“Attention! Salute your commander!” roars Shadis, “You'd better make me proud, ya little maggots!”
“Tough as always, hm, Shadis?” questions Commander Erwin.
You straighten up. Being in the front row makes you a painfully easy target. Being the eldest in the regiment also has its downside; Shadis particularly enjoys accusing you of being too stupid and worthless to have made it through the first time. He's pretty sure you're only here because you reapplied.
You're only nineteen! Never have you regretted being the eldest of a group.
“Gotta be,” replies Shadis, pulling you back to the focus he demanded.
A few whispers can be heard behind you, and an annoying kid named James hisses at you to ‘stand up straighter if you're trying to impress!’
“Good afternoon, cadets!” shouts Erwin, his booming voice carrying easily to the farthest budding soldiers.
“Good afternoon, sir!!” everybody shouts in response.
Everyone but you. In the few early moments of the call to attention, a faint, nagging pain began to surface in your right wrist, something akin to a sprain. Now, however, it's breathtaking in its strength, a stabbing, pulsing throb. Your shirt feels damp where your fist presses to it, but your salute never falters, even as the commander’s stride carries him toward you.
He uses a single index finger to correct the very slight mistakes the other cadets make in their posture; lift a fist here, tighten the curve of the wrist there, pull in your elbow; good.
He pauses in front of you. He takes your hand and pulls it out of the salute. His thumb in your palm, his fingers cupping your hand, he holds your wrist steady for inspection.
“You're injured. What happened?”
You take a breath. Your wrist is covered in blood. Glancing down, you see that your shirt is, too.
“Just a scratch, sir!” you exclaim, strength behind your practiced voice.
Erwin frowns slightly. “Doesn't look like it's jus-” The man cuts himself off quite abruptly, jerking his hands away from yours as if he'd been burned. Out of sheer curiosity, you glance at his wrist, just before he claps his left hand over it.
As it turns out, the man did get burned, small letters in your handwriting blistering up under his skin. The letters form words, the words, a sentence.
‘Just a scratch, sir!’
“What is your name, cadet?”
You give it swiftly.
“Cadet (surname), I will send for you after I have some time to gather my thoughts,” says Commander Smith, his voice low enough for only your ears to hear, “I don't want this news to be gossiped around. Understood?”
“Yes, sir,” you answer softly, the throb in your wrist slowly but surely ebbing. As soon as the order ‘at ease’ rings in the air, you pull out your handkerchief and press it to your arm. The pressure hurts, but it's nothing like how it was.
You've heard tales about soulmates. They used to be very common, before the Titans.
Now, a couple of soulmates is almost unheard of. You know of three sets ever in the history of the Survey Corps, and twelve altogether in the military. Since the walls were put up, there have been maybe a hundred and twenty pairs throughout the population, and the majority of those have been from the districts, where dense population served the soulmates well.
Never in a million years would you have imagined finding a soulmate. Glancing at your wrist when the backs if the higher-ups are turned, a scrolling, delicate script sprawls ‘Good afternoon, cadets!’ beneath flakes of crusted blood. You note that your tag is made in the fashion of a tattoo, a lost practice due to the lack of materials. Black lines flare boldly at the downstrokes of the letters, tapering to needle-thin wisps, as if written with the finest nib and the highest-quality ink.
You tie the cloth around your wrist, effectively covering the surprise and soaking up the last beads of blood that surface rebelliously. As soon as the day’s training is over, you know you'll be at the mercy of your peers and, while it doesn't frighten you, per se, you'd much rather they minded their own business and leave you alone.
Unsurprisingly, you find yourself stealing looks at Commander Smith, noticing more details about him than you've ever bothered to look for.
His broad shoulders shrug now and then to shift the straps of his 3-d maneuvering gear, and he rakes his hand through his hair after a breeze. He frowns when he has to concentrate. His jaw clenches unconsciously, and he balls his fists. However, the movement seems to bother the mark on his wrist, so he puts his right hand on his hip, his thumb hooking into a belt loop on his pants.
Eventually, you clear your throat in annoyance with yourself and fix your eyes on a tree at the outskirts of the training grounds.
It's a nice tree, wide and tall with age. Its leaves flutter, reflecting the bright sunshine, and you grin to yourself as you find as many interesting things about the tree as you did about the commander.
You jump and pray it isn't noticeable, then turn your attention to Shadis. “Yes, sir?”
“Daydreaming again?” he grumbles, “Go catch Cadet Johnson!”
Peering over his shoulder, you see that brat, James, tearing away from the pack.
Did you miss something? Apparently, because this is training, not babysitting, and Shadis would pummel any cadet that would dare step out of line.
“Yes, sir!” you holler, and you take off at a sprint, almost pointedly not looking up at Commander Smith. Okay, fully pointedly.
With your powerful body, you catch up to the twit in seconds and fling yourself into him.
The two of you fall heavily, and the air is forced from James’ lungs with a solid grunt. His elbow digs into your rib, right where the pain will swirl around and stay for a good five minutes. He flails a little, then twists beneath you and shoves you off.
Boy, this will serve as a constant reminder to pay attention during training. You have no idea why you have to ‘catch' him or what you are or aren't allowed to do to neutralize him.
You decide to back up and let him make the next move. Standing firmly, you wait until he's just inches away before slapping his fist away from your face and plowing yours up into his gut, again knocking the breath out of him. He staggers back, coughing, though his fists go up defensively.
“You wanna play dirty?” he taunts, bouncing up on his toes, “Shadis wants to embarrass you in front of Smith. C'mon, ya big lug; I dare you.”
“You dare me?” You laugh softly, shaking out your hands and watching the wiry teen bounce in a half-circle around you, purely for show. Taking a light step forward, you throw your weight into a right hook. He catches the punch with his forearms and it sends a spike of pain up your wrist, scrubbing your handkerchief against your fresh wound. It surprises you and you get a pop in the nose as punishment.
You back up and touch your throbbing nose. It isn't broken, but it does start to bleed.
You retaliate blindly, swinging your foot up. James grabs your ankle and shoves skyward, sending you to the ground. In your moment of blank shock, the kid lunges for you. Sitting heavily, painfully, on your stomach, he pulls back to hit you again. Thankfully, having regained enough sense, you thrust both hands up, one bashing into James’ throat, the other grabbing the strap of his chest harness and heaving him backward.
Choking harshly, he motions his surrender, and Shadis gives the shout for you to back off. Taking in a deep breath, you stand up straight and dust yourself off. The thought to help him up flickers through your mind, but James stands on his own, coughing with his hand against his throat.
“Good fight,” he croaks, “Ya got a little…” He brushes the tip of his nose with his index finger, and wipe the blood from your nose onto the heel of your hand.
“Yeah, thanks,” you mutter, turning to Shadis, “Was this sufficient, sir?”
The man clears his throat. “You…” He smiles tightly, for show. “You did this Training Corps proud today.” His voice is as gruff as always, and you almost frown, feeling a light pang of offense. He's only complimenting you because you're this brand new soulmate to the commander.
You say the words snobbily in your head, disgustingly annoyed.
“Thank you, sir,” you say softly, “I'm glad you approve.” You see the commander far off at the front of the Training Corps, each cadet still lined up neatly. Your gaze meets his and an inexplicable warmth flashes in your chest, delicious but worrisome. You look away.
You can feel the tug, the pull of the promise of love and, while it's exciting, it's also way out of left field, entirely unexpected and unprepared-for.
“Cadet (f/n surname) reporting, sir!” You stand straight, your salute flawless though it pulls at your fresh tattoo.
The commander looks up from his paperwork, one page lifted out of the way of the other with his left index and middle fingers. He takes a moment to write on the bottom page, then he stacks it neatly and sets it aside.
“At ease. What should we do about this situation?”
You blink owlishly, a frown pulling your brows together.
“You're asking me? I…Permission to speak freely, sir?”
“Why are you asking me what to do?” you question.
“Because you're… apparently my better half. I want your input,” he replies.
“I don't know in the slightest what to do about it,” you say decisively, “Have you given it any thought?”
“Yes, quite a bit,” says Commander Smith, “I...don't believe that pursuing this is...wise. Relationships in the military get complicated, and relationships between a commander and a cadet are strictly forbidden. Relationships between anyone of different rank is-”
“You make it sound like a cheap romance novel,” you scoff, truthfully a bit hurt by his hesitance.
“I am twice your age!”
You both stay quiet for a moment, the reality of it actually sinking in.
“W-well…” You frown. You didn't actually take that into consideration. “Age is just a number…”
Baby blues lock onto your (e/c) gaze. “(F/n)...”
The sound of your name on his lips makes your heart skip a beat.
“People will make it a scandal. 'The commander of the Survey Corps is a cradle-robber in more ways than one.'” His voice is quiet, thoughtful, and melancholy. You don't quite know what you could say to make a difference for him.
“Commander Smith, might I briefly state that the hours I've been aware of our...connection, I have had little time to think about it. Perhaps it would be best to wait awhile so we both can gather our thoughts. A fortnight tonight?”
The man sighs softly. You realize he's barely looked at you since you came in.
“I believe that would be best, Cadet (surname),” he says, setting his jaw as he looks you in the eye, “Thank you for responding to my summons. You're dismissed.”
You salute sharply and walk out of the room, silently closing the door behind you.
The whispers and outright cat calls you receive when you step into the mess hall make you want to scream. Ignoring them, you get your dinner -a measly, squished bun and a mandatory glass of milk- and sit down with a group of… what are best described as buddies. Not friends, but not acquaintances. People you spend every day with but wouldn't necessarily spend your days off with.
Amelia Bordet is your closest ‘buddy', so close that she is classified as your best friend. She has has short, strawberry-blonde hair and perhaps the most annoying laugh you've ever heard, but she's friendly and sticks up for you when you need her to.
“Hey, (f/n), you missed the best dinner this month!” Amelia exclaims, “We actually had some beef. I can't believe you had to miss that!”
“No, it's…” You pause, knowing that the others are listening greedily for something to build a rumor off of. “Aw, bummer. Wish I could've had some…”
“I thought you'd say that,” whispers Amelia, leaning close, “Turns out I saved you some of mine.” She places her handkerchief (she never uses it outside of stashing food) on the table and opens it out to reveal a piece of the coveted beef. It's cold, of course, but, sinking your teeth into it, you feel certain you've never tasted anything better.
“It's so good!” you exclaim, the thrill in your voice muffled by deliciousness.
“They put salt on it. Can you imagine? Salt for the Training Corps?” Amelia giggles blissfully. “Oh, if this is what they always serve us, I'll be fine with staying a cadet.”
“We both know darn well that you'd eat better in the Military Police,” you reply, savoring the meat in small nibbles, “Picture it; actual salted butter on the bread, nutmeg and clove infused pork. Mmm, makes my mouth water.”
“Don't forget top-notch potatoes whipped up with cream until it's silk on your tongue!” Amelia lets out a yelp of sheer delight, the fantasy more enticing than the actual food. Her unbridled excitement is what draws most everyone around her. Some dislike that quality, but that's their problem. She's feisty and free and positively wild and you can't help but adore her.
“Dessert, we can't forget dessert!” you say, ripping into your dreadfully bland roll.
“Let's see...something with vanilla and cinnamon. Cookies? Ooh, I could die for a cookie…”
“Mmm…” Amelia wraps her arms around herself, practically melting with joy. A bruise on her forearm sticks out strangely, purple and fresh and out of place against someone so cheerful. You smile though; she's the top of the hand-to-hand class. She prizes her scars, points them out and boasts about them.
The two of you stay in the mess hall for a long time, until almost everyone has left. A young couple sits a few tables away, blushingly enjoying a conversation about home, and a group of noisy boys sits at the farthest end of the room, laughing and messing around.
Amelia scoots snug up against you.
“Hey,” she murmurs.
“Hey,” you reply.
“Your wrist. Your mark.”
You smile and slide the handkerchief off your arm. You'd taken the time earlier in the day to wash it carefully and put some ointment on it to help the healing process. The area around it is inflamed and red, but it only hurts if there's pressure put on it.
“Wow…” You can admit to feeling quite pleased at her admiration; you respect her and it feels good to be noticed as someone so incredibly special. “I had no idea his penmanship was this beautiful.”
“Right?” You grin, tracing your fingers over the words. “Pretty cool, huh?”
“So, what's going on with the two of you? What did you talk about at your meeting?”
“Well…” you sigh, “He's a bit rattled, I think. He...was very hesitant. He said that he doesn't think it's smart to act on this-” You hold up your wrist. “-because of our professions and the age gap.”
“Aw, come on!” exclaims Amelia, “The most blissfully romantic thing just happened to the two of you and he uses the age excuse!? What is wrong with that man?”
Snorting softly, you tell her to watch what she says about the commander. A subtle feeling of contentment spreads over you like a favorite blanket, and you snuggle into it, claiming it and adoring it, praying that it will last.
A very strange emotion settles itself deep in your gut in the fortnight leading up to the second ‘meeting'. In your best description, it feels like loneliness and dissatisfaction; very different from how it felt after your first visit with the commander. Your tattoo itches almost constantly, and you woke up one night to blood all over your left hand because you had scratched it so viciously in your sleep.
Finally, the day of the second meeting comes, and anxiety curls its suffocating hand around your throat. You do your best to look nice. You've scrubbed your scalp with the plain, unfragranced soap issued to each cadet, then wash it with the most luxurious liquid soap you've ever had, sent by your excited mother after she heard the news, scented with wild lily-of-the-valley. It foams up richly in your wet hair, and you scour your body with the plain military soap so the suds of the flowery soap can be used as a fragrance.
Once finished in the shower, you comb out your hair and let it hang loose. Leaving your hair down is rare, and one of the few things that sparkle up your appearance. Being a cadet makes finding the right kind of berry for a lip tint nearly impossible; any that you've tried have looked splotchy and unattractive. You don't have pierced ears because, like with your hair, you don't want anything to get caught in your training gear. You don't own any jewelry or exquisite dresses.
Seeing as it is still an active training day, you wear your uniform. Also, during the course of the day, you find yourself working tangles out of your hair, which proves itself to be more troublesome than beautiful. The fragrance of the soap wears away after hours of sweating and, truthfully, you wonder why you even bothered this morning.
Amelia insists that you skip out on the last hour of training to get cleaned up again, but you shake your head.
“No, I give up,” you huff, ”He better like me the way I am.”
“Oh, don't be so stubborn,” scoffs Amelia, pushing you toward the shower hall, “I'll whip your hair into shape if you promise to let me borrow some of that glorious soap. I've been catching whiffs of it all day.”
You sigh in resignation. “Fine.”
Eight o’clock rolls around swiftly. Nerves boil in your stomach, and the unwelcome clench tightens painfully.
Two solid raps on the door signal your arrival, and a single word grants your entrance.
“Cadet (f/n surname) reporting-”
“You aren't reporting. The day is over; this is...personal business taking place in our recreational time,” says Erwin, and the thought makes you smile, “As such...you look very nice this evening. I like the flowers in your hair. Daisies and buttercups.”
“Right,” you confirm, blushing madly at the bold compliment, “My dear friend did it for me. I'm...not really one to play with my hair.”
“It's nice,” he insists, “Relax, (f/n). I refuse to be your commander right now. Take a seat. Would you like some tea?”
“Tea?” You grin widely at the offer and manage a swift nod. “I would love some.” It's been a long time since you've had tea. Your mouth waters at the memory of it.
After sending his assistant to get the tea, Erwin sits in an armchair off to the side of his office. You perch shyly on the couch facing it, your restless hands tapping your knees. The two of you sit quietly and you realize, with a feeling of warmth, that the disgusting emotion in your gut has left, replaced by the feeling of comfort you had felt two weeks ago.
“You were born in the village of Lyon, weren't you?” the commander asks mildly, and you nod, your reaction stiff with nervousness about the situation, “How is your family?”
“Very well, thank you,” you murmur politely, “My mother is pleased that I've found my soulmate. Beyond pleased, really. Ecstatic is more accurate.”
Erwin laughs, and the lush sound, though minimal, takes your breath away. “That's comforting news,” he says gladly, absently rubbing at his mark. After a moment, he realizes he's doing it. “How has your mark healed?”
“Not fully…” you say, looking at your wrist, “It's been itchy. Really itchy. I made it bleed the other night, so that hindered its healing. How's yours?”
“Worst burn I've ever gotten,” he answers, “It's still tender...Pretty interesting, though. The scarring will be prominent; it'll last a long time.”
“Yeah,” you smile, “Could I see it?”
He holds his arm out for you to inspect and, with hesitant, gentle fingers, you hold his arm still. The letters of your mark stand starkly against his skin, healing blisters surrounded by angry, red flesh.
With his left hand, he takes your right and pulls it so he can see the mark.
“You have gorgeous penmanship,” you say, extremely aware of his hand on yours. Your mark has scabbed over, the letters difficult to make out. Erwin’s thumb ghosts over it, and you pray he doesn't feel your pounding heartbeat.
“I stare at my mark before I fall asleep. I've thought long and hard about this situation...Have you?”
“Yes,” you say, your admission barely audible, “What are your thoughts?”
“I'd rather hear yours first.”
You try to offer a small grin, but a fierce pull of shyness and anxiety makes it hard. To your utter horror, your hand starts shaking visibly, and you know Erwin can feel it. He presses his right palm firmly to yours, turning your hand so the back faces the ceiling.
“I'll go first,” he says knowingly, “I believe that we ought to take this opportunity. Soulmates are too rare anymore, and I don't want to be a coward about it. Have you felt the disconnection these past weeks? The...the emptiness?”
You nod swiftly, recalling how awful the wait was, knowing body, spirit, soul that the two of you were made for each other.
“I would like to spend more time with you, get to know you personally, and base our relationship off of that, as opposed to basing it off of what the social norm would be.”
You nod again, just as enthusiastically as before. “I agree,” you say, “Fully. I know that our future has now been...planned out...and that's comforting.” You smile softly, thoughtfully, before continuing. “I...look forward to knowing you, Erwin.” The curl of his name on your tongue is delightful, and you mouth it to yourself a couple more times, a faint smile on your face.
“The feeling is mutual,” he replies, squeezing your hand softly, “I'm glad we both came to the same conclusion.”
“Soooo,” purrs Amelia, pushing up against you, hard enough to almost make you topple from the bench in the mess hall, “Details, please!”
“He said he wants to pursue a relationship,” you say, giddy from the long conversation you had with him and the contentment in your stomach, “Oh, Amelia, he's wonderful. And I'm not just saying that, I promise! He's so smart...and gentle for his size. His hands are huge!”
Amelia whistles lowly. “Ooh, you got a crush,” she singsongs, elbowing you in the ribs. It stings, but it's nowhere near enough to make your mood falter.
“No duh!” you laugh, “He's my everything already. Can you imagine that? It's surreal!”
“I wish I could imagine that,” sighs Amelia, “I bet my soulmate is strong and handsome and lives inside Sina and would love to feed me cake. With frosting flowers on it.”
“I bet your soulmate has orange-red hair,” you reply, “Cut neatly. I bet it spikes up a little, too.”
“I'm gonna have to host a ginger conference!” laughs Amelia, then she takes in a huge gasp, “I'm gonna host a party!! A great big party to celebrate you and Commander Smith.”
“Oh, Amelia, no,” you protest hastily, shaking your head.
“Oh, Amelia, yes,” she replies, “(F/n), you need this. Come on, how many wedding showers will I ever have to throw? One, and that's yours, so it's final.”
“Amelia, he hasn't proposed to me,” you explain.
Amelia blinks blankly. “What do you mean, he hasn't proposed!?” she yelps, “He has to propose!!”
“But he hasn't,” you hiss, indirectly telling your friend to hush up, “It will happen, I'm sure, but it hasn't yet and won't for awhile, maybe. Be patient, sheesh!”
“But it has to happen!” Amelia whines, “And I get to be the maid of honor!”
“Quit fussing; you sound like a kid,” you tease, “Don't worry; you'll be the first person I tell. I promise.”
Your friend pokes her lip out in a pout. “Well, what does he smell like?”
“Smell? What, you think I walk in, say ‘hey there, soulmate!’ and sniff his neck or somethin’?” You laugh brightly. “Yeah, right. I don't know!”
“Make sure you get a whiff next time,” whispers Amelia, “Ain't nothin’ better than a good-smellin’ man.”
You unconsciously keep that in mind. The next couple days, you find your thoughts leaning that direction several times, especially when you catch him staring at you during training one morning. It pulls a smile and a blush from you. In retaliation, you send him a discreet wink, getting a bitten-back grin for your effort.
Rubbing your cheeks, you jog off after the others for your daily laps. Just the fact that you're a sprinter and not a particularly long-distance runner keeps you from showing off. You're fast, sure, but once you lose your wind, you can't get it back.
Amelia lets out a shrill whoop when she pulls up beside you, completely ignoring the fact that it's not permitted, and she rams her hip into yours, almost knocking you over.
Gosh, that girl…
“Someone and someone sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g,” she huffs, falling into perfect step beside you, each footfall a mirror to yours, “First comes forbidden flirting, then comes the marriage, then my best friend goes to live inside Sina and buy me cake!”
“That totally doesn't rhyme,” you snicker.
“‘Cept we haven't kissed yet,” you say.
“Are you kidding me!?” Amelia wails.
“And I prob’ly wouldn't live in Sina.”
“Sure ya would!”
“I think the commander lives in the castle like Captain Levi and the doctor,” you say, “Y'know, in the separate quarters?”
“Well, after you get married, you'll have to live in a house for the kids’ sakes.”
“Oh, so now you wanna be an aunt? From maid of honor to an aunt in two days. You sure expect a lot out of this, don't you?”
“You're my best friend ever,” says Amelia, “Of course I do!”
“Cadet Bordet!! Shut your big mouth and consider your fifth lap your first!!” roars Shadis.
Amelia groans openly, but shouts a professional ‘yes, sir!’. She falls behind, slowing her pace to reserve her energy for the extra mileage.
You realize, quite suddenly, that Shadis said nothing to you. Across the training field, you locate him, standing tall with his arms crossed, with Erwin standing a few feet behind him.
Shadis doesn't dare reprimand you, not now, not knowing that you're Commander Smith’s soulmate. You've heard the stories and read the books about protective soulmates dealing with problems as big as Titans or as small as an ill-timed joke. You wonder briefly if the commander is protective. You feel protective when it comes to Amelia; would you get the big ‘mama bear’ instinct if someone said something about Erwin?
Even thinking about it, you can feel the twinge of fierce anger well up in your heart.
So that answers that question.
A strong whiff of something awful hits you like a punch in the face, burning your nostrils. It comes seemingly from out of nowhere and the density of it feels out of whack.
Others look around cautiously, seeking the source, and someone toward the front of the pack points to the westward sky. A fat, twisting column of thick, black smoke rises from a spot behind the castle.
“Ugh, what is that?”
“Smells like burning feathers.”
“Burning rubber to me.”
“Nah, it reeks like smoking lard.”
“What the heck; no way!”
“Commander Smith, is that a mass cremation?” Despite not being at your side, you hear Amelia loud and clear, and her voice covers the training ground to reach Erwin. His face sports a faint frown.
“It is,” he answers, “Let's all go pay our respects.”
You hear muttered words of annoyance and apprehension among your comrades, too quiet for the higher-ups to hear, and you want to scold them all. Instead, you push past everyone, setting your jaw and straightening your shoulders powerfully. Stepping up to Erwin and Shadis, you salute, then walk behind them, strong respect dripping from your form, demanding the same from your peers.
How dare they act like such children? They know that people in the military die. Everyone dies at some point.
‘Grow up!’ you want to shout, ‘Those men and women died for your bratty rear ends and you turn your noses up at them?’
It disgusts you.
As the caravan of trainees led by their eldest comrade, their instructor, and the commander of the Survey Corps marches to the cremation sight, the stench grows stronger, so strong, so thick, that you almost choke on it. You hadn't been aware of an expedition; odd, considering that they're usually well-advertised to the public.
There is only one, enormous fire burning, but it is piled high with smoldering bones and sizzling flesh. Kids all around you vomit their breakfasts onto the grass and, never taking your eyes from the fire, paying that last debt to the brave soldiers that served humanity, you know very well that this experience will stay with you, haunt you, for years to come.
You wonder, even, if you'll end up in a pile like them.
If your bones will be scattered with those of dozens of your peers. Perhaps your mother will get a tooth belonging to Amelia, and James’ sisters will get a tin of ashes belonging to three different people. All in a stack, there's no good or easy way to separate the bodies. One mass cremation is what soldiers get. As clean as it gets, as dignified as it can be. Scoop up a trowel of ashes, stick it in a can, pray the family won't ask if it belongs solely to their soldier.
Without realizing it, you start crying, the heat of your tears melting into the heat of the exercise, the morning sun, the roaring fire.
Numbly, you copy the reverent salute of the commander and instructor.
Many tears are shared with the girls in your barracks. Everyone showers and scrubs themselves raw. Everyone says they can't get the stink off of them, even with the burning hot water and pass after pass of the powerful lye soap. Rags don't help. Scrubbing brushes don't help. Pumice stones don’t help.
Few people eat in the mess hall. Most of the food goes toward tomorrow’s breakfast. Bread turns to sawdust in the mouth. Potato turns to sand. Amelia tries her best to crack a joke, but even she's broken up about it, pushing her flavorless, colorless meal around her plate, her mouth set in a firm line, glued shut by the absolute lack of appetite.
Laying in bed, some of the girls cry, others toss and turn endlessly, while others seem able to fall into fitful sleeps. You stare into the dark, flames licking before your eyes, neon red and electric orange. It was a shock, to say the least; a true wake-up call.
This is life.
You shake out of your bland space-out and look up at Erwin, tired (e/c) eyes meeting his worried ones.
“Are you all right?” he asks softly.
Your gaze turns back to the floor beside Erwin’s foot. “It's pretty sobering,” you answer.
“The cremation yesterday?”
“May I sit beside you?”
The couch cushion wobbles under his weight, dipping your hip toward his. Your hand is taken gently in both of his, and a soft sigh escapes you when he works the tension from it in firm presses of the pads of his thumbs. You've never had a hand massage. You decide you quite like it.
“It's a shock,” he admits, “But it'll be okay. I'm honestly surprised by the impression it made on the Training Corps.”
“I'll never forget the stench,” you whisper shakily, “I feel like I can still smell it. Like I'm still there, w-watching…”
“But you aren't. You're here with me,” murmurs Erwin, and he brushes a few rebellious strands of hair back behind your ear, “And you never have to see one of those again.”
You shake your head, desperate to get the memory out of it. “I'm going to...I'm going to go to bed…”
“You need to eat something.”
“Not now,” you answer. You've stunned yourself with how badly it shook you. You feel sick and have since yesterday morning. “I'm going to bed.”
Erwin presses a firm kiss to your temple. In a better state of mind, the action would've made you flush and stutter. Now it's little more than a surprise.
“Good night then,” he says, his breath warm against your forehead.
You remember your conversation with Amelia, and take a breath just before you stand.
He smells like the promise of rain, and it's a cleansing scent, one that helps clear a bit of the horror that has clung to you.
In two months, and much to Amelia’s chagrin, you and Erwin have yet to share a hug or kiss, and you're beginning to think that a proposal is farther off than you'd anticipated.
“So...let me get this straight,” says Amelia, leaning back on her new boyfriend, Charles. He's noisy, but polite enough, and you at least don't feel the need to strangle him. Amelia folds her hands on her stomach and shoves her feet into your lap. You reach around her dusty boots to finish your supper. “The commander doesn't want to propose why?”
“He's never said that!” you exclaim indignantly, “Where did you get that idea?”
“Well!” The ‘e' sounds more like a ‘u'. “He hasn't done it yet! Which is dumb of him; he has no idea how blessed he is to have you.”
“I'm flattered, truly,” you say, “But don't pick on him. He has a lot on his plate; getting married is a huge fuss even if you don't have any responsibilities.”
“Dibs on being your wedding planner.” Someone drops their empty dish on the floor a few feet away, cutting into her sentence.
“I said ‘dibs on being your wedding planner’!!” Amelia shouts, loudly enough to raise above every voice in the room. You shrink a little, but she just laughs jovially. “I'm serious!” she insists, “You'll have the best wedding ever. With cake. And frosting flowers.”
“Really? Where is all this money going to come from?”
Amelia purses her lips, a twist of a grin dancing on them. “Isn't your soulmate the commander? Gee, I sure thought he was…”
“Shut up,” you snicker, “It doesn't mean he's rich.”
“He has government funds…” she hints, pressing her index fingers together in a show of mock innocence.
It makes you laugh aloud. “Oh, I think we'll all want him to leave those be, if we know what's best for us.” You shake your head, resting your elbow on the toe of Amelia’s boot as you munch on a mouthful of string beans.
“Okay, fine,” huffs Amelia, “You win. Onto a somewhat different topic; your dress. How does that quaint old saying go? Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue? Yeah. Tell me what you want for those.” The strawberry-blonde squints at you, tapping the pads of her fingers together, the heels of both hands resting against each other. Charles shifts behind her, but she readjusts, intent on an immediate answer.
“Look, my dear,” you say softly, patting her shin, “I will tell you just as soon as he proposes, okay? And I'll give you that list. But let's just...be patient.”
“For another two months? Six?” Amelia groans, her breath leaving in a frustrated, heavy growl. “Maybe you should propose to him.”
You scoff lightly, far more amused than annoyed. “That'll be the day…” you mutter, stabbing a piece of cornbread with your fork.
“What will be the day?”
You jump violently, dropping your fork with a clatter. “C-Commander Smith! You surprised me!” you exclaim, scrambling to catch the utensil before it hits the floor. Amelia snorts.
“My apologies,” smiles Erwin, straddling the bench beside you, relaxed and content to see you. He's not wearing his uniform; instead, he wears a pair of comfortable black pants and a simple, short-sleeved shirt, off-white with an undone drawstring at the throat. He wears his bolo tie, and his hair is smoothed down as it normally is.
“Permission to speak freely, sir?” asks Amelia. She grins when the commander grants her request and your heart sinks to your toes. “Is it okay to treat you like (f/n)’s boyfriend when we're off-duty?”
Erwin hesitates to answer, his brows pulling together. “W...well…”
“How about ‘no’,” you say, very pointedly sending Amelia a glare.
“Aw, c'mon, (f/n)...” Amelia grins, stretching out her foot until the toe of her boot brushes Erwin's muscular forearm. You smack her foot.
“Amelia, behave yourself,” you snap, “Let's start over and properly introduce you. Come on, sit up. There ya go. Amelia, this is Erwin Smith, as you so painfully obviously know. Erwin, this is my beloved friend Amelia Bordet.”
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance,” Erwin says, an amused smile dancing across his lips. Amelia clasps his offered hand warmly, gives it a firm shake, and laughs.
“So we're acquaintances? Can I call you Winny? Please tell me I can call you Winny.”
Erwin laughs and shakes his head. “I'm afraid not,” he says, “I'm still the commander of the Survey Corps.”
Amelia pouts, a thing to put most two-year-olds to shame. “But you look like a ‘Winny’. Ooh! Would you prefer ‘Vinny'?”
Erwin gives her an amused look.
“Fine, fine,” she says, nodding, pretending to be a bit melancholic, before flashing a shining smile, “I have a good feeling about you, sir. You be good to my baby.” She rubs your back softly. “Or I will end you.”
Erwin nods. He'll take that seriously. However, he doesn't need the prompt. Running the knuckle of his index finger down your sleeve, he knows…
He could never hurt you. He loves you too much.
“Have we gotten to a...to a stable stage in our relationship?”
You smile slightly. “Why?” Setting your book -one you had been entirely engrossed in- down, you tilt your head and raise an eyebrow. He sits across from you, his elbows propped on his knees as he leans forward.
“I…” Erwin takes a deep breath, smiling awkwardly and letting the breath out as a chuckle. “I would like to go out sometime, instead of just sitting here in my office. The entire Training and Survey Corps know about us.” He pauses to shrug. “It feels...wrong to be cooped up. I don't know about you, but I feel like I'm being secretive when we're together and I don’t want to be.”
“Okay,” you say slowly, letting his words really sink in, “What should we do about that? Did you want to go on a picnic or a date or…? What were you thinking of doing?”
Erwin flushes, and the sight makes you grin. Red crawls up his chest and throat, travels all the way to his ears, and he clears his throat firmly.
“Actually,” he says softly, sliding from his seat and onto one knee, “Actually, (f/n), I was thinking it's about time for us to get married.” He pulls a ring from his chest pocket and you pull in a strangled breath, one that sounds pained and really stupid, but it doesn't matter because this is it.
“Okay,” you agree, your voice barely coming through. Your throat is tight with tears of surprise and happiness, and the moment feels exactly like you've always imagined it would. You nod excitedly, and you find your hand is shaking when he moves to slide the ring onto your finger. How he knew your ring size is beyond you, but you don't care because it fits so perfectly that you know it was meant to be.
“You can decide the date,” he says, pressing a kiss to your hand. You can feel that he's shaking, too, with relief and excitement.
“Let's just do it soon,” you say, placing your hands on either side of his face. He covers them with his own and you share a happy smile.
What wonders would marriage to this man bring? What joy and adventure and bliss awaits you?
The thought is breathtaking.
You set the date for a month away.
Amelia shrieks, legitimately and very loudly shrieks, when she hears the news. Grabbing you by the waist, she pulls you off your feet and spins you around until you both fall in a heap on the barrack floor, giggling like mad. She grabs your hand and admires the ring.
“Finally!” she gushes, “Finally!! Oh my gosh, I have so much to do! Flowers to order, food to be bought. Picture it; an entire head of beef prepared for the feast. Fish and cheese and fluffy white bread, and cake with frosting flowers on it.”
“I don't want to picture it,” you say, sitting up and untangling your legs, “I want to eat it!!”
“And you shall, my beloved, you shall!” cries Amelia, lifting her hands in the air triumphantly, “Have Erwin give me the budget and you shall have the wedding of your dreams!”
Turns out her statement was the truth. Though the budget was small, it was still plenty, and that Amelia, that gorgeous Amelia, made every wedding dream of your come true. She had bouquets of your favorite flowers in your favorite color, an array of exquisitely delicious dishes, the cake she had had her thoughts focused on for months; she even got you the perfect gown. She fixed your hair elegantly. She tinted your lips with berry juice. She shined your nails until they glared.
Now, standing behind her and her boyfriend, you feel nerves gnaw at your stomach. It's an outdoor wedding. A gentle breeze sweeps over the crowd of people made up of family, a couple cadets, and some of Erwin’s closest friends. A small handful of officials attend for show; the commander of the Survey Corps is being married. It's a huge deal.
Music marking the start of your walk down the aisle begins, sweet notes that you'll always remember. Amelia arranged that, too. You'd told her you didn't want the traditional ‘Wedding March’; you wanted something unique. Well, she knew a girl that could write music, and a guy that could play the flute, so you got your unique wedding march all to yourself.
You heart throbs at the sight of Erwin, and a smile, blissfully uncontainable, spreads across your face. He stands tall and proud, wearing a luxurious black tuxedo, pristine and perfectly tailored. He returns the smile, and to your surprise, he tears up. He truly tears up, and that makes you tear up, and you're pretty sure you can hear Amelia sniffling behind you.
What a wedding. What a wedding!
You take Erwin’s offered hands, hands that you have touched and held a hundred times, and the pastor begins the ceremony, his voice large and strong.
“Do you, (full name), take Erwin Smith as your lawfully wedded husband?”
You almost laugh. The weight of your new wedding ring is different from that of your engagement ring, and you enjoy it completely.
“And do you, Erwin Smith, take (full name) as your lawfully wedded wife?”
Erwin's baby blues well up again as he watches his band slide onto his finger. You never would've guessed him to be the emotional type. He nods, making the easiest decision of his life. “I do.”
“Well, then, I pronounce you man and wife. Mr. Smith, you may kiss your bride.”
Amelia is sobbing by the time you make it back to her.
“That was the best wedding I've ever been to!” she wails, throwing her arms around you. She pulls away, holding her handkerchief to her nose (wow, she's actually using it). She can only manage a glance up at Erwin before coughing out a sob and throwing her arms around him, too. “You be good to her!” she exclaims, “I'm serious!”
Erwin gives her back an awkward pat. “I will,” he promises, and you grin at him.
“Thank you, Amelia, for doing all this for us,” you say earnestly, rubbing her arm.
“It was a blessing,” she croaks, dabbing her eyes, “I'm so happy for you guys, oh my gosh.”
“Well,” you smile, lowering your voice, “Maybe it'll be your turn next.” You press your bouquet into her hands and her eyes widen.
You shrug. “You never know, my dear,” you say, and you give her a little nudge, “Go say hi to every guy here; maybe you'll find your soulmate.”
“Do you have some kind of soulmate sixth sense or something?” she hisses, narrowing her eyes playfully, “You could sell it, with my help.”
“No, I don't!” you laugh, “And I wouldn't want to sell it. People say you can't put a price on love; let's keep it that way.”
Amelia elbows you, barely hard enough to feel it. “You're too good for me,” she says cheerfully, and the three of you laugh.
“Speaking of,” you say, “Isn't it high time to have some cake?”
Your strawberry-blonde lets out a squeal, dashing for the table of food, her skirt billowing behind her.
A large hand presses lightly to your shoulder, and you look up at Erwin. “Hello,” you murmur contentedly, a happy, drowsy bliss settled deep in your stomach now that you know you'll always have him.
“I love you.” The words come with a delicate kiss, as soft as a breath but as powerful as a screamed declaration from atop Wall Maria. “Forever and always.”