Dangerous Territory

BY : Rhov
Category: +. to F > Attack on Titan /Shingeki No Kyojin
Dragon prints: 2780
Disclaimer: I do not own “Shingeki no Kyojin” and do not make money from this fanfic.

Chapter 23

Unneeded Tools

 

"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 supper. 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.

# # #

# #

#

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.

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.

"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 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." 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 in my story, when Levi calls her "la pire des garces," I'm going off the French dub.

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.)

(image not allowed on this site, see AO3 user name Rhov, or https://imgur.com/a/4BGxfVk)


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 noticed, 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. (I do later on, and it is a pain in the ass!) 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.

(Images not allowed on this site. See AO3.)

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 let slip 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.

(images not allowed on this site)

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 hotel 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.

(I knew those neurobiology lessons would come in handy one day.)

This means, I get to write a whole adventure I was not planning 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



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