Dangerous Territory

BY : Rhov
Category: +. to F > Attack on Titan /Shingeki No Kyojin
Dragon prints: 2537
Disclaimer: I do not own “Shingeki no Kyojin” and do not make money from this fanfic.

Chapter 16

Shattered Pride

 

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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Klappspaten – a folding shovel and standard issue for Heer soldiers, especially where digging trenches was expected.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.



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