Chapter Ten: Change
Eren barely noticed time flow by. He wouldn't have, hadn't Armin announce it.
Three months of nothing but blurs.
"Eren, look." she quietly says, tilting her head at the trail on the snow, indents in the white blanket "Footprints. Could be an elk."
Her hair is longer now, braided, hanging from her shoulder. It's dark like charcoal, missing its onyx gleam, and her scarf is tight around her neck, faded and dirty, yet she insists on wearing it. She's thinner too, with a more slender frame and protruding cheekbones, and he's not sure how to name this feeling as he looks at her and realizes Mikasa doesn't seem half as invincible as she used to be.
"Or a bear." He finally retorts.
They fall silent, as they constantly seem to.
Sometimes he dreams.
Relives the carnage, sees charred flesh and bone. Feels the fire, tastes the ash, inhales the smoke. Hears the roars and the screams - he's so weak, he thinks, otherwise the nightmares wouldn't haunt him after such a long time. He won't tell anyone, he doesn't want to be a burden, not to Armin, who's frail and has too much on his mind, and definitely not to Mikasa… that coward and traitorous bitch.
Ice bites at his skin, and the mountain wind whistles and whips at the pine trees, at the snow and at his messy hair making it stick to his stubble. He tries not to shake or clatter his teeth as he slowly pads through the snow, longbow in his hands with an arrow nocked. His breath makes a pattern as he exhales.
"It could be dinner." she says, watching as he grimaces "Beggars can't be choosers." she points out matter-of-factly.
He looks around through the maze of trees, bushes and snow, and scrunches his nose before grunting and following the fresh trace, hearing Mikasa tread behind him.
"I don't think you fully understand what a bear is."
Mikasa sighs, "I've killed trolls, Eren."
"I just think it's not worth the risk."
"You'd rather starve?"
"I'd rather keep my teeth. Bear steaks must be as soft as a rock slab."
She tilts her head and arches her eyebrows once, mumbling some clever remark about arguable meat quality that he really doesn't care about. The trace leads them deeper into the forest. Mikasa cuts marks into tree trunks in order for them to not get lost, providing a way out. It ends shortly after, in an opening in the flora, pine trees stretching high into the sky, rocks and bushes sprouting out of the snow.
There's a black draft horse with its reins tethered to a tree. Here, maybe ten meters away from them.
It snorts and grunts upon their arrival.
"The hell…?" Eren breathes out.
Mikasa doesn't answer, eying the animal doubtfully. Its owner can't be that far away.
She unsheathes both her blades, "Look alive." she warns.
Eren frowns deeply and flares his nostrils, swallowing his irritation on the fact that Mikasa had just given him an order. He readies the arrow completely, the string tensing and the bow creaking in his fingers. His heart is pounding in his ears, his lungs sting, he hadn't realized he had started holding his breath.
Mikasa's eyes dart around her, every tree a monster to her. She gets closer to the horse.
"What-what are you doing?!" Eren whispers alarmingly "Get back here! Mikasa!"
She ignores him. She thinks she needs to check the horse.
Veins pulse along Eren's temples, his muscles cringe and shudder. He is furious – what does she think she's doing, the over-confident idiot?! Doesn't she know they ought to stick together, that they need to protect each other? Some genius she is, and he grinds his molars as he snarls in his mind, thinking how frantic she would turn if the situations were flipped.
And Armin wants him to forgive her. How can he, when all Mikasa seems to be is a mindless watchdog?
But when you're drunk on rage you forget pain is the hangover.
Mikasa twists her head when she hears an indelicate brush on the foliage.
She gasps when the arrow pierces her chest.
"Stand up." Reiner Braun calmly orders, the tip of his sword just grazing Armin's neck. It's shaking with tension, his throat bobbing against the blade's cold silver. The frail blond wheezes when the warrior's foot presses against his torso, a warning, before he steps away, his eyes trained on Armin's gleaming blue orbs.
"Let go of that." he says, pointing with his head at the dagger still in Armin's hands.
He immediately obeys.
"No funny business, will you?" he adds good-naturedly.
Armin nods and does as he's told, shuddering and trembling, the cold harsh against his papery skin and frozen lungs, his torn and dirty cloak dancing to the wind, doing nothing to protect him from the gelid weather.
And he's so hungry and thirsty, so weak. It all almost grants him the courage to lie back down.
But he doesn't, adopting a submissive demeanor, hands up, palms facing the kingslayer, back hunched as he shivered in the wind and struggled to breathe.
"Good boy." Reiner smirks, his sword aimed lower, his stance lazier, "Now tell me lad, who are you and what are you doing all the way up here…?"
Armin shivers brutally as his bones threaten to crack, and his heart raged against his ribs as he realized he was a few sentences away from dying, and the tall warrior looked down at him with all the calm in the world, a spark in his eyes of the certainty that he held the small blonde's future at the tip of his fingers.
"Hmm, I- w-well…" he stammered. He was so afraid.
And so cold and hungry. So tired.
Reiner tilts his head silently.
"… my name's Armin Arlert… I'm a pilgrim."
"Hmm?" he arches an eyebrow "A pilgrim, eh?" he scoffs "You look a little lost, pilgrim… there's literally nothing here but snow and wolves." he answers, smirking as he looks down at him, "Also, are you that in love with Lord-Baron Keith Shadis' uniform that you'd take it to your pilgrimage?"
Armin blinks snowflakes away from his eyelashes as he swallows dryly and feels his cheeks burn up.
"You… Shadis trained you…?"
"Of course. There aren't any other training camps in Sina, if you recall."
"What about a lord's castle? They offer military training."
"They train knights." he says "Not soldiers."
"…right. Sorry, my brain's not... it hasn't been very functional, lately."
"It's okay. I would be pissing my pants too if I were you, pilgrim." he snickers, "Did you even try?"
Armin frowns. Never has his wit been made fun of. It makes him feel surprisingly perplexed, considering the situation he's in, though he obviously hides it.
"'Cause what it looks like to me, is that someone ran off, tail between his legs… then 'sadly' got lost in the mountains… am I right, you miserable rat?"
Armin frowns as he tries to steady his shaking jaw.
He knows what he is, and he knows why he did what he did, he thinks as he licks his chapped lips and inhales sharply, ignoring the ice shards on his lungs. He knows the risks they took and the fate they sealed, he knows they traded honor for freedom, and he was about to just throw it all away because of some cheap lie he vomited at a wanted criminal.
He thinks Armin's an idiot, and a weak coward.
Armin bites his tongue at the realization that he can prove him wrong.
"What does that make of you…?" he boldly asks, "Ser Reiner Braun… murderer, deserter, kingslayer."
A furious expression crosses Reiner's face. He steps closer and digs his fingers unto Armin's slim neck. Armin grips at his arm but doesn't do much else, watching as the spark fades from Reiner's eyes, as they grow dark and bloodshot the more he presses his neck, squeezing and bruising it as easily as one tears a rotten leaf.
"Do you want to die sooner, rather than later, worm?" he growls "If you know me so well, do you really think it's wise to piss me off?!"
"For a heartless killer, you sure do not like to be reminded of your crimes…" Armin wheezes as he chuckles "The rumors do you no justice."
For a second, his grip isn't so vice-like, and Armin can breathe in.
"Drop the smart act, punk." Reiner seethes.
"Why? I thought you'd enjoy the joke?" Armin gently asks "I'm trying to be sympathetic, I thought you'd like that… I like to think people do things for a reason, and I really want to know what was yours!"
"Stop talking, you fucking rat!"
He squeezes hard again, Armin feels like his throat is going to explode.
"I-I knew Annie!" he gasps, fingers digging into Reiner's vambrace "God, I knew her! I don't think she'd kill the king!"
"What?" his ringing ears faintly hear before he's unceremoniously dropped onto the snow. He coughs and fights to catch his breath, gently prodding at his surely bruised neck.
"How did you know her?"
The question was dark, uttered from the depths of Reiner's deep voice, a threat, and Armin felt like a wounded deer under a grizzly's gaze.
And despite everything, Armin almost smirked.
Eren's first impulse is to dash and help her.
Whatever resentment he had for Mikasa were completely ignored the moment she got hurt, bleeding and groaning, cocooned in cold, a bleary crimson shade tinting the snow around her. But she just crouched and ran behind the now raging horse, just blatantly ignoring the arrow protruding from her chest.
So quick to think on her feet, Eren's ashamed of himself.
"Eren, duck!" Mikasa commands.
Eren lunges into the ground, the arrow swiveling through where his head used to be.
A cuss is grunted into the wind. Leaves brush violently against each other.
The horse is squealing, panicking as it stands on its back legs, tugging on the reins, shaking the tree, rattling its leaves
Mikasa's ears are ringing. Her chest is burning and her clothes are coated in blood.
She let go of one of her swords as soon as the arrow had hit her and barely managed to hold onto the other one.
She wants to check if Eren is okay - she really does. The urge to just turn her head and look is so immense and hard to fight back she needs to clamp her jaws shut and grip her sword even tighter, knuckles as white as the snow she just painted.
She takes cover behind a tree, a few steps away, switches the blade from her right hand to her left, then bites her lip and grabs a hold of the arrow.
Eren is yelling into the wind. She hears running.
Her flesh tears and stings, she groans and bleeds, she frowns and fights to stay alert as she loses sensation on her clenched hand. The steel is just grazing the bones of her shoulder. Her armpit tears like fabric.
Another arrow is shot.
"Fuck!" Eren curses again, sounding further away.
Panicking, she rips it out with a scream and throws it on the snow, leaving her cover and dashing towards her brother.
She sees him, now, right in front of Eren. Or her, it's difficult to tell, with that hood and scarf around their face.
They are very short, but dangerously agile, quick and clearly more skilled in melee than in ranged combat, punching Eren across the cheek after he stepped backwards twice and tried to retaliate.
Eren groans and staggers.
They are now unsheathing a short sword from their back.
"Get away from him!" Mikasa screams. Her wound is bleeding profusely, but she doesn't stop running.
They are too quick. The attacker looks at her for a brief second, sword gripped tightly in their hand, their other reaching behind them, retrieving a dagger from the small of their back.
Their eyes are of a chilly blue color, and they enrage Mikasa.
She breaks with her left foot, snarling and baring her teeth like a beast, and attempts an upwards slash, holding her blade with both hands.
It happens in a flash.
They twist and block Mikasa with both their blades, sliding steel with steel to turn and kick Eren in the stomach. He wheezes, back-stepping. They shift their grip on the weapons, crouching and adopting a stance Mikasa had never seen before, blue eyes brimming and pale as they stare back at her, like a predator watching its prey.
Then they attack again, in a flurry of steel.
But Mikasa can be pretty fast herself, standing between this dance of death and her brother, blocking every move and retaliating in kind.
She feels blood along her chest though, warm and oozy, beneath her uniform. She feels it drench her shirt and damp her skin.
There are lights in front of her eyes, sweat on her temples.
She's getting slower.
If Eren's behind her, readying arrows or just catching his breath and waiting for an opportunity, she can't tell.
She feels blood on her stomach.
She has one move left, or else she's going to pass out and die in the snow at the hands of a faceless killer.
She screams and slashes horizontally, trying to behead them. And they duck, shift their hold on the dagger, twirl and move behind her.
"MIKASA!" Eren screams so loudly, her bones quiver. He's stomping the snow, towards her, she thinks.
Grinding her molars and screeching through gritted teeth, tensing every piece of her and clinging to consciousness, Mikasa manages to duck away from the slash aimed at the nape of her neck.
Her braid is cut clean off.
She falls on one knee, buried deep into the snow. Her mind rages, her brain thrums, echoes and barges against her skull, and her chest hurts insanely, like embers crawling beneath her skin, scorching her lungs and heart, her flesh and bones.
The killer grunts, before huffing, air spat out of their mouth as they fall too, just behind Mikasa.
Eren is yelling, "I got you now," he snarls, straddling their attacker, hands balled into tight fists, "- you son of a bitch!"
Eren punches. They dodge.
"STAND STILL, YOU FUCKER!" he screams as he pulls one fist out of the snow, aiming the other at their face.
He misses again.
As he is about to punch again, the killer, in one swift move that leaves Eren enraged and confused, angered at how easily this bastard is handling him, grabs his readied fist, twisting their hips until they release themselves from Eren's weight, then rearrange themselves, holding elbows or shoulders until they are on Eren's back, masterfully holding the brunet in a tight lock and just about to pop his shoulder out of its socket.
He's cussing and grunting profanities as his tendons tear and his muscles twist – and there's not a single thing he can do about it.
And Mikasa snarls as she stands up, breathless and bloodied, blinking away hallucinations as she trembles. And, with all of her might and strength, she walks towards this killer and digs her fingers into their face and forehead, and screams as she smashes the back of their head into her knee.
There's a chilling, crunching sound. They don't scream, just fall on top of Eren, seeming dead.
The brunet shrugs them off of him, like they were a plagued corpse, then quickly stands up, massaging his shoulder and catching his breath. Mikasa doesn't move, her chest rises and falls, the back of her eyes burn, her lids are heavy, her limbs feel like a burden.
"I..." Eren breathes out, "I think she's a woman…"
Mikasa slowly and lazily turns to look at him. He notices, somewhat impatient and annoyed under her gaze.
She doesn't have the strength to roll her eyes.
"Were her tits the only thing you were thinking about when she had you in that lock?" she whispers dazedly.
"I-ah what…? No, piss off!"
Mikasa exhales and closes her eyes.
"What were you even thinking doing something that reckless?!" Eren spits "Look what she did to you."
He's angry, she knows, but he's worried too, she thinks. He must be - he's walking closer to her, inspecting her wound, muttering rude apprehensions under his breath.
And it's all kind of nice.
Mikasa blinks twice more before passing out into his arms.
In that clear skied and cold afternoon, the Fritzes, arrived at Sina's iron gates, the visage of their pretty chariots and stallions the talk in the entire city. Music played, the marketplace vibrated with activity, meat on stalls, drinks on shelves in stores, apothecaries were open and general traders made a fortune. Smoke swirled away from chimneys. Citizens yelled prices, praised the highborns or murmured opinions, numerous guards watchful in the crowded streets.
The Church wasn't present on the royal family's arrival, bells quiet, priests silent, doors closed to the public.
Had been so ever since the murders.
The Church didn't seem to like the military's heavy involvement either, Garrison in every corner and MPs sniffing about more than usual, but had still to protest.
The royal family exited their chariots in front of the castles' doors, horses stabled in the vicinity.
Robert Fritz, first of his name and heir to the throne, walked close to his wife, Lady Sybbyl, and his children – a boy with chubby cheeks and big grey eyes beneath a brown fringe, and a girl with pretty hair, a dress like her mother, a face like her brother.
Lady Melliever, the king's sister-in-law, walked with her four girls. Her husband, Merek, was nowhere in sight.
The coronation took place in the throne room, the ironically uncomfortable chair set near the farthest wall, facing the open doors to the public. Beige stone railings marked hallways on either side of the room where military officers and noblemen stood, red and yellow tapestry on the ground, leading to the throne. The floor gleamed under the sunlight pouring in through the tall elegant windows, colorful flowers on various vases, set on balconies or around the room. The columns and walls were spotless, banners of the military, the royal family's sigil and of Sina's symbol, a profile of a noblewoman, along the walls.
Commanders Pixis and Nile stood out in the crowd with their uniforms. High-Constable Zacklay was next to the throne, close to the royal family, with his aged features and analytical demeanor, the High-Constable ring gleaming in his left index finger.
Levi analyzed all of this, bearing his usual unfriendly expression, standing in the sidelines, together with Hanji, Mike and Nanaba and their teams, his own actively whispering behind him.
"The northerners are so… hairy…" Auruo grimaced.
"Lucky them." Gunther murmured "Do you have any idea how cold it is up north?"
"Bigass fucking bush they must have down there… argh, imagine the women…!"
"Shut up…" he said as he snickered "…we're in the middle of a coronation."
Erd slowly turned to look at them.
"I'm from the north."
"Oh, we've noticed."
"It's rude to stare, Auruo." Gunther said "Especially at cocks."
"I've noticed because of his accent, you moron!"
Gunther snickered again and Erd sighed and rolled his eyes.
Petra mimicked the blond scout, "I'm surrounded by idiots."
Levi drew a miniscule smirk. Hanji giggled behind a closed fist. Mike and Nanaba don't seem to have heard, avidly whispering at each other with serious faces and straight backs, and Levi betted his lunch that the new king wasn't exactly what the two were so heatedly discussing.
He discretely grimaces, 'Those nasty fucks.'
After Levi's unfortunate little intrusion on them, some time ago, in a cramped and dark barrack, Mike and Nanaba stopped trying to conceal their relationship. Levi still struggled to get that damn memory out of his mind, though.
Blinking away those thoughts, Levi glanced at Nanaba's new team.
His eyes lingered on the new, rehabilitated member, the Bodt boy, next to Kirchstein.
From here, he could only see the pink spread of the twisted scar that haunted the right side of his face.
Levi had seen it in its full glory quite a few times… quite disgusting.
But a scar didn't make him a poor soldier - three months of intensive care and precautions brought him back to good health and allowed him to excel as an exceptional scout - loyal, cautious, responsive to commands and faithful of his comrades, who all seemed to share these qualities.
Or so Nanaba pledged. Levi was still to assess to that personally.
But Nanaba wasn't one to spill compliments, so it must be true to some extent.
He looked back at the coronation.
Robert sat by the throne, Zacklay mumbling monotonously next to him, preaching a speech about His Grace's duties and requirements. By the end, he retrieved the golden crown and rested it upon Robert's head, then he kneeled, the entire room and peasants outside kneeling too, and he praised, "Hail King Robert Fritz! Hail the king, and long may he live!"
And the whole room echoed.
"Long may he live." Levi murmured.
Different king, same vows, he honestly thought this boring ceremony was unnecessary, vast was the list of important things they could be doing but instead are listening to a speech they've all heard before.
"You don't seem very encouraging, milord." Petra whispered, stepping next to him.
Probably had enough of the guys' immature jokes by the stillness in her voice and the apathy in her features, hands behind her straight back.
Levi shrugs, "It's because I'm not."
She laughed through her nose.
"You offend the crown with your negligence, Sir." she warned playfully.
He shrugged, "Not the first thing I've offended."
Levi saw Petra's smiling eyes and stifled giggles through his peripheral, auburn locks behind her small ear.
"Indeed." She agreed in an amused murmur, turning his way, big brown eyes gleaming and brimming at him, "Kings, Commanders, Lieutenants, Priests… careful Sir, one of these days they may have your tongue…"
"If so, then you have orders to bring it back and sew it into my mouth." He answered nonchalantly, eyes typically narrowed, cold and watchful on her face, his mouth a thin line before he muttered again, "I like to talk."
She chuckled again, but her amusement was interrupted when King Robert rose from the throne, palms towards his subjects, silence filling the room.
It prolonged itself for a few seconds as the King stared at the tapestry beneath his fine winter boots, beefy hands clenched into loose fists by his sides. He glanced at his wife before speaking, booming voice resounding through the stone, one fist clenching tighter in front of him, his other hand grazing it in a seemingly nervous gesture.
"Dire times brought me to the throne," he declared somberly, "Times of war and religious conflict... of murder and chaos, times that are shaping our lives, taking away brothers, cousins, uncles… parents…" his voice rumbled with an irritated growl "… trading them with monsters from fables and songs."
Levi slowly blinked, furrow discretely deepening.
"Times of war. My heart still aches knowing the man that once sat at this throne and wore this crown no longer walks this earth." He furrows at his hands for a while before looking back up "A father for a throne," He chuckled bitterly, shaking his head "Seems like a deal with the devil."
Levi worked his jaw as he glared at his King and at his focused scowl, at his very straight back and occasional shift in footing, and he judged his tone and his words and his thumb brushing the rings on his fingers.
"But I am humbled by it, and solemnly accept it, even with a heavy heart, I accept it and every oath that follows, any promise I must keep, any choice I must face, whatever destiny awaits for me, I accept it all."
'What the fuck.' Levi cursed as he stare at his king, watching his eyes avert from floor to ceiling to floor, as he spoke from memory and not from heart.
'Someone wrote him a fucking script.'
"And this war these fake martyrs have started – I will end it. And I will end it without mercy or hesitance, only justice. And its blade will strike true through man or beast until peace is at hand. No war shall plague my kingdom or haunt my people. For I am a servant of justice – I'm its eyes and its ears, and I shall be its hand when I carry it into battle."
This brothel's walls were of a singed maroon, intricate and elegant architecture and quiet and appealing demeanor attracting any noble.
There was luxury and lust inside, whispering flutes and thrumming drums filling the shadowy corridors and rooms, red and gold on the walls, tapestry, pillows and sheets, floorboards and furniture of mahogany. Men and women were lean and voluptuous, curvaceous and shameless in their exotic attires, dancers and lovers, caring and loyal until the last coin drops on their purse.
Merek liked it here, warm and naked in a sea of pillows, wine in his veins, a whore's hips in his hands.
He barely heard the swinging of the door and scrubbing of boots over his huffs and the whore's moans and random little sentences.
"My Lord Merek," a harsh, imposing voice called from behind him "I've been sent to search for you, milord."
He smiled, closing his eyes as he breathed in synch with his movements, long-dark hair sticking to his nape and temples.
"Rico, dear…" he said "… couldn't you have waited outside…? Or knocked…?" he chuckled "It's… rude to interrupt."
"It's rude to miss your brother's coronation, milord."
"Oh? Is it finally over?"
"Yes, it is." she answered irritably "You've missed the entire ceremony."
He imagined her supporting her weight in one foot, hands on her sword's pommel, cloak adorning her shoulders and head in a halo of wolf fur, and pooling around her studded boots, silver eyes set judgingly on his bare ass, chin-length, admirably light-blonde hair framing her sharp face.
Merek chuckled again, "I don't think I missed much, do you?"
Rico sighed, her patience a very thin thread now.
"Milord." she hissed "Your wife and children are looking for you." she announced through gritted teeth, "Should I tell them where you are, or are you coming back with me?"
He sighs, "Sure, sure… I'll go. Just… just give me a moment, will you?" he asked, never looking back at her, never stopping his ministrations, "I'm almost finished."
There were gasps, throaty breaths and moans, bodies moving in an intimate dance, thrusts, love bites and scratches, and then it was over as he promised.
He stood, sharing some jokes with the girl while searching for his pants.
Unaffected by Rico's presence, he put them on once he found them, turning back to her, "You stood there the whole time? How embarrassing."
"Not the first time. Certainly not the last."
"You know, you can join..." he teased, smirking and chuckling throatily, northern accent coating his consonants, his grey eyes set on her as he dressed.
"Not interested, milord."
He chortled loudly, skimming his fingers through his hair, his braids by his temples a tad bit unkempt.
"Sure you are," he countered bashfully, hands on his hips, "You just don't want to hear whispers like 'Lord Merek is bedding his Lieutenant!'"
When he turned to retrieve his shirt from beneath a couple pillows, the whore sitting by a mirror in her maroon attire, fixing her hair, Rico rolled her eyes.
The next minutes were spent in silence as the prince dressed himself in his fine boots, robe, cloak and gloves. After he had paid and bid the whore farewell, they left the establishment, heading in silence towards the stables.
Once on their saddles, Rico spoke disapprovingly, furrowing at him, "Was this really necessary, milord?"
"Hmm?" he murmured distractedly, turning to her while handling the reins, "What do you mean, lass?"
She bit back another sigh, despite their odd relationship, she still knew he was Lord Merek Fritz, third of his name, and she was Rico Brzenska, Garrison Lieutenant in Maria. He was a wolf, whereas she truly was just a dog.
"Ditching the coronation was… unpleasant, milord."
Merek scoffed, tugging at the reins and leading his horse through the cobble stoned road, Rico following behind him, "What's 'unpleasant' is repeating vows and praises over and over again while the Realm's falling apart."
"Still, milord," she tempted "You should have attended. The King's your brother."
He clicked his tongue, "I don't need to attend anything precisely because he's my brother. Plus you know Robert, and you know me… and you know how I can handle him."
She grimaced, "What are you going to do, milord?"
He smiled, "I've told you of my intentions once, dear, don't tell me you weren't paying attention." he teased with a smirk, glancing at her.
"I was." she answered calmly "I meant how you're going to start."
He hummed, looking at the road ahead, "Well, now that the ceremony's over, the meeting should be next. There will be Robert, the High-Constable and the Commanders. Lieutenant Levi of the Scouting Legion, will probably be there too… to represent Erwin Smith, since the man's arrested…" he furrowed curiously, tilting his head "… the Commander's sentence will probably be declared too, so he'll be there."
"And can you really attend this meeting?" Rico asked with a furrow of her own.
Merek scoffed again, "Well, of course, lass. I told you already - I'm the King's brother."
"You didn't know Annie. You just happened to meet her in a tavern and traded a few words with her."
"Yes… true." Armin consents, eying him carefully "But for the short while that we spoke she offered a lot of good advice, and quite frankly - and I know that it's… naïve of me, to say the least - I hoped that we could meet again in the future."
Reiner barks with laughter.
"You fancied her, did you?"
"No! I just enjoyed talking to her!"
And Reiner laughs some more. Armin was a little disconcerted that the blond would think that way when there really was no reason for it - he barely knew the girl, didn't even know her name, and a few weeks later she turned out to be a wanted murderer, or so it seemed, Armin's not completely sure.
It was also curious that Reiner was now laughing when just a few minutes ago he was threatening to choke him.
But Armin didn't care, Reiner didn't seem so eager to kill him, right now, and that's all he needed.
Armin should probably start thinking about finding a weapon. His dagger would be enough, he doubts Reiner would be much of a challenge with a blade pressed to his neck, and Armin's smart and patient enough to find an opening.
"Right. And I'm the Virgin Mary." Reiner says, all smug and friendly and with that sword still in his hand, and just what the hell is up with this guy's personality, "You know, it takes guts to talk to Annie, so congratulations on that man, but it takes more to sweep her off her feet… do you think you can do that…?"
"I told you, it's not like that!" he mutters. Reiner chuckles.
Armin is a little irritated, staring at his boots as he hugs himself, pulling the cloak tight around his slim frame to try to fight off the cold.
"What happened to you, deserter?" Reiner asks, smirk on his face, "What are you doing all the way up here?"
Armin warily looks up at him, arms tightening around his body as he shivers. Reiner is relaxed and confident, looking challengingly down at him, his head slightly tilted. He's giving him a chance, Armin concludes, because he's interested.
And that's good.
Armin sighs, "Me and my squad were one month away from graduation. One morning, a Squad Leader from the Scouting Legion visits us and enrolls us on a Scouting mission, to sabotage the Savage army, approaching Sina." he slowly explains.
And he tells him everything - the mission, the creatures, the dragon and their escape – and first Reiner just makes a disgruntled grimace, appalled and speechless when Armin mentions goblins and trolls, until he eventually howls with laughter, and Armin rolls his eyes and sighs as he battles shivering.
He insults him. Calls him mad and sick, tells him how much of a favor he would be doing him if he were to just kill him. Then he smugly calls him a cowardly cunt, points out he's ridiculously weak-willed and nothing but a deserter, that he deserved to die, this he threatened as he stepped closer and gripped his sword tighter.
But Armin stood his ground and said, "Well, what about you?"
Reiner exhales, annoyed, towering in front of him.
"This again?" he mutters "Are you really going to compare yourself to me, you stupid piss-stain lunatic?"
Armin tilts his head as he arches his eyebrows, "Different occasions, same motives."
"No." he snarls, crushing snow and ice as he took one step further, forcing Armin take one back "No – not by a long shot."
Armin's palms are facing him again, and he's forced to take another step backwards the more the blond warrior marched. There's anger and determination in his eyes, and his eyebrows are digging into his forehead, shadowing his dusty golden orbs. His face is stern and tense, and Armin drops his shoulders as his eyes turn bleary.
But he isn't afraid yet.
His knife is just two steps behind him.
"Listen, Reiner, I'm famished and dehydrated, but I'm not insane… if I were to fabricate a lie, I'd put a little more effort into it." Armin adds quickly, swallowing dryly when Reiner stops and straightens his back, "It's ridiculous, but it's the truth. Monsters exist, and they are the Savages' pets. And It all adds up - so much of this world that we don't know, lands not explored, not mapped, all possibly because these uncharted lands are actually territory to mythological creatures! Also, note that said uncharted territory is home to the Savages!" he exclaims "And then there's the Inquisition blatantly refusing the investigation on topics such as the myths, persecuting those who do, locking them, interrogating and torturing them… censoring books and forcing Christianity on men..."
Reiner huffs and rolls his eyes, shaking his head, staring into the distance.
Armin carefully steps backwards.
"It's the truth, Reiner. Believe in what you want, really, but know I'm not lying." he cautiously prods, watching Reiner scrunch up his nose and bring a hand to his temple, "I ran because I was scared. All I saw was smoke and fire, and all I heard was roaring and dying men." he murmurs, swallowing dryly "It ate half of Thomas, right in front of me. And Mina was a smoking carcass when I looked at her."
Reiner looks at him then, the sun catching his eyes and turning his glare into an angered and chilly stare.
Armin doesn't look away.
"I was terrified. I didn't want to die. I didn't want Eren or Mikasa to die. So I ran." he says, letting the wind howl and whip around as he stares silently at the broad, quiet man. Then he swallows again and straightens his back, and then he speaks, "I don't think you killed the king Reiner. I think the Savages have better reasons to attempt that-"
"You don't know me." Reiner says "Maybe I did kill the king. Maybe I'm a Savage."
"Then why aren't you with the rest of your people?" Armin cautiously points out, watching Reiner narrow his eyes into golden slits, "No. I think you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and so desperate were you to protect yourself and your friends that you did what you did – what, I do not know, but it got you in a wanted poster."
Reiner just glares.
"Now look me in the eye and tell me you and I are different."
Eren's cheek is throbbing, stinging under the cold air, a small and thin cut on his cheekbone screeching under the cruel winter. He almost feels his skin growing yellow, purple and blue, but he barely cares, not the worst punch to the face his gotten.
Mikasa is way worse.
The wound needs to be seared close. He thinks the uniform should be able to stop the bleeding well enough, until they find some shelter where she can be properly treated, that is. She should consider herself lucky her senses are as acute as they are and that she managed to miraculously dodge that, but that wound is going to need ointments and vinegar – that they don't have – and even so, he's not entirely sure it won't infect, and if that happens, what the fuck will they do?
They'll have to steal the medicine, or travel to a village and search for-
"Okay, shut up." he says, stopping to breathe for a while"… Armin will know what to do." he convinces himself.
He pushes a hand through his hair, ignoring the blood and grease and all the other things on his body right now, and walks over to the warrior, still lying on the snow, turning her belly-up.
She's wearing a black cloak with a furry hood, a black scarf around her face. Eren sees a patch of blonde hair. She's wearing a tight-fitting, dark leather armor full of belts and pouches, with some intricate patterns carved into her shoulder-guards and vambraces. Her gloves do not cover her fingers entirely, and there's fur at the top half of her boots.
Eren kneels and pulls down the scarf. He frowns.
She's seen this girl on a poster before.
Annie Leonhardt, wanted for regicide, a bounty of 20,000 gold pieces on her head.
"Holy shit-" he murmurs, checking the girl's neck for a pulse. It's very faint, "Armin needs to see her." he concludes, looking around alarmingly.
It's the first good news they've received in a while. It could be their ticket to forgiveness by law, acceptance back to the military and civilization… his ticket to reclaim his honor.
'And if she's here, could the other two could be as well…?'
Certainly not. They probably scattered, ran off in different directions into different corners of the world, alone with their bounties.
'Or maybe they stayed together, to look after each other…' he reasoned '… it is a big, dangerous country.'
That's what he did, at least. But their crimes aren't exactly the same, are they?
'Armin needs to see her!'
Eren walks towards the horse, removing his gloves then putting his hands upwards, palms facing the sturdy beast, approaching them to its snout. It doesn't seem too mistrustful, snorting and whipping its tail about. Eren searches the warrior's satchel, hanging from the saddle. He finds rope.
He ties Leonhardt's hands behind her back then carries her towards the horse, setting her on the animal's posterior. He then carefully lifts Mikasa up and sits her on the saddle, climbing in behind her.
A sturdy horse like this should have no trouble carrying three people.
"Hey…" he croaks at a certain point "… you don't happen to have anything to drink… do you…?"
Reiner, that had been pondering over his story, staring down at his boots, looks up at him and gently frowns, not showing much apathy.
Armin avoids his stare a couple of times, lowering his head, "… p-perhaps some mead… that would really warm me up… or, i-if you had it… maybe you could give me some wine…?"
Reiner frowns deeper.
"I really don't have anything…" he went on "A-and I could really use a drink right now… just to warm me up… just a little. Please."
Then he stares for a while, watching the hunched boy with his sunken cheeks, bleary eyes and bony frame under that faded cloak. It is pretty clear to him that Armin is in no position to have his wishes granted, what is the utility of a sip of wine before your death, really? And why is he still alive, why hasn't Reiner struck him down and went on with his business? He should be going back by now – his stalling is probably worrying Bert… and Annie will bury him in insults once she hears of what he's done.
Of course that doesn't change anything. Reiner still won't move, and Reiner still knows the answers to all those questions.
When guilt is your best-friend and loneliness is your shadow, any stranger is a welcome guest.
"Sure." he mutters as he turns to retrieve his canteen from his horse's saddle.
He doesn't hear Armin kneel down and retrieve his dagger, hiding it in his belt, behind his back.
When Eren leaves the woods and first glimpses camp, his first instinct is to bolt forward and trample the tall, blond warrior currently in the presence of Armin.
He's terrified. He shudders at the vision of his best friend facing that menace, completely hopeless and defenseless. And the calm he's witnessing right now deeply confuses Eren – he's gingerly drinking from a canteen, wine trailing down the golden hairs on his chin, and the armed giant is watching, lazily holding a sword in his hand.
He grinds his molars and frowns deeply as he grips the reins.
For a second he hopes that could be Reiner Braun, and if so then they would be on an insanely stupid streak of luck – which also means that the other knight can't be far away.
But it could also be a Savage… though he never found a lone warrior, since they always seem to travel in groups.
Maybe it's a talkative bandit.
Eren shakes his head, then swallows and trains his scowl on the warrior, commanding the steed to trot forward.
If it's Reiner, he'll use Annie. If not, Eren's quick enough to nock an arrow and shoot before Reiner strikes his friend down. He can only hope.
He screeches a whistle.
Reiner snaps into attention as the eerie whistle cuts through the air, snapping his head towards the sound, frowning as his innards boil as he recognizes the horse and realizes its rider is missing, traded for a wild-looking brunet carrying an unconscious woman.
Still, he remains cool.
"Friend of yours?" he asks.
"Yeah. That's Eren-" he gasps at the end as Reiner unceremoniously grabs him by the collar and throws him in front of him. His face burns at the snow's caress, his eyes gleaming and his breath becoming foggy.
"Greetings, stranger!" Reiner says "Fine horse, you have there. Where did you get it?"
There's animosity coating his words, a threat breathed out into the air as he grips the sword tighter and steps next to Armin's body, pressing his foot on his back, watching the rider's scowl and fiery eyes.
"Get away from him." he says, halting Annie's horse a few feet away, dismounting, a bow in his hand.
"I don't think you're in the position to make demands, my friend." Armin groans and stutters as Reiner presses some of his weight into his ribs, smirking as the man's frown grows angrier and his glare grows thicker, "Now answer the question."
Eren holds his gaze for a while before straightening his back, inhaling and relenting, "Sure," he mutters, walking towards the horse and hoisting up into his shoulder a small and still body, all dressed in black, "I stole it from her."
He drops the small body into the snow with as much grace as Reiner, relishing on the way the blond's previous calm flooded out from his glare, as he now stares worriedly at the snow caked, pale faced woman, watching as his jaw shakes and his trembling lips part ever so slightly as his hold on his blade slackens.
For two seconds the burly blond seemed nothing but a broken man, and Eren would have loved if Reiner had broken down and cried in front of him.
Then Reiner closed his eyes, and the muscles on his face started twitching, his eyebrows, his cheeks, his nostrils, his mouth.
His breathing is erratic. He's furious.
When he looked back at Eren he seemed determined to tear him limb from limb.
"You fucking cunt." he slowly mutters, hunching his shoulders as his hand turns white, "You're fucking dead, you hear?! I'm gonna gut you like a pig, and then take a piss on your corpse!"
"She's not dead." Eren calmly informs him, but it does nothing to tame Reiner's rage, "Yet." He adds, drawing little shapes in the air with the tip of Mikasa's sword.
Then Reiner calms his breathing, sobering up while still glaring hard at him.
"Well then… it seems we're at an impasse." he confidently says "You have a hostage, I have a hostage... what now, uh, deserter?"
From his peripheral, he sees Armin's head slowly, so slowly, lift up from the snow. He can hear him clattering his teeth, feels the occasional shiver up and down his frail, sick, little body. He imagines the defeated, terrified look on his face as he hopelessly looks at his friend.
He doesn't see him wink.
"So? What say you?" he challengingly juts his chin at Eren "Shall we find out who breaks first?" he offers with a smirk.
Then pain sears through his foot, making him jolt and scream, back-step and wobble until the world flips and he falls, embraced by cold as his foot seems aflame. In his stupor he drops his sword, and Armin hurriedly stands and picks it up, the brunet boy quickly joining him. When he looks down, there's a knife at the base of his left foot, his blood painting his boot and squirting out, spotting his leg and the snow.
He screams, in agony, in rage, "You shits! You stupid fucks, you're so dead!"
He's confused. And he's a fool. Where did the knife come from? Did he have it with him the whole time?
"There was rope on the girl's horse. Maybe there is in his too."
"Okay, I'm going to check, keep an eye on him."
"You're so dead!" he promises, squirming, feeling a boot on his own chest, mercilessly pressing him down. He wants to check his foot, he needs to check his foot, "When I get up, I'm gonna make you wish you've never been born! I'll kill you with my bare hands!"
Now Bertholdt is their last hope.
He wants him to save him, he really does, and so strongly is he hoping for it.
And he doesn't want his friend to be cautious or think this through. He wants him to help him up so he can butcher these fucks himself.
And he will - oh yes, he will.
Erwin decided to keep his room's windows open to hear the roaring crowds and soldiers and the chiming trumpets, and now that night had settled, he found it not particularly chilly, feeling a small comfort in the winter breeze carrying the smell of fire and grilled meat, and the distant music and laughter in the marketplace.
Erwin was waiting, reading some book he had randomly picked from the bookshelves. His chains sang and whispered with every arm movement, and he found himself often scratching at his golden stubble, to top his annoyance.
'This is being unnecessarily prolonged…' the commander complained 'The meeting was scheduled for after the coronation… it's been a while since it's been over, what's taking them so long?'
Erwin wasn't nervous of what sentence was to be delivered – he had accepted all consequences when he had called the order – it was just that there were matters that needed immediate attention and there was no time to waste.
Knuckles rapped his door twice before it was ungraciously opened by Ser Knight-Commander Nile Dok.
"Hey." he greeted breathily, eyelids heavy as he lazily closed the door behind him, walking towards Erwin's table while removing his gauntlets, "Just getting a drink before the meeting." he informed tiredly, setting the plate and chainmail gloves by the table.
Erwin scoffed quietly, closing his book and setting it aside, "Long day?"
"… You have no idea." he sighed, heading towards a cabinet, opening it and scanning through the wine bottles and silver goblets, "Want a drink?"
"Sure." Erwin politely concurred, crossing his forearms over the table's surface.
How curious of Nile to visit him out of nowhere, and just before an important meeting, conveniently enough.
"Four year old red wine, directly out of MP cellars. It ought to be good." Nile said conversationally, sitting in front of Erwin and filling the goblets, then handing one over to the blond while resting his feet on the seat adjacent to him.
The silver was warm from the uselessness of the cabinet. Erwin didn't usually drink.
He tasted it, enjoying the wine's sweet warmth.
"It is." he agreed with an approving tilt of the head.
"It always is." Nile sighed out after a long sip.
Erwin snorted softly, humor mostly absent in him, shifting his gaze to the gaunt and tired knight in shiny, silver armor in front of him, now twirling the goblet in his slender fingers.
"So… what's your impression of the King?" he asked, catching Nile's attention.
He made a strange expression, lifting one corner of his upper lip and softly furrowing.
"Typical." he finally said, then added in murmurs, looking back at silver, "All talk of promises and justice."
"You don't believe in our King?" Erwin murmured too.
Nile looked back at him and briefly frowned, then his expression shifted to the tired, sarcastic one again, "Oh, I believe him… like I believed his father… and the father before him and basically everyone who talks all righteously like that."
"That's a very dishonorable opinion for a knight."
"You clearly don't hang around nobles very often."
"How blasphemous, Lord-Commander Nile."
He scoffed, resting his neck against the chair, "Go to hell Erwin, I've had a rough day… this city just gets worse and worse…"
"Drunken brawls, some 'innocent' thievery… you know… bread, apples or some coin purses… then I organized His Grace's and his family's guards, their patrols and shifts – believe it or not, I learned from that regicide – and now I've got this freaking meeting of which necessary energy I'm currently absent of." he rambled, ending with a long sip.
"Hence the drink?"
Nile sighed, setting down the goblet "Hence the drink."
Erwin slowly nodded, "Now I'm curious to meeting the King."
His eyebrows rose and then fell, "Shouldn't be long now."
Erwin stared at the knight in front of him, and his gaze is so intense Nile looked up at him, blinking at his mysterious, deep blue orbs.
"Why the delay, Nile?"
He shrugged, "The King wanted to address his people… then dinner… and now I suppose they're… most likely waiting for me?"
"You're stalling. Why? You know how important this meeting is."
Nile shrugged again, "Like I said. I needed a drink." he murmured with some finality.
Erwin wondered if he was having last minute regrets, which is odd, since he had been so smug about arresting him… but maybe trialing an old friend isn't as pleasing as Nile thought it would be.
Either way, he accepted his answer then took another sip, setting down the goblet before drumming his fingers on the table.
"So… how's Marie?" he asked tentatively.
"Fine." he answered nonchalantly, his weariness didn't affect his mood too much if he was willing to talk about his personal life so openly, especially considering how fond of the girl he had been in the past, before the madness of the Scouts, "Pregnant of our third."
"Congratulations." Erwin said genuinely, smiling and slightly lifting his cup at him.
Nile lazily hummed and raised his, too.
"To the one thing we must honor."
"To families." Erwin guessed somewhat hesitantly, and they both drank.
"I don't suppose you ever thought of settling down?" Nile asked, setting down the glass and twirling it again.
"I don't like the idea of starting a family knowing I could die any instance."
Nile nodded slowly, "That's why I left."
Erwin smiled, looking down at the table, "I still remember that time … when we used to be in the same squad, under Shadis's command…"
"With Mike, Nanaba and Hanji." Nile added with a snort "I heard those two idiots are finally together, the brick-headed shits. God, what on earth did it take – did Mike finally quit that hound-like haircut?" he mocked, bringing his hands up to his face, mimicking bangs with his fingers as he sniffed and gutturally barked.
"Oh, Nile…" Erwin chuckled and shook his head before falling silent, eying the table before looking up again, mumbling "You didn't know? Nanaba lost a leg… Mike took it really hard."
"Nanaba lost a what?!" he muttered appallingly "W-what- how?! When?! I mean, yeah I noticed her limping a lot, but I thought that was… you know… because of Mike."
Erwin stared for a second before bursting out laughing.
"… it's not that preposterous."
Erwin was still smiling when he answered, "I should hang around nobles more often, and you should visit the Scouts' camps more often. There are as many amputees in my camps as are dishonest men in your castle."
Nile furrowed and fell silent, swallowing back anything resembling guilt for not being there for an old friend.
"It's a cruel world we live in, Nile." Erwin said, finishing his drink, setting the empty goblet in the table with a thud and then looking back at him, "But she's fine. She insists on remaining active, actually. I don't mind, as long as she knows her limits – I don't tolerate recklessness."
Then Nile stared and laughed, just like he did. Erwin thinks he understands - it truly was an ironic statement from his part, considering his job.
The knight lowers his laughter to quiet chuckles, until he simply remains smiling at the wine that's left in his glass, a strange gleam in his eyes, and Erwin stares as a quizzical eyebrow slowly, gently, rises up his forehead, because Nile just looks sad, and Nile is never sad.
"Cruel world indeed." he mumbles.
Erwin has questions hitting his teeth, wonders how Nile hasn't even remotely drunk enough to start speaking nonsense.
Unless he's confessing something, in a very reserved, stubborn, Nile sort of way.
"Now, where is this coming from?"
Nile watched him with narrowed, dark eyes, scowling at him, his mouth shut tightly, his nostrils gently flared - like it's all Erwin's fault – like he doesn't want to be a massive prick, like all he wants is to be with his family and melt his armor, like there's a massive boulder on burden on his shoulders and a headache from his secrets, and Nile absolutely hates it all and hates Erwin for figuring him out.
Erwin's right. Nile wants his help. So desperately, he would be willing to plead.
The knight downed the rest of his wine, dropping the goblet with a harsh pang and standing up while putting his gauntlets on.
"That's enough talking - get up, Smith, time for your trial."
Bertholdt swallowed his worries when Reiner and Annie didn't show up thirty minutes after their stipulated time, busying himself with chopping vegetables and heating up a kettle of water for soup, but an hour later and no sign of his comrades and the tall man started feebly convincing himself that everything was alright and that there was no need to worry. He was still mumbling to himself even as he started dressing his black plate armor, strapping a greatsword to his back and saddling up their remaining horse, Chester, their grey and strong draft horse.
Bertholdt searched thoroughly.
Down by the hidden passage they once found and deemed safe to cross if one day they needed to safely leave, and where they found and pillaged a bandit camp. In the woods, where Annie usually goes, and by Reiner's lake, now completely frozen over.
"Reiner!" he often called out, wind buffeting pines and leaves his only answer, "Annie!" he shouted again, Chester huffing little clouds into the air.
He always convinced himself of their safety, no matter how much silence he retrieved, or how fast and hard his heart beat in his chest.
And he never wavered, always moving, always calling out their names. He never stopped, not when his lungs stung from the icy oxygen or his throat grew soar, and not when tears prickled the corners of his eyes, bleary from the wind crashing against his face and from the talons tight around his heart.
When he started skirting Annie's woods, at one point, further down in a clearing, Bertholdt found a lone bundle of black amidst the snow.
Still and lifeless, slowly being buried under the winter. And struck by his curiosity, he trotted closer, his heart hammering his ears. And when he got close enough, he saw a patch of bright blonde hair, so, so familiar it hurt.
"Annie!" he gasped, galloping towards her, stopping beside her and dismounting, willing himself to fall onto his knees beside her, gently cradling her into his arms, like only threads and ribbons kept her body together, and he put hair away from her face, so sickeningly white and blue and purple, slender veins snaking around her heavily closed eyelids.
"Annie, A-Annie! Please, talk to me!" he mumbled, his tears searing his gelid cheeks, and when did he start crying?
"Annie! P-please, c'mon, don't do this- not after all the we- please, please, Annie…!" he mumbled, removing a gauntlet and hurriedly placing two fingers beneath her jaw, snow and icy skin burning his warm digits.
But nothing burned harder than that faint, lazy, thudding vibration beneath her skin, and Bertholdt didn't even think, so relieved that he was, when he ever so softly cupped her cheek with his timid, trembling hand, drawing her face with his fingers, just grazing her ear as his thumb slid down her face, following the crook of her nose before trailing her purple lips, immediately settling on her chin as he hunched over, touching her forehead with his.
Bertholdt's heart clashed against his ribs, and it shuddered in his chest when he felt the tip of a blade against the nape of his neck.
And how cruel. Oh, how cruel.
"Don't move, or Reiner dies."
Bertholdt's jaw started trembling as his hands grasped the small body beneath him.
How did this happen to them? Why them? Can't the world just leave them alone?
Can't they be in peace?
"Who-" he swallows "Who are you? What do you want?"
He hears chuckling behind him, and he tempts to turn his head, now noticing a ridiculously small tent that has probably always been there but he never noticed, so fixated was he on Annie. He also sees a flimsy blond boy holding the reins of Annie's horse and riding the one that belongs to Reiner, his tall and broad friend stumbling through the snow as he follows, stepping on his own feet, groaning and hissing through his teeth, his hands tied around his back.
Reiner looks at him then, and Bertholdt feels so crushed he could sob.
"We haven't done anything," the man behind him answers, "But we know someone who's just aching to see you Kingslayers."
HOLY SHIT I MADE IT. I UPDATED. I'M BACK.
Well, I suppose we can conclude that I can't keep a promise on the internet to save my life, so I suppose apologies are in order, right? So I'm very sorry for the insane hiatus, I got writer's block and then I entered COLLEGE. So tons of work and not much time. I'm very sorry people, but I guess that means that I won't be able to keep that update schedule I had in the beginning of this (speaking of which, THIS FIC'S BIRTHDAY WAS A WHILE AGO. HAPPY B-DAY, CRIMSON TALE) but that doesn't mean it will take me 8 months to post, so just be patient, would you kindly?
So I think that's everything.
Did you guys like the chapter, do you think it was worth the wait? And what did you think about theOC's? I'm trying them out. Leave a review, tell me what you thought.
Okay, that's enough, I'm out, byeeeee