Chapter 1: I dreamt of your frightened eyes locked on me
Their first meeting goes like one would expect of the Third Special Forces Task Squad, code named Warrior Division.
“Introduce yourselves, maggots!” Commander Magath snaps at the new recruits.
There’s twenty of them this time. This year’s crop must have really impressed Magath for him to have picked this many. Usually, he’s quite strict about giving chances to fresh recruits. He much prefers to wait until someone has some battle experience before plucking them for their Warrior Division. It’s part of why they’re always so hated by everyone else, even in their own military.
Then again, Bertolt himself was a fresh recruit who was chosen due to his amazing marksmanship. So he supposes he can’t quite make that kind of a judging remark.
“Think we got anyone good this year? Everyone quit after two weeks under Magath’s constant yelling last year,” Reiner sniggers as he settles next to Bertolt to watch the new recruits.
“I seem to distinctly remember you mercilessly ‘teasing’ some of them until they quit, Reiner,” Marcel points out lightly.
He and Porco comes to join them. Colt trails a little further behind, looking uncertainly at the new recruits. The girls aren’t here to watch, but Bertolt won’t be shocked if they’re watching from somewhere else. Pieck and Annie are always good at keeping on top of new information, even if they don’t seem like they’re actively looking for it.
“Like you didn’t ‘tease’ some yourself, Marcel,” Porco grumbles, looking disinterestedly at the new recruits. “They look weak.”
Marcel grins without letting it reach his eyes. “You know, they’d say the same thing about you. You almost failed last time, Porco.”
“I’m your brother. Be more encouraging.”
Although their voices are kept light and joking, Bertolt feels highly uncomfortable. It’s moments like these that make him wonder if military really was the best choice for him. But when Reiner said he was enlisting, Bertolt found himself following without any real plan or thought. And now that he’s part of the highly sought-after Warrior Division, it’s hard to voice things like that out loud.
“Hm? That kid’s staring at us,” Porco mentions.
Curious as to what Porco is talking about, they all turn to look.
It’s just for a second.
Intense green eyes are locked onto them. Then, as if realizing how rude it is to stare, the eyes turn away from them. No, that might not be the case. Because there’s an annoyed scowl on his face as if to say that the owner of the eyes find them distasteful. Is he… trying to pick a fight? Ah, that’s bad. Porco and Reiner at least have lines they’ll draw. But Marcel can get particularly nasty when it comes to “teasings.”
This kid won’t last three hours if all three of them decide to target him.
“Next,” Magath calls down the line.
“Eren Kruger. There’s something I wish to do before my dying breath. So I am here.”
It’s dismissed as something simple, but Bertolt finds his interest piqued. Something to do before his dying breath? What can that-
His eyes catches sight of the vibrant green of anger locked onto them again.
… That something that Kruger wants to do surely isn’t to pick fights with everyone…?
There are eighteen new recruits by the time for dinner.
Bertolt is shocked that there’s still so many left.
He sits down at an empty table with his tray of food. Reiner said that he’ll be running late due to an extra round of shooting he wanted to squeeze in to show off in front of the new recruits tomorrow. Marcel is probably in a meeting with Commander Magath and Sergeant Jaeger. Porco is sitting with Colt over there. Annie and Pieck seem to be locked in a heated discussion together, and Bertolt has learned his lesson of not interrupting the two of them.
Not that he has the guts to approach them.
Due to the cut-throat nature to get into the Warrior Division, those who are in it are naturally distrusting unless they’ve known each other previously like Bertolt and Reiner (or Porco and Marcel). Added to the fact that they’re women, it’s nearly impossible for any male to approach them carelessly.
The sound of plates clattering is the only warning Bertolt gets before Kruger puts his tray of food across from him. With a cold glare, Kruger sits down, completely ignoring the plenty other empty tables.
“C-can I help you…?” Bertolt squeaks.
Kruger ignores him and rips his bread. He dips it viciously into his soup and then finally meets eyes with Bertolt.
“I’m going to make sure that you die in the most painful death possible,” Kruger announces in such a careless manner that makes Bertolt believe that he misheard. “You and Reiner both.”
With his piece said, he rescues his ripped bread that’s dripping in soup and bites in. It must have been too hot, though. His eyes dilate, and he shudders. Bertolt winces in sympathy.
“I-if it’s too hot, you should spit it out,” Bertolt finds himself saying before he can stop himself. Mainly because he hasn’t quite registered Kruger’s words yet.
Kruger glares at him and stubbornly swallows the bread down. Then his bares his teeth like some kind of a beast.
“It’s not hot at all,” he growls.
His green eyes are terrifying. Bertolt quickly looks down at his lap so that he doesn’t have to hold the gaze. He feels like he’d be eaten alive if he stares for too long.
A tense silence settles between them. Bertolt feels like he’ll choke at how uncomfortable all of this is. When he braves a small glimpse of Kruger, he is taken back to know that Kruger is now blowing carefully on his soup-dipped bread piece before putting it in his mouth. Kruger beams when he eats the bread without (seemingly) burning his tongue. It’s such a simple expression change, but it makes him look five times more approachable.
Well, it can’t hurt to try, right?
“Can you… not involve Reiner in that? I-I’m okay if you decide to double my suffering. Just… leave Reiner out of it.”
Sharp green eyes lock back on Bertolt. It makes him flinch and quickly look away to dodge the almost accusing glare in those eyes.
“Why should I?”
That simple question is drenched in venom. And yeah, that’s true. Why should Kruger listen to Bertolt? Wait, for that matter, why does Kruger want to kill both Bertolt and Reiner painfully for? Bertolt doesn’t remember meeting Kruger before. So then why is this guy targeting them? Just for shits and giggles? To seem strong by putting down current Warriors? If so, then why not go after Colt instead?
Kruger snorts. “You can’t even come up with a single reason? Isn’t he supposed to be someone important to you? Instead of fighting for him, you’re just going to meekly back away?”
“Would… it make a difference?” Bertolt asks him with his gaze lowered. “You already made up your mind on this. No matter what I say, you won’t budge.”
“But you don’t know that. I might change my mind if you were to say something like ‘I don’t want you to hurt my beloved.’ Maybe I’m a romantic who’ll fall for shit like that.”
Slowly, Bertolt looks up at Kruger, who is angrily stirring his soup. He seems to have finished his bread.
Bertolt can’t make heads or tails of this. Why does that matter to Kruger? Bertolt has been targeted one too many times to not know where these kinds of situations head towards. It doesn’t matter what he says. He knows because it never matters what he says or thinks or does. He is being targeted because he is mentally weak. Reiner tried to give him this lecture time and time again, but when it became clear nothing would change, Reiner told him to just hold out until he got there.
Bertolt does not have the power or the charm to change people’s minds. He’s just that kind of a pathetic person. But at the very least, he can do his best to not give the other person ammunition by saying misleading things.
“Reiner isn’t my beloved. We’re not like that,” Bertolt says honestly.
Kruger slams his hand on the table, making Bertolt (and everyone in the vicinity) flinch. Bertolt drops his gaze down, understanding that the minute he looks up, he’ll be eaten alive. But that seems to have been the wrong choice.
He feels someone grip his chin and force him to look up into those damning green eyes.
“I changed my mind,” comes the growl of pure rage. “Just you. I want just you to suffer and die painfully.”
Before Bertolt can say anything in response, Kruger grabs his tray of food and leaves the canteen.
Bertolt sits there quietly until Reiner gets there. By then, his food has gone completely cold.
He finds it impossible to get anything down.
Marcel’s eyebrows shoot up when he hears what happened at dinner.
“You, Hoover? You picked a fight?”
“I-I didn’t… p-pick a fight,” Bertolt stammers.
But it gets steam-rolled by Porco’s laugh. “It was hilarious! That guy told the entire canteen that he’d kill Hoover here in the most painful way! Hahaha! Who even says childish things like that?”
“Who the hell is this ‘Eren Kruger,’ anyways?” Reiner growls.
The frozen look on Marcel’s face makes all of them pause. Could it be? Is this guy more dangerous than they first realized?
“He was personally recommended by Zeke,” Marcel says slowly.
Bertolt feels the blood in his veins freeze. Personally recommended by their Sergeant Zeke Jaeger? Doesn’t that mean that Kruger is some kind of a prodigy? Jaeger’s standards are ridiculously high to the point that it’s impossible for anyone to meet. No matter how good you are, you’ll never be good enough in his eyes. Not even Marcel, the best in the Warrior Division, has ever managed to earn a word of praise from Jaeger.
That man personally recommended someone?
“Is he… actually good? Or… maybe this is some kind of a family or friend connection?” Colt suggests.
Marcel looks uncomfortable as he shrugs. “I don’t have that information. Maybe? I can’t imagine there’s someone who can match our Sergeant’s standards.”
“What? And now he’s using that connection to push Bertolt around?” Reiner asks in disbelief. “Of all the rotten luck! Bertl, I keep telling you to be more aware. He only picked on you because you looked weak.”
No, Kruger was specifically targeting both Bertolt and Reiner. That means that they know him from somewhere, doesn’t it?
“Reiner, have we ever met Kruger before?”
“Huh? Not that I know of. I think I’d remember someone like that,” Reiner points out.
Yeah, that’s how Bertolt feels, too. But there’s a strange feeling that Bertolt can’t quite shake off.
“If it comes down to it, the higher ups will most definitely side with Kruger,” Marcel warns them. “If you’re going to retaliate, make sure to keep it hidden.”
How odd. It’s rare for Marcel to give advice like this. The situation must be bothering him, too. If Bertolt lasts just a bit, he gets the feeling Marcel will personally take care of Kruger. He just needs to hold on until then.
“You’re not canceling tonight’s Rookie Crushing, are you?” Porco asks, looking offended by the thought.
Bertolt would much prefer that such scary customs be tossed aside. But he supposes he can’t voice something like that out loud. Not in front of the others. This is just the normal part of being in the military. Bertolt has to keep reminding himself of that.
Who knows? Maybe Kruger will back off after he realizes how terrifying being in the military is.
“Don’t be silly. We can’t break tradition for such a small discovery,” Marcel says with a cold smile. “Besides, Kruger has a private room away from the rest of the new recruits.”
Even Colt looks shocked at that. “Isn’t he a little too spoiled?”
Marcel presses his lips into a thin line.
From the expressions on others’ faces, they must have all arrived on the same conclusion as Bertolt. Marcel is going to be personally going after whoever this Kruger kid is.
There’s no need for the rest of them to worry.
Bertolt probably would have quit if he had been by himself during his own session of Rookie Crushing. But Reiner had reached out and steadied him. With a calming grin, he said, “We’ll be okay.”
Although simple, that was all Bertolt needed to survive that night.
He wonders if maybe some of the new recruits are like that with one another. That would explain why so many of them have been able to survive thus far. It makes him want to cheer for them, just a bit. He wonders if that makes him too simple.
A small movement outside catches his eyes.
Bertolt glances out the window and sees Kruger. He’s wearing a simple green shirt and black pants. It looks like he has something in his hands that Bertolt can’t really make out from here. What is he doing so late at night by himself? Does he know about Rookie Crushing? Is he dodging it? But wait. He’s in a private room, isn’t he? Then… is he out there to meet with someone?
Kruger seems to be fiddling with something in his hands. And after a few seconds…
Are those bubbles?
This guy is cheerfully blowing bubbles in the middle of the night?
It catches Bertolt so off-guard that he doesn’t know how to properly react. Actually, is there such a thing as to properly reacting to something like this?
“Yo Bertolt! What are you looking at?”
Reiner squeezes Bertolt’s shoulder to remind him that it’s time to get going. He curiously follows Bertolt’s line of sight outside and spots Kruger.
“Huh? Is that guy blowing bubbles?”
For a second longer, Reiner stares in silence. Then he chuckles, looking like he’s been charmed.
“Pfft. That’s way too cute. Let’s turn a blind eye. I’m sure Marcel won’t mind if we miss one rookie.”
Belatedly, Bertolt realizes that Reiner doesn’t know that that’s Kruger down there. He supposes that makes sense. Reiner hasn’t met Kruger face-to-face and has only seen him from afar. But even so…
Why does the smile on Reiner’s face look so damned fond? Like he’s looking at someone very precious to his heart?
There’s an ache in Bertolt’s chest.
This happened before. He can’t recall when or where. But he’s certain that this exact scene happened before. Perhaps it was in a long forgotten dream? He can’t recall.
But this happened before.
“C’mon, Bertolt. Let’s get going,” Reiner says.
Bertolt finds that he can’t voice it.
It’s probably nothing. There’s no way. Both he and Reiner don’t have any recollection of meeting Kruger before.
He’s overthinking it.
There are seventeen new recruits lined up for their morning run. Anyone who can’t survive this won’t be allowed to eat breakfast. Because of this, both new recruits and the current Warriors will both be tested.
It’s just a simple 5 km run. There are a few obstacle course through it, of course. But it’s nothing impossible. Even Bertolt was able to complete it as a new recruit (Even if it did take him nearly all morning).
But because it’s the first time they’ll be on the same playing field as the new recruits, it’s prime chance to show off.
And after last night’s Rookie Crushing, it seems that the new recruits are properly frightened of them. Bertolt feels a bit bad. But he needs all the advantage he can get, as awful as that sounds.
His eyes naturally find Kruger, who is stretching. The viciousness of yesterday during dinner is nowhere to be seen. He seems to be humming lightly under his breath. It reminds Bertolt of the scene last night with Kruger blowing bubbles. A surprisingly cute side to Kruger Bertolt didn’t think he’d see. If only this guy stayed like that, Bertolt thinks even he would find-
Green eyes suddenly look up and meet Bertolt’s.
Bertolt quickly looks away in hopes that Kruger doesn’t realize he’s been staring. He’s pretty sure he missed his chance, but Kruger doesn’t say anything. In fact, Kruger doesn’t try to approach him either.
“He’s going to get ambushed.”
Bertolt glances at Colt, who motions at the new recruits with a small yawn.
“Because he’s the only one who wasn’t part of the Rookie Crushing. All the rookies, and even some of us, are tired. But he looks well-rested, doesn’t he? They’ll target him for that.”
“You guys are still doing dumb things like that?” Pieck says, shaking her head.
Marcel chuckles. “You say that, but you look tired yourself.”
“We girls have a more… refined ways of dealing with each other,” is all Pieck will say on the topic.
Bertolt takes the hint that they’re not to ask more about it. His eyes catch sight of Annie, who is standing aloof as always. Although she doesn’t show immediate sign of being tired, there are noticeable bags under her eyes. It must have been pretty intense if even Annie looks that tired.
“Staring at Annie again, eh? You dog, you!” Reiner laughs as he lightly hits Bertolt’s shoulder.
“It’s not like that,” Bertolt protests.
Unlike what Reiner seems to believe, Bertolt doesn’t hold any special feelings for Annie. At best, what he feels in his heart is fear. Don’t get him wrong. Annie is a very pretty person. But she’s pretty in the way a brightly colored venomous snake is. You appreciate the colors from afar, but you don’t dare approach.
He feels a shudder go down his spine. Is someone glaring at him? Hesitantly, he glances around and sees vibrant green eyes locked onto him. Bertolt feels his stomach drop. So much for being left alone. He quickly looks away.
Seeing his mood, Reiner seems to glance around and must have found the source of Bertolt’s discomfort.
“Kruger, huh?” Reiner growls.
It seems Reiner hasn’t put together last night’s bubble blowing new recruit to Kruger. Bertolt isn’t sure if that’s a good thing or not. But he doesn’t have any time to make the connection for his friend when he catches sight of the green eyes again. This time, much closer.
Kruger is standing right in front of them, glaring them down in a clear challenge. Even Marcel looks shocked at the nerve of this guy.
“I’ll defeat you in this race,” Kruger says, pointing at Bertolt.
Bertolt gets a bad feeling about this.
At each 1 km mark of the run, there is a small “obstacle” you must clear. There are two instructors to watch for cheating at each obstacle. If they think you aren’t doing well enough, they make you redo it again and again until they dim it pass-worthy. Bertolt is pretty sure if you fail here enough times, you’ll be dropped from this squad. But no one he knows has ever encountered such a problem. That’s probably just their pride as a Warrior.
The obstacle course is changed every few weeks so that they can’t become too accustomed to it. But few of the obstacles are recycled every once in a while. So it’s not like they’re doing something new every few weeks.
Since Kruger’s challenge was that he’d defeat Bertolt, the other new recruits seem to be giving him a wide berth. It’s quite terrifying. With just a single sentence, he completely shook off any threats for an ambush. Bertolt wonders if it was done on purpose.
But what really terrifies Bertolt is the fact that Kruger is keeping even pace with him.
With a grin as if to tell Bertolt that this pace is nothing, Kruger easily stays next to Bertolt through the run.
“I… thought you were going to defeat me? Don’t you want to go in front of me?” Bertolt asks lightly.
Kruger’s grin gets brighter. “But I want you to see it.”
“My back when I defeat you.”
This person has a rather nasty personality, doesn’t he?
The first obstacle is just 50 sit ups.
Bertolt doesn’t really want to fight against Kruger, so he purposefully slows down to let Kruger finish first. But Kruger doesn’t seem to realize that. As soon as he finishes, he glances around until he finds Bertolt. Then he comes to sit next to Bertolt with a grin on his face.
“I’m faster than you!” he says proudly.
Kruger patiently sits and waits until Bertolt finishes. Once Bertolt does, Kruger pleasantly runs by Bertolt’s side for the next obstacle.
The second obstacle is just 50 push ups.
Bertolt goes slowly enough to let Kruger win once more. And in that time, he peeks at Kruger’s form.
No wonder Sergeant Jaeger was so impressed. Kruger’s form is scary good and doesn’t collapse no matter how many he does. It reminds Bertolt of Marcel a bit. That calm focus Kruger has is similar, too. He wonders if it’s cruel of him to wonder how well Kruger would fare against Marcel in a head-on contest.
“You’re too easy to defeat,” Kruger says as he comes to smirk before Bertolt.
“You can go on ahead,” Bertolt tells him.
“Not until I see the utter defeat on your face!”
Bertolt pauses. “I… thought you wanted me to see your back?”
Kruger seems to realize the flaw of his plans a beat too late. His face flushes red, and he lightly punches Bertolt’s shoulder.
“S-shut up! I changed my mind. That’s it.”
Bertolt feels the instructor’s glare aimed at the two of them. In case he’s told to redo the push ups, Bertolt decides to ignore Kruger for now.
The third obstacle is a make-shift target hitting.
There are three wooden human-shaped targets placed five meters apart from one another. With six paint guns loaded with different colors, you have to hit each target somewhere vital before being allowed to pass. Because there’s just six guns, you have to plan carefully. The instructors don’t reload the guns, so if you arrive too late, it’s possible that there are no more bullets left for you.
Bertolt isn’t too sure what happens when it comes to that. He and the other Warriors have never hit that point before. He imagines that you’d get dropped. So for the people who’ll come after him, Bertolt always makes sure to use just three bullets to pass.
Kruger, it seems, does not have sharp shooting sense that Bertolt does. It takes him ten bullets to receive a pass from the instructors.
Bertolt isn’t sure why, but he thought Kruger would be a lot more annoyed. Like he would snarl around like a beast, kicking at the ground and throwing a tantrum the way Porco does sometimes. Like a little kid would.
But Kruger just calmly accepts it as that and passes the gun to the next person in line. It makes him look kind of mature, if not a little cool.
He glances at Bertolt, looking shocked.
“Why are you still here?” he asks.
And after a beat of a second, his face flushes red. Bertolt hasn’t said anything, but Kruger seems offended by the silence. He snarls and points a finger at Bertolt’s face.
“You think you’re all that because you’ve beaten me here? Hah! I still have another win over you! You’re still ten years too early to defeat me!”
Despite such haughty words, it looks like Kruger is shaking slightly with effort. Bertolt can’t figure out why.
“S-so… c-c’mon! Let’s get going!”
Kruger grabs Bertolt’s arm and tugs him along.
And before Bertolt knows it, he finds himself running with Kruger again.
The fourth obstacle course is perhaps the cruelest of them all.
It’s hand-to-hand combat with the person who arrived before you. The idea is that the first person who arrived here will wait for the second person and spar with them. Whoever wins get to go ahead while the loser has to stay behind for the next person. If you’re unlucky, no matter how fast you get here, you could end up fighting all morning against everyone.
Once the last person has fought, the final loser receives the punishment of cleaning the dishes for the day. Bertolt has been on the receiving end of that a couple of times. But now that there are new recruits here, he’s certain that he won’t be burdened with the chore anymore.
More importantly, he’s looking forward to seeing Kruger’s expression when Bertolt throws him to the ground.
… Huh? What’s he talking about? It’ll be much easier to just let himself be thrown down. He shouldn’t engage Kruger at all. Why did he imagine a blush on Kruger’s face as he glares up at Bertolt?
Kruger arrives first, much to Bertolt’s relief.
It’s Annie who’s waiting for them.
She must have faced Marcel recently, because Marcel hangs out with a giant grin on his face while Annie looks like she’s about to snap. Knowing Marcel, he probably used an underhanded trick to get past her. He must really be curious as to how well Kruger can fight if he willingly incurred Annie’s wrath. But Bertolt can’t even blame him. He’s curious, too.
“If you take me easy because I’m a girl, you’ll reg-”
Annie doesn’t get to finish her words.
Kruger has already moved.
He moves well. No, that’s not it. It’s not quite that he moves well. It’s more that… he moves like someone who is used to fighting Annie. Like he knows exactly where Annie is going to go next. Like he knows exactly where to move to dodge and how to move to block her. Like he has been prepared to fight against her from the get-go.
“If you lose against Annie, you can fight Bertolt!” Marcel yells out.
Bertolt isn’t sure what he expected.
But Kruger stops countering Annie and allows himself to be thrown to the ground. Annie steps on his chest, grinding down with a scowl on her face.
“You have some nerve, brat.”
Kruger smiles sheepishly at her. “Next time, I’ll take you seriously.”
She stomps down one last time before the instructor tells her off. Then she stands next to Marcel, glaring at Bertolt. Please, he begs in his head, don’t take this out on him. He has a lot to deal with as it is.
“Think you can defeat me?” Kruger asks, smirking at Bertolt.
This is someone who easily kept up with Annie, you know. There’s absolutely no way that Bertolt can win.
And just as he predicted, he finds himself landing harshly on his back, staring up at brilliant green that seems to shine like an excited little kid’s.
“As I thought! Your build is all for show! You’ll never be able to defeat anyone like that,” Kruger laughs.
Bertolt is surprised to see Kruger offer his hand to help him up. For someone that wished for Bertolt’s painful death, this seems kind of-
Kruger stops. He stares at the fact that they’re holding hands and suddenly turns red. He snatches his hand back and kicks Bertolt back down to the ground.
Without waiting for Bertolt, Kruger runs off to the next obstacle.
Marcel has a smile on his face like a cat that has caught the mouse. He doesn’t even bother to say goodbye as he jogs easily for the next obstacle.
Annie glances at Bertolt. She doesn’t say anything, but the look of disapproval is clear on her face. Bertolt doesn’t even know what to say to defend himself. And before he can think of anything, she turns and leaves.
Bertolt honestly doesn’t understand why he’s surrounded by these kinds of people.
The next person to arrive is Reiner. He glances around and seems to understand the basic gist even without an explanation.
Like the good friend he is, he lets Bertolt win. Then he quickly takes care of the next person, another new recruit. Once that’s all finished, the two of them jog for the next obstacle.
“He kept up with Annie without any problem,” Bertolt reports. “I was really impressed.”
Reiner makes a face and hits Bertolt’s chest lightly. “Don’t be impressed! The guy threatened to kill you! Bertolt, this is exactly why everyone tries to take advantage of you.”
But it’s not just the fact that Kruger kept up with Annie. It’s also the fact that he kept up with Bertolt’s pace. Not to mention his form when he was doing push ups…
Bertolt doesn’t think it’s nepotism that Sergeant Jaeger recommended Kruger. More and more, he wants to see it. A battle between Marcel and Kruger. Because he really does believe it'll be quite a sight to behold.
The two of their conversation pauses when they realize that Kruger is waiting for them at the final obstacle.
By that, Bertolt really means that Kruger is waiting for him.
With an excited look in his eyes, he points at the last obstacle.
“There’s no chance of you to recover from this! I’ve won! But I’m not a complete monster. Let’s compete one more time!”
At this juncture, Kruger just looks like an overexcited kid who just likes competing for the sake of competing. He probably doesn’t register victory or loss. The thrill of the battle seems to be his only goal today. If that’s the case, he should have chosen Porco. Those two would get along in terms of spirit.
The last obstacle, of course, is nothing but simple rope climbing. There are three ropes dangling by the side of the wall of their headquarters. All you have to do is climb. You don’t even have to use the ropes, if you don’t want to. But it’ll be rather foolish not to use the rope, since you’ll just fall due to gravity.
That’s all you need to do to earn your right to eat breakfast.
“Couldn’t you have defeated him without waiting for him?” Reiner asks Kruger.
Kruger clicks his tongue. “That’s no good. I want to see the utter defeat on his face when I crush him to the ground.”
Reiner’s face darkens. Even without knowing what he’s thinking, Bertolt has an inkling of a feeling he knows. After all, he thought that Kruger’s personality was pretty nasty when he first heard that, too.
“Since there are three ropes,” Kruger says as he motions to the three of them, “why don’t we make it a race?”
“Fine! If I win, you back off of Bertolt,” Reiner growls.
Kruger stares at Reiner for a second. Then he nods seriously and pats Reiner’s chest while turning to Bertolt.
“D-don’t touch me so casually,” Reiner mumbles, pushing Kruger’s hand off of his chest.
Why is he blushing?
But Kruger moves on without sparing Reiner a second glance. “You hear that, Bertolt? That’s how you’re supposed to do it.”
“I’m… not sure I follow?” Bertolt asks.
Reiner looks just as confused as Bertolt feels. But Kruger just sighs heavily like he’s looking at idiots.
“If I win, grant me one wish.”
Without waiting for their answer, Kruger walks up the wall with the ropes. Bertolt and Reiner exchange a glance before running after him.
Kruger is impossible.
That’s what Bertolt decides.
The minute the three of them are in position, Kruger he…
He wraps the rope around one arm and just… runs up the wall like some kind of a ninja. The only time he uses the rope is to hoist himself over the wall when he gets to the top. Then he lets the rope go and moves to stand over where Bertolt is slowly making his way up. With a huge grin on his face like he’s some kind of a villain, he throws his his head back and laughs.
“Hahaha! That’s the best you’ve got? Hey Reiner, where’s your resolve in protecting Bertolt now? Bertolt, is that the best you can do as a Warrior? Haha! I win!”
Bertolt honestly doesn’t know how to deal with people like this. He doesn’t think Reiner knows either, because Reiner is frozen with a nasty look on his face.
“Hey, you said you’ll grant me my wish if I won, right? Then here it is.” Kruger points down at them, the grin on his face never slipping. “Suffer. Be tormented. Live in agony. And only then are you allowed to die in the most painful way possible.”
Then, as if he didn’t say something quite terrifying, Kruger turns and leaves for breakfast.
“Hey Bertolt,” Reiner calls from his rope. “What the hell did we get involved in?”
“I… wish I knew.”
Chapter 2: My angry reflection growled back like a demon
Kruger looks like a small kid, blowing carefully at his spoonful of scrambled eggs. When he feels confident, he bites in and beams.
“What the hell?” Reiner mutters into his own breakfast. “Is there something wrong with that guy’s head? After saying something like that, he’s eating like nothing’s wrong?”
The two of them are sitting together for breakfast, watching Kruger who is sitting alone. Marcel, Porco, Pieck, and Annie are already here. It looks like they’ve finished eating and are conversing lightly among each other. They haven’t moved to put their dishes away, though. That’ll probably be left for whichever new recruit that loses in the fourth obstacle.
“He’s… kind of cute,” Bertolt admits with a small smile.
Reiner makes a face like his food turned to dirt in his mouth. “The hell are you saying? That guy told both of us to suffer and die painfully. What do you mean, cute?”
Bertolt motions towards Eren who has another spoonful of scrambled eggs that he’s carefully blowing on.
“Kind of like a little cat, you know? He says whatever he wants to and runs off. Even though he insisted that he’ll defeat me, he kept waiting for me after every obstacle. If he really wanted to defeat me, he would have ran on ahead.”
“You’re way too nice,” Reiner grumbles, shaking his head. “If you start thinking like that, you’ll start indulging him, too. Just cut it off at the source. Put him in his place.”
Did Reiner miss the part where Kruger just climbed up the wall by running straight at it? Even if Bertolt wants to, he gets the feeling he won’t be able to keep up. Not to mention, none of the new recruits have made it to breakfast except for Kruger.
“Ah, that was too much,” Colt groans as he walks into the canteen. He grabs his food and depressingly sits down by himself.
Bertolt feels a bit guilty for feeling glad that he’s not Colt. From what he understands, Colt’s uncle was accused of treason a few years back. Colt said that he joined the military in hopes bringing their family out of grace. But with how much he struggles to keep up in the Warrior Division, Bertolt can’t help but to wonder why Colt is still here. Is it Magath’s quiet way of keeping his eyes on someone who might betray the country? But that doesn’t seem like something Magath would do. Perhaps, it was orders from the top?
Then again, it’s probably none of Bertolt’s business.
“Unless it’s shooting, I doubt I’ll be able to do that,” Bertolt admits.
Reiner snorts. “You’re just not giving yourself enough credit. You’re a really cool guy-”
“He is, really?” Kruger asks with a teasing smile.
He glances at the two of them with an amused quirk of the eyebrow. He’s holding his half-finished meal tray in his hands without making any move to sit down with them.
But Reiner seems to not realize that it’s Kruger who just spoke, because Reiner nods happily.
“That’s right! Bertolt’s smart and cool! The only thing he’s missing is confidence. But once he has that, he’ll be able to outdo even…”
Reiner trails off when he realizes that Kruger is sniggering at him.
“Pfft! Hahahahaha! Smart and cool! What part of this guy is smart and cool? Hey, hey! Bertolt, c’mon, show off how smart you are! Show me how cool you are!”
Bertolt wants to cry. Reiner seems to be shooting him apologetic looks, but that’s not really helpful now, is it?
“I-I’m not… s-smart or cool,” Bertolt manages out slowly.
Kruger’s laughter quietens to chuckles. He grins at Bertolt with a softness that catches Bertolt off-guard. “Yeah, I know.”
“H-have you finished eating?” Bertolt asks, changing the topic in hopes that no one realizes just how crazy his heart is hammering in his chest.
He motions at Kruger’s half-finished meal. Actually, more so than half-finished, it looks more like Kruger picked and chose what he wanted to eat. The scrambled egg and bacon are both finished. But the apple, the yogurt, and the bagel are all untouched. In fact, the bagel isn’t even cut in half or cooked. Was he planning from the get-go to not eat it? What a waste. Wouldn’t it be better to choose something else than a bagel at that point?
“S-something like that.”
Reiner shoots Bertolt an annoyed glare like a warning. But he doesn’t say anything about it. Instead, he also glances at Kruger’s tray with slight concern.
“You should eat more. Our afternoon drills are nothing to scoff at. Breakfast is…”
When Reiner randomly trails off, Bertolt glances at him. Then following his gaze, he looks to Kruger’s blushing face as Kruger struggles to hide his trembles. The green eyes that seemed so accusing before refuse to meet their eyes.
It’s so baffling that Bertolt has no idea how to react.
Why is Kruger acting like this? Does he not like getting lectured? Does he feel like he’s being looked down on? Huh? So he doesn’t mind mocking Bertolt all he wants but gets shy when he gets teased? But he was so graceful about losing during the obstacle for shooting.
Could it be? For dinner last night, Kruger came and sat down next to Bertolt without any prompt. But perhaps he’s feeling shy because Reiner is here? Then perhaps the problem isn’t that he’s here to mock Bertolt but that he felt lonely to eat by himself?
“Did you want to eat with us?”
Kruger’s already red face turns a shade darker. “N-n-not p-p-p-particularly! B-but since you’re insisting and begging me so much, I have no choice!”
His voice is still trembling. Even his ears and neck are flushed red. But he sits down next to Bertolt with gusto and pride. As if to show off how calm he is, he grabs his yogurt and…
Struggles to open it.
Bertolt assumes it’s because Kruger’s hands are shaking too much to properly grip the lid.
It’s clumsy. Clumsy and childish in ways Bertolt never thought someone in the military would behave. He wonders if Reiner is right and he's indulging Kruger far too much.
Chuckling lightly, Bertolt takes the yogurt from Kruger’s hands and opens it for him.
“Bertolt, are you serious right now?” Reiner asks, looking tired.
But how can Bertolt focus on that when Kruger beams so brightly?
“Thanks!” Kruger says.
He accepts the yogurt without a second thought and stirs it happily. But then it must have occurred to him exactly what happened, because he freezes. His eyes dilate into almost cat-like slits as he turns to Bertolt with a scowl.
“T-that doesn’t make you cool! You’re not cool at all!”
Bertolt laughs. “I’m not even a little bit cool?”
Kruger pouts at his yogurt and refuses to answer. Bertolt can’t believe how endearing he finds this.
“Hey, why do you want us to die painfully?” Reiner asks.
There’s a small pause as Kruger stares at his yogurt for a second longer than necessary. Then he shrugs.
“Just ‘cause,” he says.
Reiner and Bertolt exchange a look of alarm. That’s really not the reason why, right? This guy didn’t go out of his way to target the two of them just for shits and giggles?! That’s just… ridiculous and stupid! How can someone that Sergeant Jaeger recommended turn out like this?
Kruger eats a spoonful of yogurt and seems to think about something. Then he picks up the bagel on his tray and puts it on Bertolt’s.
“W-what are you…?”
Then he grabs Bertolt’s buttered toast and takes it.
Bertolt is too shocked to say anything about it. So Reiner beats him to the punch.
“What the hell is wrong with you?! Why did you get a bagel then?”
Kruger doesn’t answer. Instead, he bites into the toast and stares at the two of them with a mocking grin for not stopping him faster. With just three bites, he finishes the entire toast and licks his fingers clean as if proving a point.
“It’s like that,” he says without much fanfare.
“H-huh?!” Reiner exclaims. Bertolt feels the same.
“Something so super unimportant to others that they all forgot. But to me, it meant the world.”
“It’s a piece of bread!” Reiner points out, baffled. “Why the hell are you attaching that much value to it?!”
Kruger pouts at his yogurt again, looking like a rebuked child this time.
Bertolt covers his mouth to stop himself from laughing out loud. Reiner is shooting him annoyed glares, so he tries to focus on the bagel instead.
“It’s not a problem. As you’ve said, it’s just bread, Reiner,” Bertolt says. He stands up with the bagel. “I’ll just toast it.”
Kruger’s head whips toward Bertolt in alarming speed. He stares at Bertolt in wide eyes of disbelief, those green eyes just slightly panicked. The reason why Bertolt’s heart rate increased at the sight is because of the suddenness of the movement. That’s all.
“I-is something wrong?” Bertolt asks him.
But Kruger doesn’t answer. He just continues to watch Bertolt like a frightened… Bunny? Deer? Bertolt feels like those animals don’t quite fit Kruger. Because it’s not just fear or panic. It’s also…? Bertolt wonders what that emotion on Kruger’s face is.
“I-if it’s nothing then…”
When Bertolt leaves the table, he hears the chairs clatter behind him. Reiner says something sharp, but Kruger doesn’t seem to care. He moves to stand next to Bertolt, keeping pace with him evenly as he did during their morning run.
Bertolt would’ve thought Kruger was like a puppy, but the harsh glare makes him reconsider.
“Did… you want to defeat me in bagel toasting?” Bertolt tries to guess.
Kruger looks at Bertolt like he’s an idiot. “The hell are you talking about? This is embarrassing as it is. Don’t make a scene.”
“Embarrassing…? What is?”
“Are you seriously going to make me say it?” Kruger growls, looking annoyed. There’s a faint blush on his cheeks, Bertolt note. “I-I mean toasting. How… do you do it?”
“I… think I misheard. Did you say-”
“Ahhh, shut up! I know it’s stupid, alright? But there’s no toaster. How the hell do you do it?”
Slowly, it dawns to Bertolt exactly what Kruger is talking about. He quickly covers his mouth to stop himself from laughing. Once he’s sure that he’s not just going to laugh, he tries to school his expression to be neutral.
“Have you… never used a toaster oven before?”
Bertolt smiles. “I’ll teach you.”
Kruger stares at Bertolt for a second longer, possibly searching for any sign of mischief. He must not have found any because he relaxes slightly.
“T-thanks,” he mumbles. Then he adds lightly, “Didn’t think you’d be the type to help others.”
“That’s rather rude,” Bertolt points out.
Kruger blinks. He tilts his head to the side in confusion. “Is it?”
… Could it be that this guy didn’t realize threatening to kill someone painfully is rude? T-there’s no way, right? But he also said he doesn’t know how to use a toaster oven…
Surprisingly, the one that Sergeant Jaeger recommended turned out to be a cute airhead.
“D-don’t worry about it. Pfft…”
“Then why are you laughing? Hey Bertolt!”
There are six new recruits left by the afternoon. Of them, only Kruger doesn’t look haggard and tired.
This must just be the difference between normal people and someone recommended by Sergeant Jaeger.
“Tch. Couldn’t even last this long?” Commander Magath says, clicking his tongue. “The next part of the test is simple. Each of the six of you will participate as the leader to rescue this bunny doll from our barbaric enemy. The current Warriors will take turns in being your squad members or your enemy. More details will be given by the instructors. Draw a number from this hat to determine your order.”
In Bertolt’s year, the drill was an escape scenario. They had to lead a group of unwilling Warriors to “escape” from the other new recruits. Bertolt thought he failed pretty badly, but this test isn’t something to determine whether you get dropped from the Warrior Division or not. Rather, it’s just something for the instructors and Magath to determine each of the new recruits’ mental thought process.
But since they don’t explain it in those terms, most new recruits end up panicking pretty badly.
Bertolt is rather curious as to how Kruger is feeling. Will he display that arrogance like when he looked down at Reiner and Bertolt from on top of the wall? Will he be flustered like he was during breakfast when he was trying to ask to join them? Or maybe he-
“I’ll be the first to go,” Kruger says.
Magath stares at the number one written on the lot that Kruger drew. “You’ll be going last.”
“Eh? But this says-”
“You’re going last.”
Kruger looks calm. No, it’s not that he’s calm. It’s more that he…
“Doesn’t he look bored?” Porco asks, an annoyed snarl on his face. “He’s looking down on us, isn’t he?”
Bertolt has a really bad feeling about this.
The first five of the new recruits are clearly so terrified out of their minds to form any decent enough of a plan. It doesn’t matter if you’re supposed to help them or be their enemy. It’s completely and utterly a pain to try and calm them.
Bertolt knows that it’s cold, but he ends up feeling irritated to try and keep up with their rambles. Reiner must have understood his feelings, because he periodically gives Bertolt a reassuring squeeze of the shoulder.
“What the hell did Magath see in those guys?” Pieck mumbles.
“They’ll be dropped,” Marcel remarks lightly.
Porco raises a brow. “No way. I thought you can’t get dropped during these.”
“Normally, yeah. But I don’t think these guys were chosen because they’re good.”
When they all stare blankly at Marcel, he gives them a soft sigh.
“You guys didn’t think it’s strange that so many new recruits suddenly showed up? Commander Magath prefers quality over quantity. Most likely, Magath got annoyed that this is the first time Sergeant Jaeger recommended someone and grabbed bunch of people to put Kruger down. He, like us, probably thought it was due to nepotism.”
That seems so childish. But because Marcel is the one to have said it, Bertolt can’t dismiss it as a silly notion.
“Since you’ve thought it this far through, I’m assuming you have a plan or some sort?” Annie asks.
Marcel laughs coldly. “What’s with that? A plan? What kind of a person are you guys taking me for? But if my guess is correct, Magath won’t do anything even if we get a little rough.”
Bertolt shudders. Just how rough is Marcel talking about? Rough enough to knock Kruger out of commission? But it can’t be too harsh, since they don’t want to incur Sergeant Jaeger’s wrath.
“I-isn’t that… mean?”
He can feel all of their gazes on him. Shoot. He shouldn’t have said anything. Just keep his head lowered like this. Just try to ignore-
“What are you saying, Hoover? He said he’ll make you die a painful death. Then he humiliated you during our morning run. Don’t you want revenge for being mocked that much? Oh? Maybe the reason why you’re so reluctant is because you’ve already accepted that you can never win against him? My, Hoover! You’re such a disgrace.”
“Marcel, that’s enough,” Reiner growls.
“It seems I spoke too much. My bad! But Braun, aren’t you uncomfortable, too? Your beloved is getting threatened.”
“Reiner and I are not like that,” Bertolt says meekly.
As soon as those words are out of his mouth, he finds himself thinking about Kruger’s anger during dinner. He never quite figured out why Kruger reacted like that. And when he takes a peek at everyone’s expressions, it doesn’t look like they’re on the same wavelength as Kruger. Then why was Kruger so angry? Does it mean anything?
“But since you’re so against me, why don’t you stop me, Hoover? I’ll trade spots with you so you can be Kruger’s ally next. Try not to be too disappointing.”
Kruger glances at Bertolt and Reiner without much enthusiasm, not that Bertolt can blame him. But then his eyes land on Porco. Kruger’s brows furrow, and he tilts his head to the side.
“S-sorry,” Kruger says with a small dip of the head. “I don’t remember you.”
Porco rolls his eyes. “Porco Galliard.”
“I’ve heard that somewhere.” Kruger taps his chin, clearly lost in thought.
“You don’t have time for that. C’mon, what’s the plan to rescue Mr. Rabbit?” Porco prompts.
Kruger shakes his head, refusing to budge. He seems to think carefully about something before suddenly snapping his fingers. “Nutcracker!”
But Kruger seems satisfied with that because he chuckles lightly to himself. He then points to the three of them.
Then he points to himself.
Then he holds his hands out before them as if inviting them to speak up.
To be honest, Bertolt thought there would be more mockery. He thought that Kruger would throw his head back and laugh at them, mocking them for having to follow his lead. But Kruger does none of that.
Instead, he calmly and quietly leads them through the the make-shift enemy base created with barrel drums and heavy crates.
Kruger surprises them all by taking the scout position. He places Reiner right behind himself. Then he stares at Porco and Bertolt like they’re pieces of puzzles he isn’t sure how to put together. Just when they’re ready to offer suggestions, he just shrugs and tells the two of them to hang near the back and shoot whenever they see an opportunity.
It’s such a lax take on this situation. Even if it’s just a fake drill, shouldn’t he take it a bit more seriously?
“That guy pisses me off.”
Bertolt glances at Porco, whose eyes are boring holes on Reiner’s and Kruger’s backs.
“We… shouldn’t be talking,” Bertolt says.
Porco doesn’t even glance at him. He just continues on with the drill as if he didn’t say anything at all.
Bertolt doesn’t understand these people.
Kruger holds his hand up, ordering them silently to pause. He makes a small gesture for Reiner to back him. Then he rounds the corner with his paintball-loaded rifle ready. Whatever he found must have been nothing important, because Kruger relaxes and motions for them to follow him.
Bertolt feels himself tensing. From the layout they’ve followed, this should be where the rabbit doll is being held. But they haven’t encountered anyone. Then they have to be waiting here, shouldn’t they?
Then this place is most definitely-
The world is filled with gunshots as bright red of the paintballs splatter everywhere. Bertolt is faintly aware of Reiner’s shout and then something tackling him down. But the sound is too loud (the pain is too much) for him to properly focus until a few seconds later.
Angry green eyes are the first thing that Bertolt registers.
But the anger seems to ebb just a bit when Kruger sees that Bertolt is fine.
“I got careless. Of course, it's an ambush. Sorry. Both Reiner and Galliard are down. They… protected us so we can get out.”
With a soft sigh, Kruger motions for Bertolt to come close. Then he starts digging in the dirt with his finger to draw the layout. He marks where the bunny doll is with a circle. Then he begins to mark with X where the enemies are standing.
“The best thing might be for me to run in and distract them. While that’s happening, you get Mr. Bunny out.”
From the beginning, Kruger never asked any of them what their abilities are. He never bothered to learn their strengths and weaknesses. Isn’t that because he believed they would just weigh him down? So he came with the intention of rescuing the bunny doll by himself without relying on the rest of them.
But that’s not how things will work out in the field.
“Kruger,” Bertolt says, “I can shoot them down. When you run in, go for the bunny. I’ll cover you.”
He doesn’t know what that look in Kruger’s eyes mean. He has no idea how to even begin to understand what those eyes mean.
But then Kruger dips his head down, a light blush on his face. And huh?
Is Kruger smiling?
“Okay. I’ll trust you.”
It wasn’t that Kruger didn’t believe in them or their abilities.
It’s that Kruger was waiting on them to reach out to him.
Honestly, what a troublesome guy. He's quite awkward when it comes to communicating, isn't he?
“Leave it to me.”
With a silent signal from Bertolt, Kruger takes off running. Bertolt then snipes from where he is, bringing down Annie and Colt with his first four shots. But there’s just one thing that they forgot to account for.
They’re facing against Marcel, who does know Bertolt’s strengths and weaknesses.
“Kruger, give up,” Marcel calls out cheerfully.
He has his rifle pointed at Bertolt’s back. Instead of being a support, he ended up being the reason why Kruger failed. Bertolt can’t bring himself to look at Kruger’s face.
“I’ve got your friend right here! Everyone else is dead. What’s your next plan?”
There’s a soft sigh.
Bertolt imagines it’s disappointment. Of all the things he could have done, he-
He doesn’t expect to be shot in the chest.
But the bright blue paint on his front clearly tells him that he has been “killed.” Slowly, he looks up just in time to see Kruger shoot the bunny doll. Then Kruger turns the rifle to himself.
“W-w-wait! What are you doing?” Marcel asks.
But it’s too late.
Kruger pulls the trigger, ending the match.
Bertolt’s knees give out. He falls to the ground, staring at Kruger in disbelief.
“You… why did you…?” Marcel seems to be just as stumped as Bertolt is.
But the difference is that Marcel’s legs are stronger than Bertolt’s. He doesn’t collapse to the ground. Instead, he marches over to Kruger and grabs him by the front of his uniform.
“Why did you do that? Why the hell would you ever decide that that’s the correct thing to do?”
Kruger looks at him warily. “Of course, it’s the only correct thing to do. There was no way for me to fight both you and that girl hiding over there.”
“But you could’ve surrendered. You could’ve found a way out later, using all your resources. Why the hell did you kill everyone on your team and then yourself?” Marcel demands.
“I don’t understand. Why wouldn’t I do this? The most important thing is to prevent any information from leaking out. As long as no one is left alive, no information will be accidentally given away. The only correct thing to do in this situation is to kill everyone from my side.”
Marcel’s grip on Kruger’s uniform loosens. Kruger seems to have waited for that. He knocks Marcel’s hands off of him and walks towards Bertolt. Bertolt stares at Marcel’s frozen form for a second longer before turning his attention Kruger, who is now standing before him.
Green eyes regard him almost carelessly before-
Kruger kicks Bertolt on the chest, knocking him fully down onto the ground. Then he steps on Bertolt’s chest and glares down with a cold calm that shakes Bertolt’s core.
“Don’t ever think you’ll die that easily when we’re out on the field.”
That’s all he says before he leaves.
Bertolt wonders why he feels so guilty and ashamed for letting Kruger down instead of frightened by those words.
As Marcel predicted, the only new recruit left by dinner is Kruger.
Magath makes the announcement without much enthusiasm. It seems Marcel’s guess was correct that he gathered all those other new recruits in hopes of bringing down Sergeant Zeke’s choice.
“Take tonight off to fool around all you want. Starting tomorrow, we’ll begin training for the next mission. Marcel, make sure Kruger is caught up on basic commands.”
Bertolt glances at Marcel, who still looks shell-shocked. It might be for the best if someone else does that for him. Bertolt wonders if it's too presumptuous of him to volunteer himself.
“Hey,” Porco says as he sits down next to Kruger during dinner. It seems that Bertolt was beaten to the punch.
“H-hello?” Kruger stares blankly at Porco for a second longer and gives a sheepish dip of the head. “S-sorry. Who are you again?”
Porco scowls. “The hell’s that supposed to mean? Porco Galliard! I was on your side today.”
“On my…? Oh! Nutcracker!”
“… What does that mean?”
Kruger leans in close very seriously. “Do you want me to tell you?”
“Hey Hoover, can I talk to you?” Marcel asks, disrupting Bertolt from eavesdropping any further.
“O-of course,” Bertolt says. He would much prefer if Marcel left him alone, to be honest. But he doesn’t dare say something like that.
“That Kruger guy-”
“You asshole! I’ll fucking kill you!” Porco shouts, standing up from his seat.
For whatever strange reasons, his face is beat red but it’s not enough to hide the… bite marks on his cheek? He grabs Kruger by the front of his uniform, but Kruger doesn’t seem bothered. In fact, he smirks like he's won a fight.
“Sorry, Hoover. Let me take care of that first,” Marcel sighs. He stands up to approach his brother. “Let him go, Porco.”
“… N-nutcracker…?” Kruger asks, pointing at Marcel. Then he points at Porco. “But you’re also Nutcracker…? T-there’s two of you?”
“The hell are you saying? We don’t even look alike!” Porco snaps. But it seems his anger has cooled somewhat, because he releases Kruger.
Kruger frowns as he stares at the two Galliard brothers in confusion. It looks like he has encountered a hard question and has no idea where to begin to solve it. Bertolt thinks he probably shouldn’t find that so cute.
“Bertl, it’s rude to stare, you know,” Reiner says as he sits down next to Bertolt.
Despite those words, Reiner’s eyes are on the three and what they might do next. Then again, it kind of feels like the rest of the Warriors are all watching, too.
“I’m Marcel. Porco and I are brothers. I was your enemy today.”
Kruger stares blankly at Marcel for a second before realization flashes on his face. He makes a small “o” shape with his mouth and nods at the two brothers.
Marcel pauses as if he isn’t sure how to continue this. Bertolt finds his curiosity piqued. Is this it? Marcel is going to declare Kruger as his personal target? Or is this-
“Speak your mind,” Kruger tells Marcel.
After another second of hesitation, Marcel takes a deep breath. “If you dare do what you did while we’re out on the field, I will personally put a bullet in you. We of the Warrior Division don’t do something as barbaric as killing each other in an emergency.”
“So it’s better to let the enemy have information?” Kruger asks, voice tinged with belligerence.
“No. It means trust the people next to you. None of us will accidentally give away information. So there’s no need to kill your allies. It makes more sense to regroup with them to find a way to get out together.”
Kruger slowly lowers his gaze to the ground. Did he understand what Marcel is asking of him? But when Kruger looks back up, there’s confusion in those green eyes of his.
“What… does that mean?”
Marcel sighs. “It means stop being trigger happy. You can’t take back killing someone. But we can take back hostages.”
“N-not that… I-I mean…” Kruger looks down at the ground again, a faint blush on his cheeks. “‘Allies.’ What… does that mean?”
Reiner makes a small scoffing sound. Bertolt pokes him to remind him that he’s not alone.
“Hey, look at me,” Marcel commands.
Kruger does as bid. His clear green eyes snap to Marcel, waiting for an explanation as easily as one waits for orders. Like this, he seems almost a perfect soldier.
Marcel doesn’t bother with a definition. Instead, he motions at the people in the room.
“The Warriors. You may be a new recruit, so this might not have sunk in for you. But that’s what we are. Allies. When things go wrong, we protect each other. Do you understand?”
“Then why is it okay for you to put a bullet in me?” Kruger asks.
From the way Kruger’s brows are furrowed, it’s clear that Marcel’s words are not getting to him. Does he have trust issues? That would explain why Kruger never bothered to make the first step to get to know them. But…
It’s not quite true to say that it’s the first time someone told them they’ll trust Bertolt. Because being on the field with the other Warriors is the same thing as having full confidence that the others will have your back. But to be told that so clearly by someone like Kruger is…
Bertolt isn’t a complete idiot.
He knows that that was an important moment for Kruger, too.
“T-that’s not…” Marcel sighs and rubs the back of his neck. “You know, I thought that you were a bit odd with how boldly you challenge Hoover. But you’re just lacking in common sense, huh?”
“Kruger, I… have no intention of disappointing you again. I’ll properly cover you next time. I am your ally,” Bertolt blurts out, standing up.
Green eyes turn to him in surprise.
Faintly, Bertolt is aware that the rest of the Warriors are staring at him, too. But he can’t register any of that. Actually, how can anyone look at him right now?
Can’t they see how brilliant Kruger’s smile is?
“Oh, I see. ‘Allies!’” Kruger says, laughing delightedly.
Bertolt feels his own cheeks reddening. It’s absolutely enchanting. When Kruger isn’t threatening to kill Bertolt, he’s so-
Kruger points to Bertolt with a bright smile. “People you kill!”
Ah. He should’ve seen this one coming.
“No! You don’t get it at all!”
Chapter 3: But you still reached out with your trembling hands
Warning: Beginnings of politics/war background. So there's a lot of history crammed in here.
It’s rare for all the Warriors to sit together like this when not for an official reason. Bertolt wonders if Kruger realizes the significance of what Marcel asked of them.
From the curious look on Kruger’s face, Bertolt highly doubts it.
“What’s this?” Kruger asks, pointing at the meat on Annie’s plate with his fork.
“Can I have a bite?”
Despite the question, Kruger has already moved to stab the fish. Annie quickly deflects with her knife. She spins it threateningly in her hand before pointing it at Kruger.
“Don’t be rude. Get your own.”
“Kruger, you can have a bite of mine,” Pieck says quickly with a calming smile. “I got the same thing that Annie did.”
Bertolt doesn’t know the name of the look in Kruger’s eyes when he stares at Pieck for a bit. But he knows enough that it wasn’t anything friendly.
Kruger looks away and instead turns to Reiner’s tray. Without any word, he stabs the mango pudding Reiner was carefully saving for dessert.
“Whu… Why?” Reiner asks, staring at him in shock.
Unlike the other food items, they’re only allowed one dessert per day. So most of the time, they all opt to eat dessert for dinner (since that’s when all the best desserts are served), if they eat one at all. Reiner typically doesn’t bother unless it’s pudding day. His one source of joy, he once mentioned as a joke. Bertolt offered to get one to give to Reiner, but Reiner insisted that the joy of the pudding is that he can eat only one per month.
And with the way his conversation with Eren is going, Bertolt fears that Reiner is about to lose his one source of joy.
“But why would you stab it because of that?”
Kruger licks his fork, looking quite enthralled by the taste of the pudding left on it. He looks to Reiner with excited eyes.
“No,” Reiner says firmly. “I’m not giving it to you. If you want it, go get one for yourself.”
Bertolt can’t recall whether or not Kruger already ate his dessert. Actually, does he know that he can get one? It’s possible that no one told him, right?
There’s a soft sigh before Marcel picks up the pudding on his own tray and slides it across the table for Kruger.
Kruger stares at it for a second before sliding it back with a curious look on his face.
“Didn’t you want one?” Marcel asks, looking confused.
“Oh! It’s mine?” Kruger’s eyes brighten. “Really? I can have it?”
“It’s yours,” Marcel assures him. He slides the pudding back.
Bertolt wonders if he’s the only one who fears that it might be poisoned. He has half a mind to say something, but Reiner stops him with a look. If this is really poisoned, Reiner’s look seems to say, then it’s to their advantage. Bertolt feels like that's a bit cowardly. But it's not like he has any plans on fighting Kruger and his "die painfully" mentality.
This time, Kruger takes the pudding. He seems to be almost bouncing with energy as he stabs the pudding with his fork. With a grin of thanks to Marcel, he finally takes a bite. He beams happily like a small child. It makes Bertolt consider getting another for him, even though he’s already finished his before starting his main meal.
“You like sweets, huh?” Porco says, looking amused.
Kruger nods, grinning brightly. “I haven’t had sweets in a long time. It’s nice.”
“Want to get another one?” Porco asks.
It’s such an absent-minded question. But it makes everyone else tense. Kruger glances at the rest of them and returns to his pudding without any remark. Bertolt gets the feeling Kruger picked up on their disbelief. Just a little, he wonders if this childish behavior of his is just a front to hide behind.
If so, then it’s working quite well.
“Porco, what are you saying? It’s one per person. You already ate yours, so they won’t let you get another one,” Marcel remarks, a glint in his eyes that seems much more dangerous than it should be.
Bertolt realizes that he might have been too positive because Marcel looked like he was starting to warm up to Kruger. But he should have realized that Marcel (and it looks like Porco, too) was just waiting for a chance to strike. Following the thread of conversation, they’ll most definitely suggest something along the lines of stealing pudding from the kitchen.
If that happens, how should Bertolt go about helping Kruger? He and Reiner might be able to take Porco down if they work together. But Marcel? He doesn’t think any of them can win against Marcel. Then would it be better to help sneak into the kitchen instead? But if Commander Magath hears about this, they'll all be in huge trouble.
“I don’t need another,” Kruger says. He puts his empty plate of pudding on Reiner’s tray.
And that, that really should have been a hint.
Without care that they’re all watching his move, Kruger grabs Reiner’s pudding and takes it for his own. Reiner, like the rest of them, is caught off-guard by the brazen move. By the time he grabs Kruger by the arms, Kruger has already stabbed the pudding with his fork.
“What are you doing?” Reiner asks, his expression dark.
Kruger stares at Reiner’s expression blankly for a second before he grins. There’s absolutely nothing friendly about it, make no mistake. His eyes look livid, giving an almost beastly touch to his grin.
“Making you suffer.”
Reiner shudders. His grip must have loosened, because Kruger too easily pulls his arms free. Then Kruger digs into the pudding, keeping eye contact with Reiner all the while.
Torture, Bertolt learns, can look like this.
“He’s such a damned freak!” Reiner complains as he punches the wall.
The two of them are in the hallway, the only place to get any semblance of privacy for short bursts of time. Bertolt leans against the wall next to the window, wishing he knew the words to say to help calm Reiner. But he’s never been a talker, and, to be honest, he doesn’t think there is anything he can say or do to make things better.
“What the hell? Make me suffer? Since when did that become about taking my pudding?!”
It seems like the pudding shook Reiner a lot more than anything else Kruger has said. Bertolt wonders if that’s because Reiner didn’t take Kruger’s threat that seriously outside of training and drills.
“I wonder what he gets out of it…”
Reiner glances at Bertolt with a scowl. “Who cares? Bertolt, you’re being waaaaaaay too attached to this guy! We should just…”
From the way Reiner is staring out the window, it’s clear that something outside caught his attention. Bertolt follows his gaze and sees Kruger outside again. Just like the night before, he is blowing bubbles.
“… Hey,” Reiner says softly, “yesterday, too. It was Kruger outside, wasn’t it?”
Bertolt has seen Reiner angry five times in total. The first was when one of their classmate in 3rd grade accused Bertolt of theft. The second was when Reiner couldn’t defend Bertolt against the bigger bullies in 5th grade. The third was when Reiner learned that he and his mom was the “other family” that his dad had been so carefully hiding. The fourth was when Reiner found out that the bullying never stopped. The fifth was when Reiner gripped Bertolt’s shoulders and asked him why he didn’t want to change.
What all those times had in common was that Reiner became angry for someone else. Usually, it was for Bertolt’s sake. Reiner often said it was because Bertolt won’t get mad that Reiner had no choice but to get mad in his place.
But in this moment right now, who is Reiner getting mad for?
“W-wait, Reiner! Where are you going?”
There’s no answer from his friend. Reiner just runs out of there. But even without an answer, Bertolt can make a good guess.
His eyes trail outside to Kruger cluelessly blowing bubbles.
Which Kruger will he face if he follows after Reiner now? Would it be the cold-eyed man who glared down at Bertolt while promising a painful death?
By the time Bertolt gets there, Kruger is dodging Reiner’s punches while cheerfully blowing bubbles around them. Reiner looks more and more frustrated with each consecutive dodge. Not that Bertolt can blame him. It looks like Kruger isn’t even taking him seriously.
“You bastard! Didn’t you say you’ll make me suffer? So why don’t you take me seriously?” Reiner shouts.
Bertolt feels that this is making Reiner suffer more than a simple fight ever would. But he gets the feeling now is not the time to point out something like that.
“Zeke said not to cause trouble,” comes the off-handed answer.
Reiner stills. “So you won’t fight back? No matter what I ask of you?”
Kruger puts his bubble making toys away. Then he takes a stance that looks far too similar to Annie’s. Reiner grins at the sight. But Bertolt doesn’t think this is anything to be glad about. He would much prefer if Reiner just lets this go. After all, Reiner has never been able to best Annie in a fight. Bertolt is certain that Reiner has no chance against Kruger.
It’s just as Bertolt predicted.
Reiner ends up on the ground, quite similar to how they get thrown down whenever anyone fights against Annie. Kruger isn’t even winded.
“You always put emphasis on your big body,” Kruger says softly. He squats next to Reiner and pokes his cheek. “That’s what slows you down. The bigger you are, the more precise your movements must be. If not, you’ll end up watching everyone die again.”
It’s not at all how Bertolt imagined Kruger would gloat. He thought it would be louder. Rougher. Possibly filled with gloating laughter and teasing smirks.
Then Kruger grabs Reiner by the nose. His green eyes cold as he glares Reiner down.
“So come after me. Again and again. I’ll help you hone your senses just like before. And in return, I’ll kill everything you hold dear. That’s only a fair trade, don’t you think?”
Reiner frees his nose from Kruger’s grip. He rights himself so that he’s sitting up to face Kruger.
“Have we met before?”
Bertolt wonders what that look on Kruger’s face is. Something tragic like Kruger wants to cry. Yet at the same time, it’s… gentle? No, that’s not the right word. Bertolt wishes he knew how to name that expression. But it’s nothing quite as simple as “gentle” or “kind.”
Kruger stands up, not bothering to answer Reiner’s question. He glances warily at Bertolt. And when Bertolt just holds his hands up in surrender, Kruger nods tiredly and walks back into the building. Bertolt doesn’t miss that one of the instructors are there, watching them.
“R-Reiner, are you okay?” Bertolt asks as he kneels next to his friend.
Nervously, he glances towards the instructor to see if they’re going to get scolded. But when he looks back up, he realizes that they’re gone. Did he see it wrong? Or was that instructor only there to watch Kruger? But why?
“H-huh? Bertolt? Y-you saw…? Sorry for making you see such a humiliating sight.”
Bertolt shakes his head. “No. You… You tried your best-”
“No, I really didn’t. I was too drunk on anger to properly formulate a plan.” Reiner sighs. “I just rushed in blindly and got my butt handed to me. It’s frustrating, but he’s right. I’ll just end up getting people hurt and killed if I’m that reckless.”
Bertolt squeezes Reiner’s shoulder and earns a grateful smile in return.
“But I think that confirms it. We did meet Kruger before, didn’t we?”
That strangely sad expression on Kruger’s face flashes in Bertolt’s mind. And now that he thinks about it, Kruger said that his grudge was something similar to bread, wasn’t it?
“I wonder what happened for him to be like this,” Bertolt wonders.
Reiner groans and stands back up. “Stop trying to understand him. It’ll be far easier to keep our distance.”
“But you’re going to try to get close, aren’t you?”
There’s a guilty look on Reiner’s face. It is replaced with a soft blush on his face that Bertolt thinks he might be imagining. It just makes no sense that Reiner is blushing right now.
“Well, you seem interested in him. And he’s pretty much decided on both of us, hasn’t he?”
Bertolt chuckles. “Looks like we’ll be suffering quite a lot before we die.”
“Don’t look so happy, you masochist.”
To be honest, Bertolt thought that Kruger would come after him again for the morning run. But Kruger doesn’t even glance in his or Reiner’s direction. Instead, he stretches and takes off when the go-ahead to start signal is given.
Almost as if he doesn’t register any of them, Kruger runs.
Kruger is humming lightly when Bertolt finally finishes his own morning run and gets to the canteen. He’s spreading jam on his bagel, looking quite satisfied with himself. It looks like he was able to toast it properly. Still humming lightly, Kruger licks the knife clean of jam and beams.
“You freak. You like sweets that much?” Porco asks as he sits down next to Kruger.
“Morning, Nutcracker,” Kruger tells him as he puts his bagel back down onto the plate. Then he picks up his fork.
Porco makes a face. “There you go again with that nickname. Just say Porco.”
Kruger stares at him carefully before stabbing the sausage on Porco’s plate. But Porco’s reaction is much faster than Reiner’s. He grabs Kruger’s hand before Kruger can eat the sausage.
“Ass!” Porco snaps.
He uses his own fork to take Kruger’s ham. Once they’ve safely “traded,” Porco releases Kruger’s hand.
“You sure you want to eat pig, Porco? What if it’s your brother?”
“I’ll kill you.”
“Don’t you two get along well?” Marcel asks as he sits down across from the two of them.
“Morning, Nutcracker,” Kruger greets him.
“Huh? Why are both of us Nutcrackers? Give him a different nick,” Porco demands.
Kruger ignores Porco’s complaint in favor of staring at Marcel’s plate. He must have come to a decision because he stabs Marcel’s bacon and steals it off the plate with deftness. Marcel doesn’t seem to mind as he just laughs and waves for Kruger to take it. Seeing that, Kruger makes a face and returns the bacon.
Porco’s eyebrows shoot up to his hairline. “Wait! How come you’re leaving him alone?”
“His smile creeps me out,” Kruger admits.
“Ah, yeah. I know what you mean.”
Marcel smiles brightly, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. “I can hear both of you, you know.”
Bertolt watches them for a second longer before sitting down at an empty table. It’s far enough away so that it doesn’t look like he’s listening in. But he’ll still be able to keep watch naturally since his seat is facing them. It doesn’t look like Marcel and Porco are waiting to trip Kruger up, but it won’t hurt to be on guard just in case.
He wonders why he feels so lonely.
After breakfast, those of the Warrior Division gather in the lecture room for briefing. The first person to walk in after them is Sergeant Jaeger. Following Marcel’s lead, the rest of them stand to salute.
But it seems the Sergeant isn’t here for them.
“Eren! How are you fitting in? Is everyone treating you well? Hm? Why are you saluting? Relax! Relax! It’s just me! Haha!”
Although those words aren’t aimed at the rest of them, they relax along with Kruger.
“Is it okay for you to single me out?” Kruger asks Jaeger with an uncomfortable smile.
“Why wouldn’t I want to single out my cute little brother?” Jaeger asks with a bright laugh. He pats Kruger’s shoulder.
Bertolt isn’t alone in being caught off-guard by those words, right? A quick glance around tells him that everyone looks just as shocked. But Jaeger’s an only child, isn’t he? He was an only child for as long as they’ve known him. And Bertolt’s pretty sure Jaeger mentioned in passing that only his grandparents were alive anymore.
So where could a little brother come from?
Because if Jaeger’s grandparents had another child, it would most definitely not be Jaeger’s “little brother” but “uncle.”
Bertolt thinks it might be for the best that he doesn’t think about complicated family issues like that.
“Zeke, what’s the point of me using a different last name if you blabber that out loud?” Kruger asks, looking tired.
Jaeger looks astonished at those words. “You’re using a different last name? But why? You are a Jaeger, through and through! Be proud of your family heritage!”
“That’s… not really the issue…”
There’s a small pause before Jaeger glances around the room. Then it must have sunk in, because his eyes light up.
“Oh, are you shy because of everyone? It’s fine! The members of the Warrior Division are good kids with good hearts. You guys are treating Eren well, aren’t you?”
The glint in Jaeger’s eyes feel more like a threat. Bertolt finds himself tensing despite himself. The only person to have “mistreated” Kruger is Marcel. But… Kruger… Er… Jaeger? But now that there’s two Jaegers, that’s a little hard to tell apart. B-but it’s not like Bertolt could just say “Eren.” … Can he? R-right. It’s far safer to just say Kruger.
“We’re best of friends!” Marcel announces with a smile that no one believes.
“We’re getting along,” Porco corrects with a dry look aimed at his brother.
“That’s good. If you weren’t, I would have personally taken care of you!” Sergeant Jaeger says with a light laugh that doesn’t reach his eyes.
“A-are you two… really brothers?” Pieck asks slowly.
“Settle down,” Commander Magath says as he walks into the room.
They all turn to salute him. He motions for them to stand down and pauses when he sees how close the two Jaegers are standing next to each other. His expression turns into that of utter disgust.
“You two let it slip, didn’t you?”
Sergeant Jaeger straightens. “With all due respect, sir, it makes more sense to tell the truth from the get-go. These kinds of secrecy will do nothing but sow dissent.”
Commander Magath look like he doesn’t believe the Sergeant at all. But he makes a small motion for Kruger. It seems to be a sign to introduce himself.
“Eren Jaeger,” Kruger says, turning to face the Warriors. “I have been placed in the Warrior Division as part of the…”
“War Allegiance,” Sergeant Jaeger supplies.
Kruger nods. “War Allegiance. In the Paradisian Military, I was part of the Special Operations Squad under Captain Levi. I believe I made my own skillset clear during the test drills and morning runs. Is there any opposition of me being here?”
“No opposition,” Pieck says smoothly.
The smile on Pieck’s face isn’t echoed on Kruger’s. Bertolt can’t tell if it’s because Kruger dislikes Pieck for some reasons or if it’s because they’re in a serious setting.
“A quick question,” Marcel says before they change topics. “I was under the impression that for the War Allegiance this time around, Paradis sent three scholars, not a Special Operations Squad member. Expand on that, if you will?”
The grin on Kruger’s face has no mirth. But it’s not as feral as it gets when he talks to Reiner or Bertolt. If anything, it gives Kruger a certain charm that Bertolt isn’t sure how else to describe. It’s not as frightening as when he glares at Reiner or Bertolt. But something a bit more… mature? Bertolt thinks that’s the right word. But a mature, charming grin doesn’t sound correct.
“I’m an expert on the enemy. There’s no one in the world that can rival me.”
Bertolt isn’t sure why, but he thought those kinds of words would normally be spoken with more pride and confidence. But the way Kruger says those words, it feels almost a bit like he’s ashamed of the knowledge. Bertolt can’t make heads or tails of it.
“If you’re done, let’s focus on the upcoming mission,” Magath says, bringing their attention back.
For as long as the Paradisian Country and Marleyan Country existed, they’ve been at war. They managed to sign an uneasy truce about 100 years ago when an epidemic broke out and swallowed most of the world. The goal, obviously, was to prioritize saving people from the epidemic over their age-old grudge. Since then, the two countries have developed a faux friendship built on trade and a struggle to keep their relationship as equal as possible.
The Marleyan Country’s southern border is with the ocean. Their northern border is shared with the Paradisian Country. Since their uneasy truce, the Marleyan Country shifted their focus towards the ocean against other navies and pirates. The Paradisian Country turned their attention to their north, the mountains.
To the shock of absolutely no scholars, both countries failed in their new exploits.
Marley’s focus has been on Paradis for so long that their navy could not keep up with the might on water. Paradis’ focus has been on fighting on flatlands against organized army. They had no chance against the guerrilla warfare tactics of the Mountain Tribes of north.
Faced with the tragic fact that both countries had focused too long on one another that they cannot keep up with anyone else, they came to a simple agreement.
As long as their weapons are pointed away from each other, they will cooperate in any way they can to aid the other in war efforts.
United as such, the two countries expanded westward. They felled the Caligem Empire, renowned for their navy and port cities, by forcing them to fight over land. With the navy of former Caligem Empire under their control, both countries were able to strengthen their navies and establish better trade routes. Both countries became satisfied with their efforts together and the results it brought about.
So they turned their attention to their east.
And while they were working together to take down Hizuru, Paradisian Country came under attack from the north.
The Barbarians of the Mountain Tribe.
Supposedly, in the past three years, the Mountain Tribe have gotten more and more vicious in their fights against Paradis. Bertolt wouldn’t be shocked if they have been working with those who are against the War Allegiance like Hizuru. That’s the only thing he could think of as to where the Mountain Tribe would have gotten rifles and other weapons to fight.
Possibly understanding that asking Marley’s help through the War Allegiance would force them to be in debt to Marley (after all, the Mountain Tribe doesn’t bother Marley in the slightest), the Paradis Country resisted in requesting for help until a few months ago.
“Captain Levi was heavily injured,” Kruger informs them. “It is doubtful that he will be able to return to battle. So this operation is more of check to see how well Marley can keep up with us in place of our Captain.”
They’re being underestimated, Bertolt can’t help but to think.
“At least, that’s how it’s written on paper. It’s not a check to see if you guys can keep up. You will keep up, do you understand?” Magath demands.
That makes more sense. Their Commander’s pride is riding on this, huh?
“To think that that Captain Levi could get so badly injured to be taken out of the frontlines,” Reiner mumbles.
Kruger grabs the front of Reiner’s uniform shirt, surprising them. His green eyes are set on Reiner in pure frustration that’s different from his usual cold anger.
“E-Eren, let him go!” Sergeant Jaeger says at the same time Commander Magath orders, “Stand down, Jaeg… Eren.”
Slowly, Kruger releases Reiner. He doesn’t apologize, and Reiner doesn’t ask him to.
It’s clear enough for everyone watching to realize that whatever happened to Captain Levi, Kruger holds himself responsible.
Although he’s finally getting to know more about Kruger, Bertolt doesn’t feel too satisfied.
He wonders why.
They use lunch as a short break.
Unsurprisingly, Sergeant Jaeger sits with Kruger. The two of them seem to be talking lightly to one another, possibly catching up on the last few days. But what really stands out to Bertolt is how easily the two of them switch from the common tongue, Marleyan language, and Paradisian language.
The common tongue, also known as the merchant’s language, was invented by traveling merchants few centuries ago. Since it was more convenient to have a language that everyone spoke, it more or less became the language of the world. But because it’s a language with basis in trading and business, there’s a lot you can’t express with it.
When you’re with your countrymen, it’s more comfortable for everyone to speak their mother language. Now that Bertolt thinks about it, maybe the reason why Kruger struggled with the word “allies” was because he hasn’t learned the equivalent for it in Paradisian. At the very least, that’s most likely why the two brothers are using three languages to communicate.
“I wonder what they’re talking about,” Marcel remarks lightly as he sits next to Bertolt and Reiner.
Bertolt thought that Porco would join them, but it seems that he must have not gotten the memo. Porco sits down next to Kruger, completely oblivious to Sergeant Jaeger’s cold stare. Kruger seems fine with it, though. He says something lightly that makes Porco blush but remark back. Sergeant Jaeger’s cold stare becomes freezing.
“M-Marcel, you’re not going to rescue your brother?” Bertolt asks.
From the satisfied smile on Marcel’s face, the answer is pretty obvious. Even though they’re brothers, Marcel can be so sadistic. Or perhaps it’s because they’re brothers that Marcel allows it? Bertolt figures it’s not his business.
Instead, he mentally sends well-wishes for Porco.
“I’m shocked Porco can just approach them,” Pieck remarks as she joins them for lunch.
Annie nods in agreement as she sits down, too. Few seconds later, Colt joins them. It’s so odd to have everyone sit together like this when they don’t have to. Bertolt can’t tell if this is a good thing, though. At the very least, he feels uncomfortable by this change.
“Then should we all just approach them, too?” Marcel suggests.
“Sergeant Jaeger looks like he’ll kill Porco,” Annie points out.
But Marcel’s smile doesn’t change. He stands back up and grabs his tray. Then he turns to look at all of them, a quiet but certain order for them to follow him.
It looks like they don’t have a choice in this matter.
“How unusual for all of you to eat together,” Sergeant Jaeger says sharply when the rest of them all join to eat together.
Neither Porco nor Kruger seems to mind.
“I think it’s important to make Kruger feel welcomed,” Marcel says. Then he pauses and turns to Kruger with a look that screams that this is something he’s planned and not at all something he just thought up. “We shouldn’t be calling you Kruger, should we? And it’ll be confusing if we call you-”
“Just say you want to call him Eren,” Porco groans.
Marcel smiles like he’s not bothered and holds his hands up in the air. “You caught me. May I call you Eren?”
Kruger shrugs and absentmindedly stabs the baby carrot on Porco’s plate. Porco grabs his hand and takes the fork. After eating his carrot, he returns Kruger’s fork back, smirking at his victory. Kruger grins back as if gearing for a challenge. As Bertolt suspected. These two get along well.
“Then Eren, how long did it take you to learn Marleyan language?” Marcel asks.
Bertolt feels like Marcel is trying more than usual to get to know Krug… Eren. A small glance at the others assure him that he’s not alone in that train of thought. Is it because of Sergeant Jaeger? Or does it more have to do with the fact that Eren, at this young of an age, worked together with the legendary Captain Levi?
“Hm? Some time,” Eren says without much thought. “I’m still not too good.”
“Is that why you struggled with the word ‘allies?’”
Sergeant Jaeger looks shocked at those words. “My bad, Eren! I forgot to tell you something so important! That word means…”
He says something in Paradisian that Bertolt isn’t familiar with. But whatever he said must not have been correct. Eren’s face turns beet red as he covers his mouth with wide eyes. Both Marcel and Pieck snap their heads over to Sergeant Jaeger in clear disbelief.
“Was that wrong?” Jaeger asks, suddenly alert.
“T-that word uh… Textbook definition-wise, it is correct. But it’s er…” Pieck flusters, looking really uncomfortable.
“It’s now used as slang for… er… casual bedmates,” Marcel finishes.
A second of pause passes before Jaeger’s face pales. “What?! How dare you have such dirty thoughts about my cute little brother?!”
Bertolt feels like that’s not the problem here.
“S-so that’s not what it means?” Eren asks. His face is still red, and he won’t meet anyone’s eyes.
“It isn’t. It’s more…” Marcel says another word that Bertolt doesn’t recognize.
Eren’s blush darkens. “I… s-see…”
Pieck lets out a squeak. “God no! That’s not it at all! Marcel, that word means ‘pet!’”
“It doesn’t… just mean that,” Eren supplies quietly.
Pieck covers her mouth, her own face darkening with a blush. This is probably the darkest blush Bertolt has ever seen on her. He wonders what that word means exactly for her to make that kind of a face.
“Why does every word you guys know all dirty?” Porco asks.
“Indeed,” Sergeant Jaeger adds, glaring the two down. “Why?”
“It’s easiest to learn a language if you start with things you like,” Eren says unhelpfully.
Both Marcel and Pieck are blushing now. Bertolt feels like this is possibly the only time they’ll ever see their two smartest members brought down so easily.
Eren laughs. “Kidding! I already know what it means. It’s…”
Whatever he said must also be wrong, though. Sergeant Jaeger, Marcel, and Pieck all shake their heads no. They try to correct him, each throwing around different words while arguing the nuance and context behind each word.
Just a bit, Bertolt wishes that he learned Paradisian.
They’re given fifteen minutes to stretch their legs after lunch before they have to return for more briefing. Reiner and Bertolt take the time to talk together in the hallway.
“I wonder why they bothered with all that disguise to begin with,” Reiner says.
“Probably to dodge any sign of favoritism before Eren shows how well he can keep up with us,” Bertolt points out.
Not to mention Eren’s skills become even that much more noticeable once you put him next to the twenty other new recruits. Then again, to compare his skills like that against new recruits was probably really mean of Commander Magath. Eren worked with the legendary Captain Levi, for pity’s sake. Bertolt’s heart really goes out to the new recruits.
“But this makes less sense. We never met Captain Levi or any of his squad members. So where or when did we meet him? How did he end up with such a huge grudge against us? And how the hell does bread fit into all of this?”
Bertolt thinks about it for a second longer. Then…
“Isn’t it possible that we’re mistaken? Maybe he has his words mixed up.”
Reiner gives Bertolt a look. “You don’t really believe that, do you?”
He recalls the cold look in those green eyes. He recalls the rough laughter that left Eren’s mouth as he declared that he would kill Reiner and Bertolt form atop of the wall. He recalls the too-sad of an expression on Eren’s face when Reiner asked him if they knew each other from before.
“Yeah,” Bertolt sighs, “I thought that was too wishful, too. But… it just seems sad. He is comfortable with saying such terrifying words but struggles to understand something like ‘allies.’”
“No matter what I say, you’re going to get involved with him, aren’t you?” Reiner asks lightly, echoing their talk from last night.
Bertolt finds himself grinning despite himself. “Well, you seem interested in him.”
“Look at this guy, all grown up already. You’re going to make me feel lonely, Bertolt!”
Chapter 4: When I woke up, I was achingly alone
Can I just say that AOT Tactics is everything I've ever wanted as an Eren fan?
Warning: Wolves and that's probably animal abuse.
“The mission will take place in one week,” Magath explains. “In that time period, you guys will be dropped in one of Paradis’ mountain for terrain training. We’ll pick you up on the other side of the mountain. Anyone who misses the deadline will be left there.”
No matter how Bertolt turns it in his head, one week seems like barely any time to get used to a mountain. For that matter, it seems a little excessive to be left behind for missing the deadline. But he’s not an idiot. He’s not going to voice something like that out loud when he might get in trouble for it.
“Tomorrow at 5 am, you guys will be taken to the mountain. It is expected that you guys will hunt your own food and survive for the remaining week without any camping gear. You will not be in contact with any of us. You will leave any phones or ways to contact the outside world behind. The Paradisian Military promised that there are no vicious wildlife nor any Mountain Tribe members there. But if they are, just kill them all.”
Just a little, it feels like Commander Magath might be overestimating what they can do.
“Until then, you guys are given freedom to do as you wish. Just remember to be ready for duty by 5 am.”
This freedom must have been something that Sergeant Jaeger has asked for, because he immediately turns to his little brother with an excited smile. At the very least, it looks like Bertolt and Reiner won’t have to worry about any “suffering” for the rest of the day.
“Should we hit the town?” Reiner suggests.
“I want to talk to my family,” Bertolt admits with a sheepish smile. “Let them know why I won’t be available for a bit, you know?”
Sometimes, Bertolt feels guilty for talking about his family in front of Reiner. But his friend is much too kind and always takes it all in good stride.
“Got it! I guess I’ll go in with Colt. You let your family know I’m doing well. And when we get our next time off, let’s go visit them!”
It’s at the tip of his tongue. He wants to ask Reiner about how his mom is doing. But Bertolt pushes it all down. It’s for the best that he doesn’t say anything.
“See you later!”
The next time Bertolt sees Eren, it’s two hours after dinner.
Reiner hasn’t returned from town yet (Bertolt thinks he won’t be seeing Reiner until morning). But Eren must have finished meeting with his brother, because he’s standing outside, blowing bubbles again.
Bertolt finds himself watching from a safe distance by the building.
Eren looks like he’s having fun by himself. He puffs his cheeks, determined to blow the biggest bubble that he can. When it pops before it can take off, he laughs brightly without care. It’s enchanting. Like watching a small child play a game they love dearly. But that’s not quite fitting of a comparison. Bertolt himself doesn’t think he’d ever enjoyed something like Eren is right now.
“Here you are,” Porco calls as he walks out of the building to stand next to Eren. “Blowing bubbles? Jeesh, you’re such a kid.”
Despite those words, Porco holds a king-sized candy bar out for Eren to take. Eren puts his bubble making toys away and grabs the candy bar. He sniffs it, looking confused, before trying to hand it back. Bertolt bets that Eren hasn't seen Marleyan candy bars before.
“It’s for you. It’s… my apology. And a bribe of sorts, I guess,” Porco says. He pushes the candy back to Eren.
“Because I was unfair in my judgement. Yeah, nothing came out of it, but it won’t sit right with me until I do at least this much. So I’m sorry, alright?”
Eren seems to be distracted by trying to pull on the wrapper with his teeth. Does he not know how to open that? Now that Bertolt thinks about it, Eren struggled to open the yogurt, too. At the time, Bertolt assumed it was because Eren was too flustered to open it, but maybe he actually doesn’t know how to open it? Do they not have things like these in Paradis?
Porco takes the candy and opens it for Eren. Then he returns it.
“Oh! Chocolate?” Eren asks delightedly.
It sounds like Eren enjoys the candy bar. There’s a sound of crinkling of the wrapper. A soft hum of Eren enjoying his treat. Then…
“Hehe. Nutcracker got me a candy with nuts.”
“I’ll kill you.”
There’s a peaceful silence between them. Bertolt imagines it’s because Eren is eating his candy. After a bit, Eren speaks up again.
“So what’s this a bribe for?”
“My brother,” Porco pauses as if he’s trying to think of a good way to explain without bad-mouthing Marcel. “He’s… pretty slow when it comes to other people. Like, he’s smart in terms of battle and stuff, but he sucks with people, you know? And his personality’s pretty bad, too. But he’s not really a bad guy… Usually. Er… Let’s just forget I said that. What I mean is, he might push you around just because. When he does, can you please forgive him?”
“Two?” Porco echoes, confused.
Eren nods. “Give me two candy bars each time. Then I’ll forgive him.”
Isn’t that way too cheap? Eren, it’s fine to ask for more.
“Tch! Stingy!” Porco growls. “Fine! Two candy bars every time Marcel fucks up. Happy?”
“Pfft! Hahaha! I wish I knew you before. You’re funny.”
“Yeah, yeah. Shut up. Remember your promise, alright?”
With his piece finished, Porco wishes Eren a good night and walks back into the building. This is probably the best time to do it. Bertolt should approach right now and talk to Eren. But he doesn’t know what they can possibly talk about. There has to be something, right? A topic or something nonsensical enough that he can approach and-
“Being watched all the time like that is creepy, you know,” Eren says aloud. He doesn’t glance towards Bertolt’s direction, but it feels like he knows exactly where Bertolt is hiding.
Since he’s been caught like this, he might as well as come out. Bertolt lets out a soft sigh.
“So sorry! I was just curious as to what you’re doing by yourself out here.”
It seems Bertolt isn’t the only one watching Eren.
Marcel makes himself known as he comes to stand next to Eren. He makes a small motion at the half-eaten candy bar in Eren’s hand.
“I thought that’s what Porco might do. He’s such a pushover at times… Hey, if you take advantage of his kind-hearted nature, I will-”
“Two candy bars,” Eren says.
Marcel pauses. “Y-you’re not actually going to charge him are you? C-c’mon! People say things like this all the time in the military! I haven’t fucked up!”
Bertolt mentally marks this as yet another win that Eren won from Marcel. To think there will be someone who can so easily knock Marcel down again and again like this…
“If you get me three candy bars, I won’t charge Porco,” Eren says, holding up three fingers.
“You’re a monster,” Marcel groans. “Fine! I’ll get you three. Just… don’t mention this to Porco, alright? He has enough worries on his mind. He doesn’t need me on top of all that.”
“You’re surprisingly a good brother.”
“There’s nothing surprising about that.”
Eren laughs. “I wonder… if it had been you two, how different would things have been? Or maybe nothing would have changed?”
“How different what would have been?” Marcel asks.
There’s the briefest of pauses before Eren moves. He pulls close to Marcel, whispering the answer to the question so lowly that Bertolt can’t hear from here. Then Eren pulls back, giggling lightly.
“Good night!” he yells out as he walks towards the building.
Marcel stays frozen for a second longer before he turns towards the building.
“Don’t give me your trash!” he yells.
But Eren has already left.
Marcel looks annoyedly at the wrapper Eren left in his hands in that short moment. With a soft sigh, he crunches it up in his hands. Then he leaves for the building, too.
Bertolt makes sure that everyone has left before he goes inside the building.
As expected, Reiner shows up early in the morning with a wide grin on his face. Bertolt doesn’t question it. Rather, he doesn’t really want to know.
But he does note that Marcel slides a small bag of something to Eren when Porco isn’t looking.
Although he feels that he’s peering too much into their private moments, Bertolt is glad to see Eren smile so early in the morning.
They’re dropped at the foot of the mountain without much fanfare. Commander Magath repeats the instruction from before, too. It feels a little like he’s glaring at all of them as if silently demanding the best from them. Bertolt might find it a bit childish if he wasn’t so terrified of disappointing the Commander.
“If anything goes wrong, Eren, abandon them and return. We’ll put you in a different division that can keep up with you,” Sergeant Jaeger says, seemingly oblivious of the fact that they can all hear him.
“Don’t give up on them before we even start,” Eren scolds. He grins at his older brother. “I’ll whip them into shape.”
“Always am. Don’t worry, Zeke. I’ll come back.”
They’re allowed their rifles and 200 magazines each. Aside from that, their only other weapon is the daggers they normally carry around. They’re not allowed to take tents or other camping gear, but Magath does allow them their cooking gear and navigation tools. From that, it’s clear to Bertolt that the point is to just survive the trek.
If it’s just survival, Bertolt thinks that it shouldn’t be too hard.
Assuming, of course, that Eren doesn’t try something.
“Is… e-everything okay?” Bertolt asks hesitantly.
Eren glances at him for a second before shifting his attention away again. Since they began their journey up the mountain, Eren has been looking around as if searching for something. Bertolt is hopeful that it’s nothing important. But he’s not confident enough to believe such a naive thought.
“Hey, answer Bertolt,” Reiner tells Eren.
After another second of ignoring them, Eren suddenly turns towards them. He grabs Bertolt’s arm and pulls up the sleeve with a frown.
“I-is something wrong?” Bertolt squeaks.
He feels his face heat up. It’s just his arm that’s being revealed, but this is still pretty embarrassing. Why is Eren staring at his arm so seriously? What? What’s wrong with his arm?
“Are all of you like this?” Eren asks, motioning at Bertolt’s arm.
This will be easier to figure out if they could figure out what that means. Bertolt uneasily tries to tug his arm free, but Eren refuses to let go.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” Marcel says. “Like what? What about his arm?”
Eren looks frustrated. But he doesn’t lash out. Instead, he releases Bertolt’s arm and grabs Marcel’s. He pulls up the sleeve, checking something. Then he moves on, checking all of their arms for something that only he seems concerned over.
Marcel watches the movement carefully but seems unable to figure Eren out. If he can’t figure it out, then there’s no hope for the rest of them.
“This is bad,” Eren sighs.
“What? What’s bad?” Porco demands.
Whatever Eren wanted to say is interrupted by a low growl. They just barely have a second to register that they’ve come under attack before they all drop to the ground, hands reaching for their weapons to fight.
All except for Eren.
By the time Bertolt looks up, he sees a flash of a huge body of mass crash to the ground. Eren stands, one arm braced against his neck and the other pointed downwards from tossing that body of mass. The body of mass, by the way, is a wolf.
It twists to get back on its feet before barking loudly.
Eren growls lowly at it.
That must have pissed off the wolf. It launches itself at Eren, fangs bared. But Eren stays calm. He shoves his arm in the open mouth, preventing it from doing any damage. Then he uses what looks to be Annie’s martial arts form to throw the wolf down to the ground again. This time, he grabs the wolf’s throat with his free hand.
The wolf presses its ears against its head and turns over and reveals its stomach. Its tail is tucked between its leg, a clear sign of submission.
Seeing that, Eren releases it. Then he turns to the rest of the Warriors. He pulls up his own sleeves, showing off arm-guards below his uniform.
“Protection from bites. Why don’t you have them?”
… Bites? From these wolves, Bertolt is going to guess.
Now that he is back on his feet, he realizes that there are more wolves carefully watching them from a distance. How long have they been there? Are they going to attack? But Eren put one of them down, and they have guns. They could just kill them all like Magath told them to do.
“Hey, put your guns away,” Eren says. “Don’t be rude. Greet your teachers.”
“W-what?” Marcel asks eloquently in all of their steed.
Eren whistles lowly and the wolves reluctantly come closer. He glances through them until he finds something that he likes. He grabs one of the wolves by the scruff and drags it towards Annie. It limply allows itself to be placed before her. Like that, Eren grabs different wolves and places them before a Warrior.
For Bertolt, Eren picks up a small puppy and tosses it at him. Bertolt scrambles to catch it safely. The puppy barks but otherwise remains calm enough to stay in Bertolt’s arms. It’s so small and warm. Bertolt kind of just want to hold it like this forever.
Reiner is given a reluctant wolf that looks a bite more vicious than the others. Bertolt can’t decide if this is on purpose or not.
“We’re… supposed to get to the other side of the mountain. There’s no time to… wolf-sit,” Marcel says.
Eren looks a bit confused by those words, but he seems to understand Marcel’s annoyance. “The best way to learn is to copy what others do.”
“You’re… telling us to copy wolves, you know?” Porco points out.
“If you can’t do it, you won’t survive.”
Bertolt feels like that’s quite extreme. Not to mention that the wolf he’s supposed to copy is a small pup. When Bertolt looks at the puppy, it looks to him with such clear golden eyes that he has to look away.
“Hey, I can understand for the most part why you got us the wolves you did. But why the hell is Bertolt’s a pup?” Reiner points out.
Eren stares blankly at Bertolt holding the puppy for a second before looking away with a pout. For just a second, Bertolt swears he heard Eren mutter, “Suffer,” softly under his breath.
But that’s not the case, right?
“Bertolt, keep eye contact with the puppy,” Eren says.
That’s a simple enough thing to do. Thinking that, Bertolt turns to look at the puppy. Those clear golden eyes stare back at him. It feels almost like this puppy can see all the wrongs that Bertolt has committed in his life. And he knows how that sounds, okay? He knows how crazy that is.
But he can’t help but to think that this puppy is infinitely disappointed in him.
He feels his eyes running away from the puppy’s.
Ah, he can’t help but to think. No wonder Eren gave him a puppy. He can’t do something as simple as holding his gaze to someone’s eyes. How can he even think about learning from fully grown wolves?
“Hey, try a little harder, won’t you?” Reiner grumbles to Bertolt.
“S-sorry. I just… haha… It’s harder than you’d think.”
The look on Reiner’s face clearly says that he doesn’t believe Bertolt, but he doesn’t push. Bertolt feels grateful for the small bit of kindness.
“Alright, that’s nice. But how exactly are we supposed to learn anything?” Annie asks.
Eren turns to one of the wolves and nudges it. It ignores him by looking away, growling lowly. Bertolt gets a bad feeling for the wolf. But Eren just sighs softly. He moves to stand in front of the wolf, only to have it ignore him by looking away. Eren watches for a second longer. The wolf must have gotten uncomfortable under the glare, because it finally turns to look at Eren in annoyance.
“Help me out,” Eren tells it.
The wolf stares at Eren, keeping the eye contact. Then it lets out a small bark and begins to head off. Seeing that, the other wolves move.
“They understand Marleyan language?” Pieck asks uncertainly.
Eren gives a shrug. “Maybe? It’s not words, I think. But more your…?”
“Will?” Marcel guesses. And to make sure that Eren understands, he says something in Paradisian that Bertolt doesn’t know.
“Something like that?”
Bertolt feels like that’s giving too much credit to animals. But the puppy in his arms must be able to sense his thoughts, because it lets out a low growl and bites Bertolt’s shoulder. With a small yelp, he drops the puppy.
The pup shakes itself as if to rid itself of Bertolt’s smell. Then it quickly runs off to join the other wolves.
“C’mon,” Eren says. “Keep up with your teachers.”
Bertolt thinks they’re supposed to learn how to find water as the first lesson to learn from the wolves. But he has no idea what the wolves are doing aside from sniffing the ground. And as much as Bertolt would like to learn, he absolutely does not have the same sense as wolves to be able to find water from sniffing.
Marcel and Pieck both look like they’re having the time of their life as they observe the wolves and Eren, who seems to have taken his place as the pack leader of sorts. Porco is taking this much too seriously, keeping pace with the wolf he was assigned to with a scary determined look on his face that seems to be creeping his wolf out. Colt has a determined look on his face but seems just as lost as Bertolt feels. Reiner, Annie, and Bertolt hang back to watch the wolves go about to lead them to a stream.
But once they arrive there, Bertolt realizes that the goal wasn’t just to find water.
Eren makes a motion for them to be quiet. Then he crouches lowly, watching the deer on the other side of the stream. The deer seems to realize that the wolves gathered are looking at it, because it begins to uneasily back off.
“Wouldn’t it be easier to just shoot it?” Reiner asks.
The look on Eren’s face says that it’s a pain. But he motions for Reiner to shoot. It clearly makes Reiner uncomfortable. Because if Eren’s that comfortable with letting Reiner shoot it instead of letting the wolves attack to teach them or whatever, then it means that he’s confident that Reiner won’t be able to shoot the deer, right?
“Reiner, let me.”
Bertolt pulls his rifle free and takes careful aim. It doesn’t look like the deer has noticed the change in intention. But from how skittish it’s glancing at the wolves, it’ll most definitely try to bolt soon. Bertolt probably only has one shot.
The first time Bertolt shot something and took its life, it was on a mission. She was an enemy with her gun pointed to kill his own. Since then, he has sniped many people. Some people weren’t necessarily even in the wrong. They just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
So killing a deer is really not an issue.
The gunshot seems to echo in the mountain, followed quickly by the sound of birds panicking. The deer falls to the ground with a thud. Its lifeless eyes stare back at Bertolt accusingly. Bertolt doesn't meet its eyes.
“Bang!” Eren says. He points his finger gun at Bertolt with a bored look on his face. “Congratulations. You told everyone on the mountain where you are and what kind of weapon you have.”
Bertolt realizes the issue once it’s been laid out for him like that.
“But there’s nothing dangerous on this mountain,” Porco says with a scowl.
“Yes, but if this wasn’t a training exercise but a real mission, shooting that deer would’ve resulted in our death. You could’ve just told us that, Eren,” Marcel says with a shake of his head.
Eren looks surprised at those words. “Would you have believed me?”
“Why wouldn’t we? We’re all Warriors together,” Porco points out.
There’s a stiff expression on Eren’s face that Bertolt doesn’t expect. Then it’s replaced by a small dip of the head and a blush.
“O-oh,” he mumbles. “I… see.”
A flutter of wings catches their attention. A black raven settles on Eren’s shoulder and caws. Bertolt glances around and notes that there are other ravens settled on the trees around them. Have they calmed down after the gunshot startled them?
“Hey you. Give me a few to portion the meat. Then you can have the rest,” Eren tells the raven.
It caws back in answer. But Bertolt can’t help but to wonder if it really understands what he said.
Eren turns to the rest of the Warriors. “These ravens work together with the wolves. Be nice to them. They hold grudges.”
“W-what does that… mean?” Colt asks, eyeing the ravens with clear fear in his eyes.
The raven caws at him as if delighting in his fear.
Bertolt wonders if they’re going to be okay.
Deer meat for breakfast is surprisingly not as bad as Bertolt thought it would be. He’s not sure if he feels that way because he feared Eren would demand that they eat it raw. But it seems that there is still kindness and sense in Eren, because he just takes a few chunks of the deer to cook over a small fire and leaves the rest of the deer for the wolves and the ravens.
“If you want more, just fight your wolf for it,” is the almost careless remark from Eren.
The puppy assigned to Bertolt barks excitedly at the larger wolves and gets pushed away. Bertolt feels like it’ll be much too cruel to fight the little puppy for food when it’s struggling so much to eat as it is.
“Hey, do you want some of this?” Bertolt asks, offering the puppy some of his meat.
The puppy growls lowly and turns its nose at it.
“Are you stupid? Don’t offer cooked meat to it. It’ll get sick,” Eren says. He scoffs and shakes his head. “That’s just like you, though. Not even knowing enough to take proper care of your pup.”
Is that supposed to be an insult? Because Eren looks rather charmed when he’s chuckling. Or perhaps Bertolt just feels that way because he feels charmed?
Eren squats next to the pup, listening to it bark and angrily growl. Then he points to the deer.
“If you don’t fight, you don’t eat. If you don't eat, you don't live.”
The puppy looks unsatisfied with that, but it turns back to the other wolves with gusto. It barks loudly as it charges forward again. One of the wolves seem to take pity on it. It moves aside to allow the puppy a better access to the deer. The ravens move aside to let the pup be.
“You too, Bertolt.” With that, Eren snatches Bertolt’s food. “C’mon, fight for it.”
There’s a mischievous glint in Eren’s eyes, and the beginnings of a smirk on his lips. Bertolt feels defeated already at the sight.
He holds his hands up in surrender, but Eren refuses to accept that. He lightly kicks Bertolt’s leg.
“C’mon, don’t you want to eat?”
“Give Bertolt his food back,” Reiner snaps. He grabs Eren by the arms to keep him still enough for Bertolt to take it back.
Eren pouts. “Fine.”
Bertolt is rather surprised at how easily Eren gives in. He thought it’ll go on for a bit longer. He gives a grateful smile to Reiner and earns a scowl in return. Looks like Reiner wants him to be more assertive, huh? That would probably be much easier if Bertolt wasn’t himself.
“Now that we’ve eaten, what’s the next plan?” Marcel asks Eren.
Oh, that’s right. Typically, Marcel is the one who comes up with the plans and takes them from point A to point B. It must be a new experience for him to defer to Eren like this. But Marcel doesn’t show any sign of unease.
Bertolt wonders if that’s just part of Marcel’s confidence that makes him a natural leader. What is it like to be able to be that certain of oneself to not be even a little shaken?
“This mountain can be crossed in less than three days,” Eren informs them all. “So getting to the pick-up location won’t be difficult. Don’t worry about that and focus on learning how to survive.”
“Learn from wolves, huh?” Pieck mumbles, staring at the wolves.
Bertolt finds himself following her gaze to his pup. It has gotten itself a decently sized bone that it’s happily gnawing on. How cute, he thinks. This small wolf is starting to grow on him.
“Pay especially close attention to how they walk. If they stop to take notice of something, pay attention to that, too. These guys know how to survive instinctively. So you have to figure it out by watching them.”
A test for their observation as well, huh? Bertolt hopes that the others won’t mind sharing tips and tricks later.
Because he has a lot of doubts of what he’s going to be learning from a small pup.
By the end of the first night, they end up somewhere in the mountain that Bertolt can't tell if it's high or not. Eren assures them that they’re making good progress, though. Bertolt decides to take Eren’s words for it, since he can't really tell.
They’ve taken frequently breaks and stopped for lunch and dinner. But Bertolt still feels pretty tired when they settle down with their wolves.
“It gets cold at nights, so make sure to huddle up,” Eren warns them. “The wolves don’t really like to sleep for more than few hours at a time, so they’ll move around. It’s warmer to stick to other people.”
Bertolt stares at his little pup that growls at him and refuses to come near him. He supposes he shouldn’t feel too hurt.
“I’ll take the first watch,” Bertolt decides.
Eren surprises Bertolt by coming to sit so that their backs are resting against each other's.
“You uh… don’t have to keep me company,” Bertolt says lightly.
“It’s cold alone.”
But some of the wolves have moved to settle by the two of them, possibly to keep Eren warm. Bertolt wonders if Eren did that on purpose so both of them can be warm. Then the reason why Eren made sure to face away from Bertolt must be to hide his blushing face.
Bertolt finds it much too charming.
There’s a small bark, and Bertolt’s pup crawls up on his lap, looking at him expectantly.
“This guy reminds me of you,” Bertolt admits.
He feels Eren peer around him and spot the pup on Bertolt’s lap.
“Why?” Eren asks, his voice filled with a quiet threat.
If Bertolt says the wrong thing, Eren is going to punch him, isn’t he? Despite that fear, he finds himself chuckling lightly.
“You’re both so small.”
Eren jabs Bertolt’s side with a finger. It doesn’t hurt too much. But the suddenness of it jerks Bertolt, causing the pup to jump out of his lap, growling lowly. It shakes its head at Bertolt and trots off elsewhere to sleep.
“I’m not small, you ass. You’re just insanely big.”
Bertolt tries to control his chuckles the best he can. Good thing Eren isn’t looking at his face right now. He doesn’t think he can stop himself from smiling.
“How long have you spent with these wolves?” he asks, changing the topic.
There’s a small pause before Eren sighs. “No clue. Probably a long time, though.”
“How did someone as young as you end up working with Captain Levi?”
“How come someone as talentless as you ended up with the Warriors? Circumstances. Duh.”
What biting words.
“Did you live with the wolves before or after Captain Levi?”
“Before. And a bit after, too.” And then after a pause, Eren asks, “How long have you known Reiner?”
“Our houses were near each other, so we went through compulsory schooling together.”
“Oh, it means required by the law. So elementary school, middle school, and high school.”
There’s a small pause before Eren meekly asks, “What are those?”
If he didn’t sound so meek, Bertolt would’ve thought that Eren was teasing him again. But now that Bertolt actually thinks about what Eren has told him, isn’t it possible that Eren has lived out in the wilderness for a bit? Enough to not bother with education. One day, Captain Levi must have picked him up. And who would ever tell Captain Levi that one of his squad members needed to go to school?
“Er… i-it’s… how we learn? Places for us to learn. Y-yeah. I think that makes the most amount of sense.”
“Sort of like the military?” Eren asks, sounding confused.
Bertolt has no idea how best to explain the concept of schooling to someone who must have never experienced it.
“Y-yeah. Like the military,” he finds himself saying instead of trying to find better words to explain. If he knew Paradisian language, he wonders if he would have been able to explain it better.
As if picking up on Bertolt’s unease, Eren falls silent.
“Oh, right. Your bubbles. Are you going to blow them tonight?”
There’s no answer from behind him immediately. Curious, Bertolt looks over his shoulder. He immediately spots Eren’s reddening ear.
“I-I don’t know… w-what you’re t-talking about,” Eren stammers.
The wolves around them seems to be shooting Bertolt a glare. Are they getting angry because of how nervous Eren looks? Then Bertolt better calm him down first.
“You don’t have to be shy. I think everyone knows that you blow bubbles at night. It’s pretty cu-”
He feels another jab in the side. This time, it actually hurts. Bertolt crumples to the side, clutching tightly to where he’s been jabbed.
“S-shut it! No one asked!”
“T-that… really hurt,” Bertolt groans.
He feels something wet poke his cheek, so he glances up. His pup looks at him worriedly, its nose uncomfortably near Bertolt’s cheek. He offers it a sheepish smile. That seems to comfort the wolf somewhat, because it puts its paw on Bertolt’s cheek.
Slowly, Bertolt pushes himself back up to sitting position. Eren seems to have left in that short time period. The wolves that followed Eren here haven’t left, though. Bertolt wonders if Eren told them to stay to keep the watcher warm.
What a shame, he can’t help but to think.
He didn’t get to see Eren’s expression.
His pup climbs back onto his lap and barks at him. But when Bertolt goes to pat it, it quickly leaps away to safety. It barks superiorly at Bertolt as if to mock him for being too slow.
Size, he thinks with a light chuckle, isn’t the only thing Eren and this pup has in common.
Chapter 5: So once again, I left in search of absolution
Warning: Introduction of the Paradisian Forces (aka 104th Squad) and platonic bed sharing
“Reiner, put the fire out.”
“Reiner, we need more water.”
“Reiner, cut the rope.”
Reiner grabs Eren by the shoulders. “There are six other people here aside from you and me. Why the hell are you ordering just me around?”
Eren actually looks caught off-guard by that. He glances around and seems to startle at the other Warriors awkwardly standing around for something to do.
“I forgot,” he dares say with a sheepish smile.
Reiner sighs heavily, but it seems that the fight has left him once he realized that it wasn’t on purpose.
“Sorry!” Eren says lightly. “I keep forgetting it’s not just the two of us.”
“Don’t make it sound like it was ever just the two of us,” Reiner snaps.
Eren pouts. “Stingy. You want it to be just Bertolt and you that badly?”
“Please leave me out of this,” Bertolt says immediately. He ignores the twin looks of annoyance shot in his direction.
“Alright, alright. Let’s focus back on this. What are we going to do today? More following our… teachers around?” Marcel asks.
Eren reluctantly nods. “Along the way, I want to also show you guys poisonous plants that you can use as traps.”
Traps, huh? Bertolt has to admit that that’s not quite what he thought Eren would say. Typically, the thing to know is which plants are safe to eat, isn’t it?
“Porco,” Eren sighs when Porco voices Bertolt’s concern out loud, “think about something outside of food, won’t you?”
“I’ll kill you.”
“But if you think about it, this makes sense. If we know which things are poisonous, then we know to avoid those when we look for something to eat,” Pieck points out.
Porco looks dubious but agrees to go along with it.
Unlike the fully grown wolves, Bertolt’s pup struggles to keep up with their trek. He thinks it might just be naturally clumsy. Either that or it hasn’t quite learned the distance between its legs to the ground. It keeps bumping into things, usually other wolves, and tripping over roots.
Feeling worried for the little guy, Bertolt picks it up. The others have already gone so far ahead. At this rate, the two of them will fall way behind.
The wolf stares at him for just a second before growling lowly. It protests and struggles against Bertolt’s hold until it safely lands back down on the ground.
“Isn’t it hard? I can carry you part way.”
With another growl, the wolf stubbornly presses forward.
“It’s okay to ask for help. No one will make fun of you for that. Hey-”
“Do you really not get why it’s trying that hard?” Eren asks.
It looks like Eren might have gotten worried that Bertolt is falling too far behind. He’s standing by a tree, waiting for Bertolt and the pup to catch up.
“I-I mean, I know that it’s a pride thing,” Bertolt says. “It’s just… when you need help, you should ask for it. Falling behind and holding everyone back is more shameful.”
“Bertolt, you haven’t fallen behind. No one has been held back. Is that pup still shameful to you?”
“Wait. No. T-that’s not what I mean. I… It’s not that the pup is shameful. I just…”
Eren waits patiently for Bertolt to find the words, but that just makes Bertolt more flustered. His thoughts feel like they’re going in circles. What is it that he wants to say?
“I’m sorry. I don’t really know how to express myself,” Bertolt decides on.
There’s a silence between the two of them for a beat longer. Then Eren sighs.
“Yeah, I figured you’d still be like that.”
It’s not quite disappointment. But it’s nothing like fondness either. Bertolt isn’t too sure what that expression is. He thinks there might be a pinch of resignation, though.
“Well, if you could change that easily, then I suppose that would be too easy.”
Eren picks up the pup by the scruff of its neck, earning a loud whine. But Eren ignores that and places the pup in Bertolt’s arms. When the pup tries to wiggle free, Eren growls lowly at it and grabs it by the throat.
“W-what are you doing? That’s animal abuse,” Bertolt squeaks.
“Bertolt, let’s get one thing clear. What I want you to learn from your pup isn’t just matters of survival. Learn to express yourself. You’re talking with a puppy, for pity’s sake. If it doesn’t listen, manhandle it until it does. Got it?”
The wolf barks and tries to run again, but Eren’s grip must have tightened. It tucks its tail between its legs and flattens its ears against its head. Softly, it whines to complete the image of submission.
When Eren lets it go, the pup settles peaceful in Bertolt’s arms.
“Do that,” Eren tells Bertolt.
Then he turns and walks a few steps. When he realizes that Bertolt isn’t following, he pauses to glance back.
“I-I’m not sure if I can do that,” Bertolt admits.
Eren’s cold green eyes are unforgiving. “Who said you had a choice?”
“Rei…” Eren stops himself this time. “Colt, would you please help me skin this rabbit?”
“H-huh? Y-yeah! Sure!”
It looks like Eren’s getting better at talking to everyone and not just order Reiner around. He hasn’t stopped to talk to Bertolt again after their small talk. It makes Bertolt wonder if maybe he should have agreed with Eren instead of protesting against it. But to lie to Eren’s face like that doesn’t sit right with him either.
He’s already a weak of a person as it is. If he adds dishonesty to that as well, there will be absolutely no way for him to redeem himself.
“Aren’t you spoiling your wolf quite a lot?” Porco remarks when he spots Bertolt’s pup still in his arms.
“W-well… I-I mean… he’s a puppy,” Bertolt stammers.
Porco shakes his head. “Talk about favoritism. How come you get a small pup, anyways?”
“Probably Eren’s way of teasing me.”
“I’m somehow doubtful of that.” Then he roughly ruffles the wolf assigned to him, completely unfazed that the wolf whines and tries to get away from him. “See that? My guy’s so cold to me. Compared to that, your little pup is so well-behaved.”
“Eren… threatened it.”
There’s a small pause before Porco makes a face. “Jeesh, that guy has no sense of style. By the way, your pup’s chewing on your collar. It might be hungry.”
“E-eh?! A-ah! You shouldn’t chew on that!”
Porco sniggers as he leaves. Bertolt takes the time to pull the pup away from himself. It looks back at him and barks.
“This is going to be a long week…”
It actually isn’t all that bad. They even arrive on the other side of the mountain a day earlier than planned. There’s a small cabinet down there, where Commander Magath, Sergeant Jaeger, and the other instructors wait for them. From the frozen looks on their faces before they greet the Warriors, Bertolt gets an inkling of a feeling that wolves were never a part of the training plan.
“What… are these?” Commander Magath asks.
“They’re wolves, sir,” Marcel answers with an easy smile.
Magath scowls. “I mean why are they with you?”
“They were our teachers.”
That said, Bertolt can’t confidently tell you whether or not he learned anything about survival. But he is pretty certain that they all learned quite a lot about wolves. At the very least, he feels like he’s gotten used to the weight of the puppy in his arms. His puppy seems a little less wary of him, too. It doesn’t lash out or struggle as much if Bertolt picks it up.
Soon, it’ll probably be at a size too big to be held like this. Bertolt wonders if this is the feeling of a father looking at their growing child.
“And… what exactly did you learn?” Magath asks slowly.
“Survival,” they answer without missing a beat.
Sergeant Jaeger is enthusiastically greeting his little brother. He looks quite fascinated by the wolves but doesn’t seem bothered with getting close. The two of them are shooting back and forth in that strange combination of three different languages. Bertolt hopes that he’ll be able to understand it one day, too.
“Are you guys really ready for this coming mission?”
Eren glances over from talking to his brother to answer that question. “Yes. They’ll be fine.”
Bertolt can’t help but to note that Commander Magath seems to take that very seriously.
“With these wolves by our sides, we’ll be able to take down the Mountain Tribe in no time!” Porco declares proudly.
“Leave the wolves here,” Eren says. “It’s time for you guys to leave the den.”
“Huh?! What do you mean leave them? But we bonded!” Porco protests. His wolf makes a sound in clear distress.
“They’re wild wolves. What are you going to do? Take them home with you?”
Although Bertolt understands that logic, he feels sad to say goodbye to this cute puppy in his arms. The pup looks at Bertolt with its clear eyes as always.
For once, Bertolt is able to hold that gaze for three seconds longer than usual. He wonders if it’s pathetic to feel this proud of such small accomplishment.
Since they arrived an extra day early, they get to meet the Paradisian Military early, too. The instructors don’t come along, but Commander Magath and Sergeant Jaeger are both here with the Warriors.
The office that they get to visit is a sleek, new building that might have been built in the last few years. It’s filled with quite a lot of young soldiers. Bertolt can’t tell if that’s because this is a training ground of sorts.
“Commander Magath and the Warriors, I am Commander Erwin Smith of the Survey Corps Division. This is Squad Leader Jean Kirstein, who will be in charge of the Warriors for our coming operation. For any questions, please refer to Kirstein.”
The Commander for the Paradisian side has a charming smile as he speaks in common tongue for everyone to understand. It puts Bertolt at ease. And it’s not like he’s saying that he would like for Commander Magath to smile like that, but it seems like a good way to relax the division members.
“Hello,” Kirstein says awkwardly. His eyes keep trailing towards Eren, but it seems that he’s doing his best to keep as professional as he can. “This is my Vice Squad Leader, Marco Bott. We’ll be going over the basics of the operation. If you will please follow me?”
“We’ll leave it to you,” Commander Magath says.
It looks like the Commanders and Sergeant Jaeger will be talking privately. But before they leave fully, Commander Erwin gives Eren a warmer smile.
“It’s good to see you again, Eren.”
“Likewise, Commander. Thank you for giving me another chance.”
Commander Erwin gives Eren’s shoulder a small squeeze. He doesn’t say anything more, but Bertolt thinks that’s supposed to be a silent encouragement.
The higher ups leave. Kirstein waits until they’re out of hearing range before turning to lead them away.
“You really are something else, though,” Kirstein says lightly. “Didn’t think you’d switch sides.”
Although he keeps his face strictly forward, it’s clear that he’s talking to Eren. Bertolt wonders if they’ve known each other for a long time.
“I’d say the same for you. Didn’t think you’d end up as Squad Leader over Marco,” Eren retorts.
“Jean, Eren, please keep professional today,” Bott warns the two of them.
There’s an unhappy expression on Eren’s face, but he just pushes his lips into a thin line. Hearing no retort, Kirstein tenses.
Bertolt realizes that these two must be the best of friends.
They’ll be joining as back ups for a pincer attack.
The main force will be Kirstein’s squad that will be divided into two. The main frontal attack team will be led by Kirstein while the other team (lead by Bott) will be attacking from the back. Although Bertolt says “front” and “back,” there’s no such distinction in real life. It’s mainly what he sees on the map.
For the most part, the plan is simple. Those attacking from the back will be dropped off on the other side of the mountain three days before the mission. They are expected to join the frontal attack force in that time period for the success of the mission. Hearing it like this, Bertolt understands why it was so important that they get used to crossing a mountain. He kind of wishes that they can have their wolves again.
“Will such an elementary plan work?” Marcel asks lightly with a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes.
It looks like he’s feeling the ground. He must be curious as to figure out what kind of a person Kirstein is. Bertolt is curious to know what kind of conclusion Marcel will draw from this talk.
Kirstein doesn’t blink twice at Marcel’s antics.
“As elementary as it is, it’s one of the best strategies for a reason,” Kirstein says with a shrug. “Then again, you guys have that guy on your team, so I doubt you know much. Don’t worry. We’re not expecting anything from you guys aside from surviving. Try your best to keep up.”
“By ‘that’ guy, Jean, you’re not talking about me, are you?” Eren asks, lips drawing back into a scowl.
Kirstein smirks. “Would you look at that? Our puppy’s comprehension increased!”
Bott rubs his temples. “Would you two please not do this right now?” Then to the Warriors, he adds with a strained smile, “They’re just excited to see each other in a long time. Please excuse them.”
“Don’t be disgusting! Who would be excited to see this guy?” Kirstein growls like a small kid.
“Hah! That’s hilarious coming from a guy only his mom loves!”
Bott looks horrified as the two of them dissolves into Paradisian language, yelling with scowls on their faces. Bertolt glances at Pieck and Marcel to see what these two are yelling about. But it seems that not even their best can keep up with Paradisian being tossed around so angrily.
With a tired look on his face, Bott offers the Warriors a forced smile.
“That’s how the situation is. Do you have any questions?”
“I’ve been wondering this for a while now, but how was Captain Levi injured?” Reiner asks.
At the sound of his Captain’s name, Eren glances towards them without care of what else Kirstein must be saying. Kirstein looks annoyed but quietens. Instead, he physically puts Eren in an armlock, almost as if he doesn’t want Eren to hear what Bott will say next.
“The Captain moved to shield a child from an explosion,” Bott answers stiffly.
How heroic. Bertolt feels like if Marcel or Commander Magath were to ever do something like that, he would most definitely find them much more reliable to follow.
“That child didn’t deserve to be saved,” Eren growls lowly.
Kirstein tightens his hold so that whatever else Eren said would be drowned out. “What’s that? You want to help Sasha in the kitchens tonight for our meal?”
With those words, Kirstein easily drags Eren away from the talks towards the door. Bott apologizes to the Warriors.
“They haven’t seen each other in a long time-”
“You already said that,” Porco interrupts.
Bott's smile is strained. “Indeed. My mistake. We haven’t had much rest since Special Operations Squad disbanded.”
“Disbanded?” Marcel asks. “We were just informed that Captain Levi was injured. I didn’t realize there were more to it.”
“It was recently disbanded. Under Captain Levi’s orders,” Bott says.
If it was something recently done, then Eren might not have known about it. Bertolt glances towards where Kirstein dragged Eren away. Are they quietly filling each other in on what happened? At the very least, the somber way the two of them are conversing seems to suggest that.
“I thought there would be more veteran soldiers here,” Pieck remarks lightly.
Bott's smile looks a little less strained. “We’re a special group put together for this operation with you Warriors. Eren works the best with us, so it only made sense.”
That sounds prideful. But it might also be in part due to desperation. If their Special Operations Squad was disbanded because of Captain Levi’s injury, then it stands to reason that they’re currently scrambling to keep people’s morale up. What better way to do that than a successful mission?
“Have you known Eren long?” Reiner asks.
Bott's expression freezes. His lips twitch as if that’s the funniest question he’s heard. Then he calms himself with a polite smile that seems far too cold. Bertolt isn’t sure what to make of it. He doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with that question.
“It feels like I’ve known him twice as long as I have,” Bott says finally.
Bertolt wonders if there’s something lost in translation of common tongue. He feels like there’s more to it than that simple sentence. But he can’t help but to feel that Bott won’t answer even if he were to ask.
“If that’s everything, then let’s go over everyone’s roles and expectations.”
The Paradisian canteen is very similar to their own. It makes Bertolt feel a little at home.
“Huh, so he can make faces like that.”
Bertolt glances at Reiner for a second before following his friend’s gaze out towards Eren. At the beginning of the meal, Eren was siting with the rest of the Warriors. But as the meal went on, the Paradisian soldiers dragged Eren off for this matter or that. Now, Eren is sitting with them, laughing and conversing in Paradisian.
He’s so animated like this. Like he’s just a regular kid with his friends. The way he smiles is open. There’s no sign of hostility or distrust. It makes Bertolt a little sad that Eren never felt comfortable enough to make that kind of face with the Warriors.
“That’s creeping me out,” Porco admits. “What the hell? He’s a normal guy?”
Bertolt feels that it’s only natural that Eren is a normal person. Well, as normal as someone who can fight a wolf and force the rest of the wolf pack to work with the Warriors can be. And as normal as someone who used to be on the same squad as Captain Levi can be. And as normal as someone who threatens Bertolt and Reiner with a painful death for something-something bread can be.
… Okay, Bertolt realizes his mistake. There is absolutely nothing normal about Eren Jaeger.
“You can really tell he’s loved here, huh?” Pieck says lightly.
“If he wasn’t, wouldn’t that be too sad?” Marcel points out.
Colt makes a small face that seems like he’s taken what Marcel just said personally. Bertolt doesn’t think it’d be appreciated if he tried to comfort Colt, so he wisely pretends he didn’t see.
“He doesn’t take their food,” Reiner mumbles lowly.
Bertolt feels like that might incite his friend into something, so he quickly grabs Reiner’s shoulder to stop him. Reiner just shoots him a dark look.
As if feeling that he’s being stared at, Eren glances up and notices the Warriors. He tilts his head curiously at them. Then, as if realizing something, he tells the Paradisian soldiers something Bertolt can’t quite hear and makes his way over to the Warriors.
“Do you not like the food? But this is pretty much what we ate at your place,” Eren asks in common tongue.
Marcel smiles. “We’re fine. No problem with the food. It’s just… surprising to see you with the other soldiers.”
“What’s so surprising about that? I’m a Paradisian soldier… Was.”
“Did you also put them through the wolf training?” Porco asks.
“Oh, you guys suffered through that, too, huh?” Kirstein asks as he slings an arm around Eren’s shoulders. “Isn’t this guy the worst? There’s all those cute wolves and he won’t let us keep any of them!”
Eren pushes Kirstein’s arm off of his shoulder with a scowl and receives a smug smirk in response.
“Ah! I know what you mean! I wanted to take Rag home with me, too!” Porco exclaims.
Marcel’s head snaps towards his brother in alarm. “When did you name him?! I told you not to do that so you won’t get attached!”
Kirstein smiles at the Warriors. It feels a little like he came along with Eren to make sure that the Warriors will be okay. Although Eren’s words towards him was pretty condescending, Bertolt feels that he can see why Kirstein is the Squad Leader.
Some of the other curious looking Paradisian soldiers begin to gather around. And before Bertolt knows it, the Warriors are welcomed by this group’s excited talk about wolves. It looks like this group of Paradisian soldiers had a similar enough training as the Warriors did. It gives them both a common ground to talk about something aside from the coming mission.
“I named mine Sweets because she kept stealing my candy,” one of the girls who introduced herself as Mina admits.
“Oh, she might have been the one with me then,” Annie says. “I called her Tiger, though.”
“They were so cute! I just wanted to cuddle with them, but they give you such a judging look if you grab them,” Pieck sighs.
A girl named Hannah nods. “Yeah! And I was a little frightened by the ravens, but they were pretty friendly once you got to know them.”
“I kept waiting for them to turn into witches and to start casting spells,” Porco says.
The others seem confused as to how to respond to something like that. Marcel quickly rescues them.
“Porco, I keep telling you that witches aren’t real.”
One of the Paradisian soldiers, Samuel, clears his throat. “Actually… you could make the argument that some of the people of the Mountain Tribes definitely practice something like magic.”
“W-what kind of talk is that?” Colt asks nervously.
Bertolt is with Colt on this. They shouldn’t spread such superstitious stories. Especially not about their enemies. What if it turns out true and they end up having to fight against real witchcraft? How are they supposed to protect themselves from something like that?
“You haven’t heard the rumors? They’re monsters wearing human skin. They do things like human sacrifices and bathing in that blood for success in battle. And on full moons, they cast spells to enchant their enemies to lower their guard.”
Marcel snorts. When he realizes that Samuel looks quite serious, his smile falls from his face. “You don’t really believe in such nonsense, do you?”
“It’s not nonsense. Because of them, we’ve had some really mysterious things happen! Like the time everyone got sick two days before an operation! Or the time when Team Leader Klaus started barking like a dog! Or when…”
Samuel continues on to list bunch more instances, but Bertolt loses interest. Most of these things can be chalked up to bad luck or outside circumstances. He doesn’t think it makes sense to blame it on witchcraft or magic.
His eyes drift towards Eren. He’s bickering with Kirstein again. But there doesn’t seem to be any bite in what they’re saying this time. The two of them have light grins on their faces as they converse comfortably.
Bott moves to sit in front of Bertolt, blocking his view of Eren. There’s that polite smile on his face that seems far colder than it should be. Although Bertolt doesn’t have any proof of it, he gets the feeling that Bott doesn’t like him much.
“I-is something wrong?” Bertolt finds himself asking.
“What do you mean?” Bott asks innocently.
After a beat of hesitation, Bertolt manages out, “You… don’t seem to like us much.”
“That’s because I don’t. Rather, I can’t trust you ‘Warriors.’ The others don’t share my opinion, so feel free to stick with them instead.”
Bott concludes his words with a cold smile. It’s clear sign that he doesn’t want to talk anymore, so Bertolt lowers his gaze. He’s reminded of when he met Eren for the first time. But Eren’s words of hate came across more like childish grumblings. Compared to that, Bott feels like cold hate of someone Bertolt wronged.
But they haven’t met before, have they?
“Marco! Settle this argument for us!” Eren yells in the common tongue as he rushes over with Kirstein right beside him. “The handkerchief Petra gave Oulo had an embroidered flower, right?”
“It was an acorn!” Kirstein insists.
The cold smile on Bott's face has disappeared into a sheepish one. He seems to think for a second before remarking, “Wasn’t it an elephant?”
“That’s not even one of the choices!” Kirstein protests at the same time Eren yells out, “But it’s not an acorn, so I win!”
“It’s not a flower either! So by that logic, I win!”
Bertolt feels quite amazed that these two can launch so easily into a fight without even a second’s pause. It feels almost like they’re the only two here. If Bott didn’t interrupt them before they started punching each other, Bertolt feels like these two are the type to continue on in their own little world.
He wonders why he feels so lonely.
It’s not quite that he was looking to see if Eren was blowing bubbles tonight, now that they’re out of the mountains. But it would be a lie to say that he wasn’t looking forward to seeing Eren. It’s just… he enjoys Eren’s presence? And when Eren is blowing his bubbles, he looks like he’s having fun, so it’s rather endearing to see.
But somehow this isn’t quite what he expected either.
“Hold it still for longer,” Eren grumbles around his cigarette.
“Shut up. I’m trying.”
Kirstein and Eren has their cigarettes touching, trying to light it that way. Bertolt feels like it’ll be far easier to just user a lighter. Bott seems to be on the same wavelength as Bertolt, because he has a lighter in his hand. But he allows the two this moment. Bertolt thinks it might be because it’s such a rare moment for those two to not be fighting.
“Wait, wait, wait. There!”
Kirstein chuckles proudly. “I told you so! Yo Marco, want me to light yours up, too?”
“I’ll pass. But is it okay for you to be smoking, Eren? Didn’t Captain Levi get mad at you last time?” Bott asks.
“Ah, that’s right. He got Squad Leader Mike to confiscate all of your cigarettes before sending you to Marley, didn’t he?” Kirstein recalls.
Eren makes a face. “It was the worst! Squad Leader Mike gave me a bubble, of all things! ‘If you feel the urge to smoke, just blow this.’ What am I? A kid?”
Bertolt feels a little like he’s been betrayed. He always thought that Eren was enjoying himself when he was blowing those bubbles. But all this time, it was a punishment of sorts? Is that why Eren reacted so negatively when Bertolt asked him about blowing bubbles in the mountains? It wasn’t because Eren was being shyly cute?
“Pfft! He’s not wrong, though!” Kirstein laughs.
“Oh, shut it! Just because you grew out your mane doesn’t make you any less a kid than me!”
Figuring he’s seen enough, Bertolt leaves the area to give them their private moment.
The Warriors are told to share three rooms amongst themselves. That means Pieck and Annie claim one room, and the rest of the Warriors have to decide who they are willing to share space with.
Bertolt thought that it would safely become Marcel, Porco, and Eren in one room, and Reiner, Bertolt, and Colt in the other. But Marcel has this look on his face like he doesn’t want to deal with Eren. And before Bertolt and Reiner can think up a proper argument, they end up with Eren in their room.
“Do you even want to sleep with us?” Reiner asks. Then he realizes the phrasing of his words and rushes to explain himself, “I-I mean room with us. Shit. Don’t laugh! You know what I mean!”
“We’ve pretty much spent time in close quarters in the mountain for the past week. Too late to get shy,” Eren points out with a smirk.
“But it wasn’t just us,” Reiner says.
Eren seems to consider that for a bit. Then he glances between the two of them with an infuriating smirk. “Ohhhh, I see. You two want to be alone.”
“No. It’s not like that. This is fine, Reiner. Let’s just sleep,” Bertolt says, trying to console everyone.
“You sure? I can leave so you two can be as alone as you want,” Eren taunts.
“But I want to be with you.”
It’s not until both Reiner and Eren stare blankly at him that Bertolt realizes exactly what he just said. He feels his face heat up as he rushes to explain himself.
“I-I-I mean! I-it’s just… h-haha… P-p-please ignore m-me!”
Both Reiner and Eren blush and look away from Bertolt, giving him a chance to recover a semblance of his pride.
“S-since you’re insisting, I-I guess there’s no choice,” Eren mumbles.
Reiner gives Eren an annoyed look but then turns to Bertolt awkwardly. “Do you want me to leave?”
“N-no! Not like that! It’s not like that at all!”
Bertolt covers his face with his hands, wishing he could disappear. He hears a soft chuckle. Against his better judgement, he peeks up and sees Eren laughing. It’s almost unfair how gentle he looks. Like he hasn’t threatened painful deaths to Reiner and Bertolt before.
“Then I guess that’s that.”
Eren turns for one of the beds and is stopped by Reiner. There’s a mischievous grin on Reiner’s face, and Bertolt really doesn’t like what that implies.
“No, no. Didn’t you hear Bertolt? He wants to be with you.”
Bertolt shoots Reiner a horrified look, but Reiner’s eyes are locked on Eren’s blushing face. His friend is selling him out for petty revenge.
“W-w-what does t-that h-have to d-do with-”
Reiner’s grin widens. He leans in and whispers something in Eren’s ear. Whatever he said makes Eren’s face a darker shade of red. Bertolt really doesn’t want to know.
“Y-you don’t have to listen!” Bertolt protests.
“Nonsense!” Reiner laughs. He slings an arm around Eren’s shoulders to stop him from running. “Don’t tell me you’re a coward, Eren?”
Why does that threat work so well with Eren?
Eren shrugs Reiner’s arm off and marches up to Bertolt with a determined expression on his face. Despite Bertolt’s attempt at protesting, Eren grabs him by the front of his shirt and yanks him after him to the bed.
“L-let’s talk about this!” Bertolt exclaims. “Let’s talk about this!”
His yells fall on deaf ears.
“S-s-stay over t-t-there,” Eren mumbles, nudging Bertolt as far away from himself as he physically can.
Eren has taken the side with the wall, so he probably doesn’t realize it. But if he keeps pushing like that, Bertolt is going to fall off.
“H-hey, I-I’m going to-”
With a sound of a loud thud, Bertolt ends up painfully on the ground. He notices Eren guiltily peeking over the bed to stare down at him. The correct way to handle this is probably comfort Eren that he’s fine and just sleep on the ground. The correct way to handle this is to just put some distance between the two of them. The correct-
Bertolt covers his face. “Ow. Ow. I’m in a lot of pain!”
He doesn’t think it’s convincing at all. But it draws Eren closer with the most worried furrowed brows. Bertolt gives it a few seconds more for Eren to get closer. Then he grabs Eren by the front of his shirt and yanks him down onto himself. He feels Eren’s body tense and flail before colliding with his chest.
And even though this should feel heavy, even though it should hurt to have someone’s body forcibly hit against his own like this, he can’t help the laughter that bubbles out of him.
“Were you that worried for me?” he asks.
He feels Eren smack his chest lightly before glaring down at him. Eren’s face is delightfully red. It’s probably bad of him to be this charmed by it.
“Shut it! Who was worried? You’re an idiot! Idiot!”
“Pfft! Hahaha! Sorry! Sorry!”
“You’re not sorry at all!”
Eren gets off, muttering darkly under his breath all the while. He surprises Bertolt by offering a hand to help him stand back up.
When Bertolt takes it, Eren childishly snatches his hand back and kicks Bertolt back down to the ground.
“Sleep on the ground and think about what you’ve done!”
That probably would have been a lot more cruel if Eren didn’t throw him a pillow and a blanket.
On second thought, maybe it’s a good thing that he and Eren didn’t sleep together in the same bed.
“Doesn’t your neck hurt?” Eren asks, giving him a disgusted look.
“Not particularly, actually.”
Eren shakes his head. “I can’t ever get used to that.”
Bertolt smiles sheepishly. His habit of strange sleep posture has always freaked out a lot of people. But the Warriors seem more or less used to it by now. At least, they stopped remarking on it. It’s a little refreshing to see someone react to it again.
“I get the feeling that today’s going to be a good day,” Bertolt says lightly.
Eren just shoves him instead.
Reiner clears his throat. “In case you guys forgot, I’m still in the room.”
“Why would we forget that you’re here?” Bertolt asks, genuinely confused.
He’s not too sure what he said or did to deserve that dirty look. But he figures that this can be his payback for Reiner’s petty revenge last night.
“Then shall we go get breakfast?”
Chapter 6: For how long have I wandered these hills?
Few things to note as we go forward with this story. Remember the war and unnecessary gore/violence and other dark themes such as child soldiers and character deaths that I promised at the beginning of the story? It's here. Well, character deaths will take a bit more longer. Sorry. But it's coming.
You might've noticed that I added "Tragic" tag to the story. That should make it clear where we're going, right?
If any of these things are something that you don't want to read, please take care of yourself and drop this story. It's okay.
In order to not be suspicious as possible, they take the long way around the mountain on the aircraft to be dropped off. What should be about twenty minutes ride turns into a five hour trip.
There are twelve other Paradisian forces with them. Except for Bott, they’re friendly enough to put Bertolt at ease. They also all make sure to use common tongue to communicate so that no one is left out. It’s probably easier to do that than for them to try and learn the other’s language in this short of a travel time.
“It’s strange to have support like this,” Gordon says with a sheepish smile. “I do wish we had some more time to see what everyone could do.”
“There’s not much to say. Bertolt will cover us from the tree tops. And the rest of us will move as Vice Squad Leader Bott commands,” Marcel reminds him.
Bertolt really doesn’t like being singled out like that.
“Good at sniping, are you?” Bott mumbles.
Eren lightly touches Bott's elbow. The two exchange a glance that seems to carry a conversation that no one else seems to be privy of. Bertolt is curious, but he knows better than to ask.
“How long have you fought the Mountain Tribe personally?” Pieck asks one of the Paradisian soldiers.
The soldier has an easy smile on his face, but it doesn’t quite reach his eyes. “For most of us, it’s been a few months. But it feels more like years…”
Bertolt feels like he understands that feeling. Time feels like it’s stretching on forever when you’re on the battlefield. With repetitive missions, it’s also easy to start blurring the days together. He wonders if that’s how this mission will end up becoming. This mission will stretch on to several other missions that will feel never ending?
His eyes seek out Eren before he knows it. Eren is eating what Bertolt suspects to be Marcel’s hush-candy. Green eyes glance up and meet Bertolt’s. There’s slight annoyance in those eyes at being stared at. Bertolt quickly looks away.
“Want to play Old Maid or something? It’s kind of boring to just wait.”
Bertolt is about to reply in affirmative when Eren moves to sit on Reiner’s lap. He throws his feet on Bertolt’s lap, glaring at Bertolt as if to dare him to do something about it. Bertolt tries not to think about how muddy Eren’s boots are.
“W-what?!” Reiner exclaims, face slowly turning red.
He looks torn between shoving Eren off to being worried that doing something so rough might injure the smaller man. Bertolt gets the feeling that Eren probably would be able to survive being shoved off. But he’s thankful anyways that Reiner doesn’t actually do it.
“I-is everything alright?” Bertolt asks.
Eren bites into his candy and shrugs. “You tell me. Why are you sneaking glances at me? It’s annoying.”
Bertolt feels his cheeks heat up. He keeps his gaze locked on a splotch of mud on Eren’s boots rather than face those green eyes. Probably because he’s starting to understand Bertolt better, Eren reaches over and grabs Bertolt by the face.
“Hey, if you’ve got issues, you say it to my face,” Eren growls.
It’s been a while since Bertolt has seen Eren look this angry at him. There might be something wrong with him if he’s actually relieved to see it.
“S-sorry. No issues,” Bertolt manages out.
Eren holds the gaze for few more seconds before finally letting Bertolt go.
“You’ve got better at holding eye-contact,” he says lightly.
Bertolt perks up. “Have I?”
“Hey, am I invisible to you guys?” Reiner asks, looking peeved.
Eren pats Reiner’s cheek. When Reiner scowls at him, Eren grins.
Eren shoves the rest of his candy bar in Reiner’s mouth. He then gets off of their laps and return to his seat as if nothing happened. Bott has an uneasy look on his face that relaxes the minute Eren returns to his side. Bertolt wonders if Bott and Eren are as close as Reiner and Bertolt are. Or perhaps their relationship is a different kind?
Reiner quietly munches on the candy with an irritated look on his face. Bertolt squeezes his shoulder in consolation.
“These comms don’t have enough battery to last them three days. Turn them on only when it’s time for the operation to start,” Bott informs them as he makes sure that everyone gets one. “Don’t lose them either. You will be expected to replace them yourself if you do.”
Marcel seems to contemplate that for a bit before holding his hand out for Porco. “Maybe I should hold yours for you.”
“I’m not a kid anymore, Marce. It’s fine,” Porco growls.
Personally, Bertolt thinks it’s pretty cute of Marcel to offer something like that. Reiner and Bertolt are both only children, so seeing small interactions like this really make Bertolt wonder what it’s like to have siblings.
While thinking such peaceful thoughts, his eyes drift towards where Eren is.
“Marco, carry this for me,” Eren says, handing his comm to Bott.
“You’re not going to carry it yourself?” Reiner asks. From the way he’s gearing up to go, Bertolt expects to hear gloating from one of the two soon.
But instead of rising to a challenge like they expected, Eren sulks. He kicks at the ground with a scowl on his face.
“The last three times I lost the comm, Commander Erwin made me scrub toilets for a month each.”
Bertolt feels like that’s a pretty light punishment, all things considered. But he supposes that that should be enough to strike fear in most people to not lose the comm again.
“You had it rough, too, huh?” Reiner says, shaking his head.
It appears that Reiner forgot his goal and is rooting for Eren instead. Bertolt supposes that’s just the sign that Reiner is a good person.
“O-on second thought, Marcel, maybe you should carry mine,” Porco mumbles.
He passes the comm over to his brother. Marcel stares at it blankly for a second before smirking.
“Ehhhh? What’s with that? Aren’t you a big boy now, Porco? Can’t you do this much?”
Too late, Porco. You should’ve agreed when Marcel was being generous.
Eren glances pityingly at Porco. “Want me to ask Marco if he wants to hold on to yours?”
“No! I’m fine! I can handle it!” Porco snaps.
He angrily shoves the comm into his pocket, muttering darkly under his breath. Bertolt mentally winces in sympathy.
“Do you two need help?” Eren asks Bertolt and Reiner.
There’s a look on Bott's face that seems to say that he’ll say no. Bertolt decides that he doesn’t want to test it.
“No, we’re good.”
Eren pouts. “Tch.”
… Did he… want to help them…?
Bertolt tries to cover his mouth to hide his chuckles. But he doesn’t think he’s fooling anyone from the way everyone seems to level him a look.
He hopes that they can forgive him for this much.
Bott may be the one leading them, but he defers to Eren a lot in terms of judging terrains. The others seem tense despite their peaceful surrounding. These people got that same wolf training that the Warriors did. But, in the end, it seems only Eren really got something useful from being with the wolves. Even if you want to learn from the wolves, there's really only so much they can figure out from just observation. Eren really expected a bit too much from them.
“Oh. There they are.”
With a flutter of wings, a raven casually lands on Eren’s shoulder and caws. Bertolt doesn’t miss the rest of the murder, perched on branches of trees.
“Can you keep us a secret?” Eren asks the raven on his shoulder.
The raven seems to consider what Eren said seriously. Then it caws and flies off. The rest of the murder flies off with it, fanning out in different directions.
“Can they really understand you?” Annie asks.
Eren shrugs. “If I’m lucky, maybe?”
“They haven’t failed us yet,” Bott says sternly.
He gives Annie a sharp look that seems unnecessary. Now that Bertolt thinks about it, has Bott ever been that firm with Marcel? If he has, surely Marcel would’ve retaliated in some shape or form? But he can’t recall Marcel getting that mad.
Is Bott picking and choosing his targets?
Well, that’s probably smarter of him, anyways. If Bertolt was someone like that, he would most definitely dodge Marcel.
“Bertolt, don’t fall behind,” Reiner warns.
They know they’re nearby around midday of the third day by the sound of distant gunshots.
“Comms on,” Bott orders.
Bertolt prepares himself mentally for battle.
“Any minute now!” Kirstein snaps over the comm.
“We’re not there yet,” Bott replies calmly. “Eren, don’t go ahead.”
“Pincer loses its effect if one person rushes off,” Marcel informs him.
Eren nods in understanding. “Straighter path?”
“Yes. That would help.”
“We’re in position.”
Bertolt stares at the massive wooden fence surrounding the area that they’re supposed to attack. From the grenades that the Paradisian soldiers are readying, he’s certain that they’re just going to be blowing these walls away and rush in for an attack.
“Good. Blast them down,” Kirstein commands.
Bott makes a motion and ducks behind the bushes. Seeing that, the grenades are launched into the sky before they all rush to take cover.
The world shake with the sound of the explosion. And even before the smoke has settled, Bott stands up with his rifle ready. The wooden fences have been knocked over, leaving just smoke where those used to be. Bott's lips twitch into a grimace.
“This is for Captain Levi and the Special Operations Squad. Let’s go!”
Bertolt realizes that his thinking was too naive as the smoke begins to clear and they charge forward.
Unlike Marley or Paradis, the people of the Mountain Tribe does not have a military base. The place they’re attacking isn’t just a place where the soldiers of Mountain Tribe gather to horde weapons.
It’s a village.
Elderlies, children, and the injured have been evacuated to this back area. To this very area that they just threw grenades in.
Horrified screams and laments in a language that Bertolt has never heard before fill the air. Grief-stricken wails punctuate and are drowned out by desperate yelling that sounds painfully like the word “help” in Paradisian language. At the very least, all of this can be deafened with the sound of gunshots.
He can’t say the same for what his eyes are registering.
Body pieces are things that he’s seen plenty of times in his own experiences. But burnt children, crying out for help? What looks to be innocent civilians putting their foreheads on their ground, begging in their broken Paradisian language? The injured soldiers who are desperately trying to save people by using themselves as shields?
Bertolt feels someone yank him down by grabbing the front of his uniform. When he looks up, he’s greeted by vicious green of Eren’s eyes.
“This is a battlefield. What are you doing, dazing around for?”
“S-sorry,” Bertolt just barely manages to squeeze out. He has no idea if Eren heard it over the gunshots, though.
“If this is too hard, then disappear.”
For someone who wanted Bertolt to die a painful death, Eren’s action sure is counter to that. “Disappear,” huh? So go somewhere where there isn’t a battle while the rest of his comrades die?
Bertolt isn’t that much of a coward.
“Sorry for making you worried,” Bertolt says. He stands up and readies his rifle. “I’ll provide cover.”
“I-I wasn’t worried. If you d-die like this, then I’ll be… You haven’t suffered enough to die yet.”
But Eren is no longer looking at Bertolt. He’s looking around, probably waiting for a chance to rush back into the fight. Bertolt shouldn’t hold him back any longer.
“Eren, until you see that, you can’t die either.”
Green eyes turn to him, startled. Bertolt grins and runs the other way without giving Eren a chance to respond.
Reiner punches Bertolt lightly on the shoulder when they pass. When Bertolt gives him a questioning look, Reiner touches his comm lightly.
Bertolt remembers that his comm is on.
Did everyone hear what Bertolt said?
He feels his cheeks redden, but he decides to be the bigger man. He focuses on finding high ground to provide cover.
There’s a watchtower in the middle of the village. Bertolt, with Reiner’s backing, takes it as his new spot. The village itself is pretty small. It’s barely half the size of their courtyard in the Warriors Training Grounds. Most of the buildings have been built with wood and fabric in tent-like style. It’s clear that all able-bodied and weapons were stationed around the area where Kirstein attacked.
The rest of the village must have evacuated to where Bott threw the grenades.
Strategy-wise, there’s no doubt that this is ruthless.
There’s little for Bertolt to do, too. Most of the Mountain Tribe members seem to have already given up. They don’t resist as they’re gunned down. There’s not much cover to give.
“Colt, there’s a kid approaching you.”
Something about those words bother Bertolt. But he’s not sure why. He doesn’t think it’s that there’s someone approaching Colt. Out of everyone, Colt looks the most likely to help others. He just gives that kind of kind vibe (according to Reiner, anyways). So it makes perfect sense that a child would, in the middle of this cacophony of destruction, would run for someone who looks like they might be able to help.
So what is it about this situation that’s bothering him? Something about a child… Oh. He’s not too sure what this has to do with that, but he’s suddenly reminded of what Bott and Eren said about how Captain Levi got injured. The Captain shielded a child from an explosion. And Eren said…
“That child didn’t deserve to be saved.”
“Don’t let any Mountain Tribe people approach you!” Kirstein snaps over the comms.
Those words are all Bertolt needs to hear.
He desperately searches around until he spots Colt and the approaching child. The child has his hands up in the air but seems to be carrying something in one of his hands.
Bertolt has done many terrible things under orders.
That’s just part of being in the Third Special Forces Task Squad. That’s something he has long come to accept. The fact that they’re right now killing civilians as well as soldiers without discrimination should be more than enough proof of that.
But if there’s one thing that he has come to accept, it’s the fact that he doesn’t want any of his comrades to die. Even if they’re technically on “Paradis” side, he wants to do his best to protect them.
Because when you’re out on the field, the only ones you can rely on are those around you.
Bertolt’s bullet hit its mark squarely on the child’s forehead.
The mission isn’t declared over until every single Mountain Tribe person is killed. There is no exception made for children or anyone. Everyone is equal in front of the barrel of the gun.
Bertolt stays in the watchtower until someone comes to relieve him.
But to say that he feels relieved is another matter.
“Corpse burning?” he mumbles.
Reiner looks sickened, too. “Prevents disease, apparently. And something-something prevent necromancy or whatever. These Paradisian soldiers watch way too much fantasy.”
“B-Bertolt,” Colt calls, looking nervous. “T-thank you for earlier. That kid that was approaching me was carrying explosives. A-apparently that’s how they got Captain Levi, too. The Captain tried to save that kid. That’s why he was so heavily injured.”
“Jeesh, that is way too cool,” Reiner says, shaking his head.
“I’m glad that you’re okay,” Bertolt tells Colt.
Colt gives a half-hearted smile. “It… sounded like Eren blamed himself for that incident with the Captain. To stop him from rushing off on his own, they sent him to us.”
Those are things that Bertolt has more or less concluded from things that he observed about Eren. But he thanks Colt for the information anyways, even if he isn't too sure why Colt felt the need to ask around about Eren.
“I… think this mission was for Eren as well as us. To gauge his engagement level.”
“It seems sad that he isn’t trusted by his own,” Bertolt admits softly.
Especially more so when he thinks about how openly Eren laughed in their presence. The trust that Eren placed on the Paradisian Military is awfully one-sided.
But is Bertolt’s own trust any better?
At the end of the day, they’re all just soldiers. They move according to orders without question. If their orders are to kill one another, then that’s what is expected of them.
“Trusting someone and liking them are different things. They can laugh together and joke around, but at the end of the day, he is someone who was forcibly sent away. At best, all he deserves is our pity,” Reiner says, chuckling lightly.
“Don’t use that as ammo against him,” Bertolt warns.
Reiner wags a finger at Bertolt. “That’s thinking much too small, Bertolt. Watch. I’ll tame that little cat of yours.”
“I… think it might be best if you just left Eren alone…”
Bertolt winces as Reiner ends up on the ground in a position all too familiar to those who have lost to Annie before. Eren stares at Reiner for a second longer before grinning widely.
“Thanks. I wanted to beat that mug of yours, too,” he says, laughing lightly.
Despite his words, his laughter is kind. Bertolt thinks this helped in its own little way.
To make sure that the corpse burning stays controlled, they dig multiple holes to dump the corpses in before burning them. The stench is awful. And the going it slow.
While some people are stacking corpses to be burned, others are dismantling the houses. The idea is to take any items inside that might get in the way of destroying the house and move them out. Anything they can't take with them, they have to break. To make sure that it can't be used against them again.
Bertolt decides to join in that because at least he doesn’t have to deal with the corpses.
Or so he thought.
He registers iron before he links that to the smell of blood. Not the freshly spilled kind of blood of a battlefield, but one that has been left out to dry for a long stretch of time. The smell quite like something has been rotting dead in here. It’s nauseating.
Then he sees the movement.
The smallest of movement like trembling as a soft gasping sound fills the solemn silence.
“Civilians,” he said without understanding anything.
“Innocent,” he believed naively without asking for information.
“Barbarians,” everyone said without ever expanding more.
He bolts out of there and empties his stomach.
A gentle hand rubs his back soothingly. Bertolt doesn’t really feel like he deserves such kindness, but he accepts it without a second thought. The same person hands him a tissue for him to wipe his mouth with.
“T-thank you,” he manages out.
“Never saw what happens to hostages that Mountain Tribe takes, huh?” Eren asks.
His voice is soft. There’s no sign of mockery or pity. It’s just quiet solidarity. Like he knows where Bertolt is coming from. Like he’s been there himself, a long time ago. So for now, he will comfort Bertolt, because what they saw is something quite terrible, isn’t it?
“I-is… that why you killed the hostage? In the drill we did, I mean.”
Eren glances uncomfortably away. This is probably the first time he looked away from Bertolt’s gaze first.
“When you’re pushed to that degree, you end up giving everything away. Everything that you’ve ever thought, everything you’ve ever done. It all just tumbles out of your tongue to make it stop. And on the off-chance you don’t say anything, they do this. They take you to someone’s house, introduce you to their family, let you meet their kids. It’s over, you think. You’re among friends now. There’s no need to hold back. The information slips out of your tongue in relief.”
“You… sound like you know it really well,” Bertolt admits, trying not to feel too creeped out by the thought.
Eren freezes. It’s such a small movement that Bertolt might have missed if he wasn’t watching Eren so closely. If he hasn’t been watching so intensely since first meeting those green eyes, he would never have realized how close to Eren’s heart he is right now.
“It’s… something that I…” Eren stops and shakes his head. “No. It’s nothing. Don’t worry about it.”
But Bertolt thinks that that’s sad, too. The people that Eren is the closest to aren’t the ones who trust him. Then isn’t it okay for Bertolt to reach out? Isn’t it okay for Bertolt to trust Eren enough to make up for that lack of trust?
“I’m not going to say that you need to tell me. I want to know, but I’m okay with waiting for you. Eren, whenever you want to say anything, I will listen.”
Eren takes a step away.
Skittish, Bertolt thinks. Like a distrusting cat who has been offered something much too good to be true.
But Bertolt doesn’t know how to reach out to cats. He doesn’t know how to offer comfort. He doesn’t know how to promise more without making it sound insincere.
He watches helplessly as Eren leaves without another word.
He ends up helping Reiner, Marcel, and Porco with burning corpses instead. Because at the very least, these corpses are static and don’t make those gasping sounds or try to move.
Periodically, Bertolt hears the sounds of gunshots ringing through the small destroyed village. It’s to put out of misery the hostages that have suffered for who knows how long. Few minutes afterwards, someone drags those corpses over to be burned.
When Bertolt tells Reiner what he saw inside of those houses, both Marcel and Porco go quiet. It’s clear that they’re listening in. But Bertolt can’t bring himself to care enough to stop speaking.
“I… wish I can help Eren,” he finds himself admitting out loud.
“Does he want your help?” Porco asks.
Bertolt finds that he doesn’t know how to answer that. He looks at the ground.
“Then more so than helping him, just be with him. Right now, what he’s looking for from us isn’t something grand like ‘helping’ or ‘saving.’ I think he’s just lonely,” Marcel says.
That’s probably true.
Eren was ordered away from his squad and placed suddenly on the Marleyan side of things. Even if Sergeant Jaeger claims that they’re brothers, there’s no guarantee that Eren feels any warmth from that gesture. Hell, why does the Sergeant say does things anyways? Are they actually related? Well, Bertolt supposes that it doesn’t actually matter.
If the goal is to make Eren feel as welcomed as possible, then calling him family is the easiest way to do it.
But that’s not quite how Bertolt wants to approach it. Not to mention, if he tries something too carelessly, he’s certain that Eren will run again.
“Then… how do you approach a lonely person so that they won’t run?”
Marcel’s gaze aimed at him seem judging. “Shouldn’t you know that best?”
Bertolt winces. But Marcel’s probably right.
A way to approach without making someone run away. For Bertolt, it’s a matter of trapping him or making him feel powerless.
But he can’t ever imagine something like that happening to Eren.
“Maybe I’ll try a candy bar.”
Both Marcel and Porco tense at those words. Their eyes are alert as they glare Bertolt down. And for the first time, Bertolt realizes that he has something on both of them.
He tries to offer a small smile, but he doubts it helped.
Their glares are terrifying. He shouldn’t have said anything at all.
“Tch. Looks like we’ll be spending the night here,” Kirstein growls during their late lunch break. “Sasha, take five others and hunt us something to eat for dinner. The rest of us will make rotating shifts. The goal is to keep the fires going as steadily as we can so we can get out of here.”
“More so than meat, w-wouldn’t something like herbs and berries be more… appetizing?” Mina suggests.
Kirstein’s eyes sweep over the fires. “Yeah, I suppose you’re right. Sasha, no meat tonight. Just keep it to scavenging.”
Bott chuckles. There’s a nostalgic look in his eyes as he leans lightly against Eren’s shoulder. Eren glances at him and humors him a smile.
Bertolt wonders if it’ll ever be possible for him to be that close to Eren.
He ends up with the night watch, which he infinitely prefers to burning corpses.
Or at least he did until he realized that Bott has also been given this position of guarding the southside.
There are two pairs all around the perimeter. Kirstein also makes sure that they know to check in with one another while patrolling to minimize the chances of anyone suddenly disappearing. Bertolt finds it a little frightening that that’s something they need to watch out for.
The two awkwardly glance at one another.
“Damn it, Jean,” Bott mumbles under his breath. Then a little more professionally, he tells Bertolt, “I’ll keep my hostility to a minimum. Let’s just get this over with without any trouble.”
That sounds great to Bertolt. He nods in agreement.
In tense silence, the two begin their patrols.
The check-ins go without a hitch. It’s almost comical how simple this is. Bertolt is even becoming hopeful that nothing bad will happen.
“Marco, Bertolt, it’s me,” Eren says before approaching them with both hands in the air.
“Why are you here? Shouldn’t you be resting?” Bott asks, his voice soft with worry.
Eren smiles easily. “Jean mentioned he paired the two of you with an evil grin. So I figured I’d be the hero that saves you guys. I’ll switch with one of you.”
“Switch with him,” Bott says at the same time Bertolt says, “You should relieve Bott.”
Bott's glare at Bertolt is cold. Bertolt quickly averts his gaze. He doesn’t miss the soft laughter from Eren. And yes, it is a pretty funny situation, but Bertolt would prefer not getting laughed at.
“You two became close while I wasn’t looking!”
“It’s not that,” Bott insists.
Bertolt nods. “I want to spend time with you.”
He realizes that he said that out loud when he feels Bott's glare set on him. Slowly, he braves a look at Eren’s face and is struck by how absolutely adorable that blushing smile is.
“J-just because you s-say things like that, I won’t c-change my mind. Y-you’re still g-going to die painfully,” Eren manages out.
Would it be creepy if Bertolt were to say that he wouldn’t have it any other way? He feels like it might be. So he just grins back in answer.
Chapter 7: My heart turned to stone. My soul flickered and almost faded
Since their first mission with the Paradisian forces, the Warriors have more or less gotten used to the way things run. They’ve participated in various other missions with their Paradisian counterparts. It’s probably fair to say that they feel like a giant unit together. According to the grapevine, more Marleyan troops have been lent after the continued success of the Warriors to help push for victory as soon as possible.
If there’s just one thing that bothers Bertolt to no end, it’s that the distance between himself and Eren feels just as vast as ever. But Eren has no problems laughing brightly with Porco and Marcel like he would with Bott or one of the Paradisian soldiers. Few times, he even chuckles at Reiner’s off-color jokes.
It’s just Bertolt.
Any time he takes a metaphorical step towards Eren (for example, taking a leaf out of Eren’s hair), he feels like Eren takes a step back (in the case of that example, Eren leapt away like Bertolt dropped a grenade). If Bertolt ever takes a step away, though (for example, leaving the room to find Reiner), Eren takes a step forward (in the case of that example, Eren actually followed him around with a rather intense look in his eyes that made Bertolt fearful that this might be the day that his life ends).
Furthermore, Bott goes out of his way to make sure that Bertolt and Eren are never paired up. It’s probably more correct to say that Reiner and Bertolt (and Annie, but Annie’s probably just more comfortable with Pieck than anything Bott is trying to assign) are always paired up with other Warriors. Despite the fact that Eren is technically a Warrior, too, things always work out so that Bertolt ends up spending far too little time near him.
All of this ensures that their distance never changes.
To be honest, he’s starting to feel a bit depressed that this has continued for the past six months since the first joint mission with the Paradisian forces.
“Eh? You want to be close to Eren?” Pieck asks in surprise when the topic randomly comes up over lunch (Well… To say that it was random is probably pushing it. When they asked Bertolt how he was doing, he ended up truthfully admitting he felt depressed. One thing led to another, and before he knew it, he blurted out his situation).
Typically, Bertolt would be eating lunch with Reiner. But Reiner has watch duty right now since they’re currently on a mission in the mountains to track a group that has been terrorizing nearby Paradisian towns. He’ll have to eat once someone relieves him. And that also means that Bertolt is, for some odd reasons, talking to this group while wondering if it really was a good idea to admit his feelings out loud like this.
Both Mina and Hannah go quiet and turn to stare at Bertolt, too. Was it really not that obvious? Of course, he wants to get to know Eren better. Why does everyone look so shocked?
“With how warily you looked at him, I thought you were terrified of him,” Mina admits.
Hannah nods seriously. “And he’s always joking about making you suffer. So I figured you must be really scared of him.”
Did it really look like that?!
“You always looked uncomfortable near him, so we’ve been sending him away,” Annie adds.
Bertolt stares at the four in disbelief. So it wasn’t just Bott? Everyone else had a hand in it, too?
“Oh, and Marco seemed really uneasy whenever you two were near each other,” Mina recalls. “So it just seemed like the right thing to do.”
With a soft whimper, Bertolt buries his face in his hands. “No, that’s not it at all. I want to be with him.”
“You er… like him that much, huh?” Hannah says, guilt thick in her voice.
“Since when?” Pieck asks, shocked. “I thought you were scared of him after he threatened to kill you.”
“Eren did what?” Hannah asks.
“Remember? Eren told Bertolt to disappear during our first mission together?” Mina tells Hannah. Then she turns to Bertolt with a pitying look. “What you’re feeling right now is called ‘Stockholm Syndrome.’”
“I-it really isn’t! I know how it sounds. And I get that it looks wrong from the outside. But I… I just… don’t want him to feel alone.”
Annie makes a motion towards where Eren is currently talking with Bott and Colt. “I’m pretty sure he isn’t alone.”
“Hey Bertolt, isn’t it more that you don’t want to be alone rather than you don’t want him to be alone?” Pieck asks, tapping her chin thoughtfully.
“Ah, projecting,” Annie says, nodding along.
They all seem to have come to the same conclusion. Bertolt doesn’t think that there’s anything he can say to convince them otherwise.
“Then the only way for you to get over that is by spending more time with Eren,” Pieck concludes.
Hannah looks doubtful about that. “Are you sure? I mean, isn’t it better to-”
“Didn’t you say that you haven’t had any time alone with Franz in a while? Why don’t you give your night watch duty to Bertolt tonight?” Mina says with a smirk.
There’s a small pause before Hannah beams. “Ohhh! I get you!”
Bertolt isn’t an idiot. He gets it, too. They’re just using this as an excuse to get out of tonight’s duty.
“Then Annie, all you have to do is convince Eren to take your shift,” Pieck continues. “See? Girl’s night can still be on!”
“Wait, I thought I was going to spend the night with Franz?”
Next time anyone asks him how he’s doing, he’s just going to smile and lie that everything’s fine.
But he would be lying if he said that he wasn’t excited at the sight of Eren’s surprise when they both meet up for tonight’s watch.
“I thought something was up,” Eren says with a wry smile.
“Are… you mad?” Bertolt asks.
He’s not sure if that soft smile is something that’s okay for him to have seen. But he’s not going to offer to delete it from his memories any time soon. Not that he can do that on command.
“Eh, whatever. It’s not like I don’t like spending time with you.”
Did… he really hear that? That wasn’t a joke, right?
“C-can you say that again?” Bertolt asks.
Eren scowls, a light blush on his face. “Shut up. C’mon, let’s get going!”
Maybe he was mistaken in his belief that the distance between them didn’t change.
“It’s been peaceful recently,” Bertolt says cautiously.
He’s testing the grounds to see if Eren is open to light conversation. From the small glance Eren throws his way before turning his attention to the task before them, Bertolt thinks he’s been given an okay.
“I hope it lasts.”
“It won’t,” Eren says curtly.
“R-right. Of course, it won’t.” Bertolt wonders if he should apologize as well.
Eren lets out a soft sigh. “Because it can’t. So you should enjoy these bits of happiness while we still have it.”
Bertolt retreated in his shell too quickly. That’s right. If he doesn’t take chances, too, Eren won’t know that it’s okay to rely on him.
“You too,” he manages out. “You… should enjoy happiness, too.”
There’s the smallest of pauses before Eren lightly punches Bertolt’s chest.
“Definitely solid,” he mumbles.
“W-what do you mean?” Bertolt asks.
Eren frowns. “You just said something very un-Bertolt-like. So I’m making sure that you’re actually here and not some sort of a spirit.”
“D-do things like that happen often?!”
There’s just a soft snigger of laughter as answer. Bertolt realizes that Eren is just playing around. Is he too tense? Why didn’t he realize that it’s a joke for what it is? This is exactly why Eren can’t laugh as easily as he does with the Paradisian forces, isn’t it?
“Hey, I’m not going to eat you, you know?”
Bertolt flinches. “H-huh?”
“Your eyebrows. You’re furrowing them like mad. Relax, I’m not going to kill you painfully in the middle of a watch. That’ll hurt the rest of the group.”
“That’s the only reason?” Bertolt asks.
Eren almost missteps. He gives Bertolt a look like he doesn’t understand.
“Are you sure you’re my Bertolt?”
But before Bertolt can ask more, Eren suddenly stops. He holds his hand up to signal for silence. His eyes sweep around the area, searching for something.
Bertolt frowns and tries to look around, too. It’s odd. He doesn’t see anything off. It’s just Eren and him, patrolling together and…
Where are the others on watch at this check-in point?
Now that he thinks about it, they should have ran into someone by now. But if no one’s around then…
His eyes meet determined green. With a small nod, Bertolt readies his rifle.
Eren offers him a small smile with a wince like an apology.
The two heads for what has to be a battle.
They know they’ve stumbled upon something when they smell blood. With just a look shared between them, Eren darts forward. Bertolt follows few steps behind to provide cover fire.
It seems they’ve arrived just as the fight finished. The Mountain Tribe folks look startled to see them. Or perhaps it’s more that they’re startled by Eren’s warningless attack. Bertolt immediately gets in position to fire his rifle.
No one will get close to Eren unless Eren is beating them down.
That’s something he can guarantee as the best sniper. And he won’t do something foolish like be caught from behind again. He’s practiced with Reiner and Marcel (after much insisting and bribing) to not fall for that ever again. He will not become a liability.
But he forgot that it’s not just the two of them here.
This is supposed to be a rescue mission of sorts. They’re supposed to protect the others on watch duty from being taken. But Bertolt was too focused on providing Eren back up that he forgot that he should have rushed in to pull those guys out while Eren was distracting the enemy.
It’s his failure for not being the proper back up so that they could rescue and leave without dragging the fight for too long.
Because now, there’s a gun pointed at Bott's unconscious head.
The Mountain Tribe members stammer out something in broken Paradisian. Bertolt’s understanding of the language is still shabby despite his effort to learn it in the past six months. But he thinks he might be able to pick out something that sounds like “surrender.”
Bertolt is pretty sure he can shoot faster than they can kill Bott. But Eren gives him a sharp look before raising his hands in the air.
If Eren is backing out, then Bertolt can’t exactly move as the one providing back up.
It’s frustrating, but Bertolt throws his rifle to the ground and puts his hands up in the air, too.
Eren says something in a language that doesn’t sound like Paradisian. The Mountain Tribe members look just as surprised as Bertolt feels. He wonders what is being said as Eren smiles sweetly.
One of the Mountain Tribe members punch Eren in the face, yelling out in anguish. Eren must have said something to incite anger. Bertolt wants to say something to remind Eren to not do that, they’re effectively hostages and pauses.
They’re going to be hostages?
He never forgot the sting of Eren’s bullet on his chest during their first drill together. He never forgot the smell the very first time he saw what happened to hostages taken by the Mountain Tribe. He never forgot Eren’s reasons for dying rather than becoming a hostage.
But Eren has an easy grin on his face as he continues to speak in the language that Bertolt doesn’t know. Bertolt continues to watch him, trying to figure out exactly what is going on. What is he saying?
The Mountain Tribe members must have come to a conclusion. They glance at one another and says something that sounds firm. Then they turn to Bertolt.
Bertolt glances at Eren in question, but Eren refuses to meet his eyes. Eren refuses to tell Bertolt anything.
Something hard smashes into Bertolt’s head.
The world goes dark.
When he next wakes up, it’s in the medical ward of the Paradisian Military. Reiner is by his bedside. He’s snoring lightly in an uncomfortable looking plastic chair. Few beds over, Bott and his partner for the patrol are lying there.
The only one missing is Eren.
“Reiner? Hey, Reiner,” Bertolt says, shaking his friend awake.
“Huh? What? Bertolt!”
Although Bertolt feels a little guilty for making his friend worry this much, he doesn’t have any time to lose.
Reiner’s face pales. His gaze drops down to the ground.
Bertolt desperately needs for Reiner to start laughing. He desperately needs his friend to tell him that it’s a joke. That this is just a bad prank that Eren came up with to make him “suffer.” Please, just… don’t say… Don’t say-
“We uh… were hoping you’d tell us.”
Bertolt buries his face in his hands.
Because that confirmation wasn’t what he wanted.
Reiner makes Bertolt wait until he gathers everyone so Bertolt only has to say it once. It’s probably in consideration to the fact that he has a head injury. But Bertolt is grateful, whatever the reason.
By the time Commander Erwin, Commander Magath, the Warriors, and Kirstein arrive, Bott and the other Paradisian soldier are both up. They look confused by the situation but move closer to give their accounts, too.
“We were ambushed while patrolling,” Bott reports. “Unfortunately, I don’t recall more than that.”
The other soldier nods in agreement.
Then they all turn to Bertolt.
The people on the Paradisian side look shell-shocked when Bertolt finishes telling what happened. And he figured it would be bad, but he didn’t think it would be so bad that they would look like this.
“What I’m about to say cannot leave this room,” Commander Erwin says. He glances at the Marleyans. “Even if you are ordered to, you must not say a word of this to anyone else.”
Magath frowns. “Why should we listen to you?”
“If that’s how you feel, then please exit the room. I have no obligation to tell you if you cannot abide by that simple rule.”
It’s clear that Erwin won’t budge from his position. Bertolt thought that Magath would leave, but it seems curiosity has won.
“Alright, fine. I won’t say anything.”
The rest of the Warriors also give their agreement. Bertolt impatiently turns to Erwin, waiting to hear this secret.
“Nine years ago, our outer towns of Shiganshina District were raided by the Mountain Tribe. If all they did was kill the people in those towns, it would have been much easier to deal with. But they also rounded up children and took them to be their soldiers. Eren was one such child.”
Bertolt wonders why he doesn’t feel more surprised. But there has been enough hints.
For one, the fact that Eren, despite his young age, was considered an expert on the Mountain Tribe. For another, the fact that Eren knew how to survive with wolves. For yet another, Eren’s knowledge of how the Mountain Tribe treats their hostages.
As someone who has been watching Eren so carefully, it would be embarrassing if Bertolt didn’t start to suspect something.
“Around five or so years ago, Levi’s squad encountered Eren and a group of teens with him. It’s estimated that this group was responsible for a lot of the raids that were happening around in our outskirt towns and villages at the time. When Levi’s squad found them, Eren shot and killed the teens with him. Afterwards, he surrendered to Levi on the condition to be able to talk to me.”
“And you agreed to it?” Commander Magath demands, appalled.
Erwin nods. “I was curious. His action contradicted everything we knew about those children that were taken. Most of them couldn’t remember Paradisian language nor did they know of anyone in the military. But he asked for me by name. He gave us his full cooperation and knowledge needed to fight against the Mountain Tribe without asking for anything in return. Just in case, I put him next to Levi to watch over him, too.”
Bertolt recalls the way Eren reacted when Captain Levi’s injuries were brought up. If meeting Captain Levi was the trigger for Eren to remember Paradis and come to side with them, then doesn’t it stand to reason that Levi was the person who saved Eren from the Mountain Tribe?
But that person is currently retired from the military. Bertolt doubts that even if they were to ask Levi to come back, he physically won’t be able to save Eren again. Then the only person left is…
“Then isn’t it possible to say that he has finished spying on you and returned?” Magath points out coldly.
“If that was the case, he would have killed these three,” Kirstein says immediately.
Probably because he’s always arguing with Eren, Kirstein looks firm in his belief that Eren isn’t in the wrong. Bertolt feels glad to know that there are still people by Eren’s side in Paradis.
Magath glances at Marcel and the rest of the Warriors. “Your opinions?”
“Eren won’t betray us.”
Bertolt faces their shocked expression with as much conviction as he can muster. He doesn’t know what the words that Eren said to him was. He doesn’t know everything there is to know about Eren. Hell, he’s just starting to find out a bit about his past.
But he knows how soft Eren’s eyes get when he’s worried about someone. He knows how determined Eren is when it comes to winning challenges. He knows how childish Eren can get about the silliest of things. He knows how easily embarrassed Eren is. He knows how kind Eren truly is behind his rough words.
More than anything, he knows how lonely is it to be unable to reach out when you’re surrounded by people.
“Commander Magath, I, Bertolt Hoover of the Warrior Division, am hereby turning in my resignation.”
“W-whoa, let’s not be hasty,” Reiner says quickly. “Bertolt, think this through first. What are you saying? What do you think you can possibly do to help Eren without the rest of the Warriors?”
But every second Bertolt wastes here is another second closer to Eren pointing a gun at himself. If Bertolt stays, then he has to obey the rules and regulations set forth by military and conventional rules. If Commander Magath were to decide right now that Eren is a lost cause, then that’s just how things will be. Bertolt will have no choice but to obey. Where he wants to go, what he wants to do, will doubtlessly be against the best interest of their country.
So before Magath gives the order, before it will be listed as his betrayal, Bertolt will make his stand.
Isn’t that what Reiner always wanted him to do?
Commander Erwin looks thoughtfully at Bertolt. “Hoover, may I ask you what you intend to do?”
“I believe that with my resignation of the Warrior Division, there is no need for me to report anything.”
“Yes, under normal circumstances, that will be true. But I do believe that there are those on my side as well who would jump as you did to rush to Eren’s aid. I would rather you guys all work together for a successful operation,” Erwin says with a charming smile.
Bertolt’s eyes land on Kirstein, who looks a little annoyed at being called out, but meets Bertolt’s eyes without hesitation. Then he finds himself looking at Bott, who glares back with grudging respect. Slowly, Bertolt returns to looking at Erwin.
“I have no plan, sir,” he admits out loud.
He doesn’t miss Reiner smacking his forehead.
“Of course, you don’t,” Bott mutters darkly. Then a little more professionally, he says, “Commander, I would like to request some time off to recover from my wounds.”
“What do you plan on doing in that time off?” Erwin asks.
Bott's glare returns full force at Bertolt. “I plan on recovering in the mountains. Raise some dogs. Hunt a little.”
From just that short list, Bertolt already knows exactly what Bott is planning to do. He feels ashamed for not having anything concrete. But if Bott will have him, Bertolt wants to come along. If it means that they can save Eren, Bertolt doesn’t mind being humiliated.
Whatever Kirstein was planning to say is cut off by Bott.
“Jean, it’ll be for the best that you stay. If both the Squad Leader and his Vice disappears, it’ll make everyone worried.”
Kirstein doesn’t look very happy about that. But Bertolt thinks he understands where Bott is coming from. This is probably to also to make sure that if things end up not working out, there’s still some form of leadership here.
“Bertolt, you should take a medical leave, too. Don’t resign,” Marcel says softly.
It surprises Bertolt. He thought the Warriors wouldn’t care either way. But it seems that his opinions of them might have been a bit too harsh. They’re looking at him worriedly.
“That’s right. Bertolt, there’s no need to resign,” Reiner agrees, nodding.
“A-alright. I’ll just take a medical leave,” Bertolt says.
Magath lets out a soft sigh, muttering darkly under his breath. Then a little loudly, he says, “I can’t give you more than three months.”
“That will be more than enough,” Bott declares. He glances at Bertolt. “Assuming you can keep up.”
“I will keep up.”
“M-maybe one of us should-”
Bertolt shakes his head, stopping Reiner. “Trust me. I’ll bring Eren back home.”
Erwin claps once, getting their attention. With his usual charming smile, he pulls out a map that has already been marked.
“I can’t give you guys too much, since we’re still in the middle of a war. But vacation in the mountains can be dangerous. So we’ll lend you some packs. And…”
He points at where they are currently before moving to one of the mountains.
“We’ll take you to Eren’s favorite wolves. They should be here, considering their migratory patterns. Then we’ll drop you off at the place you guys were found injured. That is all that we can do for you officially.”
“And unofficially?” Commander Magath asks.
Erwin’s smile brightens. “What makes you think we’ll give any unofficial aid? But if it just so happens that our GPS tracked satellite phones were accidentally mixed into your packs, we’ll have no choice but to chase after you to pick those up.”
“Jeesh, don’t you spoil your men much?” Magath mutters, shaking his head.
“When you want to win a war against an unconventional enemy like the Mountain Tribe, you have to take gambles. Don’t tell me you’re not a gambling man, Commander?”
Magath scowls. “No comment.”
“Shame,” Erwin says lightly.
“Are you sure you want to go alone with Bott? I can go, too,” Reiner says with his brows furrowed in worry.
“I’m sure,” Bertolt assures him.
Reiner nods and then pauses. “But Bott doesn’t seem like he likes us. So maybe it’ll be better if we all go.”
“Weren’t you the one who always said I should stand up for myself?”
It seems Reiner doesn’t have anything to say against that. He snaps his mouth shut with a clack. Bertolt knows his friend means well, but this is starting to get tiring.
“Is it that important for you?” Reiner asks softly. “To go and get Eren back, I mean.”
“For the first time in my life, I want to do something for myself, Reiner. I want to be by Eren’s side.”
Reiner shoulders slump in defeat. He stares at Bertolt for a long second before allowing a small smile.
“Damn, you’re being way too cool right now, you know that? I’m sure even a stubborn idiot like Eren would be able to see it.”
More so than that, Bertolt would prefer it if Eren no longer felt lonely thanks to his efforts.
Or perhaps that’s too selfish to wish for?
“I… hope he hasn’t given up.”
Reiner makes a face like he hasn't thought of that. Bertolt wonders if his friend will be okay waiting.
Bott doesn’t say anything to Bertolt as the two of them are dropped off at the mountain with the wolves. The two of them have been given arm guards. But to be honest, Bertolt isn’t sure if he can move like Eren did to so easily block his neck from being attacked.
“D-do you uh-”
“I don’t want to talk to you,” Bott says sternly.
Bertolt flinches and looks down at the ground. He supposes that’s fair. They’re not here on a picnic. He should take this more seriously, too.
“But I also don’t want this to fail because of my attitude. I will do my utmost best to be as civil as I can. That’s about all I can offer you.”
“T-thank you,” Bertolt manages out. “I… know you’d have rather gone alone. Thank you for letting me come with you.”
For a second, Bott looks like he wants to say more. But then he pauses, holding his hand up in a manner that reminds Bertolt a little of Eren.
Are the wolves near?
Bertolt glances around, trying to find what it is that Bott heard. Then-
His reaction time is not fast enough. But luckily for him, the wolf isn’t after his neck. It just barrels straight into Bertolt, knocking him off his feet. Then with an air of superiority that is much too familiar, the wolf looks down at Bertolt from on top of Bertolt’s chest and barks.
“C-could it be?” Bertolt whispers.
When he stands up, the wolf moves back to allow for it. It barks excitedly and wags its tail like a dog.
“It is you, isn’t it? Ah, I should have named you.”
“Your teacher?” Bott guesses.
Bertolt nods. Then to his pup that has grown so much, he says, “Where are the rest of you? We want to ask for help.”
The wolf stares at him blankly and tilts its head to the side. How does Eren does this? Bertolt turns to Bott for help, but he receives a helpless shrug back in return.
“Eren. We’re looking for him,” Bertolt tries.
There’s no sign of recognition in the wolf’s eyes. Bertolt finds himself sighing and looking at the ground.
Let’s see. Eren said that more so than your words, the wolves understood your will. But how should Bertolt go about making his will known?
“Bertolt, let’s get one thing clear. What I want you to learn from your pup isn’t just matters of survival. Learn to express yourself.”
“Bertolt, keep eye contact with the puppy.”
… Eye contact…?
Bertolt meets eyes with the wolf. There’s an excited wag of the tail. His wolf clearly thinks that this is some kind of a game. That’s fine. All Bertolt has to do is to show how serious he is, right?
“Please help me.”
Even when it feels awkward and he wants to look away, Bertolt forces himself to continue to look into the wolf’s golden eyes. His eyes begin to water with the need to blink. But he doesn’t want to break this eye contact. Please, he begs in his head. Please, help.
Then slowly the wolf lowers its gaze as if lost in thought. When it looks back up at Bertolt, it barks.
It trots off, pauses when it realizes that they’re not following, returns, and lightly bites Bertolt’s pant leg. With a tug, it lets Bertolt know to follow it.
“I think it understood,” Bertolt says hopefully.
Bott has a look on his face that Bertolt isn’t sure how to read. But then it becomes replaced with a wry smile, and just a little, Bertolt thinks that Bott is warming up to him.
Bertolt, as it turns out, did not explain himself well enough to the wolf. As soon as they arrive to the rest of the pack, it tries to feed Bertolt a bone.
“No, no. I’m not hungry. I want to find Eren,” Bertolt tries to explain.
The wolf growls aggressively and shoves the bone into Bertolt’s hand. It makes him want to cry. Just what is he supposed to do with a wet bone anyways? When it’s clear that Bertolt isn’t happy, his wolf worriedly pokes at Bertolt’s hand with its wet nose.
“Please, help me find him.”
Bott taps Bertolt on the elbow. “Hey, don’t stress. I figured it’d be hard to convince the wolves.”
It’s surprisingly kind. Bertolt is scared that if he were to admit that out loud, Bott will immediately switch back to his frigid anger. So he just quietly accepts it with a nod.
“You know, I wanted to hate you.”
Bertolt glances at Bott.
The two of them are cuddled with the wolves for the night. Possibly because of Eren’s influence, they seem more than okay with being used as giant heat packs. Bertolt is grateful for their warmth. It gets impossibly chilly in the mountains once the sun goes down.
“You and the other Warriors. I wanted to call you monsters and refuse to acknowledge you as human. Because that’s easier than understanding you guys and trying to come to terms with what happened.”
Bertolt isn’t sure what that means, but he gets the feeling that he shouldn’t interrupt. This sounds like something Bott has been meaning to get off his chest for a while now. So for now, Bertolt is going to do what he does best and be a good listener.
“I thought Eren would kill you guys when he was told to join the Marleyan forces. I thought he’d kill everyone and run back to us. But he didn’t. He trained you guys. He lived with you guys, sharing your food and bed. And now he’s the one who’s disappeared after making it look like he defected. I… don’t understand what he’s trying to do.”
“He wanted to save us,” Bertolt says firmly.
Bott looks surprised at being interrupted. He allows a small half-smile. And Bertolt thinks that that might be the friendliest Bott has ever looked to Bertolt.
“Well, duh. When does he do anything that’s not about saving those he loves?”
The mood feels lighter between them. Perhaps it’s because of that, Bertolt feels comfortable enough to finally ask.
“Did… we meet before? Eren also mentioned something about bread.”
“Bread?” Bott asks, sounding just as baffled as Bertolt was when he first heard it.
“He never explained himself better. He just said that what happened was something completely inconsequential for everyone but was very important to him.”
Bertolt watches as Bott's expression freezes before it becomes much too sad. Bott must know what Eren had been talking about then. He has to know. Then does he also know why Eren wants Bertolt to suffer before he died painfully? Is it the same reason why Bott doesn’t like the Warriors?
“I see,” Bott mumbles. “Yeah. I guess that’s the only way he can explain it now. Something no one would care about but us.”
They really like their bread, huh?
“But… we’ve never met before, have we? And… if Eren was with the Mountain Tribe since he was little, when did he have the chance to come to Marley to have a grudge against me? Or Reiner for that matter? Where does the bread fit in?”
Bott looks conflicted about something. He hesitates for a second and then seems to have come to a conclusion.
“When we get Eren back, let’s have a talk. I don’t feel comfortable telling his side of the story without his permission.”
Bertolt nods in agreement.
To be honest, he thought that Bott would disagree to say anything. The fact that he’s willing to talk about it, even if it’s at a later time, is more than enough for Bertolt.
For the next day, the two of them follow the wolves around, trying to convince them of what they want. Bertolt can’t say whether they understood or not. But at the very least, they look willing to follow the two of them down the mountain and into the carrier to be taken to where they last saw Eren.
Bertolt feels impatient.
Every second they waste here is another second that Eren might have used to press the barrel of a gun against his temple. For all he knows, Eren might not even be alive right now. But Bott moves with certainty and calm that Bertolt envies.
“He’s alive,” Bott says calmly.
“But how can you be so sure?”
Bott surprises Bertolt with a grin. “Because he doesn’t trust me with you Warriors.”
Bertolt isn’t sure why, but he finds himself grinning back. Something about those words seem encouraging somehow. Kind of like how hearing Eren tell him to die painfully has become endearing.
“He’ll be quite shocked when he sees the two of us,” Bertolt says.
“Not as shocked as the Mountain Tribe.”
Although he’s still grinning, something about Bott's expression makes Bertolt take a step away. He’s quite glad that they’re on the same side.
Chapter 8: Please, someone, anyone… Can you hear me?
Thank you very much for sticking with me until the end of this story. This is something I wanted to write ever since Eren swore to Bertolt and Reiner that he will make sure that the two of them will die painfully way back when (I think that scene alone gave me like 50 different ideas. lol). So it feels pretty good to finally get it off my chest. ^^
I especially want to thank Abby, cifer66, Halcyon_Days, tetsuyacchi, Nenetl-Muri, merelofficial, and Halrax for leaving me such encouraging words to look forward to. I sincerely hope that you enjoyed this ride as much as I loved writing it.
Please be aware that this is not a happy ending, although I suppose calling it "tragic" might be pushing it. There is violence and character deaths. If these are not things you want to read about, I highly encourage you to walk away.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The wolves look curious about this new place that they’ve been dropped in. They timidly sniff and glance around but don’t make any move to examine the area. When Bertolt and Bott move forward, the wolves seem to come to the conclusion that it’s safe enough. They tentatively begin to look around.
“It was around here, I believe,” Bott says when they arrive.
Bertolt nods. “Yes, it looks about right.”
The wolves glance around carelessly before one of them pauses. It sniffs the air and growls lowly. The others immediately fan out and begins to sniff. Whatever it is that they found, they bark to let the others know to come that direction.
“Could it be? Eren’s scent?” Bertolt wonders, feeling hopeful.
His wolf comes to him. It stands on its hind leg to give Bertolt a small lick on the cheek. Then it moves off to go with the rest of the pack.
“Looks like that one is quite fond of you,” Bott says lightly.
Bertolt smiles wryly. “With how rebellious it was, i thought it’d bite me as soon as it saw me.”
After following the wolves for a bit, Bertolt begins to pick up on what exactly caught the wolves’ attention.
“That’s blood,” he notes.
It’s dry blood, of course. It looks like it’s been here a while. And now that he starts looking more closely, he realizes that there’s just enough splattered here and there like bread crumb of sorts to lead them on.
“Eren,” Bott sighs.
Bertolt nods in agreement.
The two pick up their pace.
The wolves stopping is the first sign that something is wrong. They growl lowly, glaring at something in the distance. Both Bott and Bertolt reach for their weapons.
“You got us this far. Thank you. You don’t have to go any further,” Bertolt tells the wolves.
Most of them seem to understand what Bertolt said and takes a defensive stance to get away from the threat. But Bertolt’s wolf refuses to move from his side.
“I don’t want you to get hurt,” Bertolt tells it.
His wolf barks and determinedly tenses. Bertolt really would have preferred to not involve the wolves any further, but it seems that his wolf won’t leave him alone.
Bertolt reaches over and pats it on the head.
There are three patrol teams guarding this make-shift fort. This place looks like it was recently built. Or perhaps it’s more correct to say that this place is a mobile fort. There aren’t any fences like in the other villages of the Mountain Tribe. Instead, the watch tower and the patrol team takes care of surveillance. There’s one big tent by the watch tower and few smaller ones around. For the most part, the Mountain Tribe members seem to just walk around without any care.
If Bott and Bertolt were to carelessly run in, they would be spotted immediately by this open structure. In other words, they need a plan.
“We could wait for back up,” Bott begins.
Bertolt nods. “We could.”
“But we’re not going to.”
“Good. I want to get him out as fast as possible.”
Bott relaxes once he realizes that they’re on the same page.
“How good is your sniping? If I were to leave a few explosives around the perimeter of their fort, would you be able to make them go off by hitting them?”
Bertolt nods. “Not a problem.”
“Okay. Then this is what we’ll do.”
Bertolt sends his wolf with Bott since he won’t really be able to use a wolf’s help from where he is in the tree. He readies himself with his rifle by watching Bott through his scope.
Using the wolf’s help, Bott navigates around the patrols to leave five different explosives around the perimeter. Thanks to this open structure, Bertolt will have no problems in hitting them. He watches impatiently for Bott to signal that he’s in position.
It doesn’t take too long.
Bertolt first fires and detonates the explosion furthest away from him. He waits thirty seconds before firing off another one. This time, the wait time is forty seconds. And again and again until all the explosions have gone off.
Some of the tents have caught on fire. The Mountain Tribe members are running and yelling in panic. They believe themselves to be under attack, but they don’t know who the enemy is.
Now all that’s left is for Bertolt to casually snipe them down in this panic to cause even more chaos. In the midst of that, Bott and the wolf will sneak in to to grab Eren and run. It will obviously not go that easy. Especially not in this chaos that they’ve created. But at the very least, Bertolt can offer a bit of cover for them.
That was the plan.
That should have been easy enough of a plan.
But they didn’t plan for that Oriental girl.
Someone from Hizuru. Has to be. Only those form Hizuru are Oriental. To think Bertolt would just randomly come across proof that Hizuru is working with the Mountain Tribe… Isn’t this a little too convenient? Well, whatever. Right now, he needs to focus on getting Eren and Bott out so that they can report this. But this is a good sign. If they can return with this information, they should be able to better convince Marley to send more help.
The first word that comes to mind when you look at the Oriental girl is “calm.” She knocks over the tents that are on fire to prevent it from spreading anymore. With a curved blade in one hand, she casually points it at the panicking people and possibly shouts an order (Bertolt can’t hear it from where he is). It immediately calms them down enough to start searching for the cause.
Their carefully constructed chaos falls apart because of her.
If they had a comm, Bertolt could have warned Bott. And with all the chaos slowly winding down, Bertolt is having a hard time just trying to locate the guy. Just where is Bott hiding? At this rate-
The Mountain Tribe members cheer as they drag someone from the outskirts.
Bertolt’s heart drops.
Bott has been caught.
Okay. Deep breaths.
It’s not the end just yet. Bertolt is still here, and there’s no sign of the wolf. It’s possible that this is part of Bott's plan. So for now, Bertolt just needs to focus on getting rid of anyone who looks like they’re going to attack Bott.
Just watch for a sign.
He wishes he can hear what they’re saying. Are they exchanging words in Paradisian? Eren seemed like he knew Mountain Tribe language, but does Bott?
Bott is forced to kneel before the Oriental girl. She presses her blade against his neck, seemingly saying something. Then she raises her blade high in the air.
She’s going to make him into an example.
Bertolt doesn’t hesitate.
He’s done much worse than kill an unsuspecting person. And this is for the sake of protecting Bott. He can’t quite muster up the courage to call Bott his comrade. But that is what they are, aren’t they? They’re comrades who just want to save Eren.
It’s almost anticlimactic.
Her body falls to the ground like countless of corpses before. Two bullets into her brain. Nailing that coffin shut before she can swing her blade.
Then, before anyone can retaliate, Bertolt shoots down the three nearest to Bott. That gives Bott just enough time to make a break for it. And he would have.
He would have.
But a gun shot rings out, and Bott falls.
Not dead, Bertolt assures himself through his scope. Bott is clutching his leg in pain. But he’s not dead. There’s still a chance for rescue. It’ll just be a pain to get away, since his leg was injured. But as long as they’re alive, there’s a chance for rescue.
The Mountain Tribe members around Bott turns to focus on something. From the way Bott has turned to stare, Bertolt understands that they must be facing the final boss.
He spies through his scope for his next target.
There’s a short blonde man with a handgun in one hand. He must have said something, because some of the others run and retrieves…
His head has been bandaged up, and he stumbles when he walks. It looks like there’s a bruise forming on his cheek, too. Bertolt wouldn’t be shocked if Eren was too mouthy. But this is good. There doesn’t seem to be any sign of shackles or binds. They should be able to just run.
It looks like the blonde said something because Eren turns to him with wide eyes. Something bad, Bertolt amends in his head.
The blonde hands Eren the handgun with a sickeningly sweet smile.
Bertolt can’t hear what they’re saying, but he picks up enough to realize what’s happening. This blonde is telling Eren to shoot Bott. Considering what he knows about Eren’s backstory, it’s most likely that this blonde is someone who was taken as a child like Eren was. But unlike Eren, he was never saved. His words right now is probably something like, “Kill Bott to prove your loyalty.”
Eren takes the gun, looking like he’s moving on autopilot. From how they’re positioned, Bertolt can’t see Bott's expression. But he imagines it’s resigned from how relaxed Bott is.
Because they decided to come on their own to rescue Eren, they’ve now put him in this spot.
Bertolt closes his eyes for a second and takes a deep breath. He knows what he has to do. He’s not that much of an idiot. But it still burns him.
He’s always worked to protect his comrades. It didn’t matter what kind of horrible things he did if it meant that he could save his comrades. He didn’t mind killing civilians, he didn’t mind killing kids, and he didn’t mind drenching himself in blood. But killing someone who is like a comrade to save Eren?
If he waits too long, he’s going to lose this chance.
Bott's body jerks and falls limp. Bertolt sends a quiet apology, hoping that Bott understands why Bertolt made this decision. He thinks that Bott is a reasonable enough person to get it, though.
And now the attention is on him.
They should figure where his general direction is from his shots. But the question now becomes if they think there’s more than one sniper. Do they think a team has come? Or just a small group? Do they realize that there’s just Bott and Bertolt? What should be Bertolt’s next move?
Damn it. Why didn’t he ever pay more attention whenever Marcel made plans? He should have tried to understand strategy better instead of relying on others.
The blonde just made a motion to the others. Hm? What is he saying? They’re grabbing Eren? Wait, don’t tell him-
He can only imagine the sound of the bone crack. He can only imagine the hiss of pain that escaped Eren’s mouth, because Eren most definitely doesn’t scream. But Eren’s left arm is now twisted into a position it can’t be in naturally. And Bertolt feels like crying.
The blonde has one finger raised to the sky. What does that mean? What is he trying to say?
When the blonde adds another finger, they break another part of Eren’s left arm.
Ah, Bertolt realizes as bile rises in his throat. That’s what that means.
Plan. He needs a plan. Oh gods. This is horrible. This is… What the hell is he supposed to do? How is he supposed to save anyone? He’s a sniper. The best he can do is offer someone support or kill someone from afar. But the minute he kills the blonde, wouldn’t they kill Eren? That defeats the whole purpose of being here. But if he doesn’t make a decision soon then-
The blonde adds another finger. Another part of Eren’s left arm is broken. At this rate, they’ll completely shatter his bones in there. No matter what they do, Eren will never be able to properly heal that arm. Then… Then…
This is horrible of him, but maybe this means that Eren will be able to leave the battlefield.
He already knows that won’t happen.
Eren isn’t the type to agree to something like that. So that Eren won’t end up with a disadvantage, Bertolt needs to stop that blonde.
To show that he’s given up, Bertolt fires at the ground at the blonde’s feet.
He hates that smirk on the blonde’s face.
Bertolt imagines that it takes absolutely everything Eren has to keep himself conscious from the pain. At the very least, Bertolt doesn’t think the Mountain Tribe gave Eren anything for his arm. He wishes that his pack wasn’t confiscated or that his hands weren’t bound so he can get a painkiller for that arm. Not that it matters since his pack has been taken. He wonders where Bott's pack is. Is it hidden somewhere in the forest?
The two of them have been placed in an unburnt tent. The blonde didn’t seem to believe that Bertolt is alone, so he sent the other Mountain Tribe members out to scout the forest. Bertolt can only hope that the wolves are safe. Meanwhile, the two of them were dragged into this tent, probably to be somewhere out of sight while they figure out the whole situation.
“Why did you come?”
Eren’s voice is a soft rasp. It’s probably raw from screaming in pain when they kept breaking his arm over and over again. Bertolt needs to apologize for that. He needs to explain to Eren exactly why Bertolt couldn’t just walk away. But all he wants to do right now is foolishly cry like some kind of a child when Eren’s the one who’s in pain.
“I-I’m sorry. I… should’ve been faster. But I-”
“Bertolt,” Eren says. His voice is struggling to be something more audible than a whisper. “That’s not what I asked.”
Right. Right. It’s probably hard enough for Eren to try and be conscious right now. Bertolt shouldn’t make it more difficult.
“I couldn’t just leave you.”
Eren stares at him quietly for a second. “Didn’t they tell you? I used to work for the Mountain Tribe. I betrayed you guys to return to their side.”
“If that was true, then you would have killed us back then. But you made sure that we could get back. So even if you tell me to leave without you, I won’t. Because… Because I want to be with you. Even if it goes against what Marley stands for, I want to be by your side.”
There’s a soft sigh as if Eren is giving up. He moves so that his head rests against Bertolt’s chest. Bertolt wishes that his hands weren’t tied up so he could hold Eren properly.
“That blonde guy? He’s Armin. He’s the smartest guy I know. Having him as our opponent means that no matter what we think of, it won’t matter. We can’t win against him.”
“How unusual,” Bertolt can’t help but to note. “It’s not like you to give up before we even start.”
He feels Eren nod against his chest. “That’s just how terrifying Armin is.”
“Was he someone who was also taken when you were?”
Another nod. It must be getting hard for Eren to speak. Bertolt desperately wishes he can offer something to help.
“Does he… think you betrayed him? That you left him behind to join the enemy?”
Yet another nod. Then a little softly, “Was it just you two?”
“Yeah. We… took a ‘medical leave’ to rush to you. The others are coming a bit behind us. They'll take some time, but they'll be here. A-and we asked the wolves for help.”
“The…?” Eren glances up at Bertolt in shock. “You brought the wolves? How did you guys convince them to help you?”
“It took some time. That’s why it took us so long to get to you.”
Eren stays shocked for a second longer before he lets out a soft flutter of laughter that’s so different from what Bertolt is used to hearing. It sounds bitter.
“If they’re here, then there’s a chance to get out. Bertolt, turn your body a little that way… Yeah. Like that. Hold still.”
It takes him a second to realize that Eren has a small knife in one hand that he’s using to cut Bertolt free. Where did he get that? Did he have it hidden on him the entire time? Then perhaps these Mountain Tribe members aren’t all that careful? If Bertolt was a smarter person, he feels that he would have used that observation for a plan. But as it is, he can’t think of anything.
The minute he feels the rope give out, Bertolt takes a second to stretch and get blood circulating again. Then…
He wraps his arms around Eren, making the smaller man stiffen.
“Hey, I have a knife in my hand. Remember that?” Eren says tensely.
But Eren makes no move to actually stab him. It gives Bertolt the courage he needs to tighten his grip. He rests his head on top of Eren’s, marveling at just how this small of a body has managed to survive on his own for so long. Wasn’t it scary? Wasn’t it lonely?
“I’m sorry,” Bertolt whispers.
For not having a better plan other than killing Bott and then getting himself captured. For not being fast enough to stop them from breaking Eren’s arm. For not having stood by Eren’s side before Eren was taken by the Mountain Tribe in the first place. For not having the courage to have done this from the beginning.
Eren stays quietly in Bertolt’s hold. Then he takes his non-injured hand and reaches for the top of Bertolt’s head. He ruffles Bertolt’s hair.
Bertolt wonders if he’s supposed to find it as comforting as he does.
“Before Armin turns his attention to us, let’s run.”
Without even pausing to check just how many people are guarding them, Eren rushes out. The guards are caught just as off-guard as Bertolt is. And they stand there dumbfounded as Eren stabs their eyes without any hesitation. Then he motions for Bertolt to pick up the fallen guns and begins to move forward.
Plans, Bertolt thinks, are things that Eren also doesn’t seem to care for.
He picks up a gun and follows after Eren, two steps behind to make sure he can provide sufficient enough cover.
The two are almost at the edge of the forest when they run into Armin’s group that must have just returned from the forest. It’s bad luck, really. If they had ran in a different direction, they wouldn’t have ran into each other like this.
Bertolt surprises himself by reacting first.
He fires his gun just as one of Armin’s guards move. Instead of hitting Armin as he planned, the guard yells out and grips his arm. That single event is enough to launch everyone into action.
Eren grabs Bertolt and yanks him behind one of the fallen tents. Those by Armin’s side begins to yell out in a language that Bertolt doesn’t know. Right now, Eren’s arm most definitely prevents him from firing a gun steadily unless they get a smaller handgun. But only Armin seems to have one that small. Since that’s not an option, Bertolt will just have to do his best to protect Eren with this single gun between them.
Except how much bullets does it have? He didn’t count, and he’s not sure if it’s wise to check right now when they might be attacked any seconds.
Think. Think. What should he do? If Reiner was here, what would he have done?
A howl snaps him out of his panic.
He glances next to him at Eren, who is howling. Howling? I-is he… calling the wolves? Oh! If the wolves are helping them, then it should most definitely be enough cover to at the very least just run.
Bertolt can work with this.
He peeks out around the tent to gauge the reaction. Currently, there are three guards slowly approaching them. The rest are staying by Armin, possibly watching first to determine when to attack.
It’s sloppy, but he has to shoot five times to get these three down. The gun in his hands is too flimsy. It doesn’t fire like Bertolt is used to. It’s clearly some kind of a knock-off model or maybe it’s just archaic? Just where did they find a gun like this to use? Shouldn't Hizuru have provided them with better ones?
How frustrating. He really doesn’t want to be a burden to Eren any more than he has.
Armin is the one that he aims for, but the guy just won’t stand still. Bertolt decides that he doesn’t want to waste any more ammo and focuses on people that he can bring down right away. First hit that guy at the far left and-
A flash of movement catches his attention. When he turns to look, Eren has someone else pinned down to the ground and stabbed. He takes the gun and kicks it towards Bertolt. Looks like there’s no need to worry about bullets for now.
Eren then turns his gaze towards approaching Mountain Tribe members. When Bertolt makes a move to shoot them, Eren shakes his head and nods towards Armin. Divide and conquer, huh?
Trusting Eren to have his back, Bertolt turns back to face against Armin.
It seems Armin came up with a plan in that short while. Eren said the guy was terrifying. This must be the reason why. The guards have taken up a 2x2 formation where the front two seem to be standing as meat shields. The two behind begin shooting the minute Bertolt peeks out.
They lost their advantage of surprise.
Eren got him two guns with unknown amount of bullets. There are three groups of 2x2 formation and two guards in front of Armin. Bertolt will have to dodge carefully while firing. And that’s not even counting the people who’re coming at them from behind. Eren with his broken arm won’t be able to handle them all, especially not for a prolonged period of time. So Bertolt will have to play this more risky than he’s used to.
He peeks out and opens fire immediately. Two of the meat shields fall for seven of Bertolt’s bullets. That’s no good. No good at all. He needs to fire calmly, but he can’t do that right now. If only they-
A long howl fills the air before the wolves join the fray. With loud barks and low growls, they leap at the Mountain Tribe members with their fangs bared. They add one more dimension of chaos to the mix that Bertolt immediately takes advantage of. By the time he runs out of bullets of his first gun, he’s brought down two of the 2x2 formation groups and one of Armin’s guards.
Armin must have realized that he can’t just rely on this formation with the wolves to account for. He tries to yell out new orders.
But the wolves didn't come alone.
The chaos brought about by the wolves has nothing on the sheer destruction the murder of ravens bring. It looks as if darkness has descended down from the sky, attacking the Mountain Tribe members with viciousness.
Bertolt feels something cold press against his cheek and isn't shocked to find his wolf. It barks at him and runs to Eren, affectionately licking his injured hand.
"Let's run for it," Eren says.
The grin on his face looks tired. Bertolt moves to support Eren and receives an exasperated look for it.
"Let's go," Bertolt agrees softly.
Bertolt wonders if he’ll ever get used to the feeling of having the carpet pulled out from under him.
He registers the roar of a gunshot first. Then he’s aware of the color draining from Eren’s face, the way Eren’s expression falls into disbelieving despair. He understands without further words that Armin must be nearby.
So Bertolt turns, his gun at ready. His eyes meet unforgiving blue. The bullet leaves with the softest of squeezes. But the life in those blue eyes doesn’t leave. The bullet doesn’t even land close to Armin. It lands uselessly on the ground, quite like a reflection of Bertolt’s life.
It’s only then the pain registers.
When was he hit?
Oh, the gunshot. Was that why Eren looked so horrified? Was that why Bertolt missed despite having such a clear shot? How useless. How hopelessly useless. Will he never be able to do anything right? If he kill Armin now, he can save Eren a lot of anguish. He should have hit. He should have killed. He-
He hears another gunshot from behind him. This time, the pain registers as the bullet exits his body. He falls forward into Eren’s arm. Faintly, he’s aware of his wolf having ran off, probably to find whoever it was that shot him. He thinks there might be some yelling, too. But he can’t make anything out. It’s probably not even in a language he understands anyways.
“I-I’m okay,” he manages out. “I’m okay.”
He feels Eren struggle to keep both of them upright. Why does he always end up as someone’s dead weight? First to Reiner, then to Bott, and now to Eren. Why the hell can’t he ever be the one to save someone?
“I’m sorry. I’m-”
“Shut up,” Eren hisses.
Slowly, the two make their way out of there, leaving the chaos of battle behind them.
Bertolt imagines that they’re leaving a trail of blood that can easily be tracked. He also imagines that they didn’t make it that far away from the fort. But his consciousness keeps fading in and out, and he can’t quite bring himself to bring up these concerns to Eren.
It’s starting to get cold. He feels like he might be leaning too much on Eren in search of warmth. If only his wolf returned, he wouldn’t keep burdening Eren like this.
“E-Eren, that’s… enough. J-just…”
He can’t quite make out the expression on Eren’s face. Is that a grimace? Is that relief? It’s okay, Eren. Just leave Bertolt here. No one will judge. Bertolt doesn’t think he has that long left anyways. So instead of just dragging him around like this, it’ll be far better if Eren can escape from here. The rescue party is coming. Eren just has to hide until they arrive.
Slowly, he feels Eren lower him against a tree.
That’s it. This is kind enough, Eren. Go and hide. Make sure to survive until the rescue come. It’s too late for Bertolt. He’s far too cold. There’s no way for him to warm himself up from here.
But he feels something warm by his side, refusing to budge. There’s a soft pressure against his wounds. He thinks it’s soft because he’s too numb to feel anything right now. Or maybe it’s soft because Eren is hurt, too? Now that he thinks about it, he can’t recall if Eren was injured when they were trying to run. Is this blood all Bertolt's? Or is Eren's mixed in here?
He wants to tell Eren to go. He wants to tell Eren to hide. He wants to tell Eren that it’s fine. That he’ll be fine. And if anything, he’s sorry. Sorry that he’ll be leaving Eren alone again. Sorry that his death isn’t as painful as Eren had always promised it’d be. Sorry that he couldn’t have done more for Eren. Sorry that this is as far as Bertolt can go.
“If you w-want, you can p-pretend that I’m Reiner. Or m-maybe even Annie.”
Eren’s voice is trembling. He thinks Eren might be forcing himself to smile. Or maybe he’s crying without any pretense. He can’t tell. But this warmth by his side is the only thing he can feel as slowly but surely, his numbness spreads. It’s too cold. It’s too cold. Will it be okay if Bertolt curls up against Eren for warmth?
Just a little bit. He doesn't think he has that long left.
“Y-you’re such an idiot. Why did you come for me? I told you, didn’t I? That you’d suffer and die painfully. That I’d make sure of it? Bertolt, you… damn it… I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I just keep repeating my mistakes again and again.”
It’s an effort to move his hand. But he thinks he feels Eren holding it gently. How kind. Bertolt can’t think of anyone else he wants by his deathbed. Not Reiner, who would be much too grieved to properly comfort Bertolt. Not the other Warriors, who would have already put a bullet in him to let his passing be faster.
Eren, who always seemed like he’d be the first to shoot then question later. Eren, who has always pushed Bertolt to be more, to be better. Eren, who always watched out for Bertolt, even though he didn’t have to.
Eren, who has always been the kindest to Bertolt.
I’m okay, he wants to say. I’m okay. Thank you for being here. Thank you for not leaving him. Thank you for staying like this. This isn’t painful at all because Eren is here. Because Bertolt isn’t alone. Because Eren is so warm.
But he can’t get any more sound to leave his mouth.
Even a soft whimper will be comparable to this. Just a little, please let him comfort this kind man who is choking on his words to apologize. But hanging on to this moment, to this life, is getting harder and harder. He can’t focus on anything before him. Slowly, he is starting to be unable to feel Eren’s warmth next to him.
“I’m sorry, so please get back up. Please? B-Bertolt, I… I don’t want to do this anymore. Don’t leave me alone. It’s scary by myself.”
He wants to comfort Eren. He wants to reach out to him. He wants to say something.
“You are not alone.”
Four simple words. It’ll mean everything to Eren. If he can just squeeze those words out…
Before the world fades to black. Before the last breath leaves his body. Before…
But he was never a strong person. Hanging on to every little bit of life to live was never something he knew how to do. Fighting to survive was never something he learned.
In the end, it seems that Eren is able to keep his promise.
Being unable to say anything, Bertolt learns in his final moments, can be the most excruciating pain in the world.
He should have said more before. He should have been more courageous. He should have…
If he can’t do it right now, then please let him have another life. Let the two of them meet again. Let him finally have the courage to look into those lonely green eyes and tell him the truth.
“Eren, I heard your voice. I am here.”
Eren holds Bertolt’s body for as long as he has tears left to cry. Only when he feels calm again, he clumsily reaches for the dog tag around Bertolt’s neck. This, he thinks. Reiner and Bertolt’s family would appreciate this.
That’s probably not the right word.
Who would “appreciate” anything when someone dear to them is dead?
He wants to laugh. Laugh because he’s out of tears. Laugh because he doesn’t know what else to do. What should he feel? Hey Bertolt, please, tell him that you’re joking. Get up. Stand up. This is just a joke, right?
So they should just laugh.
Bertolt dropped the gun somewhere on their way here. Eren can’t recall what he did with his own knife. Probably dropped it somewhere, too, right?
Useless. So damned useless.
If he wasn’t, Marco would never have been humiliated. If he wasn’t, Bertolt would never had to suffer. If he wasn’t, Mikasa wouldn’t have died so pathetically. If he wasn’t, Armin wouldn’t have been lonely, waiting for Eren to come save him. If he wasn’t, Levi would never have been injured.
But there’s no time to stand around, feeling sorry for himself. He’s already wasted so long by staying next to Bertolt instead of doing something respectful by burying him. By now, Armin must have came up with a plan to deal with the wolves and the ravens. It’s possible that Armin has already wiped them all out and are gunning for him, too.
So he should go and meet them.
Even with a broken arm, he’s a better fighter than Armin. The wolves and the raven should have done more than enough damage to others that Eren will have the upperhand if he uses this forest as his fighting ground.
It’s been a while since he fought alone without any form of back up. But if he stops to think about it, this is how he fights best.
Without any worries of accidentally hurting those he loves. Without any concern over who he might bring down. Without any problem of conflicting interests.
Eren pockets Bertolt’s dog tag.
He takes off in the direction of the chaos he left behind.
This is but one small battle of many.
This is but one of the many lives they will lose.
War is a creature like this.
“Thought you’d be here, brat,” Levi says as he approaches the grave, leaning heavily on his walking stick.
Eren barely glances at him, preferring instead to continue to blow his bubbles in the space between them. He stays seated in front of the grave. His left arm is stuck in the cast and makes for the perfect place to hold the soap container. He dips the bubble wand in the container, silently signaling to Levi that he’s ready to talk.
“How’s your arm?” Levi asks.
“They said if I hadn’t used it after it broke that much, there might have been a chance of healing. But as it is, I’ll probably never be able to use it again.”
Levi’s hand is hesitant against Eren’s head. “You can always retire with me. I’d appreciate the extra help in cleaning the top shelves.”
Armin, the brain of the operation, has been put down. And with the recovery of Mikasa’s corpse, the Paradisian force made the argument to Marley that Hizuru sided with the Mountain Tribe. Currently, Marley and Paradis both are pressuring Hizuru while sending the rest of their forces to raze down the Mountain Tribe. From the looks of it, Hizuru will end up surrendering quite a lot of their territory and exports in hopes of getting Mikasa’s body back.
Eren’s role in this war is more or less finished. And with his arm what it is, he won’t be needed on the frontlines anymore.
Retirement is the only thing he can do.
“Is that… really okay? A lot of people-”
Levi doesn’t let Eren finish his thought. He ruffles Eren’s hair forcefully, making it hurt just a bit as if to scold him.
“A brat like you don’t need to worry about that.”
Eren understands what Levi is trying to say in his awkward way, but it doesn’t sit right with him. He stares at the grave marker as if to silently ask Marco’s ghost for help.
“I guess you like those bubbles more than smoking now, huh?” Levi says instead, mercifully changing the topic.
After a beat of hesitation, Eren admits, “Someone… once said that it was cute.”
“It suits you better, too,” Levi tells him, a wry grin on his face. “Eren, you don’t have to go with the Warriors if you don’t want to. You can come home any time.”
But Eren doesn’t know what “home” is anymore.
Once upon a time, it was by Armin’s side. But it seems too cruel to say that now after he took Armin’s life away. He never got to meet Mikasa in this life. And Marco’s life was taken far too soon for Eren to be able to comfortably call him home. And being with the Paradisian forces now, after everything (after what happened before, too), is too painful.
Then where should Eren go? What is “home” to him?
He doesn’t answer Levi and instead return to blowing his bubbles. When it becomes clear that Eren has nothing more to say, Levi slowly takes his leave.
A place Eren Jaeger can call home… Does a place like that exist anymore?
“I… feel so lonely.”