodies, fear beginning to have its way with her. She jumped at the sound of Sasha’s voice calling to them, but kept herself from hiding behind Ymir as Sasha approached and saluted.

“We have reason to believe they came in from the mountain tower, milady,” she said. “Our enemies reek of snow and pine, and the mountain peak is the closest source of those scents. I’d like to increase the number of guards there, but…”

“But what?”

“Our numbers are dwindling. There aren’t as many good wolves left in town for us to recruit.”

“Not to mention their questionable loyalty.” Ymir sighed, and had Christa not been looking up at her, she would have missed the way Ymir’s eyes flicked down to her.

Made bold by this, Christa said, “Captain Braus, what about other towns? Ones that are nearby? Perhaps you can find wolves there.”

Sasha looked nervously to Ymir, who turned a raised brow to Christa.

“Erm,” said Christa, thinking hard. “We could…we could all go! Didn’t the tall man—erm, Bert? Bertholdt, right? He said you should make some kind of announcement about us tomorrow. If we all go to a nearby town, you could introduce me to your people.”

Ymir looked quietly impressed. She turned to Sasha and said, “You heard her. I want us to leave at midday tomorrow for the closest town.”

Sasha saluted again before turning neatly and striding away. Ymir resumed pulling Christa along until they reached an open door. Leading Christa inside, Ymir closed and bolted the door behind them. On the far wall was a fireplace, embers still aglow in the hearth. Finally releasing Christa’s arm, Ymir went to the fireplace and tossed wood inside. She crouched down and held out her hands, saying words that Christa understood as an order for the wood to catch fire. She came closer as the wood ignited instantly, looking at Ymir as she stood up.

“I’m always surprised that magic is so simple,” she said. “Just normal words in another language.”

“You can understand magic?” Ymir asked.

“More or less. I can’t say a word of it, though.”

“Not suitable for a noble of the south, right?”

“Right.” She glanced back at the closed door. “Is it true? You know how to turn humans into wolves?”

“I did it because he asked,” Ymir replied. “He wanted to live, and that was the only way.”

After a moment, Christa said, “Thank you for his life.” She thought. “Was it your voice in the forest that night? The one that cast the spell to make the wolf stop?”

“Yep.”

“Thank you for my life as well.” Hesitating now, she said, “But you have to remember your promise about my friends.”

“Make sure the witch doesn’t try to attack me, then.”

She frowned. “Her name is Mikasa Ackerman.”

“What do I care?”

“If you treat her decently, she—she’d—she would be happy.”

“Why should I care if she’s happy?”

“It would make Annie happy. Don’t you want that?”

For a time, Ymir said nothing. When she spoke again, it was to say, “You’ll have to convince Reiner.”

“Why?”

“He’s the one who really wants her dead. It’s his soldiers who want her flesh.”

“But—Annie—”

“Will never ask Reiner to take back his order on her life. She’s too proud to beg, because that’s what it would take.”

“Don’t you all care about each other?” Christa demanded. “Don’t you care if this hurts Annie?”

Again, Ymir was silent.

Christa looked at her in growing confusion. “I thought you were a pack. Doesn’t that make you family?”

“Not really.”

“What do you mean to each other?”

“We protect each other. We make each other better.”

“Then why did you attack Annie?”

“She overstepped her bounds.”

“Because you attacked Mikasa! If you would just leave her alone, Annie wouldn’t go against you!”

“Who the fuck do you think you are to talk like that to me?” Ymir snarled. “What makes you think you can order the wolf queen around?”

Christa stood her ground, gathering all her courage to say, “I’m not ordering you to do anything but keep your promise about my friends’ safety! I thought wolves were more honorable than this!”

Ymir smiled slowly, cruelly. “You’re thinking of Annie.”

Christa frowned to match Ymir’s smile. “I see why your people hate you, then.”

Ymir stared at her, eyes wide. She reached out faster than Christa could react, catching her chin with one hand and the back of her head with the other. Leaning close, she softly said, “You have a smart little mouth on you. Say anything more to me about the witch and you’ll be outside with no guards every night until you convince me your comfort is worth my aggravation. Do you understand me?”

Christa could see the threat in Ymir’s eyes, and she knew she could not tempt fate. She said, “Yes, milady.”

“Good.” She let Christa go. “Now shut up and go to sleep.” She changed into her wolf form and padded over to lay before the fire. Silently, not looking at Ymir, Christa got into the large bed in one corner and pulled the blankets over het head. She did not cry, nor did she sleep.

————

Annie took the opportunity of everyone watching Ymir drag Christa away to grab Mikasa’s sword in one hand and Mikasa’s wrist with the other. Silently, she went the way of Ymir, dragging Mikasa out of the room and away before anyone could stop her. Mikasa did not question her, in shock from feeling Ymir’s claws so near to her throat. Wolves parted way for them the instant they smelled Mikasa’s sword; they reached Annie’s room without being hindered.

“Why didn’t you listen to me?” Annie asked, low and stern. She let go of Mikasa’s wrist to grasp her shirt and gently pull her down. “I told you what Ymir did. I told you not to go near Eren with your sword if he wasn’t human. Why didn’t you listen?”

“He’s my brother,” Mikasa whispered. “I thought he would know me.”

The fracture in Mikasa’s voice made Annie let her go. She stared at Mikasa’s eyes, still wet, now lost. She did not know what to say to her, and so remained silent. When Mikasa put her forehead to hers and started to cry again, her mind went blank. When Mikasa wrapped her arms around her, she stiffened.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“You’re the only wolf who doesn’t want me dead.”

“But why are you doing this?”

“I want to be close to you. Can’t I do that?”

Annie had no answer. She was overwhelmed by Mikasa’s scent, rich and earthy mixed with exhaustion, fear, and coated in salt from the tears on her face. Her mouth was dry with uncertainty. In Mikasa’s eyes, she could see what she wanted, clear as moonlight. Annie asked, “What am I to you?”

“What?”

It hurt to do, but she put her hand on Mikasa’s chest and pushed her away. “What do you want from me? A night of comfort before you do something reckless tomorrow? I can’t even trust you to do something as completely obvious as to not attack the wolf queen. How can I trust that this will mean anything to you?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Am I just another fling for you?”

Mikasa’s jaw dropped. “You heard me talking to Christa?”

“Yes.”

“Then—you knew—”

“I did.”

“And you’ve been going out of your way to protect me because you feel the same way.”

“Yes,” Annie admitted.

She put her hands on Annie’s face; Annie felt the calluses built up on her fingers and palms. She did not hold down the urge to nuzzle against her, and Mikasa stroked at her cheeks. Smiling anxiously, Mikasa asked, “Don’t you want this?”

“I want to know what this is. Am…am I what you resign yourself to now that you’re banished here?” She winced at the way Mikasa’s face twisted, but asked, “What am I to you, if not that?”

Mikasa struggled for words, never looking away. She opened her mouth, closed it. She swallowed, and then said, “You’re Annie. You’re who I want.”

Annie said nothing. She looked at Mikasa a few moments longer before rising up on her toes and rubbing their noses together. After hesitating, she brushed her lips against Mikasa’s. Taking advantage of Mikasa’s stunned silence, she slipped free of her hands, put the sword on the floor, and changed into her wolf form. She went to her bed and hopped up onto it. She lay down and looked at Mikasa expectantly. Mikasa followed her, and Annie curled up around her when she was settled. They did not speak, and they did not sleep.

————

There was no levity in the group that departed the castle town, from Ymir, her pack, and the guards to the humans and Eren. Christa hung back from Ymir, not wanting to catch her eye. Her hope had been to walk with Annie or Mikasa, but they bore long, empty stares, and she did not see friendliness in their demeanor. Armin and Eren were still closely shadowed by Reiner and Bertholdt, and so Christa walked with her head low.

“What is the south like?”

She looked up to find Sasha matching her pace at her side, arms behind her back and a smile on her face. “I’m sorry?”

“I never had a chance to sneak into the south when I was younger,” said Sasha. “What is it like? Where do you come from?”

“I came from Trost. It’s a few days away from Sina.”

“How many nobles lived in Trost? Did you rule your city?”

“Oh, no, Trost wasn’t ruled by nobles, and certainly not my family. It was just me and my mother, really.”

Sasha aimed a quick glance at Annie. “Is it true what Miss Leonhardt said about people calling you a goddess?”

“Well…yes.”

She smiled. “You’re pretty enough for it. I’m sure the wolves we meet today will love you.”

Christa smiled back, far more nervous than anything. Sashed patted her on the back after making sure Ymir was not looking. They traveled in silence then, trudging through snow higher than Christa’s ankles. Only by the effort needed to get through the snow did Christa stay warm, and she was exhausted after the two hours it took to reach the nearest town. As Sasha had run ahead in her wolf form to announce their imminent arrival, the townspeople had gathered in the snowy streets. They all looked nervous; their anxiety carried over to Christa as Ymir beckoned her closer.

“Do you know who this is?” Ymir asked the townspeople. At their silence and worried glances, she continued. “This is the messenger the king of the south sent to me. She’s mine.” She gave Christa a small push forward. “Introduce yourself.”

Christa looked out at the wolves gathered before her, some wolfen, some human, some a mix. In each of them she saw fear of Ymir, and confusion at her own presence. With all the gentleness in her, she smiled. The confusion escalated, and so she said, “My name is Christa Renz. I’m pleased to meet you.” She managed to not gasp when Ymir wrapped her arms around her and set her chin on her head.

“She’s my mate,” Ymir said. “Anyone after her answers to me. Got it?”

“Are you a human?” called a small voice from the crowd. Christa saw a woman go wide-eyed with panic and crouch down out of sight. She pushed Ymir’s arms away carefully and followed the voice to find the woman clutching a small wolf-child. The woman looked at her in terror as she approached, but Christa smiled and knelt down near them.

“I am,” said Christa.

“You smell different,” said the child.

“It’s all right,” Christa said when the woman shushed the child desperately. She reached out a hand turned over, offering her knuckles.

The child sniffed at her a long while before turning to its mother. “Mama, she smells like sugar.”

“I do?” Christa said with a giggle. “I’m so glad!” She jumped slightly when a cold, damp, very small nose bumped against her wrist. A wolf pup stood beside her; a man nearby held a hand over his mouth.

Christa smiled at him. “Is this little one yours?”

He stammered before nodding.

She sat down completely and offered the pup her hand. It sniffed and sniffed before catching her sleeve in its tiny fangs and tugging at her. She giggled again, scratching behind the pup’s ears with her free hand. It released her sleeve and gave a tiny bark. It yelped when the wolf-child changed to its wolf form, much larger, and pushed it out of the way to sit down in front of Christa. Christa immediately picked up the whimpering pup and ferried it into her lap before turning a stern look at the child.

“There was no reason to do that,” she said. “You need to be kind to people smaller than you. Can you apologize for me?”

The child swept its tail on the ground a few seconds before leaning forward to touch its nose to the pup’s.

Christa smiled and scratched the both of them on the head. “Thank you.” She was suddenly aware of murmuring around her, and she looked to the townspeople. They were starting to smile at her, and she smiled back.

“Milady, are you from the southern capitol?” asked a wolf-man.

“Oh, no, just a city a few days away.”

“Have you ever been to the capitol?” a woman asked. “What is it like? Is it bigger than Utgard?”

“I was there very recently when the king summoned me to deliver his message to Ymir. It’s much bigger than Utgard, with walls all around it. It’s very busy, full of merchants and artists and regular people.”

“Milady, are you royalty?” another woman asked.

“The Renz house is a noble one, yes.”

“But are you more? You act like royalty.”

She thought her words over. Gingerly, she admitted, “Technically…my father—I’m King Reiss’ only child.”

Quiet washed over the crowd. The child’s mother reacted first by reaching out a hand and touching Christa’s knee. “Your own father sent you here?”

“He did.”

New murmurs rose around her. A wolf-woman came forward to crouch near Christa. “Lady Renz, would you like to see our town? It’s not Sina, but we’re proud of it.”

“Yes, I’d love to!” She accepted the wolf-woman’s help in standing, arranging the drowsy pup on her shoulder and offering her free hand to the wolf-child. She was led through the streets, being told of their trade in leathers and furs. Two wolves trotted eagerly before her, traipsing as they related how it took the both of them to take down a bear whose skin was proudly displayed outside a shop. More than once, someone offered to make a stately gift of furs to her, but Christa, feeling guilty, gently refused them.

Some distance back, Ymir had made Annie walk with her as she followed Christa and the crowd. Annie took in Ymir’s scrutinizing gaze, waiting for her to speak.

“You weren’t lying about her ability to charm people,” Ymir said.

“What would I gain by lying to you?”

“I thought she charmed you and you were trying to protect her.”

Annie hummed flatly, and dodged aside when Ymir tried to grab her. “Do you think she’ll be able to turn the opinion of the entire country?”

“I’m sure as fuck gonna try and sell her that way.”

Annie frowned. “Don’t you think you should stop treating her like some sort of pawn? You can’t tell me that you think what happened to her is acceptable.”

Ymir gave her a sidelong look. “What do you expect me to do?”

“I don’t know. You could try being kind to her, at least.”

Ymir said nothing, and they came to stop at the sound of a quiet bark. Another small wolf pup stood before them, staring up at Ymir. A woman stood at the back of the crowd, looking from the pup to Ymir and with her eyes growing wider by the moment.

Ymir crouched down to regard the pup more closely. It trotted over to her without a second thought, sniffing at her toes. She put an elbow on one knee to set her chin in her hand, dangling her other hand near the pup. It sniffed her fingers, biting gently at the air when she drew them away. Very suddenly, she poked the pup hard on the nose.

The woman gasped; the pup yelped; and Ymir snickered. She gave the pup a push, toppling it onto its side.

“Your highness,” the woman said meekly.

She looked up. “What?”

The woman shrank back. “N-nothing.”

Ymir shrugged, and then pushed the pup over again. It began to cry and whimper as it paddled at the air to get up. She hooked her fingers under its back legs, rolling it over. She thought she heard her name, but did not pay attention.

Christa gaped as Ymir ignored her and continued on in tormenting the pup. Anger boiled up through her exhaustion and fear. She set the pup she had been carrying in its father’s arms, stormed over to Ymir, and did what she had done to her dogs when they did not listen to her. She grabbed Ymir by the face and smashed her head dead center to Ymir’s nose. The crack of Ymir’s nose breaking was like that of a whip in the silence. Ymir fell to the ground, blood pouring down her face. Christa, barely aware of the blood that had splattered onto her face, quickly picked the pup up off the ground and took it to its mother.

“Please go,” Christa whispered, and while the woman hurried away, the rest of the townspeople remained to stare. Christa turned, expecting Ymir to already be on her feet. She was still sitting on the ground, the bone having reset itself a few seconds before. Her expression was a startled one, unfocused and aimed toward her feet. She blinked a few times, and then put her hand to her face. The blood that came away on her fingers gave her great pause. She looked at Annie, still standing by with her mouth open and her eyes wide.

When she looked at Christa, Christa jumped. When she got to her feet, wiping away the blood on her face, Christa began to tremble. Ymir made her way to Christa, eyes locked on hers. Her hand shot out when she was close enough, grabbing Christa by the elbow and holding her where she was. She regarded Christa with a raised brow, and then lifted her other hand. Christa stiffened, but stared when Ymir did little more than wet her fingers with her tongue to clean the blood from Christa’s face. Once the blood was gone, she let Christa go. Christa drew back, still waiting.

Ymir smiled, said nothing, and turned about. She made to leave, but looked over her shoulder at Christa. “Come on. Time to go home.”

With nothing else to do, Christa followed her, and prayed for herself as she went.

Chapter Text

The moment they were back inside Utgard’s halls, Annie took the first opportunity to grab Christa by the wrist and drag her away. Mikasa kept Armin and Eren from following them, glancing back only once to see them vanish around a corner. Christa kept her eyes on the floor, even when Annie stopped her by shoving her against a wall.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Annie hissed. “Do you have any idea what you did?” She grabbed Christa’s chin and forced her to look up. “You attacked Ymir. You have the luck of Lady Mond that she didn’t devour you immediately. Why did you do that?”

“Y-you saw the way she was treating that pup!” Christa said, shoulders shaking and voice quaking for it. “It—it made me so angry!”

“So you decide that the first person to stand up to with your newfound backbone is Ymir? Why aren’t you understanding what I’m telling you? You have done the worst possible thing you could do, and I can’t think of any way to keep you safe from her anger.” She put her hands on Christa’s face. “What did you even hope to do by attacking her? You know it wouldn’t really hurt her. The only thing that happens when people attack Ymir is that she eats them.”

Christa began to cry, and then clung to Annie when she stepped in and wrapped her arms around her. She said, “I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!”

Annie sighed and held Christa tighter. “I’ll try to smooth things over. She seemed to be thinking about being kinder to you before you hit her. Just stay very quiet until I find Sasha. Don’t draw any attention to yourself.” She let her go, dropping a hand to tug at her wrist. “Come on.”

Christa nodded, following close at Annie’s side. She caught sight of guards and servants looking at her, a mixture of surprise, admiration, and anxiety on their faces. They all looked away quickly when Annie glared at them. She led Christa back outside, all the way to where Sasha was speaking to two young men Christa had never seen before. Sasha stiffened on their approach, spinning about to salute to Annie.

“I need you to keep Christa with you and find Mikasa,” Annie said.

Sasha blanched. “Th-the witch, ma’am?”

“She’s not going to kill you and you know it,” Annie replied. “So knock it off and keep a watch over Christa.” She raised her brow at the two men. “You can bring your new recruits if it makes you feel better.”

“Thank you, ma’am.” She saluted again as Annie departed, visibly relaxing when she was back in the castle.

“Lady Renz, do you recognize us?” asked the shorter of the men, his grin broad and his head shaven.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t,” she admitted.

The taller man, freckled and short-haired, smiled and nodded to his compatriot. They changed into their wolf forms, the shorter man a dark brown and the taller iron gray mottled with black.

Christa’s eyes widened. “You’re the two wolves who fought the bear! What are you doing here?”

They returned to their human forms, and the taller man said, “We’re here to join the castle guard, milady.” He held out his hand. “My name is Marco Bodt.”

When she had shaken his hand, she turned to the shorter man. He gave her his hand, saying, “I’m Connie Springer. You don’t have anything to worry about, Lady Renz. We’ll protect you no matter what.” He glanced about before leaning in to whisper, “Even from Ymir.”

Her stomach twisted. “Thank you, but there’s no telling if you’d be put as my guards.”

Connie and Marco turned together to salute to Sasha. Marco said, “Ma’am, we hereby request to be placed in Lady Renz’s service!”

Sasha laughed. “We’ll see how you do in training before I put you to work for someone so important.” The humor drained from her and anxiousness took over her features. “Let’s go. Miss Leonhardt wants us to find the witch.”

“Please call her Mikasa,” Christa said as they started for the castle. “She’s really very kind, and I know she’d never hurt anyone unless they attacked her first.”

Sasha looked supremely uncomfortable, but sighed through her nose. “Okay. Mikasa.” She led the way inside, barely clearing the door before Mikasa rounded a corner and came to them at a jog.

“Annie said you’d be with captain Braus,” she said. “She also said that she’s going to try her hardest with Ymir.” She put a hand on Christa’s shoulder. “What in the world possessed you to headbutt her?”

Christa sighed tremulously, and Mikasa opened her arms when Christa looked at her pleadingly. Patting her back and head, Mikasa let Christa cry silently against her chest. Sasha, Connie, and Marco looked at each other, uncertain.

Connie cleared his throat. “Lady Renz?”

“Just ‘Christa’ is all right,” she said.

“Oh. Okay. Um, Christa, our whole town thought you were really brave. We never expected that a nice little human like you would break Ymir’s nose.”

“What I did was stupid,” she mumbled.

“You stood up for one of our children,” Marco said in turn. “We’re grateful.”

Christa sniffed and let go of Mikasa to dry her face. She looked up when Mikasa put a hand on her shoulder.

“I’m still going to protect you,” said Mikasa. “And Annie is looking out for you as well. It’ll be okay.”

Christa smiled tentatively, but startled when Connie leaned in and sniffed near her.

“Why do you smell like blood all of a sudden?” he asked. “Did Ymir hurt you on the way back?”

“What? No, she didn’t do anything to me.”

“Then why do I smell blood on you?”

Christa stared at him, but grimaced at the sharp, stabbing cramp that took her. Marco blushed at the way Christa grew pale, and he slapped the back of Connie’s head. “Connie, you don’t ask a woman that!”

“What? I’m worried about her!”

“N-no, I’ll be fine,” Christa said, smiling weak. She managed to keep from grimacing again at the next hard cramp. “Captain Braus, can I ask you a favor privately?”

“Absolutely.” She followed Christa some distance down the hall, and spoke quietly when they stopped. “He didn’t mean to embarrass you.”

“It’s okay,” Christa said. “I need you to get me—”

“A lot of thick towels, right?”

“Yes. And…and a bucket.” When Sasha looked at her curiously, she blushed and mumbled, “I get sick.”

Sympathy flooded Sasha’s features. Without a moment’s hesitation, she hugged Christa gently. “I’ll get everything you need, don’t worry. And I’ll put guards at your door at all times.”

“Thank you, captain.”

“If I can call you Christa, you can call me Sasha. Let’s go get you everything.” She turned to wave at the others, smiling at them when they came up. To Marco and Connie, she said, “I have a job for you two.” When they snapped to attention, she grinned. “You two and the—um, Mikasa, sorry—stay outside Christa’s door until I get back with everything she needs.”

“May I go with you?” Mikasa asked. “I’d like to learn my way around.”

Sasha hesitated, but nodded when Christa looked at her imploringly. “Sure.” She gestured for them all to follow her, and Marco and Connie shifted into their wolf forms to walk at Christa’s sides and look severely at anyone who glanced their way. They sat down with purpose on either side of her door when they arrived, and she slipped inside without meeting Mikasa’s curious gaze. Once inside, she leaned against the wall and did her best to not make any sound as the cramping grew even worse.

Having Mikasa at her side made Sasha feel like bolting down the hall, but she walked normally while keeping her eyes straight ahead. Still, she felt her heart jump into her throat when Mikasa spoke to her.

“Is Christa really bleeding?” Mikasa asked.

“Um, yeah,” Sasha replied. “I guess it’s been a month for her.”

“She never bled on the way here. I was worried something was wrong.”

Sasha looked at her in confusion. “Is that something that happens to humans?”

“What?”

“Not bleeding regularly.”

“It can. She’ll be all right. It just won’t be a pleasant next few days for her.” She smiled at Sasha, heavy with weariness. “Thank you for being kind to her. I know it must be hard to have us in your castle. To have me,” she amended quietly.

Sasha’s brows rose at the low tone of Mikasa’s voice. She glanced down at Mikasa’s hips. “Can…can I ask why you’re not wearing your sword?”

“Because everyone gets put on edge when they smell me coming. I don’t like doing that to people.”

“Oh. Um, thank you. It would’ve scared the townspeople.”

“I know.”

Sasha could not think how to continue, and so they fell into silence. They fetched towels and a blanket, and stopped by the kitchens for a glass and a large pitcher of water. When they returned, Connie and Marco were still sitting at attention; Connie stood up eagerly.

Mikasa shifted the towels in her arms to knock on the door. “Christa, can we come in?”

The door opened and Christa’s pale face appear. She smiled at them, but it was clearly strained. She said, “Please come in.”

Sasha shook her head and flicked Connie on the nose when he tried to follow her and Mikasa into the room. She closed the door and went to the bed alongside Mikasa, laying everything on it or on the floor next to it.

“Thank you,” Christa said, voice tight.

“Are you going to be all right?” Sasha asked.

“I will. It just hurts.”

“Let us know if you need anything else,” said Mikasa. She raised a brow when Christa looked at her a moment. “What is it?”

“No, it’s nothing. Thank you both, but I’d really prefer to be alone now.”

“Sure,” Sasha said, and she and Mikasa left the room. When the door was closed again, Sasha crouched down to look at Connie and Marco. “Here’s another job for you two. Stay here and make sure no one bothers her until I come back with two of my more experienced guards.”

Connie looked dejected, nose dropping.

Sasha scratched him on the back of the neck. “I want to start training you two before we find you a place to stay. Cheer up.” She stiffened and shot to her feet as Annie came around a corner. “Ma’am, I’m placing these two as Lady Renz’s guards until I can get—” She stopped short at Annie’s impatient wave, watching as she went straight to Mikasa.

“Get your sword,” Annie said.

“Why?”

“Because Ymir wouldn’t even look at me when I tried to ask her to be kind to Christa.”

Mikasa’s shoulders rose with tension. She nodded and turned, hurrying away. Annie changed into her wolf form and sat squarely at the center of the door. She looked at Sasha. Your two best guards.

Sasha saluted and went off in the opposite direction of Mikasa. Connie and Marco sat down on other side of Annie, looking at each other over her. For a moment, Connie leaned in slightly as though to sniff at Annie’s ear, but she began to growl at him and he jerked away. None of them moved until Mikasa came back at a run, sword in hand. She sat opposite Annie, holding her sword across her lap. Both Connie and Marco grew tense as the scent of her sword reached them.

Annie’s voice cut clear to all of them. She has the same goal in mind as you two, so don’t act like she’s going to attack you.

Marco hung his head slightly. Sorry.

“It’s all right,” Mikasa said. She gripped the sword tightly. “I know wolves hate this sword.”

Connie snorted. It makes you smell like death.

Annie gave him a solid blow across the muzzle with her paw.

“You don’t have to do that,” Mikasa said. “I know it’s the truth.”

Annie regarded her briefly before turning quickly. As the rest of them turned, Mikasa’s grip tightened further. Reiner and Bertholdt had rounded a corner and were walking toward them. Reiner’s gaze never once left Mikasa, and she met him evenly.

Annie stood on their stopping. Maybe she’ll listen to you two.

“Is this about the Renz girl?” Bertholdt asked.

It is. Ask Ymir to go easy on her.

Neither man spoke. Bertholdt looked to Reiner, touching his wrist when he found Reiner’s eyes on Mikasa. Reiner rolled his shoulders and looked at Annie. “Do you really think she’ll listen to me or Bert if she wouldn’t listen to you?”

You could at least try before you tell me it won’t work.

“Why are you trying so hard to defend her?” Bertholdt asked. “She attacked your leader.”

She was caught up in being angry and scared. We’ve all done that to Ymir and you know it.

“You’ve gone soft on humans,” Reiner said with a sneer.

For a few seconds, everything and everyone was still and silent. Then, Annie’s hackles rose. I was ordered to keep the humans safe.

“Until they delivered Reiss’ letter,” Reiner shot back. “They’ve done that. Your job’s over.” He turned back to Mikasa. She met his gaze.

Annie began to bristle. Reiner, stop it.

Mikasa took a deep breath. Slowly, she lay her sword down and stood up. She stood seemingly without tension, still meeting Reiner’s gaze. His eyes narrowed, and his hand shot out to grab the front of her shirt. He slammed her against the wall.

“Don’t for one second think that I don’t know what your goal really is,” he snarled. “You brought that sword here to kill my pack, and I won’t let you start with Annie.”

Reiner!

He had no time to respond before he was barreled into by Eren in his wolf-man form. Eren bore him to the floor, beginning to pummel his face and chest.

“Don’t—touch—her!” Eren said on every blow. “Don’t—you—ever—touch—her!”

“Eren, stop!” Mikasa said.

In the moment that Eren hesitated, Reiner smashed his fist into his side hard enough to break ribs. Eren bent double; Reiner grabbed the side of his head and shoved him into the wall. Mikasa grabbed her sword and began to draw, but Annie shot forward and bit her on the right wrist hard enough to draw blood on every fang.

Still holding on tightly, she looked to Reiner. She’s not going to kill anyone today. If you’re not going to try and help me protect them, then leave.

He looked at her, at the way Mikasa’s blood was running down her fangs. He watched her eyes for a long time, and what he saw gave him pause. Frowning, he pushed Eren away and got to his feet. Though he strode away, Bertholdt lingered.

“I’ll try to talk to Ymir,” he said. “But I can’t promise anything.” He departed with a weak smile, and once the both of them were out of sight, Annie let go of Mikasa’s arm. Mikasa sank to the floor, carefully working out the bits of her sleeve that had entered her flesh. Eren started to come over, but Mikasa spoke up.

“Stay back,” she murmured.

“But—”

“I don’t want you to smell blood this close to my sword while you’re not human,” she said. “Either stay back or change.”

“But—”

“Eren, do what I say or leave.”

He went quiet, changing into his human form and hanging back. Mikasa murmured magic to heal herself, and was left with blood smeared on her wrist and small marks in the placement of Annie’s teeth. She jumped at Annie licking off the blood, but soon relaxed.

I’m sorry I drew blood.

“I’m glad you did. I really would’ve drawn on him.”

Annie bit her again, gentler this time.

“I know. I’m sorry.” She looked at Eren as he came closer. “Don’t ever do that again.”

“What?”

“Track me down by scent and attack Reiner, or any other person in this castle unless they attack you first.”

Eren scowled. “But he attacked you!”

Annie chuffed softly. He was showing dominance.

“So he wasn’t really going to hurt her?”

He would’ve. He just probably wouldn’t have killed her.

“You did a great job of stopping him,” Eren said, words snide.

“I don’t think it can be helped,” Mikasa said. “Not so long as I have my sword.” She looked over Annie’s head, brows rising at the way Marco and Connie were huddled together. “Are you two all right?”

Annie glanced back at them and chuffed again at the scent of fear seeping out from them. You better get used to this quickly if you really plan on staying with the castle guard.

Connie reacted first by getting to his feet and holding his tail straight up. Yes, ma’am! I’ll do better next time!

Marco stood as well, barking briefly. We’ll be okay from now on!

Annie said nothing, instead turning as Sasha and two enormous wolves came down the hall. While Sasha exchanged her guards for Connie and Marco, Mikasa again turned to Eren.

“Go back to your room,” she said.

“What? Why?”

“Because Ymir may be coming, and if worse comes to worse, I can’t have you lose your mind when I draw my sword.”

“Then let me stay so you won’t have to!” he said, putting a hand on her shoulder.

You don’t stand a chance against Ymir.

“I can still give you an opening!”

“Eren, I don’t want to kill anyone in this castle. If I have to fight Ymir, then I don’t want you, Armin, Christa, or Annie to get involved.”

Eren caught sight of the way Annie’s ears twitched and put his tongue between his teeth. He drew a breath, swallowed, and nodded. He took to his feet and left, and Annie looked to Mikasa when he had gone out of sight.

“Do you think he noticed?” Mikasa whispered.

That you’re rank with fear?

“Yes.”

He probably knows you smell different, but he doesn’t know that’s what fear smells like.

“What do you smell when I’m afraid?” Mikasa asked, drawing her legs up to her chest and clutching her sword.

Poisoned black ice. She saw the way Mikasa’s knuckles were beginning to turn white around her sword. You’ve never been this scared before.

“No. Not even in my first battle. Not even during the siege of Zhinganshina.”

Why?

“Because if I make the wrong decision, I kill myself, all the family I have left, and Christa, and I won’t make life any easier for you.” She smiled bitterly. “There isn’t even a guarantee that doing what Reiss really wants will help the southern army. And I couldn’t do it anyway.”

Why not?

“He wants your whole pack. I could never draw my sword against you.”

Annie went still. She changed into her human form and went to sit at Mikasa’s side, leaning heavily against her. They went silent, and the two wolf guards did not reach out to them. Tension filled the hall so fiercely that not a soul ventured down it after that, save for when servants came to light torches as night fell. None of them drowsed; none of them sought breaks or food.

As night steadily crept on and the hour grew late, Mikasa began to twitch from her muscles being tense for so long. Annie put a hand on her knee, but as Mikasa drew a deep breath to try to calm down, the two wolves abruptly stood up.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Annie asked. Her jaw dropped as they turned and started to walk away. “Where’re you going?”

“I told them to go home.”

Annie and Mikasa shot to their feet and looked into the shadows at the other end of the hall. Ymir was lazily making her way down the hall, hands tucked in her pockets.

“Why did you hide your scent?” Annie demanded.

“Because you would’ve lost your shit much sooner if I hadn’t,” Ymir replied. “And I needed to know exactly where you tried to hide her.”

“Ymir, don’t do this,” Annie said. “She was just angry—she didn’t mean anything.” She dashed forward, keeping a distance between Ymir and the door. “She’ll apologize. I know she will—just don’t kill her. Let her—”

Ymir put a hand over Annie’s mouth and whispered in her ear. Annie went limp, sinking to the floor when Ymir released her. Though she stepped neatly around her, she was stopped by Mikasa putting the edge of her sheathed sword to her neck.

Smirking, Ymir said, “All I did was put her to sleep and you know it.”

“Why do you think I didn’t draw?”

Ymir’s smirk broadened. “Are you sure it’s not because you’re too scared?”

“I can deal with it.”

“Can you deal with what happens if you draw?”

Mikasa hesitated. “What do you mean?” She pressed the sword harder against Ymir’s throat when Ymir grabbed hold of her and pushed her back against the wall. Her eyes widened as Ymir grasped the sheath, ready to pull it away from the blade.

“Let’s work it out,” said Ymir. “If you kill me, that leaves you at the mercy of my pack. If you manage to kill Bert and Reiner, you have to kill Annie as well.”

“I’ll never draw my sword against her.”

Ymir chuckled. “Noble. But what could you get out of this? If Annie doesn’t kill you for killing us and just runs away with you, where would you go? She’d be branded a pack-traitor and would be hunted for sport.”

Mikasa went pale.

“And it’s not like you’d be able to go south. So let’s say you kill all of us. You’d then have to get back to the south through an army that wants your blood. Your brother would be the first to die, I’m sure, and then the captain. You’d go last, fighting until the soldiers rip you to pieces.”

“What about Christa?”

“Well, let’s just say there’s no reason for the next person to sit on my throne to be as kind to her as I am.”

“You mean to kill her. I can’t let you do that.”

“You don’t even know if that’s what I really plan on doing.” She shook the sword. “You’re going to throw everything away on the chance that I might want to kill her?”

Mikasa could not answer, throat tight and clotted. She stared at Ymir, hands going numb. Eventually, she asked, “What happens if I let you go inside that room?”

“You’ll live to see it.” She released the sword and took a step back. “Well?”

Bit by bit and very slowly, Mikasa lowered her sword. She put her eyes on the floor, and winced when Ymir patted her on the shoulder.

“Go sit with Annie,” Ymir said. “She gets headaches when I send her to sleep like that.” She waited until Mikasa had picked Annie up and sat down with her in her lap on the opposite of the hall before moving to the door. Though she put her hand on the latch, she stopped at the sound of Mikasa’s voice.

“Please don’t kill her,” Mikasa said, every word desperate.

Ymir chuckled again, and put her free hand to her mouth. She cast a spell to catch hold of fire, and opened the door with flames in her palm. Inside the room was dark and cold; she raised her hand and increased the light in the flames. It was then that she saw Christa, lying on the bed with her wet eyes wide and her hand clamped over her mouth. Ymir grinned.

“You really reek of blood,” she said.

Christa stared, and then closed her eyes tightly and began to cry quietly. Ymir went to the fireplace, building and igniting a large fire. From there, she tossed flames into the sconces around the room and murmured spells for them to burn without kindling until the sun rose. Once this was done and there was light and warmth filling the room, she went to the bed. She crouched down by Christa’s head and gently touched her cheek. Christa choked.

“Hey,” Ymir said softly. “I’m not gonna hurt you, okay? Open your eyes and look at me.”

It took a long while, but Christa hesitantly did as she was told. When she saw Ymir smiling fondly at her, she stopped crying out of confusion. Even more hesitantly than she had opened her eyes, she asked, “Aren’t you going to kill me?”

“Fuck no.”

“Then—”

“Why’d I wait until now to tell you?”

“Yes.”

“I was a little pissed about you breaking my nose.”

“So you just let me think I was going to get killed all afternoon?”

“Okay, I should’ve told you sooner, but why are you so ready to think I’d break my promise about not hurting a hair on your pretty head?”

“Because you were so ready to break your promise about keeping my friends safe!” She could not continue as a cramp cut through her lower body, front and back alike. With her eyes closed, she did not see Ymir get to her feet, and her attention was diverted enough that she did not fully understand that Ymir had climbed over her and onto the bed. Dimly, she heard Ymir murmur something, but could not tell what she had said.

In the next moment, Ymir had laid one hand on Christa’s back and the other below her navel. The relief of her pain was so complete and so immediate that Christa had to catch a moan behind her lips.

“Fuck, you’ve got it bad, don’t you,” Ymir said.

“I—I don’t bleed every month. It’s usually every three.”

“Really? Is it this bad every time?”

“Yes.”

“You’ve got the short end of it everywhere in your life.” She hesitated, tapping her thumb on Christa’s back. “Look, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner that I wasn’t going to hurt you. I won’t make you scared like that again.”

“But…why aren’t you going to hurt me?”

“Do you want me to?”

“No, but—the last time I spoke back to you, you said you would put me outside with no guards until you stopped being angry. This time I broke your nose.”

“Yeah you did.”

“Then why?”

Ymir’s response came in her lying down behind Christa, burying her nose in her hair, and breathing in deeply.

Christa froze. “Wha-what’re you doing?”

“I don’t know your smell yet. It’s why I couldn’t find you before. Just shut up a minute.”

Swallowing with difficulty, Christa went still and quiet. More than hearing it, she felt Ymir’s breath in her hair. It was slow, even, and deep. Only because the fire was loud in its crackling was Christa unable to hear her own pounding heart.

“That little brat was sort of right,” Ymir muttered.

“What?”

“She said you smell like sugar, remember? It’s not sugar, it’s apples.”

“I smell like apples?”

Ymir took in another breath. “And red wine. No wonder Annie relaxes around you so much. Any wolf would want to be around someone who smells like you.”

“Oh.” She chewed on the inside of her cheek. “Ymir, why aren’t you going to hurt me?”

Ymir sighed. “Haven’t you figured that out yet?”

“Of course I haven’t! You’re the wolf queen and I attacked you!”

“And you’re a human woman even smaller than Annie.”

“So you’re not hurting me because you feel sorry for me?”

Ymir scoffed. “I’m not hurting you because I like you, you idiot.”

For a moment, Christa was certain her heart had stopped. “What?”

“You’re brave and stupid, and I like that.”

“Breaking your nose made you like me?”

“Pretty much.”

“I don’t…I don’t understand.”

“You’re smaller than Annie and you don’t have any of her strength, but you stand up to me even more than she does. Plus, you’re pretty. I like you.”

“Oh,” Christa said again. She gasped as another cramp cut into her, sharp enough that the magic was beaten back. As she curled up into a ball, Ymir murmured soft spells of relief into her ear. The pain receded, but Christa trembled nonetheless.

With awkwardness in her voice, Ymir said, “Hey, do you want to try something?”

“L-like what?”

“I know a spell to get your bleeding done in an hour.”

“But won’t that hurt even more?”

“Like I wouldn’t stop that pain, too. I can smell you’ve thrown up a couple of times, and going through days of this isn’t going to be fun. Come on, just try it.”

“Is it a spell you’ve used on yourself?”

“Yeah.”

Christa swallowed again, breathed shallowly, and nodded once. “Okay.” She gasped as Ymir got off the bed and gathered her, the towel between her legs, and the sheet she had been huddled under up into her arms. Fearful of tipping, Christa put an arm around Ymir’s neck and held tightly to the collar of her shirt with her free hand. Blushing darkly, she remained quiet as Ymir went to the door and opened it.

Mikasa looked up at the creak of the door, and her eyes went wide at the sight of a bare-shouldered Christa bundled in a sheet in Ymir’s arms. Ymir closed the door and crossed the hall. She nudged Annie’s hip with her foot and said a single word to her. Annie’s eyes opened, and her jaw dropped at what she saw.

“Does this make you feel better?” Ymir asked.

Annie stared.

“We’ll be in my room,” said Ymir. “Don’t bother us.” Though she turned to leave, Christa tugged at her shirt and made her stop.

“I’ll be fine,” Christa said. “Please don’t worry.” Ymir carried her off then while Mikasa and Annie stared after them. They arrived at Ymir’s room without coming across anyone else, and Ymir took Christa to a separate room within. She set Christa on her feet beside a large empty bathtub, putting her hands on her hips when Christa did not move. “Well, get in.”

“Turn around,” said Christa, blushing anew.

Ymir raised a brow, head tilted. “Why?”

Her blush darkened. “Because I’m not wearing anything under this sheet.”

“What, you’re embarrassed about being naked?”

Yes, and I’d rather not have you see me like that.”

Ymir rolled her eyes, but shrugged and turned about. Christa quickly put the sheet and the towel on the floor and got into the bathtub. She pulled her legs up to her chest and mumbled, “Okay.” She watched Ymir sit down next to the tub, their faces level.

For a time, they said nothing. Christa was again struck by the color of Ymir’s eyes, and she did not jump when Ymir put a hand flat on her back. In a low, sonorous voice, Ymir began to cast a spell more complex than Christa had heard before. She understood it as an invocation for her body to bleed faster and hurt less as it did. Relaxing both from the relief of the magic and the calm cadence of Ymir’s voice, Christa put her cheek on her knees.

“Sometimes I do this for Annie, too,” Ymir said. “Hers can last for a while, so she likes to get it done with.”

“She didn’t seem bothered during our journey.”

“Probably didn’t last that long, then.”

Christa looked at her. “How do you know all of these spells?”

“Someone taught a lot of them to me. Others I made up.” She smiled eagerly. “Do you want to learn?”

“Me?”

“Yeah! You can understand magic as it’s said, which is a good sign that you’ve got talent for it. I can teach you if you want.”

“You really think I can do magic?”

“If I can be patient enough for it, I’m sure you’ll be great.” When Christa hesitated with uncertainty, she held out her free hand, palm up. She spoke a spell, and in her hand blossomed a flower made of red and gold light. Blushing slightly, she offered it to Christa. “You can hold it.”

Christa took it, eyes widening at the sensation of holding light, ephemeral but solid. She rolled the golden stem between her fingers, staring at it. She looked at Ymir with a mixture of nerves and interest in her eyes. “I know you told it to appear, but what were the words?”

“Sahth, vahn granzen,” Ymir said. “Grow, light flower.”

“But you said it differently before.”

“Northern magic is said from the chest. My voice was lower, right?”

“It was.”

“You can ask the wit—” She coughed to stop herself. “Um. Your friend. She knows eastern magic, and that’s said higher in the throat.”

“Mikasa.”

“Yeah, yeah. Go on, give it a try. Say ‘sahth, vahn granzen’ from your chest and imagine flowers growing.”

Christa looked at the flower Ymir had made for a time before handing it back so her hands would be free. She dwelled on the words Ymir had said, the way her voice had rung out from her chest. Taking a deep breath, she looked at her hands. Clearly and carefully, she spoke the spell. Heat surged down her hands and into her hands, and all at once five flowers of colored light bloomed in each palm.

Ymir barked with laughter. “Look at that, you little shit! You made a damn bouquet!”

Christa stared, mouth open. “Oh my God.” She slowly put her hands together, gathering the flowers by their stems until she held them in a sparkling bundle. She looked at Ymir with a nervous smile. “I’d never be able to live doing this down if I was still in Trost.”

“Would they have called you a witch or something?”

“If the king knew I could use magic, he’d probably have me killed.”

What?” Ymir demanded. “Magic’s great! It’s saved my ass plenty! Why the hell would he kill you?”

“He might think I’d use some sort of death spell on him for how he’s treated me.”

Ymir sighed impatiently. “Killing magic is almost impossible to say, and it takes power to pull it off. No offense, but I’m pretty sure you don’t have it in you.”

“I’d never want to learn it.”

“Good. I don’t feel like teaching you those spells.”

Christa toyed with the petals on the flowers. “You will teach me?”

“Yeah. It’s the least I can do to make up for scaring you all the time.” She glanced down in the tub. “Doing all right?”

Christa glanced down as well, going pale at everything beneath her. “It doesn’t hurt as much, at least.” She waited until Ymir had said another long spell, hand on her back, before speaking again. “Thank you for this.”

“Sure.”

“You really do this for Annie? I thought she’d be too proud to ask for help.”

“She is sometimes, but the other times she gets too pissy and mopey and either I just drag her in here to get it over with or she asks.”

Christa grimaced as a cramp managed to work past the magic.

Ymir noticed. “By the Lady’s own fucking eye, it’s that bad? If I say any stronger spells for pain it’s going to make you stupid or knock you out completely.”

“I’ll be fine,” Christa said, clutching the flowers so tightly the light splintered. “This is much better than it usually is.”

For a few moments, Ymir said and did nothing. Slowly, she rose onto her knees to bring her head close enough to Christa to nuzzle against her. Christa stiffened at first, but relaxed at Ymir’s gentleness. She felt as though she should be reminded of how her dogs had once comforted her, but it was difficult to think of them. All she could think about was how this gesture seemed strange in the face of all she knew of Ymir. In time, Ymir drew back and Christa turned to look at her. Smiling weakly, looking more nervous than Christa had ever seen her, Ymir leaned in again to rub her nose to Christa’s. For her part, Christa dropped the light flowers to put her hands to her nose.

“Oh God, you really mean it when you say you like me,” she said faintly. She wished she hadn’t if it meant she wouldn’t have to see the way Ymir’s shoulders slumped and her eyes darkened and looked down.

“Yeah, I do,” Ymir grumbled. “Sorry.”

“N-no, it’s just that—”

“You already said it. ‘You’re the wolf queen.’ I get it.” She sat down again, putting her back to Christa. “Don’t worry about it.”

After a long pause of looking at Ymir’s dejection, Christa quietly said, “I’m sorry.”

“For what? You’re not scum.”

“I never said you are!”

Ymir snorted and itched the back of her neck through her hair. “That’s all a wolf is to humans, right? And their queen is even worse.”

“I think you would be an okay person if you would just be kinder to other people! I don’t understand why you’re such a jerk to people who don’t deserve it!”

“What, like your friends?”

“Like the little pup you tormented today! Why did you even do that?”

“Because it was funny,” Ymir mumbled. She winced when Christa slapped the back of her head, turning with a scowl. “Y’know, for someone who practically pisses herself because she’s so scared of me, you’re real fuckin’ eager to hit me!”

“How can you say it’s funny to be mean to a little kid?” Christa shot back. “You’re the queen, aren’t you? Why wouldn’t you treat the children of your people like one of your own?”

Ymir’s face tightened. She took a short breath and said, “Aren’t you just telling me to do what your father does in the south?”

“You act like he treated any of us with love,” Christa said bitterly. “Do you want to be as bad as him? I thought you would want to be better than your enemy.”

Ymir looked briefly uncomfortable. She frowned and looked away. Grumbling, she said, “I do.”

“Then don’t be such a jerk! It’s not that hard to be nice once in a while!” She stopped short, putting her forehead to her knees as pain started to come back to her. Ymir put a hand on her back once more, coming close to say the spells directly in her ear. When she drew back, she sat down again with her back to Christa. They spent a long time in silence, Christa keeping her mouth closed when pangs still took her.

She could not keep herself from starting to cough, and she clamped her hands over her mouth as her stomach churned. Before she could vomit, Ymir turned quickly and put a hand on her stomach. Ignoring Christa’s blush as well as her own, Ymir cast another spell. Christa’s stomach settled immediately, but she stared at Ymir because it felt as though her hand was on fire so close to her breasts. Ymir went red to the pointed tips of her ears and yanked her hand away.

“Sorry,” she muttered. “This is weird when it’s not Annie.”

“Then you really do care about your pack’s happiness.”

“More or less, yeah.”

“You could just be honest and say you care. It’s not like I’m going to tease you.”

Ymir rolled her eyes and poked Christa on the forehead. “Fine, smartass. It’d be nice to see them smile.”

“You know what would make Annie smile?”

“Oh, not this shit again.”

“You being nice to Mikasa.”

“Yeah, I’ll be nice the second I don’t think she’ll kill us in our sleep.”

“Mikasa wouldn’t do that!” Christa protested. “She knows it would hurt Annie if she attacked her pack, and she doesn’t want to do that!”

Ymir went silent and still. She looked away a moment. When she looked back, her eyes were narrow and her brows low. “You think she cares about Annie that much, huh?”

“I know she does. And I’m sure Annie feels the same way.”

“Have you stopped to consider how bad it is for them to be together? A member of my pack and one of my army’s most hated enemies?”

“She’s not corporal Levi, at least.”

“I don’t think there’s a wolf alive that wouldn’t kill the bastard on the spot.”

“But Mikasa doesn’t care about the kind of glory he wants. She’s different from him.”

“She’d give up everything for Annie? The life she had in the south, her position in the army, her allegiance to your king?”

Christa hesitated.

“You can’t promise me that she’d give all of that up, so don’t ask me to be kinder to her when she’s likely to betray me and my pack.”

“And if she wasn’t?”

“What?”

Christa looked her in the eye and asked, “If Mikasa proved to you that she isn’t going to kill you or your pack, would you be kinder to her?”

Ymir sneered a smile. “Sure. Good luck getting her to do that.”

“She’ll do it all on her own, I know it.”

The smile faded in confusion. “What’s with you and this optimism? Fuck, you’d even believe me when I say I’ll…I don’t know, make it up to that pup.”

After a moment, Christa said, “I’d like to believe you." When Ymir said nothing, she slowly reached out, put her fingers lightly on Ymir’s shoulder, and said, “I can’t make your people stop hating you all on my own. You have to try and do better, too. You could start there.”

“Gimme a kiss and I will.”

Christa turned crimson, too stunned to move her hand. “Why do I have to bribe you?”

“Because bribes work on me.”

“What does your pack bribe you with?”

“Food, mostly. I don’t ask them for kisses, if that’s what you mean.”

The blush spread up Christa’s ears and down her neck. She drew back her hand and looked away. “I don’t want to.”

“I’m not that ugly, am I?”

“That’s not why,” Christa mumbled.

“Then what is it?”

“Because…because I don’t want my first kiss to be used as a bribe.”

Ymir raised a brow slowly. “A pretty girl like you never got a kiss before now?”

She shook her head, misery puling down her shoulders. “I was so scared of what would happen if I got caught kissing another woman. I’d heard of the horrible things the church could do, but what if it got back to my father?”

Scowling, Ymir put a hand in Christa’s hair and made her turn her head. “I’m gonna say this once and only once. Reiss is not fit to be your father. You can build a new life here in the north where you can be happy. I don’t want you worrying about what that asshole wants or thinks or cares or any bullshit thing he does.”

For a long while, Christa was silent, wide-eyed as she looked at Ymir’s hardened face. When Ymir brought her other hand up to rub her thumb against her cheek, Christa realized she had started crying again. She flinched out of surprise, but reached up to keep Ymir’s hand to her face when she tried to draw back. The heat of her palm was steadying, more comforting than she would’ve thought possible from Ymir. Ymir looked panicked, turning an even darker shade of red than Christa.

“Erm,” Christa said softly. She swallowed, inhaling shakily while curling one finger to press at the center of Ymir’s palm. “I…we…I just—let me, let me think. Okay?”

“Y-yeah!” Ymir replied. “That’s—that’s fine! H-here, see if you’re done bleeding and we can go to b-bed.” She reached to turn on a faucet at the end of the tub and gave Christa a wooden cup before sitting down and putting her eyes on the floor. Because Ymir could not see, Christa smiled a little at her awkwardness. She did not have to wait long for the water to warm up, and she rinsed away what had gathered beneath her. After cleaning off her legs and feet, she checked to make sure Ymir was not looking and slipped a finger inside herself. It came away clean, and she rinsed it thoroughly.

“I think it’s done,” she said.

“G-good,” Ymir said. “There’s some soap there, so go ahead and clean up. I’ll, um, I’ll get you something to sleep in.” She quickly got to her feet and left the room without looking back. Christa sputtered a giggle and stopped the drain. She filled the tub up to just below her breasts, and used the soap to clean off. After hesitating, she brought the soap up to her nose to smell it. There was no particular scent that she recognized beyond a deep sense of earthiness, and she wondered if it was how Ymir smelled. She jumped when a knock sounded on the door.

“Yes!” she called back, pulling up her legs.

Ymir came in, still blushing, with a bundle of clothes and a towel in her arms. She held out the towel and looked away steadfastly. Christa took it after opening the drain, rubbing herself dry. Ymir then shoved a pair of soft brown trousers her way, and a long sleeved gray shirt followed that.

“Erm, Ymir?” Christa said once she was dressed.

“Yeah?” Ymir replied, still looking away.

“Did you give me some of your clothes?”

Ymir looked at her, staring at the way the arms and legs of the shirt fell far over Christa’s hands and feet. “Well…yeah. I didn’t want to leave you alone and naked the whole time I went to look for your clothes.” She hesitated, and then said, “They’re clean.”

Christa immediately began to giggle. She hid her face in her sleeve-covered hands and giggled until her sides ached. Ymir, blushing painfully, scooped Christa up off the floor and carried her back into the other room. She dumped Christa onto the bed, rubbing her head hard when Christa continued to giggle.

“Little shit,” Ymir grumbled, though with a smile. She turned to head toward the fire, but Christa caught her fingers.

“Christa, remember?” she said.

Ymir looked at their hands. “Okay. Christa.” She started away again, but Christa gripped her fingers tighter

“This is your bed, isn’t it?” Christa asked. “I don’t want you to sleep on the floor two nights in a row because I’m here.”

“You want to sleep in the same bed as me?”

“Isn’t…isn’t that okay? We won’t do anything.”

“Pretty big turnaround from being so scared of me, don’t you think?”

“I’m going to trust that you aren’t going to hurt me.”

“Don’t bitch to me when you get so turned on by me that you can’t sleep.” She climbed into the bed and pulled the blanket over them both. Christa felt her hand hover, uncertain, by her shoulder. She turned in time to see Ymir bite her lip, draw back her hand, and roll onto her side. She lay still and silent for a time before slowly moving closer. Heart in her throat, she put her nose in Ymir’s hair and breathed in. Ymir stiffened, but did not move otherwise.

Once Christa had drawn back, she asked, “So? What do you think I smell like?”

“A flower garden,” Christa said, faint with marvel.

“‘Cause of all my magic. Even humans smell it.”

“You smell nice,” Christa said, voice softening further.

Ymir stiffened again and mumbled, “Thanks. Go to sleep, Christa.”

Moving back to the other side of the bed, Christa gave Ymir one more look before closing her eyes and drifting off to the sound of the crackling fire. When she opened her eyes next, gray sunlight was coming in through cracks in the heavy shutters on the window. She was cold, and it took a moment to realize that Ymir had stolen the blanket and was curled up under it.

They lay facing each other, and Christa moved closer to try and regain some of the blanket. Ymir’s grip was too tight, but she tugged all the same in her drowsiness. All at once, Ymir’s hand released the blanket to grab Christa’s shoulder and pull her in close. Though Christa gasped, Ymir did not wake. She curled her arm and shoulder around Christa protectively, hand cradling her head.

Barely able to breathe out of shock, Christa stared at Ymir’s chest, wide-eyed and slack-jawed. She was overwhelmed by the heavy scent of flowers and rich earth that clung to Ymir, and the warmth of her body. It was completely unlike Annie or Mikasa; she felt more solid, more powerful. Slowly, she lifted her eyes to look at Ymir’s face. She was utterly asleep, relaxed and drooling slightly from an open mouth. Christa put a hand over her own mouth to keep from laughing aloud. Ymir, reacting to the twitching in her shoulders, grumbled and pulled Christa closer still.

Now blushing faintly, Christa tilted her head to lay her ear against Ymir’s chest. She listened to her heart for a long time, eventually closing her eyes. Just as she was beginning to fall back asleep, she heard Ymir choke on a gasp. She looked up, finding Ymir wide awake and gaping at her, blushing the worst Christa had seen. She bolted upright and moved away until her back was flat against the headboard.

Christa sat up, pulling the abandoned blanket around her shoulders because she felt suddenly naked. “I wouldn’t have guessed you cuddle in your sleep.”

“I thought you were Annie!” Ymir said, voice cracking. “You’re tiny and blonde!”

The panic in Ymir’s voice made Christa laugh. “Are you worried I’ll tell people the wolf queen cuddles in her sleep?”

“I do that with my pack!” Ymir protested. “I just—I thought you were Annie and I just…um…look, you can’t tease me when you were getting close all on your own!”

Christa smiled. “I won’t be mean. But you really thought I was Annie? Don’t we smell completely different?”

“I opened my eyes a little, saw yellow hair, and thought you were Annie. No fucking clue why, since my pack hasn’t slept in a pile in forever.”

“Maybe you were just lonely.”

Ymir snorted, looking away. “And if I was?”

“Then I’m glad I could help you.”

Raising a brow, Ymir looked back to her. “You’ve gone from being terrified of me to being happy about me grabbing you in my sleep.”

“You’re not so scary when I know you drool in your sleep.”

“And you snore!”

“Only a little!”

Ymir began to laugh at the embarrassment on Christa’s face, and hard enough that she tipped sideways. Christa watched her laugh, unsure what she felt at seeing the happiness on her face but smiling because it was infectious. Her heart stuttered when Ymir opened her eyes and threw her a grin, and looked away quickly with burning cheeks because she knew what it was she felt. Ymir did not seem to notice, soon getting out of bed.

“Let’s go,” she said, tugging on the back of Christa’s shirt. “You want to eat, right? Can’t have you in my clothes for that.”

“Right,” Christa mumbled. She rolled up the arms and legs of her clothes and followed Ymir out of the room. She tripped on the wolf Ymir stepped over outside the door, pitching forward into Ymir’s arms. Startled awake by this, the wolf shot to their feet, and Christa turned to find Annie looking back at her with Mikasa sitting drowsing next to the door.

Ymir raised a brow. “She said she’d be okay.”

Annie stretched out her legs, front and back. You’ll forgive me if I was a little paranoid. She turned to Mikasa, putting a paw on her knee. Go to bed.

Mikasa lifted her head, looking bleary. She rubbed at her eyes, stretched, and then raised a brow at Christa’s clothes.

They didn’t do anything.

“How can you tell?” Mikasa asked.

They still smell like themselves. She pushed at Mikasa’s knee. Go to bed.

“Wouldn’t you like to have breakfast?” Christa asked.

“I offend wolves,” Mikasa said mildly. “I’ll eat by myself later.” She rose to her feet, yawning, and reached out to stroke Annie’s head without thinking. She stopped short when she noticed Ymir staring at her, and she looked away and pulled her hand back. She left without saying a word, head low, and Ymir put her eyes on Annie.

“You were going to let her pet you?” Ymir asked.

She’s exhausted.

“But you didn’t bite her.” There was flatness in Ymir’s voice that neither Annie nor Christa could understand, and that same flatness was present in the faint sigh she let out. She reached down to rub her knuckles gently between Annie’s drooping ears. When Annie looked up at her, she said, “Go wake the boys. We haven’t had breakfast together in a while.”

As Annie changed to her human form and went off, Christa shifted slightly.

Ymir rubbed her head. “Sorry. I’ll send servants for you and your friends to have breakfast brought to you.”

“No, I understand. It’s important for your pack to do things together like this, right? I don’t want to intrude.”

Ymir grinned and rubbed her head again. “Thanks. I’ll do something nice for you later.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. Maybe give you a kiss that’s not a bribe.” She snickered at the way Christa blushed crimson before draping her arm over Christa’s shoulders and walking her along. Her arm remained where it was as they passed by servants and guard, and they received wide-eyed stares. When they arrived at Christa’s door, Sasha was pacing anxiously in the hall in her wolf form. She stopped suddenly on smelling them, and shifted to her human form to snap a salute. She opened her mouth, but could not find words.

“You can tell your smartass guards that I’m not going to do anything to Christa that she doesn’t want,” Ymir said. “So knock it off with putting everyone on edge.”

“Yes ma’am!” Sasha said. “I’ll relay the message to all my guards!” She went to go by them, but paused to pat Christa on the shoulder and smile.

“Want me to send someone to get you food?” Ymir asked once Sasha was gone.

“Is it all right if I sleep for a while longer?”

“Sure.” She smirked. “You can keep the clothes.” Before Christa could protest, she lifted her arm and turned away. “Have a good nap.”

Christa watched her for a time before going into her room and climbing into bed. There was still a fire burning in the hearth, and she closed her eyes. Though the fire’s crackling was lulling, thinking of Ymir’s strong, steady heartbeat was what put her to sleep.

When a hand gently shook her shoulder some hours later, though, she woke wondering if she was out in the forests again. She opened her eyes and found Mikasa leaning over her, brows low.

“I’m sorry to wake you,” Mikasa said. “I would just prefer that you be there.”

“‘Be there’? What’s going on?” As she sat up, Mikasa straightened. She looked down to see Mikasa wearing her sword on her belt; her throat tightened. “Are we being attacked again?”

“It’s nothing like that. I think Ymir won’t be so quick to react if you’re there with me.”

Ice flowed into Christa’s veins. “Mikasa, please don’t do this.”

Mikasa looked at the fear rising in Christa’s eyes and smiled gently. “I know what you’re thinking, and that’s not what I’m planning. But I need all the help I can get.”

“Won’t Annie help?”

“All I’ve told her is that I want an audience with her pack and captain Braus, and that’s for the best. Please, Christa.”

“But what are you trying to do?”

“Save my life.”

Christa could not deny her in the face of this. She nodded, and dressed in the only dress of her they had kept in selling so many things at the start of their journey. She followed Mikasa out of the room, stopping short on seeing Eren and Armin standing in the hall and looking grim.

“Are you going to explain what your plan is now?” Eren asked.

“You’ll try to talk me out of it,” Mikasa replied. “I just need you to stay completely silent and to not move, no matter what happens.” When Eren opened his mouth to argue, she softly said, “Please.” He fell silent and nodded, and Mikasa led them away. Upon arriving to the throne room, she stopped to take a long, deep breath. She went inside, and they found themselves in silence.

Reiner, Bertholdt, and Annie stood near the throne, and Ymir sat in it leaning forward. Mikasa gestured, and Armin and Eren stopped immediately. Christa stopped a few paces after them, and Mikasa came to a halt near the steps before the throne. Christa saw Sasha, off to one side, look at Mikasa nervously, but said nothing.

“How dare you come to us bearing arms?” Reiner snarled. “Annie said you wanted an audience with us, not that you were going to threaten us.”

“I’m not here to threaten anyone,” Mikasa said

“Then why bring your sword?” Bertholdt asked.

Ymir looked at Christa with a raised brow, but Christa could only manage a tiny shrug.

“Because this is the only thing I have to show my sincerity,” Mikasa said, and she drew her sword.

Reiner shifted into his wolf-man form in an instant, but Ymir held up her hand before he could charge. She glanced at Annie and found only confusion on her face. Mikasa waited until Ymir had looked at her once more before sinking down on one knee. She put the edge of the sword to her own throat and said, “I offer my fealty to you and your pack, Ymir, queen of the north.”

The room went dead silent, and Christa could not tell who among them was most baffled. Eren, Armin, and Sasha stood by with their jaws hanging open. Bertholdt stared, brows raised. Reiner was stunned still, his expression torn between anger and confusion. Annie stood wide-eyed and pale, lips slightly parted. Only Ymir recovered quickly, and she narrowed her eyes.

“You’re forsaking your oath to Reiss?” she asked.

“I was ready to lay down my life in the line of duty for a just cause,” Mikasa said. “I no longer believe Reiss’ actions are just. He betrayed the life of his own daughter, offering her as a decoy in the hope that I would give my own life to try and take all of yours. I will not sit by and let myself or my family be thrown away like that.”

“What makes you think I won’t send you out on a mission that’s sure to get you killed?” Ymir asked.

“Because I choose to believe your pack is more honorable than that.”

Ymir glanced at Annie again, but Annie did not meet her gaze. Sighing, Ymir sat back in her throne and crossed her legs at the ankles. “You want something out of this. What is it?”

“I want to know a way to get rid of the smell on my sword.”

“Melt it down.”

“Do you have a forge where I could do that and remake it?”

“Why should I let you do that?”

“Because I don’t want everyone in this castle to fear me.”

“Then just get rid of it.”

Mikasa’s hand tightened on the hilt of the sword. “I need a weapon to survive.”

Ymir sighed again, sounding even more put upon.

Mikasa took a deep breath. “If you won’t allow me to use your forge, then I have a different request.”

“What?”

“Make it so I don’t have to carry a sword anymore.”

“I’m not giving you special guards.”

“That’s not what I mean. Turn me into a wolf.”

Again, the room fell into pure silence. Everyone turned to Annie; she stared at Mikasa. Mikasa, still holding her sword to her throat, kept her eyes on Ymir.

“Why are you doing this?” Annie asked, words quiet.

“I would be of more use to your pack if I was a wolf,” Mikasa said. “I would be closer to my brother.”

“You would be trying to get close enough to kill us,” Reiner said, sneering as only a wolfen face could.

“You’re Annie’s pack,” Mikasa said, looking him in the eye. “I will never draw my sword against her, and I will never draw my sword against you.”

Reiner growled deep in his chest, turning to Ymir. “Why are you bothering to listen to this? We should’ve killed them all the second the little bitch threw the letter in your face!”

Ymir looked at him slowly, coolly. He fell back. In a low, dark voice, she asked, “I’m sorry, whose servants are they?”

“Yours,” he said.

“And who has their ass on the throne?”

“You.”

“So who gets to make the decisions about them?”

“You,” he said at length.

“Good boy.” She looked not to Mikasa, but instead fixed her gaze on Christa. Christa met her anxiously, not knowing what to say even if she had been allowed to speak. After a time, Ymir stood from the throne and went to Mikasa. She took the sword from her, forcing her to lift her face by bringing the tip under her chin.

“How long have you and I known each other?” Ymir asked.

“Three days,” Mikasa said. “At the most.”

“How long have you and Annie known each other?”

“About a month and a half.”

Ymir turned to Annie. “Well?”

“What?” Annie asked.

“Do you think she’d be a trustworthy wolf?”

“Why are you asking me?”

“Because you’ve known her longest. I want to know if you trust her.”

Annie looked at Mikasa, waiting until her gaze was returned. She watched Mikasa’s eyes for a long time before letting out a breath. To Ymir, she said, “She’d make a more trustworthy wolf than most we’ve put our faith in over the last few years.”

Mikasa did not relax with a blade near her neck, but smiled slightly.

Ymir glanced between the two before looking once more to Christa. Christa, uncertain, nodded slightly. For a moment, Ymir aimed a raised brow at Mikasa.

“The wolf-slayer witch wants to become a wolf, huh?” she said. She sighed, and then lowered the sword. When Mikasa was on her feet, she said, “You have a month.”

“What?”

“I want more time to see if you’d be trustworthy as a wolf. Prove to me that I can trust you with a wolf body.”

Mikasa hesitated a moment, but saluted Ymir as any of the castle guard would, flat hand at the side of her forehead. She took her sword back when Ymir offered it.

“For now, go melt that down and make a new one,” said Ymir. “I’m sick of the smell of death in my castle.” She turned, but Annie was already moving. She took Mikasa by the wrist and led her away.

Mikasa sheathed the sword, taking in the tension in Annie’s shoulders as they went. Softly, she asked, “Are you angry?”

Annie said nothing.

“I’m sorry if I made you angry. This is the only solution I could think of.”

“Why are you doing this?” Annie asked again.

“Because I’m going to get killed if I don’t do something.”

Annie stopped moving. With a nervous hand, she let go of Mikasa’s wrist and laced their fingers together. “I won’t let that happen.”

Mikasa stepped forward to stand at her side. Quickly checking to see if they were alone, she lifted Annie’s arm to kiss the back of her hand. Smiling a little, Annie pulled Mikasa back into walking. No one stopped them on their way, though many glances were cast their way.

In the throne room, Christa tentatively made her way to Ymir, again seated on on the throne. Reiner and Bertholdt had moved away to have a quiet, heated discussion. Ymir sat there with her legs stretched out, looking weary and thoughtful. She lifted her eyes from the floor when Christa drew up to her side.

“Was listening to her your nice thing for me?” Christa asked.

“That was mostly a nice thing for Annie,” Ymir replied. “I figured I owe her for making her go to the south and back.”

“Then what’s your nice thing for me?”

Ymir grinned, though nervously. “Don’t you remember?”

“Remember what?”

“I thought I’d take you back to my room and give you your first kiss.”

Christa blushed, eyes widening. “I—I don’t want to bribe you.”

“It wouldn’t be a bribe, okay? I just thought you might like your first kiss to be from someone who likes you.”

Christa stammered silently, heart pounding in her chest.

When the silence lingered, Ymir let out a breath of a laugh. “Never mind. I’ll think of something el—”

“You really want to kiss me?”

“Yeah.”

“Nothing more?”

“I already told you I won’t mate with you against your will. Just one kiss, that’s all.”

Christa swallowed slowly. She stared at Ymir’s face, taking it in. Her freckles made her look young; Christa wondered how old she really was. The honey color of her eyes caught Christa unprepared, as it always did. Her eyes were remarkably gentle then, with a soft plea in them. Christa remembered her scent, and the warmth of her body. She remembered Ymir’s heartbeat. A thrill went down her spine at the thought of kissing her, setting her hands to tingling.

“Okay,” Christa said.

Ymir’s eyes widened. “Really?”

“But if I don’t like it, you still have to do something nice for me.”

Ymir’s nervous grin returned. She stood from the throne and took Christa by the hand. “Come on.”

Christa followed close behind her, amazed at her own daring. She kept pace, and held tight to Ymir’s hand to steady herself in the face of her own curiosity.

Chapter Text

For all her excitement, a knot of anxiety twisted inside Christa’s gut as they drew closer to Ymir’s quarters. By the time they had arrived, her palm was clammy and slick with sweat. This did not go unnoticed, and Ymir guided her inside with a gentle hand between her shoulder blades.

“I’m not gonna hurt you,” Ymir said, closing the door. “We’ve established this.”

“I know,” Christa said, a tremor in her chest. “I’m just—what if I’m really bad?”

Ymir stared blankly at her. “Sorry, what?”

“What if—I don’t…I don’t want to disappoint you.”

Ymir blinked slowly, brows coming down as her lips parted. After a moment, she closed her mouth and sighed through her nose. A little gruffly, she took Christa by the elbow and led her over to the bed. She sat them both down, and sighed again when Christa looked at the floor.

“Hey,” she said. “Look at me.”

Christa did so slowly, only moving faster when Ymir put a hand under her chin and lifted.

“Why do you think I’m gonna be disappointed?” Ymir asked. “It’s not like I’ve kissed a lot of people in my life.”

“But you have!” Christa protested.

Ymir put a hand to her forehead, shaking her head. “The last time I kissed anyone was way before I took the throne. Years ago, all right?”

“Who?” Christa asked, and then put a hand over her mouth. “No—no, I’m sorry, that was rude, you don’t—”

“Annie.”

She was suddenly grateful that she had a hand over her mouth. When she felt she had recovered, she lowered her hand. “What?”

“I’ve kissed Annie. We were curious about each other.”

“Can I ask what happened?”

Ymir shrugged, easy and lazy. “It was too weird. We work better as a pack than as mates.” She laughed at the shock on Christa’s face. “You don’t believe me at all, do you.”

“I—Annie never acted like you two—”

“Think about it. Would we act like each we do to each other if we hadn’t been close like that?”

Christa went silent with thought. “I…I guess not.”

She ruffled Christa’s hair. “Don’t worry about it. I’m not pining after her or anything, and I’m not going to compare you two. I just want to kiss you.”

“O-okay.” She fidgeted, anxiety coming back. “Erm—h-how do we—” She drew in a sharp breath when Ymir reached around her and pulled her in close by her hip. This done, Ymir tilted Christa’s head to rest on her shoulder. “Ymir?”

“We’re gonna sit here until you stop freaking out.”

“I’m not, I just…erm.” She reached up and took Ymir’s hand from where it rested on her head. After bringing it to her lap, she held it in both hands and toyed with her long fingers and large palm. She pressed their palms together, unsurprised by the drastic different between them.

“You are so fucking tiny,” Ymir said, curling her fingers to bring the ends over Christa’s fingertips.

“You must have a thing for little blonde women.” She blushed when Ymir slowly lifted a brow, but as she began to stammer an apology, Ymir laughed and squeezed her.

“Looks like.” She slipped her hand free to stroke Christa’s hair gently. Bit by bit, Christa’s shoulders lowered as tension left her. She relaxed against Ymir, leaning against her more and more heavily. One hand she put between them; the other she put at her elbow. Ymir was utterly quiet, idly tangling her fingers in Christa’s hair.

“Can,” Christa began, and then went quiet.

“What?”

“Can I listen to your heart again?”

“What, seriously? Okay, here.” She moved to sit against the headboard, crossed her legs, and beckoned Christa closer. Christa arranged herself in Ymir’s lap, curling up so her head was nestled on Ymir’s chest. She closed her eyes to listen closely. Ymir’s heartbeat was different than before, still steady but faster. Her hand shook when she rubbed at Christa’s back.

“Are you nervous, too?” Christa asked.

“You’re rubbing off on me.” Sighing, she folded Christa up, lifting her knees and wrapping her arms around her. “So tiny.”

Christa giggled. “No, you’re just too tall.”

“You’re shorter than Annie. You’re tiny.” She pushed on the end of Christa’s nose. “Pretty, though.”

The compliment alone would’ve made her blush, but the hungry smile on Ymir’s face made her go crimson. “Th-thank you.” She looked at Ymir for a time, and fumbled through saying, “S-so are you.”

Ymir grinned, lopsided and showing her fangs. “Are you saying that because I did, or do you believe it?”

“You are! Why would I lie?”

She shrugged again. She began to rub behind one of Christa’s ears, slipping in a few gentle scratches. The sight of Christa relaxing into her touch made her chuckle. “Are you sure you’re not a wolf?”

“Unless my mother was good at keeping me in a human form my whole childhood, I’m sure.”

Ymir flicked at her hair. “You’d be a golden wolf, I think. Really beautiful.”

“Thank you,” Christa said. Very slowly, slow enough that Ymir could stop her, she reached up to run her hand along her hair. It was coarse, and she could feel snarls.

“What?” Ymir asked to Christa’s small frown.

“Didn’t you brush your hair today?”

“Um…no? Why would I?”

She sighed. “Because then your hair wouldn’t be all knotted up.”

“Who cares? It’s always a mess.”

“But—well…let me brush it, then.”

“Why?”

“I’d like to.”

Ymir rolled her eyes, but said, “All right.” She ran her thumb over Christa’s lower lip, slow and gentle and blushing badly. Christa blushed even worse than what she saw, and she breathed unevenly. Ymir snorted. “No wonder you never got a kiss before. You’d scare people off with how nervous you are.”

“I’m sorry,” Christa said. “I—”

Ymir put her thumb over both of her lips, cutting her off. When Christa was quiet, she tilted her face up slowly. Just as slowly, she leaned down. Christa let out a faint whimper as Ymir kissed her, soft and steady. Something set to trembling in her spine; she clutched the front of Ymir’s shirt for balance. She was out of breath when Ymir finally pulled away, but she did not breathe in. She stared at Ymir, uncertain if she was blushing or not.

“You okay?” Ymir asked.

Christa sucked in a breath and nodded quickly. “I—I’m fine.”

She grinned, as nervous as she had been in the throne room. “Does that mean you liked it?”

“Yes,” Christa whispered.

Her grin broadened, losing some anxiety. “Now you give me one.”

“What?”

All her anxiety returned, and came back intensified. “No, I’m kidding, you don’t have to!” She went quiet with a strangled noise at the touch of Christa’s hand to her cheek. Swallowing, she went still as Christa felt her skin. She tucked loose hair behind Christa’s ear. Taking another breath, Christa wetted her lips with a quick movement of her tongue. She sat up, bracing herself on Ymir’s knee, and kissed her. Ymir hummed softly and smiled when Christa soon dropped back against her legs.

“That wasn’t disappointing,” Ymir said. She laughed at the way Christa went entirely crimson again. “You’re adorable.”

Christa stammered, unable to think of anything to say. She settled on putting a hand to her lips and looking up shyly at Ymir. Ymir, blushing as well, ruffled her hair before picking her up and setting her to one side.

“Where are you going?” Christa asked as she got off the bed.

“To get a brush. You said you wanted to brush my hair.”

“Oh, yes, okay.” She waited for Ymir to return, catching the brush tossed her way. After Ymir had sat down once more, she moved to rise up on her knees behind her. Very gently, she started to brush her hair, working out the tangles and the snarls. Tentatively, she scratched behind one of Ymir’s ears.

Ymir groaned, spine curling as she relaxed.

“Oh, I didn’t think you’d like that so much.”

“Do it to Reiner if you really wanna see someone like it.”

“I, erm, I don’t think he’d let me near him. You heard what he called me.”

“Yeah, remind me to kick his ass later.”

“No, please don’t,” said Christa, laying a hand on Ymir’s shoulder. “He’s your pack. Don’t fight him about me.”

“It’s not fighting. It’s reminding him who’s leader.”

“But that’s no reason to be cruel to him.” Words then tumbled unbidden from her mouth. “What if I talk to him?”

Ymir looked over her shoulder. “You were just telling me you don’t think he’d let you near him. Why do you think he’d ever want to talk to you?”

“I’d like to try.”

She sighed heavily, itching the back of her neck. “You won’t cry if he’s an asshole, will you? I’d really kick his ass if he made you cry.”

She smiled, checking for more tangles. “I’ll be fine. I’d like to get to know the rest of your pack.” When she found Ymir’s hair to be smoothed out, she said, “There, all done.”

Ymir ran her fingers through her hair. “Okay, that’s nicer.”

Christa giggled, but fell silent when Ymir turned about and caught her gently by the chin. Ymir leaned closer, and Christa fumbled in saying, “Y-you said one kiss.”

She stopped moving, and then drew back slightly. “One more?”

Her surprise slipped quickly away. No protest came to mind. She had been unable to recognize the taste that had been on her lips when she licked them. Deep curiosity and the way her chest ached made her say, “Yes.”

Ymir kissed her more firmly, and she drew a sharp breath at the spark it sent down her spine. She did not know what to do with her hands, but eventually settled for resting them on Ymir’s shoulders. The thought to cup Ymir’s face in her hands came to her, but Ymir pulled away before she could do so.

“Erm,” Christa said softly. “Thank you.”

“Why ‘thank you’?” Ymir asked.

“Because I liked those. I…I’m glad you’re the one who gave me my first kiss.” The stunned look that appeared on Ymir’s face made her sink down into sitting. “What’s wrong?”

“You’re glad you got your first kiss from the wolf queen?”

“I’m glad I got it from you.”

For a few seconds, Ymir looked as though she would speak, mouth open and brows low. She slowly closed her mouth, and looked at Christa with an unreadable expression. She looked away, but looked back to run her hand through Christa’s hair. “Come on, let’s find Bertholdt.”

“Why him?”

“He always knows where Reiner is. You want to talk to him, right?”

“Yes, if I could.” She followed Ymir off the bed and out the door. “Armin said Reiner’s name is Reiner Braun and that he’s the commander of your army. Is that correct?”

“Yep.” She brought Christa back to her own room, letting her retrieve her boots and the new cloak the castle seamstresses had made her.

“What is Bertholdt’s full name?” Christa asked as they headed out to leave. “Is he a soldier?”

“Bertholdt Fubar. He’s my negotiator. He can get almost anyone to side with us. If they don’t agree, I use the info Annie and her spies gather to convince them. If that doesn’t work, Reiner’s army destroys them.”

“Is that what’s going on in the south? You can’t negotiate or blackmail anymore, so you’re going to destroy?”

“All we wanted was land,” Ymir said impatiently. “We didn’t even want to fight over it, but your priests started saying wolves are a sin and we need to be destroyed. The wolf king I killed started the war sixty-three years ago after an entire town on the border was burned to the ground and everyone was killed, and it’s been back and forth since then.”

“I…I thought wolves could only be killed by their throats getting cut.”

Ymir stopped suddenly, looking at her sharply. She looked about, waiting until the hall had emptied before leaning down to murmur in Christa’s ear. “Burning, drowning, sickness, old age, and our throats. Never tell any other human as long as you live, because I never want to see another burned town in my life.”

“I won’t, I swear.” She looked at Ymir curiously when she straightened up. “Ymir? How—how old are you? Are you as old as Annie?”

“Older,” said Ymir, and she started off.

Christa hurried to catch up with her. A question came forward on her tongue, but she decided against it because of the cool expression on Ymir’s face. She thought, and then asked, “How old are Reiner and Bertholdt?”

“Fifty-one for Reiner and fifty-four for Bertholdt.”

“Have they lost their families as well?”

Ymir glanced at her. “Annie told you about her parents?”

“She did.”

She hummed tonelessly. “Their families are gone, yeah. About forty years ago.”

“What about you?”

Without looking, without stopping, Ymir reached over and tweaked Christa’s ear. She only said, “I have my pack.”

Massaging her ear, Christa went quiet. She followed Ymir out of the castle and through the streets of the town. The sun was still high, but surely heading for the horizon and causing the shadows of the houses and shops to grow long. Ymir led her to the edge of the town closest to the mountain. When they came to snow ground, Christa held down on her sigh and trudged along dutifully after Ymir.

“Hey, Bert!” Ymir shouted as they drew to a forest. “Get out here!”

Christa gasped as Bertholdt abruptly leaned out from behind a tree. He smiled anxiously and said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“It’s all right,” she said, looking up and up as he came close. She blinked when he chuckled and patted her gently on the head.

“You are terribly small,” he said. He looked to Ymir. “Is anything wrong?”

“Where’d Reiner run off to?” she asked.

He gestured to the forest. “Bear-hunting. You made him angry.”

Bears?” Christa asked. “Will he be all right?”

Bertholdt chuckled again. “Reiner is much stronger and faster than any bear. He’ll bring home three pelts for the pack.” He looked between the two of them. “Did you need him?”

Christa let out a brief gasp when Ymir nudged her hard on the back. She fidgeted at the curious look on Bertholdt’s face, and then cleared her throat. “I was hoping to talk to commander Braun.”

He tilted his head, slowly looking to Ymir. He raised a brow when she only smirked. After a moment, he sighed, smiled, and looked at Christa. “Well, all right. Let’s go find him. Follow me.”

They started off, heading into the forest. It was dark within, and the ground was buried under snow. Christa did her best to keep up, but fell behind quickly. Bertholdt noticed first, and he stopped to let her catch up. Smiling again, he changed into his wolf-man form, carefully picked Christa up, and arranged her to sit on one of his shoulders.

Ymir looked at them, clearly amused. “What the hell are you doing?”

“She’s going to have to hurry to keep up with us,” Bertholdt said. “That’s hard with short legs and a long dress.” He looked at Christa with deep brown eyes, smiling as his wolfen face allowed. “This should be a little easier, right?”

“Erm, yes,” said Christa. She tentatively put her arm around the back of his neck, leaning in to keep from tipping. “Thank you, Bertholdt.”

“You’re welcome,” he said pleasantly. He sniffed the air and changed direction. Ymir followed, and they went deeper and deeper into the forest.

————

The forge was buried within the castle itself, cutting into the mountain. Annie led Mikasa through the halls, holding tight to her hand despite looks sent their way. They had reached a pair of large metal doors when Annie stopped moving.

“What’s wrong?” Mikasa asked.

Wait! Please wait!

They turned to find a wolf, brown shot through heavily with black, charging down the hall they’d come from. Though Mikasa tensed, Annie squeezed her hand before letting go and stepping forward. The wolf came to a halt before Annie, panting and looking eager. It slipped past Annie suddenly, circling around Mikasa and sniffing her with abandon.

“Hanji,” said Annie, “what are you doing?”

The wolf vanished inside a cloud of steam, and Mikasa found herself face-to-face with a person with their brown hair pulled back, glasses on their face, and wearing a hopeful smile.

“The wolf-slayer,” they said, starting to circle around Mikasa again. “The witch, Mikasa Ackerman. Barely older than twenty years and a highly regarded captain of Reiss’ army. I never thought I’d meet the girl who keeps slipping out of my traps.”

Mikasa slowly raised a brow. “You’re Hanji the strategist.”

They stopped in front of Mikasa and held out their hand. “Yes, Hanji Zoe. Very nice to meet you, miss Ackerman.”

Mikasa looked to Annie. Annie, in turn, shrugged and said, “I told you they’re weird.”

Mikasa sighed, but gave Hanji her hand. They shook briefly before Hanji used their free hand to point at Mikasa’s sword.

“May I see that?” she asked.

“Why?”

“I heard from Armin that you’re going to melt it down. I would like to know what it smells like.”

Mikasa could not hold back her baffled look, but recovered when Hanji laughed. She said, “Well…all right,” and drew her sword.

Hanji took the sword as a human and changed into their bipedal form to smell it closely. Though their snout wrinkled at first, they kept at it and sniffed every last inch of the blade, the guard, and the hilt. They examined the blade, flicking and tapping it with their claws.

“There’s magic on this,” they said after a time. “What is it?”

Mikasa hesitated. “It’s…a permanent bone-cutting spell.”

Hanji changed into their human form, eyes wide and mouth open. They grabbed Mikasa by the shoulders, shaking her hard. Grinning madly, they said, “I knew it! I knew there were magic-users in the southern army! Who taught you? What spells do you know? How many soldiers have a bone-cutting spell on their swords?” They meant to go on, but stopped when a wolf-woman Annie caught them by the wrists and pulled their hands away from Mikasa. They tilted their head back as Annie looked down at them, and smiled charmingly.

“Sorry,” Hanji said with a chuckle. “It’s very exciting to discover new things about our enemies.”

Annie sighed and let them go, changing back into her human form.

Mikasa took back the sword when Hanji offered it. After sheathing it, she said, “The only other person I know of who has that spell on his sword is corporal Levi. He taught it to me.”

Both Annie and Hanji grew tense, looking at each other. With an even voice belied by the dark cast in her eyes, Annie asked, “What else did he teach you?”

“A few spells for combat. He only did it because general Erwin ordered him to. Levi hates teaching anyone anything, and he barely made an exception for me.”

“Small favors, I suppose,” Hanji murmured. They then began to prod and pinch Mikasa, gauging her muscles. “Are there any spells on your body? Even if your sword has a bone-cutting spell on it, you’d have to be strong to use it well.”

“Not that I’m aware of. Levi wouldn’t have wanted an upstart like me getting any higher in the ranks, so he never taught me any spells to increase my strength.” She gasped when Hanji, in their bipedal form again, picked her up under her arms and held her well off the ground.

Hanji laughed. “You feel like you’re all muscle. You’re almost as heavy as some young wolves.”

“Put her down,” Annie said in a tired sigh.

They set Mikasa on her feet, but did not release her. “Annie, this girl and Armin are the best sources of information to enter the castle in decades. Can’t you let me examine her?”

Seeing displeasure growing on Annie’s face, Mikasa said, “It’s all right. If I can help, I will.” She stiffened when Hanji picked her up again and swung her from side to side as they laughed.

“You’re a good soldier,” Hanji said, setting her down and letting her go.

Looking impatient, Annie said, “You can’t do experiments on her. Humans don’t heal well.”

After changing into their human form, Hanji smiled. “I already know most of the physical and mental limits of humans. I want her methods and techniques.”

Annie crossed her arms and lifted a brow.

Hanji held up their hands, anxiety touching their smile. “Okay, maybe some experiments. She’s a fascinating specimen.”

“Like what?” Annie said sternly.

“Well, I’d like to know some of her limits, since she seems to be tougher than most humans. And I want to know what she meant by combat magic, and the limits of her magic.” They slipped behind Mikasa and buried their nose behind her ear, breathing slow and deep. They murmured, “Your scent’s like Ymir’s, but fundamentally different. Have you ever tested what you can do with magic?”

Mikasa stepped away from them, rubbing at her ear. “No. There were never many spells to pick up in the south, and I never got someone from the east to teach me more than healing and hunting spells before our battalion had to move out.”

“Fascinating,” Hanji said. “We’ll have to get Ymir to teach you.”

“Ymir wouldn’t teach her anything except how to set herself on fire,” Annie said.

For a few brief seconds, Hanji looked as though they would protest. They put a hand to their chin and sighed. “You’re probably right.” They thought, tapping their thumb on their chin. Their smile eventually returned, and they threw an arm around Mikasa’s shoulders.

“I know a good deal of magic, so we should be okay to test things until Ymir comes around,” they said. To Annie’s scowl, they said, “I promise I won’t hurt her. I wouldn’t dare harm a hair on her head, or that pretty little bastard of the king’s. Having either you or Ymir coming after me is a thought I don’t want to entertain.”

It took a small reassuring smile from Mikasa for Annie to relax. Frowning still, she muttered, “Fine.” Her frown slipped when Hanji reached out and scratched behind one of her ears; she tilted into the touch and smiled.

“Best way to charm our leaders,” Hanji whispered to Mikasa. “Though she’s not as bad as commander Braun.”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” Mikasa said as Hanji drew back their hand.

Annie exhaled slowly and turned to the doors. “Come on.” She pushed them open, releasing a wave of hot air. The noise of forging came to them, all clanging and hisses as red-hot metal was submerged in water.

Mikasa stared at the large forge and the workers milling about. “What do wolves need with a forge?”

“The things we make with the ore from the mountains are some of our most important exports,” said Hanji. “Haven’t you heard of wolf steel?”

“We were told wolf steel was weak and brittle. I assume that was a lie?”

Hanji grinned. “Our forge masters Franz and Hannah can lecture you on it more than I can, but wolf steel is some of the highest quality steel in the world. You’ll like the results.”

Mikasa looked at Annie, who shrugged and said, “We make a lot of money on it. It’ll improve your sword.” She quickened her pace to reach a tall man and a woman who only came up to his chin.

They startled on seeing Annie, but the woman stepped forward with a smile. “Hello, miss Leonhardt! We never see you here!”

The man smiled as well. “If you’ve got a special request, Hannah and I will do our best!”

Annie pointed lazily over her shoulder toward Mikasa. “She needs to reforge her sword. Make it better than before.”

Hannah went to Mikasa, holding out her hands. “May I?” She took the sword and examined it. After a moment of smelling it, she stiffened. “This sword has been used to kill a lot of wolves.”

Discomfort flashed across Mikasa’s face. “I would like to get the smell off of it. That’s possible if we reforge it, isn’t it?”

She bit her lip, anxious and uncertain, but drew a deep breath and smiled again. “Yes, that’ll get the smell off.” She turned to the man and said, “Franz, you’re best with single-edged swords. Come here.”

He went to her and took the sword. He tested its weight and balance, and made a cut on his thumb to check its edge. “This is a good blade. How old is it?”

“About five years.”

He nodded as he thought. “You forged this by folding it, right?”

“Yes.”

He nodded a final time, and then put the sword on his shoulder. “We’ve got just what you need. Do you want to get started now, miss, um—”

“Mikasa. And yes, if we could.” She followed him away.

Hannah, though, paused to say, “It’s going to take a few days, miss Leonhardt. I can send word for you when it’s done.”

“I’m fine staying right here,” said Annie. Before Hannah could speak against this, Annie changed into her wolf form and sat down.

Hanji laughed and patted Hannah on the shoulder. “You know she’ll stay out of the way. Go help Franz and Mikasa.” When Hannah had nodded and gone off, Hanji changed into their wolf form and sat down, facing Annie.

So the rumors are true. You’re protecting her.

Annie looked at them coolly and gave no reply.

Hanji lifted a paw and put it on top of Annie’s muzzle. I’m not Reiner. I don’t care if you like her.

You were telling her that she slipped out of your traps.

Hanji pushed down on her muzzle, slipping their paw away when Annie tried to bite it. You vouched for her when she asked to be turned into a wolf, or so Armin said. Did you lie?

What would I gain from lying to my pack?

Her.

Annie made no movement beyond blinking slowly.

Hanji sighed, moved to Annie’s side, and pushed Annie over. Before Annie could get back up, Hanji dropped down beside her, one arm draped heavy over Annie’s neck. Annie bared her fangs, but Hanji closed their mouth on Annie’s ear and tugged less than gently.

Their voice was frustrated in Annie’s head. Sometimes you four are barely better than pups. You and Ymir are the worst, honestly. Why is it a problem to be with her?

That’s a stupid question and you know it. It’s not like you and Petra, or Reiner and Bertholdt. It’s not even like whatever it is Ymir and Christa have. Her voice grew soft to Hanji. I want her to be safe.

But you want her with you, too.

Annie did not answer, looking at the floor.

Hanji took her meaning and let go of her ear. Reiner will be a tough sell.

Annie remained silent.

Hanji thought for a long while. When Annie heard them again, their voice was cheery. I have an idea. Put her in my care, and I’ll figure out some ways to make her look better to Reiner and Ymir.

Annie looked at them from the corner of her eye. Why would you do that?

You were the one who spared my life when Ymir took the throne. Why wouldn’t I help you?

For a few more moments, Annie was silent and still. She looked away and closed her eyes. All right. Do what you can.

Hanji gave Annie a lick behind one ear before changing into their human form. “Send word to me when she’s got her new sword.”

Sure. She did not watch Hanji go, instead concentrating on the sounds of the forge and the scent of Mikasa that she could still catch past ash, steel, and sweat.

————

“How the hell far did he go?” Ymir grumbled.

Bertholdt sniffed the air, and again when a breeze swept through the trees. He said, “Just a bit further. I think bears are starting to realize Reiner hunts them, so they’re not living so close to Utgard anymore.” He paused as Christa pushed a low-hanging branch out of their way. “Thank you.”

Christa smiled and let go of the branch when they were clear of it. “Thank you for helping us find commander Braun.”

“Can I ask why you want to talk to him?”

“It’s something about the way. Something I’ve been curious about for a long time.”

Bertholdt nodded and asked nothing more. He led them onward, soon reaching the start of a bloody trail in the snow.

Christa gripped Bertholdt’s fur. “That’s not from commander Braun, is it?”

He chuckled. “No, that’s bear blood. He found his prey here.” They followed the trail, and Christa took comfort in Bertholdt never flinching when the blood splatters grew larger and more numerous. Eventually, they reached a clearing where Reiner, in his wolf-man form, sat carefully skinning the pelt of an enormous black bear. Two more pelts lay next to him, their carcasses off to the side.

Reiner looked up on their approach, eyes widening at Christa perched on Bertholdt’s shoulder. He narrowed them when Bertholdt put her on her feet and changed into his human form. Chuffing, he resumed skinning the bear.

“What?” he said, voice tight.

Christa hesitated. Bertholdt gently pushed her forward, and she swallowed. “Commander Braun? May I ask you something?”

What?” he demanded.

“Are, erm, are you close to winning the war?”

He paused, glancing at her. He looked back to the bear. “Closer now that the witch is out of the picture.”

She bit down on her tongue and said nothing for a moment. She drew a slow breath. “What will you do to my father if you win?”

“Either Ymir or I will eat him.”

“I see.” She took another breath, deeper than before. “I hope you win.”

Reiner froze. Slowly, he turned to look at her. “What?”

“I hope you win, and I hope that my father isn’t killed before you and Ymir get to him.”

He stared. He stood, changing into his human form, and came toward her. She swallowed, but did not move from where she stood. Even when he leaned down and put his face close to hers, she did not pull away.

“You want your country to lose the war?” he asked.

“I want the war to end.”

“And you’re fine with your enemies winning?”

“You’re not my enemies.”

He exhaled through his nose. “So you want your father dead?”

“I want him defeated.”

“Why? Because he sent you to us as a sacrifice?”

Christa frowned, her shoulders starting to shake. “Would you have done that to your daughter?”

Reiner sneered. “Do I look like a coward? I would go with her if she really had to go to my enemies. Anyone who doesn’t is unworthy of their child.”

“Ymir said that you’d eat someone sooner than let them do what my father did to me. Is that true?”

“It is.”

“Then isn’t that what my father deserves?”

He was silent for a long while. “What would you do for us?”

“I…I have no strategies to give you like Armin, or power to serve you like Mikasa and Eren.”

“Tell me something I don’t know.”

“I would lead you all to the throne room in Sina. Give you safe passage like Annie did for us.”

“And watch while we eat Reiss?”

She opened her mouth, but found she could not trust her voice. Instead, she looked him in the eye and nodded firmly. She did her best not to stiffen when he put his bloody right hand under her chin and tilted her face. He sniffed softly at her temple, and moved behind her to breathe in the scent of her hair. Coming back to her front, he sniffed quickly at her lips.

Reiner straightened up, and there was curiosity in his face when he asked, “Did you kiss Ymir?”

Face, neck, and ears burning, Christa put a hand over her mouth and stammered into her fingers. She stopped, took a breath, and lowered her hand. “I, erm…I did.”

He looked at Ymir, who smiled smugly. He raised a brow, the corner of his mouth lifting. “I didn’t think you’d make her do that. What did she bribe you for?”

“No, it’s not like that!” Christa protested. “She was very sweet!”

Reiner and Bertholdt looked at each other before turning to Ymir. Her smile lost some smugness in the way a blush took to her cheeks. Reiner’s stoic expression cracked first when he snorted, and then he began to laugh.

“Shut up, Braun,” Ymir said.

“But she called you ‘sweet,’ Ymir!” Reiner laughed. “I’ve never heard anyone call you that!”

Christa caught how quickly Ymir’s frown darkened, how quickly she showed her fangs, and acted on a thought more than making a decision. She pinched Reiner hard on the side to make him stop laughing, and went to Ymir. Putting her hands on Ymir’s stomach, she waited for Ymir to look at her.

“Don’t hurt him,” she said firmly.

Ymir looked at her silently.

“Please.”

“He laughed at me.”

“Because of something I said.”

“So I should get mad at you?”

“If you have to get mad at all, yes.” She held Ymir’s steadily, hands not shaking on Ymir’s stomach. She blinked when Ymir sighed and took her by the chin.

“You got blood on her, Reiner,” Ymir said. She licked her fingers and cleaned away the blood on Christa’s face. “Don’t you think she’s too pretty to have blood on her face?”

Reiner grinned. “I thought she looked pretty good with your blood on her face.”

“She’ll do the same to you if you piss her off.”

Christa pushed Ymir’s hand away enough to turned toward Reiner. “Commander Braun, I swear I won’t.”

His grin grew larger. “Just to Ymir?”

“Only if she has to, I’d think,” Bertholdt said, winking at Christa. He laughed when Ymir pelted him with snow, and again when Reiner pitched snow of his own at Ymir. While they were distracted with each other, he struck a blow on both their heads with handfuls of snow. Christa stepped quickly aside as they began to lope around the clearing, throwing snow and tackling each other.

She watched, back to a tree, and wondered if it was all right. The tackling was rough, as were the subsequent escapes. Bit by bit, though, Bertholdt’s solitary laughter was joined by Reiner, and soon she could hear Ymir starting to laugh when her feet were knocked out from beneath her. A touch of daring took Christa. She crouched don and gathered snow in her hands. Forming it into a ball, she waited for the trio to come her way again.

Though her aim had been Ymir, she was spotted at the last moment. Ymir ducked aside, and the snowball landed on Reiner’s ear as he chased after her. He yelped at the cold, and spun to face Christa with his eyes wide. She stared back, heart knocking in her chest for being unsure of his expression.

“Did you throw that at me?” he asked.

“I—no, I, that—I was aiming for Ymir,” she said. “I’m sorry I hit you.”

He frowned, but curiously. He scooped up a large handful of snow, his hands long since cleaned off, and went to Christa. Before she could react, Reiner dumped the snow down the back of her dress. Christa shrieked behind tightly closed lips, and punched Reiner on the chest when she realized he was laughing. He ruffled her hair with a cold hand.

“Now we’re even,” he said. He sank down on one knee as she shook the last of the snow out of her dress. When she was looking at him, he put his hands on her shoulders. “I’m going to hold you to your promise about getting us into the throne room.

She smiled and nodded. “Absolutely, commander.”

He chuckled. “‘Reiner’ is fine, little lost Renz girl.”

“Christa,” she replied. “And I have three excellent hunters with me, so I’m not lost.”

Ymir leaned heavily on Reiner’s shoulders with her elbows. She grinned toothily at Christa. “I’m best, though.”

“Hey, who just took down three bears on his own?” Reiner said, pushing her off.

“They smell old. Did you pick off their elders?”

Reiner opened his mouth to argue, but Christa reached out to scratch behind his ears. He let out a startled grunt, but quickly groaned tunefully and smiled. When she stopped scratching and smiled back, he blushed. Looking over his shoulder at Ymir, he said, “You told her to do that.”

“Yep.”

He sighed, taking to his feet, and rubbed the back of his neck. He looked at Christa, who continued to smile brightly at him. After a moment, he smiled back and stroked her head. “Go on back to the castle. I need to finish skinning this bear.” He went to Bertholdt to kiss him before changing back into his wolf-man form and returning to the bear.

Though Christa would have stayed to watch in fascination, she was abruptly picked up off the ground. She did not startle or struggle as Ymir, in her wolf-woman form, settled her on her shoulder. Less tentatively than with Bertholdt did she wrap her arm around the back of Ymir’s neck for balance, and she did not flinch when Ymir put a large, clawed hand on her hip to hold her steady. Bertholdt looked at them with a smile, but said nothing as they started away.

“Maybe you should be my negotiator from now one,” Ymir said after a time. “You charmed him pretty fast.”

“What?” Christa said, laughing nervously. “No, I’m no negotiator.”

“It seemed that way at the town,” Bertholdt said. “I wouldn’t mind the help.”

“We still need to introduce you to more of the country,” said Ymir. She drummed her fingers on Christa’s hip, minding her claws. “Bert, how close is the next town?”

“About a day’s walk, if we’re taking the humans.”

Ymir tilted her head to look at Christa. “Do you know how long it’ll take to remake the witch’s sword?”

“You’d have to ask Mikasa. I don’t know anything about making weapons.”

“You ask.”

Christa frowned, pushing at one of Ymir’s tall ears. “It’s not like she’ll attack you for asking. Besides, she swore her fealty to you. She’ll answer any question you ask her.”

Ymir rumbled low in her throat, but stopped short when Christa gently scratched behind her ear. She patted Christa’s hip, and they went on in silence until they reached the edge of the first and the end of the snow. Ymir set Christa on her feet before changing into her wolf form and running off toward the town.

“Did I offend her?” Christa asked.

Bertholdt smiled and shook his head. “Sometimes she needs to just run. She’s probably going to go see the—um—sorry, Mikasa.”

Her heart jumped into her throat in ill-defined panic. “Oh God—why wouldn’t she take me? She hates Mikasa!”

He laughed. “I’ll bet you three gold coins that Annie is still with her. It’ll be all right.”

“Are you sure?”

He put a hand on her shoulder. “Here’s something about Ymir. She only kills her enemies or people who’ve betrayed us. Mikasa pledged her loyalty, and Ymir chose to accept it. It’ll be just fine.” He patted her shoulder when she gave him a small smile. “Now, would you like to see the town? You haven’t had much of a chance to see it yet.”

“Oh! Yes, if we could.”

“Good! It’ll give us something to do until dinner.” He led her back to town and through the streets, introducing her to anyone they came across.”

————

Annie sat on a far worktable, Mikasa’s scarf around her neck and over her nose. She drowsed to the sounds of the forge, chin creeping toward her chest. Her grogginess was so deep that she almost did not catch Ymir’s scent as she entered the chamber. Startled, she could only watch as Ymir strode toward where Mikasa was working with Franz and Hannah. She bolted to her feet and caught up with Ymir, grabbing hold of her sleeve. Ymir looked at her.

“What?” she asked.

“Why are you here?”

“I want to know how long it’ll take to finish her sword,” Ymir said, jabbing her thumb at Mikasa.

Annie stared, and then slowly let go of her sleeve. “A few days.”

“What, really?”

“Yes.”

She sighed, itching the back of her neck. She looked up at the vents in the high ceiling, at the forge itself, and at Mikasa again. “Are you two going to be in here the whole time?”

“Yes.”

Ymir went silent, looking once more to the glowing innards of the forge. She stood and thought, and Annie waited patiently. Eventually, she said, “Okay. Tell me when she’s ready to leave for another town.” Seeing Annie starting to scowl, she snickered and roughly rubbed Annie’s head. “Fuck, I’m not sending her away. I want to show her and Christa to people.”

Annie stared. “What? Why Mikasa?”

“Because,” Ymir said, grinning, “I want to show everyone that she fights for our country now. They won’t be so scared of her with a new sword.” She thought. “I guess I could show off the other two, too.”

“You…want to show off Mikasa?”

“Yeah. I’ve got Christa to charm people and the witch to show that even the humans of the south hate their king, and that their strongest soldier gave me her allegiance.” Because Annie still frowned, she sighed and said, “Would it help if I said this is also to try and make them all more appealing so they don’t get attacked?”

“Is that the truth?”

“Hey, no way am I letting Christa get targeted anymore. And I don’t want to lose a strong solider like the witch when—” She stopped abruptly, eyes falling on the scarf around Annie’s neck. She looked at Mikasa, finding her neck to be bare.

Annie stiffened and blushed when Ymir looked back to her, brows raised. She said, “She didn’t want to get sweat on it while she worked.”

“But why the hell are you wearing it?”

She did not stumble or stammer, instead staying quiet and closing her hands into fists out of tension.

Ymir slowly frowned, crossing her arms. “Well?”

“‘Well’ what?” Annie replied.

“Did you tell her to ask to be turned into a wolf?”

“No.”

“But you’d like it if I did that.”

She kept her mouth firmly closed. Looking as though it took a great struggle to accomplish it, she looked Ymir in the eye and nodded very slightly.

Ymir did not react, did not move, did not speak. She watched Annie, and Annie watched her in return. After a long while of silence, she softly asked, “What are you going to say to Reiner?”

“I don’t know,” Annie said, her voice even quieter than Ymir’s.

Ymir opened her mouth slightly, but said nothing when an anxious request came into Annie’s eyes. When her silence continued, Annie exhaled through her nose.

“I know,” Annie muttered. “I’ll figure it out.”

A moment passed where Ymir looked startled. Then, her mouth twisted and she put her hands to her forehead, snarling. She grabbed Annie by the wrist and dragged her to an empty corner of the room. She changed into her wolf form, sat down, and glowered at Annie until she did the same.

Ymir sent her words only to Annie. Why the fuck do you want her so much? She’s the witch.

Annie’s hackles rose. She’s not evil. She won’t kill our people unless they attack her or if we order her to. She isn’t the bastard, and she doesn’t think we’re monsters. All she wants is to… Her hackles came down; her eyes lowered.

To what?

To be with me.

Ymir’s ears pulled back for a moment, but she snorted and shook her head. She itched one ear for a time, sweeping her tail violently on the floor. Growling again, she clamped her mouth down on the length of Annie’s muzzle and held on when Annie startled.

What do you want me to do?

Annie stared, frozen stiff. What?

I know you hate the word “please” more than I do, but that’s what I need. Ask me to do something. She let go of Annie’s muzzle. Well?

She hesitated. Eventually, she chose her words. I want her. I want her to be safe. Here. With me. She hesitated again. Don’t call her a witch anymore. Don’t send her away or try to get her killed. The last word she sent to Ymir was barely more than a whisper. Please.

Ymir went still, tail stopping, and looked at Annie so closely that Annie’s ears began to droop. She tilted her head slightly, and then swept her tail back and forth once. She stood up and turned slightly, but sent a word to Annie. Okay.

Okay?

Yeah. Okay. Tell me when she’s ready to leave for another town. She padded off and slipped out of the room in her human form. Annie stared at the door, throat tight and filled with uncertainty. She let out a sigh lost in the noise of the room, and moved in closer to where Mikasa was working. Sitting on an unused worktable, she pulled the scarf over her nose once more and watched Mikasa.

————

Christa kept her hand in her dress pocket as she and Bertholdt came back to the castle, toying with what she had put there. Bertholdt paused at the door, looking to the sky. It was deeply dark, speckled with stars and clouds.

“Definitely dinnertime,” he said. He paused again, stepping a few paces away and sniffing. “Huh. Ymir left the castle again a little bit ago.”

“Oh,” Christa said softly, shoulders falling.

He turned, saw the dejection on her face, and went to pat her on the back. “It’s fine. She comes and goes at strange hours. Why don’t we find your other friends? I haven’t really met them.”

“All right,” said Christa. Still, as they went inside, she asked, “When do you suppose Ymir will come back?”

He shrugged. “Sooner or later. She doesn’t announce when she’s leaving like this or when she’ll be back.”

“What does she do when she’s gone?”

“Sometimes she hunts, sometimes she climbs the mountain to think, and sometimes she just runs until she’s tired.” He noticed her hand in her pocket and her small frown. “She’ll like it, don’t worry.”

She jerked her hand out of her pocket, blushing. When he smiled, she laughed nervously. Her laughing stopped when he rubbed her head, and he gestured for her to follow him. Deeper into the castle they went, seeking out Armin and Eren. They found the pair in the kitchen, raiding the dry stores with Connie’s help. At first sight of Bertholdt, Connie panicked, dropped the food in his arms, and bolted in his wolf form.

Eren casually bit into the dried meat he had pilfered, brow raised. Armin looked between him and Bertholdt anxiously, but Bertholdt only chuckled.

“I haven’t broken into the pantry in a long time,” said Bertholdt. “Mind if Christa and I join you for dinner?”

Eren stopped chewing. He looked askance at Bertholdt, but Christa smiled hopefully at him. He turned away, went into the storeroom, and returned with an apple and a piece of dried meat. He tossed them to Christa and Bertholdt respectively. Though he did not smile, he did not argue or try to force Bertholdt to leave. He listened while the other three talked, only interjecting by way of getting more food when their hands emptied.

Christa kept throwing glances at the door to the kitchen, but no one that came in did anything more than nod to Bertholdt. Though she was certain Annie and Mikasa would not appear, Reiner did not track Bertholdt down and join them. A part of her felt dismay when they separated for the night without Ymir having shown her face. She made no comment to Bertholdt as he escorted her to her room, her eyes on the floor.

“Reiner?” Bertholdt said as they rounded the last corner before her room.

She looked up in time to see Reiner at her door, straightening up and putting something hastily behind his back. Curiosity filled her as Reiner turned red and took a few steps backward.

“Reiner, what’re you doing here?” Bertholdt asked.

“Uh,” Reiner said. “Looking for…you.”

Bertholdt stared a moment before smiling and leaning down to whisper in Christa’s ear. She looked surprised but pleased as he stood up, and Reiner went red to the tips of his ears.

“What’s behind your back?” Christa asked.

He was silent, and then snarled a sigh and took long strides to her. From behind his back he pulled a folded up black bear skin, and he put it in Christa’s hands. She stared at it, brows raised and mouth open.

“Don’t want you cold at night,” Reiner grumbled. “Since you’re so tiny.”

“Thank you,” Christa said, faint with shock. “But…I thought you only killed three bears. Wasn’t it just for you and your pack?”

“What’s one more bear?” he said with a shrug. He frowned as Bertholdt grinned at him, but went ramrod straight when Christa hugged him. Startled, he looked from Christa to Bertholdt and back again before paying her on the head. Once she had let go, he smiled and said, “All right, it’s late. Better go to bed before Ymir comes to steal you away.”

She thought of what she carried in her pocket and felt her heart stutter. “Erm—did you see her again after we all left?”

“Who, Ymir? No, but she’ll be back soon.” He smirked. “Are you missing her?”

Christa stammered, but Bertholdt took pity by coming forward and putting his arm around Reiner’s shoulders. He bade Christa good night and led Reiner away, leaving her to herself for the rest of the night. When she dressed in the morning, she made sure to wear something with pockets.

Despite this, she did not encounter Ymir the entire morning, nor any of the ruling pack. She explored the castle on her own, seeing if she could find ways out of getting lost in the hallways and rooms. Servants and guards now recognized her by sight and smell, and they directed her when she was caught in a loop. Eventually, she went back into the town and to the streets.

Where people had been too anxious to speak to her the day before, they approached her now with great curiosity. She answered all their questions about the south, or what she could. The children that clustered around her tended to ask strange questions about how she hunted when she was so small and smelled of sweet things. They could not quite comprehend her status as a noble, or the concept of her not killing her own food. Still, they begged her for pets and scratches while their parents watched and smiled.

As they day turned cool and late, Christa contemplated heading back into the castle. She looked up at Castle Utgard, eating a pastry that a baker had given her as a present. Her eyes traced where the brick work faded into the mountain, so smoothly that she could not determine what had been placed by wolfen hands.

“L-lady Renz?”

She swallowed and turned around. A woman stood behind her, a small pup bundled in her arms. Fear showed in her face, in the slant of her brow. Christa looked at her for a few seconds before recognition hit her. She said, “You were in the town! Your pup—are they all right? Ymir didn’t hurt them, did she?”

The woman shook her head, but looked even more panicked. “He’s fine, but—milady, please, I don’t know what’s going on!”

“What do you mean?”

“Her majesty summoned me! She sent specific orders for me to come here and bring my son!” She clutched the pup to her breast, looking as though she would cry. “Milady, please, I don’t know what she wants with us! What—what if…” Her breath hitched. “What if she’s angry?”

Christa smiled as gently as she could, putting her hands on the woman’s elbows. “You’ll both be just fine. I was the one who hit Ymir. Here, did she say she wanted to see you today?”

“Yes. I’ve…been avoiding the castle.”

She stepped to the woman’s side and began to guide her forward. “Come on. She gets impatient. I promise you’ll be okay.” Despite the woman’s hesitance, she led her inside. She took a more winding path through the halls to give the woman time to calm down. There seemed to be more movement in the halls than before, heading inward. Just as the woman managed to lose the edge of her panic, Marco, on patrol, spotted them.

“Miss Maria?” he said, coming over. He smiled and rubbed the pup’s head. “Hello Dale. What’re you two doing here?”

“Her highness sent for us,” Maria said, shoulders drooping.

“So that’s why people are in the throne room,” he said, looking toward where he’d come from. He turned back and smiled as Maria trembled and clutched her pup more tightly. “Come on, miss Maria. Christa won’t let anything happen to you two.” He put a gentle arm around her shoulders and guided them both along. Wolves that had gathered curiously at the door stepped aside on seeing Christa, and she led the way when Maria hesitated.

Ymir sat stretched out in her throne, fingers laced over her stomach and legs straight. She stared at her toes, wiggling them idly, as Reiner and Bertholdt stood nearby. To Christa’s surprise, there were a large number of wolves in the room, including people from the town. Ymir looked up on catching Christa’s scent, turning her eyes past Christa to the woman huddled against Marco’s side.

“Your highness, your guests have arrived,” Marco said in a clear voice to carry through the room. All at once, the low drone of murmured conversation stopped. Maria stopped breathing, looking as though she would bolt. She startled when Christa took one of her hands and pulled her forward. They stopped before the throne, both bowing their heads before Christa stepped away.

Ymir stared at the top of Maria’s head, as she refused to look up and meet her eye. She sighed quietly, tilting her head. “Look at me.”

Maria flinched, eventually raising her head. She met Ymir’s gaze, but could not speak.

“What’re your names?” Ymir asked.

She swallowed hard, and managed to softly say, “My name is Maria, your majesty. My son’s name is Dale.”

Ymir was quiet for a long while. She looked at Christa from the corner of her eye, a twinge of anxiety visible in her. Christa smiled encouragingly, unsure but hopeful. Ymir smiled briefly, and to Maria she said, loud and brash, “I was an ass to your son. I’m sorry.”

There wasn’t a single person who didn’t look as though they had been slapped in the face, and Maria most of all. She stared, and then slowly looked to Christa. Christa, something peculiar swelling in her chest, came out of shock and smiled brightly at Maria. With slightly less fear, Maria turned back to Ymir.

“Your majesty?” she said.

Ymir held up a hand, lifting her first finger. “You can make one request of me.”

“Wh-what?”

“I’ll grant you one request to make up for being an ass. What do you want?”

Maria gaped. She looked down. After a long time of silence, she swallowed and lifted her head. “M-milady, I…my son.”

“What about him?”

“He,” she said, and hesitated. He snuffled against her chest, and she took a breath. “He…he’s a year and a half old. And he’s still so little.”

Ymir stared, something hard in her gaze. Flatly, she said, “He’s your runt.”

Maria flinched. “He—he’s my only child, your highness.” Fingers shaking on the pup’s back, she said, “Please—you’re so skilled with magic. Can…could you make him strong and healthy like you and your pack?”

After a moment more of staring, Ymir blinked. When she stood, her eyes were without an edge, something more gentle in them as she made her way down the steps. She paused, looking uncomfortable, when the pup spotted her and began to whimper. Christa stepped in and, wordlessly, brought them all to sitting on the floor. She shushed Dale gently, rubbing his ears and the scruff of his neck with one hand and letting him sniff the other. When he had calmed, Ymir lifted him slowly out of Maria’s la and put him in her own. She ran her hand the length of his back over and over, and then began to murmur to him.

Christa listened closely. As she heard it, Ymir bade to pup to cast off his weakness, take in no sickness, and become so strong he need not fear enemies. Even as she said this, Dale’s sleepy eyes grew clearer, more aware. Her spell continued, granting him growth soon to come to match his age and, with a touch of Ymir’s fingers to his throat, a gift of magic for himself.

She lifted her hands, and Dale took to his paws. He looked about, sniffing with excitement, before bounding off Ymir’s legs and into Christa’s lap. She giggled as he put his paws on her shoulders and licked furiously at her face. There was only enough time to pet him once before he leaped away into his mother’s waiting arms. She held him as best he could for his excited squirming, and looked up to Ymir with tears in her eyes.

“By our Lady Mond,” Maria said, voice shaking. “Your majesty, I—we—” She bowed as best she could seated and sobbed, “Thank you.”

Ymir shrugged, smiling crookedly. “He should be healthy for the rest of his life, and pretty strong.”

Maria straightened up to nod, smiling. Dale chose this moment to squirm out of her lap. He ran some distance before sitting down and letting out a howl. The wolves laughed, and Maria explained to Christa, “He’s not even saying anything. He’s just happy.” She laughed, disbelieving, as Dale sprinted back to her and tugged hard at her sleeve. She looked at Ymir and Christa both. “Miladies, I don’t know how to thank you.”

Ymir waggled a hand dismissively. “I was saying sorry. Don’t worry about it.”

“You should head home before it gets too late,” Christa said. “I’m sure everyone will be so excited to see him.”

She nodded, wiping the tears from her eyes, and took to her feet. She left with Marco as her escort, and Christa could not stop smiling. She could still see sharp surprise on many faces around her, including Reiner’s. Holding down on giggles, she looked at Ymir as she stood up. Ymir offered her hand, lifting her easily off the floor.

“Good, right?” Ymir asked.

She let a giggle slip past her lips. “Yes, that was very good of you. Thank you.”

A grin took her, showing one fang. “It’s not bad playing nice.”

Christa put her hand in her pocket and said, “I’ll do something nice for you now.”

“Huh?”

“Kneel down for a minute.”

Ymir looked at her skeptically, but relented with a sigh. Christa slipped behind her, carefully gathering Ymir’s loose hair. Before Ymir could grumble a question, Christa took the hair clip from her pocket and snapped it in place. She stepped back to Ymir’s front, putting her hands behind her back and smiling.

“I saw this in a shop when Bertholdt was showing me around,” she said, feeling her cheeks start to burn. “I thought you might like it, since you’re always scratching at your neck.”

Silently, slowly, Ymir put her hands on the clip. She took it off and brought it around to look at it. Her eyes lingered on the oval stone that the metal clip was attached to, deep and glossy black shot through with gold. When she looked up at Christa, her brow was raised.

“Erm,” said Christa. “Do…you not like it?”

“You’re giving me a present?”

“Well…yes.”

She toyed with the clip. “Did Bert tell you what this stone is?”

“No, but the shopkeeper called it wolf’s eye.”

She hummed. “It’s made from pieces of obsidian that picked up gold as it came down mountain rivers. It really only comes from a few places in the far north.” She turned it over in her fingers, rubbing at the stone’s glassy surface with her thumb. “I found it sometimes when I was a kid.” As she handed it back, she said, “Put it on me again.”

Christa’s heart jumped into her throat. She smiled, nodded, and put the clip onto Ymir’s hair once more. As Ymir stood up, she stepped back. “It looks really good on you.”

Ymir flicked at her hair before rubbing her bared neck. She smiled at Christa. “Thanks.” Before Christa could reply, she leaned down and kissed her quickly.

Christa squeaked, putting a hand to her mouth. Blushing badly, she said, “You didn’t ask!”

“What, I have to ask every time I want a kiss?” She dodged when Christa aimed a kick at her ankle, slipping in a kiss to Christa’s brow before laughing and dashing away in her wolf form. Christa looked after her, feeling like laughing herself. The cheer passed from her to every wolf she went by, even as most stared at her as though she were unreal.

Chapter Text

By the time her sword was finished three days after beginning, Mikasa was exhausted to the point of being unwilling to talk. She managed to thank Franz and Hannah before giving up on words and walking toward Annie. Her face was smeared with as, as were her hands and arms. Annie took her hand regardless and led her out from the forge. The looks sent Mikasa’s way then were startled ones, as though they did not recognize her at all.

“‘M I that dirty?” Mikasa asked.

“Everyone knew you by the scent on your sword,” Annie replied. “They probably didn’t know who you are for a second.” She gripped Mikasa’s hand tighter, pulling her back from the direction she tried to go. When Mikasa looked at her in confusion, she said nothing and pulled her arm more firmly. Mikasa followed her lead through a roundabout path that doubled back and slipped through a few passageways that Mikasa had never noticed before. They reached the inside of Annie’s room through one such passage that opened through a wall, and Annie let go of her to lock the door.

“I don’t want anyone tracking you when you’re so tired,” Annie explained.

“Thanks,” Mikasa said, smiling. She looked at herself and asked, “Could I take a bath?”

“You should.” She gestured at the door to the bathroom, but headed to a different wall. As she opened another passageway, she said, “I’ll be back in a minute.”

Mikasa looked after her, at the way the wall melted back together with the barest effort. She went into the bathroom, stripping quickly and leaning her sword against the bathtub. She scrubbed off the ash and sweat, or as best she could for her face and neck without a mirror. Stopping the drain, she sat holding her legs with her chin on her knees. Though she tried to keep her eyes open, the hot water and steam sent her drifting, relaxing more and more. The door unlatching made her jump and reach instinctively for her sword.

Annie came inside with clothes bundled in her arms. The startled look on Mikasa’s face made her pause after closing the door.

Quickly, she took her hand from the sword and turned off the water. “Sorry.”

She shrugged and came near. Setting the clothes down, she sat on the edge of the tub and took up the washcloth Mikasa had set aside. “Look at me.” She meticulously cleaned off the smudges still on Mikasa’s face and neck. The blush that came up under her hands made her pause again. “What?”

“Um. You’re…cleaning me.”

“You’re dirty. Why wouldn’t I clean what you missed?”

Mikasa smiled, small with weariness. “Never mind.”

She finished cleaning her before speaking again. “Ymir wants us all to go to the next nearest town as soon as possible.” She held down a sigh at how Mikasa’s smile faded in confusion. “She wants to show off you and Christa specifically.”

“Why me?”

“To show that the south’s greatest wolf-slayer is working for her now.”

Mikasa looked at her knees. When she looked up, there was anxiety in her gaze. “I’m not being sent away, am I?”

“No. Don’t worry.” For a moment she was very still, and then she leaned down slightly. She sat upright immediately and gave Mikasa one more scrub before putting the washcloth down. She went to find a towel, and set it on top of the clothes. As she turned to leave, Mikasa caught her by the wrist.

“Stay,” Mikasa said. “Please. I’m not as jumpy with you here.”

Annie swallowed, looked back, and nodded. She returned to her place on the edge of the tub, and did not resist Mikasa lacing their fingers together. They sat together, silent and still, until Annie noticed Mikasa’s eyes closing. She smiled at this and tugged on Mikasa’s hand to wake her. Because Mikasa did not stand, only blushing, she rolled her eyes and turned away.

She listened then to the sounds of water draining and dripping, and of skin being rubbed dry with soft cloth. She closed her eyes to better focus on Mikasa’s scent, no longer weighed down by death. Traces of stress, sharp and burning, still clung to her, but it was a cleaner and richer scent that she breathed in. She opened her eyes on hearing Mikasa pick up her sword. The sight of Mikasa’s boots on her feet lifted her brow.

“Why are you wearing those?” she asked.

“Don’t you want me to go back to my room?”

“No. Take those off and get in bed to sleep.”

Far too tired to imagine arguing, MIkasa obeyed, setting her boots beside the bed. At first she sat upright against the headboard, sword in her arms as she was used to. She gasped when Annie took her by the ankles and yanked her into lying flat out. She protested incoherently against Annie taking her sword from her, but grew quiet as Annie lay down next to her.

Unable to swallow, barely able to breathe, Mikasa turned onto her side to look at Annie. Annie, in turn, reached out with a nervous hand and pulled her closer. They settled with Annie on her back and Mikasa’s head on her shoulder.

“Go to sleep,” Annie muttered when MIkasa did not breathe.

Mikasa exhaled, nodded, and closed her eyes. Setting her hand on Annie’s stomach calmed her, and she quickly fell asleep. Annie remained awake a few minutes more to hear her quiet breathing.

————

There were a few reasons Christa wanted to watch Ymir after giving her the hair clip, but she would have only admitted to one. She wanted to make sure the clip was fulfilling its purpose and keeping Ymir from scratching her neck. It seemed to do so the following day, because she never saw Ymir itching when they crossed paths. She remained unsure, as they did not speak overmuch that day.

The guards provided the reason why with their conversation. Discussions and planing were happening for an imminent trip of indeterminate length. While the destination was set, the departure waited on Mikasa’s sword to be completed. The revelation that Mikasa would be going caused most guards’ eagerness to waver. It took reassurances from Sasha of Mikasa’s oath for most to accept their assignments. Christa, in the meantime, asked Sasha where exactly they were headed and why, and took eager interest in the map Sasha showed her to explain.

“I’ve never seen a map of the north before!” she said. Rather sheepishly, she admitted, “I was taught it was all wilderness.”

Sasha laughed. “We don’t have cities like I’ve heard of in the south, but we have a lot of towns and villages and farmland.” She smoothed the map when it curled, pressing it down with a weight. Trailing her finger along the roads on the map, she spoke. “There’s a large farming town a day’s walk northwest of here. Most of our trade with them deals with food, though we’ve had a lot of recruits for the army and my guards. News spreads from them quickly due to their food trade. That’s why we’re going there.”

“So word of me and Mikasa will spread faster.”

“Got it in one,” Sasha said, smiling and rubbing Christa’s head. Because Christa looked at her with surprise, she pulled her hand away. “I’m sorry. I’m used to doing that with my guards.”

“No, it’s all right.” She smiled faintly. “Not many people touch you with such familiarity in the south.”

“Not even hugs?” Sasha asked.

She laughed. “Those I’m used to. Pets are something else.”

Grinning, Sasha rubbed Christa’s head again. “We’ll get you up to speed.” She returned to the map, drawing out a picture with gestures while speaking. “Once Miss Leonhardt tells Ymir that Mikasa’s sword is finished, six of my guards will start heading northwest, spread out on either side of the road we’ll take. Six more including me will go with you and your friends, as well as Ymir and her pack.” She thought. “I think Hanji, too. They want to talk to Mikasa, or so I’ve heard.”

“I’ve never met Hanji.”

“Don’t worry. They’re nice—just weird.” She continued on and said, “One of the people sent out before us will arrive first, so we’ll have places to stay ready for us. Six guards will patrol around the town while we’re there, and six guards will patrol inside it.”

“You’re more thorough than the guards I knew in Trost,” Christa said, smiling as she relaxed.

“I wouldn’t be captain if I wasn’t.” She stopped with sudden thought, and then looked anxious. “Do you have warm clothes? It’s going to be a lot colder there.”

“I do. I’ll be all right.”

Sasha continued to look anxious, and Christa did not understand why until two days later when they were miles away from the castle town. Though the road did not have much snow on it, the ground was frozen hard enough that her boot heels were loud against it. Christa kept her arms crossed beneath her cloak, marveling at how the cold turned all of their exhales into clouds.

Eren caught her looking nervously at his bare feet two hours into the journey, and he smiled as he went to her. “You’re not worried about me, are you?”

“A little,” she said. “You’re not cold?”

“Not really,” he replied. “It’s weird—I know it’s really cold out, but I don’t feel it like I used to. It’s like I’m always furry, even if I’m in this form.”

“What is it like?” Christa asked.

“Being a wolf?” He hummed as he thought, a low drone of one note. “Not bad. I thought I’d hate it a lot more. Have to admit it’s nice being this strong.” He grinned, holding out a fisted hand. “Hang on to me.”

She did so with trepidation, and gasped when he lifted her from her feet with no effort and kept walking. She clung to his wrist as he laughed.

“God, you weigh nothing!” He set her down again, grinning at her flustered expression. “Better to be a soldier when you’re this strong.” His grin faded at the strange way Christa stared at the ground. They walked for a time before Eren said, “Christa? What’s wrong?”

She startled and, blushing, stammered, “Oh, no, it’s nothing.” They both stepped away when a wolf with brown and black fur slipped between them.

The wolf looked up at Christa, and she heard a cheerful voice. Hello, Lady Renz.

“Hello,” she said. She looked closely at their fur before admitting, “I’m sorry, but I don’t recognize your coloring. Erm, are you Hanji?” She swallowed hard because the wolf, after changing to their human form, leaned in very close to her.

“I am,” they said. They sniffed lightly at Christa’s hair and neck before picking her up under her arms and carrying her along for a time. Setting her down, they said, “You’re the size I expected you to be. Tell me, is Reiss as small as you?”

“I—I don’t think so. I don’t really know.”

Eren moved to Christa’s other side, holding his hand above her head in a range not as tall as him or Hanji. “He’s about this high if I remember right.”

“Interesting,” said Hanji. “Any siblings your height?”

“I was his only child. Or the only one that lived past two years.”

Excitement filled Hanji’s face. “Is that so? Were these child born of your mother or someone else?”

“They were from his wife, not my mother.”

“I see.” They leaned in again to smell her more carefully. “Were you a sickly child?”

“A-a little.”

“Your scent just changed,” Hanji said. “Why are you stressed now? What’s wrong?”

“I, erm,” Christa said. “I don’t want to be offensive.”

They smiled. “It’s tough to offend me. What is it?”

“It’s—I’ve heard people call you ‘they.’ Is that the right word for you?”

“Yep,” they said with a smile.

“Oh,” Christa murmured, eyes wide with revelation. “O-oh, I see! I’m so sorry! We only use ‘he’ or ‘she’ for individuals in the south, and I was confused.”

Hanji laughed. “That’s all right. Thanks for asking.” They adjusted their glasses. “Then people like me would pick one of those instead because they would be told they’re wrong if they didn’t.” They sighed. “That’s terrible.”

“Maybe it’ll change when the north wins and more wolves go to the south,” Christa said.

“One would hope.”

“I’d like it if Mikasa could just get a wife without the church killing them both,” Eren grumbled.

Hanji bristled. “Your church does what?”

He jumped at the sharpness of their voice. “They kill people like Mikasa or Braun and Fubar, or at least they punish them in the worst possible ways. I thought you knew about the south.”

“I know about your military strategies and your physical abilities!” they said. “I didn’t know your church was a pack of savages!” They snarled out a sound of disgust. “And they think that wolves are a sin.”

Something inside Christa relaxed at the sight of Hanji’s anger. She set a hand on their elbow, smiling gently when they looked at her. “I wish I had known someone like you when I was younger. I think I wouldn’t have been so scared.”

Surprise took them a moment before they chuckled and scratched behind Christa’s ear. “You are every wonderful thin your father didn’t want, aren’t you. Well, we’re all glad to have you as our lady now.”

Christa blushed, looking down. “Th-thank you.”

Hanji considered this, grinned, and said, “Ymir most of all.”

The blush covered Christa’s face, so painful she hid behind her hands. Hanji changed back to their wolf form and trotted off, tail wagging back and forth. They came up behind Mikasa as quietly as they could, but Mikasa dodged to one side to avoid being leapt upon.

Looking not a little startled, they changed into their human form and asked, “How did you know I was there?”

“I heard you talking to Christa and Eren, for one,” she replied. “Also, Annie gave me a warning that someone was behind me.”

“You awful spoilsport,” Hanji said, giving Annie a pout. They looked down at Mikasa’s hip, sniffing a moment. “Not a trace of death anymore. May I?”

Aiming an anxious glance at Ymir and Reiner a few paces ahead, Mikasa drew her sword and passed it to Hanji. Hanji smirked on feeling its weight, and smelled the blade both in their human form and their bipedal form. They returned to their human form and handed the sword back.

“Remarkable how much lighter wolf steel is, isn’t it?” they said cheerfully. “And a good deal stronger.”

“It’ll be easier to use,” Mikasa said, sheathing the sword.

“All the same magic on it?”

She nodded. “Just in case.” She turned to see Reiner glaring at her from over his shoulder, sighing quietly. She expected to see the same from Ymir when she noticed Reiner, but gaped when Ymir slapped Reiner hard on the back of the head.

“Knock it off,” Ymir said, eyes and voice firm enough that Reiner was too baffled to argue. She shoved him lightly, saying, “Go walk with Bert a while.” When he had dropped back to Bertholdt’s side, she looked at Mikasa and crooked a finger. “Ackerman, come here.”

Mikasa almost stopped walking entirely. She looked at Annie, feeling herself go pale despite Annie’s nod. Breathing deep and even, she lengthened her stride and caught up to Ymir. “Yes, your highness?” She stiffened when Ymir suddenly put her nose in her hair and breathed in.

“Huh,” Ymir said, straightening up. “So that’s what you really smell like.” Smirking at Mikasa’s visible confusion, she went on. “It’s early, but I have an order for you when we get home.”

She walked with her shoulders squared. “Yes ma’am.”

“Teach Hanji and the guards your techniques and what normal soldiers did.”

“Would you also like me to teach them what I learned from Corporal Levi, your highness?”

“Whatever you’ve got. I want it to start getting back to the front lines.” She looked at Mikasa with curiosity. “Where is the bastard? The last we heard is that he was near the border stopping our advance.”

“He wanted to do what I was, which was trying to press into the north.” She smiled wearily. “I had a few direct letters from him where he insulted me and my battalion and said he could get to Utgard if the king hadn’t chosen my youth.”

With all seriousness, Ymir asked, “Do you think he would break the front lines and get here?”

Mikasa looked at her, at the intensity of her gaze. She lowered her eyes to think. After some time, she looked up. “Not with a frontal assault, and he knows it. Commander Braun has stationed his forces at the border too well for any invading force to get through without massive losses—I’ve seen the aftermath. But,” she said, “if he took a small, highly skilled force through a path like the one Annie had us on, he might be able to slip through the north and reach Utgard.”

Ymir exhaled slowly. “That so?”

“Yes, your highness. I’m sorry.”

She snorted a laugh. “What for? You just gave me incredible information. But now you gotta give me more. Is the bastard likely to do that?”

Mikasa hesitated. “It’s…hard to say. Levi is loyal to General Erwin more than he is to the king, but Erwin mostly follows Reiss. If they don’t order it, it’s very unlikely that he’ll act on his own. Since the king wants a full march through the north, he won’t take Levi away from the front lines.”

“And if Reiss changes his mind?”

“Then Levi would come to Utgard.”

Ymir frowned, clearly thinking. Some time later, she said, “Tell my pack and Hanji all of this, and you and Arlert try to figure out how the bastard would sneak into the north. Give them every option and possibility.”

She snapped a salute, hand at her brow. “Yes, your highness.” She returned to Annie and Hanji when Ymir gestured to dismiss her, blinking as Christa passed by.

Christa managed to catch up to Ymir, but found herself at a marked disadvantage with Ymir’s long strides. She struggled for a time, trying to catch Ymir’s eye and having to jog at times to keep up. Ymir, though, was lost in thought, hands in her pockets and eyes in the distance. She jerked when Christa put a hand on her wrist, looking down.

“Oh,” she said, and she slowed her pace. Seeing the pink flush on Christa’s face, she put her fingers on Christa’s cheeks. “Humans get cold way too easily.”

Christa smiled ruefully. “Don’t think I don’t envy wolves right now.”

“I can always carry you if you get too cold,” Ymir said.

“On your shoulder again?”

“Nah. There’s this human thing I heard about a long time ago.” She smirked, and then leaned over to scoop Christa up into her arms. “I think this is called a bridal carry or something.”

Christa stammered, blushing so painfully she was shocked steam did not come from her cheeks. She struggled to think past how warm Ymir was from so close, and tried to not lay her head on Ymir’s chest. Through massive willpower, she cleared her throat and asked, “Do you not have brides in the north?”

“That’s a marriage thing, right?” Ymir shrugged. “We don’t do marriage. We don’t need big ceremonies to show off our mates.” She looked at Christa with her head tilted. “But your church wouldn’t have let you get married to another woman, right?”

“Right.”

“Did…did you ever want to get married?”

Somehow bashful, somehow ashamed, she smiled weakly and said, “No. I’ve gone to a few weddings in the south, but I could never see myself as a bride, even with the right person. I like the northern way better.”

“Oh,” Ymir said, voice breaking. She coughed to one side. “W-well, good. We’d have to kidnap a priest for you if you ever wanted to get married.”

She giggled. “He’d have a very interesting story to tell when he got back.”

Ymir grinned. “I bet it would piss Reis off if we forced one of his priests to get you married to another woman.”

The smile on her face grew smaller; she looked down. “Ymir?”

“What?”

“I…I think my father really hoped you would kill me.” Ymir’s silence weighed on her, and she felt her eyes burn. A moment later, Ymir had pulled her closer, laying a hand on the back of her head.

“I know,” Ymir said in her ear. “I won’t.”

Unsure of what else to do, Christa nodded. They did not speak for a long while after that, Ymir only reacting when Christa’s head tipped onto her shoulder. She sniffed twice and rolled her eyes on smelling the sleepiness on her.

“Okay, no free rides for people using me as a bed,” she said, jostling Christa. “Down you go.” She set Christa on her feet, raising a brow at her. “Annie said you fall asleep easy when you’re being carried, but really?”

“I—I’m so sorry.”

She tapped a curled finger on Christa’s head. “Tell me if you need help sleeping instead of doing this goddess thing all the time.”

“I’ve been fine!” Christa protested. “You were comfortable!”

Ymir opened her mouth, but suddenly turned away to stare at the forest to their left, thick and wild and winding. Looking back showed the other wolves, Eren included, looking in the same direction. Sasha and Marco changed to their wolf forms after a shared look and dashed into the forest. No one spoke, but there was faint movement. Eren edged in front of Armin, and Mikasa set her hand on her sword. Ymir stepped in front of Christa, shoulders high.

Sasha and Marco returned in ten minutes’ time and went to Ymir. Both snapped a salute in their human forms, and Sasha spoke. “We picked up traces of bear around a cluster of broken branches and claw marks, your highness. Someone is trying to follow us.”

“How do you know that?” Christa asked.

“Bears wouldn’t come this far into the plains,” Marco replied. “And there’s no blood around.”

“It is my opinion that someone is masking their scent with magic, your highness,” Sasha continued. “Would you like for us to find them?”

Ymir looked straight up. Everyone followed suit and found snow was beginning to fall heavily. The wind picked up, and Sasha looked to Ymir.

“Can’t track anything soon,” said Ymir. “Stick close for now.” She picked Christa up again, muttering, “This time you can sleep. I want us off the road fast.”

Christa only nodded, holding tight to Ymir’s shirt as she quickened her pace. She did not try to speak after seeing Ymir’s eyes flick to either side of the road. There was deep concentration in Ymir’s face, in the way her ears twitched against the muffling snow. Peeking over Ymir’s shoulder showed her that the others were as watchful; Mikasa and Armin kept their hands on their swords. Briefly, she felt the urge to pray for their safety, but did not know who would listen.

The wind and snow were fierce enough that Christa took care to brush away what had gathered on her, as well as what she could reach on Ymir without blocking her eyes or ears. Ymir gave her brief smiles for this and bundled her closer when she caught her starting to shiver. No conversation came through the wind; the snow built up silence around them. The sky grew darker slowly with the hours that passed.

A spot against the landscape came into view ahead of them on the road, bounding through the snow. Christa’s chest tightened, but Sasha laughed and ran to the spot in her wolf form. She returned with a brown wolf, and Christa let out the breath she’d been holding when it changed into Connie. Though he was out of breath, he went to Ymir and saluted.

“Ma’am,” he said. “I informed the town of your—your visit. They—they’ve prepared rooms at the inn. I was worried when it started getting dark, so I came to meet you.”

A moment went by of Ymir looking at him steadily. Without accusation, she asked, “What’s your name?”

“Connie Springer, your highness,” he replied.

She rearranged her hold on Christa to reach out and patted him roughly on the head. “Good boy. Lead the way.”

He stared, eyes wide, but saluted again. “Yes ma’am!” He changed into his wolf form and did as ordered, ears high and nose up. They made good time against the weather and caught sight of lanterns within half an hour. Ymir set Christa on her feet, brushing off what snow she could before leading her forward. They were met by a stout woman, dark of skin and hair, and two taller and broader men who looked to be her sons.

“You grace us with the presence of you and your pack, your highness,” the woman said, bowing. “My name is Taisiya.” She blinked, leaning slightly to see Christa at Ymir’s side. She sniffed, held her lantern closer, and gasped at seeing her soaked cloak. “Please, we’ve prepared fine rooms for all of you. Come out of the cold.” She beckoned for them to follow her, and the two men changed into their wolf-men forms to flank them as they came into the town.

“Are you the leader here?” Ymir asked.

“I am,” Taisiya said. “I hope we’re good hosts for you.” She hesitated and slowed to match Christa’s pace. “Are you the messenger from the south? We’ve heard a little about you.”

“Yes,” Christa said, smiling as well she could through the cold. “I’m Christa Renz. Thank you for having us.”

Taisiya stared at her, glancing at Ymir. Ymir looked back evenly, and then rubbed Christa’s head gently. This only served to confuse Taisiya further, but she shook herself out of it when Christa flinched at a long rush of wind. “There’ll be good fires going in all of your rooms, milady.”

“Thank you very much,” Christa said.

She nodded once and said no more until they arrived at the large inn. The two wolf-men came forward to open the doors, watching past them until they were all inside. Servants came forward immediately, taking Christa, Mikasa, and Armin’s cloaks. The man that attended to Mikasa attempted to take her scarf, but stopped short when she frowned at him. They bowed and separated, going to the pairs that had formed without thought.

“We’ll have food prepared shortly,” said Taisiya. “For now, please warm up in your rooms.”

Ymir gestured to Bertholdt, catching the pack he tossed to her. Only then did she allow a young woman to lead her and Christa away. Up a flight of stairs and down to the end of a hall they went, the woman opening the door to a large room. She went inside first to drape Christa’s cloak over the tall grate before a blazing fire.

“I’ll return when dinner is ready, miladies,” she said, bowing and closing the door as she left.

Christa went to sit on the floor before the fire, shivering terribly enough that her teeth chattered. She watched as Ymir dropped the pack on one of the beds and went to the nearest window. She bolted it and ran her fingers along the seams, murmuring too quietly to discern her meaning. She did the same to the other window and the door before sitting down behind Christa and pulling her close.

“You’re practically frozen,” Ymir grumbled. She held Christa’s hands to warm them, curling around her.

“Th-thank you,” Christa said. “I d-didn’t know it could be so c-cold.”

“We’ll get you warmer clothes. Here, I’m gonna teach you something.” She brought Christa’s hands out before them. “Look at the fire. Imagine holding it.” She let go of Christa’s hands and said, “Now say ‘urome.’”

“Erm, all right.” She cleared her throat to quell her shivering and clearly said, “Urome.” She bit back a shriek when flames burst into life in her palms. “Oh God—Ymir, my hands!”

“No, calm down!” She caught Christa’s wrists, holding her still. “You won’t burn. Remember what I told you about what wolves are vulnerable to?”

“Yes.” She looked at Ymir, stomach twisting. “You’re not teaching me this just to warm me up, are you.”

“No. Burns take a lot more time to heal than cuts or broken bones, and they hurt. Do whatever you can to burn a wolf’s eyes and nose. It’ll give you time to run.”

“Are you that worried?”

“Do you want me to follow you everywhere?”

“Well…no. But is something wrong?”

“I don’t like people following us.” She stroked Christa’s hair. “Just giving you a weapon if you can’t use your knife.”

Christa stayed quiet, moving her fingers to see how the flames would react. She put her palms together, the flames slipping through her fingers to her knuckles. Sighing softly, she closed her eyes. “How do I make it stop?”

“Just think it. Look.”

She opened her eyes, finding the flames had gone out. She settled back against Ymir’s chest.

“Warming up yet?”

“Mm hmm. Thank you.”

Ymir propped her chin on her head and said nothing. They watched the fire, breathing slowly. The wind noise beyond the windows rose and fell, and Ymir laced their fingers together.

“I think you really confused Taisiya,” Christa said.

“By doing what?”

“Petting me.”

Ymir chuffed, ruffling her hair. “Don’t see why. You’re very easy to pet.”

She giggled. “I guess so.” She squeezed Ymir’s hands. “Do you have any idea who it could have been on the road?”

“Not really. Annie’s been trying to get to the root of a problem, but she’s waiting on a report from her best spy.” She shrugged. “Least it’s not the bastard. We’ll be fine.”

“Okay,” Christa said softly. She sat still, but soon turned about fully to face Ymir. She hesitated at the way Ymir’s brow rose, but spoke. “You called Mikasa by her name. Thank you.”

“I did it because Annie asked—” She stopped at the touch of Christa’s fingers to her lips, and her breath came to a halt as Christa moved closer. For a moment, Christa looked torn between speaking and leaning in. Laying her hands on Ymir’s cheeks steadied her, and she kissed Ymir more tenderly than Ymir expected of her.

She wanted to know that taste she’d been given glances of in their kisses, wanted to know how much heat was really in Ymir’s lips. She did not notice Ymir gently pushing her back, pushing her down, holding her hands to the floor and kissing her harder. Just as Christa started to push back, Ymir pulled back, drawing a ragged breath.

“I think,” Ymir said, voice weak and shoulders trembling, “I think we should…stop.”

Christa wanted to ask why, but the nervousness she saw on Ymir carried into her heart. She looked away, ashamed, and said, “I’m sorry.”

Ymir sighed and sat up, pulling Christa into her lap. She held her as Christa closed her hands tight in her shirt, but neither said a word until a knock sounded on the door.

“Miladies, dinner is ready,” the young woman called.

“We’ll be there in a second,” Ymir replied. She stood, helping Christa to her feet, and went to fetch the pack. Handing it to Christa, she said, “You can change if you want.” She turned on her heel when Christa nodded, and did not turn back until Christa touched her elbow. Ymir looked at her, clad in dry trousers and shirt, and opened her mouth. She closed it, a long sigh leaving her, and Christa felt her face burn.

“I’m sorry,” she said again, quieter than before. “I didn’t mean to offend.”

Ymir sighed impatiently, rubbing her forehead. “You didn’t offend me, fuck. I don’t want you to do anything that you’re going to regret. I don’t want to do anything that you’ll regret.”

She meant to protest, wanted to, but Ymir looked at her with such sternness that she faltered. Her eyes fell, but before Ymir could speak, she shook her head and looked up again. She said, “I don’t regret what we’ve done until now.”

Ymir said nothing. She ran her hand through her hair, fingers bumping against the hair clip. This made her pause, and she looked at Christa. Gently, she tipped Christa’s head back and leaned down to rub their noses together.

“Think really hard about everything, okay?” she said. After Christa nodded, she put an arm around her shoulders and walked slower to allow for Christa’s pace. The servant led them back downstairs and into a large dining hall lit mostly by the massive fire in a hearth on the far wall. Though the long table was laden with food, no one was seated on the benches. Reiner, having been staring longingly at the food, turned when the servant announced them.

“Finally,” he grumbled, but smiled as he spoke. “For being the fastest wolf I know, you’re way too slow to come to dinner.”

“And Bert warms up quickly,” Ymir shot back. “You think I’d let Christa stay cold?”

He looked at Christa, who smiled back at him. He smirked and shrugged, saying, “All right, fair point. But come on, we’re all starving.” He took a seat when she waved him on, and the others soon did the same.

“Sit at my right,” Ymir whispered to Christa. She went to Mikasa, catching her by the back of her scarf before she could sit next to Annie. To her baffled look, she said, “I want you over here.”

“I,” Mikasa began, but bowed her head. “Yes, your highness.” She followed Ymir to the head of the table, sitting at her left side as Christa sat on her right. Ymir slouched in the chair provided to her, looking thoughtfully at the food until Taisiya sat next to Christa.

“May I ask what brought you here, your highness?” she asked.

Ymir pointed at Christa and Mikasa with either hand. “Showing them to my country.”

Taisiya looked at them in confusion. “A messenger and a captured human soldier?”

Christa caught sight of the way Mikasa winced at her words, how she was doing her best to miss Taisiya’s eyes. A glance at Annie revealed that she was steadily eating, but her ear was turned toward them.

“She’s not exactly a messenger,” Ymir remarked, tearing into a large chunk of meat with hands and teeth alone.

Christa continued when it was clear Ymir would not. “King Reiss is, erm…actually my father.”

Taisiya’s eyes widened. “Your own father sent you here? You could’ve been killed on the journey!”

“Yes, but I’m just his bastard.”

“Regardless,” Taisiya said, putting a hand on her shoulder, “he should have treasured you. Parents should always treasure their children.”

She felt her face flush. “It—it’s all right. I’m happier here than in the south. Ymir and her pack have been good to me and my friends.”

Taisiya’s eyes when to Ymir for a second or two before moving to Mikasa. “I wouldn’t have thought they’d be kind to soldiers from the south, much less a prisoner of war.”

“We’re not prisoners, ma’am,” Mikasa replied. “I’ve sworn my fealty to Ymir and her pack.”

On feeling a heavy gaze, Taisiya turned to see Reiner watching them as he ate. She looked back in time to see Mikasa frown, weary and small, at Reiner’s scrutiny. She asked, “And who are you to swear anything to the queen?”

Mikasa did not respond. She fought the urge to look around the room, but could not help but turn toward Annie. Annie sat very still, looking at them from a barely turned face.

Ymir sighed, swallowed what was in her mouth, and kicked Mikasa under the table. “I brought you so you could tell people. Tell her your name.”

She paused only long enough to sit up straighter and looked Taisiya in the eyes. “My name is Mikasa Ackerman.”

Her eyes went massively wide. “The witch?”

She flinched. At length, she said, “I would prefer that no one call me that anymore.”

“You…you swore your fealty to the ruling pack?” Taisiya asked quietly. She leaned closer and smelled what she could at a distance. “But I don’t smell death on you.”

“I let her make a new sword,” Ymir said, picking off pieces of a loaf of bread and lobbing them at Mikasa. “Fair trade, her joining us for a new sword.” She snarled when an entire roll struck her head, looking across the table to Annie, who kept her hand outstretched until Ymir saw her. The look they shared was hard, but Ymir broke it with a light shrug and a passing of the bread to Mikasa.

She took the bread and ate, steadfastly looking at the table because she could feel so many eyes on her. Taisiya was the most curious of all, and she frowned when Mikasa would not look up. Turning to Ymir, she said, “I don’t understand, your highness. Why did she offer her fealty?”

“Because Reiss betrayed her and her family, plus Christa.”

“Betrayed her?”

“He sent her to get killed trying to kill me and my pack.” She smirked, ripping a chunk of meat off with her fingers and tossing it into her mouth. “Fortunately for everyone, all the humans like it up here. We’ve got two new soldiers to train our soldiers on southern techniques, one of their strategists to give us battle plans, and a very pretty little woman to help talk to people.”

Mikasa glanced up to see Taisiya’s eyes on her again, swallowed, and said, “I won’t cause any problems in your town, ma’am.”

“I’ll make sure of it,” Reiner said, smiling at Taisiya when she turned his way. For a moment, he raised his arm as though to throw the bone in his hand at Mikasa. Ymir outpaced him, flinging a piece of meat to strike him squarely on the nose. He coughed, rubbing his face, and stared at her. She raised a brow, waiting until he returned to eating before looking at Mikasa. The confusion on her face was even greater than Reiner’s, broken only by Ymir kicking her again.

“Stop worrying and eat,” Ymir said.

Unsure of what to say, Mikasa did as she was told. Christa ate as well, savoring the various types of meat, bread, and stew set out before them. She looked down the table, smiling at the sight of Armin, Hanji, and Bertholdt engaged in a conversation she only caught snippets of. From what she could tell, Armin was explaining the vast difference between southern and northern winters. Close to them, though Eren was staring moodily across the table at Reiner in between large bites of food. Annie, next to him, noticed Christa’s anxiety and jabbed Eren with her elbow.

Sasha and Connie sat next to each other between Annie and Mikasa, tearing into their food with just enough decorum that the wolves did not react. Marco was barely slower than them, and the rest of the guards were much the same. The wind outside the shuttered windows could not be heard past the sound of eating, the murmur of conversation, and the crackle of the fire.

When all began to slow and relax, Christa came to a thought she hadn’t considered. To Taisiya, she said, “I’m still trying to learn about wolves. Do you celebrate any holidays for Lady Mond?”

“We do, Lady Renz, but more in summer and fall for our harvests.” She looked at Marco with a smile. “I can still catch a whiff of mountains and furs on you, young man. What did you celebrate in your village?”

He swallowed quickly and said, “The first full moon of spring for the strength to hunt and the last crescent moon of winter to give thanks for a good year.” He smiled at Ymir. “What do you celebrate at Utgard, your highness?”

“The last crescent in winter, same as you. We have a few harvest days through the warm months. There’s also the crafter’s holiday on the half moon in the middle of the summer.”

“And the warrior’s feast on the last full moon of fall, your highness,” Sasha said.

Ymir smirked. “Right, the one you like best.”

“It’s when we give thanks to the souls of all who fight for the north,” Sasha explained to Christa. “To pray they rest well, or fight hard to return home. What do you celebrate in the south?”

“Lots of days for saints,” Eren said, leaning forward. “There’s…um…fuck, too many. Armin, how many holidays does the church have?”

Armin looked up to think, tapping his fingers against his mug of ale. “Fifty, if I recall.”

Fifty?” Connie spat. “What do you need that many for?”

Armin laughed. “Well, there are fifteen recognized saints in the southern church. The church establishes holidays for the birthdays, days of sanctification, and days of death for all of them. Add to this two blessed harvest days, two all-saints days, and the first of the year, stated to be when God first spoke to man, and that makes fifty.”

The wolves all stared at him with various levels of befuddlement on their faces. Eren snorted at this. “We didn’t say it makes sense.”

“What about the east, Mikasa?” Christa asked.

“It was somewhat similar to the northern holidays, though I can’t name every holiday there was. I liked the end of the year festival to show our love to our goddess.”

Eren grinned. “Because you got to win all the time.”

“Win what?” Annie asked, brow raised.

“Strength tournaments our town held. They had tournaments for children as well as adults because we got worked up watching our parents compete. I always won, no matter who I faced.”

“That so?” Reiner said, putting his arms on the table. “Want to test that against me?” He caught the roll Annie pitched at his head, passing it to Bertholdt without looking away from Mikasa. “I’ll even stay in this form, and you can do whatever little spells you have to try and make yourself stronger.”

Mikasa looked back at him with a faint frown. “I’d rather not.”

“Too scared to arm wrestle me, even?”

Annie snapped, “Reiner, stop it,” but Mikasa and Eren bristled. They looked at each other and nodded, both rising. Eren moved aside for Mikasa to take his place. She rolled up her right sleeve, murmuring too quietly to be heard as she rubbed her shoulder and arm. She put her elbow on the table and held out her hand. Reiner, grinning darkly, did the same.

“Don’t break anything,” Ymir said. “That includes her arm, Reiner.”

He did not reply, instead gripping Mikasa’s hand as she gripped his. Bertholdt set one hand atop theirs to still them, and they set to it the instant he let go. Reiner had been smiling until Bertholdt let go, but the force Mikasa used tilted his arm significantly. He grimaced, stopping her quickly and forcing their arms back up. In turn, she grit her teeth and pressed back an inch.

No one said a word, neither of encouragement nor to jeer. Most did not know what to say; Eren chose to hold his tongue. Christa, Armin, and Annie watched with anxiety writ in different amounts on their faces. Looking to Ymir did nothing, Christa found, as Ymir only gave Reiner and Mikasa her gaze.

Their arms were far too tense to shake, but beads of sweat stood out on their faces and necks. It went back and forth between Mikasa’s fist closer to the table to win and Reiner’s, but they did not move far from where they began. Minutes passed, and Reiner and Annie picked up on what the others could not. Reiner saw Mikasa flinch and felt her fingers spasm around his hand. Annie smelled the cloying ashen scent of pain coming from her.

Mikasa’s loss came with the bones in her forearm cracking. With her concentration gone from pain, Reiner was able to slam her arm to the table. He let her hand go slowly, watching as she panted and brought her other hand to her arm. Annie set her hand gently on Mikasa’s shoulder. Though he opened his mouth, he had nothing he could think to say.

“Reiner,” Ymir said, slow and cold. “What did I say about breaking her arm?”

He did not reply. Instead, he scowled at Mikasa and said, “You knew that would happen, magic or not. Why did you try?”

Mikasa paused in casting spells to mend the breaks, but did not look up. She said, “You challenged me. How could I not try?”

He stared and let out a long growling sigh. He glanced at Ymir, frowning at her raised brow. Looking at Annie only served to darken his frown, as she regarded him coldly.

“All right, I get it,” he grumbled, taking to his feet. “No more tonight.” Putting his hands in his pockets, he went to the doors and departed with a servant to guide him. For a few minutes, no one but Mikasa spoke, nor did they until she straightened up and curled her fingers slowly.

“Are you all right?” Annie asked.

“She’ll be fine,” Eren said, thumping Mikasa on the back.

“Mikasa once healed a bad break in my wrist during our training,” Armin said. “It was sore for a few days, but it was all right.”

Mikasa, meanwhile, said nothing and focused on checking her arm.

Sasha, looking nervous, leaned slightly to look at Mikasa. “That was really impressive, M—um, Captain Ackerman. I haven’t seen many people last that long against Commander Braun.” She held her breath when Mikasa looked at her, but relaxed on seeing Mikasa’s small smile.

“Bet I could’ve done it, too,” Connie said. He yelped when Ymir hit him on the head with a thrown piece of meat.

“Wanna try proving that against me?” Ymir asked. “Reiner and I tie a lot.”

Connie blanched. “Uh. No, your highness, I’ll be okay.”

“Come on,” Annie said quietly, standing and tugging on Mikasa’s scarf.

Mikasa stood, but paused on seeing how Eren stared at the doors, breathing deep and slow. She swatted his nose. “What did I tell you before about fighting for me?”

He narrowed his eyes, but soon nodded. When he had sat down next to Armin, she turned back to follow Annie out of the hall. They allowed a servant to lead them to their room, and Annie locked and barred the door when they were inside.

“Why did you do that?” Annie asked, words short.

“He challenged me.”

“You both knew he was going to win. You knew he was going to hurt you. Why would you take such a stupid challenge?”

“I wanted to show that I’m strong enough for that.”

“Show who? Or is it that you wanted to see if you’re strong enough to fight him?” She sighed when Mikasa turned away. She caught her by the hand, pulled her to one of the beds, and made her sit. Holding her by the face, she leaned close to whisper to her. “I asked Ymir to stop calling you a witch and to not send you away.”

Mikasa’s eyes widened. Whispering as well, she asked, “You did that for me?”

“I did. Now you need to stop being a childish idiot. I can’t always be there to stop you or Reiner. Understood?”

She drew a breath to speak, but flushed with shame and nodded silently.

Annie sighed again and ran her fingers through Mikasa’s hair. “I can’t believe you made captain before you turned twenty when you act like this.”

“Sorry,” she said in a weak chuckle. “I’ll grow up a little.”

“Good.” She brought her hands back to Mikasa’s face, fingers resting light on her cheeks to feel the blush that lingered there. She watched Mikasa’s eyes a long while, and then leaned down. Mikasa set her hands on her hips when she paused, tentative but steadying.

“Annie,” she murmured.

She kissed Mikasa with as much hesitance as there was in Mikasa’s hands. Mikasa kissed back, running her hands down Annie’s legs and pulling her closer by her knees. Annie came to sit in Mikasa’s lap, knees beside her hips. When they parted, Annie put her head on Mikasa’s shoulder; they held tight to each other.

“You have to swear to not kiss me in front of anyone before Ymir turns you,” Annie said, even quieter than before. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right. Reiner probably would kill me if he saw that.”

No denial of this came to Annie, and so she asked, “He didn’t break your arm too badly, right?”

“Just some fractures. It’s healed now, so don’t worry.”

She hummed flatly, and then groaned when Mikasa began to scratch behind her ears. Pleasure in her voice, she said, “Do that forever, please.”

Mikasa chuckled and whispered, “Can I have one more kiss?”

Annie nodded, pulling Mikasa to her by her scarf and kissing her softly. She drew back, but kept her eyes closed because Mikasa resumed scratching.

“You look like you’re going to fall asleep sitting up,” Mikasa said.

“We’ve been out on the road all day, I’m full now, and you’re better at this than I thought you’d be.” She reached down and tugged at the blanket, looking at Mikasa with a raised brow. Mikasa nodded, doffing her boots and taking off her sword. She set the sword against the wall, getting under the covers close to it. Annie slipped in beside her, nuzzling up against her chest.

“Good night,” Mikasa said, scratching behind her ears slow and steady.

“‘Night,” Annie replied, and both fell asleep soon after.

The weary air pervaded the dining hall as well, with Bertholdt taking his leave after yawning time and time again. Eren hauled Armin away from the table when, in the middle of a conversation with Hanji on the nature of the church’s saints, he paused to think and nearly fell asleep against Hanji’s shoulder.

Ymir looked at Christa, finding her watching the fire with half-closed eyes. Stretching until multiple places had popped in her back, Ymir stood and said, “Come on, Christa.”

Christa blinked, lifting her head. “Huh?”

“You’re going to fall asleep on a plate,” Ymir said. “Time for bed.”

She hid her mouth behind her hands to yawn, getting to her feet to follow Ymir. Her body was slow, shoulders weighed down. Ymir setting one arm across her shoulders did not help, but she did not lean against her. Once they were in their room, Christa tried to go to a bed, but Ymir caught her by the back of her shirt.

“Okay, why do I feel like you’re gonna break my nose again?” Ymir asked.

Christa sighed, tried to shake off her weariness, and turned around. Frowning, she asked, “Why did you let them fight?”

“Because Reiner needed to challenge her in some way.”

“Why? Why couldn’t you tell him no? You stopped him from glaring at her this morning.”

Ymir rolled her eyes and strode off to fall onto the larger of the beds. “Reiner has been ready to kill Ackerman since he learned who she is. You think that’s good for him?”

“Then why is it good for Mikasa to get her arm broken?” Christa demanded.

“I told him not to!”

“But you let them fight in the first place! How are they supposed to make peace with each other if you’re going to let him confront her all the time?”

Ymir sighed, snarling in the back of her throat. “Listen. We don’t ignore these problems like humans do. We don’t smile and lie that everything’s fine. Reiner loves us as a pack and respects me as a leader, but he’s not going to just let how he feels about Ackerman go because we tell him to. He’s hated her as his worst enemy for years. Why do you think that’ll be fixed in one day?”

“But—”

“I can’t stop them from fighting any more than Annie can. All we can do is keep them from outright killing each other until they get used to being on the same side. Just give them time.” She looked away from the ceiling to see Christa’s eyes lowered and an angry flush on her cheeks. The sigh she let out then was much softer, and she sat up. “C’mere.”

Christa did nothing.

“I’ll let you hit me if you’re that pissed off.”

“I don’t want to hit you.”

“You’re a shitty liar.”

Christa stormed to the bed and punched Ymir high on the chest, over her heart, as hard as she could. Ymir winced, coughing once.

“I guess northern food is helping you grow up,” she muttered.

“So I’m supposed to stand back and watch my friend have to be ready to fight and get hurt for who knows how long? I already destroyed the lives they had when they had to escort me here!”

“What?” She caught Christa’s wrist when she threw another punch. “Whoa, hold it. You feel guilty about what Reiss did to them?” Because Christa was silent, she sighed again and pulled her into her lap. “I’m pretty sure none of them are that unhappy here. Hell, Ackerman’s all but letting Annie lead her around by the scarf.”

“But they were soldiers fighting against your army.”

“And? They’ve shown they don’t care. Stop worrying.” She pinched Christa’s cheek when she did not respond, snickering at Christa reaching up and pinching both of hers in return. After taking her hands away, she said, “No one blames you. They blame Reiss, if anyone, and they’ll get their revenge by helping the north win. Seriously, stop worrying.”

For a few seconds more, Christa was silent. She chewed on her words before saying, “Ymir?”

“Yeah?”

“Can I make a request?”

“Go for it.”

“When I lead you and your pack into Sina’s throne room, will you let me hit the king before you eat him?”

“I’ll let you break his nose. You can headbutt him as hard as you want.”

She giggled. “Thank you.”

“Like I wouldn’t let you hit him.”

Christa hummed briefly and put her hands lightly on Ymir’s face to make her look down. “I’m sorry.”

She raised a brow. “For?”

“I hit you again.”

“Do I look pissed?”

“I supposed not.”

“‘Cause I’m not. I’m tired and so are you.” She shifted them, getting beneath the covers with Christa still in her arms.

“Erm, Ymir?”

“You’re gonna fucking freeze if you sleep on your own out here. Shut up and sleep.”

She held down her giggles, instead relaxing as Ymir pulled her close. The sound of the fire and the barest trace of wind beyond the windows set her eyes to drooping, and Ymir petting her hair sent her to sleep. Ymir, though, did not try to follow her.

————

When Ymir caught Mikasa glancing behind them for the fifth time in as many minutes the next morning, she slapped the back of her head. “Knock it off.”

Mikasa sighed, looking at Christa and Taisiya some feet ahead of them.

“If you’re mopey over me sending Annie with Reiner and Bertholdt, I’m going to bite you.”

“That’s not it, your highness.” She glanced again at Taisiya and dropped her voice. “We’re being followed.”

Ymir yawned and stretched. “I know. They’re just pups.”

“What?” She looked over her shoulder again, finally catching sight of the small wolves before they darted behind houses to hide.

Taisiya noticed Mikasa’s hesitation and turned in time to see a nose inching out from around a corner and smiled wearily. “All right, children, we know you’re there. If you want to bother our guests, come back with your parents to be introduced.”

Grumpily, the wolves padded away. Taisiya chuckled at them and said, “Our pups tend to look for adventure because it’s so quiet here. That’s why so many of us enlist or join the guard.” She gave Mikasa and Christa a smile, though anxious. “You may be the most interesting people to come here in years.”

“As long as no one attacks me, I won’t be that interesting,” Mikasa said.

“You accepting Commander Braun’s challenge was interesting on its own,” Taisiya replied. When Mikasa frowned slightly, she chuckled again. “All right, I see you don’t want to relive a broken arm. Here, we acquired something recently that you might be interested in.” She guided them to a large stable at the town’s eastern edge, and smiled at the surprise that appeared on Christa’s face.

“These are the horses we were riding!” Christa said, going to the brown horse that had been hers. “How did you find them?”

“They were out grazing with some of our cattle. It was probably too cold for them, so they were staying warm.” She laughed at how the horse eagerly accepted the scratches Christa gave it. “They’re fine horses, so we were going to sell them to traders from the east in the spring. But then we heard there were humans staying at Utgard. We can make them a gift to you, your highness.”

Ymir looked at Mikasa. “You want your horse back?”

“I’ll be fine walking as long as you don’t make me walk the five hundred miles back to the south.”

“Will Armin be all right without his horse?” Christa asked.

“It’ll be the same for him,” Mikasa replied. “And Eren won’t need a horse anymore. What about you?”

Christa thought, still scratching the horse. “I would feel strange if I was the only person riding a horse, especially on our way back. And it’ll help your town if you get a good price for them, won’t it?”

“You just like me carrying your spoiled ass everywhere,” Ymir said, smiling crookedly. “Not that I’m complaining, since you pay well.”

Christa went crimson, and even darker when Taisiya tried to hide laughter inside coughing. She hid her face because Ymir did not bother with politeness and laughed aloud.

“If you’re sure you don’t want your horse back, they can have them to sell,” Ymir said.

“I’m sure,” Christa said through her fingers.

“Good. I don’t think anyone minds carrying you when you’re so tiny.” She turned to Taisiya. “What else are you planning on selling in the spring?”

“Whatever we can spare of the steel we get from your forge, your highness. We’ll be sending people to barter before the last crescent moon of the year.”

Ymir nodded silently, glancing at Mikasa when she smelled a sudden spike of stress from her. Mikasa’s gaze was aimed at the entrance of the stable; her hand had moved to rest lightly on the hilt of her sword. A deep breath drew in an absence of scent. Mikasa looked to her on hearing her breathe in, and she nodded when Ymir raised a brow.

“Show me what you’re sending to barter,” Ymir said, starting for the entrance. “I might be able to tell you how to haggle.”

For a few moments, Taisiya did not move. “You—you would do that for us, your highness?”

“Sure.”

Christa smiled at her and at Taisiya, beckoning the latter to follow. She hesitated, though, on seeing that Mikasa had undone the clasps holding her scabbard to her belt and now carried it in her hand. Taisiya did not notice this and followed a few steps behind with Christa. Ymir stepped out of the stable and turned to look back at them.

Mikasa lunged forward, thrusting her sword into the eye of a wolf-man that jumped out and reached for Ymir’s throat. Though the blade was still sheathed, he shrieked with pain as his eye burst, and he stumbled back. Mikasa slammed the sword against the back of his head and he fell, unconscious, to the ground.

“Did Annie start teaching you tracking skills on your way up?” Ymir asked, impressed and smiling.

“I’ve been using a hunting spell since leaving the inn, your highness. It’s how I knew the pups were there.” She went to the wolf-man and rolled him over. Looking at Taisiya, she asked, “Is this anyone you know, ma’am?”

Taisiya could not remove the shock from her face entirely, but she closed her mouth as she came closer. She examined the wolf-man, studying the shades of brown in his fur. Tentatively, quickly, she lifted the eyelid on his good eye to see the gray of the iris. “This is no wolf I know.”

Ymir tilted her head back and forth as Sasha and Connie came across the pasture at a sprint in their wolf forms. Though Connie began to pace around the wolf-man, Sasha took one sniff of him and looked at Ymir.

Do you think this is the one who was on the road, your highness?

“I think he’s definitely related to it.” She waved Connie away, leaning down to tweak the wolf-man’s ear while murmuring. He changed into his human form, and Ymir looked at Mikasa. “We’ve got an hour before he can change back. Over the heart first.”

She nodded, drawing her sword and holding the tip to the man’s chest. Connie and Sasha took places on either side of him as Ymir moved to crouch at his head.

Looking deeply amused, Ymir slapped the man on the forehead, telling him to wake with a spell. He opened his eyes and let out a snarl, trying to get to his feet. This only drove his chest into Mikasa’s sword, and it cut into him a good two inches before he shouted and dropped down.

“Throat now,” Ymir said cheerfully. Because the man went perfectly still as Mikasa lay the blade on his throat, she grinned darkly. “You weren’t expecting her to be with me, were you.”

“Bitch,” the man spat.

“Who, me or Ackerman?” She thought a moment, murmured, “Either way,” and broke his nose with the heel of her hand. As he coughed and gagged on blood, Ymir drummed her fingers along his forehead. “Tell me who sent you.”

He sneered and spat in her face, just missing her eyes.

She rolled her eyes, wiped off her face, and grabbed his chin. “Don’t make me start pulling out your teeth.”

“Why?” he snapped. “Don’t want to look like a savage in front of your bitch from the south?” He let out a choked scream when she ripped out all four of his incisors.

“Don’t call her that,” she said evenly. “Tell me who sent you. Or do you want me to eat you?” Fear beginning to show in his eyes, he looked at Christa. Ymir followed his gaze and scowled. “Really? You’re going to beg her for help after calling her a bitch?”

Christa felt her chest tighten at the man’s imploring gaze, but steeled herself against it and frowned. The man’s fear rose sharply and he looked back to Ymir.

“She doesn’t look like she’ll save you now, huh,” Ymir said. “Too bad. You shouldn’t underestimate any of the people around me, wolves or humans.”

“Trust ‘em that much?” he asked, voice shaking. “You shouldn’t. Let me live and I’ll tell you about the traitor in your castle.”

Ymir smiled. “You mean the apprentice our seamstress took on a while back. We killed her before we left.” She chuckled at the flicker of shock and fury that crossed his face. “You’ve got two choices. One, you tell me who sent you and I kill you. Two, you don’t tell me, I kill you, and then I eat you because you pissed me off.”

He closed his mouth and looked down. Though he nodded, Sasha and Connie snarled. The man spat in Ymir’s face again, getting blood in her eyes. He spun over as she stumbled away, cutting along the side of his throat even as he screamed, “Urome!” He made to leap on Ymir with his hands blazing, but Mikasa shoved her out of the way. He bore Mikasa to the ground and his hands fell on her back. They burned through her cloak and clothes by the time he realized who was beneath him, and he dug his hands into her flesh after that to try and make her scream. She choked with pain, but did not give him the satisfaction.

Sasha and Connie leapt upon him, shredding the flesh of his arms with fangs and claws until he screamed once more and the flames died. By then, more wolves had come to investigate the noise, with Reiner, Bertholdt, and Annie at the fore. Reiner, in his wolf-man form, grabbed the man by the back of his shirt and wrenched him up into the air. He nearly dropped him on seeing Mikasa and her burns and Annie, pale and wide-eyed, went to her immediately.

“What happened here?” Bertholdt asked.

“We found who was following us on the road,” Ymir said, blinking out the last of the mess in her eyes. She looked between the man, panting with pain as his arms steamed, and Mikasa, lying still with her teeth clenched and tears in her eyes. Sighing, she went to Mikasa and sat beside her. “You’re a little stupid.”

“I’m sorry, your highness,” Mikasa said, tight with holding down pain. “I didn’t want to risk him burning your throat.”

“Yeah, yeah. Shut up a minute.” She held her hands over the burns, reciting spells to heal them. As the skin mended, Annie held Mikasa’s wrist. Eren, Armin, and Hanji arrived last, but still in time to see Mikasa’s wounds. The sight and smell hit Eren at the same time and he went stiff. He turned slowly to look at the man dangling in Reiner’s grasp. Armin noticed, went pale, and grabbed Eren’s arm.

“Hanji, please help!” Armin said.

Hanji turned an instant before it was too late, changed into their bipedal form, and caught Eren around the waist as he changed into his wolf-man form and tried to leap at the man.

“Eren, calm down!” Armin said as Eren struggled and snarled. “Ymir is healing her! Mikasa’s going to be fine!” When Eren continued to fight them, he let go of his arm and went around to his front. He sprang up to grab Eren’s muzzle and shouted, “Stop!”

Eren froze at this, looking at Armin as he held on.

“We need information. We can’t get that if you kill him without the ruling pack’s direction. Okay?”

Despite the fury that lingered in his gaze, Eren nodded and stopped struggling. Armin and Hanji released him, Armin moving to hold one of his hands. Ymir sat back when the wounds were healed, and Mikasa sat up gingerly. Annie checked her skin with careful touches.

“I’m fine,” Mikasa said.

“Good,” Annie replied, and she went to Reiner. Clearly, slowly, darkly, she said, “Drop him.”

“No, Annie,” Ymir said. “I want him to talk.”

Bertholdt came closer as a low growl rose in Annie’s throat, firmly leading her back to Mikasa. He asked, “Do you want me to try it first, Ymir?”

“Yeah. Mind if we use the dining hall at the inn, Taisiya?” Ymir asked. “It might get messy, but I want this to be a little more private.”

“Yes, your highness,” she said, quiet and shaken. “At once.” She took the lead, sending away any wolf not with the guards. Mikasa took Annie’s help in getting to her feet, and nodded to Eren when he retrieved her sword. They headed back to the inn, Reiner carrying the man by his neck. Though he looked back and saw Annie holding Mikasa’s hand tightly, he showed no reaction.

Christa walked close at Ymir’s side. She hesitated on seeing the way Ymir’s brow was furrow, but reached out to take her hand. Ymir blinked and looked at her. The pallor on Christa’s face made her sigh, smiling wearily.

“You’ll be fine,” Ymir said. “Stop freaking out.”

“I’m just worried about you and Mikasa,” Christa replied. “Thank you for healing her.”

Ymir nodded, getting her hand free to set her arm around Christa’s shoulders. She held her close until they reached the inn and the doors were barred behind them. Lifting her arm, she said, “You don’t have to stay for this.”

“Where would I be safer?” Christa asked. “Alone in our room, or with you, the pack, and all my friends and the guards?”

Softly, Ymir said, “You know what we’re going to do. Are you going to be able to sit there and watch?”

Just as softly, Christa said, “Yes.”

She studied the focus in Christa’s eyes, the way she did not tremble. When Christa reached out to hold her hand again, she nodded and led her into the dining hall. Inside, Bertholdt was ordering the guards to stand in pairs at all the windows and the hall’s entrance. Reiner had taken rope given to him by servants and bound the man to a chair so tightly the rope cut into his skin. Though Eren, Armin, and Mikasa had been ordered to sit at the long table’s bench, Annie circled around the man in her wolf form, hackles up.

“Annie,” Bertholdt said, raising a brow. She rumbled in her chest, but slowly turned and headed for the table. While she was not looking, Bertholdt caught Mikasa’s eye and pointed behind his own ears. She nodded and gently, lightly, scratched behind Annie’s ears when she sat down between her feet. This did not calm her completely, but she lowered her hackles and made no move.

Bertholdt took another chair and sat down before the man. “Tell us who you’re working for.”

“Fuck you.”

He sighed softly. “You know how this is going to end. Tell us who you’re working for and we’ll spare you from being eaten.”

“What, not my life?” the man spat.

“You attacked our queen and wounded one of our soldiers,” Bertholdt replied. “You know that you’re not going to leave this room alive. The only thing you’ll achieve by defying us further is getting us to eat you. Tell us what we want and we’ll give you a quick death.”

“I’m not telling you anything! I’m going to get out of here!”

“How? No one’s coming to rescue you.”

Rage made the man’s voice grow tight. “My allies would never abandon me!”

“Then why did they let you get captured? It’s very clear that we brought you here to torture and kill you. Why didn’t your allies try to help you before we caught you?” The man faltered, and Bertholdt took a deep breath. From beneath the scent of anger pouring from every inch of him came the burgeoning scent of despair, creeping with cold.

“You were ordered to follow us all on your own,” Bertholdt said.

The man said nothing. He stayed quiet when Bertholdt took his chin and forced him to look at Mikasa. “That is Mikasa Ackerman, the greatest wolf-slayer of the south. Even she acknowledges that she would probably be killed if she tried to go up against my pack. You’re barely an adult. You were ordered to try and kill us on your own. That doesn’t trouble you?”

The man tried to breathe, but it hitched. His shoulders began to tremble. Again, he looked to Christa, but now with desperation in his wet eyes. She took a breath, held it, and stepped away from Ymir. She went to stand beside Bertholdt, but did not reach for the man.

“Please,” the man whispered.

“You have to tell us what you know,” she said, keeping her voice gentle. “If only to punish your allies for betraying you.”

He grit his teeth. Again, his breath hitched. “I don’t know anything.”

Reiner strode to them and punched the man hard enough to break his cheek and send him and the chair to the floor. He righted the chair and grabbed the man by the throat. “You’re lying.”

“I’m not!” the man gasped. “P-please, I don’t know! M-my brother told me to come here! He’s the only one who’s given me orders!”

Reiner tightened his hold, lifting the man until the chair’s legs barely touched the floor. “Who gave him orders?”

“I d-don’t know! No one came to our home more than once! Sometimes it was someone finding us out on our hunts!”

“Then who gave you the order this time?” Reiner snarled. He lowered the man only because Bertholdt touched his hip.

The man panted when Reiner loosened his group, tears beginning to run down his face. “A crow! A crow came to my brother at dawn two days ago with instructions for us! My brother went somewhere else—headed north—but I don’t know where!”

“What did your brother do with the paper the instructions were on?” Christa asked. “Did you ever hold it or smell it?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know what scent you would look for! Please, he never told me anything other than we were going to make the north better! I don’t know who we were following!”

As the man began to sob, Bertholdt turned to Ymir. “I don’t smell any stress from lying. He’s just a pawn.”

Ymir regarded the man for a long while. She frowned faintly before looking at Christa. “What do you think?”

“Wha—me? Why me?”

“I want your opinion.”

Christa stared at Ymir, and then looked closely at the man. Her stomach twisted on itself, even as coldness crept down her limbs. Softly, she said, “Even if he’s not lying, you can’t let him live. They can’t see you as being soft.” She sighed and looked at Ymir. “All I’ll ask is that you make it quick.”

“Depends on what Ackerman wants,” Ymir replied.

Mikasa went still as Annie’s ears twitched against her fingers. “Me, your highness?”

“You’re the one he burned. How do you want to kill him?”

Mikasa could not think, and so did not speak. She kept her hands on Annie’s head to feel her fur.

“Why let her kill him?” Reiner asked, scowling.

“I like letting people get even,” Ymir said. “So kill him however you want, Ackerman.”

She nodded after a moment and stood, giving Annie’s ears one last scratch. As she went to the man, she drew her knife from the scabbard. He did not look at her, head bowed as his sobs became hopeless whimpers. Mikasa exhaled slowly through her nose, grabbed the man’s hair, and pulled his head back to expose his throat. She slit it with one fluid sweep of her arm, letting his head fall forward as he died.

Without meeting anyone’s eyes, Mikasa started for the door while wiping the knife clean on her ruined cloak. Sasha and Marco let her leave, jumping when Christa hurried past to follow her. She did not have to go far, as Mikasa had sat down on the first step leading upstairs. Mikasa stared at the floor, holding her sword close, and did not look up.

“Are you all right?” Christa asked. When Mikasa did not answer, she went to sit next to her. She set a hand gently on Mikasa’s knee, keeping it there though Mikasa twitched.

“I don’t know why it’s so easy,” Mikasa said. “Even when it’s humans, it’s so easy.”

“I’m sorry,” Christa said, but she did not know why.

She shook her head. “I’m sorry I did that in front of you.”

Smiling weakly, she patted Mikasa’s knee and said, “I’m getting used to it. In any case, someone had to do it. Thank you for making it quick.”

She made a flat noise, looking up at the sound of bare feet walking toward them. Annie came to them, settling on the stairs behind Mikasa. She put a hand high on Mikasa’s back and made her lean forward.

“Annie, I’m all right,” Mikasa protested as Annie checked her skin. “Ymir knows better healing magic than I do.”

Annie said nothing to this, choosing to press carefully on where the burns had been. She sighed and muttered, “I thought you weren’t going to be so childish.”

“She was making sure nothing happened to Ymir!” Christa said. “You can’t blame her for getting hurt while protecting your leader!”

Her eyes widened. She looked at Mikasa, but her gaze was not met. “You were burned…protecting Ymir.”

“Yes,” Mikasa said.

Bullshit,” said Reiner, harshly enough that even Annie winced. They looked up to see him approaching, still in his wolf-man form and showing his fangs. “I don’t believe it for a second.”

Annie started to move, but Christa got to her feet first. She spread her arms as a shield, and Reiner stopped walking from surprise alone. Christa said, “I know you won’t believe me, but you can ask Taisiya and she’ll say the same thing. All Mikasa was doing was making sure nothing happened to Ymir.”

“Protecting the wolf queen, huh?” Reiner snapped. “How’s that make you feel, witch?”

Mikasa frowned, but took a breath and slowly set down her sword. Looking him in the eye, she said, “Strange. But I’m getting used to it.”

His fur stood on end as he snarled at her, but the look of panic on Christa’s face made him stop short. He looked between them, and the sight of Annie holding onto Mikasa’s shoulder made his fur come down. He changed into his human form and went up the stairs without a word. They watched him go until another voice spoke up.

“Thanks, by the way,” Ymir said. Because Mikasa stared blankly at her, she clarified. “For getting me out of his reach.”

“You’re welcome, your highness,” Mikasa said.

She shrugged. “‘Ymir’ is fine.” She went to Christa, putting an arm around her shoulders even as the others gawked. “Go put on a different shirt already. You can rest until dinner.” She led Christa up the stairs and to their room. Christa stared at her after Ymir sat her down on one of the beds, watching her go around the room. Again, Ymir ran her fingers along the seams of the windows and doors, and Christa finally caught her murmuring. The spells she cast were to greatly reinforce what she touched, and she huffed a sigh when she was done.

“You can start shaking now if you want,” Ymir said, coming to sit next to her.

Christa thought to refute her, but the urge left her quickly. She took her feet from her boots and pulled up her legs to hold them to her chest. “Is this what it’s like for you? Always being on the lookout for people to kill you?”

“Yeah. It’s fine. That’s what we’re trying to fix.” She drummed her fingers on the bed. “I’m…sorry. About Ackerman. I wasn’t trying to get her hurt.”

Christa looked at her, baffled. “I don’t blame you. I don’t think anyone does, even Annie.” She watched Ymir for a few moments before her eyes widened. “Are you worried about me being angry with you?” She gasped when Ymir pushed her over by her forehead.

“No, you idiot,” Ymir grumbled. But she did not lie down next to Christa, instead staring at the door. They were silent and still, and this brought Christa’s thoughts forward. She sat up and moved closer, setting her hand on Ymir’s side.

“Are…you worried about me?”

Ymir said nothing. She sighed, flexed her hand, and laced her fingers through Christa’s hair.

“You are.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I am. A little.” She pulled them down, moving over Christa on hands and knees. The sight of a dark blush rising on Christa’s cheeks made her freeze. Swallowing hard, she leaned down and kissed Christa tenderly. She drew back, but stopped when Christa put her hands on her shoulders. Sighing, she dropped onto her side and pulled Christa close.

“Fuck you,” Ymir grumbled, petting her hair.

“Why that?” Christa asked.

“Because I thought I was used to not liking people other than my pack. Now I like you and I’m scared you’ll get hurt.”

“You can’t protect me from everything all the time,” Christa murmured. “You said it yourself. I’ll be okay.”

Ymir said nothing, instead holding her tighter and tangling her fingers in Christa’s hair. After a long while, she said, “I really want you to be.”

She paused before reaching up to put her hands on the back of Ymir’s neck. She inhaled, but did not speak.

“What?”

“Nothing,” said Christa. “I just wanted to know how much longer we’ll stay here.”

“We’ll get out of here at dawn. He probably was sent here just on his own, but we work better out of Utgard.” She nuzzled Christa’s head. “Hopefully we’ll get a report from Annie’s spies soon so I know who to hunt.”

“I hope so too,” Christa said softly, and went quiet as Ymir did the same.

————

Mikasa deposited her cloak onto the cloak onto the bed they had not used, going to the other bed to dig through her pack and find another shirt. She closed her eyes, brows furrowing, when Annie again examined her back.

“Annie, I swear I’m fine,” she said. “Please don’t fuss over me.”

“I don’t like burns,” Annie replied.

Mikasa turned about. “You can’t do this every time I get hurt doing my job. I’m going to get hurt and you know it.”

“It doesn’t mean I have to like it or not check that you healed properly.”

“This will be the third time you’ve checked after Ymir healed me. Does it look like there’s any mark left on me?”

“If you’re going to be an ass about it,” Annie muttered, turning to go to the other bed. She stared when Mikasa caught her by the wrist and forced her to turn back.

“I don’t want to lose you now either,” Mikasa whispered. “But you can’t act like I can’t handle pain because I’m human. I’ll be okay.”

Annie was silent. She did not resist Mikasa when she wrapped her arms around her. Her face summarily pressed against Mikasa’s chest, she mumbled, “I know that, but you still smell burnt.”

She smiled. “Let me change my shirt, then.” She let her go and turned, finding the shirt she needed. She pulled off the burnt shirt, tossing it onto the floor. Before she could put on the other one, Annie’s hands touched the small of her back. Her lips soon followed, kissing her spine gently. Mikasa inhaled sharply, hands closing tight in her shirt.

Because Annie slipped her hands around to her stomach as she kissed her back over and over, Mikasa dropped the shirt to clamp her hands down over her mouth. Somehow, despite feeling it build in her throat, Mikasa kept down her moan. By the time Annie stopped, she knew she was crimson from the tips of her ears to her neck, and she could not think to speak. She looked over her shoulder at the sound of Annie breathing in deeply, but said nothing.

“So that’s what arousal smells like,” Annie murmured. She took her hands away, saying, “Sorry. Go ahead and change.”

Mikasa picked her shirt back up and pulled it on, but she did not turn around. She stood twisting the hem of her shirt, face still aflame. Quietly, she said, “Annie…I’m still a human. Would you…um…never mi—” She went silent when Annie pushed her facedown onto the bed, turning to stare as Annie lay down beside her. She stopped breathing with the touch of Annie’s lips to her ear.

“I’ll still mate with you even if Ymir doesn’t turn you,” Annie said, just loud enough to be heard. “I just need to make sure Reiner won’t kill you afterward.” She drew back to look at Mikasa’s face and smiled to see her blush. “You’re pretty when you blush like that.” She put her face down to muffle her giggles because Mikasa’s blush grew worse. With her face hidden, she did not have to quiet herself as much when Mikasa pressed a firm kiss to her neck in retaliation. Mikasa heard the pleased sigh she made, and she took enough boldness from this to roll Annie onto her back and move over her to kiss her just as firmly.

Annie put her hands on Mikasa’s face, making her lift her head. “Not here and not now.”

“I know. Sorry.”

She shook her head, bringing Mikasa down for another kiss. “It’ll be fine. We can do this for a while.” She breathed in a smirked. “Until you fall asleep anyway.”

“What?”

“You smell exhausted. Lie down.” When Mikasa did not comply, she pulled her down on top of her, managing to rearranged them to like the correct way on the bed without making Mikasa lift her head. She rubbed the back of the ear Mikasa did not have pressed against her chest.

Mikasa lay still and silent to hear Annie’s heartbeat. Softly, she said, “Your heart is so much slower than mine.”

“I’m not a stressed out human. Close your eyes and calm down.” She moved her hand to Mikasa’s hair, stroking gently. Bit by bit, the tension drained out of Mikasa. Before she closed her eyes, she took off her sword and set it beside the bed. This done, she resettled on Annie’s chest and breathed quietly. Annie felt her go limp as she dropped into sleep, and made sure to memorize her weight and warmth before close her eyes to join her.

Chapter Text

Though there was a heavy layer of snow along the road, they made better time on their return. The weather had calmed and nothing caught their attention in the forests or the plains. Christa had no chance to slow them down, as Reiner had picked her up in his wolf-man form shortly after they left the town. She held onto his fur and stayed quiet, watching the unmoving landscape. There was almost no conversation to be heard, only brief joking between Hanji and the individuals they chose to talk to.

Ymir took Christa from Reiner’s shoulder when he began to yawn repeatedly, carrying her the rest of the journey. The snow melted the closer they drew to Utgard, and when they arrived the road was clear and unfrozen. The sun was on the horizon as they made their way through the town; their shadows were long and hazy.

In setting Christa on her feet, Ymir was slowed enough that she was not the first to climb the stairs into the castle. Annie and Mikasa had that honor, and Annie yawned as she came to the top. She went still, closing her eyes and sniffing. Smiling, she looked at Mikasa.

“Don’t draw your sword,” said Annie.

“What?”

Annie chuckled for a moment before she was slammed into by a gray and white wolf. The two of them went tumbling down the stairs, landing in a heap on the group. Mikasa went after them, hand going to the hilt of her sword, but stopped when the wolves laughed. After changing to her wolf form, Annie wrestled with the other wolf a few minutes before pinning them down. When the wolf stopped struggling, Annie relented, changing back to her human form and standing.

“You still can’t pin me after all these years,” Annie said, smiling fondly.

The wolf changed into a woman with black pigtails, and she laughed as she hugged Annie tight. “I’m not the wolf who has the ruling pack to practice against.”

“Mina!” Sasha said. She caught Mina when she leapt to hug her as well. “How are you?”

“Well enough!” She went to Reiner and Bertholdt in turn to hug them, giggling when Reiner lifted her off her feet. She bowed to Ymir, grinning at the way Ymir ruffled her hair. “You all look exhausted. Where have you been?”

“Out visiting a town northwest of here,” Reiner replied.

“I can tell there’s a story in that,” said Mina. “Annie, I’ve got a few stories from home. Why don’t we all trade before dinner?”

“Sounds good,” Annie said.

Mina smiled brightly, hooking her arm easily around Christa’s. “I want to hear about you and these new people I see, so you come along.”

“Oh, erm, all right,” Christa said, smiling back. She followed Mina’s lead into the castle.

Once they were inside, Mina tipped her head down to whisper in Christa’s ear. “I see why the citizens of Trost are talking about going before your father, Princess Reiss. I forgot how sweet you smell.”

Christa stopped breathing. She looked at Mina with faint horror, not at all soothed by Mina’s smile. Among the guards, only Sasha came inside the room they went to. Marco and Connie were stationed outside the doors, and the doors were barred behind Sasha. Christa’s anxiety only increased as Ymir went about the room, casting spells everywhere.

“This,” said Annie, “is Mina Carolina. She’s my best spy.”

“Best friend, too,” Mina remarked, scratching behind Annie’s ear. She bowed to the confused faces she saw. On straightening, she said, “Don’t tell me, I remember.” Pointing to each of them, she went on. “Armin Arlert, a captain for the strategic corp, Eren Jaeger, a soldier, Mikasa Ackerman, the captain called the greatest wolf-slayer of the south, and Christa Renz, Reiss’ only living child.”

“How do you know us?” Eren asked.

“For one, I was the one who told Annie which humans to look for outside Sina. Though I really only figured out who Christa is recently.” She went to Christa, looking at her closely. After a moment, she smiled. “Yes, you do have Reiss’ eyes.”

“How do you know what my father’s eyes look like?”

Mina gave her answer by way of taking her hair out of its ties and combing it with her fingers. She murmured softly, and her black hair became a sandy light brown. After running her thumbs over her cheeks and nose to leave behind freckles, she held her hair back.

“You showed us into the throne room!” Armin said, eyes wide.

“My father said he didn’t allow wolves into the city,” Christa said, eyes just as wide.

“How would he know any better?” Mina asked. “It’s not like he has magic to force us to change.” She changed her hair and face back and spoke as she tied her hair into pigtails. “Which report would you like first, Ymir?”

“The one that’s not as bad.”

“All right.” She sat down on the table in the middle of the room. “The people in the south aren’t being told what message Christa carried here, but they came to the conclusion that it had to be a peace treaty. Trost citizens want to petition Reiss to ask for information about her. Soldiers from Ackerman’s battalion have already asked about their captain and Jaeger. You know who this has gotten back to.”

“The bastard,” Reiner snarled. “What’s Reiss ordered him to do?”

“Nothing as of right now. I don’t think Reiss wants that much public attention on Christa. But there are rumblings that are getting back to the bastard and his battalion, and we all know there’s nothing he wants more than all your heads.” She looked at Ymir, brows raised with anxiety. “People want him to come here and get Christa back. She could be the reason that Reiss sends him past the front lines.”

“My father doesn’t want me,” Christa muttered. “He wouldn’t send Corporal Levi to bring me back.”

“He wouldn’t do it to bring you back,” Mina said gently. “It would be an excuse to take the bastard out of the main battle and send him specifically to Utgard.” She turned to Ymir. “He would probably take a path through the mountains to slip past the border.”

“Just like you said,” Ymir said, nodding to Mikasa. “Reiner, you take whatever info Arlert, Ackerman, and Mina give you about ways north and figure out how to station people.”

“Um,” said Mina.

“Unless the other report is worse,” Ymir sighed. “What is it?”

“The bastard may not come for a while,” Mina replied. “Now that winter is here, there aren’t any paths for humans to get to the north. But the people after your throne are all wolves.”

“Finally found them?” Bertholdt asked, smiling.

“Yes and no. I know they’re mainly located past the forests in the northwest and on the nearest mountain range in the west. But I can’t figure out who’s leading them. Not a single wolf I’ve interrogated in the last week has known who’s at the top, and no reports I’ve received know either.”

“But why would we need to keep from relocating soldiers to stop the bastard?” Bertholdt asked. “The rebels aren’t going to—” He frowned at Mina’s unhappy expression. “They are.”

“You’ve heard word of a siege, haven’t you,” Mikasa said.

Mina nodded, frowning and anxious. “There are fewer guards here than when I last made a report. Have that many wolves been killed?”

Sasha winced. “Yes, sadly, and we haven’t had many recruits. How many do you think we’ll need to defend against against?”

Mina hesitated.

“Mina,” Annie said.

“I don’t have solid numbers, but…at least fifty. Likely more.”

Reiner sighed, putting his hands on his forehead. “Sasha?”

“We have twenty guards,” Sasha said. She sighed, mouth twisting. “We can’t trust anyone new, can we.”

“I wouldn’t recommend it,” said Mina. “But those two following you, Sasha, they seem like good wolves.”

“Christa charmed them,” Armin chuckled.

“Our defense is shit right now,” Ymir grumbled, rubbing the back of her neck. “The closest garrison is a hundred miles off, right?”

“One eighty,” Reiner replied. He began to pace around the room, silent with thought for a time. “I don’t want Sasha to leave the guards without a leader they know. There’s no way I’m going myself.”

Mikasa fidgeted. “Commander Braun, the town we were in had our horses. If I get mine, maybe I could—”

“They won’t believe you,” Reiner snapped. “We need to get them to come to Utgard, not waste their time by having to convince them that you’re not lying.”

“I can go with her to make sure the soldiers believe her,” Annie said.

No,” Reiner grit out. “The pack is not separating when we’re threatened.” His following silence carried to everyone else; eyes fell to the floor.

“Well,” Mina said, taking a breath, “I could go.” She smiled encouragingly. “Your soldiers trust Annie’s spies, right? Just give me a signed call to defend and they’ll come back with me.”

“That depends on when the siege will happen,” Hanji said. “Have you heard anything about that?”

“Within the next few weeks,” Mina admitted. “Before the next full moon, at least.”

Hanji put a hand on their chin. “It was full two nights ago. At most, we’ve got four weeks.” They thought for a long while, and then looked at Armin, Eren, and Mikasa. “Armin, do you have any experience planning against sieges of civilian territory?”

“Some,” he said. “I’d need to survey the town and mountain more closely.”

“All right, we can do that. And Eren and Mikasa—work with Sasha on teaching the guards we have new techniques for defense and attack.”

“That’s not your call,” Reiner said, brows low and voice dark.

Hanji regarded him with a raised brow. “Commander Braun, we have two seasoned combat soldiers that are ready and willing to provide our troops with new insight on how to deal with enemy wolves, one of whom now knows how the human and the wolf body differ. As the chief strategist for your army and the castle guard, it is completely within my power to assign these soldiers as I see fit to protect our home. I am not going to throw away the advantage they could give us.”

Before Reiner could argue, Bertholdt spoke up gently. “They’re right. Hanji hasn’t steered us wrong, and the only reason we haven’t won off their plans is because of Ackerman and the bastard. We can’t take a chance against fifty or more.”

Reiner rumbled in the back of his throat, looking closely at Mikasa. “Who’s to say we wouldn’t be taking a chance with you here? What if you sell us out?”

“Commander Braun,” Mikasa said, brows furrowed, “this is my home now. You are my leader. I’m not going to betray you, and if you still believe that I’d do anything that could hurt Annie or anyone else, I—” She sighed, shook her head, and softly said, “Sir, please. I want to help.”

He continued to frown, but looked about. In Bertholdt he saw encouragement, and in Ymir and Hanji sternness. Looking at Annie did not show him anger as he thought it would. The tilt of her brow was faint and turned upward in a request. His frown faded; he exhaled slowly. He asked, “Do you two have experience defending?”

Eren and Mikasa stood at attention, and Mikasa said, “We’ve successfully defended five towns and one city against wolf sieges, sir.”

“Casualties?”

“Minimal, sir. Eren is skilled at holding defensive lines, and I operate well on offense.”

“And you’re sure you won’t mistake our people for the enemy.”

Armin smiled. “Give both of them two days and they’ll know the coat of every guard here and as many civilians as they can find. Four days to get that and the layout of the area.”

“We need to operate on as tight a deadline as we can,” Reiner said. “Mina, the most time I want to be without the wolves from the garrison is two weeks. Can you get there and back in time?”

She drummed her middle fingers together, eyes closed. “That’s just about the same pace you went at to reach Sina with Ymir’s crow, Annie.”

“A little worse for you,” Annie replied.

She opened her eyes. “I can, but I need at least one partner. If something happens and I’m on my own, then it’s all lost.”

“Who can you spare, Sasha?” Ymir asked.

Sasha glanced at the door. “Our best bet is probably on Marco and Connie. They’re both young and have stamina for the journey and any fight. Connie could run ahead as a scout, and Marco would be a good partner for you in a fight.”

“That’d bring us down to eighteen we can absolutely trust,” Reiner said. He looked at Armin, Eren, and Mikasa. “You have to make up for that.”

In unison, the trio saluted him, hands at their brows as any guard of Utgard. Mikasa said. “Sir, we will defend Utgard and its citizens with our lives!”

“Sir!” Armin and Eren said.

He looked between them, waiting for any falling out of stance or relaxation. They outlasted his scrutiny and he nodded. “We’ll start planning for Utgard tomorrow, but I’ll give out orders for Mina’s group after dinner.”

“We’re having dinner?” Christa asked.

“We can’t act on news from Mina right away,” Annie said. “It would give too many clues to her identity if we started making obvious plans after she met with us. We’ll have dinner, share normal stories, and she’ll head for the garrison tomorrow morning.” She smiled and went to scratch behind Mina’s ear. “Can’t send you running without some food in you.”

Mina giggled and rubbed Annie’s head in turn. “I do have word from home, and for Reiner and Bertholdt’s town. And clearly you’ve got stories that aren’t secrets. Let’s eat!” She slid off the table and went to the trio. Catching Eren and Mikasa by their elbows, she said, “I’m really curious about you two still being alive.”

Ymir gestured to Reiner and clapped her hands once, speaking sharply. Christa felt a faint pop deep in her ears on hearing Ymir dismiss the spells silencing the room. Reiner opened the doors, raising his brow at Marco and Connie in their wolf forms. He smiled and sank down on one knee, beckoning them closer.

As quietly as he could, he whispered, “We have a task for you two. Come to dinner.”

They nodded slightly and changed to their human forms as they all made their way to the dining hall. A vast meal was prepared as quickly as possible, and Mina passed on word that all was well in their hometowns. Reiner and Bertholdt hung on her words until she promised that no attacks had slipped far enough past the border to reach where they had been born.

“You still go out of your way to put a few of your best wolves near there,” Annie said, flicking a piece of bread at Reiner’s shoulder from across the table. “I don’t know why you worry so much.”

“Not everyone’s hometown is as far north as you and Mina,” Bertholdt said, returning fire and scoring a hit on Annie’s nose.

“How far north is your hometown?” Christa asked.

“Not quite as far as Ymir’s, but far enough that we were never directly involved in the war,” Mina said. “No, Annie’s parents had to leave her in my family’s care to go to fight.” She smiled fondly, scratching behind Annie ear in such a way that Annie groaned and slumped onto the table. “Little Annie Leonhardt, smaller than wolves five years older than her and always able to beat them in a fight. We were the only pups that generation who didn’t have siblings in their litter, and I was the only one Annie wanted to play with.” She grinned and draped herself across Annie’s back, winking at Mikasa. “Looks like she finally found one more.”

Mikasa stared, cheeks flushing, before hastily looking at her food.

“After word came back about her parents, we took her in,” Mina said, straightening up and undoing the bun Annie’s hair was in. Playing with her hair, scratching behind her ear, she continued. “She stayed until, what was it, twenty-five?”

Annie hummed softly.

“After that, she went off further into the mountains. Six years later, she came back with Ymir and an offer for me. How could I refuse?”

“Given how good you are with magic, I’m glad you didn’t,” Ymir said.

“Wait, Annie met you before Reiner and Bertholdt?” Christa asked.

“Yep,” said Ymir. “We got together as a pack about twenty-three years ago, but I’ve known Annie for twenty-eight.”

“You’ve all known each other longer than I’ve been alive,” Mikasa said quietly.

“You four are barely adults,” Hanji said. They smiled, taking a small drink. “I must seem ancient to you at ninety-seven.” They leaned on the table, lifting their glasses to squint at Eren. “I wonder how old you are as a wolf. The magic doesn’t seem to have regressed you in maturity except for your outbursts.”

“Yeah, when are those gonna stop?” Eren asked. “I’m getting sick of freaking out every time I smell blood.”

Ymir shrugged. “I just know the spell. I don’t know how humans deal with being turned.”

Eren grumbled wordlessly, tapping his fingers noisily on the table.

Armin reached over to rub behind Eren’s ear. “I think you’re doing fine. We’ll get you sorted.” He thought carefully, silent and still but for his hand at Eren’s ear.

“We all know that look by now,” Reiner said. “What’s on your mind?”

“Just wondering if I can remake something we used in the south,” he said. “We need to be able to communicate at a distance.”

“I can howl now, Armin,” Eren said, head tilted to his hand.

“Mikasa can’t, and she’s the one that’ll be in the streets.” He hummed. “Your highness, is there a place I can build something?”

“Like what?” Ymir asked.

“A flare gun. We used them in the south for simple and fast communication over distance. Granted, Utgard isn’t that big, but it would be a better way for Mikasa to send word back to the castles instead of yelling.”

Hanji held up their hand. “I have one in my library. Soldiers bring technology back for me to test. I can find it for you tomorrow when you come down.”

“Good!” said Armin. “We can plan at the same time.”

“Erm,” Christa said softly. Ymir turned to her with a question in the lift of her brow, and Christa cleared her throat. “What about the people in town? Are you going to warn them?”

“Yeah,” Ymir said. “Not sure how, yet.” She took a bite of the meat in her hand, thinking with her eyes unfocused. Swallowing, she looked at Bertholdt. “You keep the numbers. How many people are in town?”

“Ninety-two,” Bertholdt replied. “Ten of our guards, fifty adults of different ages, seven adolescent wolves, and twenty-five pups no older than ten. We don’t have the space to house all of them comfortably for weeks on end in the castle.”

“Then we have to get them ready to run here at a second’s notice,” Mikasa said. “Hanji, did your soldiers bring back any sonic flares?”

Eren winced. “Those hurt your ears as a human.”

“What’s worse, ringing ears or being killed in an ambush?” Hanji asked. “We need any warning we can get.”

“You’ll need to start with the adults,” Connie said. “Pups won’t get it and they might blab about us knowing.”

Mina shook her head. “Tell everyone and tell them to keep quiet. This is going to happen even if they learn we’re preparing. Pups may warn us in time if they’re on the lookout for wolves they don’t know.”

“I could help warn everyone, at least,” Christa said. “I don’t have any experience planning battles.”

“But you calm people down, I get you,” Ymir said. She rubbed Christa’s head. “Good plan.”

“You three full?” Reiner asked. When Mina, Marco, and Connie nodded, he drank down the rest of his mug of ale and stood. He changed to his wolf form, leading them out of the hall when they had done the same. Hanji was the first to stretch and yawn after that, taking off their glasses to rub their eyes.

“I want you in my library first thing after breakfast,” they said, nodding to the trio. “We’ll get you that gun and a tour of Utgard.”

They saluted where they sat before moving to stand. Mikasa paused when Annie did not lift her head from the table. Watching to see if she was breathing first, she set her hand on Annie’s shoulder and shook gently. Annie responded with a muddled grunt and pulled her hood over her head.

Bertholdt laughed. “By our Lady, you fall asleep so fast when Mina pets you.”

Annie groped along the table without lifting her head and lobbed the half-eaten roll she found toward Bertholdt. He leaned to dodge, smiling as he took to his feet.

“All right, if you’re so sleepy,” he said. He rounded the table, looking at Mikasa. “You know the way to Annie’s room, right?”

“I do, but why does that—” She gasped as Bertholdt spun her about, and blushed badly when he picked Annie up and set her on her back, arms over her shoulders. Annie curled up around her without opening her eyes, and Mikasa caught her under her knees for support.

“There, not so off as when I carry her,” Bertholdt said, nodding sagely.

Baffled, the trio gaped at him, Ymir, and Hanji. Because he and Hanji smiled alongside Ymir’s amused smirk, Mikasa swallowed and said, “I’ll get her to her room.”

“Sleep well,” Hanji said pleasantly. “I’ll send Petra to bring you to me in the morning.”

They nodded and went off, soon separating when Mikasa turned to carry Annie to her room. She went quickly and managed to avoid being seen. There was a fire already built and burning in Annie’s room when she slipped inside, and Annie shifted on her back on feeling the warmth. Mikasa turned the lock behind her, going to Annie’s bed. Annie slid off her bonelessly when she leaned over the bed, curling up with her hands near her face.

After some thought, Mikasa took off her sword and leaned it against the wall. She sat gingerly by Annie’s knees, watching her sleeping face and the flickering firelight upon it. Gently, slowly, she tucked back the hair that had fallen into Annie’s face.

“I hadn’t thought of it,” Mikasa said quietly, “but you’ve probably been sleeping even less than me. I wish I’d gotten you to fall asleep so quickly. Or that I knew how to get you so relaxed.” She smiled at Annie remaining asleep, stroking her hair and looking at her face. “That’s what you look like when you’re relaxed and happy, then?” She whispered, “I’ll do my best to make sure you can stay that way,” and leaned down to kiss Annie’s brow.

Annie stirred at this, looking up with blurred eyes. She sniffed briefly before reaching out and touching Mikasa’s hip. Closing her eyes again, she said, “Sorry.”

“For what?”

“Fell asleep at dinner,” Annie mumbled.

“I think you deserve a good night’s sleep,” Mikasa replied. “Do you want me to go?”

Annie sighed. “Part of why I like you is because you’re smart. Don’t ask stupid questions.” She tugged at Mikasa’s belt loop until Mikasa lay down with her. Shifting slightly, she put her head under Mikasa’s chin and buried her nose in Mikasa’s scarf.

“Memorizing my scent?” Mikasa asked.

“Scarf’s the best way to find you,” Annie said. “So yeah.”

Mikasa chuckled, starting to rub behind Annie’s ear. She stopped instantly at the way Annie flinched and whimpered.

Annie reached up and took Mikasa’s hand away. “My ears are too sensitive right now.”

“S-sorry.” She lay still to listen to Annie’s breathing return to normal. “I—I didn’t think you’d get excited from that.”

“Not all the time. I’m relaxed and you’re here.” She inhaled through her nose and pressed her forehead to Mikasa’s shoulder. “Sleep. We’ll be busy.”

Mikasa nodded, draping her arms around Annie and keeping her hands from her ears. Despite hearing the sound of Annie whimpering over and over in her mind, Mikasa managed to fall asleep when she focused on Annie’s stillness.

————

“Hey. Christa.”

Christa paused while the others went their separate ways, looking at Ymir. When Ymir was silent, looking uncomfortable, she asked, “What is it?”

“Just.” She sighed and scratched the back of her neck. “I know we’re back home and it’s safer. But. Just stay with me for a while, all right? You can have the bed.”

Christa saw the way Ymir’s eyes fell to the floor. She went to her and took her hand. “Okay.”

Ymir let out the breath in her throat and nodded. They returned to Ymir’s quarters, sitting on the end of the bed side by side to look at the fire built before they arrived. Christa looked at Ymir from the corner of her eye. Ymir sat with her elbows on her thighs, hands up and chin on her thumbs, fingers to her lips. She stared at the fire; the light made the backs of her eyes catch green.

“How bad is it?” Christa asked.

“My pack took Utgard with seventy wolves we’d personally trained, including Mina. We went up against thirty guards and the king’s pack, four wolves plus him. We came away with forty-six wolves we’d come with, and Sasha was the only guard we didn’t kill. But a lot of our wolves have either joined the army or were killed over the last ten years.” She did not breathe, but tapped her fingertips together. “We’re fucked if they’re as trained as we were.”

Christa felt her throat tighten, coldness filling her limbs. Ymir noticed the change in her scent and looked at her. Sighing softly, she put her arm around Christa’s shoulders and pulled her closer.

“We’ll figure it out,” Ymir said. “Pretty sure no one in a twenty mile radius wants you hurt, anyway.”

“I don’t want anyone here hurt,” Christa replied.

“Don’t pull this goddess shit right now, all right? You’ve got every reason to be worried about just you.”

“Are you worried about just you?”

“No, but I have a reason to get worried. It’s my pack and my town and castle. And you.”

Christa frowned and poked Ymir in the side. “They’re not my pack, but I don’t want them hurt, either. And no one here hates me for being the king’s daughter or for being a human. I feel at home here. I can be worried.” Looking down, voice dropping, she said, “I wish I could do something more than warn people.”

“It’s fine,” Ymir said, lifting a hand to stroke Christa’s hair. “We’ll figure it out. You’ll be okay.” She yawned, head falling back. “Fuck.”

“You haven’t been sleeping,” Christa murmured, looking up.

Ymir shrugged. “I’m okay.”

“You won’t be able to fight as well if you’re tired.” She lifted Ymir’s arm to get out from beneath it and started to move up the bed with Ymir’s hand in hers. “Come here.”

“Why?”

“To sleep.” She tugged Ymir’s hand, smiling encouragingly. Once Ymir rolled her eyes and followed her, she tugged her hand again to bring her head down to her chest.

“Uh,” said Ymir.

“Shh,” Christa said, running her hand over Ymir’s hair.

“If you’re trying to calm me down by listening to your heart, it’s really not working. Your heart’s going too fast. How do humans live with hearts that beat that fast?”

“I guess…by living shorter lives.” She took a deep breath, exhaling slowly. She felt Ymir relax slightly against her, and took the clip from her hair to pet her head more easily. Bit by bit, tension left Ymir until she was breathing slowly and tapping a faint rhythm on Christa’s stomach with her thumb.

“You’re really small,” Ymir remarked.

“I am aware of that.”

“Sometimes I think my hands are too big for you.” She set her hand flat on Christa’s hand, fingers sprawled to cover most of it. She was silent for a long time, fingers coming back together. “I was little when I was a kid.”

“Most people are.”

Ymir said nothing. She curled around Christa, wrapping her arms around her. She pulled her closer to be able to press her face to Christa’s chest. Feeling Ymir’s breath through her shirt, Christa went still. She felt her face begin to turn red, but said nothing. With uncertain hands, she stroked Ymir’s hair and back. Ymir’s breathing did not change, steady and slow, and Christa grew calm from it. She still noticed something.

“Please go to sleep,” she said. “You spent all day walking and carrying me.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Don’t feel like having bad dreams.”

“You have to sleep.”

Her hold on Christa tightened. “I can tell you’ve never been in a wolf siege before, so you telling me what to do is pretty fuckin’ ridiculous.”

Christa frowned and pushed Ymir onto her back, sitting on her stomach. “I know that! I know that I’m a spoiled little human who never even saw a wolf before meeting Annie! But I can still tell you that you have to sleep! Are you really going to be stupid enough to not sleep before a battle you know is going to happen?”

Ymir stared up at her, brows raised. “Uh.”

“What makes you think it’d be okay for you to not sleep and be as ready as possible for this? You have everyone needing you now! Just—try. Please. You have to be able to fight.”

Ymir looked at her with a great deal of curiosity, blinking slowly. She reached up to set her fingers lightly on Christa’s cheeks. “You’re freaked out, huh?”

She closed her mouth and nodded. She blinked when Ymir’s thumbs brushed by her eyelashes to smooth over her eyebrows. Keeping still, keeping silent, she watched Ymir’s eyes as Ymir trailed her thumbs over her face and lips. She inhaled faintly when Ymir sat up and held her close.

“Sorry,” Ymir said. “I’ll sleep.”

“You can’t do that sitting up.”

She snickered. “You really are a spoiled little noble. Ask your soldier friends.”

Christa frowned. “Fine, you can, but you’ll sleep better lying down.”

“All right already, I’ll lie down.” She still did not do so, remaining upright and stroking Christa’s cheek with her thumb. She did not look as nervous, but anxiety lingered.

“Will you feel better if I kiss you?” Christa asked quietly.

Ymir smirked. “I think you like kissing me even more than I like kissing you. Yeah, I would feel better.”

“Okay,” Christa murmured. She raised her hands to Ymir’s face and tried to make her lower her head. Ymir did not follow her lead, and then started to do the opposite of Christa. A guiding down was met with Ymir tilting her head back, and turns right and left were pushed against. She grinned at Christa’s frustration and laughed when Christa reached up to tweak her ears.

“Oh my God, why do I bother with you?” Christa huffed.

“‘Cause you like me.”

“You’re awful.”

“I know.” She caught Christa’s hands, pushing her down on her back and holding her hands to the bed. They blushed in equal measure. Ymir leaned down.

“What are we?” Christa asked.

She lifted her head. “What?”

“What are we? Mates? I thought wolves only did this with their mates.”

“We’re not mates until we actually fuck,” Ymir replied. “Kissing isn’t fucking.”

Christa’s blush grew worse. “I know, but…I just wish I knew what I am. Who. In the south I was a noble hiding the fact that she’s the king’s only child. I don’t want to be that anymore…so who am I?”

Ymir hummed, lifting one hand to press on her nose. “Someone trying to grow up, probably. You’re young. Why would you know exactly who you are?”

She fumbled for an answer and came up with nothing. Desperation in her voice, she asked, “How long did it take for you to figure out who you are?”

She sputtered with laughter. “Really? Why are you worried about this all of a sudden?”

Christa inhaled unevenly, eyes burning. “Souls without knowledge of themselves and their purpose are never brought before God after they die, so they never know peace. I don’t…I don’t want to die not knowing.”

Ymir’s head dropped; Christa heard her sigh, “Lady above.” She put her hands on Christa’s face, looking at her with a frown and a raised brow. “Okay, one? There is nothing but peace and good hunting waiting for you beyond death. Lady Mond gives that to everyone unless they’re irredeemable assholes, and you’re not that at all. Two, no one is going to let you die in the siege. Not your friends, not my pack, and sure as fuck not me. You will be fine.

“And three, you’re Christa. You told me so.” She tapped her fingers firmly along Christa’s temples. “You’ll figure out more later.”

Christa swallowed and nodded, but suddenly said, “Can you—never mind.”

“What?”

“Kiss me?”

She smirked and leaned back down. She kissed Christa firmly, savoring the way Christa inhaled quickly. Trailing her fingernails down along the back of Christa’s neck garnered her the faintest stifled whimper and a bump against her hip by Christa’s knee. When Christa tentatively mirrored her, nails along her neck, Ymir did not bother to muffle her groan.

Christa startled, breaking the kiss to stare at Ymir with her face bright red. Faintly, she said, “Erm. W-was that what I think it was?”

“Why yes,” Ymir remarked, “that was me making a sexually pleased sound. You wanna hear more?”

Her eyes went massively wide. “I-I’m s—”

“If you apologize, I’m taking you back to your room.”

Christa bit her cheek. Focusing on breathing, she tipped her head up to press a softer kiss to Ymir’s lips. She gathered her courage to whisper, “I think I do…but not right now.”

Disappointment showed on her face a moment, but she said, “Okay.” She rose up and turned to grab two pillows, letting Christa arrange herself on her side before pulling her close from behind. “Go to sleep. I’ll sleep too.”

She took hold of one of Ymir’s hands. “Good night.”

“‘Night,” Ymir said, and they eventually fell asleep to the sound of the fire and their breath masked in the crackling.

————

Based on their alert eyes in the morning, Christa was certain no one else was as groggy as she felt. Mina gave no indication of being affected by the news she brought, smiling and chatting idly with Marco and Connie about their favorite hunts over breakfast. Christa ate slowly, turning words over in her mind to come up with how to explain to the townspeople. Nothing sat well enough there to get near to forming on her tongue, and she stared at knots in the wood of the table while wanting to return to bed.

A hand gently came to her shoulder, giving her enough warning that she did not jump at someone smelling her. She turned, blinking at the woman standing behind her. She did not recognize the woman’s auburn hair and dark eyes, and so did not know what to say.

“Petra!” Mina said, hurrying to hug the woman.

“Hi, Mina,” she replied, smiling. “Everything well?”

“More or less. There’s not much hunting I can do around here, though.”

“Unless you want bear,” Bertholdt said. “We still have plenty of those.”

“I’ll find more grounds for Utgard, I promise,” Mina said with a chuckle. She went to Reiner, taking a sealed letter from him and slipping it into her pocket. To Marco and Connie, she said, “Are you gents ready to help me?”

They nodded, cramming one more enormous portion of meat and bread into their mouths. They chewed, swallowed, and stood, following Mina to stand before Ymir. She looked up at them with a lazy smirk.

“Sasha said you two were your village’s best hunters,” she said. “And I’ve seen you do good for us.” She turned to face them properly, patting her knees. They changed to their wolf forms, arranging themselves around her. She held her faces one after the other, whispering spells in their ears. They stood as she sat back, eyes bright and tails up.

“Bring back good hunting,” Ymir said.

They barked in unison, licking her hands before circling the room to give their goodbyes. Marco and Connie went to Christa last, and Connie stood on his back legs to lick her cheek while Marco nuzzled her hands. She heard Marco’s voice in her head.

We’ll make it. Don’t worry, okay?

Connie barked, dropping to his paws. We won’t let anyone down.

She smiled, petting the both of them. “Then you better get going. Hunting grounds don’t stay free forever, right?”

They nodded and bounded off to the door of the dining hall. Mina lingered, head resting in Annie’s lap. Annie stroked the length of her muzzle, but said nothing for a few moments.

“Do your best,” she murmured. “Lady Mond will guard you.”

Mina licked her knuckles once before turning and going to Marco and Connie. They left with Mina in the lead, silent and swift. Without missing a beat, Petra returned to Christa’s side and looked at Armin, Eren, and Mikasa.

“Hanji wants to see you for a bit,” she said. “Will you follow me, please?” Because Christa remained still while the others stood, Petra said, “They want you there as well. Come on.”

She stammered briefly before standing up, and they followed Petra through the halls and down an unlit stairwell. Though Petra and Eren took the stairs easily, the others hung close to the narrow walls and went slowly to avoid stumbling. The moment they reached level flooring, Petra pushed a small brick near the floor on the left wall and ushered them into a different hallway. She cast a spell to hold light in her palm when the wall was sealed behind them and led them onward.

“How many secret passages does Utgard have?” Mikasa asked.

Petra smiled. “Annie’s shown you a few, then? I know most of the ones in the lower levels of the castle, mainly around Hanji’s library and places to hide wolves.” She sighed. “We’ll have to use those soon.” She changed to her wolf-woman form, stood on her toes, and twisted a stone in the low ceiling. She waved them through a door that opened, and they stepped into a massive room filled with books, scrolls, maps, and loose paper. Hanji stood at one wall, staring at a map upon it.

Armin went to Hanji’s side, a smile coming to him. “This is Utgard, isn’t it?” He examined the map, walking back and forth. “This is excellent. I can see it exactly—the mountain curling along the northern edge and the paw-pad spread of the town.” He stopped. “Paw-pad. Four extensions of buildings where attacks could start. And there’s always behind the mountain.”

“At least we have five people to place there,” Hanji said. “I don’t really know how Mikasa can fight in this situation, so I can’t decide who goes where. And you know we can’t have them out all at once every hour of the night—they’d never be able to help if attacks came during the day.”

Armin put his hand over his mouth and stared closely at the map. Mikasa and Eren drew up to his sides, looking just as closely. For a long time, they were all silent and considering. Armin hummed three tones and took his hand away to speak. “Eren, you’ll have to run patrols immediately around the castle, especially by the entrance.”

Eren pointed at the map to trace a path for himself. “I can circle the castle on level ground in ten minutes, with another ten minutes for where the castle and the mountain meet. Maybe a few minutes less as a wolf.”

Armin nodded. “Mikasa…how do you feel about the southeast point?”

She breathed in, eyes darting everywhere on the map. “I’ve felt the wind blow in from there. A sonic flare would carry well.”

“That would put you furthest from trained fighters,” said Petra.

“I’ll be fine,” Mikasa said. “As long as I get that flare gun.”

“Oh, one second,” Hanji said, going to a table. They dug through piles of paper and came back with a gun and a few shells.

Eren took them all and checked them thoroughly. “Sonic, red smoke, and green smoke. Why do you only have one of each?”

“That’s all that was left after my testing,” Hanji said, looking sheepish.

“I’ll be careful,” Mikasa said. “At least we don’t have to make any shots.”

Armin hummed again. “Hanji, who’s best on the mountain?”

“Ymir, and Reiner right after.”

“Then…what do you think about Ymir on the mountain, Reiner on the east point, Mikasa on southeast, Annie on south, and Bertholdt on southwest?”

“That can work,” Hanji said. “Three hour patrols in the town between dusk and dawn and whatever Ymir wants for the mountain?”

“And half the guards in town through the day, I think.”

“What about everyone in town?” Christa asked. “How do we explain?”

“Directly,” Petra said. “Especially to the little ones.”

“I know Mina said to do that, but won’t that frighten them?”

“Not really. Wolf pups are less cautious when they’re scared—they’ll attack someone that scares them more often than running.”

“It’s because they want to stop a threat before it gets to their family,” Hanji said. “We need to make it clear that they need to run and let us handle it.”

Armin chuckled, looking at Eren and Mikasa. “That reminds me of you two when we were kids.”

“Let’s have Christa, Petra, and Bertholdt go out to start warning the town,” Hanji said. “The rest of us can scout out the terrain.” They led everyone out of the library through a different passageway that went back up a level. Annie was waiting for them on the other side of the wall Hanji pushed open, hands in her trouser pockets.

“Took you long enough,” she said. “Mikasa, I’ll—”

“She’s coming with me,” said Ymir. She came down the hall, Reiner and Bertholdt close behind. She walked past Annie and her baffled look and caught Mikasa by the scarf. “You get my tour, Ackerman. Annie, go with Jaeger. Reiner, go with Arlert and Hanji so they can explain things to you.” She tugged steadily until Mikasa followed her, looking back briefly to smirk at Annie.

Ymir led Mikasa up through the castle to the mountain tower, and they headed onto the mountain from there. Mikasa looked down past the trees as they climbed higher, surveying the town below. She paused to pick up a cluster of dead leaves, using them to check the wind.

“It picks up most at sunset,” Ymir said. “Gets caught on the mountain for the most part.”

“Hanji and Armin want you up here during the night,” Mikasa said. “Will the wind affect you at all?”

“Nah. I got used to it a long time ago. I want more info from you. What magic do you know for combat? Other than that strength spell you used against Reiner, I mean.”

“A spell to increase my speed, and a few hunting spells that help against wolves. Hiding my scent and making myself silent.”

Ymir looked at her carefully. “All eastern spells?”

“A mix of east, west, and south.”

“Then I’ll give you one from the north to make a set.” She smirked. “It’ll be better than the ones you know for speed and strength.”

“I’m listening.”

“The words are ‘rektev keth sorensa,’ and it’s said twice. It should put you at least on the level with wolves, if not more.”

Mikasa stared at her. “You’re giving me that kind of power?”

“Hey, you’re the one who said you wanted to help.”

“I know, but—you trust me that much?”

“Are you saying there is a reason for me to not trust you?”

She hesitated, looking down. “There’s…a spell Corporal Levi taught me in case I ever met a member of your pack in combat.”

“Which is?”

Mikasa took a few steps back and set her right hand on the hilt of her sword. As she drew it, she whispered and let the fingers of her left hand trail along the blade as it left the scabbard. The blade, as she touched it, caught on fire. Ymir’s eyes widened, brows lowering.

“You were going to burn us?” Ymir snarled.

“Levi said fire was a weakness that we don’t usually use against wolves. I don’t want to use this if it’ll scare any of our allies, but—will it work?”

“What does it burn?”

She reached out to sweep the blade through the leaves on the ground. They did not catch fire, and Mikasa said, “Only what I want it to, and if my sword is taken from me, the spell breaks. I can do something similar with my free hand.” She sheathed the sword, the fire going out.

Ymir glared at her sword, showing her fangs. “The bastard knows we can be burned? Who else knows?”

“Unless he’s taught someone else since me, only Levi and General Erwin know. They ordered me to never use the spell unless I was fighting you and your pack. They didn’t want us to lose the element of surprise.”

Ymir closed her eyes, put a hand over them, and shook her head. “Fucking unbelievable. Yeah, use it, but you have to follow one rule. Whatever you do, if you find their leader, bring them to me alive. Got it?”

Mikasa snapped a salute. “Understood, Ymir.”

“Good. Come on, let’s keep going.” She led Mikasa to the peak of the mountain, pointing out paths through the trees and amidst the roads and alleyways below as they went. All the while, Mikasa was silent, memorizing everything she saw, and Ymir watched her closely.

————

Christa, for all her desire to help, could not find the words when they came to the first house and the two small wolf-children that opened the door to them. They changed to their wolf forms and barked eagerly to greet Petra and Bertholdt, bounding around them as their mother and father came to the door.

“Hello, Petra!” the woman said, petting one of the pups. “We don’t usually see you out this early. And Bertholdt as well—oh, and Christa! What can we help you with?”

“May we come inside for a bit?” Petra asked. “Your pups, too.”

“Of course,” the man said. “Boys, come inside.”

The pup sniffing at Christa’s legs chuffed moodily, but obeyed when Christa beckoned him and his brother inside. Once the door was closed, the pup resumed smelling Christa’s knees. She picked him up to calm him, smiling even when he licked her nose.

“So I’m sure you’ve smelled the anxiety on us,” Bertholdt said, a sad smile on his face. “There’s a good reason for it.”

“We have reports of rebels coming for a siege,” Petra said.

Both adults stepped closer, sharp with focus. The woman asked, “How many strong?”

“More than fifty, based on estimates,” said Bertholdt. “We’re going to act like it’s more.”

The man paled, looking at the pups. They looked back, blinking at him. He swallowed, and breathed in when the woman touched his shoulder.

“What would you have us do?” she asked.

“You have to be ready to run to the castle at a moment’s notice,” Petra said. “Either one of Ymir’s pack will howl or Captain Ackerman will fire a sonic flare. Remember that day a year ago when Hanji was testing outside and they fired something that made a horrible sound?”

“Our pups certainly do,” the man said. “We’ll be on the lookout. Any path we should follow?”

“You’re close enough to the castle that straight paths should be all right,” Bertholdt said.

Despite their nods, the man and woman looked at the pups nervously.

Christa’s heart sank at the sight, and so she knelt down and set the pup in her arms on his paws. His brother padded over when she gestured to it, and they sat neatly before her.

“Can you two do something for me?” she asked.

The pups nodded, noses bobbing.

“There are wolves that’ll be coming to Utgard that want to hurt everyone.” She stroked the pups’ heads when they snarled. “I know, and I know you want to be brave and protect your friends and parents. You’re strong and you’re fast, but they’re going to be adults. You have to let the adults protect you this time, okay?”

The pups looked at each other, tails bumping. Eventually, they nodded to Christa.

“This also means that my friends will protect you. Armin, Eren, and Mikasa. Please don’t be afraid of them.”

“They’ll be fighting as well?” the man asked.

“Captain Ackerman will be patrolling the town with the pack at night,” Petra said. “That’s when she’d be firing that flare.”

“And you can’t scare anyone with this,” Christa said, gently tapping the pups’ noses. “You wouldn’t want your friends scaring you, right? You’ve got to help each other be brave and be ready to run to the castle.”

The pups nodded again, nipping her fingers.

“We’re still going to tell the rest of the town,” Bertholdt said. “I’d plan on getting a visit from Mikasa and Eren later. They’re memorizing the coats of all the wolves here.”

The woman sighed, relief in her face. “I never thought I’d say this, but…thank our Lady that they’re here.”

The man laughed weakly. “I can’t believe Ackerman is going to protect us. I guess we’ve still got some luck.”

Bertholdt lay his hands on their shoulders. “We’ll get through this. We’re getting reinforcements. Have faith in my pack.” When they nodded, he patted their shoulders. “Stay calm and let us know if you need anything.”

Christa scratched both pups behind their ears. “Be strong and safe, okay?” They barked in unison, bouncing on their front paws. She stroked their hands once more before rising to her feet. She, Bertholdt, and Petra bade the family goodbye and headed out into the street.

Petra set a hand on Christa’s shoulder. “That was perfect. Don’t worry.”

Christa looked at her and remembered to breath. She nodded and smiled, and laughed a moment when Bertholdt rubbed her head.

“All right, ladies,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. Ready to go?”

“Always,” Petra said, and Christa nodded without hesitation.

————

The pack and Mikasa quickly fell into fractured sleeping patterns. While their patrol locations did not change from the original plan, they altered the times they went out every few days. Wolves always took the dusk and dawn patrols, as Mikasa’s eyes adjusted too slowly in the changing light.

With each passing day, the castle and the town grew more tense. Reiner and Bertholdt stayed close to each other for comfort, but did not touch each other after the fifth day. They bristled and growled if they did, full of fear and anger. Christa, Mikasa, and Armin learned from this and avoided getting too close to Ymir, Annie, and Eren.

Ymir became almost entirely nocturnal, prowling the mountain through the night. Christa barely saw her, and even when Ymir appeared at breakfast and dinner, they did not speak much. For the most part, they sat together in silence, neither touching nor looking at each other. Christa found herself wanting to ask if any of them had seen anything, be it signs of attack or the reinforcements. It was written so clearly in their faces every morning that she did not bother. The nights grew longer as winter deepened, and then darker as the moonlight waned.

A fortnight passed, and on that night Ymir did not leave at sunset, or even two hours after the darkness had come. She stood on the stairs leading down into town, staring out into the eastern sky. Christa stood just inside, but when to stand by Ymir.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

Ymir was quiet for a moment. Softly, she said, “Lady Mond’s eye is closed tonight.”

She looked into the sky, unable to see the new moon. The stars did not give enough light to see by; the houses were murky and indistinct beyond the firelight of the torches on the castle walls. Her heart sank. “Oh God, what’s Mikasa going to do?”

“We’ll see,” Ymir said. “If I hear the flare or a howl, I’ll get light in the sky for her.” She exhaled slowly. “Do me a favor, okay? Don’t leave the castle.”

“I don’t know why I would,” Christa said, smiling. She reached for Ymir’s hand, froze, and drew back. “Ymir?”

“What?”

“Can I hug you before you go on patrol?”

Ymir looked at her. She smiled slightly, but did not laugh. “Yeah, c’mere.” She wrapped her arms around Christa when she was close enough, and Christa did the same. They were still, but Ymir let her go soon. She patted Christa’s head gently and turned away.

“Please stay inside,” Ymir said, and she headed toward the mountain.

Christa watched her just long enough to see her turn a corner and disappear. She went to go inside, but the loud snap of an ember in a nearby torch made her pause. She looked at the torch and then around herself. Shaking her head, she went inside. The halls were well lit and just as quiet as beneath the sky. Fewer servants were roaming; the guards remained near the entrances, pacing slowly.

Her room felt far away, the castle cold. She hesitated, thinking about who was still inside and where they were. Her feet shifted, turning her toward where she knew Annie would be until her patrol started. The hallways grew colder, the fire in the sconces quieter. She turned a corner and stopped because the torches were not lit and the hallway was pitch black.

The sharpest screaming noise she’d ever heard in her life broke the quiet. She pressed her hands over her ears, eyes closing tight. Her throat closed up, heart feeling as though it had stopped. The noise took a long time to fade, as did the ringing in her ears. Swallowing, she opened her eyes and lowered her hands.

That was a horrible sound, wasn’t it?”

She stared, eyes already adjusted, at the edge of Utgard. The light of the torches outside the castle was small and faint with distance. She turned toward the voice she’d heard. A man fair of skin and dark-haired, tall and broad, stood beside her. He smiled to show his fangs, green eyes unpleasant enough to make her stomach clench. He reached out to grab her hand, shaking forcefully.

“That’s how it’s done in the south, right?” he said. “Nice to meet you, Christa Renz. My name is Nikolai Zilya. You’re going to help me destroy everything Ymir cares about.” Before she could scream, before she could run, he clamped his hand over her mouth and forced her to turn back toward Utgard.

“But first,” he murmured, “let’s watch a little.”

As she came to understand what he meant, her eyes went wide with horror.

————

Mikasa knew the best way to force her eyes to adjust to the darkness, and by the first hour of her patrol that night, she was walking a a normal pace without worry. She swept back and forth in the streets, side to side and up and down. Each pass had found fewer and fewer wolves outside until she was left alone.

She made her way back toward the furthest point of her patrol. A breeze ruffled her scarf and she took a moment to tuck the loose end down the back of her short coat. Another moment was given to look back to the castle. Her first thought went to Annie and if she could catch sight of her when their patrols changed.

The next thought was unbidden, but she lingered on it. Reiner had the dusk patrol that day, and he had met her on the stairs as she went out. He had not sneered at her, or even frowned. He had met her gaze and returned her nod without much hesitation. For a moment, Mikasa had thought he would speak. He went inside, and she into the streets.

She turned away slowly, eyes moving first. Something moved in the darkness; stones crunched beneath heavy feet.

Mikasa hissed no curses, instead whispering a spell to silence her footsteps. She followed what she heard out to the farthest point of her patrol. Four wolves she had never seen roamed the streets, pacing as if waiting for orders. Her flesh grew cold first, but as she drew a breath the cold sank down into her veins to give her focus. She breathed in again and took the flare gun off her belt to load the sonic flare. Using her left hand, she fire the flare into the sky.

Her intent had been to use the moment the wolves were deafened and pained to draw her sword and attack. She began to lower her arm and drop the gun, but caught movement in the corner of her eye once more. Claws dug in high at the center of her back, ripping across her left shoulder and the back of her arm. Mikasa spun with the force of it, slamming down hard on her back. The sound of laughter was muted by the fading flare, but she heard the words clearly.

“What a present from Lady Mond,” a wolf-woman said. “I was hoping we’d get the witch.” She chuckled and took the blood-soaked scarf from Mikasa’s neck. After changing to her human form, she put the scarf on. “Thanks for the gift, but I won’t really need it for warmth.”

Mikasa, breathing slowly to calm down from the pain, watched the woman go. She tried to close her left hand and could not manage more than twitching her fingers. Her mind whirled, thinking of angles of attack and spells and trying to recall what Ymir had told her. Hot breath washed over her face and she looked up to see the wolves gathering around her. She thought of Annie and her mind grew sharp and clear.

“Rektev keth sorensa,” she hissed.

The wolf at her head snarled and lunged.

Mikasa managed to twist away in time, shouting, “Rektev keth sorensa!” What felt like electricity surged through her, and she drew her sword so fast and swung so hard that the wolf that leaped at her lost its head in one blow. She got to her feet quickly, looking about to see more wolves surrounding her. Scowling, she brought her sword to her left hand, pulling it against her fingers to set it ablaze. In the moment they hesitated, she charged at them with a bellow.

————

At the shriek of the sonic flare, Ymir began to sprint down the mountain in her wolf form. Her heart pounded, fur standing on end. She made as straight a line as possible for the town, dashing past trees and leaping over stones. For a few seconds, she took her eyes from the town to gauge her path. When she looked up again, she skid to a halt. Points of red and yellow light had appeared throughout the town, growing larger and larger. She smelled smoke and heard crackling when the flare died out. The screaming and panicked howls came next as the light blossomed fully into fire.

Ymir changed course, running hard to get to the castle. She sprinted past Armin and Eren at the entrance, and past Reiner, Bertholdt, and Annie as they ran outside. She did not stop until she found Hanji, and she changed to her human form to grab them by the wrist.

“Outside!” she roared. “Now!”

“Wha—”

Fire!”

Hanji went pale with shock and followed Ymir, Petra not far behind. On the stairs, Ymir cast a spell a threw a sphere of light into the sky to illuminate the town. While Ymir and Hanji leapt over the stairs and ran into the streets, Petra stopped with Armin and Eren.

“Miss Ral, we didn’t plan on fire!” Armin said. “What do we do?”

She changed to her wolf-woman form. “We hold the line here! No one but our own comes in!”

Armin, though pale, nodded and drew his sword. Sasha and the guard rushed past them, fanning into the streets as they had planned and drilled. For a moment, Eren ran after them in his wolf-man form. Before Armin or Petra could call after him, he went to the nearest door, its door recently opened. He herded its occupants to the castle, picking up a pup that hesitated on hearing the sound of the flames.

“Armin, count them!” Eren said as they went up the stairs.

“Two adults, two young pups,” Armin murmured. He looked into the streets and the fray he saw and heard. His eyes darted back and forth, counting silently. “Thirty-nine enemies that I can see, sixteen incoming! I can’t see the pack or Mikasa!”

Petra and Eren leapt off the stairs as more wolves came closer. While they slipped past the panicked families to provide cover, Armin ran down the stairs to give orders.

————

Annie coughed into her elbow as she ran, eyes burning. Her part of the town was already thick with smoke and flame. She broke down every door to every house, and many times had to slaughter the wolves holding the doors shut from the outside.

“Go!” she choked out to all of the townspeople. “Guards are coming!”

Fast as she was, there were houses that collapsed before she could reach them. She could not tell if they were already empty. Rare though it was, she saw corpses of wolves she knew in the street. She changed course to escape a house that had crumbled into the street, cutting through an alleyway as sparks rushed after her in the wind.

She stopped in her tracks on spotting a trio of wolves in their human forms. Fire was in their hands, and she took a step toward them. She froze when one of them, a woman, stepped more into her line of sight. Annie saw the red scarf around her throat, saw the blood that had seeped from it onto the woman’s clothes and skin. She could not breathe.

Her eyes widened; the fur along her spine stood on end. She moved without thinking, nearly blind with fury, and charged at the trio. She was on them before they could react, ripping out two of their throats with her claws. The woman sneered at her as Annie whirled, but Annie moved faster still.

Before the woman could do anything at all, Annie clamped her right hand over the woman’s mouth and kicked out her legs from behind. She shoved her head back and down, forcing the woman to flip over and slam down hard on her back with her legs coming up and over her head. Heart pounding, Annie lifted her leg and stomped down as hard as she could on the woman’s tailbone and snapped her spine. The woman screamed, gripping the ground as her legs went numb.

Annie crouched down, foot still on the woman’s tailbone. She took the scarf from her neck and snarled, “Where is the woman this belongs to?”

The woman, panting, crying, shook her head.

Annie straightened to step down harder. Her voice grew sharper, higher. “Where’s Mikasa? Why do you have this?”

Understanding crept past the woman’s pain and she smiled darkly. She maintained her silence.

“What did you do?” Annie shouted. “Why does this have her blood on it?”

She spat at Annie. In turn, Annie lifted her foot to let the woman’s legs fall. Dropping to her knees, she bit out the woman’s throat. When the woman stopped twitching, Annie spat out the meat and blood in her mouth. She rose to her feet and looked around. She could barely see past the smoke and ash, and she knew she could not smell further than ten feet.

Hands shaking, she lifted the scarf to her nose. The scent on it was muddled, blurred between smoke, the woman’s reek, and Mikasa’s blood. She looked around, whispering, “Mikasa?”

A nearby building groaned, fire all through it. She changed to her human form and quickly put the scarf on, pulling it over her nose. The cloth cut down on the smoke and ash, and the effect carried through when she changed back into her wolf-woman form and the scarf was hidden. She ran before the building fell apart, heading back into the battle.

———

Bertholdt ran just behind Sasha, she as a wolf and he in his wolf-man form. She tackled a man holding fire to the wall of a house, holding him down while Bertholdt broke down the door. He swept through the house, finding everyone and getting them out safely.

“H—kkff—head to the castle!” he said. “Fast a—kkff—as you can!”

They obeyed, running as wolves to keep low.

Sasha tore out the man’s throat and looked at Bertholdt with growing panic. He wasn’t the leader either! I don’t know how long we can keep this up when Ymir is putting out the fires! We need the garrison wolves!

“I know, I know!” he said. He looked about, covering his eyes as a roof collapsed and spewed sparks through a broken window. The wind picked up on their right, blowing flames at them. A black blur shot between them, slamming into a burning door and breaking it down. The flames drew back into the house, and in less than a minute they were gone.

Two women stumbled through the doorway, coughing and wheezing. Ymir in her wolf-woman form came next, carrying an unmoving pup. She dropped to her knees and changed to her human form, covered in black and gray.

“Come on, you little shit,” she panted. She put the pup down, changing it to its human form and laying her hands on its chest. She coughed out a spell, moving her hands to hover over the girl’s face. Smoke came from her mouth and nose, and she coughed and started to breathe again.

“Thank me later!” Ymir said, giving the girl to her mothers and drawing the smoke from their bodies as well. “Go!” When they had run, she went to Sasha and Bertholdt, drawing out the smoke in their bodies.

“How many have you seen?” she asked.

“Twenty at least in this area,” Bertholdt replied. “They’re not as trained as we were.”

“Trained in fire magic,” Ymir growled. “Hanji’s coming around from the east side of town—start heading that way and get everyone out! And bring me their leader alive!” She changed to her wolf form and bolted away to the nearest fire.

Bertholdt looked to Sasha as she looked at him. They were silent, both near to shock. Sasha shook herself into resolve, and Bertholdt thumped his chest to do the same. He said, “We will make in through.”

She nodded, howling encouragement to her guards as loudly as she could. She led the way when they ran to the east.

————

With every door he broke down, every wolf he killed, and every dead guard or civilian he saw, Reiner felt his chest strain with the fury that filled it. He stopped counting enemies after his seventeenth kill, knowing that Mina’s estimate had long since been surpassed.

He slid to a halt at hearing something a street over. He took a few steps to the side before dashing and leaping over the smoking house. His appearance through the smoke startled the wolf-woman menacing an adolescent wolf and their father, and he ripped out her throat with ease.

“Come on!” Reiner said, setting the wolf on their paws. “Up you get!” He pulled the man to his feet as well. “Keep going on the east road! Hanji’s put out the fires and I’ve cleared it of enemies as best I can!”

The wolf barked and tugged on Reiner’s tail. Commander Braun, you have to help her! Please!

“What?”

The man coughed hard. “The—the human woman! Ackerman! She’s nearby—getting outnumbered!”

She’s hurt! Please, she saved me and pop! Help her!

Reiner stared. He looked toward where the wolf pointed its nose. He drew a breath, said, “Get going! Stay on the east road!” and ran. As he went through the streets, he noticed doors that had been slashed apart, met more wolves that urged him to keep running south. He did so, but stopped after getting through the space between two houses.

Mikasa was covered in blood, and based on the way her left arm hung useless at her side, Reiner was certain a good deal of it was hers. She carved her way through enemy wolves, fury in her face and flames on her sword. She cut the doors on burning houses, kicking them down to free the wolves inside. They ran without instruction from her, and she killed any wolf that chased after them.

She looked around, wheezing, and started to head toward another street. Two wolf-men came to the street close on either side of her, sprinting at her. She turned in time to slay one, but the other gave up an arm to her sword to slam the first of the other into her left side. The blow sent her into the wall of a nearby house, her sword knocked from her hand. She reached for it, but had to abandon the effort to keep the wolf-man from tearing her throat out with his claws. Snarling, the wolf-man opened his mouth to rip her face off.

Reiner caught the wolf-man’s chin and nose in either hand and wrenched in opposite directions to snap his jaw. When he gagged and let go of Mikasa, Reiner tore his throat and shoved him to the side.

Mikasa stared, unsure if she was hallucinating or not. “Commander Braun?”

He grabbed her face, shaking her head to make her focus. “That got your ribs, right?”

“Yes sir.”

“What’s wrong with your arm?”

“Ambushed from behind, sir. My muscles are shredded.”

“Do you have any magic to fix all that?”

“We don’t have the time to repair both completely, sir.”

“What’s the minimum time you need to get back on your feet and ready to fight?”

“Three minutes, sir.”

“Right.” He put her sword in her lap and stood up, turning. “Get to it.”

She looked past him, seeing ten wolves coming toward them. Coughing hard, she began to whisper spells with her hand over her broken ribs. Reiner changed to his wolf form, pacing back and forth before Mikasa. He snarled at the wolves, barking and snapping when they dared to come closer. Though they had advanced eagerly at the sight of Mikasa on the ground, they grew wary and cautious.

Two of the wolves leapt at once and Reiner charged forward. He changed to his wolf-man form, slashed out their throats with his claws, and changed back so quickly that his actions were invisible inside the steam that came from his body. He sprang upon a third that tried to slip by, flipping it on its back to tear out its throat. The fourth and fifth pounced on him to try and pin him, but he changed to his wolf-man form again and lifted them with a bellow. He flung one at a wolf creeping toward Mikasa and the other he killed.

From there he went on the offensive, throwing himself at the other wolves with such force that their spines cracked on impact. He mauled them while they were incapacitated, leaving them where they dropped. He counted nine dead and whipped about to see the tenth running for Mikasa. Heart hammering, Reiner ran toward them.

Mikasa’s left hand shot out to clamp around the wolf’s throat. It gagged, and then shrieked when her fingers caught fire. She snarled, shoulder shaking, and dug her fingers into the weakened flesh to rip through the wolf’s throat. Her hand dropped as the wolf did, and she coughed on the smoke still in her lungs.

“We need to get moving, Ackerman,” Reiner said. “Are you ready?”

She managed to curl her left hand into a tight fist, ignoring the pain, and rolled her shoulder. “Yes sir.”

“Good.” He held out a hand. “Let’s go.”

She gave him her right hand and let him pull her to her feet. They went off at a run, Reiner covering Mikasa’s left side.

————

“You’re killing them,” Christa whispered.

“That’s the plan,” said Nikolai.

“There are children! You’re killing pups!”

“Oh, don’t act like Ymir wouldn’t do this.”

She turned to face him, pulling her wrist from his grip. “I know for a fact that she’d never kill pups, and she wouldn’t burn a town she wanted to rule! Are you completely insane?”

He caught the front of her shirt, pulling her onto her toes. “We’re going to build Utgard from the ground up. But I’m here to break Ymir before I take back what’s mine.” He smiled. “And I need you for that.”

“Why me?”

Nikolai snickered. “‘Why me’? Why wouldn’t it be you? You know that every wolf near Utgard knows who you are and that the bitch queen is head over heels for you. And we know who you really are. See what I’m getting at?”

“No,” she spat back.

“You’ll give me an in with Reiss, and I can use you to break Ymir. You’re actually very useful.”

She sneered and kicked his knee as best she could with little leverage. “You’re really insane if you think I’ll help you at all!”

He looked at her with exaggerated confusion. “Oh, did you think I was asking for help? What do I need you to say ‘yes’ for? I’m going to use you no matter what you say.”

A chill began to creep down her spine. “Are you going to kill me?”

“Not yet. I’ve got really good ideas about how to use you.”

Her throat tightened. “Wait, what do you mean?”

He smirked and pulled on the collar of her shirt, looking down it. Humming cheerfully, he said, “I do like what I see. Maybe I’ll start out nice. Humans don’t heal very well, after all. I don’t want you breaking apart the first time I fuck you.”

In that instant, Christa did not know what she felt. The rush inside her was too thick with disgust, fear, and hopelessness to know which was strongest. The instant passed and rage filled her more fiercely than she had ever felt in her life. She slammed her hands down on his face, covering his eyes and nostrils.

Urome!” Christa screamed. The flames that came to life under her hands were massive and wild, destroying his eyes and badly damaging his nose. He dropped her, screaming, as the fire burned him. She did not look back as she ran as fast as she could to the town.

It was a wasteland in the streets, the fires subdued but the heat and smoke lingering. She had to dodge bodies as she ran, and she looked around with increasing desperation for anyone she knew. Though she tried to remember where she was, to remember who would be near her, her mind went blank. She opened her mouth to call out, but ash rushed in to coat her tongue and throat. She choked and coughed, eyes welling over. Unable to do anything else, she headed for the castle.

When she was tackled from behind not long after, she did not hesitate in struggling. Christa managed to roll over, reaching out as she set her hands ablaze again. Her hands were caught, even as they burned, and quickly crushed to break most of her bones. She screamed, and again when her hands were slammed to the ground.

“You are a little bitch,” Nikolai snarled, face steaming as it healed.

Christa grit her teeth and smashed her head against his face. The first blow cracked his nose, and the second knocked out two of his teeth. She took the brief moment that he reeled to scream, “Someone help me!” He hit her across the face hard enough to stun her. She lay there with spots blinking before her eyes, still kicking at him though she could not form a thought. A clawed hand closed around her throat, both to choke her and to hold her still.

“Fine,” he said, growling through his healed fangs. “Then I’ll make it worse for everyone but me.” He ignored the way she tried to push him off with her broken hands, using the claws of his other hand to cut open her shirt. He reached to do the same to her trousers, cutting through her belt and an inch of the denim at her hip.

Two wolves, one gray and white and the other gray and black, slammed into Nikolai, the three of them tumbling away in the street. The two wolves tore into Nikolai with fury, never once falling back when he hurt them. Christa coughed weakly, unable to fight when hands came under her arms and pulled her upright and away.

“Christa! Christa, come on! Look at me and talk!”

She blinked when the same hands came to her cheeks, finally gaining focus in her vision. Connie was on his knees before her, eyes wide and brows up. She felt air on her chest and stomach and looked down at her ruined shirt and cut trousers.

“Oh, Lady above,” Connie said. “Here, hang on.” He pulled off his own shirt, helping her to put it on over her own.

“Don’t kill him,” Christa said quietly.

What? No, he dies for this!”

“He’s their leader,” she said, voice shaking but gaining strength. “He goes before the pack.”

He did not question this, only turning to the fighting trio. “Mina, Marco! Keep him alive! He’s behind all this!” He looked the other way, pointing toward the rest of the town. “The rest of you get moving!”

Christa turned to see dozens upon dozens of wolves run into the town, eyes widening. “Oh my God, you made it.”

“Not soon enough,” he said, scowling. He flagged down a pair of wolves and bade them to stay with Christa. He threw himself into the brawl Marco, Mina, and Nikolai were embroiled in, his rage as clear as Mina and Marco’s. Christa took the wolves’ help in standing, and she kept herself from trembling as she waited for Nikolai to be brought low before her.

————

The howls rang out as one, so loud and numerous that they drowned out the remaining fires. At the stairs to the castle, the attacking wolves all flinched and froze. Armin felt the fangs in his left arm loosen their grip, and he wrenched free to cut the wolf’s throat.

“Petra!” he shouted. “Is that the garrison?”

“Yes! Keep fighting!” She tackled a wolf-woman away from the stairs, biting out her throat before she ran. Eren caught sight of a wolf running toward Armin and threw himself upon it, clawing and biting. When he had killed it, he looked at Armin.

“What’s the last count?” he panted.

“Three adolescent wolves, ten pups, and thirty-one adults!”

Eren bristled at this, his fur standing unevenly with all the blood in it. He spun to face the streets again, but no attack came. The snarling he’d expected to hear was gone, and even the fire noise had grown softer. He listened, sniffed, and then grabbed Armin to carry him up the stairs. Petra followed, the three of them looking outward.

The fires were being put out; the fighting was ending. The wolves from the garrison tore through the attackers so quickly that they had no time to scream or run.

“Petra,” Eren said, “do you think more of ours will get here?”

“Yes,” she said firmly. Only a minute later did a soot-covered wolf-woman come out of a street from the south, leading a cluster of pups and adults. The wolf-woman urged them up the stairs, even as Armin and Eren ran down them.

“Annie!” Armin said. “Oh, thank God!”

Annie coughed, wiping at her eyes as she changed to her human form. “No one got inside?”

“No one but civilians,” Eren said.

“Has anyone else come home?” she asked, her voice strained.

“You’re the first of ours to come back,” Eren said. He opened his mouth to continue, but stopped at the flash of fear in her eyes. His gaze dropped to her neck as her hands went there. His heart did the same when he recognized what her hands clutched. He changed to his human form and took the end of the scarf in his shaking hands.

“No,” he whispered. “Oh God, no.” He looked at her with tears coming to his eyes. “Why do you have this? Where’s Mikasa?”

“I don’t—I don’t know. I hoped she’d be here by now.” She swallowed thickly, shoulders shaking. “Eren, you know her scent best. I—please help me f-find—” She could not continue, and Eren hugged her tight. They did not speak; Armin remained at a distance with his head tilted back to hold down tears.

Petra started down the stairs on seeing movement in streets to the east. More pups and adults came into view, and they hurried into the castle. A voice came in behind them.

“Whatever you three decide to do,” said Reiner, “mind her left side.”

They turned toward his voice, eyes widening at the sight of him and Mikasa walking side by side. Armin sheathed his sword as Eren ran to her, following close behind. Reiner kept him from hugging her on the left.

“I said to mind her left side,” he said. “It took the worst of it.”

Armin stared, but hugged Mikasa from the front. Eren clung to her right, crying quietly on her shoulder.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, smiling small with exhaustion. “I always come back.”

Eren only shook his head, but Armin said, “Annie has your scarf. We thought you were—we didn’t know what happened.”

She looked up quickly and found Annie staring at her, eyes massive and face pale beneath the soot on it. The sight of her hands still holding the scarf made her heart crack. Eren and Armin felt her shifting and let her go to let her walk toward Annie. Annie reached her before she had taken four steps, holding her tight and burying her face in Mikasa’s chest.

“Oh God, Mikasa, what happened to your back?” Armin asked, seeing her shredded coat and weeping wounds.

“I was attacked after firing the flare. That’s when they took my scarf.” She sighed hard, wrapping her arms around Annie. “I’d be dead if Ymir hadn’t taught me her spell to boost my speed and strength. I was barely able to fight off those first wolves.” She winced when Annie’s arm pressed too hard over her left side. “Annie, not so tight.”

Reiner put a hand on Annie’s shoulder. “Ease up. Her ribs were broken.”

Annie lifted her head slowly, revealing the wet streaks cutting through the soot on her face. She looked at Reiner. “Did…did you help her?”

“We couldn’t lose a loyal soldier like Ackerman,” he said gently. He smiled. “And I couldn’t make you sad.” He dropped down on one knee as Annie threw her arms around his neck, holding her just as tight.

“Thank you,” Annie whispered. “I’m so glad you’re safe.”

“Me too,” Reiner said, voice cracking. They let go together, and he looked to the trio. “Can you three hold down the fort? We need to find Bertholdt and Ymir.”

They saluted him, but jumped at the scream of, “Petra!”

She spun, changing to her human form as Hanji stumbled out of a side street, pitch black but for the wet paths on their face. “Hanji.” She smiled and ran toward them, saying, “Hanji, I’m okay!” She caught Hanji around the waist, laughing into their chest as they cried in her hair. “Oh, Hanji. I’m okay. You’re okay. You wonderful wolf, I love you so, so much.”

“Reiner! Annie!”

They turned in time to see Bertholdt running up, civilians and Sasha on his heels. He threw himself into their open arms, tears running down his blackened face. “You’re okay! Lady Mond heard me!” He choked on a sob, putting his head on Reiner’s shoulder while Annie pressed her forehead to his neck.

Mikasa smiled at the sight, pulling Armin and Eren close and kissing their heads. “Good job.”

Eren laughed, rubbing at her filthy cheeks. “Good job defying death again.”

“Captain Arlert!” said Sasha, coming back down the stairs. “I’ve just done a count—six adolescent wolves, twenty pups, forty-one adults, eleven guards!” She smiled at them, and then offered her hand to each of them to shake. When they had done so, she said, “That was from the wolves inside that you all saved tonight. Thank you.”

Mikasa smiled. “Thank you, too.”

Reiner sniffed hard, wiping uselessly at his face before standing. “Come on, we need to find Ymir.” He pulled Bertholdt and Annie to their feet. Even as they turned, coughing came echoing up a street. Ymir, covered almost completely in soot and ash, walked slowly closer, breathing hard. She blinked against the stinging in her eyes and looked up.

A brilliant smile came to her face, eyes widening. She ran to them, grabbing Annie first and lifting her off her feet to hug her. Annie laughed and hugged back, not minding that Ymir shook her back and forth. Reiner was next, both of them thumping hard on the other’s back. Bertholdt hugged Ymir as soon as Reiner let go, squeezing hard enough to lift Ymir off her feet.

Ymir brought them all together to bump each of their heads with her own. “Are you all okay?”

“We all need a damn bath,” Reiner chuckled. “But we’re good. You’ve got a couple hurt humans to take care of.”

Ymir looked over at the trio, smiling again. Before she went to them, Reiner caught her elbow. She looked at him, brow raised.

“Turn her,” he said simply. “She’s trustworthy.”

She paused, and then chuckled quietly. “That so? Guess I will.” She scratched behind his ear and went to the trio. To Armin and Mikasa, she said, “Can you two deal with it for a bit if I just take away the pain? I want to make sure everyone inside is all right.”

“Not a problem,” Armin said brightly. He and Mikasa lowered their heads, relaxing when Ymir set her hands on them and murmured spells of relief. She patted them before heading for the stairs.

“Sasha, you, Reiner, and Hanji coordinate with the garrison wolves,” she said, starting her climb. “See if they found the leader. We’ll start working the damage in the morning.” She coughed and paused to draw out the smoke in her lungs. Casting it away, she took another step.

“Your highness,” called a voice.

She turned, seeing wolves coming down a street. Two wolf-men forced a third, Nikolai, to walk forward even as he struggled and snarled. Ymir grinned on seeing Mina, Marco and Connie.

“Hail the rescuing heroes!” she said. “Not only do you get back in time, but it looks like you brought me the asshole to blame for all this! You’re seriously blessed by our Lady!” Her grin became a dark smile as she started back down the stairs. “Well, let’s take a look at—”

Mina, looking ill and furious at the same time, stepped to one side. Marco did the same in the other direction. Everyone but the struggling wolf went silent, eyes widening, when they saw who had been standing behind them. Ymir’s foot slipped on a stair because her concentration broke. She fell when her knees gave out, but she scrambled to recover and leapt over the remaining stairs. She sprinted to where they stood, sliding to a halt and dropping to one knee.

“Christa,” she whispered. She reached out with shaking hands, staring at the bruise covering one side of Christa’s face and her shattered hands. Her mouth hung open because Christa was covered in ash, her face sticky with tears.

“Christa,” she said. “H-how—you were going inside—” She choked as Christa began to cry. “No, it’s okay, one second. Gimme your hands, come on.”

“I’m s-sorry,” Christa sobbed. “I was going in-inside, but I don’t—know what h-happened. I think there was a s-spell and I was outside wh-when the flare went up and—”

“It’s okay,” Ymir said. “I’ll get all the info from him.”

Christa shook her head, crying harder. “I tried! I did what you t-told me and burned him and ran but I—he still—” She could not speak further, breath stopping as she coughed and choked.

“Shit,” Ymir hissed. She drew the smoke out of Christa’s lungs. “Christa, it’s okay now.”

“Your highness,” Connie said anxiously.

“Fucking hell—what?” She turned to look at him, staring when she realized he did not have a shirt. Slowly, she turned back to Christa. Dimly, she said, “That’s…Christa, that’s not the shirt you were wearing. What—” She spotted the edge of the shirt she had seen before showing at a strange angle past the collar of the other shirt. She looked down when Christa shifted, seeing that her trousers were lower on her hips without her belt, looser from being cut. Her eyes widened.

“What…why are you—” She looked at Connie with horror in her face. “Why is she wearing your shirt?”

Connie glanced at Nikolai, frowning. “Because he tore her shirt.”

Faint, lost, Ymir asked, “What?”

“He was on top of her when we got there,” Mina said quietly.

Ymir looked at Mina, mouth hanging open and ice in her chest. “On top?” She looked back to Christa and, as gently as she could, put one hand on Christa’s unhurt cheek and the other under her chin. “Christa, please look at me.”

She closed her eyes tightly to clear them and looked at Ymir.

“Did he mate with you?” Ymir asked.

“No,” Christa whispered. “They got there before he could.” Her breath hitched. “Ymir, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“You’re okay,” Ymir said. “Nothing for you to be sorry for. Not your fault.” She stroked Christa’s hair once before returning to her hands. She continued to heal them, voice soft through the spells. Christa sniffed quietly, blinking out her tears, and then drew a quick breath at what she saw.

Ymir was steaming. Her fingers were tipped with claws, and the white of her eyes were turning black. She stopped speaking, teeth grit and growing sharp. When Christa’s hands were healed she went entirely still, eyes wide and unfocused.

“Christa, step back slowly,” Annie said. She and Bertholdt moved in front of Ymir, and Reiner stepped in to block Ymir from seeing Nikolai. Annie put a hand on Ymir’s shoulder. “Breathe.”

She drew a ragged breath, body shuddering.

“We have to punish him,” Bertholdt said. “For everything. You have to make it so we can do that. Please.”

Ymir took another breath, closing her eyes. She steamed again, fingers returning to normal. Her eyes were white when she opened them, and she stood up. Voice distant, she said, “Sasha, Petra, bring all the wolves back out here.”

They obeyed without hesitation, as did the two wolves restraining Nikolai when Ymir ordered them closer to the stairs. They forced Nikolai to his knees, holding his arms while Ymir cast a spell to bind his legs to the ground and his arms together. As the wolves came out of the castle, quiet and confused, Annie ushered Christa and the trio to the stairs and made them sit.

Ymir stood outside the reach of Nikolai’s fangs, breathing deep and slow. She waited until no more wolves came from the castle, watching them spread out around her and Nikolai. Once they were still and silent, she grabbed Nikolai’s face and cast the spell to force him into his human form. She snarled another, and then released the binding on his arms. When he tried to swipe at her, she caught his hands and crushed them. He screamed and wrenched free. He panted, waited, and looked to his hands. They did not steam or heal.

He looked up at her, eyes wide and mouth dry. “Wh-what did you do?”

Loudly enough that everyone could hear, she said, “I temporarily blocked your ability to heal. I’m making sure you feel everything they did. All the pain, all the fear—everything.” She turned to Reiner and gestured to the gathered wolves. “Get them angry.”

He smiled, black and cruel. They went by each other, Ymir going to sit behind Mikasa to heal her back. Reiner began to pace around Nikolai, and he spoke in a clear, ringing voice.

“When my pack came to Utgard,” he said, “we swore to never use fire. We swore to never kill pups. We swore to kill as few civilians as we could. This is your home! How could we dare to?”

He raised his voice, pointing toward the town. “Look at what this filth chose to do! This is where you live! Where you work, where you raise your pups! Many of you have lived here since you were pups! Look! He chose to burn your homes! To kill you! Your mates and pups were trash in his eyes!”

Again, he raised his voice. “I see there are fewer of you here now! I have seen the bodies of your families! I can never apologize enough for our failure to protect all of you, and my pack will do all it can to make it up to you!”

He circled around Nikolai faster, and in the pause of his speech the sound of growling could be heard. Nikolai looked to the wolves, seeing that they had come closer in their wolf forms. All their hackles were up, even the pups’. Fury and hate were in their eyes; they snarled and snapped at him. He trembled, heart pounding.

“All we can do is this!” Reiner said. “You can all take your anger and return the pain he’s caused you! Hurt him! Make him suffer! We will give you your vengeance! All we as is this! One—don’t kill him! Two—give us the first shot!” He looked at Ymir, smiling when she snapped her fingers and broke the binding on Nikolai’s legs. He grabbed Nikolai by the throat, lifting him from the ground. Before Nikolai could think to resist, Reiner punched him with enough force to shatter his jaw. He was thrown to the ground, dazed and hurt.

Annie stood from the stairs, unsurprised by Eren following her. They changed to their bipedal forms and went to him. Eren kicked him onto his stomach, holding him down with his foot. Annie plunged her claws into his back, ripping to the left to shred his shoulder and arm. When he tried to scream, Eren kicked him viciously in the ribs. He changed to his wolf form and savaged Nikolai’s left forearm with his fangs.

They exhaled on seeing him writhe, returning to sit with Mikasa and Armin. Though healed, they were too exhausted to stand and attack. They were satisfied by what Annie and Eren did, and they relaxed when they were sat behind and pulled close.

Bertholdt and Sasha went next, and Bertholdt kicked Nikolai onto his back. They changed to their wolf forms to tear off his kneecaps with their fangs. Nikolai shrieked, unable to move. When Hanji and Petra came to crush his ankles in their fangs, he began to sob. Mina and Connie ripped off chunks of flesh from his legs, and Marco, snarling aloud, clawed violently between Nikolai’s legs. As they stepped away, the adults from the town advanced.

Christa flinched as someone sat down beside her. She turned to see Ymir and felt her eyes burn from shame. Ymir winced at the tears in her eyes.

“Hey,” Ymir said quietly. She pointed at her own face. “Can I, um, heal that?”

She nodded, grimacing at the touch of Ymir’s trembling fingers.

“Fuck, sorry,” Ymir said. She cast a spell that erased the pain and set to reversing the bruise.

Christa blinked slowly and looked out. She watched as Nikolai was mauled, listened to his screams and sobs and pleas for it to stop. She turned back when Ymir stroked her cheek with her thumb.

“Do you want to kill him?” Ymir asked.

“Yes,” Christa replied.

“Then you get the honor.” She turned to Mikasa. “Gimme that extra knife you have.” She passed it to Christa and said, “Just say when.”

“Once the wolves are satisfied,” she said. Ymir nodded, and Christa did not flinch when she set a hand on her shoulder. She watched the townspeople reduce Nikolai to a wreck of blood and savaged meat, heart pounding in her ears. The wolves retreated one after another until only one remained. An adolescent, it ripped off the fingers on Nikolai’s right hand and dropped them into the pile of flesh that had built up nearby.

The growling had died off. Christa stood up slowly and went to Nikolai. He lay on his back, blood dripping from where one of his ears had been ripped off. He looked up at her, breathing shallowly. He did not seem to see her; his eyes were growing cloudy. She felt ill with the anger in her chest. Ignoring the urge to cry, she dropped to her knees and cut his throat.

He seized a moment before going limp. Everything rushed out of her so quickly that she tipped to one side. Ymir was beside her in an instant, keeping her from falling.

“You gonna be okay?” Ymir asked.

She did not trust her voice, and so nodded to answer.

“Good. Get back.” Before Christa could walk away on unsteady feet, she said, “Wait. Did he tell you his name?”

“Nikolai Zilya.”

“Zilya. I see. Go sit.” She waited until Christa was some distance before casting a long spell. She changed to her wolf form and began to devour Nikolai’s body. She started with his head, cracking open his skull with one bite. When his body was headless, she ate his heart and much of what remained of his flesh and muscle. She left his bones and the rest of his organs, kicking dirt into his chest cavity. Licking her muzzle clean, she shook herself fiercely. She changed back into her human form and looked around.

Adults held their pups and their mates close, or comforted each other if they had part of their families stolen from them. Exhaustion kept them quiet, but when they looked at Ymir there was thankfulness in their eyes. She took a deep breath.

“Everyone, go inside,” she said. “We’ll get you set up as best we can to clean up and sleep. We’ll start on repairs tomorrow. The servants will get you anything you need, and the garrison wolves will guard us. Go on—we’re safe now.”

The townspeople did as she said, bowing their heads to her in gratitude. She sighed and made to go to Christa, but stopped at small hands catching the singed cloth of her trousers. She looked down to see a small girl there, looking up at her in awe.

“Thank you,” the girl said.

She crouched down. “Still breathing okay?” When the girl nodded, she smiled and pinched her cheek gently. “Good. Go inside with your moms.”

The girl nodded and hurried to the two women a few feet off. At the stairs, Annie and Eren helped Mikasa and Armin to their feet and braced them to climb the stairs.

“Wait! P-please!”

They turned around to find a small gathering of wolves at the base of the stairs. A wolf-man stepped forward.

“Captain Ackerman,” he said. “We owe you our lives. Thank you for all your help.”

She smiled and stood at attention to salute them. An adolescent wolf dashed to her in their bipedal form and hugged her around the waist. They said, “Thank you for my pop,” and ran back to the group. They climbed the stairs after that, thanking Annie, Armin, and Eren as they went.

Reiner and Sasha lingered to direct the garrison wolves, and they were immediately embraced by Bertholdt and Connie when they turned away. Marco and Mina led the last of the townspeople inside, and Hanji and Petra directed them through the castle. They all met at the top of the stairs, only Sasha and Connie going inside. The pack stared at each other.

“Pile,” Bertholdt said. Ymir and Reiner nodded, but Annie looked down.

“‘Pile’?” Armin asked.

“What it sounds like,” Ymir said. “We sleep together in a big pile. After a night like this? Pile.”

“We’re making sure we’re all safe,” Bertholdt said.

Reiner glanced at Annie and Mikasa, finding their hands together and their eyes on the floor. He smiled and rubbed Annie’s head. “She can come, too. All of them can.”

They looked at him, stunned, and Mikasa said, “Th-thank you, Commander Braun.”

He hesitated, but held out his hand to her. “We’re off the field now. ‘Reiner’ is fine. Um. Mikasa.”

Annie let go of Mikasa’s hand so she could shake, smiling at Reiner.

Ymir put a hand on Christa’s shoulder. “That means you can come. Um, if you want.”

Christa felt tears come to her eyes again and ducked her head. She nodded.

“Everyone go get cleaned up,” Bertholdt said. “We’ll meet outside Ymir’s room in thirty minutes.” He went off with Reiner, and Armin and Eren went in the same direction. Annie caught Mikasa’s hand again and led her off. Tired as she was, it took Mikasa a moment to realize that they were headed toward her room. When they turned a corner and came to an empty hallway, she pushed Annie against a wall and kissed her desperately. Annie whimpered into her mouth, clutching the back of her coat. The moment Mikasa pulled away, Annie hid her face in Mikasa’s neck and began to shake.

“I thought,” Annie said, “I thought you—she had your scarf and I didn’t know—” Her breath hitched; Mikasa felt small points of wet heat flare against her neck. “Mikasa, I thought it was going to be like my parents and I’d never see you again.”

Mikasa shook her head, holding Annie tight. “I’m okay. I’m not leaving you.” She smiled. “We’ll make sure we get sent out as a team if this ever happens again.”

Annie coughed out laughter. “I think they’ll let us do that.” She let go of Mikasa to try and wipe her face dry, but only succeeded in smearing soot along her cheeks and hands. She laughed again at how the soot on Mikasa’s face had smeared from tears as well. “Come on. I’m stealing some of your clothes for the night.”

Mikasa’s smile brightened. “I can live with that.”

————

Ymir paused when she locked the door behind them. Christa kept close to her, head still bowed. Trying desperately not to stutter, Ymir asked, “Do you want to wash off first? Your hair’s three different colors.”

“Y-you’re almost completely black,” Christa said. “You go ahead.”

She took a breath, swallowed, and got down on one knee. She took hold of Christa’s fingertips, waiting until she looked up. “I’m so, so sorry, Christa.”

Christa stared. “What?”

“Look, I…did you hear what I said before I ate him?” Christa shook her head, and Ymir went on. “It was a spell. Part of it was to gain everything he knew when I ate his head. So…I know that he did cast a spell to lure you out of town. And I know why he tried to mate with you. I’m so fucking sorry.” She looked down when Christa pulled her hands away, but gasped when Christa threw her arms around her neck and began to sob into her hair.

“I couldn’t do anything!” Christa said. “I couldn’t even run away! I was helpless and I didn’t know what to do!” She sank to her knees, body shaking. “You have no idea how that feels! I don’t want to feel like that ever again!”

Ymir was silent. She put her hands on Christa’s back, rubbing gently. She let Christa cry until she stopped, and opened her mouth when Christa sat back on her heels.

“Turn me into a wolf,” Christa said, eyes full of focus. “Please.”

She raised a brow. “You’re not asking just because of tonight.”

Christa shook her head. “All my life I’ve been small and useless and nobody wanted me. If I can build a new life here like you said, I don’t want to be weak anymore. Turn me into a wolf. Teach me magic. Just—please. Don’t leave me as pathetic as I am.”

Ymir ran her thumb over Christa’s lips. “You’re not pathetic, Christa. Don’t say it, okay?” She put her hands on Christa’s shoulders. “I can’t turn you back into a human once I’ve changed you. You know that, right?”

“I know,” Christa murmured.

She took a deep breath. “Okay. Tomorrow. I’ll change you and Mikasa tomorrow after we all get some sleep.” Christa felt the tension drain from her body. She smiled slightly, and Ymir did the same. She helped Christa to her feet, saying, “Hurry up and get clean. I need a bath, too.”

“Ymir, it’s fine.” She took Ymir’s hand and pulled her to the bathroom. “We don’t have time before everyone will be here.”

“Um. O-okay.” She cleared her throat and went to the tub. After thinking, she kicked the tub while casting a spell to make it grow much larger. They stripped without looking at each other, sitting on opposite sides of the tub near the faucet. The water ran over their feet, draining away black as they scrubbed down their skin. The water remained black for a long while, only briefly lightened when they washed out the gray ash in their hair.

“Hang on,” Ymir said. She scrubbed Christa’s face, neck, and back clean, checking her hair as well. “There, better.” She blinked when Christa took the washcloth from her hands and cleaned her as well.

“You still had some soot and blood on you,” Christa said. She blushed and smiled slightly. “I knew you had freckles on your shoulders, but I didn’t know they were all over you.” She giggled when Ymir pinched her cheek, but went quiet when Ymir held her face.

“Are you gonna be okay?” Ymir asked.

Christa hesitated. “I…I think so.”

“Tell me if you’re ever not.” She kissed Christa’s brow before turning and getting out. She fetched towels and clothes for them, looking away while Christa dressed. They had barely finished drying their hair before there came a knock on the door to the hallway. Ymir went to answer it, letting the others inside.

“Clear the floor,” Ymir said. Bertholdt and Reiner did so, giving Ymir a massive space to work with. She cast spells to create a soft, thick pad on the floor and to duplicate the pillows and blanket from her bed many times over. When she was done, Eren stared at the space longingly.

“That looks so fucking comfy,” he whispered. Reiner chuckled and went to lie down on his back, slightly to one side. Bertholdt went next, curling up against his side with his head on his shoulder. Annie followed, settling on her back with her head on a pillow against Reiner’s other side.

After hesitating, Mikasa went to Annie’s left side and curled up there, head on Annie’s chest. Eren lay down beside her, shoulder to her back, and Armin curled up on top of him with his hand on Mikasa’s back.

“Just so you two don’t wake anyone up,” Ymir said, whispering spells to block snoring while touching Reiner and Bertholdt’s throats. She settled below Reiner’s outstretched arm, his hand on her back and her head on a pillow. She grabbed another pillow and beckoned Christa to the space between herself and Annie. Christa hesitated.

“Come on,” Annie said quietly.

Christa paused to give everyone a blanket, and then gingerly lay down in the open space. She looked down anxiously until both Annie and Mikasa had touched her lightly on her head and arm, and smiled softly at them. Ymir pulled the blanket over herself and Christa, and the others did the same. Everything grew quiet and slow. There was too much weariness in them to be tense with awkwardness. Eren and Reiner fell asleep first, and Bertholdt and Armin followed soon after. Mikasa dropped off to the sound of Annie’s heartbeat; Annie did the same when Mikasa fully relaxed.

For a few moments, Christa struggled to keep her eyes open. She felt Ymir kiss her cheek and gave up. She pulled Ymir’s arm around her and closed her eyes. Just before she fell asleep, she felt Ymir go limp behind her. They slept without dreams, without stirring, long past the coming of dawn.

Chapter Text

Christa woke slowly, mind blank and uncertain. An arm was around her; her hair was being ruffled by someone’s breathing. She opened her eyes, blinking out the haze in them. Annie lay before her, on her stomach with Mikasa’s arm on her back. She could see Armin’s hand on Mikasa’s side, and Eren’s on her head. Looking up showed Reiner’s side, Bertholdt’s hand hanging there.

The arm around her pulled her back, and she knew it was Ymir. She made no move but to take Ymir’s hand, unwilling to wake anyone. Still and silent, she relaxed and focused on not thinking in the hope of falling back asleep. Ymir shifted behind her and gradually rolled almost entirely on top of her. Christa thought she would have to hold back giggles, but she grew tense and anxious from the weight atop her. Because she could not squirm out from beneath Ymir, her heart began to pound.

All at once, the wolves snapped awake, smelling the stress on her. Ymir scrambled to get off her as Annie sat up and pulled her upright.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

“Y-yes,” Christa said. “I’m sorry, I woke up from a nightmare. I didn’t mean to wake everyone.”

Reiner smiled at her and rubbed her head gently. “It’s okay. We needed to get up sometime.” He kissed Bertholdt before rising to his feet. “Come on. We’ve got a town to look after.”

Annie turned to Mikasa, brows rising because she had managed to stay asleep through the ruckus. She then turned to Armin, sitting up and groggily rubbing his eyes. “Is this normal or do I need to be worried?”

He hummed a question and looked to where Annie pointed. “Oh.” He yawned and stretched. “No, she’s okay.”

“She fights hardest in battles, so she sleeps hardest afterward,” said Eren. “Here, hang on.” He took Mikasa’s shoulder and shook slowly. “Mikasa, come on. Breakfast time.”

She grumbled and pushed his hand away.

“You know that Armin’s gonna tickle you if you don’t wake up,” Eren said.

“Lemme sleep,” Mikasa groaned, pulling the blanket over her head.

Armin sighed, but smiled. “Mikasa, you don’t want me to tickle you in front of Annie and her pack, do you?”

After a lengthy fifteen seconds, Mikasa pulled the blanket down. She looked around in a daze and blinked three times. Voice scratchy, she said, “Oh. I’ll…I guess I need to get up.” She pushed herself upright, but could not get farther than that. Her head and shoulders tipped forward as she started to fall back asleep.

Eren rolled his eyes, stood, and picked Mikasa up under her arms. He held her on her feet until she opened her eyes and stood on her own.

Annie, struggling to not laugh aloud, asked, “I don’t need to carry you, do I?”

Mikasa rubbed her face and eyes. “No, sorry. I’ll be fine.”

“To be fair,” Reiner said, “she did a hell of a lot last night.”

“You’ll perk up after some breakfast and me turning you,” Ymir said. “Food first.” She helped Christa to her feet and led the way to the dining hall. There were wolves there already, quiet and exhausted. Petra, sitting with a small family, spotted them and went to Ymir.

“I’ve asked the servants to prepare as much food as they can,” she said. “There should be enough for about a month for everyone based on our stores, but we’ll need to go to other towns to get more stock.”

“That’s fine,” Ymir replied. She looked around, eventually spotting Hanji moving between the clusters of wolves with a pencil and a notebook. “What’re they up to?”

“Tally-taking,” Petra said. “They’re trying to get a baseline of what was lost and what has to be repaired or replaced.”

“Good,” Reiner said. “Make sure they remember to take a break and eat. We don’t need them passing out on us because they forgot to eat again.”

Petra smiled wearily. “I will, don’t worry.” She blinked when Ymir patted her gently on the shoulder, and again when Ymir walked to a group of two women and three pups. They looked up at her as she crouched down before them.

“Hey,” Ymir said. “Anything you need right now?”

“We’re all right, your highness,” one woman said. Quietly, stroking two of the pups, she said, “They miss their parents.”

Ymir exhaled slowly through her nose. “Are you and your mate taking them in?”

“Yes, your highness. They’re my nephews.”

“Good.” She scratched behind the pups’ ears. “You’ll be okay.”

The other pup stood up and came closer. I promise I’ll be nice! They’ll be my little brothers instead of my cousins!

Ymir chuckled and rubbed the pup’s head. “Good girl.” To the two women, she said, “Let me and my pack know if you ever need anything at all. We’ll get you sorted.”

The other woman reached out to clasp Ymir’s hand. “Thank you, your highness.”

“We should have food ready soon, and we’ll get to rebuilding after that.” She made to stand up, but hesitated on seeing how the two smaller pups continued to stare at the floor, looking as though they’d been kicked. She thought for a moment before sitting down entirely and clearing her throat.

“Did you two have favorite toys?” she asked.

The pups looked at her. One snuffled, and his voice said, My papa made me a squishy wolf doll.

“What color was it?”

Gray and white. Like the wolf got snowed on.

“What about you, kiddo?”

The other pup was quiet with shyness. My…my mama gave me a bear doll from the west. It was brown and it had a red bow on its neck.

Ymir nodded slowly, thinking carefully. She said, “Okay, you two close your eyes for a minute.” Once they did, Ymir spoke spells quietly. In her hands appeared two dolls, one a wolf and the other a bear. “You can look now.”

The pups opened their eyes, jaws dropping soon after. They changed to their human forms to take and cuddle the toys.

“I know it’s not the same as what your parents gave you,” Ymir said, “but be brave for them, okay? Lady Mond will give them good hunting, and she’ll give you that, too.” She jumped when the boys stood up and hugged her, but patted them on the back after a moment. When they let her go, she stood and looked around. The other wolves looked at her with raised brows. She scratched the back of her neck, but was unable to hide her embarrassment.

“Let Hanji know what you need right away,” she said, jabbing her thumb at them. “I’ll look at it after we all eat.” She meant to sit at one of the tables, but Reiner caught her around the shoulders and ground his knuckles on the top of her head.

“We don’t usually see you acting nice to pups,” he said with a grin. “Is Christa that much of a good influence on you?”

Ymir pried his arm away and frowned. “I’m not that heartless.”

He chuckled. “I know, I know.” He sniffed, turning as servants began to bring food into the hall. Very soon after that, the rest of the civilians came to the hall to eat. It was a quiet affair; even the smaller pups noticed the atmosphere and did not fuss over their food. Petra took Hanji’s notebook and forced them to sit down and eat. No one ate quickly, and so it was nearly an hour later that everyone finished.

Ymir stretched where she sat before looking at Mikasa and Christa. “Can I turn you two out here? I want people to know about it.”

“I don’t see why not,” Christa said.

“I’m fine with it,” Mikasa added. She noticed Armin fidgeting. “What’s wrong?”

“Well,” Armin said, but he did not continue. Eren nudged him with his elbow. Swallowing, he looked at Ymir. “I…I would like to be turned as well.”

Mikasa stared. “Why?”

“It would be one thing to lose you and Eren in battle,” Armin said. “If you’re both wolves, I’d lose you because I grew old and died long before you.”

Eren set a hand on Armin’s shoulder. To Ymir, he said, “I don’t want to watch him die, and definitely not like that. Please turn him, too.”

Ymir looked up in thought. She hummed. “That sounds like a fair trade for all your info about the south and last night. Sure.” She rubbed at her mouth and stood up. “All right, sit on the floor over there.”

They did as she said, doing their best to ignore the wolves looking at them curiously. Ymir paced for a moment, continuing to rub at her mouth. After some consideration, she stopped in front of Armin and knelt down.

“No whining about your tooth,” she told him. He nodded and opened his mouth dutifully. She changed to her wolf-woman form, plucked out one of his incisors, and replaced it with one of her fangs. After slashing her thumb on the fang, she tilted his head back to let the blood fall down his throat. As he swallowed, she changed back to her human form and murmured the spell in his ear.

His eyes widened, body seizing. Faint wisps of steam escaped his clothes and from the tops of his ears as they grew pointed. He blinked rapidly and breathed deeply. With great curiosity did he sniff his hands and arms. Faintly, he said, “Oh my God, that’s what I really smell like?” He looked up, eyes widening at the details he could now see. He grinned massively. “This is amazing!”

“Armin!” said Eren. “Armin, do this!” He changed to his wolf form, prancing at Armin’s side. Armin watched for a moment before closing his eyes tightly. He vanished in a cloud of steam, and when it cleared he sat as a slim tawny wolf, darker at the face and paws. Eren leapt upon him with glee as the other wolves gaped.

“All right, you next,” Ymir said, moving in front of Mikasa. Mikasa nodded and opened her mouth. Though she flinched when her incisor was torn out, she swallowed Ymir’s blood and listened closely to the spell. When her body seized violently, she let out a choked sound, bent double, and shook as her body steamed. Annie went to her immediately, setting her hands on her shoulders.

“No, I’m okay,” Mikasa said, putting her hands over Annie’s. She straightened up, soon feeling at her pointed ears. She breathed in, sniffed, and then looked at Annie.

Annie stared, brows rising. “Your eyes.”

“What is it? I’m okay—I can see better than ever.”

“Your eyes turned gray.”

“Wolves can’t have black eyes,” Ymir said. “Think about how creepy that’d look.”

Annie could think of no reply to this, and instead turned back to Mikasa. Mikasa, in turn, nodded and closed her eyes. Steam poured off of her, leaving behind a large wolf whose thick fur was solid black but for the patch of red on the ruff of her chest. Annie stared openly again, though no one could tell what expression was on her face. Mikasa blinked twice, leaned closer, and rubbed her nose against Annie’s.

This left Annie smiling and blushing badly, and she reached up to scratch behind Mikasa’s tall ears. Mikasa closed her eyes and lay down with her head in Annie’s lap. Christa giggled at this, turning when Ymir touched her chin.

“Ready?” Ymir asked.

Christa nodded and opened her mouth. Through force of will, she only let out a small whimper when Ymir pulled out her incisor, and she swallowed the blood Ymir gave her. As she did, she finally heard the spell Ymir cast. The blood and fang served as tribute to Lady Mond, and her blessing was passed down to change her body and soul. Another brief whisper promised strength and speed to her, but her attention shifted.

Her body seized. She put her hands over her chest because it felt as though her heart had stopped. Steam came off of her back as the scars along it healed, and her ears tingled as they grew pointed. When it all stopped, she looked up. Everything was clearer and more vibrant. Ymir’s eyes nearly stopped her breath for how golden they looked. She swallowed, closed her eyes, and thought very carefully about being a wolf.

The change happened instantly, leaving her sitting with a tail she tentatively wagged along the floor. She looked around, ears turning to catch sound. All sound stopped; she realized everyone was staring at her. Her ears and nose drooped.

What? What’s wrong with me?

“Nothing,” Petra said, growing cheerful. “Lady above, not a thing.”

But—why is everyone looking at me like that?

Ymir gently took one of her paws and lifted it to make her look down. Christa did so, going still at the sight of her soft white fur.

“Absolutely fascinating,” Hanji said, hurrying over. Careful not to pinch or prod, they looked at Christa from every angle. “It’s extremely rare to see wolves with solid white pelts, and even more so this far from the northern mountains. Ymir, you didn’t do this on purpose, did you?”

“I can’t,” Ymir said. “Lady Mond chooses their coloring.”

Christa put her paw on Ymir’s knee. But why is everyone looking at me like this?

Ymir smiled and scratched under Christa’s chin. “White wolves a sign of good fortune from Lady Mond.”

Oh. She stood up and fought against her wobbly legs. Erm…am I fluffy? I feel like I am.

“You are remarkably fluffy,” said Bertholdt.

Reiner grinned and knelt down to rub Christa’s sides. “Like a proper wolf.” He stroked her head. “You’re gorgeous.”

“You’re gonna make Bert jealous, y’know,” Ymir said. She changed to her wolf form, stepping to Christa’s side. Her shoulders were higher than Christa’s, her head some inches more so. After a moment of consideration, she nodded and licked behind Christa’s ear.

“You make a great couple,” Reiner said, still grinning.

Christa took a deep breath and concentrated on walking forward. Her paws felt ungainly and dragged on the floor if she did not take care. She looked around and felt some comfort on seeing that Armin and Mikasa weren’t having much more luck. Eren was giving Armin silent guidance, and Annie had changed to her wolf form to do the same with Mikasa.

Ymir nudged Christa with her shoulder. Head up and be proud. You’re absolutely beautiful. Not that you weren’t already.

Christa felt her nose grow hot, but lifted her head nonetheless. Slowly, the three of them learned how to walk without shuffling or tripping. As their gaits grew smoother, the pups gained courage and trotted over to them. Armin lowered his head to sniff the pups as they sniffed him. Mikasa sat down and swept her tail along the floor for them to pounce on. Christa settled on her stomach so they could climb on her.

“Your highness?” a man said. “You can turn humans into wolves?”

Ymir changed to her human form and sat next to Christa to scratch behind her ears. “Yep. There’s some shamans around the north who know the spell, too. They make good wolves, don’t they?”

“Excellent wolves,” a woman said. She could not suppress a giggle when a pup caught Mikasa’s tail in its fangs and tugged on it. Mikasa smiled and turned to lick the pup’s head a moment. Three pups took the opportunity of her being lower to the ground to tackle her.

Only Annie heard Mikasa laughing as the pups snuffled at her ears, and her tail wagged to hear it. Unable to sound stern, she sent her voice to the pups as she went to them. All right, that’s enough.

“We’ve got work to do, little ones,” Petra said. She chuckled when the pups went off with their tails low. “You can play later, I promise.”

Ymir gave Christa one last scratch before getting to her feet. She gestured to Hanji, taking their notebook when they passed it over. Bertholdt went to read over her shoulder. They read through everything, and when they had reached the last written page, they looked at each other and nodded.

“The first thing we’ll do is clear away the damage so you all can reclaim anything that wasn’t too badly burned,” Bertholdt said. “The garrison wolves should have moved a lot of the large rubble by now. Let’s head outside and see where they are in cleaning up.” He and the pack led the way, all but the pups changing to their human forms.

Though the sun had risen, murky clouds covered the sky and cast a pallid light on the town. The sight of ash hanging in the still air and the coal black stains in the streets was enough to bring many wolves to tears. The pups whimpered, even when they were picked up and held close. A woman in the streets spotted Reiner and came at a job. She saluted him.

“Commander Braun,” she said. “We did as you and Captain Braus ordered. The bodies of our enemies have been disposed off, and the townsfolk have been brought out for their families.” She gestured to another street closer to the castle. “We lay them down that road.”

“Good work.” He turned to address the wolves. “Those who want to tend to their families may do so for as long as they wish. We will honor any request you have for them.”

A few of the adults went pale while others grew stiff. Those who held pups whispered in their ears before slowly heading toward the street. Christa shifted, but Ymir touched her shoulder.

“Not unless they ask,” Ymir murmured. “Wolves need to be alone with their dead.” Once Christa nodded, she patted her shoulder and crouched down. “Now that you’re able to, let’s get you ready to help.” She changed to her wolf-woman form and cut the excess cloth on Christa’s trousers. She stood and did the same to her sleeves.

Ymir said, “Everyone pair up and go with teams from the garrison to the worst of it.” They did as she said, and a group of five wolves went to her and Christa.

“We’ve done what we could to clear away the unusable materials, your highness,” a man said. “Broken glass, ash, damaged timbers, that sort of thing.”

“Where’d you put it?” Ymir asked.

“The southern edge of town, your highness.”

“Good. I’ll head there. You bring me more broken shit.” She changed to her human form and cracked her knuckles. “The ash might be harder, but I’m gonna go fix things.” The wolves watched her go with some befuddlement, eventually turned to Christa.

“She means it,” Christa replied. “Show me where there’s more damage.” She changed to her wolf-woman form to follow them. The air was thick with char and clotted blood. A few streets over, Christa could smell something else rising. The salty tang of tears was recognizable, but she could not place the raw dryness that followed it.

“Milady,” a wolf-man said, noticing her confusion, “what’s wrong?”

“I don’t know what I smell,” Christa said.

He sniffed and quietly said, “Bitter grief, ma’am. You’ll be smelling it for a while, I’d wager. Here—can you help us lift this beam? We can take it to her highness.”

“Oh. Y-yes, all right.” She went to the beam and dug her claws into the scorched wood. Swallowing, she lifted it without knowing if she could. It came off the ground with almost no effort on her part. She froze a moment, but heaved the beam up onto her shoulder. Another wolf-woman came up behind her to lift the rest of the beam. They set off toward the southern edge of town with the other wolves carrying more things to be repaired.

————

Annie did her best to focus on the task at hand. She could not keep from glancing at Mikasa as they worked. Though Mikasa made no comment, Annie knew she had caught her more than once. The work kept them occupied, and Mikasa took on tasks that looked as though they would require two wolves.

Hours passed; the remains of homes were uncovered. A soft howl rose from the castle when the sun had gone past the center of the sky. Mikasa paused in her wolf-woman form.

“Was that Petra calling everyone to eat?” she asked.

“It was,” Annie replied. The garrison wolves saluted them before heading back toward the castle. Annie changed back to her human form, rubbing the back of her neck. The sight of Mikasa staying in her wolf-woman form and breaking burned timbers from houses made her frown. “Mikasa, you can stop.”

Mikasa froze. She stepped away from the house and changed to her human form. Sighing, she rubbed her forehead. “I’m sorry. I feel like—”

“You don’t need to rest?”

“Yeah.”

“Thought you would. Come on, you need food.” She took Mikasa’s hand and led her down the street. “Most wolves your age feel that way for a while, like Lady Mond has blessed you with all the strength in the world.”

“Did you feel like that?”

She smiled. “Of course I did. I went off to live in the mountains on my own, didn’t I?” She chuckled. “I think you and I would’ve done well on the mountains. I can’t wait to take you hunting.”

“Annie,” Mikasa said, tugging on her hand. When Annie stopped and turned toward her, she licked the thumb of her free hand and rubbed at a black smudge on Annie’s cheek. “I think it’s from something you were carrying.”

She stood still and made no complaints. From so close, it was easier to look at Mikasa’s eyes. Once again, Mikasa caught her, but this time she smiled.

“Are they that different?” she asked.

“You’ll see when you look in a mirror later.”

She chuckled and wiped her thumb on her hip. This done, she cupped Annie’s face in her hands. “What do I look like as a wolf?”

“Like you should’ve been a wolf from the start.” She tapped high on Mikasa’s chest. “The red was a little surprising.”

“Red?”

Annie lay her hand flat on her chest. “Here. It’s the same color as your scarf.”

“Huh.” She hesitated briefly before leaning close to set her nose in Annie’s hair. She breathed in deeply over and over. Her hands trembled.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. I just like how you smell. It’s like snow and mountain wind.” She lifted her head enough to look around. With no one in sight, she tipped Annie’s head back to kiss her. Annie rose up on her toes to kiss back, stroking behind Mikasa’s ears when she rocked down. The dazed look on Mikasa’s face when they parted made Annie laugh.

“Now what?” she asked.

“No, it’s nothing.” She licked her lips with curiosity. “I didn’t think it’d be that different.” Sighing, she rubbed the back of her neck. “Sorry. I’m trying to stay focused on what we’re doing.”

“I know,” Annie murmured. She caught Mikasa’s shirt and pulled her down for another kiss. After parting, she rubbed their noses together. “I am, too.”

Mikasa smiled. “Are you sure we can’t sneak back to one of our rooms and stay there?”

“I’m sure no one but us would be happy with that.” She took Mikasa’s hand again. “Come on. If we don’t get back we won’t get much food. We can talk about moving you into my room later.”

Mikasa followed her, but asked, “What would we hunt?”

“There should still be a few deer on the other side of the mountain. We’ll go once things are more together here.” She looked up at the touch of Mikasa’s lips to her ear, but was left staring when Mikasa jerked away from her. Turning forward revealed Reiner walking toward them with small wrapped bundles in his arms.

“You two took a while to get here,” he remarked. He looked at Mikasa’s mild panic and dark blush with an expression she could not read.

“Reiner, stop making her nervous,” Annie said, taking two of the bundles. She unwrapped one and passed its contents to Mikasa.

Mikasa looked at what Annie gave her, finding it to be a sandwich thick with meat that set her mouth to watering. She looked at Reiner, still tense.

“You’re fine,” Reiner said. “I’m making sure you don’t work yourself unconscious, so eat.” He waited until she had put the sandwich in her mouth before poking her hard on the forehead. “I expect you to keep working and not take any unauthorized breaks. Am I understood?”

She snapped a salute with the sandwich still in her mouth.

Reiner stared, and then snorted with laughter. He rubbed her head. “Sit and eat. It looks like we’re making good progress.” He scratched behind Annie’s ear before heading off, unwrapping his own sandwich.

Annie tugged on Mikasa’s shirt, the two of them sitting against the wall of an intact house. The air was still and nearly silent. Eating slowly, Annie stared up into the sky. After finishing off her sandwich, Mikasa followed her gaze. She sniffed, but sighed.

“Do you think it’ll rain soon?” she asked.

“Hopefully not before we get roofs over their heads. Tarps at least. But we’ll need the rain to get really rid of the ash in the air.”

Mikasa hummed quietly. “It can’t be healthy for the pups to breathe it.”

She took her time chewing the last bite of her sandwich, looking at Mikasa from the corner of her eye. She swallowed and brushed the crumbs from her hands. Casually, she asked, “What do you think of the pups?”

“I think they’re cute,” Mikasa replied. She looked at Annie, confused. “Why?”

Annie shrugged. “They seem to like you, and you played with them really easily. I was wondering if you had any experience with human kids.”

“Well…not particularly. I was still a kid when Zhinganshina was destroyed, and we basically joined the army after that.” She tried to gauge the expression on Annie’s face, but could not recognize more than faint curiosity. “Um…why do you ask?”

Again, Annie shrugged. “We don’t ever know what humans will do when they meet pups. I’m just happy that you think they’re cute.”

Horror made Mikasa’s throat grow tight. “Wait, did you think I’d—”

“No,” Annie said quickly. “I knew when we met that you’d never kill pups. I knew Eren wouldn’t.”

Mikasa looked at her feet. Quietly, she admitted, “The wolves spared us because we were children.”

“Then they were good wolves.” She took Mikasa’s hand, lacing their fingers together. “I’m glad they were.” She leaned against Mikasa. “I’m glad you were here last night.”

Mikasa smiled. “I am, too.” She nuzzled her cheek against Annie’s hair. “I hope we can go hunting soon.”

“I hope we can be alone soon,” Annie whispered. She smiled at the way Mikasa’s hand twitched and rose onto her knees. Without bothering to look around them, she kissed Mikasa until she relaxed.

“You’re not helping,” Mikasa said.

“Sure I am. I don’t know of a better way to make you work hard than telling you you’ll get something for it.” She stood up and pulled Mikasa to her feet. “Come on. Our street is almost done.”

Mikasa nodded and followed, but pulled Annie into an undamaged alleyway before long. She pushed Annie against a wall and whispered, “Here’s my incentive for you.” Moving one leg between Annie’s, she kissed her soundly and rocked against her. Annie inhaled quickly, and again when Mikasa’s hand slid up her shirt to scratch down the length of her back. The next scratch, delivered behind Annie’s ear, made her tremble and moan against Mikasa’s lips.

Annie pulled away, red to her ears, to say, “All right, that’s not fair and you know it.”

“I know,” Mikasa admitted, “but I’ve wanted to do that for weeks.” She grinned and dodged when Annie tried to punch her shoulder, bounding away in her wolf form. Annie gave chase as a wolf, heart pounding for being able to do so.

————

Christa looked at Hanji with a baffled expression when they passed four wrapped sandwiches to her. “Hanji, I’m hungry, but I can’t eat all this.”

“I know,” they replied. They patted Christa’s shoulder to make her move to one side, continuing to pass out food. “Three are for Ymir. She’ll be hungry with all the magic she’s doing.”

“Oh.” She smiled and turned, saying, “Thank you, Hanji.” She started off toward the southern edge of town, careful not to drop anything. Though she had seen Ymir handling the broken things she and the other wolves had brought, Christa hadn’t paused to look at what had been done. On arriving, her jaw dropped. Undamaged beams of word were stacked crookedly; unbroken sheets of glass were set carefully on pieces of fabric that had not existed before. Ymir sat without moving, so exhausted that she barely looked up on smelling Christa.

“Oh, Ymir,” Christa said, walking to her quickly and sitting down. “Here, eat something before you pass out.” She unwrapped the largest sandwich and handed it over.

“Thanks,” said Ymir, and she bit into the food. Each swallowed bite helped to straighten her spine. The second sandwich was eaten much faster, and her eyes were bright and clear by the end of the third.

“You looked like you would fall asleep if I pushed you over,” Christa said.

“I still might,” Ymir replied. “Better eat that before I steal it.”

Christa stuck her tongue out briefly before biting into her sandwich. She whimpered when the meat touched her tongue, clapping her hand down over her mouth. Her cheeks burned because Ymir looked at her with a raised brow. Hastily, she chewed and swallowed to speak.

“It—it tastes so good,” Christa said. “What am I eating?”

Ymir leaned down to sniff at the sandwich. “Seared venison with salt and pepper.”

“That’s…it?”

“Yep.” She chuckled and ran her fingers through Christa’s hair. “You taste it more because you’re smelling it more. Seriously, eat up.” She moved while Christa ate, lying down with her head in Christa’s lap. “You’re so fucking comfy.”

Christa giggled and scratched behind Ymir’s ear. She finished her sandwich and felt much more aware than before. They were silent for a time, Christa watching the sky. Her eyes dropped when Ymir touched her chin, brows rising at the discomfort on Ymir’s face. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m sorry I freaked you out this morning.”

“Oh. Erm. I’m—”

“No, c’mon, you smelled like you were gonna lose it. You don’t have to lie about it.”

“I was going to say I’m not angry at you. You didn’t do it on purpose.” She smiled weakly. “At least now I’ll be able to push you off me if you roll over in your sleep.” She breathed in and went stiff at the scent that came to her, thick and acidic. She looked at Ymir, saw the shame on her face, and understood the scent all at once.

“Please don’t feel bad,” she said, running her hand over Ymir’s head. “I don’t blame you for what happened.”

“It’s my fault anyway,” Ymir muttered. “If I hadn’t left him alive when we took the throne, he wouldn’t have tried to get revenge.”

Christa stared at her. “What’re you talking about?”

Ymir sighed, reaching up to tap Christa’s forehead. “I ate his brain and took everything he knew. His father was Andrin Zilya, the wolf king I killed to take the throne. I left Nikolai alive because he was still practically a pup.”

Christa thought, eyes losing focus as she remembered. “That’s why he said he was taking back what was his.”

“Yeah.” She sighed, but blinked when Christa set her fingers lightly over her lips.

“Do you think another wolf would’ve done this?” Christa asked. “Take the throne after destroying the town and killing everyone?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“You’re fixing things. That’s all you can do at this point.” Because Ymir still looked and smell ashamed, she leaned down to kiss her. When she sat up, she scratched behind Ymir’s ears. “Don’t feel guilty, okay? We’ll all get better.”

She sighed all the same, going silent as staring up at the sky. Christa lay back as well, petting Ymir’s head. The lack of strong light made the gray clouds appear to be unmoving. The tiny flecks of ash she could see high above were just as still. Even when she strained her ears, she could not hear any wind.

“What can we do about all the ash?” she asked.

“Pray for rain. Just not before we put something up over all the foundations. We’re gonna try and do that by the end of the day.” She stopped, groaned, and put her hands over her face. “Fuck. I still need to make tarps for that.”

“Are you getting tired?”

“Yeah. I’ll be fine.” She sat up and stretched. “How was your group doing on getting the big stuff to me?”

“I think we had gotten most everything.” She sat up and tugged on Ymir’s shirt. “Can I help?”

“I don’t see why not. It’d be better if you did littler stuff and get the hang of it.” She thought, spoke quietly, and turned around with a piece of heavy tarp in her hand. “Okay, the spell to make this large is ‘reish korubihn.’ Picture it really huge and it should get as big as you’re capable of getting it to.”

“What if I overdo it?”

She shrugged. “Then we have more than enough. Go on, try it.”

Christa exhaled, thought, and folded the piece in half facing away from her and Ymir. Speaking the spell caused the tarp to grow by yards in height and width, sprawling far and away from them. She waited for a while before stopping the spell’s power.

“Is, erm, that enough?” she asked.

“Wait, what the fuck, you could make more than that?”

“I’m pretty sure.”

Ymir looked at her with skepticism before taking the tarp and tugging at it. It did not tear, and she sat silent and baffled. She glanced at Christa from the corner of her eye. “And you never did any magic in the south?”

“Well…no, but this is a simple spell, isn’t it? I know I wouldn’t be able to make toys for the pups like you did.”

Fuck,” Ymir muttered. “You’re helping me fix little things. I know pups are gonna find more toys of theirs.”

“What’s the spell?”

“‘Zujen krotse.’”

“And that’ll work for multiple things?”

“Yep. General fix-up spell.”

She nodded, repeating the words in her head to memorize them. Hearing the soft sound of small feet coming up behind them made her turn. Three children, two hiding behind the taller third, came closer with nervous steps. Christa turned completely and smiled at them.

“Have you all had something to eat?” she asked.

The girl in the lead nodded, holding something close to her chest. The other children, one girl and one boy, were doing the same.

“Find something in your houses?” Ymir asked.

“Yes, your highness,” the girl said, soft and uncertain. She looked at Ymir, looked down, and looked up again. “Can you fix it?”

“Sure,” Ymir said. She beckoned all of them closer. “All right, what do you have?”

The boy swallowed and held out a scorched storybook. After Christa had taken the book, he said, “My dad reads it to me. He said you could make it better.”

Christa opened the book with all possible care, looking through a few pages. After closing it just as carefully, she took a deep breath and spoke the spell. With a pop, the book restored itself vigorously enough that the ash of the scorched paper fluttered around it in a small cloud. Waving it away, Christa offered the book back.

“Is this how it was?” she asked.

The boy took it and opened it. Each page turned brightened the smile that came to him. He hugged Christa hard, stepping back to clutch the book to his chest. The taller girl offered up a soft doll blackened on one side, but striped in orange and black on the other.

“My grandma brought him back from the east when my mom was a pup, and then I got him when I was really little,” she said.

“Oh my,” Christa said, smiling. “You’re a very lucky girl to have a tiger. Did he have fluffy white fur on his cheeks?” When the girl nodded, she smiled, concentrated, and spoke the spell. Another pop coincided with the doll restoring itself. “There we go. Is this right?”

The girl stared, tears welling up in her eyes. She sniffed, nodded, and hugged Christa fiercely. Christa patted her back until the girl let go, and she looked to the smallest girl. The girl did not look up, and she spoke quietly.

“This isn’t mine,” she said. “My house is okay.”

“That’s fine,” Ymir said. “What is it, something for a friend?”

“Um,” the girl whispered. “It was my neighbor lady’s.” She went to Christa and handed over a burned and warped square of wood and tined metal.

“What the hell is that?” Ymir asked.

Christa peered at it from multiple angles before smiling. “Did your neighbor play a thumb piano?”

The girl grew bright and hopeful. “You know what it is?”

“I do! I played one in the south ever since I was as little as you!” She spoke the spell and they both smiled when the instrument was restored.

“Play something!” the girl said, sounding breathless.

“Let me remember a song,” Christa said. She hummed softly, nodding her head to the beat, and started to pluck at the metal tines with her thumbs. The melody she played started out lively, the tines chiming and the tiny rings buzzing from the vibrations. The pups sat down to listen, eyes focused on her. They smiled and relaxed as the melody slowed, moving closer to snuggle against each other.

By the time the melody was finished, the pups were drowsy and nearly asleep. Christa smiled at them, but had to bite her lip to stop her giggle when she turned and found Ymir curled up, fast asleep, in her wolf form. She reached out and patted the smallest girl’s knee.

“Here, sweetheart,” she said, hanging back the thumb piano. “You can ask me to teach you if you want to learn.”

“Thank you,” the girl said, and she hugged Christa when the pups stood to leave.

Christa waved as they left in much better spirits, and she rubbed Ymir’s ears when they had gone. Ymir snuffled in her sleep, paws twitching. The sight made her feel the exhaustion that had clung to her since the previous night. For a few moments, she tried to focus on the work that still needed doing. She gave up and changed to her wolf form, lying down with her nose near Ymir’s. She fell asleep within seconds, and neither of them woke until Bertholdt came with more things to be repaired.

————

The night came in quietly, the air still unmoving and heavy. The townspeople had taken the tarp Christa made, cut it apart, and hung it carefully over the open parts of their homes. Those who had little in the way of walls still posted tarp to keep the land protected from rain while they stayed in the castle. Dinner was less somber than breakfast, as pups approached Ymir and Christa with things found in their homes that could be repaired. Each pup came away happy with restored toys, books, and small trinkets held dear. Many hugged Christa in thanks, and those that realized Ymir would not snap at them hugged her as well.

When all the pups had gone, Ymir groaned and bent double, not bothering with holding herself up with her elbows on her knees. She ignored Reiner laughing at her position, instead asking, “What’s left?”

“You and Christa restored as much of the major damage as was possible,” Annie replied. “There’s damage on the houses themselves left to fix, but we can start building new homes tomorrow. We still need to have wolves go out for timber, food, and wares.”

“We can send Sasha, Mina, Marco, and Connie to the nearest towns with escorts from the garrison,” Bertholdt added. “I’ll ask Franz and Hannah how much steel we can part with to barter.”

“Okay, thank you,” Ymir said, slowly waving a hand. She lifted her head when something settled against her leg. Christa, sitting on the floor next to her, was fast asleep. Looking to Annie showed Mikasa slumped on the table, the hair near her mouth and nose fluttering with her breathing as she slept. Armin was much the same, curled up with his head on Eren’s leg while they sat on the floor. Eren shrugged slightly, but yawned all the same.

“Lady above,” Ymir said with a weary smile. “We’re all sorts of fucked, aren’t we.”

“You didn’t get any information about more attacks, did you?” Annie whispered.

Ymir shook her head. “That was his whole rebellion last night. We’ll be fine.”

The rest of the pack relaxed visibly. Reiner muttered, “Lady Mond be praised.” He chuckled faintly when Bertholdt put an arm around his shoulders and kissed his cheek.

“We’ll be just fine,” Bertholdt said. “But I think we should put each other to bed.” He took Reiner’s hand and led him away.

Eren moved carefully to free his leg before bundling Armin up into his arms and standing. He smiled at the sleepy mumbling Armin made, and went off slowly to keep him from waking.

“Mikasa,” Annie said, gently shaking Mikasa’s shoulder. This did nothing, and Annie chuckled. She changed to her wolf-woman form and scooped Mikasa up off the bench. Without waking, Mikasa buried her face in the ruff of fur on Annie’s chest. Annie held her closer for this and did not reply to Ymir’s knowing smile.

When they had gone, Ymir yawned and stroked Christa’s head. Christa did not stir, and Ymir muttered, “That took everything out of you. Guess I need to train you up a little.” She picked Christa up gently, smiling when Christa mumbled nothing and nuzzled against her. Making sure she had a good hold on her, she went to Hanji and Petra, drowsing against each other.

“If anyone really needs something, you can come get me,” she said. “Get some rest. You did good work today.” Once they had nodded, she left the dining hall and headed back to her room. Christa never woke, not even when Ymir set her on the bed. Ymir sat next to her, crossing her legs and going still. The small fire in the fireplace was enough to let her see everything.

Christa was soft in the light, breathing faintly. She had curled up upon settling on the bed, hands limp near her face. With her lips parted to breathe, Ymir could see the sharp point of her fangs. A careful brush of her hair revealed the similar point of her ear.

Ymir smiled at all of this. She rubbed behind Christa’s ear to see her smile in her sleep. The faint murmur of her name made Ymir pause. Her brows lowered and she lay down. She put a hand on Christa’s cheek and tapped her temple.

“Christa,” she said. She tapped over and over until Christa stirred. “Hey. We need to talk, okay?”

It took nearly a full minute for Christa to come out of sleep enough to speak. “Ymir? What’s wrong?”

The words stopped short in Ymir’s throat; she swallowed them back down. She thought again, sighed, and asked, “How old do you think I am?”

Christa blinked slowly. “Erm. You…you said you’re older than Annie. So…maybe seventy?”

Ymir frowned. “Older.”

“Wha…by how much? You don’t look any older than the rest of your pack.”

Her frown deepened. “Remember how old Hanji said they are?”

“Ninety…seven? Are you older than that?”

“Yeah. A little more than twice as old.”

The math made Christa fumble. “Twice? You’re—wait, what do you mean?”

Ymir sighed through her nose and took a deep breath. “I’m one hundred and ninety-six years old.”

Christa looked at her without seeing her. She blinked twice. “What?”

“Remember the spell I used last night to get all the information Nikolai had?”

She thought as hard as she could and stopped when she remembered what else Ymir had eaten. She whispered, “You can steal someone’s life when you eat their heart. That’s what the spell is for.”

“Pretty much, yeah,” Ymir said. “He was young, so that’s a lot more life for me.” She sighed again, muttering, “I figured I should tell you now.”

“Versus what?”

“I don’t know. When you finally noticed I wasn’t getting older than everyone, I guess.”

“How do you know a spell like that?”

“I learned it from the shaman who took me in and taught me pretty much all the other spells I know. She was the first wolf I ate.” At Christa’s look of horror, she hastily added, “‘Cause she asked me to! She didn’t know how old she was anymore and she wanted me to take her knowledge so she could die peacefully! I wouldn’t just kill her to steal her knowledge, fuck.”

“Does…does your pack know?”

“I don’t lie to them.”

“But won’t they die before you?”

Ymir flinched, but nodded. “Yeah. But packs don’t usually all die together. They get bigger and smaller. We find our mates and have pups and bring good wolves in. You and Mikasa are part of the pack now, and Eren and Armin are in if they want after everything they’ve done.”

Christa stopped breathing. “I-I’m part of your pack?”

“Yeah. Why’re you surprised?”

“I just—I didn’t think you’d let me be part of your family.”

“Um…why?”

Christa shook her head and rubbed at her eyes. “I don’t know. I never thought I’d be part of anyone’s family. Not like how your pack is.”

Ymir’s frown returned. “You mean where you weren’t just being used to give birth to some nobleman’s shitty kids.”

Unable to speak, Christa nodded. She sniffed and rubbed her eyes again.

“No one’s making you have pups. You don’t have to have them unless you want them.”

“But—I don’t want to make with someone just to have pups.” Quietly, she added, “I don’t want to do that with a man.”

Ymir stared a moment. “Wait, what? Why would you be fucking a guy? You don’t have to—I know spells.”

“What?”

“There’s spells for two women to have kids by themselves. I’ve done it for a couple of women in town. Fuck, I’m surprised you haven’t heard Annie talk about it with Mikasa already.”

“What?” Christa repeated, fainter than before.

Ymir snorted with laughter. “By the Lady’s eye, the south is so fuckin’ useless. Women can have kids together, okay? I can make it happen.”

Christa stared at her, eyes as wide as they could be. Her gaze lowered to Ymir’s chest, and a tiny, disbelieving smile came to her. She whispered, “Wow.” Her thoughts shifted suddenly enough to knock the smile from her face. She looked back up.

“How old were you when you met Annie?” she asked.

“One hundred sixty-eight.”

“Have you always been alone?” Hesitating, she asked, “Have you ever had a mate?”

Ymir was silent. Eventually, she admitted, “No. I stayed the fuck away from most everyone for decades. I wandered around the mountains Annie met me in for something like sixty years before we met. Honestly, I just stayed as a wolf the whole time and I didn’t change back until we tried to go after the same prey and we started talking.” She chuckled faintly. “It was a pain to remember how to walk on human legs.”

“But weren’t you lonely?”

“Sure. But I didn’t like anyone, and no one liked me. Why bother?” She tapped Christa’s nose. “You’re not much better. You lived a life where you wouldn’t have been able to fight against being married to some guy you didn’t love. But now,” she said, scratching behind Christa’s ear, “you can fight and you can be happy.”

“You can be happy, too,” Christa said. “Now, erm, now that your pack is safe.”

“Uh huh. What else were you gonna say?”

“No, just—just that you could…be happy now that I’m here, too.” She drew a faint squeaking gasp when Ymir caught her under the arms and pulled her on top of her.

“Look at you, being an arrogant little shit now that you’re a wolf,” Ymir said, snickering. “I like it!”

Christa smiled. “I do, too.” She moved to kiss Ymir, soft and tender. She expected Ymir’s hand going to her ear, but the spark it sent down her spine was more intense than she was prepared for. She moaned against Ymir’s lips and jerked upright and away when she realized what she had done. Ymir looked up at her with raised brows, and soon sat up to follow her. Christa swallowed hard, but did not look down.

Ymir reached out with both hands to tuck Christa’s hair behind her ears. She put a hand beneath Christa’s chin. “Why’re you so fuckin’ pretty?”

She blushed crimson and felt her ears twitch. “Maybe—maybe Lady Mond made me pretty enough to be sent here. So I could be happy.”

“Sounds about right,” Ymir replied. She ran her fingers lightly from Christa’s chin to her shoulder, pushing the loose collar of her shirt to the side. Before the cloth could fall over the curve of her shoulder, Ymir went red to the tips of her ears and quickly pulled the cloth back in place.

“Um,” she said, voice timid and breaking, “I don’t—I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. We should—um, we should stop. And sleep. Because I’m an ass and I don’t want to be an ass if we do this.”

“Ymir,” Christa said, setting her hands on Ymir’s cheeks. “Yes, you are an ass. But you’re not that much of an ass with me. Okay?” Once Ymir nodded, she leaned up to kiss her. “Just not tonight.”

“Right,” Ymir said quickly. “Sorry. My fault—I heard you moan and I liked it too much and I should’ve asked.” She laughed weakly, but went stiff when Christa kissed her again, harder than before.

“I’m not mad,” Christa said, low with frustration. “I think of all the people in the world, I’m the last person anyone has to worry about making angry.”

“Unless it’s your old man pissing you off.”

“Yes, but—no, my point is that it’s fine.” Quietly, she added, “I don’t know what the hell I’d be doing either.”

The anxiety and stammering left Ymir instantly. “Oh, what the fuck, are you serious? You didn’t even touch yourself in the south?”

Christa stared at her, feeling heat all the way to the back of her neck. “N—what? No, I did! I just—Ymir, they would’ve killed me if I slept with another women and the church found out! I’ve never even looked at another woman that closely!”

“Want me to take my shirt off?” Ymir asked.

Her mouth opened, but not a sound left it. She gaped, utterly lost, and managed to say, “What?”

“I can take my shirt off if you want,” Ymir said, voice casual despite the blush on her face. “If you want to look at another woman that closely.”

Christa continued to stare, but her blush remained. After a few long moments, she closed her mouth.

“Okay, is this you being quiet because you really want me to do that and you’re too shy to say it, or because you’re offended and you want me to shut up?”

“The,” Christa said, but her throat closed up. She swallowed, lifted one finger, and said, “The first one.” When Ymir took the hem of her shirt in hand, she quickly said, “But still not tonight.”

“I know, I know,” Ymir said. She smirked and pulled her shirt up and over her head, setting it aside. After fifteen seconds, she started to giggle. “Oh fuck, you smell so weird right now.”

“Wh-why? What’s wrong?”

“One, you are completely freaked out. Two, you are really turned on. Three, you’re so fuckin’ shy about seeing me outside the bath that I can’t believe you haven’t passed out from your heart going so fast. Here.” She took one of Christa’s hands and pulled it closer. Paying no attention to her choked protests, she set Christa’s palm on her chest, over her heart. “Calm down.”

Christa whimpered, but grew quiet when Ymir patted her head. She felt Ymir’s heartbeat in her palm and fingers alike. For a moment, she glanced lower than her hand, but looked back up before she could focus on anything.

“For fuck’s sake, just look,” Ymir said. She tilted Christa’s head down, saying, “No one’s gonna hate you. All Lady Mond wants is for you to be happy, and if lookin’ at my tits makes you happy, go for it.”

She could not stop herself from giggling. “Ymir, stop it!”

“Hey, everybody wants to be as lucky as you. No one else gets to see ‘em like this.”

Helpless to her giggles, Christa could only shake her head. She did not resist being picked up and brought into Ymir’s lap, and soon settled with her cheek on Ymir’s bare chest. She relaxed more and more as she took in Ymir’s scent.

“Are there flowers here in the north that don’t grow in the south?” she asked. “I don’t really recognize what I smell on you.”

“Not as far as I know,” Ymir replied. “But I don’t know what names you have for flowers in the south.” She yawned, sudden and massive and dragging. “Okay, fuck this, time to sleep.” She fell onto her side, taking Christa with her. “Keep looking if you want, but I’m not taking the blame if you’re tired tomorrow.”

“You only want that blame if you’re keeping me awake on purpose, right?” Christa said with a smile. Ymir caught her under her arms and pulled her up slowly enough that she did not gasp. Her smile turned shy from the way Ymir looked at her.

“Pretty much, yeah,” Ymir said. She kissed Christa for good measure, not with haste but with heat. Christa gripped her shoulder, no longer able to close her fingers in her shirt. When she drew back, Christa kissed her chin and snuggled up beneath it.

“Thank you,” Christa whispered. “For everything.”

Ymir chuckled. “Thanks back.” She draped an arm over Christa to hold her close. “Sleep tight.”

“You too,” Christa murmured, and she closed her eyes to sleep.

————

Annie had not expected for Mikasa to wake at all that night, given how she had not shown the slightest reaction to her face being buried in fur. Annie closed and locked the door of her room behind them, setting Mikasa on the bed as gently as she could. She managed to shift to her human form and change into clothes of own, intent on fetching something clean for Mikasa, before noticing the cold reek of fear coming from Mikasa.

She returned to the bed, finding her still asleep but twitching with nightmares. Slow, careful, she sat down and brought one hand close to Mikasa’s nose. The other she used to stroke her hair, and she crooned faint sound. The twitching came to a stop.

“Mikasa,” Annie said. “Wake up. You’re fine.”

Mikasa inhaled once, twice, and then opened her eyes halfway. She lay without moving or breathing, even when Annie rubbed behind her ear.

“Did you fall back asleep?” Annie asked.

“I’m awake,” Mikasa said, nearly a whisper. She blinked and looked up. “When did I fall asleep?”

“Around the time you stopped eating, I think. You’ve been out a while.” She toyed with a lock of her hair. “What were you dreaming of?”

Mikasa sighed and looked down. “It’s just nightmares.”

“‘Just’ nightmares? You don’t just smell scared, you smell like you’re about to panic. Tell me what it was about.”

Mikasa said nothing, staring at a point somewhere through Annie’s knee. Eventually, she said, “We lost. I had to watch all of you get eaten.” She exhaled slowly. “I have that kind of nightmare a lot after battles. Don’t worry about it.”

“The reward of being a solider,” Annie murmured. She tugged on Mikasa’s sleeve. “Sit up a minute.” Once Mikasa had done so, she sat between her legs facing her. She brought one of Mikasa’a hands to her neck, arranging her fingers so she could feel her slow pulse. The tension in Mikasa’s shoulders began to fade.

“We’re all okay,” Annie said, setting her hands on Mikasa’s sides. “You’re just overtired.”

Mikasa exhaled, leaning forward to rest her forehead against Annie’s. “I know. I’m sorry.” Her hand moved to cup Annie’s cheek. “I keep forgetting to ask…when I’m not scared, what do I smell like?”

Annie thought a moment before pulling Mikasa down by her shirt. She set her nose in Mikasa’a hair and breathed in deep and slow. Thinking a few seconds longer, she said, “Like an old forest deep in the mountains. It reminds me of one that I found when I was younger.”

Chuckling, she asked, “Do you think that’s where I would’ve been born if I was born a wolf?”

“Maybe. I’m just glad you were sent here now.”

“Me too.” She reached up to undo the bun Annie’s hair in. She took her time in running her fingers through Annie’s hair, feeling its softness and length. Annie leaned into her touch, eyes closing as Mikasa set her forehead against hers again. The longer this went on, the more Mikasa realized Annie’s scent was changing. It was losing its chill and sharpness, growing warm and enticing. Her mouth went dry, even as she ran her fingers behind Annie’s ear to feel her shiver.

“Annie?” she asked, heart beating faster. “What am I smelling?”

“Arousal,” Annie replied easily. She opened her eyes slowly and looked at Mikasa’s blush and wide eyes. Smiling, she asked, “How are you having the same reaction to me being turned on as you did to me turning you on?”

“Because I’ve never really smelled it before and now I don’t know what to do,” Mikasa said, hand trembling.

“I know what to do,” Annie said. She kissed Mikasa’s cheek, moving inward until she reached her lips. Her kisses were not meant to relax, and Mikasa felt heat filling her spine. Still, she pulled away to speak.

“Is this okay? Your pack—”

“Has no power to decide who I mate with. They’ll get over it.” She smirked. “Besides, even if Reiner gets pissed off and hits you, it’ll heal. Stop worrying.” She ran her fingers along the edge of Mikasa’s collar, slipping past it to stroke the top of her chest. Her other hand went to the hem of her shirt, pushing it up. Laying her palm on the firm muscles of her stomach, she asked, “Do you want this?”

Mikasa was still for a heartbeat, but blinked when another slight change in Annie’s scent came to her. She leaned in and pulled Annie closer to tuck her face in the curve of her shoulder. She concentrated on the scent, faint but heavy.

“Annie?” she said. “Are you nervous?”

She stiffened briefly before sighing. “Not all of us have had flings. Stories from other wolves aren’t the same.”

A helpless laugh left her. “You probably heard more interesting stories than me.” She kissed Annie’s shoulder, moving up the side of her neck. When she reached her ear, she murmured, “It’ll be fine.” She pushed Annie down onto her back, settling on her knees between Annie’s legs. Annie stared up at her, cheeks growing red, before both of them laughed quietly.

“How do wolves get through having sex when you can smell each other’s arousal so much?” Mikasa asked. “I can’t concentrate.”

“How can you not concentrate?” Annie replied. She returned her hands to Mikasa’s sides, pulling her shirt up slowly. “I can.”

“Because you’re lovely,” Mikasa said. She ran her fingers over Annie’s lips, murmuring, “I don’t know if I want to keep watching you or start touching you.”

“I think you can do both.”

She smiled. “I’m glad you’re confident in me.” Sinking down on her elbows, she kissed Annie’s neck softly and kept her teeth from her skin. Annie squirmed and reached for Mikasa’s shirt, but Mikasa caught her hand and held her down by the wrist. Though she tried to tug her hand free, Mikasa’s grip was too strong.

“You were hoping to still be able to get free, weren’t you,” Mikasa said in her ear.

“I was able to pin you up until this morning.” She lifted her other hand slowly enough that Mikasa caught it with ease. When Mikasa lifted her head, Annie raised a brow slightly and smiled. “I don’t mind, honestly.”

“You can pin me later.” She kissed Annie deeply, licking and nipping her lips until she opened her mouth. The scent and taste of her sent a chill down Mikasa’s limbs. Curious, she let go of one of Annie’s wrists to scratch behind her ear, slow and hard. Annie gasped into her mouth, hips jerking against her.

“Dammit,” she hissed. “Do that again.” She whimpered when Mikasa scratched behind her ears, one after the other with both hands. Her whimpers grew frustrated when Mikasa took her hands away. The pull of her shirt over her head made her go quiet and warm.

Mikasa smoothed her hands over Annie’s stomach, taking in the way her muscles twitched. When fingers brushed against her breasts, Annie exhaled slowly to relax. The effort was wasted once Mikasa leaned down to kiss her skin. Her breath stopped at the touch of her lips to her nipple. She felt her ears burn.

“You don’t have to be so nervous,” Mikasa said gently. She ran her hands up Annie’s sides, finding the grooves of her ribs beneath muscle. A light scratch was set in those grooves before she brought her hand to her breast. She ran her fingers over her nipple, smiling as it hardened with her touch. Again, she lowered her head, but then ran her tongue over her skin. Annie let out a faint whine, trying to shift. Mikasa took her elbows in hand and held her still. Though Annie tried to pull free, Mikasa’s grip was once more too strong.

She looked at Mikasa with a faint frown. “You’re enjoying being this strong, aren’t you.”

Mikasa smiled. “If we had done this when I was still human, you would have done the exact same thing.” She did not let Annie reply to this, taking her nipple between her lips and sucking slow and hard. Annie trembled and let her head fall back. With nothing else for her hands to do, she gripped the sheets tightly.

Distracted as she was, she did not notice when Mikasa let go of one arm. She blinked as Mikasa slipped her hand beneath her, and moaned at the drag of Mikasa’s nails down her back. Mikasa bit down on her shoulder to make her grow louder; her heels slid on the bed as her legs flexed.

Small, light kisses were pressed from shoulder down across her chest and along her stomach. They stopped at the top of her trousers, moving up briefly so Mikasa could pull the knot of the drawstring loose. Mikasa paused in curling her fingers over the waist of Annie’s trousers, feeling her tense and smelling stress on her.

“Are you all right?” she asked, taking her hands away.

“Fine,” Annie said quietly. “I’m just nervous all of a sudden.”

Mikasa smiled again, running her fingers up and down Annie’s stomach. “You don’t get nervous that often. It kind of smells cute.” She moved up to kiss Annie’s cheeks, lingering a long while at her lips to let her relax. She did not resist Annie tugging her shirt off, shivering when Annie scratched up the length of her back. When she tried to move down again, Annie caught the waistband of her trousers and kept her where she was.

Tentative, slow, Annie reached a hand between them and rubbed Mikasa through her trousers. Mikasa drew a sharp breath, putting her arms down either side of Annie’s shoulders to steady herself. Her shaky exhales ruffled Annie’s hair; her eyes closed slowly. Annie breathed in as Mikasa’s scent changed, heated and heavy enough that she shivered. She braced herself to rise up and kiss Mikasa’s neck.

Curious now, she settled again to use her arm, reaching up to run her fingers over Mikasa’s chest. Soft strokes up and down over her nipples paired with harder and harder presses of her hand between Mikasa’s legs made Mikasa whimper. A hard scratch down her side made Mikasa’s arms and legs buckle. Annie chuckled and nipped Mikasa’s shoulder, now in reach.

“Please stop teasing,” Mikasa panted.

“But you smell amazing when I tease you,” Annie said. “Like sparks.”

“Annie, please,” she whispered, rocking against her hand.

Her mouth dried instantly. The sight of Mikasa’s flushed face, her closed eyes, made her tremble. She swallowed and rolled them over. Mikasa made an attempt to sit back up, but Annie bit down hard on her shoulder. She reached down, hand fumbling, to untie the drawstring of her trousers. Not bothering with her trousers further than this, she slipped her hand past the waistband.

The first touch to her wet skin made Mikasa jump, hips jerking. She whimpered, turning her face away, and bit her lip when Annie stroked up and down. Annie kissed her cheek softly, listening to her breath as it changed. From so close, she heard every hitch, every break, every way Mikasa said her name.

It was almost accidental, done by Mikasa shifting her hip and Annie curling her fingers slightly. Mikasa swore sharply, hands clenching in the sheets. Her scent changed, setting heat in Annie’s spine. She kissed Mikasa’s throat and rubbed harder and faster. Panting, Mikasa clutched Annie’s free arm. She rocked against Annie’s hand, eyes closed tight and sweat beading on her neck.

Smiling, Annie licked at the hollow of her throat and bit her shoulder. Another hard rub made Mikasa stiffen briefly before starting to shake and moan helplessly. Her breath hitched three times, higher and sharper each time, until she moaned Annie’s name and slowly went limp. Annie slowed with her, breathing deeply to take in the heavy scent clinging to her.

Looking dazed, Mikasa opened her eyes halfway and looked up at Annie. Voice quiet, she asked, “What’re you smelling?”

Annie toyed with strands of Mikasa’s hair, thinking. “Your normal smell, but with summer rain on top of it.

“Ah.” She pulled Annie down to kiss her. At first, it was light, almost lazy. Each kiss was firmer than the one before, and soon she had rolled them over. She moved one leg between Annie’s and rocked slowly against her, smiling when she moaned. Timing it carefully, she broke the kiss and scratched behind Annie’s ear. From so close, she felt Annie’s gasp on her lips.

“I see what you mean about smelling summer rain,” Mikasa said. “You smell just like that.” She kissed Annie once more before moving down. All along Annie’s body she placed kisses and bites to make her moan and squirm. Dragging, teasing, she pulled Annie’s trousers down her hips, down her legs, until she could toss them aside. Her fingers moved feather-light over Annie’s thighs and knees, always followed soon after by her lips. When she moved closer, settling on her stomach between her legs, she felt Annie tense slightly.

“Close your eyes,” Mikasa said. Only when she had done so did Mikasa kiss the inside of her thighs, moving steadily inward. The first pass of Mikasa’s tongue over her sex made Annie catch a whimper behind her teeth. Mikasa kept her from squirming overmuch, hands firm on her hips. She licked with purpose, teasing moans from Annie’s mouth. Adding two fingers, pushed slowly into her, was rewarded with a cry behind closed lips. Mikasa smiled and lifted her head.

“Let me hear you,” she said, scratching at Annie’s thigh. “Please. I’ve wanted to hear you for weeks.” She waited patiently, rocking her fingers in and out, until she saw Annie’s lips part. Nearly grinning, she pushed her fingers in as deep as she could to make Annie moan loudly. She lowered her head, licking harder and rocking her fingers deep and fast.

Annie panted, legs shaking and hands clenched in the sheets. She whimpered when Mikasa reached out with her free hand and took one of hers to lace their fingers together. There was no time to plead when Mikasa took her mouth away again as she bit hard on her thigh. Jumping at the burst of heat on her skin, Annie moaned Mikasa’s name with all the desperation she had.

As a reward, Mikasa moved again and chuckled against her. Annie swore, holding tight to Mikasa’s hand. Tentativeness gone, she moved against her tongue and trembled. Every sound that left her hung in Mikasa’s ears just long enough to memorize, and when they grew pleading, Mikasa acquiesced. She sought out what made Annie’s voice fail and licked and sucked until Annie’s breath stopped and she tightened around her fingers.

“Mikasa,” she whispered, faint and failing as she shook and trembled. She squeezed Mikasa’s hand hard before starting to breathe again. Mikasa drew back her fingers and set a kiss on her shaking thigh. Moving slowly, Mikasa settled beside Annie and nuzzled against her hair. Annie rolled onto her side, but did not curl up beneath her chin. She looked up at Mikasa, blinking slowly.

Mikasa opened her mouth, but hesitated. She blushed and closed her mouth again.

Annie chuckled softly. “Why is your stupid bravery failing so much tonight? You can say it.”

Her voice grew quiet. “Well…I haven’t ever said it before.”

“Neither have I, but I will.” She shifted slightly, setting her forehead against Mikasa’s. “I love you.”

Mikasa blinked, eyes widening, before she slowly relaxed. She tipped her head enough to rub her nose against Annie’s. “I love you, too.”

Annie smiled and kissed her lazily. “Think you’ll sleep better now?”

“I will.” She gathered Annie in her arms, pulling her close. “Sweet dreams, Annie.”

“You too, Mikasa.” She pulled the light blanket over them both, and they fell asleep soon after settling.

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mikasa smiled. “So are we.”

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

“Can I help?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eren laughed. “Mine’s more handsome.”

“Mine’s more beautiful.”

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

“Now my blonde is tallest,” Bertholdt said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’d think so, yes.”

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

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

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

“Mm hmm.”

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

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

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

“Her bare feet,” Armin said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean Christa?”

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

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

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

———

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

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

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

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

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

“Openly,” Christa muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yep. Can you catch the scent?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get ready to jump down!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’re you looking at?” Ymir asked.

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

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

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

Ymir smiled. “C’mon, tell me.”

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Christa said faintly.

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

“We call them forget-me-nots.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rain getting to you?” Ymir asked.

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

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

“Did it happen to you?”

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

“What happens when wolves get sick?”

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

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

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

“Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

“Examples.”

Reiner raised a brow. “For?”

“Training.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. I hated that year.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They all nodded, faces grim and brows low.

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

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

“I’m pretty sure I can.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mikasa’s face brightened. “Where?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“More or less,” Armin said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eren looked at him blankly. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you make this room?” Christa asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mikasa stopped moving. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How long do wolf pregnancies last?”

“Four or five months.”

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

“Versus?”

“Humans are pregnant for nine months.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’re you going to ask me for?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sounds just like your styles.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Still me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll be ready,” Mikasa said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“To climb trees?” Bertholdt asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

When night fell and everyone returned to their quarters, Annie made Mikasa sit down on their bed and look at her.

“I know that it’s going to be impossible to get you to not worry at all,” Annie said, “but try to worry less.”

Mikasa flushed. “Sorry. I don’t have any experience with pregnant women, and the fact that you’ll have the pups so soon makes me nervous.”

“I figured,” Annie murmured. “We’ll be okay. The worst that’s going to happen is that I have trouble keeping food down for a while. I’ll probably make you cook something.”

“I will,” Mikasa said quickly.

She rolled her eyes, smiling. “You seem to be a lot more nervous now that you’re a wolf, but I don’t know why.”

Her gaze fell. “I have more things to lose now. Really important things that I’m not sure how to take care of yet.” She laughed softly. “I know you won’t run into danger like an idiot and drag me behind you, but…it scares me to think about losing you or the pups.”

Annie’s smile did not fade, but softened. She rubbed behind Mikasa’s ears, guiding her head forward to rest on her shoulder. “It’s going to be fine. You’ll be a good mother.”

“Kick me if I’m not.”

“If you want to be violent about it, sure.” She closed her eyes when Mikasa lifted her head to kiss her neck.

“Maybe not yet,” Mikasa murmured against her skin. She caught Annie by her belt and pulled her slowly into her lap.

Annie unwound the scarf around Mikasa’s neck and tossed it aside on their bed. “I’m glad you’re not nervous about sex anymore.”

“That goes for you, too,” Mikasa said, grinning. She tilted back and pulled Annie down to the bed with her. Annie laughed and nuzzled against her, and they wore each other out until sleep was welcome.

When the morning came, Mikasa was not surprised to wake first. She kept still until it was clear that Annie was too deeply asleep to be roused by slow movement. A smile came to her as she played with Annie’s hair. The sound of her breathing slow and soft made her relax. Feeling somewhat silly, she moved closer to smell Annie’s hair.

While she could smell a trace of herself, she most took in the cool scent of mountain wind she knew so well. She whispered, “What will our pups smell like? Or sound like?” Annie did not stir, and remained asleep through Mikasa pulling her closer.

“I hope they like us,” she whispered more faintly. Despite her words, she smiled. “I already like them.”

————

Christa found herself surprised the next morning when Ymir followed her out of the castle after breakfast. She stopped at the bottom of the stairs into town, turning to face Ymir. Ymir stared back before looking over her shoulder.

“No, I’m looking at you,” Christa said. “You never follow me when I go into town.”

“Um,” Ymir said. “You’re going to check on pups, right?”

“I am. A number of them are still having nightmares after the siege, and they like when I visit.”

“Well,” Ymir said, scratching the back of her neck, “I could help. I know stuff to help with nightmares in the long run. So. That’s, um, what a queen should do.”

Christa smiled brightly and went to Ymir to take her hand. “It’s exactly what you should do.” She led Ymir into the streets, lacing their fingers together. “Did you know that you’re really cute when you try like this?”

“I don’t think a lot of people would agree with that,” Ymir mumbled, blushing. “It’s easier to do when I have a good example.”

“Wait, do you mean me?”

Ymir looked at her with a raised brow. “You realize that you’re queen of the north too, right? We’re mates—you have that rank now.”

She said nothing because her mouth when numb. Eventually, she said, “Oh.”

Ymir snorted with laughter. “Did you think you weren’t going to be queen once we mated?”

“I just—hadn’t thought of it at all.” She smiled slightly. “I stopped thinking about being queen of anything a long time ago.”

“Well, you can think about it again. I’m pretty sure everyone’s going to like you as queen.” She reached over to scratch the top of Christa’s head with her free hand. “Don’t worry.”

Her smile grew as a small blush filled her cheeks. She leaned against Ymir for a moment before guiding her to one home toward the middle of town. Letting go of her hand, she knocked on the front door. It was opened soon after by two small boys, ruddy-skinned and with black hair, and their faces brightened on seeing Christa. She knelt down to let them hug her tightly, patting their backs.

“Hi there,” she said. “Are your mothers and sister home?”

“Mom’s out teaching sis’ how to get to get a rabbit,” one boy said. “Should we get Mama?”

“Yes please,” she replied, giving them scratches. “May we come in while you do?”

The boys looked up to see Ymir. She gave them an uncertain wave as a greeting. They returned the wave shyly, but smiled because they remembered her and the dolls she had made. Letting go of Christa, one boy went inside. The other went cautiously to Ymir and held up his hand for her to hold. He led her inside with something resembling formality, and Christa struggled to not laugh at how seriously Ymir went along with him.

He brought them to a living room to wait, pointing at a padded bench near the fireplace for them to sit on. Once they had, he clambered up to sit in Ymir’s lap, and he did not seem to notice that she froze completely. She looked at Christa in silent panic, but Christa only smiled. The other boy returned soon after with a blonde woman, and she smiled on seeing Christa.

“I figured it was you when Ivan said he and Viktor let a pretty lady inside,” she chuckled. She smiled even more at the sight of Viktor sitting comfortably in Ymir’s lap. Bowing, she said, “Welcome to our home, your highness.”

“Hey Elsie,” Ymir replied.

“Are the pups still waking you and Johanna up because they’ve had nightmares?” Christa asked.

Her smile slipped. “They’re trying not to, but if Noelle wakes up, the boys wake up, and then they’re too scared to get back to sleep alone. Johanna and I are fine, but it’s wearing on the pups.”

“The dolls aren’t helping you scare off the bad dreams, huh?” Ymir asked. When the boys looked ashamed, she said, “Nah, it’s fine, don’t feel bad. Nightmares are hard to scare off.” She lifted Viktor off her legs and set him down gently. Taking to her feet, she said, “Show me what you’ve got in your kitchen.”

“A-all right,” Elsie said. She led the way, everyone following close behind. Ymir peered at everything Elsie showed her, taking things seemingly at random and setting them on the work counter. After Ymir waved for her to stop, she looked at the gathered items. “Are…are you making a potion, your highness?”

“No, it’s a recipe I was taught,” Ymir said. “It’s similar to a mother’s milk, so it helps pups calm down and sleep hard enough to not get nightmares. C’mere and watch.”

Elsie moved to her side to watch, and Christa did the same on her other side. It was a mixture of goat’s milk, honey, and pieces of cooked meat very finely shredded. The boys clung to Ymir’s trousers legs, standing on their toes to smell more closely. She warmed it in a pot on the stove, and then tapped the boys on the head.

“Did you two have nightmares last night?” she asked. They nodded, and she asked, “Are you really tired right now?” They nodded again, and she said, “Okay. Go grab your dolls for a nap.” When they had gone off, Ymir turned to Elsie. “Two small cups should be enough for this.”

She retrieved two cups and a spoon, filling the cups about halfway. She took a tiny portion on the spoon to taste it, brows rising. “It really does taste like a mother’s milk.”

Ymir smiled. “It makes them feel full and it’s warm, so it makes ‘em pass right out. Pretty much everyone can use it, and you don’t need to know magic.” She turned at shuffling footsteps and crooked her finger to beckon the boys closer. Elsie knelt down to offer them the cups, and they drank the milk down without fussing.

Once they had handed the cups back to Elsie, they hesitated. After a moment, they went to Ymir and Christa and held out their arms to be picked up. Christa smiled and crouched down to lift Ivan off his feet. Smiling slightly, Ymir did the same with Viktor. Viktor snuggled against her, but paused when he sniffed at her shoulder.

“How come you smell like Christa?” he asked, already drowsy.

Christa went bright red and looked at the floor. Elsie kept herself from laughing and went to rub Viktor’s back. She said, “Christa and Ymir are mates, sweetheart, like me and Mom.”

He smiled and closed his eyes to rub his head against Ymir’s shoulders. “Okay.”

Silently, Elsie guided them back to the living room. She helped them set the boys down on the bench, getting pillows beneath their heads. They were asleep within seconds of light blankets being pulled over them, cuddling their dolls and looking peaceful.

“That’s a gift as good as magic,” Elsie said, stroking their hair. “Thank you, your highness.”

“You’re welcome,” Ymir said with a shrug. “They’ve gone through enough.”

“Thank you for coming to check on them so often, your highness,” Elsie said to Christa.

Her blush returned full force. “No, you don’t have to call me that.”

“You’re not used to it at all, are you,” Elsie said, chuckling.

“I’m more used to people calling me by my name now,” Christa protested. “It’s nicer than being called a title.”

Ymir smirked. “Yeah, you’ve got a point. It’s hard on pups to say titles all the time.” She thought for a moment. “If people start calling me by my name now, I’ll probably be used to it by the time Annie’s pups come.”

Visibly startled, Elsie asked, “Miss Leonhardt is pregnant?”

“Yep. Asked me yesterday.”

Her brows rose as she smiled. “Well. With Captain Ackerman, yes? Those are going to be very fast pups.” She shook her head, muffling a giggle in her head. “Your pack has grown quite a lot, Ymir.”

“About time,” Ymir said, smiling at Christa. She turned when the door opened, and she waved casually at the brown-haired woman and girl outside. The girl hurried inside with a dead rabbit in her arms. Excited and gleeful, she went straight to Elsie and tugged at her dress.

“Mama!” she said breathlessly. “Look, look! I got one today!”

“Oh, you lovely little huntress, Noelle,” Elsie said, kneeling down. “Lady above, what a good coat! You did exactly what Mom told you, I see!”

The woman came in and closed the door gently, seeing the boys. She smiled at Christa and Ymir. “Did you manage to get them to nap?”

“I showed your mate how to make a drink to keep them from having nightmares,” Ymir said. “It’ll help Noelle, too.”

On hearing her name, the girl turned around. Her smile grew even more eager as she rushed to Ymir and held up the rabbit. “‘Mir, look!”

She grinned and crouched down. “Wow, I still remember when you were as big as that rabbit. Now look at you bringing them home to your moms. Gonna get ones for your new brothers?”

Noelle looked as thought the notion was the best one she’d ever heard. She looked to Johanna with joy. “Mom, can I?”

“Yes, sweetness, but later today. You’re tired and you need a nap.”

She pouted, but struggled against a yawn. Elsie smiled and led her into the kitchen.

“She has a nickname for you?” Christa said to Ymir.

“I helped Elsie get pregnant with her,” Ymir replied. “She’s always recognized me, which is kinda weird, and she calls me that ‘cause my name is hard for her. I didn’t feel like telling her to stop.”

“You’re very special to her, your highness,” Johanna said.

“‘Ymir’ is fine,” she said offhandedly.

“What?”

“I’m gonna try to get used to people calling me by my name before Annie’s pups get here. You can call me by my name.”

“Oh,” said Johanna. She smiled and asked, “Does the same go for your mate?”

Christa wanted to sputter, but stayed silent when Elsie came back with Noelle drifting off in her arms. She waited until Noelle was settled on the bench with her brothers before speaking quietly. “Everyone can call me by my name.”

“You’re going to be a popular queen,” Johanna said. “Especially with pups.”

“Not that you aren’t,” Elsie said, patting Christa’s shoulder. “They all love when you visit.”

Ymir grinned again. “Yeah, she’s good with pups.”

“You’re better with pups than you give yourself credit for,” Johanna said. She chuckled. “I think you’ll be fine if it’s Miss Leonhardt’s pups or yours and Christa if you go that way.”

For a moment, Ymir looked terrified. She blushed darkly, cleared her throat as softly as she could, and mumbled, “Thanks.”

Christa took her hand quickly to help stave off the anxiety she could smell rising from her. She squeezed her hand and spoke while Ymir calmed. “Let us know if the pups do better with the milk. We’re going to check on the other pups in town.”

Elsie and Johanna smiled knowingly as they left, but the way Ymir did not speak until they reached the next house told Christa something different. While Ymir did not grow short with anyone, she was silent whenever they were alone. When all the pups had been visited, Christa led Ymir to their quarters inside the castle. She made her sit on the bed before locking the door and joining her.

“Why did the idea of us having pups make you so nervous?” she asked.

Ymir stared at her. Christa smelled the stress on her skyrocket and moved closer to set her hands on her face.

“Ymir, why is this scaring you so much? We don’t have to have pups now or ever.”

“What if we have runts because of me?” Ymir asked in a whisper.

She looked at her blankly for a time. “Because of you? Wouldn’t they be little because of me?”

Ymir swallowed, but words stuck in her throat on the way back up. She tried again and managed to say, “I was the runt in my litter. My parents had five pups and I was the runt. I was always sick and never slept and I took up everyone’s time and food. We didn’t have anything to spare, and I wasted everything. So my parents did what parents did back then to runts.”

Christa felt her heart break down the center. “Please tell me they didn’t try to kill you.”

She shook her head, voice weakening. “They abandoned me at a river and told me that it’d make them much happier if I just stayed there and died. I didn’t try to follow them—I was barely a year old and I didn’t know how to hunt. And I wanted them to be happy…I did.”

Christa moved to sit in Ymir’s lap, holding her tight as Ymir shook. She did not shush her, but asked, “Is that how you met the woman who taught you everything?”

Ymir sniffed and nodded. “She found me because I was howling. I was sad and she knew what had happened without me telling her, so she took me in. I wanted to get back at my family by becoming better than any of them, and I was really good at magic. But I was such a fuck-up and I got pissed all the time. I didn’t get any better at it until I found my pack.

“Christa,” she choked, “I don’t want to do that to a pup. What if our pup is a runt and I’m a fucking awful mom to it? I was such an ass to that pup, Dale—what if I do that to our pup?”

“Then I’ll hit you as hard as I can and then take you out of the room to yell at you until you realize you’re being stupid,” Christa said firmly. “And you’ll stop. But you wouldn’t do it anyway. You’re better with pups now. You’re good with them now. I promise it’d be okay. And if you don’t believe me, just watch how you treat Matvey and Ginko.”

Ymir’s breath hitched before she hid her face in Christa’s shoulder. She clung to Christa, silent but for her sniffing. Christa rubbed her back with one hand and the back of her neck with the other. Bit by bit, Ymir calmed down.

When Christa could no longer smell distress on her, she drummed her fingers lightly on her back. “I’m scared to be a mom, too.”

“You’re practically one already with how you are around pups,” Ymir mumbled.

“Because they’re not mine. I’m worried that I’ll be distant like my mother—or like my father at all.”

“Are you gonna try to get your pups killed?”

No!”

“You’ll be fine.”

“Would you leave your pups by a river to die?”

“Fuck no.”

Christa smiled and tilted Ymir’s head back to look at her. She wiped the tears from Ymir’s face and said, “Then I think we’d be okay. Really nervous, but okay.”

Looking exhausted, Ymir returned her smile. “Thanks.”

She kissed her cheek. “You’re welcome.”

“Um. You don’t, um, want pups now, do you?”

She blushed, eyes widening. “I—erm—n-no, not right now. I want to see how Annie’s pregnancy goes so I know what it’s like.”

Ymir coughed out a laugh. “Yeah, I can’t blame you.” She sniffed again and rubbed at her face and nose. “Don’t, uh, go telling people outside the pack that I was a runt, okay?”

“I don’t think they’d ever believe me,” Christa giggled, “but I promise I won’t.” She thought. “Does that mean you were taught magic for decades?”

“Yeah. She had me eat her when I was around…I think ninety.”

She went still as a thought occurred to her. “Ymir? Were…were you there when the south burned the border town?”

She nodded. “I wanted to go dick around in the south for a while like a lot of wolves do. But I got to that town when the fires stopped.” She shrugged with no casualness whatsoever. “Couldn’t deal with the thought of humans after that. Just went into the mountains near where Annie was and stayed there being a pissed off wolf.”

“Have you ever gone into the south at all?”

“Nah. I didn’t really want to after that.”

“Then I’ll take you.”

Ymir laughed quietly.

“Not right now, I know. But we have to go at some point to take power from the king. And, erm,” she added, “to…to kill him.” She stiffened before trembling.

Her laugh grew louder. “First time you ever said it out loud, huh?”

“It was. That was liberating.”

She choked with giggles. “I fuckin’ bet.” She let out a long sigh, but smiled at Christa when she inhaled again. “You seriously promise to hit me if I’m an ass to a pup?”

“That’s how we started in the first place, remember?” She kissed Ymir’s nose. “I promise. You can do the same if I’m mean at all.”

“Deal. But right now I don’t want to do any hitting.” She took hold of the hem of Christa’s dress and started to lift it. “Can we do this instead?”

Though she blushed, Christa nodded. She let Ymir take her dress off, and returned the favor as soon as her hands were free.

————

Given that Ymir had shared the information freely, there was no fear of reprisal for sharing it further. By the evening, every single wolf in Utgard was aware of Annie’s pregnancy. The townspeople were not quite sure on how to approach her or Mikasa on the topic. It was Connie who broke the anxiety with his brazen nature. Standing on duty at the top of the stairs into town, he stopped Mikasa and Annie as they were headed out for a walk.

It had not been out of ill will. He greeted them with excitement and congratulations. Annie had been on the verge of smiling and thanking him. He had, at that point, made a terrible decision and tried to poke Annie’s belly. Mikasa’s hand shot out to grab his arm. She did not give him a chance to apologize or draw his hand back. She simply wrenched him off his feet and, ignoring his scream, threw him over the stairs and far out into the street beyond.

To Mikasa’s horror, some of the pack had come out behind them and saw the entire exchange. She turned bright red as Eren and Reiner burst out laughing, and it spread up her ears when Armin joined in. She pulled her scarf up over her face to try and hide, but the sight of Annie struggling to not laugh aloud made her bolt. She hurried down the stairs to reach Connie, facedown and stunned on the street while pups clustered around him.

“Connie?” she asked. “Are you all right?”

He grunted, lifting one thumb without raising his arm. He did not fight her when she rolled him over and sat him up. He rubbed his neck, blinking hard. “Man, I should’ve expected that.”

“I really didn’t mean to,” she said, looking down.

He grinned. “Aw, sure you did. Your mate’s got pups baking in her. I’d beat the shit out of someone if they tried to poke my mate or my pups. That was just stupid of me.”

Mikasa could not think of how to reply, still blushing painfully. A pup came forward and licked her hand. My dad said you’re gonna have pups. Is that true?

“Well—yes. Annie and I are going to have pups.”

“Ooh, who thinks they’re gonna be real fast like their moms?” Connie asked. The pups all barked, tails wagging. “Yeah, I bet so! That’ll be fun, right?”

Two pups took the opportunity to move in and lick Mikasa’s red cheeks. She laughed, and again when two more pups tackled her to the ground. Changing to her wolf form, she slipped out from beneath them and started a game of chase with herself as the prey. The pups ran after her eagerly, trying to catch her by the tail over and over.

Annie sat at the bottom of the stairs to watch them in the moonlight, leaning forward with her elbows on her knees. Not minding that others would see, she smiled fondly at Mikasa prancing around the pups. She glanced up when Reiner sat down next to her, but looked back to Mikasa. Reiner did the same.

“Know what?” Reiner said quietly.

“What?”

“I’m not nervous around them anymore,” he told her. “I didn’t think I’d ever get over it.” He laughed through his nose. “Lady Mond only knows how pissed I was about you going and bringing humans to us. But now I think we have a chance of ending the war sooner. Maybe in another year or two. We might even break the frontline in the summer now that Mikasa’s with us.”

“Do me a favor?” Annie said. “Don’t send her to fight until after the pups are born and are a little older.”

“Absolutely not,” he said. “No parent fights with newborn pups at home.”

Annie smiled. “Thank you.”

He chuckled and nudged her shoulder with his elbow. “So, early spring pups for you two.”

“Mm hmm. I’m going to ask Lady Mond to bless them on the first full moon of the new year.”

“I thought that it was the first full moon of their birth season.”

“Maybe where you’re from.”

He chuckled. “Then Bert and I will ask Lady Mond on that moon for you.”

“Thank you,” she said, touching his arm.

“Who’re you going to let hold them first?”

Annie rolled her eyes, pinching him. “I don’t know who’s more impatient about them—me, Mikasa, or you. It hasn’t been a week yet.”

“Fine, fine.”

“Besides,” she said wryly, “it’ll probably be who doesn’t get Mikasa riled up after I give birth.”

“Oh. Right.” He sighed, twiddling his thumbs. After a while longer of watching the pups chase and pounce on Mikasa, he asked, “D’you want me to step in for her so you two can do whatever you were going to do?”

“That would be sweet of you.” She crooked her finger before he stood, rubbing her nose against his when he leaned over. He changed to his wolf form and trotted over, tail high. Within seconds, he had the pups’ attention. Mikasa slipped away as he started the game over, heading back to Annie slightly out of breath. Annie stroked her head before changing to her wolf form and leading her away.

They went south, going out of town and to the edge of where Utgard melted the snow. Annie went onto the snow and lay down, looking at Mikasa and wagging her tail. Mikasa lay down behind her, curling around her to share her body heat. She followed Annie’s gaze when she looked up at the moon, bright with no clouds around it.

She licked behind Annie’s ear. What’re you asking for from Lady Mond?

Normal things. To help me be healthy. That nothing will happen until spring comes. That you don’t accidentally rip off someone’s arm when they get near my stomach.

Mikasa chuffed, thumping the ground with her tail. Can I ask her to make everyone forget that happened?

Nope. You should tell her about it if you ask for something. She likes stories about good parents. She turned and nuzzled against the red patch on Mikasa’s chest. She might give the pups hunter’s crests like yours if you ask.

I thought this was just an odd colored spot.

Colors that are that different from your main coat are called hunter’s crests. There’s different stories about why they’re those colors, since sometimes they don’t match any color from your parents’ coats.

Mikasa laughed inside their minds. Then I think I have to ask for that. She exhaled slowly. I wonder what color they’ll be. I know they’re going to be cute no matter what.

Pups tend to match one parent or the other, but it can be really different. Reiner said his parents were both gray.

Did you get your parents’ coloring?

My mother’s. Not that I didn’t like my father’s coloring, but I like yellow for my fur.

Mikasa nuzzled against her for a moment before flopping down onto her side and rolling around on her back.

Annie turned to look at her. What’re you doing?

I’m really excited.

Did you do that when you were human?

No, but I don’t know what else to do.

Annie rolled her eyes, but changed to her human form and started to rub Mikasa’s belly. Mikasa twitched once, but she quickly resumed rolling around as her tail started to wag. The longer this went on, the more Annie had to resist laughing.

Still, she snickered as she said, “I’m willing to bet that the pups will like rubs as much as you.”

Don’t you like belly rubs?

“Not as much as other wolves. I like back scratches more.”

Mikasa changed to her human form, sat up, and pulled Annie into her lap. Knowing what was coming, Annie did not complain. As the scratches came to her back, she groaned and leaned against Mikasa.

“Please do this a lot in a couple of months,” she said.

“Will your back hurt?”

She hummed to answer “yes” before setting her forehead against Mikasa’s neck. Quietly, she said, “I love you.”

Mikasa smiled. “I love you, too.”

Grinning, Annie added, “Enough to throw a person sixty feet.”

“Seventy.”

Annie laughed until there were tears in her eyes.

————

The rain returned three weeks later, and it was easy to see how the storms would be burying the north in snow. Hunting grew scarce in most every direction, and few wolves went onto the mountain to keep from overhunting the bears, foxes, and rabbits. It was with a great sense of relief that everyone looked at all that had been given to them by the rest of the country.

Most of the pack’s time was spent training with the gloves Mikasa made. She acted as Levi, using the two pieces of steel as swords. Though she protested against Annie taking part in exercises at speed, Annie flatly ignored her.

“I’ll be fine until I’m two months along,” she said. “I’m not going to sit out on this until I have to.”

Mikasa frowned, rubbing the back of her head.

“And you can’t pull your punches because she’ll know,” Bertholdt said. “She’ll hit you for that.”

Sighing, Mikasa nodded. When, hours later, they stopped for the day, Annie placated her by sitting in her lap at dinner and letting Mikasa hold her close.

“What else can you smell on her right now?” Ymir asked. “You really should be getting something by now.”

Mikasa set her nose in Annie’s hair, smelling slowly. “I’ve been able to smell young grass under her normal scent for about a week. Is that how the pups will smell?”

“Maybe,” Ymir said. “Mina can explain it way better.” She picked at her teeth, but then counted on her fingers. “It’s been a little over four weeks since she went. How long is it gonna take her to get back?”

Reiner paused in lifting his mug of ale, holding it to his chin as he thought. “It’s only two hundred and eighty miles to the frontline going straight south from here, and I think it’s another eighty to Trost straight from there. But she has to go incognito as a human once she gets past the line.”

Bertholdt, sitting next to Christa, noticed the stress coming off her and patted her on the back. “Please don’t worry. Mina isn’t Annie’s best spy for nothing. She’ll come back sooner than you think.”

“I know,” Christa said, shoulders dropping. “But ever since Mikasa showed us how Levi fights, I get worried about our soldiers.”

“Mina has gotten out of enemy territory without a problem more times than any of us,” Annie said. “We don’t have to worry about her.”

Christa nodded, but sighed as she did. She toyed with her stew, distracted by the rain noise coming through the roof. The distraction was not great enough to keep her from jumping with a shriek when something crashed into the half open door to the dining hall. They all turned to see a gray and white wolf running toward them, soaked through to their undercoat with ice hanging on their fur. They left behind bloody paw prints, and their eyes were wide with panic.

Mina!” Annie gasped. She shot off of Mikasa’s lap to drop onto the floor, arms reaching. Mina threw herself into Annie’s lap, whimpering and shaking violently. Ymir and Reiner vaulted over the table, Ymir creating massive, thick towels that she, Reiner, and Mikasa rubbed on Mina’s fur. Christa carried over her stew, setting it near Mina’s head. Mina moved only enough to reach it with her tongue, unwilling to move from Annie’s lap. They waited through her eating, getting her fur somewhat dry and moving to sit around her. Once she had finished eating, Bertholdt leaned in to touch her back.

“Mina, lady above, what happened to you?” he asked.

The only voice she could send them was strained and horrified. The bastard. I met the bastard.

“You what?” Reiner said, quiet with shock. He tried to speak further, but words failed him and he rubbed her fur even more gently.

Annie ran her fingers back and forth beneath her ears, hands steady. “Where did you meet him? In the north?”

No. Trost.

“Trost?” Christa said. “What was he doing there?”

Burning down the Renz house.

Her jaw dropped as tears welled up in her eyes. “Wha—no! Why would he do that?”

He told me the staff had caught the plague and it was his duty to burn the sickness away.

“He told you?” Mikasa asked. “To your face?”

Mina closed her eyes tightly and nodded. I came around a corner when he set all the kindling on fire. In plain view at sunset! And then he asked me why I was there and why I looked so scared!

She pressed her head against Annie’s stomach to hide her eyes all the more. He’s not human! There’s no way a human could smell like death and blood like that! And he knew! I knew he didn’t believe me when I said I was just a traveler! He followed me out of Trost on foot! I barely managed to disguise myself in the dark and get away in a town six miles away!

“Shh, shh,” Annie whispered, curling around Mina. “You’re fine now. You got away and he didn’t follow.”

I was so scared he did. I ran and ran and I kept looking back to make sure—but I couldn’t get his smell out of my nose and I thought he was still right behind me!

“Shh,” Annie said once more. She rubbed under Mina’s chin with her curled fingers. “You’re home now. You’re safe. I promise.”

Mina said nothing more, only whimpering once quietly. Reiner glanced at Mikasa, face pale. She nodded, but focused on getting Mina dry. They swapped their towels out to Ymir to have them instantly dried, finally getting her dry after many more minutes. She sat up at Annie’s gentle urging, changing to her human form for a towel to be draped over her wet hair. Her face was pale but for dark marks under her eyes, and it was clear she had lost weight. Her hands and feet still oozed blood.

“Oh, Mina,” Bertholdt murmured. He put his arms around her, letting her hide against his chest. “Our lady blesses you for your courage.”

“Hey,” Eren said. “Do you want any more food? I can ask the cooks to make you something nice and warm.”

“Yes please,” Mina said, muffled by Bertholdt’s sweater. “Thank you, Eren.”

He nodded and hurried off. Mina took another few minutes to lift her head, wiping at her eyes with the back of her wrist. She let Annie pick her up and carry her to the bench at the table. Annie settled her sideways, helping her stretch out her legs to bring her feet to Ymir. As Ymir began to murmur spells of healing, she closed her eyes slowly. She blinked them back open when Mikasa sat down behind her, but remained relaxed as Mikasa scratched her back lightly.

“Here, let me see your hands,” Christa said. She looked at the raw, bleeding flesh with a small frown before speaking the same spells of healing.

“Thank you,” Mina said quietly. “You have no idea how much that helps.”

“Gotta say that I haven’t seen a lot of wolves running so fast and so long that their body just stops healing their hands and feet,” Ymir said.

“I couldn’t stop,” Mina said.

“No, hey, I’m not judging,” Ymir said. “I’m glad you got back, okay? We all are.”

Mina nodded, blinking when her eyes burned.

Annie stroked her head. “A week’s worth of good meals and sleep will help, too. But you’re not going to the south again until the summer at least.”

“Thank you.” She sniffed to clear her nose, blinked slowly, and sniffed again. She looked at Annie and smiled. “At least you’re giving me something nice to do.”

Mikasa’s mouth fell open. “You—you’re not even that close to her!”

She chuckled. “I know Annie’s scent too well, and I did midwifing for a long time. Don’t worry.” She exhaled slowly, shoulders shaking. “I’m so glad I’m home.”

“So are we,” Reiner said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Well done.”

Mina smiled again, letting her eyes close as her hands and feet mended. She only opened them again when she heard Eren call her name from the doorway.

“So I got some shepherd’s pie,” Eren said, holding a large covered bowl on a tray. “I also,” he said, kicking the door open further, “found a guy who jumped at the chance to get off patrol early.”

Marco smiled as he followed Eren into the hall. “Hi there.”

Mina stared, but her shock quickly faded as Mikasa stood up and Marco took her place. She laughed softly when Marco wrapped his arms around her. “Eren, I’m sorry for ever believing that you’re anything but a sweetheart.” She took the tray when her hands were completely healed, eating more slowly than before.

Armin caught sight of Christa standing by, frowning at the floor with color high in her cheeks. He asked, “Am I right to assume that your staff would never risk letting the plague into your house?”

“They’d sooner burn a rat in the house and whatever it had touched,” she said, words sharp and heated. “This happened because someone wanted them to stop asking about me and you know it. I just don’t know if it was the military or the king.”

Armin hummed, rubbing at the thin beard on his chin. “There’s three possible answers, honestly. It was most likely either the king or General Erwin, but it could’ve been Levi acting on his own.”

“Mikasa said the bastard wouldn’t make a move on his own,” Ymir said. “Why would he do that?”

“I doubt he’d make a big move like coming to Utgard on his own,” said Armin, “but getting rid of an annoyance trying to rabble rouse? I wouldn’t put it past him.”

Reiner looked at Mikasa. “Think he’d do it?”

“Without a doubt. He doesn’t tolerate insubordination from soldiers or civilians.” She frowned, her hand drifting to rest on Annie’s back. With a great deal of hesitance, she asked, “Mina, were you able to deliver the letter for Jean?”

Mina put her spoon down and swallowed. “I did. Rico wasn’t very happy to give it to him herself, but she promised she would.”

“At least we got word out to the army,” Eren said, but frowned all the same. He sighed and ran his fingers through his short hair. “God, I really get why you call him ‘the bastard.’ I want to hit him at least once.”

“I’m pretty sure you’ll get the chance, sadly,” Bertholdt said. He thought a moment. “Did he really smell that awful?”

“He smelled like a demon,” Mina said, brows lowering. “Exactly like every story in the north says a demon smells like. Death and blood, and heat that tells you that he’ll make it worse in a heartbeat.”

Marco pulled her closer. “Thank our lady you kept your head on straight. I would’ve tried to attack him.”

“You’re not that eager,” Mina said, taking his hands. She was quiet for a moment before asking, “Could we not talk about the bastard anymore tonight?”

“Hell yes,” Ymir said. “Ask about Annie’s pups. That’ll make you happy.”

“It will,” Mina said. She laughed when Ymir caught Annie by her belt and made her sit down in front of Mina. “How far along?”

“A little over three weeks now,” Annie said.

Mina let go of Marco’s hands, reaching out for Annie. “Hands, please.” She examined Annie’s palms and fingers, pressing carefully on her skin. After a few swift pinches to the heels of her hands, she nodded. “You’ll be due in just about three months.”

Once more, Mikasa gaped. “How the hell can you tell that from her hands?”

Chuckling, Mina beckoned her closer. She gave Mikasa one of Annie’s hand, guiding her to rub the heel of her palm with her thumb. “Feel how it’s gotten tough here? The skin on a pregnant wolf’s hands and feet gets tougher to make sure they can bear the extra weight of the pups. You can tell approximately how long they’ll be pregnant by how tough their hands are when they’re this far along.”

Annie laughed at the baffled look on Mikasa’s face. “I told you that she did midwifing before joining us.”

“Can you tell anything else?” Eren asked.

“Not about the pups,” Mina said, “and I only say ‘pups’ because that’s what Ymir said. But Annie looks and smells healthy, so it looks like they’ll all do just fine. Oh, wait,” she said, “who won the bet on when she’d get pregnant?”

Annie smiled smugly while Ymir, Reiner, and Bertholdt pouted with various levels of intensity.

Armin snorted loudly with laughter, but hastily covered his face to muffle himself. Eren, Mikasa, and Christa did not bother with this politeness and burst out laughing. Even Marco and Mina giggled, Marco hiding his face in Mina’s shoulder.

“You bet,” Mikasa gasped, cheeks red, “you bet a-against Annie about wh-when she’d get pregnant?” She did not bother to get a reply, instead putting her head on Eren’s back and laughing even more. Christa held onto Armin’s elbow, face pressed to his shoulder while they all continued to laugh.

“To be fair,” Annie said, smiling still, “I wasn’t actively trying to get a mate, so they felt confident in saying it’d take me until I was past sixty. Bert said sixty, but Ymir and Reiner bet on past seventy.”

“Never bet against Annie fucking Leonhardt,” Ymir grumbled.

“I’ll put the gold toward things for the pups,” Annie said.

Ymir ground her knuckles against Annie’s head. “Yeah, yeah, you little smartass.”

Mina got her giggling under control to say, “All right, tell me the rest. What did you ask for? Do you have names picked out?”

“A boy and a girl,” Mikasa said when Annie did not speak. “Matvey and Ginko.”

“Very good names,” Mina said. She thought a moment. “What month is it? I lost track.”

“The last month of the year,” Marco said. “The last crescent moon is next week.”

“That’s a relief,” Mina said. “I’d hate to miss another end of the year.” She rubbed her eyes. “I’m so glad I won’t.”

Annie took her free hand and held tight. “You won’t. You’ll help me with my pups and you’ll get to tease Mikasa when she throws people seventy feet so they don’t poke me.”

Mina sputtered with laughter. “Did she really do that?”

“She’s done it four times because Connie doesn’t learn,” Marco said.

She laughed outright. “Oh, Annie, you have a wonderful mate.”

Mikasa blushed deeply, but felt no shame when Annie smiled.

“All right,” Ymir said quietly, “let’s let Mina go to bed and sleep.” She moved closer to touch her thumb to Mina’s forehead and spoke a spell. “There, no nightmares tonight. Just Marco cuddlin’ you.”

Mina smiled, all out of grateful words. She squeezed Annie’s hand before Annie let go. Feet and legs still aching, she stood slowly and held onto Marco’s shoulder for balance. He went with her, hand on her back for her to lean against if she needed it.

When they had gone and their footsteps had faded, the pack looked at each other. No words came up through the grimness that settled within them. It took minute for the silence to break, and Mikasa’s low voice was what did it.

“We’ll increase our training,” she said. “Pass on the techniques to the guards here and to the soldiers in the field. I’ll have Franz and Hannah start making gloves for bipedal wolves so we can send them to the front—as much steel as they can spare. And we’ll figure out the secret ways into the north so we can post soldiers who know what to do.

“And if he does manage to get all the way here,” she said, “we’ll kill him ourselves. Simple as that.”

Silently, they all looked at each other and nodded once in unison.

————

It took three days for the rain to stop and the night sky to be filled with nothing but the moon and bright stars. Hanji told them there were only another two days before the last crescent moon, and this sent the whole of Utgard into a rush. Every wolf, from pup to Ymir, worked diligently to create something as an offering to Lady Mond.

While most of the families in town made their offerings together, a few pups worked hard on their own. Ymir pulled Christa aside almost immediately, but struggled to even explain.

“These’re things that we make to,” she started, but faltered. She sighed and stared at the small table in their quarters. She drummed her fingers on its surface. “It’s. Fuck. It all depends on what you want to say. But…I’m not great at figuring out what to say or how to say it. I’ve been leaving it up to the others and making what they tell me to make.”

Christa took one of her hands to stop its movement. “What did they make it for?”

“We go back and forth every year, so one year it’d be an offering of gratitude and another would be an offering given as a request.”

“Well,” Christa said with a smile, “are you grateful this year or do you want to ask for a favor?”

Ymir thought. “Um. Grateful.”

“Good, because I am, too. How do we tell Lady Mond that? Do we catch her something?”

“No, we don’t leave her kills. Waste of food and she wants us healthy. We give her things we think are nice.”

Christa rubbed her thumb over Ymir’s knuckles as she considered a thought. “Is there a way we can make spells last until the moon sets tomorrow night?”

“Depends on what you want to do.”

“Light flowers. There are flowers that mean gratitude. Do you think she’d like that?”

She smiled. “Your light flowers? Yeah, I think so.” She created a long ceramic tray, deep enough that she could fit her hands to the wrists. The next spell was one Christa could not quite believe. It created an open path between Ymir’s magic and the space within the tray. The magic was neither visible nor did it have a scent of its own. When she tentatively dipped her forefinger into the tray, however, it sent a spark up her bones. She winced and jerked away.

“Yeah, I’d avoid contacting raw magic when it’s still coming out of me,” Ymir said. She rubbed her nose with her shoulder. “Fuck, ow.”

“Did me doing that hurt you?”

“Nah, you’re fine. Putting magic out of you just hurts if you do it too much or leave the path open. And before you get all worried, all it’s doing right now is stinging a lot.” She withdrew her hands completely and wiggled her fingers. “No more sting.”

She touched Ymir’s hand gently. “Well…all right.”

Ymir smirked and rolled her eyes before leaned down to kiss Christa’s head. “I’m fine. Do your flowers—they’ll last for about three days.”

Relaxing, she leaned against Ymir to plan it out. After a few moments, she began to say the spell over and over. She created deeply pink roses, tucking them all the way down to the bottom of the tray. Next came chains of agrimony, five-petalled and yellow, floating above the roses. Last came magnolias, softly glowing in white.

“Wait, I got some,” Ymir said. She added in forget-me-nots, setting them in all the open spaces and in the folds of other petals. This done, she grinned and pulled Christa to her. “Yeah, I wanna give this to Lady Mond.”

“Do we show everyone else? What happens tomorrow night?”

“We all have a good dinner together, but then we all go to be with whoever we wanna be with and we just be quiet. Don’t disturb our lady as she closes her eye to close the year.”

“I like that,” Christa said, smiling.

“It’ll be a good night,” Ymir said. “‘Cause I think Mikasa will be calm enough for me to see if Annie’s getting a bump.”

“I promise I’ll find out if Mikasa throws you,” Christa chuckled.

“Good. I wanna win that bet, at least.”

“If you took another bet against Annie about her own pregnancy, I’m not going to console you.”

Ymir pouted. “No, not against Annie. Me, Bert, and Reiner. I think she’s hiding it in looser clothes and Mikasa throwing people.”

She lifted Ymir’s hand to her face, hiding her mouth as she giggled. “Are Reiner and Bertholdt betting that she isn’t showing yet?”

“They are after Mina wouldn’t fuckin’ tell us. C’mon, help me out?”

“I will, don’t worry.” She kissed Ymir’s fingers before pulling her down for a proper kiss. Ymir grinned against her lips and lifted her off her feet to carry her to the bed.

The flowers were still bright and vibrant throughout the next day, and Christa took Ymir’s hand with a smile just as bright when they went to dinner. The rest of the pack greeted them with some delay, as Mikasa was in the middle of hurling Connie across the dining hall. Sasha went running after him, but was too busy laughing at him to catch him before he hit the floor.

“Mikasa, you’re gonna get me to a hundred feet before Annie delivers!” Connie said as he bounced to his feet.

“Are you treating this like training for her?” Sasha asked.

“Why not?” he replied. “Moms gotta be ready!”

Sasha coughed out laughter, but put her arm around his shoulders and led him back to the table. They sat on the same side as Marco, Mina, Eren, and Armin. Mina was still exhausted, but smiled more easily as Christa sat on Annie’s left side and Ymir on her left. Mikasa sat on Annie’s right, Reiner beside her and Bertholdt on his other side. She frowned until Annie scratched her back. Eren laughed and did the same with Armin.

“The pups are never going to make friends if you throw people like that all the time,” Reiner said, grinning and giving Mikasa’s shoulder a small poke.

Mikasa grunted no reply at all.

“She’ll get over it when their fangs grow in,” Mina said. She smiled fondly as food was brought to them. “You’re all going to be falling over yourselves when you see how cute they are. Little pups are always cute.”

“Just don’t roughhouse them for a while,” Annie said. “I don’t want them scared when they can’t see.”

“Say again?” Eren said.

“Pup eyes don’t open until ten days after they’re born,” said Mina. “Their ears don’t work for seven. It’s all up to their noses until then. It’s very important that only the parents are around them for those ten days—I’ll leave their quarters as soon as I know the pups are breathing and feeding.”

“Wait,” Mikasa said quickly. “You’re leaving me alone with newborn pups?”

“You’re not going to squish them on accident,” Mina said with a giggle. “Besides, you’ll be responsible for getting Annie food and letting her rest. It’ll be fine.”

Mikasa nodded, but continued to look anxious.

Annie smiled and reached for one of Mikasa’s hands. She did not lace their fingers together, instead slipping Mikasa’s hand into the front pocket of her hooded shirt. She pressed her hand flat to her lower stomach and the bump thereupon.

“You won’t feel them move for another month,” she said, “but maybe this will calm you down.” She jumped when Ymir shouted with triumph and Bertholdt and Reiner groaned. Sighing, she asked, “Did you idiots bet on if I was showing?”

“We did when Mina wouldn’t tell us,” Reiner muttered. “I don’t know why, since I never win.”

“Because it gives me a chance to win!” Ymir said. “Pay me in the morning!” She caught the piece of meat Reiner threw at her in her mouth, laughing when Christa threw a roll at Reiner and struck his nose. Her throw was so quick and so accurate that Reiner could not reach in time to catch it before it bounced off his face and onto his plate.

Annie giggled at Reiner’s dumbstruck expression. “Christa, maybe we need to make you knives, not gloves.”

“Nah, fuck that,” Ymir said. She played with Christa’s hair and said, “I’m gonna teach her spells that you can threw. Work her up to lightning.”

“If Ginko or Matvey can do magic, you’re not teaching them that,” Mikasa said.

“Who’d teach a pup that?” Ymir asked. “Pups get light flowers and stuffed toys.”

“And light quilts for coming early in spring,” Mina said. She smiled and leaned against Marco. “It’s really been a while since I did midwife work. It’ll be interesting.”

“It’ll be fine,” Mikasa said quietly, hand steady on Annie’s stomach. She smiled and nuzzled her cheek against Annie’s hair. “I know it.”

Ymir grinned at them, lowering her hand to Christa’s hip. She pulled her closer and kissed her head. Christa relaxed into her, spending the night with Ymir’s hand always somewhere on her.

Though there was levity and cheer in all their conversation that night, there was almost no loudness. No one wanted to disturb the quiet that settled in the passing minutes. When they went their separate ways, it was with quiet wishes of, “Our lady looks brightly on you tonight.”

Christa and Ymir returned to their quarters and got ready for bed. Finishing first, Christa lay on her stomach looking at the light flowers on the table at the end of the bed.

“Will she come get them herself?” Christa asked.

“You wanna see her?” Ymir asked.

“A little,” Christa admitted.

Ymir chuckled and lay down next to her. “Pray for her to visit you in your dreams tonight. She likes visiting dreams.”

“What if I don’t remember my dream?”

“Ask her to take the flowers when she leaves so you’ll know for sure.” She kissed Christa’s cheek with tenderness, pulling down pillows for the both of them. Before she pulled the blanket over them, she tossed a spell into the fireplace to extinguish the flames. All that was left were the flowers, glowing very gently in the dark.

Deep down, Christa knew it was silly to stay up watching the flowers. It was a perfect night to sleep, with neither wind nor rain to keep her conscious. The room was warm and quiet enough that Ymir fell asleep within seconds. The arm she draped over Christa’s side was comforting and steadying in equal measure.

She did not want to fall asleep without offering a prayer, but she was unsure what to say to speak to Lady Mond. The god of the south demanded formality and pomp, but it felt wrong. Christa lay there with no words as her head grew heavier. She settled, blinking, and whispered, “Iyeko.” She blew carefully, lifting an entire bundle of forget-me-nots into the air.

It floated along on the warm air left by the fire. She watched it, eyes fluttering. Her eyes widened when the flowers came to land gently in the palm of someone’s hand.

“You’ve come a very long way since you first heard of me, Christa Renz,” said a woman’s voice.

“I’m dreaming,” Christa whispered in a panic.

“Of course. I visit everyone who asks for me this night, and that includes you and all of your pack this year.” The flowers were set behind a point ear and over black hair. As Christa watched, paralyzed, the woman went to the tray of light flowers and began to weave the forget-me-nots into two crowns.

“You and the pack you’ve helped create have done a great deal for my beloved wolves,” she said. “You’ll all continue to do more. Tell me—is there a boon you want for yourself?”

Christa looked at her. There was nothing malicious in her smile or her bright gold eyes. She came around to sit lightly on the bed, and the dress she wore was the night sky and all of its stars. She set the crowns on Christa and Ymir, smiling with all the love Christa had been told was inherent in her.

“You can ask,” she said. “Though I won’t kill anyone.”

She thought. She looked at Lady Mond and asked, “Will you take away my nightmares? Forever?”

“As a reward for all your bravery? Certainly.”

“Could…you do the same for the rest of my pack?”

She smiled even more. “Of course. You all deserve good dreams.” She ran her fingertips over Christa’s brow before doing the same to Ymir. Lady Mond tapped her thumb on Christa’s chin. “It was the right thing to give you a white coat.”

“Milady?” Christa said. “Thank you for bringing me here.”

“Thank you for making so many wolves happy.” She stood once more and went to the tray. Gathering the flowers around her, she said, “Thank you and Ymir both for these, my dear. Your pack’s offerings were lovely. Now—close your eyes and rest well. You’ll have a pair of pups to help look after before you know it.”

Christa smiled and closed her eyes as the light of the flowers faded. When she woke in the morning, the flowers were gone. A tiny vague memory of gold eyes, a dress made of the sky, and a promised boon made her smile, roll over, and snuggle up against Ymir’s chest to drift back to sleep.

Chapter Text

For whatever reason, be it Sasha and Christa’s urgings or Mikasa’s warning glares, Connie stopped trying to poke Annie’s belly the moment he saw that she was showing. More than that, he grew courteous over the weeks of her second month, never teasing her or Mikasa. Christa noticed the same happening to a greater degree in the pack, and she was not immune to it.

No one spoke of it, much less agreed on anything specific. It was understood that Annie’s health and safety were the most important things to them in all of Utgard, if not the whole of the north. They did not crowd her or try to follow her around, as Annie caught Reiner doing so one day and frowned darkly. He apologized and let her be, but quietly brought Mikasa an extra bear skin for their quarters.

Christa sought out Petra, asking for help in tracking down fabric, needles, thread, and other materials for designing and making quilts. After hiding them in her and Ymir’s quarters, she went to Mina privately to ask about how large newborn pups were.

“I thought about what you told us,” she said. “I know how to make quilts—I’d love to make a pair for the pups.”

Mina chuckled. “Well, I think they’ll be a little smaller when they’re born because of Annie, but pups always get bigger pretty quickly. Your best bet is to make two quilts that are each about one third of the blanket you and Ymir have on your bed. It’ll give them something soft to lay on top of, too.”

She smiled and nodded eagerly, saying, “Thank you.” Before she left to work, though, she asked, “Is it going to be much longer?”

“No, not at all,” Mina said. “In a week, she’ll change to her wolf form and stay that way until the pups are born. That should be about another month.”

“And she’s doing okay?”

“She’s doing perfectly. Annie’s always been obnoxiously healthy.”

Christa giggled. “I hope it passes down.”

“Between her and Mikasa? They’ll be just as healthy. Now go on—they’ll be here before you know it, and you don’t want to be late with your quilts.”

Christa nodded again, hugged Mina in thanks, and hurried off. When she arrived back at her quarters, though, she jumped at the sight of Annie standing by the door. She was wearing loose, light trousers and another hooded shirt. Her hands were tucked inside the shirt’s front pocket to rest on her large stomach. She looked up on smelling Christa.

“Erm,” said Christa. “Did—were you looking for Ymir?”

“No, I made Ymir and the others train with Mikasa,” said Annie. “She was getting nervous again.”

“Oh. But why are you here?”

She smiled. “Because I wanted to visit you. And because Petra told me you’re going to make quilts and I wanted to see.”

Christa blushed. “There’s no keeping secrets from you, is there.”

“Not a chance. And your room is always warmest, so it’ll be nice if I get tired.”

“All right, all right,” Christa said, smiling and shaking her head. “Come in. I’ll get a fire going.” She opened the door to let Annie inside. As she went to the fireplace, Annie headed straight for the bed and all the materials Christa had left there. She climbed up onto the bed to examine the fabrics, rubbing them with her thumb to check their softness.

“I thought shades of green would be good for early spring pups,” Christa said once the fire was lit. She joined Annie on the bed, pointing to the different bolts of the various shades. “So things like new grass or new leaves. But I don’t know how that would work with black or yellow coats.”

“My pup blanket was red,” Annie replied. “It’s okay if the quilt doesn’t match.” More quietly, she said, “I’m happy that you’re making them quilts at all.” At Christa’s anxious look, she said, “No, it’s not something bad. It’s—come on, you’re part of the pack. Do you think any of them know how to make quilts? It’s nice that you know and you’re doing this. You’re sweet.”

“I don’t see how any of us could be anything but sweet to you,” Christa said, smiling again. “But I think Mikasa is always going to be sweetest.” She giggled at the pleased smile and light blush that came to Annie. “Why don’t you get comfortable? I need to figure out the patterns.”

Annie nodded before reaching for the two pillows at the head of the bed, arranging them to have one beneath her head and the other behind her back to support her lying on her side. She watched Christa think and sketch and hold fabrics against each other to see how their colors meshed. She did not hide her smile, even when Christa looked at her.

“You’re really serious about making these,” Annie remarked.

“Of course I am!” Christa said. “They’re for your pups! They’re going to be the most important quilts I ever make!”

Her smile grew wry. “Until you make quilts for the pups you and Ymir have.”

Christa’s blush returned full force. “Erm. Well. Y-yes, that’d be important.” She fumbled with her pencil a moment before sighing and going still. “Is it strange to be nervous about that?”

“It’d be weirder to not be nervous. I was scared Mikasa wouldn’t want pups at all. Don’t rush because we’re having pups.” She chuckled. “I think Ymir will need a lot of time to settle into having pups. You’re fine.

She nodded, scratching the back of her neck from anxiety. When Annie snorted with laughter, she realized what she was doing and put her hand in her lap. “And you haven’t picked up any bad habits from Mikasa?”

“Just rubbing the collar of my shirt when I think,” Annie admitted. “I can’t get in the habit of wearing a scarf.” She smiled fondly. “She’ll have to get used to the pups tugging on it.” She went still but for a twitch in her ears, looking down at her stomach.

“Are you all right?” Christa asked.

“I’m fine. They seem to know when I’m talking about them playing with Mikasa.”

“Are—are they moving?”

“Come here.” She took Christa’s hand when she was close enough, laying it lightly on her stomach. Christa’s shoulders rose when something moved against her hand, gentle and faint. Her eyes widened.

“Oh,” she whispered. “Lady above. Annie, that’s amazing.”

She chuckled. “That makes you, Mikasa, Armin, and Bertholdt to think that. It scared Ymir and Reiner, and Eren refuses to get near me when they move. I think he’s worried they’ll bite.”

“He’s worried about—wait, what? He has to know that’s not possible. They won’t even have fangs when they’re born, right?”

“No, but it’s fine,” Annie said. “He’ll be too scared to scare them.”

“You’re allowed to bite anyone who scares your pups,” Christa said. “Me and Ymir included.”

Annie laughed. “I wasn’t aware I needed your permission. It’d be Mikasa more often, anyway.”

“You are trying to keep her from getting really vicious, right?”

“I am, I am. She’s trying her hardest, which is why she’s training so much. Thank our lady that Reiner and Ymir are eager to help.” She stretched slightly to get more comfortable. Sounding drowsy, she said, “I wish I knew what they smelled like.”

Christa smiled and moved her hand to rub behind Annie’s ear. “You’ll find out soon. And then you’ll be begging one of us to take them so you can sleep for more than an hour.”

She smirked, even as she closed her eyes. “You wish.”

“A little. I’d like to cuddle them.” She scratched behind Annie’s ear next, saying, “Take a nap. I think I’ve got it figured out.”

Annie hummed quietly before settling with her knees drawn up slightly and one hand on her stomach. Christa smiled at her, moving back slowly to keep from jostling her. She continued on in designing the quilts, sketching until she was satisfied with the twin quilts. She moved off the bed to arrange everything on the table at the end of the bed. Measuring by eye as she was used to, she began to cut the fabric into strips, squares, and triangles.

The pieces were arranged specifically on the bed, and she tilted her head this way and that to consider them. A few choice rearrangements helped the appearance of a field stretching from dark green up into lighter shades. Satisfied with this, she stretched out a length of fabric on the floor, so deeply green it looked black, and put the pieces in place on top of it.

The same process was followed for the matching quilt, its coloring gently inverted to go from light green up to dark. She looked at them side by side to make sure they complemented each other. After a long time, she nodded at the quilts and went to take a box full of safety pins from the table. She jumped when someone knocked gently on the door.

“Hang on,” she called back, hurrying over. She opened the door to Mikasa, who was sweaty and looked exhausted.

“Hi,” Mikasa said. “Is Annie taking a nap in here?”

“Oh, yes,” Christa said, starting to step aside.

Mikasa smiled and shook her head. “I just was curious when I didn’t find her in our bed.”

“She came to watch me work on quilts for the pups.”

She stopped short in turning away. “You are?”

“Would you like to see? I’m about to start pinning.”

“If that’s okay with you.”

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

Mikasa put a hand over her heart. “I promise.” She followed Christa to the space on the floor she was using, smiling tenderly at Annie asleep on the bed. Her smile grew wider at the sight of the quilts. “These are lovely!”

“Thank you,” Christa replied with a grin. “I’m glad Petra helped me find materials. I think it’ll be soft on their paws.”

She knelt down and carefully ran her fingers over a part of each quilt. “I do too.” She chuckled and smiled at her. “We’re really lucky to have you as part of the pack.”

She blushed. “Thank you. I think we have a lucky pack.” She smiled and poked Mikasa’s side. “But I think Ginko and Matvey are going to be the luckiest of all of us because they have you and Annie for mothers.”

Though Mikasa blushed brightly, she smiled just as brightly. She quietly said, “I can’t wait to meet them.”

“They’re going to be so cute,” Christa added.

Mikasa pushed her shoulder. “Don’t make me even more impatient.”

“Sorry,” Christa said in a giggle. She moved closer slightly to put an arm around Mikasa and leaned against her. “You two will be great.”

“I’m just glad that Mina’s here to help.”

She squeezed her. “You’ll still be great.”

Mikasa smiled and scratched Christa’s back. “Thanks.” She turned when she heard movement on the bed, smiling even more warmly because she saw that Annie was awake.

“Did you need a place to nap that’s extra warm?” she asked.

“Since you were too nervous to take a nap with me,” Annie replied, smiling.

“Can I make up for it by taking a bath with you?”

“That would be acceptable.”

Christa did not bother to hide her giggles. “Oh, get going already. I should have the quilts done in a week or so.”

Mikasa nuzzled against her hair for a moment. “Thank you, Christa.” She stood and went to Annie, helping her get up because her stomach was heavy and awkward.

Christa waved at them as they left, setting into her work with even more enthusiasm. Her focus was so intense that she did not notice when Ymir crept into the room. Though Ymir did not try to hide her presence, Christa did not notice her. Amused, Ymir settled next to her and started to hand her pins when she reached for them.

It was only when her fingers bumped Ymir’s that she looked up. Ymir lifted a hand in greeting, grinning toothily.

“You are focused,” she said. “Cutie.” She looked at the quilts and said, “These’re really cute, too. Every pup should have quilts like these.”

She smiled. “Flatterer.”

Chuckling, she slid a hand up the back of Christa’s shirt. “For a good reason.”

She gently swatted Ymir’s wrist. “Not anywhere near these.”

Ymir pouted. “What about not near them?”

“Well…of course, but—” Her words dropped off with a gasp when Ymir leaned in and nipped the side of her neck.

“Then how about the bath?”

She sputtered with giggles. “Part of me thinks that you’re asking so often because you want to tease Annie and Mikasa for not getting to have sex right now.”

Ymir grinned again. “Maybe you’re a little right.”

Her giggles became outright laughter, and she held onto Ymir when she was lifted off the floor and carried off to the bathroom.

————

Exactly as Mina had said, Annie changed to her wolf form the next week and showed no intention to change back. She took to roaming the streets slowly, thoroughly checking the area nearest the castle. Every few days, she decreased the area that she checked until she was mostly inside, and she rested in her quarters more often. When Mikasa went to Mina to ask what was happening, Mina was not hesitant to answer.

“She’s nesting, really,” Mina said. “It’s making sure nothing’s getting too close to the place she’s going to have the pups.”

“That makes sense,” Mikasa said. “Will she rest more if I do it for her?”

She smiled with sympathy. “Mother wolves never let anyone do that for them, no matter how much they trust their mates or their packs.”

“That makes sense, too.” She thought, tapping her thumb on her hip, and then took a deep breath. “Is she going to let you stay near her?”

“Starting tomorrow, yes.”

“Okay.” She took another deep breath. “Then…howl for me when she wants me.” When Mina looked at her, baffled, she said, “I don’t want to make her nervous at all because she smells that I’m nervous. I’ll be fine, especially if you tell me what to do.”

She smiled even more gently than before and reached out to take Mikasa’s hands. “It’s all going to be fine. I don’t let anything happen to mothers or pups.” She chuckled. “You’re both having first-time-mom jitters, that’s all.”

“Annie’s nervous?”

“Oh, lady above, yes. She doesn’t need to be this thorough for this long. You’d be doing me a favor if you convinced her to stay closer to your room.”

She managed to smile. “I’ll see if I can.” She squeezed Mina’s hands. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Mina said cheerfully.

Mikasa accomplished it with a mixture of gentle begging and promises to check on areas further from the castle. She made her rounds in the last week of the year’s second month. She could smell the early end of winter on the wind, blowing warmer from the west. Faint traces of pollen were already on the wind; birds were coming back to the trees on the mountain.

She tended to have tagalongs on those days. Though the conversations she had with Christa and Armin were welcome distractions, she was aware that Reiner and Ymir walked with her in the hope that they could tackle her when Mina howled for her. Ten days on from starting her walks, Reiner and Ymir had followed her out to the southern edge of town, and they continually grinned at her.

“What makes you think I can’t get away from you two?” Mikasa asked.

“We just think it’ll be funny to make you frantic,” Ymir replied.

Mikasa looked at her blankly. “You realize that doing that would make me want to make sure that you get to hold them last, right?”

This made them falter and look at each other. To Reiner, Ymir muttered, “Fuck that, I wanna hold ‘em.”

He nodded. “Annie might get mad if we really keep her.” He rubbed the back of his head. “Dammit, you get kinda cute when you panic about Annie. I wanted to see it.”

“You think I’m cute when I panic?”

“A little,” he said, “and so does everyone else.”

“Yep,” Ymir added. “It’s a little weird, since you can look so damn scary.”

She pouted and kicked a clod of dirt toward them. “I won’t scare my pups.”

“We know,” Reiner said. He rubbed her back. “She’s got all the bearskins, right?”

“And a few deer pelts,” Mikasa said. “And Christa’s quilts.” She smiled. “They’ll be all set. I’m just going to get Annie more meat and pastries for me and Mina.” She meant to go back into town and toward shops, but Reiner stopped her once more by hugging her tight. She started to pat him on the back, but in the moment before her hand touched him, they all head Mina howling for Mikasa from the castle.

Reiner’s arms were instantly empty, steam billowing into his face because Mikasa had changed to her wolf form. She sprinted away, little more than a black blur. No one got in her way, and she barely realized that Connie had pulled Sasha out of the way at the top of the stairs when he saw her coming. Had she been paying attention, she would have noticed that she reached their quarters in less than a minute. She stood panting for a moment before changing to her human form and knocking.

Mina looked utterly amused when she opened the door for her. “That was even faster than I thought you could get here. Come on.”

Mikasa smiled at her and stepped inside. Annie looked at her from the nest she’d made of the furs and pelts over the weeks, wagging her tail briefly. Mikasa went to sit with her, rubbing her ears.

“Doing all right?” she asked.

I think. It hurts more than I thought.

“You’re doing fantastically,” Mina said, sitting at Annie’s back legs. She reached between them to stroke at her stomach. “All right, let’s see.”

Annie twitched after a few strokes, curling down to push Mina’s hand away with her nose. Briefly, she licked at herself before chuffing, standing, and pacing in a tight circle. She lay back down and pushed her head against Mikasa’s hand.

Her voice was moody in their heads. It’s not the most painful thing I’ve ever felt, but it’s the most uncomfortable.

Mikasa leaned over slightly to scratch her back in long passes of her nails. “Does that help at all?”

Her ears drooped as she relaxed. A little bit. Thank you.

Mina smiled and stroked at Annie’s belly steadily. “Your contractions are much harder than an hour ago, so it shouldn’t be much longer for the first one.”

Annie chuffed again, but couldn’t quite disguise her whine. Ow.

Mina laughed and patted Annie’s flank. “I’d call you a big pup yourself, but I’ve helped wolves who cried way more than you.”

Silent, smiling, Mikasa kept scratching Annie’s back, stopping only when Annie stood up every few minutes and paced around. It was after the fifth time she had done this nearly thirty minutes later that she stopped short in putting her head back in Mikasa’s lap. She lifted her head as Mikasa caught the scent of blood, wet fur, and something else.

Mina moved away as Annie curled around to get to the pup that had come from herself. With the utmost care, she tore open the sac surrounding the pup with her fangs. She chewed to close the pup’s umbilical cord, and when it had stopped bleeding, Mina smoothly scooped the mess away and into a nearby towel.

“Um,” Mikasa whispered. The pup was completely still, neither breathing nor moving, and it left her trembling.

“Hang on,” Mina said gently. “If Annie can’t get him to breathe, I will.”

Annie caught the pup’s scruff and pulled him up to bathe him with hard, fast passes of her tongue. She took care with his face and nose first, moving to his back and belly. Within seconds, he coughed once, twice, and then began to squirm and whimper.

There you are, Annie’s voice whispered. She nuzzled the pup tenderly before continuing to bathe him. My little Matvey.

Mikasa sank down onto her stomach, unable to hide her excitement. She smiled, mouth open and eyes wide. Gently, she set one finger atop his tiny paw. He snuffled at her finger and she thought she could die on the spot.

“Hi Matvey,” she whispered. “Hi sweetheart. You cute pup.” She took in the sight of his coat, solid black but for the white on the tips of his ears and tail and the crescent curve of gold around his left ear. “Just look at you.”

Can you finish cleaning him? Harder licks are best.

She looked up, nodding when she saw the newly arrived pup needing attention. She changed to her wolf form and pulled Matvey closer, cleaning him thoroughly while Annie brought the other pup into breathing and moving.

“Oh, Annie, look at her pretty coat,” Mina said fondly. “Gold just like yours.” She leaned closer to take the torn sac, looking at the pup. “Wow, twins for hunter’s crests—look at that.”

Annie and Mikasa paused. The pup’s coat was solid gold, but mirrored her brother with white on the tips of her ears and tail and a crescent curve of black around her right ear. Annie nuzzled the pup, licking more gently for a moment.

When they heard her voice, it was just as loving as when she greeted Matvey. Hello, Ginko. Sweet little Ginko.

Mina smiled, wiping off her hands. After a while, she said, “Okay, they should be good on cleaning for now. Mikasa, turn Matvey Annie’s way. I want to make sure they know who to get milk from and that they can drink. And no putting him right at her teat.”

Reluctantly, Mikasa picked Matvey up by the scruff and turned him to face Annie. She set him near Ginko, sitting back nervously. Squeaking and whining, the pups relied on their noses and wiggled closer. They bumped into Annie’s belly and pawed at it. Ginko was successful first, finding a nipple and starting to suckle. Matvey used her as guidance and latched on as well, and they settled quietly.

“Ooh, that’s lucky for you two,” Mina said, grinning. “Sometimes pups can’t find their mom. You’ve got good healthy pups, just based on how hungry they are.” She giggled. “Look at their ears twitching.” For a few minutes, she simply watched and gauged how the pups were doing. She eventually nodded and scratched Annie’s back. “Nice and easy, right?”

Yeah. She turned slightly to lick Mina’s hand. Thank you so much.

Mina smiled all the more. “For you? No problem.” She took to her feet, bundling up the dirtied towels. “All right. I’m going to go now so it’s just you with them. Mikasa, if you need help, howl for me. I’ll be here in no time.”

Mikasa looked at her, all grins and a wagging tail. I will, I promise.

She laughed. “There’s the look of a good mom. We’re all here if you need us.” She waved, murmuring, “See you in a few days for a check-up, little ones.” She slipped out of the room, not at all startled by the pack sitting very quietly in the hall in their wolf forms. They looked at her expectantly, and when she smiled at them, all their tails began to wag.

“Shh, shh,” she whispered when Eren started to prance about. “Be quiet around here for a while. Annie and the pups need rest.”

He struggled even when sending her his voice. Are they cute? At least tell us if they’re cute!

"They’re adorable,” she replied.

He bounced on his paws, looking as though he would burst. Armin caught him by the tail to keep him from charging at the door.

No, come on. If you want to be excited, we’re going outside.

Eren’s ears drooped, but he nodded and followed behind Reiner and Bertholdt with Armin at his side. Christa went to the door, but stopped a pace away. Tail wagging, she sent her voice very quietly through the door.

Congratulations.

Annie’s weary voice replied, Thank you.

This done, Christa headed off to join Ymir and the others, not entirely sure how they all would be patient for ten days.

————

Mina had never laughed harder after midwifing before. She warned the pack the first day that she would not answer any questions about the pups, as they were not hers. Much to their frustration, she would not even describe their coats.

“Midwives have no right to tell other wolves about new pups,” she told them. “Only Annie and Mikasa should get to see how excited you get when they tell you details. All I’ll tell you is if they’re healthy when I check on them for their hearing later today.”

Reiner pouted and put his chin on the table. “But it’s been a whole week! I wanna see them!”

She reached over to flick his nose. “Absolutely not. Until they open their eyes, only Mikasa and Annie will be with them. I’m only going in for the smallest amount of time I need to be in there, and if you try to sneak into their room, I will fight you myself.

He looked startled. “Uh.”

“Let’s just be patient,” Bertholdt said, rubbing his back.

“How big will they be when we can see them?” Armin asked.

“Big enough to be running around on their own, but you still have to be careful,” Mina explained. “Pups don’t heal the same way adults do until they’re twenty days old, so bumps and bruises aren’t fun for them. Be sweet to them.”

Eren grinned where he sat, squirming with impatient glee. “Little wiggly pups.”

Ymir grinned as well, but it dropped when she looked at the door of the dining hall and caught sight of Mikasa walking by in a daze. She called, “Hey!” When there was no response or sign that Mikasa was coming back, she abandoned her foot and jogged after her. Mina and Christa followed, and only Mina did not look surprised when Mikasa did not react to them speaking to her. Mikasa went all the way into the kitchen and put together a thick stew mainly filled with rabbit before she noticed Mina standing next to her.

“Oh,” she said faintly, peering at her with eyes that had taken little rest. “Hi.” She noticed Ymir and Christa as well and repeated, “Hi.”

“Holy shit, have you slept at all?” Ymir asked.

“Mm hmm,” Mikasa replied, seasoning and stirring the stew. “A little bit every few hours.”

“They’re not being fussy or crying a lot, are they?” Mina asked.

“No, they’re doing great,” Mikasa said. “Annie’s not worried about how they’re eating, and they’re not having trouble going to the bathroom if we get them started. But they’re sure loud when they wake up.”

“That’s good, too,” Mina said. “Their lungs are developing well and there’s nothing impeding their breathing.”

Mikasa smiled. “That’s a backhanded relief.” She tasted the stew, considering the flavor before adding more pepper and stirring it in slowly. “Annie’s hoping if she eats something hearty it’ll help them feel full a little longer.”

“It should,” Mina said. “You’re being a very attentive mate and parent.”

Her smile grew warmer. “I can’t be anything less for them. Ginko and Matvey started sucking on my fingers four days ago when they weren’t hungry. They know I’m their mom, too.”

Ymir grinned and rubbed Mikasa’s head. “You’re gonna make us all sick with how cute you’re being.”

She returned Ymir’s grin. “And you haven’t even seen them yet.”

“Don’t gloat,” Ymir said, punching her shoulder.

“I can gloat all I want,” Mikasa said cheerfully. “My mate just gave birth to two beautiful pups and they’re all doing great.”

Ymir laughed. “Fine, gloat. Just come tell us when their eyes work well. I want to give them those spells against illness, okay?”

“I will. Thank you.” She blinked when Christa went off suddenly, but smiled when she returned with a carrying tray, two covered bowls, and two spoons. “Thank you, too.” As she ladled the stew into the bowls, she casually said, “They really like their quilts.”

Christa blushed. “I’m glad.”

Mikasa poured the last of the stew into the bowls and covered them, picking up the tray to carry them along. She paused, looking at Mina. “Annie said to bring you back to check their ears. They look at us when we talk to them.”

Mina smiled, clapping her hands together. “Oh, great! Right on schedule! Come on, let’s take a look!” She ushered Mikasa along, shooing the others away when they tried to pester Mikasa. She opened the door slowly when they arrived, letting Mikasa go inside first.

“I’m back,” Mikasa said gently.

Annie lifted her head and waved lazily. Ginko and Matvey, having been curled up against her stomach with their quilts, perked up at the sound of Mikasa’s voice. They began to squeak and wiggle out from under the quilt. She went to them, setting the tray down and sinking to her stomach.

“Hi there, lil’ babies,” Mikasa said. She chuckled when the pups squirmed to either side of her head and flopped against her cheeks.

“Oh, look at you precious dears,” Mina said. “Already crawling a whole foot to your mom.”

Annie pushed herself upright, stretching her back. “I have to carry them back here when they try to go really far.”

“That’s good,” Mina said. “Annoying for you, but good. Always better for a pup to be adventurous.” After Annie had taken a bowl, she sat next to her to look at the pups.

Cleaned off and dried, their fur had gone fluffy, and their ears were gently folded. They batted at Mikasa’s fingers when she rubbed their bellies, but there was no sign that it was from pain. In the same moment, they noticed Mina’s scent. Wiggling to turn around, they sniffed and chirped the tiniest barks.

“It’s okay,” Mikasa said, voice calm as she stroked the pups’ heads. “That’s Mina, our friend.”

Mina leaned down to set the backs of her hands on the floor while she offered her fingertips for smelling. They went to her tentatively, Matvey stretching out his head while Ginko went closer.

“All right, I’m going to see how sensitive their ears are,” Mina said. “Just clicks of my tongue going from loud to quiet. Don’t bite me if they spook.”

Mikasa frowned, but nodded.

“Matvey, Ginko,” Mina said sweetly. When their heads lifted, she clicked her tongue loudly. Both pups jumped, and after a moment Ginko let out an offended squeaking bark.

“Very good,” Mina said. She clicked her tongue again, but more quietly. They jumped, less sharply this time. Matvey rumbled in confusion, head tilting.

“Still very good,” said Mina. “Good listening.” She clicked again, the sound level with a speaking voice. Ginko batted at Mina’s hand while Matvey rumbled again.

“Good, good.” She clicked, soft as a murmur. The pups shook their heads and yapped once.

Very good. Okay, last time.” The last click was very faint, but the pups wiggled and let out chuffs of breath.

“Perfect,” said Mina. “That’s where you want their hearing at this stage. What good pups you two are.” She smiled when Matvey mouthed at one of her fingers. “Any signs of being sensitive to light yet?”

“Not quite,” Mikasa said.

“That’s normal, though,” Annie said, swallowing another spoonful. “Mikasa, eat before yours goes cold.”

“But pups,” Mikasa said with a playful pout.

Annie smiled. “They’re getting good at sitting against you. Eat up.”

She moved slowly to keep from startling the pups, kissing their heads on the way up. She sat, legs sprawled, and started to eat. Matvey and Ginko deliberated for a moment before Ginko crawled around Mikasa’s foot to flop against her ankle as Matvey went to do the same with Annie.

“Are they developing favorites?” Mina asked.

“No, it’s been equal so far,” Annie said, stroking Matvey’s back. “If anything, they go to whoever they think has more energy at the time.”

“Aw, little sweeties,” Mina said. She watched them a moment more. “And I assume no coughing or sneezing, since Mikasa never came to get me or Ymir.”

Mikasa, mouth full of stew, shook her head and swallowed. “Not once after when they first started breathing. They’ve been really good this week.”

“Then they’re good and healthy and you two are doing great.” She stood up slowly, saying, “Same goes for the next three days. Come get me if they need help, and I’ll be back soon to check on their eyes.” She waved as she headed for the door. “See you in just three days, you two.”

The pups squeaked when the door closed, looking about. Mikasa chuckled as she set her empty bowl back on the tray and replaced its top. She picked Ginko up carefully, supporting her chest and back legs, and turned to lie down on her back with her head near Annie and Matvey. She settled Ginko on her chest, kissing her nose when she snuffled at the new scent in her mouth.

“I forgot to ask when pups start howling,” Mikasa murmured.

“Twenty days, give or take,” Annie said. She picked Matvey up to cradle him against her chest, stroking his ears. “They should start making words in their head that we can hear and understand around that time. It’ll still be another ten days after that for them to be able to change into their human forms.” She smiled when Matvey leaned up to lick her chin, rocking him slowly. “I love you too, Matvey.”

Ginko whined softly, making Annie look up. Mikasa had gone straight to sleep, looking utterly exhausted and content in the same moment. Snickering, Annie moved to lie next to her, picking Ginko up. She put both pups between them, bringing over their quilts before changing to her wolf form. They wiggled to her under their quilts, starting to feed quietly. When they were done, they burrowed under the quilts, paws tangled and noses bumping.

Annie changed back to her human form to rub their backs, humming a slow tune. Ginko hiccuped twice; Matvey licked her nose when she whimpered afterward. He hiccuped twice soon after, and she licked his nose in turn.

“You two are silly little fluffballs,” Annie said, smiling. She played with their ears. “Our little fluffballs. We love you so much.” They yapped at her, tiny tails wagging, and she breathed out laughter. “We really do.” She moved slowly, bending her legs to put her knees to Mikasa’s hip. She put an arm beneath her head as a pillow, tangling her fingers in Mikasa’s hair.

“It’ll be nice when I can trust you to not go crawling off the bed, though,” she mumbled. She put her other hand on their backs once more, humming her lullaby tune. Ginko squirmed slightly longer, but they settled for a nap soon after. Staying awake, Annie kept still. Experience had taught her that the pups grew too anxious when her scent or sound went too far from them. The first time they woke up and she was more than seven feet away, they panicked and cried for a solid hour, even with Mikasa helping to rock them. She looked up at Mikasa again, smiling at the way she had not budged an inch in her sleep.

“I can’t believe you’re finally asleep,” she whispered. “You’ve been so starry-eyed.” She stroked Mikasa’s head, too gentle to wake her. Checking the pups one more time, she relaxed and closed her eyes to sleep. True to form, the pups woke an hour later crying for milk. Mikasa, for the first time in a week, did not wake with a violent start. She flinched, opening her bleary eyes, and rolled onto her side. Practiced now, she arranged the quilts as Annie changed to her wolf form to feed them. Mikasa rubbed their backs as they ate, able to wake fully.

“Hey babies,” she crooned. “Where do you want to crawl to today? Want to see what the bed’s like?”

If you can keep them occupied on the bed while I nap there, I’ll love you even more and pay you back when they’re a little bigger.

Mikasa grinned. “I think I can.” She checked the pups’ mouths when they finished eating. She changed to her wolf form to clean Matvey’s muzzle when she saw he would not. You messy little pup.

Annie changed to her human form and kissed both pups on the nose. She picked Ginko up as Mikasa picked up Matvey, and Mikasa made sure to grab their quilts before they headed to the bed. The quilts were laid out first, the pups set atop them. They turned their heads this way and that, sniffing everywhere because they did not understand the softness under them. Matvey yapped, and again when Annie went to the other side of the bed and climbed up.

“Can you come say ‘hi’?” Annie asked, sitting cross-legged.

Ginko went crawling first, but tumbled when her legs did not move on the soft bed as she was used to on the hard floor. The whine she let out was indignant in the utmost, and Matvey went to her at once. He tumbled as well, falling into her. For a few moments, they paddled at the air. Annie shook her head when Mikasa reached for them.

“Not until they cry,” she said. “They should be okay.”

Mikasa frowned with nerves, but knelt down to watch. Ginko got her paws beneath her first, turning to lick Matvey’s ear. He used her steady shoulder to brace himself, getting upright and licking her cheek.

“Oh, you sweet things,” Annie said, smiling. “Look at you helping each other.”

They barked at the smile they could hear in her voice, tails wagging. They resumed their crawl with fervor, closing their soft mouths on the soft fabric of Annie’s trouser leg when they arrived.

“That was a new speed record for you two,” Mikasa laughed. She stood and reached out to scratch their ears, giggling when they rolled over for belly scratches. “You are fast pups. Here—come see me now. Let’s let Mommy take a nap.”

Annie smirked as the pups began to toddle back. “I’m Mommy?”

“You can pick what you want. I’ll be Mommy if you don’t like that word.” She grinned when Matvey and Ginko started to lick her cheeks.

“You can be Mommy,” Annie said as she lay down. “I’d like them to call me Mama.”

“You know that’s really cute, right?”

“It’s also really cute to imagine them calling you Mommy,” Annie replied. She scratched both pups before curling up slightly to sleep. Within seconds, she was gone. Mikasa watched her for a while, letting the pups gum at her fingers. It made her chest hurt, standing there with Annie resting so peacefully so close. Exhaustion made her small body heavy on the bed, but even asleep she had a faint smile on her face.

“Love you,” Mikasa whispered. She smiled when Matvey thumped his tail against her ear. “That’s right, I love Annie. And I love you and your sister.”

They licked her forehead, and she tickled them in thanks.

————

Three days on, Mikasa nearly fell off the bed when they all woke from a mid-morning nap and she saw that Ginko and Matvey’s eyes were open. They peered at her with light gray-blue eyes, wholly focused and alert. Ginko let out a small, curious yip.

Hey,” Mikasa said eagerly, smiling. “Hi!”

Reassured, the pups barked and took confident, albeit floppy, steps toward her. She cuddled them, rubbing her nose against theirs. Annie watched, struggling to be quiet through Mikasa’s giggles. Matvey caught her snort of laughter and turned. He hurried to her, barking with joy, and Ginko joined him in seconds. They jumped tiny amounts, landing on Annie’s stomach and chest. She laughed as they wiggled about, scratching under their chins.

“Hello, fluffballs,” she said. “Let me see your faces.”

They slid off of her obediently, looking at her as she sat up. She looked at their eyes closely, smiling at the color.

“Do pup eyes change color?” Mikasa asked.

“Not really. They might get a little darker, but these are their eyes.” She bent over to rub her nose to theirs. “Pretty little pups.”

They barked again, starting to toddle around the bed even faster than before. They climbed onto the pillows, sniffing where Mikasa and Annie had rested their heads. Matvey bounced on Mikasa’s pillow, testing it, before falling over to roll along to the mattress. Ginko crawled to the headboard, snuffling at the crease between it and the mattress before putting her paws on the headboard to stand up carefully.

“Wow, look how big they’ve gotten already,” Mikasa said. “You don’t even notice until they do something like that.” She picked Matvey up to cuddle, feeling that he stretched half down her torso, shoulders to hips, and Ginko looked to be the same.

“All right, now that they’re finally big enough for guests,” said Annie, “we should give them a bath.”

“And us,” Mikasa said. She snickered when Matvey licked her ear. “Yes, bright boy, we’re all getting a bath.” Looking to Annie, she asked, “Do you think we should go in with one of them at a time?”

“We’ll wash up first to show them it’s okay, but yeah, one at a time.” She lay down to nuzzle Ginko’s side with her nose. “Ready for a bath before you see everyone for the first time?”

The pups barked, and they paddled at the air as they were carried along to the bathroom. When they were set on the floor, they went about sniffing at everything while Mikasa slipped away to fetch towels and clothes. She sat with the pups first to let Annie soak scrub herself clean. When the pups yipped, Mikasa bent her knees and lifted them up onto them to look at the bath.

Matvey pawed at the water, ears twitching at the feeling. Ginko went to sniff it, but Mikasa kept her nose away from the water. Smiling, Annie finished cleaning off and swapped places with Mikasa. She put a towel in her bare lap for the pups to sit on, and gently pushed their noses away when they sniffed curiously at her breasts.

“Not that we weren’t clean using our tongues,” Mikasa sighed, “but I’m glad that they can see so they won’t panic when we take baths.” She groaned, rubbing her neck. “They’re still not big enough to go outside, right?”

“I don’t think so. Mina knows better.” She balanced Ginko when she stood on her back paws to look at the bath again. “D’you want to go in first?”

Ginko yapped, hopping feebly because she could not climb. Mikasa laughed, rinsing off her hair before unplugging the drain to refill it with clean, warmer water.

“Just deep enough to cover the first knuckle of your pinky,” Annie said. “Ginko, ready?” She picked Ginko up for Mikasa, and Mikasa set her down in front of her crossed legs. Ginko stared at her paws, lifting one to lick at the wetness on her paw pads.

“Okay, I’m going to turn the water on,” Mikasa said to Ginko. She plugged the drain and turned the water on slightly. She kept her hand under the water to soften the nose, rubbing Ginko’s back when the water came up to her paws. Ginko pawed at the water, and harder when she realized what a splash was. Mikasa turned the water off at the right depth, and she started to pour handfuls of water over Ginko’s back.

Ginko sat down out of shock. She looked at Mikasa with wide eyes. Smiling, Mikasa poured a handful of water over her own arm. Calmed by this, Ginko sat quietly and did not fight getting washed to her undercoat with warm water.

“Sorry,” Mikasa giggled. “You look silly soaking wet.” She unplugged the drain and stood, carrying Ginko with her. “Matvey, your turn with Mama.”

They traded places, Mikasa sitting with Ginko and a towel and Annie sitting in the tub with Matvey. He jumped when the filling water touched his paws, walking around in the water and staring at it.

“Too hot?” Annie asked. She went to adjust the temperature, but Matvey dropped down onto his belly to slap at the water with both paws. She laughed and tapped his nose. He yipped every time she poured water on him, but not out of protest. Ginko yipped back, and they had a small conversation while he was cleaned up.

“I have no idea if that’s normal for siblings,” Annie said as she stood up with Matvey, “but it is really cute.” She dried Matvey off thoroughly, letting him toddle off to snuffle at Ginko when he was dry. She and Mikasa dressed, calling for the pups to follow them from the bathroom. They scampered about, finally able to see their home.

“I’ll get Mina,” Mikasa said, tying back her hair. “We’ll probably be getting more guests soon.” She kissed Annie for a long moment before looking at the pups and saying, “Babies, be good for Mama while I’m gone for a bit.”

Annie smiled when they barked, going to follow them while they went around their quarters. She kept them well away from the fireplace and the traces of ash within it. They went to the furs and pelts on the floor, rolling around on them because they looked and smelled familiar. Annie held out her fingers for them to pounce on, catching the white tips of their tails every so often.

When the door was knocked on and she could smell Mikasa and Mina beyond it, she called, “Come in.” Matvey and Ginko hurried for the door when the latched clicked open, barking and tripping on their ungainly paws. They ran straight into Mikasa’s outstretched arms when she knelt to their height. They licked her ears gleefully, barely pausing when she picked them up and carried them back into the room.

“Hello, little ones,” Mina said as she followed in after them. “Look at how big you are!”

They finally stopped, looking up at Mina’s sound and scent. When Mikasa set them down, they looked at Mina curiously. She sat down, smiling, and patted her thighs.

“Do you want to come see me?” she asked. “Can I see your cute faces?”

They went slowly to her, sniffing her hands. They watched her hands when she lifted them, walking in a slow circle without realizing that she was guiding them through it.

“What sharp eyes on you two,” Mina said. “And a lot bigger than I thought you’d still be! You’ve got really hearty milk, Annie.”

“Thanks, I think.”

She laughed. “It was a compliment. You gave me the easiest job of my life with these two. Now we just need to make sure they don’t get anything worse than a cold or the flu.”

Annie sniffed, brow rising because she could smell people gathering in the hall. “They’ve seriously been dying to come in here, haven’t they.”

“Eren and Reiner are still fighting over who gets to hold a pup first,” Mina said.

“They’ll go last if they fight in here,” Mikasa said flatly.

Mina grinned. “What you need to do is let only two other people in at a time until the pups know the whole pack. It’ll wear them out just to meet everyone like that for only a little bit.”

Annie and Mikasa looked at each other. Annie said, “I want Ymir in here first to cast those spells.”

Mikasa smiled and replied, “And if she comes in first, she’ll bring Christa along to make sure she’s behaving the right way. I’m okay with them meeting the pups first.”

“Thank our lady we agree,” Annie said. She scratched behind Mikasa’s ear as she went by, going to the door. She opened it, but held up two fingers on her free hand when she saw hurried movement.

“Two at a time,” she said. “No more.” When she saw Eren and Reiner open their mouths, she firmly said, “Ymir and Christa first.”

Ymir and Christa stared, mouths open and brows high. Quietly, Christa asked, “Really?”

“Yep,” said Annie. “Come on. Time for them to start meeting their pack.”

They remained still for a second longer. Ymir swallowed, took Christa’s hand, and they followed Annie inside. Still, they hovered at the door after Christa closed it, holding each other’s hands tightly. Not noticing, Annie went ahead.

“Fluffballs,” she said sweetly, “we have new friends for you to meet.”

When she heard the pups bark in curiosity, Ymir stiffened.

“Nice and quiet,” Christa whispered shakily. “Come on.”

Ymir nodded, and they went away from the door. Annie sat down behind the pups, directing their attention back while she smiled. When they noticed Ymir and Christa, they went still from surprise. Christa felt her cheeks grow pink; she smiled brightly. Matvey yipped and Ginko wagged her tail.

“Oh no,” Christa whispered. “They’re so cute.”

Ymir began, “Holy fu—” She coughed to stop herself. “Um. Wow. Hey there, fluff butts.” She and Christa went to them, sitting down slowly to keep them from spooking. Matvey went straight to Christa, trying clumsily to crawl into her lap. He sniffed at her madly, rumbling in lieu of barking. Ginko went to Ymir, putting her paws on her knee and bouncing to test Ymir’s solidity.

“Oh no,” Christa giggled, picking Matvey up to set him in her lap. “You’re so incredibly cute!”

“This is Ginko, right?” Ymir asked. “Lady above, look at her coat. Just like Annie.” She nervously touched Ginko’s paws. “You cute little snot.” Clearing her throat, she asked, “D’you want me to cast those spells for their health?”

“At some point before you go,” Mikasa said. “You can play with them.”

“Uh,” said Ymir. She jumped when Ginko managed to climb onto her knee completely, hurrying to make sure she didn’t fall. “Hey, careful, would ya? You’re a baby still.”

Ginko yipped and made her way along Ymir’s leg to sniff at her chest and chin.

“She loves belly rubs,” Annie said.

Uncertain and bordering on scared, Ymir rearranged Ginko to sit in her lap. She rubbed her belly, jumping again when Ginko dropped onto her side and wagged her tail. Ymir blushed, laughed, and kept rubbing. Christa played a game with Matvey by gently catching the tips of his ears and tail and pulling her hand away when he tried to catch her. He barked, playing with eagerness and looking proud when he finally caught her thumb in his mouth.

“They’re so fast already!” Christa said. “They really will run you ragged!”

“Probably a little,” Mikasa admitted. “But for now, it’s just cute wiggling.”

“When can they eat proper food?” Ymir asked, looking at Mina.

“Once they get their baby fangs,” Mina replied. “Which should be at about thirty days old. They’ll be ready come out of this room at…maybe twenty days? They’re good and big already.”

“That’ll be exciting,” Ymir said, playing with Ginko’s paws. “There’s a lot of things for you two to go outside. And it’s spring, so it’s even better.” She smiled fondly. “You lucky little things. Everyone to love you…even me.”

No one said anything of this. Christa and Annie smiled without looking at her, and Mina and Mikasa followed their lead. Ymir murmured the spells to keep Ginko from contracting the worst illnesses for wolves, smiling wide when Ginko licked her knuckles.

“Matvey,” Ymir said. “Wanna come here?”

He barked, and again when Christa lifted him out of her lap. He went to Ymir, tail up and eyes bright. She scratched behind his ears with both hands, murmuring the spells again. When she took her hands away, he shook his head hard enough to make his ears flap. Eagerly, he climbed up onto Ymir’s leg to put his front paws on her chest.

“Oh no!” she said dramatically, tipping backward. “You’re too heavy!” She settled on her back. Though her intention was to go still, Matvey and Ginko rushed to lick her ears thoroughly. Ymir jumped, unable to keep herself from laughing.

“S-stop!” she giggled. “You brats—stop! That tickles!”

Mikasa spun neatly around, clamping her hands down over her mouth to keep her laughter contained. Annie, Christa, and Mina laughed outright, and Ymir did not look embarrassed when she managed to sit up.

“Hey, keep some of that energy for the rest of the pack,” she said, pushing on the pups’ noses. “You’ve got four more people wanting to see you.”

The statement only served to make the pups more eager. They went to Annie, whining and pleading with their eyes. Annie sighed and shook her head helplessly.

“Now that you’ve gotten them all worked up,” she said, “I guess it’s time we switch out visitors.”

“I think you should let Reiner and Eren in,” Christa said. “They look like they’re on the verge of exploding.”

Mikasa coughed, composure finally regained. “I think Armin is all right going last. Will Bertholdt be okay with it?”

“Our peacemaker?” Annie replied with a smirk. “I think so.” She crouched down to pat Matvey and Ginko on the head. “Say ‘bye to Christa and Ymir for now, and I’ll go bring more friends.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, they bounded back to Ymir and Christa, standing on their feet and barking. Laughing, they knelt down to rub their noses against the pups’ for a few seconds. As they went back to the door with Annie, they waved, and they were unhappy to go when the pups barked a goodbye.

“All right,” Annie said when she had opened the door and Ymir and Christa had stepped out. “Reiner, Eren, you can come in as long as you don’t freak out. If you scare them—”

“We can say goodbye to our hands,” Reiner and Eren chorused. Reiner said, “We promise we won’t. Please?”

“Pretty please?” Eren added.

She sighed, smiled, and gestured for them to follow. They went into the room slowly, mindful of every step. When they saw the pups, playing at a game of tag with each other, they drew a faint breath. Within seconds, Matvey caught their scent and turned to look. He went stiff a moment, tail puffing up, before whimpering and hurrying to hide behind Annie’s legs. Ginko did the same, huddling next to Matvey.

Annie snorted with laughter, and again when Reiner and Eren looked crestfallen.

“No, no, it’s okay!” Mina said quickly. “You two are the first male wolves they’ve met, and you look and smell really different! Come on, just move slowly and use sweet voices for a bit.”

While Reiner looked uncertain for a moment, Eren started forward with slow, even strides. Very soothingly, he crooned, “Matvey…Ginko…who’re cute little pups? Brave pups want to say hi?”

Ginko peeked out from between Annie’s ankles. She sniffed carefully, watching Eren approach. She whined again and looked at Mikasa.

“You’re all right,” Mikasa said. “This is my brother, Eren. He’s your uncle.”

Eren sat down at a slight distance, smiling with his brows high. “Wow, look at you fluffy things. D’you want hugs or tummy rubs?”

It took a bit, but Matvey and Ginko crept out together. They padded to Eren and sniffed his fingers. Ginko chuffed and looked quickly to Mikasa before moving closer to sniff Eren’s arm. She licked his elbow before climbing into his lap.

“Aw, do I remind you of Mikasa?” he asked, grinning. He scratched both pups and said, “And I bet Reiner will remind you of Annie.”

Reiner moved closer at this, smiling tentatively when Matvey noticed him. “Hey, little guy. Can I sit with you?”

Matvey stared, rumbled, and sat down smartly. He looked at the space before himself, at Reiner, and again at the space before himself. Reiner chuckled and sat before him. Matvey moved a pace closer, paused to bark, and repeated this until he could sniff Reiner’s hand without stretching. He caught Reiner’s forefinger in his mouth and held it thoughtfully. Satisfied by something unapparent to everyone else, he let go and tried to crawl into Reiner’s lap. His legs proved too large, and Reiner picked him up to sit him on his thigh.

“Now you’re tall,” Reiner said. “When you’re big enough to get shoulder rides from Bertholdt, you’re gonna be huge.”

“When do they get to go outside?” Eren asked, playing with Ginko’s ears. “Like out to the forest?”

“Not until they’re a month and a half,” Mina said. “They’re big now, but they have to be a certain age or they could get sick with something. You’ll get them running around the halls soon enough, though.”

Mikasa paled. “Can we block off some parts of the castle?”

Mina laughed. “I told the others, but once they get to twenty days, their bodies start to heal at the same ratio as adults. Bumps and cuts won’t even faze them.”

“That’s what makes me nervous,” Mikasa said.

“They’ve got a whole pack looking out for them,” Reiner said, scratching Matvey’s back. “We’d all sooner sacrifice our hands before letting them really get hurt.” He looked up at her and smiled. “I’ll do whatever it takes to keep your pups safe. You don’t have to worry.” Matvey barked softly; Reiner barked back.

Annie smiled at them. “We trust you.”

Reiner grinned, and then chuckled when Matvey yawned so widely he tipped to one side. “You two are still itty bitty, huh. Already getting worn out.” He rubbed Matvey’s head gently. “Guess we better let you meet Bertholdt and Armin before you conk out.”

“I’d say I’m gonna sneak them out of here into my room,” Eren said, “but I think I’d lose my right to be an uncle.”

“You would,” Mikasa said.

He stuck his tongue out, but drew it back and leaned down to kiss Ginko’s head. “Okay, cutie-pups, we’ll let you visit Armin and Bertholdt.”

Reiner nuzzled against Matvey’s head. “We’ll come back soon.” He and Eren picked the pups up to move them slightly, and they struggled to not feel dejected when they stood up and followed Annie to the door. They stepped outside, and Armin and Bertholdt tentatively stepped in. Both pups gaped at the sight of Bertholdt, running behind Mikasa immediately. She crouched, laughing, to rub their backs.

Bertholdt smiled, moved closer, and then slowly lay down on his front with his hands out and palms up. He said, “Am I less scary this way?”

Matvey leaned around Mikasa to peer at him. He barked once.

“Hello,” Bertholdt said pleasantly. “You’re a brave pup, I see.”

Matvey rumbled faintly, but Ginko made her way to Bertholdt. She sniffed his cheeks and brow before getting onto his arm and using it as a step up to his back. She trotted around on him, marveling at the hight and width of his back and shoulders. She sat on one of his shoulder blades and wagged her tail.

“Well, I’m not as large as Bertholdt,” Armin said as he sat down, “but I have it on good authority that I’m very good at hugging.”

Yipping once, Matvey went to him. He put his paws on Armin’s knee to stretch up into Armin’s hand for pets. After a moment of this, he climbed into Armin’s lap and sat down to receive a hug.

“Mikasa, how is he so fluffy and cute?” Armin asked, holding Matvey close. “I thought I had an idea of how cute they’d be, but—can I steal them?”

“No, because you’d lose your right to be an uncle,” she replied. “Eren wanted to do the same thing.”

He sighed, but there was no real sadness in the sound. “I’ll settle for hugs and helping to teach them to read later.”

“It’ll definitely be later,” Bertholdt said, “because I think Ginko just started using my head for a pillow.”

“She did,” Annie said. “I guess you’re that comfy.”

He smiled and kept himself from chuckling. “Looks like our visit is the shortest, Armin.”

“You can come in first next time,” Mikasa said.

“It’s all right,” Armin replied. “Today is just for hellos.” He hugged Matvey closer for a second more. “I’m glad to meet you, little guy.”

Matvey yipped and wagged his tail. He let Armin set him down on the pelts, and Annie moved in to lift Ginko off of Bertholdt. Armin stood and hugged Mikasa tightly.

“Congratulations,” he said. “They’re adorable sweethearts.”

She grinned and hugged back. “Thank you. You’ll see them again soon.”

He and Bertholdt smiled at this, and they waved to the pups before heading out with Mina. For a short time, they all stood in the hall outside the door, smiling massively with glee. Without speaking, only waving briefly at each other, they went off in their usual pairs. Ymir walked with her arm around Christa’s shoulders, and Christa toyed with her fingers.

“Interested in pups now that you’ve seen how stupidly cute they are?” Ymir asked.

Christa hid her giggles and blushing face in Ymir’s hand. Taking a deep breath, she said, “Let’s talk about it more in the fall.”

Ymir smiled, kissed Christa’s head, and murmured, “Sounds perfect.”

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

Mama!

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

Mama! his voice said again, clear and bright.

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

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

Mommy? said her voice, warm and smooth.

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

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

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

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

She looked at him blankly.

“What about ‘uncle’?”

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

Eren barely managed to not squeal aloud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open!

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

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

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

Ginko sat down and lifted one paw proudly.

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

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

Open!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They whimpered one more time, nodding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They wagged their tails cautiously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

Can we go look?

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

He plunked his rear down and howled with moodiness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi Mommy,” Matvey echoed.

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

“Can we go outside now?” they chorused.

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

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

“Just outside!” Ginko said.

“Please, Mama?” Matvey added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can we go play?” Matvey asked.

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

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

“All right,” Annie sighed.

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

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

“Please!” they said.

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

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

“Hi!” Ginko and Matvey said brightly.

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

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

“Hi!” Ginko and Matvey said again.

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

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

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

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

“What’re your names?” Viktor asked.

“Matvey!” he replied.

“Ginko!” she said.

“Hi!” they said together.

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

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

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

Mikasa and Annie blushed and looked down.

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

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

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

“Can we play first?” Matvey asked.

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

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

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

“They can come with us in a month.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am, sir.”

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

“No sir. I’m afraid I have bad news.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?” Mikasa asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Annie shook her hand. “Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We gotta not cry.

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

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

The pups replied, Okay, Mama.

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

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

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

“Is he a wolf?” Ginko asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The light flowers, I remember.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Promise you’ll do that?”

They nodded, saying, “We promise.”

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

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

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

“Mikasa?” a man’s voice called through the trees, wavering and lost.

Mikasa went still, eyes widening. She glanced at Eren and saw his startled expression. Mouth going dry, she kissed Matvey’s forehead, wrapped her scarf around him, and whispered, “Stay here.” Rising to her feet, she cast the spell to make her ears appear rounded. She headed in the direction of the man’s voice, reaching the edge of the clearing as a man her height stumbled out of the forest.

He was scruffy, unshaven for days and his hair in need of a cut. His garb was southern military, heavy black trousers, tall boots, and a brown leather coat over a shirt, but everything was filthy and peppered with tears and holes. He looked at Mikasa blankly for a moment before smiling in relief.

“Mikasa!” he gasped. “Oh thank God! I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”

“Jean?” she said.

He blinked before hastily saluting her, right fist over his heart. “Lieutenant Jean Kirstein reporting, Captain Ackerman! I’ve come to bring you home!”

She stared at him. “You’re what?”

“I—Mikasa, you’ve been gone nearly a year! You need to come home!” He reached for her hand, but she pulled away.

“How did you get here alone?” she demanded. “Who led you here?”

Jean laughed tremulously. “I—the whole battalion helped me! We’re all worried, even about your asshole brother!”

Mikasa snarled, grabbing his shirt with one hand. “You are not allowed to lie to me, Kirstein! We haven’t gotten a single report of southern troops on our land all summer! Tell me how you got here!”

Growing pale, Jean blinked rapidly. “I—I—Mikasa, I’m here to help!”

She opened her mouth, but went stone still when two hands took her free one. Heart pounding, she looked down and saw Matvey looking up at her.

“Mommy?” he asked in a voice made soft by fear. “What’s wrong? Why’re you yelling?”

Mikasa let Jean go, dropping to one knee to look Matvey in the eye. “Go back to everyone else now, Matvey. Please.” She pushed him gently, standing to look at Jean. Jean, however, stared at Matvey. Sweat built on his brow and his eyes widened.

“Run,” Jean whispered.

“What?”

He tried to push her back, to turn her around, all the while saying, “Run. Run—take the kid and run!”

She did not let him move her. Her blood grew cold. “Jean, please tell me you didn’t—”

“Kirstein.”

Mikasa stopped breathing because she recognized the low voice that came from behind Jean. She pushed Jean aside, but could move not further when she saw the man that stood leaning against a horse in the shade. His scent began to creep back into the world, burning and thick with iron. She finally understood what it was to smell death, so much like flames and ash mixed into blood. Her feet somehow remembered to move as the man started forward.

As soon as Matvey caught the scent, he grabbed Mikasa’s hand with a whimper. She turned, but her gaze rose on catching movement in the branches overhead. Her heart fell when she saw light gleaming on metal, but she raised her voice to shout, “Necks!”

Soldiers cast off all spells of illusion and stealth as they leapt out of the trees, swords drawn. Annie grabbed Ginko when she tried to hide against her, throwing her into Christa’s arms. She dropped onto her front, crossing her arms behind her neck. A man landed on her back, cracking her spine and driving two swords through her bent arms. It pierced her upper and lower arms, pinning her with no leverage.

Reiner and Bertholdt were knocked to their backs by two men each. Their legs were stabbed at the knees, and their arms were locked with swords through their upper arms and shoulders. Ymir was assaulted by three soldiers. While one disabled her legs and another locked her arms, the third thrust a sword into her mouth when she tried to cast a spell. She bit down on the blade to stop it, but could not let go.

Eren and Armin were held at sword point and kept from standing. Christa did not have a blade aimed at her, but she had to keep Ginko from struggling out of her arms.

“Mama!” Ginko sobbed, reaching for Annie. “Mama!”

“Ginko, don’t move!” Annie said, grimacing at the twist of a blade. “Stay there! I’ll be okay!”

Matvey did not move or speak, barely aware that Mikasa was trying to urge him away. It was only when Mikasa shook him hard that he came out of shock, but he could not help but clutch her hand and follow her as she stepped away from the man coming toward them.

The man was short, his hair and rough beard gray. He wore a dark green cloak over boiled leather armor that looked black. He wore a sword on each hip, and he sneered at the clearing as a whole.

“Why did you try to warn her, Kirstein?” the man asked. “Got a sentiment hard-on for your old captain?”

“N-no, Corporal,” Jean said, lifting his hands.

“Then why?” He directed his sneer at Mikasa. “You’re a traitor and you still gave me more than this piece of shit. I’ve got the whole pack now.”

Jean grimaced, eyes closing, and rushed to say, “I warned her because there are children here, sir!”

Levi inhaled and exhaled slowly. “Your point?”

“I—I thought we should let hem go.” He swallowed hard and reached down to push Matvey away from Mikasa. “Go, kid—go on and leave the adults alone.”

Christa adjusted her grip on Ginko to hold out a hand to Matvey. “Sweetheart, come here. It’s okay—come here to me.”

Matvey stopped breathing. He looked around, legs stiffening because he had never smelled anything like the blood and pain and fear. He gulped down a breath when Ginko said his name through tears, and he started to creep toward her and Christa.

“Corporal, are you serious?” the man on Annie’s back asked. “They’re little hell spawn. Kill ‘em before they get big.” When Annie snarled violently and tried to throw him off, he stomped on her back and twisted the blades in her arms. She continued to fight, eyes growing panicked.

“They’re children!” Eren shouted, only stopped by Armin holding him back. “You can’t do that to them!”

“Corporal, please, don’t do this!” Armin said. “They’re completely innocent! God casts judgment on those who harm the innocent—you know that!”

“Kill the little runts and be done with it, Corporal,” said the man holding the blade in Ymir’s mouth.

“Don’t touch them!” Bertholdt roared, straining against the swords holding him. “Don’t!” Near him, Reiner struggled just as much, but he could not speak for fear.

Matvey struggled not to listen and to not look at the soldiers surrounding them. He focused only on Christa and Ginko, inching closer to Christa’s outstretched hand. He only looked at her and her unwavering gaze. Still, he could not help but to stop in his tracks when the man bellowed, “Shut your mouths!” Matvey turned as footsteps came toward him, looking up to find the man staring down at him. His eyes widened; fear filled his spine with ice.

“Wolves beget vengeance,” the man said. “Pups are worst. Their lives end here.”

All the blood left Mikasa’s face. She rushed forward, reaching out with her left hand. She grabbed the man’s shoulder, pulling him away from Matvey as she said, “Levi, those are my children!”

Levi’s eyes twitched, his body moving. Mikasa barely realized that he had drawn one sword and sliced off her left forearm. It had only begun to hurt when Levi moved again. He spun, one leg rising up to slam hard against the side of Mikasa’s head. She hit the ground face first, stunned blind. She pulled what remained of her left arm beneath her, but before she could start to get up, Levi stomped down on her head hard enough to crack her skull. Mikasa went limp.

Mommy!” Matvey and Ginko screamed. Matvey ran to her as Levi stepped away, dropping to his knees and shaking her shoulder desperately. Tears running down his face, he said, “Mommy, get up! Please get up!”

“Your mother was pathetic,” Levi said. “All of you are. So distracted by your little half-breed asses that you never noticed us hiding above you the entire morning.” He sighed, long suffering, and cracked his neck loudly. “Let’s make this fast, shall we?”

Matvey turned to him, scowling to show his fangs. “Stay away! I’m not gonna let you hurt her again!”

“Who said anything about her?” Levi replied. He began to lift his sword.

Christa put Ginko on the ground, shot to her feet, and shouted so loudly that everyone froze. “Corporal Levi! I order you and your troops to lay down your swords and surrender immediately!”

A few soldiers began to do as she said before Levi glared at them. He turned to face Christa, brow raised. “Who’re you?”

“Christa Renz,” she said.

He snorted. “Oh. You. The little pain in my ass noble.”

“My real name is Historia Reiss,” she shot back. “I am the only living heir to King Rhode Reiss, and I am the rightful princess of the south. My word is royal law, and you will lay down your sword.”

Levi looked at her with a lazy tilt to his head. “Did that wolf from Trost make it all the way back here after she got away?”

“She did.”

“She tell you what I was doing in Trost?”

Her hands closed into fists. “You burned down the Renz house.”

“And all the people inside,” he said, and he began to walk toward her. “I know who you are, Princess Reiss. Erwin and I knew from before you were sent here in the first place. It was Erwin who suggested that you bring that ‘treaty.’”

“But you and my father sent me and Mikasa here to die.”

“Smart little bastard, aren’t you. And now I finally have the order to kill every last one of you, signed and sealed by the king himself.” He stopped near her, sneering again. “So what is it? Slaves to wolfen pleasures? Cowardice making you bend over for them and beg for more?”

She smiled coldly enough for his sneer to falter. “Is that what makes you so loyal to General Erwin? Or is it my father you bend over for?” She flinched when he slashed a deep line into her cheek, clapping a hand over the wound.

Levi showed her the blood on his sword. “This is why I do it, Princess. Every drop of wolf blood on the ground cleanses the world of them a little more. The blood of traitors like you is just as good.”

“I see,” Christa said, and she saw Mikasa’s left shoulder twitch behind Levi. “Then Lady Mond will be sure to take away your hunting grounds when you die today.”

Though he had started to turn away from her, he stopped and turned back. “They’ve even got you believing this pagan shit? There’s only one God in the world.”

“Our lady is completely real,” Christa said. “She may have given us our greatest blessing by letting you get here.”

“How’s that?” he drawled.

She smiled. “Who better to kill you than us? You won’t leave the north, alive or dead.”

He gestured to everyone else. “Who do you expect to do that? Ackerman’s dead and I’ve got every other useful person pinned down. Shut your mouth and wait your fucking turn, Princess.”

Christa’s smile widened when he turned away and headed back toward Matvey and Mikasa. Matvey stood up before Mikasa, arms spread in a defiant shield. Before Levi raised his sword, Christa said, “Gandrilé.”

Levi spun in time to see Christa lift a hand filled with lightning. He moved to dodge, but Christa threw the bolt in a different direction. Her aim was true, the lightning striking the head of the man holding a blade in Ymir’s mouth. He shrieked, skin and hair burning as his eyes boiled and burst. He stumbled away to die, letting go of the blade. It fell out of Ymir’s mouth entirely.

Fury filled Levi’s face, even as he went pale. “Don’t let her speak!”

Ymir grinned as the men pinning her scrambled, drawing their swords from her body. She shouted, “Dloh koryoe!” The men shrieked as well when their skin ignited, and their shrieks stopped abruptly when Ymir stood up and broke their necks. She turned to Levi, wounds steaming and healing quickly.

“You want me that bad?” Ymir said. “Then you better fuckin’ catch me!” She turned, changing to her wolf form and sprinting away.

No!” Levi bellowed. He whistled to his horse, sheathing his sword, and climbed up into the saddle when it arrived. “Kill the rest of them! I’ll get the bitch queen!” He rode off, spurring the horse and snapping the reins. While all eyes were on Levi, Matvey sprinted to Christa. She held him and Ginko close, and they clung to her.

“Mikasa!” Christa said. “I’ve got Matvey and Ginko now! Get going!”

“Shut your fucking mouth!” one soldier shouted. “You just killed one of ours!” He drew his sword, meaning to move forward. He stopped when a low, horrible rumble rose in the air. They all turned to stare at Mikasa as the rumble grew louder and became a full-fledged growl. The soldiers gasped when Mikasa shifted, and again when she pulled her left arm out from beneath her. It had regrown, and it was patchy with fur. Her fingers were too long to be human, and they were capped with steaming claws.

She was on her feet in an instant, but off them just as quickly as she leapt at the man on Annie’s back. She grabbed his head, bringing it into her knee hard enough to cave in his skull. As the man dropped, she took the swords from Annie’s body. She turned to face the men holding Reiner and Bertholdt. Her lips pulled back, showing that all her teeth had become fangs. There was no white left in her eyes.

Before the men could falter at her rage, she sprinted at them. Whirling with a sword in each hand, she cleaved through one man’s throat so deeply that his neck broke on impact and let her cut his head off. The next man’s spine stopped the blades, but Mikasa kicked him off of Reiner and pulled out the swords holding him down. She did not bother to take them with her when she charged at the men holding Bertholdt.

One soldier had presence of mind to slash at her, but she dodged and smashed her knee into his hip to break it. He fell straight into her grasp, unable to fight when she cracked his head open on her other knee. The last soldier tried to run, but she grabbed his coat, heaving him up and over herself to drive him headfirst into the ground. His neck snapped, and she let go to take the swords from Bertholdt.

Armin and Eren, taking the chance, changed to their bipedal forms to tear out the throats of the men pointing swords at them. As Reiner and Bertholdt changed to their wolf forms and gave chase to Levi, Mikasa ran to Annie and helped her up as her spine finished healing. Mikasa gestured to Eren and Armin, and they ran in their wolf forms while Annie kissed Matvey and Ginko’s heads.

“Do exactly what Christa tells you,” Annie said.

They nodded and held tighter to Christa.

“Annie, go,” Christa said. “We’ll be fine.”

Annie kissed Matvey and Ginko one last time, whispering, “I love you. We’ll come back.” She changed to her wolf form and ran after the others.

Mikasa knelt to kiss the pups as well. “Keep my scarf warm, Matvey.” He nodded, and she said, “I love you both. Be brave.” She stood and said to Christa, “Ten left, not counting Jean. Run if you have to.”

Christa smiled and shook her head. “We’ll be fine. Go help Ymir.”

Mikasa turned to the soldiers, eyes landing on Jean. “Kirstein, if you so much as touch my children, I will eat your heart.” She changed to her wolf form and set out at a run that left her a blur.

“I want you two to stay behind me,” Christa murmured. “I won’t let them near you.” They moved as she told them, and she looked at the remaining soldiers without fear.

“Try that magic trick again, you little bitch,” said one soldier. “I promise you won’t get a third chance.”

“I won’t need magic like that,” Christa replied.

“What, are you gonna pick up a sword?” another spat.

“I don’t need anything like that, either,” she said. “I can kill you all without one.”

Her casualness made one man snap. He drew his sword and ran at her, bellowing the whole way. Christa changed to her wolf-woman form, arm long enough to grab the man’s wrist before his sword reached her. She snapped his wrist and pulled him in as he howled. One hard bite ripped out his throat, and she threw the corpse aside with ease. She let his flesh drop from her jaws.

“Who wants to be next?” she snarled.

————

Mikasa ran hard to catch up to the others, following their scent. Levi’s reek was thick in the air, as well as that of his horse. Ymir’s scent was almost completely buried beneath these, but there was no sign of her blood. She caught up to Reiner and Bertholdt first, passing them, Armin, and Eren to reach Annie at the head of the pack.

Is everyone healed now? her voice asked.

Just fine! Reiner replied.

Good! We need to get Levi off his horse! It’s battle-trained, so it won’t throw him if it’s scared! Eren, Annie, I want you to break its back legs on my signal! I’ll get its throat while Levi’s looking at you!

I managed to get a reply from Ymir before! Armin told her. She’s starting to zigzag to let us catch up!

All right! Stay ready for my signal! She increased her pace, and Eren and Annie did the same. When they could hear the horse’s galloping hooves, Mikasa veered away from the path and ran even faster. As she vanished in the trees, Eren and Annie focused on the horse’s gait.

We go on when the back feet are on the ground! Annie told him. Stay out of his reach no matter what!

You on the right, me on the left! Let’s get him! They kept their heads low, watching for the horses’s hooves. A curve was turned and they finally caught sight of Ymir and Levi. Ymir was keeping out of Levi’s range, but shot from side to side to make the horse’s gallop shorter than it could be. She gave no sign that she knew they were there, but she did not smell of fear.

Now!

Eren and Annie bared their fangs and surged forward. With no room to spare, they each caught one of the horse’s back legs without being kicked. Levi swore as the horse whinnied and came off its front legs in panic, and they twisted their heads to break the horse’s legs.

“You pieces of shit!” Levi shouted, starting to turn in the saddle. He stopped when the horse jerked suddenly and started to drop down. Turning back let him see Mikasa rip out a chunk of his horse’s throat with her fangs, but she leapt away before he could draw a sword. The horse fell as it died, but Levi jumped out of the saddle to keep from being dragged down.

“I liked that horse, bitch queen,” he said, taking off his cloak. He stared when he realized there were two wolves with black fur. His brows lowered at the sight of the pack as they arrived. “Those useless fucking idiots.”

Ymir changed to her human form, smirking despite her heavier breathing. “You’re not that useful yourself, asshole.”

Mikasa changed to her human form, taking pleasure in his shock. “You probably should’ve gone for my throat, Corporal.”

Levi sighed through his nose, glancing at Armin and Eren as they changed. “Unbelievable. Your treason even goes against God now.”

“I’m really sure God wouldn’t want you to kill kids,” Eren said. “So you can fuck off about betrayal.”

Levi rolled his eyes and drew both swords. He watched Mikasa take the clawed metal gloves off her belt and pull them on. “What the hell is that?”

“Try to cut me again,” Mikasa replied, watching Annie pull on her gloves as well. “You’ll find out.”

His brow rose. “You get a little metal in your hands and you think you’re tough shit, huh?”

“I don’t see you trying to cut me again.”

The muscles in his neck corded for a moment before he dashed at her. Months of sparring with Annie and Ymir made her ready for his speed, and she caught the swords he swung at her side. The metal of the gloves stopped the blades completely, leaving Mikasa unharmed. Levi did not stop to look surprised, instead twisting to reverse his movements. He sprang up to aim a kick at her head with both legs. She swayed to dodge, and he turned his fall into a roll as he slipped his swords free.

Reiner lunged in his wolf-man form to try and catch Levi with his head down, but Levi was on his feet too quickly. He ducked under Reiner’s hands and smashed his boot into Reiner’s ribs. Snarling, Reiner ignored the pain and swiped at Levi’s chest. His claws only managed to scratch lines into the leather; it felt more akin to clawing at metal. He jumped back when Levi slashed at his head. When Eren and Armin in their wolf forms tried to catch Levi’s legs while he was still, he jumped away from their fangs.

Bertholdt was there to greet him, aiming a punch at the back of his head. Levi ducked and spun, swords heading for Bertholdt’s exposed side. Annie tackled him in her human form before he could land the blow, but he twisted in her grasp the moment they hit the ground. Arms out to either side, he swung in to cut through her neck. With her gloves on, she was able to stop the blades.

Levi wrenched upright and snapped Annie’s nose with a vicious headbutt. She reeled, coughing on the blood that flowed down the back of her mouth. Mikasa and Ymir shot forward in their human forms as Levi began to swing his swords again. As Mikasa pulled Annie out of harm’s way, Ymir grabbed Levi’s legs. She heaved him up off the ground, intent on crushing his ankles and slamming his head into the dirt. He curled in on himself and cut off most of her fingers, using his greaves as chopping blocks. She let go with a snarl, and he managed to curl enough to get his feet on her shoulders and leap to safety.

“Right,” Ymir said, showing her fangs. “You’re just like Mikasa said. Too much of a tiny fucking coward to do anything but run around dodging everything.”

“Funny,” Levi drawled. “I seem to be the only one inflicting damage on anyone. Is the definition of ‘coward’ different here?”

“If it doesn’t include ‘child-killer’ like it does here,” Annie said, wiping the blood from her face, “then yeah, it’s different.”

He snorted. “Please. Wolves kill human children. I saw it myself when I was a kid.”

“So it’s all a big revenge scheme for you?” Reiner asked.

“No, just cleaning up. But I know this is just a stalling tactic. After the little princess’s stunt back there, how could I not?”

“Then why let us do it?” Armin asked.

Levi smirked. “Why not let you waste more energy healing completely? I know it’ll make you too tired to heal or fight eventually.” He cast the blood from his swords. “I’ll whittle you down until you bleed just like humans, and then I’ll cut your filthy fucking throats.” He looked Ymir in the eye. “But I’ll make sure to get the princess out here before I take care of you, bitch queen. No matter what, one of you gets to watch the other one die.”

Ymir snarled, changing to her wolf-woman form. Before Mikasa could tell her to wait, she charged at Levi, keeping low to guard her throat. She swiped at his nearest knee with her left hand, and he barely leapt back in time. As his feet touched the ground, Mikasa and Annie came at him on either side. He struck at Mikasa with both swords, but she caught them on her gloves. As Annie came closer, he dragged the blades against the metal gloves. It all sparked, and he spoke.

“Dripenda!” he shouted.

The swords caught on fire, but Annie did not flinch as he struck at her. She stopped the blades on her gloves easily, even as flames came off the blades at the sudden stop. Ignoring the fire that licked the skin of her face, she slammed her head against his. Only because he moved to meet her in the blow did he escape a broken nose, but he kicked her hard in the gut to gain a few seconds to retreat.

Ymir did not let him recover, moving in fast to tear at one of his forearms. The leather vambrace did not come apart, holding through the blow. It knocked his arm and loosened his grip. She kicked the sword from his hand, and the fire died as it flew through the air. She turned, intending to do the same to his other hand. She had to drop to the ground to avoid his other sword, and he kicked her in the snout to stun her as he ran.

Armin had sprinted to catch the sword, changing into his human for at the last moment. Levi caught up as Armin’s fingers touched the hilt. Sneering, he ran Armin through with the sword in his hands, nearly cutting his spine. He heard Eren’s furious bellow as he caught his other sword. The sword was set on fire once more as he spun about, but Eren had jumped to the side Levi turned away from. He landed a solid punch to Levi’s back, making him stumble long enough for Eren to grab Armin and leap to the lowest branches of the nearest tree.

“And you called me a coward?” Levi said, spitting toward Eren and Armin. “Wolves in trees—pathetic.”

“I think I hear an old man getting scared that we’ll hurt him some more,” Reiner said, grinning to show his fangs.

Levi scowled at him. “You idiots haven’t even managed to draw blood.”

“We will, trust me,” Bertholdt said.

“Come on, old man,” Annie said, beckoning him closer. “You owe me blood for attacking Mikasa in front of our pups.”

There was thick disgust in Levi’s face when he looked at Mikasa. “It’s bad enough that you turned your back on humanity but you whelped hell spawn with a woman?”

“Just keep insulting them, Corporal,” Mikasa said. “It’ll make me even happier when we kill you.”

Levi opened his mouth, but Armin dropped to the ground silently, found a sharp stone, and threw it hard. It struck Levi squarely on the temple, cutting deeply enough to send blood running down his face.

Armin smiled pleasantly and shrugged. “Looks like we’ve drawn blood, sir.” His smile faltered at the blistering rage that filled Levi’s eyes, and he changed to his wolf form as Levi rushed at him. Eren leapt from the tree in his human form, tackling Armin out of the way. His shoulder took the blow, a chunk of flesh cut away in place of Armin’s throat. Armin made to bite the back of Levi’s right knee, but Levi let go of his swords entirely to wrap an arm around Armin’s neck.

Mikasa rushed in before Levi could snap Armin’s neck. She got an arm around Levi’s torso, staring to twist him off his feet. The moment he was off the ground, he wrapped his legs around her and smashed his fists into her ribs. She winced as bones cracked, but ducked to avoid the elbow aimed at her head. He used the free second to let go of her with his legs, trying to use her thighs as a springboard to leap away.

Reiner ran in and kicked Levi in the ribs hard enough to send him hurtling toward the trunk of a nearby tree. Levi spun in the air to land feet first on the tree, and he pulled two knives from the scabbards on his belt as he jumped back down. He made a straight line for Eren and Armin, standing over his swords.

A feinted throw of the knives made Armin move to dodge and Eren to block, but Levi stabbed Bertholdt’s arm when he reached out to grab him. He slashed at Annie when she ran at him, but she angled her body to catch the knives in the flesh of her right shoulder. Sneering, he let her take them and kept moving. When Reiner tried to catch him, he repeated, “Dripenda!”

The heel he struck Reiner’s nose was covered in flames, and Reiner bellowed in pain as he dropped back. His hands were burning as he came at Eren and Armin, and Armin dragged Eren out of the way before a punch could fall. Levi reclaimed his swords, the blades catching on fire as he raised them.

Mikasa moved in, unafraid even when he kicked at her with blazing feet. She slapped at his legs to block him, but the claws on her gloves could not tear through the leather on his greaves. Without the weight of swords in her hands, it was easier to mirror his sudden changes in direction. She would stop one blow coming from below on the left. He he tried to strike with his elbow, she could sway out of his reach.

But despite her occupying his focus, he still reacted too quickly for the others to do more than claw at his armor for a second or two. Even when Ymir seemed to outpace both of them, Levi always blocked or dodged her movements. When he feinted two sword swings in a row to catch Mikasa out, he drove his elbow into the center of her chest. It stopped her breathing and set sparks in her shirt, but Ymir landed a kick to Levi’s chest to drive him back before he struck. She dragged Mikasa away, snuffing the sparks with quick pats of her hand. Mikasa coughed as she started to recover.

“He’s watching me too close,” Ymir muttered. The others kept Levi at bay, but they could not wound him. “He won’t let me near him. Not to mention that fucking armor.”

“Did—kff—you think—this would be easy?” Mikasa asked.

Ymir sighed. “Nope.” She took a deep breath and said, “Buy me time. I have an idea.”

Mikasa coughed once more and nodded. As she ran to rejoin the fray, Ymir changed to her wolf form and slipped away into the forest. She looked back briefly when she hesitated. Levi only had a second to react to Mikasa’s return, but it was still enough for him. Ymir closed her eyes tightly for a moment, opened them, and ran.

————

The gloves Christa had made for herself were fit for her hands when she was a wolf-woman. She knew she needed every inch of reach she could get, and she changed back to her human form only briefly to take the gloves from her belt. Matvey and Ginko followed her without question, both of them keeping an eye out for the other while hiding behind her.

One soldier had thought she would startle and jump away if he tried to cut her leg. She repaid his thoughtfulness by blocking the sword with one hand and ripping open thick lines in the flesh of his closer arm with the claws on her other glove. His scream and subsequent death by a torn through taught the rest.

Christa watched them as they formed a crude circle around her and the pups. They were not quite a rabble, but she was shocked to realize that they were not a squad used to fighting together. She turned toward a man that hung back from the cluster, dirty blond hair foppish when combined with his ascot.

“Are you Levi’s second-in-command?” she asked.

He scoffed. “Like he’d appoint one.”

“Then why aren’t you closer to us? Are you really a coward?”

“Maybe I don’t get my hands dirty.”

“And maybe I do,” Christa said, a growl rumbling up her throat. “Unless you’re all cowards.”

The man sneered, grabbed Jean by the back of his coat, and shoved him forward. “Here, then. The brave lieutenant of the south’s best battalion.”

Jean gaped at her. He gaped at the pups. Sweat rose on his brow as he drew his sword with a shaking arm. Christa narrowed her eyes, her growl deepening. He stared at her, and then at the pups. They looked back, and on their faces was blood he knew had come from Annie and Mikasa. Choking, Jean closed his eyes and threw his sword to the ground.

“I’m not killing kids!” he shouted. “I didn’t agree to that! If you fucks want that on your souls when you go to God, you deserve hell!”

The man with the ascot frowned and drew his sword. “Have it your way, Kirstein.” He rushed forward, sword raised at Jean. Jean did not have time to pick up his sword, but Christa moved faster. She stepped past Jean and hit him hard on the back with her elbow. As he landed on his face near the pups, she caught the man’s sword on her glove. Before he could retreat, she shredded his throat with her free hand.

Turning back around showed two men running at the pups. Christa bounded between them, catching both swords swinging from above. She snarled and twisted her hands as hard as she could. The blades snapped, caught in the gloves’ claws, and she took the opportunity of their stunned stillness to ram the flats of the gloves into their noses. Pulling her arms inward dragged the claws across their faces, and they fell to the ground half-blind and in pain.

Another man ran forward as Christa turned, but he carried his sword to one side with both hands. Christa swept in and kicked him hard enough to break his ribs and drive them up and into his lung and heart. She caught him before he dropped and threw him aside, but shouted in pain when a sword plunged into her back and went through her heart.

“Christa!” Ginko shouted, but Matvey did not let her run to her.

Snarling, Christa wrenched her body to break the blade. She stepped free, pulling the blade from her chest as she turned. The man gaped in horror and he could not dodge when she stabbed him in the heart in turn. She threw him on top of the two half-blind men as they tried to crawl away. While her back was turned, a man managed to slash through her left calf, cutting her tail as well.

She jumped away, changing to her wolf form in the air. Her gloves fell off in the process, but she focused on finding her balance on three legs She circled around the pups and Jean.

Get closer to them, she told him. I need to guard as little ground as possible.

He nodded and scooted to them. He flinched when they gripped his coat, but he put his arms around them as a guard so they could stick close.

She counted as she waited for her wounds to heal. Four men were dead, and two more were disabled. There was blood in her lung from being stabbed, and she saw at least one of the four remaining soldiers grin when she coughed it out. She circled again, testing her leg.

“The big guy to my left tweaked his knees on the way here,” Jean whispered. “He can’t change direction quickly.

She did not stop moving or turn to look at him, but she asked him, Why are you telling me this?

“Because I don’t want to go to hell for getting kids killed.” His breath wavered. “This is my surrender, your highness. Let me help this much.”

In exchange for your life?

“Yes,” he said. “Please.”

We’ll see. She tested her leg and found it healed well enough. Turning about, she dashed at the large man to Jean’s left. She went to his right side, but feinted at the last moment and went to the left. She saw the man grimace as his knees twisted, and she sprang up to catch his throat in her fangs when he was stuck. His neck snapped when she swung to the side. As she dropped to the ground, she saw another soldier running at her.

Though she meant to dodge, he swung his sword down at her head too quickly to fully escape. The blade cut along the right side of her face, scraping the side of her muzzle and cutting into her eye and ear. She yelped and jumped away. Blind on one side, Christa had to turn further to see the man’s next swing. She dove below the blade, changing to her blade to roll close enough.

“Urome!” she shouted, setting her hands ablaze. She got her feet beneath her and launched herself at the man. One hand closed around his neck and the other clutched his face. He screamed in pain, and she forced the flames down his throat to kill him.

“Behind you!” Matvey and Ginko shouted.

Christa grit her teeth and spun about, holding the man’s body out as a shield. Two swords stabbed into it, and she changed to her wolf-woman form to rush the body at the two men while their swords were stuck. They yelped, and both stumbled. Christa tore out their throats while they were down. Trying to regain her breath, she looked around for the two men she knew were left.

They had crawled out from beneath the body she’d thrown on them and were creeping up beneath Matvey, Ginko, and Jean with knives in their hands. Christa’s throat closed up as she changed to her wolf form to run faster.

Get down!

Jean reacted first, throwing himself on top of the pups as Christa leapt over them. She ducked down to catch their knives in her back. Before they could pull the knives out for another blow, she changed to her wolf-woman form. She caught them by their throats and ripped them open. The men dropped, and so did she. She wheezed, eye and ear still barely healed.

“Are there,” she said, “are there…any more?”

“Only me and Levi,” Jean replied, sitting up and helping the pups do the same.

“All right.” She grimaced, shoulders growing stiff. “Please get the knives.”

“O-oh, yes ma’am.” He pulled the knives from her back, putting them well out of the pups’ reach. Christa sat up gingerly, changing to her human form. Matvey and Ginko hurried to her, careful to avoid her slowly steaming wounds.

“Are you gonna be okay?” Ginko asked, eyes wide and wet.

Christa smiled and stroked Ginko’s hair. “I’ll be just fine, sweetheart. Don’t worry.”

“What about Mommy and Mama and everyone?” Matvey asked, clutching Mikasa’s scarf.

She reached out to hold his hand. “They’ll win. We’re going to wait right here until they come back. Okay? Just a little longer, and Mikasa and Annie will be here.”

They nodded and nuzzled up against her. She rubbed their backs slowly, turning to look at Jean. He looked back before bowing her head.

“I’m sorry,” he said, voice thick.

“I know,” she replied. “I accept your surrender. I’ll see what I can do about the others.”

————

Every blow landed on Levi—from a punch to the jaw to a kick on the side, was celebrated. However, they all kept count of what it had taken. All of them had lost at least one finger to Levi’s sword, and all of them had burnt patches on their clothes and wounds that healed at a crawl. The ratio of blood drawn still favored Levi, and they weren’t more how to adjust it.

Eren and Reiner took the brunt of it, always too eager to take any opening Mikasa could give them. Reiner had lost both hands, one at a time, and Bertholdt was cut deeply when he scrambled to pull him away before Annie could provide cover. Eren had lost most of one arm at one point, but Armin covered his retreat at the cost of pieces of himself.

Mikasa and Annie worked in tandem to keep Levi from gaining too much speed, catching his swords on their gloves or shredding his vambraces bit by bit. Fifteen minutes after Ymir had vanished, Annie ducked under Levi’s swords and caught the ties of his left vambrace in the claws of her gloves. She grinned as he scowled, and she ripped the ties to pieces.

“You little bitch!” Levi shouted. He whirled, getting in a full spin as the vambrace fell off. Mikasa grabbed the back of Annie’s shirt with her right hand and pulled her away. Her left hand she reached out to stop the swords. The blow landed, but the force of both swords took her off her feet and drove her to the ground.

Mikasa felt shards of metal drop into her palm and rolled away from the kick Levi aimed at her head. She looked at her left hand, heart stuttering because the glove had shattered, following the gouges that had been building up in it. There was no structure left to support the claws or give her a shield, and she threw the remains aside.

Fury made Levi focus on Annie, driving to take her feet from beneath her by any means necessary. He slashed high with one blade while aiming for her legs with the other. She blocked both swords, but Levi shot forward in a leap that brought his knee into the center of her chest. Her ribcage threatened to buckle; her breathing stopped as her diaphragm spasmed.

As she stumbled back, he sheathed one sword to draw another knife from the other side of the scabbard. Annie rushed to cover her neck, but she could not move quickly. Levi caught her hand over her chest, stabbing through her hand and the weakened palm of her glove to pin her hand to her chest. He pounded his fist against the bottom of the knife to push through her ribs and pierce her heart. A backhanded fist to the face sent Annie to the ground.

Reiner and Mikasa rushed at him with snarls, driving him away from Annie. Bertholdt hurried to Annie, helping her take the knife from her chest and hand. She coughed up the blood gathering in her lungs, looking down. The wisps of steam coming from her wounds were fainter and rose slower.

“Shit,” she wheezed.

“It’s the same for everyone now,” Bertholdt said. He looked around. “We need Ymir.” He closed his eyes tightly. “Lady above, give us all strength.”

Annie reached out to hold his hand. “Give me a little more time.”

“Right,” he murmured. He squeezed her hand before turning and changing to his wolf form. Though he meant to creep forward, he startled when Eren tried to take advantage of Levi’s back facing him. Eren ran in, silent in his wolf-man form, moving to tackle Levi. Levi whirled away from Mikasa’s block of his blades, slashing through the right side of Reiner’s chest as he angled down to cut out a chunk of Eren’s torso.

“Eren!” Mikasa and Armin shouted. Armin sprinted to Eren, desperate to carry him away. Levi raised his swords, but Bertholdt tackled him with force enough to buckle his armor and crack a rib.

“Bert!” Reiner choked out. “Run! Now!”

Levi snarled and did not let Bertholdt escape. He stabbed both swords into Bertholdt’s back, ripping them out to the sides. Bertholdt gagged, hurrying away until his legs gave out.

Levi stood up slowly, breathing heavily. He looked about. “And it falls to two.” He sighed noisily. “Three, counting the coward bitch. If she hasn’t abandoned you, anyway.”

Hey! I don’t see you coming after me!

Levi turned as Ymir leapt out of the forest in her wolf form. He smirked. “There you are. Nice timing, since your pack is on the verge of death.”

Ymir looked about. The gazes sent her way were not bitter or resentful, but relieved and hopeful. She closed her eyes briefly, and she would not look at them when she opened them.

I’m so sorry, she whispered to them.

There was no time for them to look confused. Ymir charged at Levi, and the world slowed down as Levi raised his swords. Ymir jumped, and Mikasa screamed for her to stop. She ran for Ymir, who had leapt directly at Levi with her forepaws out and her throat above Levi’s eye level.

Levi did not hesitate. He swung one sword, cutting off Ymir’s legs. As she came closer, he swung his other sword. Levi cut into Ymir’s throat deeply, and he stepped aside to dodge her body as it fell, lifeless, to the ground.

Mikasa had missed grabbing Ymir by inches. She stumbled to a stop, eyes on the ground. She lifted her head, but when she turned and saw Ymir’s body, she could not breathe.

“No,” Reiner said. He clawed at the ground, eyes welling over with tears. “No! No! You bastard! You fucking bastard!”

Levi cast Ymir’s blood from his swords. “That was simple. Now for th—”

Mikasa fell upon him, lashing with kicks and punches that dented Levi’s armor. She did not care that the skin on her knuckles was shredded to the bone after so many blows. All that mattered was that Levi knew pain from her and her fury. She dug the claws of her remaining glove into the armor on his chest, trying to tear through to his heart.

“Mikasa!” Annie shouted.

The warning in her voice made Mikasa pull her hand away to catch both of Levi’s swords. She brought her head back to throw it forward into his nose. Levi inhaled with his mouth closed, and she saw his tongue working behind his lips. She backpedalled, closing her eyes and turning her head.

He spat fire in her face, and it dug into the eye she could not turn away in time. She kept her scream behind her teeth and tried to run. Levi did not let her go, instead running her through with a flaming sword. It cut through her spine, burning the nerves in her and taking her legs from her. She fell, and as she did Levi drove the sword into the ground to hold her.

No!” Armin screamed, changing to his wolf form. He ran, reaching Levi before he could turn. He bit down on Levi’s exposed left forearm hard enough to break the bones. He shook his head so violently that he tore off Levi’s forearm entirely, managing to take his elbow along with it.

Levi stumbled, screaming with pain. He whirled on Armin, slashing his spine with his right-hand sword before kicking him to break ribs and send him tumbling away. Wheezing, coughing, he hurried to pull off the armor covering his upper arm. It revealed a system of belted straps along his chest and around his arm. He pulled the straps as tight as he could, making them into a tourniquet to steam the flow of blood from his ravaged arm.

As he did this, Annie got to her feet. She dropped her right glove, taking the knife with her as she went to Mikasa. She took the sword from Mikasa’s body, kneeling down to touch her cheek. Mikasa looked up at her with her good eye.

“Annie,” she said. “I don’t…I can’t feel my legs. I don’t know what to do.”

“I’ll try to buy everyone time,” Annie replied.

Mikasa’s eye widened. Her face went pale as Annie picked up her knife and stood. “Annie—no, Annie, please! Even if he’s wounded—don’t fight without me!”

“I need to buy everyone time,” Annie said. She turned away. “Concentrate on healing. And…pray that I make it back to you and our pups.” She walked out of Mikasa’s reach, eyes on Levi. “I’ll be damned. You had a trick up your sleeve even Mikasa didn’t know about.”

“You always need one against demons,” Levi said. He shifted his shoulder, face pasty and dripping with sweat. “God fucking dammit.”

“Looks like we’re going to win,” Annie said. “No one is going to treat your arm. You’ll probably bleed out in an hour.”

“More than enough time,” Levi replied. He lifted his sword, setting it on fire once more. “I’m taking you all with me to death’s gates, and I’ll kick you into hell.”

Annie said nothing. She walked toward Levi, and he toward her. It was her move that restarted the fight, a swipe at his right vambrace’s ties with her knife. He caught the blow on the pommel of his sword, forcing it back to swing for her head. She jumped back, but her legs buckled and made her tilt forward again.

The tip of his sword cut down her forehead and through her left eye. She grit her teeth against the pain and matched his next spin at a different angle. Before he could reach her again, she got her knife to something that had been too well guarded before. She stabbed his side in the weak space of the ties on his armor, dragging the knife through his flesh and every leather cord.

Levi screamed again, slamming the pommel against her head to retaliate. Annie fought against the blinking lights in her eye and spun to stab his other side and cut the remaining ties. The armor came apart, and she raked the back of his hand with the claws on her glove with mounting desperation to make him drop his sword. She grabbed the bottom of the front part of his armor and heaved upward.

She knew she failed because Levi ducked his head down to get free. As she came down on her feet, he was ready with an uppercut that took her off the ground completely. The back of her head hit the ground first, taking her ability to think and move. Levi retrieved his sword.

Annie!” Mikasa screamed, so loud her throat felt like it had torn. She tried to regain control of her legs, all the while pulling herself closer by clawing at the ground. When Annie still did not come out of her daze, tears welled over in her eyes. “Levi, please! Don’t kill her! Don’t kill anyone else! I’m begging you—don’t do this!”

“Just for that,” Levi said, “you’re next.” He tipped Annie’s chin back with his boot to expose her throat. He brought his sword to the side to swing. He stopped moving.

They all stared as he grit his teeth, straining against something they could not see. Annie’s eyes fluttered as she regained full consciousness. Her mouth fell open. Her eyes widened.

A hand closed around Levi’s wrist from behind. It was missing its middle finger, and its dark skin was patchy with black fur. Over Levi’s shoulder, a face loomed, and its honey gold eyes were wide and hateful. His wrist was crushed, and he dropped the sword with one last scream before he was wrenched about. His lips parted.

“No,” he whispered.

“Yes,” said Ymir. She pulled back her free hand and shoved it clear through Levi’s chest. She held his heart in her hand on the other side. As his breathing stopped and his eyes grew cloudy, she whispered, “We win.” She crushed his heart, letting it fall as she pushed his body off her arm. She looked at Annie, who stared up at her with disbelief on her face and tears in her eyes.

“Hey,” Ymir said. “Sorry. I…fucked…up.” She dropped onto her knees before falling onto her front.

“But,” Reiner said, looking at the wolf body nearby, “that’s not—how?”

“Annie!” Bertholdt said. “Is—is she breathing?”

Annie could not reply. She stared at Ymir, unable to tear her eyes away. When Ymir fell, Annie realized she was not wearing a shirt. Now as Ymir lay facedown and wheezing, Annie realized that from the nape of her neck to the top of her trousers, Ymir’s back had been skinned.

The shredded muscles oozed blood, and her exposed vertebra gleamed. Annie looked at Ymir’s face, seeing past her parted lips that Ymir was missing a fang as well. Annie inhaled weakly, feeling her stomach seize.

“Ymir?” she said.

Ymir opened one eye slightly. “Hel…p.”

Annie turned, but Eren had limped to Mikasa already. He turned her onto her back and dragged her over. She tugged off her glove, coughing to clear her throat. Annie propped her upright so she could lay her hands on Ymir’s back. When her hands drew close, however, visible arcs of red energy lashed at them from Ymir’s flesh. Ymir choked as Mikasa rushed to take her hands away.

“Christa,” Ymir panted. “Get—Christa.”

Annie changed to her wolf form and howled as loudly as she could.

————

Christa’s head rose, and Ginko and Matvey looked up as well. Christa shot to her feet as Jean looked up, her eyes widening.

“What did it say?” Jean asked.

“We need to go,” Christa replied. “Now. They need help.” She wiped at the blood on her face, eye finally healed completely. She crouched down to pick up the pups.

“I’ll carry one,” Jean said. “You’ll run easier.” He knelt down. “All right, kids? We’re going to your family. One of you comes with me so she doesn’t get tired.”

“Go ahead,” Christa said when they looked at her. “Quick now.”

They nodded, and Ginko went to Jean and Matvey to Christa. Christa led them at a run, following Annie’s directions and the scents she could track. The forest was thick with the stench Levi had brought, and the prints from his horse were easy to find and follow. Crushed leaves and snapped branches were everywhere.

Not soon enough did she find the dead horse. All at once, the scent of wolf blood hit them. She felt Matvey shudder. Christa kept them moving forward, but she had to keep herself from focusing on any one person’s scent. Through the trees to her left, she saw Mikasa, Annie, and Eren sitting together, and she turned quickly. Jean followed at once.

“Annie!” she shouted. “Mikasa!”

They turned, eyes widening at the sight of Ginko and Matvey unharmed. Christa and Jean delivered them straight to their mothers. Mikasa clutched Ginko to her chest, and Annie held Matvey tightly enough that her arms shook. They both wept into the pups’ hair, unable to speak.

“Christa, c’mon!” Eren said, grabbing Christa’s wrist. “Ymir needs help!” He did not have to pull her along after she caught sight of Ymir. She rushed to kneel at Ymir’s other side, turning Ymir’s head gently to face her.

“Ymir?” she said, patting Ymir’s cheek. “Ymir, look at me.”

Ymir opened her eyes. She smiled very slightly. “Hey.”

“Did Levi do this to you?”

“No.”

“Okay.” She reached out to set her hands on Ymir’s back, but flinched when energy snapped at her fingers.

“Close it,” Ymir groaned.

Christa nodded, brows furrowing as she thought. Reaching out again, she said, “Umrakibash zuinish rosut.” The energy came against her hands again, but it did not hurt either of them. She set her hands on Ymir’s back, repeating, “Umrakibash zuinish rosut.”

The nearby wolf body collapsed on itself in time with Ymir relaxing. It became nothing but a bloody black pelt with a strange construct of bones and fangs.

“Debreleh,” Christa said. Under her hands, new flesh began to grow on Ymir’s back. Her wounds began to steam and slowly heal on their own. Ymir smiled at Christa.

“You weren’t,” Bertholdt said, staring at the pelt and bones. He looked at Ymir. “That…wasn’t you?”

“It’s bits of me,” she mumbled.

Christa looked at the pelt for a long while. “Ymir, that’s what you were giving magic to?”

“Yeah. Flesh, blood, bone, and fang. A fake me.”

Reiner’s mouth fell open. He let out a laugh without realizing it. “You faked all of us out. You ass.” He laughed again, starting to cry. “You amazing ass.” He looked at Levi’s corpse and laughed even more. “You fucking did it, you stupid ass of a queen.”

Ymir smiled at the sound of his laughter. “Christa? The pups are okay, right?”

“They’re perfect,” Mikasa whispered, stroking Ginko’s hair. “Thank our lady. Thank Christa.” She laughed faintly when Annie pulled the both of them close as she held Matvey. “Hi Matvey. Hi Ginko.”

“Matvey kept your scarf warm, Mommy,” Ginko said. She nuzzled against Mikasa’s cheek, giggling when Mikasa kissed her nose. She held tight as Mikasa leaned to do the same, and she kissed Annie’s nose when Annie leaned down to her.

Jean stood by, staring at Levi’s body with an open mouth. “Mikasa? Is that…Levi?”

Mikasa turned quickly, holding Ginko tighter. “Why’re you here, Kirstein?”

Eren changed to his wolf form and advanced on Jean, growling.

“Uncle Eren, no!” Matvey said. “He gave up!”

Eren stopped, ears twitching. He looked askance at Jean. You surrendered?

“I don’t murder kids, Jaeger,” Jean spat. “And I didn’t want to come here to kill my old comrades in the first place. Maybe punch you again, but I’m not killing you.”

“What’re you going to trade for your surrender?” Annie asked.

“What about new info on the south?” Armin said, joining them. “I’m sure my information is out of date by now.”

“I think we can discuss it later,” Christa said. “We need to go home and rest.”

Bertholdt chuckled. “I’ll howl for wagons to be brought for us. And an honor guard.” He changed to his wolf form and limped to the edge of the clearing their battle had made. He howled, long and loud, to call for who was nearest. A reply came quickly, and he howled again to provide their location and their request. He limped back and changed to his human form to sit next to Christa.

“It was Sasha,” he said. “We’ll be joined soon.” He smiled, eyes stinging, and stroked Ymir’s head. “You really are an ass, Ymir.”

“Love you too,” she replied. “Love all of you.”

“Ymir?” Matvey said. “Are you gonna be okay?”

She turned her head to look at him and at Ginko. She smiled again. “I’ll be fine, fluff butts. Don’t worry.”

Christa checked Ymir’s back. The skin was regrowing well, and quickly with her help. Ymir’s middle finger was growing back as well, and her fang had returned. Christa felt her own shoulders slump with relief.

“You’ll be okay,” she murmured.

Reiner managed to pull himself over to them, wounds still healing. “We’ll all be great now.” He sniffed, rubbing his eyes. “Lady above. He’s…dead.” He pulled his legs up to hide his face as he wept from joy. “We did it.”

“Mikasa,” Annie whispered. “We made it. We’re all alive.” She put her head on Mikasa’s shoulder, laughing softly until she began to cry.

Mikasa kissed her head. “Now we just need to end the war.” She chuckled. “That’ll be easy after this.”

They all laughed, and then looked up at the wooden rattle of wagon wheels on uneven ground. Sasha, Connie, and Marco led the way, running up in their human forms.

“Ymir!” Sasha gasped. “Commander Braun—Captain Ackerman! What happened? Are you going to be all right?”

Connie turned as they came to a stop. His eyes fell on Levi’s body. He stared before drawing a strangled breath. He grabbed Sasha’s hand convulsively.

“N-no!” he said. “No way!”

Sasha gaped. “By the lady’s eye…it can’t be.”

Marco went to the corpse cautiously. He examined it closely and gave it a few quick sniffs. The wretched smell that still clung to the body made him gag and retreat.

“It’s a present for the whole north,” Eren said, grinning. “Courtesy of your ruling pack and especially your queen—one dead bastard.”

For a long moment, there was nothing but stunned silence. Sasha came out of it first, leaping into the air with a screaming hoot of glee. Connie caught her on the way down, spinning her around with howls of, “We got him! We got him!”

The guards drawing the wagons shouted, bellowed, roared with increasing joy. They embraced each other, pounding on each other’s backs.

“Long live the queen!” Marco shouted. He began to chant it, and all the wolves followed.

Christa smiled, and she found that Ymir’s back had regained all its skin when she checked again.

“Hey,” Ymir murmured, turning to look at Christa.

“What is it?” Christa asked, leaning down.

“Is this what it feels like when people love you as a ruler?” Ymir asked.

The question left her without words for a moment. She smiled once more and kissed Ymir’s head. She quietly told her, “It is. You did something amazing today.”

Ymir smiled. “Then I guess we better head back to town to let everyone else know.”

“We all deserve it,” Christa said, and she helped Ymir sit up to face everyone with a smile.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

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