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Dangerous Territory

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ACT ONE: NORMANDY

 

Chapter 1

The German and the Jew

“Instruction in world history in the so-called high schools is even today in a very sorry condition. Few teachers understand that the study of history can never be to learn historical dates and events by heart and recite them by rote; that what matters is not whether the child knows exactly when this battle or that was fought, when a general was born, or even when a monarch (usually a very insignificant one) came into the crown of his forefathers. No, by the living God, this is very unimportant. To ‘learn’ history means to seek and find the forces which are the causes leading to those effects which we subsequently perceive as historical events.”
― Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf

 


France was not how Eren Jäger thought it would be. He was sure this town must have been beautiful once, a thriving rustic village, horses clopping down the cobbled roads, vendors shouting out their wares, lovers sneaking kisses as they strolled arm in arm, children running down the street playing games whilst mothers shouted at them to be careful, grandfathers smoking pipes and reminiscing about the previous century, and little girls perched on sidewalk edges talking to their dolls.

He knew that must have been how it was, because he saw the evidence, the abandoned fruit stands now pilfered and crumbling, an old pipe molding in a damp gutter, and a doll that survived the bombing with her porcelain face merely muddied.

He stepped cautiously through the mess. He had lost track of how many days the Germans had bombed this town, a known hive of the French Resistance. Eren thought it was a shame. Only a handful of rebels, and the result was the devastation of a whole town. He hoped the townsfolk were able to flee safely. War was for those who volunteered to fight, not for civilians.

He personally hated that war could not belong purely to soldiers, testing might against might, like the old days. Now, civilians paid the price as well. He had seen the news, the Blitz on London, Allies bombing French cities to destroy rails in order to thwart the Germans, civilian targets, no true military advantage besides demoralization. He disagreed with it, but it was not his place to speak out. He did as he was told, ordered his platoon to do their duties, and got them through this war alive. That was enough.

“Jäger,” his companion whispered, and Jean Kirschtein nodded over to a building.

Eren gave a hand signal to the rest of the troop to stop. He trusted Jean’s instincts, and if that man said there was someone in the building, Eren was not going to take chances. He readied his MP40 and crept forward across charred wood, busted bricks, and shattered glass.

It was dark inside the house, and he paused to let his eyes adjust. He listened instead. The low moan of settling debris was suddenly interrupted by a sniff. Eren’s rifle pointed straight toward it. Not an enemy soldier, he decided. A soldier would not make such a novice mistake. When he heard a soft shush from a woman, he realized these were civilians.

How the hell had any survived, and why would they even stay around?

Eren saw a shadow move behind a closed door, and he took a defensive position behind a wall. He heard a soldier creeping up to the front entrance, and he whistled a signal for them not to approach. There was a chance they were armed French Resistance fighters, but there was also a good chance it was some child left behind, lost and scared, and a jittery soldier might shoot an innocent civilian on accident.

Herauskommen,” he called out toward the shut door. “Die Stadt hat sich ergeben.” Come out. The town has surrendered.

He knew it was probably useless. This was northern France, and he doubted the citizens spoke German. If only they were so lucky! Their company had been without a translator for over a week.

He called out again, “Ich nähere mich.” I’m approaching.

He kept low, just in case. He crept close to the ground until he was right in front of the door and knocked with the tip of his rifle.

Ich werde die Tür öffnen.” I’m going to open the door.

Slowly, he turned the handle and heard scuffling behind it. As soon as it was wide enough, a knife shot out. Eren caught the hand and slammed it against the door jamb. He heard a man cry out, and the knife dropped. Eren saw another hand, same shirt, reach for the fallen blade. Was the attacker going to fight left-handed? Before he had a chance, Eren kicked the knife aside.

“Halt!” he commanded. Just then, Jean ran in, but Eren lifted a hand to hold him back.

Haben Sie ein Problem?” asked Jean. Are you having a problem?

Eren shook his head. “Sie sind Zivilisten.” They are civilians.

Französischer Widerstand?” French Resistance?

Eren was not sure, but a mere knife seemed petty for someone trying to take a stand against the occupying German forces. He kept his gun ready, not about to take chances, and pushed the door open. There, hunched over and clutching a book, was a tiny man. Eren almost thought this person was a child, but the narrow eyes were older, perhaps over thirty years of age, filled with wisdom and stubbornness that only came with time.

Wer sind Sie?” he asked quietly. Who are you? The man just stared. Eren tried again in French: “Qui êtes-vous?” The small man’s eyes widened in acknowledgment. “Êtes-vous Français?” Do you speak French?

Oui,” the man said suspiciously.

Verdammt,” Eren cursed, rolling his eyes. “Parlez … vous … allemand?” Do you speak German?

Non, je ne parle pas ta langue.” No, I do not speak your language.

Scheiße! Ich habe Pech.” Shit! I have bad luck. Eren wanted to curse more, but he had one more thing to try. “Do you speak English?”

The small man blinked in honest surprise. “I … y-yes. I speak it a little.”

It was a start. Eren knew only about ten phrases in French, and he had just used up three of them. “What is your name?” he asked in English with a strong German accent.

“My name … it is … Rivaille. Rivaille Martin.”

Rivaille. A French name, and Martin was the most common French surname. His accent was correct as far as Eren could tell. Not a British spy, probably not American, although Eren had never met an American and did not know how they sounded.

“Are you a member of the French Resistance?”

“No! I swear, I’m not.”

Eren looked down at the book pressed against the man’s bosom. “What is that?”

The tiny man clutched it tighter. Eren marched in, his military boots clomping over debris, and yanked the book out of his hands.

“Please, that book is everything to me,” the man yelled, but Eren’s boot kept him from surging forward.

Eren thumbed through the pages, and a furrow creased his brow.

“It’s just the Bible,” the man protested. “What the English call The Old Testament. Surely it’s not illegal to own a Bible.”

“It is, when it’s in Hebrew,” Eren muttered, and he looked down at the man again. “You’re Jewish. What is your real name?”

He hesitated, and Eren saw he was weighing the advantages of lying. By the deep crease in his brow, this small man obviously realized it was useless.

“Levi Ackerman,” he admitted.

Levi. That was about as Jewish of a name as a person could have, and Ackerman was also of Jewish roots. Eren eyed the group huddling behind this man. “Are all these people Jewish?”

“Please,” the man whispered. “They’ve been through so much. At least let the women go. A few more kilometers and we will be in Belgium.”

Eren’s forehead pinched between the brows. “Do you really think I can let you leave? The town is surrounded by Germans.”

“Please,” he begged. “We are not hurting anyone. We are not members of the Resistance. They were just helping us to get out of France.”

Eren shrugged. “They failed.”

The man scowled defiantly, but Eren saw the fear in his eyes. The German soldier looked at the holy book, then at the small man.

“I will keep the book safe for now,” he said, and he shoved it into his satchel. “But I cannot let you go. I’m sorry.” He grabbed the man by his black hair and yanked him out of the room. He looked over to Jean. “Holt die restlichen Juden aus dem Haus.” Get the rest of the Jews out of the house.

Jean sneered. “Juden!

Schießt nicht auf sie,” Eren ordered sternly. Don’t shoot them.

Jean countered, “Sag ihnen, dass sie sich nicht widersetzen sollen, sonst schieße ich.” Tell them don’t resist, or I will shoot.

Eren looked down at Levi. “Translate this to them: Do not resist. Exit the house peacefully. I will try to keep all of you alive, but we will shoot anyone who resists.”

Levi’s brow furrowed again. “Keep us alive?”

“If I can,” Eren said solemnly. “You’re Jews, but you’re civilians. I don’t believe in killing civilians.”

Levi looked back around to the hiding group and spoke to them in French. Eren watched their gaunt faces and hoped they would obey. Then he pulled Levi along and out of the house. The scrawny man shielded his eyes at the sunlight gleaming through skimming spring clouds, and Eren wondered how long he had been hiding indoors. By his smell, perhaps longer than the five days of bombing.

Herr Hauptmann!” Eren shouted to a tall German captain.

A stony-faced man with sunken eyes and gaunt cheeks came forward. Eren saluted with one hand while keeping Levi in a tight grip with the other.

Hauptmann Woermann. Ich hab‘ eine Gruppe Juden gefunden.” Captain Woermann. I found a group of Jews.

Juden? Wie widerlich!” Jews? How disgusting! The man spat at Levi’s feet. “Verschwende nicht unsere Zeit, Jäger. Töte ihn. Brenn das gesamte Haus nieder.” Do not waste our time, Jäger. Kill him. Burn the whole house down.

Herr Hauptmann,” Eren said quickly. He pulled the commander away and lowered his voice. “Our camp has been low on help. We could use these Jews as servants.”

“They are filthy beasts who would destroy Germany,” the captain sneered, and Levi snarled back at him. “It’s best to kill all Jews.” He pulled out his own gun and aimed it at Levi.

Herr Hauptmann,” Eren said louder. “We really could use the help, especially with the latrines. None of the soldiers want to help with that.”

“Cleaning up shit? Appropriate job for people lower than shit.” Kitz put his gun away. “A waste of a bullet, anyway. Find the others hiding in there. Yank them all out. If they struggle too much, shoot them. Jäger, you are in charge of these mongrels. If they act up, you get to pick an appropriate punishment.”

Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann,” the young man said, saluting stiffly. He turned back to his platoon. “Kirschtein, wir werden die Juden mit uns zurückbringen. Ich werde einen Platz für sie arrangieren.” Kirschtein, we will bring the Jews back with us. I will arrange a room for them.

He pulled Levi along back to their camp. Reluctantly, the man followed.

“You won’t be killed, but you will have to work,” Eren explained in English.

“Why did you do that?” Levi asked quietly.

“I had to. It is my duty to report to my captain about your group,” Eren said coldly. “My platoon already had your building surrounded. I couldn’t let you go free.”

“I mean letting me live. I don’t know what you said to him, but he was going to kill me. Why did you stop him?”

Eren stared ahead sternly. “Again, I had to.”

Behind them, they heard shouting followed by two gunshots. Levi turned around in horror, but Eren pulled him along.

“Do not make this any harder, please,” he whispered. “You’re alive. Stay alive. Do anything at all to stay alive in this world. Bury your emotions, change who you are, even change your religion if you have to. Just stay alive.”

“Changing my religion will not change the fact that I was born as a Jew,” Levi said softly. “I’m damned either way. Yiddisher mazel.”

Eren looked over in confusion. “What does that mean?”

“Yiddish luck. Bad luck,” Levi muttered. “It’s the only luck we Jews have. Yiddisher mazel.”

“Well, you’re lucky you were found by me and not one of the others,” Eren said with a grin.

Levi’s eyes narrowed, and he growled out, “Ess drek und shtarbn, takhshet.” Eat shit and die, brat.

Eren chuckled wryly. “I won’t bother asking for a translation. I know when I’ve been cussed out.”

Enculé!” Levi sneered in French instead. Fuck off!

# # #

# #

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I will be using proper German military ranks, which include Hauptmann (captain) and Leutnant (lieutenant). Herr is a polite way of addressing a person, like Mister or Sir. So Eren will often be addressed as Herr Leutnant.

Many English translations misspell Eren's last name as “Jaeger”—or worse, “Yeager.” (Why?!) In the German and French translations, it's spelled properly: “Eren Jäger.” It’s common for English translators to respell Germanic words to sound more English-y. The German “J” sounds like an English “Y” and since umlauts are not on English keyboards, they’re replaced with weird vowel combinations (“ä” becomes “ae”). I may be a native English speaker, but umlauts don’t scare me, and I respect the German language enough to SPELL IT RIGHT. Jäger means Hunter in German, and Eren is a German soldier in this story, so I will be spelling his name properly dammit. It’s Eren Jäger, not Jaeger, and sure as hell not Yeager. (YUCK!)


DISCLAIMERS, THANKS, AND LEGAL STUFF

I do not own Shingeki no Kyojin and do not make money from this fanfic.

The claims, actions, and propaganda expressed in this story DO NOT reflect the opinions of the author. This is a work of fiction, but parts are inspired by real historical events, people, and locations.

I am not Jewish; my husband is. His grandmother escaped the Russian pogroms and came to America as a child refugee. My husband grew up attending shul, and since his grandmother spoke Yiddish, he picked up a few phrases. Because he’s “not exactly kosher” (as he puts it) I may get details wrong. I gladly appreciate corrections.

This is written in collaboration with Moonlessnight126, whom I’ve worked with many times before. The plot is hers, the prose is mine. I thought it was pretty awesome that a Muslim woman in Egypt wanted to create a story about a gay Nazi falling for a Jew.

A huge thanks to my translators. This story is filled with French, German, and Yiddish, and sadly I am not fluent in ANY of them. For the French, Doublepasse was utterly brilliant, even taking the grammar of the time period into account. For German, Tenbako and Chiyala have been incredible tackling vulgar, antisemitic phrases with professional comportment. For the Yiddish, I turned to my husband. Thank you all.

If you catch errors in the non-English dialogue, PLEASE let me know. I really tried my best to respect the languages, but sometimes I feel bad for always asking for translation help, and I stupidly try to translate it myself. Always feel free to correct me. I deeply appreciate it.

Chapter Text

It was May 1944. Europe was scarred by years of war. For many, it felt like the fighting would never end. For four years, Germany had controlled France. Some French people accepted the change and the new government set up in Vichy rather than Paris.

Not all, though.

Lately, the French Resistance had been growing bolder, and military action was occasionally needed to stop these anti-fascists who fought the new government. Eren acknowledged the pride in these people—he certainly would have joined a movement if it was France who invaded Germany—but he had a duty to do, and that was to restore order. Germans were methodical, and such chaos would not be tolerated. Besides, he had hoped that after four years, these people would accept what he deemed were rather generous terms that Germany provided to France in their armistice.

Under the command of Captain Kitz Woermann, a company of Germans took over a small village in northern France where the Resistance rebels had congregated. It was only three platoons, barely a hundred men, yet Berlin had sent the captain to oversee the interrogation of any Resistance leaders they could capture alive.

Eren Jäger was in charge of one platoon. He was only nineteen, yet considered a military prodigy by many. He had bravely led his platoon through a brutal bombardment in Italy, where out-manned, out-gunned, and more than half of his men died. Yet thanks to his fierce fighting and unflinching command, they were not completely wiped out and held the beachhead for four months. France was supposed to be a retreat after the hellish nonstop fighting, yet here they were, guns in their hands and blood on their boots.

Eren’s right-hand man was Jean Kirschtein, who held the rank of Unteroffizier. He was a lanky soldier whom Eren thought had a horse’s face, reliable with innate leadership skills and a sixth sense that had saved them numerous times.

Armin Arlelt was small, scrawny, yet he had volunteered for the army, not drafted as many of the younger soldiers were. He was the strategist in their platoon, and he made up with brains what he lacked in brawn. His brilliant tactics in Italy helped him to rise to the rank of Obergefreiter after just a few months of service.

Connie Springer was young, small, and always sarcastic. When there was fighting to do, he was one of the best sharpshooters Eren had ever worked with.

Thomas Wagner came from a family who owned a restaurant in Berlin. With his love for cooking and ability to make something delicious on scant rations, he had become a bit of the mother in the group.

Franz Kefka was new to their platoon, a reliable soldier born in Czechoslovakia, which Germany annexed back in 1938. His family were Germans by heritage and gladly accepted Hitler’s troops. Franz recalled having soldiers living in his home when he was a child. Urged by his father, he joined the Wehrmacht, leaving behind a sweetheart in the Sudetenland. This was his first post, and his friendliness led to him being immediately accepted among the veterans who had fought together in Italy.

After a two-week rest in Paris and new soldiers to replace what they lost in Italy, they were sent to this small, rustic village. After five days of bombardment and three days to thoroughly sweep the village and examine the ruins for evidence or survivors, they were told to remain there to dissuade further rebellion. The soldiers were happy to settle in among such rustic beauty, a welcome reprieve after endless travel and soul-aching weariness.

Eren managed to commandeer a two-story house with a full kitchen and not much bombing damage. One wall upstairs had a hole, but downstairs was intact. It was nice to get out of the sun and sleep on a real bed. The rest of his platoon were either in other houses left abandoned, or staying in a château that had been converted into a barracks.

Eren patrolled around the house, checking on his men. A group of the new recruits had come over to play cards. Connie rambled off jokes. Thomas busied himself in the kitchen cooking stew, humming happily at the chance to use real spices. Armin sat at a table pouring over a map (he always seemed to have maps) and Jean looked over with reserved interest as he polished his gun. Franz chewed on a pen as he wrote a letter. Eren paused by the soldat, and Franz quickly hid the note.

“Who is she?” he asked with a knowing smile. When a soldier hid a letter that quickly, it was not some message to friends or family back home.

“My girl, Hannah,” he answered.

“That’s a pretty name. Are you going to marry her?”

Franz blushed almost to burgundy. “We … We married in secret after I joined the Wehrmacht. She’s pregnant now and finally had to tell her parents about the marriage.”

“You’re going to go home to a strong and healthy baby,” Eren promised, clapping him on the back.

Thomas looked over fro the kitchen. “You’re going to be a father, Franz?”

“Ah, y-yeah,” he said bashfully.

“We should celebrate,” declared Jean.

Eren chuckled and shook his head. “You take any excuse to get drunk on some French wine.”

Jean could hardly disagree with that. “Sure, but I’d rather have a French woman.”

Connie laughed loudly in agreement. “I’d even take a Jewish woman at this point.”

Jean glared. “That’s sick.”

“What about you, Herr Leutnant?” asked Franz. “Do you have a girl back home?”

“Me?” Eren asked in amusement.

“Here we go again,” Armin muttered with a chuckle.

Proudly, Eren declared, “Germany is my mother, my wife, and my lover. I need no other woman.”

Jean confided to Franz, “He would say that to all the Paris girls who used to flirt with him when we were stationed there. And don’t try telling him Germany is the Fatherland, not the Motherland. He’s sticking to it like an idiot.”

Eren let them be a little unruly this time. “Some men dedicate themselves to raising the next generation. That is a high honor and the duty of any good Aryan. Some prefer to dedicate themselves to fighting so that the next generation does not have to. I’d rather forgo the comforts of a wife and family if it means Germany is victorious.”

“What about after the war?” asked Franz. “You could raise a family, a miniature army of little Jägers.”

Jean burst out in a laugh at that. “A bunch of tiny Eren Jägers squeaking Heil Hitler! That’s a terrifying thought. One is enough.”

Eren shook his head. “There will always be fighting. When Germany conquers all of Europe, there will still be resistance, like this town. Partisans must be dealt with swiftly and effectively.” He patted Franz’s shoulder. “But you never know, right? Perhaps one day I’ll fall in love, but lately there hasn’t been much opportunity.”

Jean leaned back with dreamy eyes. “I need a good woman.”

Connie joshed, “Is your hand not enough?”

The group burst into laughter.

Eren was happy to see how their small platoon got along so well. They had all been through so much, seen deaths, buried comrades in mass trenches, and marched together, days of marching through snowy hills and summer heat. They were closer due to it all. Eren wanted to hope that things would never change, this camaraderie would last beyond the war, and one day they would be like those old men who sit around smoking pipes and musing idly about the old days. It was a nice dream, but he knew the chance of all of them surviving was slim. He had buried enough of his platoon to no longer think they were beyond the scythe of Death.

Jean’s instincts made him look out the window. “Waffen-SS,” he warned. “What are they doing here?”

Armin muttered, “I heard two platoons arrived this morning.”

Franz scoffed and shook his head. “A little late for the fighting.”

Two men in black uniforms came up to the door and knocked with a heavy hand. Eren opened it and burst into a grin.

“Reiner! It’s been a while.”

A tall blond stepped in. “Since Napola.”

Everyone could see, he was the ideal Aryan, from his blond hair to his square chin and keen blue eyes. The lightning-like double-S runes on his collar showed he was part of the Schutzstaffel, the SS, the armed wing of the Nazi Party, racially pure and dedicated to Hitler and the Nazi ideals.

“Guys,” he called out. “Untersturmführer Reiner Braun, former classmate of mine.”

They politely nodded or saluted him.

Reiner looked around at the group. “Good to see you have your own platoon. Looks like you’re missing a few.”

Eren stiffened. “Italy was hard, but we fought harder.”

“Same here. Eastern Front. I was shot three times, but it’ll take more than that to stop me. Still, I got lucky. Half of my platoon was wiped out in the first week, the rest were sent home, some missing a limb or two. Only Bertholdt managed to leave that hellhole in one piece.”

The other man with Reiner stepped in, and Eren had to raise his head to look up at him.

“Well, he’s tall,” Eren muttered.

“Bertholdt Hoover,” the man introduced, shaking Eren’s hand. “Untersturmführer Braun has praised your dedication to the Führer.”

“That’s the best compliment a German can get,” Eren said dutifully. “I didn’t think you would even remember me, Reiner.”

“Who can forget a suicidal idiot like you? I still remember what you did on your last exam.”

Eren rolled his eyes. “It worked, okay!”

“And you nearly got killed.”

Jean let out a laugh. “Sounds like him. I want to hear this story.”

“No,” Eren said sternly.

Reiner gave Eren’s shoulder a heavy pat. “A story for another time. You should have joined the Waffen-SS, Eren. You were one of the top students in Napola.”

Eren’s face grew pensive. “You know I wasn’t allowed.”

“Ah … do you mean that thing with your mother?”

Eren turned sharply away from that issue. “How would you like some stew. Thomas, do we have enough?”

“Smells good, but no thank you.” Then his jovial face fell into solemnity. “I’m not here to reminisce. Hauptmann Woermann wishes to speak to you about the Jews.”

Jean scoffed and focused back on polishing his gun. “Why did you rescue them? What are we going to do with people like that?”

“I must agree,” Reiner stated. “It’s pointless to defend a Jew’s existence.”

Bertholdt muttered, “They should be shot on sight.”

“You don’t have to shoot them,” Jean countered. “There are camps where they work. I say we ship them there, make them useful for Germany.”

Armin muttered to himself, “They work them to death in those camps.”

Franz added in, “Better worked than shot.”

Eren looked around at the group. “They are being put to work. Would you rather be the ones cleaning the latrines and scrubbing pots? We should be thankful Thomas is a good mother and can spice up the rations.”

Thomas laughed from the kitchen. “I plan to take most of these herbs and spices before we move on.”

Connie groaned and leaned against the couch. “I don’t want to move on. I want to live here. France isn’t so bad.”

Reiner stoically replied, “France can fall into the ocean, for all I care. Germany is the only place to be called home.”

“Agreed!” Eren said proudly. “But Germany will be much bigger once the war is over.”

“Exactly,” said Bertholdt. “The armistice is temporary. Once we deal with England, we simply abolish the Vichy Régime. What are they going to do, fight us?” he asked with a laugh. “Then France will be Germany. None of this French State silliness. Give them a few more years, the idea of a Resistance will die away, they’ll all be forced to learn German, and they will fall in line.”

“That would be nice,” Jean said dreamily. “I’d like to actually talk to the girls I bed.”

The others laughed in agreement.

“Personally,” Armin said in a softer voice, “I wouldn’t mind living in a village like this. Berlin was too crowded. The French hills are lovely in the spring.”

Eren shook his head. “Always a dreamer, Armin. Well, better not keep the captain waiting. Reiner, we really must catch up over drinks.”

“If you find beer, let me know. French wine does something to me. I’ll escort you to where we’ve set up a command post. Men,” he said to the others, “you’re fortunate to have this man as your lieutenant. He’s got the luck of the devil himself.” Then he added with a smirk, “I almost pity you all.”

Eren followed the two Waffen-SS soldiers through the streets of the small French commune. Horse-drawn carts full of supplies and military trucks gouged deep ruts in the muddy streets. The few vehicles their platoon had needed to be repaired. The mechanics would be busy in the following days.

Eren walked on, saluting some, being saluted by others, until he came to a small castle, not much more than a rustic château built next to a medieval watchtower. They had designated the building as the company’s headquarters. There were gardens that were being ransacked for food, and the stables were now filled with the horses most of the infantry rode in on. Even damaged from the war, the building was impressive, with the affluence of the owner shown in a glittering chandellier and Baroque paintings hanging on the walls.

Inside, he saw a large table with a massive map that Armin would drool over. Eren glanced and saw markers for armies: German, British, American, Italian, Russian. He saw the movements of German troops, their aggressive push across Europe. At a nonverbal warning from Reiner, Eren moved away from the table and over to two guards in front of a large set of doors.

Reiner opened the doors and saluted the man inside. “I brought him.”

“Good job, Untersturmführer Braun.”

Eren marched in, saw Kitz Woermann, and immediately saluted. “Herr Hauptmann!

“Jäger, thank you for coming.”

Eren privately disliked this man. With his sunken, wild eyes, he looked constantly paranoid, and Kitz Woermann was known to be trigger-happy. There were rumors that he had even killed an officer at his last post. His gaunt eyes showed a man who had been at war for far too long, and if he survived, he would be permanently scarred in his soul from the horrors witnessed and atrocities committed.

Eren wondered if he would one day look like this.

“You mentioned using this thing as a translator,” Kitz said, thumbing aside, “but it’s useless.”

Eren only then saw the tiny Jewish man. His eyes were opposite of the captain’s: narrow and calculating, yet equally suspicious of all around him. Levi gave a look of not giving a shit, whereas Kitz Woermann looked ready to burst into flames at a wrong word.

Eren explained, “He speaks English, Herr Hauptmann. So do I. I can get him to translate for us.”

“English!” Kitz boomed, and his eyes looked insane. “Why should I trust English words? How do you know if he’s saying things right?”

“Even if it was directly from German to French, we would have to rely on him being honest in his translations. We can only use Gunther’s German-to-French translation book so much.”

Kitz slammed a finger down to a piece of paper so hard, Eren was honestly shocked he did not break a knuckle. “This! Tell the rat to translate this.”

Wie Sie wollen, Herr Hauptmann.“ As you wish, Captain. Eren approached and looked down at the paper sitting on the desk. He then looked over to Levi, and in English he asked, “Can you read this?”

Levi replied with an arrogant attitude, “Yes, I can read, thank you very much. I’m sure my teachers were rather proud to get some stupid Jew like me to read. Go to hell, you Nazi piece of shit.”

Eren’s hand snapped forward and grabbed the man by the collar, hoisting him up to his toes until his face cringed. He sternly commanded, “Read it, and tell it to me in English.”

Kitz grinned at the roughness, and both Reiner and Bertholdt chuckled softly. Levi glared at the three of them, then up at Eren.

“Don’t make me get rough,” the young officer shouted. “Do it, or he really will kill you. Prove you’re worth keeping alive.”

Although he was shouting, Levi saw that Eren’s eyes held no malice. He was warning him, but doing it in a way that played along with his role. With reluctance, Levi nodded. Eren released him, and the small man picked up the paper.

“It’s a poem. Chanson d’automne, Autumn Song, by Paul Verlaine. It’s quite famous in France.”

“Recite it,” ordered Eren.

In a deep, sonorous voice rich with the verbal erotica of the French language, Levi intoned the poem, hardly needing to look at the writing. It was a poem he had memorized as a boy in school.

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
     De l’automne
Blessent mon cœur
D’une langueur
     Monotone.

Tout suffocant
Et blême, quand
     Sonne l’heure,
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
     Et je pleure;

Et je m’en vais
Au vent mauvais
     Qui m’emporte
Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la
     Feuille morte.

 

“I could translate it, but it’s probably a code. The Resistance uses famous quotes and poems to communicate. The only person who knows what it means is the one with the key to break the code.”

Eren thrust a piece of paper at Levi. “Write it in English, word for word to the best of your ability.”

“The code is likely unique to the French language, not the meaning of the poem itself. Replace one letter for another, that sort of thing.”

“Just do it,” Eren barked.

With a scowl, Levi took a pen and hunched over to write. “A chair might be nice,” he grumbled.

Eren pulled out his Luger and pointed it to Levi’s head. “I don’t think comfort should be your concern.”

Takhshet,” Levi sneered in Yiddish, and he continued to write. After a long and tense few minutes, he was done. “There. The best I can do.”

Eren read over the page. He then read it in German to the captain.

“A poem, huh? Is this truly what it says?” asked Kitz.

“You would need a loyal German fluent in French to answer that,” Eren admitted, “however, I don’t see why this Jew has any reason to lie. The code is likely unique to French. Translating it may be pointless, but I’d rather be thorough.”

Kitz smiled proudly. “This is why you’re an officer, Jäger.”

“As for the translation’s accuracy,” the young soldier continued, “the words do seem to match up. I know these words, mon cœur, is the same as our mein Herz. My heart, in English, which is what he wrote. It seems accurate.”

Kitz glared over at Levi. “I suppose this thing is useful after all. Make sure it’s fed. There are more papers to translate. We also have a spy to interrogate, and we need someone who speaks French. Jäger!”

Jawohl!

“When we need this thing, we will also need you. Exactly how good is your English?”

“It’s like a second language, since many of their words come from our own.”

“Yes, a language of mongrels, half-German and half-French,” the captain said with a sneer. “I trust you to get this thing to translate swiftly and accurately.” He smiled, and it was like a crocodile about to eat a child. “I’ve read the reports about you in Napola. You should have no problem getting this thing to cooperate.”

Eren swallowed bitterly. “Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann,” he said, but softer this time, his face filled with self-loathing.

“Escort the Jew back to its cell. Apparently this pathetic castle actually has a dungeon, and we’re keeping them down there. An appropriate location for some rats. Make sure they understand that they are to work without complaint or the officers have permission to shoot them, or find other ways to entertain themselves, if they wish. Ah, maybe don’t tell them that part,” he added with a chuckle. “It would be fun to peg them off one by one.”

The two others joined in with soft chortles, but Eren’s face remained unmoved.

“I will inform them of what they need to know in order to obey.” Eren turned to Levi and motioned for him to follow. Silently, they walked together, Eren’s boots clopping over the wooden floors, while Levi’s worn out soles shuffled along.

Once they were in the hallway, Levi asked, “What was that about?”

Eren shifted to English. “A test, and you just barely passed. You will work as a translator. Our last one was killed.”

Levi sneered. “So I’m conscripted?”

“You’re not that lucky,” Eren said stoically. “Your group will most likely be treated like slaves.”

“To hell with that!”

Eren glanced over to Levi with a pinched brow. “It’s not ideal, but you get to live. For your sake, and for the sake of your comrades, you should obey orders swiftly in the future.”

“I’m not a soldier,” Levi said softly. “Not anymore, at least.”

Eren raised an eyebrow in surprise. “You were?”

Levi gave a curt nod. “French Cameroon, 1928. Some religious prophet rose up, attacked traders and French posts. France fought the Kongo-Wara for three years. They needed someone to quell the insurrection swiftly and effectively. They sent me.”

Eren chuckled softly. “Are you saying you were a strong fighter?”

“People thought so,” Levi said, and his eyes drifted with old memories. “I can still fight.”

“Your knife thrust earlier had strength behind it, but you hesitated.”

“I realized there were two people in the room, not one,” Levi explained in a quiet, distrustful voice, glaring around at the soldiers they passed. “If you had been alone, I would have slit your throat before you could scream. With two, I would have been shot, and my companions as well. I couldn’t stop the strike in time, which is why you managed to disarm me. That’s all there is to it.”

“Is that so?” laughed Eren. “You speak as if you think you could beat me in a fight.”

Levi looked up, and his eyes shined murderously. “If it was you and me, takhshet, and we had only knives or our own fists, you would be dead. I’m better with a blade than a gun.”

Eren subconsciously brushed his fingers over his Luger and across the gun’s trigger. “Well, you better not think of fighting here. The whole company is around you.”

“I’m not stupid, takhshet.”

Eren’s brow tightened. What did that word mean? It did not sound like French. Yiddish? It sounded like an insult.

“I’ll do as you order,” Levi said, “but I ask for two things in return.”

Warily, Eren asked, “What?”

“My book returned to me, and some cleaning supplies. That prison cell is filthy.”

Eren could hardly help but laugh. Cleaning supplies? Really! “I’ll see what I can do about soap and a scrub brush, but your book is safer with me than with you.”

“You’d probably burn it,” grumbled Levi.

“If it was in your cell, someone else almost certainly would burn it. So far, no one knows I have it. I can keep it in the bottom of my pack for now.”

“For how long? If you’re caught with it—”

“I’ll tell them I’m keeping it as a threat to hold over you in order to get your obedience.”

Levi’s eyes narrowed. “That’s not much of a lie.”

“Oh? Is it that precious?”

“It was my mother’s and is the last thing I own of hers. So yes, it’s precious, more precious than anything else I have left in this life.”

Eren looked over in surprise. His mother’s holy book! “I see. Then I’ll take care of it.”

Levi sneered but also looked curious. “Why would you?”

“Because you’ll want it back, so you’ll do what I say.” He kept his eyes focused ahead. “Also, I know what it’s like to want to cling onto something belonging to your mother, only to have it all stripped away.”

Levi glanced over, seeing a distant sadness in Eren’s eyes. He scoffed and muttered, “I guess Nazis have mothers too.”

“Not all of us,” Eren said solemnly.

Levi’s brow pinched. Motherless? This young man must have been through a lot before this war thrust him onto foreign soil.

Eren brought Levi through a wing of the castle and down some stairs to the dank chamber. As he saw the black mold on the walls and covered his nose against the reek of rot and human waste, Eren thought to himself that, if Levi wanted to clean this place, he would need more than just a bucket of soapy water.

“Maybe some Borax,” he muttered to himself.

“If you can find it, that would be even better.” Levi wrinkled his nose at the dilapidated prison cells. “I’ve been in worse shit-holes, but this one is … dégoûtant! Disgusting. Quelle crasse!” How filthy! “I never wanted to be in a place like this again.”

His gaze shifted over cautiously to the small man. “Again?”

Those dark, narrow eyes slid over and met him. “Don’t think you’re the first German soldier to capture me. You probably won’t be the last, either.”

“You say that as if you know you will escape,” Eren noted, and his hand drifted to his Luger again.

Levi snorted an unamused laugh. “I know how to survive. If I can live long enough, I can find a way to leave any shit-hole.”

“You know some interesting English slang.”

“I know how to fuck your ugly sister.”

That made Eren chuckle. “Sorry to disappoint you, but I don’t have one, ugly or otherwise.”

Eren took an ancient, heavy key ring off a hook on the wall and opened the door to one of the cells. Inside was a tiny cot for a bed, a bucket for a latrine, and nothing else. Sneering yet having no choice but to obey, Levi walked into the cell, turned around, and held his hand out.

“My book.”

“I don’t have it on me, and it would be confiscated,” said Eren.

“That book is precious to me. I don’t trust you with it.”

Eren closed the cell door on him and turned a clunky iron key. “I can come back with it, but leaving it in this room, especially given what it is, it would definitely be taken away.”

“I want it for Sabbath.”

“Then I will bring it on Sunday.”

“Idiot. Sabbath is Saturday, the seventh day, not Sunday.”

“Saturday, then. We’ll be in this town at least two weeks to flush out the last of the Resistance. I can bring the book on Saturdays.”

Levi nodded in satisfaction. “Of all the Nazis I’ve met, you’re one of the least shitty ones, takhshet.”

“What does that word mean?” he blurted out.

Levi smirked in amusement. “It means brat. Now give me privacy so I can take a shit.”

Eren rolled his eyes at the surly attitude and left back up the stairs. “You sure did master English profanity.”

“So I can talk shit to fucking Germans like you, bastard!” he shouted at the retreating soldier. He watched as Eren merely waved casually in farewell. Then Levi collapsed onto the cot and slouched over. “Merde!” he cursed under his breath.

He looked down to his hand and traced where once a ring had left an indent still visible as a pale line on his skin.

Tu m’as dit de vivre. Je t’ai juré sur ma vie que je le ferais. Veille sur moi encore une fois.” He folded his hands and put his head down to pray. “Veille sur moi, Petra.

You told me to live. I promised your soul I would. Watch over me once more. Watch over me, Petra.

# # #

# #

#

So many terms for non-WWII-history-nerds!

May 1944 – one month before Operation Overlord, AKA “D-Day,” when the Allies landed in Normandy and began an offense against the Nazis.

In German unit formations, a company is 100-200 men, headed by a captain, and made up of 3-6 platoons. A German platoon has 20-40 men and is led by a lieutenant.

The Vichy Régime – In 1940, Germany invaded France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, taking control of northwest Europe. In an armistice between the countries, it was agreed that southern France would be “free.” Paris fell within the occupied zone, so the French governmental capitol moved to the southern city of Vichy. While claiming to be free and neutral, the Vichy Régime worked closely with the Nazis, obeying their commands for curfews, strict censorship of the media, and broadcasting Fascist propaganda. They required all Jews in France to register with the authorities, then banned Jews from professions such as the law, medicine, teaching, and public service. The Vichy Régime also worked with the Gestapo to round up Jews. Of the 73,853 French Jews sent to death camps—including 11,402 children—only 2,260 adults and 300 children survived.

The French Resistance opposed the German occupation. It was made up of small cells of activists, nationalists, socialists, and anarchists, who engaged in acts of sabotage, intelligence gathering, disrupting telecommunications networks, publishing underground newspapers, and guerrilla warfare.

Wehrmacht (“Defense Force”) – the armed forces of Nazi Germany, comprised of the Army (Heer), Navy (Kriegsmarine), and Air Force (Luftwaffe).

Unteroffizier (“subordinate officer”) – equivalent to a sergeant, one of the highest ranks an enlisted man can reach.

Obergefreiter – equivalent to a senior lance-corporal, a common rank in the German Army during World War II.

Soldat – equivalent to a private, the lowest rank in the Wehrmacht.

Schutzstaffel (SS) – the armed wing of the Nazi Party. The Waffen-SS often worked alongside the Heer (regular army). They were the foremost agency of security, surveillance, and terror within Germany and German-occupied Europe, and committed many atrocities.

Napola – short for Nationalpolitischen Erziehungsanstalten (National Political Institutes of Education). They were basically preparatory schools for entry into the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS. Only those who were “racially flawless” could enter, and the education was intensely militant and political, deliberately working to make the cadets fervent believers in the Nazi regime and its ideology.

Untersturmführer (“junior storm leader”) – the first commissioned SS officer rank, equivalent to a second lieutenant in other military organizations. Becoming an officer in the SS was challenging, with physical screenings, written examinations, perfect vision, no more than six tooth fillings, a height requirement, papers proving racial purity going back to 1800, as well as serving in the listed ranks and getting a commission recommendation by a superior.

Chanson d’automne – “Autumn Song,” a French poem that played a vital role in the success of D-Day and the liberation of France. Broadcast by the BBC, the lines were a code that indicated precisely when Operation Overlord was to begin, signaling to the French Resistance that they should begin sabotage operations on the railroad system.

Music Nerd Time!!! – Chanson d’automne was made into a song by French jazz singer Charles Trenet. Many American “standards” were actually translations or reinventions of his songs, including one of his most popular songs, La Mer (The Sea) which English speakers know as Somewhere Beyond the Sea used in the movie Finding Nemo. Here is his version of Chanson d’automne.

Levi says he fought in the Kongo-Wara Rebellion of 1928-1931, in French Cameroon. A Gbaya religious prophet named Karnou had a following of 350,000 people spanning many tribes. They held peaceful protests and boycotts to make a statement about the abuse their people suffered under the French. Followers of Karnou were spurred into bravery through a deep-rooted belief in mysticism, including that they could not be hurt so long as they carried a sacred stick. Unfortunately, that meant some tribal people fought recklessly, and the French managed to suppress the uprising. Karnou was killed (my idea was Levi assassinated him), the rebellion was crushed in a few years, but it still brought about changes to the way the French used—and abused—their colonies. Today, the Gbaya people keep Karnou’s memory alive through folktales and songs, and there is a Central African airline named in his honor.

Chapter Text

The next morning, a runner came to the home Eren had taken over with his platoon. He was needed to deal with their new translator.

“An interrogation?” Jean asked with interest. “That sounds like fun.”

Eren shook his head as he pulled on his uniform. “They are never fun.”

Armin pouted at the idea of what an interrogation implied. “Doesn’t the Gestapo normally handle that?”

“They do,” Eren said, “but for the same reason Berlin can’t send us a proper translator, they can’t send someone from the Gestapo.” He paused and looked down at the tiny soldier. “Would you really want one of those sorts of men around here anyway?”

“I have nothing to hide,” Armin replied innocently.

Eren chuckled and patted Armin’s golden hair. “Because you’re a perfect little German boy.”

“Hey!” he shouted, yanking back from the childish treatment while the platoon laughed.

Reiner had been visiting that morning, and he stepped forward. “May I accompany you, Herr Leutnant?”

Eren looked up at the bullish man. “You may, since you are an officer, but it will be the captain who decides who may be present for the interrogation. It’s not some form of entertainment, after all. The prisoner may have sensitive information.”

“I’ve sat in on Gestapo interrogations,” Reiner said with a dark smile. “I may know a few techniques that can break him.”

“Her,” Eren corrected.

Reiner’s eyes widened fractionally. “A woman?”

“Do you still want to go?”

After a slight hesitation, he nodded. “If the captain allows it, I would like to see other interrogators at work.”

Eren noted that Reiner had instantly gone from wanting a part in the questioning to wanting merely to observe. “Perhaps it is a future calling in your career with the Waffen-SS,” he joked, and with a tug on his hat, the two left the house.

They went to the village’s small castle and were instructed to go down to a cellar just off the kitchens. Unlike the dungeons, it smelled clean here, but the room was horribly cold even on that warm May day, meant to keep food fresh in ancient times.

Eren saw that Levi was already there, and his face was more bitter than the day before. He also had a discolored mark on his cheek that Eren knew was a punch to the face. When the Jew saw the young Nazi approaching, his face changed slightly. It was not a smile, but it was a bit of relief.

“About damn time,” he said in English. “I can tell they want me to translate, but I don’t know German. I can’t question her if I don’t know the damn questions.”

“I’ll deal with it,” Eren said softly. He approached Kitz Woermann and saluted. “I could have fetched the Jew, Herr Hauptmann. He will obey if he knows what is being asked.”

“I didn’t want to waste time,” Kitz said, but then he smiled, “and I was getting sick of hitting a woman. I needed something more worthy of my fists, and punching a Jew a few times eased the sickness in my stomach.”

Eren merely nodded. He had thought Levi must have resisted, but knowing the captain, Levi very well could have said nothing at all and still have gotten hit.

“She was carrying this letter.” Kitz flicking up a folded and wrinkled letter between his fingers. “The Jew has translated it for us, although it makes little sense. An encoded message, most likely. It’ll be sent to cryptographers for analysis. One thing is clear. It’s a message to the Resistance leader known as Didier. What we need is to know where this Didier is. If she is a courier, she knows where to deliver the message.”

Eren nodded and walked around to a chair in the center of the cellar. The blond woman’s back was to him, but he saw her wrists tied up behind the chair, already bruised with dried threads of blood crusted on petite hands. Her hair had been pulled and mussed up. As Eren walked around, he saw that she had a swollen cheek and blood dripping from her lips. Looking at her, she appeared to be no more than fifteen. So young!

“Jäger,” Reiner said sternly. “They use their children against us as well. Do not be fooled.”

Eren kept his face implacable. Still, his stomach soured at seeing the condition of this girl, who was rather pretty with smooth blond hair and a narrow face with pale blue eyes.

“Levi, basic questions. Her name.”

Quel est votre nom?” asked the Jew.

The woman turned her eyes up to them. “Oh? Alors maintenant, t’es poli et tu demandes mon nom? Vas te faire enculer.

Eren smirked, knowing already that this woman was a spit-fire. “That’s a hell of a name.”

Levi did not look amused. “She’s upset that you’re only now being polite and asking her name.”

“And what is it?”

“You’re going to get fucked up the arse.”

Eren arched an eyebrow. “What?”

Levi shrugged. “Should I simplify it to ‘fuck you,’ or do you want direct translations? She says you’ll get fucked up the arse. Or should I say butt? Backside? Derrière? Tuchus? Gluteus maximus?”

“Okay, I get it already.” Eren sighed and stepped closer to her. “Levi, tell her exactly what I say. You are under suspicion of being a member of the French Resistance.” He waited for Levi to say the words in French. “You will not escape from here, and we will not simply kill you. If you cooperate, you may even be pardoned. At the very least, try to make things easier. I will not hit a woman, but the captain will. Work with me, and you will not be hurt. So please, show at least the courtesy of letting me know your name.”

Her eyes stayed on Eren, but her ear was aimed at Levi, listening to the French words but peering at the kind face that spoke with honesty. When Levi finished, the room was quiet, and she hesitated a moment before answering.

“Annie. Mon nom est Annie Leonhart.”

Eren smiled and nodded. “Mon nom est Eren Jäger.” That much French, he knew.

J’apportais une lettre, mais je ne sais pas pour qui c’était. Je n’ai jamais ouvert la lettre. On m’a dit de l’apporter ici, mais on a été attaqué avant que je puisse la livrer.

Levi sighed. “So annoying.” Still, he translated. “I was carrying a letter, but I do not know whom it was for. I never opened the letter. I was told to take it here, but we were attacked before I could deliver it.”

Eren nodded and translated all of that into German for the officers standing around.

“A likely story,” scoffed Kitz.

“Her eyes are honest, Herr Hauptmann,” said Eren.

“Eyes lie! This confirms that she’s a member of the French Resistance, though.”

“We really should bring in a Gestapo inspector,” Reiner said. “Using a Jew to investigate … I don’t like this.”

“I’d rather shoot the filthy thing myself, but we work with the tools we have.” Kitz ignored any other complaints as he looked at the letter. “If this was the letter’s destination, then whoever it was intended for must know who Didier is. Ask her the name of the recipient and who she received it from.”

Eren told Levi what to ask, and in this around-about way, they got her answer.

Enculez une mouche.

Levi sighed and shook his head. “Tu es une fille têtue.” You are a stubborn girl.

“What did she say?” asked Eren.

Levi looked over to him. “Go fuck a fly.”

Eren flinched and looked down at her sadly. “Please obey us.”

Obéissez, s’il vous plaît,” Levi translated for her.

Je ne suis pas une femmelette. Torturez moi si vous voulez. Je ne trahirai pas la France.

“She says, I am not a … how do you say … a weak woman. Torture me if you want. I will not betray France.”

Eren’s forehead furrowed. “If I tell the captain that, she’ll be tortured.”

Levi looked at the distressed expression in the young officer and felt a small glimmer of relief that there were kind soldiers like this in the world. “We French are stubborn people, Jäger. She may not break even after a week of torture.”

“Does she understand that she will be beaten?”

“I believe the bruises are proof enough that she knows what she’s about to endure.”

Eren shook his head and looked down at her. “Please, don’t make me tell them this.”

Levi translated his plea and listened to Annie’s reply. “She says, you have kind eyes and she believes that if it was just you, she would be treated fairly. However, her name means heart of a lion. She must live up to that heritage as a daughter of France.”

Eren turned aside. He admired that strength, but Reiner was right. He could not let her youth nor her gender betray the fact that she was an enemy of Germany. He walked away from the chair and over to the captain.

“She won’t talk. I warned her that she would be tortured. She’s a stubborn one.”

“They all are in this country,” Kitz said with a dour grimace. “I’ll need you and the Jew here in case she breaks. The rest of you may leave if you have weak stomachs. Jäger, stay near the Jew. I wouldn’t want that thing to think it can be a hero and save her. If it tries to intervene, shoot it.”

Verstanden, Herr Hauptmann!” Understood, Captain! Eren pulled on Levi’s sleeve. “I’m afraid you have to stay. You probably should turn your back, though. You don’t need to watch, just listen for if she says anything important.”

Levi scoffed at the kindness. “Do you really think I haven’t already seen women and children being tortured at the hands of Germans? I’ve seen far worse than anything your captain could do to this girl.”

“If you try to stop us, you’ll be shot,” Eren warned.

Levi stared right at Annie, not flinching or even looking at her with pity. His grayish eyes were cold but also held a gleam of pride. “Look at the girl, Jäger. She’s ready for this. She sees it as a test of her loyalty to her country. If I tried to stop you, I would be dishonoring her strength.”

“Even though she’s a child?”

He laughed wryly. “You are also a child in my eyes, takhshet. She’s only a few years younger than you. Youth does not weaken strength.”

Kitz snapped at the two, “Hör auf zu plappern.” Stop yapping.

The captain walked over to the chair. Annie kept her eyes forward, stern although Eren could see her hands shaking in fear. Suddenly, Kitz grabbed her hair, yanked so hard her entire upper body bowed back, and then slammed his hand down onto her collar. Everyone in the room heard the bone break, and her high scream made one officer leave right away.

As Kitz slapped her hard enough to make blood fly from her mouth, Eren averted his eyes. He saw that Reiner was still in the room, watching with cold interest. Eren supposed it took a certain sort of person to be interested in interrogation like this. He was definitely not that sort.

Didier! Wer ist das?

Eren flinched but told Levi, “Ask her who Didier is.”

Not even flinching, Levi questioned Annie, “Qui est Didier?

Je ne sais pas,” she shouted. “Je ne vous dirai rien.

Levi told Eren unemotionally. “She does not know and will not tell you anything.”

“If she refuses to tell us, then she knows something useful at least,” Eren deducted.

Levi merely looked at him, coldly awaiting the next order.

“Was Didier in this village?” he asked.

Levi relayed the question. Annie’s blue eyes looked over to Eren, and there was mocking laughter in them.

Ici? Non, il n’a jamais vécu dans ce village. Vous ne trouverez jamais Didier, espèces de sales boches.

Levi replied to Eren, “Her words are: ‘Here? No, he never lived in this village. You will never find Didier’ … hard to translate that last part into English, but maybe dirty German animals comes close.”

Eren’s eyes narrowed at her. “You will tell us, or you will suffer.”

Levi interpreted: “Vous allez tout nous dire, ou vous allez souffrir.

Annie cracked a smile, and slowly she began to laugh. She cocked her head at Eren and grinned as she declared: “Ordure! T’as pas les couilles de me torturer. Vas crever dans ton pays de porcs, sale Fritz puant! Vive la France!

Levi rolled his eyes over to Eren. “Do you really want me to translate all that?”

“Yes,” snapped Eren.

He gave an exasperated sigh. “Garbage. You don’t have the balls to torture me. Go die in your country full of porks, you filthy Fritz. Long live France.”

“Annie…” Eren began to say. She spat at him, and Eren felt the moisture hit his cheek. He looked up at Kitz, into those wild eyes that now seemed to crave blood, and sadly he shook his head.

He heard the slap of flesh, but Eren could not watch as Annie bravely endured as she was hit over and over again.

* * *

It was near dinnertime when Eren escorted Levi back to the dungeon. The Jew walked sternly, his gray-blue eyes focused ahead. Eren plodded on, but he was visibly shaken. They were already in the castle’s dungeon when Levi heard a thump behind him and spun around to see Eren collapsed to his knees. The young soldier suddenly leaned over and vomited.

“Jäger!” he called out.

Eren could not hold back his stomach. He leaned over again and spewed out what little he ate for lunch. Levi knelt beside him and pulled off the uniform cap, using it to fan Eren’s face.

En fait tu n’es qu’un simple garçon.” In fact, you’re just a simple boy.

Eren gulped, ashamed that he could not last just a little longer. Suddenly, he realized Levi could have attacked him during this moment of weakness. He jolted with a gasp, and his hand went straight to his gun.

“Idiot,” Levi muttered. “Do you really think I would attack you at a time like this?”

“If you were smart, you would.”

“And what would that accomplish? Do you think I could escape from this village simply by killing one Nazi? Without you around, my usefulness would be gone and I would be killed.” He slapped the uniform cap back onto Eren’s head. “You need me to translate; I need you because you’re the only bastard in this place who gives a shit about us. I saw how you struggled so hard to get that girl to cooperate. You wouldn’t have hurt her at all if this situation was up to you alone.”

“No,” Eren sighed, slowly rising to his feet and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “I would have been forced to do the same by sheer necessity. She is an enemy of Germany.”

“I don’t believe you,” Levi said, watching the young man as he tried to recover. “How you are right now shows to me that you would not have hurt her, not that badly. Like she said: t’as pas les couilles. You don’t have the balls.”

Eren glared, but Levi looked up at the tall soldier with no fear or pity.

“You have a good heart. That is why you keep trying to save everyone. You’d make a perfect civilian, probably an outstanding politician, but that deep sense of mortality makes for a weak soldier. I’ll pray that you can make it through this war alive with that goodness uncorrupted. This crazy world needs more men like you, Jäger.”

“Eren,” he blurted out. “Call me Eren.”

Levi arched an amused eyebrow. “I think that is unwise, given our positions. I’ll call you Jäger or I’ll call you takhshet.”

“And what should I call you?”

Levi barked a mirthless laugh. “Whatever the hell you want. Call me Ackerman, call me Levi, call me Jew or whatever it is the captain calls me—I know he speaks about me like an object and not a person—whatever you like. You’re the captor, after all.”

“Then just Levi,” he decided. “You’re still a person.”

Levi paused and looked up at him, honestly amazed. He kept staring, until Eren felt uncomfortable under that gaze.

“What?” he finally shouted.

Levi still stared, but abruptly he looked away. “Si seulement t’avais été là il y a quatre ans.

“What?”

“Nothing,” he muttered, and he looked down at his hand, rubbing his thumb over the tan line of a missing ring. Still, he thought to himself: If only you had been there four years ago, before my life went to hell. “Eat something light and go to bed early.”

“Don’t treat me like a boy.”

“You are one, a little boy who still needs his father.”

Suddenly, Levi felt his shirt grabbed, and before he could react, he was slammed against the prison bars. He hissed as his head hit hard, and he glared up, only to see that the young German soldier with a weak stomach a moment ago now looked like a beast ready to tear him apart limb by limb.

“Never mention my father in front of me,” Eren growled. “And never, ever, think I need something so useless as that.”

Levi gazed in quiet amazement. First this young man’s mother was obviously dead, from what he said the day before, now something about his father. Just what was the story behind him?

Eren let Levi go and backed off, apparently surprised at himself. He looked ready to apologize, but thought better not to. He quietly went to Levi’s cell and opened it.

Without a word of protest, Levi walked inside. Eren locked the door, and without any parting, he stormed out of the dungeon.

Levi sighed, “Quel bien triste et étrange garçon.” What a sad and strange boy.

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La Résistance Française - The French Resistance. Many French citizens resisted their new Nazi overlords. Through espionage and sabotage, they slowed down the Germans as much as they could, derailing trains to stop supplies, burning warehouses to try starving them out, providing military intelligence to the Allies, some even seduced Nazi officers and drugged them to get information. Any act of resistance could change the course of the war.

Annie being tortured for carrying a letter meant for Didier is directly inspired from the account of Lise Lesevre, a Frenchwoman who was arrested for that exact same thing, carrying a letter meant for a Resistance leader code-named Didier. She was tortured by Gestapo interrogator Klaus Barbie, known as “the Butcher of Lyon.” Lesevre and many other women (few men survived Barbie’s interrogations) testified against him at his trial. He tortured prisoners as young as 13, hitting them with spiked balls, breaking out their teeth, ripping open the corners of their mouths, drowning attempts with bathtub torture, and if he suspected his victim was a Jew, he would crush their skull with his boot. All whilst petting a little kitten. Sick twisted bastard.

MORE COOL HISTORICAL FACTS! (You can skip this, or use it for an upcoming history exam.)

Germany invaded France in 1940, and Paris fell in just one month. With defeat imminent, members of the French government sought an armistice, a formal agreement to stop fighting. Prime Minister Reynaud opposed the idea, but the Cabinet voted in favor of it. Reynaud resigned rather than sign it.

Philippe Pétain became the new Prime Minister and immediately signed the armistice. President Lebrun stepped down, which meant Pétain now had complete control over the government. He abolished the presidency and indefinitely adjourned Parliament. With Paris falling under German-controlled lands, Pétain moved the capital to Vichy. Germany occupied 3/5th of France, and Berlin’s demands to the Vichy Régime were generally unopposed by Pétain, which meant pretty much all of France was now under the thumb of the Nazis.

Reynaud attempted to escape to the colonies in North Africa, where many members of Parliament—especially those who were Jewish—were fleeing, but Pétain had him arrested and handed him over to the Nazis. Brigadier-General Charles de Gaulle, who had held a Cabinet position under Reynaud, had been out of the country during this, pleading with England for more military aid. When he returned to France, he learned that Reynaud had stepped down, and now he was under threat of being arrested by Pétain. Reluctantly, he escaped back to London.

Under the armistice, the new French government in Vichy would be neutral, not assisting the Allies anymore. Germany agreed for many reasons:

  1. They wanted to focus on Britain and the Eastern Front.
  2. They did not want the burden of administering France.
  3. They lacked a navy that could occupy all of France’s overseas territories.

Had Hitler aimed to defeat France, it would have taken more time, cost more lives, and the British and Americans had the means to take over all the French colonies, meaning those resources could be used in their war effort. By leaving a neutral French state intact, those colonies remained under French rule. Germany could keep those resources out of Allied hands, while also making use of them for Germany.

Germany kept two million French soldiers as hostages to ensure that the new Vichy Régime would pay tribute to Germany in gold, food, and supplies. Germany took 80% of the food produced in France, causing mass starvation, and forced France to pay the costs of the 300,000 occupying German soldiers, which amounted to 20 million Reichsmark per day. In modern inflation, that is $2,215,030 USD, 1.986.660 Euros, or £1.751.756. France also had to reduce its military forces, cease all imports from Allies, and they were commanded to round up Jews, refugees, communists, and other people Germany found to be “undesirable.” In total, 50 internment camps were built throughout France, including the Drancy internment camp built outside of Paris, meant to hold only 700 people, but often filled with up to 7000.

Charles de Gaulle made radio broadcasts from London, urging the French to continue the fight and calling for a resistance. He formed the French Committee of National Liberation (Comité français de Libération nationale) as a provisional government-in-exile, challenging the legitimacy of the Vichy Régime, unifying the French soldiers who escaped to England and Norway, and organizing the civil resistance back in mainland France. This group became La Résistance Française, the French Resistance.

Germany retaliated against the Resistance by “collective punishment.” They would take a thousand civilians hostage and kill a few for every action by the Resistance. It is estimated that 30,000 of these hostages were murdered. Sometimes, they simply massacred a whole village.

The French Resistance saved many Jews. Père Marie-Benoît, a Catholic priest, converted his monastery into a Resistance base camp and smuggled around 4000 Jews out of France. Georges Loinger, a Jew serving in the French Army, was captured by Germans in 1940 but wasn’t suspected as being Jewish due to his blue eyes and blond hair; he escaped his prisoner-of-war camp, returned to France, and single-handedly saved 350 Jewish children. Huguenot Pastor André Trocmé persuaded his community of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon to turn their entire village into a sanctuary for Jewish refugees. Villagers picked up Jewish refugees from the train station and immediately gave them forged identification and ration cards. Jewish children were enrolled in the village school under fake names. The villagers hid Jews in schools, hotels, farms, and private homes. Multiple safe houses were built, and in order to buy food supplies for the refugees, Pastor André received aid from other religious groups who wanted to protect Jews: Quakers, the Salvation Army, the American Congregational Church, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Jewish and Christian ecumenical groups, the French Protestant student organization Cimade, and the Swiss “Help to Children.” Whenever Nazi patrols came through, the villagers sang songs to let Jews know it was dangerous and to flee to shelter, either in a safe house or into the forests, and then they would sing another song to let them know when it was safe. The villagers also guided Jews through the mountains to the Swiss border, using the same paths their Huguenot ancestors had used to escape religious oppression from Catholics. This one village saved 3500-5000 Jews. Some of the residents were arrested by the Gestapo and died in concentration camps for giving sanctuary to Jews. When Vichy authorities ordered Pastor André Trocmé to produce a list of the Jews in the town, he replied, “We do not know what a Jew is. We only know men.” The Holocaust memorial center in Israel, Yad Vashem, recognized Pastor André Trocmé, his wife Magda, André’s cousin Daniel Trocmé who was caught and died in the Majdanek concentration camp, the entire community of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, and all other Gentiles who helped to save Jews during the Holocaust, as חֲסִידֵי אֻמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם, “Righteous Among the Nations.”

Chapter Text

Levi jolted out of nightmares at the sound of clomping shoes. Out of habit, he ducked down and reached for the knife that was no longer by his side. Nazis were coming! However, he slowly realized that although this was true, the Nazi who was coming now was most likely the only one who would not kill him.

Still, he waited on edge. Other soldiers besides Eren Jäger had come down to this dungeon. One of his fellow Jews, Moses Braun, had for some reason gained the sadistic interest of a soldier named Darius Baer-Walbrunn, a giant man with deep-set, harsh eyes, who came down just to torment the emotionally-fraught man and threaten him at gunpoint. The captain himself had been down there just to torment them, choosing one victim to beat up for all the others to see, speaking German words they did not know. Levi knew he was being treated slightly better than the others, but only slightly. They needed him alive. The others were forced into hard labor, doing cleaning work around the town so the soldiers could relax.

Still, all the imprisoned Jews were now awake, even those who had been working late into the night. Wide eyes watched and waited with fear. Only Levi’s eyes were narrow and scathing. He really wished he had his knife.

When he saw Eren, he relaxed a little, and he realized the others did as well. They all knew him as the man who saved them from being slaughtered right there in that tiny room where they had huddled and waited out the bombardment.

A moment later, they saw other soldiers with the young lieutenant, and anxiety increased again. Only Levi remained relaxed. He saw the look on Eren’s face, and he knew that whatever this was, it was not going to be bad.

“It is your seventh day, ja?” Eren said with a lightness in his voice.

“To be honest, I’ve lost track of days,” Levi said, still cautious but curious.

“I can’t get you out of work, but I can get you a small reprieve from labor.” His voice lowered, although he was speaking English and the others with him likely could not understand. “I can also briefly return a certain thing that is precious to you.”

Levi’s eyes widened at that. His Tanakh!

Baden!” Eren cried out happily. “Bathing. You will wash in the river. Under guard, of course,” he added, waving back to the soldiers. “These are trusted men of my platoon. They will not shoot if I order them not to, but,” he added, and his voice turned threatening, “I did a lot to get you even this much. If you attempt to escape, we are under orders to shoot you. I can control my men, but only if you obey our rules. Now, translate that to your group. They look terrified.”

Levi explained to the others that they were being allowed to wash in the river.

“Make sure you explain that they will be shot for any attempts at escape. Connie is a Scharfschütze. He will not miss.”

“What is … Scharfschütze?” Levi asked in confusion.

“Sharpshooter, I think is the English word. He always hits his target, no matter how far away it is.”

Tireur d’élite,” Levi translated. He looked at the soldier, slim-built with a shaved scalp that made his head look too big for his body, and saw that his gray-green eyes were keen.

Eren waved over to the rest of the prison cells. “Translate it.”

Levi nodded and repeated the words into French.

Jean groaned in annoyance. “Ich wünschte, einer von uns könnte Französich. Sprichst du’s, Armin?” I wish one of us spoke French. Do you, Armin?

The small, studious soldier shook his head. “Ich verstehe nur hier und da ein Wort. Ich habe Italienisch gelernt.” I only understand a word here and there. I studied Italian.

Ruhe!” ordered Eren. Quiet! “Öffnet die Zellentüren. Führt sie nach draußen. Schießt nur, wenn sie versuchen zu fliehen.” Open the prison doors. Lead them outside. Shoot only if they try to flee.

Wir sollten einfach—” We should just—

Mach schnell!” barked Eren. Make it quick!

Levi watched as the tall one with a long face reluctantly pulled out keys to open the prison doors.

“Is there a problem?” Levi asked, hesitating to step out.

Eren chuckled. “Jean has always been a problem.”

Jean yelled at Eren, “Was sagen Sie über mich? Bin ich ein Problem?” What are you saying about me? Am I a problem?

Eren grinned back to him. “Sie sind immer ein Problem.” You are always a problem.

The other soldiers chuckled softly.

Levi stepped out and saw how this group interacted. “They listen to you. They respect you.”

“They should! I am their commanding officer. We have been through a few battles together.”

“A little brat like you survived? Impressive, takhshet.”

Eren laughed, and Levi found himself amused at the youthful smile. He felt safe so long as he was with this young man.

They were brought out and marched in single file through the village. Other soldiers jeered, but none did anything with the lieutenant shooting harsh glares around. Only once, a rock flew out of nowhere and hit Levi on the face, cutting his cheek.

Wer hat das geworfen?” bellowed Eren. Who threw that? “If that had hit me, you would be shot on the spot. Go back to your duties. They’re just Jews. Are they really that interesting to you?” He continued onward, but he glanced back briefly. “Are you okay?”

“I’m not going to die from a pebble, takhshet,” he said, wiping the blood aside.

Finally, they were at the river. Eren gave orders for them to bathe, Levi translated, but the women in the group hesitated.

Verdammt,” Eren cursed, removing his cap and scratching his head, unsure how to deal with this. “Are they just being modest? I know it’s mostly men here, but they really should bathe as well.”

“They’re afraid of being raped,” Levi told him bluntly.

“Never!” he shouted.

Levi stared coldly. “Most of these women have already been raped by German soldiers. They have every reason to be fearful.”

Hearing that stabbed at Eren’s sense of honor. How could any soldier do something so barbaric? “I would personally shoot any soldier under my command who did something like that,” he growled. He looked at the terrified women and felt a swell of pity for them. “How can I convince them it’s safe?”

“They trust me, and I trust you. Have your men watch the males here. Take the women a few paces upstream. You alone. Have your sharpshooter stay here but watch in case something happens. I will guard the women, you will guard me, he will be ready in case anyone is truly stupid. I know these women; most can’t swim. If they attempted to flee, the river is fast and they will drift downstream toward the men.”

Eren was honestly impressed, even taking the river’s current into consideration. “You said you were in the military. I can see how you would have made a fine tactician. Very well.” He explained to his small platoon what he was doing. Then he and Levi urged the women to travel farther upstream. Once away, the women began to undress, but still covered themselves modestly.

Levi told them in a calming tone, “Tout ira bien. Je vous protègerai.” It’s safe. I will protect you.

Eren watched without interest as the women went into the water with a few rags and shared a bar of soap, scrubbing each other’s backs. He watched Levi more.

“You should wash as well,” he stated.

Still, Levi remained on the shore fully dressed. “It’s improper for a man to bathe with women. If it’s not a problem, I’ll wait.”

“It will be. I’ll have to send the rest back and stay around just for you.”

“Then I will skip bathing this week.”

Eren leaned back against a tree. “You’re picky about the cleanliness of your prison cell, but not for yourself?”

“Of course I am, but these women come first.”

Eren chuckled. “Spoken like a true gentleman.”

Levi glanced around to Eren with a look of surprise. “Spoken like a true Englishman,” he said in amazement. “You even said that with a hint of a posh accent. Tell me, how is it that a young German like you speaks English so well? You’re as good at it as I am, and I lived in London for a few years.”

He gave a casual shrug. “I was taught at a young age.”

“Your mother?”

Eren stared out at the river, and his face darkened.

“Your father?” Levi guessed quietly.

Those teal-blue eyes shot over to him in silent fury.

Levi realized, in this situation, with these people under his protection, he could not afford to get Eren upset. The young man was visually on edge, prodding for more information was dangerous, so he turned away to continue watching over the bathers and muttered, “He taught you well.”

Eren sneered. “Of course he did, that bastard. I was forced to learn English.”

Levi’s curiosity tingled with many questions, but he said nothing.

It did not take long for the women to finish, and they hurriedly pulled their clothes back on. A few curtsied to Eren, saying what he guessed were words of thanks.

“They say they are glad you did not … what is the word … whistling and saying rude things.”

“Cat-calling, in English,” Eren told Levi. “I don’t do that sort of thing. It’s disrespectful.”

Levi again thought this German was rare and interesting, but he did not pry. He began to strip off his clothes.

Eren now jolted. “H-Hey!”

Levi glanced over his shoulder. “May I bathe as well, or must we go?”

Eren gulped and looked downstream to see his team was waiting. “Ich bleibe hier bis er fertig ist. Begleitet sie zurück ins Dorf.” I’ll stay here until he’s finished. Escort them back to the village.

The group nodded and continued on, leaving Eren and Levi alone. Levi continued to pull off his belt and undo his trousers.

“They really trust you,” he pointed out again.

“I am a lieutenant. They know someone like you cannot overpower me.”

Levi glanced back around again, this time with a wry gleam in his eyes. “Oh? Do you really believe that?”

Eren glared and rested his hand on his gun.

Levi merely shrugged and tugged off his underwear until he was fully nude. “I probably could beat you in a fight if you were unarmed, but what then? If I run, they’re all shot, and their blood is on my hands.”

He heard a noise and looked back around to see Eren with his head turned and a blush on his face.

“You had no problem with a group of naked women, but you’re bashful around a man like me? Really, takhshet, if you act like this, people may think you’re into men.”

“It’s not like that,” he shouted, but his voice hitched. “That was a group. There were naked men as well down the way, but it was all a group. This … it’s just you, so … ugh! Egal, vergiss es. Never mind!” He scowled at himself and folded his arms with a churlish pout.

Levi paused in cautious curiosity, but he dismissed it for now. This man was a Nazi, after all. He knew what they did to homosexuals and any form of sexual deviants. Maybe it was as Eren said: a group was one thing, but this was just the two of them. He was overly modest for a soldier.

Levi waded out into the river with a bar of soap and a cloth, and he began to wash himself. Eren watched from the shore, but instead of anticipating an escape attempt, his eyes lingered over Levi’s torso, down to where the water hid him. His skin was pale, his chest nearly hairless, yet there were scars on him, some of them recent. Some were definitely from the lashes of a whip. Most were knife wounds. One scar looked like a bullet wound.

Eren wondered how he got them. Was he whipped for being a Jew? Had he been in knife fights as a youth? Was he shot during his time in the military? How did he get all of those scars?

He did not dare ask, though. Instead, he watched and silently admired the muscular back.

“Thank you.”

Eren jolted, and he realized his eyes had been drifting downward.

Levi continued, “You must have gone through some trouble to get baths for us. I know all of us are thankful, even if it’s the sabbath. Cleanliness is important to Jews.”

Eren laughed softly. “And here I was always taught that Jews are dirty.”

Levi glanced around his shoulder. “Funny. We’re taught the same thing about Gentiles.”

Eren supposed every group said foul things about one another. It was childish, in his mind. Name-calling, that was all. “You should hurry. Jean will definitely come back and act like an idiot if you take too long.”

“I just need to scrub off the filth. It’s been a while since I last had a proper bath. Not that a bar of soap and a river are what I would consider proper under normal circumstances. Still, it’s better than my own spit. I miss soaking in a hot bathtub.”

Eren had to bark a laugh. “Most of the time, we’re lucky to get a bag of water and a sliver of soap. I remember going over three months without a shower or bath, working and sleeping in the same clothes day after day. They had to cut the socks off my skin and burn the boots by the time I was called off the front lines.”

Levi turned around and eyed the young man. “You fought on the front?”

He tapped a silver badge on his uniform, a medal given to infantry who fought on the front lines. “Anzio,” he replied, and his eyes darkened a little. “I rather liked Italy, but that … that was hell. I lost a lot of good men. Got wounded a few times too. We were out there from January until late April. Generalfeldmarschall Kesselring called all available units to Anzio to stop the Americans and British. The shells were firing night and day, nonstop. I still have ringing in my ears. We were pulled back three weeks ago and sent to Paris for a reprieve, but in the middle of what was supposed to be resting, we were ordered to attack this village. My platoon is still a bit shell shocked. Last I heard, they’re still fighting on the beachhead in Anzio.”

Levi washed his hair as he listened to Eren. He found his story interesting, especially since he did not hear much news about the fighting. The French Resistance in this village had told him some, but not much about Italy.

So, the Allies were aiming to retake Italy, probably free Rome. Pushing toward Germany from the south was idiotic, with the Alps in the way and Switzerland shooting anyone who entered their territory, Allies or Axis alike. Maybe they planned to push toward France from the east. Maybe it was all a distraction, keep Hitler’s eyes on Italy and the Allies could aim for western France.

There were whispers amidst the Resistance, something big planned, and many said France would certainly be liberated before summer was over. He could only guess at what these generals were plotting in their massive war game.

Eren realized Levi was not moving, just staring at him. “Are you done?”

He looked down at his soap and cloth. “Almost. Pardon me.” He turned his back to Eren and reached down to clean a more private area.

Eren looked away. Part of him knew that was dangerous, Levi could do anything while he was not looking, yet he reasoned that the man was naked in a river. He doubted he could pull a gun out of his ass.

“Hurry!” Eren snapped peevishly.

Levi let the flowing water rinse him and dipped his head into the river one last time to make sure he got the soap all out of his hair. Finally, he climbed out of the river and returned to his clothes.

“It would be nice to do laundry. I feel like I’m putting on filth.”

“Maybe next week,” Eren said, hardly realizing he was offering far more than what many soldiers got during battle.

Levi pulled on the worn trousers and a threadbare, tawny brown shirt right over his wet skin. As he tried to smooth out his black hair with his fingers, Eren pulled a comb from his back pocket and offered it. Levi looked down at the comb in surprise.

“You would let a Jew use your own comb? I could have lice, for all you know.”

“I’ve seen plenty of Germans with lice. You look cleaner than them.”

Levi hesitated before accepting it. He ran the comb through his hair, but only enough to get the tangles out. Then he handed it back, as if this tiny exchange was a major threat to them both.

“Thank you again,” he muttered with a petulant scowl.

Eren turned back toward the village. “When we’re back, I can give you your book. I can stay down there maybe half an hour without trouble. If you wish to read it, be quick.”

All of these small services were surprising to the Jew who had known so much harshness in his life. “You are a strange man, Jäger.”

They continued to the village and straight to the castle dungeon. Underground, there was nobody. The other Jews were working, cleaning dishes, doing laundry, or scrubbing latrines.

“I should join the others in cleaning,” Levi stated.

“It can wait half an hour,” Eren said with a friendly smile. He reached around to his pack and pulled out a thick, old book. “Your Torah.”

“It’s the Tanakh, you idiot. The English call it The Old Testament.” Levi accepted it, taking the book cautiously. He turned it around, inspecting the edges, and then thumbed through it, glancing at the pages. “You kept it safe,” he whispered in awe.

“I promised I would.”

Levi practically collapsed onto his little cot, staring at the book like it was a precious treasure. He opened it and knew precisely where to go.

Eren looked down at the pages written in Hebrew. “Can you read some of it into English?”

“That may be hard,” Levi admitted. “I’m not fluent in Hebrew, I have to think it in French, and then I would have to put that into English. I know one quote, though. It’s from the Talmud, not the Tanakh, but I learned it from a rabbi in London.”

“You mentioned you lived in London. How long?”

“Eight years, off and on, late 20s and early 30s. I went there for … work.” He left that ambiguous, but Eren saw a slight darkness in his eyes. “I wasn’t really interested in Judaism before, but I met a rabbi there, and he told me this in English: ‘Whoever destroys a single life is as guilty as though he had destroyed the entire world, and whoever rescues a single life earns as much merit as though he had rescued the entire world.’”

Eren’s brow tensed at the verse.

“I’ve killed many people,” whispered Levi. “When I was a soldier, that was my duty, and I told myself I had to kill because they were direct orders. One rabbi told me it was okay, because I was killing Gentiles, and the Talmud says, ‘When a Jew murders a Gentile, there will be no death penalty.’ Still, slit enough throats and you realize there is no difference between Jew and Gentile. We all bleed, we all die, and we’re all filled with regrets right at that moment of death. Even someone with a heart of stone will eventually feel remorse.”

“I understand that much,” Eren whispered. “I don’t know how many people I’ve killed in this war. You start off telling yourself it’s okay, it’s war, it’s your duty. You grow numb. They’re just a uniform to shoot, not a person but a thing. It’s easy to forget, that’s a person in that uniform.” His eyes traveled over Levi. “They’re just another person, trying their best to keep living and breathing in this brutal, mad world.”

“Exactly. Now, I try to save lives. I try! It’s like the world is refusing me that little bit of merit. For four years, I have fought and struggled and tried to help others. They were all caught in the end. Some were murdered right in front of me,” he muttered, looking deeply pained. “Some were shipped off. I know there are camps for Jews. We hear rumors of them, of what happens in them. You die in those places! Some say it’s better to be shot in the head than to be sent to a concentration camp.”

He hugged the book to his chest and looked up at Eren.

“You take too many risks. If you aren’t careful, it will be you who I’ll have to rescue, and I’m not sure if heaven would bless me or curse me for saving the life of a damn Nazi swine.”

Eren chuckled softly. “How about simply the life of another human?”

“I thought Nazis don’t consider Jews to be human.”

Eren’s laugh dampened. That was true, but he hated to think it applied to this man in front of him. “As you said, we all bleed,” he muttered. “We’re all humans. Aryans are merely a superior form of humans.”

Levi’s grayish eyes narrowed in disbelief.

“Don’t look at me like that. It’s a proven fact, doctors have confirmed it. Still, we’re of the same species, we’re human, we’re—”

Levi let out a disdainful scoff and said only a single German word. “Untermensch.”

Eren stiffened up. Of course he knew that word. Under-man! It was used to describe a subhuman. He had been taught this in school, learning all about the differences between the race of Nordic German Übermenschen and Jewish and Slavic Untermenschen. He had read a pamphlet about it not long ago.

* * *

Just as the night rises against the day, the light and dark are in eternal conflict. So too, is the subhuman the greatest enemy of the dominant species on earth, mankind. The subhuman is a biological creature, crafted by nature, which has hands, legs, eyes and mouth, even the semblance of a brain. Nevertheless, this terrible creature is only a partial human being.

Although it has features similar to a human, the subhuman is lower on the spiritual and psychological scale than any animal. Inside of this creature lies wild and unrestrained passions: an incessant need to destroy, filled with the most primitive desires, chaos and cold-hearted villainy.

A subhuman and nothing more!

Not all of those who appear human are in fact so. Woe to him who forgets it!

Mulattoes and Finn-Asian barbarians, Gypsies and black skin savages all make up this modern underworld of subhumans that is always headed by the appearance of the eternal Jew.

* * *

“How quickly you forget your schooling, takhshet,” Levi mocked wryly. “Don’t let your captain hear you utter those words about equality, or I really will be forced to do something stupid to save your life.” He looked down at the Tanakh. “I owe you at least that much for keeping this safe.”

“It was nothing.”

“Yes, it was, and if you don’t see that, you truly are a fool. A German soldier in possession of a Jewish holy book? An officer chatting idly with a Jew, with what you deem to be an Untermensch?” He shook his head. “You’re risking a lot. I don’t like it.”

“Why do you care?” Eren asked haughtily.

Levi snapped at him, “Because I do not want to be the cause of anymore deaths!” He slammed the Tanakh shut and thrust it back to Eren. “Prends-le, ce putain de livre.

“What?”

“I said take it! Take the damn book away from here.”

“I said you could read it for half an hour.”

“And that is a foolish decision by some damn German brat who somehow became an officer in the Wehrmacht. I know you’re not that stupid or you’d be dead by now, so something is twisting your judgment.”

Eren gulped and blushed slightly.

“Whatever your reasons may be, ouvre les yeux! I will not be held responsible for yet another innocent life being snuffed out by this putain de guerre! I mean war. This damn, fucking, pointless war!” He thrust the book toward him again. “Take it. Burn it. Make sure no one sees you with it.”

“Burn it?” Eren exclaimed, taking hold of the Tanakh. “I thought this was precious to you, more precious than your own life.”

Merde. Tu n’écoutes jamais.” Shit. You never listen.

Levi looked aside, and it seemed like he would not say more. Still, Eren did not leave, holding the book and looking at the worn cover with Hebrew writing. After what felt like an eternity between them, Levi spoke softly.

“Life is more precious than a book.”

Reluctantly, Eren tucked it back away into his pack. “This belonged to your mother. I can’t destroy something like that.”

“Burn it!” he bellowed. “Don’t get killed on my account. I would burn it, but if I do it down here, someone will smell the smoke, and if I do it in the open, someone will think it’s a signal to La Résistance. Do us both a favor and burn the damn book.”

Eren’s brow tensed, but he said nothing.

Levi shouldered his way past the young officer. “I should join the others in cleaning.” He stormed out without looking back.

Eren removed his uniform cap and scratched out his hair. “Ein komplizierter Mann, so viel ist sicher.” A complicated man, that’s for sure.

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French river
(French River Scene – Charles-François Daubingy)

Untermensch (Under-man or Subhuman) – first used as a racist term in America by members of the KKK, later used by the Nazi Party to mean any non-Aryan. The quote in this chapter is from the 1942 brochure Der Untermensch edited by Heinrich Himmler, Reich Leader of the SS and so-called “Architect of the Holocaust.”

Tanakh

Tanakh – the Hebrew Bible. Christians call it “The Old Testament.” It consists of three parts: the Torah (or Chumash when printed as a book instead of a scroll) means “Teaching,” the Nevi’im or “Prophets,” and the Ketuvim or “Writings.” The Hebrew Bible is separated into 24 books, and those sometimes have different names than the Christian Bible. For instance, Genesis is called Bereshit which means “In the beginning,” and Psalms is called Tehillim, which means “Praises.” There is also the Talmud, a massive collection of books covering every aspect of Jewish law; in standard print it is 6,200 pages.

Eren says he fought in Italy. The Battle of Anzio, starting in January 1944, was a notable conflict in the Allies’ struggle to get a foothold in continental Europe.

Music Nerd Time!!! – One of the casualties of the Battle of Anzio was Lieutenant Eric Fletcher Waters, father of Pink Floyd singer Roger Waters. Roger was deeply affected by the loss, reflected in many of his songs, including When the Tigers Broke Free, The Fletcher Memorial Home, and his father’s death was the cornerstone to Pink Floyd’s album The Wall. “All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall.”

When the Tigers Broke Free brings tears to many people, especially those who have lost someone to war.

Chapter Text

Levi had to admit, although he was technically a captive of the Germans, and he heard every day how much they despised Jews, his life actually was not all that bad.

He had always found the act of cleaning to be relaxing. There was something about a sterile smell, knowing he was improving a dirty environment, that made him feel good. In their village, his wife had been envied as the woman who never had to do housework. Levi would often say that he merely wanted her to put all focus on cooking the best meal possible.

He missed those days, and sometimes while scrubbing a toilet, he would let his mind drift back. He could almost hear Petra’s voice.

Levi, I think the toilet is clean enough. Unless you want to eat off of it, come to the table. I made lamb chops and used those carrots from Madame Cohen.

The memory was bashed away as his hair was grabbed and his head smashed against the toilet he was washing. Before Levi could react, his head was lifted and thrust down into the soapy water of the bucket he had been using. The lye burned his eyes, and the acrid smell filled his nose. He thrashed around, and suddenly his hair was yanked back up.

He heard laughter now and crude words in German. However, his eyes were blinded from the lye. He reached around, hoping to grab some kind of weapon, but his face was thrust back down. This time, at least his eyes were closed, and he had time to hold his breath. He was held there, and the seconds ticked by with his racing heart. Someone stepped on his flailing hand and crushed his fingers. He screamed, and all the air in his lungs went out. Still, he could not pull up.

Was this how it would end? Drowned in a cleaning bucket?

It could be worse, he thought. It could be the toilet itself.

He was yanked up, and a harsh cough spewed out all the water in his mouth. The attacker let him go so suddenly, he collapsed to the side, still coughing up soapy water. The boot on his hand pulled away, and Levi tucked himself in, cradling the painful fingers.

Was ist hier los?” What’s going on here?

The voice boomed within the lavatory, and the attacker squawked out some answer, pointing down at Levi. He wiped his wet eyes, but they still burned from the lye. Everything was blurry as water dripped from his hair.

Ah, er ist ein Querulant.” Ah, he is a troublemaker.

Levi was still coughing water out of his lungs when his hair was grabbed again. This time, he was yanked straight up, right off the ground, hanging by the hairs slowly being pulled out of his scalp.

Dafür musst du bestraft werden.” For that you must be punished.

Levi was desperate to know what this soldier was saying. In his mind, he was thinking ‘Where the hell is Eren when I actually need him?’

His feet were lowered back to the ground, and he stumbled to gain his bearings. His lungs still burned from the lye he had swallowed, and his vision was not coming back yet.

Er ist eine Nervensäge.” He’s a pain in the ass.

He heard low, vile chuckling around him, but still he could not see. Then the back of his knees were kicked, and he fell onto all fours.

Wie ein Tier.” Like an animal. The soldier laughed, and the others joined.

Levi felt kicks to his ribs. He blinked out his burning eyes, and finally he saw the nearby mop. He made a lunge for it, but a boot came down onto his spine. Still, he managed to get the wooden handle. Blind but going by sound, he swung the broom around. It hit something, and he heard a sharp yell.

Judenvieh!” Jewish beast!

Levi aimed for the shouting one and landed another sharp jab with the mop handle. He heard boots to his left and swung in that direction with all of his might, feeling the vibrations of hitting something hard, bony, and by the sound of the victim, he guessed it was the face. He was fighting by pure instincts now, going off from the sounds he heard from his attackers yelling as his blunt weapon landed blow after blinded blow.

Was macht ihr Idioten denn? Seine Augen sind zu.” What are you idiots doing? His eyes are closed.

Levi mapped out the room in his mind and listened for his attackers. The mop was like a sword, and he wielded it expertly. He hit them as they came at him. However, he did not hear one sneaking up behind him, not until a shout just a split second before fists came down onto the back of his skull.

He lost consciousness for what was probably mere seconds and woke up to the feeling of his clothes being torn from his body.

Judensau,” someone yelled in insult. Jewish sow!

Levi tried to struggle, but a boot hit his head. His consciousness swam again, and the blinded world around him swayed out of existence. He found himself hoisted onto his hands and knees, pants gone, aching everywhere.

Schwuchtel!” Faggot!

Burning pain tore through his anus. The mop handle!

Levi screamed, “Non! Arrêtez!” No! Stop!

It rammed harder, deeper, and he shrieked as his world darkened even more.

* * *

Eren knew Levi was on latrine duty, and since he had free time he thought he would go talk to the Jew. He saw a small group just leaving the restrooms huddled together.

“We tell no one about this.”

“We should tell the captain. He broke my rib.”

“Would you really tell the captain that a Jew beat the shit out of you? We tell no one!”

“We should have killed him. He could tell on us.”

“And say what? He can’t report us, and we would be humiliated publicly if we reported him. Besides, that’s the one they’re using as a translator. We can’t kill him, but we could kill one of the others.”

“Yes, let’s find one! I feel like beating the shit out of another Jew.”

Eren could not hear most of their conversation, only that these soldiers were trying to hide something. As he walked closer, they finally noticed him, and the soldiers snapped to attention with a salute.

Herr Leutnant!

“What’s going on?”

“Just leaving the latrine, Herr Leutnant.”

Eren’s eyes narrowed. These young men were beaten up, one was leaning oddly to the side, another had a bruise coming up on his face.

“Stay out of trouble,” he warned, and he continued on.

“Uh, Herr Leutnant,” one in the group yelled. “You shouldn’t go in there. There’s a Jew cleaning it.”

“I’m aware of that,” said Eren.

One of them whispered, “Shit, we need to get out of here.” The soldiers fled in a hurry.

Eren watched, disturbed by their behavior. Then he realized what it must mean.

“Levi,” he whispered.

He ran into the restroom and saw Levi on the ground in a puddle of blood. He was trying to move, but his arms kept giving out. Eren raced to his side.

“Levi!”

He looked around, blindly trying to see. “Jäger?”

“What the hell happened?”

Levi’s eyes were burned pink, his hand was swelling up from being crushed, his face was already puffing out, and his pants were saturated in blood.

“I … slipped. I got lye in my eyes. It’s nothing.”

“Like hell this is nothing!”

Just then, he got a glimpse of the mop with blood on the handle. He looked back down and saw the bleeding from Levi’s pants.

Mein Gott.” He shivered as he realized what those fleeing soldiers must have done. “Ich werde sie aus dieser Welt vertreiben und ausrotten. Das schwöre ich. Jeden Einzelnen von ihnen.” I’ll kill them all. I swear. Every single one of them.

Takhshet,” Levi said weakly, looking ready to pass out. “Le sol … the floor … it needs to be cleaned.”

Eren put his hand on Levi’s head. “I will clean it. Don’t move.”

“No, I—”

“If you move around too much, you’ll spread the blood. We should get you out. Can you stand?”

Levi gave a weary sigh, but he nodded. “I can do what I must.”

It took a few minutes to slowly get Levi onto his feet, and he buried his mouth down into Eren’s uniform to mute out screams of pain. Eren hugged onto him, supporting his whole weight.

Es wird alles gut. It will be all right.”

Levi breathed laboriously, but he managed to stay on his feet. Still, Eren saw the blood seeping down his leg. Not good!

“Clean,” Levi seethed between clenched teeth. “Must be clean, or someone will get punished. I can’t … I can’t allow anyone to be punished.”

“I’ll clean it,” Eren said soothingly. “You need to stand outside and out of sight.”

He held onto Levi, walking him slowly, until they were nearly in the sunlight. Then Levi harshly pushed him aside.

“At least I can keep my dignity,” he said sharply. “Don’t keep me waiting.”

Eren knew it was more than pride. If others saw him assisting a Jew to that extent, his arms wrapped around this prisoner, he could get reprimanded.

Eren rushed back inside. He took the bloodied mop with disgust, realizing what those soldiers must have done with this. He committed their faces to memory. He was going to teach them a lesson they would not soon forget!

He cleaned the mop handle, then mopped up the blood. He tried to hurry for Levi’s sake, but he also made sure the job was thorough. If it was less than perfect, Levi or some of the other Jews could get in trouble for laziness.

Once done, he put all the supplies away and came back outside. Levi was in an alley, leaning back against the brick wall in the shadows. He heard boots coming and looked in that general direction. Still, everything was a blur.

Takhshet?”

“It’s clean, a job even my mother would have been proud of.”

Levi smiled, just for a second, before cringing. “I … can’t make it. Not like this. I can’t go that far. Merde, ça fait mal!” Damn, it hurts!

Eren looked at the alley and saw it was a good hiding place. The army had stacked boxes farther in. Eren went over and saw there was enough room between the boxes and the alley wall for a man as small as Levi to squeeze in.

“Over here.” He yanked Levi’s arm around his shoulder and pulled him along. Eren was larger and did not fit, but Levi managed to squeeze between the space. “Stay here until tonight. That was your last chore, right?”

“There is … roll-call.”

“I will take the duty of roll-call, and we’ll sneak you back down tonight. I’ll simply tell anyone who questions that I was bored and beat you up.”

Levi laughed, but the jostling pained his ribs and buttocks.

“Lie down. Try not to move. Did they tear you badly inside?”

“They were cowards. They could have done much worse than poke me in the arse a few times.”

By the bleeding, Eren doubted it was as simple as Levi claimed. “I can’t do much until nightfall.”

Levi nodded, wavering closer to unconsciousness. “I … owe you … again.”

Eren stretched his hand past the boxes and stroked Levi’s black hair. “You owe me nothing. Now, sleep. I will be back with food.”

Levi was disturbed by how comforting that petting hand felt. After such disgusting humiliation, he felt sobs bubbling up by the tender human touch.

“Eren,” he whispered.

He smiled to hear Levi use his first name for the very first time. His fingers continued to comb through the dark hair. “Jetzt geh schlafen, mein Lieber.

Levi vaguely wondered what those words meant, but sleep freed him from curiosity as well as pain.

* * *

“I’m sorry for calling you out so late for a patient like this.”

“You say you found him like this?”

“Yes. His body was dumped behind an alley. We need him to translate for us, and the captain expects him to help with an interrogation the day after tomorrow.”

“I’m not sure he should be moving that soon. It was a delicate operation. I will need to check on him tomorrow.”

“Please inform me first so I can speak with him, keep him calm. We need him to be useful, not dead.”

Levi struggled out of the haze of sleep. “Où suis-je?” Where am I?

A hand rested on his head, large and warm. “Sleep some more. You’re under medication.”

The doctor beside him sighed. “We really should get a more reliable translator.”

“Tell that to Berlin,” Eren snapped irritably. “He is what we have to use for now.”

“If we need him alive, I don’t mind, even if he is a Jew. You should get rest as well, Herr Leutnant. Thank you for acting as my assistant.”

“I’d rather not waste more German resources on this matter.”

“Hah! True, true. A shame we need him alive. He would have been dead by morning, otherwise.”

“Sadly, we do need him for a little bit longer.” Then Eren added sternly, “Your discretion is highly advised.”

“Understood, Herr Leutnant.”

Vielen Dank, Herr Doktor.” Thank you very much, sir doctor.

Levi heard movements as the doctor left. His eyes were still blurry, but he saw a silhouette by the light of a lantern.

“Eren?”

The comforting hand was back on his hair. “There was a puddle of blood all around you when I came back, and you were not waking up. I thought you said you were not torn inside.”

“They were just weak—”

“You could have died!” he bellowed, and his voice echoed through the dungeon. Eren realized dark eyes were looking at him in the low light, so he dropped his voice to a whisper. “You required an operation to heal a tear in your colon. You must take a drink to make your stool soft while you heal. The doctor will have to keep checking on you, at least for a few days, to see how you are recovering.” Eren sighed and racked his fingers through the black hair. “Verdammt! You really are a handful.”

Levi’s eyes closed to the gentle feel of petting and the dizziness of anesthesia. “You … saved my life?”

Eren shrugged petulantly. “Something like that, I suppose.”

Levi let out a soft, bitter laugh.

“What’s funny? You almost died! Don’t laugh about that.”

“You saved my life,” he said quietly, gazing up at the ceiling. “The one thing I could not do for others, and you do it so easily for an enemy like me.”

“Do you think that was easy? I had to help him perform the operation since everyone else is asleep. I’ve been staring at your butthole for nearly an hour.”

Levi laughed again, although the movement pained him.

“Well, at least you can find humor in this,” Eren mumbled. “The doctor said your eyes are damaged from the lye, but they should heal in a day or two. He left eye drops for you to use. If you are questioned, say you did not see your attackers.”

“That’s the truth. They sneaked up behind me. My head was dunked in lye water before I had a chance to see anything.”

“Good, that will help with your story. I know who did it, though. I’ve already dealt with them.”

Levi turned his gaze over, although it was still fuzzy. “Dealt with them? How?”

“I got very high marks in school for what the English call kickboxing. The one whose rib you broke? I broke three more.”

Levi chortled softly, although his face showed he wanted to outright laugh. “Takhshet, you are insane.”

“That may be true,” he said, and his hand went back down, threading through Levi’s hair.

Levi glared up. “Don’t touch me.”

Eren yanked back in surprise.

“We agreed. Do what you have to in order to survive. Coddling me, fighting my battles, bringing a doctor: these things will not go well for you. Stop it, whatever it is you’re trying to do by all this. Someone will get the wrong idea about you.”

Eren looked away with a hurt expression. “Wrong idea? I don’t even know what you mean. We need you alive and able to translate.”

“Then keep me alive, but watch yourself.”

He sneered and tightened his hands into fists. “I hate this war. More and more, I’m hating all of it. Fighting an enemy, that’s one thing. Doing … that, though! Disgusting! What sort of boys were those Scheißkerle? They must have been hated back home. Trust me, Germans do not do that to people. They are … Arschlöcher und beschissene Wichser. Verdammt, I’m so mad I can’t even translate!”

Levi just looked at him with weary eyes. “That anger means you are human, nothing more.”

Eren looked frustrated. “I’m not expected to be a mere human. As a German officer and an Aryan, I’m expected to be more, Übermensch, a super-man.”

“You’ve made it this far,” Levi said quietly, “and you’ve obviously done well enough to gain recognition.”

Eren looked down at him. “Is that praise coming from you?”

“Shut up. Go sleep. You look like shit.”

Eren wondered what time it was. Definitely after midnight. “There is a bottle of Rizinusöl under the cot and a little cup. Fill the cup to the brim and drink it before you eat in the morning. You’ll have diarrhea, but that is necessary for the first day or two.”

“What the hell is Rizinusöl?”

Eren searched for an English word in his head but came up with nothing. He showed him the bottle. Levi opened it, sniffed the thick oil inside, and pulled away at the smell.

Huile de castor. Castor oil. Great,” he groaned.

“He said it’ll help, at least until you heal inside.”

“Understood.” He handed the bottle back and flopped onto the bed, glaring ahead while Eren closed the bottle and set it under the cot again. Levi’s eyes slid over to the young soldier. “Thank you for rescuing me. And thanks for dealing with those pigs.”

Eren reached over and put his hand on Levi’s head. “Anything for you.”

His eyes narrowed. “What the hell do you mean by that?”

“Nothing,” Eren muttered with a distant smile.

“Shit,” he grumbled, hating the warmth in his heart. He swatted Eren’s hand away. “Get the hell out so I can fall back to sleep, takhshet.”

Eren stood, let himself out of the cell, and locked the door behind him. Then he strode out of the dungeon.

A tall man named Moses called over from his cell. “C’est un homme bon.” He’s a nice guy.

Oui … et cela le perdra.” Yes … and it will be his downfall.

Levi closed his eyes, but his scalp still tingled from the gentle touches of Eren’s hand.

# # #

# #

#

rare color photo of Hitler

HOW HITLER CAME TO POWER

Adolf Hitler was born in Austria but was allowed to fight with Germany during WWI. After the war, he was recruited by the Army’s Political Department (Press and News Bureau) where he developed his oratory skills. He was later appointed as an intelligence agent to infiltrate the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or DAP (German Worker’s Party). Normally, enlisted army personnel were not allowed to join political parties, but given that he was supposed to infiltrate, he was allowed to join and attend DAP meetings.

Rather than simply spy on them, Hitler embraced their views. He used the speaking skills he developed in the Press and News Bureau to give speeches in beer halls, promoting Aryan superiority and ranting against the Jews.

In 1919, his powerful speaking attracted the attention of a founder of the DAP, German playwright Dietrich Eckart. Eckart was a father figure to the DAP youths, and Hitler called him “the spiritual founder of Nazism.” Eckart believed in a German Messiah who would redeem Germany after its defeat in World War I. After hearing the passion in Hitler’s speeches, Eckart believed he was that messianic figure.

Eckart took Hitler under his wing, became his mentor, and used his fame to introduce the young man to influential people all across Germany. In letters, Eckart encouraged Hitler to use violence as a means to an end, ranted about the evils of Jewish people in German society, and compared him to the hero of his play Peer Gynt who slaughters the trolls (whom he wrote as a bluntly obvious Jewish allegory). Much like creating a character for one of his plays, Eckart helped Hitler to sculpt his “persona.” In just two years, Hitler became the leader of the Nazi Party, taking on the title of Führer (leader). Eckart died in 1923, never living to see his messiah turn into a monster.

Hitler originally opposed using the word “socialist” in their party name, yet the DAP wanted to add it to appeal to left-wing workers, and they voted to change their name to Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei. For short, they called their party … NAZI.

Hitler’s beer hall speeches became notorious. He drew massive crowds around Bavaria, where he used the political unrest to attempt a coup. He failed and was imprisoned for nine months, emerging with a book he wrote called Mein Kampf.

Taking Eckart’s suggestion of using violence to achieve his goals, Hitler helped to set up the Sturmabteilung, “Storm Troopers”, called the SA or “Brownshirts.” This paramilitary group clashed frequently throughout Germany, creating fear and a sense of social instability which Hitler used, embracing that “German Messiah” persona Eckart cultivated in him by claiming only he could calm things down.

It worked. In just ten years, the Nazi Party went from a mere 100 antisemitic men to the second largest political party in Germany.

In 1932, Hitler decided to run for president. 84-year-old Paul von Hindenburg was persuaded to run for re-election in order to stop the rising Nazi Party. Hindenburg won, but under pressure from his advisors, he chose Hitler as his Chancellor (like a Prime Minister).

Over in the Reichstag (Parliament), the Nazis made a sweeping victory, becoming the largest party to hold power. This meant that future-Nazi-war-criminal Hermann Göring became President of the Reichstag. Göring used the civil unrest created by his own party to establish harsher rules for “acts of political violence.” Many Brownshirts were arrested. Hitler was their lawyer and got them life in prison rather than a death sentence. (He would later pardon them all.)

Four weeks after Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor, the Reichstag building was set on fire. The Nazis alleged that the arsonist was part of a Communist conspiracy to seize power, while the Communists alleged that this was a Nazi conspiracy to blame the crime on them. The court held the entire German Communist Party responsible and declared that membership itself was treason.

In response to the fire, Hitler convinced President Hindenburg to create the Reichstag Fire Decree. In the name of “social stability,” the decree suspended key civil liberties, including freedom of the press, freedom of expression, habeas corpus, the right of free association and public assembly, and the secrecy of the post and telephone.

This was just five days before the March 1933 election. Hitler used the Reichstag Fire Decree to suppress publications not considered “friendly” to the Nazi cause. Coupled with the court’s decision, there were massive arrests of anyone associated with communism. The day after the 1933 election, all 81 German Communist Party members who won seats in the Reichstag were arrested, as well as many Social Democrat representatives, effectively wiping out the biggest political opponent to the Nazi Party.

Less than a month later, Hitler went before the Reichstag and requested the Enabling Act. This granting the Chancellor (Hitler himself) the power to enact legislation, including laws that altered the constitution, without parliamentary consent. Using the fact that all 81 Communist members and many Social Democrats had been arrested, while other Social Democrats fled into exile to avoid arrest, Göring used his authority as President of the Reichstag to change the rules of procedure, lowered the number of votes needed, which made it easier to pass the bill. Also, Hitler took many Brownshirts with him while addressing the Reichstag, which intimidated the representatives. Although all remaining Social Democrats voted against the Enabling Act, it still passed, and the Reichstag was reduced to a powerless platform.

With Nazis rising to dominate German politics, the SA “Brownshirts” began to demand more military power. This worried the army as well as the leaders of the Nazi Party. Hitler no longer trusted the SA, preferring the racially pure and elite trained Schutzstaffel (SS), headed by Heinrich Himmler, who would later be known as “the Architect of the Holocaust.” Göring and Himmler began to make a list of SA leaders to be exterminated, bartering between themselves, handing over one member for the life of a friend. They convinced Hitler to face the SA leadership himself in order to make a swift, merciless strike.

This was called the Night of the Long Knives, purging troublemakers in the SA, anti-fascists, key members of the police and military, and any remaining political opponents. It was carried out by the SS under Himmler and the Gestapo under Göring, and resulted in around 1000 deaths. This massacre was declared to be an act of political self-defense against an impending coup, and it was applauded by both the military and President Hindenburg. Many Germans believed the propaganda that Hitler had saved Germany from chaos, while others were appalled by how easily their fellow Germans accepted such brutal bloodshed.

That summer, President Hindenburg’s health was failing. On August 1st, with his new power to create laws without a Parliament vote, Hitler passed a law allowing the Chancellor to take over the duties of the President if the President were to die in office. The next day, Hindenburg died. That same day, Hitler made the soldiers of the Wehrmacht take the “Führereid or Eid auf den Führer,” Oath to the Leader, or the Hitler Oath, swearing allegiance “to the Leader of the German Empire and people, Adolf Hitler, supreme commander of the armed forces.” He took on the title “Führer und Reichskanzler” (Leader and Chancellor), combining the two offices into one.

One month later, Germany held elections for the Reichstag, except that instead of being able to vote for multiple parties, voters were given a single list of candidates, all of them pro-Nazi, with a question of whether the voter approved of the list or not. Voters were threatened with severe reprisal if they didn’t vote or dared to vote no. There would not be another multi-party election in a unified Germany until 1990.

In a completely legal and—admittedly—brilliant series of political moves, Hitler seized power as both Chancellor and President, and he became the legal dictator of Germany.

Chapter Text

Shortly after the incident in the restrooms, Levi got sick despite the doctor’s help. Still, Kitz demanded that he come to the cellars where they were interrogating Annie Leonhart.

Levi was obviously feverish, his cheeks flushed, sweat beading on his forehead in spite of the chill of the cellar. Annie saw his condition as he tried to translate what Eren what saying. He often had to stop, wipe his brow, and ask Eren to repeat himself.

“Jew,” Annie said, looking right at him. “You look awful. What did they do to you?”

“You should worry about yourself. Now, answer the question.”

“I know you are working for them just to survive,” she said with empathy in her large, blue eyes. “I don’t blame you for any of this. I want you to know that. The French Resistance…”

Every German in the room leaned in as she said those words.

Kitz barked, “Jäger, was sagt sie?” Jäger, what is she saying?

Ich weiß es nicht, Herr Hauptmann. Ich muss warten.” I don’t know, Captain. I have to wait.

Annie continued, looking at Levi. “We wanted to help your people. We want to free France so all people can live together in peace, like we used to.”

“We never lived in peace, girl,” Levi said coldly. “Jews have never been treated well. Ever. For us, the fight against hatred was an everyday battle, no matter what language the Gentiles spoke.”

“Then that should change. I was a child when Germany invaded. I want to live in a free France once again. You deserve that too. More than I do, you deserve what they stripped from you: freedom, humanity, dignity.”

Levi flinched as she said that, and the burn in his ass reminded him of the indignity he had suffered.

“Tell them this: That letter is probably pointless by now. I was not the only courier. Because one may get caught, they sent three. I merely was the fastest, but I made it at the worst time. The other two were slow enough to avoid being caught in the crossfire. They would have taken the letters to the fled members of the Resistance. They are long gone, and that message has likely reached its target. Even if you break me, it is already too late.”

“They will beat you if I tell them that,” Levi warned.

“They beat me every night anyway. What’s the difference? This way, at least I get the pleasure of telling them…” She looked straight over to Kitz and said one of the few German phrases she knew. “Fick deine Mutter in den Arsch, Hurensohn.” Fuck your mother in the ass, son of a bitch.

Levi swiftly stepped back as the captain stomped over and punched her in the face. As Kitz hit Annie over and over again, Levi told Eren precisely what she said. Looking furious at the stubbornness of this girl, Eren informed the captain. He paused, his fists clenched and red with Annie’s blood, while the girl sat there, her nose bleeding but her eyes smoldering in smug defiance.

Leutnant Jäger, Sie beide können wegtreten.” Lieutenant Jäger, you are both dismissed.

Eren gave a soft sigh, glad to leave the cold room, and Levi placidly followed. They were not even fully in the kitchen above the cellar when they heard Annie shrieking. Eren cringed in loathing, but he hurried off to escape the guilt. Then he heard something crash behind him. Eren twirled around and saw that Levi had stumbled into a rack of pots. He grabbed hold of the rack shelves, but he wavered on his feet.

“Levi!” he shouted, rushing back to him.

Three seconds later, Kitz stomped up from the cellar. “What the hell was that noise?” he bellowed. His sunken eyes looked more wild than ever.

Eren tried to get Levi up onto his shoulder. “He’s been sick.”

“If he’s sick, we should shoot him now.” He began to reach for his gun.

“The doctor saw him. He’s not contagious. It’s a blood infection.”

He sneered. “Blood? See, Jews are filthy. Their blood is a disease that has spread all over Europe. We should shoot them all. Damn Allies blowing up the rail lines! Berlin was supposed to send a real translator, but there have been strikes all across France’s rails. Berlin is desperate to figure out what this girl knows, but they don’t send me a proper translator, or a Gestapo inspector, nothing! I can’t wait for the day we don’t need these creatures in our camp. You must be far more annoyed, having to speak English so much. When we finally get a proper translator, I’ll let you exterminate that thing personally.”

“Wh-What?” Eren cried out.

Kitz’s sunken eyes narrowed. “Is there a problem, lieutenant?”

He shut his mouth and gagged back his protests. “I’m a fighter, not an executioner.”

“Executions are for humans. Think of it as like shooting a wounded dog. You’re putting it out of its misery. No, dogs are at least loyal. Jews are less than even insects.” He glared hard. “You don’t have a problem with this, do you?”

Eren stood straighter. “It will be my first Jewish kill, Herr Hauptmann. Thank you for the honor.”

Kitz gave an approving smile. “Good. Listen up, Jäger. Don’t ever assume Jews are human. That girl down there, she’s human. She does not beg or break. You can tell by the blueness of her eyes and shape of her nose, she’s Aryan. It’s a shame she sided with the French; she would have made an ideal German wife, if she had been born only a few hundred kilometers east. I can’t show her pity, though. Nor should we show pity to subhumans: Jews, Serbs, Russians, Blacks, Mulattos, Arabs. None of them are fully human. They just walk upright and have the ability of speech. Their brains are different from ours; skull size proves that. It’s science! So never show pity to Jews, because they don’t have the brain power to differentiate pity from weakness.”

“Is there ever an appropriate time to show pity, Herr Hauptmann?” the young man asked, hoping to buy Levi a little more time to rest by keeping the captain talking.

“Of course, Jäger. Show pity to elderly Aryans whose children ran away to marry a Jew, leaving their parents to grow old alone. Show pity to children who do not understand this war and why we must fight for the preservation of humankind. Sympathize for your fellow soldiers wounded fighting Russians, Americans, and British.”

Eren’s eyes narrowed at that.

“Oh, that’s right! You despise the British. Why, Jäger? I was always curious.”

“I have my reasons,” he said, bristling with hate.

“Have you ever killed a British soldier?”

“Many in Anzio, sir.”

“Then savor your first Jewish kill with the same anticipation that you had on your first British kill. Not yet, though. Keep that thing alive a little longer until we don’t need it anymore. Even if you give it medicine and let it sleep like a sick dog, that’s fine. We need its mouth, not so much that tiny, weak body. That is your duty, Jäger. Until a replacement translator arrives, keep the Jew alive, and once he’s not needed, savor your first Jewish kill.”

Jawohl!” He stood at attention until Kitz left back down the cellar. Once he was out of sight, Eren sank with a scowl.

“Bastard,” Levi said in a low, gravelly voice. “It sounds like he wants to shoot me.”

Eren looked over. He decided not to tell Levi that the captain expected Eren to be the one to pull the trigger one day. “He said you get to stay in bed. You don’t have to clean or do any work until you are better. He has given me authority to do whatever it takes to keep you alive.”

“Only so I can question that girl,” he stated.

Eren knew that was the sole reason. As the silence hung between them, they heard Annie cry out in pain.

“Then I hope she doesn’t break,” Levi said coldly. “As long as she holds out, I stay alive.” He straightened up and walked out of the kitchen, sickened by the screams of torture.

Eren escorted the Jew back to the dungeon. With his face flushed, Levi looked young. Only those narrow eyes showed much more experience and misery than Eren had known in under two decades. He walked with stern pride, but as soon as he was in his cell, Levi collapsed and curled his legs up. Eren saw a shiver rack through his body, and he put a hand onto Levi’s head.

“You’re burning up. I can get you medicine.”

“No,” Levi said in a hoarse protest. “The more trouble I am to everyone else, the more likely I’ll be killed rather than waste supplies. I’m grateful that I can rest, but … no drugs.”

“Then … kalte Wadenwickel … cold … wrap … I can’t think of the word. Oh! I can wash you.”

Levi cracked his eyelids open and glared at him.

“It’s how my mother always took down my temperature. Wadenwickel und Schafgarbe. Um … Schafgarbe, that’s a herb. I saw some growing around here. I could make you a tea.”

Levi’s eyes closed again. “It may be the fever making me crazy, but that actually sounds good.”

Eren perked up. “I’ll be back.” He leaped to his feet and ran up the stairs.

Levi scoffed at his enthusiasm. “Idiot forgot to lock the door.”

His feverish eyes looked at the open cell door. Eren planned to pick herbs, and he would need to get water for tea. That would take a few minutes.

He could run.

He sat up, but his head swam. He held onto the prison bars to pull himself up. The fever made his legs weak. Still … he could escape!

Part of him realized, if he left now, the other Jews may be shot, yet part of him figured that at this point it was every man for himself. Any of the others would take the chance to flee. Most of them had no survival skills and would probably die in a week, wandering lost in the forest. Levi at least knew how to survive, even in the wild.

He went slowly, dampening the sound of his shoes. He climbed up the stairs and glanced around. He walked casually yet quickly through the castle and outdoors. The guards had seen him enter and exit so many times, no one thought much of it, and no one realized his escort was not there with him.

He saw Eren outside, bent over some flowers, humming a German tune as he cut the yarrow with his utility knife. That idiot! He had looked so happy to help too. What sort of boy was he?

Levi pressed the nagging curiosity out of his mind as he walked away until he could no longer hear Eren’s humming.

He was honestly surprised at how easy it was to walk through the town. A few of the village’s residents had begun to return now, so there were soldiers as well as civilians. He blended in as just one of the townsfolk. He kept walking north, where the forest pressed up near the town. He knew the most dangerous part of this would be the stretch of road between the last town building and that forest. Anyone would see him. There was rarely traffic into the woods even when the town was bustling.

No, that way was too risky!

He aimed east instead. He could go to the river. He grabbed a stray water bucket as he walked. If anyone asked, he could say he was getting water for cleaning. The river snaked through the woods. He could head north there. It was a longer walk, but it was safer. Plus once he ran, staying near the river was wiser. If he remembered correctly, this river continued north toward Belgium. Two days walking? Maybe more, since he would have to travel cautiously.

A shame about the soldier boy. For letting a prisoner escape, Eren would get punished, maybe demoted, possibly worse. Levi’s heart ached as he thought about how Eren would suffer, after he had been so kind. Still, he had his priorities: survival! Despite the fever making him dizzy, he continued on.

He saw the river. It ran through the village, but no one collected water downstream, even before this war polluted all the rivers. So turning north to head upstream was perfectly normal. As a group of soldiers passed him on the road, he kept his eyes down, tightened the hold on his bucket, but they hardly even looked at him.

So easy!

C’est une mauvaise idée. Ne faites pas ça.” It’s a bad idea. Don’t do it.

Levi froze at the French words spoken in a sweet voice. He looked to the left and saw a woman standing in the shadows of an alley. She was tall, her brown hair pulled back, munching on a bread roll as she watched him from the darkness.

She eyed him up and down. “Vous êtes l’un des Juifs, non?” You are one of the Jews, no?

His eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Oui,” he answered warily.

“One of your companions escaped just an hour ago with our help. There is a search party in the forest. If you head there, they will shoot you on sight.”

“Escaped … with your help?” he asked softly.

The woman merely bit into her bread roll with an enigmatic smile, and Levi understood instantly. The French Resistance!

“We are aiming to get a girl named Annie.”

“Annie Leonhart?” he asked sharply.

The young woman lowered her bread. “You know her?”

“They are interrogating her.”

She sneered and turned her face away. “Merde! Do you know where?”

Levi described the place, what street it was on, the kitchen, and the cellar where the interrogations were always done. He explained that the room was likely not where they kept her the rest of the time. That meant the Germans were moving her between locations.

“This is wonderful news,” she whispered with a smile. “We want to get Annie out of there, if at all possible. You seem to know a lot about this.”

“They’re using me as a translator.”

“Then you can’t run away. I won’t let you! You must give Annie a message.”

“If I go back there, I lose my chance at escaping. I could be killed.”

“You look near death already,” she muttered. The woman reached into a purse, pulled out a bottle, and shook out some pills. “Here. For that fever that has your cheeks as red as apples.”

Levi took the pills and swallowed them dry. “You have my gratitude.”

“What’s your name?”

“Levi Ackerman.”

Her eyes widened. “Capitaine Ackerman?”

He hissed in a harsh whisper, “Don’t call me that!”

She broke her roll in half and handed part of it to him. “We are also aiming for your release, mon capitaine. France is in need of your expertise.”

Levi gratefully ate the bread, but he shook his head. “No, I’m escaping this country. I’m not fighting again.”

“You can argue that with the higher-ups. However, if the Germans are forcing you to be a translator, you pose a risk to us.”

“I know when to lie.” He looked down at the soft bread roll. “Which one of us made it?” he asked as he took another bite.

“Her name is Isabel.”

He gulped a mouthful of bread and cried out, “Isabel! I’m glad. She’s so young.”

“Young, yes, but married. Her husband is Captain Farlan Church of the Royal Air Force, and he’s been helping the Forces françaises libres.”

The Free France Forces! Levi had heard many stories about them. The French soldiers who managed to escape when the Nazis invaded coalesced in England and still fought for the Allies. General Charles de Gaulle was still in command over there, and they worked with the French Resistance in hopes of freeing all of their beloved homeland from the German oppressors.

“Can you return without trouble?” asked the unknown woman.

“Possibly. If the brat has not raised an alarm, it should be fine. Knowing him, he’s an idiot thinking I left to take a shit.”

She giggled at his foul language and surly attitude. “Do you know Chanson d’automne?”

“The poem? Of course.”

She whispered the beginning of the famous poem. “Les sanglots longs des violons de l’automne. If you at all can, listen to the BBC. When you hear those three lines, it means the Allies plan to attack within two weeks. When you hear the next three lines—Blessent mon cœur d’une langueur monotone—it means the Allies plan to land on French shores within forty-eight hours. I can’t give you details beyond that. If we cannot get you out of here earlier, take heart knowing the freedom of all of France is at hand.”

Levi kept silent, knowing that even if he asked questions, this Resistance fighter would not answer, not even to a fellow Frenchman.

She looked down the river’s cobbled path, seeing something that made her sit up. “I must go to make sure Isabel is safe. Please, do not tell the others she was freed by us. Say she merely ran away.”

“I understand,” he said with a nod.

“Remember to tell Annie that we will be coming for her soon, and tell her to listen for Chanson d’automne on the BBC if she can. She will know what I mean.”

“And if she asks for a name?”

“Sasha,” the brunette said with a genial smile. “She knows me well. We were friends before the war started. Be safe, Capitaine Ackerman. I hope to see you again soon.”

She gave him a parting kiss on the cheek, and Levi watched as Sasha slipped into the shadows of the alley. He felt proud to see his chers compatriotes risking their lives to help those being threatened by the Nazis. He finished off the bread she gave him, dropped the empty water bucket, and turned back around.

Levi had been slow and cautious coming to the river. Now, he rushed to get back. If one Jew had escaped, all of them would be under tighter scrutiny.

A part of him realized they might all be punished as well. The Resistance should have aimed to get out all of them, not just one at a time. Still, he was glad young Isabel had escaped what was almost certain death.

It was only a matter of time before these Nazis got tired of them.

He got back to the castle and returned to the dungeon. Eren was sitting on a stool with the bucket of water and two towels, waiting for the patient he had intended to care for.

“Did you enjoy your walk?” he asked with a sardonic smile. Levi said nothing. “The tea is probably cold now.”

Those teal eyes were sharply on him, and Levi held his gaze. He could tell in those pale, German eyes, Eren knew this had been more than a small venture beyond his cage. Still, he said nothing, and he looked only mildly annoyed.

Eren picked up a soaked towel resting inside the bucket of water. “Remove your trousers and wrap this around your lower legs, then wrap the dry towel around that.”

Levi grimaced. “My legs?”

“Yes, below the knee. I’ll still wash the rest of you, but it’s rather chilly, and I don’t want you to get worse. Stay here until I return.” Then Eren left the dungeon, leaving the cell door wide open again. On purpose, this time.

Levi knew he could not attempt another escape. Probably, Eren warned the guards upstairs to shoot Levi if he tried to leave. Besides, the safest way was to go into the forest, but if troops were combing the woods for Isabel, he could not go there. Damn unlucky timing!

Yiddisher mazel,” he grumbled. Yiddish luck. Jews always had bad luck. He yanked off his shoes and began to loosen his trousers.

* * *

When Eren returned, he saw Levi in bed with the blankets pulled up. They stared at one another unflinchingly as Eren approached.

When he had first returned to see the door was open and Levi was gone, Eren realized in belated horror that he had forgotten to lock it. It was such a stupid mistake, and it showed how at ease he had become, not really thinking of Levi as a prisoner.

Of course Levi would use such an opportunity to escape, but he was a pragmatic man. If his attempt was certain to fail, he would simply return and wait for another chance. He was not just out to escape, but to survive. So although it was a gamble, Eren did not raise an alarm, which would lead to him getting into trouble, but instead he decided to wait. If Levi returned, they could pretend this never happened. If Levi was caught first, then he would get into trouble. If Levi really did escape, maybe Eren could convince the captain that Levi picked the lock and shift the blame to the guards outside. After all, they obviously let the Jew walk out without stopping him. In the end, the best solution was to wait and hope Levi came back to him.

So when the Jew walked down those stairs, Eren’s first reaction was intense relief. His second reaction was silent anger.

Levi knew Eren would get punished if he left. He knew, and yet still…

Eren could not blame him for seeking freedom. Still, it … hurt … knowing Levi choose to escape over Eren’s well-being. He knew that was silly and selfish. Of course, Levi’s life was more important than his military career…

Eren stopped his thinking right there.

This was treasonous. Levi was a Jew, the greatest enemy to Germany. He needed to stop thinking like this.

He pulled a stool closer to Levi’s bed and set down a tiny, metal, Esbit cooking stove and a box of fuel tablets. This was all from his own supplies. The stove and fuel had been sitting in his pack since they arrived in this village, since now he had a real kitchen and Thomas cooked their meals.

Esbit stove

He opened up the tiny stove and set it up in the center of the cell. He pulled out pale bricks of oily fuel. They stank, but they worked. In this sort of place, they would at least warm up the cell and provide some comfort to the feverishly sick man. He pulled out a box of matches and lit a fuel brick. That would give him fifteen minutes of heat, enough to take the edge off of the chilly dungeon.

The white brick lit quickly, and in under a minute it was blazing within the metal tin. Eren felt the waves of heat. More than once, he and his men had used the Esbit stoves purely to warm themselves. The fuel tablets were easy to come by, and often all they needed was fifteen minutes to heat up water for tea and a bit of soup.

He placed a steel mug above the stove, some pale color liquid with a floral smell. He let it heat up the tea he had brewed, and once that was steaming, he handed it to Levi.

The Jew sat up, inhaled the yarrow tea, and took a sip. Eren had even added in mint and sweetened it with honey. That was a shocking act of kindness, and Levi felt slightly ashamed that he had used Eren’s generosity against him in escaping. Still, a prisoner’s primary objective was to escape, no matter how kind their jailer was.

Meanwhile, Eren put the bucket of water near the tiny stove. It had been hot when he first brought it down, but it had cooled to a tepid temperature as he waited for Levi to return.

“Is the towel around your legs?” asked Eren, and Levi nodded. “Good. Pull off the blankets and remove the rest of your clothing.”

Completely silent, Levi unbuttoned his shirt, pulled it off his shoulders, and folded it neatly before setting it aside, leaving only his underwear.

“Can I keep these on, or do you wish to rob me of all dignity?” he asked wryly.

Eren dipped a small towel into the bucket of warm water. “It’s not like I want to look at it.”

Levi lay back down, staring up at the ceiling. Spiderwebs had collected up there, but it was too high for him to reach when cleaning. He briefly wondered if he could ask Eren to stretch up there and dust away the cobwebs, but he quickly decided against it.

The towel started at his feet, and Levi jolted upon feeling it. It was warm and comforting, but having someone touch him—having a man touch him, and a German enemy at that—was a disturbing sensation.

“Relax. It’s just water.”

Levi kept staring straight ahead at the ceiling as he felt the cloth along his ankles and working upward toward where the cold towel was wrapped around his legs, sucking the fever out of his body.

When was the last time someone touched him in these places? When was the last time anyone had given him a sponge bath? His wife never had to since he had not gotten sick during their time being married. His childhood was uneventful, perhaps a cold or cough, but he could not remember having high fevers. Maybe early childhood, but he had only a few vague impressions of that time.

He grimaced as the cloth skipped over the wrapped calves and went up his thighs. Then as he felt water trickling between his legs, Levi flinched with a grunt of disgust.

“Ah … sorry.” Eren pulled the towel back and dunked it again into the warm water. “I … I can do your chest instead, if that’s better.”

“Shut up,” Levi grumbled. He knew why Eren sounded flustered. His body had reacted in a humiliating but natural way. He saw Eren’s eyes drift down to his underwear more than once. “I thought you said you didn’t want to look at it.”

His cheeks flamed red. “I don’t! I just … it’s … Jews get that way too, I guess.”

Levi barked out a laugh. “Idiot. We’re normal people. We react the same way anyone else would.”

“I … I guess that’s true.”

Levi felt the heat of the cloth on his chest and relaxed, feeling the tension down below loosen and fade as well. “Nazis believe Jews aren’t even human.”

Kitz Woermann had just lectured him on that. “Well, Untermenschen. Subhuman. So it’s like you are a slightly less evolved form of man. Like how a dachshund and a rottweiler are both dogs, just different types of dogs. Aryans and Jews are still human, just not the same kind of human.”

“I’ve heard of that theory,” he muttered.

“No, no! It’s scientifically proven. Scientists did many tests—”

“German scientists, paid by the Nazi Party, who wanted certain results. British and Americans have done the same tests and found nothing. If anything, they prove more and more that the color of skin or shape of one’s nose does not change the fact that we are all homo sapiens. Aryan, African, Asian, Arab, Jew: none of it changes who we are on the inside.” He glanced over to the pale boy. “It’s just skin and hair color.”

“No, scientists have proven—”

“They lied. Or do I need to get fully naked to show you that I am absolutely no different from you?”

Eren choked up and flushed again. “N-No! That’s not … I … I still believe what I was taught. I’ve seen no evidence to the contrary.”

“You’ve been too busy killing to do scientific research of your own. When this is over, I know a brilliant scientist named Hange who would love to show you all sorts of human experimentations. Watch out though, or that mad quack will make you the next test subject.”

“Where is this Hange?”

“Fled with many others when the Germans arrived. Devil knows where any of them went. Many escaped to England, Algeria, Norway, America, Canada. Lucky bastards.”

Eren hummed and looked aside. “Many German scientists and doctors ran away too. Cowards, all of them.”

Levi heard something dark in that statement, and Eren’s eyes showed that this was personal. “They likely did not agree with Nazi propaganda, this idea of racial superiority, the craving to conquer and purge Europe in some vain dream of creating Paradise, the idolatry toward Adolf Hitler, and the lengths he will go to in his quest to rule the world. If you don’t agree, why should you help? Doctors and scientists forced to do unmentionable experiments for the sake of the Nazi Party … they are not cowards for running away, but heroes for not bending their knee and staying silent out of fear or apathy.”

“They are traitors!” Eren snapped furiously.

Levi looked straight at him. “You know one,” he realized. “Was it someone close to you? A friend? No, you’re too young. A relative?”

Eren suddenly screamed, “Halt deine verdammte Fresse!” Shut the fuck up!

Levi looked straight into those enraged eyes. Instead of pushing the matter, he gave a weary sigh, knowing he was edging Eren to a dangerous breaking point. Normally, he would be interested to see how far he could manipulate a German’s emotions, but not today, not when it felt like his forehead was on fire. He rolled around and buried his face into his pillow.

“My back could probably use some cooling off. Just don’t stab me. I’m too exhausted to die.”

Eren pulled back and dunked the towel into the water again. In the light and heat of the tiny Esbit stove, he rubbed Levi’s neck and slowly worked over the muscular shoulders and back.

“Sorry,” Eren whispered. “Yes, it was someone close. He ran away ten years ago, just after Hitler became Führer.”

“You must have been just a child.”

“I was old enough to know what he did, old enough to know he betrayed Germany.”

“No, you were young enough to have been told that by someone else, and naïve enough to believe it. There’s a big difference.”

Eren glared down at the prone back. “I don’t want to speak about this.”

“Fine.” Levi kept quiet. The warm wet cloth felt nice, and the idea of getting cleaned made him sigh.

“Is that good?” Eren asked, smiling warmly to see Levi’s face almost—almost—looking happy.

“I probably stink.”

“Not as badly as Connie and Jean,” Eren said with a chuckle. His finger touched Levi’s back, right over a torn pocked pinkness of a scar. “Were you shot?”

“Yes. The bastard got one shot in before I slit his throat.”

“Did it hurt?”

Levi rolled his head over to look at him. “Have you never been shot?”

“Shrapnel, but never a bullet. Was this in French Cameroon?”

“No, Poland.”

“What were you doing in Poland?”

He paused for a moment before muttering, “Work.”

“And you got shot? What sort of work leads you to slitting a man’s throat?” Eren paused. “Or do I not want to know?”

Levi kept quiet, and Eren accepted that he would not say.

“So, you’ve been to Africa, England, and Poland. You’ve traveled a lot.”

Levi gave a wry laugh. “I’ve been to more countries than just that.”

“Have you ever been to Germany?”

“A few times.”

“Russia?”

“Briefly.”

“America?”

“No, but my cousin lives there. You sure are curious today.”

“I want to travel,” Eren sighed. “I’ve gotten to see Italy and France, but it’s not the same when you go there to kill people.”

Levi stared ahead with cold eyes. “You’re right, it’s not the same.”

“I want to see America. I once saw a Charlie Chaplin film based in Alaska. The mountains were pretty, and it looked so wild. Untouched. I remember there was a bear!”

“It was probably all filmed in California.”

“How about you? You want to leave France, right?”

“I don’t really want to. I have to.”

“If you could pick anywhere in the world, where would you want to live?”

“Wherever I can live in peace and not have a brat pester me with questions.”

Eren bit his lip. “Sorry,” he mumbled.

Soon, Levi’s arms and back had a thin layer of water that worked well to cool him down, and the small stove was just enough warmth to keep him from shivering. Then he felt the cloth on his legs again, running down just below his worn-out underwear and toward the knees. Levi made a noise of disgust.

“Are your legs sensitive?”

“Shut up,” he snapped.

The towel pulled back. “That’s good enough. You may roll over.”

“In a minute,” Levi grumbled.

Eren looked over in confusion. Then he saw Levi slowly unclench the bed sheet, and he tried to slow his breathing. Dangerously curious, Eren ran his bare hand up Levi’s thigh, whispering playfully, “Sensitive?”

Levi let out a high squawk and spun around, knocking off the towels wrapped around his calves. His eyes were massive and alarmed by the touch, whereas Eren’s face held the mischievous grin of a naughty child. Then Eren’s eyes dropped, and sure enough, touching there had made Levi react. In belated embarrassment, Levi grabbed his blanket and yanked it over him, at least enough to hide his torso.

Tu … t’es … sale petit garnement.

“What does that mean?”

He struggled to think in English again. “Dirty little troublemaker. You did that just to humiliate me.”

“I did it to see if you would react.”

“Of course I would!” His face turned away with blotchy skin. “Were the men who thrust a mop up my arse not enough? Do you plan on raping me yourself?”

“Wha- … No!” Eren shouted in horror. “No, that’s not it at all.”

“Then why would you want this sort of reaction out of me?”

Eren’s mouth dropped, he tried to speak, but nothing came out. He lowered his head and turned away. “I was hoping to tease you a little, cheer you up.”

“You have a sick sense of what it means to tease another man.”

Eren flinched and looked hurt. “It was just a joke. I didn’t want it to be … sick. I would never do anything you thought was disgusting.” He lowered his head, feeling miserable now. “I’m sorry.”

Levi let out a sigh and relaxed out of his defensive rigidity. How could he be enraged when Eren looked like a puppy being scolded? “At any other time, I may have been merely annoyed, but … what those men did to me … your joke was in bad taste.”

Those teal eyes gazed back, filled with remorse. “I didn’t think…” His shoulders slumped in regret. “You’re right. They did something horrible. Of course you wouldn’t want to be touched by another man after that. I’m sorry. This was all a bad idea.”

“No, the rest was fine. It feels good to be clean, and I feel the fever lowering. Just … my legs … they have always been sensitive. Even as a child, I could not wear caleçon long … that is … um … I do not remember the English word.” He pointed to his undershorts. “Like these, but long.”

“Ah, lange Unterhose?”

“That’s German, you idiot. But yes, I could not wear them. Anything tight on my legs, or rubbing against them too much, I hated it.” He pulled into himself closer. “So please, do not touch my legs again.”

“I’ll remember.” Eren stood, grabbed the bucket of water with the towel floating inside, gathered up the used towels that had been wrapped around Levi’s calves, and dropped the box of fuel bars off by Levi’s bed along with a packet of matches. “Keep the flame going for a while, but blow it out immediately if anyone comes down here. I’ll need to retrieve the Esbit eventually, but you can keep yourself warm while you’re sick.” Then he walked out of the cell, and this time he made sure to lock it. “Rest. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He walked away, giving Levi privacy to dress.

Levi watched him go, and he stayed still until the sound of footsteps faded away. Then he sighed and relaxed. He pulled back the blanket and glanced down to the tented cotton undershorts.

Putain Popaul. C’est pas le moment d’avoir la gaule.” Fucking dick. This is not the time to have an erection.

He slammed the blankets back down. It would go away, it always did, it was just humiliating to have a reaction like that in front of Eren, of all people.

# # #

# #

#

“…there have been strikes all across France’s rails.” These coordinated attacks on the French railway system were a strategic precursor to D-Day.

yarrow

Kalte Wadenwickel und Schafgarbe – my German translator told me that a common way to lower fevers in Germany is a Wadenwickel, wrapping a cold towel around the calves with another towel around it, and I added my mother’s herbal cure for fevers, yarrow with added mint and honey to sweeten it. (Yarrow is very bitter.)

Again we hear the lines to the poem Chanson d’automne, and Sasha explains part of the code. The first three lines meant the Allies would land within the next two weeks, and the next three lines meant 48 hours to D-Day.

esbit esbit

Esbit stoves are really awesome, especially when camping. They were designed for German soldiers in WWII, but they are still made today. You can buy them on Amazon for $10. They fold up tiny to fit in your pack, they’re made of aluminum so they are lightweight, and the hexamine fuel tablets last long enough to heat up water for coffee, soup, or to warm up your emergency rations.

Nazi doctors inspecting a Jew

Levi and Eren again mention the Nazi concept of Untermenschen, Subhumans. Eren’s insistence that it was “scientifically proven” is literally how biology was taught in Hitler Youth. The Nazi Party taught children that Jews, Roma, Arabs, Blacks, and “Orientals” were Subhuman, with ample amounts of faked “racial science” to support this xenophobia claim. – https://www.ushmm.org/collections/bibliography/nazi-racial-science

charlie chaplin

Eren talks about a Charlie Chaplin film set in Alaska. This was Gold Rush, a 1928 silent film. Levi’s quip that “it was probably all filmed in California” was true. Most of it was filmed on a Hollywood studio lot with elaborate sets to make it look like they were in the mountains, with a few location shots in the Sierra Nevada mountain range of northern California. You can watch the movie here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f8v79UCDq6I

caleçon
(caleçon, undershorts, in a style Levi would be wearing now)

Levi mentions caleçon long, or long johns in English. The idea to mention those came from me researching whether or not Levi would be wearing underwear in this scene, and what types existed during the war. I already had in mind that his legs would be super sensitive. Turns out, briefs were not popular until after World War II, but boxers were invented in the 1920s. Rather than elastic, they tied on the sides. Before then, people wore long, close-fitted pants: either two-piece long johns or one-piece union suits. This was part of the standard uniform for French soldiers during the time Levi served, so it’s safe to assume that Levi went “commando” (no underwear) while he was a soldier.

My French translator Doublepasse had fun trying to find a way to express in French my intended meaning in that last paragraph. She discovered that French men tend to call their dicks Popaul, which is like “little Paul,” sort of like how English say “dick” which is the nickname of Richard, or someone named Michael might call his own penis “Little Mikey.” Slang is weird like that.

Chapter Text

Eren was once again by the river watching the Jews bathe. It was quieter this time. He and Levi did not speak to one another. All the men in his platoon were visibly more uneasy about this. It was now common knowledge that one Jew had escaped, and the soldier who had been in charge was found “drunk.” He swore he had not drank anything at all; he had felt dizzy, and then he woke up to discover that the Jew he was supposed to be watching as she scrubbed laundry was missing.

Eren had a bad feeling that the poor young man had been drugged. Levi said he knew nothing of it, but his attempted escape, only to return, made Eren suspicious that either Levi had something to do with it, or he realized the woman had escaped and knew his opportunity was ruined. A few questions to young soldiers placed carefully over beers revealed that Isabel had escaped long before Eren found Levi missing, so that meant he did not help her.

So then how did Levi find out before any of the regular soldiers knew? How did he know his opportunity to flee was badly timed? If he had helped her, he would have fled as well.

The only explanation Eren could come up with was that Levi met up with the person—or people—who helped the girl to escape. When Eren overheard Kitz growl that this particular Jewish woman was the wife of an Allied soldier with ties to the French Resistance, Eren saw the connection. They were in a city once controlled by the Resistance. It could be that the whole group of Jews were going to be sneaked out of France specifically to get that one woman out. When they could not have her blend in with a crowd, the Resistance sent some specialist, someone good enough to drug a German soldier and make it look like he got drunk, to get her out.

That meant the Resistance was still around. Levi was shrewd with a militant mind, so Eren was convinced he knew what was really going on.

If he had met with someone from the Resistance, did that mean he was next on their list of people to free? Would France go that far for some unimportant Jew? Or was Levi actually fairly important? He said he had been a soldier, an assassin used by the military for sensitive operations. Maybe the Free France Forces wanted him, maybe even to send him against Hitler himself. Others had tried to assassinate the Führer and failed. Did the Allies want to make a statement by sending a Jew to kill the man who had murdered so many Jews?

He did not blame his men for being on edge. He doubted any of them had figured all of this out, since he had not told anyone about Levi being a former soldier—he was positive the Jew would be executed if anyone knew—but maybe they figured out enough, that the “drunk” soldier was a victim of an attack, and that the Resistance was behind it.

Or maybe they were simply spooked by the rumors.

Something was going on, not even Eren knew the full scope, but terrorist attacks were dramatically increasing throughout France. Warehouses, munition supplies, and railroad lines were being blown up. Kitz was on a rampage about the rail lines that prevented new troops, supplies, ammunition, and the much-needed translator. Eren kept the irate captain a little happier by promising that he was learning French from Levi now. That also gave a reason to keep Levi alive. They could not kill him if Eren needed him to learn the language.

Of course, Kitz seemed to think Eren could master the language in a week, whereas the best he knew was how to conjugate a few basic verbs, plus he had memorized simple colors. Every day, Kitz shouted at Eren to learn faster, and his hand drifted to the gun holstered by his side every time he saw Levi, itching to kill him.

The women finished bathing quickly that day. Levi waited until they were out of the river and dressed before removing his clothes and wading out. Eren watched him more than the women. They were clustered and talking in a mix of French and what he guessed was Yiddish. Eren briefly wondered if he could learn Yiddish easier than French.

Of course, that was pointless. How many Jews would he meet while in France? What his platoon needed was someone fluent in the local language.

Eren did not feel the awkwardness of the first time he brought the Jews here to bathe. Maybe it was everything that had happened that week. He had even helped in an operation to repair a tear to Levi’s colon, monitoring the gas that kept Levi asleep through the procedure, and sometimes holding a utensil for the surgeon. Now, as he saw Levi’s backside, he thought darkly of that attack, how horrendous it was, how painful it must have been, how he must still be in pain.

Yet, here he was, bruises still on his body, horrifically tortured over just one week, yet looking like he was as strong as ever.

Eren had to admit, it was admirable.

Jean called out in annoyance, “Beeil’ dich!” Hurry up!

Eren glared over at him. He felt at peace watching Levi bathe.

Levi humphed. “Is that long-faced idiot telling me to hurry?”

“Yes. He’s eager to get back.”

“Like a horse eager to return to the stables. Tell him to go take a long shit. I’ll be done by the time he wipes the crap off his arse.”

Eren burst out in a laugh. Obviously, he could not tell Jean that. “Er entschuldigt sich und sagt, dass er sich beeilen wird.” He apologizes and says he will hurry.

Jean looked satisfied, and Eren was truly glad none of his men spoke English.

Levi sighed as the water rushed past him. He wished he could just float away on this river. He wondered where it went. Probably to the sea. He could float out to the Atlantic, just float along, and maybe he would end up on American shores. He wanted to just flow along with the river…

Schnell! Beeilung!” Fast! Hurry!

Levi closed his eyes. He could imagine a France without Germans always barking orders, always threatening them, always sneering. He could imagine owning a peaceful vineyard, lazy days strolling the rows, checking the grapes. He liked southern France. He remembered a trip there in his youth.

Was tut er?” What’s he doing?

Levi opened his eyes and saw blasted stone walls that used to pen sheep. Maybe the sheep fled. Likely, they were all eaten by Germans.

This land was losing so much! Could France even be saved at this point? Could it ever return to being the land he knew and loved?

He turned and walked back to shore before he got into trouble. At least Eren was quietly watching him. Their group headed back, and Eren escorted the Jews to the castle. It was lunchtime, so they got their bowls of soup from the kitchen and settled around a table that had once been used for the castle’s servants.

Eren turned to his men. “You can eat here or elsewhere. Dismissed.”

“The soup actually smells good,” Thomas muttered, edging toward the kitchens and sniffing.

Jean glared at the table full of Jews. “It doesn’t have dog meat, does it?”

“I would say even dog meat is a good treat at this point,” Eren admitted. “Supplies are low. A train was supposed to bring more, but the Resistance blew up the rail line.”

“Damn terrorists,” Jean grumbled. He glanced over at the prisoners eating the soup. “Well, the Jews aren’t dying, so I guess it’s not poisonous. I’m starving!”

Eren went with them to get a bowl of soup. They ate in the main dining hall, a once-glamorous place, now weary from war and dirty from soldiers using the grounds.

“I hope we can stay here,” Franz sighed wistfully.

“Not me,” Jean grumbled, spooning out a massive chunk of sinewy meat. “I want to fight. I miss battle.”

They gradually finished and wandered off, back to duties, patrols, writing letters to home, or off for a smoke and chatting with other soldiers. Eren ate slowly, staring down at his pack thoughtfully.

Finally, Thomas was the last one to go after asking the person who cooked the meal about the meat. (It was horse, apparently.) After they were all gone, Eren stood and walked back over to the servant’s quarters. He heard someone speaking in another language, and as he drew closer, he realized it was not French.

* * *

מְרוֹמָם הוּא אֱלָהִין בְּקַדְמְתָא וּבַתְרָיְתָא
צְבִי וְאִתְרָעִי בָן וּמְסַר לָן אוֹרָיְתָא

 

Meromam hu Elahin bekadmah uvatraitah
Tzevi veitrei van e umesar lan Oraytah.

 

God, exalted from beginning to end,
Was pleased with us and gave us the Torah.

* * *

Levi caught sight of Eren and held his hand out. “The Tanakh,” he demanded.

Eren glanced around, but all the Germans were gone. He pulled his pack around and dug the Tanakh out from the bottom. Levi took it, opened to a page, and began to read.

The group gathered around him. Eren leaned in the doorway, listening to the flow of words. He understood none of it, but simply watching Levi brought him a sense of peace.

He remembered when his mother used to read from the Bible to him. Eren had never really paid much attention to the stories, unless they were of battles and warriors. The Gospel … not so interesting. However, the flow of his mother’s soothing voice was something he remembered even a decade later.

The Jews held their little service while Eren basically guarded them. He even left at one point to send a soldier away, so that no one disturbed the meeting. Just as the soldier turned away to obey the frivolous order, Eren heard singing from the kitchen.

* * *

Hava nagila. Hava nagila.
Hava nagila ve-nismeḥa.
Hava neranenah. Hava neranenah.
Hava neranenah ve-nismeḥa.
Uru, uru aḥim!
Uru aḥim be-lev sameaḥ.
Uru aḥim, uru aḥim!
Be-lev sameaḥ.”

 

Let’s rejoice. Let’s rejoice.
Let’s rejoice and be happy.
Let’s sing. Let’s sing.
Let’s sing and be happy.
Awake, awake, my brothers!
Awake my brothers with a happy heart.
Awake my brothers, awake my brothers!
With a happy heart.

* * *

The song was joyous and lively, and the Jews began to dance to it. Eren smiled as the Jews celebrated with song. He had never seen them do this, but they looked truly happy. The women smiled as they sang and clapped, the men shone joyfully as they danced in a circle, and even Levi’s eyes gleamed despite the neutral face he kept as he sang with reluctance.

Then Eren heard a noise outside, someone saluting a man of high rank, and he cursed quietly. He could send away common soldiers, but he had less influence over officers. He stepped into the kitchen, and the singing came to a sharp stop.

“I need to escort you below, now!”

Levi translated, and the group hurried. Eren kept an eye on the entrance as he herded the Jews down to the dungeons. Once underneath, Levi held back to stand beside Eren.

“I need to ask a favor,” he whispered. “May I keep my book?”

“It’s dangerous to do so,” Eren warned.

“Only for two days. It’s Shavuot, a holiday for us.”

“A holiday?” Eren said in surprise. “Is that why you were singing? What does it celebrate?”

“The day God gave the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai.”

“Ah, I remember that story! Den Zehn Gebote.” The Ten Commandments.

“Sure, whatever. We will celebrate however we can, given the circumstances, but reading the Torah during Shavuot is important to the holiday.”

“I understand. You can probably sing down here, but try to keep it quiet.”

“It was nice to sing in the sunlight.” Levi hesitated, but then reluctantly said, “Thank you.”

Eren grinned, feeling oddly warm inside for helping. “Gern geschehen.” You’re welcome.

These people were supposed to be enemies, a scourge on all of Europe, but all Eren saw was a group of people with beliefs different from his own. They read a holy book and sang, just like his mother would do for Christmas.

How different were they, really?

* * *

Eren was probably the only German there who knew this was a special holiday for Jews. The small group worked just as hard, and they were treated just as horribly. Nothing changed.

After dark, Eren would slip away and sneak down to the castle dungeon to listen to singing and to Levi reading until his voice went hoarse.

He looked down at his uniform. What was he fighting for? The glory of Germany! Why did that include exterminating people—men, women, and children—who did nothing wrong? Even if they were a subspecies of humans as German scientists claimed, why was that bad? Were not all humans evolving? If Aryans simply reached the pinnacle of human evolution first, what right did that give them to suppress the ones who developed slower? Would it not be better, more noble and civilized, to support lesser humans in their journey?

Even if they were dumb as animals, who kills a dog merely because it does not think like a man?

Eren shook his head. He did not understand the science behind Übermensch and Untermensch. They were concepts he had been taught in school, but what did they really imply? If they were true, why was killing Jews so important? If the scientists lied, as Levi claimed … were Aryans and Jews really no different?

It was like his childhood was being turned on its head.

On the evening of the second day, after doing his cleaning chores, Levi walked up to Eren while he was smoking and talking with Armin.

“I’m returning the book.”

Armin glanced over. “Was ist los?” What’s happening?

Eren stomped out his cigarette and told Armin, “Es ist nichts Wichtiges. Ich bin gleich wieder da.” It’s nothing important. I’ll be right back.

Eren followed Levi, but the Jew paused at the dungeon entrance.

“Let me go first,” Levi warned. “Roam around until you are certain no one is here. You were watched last time you came to the dungeon to listen to us.”

“Watched?” Eren said in shock.

“A soldier came in right after you left and shouted some things. I don’t know what, but I heard the name Jäger.”

Verdammt. Thank you for letting me know. I’ll be more careful.”

“You better be.”

Levi went down the stairs on his own. Eren drifted off to the kitchens. There was one person there, a local chef cooking stew and looking focused on his work. Two soldiers stood near the entrance smoking and talking about some of the French ladies in town. Eren swept the perimeter but saw no signs of someone spying on him.

He slipped down to the dungeon, where Levi was waiting with the Tanakh in his hands. Eren tucked the book back into his satchel.

“Are you hungry?” he asked, adjusting things in his bag to hide the Hebrew book. “You’re allowed to eat above if you’re watched. We could share a meal. That soup smells good.”

“You could get in trouble.”

“I’ll say I’m on guard duty. Besides, our dinner is over. The soup is meant for officers with big stomachs, and they won’t come here themselves to fetch a bowl. No one will be in the kitchen but the French staff. You’re still recovering. You need something to keep up your strength.”

Levi had to admit, breakfast had been meager and a long time ago. He had eaten nothing since then, working nonstop until dusk. He gave in, and they went back up. Eren got both of them bowls of soup, and he went to a side area of the kitchen, out of sight of anyone casually looking in to see what smelled so good.

Levi dug into the soup immediately. Eren chuckled, but he felt bad for how starved the poor Jew was.

“How is your injury?”

Levi stopped, spoon in mouth, and slowly swallowed. “Healing. I’m still taking castor oil. My shit stinks because of it, and my arse hurts when I sit. I’m not shitting blood anymore, at least.”

“That’s good. I’ll try to get you more medicine, maybe something for the pain.”

“I’m fine,” Levi growled, slurping up more soup.

Eren left back to the kitchen, and a few minutes later he returned with two cups of a dark brown liquid. Levi’s eyes widened as the steaming drink was set in front of him.

“What the hell is that?”

Muckefuck.”

Levi raised an eyebrow. “What the fuck is muckefuck?”

“It’s coffee, sort of. At least, the army claims it’s a coffee substitute. I’ve never tasted true coffee before, so I can’t judge it.”

Levi accepted the drink, took a sip, and nearly spit it out. “That is not coffee!” He took another taste. “Still, it’s not undrinkable.”

“Coffee is known to help with … um … pooping issues.”

“Do you really think a German officer should have a cup of coffee with a Jewish prisoner?”

“It’s only muckefuck. It’s fake.”

“Why do you keep doing this?”

“I can say a fly was in my drink so I gave it to you. Think of it as a holiday treat.”

Levi groaned, rolled his eyes, but he still raised the cup to his lips. “If you get caught and punished, it’s not on my hands.”

Eren smiled as Levi blew on the hot coffee and took a sip. His eyes closed, and for a moment the scowl on his face relaxed. There was almost a smile.

“It’s fake shit, but it has a reminiscent taste. I can’t remember my last cup of coffee. My wife used to make it every morning.”

Eren’s eyes widened. “You’re married?”

“I was. Happily so. I loved her more than anything.”

“For how long?” It had never occurred to him that, at his age, it was common for a man like Levi to have been married with a family.

“We married in the Spring of ‘38.”

“Do you have children?”

Levi’s face flinched hard, and a scowl deeply furrowed his brow. “No, I don’t.”

Eren felt a chill in the way Levi said that, but he dared not ask. “Did you love her, or was it arranged?”

That made Levi’s scowl soften. “No, not arranged. In fact, it was a bit controversial. I was a nobody, but she … she was beautiful, strong, so stubborn,” he said, and Eren saw a rare smile ghost over his lips before fading back into dark grimness. “I thought we could start a happy life, have a nice house, some children, maybe a dog, live out a fairy tale dream of loving one another until we grew old.”

“What happened?”

“She was killed four years later by German soldiers. She told me to live on. So I do.” Levi looked down into the coffee—black, like his world had been since that day. “For years, I’ve managed to stay alive. I do whatever it takes to survive this madness. I watch as my kinsmen suffer each day for no reason besides our religion and our race. My people hide and cower in fear of torture, enslavement, death, or worse. I watch and I stay quiet when I know that speaking may result in death. I will survive this, for her sake.”

Eren lowered his gaze. Levi’s age was a mystery, sometimes appearing as young as Eren himself, sometimes seeming to be much older. Still, to be that young and widowed … that was sad.

And it had been Germans who killed her!

Levi swirled his spoon into the soup as his anger sizzled out into sadness. “Do you know what it feels like to lose everything?”

“I do.” Eren’s mouth twitched against a pain in his heart. “I lost all of my family.”

“To an accident? Disease? Something mundane?”

Eren shook his head and looked straight at the Jew. “My parents were killed by Nazis.”

Levi was taken aback by the statement.

Eren reached across the table and placed his hand over those long, cold, callused fingers. “You and I are alike. Maybe that’s why I want you to survive. I’m very sorry you lost so much. If I could give it all back, I would.”

Levi looked down at the hot, rough hand placed over his. Eren also glanced down at their hands. Like this, they looked not so different from one another.

Then Levi glared up at the young soldier. “I don’t need a Nazi’s sympathy.” He yanked his hand away and dragged the soup bowl closer. He ate hunched over, as if the food might be taken away at any minute, just like how everything else in his life had been stripped from him.

“Then how about the sympathy of another human being? I know what it’s like to have someone you love killed in front of you. My mother was a mischling. I don’t know the English word.”

“Half-breed,” Levi said, still focused on the meal. “I’ve heard of that term.”

Braunhemden discovered that one of my mother’s grandparents was Jewish. My father was away, so he could not defend her. Some people think, if it’s just one grandparent, that’s okay, but those men … they were out of control. They were on a mission to kill any mischlinge. They killed my mother, shot her in the street. They wanted to kill me too. It was a captain named Hannes who came up and protected me from the Braunhemden. All four of my grandparents were German and Christian, and he said that legally made me an Aryan. He took me in, got me official paperwork, an Ahnenpaß so I could prove my heritage. He had high-ranking friends, and he got me placed in a school, Nationalpolitische Erziehungsanstalten, or Napola as we call it. From the time I was a child, I was raised to be a soldier, to fight alongside the same men … who killed my mother … right in front of me.”

Levi had stopped eating and was looking at him with pity. “With a past like that, why do you fight?”

Eren turned sad eyes over to him. “What choice do I have? My mother was a mischling. Because of her, I am suspected. Because of her, I could not join the SS like my other classmates. I was lucky even to become an officer, although I will probably never raise higher than this. Besides, my father…” His eyes narrowed. “No one knew where he went. No one still knows. But I do. If anyone ever found out, I’d probably be killed.”

“A traitor?” Levi remembered what Eren once said about scientists and doctors who left Germany at the start of the war. It all made sense now.

Eren did not answer for a long time, and when he did, his voice was soft and distant. “My father was a brilliant doctor, traveled a lot, mostly to England. He said he gave lectures there. He taught me English and talked about London, Manchester, Glasgow, Liverpool.” Eren laughed bitterly and shook his head. “I used to beg to go with him on his trips. He made England sound like a fairy tale land.”

“Some areas look that way,” Levi muttered.

“In 1935, I was ten years old, Hitler had been in power for two years, my father was gone more than he was around, and then we heard the news. Hitler repudiated the Treaty of Versailles and instituted conscription. We knew a war was coming. That same year, my father left on another trip. I never saw him again.”

“He defected?” Levi asked in shock.

“He decided to stay in England … with his other wife and child.”

Levi’s mouth dropped. Now, there was a family drama!

“Years after he left, I was in Napola when I received a letter written in English. The man was named Zeke Jäger, and he claimed he was my half-brother. The letter was short, just letting me know that our father had died in London when a German bomb hit his office. Zeke is apparently a prominent man in the British government. His mother is British royalty. I guess their marriage was a scandal, and when Zeke was seven years old, my father had to flee England. He came to Germany, faked an identity, blended in as a doctor, met my mother, and three years later, he had me. All those years, all the times he said he was lecturing in universities, he was really going back to England to see his other son.

“He died a traitor and an adulterer. He didn’t care enough to bring his German family with him, to bring his wife whom he should have known would face trouble in Germany, or to bring me, his ten-year-old son. He left us for the Braunhemden and Gestapo, and there is no mercy in their hearts. If he had been there, it never would have happened. Mutti never would have died. If he had been there…” Eren’s fists clenched. “But he wasn’t. He loved his British family more than his German one,” he snarled. “So I hate the British.”

“Is that your reason to fight? Hatred?”

Hard and wild eyes met his. “A royal British whore seduced my father, stole him from me, and because he left us, my mother was killed. So yes, I hate them. I want to kill them all.”

Levi’s eyes lowered. Eren’s childhood was destroyed because of this war. His youthful life had ended in blood and death. Now he lived the life of a soldier, and his goal was to kill. That was so sad, so tragic.

“We both lost a woman dear to us, and lost a piece of our life.”

“Yes,” Eren whispered, “but I have no hatred for Jews or the Romani. Mutti was not at fault. I know what I was taught in school, but still … how we are born shouldn’t decide whether or not we have the right to exist. It’s the choices we make. My father betrayed Germany and joined the enemy. For that, I hate him and the British with every drop of my Aryan blood. But my mother? Like she could pick who her grandparents were! She never even met the one who was Jewish. She said that person died giving birth. So how was it her fault?” He shook his head. “Aryans are strong, I firmly believe that, it’s scientifically proven.”

“Bollocks!”

Eren looked over. “Is that English?”

“Never mind.”

“Anyway, I want to be strong, as an Aryan should be. I couldn’t save her, simply because I was too small. I wanted to grow strong enough so I could make a difference. Even if it’s just a little thing.” He squeezed Levi’s fingers. “Even if it’s one man getting a cup of coffee. If I can make a difference for a single person suffering unfairly, that is what makes a person an Übermensch. Not the blood in your veins, but the superiority of your deeds.”

Those words touched Levi deeply, but he refused to show it. He whispered, “You’re an idiot, takhshet. But you’re an idiot who makes good fake, shitty coffee.”

Eren gave him a boyish chuckle and sniffed away the tears of past grief. “Danke!” Thanks! Eren looked down to his soup and tapped his spoon against the side of the bowl. “I’ve never told anyone about all that, not even friends in Napola or anyone in my platoon. Somehow…” He glanced up to Levi. “Somehow, I feel like I can tell you anything.”

Levi looked at him in awe, but forced a scowl as he looked down hard at his soup. “Don’t bore me.”

Eren chuckled at that contrary attitude, finding it adorable. They turned back to their soup bowls, but Eren kept glancing up at Levi, struggling to hold back smiles. When Levi sensed those pale eyes on him and looked over, Eren’s gaze quickly dropped to his soup bowl while his cheeks felt hot.

Levi sighed, shook his head, and focused on finishing his food. Across the table, Eren sneaked another bashful glance up to him and silently bit his lip.

# # #

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Vulpecula Art

Thank you to Vulpecula for this gorgeous fan art. The details of Eren's uniform are completely accurate, including the medals he has won (those won't be mentioned until a later chapter).

muckefuck Muckefuck minions

WTF is muckefuck

Muckefuck – a German coffee substitute. In World War II, importing coffee beans was a challenge, so alternatives were used. Muckefuck is made from barley, malt, chicory and rye. The word comes from the French Mocca faux (false coffee) but English speakers find it hilarious.

some Nazi scum

Braunhemden (“Brownshirts”) – a term for the Sturmabteilung (SA), literally “Storm Detachment,” the original Nazi paramilitary wing. The term “Brownshirts” came from their uniforms. Members were mostly from the working class. By the time Hitler assumed power, membership in the SA was twenty times larger than the number of troops in the Wehrmacht (armed forces). The SA was responsible for destroying around 200 synagogues and for the destruction during Kristallnacht (Crystal Night), where they ransacked thousands of Jewish stores and homes, leaving broken glass in the streets. As the power of the SA began to rival that of the army, and as public opinion of their thuggish brutality turned negative, Hitler turned on them and ordered the leaders to be arrested and executed. By the late 1930s, the SA had lost most of its members to the SS and Wehrmacht.

some racist shit

Ahnenpaß (“ancestor pass”) – a document to prove “Aryan purity,” requiring birth certificates from seven people: the individual in question, both parents, and all four grandparents. After the Nuremberg Laws were passed in 1935, an Ariernachweis (“Aryan certificate”) became a requirement for German citizenship, to attend school, get married, and hold certain jobs. Some sympathetic clergy would fake these documents to help racially persecuted people. In Eren’s case, he was barely able to obtain one, as none of his grandparents were practicing Jews, but his mother had one Jewish grandparent, which made her a mischling (half-breed).

Shavuot – the Feast of Weeks, also known as Pentecost, a holiday commemorating the Jews accepting the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, and thus coming into a covenant with God.

Akdamut Milin – Eren overhears the last two lines of this Hebrew liturgical poem, or piyyut. This particular one is considered to be the most beloved poem in Judaism. Ashkenazi Jews read it on the first day of Shavuot.

Hava Nagila – one of the most widely recognized Jewish songs today, it was fairly new in 1944. After the Diaspora, Hebrew had fallen out of use, replaced with Arabic, Yiddish, Ladino, and other fusion languages. After the British victory in Palestine in WWI, a movement began to revive Jewish heritage, particularly their language. Hava Nagila was written with simple lyrics and a catchy tune people can dance to. It gained popularity across Jewish communities in Europe and beyond. It’s sung at celebrations, weddings, and bar mitzvahs.

Diaspora – Because some of my readers have never seen this word before, let me explain. “Diaspora” (dye-ASS-pour-uh) means a dispersal of people from their homelands, an exodus. The Jewish Diaspora happened after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Jews were forbidden from entering the city on punishment of death, the Jews in the Levant were rounded up and sold into slavery, and anyone not enslaved fled outside of Rome’s control. Over the next 1900 years, Jews would be pushed out of one area and settle in another, causing large pockets of Jewish communities to form in countries with religious tolerance.

Wherever they ended up in their exile, Jews adapted to the local customs, languages, and food, creating delicious kosher meals out of local ingredients. Those who ended up in Northern Europe and Russia became Ashkenazi Jews, speaking Yiddish. Those who ended up in the Iberian peninsula became Sephardi Jews, speaking Ladino (Judaeo-Spanish). Others went to North Africa and Southwestern Asia, becoming Mizrahi Jews.

Due to Russian pogroms and the Holocaust, the number of Jews in Europe plummeted. In 1900, 4 million Jews lived in Russia; today, there are only 300,000. In 1900, almost 600,000 Jews lived in Germany; by 1945, there were only 20,000 left. Before the War, Poland had been the center of Jewish culture in Europe, with 3.5 million Jews; as of this year, their population is only 3,000. Meanwhile, the Jewish population in the United States surged to 5 million during the War due to a wave of refugees, making it now second only to Israel itself in the number of Jews living within its borders.

Nazis were not the only ones who wanted to eliminate all Jews from their country. Since 1948, 900,000 Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews were deported, fled, or executed in Muslim-controlled countries. Egypt once had a 3,000-year-old Jewish community with 80,000 members. Today, there are only 16 left. Iraq had 140,000 Jews in 1948; today, there are 5. Over in Afghanistan, one Jew stubbornly remains to look after the last synagogue left in the country. Libya once had 38,000 Jews, but after the bloody reign of Gaddafi, as of 2003 … none are left.

The hate has not ended.

Chapter Text

Eren was once again heading to the small castle where the Jewish prisoners were kept; however, when he got down to the dungeons, he saw all the cells empty, even Levi’s. He trotted back upstairs and found a bored guard.

“Where are the Jews?” he demanded.

Hauptmann Woermann took them out to be flogged.”

“Flogged?” snapped Eren. “Why? What did they do?”

The guard chuckled softly. “Does there need to be a reason? They’re filthy Jews. I heard it’s because one ran off, so all the rest are to be punished.”

Eren stormed out and began to ask around. It did not take long to find out the location of the captain with a small crowd around him, many of them cheering, some counting.

“What is going on?” Eren asked a soldier.

Herr Leutnant! The captain is whipping them until they cry. We’re all taking bets. This one, though, he’s lasted through twenty lashes already and not a peep. We almost thought he was a mute, but someone said he’s being used as a translator.”

Eren felt his blood chill. He pushed his way forward, elbowing past the rowdy crowd, until he saw the center. The Jewish women had huddled together, all of them sobbing, some of them with their clothes in disorder. The men stood around them, but they were watching what was happening in the middle.

Eren saw Levi leaned over a table someone had dragged out into the street, hands tied with ropes to the edges, and his shirt removed. Kitz Woermann’s eyes were maniacal as he swung a flogger again, and Eren saw an arc of blood splatter the ground. Levi’s fists clenched and his teeth gritted, yet he made no sound at all.

“Captain!” shouted Eren.

The commander looked up and grinned. “Lieutenant Jäger! Care to give him a few lashes? I think I must be out of shape.”

“You said we needed to keep him alive.”

“This won’t kill him,” Kitz said dismissively, not realizing how much blood was dripping down Levi’s back. “Come. Give him a few lashes.”

The crowd shouted, “Tu es! Mach schon!” Do it! Come on!

Eren looked horrified, but he caught Levi looking right at him.

“Do it, takhshet,” he ordered in English.

“What are you talking about? I can’t—”

“If you have any common sense at all, you would do it, you stupid, weak Nazi!” he bellowed.

The crowd was not sure what they were saying, but when they heard this Jew yelling back at a German officer, they began to get rowdy.

“If you don’t,” Levi said quietly, “you will be tied to this table next. Do it, in earnest, and I promise to cry like this bastard wants.”

“But Levi, I—”

Feigling!” bellowed Levi. It was one of the few German words he knew. Coward!

Eren’s eyes widened in alarm at that rebellious insult.

Now the audience was in an uproar. Kitz did not even wait. He slapped the flogger into Eren’s hands.

“It’s all in the wrist, Jäger. Try not to let it hit you on the recoil.”

Eren realized he had no choice, not after that. He was also furious. He came here to help Levi and was trying to think of a way to get him out of this. With that shout, the Jew had called into question Eren’s authority and thus doomed himself.

“Do it, Jäger. Ten more lashes! Show him the strength of Aryan blood.”

Eren weighed the flogger in his hand. A cat-o-nine-tails! The tips already had blood on them. He had never whipped someone before. He had no idea how hard was too hard. He guessed, in this situation, there was no such thing as too hard. Anything weak would be viewed with derision by those around him. A quick glance at all the surrounding soldiers showed Eren that now he had to be what the Nazi Party wanted him to be. Cold. Ruthless.

“Do it,” Levi muttered.

Eren’s jaw stiffened as he shoved down his feelings and froze his heart. “Fine,” he growled at Levi.

“Speak it in German, takhshet,” he muttered, bracing himself.

Eren bellowed it for everyone to hear. “So sei es.” So be it.

The whip slapped down, but even Eren could tell it was a weak hit.

“Go, Jäger! More. In the wrist! Flick the wrist.”

Eren struck again. “Du bist nur eine Judensau.” You are merely a Jewish sow.

And again! “Du bist nicht mal ein Mensch.” You are not even human.

Du bist ein Untermensch.” You are a subhuman.

Juden sind abscheulich.” Jews are loathsome.

With each insult came with a strike as Eren whipped Levi again and again. He had seen punishment like this enough times. He knew what was expected, what to say and do, yet he felt disconnected from reality.

This was not his arm.

These were not his words.

Du bist schmutzig.” You are filthy.

Widerwärtig.” Disgusting.

Abstoßend.” Repulsive.

The flogger struck wildly, and Levi sucked in air as it hit up his spine to the back of his neck. Still, Eren watched on in cold detachment.

Alle Juden müssen sterben!” All Jews must die!

The crowd shouted back, “Stirb, Judenscheiße!” Die, Jewshit!

When the whip came down this time, Levi shrieked and began to go limp. “Putain! Arrête! Halt! Stop! Je t’en prie.” Fuck! Stop! I beg of you.

His voice jolted Eren. He looked down at the blood-striped back, then at his hand holding the whip.

Was this his hand? It felt numb. Disconnected.

The whip flew down again and struck Levi despite the cries of surrender.

Levi screamed, “Bon sang, j’ai dit arrête!” For chrissake, I said stop! He panted heavily as his body sank under the pain. “S’il te plaît … pitié. J’ai trop mal. J’abandonne. S’il te plaît arrête!” Please … pity. It hurts too much. I give up. Please just stop this!

Despite the pitifully weak cries, Eren felt his hand rise again, but someone grabbed his wrist. He looked over and saw Kitz standing beside him with a proud smile.

“Much more and you really will kill him. Good job, Jäger.” Then he shouted to the crowd, “It seems the young lieutenant managed to break the unbreakable Jew.”

The crowd cheered, still shouting vile insults at Levi.

“My duty … to the Fatherland,” Eren replied, shaking deep inside.

“To Germany, and to all Aryans,” Kitz shouted.

“Um, yes,” he muttered.

“That’s enough entertainment for one afternoon. Take these vermin back underground where they belong. I want them out of my sight. Let them lick each other’s wounds like dogs, but I want them out cleaning the latrines again around midnight. Tell them they are to work at night now, not during the day. We shouldn’t have to subject ourselves to looking at their kind for too long.”

Soldiers untied Levi, and he slipped down to his knees. A female Jew ran to his side and helped Levi to stand. Another woman draped his shirt over the bloodied back. Pale, limping, and trailing blood, Levi trudged off in the direction of the castle.

Kitz instructed some young soldier to clean the filthy blood off his flogger. As the crowd dispersed, he called out, “Jäger.”

The lieutenant paused and turned back around warily. Now what?

In a quiet, private voice, the captain reprimanded, “You hesitated. Never hesitate. It looks bad for the men, and that thing in particular will see you as weak. Jews are not smart enough to save themselves from pain. You need to teach them with a heavy hand, for it’s the only one God ever showed to them. They’re too stupid, inferior creations unworthy of being called human, dumber than animals, which is why a good whipping now and then works.”

“I will remember that,” he answered promptly.

“Do you know why I whipped them, Jäger?”

“You are the captain. You need no reason.”

“But there was a reason. Please, try to guess.”

Eren honestly had no idea. The Jews had been working around the village for weeks. They had not complained or caused trouble, besides some grumbling in Yiddish that Levi said was just Jewish kvetching.

“Because one escaped?”

“That’s one reason. Name the other.”

He shrugged and shook his head. “Was it a problem with a soldier?”

“Very good. It was. And that soldier was you.”

Eren stiffened in dread. “Me? I didn’t do anything.”

“You’ve been lazy, sloppy, and far too concerned for this deplorable group. Maybe you think of them as pets you can toy with and play house, but believe me, that’s the wrong way of thinking when it comes to Jews. They are not pets. They are beasts of burden. The only reason Germans do not outright exterminate them all is that we need the manpower. There are camps, Jäger, where Jews and others go, where they work for as long as they are useful, and when they lack usefulness, they are killed. In these camps, they are routinely beaten, sleep five to a blanket, and yet they work with more vigor than most Germans. That’s what they are good at. Like a horse on a farm. No, too noble. Like worms placed in a garden to keep the soil softened. With these worms digging through the mire, the beautiful white lilies, which are Aryans, can blossom. Those camps assure that better men do not have to toil in the mud. What we have here is a microcosm of that. They work so we can grow. They work until we no longer need them, and then we dispose of them.” Kitz slammed his hand down onto Eren’s shoulder, making him flinch. “When I discovered that one of my finest young lilies is working extra hard tending to the worms rather than blossoming, that defeats the purpose of our little garden.”

Eren felt the late spring air as a drip of sweat slipped down his neck, and only years of training prevented him from shaking in fear.

“You attended Hitler Youth, yes?”

“Of course. All the children in my town did.”

“And were you taught about Jews?”

“I was told that they are undesirable, dirty, a plague on Europe and the world.”

“They are also manipulative, and that one in particular is playing you like a fiddle. Do you believe what you were taught in school about Jews, Eren?”

Not Jäger or Lieutenant. He was being schooled like a boy again, not reprimanded as an officer. He was on dangerous ground now and had to choose his words carefully. “They are the words of the Führer. Of course they are true.”

“And why would you say something like that?”

“Hitler is the sort of man I aspire to become. He is the savior of Germany. Everything he has done has been to promote the greatness of Germany. No one loves Germany as much as the Führer. Heil Hitler!” he shouted bombastically.

Kitz smiled smugly. “You have a bright future ahead of you, Lieutenant Jäger.”

Eren felt slight relief that he was back to addressing him as an officer. “Thank you, Hauptmann Woermann.”

The hand on his shoulder gripped harder, crushing into his clavicle. Eren nearly cried out in pain, but suddenly those sunken eyes were peering straight down into his face. “Don’t sully it by playing with worms.”

He struggled not to let the pain show on his face. “Thank you for the admonishment, sir. I am honored.”

Kitz laughed softly, his hand loosened, and he patted Eren’s arm in approval. He began to walk away, yet he shouted back, “I’m going to try to get that French girl to speak later today. Make sure the translator is conscious.”

“He will be ready for you.”

“No.” He spun back around sharply. “You will be ready. That thing is a tool. Tools should always be ready to be used; otherwise, they are discarded. You must be ready, and bring your tool sharpened to do the job.”

Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann!” Eren saluted and hurried off.

His shoulder now ached, and his skin felt cold after sweating in fear. It had been a long time since he felt dread like that. A long, long time!

A memory flashed through his mind, and with it a sick surge in his stomach.

* * *

Schieb‘s dir in den Arsch, scheiß Schwuchtel. Schieb‘s dir in den Arsch, scheiß Schwuchtel. Schieb‘s dir in den Arsch, scheiß Schwuchtel.

Shove it up your ass, shitty faggot.

Those words made Eren shiver. He shook his head, desperate to get the taunting scene out of his mind, yet he still saw it, a haunting memory, himself as a small child, two boys being punished, forcefully bent over with their butts raised, their tan uniforms dirtied with boot prints, and the air filled with the quiet sobs the two boys bravely struggled to hold back their tears.

Eren. Komm schon!” Eren, come on.

Ich kann nicht.” I can’t.

Sei kein Feigling.” Don’t be a coward.

Komm, mach schon!” Come on, do it!

Bist du einer von ihnen?” Are you one of them?

One of the boys looked back, and in those silent blue eyes lined with tears, he could tell the boy was telling him to go ahead and obey the teacher.

So sei es.” So be it. Young Eren also raised his foot above the two beaten boys and in a loud voice screamed that taunting phrase. “Schieb‘s dir in den Arsch, scheiß Schwuchtel.

As his boot came down, there was a crunch of bones, and the memory shattered with the distant echoes of a scream.

* * *

“Eren Jäger?”

He jolted out of the memory with a gasp as reality crashed back down on him. He saw one of the Jews standing in front of him.

“Ah. Moses, ja?”

Oui. Levi … sorry, my English no good. Help Levi. Il a besoin de médicaments.

“Medic- … ah!” He needed medication. Obviously, Levi needed some healing. Eren began to turn, but he stopped. The admonishment from Kitz still rang in his head, along with that old memory. “Blood … sang beaucoup?” Blood. Lots?

Oui. Il saigne beaucoup.

Eren did not fully understand, but it was enough. Levi’s bleeding was severe. He needed medical equipment, bandages, and disinfectant. There was no way Eren could take supplies like that meant for soldiers and give it to a Jewish prisoner.

Verdammt!” He stomped the ground with that curse. “Pour Levi … dire lui…” To Levi, tell him…

Eren had to think. This message had to be given in English—it was the only way—and it needed to be short enough for this man to memorize.

“I’ll try. I can’t promise when.” Eren gave the man a hand signal showing him to repeat it.

“Ail … dry.”

“I’ll try.”

“I’ll try?”

“I can’t promise when.”

“I … cunt … praw miz … ven.”

“Close enough. Tell Levi: I’ll try. I can’t promise when.”

Je vais lui dire. Merci!” I will tell him that. Thank you! Moses ran off with a loping gait back to the castle.

Eren removed his cap and ran his hand through his hair. “You were right, you crazy Jew. I’m going to get into trouble because of you. Verdammt!

He marched as fast as he could without attracting attention and went straight back to the house his group had taken over. Most of them were gone, but Thomas was playing a card game with Armin.

“Hello, Eren!” Armin beamed happily.

Eren paused and looked at the small man. Obviously, these two had not been at the whipping, so they looked as relaxed and cheerful as ever, unlike the cold detachment Eren still felt.

Obergefreiter Arlelt.”

Armin stiffened at being addressed as a lance corporal and not in the relaxed, friendly camaraderie their platoon had formed.

“You know some medicine, yes?”

“Enough for minor battle wounds. Why?”

“The captain took it upon himself to beat that Jewish translator half to death and then ordered me to have him conscious by this evening. I doubt I can get medical supplies, so I’m going to use my own. Since I want to minimize wasting my own supplies, would you help me?”

“Of course,” Armin said instantly. “I don’t want you to get into trouble with the captain.”

Eren was glad it was Armin there. He was a good kid. He looked not even old enough to have finished school, scrawny but brilliant. He would have served Germany better sitting in a room planning battles, not in the trenches firing a rifle.

Once Eren had his medical kit, they left together. However, he saw Armin grab his own medical kit. Knowing this young soldier, he would rather use up his rations so his lieutenant was not short, rather than let Eren do what he had been ordered to do.

They went to the castle and down into the dungeon. Armin glanced around with distaste. The smell was worse than it had been the first day, despite Levi’s obsession with cleaning his cell. In fact, his was the only one that gleamed.

Levi was lying face-down on his cot. Someone had a bucket of water and was dabbing the bleeding lashes with a rag. The group of Jews moved away in a hurry as Eren and Armin entered the prison cell.

Armin cringed as he saw the shredded flesh on Levi’s back. “Das ist schrecklich.” That’s awful.

Eren agreed but felt pressured not to say anything. Instead, he sat by the Jew’s side. “Levi, are you awake?” he asked in English.

“Unfortunately,” he muttered. “I only wish I could pass out. Ça fait mal, putain!” It fucking hurts!

“I brought medication.” He pulled out a clear bottle of disinfecting Spirictus. “It will hurt. A lot,” he warned. “I’m sorry.”

Steely eyes shot up to him. “Never say those words to me again in any language, takhshet. Never.” He smothered his face down into his pillow rags. “Do what you have to.”

Levi gave some orders in French to his companions. The tall man named Moses pulled off his belt and put it between Levi’s teeth for him to bite on the leather. Eren poured the Spirictus onto a gauze.

He remembered in Italy, getting hit with shrapnel and Armin disinfecting the cut with this ethanol solution. He knew Levi was going to be in agony. Still, without it, the wounds would get infected, especially wearing unwashed clothes.

Eren started at the worst lash, where the skin had split apart and blood dripped. Steadying his hand, he dabbed on the alcohol. Levi pulled, and Moses held him down. A scream of agony was muted through the leather belt.

Armin noted, “Die Wunde muss genäht werden.” That wound must be sutured.

Könntest du das tun? Ich bin nicht gut im Wunden nähen.” Can you do that? I am not good at stitching wounds.

Gieße mehr Spiritus drauf. Wasche die Wunde. Ich kann sagen, dass ich versehentlich meine Phiole zerbrochen habe, also verwende alles.” Pour on more Spirictus. Wash the wound. I can say I accidentally shattered my vial, so use it all.

Eren nodded and poured the alcohol directly onto the gash. Three people were now holding Levi down as he cried out into the pillow.

“We need to stitch this,” Eren said in English.

Quoi?” Levi growled, unable to think through the pain.

“Stitch. Um … suture?”

“Suture,” Levi groaned with a nod. That word, he knew in French. “Merde, ça va faire mal.” Shit, this is going to hurt.

Armin pulled out a suture kit, setting up the needle holder, forceps, scissors, and carefully opening a box full of glass vials, each containing a needle and thread inside a solution of alcohol.

Eren, desinfiziere die Wunde in der Nähe der Hüfte.” Eren, disinfect the gash near his hip.

Eren saw him preparing the tiny hooked needle. “Warte!” Hold on! He reached around to a flask on his belt and pulled it out. He put a hand on Levi’s head. “Levi, drink this. Drink all of it.”

He pulled the belt out from between his teeth, sniffed the metal flask, and yanked back.

“You’ll need it. Drink!” He pressed the flask to Levi’s lips and tipped the bottle, not giving him any chance to argue. Rather than protest, Levi eagerly drank the strong alcohol. Eren kept the flask tipping slowly upward until there was nothing left.

Levi growled as he licked his lips. “First time I can get drunk in four years, and it’s on German shit.” He put the belt back between his teeth and settled back on his stomach. “Do it. Don’t worry about it being pretty. Just be quick so it does not hurt as long.”

Armin looked up, needle prepared for the procedure. “Wir könnten ihm Morphin geben.” We could give him Morphine.

Nein, wir können keine Medikamente für einen Juden verschwenden.” No, we can’t waste medication on a Jew.

“Eren!”

Wir können es nicht!” We can’t do it!

Armin kept his mouth closed. He saw rage on Eren’s face, but he heard grief in his voice. “Warne ihn.” Warn him.

“Levi, don’t move.”

Levi nodded in understanding. Armin brought the tiny needle down, pulled the edge of the gash skin up with the forceps, and Levi let out a groan of pain. As the needle hovered above the wound, the tension in the room felt ready to shatter.

Verzeihung,” Armin whispered in apology, then he pressed the needle down into the torn flesh.

Pardon? Eren was slightly surprised—and immensely relieved—to see that Armin would apologize to Levi, despite him being a Jew, and in such a formal way too. He knew he made the right call asking this man, of all the soldiers in his platoon, to come with him.

On Levi’s part, he handled the pain well, or maybe he was simply overwhelmed and could not register any extra pain. A few shouts, clenching of his hands and gritting onto the leather belt between his teeth, but he hardly flinched as the needle pierced in again and again. Eren thought about the bath in the river, those scars on this man’s body, some of them now covered with new wounds and blood. Had Levi been stitched up before? That was highly likely.

Armin said softly, “Er ist ohnmächtig geworden.” He passed out.

Eren also realized the body under him had gone silent, and he was glad. At least now they could work without Levi being in pain. While Armin stitched the gash, Eren got to work on disinfecting the other wounds.

* * *

That evening, Levi managed to walk to the cellar where the French Resistance girl Annie was being interrogated. He translated for the Germans, saying precisely what Eren told him, repeating without filtering every foul curse the girl said in reply. His eyes did not change from their cold expression as the teenage girl was struck, as Kitz Woermann kicked her fragile legs over and over until the shins were dripping with blood, and even when one fingernail was ripped off.

Despite all of this, Annie did not reveal anything. She passed out, and the captain decided to halt things for the night.

“Jäger, good job getting the Jew back up. See how passive he is? That’s all it takes, a beating from time to time, and these things turn into the docile animals they’re meant to be.”

“It’s as you say, sir,” Eren said with cold eyes.

“You hate the British, yes? Treat these Jews the way you would treat a Tommy, for they are a far more dangerous enemy. At least we can contain the British to their little island, but Jews are like rats: invasive, spreading the disease of their subhuman blood and greedy instincts. Even the one who ran off, she could breed a dozen new rats in her miserable lifetime. Just one escapes, and you have an infestation. Remember that, Jäger. As much as you hate the British, despise the Jews even more. Despise them like rats.” Then he walked out looking smug with his little lesson.

Eren turned sharply and marched out, barely waiting for Levi. The Jew followed as quickly as he could, but he was visibly in pain. Still, Eren did not offer to go slower or ask him if he was all right. He said nothing the whole journey to the dungeon, where he curtly locked Levi back into his cell.

“You are excused from cleaning for the night, but tomorrow do not expect mercy,” Eren said, and he sternly turned to go.

Takhshet,” Levi called out. “Are you all right?”

Eren spun back around, his face grim as he snapped, “You shouldn’t care about someone like me.”

“You’re right, I shouldn’t,” he agreed, “yet I do.” His eyes lowered, hating to see the self-loathing in Eren’s eyes. “You did what you had to.”

“Yeah!” he laughed bitterly. “You made sure of that, calling me a coward, goading me into it.”

“If I hadn’t forced you, do you have any idea what they would’ve done to you?”

Eren screamed, “Why do you care what happens to me?”

Levi had no answer. Their eyes lingered, and he could tell that Eren was on the brink of crying, only barely holding back.

“Because,” Levi whispered, but he still struggled to find the answer. “Because, for whatever shitty reason, whatever sick twist of fate … I don’t want to see you get hurt. I don’t want them to get their claws in you. I would rather my back get ripped up than see you get ripped apart by those vultures.”

“Why?” Eren asked again, and he took a step back toward the prison cell. “Why do you care?”

“Maybe because I see a lot of myself in you,” Levi whispered, “and I don’t want you to turn out how I did. You don’t deserve this. Any of it! You hate yourself right now—I can see it—and that means they haven’t gotten to you yet.”

“But why … why would you…”

“Right back at you! Why are you like this?” he shouted. “I wouldn’t have to do shit like this if you didn’t try to play the hero all the time. Why the hell do you give a damn about me?”

Eren slammed his mouth shut. “I have my reasons.”

“And I have mine!” he snapped. “Now, get the hell out of here. If you’re going to cry like a little boy who misses his daddy, go do it somewhere else.”

“Fuck you!” Eren screamed, and he stormed away. His boots came to a sharp stop right on the first step up the staircase. His shoulders shivered and his voice shook in rage, only barely holding back tears, as he muttered, “You probably hate me now.”

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t a little,” Levi confessed, “but I also know you had no choice. If you had done that because you chose to, I would truly hate you. Instead, you’re still a good kid forced to do a bad thing. It was my choice that you did it, and it was on my terms. I’ll live with that decision.”

Eren turned around again, and his lower lip quivered. “I still don’t understand why.”

Levi let out a frustrated sigh. “I don’t get it either,” he admitted softly. “Why do you want to help me?”

Eren’s eyes dropped to the ground. “Be- … Because … I … I…” He fled, stomping up the staircase, running away from the question.

Levi stared ahead with hard eyes that had a sort of deadness. The pain was only barely tolerable, and it took all of his focus to stay on his feet through those hours of interrogation. Annie had noticed and even asked if he was okay. He had merely replied that she should worry about her own life, not his.

No one should worry about his life.

He had survived this long watching out primarily for himself. He had let friends and fellow Jews die so that he would not gain the sort of attention that could get him killed along with them.

Why had he been so stubborn with the whipping? He could have sobbed after five lashes and saved himself. Instead, knowing the others were about to get whipped, seeing the women savagely stripped of their blouses, hearing their shrieks, watching the mob of Germans laughing and mocking them, he had hoped his naturally high pain tolerance would save the rest from facing the lash. It worked too. More than half of their group escaped punishment.

He had only surrendered his pride because he knew this young man should not be turned into a monster like the others. He withstood enough to make Eren look good, enough until he figured out how a flogger really worked, but ended it at ten lashes.

Levi could have withstood more, but he did not want Eren to lose his humanity. Surrounded by violence and hatred, it was a miracle the young man had gone this long without succumbing to darkness.

No, maybe not a miracle. There was the tiny soldier, the one with medical knowledge. Levi could tell that he was also one of the good men who just happened to be on the wrong side of the war.

Maybe Eren simply had the right friends. He hoped so! A soldier needed friends like that to keep sane and humane through the Hell on Earth called WAR.

# # #

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cat o' nine tails

There is historical precedence for the German Wehrmacht using cat-o-nine-tail whips as a form of punishment, including some being discovered in German trenches, presumably used to keep shell-shocked soldiers in line. Longtime fans of my stories know that I have a fascination with whips and own many different types, but this time I'm showing how brutal they can be when used purely for punishment.

spiritus

Spiritus, or rectified spirits, is a highly concentrated ethanol alcohol. It was part of a medical kit for German soldiers. Burns like hell! But it disinfects.

suture kit

In World War II field medical kits, the suture needle and thread (made of either silk or catgut) were kept in a tiny glass vial, sometimes filled with alcohol to ensure sterilization. Pictured above are real Wehrmacht suture needles in their original vials.

Chapter Text

They were again in the freezing cellar, and Annie Leonhart looked nothing like the proud young woman she had been the first day. She shivered from a cold bath where she had been nearly drowned over and over again. Eren had half hoped she would just swallow the water and put an end to this. At times, it appeared like she tried. Then she would be yanked up and hit until the water vomited back out.

She shook now, starved, beaten ruthlessly, her blond hair still wet. Eren knew this girl went through worse—probably far worse—outside of the official interrogations with Levi present. There were cuts on her he never saw happen, she was now missing three fingernails although Eren only witnessed the removal of one, and she had hollow eyes as some of the surrounding men laughed crudely.

“Who was your contact here?” Kitz asked yet again, the same questions over and over.

Annie shook from the chill, her lips blue as she stared ahead blankly.

“Jäger, tell the girl that she will not be killed. There is a camp outside of Paris. Drancy.”

Even though he was speaking in German, that name made Annie look up in terror.

“It is under the direct control of the Gestapo.” Kitz leaned in close to her pale blue eyes. “If you are afraid of me, the men there are worse. Far worse! If they don’t simply rape and execute you, you will be sent to a different camp, one for troublemakers like you. Auschwitz, maybe? Ravensbrück if you are lucky. You will likely die, but it will not be quick. It will be slow, excruciating, and humiliating. You will not even be recognizable as a human before your skin rots off your body and you are tossed out for birds to feast on what little remains of your flesh.”

Annie dropped her head and gazed down with massive eyes.

Kitz smiled to see the broken soul. “Translate it, and make sure she knows what I’m saying.”

Eren took a slow breath, then said the entire thing to Levi. The Jew looked down at the girl with pity, but he told her the words. Then he added in a little extra since he knew the Germans would have no clue what he was saying.

Levi looked at her with imploring eyes. “Vous avez bien fait, chère petite.” You have done well, dear girl. “Your friends escaped a long time ago. Even if you confess, these pigs can do nothing. If you speak now, you will not be betraying them. I will tell your family you were brave and honorable to the end.”

She looked up at him, and her eyes showed she had enough.

“Sasha,” she said softly. “If you escape, find the woman by that name and the surname Braus. Do not say those two names together. Do not tell them that name.”

“I won’t,” Levi promised. “I think I met her some days ago. I honestly forgot about the encounter since I was feverish, but she gave me that name and said to tell you … Chanson d’automne. She said you would know what that means.”

“Yes.” She smiled in relief. “They got the news, then. I’m glad. She was my destination here, her and Historia. They can get you and your people out of this country. Now please, let me die with true honor as a daughter of France.”

“You don’t need to.”

She shook her head in anguish. “Do you really think they’ll let me live? If I speak everything I know, I’ll be shot. If I do not speak, I’ll be deported to one of those German camps where no one returns. I’m dead either way, but if I don’t speak, this Nazi swine doesn’t get the satisfaction of breaking me.”

“Sasha said they were going to get you out.”

“How long ago did you meet her?”

“About a week ago. Just hold out a little longer.”

Kitz bellowed, “Worüber reden die da?” What are they talking about?

Eren sighed in frustration at his impatience. “Ich weiß es nicht. Ich muss warten.” I don’t know. I need to wait.

“A week?” Annie muttered. “If Sasha hasn’t acted yet, they must be planning to free me while I’m being sent out. I just need to get deported so they can break me free.” She looked over at Kitz and spat at him. The captain took a step back in disgust. “Tell him I bet the dog his mother fucked to produce a creature as ugly as him wasn’t even willing to stick its dick into a diseased whore like her.”

Levi chuckled at the creative vulgarity. “I doubt this German translator will say all that to his commander.”

Her pale eyes flicked to Eren. “He’s a good man. He’s helping you, isn’t he?”

“He tries. I’m still alive thanks to him.”

“You were injured last time. I saw how furious he was at his captain, although he hid it well. I hope he can help you to escape.”

Levi smirked privately. “I’m not planning on waiting for his help. If I have to slit his throat, I will.”

“I think he would rather help you. You’re lucky.”

Kitz barked, “Hör auf zu plappern. Ihr beide braucht zu lange. Was sagen sie?” Stop yapping. You two are taking too long. What are they saying?

Eren shouted back, “Ich hab dir schon gesagt, ich weiß nicht.” I’ve already told you, I don’t know.

Annie lamented, “A shame this kind soldier won’t translate it all. I want that German swine to know I think he’s hideously ugly.”

Hässlich. I know at least that word.”

Annie grinned ferally up at Kitz. “Du … bist … hässlich.

He slapped her hard across the face, and her jaw hung oddly. She struggled not to cry, but she looked up to Levi. “Tell them I’m ready for death. They’ll give up and deport me. Just make sure you never mention that woman’s name. And survive this! Until our people can get you out, keep doing what you have to do to survive.”

He nodded, seeing the strength of this teenage girl. Then he looked over to Eren.

“That took a while,” Eren said irritably.

“She’s given up.”

Eren’s mouth dropped, and he looked down at Annie in protest.

“I tried to convince her to confess. I couldn’t. She’s ready for death. Her words were: I’m dead either way, but if I don’t speak, this Nazi swine does not get the satisfaction of breaking me.”

“Annie,” Eren said, but he knew he could not protest too much. All eyes were on him and Levi now, even hers. However, in her eyes he saw pity. Why would she pity him when she was the one about to be sent away and tortured in unspeakable ways?

“She also says to tell your captain that she thinks his mother is a whore who raped a dog in order to create such an ugly son of a bitch.”

Eren could hardly help it. He burst into laughter. By Annie’s smile, he realized she really did want him to say that. “Does she honestly think I can tell my captain that?”

“No,” Levi admitted, “but the fact that you’re laughing means you agree with us.”

He coughed as he struggled to hold back the smile. Still, the audacity of this young woman astounded him. “Tell her I hope she is sent to Ravensbrück. It’s an all-female camp. She may actually survive there.” Then Eren looked over to the captain and began to tell him everything, leaving out the part about his mother.

Levi turned back to Annie. “He says he hopes you survive in Ravensbrück.”

“Then they’ll deport me. Good. Sasha can pay me back for that time I saved her life in Reims.” She looked over to Eren again as he was arguing with the captain. “He’s a good man. Cute too. Make sure he doesn’t get killed for his sympathies. They’re dangerous in this war.”

“I’ve already warned him about that. You try to stay alive as well.”

She smiled placidly. “Don’t worry about me. I know how to surv-…”

A blast deafened them all for a few seconds, and Levi watched in shock as the girl’s head seemed to explode in a mix of red and chunky pink.

Herr Hauptmann!” Eren cried out in horror.

Kitz lowered his gun. “The railroads were bombed. We can’t just throw her onto a train and send her all the way to Paris, and do you know how much fuel we would waste to drive her in a truck? It’s better spent filling a German tank, not giving some terrorist a joyride through the countryside. Plus, there are still Resistance scum around. She could escape. At least now we don’t even need to feed her. Have the Jews clean up the mess and bury her. Or eat her, if they’re still complaining about not having enough food. I don’t care anymore. Damn partisans! Well, it was fun while it lasted.” He holstered his gun and stomped to the exit. “You’re finally acting like a true German officer, Lieutenant Jäger. Don’t ruin your future with the weakness of pity.”

Eren stayed quiet until all the soldiers filed out of the cellar. Once the sound of their boots faded away, he snarled under his breath, “Scheißkerl!

The curse snapped Levi out of his daze. He saw the murderous hate in the young man’s eyes.

“Eren,” he said quietly.

He jolted at hearing Levi using his first name.

“You need to watch that temper of yours and where your loyalties lie. She warned that as well. Those were her last words, to tell you to beware of your sympathies since they’re a danger in this war.”

Eren looked down at Annie’s slumped body and the puddle of blood slowly spreading under the chair. “Her last words were that?”

“She’s right too. You’re not a mere pawn in this game, but you’re certainly not a knight. They could dispose of you as easily as they disposed of her.”

Eren kept gazing at the young girl. “I’m an officer. They wouldn’t dare.”

“Of course they would, especially if they think you’re sympathizing with the enemy.”

“France is not our enemy!” Eren shouted in vehement protest.

Levi cocked his head at the young man. “And what of the Resistance? What of Jews? Are we your enemies? Because trust me, takhshet … you are mine!”

Eren’s mouth dropped in astonishment, but Levi stormed out of the cellar, stomping up the staircase. Eren was left staring into nothingness. Levi’s words were a hot brand searing his heart, yet a part of his brain echoed a quote.

 

Staatsbürger kann nur sein, wer Volksgenosse ist. Volksgenosse kann nur sein, wer deutschen Blutes ist. Kein Jude kann daher Volksgenosse sein.” Only a citizen can be a citizen. Only people who are of German blood can be a comrade. No Jew can therefore be a comrade.

Hitler had said those words, and Eren had been brought up believing Hitler was the greatest man in the world, Germany’s savior, their prophet! He had to be right … had to be! Jews were the greatest threat in the world, the natural enemy of humans. It would be repugnant for an Aryan to befriend a filthy Jew.

Eren sighed as he looked down at Annie’s body. Maybe three or four years younger than him … a teenager. So young!

“Was I your enemy?” he asked her. “I suppose I was. You’re a terrorist. You want to see the downfall of Germany.”

He reached forward and touched the golden hair. Although oily from neglect and damp from the icy baths, it was very soft.

“We were on the wrong side of fate. In another lifetime, we could have been friends. Same with that guy. He’s nothing but trouble, but I still feel like, if we had been born in another century, we could have been close. This twentieth century has been nothing but war and disease, since before I was born. It’s like the whole world just wants to slaughter one another. I guess your country was like that last century, with your revolution. And America was like that the century before. Next century, who knows what countries will be shooting each other. Maybe all of them will have guns pointed at one another. Maybe it never changes. Only the dead see the end of war, and the living do what we must in order to survive a little longer.” He let out a sigh and stroked her cheek slowly getting cold. “I’m sorry.”

Warum entschuldigen Sie sich?” Why are you apologizing?

Eren jolted and saw Jean slumped at the doorway, glaring with his arms folded.

“I don’t speak English,” he admitted casually, “but I know a few words. Why apologize to someone who wants to kill Germans and drive us out of France?”

“Maybe because this is France and not Germany,” Eren answered, and he looked down at the dead girl again. “Maybe we don’t belong here.”

Jean marched in and went right up to Eren. “With all due respect, Herr Leutnant…”

He slapped Eren so hard across the face, the crack echoed through the chilly cellar. Eren’s jaw was knocked to the side, and he stayed turned in surprise. None of his soldiers had ever dared to slap him. In fact, that may have been the first face slap in his life.

Jean’s eyes were hard, but his jaw trembled with the rage he bottled down. “If you ever speak like that again, I will report you for treason. My cousin died conquering France. A lot of good Germans died. France is ours by right of combat. Yet we were lenient, maybe too much so. We even let them keep their own government. We could have just called everything from the Rhine to the Atlantic Germany and be done with the idea of armistices. They took advantage of our kindness. This woman,” he shouted, pointing down to the slumped body, “took advantage of the kindness of Germany.”

Eren shook his head. “She was a child—”

“She was an enemy, Jäger! She was too stubborn to accept that we won. Just as she lost her life, soon France itself will lose its autonomy. First we’ll destroy England, then we’ll force the Vichy cowards in the south to surrender or die. The Führer will not show mercy a second time.” Jean leaned up into his face. “Don’t you ever sympathize with the enemy again.” His voice lowered. “Please, Eren,” he said more informally, and his eyes saddened. “Please don’t put me into that situation. I would hate to be known as the man who turned in his commanding officer. You are our leader. You got us through battles, through Anzio. We rely on you! We can’t have you be weak.”

Eren stood there, taking those words of criticism. A part of him knew he deserved it. He really had felt sorry for Annie’s youth, and he pitied Levi’s situation. Levi had been the first to warn him, then Kitz, even Annie had expressed her worries about him, and now his right-hand man was warning him. Mercy would only weaken him.

Another part of him knew that Annie should have been sent to a camp, where she would be kept as a prisoner. Maybe a quick death was more merciful, but in a camp she would have had at least a chance of surviving.

And Levi…

He knew what he had been taught all of his life, but that did not change the fact that he wanted Levi to get away from this madness. They were so close to the Belgian border. If he could let him escape without facing execution for himself … but that was crazy and, as Jean pointed out, treasonous.

“You’re right, and I apologize,” Eren said softly. He turned away from the dead girl. “This war is changing me, Jean. It used to be so simple.”

He patted Eren on the back. “War is never simple; you were just a simpleton.”

Eren glared at him, and Jean laughed at the scowl on his face. Slowly, Eren cracked a smile.

“See, this is how it should be,” Eren sighed. “The two of us joking together, like when we were in Paris. Come on! I need to get away from this,” he said, looking down at the bloody mess. “And I need a strong drink.”

“Oh, Connie found beer! We’ll drink and sing some of the old songs.”

They left together, and Eren saw Levi standing at the top of the cellar stairs. He almost forgot about the little Jewish man.

“Ah, I need to lock him up.”

“You should give him a few beatings first,” Jean suggested, glaring at the man.

“He translated well for us, and the wounds from the whipping I gave him are still raw. I’d rather he be useful than dead. Get the beer, and invite Reiner’s new platoon. We’ll celebrate together.”

Jean smiled and slapped him on the back again. “Do you remember the lyrics to Mein Regiment, mein Heimatland? I expect you to sing it solo. Especially the line, My name is Anne Marie.”

“You’re an ass, Jean,” he laughed. “But let’s sing that one. Let’s sing all the songs we used to.”

“Songs of home! Das Vaterland, Deutschland!” The Fatherland, Germany.

Eren agreed heartily, “Es lebe Deutschland!” Long live Germany! He turned and motioned Levi to follow him. They walked together to the stairs that led to the castle dungeons. Down there, alone, Levi finally spoke.

“What will be done with Annie’s body?”

Eren was not exactly sure. It was up to him, and the captain had only said to get rid of it. “The other Jews will be ordered to remove her and clean up.”

“Bury her, please.”

Eren looked over in surprise.

“She deserves that much. Plus a body lying out in the sun will smell and spread disease. Give her a burial.”

“If the other Jews are willing to dig a grave, I will allow it.”

“Tell them it was my request.”

“All right. I’ll try to tell them, if they understand me.”

Levi looked slightly appeased by the promise. “She fought for French land. She deserves to be buried in French soil.”

“That’s an odd thing to say,” Eren noted.

“Is it really that odd?” asked Levi. “Would you not like to know that your body will be sent back to Germany for a proper burial? Or maybe you’d like a grave here in France with a nice view of the countryside? That can be arranged.”

Eren suddenly slammed Levi against some iron bars and held him pinned to the prison cell. “Are you threatening me?” he seethed.

Levi flinched and slowly opened his eyes. “I’m questioning how loyal you are to your country. I’m questioning if you’ll show the same respect for loyalty toward someone else.”

“She was a terrorist—”

“She was a child!” Levi shouted back.

Eren grabbed a handful of black hair and dragged Levi the rest of the way to the cell. He unlocked the door and threw the Jew inside. The iron door slammed shut, and he locked it.

“She was a member of the Resistance, a political enemy.”

“Am I your enemy?” Levi challenged.

Eren hesitated on answering.

“This is what I mean!” Levi screamed. “You should have answered with an instant Yes. You are a German soldier. Act like one! Or else you will be shot in the head just like her.”

“Why do you care?” sneered Eren.

For a moment, Levi looked stunned by the question, the same one that stumped him last time they argued. Why did he care? He had said it was because he saw a lot of his former self in Eren, but why would that even matter? He was a Nazi! Levi stared at Eren, and the young soldier felt his heart skip at the depth of those fierce eyes.

Why does this Jew want me to act cold and heartless? To live? Why does he care?

“If it were not for you, I would be dead,” Levi said softly. “I need you to stay alive. Even if it means I will suffer, at least I will live. I hate relying on a Nazi, but I’m not stupid. I know you are my only means of surviving long enough.”

“Long enough for what?” Eren asked coldly.

Levi smirked. “The first goal of a prisoner is to escape. As I said, I’m not stupid; don’t think I won’t bolt if I see an opening. I’ve tried before, and I promise you, I will try again.”

Eren pulled out his gun and aimed between the prison bars. “Then maybe I should shoot you now. We don’t need you to translate anymore.” Levi just stared straight into his eyes. Eren watched, slowly feeling disconcerted by the steady gaze. “You never flinch,” he noted.

“When you’ve seen what I have, a little boy pointing a gun at you with no intent to kill is not exactly scary.”

Eren stowed his gun away. “What have you seen? You mentioned you were a soldier long ago, and you were captured by Germans before.”

“My wife was murdered right in front of my eyes, her pregnant belly sliced open, and then they slit the throat of my unborn child.”

Eren froze and felt his skin chill. Levi had mentioned that he was married, and that his wife died, but not how, and nothing about a child. The emotional impact that must have had on Levi had never truly struck Eren before. I did now.

“That’s…” It was horrific. Just imagining it was gruesome. “Was she killed because she was a Jew?”

“No,” he said softly. “She was a Christian.”

* * *

“Petra! No! She’s not Jewish. I swear, she’s not Jewish!”

“Levi. It’s okay. Be strong. Live, no matter the price. I love you—”

BANG!

* * *

He jolted out of the memory. “They killed her because she was pregnant. They said the baby would have been Jewish. They didn’t understand. For Jews, heritage is passed on by the mother. If the mother is Jewish, the baby is Jewish; if the mother is a Gentile, the baby is not Jewish, even if the father is. That baby … would not have been Jewish. Not by our customs. Still, they killed her, shot her right in front of me. Then they sliced open her belly, yanked out the baby within, showed me what would have been my son, and slit his throat before he could take his first breath.”

Mein Gott,” Eren whispered in horror as a prickly chill ran up his arms.

“They killed all the older women, small children, and anyone not suited for hard labor. Then on that day, to me and all the men, they made sure none of us would ever have children again.”

Eren’s eyes widened. “They…” He could hardly help but glance down at Levi’s trousers.

“Obviously, it’s still there,” he said gruffly. “It was … surgical. Minor, but damning, and hurt like hell. No anesthesia, of course. They sited to us a German law.”

“I know of it,” he whispered. Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses.  Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring. In short, compulsory sterilization.

“Petra was my rock, my strength. She could have left me, moved back in with her parents, been safe, but no. Not her. She stayed by my side as we hid from Germans. We were on the run for two years, and she kept our hopes up. She even broke me out of an internment camp once. When she discovered that she was pregnant, I begged her to go back to her parents, but she was so stubborn. She said that war is not forever, and our child would grow up in a world of peace. She kept assuring me … it would be okay, it was only temporary, this evil that had invaded our land would go away.” His eyes flashed up in rage at Eren. “She would say, ‘Evil cannot thrive on French soil.’ Yet here we are, two years after her death, and you German swine have not withered away and died.”

Eren could say nothing against him. Of course Levi would hate Nazis after experiencing something that brutal.

“I lost my wife, my baby, and lost my ability to ever have children. I almost didn’t want to escape that time. How could I go on alone? What was the use of living on without her … without my wife?” he whispered in anguish. “What purpose is life without love, and what purpose is love if not to raise a family?”

“Love comes in all forms and happens for many reasons. Not all of those result in children.” Eren’s eyes dropped sadly. “To never have children … I’ve said it before: you and I are alike.”

“You’re sterile?” Levi asked in confusion.

Eren laughed. “Who knows? But I know, I will never have children of my own.”

“You don’t know that. You may survive this war, find a girl, settle down.”

“No,” he whispered. “That fate is not for me. I do hope for love one day, though,” he whispered, and he hesitated before looking up to Levi. “If wanting you to survive, if caring about you, if seeing people as human as opposed to countries or religions, if that is a weakness … no one ever said I was strong. My men believe I’m courageous, a chosen warrior destined to win battles.” He shook his head sadly. “I’m just a boy doing the best I can in this crazy world, trying to stay alive, hoping there’s something better at the end of this nightmare.”

“Then be safe,” Levi urged. “Just as I had to watch that girl being tortured, a girl who is a fellow Frenchman, so you may have to watch horrible things and do absolutely nothing.” Levi stepped up to the prison bars and glared through. “If you ever see me getting beaten again, either whipped or clubbed or even tortured by the Gestapo, do nothing. If you fight against this madness, you’ll be killed, and so would I.” He reached through the bars and placed a hand on Eren’s arm. “Let’s both try to get out of this, but let’s not drag one another down.”

Eren looked down at the hand. It was the first time Levi had willingly touched him. Slowly, he placed his hand over the Jew’s and felt the warmth of his skin. They were not that much different after all.

He suddenly swatted Levi’s hand away and pushed him back. Levi stared in shock, but Eren smiled.

“Then don’t touch me, filthy Jewish swine,” he said with a mocking, playful smile.

Levi’s eternally grim face finally cracked the smallest smirk. “Go fuck a dog, takhshet.”

Eren laughed as he turned and left the dungeon.

Levi sat back on his cot, wincing slightly from the pain that he still felt from time to time in his ass, and muttered to himself, “That boy … I hope he survives.”

* * *

Eren used hand gestures and broken bits of French to explain what the Jews needed to do. When they were brought down to the cellar and saw the dead girl, his chaotic orders made sense. Two men pulled Annie out of the cellar and found a sheet to wrap her in while others got to work cleaning up the blood-stained floor.

Eren followed the Jews carrying the dead body. They went out of the town and toward the woods to where the ground had been disturbed with other graves for the dead who had been found after the bombing of the town. Eren had provided two shovels for them, and two of the large men began to dig while they others recited something solemn. It sounded like a prayer for the dead.

They lowered her, bloody sheet and all, into a grave barely deep enough to cover her. Eren walked up to the grave. While waiting for the pit to be dug, he had idly picked a few wildflowers from the surrounding field. He looked down at the wrapped body.

Erde zu Erde, Asche zu Asche, Staub zu Staub.” Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Then he tossed the flowers into the grave and watched them scatter on the body.

One of the men came up to Eren and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Merci,” he whispered.

Eren just nodded in silent reply. As they shoveled the dirt over the body, the men began to sing.

Jeune fille sans voix, toi qui a tu tes peines,
Tu n’as jamais pleuré, pas même quand des larmes,
Telles des rivières, ont sillonné tes joues.
Jeune fille sans voix, te voici désormais
Et pour toujours réduite au silence éternel.

 

Young girl without a voice, you who has hushed up your sorrows,
You have never cried, not even when tears,
Such rivers, have cut furrows over your cheeks.
Young girl without a voice, you are now
And for ever reduced to eternal silence.

Eren did not understand the song. Still, the words were melancholy, and he knew they were singing it to a fellow Frenchman. He watched as the body slowly vanished away with the clods of dirt. Eren was not very religious, but he still crossed himself.

Ruhe in Frieden.” Rest in peace.

He waited until the grave was filled in. One had gathered a few stones from around the field and placed them over the dirt. He had enough stones to spell out her initials. A.L. Annie Leonhart.

Eren turned and walked away, sensing more than watching the Jews following him. They returned the shovels to a supply barn, and Eren left the Jews after that to go about with their normal chores.

As he walked through the village streets, Levi’s words echoed in his mind.

 

She fought for French land. She deserves to be buried in French soil.

So many deaths in this war! It was a miracle that all of Europe was not turned into a massive cemetery.

 

My wife was murdered right in front of my eyes, her pregnant belly sliced open, and then they slit the throat of my unborn child.

A different voice suddenly screamed in his memories.

 

Not my son! He is Aryan. Hannes! Please, don’t let them take Eren. He at least is Aryan.

Eren paused and held onto a wall as the world went dizzy. The screams of his mother haunted him some days, but never as strongly as now.

Mutti,” he whispered, seeing her face in those final horrifying moments.

He shook his head angrily, banishing the past. His shoulders straightened, he tugged on his uniform cap, and Eren continued on his way, marching through the town mingled with German troops and French villagers.

He hated being around civilians. They were at war. Soldiers should focus on the enemy.

He almost bumped into a blond girl. She pulled back, hugging a basket of bread to her chest. “Ah! Excusez-moi.” She looked up at Eren and grinned amiable. “Entschuldigung, Herr Soldat!” Excuse me, mister soldier!

His eyes widened. “Moment mal, Fräulein.” Hold up, miss. Eren swung his arm out before she could slip past him and vanish into the crowd. He whispered in astonishment, “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” Do you speak German?

She looked alarmed. “Ah! Um … Ich kann ein bisschen Deutsch.” I know some German.

A tremble went through Eren. If the Germans found out there was someone who spoke French and German without the need to communicate through English, Levi’s usefulness vanished.

Lassen Sie es niemanden wissen.” Do not let anyone know.

The small lady looked terrified by his harsh face. “Pourquoi…? Warum?” Why?

Eren pulled back, seeing that he was scaring her. “Sie brauchen einen Übersetzer um die Mitglieder des Französischen Widerstand zu verhören. Sie könnten Sie verletzen, um Siezum Kooperieren zu bringen. Verstehen Sie mich?” They need a translator to interrogate members of the French Resistance. They might hurt you to get you to cooperate. Do you understand me?

By her shaking, the young lady did understand him, and such a threat visibly terrified her.

Tuen Sie so, als ob Sie kein Deutsch können. Sprechen Sie es niemals. Antworten Sie nie jemanden, der es spricht.” Act like you cannot speak German. Never speak it. Never answer someone speaking it.

She kept her mouth closed.

Sag mir, wie ist Ihr Name?” Tell me, what is your name?

She began to open her mouth, but quickly slammed it shut.

Sehr gut! Très bien!” Eren praised her in both German and French. She had quickly realized that his question was a trick. So he asked one of the few French sentences he knew: “Quel est votre nom?” What is your name?

“Krista,” she answered, blushing under his teal eyes.

Faites attention, Krista.” Be careful, Krista.

Merci,” she whispered. “Ah! Quel est votre nom?

Mon nom est Leutnant Jäger.” My name is Lieutenant Jäger.

She tried the German name on her lips. “Jäger?”

He smiled, feeling strangely at ease although he was running out of French words he knew. “Appelez-moi Eren.” Call me Eren.

“Eren Jäger,” she said, and he saw her committing his name to memory. She suddenly handed him a bread roll. “Tenez, c’est pour vous, mangez-le.” Here, it’s for you, eat it.

Not fully understanding, he asked in German, “Essen?” Eat?

She nodded, not resorting to speaking German, just as he warned her.

Merci, Krista,” he thanked, and Eren went on his way.

He bit into the bread and found it was fresh. Likely, she had just picked it up from the town’s bakery. Eren was amazed that the people of this town were returning home and resuming their lives so swiftly despite the overwhelming German presence. Despite the shadows of war, life had to go on.

By the time he finished the roll, Eren was at the house they had commandeered. Even before he opened the door, he heard the music ringing out through the streets.

Im Wald, im grünen Walde,
Da steht ein Försterhaus,
Im Wald, im grünen Walde,
Da steht ein Försterhaus,
Da schauet jeden Morgen,
So frisch und frei von Sorgen,
Des Försters Töchterlein heraus,
Des Försters Töchterlein heraus,
Ta-ra-la-la, ta-ra-la-la,
Ta-ra-la-la, ta-ra-la-la,
Des Försters Töchterlein ganz frisch heraus,
Ta-ra-la-la, ta-ra-la-la,
Ta-ra-la-la, ta-ra-la-la,
Des Försters Töchterlein heraus.

Eren let out a sigh. A party, and after the sort of day he just had! The last thing he wanted was to celebrate, but he had to put on a mask, to pretend like the death of some terrorist did not upset him, to pretend he was a perfectly normal German soldier. He had worn this mask his entire adult life. He knew the drill.

He entered and saw that the party had already started, including his entire platoon, even the grunts, along with Reiner’s newly formed platoon and a few officers who happened to hear about it. Of course, no one would tell an officer to leave, even if they were just there for the beer and singing.

Lore, Lore, Lore, Lore,
Schön sind die Mädchen
Von siebzehn, achtzehn Jahr.
Lore, Lore, Lore, Lore,
Schöne Mädchen gibt es überall;
Und kommt der Frühling in das Tal,
Grüß mir die Lore noch einmal, ade, ade, ade.
Und kommt der Frühling in das Tal,
Grüß mir die Lore noch einmal, ade, ade, ade.

As the song ended, they cheered and clinked their steins together.

“The lieutenant’s here!” Connie yelled, his face already flushed. At his shout, hands grabbed Eren and yanked him toward the center. “We have to sing something good for him. Mein Regiment, mein Heimatland.

Jean laughed boisterously. “I told Eren he has to sing it solo.”

Eren chuckled as he accepted a stein of beer from someone. “Fahr zur Hölle.” Go to hell. “I’ll sing it if someone else sings with me.”

Franz pouted. “I don’t know this one.”

“How can you not know it?” shouted Thomas.

“I’m not from Germany, remember?” Franz said with a shrug. “I’m Czech.”

“We’re all Germans tonight,” Eren declared, and he raised his stein. He began to sing a German war song. “Mein Regiment, mein Heimatland…” My regiment, my homeland.

Armin joined in. “Meine Mutter habe ich nicht gekannt.” My mother I did not know.

Connie joined in with harmony. “Mein Vater starb schon früh im Feld, früh im Feld…” My father died early in the field, early in the field.

Reiner gave a rare grin as he sang too. “Ich steh’ allein auf dieser Welt.” I stand alone in this world.

Bertholdt sang boldly, “Mein Vater starb schon früh im Feld, früh im Feld…

Then Jean chimed in along with Eren, the two singing side by side, “Ich steh’ allein auf dieser Welt.

All the Germans in the room knew the chorus line, and they sang raucously, arms around shoulders, mugs of beer and bottles of wine swaying to the rowdy tune.

Mein Nam’ ist Annemarie,
Ein jeder kennt mich schon,
Ich bin ja die Tochter
Vom Hitlerbattalion!
Mein Nam’ ist Annemarie,
Ein jeder kennt mich schon,
Ich bin ja die Tochter
Vom Hitlerbattalion!

 

My name is Anne Marie,
Everyone knows me already,
I am the daughter
From Hitler’s battalion!

They sang all the verses, danced through the chorus, and ended with laughter.

“The new one! The new one!” Armin cheered. “That song from the movie, Quax der Bruchpilot I think it was called. I saw it back in Berlin. Heimat deine Sterne. That song makes me want to cry.”

Eren laughed. “I don’t have the voice for that one. Reiner?”

He meant to call out the stern blond as a joke, but Reiner stood and began to sing the sweeping ballad in a sonorous tenor that awed them all.

Heimat, deine Sterne,
Sie strahlen mir auch am fernen Ort.
Was sie sagen, deute ich ja so gerne
als der Liebe zärtliches Losungswort.
Schöne Abendstunde,
der Himmel ist wie ein Diamant.
Tausend Sterne stehen in weiter Runde,
von der Liebsten freundlich mir zugesandt.
In der Ferne träum’ ich vom Heimatland.

 

Homeland, thy stars,
they also shine for me at a distant place.
What they say, I gladly interpret
as the love’s tender password.
Beautiful evening hour,
the sky is like a diamond.
Thousands of stars are in a wide circle,
sent from my sweetheart in love.
In the distance I’m dreaming of the homeland.

“Dear God, he can sing!” Jean said in amazement.

“Quite well,” Connie agreed with a dropped jaw.

Bertholdt looked almost enamored. “Teach me that song,” he cried out.

Reiner sat down, but he had a slight blush to his cheeks he could not blame solely on the beer.

So they passed the night singing and drinking, talking of home, the women they left behind, and falling asleep to dreams of peace with no clue that the worst of this war was still ahead of them.

# # #

# #

#

Dawndew

This aesthetic was made by Dawndew, capturing the past few chapters. I love aesthetics, how they tell a story in pictures. This one really takes us on a journey from those warm memories of domestic simplicity to horror and darkness. Wow! Thank you!

The French funeral song was a collaboration between Rhov Anion, Marie Camille, and Chris Jestin-Thoraval.

The German songs are actual folk songs popular among German troops in WWII.

Im Wald, im grünen Walde (“In the Forest, in the Green Forest”) – the video for this one keeps getting taken down from YouTube, I have replaced it three times already, so it might not be working whenever you read this chapter. The song comes from around the First World War. It is about the daughter of a forester named Lore. The refrain “Girls of seventeen or eighteen are beautiful. There are beautiful girls everywhere” was sung by soldiers in the German Empire and was part of a reservist song. However, the lyrics were sung to John Browns Body, an anti-slavery song from the American Civil War. Americans today know that same tune as The Battle Hymn of the Republic. (“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord...”)

Mein Regiment, mein Heimatland (“My Regiment, My Homeland”) – The normal chorus has the lines “Ich bin ja die Tochter / Vom ganzen Battalion” but during Hitler’s reign the final line was changed to “Vom Hitlerbattalion,” because of course everything was about Hitler back then.

Heimat, deine Sterne (“Homeland, Your Stars”) This song is still a popular ballad today. Homeland, Your Stars was written by Erich Knauf and Werner Bochmann for the comedy film Quax, der Bruchpilot (“Quax the Crash Pilot”) in 1941.


BIG ANNOUNCEMENT!!!

[REDACTED DUE TO AO3 RULES] Sadly, if future readers want to know what that announcement was, the best I can do is point you to my website. It's super exciting news for me (it's writing related), but I am not allowed to mention it on this website. (It is against the rules and I got in trouble.) - http://shadowstrider.net

Chapter Text

It was the sixth of June, and nothing seemed different about this day compared to the day before. Eren looked at a calendar his group had been using in their cozy house. A Tuesday. He had never liked Tuesdays for some reason.

Armin walked up to him drinking some muckefuck coffee. “There’s a lot of chatter on the radio. Sounds like something happened on the coast.”

“There’s always something happening somewhere in this world,” Eren muttered to himself. “You’re probably right, though. The captain called for a meeting of the officers.”

Armin handed over a cup. “Drink up, then. Who knows how long the meeting will go!”

Eren nodded in thanks and took a deep drink of the muckefuck. “I never thanked you for helping out that one time with the Jew.”

Armin held up his hand. “There’s nothing to thank. I did what I wanted to do.” He began to lift his own coffee mug but paused. “May I speak freely, Herr Leutnant?”

“If you think I shouldn’t care so much about the Jews, I’ve heard enough on this matter from everyone else,” he said in annoyance, not forgetting being reprimanded by Jean Kirschtein, of all people.

“No,” he whispered. “Do you … ever…” He looked around the room sharply and listened, but there was a card game going on in another room that had everyone’s attention. “…pity them?”

Eren jolted and looked down at the small soldier.

“I mean, I know what I was taught and all, but … have you ever seen a Jew from Israel? Like, one born there, a true Native Jewish man?”

“I doubt it. I’ve seen a few Black men, but I never saw an actual Jew at all until the war began.”

“I met one once. He had been born in Nazareth, just like Jesus.”

“Jesus was born in Bethlehem.”

“Right. Well, raised in Nazareth. Anyway, that man and these Jews, they look nothing alike. I often wondered about that when I was taught in school about the Jewish race. European Jews and Palestinian Jews … it’s like they’re not the same race at all. So then I have to wonder, what are these European Jews? Where did they come from? Do they really even have the same religious beliefs, or is it like Protestants and Catholics, little differences? If we’re supposed to see the Jewish Race as inferior, does that mean Jews from the Middle East, or Jews who have lived in Europe for centuries? What if they are pure Aryan, but their ancestors converted to that religion a hundred years ago? How can a religion make someone racially inferior? And in the end, aren’t we all sons and daughters of Adam and Eve? Even if some evolved quicker, we’re all the same at our roots, and if some evolved more, that means Adam and Eve weren’t fully evolved, they were not truly perfect, which goes against the Bible. God made Adam and Eve perfect, which means all who descended from them have that divine perfection as a starting point. I don’t know,” he sighed. “I just can’t accept it, and I know I never will, no matter how loudly you yell at me. God created animals, and then he created humans. Abraham, Isaac, and Israel all descended from Adam and Eve, so Jews are definitely humans. Just because God created one person with black skin, one with yellow skin, one with white skin, we’re all still human. Jews were God’s chosen people, they descend straight back to Noah and Adam, maybe more directly related than Aryans or anyone. Jesus was a Jew, and there’s no way you can convince me that he was less superior to even the purest Aryan. So how … how are Jews subhuman? How was Jesus, the Son of God, a subhuman Jew? Or for that matter—”

Eren placed his hand on Armin’s shoulder. “Enough,” he whispered. “I don’t think you’re wrong, but speaking of this aloud is dangerous.”

“Do you think I’m right, then?”

He thought about Levi’s words. “I’ve spent my life preparing to be a soldier, studying about war, not about science or biology. You have a brilliant mind, Armin, far smarter than I’ll ever be. I think if someone can disprove what German scientists have been saying, it’s you. But later. We’re at war, and there are friends and enemies in a war. If we make friends with our enemies, we end up being traitors.”

His voice stayed quiet. “I don’t think the Jews should be our enemies. I think treating them like slaves is wrong. Killing them just for believing a different religion is wrong.”

“Then it’s a good thing we soldiers only have to kill British and American soldiers, and not Jews.”

“We’re still expected to.”

“I will never ask you to shoot a Jew, Armin. I promise.” He began to turn to the door.

“Would you?” he shouted out, but the small soldier cringed back as those sharp, teal eyes gazed down in surprise. “Kill one, I mean.”

Warily, he answered, “If I was ordered to.”

“But if it wasn’t an order, and you just found one. If you had been alone that day and found those Jews hiding there, if Jean wasn’t right there with you, if you weren’t pressured by anything else and could have made the call alone, would you have shot them, or simply let them escape?”

Eren held back on answering, although he already knew the truth. If it had been just him, if Jean had not followed him into the house, if he had opened that closet door, saw the huddled group, and had the choice to look the other way, pretend he saw no one, and call the house as empty…

He could not answer out loud, but the answer was clear in the regret darkening his eyes. He silently pulled on his cap and marched out the door, leaving Armin with a tiny smile as he realized that this war had not yet thrashed the humanity out of Eren.

Armin’s question rang through his ears. If it had just been him that day, he would have protected Levi’s group, if possible. At the very least, he would have let them continue hiding. Maybe they could have escaped on their own during the night, a quick dash into the forest under the cover of darkness. The Belgian border was not that far away. Levi probably could have kept them alive in the woods.

However, if he had been alone that day, if Levi’s group could have escaped, he never would have gotten to know the tiny Jewish man. He would have continued blindly believing all he had been taught. Now, he was starting to question everything.

“Jäger!”

Eren paused and saw Reiner trotting up to him. “Guten morgen, Untersturmführer Braun. Congratulations on the new platoon.”

Guten morgen. I’m glad we finally got new recruits, what with all the bombings of the rail lines. Shame none speak French. I bet you can’t wait to shoot that damn Jew.”

Eren’s jaw tightened. Reiner was often called the ideal Aryan, and Eren saw why. Not just his blond hair, light blue eyes, and bullish build, but even his way of thinking was a perfect model of Nazi education.

“Do you know what this meeting is about?” Eren asked instead.

“I’ve heard rumors. It seems Americans have landed in France.”

Eren jolted. “What? Americans? Aren’t they busy fighting the Japanese?”

Reiner scowled. “That’s what I thought too. Then again, they use everyone they can in their military: Negroes, Latinos, Orientals the Natives. I bet they even let Jews and fags fight! Maybe they sent all of their fags to Europe to fight us. If that’s the case, they should be easy to defeat, and we can slaughter them all without any sort of guilty conscience.”

Eren chuckled awkwardly and wished any other officer besides Reiner was there to talk with him.

In the captain’s office, the officers gathered. After some bread was passed around and wine was served, Kitz Woermann began his speech.

As Reiner had said, the Allies were on the move. Not only had they wormed their way up Italy and forced Rome to surrender, but at 6:30 that morning, a massive invasion began on the Normandy coast. British, American, and Canadian troops were at that very moment pushing over the sand and trying to secure a beachhead to begin what was sure to be a massive invasion of the continent.

“This is where things stand as of half an hour ago,” the captain ended, his wild eyes bulging out with indignation. “I’ve been asked to send reinforcements. Braun!”

Jawohl!” Reiner shouted stiffly.

“Your SS troops are ready, correct?”

“They are green but they are eager, Herr Hauptmann.”

“This will be their first taste of battle. You and Schmidt are to head for Normandy. You leave this afternoon.”

“What of the rest of us, Herr Hauptmann?” asked Eren. He had hoped to fight some British to put all the moral dilemma out of his mind, but Americans or Canadians would be good substitutes.

“Until further ordered, we are to keep this location secure. This town is still tied to the French Resistance. With this attempt by the enemy, it’s possible the French civilians will grow bold. Therefore, we are to secure the town and be on the watch for partisans.” He clasped Eren on the shoulder. “I know you’re eager to fight the British, Jäger, being the hunter you are. You’ll have your chance, but hopefully not anytime soon. Braun will push these bastards back over the channel.”

Eren nodded firmly. “If it’s Reiner Braun, they don’t stand a chance. He alone could probably defeat an entire battalion of tommies.”

“You hear that, Braun?” laughed Kitz. “We expect you to shove those American and British bastards back over the water.”

The bullish man grinned at Eren. “I’ll send you the Webley of the first tommy officer I kill.”

Eren smirked back at him. “I bet you couldn’t tell the difference between a yank and a tommy.”

Reiner gave a laconic shrug. “There is one?”

The group laughed in agreement.

Reiner exclaimed over the laughs, “If they speak English and they love Jews, that’s more than enough reason to kill a person. What flag is on their uniform doesn’t matter.”

Eren’s laugh began to fall softer. He looked down at his own uniform. He spoke English … and as for Jews … well, one certain Jew…

“There will be another meeting at 0900 tomorrow. Tell your men to be on alert. We may be getting new orders at any time. Dismissed!”

Eren stepped out and patted Reiner on the shoulder as they separated. He wondered if he would ever see the huge man again.

He took a detour to the town’s castle and down to the dungeons. The Jew named Moses was just finishing with changing Levi’s bandages protecting his flogged back.

“You look like shit,” Levi greeted Eren flatly.

“I bring news. You might like it.”

“Paris is liberated?” he guessed mockingly.

“Not yet, but a coalition of British, American, and Canadian forces have landed in Normandy.”

Levi’s eyebrows shot up. “Vont-ils libérer la France?” Are they going to free France?

Moses grabbed Levi’s arm. “L’armée?” The army?

Les Américains, les Canadiens, et les Britanniques.” The Americans, the Canadians, and the British.

Merveilleux! C’est une très bonne nouvelle.” Wonderful! This is very good news.

Levi stroked his chin, trying not to show how much hope this gave him. Then he looked up to Eren in concern. “Is the army leaving this town?”

Eren shook his head. “Two platoons only for reinforcements.”

“That’s good,” he sighed. “Then we might live a little longer.”

Eren jolted. “What? I figured you’d want us gone from this town.”

“I want you gone from my country,” he shouted. “However, as the German army pulls away from this town, do you really think a group of Jews will be allowed to escape and wander about Europe however we like? We’ll either be shipped off to a concentration camp or—more than likely, since you’ll be in a rush to leave—we’ll simply be rounded up and shot before you drive down the road.”

Eren had not thought about what would happen to the Jews if the army left. He had figured they would be treated as French civilians and simply left alone. Levi was right, though. They were still Jews, and that made them enemies.

“Armin,” he muttered.

Moses and Levi had been talking quietly in French, but they paused when Eren spoke. “What was that?”

“The soldier who was with me to stitch you up, Armin Arlelt. If … If you ever have problems and I’m not around, he’s sympathetic to Jews. I wouldn’t go so far as to expect the two of us to break all of you out of here—although with his brilliant mind, he’d probably think of a way—but … if there’s trouble in the days to come—”

“We’ll handle it on our own,” Levi cut in. “If we start to rely on Germans, those kind enough to give a shit will be discovered and punished. No, we’ll handle trouble on our own.”

“But just in case,” Eren cut in. “If you need to get me, or even just to send a message to me … I may be in more meetings from now on. Armin can help you.”

Levi hesitated, but he finally gave a stiff nod. “I will tell the others to trust him.”

Eren sighed with a grin. At least these people now had two sets of friendly hands amidst all the fists that would rather beat them. “I should go now. I still need to tell my men about Normandy. Be safe, and lie low for a few days. Nerves are on edge.”

Levi nodded in understanding and watched the soldier leave back up the stairs.

Moses scratched his head. “He came all this way just to tell you that France could be liberated soon?”

“And another possible friendly German. The boy who stitched my wounds, Armin Arlelt. Let others know he is friendly to Jews.”

Moses sighed. “I don’t get him. Is he a traitor to the Germans or not?”

“He’s a conscientious soldier, rare these days. He’ll fight enemies of his homeland, but he’ll also decide whom to consider as friend or foe.”

Moses clasped him on the shoulder. “Baruch Hashem, he considers you to be a friend.”

Levi dropped his eyes and muttered, “Oui … Baruch Hashem.” Thank the Lord.

The risks, the bathing, the medicine, even the fake coffee … was this how Eren wanted to make friends? He had told Eren so many times, he was an enemy. All Nazis were enemies. So why did he feel so happy to see the young German? Why did he know so strongly that he could trust this man?

Eren’s question echoed again in his ears. Why did he care?

Were they friends, or enemies?

* * *

That afternoon, Eren and his group shook hands with Reiner and Bertholdt as two platoons of SS soldiers headed off to the Normandy coast to reinforce troops meant to stop the invasion. Although they had not actually fought together, Eren still considered Reiner to be a battle buddy, or at least an old classmate one meets up with again in adulthood. It was sad to see them roll off in a convoy of trucks.

Jean watched as the convoy kicked up dust on the French road. “I’m not sure if I should say they’re so lucky or thank God it’s them and not us.”

Connie nodded in agreement. “I, for one, am glad to be keeping the peace here rather than heading back to the front lines.”

Armin looked relieved. “I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels that way.”

Franz looked over to Eren. “What do you think, Jäger?”

Jean barked out a laugh. “Eren will probably be sulking for the next few days because he doesn’t get to fight.”

Eren watched the group fading off to a speck with only dust in the air to mark their passing. “I won’t be sulking, but you’re right. I would rather be in a battle where I know who my enemies are.”

“What confuses you here?” asked Connie. “If they’re civilians and going about their business, you leave them alone. If they’re acting suspicious, you question them. If they’re with the Resistance, you bring them in.”

“And if they’re Jewish, you shoot them,” Franz added with a blasé shrug.

“That’s my point, though,” said Eren. “You can’t know at a glance who is friend or foe. Out there, the uniform will tell you whom to shoot and whom to defend. I prefer knowing for certain. One army pitted against another, as warfare should be.”

“You just want to kill British,” Jean laughed, slapping his back. “Come on, let’s go drink our comrades off to victory. With any luck, that beanpole and bull will be back with us soon, and we’ll get to hear Reiner sing again.”

“Oh, that was amazing,” Armin agreed wholeheartedly as their group turned to go.

“We could always have Eren sing,” Connie teased, smacking the lieutenant’s cap off from behind.

“Hey!” Eren shouted, dipping down to pick up his cap. “For that, you get to procure the alcohol.”

“There’s not enough beer in this country,” Connie whined. “It’s all wine, wine, wine!”

Their group laughed as they headed back, optimistic that their friends would take care of the invasion.

# # #

# #

#

D-Day in color

June 6th was the beginning of Operation Overlord … D-Day. To cue members of the French Resistance, the BBC played Chanson d’automne (Autumn Song) by Paul Verlaine. Different parts of the famous poem were clues to when precisely the invasion was coming. Les sanglots longs / Des violons / De l’automne meant the Allies would attack in two weeks, depending on the weather. The next three lines Blessent mon cœur / D’une langueur / Monotone told the French Resistance that they have 48 hours, and to begin attacks on railways and other key targets, in order to cut off German supplies to the northwest beaches.

Reiner uses racist terminology that were common in the 1940s and highly inappropriate today. I tried to write this story thinking about how people back then talked. I know people 70+ years old who still call anyone from Southeast Asia “Orientals.”

a yank and a tommy” – slang for American and British.

1911

War Trophies – It was common in WWII for soldiers to take the guns of fallen enemies. The German Luger was especially popular with Allies, since they usually were issued to officers and higher ranked people. (And they were really good quality weapons.) Germans, meanwhile, wanted to snag a British Webley or American Colt M1911.

D-Day map

What does the D in D-Day mean? It's a simple question with no straight answer. Just days after the landing, Time Magazine said the D meant “Day,” and it went along with the H in H-Hour meaning Hour, so rather redundantly, they claimed that D-Day meant “Day-Day.” Years after the war, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, and now President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower claimed it means Departed Day, since it was the day they departed from England.

Neither of these fit into military parlance, though. During WWII, there was an R-Day (Registration Day) when all men ages 21-35 had to register for the draft. Leading up to Operation Overlord, there was an M-Day (Mobilization Day) when the army began to mobilize and take shape. So one would think D-Day had a real meaning, and not simply Day-Day. Usually, it meant Disembarkation Day.

Disembarkation means to go ashore from a ship, so an amphibious landing, like at Normandy. There were MULTIPLE “D-Days” throughout World War II. Any time troops disembarked from a ship to the shore, the planned day of the landing was referred to as “D-Day.”

So it's probably a safe bet to believe the actual military parlance, not the media and not an aging general who had a lot on his mind as President. Plus you all get a new vocabulary word: disembarkation!

D-Day
(Soldiers disembarking to the Normandy Coast on D-Day)

Chapter Text

It was early evening, and most of the Jews were back in their cells after a day of slaving away around the Nazi camp. With just one oil lantern, the place was dark enough to close one’s eyes and sleep. Levi got what rest he could, lying on his cot with his eyes shut as his mind drifted.

He thought about a vineyard he had visited in his teens. He supposed that was his happy place. He remembered the sun and the smell, the rows of grapevines, the flowered gardens, and the taste of wine. How long had it been since he had good wine?

He was doing anything he could to take his mind off the lingering pain in his buttocks. Two weeks since the attack in the lavatory, and it still hurt to poop. His back still had some scabs from the whipping, but they only hurt if he had to bend over or in any way stretched his back.

He could handle all the pain and hunger if he remembered that vineyard and how beautiful France had been before the war.

He opened his eyes as he heard the door above creak open, and he scowled. That idiot lieutenant, visiting so often! Eren was going to get into trouble, or even worse, he would get him into trouble.

As much as Levi enjoyed the company and liked knowing he had at least one Nazi on his side, he was pragmatic. They were enemies; friendship was out of the question. That made it hard to convince himself not to feel a leap in his chest every time military boots stomped down the staircase.

He also hated how disappointed he felt when it was not the fresh-faced lieutenant with teal eyes, but another man who had begun to visit them late at night.

The Obergefreiter had introduced himself early on as Marlo Freudenberg, but due to his haircut, the Jews had taken to nicknaming him “Coupe Au Bol,” or Bowl Cut.

Two ladies giggled together as they watched him enter. “Ce coupe au bol est un crime contre les cheveux.” That bowl cut is a crime against hair.

Marlo smiled at seeing the ladies gazing at him, unaware of the meaning behind their words. He walked over to their cell with a wicker basket on his arm.

Guten Abend, meine Damen.” Good evening, my ladies. He gave them what he hoped was a suave bow, and the ladies tittered.

Levi rolled his eyes. Another idiot! At least this one attempted to flirt instead of merely raping the ladies.

Ich bringe Brot.” I brought bread.

This was the only good thing about this idiot soldier. He had started off bringing only the ladies whatever treats he could hide in his pockets. Seeing that they felt bad eating when others had nothing, he tried to bring enough for everyone. For three days now, he had brought a basket of bread after roll call, allowing the Jews to split the food between themselves while he talked to the ladies.

He chatted away. Sometimes, he tossed in a horrible attempt at French, probably something the local baker told him to say, which he half-forgot.

Tes aïeux sont rougissantes.”

The whole dungeon burst into peals of laughter, and even Levi snorted and shook his head. Obviously, he had meant to say tes yeux sont ravissantes, “your eyes are ravishing,” but instead he ended up saying your forefathers are blushing.

Levi heard a noise above him, and his eyes flicked up. Boots? Marlo was talking too loudly, and that laughter had been raucous. He worried if they had drawn unwanted attention.

It was a few more minutes before Marlo stood up, reached through the bars to lift the hand of one of the ladies, and gave it a debonair kiss. The woman turned her face away and fanned herself in fake bashfulness, telling the others, “The Bowl Cut must think I’m a fruit to place in his bowl.”

Vas-y, vas-y,” the other women cheered. Go for it!

Levi really wished they would be more prudent. For all they knew, this German soldier was plotting something. Although, by the blush to his cheeks and the way he ogled the ladies as he packed up his things, the only thing he was plotting was a threesome.

He left with a badly accented Adieu, blew out the lantern, and trotted up the stairs, plunging them all into complete darkness. Levi closed his eyes, more than happy to sleep before their pre-dawn roll call.

An explosion jolted him straight up out of bed, and he instantly regretted moving so fast as scabs crackled and began to ooze. Levi flinched, but still…

Definitely, that was a gunshot.

Quelqu’un est-il blessé?” he shouted to the others. Is anyone hurt? Hearing their fearful panic, he barked out, “Appel.” Roll call.

One by one, the Jews spoke out their names, and Levi kept track. Every single Jew was present.

So who fired that gun, and why?

An hour passed, another, and nothing. Levi cursed about missing out on sleep. He could ask Eren about the gunshot in the morning. He sighed out his anxiety and closed his eyes.

* * *

Levi jolted awake at the sound of shouting above, echoing through the stairwell and down to the dungeon. He listened hard, but the German words made little sense. The emotions, though, were clear.

Fear, anger, confusion.

There were stomping boots back and forth, calls for help, and enraged shouts, as if people were demanding answers. Then Levi heard the distinct bellowing voice of the captain.

Finde Leutnant Jäger! Schnell!

Jäger! If that bug-eyed captain was fetching Eren, he must mean to interrogate the Jews. Boots stomped away, but one set went down the stairs. A match was lit, the lamp wick was turned up high, and an amber glow danced in the cold dungeon, casting light onto the scowling face of Kitz Woermann, flanked by two attendants.

Wer war es?” He stepped up to Levi’s cell and sneered in. “Warst du es?

Levi struggled to figure out the words, but he figured the captain was asking if it was him.

Que s’est-il passé?” Levi asked suspiciously. What happened?

Kitz kicked the bars, rattling them. “Halt die Klappe! Ich stelle Fragen, du antwortest.” Shut your trap! I ask questions, you answer.

Levi sighed. There really was no use saying anything until Eren arrived and he knew what the hell was going on.

It felt like hours before Eren finally showed up, flushed as if he had run, hair wet like he had just showered.

Levi snarkily remarked, “Don’t tell me, they woke you from your beauty sleep and you had to freshen your face before seeing your boyfriend the captain.”

Eren glanced at Levi but ignored him for the moment. The captain was there, along with the last two remaining officers in the company, Oberleutnant Ian Dietrich and Leutnant Gunther Schultz. Kitz explained the situation, and Eren’s eyes grew wide in shock, followed by grief. Then Kitz began to point his finger at Levi. Eren seemed to be reasoning with him, but the captain screamed accusations, flinging spittle at Eren. He clamped his mouth shut and turned to Levi with frustrated eyes.

“Did you hear anything last night?”

“Yes, a gunshot.”

“About what time?”

“Oh, let me check my watch. That’s odd, it seems to be missing. Ah, right, some German pig stole it just after executing my wife.” He shook his head. “It was after roll call, just as Coupe Au Bol was leaving.”

“Who’s that?”

Levi sighed. “It’s what we call one of the soldiers. Bad haircut, big nose, looks more Jewish than I do.”

Obergefreiter Marlo Freudenberg. Everyone swears he’s Jewish, but his ancestry is pure.”

“Whatever that means,” Levi grumbled.

“He was found dead, a bullet in the center of his forehead.”

“That’s a shame. Those two girls over there will grieve that he won’t bring them anymore candies.”

“Candies? Was he flirting?” Eren asked suspiciously. “Was he assisting you? Do you think he worked with the French Resistance?”

Levi laughed at that. “Not with how he butchered anything he attempted to say in French. Look, most of these women have been sexually harassed or raped by you German swine. This guy brought bread, candies, and he tried to flatter them. Maybe he just wanted to get into their bloomers, but at least he acted with kindness.” Levi looked aside. “If he was a friend, you have my sympathy, but I want to know why there are Germans down here and why your captain looks ready to shoot me.”

“He believes you killed Freudenberg.”

Levi stared at Eren, who held his gaze. Someone’s pocket watch ticked the seconds.

“Is … he … stupid?” Levi asked with disgust and disbelief. “Yes, of course, I shot him in the head from a level down and around two corners, in pitch blackness, all using the pistol I pulled out of my arse.”

Eren sighed. “I tried to explain it to him, but he’s insisting it had to have been one of you Jews. If Freudenberg was flirting though, it could be someone saw him, got mad, and shot him. Did you see anyone?”

“No, but while Coupe Au Bol was butchering the French language and making everyone laugh at his idiocy, I heard footsteps overhead. I think you’re right. It must have been a German who got mad at him for being friendly to us. Right after the shooting, just to be sure we were all safe, I took roll call. I know for certain, every single Jew was here.”

“Is there anything else you can tell me?”

Levi glanced over to Kitz, then back to Eren. “Not at the moment. Come back after they sort this out.”

“If you can help us figure out who did it, it’ll make the investigation go quicker.”

“I could tell you precisely who did it, but I can’t in the present company.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“It means someone in this room shot him, but if I say who, I will probably be killed, and so might you. Find me later, and we’ll talk. Tell your captain as much of that as you want.”

Eren sighed and turned to Kitz. Levi sat back onto his cot, watching the faces since words meant little.

Kitz bellowed in shock and disgust, “Er liebäugelte mit den Juden?” He was flirting with the Jews?

Levi rolled his eyes and grumbled, “What a fucking actor!”

* * *

Eren did not come around again until after sunset. By then, Levi had worked a hard day, and his back was aching. He and the Jews had returned to the castle for a bowl of watery soup that made up their dinner. Eren looked exhausted as he trudged into the kitchen, startling the Jews until they saw who it was.

“All right, talk,” Eren said to Levi, not even bothering with pleasantries.

Levi blew a spoonful of his soup as if he could hardly care about what Eren wanted. “Get me half a loaf of bread to go with this piss-water soup, and I will tell you everything.”

Eren’s hand drifted to his Luger. “Or, I could shoot you.”

Levi sipped a spoonful of soup, still not looking at him. “You won’t. You’re not like that.” He set his spoon down and glared at Eren. “Look, I haven’t eaten much besides this garbage unfit for dogs, and Coupe Au Bol won’t be back again with bread for us.”

“Marlo!” Eren shouted. “His name was Marlo Freudenberg, and he was a good man.”

Levi folded his arms. “Bread, and I talk.”

Eren looked angry, but he still stomped away, returning a few minutes later with a long baguette.

“You said you won’t get bread, so split this among yourselves.”

Levi broke a piece of the bread roll and passed the rest down, with each person breaking off pieces, trying to spread it out over the whole group. A few muttered Merci to Eren with nervous smiles.

“Like I said earlier,” Levi began, “I heard the gunshot, but I didn’t see the killer. I can’t for certain say who killed him, but I can say what.”

“A gun, obviously!”

“Not just any gun. It was a .455 caliber round.”

Eren’s eyes narrowed. “How could you possibly know that?”

“I was a soldier; I know the sounds of gunfire. Germans are normally issued Lugers, Mausers, or Walthers, all of which use a 7.65 mm round. What I heard was much deeper, a bigger cartridge, and if you pry the bullet out of his brain, I’m certain you’ll find it’s a .455 round. It’s not a common caliber, except for one gun: a Webley Mark VI. It was a common handgun in the Great War, issued to British soldiers.”

Eren sneered. “British?”

“It’s also common practice for Germans to take the gun of the first British officer they kill. Many Germans back in the Great War kept their Webleys as a badge of honor. The only Webley I’ve seen in this village is strapped to that bug-eyed bastard’s thigh, a trophy of his time in the last war.”

Hauptmann Woermann?” Eren shook his head in disbelief. “That’s not possible.”

“You know how much he hates us. If he saw one of his men flirting with a Jew, of course it’s possible.”

Eren continued to shake his head. “Then why investigate at all? Why would he try to blame you?”

“To get us killed, of course. As for why investigate: he shot a fellow German in cold blood, and he had no proof that the man was flirting. He probably broke some protocol, executing him without a trial. What even is the protocol for merely flirting with Jews?”

Eren scowled, folded his arms, and snapped, “How should I know?”

“Anyway, that’s what I heard and what I know. Someone shot that man with a .455 pistol. You can take that information however you like.” Levi shoved some of the bread into his mouth.

Eren stormed off, angry, but not really at Levi. Something had seemed off about this murder from the very beginning, and Kitz’s accusations against the Jews were preposterous to everyone who heard his ranting. It even had Gunther Schultz questioning if the captain was mentally suffering from the war.

He found himself marching briskly, not to his quarters, not even to Kitz, but to the Gerichtsmediziner, medical examiner. He entered and saw the man busy at a desk, writing up his autopsy report. Pale blue eyes flashed up.

“Lieutenant, how may I help you?”

Because of his father, Eren hated all doctors, but he bit back his instinctive revulsion. “The man brought in today, Marlo Freudenberg. Did you happen to find the bullet that shot him?”

“The bullet exited the head and lodged in the wall. It was brought in, if you wish to see it. Is there a reason?”

“I’m confirming something,” Eren muttered, and he stepped past the Gerichtsmediziner into a chilly holding room.

On a table was a body draped in a white cloth. Eren gulped, knowing that was Marlo. He thought about peeking under just to see the man again, but imagining the sight of his head half blasted off, he decided not to. He saw a metal tray with a few items, including the bullet.

Eren plucked up the crushed, used bullet and turned it around, looking at the inscription on the bottom.

G.F.L. 455 MKVI

Levi was right. It was a .455 bullet from a Webley Mark VI, a British gun. In their unit, the only person with a Webley was the captain himself.

Eren dropped the bullet back with a clatter. He looked over at the body under a sheet.

“You weren’t cautious enough,” he whispered.

Eren left without a word to the curious doctor. It was getting dark, but he still marched to their headquarters. He stormed past saluting soldiers and into Kitz’s office, catching the captain by surprise.

“Your gun is too unique, Hauptmann Woermann.”

Kitz lowered a glass of wine he was drinking. “It’s been a long day, Jäger. Don’t play games. Come out and say what’s on your mind.”

“I stopped by the medical examiner. I saw the bullet that killed Obergefreiter Freudenberg. It was a .455 caliber … which Germans do not use. The British do.” Eren’s fist clenched. “There is one .455 pistol in this town. Yours.”

Kitz’s eyes narrowed. “And?”

Eren could hardly believe he was not trying to deny it. “Perhaps you realized Freudenberg was flirting with Jews, and you killed him in anger. Still, with all due respect, he should have gone to trial. If he had ties to the French Resistance, we could have interrogated him. If he was planning to help the Jews, we could have executed him properly. If he just happened to go down there and was talking to them—”

“Lieutenant Jäger!”

Eren froze at the shout.

A flash of outrage in his bulging eyes simmered down, and Kitz sighed. “You’re right. Under normal circumstances, he should have been interrogated and punished accordingly. When I overheard the lewd things he was telling those Jewish whores, I acted on instinct, as one does when they realize there is a fly in their kitchen, and it must be swatted before it brings in disease. Freudenberg told those women many obscene, pornographic things. He might have even fucked one, or all of them for all we know. Imagine that! A filthy Jewish whore bred with the seed of a fine German stock. Although, there are rumors about Freudenberg, people saying that perhaps he was adopted as an infant, and his lineage is pure Jewish, not Aryan at all. For all we know, he was attracted to his own kind.”

Kitz stood up and walked around his desk, stopping right in front of Eren.

“I heard his lewd tongue myself, and I confronted him. He confessed to planning on breaking out the women and bringing them to America, where they could live with Mormons and all of them would be his wives. He said he would not allow any of them to be hurt again, and he reached for his gun. That was when I shot him.”

Eren gulped. It was such an obvious lie, but what could he say? If he called Kitz out on it … would he be the next with his brains splattered against the wall?

“I understand now, sir. You acted in self-defense. You could’ve claimed that from the start. Why try to blame the Jews?”

Kitz took a step closer as he glared hard at Eren. “You really like those parasites, don’t you?”

He thrust down his revulsion and said the words he knew he needed to say. “Of course not. Hitler said, Jews are the personification of the devil. I would not be Christian if I liked the devil. Still, as a Christian, I believe in honesty.”

Kitz’s beady eyes narrowed. “I was trying to spare the Freudenberg family from the disgrace of learning their son was a Jew-lover.” His head tilted to the side, and Eren saw his hand twitch, as if it yearned to grab his pistol again. “Are you going to allow the Freudenbergs to mourn their son with honor, or curse his name in disgrace?”

Eren’s head dropped subserviently. “If you believe a traitor like him deserves honor after death, I will also hope his family praises his name.”

Kitz scoffed and shook his head. “You have a strong conscience, Jäger.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“That’s not a compliment,” he said in irritation. “The Führer said, ‘Gewissen ist eine jüdische Erfindung. Es ist wie die Beschneidung eine Verstümmelung des menschlichen Wesens.’” Conscience is a Jewish invention. Like circumcision, it is a mutilation of the human being. “We are told to feel good when we do something and to feel bad when we do something else. Having a conscience is a sign of weakness of the mind. It’s a way to manipulate the masses, nothing more than a leash to hold back the progress of human society. Did you ever study Friedrich Nietzsche in school?”

Eren shook his head. “I’ve heard the name.”

“A philosopher, brilliant man, who said conscience is the deepest illness of mankind. It robs people of their self-confidence. Guilt is a delusion forced upon us by Jews to weaken those with a wavering mental fortitude.” He smiled sickly at Eren. “You are a strong-willed German youth, but perhaps it was that half-bred mother of yours who instilled in you a strong conscience, a way for her people to eventually manipulate you.”

Eren wanted to shout back, to defend his mother, who had never once thought of herself as a Jew, and was only called a mischling due to a single grandparent who died in child labor. However, he saw a sadistic, taunting glint in Kitz’s eyes. He was daring Eren to give him an excuse to shoot him as well.

“Are you not going to defend your mother or your conscience?” he goaded.

Eren gulped back his outrage. “If my conscience is a weakness, then obviously this is something I need to work on so I can be a strong soldier and defend the Fatherland.”

Kitz looked impressed. “Very good. The Aryan in you really shines sometimes. Since you’re here, I want to show you something. Come!”

Eren followed the captain over to his desk. On it were photos and reports.

“What is that? It’s like a giant bullet.”

Kitz smiled proudly, as if he had built it himself. “They call it a flying bomb. This is Germany’s secret weapon. Our scientists have been working on it for years. A rocket with a jet engine and autopilot guidance: the Vergeltungswaffe 1, or V-1. This, young Jäger, is the future! With this, we will win any war. Already, rockets have been striking England, and they will continue to rain down fire and fury until nothing is left. They are already building bigger flying bombs with further range. Imagine! At the push of a button, we could flatten London, New York, Moscow, any city we want. They would have no warning, no sounds of airplanes flying overhead, no one to shoot down. One minute, they’re hanging up laundry, the next minute, all is dust and rubble. Germany shall triumph, and the ideology of the Führer will blossom across the world.”

Eren stared at the photos in awe and horror. War used to be about one trained soldier fighting another. Now, it was leveling entire cities. Innocent civilians, children, silver-haired grandparents, whole families torn to pieces by the shrapnel of a war that has nothing to do with them.

This was not the honorable war he wanted to fight in.

“What do you think, Jäger?”

Fear and anger shivered deep in his soul. What did he think? He thought it was immoral. He thought it lacked honor. He thought it was disgusting and ruthless and … and … evil.

Yet that was his conscience speaking. As deeply as he felt that this was wrong, he knew what he had to say.

“The Führer said, ‘I do not see why man should not be just as cruel as nature.’ Flattening a city … is cruel … but those deaths are necessary to achieve the Führer’s ambition.”

Kitz’s chest puffed out. “Exactly. Heil Hitler!

Eren’s arm shot out straight in salute. “Heil Hitler.”

“Now, go find yourself a woman, or get drunk, or both, and tomorrow revel in the knowledge that this war will soon be over.”

Eren left the office feeling cold inside, despite the summer night humidity. In the end, he was left with no good reason why the Jews were blamed for Marlo’s death, other than the captain’s own hatred and trying to cover up that he had been the one to shoot a fellow German in cold blood. He also got a vague threat that he better not be the next Jew-lover who needed to be put down.

And those rockets!

He wanted the war to be over. More than anything, he wanted peace across all of Europe.

But not like this.

Never like this.

# # #

# #

#

Guns of WWII

I may have let my interest in historic weaponry get the better of me with the Webley and mentioning other WWII firearms.

Webley MK VI

The Webley .455 Mk VI was used in both WWI and WWII, although more rarely later on. Kitz Woermann got his war trophy as a young soldier in World War I and simply held onto it for 26 years.

caliber bullets

The biggest problem with the Mk VI was the ammunition. It’s a huge cartridge compared to a .38 caliber. That meant the revolver could only hold 6 bullets, as compared to eight .38 caliber bullets on other guns. There was also a .45 caliber version, just to really confuse soldiers. After the war, finding .455 caliber bullets was a challenge; there were plenty of old wartime guns around, but a severe lack of ammunition.

Luger

That bigger caliber means the sound of it firing is distinctly different from a Walther P38 or Luger 9mm, which both have smaller-sized bullets.

V1 flying bomb

The V-1 flying bomb (in German, Vergeltungswaffe 1, or Vengeance Weapon 1) was an early cruise missile. The V-1 was so advanced for its time, many soldiers would ask “Where’s the cockpit?” They could not understand how a bomb could get from point A to point B without a pilot.

The Wehrmacht first launched the V-1 to target London on June 13, 1944, one week after (and prompted by) the successful Allied landings in Normandy. At one point, more than one hundred V-1s a day were fired at south-east England, 9,521 in total. Due to the noise they made coming in, they were nicknamed “Doodlebugs,” but the destruction they wrought on London was no joke.

Aftermath of V1 strike

Chapter Text

Tanakh

Levi had finished his chores early, so the soldier watching over him simply locked him back away in the dungeon. It was dank and cold, but at least he could rest, conserve energy, and it gave him time to think. He tried to recall happier times, but it was getting harder and harder to remember Petra’s face. He wished he could have saved just one photograph of her.

Somewhere above, Levi heard unfamiliar footsteps, one person, lightweight, wearing boots. He instinctively shrank down, glaring at the torchlight slowly spilling in as the possible enemy approached. He hated not having a weapon of some kind. Even a spoon could be used to kill if a person was skilled enough. However, instead of some hard-faced man, it was a small soldier with huge, bright eyes that looked around as if wondering if he was in the right place.

Levi raised up a little and called out in French, “You’re the one they call Armin, right?”

The soldier, barely old enough to no longer be considered a boy, leaped at the voice, but he came in at seeing Levi.

“I sure hope you didn’t come down here hoping to prove your manhood by beating up some Jews,” Levi mocked. “Or maybe you want to flirt with the women as well, let one break in your virginity. Sorry to disappoint you, boy, but I’m the only one here. If you flirt with me, I’ll kick your arse, and if you try to beat me up, well, you’re like a helpless kitten. I’d almost feel bad for beating you to death. Almost, you Nazi swine.”

Armin obviously did not understand a word, and Levi rolled his eyes. He wanted to learn German, if only so he could cuss out these Nazis properly.

Vous … Levi … oui?

Levi arched an eyebrow. “Oui. Pourquoi?” Yes. Why?

Armin reached into a military bag, and Levi’s eyes widened as he pulled out a book he knew immediately.

The Tanakh! How did this man get it? Why was he bringing it here? What the hell happened? Eren once told Levi that he could trust Armin if anything bad happened and he was unable to help. Obviously, this time Eren had been the one who needed the help of this young man. But why?

Levi felt his heart racing, and he sneered as he realized he was panicking over a German soldier. He looked up to Armin, a burning sensation in his eyes, and shouted, “Que diable est-il arrivé à Eren?” What the devil happened to Eren?

In halting words, Armin explained, “Eren … il a dit … livre … donner vous.”

His French was horrible, but Levi got the gist of it. Eren told Armin to give the book back to him. “Takhshet?” he whispered, taking the book from between the prison bars. There was a lump in the back of his throat that annoyed him.

If Eren was handing the book back, and he gave it to a trusted member of his platoon, that meant something terrible must have happened. Had he been shot like Marlo?

Something shivered and twisted in Levi’s chest, a deep dread he told himself he should not feel for some Nazi enemy, yet the burning in his eyes and tightness in his throat would not go away.

Où est-il? Qu’est-ce qui se passe?” Where is he? What’s going on?

Armin shrugged, showing he barely understood. “Er hat eine Lungenentzündung.

Levi sneered in frustration at the language barrier. “Dammit, what did he go and do?” He looked up to Armin. “Paper. Write. Dammit, what’s the word? Schreiben.”

Wollten Sie Leutnant Jäger schreiben?

Ja, yes. I want to write to Jäger.”

Ich kann dich zu ihm bringen.”

“Can … to him … bring … ja!” he shouted, picking up just enough. “Bring me to him. Please. Bitte.

Armin pointed to the Tanakh. “Das Buch?

“To hell with the book!” Levi threw it under his pillow to hide it from view. “Jäger. Bring me to Eren Jäger!”

* * *

Levi stepped into a house that once belonged to some well-off villager, now abandoned and used by the lieutenant and a few of his closest men. Other officers had also commandeered houses while staying in this village. As Armin brought Levi inside, all eyes turned to him.

Jean scowled at seeing him. “Warum ist der Jude hier?” Why is the Jew here?

Armin answered, “Er will Eren sehen.” He wants to see Eren. Armin waved Levi to continue upstairs, but the small man realized Jean was stalking close behind. He tried to ignore Jean while also hoping the man did not simply stab him in the back. Armin knocked on a door and called in. “Eren?”

Komm herein.” Come in.

The door opened, and Levi saw Eren sitting up in bed with a young nurse attending him. He looked pale with sweat moistening his bangs, yet he grinned as soon as he saw the Jew.

“Levi! Perfect. The nurse is French. I have no idea what she’s saying. Könnten Sie für mich übersetzen? Could you translate for me?”

Although he was grinning, his eyes had dimmed. He was obviously sick, and it looked severe. Just then, Eren coughed, and they could all hear the moistness in his lungs. Levi flinched at hearing that cough; it did not sound good at all. He spoke with the nurse, and she informed him of the problem. Eren had come down with pneumonia, and it was getting progressively worse. If he did not improve soon, he would be sent to a hospital in Paris.

Levi nodded in comprehension. So, that was why Eren sent away the book. If he was sent to another city, his bags would be inspected before sending them along for the trip. He needed to get rid of the book before he got in trouble, and he trusted Armin to deliver it without questions.

“You’re going to die,” Levi told Eren with a flat expression.

“What?” Eren shrieked, and he broke into more coughs from the shout.

A smile cracked over Levi’s face. “You have pneumonia, idiot.”

“I know what I have,” he said, still coughing. “I got Lungenentzündung a few days ago. I don’t need to know the English word; I need to know if I’m getting better.”

“No, it’s getting worse. If there is no improvement in another two days, they will send you to Paris.”

“But I can’t…” Eren choked off his protest, looked up at the nurse, then over to Armin, and lastly at Jean slouched in the doorway with crossed arms. “If I leave here, they’ll probably kill you.”

“If you’re that sick and you stay here, you could die.”

Eren scowled to the side. “I don’t want to leave. Ich hasse Ärzte. I hate doctors.”

“Then let me be your doctor,” Levi offered.

Eren’s eyes widened. “You know medicine?”

“I know enough, and I can follow her orders far better than the rest of these idiots who don’t speak a word of French. I can be a prisoner here just as easily as a prisoner in the dungeon. Any idiot would realize I can’t kill you or I’m dead. They can even keep a watch over me if they’re that paranoid.”

Just then, Thomas walked into the room with a tray balancing a bowl of soup and some milk. “Bietet er Hilfe an?” Is he offering assistance?

Eren nodded. “Ja. Er sagte, er werde uns helfen.” Yes. He says he’ll help us.

Armin perked up. “Ich könnte einen Dolmetscher gebrauchen.” I could use a translator.

Thomas set the tray down and looked straight at Levi. “Eren hat dein Leben gerettet. Wirst du uns bitte helfen?

Eren translated to Levi, “He says, Eren saved your life. Will you please help us?”

Levi nodded to the question. “Oui. Ja. I’ll help.”

* * *

Levi found out that this was an illness spreading through the town, brought on by a rain earlier that week. Levi and the other Jews had been lucky enough to work indoors that day, but the soldiers were forced to patrol and inspect like usual. Three soldiers had already been sent to a hospital, but Eren kept refusing. The others thought he was stubbornly trying to show strength. He admitted quietly to Levi, he was terrified that if he left for even a week, he might return to find all the Jews dead.

“The captain did not want to risk other soldiers getting sick by attending ill patients,” Eren explained as he sipped his soup. “We’ve been using French civilians, forcing the villagers to care for me and the others.”

“What about the language barrier?” asked Levi.

“Yes, that is making things hard.”

Levi scowled. “Idiot. You could have asked for me days ago. That’s why you’re keeping me alive, isn’t it?”

Eren sighed and shrugged. “Hauptmann Woermann said he did not trust both a Frenchman and a Jew working together.”

Levi sneered and rolled his eyes. “He’s rather his men die than trust a Jew? May he catch this and drown in his own lungs.”

“I’ve arranged to have you excused from roll call and duties, but this has to stay quiet. If the captain comes to check on me, you have to hide in my closet.”

Levi grumbled under his breath, “I suppose it beats cleaning the toilets again.”

Levi had little to do. Eren slept fitfully, often waking up to moist coughs. Levi fetched him handkerchiefs, and he was allowed to use the house bathroom to wash the phlegm out of the cloths. He was also happy to use a real toilet, rather than the bucket in his cell. He fixed tea and wiped Eren’s feverish head with a wet cloth, but otherwise his duty was to sit there and keep Eren company.

Not a bad arrangement … even if he was a Nazi swine.

Later that night, when the nurse returned to check on Eren, the young lieutenant made a bold request.

“Tell her to give me something for pain.”

Levi looked deeply concerned. “Are you hurting? Is it your lungs?”

“No, but I’m sick of seeing you flinching every time you sit. Your butt is still healing, and you’ve had no medication for over a week. So ask her. Something for an ache. Tell her my back hurts from lying in bed all this time.”

“Eren…”

“That’s an order.”

“I’m not one of your soldiers, dammit.”

“No, but you’re my attendant for the moment, and I’m giving you a direct order.”

Levi muttered something in Yiddish so none of them would understand. Then he told the nurse in French, “His arse hurts from lying on it. He’s a wimp and wants something for the pain. He’s truly a pain in the arse.”

She giggled and said she would be back with something. Eren wondered precisely what the Jew had said to make the nurse laugh. That was the trouble with this sort of translation-by-proxy, and why Kitz Woermann feared it. The Germans had no clue what Levi was saying.

Minutes later, she returned with two pills. Eren set them aside and thanked her. Levi walked her to the door and closed it after her.

“Take them before anyone enters,” Eren insisted.

He sighed. Stupid brat! Still, sitting on the hard chair beside Eren’s bed was painful. He almost missed simply lying in his cell staring at the ceiling. At least then his butt hurt less.

Levi swallowed the pills with some herbal tea that had been brought in for Eren. The soldier reached out for the drink, and Levi handed it over, suddenly worried if using Eren’s own cup was pushing his level of rudeness. Hesitantly, he handed the teacup over, and Eren took a sip with a smile.

“Now we’ve shared cups,” he said happily. “Although it’s a good thing I hadn’t already used that cup. I don’t want you to get sick.”

Levi scoffed and walked aside to the window. His cheeks felt hot. Maybe he was getting sick after all.

Eren watched him from the bed and pouted. “You’re not leaving, are you?”

“Do you expect me to watch over you twenty-four hours a day? I need sleep.” He stared out at the moonlight. He had woken up before sunrise, slaved away all morning and afternoon, and his eyes were barely staying open.

“I thought … maybe … you could sleep here.”

“My cell would be more comfortable than your floor. Marginally warmer too.”

“I meant in my bed.”

Levi spun around on his heels with wide, shocked eyes.

“It’s a wide bed. I’m used to a military cot.”

“Are you stupid?” he screamed.

“Quiet! Someone will worry.”

“I can tell them you’re an idiot. I know at least that much German. Du bist ein Idiot.”

Eren burst into laughter.

“What the hell is so funny?”

Ee-dyot? Hearing you speak German with such a strong French accent, it’s cute!”

“Shut the hell up!”

Just then, Armin rapped on the door and slipped inside. “Was gibt’s?” What’s up?

Eren pointed over to Levi. “Er ist süß.” He’s cute.

Levi stabbed a finger at Eren. “Ist ein Ee-dyot!

Armin also snorted out a short laugh at the comical French accent.

Eren cried out, “Ich hab Recht, nicht wahr?” I’m right, aren’t I? After a brief laugh at seeing Levi turning red in frustration, Eren said calmer, “Wir diskutieren über Schlafregelungen.” We are discussing sleeping arrangements.

Er konnte am Fuß des Bettes schlafen.” He could sleep at the foot of the bed.

Das ist hervorragend.” That’s brilliant. He turned to Levi. “He recommends that you sleep at the foot of the bed.”

Levi sneered. “Like a dog!”

Eren shrugged apologetically. “Ich brauche möglicherweise eine Krankenschwester mitten in der Nacht. Um … I may need a nurse in the middle of the night.”

Levi knew Eren was using both languages purely to give a reasonable explanation to his underling. “You’re going to be stubborn about this, aren’t you?”

“If I have to be,” Eren said, showing he was not about to take no for an answer.

Levi twirled away and stubbornly folded his arms. “Tell him I at least want a blanket. A dog deserves that much.”

Er sagt, er wird hier bleiben. Gib ihm eine Decke, damit sein Zittern mich nicht wach hält.” He says he will stay. Give him a blanket so his shivering does not keep me awake.

Eine Decke und ein Kissen,” offered Armin. A blanket and a pillow.

Levi glared at Armin. “What the hell was that about kiss him? Fuck you.”

Eren chuckled and blushed slightly. “No, Kissen. He’s offering you a pillow.”

“I don’t need it,” he muttered.

“Too bad,” Eren said arrogantly, and he looked over to Armin. “Danke.”

Armin left to fetch things for bedding, and Eren looked over at Levi, standing by the window, arms crossed over his chest, with a scowl on his face. Was he being too forceful in this, or was Levi simply looking out for him in his own gruff way?

“Are you really going to hate being in here?”

Levi gave a slight shrug. “You’re obviously determined to keep me.”

“I’m serious. Are you that repulsed by the idea of sharing a bed with a German? Or is it that you’re opposed to sharing a bed with a man?”

“I’ve had to sleep beside many people. It happens when you’re on the run. Male or female, you forget such trivial things when you’re happy just to be out of the rain and covered with some ragged blanket.”

“Then what is the problem this time?”

Levi glared back at him. “You.”

Eren leaned back, feeling stabbed by the animosity in those eyes.

“Why do you keep doing this? How many times do I have to warn you? You’re going to get into trouble. I’m going to get into trouble!”

“You came here out of your own free will. I sent Armin only to give you the book back because I had a feeling I might be sent off.”

“I came because I thought you might have been arrested, or shot, or who the hell knows what!”

Eren smiled and tilted his head in amusement. “Were you worried about me?”

“Of course I was! If you die, all of us Jews will probably be rounded up and shot.”

“Which is why I want to stay here, if at all possible. If you stay in my room, maybe I’ll get better quicker. If you save me from this illness, you save your own people. Think about it.”

He did, and it was the main reason he had not demanded to leave. That, and some nagging piece of his heart ached to see Eren this sick.

Armin returned just then. “Hast du ein Problem?” Are you having a problem?

Er machte sich Sorgen um mich. Ist das nicht süß?” He was worried about me. Isn’t that cute?

Armin smiled at Levi. “Sie sind zu freundlich, Herr Jude.

Levi narrowed his eyes. “What the hell are you two saying about me?”

“He says, you’re kind for worrying so much about me.”

“Fuck you both,” he muttered.

“Hey! That’s not nice.”

Levi gave them a hand gesture that needed no translation.

Armin merely chuckled, glad to see his commander taking pity on this man and joking around with him.

“Look,” Eren told Levi, “if you’re here to help out the nurse, maybe I can heal quicker. My only worry is that you’ll get sick being around me.”

“I rarely get sick, not from colds at least.”

“It’s … Lungenentzündung … however you say it in English.”

“Pneumonia. The English word comes from the French pneumoniae.”

“Pneumonia. I’ll remember that.”

Armin set the bedding down. “Ich habe ein Kissen mitgebracht.

“He brought a pillow. Say thank you,” Eren told Levi in a teasingly scolding tone.

Levi sneered, but he looked up to the baby-faced German and tipped his head in genuine thanks. “Danke,” he said in German to show his honest gratitude.

Armin replied cheerfully. “Gern geschehen.” You’re welcome. Then he left the room with a light step.

Levi unfolded the blanket. It was clean and thick, and the pillow as well was real down feathers. Levi blinked out his eyes. Why was this tiny showing of gratitude getting to him?

“Turn out the light when you’re ready,” said Eren. “I’ll try not to kick you.”

Levi finished setting up the pillow and blanket. Then he blew out the lanterns and walked blindly back to the bed. He removed his shirt, trousers, and socks, and slipped in wearing only what he had to for decency.

It took some moments for the two of them to figure out how to sleep. Levi at first planned to lie horizontally across the bed with his knees curled up. That did not work with Eren’s height. So he edged toward the side. One way, another way, until finally they ended up sleeping parallel to each other, practically side by side, Levi with his head down near Eren’s feet, and Eren facing Levi’s toes.

“This works,” Eren said.

Levi grumbled wordlessly, but he hated that it really did feel like he was sleeping in bed with Eren this way. “Just keep to your side and try not to kick me in the head.”

“Same to you.” Then Eren closed his eyes and clasped his hands together.

Vater unser, der du bist im Himmel, geheiliget werde dein Name.
Dein Reich komme.
Dein Wille geschehe, wie im Himmel, also auch auf Erden.
Unser täglich Brot gib uns heute.
Und vergib uns unsere Schuld,
Wie wir vergeben unseren Schuldigern.
Und führe uns nicht in Versuchung,
Sondern erlöse uns von dem Übel.
Denn dein ist das Reich und die Kraft und die Herrlichkeit in Ewigkeit.
Amen.

“A Nazi praying!” Levi muttered with a hint of disgust.

“Some of us are religious,” Eren retorted.

“Do you think the Lord will end this war, help Germany to win, and save us all? Or only save a few, I guess. You probably think the Lord doesn’t give a shit about Jews.”

“God will do what he wants. Maybe God will get me through this, maybe it’s my time to die for my Fatherland. I will accept either destiny.”

Levi stared out bitterly into the moonlight slanting through the curtains. “The Lord does not answer prayers.”

“Not all of them, no. I will still pray, just in case he happens to listen one day.”

Levi closed his eyes. “Then I hope he listens to you. He never heard my prayers, not in all these years, all the times I’ve screamed out to him, all the times I’ve closed my eyes and begged to him.”

“You’re still alive,” Eren pointed out.

“I sit upon a mountain of bones, Eren Jäger. Now shut up and sleep.”

They both closed their eyes. Levi was exhausted and fell asleep instantly. Eren remained awake long enough to feel Levi start to roll into him, until he felt a soft rump press up against his own. He smiled at the sound of Levi breathing, and the rising warmth of their bodies being so close together, especially as he boldly rolled a little closer. Finally, Eren closed his eyes, wishing he did not have to sleep through this night, but smiling as he knew Levi would be there with him in the morning.

# # #

# #

#

What Eren prays is Vaterunser, known in English as “The Lord’s Prayer” or the “Our Father” prayer. There are many slight variations to the wording depending on Catholic, older Protestant, and modern Protestant. I found these words from a pre-1950 text, so if any German-speakers protest “Those aren’t the right words,” this is the way your great-grandparents would have said the prayer.

Levi being surprised by Eren praying is because the Nazi Party tended to scoff at religion. Although early in his rise to power, Hitler said “our movement is Christian,” Heinrich Himmler, who considered himself to be a pagan, saw the Schutzstaffel (SS) as being “the vanguard in overcoming Christianity and restoring a ‘Germanic’ way of living.” Himmler even tried to create a Teutonic-based religion within the SS. (Hitler thought it was silly and mocked Himmler behind his back.) Hitler’s private secretary Martin Bormann said “National Socialism and Christianity are irreconcilable.” The Gestapo made sure Church leaders supported the war and praised the Führer … or else!

Adolf Hitler had been raised Catholic, sang in the church choir, and initially wanted to be a priest. He turned his back on religion after his younger brother died from measles in 1900. Four years later, at Hitler’s confirmation, his sponsor had to “drag the words out of him … almost as though the whole confirmation was repugnant to him.” After leaving home at 18, Hitler never attended church again. He said, “Ich will die katholische Kirche zertreten wie eine Kröte!” (I want to crush the Catholic Church like a toad!)

At his command, thousands of Catholic priests and nuns were arrested, with many dying in concentration camps. Monasteries and convents were prime targets for seizure, with Nazis claiming they needed the buildings for hospitals, orphanages, or for refugee children, but actually they would just loot them on grounds of the churches being “hostile to the state.” Many historians believe that Hitler’s ultimate plan for after the war was the complete eradication of Christianity from Germany.

Imagine, in an alternate universe, his younger brother never got sick, and Adolf Hitler became a Catholic priest. Alternate history is crazy!

Chapter Text

Eren awoke to a sky colored bruised purple and the smell of old shoes. He flinched at the stench and realized there was a bare foot smashed against his cheek. As he blinked out his eyes, he remembered Levi making himself a place to sleep in his bed. His foot had slipped out from under his blanket in the night and found warmth on Eren’s feverish face. Although the smell was atrocious—he made a note to order his men to let Levi take a bath—he found the situation comical.

In bed with a Jew! Hitler would be furious.

Slowly, his hand slid forward, and in the pre-dawn darkness he put two fingers on Levi’s ankle, just to feel it.

Hairy legs, just like him. So normal!

He was not sure what he had expected, but after a lifetime of hearing about how Jews were lower than animals, being this close to one fascinated him. They really were not different at all.

Levi’s toes were so tiny, it was honestly adorable. Eren touched one, tracing the length of it. Levi let out a small moan of displeasure; that was also cute and made Eren bite back a silly grin. He traced the next toe, and Levi shifted his foot away, taking it off Eren’s cheek. Levi moaned again, finding the cold not to his liking, and his foot smashed back against Eren, this time landing across his mouth. Feeling a little playful, Eren stuck his tongue out and gave the bottom of Levi’s foot a wet lick.

Levi let out a shriek and leaped from the bed. He tangled up in his blankets, landed hard on the floor, and scurried away, breaking free from the covers like escaping prison bonds.

C’était quoi, ça? Putain, c’est dégueulasse.” What the hell was that? Fuck, that’s gross.

“Sorry, sorry,” chuckled Eren.

Levi heard English, and he realized he was in an actual house, not the dungeon. “Que diable … Eren!” he cried out in outrage. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Just then, the door banged open, and Jean stood in pale long johns with his gun drawn. “Keine Bewegung!” Freeze!

Eren called out quickly, “Es ist sicher, alles ist gut.” It’s safe, all is good. “Sorry, Jean. He shifted in his sleep, so I hit him.” That was a lie, but there was no way he could admit what he had actually done.

Jean slowly lowered his gun. “Maybe I should hit him too for waking me up.”

“It’s fine now. Thank you.” Eren broke into coughs. “I don’t want to bother you, so is it okay if the Jew uses the kitchen to make me some tea? I also want him to bathe. He stinks.”

Jean sighed. “Whatever. If he escapes, though, this is all on you.”

“The fate of his people is bound to my survival. He knows that. He won’t run, and he won’t poison me.”

Jean mumbled, “That’s a risk I sure wouldn’t take.”

Down the hall, they heard Connie sleepily asking, “What’s going on?”

“The lieutenant is beating the Jew so he’ll make him breakfast. Go back to sleep.”

Connie groaned and closed his door. Jean sighed and turned away.

“Seriously, this is all on you, Jäger. Don’t bring the rest of the squad down with you.”

“I won’t. And thank you.”

“Don’t thank me. I should be talking you out of this, not turning a blind eye. Still, this Jew is useful, if only to translate. If he can save your pathetic life, it’s worth it, and if he can hook me up with that cute French nurse, then I owe him one.”

“I’ll ask him to tell her all about your redeeming qualities,” Eren laughed, but it turned into coughs again.

Jean’s eyes softened with concern. “Seriously, don’t you dare die on us. And you, Jew!” He glared at Levi, who was still crouched on the ground. “If he dies under your care, I’ll shoot you myself.” With that stern but loyal warning, Jean left.

Eren coughed again, feeling gurgling moisture in his lungs. “Ich hasse es, krank zu sein.” I hate being sick. He looked down to Levi, whose eyes were still narrow and leering at him. “I’m sorry.”

He kept his voice down even as it seethed in loathing. “Tu as léché mon pied, espèce de pervers.” You licked my foot, you fucking pervert.

“Your foot was smashed into my mouth.”

“You could have tapped me on the leg. Merde! What is wrong with you?”

Eren bit his lip and looked away. “It was a joke.”

“I’ve said it before: you have a sick sense of humor. Who teases another man like that except for—” His words broke off, and he stared at Eren in the pale glow of the coming morning. Levi let out a sigh and shook his head. “That’s impossible,” he whispered. Then Eren coughed again. Levi’s rage and curiosity drifted away. He stood up, wiped his wet foot on the edge of the rug, and walked back over to the bed. “Do you need anything?” His hand went to Eren’s forehead. “Mon dieu, you’re burning up. I’ll get you medicine.”

“If you could, Jean gave you permission to use the kitchen. Make that tea the nurse left. It worked last night. Then you can make us both breakfast.”

“Both?” Levi looked uncertain. “I can eat your food?”

“Sure. Although, don’t dip into the spices too much. Thomas is really strict about that.”

“But … But I can have food? Real food?”

Eren’s eyes softened. “Of course you can. Make us both something good. We should have … Eier und Würstchen … I don’t know English food words that well. Egg? Sausage?”

“Sausage?” Levi whispered, looking like this was a dream come true.

“You can help yourself.”

“No,” he said sternly. “I can’t eat the same food you do.”

“No, really—”

“Eren!” He cut him off sharply, but Levi sighed. “You’re a good man, but the world is not a good place. I will take only enough to fill my stomach. Some bread, that’s all.”

Eren pouted in displeasure at the idea. “I will lose my appetite if you don’t eat well.”

“Then lose it!” he snapped, and Levi left the bedroom. “Putain! Tu es vraiment trop naïf.” Fuck! You’re really too naïve.

He crept down the stairs, keeping a wary eye out so no other spooked Nazi soldiers pulled their guns on him. He tiptoed to the kitchen and lit a lamp to search around.

A real kitchen! It had been years since he worked in one.

He pulled out a basket of eggs and some small sausages. He checked out what pans they had—well stocked with cast iron pans, nice!—and he got to work. He cracked open the eggs and put a kettle of water on to make tea.

A memory floated back to him, cooking eggs and veal sausages, looking out the kitchen window, and seeing Petra in her garden wearing a wide-brimmed hat, snipping off parsley. He could not see her face, but the memory made him feel warm inside, yet deeply sad. He would never cook her breakfast again.

Now, he looked out the window and saw a building that had been hit by a bomb, bricks shattered apart, exposing part of what had once been a nice parlor. His country had been shattered, like that building, invaded by Germany, like the Nazis that had taken over this house. Levi kept his eyes down as he cooked so he did not have to look at reality.

Without even thinking about it, he had begun to make breakfast for two.

Putain,” he cursed under his breath. So much for his noble idea of not making life harder for himself by eating the food allotted to soldiers.

He pulled out a large tray and set up two plates, a pot of tea, and two cups. He set out silverware and even found a small jar of sugar. With all of that balanced on the tray and the lantern dangling on his wrist, he went back up to the bedroom.

He shoved open the door and began to say “Okay, bastard,” but his words were cut off by the sound of snoring. Eren had sat up in bed to read, but he fell back to sleep, the book on his lap, his head flopped down toward his chest. Levi sighed and shook his head.

What had he done in his life to be punished with playing nurse to an idiotic Nazi?

As Levi set the tray on a small table, he realized something.

He could run. Easily!

No one was awake yet. Few guards would be patrolling this area of the village. There was just enough light outside to see as he sneaked around. He could head to the river, follow it to the forest…

… and in doing so, damn his fellow Jews to death.

Merde,” he whispered with a sneer. He couldn’t! He tried once, thinking he could simply live with the guilt, but he personally experienced how brutally they were punished for just one young woman escaping; the whip scars still ached at times. He was more important to these Nazi swines, needed for translation work. The collective punishment for him escaping would be far more vicious.

Especially for Eren.

Not that he should care about some Nazi officer!

Eren began to choke up, and he jolted awake to hideous coughing. He grabbed a handkerchief sitting beside the bed and hacked up phlegm into it. Levi came over and rubbed his back to help break up the mucus inside.

“You’re really not doing well,” he muttered in worry.

Eren coughed out something thick and spat it into the handkerchief. “Can’t … leave you. They’d kill you.”

“Seriously, you could die.”

“I won’t!” he insisted with austere stubbornness. “But promise me something.” He looked down at the handkerchief he had coughed the sickly phlegm into. “If anything happens to me, if they take me away to a hospital, or if I…” He cut off the fatalistic words. “Promise me: get out of here! If I do die, then let me die knowing I saved your life.”

Levi studied him as Eren finally managed to breathe clearly. “Are you saying you’d die for me?”

Eren’s eyes shot up to him, and while it looked like an answer was immediately on his lips, he held it back.

Levi sighed in frustration and looked away. “Don’t talk about dying. It’ll bring misfortune.”

Eren flopped backward, tired from the struggle just to breathe. Levi poured out some tea for him and added a little sugar. Eren gladly took it and sipped. Then he saw the two plates.

“Ah! You made yourself breakfast after all. Das ist ja wunderbar!” That’s wonderful!

“It was a mistake. I wasn’t paying attention.”

Eren ate some eggs. “Mm! You’re an amazing cook. I almost feel like a spoiled husband, with you cooking breakfast for me.”

Levi blushed at the compliment and silently ate some sausage. “You need to watch yourself.”

“I’ll take my medicine without complaint, if you’re the one giving it to me.”

Levi sneered. “This is what I mean.”

Eren paused and saw Levi with a scowl pinched between his eyebrows. “What’s the matter?”

Levi’s gray-blue eyes slowly turned to him, filled with skepticism and more than a little worry. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but sometimes the way you act, the things you say, the way you look at me, it’s like you desire me.”

Eren’s whole body went still and his gaze remained fixed. Slowly, he swallowed his mouthful of food. “Is that so? I should watch myself.”

“You really should! Nazis do not tolerate people like that.”

“I would know that better than anyone.”

Levi glared at how he said that. “You like women, don’t you?”

Eren laughed and sipped some tea. “What sort of question is that? Of course I do.”

“I just want to be sure you’re not going to rape me in the middle of the night.”

Now Eren looked furious. “Don’t you dare say I’d do something like that. Why would I want to do that to someone like you when I can have any woman I want?”

Levi sighed in relief and nodded. “I just need to be sure. I’d hate to slit your throat.”

“Rest assured, I have never done anything lewd to men. Perhaps you’re confusing lust with thinking of you as a … as a little pet.”

“A pet!” Levi bellowed in outrage.

Eren smirked playfully. “Quiet, pet, or you’ll wake the house.”

He sneered. “A khalerye.” A curse on you.

Eren tilted his head in curiosity. “Is that Jewish? French has a romantic sound to it, but sometimes you say things that are very different, harsher, almost German in sound except not the right words.”

“Yiddish,” he muttered.

“Do Jews like to cuss in Yiddish?”

“No, but we can curse.”

“What’s the difference?”

Levi folded his arms. “A cuss word is crude and simple. It profanes the mouth.”

“But you cuss all the time.”

“I’m not a very good Jew,” Levi admitted. “A curse hopes that harm shall fall upon another without profaning the mouth with crude words. A curse is a wish wrapped in thorns.”

“So, you can say you hope they eat shit, but not call them a piece of shit?”

Levi snorted at the simplicity. “Something like that.”

“But you say merde and shit a lot.”

“As I said, I’m not a very good Jew. I didn’t care about any of that before this damn war.” He looked down at his sausage. “Like this.” He poked it with a fork. “I bet there’s pork in it. Before the war, I wouldn’t have cared. I loved ham and bacon. Now, I know there are Jews out there dying rather than give up their beliefs, so I feel a bit guilty. The logical side of me says, ‘food is food, it keeps you alive.’ My heart says, God told us not to eat that for a reason, so I should feel guilty.”

“Guilt is a delusion forced upon us by Jews to weaken those with a wavering mental fortitude.” Eren had taken Kitz Woermann’s words to heart. The struggle of feeling guilty about his actions really was a roadblock in his life.

Levi glared at him. “Whoever told you that should have their throat slit! But I do believe that guilt weakens us. Hell, I could have run away this morning, but if I did, I’d feel guilty for causing the deaths of all the others. That’s a guilt I can’t live with, yet I’m probably going to die for that choice.”

“Don’t say that.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t go down without a fight, and I won’t let guilt get me killed.” He stabbed the sausage and ate it, showing his stubborn determination to survive, even if it meant eating forbidden food. “In times like this, we do what we must to survive.” His eyes drifted off, remembering Petra again. “Vis, peu importe le prix.

“What does that mean?”

“Live, no matter the price. They were the last words my wife said … before they shot her.” He shifted the scrambled eggs around on his plate. “Our neighbor had chickens, Petra grew herbs and potatoes, so we traded. I used to make her eggs every morning. Sometimes with sausage, sometimes latkes.”

“What are latkes?” Eren asked with interest.

Pommes de terre rissolées. Hash browns.” Still, Eren looked confused. “Potatoes, shredded and fried? Have you never had them?”

“Potato? A food? Sorry, I don’t know English words for food. Maybe my father never talked about food. I know a few words, like apple.”

Levi rolled his eyes. “Whatever. I made breakfast for Petra every morning. I was thinking about her in the kitchen, which is why I automatically made enough for two.”

“Well, keep doing it. I like having breakfast with you.”

Levi’s eyes narrowed. “I told you to watch yourself.”

“What? I said I like to have someone to talk with while I’m eating breakfast. I grew up eating every meal in the school kantine, all of us together, talking about the coming day or how our classes were going. Then in the army, we all ate together. Even here, we eat together. Eating alone is no fun. It’s lonely.”

“I prefer to eat alone,” Levi said dourly.

“Did you hate eating with your wife?”

He shot a glare at Eren, but the young man looked earnestly concerned. “That was different. Every minute with her was a joy, even eating together.”

“You sure finished your breakfast quickly eating with me.”

He looked down and saw that, indeed, he had finished the food. “I’m probably going to shit all that out fast. I haven’t eaten like that in … a long time.”

“I want to make sure you eat well while you’re caring for me. In fact,” Eren said suddenly with a smug smile on his face, “you have to eat whatever I eat. You’ll make a meal big enough for us both, and you’ll show me you didn’t poison it by eating the same thing.”

Levi rolled his eyes. “You really are an idiot. If I wanted to poison you, I’d simply sprinkle it on after I cooked it.”

“And maybe I’ll switch the plates around on you, so you have to eat mine.”

“I’d obviously use a poison I have an immunity to.”

“You’ve never actually poisoned someone before, have you?”

“Not my style.”

“And what’s your style? You mentioned you were sent to Africa to kill a rebel, you slit a man’s throat in Poland while working, you’ve said that you’ve killed many people, and you worked in London for eight years, but you would not say what you did.”

“You’re better off not knowing that part about me.”

“Oh!” he cried out with a gleam in his eyes. “Did you work with the Deuxième Bureau? I’ve heard of them, France’s military intelligence agency. I bet you were a French spy, right?”

Levi smirked. “If I told you, I’d have to kill you.”

Eren chuckled and finished off his tea. “May I have more?”

Levi took his cup and poured in some more tea. Eren watched closely. As much as Levi snapped at him, he saw a faint turn to the corners of his lips. Perhaps God did listen to prayers, and he was answering Levi’s prayers by getting him a soft place to sleep, a hot meal, and a chance to smile, if only for a moment.

“Really, Levi, what did you do for a living?”

“I minded my own business,” he said, focused on the teacup.

“And killed people?”

He stirred in some sugar. “It happens in the military.”

“Did you like being a soldier?”

Levi took a moment to think over that question, before answering as he handed the steaming cup over to Eren. “Yes. For a time, I thought that was all I could ever be good at doing, until I was asked to do what I simply could not do.”

“What’s that?”

“Kill a child.”

Eren hummed and nodded. “Same. I’ve never been asked to kill civilians, but we hear stories, whole villages slaughtered, women and children. I can’t imagine it. I think I’d disobey.”

“Because you’re a good man.”

Eren began to blush, and his eyes shifted hard to the side. Before he could bask in the praise, his brows pinched together. Why was he so damn happy just because Levi praised him a little?

“Are you okay?” Levi asked, seeing the pained look on Eren’s face. “Do you hurt anywhere? Is your fever going up? Your face is red.”

“Maybe I need more sleep,” he grumbled. “Can you bathe while I rest? You really smell bad.”

“Fuck you.”

“You’re allowed to use our bathroom. Ah, but maybe a sign to warn the others so they don’t walk in on you.” Eren grabbed a sheet of paper and a pen, and in a flowing script wrote simply Juden. “That should give you privacy. No one would walk in on a Jew.”

“They put signs like that on the latrines when we’re cleaning them. Do you want me to clean your toilet?”

“No, your duty is to attend me, not clean up after my men.”

“My duty is to stay alive, even if that means keeping some Nazi swine alive. Regretfully unavoidable symbiosis.”

Eren’s face drew up, not sure what that meant. Rather than explain, Levi snatched the paper away and left to the bathroom, hoping to finish before the soldiers woke up and got mad at him for using their bathtub.

Once he was gone, Eren let out a long sigh. He stared at the two empty plates as the conversation replayed in his head.

“You like women, don’t you?” he repeated quietly, and he slowly shook his head. “Scheiße!” He wiped sweat off his brow, slid down into the bed, and yanked the covers up to his chin. “Scheiße,” he whispered, blaming the deep shivering on the fever.

He was still hiding away when the door creaked open and Armin peaked in, looking sleepy with his blond hair sticking out.

Guten Morgen.” Good morning.

Eren chuckled. “Dein Haar ist durcheinander.” Your hair is a mess.

Armin tried to slick down the golden cowlicks. “The Jew is in the bathroom,” he whispered, thumbing back at the bathroom.

“Yes. He smells, so I ordered him to bathe.”

Armin smiled and stepped inside. “After making sure he had a good breakfast, I see. Why are you hiding like that? Are you cold?”

“I felt chills,” he muttered.

Armin stepped inside and rested his hand on Eren’s forehead. “You’re still burning up.”

“I’m fine,” he said, pulling away. “Armin, be honest: would you consider me manly?”

“You’re a strong soldier, Eren. Everyone gets sick from time to time. It doesn’t make you weak.”

“No, I mean … oh, nothing,” he sighed. “Have you ever wondered what we’d be doing right now if there wasn’t a war? Like, would you be married by now? Kids? What job would you want?”

Armin pitied Eren, assuming that the sickness was making him think about mortality. He settled down on the edge of the bed. “I’d like to get married one day and have a little family. I’m an only child, so I don’t think I could handle more than three kids. As for a job, I’d probably follow in the footsteps of my father and be a teacher.”

“I can imagine you teaching at a big university.” Eren chuckled and stared up at the ceiling. “Do you plan on finding a wife as soon as you’re out of the army?”

“Not right away. I think I need time to … well, to get back to normal.”

Eren hummed and nodded. After the horrors they had seen in this war, they all needed time to adjust back to normal life.

“But,” Armin went on, “it would be nice to fall in love. I’ve never even kissed a girl.”

Eren chuckled. “Really? Not even a childhood kiss? Wasn’t there ever some girl back home, a classmate, a neighbor’s daughter?”

“Not really. I was a small child and the girls picked on me. What about you?”

Eren’s eyes drifted off with a sad smile. “I’ve kissed two people.”

“Really?” Armin said in shock. “No offense, sir, but you normally seem to avoid women, or you treat them distantly.”

Eren hummed in consternation. “Does it seem that way?”

“Yes! Especially when we were in Paris. You turned down women all the time, and usually Jean picked them up as they recovered from your rejections. I shouldn't say this, but Connie once joked that maybe you were homosexual. Don’t be too mad, he was drunk.”

Eren shook his head, gazing out with feverish cheeks. “I just never saw the point. I’m not like Jean, I don’t want to fuck a woman just to get it out of my system. I … have never fallen in love with a woman.”

“But at least you’ve kissed a few.”

He shrugged. “We were children, it was an experiment.”

“Still more than me. Don’t worry, sir. You’ll find a nice wife one day.”

Eren shrugged without much concern for that. “I can’t imagine settling down. To be honest, I’m not sure if I’d want to raise children. I don’t really see myself that way.”

“You … You do plan on getting married someday, right?”

Eren hummed and muttered, “I guess I just can’t see my life outside of war. Once it’s over, I wouldn’t have the slightest idea what to do. My whole life has been one long training session to fight a war.” He looked over at the door, thinking about what Levi said, that he once thought being a soldier was the only thing he was good at. Obviously, he somehow settled into a pastoral life after years of killing. “I wonder what he did before the war. He was married, you know.”

Armin looked amused. “You’re learning a lot about our little Jew.”

“Yet I feel like I know nothing about him. Oh hey, where’s that Jewish book I gave you?”

“He left it in his cell.”

“Shit! Can you go get it? If that book is discovered, he could get into a lot of trouble.”

“That book is important, isn’t it?”

Eren’s eyes softened as he remembered listening to Levi read from the Tanakh. “It belonged to his mother and is the most precious thing in the world to him.”

“So why do you have—” Armin’s words cut off. “You’re not keeping it out of blackmail; that’s not like you. No, you’re protecting it. For him!”

“It keeps him in line.”

“He sure seems to stay in line without you holding onto it. He volunteered to watch over you, and he even fixed you breakfast.” Armin chuckled with envy. “I think he’s grown fond of you.”

Eren sputtered and blushed as he shouted, “Wh-What do you mean…”

Just then, Levi stepped into the room, his black hair damp and steam clinging to his clothes.

“You really like to look out for him,” Armin said in amusement, standing up from his perch on the bed. “I’ll get the book after breakfast. Any chance I can take your little maid and have him fix me food as well?”

Eren laughed and grabbed Levi by the wrist, yanking him toward the bed. “Finde deinen eigenen Juden.” Find your own Jew.

Du bist so besitzergreifend!” You’re so possessive! Armin laughed as he walked away and left the bedroom.

Meanwhile, Levi yanked his arm back. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

Eren leaned back and rested his eyes. “We were joking about who gets to keep you as a pet.”

“Fuck you both.” He put his hand on Eren’s forehead. “You’re still burning up. Dammit, I can’t get you more paracetamol yet.”

Eren hummed and felt his head drifting. “Wadenwickel und Schafgarbe. Like what I did for you.”

“I’m not bathing you, takhshet.”

Eren giggled softly. “Every time you call me that, it’s like you’re calling me darling.”

“I’m calling you a brat, asshole.”

“Like how a mother calls her child names.”

“Seriously, shut up. You’re rambling nonsense. Try to sleep off the fever.”

Ja, liebe Mutter.” Yes, mother dear. His voice drifted off, and Eren was quickly out.

Levi pouted and felt his forehead again. Eren really was burning up. He took a towel and went to the kitchen to wet it. Then he wrapped it around Eren’s legs, like what Eren had done when Levi was feverish with illness. He stroked some sweat-soaked strands of hair off Eren’s forehead.

He muttered to the sleeping soldier, “With a mere child like you, of course I act like a doting mother, you asshole.” His hand rested on Eren’s hair, and his eyes softened. “Takhshet,” he whispered.

He heard the bathroom door open, and Levi’s hand yanked back off Eren’s head. He cursed under his breath and walked to the window as he saw Armin’s shadow shuffling through the hallway. Outside, the sun was just starting to rise, casting long shadows in the street as soldiers changed shifts and began their morning patrols.

He heard a groan behind him. “Levi?”

He turned around and saw Eren with his face pinched in a feverish nightmare. Levi walked back over, smoothed out the tension in his brow, and Eren slipped into better dreams with a sigh.

Es tut mir leid,” Eren apologized in a mumble without waking up.

Levi stroked Eren’s head and softly sang a lullaby.

Do, do, l’enfant do,
L’enfant dormira bien vite.
Do, do, l’enfant do,
L’enfant dormira bientôt.”

A relaxed smile melted over Eren’s flushed cheeks, so boyish, and he drifted off into a calm sleep. Levi kept caressing Eren’s head as he whispered, “Fais de beaux rêves et un bon rétablissement.” Sweet dreams and a speedy recovery.

# # #

# #

#

Levi is singing an old French lullaby, “L’enfant do.” Here in the United States, we learned a few French songs in elementary school, including this one. - https://youtu.be/11P4zsDr6Ss

Before 1933, Germany had a vibrant gay community. Many openly gay men joined the Nazi Party, including Ernst Röhm, co-founder of the Sturmabteilung (SA) and close friend of Adolf Hitler. The Nazi Party had strong anti-gay policies, but Hitler tried to protect Röhm at first, insisting that rumors about his homosexuality were lies spread by Jews, although Röhm was fairly open about his sexuality. As soon as Hitler felt Röhm was a liability and his party was determined to wipe out all gay people, Hitler had him murdered.

Shortly after the deaths of Röhm and many other prominent gay men in the Nazi Party, Heinrich Himmler became very active in the suppression of homosexuality. He exclaimed: “We must exterminate these people root and branch… the homosexual must be eliminated.” Himmler created a special division of the Gestapo, Reichszentrale zur Bekämpfung der Homosexualität und Abtreibung (Reich Central Office for the Combating of Homosexuality and Abortion).

A non-Jewish homosexual could escape prison and death by agreeing to marry the opposite sex and having a child. The Nazi’s key point was that in order to create a “master race,” Germans were expected to procreate prolifically. Thus, a gay man or lesbian woman decreased Germany’s population growth and served no purpose to Aryan society.

One million Germans were accused of being homosexual, 100,000 were arrested, 50,000 refused to conform and were imprisoned, hundreds were castrated, and an estimated 5,000 to 15,000 were sent to concentration camps. There, homosexuals wore a pink triangle and received particularly sadistic treatment, with a death rate of 60%.

So Levi was right: Nazis do not tolerate homosexuality.

Chapter Text

After a week, Eren was well again. During that time, he had sneaked as much medicine to Levi as he could without arousing suspicion. Levi helped with the nurse tending Eren, and when they were alone, Eren tended Levi’s scars on his back from the lashing, rubbing on ointments and removing the stitches on the severe ones Armin had sutured.

During this time, Levi got to eat normal food—albeit military rationed. He had to admit, by the time Eren was deemed healthy enough to return to duty, he also felt much better, recovered from the tortures he had been through over the past month.

He was also a bit spoiled, having a clean room to sleep in, a sink to wash up in whenever he wanted to, and a real toilet. Sleeping next to Eren was annoying the first two nights, but by the end it felt strangely comforting. He even woke up one night to find Eren had wrapped his arms around Levi’s legs and snuggled against his feet. Levi just sighed and fell back to sleep. He felt strangely protected letting Eren hold him in the night, and that was a feeling Levi had not experienced before, probably never in his entire life.

When the fever broke and Eren was deemed healthy enough to return to his duties, he had a meeting with his platoon. Levi was left to rest upstairs in the bedroom while the German soldiers argued between themselves. When the discussion was over, Eren returned to the room with a defeated look.

“I tried to convince them to keep you here as a personal servant. Armin and Thomas liked the idea, Jean, Connie, Franz, and the rest were against it.”

Levi sighed and shook his head. “Obviously that wouldn’t be allowed. I could kill you all in the night and escape.”

“If you really wanted to do that, you already would have.” Eren looked miserably apologetic. “You have to go back to the dungeon.”

“I expected as much,” Levi said, trying to be coldly logical about this. Still, his hand touched the quilt on the bed. “It was nice while it lasted.”

Eren took a bold step forward. “Yes, it was.”

Levi looked over, but something about those teal eyes made his heart race and ache. He stomped over to the window to escape that tender gaze. “You should take me back.”

“Levi—”

“Now!” He sneered as he whispered, “And take care of yourself, takhshet.”

Eren smiled at hearing that reluctant compassion. “You too. Stay out of trouble.”

He walked Levi back to the castle dungeon, thanking him once again before locking him in his cell. Eren had color in his cheeks and was eager to get lots of sunshine, while Levi stared around at the darkness closing in around him.

He had to go back to eating watery broth and stale bread, randomly hit by soldiers for no reason other than they thought it was fun to beat up a Jew, spending from sunrise to long past sunset hunched over toilets or cooking pots, his hands getting rough and raw from lye soap and scratchy scrub brushes. It reinforced the miserable position he was in: a prisoner, not much more than a slave to Nazis.

It might have almost been tolerable if he could have seen Eren a few times, but the young lieutenant was determined to catch up with work. The few times Levi caught sight of him around town, Eren was surrounded by other soldiers, either deep in conversation with officers, or goofing around with his platoon mates. Levi’s heart felt warm to see him enjoying life, but then a chill sank in as he felt like he had been forgotten.

He risked getting sick to care for Eren, and Eren could not even be bothered to glance his way.

“As it should be,” Levi muttered to himself. If Eren had continued to be friendly with him, he would probably scold him to watch himself. Wasn’t this precisely what he had been telling Eren to do for weeks? To not be too friendly? To not slip down into the dungeon and risk others thinking he was sympathetic to the enemy?

So why did it hurt when Eren actually obeyed and stopped favoring him? Why did he miss that bed and feeling Eren cuddling his legs in the night?

Stupid Nazi swine!

Saturday rolled around, and Eren finally showed up with a few members of his platoon.

“Bath time!” he announced, but he said nothing else to Levi, unlocking his door with a brief two seconds of their eyes meeting, then moving on to the next door.

He marched the Jews down to the river to bathe. The women finally felt at ease, knowing Eren watched out for them and never once whistled or stared at them suggestively. So Levi was able to bathe with the men while the women bathed a few meters upriver. They went back to the castle, Eren secretly handed over the Tanakh for only as long as it took him and his men to eat in the castle kitchens, and he took it back after their meal was done. A few words, exchanged, that was all.

“So, how have you been?”

“I’m a slave to Nazi scum. How are your lungs?”

“Doing well, thanks to you. I have to get going to a meeting. Take care.”

“Thank you for continuing to keep my book safe.”

Natürlich!” Of course!

That was all. A few words, and Eren avoided him for the rest of the week. Levi began to look forward to the sabbath for reasons other than religion. Annoyingly, he found himself eager to see Eren again, even if they barely talked anymore.

* * *

June rolled into July, and the early summer of 1944 passed by. On the Normandy coast, Germany had lost 97 kilometers of beach, with Allies surging as much as fifteen kilometers inland. Estimates were that 875,000 Allies had gathered for what was obviously staging to be a large offensive by the combined British, French, Canadian, and American troops.

For the moment, this “invasion” was a speck on the map, but a troublesome speck that cost many lives.

On the 20th of July, a plot to assassinate Hitler failed. The Führer was injured and four people in the room with Hitler were killed in the blast. It led to every member of the Wehrmacht needing to reaffirm their oath of loyalty to Hitler.

In the scorching July sun, Eren stood with all the others in the village square, loudly declaring the oath.

* * *

Ich schwöre bei Gott diesen heiligen Eid,
daß ich dem Führer des Deutschen Reiches und Volkes
Adolf Hitler, dem Oberbefehlshaber der Wehrmacht,
unbedingten Gehorsam leisten und als tapferer Soldat bereit sein will,
jederzeit für diesen Eid mein Leben einzusetzen.

 

“I swear to God this sacred oath
that to the Leader of the German Reich and people,
Adolf Hitler, supreme commander of the armed forces,
I shall render unconditional obedience and that as a brave soldier
I shall at all times be prepared to give my life for this oath.”

* * *

Also, rather than a military salute, they were required to only give the Hitlergruß, Hitler Salute. Twice, Eren unthinkingly saluted with his hand simply up to his hat saying “Jawohl” rather than his arm straight out saying “Heil Hitler,” and was swiftly reminded to only give the Hitlergruß from now on.

Then August came, and to the Germans, it was like the impossible happened all at once. Allies, including the French Forces of the Interior, were on the move. On August 4th, they liberated Rennes, the capital city of Brittany. The Allies were marching south, blitzing through France. Ten days later, American and French troops landed in Côte d’Azur, and the Germans there, weakened by troops being relocated north, had little choice but to flee before the surging might and air superiority. While the Germans were retreating to Dijon, the French captured the ports of Marseille and Toulon. The German Army was on the run.

Then, on the 25th of August, they got the shocking news.

Eren stormed into the house where his platoon was drinking and playing cards, and he threw his hat across the room in rage.

Verdammt,” he shouted, as if he had been holding that curse in for hours.

Armin came up timidly. “Bad news?”

“We lost Paris.”

Everyone in the house shouted in shock and gathered around.

“British? Americans?” Jean asked anxiously.

“No. The Parisians themselves. The city police, armed civilians, even children helped to set up barricades in the streets. The French army did not even show up until things were practically over. It was just … civilians. Fighting for their city.”

Connie laughed. “They’ll bomb the whole thing, no big deal.”

Armin looked worried. “I heard a rumor that the Führer said Paris should be obliterated if the Allies try to take it.”

Eren slumped on a seat, his hands in fists. “The order was sent to General Choltitz to level Paris before ever surrendering. He ignored a direct order from Hitler and handed over the city after only a few days of skirmishes.”

“Traitor!” Jean screamed.

“Or protector?” Armin offered timidly. “What would have been gained from destroying Paris? Nothing, and we would have wasted artillery on a purely vain move. Think of all that could have been lost. All that history. All that culture.”

Eren leaned back and stared at the cracked ceiling. “I liked Paris. We weren’t there for long, but I’d like to return one day. I didn’t even get to see the Louvre.”

He growled, torn between being glad that the city that had been his refuge after the hell of Anzio was safe, and enraged that it was now home to Allies, no longer proudly flying the Parteiflagge. Many Germans had died to capture Paris—Jean was screaming about how his cousin died in the Battle of Arras—so Eren’s first instinct was to be enraged.

What right did General Choltitz have to simply surrender against an insurrection of mere civilians? Did he even try to contain the situation? How dare he disobey Hitler! How could a coward like that rise to the rank of General, and how could a traitor like him be placed in control of a city as important as Paris?

Yet maybe because he lived in Paris and saw its beauty, General Choltitz understood better than anyone that Paris was simply not Paris without the history and culture that were a part of its very soul. Without all that, it was merely another city. If they simply bombed it to the dust, the sacrifice of German soldiers to capture the city was all in vain.

Eren yanked himself out of these frustratingly complicated thoughts, picked his cap back up, and dusted it off.

“I came to tell you that. I don’t know what it will mean for us here. Maybe nothing for a while, maybe we’ll be sent to finish the job that General Choltitz refused to do. You may want to write home to your families, but do not mention this loss.” He turned aside.

“Where are you going?” Armin called out.

“To smoke and to take my aggression out on a Jew.”

Connie barked a laugh at that, but Armin pouted with worry.

Eren stepped outside and lit up a cigarette. Damn it all! This war had seemed all but won until the Americans butted in. Now, in just two months, they had taken over the Normandy coast, Romania left the Axis to join the Allies, in the east Poles were rising up, they lost Brest-Litovsk, Minsk, Florence, Rome, and many other key cities. Now Paris! Not only that, but someone tried to bomb Hitler.

“What is going on with Germany?” Eren growled, nearly crushing his cigarette.

What was the scene like back home? What was going on in Berlin? They were probably lucky not to be in all these war zones, being forced to retreat, but still! He was stuck in some quiet French town, helplessly sitting there, hearing reports of defeats, surrenders, and mass retreats all around him, unable to rush out there and help in the fight.

Why was it all falling apart so suddenly?

Hitler had promised to make Germany great, a power that would lead the entire world, as befitting their Aryan heritage.

Now, he had ordered Paris to be leveled. Choltitz disobeyed direct orders, and Eren found he agreed with the general who was deemed a traitor by Germany. He heard that upon fleeing Florence, the German army destroyed many historical buildings. What was the point? All that history … Europe’s history! Destroyed. For what? Because they didn’t get their way? There was no tactical reason to destroy culturally significant buildings. There was no tactical advantage in leveling Paris to the ground.

If he was ordered to burn down this village before leaving…

If he was ordered to slaughter all the Jews before leaving…

Verdammt!” he hissed, and he stomped out his cigarette.

Eren marched to the castle. He honestly had not been keeping up with the Jews over the past month. First, he was pushed to catch up with work, then he was called in to translate English chatter on the radio. He was ready to leave this small town, to return to the fight! More than once, he almost volunteered his platoon for the front lines so his tired compatriots still battling the Allies could rest.

Then he thought about the Jews under his protection.

Not really under his protection, of course. He was powerless to truly save them.

Still, he felt torn. He wanted to help in the war effort, but so long as no orders came to leave, he could continue to help people here.

Jewish people, though!

Wasn’t he being a traitor, same as Choltitz?

He stomped down, but the dungeon was empty. He roamed around the town. Where was Levi working now? They had rarely needed him as a translator, and Eren no longer knew his schedule. Cleaning, at least. Always cleaning. It was the only reason the Germans kept these Jews around, to take care of the worst cleaning duties, things the locals did not want to do and the soldiers only did as punishment.

Paris liberated headline

He saw a local man holding a French newspaper with the words Paris Est Délivré. Eren yanked the paper from the man’s hands, and the poor villager ran off in terror. Eren rolled the paper up to hide the title. He then walked up to a group of German soldiers.

“That Jew who knows English. Is he still around? He’s needed for translating.”

“I don’t know, Herr Leutnant, but Schmidt complained about seeing some of those filthy Jews down by the bakery.”

Eren went to the baker, but Levi was not there; however, the baker said a group was sent to another part of the town. It took Eren a bit of asking around, but finally he found Levi scrubbing toilets again.

“Levi. I want you to read something. Now! Schnell!

Levi set aside a scrub brush and rose slowly, holding his back after being bent over for so many hours scrubbing on his knees. Eren took him down to the river, away from the noise of the village. Once they were away from the main road, with the babbling of the river and the songs of birds, Eren handed over the rolled-up newspaper.

“Read this, but not aloud.”

At first Levi figured that Eren needed the newspaper to be translated. Then he unrolled it and saw the title. He looked up to Eren with massive, astonished eyes.

“Is this for real?” he asked, his voice already shivering.

“Considering how furious Hauptmann Woermann is and all the chatter on the radios, it’s certainly no dream.”

“Paris … is liberated?”

“Only the city. We still hold most of the country.” Eren took a seat on the riverbank atop a tuft of clovers and stretched his army boots out. He tapped out another cigarette, rested it between his lips, and struck a match. “Read quickly. You have until I finish smoking.”

Levi sat down and poured over the paper, reading everything. Eren watched as he puffed on the cigarette, letting it burn slowly.

What was a horrible defeat and had Germans screaming the word traitor was the best news the French people had in four years.

He closed his eyes and shook his head. Politically, he and Levi were enemies. Personally, though? He wanted to think they were close to being friends. Maybe that was optimistic, not to mention dangerous.

He also knew he had not been a very good friend. After a week sleeping in the same bed and eating all their meals together, he had purposely put distance between them. Part of it was that he was honestly swamped with work, part of it was that the captain had seemed to forget that Jews were even around, so he did not want to remind Kitz by doing anything suspicious, and part of it was his own squad looking out for him. The first week after recovering from pneumonia, every time Eren seemed to be walking in the direction of the castle, Jean warned him against it. He might have put up with his commanding officer using a Jew as a nurse, but he was not about to silently watch as Eren continued to risk his life with befriending the enemy.

Forced to stay away, he saw the danger in getting too close. Even now, his eyes lingered on Levi … and that was risky.

He let his cigarette burn as low as possible. Then he lit up another. Levi did not even realize, he was so enthralled with the news, committing every detail to memory so he could tell the other Jews later. Eren wondered if they would celebrate and sing some French songs in the dungeon that night.

That cigarette burned out, and still Levi read. Eren leaned back against a tree to listen to the peaceful trickling of the river.

Let him! Let him have this moment, this glimpse of the world around him, this glimmer of hope. Heaven knows, he needed it.

Finally, Levi leaned up and stared straight ahead. He was speechless and shook his head, torn between wanting to cry with joy and knowing deep in his heart, this German loss would make his own life hell.

“What will your platoon do?”

“No orders yet. We’re to maintain this position and not fall back. If the people begin to revolt like they did in Paris, my orders are to open fire.”

“On civilians?” Levi asked in horror.

Eren sneered in distaste. “I don’t like it, but orders are orders.”

“And you follow orders,” Levi muttered, remembering the sting of the whip.

“When I must, yes. If they are trying to kill me or my men, I will eliminate any threat, whether if they’re wearing a uniform or not. I don’t like it,” he grumbled, “but the lives of my men come first.”

Eren glanced back at the village and the traffic on the road going to the river. If they were alone, if so many people did not already know that Eren had been searching for this Jew … the river was not too wide. Two minutes, maybe three if Levi was stealthy, he could be across and off to freedom. Just two minutes! Eren shook his head, banishing the regret that he could not disobey rules for at least this.

“My suggestion to you: stay down. Look for an opening. I’d let you cross this river right now, but we’re not completely alone. So wait for your chance and take it. Don’t hesitate.”

Levi gazed up at Eren. “I’ve planned to do that from the beginning, but I won’t if it means the rest of my people will suffer.”

“Your conscience again?”

“It’s a good thing to have.” Levi debated something, but finally decided to go on. “If I vanish one day, know I’m grateful for all you’ve done. I don’t like saying this to a Nazi bastard like you, but … I owe you my life. I hope that someday, I can pay back this debt.”

“Jews don’t like being in debt,” Eren teased.

“A good Jew never falls into such a deep debt as this,” Levi retorted with a playful gleam in his eye. He turned aside to hide from such a lighthearted feeling. Maybe it was just giddiness from the news about Paris.

“Levi,” he whispered. Eren looked up the road toward the forest, a refuge that was so close, yet so far away. “If you ever escape from here, where do you plan to go?”

His eyes widened fractionally. “Anywhere else! To be honest, my goal is to make it to America. I have a cousin there, I already know English, and Jews are accepted. There is not a war on American soil at the moment. Even if the war spreads there, a country that large, you could hide anywhere. I’ve heard that you can walk for days and days and not see a single person.”

“Sounds lonely.”

“I will take loneliness over another night in a filthy prison cell.”

Eren looked down and twirled his finger around a clover flower. “Company might be nice.”

The furrow in Levi’s brow deepened. “What the hell are you saying, takhshet?”

“Nothing,” he said, smiling to himself.

“Eren!” he warned sternly.

He stopped playing with the flower and stood up. “You should get back.”

“What did you mean by that? Are you thinking about deserting the army?”

“No! It’s nothing, okay. Nothing!” Eren scowled and dropped his head. “I just know me. I don’t always follow rules. I break them all the time in my own way, and I could get in trouble someday. I’ve thought about that. What would I do if that happened? Where could I possibly run? I hate the British; I would never go there. Americans are almost as bad, but I guess I don’t have any real reason to hate them. I hear there are many Germans in America. A place with no people around, solitude for as far as you can see, no people to judge me, to hate me … maybe then, I will not get into trouble.”

“Seriously, what do you mean? In trouble over what?”

Eren laughed bitterly and turned his face to the river. “For being me.”

Levi began to step forward, reaching out hesitantly. “Eren—”

“Get away!” he screamed, but he caught his breath immediately. He trembled as he looked at Levi, those dark eyes so soft and worried about him. “Don’t … Don’t touch me.”

Levi pulled back, seeing utter terror in the young soldier’s face. Eren suddenly grabbed the newspaper out of Levi’s hand and ripped it in half.

“France shall not fall, not to the Allies, not to anyone! It will never happen. Never! Hitler shall walk through the streets of Paris again. Germany is strong. Aryans are strong! Heil Hitler!” he yelled, but his face flinched. “Now, get back to your duties, Jew. That’s an order.”

Levi grumbled in Yiddish, “Nem Zich a vaneh.” Go jump in a lake. He trudged back up the riverbank and followed the village road.

Eren watched him go, and his eyes drifted down to Levi’s rump. “It will never happen,” he whispered. “Never. It can never … happen … because for being me … I could be killed.” A convulsive chill ran through his body, and he spun away as his teeth clenched to stop shivering. “Verdammt! Das ist warum ich mich von dir fern gehalten habe. Ich bring dir noch den Tod.” Dammit! This is why I stayed away from you. I’ll bring you death.

He threw the torn newspaper into the river and watched it float away, just as it seemed like France, and victory of this war, was floating out of the grasp of Germany.

# # #

# #

#

Parteiflagge = “Party Flag,” the flag of the Nazi Party, consisting of a hakenkreuz (swastika turned at an angle to create a hooked cross) on a white disk upon a red field.

Battle of Arras – during the Battle of France in 1940, the British and French tried to take a stand in the Battle of Arras. While they initially made the Germans panic, they simply did not have the manpower to hold the line. However, they bought the Allies time to evacuate the mainland from Dunkirk, rescuing over 300,000 soldiers. There were 300 German casualties, and 100 British soldiers were killed, while 200 were captured as prisoners of war. 80 of these Allied prisoners were murdered in the Wormhoudt massacre, which was reenacted in the 2004 BBC docudrama Dunkirk.

The newspaper Eren saw was the headline from L’Aube.

Paris liberated headline

Nem Zich a vaneh – “go jump in a lake,” my mother-in-law’s favorite Yiddish curse. She will even tell the dog to go jump in a lake.

Yiddish cursing is an art form. They come in the form of predictions (“may you have...”) or implications of misfortune without directly stating them. (“Go jump in a lake” = go drown.) Bonus points if they invoke the Bible. “May God bless you with the best of the Ten Plagues” is a classic Jewish curse.

The best curses start off sounding pleasant until you get to the end, where it hits with a zinger that can leave a room laughing, increasing the humiliation in a way that calling a person a “bastard” just doesn’t do. Why say “I hope you die” when there are things worse than death, like being forced to live in agony or humiliation. “May you live to 120 with a boil on your ass.” Ouch! Or “May you have more sons and daughters than Job, without your wife ever discovering that you’re sterile.” Boom! Not only calling into question the bastard’s fertility, but also saying his wife cheats on him.

In the 21st century, Yiddish curses have taken a modern flare. “May your tweets always be one character too long. May you take the perfect Instagram photo and not get a single like. May you become an internet meme for all the wrong reasons. May your phone’s battery drop to 1% just as your crush calls you.” Or every writer’s nightmare, “May your tweet trend because of a grammar mistake.” (A literal nightmare of mine that came true on Tumblr and haunts me to this day!)

In the United States, 80% of Jews are Democrats, and the Republican Party has a bad reputation in the Jewish community, considering most neo-Nazi groups identify as Republicans. (NOT saying all Republicans are antisemitic, it’s just an awful statistic.) This has led to a new Yiddish curse: “May your child grow up to be a Republican.” I overheard someone say this curse to my mother-in-law: “May you live long enough to see your son become a Republican, and may he vote to cut health care one day before you’re diagnosed with cancer.” Yikes! That’s bitter, yet ironic, because my husband actually was a Republican. (To be fair, he recently changed to Libertarian because he strongly disagrees with the new platforms the party now supports.)

Chapter Text

It was the sort of late August day that made northern France one of the best places on Earth, in Levi’s opinion. The sunshine made his skin tingle as he scrubbed out a cauldron that had cooked something savory for the soldiers. The smell of that leftover food made his stomach tighten.

He missed real food. Once, he despised the idea of eating something that had been cooked for Germans, but after living with Eren, he realized that food was food. Whether if it was made for the enemy, or even made from pork, to stay alive he needed to eat. He got to eat like a normal person while tending to Eren’s sickbed, but that teased taste of savory food left behind a sense of longing that he had thought he suppressed after four years running from Nazis.

As his gut made a decidedly furious growl, he could hardly help himself. He reached into the pot, to a spot with a portion of a potato stuck against the cast iron. It was hard, baked on, but he dug it off with his nails. He popped the wedge into his mouth, and for a moment his mind flashed into the past.

“Petra,” he sighed.

She had loved growing herbs and potatoes, and she was so proud of her cast iron pots and pans, passed down from her grandmother. She would cook meals with lamb chops, potatoes, carrots, and anything she could get to grow in the garden. Her smile was his sun, her laugh his manna, her cooking…

Jude!

His eyes flashed in anger as the good memory was interrupted. Kitz Woermann had rarely approached any of the Jews, and for that they were glad. The few times he had, Levi often had to tend to the damage he left in his wake.

The captain’s bulging eyes were not wild, but insidious this time. Levi stared him down. This would be a fight, he already knew it. The question was, just how bad, and did he dare to defend himself?

The captain seemed to be questioning him, but Levi stared in silence. One of these days, he would have to ask Eren to teach him some German, just so he could know what the hell was going on.

As Levi sat there eying Kitz, he realized his mind had switched into that of the soldier he once had been. He calculated five ways to kill this man, and twenty ways to escape any sort of attack, besides Kitz pulling out his gun and shooting Levi point-blank. Even with that, the pot in his hands would deflect a bullet, if he had time to lift it as a shield.

What he had not anticipated were two soldiers who managed to sneak up behind him without a sound. Levi realized too late, this was more than just a mindless rant.

They made a grab at him, and Levi twirled out of their grip. He was on his feet, crouched low. He heard Kitz shouting commands, but his focus remained on the other soldiers. They were well-built and swift. The fact that they managed to sneak up on him showed to Levi that these men were not to be underestimated. They were well-trained, and he realized he was in some serious danger. Whatever the captain was up to, it was not going to be a mere punched face or cracked rib.

Dammit, where’s Eren when I need him?

He despised the idea that he felt he needed that young German soldier, but without knowing what the captain wanted, without someone there to calm things down, Levi was running out of options.

Fight!

Yet he knew, if he fought he very well might be killed, simply shot dead. Then again, he might take one of them with him.

No, fighting was stupid. He needed to survive. He had promised Petra…

Levi calmed himself, and as repugnant as it was, he raised his hands in surrender. The two men charged, and immediately his arms were yanked behind him. He expected that much. Then came the punch to the gut. Also expected; he would have done no differently. Other hits, he figured were warranted. He had resisted and faced off for a moment, after all.

It all hurt, but Levi had known worse. What annoyed him was how far they had wrenched back his arm. The strain on his shoulder was beginning to burn, and one thing he could not afford was to have a torn tendon. Those healed too slowly. Broken bones healed quicker.

Finally, they seemed to be satisfied with their punishment, and Levi was shoved forward. Thankfully, only one held him, and merely by the collar of his shirt. The other had his gun pointed into Levi’s back as they forced him to march.

He kept his head high as he was paraded down one of the town’s main streets and into a square. Kitz was barking orders again, and Levi tried to keep calm. If they wanted him dead, he would already be so. Soldiers were calling out orders all around, and he saw that they were being gathered, all of them, the entire company. He heard the German words alle Soldaten, which meant the call was for all the soldiers.

This was going to be a public display.

Levi cursed to himself. This had to be about the liberation of Paris. The captain likely wanted to show Germany’s superiority over France. Picking one of the villagers could cause a rebellion, which was precisely what they were ordered to prevent.

So they picked a Jew as the victim, enough to spur on the soldiers disparaged by the loss, but without too much fear from the populace.

After all, how many of these villagers cared about a Jew, even one who was also French?

* * *

Eren opened the door to a frantic knock and was shocked to see one of the local girls.

“Krista!” he exclaimed, remembering the French girl who spoke German, and who had given him some of her bread after he warned her not to make her bilingual knowledge known.

Sie müssen mit mir kommen!” You must come with me!

He quickly hushed her. If anyone knew that a French villager spoke German, Levi lost his usefulness as a translator.

She dropped her voice to a whisper. “Die jüdischen Gefangenen liegen Ihnen am Herzen, oder?” The Jewish prisoners are special to you, right?

Eren felt a clench in his chest. Why would she care about the prisoners, unless… “What’s happening?” He felt his pulse already racing with dread.

She shook her head. “I only heard a little. Two Jews, the town square, they are trying to gather all the German soldiers, a display … I’m sorry, I did not catch much. I just know it’s bad. The soldiers, they said … get you, get Jäger, so you can tell that Jewish translator to warn the women and children to stay away.”

“Stay away?”

“Whatever this is about, it will be that bad. Bad enough so that your captain does not want women to see.”

Eren felt sick to his stomach. “Where’s Levi? The bilingual one? Did you see him?”

“In the square already under guard. I saw them bringing another up along the street. They said two would get punished.”

Verdammt!

Eren ran past her, racing through the streets at a speed that almost made him trip over his heavy boots. Levi! What the hell was the captain planning to do to him?

As he reached the town square, Eren saw that he was already too late. Kitz Woermann was there, as were the other two officers and a half dozen regular soldiers. Levi had a rifle in his back. Their eyes met briefly, and Eren saw in those narrow eyes a look he had seen once before, a nightmare from his childhood, eyes that knew it was too late for him, so he should save himself.

Mein Gott, nicht wieder.” My God, not again.

“Jäger!” Kitz shouted out.

Eren knew this was bad, because the captain was smiling. Shoving down his dread, he approached.

“I’m glad they found you so quickly.”

“I just happened to be here, Herr Hauptmann,” he lied. “What’s going on?”

“A public reminder, that’s all. Given the current atmosphere and the orders coming from Berlin, I want this to be a show only for us Germans. Have this Jew tell the French to send their women and children away.”

Eren had been to public displays like this. The ones he had witnessed were hangings. Glancing around, he realized they were near a tall tree that would serve that purpose. When Eren saw hangings, they had been slow and horrible, no quick drop and a snapped neck. One man hung from the tree for ten minutes before simply being shot.

“If I may, Herr Hauptmann,” Eren said, “if you wish to avoid French interference, the town square is the worst place. It should be just we Germans. The field outside of town, perhaps.” Eren knew there were no trees out in that field. At least Levi would not be hanged.

Kitz looked confused for a moment, but then his sick smile spread. “Brilliant, Jäger. A field will do just as well, and there will be plenty of room for everyone.” He slapped Eren on the back. “You have a sharp mind, a trait of fine schooling.”

“Thank the Führer and Napola,” Eren said, forcing a proud smile.

Heil Hitler!” bellowed Kitz.

Despite the sickness in his gut, Eren returned the cheer. “Heil Hitler.

The group beginning to gather were ordered to go to the field. Just as they were marching forward, two others arrived with the Jew named Moses between them, obviously confused and terrified. He was shoved close to Levi, and the two stayed together, realizing their lives were now in peril.

Eren stayed close to Kitz as they moved through the streets, but gradually he drifted away. As the captain turned to speak with Leutnant Gunther Schultz, Eren slipped over to Levi, close enough to whisper to him in English.

“What did you do?” he hissed.

“How the hell should I know! Maybe because I ate a piece of burnt potato off a pot I was cleaning. Maybe this bug-eyed bastard has decided he’s sick of knowing we clean up his shit.”

“You did nothing?” asked Eren.

“Not to provoke him. I may have yanked away when his men suddenly grabbed me, but that’s it. I’m as confused as you are. Look, takhshet…” Levi sighed as the furrow between his brows deepened. “Promise me one thing. Whatever they do, don’t stop it. If they beat me, don’t shout. If they shoot me, don’t weep. If they hand you the whip again … do it!”

Eren looked down at the small man in sadness. “Levi…”

“Survive this! Do you understand? Be strong. Live, no matter the price.” His throat began to choke up, realizing those had been the last words Petra said to him, and now here he was, telling this Nazi soldier the same thing. Still, Eren was not just some Nazi swine anymore. “You’re a good man,” he whispered, “the sort of man Europe needs if it’s going to recover from all these years of war. So don’t do anything stupid. Survive this damn war, and no matter which side wins, promise me you’ll do whatever you can to make Europe a better place.”

Eren gulped hard but forced himself to stiffen up, already obeying his orders. “You … You make a good captain, Levi.”

“In another time and place, I was one,” he reminded the young lieutenant. “If you’re willing to take an order from a former French soldier, then obey mine. Don’t do anything stupid. Survive however you can, and don’t regret anything you must do to live on.”

“No regrets,” Eren said in a solemn promise.

Eren feared that this might be the last conversation they had together; however, the Germans still needed Levi as a translator, that much was obvious simply because of situations like earlier. In fact, with threats of rebellion amongst the French, they needed Levi more than ever.

Eren guessed they would hang one, and if any harm came to Levi, it would be non-fatal. Another flogging? Was that why he mentioned a whip?

Takhshet,” Levi whispered again as they marched over the wildflowers. “All of us Jews—all of us—are glad for what you’ve done so far.”

Eren looked over sharply. “You’re not going to die, Levi,” he insisted.

“Probably not,” he agreed, although he gave a sad look to the man next to him. Moses at least looked like he knew he was doomed. “Still, there are plenty of things worse than death, and much a man can suffer through without dying.”

“Levi…”

“I’m not afraid of pain. So long as I have my life and my dignity, I will survive this, one way or another.”

“And … him?” Eren looked over to the other Jew.

“His name is Moses.”

The other Jew looked over at hearing his name. “Qu’est-ce qui se passe?” What is it?

Il s’inquičte pour toi.” He is worried about you.

Moses spoke, and after he was done, Levi translated. “He says, he’s scared, but he has been prepared from the beginning of this war to do whatever it takes to survive. He’s also been prepared for death, if that is his fate. He is at peace with the Lord, and that is all any of us can hope for when it’s our time to leave this life and move on to the next.”

Eren looked over to the man, his dark eyes which Eren had been told were due to their blackened souls, his hawk nose which his school had said was proof that Jews were a different species of human than Aryans. This was a man Eren had been brought up to categorize as Untermensch, a lesser man, weak and inferior by the laws of science and genetics.

“Jews,” Eren said, weighing his words as a lifetime of prejudice slowly crumbled, “are strong.”

Levi looked at him, at first like he did not understand what he was trying to say, then a moment of amazement, followed by looking aside to hide any happiness those three words gave him.

“Damn right we are,” he replied gruffly.

Halt!

The group stopped, and the soldiers began to circle around. Some were still trotting over the field to catch up. Kitz told his men to push back into a large circle. He wanted to make sure everyone could view the spectacle.

Eren also stepped back, figuring his translating skills were unneeded now that they were away from the French village. Suddenly, he felt a hand on his shoulder and jolted around, not realizing just how tense he was. He saw Armin with Jean right behind him.

Jean had a scowl on his long face as he warned, “You’re getting too emotional about those Jews, Jäger.”

Armin, however, looked worried. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know,” Eren admitted.

Kitz stepped forward and addressed the entire gathering. “Paris fell. For that, Paris will burn. With time, the city that the French people see as their bright diamond will be nothing but rubble and dust. Just as we bombed London, so shall we bomb Paris. After that, we will strike against the Americans who made this possible, who attack like rats who have swum over a pond, attracted to the stench of death. Those you have lost, those you have killed to survive: their blood and their corpses attract these American rats. They will be exterminated, and then their cities will suffer the same fate. If it takes a year, if it takes ten years, Germany shall stand at the top of the world, and anyone who opposes shall tremble in our shadow.”

Someone in the crowd shouted a cheer they had heard hundreds of times. “Heute Deutschland, morgen die Welt!” Today Germany, tomorrow the world!

Another chimed in, “Lang lebe unser ruhmvoller Führer!” Long live our glorious leader!

Sieg Heil!” Kitz bellowed out, and the crowd as one snapped their arms out, shouting the praise back to him: “Sieg Heil!

“Yes!” Kitz bellowed. “We will shine as a beacon to the world. However, at the moment, we have rats right here amongst us. We have allowed these Jewish rats to exist, thinking it’s because we need them, because they do hard labor while we relax. As it should be!” he added. “What proud Aryan man should scrub pots like a housewife? Let the Jews! What strong German soldier who fights and bleeds for his Fatherland should be reduced to scrubbing toilets? Let the Jews!”

“They smell like shit anyway,” shouted a soldier.

Kitz’s bulging eyes gazed around at the gathered platoon. “That is what we have been saying. For months, we have simply let these Jews continue in our midst. They grow bold, we shove them down. They try to steal … we punish them. These two,” he said, pointing at Levi and Moses, “I caught them stealing our food. I personally witnessed both. I have soldiers who are supposed to watch over the rats, but obviously, like a fickle cat, their interest was drawn aside. They’ve stopped being vigilant.” His eyes turned straight to Eren, Armin, and Jean. “They’ve let them into their homes.”

Eren gulped thickly. Was he partly to blame for this?

“They’ve forgotten just how vile these Jews are. They’ve forgotten the warnings of Hitler. So I will remind all of you,” he said, turning around to the circle of soldiers, stopping again to glare at Eren, “and I will give you a lesson you shall not forget anytime soon. First, the Führer spoke about the German attitude to the Jewish problem. These are his words from twenty-four years ago.”

He pulled out a sheet of paper and read from it.

“ ‘For us, this is not a problem you can turn a blind eye to—one to be solved by small concessions. For us, it is a problem of whether our nation can ever recover its health, whether the Jewish spirit can ever really be eradicated. Don’t be misled into thinking you can fight a disease without killing the carrier, without destroying the bacillus. Don’t think you can fight racial tuberculosis without taking care to rid the nation of the carrier of that racial tuberculosis. This Jewish contamination will not subside, this poisoning of the nation will not end, until the carrier himself, the Jew, has been banished from our midst.’ ”

Kitz folded the paper up and tucked it aside.

“I keep the words of my Führer close to my heart. I memorize his wise advice and his prophecies. He said in Mein Kampf—which I know all of you have read—‘the personification of the devil as the symbol of all evil assumes the living shape of the Jew.’” Kitz pointed to the two men being held at gunpoint. “Tell me, what do you see in these two? Do you see poor men of France, or do you see the devil himself?”

“The devil,” the majority shouted. Eren realized that neither Armin nor Jean joined in, and for that he was slightly glad.

“And not only are they Jews. They are French. Do you know the Führer’s thoughts about the French?” He pulled out a book tucked under his arm. “I was re-reading Mein Kampf this morning and came across this.”

He flipped to a marker stuck between pages, held the book out to see the letters clearer, and enunciated.

“ ‘The French people, who are becoming more and more obsessed by Negroid ideas, represent a threatening menace to the existence of the white race in Europe, because they are bound up with the Jewish campaign for world-domination. For the contamination caused by the influx of negroid blood on the Rhine, in the very heart of Europe, is in accord with the sadist and perverse lust for vengeance on the part of the hereditary enemy of our people, just as it suits the purpose of the cool calculating Jew who would use this means of introducing a process of bastardization in the very center of the European Continent and, by infecting the white race with the blood of an inferior stock, would destroy the foundations of its independent existence. France’s activities in Europe today, spurred on by the French lust for vengeance and systematically directed by the Jew are a criminal attack against the life of the white race and will one day arouse against the French people a spirit of vengeance among a generation which will have recognized the original sin of mankind in this racial pollution.’

“We cannot allow these Jews and these negroid-loving French to push us, or it will be the death of the Aryan race. I will show you what sort of animals these are. These parasites. Lieutenant Jäger, come forward.”

Eren tried to look stern as he approached, but his stomach was already twisting. He had no idea what the captain had planned, but whatever it was, it was not good.

“Lieutenant Jäger, you were the one who suggested we use these creatures. Why?”

“A corpse serves only worms, Herr Hauptmann,” he replied.

“Do you pity them? If I shot one…” He pulled out his Webley and put it to Levi’s head. “…would you mourn?”

Eren’s face did not flinch. “Why would I?”

“Should we give these two a chance, although they stole from us?”

“That is at your discretion, Herr Hauptmann.”

“What if it was you, Jäger? If you had to make the call, what would it be? Punishment? Death?” He sneered with disgust. “Mercy?”

Eren weighed his words carefully. “I would punish them according to their crime.”

“And to the others? To the Germans who coddled them until they reached this point of thinking they can get away with stealing our food?”

“Such people deserve a lesson in the importance of differentiating an enemy from an ally.”

“A lesson,” Kitz mused. “What lesson would you teach all these fine, German men? Look at them, Herr Leutnant. What is your lesson?”

Eren looked out at the soldiers, all of them watching with anticipation. He had to say the words he knew, even if he no longer felt them in his heart.

“Jews … are not like us. They are, as the Führer said, a parasite, the personification of the devil. We must remember that fact. They may be useful for labor, but they are not like us. They are under us. Untermenschen! We must never fall into the false belief that we are equal to a parasite. To do that is to disgrace all the Aryan race. To disgrace Aryans is to disgrace Germany itself. To disgrace Germany,” he said with a fire in his teal eyes, “is to make you my enemy.”

Armin watched his lieutenant with a worried gaze. “Eren?” he whispered, hardly able to comprehend how he could say such words.

Kitz clapped slowly. “Such passion is befitting a lieutenant of pure Aryan blood!”

Eren shivered slightly but held his face still. His blood was not pure at all, even if legally he was not considered to be a half-breed.

“We are, indeed, above them. Let them continue to grovel in our shit for a few pieces of moldy bread, but let us also dole out a proper punishment, one even a parasite can understand. Jäger, ask the Jews this. Would you be willing to do anything to avoid being executed right here?”

Eren turned to Levi and repeated the question into English.

Levi’s eyes narrowed. “That depends. Some things, a man simply doesn’t do.”

“Levi, this may mean your life,” Eren urged, but the stubbornness in his face showed that he was not going to change his mind. “Fine. What does Moses say?”

Levi asked Moses in French, and it was obvious he was eager to agree to anything. Eren turned to Kitz.

“The tall one agrees, the small one has reservations.”

“A clever one, for such a tiny bug.” Kitz stared down into Levi’s eyes. “Tell him this. I will let him live only if he learns to obey simple orders.”

Eren translated this, but Levi’s stolid face did not change.

“The orders will be clear and simple. First…”

Levi watched the exchange between the two in German. He was actually impressed that Eren could stand there and look so stern. He was such a young man, and yet he must have seen a lot in life to get to be this way. Finally, he turned to face them.

“He has three orders for you, Levi, which you must follow if you wish to escape execution. First, strip naked. Second, get on all fours, like an animal. Third, whatever happens, do not move from that position.”

Levi sneered. “Humiliation? If he thinks this is bad, then he has never seen the depths of human savagery.”

Eren already had a bad feeling, but he said nothing. He had watched Levi strip for bathing every week. Now he realized everyone else would see the man’s scars, signs of that rough life, the taut muscles and slender build.

A few soldiers hooted as Levi removed his clothes. They mocked his small size and leanness. They were not at all impressed with the scars. They pointed and laughed at his manhood, circumcised as his religion demanded. Levi ignored them. The late summer sun on his bare skin actually felt nice. He only wished he had been clean. He felt filthy.

Kitz ordered, “Wie ein Hund, schmutziges Judenvieh.” Like a dog, dirty Jewish beast!

Eren’s stony gaze did not waver. “He says, get down on all fours like a dog.”

“Should I bark?” Levi asked sarcastically as he dropped to the soft soil of the field. Eren did not reply, but the captain was already giving more instructions.

Leutnant Jäger, gib der anderen Ratte diesen Befehl.” Lieutenant Jäger, give to the other rat this command.

Levi stared down at the dirt and caressed it with his fingers. Rich French soil! There had been a time when he thought about working this soil, maybe owning a vineyard in the south, or a humble farm out in the countryside where Petra could have had a big garden, a sprawling paradise of flowers and shade trees, and a lazy pathway they could walk along together, arm in arm. He could help her grow fields of lavender, vines full of melons, maybe a trellis with beans hanging down, where she could sit in the shade with a book, reach up, pluck off a bean, and have a little snack on a hot summer day. She deserved to have more than her little spot in front of the kitchen window, barely big enough for some potatoes and herbs.

If he had to get down on his hands and knees, at least it was on soft, rich, bountiful French soil.

Herr Hauptmann!

Eren’s scream, almost enough to make his voice crack, drew Levi’s attention. He looked up and saw the young soldier with his mouth open, pure disgust on his face, recoiling from his commanding officer.

Shit! What was about to happen this time?

* * *

Eren had been trying to keep calm. He knew he could not expect to always save these Jews. He knew a day might come when he would have to punish them again, like when he had to flog Levi. Orders were orders. What he did was for the glory of Germany.

There was no glory in this.

Kitz said without pity, “When a human knows he may die, he will either fight or run away. When an insect knows it is about to die, what do you think it does?”

No one in the crowd answered. Eren glanced back and saw Armin with a look of revulsion. Whatever this question was leading to, his sharp mind had figured it out, and Eren saw that this was not good.

“Insects and animals have a single instinct: to perpetuate their species. Be it a cockroach, a rat, or a Jew, if a lower creature knows it is about to die, it develops a single instinctive desire: to mate.”

Eren’s eyes widened, and around him he heard mutters already.

“Lieutenant Jäger, give to the other rat this command.” He walked up to Moses and looked into his dark eyes. “If he wishes to live, he will fuck this tiny man.”

That was when Eren cried out in horror, “Herr Hauptmann!

Kitz’s mad eyes swung over to him. “Are you like a delicate milkmaid who faints at the sight of the animals mating?”

Eren gulped down a blast of acid from his stomach. “It’s … vile. Two men!”

“No sane human would agree, right? But an animal would. An animal would chew off its own arm to escape a snare, and if threatened with death, an insect will mate with anything it can. Instincts kick in, and there is not much that stops a creature. I will prove to all of you,” Kitz shouted to the group now whispering in disbelief. “These Jews, and those like them with tainted blood, are not true humans. They are a lesser form, closer to animals. If I must, I will force that lesson into each of your minds. Jews are disgusting. Homosexuals are disgusting. The French are disgusting. It is the duty and the honor of pure Aryans to purge this filth from our lands.” He looked back around to Eren and ordered coldly, “Tell him, fuck this man or he will be shot.”

Eren shuddered. He looked down at Levi, naked and prone. It made sense now. This was not just about the humiliation of being naked. It was far worse!

“Is there a problem, Herr Leutnant?”

“I’m trying to think of the word in English, Herr Hauptmann,” he said in excuse as he forced himself to return to an impassive state. “I learned English as a child, so … I’m not certain about sexual terms. I think … if I say it this way…”

* * *

Levi was still watching Eren, but by the faces he was making, his hope of escaping this with just soil on his knees was diminishing.

Surrounded like this, there really was no way he could fight his way out. He had to put up with the punishment, whatever it was.

Eren pursed his lips, then firmed up and stared down at Levi as if he was something else, not a Jew, not a prisoner, certainly not the man he had chatted with for hours over the past few months, almost even befriending him.

“The captain’s orders for the other Jew … repeat them in French.” Eren still struggled. He looked like he was truly having a hard time finding the English words. “If he wishes to live…”

Eren paused, so Levi told Moses just that part. “Si tu voulez vivre…”

“The two of you … he…”

Eren rubbed his head, as if racking his brain for the right word, but Levi saw his thumb deftly sweep away a teardrop. Then his face went cold again, completely devoid of emotions, as he finished.

“He must stick his … schwanz … penis … into you.”

Levi stared, certain he heard that wrong. “What?”

Eren’s boot stomped down onto Levi’s hand. He shouted at the pain and glared up defiantly, only to see Eren’s eyes were very different now: hollow, detached, austere, grim as he followed orders.

“He must fuck you or be shot, and if you move from this spot, you will be shot. Do you understand, Judenscheiße?”

Levi sneered back. “I understand.”

Das ist besser.” That’s better. “Now, tell him.”

Kitz laughed at the harshness. “Sehr gut, Herr Leutnant.” Very good, Lieutenant.

Levi was still in disbelief, but he realized the harsh words and even the boot on his hand were merely a show, part of his expected role. Eren had shown horror and dread. Now he had to atone in front of all his fellow soldiers.

Levi had warned Eren so many times to do precisely this, to follow orders and do whatever it took to survive. The brat was finally obeying him.

“Moses…” Levi began quietly, and he gave his companion the horrific news.

Non! Je ne le ferai pas.” No! I won’t do it.

Eren pulled out his own gun and pointed it at Moses’ head. “Nein?” he asked coldly.

“Moses!” Levi said sharply.

The man still shook his head. “Je ne le…

Fais le. Obéissez-leur.” Do it. Obey them. “Tu devez vivre. Nous tous. Nous devons vivre, peu importe le prix.” You have to live. All of us. We have to live, no matter the price.

Moses still shook his head, trembling in horror.

“Moses,” Levi said calmly. “We have to live. You promised, right? That girl you like, you told me about her; she’s waiting in London. She wants you to make it out of France. So close your eyes, pretend it’s her, and in the morning it’ll be a forgotten nightmare. The Lord won’t hold either of us guilty, not when it’s like this. That rabbi, remember? He told us, if we must work on the Sabbath or if we must eat non-kosher food during dire times, if we must break some of the rules to make it through this time of oppression, so long as we survive as a people and we atone when we are safe, the Lord will forgive us. He told us that, remember? Do whatever you must in order to survive.”

Moses looked torn. He glanced up to Eren’s gun, then down to the man who had led them through so many troubles. “Levi … you…”

“It’s not like I’m a virgin, and your dick is too small to hurt me much.”

Kitz barked impatiently. “Was sagt er?” What is he saying?

“Do it,” Levi sneered. “This madman may kill us both if you don’t.”

“Even so, I don’t know if I can like this, in front of all these people, and to you. Where do I even stick it?”

“In my arse, you idiot.” Levi sighed but knew Moses had a point. If it was the other way around, there was no way he would have been able to get hard. “Close your eyes, pretend it’s your girl, and you’re fucking her in the hallway of a large party, just out of sight of everyone.”

“No offense, but you’re smaller than my girl.”

“Go to hell. Look, these bastards are getting impatient. Eren is trying to keep us alive—”

“He’s pointing a gun at me,” Moses protested.

“You know he won’t shoot, but any other bastard here would. I trust him. Just look at his eyes.” Levi looked up at Eren. “He hates this,” he whispered, heartbroken to see that emotional emptiness again. “He’s obeying because if he doesn’t, we’re dead, and he’s going this far because if he doesn’t, someone else will. Now, will you do what you have to so both of us can survive, or will you force him to shoot?”

Moses sneered, shaking his head in rage. “Qu’ils soient maudits … oui.” Curse them all, yes.

Levi looked up to Eren and answered in English, “He’ll do it.”

Eren’s boot moved off his hand. “You can’t move. The captain keeps repeating that.”

“Tell your captain that one of these days I will cut off his penis and shove it into his own throat.”

“I’ll tell him you promise to obey.”

“Fuck you all,” he sneered.

However, Levi saw a moment of regret in Eren’s face at that verbal attack. Dammit! He was furious, he was about to be humiliated in the worst way possible, but this boy … this brat…

Takhshet,” he whispered, staring at the ground. “Remember. No regrets. Survive.”

His hair was suddenly grabbed, but not harshly. Eren was acting again. As he raised Levi’s face to look into his eyes, Levi saw all the pain in the young man’s heart for a brief moment.

“You too,” he yelled harshly. “Don’t you fucking die on me!”

Levi sneered, hating how this must be torturing Eren inside. “There is no way in hell I’m dying before you,” he growled.

Eren dropped Levi’s head and raised back up, glaring down at him. “Good. I’ll hold you to that promise.”

Levi glared at Eren’s back as he walked over to his captain. Rather than worrying about himself and how much this would probably hurt, he was enraged at the idea of how much guilt this would cause Moses, and worried if Eren’s acting could convince everyone around him. This must be killing his soul deep inside.

He really was too nice for his own good.

Eren saw his captain waiting impatiently, as well as all the German soldiers surrounding them in a circle, some nudging each other in amusement, others looking appalled.

“The tall one agrees,” said Eren.

“And the small one?” asked Kitz.

“Feisty, but he will obey the order not to move.”

Kitz patted Eren’s shoulder. “You handle them well. You were so weak around them before. I’m glad you had this experience to tough you up. Sometimes, we must be around our enemy to truly revile our enemy. Never forget,” he shouted out to the gathering. “Die Juden sind unser Unglück! Wir hassen die Juden und Ausländer. Die Deutschen—die Deutschen—immer vor dem Ausländer und den Juden!” The Jews are our misfortune! We hate the Jews and foreigners. The German—the German—always before the foreigner and the Jews!

Blut und Boden!” someone shouted. Blood and soil, a Nazi slogan.

Kitz boomed out, “Machen Deutschland wieder groß.” Make Germany great again. Then he outstretched his arm in salute. “Sieg Heil!” Hail victory!

The Germans saluted back and shouted, “Sieg Heil!

Sieg Heil!” he cried.

Sieg Heil!” they chimed in.

Sieg Heil!

Eren joined in hollowly for the final shout. “Sieg Heil,” he said with his arm out as he had held it thousands of times before, yet never had his hand felt so heavy.

“Remember this day,” Kitz barked out. “Remember the sickness, the disgust, of what you’re about to witness: the depravity of the Jew. Let it burn a scar in your mind. Remember it, so that your children and your children’s children never have to witness it.”

Kitz then looked at Moses with a sadistic smile. He waved down to the Jew, showing him to go ahead and get started. The poor man was still trembling, and there were tears on his cheek.

“Jäger, instruct the mute animal on what it is supposed to do.”

A soldier shouted out from the crowd, “Perhaps he’s a virgin and doesn’t know how.”

“Perhaps it’s too small for even his own hand.”

Some of the crowd laughed. Eren strained to stay unaffected.

“Levi,” he said, and he spoke in English. “Tell him to do it or he will be shot.”

“He knows. The poor man is terrified. He can’t exactly get hard.”

Eren took Moses’ shoulder and stared straight into his shivering eyes. “Je m’excuse,” he said, one of the few French lines he knew. I apologize. Then he pushed Moses to his knees. Eren pulled out a handkerchief from his back pocket and wrapped it around Moses’ eyes.

Moses squeaked out, “Qu’est-ce que tu fais?” What are you doing?

Levi sneered in frustration. “Il te sauve la vie, idiot.” He’s saving your life, you idiot.

Herr Leutnant?” asked Kitz.

Eren stood back up. “Like blinders on a horse, Herr Hauptmann. The crowd was distracting him.”

Kitz burst into laughter. “Like blinders on a horse? Jäger, that’s brilliant. See, this is why you rose to be an officer. Intelligence is just as important as strength, and humor as well. Indeed, you make a fine German soldier, Jäger.”

“Thank you, Herr Hauptmann. May I step back? I don’t want any of their male filth to get on me.”

“Good point.” Kitz also stepped back. “They probably finish as quickly as horses too.”

Eren returned to where Armin and Jean were standing. Armin grabbed his arm.

“Eren, he isn’t really going to make them do that, right?”

Obergefreiter Arlelt,” Eren said sternly.

The young soldier stiffened at the coldness of his military title, especially with a commanding officer whom he had been so close with, they were on a first name basis.

Eren glanced over to him, and his nostrils flared with each heavy breath. He whispered to his fellow teammate, “Make sure I don’t do anything stupid.”

Armin’s pale blue eyes grew sad. He knew Eren had grown close with these prisoners, especially Levi. He went out of his way to help them, and Armin had tried to assist as well. Now, they were all powerless.

Armin looked back as they saw Moses stroking himself, trying to get prepared. “Does … Does it hurt, doing it in a butt?”

Eren’s fists tightened to hide his rage. “How should I know?” he said, but his voice quavered.

* * *

Levi waited, trying to breathe calmly, although he heard Moses behind him starting to pant as masturbating seemed to finally be working to get himself erect.

“Aren’t you ready yet?” he asked.

“I think … yes. But how do I…”

“Just stick it in and thrust. That’s all they want: a show. Perverse entertainment for perverse Nazi swine.”

He felt rough hands touch his backside, and Levi flinched on instinct.

“You were already hurt there—”

“Shut up and get it over with. Finish it quickly and it won’t hurt as much.”

He felt something pressed against him, and Levi slammed his eyes shut. Damn these Nazis! Damn them! Damn every single one of them now laughing, damn them all! He felt Moses fumbling, pressing, but not going in.

“It’s too tight, too dry. This is impossible!”

“Obviously homosexuals do it somehow. Try spitting on your dick.”

Levi cringed just knowing there would be saliva as well now. So much filth, such disgusting things! He felt ready to vomit as Moses pressed against him again, this time with a little moistness.

“It won’t work. Ahhhhh!”

Levi looked around. Kitz had Moses by the hair, spewing something in German, obviously threats to kill him if he did not get on with this.

Levi sneered at him. “Espèces de sales boches!” Filthy Kraut animals! “Moses, do it.”

“But Levi—”

“Do it before he shoots us both! A bullet in my back will hurt a lot worse than your dick in my arse.”

Moses sneered in disgust. “I do it to save you.”

“Fine. And I’ll put up with it to save your life. I’ll put up with anything to get all of us out of this insanity.”

“Forgive me,” he whispered. Then Moses grasped himself and pressed harder.

Levi clenched at the soil, yanking up the roots of grass and wildflowers, gritting his teeth to hold back a growl of pain. He had known worse pain, at least. Those soldiers with the broom were far worse. At least this felt soft, not splintered, and it did not go in so deep where it would tear his colon.

Still, it was humiliating to know everyone was watching. They were laughing and shouting in hateful voices. At least Levi did not understand their words. He kept his eyes slammed shut so he did not have to see them. He did not want to know what faces these Germans were making.

He did not want to see what sort of face Eren might be making as he witnessed this ultimate humiliation.

* * *

Eren watched, numbed and disgusted. He could barely see Levi’s face. He kept it down and hidden as his body was assaulted from behind.

“It’s disgusting,” Jean muttered. “The captain should not be—”

“Say nothing!” Eren ordered, his face cold but his body tense.

Jean glanced down at the young lieutenant. The rage in his face was obvious, and Jean frowned, hoping no one else saw him.

Kitz Woermann knelt in front of Levi. “This one is stubborn. Still proud no matter how you’re broken, huh? Like a pack horse; those too can be strong. Although you’re nowhere near large enough. More like a tiny yet mighty falcon.” He yanked Levi’s head up by his oily hair. “There is no freedom in your wings, though. Only the wind of change blowing from Germany and sweeping across the plains of the world. A mere animal cannot hope to keep up with the progress of humanity. In the end, an animal is still an animal. You hide the beast’s blood in your veins. You’re not a noble falcon at all. You are no different from a grunting pig.”

He shoved his gun between Levi’s teeth, forcing his mouth open. Now when Moses thrust in, the pain made Levi groan, and his voice could not be suppressed. The cries of pain came out, and Levi feared that if he bit the gun and left teeth marks, he would be shot. Instead, he salivated over the cold metal of the gun and stared at the steel barrel, part of him wondering just when the trigger would be pulled.

“That sounds better,” Kitz said sadistically. He suddenly punched Levi’s hand that had been tearing at the soil. Levi howled in pain. “Hands flat! How does it feel, finally seeing just how far those of your race will go? Rats! Parasites! You would do anything to survive, crawling there, accepting this. Maybe you’ve done it before. We hear stories about you Frenchmen. Your kings were fucking men and women alike for centuries. You’re probably enjoying this. It sure looks like your faggot lover likes it. Your ass must feel really good, loose from all the homosexual Jewish sex.”

Kitz suddenly yanked the gun out and smacked Levi over the face with it, cutting his cheek.

“Jewish French faggots. Can there be anything lower than worms like you?”

He then ripped the blindfold off Moses’ face, forcing him to see precisely what he was doing to his friend. With that, Kitz stood and moved out of the way.

“Your faggot lover looks like he’s at his limit. He really does last shorter than a horse. I don’t want any of the filth to get on me.”

* * *

Levi swallowed hard. He had no idea what this German was saying, but at least he could close his mouth again. He hated the grunts of pain being pummeled out of him. For Moses’ sake, he did not want him to think this was hurting just as badly as it actually was.

Suddenly, Levi’s face rose, and his eyes met Eren’s. He shook his head, silently telling Eren not to watch. Not this!

Eren’s face showed rage, indignation, and murderous hatred. Levi kept looking at him. Instead of hiding from the shame, he focused on this one soldier, one of the few Germans he had ever known who cared for his life. He focused on Eren’s rage, and somehow that made this bearable.

The hatred in those teal eyes gave Levi hope. Levi knew that this was not how the future of the world was going to be, not when there were good men like Eren Jäger alive.

That was the only thing that helped him get through this.

Despite the pain behind him, despite the grunting as Moses obeyed against his will, despite the cheers and horrific cries of the surrounding crowd, Levi stayed silent. He did not cry out, even as he felt blood trickling down his thighs. He did not move, even when Moses thrust in harder out of pure instinct and warned him in French, apologizing that he was at his limit. Levi kept his eyes on Eren, kept all of his hopes in Eren … even as he heard Moses cry out and felt extra pressure filling his ass.

At least it was over quickly—

The sound of a gun blast deafened Levi, and he jolted, wondering what just happened. Seconds later, he felt the penis inside him slip out, and Moses fell over with a hole in his forehead. It took Levi a couple of seconds to fathom what just happened, and when he did, any composure he had maintained through all of this shattered instantly.

“No!” he screamed in horror.

* * *

Over in the crowd, Armin and Jean both grabbed Eren, physically holding him back.

“You can’t do anything,” Armin warned softly.

“You should have known it would happen,” added Jean.

“He promised … he said…” Eren was trembling now.

Armin grabbed Eren’s wrist before he could reach for his gun. “Eren, seriously, stop!”

“The Jew, he only did it to live. He only did it—”

“Be quiet, Jäger,” Jean said harshly.

Luckily, there were many other people talking, some in shock, some in disgust, and some cheering “Tötet alle Juden! Tötet alle Juden!” Kill all Jews! Not many noticed a single lieutenant ready to kill his captain.

Kitz put his Webley back into its holster. He gazed down at the naked Jew still on his hands and knees. Suddenly, Levi turned his head up to the German captain. Rather than his normal glare of rage, this time Levi looked horrified.

“What is worse than a Jew? A French Jew. What is worse than a Frenchman? A homosexual Frenchman. A homosexual French Jew? They are the lowest scum on the Earth.” Kitz looked around. “Can anyone answer why I shot him?”

A soldier in the crowd shouted back. “If he was willing to do it, he must have been homosexual already. If that is true, we all were in danger.”

“Correct! Can anyone tell me why I did not shoot them both? The answer is not that one happens to be our translator, by the way.”

Another soldier hollered out, “He was the victim of homosexual lust. The victim is not guilty of the crime.”

“That’s also correct. Most of you are young, you do not remember the world as it used to be. Germany was filled with homosexuals. They had their own newspaper, their own beer halls, their own parties filled with sodomy and depravity. One lived right next door to me. They were everywhere! The world was filled with homosexuals, Jews, negroids, and foreigners. You fine men grew up in privilege, and it was my generation who made sure the future would be clear and bright for you, just as you fight for the generation to come. Obergefreiter Arlelt.”

Armin stiffened up. “Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann?” Yes, Captain?

“You’re one of the youngest here. Do you remember that song from school that goes … we are the joyous Hitler Youth?”

Armin nodded. “Yes, Herr Hauptmann. Shall I sing it?”

“All of you,” Kitz shouted. “Everyone under the age of twenty, you who are blessed to grow up in a strong Germany under Führer Hitler, sing!”

Eren’s lips moved with the song, but his voice did not reach far. He glanced around and saw how many of them were so young.

* * *

Wir sind die fröhliche Hitlerjugend,
Wir brauchen keine christliche Tugend,
Denn unser Führer Adolf Hitler
Ist stets unser Mittler.

Kein Pfaffe, kein böser, kann uns je hindern,
Uns zu fühlen als Hitlers Kinder.
Nicht Christus folgen wir, sondern Horst Wessel,
Fort mit Weihrauch und Weihwasserkessel!

Wir folgen singend unseren Fahnen
Als würdige Söhne unserer Ahnen,
Ich bin kein Christ, kein Katholik,
Ich geh mit S.A. durch dünn und dick.

Die Kirche kann mir gestohlen werden,
Das Hakenkreuz ist Erlösung auf Erden,
Ihm will ich folgen auf Schritt und Tritt,
Baldur von Schirach, nimm mich mit!”

 

 

We are the joyous Hitler Youth,
We need no Christian virtue,
For our Führer Adolf Hitler
Is always our mediator.

No priest, no evil, can ever hinder us,
To feel ourselves as Hitler’s children.
We do not follow Christ, but Horst Wessel,
Away with incense and holy water vessel!

We follow our flags singing
As worthy sons of our ancestors,
I am not a Christian, not a Catholic,
I follow the Sturmabteilung through thin and thick.

The church can be stolen from me,
The swastika is salvation on earth,
I will follow him at every step,
Baldur von Schirach, take me with you!

* * *

Kitz looked proud. “It is good to hear you sing that. It is good to see so many young Germans who got to grow up feeling proud of their heritage, not ashamed. It’s good to see your eyes so bright, like your futures. This Thousand Year Reich will support you throughout your lives. This war, it’s nothing. These horrible sights, they will never exist again. The existence of the Jew will one day be something for history books. Do not forget today’s lesson about the Jew. Remember how low they are, how they truly are nothing more than animals to be wiped out. Officers, you are to lead the younger ones under your command in that song as well as Horst-Wessel-Lied all week. Let them remember what they were taught in school. Let them be proud. Dismissed. Riebe! Jäger! Grützmacher! Stay.”

The three soldiers called out approached while the rest scattered. Eren stepped around the blood on the soil, but he tried not to look at Levi.

Kitz gazed at the three of them. “Most of the men looked disgusted, as they should,” he said quietly, “but you three looked upset. That wasn’t pity, I hope.”

Eren immediately began to think of how to get out of this, but luckily one of the others leaped in.

“Yes, captain, I was upset,” said the one named Grützmacher. “To witness such a disgusting thing, it was all I could do not to shoot them right away. If I may…” He pulled out his Luger and pointed it at Levi’s head.

“Sadly, we need this one alive for now. Save your bullets for the Allies.” He looked over to Reibe. “And you? You almost looked terrified.”

The young soldier still appeared to be shaken. “My apologies, Herr Hauptmann. My brother … he was caught for being a homosexual. My family knew about it, but my parents wanted to hide him. They were arrested. I was too young, I did not understand. Now I see what these sorts of people do, and to think that I share blood with a man who did such things to another man … I feel truly sick. I want to vomit, thinking back to my filthy brother and traitorous parents.”

Kitz patted the young man’s shoulder. “We can’t pick our kin. It’s fortunate that scientists have not found any link between heritage and homosexuality, and I hope they never do. I also had an uncle like that, and I reported him to the Gestapo myself. You are wiser for this experience.” Those sunken eyes then turned to Eren. “And you, Jäger? I hear you’ve made this little Jew into your pet. Were you upset to see him being bred like that?”

Hearing the other two helped him to come up with a reason. “No, Herr Hauptmann. I was just remembering my time in Napola. I had two classmates who ended up being homosexuals.”

“I’ve heard rumors of this story. Tell me, what did you do with them?”

“They were caught by teachers. We children were tasked with punishing them, and we did. All of us!”

“As one would expect, our glorious education system puts punishment into the hands of peers. I’ve read in your file about the incident. It says you personally punished them harder than any of the others.”

“Yes, Herr Hauptmann. They were my friends. One does not forgive a betrayal like that.”

Kitz waved down to Levi. “Show me what you did in Napola. I’m curious how our education system raises fine young men.”

Eren glanced down at Levi, still recovering from the assault. He felt nothing at all as he delivered a swift kick to the reddened buttocks, knocking him down flat.

Schieb‘s dir in den Arsch, scheiß Schwuchtel,” he snarled. Shove it up your ass, shitty faggot. “Both boys received kicks like that from every single child in the school, each of us saying those words. There were a little over a hundred in attendance. My kick apparently broke the coccyx of one of the boys.”

Kitz snickered in pride. “Good! I like that. I’ll have to remember it if any soldiers are caught in the act. You two: take out your horror and rage now. Just like Jäger did, do the same.”

Eren watched as they did. The one with the homosexual brother kicked awkwardly and stuttered the words. However, Grützmacher kicked so hard, Levi screamed and sprawled out over the grass from the blow to his rear. Grützmacher then began to stomp on Levi’s back, shouting over and over, “Schieb‘s dir in den Arsch, scheiß Schwuchtel. Schieb‘s dir in den Arsch, scheiß Schwuchtel.

“Enough!” Kitz pulled him off. “We wouldn’t want too much Jewish blood on your boots. Grützmacher, your aggression suits you. You’re in charge of getting him back into the prison. Do not kill him. Until Berlin sends us a translator, we need that thing.”

“If you insist,” he said with a sneer down at Levi.

Herr Hauptmann,” Eren said cautiously. “I normally make sure the Jews get back into the prison. I know where they are kept.”

“You’re needed. We intercepted some radio communication between the Americans. I want you to translate their English.”

Riebe pointed to the dead body of Moses. “What about the corpse?”

Kitz waved dismissively as he began to march back toward the village. “I’ll have some locals come and burn it. It’s so filthy now, I wouldn’t want any pure Aryan to touch such a disgusting thing. Komm jetzt mit mir, Jäger.” Come with me now, Jäger.

Eren saw Levi struggling to get back up, rubbing where he had been stomped in the back. When their eyes met, that dark gaze was filled with pain and rage. Eren felt like holding him, apologizing, shielding his nakedness and caring for his wounds. He knew he could do nothing but glare at him.

Levi bowed his head as if humbled, and although quiet, his voice seethed with defiance. “I swear to every angel in Heaven, takhshet, you had better not get killed after I’ve endured all this or I will personally request the Lord to let me torment your soul for eternity in Gehinnom.”

Grützmacher laughed. “So passiv! Wie ein getretener Hund. Was hat er gesagt, Jäger?” So passive! Like a beaten dog. What is he saying, Jäger?

Eren had to think up of something quickly. “He thanks us for still being alive and will work in any way we have need of him.”

Grützmacher grinned. “Any way? I could use a slave. Mind if I borrow him for a week?”

“Jäger!” Kitz shouted back to him.

Eren turned away from the sadistic man and from Levi. “His skills are needed for the moment. He can’t be killed yet, Grützmacher. Remember that.”

“Oh, I won’t kill him,” Grützmacher said with a devious snarl.

There was nothing more Eren could do. If he disobeyed orders, he could be the next one Kitz creatively punished.

# # #

# #

#

Okay, take a moment, slow breath, in … out … you are safe.

I listed many Nazi slogans in this chapter. “Die Juden sind unser Unglück! Wir hassen die Juden und Ausländer. Die Deutschen immer vor dem Ausländer und den Juden! Blut und Boden!

For the record, because someone with a MAGA hat in their closet will throw a hissy fit if I don’t clarify this … “Machen Deutschland wieder groß” (Make Germany great again) was NOT one of Hitler’s slogans, although his followers did use those four words. So while the similarity to Donald Trump’s slogan “Make American Great Again” is pure coincidence, the nationalist ideology is the same.

Make Germany Great Again

Wir sind die fröhliche Hitlerjugend – a song from the Hitler Youth. It was first sang at the 1934 Nuremberg Party Rally.

Sturmabteilung – also called SA or Brownshirts, paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party. They played a significant role in Hitler’s rise to power.

Horst Wessel – a member of the SA who was murdered and made into a martyr of the Nazi Party.

Baldur von Schirach – the head of Hitler Youth.

Horst-Wessel-Lied – anthem of the Nazi Party and later the co-national anthem, lyrics written by Horst Wessel.

Gehinnom – Jewish Hell. Or not. You see, Jews are not clear about an afterlife. As a saying goes, “Ask two Jews, get three opinions.”

Some Jews do not believe in an afterlife at all, some believe in reincarnation, others in Olam Ha–Ba (the World-to-Come). Some think Heaven is a giant library where you study the Torah for eternity, while others think it’s a ladder leading to God, or Eden Above, or something celestial.

Similarly, what happens if you’re bad is unclear, with many theories but no official description of a Hell-like place. There’s Sheol, basically like a dark and quiet spot where your soul has 12 months to sober up from the hangover of human mortality. If you can put aside human weaknesses, you ascend, and if you can’t shake that dark side, there’s Gehinnom. You could call it Hell, but some Jews prefer to think of it as “Heaven’s Washing Machine,” where your soul gets a 12-month rigorous cleansing. Or as one playful rabbi described it to me, “the angels play tennis with your soul until they beat the sin out of you.” Kinda sounds hilarious, rather than terrifying. It is generally seen as an act of kindness, not torture.

So basically, you get tossed around and beaten for a year, then you are again judged, and if you are still a smelly, awful person, back into the Heavenly Washing Machine with you! For the truly evil, rather than just 12 months in Gehinnom, their soul is tortured until the angels get bored. This could be a hundred years, or next to eternity. Then that soul is simply disposed of. No ascension, no rebirth, they are simply thrown away like trash, complete cessation of existence.

Because the Torah is not clear on precisely what happens after you die, the afterlife is seen as something not worth worrying about. Speculation is fine, ideas of Heavenly Washing Machines or “Angel Tennis” are amusing, but God never bothered to tell us, so it can’t be all that important. Praise or punishment should not be the determining factor on whether you live life as a decent person. God should not have to bribe you to be good.


More info on Horst Wessel and Baldur von Schirach

(oft-forgotten figures in history)

Horst Wessel

Horst Wessel joined many right-wing nationalist groups as a teen, quitting some if they were not extreme enough for his views, until he landed in the SA. He idolized Hitler and even quit school to put all focus on the SA. He quickly rose to Sturmführer (Storm leader) in charge of a district in Berlin. There, he fell under the command of Joseph Goebbels, who later became Hitler’s head of Nazi propaganda. (Side note: Goebbels was also the Nazi equivalent to Harvey Weinstein, blacklisting actresses if they refused to have sex with him, and came up with a law that if a woman refused to have sex with a member of the SS, she would be deemed a traitor to the Party and killed. #MeToo is many decades too late.)

Horst Wessel was a talented speaker, and Goebbels sent him to areas of Berlin where members of the German Communist Party hung out, in order to give rousing speeches that would stir up strife. Goebbels would then spin the conflicts as evidence that Communists were violent. One day, Wessel led his Brownshirts to a tavern the Communists used as their headquarters. The Communists claimed the SA arrived and began to violently attack them, leaving five of their members badly wounded before running away when police arrived. The Nazis insisted that Wessel had been exercising his right of free speech when the Communists attacked them out of nowhere, and they merely defended themselves. In either case, Wessel was a marked man, and Communists pasted his picture up around town with the slogan, “Strike the fascists wherever you find them.” (Similar to today’s #AlwaysPunchNazis.)

Wessel and his lover, Erna Jänicke, rented a room from the widow of a Communist. They refused to pay rent, and the widow found out Erna was a prostitute, with Wessel acting as her pimp. The widow demanded that Wessel pay his overdue rent and Erna had to leave. Wessel threatened her. Fearing for her safety, the widow asked her late husband’s friends for help to get the couple out of the house. As soon as they heard the name Horst Wessel, the men agreed to deal with him. What happened next depends on whom you ask. According to the Communists, Erna’s old pimp, Albrecht Höhler, had recently been released from jail and went to the house to win her back; a scuffle ensued, Wessel pulled out his gun, and Höhler shot him in self-defense. According to the Nazis, Erna never worked for Höhler, he was hired by Communists, not to merely oust Wessel for not paying rent, but to kill him; so Höhler went to Wessel’s flat, knocked on the door, and as soon as Wessel opened it, Höhler shot him in the head at point-blank range. Höhler was arrested and sent to jail, but he received a light sentence of only six years. When the Nazis rose to power, the Gestapo murdered Höhler.

Meanwhile, Wessel survived, was treated, but doctors could not remove the bullet from his brain. He was sent home to his parents but died a month later at the age of 22. His funeral was attended by many high-ranking members of the Nazi Party, including Hitler. (Fun side note: the character Horst Kessler in the German Netflix series Berlin Babylon is loosely based on Horst Wessel, including [spoiler] his death at the hands of Erna’s pimp. It’s a great show to bingewatch while you’re in quarantine.)

Joseph Goebbels, who had tried and failed many times to come up with a martyr to be used as propaganda for the Nazi cause, found the perfect figure in Horst Wessel. Before the young man was even dead, Goebbels began to write newspaper articles, painting Wessel as a devout Christian with dreams of a better world, who taught young boys to cherish their German heritage, a kind soul who tried to rescue a prostitute from off the street, and was brutally cut down in his youth by “degenerate communist subhumans.” For years to come, Goebbels built up an almost Christ-like innocence around the memory of Wessel; thus the line in the Hitler Youth song, “We do not follow Christ, but Horst Wessel.”

A year before his death, Horst Wessel wrote Die Fahne hoch (Raise the Flag), a song he used to mock Communists around Berlin. Now known as Horst-Wessel-Lied, it was made into the Nazi anthem. Goebbels claimed Wessel wrote both the lyrics and music, but the Christian praise song How Great Thou Art has the exact same tune, just sung as a hymn instead of a march. When the Nazi Party took control, Horst-Wessel-Lied became the co-national anthem, sung immediately following Deutschlandlied. People were required by law to give the Hitlergruß (Hitler salute) when singing the first and last verses. With the end of the Nazi regime, the song was banned in Germany and Austria. Finding online recordings is rare, since sites take down the song as soon as it is reported. The few versions I found on YouTube had dozens of Neo-Nazis in the comments section, so I refuse to link to those. (Plus, this story might get taken down if I link to a song that is banned in some countries. I hate censorship!)

Baldur von Schirach

Baldur von Schirach was born in Berlin, the son of a German-American aristocrat father and American mother. (Fun fact: his father’s father fought in the American Civil War and was in the honor guard at President Lincoln’s funeral, while his mother’s family descended from two signatories of the American Declaration of Independence.) Schirach studied Germanic folklore and was an author, contributing to many literary journals. After hearing one of Adolf Hitler’s speeches, Schirach immediately read Mein Kampf in a single evening. He developed strong anti-semitic views, joined the SA, and wrote books that flattered Hitler, helping to further his political career. In 1929, Hitler made Schirach the head of the National Socialist Students’ Union and assigned him the duty of bringing the university system under Nazi authority.

In 1932, Schirach asked Hitler’s personal photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, for permission to marry his daughter, Henriette, a lady Hitler himself had briefly dated. Her family strongly opposed some “young effeminate aristocrat” marrying their daughter, but Hitler liked the match, insisted that they be married, and offered to be their best man. This brought Schirach into Hitler’s inner circle, and the couple were frequent guests at Hitler’s mountain retreat residence, the Berghof.

Whereas Hitler initially just wanted to win over voters, Schirach persuaded him to focus on children as well. Hitler named him Reichsjugendführer (Youth Leader) of the Nazi Party, and Schirach designed a militant youth group, a place for children to learn how to be good Aryan boys and girls, and a system to indoctrinate them in Nazi ideology. He called it Hitlerjugend, or Hitler Youth. Schirach frequently appeared with Hitler at rallies to lead the Hitler Youth in chants and songs. He hosted contests, and schools that got 100% of their students into Hitler Youth would get prizes. Such contests prompted schools to kick out Jews and non-white students, since they were forbidden from joining Hitler Youth. He wrote prayers dedicated to Hitler that were read by members of Nazi youth groups prior to having their meals. Pictures of Schirach were second only to Hitler’s in displays throughout Germany, and he was featured in the Nazi propaganda movie Triumph of the Will. All this attention brought him many enemies within the Nazi ranks, with plenty of rumors that he preferred little boys.

In 1940, Schirach organized the evacuation of five million children from cities threatened by Allied bombing. Later that year, he joined the army, volunteered for service in France, was promoted to Leutnant, and decorated for bravery before being recalled.

In 1942, Hitler appointed him as Governor of Vienna, where Schirach was responsible for deporting 65,000 Viennese Jews to concentration camps. Although he was anti-semitic, even saying that deporting Jews was his “contribution to European culture,” still he was appalled by the conditions in which Jews were being deported and wrote a formal letter of complaint. He also sheltered the son and Jewish daughter-in-law of composer Richard Strauss for two years, until the Gestapo discovered them. Schirach personally made sure the two were not sent to a concentration camp, but placed under house arrest, as a favor to the composer.

In 1943, his wife Henriette made history books for being one of the few people to criticize Hitler to his face and survive. While visiting friends in Amsterdam, she witnessed Jews being violently grabbed off the street and hauled away. She was horrified, and her friends expressed grief that this was happening all across the Netherlands. (Actually, it was happening in all German-occupied countries, but average Germans never saw it.) They asked Henriette if she could tell Hitler about it, since she had been friends with him since her childhood. She immediately traveled to the Berghof, where the inner circle of Nazi leadership was in a meeting. She told Hitler about what horrors she saw, but he dismissed her as being sentimental. As he stood to leave, Henriette rose to her feet and declared, “Herr Hitler, you ought not to be doing that.” She had dared to go against the Führer, and in front of his men! Hitler immediately sent her home, and the Schirach family never saw the Führer again. Shockingly, Baldur von Schirach did not lose his position in Vienna. Perhaps it was Hitler’s way of honoring his old friendship with Henriette.

As the war came to an end, Schirach sent Henriette and their children out of Vienna. He attempted to escape by disguising himself as a journalist, but he finally surrendered to the Allies. During the Nuremberg trials, U.S. prosecutor Thomas J. Dodd brought up the fact that his name was evoked in the song We Are the Joyous Hitler Youth in the final line “Baldur von Schirach, take me with you!” (https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn1002311) Schirach was one of the few high-ranking Nazi officials to disavow Hitler. He swore he was unaware of the existence of the extermination camps and produced evidence of his protest against the conditions of the Jewish deportation trains. This saved him from a death sentence, but he was still found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to 20 years in prison. His wife divorced him, and upon his release he retired to the countryside, where he penned his memoir, Ich glaubte an Hitler (I believed in Hitler) before his death in 1974.

 

“Schirach corrupted millions of German children so that they became what they really are today, the blind instruments of that policy of murder and domination which these men have carried out.” — Final speech of the British prosecution at Nuremberg against Schirach, August 30, 1946.

Chapter Text

It was past sunset when Eren finally left the communications room, having spent the day trying to decipher what the Americans were saying over the radio. It was garbled, their accent was strange, most of it was in code, so he made very little progress. Listening and writing down what pieces he understood helped to take his mind off what had happened earlier.

When he stepped out, the sky was purple, yet there was still a bit of light to see by. He lit a cigarette, took a long drag to relax, and began to walk.

The dungeons? No. He had something else to check first.

He headed north to the edge of town and trekked out into the field, now dark and lacking the floral beauty that camouflaged the horror of that morning. He did not have a good idea of where precisely to go, but it was made easier by a man leaned over in the tall grass.

He called out, “Identifizieren Sie sich und Ihren Auftrag.” Identify yourself and state your purpose.

There was a gasp, obviously someone nervous at being caught. When the man stood up, he wore a German uniform.

“Eren?” came a soft question.

He squinted through the growing darkness. “Armin? Is that you? What are you doing out here?”

He pointed down to the ground. Eren was now close enough to see that Armin was in front of the corpse. “They just left him. I … I wasn’t sure if I could bury him, or if I should burn him.”

Eren knelt by the body and rolled him over. He was already stiff and cold, and Moses’ face was caught in a moment of shock, having just done something so horrible to a friend, only to see a gun in his face as soon as it was over, a split second of realizing his action had been futile, his pride and his very life reduced to nothing more than a few minutes of Nazi entertainment. Eren reached forward, closed the eyelids, and pushed the opened mouth shut. Armin folded the stiffened joints over Moses’ chest to look normal.

“Do you have a shovel?” Eren asked softly.

Armin pointed to his Klappspaten, a small folding shovel issued to soldiers.

“It could take us all night with that,” Eren warned. “Are you willing to dig?”

“I would bury you,” Armin said quietly.

Eren thought about that. Those words showed that Armin really had come to think of these Jews as equals, despite what the captain said and did. He took the small spade and unfolded it. “I’ll get started. Run back and fetch mine.”

Armin took off across the field while Eren slammed the Klappspaten into the dirt. He had not gotten to know this Jew very well, but still, they had talked through Levi’s interpretations. He reached out to Moses’ neck where he saw a glint of silver, and he removed a necklace with a locket. Glancing inside was a picture of a woman. A sister? A wife? What was this man’s life like before the war?

Just then, he heard a squeak from Armin, and Eren shoved the necklace into his pocket. He bolted up as he saw a tall shadow lurching over the uneven ground.

“Hey, Armin,” hailed the approaching person. “Don’t tell me that’s you as well, Jäger.”

“Jean?” they both cried out in astonishment.

“Do you really think you can bury a body with just a spade? You’re both idiots.” Jean came up to Eren and dropped two shovels. “I saw Armin leave. Who the hell carries his Klappspaten around town? I realized what he must have planned. I swear, you both are in dangerous territory with these Jews.”

“You brought shovels,” Armin said in amazement.

“Well, if you’re going to do this, do it quickly before you’re caught. Armin and I will bury the body. Jäger…” Jean reached into his pocket and pulled out a small jar. “It’s not much, but this will help that Jew. It’s for his butt, to help it heal quicker. It’s his to keep, by the way.”

Eren took the jar and opened it. The inside smelled of something herbal, some sort of medicinal cream. “Jean … but why? They’re Jews.”

Jean looked aside, and although it was dark, the moonlight showed the anger in his face. “I had a good friend: Marco. He was Romani, and his caravan was camped outside our village for years. My parents didn’t want me anywhere near them, said the Romani would kidnap me, kill me, maybe even eat me. But Marco and I, we were closer than brothers. I would sneak out to go play with him in the woods.” Jean pulled out a pocket watch. “His father was a watchmaker, the best in the region, and he made this for me for my fifteenth birthday. Marco, his family, his entire group, they were not thieves and murderers. They were Catholic, they sang, danced, worked hard … yet my parents and teachers said they were subhuman.

“One day, the camp was raided by the Gestapo. Every last Romani was killed, even women and children … including Marco. I found him amidst the dead. We … We couldn’t bury them all. There were too many bodies. We had to burn the whole camp.”

Jean had to pause as the memories flashed vividly through his mind, something that haunted him still, and probably always would.

“I may not like Jews,” he whispered, “but part of me wonders if that’s only because I’ve grown up being told not to like them. When we were taught in school that the Romani were all heathen criminals, it made me so mad, because the person I remember was a boy with dark hair, freckles, and a smile that made you smile back, no matter how bad your day had been, a boy who … no matter which parents we were born to, no matter the color of our skin … we were brothers.” His voice hitched, his eyes began to water, and he cried out in a deeply buried old anguish, “I couldn’t bury my brother.”

“Jean,” Armin said quietly, looking ready to cry as well.

“So I get it,” he said, glaring at Eren as a tear slipped down his cheek. “I may think it’s foolish and dangerous … but I get it. Your mother was Jewish, right?”

“Part Jewish,” Eren whispered. “Enough to get her killed.”

“So you’re in the same place I am with Romani people. We’re told they’re evil, and we just can’t accept it, because we knew someone who meant the world to us, and we can’t believe that they were the personification of the Devil, no matter how many times our parents and teachers and soldiers and everyone around us all repeat those words. We can’t be forced to believe it, because we know they are wrong. They’re wrong about the Romani … and maybe they’re wrong about Jews too. Maybe everything we were taught was wrong.” He looked down at the dead body. “Maybe we’re the ones who are evil. Maybe Nazis are the true devils. So take care of your Jewish friend. Just don’t do anything to get yourself killed.”

Eren clasped Jean on the shoulder with a grateful smile. “You may have the face of a horse—”

“Hey!”

“—but you have the soul of a saint. Thank you.”

Jean rolled his eyes, but Eren was pretty sure he would have been blushing if it was bright enough to see. “Get going, before someone beats your Jewish friend to death. And keep a closer eye on him. People are going to hate him more now than ever before.”

Eren nodded and took off. He heard the shovels begin to break into the flower field as he jogged back to the village.

There were not many lights in the village. With Allied planes sometimes flying overhead, there was a constant fear of an air raid, so the captain ordered the town to be blacked out after sunset. Luckily, after months living in the village, Eren knew his way around blindfolded. He walked through the dark cobbled streets to the small castle. No one was around this late, so he made his way downstairs to the dungeon. He saw there was a lamp left on, with dim orange light pouring through the doorway. That was odd, since all the Jews should have been back by now, and they were normally left in pitch blackness until morning. Perhaps whoever locked them away for the night forgot to blow out the lamp.

As he trotted down the stairs, he heard distant, echoing grunts, and he slowed his steps into silence. As he reached the bottom of the stairs and around a corner, he saw Levi lying face-down on his tiny cot with his arms tied to the bars of his cell. Grützmacher was on top, his trousers removed, thrusting into Levi.

Fire raged through Eren as he stormed inside. “What the hell are you doing?”

Grützmacher pulled back sharply with a look of dread. “Jäger!”

Disbelief shivered through Eren. This couldn’t be happening! It couldn’t! He felt his stomach surge up and he saw Levi’s beaten body.

“Shit! You … you’re…”

“It’s his fault,” Grützmacher yelled, pointing to Levi. “I thought I’d mess with him, but he kept moaning. He enticed me. This Jew is the one who—”

Eren ran into the prison, slammed Grützmacher up against the wall, and punched him across the face. “You were the one who tied him up.” Eren grabbed him by the hair and slammed his head into the stone wall again. “You were the one raping him!”

“Like you haven’t thought about it,” Grützmacher screamed, shoving Eren back hard. “I see how you come in here all the time, even late at night.” He narrowed his eyes at Eren. “I bet you’re just jealous that his ass is not yours alone.”

Eren punched him again, and Grützmacher’s head hit the stone wall with a crunch. Eren punched him more, hitting his forehead, flattening his nose, breaking out his teeth, bashing his face in over and over, screaming in rage as blood splattering over his knuckles. Finally, the blond German slumped to the ground, and Eren gave his body a few sharp kicks, over and over.

“You’re sick,” Eren said, kicking again as he shook in rage. “You’re all sick. What the hell happened to the Germany I knew?”

Breathing hard, he looked down, but Grützmacher was not getting back up. So he looked over to Levi, who was naked and prone on the bed. Eren’s heart ached to see him like that. At least Grützmacher had used an oil to help with the despicable act, but he had been brutal. Red marks that would be bruises covered Levi’s back and buttocks.

Eren was still shivering when a tiny whimper broke the silence, a woman barely whispering the word “Merci.” Eren gasped as he looked around. He had not even realized that all the Jews were back in their prison cells, traumatized, crying, helpless to rescue their friend.

“You fucking son of a bitch,” he cursed in horror. “You did that in front of all of them?” Eren looked down at Levi again, how his body trembled in pain and horror. He took a step forward. “Levi?”

He screamed insanely, “Ne me touchez pas.” Don’t touch me.

“Levi, it’s me.” He took a step closer and began to reach for the rope tying him to the prison bars.

Levi shrieked, “N’osez pas me toucher, bâtard!” Don’t you dare touch me, bastard.

“Levi!” he yelled.

He seemed to snap out of a nightmare. Slowly, his face raised, and Eren saw it was already swelling from punches.

Verdammt! How long has this been going on?” His voice raised into a scream of rage. “How many times did he do that to you?”

Levi took a while to translate through his shaken mind. “That was the third time. He tied me up and began almost as soon as we got here. Twice, he finished. Then the others came. He and the soldier who did roll call raped two of the women, right in front of us. Then they left laughing together. He came back just a few minutes ago. He … He just got started.”

Eren turned away as sobs burst out. Tears he had been repressing all day flowed from his eyes, and emotions he had turned off now hit him with full intensity. He sank to the floor and covered his face.

Nein. Das ist nicht mein Deutschland.” No. This is not my Germany. “Das … ist nicht … mein Deutschland.” The tears kept coming as all of his pride as a German crumbled to nothing. “Nein,” he whispered. “Mein Gott, nein.” My God, no.

He glared over at Grützmacher and realized the soldier was not moving. He wanted to beat the man up more, really make him suffer, but as Eren waited for him to moan and regain consciousness, he realized Grützmacher’s body was still. Sniffing up tears, he crawled over. He felt Grützmacher’s neck, but there was no pulse. He pulled open the eyelids, but the pupils did not respond.

“I think I killed him.” He felt the throat closer, then the wrist. “I … I killed him. He’s dead. I killed … a German.”

Eren slowly turned aside from the corpse, walked over to Levi, and removed the ropes binding his wrists. Levi pushed himself up, but he flinched with a squelched whimper of pain as his butt hurt. Biting his lip, he managed to sit upright and rubbed out raw redness in his wrists.

“Bring your stuff,” Eren said dispassionately. “I’m putting you in a different cell for tonight. We … We’ll need to remove the body.”

Levi saw the same emotional detachment as earlier that day. This young soldier had been taught how to shut off everything, to close himself down, turning his heart to stone, so he could do what was needed without dealing with emotions. Soldiers usually only learned how to do that after many years of hard battles. Levi wondered if the training to perfect this emotional detachment began when Eren was still a child in school.

He gathered his clothes and walked nude through the dungeon to another prison. Eren locked him inside the cell that used to belong to Moses.

“I will keep the key on me, so no one can get to you.” He pulled out the necklace in his pocket and removed the little locket on it. “Moses was wearing this.” He gave only the locket over. Then he strung the prison key around his neck with the silver chain and tucked it away in his shirt. “I’ll be back later. I … I need to report this. I need to tell the captain … Grützmacher is dead. I killed him. I need to report this.”

Takhshet?” Levi said softly.

“You’ll be safe in here. Two of my friends are taking care of Moses’ body right now. It’ll be okay. You … You’ll be safe. I need to report this.” He turned and walked away, almost stumbling as he went up the stairs.

Levi watched silently as he left.

“Levi?” a tiny voice whispered. He looked over at one of the women who had been raped while they all looked on, locked away and helpless to save her. “Que s’est-il passé?” What’s going on?

Ce connard est mort. Restez calme et allongez-vous.” The fucker’s dead. Stay calm and lie down.

Still shaken and bruised, the woman nodded and curled up on her little cot. The others also went to bed, hoping that if they all seemed to be asleep, the Nazis would be less inclined to hurt them even more. Levi looked down at the locket in his hand, then around at the cell. It still even smelled like Moses. Levi clenched the locket and sneered.

Pourquoi, Seigneur? Pourquoi?” Why, Lord? Why?

* * *

Eren knocked on a thick wooden door and entered when called. He stepped inside Kitz Woermann’s office.

Herr Leutnant? Is something wrong?”

Eren blankly blurted out, “Grützmacher is dead.”

The captain sprang up. “The Jew?”

“No, captain. It was me. I … I killed him.”

Kitz narrowed his eyes as he saw the hollow dread on the young man’s face. “What happened, Jäger?”

“I went to make sure the Jew’s cell was properly locked for the night. Just a habit. I went down there … and I saw Grützmacher … raping the Jew. He had tied the Jew up, and he was fucking his ass. The Jew said he was raped three times by Grützmacher. I … I felt … so disgusted.” He shut his eyes and clenched his hand.

“So you attacked him?”

“I was going to kill the Jew,” he lied. “I know you said not to, and it was obviously not his fault, but … rage took over reason. Grützmacher got in my way. He wanted to protect his Jewish sex toy,” he said with a sneer. “We fought, and … and I killed him. He’s dead. You’ll find him in the Jew’s cell. I’ve moved the prisoner to a new cell so Grützmacher’s body can be retrieved without the Jew escaping. Do not send women, though. He was not wearing trousers.”

Kitz walked up to Eren and clasped him firmly on the shoulder. Despite himself, Eren flinched and half a sob shook out.

“What you did was the justice of Hitler himself. Grützmacher must have already been homosexual deep in his heart. We should be on the lookout for others like that, those whose unnatural tendencies may have been awakened.”

“If I may make a suggestion, captain,” Eren said, still shaken, but trying to look up into his captain’s face. “Anyone with such a … a disgusting preference will now seek out that particular Jew, just like Grützmacher did. I recommend we keep him locked in the dungeon for no less than a week, until the sexual fervor settles down. We may even look into having a party, bring some French women in, show these soldiers that they do not need to resort to a man. I don’t want anyone else to end up corrupted like that.”

Kitz snickered. “I think the men will like that, especially the plan to bring in some girls. Of course, you’re probably suggesting that for yourself, being such a robust young man.” Laughing, he gave Eren a friendly punch to the shoulder.

Eren smiled awkwardly. “Perhaps my recommendation wasn’t completely altruistic.”

“It’s healthy to take a woman now and then. I wouldn’t want such a fine lieutenant to be tempted by a man’s buttocks.”

Eren cringed slightly and gulped despite himself.

“Is something wrong?” Kitz asked suspiciously.

“I’ve … never killed a German. I apologize. It’s hitting me worse than the first time I shot a man.” He looked up at the aged captain. “You’ve killed Germans before, yes?”

Kitz’s face went cold. “When it was required.”

Eren looked conflicted. “Is it really this hard?”

“Yes,” he said right away. “They are Aryans, our own kind, brothers of German blood. Of course it’s different from killing foreigners and subhumans. For one, you realize that some family back home will get the news. The Grützmacher family will be shamed because of their good-for-nothing son. I’ll have to include in my report that he was executed for attacking an officer and being a homosexual.”

“Executed?” Eren said in surprise.

“That’s how I see this. What you did only saved me the effort. If you had captured him instead of killing him, do you know what happens to a German soldier caught in the act of buggery?”

Eren cringed back a step. “He’s probably shot.”

“If he’s lucky and his commanding officer is weak. Homosexuals are usually shipped off to the prison camps, but I can’t be bothered with that out here in France. I would make a public display of this disgusting act, more than what your school did. Flogging, castration, then we would hang him.”

Eren gulped. “In that case, Grützmacher got off lucky. It was over in a few seconds.”

“Too lucky. Also, no matter how disgusted you are with them, try not to kill that particular Jew. The others, I don’t care what happens, but it’s a sick twist of fate that we need that one.”

“Then, if I may ask,” he said cautiously. “Why did you pick him for today’s punishment?”

“He was caught stealing food.”

Eren said nothing, but he recalled that Levi said all he had done was eat a piece of potato stuck to the inside of a pot.

“Besides,” Kitz added, “that one is unusually clever for a Jew. He knows we need him, so he needs to learn more than any of the others that he is nothing in our eyes but a tool. He is a mouth that can translate for us. As soon as we no longer need him—”

“Please give me the honor of shooting him,” Eren blurted out. “After working with him, speaking that barbaric language, I want to be the one to shoot him.”

Kitz chuckled with a proud glint in his eyes. “Of course. I wouldn’t want to take away your prize.”

Eren sighed in relief. If he demanded to be the one to kill Levi, Kitz would be inclined to honor that, and that meant, at the very least, the captain would not shoot Levi on a whim. In a way, by claiming the right to Levi’s execution, Eren was saving his life.

“In the meantime, keep using that filthy tool. Double your efforts on learning French. The sooner you can shoot that Jew, the better.”

“It’s a horrible language to learn,” he said, rolling his eyes at the frustration of trying to study a language so unlike his own. “At least English sounds similar to German, but French doesn’t make sense in the slightest.”

Kitz laughed in agreement. “No language compares to German. It’s a shame we have to use another language at all. These French Jew-lovers should have learned German, since we’ve been ruling over them for all these years.” He began to walk toward the door. “I need you to come along.”

“I’d rather not. I’m still shaken by what I witnessed. I’m not sure if I can look at Grützmacher and not want to kill him all over again.”

“Rein in that revulsion long enough to give an official report on the incident. I also need you to tell that Jew that, despite what happened today, he must still work for us, and if he is caught falsifying his translations, today’s events will be merciful in comparison.”

Eren wanted to get away, but he was compelled to follow as the captain gathered some medics to carry away the body. They went down to the dungeons, and Kitz covered his nose at the stench of unwashed bodies and unemptied toilet buckets.

“Filthy Jews! Grützmacher was insane to want to touch one of them, let alone sodomize one.” He saw the dead German with the back of his skull crushed inward and most of his face bashed flat. “You have some power in your fists to smash a man’s skull by punching him.” Grützmacher’s trousers were still off and tossed to the side. “Sick. There’s still blood and shit on his penis. That’s more than enough evidence of his crime. I expect a written report by noon tomorrow, Lieutenant Jäger.”

“Yes, captain,” he said, saluting weakly.

Kitz patted his shoulder again. “You did well. Defeat the disease of this continent, no matter what uniform it wears. Be sure you warn that Jew.” He walked up to Levi’s cell and glared at the small man hunched down in the corner with blankets wrapped around him. “You may not be homosexual yourself, but you are a magnet to the vile scum of this world. You should be happy that Jäger killed your rapist, and that I shot that faggot Jew. Still, I wonder if a parasite like you realizes, for a moment there, you had the penis of a dead man inside you.” He laughed sadistically and marched away, following the medics carrying the body out on a stretcher.

Eren remained where he was. He looked over at the blood on the wall where he had bashed in Grützmacher’s head. He also realized there was more blood on the sleeping cot where Levi had been tied up, as well as sticky white stains.

It took him almost a full minute to build up the courage to look over to Levi’s prison cell. The small man had wrapped himself up in a dingy gray blanket, trembling slightly. Eren saw the darkened eyes staring at him in the pale flicker of an oil lantern.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

Levi’s cold gaze stayed on him. “Do you really think I would answer that honestly?”

Eren dropped his head. Of course he was not okay. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. You’re not the one who did it.”

“I stepped on your hand. I kicked you,” he pointed out.

Levi rolled his eyes. “Fine, be sorry for that. I’ve been kicked much harder. Your legs are weak from sitting around picking your nose.” Although he tried to have some of his normal contrary attitude, his voice lacked the energy now.

Eren slowly approached the barred cell. “I, um … I have some medicine.” He pulled out the jar from Jean. “It’s to help with your … your, um…”

“My raped arse?” Levi said levelly.

Eren gulped down a surge from his stomach and only nodded.

“I see. What are your orders?”

Eren jolted up. “What? Orders?”

“That’s what this was about, right? Learn to follow orders, no matter what they are. Even if you follow them, you may die. There is no guarantee or word of honor with Nazis. Only obedience.”

“No!” he cried out, but Eren’s throat clenched off. He had a point. “May I enter and treat you?”

“If I say no, will you rape me as well?”

“Levi!” he shouted, feeling stung by that.

Levi turned his head away so he did not have to see the hurt expression on the young soldier’s face. “Do what you want.” He removed the blanket, exposing his bruised, naked body. “At this point, I don’t care even if you do rape me.”

Nie! Never! I won’t hurt you, I swear. I just want to help. Wait a moment. I’ll wash you. You like to be clean, right?”

Eren ran back upstairs. Making sure no one saw, he grabbed a bucket of water, a bar of soap, and two cleaning rags from out of the castle kitchen. When he returned, Levi was still sitting naked on his bed. Eren pulled out his key and opened the cell.

“Stand out here, near the drain.”

Levi limped out to where there was a grate in the floor. Eren prepared one of the towels with water and soap. Meanwhile, Levi glared out at the many dark eyes gazing from behind shadowy prison bars.

He snapped at them, “Qu’est-ce que vous regardez? Vous avez jamais vu de Juif à poil avant?” What are you looking at? Have you never seen a naked Jew before?

They all stopped staring and politely faced the wall or rolled over in bed, giving him privacy.

Eren was once again impressed that the Jews followed Levi’s command so naturally. Obviously, this was what made him a good captain back in the day. “The water is cold. Sorry.”

Takhshet, I’ve been bathing in a river for months. Do you really think I care anymore about a hot bath?”

“One day, you should get one,” he said softly.

Levi briefly looked at him. This man, to say such a considerate thing…

Eren started at Levi’s neck, dipping water into his hand and pouring it over the small, lean body, then rubbing over it with the soapy cloth. This close, he could see every detail of Levi’s body, from scars to moles to the fine hairs on his chest. Eren rubbed circles around his skin, from neck to shoulders to chest, down the back that had boot-size bruises on it, to his well-toned but starved thin stomach. Then he held out Levi’s arms and scrubbed from fingers up to his armpit. Levi moved wherever Eren shifted him, often staring straight ahead, but sometimes glancing over in a mix of confusion and wary appreciation.

“I remember your legs are sensitive,” Eren said, and he held the cloth out to Levi.

Something cracked in Levi’s heart. Eren remembered! He did not want to touch inappropriately and humiliate Levi like what had happened before. Somehow, knowing there was someone this understanding in a cruel world that had taken away all he loved, anyone he had befriended, stolen away his pride and dignity … somehow, this tiny display of consideration brought a tear to his eye.

Levi snatched the towel away and turned aside, quickly scrubbing his legs, down to his feet. He did not want Eren to see how close he was to breaking apart. He then tried to reach around to clean his buttocks, but the shoulder the Germans had roughly pulled earlier was swollen. He sucked between his teeth at the stab of pain.

“Allow me,” said Eren.

“No!” Levi yanked away, but a pain shot through his back, hips, and butt. He nearly doubled over, but Eren swiftly grabbed him.

“It’s okay. I’ve got you.”

“Let go of me!” he screamed.

“Levi…”

He thrashed against Eren’s strong arms. “Ne me touchez pas! Espèces de sales boches. Je vous hais tous…

“Levi! Calm down.”

Je vais te tuer!” I’ll kill you!

Eren grabbed him even tighter and smothered the screams into his uniform before someone came down to check on the commotion. “Seriously, you need to calm down. I’m sorry if it was wrong to offer. I just know you need that area to be cleaned properly, and it’s not easy to reach. It means nothing, Levi. Nothing! I’m only cleaning, I swear.”

Before Levi realized it, instead of hitting Eren, he was clinging to him. The rage broke into tears, and he hid his face from the pain. He felt Eren’s huge hand on his head, pulling him in closer, allowing him to cry into the feldgrau uniform.

“It’s okay now. It’s safe.”

He felt Eren’s hands, one soothingly resting on his head, one rubbing his back, and the gentleness broke him even more.

“No,” he whispered, not to Eren, but to himself, one last protest against the surging emotions. He hiccuped a sob, but he could not stop the flood of tears. Eren did not tell him to stop, to be strong, or to act like a man. Instead, he held Levi as if he understood perfectly well what it was like to live for years hiding behind a wall of strength, only to have those walls crumble in an instant.

Then Levi heard a sympathetic whimper. His eyes flashed open, and he saw that all the Jews were once again staring, worried by his shouts. He said weakly, too tired to sound even remotely threatening, “Regardez ailleurs, ou je vous tuerai tous.” Look away, or I’ll kill you all.

They all turned away, giving him a moment of weakness that they all knew he deserved.

In the two years since his wife’s death, Levi had never wept in grief, never screamed in terror, never flinched as guns were pulled on him. He had to stay firm. He had to protect the others. There was no time to worry about himself when there were lives depending on him to be strong. He never let anyone see how this war had broken him long ago.

Now, he felt himself finally crumbling under all the shattered dreams and the weight of the lost souls along the way. He stopped struggling and surrendered to the warmth of Eren’s arms. After everything that happened to him, after the public humiliation, the grief of watching Moses being murdered after agreeing to do anything to stay alive, the horror of being repeatedly raped, and watching helplessly as other women were raped right in front of him … after all that, what did he care if the other Jews saw him being comforted by the one soldier who gave a damn about them?

“That’s good,” Eren whispered as he realized Levi was calming down. “Pretend I’m your mother, and I’m hugging you after a nightmare.”

Levi snuffled moistly and replied with an irascible gruffness, “My mother was cuter than you.”

Eren chuckled and held him consolingly. “Then pretend I’m some ugly aunt.”

He thought he heard a laugh, but it was sniffed away along with the tears. After a minute to calm down, Levi pulled aside and wiped his wet face. His cheeks were pale except for the bruises, his eyes outlined in pink with wet lashes, but he looked more relaxed.

“You’re right. My arse is a mess, and I can’t reach it.” He sneered and grumbled, “Ça fait putain de mal.” That fucking hurts. “That bastard really stomped hard on my back. I think he cracked something. I can’t move in certain ways without burning pain. Your kick to my arse didn’t help much either.”

“Then let me make up for that. I’ll clean away the boot print from where I kicked you, that’s all.”

Levi still looked hesitant, but he finally nodded. He went back into the cell and slowly, achingly, laid himself face-down on the cot. “This is easier for me. Even standing hurts right now.”

Eren moved the cleaning supplies over. He also sat on the bed and gazed at Levi’s whip-scarred back. This was no time to admire him. Levi needed assistance, and Eren wanted to help in any way he could.

“I’ll clean away all the filth,” Eren said soothingly.

He wrung out the wet cloth and gently spread the small butt cheeks that had finger-size bruises all across them. Levi flinched hard and buried his mouth down into the pillow. His whole body shook for a moment in memories of pain and humiliation.

“It’s okay. I won’t do anything to hurt you. I’m only cleaning.”

Levi relaxed at the promise. Still, as Eren delicately washed aside blood, semen, and filth, Levi’s mind brewed with evil memories. Just an hour ago, other hands had been touching him there, and he could not stop them. Now, he gripped his pillow tightly, but he knew he was free. He could escape! More than that, he knew that all he had to say was Stop, and Eren would stop.

He trusted Eren. Even with this, even to touch his most intimate areas, he trusted him.

Eren looked down, realizing precisely what he was washing away, and he was torn between rage and grief. If it had been him hurt like that… He could not imagine it and did not want to try. Still, could he allow anyone, especially a man, to wash him there? For that matter, would any of his men want to touch this area? Probably not. Even Armin would probably have to be ordered for him to reluctantly agree to clean his butt. Eren knew of no one who would volunteer to help him with such an intimate task.

So why had he so quickly volunteered to help Levi?

The forbidden answer was that he wanted to touch him here, yet that answer was not fully honest. The darker truth was that he felt guilty. At sunset, he had debated between going to the prison or going out into the field to bury Moses. He assumed Levi would be safely locked away in his cell. If he had gone right then, maybe he would not have stopped Grützmacher completely, but he could have prevented the women from also being raped, and from Levi being subjected to a third round of humiliation.

He felt guilty because he knew right away that Grützmacher was up to no good, yet he never imagined the man would resort to something so horrific.

He felt guilty because all these months had passed, and he had not done anything to help Levi to escape. He hated the idea of him one day running off without even a goodbye. He selfishly wanted to keep Levi nearby, yet also feared having him too close.

He felt guilty because he wanted Levi to stay with him, but now he saw just how tenuous the relationship between Nazis and Jews was.

He felt guilty because he could feel Levi’s body shaking, yet he selfishly wanted to touch him more.

Casually, Eren said, “You know, if you cry into your pillow, no one will hear it.”

Maybe that was all Levi needed. Of course, Eren heard the sobs, and he felt the small man’s body shuddering. He rubbed the wet washcloth softer, wishing there was some cure, like how his mother’s kiss used to make things better.

He dried everything, then opened the jar of medicine to find the cream inside was not plain white, but vividly bright green.

“I’m not sure what this is, to tell you the truth,” he said, dipping his finger in and testing it. “Jean said it would help your arse. I’m curious as to why he would have something like that.”

“Hemorrhoids, most likely. It smells like agropyre, or wheatgrass.”

Weizengras,” Eren quickly translated into German.

“An old man in my home village used to drink some hideous concoction that smelled just like that. I remember someone saying it was wheatgrass, and he used it for constipation and hemorrhoids.”

Eren sputtered out a laugh. “Ooh, I have got to tease Jean about that one!”

Softly, trying to be as tender as possible, knowing that area must hurt, he again spread the small butt cheeks with one hand and stroked his cream-coated fingers over the small puckering. Levi flinched hard and let out a tiny cry of instinctive fear, only to instantly calm himself, repeating in his head, this was only Eren, this was only Eren.

Not that knowing it was Eren really helped to calm his mind from other thoughts.

Eren tried to be careful, feeling the flinches of pain and hearing the way Levi’s breath caught at times. His heart ached to touch Levi in this area, knowing he had been brutalized. He shook his head, hating the way his eyes burned, and he wiped aside a tear, hoping none of the other Jews saw him.

“I’m so sorry.”

“I told you, don’t be.” Besides, if he heard Eren talk too much with that gentle voice, he might break apart again.

Eren wanted to keep touching, but he knew that area must hurt, so he pulled his hands back, wiped his fingers on a corner of the blanket, and screwed the cap onto the jar of cream. Then he reached into a pouch on his belt, pulled out another jar of medicine, opened the cap, and rubbed a floral-smelling cream onto the reddened bruises.

“What is that one?” asked Levi.

Arnika. It’s made from a plant. All the soldiers have it in their supplies. It will take down the swelling.”

“We call it la teinture d’arnica,” Levi muttered into the pillow. “My mother would use that on bruises.”

“Did you get a lot of bruises as a child?”

Levi snorted with a bit of smugness. “Sure, but I always won the fight.”

“I bet your mother was proud, then. Roll around. I’ll get your front.”

Levi was slow, and he flinched the entire time, but he managed to make it around. Lying on his back hurt. Levi realized that he would have to sleep on his stomach for a few days. Being polite, Eren pulled the blanket up to cover Levi’s naked groin.

He grumbled, “I’m surprised you would do this to another man.”

Eren made a slight shrug. “It’s not about being male or female. Feelings exist because we have a soul, and the soul is not affected by what anatomy we have. What I feel, I feel because we are two humans trapped amidst chaos.”

“Two humans? Your captain certainly doesn’t see me as a human.”

“Well, I do. We’re the same.”

“Same? No Übermensch or Untermensch anymore?”

“No,” Eren whispered, feeling dirty that, just a few months ago, he had firmly believed such things. “I know now, all I was taught, all my people believe, it’s a lie. It’s a disgusting, horrible lie that has killed far too many people. I … have killed people.”

“Civilians?”

“Never that. Only soldiers.”

“That’s war, and that’s different from shooting innocent civilians.” He added quietly, “Or from killing a rapist.”

“Still, I was following the orders of people who are wrong, and I knew they were wrong, but … but I wanted to believe I was superior … if only because I know I am messed up inside.”

Levi narrowed his eyes. “Messed up how?”

Eren said nothing, but his eyes conveyed such deep sorrow and guilt. Levi looked aside with his lips pursed. Did he dare to ask?

“Be honest,” he whispered. “What, exactly, do you feel for me?”

Eren jolted at the question, and instantly his eyes flashed in rage. “How dare you question my honor as a man—”

“Be honest!” he snapped.

Eren flinched under those dark, dangerous, commanding eyes. His heart hammered in his chest, and he forced his gaze down, only to see the naked, pale, scarred body he had been touching. Of course Levi would question his intentions; it was only fair. “Right now? I feel guilty, and I feel … I don’t know a good English word to describe it.”

“Lust?” Levi said with a glare of disgust.

“No!” he shouted, and Levi saw that Eren was being honest. Whatever this was, it was not something so crude as lust. “I feel a need to help, to protect, to care for you. I feel … like a mother? Maybe? It’s hard to explain.”

Levi intoned coldly. “I am not a child.”

“Not like that,” he quickly corrected. “I told you, I can’t think of the word.”

Levi decided to let it go. After all, emotions were confusing enough without a language barrier. “So, you feel like nurturing me?”

“Nurture! That’s the word, yes!”

“And it’s not about being male or female? Are you sure you’re not homosexual or hiding boobs under that uniform?”

Eren laughed awkwardly. “I assure you, I’m all male.”

“How you’ve acted at times, I wonder.”

Eren focused his gaze onto the bruises and rubbed on more cream. “Would you hate me?”

“If you were a woman in disguise to fight a war? No. I would think you were brave.”

“No, I mean … do you hate homosexuals?” His words were a mere wisp of air.

Levi stared, seeing the unspoken fears in those teal eyes. He sighed, looked away, and answered, “I have no reason to hate them. There were people who hated me for marrying a goy, a non-Jew. I felt they should mind their own damn business. Same with men who love men, or women who love women. It’s none of my damn business. They fell in love, and what is the harm in that? How does that in any way threaten me? Why should I hate someone for simply falling in love? Even what that man did to me, I’m sure homosexuals are not all like that.”

“No!” Eren caught his breath as soon as he said that one word. “No, I’m sure they’re not. Not that I would know.”

Levi wanted to laugh at this awkward man. Fine, let him keep his secrets. It was safer that way.

Still, the ghostly touches of Eren’s warm fingers on his skin now overwhelmed his mind. Levi already knew this was more than merely applying a medicinal cream. It was an excuse to be closer, to touch him, to indulge in that desire to nurture him, and for some reason, he was not repulsed. He knew that reciprocation was a death sentence, but he did not mind knowing that Eren wanted to treat him gently, nurture him, and protect him. It honestly felt flattering.

This brat!

Eren finally capped his arnica jar. “By the way,” he said, his voice forcefully more perky after all the tension, “maybe this is some good news: I convinced my captain to let you stay here and rest for a week.”

“How in the world did you manage that?”

Eren grinned broadly. “I’m smarter than he is.”

“That’s not much to brag about. My old dog was smarter than that owl-eyed pig.”

“Hey!”

“Thank you,” Levi said, his voice sincere, but then he sneered. “I seriously hate thanking you so much.”

“Then you don’t need to until this war is over. Save up all your thank-yous until then.”

Levi scowled. “What are the chances of both of us surviving this war?”

“Probably higher than you think. Don’t thank me, keep a tally, and when this war is over, I will make sure you pay me back, with interest. That’s how Jews do it, right?”

Levi groaned and shook his head. Was that supposed to be a joke? He rolled back over to his stomach, but he flinched from a sharp pain in his back. That bastard really did crack something when he stomped so hard.

Eren saw the pained face and was eager to assist. “Do you need help to get dressed?”

Levi let out a weary sigh. “To be honest, I’m not sure if my body is ready for clothes. I seriously hurt everywhere, and wearing trousers would just be another pain.”

“Then let me cover you.”

Eren pulled up the blanket and tucked it around Levi. He smoothed the gray blanket down, caressing along the arch of his back, indulging in one last touch, but his hand came to a quick stop just before the small mound of Levi’s butt. He pulled away and drew his fingers into a fist.

“The butt cream is yours to keep. I’ll be back tomorrow. If anyone bothers you, remember their face and tell me. I have the only key to the cell. Unless the whole castle burns down, you should be safe.”

“Bars don’t hold back bullets,” Levi said wryly.

“No, but an order from the captain that you have to remain alive will keep the guns silent. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He left the tiny cell, locked it securely, and put the key back around his neck.

Levi watched him go, listening to those clicking boot heels on the cold stone dungeon floor, and he suddenly called out. “Takhshet!

Eren paused and looked around in curiosity.

Levi had no idea why he called out like that. He hated that a part of him simply did not want Eren to leave. Now he was stuck, having shouted out to him with nothing to say. He searched around for some excuse for his outburst, and then he saw a glint of the locket Eren had handed over to him.

“You said your two friends were taking care of Moses’ body.”

“Yes, Armin and Jean. That’s the smaller one and the man with the face like a horse.”

“Are they burning the body, or burying?”

“Jean brought shovels, so I assume they are burying him. Plus they’re doing it under the cover of night, so a fire would attract too much attention.”

“That’s good,” he sighed. “A Frenchman should be buried in French soil. Tell your friends, their act honors us. I’m not sure if they even care, but for Jews, a proper burial is important.”

Eren nodded dutifully. “I’ll tell them. Sleep well.”

He blew out the lantern and went up the stairs. Levi collapsed back on the cot with his face smashed into the pillow.

“It still reeks of him,” he muttered, hating the familiar smell of Moses now that he realized how the man’s last minutes had been spent in the worst form of shame. Levi closed his eyes. “Chacun d’entre vous, s’il vous plaît, priez avec moi.” All of you, please, pray with me.

With that call to his fellow prisoners, Levi began to chant a prayer in Hebrew. “Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba.”

To which the others replied, “Amen.”

“B’alma di v’ra chirutei,
v’yamlich malchutei,
b’chayeichon uv’yomeichon
uv’chayei d’chol beit Yisrael,
baagala uviz’man kariv.
V’im’ru: Amen.

The others replied with a solemn response, “Amen.”

Although they were all tired, although Levi hurt so badly that he wanted nothing more than to pass out, he prayed the Mourner’s Kaddish for Moses and spent the next hour offering up prayers, in Hebrew and in French, to the man who lost his life despite doing everything imaginable to stay alive. Honoring him now made up for being unable to save him, to save any of them, and helped to put his shattered mind back together.

One by one, the others drifted off to sleep, also comforted by the prayers, safe from the nightmares if only for a few hours. Tomorrow was going to be another day of slavery under the oppression of the Nazis, but for a few moments, the Jews felt at peace.

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bloodycappucci1

I got this watercolor fan art from bloodycappucci1 on Twitter. So brutal and beautiful! Thank you so much! Poor Levi needs ALL the cuddles!

Klappspaten

Klappspaten – a folding shovel and standard issue for Heer soldiers, especially where digging trenches was expected.

wheatgrass

Wheatgrass – Many of my hipster friends grow pots of this to throw into their juice drinks along with kale, dandelion, spirulina, and all sorts of greens. One medicinal use is for constipation, anal fissures, fistula, and hemorrhoids.

arnica flower german med kit

Arnica is amazing for bruises, stiffness, and swelling. “Arnika Tinktur” was commonly used by German soldiers during WWII, with some soldiers carrying the dried flowers around in their packs.

Levi recites the Mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer traditionally recited in memory of the dead. I have attended many Jewish funerals with my husband, and the chanting of the Kaddish is always the most touching part. It is about life, not the grimness of death, and it is half chanted, half sung. It is then recited daily by people mourning the loss of their parents; for eleven months it is said every day, and then it is recited on the anniversary of their death. This corresponds to the 12 months a soul spends in Sheol before moving on to whatever comes after.

Punishment for homosexuality in the Nazi military varied widely, depending on the location and commander. Homosexuality was illegal, but occasionally using men to relieve sexual tension was generally shrugged off as soldiers just having some fun. For instance, in Finland, Wehrmacht soldiers were sternly told not to act inappropriately toward women, but taking male prostitutes or even sexually assaulting men was totally fine, even seen as a proof of Aryan dominance over “lesser men,” to the point where the Esplanade in central Helsinki was deemed “dangerous for Finnish young men.” In other areas, a homosexual soldier could be executed, sometimes after torture, castration, and public humiliation.

Romani dancing

Jean mentions that his friend Marco was Romani. The Romani people are an ethnic group consisting of Roma, Sinti, and Kale. Due to their nomadic life and darker skin, Europeans had no clue where they came from. In England, they were thought to be Egyptian, which became Gyptian, and that became Gypsy, a term many Romani consider to be derogatory. Genetic testing shows that they were originally from northern India, and “Sinti” likely came from Sindhi in Pakistan. They have their own language, customs, dress, and music. Over the centuries, Romani caravans adopted local ways, including religions. They can be Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or non-religious.

van Gogh
(Vincent van Gogh, “The Caravans – Gypsy Camp near Arles”)

They were brutally persecuted throughout European history, depicted as criminals, thieves, and spies. Many countries forced Romani boys into military service. Holy Roman Emperor Joseph I decreed that all Romani men were to be hanged and all women flogged and banished, with Charles VI amending that to include executing all adult females. In 1530, England made a law giving the Romani 16 days to leave the country or be hanged, and Romani children were taken from the parents to be used as forced labor. In Moravia and Bohemia, Romani women were “marked” by cutting off their ears. The French were known to shave their scalps and brand them. The Habsburgs removed rights to horse and wagon ownership to stop the Romani from roaming, and prohibited marriage between Romani in an attempt to curb their population via forced integration. Holland had a different way of reducing the Romani population: the Heidenjachten (Heathen Hunt), a legally sanctioned hunting of Romani people, with children being a prized target for drowning. Up into the 20th century, Norway had a law that permitted the state to remove Romani children from their parents, placing them in state institutions. In the Weimar Republic, the Romani were forbidden from entering public parks, swimming pools, and other recreational areas. Due to the intolerance of Western and Central Europe, many Romani caravans migrated East, where they found tolerance in Poland and Russia.

1940 Romani deportation
(Romani about to be deported from Germany, 1940)

When Hitler invaded Poland, the Nazis targeted the darker-skinned Romani for ethnic cleansing. Many were sent to concentration camps, where they were designated with a brown inverted triangle. More often, they were killed on sight, especially by the Einsatzgruppen (paramilitary death squads). In Bohemia, the Romani extermination was so thorough, the Bohemian Romani dialect is now an extinct language. It is estimated that 500,000 Romani, 50% of their entire population in Europe, were killed by the Nazis, and globally as many as 1.5 million Romani people died, including ones Nazis exterminated in Africa and Asia.

Roma protesting in Bucharest
(A Romani protest in Bucharest against violence)

Persecution against the Romani people continues to this day. Up until 1991, Czechoslovakia sterilized Romani women as part of a state policy to reduce their population. Germany, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland were also found to have a recent history of “coercive sterilization” of Romani. In 2002, a British Member of Parliament openly said of the Romani people, “They are scum, and […] do not deserve the same human rights as my decent constituents.” In 2007, European Union officials censured both the Czech Republic and Slovakia for segregating Romani children from regular schools. A recent poll showed that 82% of Italians have racist opinions about the Romani, which showed in a brutal way when Naples residents set multiple Romani camps on fire, an Italian court decreed “it is acceptable to discriminate against Roma on the grounds that they are thieves,” beach-goers watched dispassionately as two Romani children drowned at a popular beach, some saying that two fewer Romani meant less crime in the world, and in 2008, one act of violence by a Romani man made the Italian government declare that the Romani people are “a national security risk.” In France, between 2010-2012, authorities demolished over 50 Romani camps and began a process of forced repatriation for thousands of nomadic Romani, an act that the EU called “a disgrace.” In 2011, ethnic clashes broke out in Bulgaria against the Romani, with chants that they should be turned into glue or go back to India.

The European Union once again condemned these acts of violence, but did little to actually help. A report issued by Amnesty International in 2011 claims that “systematic discrimination is taking place against up to 10 million Roma across Europe.” The EU has recognized that discrimination against Romani people must be addressed, but they have not really done much to stop countries from targeting the nomadic group, beyond creating a few committees and public censuring.

Chapter Text

Eren came down to the dungeon with a lightness to his step and a secretive smile on his face. He had hoped to catch Levi alone, but there were two women who just got off a long and exhausting day of cleaning. Eren heard their words, but his French was not good enough to understand. He got a feeling that the women were consoling Levi, although he looked mildly annoyed by their fretting. As soon as Eren stepped into the room, Levi’s face perked up, and he pushed himself into a sitting position.

“How are you?” asked the young soldier.

Levi let out a tired sigh. “What do you expect me to say? I’m trying to convince myself yesterday was a nightmare. It doesn’t work when my arse hurts and I have to smell Moses’ pillow.”

“Oh! I … I can put you somewhere else.” Eren glanced around the castle dungeon, unsure if any of the cells were suitable.

“No,” grumbled Levi. “He at least kept his cell somewhat clean. Plus it’s better this way. It’s too easy to pretend something horrible simply didn’t happen, but that only makes things worse when the mask of lies falls down. So, what is it today? More radio chatter for me to translate?”

“Nothing yet. In fact, it’s mostly English now.”

“Are the Americans still in France?”

“Yes. They just took Marseille. Canadians took Dieppe.”

“Canada as well?” Levi asked in surprise.

To Eren’s frustration, every bit of news they got seemed to be nonstop Allied victories. He really did not want to talk about the war, especially since he knew Levi would rejoice at how many French cities were now in the hands of the Allies. It only reminded him that they were political enemies.

“I brought you medicine,” he said instead. Eren slipped Levi a bottle containing a few pills.

Levi took the bottle with a crease between his brows. “How in the world did you get these?”

The young lieutenant chuckled awkwardly. “I … I had Armin distract the doctor while I grabbed a handful of pills.”

“You stole them?” Levi cried out.

Eren hushed him frantically. “It’s fine.”

“No, it’s not! Dammit, don’t do anything for my sake that could get you in trouble.”

Eren smiled at the scolding. “Why? Do you care about me?”

“If you get in trouble helping us, we get the punishment.”

“Well, what’s done is done. Take one pill three times a day with your meals.”

“You do realize, we only get two meals.”

“O-Oh.”

Eren honestly did not know that. He saw that they got a midday meal on Sundays, but that was a splurge, and only because he had insisted upon feeding them after their bathing. In reality, it was the only day the Jews got lunch. The rest of the time, they were given a roll to eat as they headed off to their chores and watery soup for dinner.

Levi sighed as he saw the saddened look on Eren’s face. Seriously, he was like a scolded puppy! “Don’t worry about it. Thank you for the medicine. What exactly is it for?”

“Pain.”

Levi let out a sputtering sigh. “Definitely need that.”

“Also, it isn’t much, but I got it as part of my rations, and I don’t really need it. I thought it might cheer you up a little.” He pulled out a small round tin with a red and white starburst, the Heeres eagle in the middle, and words written in Fraktur calligraphy.

“Scho-Ka-Kola?” Levi asked, reading the gothic lettering.

“Chocolate.” Eren opened the tin to show the round chocolate cut into wedges. “I first had some when I went to the Summer Olympics in Berlin. I had never tasted chocolate before then. I ate the whole thing and didn’t sleep all night,” he said with a laugh. “It has quite a kick. Normally there are sixteen pieces, but Connie ate some of mine, so only the bottom layer is left. Now Connie is so hyper, we had to send him to go run around the village to work off the energy.”

He gleefully handed the tin through the prison bars and over to Levi. The Jew stared down at the candy as if unsure what it even was.

“Have … Have you ever had chocolate?” Eren asked uncertainly.

“Many years ago,” Levi muttered with a distant look in his eyes filled with bittersweet memories of happier times. He shook himself out of thoughts of the past and shot a glare at Eren. “Why would you bring me chocolate but not show such favor to the rest of us?”

Eren frowned as Levi scolded him rather than smiling at the gift. “I only really know you. I can’t exactly talk to the others. Besides, we’re friends.”

“Friends?” Levi exclaimed in shock. “Since when?”

Eren flinched with a sting to his heart, and he dropped his head. “Maybe never. I make a horrible friend, anyway. I’ve done bad things, I’ve ignored you, hurt you, stood by and said nothing…”

“You had to,” Levi muttered. “We both know that.”

“But it makes me feel bad. The only other time I felt this guilt was when two friends got hurt and I did nothing. So maybe how much my heart hurts now means I think of you as a friend. Back then, I couldn’t do anything, but this time I can at least say sorry and make up for it.” He laughed awkwardly as his toe twisted into the dusty dungeon floor. “Even if it’s just chocolate.”

A lady in another prison cell sighed. “Il est tellement timide. C’est trop mignon!” He’s so shy. That’s too cute!

Levi shot her a caustic glare to be quiet. Then his eyes slowly drifted back to Eren, standing there, a blush coloring his cheeks, his toe twisting like some smitten whelp.

“You … consider me as your … friend?”

Eren finally met his eyes, and he smiled gently. “I do. I care for you.”

Levi sharply looked aside.

Friends! He had let the thought drift through his mind at times, but actually hearing Eren say he felt that close made Levi’s heart hammer in a hailstorm of chaos.

“Give … Give a piece of chocolate to the other ladies. All of them, even the ones not here yet. They can eat it when they wake up. It’ll give them some energy to slave away for you German swine.”

“But then there will only be four pieces left for you.”

“That’s all I need. If there were sixteen pieces, I would distribute it to everyone, or give away my own so someone else has food.”

“But it’s a gift!”

“It would give me more joy to share it. Besides, what would I do with so much energy and trapped in my cell for a whole week? That much sweet candy would probably make my shit rock hard, and that’s the last thing I need.” He handed the tin back over. “Please. As a friend.”

Those words brought fiery heat to Eren’s face.

Levi grumbled, “And don’t ever look like that in front of others.”

Eren paused. “Look like what?”

Levi scowled and said nothing more. Idiot! Those blushing cheeks and boyish joy in his eyes really were dangerous. If anyone saw him looking like that, the truth would be perfectly clear.

Eren went to the other cells, giving the ladies a wedge of chocolate. Levi told them in French not to eat it, since they needed what precious little sleep they could get, but to save it until their next work shift. They both thanked Eren, and he saw their dark eyes light up with excitement from just sniffing the chocolate. One licked hers, unable to hold back. Eren left pieces in the other two cells he knew were used by women, hiding the candy so the guard who brought them back from their shift would not see a chocolate sitting out for them, like this was a fancy hotel and not a castle dungeon. That left only half the tin. He brought it back to Levi.

“I was hoping you could enjoy it over the week you have to rest here. After what you went through—”

“After that, I realized that I need to do more to help the others. I need to appreciate them more. Moses helped me out a lot, especially when I was attacked in the latrine. He got you, he made sure I was fed, and he emptied my toilet bucket. I never properly thanked him. Those chocolates are my thanks, at least to the ladies.”

“Then I will find another tin, and you can give one to all sixteen of them.”

This time, Eren saw a smile almost lift onto Levi’s face, but he struggled to keep it in check. “I’d like that.”

“I’ll steal Jean’s. A horse doesn’t need chocolate.”

This time, Levi could not hold back. A laugh punched out, only to be silenced with a struggle. Still, that sound was music to Eren’s ears. He finally got Levi to laugh!

Eren gazed at the half eaten chocolate. “Now I’m really mad at Connie for eating my rations. I’ll have to come up with a creative way to punish him. Is there anything else I can do? Not just for you alone, but all of you.”

“Better food would be nice.”

Eren thought it over. “I might be able to do something about that.”

“Don’t get into trouble, takhshet.”

“I won’t,” he said with a confident grin. “I might not make it back down for a while, but by your bathing day, I’ll try to have something. Enjoy the chocolate.” He waved a friendly goodbye. “Tschüss!” He turned to the ladies and tipped his cap to them. “Bonsoir.” Then Eren turned and trotted back up the stairs.

Once he was gone, one of the ladies fanned herself and said, “Il est très beau, bien qu’il soit Allemand.” He is very handsome, although he is German.

The other woman chuckled and pointed over to Levi. “Il est déjà pris.” He’s already taken.

Que pensez-vous de lui, Levi?” What do you think about him, Levi?

He rolled his eyes and replied in a surly tone, “C’est un idiot, mais … il a un cœur d’or.” He is an idiot, but he has a heart of gold.

The two women chuckled at his reluctant admiration and kept talking between themselves.

Si nos pays n’étaient pas en guerre, j’irais danser avec lui.” If our countries were not at war, I would go dancing with him.

Je voudrais beaucoup plus que simplement une danse.” I would want much more than simply a dance.

“Oui. Il est gentil, généreux, et très viril.” Yes. He’s kind, generous, and very manly.

“C’est tellement vrai! Ça ne me dérangerait pas qu’il tire son pistolet sur mon champ de bataille, si tu vois ce que je veux dire.” That's so true! I wouldn’t mind if he shot his pistol in my battlefield, if you know what I mean.

Levi scoffed at their gossip and cut in. “Allez donc vous coucher.” Go on to bed.

The lady in the cell next to him waved off the scolding. “Ne soyez pas jaloux. Je sais que c’est vôtre ami spécial.” Don’t be jealous. I know he’s your special friend.

The other woman chuckled. “Vôtre petit-ami!” Your boyfriend!

Levi flinched and sharply snapped at them, “Dormez! Maintenant!” Sleep! Now!

They muttered apologies and lay down, trying to find a comfortable position to sleep. Levi sighed and rubbed out the pain that still ached in his back.

Oy ve,” he grumbled. He looked down at the wedges of chocolate and muttered to himself in English, “What fool gives a man chocolate?”

Levi picked up a tiny wedge, raising it like some relic of the past. He gazed at it, the deep color, the smoothness, and he sniffed deeply, savoring the sweet smell. Finally, he took a tiny bite, and the dark chocolate broke into his mouth, melting over his tongue with hints of coffee. Levi closed his eyes, holding back a sigh of bliss as he tried to recall the last time he had tasted anything so heavenly.

# # #

# #

#

Scho-ka-kola

Scho-ka-kola was part of a Wehrmacht soldier’s emergency rations. It’s dark chocolate mixed with substitute coffee and packed full of vitamins. It was introduced at the 1936 Summer Olympics (as Eren mentioned) as a performance-enhancing energy sport chocolate (Sportschokolade). In World War II, Scho-Ka-Kola was colloquially known as the “Aviator Chocolate” (Fliegerschokolade) because it was give to Luftwaffe pilots and crew to keep them awake on night-bombing missions. It was also issued to the Heer (German Army), tank crews, U-boat crews, and used as emergency sea-survival rations. Some soldiers gave Scho-Ka-Kola to captured American troops as an act of respect for their bravery. You can still buy it.

Chapter Text

bread

That Saturday, Eren brought only two people with him to take the Jews down to the river to bathe. As much as he wished he could say he trusted his entire platoon in all things, for this issue he really could only trust Armin and Jean.

“Hey,” Jean called out, pointing to the women undressing. “Two of them have bruises on their chests. What happened?”

Eren asked Levi in English, and then answered Jean. “They were assaulted by soldiers a few days ago.”

Armin gasped in horror. “Are you saying German soldiers raped them?”

“You heard about Grützmacher, right? He was one of the attackers.”

Armin struggled with a deep revulsion. “But … but he was homosexual, a deviant.”

Eren shrugged. “He was a rapist. It didn’t matter what gender to him. Why is it easy to believe a man would rape another man, but you can’t believe a man would rape a woman?”

“Because … they’re women! It’s wrong.”

“Raping a man is just as wrong.”

Armin dropped his head. “Yes, but…”

Levi spoke some more, and Eren listened. “He says, you don’t have to worry too much for them. They’ve learned how to deal with the shame. All four of them have been raped multiple times.”

“What?” both Jean and Armin exclaimed.

“That’s unacceptable!” shouted Jean. “Who was it? Which soldiers?”

Eren raised an eyebrow. “Do you really think they asked for names? We probably all look alike in our uniforms.”

Jean marched up to the women, who drew back in fear at the sternness of his face. “If you recognize the attackers, come to me and point them out. You don’t have to say a word, just point out who did it. I can’t kill them like what Jäger did to Grützmacher, but I can make their lives a living nightmare until they wish for death.”

Eren told all that to Levi, who relayed it to the women. They relaxed and even smiled. The youngest woman, no more than sixteen, spoke directly to Jean in French, which Levi translated to Eren in English, who in turn told Jean in German.

“She says, you are like a prince out of a fairy tale, and you would be a handsome man if you didn’t have the face of a horse.”

Jean swirled on Eren. “She did not say that!”

Eren burst into laughter.

“You bastard! I know the French word for horse, and she did not say anything about a horse. You’re such an idiot, Jäger.”

They laughed, and as the Jews bathed in the river, the three German soldiers watched them less closely than they probably should have.

Levi still guarded the four women, who bathed slightly upriver. He rolled his eyes as the German soldiers roughhoused each other.

So many openings! There were so many times he could have grabbed Armin’s gun and shot all three. By the time troops came to check on the gunshots, their group could be over the river. Eren had not brought his sharpshooter, so they actually stood a fair chance of making it into the forest before the Germans opened fire.

Then again, he was not sure if he could run fast enough with his injuries. He could always be bait, stay behind, attack the Germans while the others forged ahead. He could take all three soldiers’ guns, hole up somewhere, and probably last long enough to ensure the rest escaped. One life, to ensure the rest survived…

“Hey, Levi,” Eren said with a laughing grin. “Go, wash up. It’s not like you or the women have to worry about the three of us.”

He could shoot him.

“Oh hey, Jean asks if the medication he gave you worked.”

He could grab one of their guns, kill them all right now.

“Armin says, if you run out of those pills, he could get you some more.”

He just needed to grab one of their guns. He was quick. He could shoot all three before they had time to draw their weapons.

“Levi?” Eren asked with concern. “I’m sorry if you don’t feel like talking. They’re just worried about you.”

So easy, to kill them and flee.

Then he found the young woman standing before him, naked except for a rag she held in front of her. She was lightly touching his arm with a gentle smile.

Tout va bien, Levi. Allez, au bain. Nous leur faisons confiance.” Everything’s okay, Levi. Go, bathe. We trust these men.

He nodded, glad for her concern about him. Then he looked back at the soldiers. “Tell him, the cream seems to be helping, but healing takes time. I don’t need stronger medication, just soft shit and rest.”

Then Levi flung off his clothes, showing all the bruises on his body, and waded out into the river. One of the other Jews handed him the bar of soap they shared between themselves. Levi began to clean, and he kept his back to the Germans.

It would be so easy. He could probably save all of them. How many more would die, or be raped, or brutally beaten? Why could he not do what he knew needed to be done?

Why could he not bring himself to kill these three Germans?

Memories of Eren’s voice rang in his ears. “Besides, we’re friends. I care for you.

If he had not said those words a few days ago…

No, long before that. Levi knew he could have killed Eren and escaped many times over the past four months, but he simply could not do it. Whereas he would feel no remorse for slitting the throats of any other Nazi, he could not bring himself to harm this man, not even to save his own life.

Levi glanced back over his shoulder, and he saw Eren’s eyes focused on him, while Armin and Jean were talking. Their eyes lingered for what felt like an eternity, until Armin said something that forced Eren to look over. Levi spun back around, suddenly self-conscious that Eren had been staring at him as he bathed for all these months.

After they were done and dressed, the Jews returned to the village under armed escort. Plenty of German soldiers sneered as they were marched by. Rocks were thrown, but Eren quickened the pace. He could not shout in anger at those who wanted to attack the Jews. The captain’s message had been clear: Jews were only barely tolerated as a source of free labor, but they could be killed at any time.

The youngest woman suddenly tugged on Jean’s sleeve. He looked down at her as she cowered in fear and pointed into the sea of soldiers.

“Do you see him?” he asked, glaring around, wondering which one it was. “Who is he? Who did that to you?”

Eren asked Levi, who asked the girl, and the answer came back.

“She said, the one with a bruise on his jaw. She hit him there when he attacked her.”

Jean saw who she meant, and he committed the face to memory. “He’s going to wish his mother aborted him in an alleyway.”

Eren sighed and shook his head. “Don’t do anything to get yourself court-martialed.”

“No one will catch me, Herr Leutnant.” He patted the young woman’s arm with an amiable smile. “I’ll avenge you.”

Somehow, she understood what he meant, and she stayed a little closer to Jean as they went past the bruised soldier. The man gave the girl a wink and made a kiss at her, and Jean shot him a scathing glare.

They returned to the castle and began to walk to the side kitchen where the Jews normally ate their Saturday lunch. However, Eren said in English, “A change of location! Let’s eat below.”

Levi glared at him. “I am not eating down there.”

“Not the dungeon. There’s an area next to it. Trust me,” he said with a mischievous smile.

Levi saw he had some plan. If it was an escape, he was all for it, but somehow he knew they were not that lucky.

They got their bowls of soup and reluctantly followed Eren down a flight of stairs. Instead of going to the castle’s dungeon, they went along another corridor to what was once probably an armory in the days of knights and honorable warfare. A blond woman was waiting for them there.

“Krista,” Eren said, grinning with relief. “Sie haben das Zimmer gefunden. Ich bin froh.” You found the room. I’m glad.

She curtsied pleasantly to him. “Ich habe die Burg ein- oder zweimal besichtigt. Ich helfe gern.” I have toured the castle once or twice. I’m happy to help.

Jean grabbed Eren’s arm. “I’ve seen this girl around the village. She’s French. How is it that she speaks German?”

“That is a secret between only us,” Eren warned.

“We’ve been using this roundabout way of translating with a Jew when we could’ve—”

“When we could have shot them all months ago? Is that what you’re about to say? Would you like to shoot them right now, even the women you swore to avenge?”

Jean backed down.

“Yes, she speaks both French and German. I didn’t tell the captain, because if I did, she would be forced to translate during interrogations. Do you want a girl like her to witness torture? I can tell you from experience, the screams are quite horrific.”

Jean shook his head, but he did not say anything against him. His heart was in a battle. On one hand, translating was inefficient because it had to go through Levi to Eren in English. A direct French to German translation would be faster. On the other hand, he had just witnessed what Kitz Woermann would do to Jews, and he pitied the women who had suffered at the hands of the worst scum in the Wehrmacht. He did not want them to be tortured and killed.

Krista placed her soft hand on Jean’s arm and smiled sweetly up to him. “Please keep this a secret. For me.”

His cheeks flushed at her angelic face, and Jean looked aside stubbornly. “Of course I won’t tell anyone. I would never put a woman in danger.”

“Thank you, sir. You’re rather cute.”

Jean’s face went even brighter red, and Armin began to laugh at his reaction.

Eren turned to Krista. “Never speak German again so long as the army is in this village, not even to me.”

She nodded seriously. “It was my mistake. I was excited to help out.” Then she looked over to the Jews. “J’ai des pains. Prenez et mangez en tous.” I have loaves of bread. Take and eat, all of you.

She brought out a large basket draped with a cloth. Krista began to pass the loaves out to each of the Jews, who took the food with astonishment.

Takhshet!” Levi exclaimed, half-amazed, half-horrified.

Eren chuckled at his reaction. “You were the one who told me that I should show favor to all of your people.” He waved to the bread. “This is my way of helping. I can’t do it every day, but Krista has agreed to help out whenever she can. At least it’s more than a bowl of Gemüsebrühe. Also…” He brought out a tin of Scho-Ka-Kola and gave it a shake. “I was hoping to bring a full box, but Connie stole a few pieces again. At least this time I caught him before he ate half of it. There’s not enough for all sixteen of you, but I can hand out one for each of the men who didn’t get a chocolate last time.”

“Thank you,” Levi whispered. “I’m shocked you remembered.”

“Of course I’ll keep a promise to my friend.”

At that last word, Armin looked over sharply. He spoke only a little English, but enough to know the word friend.

Levi took the tin of chocolates and passed them out. As Jean watched, he saw that only the men were getting some.

“Hey!” he shouted. “Why are you skipping the ladies?”

Eren choked up. Shit! There was no way to excuse Levi’s actions without confessing what he had done. “To be honest, I gave the ladies chocolates a few days ago.”

Armin gawked. “You gave the Jewish women chocolate?”

Jean grumbled, “I knew it! You’ve been seducing them since the beginning.”

“No!” Eren said with a sharp glare. “I just happened to have a few pieces on me, so I shared it. Levi said I should bring some for them all, but Connie ate my Scho-Ka-Kola again, so there’s not enough for everyone. Since the ladies already had a piece—”

“Nonsense! Ladies always deserve more chocolate.” Jean reached into a pouch on his belt and pulled out a tin.

“You have some on you?” Armin asked in surprise.

“Yeah, because every time I leave my Scho-Ka-Kola out, Connie steals a few pieces. If you want to share chocolates with these people, keep the tin on you at all times.” He handed out pieces to the ladies, winking at the one who had grabbed his sleeve and sneakily slipping her a second piece of chocolate. Then he walked over to Krista and offered her some. “Für Sie, Fräulein. Sie sind ein Engel, den der Himmel geschickt hat.” For you, miss. You are an angel that heaven sent.

Krista giggled and accepted a piece of chocolate. “Merci, mon ami.” Thank you, my friend.

Jean turned with a smug smile and strutted back over to the other two soldiers. “You hear that? I’m her mon ami.”

Eren rolled his eyes and shook his head.

Armin looked down in regret. “I wish I could give them something.”

Eren wrapped an arm around Armin’s shoulders. “You’re a good man. You have nothing to atone for. Jean is the one who’s an asshole.”

“Hey!” Jean shouted, popping a leftover chocolate into his mouth. “I just want the ladies to have chocolate.”

Eren teased, “You want to get into their panties.”

“If they’re willing.”

While the German soldiers joshed around, Krista slipped over Levi and motioned him to follow her. They drifted away from the others, to the far end of the armory. There, Krista whispered whilst keeping an eye on the Germans.

Sasha m’a envoyé ici.” Sasha sent me here.

Levi also lowered his voice. “Braus?”

She nodded. “I am known as Historia. Did you get our message?”

“I got nothing.”

“Damn, he must have been caught,” she muttered. “I’m part of Operation Bagel, liberating French Jews held in Nazi servitude.”

Levi’s eyes narrowed. “That’s a horrible name. Who came up with that?”

“Sasha did. Her operation names tend to be after breads. It’s become a joke in the Resistance.”

“So does this mean the Resistance is finally planning to free us? About damn time!”

“I apologize for it taking this long. We had planned to get you out one at a time earlier this summer, but after we helped Isabel to escape, we saw how brutally you were punished. Nazis are known for their collective punishment, and we feared that if the Jews escaped under mysterious circumstances, the Germans might retaliate by slaughtering the whole village. Plus, we needed you here as a translator. Other villages throughout France have suffered greatly due to a lack of communication between Germans and French. If it were not for you translating, likely the whole village would have been burned months ago.”

“So I’m stuck.” Levi rolled his eyes. “The Ten Plagues weren’t good enough, so God cursed me with something far worse: being useful.”

“There is a way.” She dropped her voice more. “We’re planning an exchange. I speak German, I can translate for them…”

“Wait, you’re planning on working with the Germans?”

“The problem with using you as a translator is you don’t know what these Germans are actually telling you. You have to rely on one sympathetic German who happens to speak English. He, in turn, filters all the chatter down to something he can tell you. In other words, you can’t spy on them.”

“I know what being a spy involves, little girl,” Levi said darkly. “Trust me, it’s not a life you want.”

She gave him a sad smile. “Maybe not what I wanted, but it’s the life I was forced into four years ago when German tanks rolled into my town and killed my family. I realized my knowledge of the German language could get me close to the soldiers, gather information, and plant sweet little ideas into their heads. I’d be able to get even closer simply by taking over your job. Once I’m on the inside, I can soothe over Captain Woermann’s aggression, even if I have to seduce him. At the very least, I can warn the people if he plans to do anything drastic. I’ll also know how much information the Germans have, and we can begin feeding them false reports. The important thing is that we need to get you out.”

“Me? Just me?” he realized. “Not all of us?”

“You’re the main target for extraction. The others can come later. We need you, captain.”

Levi shook his head. “Don’t call me that. I’m not a soldier anymore.”

“We’re all soldiers in this war, all Allies. You have experience, talent…”

“Go find another captain,” he snapped.

“We need your skills. You have friends in the British Secret Intelligence Service…”

“I have no British friends. I have people I conveniently did not kill.”

“People who admire you, and when they heard you were slaving away under Nazi tyranny, they ordered us to extract you. I’ve been here since early June, the soldiers know my face now, and to them I’m just a sweet, innocent village girl. I came originally to assist in extracting one of our messengers, Annie Leonhart, but the same day I arrived, we learned she had been killed. Sasha came up with another plan. If we could not get our operative, we could get a former captain who once worked with the Deuxième Bureau.”

Levi’s eyes narrowed and his lip instinctively curled. His voice dropped even softer as he snarled, “How the hell do you know that?”

“I told you, you have friends in the British SIS. Sasha said she met with you.”

“Yes, briefly,” Levi said, recalling the tall brunette who shared her bread with him.

“When you told her your name, she recognized it. Apparently, you worked with her father, a cipher in the Deuxième Bureau, and he spoke quite highly of a small Jewish agent with deadly skill.”

“Who are you calling small?” he grumbled.

“It’s a shame you were needed as a translator, otherwise we would have extracted you as soon as possible. When Annie … didn’t make it … Sasha got started on a plan. I was here anyway, I speak German, so I would spend a little time in the village until people got used to seeing me. Then at the right time, I would let slip that I speak German. The same day I offered my services as a translator, you would escape. The timing had to be perfect. Too early, and you could be shot; too late, and Captain Woermann might massacre the entire village, with me in it. It also relied on our friendly lieutenant not telling others about me, since the day I arrived in the village, I accidentally spoke German in front of him. I’m fortunate he’s a sympathetic gentleman who thought he was protecting a sweet little girl.”

“Your plan is too risky,” Levi warned.

“Worth the risk to get you out, capitaine. After what happened to you a few days ago, we pushed up our schedule. We almost decided to put the plan into action today down by the river, but it was not safe, and the lieutenant … we would have had to have killed him, but there are many people higher up in the chain of command who want to use Lieutenant Jäger.”

“Use him?” Levi said in alarm.

“We think he can be turned.”

Levi felt a chill. Turned! The Allies wanted to use Eren as a spy. “Leave him out of this.

“British Intelligence is particularly interested in him.”

“The SIS can go to hell.”

“His loyalties are conflicted—”

“His loyalty is to Germany; it’s his emotions that are conflicted.”

“Only around you…” She paused as it dawned on her. “I see. We could use that against him.”

Levi turned sharply to Krista and growled as quietly as possible. “Do, and I will slit the throats of every single one of you.”

She backed off a step at his cold rage. “I see. Maybe it’s not the German lieutenant whose emotions are conflicted, but yours. Where are your loyalties, capitaine?”

“With my people. Get all of us out, and I will consider joining you. Try to rescue only me and let the rest be killed … I’ve disobeyed orders before. My cooperation depends on the survival of us all.” He glanced over to Eren. “Him too. That means, don’t you fucking touch him! Make sure everyone involved in this Operation Bagel knows that. As for the SIS, they can go fuck themselves.”

“I’ll pass your message along, as well as your stipulations for compliance. We’ll be in touch…”

Allez! Foutez le camp d’ici.” Go! Get the hell out of here.

Krista sighed in frustration at his stubbornness. “Franchement, vous faites une erreur, capitaine.” Frankly, you’re making a mistake, captain.

Then her face instantly became bright and playful once again. Krista picked up her empty basket and flounced over to Eren, Jean, and Armin. Levi watched her, keeping a stern eye on the girl.

With her emptied basket in her hands, Krista grinned at the Germans. “Est-ce tout pour aujourd’hui?

Eren gave her a proud nod, showing she was right to follow his orders about speaking French even now. “Levi, translate please.”

He shook his head. What a convincing actress she was! If she really did have four years of experience as a spy, then it was to be expected. Few spies survived that long unless they were talented.

“She asks, is that all for today?”

Eren bowed chivalrously. “Ja. Vielen Dank.” Yes. Many thanks.

De rien!” You’re welcome!

Krista trotted off, humming happily to herself. Jean followed her with his eyes, and he could not help but glance at where her skirt swished over her calves. Eren smacked the back of Jean’s head to force him to stop ogling.

Jean scowled and rubbed out the hit. “Das tat weh!” That hurt! “Where did you find a cutey like her?”

Eren shrugged. “She’s just some local girl.”

“I can’t believe you knew she spoke German and hid that from everyone.”

“Would you like the captain to treat her the way he treats his soldiers?”

“No! No, he … he’s crazy,” Jean muttered. “Still, a normal officer wouldn’t care so long as the army functioned at peak efficiency.”

“When have I ever been normal?” Eren asked with a smirk.

Jean had to laugh. “Never since I’ve known you, sir. Well, we can go now, right? That bread smells really good. Maybe I can catch up to that pretty lady, ask her where she bought her bread, and watch her pretend like she doesn’t know what I’m saying.”

He left, and eventually Armin excused himself to get started with some tasks. Eren stayed down there, smoking a cigarette as he watched the Jews eat their bread, soup, and chocolate.

It was such a small gesture on his part. He happened to see Krista the day before and asked if she could bring bread to the Jews in secret. She looked far too willing to help him. He paid for it, and he set up a way for her to slip inside the castle while they were out. Now he watched the small group looking cheerful.

All because of a loaf of bread.

His gaze rested on Levi, tearing off piece by piece of bread, sniffing each morsel before dipping it into his soup and taking a bite, as if certain there must be a trick to this, a poison hidden inside, or laced with drugs. So distrusting! Then again, it had kept him alive.

Eren swung his bag around, pulled out the Tanakh, placed it on a table, and backed off again, not wanting to interfere in their special day. The Sabbath! It was obviously not how they used to spend this holy day of rest. In a few minutes, they would go off to slave away with the lowliest of chores, but for now they could take solace in their religion.

Levi read while the others continued to eat bread, soup, and nibble their chocolate. Eren listened, not understanding a word of it, but simply listening to Levi’s voice soothed his heart. For a few minutes, he felt blessed to witness this moment of Jewish faith.

Then the bread was gone, the bowls were empty, melted chocolate was licked off fingers, and the Jews went off to face reality again. Levi handed the Tanakh back to Eren, who stuffed it back away in his bag.

“Am I still restricted from leaving?” asked Levi.

“You should take the time to rest and heal.”

“I don’t like sitting around with nothing to do.”

“Then we can talk. Let me apply more medication.”

Levi raised an eyebrow at the young soldier. “You’re not touching my arse.”

“N-No!” he yelped. Eren scrambled through his bag and pulled out a jar of arnica cream. “I mean the bruises. I saw down by the river, the ones on your back have gotten really nasty.”

Levi stared at him, but gradually looked aside. “Do what you want.”

Eren unscrewed the arnica jar. “Remove your shirt. We can do it here. At least it doesn’t smell.”

While Eren shut the door to the armory, Levi unbuttoned his shirt, tugged it off, and faced away. Exposing his back to an enemy! So many instincts drilled into him over the years said this was foolish. Never turn your back to an enemy! Yet Eren was more than some Nazi.

They were friends.

That one thought, that realization that he could trust someone, made Levi’s throat tighten up.

Eren gazed at the scarred back and felt sick to his stomach. So many of the freshest scars were caused by him. With the jar of arnica cream in one hand, he scooped some out and started on the largest bruise. Levi flinched at the first touch, but he held still. Eren’s fingers were tender, barely touching the swollen, inflamed skin. Still, to Levi, they felt like cold tickles as he rubbed the medicine over sore spots.

“You know,” Eren said with a quiet chuckle, “I was very tempted to let you go today, down by the river.”

Levi glanced around his shoulder. “What?”

“It crossed my mind a few times. I could have knocked out Jean and Armin, then shot myself in the leg, made it look like you attacked us, and let you run off. I was … very tempted.”

To think, Eren could have worked with the Resistance, and likely between them, they could have come up with a way to help the Jews escape without anyone dying! Not that Levi would ever let Eren knowingly work with the Resistance, not after what Krista said about people wanting to turn Eren into a spy. It was far too dangerous.

“Why didn’t you?” he asked cautiously.

“I don’t like the idea of hurting my friends … nor of shooting myself,” he added with an awkward laugh. “I also wasn’t sure if you all could have made it. Especially you.” His fingers gingerly rubbed arnica cream over Levi’s swollen, purple skin. “With your injuries, you probably can’t run as fast as the others. I especially want you to make it to freedom.”

Levi thought about turning around, but he decided to continue watching the wall. “Why me?” he asked in hesitant confusion.

Eren smiled to himself and shrugged. “We’re friends, right? I want you to live. I hate seeing you get hurt.” His finger outlined one large, purple, swollen lump on Levi’s lower back. “My mother used to tell me, it’s unforgivable to hurt a friend. It’s why I couldn’t knock out Armin and Jean. It’s why I have to shut down everything in my head just to punish you, and why it tears me apart now, knowing I did that.”

His hand slid up Levi’s back, over whip scars, knife stabs, old bullet holes, and other evidence of his harsh life up to this moment.

“I hate myself for knowing that some of these scars and bruises were caused by me.”

Eren’s fingers lingered, feeling the warmth of the skin. Levi barely moved, controlling his breathing as his heart beat faster. Then Eren’s hand drifted up higher, tracing along the side of Levi’s neck and giving him chills.

“So many injuries,” Eren whispered in a mix of awe and sympathy. “I’ve hurt you. I feel like I need to make up for that.”

Levi’s mouth dropped as Eren’s hand stroked along his neck and down his shoulders, feeling the muscles. He almost wanted to moan at the gentle touch. Then Eren’s hand tightened, just a little possessively, as if ready to pull Levi into an embrace.

Suddenly, something flashed through Levi’s mind.

Dark memories. Screaming for help that would never come. Hands grabbing him from behind. His wrists bound, bruised, struggling futilely. Disgusting touches to his neck. Possessive fingers digging into his flesh, pulling on him, pinning him down. A sickening realization that he was truly and utterly helpless.

Acid shot up into his mouth, and Levi yanked away. “Ne me touche pas, espèces de sales boches!” Don’t touch me, filthy Kraut animals!

Eren’s hand instantly drew back. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Levi jolted at hearing the voice. He looked around, only to see teal eyes gazing sadly at him. Eren! Levi nearly sank as he realized it had only been a memory, one still on the edge of his mind, still making him want to hug himself and scream. But this was Eren. He was safe. Everything was okay.

“No, it’s … it’s fine,” he said, his voice hoarse. “Maybe I should go back.”

“Right, of course.”

Eren put away the medicine while Levi pulled his shirt back on. The memory was still there, cycling in his brain, refusing to go away. Grützmacher had touched his shoulders after handcuffing him to the prison bars, caressing his bruises, almost seeming gentle, saying things in German that Levi could only guess were perverted compliments, before punching Levi in one of the bruises, making him scream in pain. And then…

No. He still could not bring himself to remember the worst parts.

Eren’s words were so different. Rather than harsh and sadistic, his voice was soft, wistful, and longing. As Levi buttoned his shirt, he took a quick glance behind him to those flushed and smiling cheeks.

Idiot! He looked far too happy.

“So, did you find out if your teammates burned or buried Moses’ body?”

The joyful expression crumbled, and Eren immediately sobered up. Good. A smile like that one was dangerous.

“They buried him out in the field. They warned, it was a shallow grave, but at least he was buried.”

“A shallow grave is better than none. Did they loot the body?”

“Of course not!”

“Moses had at least one gold tooth. You could probably get enough money to buy—”

“Levi!” he snapped. “My men are not like that.”

“It’s fairly common with dead Jews. I once saw Nazis pry the gold teeth out of a woman’s mouth while she was still alive. Then they shot her.”

Eren looked angry at the assumption that his men would disrespect a corpse, but Levi was practical. It happened. It was common.

“If they looted anything off him, I’d like it back. If they left his corpse alone, then they have twice my thanks. Just warn that horse-faced one not to flirt with that French girl.”

“Why? Is she married? Even that has never stopped Jean before.”

Levi knew he could not say much without blowing Krista’s cover. “Being bilingual puts her in a precarious position. If he were to brag about some sweet little nothing she said to him, other soldiers would wonder how he could know what his French mistress was saying, and her secret would be revealed.”

“That’s true,” Eren realized. “I’ll warn him, but frankly, Jean tends to charm ladies. God knows why!”

“People have fallen for odder things than a long-faced man.”

Eren hummed in agreement as his eyes gazed over Levi’s body. Then he jolted and turned away. “Well, shall we?”

They walked back to the dungeon, and Eren put a hand to his nose. How could any of them still be alive, sleeping amidst such foul fumes?

“I wonder if I could ask Krista to find a maid to come and clean this place. Then again, you’d need a whole battalion of maids to get rid of the stench alone.”

Levi ignored the smell he was now used to and returned to his cell. “Keep to practical requests, takhshet.”

“Then how about I request to come back down here in a few days and apply some more medicine.”

“I don’t think you need Krista’s permission to do that.”

“No, but I do need yours.”

Levi rolled his eyes. “No, you don’t. Besides, if I tell you no, would you disobey orders?”

“I would request an explanation for why my battle plan was not open for discussion.”

“Perhaps the territory you wish to explore is too dangerous.”

“I know the risks.”

“Do you really?” Levi challenged, but he saw determination in Eren’s eyes. He turned aside and sighed, unsure if Eren was just naïve, or brave. “If you want to return here, I can’t stop you.”

“I wouldn’t want to force you to keep me company. That’s being a bad friend.”

Levi grumbled, “I … don’t mind.”

Eren’s face lit up instantly.

“Stop looking like that!”

“Like what?”

“Like a child who was just told he can have a candy.”

“What you offer is sweeter than candy.”

“I offer nothing, because I have nothing to give.”

“You offer me company, friendship, because you’re a good man with a lot yet to give to the world.”

Levi was touched by those words, but he turned aside stubbornly, which made Eren chuckle. For a moment, he caught the pinkness of blushing on Levi’s cheeks. How adorable! Then Levi slumped down onto his cot. As soon as his buttocks hit the bed, he flinched and hissed in pain.

Eren took a swift step into the cell, ready to help if he was still injured, but he held back, realizing why that area hurt enough for Levi to make such an agonized face. He felt instantly miserable. Here he was, trying to be playful, and Levi was still suffering both physically and emotionally.

Eren reached into his pack and pulled the Jewish holy book back out. He set the Tanakh down beside Levi. The Jew looked at the book, then up into Eren’s face in confusion.

“I have the only key to this cell, so no one can check for the book. Make sure it stays hidden.”

“You’re giving it to me?” Levi said in astonishment.

Eren shrugged stiffly with a doleful smile. “Perhaps it will give you some solace, after everything that happened.”

Levi picked up the worn Hebrew book and reverently caressed the binding. “Thank you,” he whispered.

Eren stepped closer and put his hand on Levi’s head. Levi began to lean into the comforting touch, but a second later he realized just who it belonged to. A Nazi! However, as he glared up at Eren, wondering if he was just trying to be condescending, treating him like a pet, he saw a gentle, longing gaze in those teal eyes. Eren stroked through Levi’s black hair, letting the strands slip through his fingers.

“Your hair is so soft after you bathe,” he whispered in awe.

His hand stroked again, from Levi’s brow back across his scalp. A couple of his fingers slid down to caress the rim of Levi’s ear. He heard a soft gasp from Levi, and Eren yanked his hand away in terror. He quickly laughed it off and turned away.

“Sorry. I forgot it was you for a moment there.”

Levi narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “Who did you think I was?”

“A … A dog?” Eren said, sounding overly flippant. He left the cell without turning around. “Maybe not tomorrow, since it’s Sunday, but I’ll be back in a few days.” He locked the door and left the dungeon without looking back.

Levi kept glaring long after Eren turned the corner to go up the stairs. Then he reached up, touching the same place Eren had caressed. He cursed quietly, opened the Tanakh, and began to read the first lines he saw.

Yishokeini minneshikos pihu, ki- tovim dodeicho miyoyin.” Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your love is more delightful than wine.

Levi stopped immediately and slammed the Tanakh closed.

“Lord, why, out of all the versus, would you have me open to that one?”

He shook his head, but he opened the Tanakh slower, this time to the first page, where names had been written in, owners of the book. First, his mother’s signature, faded but still legible: Kuchel Ackerman. Then his own name under that, written in later after his mother had died. Under his, in a flawless script: Petra Ackerman.

He remembered the day he realized Petra had written her name in the book. He had gotten mad at her, at first angry that she thought so frivolously of what ownership of the Tanakh meant to him, and when he realized Petra knew full well what it meant to write her name there, he kept insisting that his religion was not one she had to follow. Hell, he barely followed it!

Still, she had insisted that they were married, and thus what was his was hers, and that included his religion and culture.

Even as it became obvious that Jews were in danger, even after France agreed to an armistice that included handing over all French Jews to the Nazis, even after they were forced to flee their village and live on the run, she had stayed by him, determined to share his fate.

Except, she died, and he was still alive. The only thing left of both her and his mother was this book with their signatures.

“For a moment, his hand felt like yours,” he muttered, touching Petra’s name. “I bet you put God up to this.”

He closed the book and tucked it away under his pillow. Still, the warmth seemed to linger on all the places Eren had touched, and it left Levi feeling lonelier than he had in many years.

# # #

# #

#

Levi reads the beginning of Shir HaShirim (“Song of Songs” or “Songs of Solomon” in English). What he actually sees is this:

יִשָּׁקֵ֙נִי֙ מִנְּשִׁיק֣וֹת פִּ֔יהוּ כִּֽי־טוֹבִ֥ים דֹּדֶ֖יךָ מִיָּֽיִן׃

In English: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your love is more delightful than wine.” Don’t trust my transliteration. Although my husband is Jewish, he admits he does not read Hebrew well, so I used an online transliteration program.

MI6 headquarters

The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), commonly known as MI6, is the foreign intelligence service of the United Kingdom. In World War II, they ran photographic reconnaissance missions with the Royal Air Force, fed misinformation to the Germans, and sent spies into German-controlled countries. In pop culture, the SIS has been glamorized in the character of James Bond, that dashing spy with a taste for martinis and exotic women.

The Deuxième Bureau (dew-zem bew-roh, or “Second Bureau”) was France’s external military intelligence agency, in charge of counter-espionage, surveillance, cryptography, propaganda, and intelligence. Before World War II broke out, the Deuxième Bureau sent an agent codenamed “Rex” to meet with a German cipher to obtain the secrets to the Enigma machine, used by the Nazis to encode top secret messages. The French could not fully determine how the machine operated; that would be solved by a Polish mathematician. The Deuxième Bureau was dissolved in 1940 when France signed the armistice with Germany. Agents who escaped took their notes and relocated to the Free France Forces headquarters in England. Both they and the Poles shared their information on the Enigma machine with the SIS. Deciphering the Enigma machine is considered to be “the single most important victory by the Allied powers during WWII.” Much like “MI6,” the name “Deuxième Bureau” continued to be used after the war as a term for all of France’s intelligence service.

Fun literature fact: In the James Bond novels, René Mathis is a spy with the Deuxième Bureau, who works with Bond on many capers. The movies changed him to another British SIS agent. How dull!

René Mathis

As for how Levi is connected to the SIS and Deuxième Bureau, that remains to be seen.

Chapter Text

Levi refused to admit that he was lonely, yet being stuck in the dungeon was wearing on him. The soldier who came in the morning to release the Jews blew out the one lantern that lit the room, plunging Levi into a full day of pure darkness. Although he had the Tanakh, he could not read it.

That left him to look into the darkness, staring into the abyss, and being forced to see whatever monsters stared back.

Those monsters were either dressed in Nazi uniforms, or had his own face, only different, wild-eyed, covered in blood, with a cold, merciless sneer.

That was the monster he hated most.

The darkness played tricks on him. He often heard voices shouting back and forth, words in many languages, screams from the past. So many screams.

Ne me tue pas.

Please don’t kill me.

Błagam, tylko mnie nie zabijaj.

Bitte töte mich nicht, bitte, bitte.

Meneer, spaar alstublieft mijn leven.

No me mates, tengo una esposa e hijos.

Epargnez ma vie, et je vendrai la mèche.

Per favore, non ucidermi.

Molim te, nemoj me ubiti.

Stoppe! Ikke drep meg.

Prosím, nezabíjej mě.

Te rog, nu mă ucide.

Musa ukungibulala.

Ne ubivay menya.

Nemoj me ubiti.

Älä tapa minua.

Dræb mig ikke.

Ne ölj meg.

Usiniue.

He tried to escape the shouts, but how does one escape the abyss?

Bugger! Why’d you let her go? Orders are orders. I don’t like it either, this whole mission is a bag of shite, but that’s what it means to be an agent. Now, if you won’t shoot the lass, I will. Hey! What the bloody hell are you doing? Stop, you half-dick frog. Our orders … oh God, no! Stop! Don’t kill me!

Amidst the waking nightmares, another face came to mind. Teal eyes, brown hair, a boyish smile that at times looked innocent, and other times felt like this young man had lived through enough grief for three lifetimes. As days trapped in darkness passed, Levi could almost hear Eren’s voice. His laugh rang out so clearly at times, only for Levi to realize there was no one there. Eren’s phantom was a comfort to him, an escape from the darker memories. He even felt touches, a hand petting his head, a touch to his shoulder, ghostly fingers rubbing up his back, only to realize no one was there.

The only escape from the pitch darkness was when his companions returned. He saw light when the soldier brought them in, did roll call to make sure they had all returned, locked them away, and then the light was blown out again. A few minutes by which to see, and then it was back into the abyss once more.

Six days after the humiliating display and attack, a light came down in the middle of the morning. Levi thought he was seeing things again when Eren stepped inside.

“It’s so dark in here.”

He had a lantern with him, and it lit up the pale face of Levi, who looked confused and trapped by disbelief.

“Have you been in the dark this whole time?” Eren cried out.

Levi had barely even spoken during his days in solitude. Now, his lips felt weird to move.

“Er- … Eren?”

Those teal eyes that had been a comfort in the abyss now looked sad. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize … I would have come sooner if I had known you were stuck in the dark. Have you even eaten?”

Levi was still trapped. Was this another hallucination?

“Levi?”

No, that voice was too real. “Is it you?” None of the voices of his past replied when he had tried to talk to them, so he figured this was a good test.

“Yes, it’s me.”

That was proof! Levi’s lips began to tremble. He was really here!

Eren used his key to open the cell door, walked in, and sat on the bed beside Levi. “I’m so sorry. I’ll try to find a light for you. Verdammt! You couldn’t have even read your book in this darkness.”

Levi barely knew what he was doing. Blame it on being driven half-mad by the solitude, but he wrapped his arms around Eren, grabbing hold of him, leaning into the warmth, desperate for any sort of human connection.

Eren pouted. This was not like Levi at all. He wrapped his arms around him, comforting him as he felt his body trembling.

“It’s okay. You’re not alone anymore.”

Levi stared ahead, now seeing the walls and the bars. It was like waking up from a nightmare only to realize reality was an even deeper level of hell.

“You were there,” he muttered. “In the darkness.”

Eren was unsure what he meant, but he continued to hold Levi. “What was I doing?”

In a churlish grumble, Levi said, “Being an idiot.” Eren chuckled, and the sound felt so foreign, yet so nostalgic. Hesitantly, he added, “Keeping … my hopes … up.”

“That’s good,” Eren said, rubbing his cheek against Levi’s head. It had been a few days since he bathed, but Eren did not care if the hair was a little oily.

“You … you were…”

Levi began to say “touching me,” but the words choked back. He realized Eren was holding him, caressing his back, rubbing his shoulders, petting his head, just like in his memories. He was completely wrapped up in those strong arms, being nuzzled and cuddled. Although the open show of affection shocked him, Levi wanted to stay there just a little longer.

“I’m glad they were good thoughts of me.”

Eren’s words sounded so solemn. Levi realized the young soldier probably had nightmares of his past as well, and some of those would be the things he had been forced to do in this village.

“What haunts you in the dark?” whispered Levi.

Eren glanced down, but Levi continued to hold him and stare ahead, as if those nightmares still pursued him. “Many things. Soldiers I’ve killed. Friends I betrayed. People I’ve been forced to hurt. Being helpless to save my mother.”

“Do they shout at you?” Levi asked, fearing that one of those voices from the past would scream at him now.

“No. They stare. Silently. My mother shouted as they dragged her away, but what I remember most is the look in her eyes. She feared her Jewish blood had doomed me. She didn’t get to live to see that I would be protected. She died thinking I was next, and that grief and regret was in her eyes as they shot her. That’s what I remember. Her eyes.”

Levi muttered, “I try not to look in their eyes, but I remember their screams. Even when I don’t know the language, I remember the sound of the words. I think that’s why I began to slit their throats, so they couldn’t speak.”

Eren rested his cheek on Levi’s hair and clung tightly to him, as if he could shield him from those phantom voices. “This will haunt us forever, won’t it?”

“Probably,” Levi admitted dismally. “I wish you had never gone through that. Someone your age doesn’t deserve this curse.”

Eren squeezed Levi in comfort. “I chose to be a soldier. I wanted to be stronger so I could protect others, but in the end, I just keep hurting those I care for.”

Those he cares for? Levi turned his head up, and he realized just how close Eren’s face was. His eyes were so gentle and sad, it made Levi want to make him happy somehow. Then Levi felt a hand in his hair again, urging his head to turn up a little higher. Eren’s eyes rested on his lips, and the hand on Levi’s head seemed to draw him in closer.

Levi gasped and pulled away. For a moment, he thought Eren was about to kiss him. The thought left his heart racing and his brain in turmoil.

No! He had to be wrong! Eren was a Nazi. Nazis killed men like that. There was no way!

Which meant, was it just his imagination? Did he want something like that? He heard Eren clear his throat, but Levi could not turn around to face him.

If he had, he would have seen Eren with a bright red face and biting his lip to hold back what he had almost done. Stupid! This was definitely not something he could do. Levi was traumatized. After everything that happened to him, something like that was out of the question.

“I … I can get you out for some fresh air.”

Levi nodded, still in shock, trying to figure out why he had imagined such a thing. Eren walked out of the cell, and Levi slowly followed, still unable to look Eren in the eyes, refusing to stand near him. He no longer trusted himself.

Eren warned, “You’re not supposed to be out yet, so we can’t go far.”

He brought Levi down the subterranean hallway to the armory. Slowly, Eren opened the door, checked the floor, and sighed in relief.

“It seems no one uses this room after all.” He pointed to some powder on the ground. “I put a little flour down shortly after we were here on Saturday to see if anyone actually comes in here. No tracks, so no one enters.”

“That’s surprisingly smart of you,” Levi said, honestly impressed but not wanting to admit it too much.

“It means this room is safe for us, if we’re quiet.” He brought the lamp inside and closed the door.

With the sounds of outside shut away, Levi felt a slight leap in his chest. It was just him and Eren, away from prying eyes, in a room where they could do or say anything and not get into trouble.

“I brought food for you,” Eren announced. He sat on a bench and laid out an apple, a handful of jerky pieces, and a few smashed rolls he had stuffed into his pockets. He also set down a canteen of water. “Come eat,” he urged.

It took Levi a moment to move. He sat opposite of the food on the bench, feeling that it was a safe distance. Eren did not seem to notice that he was purposely keeping space between them.

Levi hungrily dug into a roll. The guard had not brought him breakfast that morning, and he was dizzy with hunger. Next he grabbed the apple, taking ravenous bites. Sweet juice dripped down his chin, and he felt like his stomach was celebrating at what was practically a feast compared to his normal two meals a day. He saw the meat, and he tore into it. When was the last time he had beef? Although it was dried jerky, the savory flavor tingled his tongue. Then it was back to the roll, and a gulp of cool, clean water from the canteen to wash it down. He did not even care that he was eating like a starved man. He was one!

A hand suddenly touched his shoulder. “Are you okay?”

Levi let out a cry and leaped back. The shout made him choke on his food and sent him into a coughing fit.

“Sorry,” Eren said, looking pained with guilt.

Levi cleared out his throat and relaxed. That touch had startled him, especially with all the thoughts that had been running through his head. Dammit! He needed to calm down. Eren was a Nazi. There was no way…

Except he had been suspicious about precisely that issue for months.

“I … I was just going to suggest…” Instead of struggling with words, Eren brought out the jar of arnica. Levi looked at it, then glared at Eren, who shrugged sheepishly. “I figured, this room is safe.”

Levi grumbled under his breath, “You just want to touch me again.”

A reticent smile graced Eren’s lips. “Would you hate it if I did?”

Such boldness shocked Levi, and it took him a moment to whisper, “No.”

He heard a soft sigh of relief. “Remove your shirt. You can eat while I rub this on.”

“Don’t do anything weird,” warned Levi.

Eren looked confused. “What do you mean, weird?”

Levi refused to answer. He was still on edge, unsure about Eren’s intentions. As he unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it off, he was hyper-aware of where Eren was in the room, moving around the bench to sit behind him, setting the jar down, and rubbing his hands together to warm them up. Then he got right to work applying cream onto the bruises. Levi sat stiffly, trying to eat, but chewing much slower now. Luckily, Eren’s fingers only aimed for the swollen areas.

“It looks a lot better,” he complimented. “How are … um … other places?”

“You mean my arse?” Levi grumbled. “It’s stopped bleeding, at least.”

Eren stared at the faded bruises and bit his lip. “There’s bad news. Or maybe good news, I’m not sure.”

“About France?”

“About you. Your week is up. You will be forced to work again starting tomorrow. I thought that would be bad news, but seeing you stuck in the dark, I’m not so sure anymore. If you want, I can get you a few more days to rest.”

Levi looked around his shoulder. “How can you do that?”

“Easy. I have the only key to your cell. I’ll simply keep it on me. The soldier who comes to get the Jews in the morning would first have to remember how many days you were meant to stay there, then have to figure out who has your key, and then he would need to track me down. I can say I simply forgot about you.”

Levi rolled his eyes. “Forgot about a Jew you locked away in a dungeon? I hate to say it, but that excuse would work. Sometimes, I’m surprised you Germans haven’t simply forgotten about us and left us to starve to death.”

“I would never allow that.”

“It took you this long to realize I was stuck in the dark.”

He flinched, realizing Levi was right. “I have no excuse, besides that I’ve been busy.”

They were quiet for a moment longer, and both began to feel awkward. Levi bit into his apple, wishing he had not pointed out Eren leaving him. After all, it was not the first time the lieutenant had to stay away for many days. For a while earlier that summer, they were lucky to see one another once a week for bathing day. If anything, Eren seemed to be more attentive, touching him more, staring at him longer, and like earlier, embracing him so gently.

Eren finished with the last bruise, but he did not want to tell Levi to put his shirt back on. Not yet. Levi was still eating, and he wanted him to stay like this just a little longer.

His hand caressed the scarred back. The softer touch made Levi’s sinewy muscles tense for a moment, but then Eren saw them relax even more than when he had simply been rubbing on cream. His hand glided up to Levi’s neck, right to the tips of his black hair, then drifted along his collarbone over to his shoulder.

Levi gulped hard. Surely, Eren knew what this seemed like. Levi almost told him to stop touching him like that, but the words caught in his throat. He was curious. Just how much did Eren want to do? Why was he doing this? For that matter, why was he allowing it, and how far was he willing to let Eren go?

He decided he could allow this much because, as strange as it was, it lightened some dark part of his mind.

Eren found himself enthralled, not merely with the scars, but other details: a mole, the curve of his neck, the tautness of his muscles when he touched certain areas, and how they smoothed back into relaxation in other areas. He began to lean in, so close he could almost taste him.

Levi sat perfectly still. He could feel shallow breaths on his skin, and he wondered just how close Eren’s face was. What was he doing? What faces was he making? How would he respond if Eren did something weird? He swore to himself, if Eren licked his neck, he would punch him. He didn’t care if he got in trouble, he would definitely punch him for something that perverted.

But, what about a kiss?

Just as he was debating that issue, he felt Eren’s fingers starting to shake. He thought that odd. Was his hand tired? Or was he finally starting to realize what this looked like?

Eren yanked his hand back and saw that his fingers were trembling uncontrollably. He tightened his hand into a fist, hoping the tremors would stop. Shit! Levi surely must have felt them shaking. He looked away with a pinched face, humiliated and anguished that he was reacting so strongly.

Levi realized the touches had stopped, and a glance behind him showed Eren with a tortured expression. Levi quickly looked straight ahead before Eren realized he had seen that too-honest face.

He opened his mouth, about to ask if that was all, but he stopped.

He checked the door. It was shut. No one knew they were down here. Eren had even checked, and no soldiers came to this area of the castle.

They were completely alone.

How far did he want to take this?

“Levi?”

Eren’s voice, a mere wisp of air, sounded so loud in the silence. It was a battle for Levi just to raise his eyes, his face slowly turning around, until he could see Eren’s face. There was pinkness in his cheeks and hazy warmth in his eyes that seemed to be focused on Levi’s mouth, looking at him in the same way as he had earlier.

“Is … Is this much okay?”

This much. The touches, the intimacy, being alone together. It really felt like a lot, although in reality it was so very little. Still, Levi’s whole body was on edge from just this much. His heart pounded from something as simple as a touch to his shoulder.

He liked it. He did not want the thrill to end.

“It’s … fine, but I don’t want you to get into trouble.”

“We’re safe here.” Eren caressed Levi’s bare shoulder again.

He trusted Eren, but why would he let him get away with this? It was dangerous. Why were they both risking it? What was this about, anyway? Why did his heart want to stay while his brain screamed to run out of there?

“Why…?” His throat seized up, and he could not get the words out.

Eren pulled back in concern. “What is it?”

It was too much! Gnashing his teeth, Levi jumped away and walked into the middle of the room. He wanted to flee, and he wanted to turn around and figure out what this was all about. There were such horrible memories associated to a man touching him, yet when it was Eren…

Why was it so different when it was Eren?

Why did his heart burn with light? Why was he staying here and not running away? Why did the nightmares retreat when Eren invaded his mind?

“Why are you doing this again, takhshet?”

Eren looked heartbroken at the anger. “I’m sorry. You can tell me no.”

“No … I mean yes. I mean … what you’re doing, everything … why…” He finally cried out in anguish, “Why are you making me want to live?”

Eren set the arnica jar aside, stood up, and walked over to Levi, face-to-face with him. He towered over the small Jew. Levi kept his head down. His scowl deepened the furrow between his eyebrows, but Eren saw his lower lip trembling.

“Because I want us both to live through this. I want to be your friend, to know you better, and to see you smile at least once.”

“Smile?” he spat. “That will never happen. Why should I smile?”

Eren stroked Levi’s gaunt cheek and spoke in a soft, warm voice. “I want to give you a reason to smile.” He gently took Levi’s chin and lifted it. Those narrow, gray-blue eyes peered up at him, looking increasingly confused and alarmed. “I want you to be happy, and I want to be happy with you.” His hand drifted down Levi’s face, glancing along his throat, while his thumb traced the smoothly sloping jawline. “I want us to live … somewhere … anywhere. Away from war and hate, somewhere safe for both of us, for you as a Jew, and for me as … as a…”

Eren suddenly yanked his hand back, as if he had touched something only to realize a moment later that it was venomous. His breathing went fast, fearful, and his eyes shook in terror. He spun around and walked away a few steps.

Scheiße! Ignore that. Forget everything I said.”

Levi was now on guard, but he was curious by the abrupt reversal. “As a … what?”

“Nothing! Forget all of this.”

“Eren?”

“No!” he screamed.

He spun back around, looking enraged, but not at Levi. No, he was angry at himself, for touching him intimately and almost saying something that could never be rescinded. There was also terror in his eyes. Eren rubbed his arms, feeling chills as he struggled not to scream, and his lungs struggled to breathe normally.

Levi saw the conflict, and he quietly stepped up to Eren. His hand reached forward, but Eren yanked away, a mute yell, his lips pursed too tightly in terror to actually shout. Levi’s hand pulled back, then slowly approached again, like reaching out to a terrified feral cat, until his fingers rested on the stiff gray fabric of the Heer uniform.

His words were calm. “Do you think I’m stupid? Just tell me.”

The fear in Eren’s heart soothed away at seeing that accepting face. Surely, Levi already knew what he was about to say, yet he did not look disgusted. Eren’s chest still trembled, but Levi’s fearlessness encouraged him.

Firmed up with determination, he admitted aloud, “As a man who wants to do this to another man.”

Boldly, Eren grasped Levi’s chin and lifted it, perhaps with a little too much force, a little too fast, determined to do this now that he had the courage. He leaned in closer, and his eyes focused on those lips.

Although Levi already guessed as much, he was shocked when he realized what the young soldier was about to do. He had expected a timid confession, not bold action.

“Eren!”

He paused and drew back enough to look into his eyes. “Do you not want me to?”

“You don’t know what you’re getting into.”

“I do,” Eren said seriously, “but I won’t if you hate it.”

Levi’s face tensed as he tried to get his mind to stop racing.

Eren saw the pinch to Levi’s brows and backed away. “Sorry—”

“No!” Levi bit back anything else as he realized he had shouted. “It’s dangerous. You could be killed.”

“I know,” he said somberly, drawing closer again, staring longingly at those lips. “I know the law. Still … I want to.” He let their lips lightly brush together, hardly breathing in trepidation. “May I kiss you?”

Levi choked on his words as he felt the warmth of Eren’s lips barely touching his. “I … y-y-you…”

Two bright, teal eyes gazed right at him up close, huge and imploring. “May I?” Eren asked again in a sultry whisper.

Levi’s throat choked up, but he nodded silently. Eren leaned in again.

It was a timid kiss, so soft, like a rose petal brushing against his lips, but for Levi, it was a feeling of tenderness that he had thought he would never know again. He had lost all hope, pitched violently into darkness, death, and a world burning all around him. All dreams of the future died when the war began.

Here it was again, that shining ray of hope…

And it was dressed in the uniform of a Nazi soldier!

Levi kept his eyes open through the kiss, unsure what to think or feel, wondering how he should act. When Eren leaned back, he saw those scared eyes staring at him. He pulled away from Levi, worried that he had forced him into something he did not want.

“I’m sorry,” Eren whispered, covering his mouth in shock. “You … You didn’t have to let me. I’m not like that other man. I will never force you to do anything. If you hate it, you can tell me to stop.”

Levi dropped his head. His heart was racing like it had not done since he and Petra—

No, the memory of her was still too painful. Maybe it would always hurt.

“I didn’t hate it,” he whispered. “I just don’t know.” Levi’s brow tensed up again. “I’m not … tapette … faygala … Dammit, what’s the English word? I can’t even think!”

Schwule, in German. Tunten. I think that’s what you mean. I know, it’s what I am.”

Levi’s eyes narrowed, and his voice dropped to a whisper. “You know? How long have you … been like this?”

Eren shrugged. “All my life.”

“You’ve liked men your whole life?” he asked in disbelief.

Eren chuckled awkwardly. “Well, since the first time I looked at a boy and thought he was really cute.”

“This isn’t a joke. You could be killed for this.”

Ja, I know,” Eren muttered solemnly.

“Didn’t you see what happened to Moses?” Levi growled in mental agony. “He wasn’t faygala. They made him do that. They forced him! Still, because of that—”

“I know! I was there, I saw it, and I killed one of my own men for it,” Eren whispered, hating that vile memory. “I already knew how people like me are treated. I’ve seen it before.”

Levi looked up in shock. Had he really seen such a horrific thing?

“When I was in Napola, two boys approached me. They said, by the way I looked at other boys in the class, they could tell I was … like this … like them. We became friends. Before then, I thought I was broken, but suddenly, I realized I wasn’t the only one out there like this. We would laugh together and joked about which boys in class we thought were the cutest. We knew we had to keep this a secret, but in private we would talk and … and we tried things. Like kissing,” he whispered, blushing with embarrassment.

“How old were you?” Levi asked curiously.

“When I first realized? Maybe ten or eleven, before going to that school. I didn’t understand it back then. Around age thirteen, I realized it was an issue. They taught us, Homosexualität, lesbisch und schwul … it was something bad. These feelings, these desires: they’re dangerous. I knew I could never express them, I could never fall in love, or I would be killed.”

“And you were thirteen?” he asked in shock.

Eren nodded solemnly. “That was when I closed off my heart, pushed away all desires. It was nice to have friends who understood me, but I was determined to never fall in love.”

Levi could hardly help but see the irony. The year he finally opened his heart and married Petra was the same year Eren closed off his heart to love.

“One day, one of my friends confessed he liked me. It terrified me so much, I got angry at him and refused to kiss either one ever again. In time, they fell for each other. I admit, I was a little envious, but I was so scared. I had every right to be,” he said darkly.

Hardly thinking, Levi reached out and laid a comforting hand on Eren’s arm. He could see that this was a bad childhood memory.

“I had known them for about two years when they were caught together. They were brought out to the courtyard, and the whole school gathered around. We were told what they did, in graphic detail, and how it was disgusting. They were … staring at me.” He cringed at the memory. “They never said anything, but I could see in their eyes, they were telling me not to do anything to give myself away. They knew they were doomed, but they wanted me to be safe.”

“They were good friends,” Levi whispered sympathetically.

“Each boy in Napola was told to kick them in the arse. They were bent over a tree stump, and we all had to kick them while saying ‘Schieb‘s dir in den Arsch, scheiß Schwuchtel.’” He paused, struggled past the painful emotions, and tried to translate it into English. “‘Shove it up your arse, shitty faggot.’ Even I had to do it.”

“Those were the words you said to me after … after Moses was killed.”

Eren shivered with deep remorse. “The captain knew about that incident. It’s in my records, because I did it louder and kicked them harder than all the others. I made one of them scream and broke his … Steißbein … whatever that is in English. Part of his spine. My teacher praised me for it,” he said in disgust. “He wrote about it in my records. It was a glowing praise, the fact that I disavowed my own friends and beat them for being homosexuals. Ironically, it led to me becoming an officer.”

“What happened to them after that?” asked Levi.

“They were sent away. They’re probably dead now. It was a lesson to us all. Just like they taught us in school: Tunten were filthy and did not deserve to be considered as humans.”

Levi stared in amazement. How young, to have witnessed such a thing happen to friends, and worse, to have been forced to participate!

“I realized, it could have been me. Every time we see homosexuals pulled out and sent away, I stay quiet and think, ‘That could be me next.’ I know I’m like this. I’ve always been like this. I can’t not be. Believe me, for the sake of my own survival, I don’t want to be this way, but it’s just how I am.” His head dropped in defeat. “I thought I could simply go through life without love. It’s not too strange for a career soldier to never marry. I tell people, Germany is my mother, my wife, and my lover, but that’s because…” He reached over and lightly caressed Levi’s cheek. “…I know I can never have what I truly want.”

Levi felt his chest throb at the confession.

“I built a wall around my heart. I figured if the wall was high enough, the monsters beyond the wall would not get me.” Those melancholy, wistful eyes gazed fondly at Levi. “You flew right over that wall.”

Levi placed a hand over Eren’s heart. “Those monsters are not your feelings. They are the people who hate you for being the way you are.”

“But I know those monsters will kill me,” Eren whispered, close to tears. “They are the same monsters who killed my mother, who sent away my friends, and who keep hurting you.” His head collapsed onto Levi’s shoulder. “And I’m one of them. I’m the same, a monster. I hurt people. I’ve killed people. I watched them … watched them hurt you, watched them do that to you … and then I hurt you as well. I’m no different!” he shouted as tears shuddered out.

Levi stroked through Eren’s soft hair. “You’re not the same as them. Maybe you are a German, but that does not mean you have to act like a Nazi.”

Eren cringed and shook his head. “You don’t get it. I was raised to believe that being German meant you had to be a Nazi. Anything less was unpatriotic, and if you’re not a patriot, you’re a traitor. I am not a traitor to Germany. I just … I can’t be a Nazi. Not anymore,” he whispered, feeling stabbed to realize that. “I love my country, and I thought … no, I was told … it was the only way to be a true German. The Nazi Party is Germany. However, no party can claim to be patriotic if they don’t support every citizen living within their borders.”

Levi saw for certain now, Eren’s loyalties really were solidly with Germany, even if the political theater wanted him dead. If the French Resistance wanted to turn him, they would fail. He grabbed Eren’s cheeks and forced his face back up.

“Listen to me, takhshet. If those monsters come after you, all you need to do is come to me. I’ll kill them for you. I will slash any monster that tries to kill you for being this way. I saw how it darkened you to kill a fellow German, so if they come at you for feeling this way about me, hand me a knife, scissors, anything sharp, and I will slash them. I once used my skills to be an assassin for France. I can use those skills for you now. I’ll protect you this time.”

Eren smiled weakly in thanks. “That’s … really sweet.”

Levi shrugged it off. “I don’t know if I can return your feelings, but I can at least take some responsibility for putting you in this danger. Besides,” he added with a twinkle in his dark eyes, “we’re friends.”

Eren swallowed back his past pains. “Friends. But I’m a horrible friend. I know it’s dangerous, but … but I really, really want to kiss you again.” His eyes lingered on Levi’s lips. “May I?”

“Just once. I still don’t know about this. I’ve never had a man in love with me, I don’t know if I can feel the same way, but I … I don’t mind. If it’s you, if it’s just a kiss,” he whispered, his eyes lowering to those pink lips, “for some reason, I don’t mind.”

The young soldier’s arms wrapped around him, and although this was an enemy wearing the uniform of monsters who killed humans without justification, Levi felt safe within those arms. Lips pressed against his mouth, a sweet breath wafted over his nostrils and across his cheek, and those arms trembled as they held him close.

Was it from happiness or fear? Maybe both.

Levi had also frozen his heart long ago. When his wife was killed and his fertility stolen from him, he thought he had ended all emotions but hatred.

Now, this damn brat, this takhshet, was showing him that love had not been stolen from this mad world.

How sickeningly ironic that this sort of love was also forbidden!

Eren pulled back, his face brighter and happier than Levi had ever seen it. He stroked his hand through Levi’s hair and laughed to himself, awestruck that he could openly touch him like this.

“May I come see you again tomorrow?”

Levi was starting to get used to the feeling of Eren petting his head. “No one is stopping you.”

“You can tell me not to. I don’t want to do anything you hate.”

Levi carefully weighed his words. “I … don’t hate being around you.”

Eren’s eyes twinkled with joy. “Then I’ll come, if I can.”

“Look, I … I still need to think about this. You do too. You could be killed, and you could get me killed. Try to remember that.”

Eren drew back. He knew death hung over his head. If his fellow soldiers found out he favored the comfort of other men, he would be beaten and humiliated in front of everyone as a lesson, just like those two boys had been publicly beaten. Worse, since he was an adult now, he could be outright killed. Kitz Woermann had told him what he would have done to Grützmacher.

He accepted the risk, but he did not want to put Levi into any additional danger. His position was precarious enough, being a Jew. If they knew he and Eren were intimate … if they accused him of seducing an Aryan

“I’ll go now,” he whispered sadly. “I need to lock you away again.”

The way he said it, Levi knew that had a double meaning. Not only did Eren have to lock him in the prison cell, but it was time to lock away the feelings in his heart once more.

Eren brought him back to the dungeon. Levi sat on his cot, mentally preparing for the darkness again. Maybe this time, there would be fewer monsters staring back at him from the abyss.

He felt a hand on his head and looked up in bewilderment. Eren was petting his head again with a gentle smile.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said with such warmth that Levi knew he could not hide his blush.

Then Eren stepped out and locked the cell door. He took the lamp with him, but at the door he hesitated.

“Hold on.”

He left the lamp, ran out, and came right back with a thick pillar candle. He lit the candle in the flickering lamp flame and passed it through the prison bars to Levi.

“Blow it out if you hear anyone coming. Oh, and here.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out the box of matches he used for cigarettes. “I should cut back on smoking anyway. Hold onto them. This way, you’ll have some light to read by.”

Levi carefully took the candle and matchbox. “Thank you.”

“Until tomorrow.”

Eren flashed one last smile before trotting off, leaving Levi to read his Tanakh, daydream about that kiss, and trace the matchbox with his thumb.

# # #

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Dawndew

Dawndew made this aesthetic with images from the past few chapters or capturing the atmosphere. Wow!

staring into the abyss” – In his 1886 philosophy book, Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” In other words, don’t become as bad as the thing you want to destroy.

Historical side note: Alt-Right leader Richard Spencer claimed he was “red-pilled by Nietzsche.” Adolf Hitler used the philosopher’s term Übermensch for Aryans. Many have quoted Nietzsche to justify their bigotry. In reality, Nietzsche was disgusted that far-right political parties were twisting his words. He said Germany should “expel the anti-Semitic squallers out of the country.” He wrote that it was “a matter of honor” to oppose such bigotry, and “These accursed anti-Semite deformities shall not sully my ideal!” Of Jews, he said, “artists like us regard the Jews with gratitude.” Sadly, after his death, Nietzsche’s Jew-hating sister heavily edited his writings, censored anything negative about anti-Semites, and she even jigsawed together new books to be published post-humorously in his name. She became the darling of the Nazi Party. Hitler visited her and traded his customary whip for Nietzsche’s walking stick. It was Nietzsche’s sister, not the man himself, who manipulated his teachings into something that would be quoted by some of the most vile scum in human history. Don’t be deceived! Nietzsche hated bigotry so much, he declared, “I will have all anti-Semites shot.”

All those languages – I originally used EVERY European language on Google Translate (plus a few in former French colonies of Africa), but Europe seriously has too many languages. Although cool, it was long and confusing, so I removed languages from countries that were neutral in World War II, as well as languages that are nearly identical. If native speakers wish to correct me, I’d appreciate it. Basically, they are all shouts of “Don’t kill me,” “Spare me,” and other things someone might shout as they see Levi coming for their life. Scary indeed!

half-dick frog” – a slur for French Jews, referencing both the Jewish practice of circumcision (removal of the foreskin, thus “half-dick”) and the slur about Frenchmen and frogs. It is often thought to be due to French people eating frog legs, but it likely originated with a French suitor of Queen Elizabeth I, Francis Duke of Anjou. He was a very short man, about 150 cm, or under 5 feet tall. During their courtship, he gave the queen golden frog earrings. After that, Queen Elizabeth began to affectionately call him her “frog.”

There’s also a theory that medieval Englishmen did not understand what the fleur-de-lis was, and upon seeing the symbol that adorned the French flag at the time, they assumed it was a frog.

froggy-de-lis

Eren discusses something that is important to remember. Not all Germans in World War II were Nazis. Not all Wehrmacht soldiers supported Nazi ideology. There were many liberal Germans who resisted the Nazis, many soldiers who fought for their country and not for Hitler, many conscripted against their will, and many who joined the Nazi Party out of social pressure.

Also … about damn time they kiss!

Chapter Text

Hidden Gazebo by Thomas Kinkade

Levi squinted at the Tanakh, trying to sort out some of the Hebrew text. He remembered that this particular scripture was supposed to be very inspiring, and he wanted to read it to his people later that night, but Levi had a secret.

He could barely read Hebrew.

Once early on, he let someone in another Jewish group he had been in to take his Tanakh and read a few passages aloud. He was enraged to find that the book later had dirty fingerprints. Maybe he was not interested in religion and rarely bothered to read books, but at least he knew better than to touch the paper if his hands were filthy. This was precisely why one used a yad when reading the Torah.

After that, although there were many in his current group who knew how to read Hebrew, Levi refused to let them touch his book. He had been paranoid when he was forced to give the Tanakh over to Eren, and he had searched the whole book for new fingerprints or bent pages—he personally felt that people who bent the corners of pages to mark their place in a book should be shot by the author. Either Eren did not touch the book after confiscating it, or he had clean hands when he did so.

However, in his insistence at reading the book himself, that meant Levi was limited to a few passages he already knew by heart, or sections that had words he recognized. Anything more, he had to study ahead of time so he did not sound like a man who had not given a shit about his religion until four years ago.

Betakh el adonai bekhol lee- … -beh- … -kha. Libekha; ve’el bee- … bah-naht- … no, dammit, what is this? Binatkha … al … tisha’en. What the hell is tisha’en? Prosperity? No, I remember. Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and on your own understanding do not lean. Tisha’en is lean. Bekhol deh- … -rah- … -khe- … oh, derakhekha, your ways … da’ehu; vehu, yeyasher orkho- … ah fuck … orkhotekha. Your paths. Your ways, your paths. Derakhekha, orkhotekha. Got it.”

In the middle of this, he heard footsteps above. Levi quickly blew out the candle and hid the book under his pillow. He saw a lantern gleaming as the person walked down the stairs, and finally a person turned the corner into the dungeon. He saw the lamp light up Eren’s face.

Levi felt two emotions almost simultaneously. On one hand, he was excited, as he often felt a leap of joy whenever Eren came to visit him. On the other hand, memories of the kiss yesterday returned to him with a cold chill, and he almost felt like yanking the covers over his face, hoping Eren would think he was asleep and go away.

It was too late, though. Their eyes met, and Eren had a bright smile. Of course he did! He wasn’t the one who stayed up half the night tormented by a mere kiss.

“You know,” Eren said casually, “although you blew the candle out, anyone who walks in here can smell the smoke.”

“Then I’ll put it out better next time,” he stated sharply.

Eren stepped up to the cell. “Do you feel like coming out?”

Levi’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”

“On a walk. No one came to get me, so I figured the prison guard didn’t know you’re due to be out starting today.”

“I simply said nothing. He barely even looked my way, and I’m not going to complain if he leaves me here.”

“Good! Then we can walk together.”

Eren unlocked the cell, but Levi hesitated. Was this a trick? Still, if it meant fresh air and sunshine, he would be led astray a little. He walked past Eren, glaring sideways, expecting him to make some lewd move, but Eren simply smiled like a happy boy getting to play with a friend.

They climbed up the stairs, and the light bothered Levi. He squinted at the brightness after days in pitch dark, or at most having only a single candle. Eren realized Levi’s eyes were half-closed, tortured by the sunny September morning. He had seen this man struggle with light before, the first day they met and he let the Jews out of the closet they had hidden in throughout the village’s bombardment. He reached forward and touched Levi’s arm. There was a soft gasp, and the small man pulled away.

“We can wait for your eyes to adjust,” Eren assured him.

Levi calmed himself. Eren was behaving himself. If he was going to do anything questionable, it would have been back when they were in the dungeon, not up here with soldiers around.

After time to get used to the light, Levi followed Eren out of the castle. However, stepping outside blinded his eyes all over again. He tried to shade them, squinting to see, when he suddenly felt his arm grabbed, not tenderly, but jolting, yanking him forward.

Hör auf zu trödeln, du Judenscheiße, oder ich lasse dich hängen!” Stop dawdling, you Jewshit, or I’ll have you hanged.

Levi felt a flash of anger at the shout and Eren’s cruel yanking, until he realized there were two soldiers marching up to the castle. They saluted Eren, and Levi kept his head down so they would not offer to punish the Jew for the lieutenant. After that, he allowed Eren to pull him as roughly as he wanted. He was just watching out for him, after all.

They went around the castle. The building was not huge, more like an old stone watchtower from medieval times, to which a glamorous house was built next to it, with an ancient stone wall to fortify the place. Between the tower and the curtain wall were elegant gardens. Obviously, the owners of this château had luxury—not military defenses—in mind.

There were pebble pathways leading through geometrically shaped flower beds, straight rows of fruit trees, and a central fountain that stood bone dry, yet still elegant. Gazebos dotted the four corners of the garden, surrounded by rose bushes for an aromatic retreat. Despite the war, the bombing, and Nazis taking over the castle, the gardens were still beautiful. As Levi looked around, he knew that it would not take much to get this place tidied up and fit for nobility.

Eren grabbed up a discarded wicker basket and thrust it at Levi. “Halte das für mich. Hold this for me.”

Both German and English, which meant they were still being watched. Levi obediently took the basket, and Eren began to stroll along one of the paths to the fruit trees. He picked a ripe apple and placed it in the basket.

“Technically, you’re my servant obeying my whims,” Eren whispered.

“Bollocks to that!” Levi grumbled.

“In reality, I’m picking apples for your group. So the more apples you can hold in that basket, the more you can eat later.”

Levi was honestly shocked that Eren would bring him out so they could both help the Jews together.

Eren smiled back at him. “I wish it was more. There are not many ripe apples yet. Another week or two, and these trees will be filled. I saw some berries on the other end of the garden, though. It’s late in the season, but we can pick some of those as well.”

“Did you scout out the garden before coming to get me?” Levi asked, meaning to tease him a little.

“Yes,” Eren answered honestly.

That stunned Levi. He had thought Eren was doing this on a whim. Instead, he had planned a way to get the Jews food. Eren reached up high to pick a couple more apples, and Levi held the basket for him, amazed that they could work together like this.

“I may be busy over the next few days,” Eren warned, keeping his voice quiet. “A lot has been happening.”

“With the war?” asked Levi.

Eren practically ripped an apple off its branch. “Yes. I’m sure you’ll be happy to learn that it’s not going well for us,” he said sarcastically. “I don’t know how much longer before Americans reach this village.” Eren dropped the apple into the basket, then paused and looked solemn. “If I can get you out before then…”

He left that wish hanging, and Levi was not sure what to say in response. He could not ask Eren to help him to escape, since if he was caught, he would be executed as a traitor. Levi wanted no more blood on his hands. However, what crappy timing! Just as Eren finally got bold enough to tell him the truth about his feelings, now the war was on their doorstep.

“I’ll think of something,” Eren whispered, mostly to himself.

Levi stared at him, and the determined look on Eren’s face burned his heart. “Stop doing that,” he grumbled.

Eren jolted. “Huh? What am I doing this time?” he cried out.

Levi pouted and turned his face aside. “You’re giving me hope again.”

Eren had to laugh, and his eyes were gentle as he smiled at Levi. “We all need hope.”

“Hope betrays you. It makes it worse when the inevitable happens, and what you hoped for dies.”

“Hope makes life bearable, and even if a dream or two doesn’t happen, when what your hope for really does come true, it’s so much better.”

Levi suddenly snapped, “What do you know of losing dreams?” He gasped as soon as he shouted it, remembering what Eren had told him about his past. “I’m sorry.”

“No, I understand what you mean.” Eren looked around the garden to make sure Levi’s shout had not attracted attention. “You had someone you cherished, someone you chose to spend the rest of your life with, to raise a family together, and that hope was stolen from you. What I’ve lost in the past doesn’t even compare.” Eren gazed bittersweetly at Levi. “There are things I hope for right now that I know, as nice as it would be, it’ll probably never happen.”

Levi felt a pang of guilt. “Eren—”

“That’s okay,” he cut in. “I still won’t stop hoping, because if I did that, I would be giving up on my future, and without a future to look forward to, why be alive? I need hope.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “What is a man like me supposed to do if I can’t hope for a day when I’m not hated for who I love?”

Levi dropped his gaze. Hated for whom he loves? Just the thought of it hurt Levi deep inside. He knew that sort of life. When he married Petra, there were many who protested. A Catholic and a Jew were not supposed to fall in love. That sort of hate led to her death.

Here he was again, someone falling in love with him, but it was much more than an issue of different religions.

“Look, Eren, about yesterday—”

“Monsieur Jäger?”

They both gasped and turned at the high voice. Krista stood on the garden path with a basket of fennel and leeks in her hands.

Eren bowed slightly to her. “Guten Morgen.

Bonjour,” she greeted back with a curtsy. Then she tipped her head to Levi. “Capitaine Ackerman.”

Sérieux, ne m’appelle pas comme ça.” Seriously, don’t call me that.

She smiled apologetically. “Levi.”

Eren spoke in English. “I’m going to climb this apple tree. I see some ripe ones near the top. You two talk.”

Levi snapped, “We have nothing to talk about.”

“Well, she doesn’t speak German, so I can’t talk to her.” He leaned in and whispered, “Ask her for me if she can bring bread again this Saturday. I’ll pay her.”

With that, Eren leaped and grabbed a branch of the nearby apple tree, easily swinging up into the leafy canopy. Levi cursed under his breath. Eren probably thought Krista was nothing more than a sympathetic French girl, and he could not tell the truth without putting her in danger.

Krista gazed up at Eren as he climbed to the top of the tree. She commented in French, “He’s very trusting of you.”

“He knows I can’t run. If I leave, the rest of the Jews are dead.” He glared scathingly at her. “He understands that.”

“I came here hoping to find you, precisely about that issue.”

“Levi!” Eren called down. “Catch.”

An apple dropped, and Levi easily caught it with one hand while still holding the basket with the other hand.

Krista looked up into the tree. “Has he mentioned anything about the German army?”

“Just that they’re losing. Good,” he grunted.

“Then he doesn’t know.” Another apple dropped, which Levi caught. “Something is going on in the city of Metz. This company will be relocating soon.”

“Relocating? What’s going on in Metz?”

“A last stand. A suicidal move. Sacrifice a few divisions to save the rest of the Wehrmacht.”

“That’s stupid,” Levi said, his eyes on Krista as he automatically caught an apple without even looking up. “Even Hitler isn’t that much of an idiot.”

“It’s his command. They are to go to Metz and stall the Allies for as long as they can, to stay and fight until not a single soldier is left alive. Surrender and retreat are forbidden, by orders of the Führer. This company will join them next week.” She looked around at the soldiers in Heer uniforms. “It’s a shame. Germany may be the enemy, but these men don’t deserve to be sacrificed.”

Levi looked up into the tree and saw Eren stretching to reach an apple far out on a limb. He was pushing his body to the limits, all so the Jews could eat. Such a man like this should not be placed in a stupid, suicidal mission.

Krista went on in a whisper. “The members of Operation Bagel are working to get you Jews out as soon as possible, within the next few days. If the lieutenant follows his normal routine and takes you to the river to bathe, we can see about acting at that time. Let’s pray that he only brings two of his men with him again. That, we can handle easily.”

“Don’t kill them,” Levi muttered.

“I can’t promise that.”

“Then don’t kill him,” he said, his teeth baring in a sneer. “That’s part of my agreement. I’ll work with the Resistance if you get us all out, and if Eren is left alone.”

“Protecting the enemy?” she asked with a smirk. “Or is he a friend now?”

Levi realized how foolish it sounded, to have befriended the man who locked him away in a dungeon. How much more insane would she think he was if she knew Eren had also confessed he had feelings for Levi?

Quietly, he said, “My loyalty lies with whomever is loyal to me.”

“Levi, catch!”

He grabbed a dropped apple without breaking his scowling glare at Krista. “Eren has gone out of his way to save my life. You and the rest of France cannot say the same. France betrayed us Jews. You need to prove yourself worthy of my assistance.”

She tipped her head. “I’ll aim for that. The other members know about your stipulations, and we’ll do our best to protect the lieutenant. We’ll get you out first, and soon. You’re the most important target. I will then take your place as translator, and with any luck, I can facilitate the rest of the operation from within. We’ll get the rest of the group this weekend by the river.”

Au diable tout ça.” To hell with that. “I will not leave until the women are rescued.”

Krista laughed awkwardly. “That will not be easy. You don’t understand how hard it is—”

I don’t understand?” he challenged, raising his voice. “You don’t understand what it’s like to watch a woman get raped right in front of you, and you can’t do a damn thing because you’re behind bars. All you can do is tell her a prayer and hope to God the man finishes quickly. You don’t understand what that’s like!” Another apple dropped, and Levi instinctively caught it, almost crushing it in his hand. He dropped the bruised apple into the basket and lowered his voice to a hiss. “I am not leaving before those women, and that’s final.”

She sighed in frustration, but her eyes softened. “You’re a true gentleman, captain.”

Je me souviens quand les Français n’étaient pas des lâches, mais des honorables.” I remember when the French were not cowards, but honorable.

Just then, Eren landed down from the tree. “That’s all the ripe ones I could find.”

“Then we’re done here,” Levi said, staring hard at Krista.

Raising her chin stubbornly, she replied, “Le plan devra être réajusté. Je vais devoir parler de ça avec le groupe.” The plan will have to be readjusted. I’m going to have to discuss this with the group.

Tu vas le faire, alors.” You go do that, then.

Levi turned away and began to walk down the garden path. Eren looked between the two, wondering what happened. He had thought Levi and Krista would make good friends, yet he was excessively cold to her.

Eren pulled out his wallet, handed over some bills to Krista, and whispered secretively, “Bitte kaufen Sie mehr Brot, falls es geht.” Please buy more bread, if you can.

She smiled as she pushed the money back. “Ich werde beschäftigt sein.” I’ll be busy.

Eren slowly pulled the money back and pouted. “Ist das so? Es tut mir Leid, dass ich Sie um so Vieles bitte.” Is that so? I’m sorry, I’m asking so much of you.

Nein, ich möchte helfen.” No, I want to help. Krista looked down at the money, and impulsively she took it. “Ich werde sehen was ich tun kann.” I’ll see what I can do.

Eren’s face brightened into a smile, but Krista was struck by a feeling of being heartbroken. Such a nice man, and yet his future was doomed. Impulsively, she tiptoed up and kissed Eren on the cheek.

Bonne chance!” Good luck!

Then she took off, fleeing from him as her face struggled with emotions.

Eren watched her go, confused by her farewell. Good luck? Why would he need luck? He shrugged it off, figuring it was a French thing, and went to catch up with Levi. However, the Jew had paused by a tree, holding onto the trunk as he breathed laboriously.

“Levi!” Eren ran forward to make sure he did not pass out.

“Fine … I’m fine,” Levi muttered as his head swam with vertigo.

Eren began to reach forward, but Levi slapped his hand away. Still, he leaned heavily on the tree, struggling to stay upright. Eren frowned as he saw Levi suffering.

“When was the last time you ate?”

Levi let out a weak laugh. “They wouldn’t let my people bring me a bowl of soup for dinner last night, and I didn’t even touch the bread they brought this morning. If I’m going to die, it won’t be from bread covered in rat shit.”

“You haven’t eaten since what I gave you yesterday?” Eren cried out. “Sit! Now! You’re going to eat.” He looked around. “Ich sehe einen Pavillon. I don’t know what those things are called in English, but we can sit there.”

He took the basket so Levi could focus on walking, and they went over to a gazebo. Levi gladly sat in the shade. Eren plucked an apple out of the basket and thrust it into Levi’s hand.

“Here. Eat this. Seriously, you need to tell me if you’re hungry. I could have gotten us lunch before going on a walk.”

Levi bit into the apple and felt the sweetness burst into his mouth. After chewing and swallowing, he muttered, “I’m finally being let outside for the first time in almost a week. Do you think I’m going to push my luck by asking for food?”

“You know I would feed you.”

Levi glanced up into Eren’s amiable face, then stared forward as he took another bite of the apple. “It’s … difficult sometimes … reminding myself that you’re not like the others.”

Eren smiled sadly at hearing that. He was glad that Levi saw him differently, but it also meant he sometimes thought of him as just another Nazi, and most Nazis he met were cruel. Eren had to admit, normal Nazis would rather kill a Jew than feed one.

He looked around the garden. The gazebo was tucked away in a corner amongst rose bushes and shady willow trees. No one was around this area. He scooted a little closer to Levi, biting his lip as he could feel the warmth radiating off of him.

Levi felt the movement and looked down to see their legs were a finger’s-width apart, so close, but Eren held back from touching. Trying to seem casual, Levi leaned his leg over until their thighs were flushed against one another. He heard a small gasp from Eren, but he pretended like he did not notice, eating his apple as he stared out at the garden.

Beside him, Eren’s heart was racing from just that one gesture. He had thought Levi might shift away. Had he leaned his leg up against him on purpose? On accident? He seemed to not realize it was there. Did he want this closeness? Did he notice it?

“I … I was thinking about something,” Eren whispered. “As much as I enjoy your company, I want you to be safe. I think … this Saturday … I’m sure I can convince Armin to help, and Jean will likely go along with it. If it’s the three of us again … we can let the Jews escape.”

Levi looked over sharply at him. “Are you serious?”

“I paid Krista to buy your people bread. That’s my alibi, proof that I had no intention of letting you go. We’ll figure out a way to make it look like a struggle. I might get in a little trouble…”

“Then forget it!”

“No!” Eren slammed his hand down onto Levi’s thigh and glared sternly at him. “I can’t keep sitting by and watching you suffer. I can’t! I would rather be reprimanded, demoted, whipped, whatever punishment I get, if it means you’re safe.” His jaw clenched with determination. “I’m getting you out!”

Levi felt oddly warm hearing Eren’s conviction. Instead of a frivolous and naïve boy, this time he saw the hardened soldier, planning for a battle where he had everything to lose. Then he felt tingling on his leg and looked down. Eren’s hand was gripping his thigh with firm fingers.

Eren followed Levi’s eyes down and saw where his hand had landed. “Ah! Sorry.” He yanked it away. “I thought you might run away on me.”

That warm tingling remained, and Levi kept his eyes down at where his trousers now had a hand-sized crease. “Krista,” he whispered. Levi looked around the garden. “She’s near the exit. Run to her. She … She can help.”

“A little girl like her?”

“She offered. She … look, just trust me,” Levi snapped. “Run to her, tell her you plan to let us go on Saturday. Just, for the love of God, trust me on this and don’t ask questions.”

Eren nodded firmly. He guessed enough. As he bolted across the garden path, chasing after the blond teen, he realized why Levi was cold to her earlier. She must have offered something. Maybe she had connections. If she had offered to help Levi to escape, the temptation must have been great. That was why he talked sternly to her and wanted to get away.

“Krista!”

She paused and looked back, stunned to see Eren running at her. She began to turn and flee, fearing that Levi tattled on her. Eren easily caught her, pulled her over to a building, and pressed her up against the wall.

She struggled against his strong hold. “Lâchez-moi!” Let go of me!

Bitte hören Sie mir zu.” Please listen to me. Eren’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Können Sie Levi helfen, diesen Samstag zu fliehen?” Can you help Levi escape this Saturday?

She gasped at the whisper and stared up in shock. Eren was so close, if anyone saw them, they would think this soldier was having his way with a pretty girl. Yet this close, those fiery teal eyes could not lie. He was serious.

Krista nodded with determination. “Wir können sie alle retten.” Let’s save them all.

Eren agreed solemnly. “Wir gehen die Details später noch genau durch.” We’ll go through the details later. Then, with a shove to the brick wall, he pushed himself away and tipped his head genteelly. “Bis Samstag.” Until Saturday.

Krista’s lips fluttered in a smile, and as Eren strode away, she saw for a moment what it was about this soldier that so enamored the former French captain.

Eren tried to hurry back. He had taken off without even bothering to ask Levi to follow, knowing he could barely walk. Now he realized that he was putting a lot of trust into Levi not running away. He also feared what might happen if another German noticed him sitting there with a basket of apples, seemingly on a picnic in the garden instead of washing dishes or scrubbing toilets.

Thankfully, Levi was still sitting in the gazebo, his eyes on Eren and … was that a smile? By the time Eren got close enough to see his face clearly, the turn to the lips was gone. Eren sat back under the shade of the gazebo, and it felt natural that he was close enough for their legs to touch.

“So?” Levi prodded.

“She’ll help. I’m not sure how, and maybe I don’t want to know.” He glanced down at Levi. “Has she been helping your people?”

“She brought us bread once. That’s all.”

Eren was not sure if that was the truth or not, but he decided not to pursue the issue. Levi was almost done with his apple. “How are you feeling now?”

“I’m realizing that this will probably flush right out my arse, but at least diarrhea is better than hard shit right now.”

“I think they grow Möhren here. I don’t know the English word. If you can gather them, you can have them.”

Eren began to shift to stand, but Levi’s hand shot out, landing on his leg.

“Stay. I … want to sit here a little longer.”

It was peaceful, the garden was serene, and being outdoors in fresh air was healing to his soul. Levi felt almost normal sitting here, like the war was far away, even though a Nazi soldier was sitting right next to him. Levi felt a hand lay on top of his, and he looked down, finally realizing that he had grabbed Eren’s leg. Now Eren’s hand was over his, giving him a comforting touch.

“Okay,” Eren whispered. “We can stay here.”

Eren’s hand did not move, and as the minutes passed by with the buzz of bees and birdsong, Levi grew increasingly self-conscious that his hand was trapped on Eren’s thigh. He probably could have yanked it away, but … he didn’t mind. At least for a little while, they could sit like this. Even when Eren’s thumb glided up and down his knuckles, Levi kept his hand where it was.

It felt … nice … to touch another human like this.

They sat in silence for what felt like hours, yet was probably no more than ten minutes. Then Eren’s hand slid off, and the coldness of the air felt disappointing. However, his hand glided over until it landed on Levi’s thigh. At first, he just let it lie there, warm and hesitant, barely even touching, but gradually Eren grew bolder. His hand rested firmer, gripping Levi’s leg slightly. Eren’s thumb again slid back and forth, feeling the trouser fabric.

More minutes ticked by slowly. Levi could not look up into Eren’s face. His eyes were down, seeing their arms crossed, their hands on each other’s legs, sitting so close, touching one another so intimately. His heart raced in a way it had not done in years.

Then Eren’s hand shifted, slowly gliding up the thigh. Levi watched, like the slow stalking of a predator, yet he was too scared to move.

Or maybe, he didn’t want this to stop.

“Levi,” Eren whispered.

The voice jolted him, and his eyes flashed up, only to be ensnared by a gaze so intense, it left Levi paralyzed. Had anyone, even Petra, ever stared at Levi the way Eren did? Petra had been coy, playing the bashful maiden long after they were married. Eren looked more like a wolf about to devour him.

Levi knew one thing for sure: no person had ever made his heart race like this from just a touch. He was breathing so fast, with his mouth slightly open in shock, that his lips felt dry. His tongue darted out to moisten them, and that tiny move made Eren’s breath hitch. He also dragged his tongue slowly over his lips, leaving them glistening in the sunshine.

Those lips … yesterday, they gave Levi such hope. He could practically feel the soft caress of those lips again, and it filled his heart with both warm yearning and cold dread. Terror, joy, despair, hope, nightmares, dreams, trauma, healing: they all clashed in a war of their own.

Then they heard the crunching of pebbles down the path, and both of their hands yanked away. Levi cursed under his breath, and Eren instantly slid down the gazebo bench. He grabbed the basket, slammed it between them, snatched an apple, and bit into it. Levi dropped his head, acting the part of the obeisant servant as he hoped no one recognized him.

The approaching soldier passed by, casually saluted the lieutenant, and thought nothing of an officer resting with his civilian attendant for a little snack. He continued on, and Eren let out a long, tense sigh. Then he heard Levi hiss beside him.

“What the hell are you doing?”

He felt stung by the anger in those words, but Levi was right. They were in the open. He was doing things like this where anyone could see him. This was more than just dangerous. It was stupid! Still, if Levi was leaving in just a few days, Eren no longer wanted to hold back.

On his side of the bench, Levi knew those words were aimed not only at Eren, but at himself. What the hell was he doing, touching a Nazi soldier like that, and allowing himself to be touched?

Then again, if he was leaving … part of him wanted to let Eren do whatever he wanted. They might never see one another again. What was the harm in letting the man have a little fun before they parted?

A lot of harm, Levi scolded silently to himself.

Levi also realized the conflict growing in himself. More than anything, he wanted to leave this place before anyone else died, but he knew he was going to miss this brat. He had grown fond of Eren, befriended him, and now struggled with the knowledge that Eren had feelings for him. A person doesn’t just forget someone like that. For as long as he lived, he would always remember the kind German who saved his life and gave him hope in the middle of a horrific war.

“We should head back,” said Eren.

His voice sounded cold, and it made Levi want to apologize. He must have taken his words as a fierce scolding. Levi just wanted to warn him that this path was dangerous. He was worried about Eren’s safety. If they kept this up…

No good could come from this.

As for the clandestine touches, as flustering as they were, as confused as he was about what to think about them … he didn’t mind.

Near the back of the estate grounds, close to the kitchens, was a potager garden. This area was also laid out with clean precision, decorative yet functional, filled with vegetables, herbs, leafy greens, and rimmed with berry bushes. A cook needed only to step outside to collect some fresh rosemary or pluck off a few berries to top a dessert.

Eren occasionally stopped by places around the potager garden. He spoke only in German now, but Levi understood enough. Sharp orders were barked out to pick carrots, beets, onions, radishes, green beans, zucchini, collards, leeks, broccoli, and tomatoes. Eren called out the vegetables in German, but Levi could see for himself what they were.

The basket creaked with the weight, but Levi knew that the more he could hold, the more his people could eat. With that in mind, he lugged the basket along from area to area, ending up at some berry bushes. Picking the berries stained his hands, but they filled in the spaces between the other vegetables.

Once the basket really did look ready to break apart, Eren took Levi into the castle kitchen, giving a sharp order to the young soldat stuck on kitchen duty that Levi was to clean the vegetables. The soldat saluted and let the lieutenant do as he pleased, not wanting to upset an officer.

Levi got to work scrubbing dirt off the carrots, radishes, and other vegetables. This also allowed him to clean himself a little, scrubbing his arms and rubbing a little soap onto his face for a quick wash. It felt good to be clean, even if it was not a full bath.

Eren sat to the side, tapped out a cigarette, but as he searched for his matches, he realized he had given them to Levi. He walked over to the stove and was glad to see some matches next to it. He lit up the cigarette and took a long, relaxing drag. Then he put the matchbox into his pocket.

The fresh-faced soldier cleared his throat. “Entschuldigen Sie, Herr Leutnant, aber Sie sollten wirklich nicht rauchen.” Pardon me, lieutenant, but you really shouldn’t smoke.

Ja, ich weiß, es ist schlecht für mich.” Yes, I know, it’s bad for me.

He knew about Hitler’s anti-smoking campaigns, but Eren still continued without much heed. Even if it was unhealthy, it was a habit now. He had his first cigarette when he was fourteen, hiding behind the school with Reiner and a few other boys, often passing a single cigarette around. Back then, it was a way to rebel. During the Battle of Anzio, smoking was a way for him to calm his mind, and he ended up going through many cigarettes a day. He had been trying to cut back ever since, but it was too easy to buy some cigarettes off a local Frenchman and feel that same sense of relaxation. Besides, the teenager in him still wanted to rebel against what society said he should and should not do.

As Levi continued with the hard work of scrubbing the vegetables, Eren began to separate the haul. He took a burlap sack from the side of the kitchen and placed enough vegetables to feed the Jews. He tried to be generous: an apple for each of them, three green beans per person, two radishes each, a small tomato for every person, there were six zucchinis so they could split them in half and share, and since Connie hated broccoli, he gave all of those as well as all the berries to the Jews.

He set aside enough to make his men happy. There were still enough carrots for a soup, and Thomas would love to cook the beets, onions, and collards, which would be hard for the Jews to eat raw. He also put in a few apples. Maybe Thomas could make strudels.

As Levi dried his hands, Eren tied the burlap sack closed. They left the kitchen and walked through the château. The kitchen was in the west wing, while the dungeon was far to the east, in the area that was oldest and near the original medieval watchtower. In the grand hallway that connected the two wings of the château, soldiers milled about. A few saluted Eren as he walked by, but generally went along with their own business.

Then a voice shouted out. “Leutnant Jäger, haben Sie kurz Zeit?

Eren paused and looked over at a soldier coming up to him. The man saluted with a proud “Heil Hitler” and began to speak. Levi waited, but he knew who this man was already. He was basically their jailer, letting the Jews out in the morning and doing roll call in the evening before locking them away. He was likely asking Eren about when Levi was due to return to work.

Sure enough, as Eren talked with the man, his face took on that same hollow coldness that Levi had come to understand meant he was burying his personal emotions in order to act the part of a loyal Nazi. The two soldiers saluted Heil Hitler once more, and Eren continued on his way. His face was darkened, his eyes frigid, and he said nothing.

“I guess I work again,” Levi muttered.

Halt die Klappe, du Judenscheiße.” Shut up, you Jewshit.

The harsh shout stunned Levi, but he merely kept his head down. There were soldiers around. They could not talk friendly in this area. Levi followed Eren, acting subservient, until they were in the east wing. The closer they got to the staircase that led to the dungeon, armory, and other areas of the old castle, the fewer soldiers they saw, until finally they were the only two people in the hallway. Eren let out a heavy sigh.

“Sorry about that.”

“You’re a soldier,” Levi reasoned. “Your duty comes first.”

“He wanted your key. I said I was using you as my servant for the day, I would lock you back away later, and I’d give the key to him this evening”

Levi nodded in quiet understanding. “It was nice while it lasted.”

They went to the staircase leading down to the dungeon. Eren was again hit by the reek of feces and body odor. This was worse than any public toilet he had ever been inside. Not even the smell of his cigarette made the room bearable.

Eren lit a lamp and helped Levi to distribute the apples and carrots, hiding them under pillows in each cell. Other items were too soft or would stain the bedding, so they would need to be passed around after the lights were out and Germans could not see them. Levi found a bucket, hid the sack with the remaining food inside, and pushed it under the cot. Even if a German noticed, they would think it was a toilet bucket and would not dare look inside.

Eren’s cigarette was out, and the foul fumes were getting to him. “Let’s go. No offense, but I feel like I’m going to vomit if I stay in this room for too long.”

“I feel that way all the time, takhshet.”

Levi gladly left, and he was not surprised when Eren took him back to the armory. This was a room where he felt safe, and they could be together with privacy. Levi’s heart already began to race. If yesterday was a timid kiss, what would today bring?

“I stole this.” Eren brought out a small tart. “You need to eat more, if you skipped breakfast. One apple isn’t enough.”

Levi was not about to turn down food. The pastry was filled with lemon curd and topped with a raspberry. He carefully bit in. The crust flaked, and he put a hand under to catch crumbs. The sour-sweet taste of lemon melted over his mouth. Levi closed his eyes as a tingle went from taste buds to toe tips.

Eren reached into the basket meant for his men and pulled out an apple for himself. They moved over to a bench on the side of the room and sat to enjoy their small meal. Eren watched Levi eat the tart, and while it filled him with warmth to see Levi enjoying himself, it was also pitiful. Thomas had made tarts earlier that summer, and Eren had devoured two without much thought. Meanwhile, Levi ate this small treat like it was food of the gods, licking crumbs off his hand.

They continued to eat in silence, each hiding smiles from the other, lost in thoughts and feelings of anticipation, as well as sadness at the realization that they would be separating soon.

“So, Saturday is the big day. I’m both relieved and sad. It’ll be lonely without you around.”

“You have your men,” Levi said with his mouth full.

“Yes, but I can’t talk to them like I can with you.” He looked longingly at Levi, but his gaze quickly shot away. “I hope this plan works,” he whispered, then added with a wry laugh, “and hopefully it doesn’t involve shooting myself in the leg.”

He heard a small snort of a laugh from Levi, and he looked up at him. Levi might have laughed, but there was still no smile. Once again, Eren could not look at Levi for long before turning his flushed face aside.

“About earlier today, I’m sorry if I did something you hated.”

Levi’s head shot up. “What do you mean?”

“In the garden, touching you like that.”

“Oh.” Levi felt his face warming up all over again. “It’s fine.”

“No, it wasn’t. You were mad at me.”

“Because you did that in public, where anyone could see.”

Eren shyly looked over. “Then, what if I did it in private?”

Levi realized too late what he had said.

Eren lowered his voice. “Did you like it?”

Levi’s face burst out red, and his throat felt too dry to speak for a few moments. He gulped hard and muttered sharply, “What do you expect me to say?”

“‘You’re disgusting. Stay away from me. Don’t ever touch me again.’”

Levi realized that normally, that would have been his reaction right away. Another man touching him, especially his leg, the most sensitive part of his body, should have been disgusting. He should have slapped Eren’s hand away immediately.

Instead, he carefully weighed his words. “You’re … not disgusting.”

Eren began to reach forward, but he pulled back with second thoughts. He really was pushing things, but knowing Levi would be leaving soon … he really wanted more! Boldly, he placed his hand on Levi’s knee.

“Just this much,” he said to himself.

It was a simple touch, but it meant so much to him. Everything, every look and smile and blush, were all so precious to Eren. He knew he might never get a chance to experience happiness like this again.

“You … You plan to go to America, right?”

Levi hesitated before nodding. Eren sounded so sad, it was heartbreaking.

His fingers lazily stroked Levi’s leg. “Where exactly?”

Levi swallowed down the last of the tart. “I have a cousin in New York.”

“New York,” Eren said dreamily. “What is it like?”

“I’ve never been there. Crowded, according to my cousin. Diverse. Many languages, many races, many religions, all living relatively in harmony with one another.”

“Sounds like paradise.”

“Sounds like chaos,” Levi grumbled. “But peace, acceptance, tolerance … those sound nice.”

Eren looked down at the apple in his hand. New York. The Big Apple. The Empire City of the New World. “It’s a big city.”

“The biggest in the world,” Levi agreed.

“A person could get lost there.”

“I’d rather be lost than found by Nazis. No offense,” he added.

“No, I understand,” Eren muttered.

“Personally, I never liked big cities,” Levi grumbled. “I lived in Paris for a few years. Hated it! I lived in London off and on. That was even worse. I’ve been to Warsaw. Gorgeous city, but overcrowded. Still, sometimes, a crowd can be safer. If I can vanish in a big city and just be a face in the crowd, all the better.”

“But how would anyone find you?”

“If they want to find me, they can.”

Levi paused as he realized what Eren was saying. After the war was over, how would they find one another again? It really was an issue. The world was a big place. Finding one person amidst billions would be a real challenge.

“You’re a Jäger,” Levi whispered. “A hunter! If you wanted to find me, I’m sure you could.”

Eren’s face burst into a smile. “Would you want to meet up again after the war?”

Levi’s brow pinched together. “We’re friends. I wouldn’t hate it if you showed up at my doorstep one day.”

“Then it’s a promise!”

“Don’t promise something you can’t fulfill,” he snapped. “Anything could happen in this war. You could die. I could die. This whole village could be bombed to the ground tomorrow. The war could last another twenty years.”

“I would wait twenty years to find you,” Eren said, his voice quiet and his eyes serious.

A chill ran down Levi’s arms, as well as something akin to a fiery arrow pierced his chest. Why did those words fill him with so much faith?

“You’re doing it again,” Levi grumbled.

“Doing what?”

“Giving me hope. Making me want to live.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

“No,” Levi whispered, laughing softly to himself. “Not bad at all.”

Eren smiled bittersweetly to himself. At least Levi now liked that he was giving him hope, rather than panicking about it. He saw his apple sitting to the side, picked it up, and handed it to Levi.

“Please, eat it.”

Levi narrowed his eyes, but he slowly took the fruit. There were many bites in it, but less than half was eaten. Knowing he would not get more food, and receiving dinner was questionable, he dug into the apple, determined to finish the whole thing, even the core.

Eren watched him eat. Something so simple made him happy. Caring for Levi, giving him food, sitting with him, resting his hand on his leg: they were all little blessings. He could have sat there the whole day, just gazing at this man, and feel like it was the best day of his life.

He also knew this was not going to be possible anymore. Tomorrow, Levi returned to work, slaving away. He would likely face cruelty. Definitely, all the Germans knew who he was, and a few would feel it was their duty to punish him. This moment of peace would never come again.

At least all of this would be over on Saturday. With a lot of luck, the Jews would be on their way to freedom.

That thought made Eren hold Levi’s leg just a little tighter. He wanted him out of this dangerous place, but he also did not want to let him go.

Eren saw that Levi was almost done with his apple. He began to open his mouth, but hesitated. He scowled, really not wanting to bring it up, but he needed to say this while he still could.

“I know you said you don’t hate it, but I just want to say … I’m truly sorry,” sighed Eren.

Levi gulped down the apple and raised his head. What was he apologizing about this time?

“After what happened to you last week, I shouldn’t have said anything about my feelings, but … but I think because of what happened, I was forced to admit it to myself.”

Levi relaxed to hear the timid confession. “It’s fine. It’s not like I hadn’t figured it out weeks ago.” He took another bite from the apple.

Eren laughed awkwardly. “Weeks ago? Really? Now I feel like an idiot for not saying anything sooner.”

“You are an idiot.”

His hand lazily stroked along Levi’s thigh. “I just couldn’t keep telling myself I was mistaken. I was so successful at suppressing my feelings for years, so I almost didn’t realize why you made me react in strange ways. Especially since it was a man … like you.”

“A Jew?” asked Levi.

“Partly, yes, but also—no offense—a man so much older than me. Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re really not the sort of person I usually think is cute.”

“Good. I’d kick your arse if you said I was cute.”

Eren chuckled at the gruff retort. “This is the sort of thing that made me fall for you.”

Levi raised an eyebrow. “Insulting you? Are you a masochist?”

“No, I mean, you talk to me like a normal person. All my life, I’ve either been treated as a child, ordered around as a soldier, or obeyed as an officer. Few people in my entire life have ever treated me as a friend.”

Levi knew the feeling all too well. Leaving the military and returning to civilian life had been a huge adjustment. He got angry with many people who treated him with contempt as a Jew, and not with the respect he had grown used to as an officer. That was partly what made him interested in Petra. She treated him with respect, but also acted casual around him. It was a weird experience for Levi, being befriended.

Eren went on, “After what happened last week, I couldn’t keep telling myself that I was mistaken. A part of me was not just enraged at what the captain made Moses do, and of what that soldier did to you. Part of me was … was … eifersüchtig. Jealous?”

Levi sneered. “Jealous? Of what? That he was the one who raped me, not you?”

“No!” Eren cried out. “At first, that you had to go through that, and I had to watch, and … and everyone got to see it. I hated that they all got to see your body, and they all witnessed your shame. Armin had to stop me three times from shooting the captain.”

Levi muttered, “Tu aurais dû le tuer ce salaud.” You should have killed that bastard.

“Then later, I was jealous that what Grützmacher was doing was what I wanted to do.”

Levi’s head shot up. “What?” he screamed.

“I don’t mean…”

Levi leaped away. “Get the hell away from me.”

“No! I would have asked. What he did to you was evil! What I had dreamed about was gentle, loving, something we’d both want, something we’d enjoy together…”

Levi clasped his hands over his ears. The memories of that time were still there, and it made Levi’s stomach heave.

“I’m sorry,” Eren cried out. “I’m just being honest. I dreamed of making love to you, and to see someone getting that chance made me … maybe jealous is not the right word. He was daring to hurt you in a way that I wanted to pleasure you. He forced you, whereas I would have begged you for the honor.”

“Stop,” Levi whispered in anguish, trying to keep his stomach down.

“I would never hurt you. Never! But I was … I can’t think of the right word. More than just mad. It was my dream to touch you like that, my dream to pleasure you like that, and there he was, daring to do things that I was too scared to admit that I wanted. I felt like you were mine, and how dare he touch you! I was scared that after experiencing that in such a brutal way, you’d never want to do it with me. It was like he stole you from me before I could even admit to myself just how much I—”

“Stop!” Levi clenched into his hair. Eren’s words made his memories blend and distort, with Eren’s face, his voice, and his hands touching him, only it was not gentle at all. It was all the worst of his dark memory, and now it was Eren hurting him, beating him into submission, violating his body.

“How could I let someone who took pleasure in you live? How could I not kill him for daring to touch you, for hurting a person so precious to my heart?”

Levi collapsed to his knees, shaking as the twisted nightmares threatened to drown out Eren’s fervent words. “Stop it,” he whispered. “Please, stop.”

Eren’s head dropped. “I’m sorry. I just need to be honest with you. These are my true feelings. They’re not at all pure. They’re dark and ugly and twisted. I am eine Abscheulichkeit, an abomination, and I understand if you don’t want me around you. Don’t feel like you have to accept any of this.” He sadly muttered, “I never expected you to accept my feelings anyway.”

Levi took slow, deep breaths, working through the flashbacks. That man was dead, the injuries were healed, but memories could live on long after the event.

“I … thought about you,” Levi said, his voice weak and shaking. “When he was … doing that … I wondered, did you just have weird feelings for me, or did you want to do that with me as well. Every time…” He gulped down a shot of acid into his mouth. “Every time he raped me, that thought ran through my head. ‘Did Eren want to do this as well?’ I … I broke when I realized, if you did want sex like that, I would never be able to let you do it. Not after what he did. I don’t even know if I can love a man, but I know … I can’t ever … let a man do that to me … ever again. That thought was what finally shattered me, because I felt like it was my fault you’d never get the chance.”

Eren dropped his head. Then it was like he feared. Grützmacher stole Levi from him that night.

“I … I wanted you to come and kill him for me. I prayed to God that you would come save me.” Levi’s lips quivered. “And then, you did. You were there, and he was dead.”

Yes, but too late to save Levi from being broken. “I hope you can forgive me if I told you at the worst time possible, and if I made … all of this … even worse for you.” His face drew up in anguish. “Like I said, I make a horrible friend.”

“No, it’s … it’s fine. I told you, I already guessed about you. You weren’t exactly subtle about it.”

Eren smiled bitterly. “And here I thought I was good at hiding my feelings.”

“You’re shit at it.”

“Then it’s just like when I was a child and my friends figured out I was homosexual just by seeing how I stared at some boys.”

“Exactly. Your face is too honest.” Levi stared forward in the cold, stone room. “You better learn to hide better. I wouldn’t want you to be discovered and killed.”

“Then I guess it’s a good thing you’ll be leaving on Saturday. I can go back to focusing on being a soldier and not constantly thinking about how to escape early from a meeting so I can come here and see you.”

Levi pulled himself up and returned to the bench. When he sat down, he was much closer to Eren. “Do you … Do you think about me a lot?”

Eren looked ready to cry. “Constantly!”

Levi still shook inside from the memories of that painful humiliation. His hand trembled as it reached out, but when it fell upon Eren’s hand, he grasped tightly, as if to hold on for dear life, needing someone there next to him to pull him out of the abyss. He muttered, so quietly that the words barely made it out of his mouth, “I wish I could have experienced what it was like to be loved by a man, before I experienced what it was like to be raped by a man.”

Eren felt his heart shatter at that fragile confession. His arms began to move on instinct, but he forced them back. “Be honest if this is too much, if you don’t want it, but … may I simply hold you? I promise not to do anything weird—”

Levi did not even let him finish. He grabbed around Eren, almost tackling him back with the force. He buried his face into the uniform as his whole body shook from the nightmares and the misery of lost possibilities. He wanted to apologize to Eren for being broken, for having that happy dream of the future ripped away from him, for being weak and overpowered and so fucking helpless. He knew it was not his fault, but he still felt guilty. He would never be able to give Eren the love he deserved.

Eren wrapped Levi up into his arms, almost crushing him, as if to squeeze out all the darkness of the past. He stroked his fingers through the black hair and planted a little kiss on top of his head. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered as tears slid down his cheeks.

Minutes passed in silence with only Levi’s occasional ragged breaths breaking the peace. Eren wanted to protect him, and now that meant getting him away from here. For now, he wanted to always remember this feeling of warmth in his arms.

“I don’t want to let you go,” he confessed. “I wish I was a knight, and you could be my squire, and I’ll take you along with me into battle.”

Levi muttered into Eren’s uniform, “I’m older than you, idiot.”

“How old are you? Twenty-five? Thirty?”

“I was born in 1910.”

Eren glanced down and hummed. “You don’t look that old.”

“You look like a child.”

Eren chuckled and squeezed him closer. “Then how about I be your squire?”

Levi rolled his eyes. “I’m hardly a knight.”

“You were a captain. You outrank me.”

“That was a long time ago,” he sighed.

The French Resistance wanted him purely because of the reputation he had back when he was France’s assassin, known as La Lame Juive, the Jewish Blade. If the British Secret Intelligence Service and Deuxième Bureau wanted him back this badly, it did not take much to guess why.

The last assassination attempt on Hitler failed. They needed something less bombastic, more efficient, something that sent a clear message. What poetic justice it would be, to have the German dictator who despised Jews die on the blade of La Lame Juive.

Levi was haunted enough by his past as an assassin, the last thing he wanted was to go back to that life, but to save his people…

Eren wanted to help him to escape, but would he still be willing if he knew what Levi would be asked to do? They would definitely be enemies, and he would be actively fighting to destroy the Nazis.

Maybe Eren no longer cared, or he was willing to ignore the reality of their situation. Or maybe his feelings for Levi were stronger than his loyalty to Hitler.

As Eren quietly caressed him, Levi wondered what he was thinking about. Was it the past? The future? The dark reality of the present?

Oh well. He closed his eyes, and his shoulders loosened as he enjoyed this comfort while he could. He felt another kiss to the top of his head, and he did not mind. A smile almost lifted to his face, but it struggled there, like his muscles needed to remember how to do it. He was glad Eren could not see his face.

Eren whispered sadly, “I want to see you as often as possible. I’ll see about having you assigned as my servant.”

Levi sighed, also feeling the deep loss to come. “Promise me you’ll be safe about it.”

Eren laughed with a bittersweet smile. “None of this is safe.” He pulled Levi out a little and gazed over his face, trying to commit every detail to memory. His eyes lingered on Levi’s lips. “I know this is asking too much, but I might never get another chance. May I kiss you?”

Levi glared. “You’re right. That is asking too much.”

Eren flinched and pulled back. “I’m sorry.”

Levi wanted to stay firm on this. He could not shake the fact that this was a man. Kissing him was dangerous. However, after how kind Eren had been to him, after letting him gather food, after offering to help him to escape, and the fact that they would be separated and possibly never see one another again, he rolled his eyes and gave in.

“Fine. You may.”

“I won’t if you don’t want me to.”

“I gave you permission, didn’t I?” he snapped.

Eren pouted, not sure if Levi was doing this out of pity, out of actual interest, or at least out of some sense of curiosity. He slowly leaned closer.

“Are you sure?”

Hearing Eren constantly asking for permission, after the nightmarish forcefulness of a week ago, was the sort of soothing balm his heart needed. “Permission granted, lieutenant.”

He saw the surge of wistful hope in Eren’s eyes. Seriously, his face was way too honest. Then Eren leaned in, closed his eyes, and their lips met.

The kiss was awkward, nervous, and the arms holding him were clumsy. If Eren had closed himself off to love all these years, it meant he had not kissed someone since those childhood experiments with his friends. Levi realized, these immature kisses really were like a child just learning how to kiss.

Part of him wanted to show Eren what a real kiss was like. Another part admonished himself. A real kiss? Seriously, they could both be killed if anyone saw—but still, he did not pull away.

Levi finally realized what was so weird. Eren was merely pressing their lips together, top and bottom lips aligned, and their noses were in the way. Frustrated by the novice mistake, Levi pulled back and took Eren’s cheeks to hold him still.

“Like this, idiot.”

He forced his head to tilt sideways, and Levi aligned their mouths properly so their noses did not smash together. Now, their lips fit nicely. Eren gasped at the new experience. This was immensely better!

Levi pulled back, still looking aloof. “If you’re going to kiss someone, do it right.”

Eren burst out in a smile. Levi would only tell him this if he actually liked being kissed. He leaned in again, tilting his head this time, and gave him a stronger, fuller kiss.

Much better! Not that Levi was comfortable with the idea of a man kissing him like this, but at least they felt like real kisses. Then suddenly, Levi felt Eren’s mouth capture his lower lip and give it a soft tug.

Something shot through his body, straight down to his groin. Against his will, a small moan escaped his throat, only to be choked back.

Eren pulled away with a coy smirk. “Like that?”

Damn him for kissing so good so quickly!

Eren chuckled at the blushing scowl on Levi’s face. So cute! Not that he would ever tell him that. He tried it again, bolder now, capturing Levi’s mouth and nibbling his lower lip. He had seen soldiers kissing like this, and he wanted to try all the things he had only witnessed.

Levi now closed his eyes, succumbing to the familiarity of passion. It had been so, so long since he was kissed like this. There was a bitterness to the memories it evoked, but also a warmth from simply knowing someone felt this way for him, no matter what gender or what uniform that person wore.

Eren’s hands grew bolder, pulling Levi in closer, clawing into his shoulders, although they were still untrained and awkward movements, like he was trying to mimic what he had seen others do. Levi held still, letting him do as he pleased, although he did not return any of it. He was still unsure, but he did not mind the warm feeling it gave him. Part of him was even growing to enjoy this.

He could feel the passion in Eren’s groping hands. This was passion for him. After all the beatings, whippings, scars, losing his fertility, and enough violence for a lifetime of nightmares, he never thought any person would fall in love with him again. So while he was conflicted, it felt nice to be wanted. In a world that wanted to kill him, this man wanted to love him.

He began to relax into it, letting himself press up closer to Eren. He laid one hand on Eren’s thigh and gave it a squeeze.

“Levi…”

He shivered at Eren’s quiet moan. When was the last time someone whispered his name so tenderly?

Then suddenly Eren’s mouth aimed for Levi’s neck, giving a kiss there that almost felt like a bite. That shocked Levi, and he shoved Eren away.

“No! That … That’s enough.” He rubbed the moistness off his neck and cringed as he tried to calm himself.

“Sorry,” Eren whispered. “I guess I got a little excited.”

Levi glanced down and saw that, indeed, Eren’s uniform trousers clearly showed just how excited he was. “From just a kiss? You really are a little boy.”

“You’re not much better, old man.”

Levi hissed in shame and looked away. He did not even want to look and see how Eren had stirred him up.

With his eyes on that slight bulge that had formed in Levi’s trousers, Eren’s hand inched forward. “I could help you with—”

Levi slapped the hand back. “Don’t you fucking touch me!” After shouting it, he forced his instincts back down. This was Eren. He would never be cruel.

Eren looked down in guilt. “I’m sorry.”

Levi cursed under his breath. How could this German soldier look like a hurt puppy? It wasn’t fair! “I’m … I’m not ready for that.”

“I understand. I won’t do anything you don’t want to do.”

Eren scooted away, but now Levi felt like there was a huge distance between them. Maybe he should have left Eren with those childish kisses. It was dangerous to teach him more.

Eren pouted, worried if he had offended Levi. “Do you want me to leave, or do you want to help me more today? I promise, I won’t even touch you.”

Levi was still trying to calm his mind, but he knew one thing: he did not want to return to the dungeon. “I’ll come with you. Just give me a moment. I need to take a shit.”

“Oh! Uh, okay. You could probably use the toilet in my house.”

“If I have to walk all the way across the village first, I’ll end up constipated. Just give me a few minutes of privacy.”

“Sure. I’ll be at the top of the stairs.” Awkwardly, Eren took the basket of food and walked away.

Levi returned to the dungeon and pulled out his toilet bucket. He yanked his belt loose, dropped his trousers, but looked down at the half hard arousal.

Putain! Pourquoi doit-il être si mignon?” Fuck! Why must he be so cute?

* * *

Eren smoked another cigarette as he waited for Levi. He was taking a while, but Eren wanted to respect his privacy. After pushing his limits like that, it was the least he could do.

Finally, Levi came up the stairs, but he refused to look Eren in the face. That was probably for the best now. They had to be careful. Eren forced the basket into Levi’s hands.

Folg’ mir.” Follow me.

Levi was glad for a little more walking and fresh air. As they walked through the village, he happened to see one of the Jewish women. She looked surprised to see Levi out, but smiled when she saw whom he was following.

Eren probably did not realize just how much the whole Jewish group had come to admire him. He was practically their savior.

Eren kept his pace brisk, snapping into salute as he passed by soldiers. Levi shuffled along behind him, keeping his head down. He wondered if they were heading anywhere in particular, but soon he realized that all they had done was make a loop around the village.

“Are you on patrol?” he asked softly.

“No,” said Eren. “I just thought you’d like to walk. Do I need to go slower?”

“Maybe a little,” Levi admitted with a contrary grumble. “I haven’t been able to walk around much for a week. My legs are out of shape.”

“I figured as much. Let me know when you’re tired.”

“Can … Can I see where you buried Moses?”

Eren slowed down and glanced at him with deep pity that he knew he could not show on his face. “I’m afraid not. Because it’s outside of the village, it would be suspicious to take you out there.”

Levi frowned, but he realized Eren was right.

Eren continued, but now his eyes were narrow as he made up a plan of action. “Follow me.”

He sharply turned to the side, and Levi scrambled to follow the new direction. After a few minutes, they reached the house Eren had taken over, and the lieutenant entered with a bold declaration.

“Your commanding officer returns with a gift. Hey Thomas, are you here?”

Thomas rushed in from the kitchen. “I can already smell those onions and apples. Lieutenant, you’re the best!”

Eren motioned Levi to take the basket to the kitchen. All the soldiers who were in the house followed to see what food they got.

“Why didn’t you get more apples?” Thomas cried out.

Eren replied, “It’s barely the season, unless you want unripened fruits.” Damn, maybe he should have made sure to pick enough apples for all the Jews plus all of his men.

“Connie! Don’t you dare eat that carrot! Oh hey, these are already washed.”

Eren shrugged. “Yeah, I figured I’d have the Jew wash them while he was there.”

Franz had been picking up an onion, but he dropped it with a sneer. “The Jew washed them? Thomas, you better wash all of these again.”

Thomas retorted, “If you’re so picky, you wash them.”

Eren called out, “Arlelt, Kirschtein, I need you both. Connie, you better not eat the food. Thomas, you have permission to punish him if he does.”

“Hey!” Connie yelled. “I’m ranked higher than him.”

“Which means you should know better than to argue with an officer. Hands off the food!” He looked down to Levi and whispered in English, “Let’s go. I don’t want you to stay here for too long.” He glared toward the kitchen. “I didn’t realize Franz hated Jews so much.”

Levi shrugged. “Isn’t that normal?”

Eren hated to admit that it was. He waved Armin and Jean to follow him. Levi kept close as Eren left the house and walked briskly through the village. Armin and Jean said nothing, although they both quickly guessed where they were going when Eren began to head toward the field of wildflowers. A soldier on patrol looked startled to see the Leutnant marching by with an Unteroffizier, an Obergefreiter, and a boyishly small civilian man who kept his head down like a beaten slave. The four continued out into the field to where there was a dirt mound. Small white stones had been shaped into the letter M atop of the grave.

Armin shrugged apologetically. “Entschuldigung, aber das ist das Beste, was wir tun konnten.

Eren translated, “He said, sorry but that’s the best we could do.”

“Tell him I’m grateful.”

“I will. Stay low, and be quick. We can’t stay here long.”

Levi crouched, trying to stay under the height of the wild grasses, and immediately began to recite a Hebrew prayer.

Jean blurted out, “Was ist denn los, Jäger?” So what’s going on, Jäger?

He glanced cautiously around, and although they were far from the village, he still kept his voice to a whisper. “I need your help. I want to get the Jews out of here.”

Instantly, Armin grinned. Eren knew he would support this idea. Jean however scowled.

“You’re going to let him escape? Then why bring us?”

“Not just him. All of them.”

“That’s insane. The captain will have your head.”

“I would rather be demoted or even court-martialed than let those women be raped again. Or do you plan to first let them be raped, and then avenge their honor?”

That shut Jean up; Eren knew it would.

“I can help plan something,” Armin said eagerly. “I’ve thought of twenty-seven ways to release them without anyone knowing until it’s too late. Their bathing time down by the river is the easiest.”

“I was thinking the same thing, but this plan must also look like we were overwhelmed by an enemy force.” Eren reluctantly realized, if Krista brought any friends to help, they might honestly be outnumbered.

“We’ll be killed for this,” Jean warned. “We’ll be sent to the labor camps in their place.”

“I will take full responsibility.” Eren looked down at Levi, who was still in the middle of his prayer. “As a Christian, it’s my moral obligation to help. As a human, I cannot allow them to continue to suffer.”

Jean shook his head. “Fine, I’m in, but I don’t want to know the details. Don’t even mention it again to me. As far as anyone is concerned, I know nothing about this. I’ll simply not stop you, but you’re taking the blame, Jäger.”

“Yes, I am.” Then he felt a smile of relief melt onto his face. “Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me,” Jean warned. “I will stand by and do nothing if the captain decides to execute you for this.”

Armin chuckled. “No you won’t, because you’ll be worked into my plan on how to break him out just before the execution.”

Eren laughed. “We’ve been through so much together. I know I can trust you two if this all goes wrong.” He looked over to Levi as he rose from the grave and told him in English, “They’ll help.”

Levi bowed his head to the two men. “Merci.

Jean pointed a finger into Levi’s chest. “Sehen Sie zu, daß diese Frauen nie wieder für den Rest ihres Lebens leiden.

Eren translated, “He says, see to it that these women never suffer again for the rest of their lives.”

Levi nodded in agreement.

Jean looked angry, but satisfied. “I can’t stop thinking about how those women must have suffered for months, and we didn’t even know it was happening. There are some soldiers in the Wehrmacht who deserve a bullet to the head.”

“Save your bullets for the British. Now, we better hurry back. I’m not certain that Thomas won’t kill Connie for eating something. I have to lock the Jew back in his cell, and I have a meeting with the other officers this evening, but I’ll be back in time for dinner.”

“Be safe, Eren,” Armin warned.

They walked back to the village, and the group parted ways. Unburdened by the basket, Eren and Levi walked along the street. Eren even returned to the garden, simply strolling along the paths now. He wanted to waste time, to give Levi as much chance at fresh air and sunshine as he could.

Eren passed by a gardenia bush and picked one of the white flowers. He continued to sniff the flower as they walked along.

“Eren?” Levi whispered after almost an hour slowly circling the garden. “As nice as this is, I’m tired.”

Eren quietly turned back to the main entrance. They returned to the dungeon, and Levi dropped face-down into his pillows. What an emotionally draining day! He hated that the pillows still smelled like Moses.

Then suddenly, he smelled something floral. He raised his head to see the gardenia next to him.

“For you,” Eren said with a bashful smile.

Levi buried his face into the pillow so Eren could not see it turning red. “What idiot gives a man flowers?” He realized, he had said a similar thing when Eren gave him chocolates. “Don’t you dare treat me like a woman.”

Eren smiled to himself. “I would never give a woman flowers.” He bit his lip and looked aside. “I figured, this way, you have something nice to smell while you’re stuck down here. You can throw it away, if you want.” Eren left the cell and locked the prison door. “If … If you want anything more, let me know.”

Levi’s eyes shot up to him. What precisely was he offering? By the timid smile, it was obvious that Eren was suggesting much more than medication, food, or even flowers. Levi slumped his head back down into the bed with a groan.

Eren tried to stretch back in, but his arm was not long enough to reach Levi’s head, and he had already locked up the prison. He pulled back with a sad expression. “I’ll try to be around later.” With that, he walked out of the dungeon.

Levi listened to those heeled boots marching away. He stared ahead at the faces that constantly haunted him: Petra’s brave eyes just before she died, Moses’ look of horror as he realized that what he had done to Levi was not enough to survive, so many faces, so many deaths, so many voices ready to scream at him in the dark.

Did he have the right to find happiness after all the suffering of those around him?

He looked over to the innocent white flower. He would definitely have to hide this, not just from the guard, but from the women in his group. If they knew Eren was giving him flowers, he would never hear the end of their gossiping. For now, he picked it up and slowly inhaled.

“Idiot. Do you know what this flower means?”

Likely, Eren knew nothing about the language of flowers, but Levi did. Petra had been really into that sort of thing. She had carried a bouquet of gardenias at their wedding because of its meaning: secret love. Their love had been secret up until he married her, and then it was controversial. Similarly, this love Eren had for him had to be secret, because if anyone found out, he would be arrested or even killed.

The same flower Petra used to symbolize their socially taboo love … there was no way Eren knew about that!

“I swear, Petra, you really did send him to me. Fine! So be it. What the hell do you want me to do about it? Fall for the brat?” His eyes lowered, sad as he whispered, “I can’t. Not after that.”

Levi pressed his nose into the flower, letting it keep the nightmares away for now, as he thought about love and secrets and the unfairness of life.

# # #

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The lines Levi reads at the beginning are Proverbs 3:5-6.

בְּטַ֣ח אֶל־ יְ֭הוָה בְּכָל־ לִבֶּ֑ךָ וְאֶל־ בִּֽ֝ינָתְךָ֗ אַל־ תִּשָּׁעֵֽן׃
בְּכָל־ דְּרָכֶ֥יךָ דָעֵ֑הוּ וְ֝ה֗וּא יְיַשֵּׁ֥ר אֹֽרְחֹתֶֽיךָ׃

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and on your own understanding do not lean. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”

If you would like to hear it being read in Hebrew, I recommend this video:

It’ll be clarified later, but Levi was not raised in a religious environment and did not learn how to read Hebrew until after his wife died. He knew how to speak Yiddish, but he honestly had no interest in religion or his heritage until the Nazis wanted him dead because of it.

yad

using a yad to read the Torah” – Yad is Hebrew for “hand.” It is a pointer shaped like a tiny hand with one finger out, used to help read the Torah without touching it. A Sefer Torah (Torah scroll) is traditionally written on vellum. Whereas pulp paper will start to turn yellow and crumble after a few decades, real calfskin vellum (not that synthetic stuff in art supply stores) has been known to last 800 years if properly cared for. However, vellum does not absorb ink like paper does, so a finger swiping across it can eventually wear off the letters. A brand new, handwritten Sefer Torah can take 18 months to create and cost $50,000 USD. In order to stop the inadvertent destruction of scrolls, the Sadducees decreed that touching the vellum of a Sefer Torah makes one ritually impure. Thus, rabbis began to use a pointer, and by the time of the Ancient Greeks, the same pointing-finger design still used today was being crafted. One would also never touch the yad to a very old scroll, since even that much can eventually damage the parchment. Touching a machine-printed Chumash or Tanakh is okay, since those are deemed non-kosher. Levi is just very strict about fingerprints in books. (I am 100% with him on that one! I once loaned a few books to my dad, who is a diesel mechanic, and they came back with black, oily finger smudges all over. I almost cried.)

NYC 1944
(46th and Broadway, New York City, 1944)

Biggest city in the world – In 1925, New York City surpassed London as the most populous city in the world. It was also the first city in history to have 10 million people. Above is a colored photo of New York City in 1944, when this story takes place.

potager

Potager – a French term for an ornamental kitchen garden. Potagers are geometrical with the vegetables planted in patterns or groups, rather than in rows, often with flowers, fruits, herbs and ornamental hedges. The idea is to make something not only useful for the family, but a work of art.

manor

The castle/château – Anyone who has read my novels (Daughters of Ashby and Dodatrad Heiress) knows that I have an obsession with medieval culture, including castle architecture, something my husband keeps taming down. “Normal people don’t know what’s a barbican or machicolation, dear.” So I tried to keep my medieval mind tamed and only casually described the castle. The most common medieval castle was simply a tower or keep, where the nobleman or châtelaine lived, often with a wall built around it for protection. The keep might have as little as one massive room, where the lord slept, ate, and entertained guests, or many rooms: a bedchamber, kitchen, dining area, throne room, ballroom, solarium, garderobe (toilets); as well as multiple buildings near the main keep: barracks for soldiers, stables for horses, an armory, chapel, library, and a dungeon. The richer you were, the more additions you could afford on your castle. Later, as castles became less defensive and more a status symbol, many nobles began to build palaces and country houses, sometimes using ancient designs like turrets, crenelations, moats, and barbicans; more often, they had none of the military aspects that we generally associate with a castle, and were basically just big-ass houses. The French call all of these “château,” but in English that word has a more specific meaning of a mansion, country house, or manor; it is not used for defensive structures, or castles. The castle/château in this story is a blend of the two, a remnant of a medieval watchtower with the newer, more modern and comfortable mansion next to it. The picture above is Tracy House, a 16th century manor, but with the little section on the side that looks a bit different, that was basically how I imagined this French “castle” to look like. Honestly, it would be even smaller than this. It was a small village, after all.

Nazis were anti-smoking – I had thought Eren being a chain smoker worked to place this in the 1940s, but I was corrected. The Third Reich had an anti-smoking public health campaign, prompted by German research in 1939 and the world’s first epidemiological, case-control study, which showed a link between tobacco smoking and lung cancer. The Reich sought to produce fit and healthy soldiers, and to “preserve the racial health of the Volk.” Hitler himself banned any smoking in his presence, never drank hard liquor (he occasionally sipped wine), and in 1942 he claimed he was a strict vegetarian, using graphic descriptions of animal cruelty to dissuade anyone he was dining with from consuming meat. Although he tried to promote his anti-smoking, teetotaling, vegan lifestyle throughout the country, it was never enforced. So while Germans had begun to think of smoking as unhealthy, plenty of people (like Eren) continued to smoke despite knowing the dangers.

gardenia

Gardenias – In the Victorian Age language of flowers, gardenias mean “secret love” or to tell a person “you’re adorable.” Because of their white color, they also represent the purity of one’s feelings. They are common flowers in wedding bouquets.

Chapter Text

The next day, Levi rejoined his fellow Jews, being forced out of the prison before sunrise, hit to walk faster if the person in front of him was too slow, beaten for not working harder, slaving away in the rain on a nearly-empty stomach, given only a bowl of watery soup late at night, and then shoved back down into the dungeon for a few hours of sleep.

Levi bravely put up with the cruel bullying. He heard plenty of sneers and got kicked more than once. As much as he knew he could have killed these soldiers, for the sake of his companions, he just clenched his jaw and dealt with it. If Krista was right, he would be out of this any day now, and these Germans would hopefully all die at the hands of the incoming Allies.

Only, he hoped some of them survived.

Armin rescued him from bullies once, smiling kindly to him and asking in broken French if he was okay. Another time, a group of soldiers started to gang around Levi, pushing him to and fro. Just as Levi was truly losing his patience and ready to lash out, Jean stomped up, shouted at the soldiers to get back to their posts, and quietly told Levi “Fais gaffe, idiot.” Watch out, idiot.

During this time, Levi did not see Eren. He hoped the young lieutenant was smart enough to kiss that bug-eyed captain’s ass, anything to not be on his bad side when it was reported that Eren lost all sixteen Jews.

Upon returning to his cell after that first rough day back, drenched to the bone and exhausted, Levi collapsed onto his cot, only to hurt his head as it landed on something hard. He reached under his pillow, where he found another gardenia flower (slightly crushed now) and a carrot. All the other Jews were astonished by the miraculous appearance of more food. Levi smiled to himself, knowing this was once again Eren doing whatever he could to help them out. They had to eat long after lights-out so no one heard the sounds of them biting into crisp vegetables, but it was some solid food to fill their stomachs.

That night, Levi went to sleep with the gardenia still under his pillow, filling his nose with a pleasant scent and calming his dreams into fantasies of gardens.

As he worked, Levi listened to the chatter around the village, trying to hear any news of the war. Brussels, Kortenberg, and Leuven were freed by the British. Chalon-sur-Saône was liberated by the French. Canada freed the ports of Dieppe and Saint-Valery-en-Caux. The Polish liberated Ypres. Finland severed their relations with Germany and agreed to a ceasefire with the Soviet Union. As the Allies began to sweep over France, leaders of the Vichy Régime fled to Germany.

The Axis was rapidly losing ground to the Allies. While the news was good for him as a Frenchman, he knew it was putting the Germans into a panic. As a Jew, that meant his survival was getting more and more precarious with every passing day.

* * *

It was late when Eren came back into the house he had commandeered for the closest members of his platoon. He tossed off his peaked cap, shook out his rain-drenched coat, and gave a long, exhausted sigh. Officer meetings with Kitz Woermann were becoming unbearable.

“I seriously need beer!”

Most of his men were already asleep for the night, and he wished he could join them. First, alcohol. Beer, wine, something, anything.

He saw Armin with a map spread out on the kitchen table. He had his field radio next to him with his headphones on, and set up near the table was a huge new antenna, something he had been building during his free time. Eren had seen Armin working on it for weeks, slowly trading with the locals for bits of wire and metal parts.

“Anything interesting?”

Armin did not even look up from his map, his face pinched with concentration. With those headphones on, Eren wondered if he could even hear him. As Eren walked by, Armin put a hand on his ear, pressed the headphones closer to make out whatever he was hearing, adjusted a knob on the radio, closed his eyes to hear better, and then made a mark on his map with a few notes scribbled down.

Eren ignored him, searched around the kitchen, and found a bottle of wine. Always wine here! He could not wait to have a huge stein of Lagerbier, Dunkles, Pils, Weißbier, at this point he would take any sort of beer! He poured the wine into a metal cup and took a sip, only to flinch. Too sweet!

He wondered if Levi would like this sort of wine. Maybe he could sneak a bottle and share it with him.

Their plan to release the Jews on Saturday was ready. Armin said he met with Krista and two other French women named Sasha and Ymir, and he gave them his ideas. Although Krista had to work as a translator between German and French, they made what would be a foolproof plan. Eren might still be forced to take responsibility, but as an officer, he was determined to accept that burden.

He had been busy, but he wanted to see Levi again, to say goodbye to him … privately! They would not have the opportunity on Saturday, and he wanted to kiss Levi one last time.

His kisses were sweeter than any French wine.

“Eren?”

Armin’s voice was quiet and a little shaky. Eren saw how he looked at the map, like staring at a picture of a ghost.

He pushed aside private fantasies and walked over. “What’s wrong?”

“Have you seen the latest maps of the front?”

“Yes, just now in the officer’s meeting. Hauptmann Woermann was raving because Leutnant Schultz’s platoon was on patrol, and a few of his men thought they saw dust clouds to the east that could have been an army, but no one went to check on it. Woermann declared the entire platoon should be shot. It took both me and Oberleutnant Dietrich to calm him down.”

“To the east?” Armin said, growing more nervous. “Earlier today, I went to headquarters and copied the lines on the main map, where the Western Front is now. Leutnant Schultz was there, and he let me see the latest intel from Berlin.”

Eren muttered into his cup of wine, “Probably trying to figure out what his men saw.”

Armin pointed to one set of lines drawn on his map. “We’re here,” he said, his finger resting on a spot in northern France near the Belgian border, a village so small, it was not even marked with a name. “According to the map at headquarters, the Allies are at least seventy kilometers south.” He pointed to a line he had drawn earlier with the date on the side. “However, this afternoon I pulled out the field radio to test out my new antenna.”

“What even is that?” asked Eren, looking at the pole with parallel metal bars. Armin constantly surprised him with his hidden genius.

“A Yagi-Uda antenna. The Japanese invented it. I saw a Funkenwagen in Paris that had this sort of antenna, and I talked to the Nachrichtentruppe controlling it. Basically, it directs the radio waves to one direction, rather than spreading out like a rock tossed into a pond, so you can reach a farther distance.”

“You saw it once, and you built it from scratch?”

“That’s not the point!” Armin said in frustration. “I decided to test out the range by pointing the antenna to Sedan. That’s fifty kilometers away and should be right at the end of my range for a small antenna like this.”

“You call that small?” Eren said. The total size of the antenna was bigger than their kitchen table, although it was mostly just thin poles.

“I figured, if we have to leave and head to Metz, we’d take the road through Sedan.”

“Right,” Eren said, sipping more wine. He recalled driving through the city of Sedan back in May, on his way to this village.

Armin looked up into Eren’s face. “I heard only English, no German at all. I thought maybe the signal was skipping, overshooting the city. Then I heard one American say the word Sedan. I couldn’t make out precisely what he said, but like he was already in the city of Sedan. I thought that couldn’t be right, so I pointed the antenna north, toward Givet, just twenty kilometers away. Same, only English radio chatter. No matter where I point it, it’s the same.”

“Maybe your antenna is broken.”

“You don’t get it!” he cried out. “If I made this antenna perfectly, the best my range would be is fifty kilometers. The closest Americans are supposed to be seventy kilometers to the south, yet I’m hearing English all around us. Then I finally caught something, very faint and in only Morse code, but it was German. Verdun is under Allied control. There’s fighting in Libramont. The Americans are almost in Luxembourg.” Armin was shaking now as his finger pointed to a line on the map. “This, to the best of my ability, is the real Western Front.”

Eren gazed at the map. He trusted Armin’s sharp mind, his communications expertise, and his ability to ascertain the layout of an area based on just lines on a map. If he was right…

…they were completely surrounded by enemy troops, bypassed by some stroke of luck by the bulk of the American Army, and now deep within enemy territory.

“Armin, that’s impossible.”

“I know. Why were we not informed of the enemy’s movements? How did they not already overwhelm us? Not today, or yesterday, but days ago!”

“You need to double check this.”

“I don’t have the authority to use the phone at headquarters, and if we transmit anything over radio waves, the Allies could pick it up and tell that we’re German. Schultz insisted his information came from Berlin, but I don’t see how that is possible. How could they be that wrong about the enemy’s position?” He paused, and his pale eyes slowly widened. “He was getting it over the telephone. That connects to a switchboard. Someone is intercepting our phone calls, rerouting it. But why do that to a small company? Why go through the trouble of feeding us fake reports if not to attack us by surprise? Why move troops dozens of kilometers around us, and not straight at us?”

Eren glared at the map. None of this made sense, but there was a bigger problem. “Let’s say this is true. How do we get out?”

“I would need accurate reports. Precisely where are the enemy forces? Are there any gaps? There has to be, considering our entire village was bypassed without a sign of an army.”

“No, there was a sign,” Eren muttered, thinking about the officer’s meeting. “Schultz’s platoon, the dust clouds to the east. That was probably the American army going right past us, and neither side bothered to inspect.” Eren finished off his wine. “Come with me, and bring your radio, antenna, and map. The captain needs to be informed of this at once.”

“This late? He may be asleep.”

“And we may be surrounded by Americans before morning. Hurry. If anyone can plan an escape route, it’s you.”

* * *

It did not take much to convince Kitz that Armin was right. The mysterious troop movement that morning had him suspicious of their intel already. He ordered for all officers to come to headquarters immediately. Leutnant Gunther Schultz had obviously already been asleep, his hair messy, blinking his eyes and slapping his face to wake up. Oberleutnant Ian Dietrich looked just as strict as always, his chiseled cheekbones appearing like they had never learned how to laugh.

Armin showed them his homemade antenna, briefly explained how it worked, and let them hear that there was only English chatter around them. With a range of fifty kilometers, the fact that they heard only English was proof enough that the intelligence supposedly coming from Berlin was wrong.

Ian Dietrich tried the phone again, putting in a call to Berlin and requesting an update of the nearest Allied troop position. When a reply came back in flawless German that American troops were still seventy kilometers to the south, Armin silently shook his head.

His radio could not reach that far. Definitely, the telephone switchboard had been tampered with. Someone, some enemy, was feeding them false reports.

The next question was, how could they get real information? The village was so small, the only civilian telephone had been in the castle, and they were already using the phone line it had been hooked up to. The only other communication devices they had were the platoon radios. Armin’s homemade antenna gave it five times the normal range, and he could only barely receive faint German Morse code. If they were to transmit a radio signal, the Germans would likely not even hear them, and they would be broadcasting their dilemma to everyone in the region. The Americans would realize they overlooked an entire company of Germans, and they would come back to capture them.

Radio communication was out.

Driving to Metz was loud and their vehicles were all obviously German-built. Eren suggested riding on horseback—he had done a lot of riding in his youth—but that would take hours, even at a gallop, and a horse would tire out before it reached Metz.

Then Armin recalled seeing a telegraph machine in the post office. It had been the village’s main way to communicate to the outside world. The postmaster was an elderly man the villagers called “Dot” after the dot-and-dash of Morse code. The German officers all agreed, while not ideal, at least a telegram could reach Metz securely. There was one problem.

Dot spoke only French.

“Jäger,” Kitz barked. “Get that filthy Jewish translator here. We only kept him alive for his mouth, so let’s put him to work.”

“Right away, captain!” said Eren.

He rushed through the dark to a storage room in the castle where the keys were locked away for the night. Rather than take the whole heavy keyring, Eren pulled off just Levi’s key and headed to the dungeon. He had to light a lamp to go down the pitch-black staircase, and he could hear snoring inside the cavernous dungeon.

He stepped inside the room and saw that all the Jews were asleep. He tried to walk softly, not wanting to bother them, and crept over to Levi’s cell. He was sound asleep. Eren paused, smiling at Levi’s peacefully resting face. He so often had that scowl that pinched his brows, but now he looked relaxed, peaceful, defenseless. Then Eren saw the gardenia he had left behind. It was right next to Levi’s pillow, his nose almost touching the silky white petals. Eren was glad to see that the flower gave Levi some comfort.

Eren reached his hand in and caressed Levi’s hair. It was oily—he had not bathed since Saturday and it was almost Friday—but it was still smooth, not a single gray hair, despite how old he claimed to be. Eren yearned to just sit there and watch Levi sleeping, like he had watched him sleep during his struggle with pneumonia.

Levi suddenly bolted awake. He reached under his pillow, pulled out a partially eaten carrot, and wielded it like a knife. He blinked hard, trying to wake himself.

“Sorry,” Eren whispered. He looked at what was in Levi’s hand. “Is that … a carrot?”

Takhshet,” Levi sighed, his instincts to attack calming down.

“You’re needed to translate for us.”

He sneered. “Merde! Translating, at this hour? I have to wake up before dawn, you know.”

“It’s an emergency.” Not waiting to argue, Eren unlocked the door and pulled it back. “Please hurry.”

Levi shoved the carrot back under the pillow and followed. The prisoner in the cell next to him, a studious-looking man with a trimmed beard, woke up and fumbled for his glasses so he could see what was happening.

“Levi?”

Tout va bien, Abel. Rendors-toi.” Everything’s fine, Abel. Go back to sleep.

Not wanting to wake up his companions, Levi followed Eren silently. They headed to where the Germans had set up a small headquarters, with the captain’s office, a giant map, and a phone line that only officers were allowed to use. The room was bustling, lights all turned on against the midnight darkness. The voices Levi heard were tense, edged with desperation and anger. Eren had also been a bit curt to him, his stride a little faster than normal. Levi wanted to ask what was going on, but the German captain was busy shouting at Eren. Suddenly, they all turned and filed out of the room, marching through the dark, damp streets with just oil lamps and flashlights to light their way through the rain.

Eren kept his voice low for Levi. “We need you to speak to a man in town with a telegraph. We want to send a message to Metz.”

“Telegraph? You have a phone.”

Eren’s face was grim. “The switchboard has been compromised. We can’t get a secure message out. We have only field radios, and at our best they only reach Sedan.”

“That’s all you’d need, right?” Levi paused. “Was Sedan liberated?”

“Overrun!” he insisted. Saying liberated made it sound like Germans had enslaved France, although perhaps that was partly true. “We hear only English chatter in the surrounding region, but our telephone calls to Berlin all insist the Americans are seventy kilometers to the south. ” He glanced down at Levi. “That’s why we need something the enemy hopefully did not consider, and some civilian’s old telegraph is our best option. We need to know if he has a line to Metz.”

Levi nodded, getting an understanding of the situation. They reached the post office, with the living quarters of the postmaster perched on the second floor. Kitz stomped up to the door and pounded hard. A light upstairs turned on, they heard footsteps coming down a staircase, and a bald man with a gray mustache dressed in a striped nightgown answered the door. Eren guided Levi forward and told him in English what the captain was yelling in German.

Levi told the old man, “Ces sales boches veulent savoir si tu peux envoyer un télégramme à Metz.” These filthy Krauts want to know if you can send a telegram to Metz.

Oui, évidemment! Mon télégraphe peut envoyer des messages d’Amsterdam à Marseille. J’avais l’habitude de pouvoir dire «et de Francfort à Calais», mais ces lignes ont été détruites par des bombes il y a quatre ans.” Yes, of course. My telegraph can send messages from Amsterdam to Marseille. I used to be able to say ‘and from Frankfurt to Calais’, but those lines got severed by bombs four years ago.

Levi turned to Eren and told him in English, “Yeah, he can reach Metz.”

In turn, Eren told Kitz, who instantly barged inside, shoving Dot aside while demanding that he get to work. Levi helped Dot to set up the telegraph equipment. Eren watched Levi as he seemed to know precisely what he was doing.

“You can use a telegraph?” he asked.

Levi’s sleep-deprived eyes turned over to him. “It was part of my job.”

Ah, that made sense. Levi mostly worked solo jobs as an assassin, so he had to know how to set up his own communications.

Kitz was yelling more things, and Eren told Levi, “He says, he doesn’t trust a Frenchman to send the message, plus it should be in German. He wants Armin to send it. He’s my platoon’s communications man. He knows Morse code.”

Levi turned to Dot. “Ces sales boches ne te font pas confiance. L’enfant-soldat là-bas veut utiliser ton télégraphe.” These filthy Krauts don’t trust you. The tiny soldier over there wants to use your telegraph.

Dot shrugged. “Allez-y, mais ne le cassez pas.” Go ahead, just don’t break it.

Levi turned back to Eren. “Yeah, go ahead. Break it and he will shoot you in the face.”

Eren chuckled softly. “I know he didn’t say that.”

As Armin sat at the telegraph station and began to tap out a message, Dot waved to Levi.

Viens! J’ai du vin.” Come! I have wine.

Levi turned to Eren. “May I wait in the kitchen?”

“I don’t want you out of my sight.”

“I’m wet, I’m cold, and he’s offering me wine.”

“Oh!” He looked at the friendly smile on the old man. Just an hour ago, he had thought how much he would like to share a bottle of wine with Levi. Even if he was not the one able to offer it, he at least wanted Levi to enjoy a drink. “I guess that’s fine,” he muttered, a little sad it could not be him offering. “Just don’t leave the house.”

“I won’t.”

He followed Dot up the stairs to the living area of the post office. There was a small kitchen. Dot tossed Levi a dish towel to wipe the rain off. Then he pulled out a bottle and two wineglasses. He poured out equal portions of deep red wine and set the bottle on the table.

“Feel free to help yourself. À votre santé!” he said in cheers, clicking his wineglass to Levi’s.

Levi took a sip and let the sweetness wash over his tongue. These Germans would never fully appreciate the complexity of a good French wine.

“I’ve seen them drag you around town, translating for them. Many residents here really wish we could do something to help you Jews. I want you to know that.”

“I’m alive. That’s what counts,” Levi muttered. “If it were up to me, I’d slit all of their throats and get out of here.” He paused, thinking about Eren. “Well, most of them.”

Dot smiled knowingly. “That lieutenant sure seems fond of you. He almost looked jealous that I was offering you wine. Looked sad too, like he wished he had thought of it first.”

Putain,” Levi muttered into his wineglass. Seriously, if even this old man could tell that much about Eren, it was a miracle all the Germans had not figured it out.

“Yes indeed, I hear he’s quite fond of you. Isn’t that right, Krista?”

Levi had been about to take another sip of wine when he said that name. He turned around, and in the kitchen doorway he saw golden hair and bright blue eyes.

“What are you doing here?” he whispered in surprise.

Dot chuckled as he finished off his wineglass. “Oh, she’s been living with me this summer, helping a poor old man run errands around town. This house is a refuge, you know.”

A refuge. A safehouse!

“Were you the one tampering with the Germans’ switchboard?”

Krista stepped forward, wrapped in a house robe. “Tampering? What’s this about? Is that why there are Germans here this late at night?”

Levi told her, “What little I gathered, someone hijacked their telephone switchboard and has been feeding them false reports.”

“False reports?” Krista said sharply.

Dot looked over at her. “Sasha was going off the German reports. If they’re wrong…”

Krista asked Levi, “What exactly was incorrect?”

“Troop movements. It sounds like the Americans are closer to this village than the Germans thought. Much closer.”

Dot whispered to Krista, “Go downstairs, listen in if you can, but be careful. They’re rather high-strung tonight.”

She tiptoed down the stairs to peep into the main postal room, playing the interested but bashful young maiden peeking in on German soldiers with a confused innocence as to why they were in her house.

Dot hummed as he refilled the two glass, even though Levi was not even halfway down. “She’s really enamored with you.”

Levi glared over at Dot. “Pardon?”

“I blame Sasha,” he said, smiling distantly into his wineglass. “Her father worked with you back in the day. Not me, a bit past my time, but Monsieur Braus filled up his little girl’s head with a glamorous fantasy of what our job was like. Sasha in turn told those stories to little Krista. I think they both see you as a war hero.”

Levi rolled his eyes. “I’m nothing of the sort.”

“We always think the worst of ourselves, given what we must do.”

“We?” Levi asked, but Dot merely had an enigmatic smile. Levi held back a tiny laugh. “You sneaky old bastard. How in the world did you slip past the Germans this whole time?”

“Whatever do you mean? The Germans are the ones who came and interrupted my retirement. I’m just a simple postmaster. The mail must be delivered, after all.”

“And you happen to have the only telegraph in town, perfect for feeding information to others.”

“If I’m paid to send a message, I’m obligated to send it.”

“Surely the Germans check what telegrams are coming into the village.”

“Of course. You’ve probably been forced to translate a few of them. Sunny day in Verdun. The grapes are growing plump. My dog has fleas.

Levi raised his glass to his lips and muttered, “All in code.”

“A simple one. This would never fly past the Gestapo, but luckily the men in this German company are not that cunning.”

Another young woman with kempt brown hair came into the kitchen with a sleepy, upset scowl. “Dot, what’s going on? Why are there soldiers in the house? And are you drinking again?” she asked, sounding more upset about the wine than the Germans. “Who’s this?” she asked, as if just now noticing Levi.

The old man smiled at her. “Anka, my love, you should join us.”

“I’m not your love, I’m married to your nephew, and a man your age should not drink so much. I’d rather not spend my days changing your diapers.”

Dot ignored her scolding. “Levi, meet Anka Rheinberger.”

Levi muttered, “That’s a German name if ever I heard one.”

She sniffed haughtily. “My husband is from Liechtenstein, actually.”

Dot shrugged. “What can I say, my sister married a Liechtensteiner. Little Anka here runs the house more than I do these days.”

“Because you’re an old drunk,” she snapped. Anka tipped her head in greeting to Levi. “Are you the captain the girls talk about?”

Levi dropped his voice. “Don’t ever refer to me as that.”

Dot chuckled. “Bring Gustav in here. We’ll make it a party.”

“Sir, really, you shouldn’t drink—”

“Anka,” he cut in, and Dot kept his friendly smile while his eyes shined with cold calculation. “Bring Gustav in here. We’ll have a party with our guest.”

She stiffened like a general had just given her a direct order. “Yes, sir.” She hurried back toward the bedrooms.

Dot chuckled to himself after she was gone and indulged in more wine, as if to spite her nagging. “I’m getting jealous. All these women are so enamored by you. Sasha and Krista in particular are determined to save you.”

Levi scoffed. “They sure are taking their sweet time about it.”

“You know how it is. Some missions require a lot of planning, setting things up because so much can go wrong. The Germans have been known to massacre whole villages for far less than what we plan to do. Like Oradour-sur-Glane.”

“Where’s that?”

“Little commune far to the south, near Limoges. I doubt if anyone outside of Haute-Vienne had ever heard of it before. The whole village was wiped out earlier this summer just because it was rumored that a kidnapped Waffen-SS officer was seen there. If these Germans knew we were working with a Heer officer to help sixteen Jews escape?” He took a sip of his wine. “Yes sir, that’s definitely something we want to plan with utmost care. It’s why I haven’t even told anyone outside of this village about the plan. Probably should’ve, in hindsight. If I had, maybe someone would have told me that the Germans were getting hoodwinked.” He looked over to Levi. “You know, you didn’t make it any easier on those girls. Krista told us your ultimatum. Everyone makes it out alive, or you will refuse to return to the Bureau. Personally, I’m surprised a retired spy would even think about going back. I agreed to house these girls and send telegrams for them because I happened to already be here. I enjoy my retirement, and I plan to keep enjoying it.”

Levi stared into the red color of the wine and whispered, “I wish I could have enjoyed it.”

“How long were you out?”

Levi took a sip and stared at the rain dripping down the kitchen window. “I left the Bureau in 1937. Three years later, I was running for my life. I didn’t even think that returning to the Bureau was possible. I heard it was dissolved.”

“It basically has been. Everything’s run from England now. You worked with the British, right? Sasha said her father had stories about that too, something about Poland and the SIS.”

“Ah, Poland,” Levi muttered. “Shitty mission. The only thing good about it was the city of Warsaw.”

“They say it’s the Paris of the East.”

“Paris is a steaming pile of shit. Warsaw is a cut and polished gem.”

“Is that so? Then it really is a shame what’s happening there.”

Levi looked over in concern. “What’s going on?”

“There’s been an uprising for the past month. Whole districts of the city are being flattened.”

“I don’t want to know more,” Levi growled. “Every time I hear news about the war, it’s some small piece of European history being crushed by these fascist bastards.”

“And that’s why there are anti-fascists like us, not just here in France, but all across Europe.” Just then, Anka returned with a tall young man. “Ah! Gustav, my boy, come in, come in.”

Levi sipped his wine as the three talked, half of it obviously in code: tomatoes and butterflies could not be that interesting. After a few minutes, Krista came back upstairs and joined in on the discussion.

Levi sat back with his wine, watching the four, and said to himself, “These Krauts have no clue whose house they walked into tonight.”

“Who, me?” Dot said with a good-natured chuckled. “I’m just some worn-out old veteran of the Great War with a knack for communications.”

“Right,” Levi muttered wryly.

It was almost three hours and a couple more bottles of wine opened on the table before Eren came up the stairs. As he walked into the kitchen, he rubbed his eyes like he had just woken up from a nap.

“There you are.”

Dot looked happily flushed as he hailed him over. “Bonsoir lieutenant. Voulez-vous du vin?

Levi translated, “The old drunk wants to know if you want some wine.”

Eren smiled pleasantly at him. “Non, merci.” Then he looked worried at the opened bottles. “How much have you had to drink?”

“Me, three glasses. Him,” Levi said, thumbing over to Dot, “practically a bottle to himself. Gotta respect an old man who can drink like that.”

“Well, we’re done here. We finally got a message back from Metz: ‘Problem eliminated, try phone now.’ We’re heading back to headquarters. Please thank the postmaster for us.”

“Why thank him?” Levi grumbled. “Do you think he had a choice in letting you in here? You woke up his whole family in the middle of the night and barged in. Your captain would have shot him if he tried to refuse, right?” He shook his head. “Fuck it all, at least I got some wine out of this.” He emptied his wineglass and set it on the table. Then he stood and bowed to the family. “Merci pour le vin. Je te verrai peut-être plus tard.” Thanks for the wine. Perhaps I’ll see you later.

Dot raised his glass in salute as Levi headed to the staircase. “Bonsoir…” He paused and muttered into his glass with a hidden smile, “… La Lame Juive.

Levi froze at that name, the nickname he had been given by the SIS and Deuxième Bureau: The Jewish Blade. A little stiffer, he continued down the stairs.

Eren looked over to Dot, ready to thank him with what little French he knew, only to see Anka, Gustav, and Krista standing around behind him.

“Krista!” he cried out. “Wohnen Sie hier? Ist das Ihre Familie?” Do you live here? Is this your family?

She gave him a playful smile. “Mon cher lieutenant, je ne parle pas allemand.” My dear lieutenant, I can’t speak German.

Eren held back a chuckle. “Ach so. Na dann … merci et … um … bonsoir.” I see. Well then, thanks and good night. With a tip of his peaked cap, he turned and followed Levi down the stairs, where the other Germans were already leaving.

Krista took a few bold steps forward. “Ah! Lieutenant!”

Eren paused and turned around, but Krista waited until all the Germans were out of the post office before whispering.

Sind wir in Sicherheit? Sind die Juden in Gefahr?” Are we safe? Are the Jews at risk?

Eren sighed and shook his head. “Ich weiß es noch nicht.” I don’t know yet.

From the front door, Ian Dietrich shouted out to him, “Jäger, wir gehen.” Let’s go.

He dropped his voice quieter to Krista. “Ich muss gehen. Ihr alle, seid vorsichtig.” I must go. All of you, be careful.

Eren hesitated, struggling with internal conflicts. He knew, somewhere deep in his heart, who these people were. His company had come here to flush out and capture anyone involved in the French Resistance. They had been told that the town was teeming with Resistance fighters, yet after the fighting ended, the only person they caught was Annie Leonhart. The Germans had assumed the rest of the Resistance ran away.

They hadn’t! They had still been here the whole time.

The proper thing to do was to arrest them, interrogate them, and find out just how many more in town were opposed to the German occupiers. For all they knew, these people had helped in sabotaging their communications, except Krista looked genuinely confused and worried by all this.

They did not have time to interrogate anyone, though. The Germans needed to leave as soon as possible, and they may have to fight their way out of enemy territory. There were no nearby trains to ship these people to an internment camp, and there was no way Captain Woermann would risk the lives of soldiers by bringing partisans along with them to Metz just so they could be properly imprisoned. Like with Annie, they would simply be shot.

The proper thing was to fully carry out their mission of purging every last member of the French Resistance from the village. Yet as Eren looked into Krista’s huge, blue eyes, he knew he could not kill her.

Vielleicht ... holen Sie sich Ihre Freunde.” Maybe, get your friends.

Yes, they were likely all with the French Resistance, but what did that matter anymore? If they could help get the Jews out of the village, if they could save Levi’s life, that was all that mattered.

Eren turned sharply. His orders had been to kill people like this. He knew he was going against direct orders.

Not like he ever completely followed what Nazis wanted of him.

They made their way back, and the rain was starting to lessen. Levi followed close beside Eren. “What was all that about?”

“It’s nothing. She was worried, that’s all.”

They continued toward headquarters. Captain Woermann shouted back at Eren, who saluted and changed direction. Levi followed as he headed toward the dungeon. Eren paused once he was inside the castle foyer and shook the rain off his coat. He also handed Levi a handkerchief to dry off a little. Then they continued on to the wing with the older parts of the castle, and reached the stone staircase down to the dungeon.

“I take it you’re done with me,” he said as they went down the stairs.

“We only needed you to translate to the postmaster.”

“So what happens now?”

“I don’t know,” Eren admitted in a whisper. “We need to figure out what’s going on, why we were being fed false information, what the real information is, and plan what to do from there. Worst case: we’re already surrounded and have no choice but to surrender. Best case: the Allies have no idea we’re here and we can sneak out. More than likely, we’ll have to fight between here and Metz.”

They reached the bottom of the staircase, and Levi paused as the truth dawned on him with a wave of sadness. “You’re leaving in the morning either way.”

Eren’s voice was quiet and cold. “Probably.”

Levi heard something, like a sneer or a sob or both, emotions trying to be suppressed and failing. Suddenly, Eren grabbed Levi’s arm and dragged him down the hall to the armory. Levi tripped after him. He wanted to yell at Eren to be more careful, but the lamplight showed the raging desperation in the soldier’s tense face.

Eren burst into the dark armory, yanked Levi inside, and slammed the door shut behind him. Then, without any warning, he pushed Levi up against the wall and attacked his mouth with frenzied passion. Levi barely had time to register what was going on before lips sealed shut any attempts at protest. Not that he wanted to tell the young lieutenant to stop!

“I don’t want to lose you.”

Eren kissed him again, roughly as emotions poured out. As shocked as Levi was by the kisses, what really stunned him was the sight of tears tumbling down Eren’s cheeks. The arms that wrapped around Levi shook with grief.

“I don’t want to lose you. I don’t want to lose you!

He kept repeating that as his throat choked up with sobs and the pain made his kisses savage and frantic. Levi slowly lifted his hand, hesitated, but kept lifting it to Eren’s head. He stroked the back of his neck and the hairs that stuck out from the bottom of the cap, wanting to comfort the young man as the unbearable grief of separation poured out through those kisses.

Takhshet,” he sighed.

Eren kept giving him kisses, like he had to do it over and over to make up for all the time they would be separated in the future. It took a couple of minutes before he calmed down and pulled back, his chest heaving, his nose red, gazing at Levi with bloodshot eyes and blotchy cheeks. Levi frowned in sympathy as he saw the face wracked with intense misery. He reached up and gently wiped away the wet streaks that glistened on Eren’s cheeks.

“I’m not worthy of your tears.”

Eren snuffled and caressed his fingers through Levi’s hair. He had always loved the softness of his hair. “You’re worth everything to me. A few tears are nothing.”

He pulled Levi in, hugging him and resting his cheek on top of his head. Calmer now, he stroked his hand slowly down Levi’s back, wanting to remember the shape of him, the warmth, everything!

“Sorry,” he whispered, his emotions drained out. “I didn’t ask for your permission before kissing you.”

“Idiot. If I had hated it, I would have kicked your arse.”

“Then, did you like it?” Eren asked with a little hopefulness.

Levi pouted and grumbled, “I didn’t mind, that’s all.”

Hearing that made Eren smile. “I’ll make it back down here before we go, I promise.”

“I might be gone before then.”

“Oh,” he whispered. “I guess that’s true.” Eren realized, Krista and the other members of the Resistance might come to free the Jews before morning. Then this really was goodbye.

Levi pulled back out of the smothering embrace and gazed up at Eren. He still felt conflicted, but he seemed to be making up his mind about something.

“I want to give you a farewell gift.”

“A gift?” Eren asked in surprise. He knew the Jews had next to nothing of value. “No, you don’t have to.”

“For all you’ve done for me, it’s the least I can do.”

“No, Levi, really—”

“Shut up, takhshet.” He grabbed Eren’s chin. “And hold still.”

“What—”

Levi stretched his face up and gave Eren a soft, lingering kiss. Eren was stunned at first. This was only the second time that Levi willingly kissed him back. Whereas last time, Levi had coldly been instructing Eren on how to kiss correctly, this kiss was different. There was emotion in it, if only the anguish of a last goodbye. It also lingered long enough for Eren to relax into it and close his eyes, imprinting in his mind this warm sensation of actually being kissed by Levi.

Then, much to his surprise, he felt Levi’s tongue on his lips. Eren pulled back in shock, only to see those narrow eyes glinting mischievously.

“Don’t tell me you’ve never kissed like that before.”

Eren felt bashful and nervous as he shook his head.

“You really are a child. Do you even know what that is called?”

Zungenkuss. Tongue kiss.”

“What a sloppy word for it.” He leaned in close to Eren. “Do you want to know the English word?”

Eren felt his heart racing. “Yes,” he breathed.

“It’s called … French kissing.”

“French?” he asked in shock.

“Maybe the English learned it from the French.” He traced a finger over Eren’s lips. “Or maybe we French kiss the best.”

“I believe it,” Eren moaned, really wanting to be kissed more, and like that.

Levi smiled at that enthralled face. “Quel enfant!” What a baby! “For everything you’ve done for me up to this point, the least I can do is show you a real kiss.”

Eren gasped as Levi grabbed both of his cheeks, surged forward, and thrust his tongue between his lips. Eren surrendered to the invasion. It was nothing like the chaste kisses he had experienced up until then. Those childish imitations of adults, merely pressing lips together, were nothing compared to a lustful kiss given by a man who had experienced life’s carnal passions.

Eren realized, this also meant Levi reciprocated his feelings, at least a little. He did not see it as disgusting, sinful, or evil.

Eren grabbed him back, trying it in return, his tongue pressing in until he could taste the sweetness of the wine. He embraced Levi, his whole body wanting to be closer, to feel all the warmth in his skin. The soft, electric sparks of their tongues meeting filled his chest with fire.

Levi let him indulge. Maybe it was the wine, maybe it was the knowledge that they were about to be separated, or maybe—just maybe—he was beginning to fall for this man. Whatever the reason, he wanted to kiss him, not just be kissed by him.

Levi suddenly grabbed Eren, spun him around, and slammed him up against the door so hard he knocked his army cap off. Then he surged in, kissing him with intense passion. He combed his fingers through Eren’s hair, pulling it with desperation until he heard a growl edged with pain.

This, at least, was definitely the wine. His head was light with a liquid fire burning in his veins. He grabbed the Heer uniform, like he wanted to rip it off of Eren’s body, but instead his hands rubbed up and down his chest, pushing him firmer against the door as his tongue completely dominated the soldier.

Eren let out a soft, quavering moan as his mouth was invaded in a blitzkrieg of passion. He wrapped his arms around Levi, grabbed his ass, and yanked his hips in closer with a fervent thrust.

A bulge pressed up against Levi, and the foreign sensation shocked him out of the wine-tinged kiss. His hands shot out, pushing himself away. Poor Eren was a disheveled mess, slumped against the door, his hair sticking out, his lips swollen red and wet, his cheeks flushed bright, his uniform rumpled, with a pronounced tenting in his gray trousers.

“You’re getting a little excited down there.”

Eren laughed awkwardly. “I blame the French and your kisses.”

“Don’t blame German aggression on the French.”

“You were being the aggressive one this time,” Eren countered. He chuckled, feeling giddy just knowing Levi had kissed him like that. “You give one hell of a gift.”

“Yeah, well, Jews don’t like to be in debt.”

Eren hummed and closed his eyes as his body still thrummed. “I think you repaid with interest.”

Levi smiled quietly to himself. “I guess you could say that.”

It took a moment for Eren to realize what he meant just then. He had meant interest as in repaying a loan. Levi had twisted that word into its other meaning.

He had kissed like that because he had an interest in Eren!

He felt his cheeks warming up all over again, this time with bashfulness. Maybe Levi was right; he was acting like such a little boy, smitten and demure. Eren could hardly help himself, though. After all, this was his first time being in love.

They both took a moment to calm down their breathing and their hormones. Eren shifted his trousers and straightened his uniform. He picked up his cap, dusted it off, smoothed back his tangled hair, and tugged the cap back on.

Levi blinked out the haze of the wine. It had been so long since he had anything alcoholic, he probably should not have let Dot keep refilling his glass. It was a miracle he had not gotten outright drunk.

Still, not all of that could be blamed on wine.

“Hey, Eren.”

He finished straightening his cap and hummed in question.

Levi weighed his words carefully before whispering, “Find me in New York.”

Eren was momentarily confused, but then he gasped. Although brusque and quiet, that was a declaration. If they both made it out of here, they would hook up again, and this time…

… this time, Levi was willing to return his affection.

“I will,” Eren swore loyally.

As much as he wanted to kiss Levi again, he also wanted that final kiss to linger on his lips. That had been Levi’s kiss, a kiss of pure passion and not the sadness of separation. He wanted that to be what he remembered.

No other words felt right. They knew what had to happen next. Levi opened the armory door and stepped down the dark hallway, feeling the coolness of the subterranean air on his flushed cheeks. Eren took the lamp and followed him into the dungeon, keeping quiet while the others slept. He waited until Levi stepped into his cell, then shut the door as quietly as possible and locked it. As his hand began to pull away with the key, fingers clasped over him.

Levi’s eyes burned brightly in the wavering lamplight, and Eren hoped he never forgot that look of silent longing.

Then Levi’s fingers loosened, and he pulled back. He had to let Eren go. He had a war to fight, and in the end, they stood on opposite sides of the battlefield. Still, this moment would remain, where French and German, Jew and Aryan, none of that mattered.

Eren looked like he wanted to say goodbye, but he could not bring himself to speak the words. Instead, he turned sharply and marched out, leaving Levi to gaze into the darkness and offer a prayer that Eren would be safe.

Eren went up the stairs and shook his head. Why could he not say goodbye? Why could he not at least tell Levi “I love you”? In the end, no words felt right, so he fled. He regretted it, but he also felt that last promise to one another was the best way to end things.

He could continue to fight with all the ferocity he would need to make it through the war, if he knew Levi was waiting for him to return.

He went through the dark corridors to the storage room where they kept the prison keyring locked away. He had just opened up the room when Armin came running through the castle hallway.

“Eren, hurry! We got through to Berlin, for real this time. The captain wants you in the room now.”

Eren did not even bother shutting the door. He began to hurry behind Armin, knowing time was of the essence. He realized the key was still in his hand. He did not want to chance losing it, so he pulled out his silver necklace, strung the key through it, and tucked it away inside his uniform. He rushed after Armin, asking about what happened while he was gone.

As the lamp moved away and darkness swallowed up the castle corridor, a tiny shadow slipped around a corner. Krista had followed Eren in order to discover which room had the keys to the dungeon. It was pure luck that he got called away before locking the door again. Creeping softly, she slipped through the opened door, grabbed the keyring, wrapped it in a handkerchief to silence the clunky keys, and tucked them into a small purse. Then she slipped out again and quietly shut the door so no one would realize Eren had left it open.

Anka had come with her and was still hiding around a corner. Krista sneaked over to join her.

“That was quite some luck,” said Anka.

“I planned to ask him to give me the keys. He probably would have. This is even better. Then he won’t get in trouble.” She patted the purse. “We have what we came to get. Now we need to make a plan.”

“Dot left to get Sasha; Gustav is chasing down Ymir.”

“Chasing?”

“You know she can’t easily come inside the village. The Germans would kill a Romani woman like her.”

“Yes, sadly,” she sighed. “Then let’s get back to Dot’s place and prepare the safehouse. We’re going to have a lot of guests coming over for breakfast.”

# # #

# #

#

4 officers

The Officers – I stated early on, the company was made up of three platoons and “barely a hundred men.” Later, Reiner and Schmidt arrived with Waffen-SS platoons, but they left for the Normandy Coast. So there are currently four officers in the company: Hauptmann Kitz Woermann, Oberleutnant Ian Dietrich, Leutnant Gunther Schultz, and Leutnant Eren Jäger. (I was aiming for the most Germanic-sounding names in the manga.)

German beer

Lagerbier, Dunkles, Pils, Weißbier – All German names for types of beer: lager, dark lager, pilsner, and wheat beer. I can be a bit of a beer snob. Give me a beer that is a meal by itself and coats my tongue in rich boozy goodness, not some weak swill that feels like a hipster pissing into my mouth!

Schirmmütze

German officer’s cap – The Schirmmütze, or peaked cap, was part of the dress uniform in the Wehrmacht. Pictured above is as close as I can get to Eren’s rank and unit. It had an oval wool crown stiffened with wire, a semi-rigid band, and a stiff black visor. Enlisted men wore the cap with a black leather strap, officers wore a pair of braided silver cords, and generals had gold cords. The cords worked as a chin strap on windy days to hold your hat on. (Eren should probably keep the chin strap down when Levi kisses him!) Around the top of the cap was Waffenfarbe, or “corps colors,” distinguishing corps or troop functions in the armed services. In this case, the white trim is for the infantry. Insignia consisted of the national cockade surrounded by an oakleaf wreath on the front of the band, with the Wehrmachtsadler, or Heeres eagle, above; these were an embroidered patch or stamped aluminum pin. Eren’s cap has a pin. (THAT IS IMPORTANT FOR LATER!)


(Hollywood inspired by Oradour-sur-Glane)

Oradour-sur-Glane was the site of an infamous massacre. After the Resistance kidnapped a Waffen-SS officer, a member of the Vichy Régime claimed to have seen him in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane. A German battalion surrounded the village. Without saying why they were there, they forced the men into barns and gathered the women and children into the church. They shot the men in the legs, doused them with fuel, and set the barns on fire. Then they threw an incendiary into the church to start a fire and barred the doors. When the women and children tried to escape through the windows, the Germans mowed them down with machine guns and grenades. The unholy massacre inspired the church-burning scene in Mel Gibson’s The Patriot, shown above. (For the record, the British never burned any churches during the American Revolution, but the visceral imagery inspired the director.) In an act of instant karma, or perhaps godly smiting, that same German battalion was massacred days later at the Battle of Normandy.

Wehrmacht field radio, 1940

Armin’s Radio – Germany used many forms of communication during the war, including telegraph, radio, and telephones. Armin is the platoon’s communications guy and has a Torn.Fu.d2, a field radio that could be carried as a backpack. With a normal whip antenna, it can transmit up to 10 km for Morse code but only 3 km for voice, which is fine for battle but not great when your company is stuck in the middle of nowhere without adequate communications gear and the Allies have hijacked your phone’s switchboard.

Yagi-Uda antenna

Yagi-Uda Antenna – Invented in Japan in 1926, it found many uses in war for communication, radar, and was a common sight for the Nachrichtentruppe (Signal Corps). A Yagi-Uda is also commonly called a beam antenna, because it directs a signal into a beam rather than spread out in all directions. They are super easy to make, so Armin definitely could have made one from some spare parts. You can even make a DIY Yagi-Uda antenna out of paperclips and popsicle sticks that will boost your WiFi and Bluetooth range. My husband is a HAM radio operator, and he pointed out that my idea of Armin “pointing his radio at Sedan” only works if he makes a Yagi-Uda antenna. He also gave me the idea of using a telegraph to reach Metz, so I owe all the technical aspects of this chapter to him. I recorded my husband explaining how beam antennas work. So you can hear his sexy deep voice … and just how annoying my cat is. (Seriously, she would not shut up because he stopped petting her while talking to me.)

telegraph key

Telegraphs – Although the phone had been invented, telegraphs were still used to communicate swiftly over long distances. Whereas radio was insecure and a letter would take days and cannot travel through a blockade, telegrams were instant. Think of it as “19th century texting.” By the 1940s, telegraph wires connected most cities and towns, and dozens of telegraph lines had been laid across the Atlantic sea floor. Whereas many small villages might not have a single phone, they would probably have a telegraph station. Field radios also used telegraph keys to send messages farther than what voice could travel, so it was common for soldiers, then and now, to be taught Morse code. To this day, HAM radio operators can use Morse code to communicate with basically anyone in the world in a series of dots and dashes. You don’t need high tech computers, internet connection, or even that much electricity, and with wireless telegraphs you can communicate with just your paperclip and popsicle sticks antenna! When my husband told me that a secure way to talk to Metz might be an old telegraph station, I knew right away who would run it: Dot Pyxis! Dots and dashes.

- ⋅⋅⋅⋅ ⋅- -⋅ -⋅-    -⋅-- --- ⋅⋅-    ⋅⋅-⋅ --- ⋅-⋅    ⋅-⋅ ⋅ ⋅- -⋅⋅ ⋅⋅ -⋅ --⋅

Historical Side Note: One of the most creative acts of Nazi resistance to come out of a POW camp involved Morse code. Major Alexis Casdagli, a British POW, cross-stitched what seemed to be a simple design. The canvas reads: “This work was done by Major A.T. Casdagli. No. 3311. While in captivity at Dossel-Warburg Germany. December 1941.” It was decorated with the British lion, the Russian hammer and sickle, the Nazi swastika, and the German Reichsadler (imperial eagle, from their coat of arms). The prison guards were so impressed by the craftsmanship, they hung it up on the wall of the camp, never realizing the defiant message against the Führer hidden in the design. The piece contains two borders around the national symbols with a seemingly random splattering of dots and dashes. This was actually Morse code. The inner border reads “God Save the King,” and the outer border, repeated over and over in Morse code, is “Fuck Hitler.”

Some heroes don’t wear capes; they wield sewing needles!

Casdagli's Message

⋅⋅-⋅ ⋅⋅- -⋅-⋅ -⋅- (FUCK) ⋅⋅⋅⋅ ⋅⋅ - ⋅-⋅⋅ ⋅ ⋅-⋅ (HITLER)

Chapter Text

sasha

That morning, no one came for the Jews. As they all woke up—not jolted awake by German shouting, but slowly coming out of dreams—they wondered what was going on. Why was it so quiet? Had the Germans left town? Was another battle about to start? What happened if no one came down there to free them?

In his cell in the pitch darkness, Levi sat quietly, staring forward, holding the gardenia in his hands. He had stayed awake, thinking Krista and the others would get them at any moment. Instead, hours passed.

What happened after Eren left? Was he okay? Was he already gone? Oh God, had anyone seen them kiss?

A whisper came from the cell next to him. “Levi, what was last night about?” asked Abel.

He thought about telling them, but he knew it was complicated. With the hours it was taking for any action, he had no idea if he should get their hopes up.

“The Nazis wanted me to talk to the postmaster, that’s all.”

“In the middle of the night?” Abel asked in surprise and a little suspicion.

Levi knew Abel was the smartest person in their group. His mind worked a little too fast for his own good sometimes, and he could figure out everything with even a tiny bit of information. So rather than mention the telegraph or even attempt to lie to him, Levi simply kept quiet. Since it was too dark to see, he put the gardenia up to his nose, closed his eyes, and hoped Eren was okay.

As time dragged on, the Jews began to seriously worry. What were they supposed to do if the village was destroyed or abandoned? A few of the more cautious Jews still had portions of their carrots leftover to eat as breakfast, but what about the rest? How long before they starved?

Levi began to seriously worry. The Resistance should have made a move by now, but what if they got caught? Last night, the Germans were in a frenzied confusion. Kitz Woermann was unpredictable even on a good day. What would he do when the company under his command faced a serious threat?

Amidst the confusion, they heard footsteps. Everyone froze. These were not stomping military boots, but light steps, women’s shoes. Then a glow from an oil lamp poured in, and a small woman rounded the corner, golden hair and a pale dress, wearing a white hooded cloak against a dusting of rain that made her whole body sparkle like an angel.

Levi leaped up at seeing her. “Krista! About time.”

“I know, I’m sorry,” she said, hurrying in with three other women. “Ymir, the keys.”

Levi glanced at the women. He recognized Anka from last night, and he remembered getting bread from Sasha, who was now dressed in all black with a rifle in her hands, standing guard just outside the door, keeping her gaze up the staircase. Another tan-skinned woman with freckles had a keyring.

“We need to hurry,” Sasha warned.

Ymir went up to Levi’s cell and said in a flippant tone, “Alrighty, Captain Tiny, let’s find which one opens your door.” She began to cycle through the keys, testing one, then another.

Sasha signaled Anka to take over the watch, and she stepped into the middle of the room. “Listen up, everyone. I’m sure you know by now, we had planned to free all of you tomorrow on your trip to the river. There’s been a change of plans. The Germans are leaving town … now!

Gasps of fear fluttered all through the dungeon.

A fifteen-year-old girl named Ruth ran up to the bars of her cell. “Get us out of here! Please, get us out.”

“Calm down, and keep quiet. We’ll do what we can. Ymir?”

The tan woman sneered. “The keys aren’t marked. I’m trying them as fast as I can.”

Levi remained calm. “Are they gone yet?”

Sasha shook her head. “No, they’re having an assembly. Even before the sun was up, there was increased activity around the castle, no way we could have sneaked ourselves in, let alone get any of you out. We were forced to wait until now before we could enter.”

In the cell next to Levi, Abel had his studious glasses on, and he sneered in anger mixed with fear. “How could you not know when they were leaving?”

Sasha pouted in self-reproach before answering. “We were going off the intelligence the Germans had received. That information was incorrect, so now we’re both left scrambling.”

Ymir scoffed as she tried various keys on Levi’s door. “Yeah, filthy Krauts ruined our plan.”

Sasha went on, “We have only until Captain Woermann finishes his speech. Let us hope he’s as long-winded as usual.”

“Then what about us?” asked Abel.

Krista explained more. “We came up with another plan last night.”

From the doorway, Anka protested, “For the record, I was guilt-tripped into this.”

Krista tried to smile reassuringly, although it was obviously strained with guilt. “We’ll get out as many of you as we can.”

“As many as you can?” Abel sneered, smart enough to keep his voice low, which was better than others who began to shout, only to have Sasha harshly shush them. “Then how will you decide who gets released and who gets left behind?”

Ymir shook the keys at all of them. “How about, whoever can tell me which key goes to which cell, you get out first, yeah?”

Levi insisted, “Get the women first.”

“No offense, Captain Ackerman,” said Sasha, “but we need to get you out first so you can help us get the rest of these people to the safehouse and to deal with any problems as quietly as possible. After all, with your expertise in infiltration and assassination, you’re the best suited person for the job.”

“Captain Ackerman? Assassination?” Abel looked over at the man in the cell next to him as if he was suddenly a stranger. “Levi, what is she talking about? Just who are you?”

Ymir barked out a laugh. “You guys really don’t know, do you? Not sayin’ I blame Captain Tiny for hiding all that from you. A desperate enough person might honestly believe Nazis would let them go if they sold out a member of the Deuxième Bureau.”

“Deuxième Bureau?” all the Jews in the dungeon cried out together.

Levi flinched. “Fuck! Seriously, keep it down, you idiots.” He glared at Ymir. “And you! If you call me Captain Tiny again, I will slit your throat.”

Abel looked perplexed. “Is that why you used to go by the name Rivaille, and why you know how to fight so well, and does that have anything to do with why you left in the middle of the night? Have you been spying on the Germans this whole time?”

“Obviously not,” Levi snapped. “I got trapped in this shitty village the same as the rest of you.”

“But you’re with the Deuxième Bureau! Surely, you could have gotten out at any time.”

“And left all of you to get yourselves killed?” Levi scoffed and shook his head. “Like hell I’d do that.”

In her cell, Ruth smiled kindly. “You stayed for us?”

Levi mumbled, “Don’t overthink it.”

Ymir growled at the ring of thick metal prison keys. “Fuck! I’ve gone through the whole thing. Why can’t these be marked?”

Levi glanced at the keyring, and his shoulders sank in cold dread. “You can’t release me.”

“Of course we can,” Krista cried out. “We need you, Captain.”

“No, I mean … you can’t. I count only fifteen keys on that ring, and there are sixteen of us. Eren Jäger must still have mine from earlier. That brat!”

Krista gasped and looked over to Anka, astonished and horrified.

The brunette sighed and shook her head. “I knew I saw something in his hand last night.”

Sasha slammed her eyes shut. “We don’t have time for this. Krista, run to Eren Jäger.” The girl instantly took off. “Ymir, open as many cells as you can.”

“Women first!” shouted Levi.

“Fine. Focus on the women’s cells first. We’ll get people out in groups of four. Anka, you lead them to the safehouse.”

“Me?” she cried out in horror.

“Well, obviously we can’t use him,” she snapped, pointing sharply at Levi. Sasha’s eyes turned to the small Jewish man. “I had planned to rely rather heavily on your skills, Captain. Now we’ve wasted many precious minutes.”

“Trust me,” Levi grumbled, “I’m not thrilled to know I can’t get the hell out of here. At least I don’t have to hold myself hostage just so you’ll get the women out first.”

Ymir chuckled as she was finally able to open one cell and swiftly moved to the next. “Hostage? With what, a carrot?”

“He can,” Sasha warned. “My father told me about a situation in Helsinki. They were disarmed, so Captain Ackerman stabbed a man through the eye socket with a carrot.”

Ymir laughed, “Seriously? Bad-ass!”

She got another door open, and Ruth ran out, taking shelter next to Anka. The brunette looked stunned that the small teen was hanging onto her dress like a scared child. Uncertainly, she patted the girl’s head.

“It’ll be all right. Refuge is nearby.”

Levi sighed and sank back onto his cot. “Yiddisher mazel.” Yiddish luck was all bad luck!

Still, he fully believed that Eren would come with his key. At the very least, he was glad he would get to see him one last time. Those kisses last night … Levi barely understood why he had kissed Eren like that. What was running through his head? He almost wished he could blame it purely on the wine, yet he knew it had been something more. Even now, after the wine was all pissed out, he wanted to kiss Eren like that, just one last time, a true final farewell, and to see if he still felt that fire in his chest now that his head was fully clear. Once he was on a ship to America, he would have plenty of time to think about if he honestly wanted a relationship with a man.

While Ymir worked on opening the cells, Sasha walked over to Levi. “I’m sorry about this.”

“All missions are unpredictable. We Jews have a saying: Mann tracht on gott lacht. Man plans and God laughs.”

“Ain’t that the truth!” Sasha looked down at her rifle. “The Germans must have been deliberately fed false reports, but no one informed me about it.”

“Probably for the same reason Dot did not want to tell anyone about your plan to free us. The fewer people who know about a secret mission, the less likely the enemy will learn about it.”

“When it was just the Resistance, we were all on the same page. If we planned to blow up a train depot, or set fire to a building, all Resistance members in the area knew ahead of time, so no one would be caught in the destruction. Now there’s chaos with communication, all these stubborn generals from various countries, each too egotistical to listen to one another. Even the French army doesn’t care about the Resistance anymore. Bastards,” she grumbled.

Ymir got two more cells open. “That’s four. Get the hell out of here, ladies.”

Anka waved them forward. “Don’t say a word, and walk as quietly as you can. Be ready to make a run for it.” Then she left with the group.

Ymir grinned as she moved on to another cell. “Alrighty, do you happen to know which of these damn keys opens your cell?”

“I know,” a teen boy down the way shouted. “I know precisely which one opens mine.”

“No, me first,” the man in front of her yelled in desperation, reaching through the bars and trying to grab the keys out of her hands.

Ymir jumped back. “Whoa, do that and I’ll get you last!”

Levi kept his voice low as he spoke with Sasha. “I hope Dot got out of town. As soon as the Germans find us gone, they’ll suspect he had something to do with it.”

“Yes, he and Gustav left right after setting up the new safehouse.”

“He told me, you’ve been working on this plan for weeks.”

“Months,” she admitted, still chagrined that all that planning could so easily be upended. “As soon as I knew you were the Captain Levi Ackerman, I’ve been trying to figure out how to get you out of here without putting Dot and the rest of the villagers in danger.”

The Captain?” he said with a disgusted sneer. “You make it sound like I’m famous.”

Sasha laughed. “You are. My father had many stories about you. Agent Braus. Does the name ring a bell?”

“Yes, I remember him. Good man. Is he still alive?”

“He left to London with the rest of the Deuxième Bureau. I got so mad at him when he left, and we all stayed behind to fight. It took me four years, but I finally realized, he’s been fighting every day as well. Knowing I was still here gave him something to fight for.”

Levi glanced at the gardenia still in his hand. “Yes, sometimes you need a good reason to fight.”

“Now he wants me to give all this up. ‘Thanks for risking your life for the past four years while I ran away to England, now you should settle down, start a family, be a good little housewife, and leave the rest to the men-folk.’ I told him what I thought of that idea, in language I had to go to confession for,” she admitted with a chuckle. “Then I told him, there was no way I could stop this operation without freeing you, Captain Ackerman.”

“So, is this your last mission?”

She shook her head. “I plan to continue helping my countrymen until either France is liberated, or until they kill me.” She stood tall with a sad smile. “It would have been an honor to have worked with you, Captain.”

Levi looked at the white flower. Then he opened the cover of the Tanakh, threw the flower between the pages, and slammed the book down. His eyes turned up at her with a fighting glare.

“We’re not out of this yet. A mission isn’t over until you give up hope, and I, for one, have never given up on fighting for my survival. So don’t talk about dying. It’ll bring misfortune.”

Ymir opened another door. “All right, we got another four. It’s gonna take Anka some time to get those women to the safehouse. What do we do?”

Sasha firmed up under Levi’s confident gaze. “Right! Ymir, give me the keys. You take these four. I’ll get the rest of the doors open. Hopefully either Anka or Krista will be back by then.” She smiled at Levi. “Maybe I’ll get to fight with you after all, Captain Ackerman.”

* * *

Eren got very little sleep last night, besides a brief nap at the postmaster’s house. After finally getting through on the phone to Berlin, when they asked for the location of troops, they found that Armin had been completely accurate in his deduction. The American army had already marched right past them, and some divisions were as far as sixty miles east.

Oberleutnant Ian Dietrich spent half the night on the phone, with Kitz bellowing in the background as Ian plugged his ear to hear the voice on the receiver. Kitz insisted Berlin told him to remain on standby. Berlin insisted they had been given orders to leave a week ago, and Metz should be expecting them. Metz insisted Berlin never even mentioned them. The newly assigned General of the Armored Corps was still en route to France from the Eastern Front, so he was not available. All around, it was chaos with one lingering question which had no answer.

Why did someone go through so much trouble, hacking the communication between Berlin, Metz, and their company, just to have them abandoned in northern France and not outright attacked?

As the cloudy eastern horizon turned a sickly gray-green from the coming dawn, a new map was drawn, as detailed as they could possibly get it. The officers poured over it, but Eren brought Armin over to study the map. The captain shouted why a mere Obergefreiter was even still there, but Ian Dietrich and Gunther Schultz both encouraged him to take a look. They knew, sometimes the most brilliant tactician in a platoon was not the commanding officer, but the drafted soldier.

Armin took one look and immediately began to plot a detailed path, weaving the entire company between American troops, traveling on small forest roads through the Ardennes. Luckily, most of their company had traveled on foot or by horse, with only a few trucks for artillery and supplies. This would be to their advantage now, making them less noisy and able to sneak along narrow roads. The biggest danger was just how fast the Americans were traveling. They would need a scouting party up ahead of the main column, just in case the Allies suddenly shifted directions and moved into their way. Eren immediately volunteered to ride ahead.

Once they had a route planned, Kitz called the entire company to assemble for the announcement. First, he made it clear to all the officers, under no circumstances were they to tell anyone that their communications had been tampered with. Then, despite a light misting of September rain, he stood before the soldiers and gave a rousing speech.

“Germans grew lazy in France,” Kitz shouted, as if it was their fault the Allies invaded Normandy. “We had enough troops to control France, but we were not prepared to actually defend it. Since those Jew-loving swine landed, German troops have been slowly retreating. We keep falling back, falling back, retreat or surrender, over and over, all across France. No more!” he bellowed. “By Herr Hitler’s own decree, the remaining troops on the Western Front are to gather in the city of Metz, where four and a half divisions are digging their heels in. Fifty thousand Wehrmacht troops, all ready to fight for the Fatherland! Our company shall join this glorious battle. It will be one history books shall remember. We are privileged to fight for Germany’s glory! Heil Hitler!

As one, the whole company snapped their arms up in salute. “Heil Hitler!”

“The Americans move fast, like a cockroach, so we must move faster. We will be leaving immediately, riding with full haste to our waiting brothers. We must stand as a mighty wall and stop those Jew-lovers if the German people are to survive. Der Mann kann fallen, die Fahne nie!” The man can fall, the flag cannot!

“Think of those back home. Think of your mother, your sister, the girl you kissed goodbye. If we cannot stop the Allies here and now, they will all be raped and murdered. Fight for them! Fight for Hitler! Fight for all of Germany!” His arm shot out again, with his eyes bulging out of their shadowy sinkholes in patriotic fervor. “Sieg Heil!

Sieg Heil!” they all cheered.

He yelled again, “Sieg Heil!

They screamed back in growing excitement, “Sieg Heil!

Sieg Heil!

Sieg Heil!

By the third shout, the crowd erupted into a wild roar, ready to battle the entire Allied army. Kitz stared out proudly, and he said with quiet devotion, “Süß und ehrenvoll ist es, für das Vaterland zu sterben.” How sweet and honorable it is, to die for the Fatherland.

The German national anthem, Deutschlandlied, started up in one corner, and soon everyone was singing it proudly, followed immediately by the Nazi Party anthem, Horst-Wessel-Lied. There was a renewed zeal in the soldiers, glad to join the fight again, and this time fighting alongside a real army in a grand battle, not just a small company holding down a tiny village. This was the sort of glory many of them wanted, the life of a warrior that their ancient ancestors thought would get them into Valhalla.

The group began to break up, with shouts from the officers to hurry. Eren tried to turn and rush off, worried about the Jews, but there were over a hundred other Germans in his way. He heard some of his platoon talking.

“I can’t wait to fight again,” Connie said excitedly.

Jean scoffed. “Are you eager to have people shoot at you?”

“I’m eager for anything after sitting around drinking wine for months. I really thought they forgot about us.”

Armin looked awkward. He had also been warned not to tell anyone that they had their communications hacked. It was not so much that they had been forgotten, as someone purposely wanted to leave them behind. “It was an important place to defend,” he said. “This village was key to the French Resistance. That’s no longer as much of an issue now that we lost Paris.”

“We’ll get it back,” Jean said confidently. “We’ll get all of France back.”

Eren tried to shoulder his way past them. “I need to get by.”

Jean at least tried to move out of the way, but there were still too many soldiers around for Eren to break out of the throng.

Thomas gave a long sigh. “Finally, we’ll be in a city where everyone speaks German, the food is German, the beer is German, the women are German.”

Franz looked over in surprise. “German? I thought Metz was part of France.”

Jean shook his head. “France took Metz from us after the Great War. That’s why Germany annexed it back, because it was ours to begin with.”

Armin schooled, “That is historically debatable. Technically, Metz was its own Republic until medieval German princes illegally ceded it to France, then Germany annexed it after the Franco-Prussian War—”

“Yeah, because it never should have belonged to France in the first place. Have you ever been there? Ever seen the German Gate? I have. It’s called German Gate for a reason, because it’s a German city. So forget whatever it technically was a hundred years ago, it’s German. I have relatives living there and around Elsaß-Lothringen.” Jean hummed and rubbed his chin. “I wonder if my aunt is still alive. I wouldn’t mind getting a nice home-cooked meal.”

Thomas looked offended. “What’s wrong with my meals?”

“They’re seasoned rations, that’s what!” Jean looked down as Eren was still trying to edge by. “Are you okay, Jäger? Gotta take a shit?”

“I need … I have something to do.”

Armin seemed to suddenly realize what he meant. “Oh, right! We, uh … have something to do. Right, Jean?”

Jean folded his arms and looked away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Jean!” Armin cried out.

Just then, a small woman in all white weaved between the soldiers, who moved aside and chuckled lewdly as she passed, eying how her running showed off her legs. Krista finally came right up to Eren, slipped in the rain-dampened street, and landed in his arms. He grabbed hold of her before she fell.

“Krista!”

“Eren,” Krista said, looking frantic but fearful to speak too much.

Eren nodded sternly, guessing she was here to get his help with the Jews. He called out to his men, “I’ll be along soon.”

Connie smirked. “Don’t take too long.”

Thomas also chuckled. “Then again, don’t make it too quick. That roast take a while to cook.”

Armin hid a small laugh and shook his head. They were so mistaken, yet he could say nothing.

Eren’s mind was so flustered, he did not realize what they were hinting at. “I may be a while.”

Franz teased, “Yeah, yeah, say goodbye properly and leave her in good hope.”

The others snorted laughs at that, but Eren still did not catch on.

“Right. Jean, you’re in charge. Get everyone packed, and prepare the horses to go. See if we can get a truck.” Then he followed Krista out.

The others watched, and once the lieutenant was gone, they burst into laughter.

“That sly Jäger finally got himself a girl!” Connie cried out. “About time.”

“I hope he gives her some thing to remember him by,” Thomas added a wink to show what he meant.

“And a reason to come back to her,” said Connie. “At least for child support payments, if not make her into a proper German wife.”

Good hope, indeed!” Franz said with a grin.

They laughed that, at last, their commanding officer broke his apparent celibacy. Only Armin and Jean glanced warily between each other.

“We should help,” Armin insisted in a whisper.

“No,” Jean said, glaring as Eren and Krista broke into a run together. “If he’s going to risk it, too many numbers will endanger the mission. I need to make sure the platoon is ready to go so Jäger doesn’t get in trouble when he comes back. If he comes back.” He muttered under his breath, “God be with him.”

Armin hated not being there to help, but he had to agree with Jean. Some missions were best done solo.

# # #

# #

#

weather map
(the actual precipitation map of Europe on 8 September 1944)

Up until now, I’ve been basing the weather on old soldier diaries. If a soldier mentioned it was raining, I made a note in my timeline that it was raining that day. However, these were all English-speaking Allies, who might be 50 km away from the Germans, and maybe the weather was different. Then I found a really amazing meteorological website. You can put in any date, and it shows the radar weather report of Europe for that day. So whereas before, I had to hope some American or British soldier wrote about the weather, now I’m going through my timeline and jotting down when it’s rainy or sunny. What’s amazing is that I guessed Eren got pneumonia because it had been raining hard for a few days, and during that time (June 12-20, 1944) it actually was raining hard for eight days straight. My timeline had down that Levi goes to care for Eren on the 21st. Dang, that’s kismet! So here is the weather report for northern France on September 8, 1944: light drizzle but heavier rain as they head east.

Wehrmacht Feldfernsprecher FF33 field telephone
(WWII hand-cranked field phone)

stubborn generals from various countries” – Sasha brings up a huge problem in the Western Front, where British, French, American, Canadian, and Polish armies were all racing across France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, sometimes bumping into one another and accidentally bombing each other due to a lack of communication. There were strong opinions, egos, and prejudices between the various countries. Many American divisions outright refused to be under a British commander. The French military mutinied against the Americans and left to go help the civilians fighting in Paris. American General George S. Patton and British Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery were notoriously antagonistic of one another, with a rivalry that was headline news during the war, and these two proud, sometimes egocentric military leaders created a massive obstacle in coordinating the Allies. It took Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had both military genius and political shrewdness, to finally shape up all the various countries and form a cohesive force. Even then, Patton was openly critical of Montgomery’s slow-and-steady approach, which sometimes allowed the enemy to regroup, and Montgomery was openly critical of Patton’s “bust in through the front door” approach, which cost the Americans more in fatalities.

(Meanwhile, Canada’s sitting there like, “Hey everyone, we took Juno Beach during D-Day, penetrated into German lines farther than either British or Americans that first day, liberated Caen and La Havre, cleared the west bank of the Rhine of German troops, enabled the first Allied convoy to arrive in Antwerp, and, you know … kinda freed the entire country of the Netherlands. Then we realized there was a famine going on, so we gave all our rations and blankets to Dutch children, and got permission from the Germans to air-drop food to starving civilians in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and the Hague, even though that was technically enemy territory at the time. Just didn’t want anyone to forget we were there too, eh. Sorry.”)

Captain Tiny – Originally, I had a bunch of cute French slang for Ymir to use, giving her a carefree attitude. However, considering they are supposed to be speaking purely in French here, the random French slang amidst English was weird. Ymir originally kept calling Levi “petite capitaine,” so I translated that to Captain Tiny for some comedic element. (I love Ymir!)

Der Mann kann fallen, die Fahne nie – “The man can fall, the flag cannot” was a Nazi slogan. One of Hitler’s more controversial military orders was his belief that there was no such thing as a tactical retreat. From the beginning of the war, he often ordered that troops stand their ground, even if it meant a wholesale slaughter. Many of his generals purposely ignored this command, but as the Allies surged through Europe in 1944-45, Hitler began to insist that surrender and retreat were akin to treason. Especially as the Americans pushed into France far quicker than anyone anticipated (and faster than their fuel supplies could accommodate) Germany realized the Westwall was out of shape, and warfare technology had rapidly advanced. If they wanted to hold the Allies back from a full invasion, they needed to upgrade the defenses at the border, and so Hitler once again turned to the idea of standing one’s ground, sacrificing entire divisions, tens of thousands of men, in order to buy the engineers time to fix the border defenses and save the rest of Germany.

they will all be raped and murdered” – Kitz says, if they can’t stop the Allies, all the women back home will be raped. Sadly, he was not wrong. In what is called “the largest mass rape in history,” two million women in German-occupied countries were raped by Allied soldiers. With a massive lack of medical supplies after the war, nearly a quarter million women died due to internal injuries after being brutally violated up to 70 times, untreated sexually transmitted diseases, abortions, or from suicide as they mentally could not cope with what happened to them.

Rape of Berlin
(raped German woman too traumatized to stand)

It was standard (although not officially sanctioned) that when Russian troops came to a town, they were allowed three days to loot, which included “human loot,” a euphemism for rape. Russian soldiers confessed in documentaries that it was common to rape females between the ages of 8 and 80. When complaints of the mass rapes on the Eastern Front reached Joseph Stalin, his reply was “a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometers through blood and fire and death” deserved to have his way with a few women. Men and young boys were not excluded as victims of this mass rape. Even some Jewish women freed from concentration camps were raped before being allowed to leave the camp.

The Western Front was not much better. British and American soldiers were responsible for around 200,000 rapes in France, Belgium, and Germany. The youngest rape victim by an American soldier was a 7-year-old girl. Black American soldiers were executed for rape, while White soldiers were merely court-martialed. Many American soldiers got away with it by leaving behind some food for their victims, thus claiming they “paid a prostitute” and didn’t rape a woman. For decades, the crimes against women in post-war Germany went ignored by historians who wished to paint a certain narrative of the Allies as heroes. Even within German society, the guilt of the Holocaust left people with the opinion that “Germany got what it deserved.” It has not been until recently that films like Anonyma: Eine Frau in Berlin (“A Woman in Berlin”) have dealt with the brutal truths of what German women suffered at the hands of the Allies after the war. As of 2020, neither the Russian nor American governments have formally apologized for the mass rape of Germans that happened during and after World War II.

How sweet and honorable it is, to die for the Fatherland” – This comes from Roman poet Horace’s Odes. The Latin line “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” was etched into memorials for fallen soldiers for centuries, including America’s Arlington National Cemetery. Here, Kitz Woermann says it in German.

German Gate of Metz

Metz as a German City – Armin is right that the history of Metz is complex, so whether it is German or French depends on what century, or even what decade, you’re talking about. Metz was a republic from the 12th century until 1552, when three Germanic Protestant noblemen met with King Henry II of France and signed the Treaty of Chambord, where they offered Metz, Toul, and Verdun in exchanged for military aid against Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, who planned to wiped out the Protestants. These noblemen technically did not have the right to give Metz to France, since it was not under their domain. In retaliation, Emperor Charles V attacked Metz and laid siege, hoping to starve them out. There is a gorgeous castle bridge Jean mentions called the German Gate (pictured above), where you can still see musket bullet holes from when Charles V attacked. The French army came to their rescue, and when King Henry II marched through the German Gate, the citizens of Metz decided a French king who kept his word was better than a Holy Roman Emperor who tried to slaughter them. After the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, the newly unified Imperial Germany took Elsaß-Lothringen (German for the Alsace-Lorraine region), which included cities like Metz, Straßburg (Strasbourg), Mülhausen, Colmar, and Diedenhofen (today called Thionville; it and Strasbourg will be mentioned again later). Kaiser Wilhelm II constructed many gorgeous buildings made in a uniquely Imperial German style, including the Metz train station that still exists today. In the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, France reclaimed the Alsace-Lorraine region as part of their reparations for World War I. Then twenty years later, Germany annexed it back. Without an army ever breaking their defenses, the city of Metz has changed hands multiple times via treaty.

roasts and good hope – Thomas and Franz are referring to a couple of German euphemisms for pregnancy. “Einen Braten in der Röhre haben” literally means ‘have a roast in the tube,’ which is similar to the English phrase ‘a bun in the oven.’ Meanwhile, “guter Hoffnung sein” means ‘to be in good hope,’ as in you hope for a healthy child. So yeah, most of the platoon now thinks Eren is banging Krista. Sooooooo far from the truth!

Chapter Text

“Do you have his key?”

Eren looked over sharply as Krista said those words and exclaimed, “Wait, you speak English as well?”

“Little. Enough,” she said, her accent thick and her grammar unsteady. “Safer to speak English than German. Capitaine Ackerman, he is stuck.”

Verdammt, I still have his key,” he muttered, realizing he never put it back away. The metal key now weighed heavily on the chain around his neck.

“Must hurry,” she said.

Eren heard her panting hard, and as he glanced over, he saw that Krista struggled to run on the wet pathway with her heeled shoes.

“I’ll run ahead,” he offered.

Suddenly, from the direction of the castle, they heard a gunshot.

Non,” Krista whispered in dread. “Sasha! Ymir! Capitaine Ackerman!

She began to run, but Eren grabbed her shoulders.

“Wait! It’s dangerous.”

She pulled against him. “Nous devons les sauver.” We must save them.

Three more gunshots came in rapid succession. Eren was torn between racing to the castle and keeping Krista back for her own safety. He could feel by the way she pulled, if he released her, she would run right toward the sound of gunfire.

“Please, promise you will stay here.”

She still pulled. “Non! Je dois sauver le capitaine!” No! I have to save the captain.

There was another explosion, and seconds later Ymir fled out of the castle. She was holding her side in pain and breathing hard from a wild sprint as she raced right up to Krista.

“Pull her back,” Eren warned

He tugged both Ymir and Krista behind a store wall, out of view of the castle, just in case she was being chased. Ymir collapsed against the brick wall, her face in agony, and Eren saw blood starting to seep between her fingers.

“Let me see,” he said, and he carefully pulled back her hand. He tore open a bullet hole in her dress and found the wound. “The bullet struck her waist and passed straight through. It’s too far over to have hit any organs, but she will need a doctor. Do you have a handkerchief?” he asked Krista.

“A what?”

“A cloth? Fabric? Tissue?”

Tissu!” She knew that word and tore some of her petticoat.

“Front and back,” Eren said, helping Ymir to staunch the bleeding.

Krista tore another strip of petticoat to put on the back side. Ymir cried out as Eren pressed on the exit wound on her back.

Le capitaine … le capitaine allemand.” She gritted her teeth against the pain.

Krista looked up. “Que se passe-t-il?” What is going on?

Ymir flinched as she ground her fist into her waist to stop herself from bleeding out. “Il a débarqué à l’improviste, et Sasha … elle est toujours dans le cachot.”

Krista gasped and looked up at Eren. “She says, your captain showed up out of nowhere, and Sasha is still down there.”

Scheiße!” They heard another gunshot, and Eren bolted off. “Stay with her. You, hold her back,” he yelled at Ymir.

The Romani woman squinted her eyes in confusion. “Qu’est ce que le mignon lieutenant a dit?” What did the cute lieutenant say?

Krista tried to run after Eren, but Ymir quickly hugged her around the chest to stop her.

Krista, ce n’est pas sûr là-bas.” Krista, it’s not safe down there.

She cried out desperately to Eren as he ran, “S’il vous plaît, sauvez-les.” Please, save them.

Eren raced through the castle courtyard as more shots boomed. Seven shots. Eight, nine, ten. They were coming rapidly now, two different caliber guns. He nearly collided into Gunther Schultz as he burst through the front door of the castle and offered only a brief apology. Still, he could not run fast enough through the decadent hallways as the explosions grew louder. Bang. Bang. Bang! Bang! Louder and louder.

As he ran down the staircase, he already saw one dead body, a teen boy fallen right in front of the stairs with half his head blown off. Eren leaped over him and ran into the dungeon, skidding to a stop as he saw Kitz Woermann and Ian Dietrich reloading their guns.

Herr Hauptmann!

Kitz spun around at the shout. In a fluid motion he flipped closed the top break of his Webley, cocked back the hammer, and aimed. For three heart-stopping seconds, Eren honestly thought his commander was about to shoot him. However, the muzzle of the gun lowered.

“Jäger,” he sneered. “I hope you weren’t working with that whore.”

“What? Whore?” Just then, he saw Sasha lying on the ground, multiple gunshots in her back, with blood oozing across the grimy stone floor toward the central drain. No! There were dead bodies all around, some outside of their cells, some still trapped inside. Eren smashed down his horror. “I’ve never seen her before. Who is she? What happened? I heard gunshots and feared it was the French Resistance.”

“That’s precisely who it was. We caught her trying to release the prisoners. She got five out. I shot them already,” he said, pointing to the bodies on the ground. “Some gypsy barbarian ran past us. Oberleutnant Dietrich opened fire but missed her.”

“She yelled, sir,” Ian Dietrich said stoically as he continued to reload his gun. “That means I got her, she just isn’t dead yet.”

Eren felt his heart hammering frantically. How could these men talk about shooting women so casually? He thought they were honorable men, but what sort of man shoots a fleeing woman in the back? Still, he knew the words he had to say, and he tried his best to speak like a proud Nazi.

“It’s quite fortunate you got here in time, Herr Hauptmann.”

“Not in time. It seems a few rats already escaped.”

“Some escaped? Do you know where they may have gone?” If the Germans already knew their location, he could run outside and warn Krista.

“Who knows? The females are gone. Those bitches will breed like crazy.” The Webley clicked as it opened again to expose the loading chamber, and Kitz continued to reload bullets. “When exterminating rodents, you make sure the females die first. We should have killed every cunt at the start.”

“But we don’t know where they went?” Eren asked hesitantly. If the women escaped, that was one bit of good news.

Kitz only growled as he rammed another bullet into a chamber.

Ian turned his icy blue eyes over to the captain. “This is why I said you shouldn’t have shot her. We could have forced her to tell us who was the mastermind behind this prison break.”

“We don’t have time to torture someone. I figured, if she knew about us leaving today, it must have been that damn postmaster who planned this. It couldn’t be a woman, after all.”

Eren held still, gazing again at Sasha’s body. From what he learned from Krista, their group was all women, and Sasha was their leader. Kitz really was underestimating these brave ladies.

“I already sent Leutnant Schultz to hunt down that man and kill his entire family. Gotta clean up all the rats we can find, after all.”

Eren felt his stomach drop. He had run into Gunther Schultz earlier, not realizing he was on his way to slaughter a whole family. He hoped Dot was smart enough to have gotten out of the village already.

Eren tried to sound stern as he said, “Then, it’s a good thing we caught them before we left. We wouldn’t want to leave our job here unfinished. The more enemies of Hitler we eliminate, the better.”

“Precisely.” Kitz finally got his gun reloaded and flipped closed the top break. “Which is why I’m cleaning up a shit stain that has been reeking in our midst for far too long.”

He cocked the hammer, and before Eren could say anything, Kitz shot one of the imprisoned Jews. Eren flinched in horror. The Jews had fled as far away as they could, some crouching down behind their cots with their arms over their heads, but they were all trapped. They began to cry out, French pleas of mercy and beseeching cries for help. Eren realized that many of them were looking straight at him as they begged to be saved.

What could he do in this situation, just him alone against an entire company of Germans?

Kitz’s voice was cold as he asked, “Why are you here, Jäger?”

“I was coming to deal with the Jews when I heard gunshots.”

“Oh? Did you hope to exterminate them all by yourself? Did I take away your fun? Join in, if you want. I know you were looking forward to shooting this one in particular.” He casually waved his gun over to Levi, who was still trapped in his prison cell. “I planned to save him just for you.”

Eren gulped down thickly, glad to see Levi was alive. “That’s very thoughtful of you, Herr Hauptmann. I’m glad you left his fate to me.”

“His fate is to die, nothing more.”

“O-Of course, sir.” A tiny hitch sneaked into Eren’s voice, but just that much had Kitz almost seething at him.

“Do you have a problem, Jäger?”

He tried to get his throat to loosen up, but his voice was still tense as he said, “No, sir.”

“Then get your gun out and let’s be done with this.”

Before Eren could say anything more, they heard footsteps echoing down the hallway, and Kitz pointed the gun toward the sound.

“Who is it?” he shouted in raging paranoia.

Eren tried to pull away from the direct path of the barrel and looked out the door. “It’s just Leutnant Schultz.”

Gunther Schultz ran into the room and snapped into a salute. “Heil Hitler. I ran to the postmaster’s house, but it was already empty. A neighbor said they saw the family leaving before sunrise.”

“Dammit!” Kitz shot another Jew, who collapsed in a spray of blood. “All these damn rats come crawling out now that we’re about to leave. If we weren’t in a hurry, I’d slaughter every man, woman, and child here just to make sure the French Resistance is purged!” He shot another Jew as he walked down the row of prison cells.

Eren felt his fists tighten in fear and rage as the captain got closer to Levi’s cell. It was dangerous for himself, but he had to say something to stop this. He could not just stand there and watch these people being massacred.

Herr Hauptmann, we … we may still need the Jews.”

“No! Jews are never needed. Remember that. Jews…” Bang! “…are never…” Bang! “…needed.”

“Then at least the translator,” he shouted in desperation. “I … I think we … we still … w-we may need…”

“Stop sniveling, Jäger. Like a good guest, I’m cleaning up the village before we leave. As Heinrich Himmler said, ‘Anti-Semitism is exactly the same as delousing. Getting rid of lice is not a question of ideology, it is a matter of cleanliness.’ I’m cleaning up the Jewish infestation in this village.”

“Yes, sir, but is not the leech sometimes useful as a medicinal tool? So too, an insect like the Jew can be useful as a tool when wielded with an experienced hand.”

Kitz lowered his gun and glared at him skeptically. “Are you saying you’re experienced enough to tame one of these leeches sucking on the blood of Europeans?”

He gulped, pressing down his dread as he looked briefly at Levi again. “Have I not proven that I have trained that translator even to remain motionless through something as disgusting as homosexual sex? He is a well-trained pet, whipped and beaten into submission over many months. He follows my orders like a loyal dog, stupid but eager to please his master. The perfect tool, and we still have a need for him. The route Obergefreiter Arlelt planned will take two or three days. We will need to spend the night somewhere, and his knowledge of French will help us to get housing and food for the troops. Once we’re in Metz, we no longer have to worry, but until then … until we arrive … it’s best to keep around a tool until we’re sure we don’t need it anymore.”

That last line made a cruel smile rise onto Kitz’s face. “I agree with you. Discarding a useless tool is only natural, but throwing away a tool you know you’ll need is foolish.”

“Yes, exactly, Herr Hauptmann,” Eren said with a small sigh of relief.

“However, I’m not convinced that you’re experienced enough to know when a tool is needed and when it is useless.” He walked over to Levi and Abel. They were now the only two prisoners left. He waved his gun over casually to Levi. “What is the use of this tool, and when is it no longer needed?”

“He is a translator, sir. Once we reach Metz, we should not need anyone who speaks French. At that time, he will be unneeded and can be disposed of.”

His gun now motioned over to the other man. “And what is the use of this tool?”

Eren gazed at the tall, terrified man with thick-rimmed glasses. He honestly knew nothing about him, what he did for a living, what he typically worked at around the village. Eren did not even know his name. He wanted to give some sort of reason to keep him around as well, but without asking Levi, he simply had no idea what the man was skilled at.

“I don’t know, sir.”

“Do we need it to get to Metz?”

Eren felt his stomach already twisting. If he said no, Kitz was definitely going to shoot him, yet he could think of no possible way to answer yes. “No, sir, we do not need him.”

“An unneeded tool. How unfortunate.” Then, to Eren’s surprise, Kitz lowered his gun. “I’m reminded of something. Earlier this summer, I promised you the honor of your first Jewish kill.” He waved his hand over to Abel. “Do it.”

Eren felt his stomach surge up. “What?” he breathed.

“We have a tool we don’t need standing right there. Take your gun out, Jäger. Prove you actually are experienced enough to know how to properly dispose of an unneeded tool.”

Eren began to panic. Was he serious? Shoot an innocent civilian in cold blood?

Kitz sneered at the hesitation. “What’s the problem? Don’t tell me you’re fond of these parasites.”

To the side, Ian callously ordered, “Go on, Jäger. No true Aryan would dare suffer a Jew to continue to exist. It is our solemn duty to cleanse the world of them.”

Kitz smirked sadistically at Eren. “If you want that translator as your pet a little longer, prove to me that you can actually pull the trigger when he’s no longer needed. Kill that Jew.” His gun turned to Levi. “Or I’ll kill them both.”

Eren looked at the poor man huddled in his prison cell, his eyes massive and scared as he shook his head in dread.

Abel pleaded with a shaky whisper, “S’il vous plaît, ayez pitié. Je veux pas mourir. Pas comme ça. Je vous en supplie.” Please, show mercy. I don’t want to die. Not like this. I beg of you.

Eren closed his eyes as his mind ran through scenarios. If he pulled the trigger, Levi would be saved, but at the cost of an innocent man. If he refused, Kitz would shoot both Abel and Levi, and Eren would likely be shot on the spot as a Jewish sympathizer. If he tried to fight the captain, Ian was standing to the side and Gunther was behind him. He doubted he had the speed and precision marksmanship to shoot all three men, in three different areas of the room, before one of them shot him first.

If he attempted to defy orders and failed, Kitz would shoot both him and Levi, and he almost certainly would carry out his threat of massacring the entire village, if only as a lesson to the troops about insubordination. His attempt to save one man could lead to the death of hundreds of innocent people.

If he somehow succeeded in shooting all three officers, escaped with Levi and Abel, and if he was not hunted by every German in the village as a traitor, that left a massive power vacuum in the company. Without any officers left, how would the Germans organize their evacuation? The path Armin chose, although brilliant, was still through a war zone. It could involve fighting, and he was only an Obergefreiter. They needed a commander who had the training and experience to lead an entire company through a battle.

If he failed to rescue this Jew, he could doom the entire village; if he succeeded, he would doom his entire company, his platoon, and his friends.

Eren knew there truly was nothing he could do anymore. It was either shoot one man, try to shoot all three officers, or do nothing and watch the man he loved be murdered, as well as end up dead himself.

He was out of options. He truly had no choice now.

He had to save Levi. No matter the price, he had to live!

Even if that price was Eren’s own soul, he would give it to ensure Levi survived.

His eyes opened, cold, detached, staring at the terrified man like a person would gaze upon a cornered rabid dog with no choice but to put it down. Eren took his gun out of its holster, raised the Luger straight ahead of him, and stared Abel in the eyes. He would not look away. He would remember those eyes, knowing they would haunt him for the rest of his life.

A tear slipped down Abel’s face, but he looked like he understood the dire situation Eren had been forced into. “Prends soin de lui pour nous.” Then he held his head high as he prayed in a soft voice quavering with fear, “Oseh shalom bimromav … hu yaaseh shalom aleinu … v’al kol Yisrael…

Eren pulled the trigger, an explosion echoed through the room, a body thumped to the ground, and a piece of his soul died with that poor, innocent man.

Levi would live.

That was all that mattered now.

“Well done! I honestly didn’t think you had the guts, Jäger.”

His shoulder was hit hard with proud congratulations. Eren lowered his gun. He missed trying to holster it and had to try three times before it fit.

“Very well. I trust you,” Kitz decided. “Pack that leech up with your platoon’s supplies. I swear, though, Jäger,” he said softly, and he strode up to Eren, glaring with those bulging, wild eyes. “If that thing escapes between here and Metz, I have one bullet left in this gun.” He pointed the Webley to Eren’s head. “I will use it on you. Then I will hang your naked corpse up for the world to see.”

He pulled the gun back, slid it into his holster, and marched off with Ian following immediately in his wake.

Gunther let out a long sigh as the tense standoff ended. “Dammit, Jäger, don’t ever do that again. I really thought he would shoot you. He truly might next time. Make sure you kill that Jew as soon as you can.” Then he also left, trotting back up the stairs.

The dungeon was silent. Levi stood still, staring at the bodies on the ground. Eren could not move, unsure what to say. He had killed an innocent man. A civilian! He had sworn to himself, he would never sink that low. He would disobey orders before doing something so reprehensible.

In the end, he was just as bad as the rest of them.

No more! He swore to himself right then and there, no more! The Nazis were wrong. This war was wrong. Hitler was wrong. What he was raised to believe was wrong. As he watched the blood slowly pooling around the man he had killed, his hatred of Nazis and all they stood for grew, and he swore in his heart that he would stop them.

Eren ripped his officer’s cap off and looked down at the pin of an eagle clutching a swastika in its talons. He tore the pin off, and with a shout of rage, he snapped the metal eagle in half. He threw it toward the drainage hole, where it clattered, slipped between the grill, and the Nazi eagle plummeted into the depths of the sewage.

Das … ist nicht … mein Deutschland!” This is not my Germany!

He had said those words before, but now he realized that mere words were not enough, not when he could so easily become as bad as those he hated.

He watched Levi, waiting for some sort of reaction, but he did not move, trapped in shock. Eren had no idea what he could say. The kisses of last night felt like a distant dream. He had been prepared to say goodbye to Levi and live with the anticipation of reuniting with him in New York, where they could finally be a couple. Now, he felt unworthy of that passion that had briefly awakened last night.

How do you comfort a friend who just watched a dozen people being massacred right in front of their eyes? How do you apologize for being forced to kill an innocent man in order to save someone else?

Many minutes passed before Eren finally moved. He stepped over to Sasha’s fallen body, the ring of keys still clutched in her outstretched hand, as if she had been trying to pass them on to the Jews to free themselves. He pulled the keys free from her fingers and began to open the prison cells.

One by one, he dragged the bodies out of their cells. At the very least, in death they should not be imprisoned. He moved the bodies to be on their backs, lying straight with their hands folded over their chests. Then he pulled blankets off the cots to cover their faces twisted in those last few moments of terror.

Through all this, Levi did not move or say anything. His eyes were still on the first person who had been shot.

* * *

“Right! Ymir, give me the keys. You take these four. I’ll get the rest of the doors open. Hopefully either Anka or Krista will be back by then. Maybe I’ll get to fight with you after all, Captain Ackerman.”

Sasha had a look of regained confidence, and Levi also felt a fire of determination in his heart. Eren would definitely come. They were all going to get out of here. Finally, they would be free!

Sasha had just taken the keys from Ymir, when seventeen-year-old Rashad stepped out of the dungeon. That was when the first bullet exploded through the underground tunnels, and Rashad was knocked back, shot in the chest.

Levi stared in horror. No! Not yet!

Chaos broke out in the dungeon as people screamed in terror. Some begged to be let out, reaching through the prison bars, crying in desperation; however, the freed Jews fled inside the dungeon, not out to where the Germans were coming. One even ran back into his cell, as if he could pretend he was not trying to escape and may be spared.

“What are you doing?” Ymir cried out at them. “Get out while you can.”

“They’re coming with guns,” shouted the man who had run back into his cell. “Do you think I’m stupid?”

Ymir sneered. “Obviously you’re a fucking idiot if you think staying in here is going to save you. I didn’t come here to rescue a bunch of fucking cowards!”

“Enough,” Sasha yelled. “Ymir, go. Warn Anka and Krista not to come back to the dungeon, and keep the safehouse locked down until the Germans leave. Dot will help you to get the Jews out.”

“What about you?”

Sasha turned back to the prison of someone stretching their arms out, begging to be released. “I’m going to keep working.”

“Sasha, this mission has failed.”

The Jew in front of her pleaded, “No! Don’t leave us.”

Sasha smiled at the man. “I’m not giving up hope.”

Levi looked over at her in awe. In a situation this dire, it was definitely time to give up and save yourself, yet she looked so resolved. She had to know the Germans would kill her the moment they entered, yet she whispered to the person she was trying to free, “Don’t worry. I’m not leaving you alone.”

That was a hero!

Ymir cursed, but she crouched low by the doorway, ready to bolt. As soon as the Germans entered the room, she shoved them with a fierce roar and took off running up the stairs.

Kitz Woermann ordered the tall blond with him, “Töte die Schlampe.” Kill the bitch.

Ian Dietrich pulled out his gun and aimed up the staircase where Ymir was fleeing.

Levi yelled out a warning, “He’s gonna shoot!”

Just then, Rashad lurched across the ground. Levi saw with a moment of relief that the boy was not dead, although his face was pale and he was panting hard from just this much effort. The shot to his chest had punctured a lung, and blood saturated the front of his shirt. Still, his heroic grab threw off Ian’s balance, and when his gun went off, it missed. He fired twice more up the stairs. On the last shot, they heard a scream.

Sasha spun around. “Ymir!”

“She made it,” Rashad said, his voice weak but a smile on his face. Ian glared down at him, his blue eyes burning in raging hate, but Rashad held his head proudly. “I have no regrets anymore.”

Ian turned his gun to the boy, put the barrel right against his forehead, and shot him at point-blank range. Levi felt his stomach surge up as Rashad’s entire head exploded in a spray of blood and brains.

Sasha turned and tried yet another key. She finally got the door unlocked. “Go, you’re free,” she urged, hurrying to the next cell.

The man had just stepped out, looking relieved to be liberated, when a loud explosion rang out. He was hit in the chest and stumbled back into the cell.

Sasha gritted her teeth, determined to continue. Kitz’s gun went off again, striking her in the back. She was thrown against the bars of the prison. She held on, shaking but sneering as she refused to fall.

“Not yet,” she said, stubbornly holding onto the keyring.

Ian said casually, “Wir sollten die Dame verhören, Herr Hauptmann. Sie könnte etwas über den französischen Widerstand wissen.” We should interrogate the lady, Captain. She might know something about the French Resistance.

Wir haben keine Zeit zum Spielen.” We don’t have time for games.

Then Ian realized Sasha was still holding onto the prison bars, trying to get another key. “Sie ist nicht tot.” She’s not dead.

Ian seemed to want vengeance for missing his shot earlier, so he pointed his own gun at Sasha and fired twice. She cried out in agony and fell in front of a prison. Her body jolted as blood began to pool around her, but she still looked up at the person trapped right in front of her.

“I’m … so sorry.”

Her hand began to reach forward, gripping the keyring tightly, a final effort to pass the keys on so they could free themselves, but Ian walked right up to her and put one more bullet into the back of her head. After that, her whole body went limp.

Sie ist sehr stur.” She’s very stubborn.

Kitz fired two more shots, direct hits to the two Jews who had fled back inside and were standing against the far wall. “Wir sollten den Postmeister eliminieren. Leutnant Schultz, töte ihn und alle mit ihm.” We should eliminate the postmaster. Lieutenant Schultz, kill him and everyone with him.

Jawohl!” Gunther Schultz said with a salute, and he took off running back up the stairs.

Having gone through six bullets, Ian began to reload his gun. With one officer gone and the other with an empty gun, the man who had raced back into his cell thought he had a window of opportunity. He threw open the unlocked door and made a break for the exit. However, he miscounted Kitz’s gun. He did not get more than a few steps outside his cell before the captain spun around and shot him right in the neck. The man fell, choking on blood, twitching grotesquely on the ground as he slowly bled out.

After that, Kitz Woermann had to reload his Webley. “Es ist Zeit, diese rattenverseuchte Drecksloch zu säubern.” It’s time to clean this rat-infested shithole.

Through all this, Levi stared at Rashad’s fallen body. Right at the end, he saved one life. He remembered the line in the Talmud, “Whoever rescues a single life earns as much merit as though he had rescued the entire world.” This boy had done what Levi wished he could do. He died in the most noble way possible.

Could he die right here and now without regrets? As Levi heard gunshot after gunshot, each taking away the life of one of his companions, he realized with cold dread that the answer was no.

He did not want to die like this. He had not yet atoned.

Levi’s mind blanked out all the rest as he prayed to God that Eren somehow came to stop this insanity.

* * *

Eren was there. Somewhere.

Levi had heard his voice, yet the gun continued to fire, again, again, again. Then a different gun, a lighter sound, a smaller caliber. Some part of Levi’s brain realized it was a Luger. Some part of his peripheral vision saw Eren with his gun out and a cold, implacable face. He had shot someone. Part of Levi’s brain knew this, and part was struggling to block out everything around him, to save himself from having to deal with the pain.

The Germans left. Still, Levi could not take his eyes off Rashad’s body. Even as the boy was pulled inside the room and a blanket was draped over the bloody remains, Levi’s gaze was locked, not even really seeing anymore, lost in horror.

Eren finally opened Abel’s cell and knelt beside the body. It had been a clean shot, dead center of the forehead. The man felt no pain. Gently, Eren pulled off his thick glasses, closed his dark eyes, and slid the glasses back on.

“I’m so sorry. You didn’t deserve any of this.”

Levi finally gasped, as if he had forgotten to breathe.

English words. Eleven shrouded bodies. A dead woman in front of him. Cold stone. The dungeon. Eren!

Levi blinked hard, shook his head, and pulled himself out of the darkness tormenting him. He slowly remembered where he was, who he was, and the fact that he was alive.

He was alive. Somehow, once again, so many died yet he lived.

Why did he always have to live when others died?

His eyes raised off the pools of blood and onto the soldier doing his best to give these Jews—people who should have been his enemies—something close to dignity in death.

Levi’s mouth felt stiff as words slowly formed. “Krista and her friends, they came.” He looked down to Sasha. “She was still trying to unlock the doors when they shot her.”

Eren said nothing.

“The women escaped. I insisted upon it. Just those four, out of the sixteen of us. But at least it’s four more who will have a chance at freedom.”

Eren nodded, but he still did not know what he could say. He stepped in front of Levi’s prison cell, reached into his uniform tunic, and pulled out the key.

If he had only put this key away last night! Would Levi be safe, or would he have been shot like the others who were released but did not make it up the stairs?

His hands were shaking as he fit the key into the prison door and unlocked it. Then he threw the key aside, glad to be rid of it. Levi would never be locked in this dungeon again.

Eren stepped back. He felt like he was unworthy of being anywhere close to Levi now. He was a monster! A murderer! However, Levi did not step out right away. He still looked around, trying to come to grips with the horror he had just witnessed.

“When I arrived in this village,” Levi said softly, “there were five in my group: myself, Moses, Isabel, Abel…” He glanced over at the man Eren had shot. “… and Rashad.” At the last name, he looked over to the seventeen-year-old boy. “The Resistance promised to get us out of the country. Then another group came, and another, until there were twenty of us. I thought it was idiotic to take such a large group, but the Resistance insisted they could get all of us out together. I found out later, they really only wanted one of us. Isabel was married to an RAF captain with some sway in the Resistance. The rest of us were there to keep her better hidden. Decoys, nothing more. I was going by a fake name, so the Resistance didn’t know who I was.”

Eren recalled, “When we first met, the name you gave me was Rivaille Martin.”

“Exactly. I had been going by that name for over a year. I knew what would happen if the Resistance knew I was still alive, and I did not want to be forced back into another war. After you Germans bombed this place and the Resistance abandoned us, I gave up the fake name. I realized I could have used my rank to get our entire group out sooner. By hiding who I was, I damned us all.

“I figured, no more lies. Even if I ended up dragged into this damn war, it was worth it, so long as I saved the lives of these people. It took learning there was a French captain here to get the Resistance to care about us again. They came back for Isabel, but they wanted to use me to pass messages to that girl your captain was torturing.”

“Annie,” Eren recalled with a deep sadness.

“Right from the start, they were using me.” He looked around again at the bodies now covered with sheets. “Out of twenty of us who came to this village seeking help from the Resistance, fourteen died, five escaped … and I’m still here. Moses had a girl in London waiting for him. Ruth was only fifteen, yet she was raped right in front of me, and I couldn’t even reach her outstretched hands as she begged for help. Rashad was so young, brave, and full of dreams. Abel…” He looked over to where Eren had dragged out the man and covered him with a humble shroud. “He was a history professor, but Nazis banned any Jews from working at the university. I wonder how history will remember all this,” he muttered to himself. “They all suffered, so many died, and for God-knows-what reason,” Levi sneered in rage, “I’m still here. Still alive! Everyone else is dead.”

“You saved those women, Levi. You saved Isabel, Ruth and the others. Always remember that.”

“I did nothing—”

“You kept them alive all this time,” shouted Eren. “You saved those women. Remember that!” Eren knew Levi wanted, more than anything, to save people. This was his redemption. “You can save more after you’re out of here.”

Grimly, he muttered, “You’ll need to kill me one day.”

“Like hell will that happen!”

“That bug-eyed bastard put a gun to your head, and I don’t even need to know German to know he threatened to use his last bullet to kill you.”

“I don’t care,” yelled Eren. “Krista is right outside. She can get you out. She said France needs you.”

“France can go fuck itself in Hell,” Levi screamed, and finally the emotional pain showed on his face. “What did France do for me, huh? What did France do for them?” He pointed to the dead bodies. “Do you think France cared? These people were civilians—a teacher, a farmer, a factory worker, a grocery clerk, a tailor, a dentist, a watchmaker, a boy who should’ve been going to university this autumn if the whole world hadn’t gone to hell—do you think France gave a shit about helping them? Do you think they ever cared about the plight of the Jewish people in our country? What did France do all this time while we were sitting down here, being beaten, raped, tortured in unspeakable ways? Do you know what they did? They betrayed us! They agreed to an armistice that included handing all the Jews over to the Nazis. They fucking sold out their own people to save their arses!”

“Levi,” Eren said, hurt to see his emotions running so raw.

“Do they expect me to fight for them after betraying us, turning against us, murdering us, shipping us off to concentration camps, killing a man’s wife in front of his eyes and then butchering his unborn child? Do you think I’m going to fight for someone who allows that? Fuck them all!”

He strode out of his cell and walked up to Sasha’s body.

“France needs me?” he sneered in disgust. “France needs to get its shit together.”

He kicked her body over to see her face.

“Hey!” Eren shouted, shocked by the disrespect.

“Damn you and your Resistance,” he said to the dead woman. “France doesn’t need me. It needs my blade! Well, they can go fuck themselves with that blade. Then they can decide if they actually want the Jewish people to be around, because if they’re not willing to want all Jews, then they don’t have the right to want this Jew.”

He reached down to Sasha’s belt, where she had a knife strapped on. He unsnapped the sheath, lifted the knife, and ripped the blade out, brandishing it in the lamplight with a fierce silver gleam.

“From now on, I will fight for myself. I will fight for what I believe in, not what others think I should believe in. I will do whatever I must in order to survive this godforsaken war, and that does not include returning to the task of being France’s personal assassin. I shall never be La Lame Juive again.”

He sheathed the knife and snapped it onto his belt, hiding it under his shirt. Then he walked to the center of the dungeon and stood there, glancing around at all the bodies.

“France never wanted us from the beginning. It tolerated Jews, and just barely. Not because of the language we spoke or how we looked. Because of which holy book we read. Hell, we worship the same God, just in different ways. France needs Capitaine Ackerman the assassin, not Levi the broom maker.”

“Broom maker?” Eren asked in surprise.

Levi glared over his shoulder at the young soldier. “You didn’t think I sat on my arse drinking wine all day, did you?”

“No, just … it fits you, making brooms.” He could imagine that Levi’s house must have been the cleanest in his town.

“If I go with the Resistance, they plan to use me as an assassin again. They wouldn’t go through all this trouble just to have any common enemy killed. They have one specific target in mind, a man who has survived other assassination attempts.”

“Hitler,” Eren realized in horror.

“Exactly. Do you want that to happen? Do you want me to go slit the throat your oh-so-precious Führer?”

Eren dropped his head as his brow tensed. A part of him still felt fiercely loyal to his country’s leader, and another part knew that the Nazis needed to be stopped. The quickest way to do that was to kill the Führer.

“Oh really?” Levi said, amused to see the conflict in his face. “Have you finally seen the truth? Did it take murdering an innocent man for you to realize that maybe Aryans aren’t the perfect supermen you thought they were?”

Eren’s frown tightened, both enraged as he realized the man he had idolized was detestable, and worried about what would happen to Levi now. He muttered, “I don’t want you to have to kill anyone.”

“Then don’t let them take me back.”

Eren struggled with that request. “Don’t you want freedom?”

Years of experience and the depth of what he had done in the past burned in Levi’s dark gaze. “Do you think a soldier has freedom? Are you truly free, Eren Jäger? Are you free to say anything you want? Are you free to love whomever you want? Were you free just now, to make the choice whether or not to pull that trigger? Have you ever in your life actually been free?”

The questions stumped the lieutenant.

“Assassinating Hitler would be a suicide mission. If I go with the Resistance and they demand that I do this, I will likely not leave Berlin alive. If I escape France on my own and make it to my family in America, maybe I can live peacefully. I won’t fight for any country ever again, not when nations can turn against their own people.”

He gazed at the shrouded bodies, taking in the entire sight of the massacre, burning it into his mind.

“I carry the will of my fallen comrades. Their collective grudge against the Nazis strengthens my resolve to survive, to fight for my freedom. True freedom! I will carry the will of these souls and live on with their memory. Each of them, I will remember their names until I die.”

His feet came together, Levi straightened his spine, and his head bowed.

“There should be ten people to do this, but I carry the weight of the souls of over a dozen. It’s enough.” He looked back to Eren. “When I pause, can you say the word ‘Amen’?”

Eren nodded solemnly.

Levi closed his eyes to recall words, and his deep voice took on a spiritual, musical chant.

Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba.

Eren sensed the pause, and in soft reverence, he said, “Amen.” Then he watched as Levi continued to sing-chant the mourning prayer.

B’alma di v’ra chirutei,
v’yamlich malchutei,
b’chayeichon uv’yomeichon
uv’chayei d’chol beit Yisrael,
baagala uviz’man kariv.
V’im’ru: Amen.

Again there was a pause, and after each call to say Amen, Eren gave back the word. He did not know what Levi was saying, but he saw the pain in his face softening as he spoke, being filled with serenity and acceptance.

Y’hei sh’mei raba m’varach
l’alam ul’almei almaya.

Yitbarach v’yishtabach v’yitpaar
v’yitromam v’yitnasei,
v’yit’hadar v’yitaleh v’yit’halal
sh’mei d’Kud’sha B’rich Hu,
l’eila min kol birchata v’shirata,
tushb’chata v’nechemata,
daamiran b’alma.
V’im’ru: Amen.

Y’hei sh’lama raba min sh’maya,
v’chayim aleinu v’al kol Yisrael.
V’im’ru: Amen.

Levi took three steps back, bowing respectfully to the left, then to the right.

Oseh shalom bimromav,
Hu yaaseh shalom aleinu,
v’al kol Yisrael.
V’im’ru: Amen.

Eren gave the last amen. Then Levi took three steps forward and stood there, letting the gravity of all these deaths sink into him, but also the glory of life.

Eren watched, and out of habit he crossed himself. Maybe that was the wrong thing to do for Jews, but it was the only thing he could think of. He had wanted to help these people to escape. Now, they were dead, and he and Levi were heading into even greater danger.

How much longer could he keep Levi alive? Was Levi right and he would one day be forced to shoot him? Just how far was he willing to go to save the life of one man?

“They are underground,” Levi muttered. “It’s not a proper burial, but at least they will not be out in the sun to bloat.”

Eren frowned at such a cold response, but he supposed Levi was handling this slaughter the best way he knew how.

Levi turned around, and Eren realized there were no tears for these people. Instead, he looked like this was something he had known all along would happen one day.

“I’ve buried so many, and left even more behind to rot, including my wife. It’s a little frightening how quickly a person can become used to death.”

Eren saw that the burden of living when others died hung heavily on Levi’s shoulders.

Levi muttered, “You saved my life once again.”

“I had to kill that man.”

“Yes, you did.”

“I’m so sorry,” Eren whispered in misery. “I had no choice. I … I truly had no choice.”

Levi stomped forward, grabbed Eren by the scruff of his neck, and yanked him over to Abel’s body. “Remove his shroud. Now!”

Eren gasped at the harsh command, but he obeyed. With a shaking hand, he pulled the bloodied blanket back to expose the man’s face.

“Look at him,” Levi commanded in a cold voice.

Eren felt sick at seeing the bullet hole through the man’s forehead and tried to look away.

Levi grabbed his hair and forced his head back around. “Don’t you dare turn away. Look at him! His name was Abel Friedman. Remember that name. Remember his face. Remember it until the day you die. If you can still recall his name on the day you take your last breath, then maybe I’ll forgive you for murdering him.”

Eren’s lower lip quivered with guilt.

Levi sighed at seeing those teal eyes shaking with tears, and he released his tight hold. “I know you had no choice,” he muttered. “That bastard! He told you, Abel or me, right? If you hadn’t shot him, we’d both be dead, and you with us. He truly made it impossible for you to stick to your morals. Sick sadistic piece of pig shit!”

“I’m sorry,” Eren said, both to the body below him and to Levi.

“Words aren’t enough. Live your life to make others like him never suffer again. Take it upon yourself to build humanity’s future! In that cause, find redemption.” Levi thought about his own dark, bloody past. “Trust me, sometimes redemption is all you’ve got left.”

“I’m sorry.” Eren tried to breathe in to calm himself, but it was a moist sniffle, and hearing it echoing through the dungeon’s icy stone walls broke down something inside of him, making his shoulders shudder as tears tumbled down. “I’m so sorry.”

“Shut up before someone hears you, takhshet.”

He saw that Eren was still breaking down emotionally, and Levi sighed in conflicted frustration. On one hand, this man would always be Abel’s murderer. On the other hand, he knew Eren had no choice, and this act would traumatize him for life. He ran his hand through his hair as he fought through clashing emotions of his own.

“Dammit, you’re too good for this world. It almost cost your life this time. You won’t be able to keep doing this forever.”

“I will!” Eren insisted. “As long as I can, I will.” He covered Abel’s face again and stepped up to Levi. “No matter the cost, even if I must bury all of my morals and give up everything I am, I will not let you die.” His fingers glanced over Levi’s hand, but he could not bring himself to touch him more than that. “When the time is right, I will get you to freedom. I promise.” He looked down to the bodies. “I should have gotten you out of here weeks ago. No, months ago! Before you … and Moses … and all the women who suffered…” He began to break down into tears again.

Levi sighed as Eren scrubbed away tears. “Seriously, stop crying. It won’t bring back anyone, and it won’t turn back the calendar.” He scowled as Eren continued to cry. “I swear your face is too honest.”

Levi began to reach out to him, but his hand flinched back, like if he touched this young man, he would curse him to an early death, like all the others who got too close to him. His fingers drew up into a fist and reluctantly lowered.

“No German has shown such care for us, but you … you put yourself in danger for us. You would have risked death to save us. That’s … impressive.” He looked up into those teal-blue eyes. “My comrades cannot speak anymore, so I will tell you for them. When we were alone, we talked about you. They would praise you in prayers and ask the Lord to protect you. Secretly, we all watched out for you, because we knew you were the only thing keeping us alive, and it was at your own risk.” His eyes narrowed with firmness. “I’m certain that not one of them blamed you in the end. Not even Abel.”

“He said something. Prends soin…?”

Levi looked aside with warmth in his cheeks. He had heard the words, but in a distant sort of way as his brain tried to separate itself from reality. “He said, ‘Take care of him for us.’”

Eren smiled sadly. “He meant you. His final wish was for me to take care of you.”

“Something like that,” he muttered reluctantly. “Abel knew you did all you could. You did far more than anyone ever has, far more than even the French Resistance did for us. They were thankful for you. I … am thankful.” He bowed his head. “Merci beaucoup.” Thank you very much.

Eren’s lower lip quivered, until suddenly he grabbed Levi into his arms, crushing him in a hug as he sobbed in deep guilt. Levi’s eyes widened, momentarily panicked, fearing someone might see them and punish Eren. As a minute passed with just the two of them, he calmed down and rubbed Eren’s back.

“Idiot. Why am I comforting you?”

“You’re not. I’m comforting you.”

“You’re the one crying.”

“Because you refuse to, so I have to cry for us both.”

Levi could not help a small chuckle. “Idiot takhshet.”

Eren finally let him go, wiped his eyes, and gazed around at the covered bodies. “Sei friedlich,” he whispered. Be at peace. He looked over to Levi. “We need to hurry. Stay close to me from now on. I may need to treat you roughly.”

Levi stiffened his shoulders. “If it means I can live another day, I can put up with any Nazi shit.”

Eren smiled at the fierce will burning in those eyes. Levi returned to his cell for the very last time and reached under his pillow to pull out Moses’ locket and his mother’s Tanakh. He shoved the book into the burlap sack that had held vegetables only a few days ago. Then he pulled off his blanket and walked over to Sasha’s body.

Vous avez bien combattu, mademoiselle. Repose en paix.” You fought well, miss. Rest in peace.

He draped the blanket over her. Then together, he and Eren went up the stairs, exited the castle, and walked out into the misty gray morning.

Eren saw Krista waiting anxiously on the steps of the castle with her white hood up against the dampness. She instantly ran forward as soon as she saw them. From some hidden bushes, Ymir cautiously limped forward, holding a bloody cloth against her waist.

Capitaine, vous allez bien?” Captain, are you all right?

He snapped quietly at her, “Ne m’appelez pas capitaine.” Don’t call me captain.

Levi looked at her, blond enough that she could have passed as Aryan, petite enough to be any of these soldiers’ little sister, smaller than even him, yet from the first day she brought their group bread, Levi could tell by how she carried herself, this young woman was a trained fighter. She likely spent months wreaking havoc on the Germans, things that even Eren and Kitz Woermann were completely unaware of. He respected all that she must have emotionally endured working for the French Resistance, but he was still angry.

Ils sont tous morts, Sasha aussi.” They are all dead, Sasha too.

Krista clasped her hands to her mouth. “Non!

Je te l’ai dit, sauvez-les tous, ou je n’aiderai pas la Résistance. Tu étais trop lent.” I told you, save them all, or I won’t help the Resistance. You were too slow.

Nous avons sauvé quartre Juifs.” We saved four Jews.

Seulement quatre ont été secourus. Seulement … quatre!” Only four were rescued. Only … four!

Krista lowered her head as tears gathered in her eyes. “Je suis désolée. Nous pensions que les Allemands quittaient la ville la semaine prochaine.” I’m sorry. We thought the Germans were leaving town next week.

Ymir patted her arm as Krista shook her head, truly looking grieved by her failed rescue attempt. Then her brilliant blue eyes looked up at Levi with renewed determination.

On a échoué dans notre tâche, mais s’il vous plaît, aidez-nous. Nous avons besoin de vous, capitaine. La France a besoin de vos compétences.” We failed in our duty, but please, help us. We need you, captain. France needs your skills.

Levi rolled his eyes and began to walk away. “J’en ai plus rien à foutre.” I don’t give a shit anymore.

Capitaine!

Ne m’appelez pas capitaine, putain!” Don’t fucking call me captain!

She screamed at him in anger, “Trahirais-vous ton pays?” Would you betray your country?

Levi paused, staring ahead, his face cold with rage and a deep disappointment that he had kept buried for so many years, through torture and so many moments of heartache. In quiet disgust, he whispered, “Tu es la pire des garces.” You are the worst bitch.

Quoi!” What!

Levi turned back to her, and the pure rage in his eyes made Krista stumble back a step.

Ymir was immediately in front of Krista with her arms protectively out. “Je me fiche que tu sois un capitaine. Reculez, bâtard.” I don’t care if you were a captain. Back off, bastard.

When Levi spoke, his voice was a seething whisper, gradually getting sharper with each biting syllable. “La France me trahit. La France nous trahit, trahit ma femme et mon peuple. Je ne me battrai pas pour quelqu’un qui trahit ma confiance.” France betrayed me. France betrayed us, betrayed my wife and my people. I won’t fight for someone who betrays my trust.

Capitaine—

He yelled over her. “S’il te plaît!” However, he lowered his voice and changed to a more polite tone. “S’il vous plaît, enterrez-les, si vous le pouvez. C’est ma dernière requête. Pour la France, je suis mort.” Please, bury them, if you can. That’s my last request. To France, I’m dead.

He turned away and began to walk off, with Eren following, not certain what the exchange was about, but he could tell enough by their body language.

Ymir hated to see Krista’s emotional fragility, so she barked out at Levi, “Hé toi! Tu mourras si tu pars avec lui.” Hey you! You’ll die if you go with him.

Levi retorted back without looking around, “Je vais mourir si je viens avec toi. J’ai confiance en ce salaud d’Allemand plus que dans la Résistance française.” I’ll die if I go with you. I trust this German bastard more than I trust the French Resistance.

Ymir shook her head and whispered to Krista, “Allons-y. Anka nous attend.” Let’s go. Anka is waiting for us.

Krista tightened her fists in stubborn frustration. She took one stomping clomp forward, splashing the rain-soaked road, and shouted out to Eren in German instead. “Er sagt, er vertraut Ihnen. Bitte, überzeugen Sie ihn zu entkommen.” He says, he trusts you. Please, convince him to escape.

Eren paused and looked back at her. “Er vertraut mir?” He trusts me?

Krista nodded. “Ja, er vertraut Ihnen mehr als seinen Landsleute.” Yes, he trusts you more than his countrymen.

Levi switched into English. “If that bitch is trying to convince you to force me to go back with her, forget it. I will get true freedom, and I will fight whoever stands in my way, whether if it’s a little girl like her or the man who has saved my arse countless times.”

Krista tried to follow along, but Levi was speaking too fast for her to understand. “What he say?”

Eren looked back to Krista. “Ich schwöre Ihnen, er wird überleben. Er wird aber nicht zu Ihnen zurückkehren.” I swear to you, he will survive. But he won’t return to you.

She sank in disappointment. “Ich verstehe. Viel Glück.” I understand. Good luck. Then she looked to Levi. “Adieu.”

Soignez les blessures de ton amie. Bonne chance à tous les deux.” Tend to your friend’s wounds. Good luck to you both. Then Levi bowed to them. “Adieu.”

Eren removed his cap and gave a polite bow. “Leb wohl.” Farewell.

Eren and Levi walked away, realizing they would likely never see those ladies again. Such a shame too. They were the sort of strong women Eren would have liked to befriend.

The light misting of that morning was turning into a drizzle as they returned to the house Eren’s platoon had taken. Their horses were waiting out front, along with a truck for supplies. Jean had taken charge of the packing, and the men were almost ready to move out.

Franz sneered as soon as he saw Levi. “What is that doing here?”

Eren explained to the group in a snappish tone, “Unless any of you have managed to learn French while sitting around drinking wine all day and jerking yourselves off all night, we need this Jewish rat to translate, at least until we get to Metz. If you can translate for us, Franz, you can shoot him. If you can’t, then keep your finger off your trigger.”

Franz frowned and asked suspiciously, “Where did you go after the assembly?”

“The captain and I were shooting Jews. You missed out on the fun.”

Franz burst out into a laugh. “Good! For a moment there, I was afraid you ran off just to save this piece of shit.”

“Sir!” Armin pulled Eren away and whispered in horror, “Did you really shoot the Jews?”

Jean also came up, his brow pinched with a deep crease. Eren looked at both of them, and his eyes dropped in grief.

“I had to shoot one of them. I had no choice. The captain…” He felt his stomach lurch, but he managed to swallow it back down.

Armin put a comforting hand on his shoulder. “I’m so sorry. I know you really wanted to help them. You did your best.”

Jean asked in concern, “Are they all dead?”

“No, the four women made it out.”

“Thank God,” Jean sighed in relief.

Eren thought about the scene he had seen, Jew after Jew being shot, collapsing in sprays of blood, until he himself had to pull the trigger. “I got there too late. The woman named Sasha died trying to free them. Then the captain … it was either shoot one of them and Levi could live, or he would have shot them all.”

Armin gritted his teeth in silent anguish. “And probably you with them.”

“Yeah,” he muttered. Eren put a hand on Armin’s shoulder and leaned into his ear. “I may need your help yet again once we reach Metz.”

“I’m ready,” he said loyally.

“Count me out,” Jean muttered. “I was just in it to rescue the women.” He turned, but he muttered under his breath, “I’m glad they’re safe.”

Armin smiled as Jean marched off. “He was really worried this whole time.”

“I know,” Eren whispered. “He’d never admit it.” Then Eren pulled himself out of his grief. “We’ll be relying on your escape route, Armin.”

“I’ll be riding in the truck with my radio set up. If I hear anything, I’ll let you know.”

“Good. Jean, what about the rest of the platoon?”

“They’ve all got horses and are ready to go, sir.” Just then, Thomas came walking out of the kitchen with a massive box. “Wait, wait, wait! I said no more kitchen gear. You won’t need spices on the battlefield.”

“We’ll be in Metz,” Thomas protested, looking protective over his spices. “That’s a nice city. We should be allowed to eat well.”

“We’ll be too busy fighting to enjoy the fact that you used rosemary on whatever rations they give us.”

Eren said calmly, “Find some sacks. Carry what you can on your horse, but don’t overload the truck. We don’t have much petrol.” He looked around at his men. “It’ll be a long trip. There may be enemy troops on the road between here and Metz. Keep an eye out at all times, and have your guns loaded and ready. Germany has fallen back too far. Not us! We take our stand in Metz. We will stop their tanks, and then we will push those fat American bastards out of Europe and back over the ocean. We will take back France. All of France, this time! Once there are swastikas on every flag from here to the Atlantic, we will sink the British Isles into the sea and leave their bloated corpses to the sharks. We march, men! Sieg Heil!

Sieg Heil!” they cheered.

Franz came up to Eren. “Excuse me, Herr Leutnant. Did you know your hat pin is missing?”

Eren took off his damp field-gray cap and looked down to the blank spot where the eagle pin had been. “So it is. It must have fallen off. I don’t have time to search for it. I can replace it in Metz. Thank you for letting me know.” He realized, as much as he now hated what that eagle and swastika stood for, as long as he was a German soldier he had to wear the uniform properly. “Armin, did you find what I asked for?”

“Yes, sir.” Armin rushed into the house, and Eren followed with Levi at his heels. Armin came forward with a folded pile of civilian clothing. “It should be in your size.”

Eren waved Levi to follow him upstairs to his bedroom. There, he shut the door and began to unbutton his uniform tunic. Levi’s eyes narrowed as Eren slipped out of the gray tunic, set it aside, and pulled his undershirt up over his head, exposing his pale chest.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“The situation is more grim than Hauptmann Woermann will admit. The American Army went past us a few days ago, didn’t even know we were here, and now they stand somewhere between us and Metz.”

“Is that why you had to use the telegraph? Communication problems?”

Eren did not like to admit that someone purposely made sure they were left behind, yet were not attacked. He sat on the bed to take off his army boots. “We have to sneak past them, slip between the gaps, but we don’t exactly know where the Americans might be. I volunteered to scout ahead.”

“You’re the vanguard? Oh, great! So you get shot first.”

“That’s why I’m dressing as a civilian.”

He turned his back to Levi out of decency as he dropped his uniform trousers. Levi looked aside, but his eyes slowly slid back over. He had never seen Eren naked before. Even when he cared for him through pneumonia, Eren wore nightclothes, or Levi stepped out if he had to undress. Now, he could not help but look at the sculpted muscles of his back, the lean power in his legs, the muscular arms, and the softness he hid with pale cotton boxer shorts. His gaze lingered there, until Eren began to pull on plain gray wool trousers. Then Levi snapped out of it and turned away. He folded his arms stubbornly, upset at himself for rudely looking.

Eren pulled on a sky blue shirt and used suspenders to hold up his trousers, since they were a little too big. The shoes were worn out, and Eren wondered if they had belonged to someone who died. He also pulled on a tweed flat cap and a honey-brown leather jacket. Finally, he turned back to Levi and saw him looking away. He smiled, thinking that sense of propriety was cute, although he partly wished Levi had wanted to look at him. Levi turned around now, and Eren stretched his arms out in presentation.

“How do I look?”

“Like you still belong in school,” Levi grumbled, although he had to admit, it was nice to see Eren wearing something other than that Nazi uniform. He could finally see the young man he should have been, not the soldier he was forced to become. “So, you’re riding in front, dressed as a civilian, and … what? Hope they don’t shoot you after they realize there are a hundred Nazis coming up behind you?”

“I figured, I speak English, so if we meet Americans or British, I can talk with them. Then I will ride back and warn the rest of the platoon to avoid that road.”

“With your thick-as-wood accent?” Levi cried out. “They’d shoot you on the spot. No, since I’m stuck with you anyway, let me do the talking. If it comes to a fight…” Levi brushed his fingers over the knife. “At least I’m finally armed again. It felt wrong, not having a sword or knife on me.”

Eren grinned at him. “Are you offering to protect me?”

“I’m offering to keep you alive so you can keep me alive. Regretfully unavoidable symbiosis.”

Eren walked up closer to Levi. His eyes lowered, sad, wanting to reach out to him while they were alone like this, but feeling unworthy, tainted by blood. “Is it really regretful, being near me now? I’ll understand if you run away.”

The misery in his voice pierced Levi’s heart, making him want to reach out to him. “If I run, that bastard captain will shoot you.”

Eren shrugged, not really caring anymore. He was probably going to die in this war anyway, so why not do it rescuing a person?

“Fuck that,” Levi spat out. “I’ll not have your blood on my hands.”

“I deserve it,” Eren whispered, Abel’s eyes already haunting him.

Levi saw Eren sinking in regret and self-disgust. His hand moved up, and for a moment Eren wondered if Levi was about to touch him, comfort him, maybe even hold him against the dark guilt. Instead, Levi suddenly flicked Eren hard on the forehead.

“Ow!” Eren backed away, rubbing the pain in his head.

“Don’t ever say you deserve death. It gets you nowhere, and fulfilling that wish is the easy way out.” He thought about all the times he wished he could join his companions in the unknown beyond. He knew how dark that feeling was, feeling like you did not deserve to live. “I told you, dedicate yourself to redemption.” It was the best advice he could give, the only thing that kept him alive sometimes. Like now, another massacre, another time he narrowly escaped, forced to carry on the will of all those who did not make it. Redemption was all he had left.

“Then my redemption is to save your life.”

“I won’t complain about you making that your goal. Just make sure you succeed.”

Eren smiled, feeling a little better. Seeing the light return to his teal eyes warmed Levi’s heart.

Eren threw his uniform into a duffle bag. He also yanked a thick, quilted blanket off the bed and gave it to Levi to wrap up against the rain. Finally, he checked his gun. His hand hesitated as he had to replace the one empty chamber, the bullet that had ended the life of an innocent man. They would be heading into a warzone, and he needed his gun to be fully loaded.

Finally, they left. Eren stepped outside, threw his duffle bag onto the waiting truck, and walked over to the horses. He took Levi’s burlap sack with the book inside, and he tied it securely to the side of his saddle. The rough-looking bag added to the appearance of some average peasant out for a ride.

Armin came up to him. “Sir, there’s no horse for the Jew.”

“He’ll ride with me, scouting out ahead. He’s our translator, after all. Someone has to read the street signs.”

Armin’s brow tensed in worry. “Do you really have to be the one who scouts ahead? It’s dangerous.”

“War always is.”

“You could leave it to Franz or Connie.”

“Connie’s our sharpshooter. I need his eyes ready to take out the enemy. Franz has no battle experience. Besides,” he said, pulling out a folded map, “I know best how to read one of your maps. I trust the path you’ve laid out.”

“Then be safe, Eren.”

“Keep that radio running. Viel Glück.

Eren climbed onto his horse and offered a hand down to Levi. The small Jew looked at the horse, then up to Eren.

“Are you shitting me?”

“It’s either ride with me or walk.”

Levi rolled his eyes, but he extended his hand. Eren pulled him up with surprising strength, and Levi straddled the horse behind him.

“Have you ever ridden a horse?”

“Not in ten years.”

“Well, hold on tight.”

As Eren kicked his heels and the horse trotted forward, Levi grabbed around his waist to keep from falling off. He felt his cheeks warming up as the whole village saw them riding forward together.

Eren fell silent as he trotted toward the main road and watched the chaos around them. He sneered as he realized the soldiers were not just packing up to go, they were looting anything they could before they left. All around them, German soldiers beat French shop owners, taking food and valuables. He saw a few of the new recruits in his own platoon doing this, and he made note to make their lives hell when they got to Metz.

Eren tried his hardest to block out the scene, lest he be tempted to stop the violence against civilians and land himself in even more trouble. He figured he should be grateful that Kitz Woermann did not have time to carry out his threat of outright slaughtering the entire village.

Leutnant Jäger!

Eren pulled the horse to a halt and turned around. He saw Kitz marching up to them. “Scheiße,” he whispered under his breath.

“Do you have a map?”

“Yes, Herr Hauptmann.”

“Good. If that Obergefreiter of yours actually gets us through this alive, I will be sure to put in a request for a promotion.”

“Thank you, Herr Hauptmann. Armin Arlelt deserves it.”

“Indeed. Keep an eye out for enemy movement.” He slid a glare over to Levi. “I’m surprised you can stomach having that rodent so close to you.”

“To be honest, sir, he reeks like shit. Do I have permission to half-drown him in the river first?”

“Maybe when we stop for dinner. For now, have him bark at the civilians to get out of our way.”

Jawohl!

“And remember: if he escapes, I will shoot you.”

“As bad as he smells, he shall not leave my sight.” Then Eren flashed an eager smile. “I think instead of shooting him, I’ll hang him, that way I can watch him struggling. Killing one Jew wasn’t enough, and this one has been such a pain in the neck.”

“Hanging! I like it. I’m glad you’re not crying over those vermin.”

“Who cries over a dead rat?”

Kitz laughed. “I think you toughened up a bit while you were here.”

“If so, I have you to thank for it, Herr Hauptmann.” Kitz strode off, and the smile on Eren’s face fell. He whispered, “Ich hasse diesen Mann.” I hate that man.

Levi muttered, “I swear, he’s going to shoot one of us some day.”

Eren looked around behind his shoulder. “Don’t worry. I’ll protect you.”

Before Levi could reply, Eren kicked his horse into a canter. All Levi could do was hold tighter around Eren’s waist.

“You brat,” he grumbled under his breath as they rode ahead of the Nazi company.

# # #

# #

#

Dawndew

Dawndew made me another aesthetic capturing images of the past few chapters. I love it!

AOT characters

The 6 named Jews – Levi, Moses, Abel, Rashad, Isabel, and Ruth. All of them were chosen from the manga purely for their names being of Hebrew/Arabic origin. (Okay, Isabel is a Spanish derivative of the Hebrew name Elisheba, but close enough.) Abel did not have a last name in the manga, so I gave him my in-laws’ surname.

Power Vacuum – When Eren contemplates shooting Kitz, Ian, and Gunther, considering he would have to flee with Levi and Abel, that would leave behind no officers, only platoon sergeants like Jean. A power vacuum like that really would lead to chaos and assured disaster for the German company as they get ready to sneak through enemy territory.

Abel’s prayer – I did not translate Abel’s last words in text because it would have ruined the intensity of the scene. He recites part of the last stanza of the Mourner’s Kaddish, “May the One who creates harmony on high, bring peace to us and to all Israel.”

Kaddish – I gave some background to the Mourner’s Kaddish in an earlier chapter. Traditionally, there should be at least ten men present when Kaddish is said at a funeral, but Levi does it solo with Eren assisting.

Here is a video showing the way to properly recite the Mourner’s Kaddish so you can hear how it’s musically chanted:

Exalted and hallowed be God’s great name
[Amen]
in the world which God created,
according to plan.
May God’s majesty be revealed in the days of our lifetime
and within the life of the entire Family of Israel,
swiftly and soon.
To which we say: Amen.
[Amen]

Blessed be God’s great name
to all eternity.

Blessed, praised, honored,
exalted, extolled,
glorified, adored, lauded
be the Name of the Holy One
Blessed is He
beyond all earthly words
and songs of blessing, praise, and comfort.
To which we say: Amen.
[Amen]

May there be abundant peace from Heaven
and life, for us and all Israel.
To which we say: Amen.
[Amen]

May the One who creates harmony on high,
bring peace to us
and to all Israel.
To which we say: Amen.
[Amen]

Levi says, “Take it upon yourself to build humanity’s future!” – Sasageyo! Sasageyo! Shinzou wo sasageyo! Susumu beki mirai wo sono te de kizuke. (At least according to the English dub anime translation.) You’re welcome for getting it stuck in your head again. Check out this frigging awesome WWII themed music video based on AOT music.

Tu es la pire des garces” – Chapter 130 came out as I was editing this, and Eren says to Historia, “I got saved by the worst girl in the world.” The “worst girl” line was something Historia called herself back in the crystal cave. (The best character development scene in the whole series, fight me!) I wanted to use that, so I found the French translation of the manga.

Eren and Historia

Eren says, “Tu es la pire des scélérates.” You are the worst scoundrel. Ehhh… not exactly what I was hoping for. It just doesn’t hold the same weight. I looked back to Chapter 66, and there Historia says “La pire, la fille la plus meprisable de toute l’histoire.The worst, most despicable girl in history. Okay, closer, and I love that Historia says “de toute l'histoire.” Histoire, Historia? Poetic! Still, I looked around some more and found Season 3 Episode 7 in French dubs. Here, she calls herself “la pire des garces,” the worst bitch. Damn, that is sooooo much better than even the English dub! Maybe not poetic, but powerful! So for that scene, when Levi calls her “la pire des garces,” I’m going off the French dub.

Worst Girl

Someone asked me for a visual timeline of events. I can't put EVERYTHING from my timeline into it, since that would result in tons of spoilers, but I did make something that can help readers see how the story corresponds to real events in history. On the left column are the real, historic events. On the right are highlights of the past 23 chapters, including what we know happened before 1944. (That might be a little spoiler-ish, since Levi has not talked much about his past and we have not seen Erwin yet.)

(see full size)

timeline


Hey everyone, Rhov here.

Whew!!! What a journey, eh? This was brutal to write.

This is the end of Act One. Time for a massive scene change, new characters, a new direction for Eren now that he has disavowed the Nazi Party, and a new awakening of feelings for Levi. Act Two will take place in Metz.

However, I really, REALLY need a break. Not only because this has been a hellish emotional roller coaster and half a year of weekly updates, but … well, I made a mistake.

You see, in my original draft, the Germans left the village on September 3rd. This worked perfectly within the historic movements of armies in northern France. Then as I began to post this story online, I decided to change some things. I wanted to give Eren and Levi more time together after the confession. (Originally, Eren confessed his feelings right after Krista gave everyone bread, and the massacre was literally the next day.)

So, I began to rewrite the story while in the midst of posting it. To achieve what I wanted, whole new chapters had to be created, with sometimes days worth of historic research to create the scenes accurately. (OMG all that research into WWII communications, AHHHH!) Many noted, I switched to every-other-week updates rather than weekly. This is because I was frantically writing brand new scenes.

Personally, I think this enhanced the story tenfold! The extra time for Levi and Eren to walk in the garden, touch more, and get in some extra kisses, was totally adorable. Hopefully, it built up a believable relationship, one that is cautious, fearful, struggling with societal prejudices and emotional trauma, yet gradually growing stronger.

BUT! … all of this put the day of the evacuation on September 8th. I didn’t think much of this at the time. What’s a few days, right?

Hah…

The most amazing thing about studying the history of the Western Front in the Second World War is just how fast the Allies were able to liberate France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, after just how swiftly those countries fell to the Germans in 1940. At one point, Allied troops were simply racing after retreating Germans, moving a hundred kilometers a day, their only real trouble being a few rearguard traps and ambushes.

(Side Note: This rapid push built up a frenzy within American troops, many of whom were fresh out of boot camp with no combat experience. So when the Allies had to pause in mid-September due to fuel shortages and didn’t gain much ground over the next few months, many Americans began to get frustrated at not constantly being on the move, taking weeks rather than hours to capture cities, and actually having to, you know, FIGHT A WAR rather than chase after retreating Nazis. Americans really are fickle fighters.)

I purposely never name this village. I didn’t want to stick to a real town’s 1944 layout. My amazing collaborator who created the plot outline, Moonlessnight126, had not specified a location, nor even a year. She imagined a small village next to a river, a forest nearby, within less than a day’s walk of a border, so close yet unreachable. That, plus other future events, made the ideal location northern France, near the Belgian border, the Meuse River running by the village … okay, I totally based it on Haybes, France. Just not the town layout; we needed a castle/château with a prison. So it remains as an unnamed, fictional town.

If anyone is curious and loves maps (I can't be the only one) this is the map I used, showing the location of the Western Front on September 3rd, 12th, and 14th, 1944.

Western Front Aug-Sept
(full size here)

So on September 3rd (my original date of the company leaving) my imagined location of this fictional town was still under Axis control. Except now, they are leaving on the 8th.

This is where I made a mistake. Although I had created a fairly good timeline, with one column for plot events and one column for real-world events, as I wrote new content for the story, I did not research anything between September 3rd and the Battle of Metz. (Whoops! Did I slip in a spoiler?) In researching for a future chapter, I came across some military notes, which included that on September 9th, a German Sturmpanzer soldier was captured by the Allies in Libramont, 60 km east of totally-not-Haybes.

I thought this was cool, maybe useful in the future, so I went to put it in my timeline, only to realize that NOW Eren leaves on September 8th. This German soldier was caught 60 miles east on September 9th.

Uh-oh!

I scoured the web for maps of the Western Front. Where the hell were the Americans on September 8th? The closest I could find was this map based on September 5, 1944, showing only tiny pockets of the France/Belgium border still under German control.

5 Sept 1944
(full size here)

By the 8th, they definitely would have been overrun, especially with that report of Allies arresting POWs in Libramont on the 9th. Totally-not-Haybes would have been in Allied territory by September 8th. My little plot tweak screwed up the real-life history.

… shit …

I was left with a few options for how to proceed.

  1. Screw history, I’ll just leave everything as it is. (Not an option for a history nerd like me!)

  2. Rewrite past chapters and hope my readers don’t notice and aren’t keeping track of what day it is. I’ve honestly had to do this twice already (no one noticed) so while this could have worked, it would be a serious pain in the ass to morph all the historical references I made around the real-life timeline.

  3. Change it so the American army is right in front of them as they leave. That would be awesomely dramatic, but I’m left with a huge problem: why bother with the Jews? They would be fleeing for their lives! Is shooting a few Jews really THAT much more important than evacuating a company that is about to be bombed?

  4. The Allies simply never knew they were there, and the Germans never knew the front line had swept past them.

I liked that last option, but it meant someone was tampering with their communications. For reasons that shall be explained later, that honestly works perfectly.

So, they aren’t simply going to ride straight to Metz, as I had planned. If the Allies are already closing in on Libramont and will be capturing POWs in less than 24 hours, that means this company has to get through at least 60 km of enemy territory and go a long way around to the north and east, before they can head south to Metz.

Then my overactive mind thought, “Ooooh, wouldn’t it be cool if they were attacked on the way to Metz?” And my thalamus went, “Yes, yes, that would be awesome, it’d be great to see them actually fighting.” Followed by my amygdala saying, “Guys, what if Eren gets shot, not badly, but grazed by a bullet, enough where Levi gets to care for him. How emotional would that be!” Then the temporal lobe chimed in, “Remember, Levi is still grieving, and Eren may be in deeper shock than he’s letting on after killing that man. Neither may be ready for intimacy yet. Emotions are good, but you must remember what they just went through!” My occipital lobes bounced up and down cheering, “Yes, angst, angst, we wanna see some angst.” My cerebellum calmed down the hyper occipitals, “Okay, but we must keep a balance between angst and driving the plot forward.” Then my frontal lobe cried out, “I’ve got it! Since this will be a hundred kilometers out of their way, it would take a couple days, right? So they have to stop for the night in a town, Levi has to translate, Eren has to keep Levi near him ‘to make sure he doesn’t escape,’ and Levi can tend to Eren’s wound, all alone, in a private room. They can talk, cry, and have a tender moment for healing.” The parietal lobe sighed, “Oh, just imagine! Levi has nightmares of the trauma, and Eren holds him until he falls back to sleep, but Eren falls asleep first, curled around him, and Levi lets him. He’s not ready for passion, but a simple touch, that human connection, is healing.”

Then my entire brain melted at an image of them spending the night close to one another on this little military roadtrip.

Welcome to the world of Rhov’s Brain.

brain jig

(I knew those neurobiology lessons would come in handy one day.)

This means, I get to write a whole adventure I have not planned on, which involves more research I have not started on.

So, I know everyone loves these weekly updates, I do too and I would LOVE to keep doing that, but I need a small break to sort out this problem. This is a great place to pause as we transition into Act Two.

Be healthy and safe. Bleiben sie gesund und sicher. Soyez en bonne santé et faites attention. היה בריא ובטוח

Chapter Text

ACT II: METZ

 

The company traveled through the hills and forests of the Ardennes region as the September drizzle continued. Even if they did not know the full details of this escape to Metz—such as why they were heading north and not south—the soldiers sensed that it was no normal transfer to another location. The officers kept hushing them. The pace was slow and cautious, despite Kitz’s speech that said they needed speed. Gunther and Ian rode their horses back and forth between the three platoons, working as guides and making sure no one strayed off into the woods.

Jean drove one of only three supply trucks, packed with their gear, food, and ammunition. They also had two extra horses being pulled along behind. Marlo and Grützmacher had been their only fatalities, one shot by Kitz for flirting with the Jews, the other beaten to death by Eren for raping Levi. A soldier in Metz could use their horses. Sitting beside him, Armin had his field radio set up with his normal whip antenna so he could pick up from all directions. His hand pushed on his headphones to hear through the static and noise of the truck’s engine.

“Anything?” Jean asked him.

Armin twisted a dial. “No, and that’s good news.”

Jean sighed and stretched his fingers on the steer wheel. “I hope we meet with nobody until we’re at the gates of Metz.”

Up ahead, far enough up the road so he could not hear the noisy company, Eren rode his horse with Levi sitting behind him, his back warm with the heat of Levi’s chest. He thought that it could have been a pleasant early autumn ride through the countryside, if not for the need to keep an eye out for the red, white, and blue flags of the enemy.

“There’s a fork in the road. Which way do we go?”

Levi ended up being his navigator. As a captain, Levi knew how to read a map like this. Armin’s route was admittedly brilliant, a careful weaving between known locations of American troops, using the hilly forests of the Ardennes to hide themselves, taking roads that were so small, tanks had no chance to go across them. Even their trucks would have a hard time. The American army would stick to larger roads to move their massive divisions on from city to city.

Eren had explained everything to Levi on the road, how someone had given them false information, how the Allies had surged past them without checking their small village, and how they now had to avoid the enemy troops as they made a speedy flight north, back into Axis-controlled areas of Belgium, then over to Luxembourg, and finally an approach to Metz from the east. Rather than a few hours, this would take two days, going slower in order to kick up as little dirt as possible and avoid detection.

As tempting as it was to tell Eren to go another direction so Levi could escape to the Allies, he was sure that more people had maps and would catch the deception. His life was only barely saved, and he was determined to do anything to live to see the next day. Plus if he headed the company toward Allies, they were likely to be shot the second someone saw a swastika.

“Straight, but in the next town we go east.”

East. Toward Germany.

The Germans were falling back, and their forces were consolidating in a city that notoriously had never been invaded since Attila the Hun. Even during the Battle of France, the Germans wisely went around Metz, avoiding it. It only became German thanks to the armistice between France and Germany.

No such political agreement would happen here. The Allies had to purge the Germans out, or else risk leaving tens of thousands of enemy troops to wreak havoc on the countryside after the tanks rolled past toward the Westwall. Invading Metz, though, was a feat that no army in 1,500 years had accomplished. Hitler’s generals were wise to bunker down there as their final defense in France.

Levi struggled to translate German notes Armin had written on the map. “Americans liberated Chateau-Thierry on the 27th, Reims on the 29th, Verdun on the 31st. How can they move an entire army that quickly?” Levi muttered to himself. “The sheer amount of petrol they would need is insane!”

Eren whispered, “America has oil fields. Germany does not. So they have tanks and trucks, while we have horses.” He felt Levi rest his head on his back and tried to look around. “Are you okay?”

“Sorry,” he grunted reluctantly. “I’ve not eaten anything all day. Just a little dizzy, that’s all.”

“You should have said so.” Eren reached into his saddle bag and pulled out a wrapped bar. “Here, eat this. It’s full of … um … Eiweiß und Vitamine. Good stuff.”

Levi accepted it, ripped open the package, and smelled a bar that was slightly fruity and sweet. He ate the protein bar ration as they clomped along.

“Do you need anything else?”

“Water.”

“There’s a canteen on the saddle. Help yourself.”

Eating his food, drinking his water. Levi realized more and more, he really did owe his life to Eren.

A debt that big could take a lifetime to repay.

Levi pulled the blanket a little closer around his shoulders. He hated feeling damp and cold, but he was glad that Eren at least tried to give him something warm to bundle up in. The blanket smelled of him. It was comforting, and the warmth of Eren’s back soothed the cold pain in his heart.

He again rested his head on Eren. Such a strong back! His hand rubbed along the leather jacket. It was nice to see Eren wearing something other than a Wehrmacht uniform. Like this, he could think of him as just a man, not a Nazi soldier.

Eren felt Levi’s hand, the gentle caress, the closeness of his body, and he gulped. A day ago, he would have flirted, or at least tried in his awkward, inexperienced way. Now, he felt unworthy of this warm feeling. He even began to hate it.

A man was dead because of him. What right did he have to feel happy?

“Stop that.”

Those two words came out so coldly, Levi’s hand yanked back on instinct.

What was he doing? A few days ago, Eren intimately touching him sent Levi into a panic. Now, the closeness felt comforting, and hearing Eren bitterly telling him not to touch him hurt deeper than it logically should.

He had never been such a needy man. What was wrong with him?

They continued on for an hour in silence. Levi began to get weary again and leaned against Eren’s back, gazing off into the trees. Then he looked down at the road, and he suddenly jolted.

“Stop!”

Eren pulled the horse to a sharp halt. “What is it?”

He pointed out. “Cigarette. I can smell it still. Whoever threw that down, they passed here less than an hour ago.”

Eren inhaled. “I smell nothing.”

“You smoke so much, I’m not surprised. It’s faint, but it was definitely discarded this morning.” Levi began to look around. “I don’t see … wait, there!” He leaped off the horse and walked off the side of the road. “Smart move, kid,” he muttered to himself. “Boot prints. The road is muddy, so they walked off the path to hide their prints, but you can still see them in the mud over here. Two, maybe three sets. Hard to tell for sure with the boots being the same tread. That means military-issue.”

“Americans?”

“I don’t know what their boots look like.” Levi picked up the discarded cigarette. “No label.” He began to look around more, but he frowned as he saw no more evidence.

“They could be long gone by now.”

“Maybe,” Levi said, sniffing the cigarette. He suddenly pulled back. “Americans, for sure.”

“How do you know?”

“The cigarette reeks of barbecue sauce.” Levi’s eyes shifted back and forth. “We continue, but be careful.”

He walked back and climbed onto the horse. Eren gave him a hand up and felt Levi wrap his arms around his waist again. He smiled faintly to himself. It was nice to at least know that Levi was watching out for him. Still, whenever Eren felt a little happy, Abel’s eyes haunted him.

Another hour passed with birdsong and drizzle. Levi knew he was going to end up feverish from this, but there was nothing to do but draw a little closer for warmth.

“Eren,” he whispered, and he heard a curious hum. “All that happened down in the dungeon … don’t worry about it.”

Eren tried to look around, but Levi hid from his eyes.

“To save a life, you must sometimes take a life. It doesn’t soothe your heart to understand that fact, and it’s the sort of choice no one ever wants to make. It darkens your soul for the rest of your life. I know that better than anyone,” he muttered, thinking about the voices in the dark that screamed at him every night. “I wish I could tell you how to stop the nightmares. All I can say is, sometimes it helps to have a goal and simply continue onward.”

“Thank you,” Eren muttered, glad that Levi was at least trying to comfort him, yet being realistic.

“I’ve also done things I’m not proud of,” he said with disgust in his eyes. “I’ve killed people who were not aware of why they had to die. I’ve killed people who honestly thought they were doing the right thing. In their minds, they were the innocent ones, and I’m the villain. It haunts you,” Levi said grimly. “I won’t say it’ll all be better in the morning. I’m just letting you know, you’re not the only person who has had to kill an innocent person to save another innocent person. Not always can we find a nonviolent solution. You do what you must in order to survive to a new day, and you pray that one day you can atone for it all.”

“Couldn’t agree more, buddy!”

Eren yanked the horse to a halt, and Levi snapped his gaze up into the trees. High above, he saw a man in a camouflage uniform blending in with the forest.

“Didn’t know they spoke English here in Belgium.”

Levi leaned into Eren’s ear. “Don’t say a word.” Then he called up to the hidden man. “Some of us do. Forest bandits normally don’t.”

The man laughed. “Forest bandit? I ain’t no Robin Hood.”

“Good, because we have no money, and I’d make a bloody horrible Maid Marian.”

The man let out a lighthearted laugh. “You speak like a Brit.”

“I lived there for a time. Who might you be? An American?”

“Yup! Come to liberate y’all.”

“Belgium and France are happy to be free from the Nazi swine. So, is your army coming up the road, or have they already passed and cleared the way for us?”

“Nah, they’re off a way still. Me and the buddies are just keeping a lookout, y’see. Make sure none of them Krauts try to sneak around. Pretty sure we got ‘em all chased off, scurrying back toward the Siegfried Line like mice in a flood, but I ain’t gonna complain about relaxing in a tree all day. Beats bein’ a mug slogger. Gonna get rained on either way, but I’d rather keep my feet dry.”

“Well, I’ve seen no one on the road. Do you know where we can find a hot meal?”

“Hell if I know! Ain’t my country. You should probably steer clear of Saint-Hubert and Libramont, though. The boys plan to clear the Krauts out of there in the next day or two.”

“That’s good to know. I’d rather keep clear of any fighting.”

“Where y’all heading to, anyway?”

“Bastogne,” Levi answered. “Do you know if there’s any fighting over there?”

“Sorry, buddy, ain’t got a clue where that is. I will say, those boys are moving east faster than ducks in hunting season. Or is that south?” he muttered in confusion. “Anyway! Good luck to ya, and be safe on the road. Happy victory!” He flashed down a V sign with his fingers.

Levi raised an eyebrow, but Eren gave him a big grin and also held up two fingers. Then he snapped the reins, and the horse continued onward.

Levi rubbed his chin and mumbled, “What was that hand sign? Was he insulting us? I saw people do something like that in England, and it was an insult.”

“He didn’t sound like he was insulting us. He thinks we’re Belgians. Plus he said happy victory. Maybe it’s a V for victory.”

“In any case, it means Americans are nearby, and we need to watch what we say in case there are more hiding in the trees.”

Eren glanced into the gray haze of the rainy forest and dropped his voice. “He’ll see the army when they come by. Should we turn back around and warn them?”

“If we do, he’ll get suspicious of us. He has an advantage, being up in the trees. We’d both be shot easily. No, we need to find the main army. Let that bug-eyed bastard deal with the treetop lookouts.”

“He’ll probably be shot, if Connie can catch sight of him.” Eren lowered his gaze. “That’s rather sad. He seemed nice.”

Levi’s eyes narrowed. “That man is the face of your enemy.”

“I … I know,” Eren said softly. “Still, they’re just people with families back home.” Eren gave a long sigh. “I know what you’re thinking: I’m getting weak.”

“No. You’re showing compassion for your enemy. There is nothing weak about that. It means you have a conscience.”

“We’re taught, conscience is the deepest illness of mankind, robbing you of self-confidence.”

“Conscience is knowing right from wrong, good from evil. If you lose your sense of conscience, what are you left with? Self-confidence is nothing but psychopathy without some form of morality to keep it in check.”

“We were taught in Napola, society forms the moral compass of one’s conscience, and the Jews guided that through religion and guilt.”

Levi openly laughed at that. “Seriously? Germany thinks the Jews molded German society, yet allowed ourselves to be oppressed for two thousand years? And what of American society? Do you think Jews have control over that too? And China? Iran? Africa? South America? Do you think Jews secretly took over the entire world and magically invented human conscience and morality? Please! If Jews really were that amazing, Hitler would hire us, not kill us.”

Eren frowned and said nothing more. Just thinking about the hate Nazis had for Jews made him remember watching Kitz shooting the Jewish prisoners one by one without a shred of remorse. Even killing a rat should make a normal person at least a little sad, let alone murdering a human.

Yet Nazis did not see Jews as fully human. They saw them as worse than rats. Did he feel remorse when he swatted a mosquito? To Kitz and those like him, Jews were a pest and not something to be mourned. In reshaping social morality, Hitler had decreed that killing a Jew was no different from killing an insect.

He rubbed his head. “I hate Nazis,” he whispered.

Levi felt the tension in his back, and he dropped his head. “Join the club.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“You’ve already said so. Let’s drop it.”

They rode along in silence, with the rain seeping through Levi’s blanket. He kept his eyes out, checking the shadowy forest, the leafy branches above, and the road under them. There was no way an entire army passed through here. With the rain, they would have seen clear tracks. Still, here were other roads nearby that crossed this forest road.

Levi patted Eren on the back. “Hold up. The forest is ending.”

The horse slowly trotted past the last trees. It was a clearing for a few farms that had carved their way into the Belgium countryside, and up ahead they saw a group of soldiers.

“Americans,” Eren whispered. “I count twenty-seven.”

“No, twenty-nine.” Levi nodded over to a military truck a little closer to the road, and there two men were sitting to have a smoke.

The two men caught sight of Eren and stood, eyes glaring.

“Halt! Where ya boys heading?”

Levi whispered to Eren. “Remember, don’t talk.” Levi then called out in a thick accent and broken English. “Geeentlemen, good day. We jist riding, go to town.”

Eren looked back at Levi with a pinched brow. He never spoke with that thick of an accent.

“Two guys riding one horse?” one of the Americans muttered.

“One horse, oui. Bring les moutons up road. Bah-bah black sheep, oui?”

The other American rolled his eyes. “Some damn shepherds. Great.”

“Sheep spook easy. You no big army, big boom-booms?”

The two men jostled each other. “Big army,” they chuckled. “America’s army is massive, buddy. We’ve got the biggest boom-booms you’ve ever seen.”

“Where best place for sheep? No want sheep go through big boom-booms.”

One rolled his eyes, but the other stepped forward. “My family raised cows, so I know what you mean about herding dumb animals. You need to drive your sheep through here, but you want to avoid a battlefield, right?”

Oui, yes! No big boom-booms for les moutons.”

The soldier on the truck let out a groan as he smoked his cigarette. “Man, don’t tell him where the army is. What if he’s a Kraut?”

Eren gulped at that.

The other soldier glared back. “Does he sound German to you? Look, I don’t want Sarge to get mad that there are a few hundred sheep blocking the road. If these guys want to avoid the army, all the better!” He turned back to Levi. “Where are you two heading?”

“We go to Bastogne, then down to Ville de Luxembourg,” Levi replied.

“Okay, Bastogne is east of here. Lemme see.”

The soldier reached into a pack and pulled out a map. He walked up to the horse, and Eren tensed, gripping the reins until his knuckles were white. To be this close to the enemy!

“Yeah, so Bastogne is here. You’ll want to avoid Saint-Hubert and Libramont. Keep north of them, if you can. We’re driving through this country rather quickly, though. Stay off big roads.”

Oui, no big roads, that is why we go through forest. No army, no boom-booms.”

The smoking soldier chuckled. “No boom-booms,” he repeated in amusement.

“What about Luxembourg?” asked Levi. “I have family there.”

The soldier shrugged. “With any luck, the Germans there fled and there won’t be fighting. They’ve been hightailing it back to the Siegfried Line the whole time I’ve been here, like we’re chasing a scared flock of goose-stepping cowards.”

Eren held back his rage at the proud Wehrmacht being called cowards, but Levi felt his back stiffen.

“Is good, get Germans out of France.”

The soldier slowly looked up. “You mean Belgium.”

Levi realized too late, they were now in a different country. “Oui, Belgium too.”

The soldier lowered the map and looked them both over. Then his eyes landed on Eren’s watch.

“Fuck.”

Eren saw the movement, the soldier’s hand reaching down to his gun, and he reacted on instinct. He kicked the man in the chin, sending him flipping. Then he yanked the horse’s reins, giving it a shout, and galloped back down the road. They heard gunshots behind them.

“What the hell, Eren?” Levi screamed.

“My watch. I didn’t take it off.”

Levi looked at Eren’s wrist and saw the issue. On the face of the watch was a swastika.

“You idiot,” Levi yelled.

They heard the truck’s engine roaring and the sound of shouts, then another bullet exploded through the air. The horse whinnied, but Eren kicked it to keep running.

“We need to warn the others. That’s nothing more than a platoon, probably sent ahead to scout.”

They heard the truck behind them, chasing them down the road and quickly gaining. There were more gunshots, and Eren let out a cry.

“Eren!”

He gritted his teeth and raced back to the main group. They passed the lookout in the trees who shouted out to them. They even heard a gunshot from him, and the horse whinnied loudly again. Finally, Eren saw the first few horses of the German army.

Wir werden angegriffen.” We’re under attack.

As he rode through the other soldiers, shouting out the warning that Americans were coming, soldiers rushed ahead with their rifles. Eren rode to where Kitz Woermann was riding in one of the company’s motorcars, being chauffeured along.

“Sir! American troops ahead.”

“How many?”

“Twenty-nine, plus at least one in the trees. They’re not much of a threat.” He took off his watch and handed it over. “If you could hold on to that for me, sir. It’s what gave me away.”

“To catch such a detail, those Americans have good eyes after all.” Kitz shoved the watch into a pocket and began to bark out orders. “Halt the company. Slaughter that patrol, every last one of them. Comb the trees for sharpshooters. Don’t let them send word back. Figure out where the hell the main American army is.”

“Sir! I got some information before they found out what I am. Americans are in Libramont and Saint-Hubert, and Luxembourg City may be under attack. We will need to swing much further east than we planned.”

Kitz sneered as he looked at his own map. “That will add a day to our trip. Dammit! Still, better to know now and conserve on bullets. Good job, Jäger. I guess speaking English has its advantages.” Then his eyes drifted down. “You’re bleeding. Were you shot?”

“Not badly, sir, but I don’t think my horse will continue.”

“Fall back to the medical truck, get that patched up, and trade out your horse. Guess we get horse meat tonight,” he said with a chuckle. “After we deal with these bastards, I want you back up front. See if Arlelt can find us a new route.”

“Aye, sir!”

Eren rode along to the very back of the column where the medical truck was located, but he felt his horse shaking. Glancing, he saw it had been shot a few times in the flanks. The poor thing could not continue for the two hundred kilometers they would be traveling.

He finally saw the truck and recognized some of the company’s medical staff.

“Herr Doctor, I have a small wound. Hauptmann Woermann says to get it patched now.”

“Yes, let’s hurry.”

Eren climbed off his horse and flinched when he landed. Levi finally noticed blood soaking through the fabric of Eren’s trousers.

“Levi,” Eren said quietly, switching to English, “I need to trust you. Go to Armin. Tell him which cities to avoid.”

“How? I don’t speak German.”

“You can point to the map. We don’t have time for me to get patched and also him to create a new route. Also, have one of the other horses ready. Please, I know you have no reason to help me, but can I trust you?”

Levi understood what he meant. Eren was asking him to ride the horse. The chaos made for a perfect time for him to escape, and even with a wounded horse, he could likely get far away. Yet if he did, Eren would definitely get into a lot of trouble.

Levi pursed his lips. “Be honest. How bad is your wound?”

“Barely a scratch,” he said, waving it off.

Despite saying that, Levi saw the blood spreading over Eren’s uniform. “Fine, but you owe me.” He took up the reins. “Been ages since I rode,” he muttered.

He snapped the reins, but he felt the horse struggling onward. The poor beast was doomed, and Levi felt it was ironic that a German horse’s last act would be to carry a Jew so he could help some Nazis.

Levi rode on, weaving between soldiers, some on horse, some on foot racing forward to where the fighting was happening. He saw Connie run by, and the man glanced up at Levi in confusion. Then he saw the truck, and Jean standing up, trying to survey what all the chaos was about.

Jean saw the Jew on the horse, and his mouth dropped. “Was zum Teufel?” What the devil?

Levi reined in to a stop in front of him, but the Jew spoke in rapid English. He heard Eren’s name, but Jean could not make out more than a few words.

“Armin?” Jean called over. If anyone had a chance of making out this barbaric language, it was him.

Armin came over, and Jean heard the Jew switching to French. Armin’s French was elementary, but at least he had made a diligent attempt to learn the language, thinking it would be helpful while in France. He only stopped studying when he realized this Jew would likely be shot if he was not useful anymore. Armin really was too good for this world, to stop his love of studying just to save a man’s life.

Armin finally looked up. “If I’m getting it right, Eren was shot, not badly, but the horse can’t ride anymore. Get Marlo’s horse ready.”

“Eren was shot?” Jean cried out. “What the hell is happening up front?”

“Eren found some Americans and they opened fire.”

“That suicidal idiot, riding up front.” Jean jumped out of the truck and looked over the horse. “Yeah, three shots to the flank. We could patch this, but we don’t have time.” He stroked the horse’s nose. “Poor thing. This isn’t even fatal, except for being in a rush and having too far for you to go. I almost wish there was a farm nearby to take you in, girl.”

Armin smiled at Jean’s love for horses. His father had been a veterinarian, and Jean had learned in his clinic. Eren teased Jean sometimes, calling him a horse-face, but Jean really did love animals.

Jean led the horse to the food truck (might as well butcher it while they were waiting) and saddled up one of the spare horses. Meanwhile, Armin tried to speak with Levi in what limited French he knew. Levi could not tell him much about Eren, but Armin guessed enough, knowing Eren as well as he did. The wound was probably a lot worse than he would admit, yet he was planning to continue.

Levi pulled out the map and began to point. Through pantomime, Armin was able to mark where American troops were.

“Well, of course they would send scouts this way,” he muttered. “We should have headed north. We can’t stop in Bastogne anymore. We’re moving slower than I expected, and now this. It’ll be an extra day of travel at least, but we won’t know where the Americans are by the time we reach Luxembourg. Should we hope they pass it and angle south, or hope to beat them and head further east? East is a gamble, but south is definitely enemy territory. The extra time for a gamble is worth it. Better to be safe and plan to move around the main cities. At this point, it’s ridiculous to go to Metz at all, we could be in Germany in a day, but orders are orders.”

At last, the new horse was saddled, and Armin had redrawn the map. Not trusting Levi, Jean took the reins and led the horse to the medical truck. Not only was Eren being treated, but two others who had been shot in the confrontation were being patched up.

Eren looked like he was arguing with a doctor, wanting to be released while the medic was firmly against the idea. As Levi came up on the horse, Eren stopped yelling.

Eren could not help but gaze in amazement. Levi looked so handsome on that horse, like a warrior out of the past.

“Hey, idiot,” Jean yelled, snapping Eren out of his thoughts. “Who screwed up: you or the Jew?”

“Ah,” Eren said, looking awkward. “That was me. I left my watch on, and the Americans noticed the swastika. Actually, Levi was doing a great job playing a French peasant. He was really convincing.”

Jean weighed those words. “Okay, fine, so he’s still useful.”

Eren wondered what Jean would have done if he had thought Levi was at fault. “I need to get back out there.”

Jean shoved Eren flat onto the medical cot. “They’re still fighting. Rest until we’re done.”

“I can fight—”

“Rest!” Jean shouted. “I hate the idea, but we need you alive. You’re the only asshole here who speaks English, besides a smelly, wretched Jew.”

Eren was stunned. Jean had never spoken so poorly of Levi or any Jew before. Then he realized they were not around their own platoon. Around everyone else, they had to act like they barely tolerated Levi being in their presence.

“Fine, I’ll rest, only because I want to live long enough to kill that Jew myself.”

“Exactly. Think of something creative and painful.” Jean sighed. Even saying that felt disgusting to him. “Armin has a new route.” Jean yanked the map out of the saddle bag and handed it to Eren. “Study it while you wait. I’m going back to Armin, see what’s on the radio. Pray to God that the Americans don’t call in reinforcements.”

Then Jean left, and Levi was left sitting on the horse next to the truck crammed full of medical boxes and equipment. Up ahead, he heard gunshots. The fight would be over quickly with just thirty Americans, but the problem was if they were close enough to radio anyone. They would need to move on, and quickly.

“Levi,” Eren whispered, drawing his attention over. His eyes were focused on the map, but Levi could tell that he was barely seeing it. “I’m glad you weren’t shot. It must have just barely missed you.” A smile twitched on his lips. “That’s good.”

“You were shot, idiot. Don’t be happy about that.”

Still, Eren was glad it was him, not Levi. When he had turned that horse around and galloped off, he thought about that. Levi was now a human shield to him. He could get shot, blocking the bullets from Eren. When he felt the bullet tear through his thigh, he at first feared Levi had also been hit, so when he realized the Jew was unharmed, the pain no longer mattered. He felt immense relief that Levi was safe.

The fighting up ahead took less than an hour. By then, Eren was testing out his leg.

“I’d never be able to walk that far,” he muttered, “but riding a horse will be okay.”

Levi held his arm, looking deeply concerned as Eren hobbled up to the horse and flinched to mount the saddle.

“The rain should wash the blood out of your clothes,” Levi muttered, “but hopefully anyone we meet doesn’t see your left side.”

“Then I’ll show them my good side.”

Levi shook his head at how lighthearted he could be after having been shot, but perhaps it was how he had been trained. An officer should never show panic in times of crisis.

He climbed behind Eren, and together they trotted on to the front. The Germans were beginning to move forward, slowly and gradually. Eren glanced to the side of the forest road and saw the bloodied uniform of the treetop lookout who had flashed them a peace sign.

“Happy victory,” Eren said in quiet irony. “Die Amerikaner werden nicht die Sieger dieses Krieges sein.” The Americans will not be the victors of this war.

He rode on. Up ahead, the Germans were stripping the dead American platoon, laughing at they took guns as trophies, gathered ammunition, picked through food stores, and even siphoning the gas out of their vehicles, to be used to refill their own trucks.

“Looting the dead,” Levi muttered.

“They won’t need their guns anymore,” Eren said coldly.

They rode on past the soldiers, and soon it was quiet forests again. Both said nothing for a long time, riding along, keeping their eyes out for more trouble.

# # #

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The Walk to Metz

I got a lovely piece of fan art from Yaoi-Lover-Bro of Eren and Levi on the walk to Metz. The suspenders are kinda hot, no? Levi actually doesn’t get the cap until a few chapters later (I’m posting this from a few months in the future, wooooo) and Eren should have a blue shirt and jacket, but it’s still awesome. It’s such an amazing feeling, being able to inspire talented artists.

Haybes to Metz Map

I made a map Armin would be proud of. The purple is the normal route to Metz. It would take 3 hours by car, 13 hours by bicycle, and 35 hours to walk. The blue route shows Armin’s adjustments. He swerves north of Libramont, Saint-Hubert, and Bastogne, and keeps northeast of Luxembourg City since there might be fighting going on by the time they get there. I used any WWII maps I could find to avoid known locations of Allied troops on these days, all while using walking paths and forest roads so they would be less likely to be spotted. This route would take 55 hours to walk, so it’ll be a few days of traveling.

Chateau-Thierry, Reims, and Verdun – Levi was looking at the movement of the American XX Corps, part of General Patton’s Third Army, as it rapidly pushed through France, sometimes liberating a new city every other day. The problem with Patton’s fast push was a lack of fuel supplies. The French Resistance had blown up rail lines prior to D-Day to deplete German resources, but that same damage that helped the Allies get a footing in continental Europe now made fueling the tanks and trucks a huge problem. Parts of the Third Army would end up paralyzed through much of September and spent the rest of 1944 suffering from a lack of fuel and bullets.

WW2 Lucky Strike Ad

Cigarette Without a Label – In World War II, the U.S. Army issued a 4-pack of cigarettes with their daily rations. (Smoking was believed to be healthy.) Back then, there were no filters on cigarettes, so they could be smoked from either end. However, Lucky Strike stamped their label on one end of the cigarettes. If a soldier was interrupted and dropped the cigarette he was smoking, the Germans could tell what country they were from by the label. To make sure soldiers smoked the label first, they flipped all the cigarettes in the pack but one. That would be their final cigarette of the day, smoked when they could relax and fully enjoy the cigarette all the way to the end. If they lived long enough to smoke that final cigarette in the pack with “LUCKY STRIKE” on their lips, it was their “lucky cigarette.” The tradition continues as a sort of talisman among veterans and civilians alike, although by the Vietnam War American cigarettes had filters and could only be smoked one direction, so only one cigarette gets flipped now. I remember my grandfather, a WWII veteran, would flip one cigarette in his pack and save it as his “lucky cigarette.”

Churchill V

V sign – The “V for victory” hand gesture was introduced in 1941 as part of an Allied campaign. Two fingers with the palm facing toward the signer is an insulting hand gesture in parts of England, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. This is why Levi mistakes it for an insult at first, but Eren happily flashes it around.

Conscience in Nazi Germany – I discussed this a little earlier. In fact, Eren summarizes something Kitz told him. Nazis twisted many of Nietzsche’s philosophies into antisemitic rhetoric, and promoted ideas he had while missing the entire point Nietzsche was trying to make. This included ideas of banishing conscience and guilt. Nietzsche’s point was that the moral content of our conscience is formed under the influence of society during our childhood, and for society to exist, humanity’s natural instincts of aggression and cruelty had to be turned inward, and “guilt” was created as a way for those in power to hold a debt over those not in power. Conscience is not an innate moral feeling placed in one’s heart by a god, but a chain created by society so it could continue to exist. Nazis took this a step further and declared that guilt was a Jewish construct, and “conscience” was created by arbrahamic religions to suppress the people. Thus, everyone should cast aside the enslaving sense of conscience for a new set of morals cultivated by Aryans for Aryans. This is an easy way to have an entire population stand by as horrific acts happen. If they feel guilt or disgust, you claim they were weakened by Jews and say their sense of morality is a product of the enemy; if they gleefully follow orders that are heinous, you reward them and tell them they’re being a good little Aryan. It was a complete restructuring of social morality, and THAT is a terrifying power to wield.

Levi mocking “Do you think Jews secretly took over the entire world” is sadly precisely what many antisemitic conspiracy theory groups believe. People buy into many colorful theories, like Jews took over the Illuminati, the Deep State is headquartered in Israel, Jews were behind the 9/11 attacks on America, Jews plan to use 5G to depopulate the world and take over with a one-world government, and National Vanguard declared that Jews are the most powerful and dangerous group in the world. (I won’t link to them, or any of the organizations that have been categorized as “hate groups” in America.) So yes, Levi … Hitler really did believe Jews took over the world. Millions of Jews died because of these beliefs, and Jews to this day are hated due to cock-brained conspiracy theories.

German horses

Horses in World War II – While movies love to show World War II being all about tanks, trucks, and airplanes, horses played a huge role in transporting supplies and troops. Germany arguably had superior machinery, but they were used sparingly due to a severe oil shortage. So of the 264 German divisions active in late 1944, only 42 were armored or mechanized. The Germans used 2,750,000 horses and mules, especially for foot infantry, like Eren’s company. With horses, soldiers did not have to rely on petrol, did not have to worry as much about the terrain, and in a pinch, the meat could be eaten. The real advantage for Eren’s company in this situation is the noise. Although 100 horses trotting down the road are not exactly silent, it is still far less noisy than 100 motorcycles and trucks.


How Oil Defeated the Axis

German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel wrote: “The battle is fought and decided by the quartermasters before the shooting begins.” In other words, logistics and supply lines win a battle, not bullets. As romantic as it is to prioritize the warrior, knight, or soldier, the person doing the fighting needs to have food, weapons, and a means of getting onto the battlefield. It takes supplies, and that takes money. As my World History professor repeated a dozen times every lecture: “Follow the money!” This is especially true for black gold: oil.

In modern warfare, the mightiest planes, tanks, and ships are useless without oil. Yet all three of the major Axis countries (Germany, Italy, Japan) had a similar weakness: they were not self-sufficient in petroleum. Adolf Hitler said, “To fight, we must have oil for our machine.”

Many of the battles in World War II were for a single reason: oil.

  • Invading Romania: Hitler wanted the oil fields.
  • The Battle of Stalingrad: diverting the Russian Army from the Caucasus Mountains so Germany could tap into Russian oil.
  • The fighting in North Africa: a push toward the Suez Canal in hopes of getting to Middle Eastern oil.
  • The Battle of the Bulge: the German’s main goal was the port of Antwerp, which the Allies were using to bring in oil for their tanks. No port big enough for an oil tanker = no gas in the Sherman tanks.

Even German economics of the 1930s into the 1940s were a series of sweetheart deals with Iran and Venezuela in hopes of getting access to their oil, or at least convince them to make it more expensive for the Allies.

In the months leading up to Operation Overlord (D-Day), the Allies realized that the Germans were building planes and tanks faster than they could bomb the factories and military installations making them, so they switched tactics. If they couldn’t destroy the war machine, they would bleed it dry. They bombed the oil fields of Romania, cutting Germany off from their biggest supplier of petrol. This left Germany with a massive oil shortage throughout the rest of the war, and this was a direct reason why some of their offenses, like the Battle of the Bulge, failed. They simply ran out of gas.

Even Japan was all about oil. What was going on in Europe was having direct effects on colonial holdings in the South Pacific. When Germany invaded France in 1940, part of their armistice with the Vichy Government was to allow them to keep their colonies, since Germany did not have the fleet power to defend the South Pacific. However, the French no longer had the strength either. The French colonies were under-defended, and Japan was eager to grow as a world power. They surged over the French colonies.

This rapid expansion worried the United States, since they also had colonies in the South Pacific. After many warnings to cease their imperialistic expansion, President Roosevelt placed a limit on exports to Japan. Japan gambled that an alliance with Germany and Italy would convince the isolationist Americans to back off—in 1940, the United States was still determined not to get directly involved in the war—so Japan signed the Tripartite Pact, officially joining the Axis. Far from scaring the Americans into submission, Roosevelt dealt Japan a death-blow: an embargo on American oil being shipped to Japan.

Japan imported 97% of their oil, with 80% coming from the United States and 20% from the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia). America convinced the Dutch government-in-exile (who kept their colonies after Queen Wilhelmina escaped the Nazis) to break their economic pact with Japan and join them in the embargo. This meant Japan was completely cut off from the oil they needed to fight and simply function. Roosevelt had hoped that cutting off their oil supply would force Japan into a ceasefire, yet it would also completely cripple their economy. (“Follow the money.”)

This happened in August 1941. Japan had only one year of stockpiled oil. At the time, the Dutch East Indies was the fourth largest exporter of oil in the world (behind the U.S., Iran, and Romania; the Middle East had not tapped into their oil fields yet). The American-controlled Philippines stood between those oil fields and Japan.

NOT going to war with the colonial forces was simply not an option anymore, not with Japan’s entire economy riding on how soon the oil stockpile was used up. They were left with one choice: get control of those oil-rich lands and secure the shipping lines between Indonesia and Japan before a year was up. They had a very narrow time table for action, so their strikes had to be swift and precise.

On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the naval base in Pearl Harbor, temporarily immobilizing the American fleet. While emotionally devastating to the Americans who had been trying to stay out of the war, the attack was purely a cover for their real offensive: those South Pacific oil fields. Within hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan launched attacks on the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, and the British holdings in Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong. This opened up a direct sea route to the Dutch East Indies, while America’s fleet was still largely paralyzed and unable to come to their aid.

The Dutch knew that agreeing with the American oil embargo would lead to war, so as early as November, they had mobilized their fleet, preparing to attack Japan. Then on December 8th, they declared war on Japan, not yet knowing that just hours earlier, Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor and destroyed much of America’s Pacific fleet, which the Dutch had expected to rely upon. This preemptive move has led to many historical debates (and a military tribunal) on whether Japan’s attack on the Dutch East Indies was a “war of aggression” or self-defense, since technically the Dutch declared war on Japan first.

Without the American fleet to lend aid, on March 1942, Dutch forces in colonial Indonesia surrendered, and Japan occupied the oil fields. It was a race and a gamble that worked, getting rid of Japan’s biggest obstacles and securing the oil in Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.

America retaliated with a highly successful submarine campaign along the shipping lines, targeting and destroying Japanese oil tankers. This slowly suffocated Japan from its oil lifelines. By 1945, Japan’s economy collapsed. Fuel for the Japanese air force and navy was drastically rationed, until they simply could not fuel up their planes and ships. Without oil, Japan drew back, preparing to defend their island from a full invasion, even without planes or tanks. Instead of a full invasion, America dropped two nuclear bombs. Realizing the loss of life was far too high, and they could not fight this sort of war without even basic supplies, Japan surrendered.

When you step back from bland history books with their mind-numbing lists of battles and dates, when you look at WHY battles happened, WHY that location, WHY at this particular time, you’ll see that Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was right: it’s all about logistics, supplies, and the money needed to keep the war machine running. Both Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany embarked upon wars of conquest for access to oil, yet ultimately it was shortages of this black gold that contributed to each nation’s defeat. Whether it’s modern fighting in the Middle East, or 1940s fighting in Indonesia and Romania, just “follow the money” and you’ll see why humans fight: a constant struggle for resources, supply and demand.

Chapter Text

Luckily, the rest of that day went without incident. Armin’s map took them much farther north than they had anticipated, up steep hills of the Ardennes, avoiding the city of Saint-Hubert.

It was getting dark when the forests opened to farmland, and the sun had already set when Eren rode into a town. He looked at his map again. Armin had marked to stop there for the night. It was not a huge buffer between them and an approaching army, but with any luck, they were slightly ahead of the Americans.

Eren was now glad he was riding ahead, and he was dressed as an average traveler. No one paid much attention to him, other than a glance at seeing two men riding one horse. He rode through the village, hoping to find a tavern, inn, or anything useful. As he reached the end of the village without seeing anything promising, he came to a halt and frowned.

“No hotel,” Levi muttered. “Not surprising. Even if a village like this ever had one, it probably closed up when the war began.” He saw a man out on his porch smoking and watching the rain. “Monsieur, parlez-vous français?” Sir, do you speak French?

The man muttered, “Assez bien.” Well enough.

Eren stayed quiet as they spoke. Finally, Levi whispered, “Turn back around. He told me of a house we can try, a man named Dimo Reeves. He’s either the mayor or a really important businessman, it’s hard to tell with that accent and using some strange slang. If not him, then the church should at least take us in out of the rain.”

They rode back, and Levi told him which house to look for. They saw it, one of the larger houses in town, and it looked cozy as the night got darker. Levi dismounted and went up to the door. Golden light poured out, and Eren could smell something good cooking. A balding, overweight man answered. To Eren’s surprise, he sounded excited to have guests and waved them forward. A freckle-faced redhead young man came out to get the horse. Eren flinched as he slid off the saddle, and he hissed at the pain in his leg. He limped up to the porch, where he and Levi stomped and scraped off as much mud from their boots as they could.

Stepping inside, a jolly middle-aged woman, even fatter than her husband, came up to them, speaking in something that almost sounded familiar to Eren.

Dimo warned her, “Spreek Frans, schat.

How close that was to German! Was this Dutch?

Dimo turned to the two of them and seemed to be apologizing for his wife. She gushed in excitement as she took Eren’s leather coat, and awkwardly she took the rain-soaked blanket Levi had wrapped up in.

With halting words and a strong accent, she said, “Je vais les mettre près du feu.” I’ll put them near the fire.

Then Dimo led Levi and Eren upstairs. Eren limped up the steps, really starting to regret thinking he was lucky to have only been shot in the leg. They were shown to a room with two beds, which Levi assured was enough.

Eren walked in without a thanks and collapsed on the bed in exhaustion. Levi shook his head and apologized to Dimo. He was then led on a little tour around the house while Eren refused to move. The bed was soft, the air had a gentle fragrance, and hearing the jolly voices was somehow soothing.

He rolled back into a sitting position and looked down at his leg, worried that blood might have gotten on the nice quilted blanket. Luckily, although there was a tear in the gray trousers and a dark stain from blood, it had not rubbed off. He would have really felt bad if he had ruined some nice family’s quilt.

Levi returned and saw Eren flinching as he rubbed out his thigh. “Are you okay?”

“My leg is throbbing,” he grumbled.

“I told them you were shot by bandits as we rode through the Ardennes. They’re fetching medicine and bandages.”

“That’s nice, but the company should be arriving soon. They have medical supplies.”

Levi walked to a fireplace in the room and piled on some quartered logs. “Eren, don’t take this the wrong way—actually, by all means do—I don’t think we should let this family know what you are?”

What he was? Eren’s eyes narrowed. “Do you mean German? Why not? The others should be here within the hour.”

“Exactly.” He struck a match and caught some kindling ablaze. “A company of soldiers is going to come clomping up that road, it’ll scare a lot of people, and I’d rather not get kicked out into the rain, especially not with you wounded.”

“I have to report to the captain when he arrives, and I can’t just not talk all night, even if I have no clue what these people are saying.”

“Actually, there’s an easy way to get around all these problems.” Levi took a poker and shifted the kindling around to catch more of the logs on fire. He knew Eren would get upset as soon as he confessed this. “I told them you’re an American journalist covering the war.”

“Levi!”

“Well, they’re going to hear us speaking in English, so I had to tell them something. This way, when the army arrives and you sneak out, I can tell them that you’re hoping to write a good story for the newspaper.”

“What does it matter if they know I’m a soldier? We’re leaving in the morning.”

“Would you let a British soldier sleep under your roof?”

Eren’s mouth clamped shut. “No,” he grumbled. “I’d shoot him on the spot.”

“Exactly, and I’ve almost been shot twice today. I’d rather not see if third time’s the charm.”

Eren jolted at the phrase. “Third time is … a charm?”

Levi rolled his eyes. “It’s an English saying. Anyway, if they think I’m French and you’re an American, maybe these people will talk, perhaps even tell us more news about the war. We could say you got separated from the platoon you were tailing as a journalist, and if they know where the nearest American troops are so you can find your way back.”

Eren had to admit, that was brilliant foresight. “Levi, you would make a very good spy.”

He scoffed at that. “I’m just trying to stay alive.” Seeing that the fire was well on its way, he hung up the poker and rose to his feet. “Now, there’s a toilet right across the hall. Take a bath, and be careful about that wound. Hopefully, we will have bandages by the time you’re done.”

“Actually…” Eren flopped back on the bed. “I just want to sleep.”

“At the very least, get out of those filthy clothes. The husband said he would see if there’s anything for us to wear while our clothes dry, but given that the whole family looks fat, I doubt anything will fit.”

Eren said nothing and rested his eyes, trying to shove away the pain. Levi sighed in sympathy and took a towel folded by a small wash basin. He walked up to the bed and wiped Eren’s face and hair.

“If you don’t dry off, you’ll catch a cold.”

Teal eyes opened in surprise, but Levi’s face remained neutral as he stroked the cloth back. Eren whispered, “Thank you.”

Levi’s face barely moved, but Eren saw a gulp getting caught in his throat. “You’re like a little boy.”

Eren hummed, enjoying the feel of Levi caring for him. “Do you like that about me?”

Levi’s eyes turned to meet his gaze, and Eren thought he saw his lips twitching slightly. “Get out of your clothes,” he whispered.

Eren’s breath caught.

“I’ll place them by the fire. You need to dry off.”

His heart calmed back down. Eren wished this was a slightly different scenario, and Levi was saying that in a warmer tone. Despite aching fatigue, he sat up. He started with his shirt, but his cold, rain-puckered fingertips struggled with the buttons.

“Che! Are you so childish, you can’t even do this much?”

Eren was going to protest that after a day of holding onto reins and his hands being soaked for hours, his fingers needed time to warm up so they would work right. However, before he could speak, Levi leaned in and began to undo them for him. Eren watched as Levi stood so close to him. His heart pounded again, and he licked his lips. Kisses from last night raced through his mind.

After getting the last button, Levi leaned up, their eyes met, and their faces were so close they could feel each other’s breaths. Levi reached forward and placed his hands on Eren’s chest, right between the opened panels of the shirt. Slowly, he pushed the fabric aside, sliding his hands along his chest, up to his shoulders, and down his arms, languidly feeling the muscular biceps. Eren gasped at the pleasure of slowly being undressed. Levi’s eyes burned into him, and that sharp gaze alone made Eren want to whimper.

Then Levi dropped to his knees. Eren made another tiny gasp, but he realized Levi had bent over to unlace his boots. Eren finished removing his shirt, and once the boots were loosened, he pushed them off.

“Socks too, or you’ll get trench foot.”

Eren had no idea what trench foot was, but he removed the socks. They plopped down moistly to the ground.

“Let me see your leg.”

Biting his lip, especially with Levi still on his knees in front of him, Eren loosened his belt, unzipped the trousers, and shifted his hips so he could pull them off. Levi took the trousers as they passed the knees, and slowly he slid them off Eren’s legs.

Eren stared, hardly believing this was happening, and unsure about what he should do next. He just sat there, his heart thumping, his lungs burning for more air, his mind racing, his whole body thrumming as he sat on the edge of the bed, wearing nothing but his pale cotton boxers, with Levi kneeling right in front of him.

Levi’s hand stretched forward and touched his thigh right next to the bandage. Eren flinched, partly from the shock of Levi touching him, partly from pain.

“It’s inflamed. Hopefully they’ll bring some antiseptic.”

Eren could barely hear him over his racing heart. Levi’s hand caressed all around the bandage, feeling the heat of the reddened skin, but all Eren could feel was that soothing touch. He averted his eyes, knowing his body was reacting. He couldn’t help it!

Levi also noticed, and he stared at the stiffness in the boxers getting longer, rising higher.

“Such a little boy,” he teased.

His hand slid up Eren’s thigh, closer and closer. Eren slammed his eyes shut and let out a whimper. The stiffness twitched. Levi looked up and saw the agonized pleasure in Eren’s face. How tempting!

Then he heard a pan clanking downstairs, and his hand slid back. He pulled away, resting on the heels of his feet.

“Not today,” he whispered.

Eren opened his eyes, torn with desire but nodding in agreement. They were staying in some strangers’ house. They had to watch themselves.

Levi stood and gazed down at Eren. “Bundle up.”

Purely to hide from the embarrassment, Eren quickly hid under the blankets and yanked them up to his chin. He reached down, wishing he could shove that erection away. Meanwhile, Levi swooped down to gather the wet clothes and walked over to the fireplace. Eren watched as he laid out the clothes.

“Thank you.”

Levi looked back, seeing Eren still had flushed cheeks. He focused back on the clothes, chiding himself for what he had done. Why had he acted that way? It was so dangerous! Yet he had wanted to, and he very nearly did more. Levi gnashed his teeth, shook his head, and silently cursed himself.

Putain, je suis trop stupide. Très, très, très stupide. Fuck, I am so stupid. Very, very, very stupid!

After admonishing himself, Levi walked back to the bed. The childlike flush to Eren’s cheeks and the innocent humiliation in his teal eyes softened Levi’s heart once again. Why did he feel so strongly like he had to protect this man? He placed a hand on Eren’s forehead and smoothed back some wet strands of hair.

“Take a little nap.”

Eren smiled in bliss, and with the softness of the pillow, his eyes began to drift down. Levi watched until he saw Eren sink deeper, his face turning slack, and his breath getting steady and heavy. Once he was sure he was asleep, he leaned over and placed a small kiss on Eren’s forehead. He gazed down at that innocent, sleeping face.

In a breathy whisper, he muttered, “Je me déteste d’avoir ces sentiments.” I hate myself for having these feelings. Still, he stroked back Eren’s brow, and a wistful smile struggled to fight the scowl on his lips, twisting his face into a battlefield of emotions, as he whispered with endearment, “Mon petit gamin.” My little boy.

* * *

Eren woke up still feeling gentle touches on his head, until he wondered if any time had passed at all. However, he realized his hair felt dry now. He wanted to just lie there, fingers smoothing back his brow, and revel in that tender touch.

“I know you’re awake.”

His eyes slowly lifted, and he saw Levi sitting by his side. He was wearing different clothes, a plain brown outfit with a white collar, and he smelled faintly of soap.

“The company?” Eren asked drowsily.

“They never arrived. Either they’re really far behind, or they stopped in the village we passed up the road. It was late when we got here, so I’m guessing they stopped once it got too dark for the horses.”

Verdammt.” Eren raised up. “I should ride back, see if they’re safe.”

“You need to eat, and I have bandages to dress your wound.”

“That can wait.”

“You feel feverish. Your leg might be infected.”

“My men come first!” he snapped.

“Take care of yourself before you worry about them,” Levi shouted. “Besides, what if they’ve been attacked?”

“All the more reason to ride back.”

“You’re safe here.”

Eren shook his head and stubbornly stood up. Levi suddenly grabbed his wrist.

“Don’t go!”

Eren spun around. The way Levi shouted that was not just in anger. It was tinged with fear, pleading more than ordering. Although Levi’s eyes were as narrow and glaring as ever, there was a twitch to his jaw that gave away his feelings.

“We’re safe here,” Levi said softer, and the grip on Eren’s wrist slid down to hold his fingers. “Just for one night. This night, especially.”

This night. After having most of his fellow Jews slaughtered, Eren did not blame Levi for wanting to stay away from Germans, to sleep in a bed where he felt safe from the horrors. His heart ached to think how Levi had been forced to press on, to walk away from the bodies of his comrades and help the enemy, just so he could survive a little longer.

Eren let out a sigh and gave him an apologetic smile. “I guess I could use some food first.”

He saw Levi’s shoulders sag in relief, and he released Eren’s hand. “Dinner is ready. Wash up first. I already took a bath, so make sure you get yours. There are clothes.” Levi grumbled, “They’ll fit you slightly better than me.”

Eren arched an eyebrow as he looked a little closer at the brown outfit Levi was wearing. At first, he thought it was a nightgown, but now he realized it buttoned all the way down and had a feminine white collar. “Is that … a dress?”

“It belongs to their daughter. At least she’s not fat. I could fit my entire body in one leg hole of that man’s trousers. This was the best they could do for me. It’s hospitality, so I’m not going to complain.”

Eren nodded in agreement. Anything was better than wearing wet clothes. He walked over to a pile of spare clothes warming up by the fireplace and left for the bathroom. Levi walked over to the window and peered out into the rainy night.

For a moment, he had feared that if he let Eren ride out into that darkness, he might never see him again. While that would mean he was free from Nazi oppression, he also strongly did not want Eren to die out there.

He hated that growing warmth in his chest. He could have escaped a million times over that day. He thought about it more than once: sitting behind Eren, he could have used his knife to slit his throat, or simply snapped his neck, thrown his body to the wayside, and then he had a horse. He could have used the map in his saddlebag to make it back west, headed to the coast, where he could get a boat and get the hell out of Europe.

Instead, he had felt happy holding around Eren’s waist and resting his cheek on his strong back.

“What the hell is wrong with me?” he whispered.

He fled the worrying thoughts and went downstairs, into the cheery warmth of the family’s parlor. Their son, Flegel, was sitting by a fine colorful glass lamp reading a newspaper. He looked old enough to get married but was so fat and unattractive, likely even the family’s wealth could not secure him a wife.

“Is he awake yet?” he asked, sounding grumpy. “I’m hungry. Mother won’t let us eat until he comes to the table.”

“He’s washing up. His leg needs to be clean before he gets an infection.”

“You said he was shot in the forest. Bandits, was it?”

“I assume so, but I didn’t exactly stop to ask. Could’ve been Germans for all I know. As soon as we heard the gunshots, we got the hell out of there.”

“On that horse? She’s a mighty fine mare, gotta say. Don’t see horses like her that often.”

Levi merely mumbled, “Americans must have good taste.” He walked away before the young man asked too many questions.

The table was already set. Levi had learned a little about this family while Eren slept. The wife, Doortje, was from the north, primarily spoke Dutch, and when she spoke French it was with a very strong accent. The husband, Dimo, had lived his whole life in this town and was the wealthiest businessman, as well as the mayor, which was why one of the locals said to ask him about shelter. The house they were in had belonged to the Reeves family for three hundred years, and Dimo had bragged that they were Belgian nobility on his mother’s side.

Their son Flegel helped around the house and was poised to take over the family business. They also had a twelve-year-old daughter, Lieke. She sat in a wheelchair and stared out with blank expressions, other than an occasional random outburst.

Levi was glad when he heard the whole family speaking of Lieke with endearment. They apologized for her condition, but Levi waved it off. Not everyone was born to walk and speak. Some were born to teach love and compassion to others.

Eren came downstairs, his hair damp, suspenders holding up enormous trousers that sagged everywhere, but he was glad to be clean and wearing warm, dry clothes. As Levi saw him limping on his leg, he rushed forward, worried if Eren could walk. Eren smiled to see the worry pinching his brow, but suddenly he heard a bombastic outburst of a laugh from the parlor. He yanked away from Levi’s helping hands, startled by the sound.

“What was that?” he whispered.

“The daughter. She does that,” Levi explained. “You should have heard her laugh at me when I came down wearing one of her dresses.”

Eren saw her now, a girl with limp blond hair, her head slumped to the side like she had no will to hold it upright. Her eyes were glazed, looking in his direction without meeting his face, and an unnaturally wide smile showed off her crooked teeth. That outburst had been a punch of emotional reaction bubbling to the surface, and now she was still again.

“Don’t stare; it’s rude,” Levi whispered.

“What’s wrong with her?” Eren asked in shock.

“What’s wrong with you?” Levi snapped. “I didn’t ask, and neither should you.”

They walked together to the table, where Eren gladly sat and stretched out his leg. Dimo, Doortje, and Flegel took their seats, and all bowed their heads.

Eren had been about to reach for his cup to drink, but he jolted to a halt. Prayer!

He was glad to be with a family that prayed before meals, just like when he was growing up and his father said grace over each meal. In Napola, they had been discouraged from doing so, seeing it as a distracting weakness. Food was meant to build an Aryan’s body to be stronger, nothing holy about it, just balanced nutrition after hard work. In the military, they rarely prayed, either eating their food as quickly as they could, or too busy teasing one another to bother with niceties. Eren had privately said prayers over some of his meals, but never as a group like this.

As Dimo recited a prayer in French, Eren glanced beside him, worried if Levi would pray or not. To his surprise, he had folded his hands and closed his eyes. Maybe he was saying a different prayer, but Eren’s cheeks warmed to see a little solace in that relaxed face.

After an amen, they ate. It was a bowl filled with mashed potatoes, some pale leafy vegetable wrapped with thin slices of meat, and baked in a pale sauce. Although it did not look exactly appetizing, as Eren took a bite, he was pleasantly surprised.

“What is this?” he asked.

Levi turned to the family and asked. Doortje began to gush out her recipe in Dutch.

Witlof met ham en kaas uit de oven. Gewoon een witlofstronkje inwikkelen met ham. Ik maakte een mornaysaus. Dat is een bechamelsaus met heel veel kaas.

Levi merely raised an eyebrow, and Dimo laughed with an awkward apology.

C’est-à-dire que c’est de la chicon au gratin, d’endives belges à la sauce béchamel avec du fromage. Ma femme fait les meilleures sauces.” That is to say, it is chicory au gratin, Belgian endives in bechamel sauce with cheese. My wife makes the best sauces.

Endives? C’est quoi, cette viande?” Endives? What is this meat?

C’est du jambon.

Levi let out a sigh and looked at the bowl. “I shouldn’t have asked.”

“Why?” asked Eren. “Is it disgusting?”

“No. Do you know what endives are?”

“I’ve never had it, but we call it endivie.”

“It’s that, with potatoes, a cheese white sauce … and it has ham.”

Eren wondered why Levi said that with a frown—the sweetly savory ham and cheese sauce really balanced the bitterness of the endives—until it suddenly dawned on him.

“Jews can’t have ham.”

“Not like it matters,” Levi grumbled. “I ate ham most of my life. A little now isn’t going to make much difference. I’ll pray for forgiveness another day.”

Saying that, he dug into the meal. Eren felt sorry for him, though. As hungry as Levi obviously was, Eren had seen a moment of regret and hesitation when he heard what was in the meal. Still, he left the religious restrictions to him, and he thanked the family.

“Tell them I think it’s good.”

Il dit que c’est savoureux.

Mon ami élève des cochons.

Levi turned to Eren. “He says, his friend breeds pigs. Lucky us.”

Eren ignored the coldness of Levi’s tone and smiled at the Reeves family. “Thank you. Merci.”

Doortje beamed with glowing pride.

Dimo said slowly, “Alors, you … American, yes?”

Eren held back a sigh and simply nodded. He had to play a role tonight.

Vous êtes journaliste.” He made a hand motion like writing with a pen.

“Yes, apparently now I’m a journalist for the Americans.”

Levi kicked him under the table. If he was going to act a part, he had to do it right, not grumbling in a halfhearted way.

Flegel muttered, “Très fort accent pour un Américain.” Very thick accent for an American.

“Flegel,” the father scolded.

Levi quickly covered for Eren. “Sa famille vient du Michigan. Il a dit qu’il y avait beaucoup d’Allemands et de Polonais y vivaient. Vraiment, je peux à peine le comprendre avec cet accent. Je parle généralement aux touristes britanniques.” His family is from Michigan. He said there are many Germans and Poles living there. Truly, I can barely understand him with that accent. I usually talk to British tourists.

Ah, je vois.” Ah, I see.

Levi glanced over to Eren. If even a Belgian teenager could tell he had a thick accent, there was no way he would convince Americans.

The rest of the meal was kept with light conversation, sometimes the family asking Eren questions about America and Levi making up answers, but mostly Levi tried in subtle ways to see how much the Reeves knew about the war. They admitted that there had been Germans in the town earlier that year, but they had been left alone since the Normandy invasion. They heard news on the radio, but what they could tell Levi was nothing new compared to the notes made on Armin’s map.

Finally, the meal was done, Levi went out with Flegel to check on the horse, but the family’s little daughter began to grunt out complaints at being forced to wait for her food. Doortje rushed over and wheeled her into the dining room to feed her. Eren took over washing the dishes. He was happy to repay this family in some small way, plus the act of washing dishes had always soothed him.

He glanced back at the table. Levi had told him not to stare, but he watched as Doortje lifted spoonfuls of mashed potatoes to Lieke, who opened her mouth to eat but dribbled every other bite. Doortje smiled as she cleaned the mess off her daughter’s face. She spoke to her daughter in Dutch with joyful words.

Hoe vind je het eten? Is het lekker?” How do you like the food? Is it good?

Lieke burst out a laugh that sent a spray of food out of her mouth.

Doortje merely chuckled proudly. “Ik ben zo blij dat je het leuk vindt.” I’m so happy that you like it.

Eren stared back down at the sink. In Germany, such disabled people were seen as not just an eyesore, but a useless existence, nothing more than a drain on society, a waste of food and resources. He recalled his father screaming in rage that the Nazi Party expected him to report any patient even assumed to have schizophrenia, epilepsy, or genetic diseases, especially when stories leaked out about Nazi doctors delivering lethal injections to any patient deemed incurable. Grisha had insisted he would not harm a soul nor turn over his patients to the Hereditary Health Courts, while Carla fretted that he would be arrested if he tried to protect them.

His father had not been the only one. In the years to follow, there were protests in the streets, especially Catholics enraged by Hitler’s forced abortions and euthanasia programs. Although Hitler ended the program, Eren was still taught in Napola that invalids were better off being killed, they were genetically impure lifeforms, empty soulless shells, and keeping them alive was nothing more than merciless torture, all for the sake of that social cancer called conscience that Jews spread in order to weaken Aryans.

Although he had been taught that it was merciful to swiftly and painlessly eliminate such people, freeing them from a life of useless misery, with a bonus of saving Germany money and food and relieving parents from a lifetime of fruitless work for a child who would never amount to anything, he could not think that this girl was in any sort of pain or misery. She laughed, her mother smiled, and although she stared off blankly most of the time, he saw a bright shine in her eyes that were so full of life.

Perhaps she would never be a great help to her community, but how was keeping her alive merciless torture?

After dealing with their daughter, Doortje returned to the kitchen to see Eren was almost done with washing the dishes. She smiled brightly at the handsome man at her sink.

Bedankt voor uw hulp.

Hulp,” Eren repeated. “That sounds like help in English.”

“English? Ah, Engels.”

“And bedankt, that sounds like danke in German.”

Was dat Duits nu net?” Was that German just now?

Duits. Deutsch.” Eren flashed her a grin. “I can almost understand you.” He washed the last dish, turned to Doortje, and took her hands. “Truly, thank you for your hospitality. Bedankt.”

She blushed under his teal eyes and bashfully turned away. “Beste heer, ben jij aan het flirten? Je bent te knap om zo aardig te zijn.” Dear sir, are you flirting? You’re too handsome to be so nice.

Eren only made out a few words, but he still smiled warmly. Then he walked over to the girl. Although she did not make eye contact and silently rocked herself, he sensed that she knew he was there. “You’re one lucky child, to have been born into a family like this.”

He then headed up to the bedroom. He removed his oversize clothes and looked at his leg. He had changed the bandages after his bath, but the gash had already bled through. He was glad the borrowed trousers were black and did not show the blood.

Just as Eren was unwrapping the wound, Levi stepped in.

“That daughter laughed at me again as I walked by. Hospitality be damned, I half-think they put me in this dress just to amuse her. Cute kid, but fuck this.” He quickly undid the buttons of the brown dress and threw it aside. “A shame we don’t have time to do laundry. I saw out near the horse shed, this family has a wringer washer. It’d be nice to wash my clothes for once, although I think my shirt would disintegrate if it went through a wringer.”

“Did you know Dutch is similar to German?”

Levi let out a slow sigh. “Please tell me you weren’t speaking in German with that woman.”

“Not really. I just understand her better than I do the rest of them.”

“Well, I’m glad they speak French, although there’s a strong accent. The husband guessed right away that I was from Paris.”

Eren looked over as he irrigated the leg wound over a large basin. “Paris? Is that where you’re from?”

Levi shrugged as he tested out the clothes he had laid out to dry. “Here and there. Most of my life was in Paris, though.” He sniffed his shirt and held it out with a sour expression. “Really wish I could do laundry.”

Eren finished cleaning the wound and dabbed iodine onto the gash from the bullet that had ripped into the side of his thigh. “Now that I think about it, I don’t know much about you. For instance, where are you from originally?”

Levi rotated the clothes to make sure they would be thoroughly dry by morning. “I was born in Strasbourg.”

Eren jolted, and his eyes widened. “Strasbourg? But … but that’s a German city.”

“Off and on,” Levi muttered. “I suppose it was when I was born. So I guess you could say I’m technically German by birth.”

Eren looked down, stunned. Levi … was a German?

“I was born there, but my mother and I moved to Paris when I was four.”

“Why Paris?”

He shrugged as he climbed into one of the beds wearing only his undergarments. “She got pregnant out of wedlock, and the other Jews in town rejected her, especially because she had no clue who my father was. Besides, Paris had more work.”

“Oh?” Eren rolled a fresh bandage around his leg. “What did she do?” he asked, excited to hear about his childhood and family.

Levi’s eyes narrowed, challenging him. “She pleasured men.” As Eren’s mouth dropped in shock, Levi went on, “She did what she could to keep us fed. In Strasbourg, there were plenty of tourists and German soldiers who paid for her services. As the Great War started up, she got the hell out of there. I don’t even remember the place. I grew up thinking of myself as purely French, especially when Germany lost Strasbourg in the War.”

Eren supposed that this showed just how ridiculous national lines were, arbitrary and petty means of dividing land between people. A city could switch hands between countries multiple times in a few decades. A man born in a town ruled by one country could move away and have nothing in common with a person from that country, considering himself fully a citizen of his new homeland, since that was where he grew up, the language he knew, and the nation he loved.

“Get some sleep. We should leave before the Germans come riding through town.” Levi muttered to himself, “I just hope they can refrain from looting the place as they ride by.”

Eren removed the baggy shirt and collapsed into his bed. Levi flipped off a lamp on the table between the two beds and lay back on the soft pillow. Eren rolled over to look at Levi across the way.

“I can almost pretend like we’re on a vacation together. Do you think I could get a kiss goodnight?”

Levi glanced over in the low light of the rainy night. “You’re an idiot. Go to sleep.”

Eren let out a sigh and closed his eyes. In no time, he was out cold. Levi heard his breathing go heavy, and he shook his head.

A vacation? Eren had probably never been in more danger in his life, and all he could see was the fun of riding through the forest. Still, it was a soft bed all to himself. Levi could not remember the last time he had such luxury. He stretched out, allowing himself a moment to feel blessed.

That morning, he only barely escaped being shot. Now, he was eating a hot meal and sleeping in a real bed.

The Lord worked in mysterious ways.

* * *

Blood was always the same. No matter the skin color, no matter the nationality, no matter the gender.

Everyone bleeds the same.

The faces blended together. The blood flowed into one massive red puddle. Eyes peered out from the blood, voices cried out, a dozen languages, a hundred screams.

Ne me tue pas.

BANG!

Oseh shalom bimromav hu yaaseh shalom aleinu v’al kol Yisrael…

BANG!

Sois fort. Vis, peu importe le prix. Je t’aime—

BANG!

Levi bolted straight up in bed screaming. He heard movement beside him, reached under his pillow, and in a flash had his knife out. He felt sweaty, shivering, hot and cold, and his heart would not slow down.

Calm! He needed to be calm. Focus. Assassinate the target—

“Levi?”

Another voice, another face. They all bled the same.

Then a lamp flicked on, and Levi was momentarily blinded. When he blinked out the glare, he saw Eren looking at him with concern.

“Put down the knife. You’re safe.”

He did not believe it. The screams, the voices, people he killed, people he watched die, people he could not save. So many puddles of blood blended into one massive crimson sea.

“Levi,” Eren said softly, sitting up on the edge of his bed. “You’re safe. It was a dream.”

“No,” he whispered, still shivering. “Worse. It was a memory.”

Eren pouted in sympathy and whispered, “Put down the knife.”

Levi felt like his hand could not loosen up, like if he let go of this one piece of protection, all of his defenses would crumble. With a few forcefully slow breaths, his fingers began to let up, and slowly his knuckles creaked as they loosened on the hilt until the knife dropped onto his blankets.

Eren walked over, moved the knife to the bedside table, sat on Levi’s mattress, and wrapped him up in his arms. Immediately, Levi began to panic.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“Shhh,” he said, gently stroking his back. “It’s okay now. You’re with me.”

“Someone will see…”

“No one is here,” he whispered. “It’s just you and me.”

“The family—”

“They wouldn’t come in. That’d be rude. Even if they did, what would they do? They can’t hurt me. I’m an American journalist, right?” he said with a small laugh.

Levi did not feel like laughing. “I thought I heard bangs.”

“I heard it too.”

Levi tensed at realizing those were not just part of the dream. “Gunshots?”

“No. It’s the daughter. I heard her earlier tonight too. She bangs on the wall to get her mother.”

“Oh … just that girl,” Levi muttered, sinking and closing his eyes as fear seeped out, leaving him weary and vulnerable.

Eren continued to stroke Levi’s head. He had heard him whimpering in his sleep, but then again, he had heard those nightly terrors from many soldiers. Kriegsneurose, they called it. The trauma of war left many soldiers easily spooked. What Levi had gone through was far worse.

He felt Levi sinking, and Eren’s arms tightened to hold onto him. He smiled as Levi rested his cold cheek on his chest and his fingers grazed over him, like he needed to be sure Eren was really there.

Then Eren also got hit with a memory of his own that would haunt him. Abel’s glasses caught the light of a lamp, a golden glint as he stared into the barrel of Eren’s gun.

He did not deserve happiness.

Yet Abel’s last words had been to ask Eren to take care of Levi. To honor the memory of that poor man, perhaps he could indulge just a little. Eren closed his eyes, letting the warmth of Levi’s body soak into his frozen heart, and he stroked his hand up and down that thin, scarred, bare back.

“It’ll be okay,” he said, partly to Levi, partly to himself.

When Levi felt Eren’s warm hand on his skin, he sank even more. No one had comforted him since … when? Ever?

If his mother had comforted him, he could not remember. His uncle Kenny only taught him how to fight, steal, and kill. No one comforted him in the military, nor did he want it when the nightmares began. Petra never needed to since he felt he had to be strong for her, and he had hidden the nightmares. The same held true for his companions over the years. Levi acted cold and cynical, because the alternative was giving in to the memories and letting them drown him in fear.

He had to admit, it felt good to lean on someone for once. He felt something for Eren that he never had felt before, not even with Petra. Although he loved her with his whole heart, he always felt like he had to hide the nightmares. Even though he knew she was a strong woman, he wanted to be the protective husband. He never told her about what he had done in the military, other than a few casual stories about his travels. If she asked him why he woke up from nightmares, he would lie and say he could not remember what they had been about.

With Eren … maybe it was the gender, but he knew they were equals. They could both be strong, but they could both be weak. He had never felt that sense of equality with another human before.

With both wearing nothing but undergarments, he could feel Eren closer than he ever had before. His hand drifted up along the muscular chest, the same action he had taken earlier that night, stroking over Eren’s firm shoulder and down his upper arm. While he was painfully aware that this was a man giving him comfort, somehow that was the reason why Levi felt he could lower his guard. Rather than succumbing to a weakness, he felt like this was healing, draining an old wound, and it would lead to him being even stronger.

He needed Eren to heal, although he knew that staying near a Nazi was a death sentence.

“Why can’t I leave you?” he wondered aloud.

Eren closed his eyes at hearing that anguished question. “I’ve wondered that. I’m surprised you didn’t try to leave already. I’d let you go.”

Hearing that brought a brief, tiny smile to Levi’s face. “Idiot. They’d kill you.”

“Maybe not. I could say I got annoyed with you and put a bullet in your skull.”

“And if that captain of yours wants to see a body?”

Eren shrugged. “I fed you to the dogs.”

Levi laughed briefly, a crack through the cold bitterness that let in some of Eren’s warmth. “It’s tempting.”

“You should. Really. I could ride off tomorrow without you and let you stay here.”

“And what if you need me? What if you come across more Americans? Even that fat brat could tell you have a strong accent.”

“Do you mean Flegel?” Eren asked in surprise. “Wait, could he tell I was German?”

“No.” Levi shrugged and admitted, “I told him you were from Michigan.”

“What’s a Michigan?”

“It’s a place in America.”

“Why there?”

“I don’t know. It was the first place I could think of. My cousin mentioned once about Germans working on automobiles in Michigan, so I thought maybe they all sound like you.”

“Then maybe I should move to Michigan,” he teased. “Is it a nice city?”

“I think it’s a state.” Levi stared ahead, feeling soothed within Eren’s arms. He sighed as he relished those warm touches, and quietly he muttered, “You could come with me.”

Eren’s brow tightened. “What?”

Levi pulled back enough to look up into Eren’s teal eyes. “We could leave together. We have a horse. If we go early in the morning before the army arrives and ride to the west…”

Eren let out a nervous laugh and shook his head. “Are you joking?”

“You once said you wouldn’t mind keeping me company in America. I’m just saying, maybe I wouldn’t mind having you tra