If you’re curious: so far, this story is canon and takes place where Chapter 82 left off. Next month, I’m sure it will no longer be canon. Alas.
Also, I don’t own Shingeki no Kyojin (if I did, Armin would not have died, which I am still not over). I do, however, own Saskia.
Above the peaceful forest –
above the dark, dark sky –
above the limits of the earth –
a star was dying.
Saskia forced her eyes to watch until its glow faded from sight. No one stirred in the crop of tents surrounding them, mostly because everyone was resting for Tomorrow. Only a few unlucky ones, like Saskia, would remain behind.
They were special in other ways, the Warchief said. Just different, so they had to stay.
But she didn’t want to stay. She wanted the chance to risk life and limb.
“Stargazing or avoiding?” mocked her only companion, if you could call her that. She casually draped one leg over the other, as if she couldn’t care less, though everyone knew she did.
Saskia eyed the restraints keeping the girl fastened to the tree. She said nothing. Since she’d arrived in the Hometown, and now on this journey, the sadistic girl seemed to enjoy interrupting her few moments of peace.
“You don’t have to allow this, you know,” pointed out the girl.
“You know we do.”
“You know, I really don’t.” The girl rolled her eyes. “You sit out here night after night and pretend you have no feelings of your own, hoping your good behavior will convince him to save your precious sister, but you’re too stupid or scared to realize he doesn’t care about anyone.”
Saskia’s face pinched. She wasn’t stupid. She was the smartest one here. That was why she was here.
“You’re a coward if you think rushing into battle is going to save anything. All of you here, you’re cowards,” spat the girl.
Saskia knelt by the prisoner, glared into her eyes. Rage coursed through her, and in that moment, she wished once again she was a titan. “I don’t think you’re qualified to condemn anyone.”
“Maybe no one is,” said the girl with a grin.
How disturbing. Saskia backed away.
“You’re just as bad as anyone,” the girl called after her, laughing with fear. She should never have come here. No, she had to. It was best. “You think your guilt can save you? It can’t!”
Saskia slipped back into the tent, strategically located in the center of their circles. Just like the Hometown. In case an accident occurred, the unimportant shifters and warriors would die, but he and she would survive.
She used to live there. On the outer edge. She and her sister both, and their father. Mother had died long ago in just such an accident, eaten alive shortly after Annie’s birth. Now just their father lived there, and maybe some day he would die too, and it almost served him right.
Saskia shrugged out of her plain dress and lay down besides her husband. Half asleep, his heavy arm closed around her. She felt too warm already, but then, no one refused him, not even his wife.
Tomorrow, he would win. Tomorrow, he would be closer to saving Annie.
She settled against her husband’s body, craving the self-assurance he possessed.
Not again –
The day had changed too quickly –
He struggled on the ground, clutching the gaping hole in his side. His arm – if only he had a second arm!
Then his horse – innocent – crashed atop him as a dozen titans emerged in his peripheral vision. Visions of the dead, bloody and chewed apart, shot to his eyes. And Erwin Smith, Thirteenth Commander of the Survey Corp, finally wished to give up.
“Did you see how many titans marched off? Not all of them were shifters. They’ll probably return and eat us alive,” said the girl.
Now Saskia wanted to punch her right in her freckled nose. For some reason, she’d grown fond of mocking Saskia in particular. “The coordinate will keep them away from us.”
“You sound so bored. Does anything excite you? Not your husband, that’s for sure.”
“Lady Ymir, you are lucky you are alive right now. Do you want that to change?” Saskia asked icily.
Ymir straightened up. “I tell the truth. The people in the walls don’t deserve to die.”
“You don’t deserve to make that call. You gave up that right,” growled Saskia.
Ymir didn’t flinch. “Yes, we’re all damned, I know that. Especially your sister. Do you know what they’ll do to her if she emerges? I don’t much like to think about it; do you?”
Saskia stalked away. Don’t let her upset you. Obey. You’re not a shifter. You’ll probably die.
“Don’t walk away!” hollered Ymir. “You’re supposed to follow me.”
Saskia whirled around. Follow her? She wouldn’t dare – they’d made a deal.
Ymir was standing, her shackles clearly broken.
“Hi.” She beamed. “I don’t much expect Zeke to keep his word to save Historia, so why should I keep mine? Why should I stay locked up when my friends are killing each other, all for a silly word that means nothing?”
“Don’t you dare hurt anyone,” growled Saskia. Not Father. Not any of the normal Warriors waiting here. Her hands itched. How could she warn them?
“Pfft.” Ymir cut her off with a wave of her hand. “Did you think I requested to accompany you simply to calm my anxiety? Oops.”
Her mouth caught her hand. Saskia saw her teeth bite down and her eyes flash, and then, with an explosion of heat, a 6-meter Titan emerged.
“You bitch!” shrieked Saskia, lunging forward. Her hands scrambled for the dagger Zeke had given her. She might not have undergone the training Annie had, but Saskia was no easy kill.
And kill she must. For safety. No one should die here.
Finally, I’ll know what it’s like to kill –
The Titan huffed. Saskia feinted right before diving left, desperate to reach Ymir’s neck. She scrambled forward, leapt up – and its gnarly hand closed around her, pinning her arms against her sides.
Saskia cried out, more from anger than pain. She expected teeth to rip her apart – no, she shouldn’t give up – but she always gave up –
A dozen Warriors poured out of their tents, but Ymir had already taken off with Saskia in its grasp.
Everyone was dying and Levi was facing over a dozen lumbering oafs hell bent on eating him.
But Levi couldn’t die. He had to kill the Beast Titan. And he had the serum; he had to save Erwin. The Survey Corps were nothing without Erwin.
I am nothing without him.
Levi gripped the hilt of his sword. Why were the shitty tress not nearby. They could all burn.
He was quick. Humanity’s strongest.
He thought of the cheers, the feast of meet just before they’d rode off. And now, most of them dead, Hange vanished, Erwin bleeding out on the ground.
We’re not strong at all.
I have to fight.
A Titan swept its hand towards him, and without hesitating – this time – Levi ducked, then clamored up its arm. One swipe was all it took to send the beast falling towards the earth, but Levi had already leapt to the next Titan.
For Erwin! For Hange! For Isabel and Farlan and everyone who deserved better!
He’d slashed his way through five Titans when one caught his cape in its mouth.
Levi twisted around to face it when it suddenly lurched forward. A smaller Titan had leapt atop it, ripped into its eyes with only one hand, only one arm wrapped around the neck of its foe.
The other hand hurled something that looked disturbingly like a corpse towards the fallen Survey Corps.
More shifters? Oh, who gave a shit. Levi turned his attention towards the remaining titans. If the smaller one tried to kill him, he’d kill it, but for now let it be.
As he approached a bloody Bertolt, Eren felt completely numb, completely mechanical, a feeling he’d never felt before in his entire life.
Tears sprang to Bertolt’s eyes. His face was a mixture of pain, fear, anguish.
“You – you’ll never win,” spat Bertolt. He may be the one missing limbs, but his thoughts flitted to Reiner, lying there, lying just helpless to the likes of Mikasa.
“Neither will you.” A bloody Hange soared over to them. You killed my squad. “Though you’re in better shape than your friend, hmm.”
No, he couldn’t try to save Reiner. Not when he’d just killed his former friend. There was no return.
For once in his life, Eren said nothing. He couldn’t look at Armin again. Armin? Right now, Armin couldn’t exist, because if he thought about Armin, if he thought about the ocean, he would die.
“Where’s Armin?” Hange scowled. “His analysis might be worthwhile.”
“Where do you think?” Bertolt hissed.
The blackened, crumpled mess in Hange’s peripheral vision suddenly overtook her vision. Just like her squad.
She drew her sword. “Levi was right. You’re too dangerous to live.”
“So are you,” wheezed Bertolt. Just end it.
“We have to make sure he’s dead this time!” Mikasa brandished her sword towards Reiner’s twisted, broken, vulnerable body. “Get out of my way.”
Connie whimpered in response, continuing to alternatively cuddle and shake the unconscious Sasha.
“Wait, we need to know why he’s doing this!” argued Jean, refusing to move. Crossing Mikasa was always a dangerous move, but he had to. Despite the enormous energy it took just to stand.
Weakness. You’re a good leader because you’re weak. Weakness, that’s it.
“Reiner cares about his comrades, don’t you remember?” Jean rushed. He was no Armin, but he had to substitute for now. Think like Armin. “That’s his weakness. Maybe if we try to kill Bertolt, we can get information from Reiner!”
“Doubtful.” Mikasa cocked an eyebrow. Her fingers itched.
Yet the houses around them, her former city, was decimated. Who knew if the basement remained – and she wasn’t sure she ever wanted to see the past again –
“He has to wake up first, and if he kills us, I’ll kill you before he does,” Mikasa snapped, positioning her blade behind Reiner’s neck. “Connie, leave Sasha – we’ve got her – and go after Hange. Fetch Eren and Bertolt.”
Saskia didn’t even bother screaming as the bones in her toes snapped. She tumbled to the side, her entire body jarred from Ymir’s throw.
A quick glance behind showed Ymir teaming up with a short enemy against far too many Titans.
Titans that could easily eat her. Maybe that was Ymir’s plan.
Zeke, where are you? she screamed silently.
Saskia whipped her head around to the scene before her –
And collapsed back to the earth.
So many bodies, young people, Annie’s age – heads smashed and brains splattered under boulders, horses whimpering and struggling to rise on broken legs.
What? Only a Titan could have thrown those boulders – had Zeke really done this?
She had no illusions. She knew she’d married a ruthless, driven man. Even a cruel one. But a heartless slaughterer?
Saskia clamored forward, desperately scanning the faces of these children, of Annie’s peers. She couldn’t see the Colossal Titan above the distant Walls; did that mean Bertolt and Reiner were dead, too?
A man squirmed ahead, lying facedown on the grass with a dead horse atop his legs.
Oh. He’s alive.
She wanted to help him. She shouldn’t. But she wanted to.
With a gasp, Saskia tried to drag the man free by his arms, but he only had one. How many Titans had he faced?
The man gasped. Well, that was expected; she was surprised by her presence, too.
“It’s no use…hel…help Levi,” commanded the man. His voice may have been faint, but he still spoke with authority.
“You’ve lost too much blood to think clearly,” Saskia argued, ripping his cloak and pressing it against a monstrous wound in his side. “What happened?”
There was no point in hiding where she’d come from. He was going to die, anyhow.
“You look like a ghost,” murmured the man. “But, I don’t remember you…”
“I’m not Survey Corp. I’m your enemy, or I’m supposed to be, but actually, I don’t know what I am. Tell me what happened.” Saskia shook him, but his eyes were growing dimmer by the second. She had to know, she had to write it down no matter what Zeke would say, and he was sure as hell going to tell her before he died.
“He’s dead, isn’t he?” sobbed a voice.
Saskia glared at the soldier standing, the only one standing – how had she missed him before? – among the bodies. “Not yet. Tell me what happened!”
“Survivors! There have to be more.” The young man wiped his tousled, sandy hair from his eyes and began combing through the bodies.
Saskia sighed impatiently. She wanted information more than anything, and these people had to die anyhow – but there were so many of them, and they all had faces and lives and now they were extinguished and was it really necessary?
Zeke, Zeke, what if you are wrong?
What if he was right? And yet, she was still applying pressure to this man’s side.
Below her, the man’s eyes regained their focus. On her, specifically. Was he not dying?
His hand latched onto her wrist, now soaked with his blood. “You’re not a soldier.”
“We all are,” Saskia replied bitterly. She just fought with books and memories he could never have.
“I can’t find anyone else,” gasped the standing soldier, stumbling back up to Saskia. “What do we do?”
She should kill him. Zeke would approve. She could kill someone at last. She’d always wondered how it felt.
“Keep looking! Put effort into it!”
Why was she saying this? Why did she care? She wasn’t on their side.
“Who are you?” rasped the injured man.
Saskia watched the titans falling in the distance – Ymir and the man apparently called Levi had them down to two now. Levi, human though he was, seemed stronger than Ymir. Interesting.
“I’m your hostage,” she decided.
Chapter 2: Chapter Two
Still reeling from Armin's death, the Survey Corp interrogate Reiner and Bertoldt. Meanwhile, Levi interrogates Saskia as both of them try to keep Erwin alive.
Featuring Titan Serum and the Basement as Special Guest Stars.
Thanks to everyone who followed/favorities/kudos’d! J
A bit of housekeeping: usually I update every Wednesday, but life has been crazy and I’ll be away all next week, so I probably won’t be able to update until 2 weeks from next Wednesday. Unless I decide to shamelessly write on the plane.
As the last titan fell, Levi whirled around to see the helper titan watching him. Wasn’t she that traitor girl? Betraying the traitors? Well, good timing on her.
A quick scan of the surrounding field revealed no Beast Titan, no quadrepedal.
He could keep searching.
Or he could save Erwin, confess his failure, then keep his promise. Find Zeke and feed him to Erwin.
He had no more time to waste. “Coming or running away?”
Soaring off towards the soldiers, Levi was surprised to see the smaller Titan following him. “Aren’t you that traitor girl?”
The titan growled. “Define…‘traitor.’”
She could talk?
“No worse than me,” Levi said quietly.
His heart fell as the bodies splattered across the field came into focus. Erwin had fallen farther back – no time to stop –
A few moans filled the air, sickening Levi; they needed the serum, too. But the Survey Corp would survive without them, and not Erwin.
Or would it? Who knew what these people could do? Levi’s palms began to sweat, but he was determined to save Erwin, even if it damned him. Because he knew Erwin.
How despicable, but he had made his choice.
Towards the wall, a pale-haired girl caught his attention. She knelt over a body, talking to someone still alive, dressed in a brown dress quite distinctive from the Survey Corp. Levi’s heart skipped. Another Shifter?
He’d kill her.
Ymir grunted behind him. “Saskia.”
“Who the hell is Saskia?” Levi swooped down and wrenched the girl up, even as his eyes scanned the field for Erwin. “What are you doing?”
She stared back at him, frozen. Whoever Saskia was, she was no fit soldier.
“Levi…” whispered the only voice he wanted to hear.
“Erwin.” Levi cursed himself for not checking beneath him. He stared down at his friend’s bloodied body as Saskia, still wordless, yanked herself free, knelt and reapplied pressure to his side.
“I don’t understand,” Erwin muttered, glancing up at the girl.
“You don’t have to; you should be concentrating on living,” Saskia replied. Her eyes met Levi’s. “Just know this: I’m your hostage for as long as you need safety here.”
“Where were you twenty minutes ago?” Levi snapped as his hand fished for the serum.
“Held captive by that bitch,” Saskia said, glaring at Ymir’s titan. The titan snorted, then glanced around the battlefield.
Ymir had to admit, the explosion of bodies was enough to shake the coldest heart.
Erwin noticed Levi’s possession. Of course he did. “No.”
“Don’t waste energy arguing,” Saskia shot back. Her eyes fixated on the syringe. “Wait. What is that?”
Her hand closed around the syringe. “This is titan serum.” Did the Reiss family betray us?
“Do you want him to die?” Levi asked curtly.
“She doesn’t,” said a now-human Ymir, startling Saskia. “Saskia doesn’t want anything. For her to help your friend is more than I expected.”
“Then why bring me here?!”
“Oh, you know that,” Ymir said vaguely.
Levi noticed the girl fuming silently. “We’ll deal with you later, hostage.”
“Are you…a shifter?” Erwin choked.
“No.” Saskia glanced at Ymir. He’ll have to eat her. She didn’t particularly want that. “What is the point of saving him if someone else has to die?”
Ymir’s cool gaze said she knew. Her Titan loped off.
Hopefully in search of a better plan.
“It’s called sacrifice,” Levi snapped. “Now, get out of my way.”
She found herself knocked onto her back.
Zeke would want me to wrestle it away at any cost. Move, grab it, redeem yourself – move, Warrior.
Death was all around her. One life saved by whatever means, whatever treason, had to be worth it.
She didn’t move.
“Turn into a Titan and I will slit Reiner’s throat,” Mikasa threatened as soon as she saw Eren carelessly dragging Bertoldt’s limbless body.
“Where’s Armin?” Jean demanded.
“He’s dead, and Bertoldt killed him!” Eren shouted. A scream bubbled up from inside him.
Mikasa’s eyes widened. For a second she was a child again, watching her mother fight, watching her mother die. Not him – I helped raise him – not Armin.
“As soon as you are done telling us what we want to know, I am going to kill you,” she seethed.
He wouldn’t let go! Bertoldt wanted to say that he hadn’t wanted to kill him, that killing was the only mercy he had left, but was it? Really, was there any protest that could erase his sins?
He felt numb. So numb.
“He killed Armin, Armin, Armin,” gasped Eren. Now he truly wanted to hurt himself, but he was too exhausted to risk turning into a Titan again.
“Fuck you,” Mikasa stepped forward, trembling with rage.
Hange put a hand on her shoulder. These kids wanted Bertoldt’s blood even more than she did, which was darkly impressive. “Keep to the plan.”
Bertoldt scanned Reiner’s body. The blond behemoth was breathing, at least, but battered so much that, had Reiner been a normal human, he would be beyond much hope.
“He still looks better than my squad,” Hange hissed, digging her nails into Bertoldt’s shoulder.
This was war. She should understand that.
“Wake up.” Connie kicked Reiner in the face.
But his friend was stirring – and so was a very bloody Sasha.
“Sasha!” Connie dove back towards his friend, shaking her. “You’re here!”
“Why is there two of you?” she murmured. “Just … more of you to love, I guess.”
Jean almost laughed, but his wounds hurt too much. Armin hurt too much. Any other time, he would have teased Connie relentlessly. But now, he held his blade parallel to Mikasa’s, right at Reiner’s throat.
Reiner started. Jean jerked forward.
“Move and you’re dead.” Mikasa, calm on the outside, peered into Reiner’s face. “And Eren will kill Bertoldt.”
“And fucking enjoy it,” Eren spat.
Reiner’s gaze shifted to his friend – his friend with no legs, with arms just beginning to grow back. ”Bertl.”
At the sound of his voice, Bertoldt’s heart leapt. If he didn’t survive, maybe Reiner still could. Reiner was a strong Warrior – unless, what if Zeke found out Reiner’s condition? Who would look after him?
“Here’s the deal.” Mikasa narrowed her eyes. “You are going to tell us what you know, or else we will kill Bertoldt. And considering his crimes, I think every one of us would enjoy it.”
She felt sick. She didn’t want to enjoy killing. But if he had killed Armin – if Armin was really dead – she wanted to kill him so badly.
“Go to hell,” mumbled Reiner.
“Very well.” Hange grabbed a Bertoldt from Eren’s grasp and tossed him onto the ground. “Although, if I can help in some way, Mikasa, I would love to avenge my squad. As long as he’s too weak to turn back into a Titan, perhaps we can take turns flaying him.”
Flaying? Mikasa’s stomach turned. She was about to protest, but then Hange’s all-too-light tone registered. “Yes. Then he’ll look like a smaller version of his true self.”
True self? Bertoldt was aghast. The titan was only part of him.
Yet, it was the part that defined him.
“Eren, would you care to help?”
“Leave him alone!” bellowed Reiner.
“Make us.” Mikasa swung her blade back towards Reiner. “Tell us what you know.”
“Here’s a start: why are you killing us?” suggested Jean. He didn’t want any more of his former comrades to die, whether traitors and murderers or friends, and he doubted Mikasa did, too.
“We have to,” Reiner stated.
“Why do you have to? This really isn’t that difficult,” Hange said.
Zeke would kill him this time. He’d have the mindless titans rip off his armor and eat him alive, like he wasn’t human. Reiner felt panic rise in his throat.
“You don’t have to,” Bertoldt said then, his voice flat.
He wasn’t sweating. His eyes were emotionless.
Does he want to die? Reiner shivered. Not Bertoldt. “Because you’re all pathetic, fighting fools. Your memories are wiped clear, so you bicker over riches and ruin while people out here suffer in Titan form. You’ve made it clear you want to kill them all, take the easy answer. In your state, you’re all a danger to humanity.”
Did he just –? Bertoldt’s eyes widened.
“Who made that decision?” Hange asked icily, still offended at the notion that her mind was less than whole.
“A name would be nice,” Eren snarled, visibly tightening his grip on Bertoldt.
“Zeke. Zeke is his name,” Reiner said quickly. Am I a good soldier now? Betraying my country to save my friend?
“So what is his goal? We’re not fit to live over something we have no control over?” Jean exclaimed.
“You’re a danger,” Reiner yelled back. His head hurt. He felt dizzy. I hate myself, both of my selves.
He broke down. He didn’t know which self was speaking. “Don’t you see, we had to. The Kings held you all hostage, and you still couldn’t unite to fight one foe! You’re hopeless! We had to stop it.”
“By letting hundreds of thousands die? Are you insane?” Eren cried, shaking Bertoldt.
“Probably – and stop hurting him; I’m confessing to you, for goodness’ sake!” Reiner hissed.
“Then keep talking,” said Hange as Jean swayed above Reiner.
Reiner now had to wonder if Horseface was going to pass out and accidentally slit his throat. What would happen to Bertoldt then? “Do you know what the First King did? How he kept our ancestors outside the walls to die?”
“But we didn’t die. Zeke’s father used the old science outside the walls to create the first titan shifters and save us. He lived so long; he trained us for years to attack the walls –” Reiner fell silent. And then Zeke arose and changed it all.
Everyone was silent.
“Is that enough?” Reiner asked.
“So this is all just a vendetta from a hundred years ago?” Eren screamed suddenly.
“No!” Reiner really had not missed Eren’s temper.
“Weren’t you listening? They want to better the human race,” Hange said with disgust.
Jean trembled. “And they’ll use titans to do it, before they advance enough to turn on the titans themselves; am I right?”
“It’s the only way,” Reiner pled. “You always lose.”
“Not at Trost,” Mikasa said. “And not now.” She paused.
“You’re coming with us to the basement.”
“No – you can’t use it on me,” gasped Erwin, tugging weakly on Levi’s arm.
“Shut up, because I am,” Levi snapped, grappling for the serum. “You’re in no condition to fight me, anyway.”
“I’m not – but the others,” wheezed Erwin. “Others…with both arms…have more life in them.”
“Oh, so now having one arm means you’re worthless?” Levi scoffed. “You’re going to sit tight and not fight me.”
“I don’t …” Erwin blinked. He felt so cold. He’d already accepted his fate. Why continue? Other than the basement.
“He’s going to die soon,” the pale girl said briskly. She took her hands off his side and knelt on his shoulder, pressing his arm into the earth. “Inject him now or let him go.”
“We need you.” Levi readied the needle.
Ymir glared at them. She was not willing to die, not anymore. At least not until she’d seen Historia again. “Saskia…”
Saskia glanced behind her to see Ymir’s titan with tears in its eyes. Did she hate Ymir enough to wish her dead? No, of course not.
But what could she do? Saskia turned around to see Levi slip the needle into Erwin’s vein.
Eren’s heart hammered as they hurried along the cobblestone streets. The streets were cracked and plants overgrown, some houses smashed into smithereens and others whole and dusty. The scene felt familiar, yet still distant. The quiet was eerie.
Mom…Mom died here. A lump rose in his throat. I miss her.
Mikasa reached out to brush her hand against his arm. She would never forget how Carla had hugged her when she’d first walked into the Jaeger home, a haunted shell of a girl. Life looks so different now.
Reiner couldn’t escape the pain in Mikasa’s eyes. He and Bertoldt really were damned, weren’t they? Maybe they deserved death.
“Mmm? Is this it?” Sasha asked from Connie’s arms. For both their sakes, he hoped so – his arms hurt now.
“Yes.” Eren stared at the fallen roof. The years and Titans hadn’t ruined it completely.
Mom… For a moment he was back there, desperately yanking at her arm. Determined that she couldn’t die today, not when he’d just seen her, not today.
“She shouldn’t have died!” he burst out then, jerking Bertoldt across a splintery fallen beam.
Bertoldt closed his eyes. He really had no argument left.
“No,” Eren said. “No, you don’t get to close your eyes, not when all I see is this.”
“You think I don’t?” Bertoldt whispered.
“Not as much as you deserve.”
“Eren, the basement,” reminded Hange, ducking inside the dilapidated house.
With a growl, Eren dragged Bertoldt after her. Maybe if he was angry enough at this Titan, he wouldn’t feel the pain eating his heart out.
Hange stared at the locked door. “Is this it?”
Eren’s mouth opened, but the sight of plates on the table took his words. Life had been so normal, or seemed so. Mom.
Jean swallowed as he leant against the wall. Connie and Sasha had stayed outside for now.
Armin would know what to say now. Jean was no Armin; he wasn’t even a fan of Eren.
“Your Mom can’t come back, Eren.” Well, that came out wrong. E cleared his throat. “But, I mean, I’m sure she can see you somewhere. I’m sure she would be proud of you.”
Eren nodded, his eyes meeting Jean’s. Then he grabbed the key around his neck. “This is it.”
When the purple fluid had emptied into his blood, Saskia applied pressure once again to the commander’s side. She had no idea how long the serum took to heal, and she wasn’t going to let him die in the meantime. Besides, focusing on him meant that she didn’t have to meet Levi’s suspicious eyes.
Erwin jerked suddenly. Saskia pulled her hands back and examined his wound. “Well, we’re not bleeding as much.”
“That had better be a good sign,” Levi said. “Erwin, you need to be alive to kick my ass for failing to kill that ape.”
Saskia flinched. “He’s not easy to kill. Or hurt.”
“I had him,” Levi spat.
She didn’t know how to respond. Could Levi be good enough to take out her husband? Was anyone?
He’s going to be very angry – especially at me. Saskia shivered. Funny how captivity was now her safest place.
Erwin began shaking uncontrollably. Steam appeared in his side.
“Time to leave.” Levi grabbed Saskia and yanked her away as Erwin Smith exploded into another wretched Titan.
“This is – this is – this is history,” squeaked Hange. She hadn’t breathed since seeing massive library in the cellar. Her eyes fell on a desk with an open book. She wiped the dust off it. “And science!”
“What?...” Reiner’s mouth fell open. Eren’s father had been an amazing man.
“That’s not all.” Mikasa’s voice was cold.
Eren turned his attention to Mikasa as Reiner choked.
He followed their gaze to a barrel. “Come on.” He dragged a nearly regenerated Bertoldt closer and peered in.
“Dozens of serums,” Mikasa corrected him. “Many different types.”
“What the hell?!” Jean erupted.
“I don’t know!” Eren yelled back.
“Simmer down,” Mikasa ordered. “You’re not helping.”
“Who was your father?” Bertoldt asked in astonishment.
“I wish I knew,” Eren said sadly, staring at the serums.
“Wait!” Hange gasped, lifting the book. “There are notes written here…Eren, your father was working on harnessing titan regenerative abilities.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, to heal people.” Hange flipped back a page. “Those aren’t titan serums; they’re attempts are regenerative serums. Some of which could, I suppose, turn people into titans – no telling how many work or not –”
“Give some to Sasha!” Jean lunged for it. He dropped to the ground, gagging up specks of blood.
“Or to you.” Hange’s eyes glimmered. “Your choice, but it looks like you’re not in the best condition.”
Reiner’s heart pounded as Mikasa thrust the serum at Hange. What if it worked? What if it didn’t? – Where was Armin? He must have died…How had he died?
I just turned my friend into something I lived to kill. Levi had no regrets, but the uncanniness ate at him.
“Does he know which one to eat?” Saskia asked.
“I don’t think so,” Levi said grimly, watching the large, lumbering commander.
“Well, it’s disappeared,” Saskia responded.
So powerful, but in an entirely new body. Erwin felt embarrassed, broken, guilty. What am I supposed to do now? For once, he didn’t know.
Feelings were so much stronger than thinking. His abilities to think were growing fuzzier.
Eat them. His eyes landed on Levi, brandishing a sword, and the pale girl. The urge was so strong – but Levi was his friend – he couldn’t eat Levi –
So many bodies. So many horses. Holes punched through them, blood and brain splattered everywhere, limbs crushed and broken, faces unrecognizable.
I gained so many troops, and this is what I did to them.
He wanted to fall to his knees, wanted to ask forgiveness from the dead, but he couldn’t. Not now. No one needed to see an all-powerful Titan on his knees. Levi, all the wounded, all of them needed hope.
He glanced at his right arm. To his shock, it was still gone. Pain shot through him, and rage. Why? Why? Was he too guilty to be whole?
Saskia rolled her eyes at Levi. “Swords seem unnecessary.”
“Oh really, then why did your friend run?” Levi spat. If Erwin lost his mind due to that girl, he would kill her too.
“He doesn’t even have his arm back; I don’t know what serum you got your hands on, but it’s weak at best,” Saskia said.
She strolled towards the one-armed Titan. Saskia felt herself scalded from its steam, but she rather liked the pain; it was new. “Erwin.”
The Titan turned to face her. Its eyes were weak and fearful and powerful all at once, but not frightening. If Zeke’s Titan didn’t frighten her, nothing would.
He might not be a shifter yet, but his Titan wasn’t strong, and his mind would be lost more slowly than most. He could be reasoned with.
“Look, I know you feel like you have to eat us and you don’t want to. That’s normal. But you don’t have to eat us. Not yet. We’ll figure this out.”
She closed her eyes and spread her arms wide, the way she’d seen Zeke behave during the Selection.
She felt she might as well have been a Titan, taking up the space she did. Usually she shrunk besides Zeke, besides her father, besides Annie. This space wasn’t natural.
“Breathe. Breathe. Now remember who you are, all the good and bad. Remember him.” She pointed towards Levi.
The Titan seemed frozen for a few seconds before it turned its head towards Levi.
Levi’s heart leapt. For now, there was recognition in his eyes.
Hesitantly, he approached his friend. He may have failed thus far, but he would succeed in the end. The Corp was not dead.
“Levi!” A bloody, but very much alive, Hange Zoe flew over the walls. Behind her came Eren, Mikasa, Connie, and more, armed with what appeared to be dozens of Titan serums.
Oh no. Glancing at Erwin, Levi had never been so happy and afraid to see Hange in his life.
Chapter 3: Chapter Three
As Levi races to stop Eren from accidentally killing Erwin and Saskia tries to keep Erwin from eating Levi, Jean and Sasha deal with a rather unexpected visitor.
Without hesitation, as if he’d been itching for a kill, Jaeger flew towards the Titan.
Shit. Levi flew straight at him and yelled, “Stop!”
But Eren only heard an unintelligible, distant shout. Armin. Armin. Titans had killed Armin. They needed to die.
They collided and Eren tumbled towards the ground, frantically clutching the vials so as not to break them. “What are you doing?!”
The kid still had a dozen vials in his hands. “How exactly were you e planning on using your blades, you idiot?”
“Well, why aren’t you using yours?” Eren shouted back. He could hardly look at the thing. He felt he would explode into violence. He had been so calm in the basement – and now – and now – “Are they a shifter?”
“Not yet,” Levi said.
“What does that even mean?!”
“Levi, what is going on?” Hange interrupted, stopping beside Eren. Amidst the carnage a very defensive Levi, a mysterious woman, and a Titan far too close to all of them had assembled. Something needed an explanation.
“What happened here?” Mikasa demanded. So many boulders…so many bodies. Cruel chaos.
“The Beast Titan happened.”
“Why won’t you let me kill it? I can avenge them,” Eren pled. Not that he ever could. Vengeance wouldn’t bring back Armin, or Mom, or anyone. Fuck.
“Because I acquired titan serum,” Levi hissed, lowering his eyes. “And I used it to save our commander.”
“You – what?” Hange gaped at the Titan.
“Erwin?” Connie asked.
“Do we have another?” Eren asked irritably. “So he’s just a Titan now? That’s not saving him! I would know!”
“The plan was to feed the Beast Titan or your friend Ymir to him, but I got a bit distracted saving his life.”
“Ymir is back?” Hange’s eyes glittered. Levi could only imagine her ideas for Erwin.
“And gone,” Levi said.
“Hard to blame her,” Connie replied hesitantly.
“Ooh, I’m torn,” Hange lamented. “We could capture Erwin and bring him back, but I’d feel bad causing him pain, though I’m sure he’d understand. But do you think the medicine might help? It must be worth a try. Let’s try it!”
“What medicine?” Levi asked, eyeing the serum vials. Medicine vials. Whatever.
“Eren’s father harnessed the Titan’s healing powers,” Hange said breathlessly.
“Well then, we can’t waste any more time talking.” Levi snatched a vial from Hange and soared towards Erwin.
“Everyone scatter and help your comrades,” Hange commanded. “We can’t waste any more time.”
“Uh.” Saskia had been half-listening, half distracting the titan from eating his former comrades, but she had heard enough to see that this “medicine” might be their only option. She waved a hand towards Erwin. “That’s it – look at me – yes.”
Levi’s heart pounded. The neck had to be the best place to inject it, right? Him. Inject him.
“Who are you?” Hange hollered to Saskia.
Saskia ground her teeth and stepped closer to the titan, ignoring the messy woman calling to her. “Keep looking at me. We’re going to help you.”
For the second time in minutes, Levi plunged a needle into his friend’s bloodstream.
Steam immediately poured from the titan. Levi lurched back. Have I killed him? “Erwin.”
His face burned, and he felt sure he would melt. Levi had no choice but to flee the heat.
Saskia, however, stepped forward. The steam wasn’t as bad near the earth, and she rather liked the pain. Erwin was either transforming into a human or dying, and either way he might need her. Annie had, her first time, when she had only been eight.
With a sudden burst of energy that knocked Saskia onto her back and Levi into Hange, a beleaguered body toppled onto his hands and knees.
Reiner briefly wondered if joking that hey, at least Titan powers had healed Sasha would lighten the mood. But no, one look at the anger burning in Jean and Sasha’s eyes, coupled with the feeling of cold and sharp metal on the back of his neck and sharper agony inside his heart, convinced him it was a bad idea. What sort of person would think of jokes? Him, someone hopelessly trapped and fucked up like him, that was who.
He glanced sideways to Bertolt, held by Jean. The despair in his eyes was sickening.
He blames himself for making decisions. He thinks we failed because he chose wrong, Reiner thought.
He had to be strong for Bertolt. He owed him. He loved him. Even if Reiner died, he wanted Bertolt to make it back home.
I may be fucked up, but at least I love someone.
Reiner swallowed. “So…we’re just waiting here? So you can kill and torture us later?”
Sasha’s face blanched. She just wanted them to help get Connie’s mom back.
Jean narrowed his eyes at Bertolt. “I don’t know.”
“But if you have any information, that would be helpful,” Sasha said quickly.
Reiner rolled his eyes. “Of course.”
“Do you?” Jean asked after a pause.
“You just tried to kill us.”
“You nearly did kill Sasha and I! And you betrayed us!” Jean cried, waving one arm about. The other kept his blade steady on Bertolt’s neck. “And he killed Armin!”
“What?” Reiner gasped.
Bertolt stared at the ground. His lips trembled.
“You killed Armin?” Reiner wasn’t sure why Armin’s death bothered him so. Armin was their greatest threat. Or his mind was, at any rate. But Armin had been kind, and reasonable, and if anyone could reason their way to understanding his predicament, Armin could.
He felt as if their best chance had just died.
He shouldn’t have died.
Marco shouldn’t have, either. And how many like them had they killed when they broke down the walls?
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Reiner burst out. “I don’t know. I can’t take it back. We can’t. Kill me, not Bertolt.”
Bertolt’s eyes widened. “No!” He leaned forward, though Jean’s blade followed him. “Reiner, we have to go home together. Reiner, please, I’m the one who killed him. I didn’t – he wouldn’t let go and I tried to end it quickly at least, but I did it. It’s my fault.”
Jean glanced at Sasha. He hadn’t realized how guilty they felt. Their faces were tortured, their eyes hollow. All they had was each other, because they had betrayed their comrades. I feel bad for them.
There’s hope for you, Sasha wanted to say, but she wasn’t sure how appropriate it was. They deserved to suffer for Armin, and all their comrades. But how much?
“You know…I was actually relieved that we didn’t kill you,” Sasha confessed.
Reiner frowned. “Why?”
Jean’s eyes met hers again, and they knew: they would let their comrades be hurt, to some extent, but killed? Executed? Never.
A shadow fell across his face. Jean yelled out and whirled around.
“I’m…here.” Erwin sounded amazed.
“Welcome back, Commander,” Levi said with a rare grin.
Saskia beamed at him. How many times had she wanted to help Zeke return to his human form, return to calm, return to the kindness he’d never felt? Finally, she’d helped someone.
Erwin frowned at the short woman in front of him. With her pearl hair, ashen complexion, and gray eyes, she looked almost like a ghost. But she wasn’t a figment of a dying imagination.
Erwin glanced at Levi. “What happened? The beast Titan – ?”
“You don’t remember much?” Levi asked. He shouldn't have been surprised – Jaeger hadn’t remembered Mikasa at first, had he, and Erwin had lost copious blood on top of it.
“I don’t,” he said tersely. All Erwin remembered was the ghost girl saying words and his hunger to eat her.
“I failed,” Levi said flatly. “I saved you with the serum, and the Beast escaped.”
Erwin stared at the field, the fallen troops. Why was he here? They should all be alive before him. We failed.
“It worked! Aieeeeeeeee! This is amazing!” Joy cut through his morose thoughts.
Hange waved at him from a few meters away. Her other hand jabbed a needle into the vein of a man who appeared to be dead. But she could feel a pulse at least.
“The basement was full of regenerative serum, but without the titan powers. That’s how we rescued you,” Levi explained.
“The basement – you found the basement?” Erwin’s eyes blazed. His dream had been realized, if not by him, by the people he led. “And you’ve found a cure for titans?”
“Perhaps,” said Levi, unwilling to believe. Not yet.
Erwin felt as if he were child grasping at a shelf of hope just above his reach. Maybe, just maybe his goal in life was something more than the basement.
“Hange saw it, not me. I was busy saving your ass.”
A ghost of a smile appeared in Erwin’s eyes. Only Levi would talk to him that way.
“The Colossal and Armored Titans?”
“I’m assuming, given our survival, that they are deceased,” Levi said briskly.
Saskia flinched. No. Not Annie’s comrades – they were just children. How dare they.
Erwin glared at the expressionless woman who’d haunted his titan dream – she clearly cared, if ever so briefly, for humanity’s enemies.
“I’ll ask you again: who are you?”
The woman opened her mouth, but no sound came out. She didn’t know what to say.
She settled on, “I don’t think I’m your highest priority.”
“That’s suspiciously vague,” the messy woman called from a few meters away before refocusing on the nearly eviscerated young woman in front of her. “Hold on, child.”
Saskia scowled, watching the woman inject her comrade. “I’m aware.”
Zeke would love to know about this medicine. He would treasure her information. Her return to his good graces would be assured.
“Are you working with the Beast Titan?” Levi demanded, grabbing her by her arms.
She watched Erwin touch the shoulder where his arm should have been. Not even titan serum and regenerative medicine could return what wasn’t there before. “I’m sorry your arm is still gone.”
Erwin frowned at her. His eyes were very blue beneath unusually thick eyebrows. She wasn’t sure she like his eyes. “I’d rather know who you are.”
“No, you wouldn’t,” she said softly.
“Answer the question,” Levi said.
“My name is Saskia Leonhardt.”
Recognition dawned on his face.
“I’m neither your friend nor enemy, which might just make me your friend right now, as nonsensical as that is,” she continued. “I don’t care about you or your wars; I came here to find my sister: Annie Leonhardt.”
Saskia wasn’t entirely sure where the lie was, other than omitting Ymir’s kidnapping.
“Your sister? I think that might make you our enemy,” Levi responded.
“Did you hurt her?” Saskia demanded furiously, at last showing some emotion. She tried to twist around to see him, but damn he was strong.
“No. She remains in custody, locked away from everyone,” Erwin said.
“Are you lying?”
Erwin thought that an odd question. She was lying about something. “No. And you can see her if you help us now. Start by telling us everything you know.”
The way he looked at her. He knew she was hiding something.
Give him something he wants. Explain something “I’m already helping you now. I told you before, I’m your hostage – my father is fairly prominent in the village. If both his daughters are killed or hurt by the people in the walls, it will go quite poorly for the Beast Titan.”
“Are you presenting a case for why we should kill you?” Levi asked, freeing one arm to gesture around the battlefield.
“If you want the rest of your puny walls demolished,” Saskia said sweetly. But the bodies – the bodies – sarcasm felt blasphemous.
“If you could, why not do it?” Erwin smiled. Two could play this game. “We know you need the Coordinate.”
Saskia hesitated. They knew about that? These people were smarter than expected.
It would do no good to lie. He knew she knew. “Well, yes, I believe.”
“One last question before we head back with you in custody: the one we call the Beast Titan, how does he transform people into Titans?”
Saskia tilted her head. “Do you think it is science or magic?”
Erwin exchanged a glance with Levi. “Both.”
“Perhaps.” She shrugged. “He’s never told me how. We just know that he does.”
“But why?” Levi burst out.
Saskia gestured around the field of bodies. “Because he can.”
“All of this…is because someone can?” Levi said with palpable agony.
“I don’t know,” Saskia said, swallowing fear.
“But this medicine could cure the titans?” Erwin grabbed her other arm.
She felt helpless in the arms of two men so much stronger than her. Like when her father had shoved her into Zeke’s arms. “I don’t know.”
“You’re going to have to do better than that,” Levi said.
“Perhaps! Perhaps it can. Or perhaps your serum was of the weaker variety,” Saskia said quietly. “Are you satisfied?”
“No,” Erwin said simply.
“What are you doing here?” Jean kept one sword at Bertolt’s neck, another pointed straight at her.
“Last I remember, you ran off with them.” Jean jerked his head in the titans’ direction. “So excuse me if I don’t relax.”
Ymir chuckled, but her eyes remained dark. “Look. I’m on your side at the present. As long as you don’t kill them.”
“That’s precisely why we don’t trust you,” Sasha said irritably.
“I don’t either,” Reiner agreed.
“Shut up!” Sasha cried.
“Let him talk.”
“Ymir, they killed so many soldiers. They killed Armin. They ruined us.” Jean’s voice shook.
Reiner stared at the ground, suddenly afraid that just by his eyes, Jean would know about Marco.
A pang shot through Ymir’s heart, though she didn’t show it. She had always viewed that nervous kid as their best hope to understand each other. And, judging from Reiner and Bertolt’s anguished faces, they felt similarly. “And they ruined themselves, by the looks of it.”
“I don’t want them dead,” Sasha clarified. “But, Ymir, we have to guard them. If you get in our way, we will stop you. I’ve been regenerated once today. I have no fear and I’ll risk it again.”
Ymir scowled. “You’re petrified, but otherwise I believe you. Lucky for all of us, all I want is to live through today, too. But allow me to strike a deal: you tell me whether this ‘regeneration’ has anything to do with this mysterious basement, and I prove to you that humanity is equally evil inside and outside the wall.”
“We’re nearly out of serum.” Hange approached Erwin, Levi, and the mystery girl.
“About ten percent revived, perhaps a dozen who can be carried back, and many more who just won’t make it,” she said. “I’ll need time to look at the serum recipes, and time isn’t what they have. Especially with the beast out there.”
Levi swallowed. The beast was his fault.
Erwin drew in a breath.
“Erwin, I have five more needles. I could save more soldiers or more horses. We could cart more of the less grievously injured back with them.”
“Horses...” Erwin stared at the distant trees, his heart sinking. Still no titans. The beast was out there. “We’re lost without horses.”
“And most individuals will die on the way back without serum. What is your command?” Hange didn’t want to decide. This was not a decision for her to make.
Erwin could feel Hange and Levi’s tormented eyes on him, could feel strange Saskia judging him. “Five, you say?”
How could he deny those the miracle he had just experienced?
Either way, someone died. Individual certainty for individual chances, or individual certainty for the entire troops’ chances.
“We need the horses,” he said quietly.
Saskia’s eyes flashed. “How dare you.”
He glared at her. “I have no choice.”
“I don’t care. Individuals matter.” Annie mattered.
They were all like Zeke. Nowhere was safe.
“Your opinion isn’t warranted.” They were more ghosts he would carry with him; he had accepted it. I will remember all their names. I will remember them. I will make them matter. “Save the horses, and let us retreat into the wall.”
Saskia hated war. She hated death. This type of impossible choice – this had to be why Zeke killed the human soldiers. It had to be.
Hadn’t she been afraid of him a few seconds ago, yet now she defended him? Ymir would tell her she was in denial. That, at least, she did not deny.
“You’re coming with me, Titan girl.” Levi hauled Saskia towards the wall, away from the field of bloodshed, away from the martyred ground.
“Is it true?” Sasha yelled at them as soon as they entered the gate.
“Be more specific,” Levi hollered back, secretly relieved to see more of his squad.
“You tried to kill Ymir!”
Naturally. Ymir had fled inside Shinagashina. Levi didn’t blame her. “Don’t worry, we found another solution. Erwin’s not a mindless titan.”
“But he was?” Jean asked.
The commander’s face was flushed, his eyes shadowed.
Ymir nodded, doing her best to summon a paltry smirk. “Oh yes, you were. I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry you were nearly sacrificed,” he said, to her surprise. Ymir did not think Erwin Smith capable of apologizes.
He held out his hand.
“I’m not on your side, specifically,” Ymir said weakly, reaching for his hand.
“I’ve heard that before.” Erwin nodded towards Saskia.
Ymir couldn’t resist a grin.
“We need you, Ymir,” Erwin said gravely.
“I know.” Suddenly her eyes didn’t look like a cynical seventy-year-old, but Erwin saw a glimmer of the small child she had been before transforming. Her grip tightened on his hand.
“It’s my fault, Ymir,” Saskia said quickly. They might as well be allies now.
“Really, I blame both Levi and you,” replied Ymir, crossing her arms. “But I don’t blame your lack of love for me. I blame war. I hate war. I hate these decisions.”
Saskia stared at this girl, her enemy, her captive and captor, who now echoed her own thoughts.
“I see.” The pretty auburn-haired girl stepped back. “Captain Levi, what do we do with Reiner and Bertolt?”
Saskia gasped. They were here. Alive. They were just like her baby sister.
Bertolt couldn’t even meet her eyes, but Reiner looked at her with pure horror. Zeke’s wife. The War Chief would now know every detail of his failure. His life was at an end even if the Survey Corp kept him.
“Not friends?” Levi quipped, noticing Reiner’s fear.
She remembered the tale of how he’d challenged Zeke to save Annie. He’d done more than she, Annie’s own sister, had ever tried.
She shouldn’t say this. But she shouldn’t have done anything she’d done this far.
“Release me, please.” Saskia said in an eerily calm voice. “Just for a moment. You can hold a sword on me if you wish, just let my arms go for a moment.”
Skeptical, Levi still took his hands off her arm at Erwin’s curious nod.
“You didn’t deserve this,” Saskia whispered to the Armored Titan. She knelt beside Reiner Braun and wrapped her arms around him. “You have a good heart, no matter what they say.”
She slid over to Bertolt next and embraced him. “And you are a true friend, and stronger than you know.”
“Whose side are you on?” Reiner hissed, glancing at Levi.
Saskia glanced out the gate, towards the forest. No Zeke.
“No one’s,” she confessed, finally facing the fact: she had betrayed him. And she liked that.
Chapter 4: Chapter Fourteen
Eren encounters Zeke, Ymir goes on a rant against Saskia, and Zeke discovers a certain member of the Survey Corp among the wreckage.
“They’re too dangerous to bring back,” Levi said.
“They’re too dangerous not to bring back,” Jean said shakily. “We shouldn’t kill them – it’s dangerous for us, don’t you see? Morally.”
“Morals can’t save us,” Erwin said grimly.
“You aren’t seriously considering it?” Connie cried.
“Is there another choice?” whispered Mikasa. My family is dead again. Armin is dead because of them.
Saskia met Ymir’s gaze. She didn’t deserve her help, but she needed it. “You’ll lose your one advantage.”
“I thought that was you,” Levi replied.
“You mistake me. With them around, I don’t matter half so much. They know much more than I,” Saskia said, keeping a hand on Bertolt’s shoulder. “You could choose safety and kill them and take only little human me, sure, but I’ll take every opportunity to kill myself and I assure you I am creative enough that I will succeed at some point. And I’ll do it just for spite. And then you’ll have no answers and no advantage, like ignorant insects.”
Given her ever-expressionless face, Erwin wasn’t sure whether he believed her or not.
“Your comrades were willing to have her devoured to ensure your victory, Commander.” Saskia gestured towards Ymir. “Look around you. Are you much different than the Warriors, except for number of victims?”
Erwin stared at the two battered, beaten children in front of him. They were enemies. He prayed for an idea, any idea, to come to him.
“You’ll get no information from me, either, if you kill them,” Ymir added. She threw Saskia a scowl. Don’t think I helped for your sake.
Erwin stayed silent a moment longer.
“Blind them and take off their limbs until we get them underground. Any attempts to escape in Titan form will result in us killing your friend,” Erwin decided.
“Gladly.” Hange swung her blade, lobbing off the rest of Reiner’s regenerating arm.
Who’s really the monster here? Jean thought.
Reiner’s face betrayed no emotion as Hange reduced him to a torso with a head.
She’s taking too long on purpose, Reiner realized as Hange sawed off his thigh.
I’m weak, I’m so weak, Bertolt thought.
“Stop,” he whimpered.
“Oh?” Hange lifted her blade and dug it into Reiner’s chest as she whirled around to face Bertolt. “Maybe you should have stopped before you killed my squad. Maybe you should have stopped five years ago!”
“Or Armin!” yelled Eren.
“Hange, stop. We can’t be monsters, too,” Jean said nervously.
Hange’s face fell. She already was, but to admit that would be to admit defeat. “I’ll blind him quickly.”
Reiner kept his eyes on Bertolt as the blade, then blackness, overtook his sight.
“Allow me.” Mikasa stepped forward and cut Bertolt neatly, in a matter of seconds, in too much pain to hurt him more.
Levi pulled Saskia away from the warrior children. “Ymir, what is your plan?”
Her gaze would have withered the Colossal Titan himself. “To find Krista. Where is she?”
“Historia Reiss has taken her place as the rightful queen,” Erwin said.
“What?” Ymir gasped. “No – how dare you – you can’t do that to her.”
“She chose it.”
“As your puppet.”
“I think she would make a good ruler,” Erwin said instead.
“I’m not denying that – but you don’t understand –”
“What? What do we not understand?” Erwin stepped closer. “Ymir, I can’t help Historia if you don’t tell us.”
Ymir swallowed. “And have you kill Reiner and Bertl?”
The sound of heavy feet stopped them all.
“We’re dead anyways,” Reiner said.
“DAMMIT!” yelled Eren.
Saskia whirled around. The Mule and – him –
Ymir’s bony fingers wrapped around Saskia’s neck.
“Don’t fight,” she hissed.
“Come any closer and I’ll kill him!” Eren bellowed, digging his blade into Bertolt’s neck. Blood seeped down, drip, drip, drip onto his shirt.
“Are you Eren…Jaeger?” asked Zeke, his eyes wide with shock. All his warriors…and Saskia. Damn that treacherous Ymir. He would personally slay Krista and enjoy it. “You don’t resemble Grisha at all.”
“What?” Eren spat.
“You have to believe me,” pled Zeke, an ache in his heart. The poor kid didn’t deserve this. “I understand you. We’re all victims of your father. He brainwashed you!”
Ymir’s arm tightened around Saskia’s throat.
“My father?!” Eren gasped.
Zeke – his face – like the lighter version of Dad.
Who are you? Who am I?
Zeke’s eyes fell on Levi, who had positioned himself between his precious commander and the Mule.
He was dangerous, so dangerous. Zeke’s heart pounded.
The captain’s black eyes burned back at him. His sword rose slowly towards Saskia’s face. A drop of scarlet appeared on her cheek.
“You’re a monster,” growled Zeke. How many titans had died because of him? And now he had his wife?
Levi’s eyes flickered. As if he didn’t know that. As if he cared.
Zeke knew he couldn’t save them all. Why did they need to be rescued, like weaklings?
Only one was close enough.
“Well then. Fine. We’ll call it even this time, won’t we Levi?” Zeke snapped as his hand pointed towards Reiner, who was positioned tantalizingly close.
“No!” Connie dove forward, but the Mule already had Reiner in its mouth.
Jean lurched ahead to grab his friend.
“Connie, stop!” commanded Hange. The last thing she need was Connie in the titan’s mouth, too.
“I wouldn’t come closer,” Zeke said with amusement, amusement that disturbed Erwin more than transforming into a titan.
“What do you want?” Eren fought the urge to run forward and seize every chance to shred this man apart. Frankly, Levi was rather proud of Eren’s restraint.
“I want you to join us. Be useful in your life!”
“Join you?!” Eren exploded, shaking Bertolt. “When your crony here killed my best friend?!”
Unsurprised but disappointed, Zeke ignored Eren’s outburst. “Sorry Bertolt, but it looks like your end has come.”
That boy had always been a waste of serum. “Eren…Saskia…I will find you. And rescue you both.”
But not Bertolt? Reiner thought with horror. A scream bubbled up in his throat, a scream he didn’t dare release.
Saskia wasn’t sure whether he heart sunk from relief or disappointment.
He’s just gonna escape? Eren watched in disbelief as the mule scrambled onto a rooftop.
“Oh.” Zeke turned around and smirked at Erwin. “And you fight well, Commander. It’s a pity.”
Erwin stared after him.
“How much gas do you have left?” Hange asked Levi.
“Not enough,” Levi said desperately.
“Mine’s nearly depleted,” Mikasa added. No one was taking Eren from her again, least of all an animal like that.
“We’re too bedraggled to chase after him,” Erwin said in disbelief.
“I’m sorry,” Levi rasped. He could feel Hange’s tender eyes watching him, and it hurt to have her know he failed.
Erwin glanced sideways. “Levi. It is okay.”
Levi shook his head.
I’m not okay, either, Eren thought in a panic. Armin is dead. And I’ve been brainwashed. But by whom?
“What now? Return home?” Mikasa asked blankly.
“We’ll never make it,” Connie grumbled.
“Yes we will,” Eren snapped. “We have to.”
“Hange, how much did you take from the basement?” Erwin asked.
“Everything.” Hange gestured towards a pile of books and notes strapped together.
“We have to return,” Erwin said. “To the walls – and here.”
They’d had their first hopeful send-off ever, and now this had happened. Sure, they could return, but not really. We’ll have to come back. Soon.
“Hold onto the books, Hange. Levi, take Bertolt, and Mikasa, take Ymir.” Not that he was much concerned for Ymir; as long as they had Historia, Ymir would ally with them. He turned to Saskia. “You’ll ride with me.”
“And when titans inevitably encounter us on our voyage?” she asked.
“We’ll do what we can.”
I don’t want to leave Armin. Eren looked towards the walls. Even if he’s dead.
Mikasa’s hand touched his shoulder. “We have to go, Eren.”
“I know.” He turned and saw that she, too, had tears in her eyes.
“Put me down.” Zeke stretched his new legs on the pulverized cobblestone streets.
At least the soldiers had been treated to a nice explosion! Zeke smirked at the Mule titan behind him. “You are one lucky guy, Reiner.”
Reiner said nothing. Bertolt was being taken back…alone. What if they killed him after all? They couldn’t use them against each other anymore, after all.
“Cry all you want, but then get back being grateful you’re alive,” Zeke said.
“Hmm.” Zeke’s eyes fell on a still-steaming corpse. “Would you look at that.”
I actually can’t, remember? Reiner thought with as much sourness as he’d ever felt towards their leader.
“Sorry, Reiner,” Zeke said with a chuckle, approaching the body. Such a waste.
They might have killed him already, and I’ll never know when his last moments are. Tears leaked down Reiner’s cheeks.
Zeke nudged the body with his feet. A choking sound emanated from the corpse.
“What?!” Zeke jumped. Ha. Silly me. He knelt besides the body and felt its wrist.
His pulse was weak, his breath weaker, but life was there.
“Well, well, well. Nice to see you, buddy. What’s your name? Tch, I forgot you’re unconscious.” Zeke smiled. “Wonder if you’re the best friend Eren mentioned? Now, that could be quite useful.”
Reiner could only hear mumbles. Zeke had found something, but what? No one could question him, even now.
Footsteps approached him, heavier than typical. Zeke was carrying something. “Good thing I packed those medicine crates. Should be enough to tide him over. We’ll give him something stronger when we get back.”
Who is it? Reiner wanted to scream. It couldn’t be – could it?
“Looks like you’re not the only lucky one, Reiner. We may have found the perfect bargaining chip.”
“I’m very sorry you had to see that, Ruth.”
The child sniffled. “You’re so nice.”
Historia handed a slide of bread to Ruth before glancing up. “Commander Dok.”
“The Survey Corp has returned.”
His voice was dull, too dull. Any why the Commander, rather than a messenger? She straightened, unable to ask her real questions. “What happened?”
“There’s very few of them, and most are in a wretched state.”
Historia trembled. “I – I have to go to them.”
“It’s your duty as queen to stay here.”
“As queen, my duty is what I say it is,” Historia cried. “I’m going to find them immediately.”
Nile’s eyes narrowed. “Understood.”
“If you don’t care about your friends, I feel very sorry for you,” she continued, to her own surprise. Was that Krista? Or her true self?
He regarded her silently.
“You can leave,” she told him. “No, wait! Did they reach the basement?”
He sighed. “Apparently, yes. But that is all I know.”
“Thank you,” she said sincerely.
She’s too kind. How did she survive this far? Nile stormed off. She would need to set up someone to rule while she went off on her little journey, but he sure wasn’t going to remind her now.
Saskia had never seen so many bustling streets. So many people. They looked dumb but kind, a trait she had never really been able to fathom. Father had shown it too late, when he’d pleaded with Annie and then with her, and she’d only been confused.
“Who is that?” Someone whistled at her.
Saskia inhaled sharply. Zeke would kill someone for that. Did that mean she wanted him here? Maybe.
Erwin saw the disgust flicker across her otherwise expressionless face, and felt a moment of pity for her rather than himself. “People can be asses wherever, I suppose.”
She glanced back at him. He had to be mentally impenetrable to be able to handle this homecoming, with so many dead. Not to mention having turned into a titan and back. Perhaps he would break down away from everyone. She knew that feeling well.
She felt him stiffen behind her. An onslaught of people pressed in around them, demanding to know where Sara and Peter and Rhoda and Jacob all were, and then some were relieved but most of them were screaming and wailing, and regardless all of them were crying, and Saskia just wanted them to shut up, and then an apple flew directly into her face.
“What the –” Saskia wasn’t sure if she were angrier that people were actually horrible enough to attack someone they didn’t know, or that they were wasting food. Did they not understand hunger?
“Erwin, you bastard!” cried an older man then, hurling another apple at the Commander. “You led them into death!”
Saskia snatched it from the air. Instinct told her to send it right back into his stupid nose, but a sweeter form of revenge beckoned.
She held up the apple. “Hungry, Commander Titan?”
“No.” The last thing he needed was that nickname. But maybe he deserved it.
“You’re exhausted. You need it more than I,” she replied, shoving it back into his belt.
“That man lost his grandson, Max Ritter,” Erwin said quietly.
“Oh.” She oughtn’t have judged him as an enemy so fast.
“Have you ever noticed that he’s always the one who comes back?” hissed someone up ahead.
“What could have happened?”
“Who’s the girl? Is she another titan?” someone shrieked.
“Never mind her, who’s he?” someone pointed at Bertolt, who was very obviously bound to Levi in ways that Ymir and Saskia clearly weren’t.
“Shit,” growled Levi. Am I seriously going to have to use my blade to protect the Colossal Titan?
“Commander, we need to get out of here,” Hange said from behind.
Erwin surveyed the crowds of people who might not know about their loved ones yet. Was there no end to this? “Indeed. Ride to headquarters as fast as you can.”
He glanced at the sweating boy tied to Levi. “And get that one underground.”
“Really, sir? All of us?” Ymir stared at the cell before her.
“Yes, really. For all we know, you’ve actually sided with them,” Levi jerked his head towards a heavily chained Bertolt, “and are just fooling us.”
“You don’t believe that.” Ymir felt like screaming. Let me see Historia!
“Doesn’t matter what I believe.”
Saskia watched quietly as Levi pushed Ymir into a cell. They wouldn’t have been so stupid as to put her, Ymir, and Bertolt anywhere near Annie. How long would it take for her to see her sister again?
“How’s it going, Bertl?” Ymir flopped onto her bed as soon as Levi left. With a small smile, she realized that Levi hadn’t actually chained her up. He must trust her to some extent.
“Okay, play the silent game. It won’t help you.”
“The annoying game won’t help you, either,” Saskia said with a shrug.
“You’re creepy, you know that?” Ymir sat up to glare at Saskia. “You never show any emotions or act like you care. It’s like you’re hollow. And then occasionally you do something like save Erwin or Bertl and suddenly you’re hollow again. You remind me of Krista – Historia – minus the nice façade. I don’t mean that as a compliment.”
“Maybe you’re more a monster than me or Bertl. More than your sister.”
Anyone who used the words “Annie” and “monster” in the same sentence was an idiot. Pure and simple. It always was. Until it wasn’t. Saskia turned her face from Ymir so that cruel girl wouldn’t see her cry.
But the tears wouldn’t come, no matter how much she missed them. Maybe she’d forgotten how. Was Annie able to cry in her prison, wherever she was? Did she cry when they tortured her?
She’d gone from Ymir’s captor to captive to fellow captive in one day. Saskia choked on laughter, hard enough to cause tears. Well, it was a start.
“We’re in trouble this time.” Erwin turned the apple over and over in his hand.
“We’ve always been in trouble,” Levi said.
“No word from Hange?”
“Shitty Glasses is still pouring over ever detail. She’ll be up all night.”
Erwin half-smiled. “I’m glad we have her.”
Levi nodded. “We all are.”
He was especially, but keen-eyed Erwin knew that already.
“How long before we’re summoned?”
“We could make a bet on it,” Levi suggested with a grimace.
Silence fell. “You want to say something. Say it.”
Erwin glanced up, surprised.
“Say it, or I’ll break your legs for real this time.”
Erwin chuckled. He felt like such a coward. “I – I think I should have died. The serum should have gone to someone else. Armin. He was so young…and his intelligence…he may not have been strong, but his brain was perhaps even a better weapon than Eren.”
“We didn’t know Armin’s fate until too late.”
“Would you have spared him if given the choice?”
“No. We need you, you and Eren.” Levi stared straight ahead as he slumped against the wall. “Maybe. I don’t know.”
The two men fell silent again.
“We’re heartless bastards,” Levi said suddenly. “I killed so many titans to get to you. So many people. And I would do it again.”
“We learned something. It wasn’t for nothing this time,” Erwin said at length. “But it’s never really for nothing.”
For all the ghosts before him, it had to matter. They had to win.
“Commander!” A garrison soldier hurried in and thumped his hand over his heart. “Queen Historia is here.”
Erwin leapt to his feet and place the apple back onto his desk.
“Shit.” Levi stepped away from the wall.
“Let’s go.” Erwin strode out of the room.
Connie Springer met them. “Uh, Commander.”
“Where is Historia?”
“At the cells. Jean heard she was here and thought she should know about Ymir before anyone else.”
Of course that boy did. He never kept his thoughts to himself.
Ymir was on her feet quicker than lightning. “Historia?!”
“Ymir!” A blonde even smaller than Annie flung herself against the iron bars. Her arms reached through and up to hold Ymir’s shoulders.
Ymir dropped to her knees to be closer to Historia’s level. “I’m – ”
“I’ve missed you so much. I can live for myself but still need you, right?” Tears streamed down Historia’s cheeks. “Ymir, are you hurt? What can I do to help you?”
“You can be here.” Ymir smiled. “I mean, letting me out would be nice, too, but you’re what I need the most.”
“Did they hurt you?” Historia frowned. “Don’t lie to me.”
“It wasn’t pleasant, but I’m unharmed,” Ymir said honestly.
“I’m so glad. I’ll get you out – I’ll save you –”
“You aren’t supposed to do that anymore!”
“Shut up and let me help you! I’ll do it because I love you, for you and for me and all of us.” Historia stomped her foot.
She’s still sweet, but there’s fire inside.
Saskia noticed Commander Erwin and Levi observing from the entrance, Bertolt watching with desperation and shame. She felt as if she was seeing something holy and universal. Is this what they call love?
“I’m the queen, I’m sure I can do something,” Historia said.
Longing shone through Bertolt’s face. Saskia had misjudged his expression.
Or hope? She wondered after a second look.
And Erwin’s haunted face seemed a little less shadowed. Or both?
Ymir laughed. She sounded ever world-wise and fierce, but not cruel, not anymore. “Did anyone ever tell you that you aren’t just a queen, you’re a goddess?”
Okay, okay, so I apologize for saying Armin was dead in the first chapter. In all honesty, I might not have kept that part if he wasn't alive in the manga, too. But now I feel justified. :)
Chapter 5: Chapter Five
Ymir and Historia devise a plan, Saskia searches for Annie, and Armin finally awakens in the hands of the Warriors.
Pain more excruciating than burning.
Pain like his soul had been skinned and rubbed in salt knives.
Armin was vaguely aware of someone talking around him; their voice sounded rather familiar. Eren?
Nausea descended and he vomited, or maybe he didn’t. Nothing really made sense. Nothing felt real.
Eren…It hurt too much to talk. Everything hurt.
“You’ll be okay,” whispered the familiar voice. “You’ll be okay.”
He faded out again.
“So everything I’ve heard about Bertl’s sleeping positions is true,” Ymir stage-whispered.
Saskia cracked an eye open to see Historia, that rather childlike and innocent queen – innocent like she wished Annie could have been– snuggled against a grinning Ymir.
Across the cells, Bertolt had finally been caught by exhaustion. A dark haired girl with an otherworldly face guarded him just outside the cell door, eyeing his restless tossing and turning with a mixture of hatred and revulsion. Her ferocity reminded Saskia of Annie.
Most would think her revulsion due to her hatred, but in reality Mikasa was still sickened that their former friend could have killed Armin.
Saskia noted her emotions. “What is your name?”
“She’s Mikasa,” Ymir called out.
“You should be quiet,” Historia said nervously. Let Bertolt sleep. Yes, she still cared for her traitor friends, and she didn’t care if that made Mikasa angry. Well, she did, but still.
She also wasn’t sure what to make of the titan woman, other than she wore the same sullen expression as Annie, but infinitely less scary.
“Mikasa graduated first in our class. She’s the strongest, and her brother is Eren,” Historia explained.
“Eren isn’t my brother,” Mikasa said automatically.
“Foster brother. It’s complicated,” Ymir said cheerfully. Far too cheerfully for the situation, but then Historia was with her, so everything was all right for the moment.
An idea popped into Saskia’s head. She slid off her bed and approached the cell bars, nervously brushing back a strand of hair. “Do you care about him?”
“Are you threatening him?” Mikasa’s eyes glimmered.
“No,” Saskia said, gripping the bars. She rested her head against rusted iron and dared to look Mikasa in her eyes. “I care about my sister, too. Probably much like you care about Eren. Please take me to Annie.”
Mikasa bit her lip. She knew the searing pain of losing a sibling, but who knew if she could trust this woman? “We’re nowhere near her.”
“Is she hurt?” Saskia inquired.
Mikasa recognized that urgent tone.
Armin, where is Eren?
My comrades have fulfilled their duty and died in battle – Thomas Wagner, Mina Carolina, Milius Zermuski, Eren Jaeger!
“No.” Mikasa wondered if approaching Erwin over letting Saskia see Annie, frozen as Annie was, would be a kind act. Kind was Historia, Marco. Not her.
So the proud girl was begging, even if her voice remained monotone. Mikasa stepped forward and dipped her head. “When my shift ends, I will see what I can do.”
“This is fascinating,” Hange bubbled from behind Grisha’s notes.
“But is it useful?” Levi asked.
“That’s why you came here?” Hange blinked. “I thought Erwin needed me for something.” Or that you needed to talk.
“You didn’t sleep at all, did you?”
“I’m surprised you did,” Hange replied.
“I never said that.”
She lowered the notes and gave him one of her I-know-things-for-I-am-a-scientist looks. “It wasn't your fault, Levi. None of us were prepared.”
He nodded to the pile of notes, ignoring the lump in his throat. “Thought you might want someone to talk theories with or whatever you do. With Moblit gone.”
Hange stared at the floor. “Oh. Yes. Yes, I would like that.”
“Tell me what you have so far."
“No confession or explanation of the Warriors’ goals,” Hange began.
Levi scoffed. “Did you expect a diary?”
“Well, I would have liked one!” Hange shoved a book in his face. “But, look: here are the notes about making more regeneration serum. If we can find enough of these chemicals – peroxide is quite rare, but I’ll bet Wall Sina has it – we could copy the recipe.”
“And save the titans.” Levi stared at the pages without reading. Save the beasts who’d killed Isabel and Farlan and Petra and Eld and Gunther and Auruo and so many other comrades. Save the beasts he’d lived to kill. “If anyone can do it, you can.”
Hange smiled sympathetically. She could read him easier than Grisha’s notes. “Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not a hero.”
“I tell myself I’m not every day.”
“Darius will want you to answer. The people want revenge for their lost hope,” Historia admitted. This meeting between queen and Survey Corp Commander could only last ten minutes before their plan collapsed.
“They should have it,” Erwin said. “But. Only me. I fear cutting down the Survey Corp again would be disastrous.”
“No one’s saying we turn you over,” Ymir said, stretching in the free air. Finally, unshackled and freed; Historia insisting she stay by her side. “The last thing we need is a more politics in the way. Plus, they’ll want your head, and I rather like it attached.”
Historia’s hand reached over and squeezed Ymir’s. “Ymir has a plan. I think it’s a good one.”
“Squad Levi – minus Historia – should be tasked with Bertolt. We’ll get him to talk. He’s a child, after all, more so than me by sixty years,” Ymir said wryly. “Mikasa said they played Reiner and Bertolt off each other to extract information.”
“We don’t have Reiner,” Erwin said slowly. “But we do have –”
“Exactly. You have Annie. And you have Saskia, who’s far more reasonable than she pretends. She sees her sister, maybe helps us free her from whatever that crystal is. Or maybe Hange finds that information. Either way, you get information from Annie and Bertolt and stay ahead of the Military Police.”
“Leave them to us,” Historia said with uncanny confidence, smirking at Ymir.
“You have a plan?”
Ymir leaned forward. “Yes. But this time it is best if you do not know. Just take Squad Levi and make for the tunnels with Annie. Leave Bertolt here for now – I’ll keep him and everyone around him safe.”
Erwin wasn’t sure trusting a seventy-year-old teenager and a traumatized child queen made any sense. But then, did anything in their entire world?
“Commander Erwin, I know we’re a bunch of crazy kids. But the only way we all get out alive is my plan. We all need to know the War Chief’s objective, and knowing him, he’ll have told different bits to each Warrior. So you have to break through to Annie, while we give the Police the Colossal Titan as a treat to buy you time, while Hange recreates the cure. You bring back Annie, we get more information, we take the cure and save everyone in the world.” Ymir raised an eyebrow. “Unless that’s not your objective?”
Erwin stared at her.
“Commander Dok will be here within the hour. You have to leave.” Historia waved the message she had received that morning.
Erwin half-smiled. “Is that a command, queen?”
“You put me in charge. You gave me power when I never had any. Now trust me,” she said, with a slight tremble to her voice.
“I do,” Erwin replied, rising to his feet.
I’m scared. Historia smiled and saluted him. He saluted back, with his left hand as always.
“He’s a broken man,” Ymir said quietly as the commander left. “My favorite sort of human.”
“Sir?” Mikasa held her breath. She’d helped Ymir devise their plan, but the waiting was torturous.
“We ride out in ten minutes.”
Mikasa’s entire body melted. “Yes, sir.”
“Mikasa. You’re the strongest. You will be in charge of Saskia. We’ll be leaving Bertolt here for now.”
“What of Levi?”
Erwin hesitated. Historia may not have envisioned this. “I think it best if he stay with the Colossal Titan.”
Mikasa frowned as he walked off. She couldn’t be sure, but she suspected he just didn’t want to face his old friend.
A sharp rap on the door startled Levi. “What?”
He glared at Hange. “I fell asleep!”
“Yes, you did,” said the scientist, not taking her eyes off the page. “There’s a first time for everything. Not even you are invincible.”
“Erwin must have a plan –” Levi opened the door and promptly stiffened. “Commander Dok.”
“Captain Ackerman. Squad Leader Zoe.” Nile’s dark eyes scanned the room. “I understand your commander fled already?”
“What?” Levi crossed his arms. “Don’t mistake me for a fool.”
“I don’t,” Nile said wearily.
“We’ve been in here for hours,” Hange interrupted. “When did you arrive?”
“Looking for Erwin’s head, no doubt. Again.” Levi tapped his foot.
Nile growled. “Commander-in-Chief Zackly is the one requesting the inquiry, not me.”
“Do you always hide behind another’s responsibility? I wonder how you ever became a commander,” Hange said, still scanning Grisha’s notes. He must have spilled coffee or something on them, for the page was stained and blurred.
“Since when is saving that fool my responsibility?”
“Since serving mankind is,” Levi retorted.
“You won’t find him,” piped up Historia’s sweet voice from behind.
Nile spun around. “Leave that to me. Your Highness.”
“I’d sooner trust a fish,” replied her tall friend.
“I’ve sent him on,” Historia said simply. “You will not question this.”
“Darius will,” Nile said in frustration.
“We recovered the basement documents; I hardly see his problem,” Hange replied.
“Are you blind to how many people died?!” Nile erupted.
Levi stepped between the volcanic commander and scientist. “If only we could be.”
“Tell the people for now, we captured the Colossal Titan,” offered Ymir.
Nile gasped. “In the basement dungeons?”
“I’d lie and say no, but not even you would believe me,” replied Ymir. “But you won’t get your hands on him. On Queen Historia’s orders, only Levi, Hange, and myself may see him.”
Nile glanced at Historia, who nodded quickly.
She’s so weak.
“That won’t settle Zackly,” Nile protested. “Why would Erwin run, then?”
“He’s on a time-sensitive mission, more time sensitive than our bureaucracy allows,” said Historia calmly. On the inside, she was Krista Lenz and she was shaking. Dead inside, be dead inside if you have to.
“That’s not how the government works!”
“Now it is,” Levi remarked, with an approving look towards Historia. Erwin didn’t really leave us, did he? He’d saved his life, and he couldn’t at least trust him with his plan?
“What’s Erwin scheming?” Nile hissed.
“Nothing. It’s we who are scheming.” Ymir grinned at Historia.
“That’s it. Enough sass from you, soldier,” snarled Nile. “Step aside.”
“Hmmm. Nah.” Ymir placed her hands on her hips. “Did I mention I’m also a titan shifter?”
“What?!” Nile’s screech echoed down to the dungeons, where Bertolt jerked awake.
Armin’s eyes flickered open, and for a moment he felt nauseated again. He wasn’t in their trainee barracks; they had already graduated and fought and Eren…
Bertolt! Armin bolted upright.
Where am I? Is everyone alive? Did they find the basement? Armin scanned what appeared to be a windowless log cabin. We’re still outside the walls.
He glanced at his hands. No burns. If he couldn’t remember – had they used the serum on him? Armin gagged once again; he couldn’t be a titan. He couldn’t have eaten someone!
“You’re awake.” A bulky figure moved out of the corner into the candlelight.
Stohess District. Saskia read the sign on the towering gate with interest.
“I hope he’s right about this,” Eren muttered.
“Shh.” Mikasa elbowed him, much to his annoyance.
“If someone sees us, we could have a mob like yesterday,” Sasha said, glancing behind them. “I don’t think these hats disguise much.”
Erwin felt very conscious of his missing arm. No, they were instantly recognizable to anyone paying attention. Maybe, in this case, citizens’ apathy was an advantage. The thought depressed him.
“What is taking so long,” grumbled Connie.
“Your impatience,” Erwin replied curtly, much to Connie’s chagrin.
“There he is.” Sasha pointed to Jean’s lanky figure. He was followed closely by a girl with honey-blonde curls and a Military Police uniform.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” complained the girl as she met them. “You didn’t even retake the wall.”
Saskia noticed tears in her eyes.
“You’re doing this for Marlowe,” Jean said quietly. Like I joined the Survey Corp for Marco.
“And because our mission has not yet ended. We are still undergoing the mission to retake Maria, but we need help from within the walls,” Erwin said. “We need Annie, and we need access underground.”
“I’m aware,” snapped the girl. She didn’t give a fig if he was Commander or not. She was friendless and Marlowe-less, and she blamed him for both.
“This is Hitch,” Jean said.
“I remember,” said Mikasa.
“Pleasure,” Saskia said with a hint of sarcasm.
Erwin choked back a chuckle and simply nodded.
Hitch couldn’t help but notice the girl’s civilian dress, her light hair and eyes shaped exactly like Annie’s. Although Annie’s were blue, while this girl’s had faded to gray. “We need to hurry. I’ll get in trouble if I’m gone for too long.”
“Since when did the Military Police care about slacking off?” Eren queried as they followed Hitch.
“Since you overthrew the government,” Hitch shot back.
“Yes, we’re to blame,” Eren growled.
“Can you be civil for one moment?” Jean sneered.
“We’re all upset,” Sasha said, a tremor in her voice. “We all miss Armin and Marlowe and Moblit and everyone. But, Eren, please let’s not alienate our friends.”
“I’m not your friend,” Hitch mumbled, turning sharply down an alley. “This way, if your location was correct.”
“It is,” Erwin said.
“You could be our friend,” Sasha suggested.
Hitch laughed as she halted beside an innocuous building, but her heart ached. You let Marlowe die. She felt guilty for the first time in her life – no, second. She’d felt guilty for Annie’s disappearance, too.
Her hands opened a side door to reveal a set of stairs.
“Down here, I presume.” Erwin stepped forward.
“Yes.” Hitch hesitated. She should go back.
“Did you know Annie?” The civilian girl was eyeing her.
“She was my roommate. I didn’t know who she was!” Hitch said quickly. Shoot, if this girl was her relative, she might be offended.
Unexpectedly, the girl relaxed. “Did she still talk in her sleep?”
“What?” Hitch frowned. “You’re asking me that?”
“We don’t have time.” Erwin descended into the tunnels, and Mikasa’s hands led Saskia below.
“Wait! You’ll need a light – it’s dark in there,” protested Hitch.
Sasha glanced at the lantern hanging across the street. “Leave it to me.” In a matter of seconds, the lantern had been cut from its chain and burned her hands. “Too bad we’re out of that serum.”
Connie’s mouth was still open. “You amaze me, woman.”
“Thieving is a skill,” Erwin remarked dryly from a few meters below. “Even, apparently, in the Survey Corp.”
Sasha flushed. “I’m sorry, but we need it.”
“Indeed we do,” Erwin told her.
“Come on, Hitch. You’re better than the police,” Jean said as soon as everyone else had left.
She teared up again. “Maybe next time.”
Hitch backed away, a slight smile blooming behind her tears. “You’ll need my help again, I’m sure.”
“She’s here.” Erwin stepped back in the torchlight to reveal a shimmering, colossal crystal.
Saskia wanted to shake her head, to say no, not this, but she felt incapable of any action. Because action would render this reality.
“She’s your sister; don’t you care?” Eren said from behind.
Saskia’s eyes hardened. She looked even more like Annie now, Eren thought.
“Do you know how we could get her out?” Erwin asked.
She did it. She made the world her enemy. Saskia’s insides felt like rubble. But I never was your enemy, Annie.
“I just wanted to help you,” Saskia whispered suddenly. She took a step forward and placed a hand atop the chrysalis.
With her ordered yet brittle expression, Erwin wasn’t sure which sister was more crystalled. Still, he had to ask again. “How can we help her?”
“You don’t want to help her,” Saskia replied, not taking her eyes off Annie’s sleeping face. You look so peaceful, so separate.
“We want her out of that crystal, and so do you. For the moment, we are on your side.”
“Yes,” Saskia said quietly. “It’s from her titan abilities.”
“The conditional hardening,” Eren said.
“Yes,” she repeated, then hesitated. “To protect herself, and to cut herself off from the world.” She shifted her gaze to Eren. “If a titan could take her away, a titan has to bring her back. It’s science.”
“Is it?” Erwin asked sharply. Then again, the basement… “I’m here because of that science.”
“Yes,” she said again.
Eren swallowed. “What – what do I do?”
What if I accidentally kill her? Had everyone forgotten how he’d tried to eat her before? How at first he couldn’t fight her? Panic welled up within him.
“You can do it,” Mikasa said, grabbing his hand.
“What do I do?”
“I wish we had serum,” Saskia replied sadly. “But – serum isn’t the only regenerative agent we have. Your blood. Titan’s blood runs through your veins.”
Titan’s blood and human blood. Which was he? Or was Titan’s blood human’s blood? Erwin watched Eren carefully.
Eren held out his hand. “Someone cut me.”
“Do you know this works?” Mikasa demanded as Jean raised his blade.
“The books I’ve read used serum, not blood.”
“I have to, Mikasa.” Eren glared at Jean. “Cut me.”
“Nah, why add to your feud?” Connie slashed Eren’s arm open.
“Hey!” he yelped in surprise.
“You’re not supposed to startle him, Springer,” Erwin reminded.
“Er, sorry Commander.” Could blood save his mother? Could anything be strong enough?
Eren pressed his bleeding forearm against the chrysalis. “Come on, Annie.”
“Will it be potent enough?” Erwin asked.
“I’d need to know his titan type to calculate the specific quantities in a shifter’s bloodstream.” Saskia didn’t take her hand off Annie’s crystal.
“Let’s see.” Eren yanked his arm away. Vapor wisped towards the ceiling. “There’s an indent! Look, it’s working! Holy walls!”
He sounded overjoyed for someone so bent on killing titans, Jean noted. Perhaps there was hope for this hothead after all.
“Cut me more!”
“We should wait and see how much this cut can do,” Mikasa insisted. Eren shouldn’t want to hurt himself for Annie. Or anyone.
“I concur,” said Erwin, to her relief.
Slowly at first, the vapor became more noticeable. Small swirls graduated to thick steam. Sweat dripped from the faces of all seven below. In the hazy candlelight, they sparkled as if coated in crystals themselves.
With a whooshing, a noise not unlike the whistling air whenever Annie had practiced her kicks in titan form, the crystal collapsed into steaming shards.
“Annie. Annie Leonhardt.”
Slumped on the floor, Annie dimly became aware of someone crouched in front of her, touching her shoulders, staring hard into her eyes.
“Annie Leonhardt, I was never your enemy.” Saskia held her breath. Would she remember? Would she recognize her? Would she blame her?
Annie frowned. “Saskia…”
She looked up to see not Dad, not an angry Zeke, not even Bertolt and Reiner, but her fellow trainees.
“Dad…” Not Dad.
“You’re our prisoner,” said Erwin firmly. “But we’re glad you are here, Annie.”
Both Leonhardts minded how his eyes were mysterious, but not unkind.
“Uh, please calm down.” Reiner could not have been more uncomfortable.
“Where am I – where is Eren?” Armin fought tears. “What did you do?”
“They’re alive that we know. They left you because they thought you were dead.” Reiner’s eyes hardened. If he had been with them, they wouldn’t have left Armin.
Armin swallowed. “Did – did Eren – did he get Bertolt?” Please tell me I didn’t eat Bertolt.
“Bertolt is your prisoner. Providing he hasn’t been executed yet.” Reiner curled his hand into a fist.
Armin gasped with relief before noticing Reiner’s fury. “I – I’m sorry.”
“For what?” Reiner asked in surprise.
“You’re worried about your friend.” Armin wrapped his arms around his knees. “How am I alive?”
Reiner smiled, a smile Armin didn’t know quite how to interpret. “Our War Chief saved you.”
Armin’s heart sank. So I am the weak one who got captured. “He wants to use me against the Survey Corp. To get Bertolt back.”
“No,” replied Reiner honestly. He stared at the splintery floor. “He knows you are Eren’s best friend.”
“I won’t let him hurt Eren! I’ll kill myself before I let him use me,” Armin said furiously.
Reiner smiled at Armin’s atypical savagery. “Don’t worry about Eren’s safety. He only wants Eren to join us, and bring the second captive back.”
“My wife,” supplied a voice from the door.
Reiner jumped. Armin surmised that he was not supposed to have told him any of this.
In glided a blonde, bearded man with an easygoing smile. “So, you’re Armin Arlert.”
Armin blinked. Grisha?
“Reiner, you may go.”
“Yes, sir.” Reiner scurried out, giving Armin a worried glance over his shoulder.
The man perched on the edge of his bed. “You should thank me for saving you.”
The man raised an eyebrow.
“Thank you,” he said sullenly.
“Now, that sounds quite the opposite of gratitude. I’ve heard you’re a genius. We should talk,” the man said, not unkindly. “Call me Zeke. I’m eager to learn about life inside those cages, and you’re going to tell me as a thank you, aren’t you?”
Chapter 6: Chapter Sixteen
Annie mourns Armin, Saskia and Erwin bond over an angry mob, and Eren ... remains Eren.
“Sure, you can eat,” Zeke promised, reaching down towards the child curled up on the ground. “You need more energy to transform, after all.”
Bertolt sniffled. “I miss my parents.”
“You ate them, or have you forgotten?” In a flash, Zeke’s hands wrapped around Bertolt’s skinny hand and twisted until his fingers snapped.
Bertolt screamed. From across the field, the blonde kid, Reiner, and his sweet shadow Marcel looked up in alarm.
“Shut up. Listen.” Zeke knelt next to him. “You’re the hope we have. You’re the strongest. You’re going to endure the pain and transform, or you won’t be able to eat with that hand anyway.”
Bertolt swallowed. “O-okay.”
“I’m doing this because I believe in you. Don't prove me wrong.” Zeke stood up and walked away. “On the count of three.”
Bertolt wished more than anything he could disappear. Reiner wasn’t here, and he needed Reiner to be here. I can’t make it without you.
“Hello, scum.” Levi scowled at him from a safe distance away.
Bertolt squirmed. “What do you want?”
“About 200,000 lives returned.”
I do, too. Bertolt sighed. “I can’t do that.”
“Yes, I’m aware of reality.” Levi spat on the ground. “So I’ll settle for you and Four-Eyes having a productive conversation. This is the nicest it’s ever going to be for you, you realize that?”
A commotion from the stairwell interrupted their stares.
“What is it now?” Levi grumbled.
“Hello, Captain Levi.” Darius Zackly strode in, followed by Nile Dok and Historia. Ymir must have been with Hange. Hopefully their meeting would bear some semblance of productivity.
“I wasn’t going to leave until I saw proof.” Zackly folded his arms across his chest and took in the tall, scared boy shrinking against the stone wall. “Well, you’re not what I expected.”
Beads of sweat formed on Bertolt’s brow. Why wasn’t Ymir here? At least she didn’t hate him.
“Do you talk?” Darius taunted.
Uneasy, Nile turned to Historia. “Your Highness, I request permission for our Police doctors to dissect him.”
“No,” Historia said instantly. She glanced at Levi.
“He’s the Colossal Titan. He’s hardly suitable for people who’ve never seen Titans,” Levi added. Monsters. Just like him.
“And,” Historia continued, “with how quickly titans evaporate when dead, he’s much more use alive.”
I’m dead anyways, Bertolt thought. Annie, was this how you felt? At least she had been spared the humiliation of being conscious. He felt subhuman, like slime. Well, maybe he was. The nameless 200,000 whose faces he’s never know certainly would think so.
Carla. I know Carla Jaeger, at least. Bertolt wondered if her face looked like Eren’s.
“You’re not laying a finger on him,” Levi concluded. Erwin, we need you back. It still stung that his friend had left without a word.
“Hmm.” Darius wore a smirk that filled Bertolt with shame. “We’ll see about that.”
Historia started. Just what did that mean? She’d discuss it with Levi later. “Well, you’ve seen him. Now, get upstairs, all of you.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” replied Darius.
All too easily, like Zeke toying with a baby Titan shifter, Bertolt noticed.
“Why are you all here?” Annie glanced at Eren. “Going to eat me?”
Saskia glowered at him, and in reply Mikasa glowered at Saskia.
“Uh, no.” Eren paused. No, I’ll say it.
“Their names were Petra and Auruo and Eld and Gunther! Why? Why did you kill them? Why did you betray us? Weren’t we ever your friends?!”
“Jaeger, control yourself,” Erwin commanded.
“He’s beyond that. Again,” Jean said dryly.
“And don’t think we don’t know about Reiner and Bertolt! You homicidal freaks!” Eren screamed.
Annie glanced from Jean to Eren, and back again. Bertolt and Reiner got captured, too? Maybe she wasn’t the only failure. Eren to Jean, back to Eren. Mikasa simmered in the back. “I’m glad to see nothing has changed.”
“How can you say that?” Eren shrieked. “Bertolt just killed Armin, too, doesn’t that make you happy?”
Annie froze. “Armin?”
Saskia noted the shock in Annie’s eyes. Who was this special Armin?
“He betrayed me,” Annie said finally.
“Because you betrayed us,” Eren said.
And I betrayed the Warriors. By getting caught, by letting Armin go. “What do you want, Eren?”
“Right now, that’s up to me.” Erwin cut in. “We have to wait at least a day here to avoid encountering the Miltary Police. Mikasa, keep by Annie, and if she makes a wrong move, kill her and her sister.”
“And we’re the monsters?” growled Annie as Mikasa yanked her to her feet, blade drawn.
Of course I am. Erwin’s jaw twitched. “Sasha, you take Saskia. Use your instincts if she tries to escape.”
“And me, sir?” Eren asked eagerly.
“Calm down.” Erwin rested his hand on Eren’s shoulder for a moment.
The commander is missing an arm. Annie blinked.
Good. He’d accepted Armin into the Survey Corp when he was clearly too weak. Next to Bertolt, Erwin Smith was the person she hated most right now.
“I heard you haven’t been talking.” Reiner slunk back into Armin’s room.
Armin glanced up. “I won’t betray humanity.”
Reiner sighed. “You won’t help humanity by being Titan food either, which is how he’ll threaten you into talking.”
“No, he won’t,” Armin said shakily.
“Your silence isn’t helping anyone, Armin!” Reiner erupted. “Keep yourself alive, for God’s sake!”
Armin’s mouth parted. “Why do you care so much, Reiner? You wanted to wipe us out.”
Reiner wiped his brow, though there was no sweat. A nervous habit he had picked up from Bertolt. “Not you. Not you all. You were – good. Or so you seemed. You aren’t really. No one is.”
“That doesn’t mean everyone is bad, though,” Armin said quietly. “I don’t believe in good or bad people.”
Reiner laughed. “Well, guess again. I took it upon myself to become bad so no one else would have to.”
“He’s too big, Mara. We can’t feed him.”
“He’s our son –”
“That man offered a good price, and he’ll be our savior! We’re doing him a favor!” His father’s voice lowered. “You saw what happened to the Ryders. Do you want that to be us?”
Armin’s touch brought Reiner back to their world. “What were you remembering?”
“Nothing.” Reiner swallowed.
I was just a kid. Screaming as Zeke and his father took him away, locked him up and told him to eat someone.
“You didn’t choose this.”
“Of course not, but it needed to be done!”
Armin’s eyes watered. “Let me help you. You helped me during training; let me help you now.”
Reiner scrunched his face up. “You can’t.”
“Oh, but I will.” Armin smiled. He might be captured and pathetic, but if he could do one ounce of help for Reiner…
“Tell Zeke I’d like to talk.”
Reiner jumped. “What – no – are you going to say?!”
“I won’t make him mad at you,” Armin answered instead.
“Not sleepy?” Jean asked Annie as the hours dragged by.
She narrowed her eyes in response.
“Tell me, Commander: have you ever wondered why you don’t venture deeper into titan territory, if answers are really what you want?” Annie asked as the hours dragged by.
It was Erwin’s turn to hold the sword to her neck, and she had to admit, overthrowing a one-armed commander would feel rather good.
“Do you even remember the body count you inflicted?” Eren raged.
Mikasa was done. She placed a hand on Eren’s arm. “Walk with me.”
“No – I don’t want to leave her. She could – ” Eren struggled against Mikasa as she dragged him away.
“You can’t stop her,” Mikasa fumed. When they had melded into the darkness, she hurled him into the wall, like they were children again. “Eren, you don’t have to save everyone.”
“I do! Look at me! It’s what Father wanted!” Eren waved his hands about.
Mikasa took his face in her hands. “I am looking at you. You saved me. But the entire world is not on your shoulders.”
“Then whose is it on?!”
“Yours. And mine. And Erwin’s and Sasha and Connie’s and Jean’s. Levi’s and Hange’s. Historia’s and Ymir’s.” Mikasa closed her eyes. “We all need each other. And you need us.”
Eren clenched his fist. “I – can’t – what if I fail?”
“Then we’ll help you. Just like Armin did.” Devastation settled on Mikasa’s face.
“I miss him. He was supposed to see the ocean.” Eren whirled around and began kicking the walls. “Why did he lie to me? Why did they kill him? Why did he let it happen?”
He dropped to his knees, tears leaking down his cheeks. “I miss him.”
Mikasa settled next to him. “I do, too.”
“I miss Mom, too. And Dad.” Eren gasped. “And Marco and Petra and Auruo and Eld and Gunther. It’s so unfair that they’re all dead. I can’t take it!”
Mikasa drew him close to her.
“Don’t do that!” Eren pushed her away.
Mikasa looked away. “Your mother asked me to keep you safe. Right before…everything.”
“What?” Eren frowned. “She what?”
“I’ve been keeping my promise this entire time, and I’ll do it ’til the end,” Mikasa said.
“But – but what about you? Your feelings? I can’t have you following me my entire life,” Eren babbled.
Mikasa eyed him. We could be partners.
“That won’t work,” Eren insisted.
“It has so far. It will continue if we are partners.”
Wait. Eren’s lips parted slightly as he took in her face. Was this –?
Then his lips were smashed upon hers.
At first Mikasa drew back. She wasn’t used to someone so close to her. But this was Eren and she was safe with Eren. Her arms wrapped around him as her mouth returned the kiss.
His tongue entered her mouth and it was gross and she was scared but she rather loved it, too. And she didn’t want to stop kissing him.
Farther down the hall, Saskia was watching Erwin carefully from her place at Annie’s side. She wished more than anything the sword could be at her neck, not Annie’s. “You recognized she made a good point.”
Erwin kept his gaze on Annie. “So did Eren.”
“Yes, I suppose I encountered your attempt to penetrate titan territory.”
For a moment, Erwin only saw the faces of the dead. Marlowe, Moblit, and dozens of others. “You saw my attempt at heroism.”
Annie raised an eyebrow.
“You led a death charge against the Beast Titan. That’s fools’ heroism,” Saskia told him. Her voice dropped. “Your heroism is that you kept living.”
“I should have died there,” Erwin said quietly.
Jean’s eyes popped open.
“No, definitely not,” Connie argued. Sasha, meanwhile, ignored them all to listen to something in the darkness ahead. An unsettling smirk settled on her face.
“I was only saved due to a serum.” Erwin laughed. “How many others deserved that?”
“How many others could have fought from melding with titan instincts for as long as you did?” Saskia countered.
“Who did you eat?” Annie demanded. Hypocrites! And why hadn’t his arm returned? How long had Saskia been among them?
Erwin looked heartbroken. “No one.”
“It appears Eren’s father Grisha developed a regeneration serum based on Titans in his basement,” Saskia explained.
Erwin noticed Annie’s reaction to the name Grisha. “You know something.”
Saskia stiffened. “She knows nothing I do not.”
“We’ll get the information from one of you,” Erwin said. Please don’t make us use torture. Perhaps in Bertolt’s absence, they could play Saskia off Annie … “Who was Grisha?”
Annie smirked. “A doctor?”
Saskia wondered if her story would unfold like Grisha’s. How that would hurt Zeke – and anger him.
“I’m the historian. You ought to ask me.”
Annie glared at her. “I don’t need you to protect me!”
“Isn’t that what families do?” Saskia asked. Remember? Remember when we invented the perfect family? You and me and our flower dolls, and no Dad and no Warriors. We lived in sunshine and never died. Funny how their dream had been devoured by their father’s.
Saskia heaved a sigh. “My sister may have the experience but –”
“Saskia,” Annie said.
“ –but I know everything. Historically. And scientifically. I’ll tell you if you protect her.”
“I don’t want your protection!” Annie cried.
“I do!” Saskia snapped. “I want to be protected and you used to, too. But I couldn’t then.”
Annie has to eat your mother –
No, Dad – she fought and screamed but it was hopeless, hopeless, fuck –
Composure crystalized over her again. The cracked child retreated. “Ask me anything, Commander.”
“Who is Grisha?”
“Why are you doing this?” broke in Connie.
“Zeke is doing this. He’s stronger than his father.” Saskia leant against the wall. “Grisha is –”
“Erwin Smith!” shouted a voice from the darkness.
In a flash, Mikasa was back at their side. Sasha wiggled her eyebrows at her, and Mikasa willed herself to stop blushing. Even in this danger, she had to show her approval. Especially in this danger.
Eren scrambled up to them. “Who is that?”
“Not military,” Erwin said grimly. “Those aren’t the footsteps of disciplined soldiers.”
A face emerged in the light. Grey, thin, unremarkable, with a scanty beard. Dark, rat-like eyes. And flowing velvet robes fringed with gold. A nobleman?
“Heard you were down here!” The man cackled. “You were right, boys!”
“What do you want?”
“Revenge.” On cue, at least three dozen torches lit behind him. “Do you know how many go into Zackly’s chamber and never escape? Now you will meet their fate.”
They don’t want Annie. Saskia was dumbfounded. For what do they want vengeance?
“Mikasa, take Annie.”
“That’s an order.”
“We’re stronger than you. All of us. All it takes is four of you verses one of us, and I doubt you’ll win,” Saskia said, angling herself between Erwin and the leader.
“We don’t have time for you, bitch.” The noble paused.
“Get him,” he said, just as Erwin snapped, “Run.”
“We can’t make it!” Saskia kicked the first noble between his legs, doubling him over. As long as Annie got away, she didn’t much care about herself.
Then someone threw a torch. Saskia jerked away, but her skirt ignited faster than a titan transforming.
“Shit!” She lurched backwards. The flames licked her shins, sending flashes of pain that convinced her that a fiery death had to be the worst kind.
Erwin used his arm to grab her and hurl Saskia forward, against the wall. His boots stomped on her skirt –
“Don’t!” She grabbed him by his shirt, but the mob tore him from her grasp.
Panic rose up a second time. No, she couldn’t panic – she was stronger than this –
Saskia was surrounded, too, but most ignored her. Some were still chasing the soldiers, while others seemed determine to help beat the commander into dust.
She stomped on her own skirt for three seconds, until most of the flames had extinguished, and prayed the crowd would smother the rest.
She dove down and shoved her way towards him. “Get off him!”
Briefly, the warrior woman threw herself on top of Erwin, but the frenzied nobles quickly smashed her head onto the ground. She blinked at the stars as they began pulling her away.
“Leave her!” Erwin kicked out, but without his second arm he wasn’t any match for them. Someone slammed the butt of a torch on his temple, and another dropped fire onto his legs. But now they were beating her, too – another innocent life would end for him –
“There’s too many!” Sasha cried up ahead. “They must have the Commander and Saskia in the middle!”
“We can’t stop!” shouted Jean.
“Yes, we can.” Eren hesitated.
“Eren.” Annie dug her heels in. Her blue eyes were wide with fear. She needed her sister. “Let me help them.”
“How?” Mikasa stopped dragging her.
Annie ducked and knocked Mikasa back, and before Eren could respond she careened forward, straight into the crowd.
“What?!” shrieked Connie, scrambling after her.
Crystals and steam suddenly shot out from the crowd. Men shouted and teetered away from the sharp shards.
“You’re a freak!” one screamed.
“She’s a titan!” yelled another.
“She’s the female titan!” Eren roared as he closed in. “And I’m the other one!”
The nobles were running again, but away this time. Annie forced herself to laugh as evilly as she could, sending crystal shards flying after them. When the last one rounded a corner, she let the crystals collapse to the ground. The steaming wounds in her arms began to close.
She felt dizzy with exertion, but she had to see to Saskia.
The trampling had doused most of Saskia and Erwin’s burning clothing, but that was where his relief ended.
To Eren’s surprise, Saskia appeared in much worse condition than Erwin. Her cheek was already swelling, the scratches bleeding and bruises already purpling.
Erwin’s face seemed fine. His leg, originally broken into an unnatural angle, now seemed almost normal.
Jean gaped at him. “Commander, you’re steaming.”
“Just like Annie,” Mikasa said, giving the tiny blonde a glance that nearly conveyed respect. Not than Annie noticed, as she held her sister.
“I’m okay. I don’t think they broke anything,” Saskia rasped. “Annie – why?”
“You’re my sister.” For a moment, she looked innocent and free again.
Erwin sat up. “I – how?”
Annie turned her gaze to the Commander. Steam noticeably evaporated from his wounds.
“How is this possible?” Connie wondered.
Erwin’s mouth settled into a flat line. “I don’t know.”
“Saskia might,” Annie said simply.
Saskia marveled at her little sister. So helpful, so sacrificial – who was this Annie? “I don’t. I suspect we’d need a proper interpretation of Grisha’s notes.”
“I trust Hange,” said Erwin, though he felt like screaming. Why? Why him? Why did he have to heal faster than her? Why did he have to be the important one? Why did he have to survive?
Saskia noted the storm in his eyes. “I could help.”
Yes, she was deepening her betrayal. But he had saved Annie, and risked his life to keep her from burning alive, while she’d panicked like a fool. She wanted to help him, and that had nothing to do with whose side she chose.
“Saskia,” Annie warned.
“Tell me, sister: will that relieve or upset you?”
Annie closed her eyes. “Both.”
Armin would say she’d been a good person for the Survey Corp just now, Annie reflected.
As they stole through the night, back to a headquarters Zackly might not have left due to their flight from the tunnel, Annie couldn’t stop her thoughts.
Armin. It hurt that someone so dedicated and pure-hearted had died. It wasn’t fair. Fuck, as Saskia liked to say.
He had told her she was nice once, and though she knew it was false, she’d loved that someone liked her.
Dad. Was he alive? Surely Saskia would have mentioned him. But then, Saskia had never been close with their father. Father had Saskia memorizing books long before Annie was born, the chosen child to appease the Warrior Chief.
Once Saskia had called him a pimp behind his back, but to Annie’s face. Forcing Annie to train and herself to study to please leaders they couldn’t care less about. And Annie had been too scared he’d hear to reply.
In the end, it had taken Saskia truly pimping herself to the Warchief for their father to break. To hug her and say the words she’d always wanted to hear. But she’d spent too long angry at him to know how to respond. She thirsted for that chance.
They ducked inside a stable. In the lantern light, Annie’s face cooled again. Mikasa hoisted her onto a horse and quickly slipped behind her. Erwin was holding her clearly concussed sister.
“I never hated you, Annie,” Sasha piped up from behind.
Annie glanced at her in surprise. You should have. No, to say it aloud would show weakness.
She wished she were back in the crystal, safe from the world. Where only Dad was on her side, where even Saskia was the enemy. Because – because then –
They rode out under the cover of darkness, where no one could see her cry.
“You didn’t have to help me,” Saskia murmured. Her head rested against Erwin’s shoulder, a position that made her distinctly uncomfortable. Too bad her head pounded with every hoof beat and she couldn’t keep it up.
Erwin glanced down at her. “As I recall, you were the one who ran back into the mob.”
She smiled. Her eyes were closed.
“Don’t fall asleep. Someone still needs to examine your head.”
“I know.” She winced and cracked her eyes open. “I don’t know why I ran back, though. I just – instinct, I suppose.”
Although it wasn’t like their father had taught them sacrifice. And Zeke certainly hadn’t.
Yet, she’d been the one to seduce Zeke to save Annie, when Dad was resigned to her mission…
“I always tried to sacrifice myself for Annie, only her,” she admitted.
“Why are you doing this?”
“You know why,” she’d countered.
“You don’t have to do this, Saskia.” His eyes were wide with fright, and she almost took pleasure from it. Finally, she had the power to hurt him.
“Did your parents teach that to you?” Erwin was curious what kind of parents would use their daughter in battle. Or perhaps they were orphans…
“Sacrifice? No.” Saskia slumped, just enough for Erwin to notice. “We are outsiders in the village. Dad made us train every day and night, just so we’d belong. Because when you belong, you survive. Or that’s what he said.”
And she’d bought him belonging with her marriage, and still she hadn’t pleased him.
“Please.” His hands were on her shoulder. “You don’t love him. You’ll – you’ll miss out –”
She jerked free. “What do you think my whole life has been?”
Dad stared after her retreating back, finally aware he’d failed both his daughters.
“You know what I think?” she continued lazily. Her concussion had made her far more talkative. “I think that was his goal at first, but when he made Annie eat Mom, I think he just wanted to know sacrificing his wife was worth it. Hah. So maybe he did teach sacrifice. But I would never emulate it.”
Oh, but you did, answered her mind.
Erwin was stunned. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s over,” she replied uncomfortably. She wanted someone to understand, yet she didn’t feel she deserved pity. “What did your father teach, Commander?”
“My father?” Erwin’s chest tightened. Why not tell her? “That the monarchs had erased our memories. That we were kept prisoner in these walls.”
Her face registered surprise. “He sounds brilliant.”
“I told people. The government…silenced him forever.” His hand clenched the reins so tightly his knuckles turned snowy white.
“You blame yourself.”
“Yes,” he said simply.
“You’ve done nothing wrong,” she told him. “None of you here have.”
Zeke was wrong to want them exterminated. Helpless, yes, they were. But they could be taught. She didn’t want this tortured man to die.
“Does that mean you’re finally on humanity’s side?” He didn’t acknowledge the first part of her statement, not that she’d expected him to. But he felt it.
“We’re all human.”
He sighed. “I know.”
“But I am on the side that…doesn’t want you dead. Whatever that means.” She couldn’t be a Warrior anymore, she knew that.
A trace of a smile appeared on Erwin’s face. “Thank you, Saskia.”
“Thank you for telling me about your father,” Saskia said softly. “That’s what I really learned after all those years of science and history. Painful stories…broken stories…they make our humanity shine forth.”
“My humanity?” Erwin felt certain it was sunk deep in soldiers’ blood, black as the night sky.
“Maybe it’s like the stars at night,” she suggested. She sounded childish and slightly slurred, but she didn’t feel like stopping, because for once she felt like saying something. “I hope, anyways. Sometimes I don’t dare believe it.”
“I believe…what makes us human is respect for life,” Erwin said.
Like hers, he meant. Saskia was shocked.
Her head suddenly felt very warm over his heart.
Chapter 7: Seven
Armin hatches a plan, Annie confronts Bertolt, and Ymir confesses her past.
At least Hange had the courtesy to slam the last book shut before hurling it across the room.
“I’m sorry, book,” she said, crossing the room to pick it back up.
“First she talks to titans, now books. I see. I take it there wasn’t anything else you wanted?”
Hange growled. “I’d like to perform a few ‘experiments’ on Grisha Jaeger.”
“That sounds vaguely sexual. Should the titans be jealous?”
Hange stopped her pacing to glare at him. “What?!”
“You know.” She put her hands on her hips. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were flirting with me, Shorty.”
Now it was his turn to howl. “What?!”
A deep, familiar voice cut through the room. “You know, I don’t recall my subordinates being so rambunctious.”
“Has he met Hange?” Jean whispered to Connie.
“Trauma influences brain structure,” Hange informed Erwin by way of greeting.
Levi stalked towards the commander. Saskia was leaning against him. The impropriety of it disturbed him before he noticed just how unfocused her eyes were.
“If you ever take off again without a word – I’ll break all your limbs,” Levi snarled.
“Last I checked, I’m your commander.”
Levi’s shoulders slumped. “I understand.”
“Levi. I thought it better if you did not need to lie to Zackly for me.”
Now we don’t trust Zackly. Levi’s stomach turned. “Zackly’s already seen most of what we know.”
“Precisely.” Erwin stepped aside to reveal a tiny girl held captive by Mikasa.
“You.” Levi’s eyes slitted like a snake. My squad is dead because of you.
She had the minimum courtesy to keep her gaze on the floor.
“Bertolt’s downstairs.” Hange caught the plan immediately.
“What did you learn?” Jean asked her eagerly.
“First thing.” Erwin pushed Saskia towards her. “Hange, she seemed concussed and has been fading in and out of consciousness all night.”
“What happened?” Levi asked sternly.
“Angry nobles. An entire mob saw us,” Sasha said.
“Turns out they’re not happy about their fall,” Erwin said with a shrug.
Hange was now holding her lamp close to Saskia’s eyes. “Was she the only injury?”
Erwin hesitated. “The only serious one.”
Levi watched him with suspicion. Something was eating at him, again. He didn’t deserve this. Or maybe they all did.
“You can take me to Bertolt now,” Annie said dejectedly.
Mikasa exchanged a glance with Eren. She hadn’t expected her to be so cooperative.
“Gladly.” Levi grabbed her.
Saskia felt the urge to refocus, but she wasn’t sure why. There was someone helping her. What was the hurry?
She wondered what it would be like to blame yourself for your father’s death. Or mother’s. People like Erwin and her own sister were mysteries. She wished she could help them.
“Uh.” Hange leaned back. “You’ll need to rest for at least a day.”
“We need her information,” Erwin said grimly.
“That’s why I’m limiting rest to a day.” Hange looked to Erwin. “Unless you think pain is a better route?”
He watched the dazed woman in front of him, lost somewhere in her own mind. “I’m hoping that won’t be necessary.”
Suddenly, Saskia stared at Hange. Only the skinny woman and Erwin remained in a cramped but pristine room. “Where’s Annie?”
“This is all going according to plan,” Historia whispered to Ymir. Her eyes sparkled.
Ymir grimaced. It was indeed. Too easy.
Easy, like sitting in this carriage with velvet cushions. Comfort felt blasphemous when the world was destroying itself. And she’d never been a proper girl, not even as a child.
“What are you thinking?” Historia brushed back a golden hair strand.
“That I want to kiss you,” Ymir said.
Historia blushed. “Besides that.”
Ymir sighed and propped her foot up against the carriage wall.
“I wish we could be riding out there with the soldiers, too,” Historia said softly.
“It’s not just that. This is too simple. I don’t trust your military.”
“Ymir, we are a part of that military. Or were.” Historia bit her lip. She wished she were with her comrades this morning. “I hope they got Annie out already.”
“I’m sure they did. Saskia seems to know a titan-sized amount about titans.” Ymir snorted at her own pun.
Historia giggled nervously. “But?”
“But I don’t trust the leades. Erwin, fine. Levi and Hange, fine. But Darius Zackly? Ever since he found out what I am, he’s been looking at me with this … longing … and it’s unsettling.”
Historia swallowed, recalling his smile towards Bertolt. “He does have a particular interest in titan shifters, it seems. But that’s understandable, I think.”
“It is,” Ymir said with frustration. “But it’s more than that. He reminds me…he reminds me of the priest.”
“Priest?” Historia’s hand slipped over Ymir’s as her friend’s eyes clouded over.
“No, it’s not.” Historia recognized that hollow look.
Ymir laughed bitterly. “I was supposed to be ruler of my village, did I ever tell you? I was their princess.” Her voice dulled. “But then they found out I loved my childhood best friend, Sara. She was redheaded and freckled and spitfire – very not like you.”
Historia felt a twinge of jealousy. Instinctually she pushed it down, but that was Krista. Historia could feel jealous if she wanted.
“So my parents took me to a priest. He was horrified and said for the good of the village, I had to be sacrificed. Or the titans would get us because of our sins.” Ymir buried her head in her hands. “They sent me out into the wilderness. My own parents. The entire village had to watch as I left. Sara watched.”
She wiped her eyes, and Historia was shocked to see her friend actually crying.
“When I went back with Reiner and Bertolt, Zeke told me his father turned my village all into titans, probably soon after they kicked me out.” Ymir shook her head. “Ironic timing.”
Someone else would have asked if Ymir knew anything else about Zeke’s father or turning people into Titans. But Historia Reiss knew that information would surface if Ymir possessed it. She didn’t need to ask.
What Ymir needed mattered more. And Ymir needed a shoulder to cry on.
“I’m s-sorry. That I never told you, that you’re not my first love,” Ymir cried.
Historia gasped. “Ymir, this is what you’re thinking? And you say you’re rotten to the core? You sought me out and found me so that no one would have to be abandoned like you were. And you just told me something awful and you’re worried about me? Ymir, you’re a saint.”
“I just wish I knew why,” Ymir moaned. “Why did they have to force me away?”
“Because they were selfish and stupid,” Historia burst out. “And cruel. You’re none of those. We won’t let them have the last say; remember you told me that? You taught me to love myself when it seemed impossible. We’re going to win and live ad be happy together, damn it!”
Her voice trembled.
Ymir started. “I’ve never heard you sound angry before.”
Historia shrugged sheepishly. “Well…I’ve changed.”
“I love it,” said Ymir, leaning over to kiss her. They had a long ride back to Wall Sina, after all.
“Annie!” Bertolt’s heart leapt. He thought he had never seen her so beautiful. So real.
She stood outside the bars, eying him stonily. As only Annie would, he thought happily. “Are you hurt?”
“No,” she replied, not meeting his eyes. Her fists were clenched.
“R-Reiner and I were so worried. He even challenged Zeke twice to rescue you!”
Annie’s eyes widened. She wasn’t used to being wanted.
“Twice?” Saskia questioned. She only remembered the once, when Reiner and Bertolt had returned with Ymir, crying for Annie like little boys. She wanted to cry with them, and felt sick when Zeke won the match, as much as she understood his decision.
She sounded like a scolding mother, Bertolt thought. “Right before Shinagashina.”
“It wasn’t bad enough that we killed Marco; we had to kill Armin, too?” Annie asked.
Saskia stumbled downstairs on Hange’s arm. She heard no words, but the edge to Annie’s voice came through sharp.
“You killed Marco?” Jean burst out as Sasha gasped. Connie wrapped his arms around her.
“I knew he wouldn’t have died!” Eren stepped forward, but hesitated at Mikasa’s face. She deliberately avoided his eyes, but she looked too pained to respond.
“He heard us t-talking,” sobbed Bertolt. “I’m sorry!”
“You’re going to be sorrier.” Annie turned to Jean. “I can’t be forgiven for Marco, but, Eren: I never wanted Armin dead.”
Eren stared at her.
She whirled back to Bertolt. “I got caught because I let him go! I knew he recognized me and I didn’t care! He didn’t deserve whatever you did, but you deserve this.”
Her tiny sister had slipped between the bars before Levi could grab her.
Saskia stumbled forward. “No, Annie!”
Annie’s foot collided with Bertolt’s ribs. He wheezed. “Annie, no – I’m sorry – ”
“You hurt Armin! When did he ever hurt you?!”
“Annie, he’s chained to a wall!” Saskia shouted, clutching the bars. She was dizzy as hell, but she couldn’t black out now.
“You were study partners!” Annie kicked him over and over again, faster, harder, now faster, now harder. She wished she were in titan form so she could squash him. “Armin!”
She felt someone’s arms wrap around her, lifting her away.
“No!” She pounded his forearms, but even the female titan was no match for Captain Levi. She was at his mercy again. He’d threatened to take her limbs when she’d been caught in that humiliating trap, and she was trapped again.
“Let me go!” Annie didn’t know what reality was. She couldn’t feel it, or anything, or see anything. “Help me!”
“She’s psychotic; be gentle,” Saskia said tersely, still gripping the cell bar.
“As much as I can,” huffed Levi as he carted her to the cell across from Bertolt. “Open the cell.”
Saskia glared at him.
“Just for now, so she can stop liquefying my limbs?!”
“Fine.” Saskia breathed a prayer for forgiveness as her fingers scrambled to open the door. Levi dropped Annie onto the bed, slapped manacles on her wrists, and backed away.
“Oh no, you’re not.” Now he was pulling Saskia out.
“I’m not abandoning my sister.”
“You can’t do anything for her.” Levi shoved her out and slammed the door behind them. “I’ve seen soldiers suffer these breaks. You can’t reach her now. She’ll need you later, not now.” He looked back at Annie’s wailing form. He’d threatened to mutilate that child once. “Right now she needs to scream.”
“And you,” said Hange, approaching her swiftly, “need to rest.”
“I don’t think I can trust you,” Saskia said. What if they kept Annie here forever? What if they tortured her?
Mikasa swept forward and place her hand on Saskia’s shoulder. “I won’t let us hurt her.”
“Good,” Hange said. “It’s settled. Let’s get this one upstairs.”
The last face Saskia saw was Erwin’s, inscrutable as always, watching her as she staggered upstairs against Hange’s surprisingly strong shoulders.
“A deal? A deal? That was your plan?” Reiner demanded, leading Armin towards the center of their village. He was carrying a torch despite the broad daylight.
“Yes.” Armin noticed a group of children playing a foreign game with a ball and wooden sticks. How strange, to see children in this warrior band.
Reiner stopped in front of a trapdoor. “Zeke only makes deals he knows he can win.”
“I know,” Armin said calmly.
“You’re plotting something.”
“Would you turn me in if I was, Reiner?” Armin asked innocently.
“Of course. I’m a warrior,” Reiner snapped.
“Or are you a soldier?”
Shock crossed Reiner’s face. “What?”
“Eren told us. Have you ever considered that if you’re doing something so terrible your mind has split, something is very wrong?”
“I’m fine,” Reiner raged, grabbing Armin by his collar. “You – you won’t ever mention this again, understand?”
“Yes,” Armin said, unfazed. Poor Reiner.
“It’s down here.” Reiner kicked open the latch and dropped him. “Oops.”
“Oof,” Armin grunted as he hit the dirt. That was surprisingly violent for Reiner. Or Soldier Reiner, rather.
Reiner jumped down beneath him and pressed the torch against another torch. “This is where Zeke’s wife would spend most of her time. She knew every book down here.”
He had never mentioned Saskia’s questionable loyalty to Zeke. That was a tidbit he needed if Zeke intended to give away his armor, as he had so elegantly phrased it.
Armin took the second torch from Reiner and gasped at shelves upon shelves of books. “Oh!”
“Overcome?” Reiner smirked, his threat to Armin forgotten.
“It’s…incredible,” Armin breathed. “Relatively small, but there’s so much here. I told Zeke if he let me know history, I would tell him about the walls, but…but I never imagined there was so much.”
“You’ll be disappointed,” Reiner said. “Humanity tends to repeat history.”
Armin side-eyed him. “That sounds fascinating. Where – where should I start?”
“Your choice. I never got to read any of these.”
“Join me.” Armin smiled up at Reiner.
Reiner hesitated. “Well…I do have to guard you, anyways.”
What could reading hurt?
“When will we learn?” moaned Annie late that afternoon. “Do the innocent and moral always have to die while we live? Isn’t it killing you?!”
Bertolt stared at his legs. He couldn’t feel her bruises anymore; they’d liked healed. What a freak.
“You’re not going to talk to me, are you?” Annie stared at the ceiling and practiced a kick. Kicks were the only peace she knew.
Bertolt thought that a strange question. He didn’t really mind her violence. His heart hurt, but he deserved it. He’d killed too many people for a misshapen idea perpetuated by an adult bully.
But he still believed in it. He had to. He would die otherwise.
“Why don’t you guys talk about something useful,” muttered Connie, who had the misfortune of being on guard duty.
“Useful. Our human emotions aren’t useful anymore, I suppose.” Annie laughed.
She was scaring Connie. “That’s not what I meant.”
“It should be,” Bertolt whispered.
Connie opened his mouth to reply, when the noise of people clattering down the stairs interrupted them. He turned around. “Yes?”
A thud caught Annie’s attention. She bolted upright to see Connie sinking towards the stone floor, blood trickling from his forehead. “Connie?!”
Levi clutched his cup of tea. “Nobles.”
“Nobles.” Erwin sighed. “Seems we’ve destabilized the situation inside the walls enough without the titan threat.”
“They’ll come for you again.”
“You won’t let them take you?”
“I’ll try.” Erwin smiled, a smile was filled with self-loathing. “They came after me. The titan woman got caught trying to rescue me.”
“But you’re unharmed…?” Levi waited.
“I healed just like a titan regenerating.” Erwin unconsciously touched his right shoulder.
Levi was silent for a few minutes. “Well. That does give you a distinct advantage over your enemies.”
I don’t deserve it. “I suppose so.”
He clenched his fist. “Or it just helps me live longer…building a mountain of bodies.”
Levi sipped his tea. In this situation, no matter what they chose, they would regret it. “You’re not alone on that mountain. For whatever that is worth.”
“I should be.”
Levi suddenly glared at the ajar door. “What are you doing there?!”
Three very large men stood there, smirking at Bertolt.
“He’s got to be the one,” said the brawniest. In a way, he reminded Bertolt of an older, crueler Reiner.
“He’s no one.” Annie struggled against her restraints and panic. Damn Levi.
These men weren’t Survey Corp; who knew what they could do?
“He’s the colossal titan, aren’t you, bastard?” jeered one.
Bertolt couldn’t answer.
“Too scared to talk? Psh. I say we end it here and do mankind a favor,” said the tallest, drawing a knife.
The cell is locked. The cell is locked, Bertolt chanted in his head.
The third shoved the knife aside with a high-pitched squeak. “Put that way. You know our orders.”
Annie was fast losing her battle against the restraints. Whatever they chose, Bertolt was done for. Stay calm and notice everything.
“Yeah, we don’t get paid unless we bring him alive,” said Older Reiner. He bent over, examining the cell door. “Hmm. These bolts are secure.”
Crystallize. Annie hesitated. She didn’t want to rescue Bertolt. She was fucking mad at him.
But did anyone deserve to fall at the hands of bumbling slaves? Annie began rubbing her wrist against the cuffs. Surely the friction would break her skin.
“Listening,” Saskia answered casually, brushing back her messy braid to reveal a sizable bruise on her temple.
“Don’t try to earn my pity just because you tried to help him.” Levi jerked his head towards Erwin.
“I’ll find another way, then.” She sounded placid as ever, but this was the first unserious thing Erwin had heard from her. “Commander. I said I would tell you whatever you wanted to know.”
He eyed her suspiciously. “Where does eavesdropping fit in?”
“It doesn’t.” Habit, really. She eavesdropped on Zeke because he never told her his plans. She toyed with the end of her braid. “For what it’s worth, you don’t have half as high a mountain as the children downstairs.”
Her eyes were sharp. Erwin rubbed his eyes. “I thought it best if Annie stay there until we can trust her.”
Children, Saskia wanted to repeat. Children. Children. Didn’t he get it?
“Please check on Annie, Levi.”
As soon as the captain left, Erwin said sternly, “If I catch you eavesdropping again, I will put you back in a cell without hesitation.”
One of the men had pliers and was twisting the cell door off its hinges.
Bertolt scrambled back as sweat dripped down his forehead. He was still chained, but if they could get inside –
As they lifted the door to avoid a clang and entered the cell, Annie lost patience. She yanked against the restraints as hard as she could. Draw blood. Please!
Wait. She was an idiot.
But as she watched them tying their own chains around Bertolt, who wasn’t even struggling at this point, she hesitated. Was it even worth saving someone who wouldn’t save themselves?
One of the two chains keeping Bertolt attached to the wall broke.
That was it. Annie threw back her head and screamed.
“That’s fair.” Saskia peered at him. “But if you think you are a freak, how do you imagine Eren feels? And Bertolt and Annie, what are their chances if you can’t even extend enough mercy to think of yourself as human, much less them?”
Erwin leaned forward. “You’re saying you think they could fight for us?”
“I’m saying no one wants to fight this war.”
Oh, but didn’t he? It proved his father right, proved life had meaning. Erwin swallowed.
“I don’t want you using either of them to fight. I don’t want a fight.”
“That’s all there is.”
“Because Zeke makes it so,” Saskia said. “Given another option, would you still choose to fight?”
“So you wish to learn of your opponent. That is good.” Saskia shrugged. “Yes, he would.”
Erwin surmised that Zeke must think he knew them already. Squabbling, pathetic idiots, probably.
“And you?” she continued.
Erwin thought of Mike, of Armin, of Nanaba and Isabel and Farlan. “I would take the other option. Is there one?”
She pitied him. So eager. “Not that I can imagine.”
A scream pierced the quiet.
Erwin recognized that sound. From the moment the 57th expedition failed.
Saskia leapt to her feet. “Annie!”
“The second time was right before Shinagashina,” Armin said. “I caught some stomach ailment.”
Zeke’s eyes glittered. “And you wouldn’t happen to remember anything about his ‘treatments?’”
“As in the composition of his medicines? No, I don’t,” Armin answered honestly. He was back in his cabin, facing the second interrogation of many more to come.
Zeke tapped his fingers against each other. “How likely do you think it that Grisha may have used our serum recipes to save your pitiful race?”
“Answer honestly,” Zeke barked.
“I – I don’t know,” Armin stammered.
“I know about this supposed ‘secret’ in his basement.” The secret he’d fled, lest Levi hunt him. “You’re still not very forthcoming. It’s almost hurtful.”
Armin closed his eyes. “I know he once cured an incurable plague, before I was born.”
Zeke scowled. “Damn you, Grisha.”
“For saving lives, sir?” Armin piped up.
“He’s dooming humanity again.” Zeke shook his head. “When you read those books, you’ll see.”
Armin fell quiet.
“You think you won’t, but you will.” Not that Zeke had any intention of letting him finish. The boy was too crafty to keep around. And he panicked every time he thought of Saskia in the hands of that ruthless commander.
“But, Armin dear, tell me what would be the best way to get a message into the walls?”
“You bitch!” No longer caring about quiet, Older Reiner wrenched Annie’s door off in a matter of seconds.
“The pliers! We’ll never get him in time!” cried the squeaky man.
“Forget him! We’ll never be able to carry him away quickly enough!” Older Reiner snapped the chain on Annie’s manacles. “We’ll take this one! Say we got the wrong prisoner!”
Annie choked. “Are you insane as well as incompetent?”
“Take me!” Bertolt begged.
“Aw, is the Titan in love?” The tallest kicked him in the face.
“We don’t have time!” Older Reiner grunted.
“You’re going to say you were so stupid you got the wrong gender?” Bertolt hollered as footsteps clattered down the stairs. “Focus on me, dammit! I did it! I’m the colossal titan!”
The tall man gagged suddenly and sank to his knees. Captain Levi left him to grapple the strategically-placed wound on his shoulder and sank his blade into the foot of Squeaky.
The man shrieked and fell to the floor.
“Don’t come any closer!” Older Reiner had Annie in a headlock. “I’ll cut her throat!”
“That might not actually kill her,” Levi drawled.
“Is she a titan too?!” he screeched.
“Yes,” said Annie, twisting around to kick his legs out from under him. Now she was face to face with Levi – face to face with freedom.
“Don’t make me hurt you,” Levi warned her.
Chapter 8: Chapter Eight
Levi faces off against the child who murdered his squad and Armin discovers history, while Erwin and Saskia face their demons.
First: a moment of silence for all those victimized by Chapter 84, particularly Erwin and Bertolt.
And now: the chapter.
“You know you want to,” Annie said coolly.
Monster. Levi took a step back. “Sit back down, female titan.”
“I can’t.” She itched to fight again. If only she knew who to fight. Zeke would say Levi; Father, everyone; Saskia –
“Choose your battles,” Saskia said, gripping her sister’s face between her hands while Bertolt and Reiner waited for her. Today was the day she’d trained for practically from birth.
Saskia would say no one.
Annie sank back onto the bed.
“What happened?” Erwin’s voice rang out.
“She saved your motley crew again,” Saskia observed, squinting at the three men splayed across the floor.
Mikasa flew downstairs, Eren right behind her. He stopped short. “Connie!”
“He looks alive,” Levi said, easing away from Annie. How unusual that Mikasa had been late.
“He better be!” Sasha raced forward and grabbed him from Eren. “Wake up!”
“Titan hunters, apparently.” Levi gestured towards a dejected Bertolt. “They were after him until she warned us.”
“They knew he is the Colossal Titan?” Erwin asked sternly.
Bertolt cursed himself. They could have just asked him instead of talking around him. Not that he was certain he’d provide any answers, but he wanted to be thought of as a person at least.
“I heard them say so.” Levi wondered if Annie or Bertolt would offer details.
Mikasa’s eyes blazed. “How could they know?”
The remaining survivors had been told they had two prisoners from the Warriors, nothing more. Only Squad Levi kept guard.
Saskia noticed a purple splotch on Mikasa’s neck. With a suspicious glance towards Eren, she caught the black-haired girl’s gaze and subtly motioned towards it.
Mikasa quickly tightened her scarf. “There’s Historia and Ymir…”
“And Nile Dok and Darius Zackly,” Hange added, sidling up to Levi. “I suppose I could get these men to talk – unless you two have anything to add?”
Annie remembered this woman cackling as she trapped her. “No. They were being paid to bring him alive to someone.”
“I doubt it was Historia,” said Eren. “She’s too nice.”
Mikasa glared at him. No, Eren had kissed her. She oughtn’t be jealous. But.
Levi sighed. Erwin would not like this. “Darius seemed awfully interested in Bertolt before.”
His eyes had made ants crawl all over his skin. Of course it was him. Bertolt hunched over. He wished he could condense and die.
Jean walked forward and knelt by Bertolt. He was still chained, if less so. “Is this how Marco felt when you killed him?”
“Kirstein,” Erwin barked.
No, we just left him to die. Bertolt was always more talkative in his head. What could he say? How did one answer bloody questions?
“Jean, look at him. He’s pitiful,” said Sasha, still holding a stirring Connie.
“You know, for once I agree with Jean,” snapped Eren.
“No one asked,” Mikasa replied. She did not want to drag Eren out of here.
“Thank you for warning us, Annie,” said Saskia. Her look to Erwin reprimanded him for not doing likewise. “But, Bertolt…”
She passed Levi to Bertolt’s terrified form. “Bertl, you were always so terrified.”
He looked up to scowl.
“I always thought you were brave for it,” she said softly, putting her hand on his shoulder. “I never knew how to act on my own, either. And when I did – well, you know where that led.”
Sorrow crossed her face. Had she not wanted to marry Zeke? Disturbed, Bertolt shook his head.
“Killing isn’t brave,” she conceded. Behind her, Annie flinched. “But I suppose it’s brave to continue on when you’ve been forced to kill.”
“We still did it,” Annie said sharply.
“Don’t remind me,” Levi threatened.
“They were old enough to know,” Erwin said.
“They’re young enough to change, too.” Saskia rubbed Bertolt’s shoulder. “I still believe in you, Bertl. And you, Annie.”
She couldn’t look at her sister right now, lest something halt her hope.
Do you think there’s hope for this world? Bertolt remembered Reiner’s question to Ymir, back when they were close to bringing the Coordinate to Zeke, back when the Commander still had two arms.
“Do you think there’s still hope for this world?” he whimpered.
Eren leapt to his feet. Oh, he remembered that line.
Mikasa didn’t know what bothered him, but she wanted to heal him. She wanted him to know he had been her hope.
“Maybe not,” Saskia said honestly. Erwin certainly wouldn’t like her response. “But I think there’s still hope for you. And Annie.” She turned to Erwin, to Levi and Hange and that loyal Mikasa. “And you, and you, and you, and you.”
“Him?” Levi nudged a quivering Squeaky man with his boot.
“Don’t ask me about the people who just threatened my sister.” Saskia still had to wonder whose brother they were. Did they have sisters? How had they come to hurting others? Had they been forced?
“Reiner, have you heard about the men on the moon?” Armin’s eyes shone. “We put men on the moon!” If we can do that, we can stop fighting.
Reiner raised an eyebrow. He had always doubted that. “Are we certain these books are trustworthy?”
“Well, no,” said Armin. “But they’re more trustworthy than those inside the walls.”
Armin flipped back a few pages. “Have you heard of America? They’re the people who went to the moon. It was a country founded on freedom and equality. Like the Survey Corp!”
“Unless you’re their enemy,” Reiner retorted. “The Americans took over their country by conquest and hurt those they called ‘Native Americans.’ You should reach that. Page 294.” At Armin’s shock he added, “Yeah, I’ve heard a lot of this.”
“So. Even those who claimed to believe in freedom took freedom,” Armin said softly. “How is this possible? We can do so much with technology, yet we can’t get along?”
“Sounds about right.”
“Reiner. I don’t like the hopeless you.” Armin glared at him.
“You know, you’re not frightening.”
“You’re not yourself. Reiner, you were happier as a soldier and you know it.”
“I never was!” Reiner cried.
“You were! You were both a soldier and a warrior, and your mind couldn’t take it,” Armin insisted. “There is nothing wrong with being both. Only with what you do as both.”
“I’m not a soldier,” Reiner said sullenly. He was reading about a great world war, in which millions of people died. Pictures of people hoarded into death camps stared out at him. Just because they were a different race.
I’m just like the Nazis.
With an involuntary shiver, Reiner slammed the book shut. “I can’t do this.”
“You love learning,” Armin said, eyes glued to his book. Maybe America did get it wrong. Maybe the Survey Corp and Historia could get it right.
“No, my false self, my lie, did!” Reiner threw his arms in the air. “Stop telling me who I am! I can’t be what you want! It doesn’t matter. The soldier you knew is dead!”
Armin wanted to yell that he didn’t accept that. That his friend would always be a soldier. But his friend was leaving soon to deliver a ransom note of sorts. So instead he said, “No, my friend is a living warrior.”
“My queen, I’ve been looking for a most peaceful place to walk in the capital.” Commander Dot Pixis appeared as Historia stepped out of her carriage into the night. “You wouldn’t happen to know a place, would you?”
Ymir narrowed her eyes. Pixis has always seemed a likeable man. She disliked likable men.
Historia glanced at Ymir.
Oh no. Don’t you wait for my approval. Ymir scowled. But since scolding a queen in front of a Commander was unwise, she kept her mouth shut. For now.
“I – I do. I think the royal gardens would be helpful,” said Historia.
“I am honored.” Pixis smiled.
“Commander Pixis,” said Nile, approaching.
“Commander Dok.” Pixis smiled, but his eyes lacked his usual warmth.
He’s always cold towards me. Nile shifted. “I'm sure our queen can fill you in.”
“Indeed.” Pixis saluted Zackly, who nodded gravely in return.
“Commander Dok, please have someone show Ymir to my quarters,” said Historia. It felt wrong to talk to Pixis without her, but she wanted to be independent. She was living for herself. She would make Ymir proud.
Ymir smirked at Historia as they headed in opposite directions.
“I suppose you like looking at the night sky?” Historia began after an awkward silence.
White starlight glittered on the water sliding through the flowers and berry bushes. Moths flittered about in the pale moonlight. Here, it was almost possible to forget the pain of this world. Unable to stand the guilt, she had only visited twice.
“It is lovely.” Pixis pulled out a flask and took a sip. “I would offer you some, but something tells me Her Majesty isn’t fond of hard liquor.”
Historia hesitated. Ymir wouldn’t like it. “Well, maybe I would. Just to try.”
Pixis held out the flask. “Well. Suit yourself.”
Her lips puckered as she forced the fire down her throat.
Pixis chuckled. “You’re a brave young woman.”
“I was in the Survey Corp,” she replied.
“Your heart is still.” Pixis observed the shadows on her face.
“Yes.” Historia focused on tracing the outline of a pink rose. She couldn’t look at the red-and-white roses beyond. They reminded her of blood splashed everywhere. Blood.
Like her mom’s. Like her dad’s she drew. Like everyone’s.
“Queen Historia,” Pixis began.
His voice jerked her back to reality. Would she ever move past this? Would she ever be free?
“Yes?” She struggled to keep the tears from choking her voice.
“The Survey Corps’ return has generated considerable strife within the walls. I’m sure that does not surprise you.” Pixis bent over to sniff a rose. “Ah.”
“No, it doesn’t. I merely wished for better.” Historia brushed back a lock of golden hair.
“As have I.” Pixis straightened. “Rumor has it members of the Survey Corp entered Stohess and disappeared. They haven’t been seen since.”
“Oh? I was just with them, as you know,” said Historia.
“I do. Then you know that Commander Erwin is missing.” Pixis dropped his voice. “This does not speak to a stable situation.”
“What would you have me do?” No, a queen mustn’t ask that. A queen did not serve. “Would you have me arrest him?”
“Erwin is no enemy of humanity. Whatever he plans, he plans with good reason,” replied Pixis. “No, I would not advise arrest.”
“Advise me,” demanded Historia suddenly. “I know I’m not supposed to need help, but I’m not powerful, and you know that. I need help from someone like you. Someone who also cares about humanity.”
“A leader always needs help,” Pixis said. “That is not weak. Weak was King Fritz, who did nothing and listened to no one unless it was time to eat.” Urgency entered his voice. “Speaking of Fritz. That is why I must talk with you.”
“He’s still in prison, correct?”
“Incorrect. Pixis spun around to face her. “He has vanished.”
Historia paled. “Vanished? How?”
“Many nobles have vanished of late. Six, to be exact,” Pixis informed her.
“Fritz was the second most recent. John Tiberias went first, then Jasper Rosen. Rhina Darren. Lionel Vicar. Margot Sturm, daughter of the renowned Judge Thomas Sturm, was last. The nobles are convinced someone is plotting against them.”
“Someone probably is,” Historia said angrily. “They stole our memories. They’ve been overthrown and humiliated.”
“They blame the Survey Corp,” Pixis interrupted. “I recommend keeping in touch with the movements of Commander Erwin. For his sake.”
Historia’s blood chilled. Could someone hurt her friends as vengeance? No, she wouldn’t allow it.
And that was precisely how the nobles must feel. Historia nibbled on her lower lip. “I see. I must assign more Military Police to the missing nobles. Do you think that will help calm the people?”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not. Rumors are already circulating that the Survey Corp plans on decimating the noble houses, destroying the inner wall for equality. That would destroy safety as well,” said Pixis.
Historia clenched her fists. “The only solution is to eliminate the titans.”
Pixis stopped. “You sound like Jaeger.”
“Because he’s right.” Historia pushed the nagging sensation that she should have eaten him away. No. Eren needed to learn his value. She should not have hurt him, even for humanity. They would find another way. Why did she doubt?
“I see.” Pixis smiled slightly. “I will do what I can within the walls, but it would be best to trust your Corp with titans, and pay attention to your people.”
Historia’s face burned. “Yes, I suppose you’re right.”
“Do not trust anyone unless you must.”
“Should I trust you?” Historia dared to ask.
Pixis chuckled. “That you would ask such a question gives me faith in you, Queen Historia.”
“I’m relieved you’re awake,” said Sasha. “I even saved a potato for you.” She held it beneath Connie’s nose.
“Good Walls, Sasha kept food? Are you ill?” Connie took the potato.
“No, I just wanted you to eat to keep up your strength,” babbled Sasha.
“You must really like me.” Connie took a bite of potato.
Sasha’s face flushed. “Well, you took such good care of me in Sinagashina…”
“You’re my friend. Of course I did.”
Sasha smiled. “The kidnappers are now locked in Saskia’s former cell. Still won’t say who did it, though.”
“I’m glad they didn’t get away with it,” grumbled Connie. “Say, Sasha, do you really like me?”
“Like you? Of course I like you. You’re nice and funny and you helped me during training and we’ve been through a lot together, and you’re my friend, so I have to like you.”
“No.” Now it was Connie’s turn to redden. “I mean like like me.”
“I – I – I – I don’t know!” Sasha practically shrieked.
“Well,” said Connie, “at least you make me happy. Whatever that means.”
She’d given him hugs over his mom. She’d promised to help him save her. She was sweet and funny and unique. No one could replace Sasha. “There’s no one else I would want taking care of me.”
Sasha beamed. Her hand clasped his. So warm. Thrills shot through her. “I’m glad. Well, I’m not glad you’re hurt. But I’m glad I could help you.”
Connie laughed. “I figured.”
“Saskia is helping Erwin now. We’re going to remake the serum and turn your mom back into a person,” assured Sasha.
Connie smiled as he finished the potato. “And you’re going to help me?”
“We always help each other.” Sasha took his second hand in hers.
Ymir gaped at the enormous satin bed and velvet drapery before her. The ceiling was carved with ornate flowers.
She was uncouth. She didn’t belong amid this finery.
Historia loves me for who I am. So what if I don’t fit in? I’m a seventy-two year old titan shifter. I can’t fit in.
“Your Majesty? I’ve an urgent letter for you.”
Ymir jumped. “Oh.”
A young boy stood there, holding out a sealed envelope. “Who are you?”
“Her friend. What is so urgent?”
“I’m not supposed to say.” The boy took a step back. He’d been warned never to give this letter to anyone but Historia. For two meat pies. When you hadn’t eaten in days, you had to obey.
“You can give the letter to me.” Ymir held out her hand.
“You are not Queen Historia.” The messenger pressed the paper against his chest.
Ymir sighed. “Yes, yes I know. But I am her closest companion. You can trust me to give it to her.”
“You can.” Ymir crossed her arms.
“I can’t,” protested the boy, tearing up. He was so hungry.
“What’s going on?” Historia swept into the room.
“A letter, your majesty.” The messenger boy bowed.
Historia’s smile bloomed. “Thank you. What is your name?”
“Adam, Your Majesty.” He saluted. “When I grow up, I’m going to join the Survey Corp just like you!”
Historia’s eyes softened. “I hope you don’t have to.”
“But I want to,” protested Adam before running off.
“Brat,” muttered Ymir.
“He was sweet.” Historia unfurled the letter. “Ymir.”
Ymir peered at the hastily scribbled note. Bertolt and Annie had been attacked? “It’s Zackly.”
“You don’t know that!” Historia’s eyes were huge.
“Did you see how he looked at Bertolt?”
“Well, I did. Titans don’t even look at their victims so cold.”
“What – what should we do?”
“Watch him. I’m sneaky enough.”
“Ymir, that could be dangerous.” Historia wouldn’t risk Ymir, no matter how much she trusted her friend’s instinct.
“Such is life.” Ymir shook her head. “Historia, you’re queen. You can’t avoid anymore. If Darius Zackly is acting against the Survey Corp, we have to know. I’m trustworthy and willing to do it.”
Historia thought of the missing nobles. “Things are dangerous in the walls especially, Ymir. Just…don’t die.”
“Then I won’t, for me and you.” Ymir wrapped her arms around Historia and shut the door with one foot.
“They used to call that star group the Little Dipper.”
Erwin shouldn’t have been surprised at her ability to sneak up on people. But at least there was nothing for her to eavesdrop on this time.
“See?” Saskia stepped closer and traced the outline of seven stars.
“Amazing.” Erwin felt chills run down his spine. So much history, so many people and systems he’d never known.
Maybe, somewhere in history, he could lose himself in solace.
“What do you want, Commander?”
Erwin glanced at her sideways.
He wasn’t responding. Naturally. She had been too blunt. “I’m trying to figure you out. If I should be your ally or not when it stops being convenient. I can’t do that if I don’t know you.”
“I don’t know.” He hadn’t even seen the basement. “I want humanity to survive.”
“Noble. Also impersonal.”
“Are you implying I’m lying?”
“Oh no. I’m just hoping there’s more.” Saskia lowered her eyes. “For instance, I want my sister to survive, which is the most personal I get, but even so, one could argue that’s not personal. It’s for Annie, not me.”
Erwin looked at the ground. There wasn’t anything personal left.
“You feel empty,” Saskia surmised.
Erwin frowned. “You…you’re speaking from experience.”
Such an emotionless woman had to feel empty.
“Yes,” Saskia confided. “I wish I could help you. But I can’t even help myself.”
“Sometimes it’s easier to help others before yourself.” Not that he had ever done that. He’d only helped them so he could prove his father right. He’d killed more than he’d helped, and he couldn’t even remember all of their names.
Saskia noted the agony on his face. “Are you thinking about your father?”
Erwin’s heart thudded. “I’ve dedicated my entire life to proving him right. And at the end, the others saw the basement while I was transformed into the enemy.”
“Surely your orders allowed them to get that far,” suggested Saskia.
It didn’t suffice. He hadn’t seen it himself.
He was so selfish. He’d ruined himself and everyone. “My orders…killed most of the Survey Corp. I am a demon. Whomever you ally with, you must choose between titans and demons, Saskia Leonhardt.”
Saskia’s mouth parted. “Titans like my sister. Like Bertolt, who quivers if his former friends so much as look at him? Demons like you, who didn’t have to help me in the tunnels, who took the guilt of a hundred thousand on himself? And at least you’re strong enough to actually feel it. Not all the Warriors are.”
Zeke sure hadn’t. He had fun killing, because he felt powerful and when he felt powerful, he felt safe.
“They think we deserve it?” Erwin wasn’t sure he disagreed, for himself. He felt so tired – he just wanted this to end – but he couldn’t say others deserved that fate. Some people were innocent, and everyone more innocent than him. Except, possibly, the Beast Titan.
“You’ve been a titan, too, you know.”
He did not need the reminder.
“In my hometown, titans and demons are people and people.” Saskia stepped closer. “And I do not see either here.”
She was, perhaps, a demon, a traitor and a runaway wife. But not him.
Erwin regarded her soberly. The pale woman resembled a ghost, but she spoke kindness to him, even if her tone remained unemotional. Actually, that was precisely why he almost believed her. Almost felt hope.
She smiled at the stars. “Just think of the titans as overgrown, cursed humans.”
“That we kill.”
“It’s not your fault. It’s not the Warrior’s fault, either. The titans, that is.” Saskia blinked. “We were born on whichever side of the walls, and we didn’t choose this. You didn’t choose to kill. You saw it as the only option. Just as I saw serving the Warriors. Memorizing information.” Marrying Zeke. “It’s the First King’s fault.”
Erwin snorted. “We’re all fighting and dying for the beliefs of a deranged man who lived a century ago.”
It felt hollow. Futile.
“The belief that mankind needed to suffer to unite and stop their sins,” Saskia said. “Or so the Warriors’ story goes.”
“You doubt it?” Erwin frowned.
“From their teachings, I also expected you to be vile, worthless idiots.” Saskia crossed her arms. “You’re not. You’re not even bad people.”
“You still believe in bad people?”
She thought of Zeke, enraged and willing to kill Annie. And Zeke, tenderly holding her as she wept tears of sorrow and relief over her miscarriage two years ago.
“No. Not bad people.” But good people, perhaps. She would wait for a good person. For some reason, she’d never stopped looking. “Maybe that’s my personal goal. Finding a good person.”
Her hair shone in the moonlight. Erwin watched her carefully, and he wasn’t entirely sure why. “You’re an intriguing woman.”
She cocked an eyebrow. “Says the commander who feels empty while rallying his troops.”
Maybe I do have more in me. Erwin wasn’t sure what to believe.
He was tired of life, but kept going. Just like her. She wasn’t sure if the concussion or the exhaustion had hijacked her, but Saskia found herself placing a hand on his shoulder. “I know how you feel. Don’t give up.”
Erwin met her eyes. The dullness in them – she did know. He clasped her hand in his. “Thank you, Saskia.”
“I need your example,” she admitted. “For hope.”
“We need someone willing to change their entire worldview. That’s hope there.” His hand squeezed hers.
Saskia closed her eyes to block out his brilliant blue orbs. No, she did not find him attractive. She was taken, even if she’d basically absconded from her marriage.
But she was very glad she’d saved him.
Reiner slipped outside the village. His ears ticked from the strain of listening for titans. If only Bertolt were here – he was so, so worried about him.
Could he etch a demand for Bertolt in the letter? No, Zeke would find out.
But maybe he could say something. Anything to keep Bertolt alive and safe.
Without him, I am lost.
Reiner was now a safe distance away from the village. Usually he roared before transforming, but what was the point? His best friend – the man he loved – was missing.
At least Eren would know his friend was alive soon. Even though they were enemies, that thought gave Reiner a strange comfort as the Armored Titan approached the walls.
Just to clarify: in this universe, the Warriors possess many books left behind when people fled into the walls - including science and history of the world.
Just to clarify: in this universe, the Warriors possess many books left behind/banned when humanity fled to the walls. Thus, they are able to learn about actual science and history instead of the First King's 107-year-old fabrication.
Chapter 9: Chapter Nineteen
Reiner arrives with a letter from Zeke, Saskia talks Erwin through a nightmare, and Levi faces the facts with Hange.
I am sneaky. I am sneaky enough for this, Ymir chanted in her head. I’m a sneak!
She talked tough and, given her mad existence as a titan, she would bet money on her being certifiably tough.
But sometimes she still got scared.
A 70-plus year old should not get scared. A titan shifter should fear even less – but she was both, and still frightened. For Historia and the future she might not even believe in.
Darius Zackly was an early riser, earlier than her. She’d judged him a fat sloth, but she’d already been wrong.
She had to succeed. She couldn’t fail Historia.
Surely he would need to take a piss soon. Or eat. Or something. Ymir scowled at the conveniently open window below.
Darius’ headquarters weren’t easy to approach, as she had anticipated. But when you were familiar with 3-D maneuver gear and rose before dawn, you could find yourself leaping into a tree taller than most buildings.
So here she was, six hours later, watching him pore over documents and meet with boring Military Police. How the guards hadn’t noticed her, she didn’t know, but most likely the phrase “Military Police” explained that.
But even If they were the laziest of all, Ymir doubted she could scramble into his closed window without them noticing. Dammit.
Today, Ymir decided, was dedicated merely to observation.
The door to his office opened. With a curt nod, Darius summoned a Military Police girl with honey-colored curls. She couldn’t have been older than the 104th.
Ymir’s eyes narrowed. This girl was animated. Too animated. Her cheeks flushed, her arms waving about, tears in her eyes.
She doubted this related to Darius’ attempted kidnaping of Bertl, but Ymir found it almost entertaining.
“I wouldn’t help anyone without my superior officer’s command, sir,” squeaked Hitch. “I promise I’m telling the truth!”
“I’ve gathered three affidavits to the contrary.” Commander Zackly gestured to the papers on his desk.
Maybe he was lying, but how could she tell? Hitch trembled. “C-Commander, look, I’m a member of the Military Police because of excellence. I would not lie to you.”
“Your membership in the Military Police raises more suspicions than it quells,” Darius replied.
Shit. Hitch not only found the commander intimidating, she found him creepy.
“You are well known to the Survey Corp. First, Annie Leonhart was your roommate. Then, you aided them during the Uprising and your partner, Marlowe Freudenberg, left you for them.”
He didn’t leave me. He just joined them, Hitch thought furiously. She remembered the night she’d jokingly spiked his juice, the night he’d yelled at her after she confessed, the night he’d called her maddening.
“Everyone says that,” she retorted.
“In the other sense!” he snapped, and then he kissed her.
She pulled back. “Hey!”
“I’m sorry,” he gasped.
Why had she pulled back? Hitch blinked back tears.
“You tear up at the mention of his name,” Darius observed. “You know, he died in battle.”
“I – what? He did?” Hitch tried to fake horror and shock. But she was deplete of everything but tears.
“So you did know already.” Darius folded his hands. “I think we ought to restart our conversation.”
They’ll probably kick me out of the police and send me to the Survey Corp. Hitch wiped her eyes, trying to quell her panic.
Hitch hunched over. She had no choice but to tell him everything. I’m sorry, Marlowe. I’m not strong enough.
She was still sniffling when she left headquarters in the early afternoon. Commander Zackly hadn’t even reprimanded her, and that didn’t sit well. He was too preoccupied over Annie and “the possibilities,” whatever he had meant by that.
“Harsh punishment?” A tall, gangly girl in threadbare clothing blocked her way around the corner.
“You don’t belong here,” snapped Hitch, wiping away her tears. “Go away, street rat.”
“Street rat? I slept in the palace last night.” The girl rolled her eyes. “I doubt whosever bed you shared last night was half as luxurious.”
Hitch huffed. “In a cupboard?”
“With the queen.” The girl grinned wickedly.
“Move aside.” She’d never share a night with Marlowe, and she didn’t want to think of him any longer – damn it! Hitch tried to shove past the girl. “Move aside! I command you – I’m with the police!”
“Oh, gee, I hadn’t noticed,” drawled the girl. She stuck out her hand. “I’m Ymir.”
“Am I supposed to befriend you?” Hitch gave her a withering glare.
“No. But I would appreciate you telling me what emotional event you and Commander Zackly were discussing.”
“How would you know I met with Zackly?!”
Ymir laughed. “I’ll never tell.”
A chill ran down Hitch’s spine. Suppose this girl was a titan shifter, a traitor just like Annie? Well, fuck her, then. “He was telling me my boyfriend died in the Survey Corp.”
Ymir’s smirk softened. “That’s…very sad.”
“I’m sure you heard about their return. How few of them there were,” Hitch said angrily.
I was there, Ymir wanted to yell. Instead she said, “What was his name?”
“Marlowe.” Hitch wrapped her arms around herself.
Ymir felt awful for pressing further. “Was that all Zackly wanted?”
“Why are you still asking me? Why do you care about Zackly? Are you a titan spy?” Hitch fumed.
She knew there were spies, Ymir noted. “Why would you ask that?”
Ymir gripped the girl by her shoulder. She couldn’t fail Historia, no matter the pity. “Did Zackly mention anything about titan spies during your meeting?”
“How do you know about them?” growled Hitch.
Ymir smiled. “Because I’m a titan spy on the side of mankind.”
“What?” Hitch shrieked and tried to grab her rifle, but Ymir was faster. She threw Hitch into a narrow alley and held her tight. “How do you know about them?”
“One of them was my roommate.” Hitch winced.
“Tell me her name.” Ymir pushed Hitch against the wall.
“Annie Leonhart,” gasped Hitch. Why did she always cave? Why? Marlowe. She didn’t deserve him. Good thing they had never dated. Just the kiss. Just the kiss.
Ymir loosened her grip on Hitch. “I trained with her.”
She seemed almost sad. Hitch would have expected them to be enemies.
She felt like ruining herself. “I told Darius how the Survey Corp came to free her. And I helped them. For your information.”
Ymir’s eyes lit up. Darius had certainly taken an interest in titan shifters. Not that such an interest was suspicious, but still. “You’re going to be late. Come meet my future wife, the one you know as ‘queen’!”
“Teacher…regarding what supposedly doesn’t exist, how do I prove otherwise?”
He was only seven, waiting impatiently at his father’s feet.
“Erwin, you don’t have to call me ‘teacher’ in our home.”
“But you’re teaching me now,” Erwin said stubbornly.
His father laughed. “That I am.”
“So. Answer the question!”
“I don’t know the answer,” his father confessed.
Erwin was stunned. “Don’t…know?”
“I wish I did. Then we’d be free,” said Father, a queer light in his eyes.
Erwin gripped his father’s hands. “Someday, when I’m all grown up, I’ll figure it out! I promise!”
“It wouldn’t take just you,” replied Father. His face twisted into a grin, his eyes blanked. He looked remarkably strong, like a titan. “Here, let me show you.”
Erwin looked down at the bowl in front of him and screamed. Heads and fingers and gore, Mike and Nanaba and Isabel and Farlan and Gunther and Petra and Eld and Auruo.
His father was slurping them down. “Eat up!”
Erwin screamed and screamed, but as long as his mouth was open, their blood found its way in –
Erwin gasped awake.
He’d chosen to fall asleep by his desk. His throat felt sore, his eyes heavy from crying. Yet, he felt relieved. I was dreaming. Father is not a monster.
Saskia had him by the shoulders. Her eyes were frightened for once. “Commander Erwin.”
“Erwin!” Levi barreled in, Hange on his heels. “What the shit?”
Saskia ignored the little man’s glare. “It was a nightmare.”
“I see that,” Erwin said irritably.
Levi kicked the door shut. “What about?”
Erwin swallowed back the memory. “Doesn’t matter.”
“You should let me look at you. We’ve all been under tremendous pressure, and you’ve been through trauma after trauma – you might need some sort of sleeping medication,” said Hange.
“That won’t be necessary,” Erwin said crisply. “Dismissed. All of you.” His eyes bored into Saskia’s hands, which still clutched his shoulder. How had she gotten to him so fast?
He wished she’d been faster.
Levi’s eyes flashed, but he turned to go.
“Just a second,” Hange interrupted.
“Shut up and let me talk, Levi,” she commanded. “Erwin, you’re aware we’re also your friends. You can push me away, that’s fine, but even though Levi won’t say it, your current behavior is cruel at best. You used to trust him with everything, and we gave the same to you! Now you keep secrets out of pride instead of discretion and won’t even care for yourself enough to admit it! This is exploitative and wrong – towards everyone, and especially Levi. You know how much he cares about you!”
“That’s dangerous talk, Four-Eyes,” Levi warned after a few seconds of horrific silence.
“Thank you, Hange,” Erwin said, resting his chin on his hands. “Dismissed.”
They spilt into the hallway, their voices rising higher and higher.
“You’re not leaving.” Erwin frowned at Saskia.
“In case you haven’t noticed, I don’t obey you,” she said. “And pushing away your friends won’t help.”
“You say that from personal experience?”
“I’m perfectly capable of being a hypocrite.”
“Are you crazy, Shitty Glasses?!” Outside Erwin’s office, Levi backed Hange up into the wall. “Don’t ever presume you know my feelings!”
“Yes, because you don’t have any, right? That’s what you like to pretend, Humanity’s Strongest, isn’t it?” Hange snarled.
Levi’s normally pale complexion was now mottled purple. “You don’t know me!”
“I know you’re embarrassed because you have special feelings towards Erwin,” Hange replied, struggling to retain her composure. “And I know you’re the best friend Erwin has.”
Levi’s eyes flickered. I am?
“I know you follow him religiously, and you love him, and it’s about time you admitted it,” Hange finished.
“Of course I love him!” Levi cried. “He sees things no one else can! He’s our best hope, and my best friend!”
“You’re just embarrassed,” Hange said, crossing her arms.
Levi ran a hand through his hair. “Wait. You don’t think – Hange, it’s not like that.”
“He’s my friend and purpose. I love him like no other, but I’m not in love with him.” Levi jerked his thumb towards the door. “You’ll notice who never came out.”
“She’s a rebellious one,” Hange mused. “But I think that’s it. And you’ve yet to convince me otherwise.”
“What?” Levi shook. He never shook. But this – Hange – “It’s not.”
“Right.” Hange snorted. “I don’t blame you for being mad, but please understand, I observe people scientifically, too. I’m trying to help you.”
“You’re also blind,” Levi snapped.
Humanity’s strongest soldier grabbed her roughly by the shoulders, yanked her head down, and planted a kiss on her lips.
He backed away quickly, releasing her. “You are blind, Shitty Glasses.”
Hange’s mouth fell open.
“Now you know,” Levi said. He turned to walk away, fast –
Her arm shot out and her skinny fingers wrapped around his wrist. “You – how long?”
“I don’t know,” Levi admitted.
“So you were flirting with me before,” she heaved.
“Not exactly –” He was professional –
“Levi! This is so exciting. I didn’t see this at all,” Hange chattered. “Oh my good walls, Levi, you hid it so well. I mean, you always do, but, Levi –”
She kept saying his name. “I hope we can continue working together.”
“And more!” Hange threw her arms around him. She’d never consciously wanted to be with Levi – subconsciously, maybe, but she’d never considered – well, once she had, six years ago when the world was so different – and now all doors were open, all walls had fallen. Now she felt as if her greatest discovery hadn’t even been hers. It was Levi all along.
“You’re crying.” Levi felt something drip onto his shoulder.
“Actually, that was my nose,” she sniffled.
“Gross!” he squawked. Shivers ran down his spine. Unclean, unclean – “Four-Eyes!”
“You know you love me.” Hange used her sleeve to wipe his shoulder.
“Helpful.” Levi stared at the smear.
“I mean, you’re the one who made me cry.” She swatted his arm.
“It’s still your fault, Shitty Glasses. I have to go change.”
“Kiss me again first.”
As their lips met, Levi felt as if he were flying higher and faster than 3D Maneuver Gear allowed.
“Squad Leader, Captain –” A new recruit froze froze at the base of the stairs.
“Aieeeee!” Hange leapt away.
Levi’s face burned, but he focused on staring holes into his soul. Mention this and you’ll wish titans would eat you.
“What is it, Flocke?” squeaked Hange. Flocke, yes, that was his name. She remembered because he was the only one not downed by the Beast Titan’s stones.
“The armored titan is here to see you two and Erwin,” Flocke managed. “In his human form, of course. Obviously, his titan form would have been noticed sooner – still, it’s definitely Reiner – I’ll go wait for you with the others – Mikasa’s holding Eren back from killing him on spot –”
“Figures. Hange, notify Erwin.” Levi stomped down the stairs, muttering. “Jeager, behave yourself!”
“Do you think talking about it would help? I know someone who found it helpful.”
Rarely a week went by without Zeke awakening in tears, angry at the beatings his mother inflicted, both past and through his dreams. Angry because he woke up screaming for his father’s return, a return that would never come.
Erwin noticed sorrow in her gaze. She had some sort of experience with sinister dreams – presumably Annie.
“My father turned into a titan,” he said stiffly. Did she think him silly for mourning his father this many years later?
Fathers. Always. Saskia closed her eyes. With Zeke, she never had to ask. He just told her, as she held his hand.
And now her hand was holding his, but it wasn’t Zeke’s. Saskia looked him in the eyes – the commander seemed surprised, but he didn’t protest. “Did he attack you?”
“No. It started as the night he told me the truth: that our minds had been wiped blank 107 years ago. The last night I saw him.” Erwin drew in a ragged breath. “Somehow, the next thing I knew, he was inviting me to eat my dead subordinates. The ones I killed.”
“You killed them?”
“I treated them as sacrifices we could do without. I’m still not sure we could have gotten this far otherwise,” Erwin rambled. Such torment streamed from blue eyes that even Saskia’s face displayed pity.
“I see the weight of killing hundreds of thousands every time I look at my sister, and Bertolt, and Reiner,” she said. “It’s destroying them. I can’t imagine…what it is like…to have the weight of keeping hundreds of thousands alive.”
Erwin scowled, suddenly overcome with self-hatred. He wanted to be hated, to suffer and die. “I got my father killed. He was my first victim.”
“You were a child! Like my sister, like Bertolt and Reiner still are. You don’t blame children. You shouldn’t,” Saskia pled.
“I blamed your trio of Warriors. Why not myself?” He laughed.
“Because, Erwin, history is a cesspool of wrongs inflicted upon children who inflict wrongs upon their children. We learn from it to right the future, if not the past. You were a victim of your idiot government, and you still are a victim.” Saskia told him the words she desperately wished her father would tell her.
She just wanted to hear it wasn’t her fault.
Since she couldn’t, she would ensure that someone else could.
Erwin chafed at the word “victim.” He’d been the one victimizing. He wasn’t powerless like a victim. But he couldn't protest, because finally a layperson seemed to understand the burden.
“You Survey Corps always say ‘offer up your hearts.’” Saskia pressed the fingers of her free hand into his chest. “I feel a heartbeat. Just like I did outside Shinagashina when you were bleeding out through your side. You’re a human who’s offered his heart up more than anyone, and you don’t deserve these ghosts.”
Erwin’s mouth opened, but Hange burst through the door. “Commander! Reiner Braun has appeared outside. Apparently he’s requesting to meet with you!”
She seemed remarkably cheery, Erwin noted as he leapt to his feet. “Thank you, Saskia.”
“I’m glad I found you that day,” she said, surprising him with her kindness and herself with the truth. She really was glad. She liked this man.
“Sit still or I won’t kiss you for a week,” Mikasa hissed in Eren’s ear.
He hesitated. “Mikasa!”
A hand clamped down on his shoulder. “Down, Jeager.”
Levi looked a bit flustered, but then, it wasn’t every day the enemy conversed with them. Far from it.
Reiner stood in the center, poised for a fight. “I’m delivering a letter to Erwin Smith and Eren Jaeger!”
“I’m delivering your death,” Eren yelled again.
“Do you seriously think saying that will help?” Jean scoffed.
“We don’t need him anymore, now that we have the others,” Eren pled.
“We need you to calm down is what we need,” Mikasa said.
Commander Erwin appeared, flanked by a visibly excited Hange. “Braun.”
“Sir.” Reiner couldn’t deny the urge to fall to his knees, to beg to fight as a soldier. He missed, he liked the soldier. The soldier was so simple. “I also need to see Bertolt Hoover and Saskia Leonhart before I deliver the note.”
“Why should I let you?”
“Those are my orders,” Reiner said.
“That’s terrible excuse,” Levi growled.
Reiner flinched. “It’s the only one I have.”
Erwin felt unanticipated pity stir in his heart. “Braus, go fetch them.”
“Yes, sir.” Sasha gave Connie’s hand a reassuring squeeze before darting back inside headquarters.
Reiner noticed how close Mikasa stood to Eren, even closer than normal. Wait. That was – there was a definite hickey on Mikasa’s neck.
He nearly guffawed. He’d rooted for this since she’d declared Eren wanted to be by her side when he conquered 3D Maneuver gear. Even if they had to die, he wanted this.
“What?” Eren narrowed his eyes. Reiner ought not to look at Mikasa like that.
“Er, nothing.” Reiner regained his stony face.
A blonde beauty walked out, expressionless as always. By her side was – Annie!
Reiner brightened. “Annie!”
Annie scowled in response. She was handcuffed to her sister.
“Sorry, sir, they both threatened me unless she came along,” Sasha said, gesturing to the Leonhart sisters.
Erwin wasn’t the least surprised. “Acceptable, Braus.”
“Here’s Bertolt.” Sasha pulled out a heavily chained, gangly creature and gently helped it to its knees.
“Bertolt!” Passion flooded Reiner’s voice.
Whatever his faults, he loved his friend. Mikasa glanced at Saskia. Like she loved Annie. Like Mikasa loved Eren. How was this level of devotion possible on all sides?
Sasha had gagged Bertolt, lest he bite himself, but he nodded in response.
Why wasn’t Annie subject to the same treatment? Had she converted? Reiner anxiously scanned the Leonharts’ faces. One never knew with a Leonhart.
“Your note.” Reiner held out his hand. “And your word that you will not capture me.”
Erwin nodded. He’d expected this. But, not to capture him would risk more lives.
“Or you don’t get this note, and I think you’ll want it.”
“Agreed,” Erwin said, noting the fury on Flocke’s face, the disappointment in all of Squad Levi’s. He was his nightmare father.
Their fingers brushed, Commander and Armored Titan, human and child soldier, as the paper passed between them.
Erwin scanned it. “Jaeger.”
“You’ll want to read it too,” Reiner said coolly.
Eren slipped over to Erwin, Mikasa on his heels. She didn’t like Braun targeting Eren. She’d kill him if she could.
Annie watched Bertolt’s face. The kid was sweating profusely and couldn’t take his eyes off Reiner. But there was something more than just the humiliation and discomfort of chains.
He looked relieved, Annie realized. Comfortable when imprisoned.
Bertolt didn’t want to be free. Why, she didn’t know. He wanted Reiner, but he didn’t want freedom.
She did. Oh, she did, so badly. What’s wrong with you, asshole?
Annie observed her sister’s stoic expression. Saskia had never wanted freedom – not from their father, not from Zeke, and now, not from these walled idiots. But she sure wasn’t aching to return to her husband, either.
Saskia, you married him for me, didn’t you. Annie had long suspected, and it only made her angrier. She wished she were free – free to kill Zeke.
Eren shrieked and clapped a hand over his mouth. Water streamed from his eyes, and Mikasa wrapped her arms tight around him.
Erwin folded the note. “Arlert is alive.”
“Armin?” Jean didn’t believe it. He couldn’t.
“He is. You think you're the only ones with advanced medicine?” Reiner said. Of course, Grisha’s was probably superior, but what did it matter?
“He’ll turn him into a titan unless we hand over Bertolt and Saskia,” Erwin said grimly. Zeke must have given Annie up as a lost cause.
Did he consider Armin a lost cause?
“War Chief Zeke will give you ten days to decide. At Shinagashina, again. You will die regardless, eventually, but you’ll have the opportunity to rescue a soldier and spend more days with him,” said Reiner.
“And ride out into another disaster, all for one boy?” Hange demanded.
“Let us see whether humanity is in numbers or individuals,” Erwin read. “That’s the last line.”
He’s toying with you, Saskia feared.
Yes, she was angry at her husband. This was torture. And he still hadn’t expressed care for Annie. But she kept her face blank, lest Reiner report her treachery to Zeke.
“Let us see, indeed.” Erwin felt Saskia’s comfort fleeing as damnation neared with every breath he took.
“Now that they know, what do you plan?” Armin asked. I won’t be the bait.
Zeke shook his head. “Vengeance. Atonement.”
“Can those coexist?”
“I think they can.” Zeke dropped his mask, and Armin saw the soul of a wounded, enraged child. Like Eren. “I’ll achieve both.”
“You can’t kill my friends.”
“I won’t kill Jaeger,” Zeke said with a strange smile.
“You’re related. Any imbecile could see that,” Armin pointed out.
“Yes. I am the son of my father’s youth…his youthful indiscretions. Eren is the son of his later love.” Bitterness oozed from Zeke’s words.
“You are…Eren’s half brother?” Armin gaped at the Beast Titan.
“He doesn’t look at all like Grisha, does he?” Zeke was lost in memory. “Isn’t it ironic that Grisha’s beloved savior son doesn’t take after him?”
“Maybe he liked him better that way,” Armin said boldly. “Carla – you killed Carla Jaeger, when you made Bertolt attack the walls. Carla was special, just for being herself.”
That’s what she had told Keith Shadis, at any rate. And Armin dared to believe it for her, for Eren and Mikasa and everyone but himself.
Eren is special no matter his powers, Mikasa no matter her strength. Reiner no matter his mind. Even Zeke. Armin stared at the anguished human before him as if he’d been reborn.
“You’re just angry at your father,” Armin said. This whole thing – began because of a father?
Didn’t it always?
“And I should be.” Zeke clenched his fist. “Your friends will return Eren and my wife no matter what.”
“What does ‘no matter what’ contain?”
“I won’t harm them,” Zeke said. “You will.”
“What?” Armin cried.
A purple syringe materialized in Zeke’s grasp.
“No!” Armin scrambled back against the door.
“Go ahead, flee outside! You have nowhere to run!” Zeke exclaimed.
“I’m a human!” Armin begged. “I’m a human! Stop!”
“I wish I could! The world ought to be rid of titans, forever!” Zeke’s faced pinched up like a madman’s.
Armin swung at him, but Zeke knocked him onto his back with one punch. “You’ll learn to control it. You’re smart. We need someone like you.”
“Why not your wife?” Armin screamed. “She was smart, too!”
No, Zeke wouldn’t want to hurt this mysterious Saskia. Maybe he could use that against him – Armin yelped as the needle slid into his vein.
Eren, don’t kill me. I’ll always be a human.
Chapter 10: Chapter Ten
Saskia reflects on how she seduced Zeke as she deals with her growing feelings for Erwin, while Armin considers drastic action to avoid Zeke's plan. In the capital, Historia, Ymir, and Hitch scheme against their nebulous enemy.
Trigger warning for suicidal thoughts.
Zeke hadn’t been expecting her, precisely as she’d expected.
She’d watched his eyes rake her over time and time again when she went to the library. And again when she’d interrupted his conference with Annie and Father.
And she knew then that her theory was correct, that she could get what she wanted.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded, nervously wiping his palms on his trousers.
Saskia stepped into the evening light. Sunset glittered around her, daylight dying as she was dying. “I’m afraid for my sister.”
“You don’t sound it.” Zeke eyed her suspiciously.
“Why show what you’re feeling?”
“Did your father teach you that?” Zeke sat on the grass and motioned for Saskia to join him.
“He didn’t have to.” Father had beat the shit out of her every time she cried, especially over Mother. Saskia knew from early on that withdrawal was the best shield.
Zeke’s eyes filled with venom. “Bastard.”
“Now –” Saskia had always found speaking in general difficult, especially above a whisper. “Now you know why – I can’t lose Annie.”
“We all have to surrender something,” Zeke replied. “How else can we end this?”
Saskia shook her head. This was on her. She should have gathered more from history, figured out how to save the world. It was her fault.
“But Annie is strong. She’s not your weakling father. I have faith in her.” Zeke gripped her hands, and Saskia’s lips parted in surprise.
“She’ll find the Coordinate and return, even if she’s the only one,” Zeke assured her.
Lies, probably, but they sounded pretty, Saskia reflected.
“Ah – are you jealous? Of her freedom? Moving away from that vermin? You could always move closer to town. Stay closer to your work.”
“Closer to you, you mean.” Saskia looked down at the grass.
“Have I been that obvious?” Zeke laughed. Merriment was always his defense.
“Quite.” Saskia couldn’t meet his eyes, but she could run a hand down his arm, onto his thigh.
Zeke inhaled. “Saskia – are you – are you saying you want this?”
She nodded. She had to. She wanted to. For Annie.
Then Zeke was leading her inside, and they were sharing a meal together. He asked her questioned, and she always answered.
Then he kissed her. “I’ve wanted to do this for so long,” he groaned.
Saskia intensified her kiss. Make him yours. She had to, to keep Annie safe.
He carried her over to his bed and fell on top of her. Saskia’s heart pounded. Even though she wanted this – the control if not him – she had never been with a man before, and her only education had in fact come from the library. She’d taught Annie rudimentary facts only three weeks ago.
But he wasn’t moving fast, and her heartbeat slowed. This was up to her.
Her fingers ran through his hair, down his back, under his pants.
Zeke responded by moving her dress up, and suddenly Saskia was scared, but also curious and those chemicals called hormones felt rather pleasant. She didn’t want to stop.
Saskia awoke the next morning to self-loathing stronger than any titan. She felt only mildly sore, but emotionally ruined. If she survived, there was no guarantee she could keep up their affair, or that Dad wouldn’t find out. He would kill her.
Zeke brushed her hair away from her face. “You’re awake.”
She rolled over to face him. “Are you happy?”
“Yes,” he said with a smile. “Are you?”
“No, you’re not.” He sat up, terrified that he had hurt her, ruined his chances with her forever. “Is it your father?”
“I’ll protect you. There’s no need to return.” Zeke cupped her face in his hands. “This can be your home now – if you’ll have me.”
“I would like that,” she said seriously. This serious, mysterious woman whose brilliant mind rivaled his own. He loved her.
“I hate waiting,” grumbled Ymir.
“I shouldn’t even be here!” squeaked Hitch.
“Well, you are, and I’ll take the blame for it.” Ymir cocked her head. “Say, when have the police ever cared about shirking duties anyways?”
“Since I’m already in trouble with Zackly,” hissed Hitch. “What if he kicks me out and sends me to Garrison?”
“Oh, please, you’d be better for it,” Ymir shot back.
The doors swung open to reveal a resplendent room Hitch had only seen in her imagination. A sniffling man dressed in ridiculous black robes held up a hand towards a rather despondent queen atop a golden throne. “If anyone can help, we believe you can.”
Historia nodded, despite the panic in her eyes.
“What gives?” Ymir dragged Hitch into the cavernous room.
Historia glanced up. “Oh, Ymir – that was Judge Sturm, whose daughter is missing.”
“What did he want?”
“More news; what else?” Historia wiped her eyes. “There’s no news from the police on the case, though. I don’t understand how people can just vanish, even inside the walls. It’s so sad.”
“The missing nobles case?” Hitch leant forward. “Your Majesty, my friend Boris was part of the team investigating that. I heard they found Lionel Vicar’s body by the entrance to the underground two days ago.”
Historia clapped a hand over her mouth. “That can’t be – he can’t be dead – why hasn’t anyone been informed – oh no!”
“Military Police,” Ymir said with a shrug.
“Hey!” Hitch scowled at Ymir. “Someone is dead; you should at least show you care!”
“Ymir is rudest when she cares the most,” Historia said.
“Oh…I see.” Like she had perfected flirtation as her only defense. Hitch crossed her arms.
“Has this Boris told his superiors?”
“Well, of course. I think the superiors on the case found him, or that’s what he implied. He never takes credit, even when he should.” Hitch sighed. She would have. She really was the worst of the 104th. “They should have reported to Zackly and the family.”
“Well, they didn’t from what I know. Are there really that many distractions in the Capital?” Historia wondered if she should call Judge Sturm back, but she didn’t have the heart. It would only worry him more. But… “I don’t know who you are, but can you … can you send word to the Vicar family?”
“Of course.” Hitch brightened at a direct order from the queen.
“There’s another reason she’s here,” Ymir added.
“I’m Hitch Dreyse; you may have heard of me before…”
“Yes, I have!” exclaimed Historia, surprising Hitch.
“Commander Zackly knows about Annie. That the Survey Corps freed her. He questioned me – and – and I told him – because I was scared,” Hitch confessed tearfully.
“So you helped them?” Historia queried.
“Well, yes, of course.” Hitch’s lip trembled. “Marlowe was my partner…he left the Police to join your Corp and died. I had to help.”
Ymir softened. “I’m sorry.”
Historia came down from her throne and embraced the crying girl. “I’m so sorry, Hitch.”
The queen was sweet. How could nobles actually be kind? Hitch hugged her back.
“Darius Zackly is onto the Survey Corps’ actions. That’s not inherently suspicious, and really it even makes sense, but with his behavior towards Bertl, I really think he’s the one who sent the attackers,” said Ymir.
Historia frowned. “We don’t know that yet.”
“I know, I know.” Ymir pointed at Hitch. “But I think she can help us. Ears in the Police would be a huge asset.”
“Can you?” Historia turned to Hitch.
She nodded. Her, personally assisting the queen? And for a good cause? Geez, this was a dream. “Yes. Yes, I will…but who are these attackers, and who is Bertl?”
“Oh, dear.” Ymir sighed. “Historia, you’re nicer. Want to explain?”
“So, you see, it’s really complicated and we can’t blame them fully.” When Historia finished, to her surprise, Hitch was nodding, deep in thought.
She’s not angry? Historia wondered. Well, of course not. Hitch hadn’t seen the fall of Maria or ventured outside the walls. Ymir had brought her here, and Annie had been her roommate. How could she hate Bertolt for his titan horror?
“If you really wanted to catch Zackly, or whomever, shouldn’t you give them what they want?” asked Hitch suddenly.
“What?” Historia frowned.
“Bring Bertolt or Annie into the Interior. Pretend they’re your allies, or maybe manipulate them until they are,” Hitch said. “And leave them ‘vulnerable’ to whomever would want to kidnap them.”
“Which would be everyone if they found out,” Historia said worriedly.
“No, but you’d only tell the superiors. Dok and Zackly – they’re the only ones who probably know, right?” Hitch’s eyes gleamed.
“I think,” said Ymir. “That is our best idea.”
Hitch jumped up and down at the praise. “Fantastic! Write a letter right away, Your Highness!”
Saskia awoke with a shudder. Were nightmares contagious? Had she ever cared for Zeke, or had she merely convinced herself she had?
Guilt tumbled through her stomach. She’d betrayed her spouse, something she’d never forgiven their father for.
“What’s wrong?” Annie asked. She was finally allowed to sleep in a room instead of a cell, although her wrist was manacled to Saskia.
“Just…thinking,” Saskia said, rubbing her temples.
“You don’t know if you can do this,” Annie surmised.
“Something like that.” Saskia gave her sister a tepid half-smile.
“I’ve failed to become a warrior. I don’t have an option,” Annie said. “I don’t think you do, either.”
“I had a choice, to help at Shinagashina or not. I didn’t choose anything I knew.”
“I chose to save Sasha when we attacked Trost. I chose to keep Armin alive when I killed everyone else I came across,” Annie said. “I don’t mind making that decision again.”
“Who is this Armin?” Saskia turned to her sister. “Eren and Mikasa’s childhood friend, highly intelligent – yes, I’ve heard all that. But why did you keep him alive?”
“I don’t know,” Annie confessed, tears in her eyes. “But he’s the only person who ever called me ‘nice.’ He’s a fool, because he’s the kind one, but he told me I was nice. Even when he led me into a trap, my one consolation was that I could be a good – helpful – person to him.”
“He’s the reason you were caught?” Saskia asked, a storm on her face. Emotions came easier around Annie.
“He was loyal to his side.” Annie shrugged. “It hurts. It still hurts. But I want to see him again, Saskia.”
“Is this love?” Saskia frowned.
“I don’t know what love is.”
“Maybe it’s hoping you’ll see someone again,” Saskia suggested, squeezing Annie’s hand. “I’ll help you see him again, Annie.”
“You’ll help save the lives of everyone in here. I see the way you look at Erwin and Mikasa. You care about their lives, more than a Warrior should,” Annie said.
Saskia felt nauseated at Erwin’s name. “Yes.”
Annie had noticed more, far more, but now was not the time. “The meeting begins soon. Although – afterwards –”
“I need to talk to Bertolt. He’s glad to be caught, Saskia. He’s not a villain.” Annie laughed, recalling how many times she had called Bertolt and Reiner villains and fools, to Saskia, to her father, to herself. But villainy – maybe no one was.
Armin awoke smothered in exhaustion. Where was he? And why did he feel despair?
“Already?” He heard Reiner’s voice rise outside.
He’s back. Armin was grateful for at least one semi-ally.
“Are you still not committed, Reiner?” Zeke said lazily.
Armin gasped. The serum!
He stared at his hands. He was human again. Why were they clean when there should be blood all over them?
No, no, no. It wasn’t my fault. Armin didn’t care. It’s my fault for being weak!
Tears leaked out his eyes. He hated himself. If he had the strength – he would kill himself right here and now. He’d fight Zeke until the War Chief had no choice but to kill him. Why hadn’t he done that before?
I was weak. Armin choked back a sob. But I’m strong enough to die.
Zeke stepped into the room. “I’m pleased you’re awake.”
The boy was crying. Zeke hated tears, as if he never cried himself every night the memories haunted his dreams. “Reiner. Explain to him. He was your comrade, correct? Now he will be again.”
As the Chief swept out, Reiner gaped after him. “Armin…”
“Shut up,” Armin squeaked. “Don’t even look at me – I’m a monster –”
“Now you understand?” Reiner said furiously. “Now, do you believe me? There’s no hope when you're a titan.”
“Kill me now, or I’ll force you to kill me,” Armin pled.
“You haven’t done anything,” Reiner hissed. “You’re a victim in this.”
“I ate someone! I must have.” Armin felt like he couldn’t breath. Good.
And he meant that – he truly didn’t want to stay alive, and that scared him even more.
“Yes, his name was James and he was Marcel’s father,” Reiner said. “Marcel’s entire family were shifters. If it makes you…feel better, James was an ass.”
“It doesn't,” Armin said.
Reiner wanted to scream, to shake Armin out of his misery, to kill the Beast Titan, to take back everything he’d ever done.
“What’s he planning? If I’m a conscious titan, I still won’t hurt my friends,” Armin insisted.
“I know,” Reiner said, a lump in his throat. His life was so unfair. Armin’s, and his own.
“Help me,” Armin pled. “What is he planning?” He might as well know before he killed himself.
Reiner looked away.
“He hasn’t shared much with me.”
“You know something.”
Fuck it. Reiner wanted redemption. He couldn’t resist giving in. “Likely he wants to see you fight Eren. Killing Grisha’s son, his true son, would satisfy him. And he’ll tell you he’ll kill your friends anyways, but slowly and torturously. So you’ll obey, and it’ll destroy you.”
Armin’s first response was panic. His second was confusion. “No, Zeke is smart.”
“What do you mean?”
“Killing Eren wouldn’t be satisfying,” Armin explained. “Turning Eren to his side would.”
He’s not going to kill me at all. He’s going to make Eren think I’m a Warrior now.
He should live – but no, he’d already committed to death.
“Please untie my hands,” Armin said dully.
“You’re joking, right?”
“Reiner!” Armin peered at him. “Grant me this, at least.”
The eerie calm in Armin’s voice chilled Reiner. “No. Armin.”
Armin looked away, but he was weeping again.
“No.” Reiner stepped forward and sat besides him. “No. You’re too valuable for that.”
“That’s why I want to die!” Armin yelled.
“No, not to Zeke. As a person. You’re a good person, Armin.”
“I don’t believe in good people,” he moaned.
“I do. I’m bad. You’re good.” Reiner blinked back tears as he drew his friend into an embrace. “I’ll help you. I’ll stay with you all night if I have to. The world would be much, much worse without you in it.”
“Thank you all for coming,” Erwin said as soon as Squad Levi, Hange Zoe, Saskia and Annie were present.
Eren, the last to enter, closed the door and hurriedly took a seat next to Mikasa.
Sasha exchanged a smirk with Connie. Now Eren was the one hanging onto Mikasa.
“We have two letters, one from the queen, one from our enemy.” Erwin placed the papers on the table.
“Historia?” Eren narrowed his eyes. “What’s wrong?”
“The letter arrived an hour ago, sent by an overnight messenger,” Hange answered. “They have a suspect for the attempted kidnapping and want to create a trap.”
“A trap?” Jean’s eyes lit up.
“Which suspect?” Mikasa turned towards Erwin.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Sasha’s intuition had told her the answer long ago. “Not many people knew about Bertolt.”
Mikasa’s eyes lowered. “I know.”
She’d just, just wanted better for humanity. She hadn’t expected better, but she’d wanted it.
“Who?” Eren asked.
Levi sighed. “Only Historia, Ymir, the Survey Corp, Dok and Zackly knew.”
“Dok? Let me guess, he wanted to dissect him.” Eren scowled. Not even Bertolt deserved that.
“Actually, Historia mentions Zackly. But her proof is nonexistent. Hence, the trap, which would work for either,” said Erwin.
“What do you think, Commander?” Hange rested her chin on her elbows.
“I think a trap is a good idea,” said Erwin. He couldn’t comment further.
Dok used to be his friend. Marie’s husband was cruel, but not a traitor.
And Darius…the man who’d appointed him Commander, the man he admired. Was anyone true? Was anyone pure?
“So, they want Bertolt? That sounds like a terrible idea. We should send someone in disguise.”
“Who’s tall enough?” Annie retorted. Bertolt is glad to be caught. There’s hope for him.
“Annie is right.” Erwin sighed. “But we cannot trust him. That’s why someone of nearly equal value will be sent.”
Saskia stared at the table, her worst fear realized.
Annie blanched. “Me? You think you can trust me?”
“Eh, if we have your sister, you won’t fight too much, will you? Besides, you know I’d love to kill you should you rebel,” Levi said lackadaisically.
“You talk tough, but you wouldn’t,” Annie shot back.
“If I had to, I would.”
“That I believe,” she acquiesced. “Fine.”
Saskia didn’t dare lift her eyes. Annie had to return as bait? No, no, no.
“Levi, you’ll accompany Annie to the capital.”
“Wait – wait – wait – what about Armin?” Eren protested. “We don’t have much time!”
“Lucky for us,” said Erwin calmly, “Levi is not Humanity’s Sole Strongest.”
“Oh.” Mikasa paled under his stern gaze. Then she saw Levi’s almost fatherly smile, and resolve blossomed within her. The Ackermans would not be stopped. “Yes, sir.”
“So The Special Operations Squad will be split?” Levi asked.
“Yes.” Erwin scanned the table. “We must decide who goes to the capital, and who rescues Armin Arlert. I won’t leave our soldier to die, and we can’t let many know about this rescue mission, or Commander Zackly would stop us for certain. Saskia, you and Bertolt will have to accompany us to keep up the ruse. I believe we can trust you, at least?”
Saskia’s heart skipped. “Yes.”
“She doesn’t know how to use 3D gear at all,” Jean pointed out.
“We have a week. Mikasa and Levi, you can teach her the basics.” Erwin looked at Saskia. “You understand venturing outside, with only a week of training, gives you the lowest possible chance of survival.”
“I don’t care about that,” Saskia replied.
Concern flickered across Hange’s face. “I’ll need to visit the Capital for chemicals necessary to synthesize the serum, anyways.”
“Yes, and we need Jean’s connection to the Military Police again.”
“Yes, sir.” Jean cleared his throat.
“You’ll need a shifter in case Bertolt escapes,” Eren prattled.
“Your titan can’t do jack shit against the Colossal Titan,” Jean said.
“Actually, Eren, we know Zeke wants you. That can never be allowed. You’ll be accompanying Levi, Jean, and Annie to the capital.”
“What?” Eren shrieked.
Jean had to confess, he derived mild satisfaction by Eren’s horror.
“My mom –” Connie began.
“You’ll be there when we heal her,” Hange assured him. “But for now, you and Sasha are not needed in the Capital.”
“I – suppose…” Connie felt like fighting, but their decision did make sense.
“No, no, no!” Eren ranted. “I should be there – to – Armin’s my best friend –”
“He’s my best friend, too,” Mikasa said impatiently.
“But this is suicide!”
“No, this is smart,” Annie said from across the table.
“For once, I agree with Annie.”
“Eren,” Erwin said loudly.
Eren froze. A tear trickled down his face. “C-commander.”
“We understand this is difficult for you, brat, but you’re here to follow orders.” Levi’s feet were now on the table, and he made a distinctive kicking motion. “Got it?”
Mikasa planned on a stern chat with Levi later, but she was immensely relieved when Eren sullenly replied, “Yes, sir.”
Bertolt glanced up in surprise. He’d expected to see Eren, or perhaps Levi, or anyone besides Annie Leonhart.
In the distance, Jean scowled at them. He was rather eager for a reason to avenge Marco while on guard duty.
“G – glad you’re free,” he stammered.
“None of us are free,” she said. “Bertolt, you’re even glad you’re not free.”
“I saw your face,” she snapped, kicking the iron bars. “You didn’t want to be free.”
“It’s easier, isn’t it?” Bertolt cried. Coward.
Annie’s eyes flashed. “Maybe. I don’t know. I prefer it to working for Zeke, though.”
Bertolt gasped. “You can’t say that!”
He doubled over. “Annie, please don’t join this race.”
“I always was. You know that,” she said. “The King would have killed my parents if they hadn’t fled. And all they did was discuss rebellion.”
And she was about to carry her own rebellion through, against the son of their benefactor outside the walls.
Bertolt wiped his eyes. “I never cared about that.”
“Be – because you were so smart, and strong, and pretty.” He drew in a ragged breath. “I always knew that everyone within the walls couldn’t be defiled, because you were perfect.”
Annie’s stonehearted expression began to crack. How did Saskia do it? “Bertolt – Bertl – I’m not the one you love.”
Her hand slipped through the bars and gripped his. “Look at me, Bertolt.”
His eyes were red as blood. “I don’t love anyone, then.”
“Reiner may disagree.”
Bertolt’s mouth dropped. “It’s not like that – wait – have you come down here only to accuse me of loving Reiner?”
“No. To ask why you would rather stay captive than be free.” Annie sat back on her heels. “Sure, it’s easier. But you also simply don’t want to kill your friends.”
“I killed Armin. Or tried to. I even tried to speed it up, so he wouldn’t suffer.” Bertolt hiccupped. “Annie, would you – would you be talking to me if he didn’t live?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted.
See, he was evil and twisted and rancid. He wished he were dead.
“I suppose that’s fair.” Bertolt drew his arms tighter around his legs, wishing he could make himself as tiny and vulnerable as he felt.
“I think there’s a way to save more friends,” she said.
“No matter what I do, I fail.”
“Meaning I’d rather do nothing.”
“Well, I wouldn’t,” Annie said impatiently. “So I’ll choose for you.”
Bertolt’s heart rate eased. He was truly pathetic.
“You’re helping your friends and saying ‘fuck Zeke.’”
When Annie left, she paused in front of Jean. His hand was still by his blade.
“I don’t like seeing you free,” he growled.
“Then why did you do it?” he burst out.
“He…found out who Reiner was,” Annie said, tearing up. “By the time I came, Reiner had him pinned down.”
“And Bertolt?” Jean’s eyes slid over to the quiet boy. At least he was sitting up rather than huddled into a ball this time.
“He stood there. I’m the one who took Marco’s gear, not Bertolt,” Annie insisted.
“Then you threw him to a titan?”
“No!” Bertolt exclaimed, unable to stay silent.
“No,” Annie confirmed. “We left him for one.”
“Oh, what a difference!” Jean snarled.
“There isn’t. We’re all guilty!” She stepped closer to him, close enough that Jean drew his blades. “We can’t be forgiven…Marco.”
Then she drifted away, like a ghost.
“Wait!” Jean shrieked. “Come back! I need to know – his last words! He was Marco!”
Annie stopped at the head of the stairs. “I don’t remember.”
“How?! He was our comrade!”
“I wish I did,” she forced herself to say. And she meant it. Meant it so much, she felt scared to say it.
“He told us to wait.” Bertolt spoke up again.
Jean noticed his glazed countenance, as if he were reliving it. Now he wanted to dive into Bertolt’s mind, to relive it, too. I found the truth, buddy. You didn’t die in vain.
“He said ‘Wait. We haven’t finished yet. Talking.’”
Similar words he’d just conveyed to Annie. Jean clutched his face, begging the tears to release, but they wouldn’t. I’m not this coldhearted.
“Stop.” Annie’s hand pulled his nails away from his cheek.
Blood? I drew my own blood?
“It’s okay not to cry. Saskia doesn’t.” Annie shook her head. “But it’s not okay to hurt yourself. Give yourself some grace, dammit, because at least you’re not a murderer. You deserve it. Give yourself grace for those of us who can’t.” Her voice eased. “Anyhow, how will you live for Marco if you hurt yourself?”
Saskia was sprawled across the grass, as she had been the night before this adventure began. She even suffered the same foreboding – Ymir was all that was missing.
She was glad there was no captive nearby. Glad Ymir was free. And excited by the man looking down at her.
“I know all the constellations,” she said. “I would recite them every time my father and mother fought, whether I could sneak outside or cower inside.”
She hesitated. “I would pretend I was lost but happy, flying free amongst the stars. Like they were all I needed.”
Why was it easier to speak of her parents than her dreams?
“Hmm.” Erwin sat beside her.
Saskia sat up, startled.
“I didn’t mean to trouble you.”
“No, you didn’t really,” she assured him. The stars soothed her, when all she wanted was to cry for Annie. They gave her beauty she’d never see otherwise. “I found you staring at the stars before. Why?”
Erwin pulled up blades of grass with his hand. “Because they remind me that there is a beauty and vastness to this world, far beyond our understanding. That is almost comforting.”
“Like you don’t have to know everything,” Saskia interpreted.
“Yes, I suppose so,” Erwin mused. “And the mere idea that there is so much more to discover, to learn – perhaps, one day, I can find out some sliver of the truth.”
“But you wouldn’t be satisfied with a sliver,” Saskia challenged.
The corners of Erwin’s mouth turned up. “No, I wouldn’t. I want the whole truth.”
“I do, too.”
He looked at her. Colorless in the starlight, and yet her soul seemed so vibrant. “That was your duty, wasn’t it?”
“To know everything,” Saskia said, her eyes clouding over. “I found that the more we knew, the less we did. We thought killing you all was right. Because of the First King. Because of your hampered memories, your inability to learn.” Her breath caught. “And then I saw your faces and your depth and your humanity, and you weren’t so different. We were repeating history to bring about a new history…I don’t believe that any longer.”
She wrung her hands. “It was a terrible thing to believe, I know. But I did, and it was my comfort, really. Now it’s gone. I could go back, but I couldn’t…fully believe it. I’m frightened. Being more knowledgeable…has not made us better people after all.”
“I admire your courage, to change sides.”
Saskia leant closer, peered into his eyes. “Really?”
“Yes,” he said honestly. “You were wrong, and you’re changing. Your sister is, too, and who knows?” Erwin tossed the grass blades into the breeze. “Maybe the Colossal Titan will change, too. People change. And that is good.”
“You’re not half as guilty as you condemn yourself,” Saskia said.
“Neither are you.” Erwin touched the stump on his shoulder. “And your sister was a child when she helped lead titans into Wall Maria. If she is guilty, I am guilty of my father’s death.”
“I don’t agree,” Saskia replied, removing his hand from the missing arm. “Annie should never have had to commit the crime she did, and I will defend her to the death. But you committed no crime. And you don’t need an arm to heal whole.”
“I don’t think there’s time for healing in the life of a soldier.”
“We’ll make time,” Saskia encouraged.
“You’re quite the optimist, you know that?” Erwin was eerily reminded of merry Marie. But Saskia was also haunted by her past, deeply scarred like him. How had she gained such a perspective? The world needed more humans like her.
She seemed genuinely shocked. “I – I never was.”
“Maybe you never had the chance,” Erwin speculated.
“That could be.” Saskia loved it. This word optimist. She wasn’t, but oh, how she wanted to be. “You should try it.”
“I would fear losing more lives. Maybe…when this is over.” For the first time, Erwin dared to hope for a life after the Survey Corp. He wasn’t sure how he would live without a purpose, what he could do. After all, he hadn’t even made it to the basement, and in good moments, he could accept that.
But maybe, life could be good, and he could accept himself.
Saskia drew back, but, in the next moment –
she could not ascertain what came over her –
but she pressed her lips against Erwin Smith, 13th Commander of the Survey Corps.
Completely stunned, Erwin didn’t know what to do. Feelings bubbles up inside him, feelings he hadn’t expressed since those nights with Marie. But his lips responded for him, returning her kiss.
Both of them pulled back, gaping at the other in the starlight.
“I – I don’t know – I’m sorry,” Saskia said. Erwin Smith was not Zeke. She could not seduce him, and she didn’t want to.
Erwin was smiling, though too shy – yes, shy – to meet her eyes. He could die at any time – but she knew that. Saskia knew his position, and seemed to accept him. How could this woman actually exist? “I’m not.”
Saskia laughed nervously. She shouldn’t – she was technically married, even if separated and on opposing sides of a war.
But she cared for this man. He’d changed her world even while dying on a battlefield. She was no stranger to fictional romantic clichés, but with him, the world really did seem brighter.
She didn’t know if this was okay. But she did know that this world – and herself – were better with Erwin Smith.
Chapter 11: Chapter Eleven
Saskia's training goes disastrously, Eren faces his inner demons, and Erwin faces his growing feelings for Saskia.
“Ready?” Mikasa turned to Levi. Their shadows were still long in the morning sun. Dew clung to the grass. There was almost something hopeful about mornings. She used to love them as a child. “I’m not a teacher.”
“Do I look like one either?” he retorted. “We have to. For Erwin. I think he’d appreciate the woman not dying.” His friend didn’t deserve one more body on his conscience.
“I don’t want her to die anyhow,” snapped Mikasa. Interesting that you should mention Erwin…
“What’s that look, Ackerman?”
“Erwin seems close to her, that’s all.” Mikasa cleared her throat.
“I haven’t noticed anything.” Levi took a step closer to her. “Define ‘close.’”
“Your reaction speaks volumes.” She found his protectiveness adorable.
He served her a withering glare. “I’m still your captain.”
“So answer the question.” Levi tapped his foot on the damp earth.
“Um.” Mikasa was not prepared for this. “Eren I spotted the Commander and Saskia talking quite late last night, that’s all.”
“And what, pray tell, were you and Jaeger doing up late last night?” Levi crossed his arms, perfectly aware of what she was hiding.
Her face turned crimson.
“I think it’s time I have a chat with Jaeger,” growled Levi.
“What, he hurts me, he’s dead, titan or not?” Mikasa fluttered her eyes at Levi. “Please, be original.”
“While you and everyone else in the 104th may be falling in love, Erwin is not. There’s a war about!” Levi bristled. I would know.
“Hasn’t stopped you and Hange.”
“What?!” Levi turned a murderous gaze towards Flocke, who froze behind a large horse.
“Help me,” he squeaked to Mikasa.
“Levi, we’ve noticed this for months.” Mikasa’s mouth may not have smiled, but her eyes did.
“Months? Impossible. You’ve only been here a few months.”
Levi felt relief wash over him as Saskia stepped into the courtyard, distinctly uncomfortable to have donned Survey Corp gear.
“Yes?” Annie materialized from behind Saskia.
“What are you doing here?” Mikasa narrowed her eyes.
“She’s my sister,” Annie said flatly. Who knew how much longer they had together?
Two hours later, Annie nearly regretted her decision. Saskia was strong, but not quite strong enough to operate 3D gear as with passable finesse. She’s going to die.
She wanted to vomit.
She deserved to die, not Saskia, Saskia who’d always been the good one, who’d sacrificed her own body for Annie’s safety, who’d switched sides after no time at all, just for Annie. Three years of friendship, and Annie hadn’t been able to switch sides like Saskia had.
I don’t want to live longer than her.
“I wish I was a better teacher,” Mikasa fumed as Levi took a turn instructing Saskia.
Annie raised her eyebrows, surprised Mikasa would even speak to her. “You’re better than I would be.”
“That doesn’t count for much.” Mikasa watched Saskia tangle herself up again. Gee, next to Eren, she was the worst Mikasa had seen. Then again, maybe everyone in the 104th had looked like that after only two hours. She didn’t remember much except Eren.
“Here, I can help.” Eren hurried forward.
Eren whirled around with a scowl. “Which one of you said that?”
“Could have been either,” Mikasa said slyly. To Annie she added, “By the way, if you hurt Eren again on this mission, I will kill you.”
“Likewise with Saskia.”
“I can defend myself. I’m stronger, even as a titan,” Eren complained. “Annie, why don’t we practice sparring?”
Annie’s eyes lit up. Sparring was when she came alive…sparring, the routine drilled and beaten into her. Pathetic.
If Armin really was alive, what would he say to her this time?
“You’re just saying that because you want to punch her for betraying you,” Mikasa said.
“No, I’m not!” Eren said. “I’m happy you’re back, Annie, and helping us.”
“I’m helping myself and my sister.”
“And you’re helping us, and I am happy you’re here.”
“You’re still angry, too. That’s okay.”
“You’re allowed one punch, that’s it,” Mikasa commanded.
“But you’d be better off not taking that punch,” said Annie.
“Don’t talk to Eren about morality.”
Annie’s face pinched. She fucking knew that. She did. She stormed off, leaving an uncharacteristically guilty Mikasa and Eren staring after her.
“Ymir, what’s wrong?”
Ymir was slumped on their bed, staring at the carpet. “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” Historia hurried over to her side and grabbed her hand. “Ymir.”
Ymir flopped across the satin quilt. “I failed.”
“I couldn’t solve who tried to attack Bertl. And I completely forgot to learn about the missing nobles.”
Historia lay down next to her hurting lover. “But you have! You found Hitch, and hell, maybe Zackly’s even in charge of the nobles’ disappearance, too.”
Ymir snorted. “Nah, there’s too many bad humans.”
“There’s good humans, too. Many of them.” Historia ran her hand through Ymir’s dark hair. “And you’re one of them. I never asked you to help with the nobles. You just did. You’re one of them.”
“I thought you said I was rotten to the core,” Ymir said with a sly grin. “At Utgard.”
“I would have said anything to save you then!” Historia slapped Ymir playfully.
“Oh, really?” Ymir snickered and pulled the queen closer for a passionate kiss.
Historia leant back. “Ymir, don’t try to distract me.”
“You’re trying to keep me from seeing that you’re mad at yourself.” Historia leant closer. “Do you think I am blind?”
“Blind, no.” Ymir closed her eyes. “I suppose I sometimes still expect Krista. I’m sorry!”
“Don’t be sorry. I don’t know where I end and she begins.” Krista shook her head. No, Historia. “She’s a part of me. I hate her.”
“Then that’s hating yourself.” Ymir sat up and embraced Historia. “Don’t, please. You are amazing and your heart is bigger than a titan’s.”
“Well, gee, thanks.”
“You know what I meant!”
Historia rested her forehead against Ymir’s. “I know I have nothing to forgive you for. And you’ve never disappointed me.”
“I’m human; I will.”
“I should have fallen for your titan form.”
“What?” Ymir’ss mouth fell open. “Since when are you sassy?!”
“Since now. I don’t know – it just felt like something I should say! Are you offended?”
“No, I’m amused. I think I like me a sassy Historia.” Ymir pulled Historia on top of her.
“I kissed her,” Erwin whispered to himself. He sat at his desk, guilt gnawing at him.
He couldn’t have. He shouldn’t have.
He was a dead man. With only one arm. There was no time for love.
His father’s face flickered in front of him, the face of a man who would have loved her smarts. The man whose death she pitied and mourned, though she hadn’t known him.
I’m still loving you, Dad, Erwin realized. A hard lump formed in his throat. After all this time he’d been a soldier, not once had his love for Dad hindered him. It had only motivated.
Maybe there wasn’t enough love to go around. Maybe falling in love with Saskia would ruin her when he died. Or – considering the brief, painful glimpses he’d seen in the yard today – he’d be ruined if she died.
He’d gone through this before, with Marie. And he hadn’t been ready then. He’d been ready to give up his heart for mankind, for his father, but not for one woman.
But now he was a dead man. What had he to lose?
She didn’t dare go outside. She didn’t deserve to see the stars.
She deserved death.
Or at least a slap, a “go back to your father,” and then a kick, another kick.
Mom, why couldn’t you have protected me?
Saskia hunched over on the floor of her room, remembering. But she never really had to recall; every memory haunted her mind every moment.
She couldn’t blame Mom. Mom had been fed to Annie.
A firm, confident knock on her door sent Saskia sprawling across the room. No, she had to cool, to crystalize again, before anyone saw her.
“I said stop!”
Saskia lunged across the bed. “Not again! Zeke, wake up!”
“Commander,” she said smoothly.
Erwin’s eyes dripped with warm concern. “My first training went terribly, too. By the end of this week, you might even be better than me without my arm.”
“Don’t lie, please.” Saskia touched his shoulder. “And don’t insult yourself.”
She stepped aside, allowing him inside.
“If nothing else,” he said with a small smile, “you look good dressed like a member of the Survey Corps.”
A rare blush spread across Saskia’s face. “So you’re the type of man who resorts to humor when he doesn’t know what else to say.”
“No, I simply try to find irony in the worst of situations. Levi’s far better at it than me – you should hear his shit jokes.” Erwin smiled gently. “I believe in you, Saskia. And I swear I will try to keep you alive.”
“Death has never really bothered me, you know. History is death after death after death – over ideologies and race and famine and disease. Did you know, several thousand years ago, a third of humanity was lost simply to disease? They called it the ‘Black Death.’”
“So this Black Death was like the Titans.”
“Yes, but impersonal, invisible. No one could blame anything, except maybe their God.” Saskia’s face became earnest.
He loved the emotion on her face, those rare flashes of a person and a world beyond her exterior. In those moments, Saskia, to him, was the outside world, and everything beautiful about it.
“Do you think we’re better or worse for having wretched creatures on which to place our blame?”
Erwin’s face was the definition of wistful. “I don’t know.”
“Me either. First King, Titans, people in the walls, Grisha Jaeger – they’re all humans we’re blaming.”
“But we don’t deserve this,” Erwin said.
“Are you sure?” Saskia wanted to know, wanted proof.
Her husband gasped awake, sweat running down his face. “Oh!”
“You’re here. Not there.” Saskia didn’t know what else to say. She wiped his forehead with her hair.
“Saskia,” he groaned, drawing her closer in an embrace. With his head buried in her chest, he felt safe.
“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked, hoping he wouldn’t be angry she was asking again. But this had happened three times in the last week.
“Tell me what happened.”
“None of us are good people. No innocents exist in the Survey Corps. We’re ignorant and ruthless,” Erwin admitted. “But how can a lack of good inherently deserve death?”
“You don’t,” she told him.
“I don’t know. I just know that humanity – like my father – did not deserve to die.”
“I lost my father. I saw him once, just once, and he pushed me away as I was screaming. I lost him!” Zeke pounded his legs, and Saskia had to grab his hands to keep him from hurting himself.
“And then Mother – would take stones – and tell me I reminded her of Grisha, fuck Grisha.” Zeke choked on a sob.
“The only thing I could ever count on – my only gift – was my brain. I was smarter than everyone. Anyone could be persuaded to do what I said, but she couldn’t be persuaded to put down her stones.” Zeke’s face crumpled. “Why did Father leave?”
“Some questions, I’ve learned, can’t have adequate answers.” So she held him and cried for his childhood.
“No child deserves to be separated from their father. I’m sorry you were,” Saskia said.
The pity again. Saskia … “And I’m sorry you were abused by yours.”
Saskia bristled. “It wasn’t abuse.”
“Then why be in such agony, if death doesn’t scare you?” Erwin placed a hand on her shoulder. “The strongest soldiers show pain.”
He turned to leave. Best not to bother her.
“Wait,” said Saskia. “Then, you are the strongest, besides Eren Jaeger.”
Erwin chuckled. “You can be funny.”
“I’m always learning. I vow not to die, too, or to let you die,” she informed him in a blaze of determination.
Erwin stepped closer. “You are …”
“Your friend and ally,” she finished, sealing the deal with a kiss.
Barely taller than Annie, Saskia had to stand on her tiptoes. Erwin bent down and lifted her up with one arm so they were on equal levels.
Saskia had never in her life known someone to show compassion for her abuse. Zeke had show fury and protection, but never warmth. Not like this. This man, Erwin Smith, was fascinating. She admired every facet of him.
Saskia drew back, aware that she possessed a far fuller figure than Annie. “Am I too heavy?”
Erwin laughed softly. “No. You are perfect.”
“I’m a sinner and a murderer.”
“So am I.” Erwin kissed her again. Maybe, sinners could discover perfection even when they didn’t deserve it.
“Am I too harsh on people?” Eren asked.
“Didn’t you kill three men at the age of nine?” Jean replied, shocked that Eren would be asking him such a question.
“No – how did you find that out?!” Eren’s eyes blazed.
Jean held up his hands. “The rumor mill was churning after your trial.”
Eren lowered his eyes for the first time in his life. “Figures.”
“They killed Mikasa’s parents and were kidnapping her! I stopped them,” Eren insisted.
“If you’re so certain of your righteousness, why are you asking me this?”
“Be – because you’re harsh on me. And honest.”
“You want to hurt yourself, is that it?” Jean was sickened. He didn’t want to help Eren lacerate himself.
“No! I just – look, Annie found out I’m still angry at her.”
“We all are?”
“She seemed really hurt that I still want to punch her sometimes,” Eren confessed.
Hey, he does have a conscience. Jean had never seen Eren self-reflective before. Miracles did happen. Thanks, Marco.
“I don’t know,” Jean said. “I think we all do. When I found out about – about Marco – I think I knew the kind of rage you felt. I wanted to skin Reiner alive, human form, and feed Bertolt to a titan, and tear off Annie’s limbs.”
Eren blinked. “You did?”
“Don’t you tell a soul!” Jean jabbed a finger in his face. He stepped away, towards the window where Levi and Mikasa were still attempting to instruct that poor, doomed woman. “But I … I don’t think that’s what Marco would have wanted.”
“So what do you do when you can’t take revenge?” Eren cried.
Jean glanced back at him. “I don’t know.”
Eren trembled, his fists clenched. “I … don’t … know, either.”
“Don’t know what?” Connie sauntered into the room, followed by Sasha. Since his concussion, the two were virtually inseparable.
“Anything?” Jean quipped.
“I’ve never heard you say that before, Eren,” Sasha said innocently.
“Uh – forget it.” Eren hurried to peer out the window with Jean as Saskia’s pale head slammed into the ground. “Ouch.”
“Bring back memories?” Jean smirked at Eren’s glower.
“She’s going to die, and no one has any better ideas!” Eren began pacing back and forth.
“Maybe you should teach her?” Connie suggested. “You sure had enough problems trying 3D maneuver gear.”
“That’s because mine was broken, and I happen to have stood up for five seconds on broken gear.” Eren pointed at Connie.
“We know,” Sasha said, unable to hide her amusement. “You’ve always used that lone example when you couldn’t beat Connie in training.”
Connie slapped a high five to Sasha.
“I’m glad you can be merry when people are about to die,” Eren sniped.
“That’s not it at all!” Sasha clapped a hand over her mouth. She’d never had a choice – otherwise, she’d dissolve into panic and die.
“My mother is a titan,” Connie shot back. “And you don’t insult Sasha.”
“That’s it!” Eren stared wildly at the two of them. In the background, Jean raised an eyebrow.
“Well, can you?” Eren grabbed Bertolt’s hands.
He didn’t deserve to be touched. He’d torn so much from Eren, from Jean, from everyone.
He didn’t need to tear Saskia from Zeke.
He wanted to haggle, to ask not for forgiveness, but at least the belief that he had truly cared about his friends.
But he hadn’t cared enough. Marco proved it. So he could never ask for such cleansing.
“I’ll do it,” he whispered, hating himself. Nice, pliable Bertolt never changed, even as his heart rotted away.
“What,” Levi said when they escorted him above ground and into the sunlight, “the hell. Is he. Doing here.”
Mikasa stepped forward, blade ready.
“It was my idea,” Eren said.
“Who else would be so pigheaded?” Levi cringed at Mikasa’s glare. No, wait, she’s dating that kid. He glared right back. Don’t make me spill your secret, Ackerman.
“Back when I started training, I couldn’t even stand up in 3DMG,” Eren began in a rush. Mikasa’s eyes lit up. “Eventually, Shadis saw it was a malfunction in the gear. But we didn’t know that, and I was nearly sent away.”
“When I had a second test, I stayed up all night practicing, and eventually stood up for a few seconds, even on broken maneuver gear. All because Reiner and Bertolt stayed up all night teaching me.” Eren turned to Bertolt, his voice faltering. “That’s when … we first met … ”
Bertolt lowered his eyes. They’d been ready to ignore Eren’s pleas, to keep him at a distance, but then he’d heard Eren’s story. He’d killed Carla Jaeger.
And then Reiner saw his shame, and decided they were helping Eren at all costs. To keep Bertolt’s guilt from eating him alive.
Reiner, you were looking out for me as well as Eren, weren’t you?
“Is that true?” Annie glared at Bertolt.
Levi opened his mouth, but a nudge from Mikasa silenced him.
Bertolt stepped forward, still shackled, still at the end of Jean’s blade.
He couldn’t do this. He wasn’t worthy.
“Bertl.” Saskia leant forward in the gear, wobbling all the while. “I trust you.”
Why? He wanted to scream as all his words dried up. The 104th and Levi were all watching him. No, he would end this the same as always – closing down, freezing into a dried soul, unable to exist enough to affect anything. Reiner –
Reiner wasn’t here. Reiner couldn’t help him.
His mouth opened, and words soared out.
“Good idea, Jaeger,” Levi said, watching a few hours later as Saskia performed a shaky flip. Hey, she hadn’t fallen.
“Of course. You helped an ally. That’s what good soldiers do.”
“By allying with an enemy.”
“Is he though?” Mikasa noticed Bertolt’s face light up every time Saskia didn’t fall. “Is he a friend, and an enemy?”
“Maybe,” Levi said slowly, “with enough effort, the enemy can consolidate into a friend.”
“You think so?” This was against everything Eren had ever believed. Once evil, always deserving of punishment.
But his memories of training, of stargazing with Reiner and Bertolt and Armin warmed his heart, and so Eren found he didn’t know anymore.
Five Days Later
“I remember I didn’t sleep the night before my first mission,” Erwin said. “I was too excited and terrified.”
“Annie didn’t sleep before she went to destroy the walls,” Saskia recalled. She hugged her knees to her chest, looking at the stars for what might be one final time. “Maybe that’s just how first times are.”
“You should sleep,” Erwin said seriously.
Erwin’s eyebrows raised, like an adorably bushy caterpillar. “I didn’t expect such sarcasm.”
“Sometimes I think I am very sarcastic. Internally. I don’t know that, of course, because I don’t know who I am much.” Saskia laughed hollowly. “I’m a 24-year-old who never let herself do anything unrequired until the last month.”
“You’re scared.” Erwin covered her hand with his.
She loved the scratchy, weary whisper of his callouses. “Yes. Does that upset you?”
“No. I’m glad you value yourself.”
Saskia’s heart warmed at the kindness in his eyes. “You’re a wonderful commander, then.”
Zeke, her father, the warriors – do not value yourself. The mission alone matters.
And she hadn’t. She’d valued Annie, and then Erwin among the dying bodies, and now, herself.
She drew in a shuddery breath. “It’s strange, how much you can change in a month.”
Erwin shook his head. “A month ago, I was bleeding out from a suicidal charge and we hadn’t seen the basement. Two months ago, a puppet king sat in for a ruler too cowardly to rule and I was condemned to die for treason. Four months ago, we didn’t even know of Eren’s gift.”
“It’s frightening. But I think I like this new, frightening world.” Saskia turned to Erwin and traced his eyebrows with her fingers. She didn’t know if she belonged here, if this world would let her stay. But something about Erwin gave her hope.
“I was always self-conscious of those,” Erwin said, amused. “Other children nicknamed me ‘Eyebrows.’”
Saskia laughed true, pealing laughter. “Shame on them. They ought to have been jealous.”
“I don’t know about that,” he said with a snicker as his arm drew her closer. “But, I do think I like this new, frightening world.”
His lips closed around hers, and as their tongues embraced each other again, Saskia thought that maybe she knew why so many poems and books had been written about love. If love could be felt after a week – and she couldn’t quite let herself trust that – then she had been resurrected by it.
“Please be safe,” Mikasa begged.
“I will,” he said uncomfortably. “Don’t worry about me.”
There were too many people around.
“But, really. I – I can’t bear it if you die.” Mikasa’s hands were trembling.
“Mikasa.” Eren hadn’t ever seen her so flustered. “I can survive without you.”
“My hope is in Levi,” she said morosely, as if she hadn’t heard him.
“Mikasa, snap out of it.” And then Eren saw the truth: she couldn’t survive without him.
Instead of shaking her, Eren wrapped his arms around her shoulders. “Remember, our reunion will just be better for time apart.”
“I hope so,” Mikasa sighed. I’m brave. Crying isn’t weak. Wanting Eren alive isn’t weak. But she felt ashamed for showing emotions.
“And then I’ll tease emotional Mikasa,” Eren said with a grin.
“I’ve always been emotional – just, not in appearance…”
“I know, but right now, you’re making me feel so much better about myself.” Eren shrugged. “Because if you tell me to calm down again, now I have something on you.”
“One example,” Mikasa snapped, playfully shoving him. “Versus an uncountable number?”
“Probably, but it’s always justified –”
“Okay, okay. Just – take care of Armin, please?”
“Armin is my best friend, too,” Mikasa said seriously. “I’ll get him back safe.”
“And I’ll stay safe.” Eren noticed Levi’s eyes on him, but he didn’t care. He pressed his lips against hers.
“I love you,” Mikasa whispered, stepping back, towards Erwin and her crew. Her face burned.
“I’ve always loved you,” Eren told her. Levi’s stare intensified. “But I haven’t always appreciated you. I appreciate you now.”
In the background, the captain gave him an approving nod.
“Are you policing us again?” Mikasa whirled around.
Hange skipped up to Levi’s side. “This is marvelous.”
“It’s weird is what it is.” Jean pouted next to Annie.
“Jean, stop focusing on Mikasa. We all know Marco loved you and you loved him,” Annie said as if she were bored.
“I did not!” He glared at her.
“And – he didn’t!” Jean gasped. “Did he?”
“Apparently he confided in Reiner. And Reiner told all of us … after. I think to punish himself.” Annie shrugged.
“Annie,” Saskia said with undeserved sympathy.
Family would be the death of her.
“Promise me you will come back, Annie.” Dad had nearly smothered her with his embrace, drowned her in his tears.
“Make sure you come back, Saskia.”
Chapter 12: Chapter Twelve
The long-awaited confrontation with Zeke emerges...as Erwin, Saskia, and Bertolt all launch conflicting plans.
“What exactly are you planning?”
Armin glanced up at Reiner. “I don’t understand.”
“Don’t lie.” Reiner balled his hands into fists. “You’ve been searching for something in those books. And now you’ve been ‘reading’ the same book for three days.”
Armin slowly closed the book. Frankenstein was scrawled across the cover. “It’s worth reading multiple times.”
“It’s about a scientist who makes a monster, then abandons it because it is ugly. So the monster exacts revenge on him for cursing him with life.” Armin held out the novel. “Science created the titans, didn’t it?”
“I’m not supposed to talk about it.” Reiner clenched his jaw.
“I think you owe me,” Armin said seriously. Anything to keep Reiner from looking at the bookshelf, at the carefully concealed hole behind it. At the tunnel to the edge of the village, nearly complete. If Reiner left him alone again once more, he could finish it.
“The first king’s scientist,” Reiner said at length. “Grisha Lucas.”
Armin started. “Grisha?!”
“Turns out you don’t age inside a titan. Ymir should have given you that information,” Reiner said, crossing his arms.
“But she wasn’t a shifter before,” Armin pointed out.
“We know he escaped before the walls were built, that he eventually found us, the people for whom the serum hadn’t worked fully – so we were titan shifters.”
“Wait.” Armin’s eyes shot daggers into him. “How old are you?”
“Seventeen. I don’t age during the few minutes I’m inside my titan, that’s it.”
“And he left because you wanted to attack the walls?”
“Something like that.”
Armin frowned. “He went to scout for you, didn’t he? To, what, see if we were still worthy of life? And then you realized he wasn’t coming back, so you attacked.”
“We wanted the Coordinate,” Reiner insisted. “To save the titans, which you mercilessly slaughter, and stop this mess.”
“No,” Armin said angrily. “When fifteen meter giants approach you and try to eat you, sometimes you don’t have time for anything but violence. That’s a tragedy, Reiner, but it isn’t our fault.”
“I know.” Reiner scowled. “Do you honestly think I spent five years inside the walls without realizing that?”
“But you still came back. Why?”
“What choice did I have?” Reiner looked like a lost little boy. Armin wanted to cry for him.
“So you kill us because our memories aren’t sufficient?”
“We kill you because your memories can never be restored. We don’t need anyone under the First king’s ideology, whatever it is.”
“You don’t even know what it is. You’re as bad as you think we are,” Armin said.
No judgment, just facts. And pity, from the blue saucers on his face. Reiner wanted to die.
He wouldn’t confront Armin about barely concealed tunnel he’d dug yet. Maybe not ever. Let that be the one mercy he could show his friend.
“You seem cheerful.” Hange nudged her horse closer to Levi.
He glared at her.
“You’re afraid for Erwin.”
“I’m not afraid.”
Hange narrowed her eyes. “Funny, because aren’t you the man who cried when he lost an arm and threatened him the last time he left?”
“Hange!” Levi glanced behind them. Fortunately, Eren seemed too distracted to have noticed.
But Annie Leonhart, that brat, was giving him the tiniest of smirks. He glared back.
“Sorry,” Hange said.
“Think before you speak, Four-Eyes.”
“I was trying to comfort you. I know you love him. I do, too. He’ll be okay. Mikasa is young, but capable.”
“We need to focus on helping Historia,” said Levi. His shoulders slumped. He was too harsh on Hange.
“Levi,” she said softly. “Don’t worry about it.”
Her smile spoke more comforts than a thousand hugs.
“Look,” Sasha said, as the long shadows of approaching nightfall covered them. “Don’t you think it’s strange we haven’t seen a single titan?”
“Of course,” Connie said uncomfortably.
“It’s really not,” Saskia replied quietly, focused on the next ridge ahead. “Zeke thinks he is trapping us. I’m sure he’s paved the way, in the hope that the Coordinate arrives in his clutches safe and sound.”
Bertolt shook his head from his position tied to Mikasa. She really had changed. Saskia was in love with the Humanity’s Commander and fully on the side of the walled.
If they won, if the Survey Corps were defeated, should he help her escape? Should he tell Zeke?
Her eyes met his, caring and brilliant and colorless. She really wouldn’t judge him either way.
No, not Saskia; he couldn’t betray her. One of the few who loved him.
His eyes roamed the ridge. She was right; no titans –
Something caught his eye, to the left, directly in the path of the setting sun.
The Quadrupedal Titan.
He clamped his mouth shut, but he couldn’t quite look away. Maybe she would see his direction, maybe she could alert them – but he wouldn’t be the one to do it.
“That titan spy,” Mikasa hissed, following Bertolt’s gaze.
Saskia cursed. “Sarah.”
“Who the fuck is Sarah?” Flocke queried.
“Thank the walls,” Historia breathed, grabbing Levi’s hands.
“Your Highness,” he said. Still strange to see the meek, shy girl as queen.
“”Thank the Walls? You sound like a goddamn Noble,” Eren scoffed.
“Shall I say ‘thank the titans’ instead?” she shot back. He grinned in response.
“I’m surprised to see you two here,” Ymir added, her gaze lingering on Annie.
Annie bit her lip to keep from dropping Marcel’s name.
“Wasn’t my decision,” Eren admitted.
“Wait, Jaeger’s following orders? Squad Leader Hange, what kind of scientific personality swap did you conjure up?”
“Shut up, Ymir.” Eren turned blood red as Historia and Jean dissolved into giggles.
“Shut up yourself.”
“I like you,” Levi told Ymir.
“Jaeger! You’re off with Hange to figure out that damn medicinal serum. Jean, you’re with the female titans and the Queen.”
“Technically, Ymir’s titan’s not female,” Eren said.
“You know what I mean.”
“You’re just mad because Levi found out about you and Mikasa’s snogging sessions,” Annie said lightly.
Jean’s face took a melancholy dive not missed by Historia. First Marco, now Mikasa were out of his possibilities. She wanted to hug him, but as Queen, should she?
“This sounds fun,” Ymir said, her eyes wide.
“Later. I believe we have a city in chaos and a titan army to heal while stopping their genocidal leader,” Levi said.
“Got it.” Hange was already dragging Eren away.
“Do you know where the labs are?” Historia called. “It’s a maze down there!”
“Of course!” Hange waved. “We’ll be fine.”
“We’re totally getting lost,” Eren muttered.
Shouts rang out above the library.
Armin tensed. “What’s happening?”
“How should I know?” Reiner’s heart thudded. Bertl…
How horrible, that what would save Bertolt would kill his other friends. Poor Armin.
“You’re such a rebel,” Reiner said suddenly. “Never doing what you were ordered.”
“What?” Armin scrambled to his feet. “What are you saying, Reiner? You’re a Warrior!”
“And you’re a sneak, locking the door behind you,” Reiner yelled, leaping up the ladder and making sure to slam the trapdoor shut behind him.
“His mother?” Mikasa’s eyes narrowed. This cruel spy was nothing like Carla.
Not that Eren was much like Carla, either, except in looks. Still, she’d helped decimate the Survey Corp, and Mikasa hated her for it.
“Yes. She’s very loyal to him,” Saskia recalled. Sarah desperately hoped that her loyalty and usefulness would save her estranged relationship with her son, but that was impossible. “Our plan doesn’t matter if she reaches Zeke first.”
“She will,” Erwin said, eerily calm.
So, he had a plan. Fine. Saskia yearned to trust him, but he wasn’t aware just how manipulative Zeke could be.
Saskia scanned the horizon one more time. “She’s moving too slow.”
“What does that mean?” Mikasa asked sharply.
“I think you know.”
“Distraction!” Connie shrieked as sudden roar broke out behind them.
Three titans burst through the forest and dove towards them.
“Stay back,” Erwin commanded Saskia.
“Wait!” Saskia clapped a hand over her mouth. “No – they’re not shifters – Sarah led them to us –”
“I’ve got this, Commander. Saskia, look after Bertolt.” Mikasa tossed her a blade and flew towards the titans.
Erwin’s eyes narrowed. “Zeke has us trapped, doesn’t he.”
“Well, the good news is his plan’s not to eat us, as long as Eren might be here,” she replied.
Her eyes widened. He’d been planning on capture this entire time. Brilliant, as long as you’ve got a way out.
Her heart stopped. Zeke will see me again, and I’ll be much worse than a traitor.
Erwin. She should have told him.
Erwin saw that she knew, she knew that this was his play all along. Would she judge him for it? Hate him?
This was what he was, he thought as Mikasa brilliantly slew each titan. He endangered people to win for humanity. Now she experienced his shame.
“What do you mean, he locked himself in?” Zeke strode towards the center of town, torch in hand.
“I was distracted! It’s my fault,” Reiner lied.
Zeke scowled. “In that case, it’s good we have our second plan.”
Zeke thrust the torch into Reiner’s hands and knelt down. He knocked on the trapdoor with eerie politeness. “Armin, darling, I would come out sooner rather than later. We’ve captured all of your friends, and you wouldn’t want them to be eaten, now, would you?”
Reiner held his breath. Armin, you better have escaped.
But then the trapdoor opened.
Armin, what are you doing?!
“I won’t hurt my friends,” Armin said, with a glance at Reiner. That includes leaving you.
No, that’s not what he meant. Reiner brushed the notion aside.
“You won’t need to yet, seeing as your friend Eren’s chosen to hide like his father,” Zeke replied, taking him by the arm. “Still, I think we have a welcome reunion coming for you.”
Are you afraid? – Is this who you want to be? Bertolt wondered as Saskia gingerly aimed the blade towards him. He could see the reluctance in her eyes, recognized the plea for forgiveness.
I want to, he thought. I just don’t know if I’m allowed. Zeke wouldn’t like it.
The agony in Saskia’s face was palpable as Mikasa wove out and about, dodging at the last possible second. Why did every triumph for humanity have to ruin a titan?
“We’re damned,” Bertolt mumbled to Saskia.
“I refuse to believe that,” Saskia whispered back. “For you, or me.”
As the last titan’s steaming corpse crumbled, Mikasa saw a strange glint from the trees.
Sasha noticed Mikasa’s tense posture. “Mikasa, what –?”
Two dozen warriors – they had to be – leapt down from the trees.
“Mikasa!” Sasha shrieked. Zeke not only planned to capture them, but to kill the strongest!
Saskia gasped barely scrambling off her horse as a knife flew into its heart.
“No!” wailed Sasha. On instinct, she dove off her horse and hit its rear end. Run and live!
“You idiot! We need horses!” Flocke yelled as Connie followed Sasha.
“It would die!” Sasha insisted as Flocke’s steed fell.
Erwin, meanwhile, had calmly stepped off his horse.
Bertolt grabbed for Saskia – he could yank off her jacket, rescue her – when the first warriors approached them. Saskia turned her gaze towards Bertolt, hiding behind her loose braid as best she could. The agony in her eyes killed him.
“Y-yes,” he stammered.
“Where is Saskia Leonhart?”
Saskia’s eyes widened. Edwin didn’t recognize her in her Survey Corp gear, but it wouldn’t take long. He had never been the most observant, anyway. Still, she kept her face angled towards the ground. She had to act like them again, but then Erwin would know, and oh, she was tired of acting.
“They kept her in case we planned something like this,” Bertolt replied, to Saskia’s horror.
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” she had once read. Bertolt, you fool.
In the distance, Mikasa howled as one of the warriors pointed in the direction of her captured friends. This was no choice.
Her blades dropped from her hands.
The knots around their wrists were tied tight enough to cut off blood circulation as titan shifters marched into the Hometown, their captured enemies nestled in their steaming palms.
Saskia kept her face pressed against the hot skin, hoping to scald herself unrecognizable.
“You’ll, uh, be okay, I’m sure,” Flocke whispered to her. Erwin’s lone wrist was tied to Mikasa, both of them in someone else’s hands.
“Erwin had this planned,” assured another soldier whose name escaped Saskia.
“He should have told us,” Flocke snapped. “He’s as secretive as the Warriors.”
“Don’t compare the two of them,” Saskia said sharply. Oh, whispered her mind, but Zeke and Erwin will be comparing each other soon enough.
Erwin’d expected capture; he’d have to have foreseen her pretending she’d tricked the Survey Corp. But he hadn’t foreseen her true relationship with Zeke, or Bertolt complicating everything with his well-intentioned lies.
“Then stop doing that to yourself.” Flocke did not appreciate her trying to hurt herself. He understood why, understood she was a traitor, but this was not okay.
She winced and drew away from the titan’s skin, almost relieved at his command. It would happen anyway.
Edwin’s titan suddenly released them, and the sky seemed to rain half a dozen soldiers.
Saskia didn’t dare look up, not even to see Erwin. She was exposed enough.
Please, just look at me and see the enemy. Wasn’t that what they’d always done, anyway?
Maybe Dad was here, seeing his shame. Two daughters captured. Two daughters working for the enemy. One an adulteress slut.
“Bertolt!” Reiner raced up to them. In the distance, Edwin and other titans dissolved into smoke.
He looks like a child, Erwin recognized.
The two spies embraced, Reiner sniffling with abandon.
Bertolt, however, was more composed. They had a mission to complete, and it wasn’t Zeke’s.
“In here.” A grizzled old woman, with more wrinkles than her age and eyes brimming with long-dried tears, gestured for them to follow.
Sarah, no doubt. Erwin glanced at Saskia and she gave him a curt nod, understanding the question without words.
He would protect her.
Edwin opened the prison cabin door, the door Ymir had so often been chained to.
As they filed inside, Bertolt watched nervously. If Armin were really alive…
“Armin!” he heard Mikasa screech.
Armin! His own heart echoed. Armin was here, alive, safe. He wanted to rush in and see for himself, to beg forgiveness. You were always so kind to me.
Almost automatically, Bertolt untangled himself from Reiner and glided towards the cabin. Reiner followed, hoping against hope that Armin could love Bertolt even more than him.
And he could.
Armin’s eyes widened at Bertolt’s shining eyes.
I forgive you, he wanted to say as Mikasa crushed him with a hug. Hopefully – as Connie and Sasha dove towards him – Bertolt understood.
Tears finally choked him, and a gentle hand from Reiner led him away. “We need to talk.”
“You – you have no idea,” Bertolt sobbed.
“Where’s Eren?” Armin breathed at last into the stuffy, crowded cabin. Weird, to have a welcoming reunion in captivity. But, given Erwin’s calm expression, this an wasn’t unanticipated capture.
“He’s off investigating something with Levi in the Capital,” Sasha chattered. “We didn’t want to bring him into Zeke’s hands.”
“Good thinking,” Armin told Erwin.
“Did they hurt you?” Mikasa’s face twisted.
“What? – No, well, technically they healed me. And they gave me history books, all of them, more than the Palace’s library,” Armin explained. An unfamiliar woman in the back took on a wry smile, as if she knew of what he spoke.
“Who are you?”
She glanced behind them, at the shut door, just to be sure Zeke wasn’t here, wasn’t listening. “My name is Saskia. I’m Annie’s sister.”
“You’re helping us.” Armin’s eyes widened. He had beautiful eyes.
“Yes,” she confessed. “And so is Annie, now.”
“Annie’s okay?” Armin felt as if he could fly. His betrayal hadn’t caused her death after all.
“Yes, lover boy,” she said.
“You really had no idea, did you?” Sasha shook her head.
Erwin eyed Saskia. First them, Eren and Mikasa, now Annie and Armin? The Corps had their fair share of drama after all. He usually pretended not to notice.
“I mean – I know she spared my life when she killed everyone else … ” Armin wasn’t ignorant, but Annie’s feelings had never seemed possible.
“She thinks you’re a good person. I’m supposed to keep you safe, or she’ll eat me.” Saskia shrugged. “Or so she said when we left.”
“I’m not a good person.” Armin stared at the ground. “Commander, I’m sorry for getting captured.”
“It’s not your fault,” Mikasa said.
“You’re a valuable soldier, Arlert,” Erwin said. “I’m glad you are alive.”
Armin reddened at the praise. I don’t deserve it – I’m a titan.
“Saskia,” said Erwin, regret in his eyes. If only they could speak in private, so his troops wouldn’t have to pretend.
She knew what he was asking, although he really didn’t. I forgive you, her eyes said back as her hand brushed his empty sleeve. She could do this. She was more than willing to help. She could crawl back to Zeke.
Before she could act, the door flew open.
“Well, well, well. Commander, looks like you’ve failed.” Zeke crossed his arms. “A bit disappointed that Levi isn’t here to join us.”
“Why, so you could trap him, too?” Mikasa spit. Sasha grabbed Mikasa’s arm preemptively.
“Ackerman,” Erwin warned. To Zeke he added, “Perhaps we should talk together, two commanders.”
“I don’t think so. You have to die, no matter what.” Zeke shook his head.
Coward, Saskia thought furiously. Or maybe she was furious at herself. Who knew?
Bertolt and Reiner hurried up behind him. Bertolt looked terrified; Reiner, confused.
Erwin opened his mouth again, but Saskia cut him off.
For a moment, Zeke’s mouth hung open. “Saskia,” he whispered tenderly.
Sasha shot a worried glance at Mikasa. Something was wrong.
“Why are you dressed like that?”
“What else could I do but pretend? Otherwise, they’d have killed me to have one less hostage,” she said, with an alarming amount of emotion.
“You’ve been lying all this time?” Connie burst out.
“Of course,” she snarled.
Zeke whirled around to Bertolt. “You said – did she trick you, too?”
Had she? Oh, he hoped so. Sort of. But Erwin … “I … I suppose so.”
He looked to Reiner. That was the right reply, right?
Reiner froze as Zeke’s eyes hardened. That was not the right reply.
“Then why lie about her being here? Did you pity her when you thought she was our enemy?” Zeke growled.
“N – no, sir. It – it was just hard to see her as an enemy, and I couldn’t be sure either way,” Bertolt stammered. Sweat poured down his face.
“She must have done a good job convincing you.” Zeke looked at Saskia with approval before whirling back around to Bertolt. “We can’t have soldiers who can’t see who our enemies and allies are.”
“I had to fool him, too. There just wasn’t an opportunity to speak alone,” Saskia said, shooting Erwin a glare.
She was lying, Erwin knew, but it still hurt. Somewhere deep inside him, a voice whispered insisted she’d been playing him all along.
Reiner noticed the pulse hammering in her throat when she looked at Erwin. So Bertolt was right. God damn it.
“Must have been hard to convince them,” Zeke said sympathetically.
“Very,” she said.
His wife – his calm, stoic wife – she was changed.
His heart sank. No. Please.
Zeke’s hand caught her cheek so fast Saskia flew backwards into the wall. “Oh!”
“You’re talking now, I see. Must be why we didn’t recognize you.” He reached out and grabbed her arm, running his fingers down the Wings of Freedom embroidered on her jacket.
She swallowed and forced herself to see the pain in his eyes. He was an ass, but she had hurt him.
Maybe he was testing her. “War Chief –”
“I don’t know who you thought you were betraying, but it certainly wasn’t them!” he gasped. He drew a knife, and suddenly she knew, just knew he was going to transform and kill her right then.
“S-sir!” Bertolt cried, grabbing Reiner’s hand. “Wait; that would be a mistake.”
“How so? I think it’d be rather satisfying,” Zeke lied.
Bertolt glanced at Erwin. I’m sorry. “B-because Commander E-Erwin here is in love with her.”
Saskia’s heart fell. No, no, no. She wasn’t sure whether to feel elated that Bertolt cared or horrified that Zeke knew.
“You could use that to get him talking,” Bertolt continued, shaking.
Erwin’s face remained stoic. If she was too emotional, he was too stoic.
Zeke laughed. And laughed. And laughed. “Is that so, Commander?”
Erwin’s gaze flitted to her face and back. “She was a valuable hostage. She means nothing to me.”
“Hmm.” Zeke held the knife against Saskia’s throat and pressed ever inwards. “So if I cut her veins right now, you wouldn’t care?”
Erwin scowled. “I don’t wish for someone innocent to die.”
“I see.” Zeke pressed the knife further into her throat. Blood began to trickle down her white skin. “You think a warrior is innocent.”
Suddenly, his hands yanked back her braid, exposing the pulsing veins in her throat.
Saskia knew she should want to die, to free Erwin and spare Zeke, but she realized – with shame – she finally knew what the desire to live tasted like.
Zeke chuckled at the telltale twitch in Erwin’s jaw. “Ah, ah, ah. I think I’ll trust the Warrior who didn’t betray us.”
He nodded towards a clearly relieved Bertolt.
No, Saskia wanted to scream.
“Did you hurt her?” Zeke tossed Saskia aside and pounced on Erwin, raising the knife. Saskia dove forward, but Reiner lunged into the cabin to hold her back.
“I would never,” Erwin responded with enough force that Zeke actually believed him.
Zeke turned to Saskia, turned to ask if that was true, when another possibility occurred to him.
“But.” Though he dropped the knife, his tone became sharper than Levi’s sword. “Saskia, dear, do you return his feelings?”
His hand slithered around her waist as Reiner stepped back. “Are you in love with him?”
Saskia stared at the ground. Her silence would be answer enough. Instead, she wanted her last words to be something he needed to hear. “He is a good man.”
His arm tightened, forcing her breath out. “Does he know who you are?”
Then Saskia found herself thrown onto her knees before Erwin.
“Does he?” Zeke fumed.
She shivered, and the composed, crystalline girl Erwin knew began to break into shards.
“Does he?” Zeke roared.
“No,” she said as tears streamed down her face.
Bertolt’s wild gaze met Reiner’s. He hadn’t meant this!
Shit. Reiner’s stomach twisted.
Saskia was trembling nonstop. It hurt, it hurt so much, and she had caused this.
“You’re going to tell him exactly who you are,” Zeke spat. His hands held her down.
Saskia let out a broken sob. She was shattered, completely shattered.
She’d changed, Reiner realized. A warrior was now a human. Not a soldier, just a human.
“Ask her,” Zeke commanded Erwin.
His heart hammered. She could shift after all? “Saskia.”
She wanted to reach out and touch him, but she didn’t dare risk or defile him. “Erwin.”
Erwin was afraid to breathd. “Who are you?”
“Look him in the eyes,” Zeke whispered. “Look!”
Firelight sparkled off her tears. Even now, she was beautiful.
Her mouth opened, but she took a full minute to prepare the words between sobs.
Armin met Reiner’s eyes, knowing the answer and wishing it were anything else.
“I’m his wife.”
For a moment, Erwin was almost relieved. She hadn’t helped kill anyone. She wasn’t a titan in hiding.
But then he remembered his lips on hers and that she hadn’t said anything, anything at all, to indicate she was married. How many secrets could she have?
“Adulteress.” Zeke slammed his foot between Erwin’s thighs.
Sparks of pain flew through the commander’s sight, and he doubled over.
“It’s me, it’s my fault,” Saskia pled frantically.
“Yes. Yes it is.” Zeke spat. How could he have loved her, shared dreams and body with her?
His foot collided with Erwin again, and again. The bastard who’d stolen everything –
Reiner pointed frantically at Mikasa, and it took the full strength of Armin, Sasha, Connie, and Flocke to pin her back.
He was out of control. Saskia swallowed her pride and scrambled to her feet, planting herself between Zeke and Erwin. “You will stop!”
“You will stop right now, and blame only me,” she commanded. Her eyes blazed grey fire.
Zeke had never seen her like this. Shrewd and brilliant, yes, but commanding? Saskia had no presence. He loved her for it.
“Th – thank you.”
“You can come home anytime. When you’re done with your lover.” He stormed out.
Saskia stared at the floor. She couldn’t go back home. That wasn’t home. She’d never had a home.
She knew what she had to do. There were two things. But she couldn’t do the first. She couldn’t ask Erwin’s forgiveness, not if she would do the second.
“You don’t have to,” Armin said.
Saskia stared at him, the wonderful boy Annie loved. “Yes, I do.”
She walked out after Zeke.
Chapter 13: Chapter Thirteen
While Eren and Hange's experiments go awry, Bertolt and Reiner come to a reckoning. And Saskia finds she can't return to her old self, not even to save Erwin.
“You could have told me, you know!”
Annie’s eyes nearly fell out and rolled along the marble floor. “Are you joking, Hitch?”
Hitch stomped her foot. “I would have helped you.”
“Helped me try to kill you, you mean?” Annie crossed her arms.
“Helped you get out of whatever situation made you feel like you had to kill.” Hitch tossed her head. “I actually did want you be your friend when we first met, remember?”
“Either way,” Ymir cut in. “You can be friends now.” She smirked at Annie, who glowered back at her.
“If you’re both titans on the same side, shouldn’t you like each other?” Hitch asked after a pause.
“I wish they would,” Historia said, casting her eyes towards the shining floor. “But … people are walled up in here, and we still fight even though we’re against the titans. So I can’t expect them to get along.”
“I’m not against the titans,” Ymir objected.
Annie raised an eyebrow.
“Then explain what you mean.” Historia blinked.
Ymir beamed. “Well. The titans themselves aren’t against us. They can’t help … being strong.”
She shook her head, hoping no one thought she wanted to excuse herself. She didn’t. She couldn’t. “It’s people like Zeke and whoever wants to kidnap Bertl that manipulate and ruin everything.”
Historia thought of Grisha murdering Frieda, of her father’s cowardice. “But they’re only acting on the hurt they feel.”
“We know. I think all of us know that.” Ymir closed her eyes, suddenly very tired. All she wanted was to hold Historia and sleep.
I don’t think I do. Hitch had never been hurt the way Historia had, never been a titan like Ymir or Annie. She’d been a shallow girl clamoring for the attention of the only man who wouldn’t give it to her.
But I really did care about him. Tears pricked her eyes. Marlowe, I can’t let you go.
“What do you think they’re talking about?” Jean pointed across the room. Hitch was hanging back, and he wanted to protect her. She was who he could have been without Marco.
“Hopefully cutting the feelings and deciding on a plan,” Levi said, tapping his foot.
“Hmm.” Jean hesitated.
“You have something to say?”
“Nothing – I just – it’s like you’re afraid of feelings or something,” Jean protested.
Levi’s eyes widened. “Tch. Brat.”
“Did something upset you?” Jean ventured, quelling his shock that Levi would show him any semblance of emotion.
“Nothing.” Levi scowled. Hange had better hurry back here. For a loner, he couldn’t manage alone very well.
“Pass me the peroxide. We have to polymerize the serum.” Hange pressed her quivering eyes against the fuming vial. “This is fascinating, Eren!”
“I can tell, Squad Leader.” Eren shoved the peroxide in her direction. “But, shouldn’t you be careful not to put your face so close?”
Hange scoffed. “When did you become Moblit?”
Silence collapsed around them, around the dusty shelves of chemicals, from science long since abandoned under Reiss rule.
“Oh. Hmm.” Hange drew in a shuddery breath as she fell down a well again, desperate eyes replaced by bright flashes. “I’m sorry, Eren.”
“You did nothing, Hange.” Eren swallowed. “I wish I could have done more.”
“More? You can’t.”
“I have the Coordinate.” How do I unlock it? Do I even want to? Could I have saved Moblit, too? Eren choked back a scream. Dad, why didn’t you tell me anything?
“And I have science. We’re limited in understanding, all of us. No one can save the world alone. Not even you. Ah, got it.” Hange held up a vial of frothing liquid. “No idea how long we let it settle, though.”
“I, uh, I’m willing to try – ” Eren held out his arm.
“I hope I don’t take away your abilities.” Hange frowned. She hadn’t expected the vial to warm up so much, but she wasn’t about to drop it. “Maybe it would be safer to inject me.”
“I thought you wanted to inject me.”
“I wasn’t thinking. Even scientists fail to think sometimes. Like you just said, you have the Coordinate. We can’t risk that.” Hange nodded. “Ymir or Annie, though…”
“Oh fuck that!” Eren grabbed the vial. “Now cut me open!”
The vial dropped to the floor.
“EREN!” yelped Hange as the serum erupted.
Saskia stumbled outside the prison compound, refusing to let herself feel a thing. She would go to Zeke and apologize, fit back in among the Warriors, and even if it killed her, it was worth it if she could save Erwin and the rest of the Survey Corps.
“Saskia!” Bertolt leapt out of the shadows and grabbed her arm, his eyes brimming with tears. “I didn’t mean to – I’m so sorry! I just wanted to help you, I promise!”
“I know,” she admitted in monotone, glancing around to see the town deserted in the darkness. “I don’t blame you. It’s my fault; it’s all on me.”
“It’s not,” Bertolt said angrily. “It’s on all of us in this fucked up world.”
“That,” said Reiner. “I agree with. But we have more problems if you want to save all your friends.” He laid a hand on Bertolt’s shoulder.
“What do you mean?” Saskia stared at him. “Reiner, what did Zeke do?”
Of course, she was now assuming the worst of Zeke. Her husband, of sorts. Fuck her.
“He turned Armin into a shifter. I – I couldn’t dissuade him.”
“What?” she exclaimed, as Bertolt asked, “Who?”
“Marcel’s father. The only man who started questioning our mission.” Reiner wrung his hands.
Saskia’s gaze bored into Reiner.
“If Armin hasn’t learned control – what if Zeke tries to force him to turn into a titan?”
“Killing the Survey Corp by their own. It’s ironic.” Saskia closed her eyes. “And he likes ironic.”
Don’t give in, stay emotionless, stop caring.
“I’m going to help Armin no matter what,” Reiner said. He’s my only chance – my only chance to do one good thing – before I die.
“Then get him out of here.” Saskia folded her hands on Reiner’s. I can’t be emotionless anymore, she realized with some horror and more relief.
“We have to get them all out of here, please. You two know – you know they deserve to live. Maybe more than we do.”
“We can’t just transform and take them. There’s too many, and faster shifters will find us first.” Reiner paused. He was discussing flat-out treason. No, he was a soldier again.
Maybe. Or maybe he was both, and he was giving a flying fuck you to the traitor he had been, to obedience. I was meant to be a soldier.
“Just don’t let me know your plan. It’s too dangerous,” Saskia said sadly.
“We’ll get you out, too,” protested Bertolt.
“And have Zeke more unstable?” Saskia shook her head. “I have to find him.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“No, but I’m doing it.” Saskia turned towards her home, her former home. As she hurried away, Sarah stepped out from hiding to watch the woman who’d betrayed her son.
Zeke’s fist sent splinters flying, some into his face. He didn’t care. Let their home wall fall. Ironic.
The door flew open.
“Was the first betrayal not enough? You have to pretend you love me now?”
“Stop lacerating yourself.” Saskia grabbed his hands, glared into his eyes. “I’m not a good person. I never have been.”
“Damn right,” he spat, jerking away. “Did you ever love me? Saskia?”
“Yes,” she insisted, even as spiders unfolded in her stomach. She never had. She merely pitied him, appreciated his protection. Fuck me.
He had to believe her, though. For Erwin. She tried to force herself to tears.
“Oh, don’t pretend.” Zeke shoved her away. “You’re just like my mother, like my father. You never cared. I hope you’re happy.”
“Of course not.”
He almost wished she were uncaring, so he could hate her more. “Is this your repentance speech?”
“I think I’m past that point.”
Zeke chortled. “Aren’t all humans.”
“Is that what you want?”
“No.” Zeke cupped her cheeks, drawing her closer to him. “I want to hate you. Forever and ever. I thought I was a brilliant tactician, but you just might be better than me.” He spat in her face, then backed away, his eyes roaming the dark bedroom.
Saskia sank to the floor and wrapped her arms around herself. The spit churned her stomach, but she deserved it.
She felt scared, but no more scared than when Dad raged before. But this time she felt guilty, oh, so guilty.
“I hate you,” Zeke ranted as he paced. “I want to kill you. Maybe that would make me feel better. Would you like that, if I killed you? Proved myself not to be ‘a good man?’”
You want me to love you. But should she say it? “You – you want me to love you.”
Zeke stopped short. “Excuse me?”
“You want me to save you, to make you feel whole.” Saskia fought back tears. “But I’m a broken person, and I can’t do that. Dammit.”
The room fell into an eerie silence. When she finally heard him moving again, she wondered if he was grabbing a knife.
Instead she felt his warm body huddle up beside her.
Eren coughed in a sea of golden smoke. A vague smell of rot burned his eyes. “H – hange?”
“Not Hange,” a voice purred behind him.
A cloth dripping with a sickly sweet liquid clamped over his mouth.
Not again! I’m fed up on kidnapping plots, you fool! Holding his breath as much as he could, Eren dove forward into the smoke. You’ll have to drag me outta here, bastard!
“Oh no you don’t!” The man scrambled to keep a hold on him – no – Eren bit his inner cheeks to keep from screaming – he was overpowering him –
Someone barreled forward and shoved Eren back to the ground. “Let him go or I’ll dump this on you.”
Hange waved around a bottle of a clear liquid. “This is called nitric acid. It’ll devour you slower and more painfully than the titans.”
The man gasped, hesitated, his fingers still on Eren’s collar.
“I don’t care who’s paying you; it’s not worth your life,” Hange snapped.
“But is it worth my family’s?” the man burst out.
Eren’s eyes widened. He wasn’t – all evil –
The man dove towards the door – and was immediately sent flying backwards by a very short, annoyed man.
“What the fuck is going on here?” Levi strode in.
“Levi, I think we had another kidnapping attempt. On Eren, this time.” With a hand on her hip, Hange scowled at the kidnapper, still motionless from Levi’s kick.
“I see…why they say…you’re the strongest…” mumbled the man.
Levi rolled his eyes.
“Don’t talk to him unless he asks you first,” Hange said, tossing the glass bottle back to the floor.
“Hange!” Eren yelped, leaping to his feet away from the splashing acid.
“Oh, that? Eren, it’s water.” Hange smirked.
Dense silence, the kind impossible to breathe in, had overtaken the prison cabin.
Erwin felt naked before his troops, ugly and deformed. They knew now that he was still a foolish child, that he was no one worth following, no one special – just a man who had led them and their comrades to death again.
Flocke’s eyes swept him up and down. Erwin could feel them without looking up.
“Did you actually care, or were you just using her?”
“Flocke!” scolded Sasha.
“You shouldn’t talk like that,” Connie said uneasily.
I deserve it. “That is not information you need to know.”
The door creaked open. “Your nightly guards have come.”
“Reiner,” gasped Armin. There was no nightly guard. No one was stupid enough to escape on foot in titan territory. You meant knightly, didn’t you.
Bertolt’s lanky figure stepped in front of his friend. “C-commander, I’m – I’m s-s-sorry.”
“Sorry for what?” Erwin asked sharply as the colossal titan quaked in front of him.
Bertolt glanced behind him. With a subtle nod from Reiner, he slid the door shut. “I was trying to keep Saskia alive, I swear. I would never have told Zeke otherwise.”
Erwin’s face reddened. The eyes of all his soldiers were back on him. He felt more invaded than when the Military Police had tortured him before his execution. “So you’re saying you don’t want the commander of your enemies dead?”
“I believe you,” Armin said at the same time. Oops. “I’m sorry, sir.”
“I don’t – I don’t think so,” Bertolt stammered.
“Think?” Connie growled.
“I’m wrong.” Bertolt wrung his hands. “I’ve been wrong to all of you.”
“Yes, you have,” Flocke said with a scowl.
“Shh.” Mikasa waved Bertolt on.
“I’m going to get you out. Somehow.” Bertolt looked at Armin. “Better you don’t know just yet.”
Reiner told him about the tunnel, Armin realized. “Do you think it’s at all realistic? We’re far from the walls.”
“Do you think it’s at all realistic that I would be helping you?” Bertolt grabbed Armin’s arm. “Please. I’m begging you.”
“You’re begging?” Armin’s mind churned. That book, that holy book he’d read –
“We’ll get out. Together,” Armin promised. He turned around, looking at the people he knew and loved – broken Bertolt, confused Connie, wide-eyed Sasha, cynical Flocke, precious Mikasa, and a pensive Erwin. “When we are weak, then we are strong.”
“That’s fool’s talk,” Flocke said.
“I agree,” Mikasa said. “Armin, if we are weak, we won’t survive.”
“But I have,” Armin replied.
“We had better hope Armin is right,” Erwin said, that dim candle of hope refusing to die yet again. The candle that had lit when his father spoke of the outside world, the candle that’d gotten him through Father’s murder, Marie, Wall Maria and now Saskia. The soldiers fell silent.
“Humanity is weak, but we keep fighting. That’s how we are strong. Hoover, I don’t trust you or Braun or any warriors. But I’ll accept your help.”
“Are you mad at me for Marcel?” Ymir asked Annie. Off in a corner, Hitch was acting like a monkey to distract Jean and Historia from whatever had caught Levi’s alarm.
“I ate him. Surely Bertl told you that.” Ymir made a face.
“No, he didn’t actually. Bertolt is nicer than he needed to be.” Annie shrugged. “I don’t fault you.”
“That’s good, because I fault myself.”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“It still hurts. I don’t remember his face, or anyone’s. I wish I could, but there’s no use wishing, is there.” Ymir looked back at Historia. And yet, there was the girl who made her believe in wishes.
“No,” Annie agreed.
“We’re quite alike, aren’t we? Though I’m far less tortured about my past.” Ymir leant closer to Annie.
Annie huffed. “I suppose.”
“You were a kid. If it wasn’t my fault I ate Marcel, it wasn’t you or Reiner or Bertolt’s fault, you know. And it’s not your fault you failed, either.” Ymir sincerely hoped practical Annie would believe her more than Reiner and Bertolt had.
Was this being nice? Nah, she just wanted Annie to be her ally, right?
Or maybe Historia had opened a side she hadn’t seen before.
“Actually, it was my fault I got caught.” Annie recalled Armin. She’d seen the gleam of recognition in his terrified eyes, but she’d dismissed it because she couldn’t be certain. He was good, so she’d wanted him to live.
And then he told her no one was good. The irony.
Come back, Armin.
Ymir watched Annie’s lips move, as if praying for someone or something. Armin.
Of course. Whatever her thoughts, now probably was not the time to press her.
But, goodness, Levi was taking his time returning. Across the room, Historia met her eyes, and Ymir finally admitted her concern.
“This serum is fake. It shouldn’t have exploded,” fumed Hange.
“Well, we weren’t sure how long to mix it for,” Eren reminded, standing guard by the defeated kidnapper, a rather glum man with too many wrinkles for his age.
“Pah.” Hange grabbed the peroxide again and sniffed it. “Would that Mike were here. Levi, smell this.”
“Herbal,” Levi said after inhaling. “But a kind I haven’t smelt before. At least, it’s not a type commonly found in teas.”
“And we all know that’s about as far as your expertise goes,” Hange remarked, her eyes fondly caressing his face. Eren felt distinctly uncomfortable.
“So it’s not peroxide. Mislabeled, or most likely, someone foiled our plans again.” Hange slammed the bottle on the table. “Eren, let’s help Levi carry this fool upstairs. Maybe a visit by the Queen herself will intimidate him.”
“More like canoodle him,” Levi grumbled, to Eren’s amusement.
“I won’t talk,” stammered the man.
“Yes, you will,” Levi said, yanking him towards the stairs.
“Captain!” Jean leapt to his feet as they entered the Great Hall. “What happened? We sent Annie down to look for you.”
“Annie? Alone?” Levi shoved the kidnapper to the floor a bit more forcefully than intended.
“With Hitch,” Jean said.
“We don’t need to worry about her anyway,” Ymir said with a roll of her eyes. Not as long as Annie cared for Armin.
“It’s easy to get lost down there.” Eren looked at Hange. “We should find them before someone else...”
“You’re staying here, Jaeger,” barked Levi. “Jean, you’re one of the normal humans here. You go find our lost comrades.”
“I’m impressed; that’s the first time you’ve called me normal,” Hange remarked.
“I take it back.”
“The queen heard it,” Ymir called. Don’t think I haven’t heard how you manhandled my Historia, short stuff.
Historia smirked at Levi.
Was it possible? wondered the kidnapper. Had he planned this all along? Was I bait?
By mid-afternoon, Connie was thirsty and exhausted and excessively grumpy. Not that he expected captivity to be fun, but just when he felt miserable enough, three warriors had visited and bound them all. He doubted Reiner and Bertolt had accounted for this in whatever escape they had schemed.
That was why Connie was nearly done untying his ropes. There were benefits to being small, and Connie now knew that wiggling free of knots was one of them. He was nearly done, and this bastard would pay for what he’d done to Mom and Marlowe and Erwin – it hurt, seeing the commander.
Reiner’s sudden appearance halted his ambitions. Connie still didn’t trust him, and that hurt.
“It’s time. You’ve got to come with me.” Reiner grabbed Armin.
“What?” Mikasa erupted.
“Shh,” Sasha snapped.
“You shh,” Mikasa retorted. “No one’s taking Armin from me again.”
Behind her, she felt someone’s hands begin working on her restraints. Just a few more seconds, Armored Titan.
“Just what is happening here?”
Reiner whirled around. “War Chief.”
Zeke stood there, Saskia a few paces behind him. Come and see what I’ve done, he’d told her. If he tried to make Armin transform, she would die to stop him.
“Reiner, what are you doing with our newest recruit?”
“Trying to actually recruit him,” Reiner said, his face pink.
“Really.” Zeke tilted his head. “Like you tried to actually lock Armin inside the library?”
“Reiner wouldn’t,” Bertolt said, materializing besides Saskia. She exchanged a look with him; at least two of them shared terror.
“Oh, but he did.”
“I locked myself in,” Armin said angrily.
“You’re a terrible liar.”
“He’s telling the truth, sir,” Reiner said.
“Oh really? How’s this for truth? I’ve had it with you and your whiny, scheming ways!”
Zeke threw Reiner outside the cabin and pinned him down. He jammed his fingers down his throat so far he gagged. His head smacked against the earth, and Reiner felt certain he was trying to rip his tongue out. His scream was muffled and broken, but horrible to hear.
“Zeke,” Saskia said urgently, grabbing Bertolt’s sleeve to hold him back.
Erwin started. She was here, hiding behind Hoover. Did she want him to offer his life for Braun? If only he could afford to give his life away so easily – he’d have done it over and over again.
“I can’t take this.” Mikasa tossed her rope to the side, dove forward and tackled Zeke. They might not escape today, but this monster was torturing a defenseless man, a man she’d once befriended.
“You bastard.” As Mikasa wrestled to restrain him, Zeke bit his lip. Hard. Mikasa’s eyes widened.
“No!” shrieked Bertolt.
As Erwin, Saskia and the rest watched in horror, the three brawlers disappeared in a fiery explosion.
“I suspect the lab is in the lowest level. You agree, don’t you?”
“Stop chattering so much. It’s unnatural. Even for you.” Annie pushed past Hitch.
“But it’s just like old days! Well, we only had a month or so. But still.” Hitch didn’t know what to do except talk.
“Levi should have found them already. We should just wait.” Annie leant against the wall.
“Admit it. You’re happy to see me and the Military Police doing work.”
Annie rolled her eyes.
“I’m happy to see a titan doing good, too,” Hitch added.
Annie’s face burned as she turned her back. I’m not a titan. She bit her lip, lest she kick Hitch’s pretty painted mouth.
Annie whirled around to see a long knife etching Hitch’s throat. “You want me.”
“And we’ll have you,” growled a heavily scarred woman. “Or we’ll slice up your friend.”
“She’s not my friend.”
“That wasn’t an answer. Idiot.” Annie held out her hands. She could get to the bottom of this. Better Hitch not follow.
She didn’t pity Hitch or want her alive. She just wanted to solve this mystery. Obviously.
You’re as much a liar as Ymir.
“Tie her up,” ordered the woman. Two more thugs appeared.
“You can’t let them – Annie!” Hitch wanted to fight, but she liked her neck intact too much.
“It’s about time someone learned the truth, isn’t it. Might as well be me. I deserve it.” Annie made no attempt to fight back as the woman gagged her. You poor, pathetic cripple. You’re as bad as me.
"Stop faking! You're tired and you want to die, don't you?" screamed Hitch. "Well, I don't want you to die! I have no one else! Annie!"
The scarred woman's punch sent Hitch hurtling into the granite wall.
Mikasa’s limp body plummeted right next to the carbin doorway. Blood gushed from a gaping hole in her thigh.
Armin strained against the rope, trying to inch closer, closer, just enough to put pressure on it so his friend didn’t die before his eyes.
A charred but functional Reiner coughed and crawled closer. Mikasa is hurt.
Mikasa struggled to sit upright. Her leg…pulsing arteries and muscle, down to the chalky white bone, all was exposed.
I’m going to die, she realized in disbelief. Eren.
“No!” Bertolt ran forward, shoved his hands against the wound, though she certainly wasn’t able to stem the bleeding in any considerable way.
Connie tried to stand, but Sasha yanked him back. Don’t you dare give yourelf away.
But, Mikasa. Sasha cringed. She wasn’t sure she believed in any god, but one had better hear her now. Help her.
“So you’re both traitors, too,” the Ape titan said.
“We had to be friends!” Bertolt cried. “Why were we expected to fake it? To just switch it off? How can anyone do that? Why is that unacceptable to you? Why did you make us do this?”
The ape titan swung at Bertolt, who narrowly dove out of the way.
Saskia shouldn’t try anything if she wanted Erwin to live.
But she had to. For these sweet, broken people, she threw herself into the fray.
“Zeke!” she screamed at the titan, pressing down on Mikasa’s leg with all her might. “Listen to me, Zeke! She needs medicine!”
“I think not,” said the titan with a forced smile. This was messier than he intended for Reiner’s outing, but he didn’t mind a little blood.
“She does!” Her hands were slick. Mikasa’s face grew paler by the second.
“If you help her, I’ll do whatever you want,” Saskia pled.
No, Erwin wanted to scream. But this was Mikasa. Levi’s relative.
“Help him,” Saskia commanded, as rivulets of his blood dribbled over her fingers. “Please, Zeke. I need you to let her live. B-because I need you.”
The titan glowered in response.
“You’re good!” she howled. “You are good! Now act good! Come on, I know you can do it!”
The titan’s expression never changed. “Very well.”
Saskia gasped with relief as Zeke grabbed Mikasa and pressed his enormous hands over the wound. Mikasa gasped with pain.
“Saskia, free Armin. Let’s see him save her.”
“Me – me?” Armin stuttered.
“How do you think you can?” The ape smirked.
Armin felt like sobbing. All along, they were playing into his hands. There was no choice. “Free me.”
“I – ” Saskia swallowed and began pulling out the knots. “You can do this. Remember who you are, who you love.” She put a hand on Armin’s shoulder, not giving a fuck if Zeke saw that as more treason. “Remember who you love.”
Armin bit his palm as she scurried back, and with another burst of light, a steaming titan, straw-haired and gaunt, emerged.
“What?!” shouted Flocke.
He felt tired, so tired.
Angry. More angry than tired, even. The anger pounded through his ears.
There was a bleeding girl held out to him. By an ape.
None of this makes any sense.
Armin looked at his hands. They seem normal.
No, steam. There was steam.
He reached out and clenched her leg. The heat seared into her, and Humanity’s Second Strongest screamed from the cauterization.
“We’ll have to cut him out, Zeke,” Saskia was shouting. “He won’t be able to switch back without us.”
And then the ape had a knife, and it was swinging towards Armin –
His eyes closed. He had never felt emptier.
Chapter 14: Chapter Fourteen
Hange and Levi investigate Annie's disappearance, Saskia tries to stop Zeke from killing his two strongest Warriors, and their only hope may come from an unlikely source.
Empty dishes lay across a table, waiting for people who could never return.
The cushions were worse, threadbare and sagging. One bled stuffing from a dozen puncture wounds, scars from a breakdown long ago, when he’d taken a knife to something helpless and already lifeless.
“Is it true?” A stout woman pushed back her gold and silver-streaked hair. “Is he –?”
Her voice cracked, and a tall, bearded man drew her in a tight embrace.
“He’s good as dead. All of them are.” Sarah stepped into the circle of seven.
“He’s not,” snapped a twelve-year old girl. “I won’t let them!”
“You can’t do much,” said her older brother. Fourteen, tall but skinny. His twin, a ghost of a girl, shook her head.
“Does that matter?” broke in the man in whose home they sat. “Shouldn’t we try anyway?”
“Speak for yourself,” said Sarah angrily. “Your older girl seduced my son and then abandoned him for these – these vile humans.”
Peter Leonhardt stared at his palms, not half as cracked and calloused as his life. “They’re all I have left. I don’t even know if Annie’s alive.” He met Martha Braun’s eyes. “So I’m damn for helping her friend.”
“I’m not. Not if it will hurt my son,” Sarah insisted, her voice rising. “You can’t lose Reiner and Annie, but what about Zeke? If we help them, they’ll kill my son!”
“Stop trying to atone,” growled Martha.
“We can’t atone, Sarah,” said Peter. “Martha and Lars gave up their eldest son to feed the rest, Gretchen gave up Marcel and lost him and now Nicholas, and I – I gave up my wife and one daughter to cement our safety amongst you people, and lost two in the end. We can’t replace the abandonment Reiner felt, all the pressure I put on Annie or the loneliness on Saskia. You can’t undo the beatings you gave your son for his father’s sins.”
Sarah’s lips trembled. “I’ve served him faithfully ever since he succeeded Mercer. I’ve always believed in his ability to lead. And still it’s not enough.”
“It can’t be enough. The past is dead,” spat twelve-year-old Ingrid. “Get over yourself!”
“What?!” She glared at her father. “This is our only chance to help Reiner. My brother, whom I don’t even remember. You’re not going to let this pass by. You can’t. I’ll do it myself if I have to.”
“Calm down,” said Lars. “No one’s debating helping Reiner, only the consequences.”
“I think, if Saskia could – could seduce one of them, perhaps they are willing not to kill us on the spot,” said Peter.
“Is this the world you want, then? A world of those vile pests uncontained?” demanded Sarah.
“Can your son afford to do otherwise?” Peter struggled to his feet. “Grisha is dead, Sarah. There’s no vengeance to be had.”
She pressed a hand over her mouth.
“We chose horrible things for our children, but they’ve chosen something different. Aren’t you proud of them? The least we can do is help them. Please.” Peter offered her his hand. “You’re the only shifter among us. We need you, Sarah. And you know better than anyone what Zeke is, what you helped make him into. But maybe – maybe it’s time to let him change. And if we keep following him, he’ll never change. Sarah. Please.”
“Hitch!” Jean shook the unconscious girl. “Hitch!”
Hitch moaned and cracked her eyes open. “Jean…there’s two of you.”
“Who hurt you?!” cried Historia.
“Where’s Annie?” Eren’s face was red with rage.
“They … they took her.”
“A woman. Half her face was scarred; she looked like a beast… And two lumbering oafs…”
“Where?!” Levi was done with people kidnapping his soldiers and their comrades. Done. Ready-to-burn-them-with-nitric-acid done.
Especially scarred women.
“I don’t know!” Hitch shrieked. “I don’t know! I just let them take her!”
“No!” Eren grabbed her by the shoulders. “No, you didn’t, or they wouldn’t have hurt you.”
“We don’t blame you,” Historia assured.
“They can’t have gone far, though farther than we can if they knew their way around.” Hange looked to Levi. “I think it’s worth searching.”
“Jean, herd the titan children upstairs.” Levi nodded. “This is a job for the adults.”
“What?” Eren yelled.
“You know he’s right. We’re targets,” snapped Ymir, tugging Eren along. “Historia, help me. He won’t fight the queen.”
“But – would you really, Eren?” Historia blinked to contain the tears filling her wide blue eyes. “Eren.”
He paused. “Historia…”
Everyone was watching him – a wary Levi, an amused Hange, Hitch leaning against Jean, a scowling Ymir.
“You seem pensive,” Hange commented as she and Levi ducked into the left tunnel.
Levi glanced at her. “Hange, we’re missing an important soldier who may or may not side with us.”
“’Hange, we’re dealing with a serious task like we’ve had our entire lives,’” she mimicked. “You think I can’t tell when you’re abnormally upset?”
“Please don’t compare me to your pets.”
“Scuff marks!” Levi pointed at the wall.
“We don’t know when they were made.” Hange squinted. “But it’s possible Annie fought them. Or dragged her feet. Her marks indicate she’s intelligent.”
“It’s worth following.” Levi paused. “We should be quiet. To listen for her.”
“Maybe. After, then?” Hange’s sad eyes were enough to melt the heart of even humanity’s strongest.
But ten minutes later, Hange burst into giggles.
“What?” Levi hissed.
“N – never mind.” She pointed ahead. “Marks end up ahead.”
“There’s a door.” Levi darted forward and kicked. It flew open to reveal a sleeping city.
“Outside.” Hange cursed. “I didn’t even feel us moving upward.”
“Well.” Levi kicked the cobblestone. It hurt good. “I don’t think we’ll be able to track this phantom anymore. If we even were – why were you laughing?”
“”Laughing?” Behind her glasses, Hange’s eyes widened. “Levi, two months ago, would you ever have imagined us trying to save the abducted Female Titan?”
Levi hesitated. Petra, Oluo, Gunther, Eld … their faces still haunted him. “No, I wouldn’t.”
But she had giggled. “You’re daft, Four-Eyes.”
He adored it.
“Now, your turn.” She planted her hands on her hips. “I’m waiting.”
Levi’s stomach curdled. “I remember…in the underground…”
Hange’s smiled faded.
“A woman like her. Scars over half her face. From her husband. He threw boiling water on her.” Levi sighed. “She had run away, and was one of our best customers. Farlan and Isabel and I’s. We made the prices lower just for her.”
“Do you think it’s the same woman?”
“I don’t know. I hope there aren’t more scars out there.”
“She must be desperate.”
Levi’s lips curled into a snarl. “Whoever is doing this, they’re taking advantage of the most unfortunate.”
“I can see it now – work for me, kidnap this kid, and see the sky for once.”
“Hey.” Hange’s long, skinny fingers wrapped around his. “I know it’s hard being reminded of your friends.”
He opened his mouth to protest, but her glare interrupted him. Other than Erwin, Hange was the only person who wielded such power.
“I don’t know what to say, other than I love you. I wish it were enough.”
He nodded again, his fingers returning her squeeze.
Saskia’s bones and heart ached with every step. But she had to play her part even if it killed her. “Thank you, Zeke.”
“My best two soldiers are ruined.” Zeke stared at the setting sun. “We’ll have to kill them both.”
“Bertolt only expressed care for his former comrades. He didn’t betray us, technically,” Saskia said. “No – no more than I have. Less than I, really.”
Her voice…there was shame. Sorrow. Zeke dared to hope that her new emotions could be used for good. “Maybe Bertolt can live. Maybe … he can prove his loyalty by executing Reiner.”
The mere thought made Saskia want to collapse. “I think that’s reasonable. Sad – but perhaps necessary.”
“Like this war.” Zeke nodded. “I’ll free Bertolt. Edwin can handle him, I think, until tomorrow. Tonight, we need to sleep.”
“Good idea,” Saskia said with a small smile.
He squeezed her hand and loped off to the prison cabin, leaving her pondering her own death.
She had one night to save Reiner. But if he tried to force Bertolt to kill his best friend, she knew she would give herself away. She’d end this charade to die with Erwin and the Survey Corps. Because at least then she could die free.
I understand all of you, she thought to Erwin. If only he could hear her.
He might hate her, and she wouldn’t blame him. But still.
She spun around to see her father standing there, his face haggard in the twilight, his eyes hollow. For a moment, she was a child again, huddling in a corner as he thrashed and screamed, as he kicked Annie, as he punched Mom.
Of course. He knew what she’d done. That she’d changed sides, betrayed the husband she’d only married after seducing. Saskia’s lips trembled. “What do you want?”
“To help,” he said simply.
She shook her head. “I don’t think – you can’t.” I’m not on your side anymore.
“Saskia, I heard what happened.” Her father’s voice cracked, to her surprise. She dared to look into his face then.
Sorrow. Pain. No anger. “I know I’ve been a bad father, the worst, perhaps. But this, I swear, this is the only reason I opposed you and Zeke. And I’m – I’m glad you’ve found someone you love, even if the situation is impossible.”
“Who said I love him?” she said harshly. No one could know. She had to seem falling back in love with Zeke.
“You’ve changed for the better,” Dad said in a small voice.
“No – no.” Saskia shook her head.
“We’re going to get you all out of here.”
“You’re crazy.” She didn’t dare hope. He was trying to trap her, he had to be. This was Dad.
“Maybe. But Reiner’s been staying with Gretchen since Nicholas was sacrificed. The soldier’s brilliant. He found a way out.”
So Reiner and Bertolt had had a plan. “A way to become titan food?”
“Not if the Brauns’ kids bring the horses around just outside of camp.”
“Someone would notice, you fool. You always were!” Saskia fumed. Unless –
“I know I’ve given you no reason to trust me, but Saskia, I’m not lying now. I promise on a worthless man’s life. On your mother’s –”
“Which you gave up.”
“I know!” A tear trickled down Dad’s leathery cheek. “I’m sorry. If that changes anything.”
“But I am going to save your friends. This is something worth dying for. You and Annie – I should have protected you. You were worth dying for. You’re my kids.” Dad’s face crumpled.
An idea blossomed in her mind, an idea to test Dad while seizing a possible opportunity. “I can distract Zeke.”
Dad met her eyes. “I know.”
“Good.” She swallowed.
“But if you can find another way –”
She cut him off. “This is the best way.”
“I believe you.” Dad wiped his eyes. “I’m so sorry, Saskia.”
“You’ll need to move quickly.” She brushed past him and made for Zeke’s cabin. Her former home. To become someone new, perhaps she had to revisit her past.
Annie scowled at the thugs binding her to a chair. “Do you honestly think this will stop me?”
“No, but this might.” Scars shoved a gag into her mouth. “We’ll go now.”
As the thugs filed out the door, one hulking man who could pass for a miniature titan himself hesitated.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered before slipping out the door.
What does that change? she wanted to scream. You’re just like me!
A rustling to her left stopped her ensuing laughter.
“Oh,” said a girl about Annie’s age, with olive skin and bold, clear features. “So he found someone else.”
“I’m Margot Sturm. He – he hates us nobles and he’s designed all these machines to humiliate us. You’ll be drinking your own shit as he skins you.” Margot held out her arm, and Annie nearly gagged at the bare muscles.
No, it wasn’t the gore that sickened her. She gagged at the idea that humans could do this to each other.
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to scare you,” Margot said, nibbling on her golden-brown hair. “I just – the man who was here before me warned me and it helped. His name was Lionel Vicar, remember that. Because if you’re here, I’m good as dead, so please, if you get out, remember my name, please?”
Her voice cracked. This pampered noble had the same desperate, hellstruck eyes as a Warrior or soldier. Humans, we’re all fucking humans.
“I don’t want to die,” sobbed Margot, grabbing Annie’s fingers. “Lionel told me the name of the man before him and I can’t even remember it because I’m shit. Don’t be me. You have to remember his, and mine, and get out of this. Please.”
Annie shook her head.
“No?” exploded Margot. “W-wait. You’re not wearing noble gear. Are you a soldier?”
“Here, I’ll take this out.” Margot yanked the gag from Annie’s mouth. “I’ll have to put it back in – he’ll lock you up ’til you’re broken, then you get free like me. But there’s not much good that will do. We’re dozens of meters underground.”
She hiccupped. “I’m so relieved to talk to someone.”
“Even if it means you die?”
Margot hugged her arms around herself. “I think so.”
“Is Zackly the man you speak of?”
“I – uh – I don’t know. He never wears any gear to make me think military, but my father never let me attend anything military related, so how would I know?” She wiped her eyes. “White beard, heavyset, glasses.”
“That might be him.” Annie shook her head. Their suspicions were right, and yet the wrong people were going to suffer. And she was too far underground to transform. Brilliant, Commander Asshole.
“Margot, if it makes you feel any better, I’m even worse than a noble. I’m the female titan.”
With Zeke still off tormenting Bertolt, Saskia brushed her wild hair until it fell around her shoulders. She ripped off the leather jacket that smelled like Erwin, peeled off her pants and white collared shirt, and threw them in the fireplace.
Her favorite dress remained in her trunk, corseted yet red as sin. The white blouse she wore underneath was as low cut as she could manage.
She looked every bit a warrior, but she had never felt less like one. And now there was nothing to do but sit on the bed and wait.
When the door opened, Saskia leapt to her feet. “Did he agree?”
Zeke seemed perturbed by her appearance. “After sniveling about for a bit, yes. Though I worry he won’t follow through. That would be quite the tragedy, losing two warriors to cowardice.”
Amusement crept into her husband’s voice. “Is there a reason you’re burning your Walled gear?”
“I’m sure you can guess.” Saskia blinked back tears. “I can’t…being here reminds me of everything we’ve gone through. I want to change.”
“But you haven’t yet,” he said dryly.
“I wish I could instantly. But no,” she admitted, sealing the lie with truth.
“Let me help you,” Zeke said. To her surprise, there was no lust in his voice, just compassion.
Oh, Zeke, if only you could see the truth, she thought unexpectedly. It wasn’t fair that he would never join the walls, see what she’d seen.
“Whatever you need.” He drew her close to him. “I’m glad I didn’t kill you.”
She chuckled. “Me too.”
“I suppose you are.” He snickered, pushing her out to arms’ length. “You don’t hold it against me?”
“No,” she said honestly.
“Thank you.” He looked lost, vulnerable, sweet. For a moment, she wondered if she shouldn’t stay with him, be his good little wife.
She leant her forehead against his chest, catching him in a tranquil embrace. Once she started, there was no return.
A blast of determination erupted within Saskia. She nuzzled his breast, moved her fingers down his spin.
“What are you –?” Zeke drew back, looked at her shy eyes, and made his decision.
He kissed her forehead, then moved to her mouth.
“So that’s – why you changed – into that dress,” he muttered between kisses.
“Not all the reason,” she replied, blushing, as he swept her off her feet.
“Hmm.” Zeke lowered her onto their bed, himself on top of her.
“Saskia,” he moaned as she ran her hand down his thighs. “I think you might have to take off that lovely outfit.”
The next hour was a blur of his body inside her, wrapped around her, his teeth on her breasts and his sweat on her face.
As his pants finally slowed into deep, even breaths, Saskia closed her eyes. All she had to do was wait.
“Well, that’s that.” Darius Zackly threw a newspaper down on Nile’s desk.
He jumped. “Sir!”
Enemy Titan Shifter Loose in Capital
Nile scoffed. “Is this a joke?”
“You saw who they had.” Zackly clenched a fist. “The people deserve the Colossal’s blood. The Survey Corps brought him here, and now it seems they lost him.”
“Why weren't my MP’s informed Erwin was bringing him here?”
“Maybe if your MP’s were fit soldiers, you would have known,” Darius shot back. “The Capital’s in chaos. Rioters are headed our way. People don’t trust us.”
“But – Erwin would not be this stupid.” Nile paused. “Would he?”
“I don’t know. I just know you tried to arrest him and failed. As MP’s always do.”
Darius aimed a gun at Nile. “Your reign as commander is over.”
Reiner was sweating at a rate competitive with Bertolt. Was Zeke torturing him? Had he killed Bert already? No, not yet.
Sasha was cradling an unconscious Mikasa; Connie, Armin. If Zeke came back, they would put their hands back into their bound position, but for now, their friends were hurting.
I wish I had bread to give her, Sasha thought.
“That wasn’t the first time he’s done that to you, was it?” Erwin looked at Reiner.
“No – not at all.”
“Oh come off it. You acted like a cowed animal the second he found you,” Sasha snapped.
“I – no, he didn’t.” Reiner stared at the splintered floorboards. He didn’t deserve any pity. His breath caught.
“Stop lying. We used to be friends,” Connie insisted. “We were all going to be friends again, remember?”
Reiner’s jaw slackened. “What happened to Mikasa?”
“Sweet fucking walls,” Connie breathed.
“She helped save you,” Erwin told him.
“Why?” Reiner frowned. Something felt strange about this. He felt his comrade’s eyes on him, felt their judgment. “What are you all looking at?!”
“Your friends are concerned for you,” Erwin said.
“They’re not my friends. They can’t be.”
Mikasa stirred. “A little gratitude, Reiner.”
“Commander.” She sat up. “Sasha. Armin!”
“He’s asleep. Titan shifting is hard,” Connie told her.
“He’s … a titan shifter. Like Eren. Armin.” Mikasa reached an arm over to run a hand through his hair.
“With a better temper,” Reiner said ironically.
She glared at him, but footsteps cut through the silence before she could speak.
“Hurry,” Reiner urged Sasha and Connie as they wrapped rope around their wrists again.
“Ackerman, close your eyes,” Erwin added. To his relief, she obeyed immediately.
An older man with thinning blond hair opened the door. He glanced behind himself once before stepping in and softly closing the door.
“Who are you?” Erwin demanded.
His eyes softened at Reiner, at the Wings of Freedom on their jackets. “You don't know me, but you know my daughters.”
Erwin paled. “Mr. Leonhart.”
“I am.” Peter eyed this surprisingly attractive commander. Tall, crippled, imposing. Haunted eyes that Zeke never had. “And I’m saving all of you.”
“That’s what I tried,” Reiner protested. “You can’t.”
“I can, with help. Best you don’t know who.” Peter planted a hand on Reiner’s shoulder, as if he were Reiner’s father.
Erwin recognized the hunger in the eyes of the Armored Titan, this traitor, this child.
“Boy, they’ll make Bertolt kill you tomorrow otherwise.”
Reiner started. Bertolt – he wouldn’t, would he? I’d make him do it, lest Zeke kill him too.
“I believe your crafty genius has begun carving out a tunnel from the library.”
“You have talked to Bertl!”
“Shut up, Braun.” Peter stopped himself. “I mean, now is not the time, okay? But I commend your passion.”
Mikasa reached over to squeeze Armin’s shoulder. You brilliant boy.
“I doubt he has the strength to shift again.” Reiner nodded towards Armin.
“You won’t need to.” Peter couldn’t say more. “I promise. Just – someone –” He spun around to look at the room. “If you see Annie, tell her I love her.”
“You have my word,” Erwin said. Do you love Saskia, too?
Peter nodded, his eyes weighed down by mistakes. “Most of the shifters are guarding Bertolt tonight. While Saskia has Zeke distracted, I’ll smuggle you out, three at a time at most, to the library.”
Erwin brightened. So she was helping them after all!
“Sir, you could die.” Reiner knew how much Annie’s father prioritized survival.
“So?” Peter shrugged. “Braun, you’re in the first group. Carry the shifter.”
“I’m in the last group,” Erwin demanded.
Peter regarded the commander. He had no ideals about just how his daughter was distracting the War Chief, and clearly Erwin didn’t, either. But hope still burned in his eyes. “I see.”
Armin awoke to earth filling his nose. “What?”.
“Shh.” Sasha brushed the dirt off him. “We’re almost out.” She pointed up ahead, where Mikasa, Reiner, and some strange man were clawing through dirt.
“Your tunnel,” Erwin said, sitting besides Armin, a torch in his hand. He was relieved to see the young soldier awake – relieved that he had no more time to agonize that his one-armed state rendered him unfit to help, no more time to mourn whatever Saskia had chosen to save them.
He might not see her again. And he wished – he wished she knew how he felt.
“Why didn’t you tell us? We’re your friends, too.” Connie climbed over to them.
“I had to – I had to eat someone.” Armin gagged. “And I don’t even remember doing it. I don’t remember their face. I hate myself.”
“Do you hate Eren?” Erwin passed the torch to Sasha and pulled Armin to a sitting position. “Or me?”
Ah. Erwin swallowed. “The serum we had. I wouldn’t have survived Shinagashina without it. And then Dr. Jaeger’s serum saved me from being a mindless titan.” Erwin didn’t know why, but for once he felt like spilling the words he yearned for someone to tell him. “You’re not alone, Arlert.”
“Neither are you, then,” Flocke said shyly, scrambling backwards as the strange man stood in the tunnel.
That man … resembled Saskia, Armin thought, but not so much Annie. Their father, perhaps?
The man aimed a kick for the earth above them.
Definitely Mr. Leonhart. The ceiling rained dirt upon them.
Armin thrust his arms up and felt a cool night breeze. With a gasp, he saw the entire Survey Corps arise from the dirt, spitting and gasping for breath.
“Fifty meters straight ahead and you’ll find the horses. Two people each; that’s all we have, I’m afraid.” Peter pointed through the woods.
Armin looked back – only a few trees and brambles protected them from the town. “Will we have enough of a head start?”
“We can’t worry about that,” said Erwin, shaking the smoldering remnants of the tortch. “We have to go. Now.”
Mikasa cast herself upon Armin. “You ride with me. I’m recovering enough. Armin.”
“Mi – Mikasa.”
Peter hesitated. Saskia had to know she had to leave. Zeke would discover her, would kill her for certain.
But would that commander even take his daughter? He should have demanded. His heart hammered.
As the Survey Corps slipped through the trees, a faint whinny tickled Reiner’s ears.
“Shhhhh,” a child’s voice growled.
Mikasa’s body tensed.
“We’re holding the horses for you,” whispered a boy from the middle of a dozen horses.
“Thank you…” Sasha said quickly.
A stocky blond child barreled from behind the trees and nearly tackled Reiner.
“Ugh – what?” He couldn’t believe he’d almost fallen, almost given them away.
“Ingrid, stop! We aren’t supposed to,” said a skinny girl, Mikasa’s height and only a few years younger.
“I don’t care; I love him!” The child buried her face in Reiner’s chest. “I’ve missed him.”
“Ingrid?” Reiner shook. “No…”
“It’s me.” The girl wiped her eyes and squeezed him even tighter. “You’re my hero and I’ve missed you every day and even though Vera says I have to forgive them, I won’t. I can’t! I miss you.”
“Ingrid!” hissed Vera.
“She’s just scared. She’s missed you, too. We all have,” said Armand, stepping forward to hand a pair of reins to Sasha. “That’s why we’re helping.”
“It’s not enough,” Vera said sullenly. “But it’s all Mom and Dad could do now.”
Reiner choked. “I don’t – I don’t understand.” They remembered him? They loved him? “I’m not a hero.”
“You are to me,” Ingrid said fiercely. “I would have straight-up died or killed Zeke or Mom and Dad by now. You haven’t. They told me not to upset you, but I know you won’t want to come home, so I wanted to bring home to you, so here I am hugging you.”
“Home.” Reiner gripped his sister tightly. “I’m home.”
He couldn’t believe it. “Bertolt…”
“He’s being guarded. But he’ll try to find you, I’m sure. I have faith in him.” Saskia stepped into the clearing. “He loves you too, Reiner.”
Armand raised an eyebrow at her use of the term ‘love.’ “I’m sure his heart is breaking. You’ll marry him when this is over.” He patted Reiner’s shoulder. “And I’ll see you when this is over, brother.”
“Goodbye,” Vera whispered, unable to bear the word love.
“This isn’t goodbye. I’ll see you when we kick Zeke out and become friends with the Walled peoples,” Ingrid said, giving Reiner one last squeeze.
Goodness, she was stronger than he was at her age. “Well, I love you too, Ingrid – Armand – Vera.”
“Everyone on a horse. Reiner, go with Francois, he’s the smallest.”
Erwin turned to Saskia, to invite her to go with him, but she had already climbed on a horse with Ross Vorhees.
As they trotted away, as their trot turned to a canter and their canter to a gallop, Saskia fought tears. Erwin knew what she had become to help them, everyone did. Her hair was a mess, her gown stained, and there was a very telling bruise on her chest.
Was this what emotion did? Expose actions and feelings for the world to see, no matter how dark or shameful? She wanted to say she’d made a better statue than human, but she couldn’t believe it. Not yet.
She hadn’t even had the chance to see Dad again, to thank him…
But that childish part of her had revived with Erwin, and that part insisted her escape was enough for Dad.
Chapter 15: Chapter Fifteen
Erwin, Saskia, and company return to a chaotic Mitras as Annie attempts to outsmart Zackley.
“Do you know how many people you killed?” shrieked Margot.
“I’m as bad as he is,” Annie agreed.
146, Margot thought, but she didn’t voice the number. People weren’t numbers. Dad reduced people to numbers, and she wasn’t going to be like him. “So you’re the big one he’s after.”
“He keeps talking about publically torturing the people behind this – this mess – we walled are in.” Margot rolled her eyes. “No idea whether they’d be happy or horrified, but he seems positively giddy at the idea. Keeps talking about a genocidal titan freak – I thought it might be that Survey Corps member, Eren –”
“He wants the Colossal Titan. He’s a friend,” Annie interrupted. “He’s my age.”
“But?” Margot stared at her. “You’re too young!”
“You’re never too young to be guilty.” She laughed.
“I think you are. Not fully guilty, at any rate. Adults made you do it, right?” Her compassion smothered Annie. Come closer and I’ll kick you.
“If he tries to torture you, he’ll start a riot.” Margot shook her head. “We can’t let him.”
“I think that’s inevitable, unless...” Annie raised her eyebrows. “How about we start it first.”
“Are you kidding?”
“Cut me, bitch, if you want to live. He can’t mean to torture me and leave someone people would actually sympathize with alive!”
“People don’t sympathize with the nobles! Not anymore, thanks to you soldiers!” Margot grabbed Annie’s wrist and dug her fingernails in. “I didn’t choose to be born a noble! It’s not my fault.”
“I didn’t choose to be born where I was, either. I just…went along with the flow,” Annie said.
Margot sniffled. “You – you don’t hate me?”
“No. I don’t hate…anyone really. But not because I’m benevolent. I just…pity them.” Annie shrugged.
“Okay.” Margot straightened. “I just drew a little blood on your wrist; do you think it will be enough?”
“I can barely see it.” This girl was too nice. “But yes. Get close to me. No, closer. Away from my arm.”
Annie closed her eyes. Steam hissed from her arm and glass shards hardened over her skin. She ripped her arm up, severing the ties.
Most titans didn’t learn enough restraint to only partially transform. She supposed she ought to be grateful to Dad for that. It’d come in handy to save Erwin and Saskia before, and now she could save herself. And Margot.
“Uh – uh – that’s r-really interesting…” Margot backed away.
“I’d be far more concerned if I were an ordinary human at this point.” Annie braced herself Reiner-style and flung her body at the door. The stone cracked, and Margot gasped behind her. Just a few more runs.
Toeing the line between transformation was not fucking easy. Annie winced and ran again – just as Darius yanked the door open.
Her reaction was immediate. With an enormous explosion, the female titan returned to Wall Sina.
It was their turn to search for Annie again this morning, and damned if Levi expected any good, but damned if he wasn’t going to try.
Hange grabbed Levi’s arm and stared in the direction of smoke. “That’s…”
“Titannnnnn!” A man bolted past.
“I think we found Miss Annie.” Levi shoved Hange. “Go tell Historia. I’ll see what the situation is.”
“Don’t die, clean freak.” Hange ran towards the palace, but this would take way too long…
“There’s a titan!”
“Where’s the Queen? She beat one before, right?”
Children ran by crying.
“Why does this keep happening to us?!”
Hange swore under her breath. It was 3D-MG time.
“Your Majesty!” Hange raced into the palace.
“What’s all the noise?” Ymir stepped in front of Historia, Eren right behind her.
“Annie’s transformed into a titan.”
“What?” Eren screamed.
“Shut up,” Ymir told him.
“We don’t know if she’s hostile or just trying to escape her situation, but now we have a serious situation on our hands. Historia. If she’s hostile, I don’t want you to engage, but – but if you can show up – that might be necessary.”
Ymir frowned at the sudden deadness in Historia’s eyes.
Just another character, just another act, like Krista Lenz.
“Look here!” Ymir grabbed Historia’s shoulders. “You promised me you’d live for you. You want to act a queen, act a queen because you want to. You want to take charge and save the day in the midst of fighting, you do it because you want to. Don’t go back into acting. Don’t. Fucking. Go. Back.”
“Is she allowed to say that?” Hitch hissed at Jean, who shrugged.
“Ymir does what Ymir wants.”
“But I’m a terrible leader,” cried Historia. “My throne is a sham that I use to help orphans, whom I haven’t even seen in a week, and now I need to be queen again and I’m not suited – this is all my fault.”
“This is no time for self-blame,” Hange said, as Eren blurted, “We’ll help you.”
“In any way we can.” Eren held out his hand. “You’re our friend, and I think you could be a good ruler. You just have to learn.”
“Look at the bright side – you’re already better than Eren,” called Jean.
Hitch giggled nervously. “Or me.”
“Don’t insult yourself, Hitch.”
“All right, Jean.” Hange glared at him.
“My mother once told me being a leader was a learning process. One of the few true things she ever taught me.” Ymir shrugged, but her eyes were kind. “Historia, you’ve got to start learning.”
“Oh – oh – okay.” Historia squared her shoulders and returned Ymir’s strength. Don’t let me down. “Lead the way, Hange. Where can I find extra 3D-gear?”
“Ahh-ahhh!” Margot gasped at the crystal glass shards protecting her.
The titan next to her groaned and lifted her arm and with it, Margot’s protection, creating a tunnel towards the sunlight even as more stones piles atop her. Yup, I definitely didn’t want to go underground before.
“You – you can’t get out?” Margot looked horrified.
The titan rolled its eyes. Run, you spoiled imbecile.
“Will you suffocate?”
Not if you get me some fucking help. Annie growled, and Margot finally began scrambling up the steep, unsteady slope.
“I’ll get help!” Margot yelled back.
“If you think that’s killed me, you haven’t the slightest clue.” A voice whispered in her ear. “You’re a fool, Annie Leonhart.”
“Fine,” the voice purred. “Let the noble run. Like that’ll help you. You know – you should hate the nobles. They’re the reason for the cursed memories. Such a pity, you failed your mission and your father after all.”
Annie’s blood chilled. She could and should crush him, but then he couldn’t be exposed him before the public.
She could spare herself. She could crystallize again. Hurting her friends would be easy. It always had been.
She wouldn’t have to face Armin.
But, how did he know about her father? The prospect both terrified and thrilled her. She had important information, information that might not be destructive.
He spluttered from the lack of oxygen. “You weren’t meant to undergo my artwork!”
That did it.
Only a fool would believe a serial killer on the verge of suffocation. Only a fool would spare the one boy who could identify her.
Annie turned her face towards Darius and grabbed the squirming man with her mouth. She hardened her fists and face and thrust upwards. Yes, air.
She spat him out as bystanders began screaming “The commander!”
Commander Satan. Annie slid out of the titan.
“What do you know about my father?!” She lunged for him.
“Don’t let it get away!” A townsperson grabbed her legs, a second her arms.
Do I really have to kill more? She was tired.
“Annie Leonhart!” Levi swooped in, knocking her attackers away. “What happened?!”
“She attacked from underground.” Darius seized her and shoved his handkerchief in her mouth as a gag. “And now we’re taking this titan spy to jail where we can properly bind her. Unlike you Survey Corps fools.”
“What makes you think she won’t transform on the way, you idiot?” Levi spat.
Annie blinked quickly at Levi. No, stop.
“We’ll be quick. She won’t,” Zackly said smoothly, as Levi’s scowl deepened.
Both men’s eyes exchanged knowing and deadly glances as Darius led Annie away.
She almost felt proud of herself. Scheming like Armin for a change.
Meanwhile, Levi fumed in the decimated street. He’d decided to trust the Female Titan, the brat who’d massacred his squad, with no obvious solution. Erwin, I’m about to have a lot of regrets.
“What are you gawking at?” he snarled to the bystanders. “Get out of here, for your own safety.”
“You’re Levi, aren’t you?” He was not expecting a filthy girl to slip out of an ally, to run towards him, to grab his arm. “I have an idea.”
“How do you know my father?” Annie growled as Darius dragged her through the streets.
“That,” said Darius, shoving her on a platform in front of the prison, “is not a question I’ll ever have to answer.”
“Oh, but you know you will if you want to control me.” So he’d salvaged one of his horrible machines, there, in the corner. She would forgo her answers and die before he used it on her.
Darius opened his mouth to reply, but shouts from the growing crowd broke through first.
“Is that the female titan?!”
“Kill her right now! It’s not safe!”
“Safe! You don’t even know what safety is!” Annie yelled, kicking Darius’ feet out from under him.
A woman screamed, and a man in the front begged, “Please don’t kill us.”
“Shut up,” she told him. She really was the last person suited for this. Eren and Marlowe would be vastly superior than her.
She raised her voice. “Are you aware that all the missing nobles –”
“We don’t care about ‘em!”
“You should! You’re all in the same situation, cowering against me, aren’t you?” she fired back.
“Are you aware that this man – ” She kicked Darius off his feet again. “ – kidnapped and tortured all of them? He made them eat their own shit with his vile machines and considered it art! Yeah, you’re fine examples of humanity! We titans are bad, I admit, but at least we have the decency not to like it! Maybe we’re better people than assholes like your Commander-in-Chief!”
“You’re just trying to get out of punishment,” jeered an old lady.
“Do you honestly trust the military?” shot back a younger man. He turned to Annie. “How do you know this?”
“Margot Sturm, the last victim. She told me, from her own experiences and Thomas Vicar before her.”
“Margot!” The old lady softened. Clearly, Margot was a popular figure for some reason. “Where is she?”
“She killed her! In her explosion!” Darius grabbed Annie by her messy hair.
“No, I set her free! He was going to kill her!” Annie laughed. “Do you think I would lie about this while admitting I’m the female titan?”
“Yes,” someone yelled out.
Annie struggled against Darius’ meaty hands tying rope around her feet. “Then maybe you deserve to be wiped out! If you can’t for one moment think that there’s more danger in this world than titans!”
She dissolved into laughter again. She had lost. She would have to kill them all. And she felt sick.
“This is chaos,” Armin said, watching people shoved each other as they raced by.
“The female titan’s on the loose!” someone shrieked.
“What?” Erwin turned to Saskia.
She shook her head. “She can’t…that wouldn't make any sense.”
“Look out!” Connie bent down to prevent an elderly man from falling. Sasha tightened her grip on him.
“Connie, don’t fall.”
“Thank you, sir,” rasped the man as a child ran up screaming “Grandpa!”
“What is happening, sir?” Sasha asked the man.
“Commander Zackly caught the female titan from Stohess. He’s going to torture her in the square. But who can keep it safe?” cried the man, tightening his grip on his grandson.
“We can,” Erwin said.
“Go home,” Sasha told the man, who nodded before running away.
Saskia’s face was pure fear. Not Annie. Not her little sister. He could torture her instead, please.
“Our new mission is saving Annie,” Erwin shouted back to the Survey Corps.
Reiner sweated. Soldier or Warrior, his goal was the same. How long had it been since then?
“Are you ready to face Annie again?” Armin asked Mikasa.
“I’m ready to face Zackly,” she answered instead, pressing her lips together. He’ll go after Eren and Reiner next. No.
Darius shoved Annie towards the machine. “Off with your hoodie.”
“This isn’t right!” someone hollered.
“Who do we trust?” screamed another. “Everyone’s evil!”
No – not this humiliation – Annie fought tears as he grabbed for her shirt. Would killing them or herself be worse – she didn’t like killing.
“You’re naked as a titan, you’ll be naked here,” growled Zackly.
“Get off her!” A horse galloped into the square and a man dove directly onto Zackly, knocking him out of the way.
Annie gasped at the sight of Erwin Smith holding the throat of Darius Zackly, Mikasa right behind him.
“Annie!” Armin, Armin of all people, raced over with Saskia right by his side.
Saskia threw her arms around Annie. “You’re safe; he won’t hurt you, I promise!”
Darius chuckled. “Funny you’re opposing me now, Erwin, but I don’t recall you saying much before about my little secret.”
“What?!” Saskia spun around to glare at Erwin.
“I was using you,” Erwin informed him, keenly aware of Saskia’s indignation. “The plan was always to replace you.”
“With yourself? You never struck me as self-ambitious,” Darius mocked. He attempted to kick Erwin over, but Mikasa’s foot stomped him in the face first.
“Don’t even think about it, you bastard.”
“Arrest him!” screamed someone in the crowd.
“She’s not the one,” Saskia shouted back, thrusting Annie at Armin so she could race to the center platform. “I’m the wife of the titan leader. We forced the female titan to hurt people! She was a goddamn child! Blame me, not her!”
“You bitch!” someone yelled, tossing a rock at her. She flinched away, hating herself for every reaction. Her stoic persona could help right now. Dammit, where was it?
Mikasa’s eyes met Reiner’s, and she shook her head fiercely. But Sasha and Connie were already on him, holding him back.
“Arrest all three!”
“Annie!” A pretty mess of golden-brown hair barreled onto the stage, a cluster of nobles and commoners by her side…and Levi.
“Margot!” So the commoners who had liked her charity work before the uprising remembered, after all.
“Darius kidnapped me and killed the other missing nobles! Annie helped me escape before he killed me, too!” Margot gestured wildly. “He exploits the poor living in the underground and enjoys torture as art! He’s worse than a titan, hurting people because he likes it! At least titans are conscious enough to like it! He should be arrested, and no one else!”
She hesitated. “Oh, and Captain Levi agrees with me.”
“Bring him forward,” Erwin urged Mikasa. The crowds needed a show, and he hated it.
She wrestled Darius forward, hissing in his ear, “Don’t fuck with an Ackerman.”
The throngs booed and cheered as Erwin pointed Mikasa and a very relieved Levi towards the prison door. “Put him in there.”
“And her! The Titan ally!” shouted someone.
Erwin hesitated, but Saskia nodded towards him. She’d spent enough time around Zeke to know how leadership worked. For now, the masses had to be appeased.
“Glad you’re alive, Commander,” Levi said stiffly outside the jail door, watching the crowds disperse under Survey Corps orders. “Now what’s Reiner doing sulking outside, and where is Bertolt?”
Erwin slumped over. “It’s a long story.”
Behind those dark, irritable eyes he was begging for friendship and assurance, wasn’t he? Erwin half-smiled.
“Why the hell are you giving me that creepy smile again?!”
“I’m so glad you’re okay,” Armin breathed towards Annie.
She stared through Armin. “My sister is in jail for trying to help me.”
“We’ll get her out. Just like all she wanted was to get you out,” Mikasa said, striding up to them.
“Annie…” Armin’s face flushed, and he wouldn’t meet her eyes. “I’m sorry…about that day. I mean, I’m glad I did what I did, but I was sorry to hurt you.”
Annie’s expression was unreadable. “You performed your duty.”
God dammit, she was supposed to be honest with him, to tell him how she really felt. And now that he was here, she just felt encased in crystal again.
“I still don’t know why you went along that day…”
“Because I hoped you would be a good person to me.”
“Oh – oh.” Armin lowered his eyes. “I guess I wasn’t.”
Mikasa scowled at Annie. You want me to tell him, girl?
Annie hesitated. “Lis– l – listen, Armin – I don’t know what the War Chief put you through, but I admire you and I’m glad you’re alive.”
“You are?” Armin brightened.
“Mmm-hmm.” Annie swept her feet under him, and with a flood of fear, Armin toppled for the ground.
Mikasa grabbed him before he hit the ground.
“That was close,” breathed Armin from his knees. He didn’t know if bruising himself could trigger an episode, but he didn’t want to find out.
Annie squatted in front of him, her eyes shining. “So. You’re a shifter now, too.”
“What – Annie, are you crazy? You were trying to transform me?”
“Please.” Annie tossed her head. “With Mikasa here, you were in no danger.”
“What tipped you off? Her leg?”
Annie nodded, cringing at the obvious burns and bloodstains. “That and, from what Saskia says, Zeke seems to enjoy playing games. What better game than turning Eren’s best friend into a titan? I’m surprised he made you a shifter, though I’m glad he did.”
“I killed your friend Marcel’s father.” Armin teared up.
“He was more Reiner and Bertolt’s friend. But I’m sorry for you.” Annie drew in a shaky breath. “Maybe if you don’t want lessons from an Armored Titan or our hot-tempered friend … I can help you control it.”
“R – really? You don’t hate me anymore?”
“I never hated you.”
“I never hated you, either!” he cried.
“Really?” Annie blinked. No, he must have. She hated herself, so he must. “You know…I kicked the shit out of Bertolt when I thought you were dead.”
Armin gasped. “You did?”
“She did,” said Mikasa.
“What?!” Reiner ran over, away from an obviously eavesdropping Connie and Sasha. “Annie, you did what?!”
“I thought he’d killed Armin. I was distraught and newly out of a coma.”
“Armin.” Annie grabbed his hand. “You were always very special to me.”
“Annie.” Armin shook. I was? Me?
“Time to go,” Reiner whispered to Mikasa. To his relief, she let him pull her away.
Armin kept her hand in his. Small, delicate, strong. He liked her hands.
Hange breathed a sigh of relief. “I’m glad you’re okay!”
“Commander here has quite a story, of which he’s told me the barest details.”
“Good, more for everyone,” said Hange, until she saw the jealousy on Levi’s face. Oops.
“Annie’s okay?” Historia gasped with relief.
“Eren!” Mikasa threw her arms around him.
“Too late again,” growled Jean.
“I’m glad. Then that means there wasn’t much action or disaster,” Hitch shot back.
Ymir held Historia back from Annie and Armin. “Methinks the lovebirds are reuniting.”
“You can’t say you didn’t notice her making eyes at Armin during training?”
“I actually didn’t.” Historia clapped her hands. “This is fabulous.”
Levi and Hange exchanged glances. Figures.
“Am I the only one who notices couples,” muttered Ymir. “I’ve predicted every. Last. One.” She smirked at Jean. “Yes, even you and Marco. Now I’m predicting you and Hitch. So watch out.”
“What?!” shrieked Hitch.
“Gross!” yelled Jean, his heart still skipping at the name Marco. Meanwhile, Eren burst into laughter, relieved that he wasn’t needed this time.
That scared him. He should want to be needed.
“What’s wrong?” Mikasa asked tenderly, but Eren shook his head.
“Excuse me?!” Hitch yelled in the background.
Ymir winked at Historia.
“We should listen to the Commander. I want to know what happened,” Eren said wearily enough to scare Mikasa.
Zackly under arrest at last, the wife to the titan leader captured…the news should have made Dot Pixis happy, especially after yesterday’s rumors, but it didn’t.
He pounded on the door before him. “Nile! Queen Historia demands all three commanders pronto!”
Nothing. Pixis frowned, his intuition unsettled.
“Sir,” Anka squeaked.
“I’ll have to kick the door in,” he growled.
“Wait, sir, I’m a good lockpick.” Anka settled in front of the keyhole.
“So you are…Wait…Is that how my liquor cabinet has been replaced with water?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said. “Do we, Gustav?”
Anka shoved the door open. “Oh!”
She heard his footsteps come evening, but she didn’t dare turn around.
His eyes bored into her, and Saskia wasn’t the type to imagine abstract tomfoolery like this. But she could feel his gaze penetrating her back.
“I don’t regret it.”
Erwin stood silent. He’d expected nothing less.
Saskia turned around, though she still wouldn’t meet his eyes. He should hate her for this. “I’d do it all again.”
“I know you would.” Erwin wanted nothing more than to hold her steady in two arms. “You have nothing to regret.”
“My actions saved lives. My actions hurt you.” Saskia stepped forward, into the light. Dark circles reflected her eyes.
Erwin’s heart broke. She was in agony.
“I can stand a bit of pain for the greater good.” He laughed hoarsely.
“As you’ve done your entire life.” Saskia reached through the bars, placed her hand on his empty sleeve. She felt unworthy, but fuck worthy. “That’s the logic that inspired Zeke’s mission.”
Erwin swallowed. She was right.
“Don’t misunderstand. No matter what I did and all your sins, I see you as more whole a person than the one I married.”
There was emotion in her voice. Erwin was not used to this Saskia, nor the meaning of her words.
“Maybe we’re both damned.”
“You don’t deserve hell.” Saskia peered up at him. Anguish and desire swirled like stormclouds through her eyes.
Is this love? Erwin felt a wild urge to kiss her, but no, he would never force anything on her.
“You don’t need to be forgiven,” Erwin told her instead.
“I do. Like I told you.” Saskia closed her eyes and forced the words out. “But you don’t have to.” A tear leaked down her face.
Erwin drew in a breath and dropped to his knees. Her eyes popped open in surprise.
He reached his hand through the bars. “Then consider yourself forgiven, a valued member of the Survey Corp and an even more valued member of humanity.”
Saskia’s hand grasped his almost instantaneously. She didn’t know whether to accept his words or not, but, oh, how wildly she wished to.
From around the corner, Annie eyed an open-mouthed Armin. “I don’t oppose this.”
Chapter 16: Chapter Sixteen
Historia tries to rescue Saskia and tame her people while Hange fights to save Nile.
Historia held her head high as she took a step towards the crowd. As she passed, Reiner beamed and Eren grinned, but Ymir’s wink unlocked her courage.
She clasped her hands in front of her, and for a moment, she was Krista Lenz again and terrified. She was young Historia, empty and alone.
But no. Young Historia had Frieda, and Krista Lenz had Ymir.
“People,” Historia cried out. “A century ago, someone decided we ought to be united. And since my ancestors couldn’t unite us by love, they united us by fear. The terror of being dominated by savage titans.”
“And yet! We’ve discovered a titan shifter who has saved us time and time again, and through the efforts of the Survey Corps, we’ve found at least four others on our side.” She pointed behind her to Eren, Armin, Annie, Reiner, and Ymir, who gripped each other’s hands as if their lives depended on it.
Eren’s eyes filled with insecurity; Armin’s shone terror and Annie’s determination. Reiner’s poured pure pain. Only Ymir’s snapped with pride.
This is who I am, and I will not apologize.
Historia’s heart hurt.
“And I can assure you that these five are our friends. Both titans and people. Perhaps the time has come when we realize titans are not our enemy! Someone out there wants us dead for what my ancestors did, stealing your memories! That someone is a human...and a titan.” She drew a deep breath. “It’s time you all knew: titans are people.”
Behind her, Erwin dropped his eyes, unwilling to see their certain fury.
“What?!” shrieked an old man.
“They are people, and not inherently evil. Our very walls are composed of them.” Historia pointed towards Wall Sina in the distance.
“How can that be true?”
“Go to Stohess and you will see,” Historia replied.
“Are we safe anywhere?” wailed a woman over the screaming babe in her arms.
“We are safe because the titans there are intelligent. They chose to protect us, to entomb themselves and sleep forever if need be,” shouted Historia, hoping Saskia’s history lessons were accurate. She hated the lie, but the weight of the unknown would kill her people.
“Titans are not evil. People are evil, and people are good. And people can change from good to evil, like Darius Zackley, or evil to good, like Saskia Leonhardt.”
Levi noticed Erwin swallow hard at her name.
“You know her as the spouse of the human who seeks our demise, but she is not allied with him. So I have chosen to forgive her and not Darius Zackley, because she’s changed for good and he for evil.”
Historia screamed over the babble. “Today we must choose: to accept our new knowledge and unite for love of each other, or cower in fear behind walls build by those we have unjustly hated! It’s not too late to choose love, my people! To choose courage! To look after each other’s affairs like the Miltary Police, to protect like the Garrison, to seek out like the Survey Corps! I urge you all: choose love!”
She stepped back and gulped in air. With a bow towards her people, she and the titan shifters were escorted back inside the palace by the highest ranking officers in the military.
Excepting, of course, Nile Dok and Hange Zoe.
She had to die. She had to. Fuck.
Zeke felt exposed, violated, ruined. She’d played him for a fool and like an idiot, he’d fallen for it. He should never have liked a girl as smart as he.
Was there no end? He wanted to scream himself in two. Was there no end to betrayal, to despair, to death? The Walled kept prolonging their wretched state, causing both sides more pain, breeding more doomed lives.
First his father, then his mother, now his wife. His whole life was failure.
Zeke swallowed a scream that cut like razors. Bertolt.
He looked at the fidgety, sweating Colossal. His behavior wasn’t abnormal, but perhaps he had more reasons to be anxious today?
“You.” Zeke grabbed the boy and threw him back on the ground, in front of everyone.
Let them see what became of traitors.
No more compassion.
No more hesitation.
“Did you plot this?”
“N – no, I promise.” Bertolt scrambled back as more villagers, both shifters and regular people, surrounded them. “You gave me another chance; I wouldn’t go against you.”
“Don’t flatter me. We all know your feelings for Reiner,” growled Zeke as Bertolt turned red. “Don’t you remember at Shinagashina? ‘Let’s just end it,’ you vowed. And look at you now. You’ve been a key feature in every failure.”
So have I.
“M-maybe, but that doesn’t make me a traitor.” Sweat ran down his forehead. Bertolt needed to survive, needed to see Reiner again.
“Let’s settle this.” Zeke laughed. He seemed almost insane. Good! If this ended and him with it, fucking good! “My titan is the first one. I can take you down even in colossal form, unless you’re too cowardly to fight? Reiner ain’t here to take your place anymore, boy.”
“War Chief,” Edwin said uncomfortably.
Sarah said nothing, shadows of blood in her eyes.
“I – I can’t fight you, sir.” Not with Sarah watching. No mother should have to watch their son become a monster. Like his had, before he’d eaten her. Bertolt trembled. Please, someone help me.
“You can. You just won’t.” Zeke grabbed Bertolt and hoisted him to his feet. “I’m the Chief of Warriors, and I say you will fight. We will settle this and end everything, no matter what it takes. A Colossal is replaceable and superfluous once battle has started, anyway. I think you showed us that in Shinagashina, am I right?”
“I just –”
“You really decided to blame this child first?” Peter Leonhardt shoved his way into the center. “Please. Look at him. He’s never had the constitution to form his own will.”
Zeke’s eyes widened. He might not be thinking clearly – his senses might be dulled – but he knew.
“But I do, and I did.” Peter clenched his fists. “And I don’t regret it. What you’ve done to the children of our tribe –”
“Without them, we’d have accomplished nothing!” seethed Zeke.
“You’re sick. We’re all sick. I released them, and I enjoyed saving my daughter and her companions. I won’t regret it.” Peter took a step closer.
“I see.” Zeke nodded, and Bertolt gagged instinctively.
Then, with a sickening crunch, his foot crushed Peter’s thigh.
“You want us all killed?” Edwin demanded.
“We deserve it!” yelled Peter.
Sarah saw straight though his plan, but she had no choice but to play along. No choice but to aid her son’s damnation as she raked her fingernails across the face of her unlikely friend.
“Do you want those sinners to slaughter our children?” screamed another.
“You’ve confessed to treason. I think everyone will agree you are fit for titan food.” Zeke nodded sadly. “I am very sorry that in the end, all Walled people were alike.”
No, Bertolt wanted to shriek, but he stayed silent as more warriors joined the ritual, the ritual he’d only seen once before, as a child.
It has to be done as humans, Zeke had told him then.
We are the monsters, Bertolt realized. He wanted to lunge forward, grab Peter and flee. But what would that accomplish?
Last night Gretchen had told him “Sometimes, the most courageous action is accepting help.”
Now he understood, even he disagreed.
When Peter’s broken, helpless body was sent out of the village, sent tumbling down the Ravine of Bones, Bertolt remained behind, watching titans crowd around his friend’s father.
“You can look away, soldier,” barked Zeke. “Don’t think I trust you yet.”
“I’d rather look,” Bertolt replied, to Zeke’s pleasure.
But though that seemed cruel to Zeke, in reality all Bertolt wanted was to ensure that Peter didn’t die alone.
So he stayed watching until Marco’s face blurred with Peter’s, which blurred with emotion, until the end.
“Thank you for the escort, Commander Erwin.” Marie’s lips trembled. “Has he regained consciousness?”
For all her husband’s temper and cruelty, Marie still possessed calm and compassion in abundance.
“Not yet,” Erwin said with a sigh.
“When will he?” cried Lisel, gripping her mother’s hand. Dasha looked at the ground; she hadn’t looked up since they’d arrived in Mitras.
“We have a very skilled doctor treating him,” Erwin said instead.
Marie rubbed her swollen stomach. “Is this it?”
“Yes.” Erwin led her inside the hospital.
“Stay close, Dasha.” Marie held her head high.
Their passionate nights and whimsical future had once been painful to recall, but now they were merely sweet shadows on his mind, and nothing more.
Outside his room, she stopped. “Erwin…take Dasha and Lisel, please? I hear the queen has plenty of children around…”
“No, Mommy, I want to see Daddy!” Lisel stomped her foot.
“Later. Mommy needs to see him first,” said Marie with tears in her eyes. “Now, take Erwin’s hand – sleeve – and be a good girl.”
“Why doesn’t he have a second hand,” whispered Lisel.
“Because he doesn’t,” replied Dasha.
“Good luck,” Erwin said to Marie.
“You might need it more,” she said, forcing a smile onto her face.
Lisel peered up at Erwin. “I wanna know why you don’t have a hand. Because it’s creepy holding your sleeve.”
“I think you’d have to add half the peroxide,” said a newly freed Saskia, squinting at the fuming vial in Hange’ hand. “Of course, that’s for serum, and we’re not making serum.”
“Must be related, though,” Reiner said, leaning against the wall.
“Obviously. It’s still sensitive to amounts, though.” Saskia bit her lip. How many serum vials had she learned to synthesize, ingredients to kill.
“We’ll start with half, then increase if necessary. Now that we actually have the right ingredients.” Hange capped the vial and shook it. “Okay, Reiner. Palm out.”
Reiner dutifully held out his arm. Please, take away this burden. If not his life. He wouldn’t mind that either.
“You’re being very brave,” Saskia said softly.
“It’s the least I can do,” he said, reddening with shame.
“Mikasa nearly died for you. You don’t get to feel suicidal,” Eren growled, slightly jealous that he was only needed to contain Reiner if anything went wrong. He hurried over to Reiner and superficially nicked his arm. A drop of blood splattered on the floor.
“I think Reiner’s entitled to feel however he wants,” remarked Hange, inserting a syringe into the vial.
Reiner shook his head. He was only entitled to feel guilty, now and forever.
But Bertolt – Bertl made him feel worthwhile, happy.
Saskia glared at Eren.
“So you don’t want him to die…?” she prodded.
“Oh.” Eren blinked. “They told you about that?”
“About what?” Reiner frowned.
Eren cleared his throat. “Yeah. I don’t want you to die in the slowest, most painful way possible. Or to die at all, really.”
“You deserved your emotion,” Reiner told him as Hange slid the needle into his arm. “Ow.”
“The funny thing is – my mom – she would have liked you. And Bertolt. Even once she knew your identity.” Eren choked. Mikasa had suggested that between embraces last night, and he’d nearly died at the realization.
Reiner clenched his fist.
“You okay?” Hange asked.
“Look – it’s healing.” Saskia examined the nick. “Slower than the original serum, I think.”
“Still, it’s something to start with.” Hange paused. “I’d like to test your transforming abilities outside, Reiner – away from society, of course.”
“But first.” Saskia eyed the empty vial.
“Of course.” Hange grabbed the chemicals. “If anything can help.”
“…An unwelcome memory?” Levi nodded as Historia and a very scared Flocke herded the Dok children back to yard, where Hitch had convinced the children to entwine flowers in Jean’s hair.
Erwin glared at Levi. “Her husband is dying.”
“Yes, her husband. Your best friend.”
“No,” Erwin said quickly. “Not anymore.”
“Saskia. I get it.”
Erwin frowned. “It’s not like you to be jealous, Levi.”
Levi’s mouth dropped open. “Do you want me to rip off your second arm?”
“You’re my closest friend, Levi. You have been for a long time. I don’t see that changing.” Erwin smiled wryly. “I imagine Hange has already told you this, but you’ve ignored her.”
“You smile a lot more lately,” said a pink-faced Levi as he focused on scuffing his boots against the cobblestone.
“Yes…I suppose I do.” Erwin cocked his head. “I believe in you, Levi, as much as I ever have.”
“Oh, that’s reassuring. Like when I had plans to murder you?”
“I knew you wouldn’t.”
“Did you really? Because I was quite close to it.” Levi eyed him.
“No. I just hoped you wouldn’t,” Erwin said with a chuckle. “And believed you were smart enough to see the value in staying alive.”
“For humanity,” Levi said robotically. “All this time you’ve been talking like humanity is this abstract cloud you can fight for while feeling nothing. Four-Eyes thinks hat woman’s making you finally see the personal burden of humanity. I just think you’re rediscovering it. Your dad was a good enough teacher to ensure you knew all of that long ago.”
“I’ve always believed in you even if I couldn’t relate personally. I’ll keep doing that, but I’d like to relate personally.” Levi cursed. “Broken Maria, that sounds romantic.”
And he had had those feelings for Erwin once, long ago … But they were past and gone, and what remained was his steadfast faith in his friend.
Erwin grinned. “I wouldn’t like to see what experiment Hange would cook up if you left her for me.”
Levi shuddered. “Constipation for life, probably. Keep us from intimacy.”
Erwin laughed, and laughter finally felt free.
Levi blanched. “So how did you figure out she was married?”
Erwin hesitated. “The Beast Titan – Zeke – found her with us. He hurt her, Levi, until she confessed.”
Levi scowled. She had tricked Erwin. And that Beast Titan just kept hurting everyone. “I mean, they’re basically divorced, right? What with them on separate sides…”
“I suppose. Still, I felt indignant and betrayed…and then…then I saw her alive the next day. Mikasa would have died if she hadn’t convinced Zeke to let Armin transform. Then she risked her life for Reiner and all of us. I don’t harbor any ill will, not at all.”
Levi watched Erwin carefully. Zeke must have humiliated Erwin too, if he’d known. The thought sickened him. “Do you regret your feelings?”
Erwin shook his head. “They’re a weakness, not a regret.”
“Good.” Levi wasn’t sure how to handle hearing about Erwin’s feelings. Still, he was finally getting what he wanted.
“Erwin!” A red-faced Saskia rushed up to them, clutching a vial. “Hange has a rudimentary form of the healing serum. We – we hoped it might be useful for Commander Dok.”
“This doesn’t make any sense,” fumed Connie. “But maybe I’m just an idiot.”
“Stop saying that,” scolded Sasha. “You’re smart!”
“I agree with you, Connie,” said Armin worriedly. “Why didn’t he kill Nile?”
“Because he’s a sadist. He wanted to watch him suffer,” Annie said, crossing her arms. “What other reason do we need?”
“The reason he knows your father?” Ymir suggested.
“My father was from within the walls. He and my mother fled to the warriors. Maybe Darius was his friend before.” Annie shrugged. She really just wanted to spin him on 3D-MG and throw him. Like she’d thrown that Survey Corps member.
She wished she hadn’t.
Armin felt a pang of sympathy. Peter deserved to see his daughter again.
“Wake up, sweetheart.” Ymir scowled. “He’s hiding something.”
“I agree,” Sasha said nervously.
“I’ll find out what.” Mikasa slid off the wall, brandishing a knife. “I’m not afraid.”
“I am,” said Ymir. “Of you.”
“Me?” Mikasa started.
“Is torture the best way? Maybe, but we should try more options first. Fuck, I sound like Historia.”
“Oh please. You always have, more than you know,” Annie replied.
Mikasa looked genuinely upset. She wasn’t a monster. She just did what was necessary.
“Mikasa, Annie and I will scour the records. Then you can visit Darius,” Armin said, squeezing her hand.
“Uh – okay.”
Sasha nodded towards Armin. She and Connie could handle Mikasa. The best medicine was warm soup, after all.
Erwin grabbed Marie’s shaking hands to steady her. Saskia bent over Nile, pushing a vial of pink liquid into his pallid veins.
This is almost how we met. Erwin cringed at himself.
“Do you – do you think –”
“It’s imperfect,” Saskia reminded them.
“But it’s his only chance.” Marie hardened her voice. “It’s going to work.”
That’s how her favorite folktales and plays worked. And Marie had never abandoned them.
Saskia placed a hand against the pulse in Nile’s throat. She closed her eyes and waited.
Please, she begged the man. Erwin can’t lose another friend.
When she finally spoke, Erwin thought he would tear in two from tension. Marie’s pain was too much to bear. They would never be lovers again, but they would always care for each other.
If I have to catch a pregnant woman and Erwin, I’m asking for a raise in tea funds, Levi thought. Angry thoughts kept him calm. Ha.
“I think his pulse is stronger.”
“Stronger?” cried Marie, diving forward.
“Yes. It’s improving. Not – not as drastically as the full serum.”
“But there’s hope!” Marie wrapped Saskia in an embrace. “He’s going to live; I know it. Thank you.”
“And Hange,” Levi said quickly.
“Especially Hange,” Saskia agreed as Marie released her and focused on Nile’s face, which was beginning to exhibit a more natural color.
The tenderness in her eyes made Erwin’s skin prickle. Thankfully, Levi had already noticed, and he was yanking Erwin towards the door.
“I’ll leave you two,” said Levi with a nod.
“Wait –” But Levi had already vanished.
Saskia glanced nervously at Erwin.
“I’m glad to see you free.” Erwin’s thumb traced her palms. “And you helped save an old friend…”
“Who by my people’s standards deserves death,” she finished. Her eyes softened. “And he doesn’t. Not at all.”
“No,” agreed Erwin. “Accompany me back to the palace?”
Saskia nodded, ignoring the lump in her throat. This could be highly unpleasant.
Once they were immersed in the twilight air vaguely filled with the scent of bread and refuse, Erwin spoke again. “Tell me about your husband.”
She wanted to fall down again, to scream an apology. No matter his forgiveness, she would never feel enough.
But he knew that. And that was why he kept asking her. They could talk until she felt whole again.
Saskia sighed. “He…he isn’t a monster. He did care about me. And I used that.”
Erwin said nothing. He stared at her intently, hoping she knew he was listening, listening to anything she needed to say.
“Am I a monster?” Saskia shrugged, and for a moment, a shadow of her stoic nature returned. “I seduced and married him because I thought it would help Annie. He helped protect me from my father…who wasn’t always the helpful saint you saw.”
“I remember.” Erwin moved closer. “Forgive me, but I’m glad he’s not a monster.”
“No?” Saskia frowned.
“No. Because – because that would mean the world is as simple as the altered history made it out to be. That there was one big monster to take down. Sure, it’s more complicated and painful this way…but…I almost like it more.” Erwin half-smiled. “I’m a bad person, maybe.”
“My last words were once going to be that you were a good man,” Saskia said dryly.
He burst into laughter. “I’m sorry; I do remember!”
“And I meant it.” Saskia rested her head on her hands. The sunset was beautiful tonight. The children were beautiful. “I don’t know what makes someone good or bad, but I know you are good. And I would not say Zeke is. He’s capable of it – he’s the one who held me and cried with me while I – uh – lost our baby – but he doesn’t often choose it.”
“You lost a child?” Erwin leant closer to her. Damn, she was on his right. Still, he tossed the right flap of his sleeve over her shoulders.
Saskia giggled. “Lovely joke.”
“I don’t mean to make light – I just – I’m sorry, Saskia.”
“I know you don’t. I appreciate a little levity. I barely knew I was expecting, and then a few days later I honestly thought I would die. That was early on, but I guess it’s one of my more vivid memories.” She had already planned on naming her baby girl Sophia, after Mom.
Erwin didn’t know what to say. “I’m…so sorry. But you don’t have any other children?”
Dammit, why did he keep asking her questions? She wasn’t a prisoner anymore. He was just curious, and a little afraid.
“No. After this long, I, uh, doubt I…can anymore.” She didn’t deserve children, and certainly not with Zeke. That was almost a relief…and yet she was still sad.
“Saskia.” Erwin wrapped his left arm around her, fully embracing her. “I don’t know how to comfort you or any sweet things to say. All I have is that you are a special woman, I understand your secrets, and I’ve never thought less of you.”
She squeezed him back.
“What are you looking for?” Annie asked in the military headquarters. The blood of Nile was upstairs, blood from a man victimized by the same man who’d hurt her. It called to her, louder than she wished. “Because we could get lost in this dustbin.”
Though she would get lost for him.
“Go find his military records. Especially … right before Wall Maria fell.”
“You have a hunch?”
Armin tore through a pile of soldier’s backgrounds. How many were dead? Holy names, and he dared to skim through them. I’m sorry.
“Yes. It’s the same hunch – the same hunch that led me to find Reiner in the Walls at Shinagashina. We can’t think conventionally.” Armin glanced up for a moment. “I’ve killed someone too, Annie.”
She froze. “Why are you telling me this?”
“She was a military police officer. She hesitated to kill Jean, and I was less human than her,” Armin said sadly.
“No, you were smarter,” Annie replied furiously. “I don’t know when this happened or why, but Armin, you’re guilty of less than you think.”
“And so are you, but neither of us feel that way.”
“You haven’t committed nearly the crimes I have. You weren’t ever the aggressor.”
“No, but if I were in your position – if my father raised me to do it – would I? I think so,” Armin said.
Annie’s breath hitched. No one had ever admitted so before. Not even fellow Warriors. She’d seen the relief in their eyes, the gratitude that they weren’t her.
And Dad was likely going to die before she could accept his apology.
“I’m not mad at you, Annie.”
He was looking at her that way. The way he used to, before he discovered her secret. The way that saw her.
Annie’s eyes watered.
“Are you okay?”
Annie nodded before laying the dusty papers across the table. She crossed over to him and pressed her lips against his.
Armin’s face was red and hot as the Colossal Titan. “A-annie?”
“You and your thinking always made me remember my humanity,” she confessed.
“Because – because you showed me your humanity,” Armin stammered.
She hugged him until he could barely breathe. All the emotions wrapped inside her threatened to explode. “Ar – armin.”
He squeezed her back, his stomach splashing with excitement and joy and hope. Like the ocean, maybe.
Then his eyes focused on a paper behind her. “Isn’t Darius 58 years old?”
“Supposedly.” Annie stepped back.
“There’s no birth record of him.” Armin pointed. “See, his name should be listed here.”
“Maybe he was placed wrong. Or he wasn’t recorded. He could be from the Underground for all we know.” Annie flipped through the pages.
“No, I’ve heard he’s from a town in Wall Maria.”
“Let’s find those records.”
Three hours later, Armin had turned up nothing, and Annie had returned to military records.
At this point, too many papers had numbed her brain. She was back five years before the fall of Wall Maria, looking for nothing suspicious at all.
And then a word: Frosina.
He turned to see her shaking.
An ape titan grinning down at her.
A battlefield of soldiers, fly—riddled guts spilling around them.
A gray beard topped with moist lips, smiling down at her.
A cabin unable to contain her mother’s tears.
“I know what your hunch is.” Annie gulped. “And I think you’re right.”
“I think Darius Zackley is the reason we’re in this mess.”
Chapter 17: Chapter Seventeen
Armin hatches a plan to investigate Darius, but the SC is hindered by more secrets than they know.
“What did she say, exactly?” Saskia crouched over her catatonic sister.
“She said all this was the fault of Darius Zackley.” Armin rubbed her shoulder. “It’s okay, Annie: Saskia’s here.”
Annie stared ahead, unfocused.
“What are you thinking of? What’s wrong?” Saskia waved a hand in front of her sister’s eyes.
Annie blinked, but otherwise didn’t respond. Saskia’s panic rose. As far as she knew, Annie had never lost her composure before.
Behind them Eren shoved through the 104th crowd. “Hey, Annie! Give me that, Jean.”
A stream of water hurtled through the air. Annie jerked and sputtered.
“That was mine,” Jean protested.
“Not anymore,” Ymir quipped.
“What’s wrong?” Saskia asked again, wiping the water out of her eyes.
“Annie, are you okay?” Armin held her hand.
“Annie, we don’t have time for games anymore. We can cry and freeze up later, but not now. Now you need to tell us what you’re thinking!” Eren shouted.
A trace of a smile formed on Annie’s mouth. Oh, Eren.
“You were in that trance for at least half an hour,” Hitch said.
“Ten minutes,” said Armin.
“Oh.” Hitch flushed.
“I just … had memories I don’t remember … having before.”
Historia’s breath caught. “Like what?”
“A battle. Titans eating my village. Which never happened – I was born with the Warriors…” Annie pressed a hand to her forehead.
“Were you?” asked Historia.
Saskia cringed. “Of course.”
“Do you remember the name? The name of the town our parents were from?”
“No; they never talked about it.” Saskia felt nervous. She was the one in charge of knowledge, yet she didn’t know such a basic fact?
Armin glanced at the paper she had been reading. “It was Frosina, wasn’t it?”
At the name, Saskia felt an eerie presence settle over her. Why, why, why did the name sound familiar?
“It couldn’t have been. Titans were there when we were children, remember?”
Frosina…the name brought back hazy skies and grinning titans – and copious flies…
“Names,” said Armin.
“What?” Annie turned to him.
“The name seems to be bringing back your memories. I don’t know why.” Armin’s eyes flitted to Saskia. “You’re remembering now, too, aren’t you?”
Behind the crowd of the 104th, Erwin pressed his lips together. A protective frown, Sasha noticed with some relief. Zeke couldn’t win this.
“I – I think so. Flies and –”
“Blood,” Annie said flatly. “And titans.”
“And an ape titan…it wasn’t Zeke, though. Couldn’t have been.” Saskia swallowed hard. “He’s too young.”
“So was Annie. And Reiner,” Armin reminded her.
“I know,” Saskia said, narrowing her eyes.
“Was Zackley there?” Armin prodded.
“Yes,” Annie said. Clearly, she recalled more than Saskia, who felt a twinge of jealousy.
“We need answers from Darius,” Erwin said.
“Please no,” Jean said suddenly.
“Pardon?” Erwin stared at Jean.
“No more torture, please.” How could he explain that Sannes’ screams still rang in his ears at night? Killing people, even as titans, was killing him. “We can’t use the tools our enemies use to survive. There has to be another way.”
Saskia hesitated. She wanted to believe this young man, wanted to agree, but what other choice did they have? They were desperate.
Her eyes met Mikasa’s and recognized the shame, the realization that in their desperation, humans would break any law of humanity for a greater good. How could they retreat from such a fall? They would have to break gravity.
She saw Erwin’s face and realized he, too, knew everything, that he’d allowed Darius’ reign of terror and countless deaths for the greater good. And the result was simply suffering on a beautiful man.
“We can’t do this.”
Erwin’s heart pounded.
“Armin, please tell me you have an idea.” Connie grabbed his friend’s arm.
“Half of one.”
“That may be enough,” said Annie, her quiet strength returned.
“Your plot to kill Nile failed.” Erwin leaned against the cell. “He’ll be healthy in time to help Marie with their new child.”
“Titan serum, heh?” Darius shrugged.
“Why’d you keep him alive, Darius? We know you didn’t care about humanity, and your sadism was surreptitious. But causing public chaos? Now, you had to have had a plan, old man.” Dot Pixis strode in.
“Did I?” Darius grinned. “I’m old. Maybe I’m just losing my mind.”
“Losing your mind looks a lot more like feeling pain than causing it,” Erwin said.
“Is that so.”
“Bring them in,” called Dot.
“People will never be toys.” Erwin watched as Bertolt and Eren’s attempted kidnappers, the thugs who’d abducted Annie, and the infamous scarred woman filed in. “Which is why these men and women will not be charged. In fact, Margot Sturm, the noble you hated enough to torment for weeks, has set up housing and jobs for all of them.”
Darius shrugged again. His hires stood before him terrified. “I’ve won already.”
“You can’t win unless we know what kind of game you’re playing,” Erwin snapped.
“Frosina ring a bell? An Ape titan child, perhaps, killing a village in Wall Maria twelve years ago? The nobles covered it up and wiped your memories?” Dot crossed his arms. “Did that make you bitter? Determined to wipe out not only the nobles and the traitor titan shifters, but the corrupt military police as well, just for revenge, and God damn the fact that humanity’s facing extinction?”
“He didn’t seem upset at the shifters,” Eren’s kidnapper piped up. “He seemed…excited.”
“Like a man buying a prostitute,” spat the scarred woman in agreement.
Erwin grimaced as Darius chuckled.
“You’re trying to play us off each other, are you? That’s a dumb plan even for you, Erwin.” Darius smiled. “Are you finally worried for your life? Because you’ve finally found a woman to call your own?”
“She doesn’t belong to me,” Erwin said coldly.
“Oh, right, another man.” Darius’s eyes sparked at Erwin’s stony expression. “The noble Erwin Smith, in love with an enemy? Or, perhaps, the butcher Erwin lusting after an adulteress slut? Tell me, which is the better story? The first will be told, but we all know which one is more true.”
Darius stood. “You said so yourself, didn’t you, that day? You’re more like me. You prioritize yourself over humanity…and your whore over marriage vows.”
Erwin felt like choking the man. You’re lying!
He felt like a boy again, when the military police told him about his father’s accident. Forced to nod, forced to mourn a lie.
“Don’t think anyone’s missed that bruise on her…hmm, ample breasts.” Darius licked his lips. “Tell me, was it you or her husband who left it?”
Now Erwin was certain the man wanted to provoke a confrontation. He said nothing, but glared silently. This man reminded him of Zeke, pure and simple, only much sicker.
In the shadows, Saskia shook and pressed a hand over the bruise Zeke had sucked two days before. Was something wrong with her, that she didn’t much regret using her sexuality? So she used her brain, so she told a lie, so she used sex to save lives. What was the difference? Was one more moral than the others?
Annie clasped Saskia’s hand as Armin nodded in encouragement. Behind her, Hange ground her teeth. The smartest of humanity had gathered to observe, along with the one who needed her memory back. But for now, they supported Saskia, and for once, she knew she needed it.
“Tell me, Darius, why does Annie Leonhart remember you as a child? In a destroyed town?” Pixis cleared his throat, buying time for Erwin to compose himself. “I remember Frosina. Burned to ash shards. Yet the child remembers titans.”
“Child?” Darius scoffed. “How many people has that child murdered? Would you really trust her memory?”
Armin’s arm tightened around Annie. It wasn’t her entirely fault. It wasn’t. The world was too complex for simple blame.
I did it. I had a choice, even if it wasn’t much, Annie wanted to whisper, too spill the worlds and be freed of the guilt she’d never shed.
“Over you?” Pixis snorted.
“Maybe it’s time for you to consider that humanity may not be worth saving.” Darius threw up his hands. “Look around. Trapped in the walls and we still can’t understand or agree. Me, the leader of our hope, still a torturer, and you all underneath me looking the other way. You’re just as much to blame for the nobles’ deaths.”
“We are,” Erwin agreed. “And I’ll remember their faces until I die.”
“But you still believe in humanity. Because you can’t afford to look any other way. Such a scared little boy.”
“I believe…in humanity,” Erwin began tightly, “because I looked into a father’s eyes, and I saw the pain that haunted him. The pain he’d put his two daughters through. I saw everything they’d suffered and sinned through in his eyes, and I still saw someone worth saving.”
The room was silent. Hange bit back a smile.
Why was that the first thing he thought of? Because it related to Saskia? Damn, she had found her way into his damned soul.
Finally, Darius forced himself to laugh. “That’s quite a noble goal for a butcher.”
“You call him a butcher, but I don’t see him rejoicing in another’s pain,” Pixis said firmly.
“Ah, but he knows he is one all the same.” Darius sneered at Erwin.
“And we know why you’re excited about the shifters,” Hange called, sauntering into the light. Time to introduce a little chaos and shut this villain down.
“Oh, do tell, Shitty Glasses. That is your name, correct?”
“Wrong, but I don’t care.”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Armin added, hurrying out to stand besides Hange. He glanced back at Saskia, who nodded her agreement.
“Oh?” Darius waited.
“I think you saw the nobles wipe our memories.” Saskia held the document aloft. “I’m guessing the Beast Titan climbed over the wall and turned a nearby village – Kruger, correct? – into titans. You bravely fought and subdued them, and we Leonhardts were the only survivors.”
“Then the King came, didn’t he? He erased their memories, but somehow you were immune. You saw the real enemy and made a deal with the Beast Titan.” Armin was mildly impressed that his voice didn’t shake. “You wanted Annie and Bertolt and Eren to bring them back to your side.”
Darius smirked. “You’re quite clever…but wrong. Like all humans.”
Saskia sized him up. “I see. You’re just distracting us.”
“You are working with Zeke. You are working to end humanity for your own foul nihilism. You think that’d be satisfying? Well, many of us want to live.” Saskia approached his cage, shaking with fury this time. “You’re probably even planning on betraying Zeke, aren’t you? So you can end it all.”
Darius pulled his lips back to reveal his perfect white teeth. “You’re got a smart little slut, Erwin, don’t you?”
“Don’t call her that,” spat Erwin.
Saskia fought her frozen fear. Move, dammit. She ought to defend herself, too. In a blaze of anger, she kicked through the rusted bars.
With a crack, Darius stumbled backward, gripping his shin.
The satisfaction in his eyes horrified her. What have I done? “Annie!”
“What was that?” demanded Mikasa.
“An explosion,” Levi said grimly. Before she could open her mouth again, he took off for the prison.
“Wait for me!” Eren bolted after Mikasa, but Ymir tackled him.
“What are you doing?” he shrieked.
“Get on your 3D gear. That’s a titan explosion, and you know it.” She shoved the equipment in his face. “Reiner and I’ll bring stuff for Mikasa and Levi. Those fools.”
“They’re not fools – they just care about people!” protested Connie, racing towards them.
“Love makes people risk more,” Ymir said. “Including me. Stop looking at me that way. I never said it wasn’t worth it.”
Now she knew why she suspected Zackley from the start. It left her cold inside.
Historia, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.
“Your majesty, you shouldn’t help,” Hitch protested in the background.
“Oh, don’t pull that Erwin speak with me. I’m helping,” Historia fired back. Ymir bit back a grin, even if she couldn’t face her girlfriend.
The 104th rose once more above Mitras, over wealthy houses and scrambling citizens, and soared towards the smoldering remnants of the prison.
The roof had collapsed, not unlike the Reiss chapel. Charred brick and stone smoked, but nothing moved, nothing breathed.
“There’s no titan here,” cried Eren.
“Where are the others?” Reiner eyed the half-collapsed wall. One move and it could crush anyone still alive.
“A titan shifter could disappear immediately, remember?”
“But Annie wouldn’t.” Annie had always sympathized with them. Not Annie.
A pile of debris slid off and the scarred woman Hitch remembered slithered out.
“You!” shrieked Hitch. “Where are they?”
The woman gave Hitch a sour look, reached down and hoisted another thug out.
“Look out!” Historia sprang forward as a slice of roof toppled towards the two.
“Fuck!” Ymir gasped in relief that all three were okay.
“Crystals.” Jean raced forward. “Annie put up a protective shield. Like you did for us, Eren!”
“They’re buried under there. He got away. That titan man.” The scarred woman scowled.
“Man?” Eren exclaimed. For sure Armin wasn’t the cause of this.
“Our commander-in-chief,” said Ymir tightly. Of course, of course.
“Zackley is a titan shifter?” shrieked Eren.
“Do you shifters never end?” growled Levi.
“It’s not that surprising,” said Jean.
Mikasa grabbed a blade from Reiner. “We have to stop him.”
“Stop him, or save our comrades.” Levi grabbed a section of the dilapidated wall. “I’ve made my choice. You make yours, Ackerman.”
She saw the trust in his eyes, the pride. She’d survived a mission on her own, helped save both their commander and an enemy.
She couldn’t imagine more pride from her own father.
“You can’t lift that on your own.” Mikasa grabbed the other side of the wall. “On three.”
Zackley was shouting at Zeke, words and fists flying. The Ape Titan practically cowered before him.
Saskia blinked to regain consciousness. A part of her was disappointed this wasn’t heaven. For a moment – that brief moment when she jumped in front of Erwin and the bright light and the heat and the force tearing her apart – she’d been so sure.
Erwin’s broad shoulders were straight above her. She must be lying on his lap. Ha.
He’s so beautiful, she thought dazedly, reaching up to run a hand through his golden hair. I should check if he’s alive…
Vaguely she became aware of Annie saying her name.
“Do I have to say it again? Saskia, wake up.”
“She’s definitely concussed. Probably aggravated from the injury she had a few weeks ago.” Hange bent over Saskia. “Thank you, Annie.”
“No problem.” Annie snorted at her transformed arm and leg. Her leg should have crystalized enough to save the witnesses, but too much debris had separated them from the crystal protection on her arm. They couldn’t see each other at all.
“You’re a hero,” Armin whispered. He was crouched near Annie, despite the steam coming off her arm. After all – thinking of Bertolt – he’d endured worse.
“You’ll get burned,” she said. Hero? Pah.
“I’ll heal fast.” Armin smiled at her, and Annie couldn’t resist a brief smile back. He made her feel…regenerated.
“I’m awake,” Saskia announced.
“Oh good.” Hange put a hand on her shoulder.
Erwin’s face beamed down at her. Relief, admiration, kindness. He didn’t see her as a duplicitous slut.
She was so relieved – and concussed – tears began to leak down her cheeks.
“It’s okay, Saskia,” he murmured.
“I married Zeke,” she choked out.
Erwin felt a sharp pain in his heart. You saved my life over and over. “Don’t let him get to you.”
“He’s a foul beast,” Pixis agreed, uncomfortably. Romance was not his forte.
Saskia’s tortured eyes were eating Erwin alive. No one should judge her. No one. “Saskia, if you were the only remaining human left, I would still ride out to defend you from the titans.”
He felt everyone’s eyes on him – her sister, Arlert, his scientist and his fellow commander. So now they knew his weakness, his heart. Good.
“And I’d do the same for you,” she murmured, closing her eyes.
Hange cleared her throat.
“Oh. I forgot. Stay awake.” Saskia straightened up, Erwin’s arm tight around her for support.
“What do I do?” Eren felt lost. Go after Zackley? Battle that traitor?
He’d abandoned Armin before to the enemy. No way was he abandoning him to the damage the enemy had done.
“Reiner, let’s take that pillar over there.”
“We’ll all help.” The scarred woman grabbed the thug’s hand. “We owe that titan child our lives.”
Child. Ymir felt tears prick her eyes. We’re children, all of us. Why are we fighting?
Was it possible to be her age and still a child?
Jean dragged a stone away from the area where the witnesses had emerged, glimpsing the remaining witnesses but no Annie, Erwin, or Armin. “She made the crystal semicircle-shaped so they could escape!”
He held his arm out to grab the hand of Eren’s kidnapper.
There must be too much blocking the others’ escape.
Follow the leg.
“Here!” Flocke waved through a pile of dust. “I think I feel steam!”
Armin was the first one hoisted up, and Eren nearly tackled him with a hug.
“If you want to, you should,” Levi barked to Mikasa, who, with a shaky laugh, promptly threw her arms around Eren and Armin.
“Whew, that was a revelation!”
“Four-Eyes!” Levi shoved Hange. “Don’t put me through that again.” His eyes landed on Erwin. “You either.”
“I’m still Commander, last I checked,” Erwin said ironically.
Levi paused. Erwin, Dot, Hange…the kids and Saskia…their faces were blank, almost giddy. “They’re in shock. Sit down, all of you, until you can tell us what’s going on!”
Historia was about to offer any comfort she could give, but Ymir’s face in her peripheral snatched her attantion.
Tears streamed down Ymir’s face.
“Ymir? What’s wrong?”
“Darius didn’t get us into this,” sobbed Ymir. “I did.”
“Am I supposed to be shocked?” Annie emerged at last, yanking her arm free from her partially transformed titan.
“What do you mean?” Mikasa clenched her jaw.
Ymir squirmed. “R-reiner. I got you into this, too.”
“We’ve got your back,” he replied, big brother once again. Maybe, this was his real identity. Big brother.
“Let’s head to the military headquarters and leave the Military Police on cleanup duty. Excepting Hitch.” Erwin shook his head to clear his mind. “Ymir, we have much to talk about.”
Not long ago, he had gathered around this table to plan for Shinagashina’s invasion with Darius Zackley. Now, Erwin, Levi, Hange, and Dot were the only senior officers available. Squad Levi, a rather dizzy Saskia who’d insisted on coming, Hitch, Ymir, Annie, and Reiner made up the remaining people.
“Well, Darius was always working for the titans. I remember – I remember them fighting – at Frosina. Darius and the Ape Titan. Darius was shaking his fist at the titan. Scolding him like child – and the titan was cowering – do you think he was just young and impulsive?” Saskia grasped at Annie.
The visions she’s seen during the explosion, when she thought she would die, when she’d grabbed Erwin’s broad shoulders to keep him from falling from the sheer magnitude of the blast… “Do you remember?”
“Yes,” Annie said dully. Cowering, and shaking. The Ape Titan. The image nauseated her, but oh, she could never forget it again.
“So Zeke wasn’t supposed to attack inside Wall Maria,” suggested Armin. “He did.”
“Impulsive youngsters.” Levi rolled his eyes.
“And that’s how he recruited us,” Saskia concluded. “Reiner…”
“I don’t think that’s how he recruited me. My parents – they let me go,” stammered Reiner, sweating at the rate of Bertolt. They gave me up. Don’t make me say it, please. “My memories are intact.”
“Up ’til now, so were mine,” Annie said.
“I can’t – I can’t cope right now.” Reiner clapped a hand to the side of his head.
“You’ll be okay. You might not be a good Warrior or Soldier, but you’re a good man to me,” Armin hurried to say.
Reiner shot him a grateful smile.
“So now I’ll start.” Ymir rubbed a hand across her forehead. “Historia, I told you how I was cast out of my village.”
“Yes, of course.” Historia hurried to her lover’s side, but her lover wouldn’t even glance at her.
Maybe she’s here for the last time.
Ymir gulped. “Do you know what I did to survive?”
“Became a titan?”
“No. Well, yes. But when I found out they wanted me gone, I went to a scientist first. I gave him all the inheritance I could steal and him to make me more powerful than anyone. So he did.” Ymir drew in a broken breath.
“What do you mean?” squeaked Historia.
“I mean, I took on the power of the first titan.”
“What.” Levi frowned. Next to him, Hange was dead silent, locked in thought.
“Humanity isn’t dead!” Ymir burst out. “I even decided to divide myself into nine titans, to rule the world with justice – justice like not killing a girl just for loving another girl! So I did…I did that, and then I realized the consequence.”
“We were powerful. Too powerful, and people were dying, and people called out for my blood and I knew they deserved to have it, so I killed myself. I was supposed to stay dead.” Ymir raised her head, revealing red-rimmed eyes. “I intended to suffer and die; I really did!”
“So you cause the entire world to be devoured?” Eren was repulsed.
“Accidentally,” Annie reminded him.
“No. The world lives.” Ymir leapt to her feet. “I swear to all of you; Zeke’s camp is just a farce!”
“A farce?” Saskia narrowed her eyes. “I lived there.”
“On broken memories.” Annie defended Ymir again.
“It’s a camp for the Warriors who were selected to live overseas, on the island we now live.”
“Island?” Armin’s eyes danced. Sea? The sea?
“Yes. We called it Paradi in my day.”
“We’ll deal with you later. Why do the Warriors want us dead?” Erwin looked at her as one might look at a cockroach.
She deserved it.
“Because my people – the Eldian race, we called them.”
“Eldian?” Saskia frowned. “I know this part. Eldians are the race of the walls. They conquered, pillaged, and raped a group called the Marleyans.” She rubbed her eyes, trying to ignore her pounding headache. “I…I thought this was a myth.”
“Well, it’s not,” Ymir said.
“But…it has to be. The legend says this war went on for almost 2000 years, until the Marleyans stole seven of their nine titan powers and forced the Eldians to live in ghettos.”
“Ghettos for those who aren’t on Paradi. Paradi was made to be paradise, I think,” pled Ymir.
“Paradise? Where we’re food for titans, where we suffer and die knowing nothing?” roared Eren.
“Sit down, Jaeger,” snapped Levi.
“2000 years?” Reiner gaped at Ymir. “You’re 2000 years old?”
“Does it matter?”
“You lived for 2000 years as a titan.” Pixis raised his eyebrows.
“N-no, not exactly,” stammered Ymir. “I told you I killed myself, and I did. Marleyans found my grave and used that fucking cursed medical serum – similar to the stuff your father developed, Eren – to revive me. I was young again, the same age as I had been when I was kicked out. I was – I was so horrified.”
“And so were they. They wanted me to be the powerful titan again, so they could use me in their wars. Instead, they realized all they got was a preteen girl and they sent me back to hell – they made me a titan on Paradi, attacking my own people…until Marcel.”
“Because they’re all are our countrymen. The titans. They’re people who disobey the Marleyans, who fight for Eldia.” Ymir finally met Eren’s eyes. “Anyone who disobeys is turned into a titan and sent here, and they fucking suffer. Like your father.”
“Zeke told me his story, his real story, when he found out who I really was.”
“How does he know my father?” cried Eren in frustration.
Ymir turned to Reiner and Saskia. “Did none of you really wonder why Zeke never killed me?”
“He told me you had connections. I trusted him.” Apparently, two could play the betrayal game. Saskia felt anger, and then more anger towards herself for being a hypocrite.
“Eldia itself was a sadistic empire.” Erwin felt life humming in his heart. History existed, people existed outside, his father was right.
“But they’re being hurt now!” exclaimed Eren. “We didn’t oppress them.”
“It doesn’t matter. We can’t continue this fight.” Erwin looked to Saskia. “This is a cycle of humanity ruining humanity. We must stop it. Even if it means throwing our lives away.”
“What!” Eren tried to jump up, but Mikasa held his right arm and Levi his left.
“I didn’t sign up to throw my life away for nothing,” Hitch erupted.
“It’s not for nothing,” Reiner hissed.
“You didn’t even sign up,” Connie groaned.
“Well, I’m going to.”
“You. Historian. How much did you know?” Pixis turned to Saskia.
“I knew the legend.” Saskia felt empty. Had all she learned been lies? Or perhaps lies were smeared throughout history and science, and people were forever burdened with the knowledge that they would have to believe some lies. “Not that it was truth.”
“We didn’t even know that humanity existed outside this place.” Reiner rubbed his hands together. “I was never given that knowledge.”
Had his parents known? Had they raised him for this from the very start? Had food been a mere excuse?
“None of us were.” Annie wondered if Dad was still alive. What would he think, knowing his memories had been rearranged, that he’d been playing into a tyrant’s hand his whole life?
“My guess,” said Saskia slowly, “is that if Ymir is right, Darius doesn’t work for Zeke. He works for Marley, and Zeke works for him. He’s been working to overthrow us from the beginning. In every way to cause our suffering, because he likes it.”
“That is the logical conclusion,” said Hange, pushing up her glasses.
“So we have three objectives. End this war, end Darius Zackley, and end Zeke.”
“What about the Marleyan government? Aren’t Zeke and Darius nothing but Marleyan foot soldiers?” asked Pixis.
“Um.” Ymir shook her head. “They’re soldiers all right, but for Zeke at least, he’s an Elodian ghetto-dweller. Where do you think Zeke got the idea to turn people against each other? He was raised in it.”
She could feel Historia’s eyes boring her. Yes, you made love to a two-thousand-year-old liar and demon dealer.
She should have stayed dead. All her talk about being proud to be Ymir was bullshit if she couldn’t be with Historia.
“No wonder he despises Sarah.” Saskia gasped. “But that means…Grisha didn’t abandon her or Zeke. If he was a titan, he was sent away as a punishment.” Had Sarah joined the program, had she come here looking for him? She wanted to cry for her mother-in-law.
“Grisha!” Eren pounded the table. “Was my father that psycho’s brother?”
“Mikasa, you haven’t told him?” Armin squeaked.
Mikasa dropped her eyes. She’d gone too far protecting Eren this time.
“He’s your half-brother.”
“So let me get this straight. Darius Zackley is a titan shifter, off to gather all the titans and destroy us all because of some old legendary race war.”
“Yes,” Erwin admitted. Three hours had passed since their meeting, and he still couldn’t believe it. “He played us for fools.”
“We are fools,” Nile said. “But this titan wife catalyzed his transformation by injuring him in response to his insult?”
“She seems like a good woman.” Nile smiled slyly. Now that Lisel and Dasha were out with Marie, he enjoyed the peace of this bare, drab hospital room with his sad, brave friend.
Not that he wasn’t happy to see his girls. In fact, he was so glad his heart hurt, and not just from his nearly healed wound. But they were exhausting.
“I see you’re never too ill to poke fun at someone,” Erwin said with a laugh.
“Never. Even when I thought I was dying, I had to stay alive to see which pretty lady captured the stone heart of Erwin Smith.”
Erwin chuckled, but the stone heart was everything he feared.
Nile sobered. Damn, Erwin was so much more sensitive than expected. “I tease you, Erwin, but the truth is, when I thought I was dying…I had to stay alive for my family, yes…and because I haven’t done enough good in this life. You, now, you could die and say you’ve done enough with a clear conscience. But not I.”
Erwin inhaled. “You think I’ve done enough?
“I know you have. And I know I haven’t.”
Erwin opened his mouth, but Nile cut him off.
“And don’t say you were selfishly pursuing your father’s dream or whatever. You drove humanity closer to victory than anyone, and you deserve a fucking dream.”
The two men fell silent.
“I never even saw the basement,” Erwin admitted after a moment.
“Did you need to?” Nile asked.
“I don’t know.” Maybe. To complete the dream, if he could visit it once…
A face flickered before him. Maybe, he had a new dream now.
Nile smirked at his old friend. “Of course, maybe someday you will see that I was right about love.”
Erwin laughed. “Do you want to hear about Darius now?”
“Not particularly. In truth, I want to reside in a country village with Marie and my girls and never fight another day in my life.” Nile heaved a sigh. “Now you know. So tell me how you’re going to save us all.”
Chapter 18: Chapter Eighteen
While Eren and Historia grapple with the fallout from Ymir's confession, Hange enlists Connie's help on an important mission.
“Oh my holy walls. My fucking holy fucking walls and fuck my life.”
Eren Jaeger was curled up in a ball that occasionally rocked back and forth. He’s been a ball since Levi and Mikasa wrangled him from the Military Headquarters to his bedroom in Historia’s palace.
“You know, he lasted until the meeting adjourned. All options considered, he’s taking this relatively well,” Jean remarked.
Mikasa glared at him.
“But unhelpful.” She bent over him. “Eren, please talk to me.”
“You! You lied to me!” Eren howled. He lunged for her, and Mikasa just stood there as Eren pounded her chest. “Why did you lie? Why are you like him?!”
“Mikasa is not like your father. She was waiting until the right time to tell you,” Armin tried.
“Which is what he did!” Eren shrieked, falling backward into the wall.
Levi crossed his arms and tapped his foot against the floorboards. His toes sort of itched to collide with Jaeger’s mouth, but heaven knew a fight was the last thing Jaeger needed.
Hange poked her head in. “Maybe tea would help?”
“He’ll ruin it,” Levi replied darkly. “And burn himself.”
“He’ll heal,” she pointed out.
“He’ll still waste the tea.”
“Oh, I know what you really care about,” she joked, closing the door again.
Annie sighed. “Eren, listen to me.”
“You’re a traitor!” he wailed.
“Yes, and a traitor who owes you a debt. You calmed me down earlier today, so I’m trying to repay.” Reiner was still being hidden from Eren at the moment, but for some reason Armin had thought she could help. And Hitch, Connie, and Sasha were participating in their own little mediation between Ymir and Historia.
“Eren.” Annie took his face in her hands. “Zeke Jaeger is apparently a twisted rat bastard who used all of us. I understand your shock, but we need you calm or he wins.”
“I don’t care about winning! No one was ever right! Didn’t you hear what Ymir said? Genocide after genocide after prejudice! There’s nothing worth fighting for!” Eren screamed before sinking to the ground in barely muffled sobs. “Not anymore.”
He’s calmer, Armin realized. “So that’s it. You think there’s nothing worth fighting for.”
“Everyone is wrong,” Eren sobbed. “And everyone is bad.”
“Maybe, but then everyone is normal,” Annie said.
“Exactly,” said Armin.
“I killed people because I thought they were bad! When I was nine!” Eren pounded the floor.
“But.” Annie knelt next to Eren. “But if everyone is normal, that means everyone is still capable of choosing good or bad, at any time.” She glanced up at Armin.
“Mostly,” he agreed.
Mikasa joined Annie. “Which means you, Eren, are capable of choosing good. We are here. We will help you. Even Shortie will.”
“I may be your relative, but I’m still your captain.”
“Fight me.” Mikasa winked before turning back to Eren. “I promise. We’re on your side, Eren.”
She grabbed Eren’s hand with one hand and Armin’s with her other. Armin gripped Annie, who gripped Jean…who awkwardly grabbed Levi’s.
Levi may not ever admit it, but he rather liked being included.
“We’re all going to help and support you going forward. We promise,” Mikasa said.
“Please at least drink some water?”
He let out a broken laugh. “You never change.”
Reiner really had to wonder why he’d joined Sasha and Connie’s attempt to placate Historia. The adorable goddess had transformed into a furious storm, and that frightened him.
“Were you ever going to tell me?” seethed Historia.
Ymir nodded, but she was crying too hard to speak.
“Why didn’t you trust me? Why did you lie? I told you I loved you.” Historia clenched her hands into fists and stomped her foot. “Do you know what it’s like to find out you were keeping this from me, every time we talked or cuddled or plotted or made love?”
Reiner’s eyes popped open, but Historia’s withering glance shut him up.
“Um, Historia,” began Sasha timidly.
Sasha fished for Connie’s hand. “I’m s – sure she didn’t mean to create the titans.”
“Or at least the destruction that came with them,” said Hitch from her position by Ymir’s side, a position Historia envied more than a little.
“She’s more innocent than I am,” Reiner said.
“Of course she is!” Historia yelled. “I don’t fault her for that. I’m not heartless.”
“No, that’s me,” Ymir said dully.
Historia’s eyes filled with tears. “Now I know why you kept insisting you were rotten when you never were. It’s not fair – you’re self-sacrificial enough to reveal yourself as a titan and risk your own life for mine and Reiner and Bertolt’s, so why didn’t you sacrifice a little more and trust me?!”
“Sacrifice is hard,” Connie said. “And not just because I’m dumb.” At Sasha’s glower, he added, “Well, maybe I’m not.”
“You never were. You just have a heart bigger than your brain,” Ymir said, wiping her eyes. “That’s not always bad. Now, me – if the brainiacs’ plan fails here, you’ll all die and I’ll have killed everyone I love.”
“You love us?” Reiner blinked.
“You didn’t figure that out when she saved you before? Ymir’s good, Reiner.” Historia’s shoulders shook. “Ymir, you should have loved me enough to let me share the hurt with you.”
“I – I don’t love myself enough,” muttered Ymir. “For everything I say about being proud of yourself, I still hate my past. I hate it.”
“At least it gave us answers,” Historia said with a sniffle. “So I don’t hate it.”
“Historia, I’m two thousand years older than you.”
“Do you know what I would give for Marlowe to be alive? You love her. Please forgive the one you love,” begged Hitch.
“Stop telling me to be good!” cried Historia. “I’m good already! She told me that!”
“I’m not telling you to be good; I’m telling you what to do because you’re good,” Hitch replied hotly.
“Please calm down,” Connie said. “Everyone.”
“Don’t tell me what to do.” Historia felt overcome and that terrified her.
“Can I ask for a hug?” choked Ymir.
Historia’s shoulders slumped. “Of course.”
And then Ymir was in her arms, and she felt safe and right.
Across the room, Sasha exchanged a knowing smile with Reiner.
The queen and the titan princess wrapped their arms tighter around each other. They were going to be okay.
“I don’t regret killing the titans, even when we suspected. In our position, we didn’t have a choice. I wish we had.”
Saskia said nothing. She’d given up on sleep as dawn broke and hadn’t seen him in his room or the hospital. She’d finally found him in the military headquarters, unshaven, staring at blank pages on his desk. Perhaps, like her, he needed someone’s presence.
“I let him get away with everything,” Erwin admitted as sunrays shone through the window behind him. “I looked away because he was on our side. I could have gotten us all killed. Your sister was our enemy, and she saved us.”
“My sister’s rather incredible,” Saskia said wryly. Her hand stretched out to cover his as her eyes squinted to avoid the sun. “Now that our roles appear reversed, I’ll tell you I forgive you.”
“I have no right to ask forgiveness from your sister or anyone today. Or from the nobles whose lost part of their family.” Erwin clenched his fist. Was he much different than the police who’d killed his father?
“It’s difficult, not being able to change the past.” Saskia sighed. “You need forgiveness. I need to feel. Annie needs love. Levi needs a battle. There’s hope for the world, I believe that, but is there hope for us? Maybe that’s what we need first.”
Erwin smiled bitterly. “I’ve been fighting for hope for so long, I’ve forgotten how to recognize it.”
Saskia surveyed him. “Then what was the dream to keep living to learn about the world? To prove your father correct, so his theories live on as the smallest form of justice you can give him? You’re the most hopeful person I know. Not the happiest, but the most hopeful.”
Erwin laughed incredulously. Nile had said that to him once before, the night before graduation. Mike had agreed.
How much had changed since then.
“We have at most three days to find out if that hope is worth it. Maybe less, if they can mobilize before us.” Erwin ran a hand across his face.
Saskia rolled her eyes. “They won’t. Zeke won’t be happy about following any orders Darius tries to give, and it’ll take him at least a day to find the village. If he even can, since we don’t know how much he knows.”
“Speaking of knowing…” Erwin leaned forward. “How are you doing, Saskia?”
“You mean…after finding out my memories are missing and my genocidal husband was hiding the truth of the world?”
Erwin raised an eyebrow.
“I haven’t let myself feel. That’s how I am.” Saskia’s shoulders slumped. “I’m back to the only thing I know.”
Erwin regarded her seriously. “You’re brave enough to feel. And I’ll be here for you whenever you want to.”
“And if you die in battle? Or I do?” Her voice rose.
“I think we both know we’ll try our best to live. Because for once I know...not what I want to live for anymore, but who I want to live with.” Erwin shook his head. “That’s not an answer because I have none, to be honest. The old me would encourage you not to wait...but I want you to do what is best for you.”
Saskia chuckled uncomfortably. “The old you would want a soldier to spill her feelings?”
“Contained spillage,” Erwin said dryly.
She bit back a laugh. Just go for it. “Guilt. I feel guilty. The memories weren’t my fault, so I don’t feel guilty for that. I feel guilty because having an excuse like ‘oh my memories were stolen’ makes me more sympathetic, more victim-like. And I’m not.”
Vitriol poured from her mouth. She shook with boulders of hatred.
Erwin sat still, listening.
Saskia gasped and clapped her hands against her face. “I always wanted to know what it was like to kill, do you know that? I was partially jealous of the shifters. I’m awful.”
Erwin wrapped his arms around her as she sobbed, drawing her as close as he could.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I hate myself so much. I hate myself.” She pounded her thighs.
“Saskia, it’s okay.”
“No, it really isn’t.”
“No,” he agreed, “but you’re okay.”
“I should be charged with murder.” Saskia wiped her eyes. “I did nothing to stop them, despite my knowledge of world history. I knew enough to know genocide was wrong, but I let it happen anyway because I didn’t believe saving anyone beyond my sister was practical. Unlike you, who saw the impossible and made it possible. I’m as bad as Zackley. I’m telling you, charge me with murder. If I’m not and he is, it’s because I’m on your side and he was on theirs. Where’s the justice in that? It’s wrong, I know it is.”
“It might not be fair,” Erwin conceded. “But you won’t be arrested. Should I be arrested for sending scores of soldiers to die?”
“They knew what they were getting into.”
“Did they? Did anyone, before they experienced it?” Erwin’s gaze was hollow.
“I suppose not. But you’re not at fault for that,” Saskia whispered. “I am at fault.”
“You were also brainwashed by a nervous, abusive father – who, changed, yes, but that doesn't erase the effect he had on you.” Erwin pressed his cheek against hers. “Just like my father influenced me for good, yours influenced you for evil. But that does not make you evil.”
Saskia sighed and buried her face against his chest. His rock solid, powerful chest housing the most beautiful of hearts. “I can’t understand those who criticized you as cold. You’ve done more for humanity than anyone.”
Erwin’s calloused fingers tilted her sharp chin up to face his bright blue eyes, his strong jaw. “And I can’t understand those who would call you a whore or a murderer. You have the bravest, most dedicated heart I know. To the people you love.”
“Nervous?” Annie nodded at Armin.
While the Survey Corps, Military Police and Garrison volunteers refreshed hand-to-hand combat and refined their 3DMG techniques, five individuals stood far away, ready to practice shifting in and out of their titan forms.
“I haven’t shifted since it was to save Mikasa’s life. And I’m still not sure – I mean, what if I lose control? Like Eren did at first.”
“You’re smarter than me,” Eren said. “You won’t.”
“Then Annie and Reiner will kick your ass,” Ymir clarified.
“Contritely,” Reiner said.
Armin giggled. “Oh, okay.”
Annie smiled at him. “You can do this.”
“You can, or we’ll make you,” Ymir said.
“I mean, if a two thousand year old woman can, I guess us youngsters can,” Reiner said slyly.
“Don’t make me eat you,” Ymir sneered before jogging away into position.
Three hours later, Armin was practically asleep as he staggered out of his steaming titan. “And I thought I was weak as a human. I’m not even a good titan.”
“You’ll get stronger with practice tomorrow,” Reiner assured him.
“Armin.” Annie took his hand. “Are you just afraid to be strong?”
Armin stared at her. “What?”
“Of course he’s not,” Eren scoffed.
“His face says otherwise.” Ymir crossed her arms.
Armin cast his eyes to the earth. “Well, I just feel like a titan is wasted on me.”
“Too bad. The only way you lose that ability is if one of us eats you, and Annie’s probably like to but not that way.”
Annie narrowed her eyes.
“Annie’s practically my sister. Don’t talk about her like that,” Reiner interjected.
“Wait, I don’t understand…”
“Don’t ask, Eren.” Armin’s face was as pink as a sunrise.
“I’m not your sister. Reiner, I didn’t even like you until recently,” Annie told him.
“I still don’t like me,” he admitted.
“I didn’t like you because I didn’t like myself, or anything that we’d done,” Annie admitted.
Ymir plopped onto the grass. “I know how that goes.”
“I imagine you do,” Armin said sympathetically, settling next to her.
“I am glad Connie didn’t let me abandon you in Trost.” She half-smiled at him.
“So, if it makes you two feel any better, you can’t have caused half as many deaths as I have.” Ymir pointed at Reiner and Annie.
“Maybe one death is one too many,” Armin said thoughtfully. “In a perfect world, that is.”
“I wish we lived in a perfect world.” Eren threw himself down. “I just – I don’t even know what I’m fighting for anymore. My father abandoned his family and became a titan, and I don’t know who is good or bad.”
“Maybe that’s why death is bad. Cuts short the lives of people we don’t know well.” Reiner sat down. “Come on, Annie.”
Annie knelt next to Armin. “Well, we’re about to kill more of our fellow Warriors.”
“Not if Bertolt is still alive. And Peter. They could help rally the others.” Reiner swallowed.
“You are so in love,” Ymir said.
Reiner’s cheeks turned red. “What?”
“Hey, you already confessed to me. You’re gay, dude.”
“I thought you like Historia,” Annie said.
Reiner avoided Ymir’s blazing eyes. “No, that was my…Warrior personality.”
“The soldier is who you are, the warrior is who you had to be,” Armin said.
“Something like that.” Reiner wrapped his arms around himself. “If Bertl is dead, I might go crazy. You all might have to kill me.”
“Try not to.”
“It’s not that simple. My mind – I can’t control it.” Reiner’s eyes filled with tears.
He’s scared of himself. Eren opened his mouth. “I mean, I’ve never dealt with my mind as an enemy, but for a while I was sure I was an enemy – my titan personality, that is. I didn’t think I could control it. But good friends helped me. We’ll help you, rather than kill you.”
“I don’t think I have a choice.” Eren looked down. “And, Reiner and Annie…I kind of missed you both and Bertolt.”
“Hey, Connie!” Hange whistled from across the yard.
Connie dropped his blade, and Sasha grabbed the distraction to send him flying onto his back. “Guess I win.”
“Real fair,” Connie said sarcastically.
“I just want you to never be surprised,” Sasha protested, helping him to his feet.
“I know, you just want me alive for you.” Connie flashed her a grin before hurrying over to Hange.
The scientist’s face was abnormally serious. In her hands a fuschia liquid rested inside a crystal vial. “So this is the solution that worked on the rats I collected. Healed the ones I mortally wounded in under a minute.”
“Rats? What about Reiner?” Sasha’s mouth dropped.
“With the commander’s plan, we’re going to need the armored titan one more time,” Hange said briskly. “So I moved to rats. I didn’t like it. I screamed for them.”
“That’s…good,” Connie said uncomfortably.
Hange cleared her throat. “Do you want to accompany me to the underground station?”
Connie’s hands began to sweat. “You mean…my mom.”
“I think this is our best chance. But you need to be willing to risk your mother.” She wished she didn’t have to ask this. How did Erwin bear it?
Sasha’s hand slipped into his.
“…Yes. Yes, I suppose.” Connie swallowed. “I’ll never forgive myself, but I have to.”
“That’s the spirit,” Hange said grimly.
“I’m coming,” Sasha said, and Connie didn’t bother protesting. He needed her there.
The setting sun cast the world in a quiet glow as they slipped underground, with a torch in Hange’s trembling hands to light the way. This could be her greatest discovery, and the best part was, she actually cared more about healing people than she did her discoveries.
At the end of the hall was a pit – a pit! – and his mother was there. The titan leered at him and snapped its jaws. Its scrawny limbs struggled in vain against steel chains.
“She doesn’t know me at all.” Connie felt like vomiting. She had known her son right after her transformation.
Erwin was the only healed titan. What if the longer you were a titan, the less chance you had?
Hange shivered. “You should be safe to approach her.”
My mom is hurt. How can this be safe? Connie hesitated.
Sasha stepped forward. “I’ll come with you, Connie.”
Her strength propelled him forward – if this worked he could show Sasha to his mother!
“Distract her while I go for the nape,” Hange called.
Sasha nodded for Connie. “Hi, Mrs. Springer…”
“She’ll know about Dad and all her friends,” Connie said worriedly. “It’s not fair.”
“She’ll have you,” Sasha reminded him.
Hange activated her 3D maneuvering gear and soared forward.
“HI MRS. SPRINGER!” Sasha stepped even closer and yelled to keep the titan’s attention, while Connie simply squeezed his eyes shut.
He heard Hange collide with his mother’s neck, heard her whiz away to safety. “All set, you two.”
“You can open your eyes,” Sasha said gently.
Connie cracked an eye to see steam trickling from his mother’s nape. “What if it doesn’t work?”
But the trickle raced into a river, and Connie felt certain his lungs were burning. “Ack!”
They should step back to safety, but he wanted to stay by Mom, burn or no burn. And Sasha sure as hell wasn’t leaving him.
With a rush of steam, the titan collapsed and a woman crashed out.
“Mom!” screamed Connie, racing forward.
Sasha exchanged a smile with a gleeful Hange. Time to mass-produce for the battle.
“Mom.” Connie wrapped his arms around the woman.
“Connie.” The woman seemed frightened as she gripped her son back. “Where am I?”
“Underground.” Hange hurried towards them.
“You were a titan,” sobbed Connie. “She saved you.”
Mrs. Springer gasped. “I was...a titan?”
“The Beast Titan turned all Ragako into titans. You probably don’t remember,” said Hange. “Most titan shifters don’t,a t any rate, and you weren’t even a shifter.”
Mrs. Springer nodded, takang in the other woman’s Survey Corps uniform. She scanned her son’s face. “Your father?”
Tears spilled down Connie’s cheeks as he shook his head.
“You were the only survivor,” Hange said, kneeling next to the woman. “I couldn’t have saved you without your son. He was instrumental in recognizing you and helping me piece together what happened.”
“I wasn’t the only one.” Connie stretched out a hand to Sasha across the room. “Mom, this is Sasha Blouse.”
“Sasha.” Mrs. Springer blinked through her tears. “The potato girl you had a crush on?”
Connie flushed. “Yeah.”
Sasha’s face was redder than the Colossal Titan as she stretched out her hand. “It’s so good to meet you, Mrs. Springer. I’m so happy you are okay. You’ve raised a very brave and kind son.” She fished through her satchel. “Here, I, uh, have a boiled potato for you, if you want to taste real food.”
“He’s found a brave and kind girl,” Mrs. Springer said instead, clasping Sasha’s hand in hers.
Hange smiled to herself. Healing took forever, but it made forever worthwhile.
“I just – I finally know what it means to not want to kill, and I have to again.” Eren shrugged his shoulders.
“Well, you didn’t want to fight, much less kill, Annie. I was the monster that time,” Mikasa pointed out. Sasha still hadn’t returned from her expedition with Connie and Hange, so she and Eren were able to have a late-night conversation in her room for once.
“True. But that was our only option then, I thought.” Eren smiled at her. “You’ve always given me good advice.”
“What if I can’t fight Zeke? I still don’t know why he hates Dad. And he’s my brother, Mikasa. My brother.” Eren shook.
“I don’t know,” she said quietly. Could she fight her family?
“I want to talk to him,” Eren said determinedly. “Before anything else.”
“Do you honestly think he’d listen?”
“No…but I have to try.”
“Well, if Erwin’s plan goes forth, you’ll get your wish. How did your meeting with Saskia go?”
“Informative,” Eren said, flopping onto his back. “But I won’t know until it might be too late.”
“Risks, the only thing we’re good at.” Mikasa bent over to kiss him. “Eren…if we need to kill Zeke, I will do it. For you.”
“No, Mikasa, it’s my family, my problem –”
“My family, in a sense, too,” she reminded him.
“That makes kissing awkward.”
“Well, there are other ways to join a family besides being born into it.” Mikasa rolled on top of him. “Is this okay?”
Eren’s heart raced. “Um…yeah.” His fingers caressed her back. “H-how far…?”
Mikasa smiled at him, actually smiled. “As far as you want.”
“I want all of you.” He planted his lips on hers and drew her legs tight around him. As her fingers pulled off his shirt, he reckoned that even if he felt embarrassed at her superior strength, she was worth it.
Bertolt had never seen a titan quite like the one staring down at him.
Larger than Zeke’s but smaller than the Colossal, though it steamed just as much. Two horns, like drawings of the devil Saskia had shown him every time he hid in the library after getting his ass kicked during training.
With an explosion of steam that knocked Bertolt off his feet, the titan vanished, leaving behind a bearded man.
“Darius Zackly.” Bertolt scrambled to his feet, sheer terror piercing his spine. He’s come to kill me. No, nothing made sense.
“Get your Chief, Hoover. We have a problem.” Darius’s eyes blazed hotter than his titan.
He might as well have been a titan shifted into human form.
Chapter 19: Chapter Nineteen
Zeke and Erwin tries to outmaneuver each other's plans, leaving Bertolt, Eren, and Saskia in particularly troubled places.
Oh hey, one more chapter to go. Probably a lengthy one. :) Whoooohooooo.
Erwin rarely slept before a mission, and tonight would be no different. Tomorrow, Reiner would guide them back to the Warrior Village. Tomorrow, they would either have one more victory for humanity within the walls and face a corrupt and preposterously powerful government, or they would be responsible for hundreds of thousands.
The weight was killing him.
Dad, watch over me. He had no right to ask, yet he had to. For everyone.
The door sleeve rustled, and Erwin bolted upright. If Zeke had been spotted – moving at night –
“Saskia?” He gasped in relief.
“Don’t die tomorrow, Commander.” She knelt near the doorway.
His mouth parted slightly. What was she – could she – she had to know –
“I know this is all you’ve ever lived for and the end is tomorrow; you and I can both feel it. But don’t die.” Saskia reached out and grabbed his hand. “Live with me after. We’ll find meaning in just being alive.”
She was a married woman, of a sort, and she had just proposed to a former enemy commander. Yes, this was life. Saskia choked back a laugh.
“Saskia, do you know how old I am?” At 36, he was a full dozen years older than her.
“Should I care? You’re beautiful and strong and good-hearted, even if you fail and believe yourself wicked. You’re a good man.”
He rested his forehead against hers. “And you are the greatest of women.”
She snickered, still uncomfortable with compliments. “Not Mikasa the Strong?”
“You know what I mean.” His lips covered hers.
Erwin stopped immediately. “Are you okay?”
“I never thought you’d kiss me again,” she admitted, returning his kisses a hundredfold.
“You like them?”
Saskia laughed and caressed his face. She looked at him as if he were a star above the heavens. “Of course.”
“And I love yours.”
For what seemed like hours they knelt together, free to love and give themselves to each other.
“Don’t stop,” he moaned. He hadn’t felt so alive in years – so happy and excited about the future, which could still end tomorrow –
– then we might as well live well today –
Her hand traveled down his chest to his trousers, sending sparkles of sensation throughout his body.
“You can do what you like,” Erwin heard himself say, and, hallelujah, he felt free.
“I like you,” Saskia replied, and he saw that she was crying.
“Happy tears,” she said quickly as his hand wiped them away.
“Saskia.” His heart stopped as she placed his hand over her breast. Over her beating heart.
He pressed his head against her chest, just listening to her breath, her heart, her life. “Tomorrow, when we win, we’ll live together.”
“I’ve never heard you so confident,” she murmured. “I like it.”
“Keep me company tonight?”
“I was planning on it,” she confessed, snuggling beside him. “I don’t mean – though I wouldn’t have said no – but just, I thought you might like – ”
“I want all of you,” Erwin confirmed, wrapping his arm around her waist. “Tomorrow, when we win, maybe we can find reward ourselves.”
“I can think of nothing better.” Saskia nudged his shoulder. “Well, maybe humanity’s victory.”
“Only maybe?” he teased.
Her smirk delighted him. Maybe as much as victory.
“I really don’t think you should come,” Erwin advised as the morning light danced around them.
“Nile encouraged me to. Said it’ll be great propaganda,” Historia replied sweetly.
Erwin smiled wryly as Hange choked behind him. “Of course he did.”
“Goodbye, Historia!” Lisel and Dasha raced forward to grab the queen’s hands.
“They wanted to see you,” Marie said apologetically, leaving Nile’s side to grab her children.
“Of course.” Historia bent down to be eye level with them. “I’m going to help make us free again.”
Ymir bent down alongside Historia with a mischievous smile. “And then you girls can be in our wedding.”
“Yesssss!” Lisel threw her fists in the air with a cackle.
Erwin nodded at Historia’s pink face. Funny that the two titan queens weren’t the only engagement. Life was strange like that. “Congratulations.”
“Thank you,” she said meekly.
“Good luck, Erwin.” Nile hobbled over. “You know, I’d ride out with you if I could.”
“You’re needed here. Keeping peace is important, especially if the plan goes wrong… You know what, you’re helping our plan. Think of yourself as an honorary Survey Corps member,” Erwin said slyly.
Nile laughed and clapped Erwin on the back. “After all these years!”
“I’m scared for you,” Connie mother told him. “I can’t lose you, too.”
“You won’t,” Connie told her seriously.
“I’ll make sure of it,” Sasha interjected, kissing Connie, to his mother’s delight.
“So much kissing,” Jean grumbled. “Makes my stomach turn.”
“Jean, if Marco were here, you’d be kissing him, too,” Eren said.
“You’re so much nicer since you got laid.”
“What?!” Eren shrieked.
“The walls are rather thin,” said a smirking Hitch.
Mikasa stared at Hitch in horror.
“Hey, I don’t judge! I’m proud of you both. Jean!” Hitch waved him back.
“What?” Jean had barely turned when her lips landed on his cheek.
“We’ll do more later.” Hitch winked before climbing on her horse. Was this how Marlowe had felt before his one mission?
I’m glad you got to go. I hope you know what a difference you made to me. For a moment she was lost in a reverie of what might have been if he had returned –
And then Erwin was calling forth legions of Military Police, Garrison, and Survey Corps, and they were leaving Mitras behind.
“This is where I leave you,” Pixis nodded as they reached Trost District.
Eren’s heart pounded at devastation of the town ransacked by titans a few months and impossible ignorance before. We’re so close. No more Trosts. No more Shinagashinas.
“But where we join!” Rico Brzenska and a crowd of more Garrison members saluted them. At Eren’s frown, she added, “Jaeger, it’s good to see you.”
“Though I’m sure you don’t miss us.” Kitz Weilman appeared, and Mikasa’s eyes blazed.
“Settle down,” Levi hissed to her.
“I’m your captain and the only one strong enough to kick your butt.”
“I’d like to see you try,” she muttered, but her eyes smiled at him.
“It may please you to know that Kitz is staying behind to assist me in case you bring down Rose.” Pixis chortled.
“Hopefully not,” Eren said uncomfortably.
“Don’t worry, there are too many people for me to list out who will die if we fail this time,” Rico said with a grimace. Had she really done that?
“I haven’t forgotten their names,” Eren said.
Her eyes softened. “I’m sorry.”
“Fortunately, Erwin won’t be your only commander on the field.” Keith Shadis stepped forward.
“Shadis!” gasped Armin.
Shadis regarded the little man he hadn’t expected to last a week, much less three years and then active duty. “You’ve done well, Arlert. I was glad to hear you survived a catastrophe most soldiers wouldn’t.”
He was so ready to die. But only if he did something that mattered for once in his fucking life.
“Wait. Braun. Leonheart.” Shadis blinked. “Uh, wasn’t expecting to see you two.”
“We didn’t much expect to be here, either,” Reiner admitted.
“No one ever does.”
“They should start,” Saskia muttered, tugging on her lopsided braid. And maybe, if this went well, they could.
Hoofbeats pattering through the forest –
Even in the dark, she could see with her ears –
And she had no choice.
She raced back, but not to him. Not yet. She had to open the door for hope, even one last time.
The wooden door squeaked open to reveal a troubled boy and a woman pretending he was her son.
“They’re coming,” Sarah said gravely.
Gretchen sat up straight. “Have you told Zeke?”
“I’m on my way. Just thought I’d stop and tell you all.” Sarah ground her teeth. She hated seeing her son cowered by that Marleyan asshat.
And yet, by telling them first, she was digging her son’s own grave. Sarah watched backed away with a lump in her throat. Her eyes rested on Bertolt.
Make it worth it.
Bertolt swallowed. “We can’t just go along with whatever Zackley and Zeke have planned.”
“What do you suggest?” Gretchen was tired. So tired of fighting. First Marcel, then Nicholas…
“I – I don’t know.” Reiner, I need you! Bertolt clenched his fists.
The tunnel had been found and crushed in. If they tried to escape, Zeke would catch them. But if they stayed… “Wait. I do know. Sort of. I think.”
Gretchen waited. “For what it’s worth, I’m willing to lay down my life to stop this. Whatever you need, I’ll do.”
Bertolt grabbed her hands. “You shouldn’t have to, but I’m – I’m going to have to ask you to risk your life anyways. You know I’m still being watched. You gotta go to the Braun’s and give them a message.”
They would know what to do better than he would. They could take over – those inspiring kids, those haunted adults.
The door burst open, and Bertolt jumped at Darius’s furious face. “Out, the both of you.”
No – my plan! Bertolt’s mind spun.
“What’s wrong?” Gretchen pressed, glancing at the kid before her. Her last tie to her Marcel.
“Our enemies will be here by tomorrow. They just left Shinagashina, so tonight’s our chance. New titans, all of us.” Zeke seemed listless, as he had since Saskia’s betrayal.
“Well, not this one.” Darius frowned at Bertolt.
“Of course,” Zeke said tersely. “But I’ll need the adults to round up the children. We Warriors work together.”
Children were easier to manipulate as humans and titans. Bertolt broke into a sweat. There wasn’t time – Gretchen would be killed if she voyaged to the Brauns’ now.
And he could see from her eyes she would do it anyway. Because he reminded her of Marcel.
Stop her, and stop Zeke. Bertolt felt faint. I can’t!
“You Warriors are pathetic Eldian trash, if you remember,” mocked Zackley.
Zeke’s eyes flashed, but he kept his mouth shut.
Reiner’s smiled echoed in his head. Reiner had a broken mind and broken soul and even so, oh, his smile – he was never trash.
“Let me round them up,” Bertolt said suddenly, and wondered how he dared.
“You?” Zeke’s eyes narrowed.
“I’m the strongest. I’ve become a titan. I’m the one who broke the walls, didn’t I? Let me do my duty and inspire our warriors.” Bertolt felt a surge of determination. For once, he felt like Reiner.
Only he also felt like himself.
“No titans around.” Erwin glanced at Levi. “They must know we’re coming.”
“They’d be fools not to expect it. Who knows if Sarah’s informed on us or not.” Levi shrugged.
“She must have,” Saskia declared. She couldn’t be wrong. Not now.
She had led them back here, to the edge of the forest before the village. Her last betrayal of Zeke was complete. And there was fear and nothingness in the severance.
She wasn’t at peace, but she was settled.
“Positions, everyone.” Erwin nodded.
Each Squad Leader fanned out to inform their troops, as quietly as they could. Slowly, the troops slid through the trees.
“You better behave yourselves.” Levi sidled up to Reiner and Annie.
“I’m not technically under your command,” Reiner said slyly. Annie’s eyes widened, and Ymir choked back a laugh.
“Do you want me to teach you some respect?” growled Levi.
“Let me guess, you’re going to attempt decapitating me for the third time?”
“Not funny.” Hange scowled as Levi spat, “Don’t tempt me.”
“You were skilled,” Reiner said weakly, holding up his hands.
“I’ll be skilled again.” Levi jabbed his blade at Reiner before soaring into the trees. Hange followed, and then the shifters were left alone – minus Eren, of course.
“No titans around,” Reiner muttered to Annie.
She nodded. “Like Saskia said. Zeke’s probably ordered them all to his side.”
“Putting the villagers in danger.” Reiner clenched his fists.
“At least it’s according to plan,” Ymir said.
Reiner swallowed. “I hope my siblings are okay.”
Annie’s heart panged. She knew what it was like to get a sibling back.
But Armin was the one who spoke. Of course it was Armin.
“That’s even more reason why we need to stop this cycle. If we don’t Reiner’s siblings and everyone we know will be victimized. We can do this. We can do this because we have to and because we love each other.”
He took out his knife and pressed it against his soft palm. “On three. One…”
Reiner, Ymir, and Annie drew their own knives.
“You’ve got this,” Annie said in a low voice, nodding at him.
Armin smiled back. “Three.”
On top of Wall Maria, Eren sat up straight. “That explosion. It’s happening!”
“Must be.” Mikasa stood beside him, her hands instinctively on her blades. “Remember, they have to give us a signal.”
Eren groaned. “I feel so useless. We might not even be necessary, Mikasa.”
She stared intently across the plains, as if she could see something in the dark. “You’re still helping. Just by providing this possibility.”
“I know, but I’m impatient.”
She chuckled. “At least you admit it.”
Eren smiled up at her as Annie’s infamous scream rang out throughout the night.
“Is that a titan?” Hange hissed, her eyes glowing with excitement. Thuds reverberated through the middle of the forest.
“I can’t think of anything else causing those footsteps,” Saskia replied, gripping the serum.
“Might only be one, by the sound.” Hange nodded. “Levi and Erwin must be successful, then.”
“I hope,” Saskia said uncertainly. Though they had the advantage in numbers, they certainly didn’t have the advantage in strength.
“Now!” Hange threw her hand down. Steel wires flew every which way, and a potbellied titan roared as it found itself unable to move. “Go, Saskia!”
Saskia flew towards the titan’s neck and jammed the needle in. “I hear more footsteps!”
“Of course.” Hange motioned to another station a dozen meters back. “Your turn, Squad Harry!”
“This isn’t going so badly.” Levi felled two titans in one spiral. As their Achilles tendons steamed, he flew back to the trees. “Should give Four-Eyes and your girl plenty of time to heal the titans we’re letting into the forest.”
“That’s what worries me,” Erwin admitted. “Our initial plan is kindhearted, but obvious.”
Time like this, he missed Mike and his nose.
“Well, we didn’t have much choice, did we.” Levi wiped sweat from his eyes as Annie let out another luring scream from the opposite edge of the forest.
“We never have,” Erwin said with a sad laugh.
“Are they falling for it?” Across the field, Zackley rubbed his hands together.
“Of course.” Zeke lowered the telescope, lowered the battle from his mind. He wanted to be with them. He wanted to do more than command.
“Time for you to rally your troops.” Zackley grinned.
Or be commanded. Zeke stormed away, Sarah hurrying at his heels like a dog.
“As soon as this ends, I’d like to ask the Marleyan government for permission to kill Darius Zackley myself,” Zeke fumed, his voice laced with acid. “He’s like Grisha.”
Everything is driven and awful.
“Then why are you still obeying him?”
“Because I don’t have a choice!”
“You do! You do, Zeke.” Sarah grabbed her son’s arm. “Stop obeying the man who took your father.”
“What?” Zeke froze.
“They owe you. That government. They took Grisha.” Sarah coughed. Her heart shook. She couldn’t believe what she was about to confess.
“He abandoned us for Eldia. For his ideals. He abandoned you for Carla.” Zeke’s eyes gleamed with mean.
“No!” Sarah slapped Zeke across the face. “Marley – men like that bastard Zackley – made him into a titan! You were too young to remember. Grisha and I wanted to caught working for Eldia.” Bowing her head, Sarah began to cry. “And they sent him here, cursed as a titan. But that wasn’t punishment enough. They had to make you one of their Warriors. As punishment to me, you were transformed into the best warrior. And I – I took it out on you.”
Zeke ripped his arm away. His breath came in short gasps. “You – you –”
You think this can satisfy your crime? Blaming a nebulous government instead of your evil side?
“I think it’s high time a new titan took yours.”
Sarah shook her head wildly. “Please believe me, Zeke. If you ever felt anything for me.”
“Believe you? How could I? When you were hitting me? Shoving my head through a wall? Fuck you!” Zeke spat in her face. “You’re a crazed liar. You would have told me before this, you fool.”
“It’s true,” Sarah whispered.
Zeke laughed with hate. “Then answer me this: why did you teach me to hate Eldia? Because Eldians in the walls hurt us. Because Grisha Jaeger abandoned us for them.”
“We are them!”
No! Zeke shoved her away from him. “It’s time for you to face your insanity, you abusive bitch.”
He shook with such vitriol he thought he would explode.
Zeke froze at the sight of the Warrior village. Thousands of soldiers with guns he’d never seen before swarmed the humble cabins his citizens cowered in. “What is the meaning of this?”
“Commander Zackley sent a request for aid, War Chief.” A soldier saluted him.
“Marleyans.” Zeke fought for composure. Tens of thousands of them.
They were taking over. Because he had failed on his own. Because he hadn’t been able to end it.
Yet he found himself dutiful. “You’ll want to head the way I came.”
The man’s bushy eyebrows rose. “Without you, the titans could kill us, Eldian scum.”
Zeke stepped closer. Torchlight danced off his eyes, his hair, his bare chest. “Your weapons are sufficient. We’re in the midst of a battle. And you dare disobey?”
“Heard many have dared disobey you recently.” The soldier snickered.
Zeke had plunged his knife into the soldier before he had a chance to scream. One quick jab to the heart, and a spray of crimson finished him.
“If any off you think yourself above the soldiers who have been fighting for much longer than you, guess again,” he said pleasantly as blood dribbled down his chin. “Marleyan or not. Now, who is in charge?”
“Commander Jorgenson was,” stammered a boy.
“Now I am.” A burly woman shoved forward. “Freya Stohl.”
Zeke nodded. “Pleasure to meet you. If you’ll excuse me, wait here with your troops. I have to create more titans to protect us all.”
His eyes landed on Sarah. He couldn’t resist adding, “And exchange this useless one.”
Bertolt turned towards the twenty-four school-age children lined before him. “Zeke is back.”
“We can’t let this happen.” Ingrid’s eyes were huge.
“I won’t stop any of you from running once Zeke releases the titan gas. If you’re exposed, you’ll become titans and die fighting,” Bertolt said with a quaver.
“But now he’s going to make all the soldiers into titans, too. Reiner and the others will be overwhelmed,” she protested.
“Your brother is a traitor, so what does it matter? I don’t understand. I want to fight.” Eight-year-old Maximillian turned up his nose.
Yeah, delicate one, you’ll totally last, Bertolt thought sourly.
“That’s not the issue,” said Vera. “Who are these soldiers? We don’t know them. What don’t we know, Bertolt?”
“I – I don’t know.” Bertolt began sweating as he watched one shove Gretchen to the ground.
“They seem to work for Zackley, not us.” Armand frowned.
“Zackley works with us!” snapped Max.
“Shut up, Max,” said Ingrid, at the same time Vera asked, “But does he?”
“Look.” Bertolt watched Zeke plunge his knife into a soldier.
“Okay, l-l-listen to me. I was going to offer you this anyway. Those people we’re fighting? The ones we called evil maggots, deserving of death? I’ve lived among those people. I’ve seen their kindness and mercy. Their resilience, their desire to seek the truth. They inspired me to seek the truth. And…the truth is, I don’t think they deserve to die. If anyone does, it’s me, for what I’ve done to kill them.” Bertolt blinked back tears.
“What do you mean?” demanded six-year-old Annika.
“I’m saying, if you want, get to the remnants of the library. I’ll transform into my titan and get you away from here before Zeke gases us.”
“You’re not fast enough. But I am.” Sarah rushed forward, tears straggling down her face.
Bertolt gasped. His plan changed yet again.
“You know I’m on your side.” Sarah rolled her eyes. “I told him everything, Bertl, and he didn’t believe me. I’ve hurt him too much.”
“Are you traitors?” shrieked Max, lunging forward. Ingrid dragged him back easily as he howled.
“I – I don’t know or care what you mean. Transform and carry the kids away! Please, even if they fight you. I’ll distract the rest.” Bertolt started to run a safe distance away, then paused. “Who are these soldiers?”
“Marleyans,” Sarah said grimly.
“Who?” exclaimed Armand.
“It’s a long story meant for those of us who survive.” She surveyed the children. “Which all of you will. Don’t even try to escape my titan.”
“Yes, Miss Sarah,” all twenty-four repeated meekly. Even Max, whom Ingrid was now sitting on.
“What have I done?” screamed a man, tearing at his hair. “What have I become?”
“Please kill me,” wailed a woman. “I ate my Eldian brethren!”
“None of you deserve to die,” Saskia pled. “I fought them, too, in ignorance. Kind of like you. It’s okay.”
“It’s really not,” sobbed the first man.
“But it will be.” Saskia grabbed his hands to keep him from hurting himself. “I promise.”
Lightning shot through the sky.
Saskia tumbled backwards from the explosion. “Hange!”
“Stay focused!” Hange swallowed. She’d know that anywhere. She’d heard that sound, experienced that blast, as she fell down a well and Moblit’s fightened face vanished from view. “For now, we stay focused, do you understand me?”
What is Bertolt doing? Reiner didn’t believe Bertolt would willingly work for Zeke. Is he even alive?
From the trees, the Dancing Titan looked up in alarm, as did Armin’s titan.
The Female Titan, however, wouldn’t even look at him. Annie couldn’t risk that emotion.
Footsteps, innumerable footsteps. Too many titans had gotten through.
Erwin! Saskia wanted to scream – had they already devoured him? – but she forced herself to stay calm. “Hange, we need to send out the flare!”
“Levi!” roared Erwin, narrowly avoiding the loss of his second arm.
“On it.” Levi grappled for the flare gun as a titan snatched his leg.
Two golden flares soared towards the sky.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” Eren stared at Mikasa. “What if I can’t.”
“You have to,” she replied, sounding disturbingly like Levi.
“You don’t have to hold my hand!”
“But I want to.”
Eren tried to smile, but failed. Fuck.
“Remember what Saskia said.”
“Of course I do.” Focus. “You prepare to get us out of here if it goes poorly.”
“I’m always prepared for that,” Mikasa admitted.
He might not need to scream for any useful reason, but Eren found his scream the only way to capture his fear, anger, and desperation. His friends were dying.
And he punched the crystalized walls as hard as he could, hard enough to draw blood.
The blood rested for a moment on the surface before dissolving. Cracks spread throughout the wall, slow at first, then more and more and more.
“Time to go.” Mikasa swooped Eren into a nearby tree.
“Wait – what if I need more?”
“Then we’ll make do!”
A sheet of crystal slid off the wall.
Eren took a sharp breath. “This tree’s not going to do much good.”.
More and more and more, like a waterfall of crystal shards, until the blood-red face of a Colossal Titan emerged.
Its eyes met Eren. Its mouth opened.
With a roar, half of Wall Maria exploded into hundreds of thousands.
Eren felt sick enough to throw up.
“I’m afraid,” he confided with a shiver.
“Me too,” Mikasa breathed. For the first time since her parents’ deaths, she felt the heavy hand of fear.
And then the rest of the Wall vanquished into a wave of crystals. Colossal titans, red as blood and guts and humanity’s soul, marched towards him.
Eren was now squeezing Mikasa’s hand so hard she winced in pain.
The colossal who’d first emerged stared down at them, twice the height of the tree only a few meters away. The heat was enough to smother them.
Then it bent down, and Mikasa’s blade flew up –
And it bowed before him, and now Mikasa had to prop Eren’s mouth back shut.
“Umm – ”
“Follow him!” Mikasa pointed at Eren.
“Follow me!” Eren saluted the beasts, not that they knew what a salute was, and soared along with Mikasa towards the battle.
A 50-meter tall army followed.
Chapter 20: Chapter Twenty
Eren and Saskia face Zeke, Reiner searches for Bertolt, and everyone searches for meaning.
Crack. Zeke stumbled back, and when he regained his balance, all he could do was stare at the Colossal towering in the midst of leveled trees and fleeing soldiers.
He wasn't even surprised, though he'd have to act it.
I taught you everything -
The children. They were gone.
With a roar, Zeke noticed Sarah's conspicuous absence. So his own mother was done with him now, was she? Fine. He'd made it this far due to his parents' cruelty. He'd make it further. He had to.
"Sir, what now?" called a soldier made of more limbs than heart.
Zeke shrugged as a wicked smile spread across his lips. "This."
In a burst of energy, the Ape Titan emerged once more.
And then Zeke was punching through his own roof, through the home he'd made with Saskia, and hurling the gas canisters straight against Bertolt.
The canisters exploded against the Colossal's skin. The titan howled in response.
So you would still use me to transform the soldiers? Bertolt wanted to cry. He could never escape, could he?
Baring his teeth, the Ape watched as soldiers fell down, some gagging, some seizing, some remaining composed as corpses and others fleeing futilely.
"He trapped us!"
If only. Bertolt felt salt trickle down his cheeks. It wasn't fair. Whoever these soldiers were, they hadn't chosen their fate, either, had they?
The village exploded into bright light. The few who remained conscious howled as they became a fleshy swarm of gluttonous barbarians.
He knew what Zeke would choose next even before the Ape pointed at him, before the tiny newborn titans clamored over him, around him, devouring his feet and legs, climbing to his knees.
He also knew what he would choose next.
As Zeke watched in confusion, the Colossal collapsed, its ankles completely severed. And its eyes never left his gaze.
"We're in deep, deep shit," Hange gasped, slicing off a titan's hand. She didn't know how much longer she could last without needing to kill.
Saskia already had. She stood shaking by the steaming corpse of a titan who'd devoured one of the people she'd just saved.
She wanted to give up and die, torture herself until she died, but not now. Erwin wouldn't give up. Neither would Annie or Mikasa or Levi, or Hange.
But when a titan grabbed her by her hair, she still hesitated.
"Saskia!" cried Hange.
Decide, you idiot. Saskia almost laughed that she had ever been unemotional. She raised her blade and leapt away - into the steaming foot of a colossal army.
"She's a little distracted," hollered Mikasa, gesturing at the five titan shifters running through the trees.
"Come on, everyone, let's grab the serum!" Hange soared back to the cases she'd stashed in the branches above. Levi, don't make me need to save you.
Connie shrieked as two titans grabbed him - one his arms, another his legs, yanking in opposite directions.
"Connie!" Historia dove for him, but a titan's hand thrust her backwards. Oh...
Her skull cracked against a tree branch, which tumbled to the ground along with her suddenly useless body. Connie...
A blurry titan leered at her.
"Ymir," she whimpered, gripping her sword. She wouldn't give up, not even now, until the end. But I'm the queen...
An enormous leg sent the titan flying away from her.
"Mikasa!" Historia shrieked. "You came!"
"Get off the ground!" Mikasa swooped down and grabbed Historia. "How bad are you?"
"You're not, and lying doesn't help us. Stay in the trees or I'll - I'll eat you myself!" Mikasa tossed Historia into the branches - albeit gentler than the titan had - and dove down to administer serum to a headless titan.
"Connie!" Historia made for Mikasa and tugged at the serum bag. "They had him!"
Mikasa's heart skipped. No.
"Careful or you'll drop it!" She shoved a syringe at Historia. "Find him."
She couldn't - not, not another friend - he had to be alive. And this she couldn't see.
Where is he; where is he? Historia zigzagged through a maze of titans to where she'd last seen Connie. "Connie!"
"He's here!" called Saskia, brandishing a needle down on the ground. "They dislocated his limbs, but he should be all right. I think we can spare some serum for him."
"I just grew a bit more," Connie joked with a wince.
Historia stared at her pointless needle. "I guess I should inject others."
"No. Give it to me, and get this one to the trees so we're not trampled." Saskia grabbed the black bag and took off, leaving Historia with little choice. Which, given that she was now seeing double, safety was probably a good decision.
Steam soared towards the horizon, but Bertolt's titan was nowhere to be seen. Reiner's anxiety spiraled. What was he doing, wasting time by keeping titans from eating these soldiers while his best friend might be dying?
"Eren!" Erwin burst into Saskia's sight, and she nearly cried with relief. But now was not the time for tears.
"He's given orders not to kill the titans if possible," Mikasa hollered from Eren's shoulder. A titian leapt at him, and before Eren could even turn around to fight, she had lopped off its feet.
"We need to find Zackley. And Zeke," growled Levi, who insisted on staying by Erwin's side, and right now, Erwin saw little reason to forbid him. "Before they run."
A titan dove for him, but Annie's crystal fist sent it spinning away.
Levi looked up at the Female Titan as Saskia soared over to heal it. "I never thought I'd say this, but remind me to thank you."
Erwin couldn't help but grin at the irony - and, if he were perfectly honest, pride in Saskia's calm, battle-ready actions.
"Stop!" A young child's voice rang in Erwin's ears.
He spun around to see a Colossal reaching for the Cargo Titan and at least twenty children clinging to its back.
The Armored Titan dove in front of them, his eyes taking in his siblings and the rest of the children from the village. But where is Bertolt?
Eren's titan waved the colossals away.
"Sarah!" Saskia grabbed the titan by its face, ignoring the searing heat. "What is going on? Did Zeke turn all the villagers into titans?"
"Yes," Ingrid snapped.
"All the villagers are gone," the titan said in a low voice. "But they aren't the problem."
"Then what is?" Erwin demanded.
"Hundreds of soldiers," said a towheaded boy.
"What soldiers?" Saskia eyed him.
"They're called Marleyans, not that that means anything to you," Sarah said. "But it will, if we live."
"It means more than you know," Erwin said grimly.
Sarah’s eyes flickered. So Ymir had come clean? Could even the most corrupt change? Could Zeke?
"Sarah, get the children over to Historia Reiss - the tiny blonde girl in the forest trees. She can look after them," Saskia said. She had a feeling she knew where Erwin's plan was headed, and Sarah might need to stay away.
The titan's eyes went dull. "Of course."
"But we can help," protested Ingrid.
"Not a chance, brat," Levi snapped. Behind him, the Armored Titan grunted in agreement.
She glowered in response, but remained seated, much to Reiner's relief.
"Levi," Erwin said, staring into the thickening steam.
"Hange will lead your squad to find Zackley. You, Eren, and I are going to find Zeke Jaeger."
Saskia glared at him. "Sorry, but I'll be joining you."
Erwin hesitated, a move uncharacteristic. But this was Saskia, Levi knew.
"It may not be best."
"I say it will. I know him better than any of you." Saskia stared hard into his eyes. "Don't try to protect me."
"Then it is your choice," Erwin said quietly. He wanted to protect her - she shouldn't have to see Levi slaughter her former husband - but he wouldn't stop her if she felt compelled to.
The Armored Titan tapped its foot.
"I think Reiner might join us, too."
"That's what I hoped."
“Not that we’ve ever been able to stop him, anyways,” muttered Levi.
"Marley again?" Ymir emerged from a steaming titan corpse to take up position besides Historia, who was comforting a child who'd just emerged from a titan's body.
"You're not stopping Zackley?"
Ymir watched the battlefield, watched the mule titan slip away in the chaos. "I don’t have the heart to end it. I could, and maybe I should. But I don’t want to. If that makes sense."
"You started it. I understand," Historia said.
"Besides." Ymir indicated the many panicked titan rescues, whether Marleyan soldiers or Eldian victims. "I think I may be of some use helping them."
Historia bit back a smile, and from a few feet away, Connie dissolved into laughter. "You are a bleeding heart after all, Ymir!"
"Are we crazy?" Flocke squinted through the smoggy battlefield. "I don't see anyone other titans, besides the colossals... Hitch?"
Hitch took a step away from him, into the vapor.
"Look!" She turned to hiss at him, and just then, a broken hand grappled for her.
"Look out!" Keith Shadis knocked her out of its path.
He screamed as the horned titan dug its claws straight through his heart.
And then the scream stopped, and Hitch would have given anything to hear it continue.
"Commander!" Rico jumped in front of the 104th graduates. She wasn't surprised that the horned titan would be found among flat land unfit for 3DMG, but she was surprised how terrifying she found it.
And how far removed they were from Squad-Levi-Led-By-Hange.
Reiner had no plans to fight Zeke. He would, however, find Bertolt - or what remained of him - if this was the last thing he did.
The Female Titan sped beyond him.
But Annie was faster then Reiner, and she too had no plans to let Bertolt die.
Mikasa was not pleased to be separated from Eren. The last time she had, she'd nearly died. Suppose one of them did die this time?
"Armin?" She blinked at a shadowy figure emerging from a titan.
"I'm more use planning, and I can't do that in titan form," Armin wheezed with exhaustion. "He's got Shadis, to the left! Your flare -"
"Got it." Mikasa fired a black flare and grabbed Armin. "Is anyone else near?"
"Unfortunately, yes." Hange materialized besides her. "Looked like Hitch and Flocke and Rico are all in his sights."
"Fuck." Jean caught his breath.
"Armin, ideas?" Hange barked.
Armin paused. "Um..."
"Now, Armin!" Sasha cried.
"He'll expect Mikasa to kill him, so we need to use her to distract him." Armin paused.
"Great. We'll distract, while Jean kills him."
"Me?" Jean swallowed. I have to.
"You. Mikasa will pretend to sneak up behind him from one side, and you take the other," Armin said.
"Two sneak attacks. I like it," murmured Hange.
Erwin couldn't believe what he was seeing. A colossal-sized army of regular titans devouring the kneeling Colossal, and an Ape Titan laughing at the Colossal army Eren brought with them.
The Armored Titan roared. Bertl, we're here!
But no - A titan latched on to Reiner's leg. Fuck!
Levi's blades sent the titan’s head flying. "Go get your friend."
"You're here at last," snarled the horned titan.
"You talk a lot for someone whose mighty form resembles a goat," Sasha called.
Hitch giggled, giddy with terror. She'd been fine ’til now - but now they were too close to freedom.
Rico glanced at Hange, who slyly nodded back. When Darius struck out at her again, she simply flew back instead of launching another counterattack.
"Ooh, planning something, weakling?" Darius taunted Armin as Mikasa whirred towards his neck.
"How are you, Eren?" sneered Zeke.
Eren's titan stopped. The Ape Titan's broken rage seemed almost ... childlike, and eerily familiar.
Do you have any idea what you've done?
They weren't people! They were animals who just happened to look human!
Except now his brother, his brother looked like an animal, but he was human, and Eren still didn't know how.
The Horned Titan spun around and for a moment, Armin thought Darius really had bit off Mikasa's leg. But she was safe, albeit barely, and he could breath again.
And as she spun for his eyes, Jean was next to his neck.
Bertl, please be alive. Reienr shoved titans out of his way, ignoring their attempts to devour his hard skin, ignoring the chance that he could crush them. All that mattered was Bertolt.
Annie howled to draw more titans towards her, but many remained distracted by the colossal in front of them.
Reiner grappled with Bertolt's head, which had nearly been chewed off. His neck - two more titans were shredding it. Please be intact.
And then he was screaming.
I can't kill - you have to - this is awful - you have to!
Marco, help me.
"Zeke, stop, please. You can make it out of this - if you just listen," begged Saskia.
"You hate me!" the titan screamed.
"I hate what you did!" she screamed back. "And maybe you; I don't know! But I know I don't want you to die!"
"Everyone has lied from the start! Why would I want to live? Ha, ha, ha!" The titan doubled over. "Don't you dare tell me you're not waiting for me to die so you can move on with him!"
Erwin ground his teeth.
"I'm sorry," Saskia admitted. Not sorry enough to take it back, but sorry he'd been hurt.
The titan howled in laughter.
"Zeke!" Eren Jaeger emerged from his titan. "You're my brother. You tried to save me once, remember? At Shiganshina."
"I needed your coordinate," the titan replied, baring his teeth.
"Zeke, you're human. So am I. Let's face each other in human form." Eren fought tears.
"You, the favored son of Grisha Jaeger, think you can appeal to my humanity? Ha!" Zeke swept out a hand - and felt a familiar sensation on his neck.
No - he'd lost sight of Levi again –
With a scream, Jean plunged his blades into the Horned Titan's neck as deep as he ever had.
And the titan screamed back, screamed enough that the remaining Colossals swarmed for it, and Eren wasn't there to stop them.
"Get away!" Mikasa snatched Jean off Darius' neck and pulled him back to safety.
Armin watched the horrible, 50 foot colossals feeding on a dead titan. "Is it...is it over?"
But he wasn't going down this time. Zeke spun around and kicked Levi square in the jaw.
"Bastard!" Levi's eyes burned with the blood of a hundred thousand. Of Mike, of Nanaba and Petra and Gunther and Oluo and Eld. Of Carla Jaeger.
Eren darted forward as the two struggling men hit the earth, one still half attached to his titan’s neck. "Zeke, please, remember your humanity! I've killed people, too, I know how it is!"
Zeke's eyes focused on him. He felt so out of control, so lost. "You can't."
"Stay back!" Erwin yelled, just as Saskia shrieked.
Eren lifted his head to see the Colossal Titan's knees separate from its body, and its colossal form fell straight for the three men.
Both Eren and Levi found themselves shoved out of its path by two enormous, hairy hands -
The colossal form vanished, but not before Eren saw a deformed Ape Titan crushed beneath it.
Bertolt's bloody form, as limbless as he had been in Shiganshina, rolled away.
Saskia saw his eyes move, and that was enough for her. She rushed forward to the Ape Titan - and the equally mutilated body that had been squashed out of its neck.
"Zeke?!" She couldn't help herself. She had to shake him, to make certain.
His eyes cracked open. He looked too weak to heal at the rate his body needed.
She still cared. A little. He half-smiled, through cracked teeth that weren’t regenerating.
"Zeke. Why would you do that?" Eren was crying. "You're a good person, after all."
"No..." Zeke scoffed. He didn't even know why he had. Instinct. Suicide. A plea for redemption, redemption in any form besides the horror he had lived.
"Just a regular person, then," said Saskia, grabbing his hand. She hoped Erwin would understand; she didn't love him, but no one should die alone.
Eren grabbed Zeke's other hand as the brother he never really knew lost his struggle to breath again.
And next to Erwin's side, Saskia noticed a weeping Sarah.
“Jean?” Armin watched his friend dry heave over and over again. They were supposed to use the serum to heal the colossal now, heal people from a century ago, but Jean was beside himself.
“I can’t believe – I can’t believe I did it. With you, with everyone,” Jean gasped. With Marco. He laughed. “Do you know, if it weren’t for Marco, I wouldn’t even be here?”
“Nah, you would’ve turned decent and come back like me anyways,” Hitch said.
“I don’t know. Maybe you always had a decent person in you…I don’t think I did.”
“Or maybe you needed him to bring your decent side out.” Hitch thought of Marlowe. Would she have been different without him? Undoubtedly. Happier, maybe, but she would never surrender the pain to have known him.
Armin grinned to himself. He was going to enjoy the time for existential crises now.
"Bertolt! Bertolt!" Reiner shoved Annie aside and grabbed his limbless friend.
"Hey," croaked Bertl, only half-conscious.
He was met with Reiner's lips on his, despite the blood.
"Bertl, you're alive." Reiner choked back a sob, leaning his head on Bertolt's chest.
"I didn't expect to be."
"You had to be. I needed you." Reiner wiped the blood from Bertl's face. "You're my best friend, and I love you."
Bertolt gasped. He still felt weak and helpless, a silly fucking torso, but ... Reiner loved him. "What do you mean by love?"
"Like I kissed you right now." Reiner looked at the ground. "And I never told you, and I should have; I really should have."
"You're telling me now, right?" Bertolt's heart pounded. "Don't stop."
"Stop loving you? Supporting you? Never. If you'll - you'll have a dual personality who forgets who he is."
"Forever." Bertolt had always wanted to tell someone that. And now he got to tell the best person of all.
"Armin? What is it?" Mikasa hoped he wasn't afraid of heights. Armin really had no room for error 50 feet up. They'd have to get off the titan before it collapsed to yield the human within, but he was frozen now. He hadn’t even injected yet.
"Look." Armin's mouth was open, and he pointed over the trees and hills.
There, in the very horizon, something blue sparkled, something very unlike the land she knew.
"The ocean." In that moment, Mikasa felt certain the ocean had always been her calling, too.
"So you're...you're like my stepmother?" Eren wasn’t sure how to take Sarah’s expression.
"Almost." Sarah hung her head. "There's a lot you don't know. But now...you're my the only piece to my family left."
"Then - then my girlfriend would love you. She was almost like family, too - she lived with us for a year before Shiganshina fell..." Eren paused. "Uh, it's not as strange as it sounds."
"I can tell you about Grisha," offered Sarah, desperate for any child to love her now. She had just lost him, and he needed to be lost - but by God, it hurt.
She’d ruined her son, she and Grisha had, long before he’d become the Beast Titan. Did she deserve any warmth.
Eren smiled at her with his warm, guileless eyes. His mothers? "I'd like that."
“Wait.” He paused. “Saskia…if you’re like my sister…”
“I don’t think I am, anymore,” Saskia said, swallowing hard.
“You’re still a daughter-in-law to me,” Sarah whispered. She’d lost everything today. Why not fight to keep the rest?
“Mom…and Dad…” Vera bit her lip.
“We haven’t found them yet,” Reiner said. His voice cracked. Some of the titans he’d killed to save Bertolt – some of them might have been his parents.
“We can’t give up!” insisted Ingrid.
“We have to be realistic,” Armand responded.
Reiner sniffed. His siblings shuldn’t be orphans. It was all his fault –
“Reiner.” Bertolt struggled to put a half-formed arm around his friend – his lover. “Perhaps…we should take them. With us.”
Reiner’s mouth opened. “Well…we might still be damned…”
“Pah!” Ymir loped into the conversation. “Historia will pardon all of you.”
“We don’t deserve it,” Bertolt said.
But still…he dared to hope.
Gretchen, you're gone too - I'm sorry.
He wanted to live, he realized. For her. For Marcel. For everyone he’d killed. He just wasn’t sure he should.
“Yes, you do.” Ymir rolled her eyes. “You’re human.”
“Speaking of parents…” Bertolt nodded at Annie, who was busy crying into Saskia’s shirt. Their father, like Reiner’s parents, would never come back.
And how many had he taken?
If he had the chance to make sure Reiner’s siblings grew up with two guardians, he had better take it. And maybe, somehow they could learn why others would forgive them.
The ocean...Zeke...a stepmother...The titans were over...
And the ocean was blue and real, and dreams were reality, dreams were real, real, real.
Eren slumped to his knees, crying into Armin’s legs.
"Eren!" Mikasa ran over to him. "Are you okay?"
"I – I – I think he's just overwhelmed," Armin offered, to which Eren nodded. “I just showed him the ocean!”
“It’s beautiful outside the walls!” Eren wailed.
Eren looked up to see Levi glowering down at him.
"Hi Captain," he said weakly, wiping away his tears.
Levi scuffed his boots against the dewy grass that sparked in the sunlight. "You did good, brat."
"T - thank you," stammered Eren.
"That doesn't mean I'll forge the rumors I've heard." Levi was far more comfortable now that he held Eren up by his hair. "You might have saved humanity, but if you hurt my cousin, I'll slice you up like the titan you can be."
Eren's face was bright pink. "It wasn't like - I won't, I promise!"
Levi dropped Eren and jabbed a finger in his face. "You treasure her, hear me?"
"Aw, does Levi have a soft spot," Hange teased from behind him.
Eren breathed a sigh of relief as Hange interrupted Levi's sneer with her own kiss.
"Aw yeah, Cap's getting luckyyyyyy," teased Hitch.
"Ignore them," muttered Hange, digging her mouth into his. And he would never not listen to her again.
“Does it feel real?” Saskia traced the rings on the stump of a fallen tree. They were back in Wall Rose, spending the night in Trost before searching for more titans tomorrow.
This stump…this tree…it’d been there longer than the walls. Before this hell.
There was a life before hell, and in a strange sense, that assured her of life afterwards. Even as they retreated one last time to Wall Rose, past Maria That Was, where they could heal the former titans, where they could tell Pixis and Nile the outcome. Their retreat this time was a retreat in triumph.
“No. I don’t think it ever will.” Erwin sat beside her. How could he say he fully expected to fight titans and lose his friends before his eyes, over and over again, every night he slept?
“We’ll never be the same. It sucks. But in some ways that’s also good.”
They were supposed to be searching for any more titans, but everyone knew they were rejoicing in one night free outside the walls, one night safe.
“What are you feeling?”
Saskia glanced at him. “You’re bold.” She dropped her head. “The truth is, a myriad of emotions. Relief. Ecstasy. Sorrow. Misery. Shame. Hope. And mostly like the memory of him – of him screaming at the end – and the knowledge that maybe he finally, finally understood what it means to be human – that’s something I can’t ever forget. I’d be afraid to forget it, frankly. Does that bother you?”
“No.” Erwin took her hand. “You can talk to me about anything you feel or think, Saskia.”
With Zeke, she could only mention thoughts, and then only some. With him, with Erwin, there was freedom. Saskia nodded. “And I offer the same to you.”
But feelings were so complicated. Right now she was craving his love and comfort, yet haunted by guilt.
Saskia shivered, and Erwin drew her closer. He didn’t need to say anything. But she did.
“Remember your suggestion last night? Or, perhaps it was mine…”
Erwin glanced around the secluded woods. “Are you sure? You’re free to do whatever you like, or to not do it.”
“I’m sure.” She dug her lips into his and playfully pushed him to the earth.
Erwin chuckled. “Suppose someone sees?”
“Mmm, they already think I’m a slut anyway.”
His eyes widened as he leapt to his feet. “Saskia, no. Don’t ever call yourself that again. Please. You’re not.”
“You’re too kind.” She embraced him. Maybe he was right. It would take time to heal enough to tell.
Under the cover of twilight, they crept back to his apartment.
“I feel like a trainee stealing pudding again,” Erwin said with a grin as the door closed behind them.
“Oh, did you?”
“It was Mike’s idea. But Nile and I were more than willing to help. As I recall, I was the most successful.”
He was still uncomfortable talking about even small accomplishments like that. Would they ever heal?
Maybe. Maybe not. But they could help each other.
“That sounds amusing.” Saskia wrapped her arms around his waist and lowered him onto his bed.
His heart pounded. “I haven’t…I haven’t done this in a long while.”
“We’ll go slow,” Saskia suggested, smiling down at him, tracing his chest. “If you still want…?”
He nodded. “I do.”
She moved his hand to her shirt and heat exploded inside him. “How’s this?”
She helped him unfasten her buttons and toss the fabric to the side. His fingers caressed her pearl breasts, down her navel, to her skirt.
She giggled as they fumbled for the clasp around the garment. “Finally.”
She was so beautiful naked he nearly gasped. His eyes roamed over her, taking in the swell of her breasts and large thighs, the parts he was honored to see.
Saskia blushed, and desire burned within him. He liked this blushing, emotional woman.
“Okay, commander.” She lay down upon him, a teasing smile on her lips. “Now it’s your turn.”
Erwin trembled. For someone who had just commanded a battle, he felt oddly terrified. Suppose she thought him grotesque?
“You’re beautiful,” she breathed, running a finger along his eyebrows, her other hand on his hips. “I love you.”
“And I love you.”
She looked at him, deep into his eyes, and all she wanted was Erwin Smith – body, mind, and soul.
He sat up, Saskia wrapped around him, and helped her remove his shirt. Her eyes glowed at the sight of his bare chest, and she smiled into his eyes.
He grinned and rolled over, pinning her beneath him.
Saskia squeaked. “Oh, I see, Commander.” With a smirk, she bewitched him with a kiss before rolling him back over. “Ooh!”
They had nearly fallen off the bed.
Erwin chuckled. Finally, he felt ready. He guided her hands to remove his pants.
Their kisses intensified more and more; their hands roamed free, exploring each other.
As their bodies merged throughout the night and he craned his neck to press his lips against hers, she knew he felt the same way about her. Freedom, for her, wasn’t an absence of walls; it was Erwin.
Erwin panted as Saskia wiped sweat from his brow. “Saskia…”
She wrapped her arms tight around him, happiness and hormones racing through her body.
“Are you tired?” He watched her eyes flicker closed.
“Yes. And very content.”
“So am I. I just … you should know that sometimes … I have nightmares.” Erwin stared ahead.
“You should, for what you’ve been though. All of us should.” Saskia’s eyes misted over. “But we’ll wake up safe and I’ll be here for you, and you for me, and you can wake me anytime.”
“I know.” Erwin laid his head upon her breast and closed his eyes, for once unafraid of sleep.
Two Years After the Reclamation
“Sometimes I still can’t believe this,” Erwin said, marveling at the three infants Saskia was somehow managing on their bed.
She smiled up at him. “I know; they’re actually sleeping. All at one.”
“I was thinking more that…they’re beautiful.” Erwin slipped Sophia out of his wife’s arms and settled next to her.
Noah, named after Erwin’s father, had quickly been dubbed the “Eren” of the triplets. He stirred but didn’t cry for once, to Erwin’s relief.
Erwin didn’t even have to worry about his brother, Mike, the one who could sleep through any tantrums his brother or sister had.
“Levi and Hange are visiting today. Before we head back to Mitras.”
“I wonder how they’ll cope with Mitras.” Erwin nodded at the triplets.
“Probably about as well as Levi’s coping with his impending parenthood.”
Erwin chuckled and leaned over to kiss her.
A few hours and a mandatory cup of tea later, the four friends – and three children – were in a modest carriage on their way to their final stop before Mitras.
Saskia looked outside and smiled with anticipation at the storm clouds swirling ahead. The babies might hate thunder, but she relished the excitement.
Not that they’d had much a chance to rest from excitement. The Marleyan government had returned all Eldian prisoners in exchange for the elimination of all titans in Walls Rose and Sina – though they didn’t realize elimination meant healing, and Erwin had made no effort to inform them.
Still, further negotiations with the Marleyans carried enough tension to smother a person, especially with Queen Ymir’s widely circulated identity.
But at least there were negotiations. Slow, sure, and imperfect, but the world was so vast. How could Saskia not feel hope?
“Please don’t upchuck,” Levi said nervously, gripping her hand.
Erwin laughed. “Helpful, Levi.”
“I think he’s more nervous than I,” Hange said with a weak grin.
Hange leapt out as soon as they’d reached their destination, gulping in the salty breeze. Levi was right behind her.
Saskia rolled her eyes at Erwin, who helped carry Mike and Noah out.
“Oh my Walls they’re here!” Sasha dove at them like an excited puppy. “Connie, look! Can I hold one?”
“Please don’t get any ideas,” Connie said quickly, heat rising to his face.
Sasha giggled. “Jean, come see.”
“I’m fine over here,” said Jean.
Erwin approached him. “Thank you.”
“Yeah, I haven’t ruined the Survey Corps yet since you took leave.” Jean shrugged. “Well, now we’re actually surveying, so the danger’s practically unreal.”
“Give yourself credit,” Erwin said seriously. “You’re a natural leader.”
“It’s hard,” Jean admitted.
“I know.” Erwin dared to show the pain of his decisions for one split second, deep in his eyes.
“Look.” Hitch, now Nile’s second in command, laughed and held out Noah. “Isn’t it cute?”
“Babies,” he said simply. “So?”
“Jean, you’re still pretending to be a bastard!” Hitch stomped on his toes.
“These are our Military Officers,” Erwin mumbled.
Saskia smirked as she reached for a crying Noah. “Remind me who the children are?”
“We deserve it,” Hitch tossed back.
“Shall we?” Saskia nodded to the ocean ahead.
Waves rumbled along with the distant thunder. Reiner and Bertolt smiled at them just as Queen Ymir’s recognizable voice bellowed across the beach.
“All rise for Queen Historia Reiss!”
Everyone rose, smiling as their kindhearted queen made her way through the crowd. The Doks with their new son – named after Erwin, which terrified him – ommander-in-Chief Dot Pixis and Garrison Commander Rico Brzenska; Squad Levi, Flocke and the entire Survey Corps; all of Historia and Ymir’s orphans; Margot Sturm and even Flegel Reeves.
“Today we come to honor the birth of Carla Jaeger,” Historia began solemnly. “In traditions from the East Sea Clan.”
She held out her arms, and Mikasa and Eren held out their newborn. Behind them, Sarah’s face shone bright as stars.
Historia took the tiny girl and saw herself reflected in her innocent eyes. Armin and Annie had provided the seawater, real seawater, to dip Carla in.
To Historia’s relief, Carla only let out a slight mew at the water.
Historia rose and uttered the strange language of the Sea Clan. “As strong as the sea.”
“As strong as the sea,” the guests repeated back.
Mikasa smiled at her and reached back for her daughter.
"So? How is are you really doing?" Mikasa settled next to Saskia after the ceremony.
Saskia looked into her friend's eyes and let her mask slip. "The children help."
"It's going to take all our lives, isn't it?"
"Let me guess. He wakes up screaming about killing them all," Annie said tiredly. Like she woke screaming for Dad. He always vanished before she embraced him back. Those were the nights Armin awoke to Annie practically smothering him with cuddles.
"And then he hides from Carla." Mikasa sighed.
"May I hold her?" Armin's eyes sparkled as she handed Carla o him.
"Don't get too many ideas," Annie muttered, watching Armin bounce he baby on his lap.
"Excuse me?" Saskia eyed Armin.
"I'm just saying she's cute is all!" he said with a blush.
"We're all scarred, aren't we?" Saskia smiled sadly, watching a laughing. Eren and Jean approach them. At least, if nothing else, war had made enemies friends.
"Hey, Saskia, are you all babied-out, or do you want to hold Carla?" Eren smirked. "Since I mean she's like your niece in law. Sort of."
"That's still wierd for both of us," Saskia retorted, grabbing Carla.
"Not for me," Mikasa said. Eren. Carla. Saskia and Erwin. Armin and Annie. Levi and Hange. And all the 104th, really. She had so much family she could hardly contain herself.
Jean squeezed Hitch's hand. Sometimes he pretended to be Marlowe for Hitch and sometimes she was Marco for him, but last night they had been each other, and those nights were the best.
At the water’s edge, Reiner and Bertolt were taunting Levi while Erwin tried to keep Hange from turning the triplets into a science experiment.
"But Levi won't let us do anything with whatever brat we have," Hange complained.
He caught Saskia's eyes sparkling at him. All the nights he'd woken up screaming or crying like their children, and she was always there for him. And he was there when she fought him off after mistaking him for Zeke.
He still wasn't quite sure how they would manage three children, or how they would continue adjusting back to civilian life whenever the negotiations with Marley concluded.
But he knew she would be there. She'd given him something to look forward to fro moment he'd accomplished his dream and everything he knew died.
"This world is so cruel," Mikasa whispered in Saskia's ear. "But even more beautiful, don't you think?"
Saskia smiled back at Erwin. "Yes."
o.o So here we are, at the end! Thank you so much for reading (and reviewing). It means a lot to me. I'm considering writing a short sequel about how Saskia and Erwin handle the Marleyan negotiations, Eren's unfolding relationship with Mikasa, his semi-stepmother, and peace, etc. But we'll see. Either way, you're awesome. Have a lovely day!