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未来への進撃--Advance to the Future

Chapter Text

“I’ll be back in three days.”

Father’s arms were warm and strong, like always.

“Have a safe trip.” Mother did not sound so sure. She did not sound like there was the possibility of it being a ‘safe trip.’ Then why would she say anything at all ?

“Next time, can I come too?”

“Maybe not next time.” Father’s smile faded, but his words were sincere. “But someday soon, you can come if you want to. My work is tough, but you’re a tough girl, too. If you want to, you can do it, too.”

“You think I’m ‘tough’?”

“Of course. You’re a strong girl. You always are taking care of your siblings and keeping your mother company in my stead. You’re very strong, Yasmin.”

 

“Dad…?”

“Yas, get up.”

Yasmin Güven opened her eyes to see a familiar face looking into hers, but it was not the face she had been hoping to see.

“Marco’s here,” Cem told his older sister. “Did you just call me ‘Dad’?”

“Did I?” Yasmin sat up from the window seat, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. “I didn’t really mean to.”

“Mom says I look like him. Is that true?”

“I guess…a little bit.”

Yasmin look at her six-year old brother; as young as he was, he was indeed starting to resemble their father more and more. But, obviously, they would never really be the same.

“You look like a troll,” Cem said before running off. Yasmin let him run; she had already kept Marco waiting long enough.

“You slept late?” Marco asked as Yasmin appeared outside moments later.

“I accidentally fell asleep,” she admitted, grinning. “Esra was doing the chores for once, so I just got to thinking.”

“Yeah? About what?”

“The usual.”

“….You think too much.”

“I don’t care what you think.”

The two laughed as they walked along the streets of Jinae, their hometown. Both of them knew what Yasmin had said was an outright lie. She cared very much what Marco thought, and the same could be said for him in regards to her. They had grown up together in Wall Rose, and they had a lot in common, so it was easy for them to become good friends. But there were certain, specific bonds between them--these bonds were what led them to be best friends and almost constant companions.

“Hey, the sky is really clear today,” Marco pointed out, and the two looked up at the blue autumn sky. “Let’s go up to the roof!”

“Yeah, before it gets cloudy!” Yasmin agreed, and the two bolted off toward Marco’s house.

“Hi, Mom!” Marco shouted as they burst into the Bodt’s small house. Marco’s mother, Freya, looked up from cleaning the floor and smiled.

“Welcome back,” she said calmly. “And hello again, Yasmin.”

“Hi, Mom,” Yasmin giggled, dragging her feet a bit to properly greet Freya. She had always considered Marco’s mother to be a secondary mother. After all, she spent as much time with the Bodt’s as she had at her own home. It was only natural that she be integrated into their family.

“Be careful going up there,” Freya told the pair as Marco rushed over to the ladder leading to the rooftop.

“We will,” he assured his mother. “C’mon, Yasmin.”

Nodding, Yasmin followed Marco up the ladder and onto the roof.

“You can see really far today!” Marco gasped. Giving a satisfied smile, he sat down, staring out at the distance. Yasmin sat down next to him without a word.

The outside world is so far away from here, she realized, her smile fading.

“We’ll get there.” Marco looked at Yasmin, smiling brightly. “Maybe not today or tomorrow, but we’ll get there one day. That’s what you’re thinking about, right?”

Yasmin nodded, looking at her best friend. “Yeah, I know all of that. It’s just that sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever really have the chance. …You’re lucky that you’re an only child.”

“Just because you have siblings doesn’t mean you can’t join the military, you know. They won’t be the same age forever, and they’ll have to learn to take care of themselves one day anyway.”

“My mother expects me to take Dad’s place,” Yasmin argued. “She’s reluctant to let me leave the house at all.”

“…If you work hard, you can get into the Military Police, right?” Marco said quietly. “At least there you’ll be pretty safe. Your mother should be okay with that. And if I get lucky enough, I’ll be joining the Military Police, too. You could serve the king, and…”

Yasmin couldn’t help but laugh.

“Marco, even if I joined the military, there’s no way I’d be good enough to make it into the Military Police,” she told him. “And besides, I don’t want to go further within the walls. I don’t care if it’s safer there… I want to go outside. I want to see what…”

“…”

Yasmin couldn’t bring herself to say it out loud, but Marco understood her feelings.

Only three years prior, both Yasmin’s and Marco’s fathers were reported as missing. Both had gone out for work and had never returned. The coincidence was undeniable; it was likely that wherever they had gone, they had gone there together. No one would say it out loud, but Yasmin knew from the bottom of her heart that they had gone outside of the walls.

Her curiosity for the outside world had only escalated because of this, and so she had made it her goal to get there one way or another. A way to get there, as Marco had suggested, was to join the military, but this was easier said than done.

“Well, we turn twelve soon,” Marco pointed out. “You should sign up for training, and then you can decide from there.”

“You’ll be signing up then too, right?”

“Of course.”

Sighing, Yasmin looked out at the sky. As they had been sitting there, clouds had started to roll in, and the calm blue color had begun to turn purple and red with the coming sunset.

 

………

 

“See you later, Eren.”

“Eren…”

“Eren…”

“Eren!!”

When Eren finally opened his eyes, the Mikasa standing before him seemed different from the one he had been looking at just seconds earlier.

“Hm…?”

“Wake up,” she told him, putting a hand on his shoulder. “We should get home soon. It’s going to get dark.”

“…Uh?” Eren grunted, blinking. His eyelids felt heavy still, and his head felt fuzzy. “Mikasa…your hair… It’s gotten longer, hasn’t it…?”

Mikasa stared at Eren for a moment before replying.

“You were sleeping soundly enough to spout that kind of nonsense upon waking up?” she asked, standing and turning to leave.

“Well…it’s like I just had a really long dream…” Eren told her, slowly getting to his feet as well. “But I can’t seem to remember what it was about…”

“Eren?” Mikasa had turned back to look at Eren, and her eyebrows were raised in slight concern. “What’s wrong? Why are you crying?”

“Huh…?” Eren put his fingers to his eyes. Sure enough, they were wet with tears.

Eren Jaeger and Mikasa Ackermann were not blood siblings, but they were family nevertheless. That day, the two ten-year-olds had headed to the fields in Wall Maria to gather firewood. And, as usual, Mikasa did most of the work while Eren fell asleep. This was, however, the first time Eren had awoken from a dream in tears.

“Not a word…to anyone,” Eren told Mikasa as they walked back toward the gate into Shiganshina. “They don’t need to know I’ve been crying…”

“…I won’t,” Mikasa assured him in a quiet voice. “Still…you had tears in your eyes for no good reason. Maybe you should let your dad have a look?”

“Are you crazy?! Like hell I’d tell him about that.”

“What have you been crying about, Eren?”

Two gold eyes suddenly appeared in front of Eren’s face, causing the boy to stop in his tracks.

“Ha-Hannes…”

The so-called Hannes kneeled down to Eren’s height, grinning.

“Did Mikasa get mad at you for some reason?” he asked.

“Huh!? What would I be crying for?! …I mean…” Eren wrenched his head back, putting a hand to his nose. “You reek of booze!!”

Eren looked past Hannes’ smiling, reddened face to see three other men sitting nearby, drinking and playing a card game. All of them, including Hannes, were wearing the uniforms of the Garrison regiment.

“You’re still… You’re still going at it…” Eren muttered.

“Why don’t you join us?” Hannes joked.

“No, uh…what about work?”

“Oh!” Hannes straightened up, looking proud. “Today, we man the gates! We’re supposed to stay here all day, so it doesn’t take long before we get hungry, as well as thirsty. Alcohol happens to be part of the drinks sometimes, but that’s nothing to write home about.”

“And when the situation calls for it, how’re you supposed to fight?!” Eren shouted, irritated. At this point, the other Garrison guards had started listening in. Hannes looked back at them, and they all stared at Eren in silence.

“…The situation?” Hannes echoed. “What situation?”

“…!! I can’t believe I’m hearing this! It should be obvious! When ‘they’ break the wall!! And enter the city! THAT’S when!!”

“Hey, Eren! Don’t just shout out like that…” Hannes groaned, clutching his head.

“Lively as ever, eh, doctor’s son!!” one of the guards laughed. “Should ‘they’ ever break the wall, then we’ll deal with it. But you see, that hasn’t happened once in a hundred years.”

“B-but come on!” Eren insisted. “We can’t let our guards down like that. It’s dangerous! My father told me so!!”

“Well…sure, you’re probably right about that,” Hannes admitted. “I don’t claim to know any better than Doctor Jaeger, this city’s resident savior…but, well…becoming a soldier might allow you a chance to see them prowling around while you’re busy reinforcing the walls… But this wall is fifty meters high, and I fail to see how ‘they’ll’ work their way around that.”

“So you’re not even ready to fight them in the first place!?”

“Nope!”

“What the hell!!” Eren shouted. “Then quit calling yourselves the ‘Garrison’ and start calling yourselves the wall-cleaning squad!”

“Yeah, sounds good!” Hannes agreed with a chuckle. “But ya see, Eren, an active army’s not a good thing at all. It means things have gone south… Whereas so long as we’re derided as useless freeloaders, life is peaceful for everyone.”

“What Hannes said,” the other guard chimed in. “Damn…I just can’t get these guys from the Survey Corps, going outside the walls and all that jazz… It’s like they get a kick out of playing warfare or something!”

“Even if we can’t get outside these walls, we’ve got food and rest, and that’s enough to stay alive…” Eren agreed in a quiet voice. “But…a life like that…is no different that if we actually were cattle…”

Eren could hear the Garrison members say something about him as he walked away, but he kept walking, gaze forward. Mikasa followed alongside him. The two were quiet for a while, until finally the latter spoke up.

“…Eren. You’d better forget about the Survey Corps,” she murmured.

“What’s this…you’re gonna make fun of them too!?” Eren growled.

“…It’s not so much about making fun of them or anything…”

Mikasa’s voice was soon drowned out by the sound of a ringing bell, coming from the front gate of Shiganshina.

“The Survey Corps is back!” Eren gasped, stopping in his tracks. “They’re opening the front gate! …The heroes return victorious…!!” Grabbing Mikasa’s hand, Eren began to run toward the gate. “Let’s go, Mikasa!”

 

Chapter Text

 “Everyone! Prepare for battle!!”

Keith Shardis, twelfth Commander of the Survey Corps, let his voice ring through the forest and against the gigantic trees. His troops followed behind him , restless as ever.

“We have one target!” he cried, driving his horse and his men forward. “Take it down if it’s the last thing you do!!”

“Distance to target, 400 meters!” one of the elite soldiers, Erwin Smith, shouted to the others. “It’s coming our way!!”

“Split into five groups just like during practice!” Shardis commanded, waving his hand. Behind him, his troops split off cleanly, falling into formation. “We’ll act as decoys!!”

“Distance to target, 100 meters!!”

“To all attack teams!! Switch to three-dimensional maneuver!!”

Immediately following that order, the air became filled with the sound of pops and the buzzing sound of wires being shot out from the soldiers’ gear.

“Strike from all directions at once!!”

One soldier, finally getting his hook right in the target’s neck, launched himself forward, blades in hand.

“Have a taste of the power of human-kind!!”

 

Eren dragged Mikasa all the way to the front gate and through the throngs of people lined up along the main road. Being so small, they couldn’t see anything from just standing on the ground.

“Too many people, dammit,” Eren muttered, finally releasing Mikasa’s hand to climb on top of some crates. “I can’t see a thing.”

When the two were finally settled into their spot, the sight that greeted them was anything but a soldier’s welcome. The soldiers of the Survey Corps had been thoroughly beaten down; even those without injuries had eyes like the dead.

“So few of them are returning…” someone in the crowd murmured, just loud enough for Eren and Mikasa to hear.

“It’s been awful this time as well…” the man’s companion added.

“There were over 100 of them when they departed… Did everyone else get devoured..?”

From somewhere in the crowd, an older woman came running out, shouting someone’s name.

“Excuse me…my son…” she gasped, collapsing in front of Commander Shardis. “I can’t see my son, Braun… What…what happened to him..?!”

“…That’s Braun’s mother,” Shardis said quietly, turning to two of his soldiers. “…Bring it here…”

The female soldier walked over to one of the horses and took something wrapped in a Survey Corps cloak down from the cargo pack. She handed it to her Commander, who in turn handed it to Braun’s mother. Confusion was written all over her wrinkled face. Slowly, she unwrapped the cloak to reveal a severed arm.

“That’s it,” Shardis murmured. “That’s all we were able to recover…”

Braun’s mother, clutching the arm to her chest, began to wail. Eren watched along with the rest of the crowd as Commander Shardis knelt down to the woman’s level.

“…But…my son…” Braun’s mother looked up, tears streaming down her face. “My son has been useful, hasn’t he…?” Her voice grew more and more desperate, more and more strained, as she pleaded to the Commander. “It doesn’t have to be anything outstanding!! He contributed! His death contributed towards human-kind’s retaliation, didn’t it?!”

The air fell eerily silent as everyone waited for Shardis’ response.

“…Of course,” he finally replied. But suddenly he cast his gaze downward, a frightened look in his eyes. It seemed that at any moment, he might snap. “…No… The expedition…this time again…we…!!”

Shardis gritted his teeth and closed his eyes. The next words that came out of his mouth rang with truth.

“It was all for naught!! We didn’t make any progress at all!” he screamed, tears falling from his eyes. “I’ve been nothing but an incompetent…!! Toying around with the lives of our soldiers…!! We couldn’t find out where they come from..!! We didn’t discover the first thing about them!!”

“…This is horrible,” the man standing in front of Eren said. “To think they could have lived out peaceful lives inside the wall. They would’ve been fine…”

“Our taxes could be better spent than on those soldiers,” his friend agreed. “What a waste…”

“So true…”

“As it is, our taxes essentially serve to fatten ‘them’ up by sending out our men as free meals.”

Before he could even stop himself, Eren smashed his fist into the back of the head of the man standing in front of him.

“You goddamn kid!” he shouted as Mikasa snatched Eren by the collar and dragged him away. “What do you think you’re doing?!”

Eren did not get a chance to respond; his struggle was instead against Mikasa’s grip.

“Hey!” he shouted, squirming under Mikasa’s grasp as she continued into a dead-end road between houses. “C’mon, that’s enough!!”

With all of her strength, Mikasa tossed Eren against the wall in front of them; he landed on the ground with a thud. The firewood he had been carrying on his back fell loose in result; it became strewn around him in a mess of branches and twigs.

“What’s the big idea?!” he shouted. “The firewood’s all scattered now!”

“…Eren,” Mikasa said, straightening herself up and walking over to the boy. “You were planning on entering the Survey Corps… You haven’t changed your mind, have you…?”

Eren stared down his adopted sister, not daring to say a word. She held his gaze with steady, dark eyes.

“…Help me pick these up…” Eren muttered at last, standing and taking off the carrier for his wood. (AN: heuheuhejfkdh I’m sorry.)

Not long after cleaning up the firewood, Eren and Mikasa arrived at the Jaeger home without having had any further discussion.

“We’re home,” Eren said, opening the front door. Carla Jaeger, Eren’s mother, turned over her shoulder and looked at the pair.

“Welcome back,” Grisha, Eren’s father, said, only glancing back at them.

“You’re late, children,” Carla scolded gently.

“Yeah…well…” Eren mumbled, walking over to his father as Mikasa took care of the firewood. “It’s a long story…huh? Dad, you’re about to leave?”

“Yep,” Grisha replied, looking up from his book. “I’m off to town for a couple of examinations.”

“…Eren said…he wanted to enter the Survey Corps,” Mikasa said in a quiet, timid voice. Still, she was loud enough for everyone to hear her.

“Mi-Mikasa!!” Eren gasped. “I told you to keep that quiet!”

Eren!!” Carla marched herself over to her son, rage burning behind her golden eyes. In that moment, it was easy to see where Eren’s temper came from. “What are you thinking?! Of all the people who got outside these walls, do you have any idea how many died?!”

“Ye-yes, I do!!” Eren shouted back.

“Eren,” Grisha cut in, his voice and demeanor notably calmer than his wife’s. “Why do you want to go outside?”

“I wanna know what’s going on out there,” Eren replied. “I’d hate to live my entire life inside the walls being ignorant!! And…if no one here wants to pick up where they left off, all the people who laid down their lives so far did so in vain.”

Eren looked up at his father, who stared at Eren with an unreadable expression. Neither of them said anything for a moment, and neither Carla nor Mikasa dared to interject.

“…I see,” Grisha finally murmured. In a more normal and relaxed voice, he added, “The ship will be arriving soon. I’ll be on my way now.”

“Wait, honey!” Carla called out, rushing over to her husband. “Talk some sense into Eren!!”

“Carla…” Grisha looked back at his wife. “Nothing can suppress a human’s curiosity.” He then slowly reached for something tied around his neck. “…Eren. When I get back…there’s that room in the basement, which I’ve always kept secret. I’ll show it to you.”

“F-for real?” Eren gasped, staring at the key his father held between his fingertips.

Grisha did not reply, but instead tucked the key back under his shirt and headed out the door. The others followed him out, waving goodbye as he walked away.

“…Eren,” Carla murmured when Grisha was out of sight.

“What?” Eren grunted.

“I mean it. It’s not happening. Only a fool would consider joining the Survey Corps--“

“Huh?! A fool…?!” Eren stomped down the front steps of his house, shouting over his shoulder. “As far as I’m concerned, those who would buy their own safety at the cost of living cooped up like cattle are ten times more foolish!”

“…Eren…” Carla stood in silence with Mikasa for a moment before kneeling down to the girl’s side. “Mikasa. He has a knack for getting into trouble…so help each other out when things get out of hand.”

“Uh-huh!” Mikasa grunted, nodding obediently.

 

………

 

“What’s the matter, heretic? If you’re not happy about getting hit, just hit back!”

Armin Arlert stared down the punk in front of him, and despite being held against a wall by his collar, he still managed to choke out a response.

“L-like hell I’d do that!” he said. “I’m not stooping down to your level!”

“Excuse me?”

“You know I’m telling the truth… That’s why you’ve got no choice but to hit me without even bothering with an actual answer. Th-that’s right! You’re effectively conceding my point, are you not?!”

“C-clam it, you smart-ass!”

Before the bully could make another move, a familiar voice came echoing down the street.

“Stop that!! What do you people think you’re doing?!”

“It’s Eren!”

Sure enough, Eren was racing toward the gang as fast as he could.

“This time around, he’s out for our blood, the little bastard!” the leader said, having dropped Armin to face Eren. His gang lined up, fists raised to greet the brunet. They had gone through this before enough times to know that Eren was no real match for the three of them--just another scrawny brat.

“Hm? …AH?!?!”

Not far behind Eren was Mikasa, trailing behind him at the same pace.

“He’s got Mikasa with him! We’re screwed!!”

By the time the two reached Armin, the bullies were long gone, their screams of terror still ringing in the air.

“Oooh,” Eren breathed, grinning wildly. “Look at them… The mere sight of me and they scurry away like rats!”

“N-not quite,” Armin mumbled, trying to push himself up from the ground. “They ran away when they saw Mikasa, rather… Ow…”

“Hey!” Eren exclaimed, turning to the blonde and extending a hand. “You okay, Armin?”

“…I…I don’t need help to stand,” Armin replied, slowly getting to his feet.

“Hm? You sure…?”

This was not the first time Armin had been ambushed by the neighborhood thugs, and it was also not the first time Eren and Mikasa had come to his rescue. Still, there seemed to be a different reason behind each attack, and this time around, it was for a more sensitive topic.

“And then I told them that human-kind would need to go outside someday,” Armin explained. He and the others were sitting by the canal, tossing in rocks as Armin spoke. “That’s when they hit me, calling me a heretic…”

“Dammit,” Eren grunted, chucking another stone into the water. “How come you get looked down upon just for mentioning you’d like to get out?”

“Well…that’s because for the 100 years we’ve spent inside the walls, life has always been peaceful. People are wary of screwing up and inviting ‘them’ in. The royal government has declared that manifesting any interest in the outside world would be taboo.”

“The king is just chickening out, then. End of story.”

“…You’re right. But is it the only reason?”

“It’s our own lives we risk. That’s our business.”

“I don’t think so,” Mikasa cut in. “Forget it. Not happening.”

“Which reminds me,” Eren snapped, turning to Mikasa. “Why the hell did you tell on me to our parents?!”

“I never said I’d cooperate.”

“So…how’d it go?” Armin asked timidly.

“Well…they weren’t exactly happy…”

“I can imagine that…”

“W-what? Are you gonna join the chorus and tell me to stop!?”

“Well, it’s dangerous…but I do see where you’re coming from,” Armin assured his childhood friend. “But I’m also curious about the people who do believe that staying within the walls will actually protect us forever.” As he spoke, Armin tucked his knees to his chest, staring out at the water. “The wall may not have been broken in 100 years. But there’s no guarantee that it won’t happen today, and still…”

Interrupting Armin’s reflections, the earth suddenly shook violently beneath the trio, jerking them so hard that they fell over in shock. Somewhere off in the distance was a loud sound to go with the tremor, something like an explosion.

“Huh?!” Eren gasped, looking around. “W-what the--?! Was that an earthquake or something!?” He pushed himself to his feet; Mikasa and Armin did the same. “Let’s go have a look!!”

As they started to head toward the main drag, Eren noticed the wind had gotten stronger, to the point that it was noticeably knocking signs around. He subconsciously stopped running for a moment, taking in the sights around him. Mikasa followed his lead, as usual.

“Armin,” Eren called out as his friend ran ahead. Armin stopped in his tracks upon reaching the main street; he appeared to be staring up at something. “What in the world is…?!” Armin did not respond, prompting Eren and Mikasa to run after him.

“He-hello…can you see something?” Eren tried again as he reached where Armin was standing. “What is it?!”

Eren looked up to where Armin was staring; above the wall was smoke, rising up from someplace just outside of the wall. They were standing quite a ways back, but even from afar, Eren could make out a red humanoid hand gripping the top of the wall.

“It can’t be…!” Armin gasped. “Th-that wall’s f-fifty meters tall…fifty meters…”

As if to prove Armin wrong, a red head to match appeared from behind the wall. It peered down at them, its rows of teeth glistening in the sunset.

“…Ah…it’s one of ‘them’…” Eren breathed, staring up at the giant humanoid creature. “A Titan.”

 

Chapter Text

Surrounded by chaos and with screams echoing in his ears, Eren ran as fast as he could to his house--or, rather, what was left of it.

“MOM!!” he shrieked, panting as he sprinted over to the wreckage. A large boulder, easily a few meters tall, was sticking out of the middle of the Jaeger home. “Mom…?”

“...Is that you, Eren?”

Carla was lying underneath the broken boards of what was once her house. She was almost completely pinned, save for one arm and her head and neck.

“Mikasa! You hold this!!” Eren cried, flying into action. “We’re gonna move this pillar! Here goes!”

With all of his strength, Eren tried to lift the beam; Mikasa joined him, but even with her help, the beam barely moved. Across town, amidst the screams, they could hear the roars from Titans as they lumbered in through the hole in the wall.

“Mikasa! Hurry!!” Eren shouted, panicked.

“I know,” she told him.

“Move it!!”

“The…the Titans…” Carla murmured, her eyes wide with horror. “They’re in the town, aren’t they? Eren!!” She turned her face to look up at her son. “Take Mikasa with you and run away!! Quickly!!”

“Run…” Eren lifted his face to the sky, still struggling with the beam. “I wanna run away too, all right!? Hurry up and come out of here!! Come on!! You’re coming with us!!!”

“My legs have been crushed beneath the rubble,” Carla said in a low voice. “Even if I do get out of here, I wouldn’t be able to run… You understand, don’t you?”

“I’ll take you on my shoulders, then!!”

“Why don’t you ever listen to me?! You could at least obey my last wish!! Mikasa!!”

Mikasa lowered her head. “No…no…”

 

The last image of his mother played over and over in Eren’s head for what felt like hours. That Titan…if they had just had a bit more time…

In a burst of rage, Eren flung his elbow into the back of Hannes’ head.

“Ouch!” Hannes gasped, keeping his grip on the ten-year-old firm. “Eren?! What the--?!“

“A little longer and we could have saved our mom!” Eren shrieked, writhing in Hannes’ arm. “And you think you can just do as you please?!”

Before Eren could get another hit in, the Garrison soldier flung him to the ground. The shock of the fall stunned Eren long enough for Hannes to walk over to him and say what needed to be said.

“You couldn’t save your mom because…you weren’t strong enough…”

At Hannes’ words, Eren reared back for another punch. Hannes was ready this time--he grabbed Eren’s wrist just before the tiny fist reached his face.

“As for me…! I couldn’t stand and face the Titan…because I simply didn’t have the courage!”

Eren stared into Hannes’ eyes, which were filled with tears. He, too, was crying, and it was in that moment that the first feelings of hopelessness started to set in.

“Forgive me…” Hannes whispered as he stood and took Eren’s hand, leading him along.

 

………

 

“Yasmin, get up right now.”

Yasmin opened her eyes the next morning to see her mother’s face above her own. Pelin Güven’s amber eyes were wide with fear; her plea had not sounded angry, but concerned.

“Mother…? What--“

“I just received word from Freya.” Pelin kneeled next to Yasmin’s bed. “I wanted to tell you first, before your siblings wake up. Yasmin…we lost Wall Maria.”

“We…lost…?” It felt as if she was still dreaming, and she almost rolled over and fell back asleep. But the look in her mother’s eyes kept her awake.

“They say a gigantic Titan kicked in the gate to Shiganshina,” she continued as Yasmin stared blankly, “and another Titan broke through the gate to Wall Maria. We lost our territory there. The Titans have taken it over.”

Pelin’s words took a few minutes to sink in, but when they did, Yasmin felt a wave of panic wash over her.

Titans took over the wall?! But how?

“The walls…” Yasmin whispered. “They were built to withstand Titans, right?! How could this have happened…?”

“That’s all I really know,” Pelin admitted. “Come here--you don’t have to be scared.”

As her mother embraced her tightly, Yasmin stared at her sister, Esra, who was still sound asleep. She was not scared, not for herself. Her fear came from the possibility of losing the things that she cared about.

Esra…that’s one more reason for me to join the military, Yasmin realized. Now more than ever, I have to protect you, and Marco… And now, the outside world is even further away… What’s going to happen to us…?

As if in response to her sister’s thoughts, the eight-year-old Esra slowly sat up in her bed, rubbing her cheeks.

“Mom?” she mumbled. At the sound of her voice, Pelin released Yasmin and turned to her other daughter. “What’s going on?”

“Esra, I…” Pelin glanced back at Yasmin for support.

“…Wall Maria fell,” Yasmin told her sister as calmly as she could. The child’s eyes widened. “But Mother, what’s going to happen to all of those people?”

“I…don’t know. I would imagine many of them will come here.”

“Won’t the military do something?”

“The military isn’t good for anything,” Pelin scoffed, and Yasmin was sorry she had even mentioned it. Her mother didn’t understand--she was satisfied living within the walls. She fed on the safety that they offered without giving the opportunities of the outside world much thought. “There’s nothing else that they can do, besides retreat further back into the walls.”

“…” Yasmin glanced at Esra, who was staring at the end of her bed in shock.

She’s too young to really understand, Yasmin thought as she watched her mother go over and hug Esra. She doesn’t have the same experiences as me, and so she doesn’t have the same desires as me. I don’t think she really knows what she wants, anyway. But I…I have to know.

Stretching her arms out in front of her, Yasmin sat up straight in bed, then pushed the blankets off of her legs.

“I’m going to see Marco,” she told her mother, hurrying out of the room before there was any protest.

Upon arriving at the Bodt’s house, she was a bit surprised to see Marco heading out of his house.

“Oh!” he gasped. “You’re already up. I was just coming to see you.”

“Yeah,” Yasmin murmured.

“So you know…right?”

“Yeah.”

Side by side, the two began to slowly walk down the street toward the center of town.

“They say the Titans came from the South,” Marco told Yasmin. The latter grunted, kicking a pebble. “The really big one--they’re calling it the Colossal Titan--vanished after it kicked in the gate. Same for the armored one that broke through Wall Maria’s gate.”

“…You’re still going to enlist, right?” Yasmin asked quietly. “Despite all of this?”

“Of course,” Marco reassured her. “I mean, yeah, things have gotten tough, and they will probably get worse before they get better. But that’s just more motivation for me to join. The king will need more help than ever, and the army will need more people than ever.”

“That’s how I feel, too!” Yasmin turned to Marco, eyes glittering. “I don’t want time to run out and be shut in here for forever. I can’t let that happen. Does…does that sound selfish?”

“Not at all! You have a dream, and you want to chase it. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. And you’re right--letting time run out would be a waste. But I believe in you.” Smiling, Marco took Yasmin’s hand in his. “You’ll get there. I know you will.”

“I believe in you, too,” Yasmin said, a grin creeping onto her face. “If there’s anyone in this world who can reach his dream, it’s you, Marco. …Thank you.”

“Eh? For what?”

“Nothing.” Yasmin faced forward, gripping Marco’s hand tightly. “We’ll join the military and get to where we’re supposed to be.”

“Yeah, together.”

 

………

 

Yasmin did not return to her house until that evening at sundown. She had not meant to stay out that late, but between talking to Marco and going down to see the incoming refugees, the day had passed very quickly.

“You can’t just run off like that anymore,” Pelin scolded her as Esra, Cem, and Rahmi watched from behind their mother’s back. “You know that I need you to help around the house. You have responsibilities and can’t just go off and do whatever you want. You’re the oldest--it’s time you start recognizing what that means.”

“I’m sorry,” Yasmin said quietly. “I didn’t mean to… Marco and I went down to see the refugees and--“

“Yasmin! You two went there by yourselves!?” Pelin looked aghast. “Don’t you remember the plague?! You know they could be diseased! Or you could have been robbed? Things are dangerous right now! What were you thinking?”

“We just wanted to see--“

“Don’t go there on your own like that again--“

“Why?!” Yasmin shouted, unable to hold back anymore. “What are you so afraid of?! That’s just the way the world is, right? Whether there are refugees or not, Wall Rose, and even Wall Sina, are dangerous places!”

“You’re too young to understand the real dangers that the world holds, Yasmin,” Pelin insisted, but Yasmin was fired up now.

“How would you know? You never leave the house!”

“I stay home to take care of you.”

“No, I know that’s not all there is to it. You’re afraid of something--something outside, right? You never liked it when Dad left, and you were always afraid, but you would never tell us why!” Yasmin gritted her teeth, staring up at her mother. “I’m not going to let myself live like that! I’m going to join the military next year!”

“Absolutely not.” Pelin’s voice was firm and, though quiet, filled with anger. “Your father and I worked hard to give you this life. Do not throw it away by running into death’s arms!”

“Death can’t be the only thing waiting for us outside of these walls!” Yasmin argued. “I know it! And don’t you want to know?! Don’t you want to know how Dad--“

Enough, Yasmin!” Yasmin immediately quieted at the sound of her mother’s yell. “This is the last I am going to hear about the military! You are not going to join! You will not throw away your life! I don’t care what Marco does--Marco isn’t my daughter! You have a different life than him! And you are not going to waste it!”

Yasmin could feel her blood boiling more and more with each of her mother’s words. It was all she could do to not release her pent-up rage in a scream. For a moment, she caught the gaze of Esra from afar; her younger sister had a strange look in her eyes, one that Yasmin could not, for once, easily read.

“Go wash up,” Pelin ordered. “It’s almost time for dinner.”

“I’m not hungry,” Yasmin muttered, turning away.

“I don’t care if you are. You still need to help me get ready.”

Do it yourself, Yasmin wanted to say, but instead, to her surprise, another voice cut in.

“I’ll do it, Mother,” Esra said, stepping forward. “I don’t mind.”

“Thank you, Esra,” Pelin replied, sounding weary.

Yasmin walked up to her room without another word to anyone and shut the door behind her quietly. Choking back sobs, she walked over to the window and stared out at the cloudy sunset.

Someone has to go out there someday, she thought, curling up in a ball in the window seat. We can’t all live like this forever. She says to be grateful for this life, and not to throw it away. But just sitting here idly is also throwing it away. Which is worse?

Yasmin knew the answer to this question, but there was no way she could win the argument with her mother now. Maybe not ever. Which meant that, if she was going to join the military, she would have to go about it quietly.

 

Chapter Text

“You, the graduates of the 100 th Trainee Regiment, are now ready to fulfill your destinies! Offer up your hearts!”

The unified cry of dozens upon dozens of soldiers echoed in the ceremony hall as they saluted to their commanding officer, Kent Reilly. Three years of rigorous training had been completed at long last, and they now could choose which regiment to join.

Of course, with last year’s incident with Wall Maria and Shiganshina, many had already decided on the Garrison regiment--a stationary force. Those who were in the top ten of the class could enlist in the Military Police and therefore receive safety within the inner walls. The soldiers who would join the Survey Corps were few.

However, there were indeed those willing to take the risk.

“Still won’t change your minds?” the top trainee whispered to his friends.

“I’ve decided.” The salutatorian squinted his sky-blue eyes, a fierce look of determination written on his face. “And I’ll accept the consequences of my actions.”

“I won’t turn back now.” Third in line was their other friend--a young woman with long, messy brown hair. She, too, had a fearless look on her face, and her green-grey eyes were glittering in the moonlight. “This is the right thing to do. I’m sure of it.”

“Tch.” The valedictorian sounded annoyed. “The ‘right’ thing to do?”

“It is what it is. Arguing about it won’t do any good now,” the salutatorian told them. Next to him, the girl let out a frustrated sigh through her nose. “We just have to do our best at whatever comes our way.”

“We have to live,” the top seat agreed.

“Yeah. Live.”

 

“Hey, Yasmin!”

Glancing up from her book, Yasmin raised an eyebrow at Esra, who was standing in the doorway of their room.

“What’s up?” Yasmin mumbled, looking back down at her book.

“Marco is here,” Esra said, panting from having run up the stairs. “His mom came, too, so…”

Esra didn’t finish her sentence, but she didn’t really need to. Yasmin knew what she was insinuating.

“You’re the best little sister,” Yasmin told the nine-year-old, sticking a scrap of paper in her book. “Don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise, all right?”

“No problem,” Esra giggled. “Have fun!”

“Of course.”

Yasmin trotted down the stairs as casually as she could, hands shoved in her pockets. At the bottom of the stairs, standing near the front door, was Freya and Marco Bodt. Freya seemed to be holding some kind of food, which Pelin was fussing over. Upon hearing her footsteps, Marco turned toward Yasmin and smiled brightly.

“Let’s go,” he said in a quiet voice, barely audible over Freya and Pelin’s energetic chatter.

“Yeah.” And without another word, Yasmin followed her best friend outside.

When they were a few houses down from the Güven home, Yasmin sighed and stretched her arms.

“It’s been a long wait,” she told him, stifling a yawn. “…Thank you, though.”

“What for? For waiting?” Marco tilted his head, a mixture of amused and puzzled.

“Yeah. You didn’t have to.”

“But I told you I would,” he insisted. “This is something we said we’d do together. I wasn’t planning on leaving you behind.”

Yasmin couldn’t help but smile.

Over a year had passed since the fall of Wall Maria, and the small world that Yasmin and Marco inhabited had changed drastically. Hundreds and hundreds of refugees from the outer wall’s towns had come pouring into Wall Rose, and the loss of space led to even more homeless people. On top of this, the loss of land meant a loss of resources, including food.

The government’s response was less than satisfactory in Yasmin’s eyes--a “mission” to take back the land in Wall Maria. 250,000 people were sent out, and not even 200 returned. Anyone willing to look beyond the farce would instead see that it was simply a sacrifice to the Titans, one that would less the burden of the lack of space and the food shortage. Still, rations were necessary, and mentally, many were still recovering from the event.

In that time, Yasmin had been forced to give up joining the army the following year.

“See, now aren’t you glad you didn’t join?” Pelin had said upon hearing about the mission into Wall Maria. “I can guarantee you that the trainees were sent out, too. They’re using these people as live bait.”

Yasmin knew her mother was right about those soldiers just being bait, but she wasn’t so sure that trainees were allowed on the mission. That seemed to be working against the purpose of training them in the first place. But either way, Yasmin did not sign up that year, and Marco, not wanting to leave her behind, also skipped the year.

Both having finally turned twelve, the two knew that the time to act was now. And so they headed to the center of the Jinae district, where the sign-up for the military was located.

“Promise me something,” Yasmin murmured as they walked into the bustling square. The two linked hands so as not to lose one another in the crowd.

“What is it?” Marco asked, having to raise his voice to be heard.

“If my mom kills me for this, join without me.” Marco let out a laugh. “Okay, but seriously. This is it. If it backfires for me now, I don’t want you to wait on me anymore.”

“Sorry, but I can’t keep that promise,” Marco told her, shaking his head. “I already made a promise to you--we said we’d do this together. I don’t intend to break that promise anytime soon.”

The two reached the sign-up desk, still hand-in-hand.

“Don’t worry,” Marco said, smiling at his life-long friend. “We’ll make it this time. I know we will.”

Yasmin couldn’t come up with a way to argue or retort or prove him wrong. She instead just smiled, feeling a knot in her throat.

I don’t know what’s going to come of me doing this, but whatever it is, it must be better than staying here, Yasmin thought, walking up to the registration table. I’ll get there, to wherever it is I’m supposed to be. But I can’t get there if I’m stuck here.

Letting go of Marco’s hand, Yasmin picked up the pen on the desk and began filling in the information. It wasn’t until after she was done writing that she realized she was shaking.

I did it, she told herself again and again.

Yasmin returned home that afternoon with a new confidence.

“Thank you,” she said, about to bid Marco goodbye for the day. He smiled.

“You keep saying that to me, but I don’t think you get what it means,” he laughed. “Don’t thank me. I want to join, too. You’re not the only one with a dream.”

“Yeah, I guess so.” Yasmin chuckled, a bit embarrassed. “Anyway, the real challenge starts now.” Marco nodded, glancing behind Yasmin at the front door of her house.

The plan was rather simple: Yasmin was not going to tell her mother about what she had done that afternoon. She would not tell her until she had to leave. Though it was likely that, at this point, Pelin could do nothing about Yasmin’s military registration, there was always still a chance that she could somehow sabotage her plans. Yasmin did not want to risk this.

It’s going to be a long time, Yasmin thought, grimacing a bit. But I don’t have a choice. I’m going to do it.

 

………

 

That same night, the trio from Shiganshina found themselves holed away near the Trost district’s main plaza. The atmosphere was heavy, and the three were silent for quite a while.

Armin was the first to break the silence, but it was not with words. Instead, he gripped his grandfather’s hat in his small hands, choking back sobs. He buried his face into the hat as if to attempt to muffle the sound of his tears.

“It’s all because of the Titans,” Eren said quietly after a few more moments of quiet. “We’re weak, so we can’t do anything to stop them. But…” He kneeled next to Armin, staring at the ground in front of him. “Next year, I’m going to join the military. I’ll get the strength to kill them.”

“…Me too.” Armin’s voice was so quiet that Eren and Mikasa weren’t even entirely sure that he had spoken at all. “I’ll go, too!”

“I’ll join as well,” Mikasa said.

“Huh?” Eren gasped. “Mikasa, you don’t have to! Didn’t you say that living on was most important?”

“Yes. That’s why I’m doing it--so that you don’t die.”

Eren said nothing in reply. Standing, he looked at Mikasa, then Armin.

“All right,” he murmured. “The three of us, then.”

 

………

 

“Hey. Hey.”

Esra’s whispers were so quiet that, had Yasmin not already been awake, she never would have heard them.

“What?” Yasmin whispered back, rolling over in bed to face her sister. She could just barely make out the outline of her Esra’s body lying in her bed, glowing in the dim light of the moon.

“Are you still going to join the military?”

Yasmin didn’t answer at first. She couldn’t tell if Esra was genuinely asking, or if she was playing devil’s advocate. As much as she wanted to tell her sister the truth, for the time being, she would have to lie.

“I’m not sure if I can,” Yasmin answered, propping herself up with her left arm. “Why are you asking me this, anyway?”

“I…want to enlist when I turn twelve, too,” Esra admitted. Yasmin wished that it was daytime; without seeing Esra’s face, there was no way to know if she was telling the truth or not. “I’ve been thinking about it so much lately, with all of the refugees coming in... You’re right. We can’t live like this forever. We have to save ourselves.”

“Yeah?” Yasmin mumbled. “And you also think the military is the way to go?”

“Yes.” Esra sighed, shuffling under her sheets. “I don’t want to die, really. But it’s my duty to protect others if I am deemed capable of doing so. And it’s the same for everyone else. Don’t you think?”

“What I think is that there’s no way you’re actually just a nine-year-old,” Yasmin muttered. From the other side of the room, she heard a quiet, muffled laugh. “But you have a point, anyway.”

“Mother won’t let us,” Esra pointed out.

“I know that, believe me.”

“So you’re going to give up?”

“What other choice do I have?” Yasmin said, grateful for the darkness. It helped hide her terrible poker face. “I’m still young, too.”

“Your age shouldn’t stop you from doing what you think is right.”

“…Seriously, are you really only nine?”

“You would know better than me. You were alive when I was born, weren’t you?”

“Yeah, but I don’t remember much…” Yasmin shook her head, smiling to herself. “Anyway, go to sleep. It’s too late to be having this kind of discussion.”

“…All right. Good night, Yas.”

“G’night, Esra.”

 

 

Chapter Text

“Dammit…dammit…

The twelve-year-old’s footsteps were sluggish and heavy as he came down the small flight of stairs to the kitchen.

“I hear you over there,” his mother said as he slumped down at the table. “Don’t talk like that. No wonder you hardly have any friends.

“I don’t care!” he shouted. “The world is falling apart around us, and you think I care about how I talk?”

“You should care.” Her face was gentle but concerned.

“None of it matters--just shut up!”

As if switching into another personality entirely, the boy’s mother slammed down her ladle and stepped away from the meal she was busily preparing just moments ago.

“Don’t you dare tell your mother to shut up!” she shouted. “Now you listen here, Jean Kirschstein! If you don’t like your life here, then do something about it or stop complaining!”

“I’m trying to do something about it, Mom!” Jean shouted back. “I already told you--I’m gonna join the Military Police and hope that things don’t get any worse in these walls!”

The two fell silent, and Jean’s mother eventually turned back to her cooking.

“Jean-bo…you still have a lot to learn about the world,” she murmured, more to herself than to her son. Either way, Jean had no response but a dissatisfied sigh through his nose.

 

Despite the many temptations and possible opportunities for slip-ups, Yasmin managed to keep the fact that she signed up for the military a secret from her family for almost a year. What she had not anticipated was the letter delivered to her home two weeks before her first day of training.

“I’d love to hear your explanation for this?” Pelin said, slapping the small stack of folded documents onto the table with a thwack. Yasmin cringed a bit, and for a moment she was tempted to run back outside. But now there was no escaping it--now that her mother knew the truth.

“I’m going to join the military,” Yasmin said calmly, looking up at her mother.

“Yasmin.” Pelin walked over to her preteen daughter and gripped her shoulders tightly, looking her straight in the eyes. “You are not going to join the military. That is not your role. Your role is here--I’ve told you this before. You are the eldest sibling, you are my helper, you--“

“No. That’s not ‘my role.’” Yasmin felt the words pouring out of her almost unnaturally. “What you’re saying is that this the role you gave to me. But what you say it is, and what my actual role is, are two different things. You can’t decide how I live my life.”

“Yes, I can, actually. I’m your mother.”

“And I’m your daughter. But we’re not the same person, are we?”

“That’s--“

“Are we?” Yasmin repeated, raising her voice. “We’re not the same. And so we’re not going to live the same lives. I can’t live that kind of life, Mother. I can’t. And I think you know it, too.” Gently, Yasmin brushed her mother’s hands away. “And it’s not just me--Esra, Cem, Rahmi…they are also going to live their own lives, even if neither of us agree that it is the right or correct way to live.”

“It’s more than that, Yasmin,” Pelin insisted. “You don’t understand--you’re still a child, so I don’t exactly expect you to. But the military is a death sentence. Signing up for the military is the same as signing a contract to guarantee your own death!”

“Everyone dies,” Yasmin argued. “We’re all going to die someday!”

“But in the military, even if you join the Military Police, the probability that you will live a long life is low. That may not mean anything to you now, but later--“

“So what if it’s a risk!?” Yasmin took a step back from her mother, burning with anger. “Every day we wake up from our beds, we agree to risk our lives to live! Joining the military might lead to my death, yes, but it’s a risk I am willing to take!”

“Why?!” Pelin cried, exasperated. “Why do you think that it’s worth your life!?”

“Why?” Yasmin echoed. Her chest felt as though it might burst. “Because I’m tired of living a life in these walls, and I’m willing to fight to find out if we make it outside. I’m tired of feeling powerless against the Titans. Humanity still has a chance. Isn’t that what Dad wanted, too?!”

Pelin did not answer, so Yasmin continued; this time, she would not hold any of her thoughts back. She knew that, in order to make her mother understand, she had to be honest.

“Dad wanted humanity to live outside the walls again, right?” she said, the knot in her chest growing tighter at the memory of her father. “He believed in us! And he was willing to do whatever he could to make progress toward that goal! Back then, he didn’t need to join the military to make a difference, but that’s changed. Still, he took chances, Mother. He also risked his life to better the world for us.” Yasmin gritted her teeth, and as much as it pained her to look into her mother’s tear-filled eyes, she forced herself to keep eye contact. “Do you think Dad would’ve wanted us to live our lives without every taking any chances?”

“He wouldn’t have!” Esra’s usually quiet voice was strong, despite coming from the opposite end of the room. She stood tall, with the bravest face Yasmin had ever seen her wear. “I know that he would have wanted us to take risks, too!”

“Esra…”

“Mother, Yasmin is right!” Esra continued, interrupting her mother. “Dad took risks not just for our sakes, but for everyone to live on. Not doing anything to continue his efforts is the same as letting it all go to waste!”

“I feel the same,” Yasmin said, glancing at Esra. “I refuse to let myself become useless.”

The room fell quiet, and Esra slowly sat back down at the table, keeping her eye on Yasmin. Pelin had been rendered speechless, and Yasmin felt a faint glimmer of hope.

“That’s why I’m going to do this,” she declared.

I have to know the truth, Yasmin told herself. Dad died for a good reason, something worth protecting. I have to know what it is. I’m going to get stronger… I’m going to get stronger so I can go to the outside world. Come on, Mother, why won’t you say anything..?!

“I still don’t agree with you,” Pelin finally stated, standing upright. “But at this point, nothing else I say will change your mind, will it?”

“No,” Yasmin replied.

“Fine, then. Go off to your death, if that’s what you want. I won’t waste any more of my time trying to stop you.”

“Thank you.”

Though her mother’s words seemed hurtful and immature, Yasmin knew they were only a defense mechanism. It was obvious that Pelin did not know what else to do, and Yasmin could not blame her for acting that way.

I’m going to do this, she thought as she went over and began reading through the documents. And not just for Dad, or for the world, or even for Marco. I want to do this for myself, too.

 

………

 

Two weeks later, Yasmin found herself standing with Marco in the middle of a crowd of people just like them--cadets who were aspiring to become soldiers. Though she had known there would be many people present, Yasmin was surprised that there were as many people present as there were.

“Are the classes always this big?” she wondered out loud, and Marco shrugged.

“Well, there’s always the possibility that people will drop-out, right?” he suggested, and Yasmin shrugged back. Adjusting her jacket, she looked around the crowd of people for anyone who seemed remotely familiar--or remotely interesting, for that matter. But with everyone dressed in the same pants and trainee jacket, there was no way to pick anyone out in the chaos.

“Still, this is a lot of people,” she commented. Marco laughed and reached out to Yasmin, ruffling her hair.

“What, scared you’ll lose sight of me in the crowd?” he teased, and Yasmin batted his hand away. “If anyone should be scared, it’s me. You look so different with short hair.”

“You think so?” Yasmin said, running her hands through her hair to untangle the mess Marco’s gesture had made. “Well, I guess so. But there are a lot of people who look like you here, too. Tall, dark hair…you don’t exactly have unique features.”

“Neither do you, apparently,” Marco said, nodding to someone behind Yasmin. She turned to see a girl their age with dark brown hair pulled into a short stub of a ponytail. Her skin was a few shades darker than most people’s, and she was tall and skinny. When she squinted, Yasmin could see that she, too, had freckles. “You’ll have to hold my hand so you don’t get lost, little girl.”

Snarling at Marco, Yasmin playfully punched him in the arm.

“I’d rather get lost,” she told him.

“Oi, why don’t you two lovebirds settle down?”

Yasmin turned her head to see a teenage boy standing nearby, staring right at them. Her face immediately fell, and she dropped her arm to her side.

“Eh? I think you misunderstand,” Marco said, smiling. “We’re not dating or anything. She’s practically my sister.”

“Uh-huh,” the boy said, rolling his eyes. “That’s what they all say.” Taking a few steps closer, he folded his arms across his chest. Yasmin eyed him and, as she always did when meeting a new person, began to study him.

He was a bit shorter than Marco and slightly skinnier, with a long face and sharp features. The expression on his face seemed like one of boredom, but he had bright amber eyes that seemed to glow with mischief. Had he not opened his mouth, Yasmin might have considered him to be a decent guy, but between his words and the way he held himself, she could tell he was arrogant.

“Anyway, I’m Marco,” Marco said. “And this is Yasmin.”

“I’m Jean Kirschstein,” Jean replied. “But I doubt we’ll see each other often. I’m going to make sure I stay at the top of the ranks, so I don’t have time to play around.”

“Hey, me too!” Marco exclaimed, sounding not the least bit offended by Jean’s snide remarks. “I want to--“

“Line up as you were instructed!” a subordinate officer shouted from nearby. “The Commander is coming for roll call!”

“I’ll talk to you later,” Yasmin said, hurrying away from Marco and Jean without another word. It wasn’t that she wanted to avoid Marco; she just couldn’t stand another minute around Jean, and the idea of having to stand next to him for several hours made her spine crawl.

Instead, she opted for standing next to a tall, red-headed girl and an incredibly muscular blond boy; she slipped in between them and stood alert. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see that Marco and Jean had ended up next to each other.

Poor Marco, she thought, frowning a bit. Her guilty conscience vanished, however, when their commanding officer came into view.

Keith Shardis, the former Commander of the Survey Corps, had changed significantly in the period of just two years. His bushy brown hair had been traded in for a shaved head, and his face was more tanned and wrinkled than before. His fighting spirit, however, was still strong, and Yasmin could tell that he meant business even before he said a word.

“You are now officially members of the training unit number 104!” Keith shouted, his voice echoing across the field where they had gathered. “Unfortunately for you, I--Keith Shardis--will be in charge. I’m not here to give you a warm welcome. All of you are now merely livestock, waiting to be eaten by Titans! You’re even worse than livestock!”

Yasmin felt her stomach drop for a moment.

No, stop that, she told herself. Don’t psych yourself out.

“For the next three years, I’ll train you useless shits,” Keith continued, looking out at the crowd. “I’ll teach you how to fight the Titans! When you face a Titan in three years, will you still be just food? Or will you become a glorious wall to protect these walls? Or a mighty champion of mankind who will destroy the Titans? The choice lies in your hands.”

None of those, Yasmin realized, her face hardening. I don’t care if I’m a leader or another cog in the machine--I just want to find freedom!

 

Chapter Text

“And who the hell do you think YOU are?!”

Keith Shardis peered into the face of twelve-year-old Claus Rasmussen, who drew back a bit as he saluted. He was the first one to be called out in the 101 st class of trainees.

“C-Claus Rasmussen from Yalkell district, Sir!” he managed to squeak out.

“Oh, from the rich kids’ block, huh? That would explain why you look like such a fairy!”

“That very well may be it, Sir!”

“And what makes you think you’re worth my time to train?”

“I want to give my strength to protect the people left in this world, Sir!”

“Give your strength? What strength do you even have to give?”

“None yet, Sir!”

“Then don’t waste my time with your sugar-coated fantasies! About-face!”

As soon as Shardis was out of ear-shot, Claus let out a shaky breath, relaxing his salute back into the at-ease position.

“Could’ve been worse,” he told himself in a whisper.

From the girl next to him came a quiet “tch” of disgust.

“That you’d even say that means you need more discipline,” she muttered, her honey-brown eyes focused forward. Claus side-eyed her angrily.

“You think you’re better than me just because he passed over you?” Claus hissed.

“No.” The girl flicked her gaze at him. “You just have more catching up to do.”

“Catching up?”

“On becoming a soldier.”

 

“Hey! You there!” Keith Shardis shouted, stopping in front of a wide-eyed Armin.

“Sir!” the blonde shouted back, smacking his right fist to his chest in a salute.

“WHO THE HELL ARE YOU!?”

“Armin Arlert, Sir! From the Shiganshina District!!” the boy cried, screwing up his face as he shouted back.

“Oh yeah? What a STUPID NAME!! Your parents gave it to you?!”

“My grandfather did, Sir!”

“ARLERT! WHAT ARE YOU HERE FOR?!” Shardis’ question echoed against the rocky walls surrounding the new recruits.

“To contribute towards humankind’s victory, Sir!!” Armin’s face was distorted with how much he was having to project his voice.

“That’s what I like to hear!!” Keith replied, smacking his hand on top of Armin’s head. “You’re gonna make great Titan food if it comes to that!! Third line, about-face!”

And with a twist of his wrist, Keith spun Armin 180 degrees around.

This process had been going on for a while, and Yasmin had been watching and listening intently the whole time. Though to most, this was a painfully stressful and boring entrance ceremony, she thoroughly enjoyed hearing what everyone had to say in reaction to Shardis’ berating. This was how she lived--observing people extensively and consequently basing her relationships on these observations. How they responded to the verbal prodding from Shardis seemed to say a lot about their personalities.

However, there were some who did not receive any kind of comment or criticism.

There goes another, Yasmin thought as Shardis walked by a blonde girl who wore a pissed-off expression. …My row is next, then.

“WHO THE HELL ARE YOU?!” Keith shouted, stopping in front of his next victim.

“JEAN KIRSCHSTEIN, SIR! FROM THE TROST DISTRICT!!” Jean shouted back, his voice surprisingly confident. Yasmin was a little taken aback by his sincerity--from first impressions, he did not seem like the type to take things too seriously.

“What are you here for?!”

“…To enter the Military Police…and live in the inner district, Sir.”

What a fucking idiot, Yasmin thought, rolling her eyes. Her initial analysis had proven to be correct after all, it seemed.

“I see!” Shardis responded. “So that’s where you wanna be, eh?”

“Yes, Sir!”

Out of the corner of her eye, Yasmin saw Shardis smack his head right into Jean’s, causing the latter’s knees to buckle. He landed in a heap at their commander’s feet.

“HEY THERE! Who told you that you could sit down?!” he barked as Jean struggled to get up again. “You chicken out now, you’re never gonna make it into the police!!”

I suppose it’s only natural that there are people like him here, Yasmin realized. Some people here have selfish goals--I’m really no better. Still, I’ll do what I have to do to reach my goals, which is what everyone else will do, too.

“WHO THE HELL ARE YOU?!”

“MARCO BODT, SIR! FROM JINAE IN WALL ROSE’ SOUTHERN DISTRICT!”

Feeing her body tense up at the familiar voice, Yasmin listened closely to the exchange between her childhood friend and Shardis.

“What are you here for?!”

“The police force, Sir! I want to enter the king’s service!” Marco’s voice was leaded with enthusiasm that suited his personality, but not the occasion.

“…That so…?” Shardis’ voice was barely audible from where Yasmin was standing. “Well, I think that’s great… You go ahead and make that your goal. That said…”

Yasmin could not hear what Shardis said next, but whatever it was, it left Marco speechless.

“Next!!” Shardis shouted, moving on to the next soldier.

 

………

 

Eren watched in silence as Commander Shardis approached a boy with a buzz cut; said trainee saluted in panic upon being addressed, but with the wrong hand.

“Connie Springer, Sir! From the village of Ragako, in Wall Rose’s southern district!”

With incredible swiftness, Shardis snatched Connie by the head and lifted him straight off of the ground.

“You got it backwards, Connie Springer…!” Shardis growled. “That must have been one of the first things you learned! This salute is meant to represent your resolve to commit your very heart to public service…! Is your heart on the right side, Connie?!”

It took Eren a few moments to notice why Commander Shardis’ roast had so abruptly undergone a mood swing. From what he could see, Connie was still suspended off of the ground, but Shardis was no longer looking at him. Instead, he seemed to be staring at someone else. Eren then noticed a girl nearby Connie, who would not have been unusual had it not been for the fact that she was openly eating in front of the entire class.

“You there…” Shardis said, dropping Connie to the ground. “…What’s the big idea…?”

To Eren’s complete shock (and slight amusement), the girl didn’t respond right away; she simply took another bite of whatever she was eating. She seemed to be unaware that Shardis was even talking to her.

“YOU!!” Shardis roared, getting up in the girl’s face. “I’M TALKING TO YOU, DAMMIT! WHO THE HELL ARE YOU?!”

Forcing herself to swallow the hunk of food she had just bitten off, the girl saluted without a hitch, and without dropping her snack.

“My name is Sasha Braus, Sir!!” she shouted. “From the village of Dauper, Wall Rose’s southern district!!”

“Sasha Braus…what is that thing you’re holding in your right hand?”

“A steamed potato, Sir!” she exclaimed, her expression serious. “It was in the kitchen, and I thought it was just what I needed! I didn’t think this through!”

“You mean…you stole it…” Keith Shardis seemed just as stunned as the rest of the cadets. “Why did you pull out that potato to eat…now of all times…?”

“…I wanted to eat it while it was still hot,” Sasha replied. “There’s no point otherwise…so I decided it was now or never.”

“Well…I don’t get it. Why did you eat that potato?”

“…? Are you asking me why people eat potatoes, Sir?”

“…”

The most awkward silence Eren had ever experienced filled the entirety of the training ground. Everyone’s focus was now on Sasha, and they were all waiting for Commander Shardis’ response.

After a while, Sasha seemed to recognize the situation; Eren watched as she broke off a part of the potato and held it out to Shardis.

“Here is half of it…for you,” she said.

That’s not even half, Eren thought, feeling his eyes widen along with Shardis’.

“…A…a half?”

In reply, Sasha smiled sympathetically.

 

………

 

As he watched Sasha break off from the group and begin to run, Marco glanced down the line at Yasmin. Shardis was getting closer by the minute, quickly moving through trainee after trainee. He was certainly on a roll, leaving the preteens emotionally spent in just a minute or so each.

I wonder what he’ll have to say to her, he thought, frowning to himself. …Well, whatever it is, she can handle it.

Marco carefully watched Shardis as he moved down the line, approaching an incredibly tall, brunet boy. Yasmin was two down from him; in between them was a blond, very muscular boy. To Marco’s surprise and admiration, Shardis passed by all three of them and stopped at the tall, skinny, red-head next to Yasmin.

“YOU!” Shardis shouted, and the girl snapped into a salute. “WHO THE HELL ARE YOU?”

“Rosaleen Johnson, of the Stohess District!” the girl shouted.

“What did you come here for?!”

“To follow in my grandfather’s footsteps and join the Garrison Regiment, Sir!”

“Oh, so you’re a veteran’s granddaughter, eh?”

“That is correct, Sir!”

“So I bet you think you know a lot about the military already, then?”

“Um, perhaps, Sir!”

“Well, you had better think AGAIN! Just because the Garrison worked for your grandfather doesn’t mean YOU can hack it here! YOU’LL be one GETTING HACKED!! About-face!”

“Looks like your girlfriend didn’t get yelled at like us, huh?” Marco heard Jean whisper from beside him.

“She’s not my girlfriend, but it doesn’t matter--you’re right,” Marco murmured. “She’s a better soldier than me already.”

“Aren’t you a lucky guy.”

“Yeah, she’s the best friend I could ask for. Her judgment calls are almost always right.”

“Is that so?”

“Uh-huh. I can tell that she thinks you’re an idiot, and she’s pretty much right on the money. But you’re a decent guy, too, right?”

“…The hell?” Jean hissed. “Of course I’m a decent guy…”

Smiling, Marco sighed through his nose.

Only the first day, and already I’ve learned so much, he thought. At this rate, maybe I’ll be able to find out more about my father before I even get into the Military Police

 

 

Chapter Text

“If he’s carrying the documents with him, then there’s only one way,” Levi murmured, leaning against the brick wall behind him. Farlan glanced his way, a disgruntled expression on his face.

“So then…”

“We’ll have to kill him,” Levi confirmed. Their search for the “secret documents” had to come to an end soon, before they became too involved in the business of the Survey Corps. Levi could already sense it happening; Isabel’s bright personality was a surefire way for her to make friends quickly, which was the last thing that they needed. If they were going to kill Erwin Smith, Commander of the Survey Corps, they would not be able to afford having other personal connections.

“Don’t say that out loud,” Farlan warned Levi, glancing around the room at the other Survey Corps soldiers. “…It’s not going to be an easy thing to do, y’know.”

“Hey you! Can I disturb you for a moment?”

The trio looked up to see a Survey Corps member approaching them. From afar, it appeared to be a male around their age, but as the person drew closer, Levi realized it was possible that it was a woman. The way she wore her hair, the way she held herself, and the way she spoke, however, were all completely ambiguous.

“I saw it, you know,” the soldier said, eyes glittering behind a pair of glasses. “The decisive moment!”

That last comment sent a brief wave of panic through Levi, but on the outside, he was as cool as ever.

“The decisive moment?” he repeated, reaching for the switchblade in his pocket. Had this person really been witness to their plan? “What are you talking about?”

“What am I talking about?” Face aglow, the soldier leaned down into Levi’s face. He could see how greasy her hair was. “It’s obvious that I’m talking about the moment when you brought down that Titan! That was really amazing! I was overwhelmed with excitement!”

The trio sat there, speechless but relieved.

“I’m Hanji Zoe,” the soldier continued. “You’re Levi, right? This girl over here is Isabel. And…this is…” Hanji pointed to Farlan, pausing.

“Farlan,” said soldier offered, looking away dejectedly.

“Right right, Farlan!” Hanji exclaimed, plopping down in between him and Isabel. “Nice to meet you!”

 

“Man…that potato girl is still running,” Connie breathed. Yasmin and Marco stood side by side, leaning over the patio balcony. Together they watched Sasha as she crossed the field at a slow but steady pace.

“Eh? It’s been like five hours straight,” another boy said, his eyes widening. Armin stood beside him, speechless.

“The whole thing about running ‘til near death didn’t get to her quite as much as the moment she was told to skip lunch,” Marco pointed out.

“I do remember something about Dauper being a remote, scarcely-populated village hunting inside the mountains,” Connie said.

“She said southern Wall Rose, right?” Yasmin asked. “If so, that’s definitely in the middle of nowhere.”

“I’m surprised to hear those still exist…” Marco admitted. He then turned over his shoulder toward the brunet who had spoken earlier. “By the way, we never got to hear where you’re from… Where did you live?”

“I’m from Shiganshina, just like him,” the boy replied, placing his hand on Armin’s shoulder. “I lived there until I was twelve…before moving to the landfill.”

“I see,” Marco replied. “So that’s your story…”

“That means you were in Shiganshina the day it happened!” Connie exclaimed, running over to Eren.

“Hey, easy there!” Marco said.

“Did you see it?” Connie’s eyes were wide with interest; he obviously didn’t mind prodding Eren. “Did you get to see the Colossal Titan?!”

“Yeah…”

The sound of a bell filled the air before Eren could say more; dinner was about to be served, it seemed.

“Let’s talk about it during dinner!” Connie suggested, sticking to Eren’s side.

“I kind of want to hear about it, too,” Marco admittedly quietly as Eren, Armin, and Connie filed into the mess hall. “Yasmin?”

“I--“

“Hey! You!”

Yasmin and Marco whirled around to see a short, round-faced girl looking at them. She appeared to be addressing Yasmin.

“Sorry--Marco, was it?” the girl said. “D’you mind if I steal your girlfriend?”

“We’re not dating,” Yasmin replied flatly. She turned to Marco. “It must be because we hold hands a lot.”

“I guess so?” Marco shrugged, to which Yasmin did the same.

“But anyway, what were you saying?” Yasmin asked.

“Come sit with me at dinner tonight!” the girl exclaimed, smiling brightly. “We wanted to talk to you?”

We? Yasmin thought, tilting her head a bit.

“…Marco, you go ahead without me,” she then said. “I’m Yasmin Güven, by the way.”

“Milena Gessler!” Milena offered, holding out her hand. Yasmin took it, shaking it firmly. “Great! Follow me!”

 

………

 

Milena ended up dragging Yasmin to a table toward the far end of the mess hall, where one end was already occupied by two red-heads. Yasmin recognized one of them to be Rosaleen Johnson, the girl who had stood next to her at roll call.

“Tada! I’m here! Thanks for saving the table!” Milena exclaimed, arriving in front of the girls. They both looked up at her at the same time; Yasmin could immediately tell that they were twins. “And I brought her!”

“Ah, you’re the one--!” Rosaleen cried, her face lighting up. “The one who stood next to me earlier, right?”

“Yeah,” Yasmin replied, smiling.

“This is Yasmin,” Milena said, yanking Yasmin by the arm. “Yasmin, these are the Johnson twins--the one with the ponytail is Rosaleen, and the short-haired one is Erin.”

“Nice to meet you,” Erin said, smiling.

“And nice to finally know your name!” Rosaleen added.

“It’s nice to meet you guys, too, but…I don’t get it.” Yasmin raised an eyebrow. “Why did you want to talk to me?”

“Sit!” Milena commanded, setting her tray of rations on the table. She plopped down across from Erin, and Yasmin reluctantly sat down next to her. “All right, here’s the story, Yasmin: didn’t you notice that Shardis didn’t approach some people?”

“Yes…” Yasmin murmured. “Is this all because I was one of those people?”

“Exactly. You’re a commodity, y’know.”

“What’s your secret?” Rosaleen asked. “Or are you from Shiganshina, too?”

“What? No, I’m from Wall Rose--same as Marco,” Yasmin replied. “I don’t have any secrets. I really don’t know what kept Shardis from approaching me.”

“Aaaaagh.” Rosaleen gripped her head, nearly elbowing Erin in the process. “You’re so lucky. I felt like such an idiot.”

“If the boot fits,” Erin said, smirking.

“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that,” Rosaleen replied.

“So you didn’t witness the attack?” Milena asked.

“Not at all. All I saw were the refugees coming in,” Yasmin told her.

“Same.” Milena took a spoonful of gruel before continuing. “I’m from Karanese; we almost doubled in population last year.”

“That must’ve been awful,” Erin said, frowning. “Did you have to let people live in your house?”

“No, but my sisters and I moved in together.” Milena held up her hand, counting on her fingers. “There was my oldest sister and her husband, my middle sister and her husband, and me, all under one roof.”

“Geez. No wonder you wanted out.”

“Well, that wasn’t the only reason, but yeah, that was a factor.”

“I lived with three younger siblings, so I understand that, I guess,” Yasmin added. “And my mother was still there, too.”

Rosaleen opened her mouth to say something, but Erin interrupted her before she could speak.

“Look over there,” she said. “That Jaeger kid sure drew a crowd fast.”

“Oh, do you mean Eren?” Yasmin asked, looking over her shoulder at where Eren was sitting. Even Marco was still listening in to Eren’s stories. The girls could hear him from where they were sitting; he was talking about the Colossal and Armored Titans.

“Well, then,” a boy from the crowd offered, “what does the average Titan look like?!”

To Yasmin’s surprise, Eren’s reply was not with words. Instead, he slapped his hand over his mouth, dropping his spoon onto the table with a clatter.

“…Enough with the questioning, you guys,” Marco told the onlookers. “Some things are best left forgotten.”

“Sorry!” Connie exclaimed quickly. “Must have reminded you of a lot of unpleasant stuff…!”

Eren seemed to hesitate at first, but in just a moment, he recovered himself.

“Wrong,” he replied, reaching for his loaf of bread.

“Eh?”

With a glance up at his audience, Eren ripped off a piece of his bread with his teeth, saying, “Titans…aren’t such a big deal when you come down to it. Once we get used to the three-dimensional maneuver gear, they’ll be nothing to worry about! Screw stone-picking and weeding. We’re training to be soldiers at last! …My emotions just got the better of me, that’s all.”

“I-If you say so…” Marco murmured.

“This kid for real?” Erin wondered out loud. None of the girls replied; all of them were focused in on the action.

“Then, I can enter the Survey Corps,” Eren continued, “and wipe the Titans off the surface of the planet! When that happens…”

“Hello? Are you insane?”

The interruption came from none other than Jean Kirschstein, who was sitting at the table across from Eren. He held his chin in his hand, staring in disbelief. “Did you say something about joining the Survey Corps?”

“Yeah…I did,” Eren replied. “…If memory serves, you’re that guy who wants to join the Military Police to live it up, right?”

“Hey, I’m an honest guy,” Jean told him. “A lot more honest, anyway, that some guy who puts on a brave façade even as, in reality, he’s pissing his pants.”

“Listen to yourself,” Eren shot back. “You think you’re clever, huh? You talkin’ about me, smart-ass?”

“Oh, my bad. I have that bad habit of always speaking what’s on my mind. Never meant to upset you.”

From afar, the bell sounded to end their dinner hour; Rosaleen took the chance to speak.

“Looks like Eren’s met his match,” she whispered.

“Hardly,” Yasmin replied. “Jean Kirschstein is an asshole. He’ll be lucky to live through training.”

“Harsh.”

 

………

 

“I don’t mean to dismiss your opinion.” Eren looked up from his dishes to see Jean standing beside him. “What everyone does with their lives is their own business.”

“It’s all right,” Eren told him, resisting the urge to knock Jean’s teeth in. “I was a bit too eager to pick a fight myself.”

“Sure. Let’s forget about it and be friends, okay?” Jean held out his hand, but instead of shaking it, Eren just gave it a small smack.

“Yep.”

Behind Eren, as per usual, trailed Mikasa Ackermann. She passed right in front of Jean, without giving him even a glance.

“H-hey, you!”

At his call, though, Mikasa couldn’t help but turn around.

“Er…ahem. Uh…” What was he trying to say? He was acting like even more of an idiot than usual. “Never saw anyone who looked like you before…ah… Shit.”

“…”

“Sorry…” Jean stammered, lowering his gaze. “You have beautiful black hair…”

“Thanks,” Mikasa replied, and without another word, she continued after Eren.

Jean, still reeling over the sudden appearance of a girl like Mikasa, stood blankly for a moment. Then, pulling himself together, he made to follow Mikasa outside. He only made it as far as the porch, though; he could hear bits of the conversation she was having with Eren.

“The hell? No, I wasn’t getting into a fight,” Eren was saying.

“I take my eyes off of you for a second and this is what happens,” Mikasa scolded him.

“Here we go again… But more importantly, isn’t your hair a bit too long?” Jean watched as Eren batted at Mikasa’s silky black locks. “Great way to get into an accident during the maneuver drills.”

“Yeah,” Mikasa replied. “All right, I’ll cut it. But…how short do you think it should be?”

The words he had wanted to say spilling out of his brain, Jean watched them walk away, his face dark with a mix of emotions.

Just then, an unsuspecting Connie Springer walked by Jean; the latter suddenly reached out and wiped his hand on the back of Connie’s shirt.

“WHOA!” Connie yelled, spinning around to look at his back. “H-hey, man!! Does my shirt look like a tissue to you!? What the heck did you wipe on there?!”

“…My faith…in humanity…”

“I’m not saying I’m choosing your friends for you, Marco.”

Right behind Connie came Marco and Yasmin, side by side as usual.

“But I am saying, don’t hang around that scumbag,” Yasmin said. She stopped for a moment when she saw Jean. “…Let’s go.”

“Ah, um, yeah…”

Before Marco could protest, Yasmin grabbed his arm and pulled him away, leaving behind a confused Connie and an anguish-filled Jean.

 

Chapter Text

For the majority of her evening, Krista Lenz had been watching Sasha run until the sun went down. She had kept herself in the shadows while doing so--something she was quite accustomed to. So, when Sasha finally came stumbling back to the barracks, Krista was waiting for her with some rationed bread and a small jug of water.

The gesture was meant to be one of kindness, as Krista had trained herself to do, but she almost second-guessed herself when Sasha came flying at her and snatched the bread out of her hands with just her teeth.

“BREAD!” Sasha shouted, pulling the loaf out of her mouth.

“It’s not much, but I thought you could use some,” Krista told her, regaining her composure. “Well…still, might be better to drink some water first…”

“…God?” Staring with wide eyes, Sasha quickly crawled over to Krista, eyes wide. “God, is that you!? ARE YOU GOD?!”

“Hey there!”

As Sasha continued to scream and fuss, Krista turned to see a tall, freckled girl standing there watching them. Her hands were on her hips in a disapproving manner, and her thin features made her seem even harsher. From a distance, it was a little tough to tell that she was female, since her hair was so short and her figure so boyish.

“What do you think you’re doing?” the girl asked, her tone condescending.

“Um, well…” Krista glanced at Sasha, who was happily eating her share of bread. “She’s done nothing but run for a while, so…”

“Not potato girl… You. What do you think you’re doing?”

“Me?” Krista echoed.

“I saw you hide that loaf during dinner, and it pissed me off--you’re just like those kids who raise a pet behind their parents’ back, you know… Now, tell me, you think you’re doing a nice thing, huh? Did you do it for potato girl? Is the sense of accomplishment and exaltation you get out of this worth all the effort?”

 

The trainee’s dormitories were nothing more than rooms with bunk beds crammed into each one. Boys and girls were, of course, separated, but that did not make the rooms any less crowded. Still, it was better than Yasmin had thought it would be. They had blankets and pillows, and the beds seemed sturdy. The rooms weren’t terribly hot, either, despite the amount of people.

When Yasmin arrived to her assigned bunk, she was pleasantly surprised to see Milena waiting there for her.

“Surprise!” the blonde exclaimed, throwing her hands in the air.

“Surprise?” Yasmin repeated.

“Surprise! As in, we’re bunkmates!”

“Eh? Really?” Yasmin tilted her head as Milena nodded. “How did that happen?”

“If you didn’t make a request at sign-up, you’re paired up randomly,” Milena told her.

“This is a lucky pairing…”

“It’s fate. You can’t get rid of me now that we’re friends.”

Yasmin couldn’t help but join Milena’s laughter.

“Anyway, have you met these two yet?” Milena gestured to a ginger-haired girl and a girl with pigtails. Yasmin remembered hearing the latter’s name during roll call.

“Mina, right?” Yasmin offered to the pigtailed one, and she nodded.

“This is Hannah,” Mina said, jabbing her thumb at the ginger. “Your name is Yasmin? It’s nice to meet you.”

“We’re the bunk underneath you, so if you guys get loud, we’ll kick the bottom of your bed until you shut up,” Hannah added with a giggle. Milena laughed.

“But we’re the ones who should be worried,” she replied. “If you guys are loud, we’ve got no way to get you back!”

“If they’re actually loud, I’d be willing to climb down to whack them senseless with my pillow,” Yasmin admitted with a wry smile. Mina and Hannah laughed.

“Got it,” the former told her, giving her a thumbs up. “We’ll be good. Promise.”

“Same here!” Milena exclaimed, nodding.

“So, what about Erin and Rosaleen?” Yasmin asked Milena after Mina and Hannah had walked away.

“They’re together, but in the room next door,” Milena explained. “The other four in our room are people I haven’t really talked to yet, so I dunno their names. But, hey, at least we’re together!”

“Yeah, I’m glad,” Yasmin admitted. “It’ll help being with someone I know.”

“Same.” Milena stretched her arms, yawning. “Okay, I’m calling it a night! Tomorrow we have to start gear training, I heard. No point in staying up late, right?”

Nodding, Yasmin smiled.

I wonder how Marco is doing… she thought as Milena grabbed her things and headed to the communal bathroom. …He’ll be fine. He wouldn’t want me worrying about him.

 

………

 

“First thing’s first--let’s see if you’re good for anything!”

Yasmin didn’t dare look Keith Shardis directly in the eye as he stood in front of her. She instead kept a firm expression on her face and listened closely to his instructions.

“Just fasten the ropes to both sides of your waists, and hang down from there!! Use your full-body belts for balance! Those who can’t manage that will be used as bait! Or we’ll send you straight to the land-fills!”

Behind Shardis were a couple dozen training mechanisms; had Yasmin not known what they would be trying out today, she would never have guessed their functions. They simply looked like three metal posts brought to a point with some sort of levy.

“Now, divide into your assigned groups, and get to work!”

The chorus of the trainee’s salutes sounded through the air, and they were quickly replaced with murmurs of conversation and general ruckus.

“Good luck today,” Yasmin heard Marco say before he walked away.

“You too!” she called after him.

Yasmin had been assigned to group five with three other people, but she had yet to meet any of them, so she simply headed to the fifth training post in hopes that she would find the correct people. Though she was disappointed to not be training with any friends, she was grateful that, at the least, she was not with Jean.

One of her other group members was already there waiting for her when she arrived. She recognized him immediately as the muscular blond who had stood next to her in roll call the day before. He seemed to recognize her, too, but his initial greeting was hesitant.

“You’re…in group five, then?” he asked, and Yasmin nodded. He stood a head and a half taller than her. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Yasmin Güven,” Yasmin told him. “You are…?”

“Reiner Braun.” Reiner smiled. He had a pleasant smile and glittering gold eyes; though his features were broad, Yasmin could tell right away he was one of those typical “giant teddy bear” types.

“It’s nice to meet you.”

“Same here.”

The two were quiet for a while as they waited for the rest of their group; Yasmin took the chance to look around for Marco. He had ended up with a couple of complete strangers as well as Armin Arlert. Rosaleen was in group four and therefore right next to Yasmin; she was standing next to already-famous Mikasa Ackermann. Erin and Milena were nowhere in Yasmin’s range of vision.

“Sorry I made you wait!”

A tall, dark-skinned boy came running toward Reiner and Yasmin, grinning bashfully. He was about as tall as Reiner and a similar build.

“Are you Franz?” Reiner asked.

“I am! That must make you Reiner,” Franz said. “And are you Yasmin?” When she nodded, Franz breathed out a sigh. “Man, there’s no way I’ll get into the top ten with people like you guys around.”

“What do you mean?” Yasmin asked.

“Shardis never called either of you out, yeah?”

“That doesn’t really mean anything right now,” Reiner told him.

“I agree,” Yasmin added, nodding. “Though if I’m being honest, Reiner, I’m not surprised you weren’t called out. The way you hold yourself says that you’re not afraid of anything.”

“…I’m not sure that you’re completely correct in saying that,” Reiner admitted. “Everyone is afraid of something.”

“We can judge you better after today’s training--don’t worry,” Franz joked.

The last member of the group soon came running up--a girl with a tightly woven braid on her head.

“Cassandra Horace,” she said. “Group five, right?”

And so, with their group members in place, the four began their training.

 

………

 

“Nice work today, Güven.”

Yasmin looked up from taking off her training belt and met eyes with Reiner.

“You’re not bad yourself,” she told him with a grin. “Not that I’m surprised. Looks like Franz and I were right after all, huh?”

Reiner chuckled; Yasmin could see his face reddened, if ever so slightly.

“Oh, hey, before I forget, I wanted to introduce you to someone.” Reiner turned around and motioned to another boy his age; Yasmin could tell he, like Reiner, was one of the oldest kids there. But despite his height, just by looking at his face, she could see the extent of his youth. In fact, especially compared to the fearless Reiner, he looked terrified. His brown hair being soaked with sweat didn’t help his look. “Yasmin, this is Bertholdt. We’re from the same hometown.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” Yasmin said, holding out her hand. Bertholdt looked hesitant, but he gently took his hand in hers. She could feel him trembling, and his hand was very warm and clammy.

“Yasmin, right?” he repeated, releasing her hand. “…I, uh, I don’t remember hearing your name at roll call…”

“She was the one next to me, remember?” Reiner said to his friend.

“Oh,” Bertholdt murmured. “You must be Marco’s friend.”

“Yes, that’s me,” Yasmin said with an embarrassed laugh. “Have you two met?”

“We’re in the same room as him and Jean,” Reiner answered.

“Meaning Jean and Marco are bunkmates?” Yasmin asked. When the two boys nodded, she gritted her teeth.

“I take it you don’t care for Kirschstein?”

“He’s an idiot.”

To Yasmin’s surprise, Reiner laughed heartily.

“Yeah, he is kind of a prick. But he is good at what he does.”

“Being a prick?”

Again, Reiner burst out laughing, and even Bertholdt chuckled this time. Before either could reply, though, a bell sounded out through the training grounds, signaling the start of dinner.

“We should get going,” Bertholdt said, glancing at Reiner. “It was nice to meet you.”

“Yeah, same here,” Yasmin replied.

“Don’t be afraid to say hi whenever you’re around!” Reiner told her, and so the two headed off to the mess hall.

 

………

 

Eren leaned forward toward Reiner as the teen hummed to himself.

“A tip on position control…uh…” Reiner mumbled, arms folded across his chest.

“Please!” Eren begged, staring at the blond. “I heard you two were great at this. Bertholdt… Reiner…”

“Sorry…but I can’t think of a trick that involves just hanging there,” Reiner finally told him. “No useful advice to help you keep your hopes up, I’m afraid.”

“I see…”

“All we can do is bank on things turning out okay tomorrow,” Armin told Eren, but even he did not sound confident.

“…You guys are from the infamous Shiganshina district, aren’t you?” Bertholdt asked suddenly.

“Yes…” Armin replied. “Yes, we are…”

“Then…you should know first-hand just how scary those Titans are. So…why do you still want to become soldiers?”

“Um…it’s not like…I got to face the Titan threat up close and personal,” Armin admitted. “As for why I didn’t remain on the landfill… I couldn’t just sit back and watch as the royal government enforced that outrageous recovery operation… I’m physically weak and none too confident, so I can’t quite imagine…how I could accomplish anything… But if there’s one thing I can’t do, it’s to stand there and do nothing.”

“I-I see,” Bertholdt murmured.

“The same goes for me, more or less,” Eren told them.

“If you don’t mind my asking,” Armin cut in, noting the far-off look in Eren’s eyes, “where are you guys from?”

“…Reiner and I…come from a village in the mountains, southeast of Wall Maria,” Bertholdt told them, his eyes somewhat downcast.

“Eh?! But that’s…”

“Yeah… Unlike that prosperous town alongside the river, we weren’t informed immediately when the wall was broken. Whatever the case, the Titans got there before the information did.” Bertholdt lifted his gaze a bit, briefly meeting the anxious stares of Armin and Eren. “It was dawn…the livestock was making such a ruckus, it was as if hell had broken loose. And the ground was shaking… Increasingly louder, and in a way that was unfamiliar… By the time I’d figured out those were footsteps, and opened my window to look…”

Bertholdt stopped speaking for a moment, but his expression spoke for itself.

“…After that…I don’t remember much… It was pandemonium out there. For everyone. We took our horses and fled all the way to Wall Sina. I take it you guys did the same?”

“We worked at the landfill for a couple of years, which brings us where we are now…pretty much, yeah…” Eren responded.

“Geez…what possessed you to start blurting out that story like that?” Reiner murmured to Bertholdt, looking exasperated.

“S-Sorry…” Bertholdt again lowered his gaze. “Um…well, what I’m trying to say is that…you aren’t quite like those other guys, are you?”

“What guys?” Eren asked.

“All of them out there who came here, ignorant of the dread of Titans. They’re here mostly to uphold society’s expectations of them… By now, those who turn to manufacturing when they turn twelve are regarded as spineless cowards, since after the fall of Wall Maria public opinion changed completely. So they go with the flow, and become soldiers in training. But even then, they’re not exactly eager to join the Survey Corps. More like the Military Police. And if that’s not an option, then the Garrison, in hopes of being transferred to the police from there…” Bertholdt lowered his eyes, looking at his feet. “But…I’m as much of a coward as they are.”

“Eh?”

“Since I’m pretty fit and all…I thought I’d aim for service in the police, with all the privileges that entails,” he confessed. “If that’s not possible, I may outright quit the whole thing… I have…no will of my own. I envy you guys…for having something you value more than your own lives…”

“Considering what happened to you, it’s hardly surprising that you’d value your own life, right?” Eren said, smiling kindly. “I may have wanted to join the Survey Corps even before the wall was broken, but to think like that you’d have to be touched in the head…so I guess that makes me the freak.”

“Hm?” Reiner finally lifted his gaze for the first time since the beginning of the conversation. “So you mean, even after running into a Titan…you still haven’t changed your mind?”

“We-well, now that we come down to it, it’s more about whether I can become a soldier at all… I’ve been taught quite a lesson in fear…but I wanna kill them a lot more than they scare me. Kill them all…down to the last one.”

“…Me too,” Reiner murmured, his gaze fixed on a random spot on his bunk. “I got something too. Something I’ll never deviate from… There’s no turning back. But I still wanna see my hometown again. That’s all I am about… I’ll do it…no matter what it takes.”

“Sure…”

“…Check out your belt again,” Reiner then said, turning to Eren. It was an abrupt change of subject, but still a pleasant change from the dark conversation they had just had. “Make sure it’s well-adjusted. Tomorrow things should work out okay…” The blond grinned. “You have it in you, of that I’m certain. Eren Jaeger, was it?”

“Yeah. Thanks a lot…Reiner Braun, right?”

 

 

Chapter Text

Eren’s triumph of balancing in the training three-dimensional maneuver gear lasted only a few seconds before he came crashing down into the ground yet again. In that moment, it felt as though it was not just his body, but his hopes and dreams that had been smashed into the ground.

“No…” he whimpered, trying to straighten himself again. “Not yet…!”

“Put him down,” Shardis ordered Thomas Wagner, Eren’s training partner, who stood motionless in hesitation.

“I-I’m still…!! I’m not…!!”

“Put him down now.” Thomas grimaced, but reluctantly followed his commander’s orders. Soon, Eren was kneeling on the ground, shaking all over. Though he was right-side-up again, he still felt dizzy with grief.

“I’m not…” he breathed, unable to finish his thought.

“Wagner.”

“Sir.”

“Exchange your equipment with Jaeger’s.”

The order was a surprise to everyone, but Thomas didn’t dare protest. Though Thomas was a bit taller and more muscular than Eren, a switch of belts was not an issue. Soon, Eren was hooked back up to the training mech, and this time, when his feet lifted off of the ground, he did not overturn.

Wha…how come?! Eren wondered, still a bit shaky despite being balanced. I did it. …Right off the bat…

“What on earth…” he murmured out loud.

“Faulty material,” Shardis grunted. “The metallic fixtures on your belt were damaged. Normally it goes up to the waist, so that even if you’re overturned, your head shouldn’t hit the ground. …This is the first time I’ve heard such a thing. I never knew those bits could be damaged. You’re gonna have to get yourself some new proper gear.

“What the…!! Th-then…what about my military aptitude…” Eren gasped, his heart pounding in his ears.

“No problems,” Shardis declared. “Train hard.”

 

“What’s the matter, Arlert? You’re the only one who’s lagging behind!”

Yasmin could hear Shardis’ voice echoing through the forest despite the heavy downpour. Her pack was rain-soaked and harder to carry than usual, so she didn’t dare turn to look back. Even if Armin was her friend, she would draw too much attention to herself if she were to lag behind with him. So instead, she kept her pace with Marco.

I’m not going to make it into the top ten, she thought, so I have no room to let myself slack. I have to graduate and finish what I’ve started…!

“Is that load too heavy for you?! Should I make an exception and let you drop your equipment?!”

In the very back of the 104th trainee squad was Armin, several paces behind the rest of the group.

“Da…dammit…” he breathed, his footsteps growing heavier by the minute.

“Give me that, Armin!” From out of nowhere, Reiner snatched the pack off of Armin’s small back. “If you keep up like that, you’ll fail,” he added, slinging it onto his own back, which had grown even more muscular in the past two and a half years.

“If you do that, they’re gonna fail you too,” Armin whispered.

“If you don’t want them to find out, just get going!” Reiner hissed back. “Now, before I change my mind!”

But in reality, they had already been found out; Keith Shardis had been watching the exchange out of the corner of his eyes the whole time.

Reiner Braun. Strong-willed, with a solid constitution, came the evaluation. Most adept at gaining the trust of his comrades.

“This is just some luggage,” Armin said. “I’d rather die than be a burden!”

Soon Armin had recovered his pack and went thundering past Shardis, a wild expression in his eyes.

Armin Arlert. Subpar physical aptitude by a soldier’s standards, but admittedly a genius when it comes to theoretical courses. Should he ever find his own niche, then probably…

These days, with the class being so close to graduation, Shardis found himself speaking much less and thinking much more. He now spent more time in quiet observation than barking orders--and if the truth be told, he preferred this role.

When the rain had cleared, the trainees then switched into their gear and began their next set of training drills. Since they had become accustomed to using the 3D gear, they were gradually exposed to battle techniques and were thus allowed to develop fighting techniques all their own. At times, it was hard to separate the good from great when comparing talents, but Shardis had made sure to put the best of the best in close contact.

From where he stood, up on a high tree branch, Shardis could see three trainees fly below him toward their target. Annie and Bertholdt each got a good shot into the training Titan’s neck, but Jean’s was shallow in comparison.

Annie Leonhart. She strikes with a perfect penetration angle… Her blows carve deep into the target. She’s a solitary type, but solidarity doesn’t come to her easily.

Bertholdt Hoover. Highly proficient in various hand-to-hand combat styles… He seems to have great potential. However, he lacks in self-confidence and tends to leave it to others whenever it comes to showing some assertiveness.

“If I don’t make it into the Police, no one will!”

Jean’s outcry bounced through the trees, and his figure soon disappeared from sight.

Jean Kirschstein. Highly competent at the three-dimensional maneuver gear, and highly skilled at using it efficiently. He’s also good at assessing his situation at any given time, but is far too eager to unsheathe his sword. He is also prone to spark conflicts.

Shardis’ observations led him to the next practice Titan, where Jean was headed next. Below, Connie Springer was also honing in.

Connie Springer. Good balance. Especially skilled at making tight turns. But he’s slow on the uptake, and his grasp of strategy is often less than perfect.

Before Connie could get in his hit, a third figure entered the scene, zooming right in front of Connie and slicing the faux Titan cleanly.

“Wha…SASHA!!”

“YAAAYYY!”

Sasha Braus. Lightning fast, with an uncanny intuition. But her eccentricity makes her unfit for group operations.

“I’ve been tailing you from above, Connie!” she shouted, bouncing back into the air with surprising grace. “And it was worth it!”

“The hell?!”

“Dammit! Go follow someone else!” Jean added.

“Y’hear that, Sasha!? Stop following us!”

Shardis had no time to intervene in the spat; the next group of trainees was coming in fast. From the treetops, the assistant trainers triggered the devices nearby, which lifted up more of the wooden practice targets. But just as two were pulled up, they were sliced by the next two trainees.

Mikasa Ackermann. A prodigy who excels in even the most difficult courses. She’s an unprecedented genius, deserving nothing short of top grades.

Eren Jaeger. No particular talent aside from his excellent close combat skills. However, he’s been slowly but steadily improving his grades through outstanding effort, and his sense of purpose is stronger than anyone else’s.

Once the duo was out of sight, the next few Titans were raised up into place, and moments later, the next round of trainees was flying in. In comparison to the last duo, these two were not as lightning-fast, but they were steady and controlled. The two locked into the Titan’s nape and sliced it cleanly.

“Nice!” Marco exclaimed, grinning at Yasmin.

“Another one down!” she called back.

Marco Bodt. Skilled fighter and light as air with his gear. A great motivator and team player, but could use some more gusto.

Yasmin Güven. Academically and physically balanced. A better team member than a leader, but has the capability of fitting into either role.

Soon the two were out of sight, following after Mikasa and Eren. And, just in time, three more trainees came zooming in. These three, however, Shardis could hear from far off.

“Look, look! Let’s go again!”

“Yeah!”

Rosaleen Johnson. Willing to take initiative in a heartbeat, but does not always stop to think things through thoroughly before acting.

Milena Gessler. Full of energy and passion. Her competitive nature gives her an edge, but also creates occasional unnecessary conflict.

Erin Johnson. Too passive in her behavior and is better suited for stationary combat. Makes for a loyal and obedient companion.

The trio, bursting with excitement and life, soon disappeared into the trees, and Shardis began to follow them. But just then, one more trainee came flying in; she dug her blades deep into the practice Titan’s neck and moved on without looking back.

Olivia Gautier. Selfish, with a tendency to isolate herself, but has the cunning of a fox. If she could learn better teamwork skills, she’d be an invaluable soldier and companion.

 

………

 

“That was low, you two.”

The clouds had long since cleared up, and the trainees were now resting under a beautiful blue sky, sweating under the rays of the sun.

“I’d spotted that target before you did,” Jean continued, seated on some nearby logs. Connie and Sasha stood in front of him, both with knowing smirks on their faces.

“Low, you say?” Sasha said, her lips curling mischievously. “What a half-baked thing to say, Jean. Since when does one need to show manners when stealing someone’s prey?”

“That’s right,” Connie agreed, pointing at Jean. “It’s your fault for having it stolen.”

Yasmin, who had been walking with Eren and Marco, stopped at the sight of the conflict. Sasha and Connie had become her friends through their times in training, and seeing them gang up on Jean was a special treat. In fact, anyone who managed to bring out the fool in Jean Kirschstein was her personal hero.

She knew, however, that Marco and Jean had become close; it frustrated her to death because she could not understand why. Marco was the nicest person she had ever met, and so to see him hang out with an idiot like Jean was disappointing. Admittedly, Jean had shaped up a bit over the past six months, but he was still his usual grumpy and spoiled self.

“Sheesh…your countryside logic of hunting makes no sense to me!” Jean growled, trying to ignore Sasha’s bright grin and Connie’s accusatory stare.

“Oh, well…” Marco cut in, pausing beside the group along with Yasmin and Eren. “We should be thankful everyone made it through the exam without a scratch.”

“…Hey, Marco?” Eren’s voice was quiet, but there was a tone of curiosity to it. “You found the targets first, but then you’d like, leave them to someone else… Don’t you wanna enter the Military Police? You need to score well, don’t you?”

“Yeah…” Marco murmured, scratching the back of his neck. Yasmin watched him quietly without saying a word. She had done this more and more lately; sometimes it felt as if she was watching him grow up without her, and while she felt proud, she also felt a bit left behind. This, too, seemed to be one of those times.

“To improve one another’s skill, we need to compete, I believe,” Marco explained. “But no matter what…I can’t help considering a real battle situation. As in, since I’m the slowest and all, I should draw the Titans’ attention while the rest strike at them from behind. Though it was kinda pointless seeing as this test was about measuring our offensive capability…” He lowered his gaze as his voice trailed off. “To think I want to join the Military Police…even though I’ve always aimed for it...”

Everyone was quiet for a moment, but then Eren’s voice cut in again.

“I see… You’re what one might call a natural leader,” he told Marco, who looked genuinely confused. “Sounds like the right job for you, huh? What with the efficient thinking, the attention to detail… I won’t mind joining a team if you’re the one who’s running it.”

“I want on your team, too,” Sasha jumped in. “Sounds like a good survival plan.”

“If…If you say so…”

“The Battle Plan-ification Trainees’ Squad in Trost, huh?” Jean muttered, his voice leaded with sarcasm. “Count me in with Marco, then. I could use the good luck. I don’t wanna be in the same squad as some pointlessly suicidal asshole. I wouldn’t even survive ten seconds…”

“Wait a minute…” Eren said, gritting his teeth. “You talking about someone in particular?”

“Take a guess. I’m sure you can figure out who I mean.”

“Take it easy, you two,” Marco said, laughing.

“Here we go again,” Sasha added. “Jean and his roundabout declarations of love…”

“Can it, potato girl…”

“…I thought everybody’d forgotten about that.”

“Hey, Jean? I don’t think there’s anyone out there who goes by the same ‘some suicidal asshole’ nickname…?”

“…You shut up, too, Connie.”

 

………

 

“You look exhausted, Yasmin.”

From her spot in the corner of the bunk, Yasmin looked up at Milena, who beamed her usual bright smile.

“How are you not?” Erin groaned, flopping onto her sister lap. “Today was one of the toughest evaluation days yet.”

“What are you complaining about?” Rosaleen said, running a hand through her sister’s short hair. “We’re almost done! In a matter of weeks, we’ll be graduated and home free!”

“Whaddya mean, ‘home free’?” Erin lifted her head. “’Home’ is Wall Sina, in case you’ve forgotten. Not the military, Rosie.”

“…Do…any of you think you’ll be in top ten?” Milena asked quietly.

“Nah,” Erin replied, sitting upright. “I wasn’t really aiming for it in the first place.”

“Same,” Rosaleen agreed. “My goal from the start was Garrison--being in the top ten doesn’t make a difference to me.” She turned to look at Yasmin and Milena. “What about you two?”

“I don’t think so,” Milena admitted, frowning. “Dad was in the Survey Corps, which is nice and all, but I know that’s not for me. And no top ten, which means…”

“Garrison!” Rosaleen exclaimed, reaching out and shaking Milena’s hand. The latter’s frown faded, and soon she too was grinning ear to ear.

“See, that’s the good part! We’ll get to be together!”

“Maybe we can be in the same squad!”

“Yeah!”

“It’d be nice if we ended up on Wall Sina,” Erin added. “Not far from home, but still active enough to not get bored.”

“Yasmin? What about you?”

“I…don’t think I’ll be in the top ten, either,” she said, looking downcast. “The people that will be in top ten will be those with a technique that is extraordinarily above average. I don’t have anything like that, and I wasn’t really trying to develop any one of my skills more than the other, either.”

“Being average is okay, though!” Erin insisted. “Average people have purpose in life, too.”

“Oh, that doesn’t bother me,” Yasmin laughed, though she was forcing the smile. “I don’t mind being average, I guess.”

“Is it because Marco will be in a different regiment?” Rosaleen asked, pouting. Apparently, but not surprisingly, her friends had seen right through the act.

“He’s gonna be in top ten?” Milena added.

“I think so,” Yasmin replied with a nod. “He’s better at 3D gear than me for sure, and his leadership skills and strategic thinking is far above par. I mean, compared to Armin, maybe it’s not such a big deal, but he’s better than most.” Yasmin smiled to herself. “I’m really, really proud of him for it.”

“But it won’t be the same,” Rosaleen finished. “I get that.” The red-head grinned. “That’s why Erin is going to be in Garrison whether she wants to be or not.”

“Please.” Erin rolled her eyes. “Like I’d ever join the Survey Corps--that’s a sure-fire death sentence. If I’m gonna be suicidal, I’m gonna go down alcoholic and buried in debt.”

The girls laughed, and for a moment, Yasmin felt as if she had known them for all of her life. Never before had she felt so comfortable with a group of people.

And we’ll all be in Garrison together, she realized. I should be more grateful.

“So, wait a minute.” Rosaleen leaned forward toward Yasmin. “It just hit me--if you weren’t aiming for top ten to be with Marco, why did you join the military?”

“Yeah, what’s up with that?” Erin asked, nodding.

 

 

Chapter Text

“What was all that about?” Yasmin mumbled, practically dragging Marco away from Jean in order to talk to him in private. “I get that you guys are close now, but you aren’t his mom. It’s not your job to boost his self-esteem.”

“That's not why I said it,” Marco replied, sighing. “I was just telling him the truth. Are you jealous?”

“Nah, just confused.” Yasmin laughed through her nose. “I don’t get what you see in him. You’re the nicest person I know, but you chose him as a friend?”

“He’s actually not so bad.”

“Again, you’re just too nice. Don’t throw out compliments so freely. You’ll land yourself in trouble that way, especially in the Military Police.”

This time Marco was the one to laugh.

“Look who’s talking.” Marco gently elbowed Yasmin’s arm. “You aren’t my mom, so you can’t tell me how to act.”

“…Fair enough.”

As the two headed back toward their camp, they linked hands; for Yasmin, it felt like the first time in ages that she had been able to be with Marco without interruptions. It was nostalgic and comfortable--but at the same time, being so comfortable made her angry with herself.

“Anyway, I know I’m not strong,” Yasmin said quietly, “so you don’t need to lie to me, too, all right? Save it.” To her surprise, Marco laughed again. “What’s so funny?”

“You’re hilarious,” Marco told her. “You’re just the opposite of Jean. He thinks he’s so strong, but he’s weak and is just like everyone else. That’s what makes him great. You, on the other hand…you’re really strong. In fact, you’re probably the strongest person I know--but the problem is that you don’t believe that you’re strong. And so you end up just like everyone else.”

“…The hell is wrong with you? I just said not to throw out compliments so freely!” Yasmin used her free hand to push Marco’s face away; he just laughed again.

“Either way, you both will figure it out in time. I’m sure of it.”

 

“Why…did I join the military?” Yasmin echoed, narrowing her eyes.

“Yeah, I mean, I’ve never asked, and you’ve never really mentioned it,” Rosaleen admitted.

“And plus, Shardis didn’t include you in his initial roast,” Erin added.

“I…guess you’re right.” Sighing, Yasmin stretched out her legs. “…It’s because of a couple of reasons. Let me teach you guys something: humans have different layers and levels to their psyche, right? We have, in result, different levels of goals and objectives. For me…one of my outer goals is to join the military in hopes of finding out about my father.”

“Your father?” Milena echoed. “Was he in the military as well?”

“No, I don’t think so. My father disappeared several years ago. Nobody knows what happened to him. And, on top of that, the one person who would’ve known his whereabouts disappeared at about the same time. That person was Marco’s father.”

“Ahh, I see where this is going,” Erin murmured, nodding to herself.

“Marco’s father and my father worked together, but I don’t really know what they did, besides that it was in the medical field, and that sometimes they would have to travel for work. Dad always said I was too young to understand, and so I never really pried,” Yasmin continued. “All I really know for sure is that one day, my father said he was leaving for work, but he never came back. My mother doesn’t talk about it, which I guess I understand--it is painful to think about the fact that we’ll probably never see him again. And if he is dead, there’s no way for me to ask him all of the questions I've been waiting my whole life to ask him.”

Yasmin paused to catch her breath and collect her emotions; the silence gave her a moment to take in her friends' expressions. They seemed interested, but even more than that, each of them had a look of concern on their faces. She felt a slight twinge of guilt for having made them worry, and so she shifted the focus of her story accordingly.

“What’s weird, though, is that Marco’s father went missing that day as well. Marco told me once that his father always said, ‘I’ll be back,’ or something to that effect, before he left for work. That day, though, he did not say anything.”

“So you think your dad knew he wouldn’t be coming back?” Milena gasped.

“I…can’t dismiss the possibility,” Yasmin answered. “And don’t you think it’s odd? All information on the outside world is forbidden and taboo. Armin has talked to me and Marco about this a lot, and it never really seemed like something I should question until I got to be older, and then when my father left, I knew there must be a link somewhere.”

“You think that the information is hidden somewhere in the military,” Rosaleen concluded.

“Absolutely. Marco does, too. That’s part of the reason he wants to join the Military Police so badly.” Yasmin tilted her head in thought. “But for me…I have another goal, a more selfish one that kind of stops me from wanting to join the Police force. I want to see the outside world. I want to know what kind of life waits outside these walls.”

“Death awaits,” Erin told her with a flat tone. “Titans are everywhere. There’s nothing but a bigger chance that you’ll be eaten alive.”

“Beyond that, Erin,” Yasmin pressed. “There’s got to be something beyond that. Don’t you think it’s weird that they’d hide information about the outside world? That means there is something to hide. I want to find it. I want to know that freedom. I want to have answers to all of the questions I keep coming up with. And it only gets worse as time goes on.”

“Then why don’t you join the Survey Corps?” Rosaleen asked. “They go on expeditions outside the wall all the time.”

“I don’t have the skills for that,” Yasmin sighed. “Or the bravery. But I want to aid humanity some way or another--I don’t want to be the only one to experience life outside of the walls. Humans are interesting, and I think they’re worth saving. That’s not the only reason I want to save them, of course. Regardless of my intentions, though, we all have value. I don’t know myself very well, but I want to fix that so that I can save people and become someone worth saving.”

The girls fell silent for a moment before finally Erin spoke up.

“Well, don’t be sad,” she stated. “You’ve come this far, and you have a definite goal. You understand how to make progress toward that goal, and you have the resources to get there. I believe in you, Yasmin. You’re strong.”

“…”

Again, someone uses that word to describe me, she thought, but I don’t think they really know what it means. Then again…do I?

“And you’ll have us!” Rosaleen added. “We’ll help you.”

“I believe in you, too,” Milena said, taking Yasmin’s hand. “I’m here for you. Remember? I said you’d have a hard time getting rid of me. I mean it. And these two are the same.”

“…Thank you,” Yasmin murmured. “You’re right. We have each other, and we can help each other get to where we need to be.”

“That’s right!”

“And by the way, you’re allowed to be sad about Marco not being in your regiment,” Erin said. “I guess not everyone can get into the Military Police.”

“Can it,” Rosaleen scolded, gently smacking Erin on the head.

“This has to do with Bertholdt again, doesn’t it?” Yasmin laughed.

“Ugh, how can I even help it?!” Erin collapsed forward onto the bunk. “He’s just so nice. And Reiner is super nice. And even Annie is nicer than she seems!”

“You might be exaggerating,” Milena chuckled.

“I’m really not! You guys don’t know--if you shared a room with her…”

“Are you gay for Annie?” Rosaleen teased.

“As gay as you are for Mikasa,” Erin shot back, lifting her head.

“Milena,” Yasmin said, turning to the blonde, “have I ever expressed how grateful I am that you’re my bunkmate?”

“You could stand to say it more often,” Milena laughed. The two high-fived each other as the twins groaned.

“Okay, okay, but while we’re talking smack, can we talk about horse-face?” Erin asked, sitting upright and raising her hand. In response, Yasmin let out a loud groan of disgust. “Is that a no? Oh…”

“He’s part of why you were pissed off earlier, yeah?” Milena asked, patting Yasmin’s head.

“He’s just such an asshole.” Yasmin rubbed her temples. “Marco won’t leave him alone. Why him…why him?”

“Is he really as huge a dick like you say?” Rosaleen asked. “I hardly ever talk to him or deal with him, other than the occasional outbursts at dinner.”

“He’s in my group for 3D gear training,” Milena stated. “And he’s just such a horrible asshole. He’s selfish and mean-spirited, and grumpy as hell. You can tell he’s a spoiled only child.”

“I can tolerate him if he doesn’t speak,” Yasmin said. “It’s when he starts running his mouth that the urge to punch him is overwhelming.”

“See? You can’t complain about Annie, then,” Erin giggled.

“Because she never talks.”

“Yo!”

Completely interrupting their conversation, a shout came down from below, causing the four to turn and look. Standing in the doorway was a girl with long, white-blonde hair and glasses. She was undeniably gorgeous, but even from afar, they could sense her attitude problem. Yasmin had seen her around; she was in the same year as them, but she had never really talked to the others or approached them. Still, here she was, and she seemed to have some sort of reason for interrupting.

“I hate to break up your roast session,” she said, her voice clear and crisp, “but whichever of you is Yasmin--there’s a letter for you. And by the way, curfew is in thirty minutes.”

“I’m Yasmin. Who is the letter from?”

“I didn’t really look, but here.” The girl pulled the letter out of her knapsack and waved it around, then looked at the envelope. “…Esra Güven.”

“Give that to me right now, please,” Yasmin said quickly, reaching out over the bunk toward the girl.

“Come down here like a proper citizen and claim it yourself,” the girl replied. She didn’t sound angry or offended, however; her tone was unreadable and so Yasmin found it intriguing.

Doing as ordered, Yasmin climbed down the bunk and walked over to the girl; she stood several inches taller than the blonde. The girl stared up at Yasmin with bright grey eyes, and after a brief moment, she smiled. Her smile, however, was not a normal smile, but one that made the ends of her lips curl in delight.

“Too bad we’ve never met before,” the girl said, smacking the letter into Yasmin’s hand. “G’night, ladies.”

“…”

Without another word, the blonde sauntered out of their room.

“Do you know her?” Milena asked Yasmin.

“No.” Yasmin shook her head.

That girl…was hot, she thought, staring at the empty doorway. She then remembered the letter in her hand, and without another moment of hesitation, she ripped open the seal and pulled out a one-page letter.

“Who is it from? Your sister?” Erin asked, leaning over Rosaleen to peer down at Yasmin.

“…She’s…in training,” Yasmin gasped, skimming the letter. “Esra is in military training too!”

“That means she’s at this camp!” Milena cried. “You should totally go see her tomorrow!”

“Yeah, we’ll go with you if you want!” Rosaleen offered.

“Yeah, let’s do that,” Yasmin said, her hands shaking with excitement. “I have to tell Marco! I’ll be right back!”

“Okay, but hurry! Don’t get busted for curfew!”

 

………

 

Yasmin had been exhausted from training that day, but upon seeing her sister’s familiar handwriting, her energy was completely restored. She sprinted to the boys’ dorms and made it there in record time. Pounding on the front door of Marco’s building, she gripped the letter firmly.

“I’m here to see Marco Bodt!” Yasmin cried as the door began to open. Standing there was Armin, wearing a slightly startled expression. “Sorry, Armin, I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“It’s all right,” Armin said with a chuckle. “Is everything okay? Did something happen?”

“Kind of. It’s…a family thing.”

“Got it. I’ll go get him, so wait just a second.”

“Thanks so much, Armin.”

The blonde smiled cheerfully before closing the door. She could hear him rush down the hall, shouting Marco’s name.

God bless Armin Arlert, she thought when, just seconds later, Marco appeared at the door.

“What happened, Yas?” he asked, panting.

“Esra is here!” she cried. “As in, she joined the military, too!”

“Really?! Seriously?!”

“Yes, look!”

Yasmin held out Esra’s letter to Marco, who took it and scanned it briefly.

“…So we should go and see her tomorrow morning,” Marco concluded.

“Definitely,” Yasmin said. “Or at least, the invitation is open for you to come. I won’t force you to, but--“

“Well then, I’m forcing you to take me,” he interrupted, and even in the dim light of the moon, she could see that he was grinning. “She’s my sister, too, after all.”

“I was hoping you’d say that.”

 

………

 

Yasmin was barely able to sleep that night, but despite the lack of rest, she awoke early the next morning and was ready to go far before it was usually time.

“You must have really missed her,” Milena said as she groggily pulled on her boots.

“It’s not just that,” Yasmin confessed. “I left my mother under very unpleasant circumstances. I’m shocked Esra managed to get out, too.”

“I see…”

Before long, Milena, along with the Johnson twins, was dressed and ready to visit the other side of camp. When the group left their dorm, Marco was already out waiting with them.

“G’morning,” he greeted them. “Esra’s going to have quite a welcome party.”

“She deserves it,” Yasmin giggled.

The walk to the underclassman dorms was not necessarily a long one, but to Yasmin, it felt agonizing. It had been over two years since she had seen Esra, and she was dying to know what had changed.

Please tell me you didn’t change too much, Yasmin thought as they neared the dorms. They were just in time; the younger trainees were all headed toward the mess hall.

“Look, I see her!” Marco exclaimed, pointing into the crowd. Yasmin followed his finger to a girl with a chin-length bob and a blue long-sleeve shirt.

“Esra!” Yasmin shouted. Several other people turned to look, but Yasmin didn’t care. She had caught Esra’s attention. Even from afar, she could see the surprise on her sister’s face.

“Yas!” Esra cried, bounding over to the group. Soon, she and Yasmin were locked in a tight embrace. “You got my letter!”

“Not soon enough,” Yasmin said with a laugh. “I missed you so much.”

“I’ve missed you too…” Esra was the one to break the embrace, but she looked overjoyed. “I have to thank you, Yas. Thank you.”

“What for?” Yasmin asked, still laughing. It was hard to wipe the smile off of her face. “I haven’t done anything.”

“But you have. Because of what you said to Mom, she…she’s totally different now.” Esra smiled softly. “I mean, I don’t think she’s necessarily happy about us leaving, but she seems to get it now.”

“Is that so…”

“That’s great to hear,” Marco jumped in. “Maybe even Cem will join before long.”

“I hope so!” Esra exclaimed, turning to her surrogate big brother. “Marco, you got even taller. And maybe more freckles.”

Marco laughed, scratching the back of his head in embarrassment.

“Don’t be upset--they look good on you,” Esra added, grinning.

“Esra, these are my closest friends,” Yasmin then said, gesturing to the trio behind her. “The blonde is Milena, and these are the twins, Erin and Rosaleen.”

“Nice to meet you!” Milena said, holding out her hand to shake Esra’s.

“You’re adorable,” Rosaleen added with a giggle.

“You look so much like Yasmin,” Erin chipped in.

“Really?” Esra’s eyes were gleaming. “Mom always said Yasmin looked like Dad…”

“…Esra.” Yasmin turned to her sister again. “I don’t have much time to talk, but listen--I graduate soon, and I’ll most likely be in the Garrison. Marco will be in the Military Police. If you ever need help, you’ve got us to turn to.”

“Okay…thank you. I’ll remember that.”

“And even if you join the Survey Corps,” Marco jumped in, “there’s a really nice guy named Armin Arlert. He’ll help you out anytime.”

“…Thank you.” Esra lowered her head, growing quiet. “I…thank you for coming to see me. I have to get going but I…”

“It’s all right,” Yasmin said, putting a hand on her sister head affectionately. “Do your best.”

“I will.” Esra looked back up at her sister, then Marco in turn. Her face was filled with resolution. “I promise--I won’t let either of you down. Just like you…I joined the military with a goal, and I won’t fail you. I promise.”

Without another word, Esra smiled at the group, then turned and jogged back to a couple of her friends, who had been waiting in the distance the whole time.

“…She’s grown up,” Marco murmured.

“So what does that make us…?” Yasmin wondered out loud. “…Whatever. We should get going.”

 

 

Chapter Text

“We have paid a terrible price for our 100 years of peace. There was no way we could have reacted to the sudden apparition of that Colossal Titan given our level of alertness…”

The voice of retired Commander Kent Reilly rang through the ceremonial hall and out to the 104 th class of trainees. They stood in silence, listening closely to his speech.

“As a result…we were forced to abandon our foremost wall: Wall Maria. Mankind’s territory has shrunk down to the limits of Wall Rose, within which we stand presently. Even as we speak, it’s very plausible that this Colossal Titan might tear down the wall to come at us any second. When that time comes, your duty will be to assist your fellow soldiers, sacrificing your lives to oppose the Titan threat. You will sacrifice your all!!”

“SIR!” In near perfect unison, the trainees all saluted to Reilly, as well as the four men who stood behind him: Commanders Pyxis, Dawk, Smith, and Shardis.

“Today, you have completed your military training…” Reilly continued. “I will now announce the ten best among those who obtained satisfactory results. Step forward at the mention of your name.”

Mikasa Ackermann, Reiner Braun, Bertholdt Hoover, Annie Leonhart, Eren Jaeger, Jean Kirschstein, Marco Bodt, Connie Springer, Sasha Braus, and Krista Lenz each stepped up at their name, forming a line in front of their peers.

“That is all,” Reilly said. “Now that you’ve completed your formations, you have three alternatives. The Garrison--reinforcing the walls and protecting the town; the Survey Corps--ready to sacrifice their lives outside the walls to engage the Titans on their home turf; and the king-controlled Military Police, who regulate the population and maintain order. It goes without saying, but among the freshest recruits, only the top ten may directly apply for the Military Police force. Tomorrow you will apply for your assignments. And today marks the end and the disbanding of the 104 th trainee squad… Dismissed!”

“SIR!!”

 

“I wish I was part of the top ten like you guys! But I’d have been surprised if you didn’t join the Police, anyway.”

Yasmin looked up from her food at yet another comrade who had come to admire Jean and Marco. She rolled her eyes; the fact that anyone would insinuate Marco using bribery to get into the Military Police was just nonsense, but with Jean, there was no denying that possibility. But it didn't matter, anyway, because both had indeed made it into the top ten.

“Haaanh?” Jean grunted, leaning back in his chair to face their peer. “Of course. Why do you think I aimed for the top ten at all?”

“Me too,” Marco jumped in, grinning. “That’s where I’m headed. An opportunity to work close to the king…such an honor!!”

Just as Marco put his glass to his lips, Jean’s hand came down on the brunet’s head, causing his tea to splash all over his nose and mouth.

“Don’t be such a goody-two-shoes, Marco,” Jean said. “Tell ‘em the real reason. Wanna live in the inner walls, don’t you? We can escape the shit-hole that’s the outer town at last! In the inner district, a life of peace and comfort awaits us!”

“Wha… hey, man, sh-show some decency,” Marco said, sounding genuinely offended. Yasmin could tell that he was somewhat upset. “I, for one…”

“Ah, my bad,” Jean interrupted. “Sorry about that. My fault. Goody-two shoes. But what would you guys do?” Jean turned to the eavesdroppers nearby.

“You still have a chance to change your mind and join another regiment,” Yasmin whispered to Marco while Jean was distracted.

“I won’t do that.”

“But you’d put up with that horse-faced idiot?”

“Some things…can’t be helped.” Marco shrugged, smiling gently. “Don’t worry about me. Jean’s just riled up right now.”

“Hey…” From the table across from theirs, Eren Jaeger slowly stood up, staring down Jean Kirschstein. “You talk about the inner district being comfortable… The part of town we’re in right now used to be part of the inner district, you know. Jean…I believe even without moving to the inner wall, the contents of your brain would still be comfortable enough.”

From Eren’s table came a loud snort of a laugh and a quiet scream of disgust; Yasmin looked over just in time to see Reiner spraying milk out of his nose all over Armin. She was grateful for that distraction; no one would be paying attention to her own low laughter.

“Eren, don’t,” Mikasa murmured, tugging on Eren’s sleeve. But the sparks were already lit. (AN: EREN DOOOOO)

“Unless I’m mistaken, Eren, you’re calling me a half-wit?” Jean muttered, turning his chair to face Eren. “…Well, you’re wrong about that…I’m a realist. The biggest one out there. Four years ago, we invested half our population into a general offensive…half of the entire human race…out to recover the territory we’d lost. And most of those people earned an instant one-way ticket to the Titans’ stomachs. How many more would it have taken to reconquer our lost land? It takes thirty human deaths on average to fell one of them.”

The room had grown quiet at Jean’s words; even Yasmin felt somber listening to his speech. As much as she disliked Jean, he was entirely correct.

“But the Titans control this land, and they aren’t content to number a measly 1/30th of the human population. Doesn’t take a genius to figure it out. For humanity, there is no such thing as achieving victory against the Titans.”

Glancing around the room, Yasmin noted the sullen looks on her peers’ faces. Everyone understood what Jean was saying to be the truth, however harsh his words.

“See…?” Jean sighed. “Now the mood's so dark that nobody's gonna sleep tonight—all because of you.”

“And…?” Eren responded.

“Hah? Have you been listening?”

“I did hear something about giving up because you thought you couldn’t win.”

At Eren’s comeback, the entire mood of the room changed.

“Tell me…what good is it to throw in the towel? What good is it to give up all hope and escape from reality? Of course, if we go challenging the titans on the field of material resources, we’re screwed from the outset. The number one cause of our defeat four years ago was our ignorance about them. We did lose, but the information we gained is a definite step in the right direction. It gave us hope. And you would give up your responsibility to elaborate a strategy and become Titan food, just like this? …You’re joking, right? I…”

Even from where she was sitting, Yasmin could see Eren’s expression turn more emotionally charged--but it was not anger fueling him. His determination was obvious, and the reason for it was revealed by his next words.

“I have a dream…” he said quietly. “A dream where we exterminate the Titans…leave the confines of these walls…to explore the outside world.”

At his words, Yasmin felt her heart begin to race.

The…outside world… Answers to the questions we have…

“Hah!” Jean’s laugh was mocking and cruel. “If only you could hear yourself! And you call me a half-wit!?”

“…Say what?!”

“Look around! Not a single soul agrees with you on this!”

“…Yeah…I see…” Eren clenched his teeth, and Yasmin watched in disappointment as his face fell. “All right, I get it…” But then, the fire returned to Eren’s eyes, and he turned on Jean yet again. “Just go to the inner district already, then… Having a defeatist like you here on the front lines would only hurt everyone’s morale.”

“Oh, I do intend to go, but what about you? You do plan on going outside the walls, right? Go for it, then.” Jean's smirk widened, and Eren's fists clenched in response. “Your beloved Titans are waiting for you.”

 

………

 

Though he was still shaky from his Titan-filled dreams, and his body was still sore from his punch-out with Jean, Eren awoke the next morning and headed to the central plaza of Trost with his friends.

“Gotta admit…this may be one of the outermost towns, but it does have more people than before…” he murmured to Franz and Hannah.

“That’s because nothing has happened in five years,” Hannah told him cheerfully. “Can’t exactly revert to what things were like a few years back, though.”

“The wall’s been reinforced quite a bit in the meantime!” Franz added.

“Now maybe the Colossal Titan won’t come anymore.”

“Quit sounding like wusses! You stupid couple!” Eren shouted at them.

“Co-come on… A couple…” Hannah giggled nervously, her face turning red.

“Us…a matching pair…” Franz mumbled, just as red in the face as his companion. “You’re getting ahead of yourself, Eren!”

Eren rolled his eyes, grimacing at their sugary dispositions. Still, he couldn’t be too angry, for what they said was not inaccurate. Today, especially, the streets seemed to be bustling, and it didn’t take Eren long to figure out why.

“Look!” Armin exclaimed, pointing down the main street. Just a few meters away, a group of people on horseback was slowly approaching the main gate.

“Here they come!” shouted someone from the throng of people. Eren could feel his heart beating in his ears. “The Survey Corps’ main force is here!!”

Sure enough, each of the people on horseback donned a green cloak with the Survey Corps emblem--the wings of freedom--on his or her back. At their front was Erwin Smith, the thirteenth Commander of the Survey Corps.

“Commander Erwin!” someone cried as he slowly moved past them. “Please kick some Titan ass for us!!” Erwin’s face did not change from its determined and concentrated expression.

“Hey, look!” Eren gasped, pointing to one man just behind Erwin. “That’s humanity’s most powerful soldier! Captain Levi! As strong by himself as an entire brigade!!”

Eren, Mikasa, and Armin gaped up at the man, who wore a sour expression on his face. He was riding quite close to the trio, and for a split second, he glanced down at them. But just as quickly, he looked away, muttering something under his breath.

Whatever it was, it caught the attention of the person riding alongside him, and it made said ponytailed soldier snickered.

Down the line, Yasmin, Milena, Erin, and Rosaleen watched in awe as the elite soldiers of the Corps passed them.

“They’re all so tough-looking,” Rosaleen breathed, obviously impressed.

“I wonder how many battles these people have survived,” Milena added.

I wonder how many will come back,” Erin said.

The soldiers were riding at a relatively slow pace, and so Yasmin could get a good look at each of them. There were all sorts of people, some of them more intimidating than others.

“It does make me wonder…” Yasmin confessed, “…what kind of lives have they lived?”

No one had a reply for her, so she simply continued to watch the soldiers as they passed.

Yasmin had not taken any particular interest in any of them besides Commander Erwin and Captain Levi until two particular soldiers rode past. They were a few lines behind the front, and though they didn’t look like anything special, it was the way that they interacted with each other that made Yasmin look twice.

They…remind me of Marco and myself… she realized as she watched them. A young man with a shortly buzzed goatee was on the outside; he seemed to be joking about something, judging by the grin on his face. The young woman next to him looked like a combination of disgruntled and amused, and at one point, she reached out and punched her friend in the arm. Then, as if sensing Yasmin’s gaze, the woman turned and met the eyes of the teen. Her expression was impossible to read.

 

………

 

“Huuh!? You’re entering the Survey Corps?!” Eren gasped, pausing his work in surprise. He and the other new graduates had been ordered to clean equipment up on the wall, and so far nothing interesting had happened until just then. “Connie…you’re number eight, aren’t you?! You said you’d choose the Police…”

“That’d be nice, no doubt about it…but, well…” Connie avoided looking Eren in the eye, and before Eren could protest, Thomas approached them with a laugh.

“Your little speech from yesterday did the trick,” he told Eren, who gasped again.

“N-no!! I, uh…it’s him… That’s right! Jean,” Connie stammered, going red in the face. “I didn’t want to find myself on the same squad as that guy!”

“That doesn’t explain how you found yourself in the Survey Corps…” Thomas teased.

“Shu-shut it!! That was my decision!!”

“Nothing to be embarrassed about. Sometimes you know what must be done, but you can’t find the courage. It happens.” Thomas chuckled, and his face, too, became flushed. “And you’re not the only one…”

“Excuse me, everyone…”

Interrupting the trio’s powwow, Sasha Braus came walking up with a reddened face. Just as Eren started to ask why, she slowly opened her jacket on one side, revealing a respectable portion of raw meat.

“I was able to steal some meat from the officers’ provisions,” she murmured, her face flushing even redder with excitement.

“Sasha…are you trying to get yourself hauled into solitary confinement?” Eren asked.

“You're really stupid, you know that…?” Thomas added.

“So dumb it’s scary…” Connie’s eyes were wide.

“We can all share it later…” she told them. At this point, Mina Carolina and another couple of their friends had joined the circle, wondering what all the fuss was about. “Slice it up, eat it with some bread…” Sasha let out a creepy giggle, practically foaming at the mouth.

“Go put it back,” Connie scolded her.

“He’s right,” Mina said. “With all the land we lost, meat has become pretty valuable.”

“…We’ll be fine,” Sasha declared, kneeling down to a supply box and slipping the meat inside. “We’ll be able to have plenty more cows and sheep when we reconquer the land.”

“Huh?” Eren gasped. Was she, too, like Connie...?

“Makes sense,” Thomas agreed. “Anticipated celebration for the recovery of Wall Maria, eh? Once we’re done eating, all that’s left is to steal back our land for what’s to come!”

“Thomas…”

“…I’ll have some of that meat, too!”

“I-I’ll have some as well! You keep it…!!”

Eren’s friends’ voices rang out one by one, leaving the fifteen year old standing in shock.

“Don’t just stand there, Eren,” Samuel said, patting him on the shoulder. “Keep working, or we’re gonna get busted!”

“Still got some time to go before noon!” Mina added.

Eren watched in stunned silence as his friends walked away, back to their assigned posts. As a gentle breeze passed by, he lifted his eyes to the morning sky.

“Dammit. How come you get looked down upon just for mentioning you’d like to get out?” He remembered those words like he had only just said them, and yet… Five years have passed…since then, he realized. At last. After losing one third of its territory and half its population, the human race sets out to recover its dignity. …We’ll win this. For the first time in years, Eren felt genuinely hopeful and happy. He couldn’t help but smile as he looked out over the Trost district, the breeze tousling his hair. Now it’s time. Humanity will strike back.

The explosion came from behind Eren and shook the ground and wall so hard that he nearly fell on his face. It felt as though a giant cannon had been dropped just behind his back, or perhaps a bolt of lightning had struck the earth just outside of the wall. But the sound he had heard was a familiar one, and when Eren turned around, there was a cloud of steam rising up from the ground. Seconds later, the skinless, distorted face of the Colossal Titan was peering down at Eren.

Fuck.

 

 

Chapter Text

“Tell us the story again!” Through her ceaseless giggles, Rosaleen Johnson managed to shout the command to Alastar Johnson, her grandfather. He chuckled, picking the child up and placing her on his lap.

“How can I resist a good audience?” he told her, pressing a kiss onto her head.

“I don’t want to hear this story again,” Erin muttered from her spot on the floor. She roughly ran a hand through her doll’s mussed hair, getting her fingers tangled in the fibers. “Can’t we hear something new?”

“Both!” Rosaleen insisted, tugging on Alastar’s jacket.

“Sure, why not?” Alastar nodded, more to himself than the twins, and began to speak. As he told his tale about his mission to the king’s castle--a story the twins had heard countless times--Rosaleen leaned her head on her grandfather’s chest. Gently, she ran her fingers over the rose emblem on the patch on his jacket.

“Grandpa, do you think they’ll let me into the military someday?” Rosaleen asked.

“I don’t see why not,” Alastar replied, but his voice seemed quiet.

“…You don’t sound so sure.”

“It’s because no one wants to join,” Erin told her, looking up at her sister. “Not everyone is lucky and gets to come home like Grandpa. It’s too scary for just anyone to join.”

“Is she telling the truth?” Rosaleen turned her face up to her grandfather’s.

“Rosaleen…someday you’ll understand. And, Erin, you may be right, but there’s so much more to it than that. But…you’re just children. Please, don’t worry about what us adults are up to until you both are adults, too.”

 

Erin and Rosaleen were with Yasmin and Milena, as per usual, when the Colossal Titan appeared again. They had just finished their duties and were starting to head down the wall when the explosion occurred. The four stopped in their tracks, perched on the wall.

“That’s…!” Milena gasped.

“It’s the Colossal Titan!” Rosaleen shrieked, not bothering to hide her panic.

“We need to get out of here!” Yasmin shouted to them.

“Don’t need to tell me twice!” Erin replied, and she followed Yasmin down the wall and toward the safety of Wall Rose. Off in the distance, behind them, the sound of the gate being kicked down tore through the air; the girls stuck close to the curve of the wall to avoid the shower of boulders and lumber that blasted the town. Erin choked back a sob, watching a rock smash right into a nearby house. Though they were out of the range of the immediate dangers, lingering too long would undoubtedly result in their deaths.

And so the four girls zipped off toward Wall Rose, leaving the sight of the Colossal Titan and destroyed gate behind them.

Don’t look back at it, she told herself. Don’t you dare look back at that thing.

Gritting her teeth, Erin raced ahead on her three-dimensional maneuver gear, keeping her eyes locked on Yasmin’s back. She had never wanted this to happen. Her intention was to join the military to keep Rosaleen happy and get a decent paying job for a while.

And then I was going to retire and…shit…

“It looks like people are trying to fight it!” Rosaleen shouted from behind. “Shouldn’t we try to help them!?”

No longer able to resist the temptation, Erin turned and looked over her shoulder. Her gaze landed on the Colossal Titan behind them; she could see its large skinless head towering over the wall. Squinting, she could also see a small figure zooming around on their 3D gear.

“Dammit,” she hissed under her breath. Is that one of my friends up there? Reiner? Annie? Bertholdt? …No, please don’t let them be in danger.

Suddenly, a blast of steam came from the giant Titan, surrounding what they could see of its body. The smoke soon cleared, and where the Titan had been standing, there was nothing left.

“It’s gone!?” Rosaleen gasped.

“Don’t stop!” Milena yelled, grabbing Rosaleen’s arm. “The gate is down! We need to get out of here!”

Erin lagged for a moment, waiting for Rosaleen. After all, if Rosaleen was going to stop and give up now, there was no reason for Erin to keep up with this, either. No matter how much she cared for Milena and Yasmin, or Reiner and Bertholdt, Rosaleen was the most important person in her life. That was never going to change.

Unfortunately, Rosaleen soon came to her senses, and soon the four were racing through Trost. They were joined by several of their comrades, including Mikasa, Armin, Jean, and Marco.

“Thank goodness you’re all right,” Marco said upon seeing them. He hugged Yasmin tightly. “All hell has broken loose. We’re wanted by the Garrison commander for combat.”

“Let’s get going, then,” Yasmin said. Together, the group rushed toward the central plaza along with the rest of their newly graduated peers.

…The hell do they think we can do? Erin wondered. We’re just kids…but…we’re bodies, too, I guess…

Soon, the group had gathered in the plaza, crammed in next to each other. In front of them stood elite soldiers from the Garrison, as well as their captain, Kitts Woermann.

“Unfortunately, the Survey Corps, which counts our most seasoned combatants among its members, is all out on exploration duty,” he yelled, his voice cracking with nearly every other word. “We of the Garrison are the only ones currently repairing the walls and preparing for ambush on the incoming Titans. You trainees--you passed the qualification test. That makes you full-fledged soldiers!”

 

………

 

When Eren finally caught up with Armin, he was not necessarily surprised to see his childhood friend shaking in fear. Still, the guy was in pretty bad shape, and Eren could not ignore him.

“You okay, Armin?!” he asked, ignoring Mikasa’s calling behind him. Right now, Armin needed him more.

“I-I’m good!” Armin insisted as he fumbled with the gas containers for their gear. “I’ll settle down soon enough! St-still…we’re in huge trouble here! We still have an eight-meter high hole in the wall, and it takes time to fix that sort of thing! And that rock supposedly meant to block the entry…turns out we didn’t even get as far as digging it up!” Armin spoke more and more quickly as he continued on. “If we can't fill the hole, this town will have to be abandoned…and it’s only a matter of time before Wall Rose is also breached… Truth is, should they ever feel like it, the Titans could eradicate the human race at any time...”

“Armin!” Eren shouted, interrupting his friend by slapping his hand on the gas container. “Take it easy!!”

“…S-sorry. I’ll be fine.” Without another word, Armin shakily finished screwing the gas container’s clasp into place.

“Eren,” Mikasa said. “They’re calling for the trainees out front.”

“Okay,” Eren replied, nodding. Gently, he placed his hand on Armin’s shoulder, and together they stood and followed Mikasa to the plaza.

In front of them stood many of their peers, lined up and at attention. A terrified-looking man with a Garrison emblem on his jacket was standing before them; from him came no words of compassion, but only the orders of what actions they were to take next. Quietly, Eren and his friends slipped into the formation and listened in.

“The drill’s the same as during training,” Captain Woermann continued. “You split up--to each team its passage. Abide by the Garrison’s instructions. Your tasks will be to assist with supplying, transmitting information, and keeping the place clean of Titans. The Garrison will be assigned to the front guard. The new trainee squad will work for the middle guard under our command. And the rear guard will serve under the Garrison’s elite squads. It’s time for you to earn your keep. We shall protect Wall Rose with our lives, until every last citizen has escaped to safety.

“Furthermore, as you’re already aware, fleeing in front of the enemy will be met with capital punishment. You are sacrificing your lives. Make sure they count. Dismissed!”

“SIR!!”

As the group began to split up and head out, Eren felt a tug at his sleeve.

“If things get confused during battle, come find me,” Mikasa told him.

“Huh?! What are you talking about?!” Eren snapped. “We’re on different teams!!”

“If the situation gets confused, things won’t be going according to plan,” Mikasa insisted. “I will protect you!”

“C’mon, now… What are you--“

“Mikasa Ackermann!”

A third voice entered the conversation, but it was one neither Eren nor Mikasa recognized. When they turned to see who it was, the man standing there was someone they had never seen before. However, his jacket donned the Garrison roses, and his face was a worn, mature one, so they knew to take him seriously.

“I need you in the rear guard,” the man declared. “Especially you. Now go.”

“Given my skill level, I’d just slow you down!” Mikasa argued, turning to the man. Eren could see the desperation written all over her face.

“I’m not asking for your opinion, here,” the man told her. “In evacuations like these, we need the bulk of our elite soldiers close to the population.”

“B-but…!”

“Hey!” Eren shouted, grabbing Mikasa by the shoulder and whirling her around. The two knocked heads--something Eren had expected, but Mikasa had not. “Quit your nonsense, Mikasa! The human race is in danger of extinction!! You have no business trying to impose your own goddamn rules!”

Slowly, Mikasa’s face fell into a small frown.

“…Sorry,” she murmured, looking down at her feet. “I got carried away…”

Satisfied, Eren turned to leave, but again Mikasa grabbed him by the jacket.

“I do…have a request, however… Just one… Please…don’t die…”

…I won’t, Eren thought as he and Mikasa parted ways. I’m not gonna die here. I still don’t know what the outside world is like.

 

………

 

“Thank goodness you’re all right,” Erin sighed. Letting out a small laugh, Reiner patted her on the shoulder.

“Hey, don’t worry about us, okay?” he told her. “Bertholdt and I have each other to watch out for. Your sister is the one you need to keep an eye on.”

“You can say that again.” Erin sighed again, smiling. “Still, I’m glad you’re both okay. I saw someone trying to fight that thing.”

“I…heard it was Eren,” Bertholdt said quietly.

“Really? Well, that’s not surprising…”

The three teens looked toward the wall, growing quiet. Erin knew that soon, despite the Garrison’s best efforts, Trost would be overrun with Titans.

What does that mean for humanity, then? she wondered. No…I can’t imagine that. We’re damned. We’ve been damned from the start. Taking a deep breath, she ran a hand through her short red hair. All I can do now is enjoy my time with my friends and make sure Rosie doesn’t get herself into trouble.

“Sorry to keep you waiting.” Sasha Braus soon bounded into view, followed by Annie and a couple of other trainees.

“I…I should get going to my squad,” Bertholdt told the group.

“Good luck,” Reiner said, patting him on the shoulder.

“…Bertholdt…” Erin murmured, looking up at the brunet. He glanced at Erin, then smiled shyly.

“There’s nothing to worry about…remember?” he said. “I’ll take care of Marco and Rosaleen, too.”

“Thank you,” she replied, unable to hold back her smile. “I’m counting on you.”

“Yeah.”

Without another word, Bertholdt flew off toward where his squad was gathered. From a distance, Erin could see her sister’s bright red ponytail flowing in the wind.

Twin telepathy, Erin thought as Rosaleen turned to her and gave an exaggerated thumbs up in her direction. Returning the gesture, Erin then turned back to Reiner and the others.

“Reiner, we’re relying on you,” she told him. The blond paused for a moment, then closed his eyes, nodding.

“I won’t let you down,” he murmured. “Let’s get moving.”

As Erin followed Reiner, side by side with Sasha and Annie, she tried not to think about what might be waiting for them up ahead. She instead concentrated on keeping a rhythm with her 3D gear execution, and on keeping up with Reiner’s silhouette.

What the hell am I doing…? she thought. I am literally going off to my death. The hell is going on? This can’t be my life. This isn’t what I wanted for myself.

Above her, the sky began to grow cloudier. In the distance, she could see other soldiers zipping through the air, just like her.

This isn’t living, Erin realized. Why…didn’t I say no? Had I just told her ‘no’…

For a moment, Erin pictured her sister’s smiling face. She imagined her parents back home, worried sick. Her grandfather and grandmother…her crazy uncle…her childhood friends and schoolteachers…none of them were going through this. Why was she chosen for this?

Why am I here? Why…? No…the answer is really just…for Rosie. And for our parents. For Grandpa, too. Erin narrowed her round, green eyes, whipping her hair out of her face. And now it’s more than just that. I have these new friends, too, these people I have to protect… If I stop now, who will protect them? No one…can take my place… Reiner…Annie…Bertholdt… Yasmin, Milena, Marco--all of you…are worth protecting.

“Erin?”

Erin turned at the sound of Annie’s voice from beside her.

“Ah?”

“Why are you crying?”

 

………

 

“…Armin. This is a good opportunity, don’t you think?” Eren’s voice was lighter than usual, but also more hesitant. “We’re not part of the Survey Corps yet. If we start getting things done now, by the time we’re recruited, we’re gonna rise through the ranks pretty quickly, no doubt!!”

Armin turned to look his best friend in the eye. Eren’s lips were curled into a confident smile, but his voice had spoken a little differently.

“…Sure,” Armin said, unsure of how else to reply. “No doubt.”

“Listen up, you two…” From behind them, Mina came walking up, a fierce look in her dark brown eyes. “You aren’t exactly the only ones applying for the Survey Corps, y’see?”

“Eren got a few steps ahead of us, but we won’t let him beat us this time around!!” Thomas jumped in. “I declare the Titan-hunting contest open. Whoever takes down more wins!!”

“You said it, Thomas,” Eren replied. “Don’t go messing around with the scores!”

“Team thirty-four onward!!” came a cry from one of the commanding Garrison officers.

“Let’s move out!” Eren shouted, and Armin joined his friends in the chorus of triumphant cheers.

As they scaled the rooftops and zipped between the buildings, they grew closer and closer to the front gate of the Trost district. From afar, their situation was obvious.

“What the?!” Eren gasped. “They’re incorporating even us, the middle guard, into the front guard?!”

“So many Titans already…” Mina added, looking distressed.

“The heck’s going on?” Nac Tius, another member of their squad, grumbled. “Those older soldiers from the front guard are usually so quick to throw their weight around…”

“Almost no time has passed at all,” Thomas realized, “and they already got their asses handed to them.”

Before Armin could add anything to the conversation, something in the distance came bounding up on the roof of a nearby house, causing a distraction.

“An abnormal!?” Mina gasped as the blonde-haired Titan turned toward them. Just like some sort of disgusting grasshopper, the Titan sprung from the roof toward their group. Armin felt his body go rigid in fear.

“OUT OF THE WAY, EVERYONE!” Eren screamed. Armin felt his friend’s hand grip his arm and throw him to safety.

“…?!”

For a moment, Armin lost his sense of awareness, but when he came to, he found himself staring at an aberrant Titan; in its mouth was Thomas.

“T-Thomas!” Eren cried, but at that very moment, the Titan jerked its head back and swallowed the whimpering teen in a single gulp. It then paused, as if savoring the taste, and finally it turned its back to them, lumbering away. Armin could hardly believe he had really just witnessed such a horrible thing.

“Wait…” From below him, Armin watched Eren fly into action. Yet again, his rage had gotten the better of him. “COME BACK HERE, DAMN YOU!”

“Hold it!” Mylius shouted after him.

“Eren!” Mina cried. She took off after him, and the others followed closely behind. “Another one below!”

Eren was not quick enough to respond to Mina’s shout; as he soared over an alleyway, a Titan jumped up from below and snapped its jaw. It did not take Eren’s whole body, but it quickly snipped off his leg, sending the teen flying out of control. Armin watched in horror as Eren careened across the rooftops and finally skidded to a halt several meters away.

“This can’t be…” Mina murmured, coming to a stop beside the others. “Eren…”

“Things are bad here--we can’t afford to stay put!” Nac cried in panic.

Armin felt a sudden breeze as his friends dashed off to take on the Titan. He could not move, however, and so he just watched as the remaining members of his squad fell into the hands of the Titan, one by one. They were each reduced to squirming, helpless insects, then to nothing at all--just a hunk of flesh sitting inside of a Titan’s stomach.

Why…? Why am I standing here…watching my comrades…getting eaten like this?

Sensing a presence beside him, Armin glanced to his left to see yet another Titan closing in. It leaned toward him and picked him up by his jacket.

My body won’t move… Armin realized as he dangled over the Titan’s open mouth. …And I don’t know why...

 

Chapter Text

“Eren! There you are!”

Eren Jaeger glanced to the side to see his best friend Armin running toward him.

“What’s the matter, Armin?” he asked, propping himself up on the grass.

“This…” Armin held out an old, thick book. “My grandpa had it stashed away! A book with pictures of the outside world in it!”

“A book about the outside world!?” Eren frowned at his friend. “You know that stuff’s not allowed! The police could haul you off for this, you know?!”

“Now’s not the time to be worry about that!” Armin shouted, his blue eyes wide. “According to this book, most of the world is covered by a body of water known as the sea! And the sea is entirely made of salt water!!”

“…Salt water?!” Eren gasped. “N-nonsense! Salt is like, extremely valuable. Traders would have depleted the whole supply already!”

“No! It’s large enough to never run out!”

“Yeah, right…” But just from the look in Armin’s eyes, Eren knew that Armin was completely serious. In that moment, it occurred to him how little they really knew about the outside world. This book might be a chance to fix that.

“And it’s not just about mountains of salt!” Armin continued, flipping the book open. The text seemed very advanced an was no doubt meant for an adult's'reading level, but the pictures spoke for themselves. “There’s flaming water! Landscapes of ice! Entire fields of sand! The outside world’s got to be so much larger than the confines of these walls!”

“The outside world…” Eren murmured; Armin’s enthusiasm was infectious. Eren could hardly believe what he was hearing, but the pictures seemed convincing enough. There was indeed more to the world than what was in the walls.

“Eren!” Armin quieted his voice, but his tone was as longing as before. “If only we could explore… If only we could see it for ourselves someday…”

 

Armin’s screams rang through the air and echoed in Eren’s head. His body was throbbing with pain, but the shrieks of terror were even more powerful. He was still alive. The pain had not taken him. If he was still alive, then there was still something he could do--he could still fight.

Fueled by those precious memories and dreams from his childhood, Eren pushed himself off of the rooftop and onto his one working leg. His left leg was missing from his kneecap down, but with the right maneuvering and adjusted timing, he could still use his 3D gear.

Moments later, Eren was kneeling on top of the tongue of the Titan that had attempted to devour Armin. With his left hand gripping Armin’s tightly, Eren kept his right hand clenched on the handle of his blade; the thin sword was jammed between two of the Titan’s teeth, and with all the strength he could muster, he kept the monster’s mouth propped open.

Eren took one look into Armin’s eyes; without needing to exchange any words, he understood the fear his friend must have been feeling. But Eren knew he could not let it end here.

Letting out a cry from the strain and effort, Eren flung Armin out of the Titan’s throat and onto the nearby rooftop. Uninjured but a bit dazed, Armin turned around to look back at Eren, who was still propping the Titan’s mouth open with his sword.

“Eren!!” Armin screamed.

“I’m not dying here,” Eren growled, body shaking as he resisted the Titan’s jaws. “…Hell no…” Slowly, Eren reached out his left arm toward Armin. “Hey…Armin…you… You taught me about the outside world, so I…so I…” Eren’s eyes were wide with sincerity. “I want to see it for my…”

“Eren!” Armin shrieked, moving toward his best friend with his hand outstretched. “Quick!!”

With a loud snap, the Titan closed its jaws at last. Eren’s outstretched arm was the only thing to survive; it flopped out of the Titan’s teeth and onto the ground. Armin watched in horror as the Titan reared back its head, taking a large gulp.

All Armin could do was scream.

He could not bring himself to chase down the Titan as it lumbered away. He could not bring himself to go find help from other friends. He couldn’t even bring himself to lower his outstretched hand. All he could do was scream.

Armin stayed kneeling on the roof, screaming at the top of his lungs, until his throat gave out. He did not notice the clouds roll in, darkening the sky. He was unaware of the tears that rolled down his cheeks. Though his eyes were open wide, staring straight ahead, he saw nothing but the scene of Eren’s death play out over and over again.

How had it come this? The two of them were going to get out from inside the walls. They were going to explore the outside world together and be happy. But all of those dreams had come to a screeching halt. Armin became lost in these thoughts and paralyzed with the grief of knowing that they would never come to be.

The next thing Armin knew, someone standing in front of him, shaking his shoulders and shouting his name.

“Armin!! Wake the hell up..!!” Standing there was Connie Springer, looking a bit alarmed.

“Connie…” Armin murmured.

“Are you hurt at all?” Connie asked. “Hello!? What happened to your team!?”

“Team…?”

“Hey, get a grip, man!” Connie exclaimed. “Why are you here all alone?! You’re kind of sticky all over…! Just what the hell happened exactly?!”

As if triggered into a horrible relapse, Armin’s eyes widened, and he gripped his head, pulling his blonde hair. He let out a horrible scream, causing Connie to back off in surprise.

“Armin!!”

“Damn you…!” Armin screeched, crumpled over with his head in his hands. “You’re so useless…!! JUST DIE ALREADY!!”

“Hey, take it easy, Armin!” Connie shouted, kneeling down next to Armin. “What happen--“

“That’s enough, Connie! They’re all dead, except for him.”

From behind Armin came the declaration; Ymir was standing there, hands on her hips. She had come as part of Connie’s squad, and she had not had much to say until this moment.

“Shut your trap!” Connie yelled. “Armin hasn’t said anything about that yet!”

“Just take a look around, block-head!” Ymir shouted back. “We can’t afford to waste any more time with this one!”

“Why is Armin the only one unharmed?!”

“Beats me,” Ymir replied, calming down. She lifted her nose in the air, looking disgusted. “They must’ve mistaken him for a dead body. Really sucks for them to have run into that many Titans at once… But I can’t exactly tip my hat to Eren and his gang for saving this guy… He’s one of the least competent of us all…”

“You shit-faced bitch…” Connie’s words came out in a growl, then in an angry shout. “How about I make sure you can never open your mouth again!?”

But before Connie could make his move, a blur of brown, yellow, and white appeared in front of him.

“Stop it, you two!” Krista Lenz shouted, throwing out her arms to the sides, as if to block Connie from approaching Ymir. “Everybody here is on edge!! With so many of our friends dying so suddenly…it’s only natural…” She had tears in her round blue eyes, and her words were sincere and gentle.

“That’s my Krista!” Ymir cried suddenly, throwing her arm around Krista’s shoulders and pulling her close. “When this operation is over, let’s get married.”

“True enough…” Connie muttered, ignoring Ymir's cackles. “She’s bull-shitting even harder than usual… Anyway, we can’t leave things like this…” Kneeling back down to Armin’s level, Connie held out his hand. “Can you stand, Armin?”

“…Sorry for causing you so much trouble,” Armin said in reply, standing at last. “I’ll go join the rear guard.”

Without any further comment, Armin took off on his three-dimensional maneuver gear without looking back. As he flew through the now-quiet city, his thoughts began to overwhelm him again.

This is hell… No…the situation didn’t become hellish… It’s just that up until now, we were too blind to see. It’s always been hell…from the very beginning, Armin realized. The strong devour the weak. If the world was kind to me, and easy to understand…then…

As the wind blew his blonde hair out of his face, Armin recalled all of those moments in hell during his lifetime. The persistent bullies around town, and being called a heretic, amongst other things…but in those times, there were moments of light.

It’s just…that my friends--friends striving to number among the strong ones…friends who would help out a weakling like me. They were a standard that I couldn’t live up to… To them, I was someone who needed protection. I wished I could have been just like them…strong enough to make my own way into this world…

Interrupting his thoughts, Armin’s hook on his gear hit a tough wall and dropped the line, sending him flying into a building. He shielded himself with his arms just in time, and he flopped to the brick path, leaning against the wall.

And this is the result… Armin couldn’t hold back his tears anymore. …Eren is dead--because of me...

 

………

 

Most of the citizens living in Trost had managed to evacuate into the confines of Wall Rose almost immediately after the gate had been busted down. However, as time went on, and the distance between these people and the Titans grew shorter, more and more of the remaining citizens began to act selfishly.

Of course, there were those who had acted selfishly from the very beginning; a merchant group that had made their living from trade for years was now the main culprit in the hold-up at the gate.

“Don’t you have any idea what’s going on right now?!” someone from the panicked crowd shouted.

“Hell yeah, I know!” Dimo Reeves shouted, staring down the man. “That’s why I’m doing this!! Now if you wanna leave these walls, come give me a hand, damn you!”

Lodged in the gate leading into Wall Rose was a cart of goods from the Reeves Company’s lot. The men of the company had been spending quite a bit of time pushing and prodding, but the cart would not fit through the passage. As a result, hundreds of people were now trapped in Trost.

“Don’t be stupid! This cart won’t go through, no matter how hard you keep pushing!” someone else cried. The shouts of the crowd rallied even more in reply.

“People are supposed to go through first! What are you thinking?!”

“Soldier, what are you doing?!” A man with a Garrison-labelled jacket froze as the man in front of him whirled around. “Bring them under control!!”

“B-But…” the solder whimpered.

“Try it, drudge!” Reeves shouted, getting up in the soldier’s face. “I’m the head of the merchant group that keeps this town alive! Who d’you think pays for the meals you’re shitting? Do you have the money to feed all the soldiers in this town, huh? Do you!?” Turning back to his men, Reeves raised a hand in the air. “All right! Push!! Your pathetic lives aren’t worth half the cargo in there! You wouldn’t have enough of a lifetime to make up for its worth! Help me and I’ll show my gratitude!!”

The riot was soon interrupted, however, by the sound of the earth rumbling beneath them. Off on the horizon, a Titan was running right toward them--judging by its speed, it was definitely an abnormal. As soon as they realized what was happening, the entire crowd went into a panic, arguing about what to do with the cart.

Behind the abnormal Titan, however, were a group of Garrison soldiers chasing it down. One soldier pulled ahead on the others, blasting past them with a burst of speed. Hooks shot out from the soldier’s 3D gear, and the figure swooped in toward the Titan’s neck. Seconds later, the Titan had crashed into the ground, mere meters away from the edge of the crowd.

Looking at her damaged blades in disappointment, Mikasa stood tall on the dead Titan’s evaporating head. Her eyes then glanced up at the crowd, who were all staring in her direction.

“Huh…?” she gasped in surprise. “What…are you people still doing here? My comrades are dying out there…” She pointed toward the inner city with her blade. “…And since the civilians have yet to evacuate, they’re fighting the Titans and dying because of it…”

“Of course they are!” Reeves shouted. “Sacrificing your hides for the protection of the citizens and their goods is supposed to be your job!! Don’t get so full of yourself just because your 100 years of freeloading are finally serving a purpose!”

“…If you think people dying for the sake of others is a matter of course…” Mikasa hopped down from the Titan’s body and slowly began walking toward Reeves. “Surely you can understand... Sometimes…the loss of one precious life can help save many others.”

“Try it, then! I’m the head of the companies in this town, you know!?” Despite his loud voice and threatening words, Reeves had his back pushed against his cart. “Even your employer is a longtime acquaintance of mine! The fate of lowly grunts like you is a trifle for us to decide!”

“…? How does a dead body talk?” Mikasa murmured, her voice low. Her steely blue-grey eyes were locked on Reeves’.

“Boss…” one of Reeves’ lackeys whispered.

“Huh… Pull away the cart,” Reeves said at last, looking a bit defeated.

Slaves to the orders of their boss, the men of the Reeves company pulled on the cart, freeing up the entrance to Wall Rose. A great cry of relief and joy filled the air as the remaining citizens rushed to safety. Mikasa watched, keeping an eye on the crowd for fights or further outbursts.

“Thank you, miss!”

The voice came from behind Mikasa; when she turned around, a small girl and her mother were standing there.

“Everyone is saved, thanks to you,” the woman said, tears in her eyes. She looked beyond relieved. “We are grateful.”

A small smile appearing on her usually stern face, Mikasa put away her blades and gave the pair a salute. In response, the little girl gasped, her eyes lighting up in delight. Without any further acknowledgment, Mikasa turned and began to walk away. Her head was throbbing.

Soon, she had found her temporary squad leader, Ian Dietrich, waiting for her up on a nearby rooftop. He was looking down at the Titan she had slayed earlier, which was now no more than a heaping piles of steaming bones.

“Good job killing that thing, Ackermann,” Ian told her. “I expected no less…”

“Thank you, sir,” Mikasa replied. “However…in my haste to attack, I completely dulled my blades with that one blow. I’ll be more careful next time.” With a loud clang, the blades fell onto the roof as Mikasa released them from the sword handles.

Quietly, Mikasa looked out over the town; her head was still pounding. The image of the little girl and her mother flashed again in her mind, and she lifted her blade’s handle to her lips.

Why am I recalling this now of all times…? she wondered as she glanced at her bandaged wrist.

“Let’s move out, Mikasa,” Ian said, but Mikasa only barely heard him. Still, she followed him, her head swirling in memories.

Only the victors are allowed to live, she reminded herself as she closed in on another Titan. The world is just that cruel.

 

………

 

“Damn it! What do we do?!”

“We do nothing…” Jean sat on the rooftop with a hand to his head and a bewildered expression on his face. “They’ve rung the withdrawal signal at last…yet here we are, out of gas and unable to climb the wall…” His bitter smile widened. “Now we’re all gonna die, no doubt about it. All of us…because of those filthy cowards.”

Jean’s directed his gaze to headquarters, which was now swarming with Titans. Some of the smaller ones had even managed to climb up on top of some of the towers.

“They’ve lost the will to fight? That I can understand, but still…calling off the supplying mission, effectively hanging us out to dry so they could barricade themselves at HQ? That’s just wrong,” Jean muttered. “And of course, the Titans come swarming in, and we can’t even go replenish our stocks of gas…”

“We have no choice but to fight tooth and nails against the tide, and kill those Titans as they come!” Connie shouted, turning to Jean. “If we stand around here doing nothing, we’ll be in the same exact situation anyway! The Titans will congregate here, too!! If we keep scurrying about like mice trying to escape, we’ll only end up squandering what precious little gas we have left! And once we completely lose our mobility, it’s over!!”

Jean looked over at his comrade, his smile fading.

“You’re using your head for a change, Connie. But do you really think we can make a difference given our current man-power? Most of our superiors from the front guard have been slaughtered… We trainees are all that’s left, so who’s gonna take charge of this suicide mission, exactly?” Jean let out a sigh. “Oh well… Even if we do find a leader, there’s not much we can do about those Titans anyway… I’m betting the three and four meter classes have infested the supplies room already. And there’s no way we can properly operate in those conditions.”

“…I guess it’s no use?” Connie murmured. Jean sighed again in response.

“What shitty lives we’ve had. We might as well go for it, then…or so I should say…”

“Let’s do it!! Come on, everybody up!!” From across the rooftop Sasha’s ever-bright voice came. She was smiling optimistically, almost to the point of childishness. “Surely we can succeed, if we pool our resources together! It’s all right, I’ll take point. G-guys…”

But no one was willing to respond; she then faced Armin, who was curled up against the wall, away from everyone else.

“Armin,” Sasha said, leaning down to see his face. “Help me convince everyone…” One look at Armin’s face was all that Sasha needed to know that asking for help from him was no use.

“What now, Reiner?” Annie asked her blond friend. He gritted his teeth.

“Not yet…let them gather first,” he replied. Bertholdt, Erin, and Rosaleen stood in silence.

“We’re done for, no matter how you slice it,” Marco told them. His voice sounded cold and distant--not like his usual self. “We’re gonna remain trapped in town and get picked off like animals. Not that I wasn’t prepared to die…but this…just what are we dying for, exactly…?”

No one dared to answer Marco’s question; it was then that a familiar figure dropped down on the roof.

“Mikasa!?”

“Aren’t you supposed to be with the rear guard…?!”

“Annie!” Mikasa shouted, ignoring Sasha and Connie’s shouts. “I more or less worked out what was going on somehow, and while we’re at it…sorry for letting my personal matters interfere, but…have you seen Eren’s team at all…?”

“Personally, I didn’t,” Annie replied. “But the teams that made it up the wall…”

“Actually, Mikasa,” Reiner cut in, “I saw Armin over there. He was on Eren’s team.”

Mikasa gasped, looking over toward the blonde. He was still sitting motionless against the wall.

“Armin!” she shouted, running toward him. His face was pointed downward; his blonde hair covered most of his face, and so she could only see his mouth. “Armin…are you injured? Are you all right?” Armin gave a small nod, and Mikasa breathed a sigh of relief. Standing upright, she looked around at her peers. “Where’s Eren?”

At this question, Armin suddenly lifted his face, revealing reddened eyes and tear-stained cheeks. He began to cry again, and the expression on his face gave Mikasa the answer she had been looking for but had dreaded hearing.

“In the trainees squad number thirty-four,” Armin began, his voice shaking, “our team…Thomas Wagner, Nac Tias, Mylius Zermusky, Mina Carolina, Eren Jaeger… These five…bravely fell in the line of duty…”

Mikasa could hear murmurs of surprise from behind her, but it all sounded like another language. Had she really heard Armin’s words correctly?

“I’m sorry, Mikasa,” Armin sobbed, lowering his head in shame. “Eren…sacrificed himself for me… I was…unable… I couldn’t do a thing… Forgive me…”

 

Chapter Text

Everything had happened so fast.

Mere hours ago, Mikasa had been sitting at home with her mother and father, and life was as per usual. In the blink of an eye, she had gone from innocent conversation to life or death, by a series of circumstances so impossible that she wasn’t even sure if it had all really happened.

But before her very eyes was one of her kidnappers--the only one still alive--gripping the neck of nine-year-old Eren Jaeger and screaming death threats. Though Eren had come in like lightning--lightning that had struck down two grown men twice his size in a matter of minutes, he was now on the brink of death himself. Mikasa could only stare, gasping for breath.

“F…” Despite being in a chokehold, Eren was attempting to speak. “Fight!!” He looked at Mikasa before closing his eyes in pain yet again. “Fight, I said! If you don’t win…you die… You win! You live!!”

“The hell are you up to, you brat!?” the kidnapper screamed in Eren’s contorted face.

“If you don’t fight…you can’t win…!” Eren gasped.

Mikasa’s eyes widened, and she reached for the blood-stained knife on the floor behind her. But even with it gripped in her shaking hands, she did not have the nerve to follow Eren’s orders.

“…I can’t…do such a thing…” she whimpered, tears streaming down her cheeks.

But her eyes soon focused on Eren’s face again, and she then could see how close Eren was to dying. His face was tinted blue; he did not have much time left.

As Mikasa stood there watching, she realized it--she realized that she had seen this cycle countless times before in her short lifetime. Even though she had tried to avoid it, she could never truly escape it.

That’s right, she reminded herself, this world is very, very cruel.

Upon coming to that realization, Mikasa felt her body stiffen, then relax, as if her muscles were naturally settling into place to carry out the deed before her.

“Fight…” she whispered. She was now in total control of herself, more than she ever had been in her life. “Fight! FIGHT!”

As she flew toward the kidnapper’s back with the knife in front of her, she felt as though there was nothing she couldn't accomplish.

 

“Armin.”

Armin looked up at the sound of Mikasa saying his name. He expected the worst and prepared himself for such, but when he looked into her eyes, he did not see Mikasa. Instead, he saw a hollow person with dark, lifeless eyes.

“Calm down,” Mikasa told him. “This is neither the time nor the place to be emotional. Come on, stand.” She took Armin’s hand and pulled him to his feet. He couldn’t help but stare. There was no way that the Mikasa that he knew would ever really feel that way--especially about Eren Jaeger. Especially about Eren.

“Marco,” Mikasa said, approaching their freckle-faced friend. “If we eliminate the Titan swarming the HQ, everyone can replenish their gas reserves and climb back up the wall. Is that correct?”

“Uh, yeah, but…” Marco seemed hesitant. “But even with you around, there are so many of them…”

“We can do this.”

Turning to face the group, Mikasa unsheathed one of her blades and held it high above her head. She had grabbed everyone’s attention by this point; not a single one of them who was up on that rooftop wasn’t listening.

“I am strong…” she told them. “Extraordinarily so… Much more than all of you! …Therefore, I am perfectly capable of kicking those Titans’ asses--even on my own, if I have to.”

Armin could see Mikasa’s face clearly; despite her strong words, her eyes were still hollow.

“Are you all that incompetent? You gutless, spineless cowards…” she continued. “For shame… Fine. Then you just stay there and watch in helpless envy. Go on, do it.”

“Hey, Mikasa?!” one of their peers cried. “What are you talking about?!”

“Are you planning to take on that many Titans all by yourself?” another asked. “But that’s just impossible…”

“…If it is, then I’ll die,” Mikasa replied. “It’s just that simple. But if I win, I get to live… If you don’t fight, you can’t win.”

Before anyone could stop her, Mikasa flew forward on her gear and shot across the rooftops, away from the group. A few called after her, but most just watched in stunned silence.

“…If there’s one thing to deplore here, it’s your oratory skills,” Armin heard Jean mutter. The sullen teen got to his feet. “Those harsh words were meant to shock us into action…” He looked up at the cloudy sky, gritting his teeth. “Eren…this is all your fault.”

Suddenly, Jean was pulling out his blades and flying forward after Mikasa.

“Hey!” he shouted at the others over his shoulder. “I don’t believe leaving a comrade to fight all on her own was ever part of our formation?! C’mon, guys! Or we really are a bunch of spineless cowards!!”

As he dashed off, Armin heard Reiner let out a genuine laugh.

“Didn’t see that one coming…” he said. Soon, he, Annie, Bertholdt, and Marco were taking off after Jean and Mikasa.

“C-Come on, you cowards!” Sasha called out, running ahead of the group. “Weaklings! IDIOTS!”

“Freaks…” another former trainee muttered as Sasha flew away. “But what the hell…let’s go for it!!”

 

………

 

It was like she could fly.

Mikasa had never moved so fast in her life. It was freeing. She felt as if she really could do anything. For a while, she could forget that Armin had said anything. She could easily forget that she had yet again lost a place to return home to.

But soon, Mikasa found herself falling out of the sky. She crashed into a rooftop and rolled across the tiles, landing in an alleyway on her back. The impact from her landing wasn't enough to knock her out, but it was enough to knock the breath out of her for a moment, and the shock reeled her back into reality.

Again… It’s happening again… Sighing, she held her blade out of in front of her. Her eyes shifted focus from the shining metal to the grey sky. I lost my family again.

Rolling off of the tarp that she had landed on, Mikasa quietly kneeled on the ground, staring at the brick path in front of her.

Reopening the same old wound… Do I really have to start everything anew yet again…?

Mikasa felt the earth shiver below her; coming toward her from the left, she could see a fifteen meter class Titan. But she made no movement to escape. Her only reaction was to keep staring at the ground.

This world…is cruel. For a moment, she recalled the day she met Eren Jaeger for the first time. She remembered how he had wrapped his scarf around her head. She could still remember all of it quite clearly. Cruel…and beautiful.

The footsteps grew even louder, and Mikasa lifted her head to see another fifteen meter class Titan approaching from the right. Still, she smiled up at the cloudy sky.

I’ve had a good life…

But when she looked down at her hands, Mikasa caught sight of the small stump of a blade in her right hand.

“Fight! FIGHT!!”

Without any further hesitation, Mikasa got to her feet, turning toward the Titan on her left. She gripped her blade tightly, tears filling her eyes.

I’m sorry, Eren, she thought, pursing her lips. I won’t give up…never again. If I end up dead…I won’t able to remember you anymore, so… A tear escaped her eye and rolled down her cheek as she took her blade in both hands. No matter what it takes…I’ll fight! No matter what, I’ll live on!

Once again gaining full control of her body, Mikasa let out a fierce cry, her blood boiling with the fever of life yet again. The first Titan before her slowly began to reach down toward her, and she readied herself to fight.

But she didn’t have to do a single thing.

From behind her, the other Titan that had been headed her away moments ago had already moved in. It slammed its fist into the first Titan’s face, knocking it several meters away. The injured titan fell to the ground with a loud thud; its impact with the ground caused a small tremor, and Mikasa fell to her knees, covering her head for a moment.

What…what is this…?

When she looked up again, the Titan who had thrown a punch was still standing, hand smoking from the damage taken during impact. It let out a loud roar, one that Mikasa had never heard come from a Titan before. She felt a chill go down her spine.

A Titan…killing another Titan?!

Mikasa watched in stunned silence as the roaring Titan ripped off the arm of the other, then struck its foot into the other’s neck. After giving the finishing blow, the rogue Titan roared again, and Mikasa felt the chill return. But it was not an unpleasant feeling. In fact, by watching it, she felt empowered. For some reason, the sound felt not like a cry from a Titan, but from the entirety of humanity.

The next thing she knew, someone was grabbing her from behind, and she was being thrown on top of a roof. Armin landed next to her with a grunt.

“Mikasa!” he screamed. “You fell because you ran out of gas, didn’t you!?”

“…I’ll be fine,” Mikasa murmured, feeling like she had just snapped out of a trance.

“Guys!” Connie Springer soon landed beside them, a panicked look on his boyish face. “For now, let’s get outta here!” He shifted his gaze outward toward the city, and he gasped loudly. “This is bad! Fifteen meter class--two of them!”

Mikasa looked to where Connie’s face was turned; she gritted her teeth as she saw the rogue Titan in action again.

“No…that Titan…” she said, trying to form her words carefully.

But before she could say much more, the rogue Titan roared loudly. As Connie and Armin helped her to her feet, Mikasa kept her eyes on the battle. The other Titan roared back, but the reaction of the rogue Titan was even more startling: it raised its fists, as if preparing to execute hand-to-hand combat. It was the most human thing she had ever seen a Titan do.

The other Titan roared again and charged toward the rogue Titan, but the latter was ready. With one fell swoop, it knocked its left fist into the regular Titan’s head; the force of the blow popped the head right off of its neck and through the air. It soared over the three teens’ heads and into a nearby bell tower. The trio turned just in time to see the rogue Titan stamp its foot into the other’s neck; all the while, it seemed to be making a conscious effort to regenerate its hand.

 

………

 

This is not what I signed up for.

Gripping her blades in shaking hands, Rosaleen watched in horror as three more of her comrades were eaten alive. Beside her, she heard Erin sigh quietly.

I know you’re the calmer one, but don’t act like this doesn’t bother you, too, dammit! she wanted to shout at her sister, but she felt too short of breath as it was.

They had been standing up on this roof for a while--ever since Mikasa, Armin, and Connie had gone off on their own. Were those three even still alive? Rosaleen knew that Mikasa was strong, but would the other two weigh her down? There was always that possibility of something going horribly wrong.

Pull it together, she told herself, taking a deep breath through her nose.

“NOW!!” Jean’s shout came out of nowhere, but it was loud and clear. “Head straight to the HQ now while the Titans are occupied! It’s a small window of opportunity, but let’s take it!!”

“It’s over as soon as you run out of gas anyway!” Marco added as Jean shot forward toward headquarters. “Everybody charge in!”

Yasmin, you’d be so proud right now, Rosaleen thought with a smile. She turned to her twin, grinning.

“Let’s go, Erin,” she said. Erin nodded. This was as good of a chance to escape as any, and there was no reason to protest.

Keeping her eyes on Jean and Marco, Rosaleen rocketed off into the air, Erin at her side. Below her, she could see several more Titans reaching and grabbing for her, but she kept a steady pace to her movements. Making sure to keep her lines out of the Titans’ grasps, she followed after the boys with a pounding heart.

Before she knew it, Rosaleen was busting in through the glass windows of HQ and tumbling onto the tile floor.

“…Ah…” she breathed, shaking out her hands as she sheathed her blades. Ignoring the stinging of the cuts on her face, she looked around for Erin. “…You all right?”

“Yeah,” Erin grunted, pushing herself up from her knees.

Around them, many more of their comrades came crashing in. Reiner, Bertholdt, Annie, and Sasha were amongst them. Jean and Marco were already there, with the former already back to holding his head in his hands.

“I used the deaths of our comrades,” he said, covered in sweat. “How many people…died on my signal?”

Jean paused, then suddenly looked down at one of the many overturned desks lined up in the room. Rosaleen watched as he knelt down, a bewildered expression on his face.

“Y-you… You’re from the supplying team, aren’t you?”

“Y-yeah,” came a quiet reply from under the desk.

In one swift movement, Jean reached down and pulled the poor soldier up by his collar, then punched him in the face, knocking him right back down onto the ground. Just as quickly, Marco rushed over, grabbing Jean from behind and holding him back.

“Stop it, Jean!” he cried.

“It’s their damn fault!!” Jean screamed, hysterical. “They fucking hung us out to dry!! So many people died pointlessly by your faults, you assholes!!”

“Some Titans made it into the supply room!” a girl screamed, rushing to the defense of the soldier Jean had beaten down. “We couldn’t do anything!!”

“You should have worked out something--it’s part of your job!!”

Interrupting Jean’s screaming match, a sudden shout from Reiner caught the group’s attention.

“TAKE COVER!” he yelled.

Milliseconds later, the far end of the room burst open; a Titan’s head had done the job.

Gripping her sister’s hand, Rosaleen pulled Erin toward the opposite end of the room, toward the exit. They became enveloped in the rush, but the two lingered just long enough to see two Titans appear in the opening, staring at them. Moments later, though, they seemed to vanish into thin air; the rogue Titan was what replaced them.

As the rogue Titan let out a fierce roar, the rush stop in its tracks. Rosaleen then saw three more soldiers come busting in through the windows. Mikasa, Armin, and Connie stumbled to their feet.

“That was close…” Connie was saying, his voice shaky but loud as ever. He was knocking on his gas canister with his knuckles. “It’s empty now. We made it. It was a close call, but here we are…”

“Y-you…you’re alive!” Jean gasped, facing Mikasa.

“We did it, Armin!” Connie cried, slapping the blonde on the back. “Your strategy worked out just fine!!” Connie then stood upright, pointing toward the rogue Titan. “Hey, guys!! That Titan is a weird specimen that enjoys killing its own kind! And it’s shown no interest in us, either! Mikasa and I were dispatching the Titans around it, and we were able to lead it to the swarm here! If we make good use of it, we can escape this place without any problems! That big, beautiful S.O.B. is our ticket outta here!”

“Relying on a Titan for help…?” Jean said as murmurs filled the room. “That wouldn’t sound out of place inside a dream--“

“We aren’t dreaming,” Mikasa interrupted, her voice stern. “I don’t care if it’s an abnormal or whatever. We’ll have this Titan carry on its rampage here a little while longer. Realistically speaking, this plan is by far the best one we have if we wish to survive.”

 

………

 

Despite knowing that the rumblings from outside were the work of their new ally, the rogue Titan, the graduates of the 104th still felt uneasy as they gathered in room above the supply area.

“I-It’s gonna be okay,” Connie told Sasha, who was looking rather disgruntled. “That Titan is stronger than its normal peers. As long as he's wreaking havoc out there, this building should be safe.”

“Just how much do you know about that Titan?” Reiner asked.

“Who cares?” Connie replied. “It saved us.”

“…True enough…” Reiner’s face relaxed into a small smile. “…Saving us. That’s the first step…”

“There!” The room’s side door burst open with Jean’s shout. He led a group of five soldiers--all of them carrying long wooden boxes. “We’ve found the goods the Military Police kept stashed. There’s dust just about everywhere, though…”

Out from the box and into the graduates’ hands came the old-fashioned rifles. There were plenty to go around, just as Armin had hoped.

“Are guns even really that useful…?” Jean asked quietly as he looked over his gun. “Do they make any difference against the Titans in the first place…?”

“…Better with them than without, I think,” Armin finally answered, glancing up from the map of the supply room to look at Jean. “The supply room still has seven three and four meter classes occupying it. With the firepower at our disposal, we might even be able to blindside them all at once. First…we use the lift to lower several people down the central rooftop. If those seven Titans are anything ‘normal,’ that should draw them in. They do react strongly to human concentrations, after all. Next, the people in the lift will fire at their heads simultaneously…to rob them of eyesight. Then…”

Armin paused, looking up at his friends. He did not want to be the one to tell them these things, but somehow, he had ended up with the idea for this recovery plan, and the burden became his to bear.

“…The following moments will be decisive,” he admitted. “Seven people will have to remain up on the rafters to wait in ambush. They’ll jump in and cut into the Titans’ vitals during the gunfire…which means…this strategy relies on us giving it our all in this one offensive. Everybody’s lives will be hanging in the balance. This plan should allow us to use seven people to put down one Titan each simultaneously. The ones who’ll have to do it are those of us with the highest success rate when it comes to mobility.”

Armin paused for a moment, a genuinely apologetic frown appearing on his face. He lowered his gaze from his friends back to the map, as if to hide his downcast expression.

“I apologize for dumping the responsibility of everyone’s survival on your shoulders…” he murmured. “I’m…sorry…”

“No problem.” Reiner smiled down at Armin, as gentle as ever.

“Whoever does it, the risk is the same in the event that we fail: everyone dies,” Annie added; her usually angry face softened while speaking to Armin.

“But…is my plan really our best option? I mean…after all, it’s just me!”

“It’ll have to do,” Marco told him. “We’re running out of time. There’s no more time to come up with another plan. We’ll give this one our best shot. That’s all we can do now!”

“It’s going to be fine,” Mikasa reassured Armin quietly. “Have some confidence in yourself, Armin. If anyone can work out a solution to our problems, it’s you. That ability of yours has saved Eren and me in the past.”

Startled, Armin cocked his head, staring Mikasa down.

“It has…? When?”

But before Armin could get his answer, a loud clank echoed through the room.

“The lift is ready!!” one of their peers shouted. “So are the guns! Loaded and ready!”

“You’re not aware of it, but…” Mikasa stood, looking down at Armin, who was still looking unconvinced. “I’ll tell you later.”

“Okay…” Unsatisfied, but knowing he could do nothing about it, Armin grabbed his gun and followed his friends to the lift. The chosen seven who would wait in hiding--Mikasa, Reiner, Bertholdt, Annie, Sasha, Connie, and Jean--went a separate route.

“But...killing them without the gear?” Connie asked Reiner.

“Of course!” Reiner exclaimed. “They’re three to four meter classes. We’ll aim for their weak spots--no problems.”

“Yeah…forget about the size,” Jean added. “Just remember where to aim from the head to the neck…”

“Height--one meter, width--ten centimeters!” Sasha recited. It was the one thing that had stuck with all of them from their training days.

“And if that doesn’t work, you can shove this up their asses, too!” Reiner held up one of his blades with a serious face. “That’s the second of the only two weaknesses they’ve got.”

“No way!” Connie gasped. “I never knew that was an option!”

“Never heard of it before, either,” Sasha murmured to herself.

“Reiner…” Jean muttered. “Those might be your last words, you know.”

 

Chapter Text

“It’s over…” Armin whispered to himself as he watched Eren and Mikasa sprint away. They weren’t the only ones. Everyone around him was running like mad. He knew he should probably be doing the same, too. “This city…is going to be overrun by the Titans…!”

The thought hit Armin hard and almost sent him into full panic mode--Eren and Mikasa were running toward the danger. Eren and Mikasa…two of the people in this world he cared the most about. He wanted to be able to help them, but they were already long gone, and Armin knew there was simply no way he would be able to catch up with them.

“What do I…?” He had to think fast. There wasn’t much time left. If they didn’t hurry, they wouldn’t make it to the evacuation boats in time. Armin knew that his grandfather, though kind he was, could not run fast enough to get to them, either.

“Armin!? What’re you doin’ here?!”

Armin turned at the familiar voice; Hannes was standing there, looked panicked. His normally calm face was flushed and sweaty, but despite his appearance, his presence gave Armin a sense of direction and calmed him down.

“Hannes!” Armin shouted, pointing in the direction that Eren and Mikasa ran off. “Please, you have to go after Eren and Mikasa!”

“Huh? Whaddya mean?!”

“They ran back toward Eren’s house!” Armin explained. “But if they stay there too long, they won’t make it in time! Please!”

“Don’t worry, Armin.” Hannes gently placed a hand on Armin’s head. “Leave it to me--I’ll get them to the boats in no time!”

“Th-thank you!” Armin gasped, feeling a wave of relief.

“Now, get yourself back home and out of this city! Get goin’!”

“Yes, sir!”

 

“Ready…”

Marco could feel sweat trickling down the back of his neck, and he had goosebumps all over his arms and legs, but he did not let his rifle tip waver from its target.

Though Armin had been the ultimate mastermind behind this plan, somehow or another, Marco had found himself in charge of the rifle unit. It had been at Armin’s request, and with their friendship being as strong as it was, there was no way Marco could refuse.

Yas’d never let me live it down, he thought when accepting the order.

And so here he was, with his hazel eyes wide, staring into a Titan’s face. He had no means of defense save for the old rifle in his hands. His only hope was that everyone else would do their part and not duck out of their responsibilities.

Quietly, Marco released the catch on his rifle; he heard similar clicking sounds all around him. Slowly he moved his index finger to the trigger.

“Fire!” he screamed, pulling as hard as he could.

The next few seconds were deafening. All around were the sounds of gunshots, echoing against the cold brick walls of the supply room. There was no way to see if the seven waiting in the wings were at work through all of the smoke, and there was definitely no way to hear them.

The smoke soon cleared, and, looking out from over the side of the lift, Marco could see Mikasa’s Titan falling to the ground. She had, of course, cut it cleanly. Beside her were Connie and Sasha, though, and they were not so lucky.

“Sasha and Connie are in trouble!” Marco shouted down to the others. “Hurry! Back them up!!”

“I…um…I know I…jumped you from behind and all…” he could hear Sasha saying. She was looking right up at the Titan whose neck she had tried to slice. “Th-that was dreadfully impolite of me… I’m…really…”

Marco watched with his hands gripping the side of the lift in anticipation as Sasha dodged just in time; the Titan had attempted to dive for her.

“I’M REALLY SORRY!” Sasha shrieked, sliding across the floor just as the Titan smashed into the floor.

Luckily, before the Titan could get up again, Mikasa came flying in. Even without her gear, she was as agile as ever, and in the blink of an eye she had cut out the Titan’s nape. Annie had done the same for Connie’s Titan, though in a less dramatic fashion.

“MIKASAAAAA!” Sasha crawled on her hands and knees over to Mikasa, gripping her shirt.

“Are you hurt?” Mikasa asked.

“No, all thanks to you!!”

“Then hurry and get up!”

“I really owe you one,” Connie said to Annie, looking apologetic.

“Don’t mention it,” Annie told him.

“Whoa there! That was a close call, Annie…” Reiner told his tiny blonde friend. “I’m really glad to see you’re unharmed…”

“They’re down for the count!” Jean shouted up to the lift team. Marco heard a quiet laugh come from Armin, who was standing next to him. “Now to go restock on supplies!”

 

………

 

It was tempting to go and use gas for the 3D gear only just because it felt good to have it back, Mikasa realized as she locked her last belt into place. But she knew she had to be more careful, especially after the trouble she had caused earlier.

Still, Mikasa felt good when she was able to get up and out of the window of the HQ building again. Her elation, however, only lasted for a short while before it quickly dissipated.

Armin, who was standing with Reiner and Jean, noticed Mikasa take off toward the rooftop before anyone else did.

“Mikasa!?” he shouted after her. But she was already out of sight. Armin sighed and reluctantly followed after her. “Mikasa…we need to get away from here quickly…”

“The Titan, over there…”

Armin looked to where Mikasa was pointing, and he felt his stomach lurch. Just across the street, a group of regular Titans had gathered around the rogue Titan. To Armin’s disgust, they appeared to be feeding on its flesh. Rearing back its head, the rogue Titan let out a pained roar.

“Cannibalism...?!” Armin gasped.

It ought to be able to regenerate, or am I missing something…?

“If somehow we could figure out what was going on with that Titan,” Mikasa murmured, “we’d be able to work our way out of this hopeless situation. It was a good chance, but too bad…”

“I agree!” Reiner, Jean, Bertholdt, and Annie had joined them up on the rooftop. Reiner’s face was worried as he continued, “If we let it get completely devoured, we’ll end up none the wiser! Let’s go dispatch the Titans that are clinging to it. We need it alive!”

“Reiner, are you out of your mind?!” Jean shouted, turning to the blond. “We’ve just barely stuck our necks out of the water, and--“

“This Titan might turn out to be an ally,” Annie interrupted. “How about that? It’d be a much more powerful weapon than any cannon.”

“An ally…?!” Jean looked exasperated. It was obvious he was at his wit’s end. “Are you being serious?!”

Jean was interrupted yet again, this time by Armin’s loud gasp.

“I know that one…” the blond said; he was staring down at an approaching Titan that donned blond, wavy hair. “It’s the abnormal specimen that ate Thomas…!”

Startling all of them, the rogue Titan suddenly roared again. But this time, it did not sound pained. Quite the contrary, actually--it sounded as though new life had been breathed into it. Lunging forward, it pulled itself free of the other Titans, and began to make its way toward the Titan Armin had been looking at, even sacrificing its arms to do so.

To everyone’s amazement, the rogue Titan clamped its jaws right into the abnormal’s neck and lifted its body into the air. Next to them, another Titan was crawling toward them; it had been one of the ones that was feeding on the rogue. But this did not go unnoticed, and the rogue took the abnormal’s body and slammed it into the approaching Titan. As yet another Titan approached, the rogue kept its grip on the abnormal’s neck, growling with effort the entire time. With a loud grunt, the rogue then launched the abnormal into the other Titan, sending them both flying into a nearby building.

“…Hey,” Jean murmured to the group. “Who is it you wanted to save again?”

As if in reply to Jean’s sarcastic remark, the rogue Titan howled into the air, blood dripping from its missing arms and damaged chest. But then, to the group’s disappointment, the rogue Titan collapsed onto its knees, and then face-forward onto the ground.

“As expected,” Jean muttered. “It’s run out of juice, apparently. No big deal then, right? Let’s get going.” He turned to leave, yelling at the others over his shoulder, “There’s no way we can make an ally of such a freak. A Titan is a Titan.”

But Jean stopped in his tracks when noticed not a soul was paying any attention to him.

“..Hey there,” he said to his friends, but they were all staring at the decaying body of the rogue Titan. “Huh…?”

Jean turned his gaze to it, too, and even from up on the roof, he could see what had caught his comrades' attention: where the Titan’s weak spot normally was, was some sort of moving, living thing.

Out of the Titan’s nape, surrounded by the smoke of decaying Titan flesh, a human body threw itself into the open air He stayed kneeled in the crevice that he had come out from, with his back arched, his arms limp, and his face tilted to the sky.

Mikasa did not say a word. She did not have any to give. She could only act, and so she launched herself over to the Titan’s corpse, to where that human was waiting. Her heart thundering in her chest, she sprinted over to the human, where he remained motionless. But he did not disappear, like the simple apparition that Mikasa thought he might be.

The second Mikasa made contact with Eren’s body, she wrapped her arms around his chest tightly. He was a solid, physical thing. He existed.

Panting, Mikasa, put her head to Eren’s chest. When she quieted her breathing, she could hear the faint drum of a beating heart.

It was all she could do to pull him out of the Titan’s remains and up to the rooftop, to where the others were waiting, mouths agape. But the second they were both safe again, her emotions overwhelmed her, and she lost control of her sobs.

As she wailed into the air, Armin watched in silence with widened eyes.

Eren… he thought, looking down at his childhood friend’s unconscious face. The arm and leg that had been cut off…are back… At that time…that Titan had swallowed him whole. Back then…

Unable to suppress his sobs any longer, Armin fell to his knees, tears pouring down his cheeks.

“What…” he breathed, taking Eren’s left hand in his own, “What the hell…happened to you…?”

Jean, who had long fallen silent, turned to look out at the buildings. He could barely see the full picture, though--the entire area was filled with the smoke of decaying Titans.

“That means everything…” he murmured, “…all of this, was Eren’s doing…right?”

 

………

 

“I’m going…to kill you all.”

Armin felt his body go rigid at Eren’s words. The vicious smile across the boy’s face, as well as the growling tone with which he had spoken, did not help matters any.

“Eren?” Armin said quietly.

Slowly, as if awakening from a trance, Eren’s face relaxed, and suddenly his eyes shot wide open. He gasped as his vision came into focus. Whatever it was that he had been expecting to see, it was definitely not this.

Armin was knelt next to Eren, and just a meter or so in front of them was Mikasa, standing there with her blades held out and ready. The trio was surrounded by members of the Garrison regiment; all of them, like Mikasa, had their blades at the ready.

“Eren!!” Mikasa exclaimed, looking over her shoulder at him.

“Eren! You can move around again, can’t you?” Armin asked, gently taking Eren by the shoulders. “Are you fully conscious? Tell me everything! Talk to me! We’ll sort this out!!”

“Armin…?” Eren blinked slowly, staring at his friend. He could hear everything that Armin was saying, but not one bit of it made sense.

“Hey…you heard that?”

“He said ‘I’m going to kill you all.’”

Frightened whispers were being thrown around the members of the Garrison. Many of them looked panicked and scared.

“Yeah, we heard him…he was talking about us.”

“He intends to kill us and eat us…”

“Wait…” Eren murmured, feeling shaky.

What are they talking about…? he wondered, looking around at the line of soldiers. Why are they surrounding us three…and pointing their swords at us? Last time I checked, those were meant to kill Titans… Why…are they looking at me like that…?!

Slowly, Eren shifted his gaze from the soldiers’ faces to his left hand. He held it out in front of him, mouth agape.

No way… what I just saw in my head, that…that was a dream, right? My arm is still attached…!!

It was then that Eren noticed his sleeve--it was frayed, as if it had been ripped apart by some strong force. He gently pulled at it, his eyes growing wide.

What the…?

“Trainee Eren Jaeger!! You’ve come to your senses, I see!”

Eren perked up at the sound of Captain Woermann’s voice. The Garrison regiment elite was standing in the middle part of the arc of soldiers around the trio. His face had perhaps the most terrified expression of all those present.

“The behavior you three exhibit makes you look like traitors to humanity!!” he shouted. “Therefore, I’m going to have to decide how we should dispose of your lives!! Try to pull any trick, or to move from that spot, and you’ll be eating explosives! We’ll shoot without hesitation!!”

Truth be told, Eren had not noticed the cannons on the wall until Woermann’s threat. But, when he looked up, he could see quite clearly that all nearby cannons were aimed in their direction.

“I’ll get straight to the point. What are you really? Human? Or Titan?”

An eerie silence filled the air as the Garrison soldiers awaited Eren’s response. But the fifteen year old did not know what kind of response to give. He wasn’t even sure that he had heard the question correctly.

What kind of question is that? he thought, feeling panicked. Why are they glaring at me like that…? It’s as if…they were looking at some kind of freak. I’m a freak, then? Is that what you mean?!

“I…I fail to understand the meaning of your question, Sir!” Eren shouted, his voice cracking.

“Are you playing dumb with me? You goddamn monster!!” Woermann screamed back. “Come on, just try it again!! We’ll fucking destroy you!! On the spot!! You won’t even have the time to assume your true form!! Lots of people saw what happened!! They were right there, watching you coming out of that Titan!! We humans are facing an invasion of your monstrous kind into Wall Rose!! It doesn’t matter if you number among the trainees sanctioned by the king himself!! It’s perfectly suitable to swiftly eliminate any threat! In this, I know I am not mistaken!! That freakishly strong Titan who destroyed Wall Maria five years ago might show up again any time now! Our very existence, that of the human race, is at stake!! We cannot afford to fail as we did back then!! Got it?! We have no more time or soldiers to spare on your account!! I’ll have you blown to kingdom come!!”

“Our defensive strategy is a clear one,” a girl standing beside Woermann said. She was fairly calm, despite the energy radiating from the Captain. “I strongly doubt we’ll get any worthwhile information out of him, Sir… As you said, it’s a waste of our time and forces.”

“If we attack now, we can take him down easily!” another soldier shouted.

“Let’s pulverize him while he’s still assuming a human form!”

“My specialty…” Mikasa suddenly brought her blades forward; her voice was as dark as her gesture. “…involves cutting flesh. You just draw close enough, and I’ll be happy to demonstrate. Should anyone wish to experience my technique, by all means, feel free to come this way.”

The outbursts quieted enough for a familiar face to speak up from the line.

“Captain,” Ian Dietrich said, “that’s Mikasa Ackermann. Assigned to the rear guard, with the rest of us elite soldiers. She’s as good by herself as a hundred ordinary soldiers… If we lose her, it will hurt the human forces greatly.”

“Hey…what are you guys doing…?” Eren asked his friends while the Garrison was distracted. “What are you doing here?!”

“Mikasa, what are you trying to accomplish, fighting humans?!” Armin said, talking over Eren.

“I don’t care whom I have to fight,” Mikasa replied. “I will not allow Eren to get killed. That’s all.”

“We can talk this over!” Armin insisted. “Anyone…anyone would get scared out of their wits when faced with a situation that they don’t understand…”

Eren, having been ignored by his friends, leaned forward and stared at the grass beneath him.

So I’m the only one who doesn’t believe I’m a Titan, huh? he realized, looking once again at his left hand. Dammit…I don’t have the faintest memory of how I ended up here… I feel so numb I can’t even stand…and if they don’t like what I have to say, I’m dead… Me? Dying by human hands? That’s ridiculous… But wait, what was it he said again…? That I came out from inside a Titan? What’s he talking about?! What the hell does that mean?!

Eren recounted the scene that had just played through his mind minutes earlier one more time. Breathing hard, he slowly sat upright.

…If all that stuff was more than just a dream…that means…the part of my arm where the clothing’s missing has grown back!? Just like…just like it would for a Titan…

“I’ll ask again!” Woermann shouted. “What are you really?!”

Okay…I can’t screw up on this answer… I’m not the only one who’d die…!! Practically panting, Eren looked up at his friends; they were staring back at him with worried, anxious faces. In his heart, he felt a connection to them, and in that connection was his answer. …That’s right. I’m just like you, and I always have been…

“I’m human!” Eren shouted.

 

Chapter Text

There was hardly a soul left standing in the amphitheater’s yard after the commander finished his speech. Those who were left were resigned--they would join the Survey Corps and risk their lives for the benefit of humanity. They were possibly too brave for their own good, however. The survival rate of those in the Corps was low, and it only was going to get lower, now that Wall Maria had fallen.

Still, Hanji Zoe stood tall, with her hands placed behind her back. She stared up at Commander Erwin Smith with shining eyes that were hidden behind her thick lenses. He was as new to the game as she was--having only just been named as Shardis’ successor and not having any real power yet--but she was not worried.

We both will do what we have to do, she realized. Even if that means we die. But…I don’t want to die. So I’ll fight to live as long as I can.

“Offer up your hearts!”

Smacking her right fist to her chest, Hanji joined the other few soldiers brave enough to have stayed in place in a loud cry. There was a small smile on Erwin’s face; Hanji could see it even in the dim light of the torches.

Don’t worry, Commander, she thought, matching his expression. I’ll follow you to the bitter end.

 

It was a bright, sunny day when it came time for the Survey Corps to go out on their expedition to Wall Maria. The atmosphere seemed to match the weather; it had been a while since their last venture outside as a full force, and they were all a bit restless from being cooped up in the confines of their headquarters.

When the soldiers had finally geared up and were readied on horseback, Commander Erwin Smith was at the front. Behind him were the three most elite soldiers in the Corps--Mike Zakarius, Hanji Zoe, and humanity’s strongest soldier, Captain Levi. And behind them were many more remarkably talented soldiers.

Because of Erwin’s strong strategic skills, the survival rate of the Survey Corps had risen considerably, and they had learned more in the past five years than the previous few decades combined together. In short, just in five years, the entire way of life of the Corps had shifted and evolved into something new.

Much of it was thanks to Erwin’s academic capability, but another huge factor was the entrance of Captain Levi.

Erwin had brought Levi into the Corps soon after he took command--in other words, right after the horrible failure of the mission in early 846. Levi was an enigma of a man, but no one could deny his talent for the three-dimensional maneuver gear and for killing Titans. He fought with his own technique, and his kill record was off the charts. In no time, his name became known in every household, but it was just that--his name.

The real Captain Levi was quite a different man than most imagined. Standing tall at only 160 centimeters, he was rarely seen without an irritated look on his face. He spoke in a low voice and with a sharp tongue. His vocabulary was not meant for children’s ears, and it even turned some adults away. In short, he was not quite the admirable role model many imagined him to be.

Luckily for him, there were a chosen few in the Survey Corps that understood him well enough to know how to befriend him. One of those was the woman riding beside him, Hanji Zoe.

When the Survey Corps rode out into Trost toward the outer gate on their way to explore Wall Maria, they were greeted with quite an enthusiastic crowd. Shouts and cheers rang out from all over, giving Levi and Hanji enough of a cover to chat--though perhaps “chat” is not the right word to describe it.

“Tch, shut up,” Levi muttered to himself as yet another flock of just-graduated trainees stared him down with ogling eyes and sang their praises.

“Good thing those kids don’t know what a clean freak you are,” Hanji said, eyeing Levi with a good-natured smile. “They’d be in for a rude awakening.”

Just a few rows back, two more veteran Survey Corps members were having their own conversation.

“Feels like forever since we’ve gone outside, y’know?” Rowen Walsh stretched his arms out in front of him. Letting out a happy sigh, he turned to his friend, who had a distant look in her eyes. “Are you listening to me? Or have you tuned me out?”

“You answered your own question,” Catherine Müller, the brunette sitting next to him, replied.

“Oh, well, excuse me if I’m blocking your view of the more attractive men in the Corps.” Rowen grinned, leaning in toward Catherine. But just as soon as he was close enough, Catherine threw her right fist into Rowen’s arm. Laughing, he winced, pulling away from her. “All right, fine, I’ll leave you alone. For now.”

Catherine opened her mouth to reply, but her response fell by the wayside when she felt the strange sensation that she was being watched. Turning to her left, she saw a young girl--a newly graduated trainee, it seemed--staring up at her and Rowen.

“But really, don’t you think it feels such a long time since we got to go on a big expedition like this?” Rowen continued, oblivious to the attention they were getting. “What took so long?”

“Didn’t you hear?” Catherine replied, turning her gaze back to the rows of blue-and-white wings in front of her.

“Hear about what?”

“About what happened the last time they brought a big group out.”

“Uhhhh…” Rowen sucked in air through his teeth as he paused in thought. “…Oh, that’s right. That girl’s journal.”

“It’s a pretty big fucking deal. I can’t believe you didn’t at least remember having that conversation with Hanji.” Catherine laughed through her nose as she pulled her horse to a stop. “Even Erwin couldn’t calm her down.”

Rowen laughed again.

“Now that you mention it, I do remember,” he admitted. “We didn’t sleep much that night.”

“Nope.”

“Open the gates!” Erwin’s cry bounced against the houses and through the Trost district. “The land past this gate is Titan territory!! Let us recapture the ground we lost to them five years ago!!”

 

………

 

Levi knew his role.

He had joined the Survey Corps about five years prior driven by selfish desires, but things were different now. Now, he fought for different reasons. He was a living symbol of the power of humanity, and as humanity’s strongest, he knew that the world was counting on him to fight until the very end. Though, in the beginning, he had not wanted to be saddled with this responsibility, he had since come to accept it.

Such a thing was a lucky break--there was no one else willing to accept that position.

From his perch on an old clock tower in a long-abandoned Wall Maria town, Levi could see a fellow Survey Corps member from afar, squirming in the grip of a Titan’s jaws. His job was obvious.

With a snap, Levi shot out his hooks from his 3D gear and blasted himself forward with a burst of gas. As soon as his hooks pierced into a building, he yielded his body to the strength of his momentum and pulled himself into a spin. His blades sliced deeply into the Titan’s neck, splashing a bit of blood onto Captain Levi’s hands. Before propelling himself to safety, he turned to look back at the soldier he had tried to save, then hopped onto a nearby rooftop with unusual grace for a full-grown man. Even after looking away, the sight of the man's wide-eyed stare stayed burned into Levi's mind for several seconds.

A single one on the right… Levi shifted his gaze, blinking his eyes back into focus. A couple on the left…

“Captain!”

From behind him, Levi heard the sound of Petra’s voice, and he turned to face her.

Petra Ral was a young woman, not even twenty-five, but she held talent and skill greater than most of her peers. Her amber hair brushed her round face gently as she landed on the roof next to Levi.

“I’ve gathered reinforcements!” she told Captain Levi.

“Petra, you take care of the soldiers down there!” Levi ordered as two more members of his special squad appeared behind Petra. “Take all the remaining men and help them with the Titan on the right! I’ll handle the left myself.”

Petra let out a quiet gasp of surprise, but Levi didn’t bother to respond. He knew she would obey. After all, if anyone could take on two Titans alone, it was him.

“You look so fucking stupid,” Levi said to himself as he stared down the first of the two Titans awaiting him. “Every last one of you…”

Launching his left hook into a nearby building, Levi lunged forward, and with a small push from his gas cylinders, he managed to wrap his left line under the Titan’s chin and around its neck. Working with gravity, Levi whirled down, striking the nape cleanly. His foot was only on the rooftop for a split second before unhooking himself and starting in on the second Titan.

Jumping off of the ledge of the roof, Levi chucked his blades right at the Titan’s face; they lodged themselves in its eyes. As the Titan wailed in pain, the pint-sized soldier landed atop its head, teetering on one foot.

“Whoopsie,” he muttered, catching himself. “If only you’d quit moving around… How can I cut you cleanly if you don’t stay put?”

Locking a new pair of blades into his 3D gear’s grip handles, Levi jumped and pushed himself into the air with a small blast of gas. Then, just as he had done with the first Titan, he came spinning down and cut out a chunk from the nape of the Titan’s neck. As its body collapsed to the ground, Levi hopped back up onto the rooftop, his hooks zipping back into their gear casing.

“Ugh,” Levi grunted, looking at his hand; it was covered in steaming Titan blood. “Disgusting.”

Pulling out a handkerchief from his pocket, Levi began to wipe off the already half-evaporated blood from his hands and blades, surveying the scene below. It appeared that someone had managed to take down the other single Titan he had spotted earlier. Upon further observation, he could see Hanji with her squad nearby the decaying corpse.

As soon as he was cleaned up, Levi dropped down to find Petra; she had obediently followed Levi’s orders to help the injured soldiers, and though she was doing the best she could, for the man who had been clenched in a Titan’s jaw, it was not enough.

“Petra, what’s wrong with this one?” Levi called out as he walked over to the pair.

“Captain…” Petra’s amber eyes were glittering with tears. “I…I can’t stop the bleeding…”

Levi had no immediate reply for her, which in turn gave the fallen soldier a chance to speak.

“…Cap…tain…” he breathed.

“…What?” Levi replied, kneeling next to the man.

“Did I…contribute…to humanity?” the soldier asked, lifting his hand toward Levi. “Or did I…die a pointless death…without making…any difference…?”

Levi’s hand met the soldier’s bloodied one with a loud smack.

“You’ve done more than enough already,” Levi told him, gripping his hand. “For now…and for the future. I will take up your will. It will give me strength.” With each declaration, Levi’s voice grew louder and more confident. “I will eradicate the Titans! Even if it’s the last thing I do! You have my word!!”

“C-Captain…” Petra’s voice was shaking. “He’s…gone…”

At her words, Levi’s face fell, and his grip on the fallen soldier’s hand loosened a bit.

“Do you think he heard everything I had to say…?” he asked, gently placing the man’s hand across his chest.

“Yes…I’m sure he did, sir,” Petra replied, a small smile crossing her tear-stained face. “Look at him--he seems to be resting so peacefully.”

Despite the blood streaked across his face, the man seemed to indeed be at peace. The right hand that Levi had draped across his chest was balled into a loose fist, as if he was saluting for the last time.

“…Fine, then,” Levi murmured.

Interrupting the quiet scene was the sound of approaching horses; Erwin’s voice soon sounded from a few meters away.

“Levi!” he shouted. “We’re falling back!”

“Falling back…?!” Levi whirled around to face Erwin. His sharp gaze was even more irritated than usual. “Aren’t we going to see this to the end? Or did my men die for nothing? Give me one reason to go along with this.”

“The Titans have all started to move north, toward the city,” Erwin told them. He spoke in a matter-of-fact tone, but his blue eyes were stern. “The exact same thing happened five years ago. There must be something going on in town. The wall... Chances are, the Titans managed to destroy it.”

 

………

 

“Catherine! Rowen!”

Catherine looked up from her latest kill to see her squad leader headed her way.

“What’s up, Nanaba?” Rowen asked as the lean, muscular soldier landed in front of them.

“Don’t bother finishing up this area,” she declared. “We’re retreating.”

“Retreating?” Catherine echoed. “All of us?”

“Yes.” Nanaba glanced over her shoulder, back toward the north. “Erwin fears another wall may have fallen.”

Catherine gritted her teeth as Rowen gasped.

“But we haven’t even been gone that long--“

“Save it, Rowen,” Catherine interrupted, glancing at her childhood friend. “We need to trust Erwin on this.”

“I’m rounding up the others--you two move ahead with Erwin and his men,” Nanaba instructed. As Catherine and Rowen saluted, she shot off on her 3D gear toward the rest of her squad members.

“I can’t…believe it,” Rowen murmured as he followed Catherine toward their horses. “The second we’re gone…”

“It doesn’t matter.” Catherine sheathed her blades. “We can’t do anything about it now except try to do damage control.”

“If it only took five years to get to Wall Rose, how long will it take to get to Wall Sina, I wonder?”

“It won’t come to that.” Stopping in her tracks, Catherine faced Rowen, peering up into his concerned eyes. “Remember what Hanji told us.”

“…Yeah, I guess…”

Rowen fell silent, and so Catherine mounted her horse, keeping the rest of her thoughts to herself.

This isn’t the end--I just know it, she told herself as she and Rowen rode off to join up with the rest of the Survey Corps. I’ve always known this in the back of my mind, but what Hanji said the other day just reaffirmed it: we still have so much to learn. Something good will come out of this, an opportunity, even if we do lose Trost…

The thought of losing yet more territory to Titans made Catherine cringe, but she kept her composure otherwise; her greatest immediate concern was Rowen, who was unusually sullen and did not speak any further on the situation at hand.

“Hanji!” Catherine called out when they caught up to the main group. The red-headed squad leader turned and tugged on her horse’s reigns to let Catherine and Rowen catch up. “Is it true? Nanaba said--“

“We don’t know for sure yet,” Hanji admitted, smiling sadly. “But we can’t risk leaving all those people defenseless for an expedition, even if it is our first one in a while.”

“Suppose Trost did fall--how long do you think the Garrison can keep the Titans at bay?”

“Be realistic,” Levi, who was riding alongside Hanji, interjected. “Even if they did finally get cannons on top of the walls, they’ll be lucky to last a few hours.”

“That’s still a few hours for us to make our way back to the city,” Catherine insisted. “And it’s also a few hours more than anyone had when Shiganshina’s wall fell. You don’t know what could happen in that amount of time.”

“It doesn’t matter--whether we make it back in time or not, the Titans will get into Trost, and it’s just one step closer to losing humanity in its entirety,” Levi argued. “We don’t have any way to prevent more walls from falling immediately, so we shouldn’t expect this problem to solve itself. Things are going to fall to shit the second the Titans enter the city, and there’s going to be a hell of a lot more trouble to follow.”

“Hanji,” Catherine said, ignoring Levi’s pessimistic remarks and turning back to the squad leader, “now I’m positive: what you said about preventing the problem instead of just reacting to it has got to be the right way to handle the Titans. Those documents you told me about? Whenever you get the chance, please let me have a look at them--assuming we all survive that long, anyway.” The brunette paused, giving Levi a stern but confident look. “That ‘way to prevent the walls from falling’ might be in them.”

“By all means, help yourself!” Hanji exclaimed, grinning as Levi let a quiet “tch” slip out. “If anyone can handle them, it’s you. I’ll warn you, though, there’s quite a bit, and we keep finding more on various expeditions and what not.”

“Thank you. I won’t let you down.”

It’s not an immediate fix, but Captain Levi is right--there isn’t one, Catherine realized, falling back beside Rowen. So what we need to aim for now is prevention, so that nothing like this happens again.

 

 

Chapter Text

“Well, there goes our squad leader,” Milena muttered as Connie took off after an emotionally wrecked Armin. “What do we do now, Yasmin?”

The brunette shook her head; Connie had been the only one to break off from the squad. It was, then, not imperative that they follow him.

“I’ll tell you what we’re going to do,” Ymir cut in, walking over to the pair. Krista was right behind her, peering up at them with her big blue eyes. “We’re going to forget that idiot and do what we can to survive.”

“That much I understand,” Milena retorted, furrowing her brow. She sounded far more irritable than her usual composed self. “What I’m asking is, what exactly should we be doing now? Is following Connie our best chance of survival? Or do you know of another way?”

“We should just wait for orders,” Krista told her.

“But it’s been hours,” Milena argued. “Standing around here is no different than lining up and filing into a Titan’s mouth.” The blonde placed her hands on her hips, looking up at Ymir’s sneering face. “I think we should follow Connie.”

“Go ahead, if you want,” Ymir said, waving Milena away. “Take your shitty attitude with you.”

“Look who’s talking!”

“Calm down,” Yasmin told Milena, grabbing her friend by the arm. “Krista is right. Waiting for orders and staying out of sight of the Titans is a safe bet.”

“Well, just look at you, Güven.” Ymir slapped Yasmin on the shoulder as if trying to be friendly or playful. “Cool as ice in the face of danger. Can’t believe they chose Connie as the squad leader over you.” Sighing, Ymir crossed her arms and tilted her head. “But hey, if you and Krista both think we should wait around, I’m cool with it.”

“It might be dangerous, though,” Krista admitted quietly.

“Hey, Krista, just think for a second. Think about what you know.” Krista fell silent, and Ymir chuckled. “You get it, I know you do. Don’t worry. If push comes to shove, there’s always a back-up plan.”

 

“…And that’s how we made it out,” Erin finished, sighing loudly. Milena and Yasmin exchanged glances, then looked back at the twins. “You guys got lucky. It was smart of you to wait on the rear guard for supplies.”

“Yeah, that never occurred to me, either,” Rosaleen admitted, hanging her head.

“It’s not what you were thinking about at the time,” Milena told her, putting a hand on her shoulder. “And besides, you made it back here, didn’t you?”

“Milena’s right,” Yasmin agreed. “Our paths were different, but we all made it out alive, and that’s what matters.”

“We lost so many of our friends…” Rosaleen murmured. “Even if we did manage to get resupplied, we--“

“Rosie,” Erin cut in, “think for a second, would you? You should have known not everyone would survive. These are Titans we’re talking about here, yeah? There’s just no way we could have advanced that wouldn’t have cost a few lives. You’re still alive, aren’t you? I’m here, Milena and Yasmin are here…be grateful.”

“How many people did you lose?” Milena asked. “I see plenty of people I recognize.”

“I’m not sure,” Erin replied, frowning. “Mina and Hannah, though…”

“I don’t see Armin,” Yasmin realized. “I thought you said he was the one who came up with the big master plan?”

“Huh?” Rosaleen glanced around; most of their friends were there, but she couldn’t help but notice that they were a few heads short. “Mikasa isn’t here, either…”

“Nor is Eren,” Erin added. “Those three…that’s too big of a coincidence. Something must’ve happened.”

“Oh no,” Rosaleen breathed as she watched her sister walk over to Reiner and Bertholdt. “Even Mikasa was…?”

“Let’s follow Erin,” Milena said, grabbing Rosaleen and Yasmin’s arms. Rosaleen had no choice; soon she and her friends were standing behind Erin, listening to Reiner’s explanation.

“I’m sorry, Erin,” Reiner told the red-head. “I can’t really tell you details, but you should know that Mikasa and Armin are both fine.”

“What about Eren?” Yasmin asked. Reiner shook his head.

“Well…”

Before Reiner could finish his thought, he was interrupted by a loud explosion. The teens turned toward the source of the noise; from just a ways off, they could see smoke curling into the air.

“A cannon?!” Milena gasped.

“Why’re they firing only one shot?!” another of their peers shouted.

“Hey! That came from inside the wall!” yet another exclaimed.

“Did they breach through the canal gate?!”

“They can’t have. It’s one of the sturdiest positions we’ve got…” Milena told the boys nearby. “Surely that was just a stray projectile.”

“Even then…what’s with all that smoke?!”

“Is that Titan vapor?! No way!”

Before Rosaleen could come up with anything to say herself, she was driven into further silence by Reiner; the blonde shot off from right in front of her on his three-dimensional maneuver gear. Right behind him were Jean, Annie, and Bertholdt.

“Guys!? Hey!!” Erin called after them, taking a few steps forward.

“Erin, don’t.” Rosaleen quickly reached out and grabbed her sister by the elbow. “They can handle themselves.”

Erin turned back to Rosaleen and stared her down; Rosaleen could see the anger burning in her sister’s eyes. Though she said nothing, her gaze seemed to say, “And you think I can’t handle myself?”

“They’ll be fine,” Rosaleen insisted, and slowly Erin lowered her arms from her 3D gear.

 

………

 

The last thing Eren remembered was his father shouting his name, and suddenly, he was surrounded by red. His body felt incredibly hot, as if he had a terrible fever, but in an odd sort of way, it felt good. It was satisfying in a way Eren could not explain.

When he came to his senses, Eren opened his eyes to find himself staring at what seemed to be raw flesh. But after a second, he realized what he was really looking at--the flesh of a Titan.

Upon trying to straighten his back, Eren realized his arms, torso, legs, and even the sides of his face were fused into this throbbing, steaming red flesh. Struggling with all his might, Eren pulled backward, ripping and tearing himself away from the muscles of the monster he had created.

That’s right… Eren realized as he pulled his arms free. I…did this…

As he burst through the Titan’s flesh into fresh air again, Eren let out a small shout. Panting, he looked down at his left hand, where part of the Titan’s body was still fused to his own. With a loud grunt, Eren ripped his hand free and stared down at it.

Moments ago, he had been with Mikasa and Armin, under threat of the Garrison regiment. For some reason, his instinct had told him to bite his hand as hard as possible, and he had done so without hesitation. The result was this Titan.

Still struggling to calm his breathing, Eren squirmed and tugged on his legs.

“It’s so hot,” he gasped. “What the hell is this…?”

Just as he pulled one leg free, Eren heard a familiar voice coming from somewhere below him.

“…I remember hearing the cannon shot,” Armin murmured. “After that, there was that terrible noise, and that shock. It’s so hot…! And what are we doing inside this gigantic skeleton?!”

“It’s Eren…” Mikasa’s calm voice came as the reply to Armin’s panicked one. “He protected us… That’s all we need to know for now.”

“Hey!” Eren shouted, dropping down between the decaying bones of the Titan’s ribcage. “You guys all right?!”

“Eren?!” Armin gasped. “What is--“

“No idea!!” Eren exclaimed, exasperated. “But it’s gonna evaporate any minute! Just like a Titan corpse would! We need to step away!” Glancing over his shoulder, through the smoke he could make out the blurred outlines of the Garrison soldiers. “Maybe they’re still assessing the situation…or maybe they’re a bit less on edge… Those soldiers can’t see what it is we’re up to for now, but eventually, they’ll likely start attacking again… I seriously doubt they’ll be inclined to listen to me after what they just saw.”

Eren gritted his teeth and turned his back to the Garrison.

“I just remembered something, though,” he told his friends, who were wide-eyed and covered in sweat. “The basement! The basement back home! My old man told me everything would make sense once I went there…” Flashes of the memory replayed in Eren’s mind as he spoke: his father’s words, the syringe, the tears rolling from his father’s eyes. “…Whatever it is I’ve become, he’s also the one responsible for it… If I go, I’ll probably find out the truth about the Titans as well! Damn it!!”

In a burst of rage, Eren rammed his fist against the Titan’s evaporating ribs. He was shaking even more now, and his face was drenched in sweat.

“Eren?!” Mikasa gasped.

“If he knew such a thing, why hide it…?” Eren growled, his anger almost unbearable. He felt ashamed of himself, and of his father. What in the world was the meaning of all of this? “Thousands of men from the Survey Corps died for that information and the hope it represents for humanity… And it was stashed away in our basement all along?! …What was he thinking?!”

With a loud crack, the top part of the Titan’s remains came crashing down around the trio, kicking up more dust and covering them in even more smoke.

“I’m getting out of here,” Eren declared.

“Where to? And how?” Armin asked, his blue eyes worried.

“For now, anywhere will do,” Eren replied. “From there, I’ll just get past the wall and go for the basement… I just need to turn into a Titan again…”

“For real? Can you really manage that?!”

“I don’t know how I’m doing it myself,” Eren admitted, his breathing still erratic. “But I believe that I can. Just like I don’t know how I make my arm move, but can do so anyway… That skeleton thing came to me unconsciously--I just wanted to protect us against the cannon. Which must be why it was rather limited in what it could do, and decayed away so quickly.”

Eren paused, ignoring Armin’s stern gaze. The brunet looked at his hand; where he had bitten his thumb and drawn blood just minutes before was completely healed.

“This time, I’ll go for something with a lot more clout,” Eren said, a smile creeping onto his face. His eyes had a wild look in them, even more so than usual. “A fifteen meter class, just like the one I used to kick Titan ass before!”

“Eren!” Eren jumped, startled by Mikasa’s shout. “You’ve got a nosebleed…”

Quickly wiping at his nose, Eren looked down at his fingers. Sure enough, they were stained with blood.

“You look really sick, too,” Armin pointed out. “And your breathing is really ragged… You’re not at all healthy. That much is obvious!”

“It doesn’t matter how bad of shape I’m in right now,” Eren insisted, wiping at his nose again. “Anyway, I got a couple of ideas. If you quit trying to protect me, you two might be able to get away with your lives. I’ve caused you a ton of trouble already, so from now on I’ll be going on alone.”

“You can’t…!!” Armin gasped, his eyes wide in horror. Eren said nothing; he knew that to let Mikasa and Armin come along would only be a risk.

“Eren…I’m coming too,” Mikasa stated.

“No, you’re not,” Eren argued. “You’re staying behind.”

“If I can’t keep up, you needn’t worry about me,” Mikasa shot back.

“But I needn’t take orders from you, either.” Eren’s tone was irritated and a bit mocking. “I said cut the crap, you hear me? I’m not your little brother and I'm not your kid.”

“It doesn’t matter--running off on your own is reckless. Especially considering that what Armin said is right--you’re not healthy.”

“And that doesn’t matter, I said! I can handle myself, Mikasa! And even if I don’t make it, at least I won't end up bringing you two down with me!!”

“Eren! I--“

“Mikasa, wait a second.” Eren calmed his tone down, making a point to slow his breathing. “I said I had two ideas, remember…? I came up with this as a last resort, but I still wanted to let you know about it. What happens next is for Armin to decide.”

“Excuse me…?” The blonde popped his head up to look at Eren.

“Even I can tell how unrealistic my plan sounds,” Eren continued, smirking. “This Titan’s power I have would be a useful tool for the military. This is gonna sound crazy, but if you can convince the military that I’m not a threat to them, then I’ll trust you on this, and that’s what we’ll do. If you think you can’t pull it off, I’ll go with my initial plan. You’ve got fifteen seconds left to make up your mind. Can you do it? Or not? Whatever you decide, I’ll listen to your advice.”

There was a pause before Armin finally spoke.

“Eren,” he murmured, looking anxious, “why would you entrust me with such a crucial choice?”

“You’re good at making the right call when things go south, right?” Eren told his friend, grinning. “I thought I’d rely on that.”

But the look of disbelief written blatantly all over Armin’s face did not disappear. Eren watched as the blonde’s eyes fell a bit.

“When did I ever do such a thing?”

“It’s been a solid five years. So many things have happened since then, haven’t they…?” Eren softened his smile, keeping his eyes locked on Armin’s. “If you hadn’t told Hannes to help us, Mikasa and I would’ve been Titan food. We’d be dead.”

Armin lifted his gaze again, this time as if staring out into the distance.

“Armin,” Mikasa said, “if you have anything in mind, I’ll trust your judgment as well.”

 

………

 

“People keep saying it looks like the smoke from a Titan,” Yasmin said quietly. She heard from beside her Marco’s heavy sigh.

“If that’s so, we can only assume that the Titan was killed,” Marco pointed out. “There’s no use in panicking just yet. Besides, if the Titans had gotten into Wall Rose, you’d think our superior officers would tell us to move out on a recovery mission, right?”

“I guess so.” Marco’s statement made perfect sense, and Yasmin figured that he was correct. But even these blatant facts could not calm her down. She thought of her brothers and mother back home. How much longer would they be safe there? Though they were tucked away in the middle of Wall Rose’s territory, would they even be notified in time to get away if the wall did fall? As much as she hated thinking about it, she couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Interrupting her thoughts, Yasmin saw Marco stand up quickly and assume the at-ease position. She immediately followed suit.

“What’s going on?” she whispered to him. Marco jerked his head to the left, not saying a word. “Who…?”

From afar, Yasmin could see a few soldiers approaching on horseback. They were moving at a decent clip, though by no means recklessly fast. A bald man was leading them, and for a moment, Yasmin thought it might be Shardis.

However, as he got closer, she could see that it was someone else. On his jacket, instead of a trainee patch, there was a pair of red roses--the emblem of the Garrison regiment. Around his neck was a purple bolo tie. Yasmin had never seen this man before, but she could tell by looking at him that he was powerful.

As he rode by, the smell of strong liquor briefly filled the air; it faded out as they passed, along with the sound of the horses’ cantering steps.

“Who was that?” Yasmin asked, turning to Marco and relaxing her stance. He breathed a sigh of relief, sitting back down.

“Commander Dot Pyxis, of the Garrison regiment,” Marco told her. “I can’t believe you didn’t recognize him.”

“Sorry,” Yasmin said with a shrug. “I guess I wasn’t paying much attention at graduation. Still, what is he doing here, I wonder?”

“Someone must have summoned him here, I guess,” Marco suggested. “Or maybe he saw the smoke from someplace nearby and came hurrying over. Either way, you should feel better knowing that he’s around.”

“You guys!!”

Yasmin turned to see Milena bounding toward her, Rosaleen and Erin right behind.

“Did you just see that?!” she breathed, eyes glittering. “THE Commander Pyxis, like literally right in front of our faces! The man himself! In real life!!”

“Calm down,” Marco said, laughing.

“How can I!?” Milena shouted, throwing her hands up in the air. “He is, like, GOD TIER of bad-assery! I mean, I figured we’d be seeing him around soon, once we join the Garrison and all, but like, not up close and personal, y’know?!”

“It’s not like he’s too good to talk to us soldiers, though,” Erin pointed out, smirking. “I'm pretty sure just about anyone who joins the Garrison gets to talk to Pyxis at some point or another.”

“Ugh, whatever! Stop ruining this for me.” Milena dropped her arms and lowered her voice, but her level of enthusiasm did not waver. “I know I won’t regret joining the Garrison--that man knows what he’s doing.”

Yasmin smiled, crossing her arms and looking at her friend.

“Let him hear you talking like this, and I’ll bet he lets you into his squad,” she told the blonde. In an instant, Milena was kneeling on the ground, hands in the air again.

“That would be an honor!” she shrieked excitedly, causing a few nearby heads to turn her way. “I would lick his boots clean if he asked!”

“Get up, get up,” Erin said, pulling on Milena’s arm. “You’re making people stare.”

“Let her have her moment,” Rosaleen told her sister with a good-natured laugh. “We all have dreams.”

“You never let me act like that about my dreams.”

“Because your dreams involve Bertholdt, wine, and never leaving home again,” Yasmin pointed out. Erin shrugged.

“I’m an honest guy,” she said, her voice obviously mocking a certain horse-faced peer of theirs. Yasmin let out a groan as Marco and the others laughed.

“You know, you guys would have never thought that the Jean in the headquarters was the same Jean we trained with for three years,” Marco told them with a smile.

“Why, because he actually was useful for something?” Erin retorted.

“No, it’s because he didn’t have Eren there to argue with,” Milena said.

“No, it’s because Eren wasn’t there to compete for Mikasa’s heart,” Rosaleen jumped in. The girls burst out laughing, with Yasmin nearly doubled over.

“You guys…” Marco sounded a little disappointed, but he was smiling, too, so Yasmin couldn’t bring herself to feel bad. “Well, I won’t deny what you’ve said is wrong, but he did prove he’s capable of having a good side.”

“He should learn to use it more often,” Yasmin replied, pursing her lips.

Interrupting their Jean Kirschstein roast session, a tall Garrison soldier approached the trainees.

“You all are to line up and wait for further instructions!” he shouted. “File up in the adjacent street and do not leave without receiving orders! Any violation will result in declaration of treason, and consequently, execution!”

“Sir!” The trainees quickly saluted to the man, then burst into a lively panic all over again.

“C’mon, let’s go,” Milena said, and the five rushed over to the designated waiting area, the smiles gone from their faces.

 

 

Chapter Text

Adjusting her shirt as she followed her friends out of the mess hall, Nikoleta shook her bangs out of her eyes. Had she not glanced up just then, she would have run right into Sophia and Luz.

“Check it out, Nikki,” Sophia gasped, pointing across the training yard. “The class ahead of us is on their way to their graduation ceremony!”

“That’s already today?!” Nikoleta asked. “It went by fast… That’ll be us next year…”

“We should go check them out!” Luz said, and Nikoleta nodded. After all, she would need to know who the top ten were; those were the people who would help her get to where she needed to be: the Military Police. She would need to know their secrets to success to make it into the top ten of her own class, and by learning even just their names, she could dig up some information in no time.

Nikoleta followed her friends over to the edge of the path, where some other people from their class had also gathered to gawk. As she watched them pass, she noticed how young they still looked, save for the hardened looks in their eyes. But, truth be told, there was really nothing else special about them. She wondered if she, too, had reached that point yet.

Having scoped out the top ten, who were leading the pack in two rows of five, Nikoleta was just turning to leave when an upperclassman soldier passed by--one whose face alone caught her attention immediately.

“Oh my gosh, he’s like a tiny angel,” she whispered quickly, watching the blond pass by. He was smiling at whatever the boy beside him was saying. “He’s literally the most darling human being I’ve ever seen. Holy shit.”

“Who are you talking about?” Sophia asked, turning to her friend. Nikoleta grabbed Sophia’s arm, nodding toward the boy. “Who, the blond? …He’s like, one of the scrawniest ones in the crowd.”

“I’m going to ignore your opinion because it is wrong,” Nikoleta declared. “Look at his nose--look at it! It’s a little, cute, squishy nose! Ugh!” The blond soon disappeared passed out of sight, and Nikoleta let out a disappointed sigh. “Good-bye, little blond angel. You’re off to do great things, I’m sure of it.”

 

“Stop right there, scum!!”

Armin came to a halt a few meters in front of Woermann and his soldiers, but his determined gaze did not waver. He began his defense for Eren’s life before Woermann could say anything else to worsen the already bleak situation.

“Eren is not humanity’s enemy, Sir!” Armin shouted, standing strong. “We’re willing to yield all the information we’ve garnered regarding Titans!!”

“Quit pleading for your life!” Woermann cried. “We won’t hear of it! You’ve just revealed your true colors right in front of us, but you’re still talking? Now that’s rich! If you’re trying to say he’s not a Titan, show me the proof! Failing to do so will just reassure me that we must eliminate the threat that he represents!”

“There’s no need for proof!” Armin had exclaimed this in a brief moment of panic, but he then fell silent in realization.

That’s right… he thought, ignoring his shaking hands. Who needs proof?!

“It was never about what we should acknowledge him as in the first place!” the blonde cried.

“Excuse me?!”

“Many people saw what happened, didn’t they?! Then they must have seen him fighting against the Titans as well! And they must have seen the Titans swarming around him! That means those Titans regarded him the same way they do humans: as food! No matter how you look at it, that much is undeniable!”

A stunned silence filled the air, and Armin took a few deep breaths to calm himself. He could hear Garrison soldiers murmuring statements of agreement, and his heart raced at the thought of having gotten his point across.

“We’re going to attack!” Woermann suddenly shouted, raising his hand in the air. “Get in position!! Don’t be ensnared by their traps, no matter how clever! Their ways are alien to us and always have been!” Armin felt himself go slack-jawed as Woermann continued to scream. “I wouldn’t put it past them to be able to turn into humans and slip in among our ranks! We won’t let them have their way with us any longer!!”

No…he can’t think straight anymore, Armin realized. He’s too scared to think…!

With tear-filled eyes, Armin looked over his shoulder at his friends. He felt as though his knees might buckle any second.

“Eren…Mikasa…” he murmured, his own voice sounding distant.

But the look in his friends’ eyes was exactly what Armin needed to see: determination, confidence, and trust. Eren nodded his head, and Armin gritted his teeth, his confidence returning in a flash of adrenaline. Balling up his right fist, Armin brought his hand to his chest and pounded the spot over his heart with a loud thwack.

“I was, I am, and I will remain a soldier! Sworn to dedicate my heart and soul to the restoration of humankind!” he cried, not daring to slacken his salute. “I have no greater ambition than to give up my life should it help that cause!! I believe that we should add Eren’s ‘Titan power’ to our own remaining forces! We might even be able to reconquer the town that way!!”

Armin closed his eyes, tilting his chin up, as if to make sure his words reached not just the Garrison soldiers, but the entirety of humanity.

“For the sake of the human race’s greatest glory, I shall use what little time remains ‘til I go to my grave to advocate the strategic advantage that he represents!!”

Though he had been pleading with all of his heart, when Armin opened his eyes, he saw Woermann’s hand moving downward, and he realized that his words had only delayed the inevitable.

But then, from behind the terrified Garrison captain came another figure, also donning the Garrison emblem on his chest.

“That’s enough.” The man grabbed Woermann’s arm firmly, but with a gentle smile. “Brittle as a twig, just as always. Didn’t you see how beautiful of a salute that was?”

“Commander Pyxis…!!” Captain Woermann gasped.

“I’ve only just arrived here, but I believe I’m catching on to what’s happening anyway,” the Commander stated, lowering Woermann’s arm. “You take care of spear-heading the reinforcements. As for me…” Pyxis faced Armin, who finally dropped to his knees, shaking all over. His fist was still held in a salute against his chest. “Something tells me that I would do well to listen to what those three have to say.”

 

………

 

“A plan to recapture Trost?!”

“As in, right away!?”

Words like these, in all sorts of tones, filled the air around the remaining 104th graduates who had gathered to receive their next orders. Yasmin looked around her; many of her friends had survived, and she was grateful for this truth. However, every single person in the crowd had a look of distress etched on his or her face. There were some that were more severe, one of them being Daz’s.

“Again…? We’re going back to hell again?” he murmured from beside Marco. “…NO!! I don’t wanna die!! I wanna see my family, please!!”

“Daz!” Marco shouted, grabbing Daz’s shoulder. “Watch it, man!! You’re too loud!”

But it was too late; Daz’s outcry had caught the attention of a nearby Garrison soldier.

“You there! I heard that!” The soldier quickly stomped over to Daz. Yasmin could see that this soldier, despite his age and probable experience, wore the same look of distress as the younger soldiers around him. “You want to walk away from your given assignment, do you?!”

“Yes, sir! I do!” Daz exclaimed, tears in his eyes. “This is nothing short of mass suicide, and it’ll avail us nothing! There’s no point!”

“What do you make of humanity…? What do you make of the rules…?” The Garrison soldier placed his hand on the handle of his blade. “I’d be well within my rights to have you executed on the spot!”

“FINE!” Beating the soldier to the punch, Daz pulled out one of his own blades. “That’s a hundred times better than ending up as Titan food!”

As Marco again jumped in to try to rectify the situation, Yasmin angled her face toward Milena, who stood on the other side of her.

“I’m not bailing, don’t worry,” Milena told her, smirking. “You two better not, either.”

“That’s pretty low, to think I’d ever leave,” Rosaleen replied, frowning.

“We’ve made it this far, I guess,” Erin added. “Besides, I can’t retire early if I don’t make it to the Garrison in the first place.”

“Whatever works for you,” Yasmin said, grinning.

“SOLDIERS!! ATTENTION!!”

The girls--and Daz’s episode--were interrupted by a loud shout coming from on top of the wall. Squinting, Yasmin could see someone standing up there. She only wager a guess as to who it actually was, but it appeared to be a male, and he resembled Commander Pyxis, who had passed them earlier. There was someone else standing beside him, but Yasmin could not tell who it was at all.

“I am about to lay out our strategy for the reconnaissance of the Trost district!!” Pyxis shouted down to them; his booming voice confirmed his identity. “Our objective is the gate, which has been destroyed!! To succeed, we must do two things: reach the hole, and close it up!!”

Yasmin felt the atmosphere of the soldiers around her grow incredibly tense with disbelief. She, too, felt a twinge of doubt, but she didn’t dare question it yet. After all, there was likely going to be more explanation to follow.

“Close it up…?” Marco whispered from beside her. “But…how are we supposed to do such a thing…?!”

“As for the way we’ll proceed, let me start by introducing this young man: Eren Jaeger, from the trainees unit!”

The figure next to Pyxis stepped forward; Yasmin could see his salute even from afar. Upon the mention of his name, the atmosphere changed yet again--this time to one of shock and confusion.

“We’ve been carrying out secret experiments on Titan shape-shifting, and he is the successful result of that endeavor!! He has the ability to create the body of a Titan and control it at will!”

“There’s no way,” Milena gasped. “Controlling a Titan’s body? And of all people, Eren?! I thought he hated the Titans!”

“I don’t get it, either,” Yasmin admitted.

It sounds too convenient, she realized. There must be something else going on besides that. “Experiments”? …I don’t buy it.

“He will turn into a Titan, pick up that large rock nearby the front gate, and carry it to the destroyed gate to stopper the hole!” Pyxis cried, continuing his explanation. “Your role, ladies and gentlemen, is to protect him from the other Titans until such time as he’s done moving the boulder!”

“Pick up that enormous rock…? That’s just…” Yasmin was surprised to see that the one murmuring in disbelief was the Garrison soldier who had been threatening Daz just moments ago. “Is that it? Are the Titans finally controlling us humans now?!”

“Bullshit!” Daz cried, once again losing control of himself. “I’m not letting you throw away my life over that kind of nonsense!! What do you guys think we are, huh?! Disposable blades? Hell no!!”

Daz’s outburst sparked several more, and all of them were in concurrence with his opinion. Yasmin glanced around, noticing several soldiers, of both the trainees squad and the Garrison, that were turning to leave. Daz was, of course, among them.

“Hey! Wait!!” The Garrison soldier was on Daz’s tail, but his confidence had obviously waned. “Do you want a capital offense on your head?!”

“Humanity’s done for!” came Daz’s reply. “I’m spending what little time is left with my family!!”

A few moments later, Captain Woermann stepped out in front of the retreating crowd, brandishing his blades.

“Say your prayers, you traitors!!” he cried. “Try to leave, and I'll cut you down right where you stand!!”

“Here are my orders!!” Pyxis’ voice rang out loud and clear to the anxious crowd. “Those of you who leave the place now will all be pardoned!” Again, the soldiers fell into silence, stunned by Pyxis’ command. “Titans are horrifying creatures, and once someone gives in to that fear, they can never fight one of them again! Those of you who have already experienced that dread are free to leave! And also--those of you who would allow their own parents, siblings, and loved ones to experience such terror for themselves are all free to walk away!”

 

………

 

I have no idea if I’ll be able to use that “Titan power” thing to pick up that rock, Eren realized as he stood with his fist clenched against his chest. But my duty is clear enough… Yeah, the whole thing may well be just a sham, but still, I have to succeed nevertheless… This is something I must do… I just have to…for the sake of bringing hope

“Let us talk about four years ago! About the operation for the recovery of Wall Maria!” Pyxis shouted down to the soldiers. Eren's face darkened at the thought of the event. He figured that, standing behind him, Armin was probably wearing a similar expression.

“I believe I needn’t bother with an explanation!” Pyxis continued. “You all understand where I’m going with this! A reconnaissance plan!! It had a nice ring to it! But essentially, it was just a culling of the unemployed masses the government could no longer afford to support! Everybody kept quiet about it, thus allowing them to be driven out to their collective doom! Thanks to their sacrifice, we have been able to survive within the confined space of these walls! It was a sin of which all of us humans are guilty, myself included!!

“Conflict with the inhabitants of Wall Maria never became a prominent issue, since they’ve always attacked in small groups! But what now?! If Wall Rose is breached, we won’t get away with a mere twenty percent less mouths to feed! With only Wall Sina left to live in, not even half of what remains of humanity would live on! If the human race dies out, it won’t be because the Titans devoured us all, but because we humans became our own bane!”

As he listened to Pyxis speak, Eren thought back to their earlier conversation, regarding a common enemy for humankind to unite against.

There is no such thing, Eren told himself. But in the midst of fear, people will believe anything. That’s part of how we got ourselves to this point.

“We cannot allow death to proceed any further within our walls!” Pyxis shouted. “Therefore, I ask this of you--please die here today!”

Eren felt a hand on his shoulder; he turned to see Ian Dietrich, the soldier Commander Pyxis had designated as leader for the mission. Behind him stood the other Garrison elite soldiers, Mitabi Jarnich and Rico Brzenska, and their respective squads. Among them was Mikasa; her dark grey-blue eyes stared Eren down, as if telling him, ‘it’s time to go.’

Yeah. I know.

Turning to face his fellow soldiers, Eren nodded, and together they began to run toward their starting location along Wall Rose.

“Eren…” Mikasa’s voice was loud and clear despite all of the background noise. “Are you feeling all right?”

“Yeah,” Eren grunted in response. “Much better than when we were surrounded, anyway…”

“They said you were a human weapon or whatever,” Ian said, looking at Eren over his shoulder. “So long as you’re able to close up that wall, I don’t care. We’ll make protecting you our highest priority. We’re counting on you!”

“Y-Yes, sir!”

“We’ll reach the shortest route to the rock soon,” the Garrison soldier continued. “As far as I can tell, there are no Titans in sight.” As Ian spoke, Eren looked at where they had come running from; there were already soldiers lining up and taking their spots as decoys to draw the Titans' attention, just like Armin had planned. As stunning as the sight was, he couldn’t help but feel a slight twinge of guilt. How many of those people were his friends? How many of them would make it out alive?

Turning to face forward again, Eren replayed Pyxis’ words in his mind over and over again to distract himself from negativity. If he could manage to plug up that hole, it would be a victory for mankind--their first real victory against the Titans. And if they could just keep up that winning streak, they could go back to Shiganshina.

“I can’t believe this--our fate lies in the hands of this brat.”

From behind him, Eren could hear Mitabi muttering to himself. But before Eren could interrupt or retort, a blur of tan and white appeared beside him. Rico only looked at Eren for a split-second before redirecting her gaze back to the front.

“Just so you know, Jaeger,” she said, her voice low and serious. “More than just a few soldiers will die during this operation--all for you. Our colleagues, our seniors, and our juniors… They’re prepared to die, of course--they’re soldiers. But they aren’t faceless pawns.” Rico kept her eyes fixed on Ian’s back as she spoke; Eren watched her face closely, but her expression stayed stern.

“They have names, families, and hopes and dreams of their own,” she continued as they ran on. “Alyosha, Dominic, Fine, Isabel, Ludwig, Martina, Guido, Hannes. They’re all real people, flesh and blood. Some have been living under the same roof since their cadet days. And many of those people could end up dying for you today. It’s your duty to make sure their deaths aren’t in vain, regardless of what happens in the end.” At last, Rico flicked her eyes at Eren. “So fulfill your duty with absolute seriousness.”

“Understood,” Eren replied, nodding once. Despite her intimidating tone and serious expression, she was obviously speaking from her heart; Eren knew it would be foolish to dismiss her words.

“Over here!” Ian shouted, dragging Eren out of his thoughts. “Let’s go!!”

Without another word, Eren leaped off of the wall, launching himself forward with his 3D gear. He could see his target--the giant boulder--straight ahead of him. Again, Pyxis’ words rang out in his mind loud and clear.

This is…one step forward for humanity! Eren thought, clamping his jaw down into his thumb.

 

………

 

When you think about it on a human scale, there is simply no way someone could pick up that stone, Mikasa realized as she watched Eren step toward the rock in his full-bodied Titan form. Landing on a rooftop near him, she kept her gaze on her friend, blades at the ready to come to his defense. But we can count on Eren’s power to show us the way. I’m sure of it.

To her surprise, Eren stopped walking and slowly looked over his shoulder at her.

“Eren?” she murmured, raising her eyebrows.

In what felt like just a split second, Eren’s giant fist was coming right at her; she was able to dodge the blow, but she could not avoid the damage to the environment around her. Wincing as she fell onto the rooftop, she felt a shingle scrape across her right cheek.

But Mikasa had no time to worry about her face--Eren was already rearing back for another punch. This time, though, she was prepared. As Eren’s fist collided with the roof, she launched a hook from her 3D gear into Eren’s shoulder and pulled herself toward him.

“Hey!? Mikasa, stop it! Get away from that thing!!”

Ignoring Ian’s cries, Mikasa landed right on Eren’s face. She stared into his large eyes, which were fixed on her.

“Eren!” she shouted. “Don’t you recognize me?! It’s me, Mikasa! I’m your family!! You need to pick up that boulder and plug up the hole!!”

Mikasa was interrupted briefly by the sound of a gunshot. From out of the corner of her eye, she could see Rico shooting up a flare to alert the decoy troops of a failed mission. Quickly, she turned back to Eren.

“Eren!! You are human!!” she cried. “You are--“

“Mikasa, move!!”

Mikasa jumped out of the way just in time; Eren’s fist slammed into his face, knocking himself off balance in the process. She watched over her shoulder as he collapsed onto the ground, right up against the very rock he should have already been carrying away.

“What’s the deal…?” Rico muttered as Mikasa landed beside them.

“It’s just one of those brainless Titans…” Mitabi sighed.

“Eren!” Mikasa shouted. But there was no response.

“Squad Leader Ian!” a soldier from afar called out. “Titans approaching from the front gate--two of them, ten and six meter class!”

“There is one more behind us!” another soldier shouted. “Twelve meters! And it’s coming our way, sir!”

“Ian! I say we should retreat!!” Mitabi exclaimed. “Closing up the gate was never a job for some kid, anyway!”

“Yeah…it’s a kick to our asses, but we should get out of here,” Rico agreed.

Mikasa could not believe what she was hearing. Surely Ian would not agree with them. Surely he knew better than that.

Turning to face him, Mikasa gritted her teeth. She couldn’t put her thoughts into words that would be convincing enough to win him over, but she could tell by his expression when he looked back at her that he understood her point. No matter what they decided, she would not leave Eren behind, and there was no good reason as to why they, too, should give up now.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 19: Struggle

 

Yasmin had not realized that her breathing had been so shallow until she was back up on top of the wall. Pressed up against the wall down below her were dozens upon dozens of Titans. So far, their attention had been drawn toward the wall, as Armin’s plan had predicted. But how long would they stay like this?

“You all right?” Yasmin looked up at the sound of the familiar voice. Reiner’s face looked worried. “Don’t worry--we’ll be safe up here.”

“Y-yeah, you’re right,” Yasmin agreed, nodding. “I’ll be fine, thanks.”

“Hey, look at that!”

Yasmin turned to look at Marco, who was pointing across the way toward a pillar of red smoke. It was coming from the direction that the elite team had gone off in; she assumed it must be a flare. But a red flare meant a failed mission--was this a mistake, or had things really gone to shit so quickly?

“Red smoke,” Armin murmured, his blue eyes wide with shock.

“Does that mean they failed…?” Marco wondered, staring out at the signal.

“Why…?”

Without any warning, Armin quickly unbuckled his spare gas tank pack and set it on the ground next to Marco. He then bolted off, not bothering to explain himself as he broke into a run along the wall.

“Armin!” Reiner called out as the blond passed.

“Armin!?” Marco shouted after him, but it was too late. Armin sprinted away from his squad and the rest of the soldiers on the wall.

“What is he thinking?!” Sasha breathed, wide-eyed. “The mission failed, right?! Running off now is suicide!”

“No,” Yasmin said quickly, squinting as she tried to follow Armin’s path. “Armin’s plan got us this far--he must have something in mind.”

“This mission…can’t be over yet,” Marco agreed, nodding solemnly. “We just have to trust that the others will pull through for us.”

 

 

Huh? What the…? What am I doing here? Am I sitting…? I can’t see a thing… What day is it today? Where am I?

Slowly, Eren opened his eyes, squinting as his vision adjusted to the sunlight pouring into the room.

What…? Oh. I’m home…

Though the people in front of Eren all had their backs to him, he could tell from their silhouettes alone who they were: his family. And this was most definitely his house. He was wrapped up in his blanket, curled up on the bench in their kitchen.

Yawning, Eren pulled the blanket tighter around his body and settled into the cushion behind him.

“Sleep…”

Just as Eren closed his eyes and was back to feeling relaxed, a loud noise jolted him awake again. His whole body trembled in shock.

“Eren!! Can you hear me!?”

Opening his eyes, Eren looked over his shoulder to see Armin standing outside the kitchen window. His voice was muffled, but he was making enough of a ruckus by smacking his fists on the window pane that Eren could not completely ignore him.

“Get a hold of yourself!!” Armin shouted. “Get out of here, or we’re all gonna die!! Don’t you give into some lame Titan’s body!! Now, quick!! Get the heck out of this lump of flesh!!”

Eren sighed through his nose, his eyelids feeling heavy.

“Get out of here? Why…?” Eren turned away from Armin. “I feel like…sleeping…”

There was a pause, and Eren started to drift off again, but Armin’s shouting interrupted him.

“Who’s gonna avenge your mother, then?!” he screamed, slamming his fist against the window over and over. “What happened to wiping out the Titans?! You hate them, don’t you? They killed your mother!!”

Eren looked back at the frantic Armin with a slightly agape mouth. Now Armin was just talking nonsense, and Eren had no idea why.

“What are you talking about, Armin?” Eren asked, turning his gaze from Armin to his mother, who was washing dishes at the sink with Mikasa. “My mom is standing right here.”

But Armin just kept screaming, as if he could not hear Eren at all.

“Wake up!” he shouted. “Eren!? Are you here?! Hey!? If I stay here any longer, I’m going to be killed by Titans! I’m going to die!!”

“So…what are you saying?” Eren asked. “I don’t understand, Armin… Why do you have to stay outside…? What’s the point…?” Turning away from Armin, Eren lowered his gaze. “Why even bother joining the Survey Corps…?”

When Armin spoke again, his voice was quieter and much gentler.

“Eren…weren’t we going to explore the outside world someday?” At Armin’s words, Eren felt his eyes widen, and he lifted his head again. “Outside these walls…the distant sea, and the vast land of ice, and the fields of snow… But I thought maybe you stopped talking about it to protect me, right? To stop me from joining the Survey Corps, right?”

“…The outside world…?” Eren whispered, and as if he had lost control of his body, he suddenly found himself standing up.

“Eren, answer me,” Armin continued. “If you take even one step outside the walls, you will enter a hellish world.” At this statement, Eren looked at Armin over his shoulder. “So why, Eren? Why do you want to go to the outside world?”

“…Why…?” Eren echoed, turning to face Armin. “Because…because I was born into this world!!”

 

………

 

“Five Titans are coming from the breach!” Ian’s voice echoed through the air. Mikasa turned to face the squad leader as he continued his orders. “Retreat for now! Because of the situation with Eren--“

It caught Mikasa’s attention just as it did Ian’s--a giant boulder moving through the air, supported by a hulking, moving mass of muscles. Though his footsteps were slow and heavy, Eren was pushing forward at last. The sight made Mikasa’s breath catch, and she felt tears come to her eyes in amazement and relief.

“A great number of Titans are closing in from behind!”

Mikasa turned at the sound of the familiar voice; she watched as Armin landed on the rooftop nearby, running over to her squad.

“Armin!” she gasped, running to meet him.

“Eren won!” Armin exclaimed, red in the face. “Now he can carry out this mission! If we cover Eren until he reaches the breach, it’ll be our victory!!”

Armin’s words were like a signal to the Garrison soldiers; they brought their blades up and at the ready, burning with determination.

“Defend Eren to the last!” Ian shouted as his men took off toward the Titans. “Protect him up to the breach, even if it costs us our lives!!”

Mikasa stared up at Ian as he turned toward her and Armin.

“You two, stay with Eren!” he told them. Mikasa felt a jolt of surprise, and she heard a quiet gasp of surprise from Armin beside her. “That’s an order! Got it?!”

“Understood!” Mikasa cried, saluting; Armin did the same in unison.

But before they could part ways, Ian came to a halt on the rooftop. It took Mikasa a moment to realize what the hold-up was.

“Mitabi’s squad…?!” Ian gasped. “What…?!”

Down below, Mitabi and his squad were running directly toward a group of Titans that was headed in Eren's direction. Though what they were doing was practically suicidal, Mikasa understood what they were thinking: there was no better way to get the attention of the Titans that providing live bait.

“The Titans might eat us!!” Mitabi shouted back up at Ian. “But we have no choice but to get closer and risk being eaten!”

“Look at us, you bastards!” a member of Mitabi’s squad shouted up at the Titans.

“If you don’t look over here, we’ll cut your asses to pieces!” Mitabi joined him, standing out in the open with his squad.

As if irritated by the jeers, a couple of the Titans from that group turned and began lumbering toward the squad.

“They’re coming! It's working!” one squad member shouted.

“Run!!” Mitabi screamed, now at a full sprint with his squad. “Run to the buildings!!”

“Going down there like that is suicide!” Armin exclaimed, his face now pale with fear. “With no horses no buildings, there’s no way to fight!!”

“No…” Ian murmured from beside Mikasa. “Now, that’s their only choice…” Taking a deep breath through his nose, the squad leader turned back to the other members of his squad. “Follow Mitabi’s team!! By luring them toward us, we’ll be free to protect Eren!!”

 

………

 

My body…feels like it’s being crushed, Eren thought as he watched a squad of Garrison soldiers go running out toward the nearby Titans. Right behind them, two familiar faces appeared; they stared up at him, wide-eyed.

Mikasa…Armin…what are you doing? Eren watched as they began running away, directly in front of him, as if to lead him down the path. If you walk around down there, you’ll fall prey to the Titans…

With one heavy step after another, Eren kept walking, the boulder hoisted above his head. Though his body felt pushed to its limits, his spirit felt stronger than ever.

“Why do you want to go to the outside world?”

Armin’s question echoed in Eren’s mind.

From the moment we are all born, we are free, Eren realized, watching the chaos around him with a heavy heart. It doesn’t matter how strong you are--even if you try to reject it…! The flaming water, the vast lands of ice--it doesn’t matter what it is! To see that would mean I have become the most free person in the world…

With another step forward, Eren let out a deep breath. He was slowly but surely closing in on the breach.

Fight!! he told himself, pushing forward. I would willingly give my life for that freedom! It doesn’t matter how terrifying the world is. It doesn’t matter how cruel the world is!

Below, he could see Mikasa and Armin staring up at one particular Titan; when Eren glanced in that direction, he noticed Ian in its jaws. A second later, and all but the squad leader’s head had been consumed.

Fight!

There was one last Titan between Eren and the hole. He watched as Mikasa and Armin ran forward toward it, preparing to engage in battle. But before they could reach it, another soldier swooped in, slicing the Titan in the eyes. Rico hopped down, having sufficiently blinded it, and so Mikasa took her turn to finish the job.

Fight!!

Eren was now just mere steps away from the breach. A few more steps, and humanity would have its first victory.

“GOOOOO, EREN!!”

Eren heard Armin’s cry loud and clear; it gave him the last bit of strength he needed to thrust the boulder down in its place.

FIGHT!!

 

………

 

How did it come down to this? Erin wondered, looking around at her fellow soldiers. From afar, she could barely make out her sister’s figure, as well as Milena’s, following after Reiner and Yasmin’s squad. …No. Keep going.

Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a pillar of smoke--but this time, it was yellow smoke shooting up in the air.

“Yellow?!” she breathed. “That means…”

“Mission success!?” another soldier gasped from beside her. He looked as skeptical as Erin felt. Still, she could only assume that the signal was correct; no other flares accompanied it, so it didn’t seem like a mistake. It instead felt more like a dream.

“What do we do now, Caprice?” she called out to their squad leader--a Garrison soldier just one year senior than her.

“Head toward the elite team’s location!” the girl shouted, pointing her blade in their direction. “Kill any Titans that get in your way! We have to back them up and get everyone back home!”

“Understood!”

I can’t believe it, Erin thought, taking off into a sprint across the rooftop. Eren did it. I can’t believe it. We’re going to be all right. We’re not doomed.

Glancing at the Garrison logo on her squad leader’s back, Erin felt her throat grow tight. It was all she could do to hold back her tears.

Grandpa…you would be so proud, she realized, unable to hide a smile. Look what Rosie and I helped do. Look what humanity did! And it’s not the last thing we’re going to do, either!

Her heart beating in her throat, Erin shook her hair out of her eyes. She felt the most energetic that she had felt in years, and her grip on her blades tightened as she continued on after Caprice and the others.

Yeah…even if I retire early, I helped do this, she told herself. Bertholdt, Reiner, Annie…every single one of my friends contributed to humanity. We should be proud of ourselves, no matter what might happen after this.

A loud shriek sounded from just behind her, forcing Erin out of her thoughts. Turning, Erin could see that a Titan had snatched one of her squad mates. The sight made her stop in her tracks.

“Keep going!” Caprice shouted, but Erin could not force herself to run. It took another squad member’s tug on her arm to get her moving again. “Protect the elite squad at all costs! That’s an order! No exceptions!”

Though her feet were moving again, Erin had her head turned toward the Titan; she watched as it clumsily attempted to climb up on the roof to chase after them. When she took a closer look, she could see that what hindered it so was that it could only use one hand. The other hand held her squad member, who was still struggling in its grip.

…She’s still alive?! Erin gasped, keeping an eye on the Titan. …What do I do…? What would Rosie do? And Bertholdt? Reiner? Yasmin, and Milena--they all would do the same thing… They would fight. But I…

“Watch out!!”

Erin turned just in time to avoid a giant hand coming in her direction. She quickly hopped out of the way; the boy who had been holding her arm was not so lucky.

“Harper!” she gasped. It was all she could do to keep after Caprice now, but with all of the distractions, she had fallen several more paces behind her squad leader. “Dammit…”

Erin’s steps were slower now, and filled with hesitation and regret.

I should have helped her… she told herself, gritting her teeth. But I’m…not cut out to be a soldier, am I…? Rosie, I’m so sorry, but you were wrong.

A loud crash from behind made Erin turn her head again. To her horror, the Titan who had killed Harper was closing in, smashing its hand onto the roof every chance it could in an effort to catch her.

“Don’t leave me behind--!!” Erin screamed, sprinting toward Caprice. Reacting instinctively, she pulled out the launchers on her gear and hooked herself into a nearby building to make up for the distance she had lost.

Just as she shot off, Erin felt a jerk on her line. Down below was yet another Titan, albeit small, and its hands had grabbed the wires of her 3D gear.

Before she could react, she felt her body fly forward. No longer in control of what direction she could move, Erin grasped at her gear, trying to regain control of her line. But before she could even think to correct her movements or brace herself for impact, her body crashed into the roof below, then tumbled down into an alleyway.

I can’t move, she realized, sprawled out on the stone pathway. …It hurts… Rosie…it hurts… Please…

 

………

 

It took every last bit of strength for Eren to push himself out from the nape of his Titan form’s neck. As he emerged, he was hit with a blast of steam from his decaying Titan body. Around him he could hear the sounds of screams and shouts, including those with voices familiar to him.

Though he was barely conscious, Eren felt someone grab his body, pulling on it.

“It’s hot!” It was Armin, and though he was putting up a good fight, Eren’s body was still tightly fused to his Titan.

“Armin! How’s Eren?!” The voice sounded distant, but it was definitely Mikasa’s.

“He’s got an incredibly high fever!” Armin shouted back, still tugging on Eren’s body. “He can’t climb the wall in this condition…!”

Even with his eyes closed, Eren could sense Mikasa’s presence draw near. Armin’s voice also quieted down, and so Eren could only assume that she had joined him in his efforts.

“Shit,” Armin muttered. “He’s still completely fused into this other body! We can’t pull it out or remove it!”

“There’s no way out but to cut it!” came a third voice. Eren assumed it to be Rico--or at least, he hoped it was. Anyone else trying to cut him out of his Titan might do more damage than necessary, after all.

“W-wait, please!” Mikasa cried, but she was too late. Eren felt himself go tumbling down, with Armin still hanging on to him. After feeling his body touch solid ground, Eren finally had the strength to open his eyes, but as he did, he was greeted by the sight of two Titans approaching.

“Eren! Armin!” Mikasa screamed from nearby.

In the blink of an eye, a figure appeared between the Titans. Two blades came slicing down into the first’s neck, then the second’s--and all in a matter of a few seconds.

“Mikasa!?” Armin gasped as he moved himself and Eren away from the chaos of the falling Titan bodies. But from what Eren could see, Mikasa was right beside them.

“That’s…” Mikasa’s voice trailed off, and Eren soon could see why.

The wings…of freedom… he realized, staring at the green Survey Corps cloak.

From his perch on one of the decaying Titan corpses, Captain Levi slowly turned over his shoulder, staring down at the trio.

“Hey, you brats…” he said. Eren stared up at the man, whose visage was shadowed by his black hair. “…What’s the situation here?”

 

 

Chapter Text

“Ugh, I’m tired,” Jean groaned, his footsteps heavy with exhaustion. Beside him was Marco, as alert as ever; the brunet made no immediate reply to Jean’s complaint, and so Jean continued to follow his comrades back toward the supply wagons. It had been yet another long day of training, and with the evaluation on top of that, Jean felt so tired that, were he to lie down at that moment, he knew he would immediately fall asleep.

“…I think you’d make a better leader, Jean,” Marco said, breaking the silence and pulling the conversation back toward their previous discussion.

“Me?” Jean chuckled under his breath. “You can’t be serious. Courage isn’t really one of my best qualities.”

Jean paused, glancing at Marco. He didn’t seem as though he was joking around, or trying to make Jean feel better. His eyes looked honest.

“What makes you think that?” Jean then asked.

“Well…don’t get mad at me for saying this…” Marco prefaced, looking a little hesitant. “But you…you’re not a strong person, Jean. So that means you can really understand the feelings of weak people.”

“…What the hell?” Jean muttered, giving Marco an irritated look. Was he just messing around now?

“It makes you adept at judging any situation accurately,” Marco insisted. “So you know exactly what to do at all times.”

Though Marco’s words sounded like a joke, the smile on his freckled face told differently. It was one of admiration, which made Jean feel embarrassed enough to look away.

“…That’s why,” Marco said. “Do you understand?”

 

Wiping the sweat from her brow, Yasmin turned to face Sasha, who had dropped down onto one knee beside her.

“I can’t do this anymore,” the teen whispered, eyes wide. “I wanna go home…”

“Hang in there, Sasha,” Yasmin said, pulling the teen to her feet again. “We’re almost there.”

It had only been a few minutes since they had seen the yellow smoke flare, but already Yasmin and her squad members were retreating back toward Wall Rose. Still, it wasn’t without disruption, as there were still swarms of Titans everywhere they looked.

Luckily, Yasmin had Reiner Braun on her side.

“Keep pulling back!” the blond shouted as he finished off yet another Titan. His chiseled face was covered in sweat. There was no doubt in Yasmin’s mind that he must be exhausted, but he was still fighting, and she couldn’t help but admire him for that. “Don’t stop now!!”

“We’ll be fine,” Yasmin reassured Sasha, releasing her arm. Sighing, Sasha nodded, and the two followed after Reiner as he closed in on another Titan. It, too, came crashing down into the nearby rooftop without being able to put up much of a fight.

“How does he do it?” Sasha wondered out loud, staring at their comrade. “He’s so strong…”

“I won’t question it,” Yasmin admitted. “As long as he’s with us, we’ll be fine.”

A few moments later, another soldier came down on the rooftop beside them; it was Annie, and she wore an unusually distressed look on her face.

“Reiner!” she shouted, and the blond stopped, turning to face her. “We need your help! Now!”

“Annie, I can’t just leave,” Reiner called back, gesturing to the chaos around him.

Now!” Annie repeated, her voice cracking.

“What happened?” Yasmin asked, feeling a wave of panic. But Annie did not respond, and soon she and Reiner were rushing off on their 3D gear.

“Yasmin! You lead the squad!” Reiner shouted over his shoulder before disappearing behind a building.

“Me?!” Yasmin gasped.

“Oh no,” Sasha said quietly. “We can’t possibly keep up killing all these Titans without him…!!”

Again, Sasha dropped to her knees, holding her head in her hands.

“I want to go home!” she shrieked. This time, Yasmin could say nothing to console her. In fact, she thought about joining her.

“There’s just no way…”

It wasn’t just that she doubted her ability to lead--it was the fact that they were surrounded by Titans. Reiner had been working as their primary attacker, and he had been doing an excellent job of it. Yasmin knew she could not possibly keep up his pace.

Dammit, we’re so close…!! she thought, looking back at Wall Rose.

“What do we do, Yasmin?” one of her squad members asked.

“We can’t just cut through them like he did!” another said.

“…But what other choice do we even have…?” Yasmin murmured, turning to her companions. “If we don’t fight--“

Yasmin’s words came to a screeching halt as she noticed one of the surrounding Titans quickly approaching them.

“Move!” she shouted, pulling Sasha to her feet again.

Just as the Titan started to reach for the group, a blur of green and brown came flying in from above. Down came the Titan, its upper body landing on the rooftop with a loud crash. Yasmin stumbled back, just inches away from where it landed.

Through the steam rising from the wound in the Titan’s neck, a figure straightened up; Yasmin could make out the Survey Corps crest on the back of the person’s cloak.

The Survey Corps?! They're already back!? she thought, staring up the blue-and-white emblem in surprise.

Suddenly, another figure landed in front of them; he wore a stern expression and held two blood-covered blades in his hands. He, too, wore the symbol of the Survey Corps on his uniform.

“Get going!” he told them, wisps of his brown hair blowing in the wind. “We’ll clean up here! You guys retreat to the wall!”

“Th-thank you for saving us!!” Sasha cried, her voice squeaking.

“There’s no time for that,” the man said, but Yasmin could see a hint of a smile on his face. “Just get out of here!”

“Understood!” Yasmin exclaimed, saluting to the man. Her comrades did the same, and soon they had reassembled themselves into formation.

Wait a minute, Yasmin thought as she began to run off. Quickly, she turned to look at the Survey Corps soldiers again. …I know I’ve seen that guy before--he was in the procession earlier! And the woman that was with him…

From the smoke of the Titan’s corpse, a female Survey Corps soldier hopped down next to her companion. When she glanced back at the group, Yasmin met her gaze; it was indeed the same woman from the Survey Corps procession.

“Yasmin, c’mon!”

At Sasha’s terrified voice, Yasmin looked away from the soldiers and back to her own squad. Together, they took off toward Wall Rose, leaving the Survey Corps elites to take care of the Titans.

 

………

 

Sighing, Jean felt a chill go down his spine as he turned down the street to find yet another collection of dead bodies waiting for him. It had been two days since their victory at Trost, and since then, all of the soldiers who had lived had but one task: to gather up the dead. For Jean, it meant seeing the same sight over and over--people crying and screaming over loved ones and friends who had passed--and the stench… Even through the cloth wrap across his nose and mouth, Jean could still smell the rotting flesh of his comrades.

As he slowly walked up to the next corpse, he glanced down at his blood-covered gloves. How much longer would this last? How much longer would he have to live in this hell?

Jean found the answer to his question when he looked up from his hands and down at the dead body in front of him. It took a few moments for him to register what he was looking at, but when he finally did, his eyes widened in shock.

“…Hey…” he murmured, staring down at the mutilated corpse. A large chunk of his head was missing, as well as his right arm and shoulder. The body was lying up against a wall, but when Jean took a closer look, it seemed as though his head had been smashed into the wood; the paneling was bent from impact, and there was broken glass all around him.

“…M-Marco…?” Jean whispered, staring down at what was left of his friend. “H-hey, Marco…? Is that…you…?”

Marco’s normally bright hazel eyes--or rather, what was left of them--were fixed straight ahead, and his skin was wrinkled and pale. The longer Jean stared, the less it looked like Marco. But the faded freckles dotted across the remainder of his face gave it away.

“Trainee.” Jean could not pull his gaze away from Marco, even at the sound of a nearby nurse’s voice. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the woman approach him. “Do you know his name?”

“…” Jean had to concentrate harder than usual just to speak, and when he finally did, he could only stammer out his disbelief. “I thought I hadn’t seen much of him lately…but…him, of all people… This is just insane… Marco…what happened?”

Slowly lowering his hands to his sides, Jean turned away from Marco’s corpse and looked around.

“Somebody…somebody…anybody…” he breathed. “Anyone who saw his last moments…” But Jean couldn’t think straight at all--he couldn’t even remember who else had been in Marco’s squad.

“Do you know his name? If so, I could use a prompt answer,” the nurse stated. Her voice startled Jean a bit; he had forgotten she was there. “…You need to understand, trainee. It’s been two days since the breach was sealed. Yet we still aren’t done retrieving all the corpses. At this rate, we’re facing a risk of widespread contamination. We have to prevent yet another catastrophe.”

Jean turned his gaze toward the woman; she met his stare with icy blue eyes, lined with wrinkles.

“You don’t have time for grieving over your friend at the moment,” she told him. “Understood?”

Any other day, at any other time, under any other circumstances, Jean would have had a comeback. He would have fought her on that, and he would have raised a little bit of hell. But he felt drained, and he had to force himself to look at Marco again.

“…104th trainees’ corps…leader of…the 19th squad…Marco Bodt…”

Saying it out loud sounded too official, too real. Jean couldn’t bring himself to say anything more.

“Marco, eh? It’s good that you know his name,” the nurse said, scribbling away on her notepad. “You may proceed.”

But Jean did not move from his spot even after the nurse had left. He kept staring down at Marco, unable to do anything more.

How…? he wondered. How in the world did this happen…to you, of all people? Does anyone know…? Armin? Connie? Yasmin…?

The thought struck Jean hard, so hard that he finally was able to look away from Marco again. Surely, if Yasmin had heard about this, she would have already been here, and Marco’s body would probably already be in the pile with the rest of the corpses. So then…

Shit, Jean thought, sighing. She already hates me. And now I… If I don’t tell her, who will…? I…don’t want to…

 

………

 

“How…?”

Yasmin could barely hear herself over Rosaleen’s screams from beside her. It felt as if she was just in a bad dream, and that she would wake up any moment. But she could feel Milena’s hand release hers as she went to comfort the shrieking red-head, so she knew she must be conscious. That meant, of course, that this gut-wrenching scene before her was real.

“ERIN!” Rosaleen wailed, dropping down onto her hands and knees in front of her sister’s corpse. “ERIN, WAKE UP!”

But there was no waking up--not for Yasmin, and definitely not for Erin. The girl’s round green eyes were sunken into her skull and staring up at the sky. Her head rested in a pool of her own dried blood, and her limbs were bent at odd angles. Uniform in tatters, 3D gear busted--whatever end she had come to had not been a pleasant one.

Erin…you never deserved this… Yasmin thought, gritting her teeth as tears spilled from her eyes.

“We were going to join the Garrison together!” Rosaleen screeched, her words mixing with her desperate sobs. “Why?! WHY?!” Wailing, she wrapped her arms around herself. “I couldn’t protect you--!!”

“It’s not your fault,” Milena said quietly, hugging Rosaleen around the shoulders. “It’s not your fault. Not one of us is to blame for this.”

“But I...!!” Rosaleen looked up at Milena, eyes wide and red-rimmed. “If I had never pressured her...!! If I had never dragged her into this...!! If I hadn’t…” Her words trailed off and were quickly replaced by sobs. “This is…my fault…”

Yasmin knew that Rosaleen was not at fault for this, but she couldn't find the right words to tell her so. She felt helpless, and so she simply kneeled down beside her friends, doing her best to keep her emotions in check.

Please, wherever you are, be at peace, she prayed, looking at Erin’s lifeless face. She watched in silence as Milena draped Erin’s arm across her chest, as if she was saluting. …You never really said it, but…you were always worrying about us, right? …We’ll be okay. I promise.

“Yasmin…?”

Of all the voices Yasmin knew, this was the last one she had expected--or wanted--to hear. Lifting her eyes, her gaze met Jean Kirschstein’s. Though she could only see his eyes due to the cloth tied around his face, he looked disturbingly somber.

“What?” Yasmin hissed, not moving from her spot beside Milena and Rosaleen. Fuck you, Jean. Can’t you see what’s going on?!

“…I…need you to come with me,” he said quietly. At his request, Yasmin stood up quickly.

“Why?” she asked, irritated. “What makes you think you can just come over here and--“

“Look, just shut up, all right?!” Jean snapped. “I’m not coming over here to be an asshole. I came over here because there’s something you need to see.”

“…” Hesitating, Yasmin looked down at Rosaleen and Milena; the latter’s attention had been drawn up to the conflict, and she furrowed her brows. Judging by the expression on her face, she seemed to be thinking the same thing: if Jean bothered coming over here, he must have a damn good reason.

“Fine,” Yasmin muttered, walking toward Jean with narrowed eyes. “What do you want?”

“…It’s just over here,” he told her. Yasmin was a bit surprised at his tone; even when he had snapped at her, he still seemed incredibly listless compared to his usual loud-mouthed self.

The two rounded the corner, and Yasmin could not immediately see anything unusual about the situation. This street was the same as all of them--littered with dead bodies and broken glass.

But as they continued down the street, Yasmin caught sight of their destination; she stopped in her tracks, despite still being several feet away from where she had to go.

“No,” she said, her entire body tensing up.

“Yasmin…” Jean’s voice sounded tired, and had she run off, he probably would not have chased her down. But she instead slowly pushed forward toward the corpse.

“…You…” Yasmin was now just inches away from him, staring down at what was once the face of her best friend. “…Jean…what am I looking at?”

“…Don’t make me say it,” Jean replied, his voice shaking.

“Jean,” Yasmin repeated, her eyes growing wide as she kneeled down and stared at the pale freckled face before her. “What am I looking at?! What is this!?”

“Goddammit, Yasmin…” Jean let out a laugh, but it was obvious that he was holding back tears. “…It’s Marco. He… Marco died…”

“Please, no,” Yasmin gasped, reaching out toward Marco’s face. As gently as she could, she ran her hand over his blood-stained hair. “This is…a joke…right?”

When Jean didn’t reply, Yasmin’s hand dropped to Marco’s chest, where his hand was resting.

“Mar…co…” His hand was cold in hers; it felt so insanely unnatural to her. “Marco…you can’t be…”

Haven’t I held your hand like this before--and it fixed everything, right? she thought, her vision blurring with her tears. Why isn’t it working…? Marco…?

“Marco…” Yasmin lowered her head, gasping for breath as her body shook with sobs. “Please… Marco… I thought…that you…were…”

What happened to our dreams…? she thought as she let her tears fall openly. What happened to the things we promised each other?! What does that mean now?! Marco…you weren’t supposed to leave me like this…!

Yasmin’s thoughts were interrupted by the sensation of warmth on her shoulder. Glancing up, she watched as Jean kneeled beside her; through her blurred vision she could see tears rolling from his eyes and into his face wrap. His hand gripped her shoulder tightly; the gesture was small, but it was enough to let her know that he understood.

“How…?!” Yasmin breathed, turning her gaze back to her childhood friend. Her hand stayed wrapped around his.

“…I don’t know,” Jean replied quietly.

“He…couldn’t have…” Again, Yasmin lowered her head, letting her tears fall to the stone path. Her own face wrap was already soaked with tears, and she could barely keep her breathing steady.

What the hell happened to you…?! she wondered. How did this happen?! …Marco… I’m so sorry. I…couldn’t do anything for you… I don’t even know what you died for… I’m so…useless…and weak…

“…You’re really strong.”

Lifting her head, Yasmin stared at Marco’s lifeless face. She could hear his voice as clear as day, and yet…

“In fact, you’re probably the strongest person I know--but the problem is that you don’t believe that you’re strong. And so you end up just like everyone else.”

I’m not strong, Marco… Not at all…

“…We should get going.” Jean’s voice sounded distant, but his hand was still on her shoulder. “Come on, Yasmin.”

Hesitantly, Yasmin glanced up at Jean, then back at Marco.

…I’m so sorry, Marco. I’m sorry I couldn’t do anything for you.

Gently, Yasmin released Marco’s hand; gasping for breath, she pulled her hand close to her chest as she continued to sob.

…Good-bye…

Without another word, Yasmin slipped out from Jean’s grip and stood upright again. She lifted her eyes to the sky, tears rolling down her cheeks like rain.

Please keep watching out for me, she thought, squeezing her eyes shut.

“Let’s go.”

Jean’s voice brought Yasmin back to the present; she opened her eyes to see him standing there with a tear-stained face.

Glancing back at Marco’s body one last time, Yasmin brought her hand to her heart in a salute. To her surprise, Jean stood beside her and did the same.

For Erin, and for Marco…

 

Chapter Text

“You lose your memory, and your dad is MIA, huh? Now that’s a convenient story.”

Captain Levi’s words alone were harsh enough, but Eren could tell by his tone that he was irritated.

“Levi…I thought we had already established that he has no reason to lie,” Commander Erwin replied, side-eying the cross soldier.

Eren couldn’t say anything in his own defense. Rather, it wasn’t that he didn’t have anything to say; it was just that he was already in a bad position as it was. Despite having saved humanity by blockading the wall, he had still ended up in prison. He had no freedom to talk.

“There are still a few things I’d like to know, but…as of now, I believe we should ask you what it is you want,” Erwin then said, turning back to Eren. The teen raised his eyebrows.

“What I want?” he echoed. Commander Erwin had presented a good enough idea as it was--Eren wasn’t sure why his opinion would make a difference.

“To inspect your house, we’d have to recover Shiganshina in Wall Maria,” the Commander explained. “The gate there is broken--blockading it quickly would require us to resort to your Titan’s power. Like it or not, the Titans have a definite influence on our fates. The Colossal Titan and the Armored Titan are like you, presumably…” Holding up Eren’s key, Erwin stared Eren down and continued, “Your will is the key. The ‘key’ that can allow humanity to escape this hopeless situation.”

“I… I…” Trembling, Eren lowered his gaze. Was Commander Erwin really right? Could he really help humanity…? As Eren began to recall all of the horrible moments in his life that had been brought upon by Titans, he realized that it was just like Trost--it didn’t matter if he could or not. This was something he had to do.

“Oi, hurry up and answer the question, you piece of shit,” Captain Levi said. “What is it you wanna do?”

His body shaking, Eren slowly looked back up at the Survey Corps elites, gritting his teeth. Yes…he had to take care of the Titans. Every last one…

“I want to join the Survey Corps…” Eren breathed. “…And I want to kill the Titans!”

“…Oh. Not bad.”

 

Though it had only been a few days since Armin had sat down to talk to Mikasa, it felt like an eternity had passed between them. For the past week, it had been nothing but body collection and, even worse, passing along the news to their comrades’ families. Armin had not known the people he delivered cloaks for, but he knew he was lucky. There were several of his friends that had brought home the bad news to the parents of close friends. Jean had delivered to the Wagner’s, for example, and Yasmin had brought home Marco’s cloak to Mrs. Bodt.

The bright side of it all was that it was done, and they could properly grieve for their friends, then move on to whatever was next. However, what was next to come was what concerned Armin the most--especially since his best friend was now in a Military Police-controlled prison.

“I heard that Eren is having a hearing,” Mikasa said quietly, taking a small spoonful of gruel to her lips. She looked as if she hadn’t slept in days.

“Yeah,” Armin murmured in reply.

“What kind of hearing?”

“I think…it’s to decide what to do with him.”

Mikasa flicked her dark grey eyes up at Armin for a moment.

“What to do with him…?”

Armin shifted his gaze away from his friend. He knew that she knew, and he didn’t want to say it, but there was no sense in running from the truth.

“…Whether to let him live, or to kill him,” he said quietly. In response, Mikasa slammed her hands on the table, standing straight up from the bench. She stared Armin down with wide, frightened eyes, as if waiting for more explanation. But Armin didn’t know much else, other than that the Military Police and the Survey Corps were the ones to battle it out.

“Mikasa Ackermann! Armin Arlert! Are you present?”

Standing at the sound of his name being called, Armin turned toward the door to see a man in a Military Police uniform standing there.

“Yes, that’s us,” Mikasa replied, pulling herself together.

“Your presence is required at a hearing,” the soldier told them. “Come with me.”

“Yes, sir!”

Armin glanced at Mikasa out of the corner of his eye. She seemed to be a little more relieved, and he couldn’t help but feel the same. Perhaps if they were there, they would be better able to help their friend.

Then again, what use does the Military Police really have for us? Armin thought, frowning as he followed the soldier outside.

When they stepped out into the street, there was a carriage waiting for them; a Military Police crest was on the side of it, and another officer was waiting by its door.

“We will escort you to the court house from here,” the first soldier said. “When you arrive, you will receive directions on where to go. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir,” Armin said. “Thank you.”

Before Mikasa could ask any questions, Armin saluted, and so Mikasa did the same. As the officer walked away, Armin relaxed his arms and gently took Mikasa’s hand, leading her toward the carriage. He thanked the Military Police soldier standing there and stepped inside, sliding to the end of the bench. Mikasa sat next to him, and the soldier slid in across from them, shutting the door behind him.

With a slight lurch, the carriage slowly began to move forward, and Armin peered through a gap in the curtains out to the streets.

“You both are friends with Eren Jaeger, then?”

Armin looked away from the window and instead to the Military Police officer. He had a gentle smile on his face, and his amber eyes seemed surprisingly friendly for a complete stranger.

“Yes,” Armin replied hesitantly. “Why do you ask?”

“You might have already figured this bit out, but you’ve both been called in as witnesses for his hearing,” the soldier said. Sighing through his nose, he ran a hand through his curly blond hair. “The Military Police has declared Eren’s efforts to seal the wall as a moot point compared to the threat he poses to humanity.”

“He’s not a threat,” Mikasa said quickly, and Armin glanced at his friend. He could tell she was fuming.

The soldier said nothing in reply, but he shifted his gaze to Armin.

“You’re the soldier who came up with that plan at Trost, aren’t you? Armin, is it?” he asked, and when Armin nodded, he smirked. “Then you would probably argue that Eren’s powers can be of use to humanity?”

“Absolutely,” Armin replied, nodding again. “And there’s no doubt in my mind that Eren would willingly cooperate with everyone to help take back Wall Maria, or whatever else may be necessary to defeat the Titans and get our territory back.” Armin paused before adding, “I understand the thought of him being dangerous, but isn’t not having him on our side just as bad, or worse?”

The soldier didn’t say anything at first, and Armin could not read his expression. His face seemed relaxed enough, but his eyes had a distant look to them, and for a moment Armin wondered if he had even been listening.

“Armin, do not ever forget what you have just told me,” the man said at last. “There are going to be people who disagree with that opinion, but those are the same people who have let our world come crumbling down.”

Stunned, Armin sat alert, blue eyes wide as he listened to the Police soldier speak.

“I think you both know this well enough already, but in order to change humanity, we will need the help of people like your friend Eren,” he said, and though his tone was serious, he did not seem tense. Armin could feel a sense of resignation coming from the soldier. “However, we can’t forget that humans must also help themselves. Both sides are necessary in order to change this world. That being said, even if they are fighting for the same cause, the two sides won’t necessarily always understand each other or get along. Acting upon instinctive fear, there will come a time when one side resorts to bloodshed to make its point known. It’s already starting to happen, and it’s working.”

The soldier paused, closing his eyes slowly. Armin took the chance to look at Mikasa; she looked as startled as he felt.

“It’s inevitable that lives will be lost in all of this--that’s just the world we live in.” Continuing his thoughts, the Police soldier opened his eyes again. “Not that it makes it any easier. Still, change requires sacrifice.” Putting his elbows on his thighs, he leaned forward toward Mikasa and Armin. “But it wouldn’t be wise to let that sacrifice be Eren Jaeger.”

Armin stared at the man, shaken by his words. Though his speech had been a bit radical, he had spoken the truth, and his last proposition made Armin’s chest grow tight.

“We won’t let that happen,” he told the man. “If something must be sacrificed, it will be for good reason, not out of fear.”

“…I’m glad to hear it.” Smiling, the man leaned back in his seat. “…Seems like we’re almost there. Thank you for hearing me out.”

“Who are you?” Mikasa’s question seemed rude, but it wasn’t until she asked that Armin realized the man had not offered his name.

“My name is Bruno Sertoli. I am the head of an elite squad in the Military Police.” Bruno’s expression softened. “If you ever need my help, don’t hesitate to ask me. I’ll do what I can. We’re all on the same side, after all.”

 

………

 

Giving a small tug on the chains bound to his wrists, Eren sighed quietly. He could feel the sweat dripping down the back of his neck. Despite being below ground, it felt warm and clammy in his prison cell. But if was to be honest with himself, it was mostly mental; being cooped up made him feel anxious whatever the situation.

“Excuse me,” he said to one of the Military Police soldiers standing guard. “I need to use the bathroom…”

“You just went a little while ago,” the man replied, his tone flat and unforgiving. He seemed to understand that Eren was just wanting to get out of his cell, if only for a few minutes.

“…Can I have some water, please?”

“Hey, you.” Eren jumped at the sound of the other Police soldier’s voice. He glanced over at the man and received an icy glare. “Know your place, you monster.”

Falling silent, Eren lowered his gaze to his lap.

Monster, huh…? I can’t deny that, he thought, narrowing his eyes in frustration. But still…do I really look that scary to them that they feel the need to restrict everything I do? …Well, I guess it’s only to be expected. After all, even I don’t understand anything that’s going on with me, either…

Eren sighed through his nose, recalling the confrontation with Captain Woermann and his soldiers.

Maybe I should just be grateful that they didn’t kill me yet, he told himself. But upon recalling that moment, he remembered Mikasa and Armin’s reactions--or rather, the lack thereof. Come to think of it…they weren’t afraid of me at all, not even for a second… Sighing again, Eren rested his head on his knee. He hadn’t really felt lonely up until that moment, but now it was an overwhelming sensation.

What are they doing right now, I wonder? And what happened to the others? I wonder what they think of me now that they saw me turn into a Titan…

Lifting his head, Eren tried to push the thought of out his mind. Instead, he chose to divert his attention to leaving the cell--assuming that he could leave. Commander Erwin had seemed to think so; he and Captain Levi had assured Eren that something would be done. But whatever it was, it seemed to be taking quite a while.

How many days has it been since then? Eren thought, recalling the last time he saw the Survey Corps soldiers. What’s going on outside? Could it be that I’ll have to spend my whole life here, imprisoned…?

The sudden sound of a door opening and footsteps jerked Eren out of his thoughts and back into the present reality. He looked up from his bed; the Military Police guards were gone. But in a split second, a new face appeared in front of Eren’s cell, hands gripping the metal bars. Startled, Eren jumped back, unsure of who was standing before him.

Slowly, the person backed away from the bars; her reddened face wore a bright smile.

“You’re Eren, then?” the woman said, releasing her grip on the bars. “How are you doing? Anything new?” Her questions were casual, as if she was greeting an old friend and not someone she had only just met. “Sorry to keep you waiting for so long, but it seems like you’ll be able to get out of here soon!”

Eren gasped quietly; it was then that he noticed the Survey Corps patch on her jacket. As she pulled something out of her back pocket, another soldier appeared behind her. He, too, donned a Survey Corps uniform, and he stood a full head taller.

“It’s just, you’ll have to wear these…” From her pocket the woman had pulled out a pair of silver handcuffs; she held them out to Eren, still smiling.

Even though he was immediately put into the cuffs after being unchained from his bed, Eren was still extremely grateful for the change of pace. The tall Survey Corps soldier gripped him by the chain on the cuffs and lead him out of the room; the woman followed them, and soon the trio were in the main hallway of the prison. Eren’s room guards had reappeared, and the five of them slowly walked down the hall, their footsteps echoing against the cold walls.

“My name is Hanji Zoe,” the woman said to Eren, walking alongside him. “I’m a Squad Leader in the Survey Corps.”

Eren wanted to ask all kinds of questions, but before he could properly collect his thoughts, he felt a strange sensation on his neck. When he glanced over, he could see that the other Survey Corps soldier was sniffing him.

“And he is…”

“E-Excuse me?!” Eren gasped, interrupting Hanji to address the other soldier.

“…He’s a Squad Leader as well--Mike Zakarius is his name,” Hanji told Eren. “And he tends to do this to everyone on the first encounter.”

To Eren’s relief, Mike straightened up without a word. As if satisfied with himself, he laughed through his nose, which was rather large.

“Sniffing people is his habit,” Hanji continued as Eren stared in confusion. “It probably doesn’t mean anything, so just don’t mind him. I assure you, he’s a capable leader, despite his strange habits.”

Suddenly, Hanji gasped, then let out a quiet chuckle. She stopped walking, and Eren found himself coming to a stop in front of a pair of large wooden doors.

“Sorry, I got a little carried away with my useless chatting and hardly noticed we’d arrived,” Hanji said, reaching toward the door handles. “But don’t worry! …It’s probably for the best that you don’t know anything beforehand, anyway!”

“Eh?” Eren gasped.

“Just tell them what’s on your mind, Eren,” she told him, opening the door. “It may be presumptuous of us, but…we have to put our faith in you now. Good luck.”

Without any further explanation, Hanji gestured to Mike, and Eren soon felt himself being shoved forward into another room. Soon the doors closed behind him, and Eren turned to get a good look at his destination.

The military courthouse?! So I was in the court’s dungeon this whole time…?

 

………

 

“Well then. Let us begin, shall we?”

Armin watched quietly as Darius Zackley, the head of the three military divisions, took his seat at the head of the courthouse’s main room. Other than his name and title, Armin did not know much about this man, and so Eren’s fate remained that much more of a mystery.

“You’re Eren Jaeger, correct?” Zackley said, looking down at some paperwork. “You’re a soldier sworn to sacrifice your life for the cause, if necessary… Is that right?”

“Yes, sir,” Eren replied. Even from his spot in the audience, Armin could see sweat rolling down Eren’s abnormally pallid face.

“The usual law practices are inapplicable to you, as your case is special,” Zackley continued. “The military council is now in order, and the sole right to pass judgment on you rests with me. I will be the one to decide your life and death, here and now. Do you have any objections?”

“None, sir.”

“It’s good that you understand.” Glancing down at his paperwork, Zackley continued to speak, his tone growing harsher with each sentence. “Your case is unprecedented--it stirred a clamor inside these walls and brought forth two clashing viewpoints. There are people who call you ‘a demon that will be our undoing’…but other people consider you our savior, our guide to hope.”

Zackley paused; the silence gave Armin a moment to recollect his thoughts and get a better look around the room. The two opinions Zackley had just stated were both well-represented in the courthouse. One side stood with the Military Police, and the other with the Survey Corps--but Armin knew there must surely be exceptions to each side.

As if to further validate this thought, Armin noticed a familiar face across the room; Bruno Sertoli was standing there, blended in perfectly amongst fellow Military Police soldiers. Beside him stood two younger soldiers--a red-headed male and a blonde female--who Armin assumed to be members of his squad. Indeed, there were exceptions to at least one side…

“As expected, it proved impossible to keep your existence completely under wraps from the general populace after all. When an official announcement about your existence is issued, it will signify the emergence of a possible new threat other than Titans. We are here today to decide which military division you will be entrusted to. Ways of further dealing with you will be determined depending on this outcome. The Military Police…or the Survey Corps… Let’s hear what the Military Police have to say first.”

“Third Commander of the Military Police, Nile Dawk, reporting.”

The man who had spoken up from the crowd of Military Police officers was a tall, lean man with a mop of messy dark brown hair atop his head. He had a thin beard and looked relatively well put-together, but his face looked stressed. A red bolo tie hung around his neck, just like the indigo one Commander Pyxis had worn.

“We of the Military Police believe that, once thorough research of Eren’s body is completed, his swift disposal is necessary,” Commander Dawk stated, his voice steady. “This was the conclusion we arrived to after carefully considering the scale of damage that would be inflicted upon society in the case his existence is publicly acknowledged. The people of importance regard him as a threat. Yet, in this situation, those people, including royalty, still stick to their noninterference policy in regards to matters that do not directly concern the innermost lands, just like they did five years ago.”

Why am I not surprised…? Armin thought, pursing his lips as he listened.

“However, that provokes arising discontent among the people who consider Eren a hero--primarily among the residents of Wall Rose’s settlements and those who have connections to business companies. As a result, we have a situation where a civil war might break out over the territories still left to us.” Commander Dawk paused for a moment before continuing, “I acknowledge it was his Titan power that was the deciding factor in restoring Wall Rose in the most recent conflict. However, I also have to acknowledge that his existence is far from harmless. The simple fact of his existence has gained too much political weight. That is why, after we have gleaned as much information as we can out of him, the least we can do for him is to posthumously name him a hero of war who sacrificed his life for humanity’s sake.”

“No need for that!”

The sudden outburst came from a man standing beside the Commander; he was dressed in robes and wore a large necklace with the three crests of the walls on it. Armin quickly came to the conclusion that the man was probably a priest of the Wall Church. But why would anyone from that group even come here?

“He’s a vermin who tricked the divine Wall, bestowed upon us by Lord’s wisdom, and invaded our land!” the priest declared, looking incredibly serious despite the nonsense of his words. “He must be executed without further ado!”

“Pastor Nick--to order, please,” Zackley cut in, his voice calm but stern. “Next, let’s hear the opinion of the Survey Corps.”

“Yes, sir.”

Glancing to his left, Armin noticed a tall blond man step forward. Assuming him to be the Commander of the Survey Corps, the teen held his breath. Surely, whomever was responsible for the amazing military strategies the Corps had executed as of late could talk Eren out of a death sentence.

“Thirteenth Commander of the Survey Corps, Erwin Smith, reporting,” the Commander said in a confident, steady voice. “We officially ask Eren to join us as use his Titan power to help us return Wall Maria back to the human race. That is all.”

“Hm?” Zackley grunted, sounding surprised. Armin, too, felt not only shocked, but disappointed and worried. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, sir. With his Titan power, it is possible for us to reconquer Wall Maria. I would think that the preferable option in this situation is clear enough.”

“…I see. By the way, Erwin, from where do you plan to execute this mission? I believe, Pyxis, the gate in the Trost district is completely sealed, yes?”

“It is,” the Garrison Commander replied, a bit of humor to his voice. “I don’t think it will ever open or close again.”

Had Armin not been so heavily anticipating Commander Smith’s reply, he would have at least smiled. But something was not right--it would take more than just a confident reply to win this case. Surely Commander Smith knew that already.

“We hope to depart from the Karanese district this time,” Erwin told Zackley. “And then, we will have to carefully make our way to the Shiganshina district once again.”

“Just wait a second!” a civilian from the audience shouted. “Aren’t all gates in all districts supposed to be walled up?! That Colossal Titan can only destroy the part of the wall where the gates are! If we get rid of all gates, there won’t be weak spots in the wall to talk about anymore! His attacks will amount to nothing and we’ll be safe!”

The man leaned forward on the railing, looking right at Commander Smith. Armin glanced in that direction once again; the Commander seemed indifferent, but Captain Levi’s expression had turned even more sour than it had started at the beginning of the trial.

“Or are you so hungry for territory that you don’t give a damn about us common folk!?” the civilian continued. “All you do is spout unachievable, idealistic nonsense that will only lead us to our demise if we take it seriously! You have no right to be called heroes any longer!!”

“You sure do talk a lot, you pig.” Captain Levi’s voice was crisp and cool. “Tell me, where is the guarantee that Titans will quietly sit and wait for us to finish walling up all of the gates? You keep saying ‘us,’ but what you mean by ‘us’ is really your friends who rely on my men risking their lives in order to keep your kind fattened up. Some people are driven to starvation because of the lack of land, but that probably didn’t occur to you pigs, did it?”

“I-I just said that we’ll be safe if we wall up all the gates, that’s all…” the civilian murmured, looking aghast.

“I’ve had enough of this blasphemy!” Pastor Nick suddenly cried, turning on the man, who had already shrunken down after Levi’s scathing interjection. “The Wall of Rose is granted to us by the Lord, and it is not in human rights to maim it!!”

“So this is why it took so long to mount cannons on the walls,” Armin breathed.

“They have influence, so that makes them a pain in the ass,” Rico replied from beside Mikasa. “For now, that’s just how it is.”

For now, huh? Armin thought, staring at the conflict that had opened up before him. So then, how long will it take for this all to change, I wonder?

 

Chapter Text

Though the task of returning cloaks of fallen comrades was a gesture meant to lighten their hearts and help them move on, Milena felt as though she weighed a hundred pounds heavier when she returned back to their headquarters within Wall Rose. She had not even delivered to anyone she knew well, but that did not change the fact that they were dead. And the same thing could happen to anyone at any time.

However, as exhausted as she felt coming back from her duties, she knew she could not feel too sorry for herself. Seeing Rosaleen come back from her visit home was reminder enough to her of why she was fighting: to protect humanity and prevent any more of this unbearable sadness.

“C’mon, Rosaleen,” Milena said, gently taking hold of the red-head’s wrist when she walked into the mess hall. “That face really doesn’t suit you, y’know?”

“I’m sorry…” Rosaleen whispered, lowering her head. “I just…”

“No, it’s all right. Don’t say anything.” Milena wrapped her arms around her friend, pulling her into a tight hug. “I’m here.”

“…Thank you.” Rosaleen’s voice was faint, but Milena felt her hug back, and that gesture alone was reassuring; somehow or another, they’d pull through this.

“…Hey.”

Releasing Rosaleen, Milena turned to see Yasmin standing there. Her normally tanned face was pale, and her eyes looked lifeless.

“Yasmin…” Rosaleen murmured, taking a step toward the teen. Yasmin shook her head quickly, biting her lip.

“Stop it,” she said. “I can’t stop doing this…”

“Oh, shut up.” Milena reached out and took Yasmin’s hand, pulling her toward them. “Don’t act like you’re not allowed to cry in front of us. Especially me. Right?”

With a slight laugh, Yasmin shrugged, but Milena could see tears gathered in her eyes.

“C’mon,” she said, hugging Yasmin tightly. “Let it out.”

 

“Let’s get back to the business at hand,” Zackley said calmly after quieting the argument between Pastor Nick and the merchant. Tensions were obviously still running high, but Eren felt that things were still relatively under control. As long as Zackley remained cool, any outbursts would come to be silenced in due time. “Eren, I have a question for you: it seems there is hope for you to join the Survey Corps, but do you really believe you can put that Titan power of yours to good use as a soldier?”

“Yes, I do, Sir!” Eren exclaimed, nodding once. Though his voice was a bit shaky, his answer was confident.

“Oh…?” Zackley filed through some papers on his desk, then held them up to his face; his sudden downcast expression made Eren’s heart race. “I have a report on the recent mission in Trost that reads, ‘Following his transformation into a Titan, Eren swung his fist three times, aiming for Mikasa Ackermann.’”

Stunned, Eren looked over at his friends; he could tell by the looks on their faces that they were not nearly as surprised by this as he was. Did this mean it was true? If so, why could he not remember?

“Is Mikasa Ackermann present?” Zackley called out.

“Yes, sir, I’m here,” Mikasa replied, looking slightly irritated.

“Ah, so you’re Mikasa. Is it true that Eren attacked you?”

“…” Mikasa hesitated for a moment; Eren noticed that Rico, who was standing beside her, whispered something, and whatever it was prompted Mikasa to answer at last. “Yes. It’s true.”

As the court room filled with surprised gasps and whispers, Eren looked away from his friends, heartbroken.

I tried…to kill Mikasa? Me…? he thought, eyes wide. What else had happened at Trost that he didn’t remember?

“However…” Mikasa’s voice was back to its strong self as it rang through the courtroom. “Before that, Eren saved my life twice while in his Titan form. The first time was when I was about to fall prey to a Titan--he knocked it away and saved me. The second time was when he protected Armin and me from being shot a few days earlier. I would like you to take these facts into consideration as well.”

Eren looked up at Mikasa, who seemed to have recovered her composure. He could remember doing both of those things, so he knew she was not just making up lies to protect him. Maybe, knowing these things, Zackley would realize his potential.

“I wouldn’t be so hasty as to consider that as valid testimony.” Nile Dawk’s voice came next, and Eren turned to look at the Military Police Commander. “While it is true that these instances are described in your reports, we have come to the conclusion that there is a significant amount of bias in them, thus they lack validity.” As Nile paused to pull out some documents, Eren glanced at Mikasa; her expression had once again darkened.

“In addition, when I was looking up Eren’s background, I came across a startling record from an event six years prior,” Nile continued, looking up at Zackley. “At only nine years of age, Eren Jaeger and Mikasa Ackermann stabbed and killed three adult criminals. Though it can be said that these two acted out of self-defense, it does ultimately raise doubts in Eren’s basic human nature. Should we really trust him with our most talented people, our funds, and the destiny of all humankind?”

“He’s a Titan that took the shape of a child to slip in among us!” someone in the crowd shouted, further raising the level of panic Nile’s words had given birth to. Though people were now shouting and pointing at him from all directions, Eren did his best to remain calm.

“Who knows if we can trust him or not!!” another shouted.

“That goes for her, too.” Shocked, Eren followed the commentator’s gaze and outstretched pointer finger to Mikasa. “Who’s to say she’s human, too?!”

“I agree! She should be executed, too, just to be safe!”

“No!” Eren shouted, unable to contain his anger anymore. “I mean, please, don’t! I may be a monster, but Mikasa has nothing to do with it!”

“Can we really believe a word you say?”

“It’s the truth!” Eren insisted, his body shaking. How dare they accuse Mikasa, of all people? Mikasa, the one who had saved them from certain death multiple times? Mikasa, one of humanity’s strongest soldiers? Mikasa, the girl who was practically his sister, and who had never once done a thing to harm him? Eren would not stand for this.

“You’re just defending her because you're buddies!”

“You’re WRONG!” Eren’s scream brought the entire courtroom into an eerie silence. He had even surprised himself, and so he brought his voice down to a lower, quieter tone. “All you’ve done so far is speculate and one-sidedly make assumptions that are convenient for you. But if all you do is disregard how things really are, you won’t get anywhere closer to the truth.”

Should I stop? Eren wondered as his eyes met the stares of several terrified townsfolk.

“And besides, what are you all so scared of, when you’ve never even seen a Titan in your whole life?” he continued.

I should really stop…no. I’ll keep talking. I’m gonna say everything that’s on my mind!

“What are you going to do if the strong stop fighting for you? If you say you’re scared to fight for your survival, then at least lend your support to those who will fight for you. You spineless cowards…” Gritting his teeth, Eren stared down the Military Police soldiers and cried, “Just shut up and invest all you’ve got in me!!”

 

…......

 

Even from her spot up in the balcony, Hanji could clearly hear the sound of Levi’s first kick into Eren’s face, as well as the unpleasant crunching sound that accompanied it. From afar, she could see a tooth go flying out of the boy’s mouth; Eren slowly looked up at Levi, as if he realized it, too. But Levi only gave him a second of relief before thrusting his foot into the boy’s stomach. He then pulled Eren up by the hair to straighten him up again, only to slam his knee into Eren’s face.

Hanji had known that this was coming, and she could see who else had been expecting it. Mikasa Ackermann was obviously not one of those people; the teen began to move forward, as if to intervene, but her friend Armin Arlert held her back.

Luckily for her, and for Eren, the beat-down did not last much longer. Smashing Eren’s face into the concrete floor with his foot, Levi stared down at the teen, poker-faced as per usual.

“This is just my opinion,” the Captain declared, “but when it comes teaching somebody discipline, I believe pain is the most effective method.” Though his voice was loud enough for everyone to hear, Levi seemed to be talking directly to Eren; his gaze did not waver. “What you need most at the moment is not a lecture, but a practical lesson. …You’re also a lot easier to kick when you’re crouched down like that.”

As Levi resumed kicking Eren, Hanji noticed the faces of the Military Police soldiers around her and Mike grow more and more pained.

How funny that they’re empathizing with him now, she thought, pursing her lips as she watched Levi throw his foot into Eren’s face.

“Wait, Levi…” Nile said, his voice shaking.

“What?” Levi grunted, looking over at the Commander while lowering his foot.

“It’s dangerous… What if he gets angry and transforms into a Titan?”

“…What are you saying?” Levi replied, quickly pulling Eren upright again by the hair. “Weren’t you guys going to dissect him?” When there was no reply, Levi dropped Eren; Hanji felt herself smirk as she saw a matching one appear on the Captain’s face. “I heard that after he transformed, he killed off twenty Titans before he collapsed. The fact that he possesses intelligence along with that strength can spell serious trouble for you, if he were to consider the Police as his enemy. But that being said, he’s not my enemy. So what are you going to do if that happens? You policemen and all of those who have been picking on him should really consider this: would you really be able to kill him?”

“Your Honor, I have a proposition.” Erwin Smith’s hand was raised, and soon all eyes were on him. Hanji couldn’t help but smile.

“What is it?” Zackley replied.

“A lot of things are unclear about Eren’s ‘Titan powers,’ which is why he will always represent a certain potential threat,” Erwin explained, lowering his hand. “If Eren should be put under our watch, I would like to have Captain Levi be in charge of him and take counter-measures if necessary. With his help, we can learn to control Eren’s powers.”

“Control his powers?”

“Yes. I realize that our activities in the lands beyond the walls depend on the stability of our society. As such, I plan to calm the people’s worries by proving to the public that Eren can be a valuable asset to mankind in our next mission outside the walls. I would like to ask that you postpone your judgment of Eren’s fate until then.”

“…Can you do it, Levi?”

“If we’re talking about killing him, then there’s no problem,” Levi replied, looking up at the General. “The problem is that there’s no doing this kind of thing half-way…”

Zackley paused for a moment, looking down at Eren.

“…I’ve made my decision,” he declared, and at his words, Hanji turned to Mike.

“That’s our cue,” she said, and the tall blond nodded, leading the way back toward the exit. “Ah, but wait…” Turning to look over her shoulder, Hanji glanced down below at the spot where Eren’s tooth had landed. “…We have to make a pit stop first.

 

…......

 

Without the light of the sun, the nighttime air was cold, and so the fire before Jean should have presented a calming, warm presence. But the fire’s fuel smelled of death, and if he looked hard enough, Jean could see the outlines of corpses trapped within the flames. The cremation of his comrades was something he knew would one day happen, but it was the context surrounding this event that made it so horrible.

And yet, Jean could not cry like Connie or Rosaleen, nor could he stand motionless and stare, like Bertholdt and Krista. Instead, he let his gaze wander around the area; he felt humbled by the sight of his comrades, and for the first time he realized how truly fleeting his life was. He knew, too, that he could not be the only one who felt that way.

Everybody’s having second thoughts, he realized as he knelt down beside a small pile of charred bones. If we’d know what kind of hell was awaiting us, we wouldn’t have chosen to become soldiers. …That’s all anyone can think of at a time like this.

Glancing down at his hand, Jean sighed through his nose. He was holding a piece of someone’s bone--a piece of someone’s body, something that had once moved and lived just like him. But now it was burned and singed on its edges, and it showed no signs of life.

Hey, Marco…I don’t even know which bones are yours anymore… Jean sighed again, blinking with heavy eyelids. If only I hadn’t become a soldier…if only I hadn’t met any of you…I would have gotten away without having to worry about who would be next…

For a moment, Jean recalled Eren’s words about fighting back, about having strength and willpower, about gaining the power to hold one’s own against the Titans.

I have to fight--I know that much already, Jean thought, gritting his teeth. There’s no way around that. But, even then, not everyone can be a suicidal bastard like you… Not everyone can be…strong like you…

“Don’t get mad at me for saying this…”

Jean breathed in deeply as Marco’s words rang yet again in his head.

But you…you’re not a strong person, Jean. So that means you can really understand the feelings of weak people. It makes you adept at judging any situation accurately. So you know exactly what to do at all times.”

…What…should I do now? Jean wondered, looking up at the fire. Through the burning red flames, he could see Yasmin standing there, staring at the makeshift crematorium. What is it that we’re supposed to do now…?

Clenching his fist, Jean gripped the tiny bone in his hand and stood to face his friends. His knees were shaking, but he walked over to them, eyes wide.

“Hey…guys…” he murmured. “We’re still supposed to choose which branch we’ll join… Have you picked one yet?”

Before anyone could respond, the words started to pour from Jean’s mouth, accompanied by tears from his eyes.

“I’ve made my decision. I…” Slowly, Jean brought his shaking fist to his face; that tiny part of a human was still there, and the more he thought about it, the more he understood what it was he had to do. “I will…join the Survey Corps.

The words had no sooner escaped Jean’s lips when he was finally overcome by his tears. To cry in front of his friends was usually something that would mortify him, but he was unaware of their stares. Instead, his focus was drawn to the small bone still clenched in his hand. In order to protect something so frail as a human life, he had to become strong--joining the Military Police was safe, but staying safe would not give him that strength. He understood this well now, but that did not mean it didn’t terrify him.

When Jean finally stood upright again, his friends’ faces had softened, and there was a wordless understanding amongst them. But there were still those left on the other side of the fire.

What will you do now, Yasmin? Jean wondered as he approached the girl and her friends. I can’t say that I know the answers. I can only decide for myself. But…

“Hey,” Jean murmured when he reached the trio. His greeting was barely audible above Rosaleen’s loud sobs, but at the least, Milena turned to acknowledge him.

“What do you want?” Yasmin then mumbled, staring into the fire. The flames cast an orange glow on her face and lit up her eyes, but her expression seemed hollow and empty; Jean could not blame her.

“…Have you decided?”

“On what?”

“Are you talking about regiments?” Milena then asked, looking up at Jean with tear-stained cheeks.

“Yeah,” Jean replied, nodding. “But…I guess what I mean is…do you know what you should do?”

“What we should do?” Yasmin echoed quietly. “We can’t join the Police like you, Jean.”

“…I’m not going to join the Military Police, Yasmin.”

There was a brief silence between the four; Yasmin continued to stare into the fire, and so Milena was the one to interject her opinion.

“You’re joining the Survey Corps, then?” she asked. “Are you crazy?”

“Maybe I am, a little,” Jean admitted. “It’s just that…I know what it is I have to do. In order to protect the people around me…in order to keep humanity going--“

“I’m sorry, Jean, but not all of us are like you.”

Yasmin’s words were crisp, but there was a sadness to her tone that made Jean feel guilty for ever having approached her. Slowly, she turned to face him, the glow of the fire disappearing from her eyes; it left them darkened and somber, lined with dark circles.

“Not all of us have that kind of strength,” she continued, her eyes locked with his. “And not all of us can play the hero--not everyone has that potential.”

I’m not strong, either, Jean wanted to say, but he could tell that Yasmin was not done talking, and so he did not interrupt.

“I am weak, but…I don’t think it’s such a bad thing. Somehow, I’ll find a way to be strong, but it won’t necessarily be in the way everyone else does.” Sighing quietly, Yasmin turned back to the fire. “It wasn’t supposed to end up like this--that’s what I keep telling myself. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this has happened to reassure me that I should trust my intuitions after all, despite whatever Marco may have told me…” Jean watched as Yasmin bit her lip, then pressed a closed fist into her chest, as if willing herself not to cry. “…I’m going to join the Garrison, and Milena and Rosaleen are going to do the same. That is how we’ll find our strength, and we will be able to protect each other. But I… I’m not saying what you’ve decided is wrong.”

“…I understand,” Jean replied, shifting his gaze from Yasmin to the fire in front of them.

“If you really do join the Survey Corps, please just promise me one thing,” Yasmin whispered.

“What?”

“Don’t let anything like what happened to Marco happen to the others, too.”

 

…......

 

“I’m sorry about that, Eren…”

Lifting his head, Eren met the gaze of Commander Erwin Smith. His large blue eyes seemed gentle, and his face was genuinely apologetic.

“You spoke your mind in front of the General and all of those Military Police elites--that gave us the perfect chance to play the card we had prepared up our sleeve. The pain you’re in now was also necessary to achieve our goal.”

“Sir…” Eren murmured, but his words were cut short as the Commander extended his hand to the teen.

“You have my respect,” Erwin stated, smiling. “And it’s nice to meet you, Eren. I look forward to working with you from now on.”

“Y-yes, sir!” Eren gasped, reaching out to shake his hand. Five years ago, if anyone had told Eren that he would be shaking hands with the Commander of the Survey Corps, he would not have believed it. And yet here he was, staring up at the hero he had admired from afar for half of a decade. He wanted to say so many things, but all he could manage was, “I’ll do my best!”

Suddenly, on his right, Eren felt someone plop down onto the couch; at a glance, he could tell it was Captain Levi, and he instinctively drew away, flinching.

“Say, Eren,” Levi said, crossing his legs and settling back into his seat.

“Y-yes?”

“Do you resent me?”

Trying to relax himself, Eren replied, “No…I understand that the act you had to put up needed to be believable.”

“Good, then.”

“Still, there are limits to these kinds of things!” From across the room Hanji came rushing over, holding a white handkerchief in her hand. “You even knocked his tooth out! See, look!” Carefully, Hanji lowered her hand and showed the men the molar Levi’s initial kick had dislodged.

“Don’t keep it--that’s disgusting,” Levi muttered, screwing up his nose in repulsion.

“It’s an important sample!” Hanji argued.

“Eren, wouldn’t you rather have a tooth knocked out over being dissected by freaks like her?”

“Don’t lump me in with them! I would never kill Eren!” Frowning at Levi, Hanji rewrapped Eren’s tooth, then turned to the teen, who was gazing up at her in awe. She had seemed a little odd upon their first meeting, so he wasn’t too stunned by her actions now, but he was a little surprised at how well she treated not just him, but the foul-mouthed Captain Levi seated beside him.

“Hey, Eren, open your mouth and let me see,” Hanji then said, kneeling down in front of Eren with a smile. Hesitantly, Eren opened his mouth wide, looking up at the ceiling. After a few moments, he heard the Squad Leader gasp, and he looked down at Levi, then at Hanji. Both of them were staring at him.

“Your tooth…is already growing back,” she murmured.

Closing his mouth, Eren lowered his gaze to his lap. He had the feeling that she would want answers, but he had none to give to her.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 23: The Special Operations Squad

 

“So when is your enlistment date again?”

At Heide's question, Milena lifted her eyes from her paperwork to meet her sister's gaze.

“Two weeks from tomorrow,” she reminded her, her tone flat.

“And then what?” Andrej, Heide’s husband, asked. “Do you already know what regiment you want to join?”

“Go for the Police,” Katja jumped in, her face reddening in excitement. “Imagine the pay you’ll get from that job, Millie.”

“I could care less about that,” Milena told her, sticking out her tongue. “I want to join the Garrison.”

“Ew, why?”

“Yeah, what’s so special about them?” Heide added. Her focus was mostly directed on the stew she was stirring, though, so Milena didn’t bother answering her question.

“At least it’s not the Survey Corps,” Aaron, Katja’s husband, pointed out. “That’s pretty much a death sentence.”

“Yeah, she’s not that crazy after all,” Katja teased, grinning.

“You don’t get it!” Milena exclaimed, slamming her hand on the table. “It’s not about staying safe! There’s no such thing anymore, anyway! I’m joining the Garrison because I want to help humanity get beyond the walls!”

At her outburst, Heide let out a shrill laugh.

“You’re pretty funny, Millie,” she said. “But you don’t get the first thing about how this world works. People with dreams like you are destined to fall flat on their face.”

“That’s a little harsh, Heide,” Andrej cut in.

“But hey, I guess you can always look for a nice guy in the Garrison, right?”

Clenching her jaw in anger, Milena stood up quickly, gathering her enlistment information into her hands. Without another word, she turned from the kitchen table and ran to her room, just in time to hide her tears.

 

It had been a couple of days since his trial, and already Eren felt quite a bit better about his situation. He had been taken in as a member of the Survey Corps, which had been his goal in the first place, and though he was the youngest member, he felt that people respected him more than he deserved.

The only thing that struck Eren as odd was that so far, the people in the Survey Corps had not been what Eren expected in the slightest. Captain Levi, the famed hero of mankind, was impatient and also much stricter than Eren had imagined. And the Captain’s squad was just as unusual, with a man named Auruo Bossard taking the prize for the most abnormal of the bunch.

On the day that the Survey Corps relocated to their new headquarters, Auruo had done nothing but run his mouth the entire way there; with Captain Levi staring him down and watching every movement, there was no way Eren could get out of it. Luckily, some kind of karma stepped in--Auruo was silenced after taking a large bite into his own tongue when his horse stumbled. Eren was grateful for the peace and quiet, and upon their arrival he managed to get away from Auruo and took his horse to the stable.

Still, the members of the Special Operations Squad were charged with watching Eren at all times, and so soon, Auruo and another one of those soldiers had joined Eren at the stable.

“Biting your tongue like that is exactly what you deserve after running your mouth like that,” Petra Ral told the miserable Auruo. Eren watched over his shoulder as she looked down at Auruo, brushing locks of her short, ginger hair out of her face.

“First impressions are everything, dear,” Auruo replied, crouched down by the well. He took a drink of water, then smirked. “That shitty brat got scared outta his pants with the talking to I gave him.”

“I think he was just shocked to see how much of a moron you are, Auruo.”

“Tch, whatever. It doesn’t change anything, anyway.”

“Hey…you didn’t used to talk like that in the past, did you?” Petra asked, her tone changing from one of frustration to one of disappointment. “If…if you’re talking like that to try to imitate Captain Levi, then please, stop it. You two have nothing in common…nothing at all.”

Taking another drink of water, Auruo let out a low laugh.

“Hmph! What, tryin’ to boss me around now, huh, Petra? That kind of behavior just won’t work if you’re going to be my wife.”

“I wish you had bitten off your tongue and bled to death…”

So these are the people chosen by Levi to keep a watch on me...? Eren thought, watching as Gunther Schultz and Eld Jinn came into view. Between those four soldiers, plus himself, they made up Levi’s special squad, and they had certainly earned their spot. Eren could remember some of what Auruo had told him about their kill records--in just a few short years, they had survived more than enough fights with Titans to prove their strength. These people are under orders to keep me in check when I use my Titan power…and to finish me off if I go berserk. And there was no doubt in Eren’s mind that they were perfectly capable of doing so.

“This building is desolated,” Gunther said quietly, looking up at the old abandoned castle.

“And it’s covered in weeds,” Eld added, frowning.

“That sounds like a pretty big problem.”

From behind came Captain Levi, looking as irritated as ever. Eld and Gunther exchanged glances, as did Petra and Auruo, while Eren watched in silence.

“Time to get to work, then,” Levi told them, walking toward the front door.

“Oi, you heard the Captain!” Auruo shouted, addressing Eren. “Time to get to work!!”

Eren had no idea what Captain Levi had meant, but in order to stay out of trouble, Eren followed Auruo and the others inside. The castle was musty and filled with cobwebs; to Eren’s surprise and slight amusement, he noticed Captain Levi openly cringe in disgust. But there was no time to ask any questions--soon Eren found himself with a broom in his hand and a dustpan in the other. One white bandana covered his face, while the other covered his hair; both were meant to shield him from the dust and dirt he would be sure to encounter. It became the uniform of everyone in the squad, including the Captain. Yes, the work to be done was only cleaning.

However, it did not take Eren long to notice that the only people cleaning were the members of Squad Levi; other Survey Corps soldiers had entered the castle and were moving things in, such as supplies, but none of them had the cleaning rags or brooms Eren and his companions were holding. Was this all really because of Levi?

Regardless, Eren didn’t protest, and he soon finished off the upstairs bedrooms.

“Captain, I’m finished with cleaning the upper floor,” Eren told Levi when he came downstairs. The Captain was standing at an open window; the height of the window only further exaggerated his height (or lack thereof). “…May I ask where my room will be?”

“Your room is in the dungeon,” Levi replied, pulling down the bandana from his face.

“Another dungeon…”

“Of course. You can’t exactly control yourself, after all.” Levi’s tone was completely matter-of-fact, so Eren knew he meant nothing personal, but his words were still somewhat hurtful. “If you turn into a Titan in your sleep, we’ll be able to restrain you if you’re down there. That’s one of the conditions that we had to accept when you were released to us. There are rules that we have to abide by.”

Eren did not know what to say. The fact that there were rules, or that the rules involved him sleeping in a dungeon again, did not confuse him. Instead, it was Captain Levi’s attitude that left him speechless.

“I’ll go check the room you cleaned,” Levi then told Eren, walking away. “You start cleaning here.”

“Yes, sir…”

Just a moment later, Eren felt another presence in the room again.

“You look kind of disappointed, Eren,” Petra said with a kind smile.

“Huh?”

“It’s not rare for people to get upset after talking to him,” she continued, glancing back where Captain Levi had walked away. “After all, he’s not what people expect to see, you know? He doesn’t look like the flawless hero they imagine, starting with his short stature. He’s also unexpectedly tense, rude, and unapproachable.”

“What I guess really surprised me about him is that he obeys his superiors’ orders without objection,” Eren admitted as Petra began sweeping the room.

“You thought that since he’s strong and influential, he wouldn’t care much about things like ranks and the chain of command?”

“Yes… I didn’t expect him to submit to anyone’s orders.”

Petra paused her sweeping for a moment, her eyes wandering the room.

“Well, I don’t know the details, but I heard that in the past he was very similar to what you described…” she said. “Supposedly, before joining the Survey Corps, he was a notorious thug in the underground circles of the capital. I don’t know what happened, but it seems like he joined the Corps after meeting Erwin.”

“The Commander?!” Eren gasped, intrigued. This was the first he had heard of any of this.

“Oi, Eren.”

Levi’s voice seemed even colder than usual, and his expression matched as he returned to the room. Petra immediately returned to sweeping as Eren stood alert once again.

“Y-yes, sir!” he stammered.

“That won’t do,” Levi stated. “Go redo all of it.”

 

………

 

“We’re under orders to stand by for a few more days, but I heard that a large-scale expedition to the outer lands is being prepared,” Eld told his comrades that evening as they were finishing their dinner off with tea. Eren had never tasted anything of this quality, and he was admittedly surprised that the Survey Corps owned such a delicacy. But he didn’t dare question it, especially after the incident that afternoon with Captain Levi. Truth be told, Eren was just glad that he was sitting as far away from Levi as possible--and also that the chores were done for the day.

“On top of that, newly graduated recruits will join us,” Eld continued, frowning. “Is that true, Eren?”

“That’s too soon. Not to mention that those new recruits have just survived the Titans’ attack from the other day,” Gunther cut in. Eren didn’t mind, though, because he did not have a good answer to Eld’s question anyway. Would people even join the Survey Corps after what happened in Trost?

“I bet they were shocked to tears over it,” Auruo added, chuckling under his breath.

“Is that true about the expedition, Captain?” Petra asked, looking to Levi for answers.

“Strategy doesn’t fall under my responsibilities,” Levi admitted, taking a sip of tea. “It’s up to Erwin to decide. He’s always thinking a few more steps ahead of us.”

“True…” Eld admitted, but he still looked worried. “The situation has changed. The route for Wall Maria’s recovery that we paid great sacrifices to establish is gone, just like that…but at the same time, a new hope unlike anything ever before has appeared out of the blue…”

Eld’s voice trailed off, and it was then that Eren realized that everyone in the room was staring at him, even Captain Levi.

“I still can’t believe it, but…how does it feel to become a Titan?” Eld then asked Eren, his expression softening.

“My memories of the times when I transformed aren’t exactly reliable…” Eren confessed. “Well, anyway, it’s something similar to being in a feverish state…and in order to transform I need to injure myself. So I bite my hand and…”

Huh? Eren paused, looking down at his hand. Why do I know for sure that I need to injure myself in order to transform? How…?

“You should all be aware of this already,” Levi interrupted, drawing the focus away from Eren. (AN: ATTENTION WHORE FUCK U) “You won’t get anything out of him other than what’s already written in the reports.” Sighing, Levi sat back in his chair. “Well, I don’t suppose it’ll stop that one from trying, though. One wrong prick and you might die, Eren.”

“Huh?” the teen gasped. “’That one’?”

Eren nearly jumped out of his seat as something heavy collided with the door behind Levi with a loud bang. A few seconds later, the door burst open, revealing a familiar face.

“Good evening, Squad Levi!” Hanji exclaimed, waving to the soldiers. “How is the castle life treating you?”

“Her,” Levi replied as Eren stared at the messy-haired Squad Leader. She was all smiles as she headed right over to him, sitting down across from him at the only empty chair at the table.

“Squad Leader Hanji...” Eren murmured as she met his gaze.

“Right now I'm in charge of researching a couple of Titans we capture alive in the city,” she told the teen, cutting right to the chase. “And I'd like to ask you to assist me in my experiments tomorrow, Eren. I'm here to get your approval.”

“Experiments?” Eren echoed. “But I don't see what role I have to play.”

“Oh, you...you'll have the most exciting role of all,” Hanji declared, her face covered in sweat. Her glasses were starting to fog up, and her cheeks were bright red. Although he was hesitant, Eren did not want to be rude and tell her no.

“Uh, well, you see...I'm not the one who can give you the OK you want...” Eren told her, glancing at Captain Levi. “I'm not exactly free to decide what I can and can't do, so...”

“Levi,” Hanji said, whipping her head to face the short-tempered Captain. “What plans do you have tomorrow in regards to Eren?”

“...Cleaning the yard,” Levi replied. Eren felt himself tense up; he had expected Levi to come up with a better explanation than that for why Eren would not be participating in Hanji's experiments.

“All right! That settles it, then!” Hanji grasped Eren's hand, shaking it firmly with a large grin on her face. “Eren, see you tomorrow!”

“Ah, OK...” Eren murmured, realizing that his fate was sealed. “I would like to ask you, though, what kind of experiments are you talking about?”

In response, Hanji released Eren's hand and stared at him; her expression was a mixture of surprise and delight. From beside him, Eren felt a jab to his side, and he glanced over to see Auruo's grimace.

“You moron!” the man hissed. “Shut it! Don't ask her that!”

“But--”

“Uh-huh, I thought so...” Hanji's voice was low, and her glasses had started fogging up again. “I thought it looked like you were curious to know...”

Just as Eren was about to ask Auruo what was going on, the man stood up and started to leave. And it was not just him--all of his squad mates were headed toward the door, with Captain Levi at the lead.

“Well, if that's the case, I guess it can't be helped,” Hanji said, staring at Eren with a bright smile. “I'll tell you all about it--what I want to try with the Titans we captured...”

 

…......

 

Moblit Berner knew his squad leader well.

They hadn't been friends as trainees, and their reasons for joining the Survey Corps were different as well. But Moblit knew Hanji and felt that he understood her well, so much so that when presented the opportunity to join her squad, he took it. Had he known he would end up constantly having to pull her away from the jaws of captured Titans, he might not have volunteered. But regardless, he knew his role, and his emotional investment in his squad was now too great to let go.

So, when Moblit awoke to find Sawney and Bean, Hanji's beloved Titans, reduced to steaming corpses, he was able to take immediate action.

“Nifa, have you seen Squad Leader Hanji?!” Moblit cried as he burst into the Survey Corps dining hall.

“Not since last night,” the tiny brunette replied, shaking her head. “Why? What happened?”

“Gather up the others,” Moblit told her. “Sawney and Bean were killed.”

Moblit didn't bother telling Nifa any more than that--being a member of Hanji's squad took a special type of person, and Nifa was one of them. She did not need to know any more details to understand what she needed to do.

Recalling that Hanji had left to talk to Eren the previous night, Moblit raced toward the stables and grabbed the reigns of his horse. The sun was just starting to rise as he sped off toward the new Survey Corps headquarters. He hoped Hanji would still be there--if not, finding her might prove more difficult than he imagined.

However, when he finally arrived, Moblit could see that his squad leader's horse was still in the stable next to Levi's, and so he raced inside and down the halls.

“Gunther!” he shouted at the first person he saw. The brunet stopped and turned; Eld stopped with him. “Where is Squad Leader Hanji?”

“Upstairs talking to Eren, last time I saw her,” Gunther replied. “Seems like they were there all night.”

“Thank you!” Moblit exclaimed, not bothering to comment on Gunther's remark. After all, if anyone knew Hanji's potential for chatting the night away, it was him.

When Moblit reached the second floor of the castle, he headed straight for the first door he saw. He could hear voices coming from inside the room, and so he threw open the door without a moment of hesitation.

“Is Squad Leader Hanji here?!” he shouted as he burst into the room. Sure enough, like Gunter had said, Hanji was sitting across from Eren; it was obvious neither had gotten any sleep that night, but Hanji's eyes still had a fiery glow to them. However, that glow changed upon seeing Moblit's panicked expression.

“Our test subjects...” Moblit breathed, and Hanji immediately jerked her body toward him. “Sawney and Bean...they were murdered!!”

 

…......

 

As much as it pained him to watch Hanji's mental breakdown, Erwin stood silently at the scene of the crime. After all, no amount of words would change their situation now--in fact, saying too much could cause more trouble. Erwin instead put his mind to work and began to arrange the situation in the most logical way possible.

Early that morning, before the sun had even risen, Sawney and Bean had been killed. It was said that whoever the culprit was, was wearing three-dimensional maneuvering gear. There was the possibility that the person acted alone, but it was equally possible that there were others involved.

Why? Erwin asked himself, glancing around at the various members of the Garrison and Survey Corps around him. What would make someone want to kill these Titans? They were valuable test subjects and would aid humanity in its struggle to understand the origins of the Titans. Therefore...

The thoughts began to click and lock into place in his mind like gears and cogs would in any well-functioning machine.

Therefore, the person or persons who would be interested in killing these Titans would not likely hold interest in helping humanity understand Titans, he concluded, pursing his lips. It's as I thought. The Colossal Titan, and the Armored Titan...they are like Eren--humans who possess the ability to turn into a Titan. But their goal is not to help humanity--it is to destroy it. But why...?

Erwin glanced around the area again, watching the soldiers carefully.

Those people could be among us--no. They are among us. It's just a matter of finding who they are and discovering their motives. Or, should I say, gaining clarity of their motives. One thing is for sure: Eren is a key component in all of this. There is no doubt that these other shifters realize this. That makes Eren quite the target...

“Oi, Erwin.”

Levi's gruff voice sounded impatient.

“How much longer are we going to stand here?” the Captain asked. “The Military Police will clean up here--standing around is just a waste of time.”

“...Find Eren and your squad,” Erwin said quietly. “We'll leave soon.”

Without another word, Levi walked away, leaving Erwin to his devices.

It's obvious now what the next step is, he thought as he made his way through the crowd. I will have to choose carefully how to arrange these soldiers...

“They're out there, that's for sure. It's just a matter of how many, and where they are.”

Upon hearing this statement, Erwin slowed to a stop and turned toward the sound of the voice. Beside him were two Survey Corps soldiers, speaking in rather low voices. Erwin had just barely heard that declaration, but it was enough for him to keep listening.

“You think it was one of them who did this?” asked Rowen, frowning as he looked out on the scene. “...I guess it really makes sense, though, doesn't it?”

“Killing those Titans is a blow to humanity,” Catherine said quietly, narrowing her eyes. “Whoever did this knows that. And it won't stop here--not as long as Eren Jaeger is within these walls.”

“Good thing you study a dead language or two, then, right?” Rowen laughed, elbowing his companion, then stopped upon noticing Erwin standing next to them. He fell silent, and his expression grew serious.

“Rowen, Catherine,” Erwin said, his tone steady. “Come with me. Your new assignments begin today.”

 

Chapter Text

“Do you realize what you're giving up by joining the Survey Corps?” Bruno asked, staring at his closest friends.

“I'm don't care about living a plush life,” Gunther admitted, running a hand through his short, dark brown hair. “I just want to be able to use my skills.”

“I agree,” Eld said, nodding and crossing his arms. “I don't think that there are enough opportunities to grow as a soldier by joining the Military Police, Bruno.”

Bruno sighed through his nose and turned to Rowen and Catherine, who stared back at him with unwavering gazes. In the back of his mind, he knew he couldn't convince them to change their minds, but he felt that he had to try. They had made so many plans and had everything in place--why change any of that now?

“I just...wouldn't feel right about it,” Rowen admitted, as if reading Bruno's mind. “It's not that I think there's anything wrong with joining the Police, but...it's not what I want anymore.”

“Then what do you want? What can't you accomplish by joining the Police?”

“Bruno,” Catherine cut in, her sharp eyes catching Bruno's gaze. “This isn't an attack on your ideals or plans. This is a choice each of us made.”

Bruno laughed through his nose, staring down the brunette. “Good luck protecting humanity as a rotting corpse, then.” At his words, Catherine's eyes seemed to catch fire, and Bruno regretted having said such a thing.

“I'd rather die knowing I made the right choice than live on with regrets and hide within these walls,” she said coolly. “I'm not afraid to die--you should know that by now.”

Bruno wanted to apologize, but he couldn't bring himself to do it; his pride was hurt, and the idea of losing his friends made him even more angry.

“You still have a day left to decide for sure,” he told them.

“We decided,” Catherine replied. “Back off.”

 

With a quiet sigh, Connie watched as one by one, his comrades were interrogated by soldiers from the Military Police. It wasn't anything too intimidating; they were just answering questions about the last time they used their gear and the like. But it wasn't providing for a very good distraction from all the thoughts that were running through his mind in regards to the events of the previous night, and so Connie felt uneasy.

“The culprits couldn't help hating those Titans, I'm sure,” he mumbled, thinking out loud. He knew that the Titans that were killed were probably better off dead, and it was likely that whoever killed them had good reason.

“I guess,” Armin murmured in reply from beside him. “But still, killing them is the same as helping out the Titans in the long run. From the culprits' perspective, they've taken their revenge on those Titans, but they also dealt all of humanity a blow by doing so.”

Connie lowered his gaze. He knew Armin was right, which only made him feel even more like a dumbass.

“I'm an idiot, so I guess I understand their thinking,” he admitted. “It's become all I can think about. And you know, before I saw a Titan for the first time, I really wanted to join the Survey Corps. But now...I can only think about how I don't wanna see another Titan in my life ever again.” Connie's frown deepened as he added, “And we have to decide on the division we'll join today... Dammit. Even Jean said he would join the Survey Corps...”

“Eh?! Jean?!” Armin gasped. Connie nodded slightly, recalling Jean's words by the funeral pyre. He then turned his head, looking past Armin to Annie, who had not spoken a word since arriving.

“Hey, Annie...what do you think? About what Jean said?”

“I don't care,” she replied, her tone flat. “It doesn't change my decision.”

“I see... So you're going to the Military Police, then...” Connie looked away for a moment, hesitating. “Maybe that's what I should do, too. What do you think?”

Connie watched as Annie muttered something to herself, irritated. He almost regretted asking, but then her real reply came.

“Connie, if someone told you to go and die, would you do it?”

“What kind of a question is that?” Connie replied. “Of course I wouldn't.”

“Then you just have to decide on your own,” she told him. Before Connie could ask her to explain, Annie then said, “Armin, what would you do?”

“Well, I...” Armin paused, his face falling. “I would die, if I understand the reason behind it. I think that there might be cases when one must die. Even though I'd really rather not.”

“I see,” Annie murmured. “So you've made up your mind, then.”

“Yes.” At this single syllable, Connie looked at his friends.

“Seriously?! You're gonna join the Corps, too, Armin!?”

Armin didn't reply, but he had the same resigned look on his face that Annie did. Connie sighed as he turned away from his friends. Both seemed so sure of what they had to do. They really seemed to understand their duties as individuals, as well as a part of humanity.

I don't know how they know, Connie thought, furrowing his brow.

“You're pretty weak, but you've definitely got guts,” Annie then said, making Armin chuckle nervously.

“Th-thanks, I guess,” he replied. “Annie...you're actually a kind person, aren't you?”

“Huh?”

“Well, it looks like you're not exactly happy about us choosing to join the Survey Corps. And I think you have your reasons for joining the Police, don't you?”

“...Not really,” Annie murmured. Connie glanced at the blonde; she was staring straight ahead again. “I just want to save myself.”

 

…......

 

Even though it had been over a week since Marco's death, Jean was still not used to him being gone. Jean had hardly ever been alone since he had started training, seeing as how Marco was almost always with him when it seemed like no one else wanted to be around him. This wasn't to say that they were always together--it was just that Marco had made sure Jean was never left on his own, or so it seemed to Jean.

When the day came that he would finally have to settle on his regiment, Jean found himself alone, and it was admittedly uncomfortable. But that was just how it played out, since most of his friends were still trying to decide, and the select few who had made up their minds were either joining the Garrison or the Military Police.

However, being alone also meant being allowed to think without any distractions, and that was something Jean knew he needed. The self-reflection had paid off by early that evening; he felt more sure than ever that joining the Survey Corps was what he had to do.

After dinner, Jean finally caught up with a few of his friends before their meeting with the recruiters. He found Annie, Armin, Sasha, and Connie standing together just outside of the amphitheater. Upon seeing him, Sasha perked up, looking up at him with wide hazel eyes.

“Jean!” she exclaimed, then lowered her voice. “Jean, why did you suddenly decide to join the Survey Corps? I mean, aren't you scared?”

“Hah?” Jean put his hands on his hips, raising an eyebrow at her remark. “Of course I don't wanna join the Survey Corps.”

“Eh?” Connie grunted, looking up. “Then why did you...?”

“It's not like I'm joining the Corps because I'm not afraid of Titans,” Jean told him, lowering his arms. “And you won't hear things like 'if you're a capable soldier, you have responsibility to join the Survey Corps' from me, either. Don't lump me together with people like that suicidal bastard, got it?”

“Eren...” Connie murmured, looking away.

Jean's remark had caught the attention of some of his other friends, but he kept his focus on what he wanted to say. He knew he only had a few more minutes before they would be summoned to the amphitheater.

“And it's not like I gave in to someone's persuasion to put my life on the line,” he told them. “In this kind of job, you can't get along without making decisions for yourself.”

“Trainees! Line up and proceed to the first recruitment area!” a voice called out, and Jean sighed through his nose.

“This is a decision I made for myself,” Jean reiterated. “This doesn't have anything to do with how afraid I might be.”

Turning on his heel, Jean practically marched away from them, holding his head as high as he could. Even now it was all he could do to convince himself not to give in to the horribly tempting idea of backing out and joining the Military Police.

I can't do that, he told himself. I couldn't live with myself if I did that now...

Upon entering the amphitheater, Jean noticed Yasmin, Milena, and Rosaleen standing in the middle of the group. He knew all three would join the Garrison, and if that was the case, they may never meet again. Surely Yasmin knew this, too. Would she be willing to forgive him for the way he used to act? It was worth a shot.

Not that her opinion particularly matters, Jean realized, but he was already headed in their direction. A few seconds later, and he was standing next to Yasmin.

“Hey,” he said softly. The three girls looked at him, and then one by one looked away again. “Look, I know you're all joining the Garrison, I get it. I won't ask you to change your minds now. I...just wanted to say, good luck. And...I'm sorry.” Jean lowered his head, feeling a little embarrassed. “It took my friend dying like that for me to realize...how stupid I've been...”

“It's all right.” Jean looked up quickly at the sound of Yasmin's voice. “We've all been a little stupid up until now. We joined the military not realizing the full extent of the consequences that come with joining.” Yasmin turned to Jean, but her eyes seemed somewhat distant. “It took my best friend dying for me to realize that, even if I have a goal, I have to have the skills and courage to get there. I don't have any of that yet, and so this is the result...”

Yasmin's last few words trailed off, and Jean watched in silence as she slowly turned her face away. He could see in the fading sunlight that she was fighting tears.

“You'll get there,” Jean said quickly. He didn't know what else to say, but he didn't feel right not saying anything. “I think Marco was right about you--you're strong. You get it. And so you can get to where you want to go.”

Chuckling, Yasmin looked up at Jean again.

“Thanks,” she murmured, a faint smile on her face. “But I don't think so. And that's all right with me.”

Before Jean could come up with something else to say to prove her wrong, a figure appeared up on the slightly-raised platform in front of them. Behind the tall, muscular blond were several other people, probably his subordinates. He donned a Survey Corps uniform jacket and a serious expression that befit the occasion.

“I am the 13th Commander of the Survey Corps, Erwin Smith,” he said in a loud, clear voice. Jean faced forward, falling into the at-ease position. “The Survey Corps has an important objective behind its activities, entrusted to us by the king. The purpose of my speech to you on this day--the day you are to choose which division you will join--is to invite you to join the Survey Corps.

“However, because of the Titans' recent attack, all of you here have already had a taste of what surveying outside the walls may be like,” Erwin continued. “Despite the fact that you all are fresh out of training, you have already suffered casualties in your ranks, and that in itself is unprecedented. You have also already experienced the dread that Titans instill in humans, as well as the limit of your own power.”

Jean glanced at Yasmin; he could see the solemnity and resolve on her face even in the dim lighting. He, too, felt determined despite Erwin's grim words.

“However...we lost many lives in that attack, yes, but at the same time we've made progress never seen before--towards mankind's victory. As you all have already guessed, I am speaking of Eren Jaeger. Thanks to his efforts combined with yours, we've succeeded in preventing the advance of Titans, and we've acquired a means to uncover Titans' true nature. There is little in regards to him that I can tell you here, but I assure you, there is no doubt that he's on our side, risking his life for the common cause. We assume that the answers to the mystery surrounding him will be found in the basement of his house, in his hometown of Shiganshina.”

 

…......

 

Yasmin couldn't help but feel skeptical at Erwin's words. Eren's basement? It sounded like a hook to get people to join, but she had been surprised before with things in regards to Eren Jaeger. This wouldn't be the first time to hear some crazy declaration about him.

“If we manage to reach that basement,” Erwin continued, “it's likely that we'll be able to find a way to put a stop to the century of living in fears of Titans.”

“It's too good to be true,” Yasmin heard Milena whisper from beside her. As much as she wanted to agree with that, and as much as her logic said that she should, she was admittedly intrigued.

Just who is he? Yasmin wondered. Eren Jaeger...what does he know...?

“In order to take our time to thoroughly investigate that one basement, we will need to get Wall Maria back under our control first,” Erwin declared. “Our objective is as I just stated, but now that we can't use the gate of the Trost district anymore, we only have the option of departing from Karanese and advancing to Shiganshina in a roundabout way.

“The path that would have been suitable for a large force took us four years to establish, but it is now lost. And in those four years, over three-fourths of the Survey Corps members died. That many in just four years. According to our most optimistic estimates, we'll have to sacrifice at least five times more soldiers and twenty more years before it will be possible to dispatch a large force to Wall Maria again. And even these figures aren't quite realistic.

“The Survey Corps is always in search of talented members. With great losses after every mission, we constantly suffer from personnel shortage.” Erwin paused, and the silence made Yasmin feel tense. Everyone around her seemed to be holding their breaths. “I'm not going to hide anything from you. Those of you who will choose to join the Corps will have to participate in a survey expedition outside the walls in one month from now. There's a pressing need to break a supply route. The probability of new recruits dying during an expedition to the outer lands is fifty percent. Those who survive, though, will become excellent soldiers with a generally high survival rate.

“Those of you who are still willing to put your life on the line, despite learning about the dreadful state of affairs, stay here,” Erwin then declared. “And let me reiterate this: most of those who will decide to stay here and enter the Survey Corps will probably be dead soon. Listen to your heart very closely and ask yourselves if you really have what it takes to sacrifice your life for mankind. That is all. Those wanting to join the other divisions are dismissed.”

On her left, Yasmin could see Rosaleen and Milena turn to leave without a second's hesitation. On her right stood Jean, gritting his teeth and trembling. The determined look that he'd had earlier was gone.

Will you change your mind after all, I wonder? she thought, turning to follow Rosaleen and Milena. I know that I can't join the Survey Corps. Commander Erwin asks for those willing to give their lives, but I can't do that. I want mine too much. I want to live so that I can find out the truth...

As she began to walk toward the exit, Yasmin noticed familiar faces that seemed to be trying to decide for themselves what they should do. Among them were Sasha and Connie, and even Reiner and Bertholdt.

You guys...you'll stay...? Yasmin paused a moment, looking back over her shoulder at Jean and the others. ...Am I wrong after all? Is this really what I should do...?

In that moment, Yasmin recalled Marco's lifeless body, and she felt her body tremor in pain.

No. That's enough, she told herself. It's time to go.

Glancing back at her friends one last time, Yasmin sighed through her nose.

Goodbye. We may never meet again.

With a heavy heart, Yasmin finally left the amphitheater; she found Milena and Rosaleen waiting for her. Annie was also standing there, leaning against a nearby wall.

“Annie...don't tell me you're joining the Garrison, too?” Rosaleen asked. The blonde made a face.

“No,” she responded. “I'm just waiting on the others.”

“If you mean Reiner and Bertholdt, they're still back there,” Yasmin told her quietly.

“...Is that so...”

Yasmin looked back toward those who were left; a few moments later, she saw them all collectively salute.

“That's it, then,” Milena murmured. “That many joined the Survey Corps. It's more than I thought.” She then turned to Annie, who was staring into the courtyard. “Looks like Reiner and Bertholdt had a change of heart.”

“...Whatever. That's fine.” Annie slowly turned away, looking at the girls. “It still doesn't change my decision.”

“I admire you for that,” Rosaleen admitted.

“I do, too,” Yasmin agreed.

“Tch.” Annie quickly looked away, her face hidden by the shadows of the night. “It doesn't mean anything, like I said. Anyway, good luck in the Garrison.”

“Thank you!” Rosaleen exclaimed, sounding bright like her usual self.

“Don't be afraid to say hi,” Milena added.

“Good luck to you, too,” Yasmin murmured.

Without another word, Annie turned and walked away from the trio; the air seemed to get colder as she did, and Yasmin felt a chill run down her spine.

“What's wrong?” Milena asked, but Yasmin only shook her head.

“I'm tired,” she replied. “Let's go back and get our things.”

“Yeah!” Rosaleen cheered. “Tomorrow, our lives in the Garrison can begin!”

 

…......

 

“There you are! I've been looking for you all over the place!”

At the sound of Hanji's voice, Catherine turned away from the sink and toward her fellow soldier. Sure enough, Hanji was headed her way, carrying a stack of books. Levi was right behind her, also carrying various books and papers.

“What...?!” In delight, Catherine dropped the dish she was cleaning into the sink. “H-Hanji, are those--?!”

“As promised!” Hanji laughed, plopping the books onto a nearby table. “You didn't think I forgot, did you?”

“No, I just, it's been busy lately...” Despite her best efforts to remain collected, Catherine couldn't help but beam in joy. Carefully, she removed her cleaning gloves and rushed over to Hanji's side. “But I would be lying if I said I hadn't been dying to get my hands on this shit.”

Throwing an arm around Catherine's shoulders, Hanji laughed.

“Well, we geniuses have to stick together, y'know!”

“Can I go now?” Levi interrupted, looking at Hanji.

“Don't be rude,” Hanji replied in a teasing manner. “Weren't you the one saying just a few minutes ago that you wanted to clean up the kitchen? Why do you take over for Cat here so she can go and read?” Releasing Catherine, Hanji gestured to the books. “Or, why don't you be an upstanding gentleman and help her take these upstairs?”

“You idiot,” Levi growled. “Why did we bring these all the way down here if we were just going to be bringing them back upstairs again? For someone who claims to be a genius, you really don't think things through, do you, four eyes?”

Again, Hanji laughed, and Catherine tried to hide her own smirk. One of her favorite things about being in the Survey Corps was the dynamic between the veterans. Levi and Hanji could not have been any more opposite, and so seeing them interact was always quite the show. Though she was closer to Hanji, she felt that she had gotten to know Captain Levi through the years as a sort of a bonus to that friendship, which made watching those two bicker even more entertaining.

“Well, I thought it wouldn't be very nice to keep her waiting any longer than she has already,” Hanji told the Captain, who looked irritated.

“It's fine--I can make two trips,” Catherine interjected, but Hanji held up a hand to silence her.

“Oh come on, Cat. Are you really going to let him get away with his shitty attitude?”

“The only shitty one here is you, shitty glasses,” Levi snapped. “I'll help her carry them, so go bother someone else for a while.”

“Ugh, finally!” Hanji put her hands on her hips, giving Catherine a toothy grin. “Then I can finish up here! Enjoy!”

“Thank you so much, really,” Catherine said, feeling a bit at a loss for words.

“It's nothing, really!” Hanji waved her hands. “You'll be able to use these a lot more than I ever could, so it's not a problem. Just remember--”

“Yeah, I remember.” Catherine took the stack of books Hanji had been carrying off of the table and into her arms. “If I find anything worth telling you, I'll let you know right away.”

“Perfect!”

“Oi, make sure you actually get those dishes clean,” Levi said as Hanji headed over to the sink. Catherine waited for Hanji's reassuring thumbs up, then left the kitchen; Levi followed her out of the room, and soon the two were walking side-by-side down the hallway.

“You both are such nerds,” she heard him mutter under his breath.

“Captain Levi, why aren't you at the recruitment ceremony?” Catherine asked, changing the subject. After all, he was right, which meant she had no decent comeback.

“That brat Jaeger had to stay here, and since my squad went out, I'm stuck here. Besides, Erwin wanted me to keep an eye on Hanji,” Levi replied.

“What for?” Catherine glanced over at Levi. “...Well, I think I get it.”

“I'd like to think she knows better, but there's always the possibility that she'd snap over the whole Sawney and Bean incident,” Levi admitted. “That's not exactly the message we want to send the newest recruits.”

“They still never found out who did it, did they...?”

“No.”

Catherine fell silent as she walked up the stairs and toward her room.

It's very possible that the things Hanji couldn't discover with Sawney and Bean are things that are written in some of these books, she realized, her heart beginning to pound. If that's the case, then...

All of the possibilities of what kind of information she might find in her newest reading material began to flood her mind, and without thinking, she stopped mid-step.

“Oi.” Levi stopped a few paces ahead, turning to face her. “What are you doing?”

“...Sorry,” Catherine murmured, and she began to walk again. “I was just thinking...”

“Can you not think and walk at the same time?”

“Hanji was right--you are rude.”

Catherine stopped outside of her room, and Levi stopped beside her.

“Well?” he asked.

“My hands are full,” she told him.

“Not my problem. I'm rude, remember?”

“For fuck's sake...” Catherine mumbled under her breath. Carefully, she set the stack of books on the floor, then pulled out the key to her room and unlocked the door. She threw it open, then picked up the books again and headed inside.

“What happened to your roommates?” Levi asked suddenly, and Catherine let out a quiet sigh. “...I don't need to ask, though, do I?”

The two fell silent for a moment; Catherine had admittedly gotten used to living on her own, so the reminder that there were once others with her here was bittersweet.

“Well, despite being rude about it, thank you for helping,” Catherine said as Levi placed his stack of documents on her desk. “I guess we'd better check on Hanji...”

“I'll go,” he told her. “She wanted you to have these so that you could starting looking through them as soon as possible, didn't she?” Straightening out his sleeves, Levi headed toward the door. “Try not to have too much fun, though.”

“I can't promise you anything,” Catherine replied. In response, Levi let out a laugh through his nose. “Have a good night, Captain Levi. And thanks again.”

“You too. And it's nothing,”

Levi then walked out of Catherine's room, shutting the door behind him quietly.

Sighing, the brunette turned toward her desk, feeling content.

“Let's get to work, then,” she said to herself as she settled down into her desk chair.

 

Chapter Text

“So, in thirty days, we're to go outside the walls to build a stronghold for the supply chain?” Erwin glanced up from the map he had been examining; from the corner of his eye, he could see Mike with his back to him. Though he couldn't see his face, Erwin could tell by his tone that he was not satisfied. “Not to mention we'll be taking new recruits with us, too.”

“If we get any new recruits, that is,” Erwin told him.

“In my opinion, this is far too hasty.”

“Eren's position here is a temporary thing. We must quickly and smoothly prove his usefulness to those in the central government.” Choosing his words carefully, Erwin tapped his pencil against the table quietly. “Otherwise, sooner or later, the Police will make another move to--”

“You're using the company line on even me, Erwin?”

Mike was now looking at Erwin, but his eyes were downcast; his disappointment was obvious, and so Erwin set his pencil down and turned his body to face his friend.

“You're as sharp as ever, Mike,” the Commander said with a smile.

Sniffing quietly, Mike replied, “But not as sharp as you.”

“I'll tell you everything when the time is right.”

A soft knock on the door brought the conversation to its close.

“'Scuse us,” said Rowen as he opened the door. Catherine followed him inside, closing the door behind her.

“You wanted us to meet you here, Sir?” she asked, obviously puzzled.

Standing up from his desk, Erwin looked at the duo, then back at Mike. His smile faded into a smirk as he stated, “Mike, it looks like the time is right.”

 

Her heart fluttering with excitement, Milena quickly brought her right fist to her chest as a man in a Garrison jacket walked into sight. Yasmin and Rosaleen, who were standing on either side of her, did the same, along with the other newly-graduated trainees. It seemed that everyone was holding their breath in anticipation--with it being their first day as full-fledged members of the Garrison, no one knew what to expect from this man.

“You can relax,” the Garrison soldier told them. Milena hesitated for a moment, then lowered her arm and stood at ease. “I can tell that you all are nervous, but don't worry. I don't bite.”

With a small smile, the man stood in front of the newly-inducted Garrison soldiers and put his hands on his hips.

“My name is Johannes Biermann, but you can just call me Hannes,” he told them. “I'm one of two Captains here in the Southern Division--you all should know Captain Woermann by now. His group mostly consists of veterans, with a few exceptional cases. But that's not to say that you all aren't excellent soldiers.”

Milena watched in solemn silence as Hannes' warm smile faded and his arms dropped to his sides. Before he even began to speak again, Milena knew what he was going to say. It was the same for everyone who had experienced the battle in Trost; though humanity had been victorious, much had been sacrificed in exchange.

“All of you standing here today have survived humanity's first victory against the Titans,” Hannes continued. “You all know how to win, but you also understand the sacrifices that must be made. Human lives...” His voice trailed off, and Milena heard Rosaleen let out a shaky breath from beside her.

“The fact that you already understand this sad truth makes you even stronger, despite being fresh out of training. You're aware of how terrifying it is to fight the Titans. And you should also be aware of the opposition within the walls. Our Commander, Dot Pyxis, is an eccentric man, and there are definitely those who don't agree with his methods. But he is also a man who understands what it means to be victorious. That's why I can stand here with you all today--because of people like him who are willing to toe the line and do what's necessary to win.”

Hannes' face seemed to brighten a bit, and Milena felt herself smile, too.

The Survey Corps is full of strong people, and I'm sure the Military Police has them, too, she thought, but the Garrison Regiment soldiers are on a different level. They're still so in touch with humanity, but they're strong enough to understand what they should be doing with their lives. I made the right choice, definitely.

“So, I will tell you all this now, and maybe remind you of it from time to time: sometimes, the things we must do to win are not the things that are easy.” Hannes put a hand over his heart, his smile widening. “Trust me when I say that I didn't used to be a reliable soldier. We became pretty complacent hiding within the walls back in Wall Maria. My friends and I would drink all day, without having much to worry about. But now, those of us who are left have a job to do, and in order to do it, I had to give up the old times. ...It's likely that many of you will have to do the same. So, be brave.”

There was a brief moment of silence that hung in the air, and Milena couldn't help but feel a little emotional. Everything Captain Hannes had said was quite true, and it was also admittedly painful. Milena could still remember how she felt when she came across Erin's lifeless body, and she could still see the expressions on Mina's parents' faces when she had delivered Mina's gear. So many had died already, and she knew that it wouldn't end there.

But I can't stop here, either, she realized, pursing her lips. If I do, I am betraying literally everyone who has died to keep humanity going.

“Now, for the time being, I have only two squads under my command,” Hannes explained. “Since there's quite a few of you that have joined, I may have to add a third person as a squad leader. So, if any of you are interested, let me know, and I'll put you under evaluation accordingly. But, we won't be dealing with any of that today. I'm sure you all are tired, so use today to rest and get settled into headquarters. If any of you get bored, you can help clean cannons. Tomorrow we'll start the real deal.”

With a toothy grin, Hannes saluted to the new recruits, and Milena immediately saluted back.

“Dismissed!” Hannes exclaimed.

“Sir!” came the collective reply.

“Hahhhhh...” Milena turned to Rosaleen upon hearing her loud sigh. “I promised myself I wouldn't get emotional, and here I am...” The red-head laughed with embarrassment as she wiped her eyes. “But I guess that means I'm in the right place.”

“I feel the same,” Milena told her with a confident nod.

“Captain Hannes seems like a respectable guy,” Rosaleen added. “I wonder what all he's been through in the past five years...”

“It's none of our business,” Yasmin finally said. “And it shouldn't matter. It's just like he said--we have a job to do.”

Milena turned to her friend, frowning. Yasmin's words were uncharacteristically cold; it was obviously just a face she was putting on to guard herself. In the three years they had lived together, Milena had seen her do this before, and it was only natural that she would do the same now, so as not to succumb to her emotions. Milena knew that Yasmin still felt a deep sense of regret over the events of Trost. She had lost her best friend, after all, and so Milena couldn't help but feel sorry for her.

“I guess you have a point,” Rosaleen admitted, sighing.

“Hey, why don't we do what Captain Hannes said and check out our headquarters?” Milena suggested quickly, before the mood could get any darker. “C'mon, we need to unpack anyway, right?”

 

…......

 

Yasmin was grateful that the day had passed quickly. She was still exhausted from cleaning up after Trost, and her emotions were still a mess. But there were several good things that had come out of their first day in the Garrison, including room assignments that had placed all three girls in the same room.

“And so our adventure as bunkmates continues!” Milena exclaimed, giving Yasmin an enthusiastic hug.

“You have no idea how relieved I am,” Yasmin admitted with a laugh.

And it was true--had Yasmin been bunkmates with anyone else, even Rosaleen, she would have felt much less at ease. Though it was true that they occasionally butted heads, Yasmin regarded Milena as a very important friend. Over the past three years, Milena had become Yasmin's emotional adviser, and she was always the first person to provide a shoulder to cry on. Yasmin loved Rosaleen, but the emotional support she received from Milena was something she could not get from Rosaleen.

After exploring their headquarters--an average-sized facility near Wall Rose--the girls headed to the cafeteria for dinner.

“I'm going to crash so early tonight,” Milena laughed as the trio sat down. Yasmin smiled, pushing down the feeling of awkwardness as Rosaleen sat across from her. There was an empty spot across from Milena now, where Erin always used to sit.

“Don't you want to at least meet our other roommates?” Rosaleen asked, grinning. “They might be nice.”

“We're roommates--we'll have time to get to know each other. Time to sleep is much more limited.”

“It's sad how true that is,” Yasmin muttered, letting out a dark laugh.

“Hey, it could be worse.” Rosaleen lowered her voice, leaning across the table toward Yasmin and Milena. “Y'know how the Survey Corps is planning to get to Shiganshina? Well, I heard they're planning to go out as soon as next month.”

“There's no way,” Milena said, shaking her head.

“Where did you hear that from?” Yasmin asked.

“I heard people talking about it in the hallways today.” Rosaleen sat back in her seat, shrugging. “I mean, I don't think they're going straight there just yet. But they're apparently going on a preliminary mission in just a few weeks.”

“That's so soon,” Yasmin murmured, looking down at her dinner. “I wonder why?”

“I'm sure we'll find out soon enough, right?” Rosaleen replied. “After all, it's the Survey Corps. They're pretty controversial these days. And going out on a mission like this will catch people's attention.”

“It's certainly caught mine.”

A fourth voice suddenly entered the conversation, and Yasmin whipped around to see none other than Captain Hannes standing there, looking right at Rosaleen. Yasmin turned to her friend, whose usually rosy face had gone white with fear.

“Don't make that face,” Hannes said with a laugh, sitting down next to Yasmin. “You're not in trouble. But I'm curious as to how you found out so much about their mission?”

“You mean you know about it?” Milena asked with a quiet gasp.

“I heard it from Commander Pyxis. He was kind enough to let me know since I used to live in that district.”

“I heard rumors circulating in headquarters today,” Rosaleen murmured, her face now flushed. “It caught my attention, so I tried to my best to hang around and find out all that I could... I know that's not very professional of me, but I didn't want to get my facts messed up and circulate any information that isn't true.”

The table fell silent, and Yasmin glanced at Hannes. She couldn't quite read the expression on his face, but he didn't seem angry, at least.

“I'm...admittedly kind of impressed by that,” he said at last.

“You mean you're not angry?!” Rosaleen gasped, her green eyes going wide.

“No, not at all.” Hannes paused for a moment. “On the surface, what you just told me only indicates that you pay close attention to gossip but make sure to not spread anything that's not true. Take that to another level: your ability to listen in and pick out the important details from someone's conversation is an important skill.”

“I-I just...” Rosaleen's voice trailed off, and her face grew even pinker.

“She's always been like this,” Milena said, looking past Yasmin at Hannes. “She's really good at picking up information and passing it on reliably.”

“I'll second that,” Yasmin jumped in.

“W-Well, it's better than just uselessly spreading rumors!” Rosaleen squeaked, taking a large gulp of tea. “It's like when they said Eren Jaeger was a scientific experiment of the government, or whatever! I mean, who'd believe that, really? When we had all trained alongside him for three years?”

“You three know Eren?” Hannes asked, and the girls all nodded. “How about Mikasa Ackermann? Or Armin Arlert?”

“Of course!” Milena exclaimed. “We were in the same class, after all!”

To Yasmin's surprise, Hannes leaned toward the girls in his seat, his face looking a bit worried.

“How are they doing? Where are Mikasa and Armin now? Do you know which regiment they ended up joining?”

“As far as we know, they joined the Survey Corps,” Rosaleen told him. Hannes let out a deep sigh.

“That...doesn't surprise me at all. I should have seen that coming.”

“Wait, so can we assume you know those three personally?” Milena asked, tilting her head in curiosity.

“I sure do.” Hannes smiled gently. “Those three were a hell of a lot of trouble as kids, and it seems they haven't changed much since then. But they're good people, and doubtless they'll be even better soldiers.”

“All right, I believe that Eren and Mikasa raised hell as kids,” Milena admitted. “But Armin Arlert?”

“I believe that,” Yasmin laughed, turning to Hannes with a wide grin on her face. “Don't they always say that you have to watch out for the quiet ones? My friend Marco told me that he was always talking about politics and all kinds of taboo theories.”

“That sounds about right,” Hannes chuckled. “Anyway, those kids are practically my family. Eren's father saved my wife's life back during the plague, and Armin's grandfather was always so kind to us.”

“What about Mikasa?” Rosaleen asked. “I was her roommate back during training, but she never really talked about her family, other than Eren.”

“They're not blood relatives, right?” Milena added.

“No--the Jaeger's adopted her after her parents died a few years ago. I heard something awful happened to them, and that there was a bit of trouble afterward, but they never told me in detail.” Hannes glanced up at Rosaleen. “Though I did hear some rumors concerning Eren's trial. Do you know about that?”

“I think I might,” Rosaleen admitted quietly. “About Eren and Mikasa?”

“It's not just a rumor--it's in Military Police official records that Eren and Mikasa killed three kidnappers when they were nine years old.” Hannes sat back in his seat, looking solemn. “It certainly explains a lot about their behavior now. I can only hope that Armin keeps an eye on them now.”

“I'm sure he will,” Yasmin said. “He's a really good friend, and he's also smart enough to know how to handle them.”

“You're right,” Hannes agreed, nodding. “He has the strength to protect his friends when it counts most.”

The table fell silent for a moment; Yasmin glanced at Rosaleen, who wore a distant expression on her face again.

She's thinking the same thing as me: she can't forgive herself yet, either, Yasmin realized, sighing through her nose.

“Say, Captain Hannes,” Milena said, breaking the silence with her cheerful voice. “You were talking about needing another squad leader, right? When and where can we sign up for the examination?”

“Oh, there's not a sign-up, per say. Just telling me is enough,” Hannes replied, smiling. “You up for the challenge, then?”

“You bet!” Yasmin could feel the energy radiating from Milena even more so than usual. “...I mean, I know it's no fun and games. But somebody has to do it.”

“I'll put you on my list, then. But I will warn you first: in the Military Police, if you join a higher rank, you are putting more distance between you and the Titans. But in the Garrison and in the Survey Corps, joining a higher rank means putting yourself closer to the Titans.”

“I know,” Milena said quietly. “And it does scare me, honestly. But it's like you said earlier--we each have a job to do. I want to do my part to help humanity. And if that means I have to do something risky, then so be it.” Yasmin turned to look at Milena, but the girl she saw seemed like an altogether different person. She was suddenly not a perky, friendly teenager anymore. In her dark brown eyes was a look of fierce determination that Yasmin had never seen before.

“I may not be a leader, and that's fine--but I can't decide that for myself, so that's why I'm asking you,” Milena continued. “Either way, I'll work hard and continue to fight. That's why I joined the Garrison.”

“I wish everyone had that attitude,” Hannes said with a laugh. “What's your name?”

“I'm Milena Gessler,” the blonde replied, holding out her hand toward Hannes. The Captain gave her a firm handshake.

“What about you two?” he then asked, releasing Milena's hand.

“I'm Rosaleen Johnson!” Rosaleen said quickly, also holding out her hand to Hannes. “My grandfather was in the Garrison, and I hope to continue to do good in the Johnson family name, Sir!”

“Pleasure to meet you, Rosaleen,” Hannes replied, shaking her hand. “And you?”

Yasmin felt her throat go dry, but she managed to reply anyway.

“I'm Yasmin Güven,” she said, shaking Hannes' hand.

I have nothing special to say about myself, she then realized as Hannes released her hand and turned back to her friends. What the hell can I contribute to humanity...? I joined for much more selfish reasons. ...Maybe I should have just joined the Survey Corps--then at least I could die for a more obvious cause.

 

…......

 

“Ugh, I'm beat.”

Armin watched in amused silence as Jean flopped onto his bunk next to Connie.

“Studying is not what I expected to be doing in this regiment,” the teen groaned. “I thought we finished doing that in training?”

“Well, it's only natural, considering how soon we'll be going on out this mission,” Armin replied, slowly sitting on his bunk across from his friends. “I think you're stressing yourself out over other things, too, am I right?”

“If you mean your little shit of a best friend, then yes, I am.” Irritated, Jean quickly sat upright, staring Armin down. “I may have been rough on both him and Mikasa earlier, but they've got to realize what's at stake here. We're talking about human lives--no one deserves to die in vain.”

Jean's words hung in the air; Armin knew exactly what he was insinuating.

“Jean, this is different from when we were in training.” Reiner jumped into the conversation; he leaned on the railing of his bunk above Armin. “We aren't helpless anymore.”

“I still feel pretty useless,” Connie admitted. “So what if we graduated? We're up against Titans, man.”

“Let's just face it--we're going to die,” Jean told them. “So we might as well try to know what we're dying for, and we might as well go down fighting.”

“Marco wasn't the only one to die at Trost, Jean,” Bertholdt pointed out quietly. “We all lost people, but that's not an excuse to be reckless.”

“I'm not saying to be reckless, Bertholdt.” Jean folded his arms across his chest, looking up at the brunet. “I'm saying we should be aware of what we're fighting for. That's all.”

“Well...it's harder for some of us than others.” Bertholdt lowered his gaze for a moment. “We're not all strong like you.”

“Marco always said that Jean is weak,” Armin told Bertholdt with a kind smile.

“Thanks a lot, Armin.”

“No, wait, I have a point I'm trying to make!” Armin said quickly as Jean glared at him. “What I mean is, it's not just about being strong. Strength will only get you so far. We have to remember that we're all weak. There are things we can't do, no matter what. So we have to try to do what we can. Right?”

“I agree, Armin,” Reiner declared. “You're absolutely right. It's our duty as soldiers.”

“Reiner...” Bertholdt murmured.

“Armin, you probably should have tried harder to rub off on that suicidal bastard friend of yours,” Jean muttered, flopping onto his back. Armin couldn't help but laugh.

“I tried, really!”

As he and his roommates got settled in for the night, Armin couldn't help but think further about their conversation.

Fighting with a purpose in mind doesn't guarantee my survival, he reminded himself. But I refuse to let myself be useless. I think nearly everyone in our class feels that way now, especially after what happened in Trost.

For a moment, Armin thought back to Marco and all of the conversations they'd had about the future of humanity. At the time, their talks had seemed pretty innocent, but the more he thought about it, the more he began to realize that Marco was the perfect example of dying with a purpose.

Jean seems to think that Marco died quietly, but in reality, he really didn't, Armin realized. He was fighting hard like all of us were, but he died anyway. He'll never get to pursue his goals or see any of them realized. There will probably be others like him. But his death taught us all something--we need to take action.

Lying down in his bunk, Armin stared at the wood panels above him.

Commander Erwin is doing just that. He's taking action, which means he has a specific purpose in mind. But what...?

 

Chapter Text

It was odd--though Eren had seen Armin and Mikasa just a few days prior, it felt as though several years had passed between them. He ran up to them to greet them, but for some reason, he couldn't even bring himself to give them a hug or even touch them. Perhaps there was a part of his mind still thinking that it was all a dream.

“It feels like it's been so long since I last saw you guys!” Eren exclaimed with a smile.

“Eren, did they do anything to you?!” Before he could respond, Eren felt Mikasa's strong grip on his shoulders. “Did they subject you to any kind of physical or emotional torture?!”

“What?! No, not at all!”

“Tch.” Gritting her teeth, Mikasa released Eren and narrowed her eyes. “That short-ass old man went too far. One of these days, I'll teach him a lesson.”

“You can't mean Captain Levi...?” Eren asked quietly. Before Mikasa could reply, a familiar voice interrupted the conversation.

“Hey, Eren!” Normally, Eren would have replied back right away, but seeing Connie and Sasha stunned him so much that he couldn't get words out. What were those two doing at the Survey Corps headquarters? Ymir, Krista, Reiner, and Bertholdt were not far behind them--but what was the occasion?

“Wait, don't tell me you all joined the Survey Corps, too?!” Eren gasped, eyes wide.

“Why else would we be here?” Connie retorted, a hand on his hip.

“So then, the only ones who joined the Police were Jean, Marco, and Annie--”

Eren stopped mid-sentence upon seeing the familiar figure of Jean Kirschstein standing before him. His face was sour as ever, but there seemed to be a different aura about him than before.

“Jean, even you?!” Eren blurted out. “So then, Marco and Annie--”

“Marco died.” Jean's words were so blunt that Eren at first thought it might be a joke. But all it took was one look at Jean's face, and Eren knew he was serious.

“H-how--”

“It seems like not everyone gets to die a fantastical death,” Jean continued, and Eren felt his heart sink to his stomach. “No one knows what happened.”

 

It had only been one month since she joined the Garrison regiment, but Yasmin already felt quite at home with her fellow soldiers. Outside of Milena and Rosaleen, there were plenty of kind people that she already considered as friends. On top of that, Hannes had proved to be a great leader, as well as a sort of older brother figure. Yasmin never had to feel shy about approaching him for anything.

“Today's the day!” Yasmin looked up from the cannon she was cleaning to look at Milena's bright grin. “...You look half asleep. D'you even know what I'm talking about?”

“No,” Yasmin replied, looking back down; she could her own smirking face reflected on the cannon. “You've only been talking about it non-stop for the past three and a half weeks.”

“Shut up!” Milena stomped her foot as Yasmin let out a laugh through her nose. “You know this means a lot to me!”

“I know, I know, and trust me--I'm excited to find out, too.”

Yasmin glanced back up at Milena, who was a little red-faced now. She had every right to be excited--Captain Hannes' decision about the new squad leader didn't just affect Milena, after all. A squad leader would need members in that squad, and Yasmin had no idea where she or Rosaleen would end up--they could easily be split up into different squads, and that'd be the end of it.

“Look, there he is!” Milena gasped, pointing behind Yasmin. Turning around, she could see Hannes holding a piece of paper; other soldiers were starting to gather around him. “C'mon, let's go!”

Yasmin quickly stood up and followed Milena over to the gathering crowd. Rosaleen was already there; she waved at them to join her, and soon the trio was standing in front of Hannes with eager faces.

“I'm sorry this took so long,” Hannes apologized, looking embarrassed. “This was a difficult decision, and there were a lot of little details to consider. But anyway, as you've probably already figured out, the new squad leader and squad assignments are done. I'll go ahead and read out the names of the newest squad now, but if you have questions or forget, I'll be posting this around HQ, so you can check there. Starting tomorrow, you'll report to your respective squad leaders for instructions.”

Hannes paused, and Yasmin could feel a wild energy generating from Milena.

“Now then, here's the new squad--and starting tomorrow, you'll report to your new squad leader, Milena Gessler.”

Yasmin was incredibly proud of Milena for her completely collected reaction; the only thing the blonde did was let out a quiet breath of air through her nose, as if letting out weeks of tension. As Hannes read through the names of soldiers in Milena's squad, Yasmin glanced around to see their reactions. No one seemed opposed to the idea of having Milena as someone in charge.

“...Aria Gabit, Yasmin Güven...”

Upon hearing her name, Yasmin instinctively snapped to attention. But then it hit her--she would not be separated from her friend. The amount of relief that Yasmin felt with that one fact was unbelievable.

However, Hannes skipped right over where Rosaleen's name could have been, and Yasmin's optimism quickly dissipated. Did that mean Rosaleen would be in another squad? Why? What had prompted that decision?

Immediately after reading the names and dismissing the soldiers, Yasmin turned to her red-headed friend, but she was already on her way to talk to Hannes.

“I did it,” Yasmin heard Milena whisper from beside her. “I can't believe it.”

“Well, you should. It's real.” Yasmin ruffled Milena's hair a bit. “Congratulations, Squad Leader Gessler.”

“...Thank you so much, Yasmin...” Milena sounded as though she was ready to cry. “But...what's going to happen to Rosaleen...?”

“I don't know, but let's go find out.”

Milena nodded, then followed Yasmin obediently; Yasmin could tell she was still in a starry-eyed daze, and she didn't blame her. She was so proud of Milena, but there hadn't been a single doubt in her mind that Milena would get the position. Milena was a natural leader, just like Marco had been, and she was even more fearless.

“Ah, yes, Rosaleen,” Hannes was saying as Yasmin and Milena caught up to their friend. “Actually, I have something kind of different for you in mind.”

“Different?” Rosaleen echoed, sounding terrified.

“Milena, you don't mind if I take Rosaleen from your squad for something, do you?” Hannes asked the blonde, who raised her eyebrows in surprise.

“Does this mean she was supposed to be in my squad after all?” Milena asked.

“Well, here's what happened...” Hannes turned back to Rosaleen, a small smile on his face. “Rosaleen, from the start you've shown excellent communication skills, and I had sort of hoped we could use those skills here in the Garrison. After consulting with the other Squad Leaders and Captain Woermann, we've determined that you would best be suited not necessarily out fighting on the field, but out using those skills you've honed.”

“...I'm not sure I understand completely,” Rosaleen admitted in a timid voice.

“Commander Pyxis has asked you to serve alongside him as one of his lead communication specialists,” Hannes explained. “Your job would basically be to collect and spread information--from the battlefield to the Commander, and then on to journalists and the like.”

Yasmin watched as Rosaleen's green eyes lit up like stars, while Milena's brown ones became dull as mud.

“You won't be excused from fighting altogether, but your main assignment will be to play messenger,” Hannes continued. “However, I guess if you're going to be fighting at all, you'll need a squad, so I don't see why you can't be under Miss Gessler's command, am I right?”

“...Are you...serious?” Rosaleen asked, her eyes wide. “This isn't a joke, right? You're not mocking me, right?”

“Are you kidding? Of course I'm serious!” Hannes let out a laugh. “You're too talented to waste. We're lucky to have found someone with your skill set, what with the way things are now!”

“I-I...I accept the assignment!” Rosaleen exclaimed, saluting. “I'll serve in Milena's squad and perform my duties as a communications specialist!”

“Good luck,” Hannes said with a grin. He then turned to Yasmin and Milena. “That goes for all of you. Good luck.”

“Thank you,” Milena said quietly, and Yasmin echoed her.

I can read you, Milena, Yasmin thought as the blonde bit her bottom lip. Your jealousy couldn't be more obvious...or more unnecessary.

 

…......

 

“How's my lame-ass best friend doing today?”

Rowen grinned as he threw his arm around Catherine's shoulder; the impact made her stumble a bit, and she turned her green-grey eyes up to him.

“I was fine until you did that,” she muttered in reply. “You made me completely forget what I was thinking about.”

“That's what I do!” Rowen laughed, mussing the brunette's hair. “But come on, give your brain a break for a day. We go out on the mission tomorrow--are you really planning on studying all night again tonight?”

“Not all night, just for a bit more.” Catherine sighed through her nose. “There's so much I haven't even touched yet...”

“Hanji can't help you?”

“No one can,” Catherine replied quietly. “No one else besides me has studied this language.”

“Couldn't you teach someone else?” Rowen suggested. He then grinned and leaned in a little closer to Catherine. “You could teach Captain Levi.”

“Not in a million years,” she growled. “...But the idea of teaching someone else isn't a bad one, admittedly. If something were to happen to me, no one else would be able to carry on my work...”

“Aw, c'mon, don't talk like that.” Rowen removed his arm from around Catherine's shoulders. “Do you always have to be so morbid?”

“I'm just being realistic, Rowen,” Catherine told him. “Sometimes I wish you'd do the same.”

“Yeah, but then he wouldn't be Rowen.”

Rowen and Catherine stopped in their tracks to see Gunther and Eld standing in front of them, both with smirks on their faces.

“Hey, guys,” Rowen greeted them. “How's babysitting going?”

“Not bad,” Eld admitted.

“Eren's not a bad kid,” Gunther added.

“Probably more well-behaved than Rowen,” Catherine said with a sly grin, and the four laughed.

Man...it feels like ages since we've talked like this... Rowen realized as he looked as his old friends.

Eld and Gunther had been two of his roommates back during their trainee days, and he considered them to be great friends. Unfortunately, they had gone their separate ways after graduation--those two were busy with Captain Levi, while Rowen and Catherine had both ended up in Nanaba's squad. However, for the upcoming mission, Rowen and Catherine would be under Commander Erwin's direct command, which put them closer to the Special Operations Squad members.

The four of them had not had a lot of chances to talk up until this point, but now it seemed as though they were once again inseparable--and Rowen didn't want it to be any other way. He treasured his friendship with them, and he felt bad for letting so much distance come between them.

“Do you guys want to join us for lunch? We were just on our way,” Gunther offered, smiling at Rowen and Catherine. “The rest of our squad will be there, too.”

“I--”

“That'd be great!” Rowen exclaimed, interrupting what seemed to be Catherine's rejection. “Right, Cat? You need a break from work. Right?”

“...Yeah,” she murmured.

“Good, then it's decided!”

Rowen ignored Catherine's look of irritation as they followed Eld and Gunther to the dining hall. He knew that if she had it her way, she'd already be holed up in her room again. Though she had good reason to be so dedicated to studying, she was a total workaholic, and Rowen took every chance he could to make her socialize, especially with the Special Operations Squad members.

“Hey, you two!” Petra greeted them when they got to the table. Eren and Auruo smiled up at them, while Captain Levi only glanced up from his tea for a moment before returning his gaze to his squad members. “I'm glad we could hang out today!”

“Me too!” Rowen said with a smile. Before Catherine could make a move, he quickly sat down beside Petra; Gunther sat next to Eren, while Eld took an open seat next to Captain Levi, leaving only the seat across from said Captain open. Rowen watched in amusement as Catherine sat down next to Auruo with a displeased look on her face. He caught her gaze for a moment; the look he got in return was ice cold.

We're still pulling the same tricks, and she still falls for them, Rowen thought, trying to conceal his grin. But when he looked at Eld and Gunther, he could tell they were having a hard time keeping composure as well.

“How's the studying going, Catherine?” Petra asked cheerfully, talking over Auruo.

“Interesting and worthwhile, but slow,” Catherine replied with a sigh. “Are you guys ready for tomorrow?”

“Of course!” Petra replied, giving her a thumbs up.

“You two were assigned to the Commander's squad for mission, right?” Gunther asked. Rowen nodded, not wanting to say too much. There was only so much he was allowed to reveal in his position. “How are things on that end?”

“Gunther, it almost sounds like you doubt Erwin,” Levi said suddenly, taking a sip of his tea.

“Ah, no, that's not what I meant at all.”

“Then I suggest you hold off on the questions and do what you always do.”

“...Yes, sir.”

 

…......

 

Taking in a deep breath, Milena slowly made her way toward Yasmin and Rosaleen. They seemed to be hard at work moving the ammo crates, and Milena felt a bit relieved. After receiving her new position, she had been a little anxious to know how her friends would react--whether they would respect her as a leader or not, mostly. But they had been nothing but respectful, even more so than some of the other soldiers.

And that's how I know that they're really my friends, she thought, smiling to herself as she stopped and stood next to the girls.

“Ready for a break?” she asked them, and Rosaleen popped up to her feet immediately.

“Thank you!” she gasped, her cheeks pink. “That stuff is heavier than I remember!”

“You want to watch them leave, don't you?” Yasmin asked, slowly standing while dusting off her jacket.

“...Yeah,” Milena admitted.

Today was the day for the Survey Corps to leave on their mission, and they would be passing through the gate in Karanese, which is where Milena's squad was stationed for the day.

“I wonder if they'll be able to see us up here,” Rosaleen murmured as Milena unhooked a pair of binoculars from her belt.

“I can see them coming from their headquarters,” Yasmin said, pointing out to the large mass of people on horseback. “...I wonder if the whole Corps is going.”

“I'd assume so,” Milena replied, peering through the lenses. “I can see Reiner and Armin! And Jean is with them, too!”

“I still can't believe Armin joined the Corps,” Rosaleen admitted, laughing a bit. “I was hoping he'd join the Garrison with us.”

“Eren joined the Corps, though,” Yasmin said, sounding disappointed. “And so Armin went, too...”

“Hey, when they get closer, let's wave at them!” Rosaleen suggested. “At least one of them should be able to see us, right?”

“Mm, I dunno,” Yasmin replied; her response made Milena lower her binoculars.

“As your Squad Leader, I command you to wave,” she declared, grinning. “If you don't, you have to run laps around HQ when we get back tonight.”

“Don't have to tell me twice!” Yasmin laughed. Milena's smile grew wider. She always felt a little better when she could get Yasmin or Rosaleen to laugh. There was no doubt in her mind that the two were still struggling to get past the events of Trost, and Milena often felt helpless. She didn't know how else to help them besides making them smile, so she tried to do that as much as she possibly could.

“Ah, I can see Commander Erwin!” Rosaleen exclaimed.

“Hey, there they are,” Yasmin murmured, pointing down to a group of soldiers behind Erwin. “Milena, remember the two soldiers I told you about? The ones who saved Sasha and me? That's them, down there. The ponytail, and the girl next to him.”

“Oh, I see...” Milena said, looking down at the pair of brunettes. Through her binoculars, she could see that the woman had a very serious look on her face, while the man seemed happy to be there, despite the dangers they were likely about to face.

“There's the guys!” Rosaleen squeaked, and she began to wildly wave both arms in the direction of Armin, Reiner, and Jean.

“I wonder if they're in a squad together,” Yasmin said as she waved her arm slowly.

“I hope so!” Rosaleen replied. “Oh, hey, look! Reiner's waving back!”

Milena let out a laugh and began to wave as she watched Reiner through the binoculars. He was grinning ear to ear.

“You'd think the others would notice!” Rosaleen giggled.

“Reiner's telling them!” Milena told her as she watched Reiner nudge Armin with his elbow. The blond looked confused for a moment, and then his whole face brightened. With what appeared to be a little laugh, he gave them a small wave back, then turned to Jean.

“I miss Armin,” Yasmin admitted.

“Me too! I hope he's doing all right,” Milena agreed, noting the look of surprise on Jean's face as Armin and Reiner pointed out the girls to him. Lowering her binoculars, she gave them all a big wave again, grinning.

From the nearby tower, the sound of a bell's toll echoed through the air. Milena could feel the wall below her shaking as the gate slowly rose for the soldiers.

“Guess they're leaving now...” Yasmin said quietly, lowering her arm.

“Good luck!” Rosaleen shouted, pulling her arms into a salute. Milena did the same, and Yasmin soon followed suit.

The trio stood like that for several minutes as the Survey Corps soldiers charged through the open gate. Milena watched them all, friends and strangers, as they let out their battle cries and rode forward. She didn't need the binoculars to know that they were all terrified, but their determination was obvious, too, and at the end of the day that was all that mattered.

I wonder who will make it back, she thought as she finally lowered her arms. No. Don't think like that. They'll come back. They've gotten stronger. They'll come back.

“Don't worry, you guys,” Milena said, looking down at the now empty street below them. “I know it's only been a month, but they've already come a long way. I don't have any doubt that they'll be coming back.”

“...I wish I could believe you,” Yasmin murmured, slowly turning away to return to her work.

“Thank you, Milena,” Rosaleen then said. “Really. Thank you.”

The red-head smiled weakly, then followed Yasmin, leaving Milena standing by herself on the edge of the wall.

She had admittedly wanted this challenge--she had wanted to test her strength, and to prove that she was worth something, and she did not mind becoming that strength for her friends. But she knew her power was limited.

Things in this world will change--they just have to, Milena thought as she walked away. Now facing the land within the broken Wall Maria, she felt nothing but determination in her heart. And anyone who denies us this right to change will have to go through me.

 

 

Chapter Text

Gunther's explanation of the plan for the operation was clear, and Eren understood what they were supposed to do, but only on the most basic level. He had yet to grasp the real meaning of why things had been arranged the way that they were, and why he would not be permitted to use his Titan power. Was that not the whole reason for this mission--to prove that he was capable of controlling himself as a Titan?

“Sir...” Eren murmured, glancing at Gunther. “I...wasn't told what to do with my Titan power... Will it really be all right for me to not use it on this mission?”

“...” Gunther's expression changed from a serious one as he hesitantly asked, “...Did you understand the meaning behind the question Commander Erwin asked you?”

Eren thought back to the day when Sawney and Bean were killed.

“What do you see? Who is the real enemy here?” The Commander's words echoed in Eren's head for a moment before he finally replied.

“Did you all understand?” he asked them.

“Nope,” Eld replied.

“No,” Petra admitted.

“Don't look at me,” Auruo muttered over his shoulder.

“I haven't the slightest clue, either,” Gunther answered. “But maybe, this time our sortie has an objective other than simply going to the outer lands and coming back alive... If so, then the Commander simply concluded that there's no need for us to know that. That being the case, we still have only one objective--to go outside the walls and come back alive.” Gunther looked right into Eren's wide eyes and added, “Trust in the Commander.”

 

Armin was grateful that, if only for a little while, he was able to ride alongside Reiner and Jean at the beginning of their operation. Being near friends helped calmed his nerves, and it made the ride through the ruined city on the outskirts of Wall Rose go by much faster.

However, it didn't last for long; soon Commander Erwin gave the command to fall into formation, and the three split up according to the formation. Though the others were still in Armin's line of sight, they were now just blurred figures racing along with him.

Stay calm, Armin told himself as he rode through the open fields. Focus.

He knew the strategy like the back of his hand, and the most important part of it was paying attention to the signal flares. Just like back in Trost, the different colors indicated different tactics and circumstances. So far, everything had been going according to plan: upon a red signal flame, a green one would go up in reply, guiding the soldiers away from danger.

Armin watched out of the corner of his eye as a red signal flare appeared in the sky. He waited a few moments for a green one, but nothing ever appeared.

That's strange... he thought, glancing across the horizon for any sign of green smoke. It's already been quite a while since the red signal was sent up, but the formation is still in disarray... Don't tell me--

A split-second later, a black smoke signal appeared nearby.

Black smoke?! He's going straight for the center of the formation, ignoring the nearby humans?! Then, without a doubt, it's a deviant class Titan!

Sure enough, an abnormal class Titan of at least seven meters appeared out of the trees. Armin could see his squad leader, Ness, and his subordinate, Siss, following the Titan closely.

Surely they don't plan to fight it...? Armin wondered as he watched the duo from afar. There are hardly enough trees around to use the gear...!

To Armin's surprise, Ness suddenly hopped off of his horse and launched his 3D gear right into the back of the Titan's ankle. With the swiftness of a true Survey Corps soldier, he sliced his blades deep into the monster's skin, causing it to fall onto its hands and knees. Siss was up next; he jumped off of his horse and snagged his hooks into the back of the Titan's neck. In a matter of seconds, Siss had cut out its nape and was back on his horse again.

“You did it!” Armin cheered, grinning at the sight before him. He wasn't really surprised, though; Ness had proven his abilities more than once in the past month. Armin was well aware that he had heard his position as a Squad Leader fair and square.

Armin's eyes lingered on the decaying Titan body for a few moments, until something in the distance caught his attention.

“Eh?” he gasped, squinting. There appeared to be another Titan approaching, and judging by its impressive speed, it was probably another abnormal type.

But Armin knew that something was wrong when the Titan closed in on Ness and Siss in a matter of seconds. This Titan was almost as big as Eren in his Titan form, and it seemed to not just be running, but sprinting across the plains. It was headed right for the Survey Corps soldiers, as if it understood exactly who they were.

“What the...?!” Armin quickly reached into his jacket and pulled out his signal flare, shooting up a black smoke bomb. “It's way too fast!”

The deviant Titan was now only a few feet behind Ness and Siss, and at their current speed, there was no way they would be able to outrun this new threat.

At this rate, Squad Leader Ness and Siss are going to--!!

Armin gasped loudly as the Titan's foot came down right in between the two men. He could see some of its features more clearly now--it had a mop of short, blonde hair, and judging by its physique, it was female. And it was headed right for him.

Kicking his horse's sides, Armin urged his steed to speed up. From where he was, he could still see Ness and Siss; to his relief, the two soon had hooked into the Female Titan's back and were aiming directly for her neck.

But just as Siss reached the Titan's shoulder, her giant hand came up and snatched him right out of the air. Armin could see his blood spurt out from her fist; he knew there was no way he had survived her bone-crunching grasp.

To Armin's horror, she then grabbed hold of Ness' wire, and, with the fluid motion of a trained fighter, she slammed him into the ground, also releasing Siss' lifeless body in the process. The two men fell to the ground, their bodies obviously broken for good.

But Armin had no time to mourn them, or even to try to collect their corpses. The Female Titan had started running again, and she was headed straight for him.

“She's...” Armin breathed, trying to collect his thoughts. “She's not...she's not a deviant! Squad Leader Ness...please, tell me! What should I do about her?! She's not a normal type, nor is she abnormal--she's neither!! She has intelligence! Like the Colossal Titan, like the Armored Titan...!! She's the same as Eren: a human in a Titan's body!”

As this realization hit him, Armin felt his heart jump to his throat in fear.

“S-Somebody!!” he cried, his heart pounding in time with the Titan's approaching footsteps. They shook the earth beneath him; he could feel his horse slowing down in result. “Why!? Why is this happening?! I'm going to die!! What am I gonna do!? She'll kill me like she did them!!”

Turning to the extra horse on his left, Armin tossed the reigns aside.

“Go!” he screamed, letting the horse go free. There was no way he would survive this encounter; the least he could do was save a horse for someone who needed it.

The noise from the Female Titan's footsteps had grown so loud that it hurt Armin's ears. Glancing behind him at the other horse, he watched as it narrowly avoided being crushed by a giant, skinless foot. Seconds later, Armin saw the sky grow dark above him; looking up, he could see the Female Titan directly above him, staring down at him with menacing blue eyes.

What's her... No, what's their objective? Armin wondered as the Titan's foot began to come down on top of him.

To Armin's surprise, her foot landed just behind him; however, the impact was great enough to knock his horse off-balance, and he soon was tumbling across the grass. Somehow, he was alive--dazed, probably heavily bruised, and scared to death, but alive.

How much longer that would last, though, he couldn't be sure. Just a moment later, he heard the giant Female kneel down beside him. Armin's hood had fallen over his head, so his peripheral vision was blocked, but he knew she was close.

The next few seconds seemed to be in slow-motion as Armin awaited his death. He had seen what she was capable of, and he knew there was no chance of escape. But what happened next even he could not have predicted.

Armin felt the hood of his cloak move, and it took him a moment to realize that it was indeed the Female Titan who had grabbed hold of it. But her grip was gentle, and she was very careful as she slowly pulled back the hood, revealing Armin's face. Terrified, Armin looked up at the Female, his blue eyes wide with fear and confusion.

She was looking right at him. Her ice blue eyes pierced his, and her mouth opened a little, as if preparing to speak. Armin held her gaze for several more long seconds before she finally released him and looked away. Standing, she took off again, leaving Armin without a horse and completely stunned.

“...She didn't...kill me?” he breathed, still trembling in fear. “What happened just now...? She grabbed my hood and...my face...? She wanted to see my face...?”

Though Armin did not want to believe it, there had been an unmistakable familiarity in the Female Titan's gestures and appearance, but before he could think it over, he heard someone calling his name from behind. It was Reiner Braun, and he had an extra horse and a worried expression on his face.

 

…......

 

Jean had never been so scared for a friend in his entire life until that moment when he saw the deviant Titan kneel down beside Armin. And so, his relief when Armin escaped unscathed was immense, and it drove him to ride even faster toward his friend. He had already lost one friend to Titans, after all.

Digging his heels into his horse, Jean pulled out his signal flare gun and fired a black smoke bomb, keeping his sights on Armin and Reiner in front of him. They noticed him coming and slowed down to let him catch up.

Jean opened his mouth to speak when he was finally within earshot, but he was interrupted by the sound of quiet explosions. From his right came several pillars of yellow smoke.

“Signals from the right flank position!?” Armin gasped. “They suffered a severe enough blow to give up on the operation?!”

“It looks like we've lost some of the lookouts on the right flank!” Jean told him as he rode up next to Armin. The trio raced forward, attempting to rejoin the formation. “All of a sudden a lot of Titans showed up! I have no idea why, though! There were quite a few among them that could run pretty fast. They're being held back by the remaining soldiers as we speak, but enemy detection isn't possible anymore!” Jean gritted his teeth, looking Armin in the eye. “Chaos is spreading like wildfire, and if this keeps up, we're all gonna get wiped out!”

“The right flank is where she came from!” Armin exclaimed, his face pale and sweating. “As unbelievable as it sounds, could it have been her that gathered the other Titans and brought them here?!”

“'Her'?” Jean echoed. Armin did not reply with words, but instead faced forward again. Jean did the same, and when he did, he realized what Armin had meant. The same deviant that had almost killed Armin moments before was running right in front of them.

“What the hell is a Titan doing at this point in the formation...?” he wondered out loud, watching it as it sprinted across the fields. “That's a deviant class, right?”

“No...she's not an abormal,” Armin replied. “She's a human controlling a Titan's body--a human who has the same ability as Eren!”

“...What are you saying?” Jean asked, glancing at Armin incredulously.

“Armin, what makes you think that?” Reiner added.

“All Titans do is devour humans, and humans die as a result of that--not because killing humans in itself is the Titans' objective,” Armin explained. “But when that female type crushed Squad Leader Ness, she specifically aimed to damage his vital organs--she grabbed his wire and smashed him into the ground. She killed him not for the sake of eating him, but simply for the sake of killing him. The very nature of her behavior sets her apart from other Titans.”

Jean stared at Armin in disbelief as the blond continued. Could it really be that there was another person out there like Jaeger?

“I'm sure it was her who brought along those regular Titans back when the Colossal Titan and the Armored Titan destroyed the wall. Her purpose is always the same--that is, attacking mankind... But now? No...I have a feeling she's looking for someone...and if I'm right, then the one she's been looking for is Eren.”

“Eren?” Reiner echoed. “But wasn't the squad Eren was supposed to be in a part of the right flank?”

“The right flank, you say?” Jean said, raising his eyebrows. “On the diagram of the formation I was given, Eren was stationed near the back of the left flank.”

Jean knew he could make dumb mistakes from time to time, so he knew it was totally in the realm of possibility that he had misread his map or misunderstood something in all the information that had come his way, but before he could offer this up, Armin cut in.

“Well, according to my copy of the formation, he's supposed to be on the front lines of the right flank,” the blond interjected. “But it's hardly believable that someone that important would be put on the front lines...”

“Then...where is Eren?” Reiner asked, looking confused.

“If my guess is right, he should be in the safest spot of this formation, which is around the back of its center, I think...”

“Armin!” Jean interrupted, glancing at his friend. “We don't have time to mull things over right now! If we get the command to retreat, the formation might be able to avoid the Titans on our right flank, but if that female type is really as dangerous as the Colossal and Armored Titans, then we have no way to communicate that kind of complex information with just smoke.”

Jean avoided Reiner's worried gaze as he rode forward, but he could not ignore the blond's words.

“What are you getting at?” his friend asked quietly.

Jean gritted his teeth and replied, “To put it simply...at this distance, we still might be able to draw the Female Titan's attention to us. We can buy some time until the retreat signal...probably. Something like that, anyway...”

Jean couldn't look his friends in the eye; he could hardly believe what words had just come out of his mouth. What he had just suggested was basically suicide.

“She actually as intelligence, you know...” Armin told Jean. “From her point of view, we're nothing more than flies... She can crush us just by swatting...”

“Seriously..?” Jean let out a weak laugh. His jaw hurt from clenching his teeth. “Now that's just downright terrifying, isn't it...?”

“Hey...are you really Jean?” Reiner asked suddenly. “The Jean I know is the kind of guy who thinks only about himself, not others.”

“...That was rude, seriously.” Jean fixed his eyes on the Female Titan in front of them as he continued, “I just...really don't wanna meet a disappointing end, with someone burning my bones without even knowing that they were mine. I...! I know what I have to do now! It's the job we chose! So man up and help me!”

Once again, Jean's emotions had gotten the better of him, but to his relief, Armin and Reiner's gazes were steady and determined. He could tell that they were on his side, and he was grateful that, even if this was the end, he would not go down fighting alone.

“Pull on your hoods, as low as you can!” Armin then shouted, tugging his own green hood over his head. “This way, she can't see our faces! As long as she's not sure who we are, she'll be careful to not kill us!”

“I see...” Reiner murmured, pulling on his hood. “She'll have little choice, since one of us might be Eren, the one person she doesn't want to kill... Should at least help our peace of mind, eh? Let's hope that her eyesight is bad, too.”

“Armin, you know, I always thought that the way you're always hanging around Eren is gross, but at the same time I also considered you a capable guy,” Jean muttered, smirking as he pulled on his hood. Armin looked startled, as if he wasn't sure that Jean was serious.

“Eh...? Th-thanks...but 'gross' is a bit harsh, you know...”

Jean faced forward again, the smile disappearing from his lips.

“Now listen, guys,” he said, his voice low. “From now on you gotta listen to me and do what I say.”

 

…......

 

Reiner kept a firm grip on the handle of his blade as he rode alongside Armin and Jean. His amber eyes watched the Female Titan as she ran ahead of them with giant strides. She had slowed down a bit, though, and so it was time to put Jean's plan to work.

Nodding at his comrades, Reiner split apart from the group; from the corner of his eyes, he watched Armin and Jean spread out around the Female Titan's ankles. The three of them formed a triangle behind her. She wouldn't have any other option other than to keep going forward.

Or at least, that's what they had assumed.

All of a sudden, the Female Titan stopped in her tracks, and she brought her giant hand swooping down, right into Armin's horse. Her slap sent the blond and his horse flying; Reiner watched in horror as Armin went tumbling several yards, his gear flying off in a tangled mess behind him.

But even more terrifying was what happened next: the Female Titan crouched down next to the motionless teen and began to reach toward him. Reiner felt anxious watching the situation, but before he could react, Jean flew into action. Snagging his hooks into the Titan's lower shoulder blade, Jean shot forward. But the Female Titan was just as fast, and she whirled herself around to face him.

Shit..! He's gonna die at this rate! Reiner thought, his heart pounding as he watched Jean struggle to work his way around the Titan's body toward her neck. But even his quick and precise maneuvers were not enough; she brought her hand up to block the nape of her neck, keeping the other hand free to deal with Jean.

“Jean!” Reiner screamed, racing toward his friend as fast as he could. He knew he only had a few seconds before the decisive moment: she could easily grab Jean's wire and end it right there.

“JEAN! YOU GOTTA AVENGE HIM!”

Armin's shout surprised Reiner enough to make him slow down his horse. He had heard Armin shout before, to be sure, but the fierceness in his voice now made him sound like a totally different person.

“That suicidal bastard already died on the right flank!” Armin continued, his voice ringing out through the air like gunfire. “SHE KILLED HIM!”

Reiner watched in amazement as the Female Titan froze; her hesitation gave Jean a free moment to return to the ground and put distance between him and the Titan.

This is my chance, Reiner realized, and with a sharp kick, he pushed his horse forward again, riding at a full-out sprint.

“She stepped on my best friend and crushed him!” Armin wailed. “I saw him stuck to the bottom of her foot!!”

Pushing himself off of the back of his horse, Reiner shot his 3D gear forward, hooking himself right into the Titan's upper arm. He used the momentum coupled with his gas to push forward and hook his right side into the Titan's nape.

Fuck you for killing them! he thought, bringing his blades back in preparation to strike.

Upon moving toward her neck, Reiner passed the face of the Female Titan. He caught her gaze, and the moment he met her ice-blue eyes, he felt strange, as if he had just woken up from a dream.

What...?

Before he could clear his mind, Reiner felt his body collide into something solid and hot. It was the Female Titan's hand, and he had flown right into her grip.

What was I...? Reiner squirmed in her grasp for a moment, and his eyes met hers again. ...That's right.

Wincing, Reiner let out a grunt as the Female Titan's thumb pushed him into her closed hand. The tip of his blade was pushed into her palm, and he stared at the blank space in front of him.

All right. I get it. Just don't kill me.

 

…......

 

“Auruo, fire the signal.”

“Roger that, Sir!”

Eren watched in wide-eyed silence as Auruo shot off a green signal flare in reply to the smoke pillars from around them.

It's as if there are no Titans around at all, even though we're outside the wall... he thought, frowning a bit. Is it because this is the safest spot in the formation? From here it feels as if everything is going smoothly...but how are things in reality, I wonder? There are bound to be victims among those on the front lines by now...

“I've got a message!”

From the right came a Survey Corps soldier--to Eren's disappointment, it was no one that he recognized.

“The right flank lookouts suffered a crushing blow!” the soldier announced. “Enemy detection on the right is now almost entirely disabled! Please relay this message to the squads stationed to your left!”

As cool and collected as ever, Captain Levi turned to his left, where Petra was riding alongside him.

“You heard that Petra?” he said. “Go.”

“Yes, Sir!”

As Petra rode off, Eren pursed his lips. He could feel a cold sweat beading on his forehead.

The right flank?! Isn't that where Armin is supposed to be...? he wondered, trying to follow Captain Levi's lead and remain calm. But Armin and the others from my class are stationed closer to the center. Titans could have hardly advanced that far.

As if to prove Eren wrong, a popping sound echoed from behind. Glancing over his shoulder, Eren felt his heart drop as he watched three pillars of black smoke rise into the air.

“A black signal?!” he gasped. “A deviant appeared?!”

“Eren, fire the signal,” Levi commanded.

“Yes, Sir!” Eren reached into his cloak and pulled out his firearm, loading in a black smoke bomb.

“What a mess...” he heard his Captain mutter. “Some Titan's already penetrated the formation that deep, huh...?”

Just as Eren raised his arm to fire, two more black smoke signals appeared behind him. He quickly shot off his own signal in reply, grimacing.

For a Titan to have already advance that far... I wonder if the ones who fired that signal are fighting it right now...?

 

Chapter Text

It wasn't necessarily unusual for Eren to feel intimidated when he was alone with Captain Levi, but after the day's events, he felt even more at a loss for words than normal.

“I...I know that I'm still alive only because I'm in the Survey Corps under your command,” Eren admitted quietly from his seat on the bottom step. Captain Levi stood beside him, leaning against the wall with arms crossed, scowling as he usually did. “And I also know that I'm a potential enemy to humanity... It's just...”

Eren thought back to the reactions of his fellow squad members earlier that day--their reactions to his accidental Titan transformation. He had meant no harm, and yet they had threatened him with death multiple times. Their behavior was completely different from how the usual friendless they showed toward him, and it made Eren feel very alone.

“...Until the moment I experienced their open hostility, I didn't realize that they don't trust me,” Eren confessed, staring at the floor in front of him.

“Of course they don't. That's what I chose them in the first place.”

Startled by Captain Levi's response, Eren quickly looked up at the man's face. His sharp grey eyes were fixed on the ceiling, and his mouth was still drawn into a frown.

“'You become a full-fledged member only after having returned alive for the first time'... That's a common saying here in the Survey Corps,” Levi told him. “But those guys managed to live through hell not once, but countless times, and the result is obvious. They've learned how to survive.” He paused, and Eren could swear that his face softened for a moment, as if recalling some specific memory.

“When you're up against Titans, there's always a lack of information. No matter how thorough your planning is, situations you can't make heads or tails of will come up anyway. When that happens, your best chance is your ability to make quick, firm actions based on your predictions of the worst case scenario, given the situation. Still, it doesn't mean they're heartless. It's not like they didn't feel anything turning their blades against you.”

Eren felt a strange sense of guilt as Captain Levi looked down at him.

“But...don't expect them to regret it,” he told the teen, who looked away without a word.

 

“I've got word from Erwin.”

Mike spoke in a loud voice so as to be heard over the sound of the approaching horses. His eyes met those of his comrades; they looked alert, and Mike was a bit relieved. Even if the new recruits were feeling clueless, the veterans still were focused enough to keep up morale. And if what they were up against was as bad as Mike assumed, they would need as much of that morale as possible.

“It's not a retreat order, is it?” Rowen asked, narrowing his eyes in confusion.

“No--we're continuing with the plan,” Mike answered. “The convoy groups need to meet up with Erwin in the forest. Everyone else will be positioned along the outside, as discussed.” Pointing over his shoulder, Mike motioned toward the forest pathway. Erwin and the others were already long gone into the shadows. “We'll wait here a few more moments for the remaining convoys squads, and then we'll get going.”

There was a pause before anyone spoke again. Mike had not noticed from far away, but his friends seemed somewhat restless. Were they worried about waiting out in broad daylight like this?

“It's worse than we thought, Mike,” Catherine then murmured. “I'm sure you saw the signals, but the entire right flank's been rendered useless.” She pursed her lips, glancing over her shoulder as another convoy squad arrived. “At this rate, Captain Levi and his squad will barely be able to outrun whatever's coming. Which means Eren will--”

“They'll outrun it,” Mike assured her. “Levi's squad might not understand what's going on, but Levi does. His trust in Erwin is absolute. We should make our trust in Levi and his men as such.”

It wasn't that Mike wasn't worried about the approaching threat, or the safety of the Special Operations Squad. He knew that Erwin's plan had accounted for every possible fall-out, and that even if they were so unlucky as to lose even Captain Levi, it would not spell out the end of humanity. Eren was not completely incapable of protecting himself, after all, and the veteran soldiers of that squad were only five of many left fighting in the Survey Corps.

“...I'll trust him,” Catherine said at last, tightening the grip on her horse's reins.

“Glad to hear it.” Mike glanced over the crowd of convoy squads that had now gathered at the edge of the forest. “Let's not waste any more time, then. They need us.” Turning his horse toward the forest, he cried, “All convoy troops--follow me!”

 

…......

 

“Captain! Captain Levi!”

“What?”

“Sir, now that we've entered this forest, there's no way we can detect the enemy!” Eren tried his best to keep his voice steady so as to match Captain Levi's nonchalance. But he couldn't help but feel a bit afraid, and his tone reflected this. They had been the only squad to enter the forest as far as he could see. “There was something approaching from the right, wasn't there? How are we supposed to avoid Titans and protect the carts under these circumstances?!”

“Stop whining about the obvious,” came the Captain's reply. “Of course we can't do that anymore.”

“Eh?! B-but, why?! Why did we--”

“Take a good look around, Eren. Look at all of these big-ass trees--they're the optimal surroundings for us to use our three-dimensional maneuvering gear.” Eren did as Captain Levi said and took a look around. There were trees as far as the eye could see, and all of them were very tall. The forest was thick, too; anyone wearing 3D gear would be able to easily navigate their way through it.

“Now, do me a favor and put that head of yours to use,” Captain Levi then added. “If you don't want to die, think.”

Eren blinked slowly in response to Captain Levi's harsh words. Had they been said by anyone else, he might have been insulted, but Eren could see the truth behind the Captain's statement.

I get it, he thought, glancing around the forest again. They don't want me to know exactly what's going on because they feel that, as a newbie, I won't learn anything by getting all my questions answered right away. I need to learn how to understand these kinds of situations on my own. I'm sure that's the way all of the veterans learned what to do when it comes to fighting.

Eren then turned his gaze to Auruo; he had been expecting to see the usual smarmy look on the veteran's face, but instead Eren was greeted with a shock: pale and visibly sweaty, Auruo was muttering under his breath, looking nervous.

“The hell's this all about?” he growled through clenched teeth. “You've gotta be fucking with me...”

Auruo sounded irritated, but Eren could also see confusion written on his face. Turning to his other squad mates, Eren felt his heart sink as he noted similar expressions on Petra, Eld, and Gunther's faces.

Wait a minute...don't tell me that nobody knows anything about what's actually going on...?! Whipping his head to the front again, Eren fixed his eyes on the back of Captain Levi's head. Could it be that even Captain Levi...?!

Before Eren could ask for more explanation, a loud roar rang through the air, echoing in the dense forest.

“Wh-what's that sound?!” Petra gasped, looking over her shoulder.

“It's right behind us!” Eren shouted.

“Is it whatever was coming for us from the right...?” Eld wondered out loud.

“Everyone, draw your swords,” Captain Levi commanded them. He pulled out his own blades quickly. “That thing will be here any minute.”

 

…......

 

“This is insane...”

Armin glanced at Jean as he stared down at the ground. He didn't look afraid, just irritated.

“Abandoning the initial plan to establish a supply route--and then, instead of admitting defeat and retreating, we're recklessly going out of our way to drop by a place like this for some sight-seeing... And to top it all off, we've been ordered to dismount, draw our swords, and stand by here, stopping any Titan that tries to enter the forest...”

Armin didn't reply; he had nothing to say, and even if he had, Jean's attitude at that particular moment did not seem very receptive. Anything that Armin would try to add might only fan the flames of Jean's irritability.

“That guy...” Armin glanced to where Jean was looking--the veteran soldier who had given them orders. “He dishes out some really fucked up orders...”

“Jean, he might hear you...” Armin said quietly.

“What's really the worst is that we got no decent explanation whatsoever as to why we're doing this,” Jean continued, ignoring Armin's plea. “If only he wasn't our superior, we could've just ignored him with no consequences... You know, I've heard of cases in which an unpopular Commander, when judged incompetent in a critical situation by his subordinates, gets stabbed from behind and dies. And these cases aren't as uncommon as it might seem...”

“Jean...what are you getting at?” Armin asked, staring at his friend in concern. Jean turned to look over his shoulder at him, and they both fell silent.

“Relax,” Jean said at last, turning back around. “I'm just a little pissed off about this whole mess we're stuck in, that's all. You ask me what I'm gonna do about it? I'm gonna follow orders and prevent Titans from entering the forest, that's what. You think that's what we should be doing, too, don't you, Armin?”

“Huh?”

“You have that look that says you have a clue about what's going on, you know?”

Armin hesitated. “Well, I...”

Ever since his encounter with the Female Titan, Armin had been replaying the scene over and over again in his mind. He was admittedly disconcerted about several details in those moments, but the more he thought about it, the more their expedition started to make sense.

They had only been in the Survey Corps for a month, and yet here they were, already out on a mission. It was supposedly to establish a supply route and do some reconnaissance, but it had turned into a blood bath. Despite the countless deaths, however, they had still not been ordered to retreat. Why?

If he thought about it from a different perspective, those details could be written off as poor judgment calls, but there was one more thing that Armin was determined to wrap his mind around: nobody knew where Eren Jaeger was.

With that one detail, the other pieces of the puzzle started to lock into place, and the conclusion Armin had started to come to was one that shocked him. He didn't want to be correct, but the longer he mulled things over, the more he came to realize that there was no other possibility--save for complete insanity on Commander Erwin's part.

He had to have known, Armin thought as a Titan ran toward the edge of the forest. Commander Erwin predicted this outcome a long time ago.

“Oi, Armin.”

Snapping back to reality, Armin again turned his eyes to Jean.

“We just have to keep the Titans out of the forest, right?” his friend said; his amber eyes were locked on the Titan, who had stopped just below them. Armin could hear its almost eager grunts as it reached up above its head, trying to reach where the soldiers stood. “So, in other words, we don't have to engage in combat, right?”

Armin didn't reply; his mind was already wandering again.

 

…......

 

Eren had known that something big was coming after them, and that it was probably a Titan, but nothing could have prepared him for the speed or the size that of the Female Titan.

“We'll never outrun that thing in this forest!” Gunther cried. Eren had never seen him show his emotions so openly before.

“It's so fast!” Eld gasped, his brown eyes wide with fear.

“Captain! Let's switch over to three-dimensional maneuvering gear!” Petra cried.

But Captain Levi did not respond; he just stared back at Petra, then shifted his gaze to the Female Titan. He did not seem surprised or afraid; however, the near-dead look in his eyes made Eren feel panicked.

From behind him, Eren heard the familiar popping and cracking sounds of 3D gear hooks at work. When he looked behind him, he could see that a squad of Survey Corps soldiers had caught up to them; they were closing in on the Titan, leaving little trails of steam behind them as they raced to stop her.

“The squad behind us is here for backup!” Petra announced to Captain Levi, who had turned to face forward again.

Eren, however, could not take his eyes off of the Titan and the soldiers attempting to fight her. They were incredibly fast, and their skills on the gear were admirable. However, the Female Titan was faster, and one by one, she picked off the soldiers, smashing them like insects. The distraction had caused her to slow down, but she had killed them quickly, and soon she was back on their trail.

“Captain!” Petra shrieked, turning forward toward Captain Levi. “Give us the order!”

“Let's do it, Captain!” Auruo shouted. It was the most polite speech Eren had ever heard him use. “She's really dangerous!”

“We have to do it now!” Gunther added.

“I'm gonna tear her to shreds,” Eren heard Eld growl from behind him. Glancing back at the Female Titan, Eren smirked to himself.

You idiot--you'll only be digging your own grave if you try to take us on! he thought. This squad is comprised of soldiers whose specialty is killing Titans! Eren faced forward again, awaiting Captain Levi's orders.

But they never came. Captain Levi stayed silent, and slowly the smirk disappeared from Eren's face.

“Captain Levi!?” he shouted.

“Give us the order, please!” Auruo cried from beside him.

Finally, Captain Levi glanced over his shoulder. In his hand he held his signal gun; he had already sheathed his swords.

“Everyone, plug your ears,” he said, lifting the gun into the air.

To Eren's surprise, no flare shot up from the gun. Instead, a loud, high-pitched ringing sound filled the air. It echoed in Eren's head despite his attempts to cover his ears. When the sound faded and his hearing returned to normal, he could again hear the sound of the Female Titan's pounding footsteps as well as the sound of their horses' gallops. Nothing had changed.

“...A sound grenade...?!” Eren grunted through clenched teeth.

“Tell me, what is your mission?” Captain Levi's words were crisp and firm, and his eyes were nothing but serious. “Was it to lose yourselves to your raging emotions? That's not what your orders were, was it? The duty of this squad is to do our damnedest to make sure this brat doesn't get a single scratch on him. Even if it costs us our lives.”

They weren't assigned just to keep watch over me? Eren thought as his comrades fell silent.

“We're going to keep advancing on horseback,” Captain Levi continued. “Is that clear?”

“Roger that, Sir!” Petra cried.

Eren whipped his head toward Petra in surprise.

“Eh?!” he breathed. “On horseback?! But...just how long will we be able to keep going like this?! Not to mention that she'll catch up to us any minute now!”

Eren opened his mouth to say more, but he paused as the sounds of 3D gear filled the air yet again.

“More reinforcements...!” he gasped. “There's another group of backups! If we help them right now, we may stand a chance at winning!”

“Eren, keep your eyes straight ahead!” Gunther shouted.

“Gunther!?”

“Stop screwing up the formation!” Eld added from his left. “Maintain your fastest running speed!”

“Eld!”

Eren had never felt such a wild sense of panic before. Just moments ago, his squad mates had been right along with him, ready to fight. Were they really going to just keep running? Even if it had been their order, was that really the right call?

“But why?!” Eren cried. “If the Special Operations Squad doesn't stop her, who will?!”

From behind came the sound of bones crunching; Eren glanced back just in time to see the Female Titan wipe the remains of a Survey Corps solder's body from her hands onto a tree.

“Another one has just lost his life!” he shouted. “There was a chance we could have saved him! The other soldier is still fighting! If we go right now, we can still make it in time!”

“Eren!” Petra shouted, interrupting Eren's pleading. “Just keep your eyes forward and keep moving!”

“Are you telling me to just ignore the desperate battle happening behind us?! To leave my comrades to their death and run for my life, is that it?!”

“Yes! That's precisely what I'm telling you to do! Obey the Captain's orders!”

“I don't get why I have to let my comrades die!! And I don't get why you're not telling me the reason behind your unwillingness to help them! Why?!”

“'Cause the Captain judged it's not something he has to explain, that's why!!” Auruo bellowed. “You don't get it 'cause you're still a greenhorn! Now, shut the hell up and follow the order!”

Eren fell silent, then glanced back at the lone soldier once again.

He's still fighting...all alone... A thought then struck Eren, and he sheathed his swords. ...I can fight alone, too, can't I...? Why should I depend solely on others? I can just go help him on my own, fighting alone.

Eren's thumb was between his teeth when Petra's shriek interrupted him.

“Eren!? What do you think you're doing?!” she cried, amber eyes wide. “You're only allowed to do that when your life is in danger! You promised us, didn't you?!”

Eren paused, keeping his hand in his mouth as he stared Petra down. Just as he was about to bite down, he heard another voice.

“Eren, you're not wrong about this,” Captain Levi stated. “If you want to do it, then do it.”

“Captain!?” Petra gasped.

“He's a real monster, and it has nothing to do with his powers as a Titan,” he continued. “No matter how much you try to restrain him with force, no matter how strong of a cage you place him in, no one will be able to make his spirit succumb to their will.”

Captain Levi paused for a moment, then addressed Eren again.

“Eren, the difference in judgment between you and the rest of us originates from different convictions derived from past experiences. But you don't have to rely on something like that. Choose--will you trust yourself, or will you trust me, your squad mates, and the Survey Corps as a whole?”

Eren had now locked eyes with Captain Levi; the expression on his face was somewhat familiar, but Eren could not remember when he had seen it before. There was a strange sort of softness to it, one that didn't suit a face like Levi's.

“I don't know what you should choose. I never have--whether I rely on my own strength, or on the strength of my companions, no one knows the outcome. The only thing you can do is choose for yourself whichever decision you'll regret the least.”

Eren continued to stare at Captain Levi for a moment before glancing back at the soldier. Captain Levi's words seemed genuine, and if it really didn't matter to him, Eren saw no reason as to why he shouldn't fight as a Titan.

But just as he brought his teeth to the skin of his hand, Eren was interrupted.

“Eren,” Petra breathed, eyes still wide. “Trust us.”

Her words were so simple, but the look on her face was enough to make Eren stop and think. To trust his squad members would be to put their lives on the line, which was something Eren wanted to avoid. It was bad enough watching other soldiers be killed; he didn't want to think about people he knew dying, too.

Eren then caught a glimpse of Petra's right hand; on her thumb was some slight bruising, and he recognized it right away. Just a few weeks before, Eren had accidentally shifted into a partial Titan, and his squad mates had been ready to kill him. But it wasn't out of malice--it was because that's how they were trained. As an apology, the veteran soldiers had all bitten down hard on their hands--an imitation of what Eren would do to transform into a Titan. It was a simple gesture, but it got the point across that they had not been thinking of things from Eren's point of view.

In a flash, Eren recalled Petra's words that evening.

“We're sorry, Eren. We got scared and did something stupid. You must be disappointed in us. But still...one person can't do much just on their own. That's why we take action as a group. We're relying on you, and we'd like you to rely on us. So please, trust us.

“Eren! You're taking too long!” Captain Levi suddenly shouted, tearing Eren out of his thoughts and back into reality. “Make up your mind already!”

Eren did not need a second longer to decide.

“I'll keep going with you!” he cried.

From behind, Eren heard the terrified screams of that last remaining soldier, and then, the sound of his body colliding with the Female Titan's hand.

“Forgive me...” Eren whispered, feeling tears in his eyes as he clenched his teeth in remorse.

The ground beneath them began to shake violently; Eren looked back to see the Female Titan picking up her pace to an all-out sprint towards them.

“The target is accelerating!” Gunther cried.

“Full speed ahead!” Levi shouted. “Keep running as fast as you can!!”

It's impossible to outrun her, Eren realized, trying to keep from staring at the Titan. We won't be able to get away from her... If we just keep going like this, she's gonna overtake us and then crush us all...!

Turning his gaze forward again, Eren caught sight of the cloak on Levi's back--the Wings of Freedom billowing behind him.

But...! Everybody chose to keep going forward, even if it looks like suicide and means leaving their fellow soldiers to die... Captain Levi keeps looking straight ahead...and the others--they trust the Captain with their lives. Why...did I choose this...? I know...it's because I wanted...

“Captain!” Petra shrieked as the Female Titan's shadow loomed over the squad.

“Keep going!” Captain Levi shouted.

...New comrades to rely on...like when I was with my friends...and sincere support... I've had enough. I don't want to be treated like a monster...or to be left out... No more. That's why...

Eren noticed the sky above him grow dark, and he lifted his head to see a giant hand just a few meters away.

I just want to believe that trusting my comrades is the right thing to do...

Eren braced himself as the Female Titan's hand closed in, but then something else caught his attention. Somehow or another, they had run right through a large group of stationary soldiers and several large weapons hidden in the trees on either side of the path.

“FIRE!!!”

At the sound of what was unmistakably Commander Erwin's voice, the area lit up with clouds of white smoke, and the air echoed with cannon fire. Eren watched in awe over his shoulder as hook after hook latched into and intertwined around the Female Titan's body.

“Huh!?” he gasped.

“Tether the horses up ahead, then switch to three-dimensional maneuvering gear,” Captain Levi commanded, his voice steady. “I'll be taking action separately from the rest of you for the time being. I'm leaving Eld in command. Keep a safe distance away from that Titan and keep Eren out of sight. And take care of my horse. Is that clear?”

Before anyone could reply, Captain Levi shot off on his gear, disappearing into the trees behind them.

“What?! Could it be...” Eren glanced behind him to see that the smoke had cleared, revealing the Female Titan trapped in a mess of wires, completely immobilized. “Could it be that the plan was to capture that Titan alive?!”

 

 

Chapter Text

“Armin, we've gotta move further away” Jean called out to the blond, who nodded.

“I know!” he shouted, already a branch above where he had been standing moments ago.

“This fucker...” Jean looked down at the Titan below him with a sneer as it clumsily gripped the tree trunk. “Looks like he got the hang of climbing trees...” With a small hop off the branch, Jean shot his hooks into a nearby tree and pulled himself up a few meters. Armin was right behind him.

“It means they can learn...” Armin said quietly. “That's a scary thought. Although, I would assume that, too, varies from individual to individual.”

“Hey, Armin...” Jean knew it was an abrupt change of subject, but it was honestly as good a time as any to address the questions that had been on his mind for the past half-hour. “There's something going on inside this forest right now, and I think I have a guess as to what that is now.”

The past thirty minutes had been mostly quiet, save for one instance of what sounded like cannon fire coming from deep within the forest. Jean had not remembered seeing any cannons go out with the convoys, but then again, he had not seen exactly what the convoy troops had taken. Though cannons were probably too heavy to be transported with carts, there were surely other things that could make that kind of noise.

“We've lured that Female Titan all the way here to capture it, am I right?” he then asked. Armin did not reply, but from the look on his face, Jean could see he agreed. “I just can't think of any other reason as to why only a select few knew about the real plan. ...There are those who want to destroy the walls in his regiment, aren't there?”

Again, Armin hesitated, leaving Jean to watch the climbing Titan in silence.

“Yes,” he finally replied. “I also think that it's true. And Commander Erwin has known for a while.”

 

“If they had known in advance that they'd be dealing with an intelligent Titan, some of soldiers could have survived,” Eren said to his squad mates.

It had been a while since they captured the Female Titan, and since that time, Eren and the rest of the Special Operations Squad had been hiding up in the trees, just as Captain Levi had instructed. However, Eren did not feel satisfied. Even after hearing the explanations his comrades gave for why things had turned out this way, he still felt bitter about the amount of lives lost to the wrath of that Titan. He understood Commander Erwin's motivations--a spy infiltrating their regiment was nothing to sneeze at--but his actions were too extreme, even for Eren.

“I mean, forget about the new recruits--to think that even veteran soldiers like you guys, who have been with the Corps for a long time, were left out of the loop...”

“Oh, shut up already,” Auruo muttered.

“Are you saying that the Commander and Captain Levi don't trust us?! Is that it?!” Petra shouted, glaring at Eren.

“N-No, but... That's kind of what it looks like, y'know?”

“Petra!” Auruo quickly pulled out his blades, pointing at Eren. “Knock out a tooth or two for me, will ya! And replace his front teeth with his back ones!”

“Well, you can't effectively set a trap like that unless only a certain number of people are told in advance about it,” Eld said calmly. If he was upset about being left out, Eren could not tell. “So the soldiers who knew about the plan were probably just the survivors who have been in the Survey Corps since five years ago. Or, that's what I want to think, anyway.”

“Ah, I see,” Auruo agreed, sheathing his blades. “That makes sense. I'm sure that's how things really are. Got it, Eren?”

“Yeah! If that was the case, then there was nothing we could do about it,” Petra added. “They assume that the spy infiltrated our lands five years ago when the wall was breached. That must have been the condition the Commander used to screen suspects.”

“Five years ago...” Eren murmured, thinking back to the day his hometown was destroyed. “Could that spy really...”

“Could it be the same person who killed Sawney and Bean?” Eld interrupted.

“Ah...” Petra's eyes widened as she turned to Eld; she looked as if some detail had clicked in place for her. “At that time, the Commander asked me that question...”

“He asked me, too,” Eren said, recalling the Commander's words. He had not understood him at the time, but now everything was beginning to make sense. “So that's what that question was about...”

“Perhaps, if someone had been able to answer that question, they would've been let it on the real plan...” Eld suggested. “Though I seriously doubt there was anyone who could...”

“Well, I knew the answer,” Auruo declared. “But you know...I didn't dare say it there. You wanna know why?”

“Why?” Petra grunted, looking unamused.

“Huh...still don't get it?” Auruo shrugged, ignoring Petra's scornful gaze. “Ah, well, guess it's not surprising that people like you don't understand... Why don't you get it? Well, I'll tell you--it's 'cause you guys aren't even close to my level.”

“Hey...are you trying to copy the Captain again?” Petra narrowed her eyes. “Captain Levi would never say that, you know...”

If this plan succeeds, we'll learn a lot about Titans, Eren thought, his mind wandering away from Auruo and Petra's bickering. But still, even for that kind of success...way too many people lost their lives.

 

…......

 

“Jean.”

Armin's voice was unusually serious, and the look in his eyes was so fierce that Jean was not even sure if he was looking at the same person anymore.

“Anyone can make a choice after they've learned what the result will be,” the blond told him, staring him down with a steady gaze. “It's so easy to say 'we should have done it this way' afterwards. But, you can't know what your choice will result in before actually choosing it. Can you tell that Titan's true identity? Or how many of them exist? What they can do? What they know? What they've learned? The thing is that you don't know! You'll never know a thing! But time keeps moving--it won't stop just because you want it to! And there surely will come a time when you'll have to make a choice, even though you have no idea what the result will be!”

Armin's words resonated with Jean; he couldn't help but think back to Trost, when his decision led several of his comrades to their deaths. He spoke the truth, as usual.

“I know what the words 'taking responsibility for actions and accepting the consequences' mean,” Armin continued. “And I think these are true and honest words. No matter what result this plan will produce, it won't change the fact that a lot of soldiers have died for it. Commander Erwin may be a bad person, but that's just fine by me. Having considered every possible course of action, he had to choose between the lives of one hundred comrades or the lives of all humanity living inside the walls. And he made his choice--he chose to throw away the lives of a hundred of his comrades.”

Armin paused to catch his breath, and when he spoke again, his voice was quieter. Still, his tone was firm; Jean could tell he truly believed every word he spoke with all his heart.

“I haven't lived all that long yet, but there's something I firmly believe: the people who have the ability to change something in this world all, without exception, have the guts to abandon things that are important to them. They are those who can even abandon their humanity if they're hard pressed to win against monsters. People who can't throw anything away can never hope to change anything.”

...He's right, Jean realized, lowering his eyes to the climbing Titan, who had fallen to the ground with a thud. You can't gain anything without losing something first. And sometimes losing that “something” is painful. But if you can give it up, you can win any fight. You can become stronger.

Jean thought of Marco's words, about how he was a “weak person,” and how that had bothered him so much at first. But now he knew that Marco was right.

I've been too weak to give anything up, he thought.

His mind then wandered to Yasmin. Marco had called her strong, but Yasmin had not thought of herself that way. Why? Would she be willing to throw away something to succeed? Jean wasn't sure.

Sighing through his nose, Jean made a mental note to himself--he wanted her to hear Armin's words and take them to heart.

She's probably just as strong as Marco said but she doesn't realize what she's had to sacrifice to become strong... It's not that she's taken anything for granted--it's that she hasn't seen the value in what she's lost...

Interrupting Jean's thoughts, a loud cry rang out through the air. Jean had never heard anything quite like it, but he could venture a guess as to the source.

The Titan...?!

The ghostly wail lasted for several seconds before it finally faded. Jean turned to ask Armin about it, but something else caught his attention first.

Below him, all hell had let loose. Every single Titan that had been waiting on the outskirts of the forest had suddenly stood alert, and they had begun to run into the trees.

“Eh?!” Armin gasped.

“What the?! They're...!! They're all rushing into the forest?!” Jean breathed, standing motionless up in the trees.

 

…......

 

“Hurry up with those bombs!”

Catherine turned to Rowen, who was loading in explosives as fast as he possibly could. But there was no way that they would be of any use now. Erwin had wanted the Female Titan's hands blown off, but judging by the way the ground was shaking, and the sound of rumbling footsteps approaching, there were likely dozens of other Titans on their way. She could already see at least seven closing in on their group.

“The fuck is going on...?” she wondered out loud, staring with wide eyes as Hanji's squad went to intercept the Titans, only to have them run right past. Captain Levi was the only one to take any down, while the remaining Titans closed in on their target: the Female Titan.

“They're eating her!?” Rowen gasped, getting to his feet. “Because she screamed?!” Catherine met eyes with her best friend as he pulled out his blades, flustered. “Do you know what's going on? Don't you speak Titan?”

Before Catherine could reply, Commander Erwin's voice rang through the air.

“Men, engage them! Protect the Female Titan!” he shouted, and his words triggered Catherine to unsheathe her blades.

Without a second of hesitation, Catherine pushed off of the tree branch and launched herself forward toward the horde of Titans. She passed several of her comrades as she shot her hooks into the closest target; taking care not to cross her wires with anyone else's, or with the traps still lodged in the Female Titan's body, Catherine whipped herself around to face the back of a Titan's neck. With a burst of gas, she closed in and dug her blades right into its nape. She spun out of the attack and, as quickly as she could, found her next target.

All around her was chaos. As she and the others fought on, dozens of Titans had already swarmed and surrounded the Female Titan, ripping her to shreds. Between their feasting and the work of the Survey Corps soldiers, it seemed as thought it was raining blood. The only good thing was that, as far as she could tell, all of the blood was coming from the Titans. But everything else had gone to shit.

“MEN! WITHDRAW TEMPORARILY!”

Letting out a sharp breath, Catherine locked into a nearby tree and pulled herself above the Titans. The air had filled with smoke, and she could barely make out the soldier that had landed beside her.

“What a waste,” Hanji said quietly. Catherine could tell that she was disappointed; she had a tired look in her eyes that did not suit her normally bright personality.

“I had no idea Titans could do this,” Catherine admitted. She felt a bit guilty for not having known, despite all of the studying she had been doing.

“Nobody did.”

“All soldiers! Retreat!” Erwin's voice was loud enough to hear, but it seemed as though he had weakened since his last command. “While Titans are busy devouring the Female, get on your horses! We're leaving all the carts here! Head west, and once you're out of the forest, re-deploy the formation! We're returning to the Karanese district!”

“What a load of shit,” Catherine heard Hanji mutter from above her.

“Squad Leader, we ought to fill up on gas before departing,” Moblit said.

“If there's still enough, can I join you?” Catherine asked. She had used up so much getting up high into the trees with the traps in the first place, and even more in the fruitless assault that had followed.

“Come with us,” Hanji said, nodding once as Moblit fired a retreat signal into the air.

Without another word, the three shot off toward the gas supply cart.

Hanji was right--what a waste, Catherine thought as she quickly began to refill her tank. Leaving the carts behind meant leaving behind a good portion of their supplies, including some spare gas and blades.

“Hand it over.”

A pale hand appeared in front of Catherine's face; slowly, she looked up to see Captain Levi standing there. He looked even more irritated than usual.

“I'm almost done,” she told him. “Shouldn't you get going back to Eren and the others, anyway?”

“Erwin's orders,” Captain Levi stated.

“Hmm.” After clicking her gas tank shut, Catherine smacked the can into Levi's outstretched hand. “Then I guess I can give this to you. But next time, you should try saying please.”

“...” Any other time, Captain Levi would have come up with a smart-ass reply, but Catherine could see that he was still out of sorts from all that had just happened.

“Catherine, let's go!”

Turning at the sound of Rowen's voice, Catherine released her hold on the gas tank and left without another word.

 

…......

 

Eren should have felt relieved when he saw blue smoke signals appearing above the trees, but he instead felt a strange sense of concern. There were so many signals--was it so that everyone bordering the forest could see? The way that they all went off at once without any delay in between firing seemed a little suspicious.

“Looks like it's over.” Eren glanced at Gunther, who looked relieved. He did not seem to suspect anything abnormal.

“We're going back to where we left our horses!” Eld called out to the others. “Get ready to retreat!”

“You heard him,” Auruo said. “Let's go see for ourselves what kind of face the shithead that was controlling that Titan is making.”

“Let's go!” Eld called out, and Eren obediently took off on his 3D gear after his comrades. He made sure to stay in the center of their formation as they sped through the trees.

“Did they really manage to extract that person...?” he wondered out loud.

“Yes, they did,” Petra replied, “and it's thanks to you, Eren.”

“Huh? But I didn't do anything...”

“You put your trust in us, and that's plenty!” Eren glanced up at the young woman, who was beaming at him. “We've achieved this result because you chose to believe in us. Making the right choice is always really difficult, after all.”

“Stop coddling the brat, Petra,” Auruo said, turning to face the pair. Eren let out a grunt of irritation as he continued, “What'd he do to deserve all the praise? The only thing he was good for was squawking and panicking. He didn't do anything besides serve as bait, y'know...but, oh well... Maybe his survival in itself can be considered a 'good job,' but even that isn't certain until the operation is wrapped up. You hear that, brat? Until you're safely back behind the walls, the expedition isn't over.”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it already,” Eren muttered, side-eyeing Auruo. He knew his attitude was mostly an act, but it was still irritating.

“Hey, you two...” Eld said, turning over his shoulder to look at Petra and Auruo. He had a serious look on his face, which only made his next words even more shocking. “I seem to recall that you guys cried and pissed your pants during your first expedition... Fine fearless soldiers, indeed.”

Eren gasped loudly as Petra let out a shriek. Her reaction only served as further confirmation.

“Don't tell him that!” Petra screamed. “What if he loses all respect for us?!”

“I only told him the truth,” Eld said calmly. “And just for the record, Eren: I didn't wet myself.”

So it's true! Eren thought as Petra and Auruo's faces turned bright red.

“You ass!” Auruo yelled. “I'm the one who holds the highest kill record, you know?! I'm the top, I'm tellin' ya! Dumbass! Idiot!!”

“The value of a soldier isn't measured solely with his kill record,” Eld told them.

“Shut up, you idiot!”

“Wow!” Eren gasped, looking up at Petra. “So does this mean you sprayed in mid-air?!”

“ELD!” Gunther interrupted, looking at his friend with a frustrated expression. “What do you think this is, you guys?! A picnic or something? It's the outer lands, for crying out loud!”

The group fell silent for a moment, as if feeling guilty for having caused such a scene despite the circumstances, but then Gunther spoke again.

“By the way, Eren, I didn't piss myself either.”

Eren heard Petra and Auruo let out gasps from beside him, and he was just opening his mouth to speak when a green pillar of smoke appeared in the air nearby.

“Oh...it must be a signal from Captain Levi,” Gunther said, pulling out his signal gun. Firing a green round into the air, he turned to face the others and added, “We're gonna join up with him, so save your bickering for when we get back!”

The group fell silent once again, and Eren faced forward, watching Eld and Gunther as they took the lead. He couldn't help but take note of how Eld had let Gunther take the lead, despite having been named as the leader by Captain Levi. There was an obvious bond between them, probably from their days of training. Eren then thought of his own friends, and he wondered how many of them would be joining him back at the headquarters.

A few minutes passed without incident before Eren caught sight of a figure in the distance. The person was wearing a Survey Corps cloak with the hood up; Eren figured it to be Captain Levi, judging by the size of the person.

“Hm? Is that Captain Levi?” Gunther said, looking in the direction of the figure as they got closer. “...No, it's not him...”

Eren took a closer look at the soldier; indeed, if it had been Captain Levi, wouldn't he have acknowledged them by now? Something was different about the way the person used their gear, as well, but it was still not entirely unfamiliar.

“Who's there?!” Gunther shouted, pulling ahead toward the figure. Eren watched in silence as the person turned around to face the group, blades at the ready. Then, with a burst of speed, they went straight at Gunther. In the blink of an eye, Gunther had lost control and was hanging from a tree by one wire.

“Huh!?” Eren gasped, moving toward his squad member. “Gunther!?”

Eren lowered himself down a few meters to where Gunther was hanging. The man had not moved; Eren thought he might have been knocked unconscious.

“Hey! What's--?!”

Eren had seen plenty of corpses by this time in his life, but none so shocking as this. Gunther's body hung lifelessly from the tree, and in the back of his neck there was a large chunk of flesh missing. He had been killed just like a Titan, cut right in the nape of his neck.

Eren could not react, nor was he given proper time to. Soon he felt a hand grab the hood of his cloak and pull him away.

“Eren, don't stop!!” Auruo shouted, dragging him through the air and away from Gunther's body. “Keep moving!”

“Who did that!?” Petra screamed, flying through the trees alongside Eld.

“Protect Eren!” the blond commanded. “The attacker is using 3D gear!!”

“G-Gunther...” Eren breathed, watching as they moved further and further away from where Gunther was hanging. But his attention was forced away from his comrade's corpse as Auruo tossed Eren out in front of him; Eren had no choice but to use his gear and keep going forward. Otherwise, he would fall and be the next to die.

“Fuck it all!” Auruo shouted, obviously panicked. “What're we gonna do!? Eld! Where should we go now?!”

“Forget about the horses!” Eld told them. “The top priority is to reach our Commander and our comrades!”

“Don't tell me that person is whoever was inside the Female Titan...?!” Eren's eyes grew wide as Auruo spoke. “Or are there several of them?! Shit! The nerve of that fucker...!”

Eren hadn't considered the possibility of the other Titan shifter escaping, or of there being more than one person. But regardless of how they got there, they were in an incredibly dangerous situation, and if they lingered any longer, someone else might lose their life.

“Come out and fight me!” Petra roared, pulling out her blades and facing behind the group. “You don't deserve it, but I'll still give you a fair chance!!”

“How can this be..?!” Eren stammered. “Why?! Didn't they catch her?”

As if to prove Eren wrong, the person appeared behind the group again, only to fly backward and disappear into the foliage. A split-second later, a flash of light burst through the trees--Eren recognized the steam coming through the leaves as the same kind that always came from Titans.

“It's really her!” Eld cried. “She's coming!! The Female Titan's closing in!!”

 

Chapter Text

“Erwin, why did you send Levi to refill? He should have been meeting up with his squad before messing with any of that...”

“Hanji...” Erwin murmured, keeping his eyes fixed forward as he rode through the forest. Beside him rode his squad, the convoy soldiers, and two of his most trusted comrades, Mike and Hanji. Being surrounded by so many elite soldiers made him feel relatively confident, but the thought of his plan having failed as it did took away that safety and replaced it with uncertainty.

“I did it because I remembered one of your hypotheses,” Erwin told Hanji, glancing her way. Her brown eyes were wide behind her glasses. “You surmised that when the Colossal Titan disappeared, the reason why no one saw the person inside it was because that person had equipped themselves with the three-dimensional maneuvering gear beforehand and used it to make a quick escape under the cover of the vapor.”

“But I also concluded that it's hardly possible based on what happened when Eren emerged from his Titan,” Hanji said, raising an eyebrow. “His equipment was damaged and even his uniform jacket was gone. And above all of that, he was so exhausted that he couldn't even stand up without help.”

“That Female Titan had the ability to draw Titans to her by screaming. We didn't know she could do that, and thus the plan failed. We need to adapt our way of thinking if we want to outsmart the enemy.” Erwin paused a moment before continuing, “If that 'Titan power' can be trained, then basing our perceptions and conclusions on Eren's abilities--those of a novice--is wrong. It's as you said: if the enemy used vapor as a cover and escaped, with the same gear as ours put on in advance, they could easily infiltrate our ranks. And if the enemy has a way to preserve stamina, it's possible that they can transform into a Titan again.”

Hanji had no reply for Erwin; this only assured him that she agreed. Her silence spoke for itself as she faced forward, squinting into the forest ahead of them.

 

“I've had enough of this! This time I'm gonna do it! I'll fight her!”

Eren's screams echoed through the forest, his anger greater than his fear. At this point, what was the point of holding back? Gunther was dead, and Eren had no idea where the rest of the Survey Corps else might be, including Captain Levi. So what was the problem with fighting her as a Titan now?

“No, you won't!” Eld's shout took Eren by surprise. He had thought for sure that, at this point, the others would agree with his decision. “The three of us will deal with her! Eren, you go on ahead to where Commander Erwin is, as fast as you can!”

“I'm going to fight, too!” Eren insisted.

“Don't! Using your power is too risky!”

“What's the matter, you little bastard?!” Auruo yelled. “You dare doubt our abilities?!”

“Is it true, Eren?!” Petra added. “You still don't trust us?”

The look in Petra's eyes at that moment was the same as before, and Eren felt so overwhelmed with emotions that he couldn't say anything for a moment. But deep down, he did trust them, and so he turned his back to his squad mates.

“I believe in my squad's victory!” he cried as they zoomed past him. “Good luck!”

Eren did not want to look back at first, but upon hearing a loud battle cry from Eld, his curiosity overwhelmed him--he had to know how the fight was going for them. He turned himself around, slowing the pace of his escape so he could watch his squad fight. His eyes locked onto Auruo and Petra as they sliced into the Titan's eyes, blinding her and causing her to lose her footing. The Titan stumbled, slamming her back into a tree, obviously exhausted, but one hand was over the nape of her neck the whole time. She was obviously determined to keep her identity a secret for as long as possible.

However, with the pace that Eld, Auruo, and Petra were slicing her up, it didn't seem like she would be able to last for long. Eren watched in silent awe as his squad mates executed completely coordinated slices around the Titan's shoulders. All of it happened without a spoken signal command; somehow, they just knew what to do. The effectiveness of their attacks was obvious, too, and soon the Female Titan's arms fell, hanging loosely at her sides.

They're so strong, the fight looks one-sided, Eren thought as he watched the others back off of the Titan for a moment. And they're fighting completely in sync without having to say a word to each other. I bet it's possible because of the absolute trust they have in each other. That's how they managed to pull through even the most dire situations, even right now... That's how they're so strong even after losing Gunther...

Eren took one last look back at his comrades before facing forward again, pursing his lips.

I need to go ahead... Going forward, without looking back, simply believing in them...is the right thing to do. I know it.

“I don't know what you should choose.”

Eren felt his heart pound in his ears as Captain Levi's words suddenly echoed in his head. In the heat of the moment, he had forgotten all about the Captain's statements, but now he could recall it all quite clearly.

“I never have--no matter if I rely on my own strength, or on the strength of my companions, no one knows the outcome.”

Something about those words, something about that recollection made Eren turn back around to watch his companions. He could hear Eld's battle cry yet again as he closed in on the Titan's neck.

In an instant, his cry was abruptly cut off as the Female Titan opened one eye and, with incredible speed, snatched Eld out of the air. Eren was several meters away, but he could still hear the sound of his bones crunching as she bit him cleanly in half, letting his torso fall to the ground.

“ELD!!” Petra screamed, but it was too late. The Female spat out Eld's head, then slowly pushed herself away from the tree. “Wh-what's going on!? She shouldn't be able to see yet!! Not even thirty seconds passed since we crushed her eyes!!”

Petra was right--it should not have been that easy to heal her eyes. But as the Female Titan started off in a sprint toward Petra, Eren understood how it happened.

“One eye?!” Petra gasped, speeding through the trees as she stared up at the Titan. Her body wobbled as she kept her head turned over her shoulder. “She prioritized regeneration of only one eye in order to heal faster?! How can she even do that?!”

“Petra!!” Auruo screamed, chasing after the others. “Fix your balance, quick!!”

But Petra seemed stunned, too stunned to do anything but stare up at the Female Titan with wide amber eyes.

“PETRA!! DO IT!!”

Eren felt the breath in his lungs leave in a loud gasp as he watched the Female Titan slam Petra's body into a nearby tree, smashing her under her foot. Petra's corpse slid down to the ground, chest against the trunk, her blood painted on the bark.

“Pe...” Eren could not even say her name; all he could manage was only a whimper.

“You bitch,” came Auruo's growl as he hooked into the Titan's shoulder. “Die.”

Eren watched as Auruo closed in on her neck and swiped at her skin with his blades. He had expected to see blood spatter, but the sound he heard was not the sound of flesh being cleaved--it instead resembled the sound of metal scraping metal. Horrified, Eren caught sight of the skin on the Titan's neck--it had hardened into something like a crystal, and it rendered Auruo's blades useless. They shattered, and the pieces fell to the ground.

Auruo's last words were too quiet for Eren to hear. He was sent flying through the air with a powerful kick from the Female Titan in no time at all. A stream of blood trailed behind him, and Eren noted the sick irony of his death: Auruo's final action was biting his tongue.

Hands shaking, Eren gripped his blades tightly as tears streamed down his cheeks.

“I'll...kill her...” he breathed.

“The only thing you can do is choose for yourself whichever decision you'll regret the least.” ...I...made the wrong choice, Eren realized, bringing his trembling hand to his mouth as he stared down at what the Female Titan had done to his friends. Because of my desire to believe in my comrades, all of them were killed... If only I had chosen to believe in myself from the start, and joined the fight...

Eren sunk his teeth down into his hand, blinking back his tears as he focused his gaze on the Female Titan.

If only I had chosen to kill her from the very beginning...!

 

…......

 

Levi had told his squad to keep Eren well-hidden, and there was a part of him that hoped that he was having a hard time finding them because of this. But in the back of his mind, he knew that the more likely explanation was that the Female Titan had already found them. He knew that they could be fighting her at that very moment. If that was the case, he would have to join them and put an end to this before anything else went to shit.

Levi then heard a cry so fierce that it shook the forest with its fury, and his grip on his swords tightened.

That roar... It's...! Levi knew it could not be human; he only knew one other thing capable of making that sound. But how had it come to that...? ...This way... Whipping himself around, Levi shot off in the direction of the bellow. It seemed that Eren, for some reason, had shifted into his Titan form.

The Captain continued straight ahead for quite some time without finding anything out of the ordinary, and for quite some time he could not hear anything out of the ordinary nearby. After several long, quiet minutes, something in his peripheral vision caught his eye. Something was hanging from a tree branch, and immediately he headed toward it, keeping in mind what he knew it could be.

Levi did not stop when he passed Gunther's dangling lifeless corpse. What was there left to do, besides continue forward?

Just meters ahead, he came across the two halves of Eld's body, which had soaked the surrounding grass with blood. Levi stared down at Eld's lifeless face as he passed by; Eld's empty eyes were staring straight up at the sky.

In another puddle of blood was Auruo's body, splayed out on the ground with limbs bent in ways that didn't make sense. From afar, he looked like a broken doll, and Levi had to come down quite close to him to see his face. Auruo's lips were caked in blood, as was his tongue. He was just as dead as the others.

There was only one person left for Levi to find, and there was a part of him thought that maybe, just maybe, she might have managed to hang on long enough to escape with Eren. It was possible that she could have gotten away, that the deaths of her friends served as distraction, a sacrifice, long enough for her to get away to safety.

Slowing to a stop, Levi stared down at Petra's lifeless face. Her head was tilted back, facing up toward the Captain, while her torso and legs were bent behind her. Strands of her ginger hair swayed in the breeze--it was the only sign of any life left in her.

All four of his squad members were dead. They had survived for over four years in the Survey Corps, and they had killed more Titans than anyone else besides Levi himself. But that era was now over. Those times would never come again, and all of them from now on would exist as nothing more than memories. There was no changing that fact. And yet, Levi felt a slight prick of hesitation as he finally flew away from the bodies of his men.

But why? It wasn't like this was the first time he had seen this kind of thing happen, and it was bound to happen again. That was their fate as soldiers--fight, then die. Even Levi knew he was just a cog in that machine. There was nothing he could do about it. Not anymore.

And so, there was no point in lingering there anymore. There was nothing he could do to change things, no words powerful enough. Even if such eloquent words existed, he would not have known how to say it. He never knew. That was always how it had been. Apologizing would do nothing, and grieving would change nothing. He just had to keep moving forward.

Levi's eyes narrowed as the sound of thundering footsteps filled his ears, and he shot himself forward with a blast of gas. Zipping past tree after tree, he found himself grateful to Erwin for having ordered him to refill his tank.

His increased speed was enough to let him catch up to Eren and the Female Titan just as she was tearing the teen out of the neck of his dismembered Titan body; she swallowed him whole, in one mouthful, then stood up and began to run away.

“Eren!” came a shriek. Levi turned his head to see a girl in the distance. He couldn't recognize her from so far away, but whoever she was, she seemed adamant on taking down the Titan. As the Female ran off deeper into the forest, the girl raced after her, and so Levi joined in on the chase.

This girl was one of the best fighters Levi had ever seen; she looked as though she was dancing through the air as she sliced into the Female Titan's body from every angle she could. Her technique was far different than his own, but was nearly as effective. Still, despite her skill, her blades were no match for the Titan's hardening ability. The girl was forced to stop on a nearby tree to replace her blades, which gave Levi enough time to finally start catching up to her.

Levi watched closely as the girl tumbled down from the tree, barely dodging a punch from the Female Titan.

“Wait!!” she cried, but Levi grabbed her before she could dart off again, snagging her with his outstretched arm. “Who--?!”

“Fall back for now,” he told the girl, looking down into her dark grey eyes. Something about them seemed familiar, but Levi did not dwell on it. Instead, he released the girl, letting her follow him on her own gear.

 

…......

 

“Keep this distance from her.”

Gasping as she felt Captain Levi's grip on her loosen, Mikasa caught herself with her wires. She then caught up to the Captain, speeding alongside him as they followed the Female Titan.

“Looks like she's pretty exhausted.” Captain Levi kept his gaze on the Titan as he spoke. His tone was flat and calm, so much that it irritated Mikasa. “The whole nape of Eren's Titan form was ripped out. Is he dead?”

Mikasa glared at Captain Levi. Was he trying to play the devil's advocate game with her? Or was he asking a genuine question? Either way, did it really matter? Being an experienced soldier, he should have known the answer.

“Eren is alive,” she declared. “The target seems to possess intelligence, and her objective is to kidnap Eren. If she had wanted to kill him, she could have simply crushed him. Instead the target intentionally took him into her mouth and is currently trying to escape with him.”

“Her goal may have been to eat Eren,” Captain Levi countered. “In that case, he's in her stomach right now. It's more logical to assume he's dead.”

“He's alive.”

“...That'd be nice.” Mikasa's frown deepened at the Captain's nonchalant reply.

“If you had just performed your duty of protecting Eren in the first place, this would not have happened,” she growled.

Captain Levi met her gaze again, and in that moment, a glimmer of recognition seemed to cross his face. He dropped down to her level, flying backwards so as to face her. Mikasa stared back at him.

“You're...Eren's childhood friend who was at his trial, aren't you?” the Captain asked. Mikasa did not respond; she was not sure why he was asking in the first place. But despite her silence, he seemed to know it just from looking at her. “...I see...”

Mikasa felt her own face soften as she looked into Captain Levi's eyes. It was strange--they seemed to bear a sadness that was unfitting for someone as cold and brutish as him, and his expression seemed to be one of understanding. But it only lasted a moment; Captain Levi then turned away, narrowing his grey eyes at the back of the Female Titan's head.

“We'll have only one objective,” he said as he whirled around to face front again. “Which means, we need to give up on taking this Female Titan down.”

“But...!” Mikasa gasped. “She's killed a lot of our comrades.”

“As long as she has that ability to harden her skin, slaying her is impossible. Follow my orders.”

Mikasa did not like Captain Levi, and she was not entirely sure that she respected him. But in this case, she knew he was right. She had already tried to cut into the Titan's neck, but her blades shattered into pieces. Normal swords would not be enough.

“We'll bet everything on the possibility that Eren is still alive,” Captain Levi continued. “And we'll rescue him before she has a chance to get out of the forest. I'll cut her up--you draw her attention.”

Mikasa did not protest; instead, she flew forward with a burst of gas. Lowering herself so that she was flying just a few feet above the ground, Mikasa dove in front of the Female Titan, darting back and forth across the path. She looked over her shoulder up at the Titan's face; a pair of icy blue eyes were staring down at her, as if she was considering her next move.

Behind the Titan's head, Mikasa saw Captain Levi swoop by, sword in hand. The Female Titan seemed to notice as well, and in the blink of an eye, she stopped in her tracks and swung her fist around at him, keeping her other hand over the nape of her neck again. She was undeniably fast, but Captain Levi was ready. Propelling himself forward, he pushed himself into a spin, his blades whirling around him. His swords carved right through the top of her arm, his momentum launching the soldier right toward the Titan's head.

A second later, Captain Levi was flying full-speed ahead at the Female Titan's face; spinning his blades again, he slammed them right into her eyes. From where she was flying around, Mikasa could see blood spatter all over the Captain as he dug the swords so deep, only his handles came back out. Leaving his blades embedded in the Titan's eyes, he jumped back and reloaded two new blades--perfect for tearing through the Titan's body from her shoulders to her ankles. But before the Titan could even think to strike him with her feet, he was already zooming back up toward her neck, and he again cut into her. The impact of his strikes was not great enough to cut off her hand, but it was enough to make her lose her footing. She fell to the ground with a thud, her back against a nearby tree trunk.

Amazed, Mikasa flew around the Female Titan's weakened body while keeping one eye on Captain Levi. He had become nothing more than a blur; the only reason Mikasa knew he could tell he was a human being was only from the guttural cries and grunts coming from each strike he took. He was almost too quick to keep track of.

He's fast! Too fast! She has no time to defend by hardening her skin! Mikasa realized, her eyes wide as Captain Levi shot from tree to tree, slicing into the Titan's body. One particularly deep cut went right into her shoulder muscle, and Mikasa watched as the hand that the Titan had been using to protect her neck fell to her side.

We can go for the nape... Mikasa thought, staring down at the exposed neck. She's too tired to even move. I can kill her!”

Shooting a hook of her gear into the Titan's shoulder, Mikasa readied her blades as she flew down toward the Titan.

“STOP!”

The next few seconds were a blur. Mikasa saw the Titan's hand coming toward her, but the thing collided into her was much smaller than that. She heard a distinct snap that sound like something snapping. Upon opening her eyes, Mikasa could see that Captain Levi's leg bent was bent at a strange angle.

Still, he kept his balance long enough to fly right at the Titan's jaw. His blades sliced into its hinges, and the bottom half dropped open, revealing a slime-covered mass.

“Eren!” Mikasa cried as Captain Levi snatched the boy out of the Titan's mouth.

“Hey! We're withdrawing now!” he shouted, speeding away from the Titan.

“Eren...” Mikasa breathed, staring at her childhood friend. He was unconscious, but otherwise he seemed to be relatively unharmed. With a deep breath, Mikasa followed after Captain Levi.

“He seems to be fine. Or at least, alive,” he told her. “Disgusting, too... Forget about the Female Titan. We're getting the hell out of here. Remember the plan. Or is satisfying your desire to kill more important than rescuing Eren? He's your precious friend, isn't he?”

“No...I...” Mikasa stammered, trying to find the right words. However, she was interrupted by a wide-eyed look from Captain Levi. It took Mikasa a moment to realize that he was looking past her; she, too, turned around to look back at the Female Titan. They were several meters away at this point, but even from afar, Mikasa could see tears rolling down the Titan's cheeks.

 

…......

 

Jean let out a heavy sigh as he picked up yet another corpse by the feet. Armin stood across from him, his hands gripping the blood-stained cloth covering the body's shoulders. They were finally out of the forest, and they were finally about to head home, but at what cost? Jean found himself thinking this exact thought every time he encountered a dead body.

“I'll never get used to this,” he admitted as he and Armin laid the body in a pile of wrapped-up corpses. The wagon shifted under their feet a bit, straining under the weight of the cadavers. “How am I going to die? Which of my friends is going to die next? It's all I can think about these days...”

“I try not to think about it,” Armin told him as they stepped over to the next body. “Because I know that if I do think about it, I'll get scared and forget why I'm fighting.”

“...That's probably what I should do, too.”

Jean grunted a bit as he lifted the next corpse and moved it into the pile. Around him were his comrades, doing the same kind of dirty work. Even the veteran soldiers were working to collect the bodies and get a head count. Nobody seemed to be taking this lightly.

Good, Jean thought, wiping sweat from his brow. Everyone gets it. Everyone here gets what it means to be mortal. ...I guess that's what sets the Survey Corps soldiers apart, though.

With a small sigh, Jean recalled his days in training as well as his desire to join the Military Police. If Marco had not died, he may have gone on to join them. If Marco had not died, Marco would have joined the Police. He would have never come to understand the full meaning of one's mortality.

Then again, he never had the chance to understand it by dying so soon, either... Shit. That Colossal Titan...and now this Female Titan...those sons of bitches...

“Hey, Armin.” Armin's head popped up at the sound of his name, and Jean glanced around the area. They were well out of earshot of any other people, save for the pile of corpses beside them. “You were able to understand Commander Erwin's plans. You both came to the same conclusion, more or less. So you can't fool me--you've gotta have some idea of who this Female Titan is, yeah?”

To Jean's surprise, Armin lowered his gaze, his blond bangs shading his face. He seemed hesitant to reply, and Jean couldn't help but feel worried.

“So do you know? That kind of reaction tells me you figured something out,” Jean said, keeping his voice low. “Armin...?”

“...I...” Armin's voice was barely at a whisper; it almost sounded as though he was holding back tears. “...I don't know if I can tell you.”

“...The hell? Why not?”

“I... If I say it out loud, that makes it true...and I don't want to believe it...” Slowly, Armin shook his head, then looked up at Jean. His large blue eyes looked helpless, as if he was holding back a scream. “...Annie.”

“...That's...” Jean paused, lowering his eyes as he thought back to their encounter with the Female Titan.

“It's Annie, Jean. It has to be.”

“But why...?” It was true that, if he thought about it, the Female Titan resembled Annie, but it didn't explain why she would try to kill Reiner, or why she would want to capture Eren. Weren't those two her friends? “What makes you think that...? I mean, even if they did look alike, and even if she joined the Military Police--”

“Jean...” Armin's eyes were wide and red-rimmed. “Annie took Marco's gear.”

Armin's words felt like a punch to the gut, and Jean gripped his stomach, clenching his teeth.

“That can't...”

“When we had the inspection a month ago, she had his gear,” Armin told him. “I don't know how she got it, but...”

Jean wanted to speak, but he couldn't bring himself to say anything. He wanted to curse and scream, but he knew it wouldn't change anything. Annie had Marco's gear--Jean understood what that meant. It meant that Annie probably had a hand in Marco's death, or at least witnessed what happened to him. He didn't want that to be true, but the more he thought about the events of Trost, the more he realized that it made sense. She had left his squad about halfway through the mission for unknown reasons and didn't return. And Marco's body--the way it had rested against the wall, and the way the wood was broken behind his head, it was as if he had collided into it. As if someone had shoved him or thrown him into it...

Jean could feel every cell in his body burning with rage. He wanted to hop on his horse and beat the shit out of Annie. She had betrayed their trust. But why?

“Who else knows?” Jean asked quietly, shaking with anger.

“No one,” Armin said, shaking his head. “I plan to tell Commander Erwin as soon as we return.”

“Let's keep it that way,” Jean told him. But then a thought hit Jean hard, and he felt sick all over again.

There's no way Yasmin would know any of this, he realized. She and Annie were never that close--she would never have figured it out.

“...Jean, will you be all right?” Armin asked, and Jean glanced up at the blond. He clenched his fists, then relaxed his hands again.

“Maybe someday,” he said with a bitter laugh as he reached down for the next body. “Help me move him, c'mon.”

 

Chapter Text

“You know what will happen to you--it's the same thing that happens to every soldier in time...but you're still gonna join?”

Catherine looked up at her brother Christoph and smiled weakly. His icy blue eyes were boring into her, but she knew that no matter what she said, she would not be able to give him the answer he wanted to hear.

“It won't be the same thing,” she assured him. “And besides, aren't I a bit old for you to be worrying about like this?”

“You'll never be too old--you're always going to be my kid sister.” Christoph smirked, crossing his arms. “But Catherine, you understand what you're doing, right? Even if you join the Military Police and stay within Wall Sina, you're not safe. They could pull you out into battle at any time. You never know when the tides will change.”

“That's exactly why I'm going to change them myself.” Catherine quickly stood from her seat, staring down her older brother. “I'm not going to run. Running doesn't change anything. Haven't you learned anything from Ernst?”

“That idiot brother of ours? Yeah, I learned that if you want to play with death, the Survey Corps is where you belong. It's more like the Survey 'Corpse' if you ask me.”

“You're unbearable,” Catherine muttered, lightly kicking the leg of her chair. “But it doesn't matter--I'm joining the military. What are you doing with your life? Anything? You’re not, so you have no reason to be judging me. I may be younger than you, but I'm old enough to make my own decisions about what I do with my life.”

“Age doesn't matter,” Christoph said quietly as Catherine turned to walk away. “Death doesn't care what age you are. It'll come for you someday. You're not invincible.”

“I know, and I don't fucking care.” Gritting her teeth, Catherine marched away from her brother, his last words echoing in her head.

 

“Ah...” Rowen's breath felt as though it had been knocked out of him the moment he laid eyes on a familiar face among the numerous corpses. “...Gunther...”

“I heard that they died, but...” Catherine's voice trailed off as she stared down at their friend. “...It just seems like a dream to see him like this... Or I guess, more like a nightmare, huh?”

“I wish that's all that this was,” Rowen admitted under his breath, slowly pulling the cloth back over Gunther's face. He had hoped that he would not come across anyone that he knew while trying to identify bodies.

But that would be too easy, wouldn't it? he thought as he walked over to the next body.

“Rowen...!”

Rowen quickly looked up to see Catherine staring down at another corpse. Her eyes were wide with shock. When Rowen looked down at the face of the soldier, he did not recognize the boy, but it was obvious that Catherine did.

“Was he...?”

“He was one of my students the last year I taught,” Catherine murmured, staring down at the teen's resting face. It looked as though his skull was cracked open--half of his head was covered in dried blood. He looked far too young to be able to be in the Survey Corps.

“Has it...really been that long since we left?”

“It's been almost five years,” Catherine replied. “...His name is...was Ciro... He was only ten... It didn't seem like he had any interest in joining the military back then...”

Catherine's voice trailed off, but Rowen could tell what she was thinking: leaving her position as a teacher for a position as a soldier may have had lasting impact on some of her students. How many of them had gone on to join the military? Rowen wondered if any of his students had done the same.

“Ciro... You little shit...” Rowen heard Catherine let out a quiet laugh. “I guess I shouldn't be surprised. You were always up to no good...”

“He must have just joined this year, with Eren Jaeger's group,” Rowen concluded. “I think we would have seen him around if he had joined earlier.”

“Whose squad was he in, I wonder? In the right flank, probably...?”

Again, Catherine's voice trailed off, but she did not seem to be crying. Kneeling down beside his best friend, Rowen looked her in the eyes, but she was not looking at him, or at Ciro. Her gaze was instead fixed on a figure kneeling next to a cadaver nearby.

Rowen watched in solemn silence as Captain Levi pulled the cloth off of a soldier's body; underneath was Auruo Bossard, his face smeared with blood. The Captain paused for a moment, looking down into the face of his former comrade, then his hands reached for Auruo's uniform jacket. He was several feet away, but Rowen could see quite clearly what he was doing: Levi's fingers pulled at the Survey Corps emblem on the jacket pocket, and with a quick jerk, the patch popped off. Carefully, he pulled a loose thread off of the patch, then placed it inside his own jacket, presumably into some kind of pouch.

Though Rowen had been out on expeditions before, he had never noticed Captain Levi do anything like this. He wondered if it was something he was doing for his squad, but as if to contradict this idea, Levi moved on to the next body. The soldier was no one Rowen recognized and appeared about as young as Ciro—he was most definitely not a veteran, but that did not stop the Captain. Again, he pulled the patch off of the jacket and tucked it away.

Suddenly, from beside him, Rowen saw Catherine's hand reach for the patch on Ciro's jacket. It was spattered with Ciro's blood; Rowen would have just left it, but Catherine did not hesitate. Her fingers pulled at the patch, and just like the others, it popped right off, the threads snapping under the strain of Catherine's pull.

“Catherine...” Rowen murmured as his friend clutched the patch in her hand. She stood silently, then faced Captain Levi. Rowen stood as well, and together they walked over to the Captain.

“Captain Levi,” Catherine said quietly. The man's head jerked up, as if he was being pulled out of his thoughts.

“...What?” he mumbled as he stood. Rowen noticed him wobble a bit; it seemed like he was putting all his weight on one foot. Had he been injured?

“...Can you...take this? Please?” Hesitantly, Catherine held out Ciro's patch for Levi to see. “He was one of my students... I know you're taking them anyway...so... He wasn't in the Corps for that long, but I...”

Rowen would have found her clumsy attempts at communication to be amusing if her sincerity hadn't been so beautiful. Captain Levi seemed a little taken aback as well; his gaze fell to the patch in her hands, then moved back up to her eyes.

Silently, Levi held out his hand, and Catherine smiled a bit.

“Thank you,” she said, gently placing the patch into his palm.

Captain Levi said nothing, and Catherine walked away without another word. Rowen, however, felt as though he should say something.

“...I'm sorry,” he finally sputtered. Before Captain Levi could respond, Rowen quickly turned away and followed after Catherine.

Ah...I guess I shouldn't make fun of Catherine's clumsiness too much... Rowen realized, pursing his lips. Who knows what you're supposed to say in times like these...?

 

…......

 

Eren's memories were a blur when he finally woke up, and he might have been able to convince himself it was all a dream had he not been jolted awake by the loud creaking of a wooden cart. Slowly, the teen tried to sit upright, but his arms were pushed to his sides; his body was swaddled in a Survey Corps cloak.

“Eren.” Mikasa's voice was as calm as ever. Eren could see his childhood friend riding beside the cart on his right. “Don't try to get up yet. You should rest for now.”

“Mikasa?!” he gasped. In an instant, the thoughts in Eren's head came into order, and he finally recalled what he was doing outside in the first place. “What about the Female Titan?!”

“She got away...”

“Why...? Everybody...” Eren stumbled over his words, grasping for the correct way to iterate what he was feeling. “What...what about the plan...?”

“It failed,” Mikasa told him, and Eren felt a cold sweat drip down the back of his neck. “You need to rest...”

Eren shuffled inside the cocoon of the Survey Corps cloaked around him.

“This is...? Did you have to save me again...?”

Mikasa said nothing in reply; she simply gripped the scarf around her neck. Eren laid his head back down on the cart, only to find his own cloak folded up into a makeshift pillow. His eyes stayed fixed on Mikasa, who stared ahead with a distant look in her eyes. He understood her motivations for always wanting to protect him, and though he would have never admitted it out loud, he was grateful.

“We...are almost to the wall now...” she murmured.

“Huh...?”

As if on cue, the sound of ringing bells echoed through the air. Eren recognized them as the bells that always rang when the gates opened. Were they really already right back where they started? The mission had lasted less than a day--not even twenty-four hours, and they had failed.

Trying to push the thought out of his head, Eren watched the sky above him again, listening to the sound of the bells grow louder and louder, until suddenly the sky disappeared for a moment.

“The Survey Corps is back!” Eren could hear the cry throughout the Karanese district's main street as they slowly passed through. The echo of the bells died out and were replaced by the murmur of the crowd.

“Their numbers have dwindled by quite a bit compared to this morning...”

“And after being so energetic about it and shouting and causing a fuss this morning, these schleps are back by noon!”

“Why did they even bother going outside at all?”

“Judging by their gloomy faces, it was all in vain again...”

“Well, they've succeeded in wasting our taxes on their stupid stunts outside, if nothing else.”

Gritting his teeth, Eren wriggled out of the cloak and pushed himself up onto his elbows.

“Eren...” came Mikasa's warning. But before Eren could react, his eyes caught sight of two children nearby. They were standing on a ladder, staring down at the Survey Corps with wide, star-struck gazes. Upon locking eyes with Eren, the little boy let out a loud gasp.

“So COOL!” he cried, loud enough for Eren to hear him. “You see that? This is the famous Survey Corps!! Even after getting so beat up, they keep on fighting!”

Slowly, Eren lied back down onto the cart. He could feel every inch of his body trembling, and as much as he wanted to hide his emotions, before he could stop himself, tears started to fall from his wide eyes. Covering his mouth with his arm, he did his best to muffle his sobs as he yet again stared up at the sky. He had been that boy once—he had held that same kind of optimism about the Survey Corps, and about the fate of humanity. But now things had changed, and he had been exposed to the harsh reality of the life of a soldier. It was almost too much to bear.

Eren knew what this failure meant. It was beyond just letting the Female Titan get away with her sins, and beyond all of those soldiers dying. His freedom was about to be taken away from him. And on top of that, there was now a very real chance that his life would end soon.

I couldn't do it... he realized as he heaved with sobs. The consequences of his inability to defeat the Female Titan were now clear to him, and just like back in the forest--just like when he watched his squad mates get picked off one by one--he felt very, very helpless.

 

…......

 

“Captain Levi! Captain Levi!”

Levi had no idea who in their right mind would sound so cheerful despite the obviously dark atmosphere the defeated soldiers of Survey Corps was giving off, and he was even more confused as to why they would approach him. There was nothing for him to celebrate. There was nothing for him to feel good about. Even Hanji and Rowen were keeping their mouths shut at this point. Who the hell would think this was a good idea? And what kind of person would be so bold as to run right up to a commanding officer in the military?

Before long, a sweaty, pink-cheeked man appeared beside Levi. He was grinning ear to ear and looked a bit nervous. Levi could see sweat beading on his wrinkled forehead, making his ginger hair stick to it in slick wisps.

“Thank you for taking care of my daughter!” the man exclaimed, and Levi glanced at him again. Before he could connect the dots, the man continued, “I'm Petra's father! I thought I'd stop and talk to you a little before going to find my daughter!”

Levi felt a jolt through his body that almost made him stop in his tracks, but he didn't let himself falter. He had gone through this before. He had lost people that he loved before. This was not going to be any different.

You're not going to find her here, Levi thought. Please just go back home.

“My daughter sent me this letter, you see...” Petra's father held up an envelope--the stationery looked quite feminine, and the paper was wrinkled, as if he'd opened it a thousand times over. “She wrote that she got the high honor of being chosen for your squad and serving under you, Sir, and also that she was going to give it her all to live up to your expectations...”

Don't worry about that--she did just fine. Now go back home already.

“You know, she was practically boasting about it, but she doesn't understand how worried that news could make a parent.”

Petra's father let out a laugh, his face reddening even more. He was still out of breath, as if it was some great honor or privilege to talk to Levi. Maybe, if things had ended differently, Levi would have felt flattered, or at least a little amused by the sight of Mr. Ral. But he couldn't even bring himself to look at the man. The burden of his grief was still too great, and on top of this, Mr. Ral's resemblance to Petra was most obvious in the way he smiled.

“Um, well....anyway...” Mr. Ral stammered, pocketing Petra's letter. “As her father, I, uh...”

Go home. Go home. Go home.

“I was thinking it's probably to early for me to insist that she get married, you know... I mean, she's still so young and has her whole life ahead of her, so...”

At Mr. Ral's words, Levi felt his insides lock up. He felt inhuman as he walked beside his horse, staring straight ahead with pursed lips.

Do you know who you're talking to? Levi wanted to say as Petra's father continued to stumble over his words. I am the man who is responsible for your daughter's death. If you knew that, you would not be standing here still. Go home. I can't do anything about this now.

Petra's father went on for several minutes, beating around the bush about the possibility of Petra's marriage.

“Anyway, I suppose I've taken enough of your time,” Mr. Ral chuckled. “I might have overwhelmed you a bit there... I'm sorry... But, anyway, Captain Levi, do you think you could point me in the direction of your squad?”

I don't think you want to know. I don't think you want me to be the one to tell you.

But Petra's father stayed beside Levi at a quick trot.

Don't make me have to tell you what happened.

“Captain, Sir?”

Levi kept his gaze straight ahead, concentrating on walking lightly on his bad leg. His right hand gripped the reins of his horse's bridle as Mr. Ral's gaze lingered upon him. It felt as though he was being examined from the inside out.

As much as he wanted to say something--to apologize, to comfort him, to even just tell him the truth, Levi could not bring himself to speak.

“...Sir... my daughter...”

Levi could tell by the shift in Mr. Ral's tone that he was starting to piece things together.

Go home now. You won't find her here. You won't find her anywhere ever again. No one will.

“...My daughter... Petra...”

Levi could not bring himself to even glance in Mr. Ral's direction as the man slowed to a stop. Even after they had left him far behind, Levi's gaze stayed fixed straight ahead, as if his eyes were stuck that way.

It's always like this. It's always been like this. I'll never know the outcome, he told himself. It's always like this. It'll always be like this.

In that moment, Levi became very aware of the pouch tied to the inside of his jacket. It bounced against his chest, like a small heartbeat.

You're gone. I have proof that you lived, but does it matter...? All of you are gone...

 

…......

 

Rosaleen was not entirely sure if this was a rule throughout the military or just for the Garrison, but unlike other working days spent out and about, every day spent on top of the wall was one spent from dawn until dusk.

It must be just the nature of this work, she determined as she brushed her bangs out of her face. Being up here at night is a waste of time--it's too dark to see what the conditions of the cannons and ammunition are, for one...

But she didn't mind the long days. She was in a squad with her friends, so the time passed quickly, and being busy helped keep her mind occupied and off of the memory of Erin's death.

Rosaleen still felt a sense of emptiness each morning when she woke, and at meal times, and whenever there was need for a sarcastic comment and no one else was willing to provide it, and when she tucked herself in for the night, and whenever she was by herself at all. Erin was not just her twin sister, but her best friend, and losing her did not change Rosaleen's need for that companionship. On top of this loneliness was a feeling of regret that she could not shake; she blamed herself for Erin's death, and nothing anyone said would change that.

And so, Rosaleen appreciated days full of things to do, with the occasional fun distraction from Yasmin and Milena. This day had been busy, and having seen her friends in the Survey Corps go out on their mission made Rosaleen want to work even harder.

The red head had just finished loading her last cannon for the day when the sudden clanging of bells filled the air. Her head whipped toward the bell tower, then to her Squad Leader. Milena was staring out at the horizon; Yasmin appeared beside her in a matter of seconds.

“What's going on? The gate is opening?” Rosaleen asked, rushing over to her friends.

“I don't like this,” Milena said quietly. “Why are they already coming back?”

“What?” Yasmin hissed, quickly grabbing the pair of binoculars hooked to her belt and putting them up to her eyes. “...What? What? Why?”

“You can't be talking about the Survey Corps, right?” Rosaleen murmured, squinting at the horizon. But she could see them already--the Survey Corps was fast approaching, and from the looks of things, there were far fewer people than there had been that morning.

“Rosaleen.” Milena's tone was very serious, and Rosaleen snapped to attention. “After they're all back inside and the gate has shut behind them, report to Captain Hannes immediately. Find out what happened, and find out how we can help.”

“Got it!” Rosaleen cried, saluting.

“But for now, stay up here with us,” the blonde added, walking over to the edge of the wall. Yasmin and Rosaleen followed her; all three wore grim looks on their faces.

Hesitantly, Rosaleen finally put her binoculars up to her eyes and scanned the Survey Corps for familiar faces. She didn't know any of the older soldiers personally, but it looked as though there were not nearly as many of them in particular, judging by the number of horses and carts they had brought back with them. Though she knew it was selfish to wish it, she hoped that they had died protecting her friends.

Just as it had been when they left Karanese, Rosaleen found Armin, Reiner, and Jean first. She had never felt so relieved to see them before, especially Jean.

“Where is Eren?” Yasmin asked. “I've found everyone but him.”

“Did you see Mikasa?” Rosaleen replied.

“Yeah, but I didn't see Eren...”

“There! In the cart Mikasa's riding next to...!”

Sure enough, Eren Jaeger was lying in the back of a cart, wrapped in what looked like a blanket. The way he was swaddled resembled the many corpses in the other carts around him, and Rosaleen swallowed back the sick feeling rising up within her.

Your friends are all right, she reminded herself, lowering her binoculars. They came back just fine.

“Was he injured?” Yasmin murmured.

“If so, I wonder how it happened,” Milena said, shaking her head as she, too, lowered her binoculars. “Rosaleen, we're counting on you.”

“I won't let you down,” Rosaleen promised, nodding once as she stared into Milena's hardened brown eyes.

She knew that Milena was jealous of her position--and she knew this wasn't the only case in which there was a weird sort of rivalry between them. They had been friends right off the bat, but they were also very competitive with each other. Rosaleen never intentionally meant to be that way, but it had happened multiple times, to the point that sometimes she wondered if Milena held her in any kind of contempt.

But whether Milena hated her or not, she had a job to do. She had promised her friends and Captain Hannes that she would do her best. Nothing was going to change that.

“Excuse me? Are you Rosaleen Johnson?”

At the sound of her name, Rosaleen whirled around to see a girl standing there; she was dressed in a Garrison uniform, and her face seemed vaguely familiar, but she couldn't place where she'd see her around before.

“I don't know if you really know me or not but...my name is Caprice Valois,” the blonde said, sounding a bit shy. “I graduated the year before you--”

“Oh!” Rosaleen gasped. “Yeah, I remember you...”

“...I don't know if you knew this or not, either, but your sister Erin was in my squad during the recovery of Trost.” As Caprice paused a moment, Rosaleen bit her bottom lip hard, shaking her head. “I should apologize for not having approached you sooner, but I just didn't know what to say, I guess. Anyway, I just...I thought you should know that Erin didn't suffer for very long. She died almost instantly. I think that...maybe she was thinking about saving one of her comrades, when things got messy... But, yeah, I... I wanted to give you that peace of mind. She didn't have to be in pain long.”

“...Thank you...” Rosaleen tried to smile, but she couldn't bring herself to force it. She felt that if she stopped biting her lip for even a moment, she would start screaming. There was so much pain and pressure built up inside of her, and though Caprice's story did put her somewhat at ease, it did not erase any of the guilt she felt.

Swallowing hard, Rosaleen finally nodded to herself.

“Thank you for...coming to find me...” she said. “...Coming all the way here just to...tell me that, it...means a lot. Thank you.”

“She was a good soldier,” Caprice said, smiling warmly. “I could tell she was afraid, but she kept going as long as she could, and that's what matters. She died honorably.”

“That's good.”

There was an awkward, long pause after that, until finally Caprice nodded once, as if confirming that was the end of what she had to say.

“Anyway, have a good night,” she told the girls. “Don't be strangers.”

“Yes, thank you,” Rosaleen said, but the words felt so empty. She felt like a robot, and her head was throbbing from the pressure that had suddenly welled up within her. But she didn't want to seem ungrateful, and even more importantly, she didn't want to seem like she was still mourning. So she smiled and once again said, “Thank you.”

 

Chapter Text

“Papa, please don't go...” Gripping her father's hand, Serene let out a whimper through clenched teeth. “I'll change my mind--I'll stay here instead of joining the military, but only if you do the same! It'll be tough but we can manage!”

Her father squeezed her hand as he knelt down to meet her gaze.

“Serene...tell me why you want to join the military?” he asked, his voice soft and gentle.

“I want to join the Military Police and protect the people!” she exclaimed, her voice cracking with emotion. “I want to do something for the people who are left without hope!”

“If that's so, please try to understand...that I'm trying to do the same thing.” Serene looked away from her father, feeling a bit betrayed. As much as he claimed that he was doing the right thing, he had to have known that volunteering to go out on the mission to take back Wall Maria was suicide. Even she could understand that.

“You'll be entering training in just a couple of weeks, which is something I know you've been wanting to do for a while,” her father continued. “You'll be with your brother, and together the two of you can make good in this world. Serene, you're young and full of life--I'm jealous of you. Joining this mission is the only thing I can do to help.”

“But we need you here, too!” Serene whispered, keeping her eyes locked on the wooden floor. “We have no house, and Mama will be alone--”

“Your uncle and your aunt will be here, and so will your cousins. You don't want to disappoint them, do you?”

Serene was not the type to start arguments, and whenever she did, she wasn't able to keep them going for very long. This was no exception, and soon she had met her father's knowing gaze again.

“We both...have to do our best...” she murmured, tears falling from her wide eyes. “...To make everyone happy...”

“That's my girl.”

 

“Oh, you're finally up...”

Hitch Dreiss' voice was barely above a whisper, but Annie could still hear her from the top of the stairs. She avoided the girl's gaze, keeping her own ice blue eyes fixed on the stairs as she walked down them one by one.

“Sorry, Annie, I didn't wanna wake you up because your face looked so scary while you were sleeping,” Hitch continued, a smile in her voice.

“You've been slacking off too much lately.”

Annie chose to ignore Marlowe Freudenberg's comment as well. She didn't have the energy for his holier-than-thou act, especially this early in the morning.

“Heyyyy?” Annie raised her eyebrows as Hitch peered into her face, her hazel eyes dancing. “You aren't mad at me, are you? Huh?”

“What an unsociable person,” Marlowe muttered.

“Leave her alone,” Boris Feulner mumbled. “She came back alive from Trost, after all. She's the only one at our station who has actual combat experience. There's no way she's recovered from that horror yet. She saw hell only just a month ago.”

Is that what it was…? Annie wondered as flashes of the events at Trost filled her head. ...I suppose so, since that's where sinners belong, or whatever...

“Oh really?” Hitch giggled. “Seems to me that you're really interested in her.” Boris let out a laugh through his nose in reply. “Tell me--what's so good about her?”

“Hitch...there’s only one way a dim-wit like you could get into the MP.”

“Oh yeah?” Hitch's light-hearted tone had died off, and an irritated one replaced it. “Why don't you try telling me what way that is?”

“Knock it off, you two,” Marlowe whispered as a figure appeared from down the hall. “He's here.”

Following suit with the rest of her fellow Military Police soldiers, Annie brought her fist to her chest in a salute as their superior, Dennis Eibringer, walked in front of them. He ran a hand through his messy brown hair and sighed.

“At ease, geez,” he muttered, waving his papers at the soldiers. “No need to be so tense.”

Annie let her hand fall to her side without hesitation. It wasn't like she had any real respect for this guy, anyway. He didn't really matter--he just was there, doing what he wanted to do, and Annie had no control over that. That was just how things in the Military Police worked.

“Today your task will be different from the usual routine,” Dennis told them. “That's why I gathered you all here. Now, listen up: a party from the Survey Corps has been summoned to the Capital.”

Annie had only been listening halfway until that point, but at the mention of the Survey Corps, her head popped up in surprise. That “party” would likely consist of a few select people, and it was worth paying attention to what would happen to one in particular. After all, she had failed her mission to capture him in the forest; most of the Corps probably wanted her dead by this point. But she didn't care--she knew she had to do whatever she could to complete her task. Failure was not an option anymore.

“I don't need to go into the details of their misadventure, right?” Dennis went on. “So, anyway, their party's supposed to pass through town today. Convoying them is the job of those from the Military Police headquarters, so we are to escort them only during their passage through this town. We've been granted temporary permission to use the three-dimensional maneuvering gear within the town. You're to run parallel to the convoy squad and reinforce security to the best of your ability. That's all.”

Annie's thoughts were whizzing at a mile a minute, trying to organize this information, when Marlowe's sudden interjection threw her off.

“May I ask a question, Sir?” he said.

“Hn? Well, shoot,” Dennis replied, looking a bit confused.

“What are we to protect the convoy squad from?”

“Your guess is as good as mine.”

“I haven’t heard of any groups within this wall opposing the king,” Marlowe continued. Annie could feel her palms sweating. “There are small-time criminals, but...it is hard to think that there might exist organized resistance factions, unless they are based outside the wall. Not to mention I cannot fathom what their motive would be.”

Glancing at Marlowe, Annie felt herself grimace at the irony of his comments. If only he knew who was standing in the room with him at that very moment...

“Wow, you're really serious about this, aren't you? Then I'll leave everything up to you.” Dennis smacked his papers against Marlowe's chest; the teen caught them before they could fall, his eyes wide in shock. “You'll find all the details in this.”

“Eh?” Marlowe gasped as Dennis began to walk away.

“We senior officers are really busy. Try to complete this mission on your own. Just don't fail, got it?”

Dennis opened a door across the hall, and the smell of liquor and cigars filled the hallway. She caught a glimpse of a group of senior officers sitting around a table playing a card game just before Dennis disappeared inside the room. He slammed the door behind him, and silence filled the hallway once again.

 

…......

 

“Dammit! What the hell does he think he's doing?!” Marlowe growled through clenched teeth. The warm rays of the afternoon sun beat down upon his black hair, making his head feel heavy with all that heat, plus his burning anger. “Passing the whole mission onto new recruits not even a month in the force, and not even bothering to give any proper instructions...!”

He couldn't believe the audacity of the senior officers in the Military Police--that they would openly slack off in front of new recruits, and that they would not even take this mission seriously.

“Yeah, the senior officers of this organization are rotten beyond imagination...” Hitch murmured, looking a little disappointed. “Oh well...that was the reason why I chose to join it in the first place... But they're dumping their work onto new recruits, and as long as you're still new, you'll get more than your fair share...” The blonde half-heartedly kicked a nearby wooden pail, sending it rolling down the sidewalk. “I didn't take that into account. Should've just stayed in the Garrison.”

Marlowe paused for a moment, letting Hitch's words resonate in him. The fact that she had chosen to leave the Garrison to move up into a spot in the Military Police, and yet she was still being ripped off just like the others...it only furthered his anger toward the others.

“Worthless trash...! Scum who can only think about themselves!!” he hissed.

“Marlowe, you tryin' to say you're any different?” Boris asked, looking up at Marlowe from where he was seated on the sidewalk. “You're the same as them--you also chose to join the Police.”

“I'm different!” Marlowe shouted. “Don't lump me together with scum like you! I joined the Military Police to uphold justice and do what's right!”

There was a brief moment of silence that was soon interrupted by Hitch clapping her hands.

“Wow, Marlowe! So you're actually one of those righteous guys, huh?” she gasped, her voice laden with sarcasm.

“And how are you planning on doing that?” Boris asked, standing up with a skeptical look on his face.

“I need to stand at the top for that...and until I make it there...I'll do what I'm ordered to do, even if it means I'll have to act like scum in the process,” Marlowe admitted. “But once I'm at the top, I'll make them all earn their keep. And I'll make sure to repay them all in full for pilfering taxes and misappropriating the land.”

“Does that mean you or your relatives have been through the things you mentioned?”

Marlowe almost did not recognize Annie's voice when she finally spoke up; it was quiet, but not quite as dark as it usually sounded. She instead had a genuinely curious tone to her voice, and it caught him off-guard.

“...No, but...everybody knows those stories about their wrong-doings are true,” he replied. As Annie's face fell back into its usual scowl, Marlowe continued, “Anyway, I won't go as far as to have them die for their sins, but I'll make them taste humiliation. I'll change those mindless animals back into normal human beings...that's all I want. To return them to what humans are supposed to be in the first place...”

His voice trailed off as he clenched his fists, trying to keep his emotions in check.

Hitch, on the other hand, collapsed onto the sidewalk and was practically screaming with laughter.

“Oh man, I can't believe this!” she shrieked, holding her stomach with one hand as she slapped the ground with the other. “You're the real deal! And here I thought you were just another boring dude! My bad, I had you wrong!”

“...That's quite a high goal you have...” Boris mumbled. “Good luck achieving it.”

“You're wrong.”

Annie had spoken up again--she was being unusually talkative.

“If a good guy like you manages to take the helm, that's what will be our true undoing,” she told him.

“Huh? Since when do you talk this much?” Marlowe asked her. “If you have something to say, let's hear it.”

“...I think you're a righteous person who says righteous things. Such people do exist, and I'm well aware of that. Going against the tide requires extraordinary courage, and I respect that. Even if it's nothing but foolishness...well, anyway, what's clear is that such people are rare. They're not common, and they're not what you can call normal, either. People like you are special. ”

Marlowe could not tell if Annie was kidding around, but she was not smirking, and her voice was calm. He had never heard her say anything like this before; come to think of it, he’d never heard her say much of anything at all.

“On the other hand, how should people like the rest of us be referred to, I wonder?” she went on. “People who put their personal gain over others... If those around them act unjustly, they just go with the flow... You called those people scum, trash, and evil. Among the trainees I knew, the majority were this kind of 'scum,' aiming to join the Military Police.”

“You sure love beating around the bush, don't you?” Marlowe muttered. “What's your point? You want to say that people like you aren't that bad?”

“No...” she replied, looking up at Marlowe. “I, too, think those like me are scum...I can't consider them righteous at all...and that...is what normal people are, don't you think?”

Marlowe couldn't answer; it was the most loaded question he had ever heard in his life. He kept silent and waited for Annie to keep talking.

“You're saying that innately all people are good, and if they were to just assume their true nature, this organization wouldn't be so rotten, right?” she said, keeping her eyes locked with Marlowe's. “But in my opinion, the structure of this organization, the way it's set up is what provides insight into what true human nature really is... So even if I'm just a weakling who drifts with the stream, I'm still one of those 'normal' people you're talking about. ...That's all I have to say.”

 

…......

 

Armin admittedly felt like a bit of a creep spying on the new Military Police recruits. He was well aware of the importance of his role in this mission, but it still felt odd. Annie was supposed to be his friend. Granted, she was not exactly the friendliest person, and she hardly ever said more than what she had to to get her point across, but Armin had trusted her once.

But those days were long gone, and so he found himself standing around within the confines of Wall Sina, waiting for the opportune moment.

Not much time passed before Armin caught sight of his comrade. The second that he saw the blonde pass by him, he hissed her name.

“Annie.”

She came to a halt almost immediately, then slowly turned and walked into the alleyway where Armin was hiding.

“Armin...” she breathed, looking a little surprised.

“Hey...” he whispered. “You're really a full-fledged member of the Military Police now, aren't you?”

“What's going on...?” she asked, giving him a glance-over. “What's with this getup?”

“I'm posing as a porter,” he told her, pulling back the cloak of his rain gear to reveal his three-dimensional maneuvering gear underneath. “See? This raincoat is very handy for hiding the 3D gear.”

“...Armin...what happened?”

Armin paused, pulling back his hood at last. He could feel his neck starting to bead with sweat. Of all the things that could have happened to him, he hadn't even considered this betrayal as one of them.

“Annie...please, will you help us...could you help Eren escape...?”

Annie's reaction was very hard to read. She looked a little surprised, but she was staying calm, as usual.

“Escape?” she echoed. “To where? Is there really a place inside the walls where someone who disobeyed the king's order can escape to?”

“He'll only be in hiding for a little while,” Armin explained. “It's not like we plan to disobey the king, per se... Although I understand that it may appear like an act of rebellion of the Survey Corps, but we're just trying to buy some time to collect information that could change the opinion of the commission of inquiry--that's all!”

“Information that would change their opinion? Is there something that influential, really? What are you basing your claim on?”

“...” Armin hesitated; for a moment he wondered if he had said too much already, but he collected his wits as quickly as he could. “I'm sorry. I can't tell you...”

“...Then I'm sorry, too, but this isn't going anywhere. I won't tell anyone so good luck trying your best on your own.”

“Annie!” Armin gasped as Annie turned her back to him and began to walk away. “I'm begging you! At this rate, Eren is going to be killed!”

To his relief, Annie stopped. Armin stared at the Police emblem on her back as he spoke; by doing this, it felt less like he was lying to someone he once called his friend.

“It's those people who don't understand anything--they're just doing it for the sake of what they perceive as self-defense!” he exclaimed. Though he was speaking quickly, he was forming his sentences carefully, trying to press all of the right buttons. “They continue on the path leading to the destruction of humankind without even realizing where they're going! I know this doesn't sound convincing, but...but there's no other way left other than to resort to taking this gamble.”

Armin quieted his voice, trying to ignore the sweat that was now rolling down his back.

“It goes without saying that we'll try not to cause you too much trouble...but to pass the check inside Wall Sina, we need help from someone in the Military Police--there's no way around it. We...don't have anyone else but you...”

Armin met Annie's gaze as she looked at him from over her shoulder. She did not seem willing to help, and Armin felt disappointed in himself.

“Do I...really look like such a good person to you?” she asked him quietly. It had not been what he was expecting to hear, but he knew exactly how to respond. He could be honest with her about this.

“A good person, huh...?” he murmured, dropping his gaze to the stone-laid path beneath their feet. “Well, I...I don't really like that phrase. Because I feel like...those words are just what people like to call those who convenient to them, but nobody can be convenient to every single person. You may be useful to some people, but at the same time a bad person to others.”

Armin paused, glancing back up at Annie. Her face had softened, and he knew he had to take this chance to win her trust, or at least her cooperation.

“So...Annie, if you don't help us now, to me, you'll be a bad person.”

There was a long pause; Armin did not let his gaze waver. Finally, though, Annie turned her back to him again.

“All right,” she murmured, and Armin pursed his lips. He didn't like not being able to see the look on her face. “I'm in.”

 

…......

 

“Only a month before Eren Jaeger gets sent back our way, huh?”

Bianca Sertoli flicked her honey-gold eyes up at her red-headed friend, then at her brother. The latter’s arms were crossed and his lips pursed as he stared out of the the floor-length window of the Military Police library.

“How long do you think he'll stay?” Claus asked Bruno, who sighed in response.

“That's assuming he even makes it here,” he replied.

“Eh? What do you mean by that?” Claus' green eyes were wide with confusion. “Are you saying he'll escape?”

“I wouldn't use that word, necessarily...”

“Erwin Smith won't let Eren go that easily,” Bianca spoke at last. “That's what you're trying to say, right?” When Bruno didn't respond, she added, “Your level of admiration for him is borderline disgusting, Bruno.”

“You really think Commander Erwin can talk his way out of this?” Claus murmured, looking Bianca in the eyes. “The order was from the Commander-in-Chief himself. I get that all old people know each other or whatever, but--”

“Erwin and Nile have a history together,” Bruno interrupted. “All it takes is one wrong move on the latter's part, and Erwin has won.”

“It's that easy, huh?” Claus' voice was laden with sarcasm.

Bianca knew that Claus and Bruno did not always see eye to eye, especially when it came to politics regarding their regiment. She understood where they were both coming from, as usual, but she didn't bother trying to get them to agree to disagree this time around.

“We won't know until it happens,” she told them. “So we should just do as we're told for now and see what comes about.”

Would Eren get away from Military Police custody? Perhaps. Was it possible that Erwin could talk his way out of the trial? It was. But Bianca knew that whatever the outcome, it didn't change their roles for now. They were to keep the townspeople safe and out of the way as the convoy squad traveled through town. Anything beyond that would have to be decided at a later time.

“I guess you're right--as usual,” Claus said with a sigh, stretching his arms as he stood from the armchair. Bianca stood as well, straightening out the jacket of her Military Police uniform. She could see out of the corner of her eye that Bruno was still mulling something over.

“I don't think they'll be coming out for this,” she stated, staring at her brother as his eyes wandered the sky.

“Hm?” He turned toward her, raising an eyebrow. “...Meet me downstairs when you're ready.”

“What did you mean by that?” Claus asked when Bruno had left the room.

“Don't worry about it,” Bianca muttered, tightening the belts on her gear. “He's just a big baby sometimes.”

Before Claus could respond, the library door opened again, and for a split-second, Bianca thought Bruno had heard her. But to her relief, a different familiar face poked her head into the room.

“Hi, guys!” Serene chirped, pushing the door open with her elbow. She was carrying a stack of books and papers. “Edmund wanted me to put these away for him, but I don't think I have enough time...”

“I can help you,” Claus offered, walking over to her.

“He's too good to put them up himself?” Bianca asked as the two began sticking books back on the shelf. “Even though he knows you have to leave for a mission soon?”

“Well, I guess that's one way of putting it,” Serene laughed, looking a bit embarrassed.

“Bianca could teach you a thing or two about keeping big brothers in line,” Claus said with a grin.

“Thanks for the offer, but I'm all right,” Serene insisted, matching his grin. She turned to Bianca, her short white-blonde hair swishing around her face. “You guys are leaving soon, too, right? Wanna walk together?”

“...That's fine, I guess,” Bianca replied.

Bianca did not mind Serene; in fact, she welcomed her company. It was a change of pace from the usual suspects, but Serene was also admittedly just one of those people that Bianca never knew how to approach. She was so nice, to everyone all the time, and it made Bianca wonder if she even meant it, or if she was faking it.

If Serene was just putting on an act, Bianca did not want to risk the investment. She had no reason to take that kind of risk and add that stress into her life. Besides, she loved her brother, and Claus (as uptight and anal as he could sometimes be) was her best friend. She never had reason to question the bonds she had with either of them, and so she was never really in want of anything more.

“Bruno said to meet him downstairs,” Bianca added, and Serene nodded obediently.

“Our squad is meeting in the downstairs parlor anyway,” she said, still beaming. “Hopefully everything will go smoothly. I don't think the people in town will be too much of a hassle or anything.”

“They'll probably just be curious more than anything else,” Claus agreed.

“Either way, don't slack,” Bianca warned him. “If we fuck something up, Bruno is the one who gets blamed, and we all know that won't end well.”

Sometimes Bianca admittedly felt a little silly for defending her brother, who was several years older than her and entirely capable of handling himself. Still, she felt that she had to say it, not only speaking as his second in command, but as his only remaining family.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Claus waved his hand as if swatting Bianca's comment away. “It'll be fine. Let's just go and get this over with.”

“That poor Eren Jaeger...he's probably pretty scared right now,” Serene said quietly as the three left the library. “I can't imagine having my life threatened like that--and all because of a power he can't even control.”

Serene's comment left Claus and Bianca both speechless; the mood darkened considerably, and Bianca could sense Serene's regret for having said something so negative.

“I'm sure it'll work out, though!” she exclaimed. “I mean, he came from a nice family, and whatever happened on their last mission couldn't have been entirely his fault, right?”

“I always forget that you grew up in Shiganshina, too,” Claus said, smiling at Serene. But Bianca could tell that he was still thinking about her previous comment.

Trying to change the topic? she wondered. ...It's all right, Claus. Things will be fine.

“Yep! Born and raised. Not that there was anything too special about the place.” Serene sighed through her nose. “It's still just sad to think that it's gone, and that not everyone was as lucky as my family.”

“Didn't your cousins also manage to make it out?”

“Yeah, thankfully! Actually, my oldest cousin is in training right now and will be graduating next year.”

“Do you think they'll join the Police, too?” Bianca asked. She knew that Bruno had been considering adding more people to his squad, and if Serene's cousin wanted to join, Bruno would probably not protest.

“Who, Jay? Are you kidding? Nah, Jay is too energetic for the Police--the Survey Corps would be the best fit.”

“The Survey Corps, huh?” Claus sighed. “That's the place for stupidly brave people, you know.”

Serene let out a laugh. “Yes, and that's Jay.”

As Claus and Serene laughed together, Bianca gently ran her fingers over the cross around her neck. Whenever people started talking about their families, she always thought of her parents, and she wondered if she would even be in the Police if they were still alive.

I don't think I would be, she thought. You only ever wanted to protect us, right, Mama?

 

Chapter Text

“This is taking too long.” Eren glanced at Captain Levi as the man took a loud sip of his tea. His arm was slung over the back of his chair, and he was not looking at Eren—his body not even facing him. For once, he was not in uniform, but in a simple off-white shirt and black pants. Even from a glance, Eren could tell how disheveled he was compared to his usual self. Was it because he was feeling impatient with Eren's trial? No, it was more likely the fact that the table at which they sat had four empty chairs--chairs that once belonged to members of the Special Operations Squad.

“Erwin, that bastard...making us wait like this,” Captain Levi went on, scrunching his nose in disgust. At this rate, the Military Police will be here first. ...Maybe...he's trying to take a shit, but the shit just won't come out.”

Eren couldn't help but laugh at Levi's statement--it wasn't unusual for him to use those kinds of expressions in his speech, but the delivery was so clumsy and the atmosphere was so tense that Eren felt compelled to lighten the mood.

“Captain...you...sure are talkative today,” the teen said, again glancing at his superior.

“Yeah right,” he replied. “I've never known when to shut up.”

Eren knew what he meant--he had heard what happened in the forest when the Female Titan got away. But he did not blame Levi, not in the slightest.

“I'm sorry,” he murmured. “If I...had not...made the wrong choice back then...things would not have gone so wrong... You wouldn't have gotten injured...”

Eren could feel Levi's eyes upon him now.

“Didn't I already tell you? No one could have predicted this outcome,” the Captain mumbled, turning away from Eren again. The teen lowered his gaze; no matter how many times he heard those words, they were not enough to free him of his guilt, and he knew Captain Levi probably felt the same.

 

“Kind of shocking that they let us through just like that.”

“Shh.”

“The whole time I was in that carriage, they didn't even bother to check on me.”

“Don't be looking around so restlessly.”

Despite Mikasa's commands, Eren continued his rant, and so she could only sigh in defeat.

“That's the Military Police for you. Their infamous lack of diligence in performing their routine duties is pretty obvious,” Eren went on. “I only hope they don't discover Jean is posing as me. They're gonna find out soon enough, though. First of all, we don't look anything alike.”

“It'll be fine,” Armin cut in, smiling at Eren. “You two have a similar build and the same vicious look of a criminal in your eyes, so--”

“I don't have a horse-face like him!” Eren hissed.

“Say, if I hadn't agreed to help you, how did you plan to get past the wall?” Annie asked.

Mikasa was glad that she was in the back of their small group. She couldn't help but glare at Annie every time she looked at her now--even if she was falling right into their trap.

“We were going to use the 3D gear to climb the wall,” Armin told her. Mikasa couldn't help but feel impressed. Armin was quite the actor and an eerily good liar to boot.

“That's so reckless,” Annie replied. “Why didn't you just organize the escape before entering the Stohess district? You could've gotten away fast and easy instead of going through all this trouble. Why does it have to be here and now?”

“I decided that we needed to make use of the complicated layout of this town in order to succeed with plan of switching Eren out for a double,” Armin explained, his words completely smooth in delivery. To Mikasa, he didn't sound like he was lying, but she also knew that Annie was smart. “I thought that instead of opposing the order head-on and escaping, we could buy more time to prepare Eren's escape if we obediently went along with it for a while, making them lower their guard. “

“...I see... Convincing enough.”

Annie's reply was just as smooth; Mikasa glanced at Eren, who met her gaze with a sour look. She could tell he was still hesitant about all of this. Mikasa understood what he was feeling--she did not want Armin to be right about any of this, either.

“Ah, here it is!” Armin exclaimed, running toward a small staircase; it descended into the darkness of a series of underground tunnels.

“Here?” Annie murmured.

“Yep. We'll take this passage.” Mikasa followed Armin and Eren as they went down a few steps. “Some ruins of an underground city planned long ago still remain. This passage connects to an exit close to the outer gate.”

“Really? That's amazing...” Eren murmured.

“Taking the underground pathway is much safer than the streets above,” Armin stated.

Mikasa stayed silent; as she listened to their footsteps, she sensed that they had grown one pair quieter, and when she turned over her shoulder, she could see Annie still standing at the top of the stairs.

“Hm? Annie?” Armin said, turning to look up at her as well.

“What's wrong with you?” Eren asked, grimacing. “Don't tell me you're scared of dark confined spaces!”

“Yes, I am,” Annie said. “I'm scared. I'm not like you--not a brave, reckless guy who's in a hurry to die... There's no way someone like you can understand the feelings of a frail, weak girl like me!”

Had the circumstances been different, Mikasa would have found Annie's claim to be funny, and she might have even joined in on the taunt to Eren. But as things were, it just made her angry.

“...A girl who can send burly men flying with a single kick isn't weak,” Eren growled, turning back around. “Cut the bullshit--let's get going!”

“No. I won't go.” Annie stared down at the trio with wide blue eyes. “It's scary down there... If you're not going to take the surface route, then I won't help you.”

There was a moment of heavy silence, but it was broken by Eren's shouts.

“What the hell are you saying?!” he cried. “Get down here now! Don't fuck around with me!”

“Eren, don't shout!” Mikasa told him.

“Why not, Mikasa?” At Annie's words, Mikasa felt her jaw snap shut. “There hasn’t been anyone around for a while now.”

Mikasa couldn't come up with a quick response like Armin, and she couldn't shout her way out of it in an argument like Eren. Instead she kept silent, her heart thudding in her chest as the reality of their situation sank in.

“Geez. I'm hurt, you know.” Annie's entire face darkened as she turned her gaze on Armin. “Since when did you start looking at me with those eyes, Armin?”

“Annie...” Armin's voice was shaking now; his calm demeanor had vanished. “Why did you have Marco's gear at the inspection?” When Annie did not immediately reply, Armin continued, “I remembered the little scratches and dents because we performed routine maintenance on our gear together... So I knew it was his.”

“I see...” Annie mumbled, looking away from them now. “I just...found it.”

“Then, the one who killed those two Titans the Survey Corps captured alive was you, Annie?”

“Maybe...maybe not...” Annie's voice grew so quiet that Mikasa could barely hear her. Or, perhaps, it was the last shred of lingering doubt she had left in her that made her not want to her Annie's reply.

“If you came to all these conclusions a month ago, why didn't you take action right then?” Annie then asked, still refusing to make eye contact.

“I still...can't believe it, even now...” Armin breathed, eyes wide. “I thought...there was a mistake somewhere in my train of thought... I wanted to believe there was...! That's why I didn't.... But...” Mikasa watched as Armin turned away from Annie; his face was pale and drenched in sweat. “It's because you didn't kill me when you had the chance...that things turned out the way they are now...!”

“...Yeah...I agree--from the bottom of my heart, I couldn't have ever imagined that you would track me down and corner me here like this. At that time...why didn't I kill you, I wonder...”

Annie's voice trailed off, and Eren cut in again.

“Hey! Annie, there's still a chance that you're just an unfortunate idiot who thoughtlessly backed up some asswipe's shitty joke by being in the wrong place at the wrong time...! So come down here!” Eren shouted, taking a few steps up toward Annie. If he took any more, Mikasa would have to pull him back. She could not trust Annie, not anymore.

“You can prove your innocence to us just by entering this passage!” Eren cried. “Come down here and prove it!”

“I can't go there... I...failed as a warrior.”

“I told you already--don't be a fool!” Eren screamed.

“Talk to us, Annie!” Armin joined him. “We still can settle this by talking to each other!”

Enough.”

Her blood boiling and her heart in her throat, Mikasa ripped off her rain gear and backpack. Of all of the people who could have betrayed them, Annie was the last person Mikasa would have guessed. They had been rivals, yes, but comrades. They had shared a room together, a bunk together. They had spent so many late nights talking and even enjoying each other's company. Mikasa had trusted Annie--but now that trust was broken. No, not just broken...it was smashed, demolished, and the pieces were being swept away by the wind. There was no turning back anymore.

“I can't stand listening to this anymore--talking isn't getting us anywhere,” Mikasa growled as she pulled out her blades. “I'll cut you to pieces once again, Female Titan.”

The air fell still, and Mikasa watched with narrowed, burning eyes as Annie's frown suddenly widened into a strange, toothy smile.

“Armin...” she murmured, her voice unusually light and airy. “Aren't you lucky that I was such a good person to you... For now, you won your gamble... But...my gamble is only just starting!”

Just as Annie raised a finger to her teeth, Armin raised his arm and fired a signal flare. In the blink of an eye, Annie was surrounded by Survey Corps soldiers; they seized her limbs and gagged her with lightning speed.

However, what happened next was something no one had anticipated--Mikasa watched in horror as Annie flicked at a ring on her index finger. Out popped a small, sharp hook, and as she stared down at the trio, she struck her finger against it.

“We were too late...”

Mikasa snatched Eren and Armin by their shirt collars and ran as fast as she could. She did not have to be looking at the scene behind her to know what would happen.

 

…......

 

Eren didn't have time to register the truth of what had just happened. Everything was a blur, and he felt helpless as Mikasa dragged him and Armin through the corridors of the underground. He could see the fleshless Titan hand reaching for him, but he could not bring himself to believe that it was someone he knew controlling it.

“Did she bite her tongue?” Armin gasped as Mikasa released them. The trio broke out into a sprint, their footsteps echoing in the tunnel. “How--how was she hurt?!”

“There was a blade in that ring,” Mikasa replied. “She cut her finger with it.”

“But...that's so simple... Dammit... As I thought...she knew I was lying from the start. She probably even knew about the others in hiding down here! I should have thought of a better plan...”

“You can reflect later,” Mikasa cut in as Armin's voice wavered. “Just tell me--what should we do from here?”

“...For now, let's meet up with Group Three and go to the surface. Then we'll follow plan B: a fight with Annie, the Female Titan! Eren, you'll turn into a Titan, as planned, and help us detain the target, all right?”

“Yeah!” Eren breathed, but he still felt uneasy. Mikasa and Armin had said it multiple times now, and he had seen it with his own two eyes: Annie was the Female Titan, the same monster who had killed so many of his companions, including Captain Levi's squad. But why? And how? Without knowing, Eren felt reluctant to believe the rest of it, despite how obvious the truth was.

“Group three!” Armin shouted as they neared a couple of Survey Corps soldiers standing nearby.

“Hey! What happened?!” one shouted. “Did plan A fail?!”

“It failed!” Armin cried. “Please move on to plan B!”

Armin's words did not even have time to echo through the brick tunnels before a giant foot came crashing down through the ceiling. Eren watched in horror as Annie slowly lifted her foot, revealing the crushed bodies of the Survey Corps soldiers.

“She stomped through?!” Armin gasped. Eren felt a surge of fear as he saw a leg sticking out of the bricks and rubble.

“We have to save him!” Eren screamed, rushing toward the body.

“Eren, get back!” Mikasa commanded, grabbing his shoulder before he could move any further away.

“But what about him?!”

“Do you want to die?”

“It was a gamble,” Armin murmured, interrupting the two. “She gambled whether or not you would die by her opening that hole. It's crazy, but now we're in serious danger. Annie is absolutely desperate to capture Eren.” As he spoke, a look of terror washed over Armin's face. “Wh-what should we do? She blocked our path... Even if we tried to rush out with our gear through that hole or the entrance, she'd find us... But on the other hand, we could be crushed at any minute if we stay here...”

“I--!” Almost impulsively, Eren lifted his hand to his lips, readying himself to bite down. “I'll take care of this somehow! Just like how I blocked that cannon...!” Reaching out to his friends, Eren grabbed Mikasa and Armin and pulled them close to him. “Come here! Okay, here I go!!”

Taking a deep breath, Eren shoved his hand into his mouth and bit down as hard as he could. He could taste his own blood, and he felt a sharp, stinging pain, but there was nothing else. No transformation, nothing.

“...Huh?” he gasped, pulling his bloodied hand out of his mouth. “Not again...come on...” Gritting his teeth, Eren collapsed onto his knees. The pain coming from his hand was already unbearable, but the frustration and fear welling up inside of him was making it all much worse.

“Why at a time like this?!” he shouted. “Dammit, this hurts!”

“You can't become a Titan if your goal isn't concrete, right?” Armin said. “Try imagining your goal harder, one more time!”

“I am...!” Eren insisted, biting down once again. Still, nothing. “But...why?”

“Really?” Mikasa's voice was low as she knelt down beside Eren. He could see out of the corner of his eye that she was staring right at him. “Are you sure you're not hesitating to fight Annie again?”

Mikasa's words pierced Eren harder than the pain from his hand.

“...Eren?” Armin murmured as Eren met Mikasa's gaze. Her normally cool grey eyes had a wild look in them.

“Don't tell me that a time like this you're thinking that maybe it was just your imagination that Annie was the Female Titan?” Mikasa continued. “You just saw her with your own eyes, didn't you? She's the one who killed your squad mates, remember? You really still don't think it's her?”

“Sh-shut up!” Eren whimpered, once again bringing his hand into his mouth. “I'm doing the best I can!!”

As he again bit into his hand, Eren thought back to their meeting with Commander Erwin and Captain Levi. Armin had said it then, and they all had agreed, and deep down, Eren knew that Annie was guilty. But he did not want to fight her. He had trusted her, and respected her. She had taught him so much, and he considered her a friend. Even if she had been a loner with an attitude problem, was she really such a horrible person? Was she really so cold-blooded that she could kill all those innocent soldiers without hesitation? Eren wanted to believe in her, but the truth was overwhelmingly obvious.

“You already know, don't you?” Mikasa murmured. “The Female Titan is Annie. So...you have to fight her, right? Or...maybe there's some sort of special feeling that's preventing you from doing so?”

“Huh...?” Eren gasped, pulling his hand out of his mouth.

“I've got a plan,” Armin interrupted, pulling his swords from their sheaths. “Mikasa and I will each go out of the hole and the entrance at the same time. That way, Annie will have to pick one of us. At that time, Eren, you need to run away from her! You can't be found unprepared like this. The other soldiers will serve as a distraction. Let's go!”

“Huh?! Wait, Armin!” Eren cried as the blond ran off, not giving Eren even a second to oppose to the plan. “If we do this, then one of you might die!”

“At least all three of us won't die,” Armin shouted back over his shoulder. “Get in position, Mikasa!”

“All right,” the girl said, getting to her feet and taking off, leaving Eren kneeling on the brick floor.

“Mikasa!” he shouted. “How...how can you two...fight like this?!”

Eren watched as Mikasas stopped and turned over her shoulder to look at him. In that moment, she seemed twice her age, and even stronger than usual.

“We don't have a choice, do we? The world is a cruel place.”

Without another word, Mikasa ran off toward the hole; Armin's footsteps echoed behind Eren. His two best friends were willing to sacrifice themselves for his sake. He did not deserve this kind of protection or love, especially now that he was letting them all down.

As Mikasa turned to glance at Eren one last time, Eren narrowed his eyes, bringing his hand back up to his lips. She could see the resignation in his expression even from where she stood.

“It really is,” he murmured just before sinking his teeth into his hand once again.

 

…......

 

“What the hell is going on?!” Commander Nile Dawk gasped. He could feel the sweat on his brow as the ground shook below him. He and the convoy troops had been minding their own business, as usual, and now all of a sudden this ruckus? “Back-up troops! Leave the convoy to us and go observe the scene!” Nile looked up at the young recruits scaling the rooftops around him as they shot off on their gear.

“This is odd...” he murmured. “That explosion and--”

“Nile!”

Nile would have known Erwin's voice anywhere, but he had not expected to hear it now. And yet, there stood the Survey Corps Commander; he and Captain Levi had stepped out of their carriage and were now staring Nile down.

“Dispatch all of your soldiers,” Erwin told him. “It's probably a Titan.”

“What are you saying?!” Nile gasped, turning to face the duo. “This is Wall Sina! There can't possibly be Titans in here!”

Before Erwin or Levi could reply, another familiar figured hopped out of a nearby carriage. Nile watched as Eren Jaeger jumped out onto the street, gritting his teeth with an irritated look on his face.

“Stop!” one of Nile's subordinates shouted. “Don't move, Jaeger!”

“I'm tired of playing dress-up!” the boy shouted, and to Nile's surprise, he reached up and yanked off what turned out to be a brown wig. The boy's real hair was a light tawny blonde undercut. “Never call me that again, asshole!”

Stunned, Nile watched in silence as the teen rushed over to Erwin, cloak in hand.

“Commander, I'll go, too,” he said, standing up tall next to his superior officer.

“Get your gear from team four,” Erwin replied.

“Yes, sir!” the boy cried, whirling his cloak around and over his shoulders.

“Having a fiery spirit is good, but don't forget how to stay alive,” Captain Levi added, arms folded across his chest.

“Yes, sir.” With a nod, the teen dashed off, leaving Nile feeling even more nervous than he already was. The casual way Erwin was handling all of this was unbelievable, and to think that Eren Jaeger was not in their custody--where the hell could he be, and what kind of trouble was he causing? Nile did not want to be in the middle of it, but it was too late.

“Erwin, what--”

“Commander, here!”

Nile gasped as a Survey Corps soldier landed beside him, carrying a small briefcase. The soldier opened it in front of Erwin, revealing a full set of three-dimensional maneuvering gear.

“Good work, thank you,” Erwin said, and without hesitation the man began to put it all on.

“Hey, Erwin--” Nile began, his mouth dry and beads of sweat dripping down his face.

“All that can move, mobilize!” Erwin shouted to the surrounding soldiers as he began to walk away. “We must assist with the capture of the Female Titan!”

“Erwin, stop!” Nile shouted, sprinting up to the man. Gritting his teeth, he grabbed his rifle and took aim at Erwin's face; two cold blue eyes met his gaze in return. Nile could hear his subordinates take aim from behind, and so he spoke again. “What you're doing is a clear rebellion against the King!”

“Nile, is your head as hollow as that gun barrel?” Levi muttered from behind Erwin. “From the looks of it, you have no idea what's going on.”

“Dismantle your gear, Erwin!” Nile commanded, ignoring Levi's rude commentary.

Nile kept his eyes locked with Erwin's. He knew that he couldn't just back down now, not without a fight. Erwin had always been like this--he had always been stubborn and completely out of his mind. For someone so smart, he made more than his fair share of seemingly irrational decisions.

But Nile respected Erwin, now more than ever. Erwin was crazy, yes, but he had not yet given Nile a reason to distrust him. Despite how outrageous Erwin's plans always seemed, they also were more successful than anything Nile could have come up with himself. Still--admitting this to Erwin now did not feel like the right move. After all, Nile had his own reputation to keep, and now all eyes were on them.

“All of this was my personal decision,” Erwin declared after several long minutes of silence between them. The only sounds Nile could hear were those of screams and explosions in the background. “I don't intend to make excuses.”

Clenching his teeth, Nile lowered his gun and instead grabbed Erwin by the collar, all the while keeping his eyes locked on his friend.

“You must have known what would happen if you executed a plan like this in the city,” Nile hissed at him. “How? How could you do this?!”

“To lead humanity to victory.”

“Bullshit!” Nile screamed, and again he pulled his rifle up, aiming right at Erwin's face. “You're a traitor! I could execute you right here and now, and none of the higher-ups would even care!”

“That's fine by me, but then you must assume command.” Nile let out a gasp, but Erwin kept talking. “You must not let the Female Titan escape. Paehl's in charge of formation. Vyler oversees supply. Work with them to drive her to the east wall at all costs...”

“W-wait!” Nile breathed, holding up a hand to silence Erwin. “Are you...are you really telling me that this will help humanity?”

“I believe that it is a step forward.”

Nile narrowed his eyes at Erwin.

You're always so hard-headed, dammit, he thought as he let out a quiet, shaky breath of air. Slowly, hesitantly, he lowered his rifle once more.

“Lower your guns, all of you,” he commanded. “Handcuff him!”

“Yes, sir!”

“Deploy all of our men,” Nile continued as he watched Erwin. “Your priority is civilian rescue and evacuation!”

“Yes, sir!”

As his troops ran off toward the sounds of the battle nearby, Nile stared Erwin down yet again.

“Erwin, I’ll leave it to the court to decide your punishment,” he murmured.

“Once this is over, I'll submit to one with pleasure,” Erwin replied, his face softening. Behind him, Levi took a few steps forward, as if to follow after Nile's troops. “Levi, you stay put. You dislike pointless deaths.”

“Yeah, you're right,” the Captain replied, glaring at Erwin. “Whether it's mine, or me causing someone else's.”

 

 

Chapter Text

“Annie...I was wrong...”

With wide blue eyes, Annie looked down at her father. His head was bowed as he knelt in front of her, and his strong hands clasped her shoulders. However, his grip was not possessive, but gentle and fragile. He hardly even seemed like her father--his usual demeanor was different, far more aggressive.

“It's too late to ask you to forgive me now...” he went on, his voice shaking. “But...listen to this one thing...just one last thing I have to say...”

“One last thing” ? Annie was not sure what he meant, or why he sounded so solemn. What did he know? What had he not told her? There were a lot of things lately that she had learned about her father and their future, but what had changed to make him seem so hopeless?

“I want to ask you...to treat the whole world as your enemy.” That was not what she had been expecting to hear. Annie stared at her father as he continued, “Even if the whole world curses and resents you...remember that your father will always be on your side.”

I know that much already, she wanted to say.

“So please, promise me something... Promise that you'll come back.”

For some reason, Annie felt as though she might cry. That wasn't a normal occurrence for her--usually she could take her father's scoldings and reprimands without batting an eye. But this heartfelt plea made her feel as though her insides were shattering. She didn't know what would happen to him, or to her, but the one thing that she did know was that he was her only family, and she loved him.

“Papa...I'll come home,” she told him, a faint smile crossing her lips.

 

Annie knew that she was past the point of no return. Eren had now taken up the chase in his Titan form, and despite being surrounded by buildings and Survey Corps soldiers, she knew she had no choice but to fight back. It was either fight, or face the end.

She had wanted to die honorably, if possible. The world now regarded her as nothing more than a heartless monster, but at her core she was still very human, and she wanted to die as such. To be killed in her Titan form seemed like a curse; it was as if dying as a Titan meant that she would be forever bound to the one thing she hated about herself more than anything.

But do I really hate it? she asked herself as she sprinted down the streets of Wall Sina, away from the screaming Eren behind her. Is it really so bad? I can do so much as a Titan that I can't do as a human... I can get rid of the scum I despise much more easily.

Annie stopped for a moment to get her bearings and prepare her next move, when suddenly the impact of Eren's fist sent her flying. She crashed into something solid, but it crumbled beneath the weight of her body. Looking down at her hand she had thrown out to catch herself, she could see a pile of bricks and rubble under it, as well as the blood of a few unfortunate humans that had been crushed by her landing.

No...I hate this, she realized, looking up at Eren as he approached her. Look at what you made me do, you asshole. I just killed innocent people.

Annie could practically hear Eren's reply as she dashed away from his manic attacks: “And the Survey Corps soldiers weren't innocent?”

No, they weren't, Annie thought as she stopped once again, taking up her signature fighting stance. They don't understand, but they meddle anyway, despite their ignorance. I can't forgive that. None of those idiots understands a single thing... They don't get what Papa and I had to go through... Not even you get it, you suicidal bastard!

Eren's barrage of punches were painful, but Annie knew that she had the upper hand. She possessed not only the better technique, but the stronger Titan abilities. Being able to harden her skin meant extra defense and offense--and Eren had no way to counter it. She snapped his arms off with ease, and soon she had kicked him to the ground. To her surprise, though, Eren lunged forward and bit down hard on her leg, like a rabid dog trying to put up a fight.

Let me go, Eren, Annie thought as she bashed her fist again and again into his Titan's face. Someone like you will never be able to understand those like us...

With a final cry, Annie wrenched herself free of Eren's slackened grip. She turned toward the wall nearby and took off as fast as her Titan form would let her. This was the only way out now--she would have to climb, or face the agony of her defeat.

Grimacing, Annie concentrated her hardening abilities on her fingertips and jumped onto the wall. Slowly, with her crystallized nails, she gripped the wall and pulled herself up. Her body was heavy, and she was so tired, but she knew she had to try.

Papa...forgive me for looking like a fool... I've got nothing left to gamble on but this...

 

…......

 

Mikasa felt as tired as if she had been fighting for hours when she landed next to Armin on a rooftop near Wall Sina. She had only been this far inside the walls once before, and normally she would have been excited to have the opportunity to come back, but the circumstances, just like the previous trip, could not have been worse.

Clenching her jaw, Mikasa watched as Annie ran toward Wall Sina, then jumped onto it like some sort of deformed primate.

“She's fast...” Armin breathed as Mikasa pulled out a fresh pair of blades. “At this rate, sh-she'll get away...!”

“I won't let her!” Mikasa cried. She could see Eren approaching from behind her out of the corner of her eye; if there was ever a chance to take Annie down for good, this was it. The entirety of the Survey Corps was backing her up, and so was Eren. She knew she could do anything with their support.

As she shot off toward Annie, Mikasa narrowed her grey eyes. The sense of betrayal was still fresh; she felt a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. All of this was ass-backwards. Annie was supposed to be their friend. Granted, she had also been Mikasa's rival, and she’d had plenty of attitude problems to work out, but she had never seemed like the type to murder in cold blood.

What were you thinking!? Mikasa wondered as she swooped in toward Annie. Hooking into Annie's hand, Mikasa glanced down at Annie's face. A pair of familiar ice-blue eyes met hers, but the expression was one she had never seen in them before: Annie was scared.

Still, Mikasa did not hesitate, and with a clean horizontal strike, she sliced through Annie's fingers—one hand and then the other, and sent the Titan down toward the ground.

Again, Mikasa looked into Annie's eyes--the fear in her eyes had developed into downright terror, and through wisps of light blonde hair, Mikasa could see Annie, the Annie she knew. They had grown together over three years of training; it was too bad that all that time spent getting to know each other would all go to waste.

Gently, Mikasa dropped down and landed on Annie's brow, right between her eyes.

“Annie,” Mikasa murmured, looking into the girl's eyes one last time. “Fall.”

Pulling herself up to the wall again, Mikasa watched as Annie fell to the ground, crashing in a heap right in front of Eren and the Survey Corps soldiers under Hanji's command. She didn't have a chance to try to recover from the fall; Eren quickly grabbed her by the head and pushed her over onto her stomach.

He's going for the nape... Mikasa realized as she watched her childhood friend in his Titan form. A few Survey Corps soldiers were there to aid him; together they began to hack away at Annie's neck. More of them joined in, and soon Annie's Titan form was headless. Even from afar and through all of the smoke, Mikasa could make out Hanji's squad digging their weapons into the nape of Annie's neck.

Suddenly, a bright flash of light filled the area--it seemed to be coming from where Annie was hiding.

“What...?” Mikasa breathed, staring down at the scene. She could see that Eren had something in his hand now, and as the light faded, Mikasa could see what looked like a giant crystal. There seemed to be a figure inside of it; Mikasa knew that it had to be Annie.

Clenching her fists, Mikasa looked away quickly. Annie had escaped after all. They had made a mess of things in Wall Sina, and at this rate there was still no telling what would happen to Eren and the rest of the Survey Corps. Even if they had Annie's body, they still did not have answers.

“...Now what...?” Mikasa murmured, but her thoughts were interrupted by a crackling sound nearby. Glancing to her left, she watched as pieces of the damaged wall crumbled and fell to the ground. “This is bad... Pieces of the wall are falling off...” Annie's escape attempt had left some significant holes in the outer layers of the wall, and as the cracks grew, bigger and bigger chunks started to fall down.

Inside of any other wall, there might be either dark, hollow air, or more solid brick. Mikasa had never heard of a third alternative. But when she looked again at the large hole in the wall, she could quite clearly see the face of a Titan staring out from inside. It was motionless, and its heavy-lidded eyes made it look as if it was half-asleep, but the sight still made Mikasa's heart drop into her stomach.

All of this struggling for answers, and still only questions remained.

 

…......

 

Pushing a hand through her long, sweaty bangs, Hanji Zoe stared down at the crystallized Annie in front of her. She could hear one of her subordinates, Keiji, screaming and shouting as he smashed his blades against the crystal, but she did her best to ignore him. For the time being, she had to consider how they should proceed from here.

There was no doubt in Hanji's mind that Annie would have been more valuable conscious, or at least captured and secured in her Titan form. But now, there was no telling how long Annie would stay in that crystal, and there was no guarantee that she would be alive if she came out. Anyone with any common sense would declare the situation a waste of time and effort.

But, as always, Hanji wanted to think about things from a different angle. She did not want to think of this as a loss. No, she knew there had to be some use for Annie yet, even if she never came out of that crystal. They had to take advantage of the situation while they still could.

“Stop it, Keiji!” Hanji shouted at last, pushing her squad member away from Annie's crystal. “Now's not the time for this! Use the wires to make a net and tie up this crystal, hurry! She might wake up at any moment, and we'll be in trouble if she does! I need you to focus on moving this crystal someplace underground, and fast!”

“...Understood,” Keiji murmured, gingerly picking up a wire. Pursing her lips, Hanji watched her squad work in silence. They all looked frustrated, and she could understand why.

Just when I thought we finally had Annie cornered...she hid herself inside this strange crystal... Hanji thought, crossing her arms. ...Which, at the very least, is harder than iron... We don't even know if she's alive... At this rate, if we can't extract her from it, and make her tell us what she knows...what will happen to us...? The toll will be heavy...leaving a lot of unanswered mysteries in its wake... But is there even anything that we can do...?

Hanji forced her thoughts away from the negativity of their situation and turned to the other solders.

“Are the horses ready yet?!” she cried. “Hurry up!”

A loud crash behind her made Hanji whirl around; she was a bit relieved to see that it was only a piece of the wall falling and not any other chaos letting loose.

“It's dangerous here with pieces of the wall falling off,” she said to herself. “...Hn? Mikasa?”

Hanji could see Mikasa's red scarf and black hair waving in the breeze as she stayed perched on the wall. She seemed to be quite focused on something, but so much smoke had now filled up the area that Hanji could not see clearly.

“What's she still doing up there...?” Hanji murmured, taking a few steps to the side, looking around the pillar of steam coming from Eren's decaying Titan body. What she saw left her uncharacteristically speechless.

“A Titan?!” one of her subordinates gasped. “Why's there a Titan inside the wall...?!”

“I-Is it moving?!”

“Squad Leader Hanji! Your orders?!” Moblit shouted, but Hanji stayed still, eyes fixed on the Titan.

Hold on a second here... Was a Titan in this part of the wall by accident...? Or...the inside of the whole wall is packed full of Titans?! Hanji concluded, sweat once again beading on her forehead. Titans inside the wall...along the whole length of it...?

Hanji's thoughts were brought to a screeching halt as a hand suddenly gripped her shoulder. She turned her head, expecting to see one of her squad members or a fellow Survey Corps soldier, but the man standing beside her was wearing a long black robe and was sweating like a pig.

“Pastor Nick?” Hanji murmured in surprise.

“Do not...” he breathed, panting for air. “Do not let...daylight shine...on that Titan...” Hanji eyes widened as he continued, “You must block light with something, anything...from shining on that Titan....”

“Eh...?”

“You've got to hurry...!”

 

…......

 

Bianca Sertoli knew more about Titans than most people; for instance, hearing that Eren Jaeger could transform into a Titan had not surprise her the same way that it surprised other people. As a result of her knowledge, the way that she saw the world was also very different than what would be considered the norm. Her seemingly oddball approach to life made it seem like she might fit into the Survey Corps’ ranks more than the Military Police at times, but she knew that being in the Police was the right decision. Though she was one of the strongest female soldiers in her age group, she did not want to use her power to kill Titans. In fact, one of the reasons she joined the Police was so that she would not have to fight them at all.

However, unlike many of her peers in the Police, the money or comfortable lifestyle meant nothing to her. It was because of what she knew that made her want to join the Military Police. It was because of her fear of the Titans, a fear that only two people in the world truly understood.

One of those people, Claus Rasmussen, was the one standing at her side atop a house in the Stohess district as they watched the chaotic battle between Eren Jaeger and Annie Leonhardt continue. She had not noticed Annie in the Police, but she had heard the name tossed around with the higher-ranked officers. She was the only person of the southern district’s 104th class to join the Police, and now it was a little clearer as to why.

However, Bianca understood little about Annie’s motivations, like why she was fighting Eren, and why she had killed so many of the Survey Corps soldiers. Why did she reveal herself now? Something about it just didn’t make sense. Her actions seemed almost desperate—she was throwing herself right at the enemy.

Maybe there’s some kind of fear driving you, too, Bianca thought as she watched Eren chase Annie down, knocking her into a building. Even from afar, Bianca could see the shadows of Survey Corps soldiers closing in on Annie in futile attempts to assist Eren.

“They’re gonna get themselves killed,” Claus muttered.

“Do you mean the shifters, or the soldiers?” Bianca asked him.

Claus did not answer, and so the pair continued to watch the ordeal.

“I just don’t understand it,” Claus murmured a bit later. “I thought things would change…”

“Things have changed,” Bianca replied. “Just not in the way we expected. There’s still hope.”

Bianca had more to say, but before she could finish her thought, she heard a familiar voice calling her name from afar.

“Bianca! Claus!!”

Turning toward the voice, Bianca watched as Serene Hastings hopped onto the roof, coming down on her feet with a shaky landing. Her white-blonde hair was wind-swept, save for her bangs, which were pasted to her forehead with sweat. She took a few steps toward them before tottering and, to Bianca’s surprise, collapsing onto her knees.

“Serene!?” Claus gasped, running over to her. Bianca followed behind him. “Are you all right?! What happened?”

Serene did not immediately reply, and above the background noise of the Titan clash, Bianca could hear the girl sobbing.

“M-my squad is—was--!!” Serene’s voice was shaky and broken; it was then that Bianca noticed the blood on her uniform. “Th-the Female Titan came running through and…!”

“…Dammit…” Claus mumbled, kneeling down in front of Serene. “Serene, did anyone else survive?”

Serene nodded, finally looking up at the pair. Her eyes were wide and wet with tears. Bianca had never seen her cry before, and it did not suit her usual spunk and her lively personality.

“But I’m the only one without injury…” she breathed, her gaze falling to their feet. “My squad leader was also…crushed… I got the two others who were injured inside a building and then I went to find help but—I don’t know, was that the right thing to do? Should I have stayed there?” Serene put a hand to her forehead and grabbed a fistful of her hair. “I was just so scared, I shouldn’t have acted out like this…!”

“Hey, it’s all right,” Claus reassured her, putting a hand on her shoulder. “You just did what you thought was right. They’re probably safer inside.” Bianca met Claus’ gaze as he turned to her. “What should we do?”

“…” Claus was right; the injured soldiers were probably better off inside a building, but someone would have to get to them eventually. She did not want to have to send Serene back there alone, but if she got too close to the action…

“…Bianca?” Serene whispered, looking up at her.

“…Serene, join our squad for now,” Bianca responded at last. “We’ll find Bruno and report to him; we can make a decision about the other soldiers from there.”

“Is that really okay?!” Serene asked, looking incredulous.

“Your brother is picky about squad members,” Claus warned her.

“I didn’t say that this was a permanent change,” Bianca replied calmly. “This is the best solution for the time being—my brother can handle what comes next.”

 

Chapter Text

“Well, for now, we’re gonna have to make do with this,” Hanji sighed as she looked down at the giant sheet below her. It was more than conspicuous, but it was their only way of covering up the hole in Wall Sina--or, more importantly, the only way to cover up the giant Titan.

Peeling her goggles off of her sweaty face, she pushed them back onto her forehead as she continued, “Real repairs will start after sunset. For the time being, the breach is going to be filled with quick-drying filler compound. We're also strengthening the weakened parts of the wall next to the breach.”

Pastor Nick nodded; Hanji was a bit surprised he had been listening at all. The whole time that she had been talking, he had just stared down at the sheet, not moving even an inch.

They were on top of Wall Sina, and Hanji could see out for miles. Looking toward Wall Rose gave her a great view of the sunset, but looking within Wall Sina showed her the aftermath of the battle, decorated with ash and lingering flames.

“Mm, that will do,” Nick said at last, glancing up at Hanji. “Do you think any of the citizens saw this?”

“The citizens in the vicinity were avoiding this area because of the fight, but I can't guarantee that nobody saw anything,” Hanji replied, staring down at the man.

“I see...” He crouched down, kneeling with his hands gripping the edge of the wall. A hard kick would send him falling to his death, and the temptation was certainly strong.

People like this really still exist? Hanji thought, scratching the back of her head in frustration. Erwin, what the hell are we fighting for these days...?

 

“Well, that’s that!” Milena said cheerfully as Yasmin pushed the last cannon into place. “Good work today, everyone! We were about due for some nicer equipment, don’t you think?”

Yasmin could hear murmurs of agreement from around her as she stood upright, wiping the sweat from her brow. It had been another long day, but things had gone smoothly—they had reloaded all of the cannons in that district with new ammunition, as well as attached a new stabilizing rig to each. Now, any shots fired from these cannons would hit harder and more accurately.

Hopefully we won’t have to use them too much, Yasmin thought as she turned to her squad leader. Milena’s face was bright, matching the tone of her voice. She was obviously pleased with their progress today.

“All right, after you all put away your things, we can—“

“Squad Leader Gessler!”

A voice rang through the air, cutting Milena’s statement short. Yasmin turned over her shoulder to see another Garrison soldier running toward them. She had seen this girl before, but when and where she could not recall.

“I come with news from Wall Sina’s southern squad,” she said, saluting when she came to a stop right in front of Milena. “Two Titans have been reported in the Stohess district and have engaged in battle. One of them was identified as Eren Jaeger. We are still investigating the other, but it is allegedly the same Titan that decimated the Survey Corps in their latest mission.”

All around her, Yasmin could hear her squad mates whispering to one another, but instead of joining them, she looked for Rosaleen. The red-head’s eyes were wide, and she was staring at the messenger with a look of disbelief on her face. Yasmin could tell what she was thinking: Stohess was her hometown, and if Titan shifters were fighting there, it was very possible that a great portion of the area would be destroyed, and many lives would be lost.

“Commander Pyxis has ordered that this message be carried on to the western Rose squads that are under Captain Woermann’s command,” the soldier continued. “The Survey Corps and Military Police have sent their soldiers to do damage control and evacuate the citizens. We are to remain on standby until further notice. That’s all.”

“Thank you,” Milena said, her face now darkly serious. “Rosaleen, you heard Margaret—pass this on to Rico and William.”

“B-But I—they’re in the Stohess district!?” Rosaleen gasped, taking a few steps forward toward Margaret and Milena. “That’s my hometown! My parents, my grandfather—my family lives there! They could be in danger!”

“The Military Police and a small squad of Survey Corps soldiers have been charged with evacuating the citizens, as I said before,” Margaret replied, her voice calm despite the severity of the situation. Her no-nonsense attitude had not changed since the last time Yasmin saw her—two years ago when they were still in training. “You have to trust that they know how to do their jobs.”

“But I—“

“Rosaleen, this isn’t just about you!” Milena exclaimed, stepping in front of her friend, staring up at her friend with a fierce look in her dark brown eyes. The height difference between them was almost amusing, but Milena still somehow seemed intimidating and more powerful than the tall, lanky Rosaleen.

“Th-that’s not what I’m trying to say!”

“But it is! Rosaleen, an entire district could be under attack, and who knows what kind of destruction could happen because of this! But our job isn’t to worry about that, and it’s definitely not to be selfish and only worry about our own problems—our job is to help each other! You’re not the only one with people you care about out there, so suck it up and perform your duties like the soldier you supposed to be!”

Milena’s words were harsh, but she was right, and Yasmin could see by the change of expression on Rosaleen’s face that she knew it, too.

“…Okay,” the teen whispered, lowering her bright green eyes to her feet. “…I’m sorry for behaving selfishly. I will report this to the western squads immediately.”

“…You’re dismissed—all of you,” Milena said gruffly, and Yasmin brought her fist to her chest in a salute along with everyone else. As everyone else began to run off, including Rosaleen and Margaret, Yasmin approached Milena, who ran a hand through her bangs.

“I hate being the bad guy,” she muttered, shaking her head.

“You’re not a bad guy,” Yasmin reassured her. “You did the right thing.”

“Is that so?” Milena let out a weak laugh. “…Thank you. Come on, let’s get going. It’s been a long day.”

“Yeah.” Sighing through her nose, Yasmin glanced in the direction of Wall Sina; from where they were now, she couldn’t even see the innermost wall, but she could swear there was red on the horizon. She thought of her friends in the Survey Corps, and Annie, their lone friend in the Military Police. “…I hope they’re all okay.”

“Me, too,” Milena whispered, turning to face toward Stohess. “I don’t want another Johnson to die, whether they’re in the military or not.”

 

………

 

“So I think it's about time we had a talk, eh?”

Hanji glanced down at Pastor Nick, who was still staring at the cloth. However, she could tell that he was just using it as an excuse to avoid eye contact with her.

“...About what?” Nick responded. Hanji narrowed her eyes at his flippant reply.

“What is that Titan?” she asked. “Why is there a Titan inside the wall in the first place? And...why have you people kept quiet about it the whole time?” When Nick did not respond, Hanji added, “I'd like you to answer these questions.”

“I cannot do that,” Pastor Nick stated, standing at last. He brushed off his robes, glaring at Hanji over his shoulder. She could see beads of sweat on his brow in the glistening twilight sun. “I am a busy man. My church and my followers are in total disarray right now. And it is all your fault, you insolent fools. I shall make sure to demand indemnities for all the damage you have caused. Now, let me off the wall.”

“All right.”

In that moment Hanji didn't even feel like herself; she was in such a boiling rage because of this arrogant prick. She gripped Nick by the collar and swung him to the very edge of the wall, holding him out over the smoking remains of Annie and Eren's Titan forms. All that was keeping him from falling to his death was her right hand. Just one hand. That was all.

“Would you like me to let you off right here?” she asked in a low voice.

“Squad Leader!” Moblit cried.

“Stay back,” she warned him.

“What do you think you're doing?!” Pastor Nick gasped, sounding angry more than anything. His lack of fear made Hanji's frown deepen. “You're being ridiculous!”

“It's you who's being ridiculous here.” Hanji tightened her grip on Nick's collar as she continued, “You're committing a grave offense and a deadly sin against humanity by stepping on its right to life. The reason why your sect has been so vocal in your protests against the plans to reinforce the wall and build underground tunnels is what we now see in that hole, isn't it...? It was the monarchist government that granted you the right to decide matters concerning the wall, right? In other words, your little cult is not the only group of people who knows this secret... I can't even imagine how many people are in the know.

“Do you guys know the reason why we, the Survey Corps, shed our blood?” Hanji went on, her frustration only building the longer she looked into Pastor Nick's face. He showed no signs of remorse, and the temptation to just let him fall was growing. “It's to get back the freedom that Titans stole away from us. We're willing to pay for that with our lives. We've continuously put our lives on the line for a chance to make progress, however small, toward that goal--believing that someday it will pay off when humanity is finally released from the grip of its fear of the Titans! We've never managed to find any information as important as what we saw here, but even now...you're still trying to play dumb with us? Do you have any idea how many comrades we had to abandon to the fate of being devoured by Titans...? You don't, do you?”

Hanji paused a moment to catch her breath; her patience was all but extinguished. The resistance in Nick's face had not disappeared.

“And all this time, you guys have been keeping quiet about the truth... You had the nerve to keep quiet... ” she hissed, thinking of her fallen comrades as she stared the pastor down. “...Now listen up. I'm not asking you for a favor--I'm ordering you. Start talking. If you don't, I'll go find another. And I will ask him what's more important to him: keeping his life, or keeping silent. In any case, I doubt that taking only your life will be enough. Or--maybe money is the way to loosen your tongue? How much do you want?”

“Let go...of me...” Pastor Nick was now visibly sweating; Hanji glowered at him.

“Are you sure you want me to let go?” she said quietly.

“Yes...now! NOW! Let go of me!!”

The entire time Hanji had been talking, Nick had kept a death grip on her hand, but now he let go, throwing his hands out to the side and lifting his face to the sky. Though his pose looked fearless, he was shaking and whimpering, and his eyes were squeezed shut.

“Your fury is understandable,” he admitted, his voice shaking. “But it is not like we kept quiet about this out of malice! And it is not as if my life is precious enough to me to cave in. I shall prove it to you! I have already lost my family as a result of drowning myself in wine... I am but an unworthy sinner...a weak man who can only rely on god to keep living...

“But if a lowlife such as me does not talk, then you shall not get a word out of those whose faith is stronger than mine, no matter what torture you put them through! Kill me and learn this for yourself: we shall carry out our mission until the very end!”

“All right, fine,” Hanji growled. “I'll grant you the death you desire.”

“Hanji!?” Moblit screamed, sounding even more panicked than usual; Hanji ignored him and instead kept her focus on Nick. He had finally opened his eyes, and he had also begun to cry.

“Ahh...god...the blessed...” he breathed.

Without another second's delay, Hanji whirled around and slammed Pastor Nick on top of the brick behind them. He landed with a thud and a groan; she saw Moblit rush to his side as she sat down on the edge of the wall. She let out a quiet laugh as she pulled her goggles back down onto her face; the world certainly looked much different from behind them.

“Kidding, just kidding...” she chuckled as she stared out into Wall Sina. “...Say, Pastor Nick, is the whole length of the wall filled with Titans?”

Pastor Nick did not reply; he was still letting out pathetic whines from his spot on the wall. Hanji let out a small laugh through her nose; she hadn't noticed until that moment, but she had been shaking, too.

“Squad Leader?” Moblit said quietly, appearing beside Hanji.

“Mm... I just remembered something that I had long since forgot...the feeling that I stopped experiencing after my first expedition to the outside world...”

Hanji stared out at the Stohess district; memories of her days in training flooded her head, and a bitter smile appeared on her lips.

“How scary...”

 

…......

 

“So it's pretty safe to assume that Eren's summoning to the king is cancelled, right?”

“Yes...”

Armin was Eren's best friend; anyone who knew them could quickly figure this out. But he had grown close to Jean Kirschstein as well, and so when Jean asked that question--one that had such an obvious answer--Armin knew it was just a way to break the silence so that he could say what was on his mind.

Armin and Jean were with Mikasa and an unconscious Eren back in the basement of the Survey Corps headquarters, and though several hours had now passed since their homecoming, and though they had all finally gotten a decent night's sleep, Eren had not yet woken up. He had passed out soon after being pulled out of his Titan, and there was nothing left to do but wait for him to regain consciousness again.

Sure enough, Jean continued his voice his thoughts, despite the heavy atmosphere in the room already. But Armin knew that Jean despised awkward silences,

“But that... It pales in comparison to all the other things that happened,” he muttered. “Annie really turned out to be that Female Titan, going all Titan-mode in the middle of town, causing havoc like that--and then going into a deep sleep right after without a word of explanation...and then...you discovered...that there are Colossal Titans inside Wall Sina, right?”

“...Yes,” Armin murmured in reply. “They've been standing inside that wall for at least 100 years...and I think they're going to take a walk soon...all at once...”

Jean suddenly let out a loud laugh, and Armin felt a hand come down on top of his head.

“Armin, that was a joke, eh?” Jean said, mussing Armin's hair. “Good one! That's our Armin for ya!”

“Jean,” Mikasa said, interrupting the ruckus. She held a finger to her lips, glancing at Eren. “Not so loud.”

“Ah, s-sorry,” Jean stammered. Armin glanced up to see him red in the face. “I forgot...”

“You know, those walls... I could never figure out how they were built in the first place,” Armin admitted, sitting up in his seat on the end of Eren's bed. “There are no brick joints, or traces of peeling, or other things like that...”

It was true--the wall was a solid stone, as if it had come straight down from the sky, or up from the earth, already constructed into its perfectly circular shape. And from what Armin had witnessed, all of the walls were the same.

“But now I wonder--maybe it was made by using those Titans' hardening abilities... That power could have a lot of applications, just like with Annie crystallizing herself...” Armin's eyes widened as he reached his conclusion. “That means...that we've always been protected from Titans by Titans...”

The room fell into a heavy silence once again, and Armin felt his friends staring at him. But he didn't care--he knew he was on to something.

“Is that a joke, too?” Jean asked, any signs of humor in his voice now long gone. “'Cause it sure ain't funny.”

Before Armin could figure out how to respond, he was interrupted by the door opening. A veteran Survey Corps soldier stood in the doorway; it was someone Armin had never met before.

“Armin Arlert, come with me,” she said. “Commander Erwin asks that you attend the meeting.”

“Y-yes, understood,” Armin replied, quickly hopping off of Eren's bed and sliding on his shoes.

“Well...I think I'll be going up to the surface, too,” Jean announced, stretching his arms above his head. “Being in this damp basement can depress anyone... We'd better get out of here, huh?”

Jean's statement sounded as if he was talking to the group, but Armin knew the comment was meant for Mikasa. She was still sitting at Eren's side; she had not moved from that chair since coming back from Stohess.

“Mikasa?” the soldier said, peering into the room at the teen. “I think it might be best if you also attend the meeting.”

“No, I...” Mikasa glanced at the woman, then met eyes with Armin. He could tell that it would take more than a commanding officer's order to get her to leave now. “I'd better stay here.”

Luckily, the soldier did not push the issue.

“I see,” was all she said before slowly pulling the door closed. Armin glanced back at Mikasa, waving goodbye; in return she gave him a look that seemed a bit exasperated. But Armin could see right through her: she had appreciated having his company.

As Armin followed the soldier and Jean down the dark hallways of the castle basement, his thoughts shifted back to the information about the wall and the upcoming meeting with Commander Erwin. He knew that other people would be there, too--most likely angry citizens of Wall Sina coming to voice their various complaints--but Armin knew that the real reason for this meeting was something much different. He had been invited to join because this was simply a follow-up to the meeting they had had before trying to capture Annie. After all, Armin had since established a new ally.

I wonder what will come out of all of this--and if I made the right decision, Armin thought, lowering his gaze as he thought back to his first encounter with Bruno Sertoli.

That man had said some things that struck Armin, but most of all was the statement, “Change requires sacrifice.” It seemed to be a common theme with Commander Erwin as well, and if he was any kind of example of that ideology in action, Armin could only imagine what Bruno was capable of from his position in the Military Police.

Commander Erwin will definitely want to meet Bruno now--after all that's happened, Armin realized. The thought of them meeting admittedly scared him and excited him all at once. Both were incredibly intelligent men, and neither one was afraid of using that intellect to accomplish big things. Neither one was afraid of change--neither one feared sacrifice.

If this proved to be true, then together what would they accomplish? Would things in this world finally start to change for the better? It certainly seemed likely, especially with the newly added information about the truth of the construction of the walls.

Armin had never been particularly fond of the government; he was still quite bitter about the mission of 846 (if one could even call it a “mission”), and things had not changed much since then. But maybe, just maybe, if the military regiments could work together, they would be able to not only change the government, but also find a way to eliminate the threat of the Titans for good.

...It's not going to be that easy, Armin told himself. But still...Commander Erwin and Bruno Sertoli most likely know much more than they let on. If that knowledge can be used for something...

“All right, Armin, I'll see you later,” Jean said, jerking Armin out of his thoughts.

“Y-Yeah, see you,” Armin replied, absentmindedly waving goodbye to Jean as he turned down a different hallway.

...And if they can't do anything...what will become of the rest of us? Armin then wondered. ...That much I do know: this will all become our responsibility.

 

 

Chapter Text

“Armin, please answer this question as honestly as you can,” Erwin said quietly, staring at the young man sitting across from him. The only other person left in the room now was Hanji, but that was just fine--Erwin trusted her more than anyone. He knew she could take a secret to the grave if need be, and in this case, she might have to. “Do you think it's possible that Bruno Sertoli knew this would happen?”

“...I suppose it depends on what you mean by 'this,'” Armin replied after a brief pause. “I’ve only met him once, so I don't know much about him--only that he is an elite soldier in the Military Police, and that he seems to have a very similar way of thought as you, Sir. I can't say anything for sure, but if we were to assume that Bruno knew that Annie was a Titan shifter, then it is important that we understand why he decided to keep silent about it.”

Armin stopped speaking for a moment, crossing his arms as he collected his thoughts. Erwin watched him carefully; there was obviously a lot going through his mind, but Erwin needed to know--could Bruno Sertoli really be their ally?

He had heard the name once or twice in passing, and always from Nile, who seemed to think of the man as an eccentric. Never once had there been any comment about Bruno's attitude toward the structure of the Military Police or the government, but that did not necessarily mean anything.

“But, I don't think it's likely that Bruno specifically knew about Annie specifically,” Armin finally continued. “It's very likely that he suspected something might happen involving Eren and another Titan shifter, though, considering our last mission...”

Erwin was about to cut in with another question, but the boy beat him to it.

“And if that's the case, then that means Bruno Sertoli most likely knew that Titan shifters existed before the rest of us did,” Armin concluded. “In other words, he has access to information that others can't get to.”

“That could explain why he's so selective with his squad members,” Erwin murmured, thinking back to what little he did know about Bruno. “...Armin, thank you. You're dismissed.”

“...Commander? Do you really think he could become our ally?”

Erwin smiled, running a hand through his hair.

“We'll see soon enough,” he replied, glancing at Hanji. She gave him a smile and a shrug, then turned back toward the window, not saying a single word.

 

“Oh?”

At the sound of the familiar voice, Levi glanced over his shoulder to see Catherine Müller standing in the doorway, peering into the empty mess hall. Well, technically, it wasn't completely empty, but aside from Levi, no one had been around in hours. But now, for whatever reason, Catherine had joined him.

“I see I'm not the only one pulling an all-nighter, huh?” Catherine said quietly, walking into the room. She pulled the door shut behind her with one hand; the other hand held a coffee-stained mug.

“What are you still up for?” Levi asked, taking a sip of his tea as he watched Catherine walk over to the sink. She was several meters away from him now, but her voice was still loud and clear.

“Studying--the usual,” she replied, grimacing. “Not that I'm not grateful for having something to do, but it is a bit tiring to do everything on my own.”

“...Why don't you just teach someone else?” Levi muttered, trying not to wince as he sat up in his chair. It had been over a week now, but his leg was still not in the best shape, and using his gear before it was fully healed had probably not been the best decision. Still, he knew it could have been much worse.

“You know, Rowen said the same thing,” Catherine murmured as she began to wash out her cup. “It's scary that you two are thinking along the same lines.”

“What's scary is that you hadn't thought of it yourself yet. It's an obvious solution to your problem.”

“...This is true...” Catherine glanced at Levi. “But I don't know where I should start in the material, or even who to start with.”

“That's your problem,” Levi told her, taking another sip of tea.

Catherine said nothing in reply; Levi didn't mind. He didn't necessarily find her irritating, but he had intended to spend the night in silence. The isolation was something that he felt he needed desperately, but he had yet to spend any real time by himself since their mission in the forest. He suspected Erwin and Hanji were to blame.

The room fell silent once again as Catherine shut off the water at the sink.

“...I'm sorry...about your squad...”

Catherine's voice was barely above a whisper, but in that quiet room, Levi heard her loud and clear.

“Apologizing won't change anything,” he murmured, staring at the table in front of him.

“I'm not trying to change anything.” Catherine's no-nonsense tone startled Levi, enough to make him look at her. She was staring him down, and the expression on her face was complex. “I'm just saying that I'm sorry.” Turning away from him, Catherine put her mug on the drying rack next to the sink and grabbed a plate from the pile of dirty dishes leftover from dinner. “You're not the only one who knew them.”

...That's right, Levi thought, recalling the many times he had seen Catherine and Rowen interacting with members of his old squad. They knew each other somehow.

“...How did you know them?” Levi asked. Catherine paused a moment, then glanced back at Levi. She seemed hesitant; her reaction made Levi even more curious.

“...Rowen shared a room with Eld and Gunther when we were in training,” Catherine told him at last. “Some nights, I would sneak in to hang out with Rowen, and they were always so nice about it. They didn't seem to care that we were breaking all kinds of rules...” Levi watched as Catherine's expression softened. “They were good people. We met Petra and Auruo through them, too, after we joined the Survey Corps. And...they were good people, too.”

I know. I know they were good people. Levi wanted to say it, but he couldn't bring himself to say anything at all. He was still full of bitterness about their deaths, and as much as he insisted that the past was not worth dwelling on, he found himself wanting to hear their voices, or see their smiles--anything, even if it was only one more time. He had not even had a chance to say goodbye.

“...Well, I guess it could have been worse,” Catherine said suddenly, tearing Levi from his thoughts.

“What the hell do you mean, 'it could have been worse'?” Levi couldn't help but get angry at her comment. What was worse than dying, especially as horribly as they did? None of them had deserved that kind of end, not a single one of them.

“I mean, at least you know where they are, right? You know what happened to them, right?” As Catherine spoke, she kept her eyes locked on the dishes she was cleaning. “So you can have closure. That's a good thing.”

“...”

He hated to admit it, but she did have a point. Knowing almost exactly how his squad had died was horrible, yes, but at least he wouldn’t have to wonder where they were, and he would not have to worry about them anymore. Had he not found their bodies by chance, eventually he would have probably had to abandon them to whatever fate may have awaited them, and that did not seem like the right decision for a captain to make.

But her attitude about this--Levi sensed that it was a little different than his way of thinking. Granted, Catherine certainly did have an unusual way of looking at things sometimes, but that was usually related to her intellect and studies. This was different.

“...So the fact that they're dead and gone doesn't bother you as much as not having closure?” Levi asked. Catherine tilted her head, humming a low note.

“...Mmm...that might be...what I mean...?”

You can be such a shit sometimes, Levi thought, turning away from Catherine and back to his tea. You shouldn't have said anything at all.

“So is that why you chose to join the Survey Corps? Because even if your companions die, it's not so bad because ‘at least you know happened’?”

“That's not it at all,” Catherine said, shaking her head. “It still hurts when someone dies, whether they were in the Survey Corps or not. I knew that before I joined--my brother died in the 846 mission.”

Great. Now I sound like an asshole.

“I joined so that I could make a difference and learn more about the world--both what's inside the walls and outside. I couldn't do that in the Military Police.”

“Is that what you originally planned to do?” Levi asked. “Join the Police?”

“Yes, both Rowen and I wanted to join the Military Police at first. But I think...we both learned a lot during training.” Catherine's voice grew quiet again, and Levi had to really pay attention to hear her above the running water. “We grew up in Wall Sina, where it's impossible to learn anything outside of the government-issued textbooks you get in school. Even after we became teachers, we were limited in what we could learn, and we were thus limited in what we could do to help humanity...”

Catherine let out a quiet laugh, turning off the water again. Levi raised an eyebrow; she had managed to clean the rest of the dishes in the span of their conversation.

“But anyway, that's enough of that,” she declared, wiping her hands on a nearby towel. “Sorry to disturb you, Captain Levi--”

“Just Levi,” Levi told her, taking another sip of his tea. As he watched Catherine slowly fold the towel, he added, “You've been in the Corps almost five years now, and we see each other almost every day. You don't have any reason to be so goddamn formal around me.”

“...All right.” Placing the towel to the side, Catherine took her mug off of the drying rack and sighed quietly. “Have it your way.”

“Of course I will--I outrank you.”

Levi smirked as Catherine's expression turned to one of frustration.

“...Have a good night, Levi,” she said at last, walking past him toward the door. “Try to get some sleep.”

“...Thank you.”

For some reason, the words just fell from Levi's lips without any warning. It felt a little odd to thank her; some of the things she had said made no sense, and he had not wanted to be bothered by anyone in the first place.

And yet, her company had somehow made him a bit more at ease. Perhaps it was what she had said--that there was a possibility for closure. Maybe she'd had a point, and maybe that was something that Levi had needed to hear.

“...” Levi could sense Catherine pause behind him, but soon she slipped out of the room, and again Levi was left alone, with only his thoughts for company.

 

…......

 

Heaving a loud sigh, Connie stared out of the window of the safe house, his head resting in his palm. He watched with heavy-lidded eyes as clouds rolled lazily through the bright blue sky; they looked as listless as he felt.

They had been hanging out for days in this safe house, but Connie had no idea why. Why wouldn't they be allowed to participate in Survey Corps activities as normal? What had they all done wrong? They didn't even have access to their three-dimensional maneuvering gear --not even their regiment jackets. It just didn't make any sense.

But he had since grown tired of thinking about it; every theory he had come up with led to a dead end. So instead, he just sat with his friends and stared up at the sky.

“...My village isn't far from this place,” Connie declared after a few more minutes of silence. He had to start conversation; he would go nuts if someone didn't talk soon. Reiner and Bertholdt were wrapped up in a chess game, and Sasha, like him, was staring out the window, half-asleep.

“My hometown is close by as well,” Sasha replied.

“We've come all the way to the southern district of Wall Rose, but we're not even allowed to go and visit our families...” Connie went on. “It's not like we have anything we have to do, anyway...”

“We just keep spending day after day lazing around like this...” Sasha agreed, her lackluster tone matching Connie's.

“Well, damn...maybe we should just slip out at night?” Connie suggested.

“Ehh?” He felt Sasha's gaze on him. “Do you want to go to your village that badly? I was told not to come back until after I became a decent human being, you know...”

“And I was told that there was no way a midget like me could become a soldier,” Connie countered, smirking. “But I'm a genius--and I've become a real soldier, and I even managed to place in the top ten of our class. They all would look at me in awe if I went back to my village.” Connie's smile then faded as he added, “I'd like to go back, if just for a little more...while I'm still alive.

“Connie... If you're serious about all of that, I'll help you out.”

“Eh?” Connie turned toward Reiner, who was staring at him with a very intent and sincere gaze. “Why?”

“...Don't you find it odd that we were ordered to stand by in civilian clothes? They even specified that we aren’t allowed to wear our uniforms or train...” Reiner's gold eyes flicked away from Connie impatiently. “We're soldiers, for crying out loud! Why would they order us to do that? But even more than that is our superiors: unlike us, they're all fully equipped and ready for battle. But this place isn't the front lines--we're in the territory inside the walls! Just what are they preparing to fight?!”

“Hnnn...” Connie glanced at Sasha, who looked at him with the same sort of bored expression; nothing had happened yet, so there was no point in making such a fuss. They were veterans for a reason--they knew what they were doing. Hopefully.

“Well, there are bears in this region,” Connie finally replied.

“Ah, yeah. Bears,” Sasha echoed.

“If they're going to fight bears, guns would be more than enough,” Reiner argued. “Nobody understands what's going on, and so everybody is anxious. You two are the only ones among us who are still so carefree. ...I wonder what reaction our superiors would have if you did happen to slip out...”

“...” Connie didn’t know how to respond; luckily, Sasha chose that moment to draw attention to herself by plopping her head down on the table, sighing. She stayed like that for a moment before suddenly sitting up again, grabbing Reiner's arm.

“What the--?!” she gasped, eyes wide. “I hear rumbling…it sounds like heavy footsteps!!”

“Hah?” Connie grunted, staring at his friend. “What are you saying, Sasha?”

“If you're trying to say that there are Titans somewhere close by, then that means...Wall Rose has fallen...” Reiner murmured, causing Connie to break out in a cold sweat.

 

…......

 

Mike had never really thought of himself as special for being a veteran soldier in the Survey Corps, or for his heightened sense of smell. He had been the strongest soldier in the Corps until Levi came along, but being “replaced” or “outranked” didn't bother him at all. Actually, he had high respect and admiration for Captain Levi and wanted to be more like him out in the field.

There were two main reasons why Mike was satisfied with his position in the Corps, and the first of these was Erwin Smith. The Commander had always treated Mike with more respect that he thought he deserved, even when they had been trainees together. Mike had always found Erwin easy to get along with, and he trusted him with his life. In return, Erwin trusted Mike with information, and he also did his best to make use of Mike's sensitive nose. Mike had never been so grateful to someone before; it felt good to know that he was needed.

The other reason that Mike wanted nothing more for himself was his squad. They were a special squad, just like Levi's Special Operations Squad had been, and Mike had hand-picked all of them. Some of his subordinates even had squads of their own, like Gelgar and Nanaba. And every single one of them treated Mike with respect. They had survived a lot together, and Mike was glad that he had lived as long as he had; he had gotten to know some amazing people through the years.

The idea of this life being disrupted made Mike angry and also a little scared, but he never admitted this to anyone. He just did not see the use in doing so. Instead, he wanted to use his energy fighting to avoid losing anything or anyone else to the Titans.

On the day that Titans appeared within the confines of Wall Rose, Mike was the first to sense it. His nose picked up the scent of Titans from far off; he wished he was wrong, but there was no mistaking that odor.

“Mike?” Nanaba murmured as Mike quickly walked to the other side of the look-out tower.

“Toma!” he exclaimed as he turned toward the direction of the Titans. He couldn't see them yet, but he was certain that they were on their way.

“Yes?” Toma replied, sounding hesitant.

“Take the fastest horse we have and report this to the Commanders: there were no Titans among the 104th graduates! A large number of Titans are invading from the South! Wall Rose...has been breached!”

Mike turned to look at his squad members--these two had been with him from the beginning, and together they had been through so much, but he could tell by the looks on their faces that they had not expected this outcome, either.

“Go!” Mike commanded, and Toma quickly saluted before taking off on his gear. Nanaba stood motionless before Mike, her face pallid.

“Mike...” she mouthed.

“Don't just stand there,” he said, turning toward his most trusted soldier. “I thought you knew better than to freeze up in the face of danger.”

“...But Erwin said--”

“Erwin was wrong,” Mike murmured, and Nanaba hung her head. “...I know. I can't believe it, either. But I'm not wrong.”

Again, Mike glanced toward the horizon; the scent was slowly but surely growing stronger. He didn't know how it happened, or where the breach could be, but he knew the current situation was enough to warrant action.

“I'm entrusting the new recruits to you,” Mike declared, turning back to Nanaba. She nodded, a fierce look returning to her pale blue eyes. “They don't have gear or weapons to protect themselves, so it's going to be your job to take care of them.”

“I will,” Nanaba replied, saluting to Mike. “We'll begin evacuating them now.”

“Go,” Mike said with a nod. “I trust you.”

 

…......

 

If it's not one thing, it's another, Nanaba thought as she hopped off of the lookout tower. Gracefully, she swung herself onto the roof of the safe house with her gear, then jumped down to the nearest window. She threw it open to find the 104th kids staring at one of their peers as she shouted at them, “I'm sure! I heard it!”

“Is everybody here?” Nanaba interrupted; the girl whirled around, hazel eyes wide.

“Squad Leader Nanaba?!” one of the other girls gasped. They all look bewildered, and Nanaba knew she had to keep her cool, for their sake.

“There is a large number of Titans approaching from the south, about 500 meters out--and they're heading here. You don't have time to put on all of your gear. Instead, get on your horses, and go around the neighboring villages and evacuate the villagers, now. Is that clear?”

Nanaba did her best to try to ignore the stunned expressions of the new recruits. She knew how frightened they all must be. After all, she had faced that fear many times before, too. It was capable of paralyzing you, of changing you. She knew what they were going through.

“F-from the South...?” one of the boys murmured.

“This means...the wall was destroyed...?” another said to a friend.

Nanaba had to raise her voice to be heard above the clamor.

“Unfortunately, you'll have to postpone your mid-afternoon snacks until you're finished with this job,” she told them, trying to stay as casual as possible. “Now, get a move on! You won't be able to laze around if you're dead!”

As the new recruits rushed away from their chairs, Nanaba turned and shot a hook up toward the roof. With her back now to the kids, she gritted her teeth, running a hand through her short, sweaty blonde hair. She pulled herself up on her wire and hopped back up onto the roof; Mike was already there, as if he had been waiting for her.

“Mike,” she called out, running toward him. “The Titans' current position...?”

“Right in front of us,” he answered. “At least, as far as my nose can tell...” Mike sniffed the air quietly, then added, “There are nine of them in the immediate vicinity.”

Nanaba pursed her lips; Mike's ability to sniff out Titans had always been such a mystery to her, but she never questioned him. He had yet to steer them in the wrong direction or lead them astray, and they had been fighting together for over five years.

“That means the wall was destroyed...again...” Nanaba concluded

“Yeah...” Mike replied, his voice quiet. There was a sadness to his voice that Nanaba had never heard before, and it made her nervous.

“Should we hunt them down...?” she asked hesitantly. “If the Trost district or the Nedlay district had been breached, we would have known... But if a part of the wall other than the gates has been destroyed, then the scale of the damage is basically unknown... And even if only the gate was destroyed, there are no boulders big enough around this area, so even if we could get him here, Eren couldn't plug up the gap...”

Nanaba paused a moment to catch her breath; Mike did not interrupt her.

“...In other words...the worst possible scenario that we could have imagined is taking place right now...as we speak... As it stands, Wall Rose will be lost...”

As the full weight of reality hit her at last, Nanaba sunk onto one knee, holding her hand over her mouth. She felt nauseous; this was not how she had imagined her last moments would be at all.

“We...failed to find out the true identity of the Colossal and Armored Titans...” she went on, dragging her hand down her face as she stared into the distance. “And we failed to learn what other fighting power the enemies have at their disposal... The day has come: we...no, the whole human race has...lost.”

Nanaba covered her mouth again, fighting tears as her gaze sank to the roof. Were they really so powerless? Were the past five years of rising success only a ruse?

“No...not yet.”

Nanaba glanced up at Mike; his light blue eyes were looking down past her. She turned to see the new recruits scrambling to saddle their horses, doing their best to keep collected despite the obvious dangers inevitably awaiting them.

“We will have lost only when humans give up and stop fighting,” Mike declared, his voice strong. “As long as they keep on fighting, our defeat is not certain.”

“...We really can't apologize enough to the 104th class...” Nanaba murmured, smiling bitterly as she watched the recruits pull their horses out of the stables. “Because of our doubts, they're left defenseless in this kind of situation...all because we failed to predict that things would turn out this way...”

Sighing loudly, Nanaba wiped the sweat from her face and pushed herself up to her feet again.

“...I can't let them see me like this,” she muttered, standing beside Mike.

“Well then...let's fight.”

 

…......

 

“Once that group of Titans reaches the forest, we'll split up! But before that, we need to divide into four squads so we can spread out and evacuate the surrounding villages!”

Sasha had to really concentrate to hear Mike's voice above the thundering hooves of the horses around her, as well as her own heartbeat pounding in her ears. Encountering Titans was bad enough, fighting them was even worse--but not having the gear to make a quick getaway was just downright cruel. What kind of sick karma was this, anyway?

“There will be squads composed of both 104th members and armed soldiers divvying up to the north, the east, the west, and the south,” Mike continued. “You all are to avoid engaging the Titans to the best of your ability and instead prioritize spreading the word about the breach. How you do it is up to each of you! Once you come across people or settlements, split up accordingly and keep moving! Furthermore, the southern squad will have an additional task of locating destroyed settlements! Therefore, we will need more people in that squad than the other three! Is there anyone who his familiar with this area?”

“Y-Yes!” Sasha exclaimed, hesitantly raising her hand. “I was born in a village in the forests just to the north of here! I know the terrain of the area well!”

What am I doing?! she asked herself. Did I just volunteer myself--!?

“Ah, and Connie, too...” she added quickly, turning to her friend. His normally tanned skin was pale and covered with sweat. “Connie?!”

“My village is located to the south of here...in the direction the Titans are coming from...” he murmured, eyes wide. Sasha could see the worry written all over his face, but before she could say anything to comfort him, he added, “I can guide you to the nearby villages. After I do, though...please let me go back to my village. The Titans have most likely passed through it...and there's probably nothing I can do anymore, but...I must...go back anyway...”

Sasha couldn't help but feel proud of Connie in that moment. She knew he could be even worse than him when it came to showing cowardice, but he had risen up to a challenge that she had volunteered him for.

I should be more like him, she thought as she turned to face forward again.

“All right, I'll leave the south squad to you,” Mike said.

“Connie. I'm coming with you.” Sasha glanced over to see Reiner staring Connie down intently.

“But...the South is probably the most dangerous of all...” Connie warned him. “There are lots of Titans wandering around there...”

“What are you going on about? I already told you earlier that I'd help you if you wanted to go back to your village, remember?” Reiner turned to Bertholdt, who looked even more nervous than usual. “And what are you gonna do, Bertholdt? I'm not gonna force you or anything, but we do need more people on the south squad.”

Bertholdt hesitated, as usual. Sasha was glad to know she wasn't the only one feeling hesitant about all of this still.

“Of course,” Bertholdt finally replied, his gaze anxious. “I'll go with you, too.”

 

Chapter Text

“C'mon, stop it already,” Ymir said, a hand placed on her hip as she stared down Sasha.

“Eh?”

“I mean that stupid overly-polite way of speaking. Why use it even when you're talking to your peers?”

“Umm...well...I...do not really...”

“Wait...lemme venture a guess: you're embarrassed of your home village's dialect, right?”

“...” Sasha couldn't lie; Ymir was right on the money. She had hoped to lose that unsophisticated way of speaking altogether once joining the military, but even using polite speech every day, it still didn't come to her naturally.

“Bulls-eye, eh?” Ymir peered into her face, looking as smug as ever. “You're surprisingly sensitive--for a dumbass. You don't know anything besides how to hunt, and you're afraid of the world and the people in it, right? I bet your reason for becoming a soldier is just as pathetic and stupid. Like...your parents...?”

“You're taking this too far, Ymir,” Krista jumped in before Sasha could even try to defend herself.

“Sasha!” Ymir exclaimed, playfully knocking Krista in the head with the side of her own. “Do you always wanna live hiding behind a mask you put on for the sake of others?! That's unbelievably stupid! You're you! And there's nothing wrong with that! Speak however you want, dammit!”

Of all the people to defend her, Ymir would have been Sasha's last guess. And yet here she was, listening to Ymir tell her that it was okay to be from a small place and live a simple life--as long as she was true to herself, none of that mattered.

“I-I am...grateful...” Sasha murmured, lowering her gaze to the ground.

“Huh?” Ymir grunted, glaring at Sasha.

“I mean...thanks,” Sasha correct herself quickly, scratching the back of her head. “It will...It'll still take some time to get used to speaking simply...”

 

Despite the strength of sense of smell and his ability to sense Titans, Mike did not always understand their actions, and he usually relied on Hanji for those kinds of explanations. Being out on the battlefield without her--or Erwin or Levi, for that matter--was a bit disconcerting.

Still, there was nothing he could do but keep pressing forward, even if he had to do it on his own. The moment the Titans reached the forest, Mike instructed his squads to split up; but at that same moment, the Titans broke out into a sprint toward them. Mike had never seen this kind of unusual behavior before, and the prognosis was not good. At the rate the Titans were coming at them, they would all soon be in great danger.

And so, Mike made the decision to fight the Titans on his own and act as bait so that the others could escape.

For most soldiers, that kind of action would be suicidal, but Mike was different. He was strong in both body and mind, and nine Titans was a welcome challenge for him. Granted, it would not be easy, but he knew that as long as he was careful, he could survive.

Mike led the Titans toward the now-empty safe house--a perfect area for utilizing his 3D gear. Making sure to preserve both his blades and his gas, he took down five of the nine Titans without causing too much damage to the area, or to himself.

Four more to go... Mike told himself as he looked down at the Titans from the roof of the safe house. He watched as the biggest of the remaining Titans stared him down; the others didn't seem nearly as concerned with him. No...now's my chance... I bought enough time for all the squads to get pretty far away from here.

Leaving now would be the safest bet. The other Titans weren't posing any immediate threat now, and there was no point in hanging around when there were likely plenty of other more dangerous Titans running amok. Nodding to himself, Mike put his fingers to his lips and whistled.

Now I just need my horse to come back, and I can leave here, he thought, glancing to his left. There was one other Titan that didn't seem as interested in Mike as it should, but that was not the only odd thing about it. It was covered in hair, and it more closely resembled an ape rather than a human.

It's just...that deviant class really worries me... There's something strange about it.. It's at least seventeen meters tall...? Or maybe even taller... In any case, it's huge... This is the first time I've seen a Titan whose body is covered with hair like an animal... Mike stared at the Titan as it slowly lumbered around, swinging its long arms in stride.

It's just strolling around, acting like he doesn't notice me... Yes, it's definitely a deviant class...

Mike perked up at the sound of beating hooves, and when he shifted his gaze past the deviant Titan, he could see a horse running toward him.

“Oh!” he gasped. “All right, my horse is coming back... Good boy.”

Now I won't have to hold out here until nightfall, Mike thought, feeling relieved. By then, it would be quite difficult to track his squads.

But Mike's thoughts were interrupted abruptly; he watched in horror and amazement as the deviant Titan reached down and snatched his horse. He could hear the poor thing whinny as it struggled in the Titan's grip.

“Wha--?! He went after my horse!? No way! He can't be...?!”

It was for only a second, but Mike made eye contact with the deviant Titan; it almost seemed to be laughing at him, like this was all some sort of game. Luckily, Mike was sharp, and as the Titan chucked the horse in his direction, he jumped aside to dodge the blow.

However, the impact of the horse's body slamming into the roof forced Mike off of the roof altogether, and the next thing he knew, he was staring into the gigantic eyes of one of the smaller Titans he had yet to finish off. Before he could react, before he could even begin fight back, the Titan grabbed him and forced his leg into its mouth.

Still gripping the handles of his three-dimensional maneuvering gear's blades, Mike screamed as the Titan bit down into him. He could feel the bones in his leg crunching; the pain drained his strength and made him so light-headed that for a moment, he saw double and had to close his eyes. Was this really going to be his end? There was no way he could use his gear now, not with his leg so mangled--and that was assuming he could get out of this Titan's mouth before it ate him alive.

“Wait.”

Mike could hardly believe he heard another voice--but something about it sounded odd. It was definitely had a humanoid quality to it, but it sounded somewhat loud--and there was no way anyone else was hiding out around here.

When Mike opened his eyes again, he was shocked to see that the deviant Titan was crouching down next to him; he was staring right at him again. Before Mike could react, the smaller Titan bit down on his legs again, and he cried out in pain.

“Eh? Just now...I told you to wait, didn't I?”

Stunned, Mike watched as the deviant Titan reached down and grabbed the smaller Titan by its head. With a strong squeeze that Mike could practically hear, the deviant Titan crushed the smaller Titan's skull in just a few seconds. Finally free from the Titan's grasp, Mike fell to the ground, covered in his own warm blood and shaking in terror. As the deviant made a noise of disgust, Mike watched the smaller Titan collapse to the ground, one of its giant eyeballs popping right out of its skull. In all his years as a soldier, Mike had never seen anything so revolting before.

“What is that weapon?” There was no doubt now--that deviant class could talk, and it was addressing him. “The one on your hips that allows you to jump around, I mean.”

Mike couldn't bring himself to speak. He was in so much pain that his mind felt numb, and now this giant deviant Titan was talking to him in coherent sentences. His leg was definitely broken, so there was no running away now; the only thing left to do was to talk to this Titan and see what kind of information he could get.

But Mike was paralyzed, both physically and mentally. He could only continue to watch the deviant Titan as he quaked in terror; the Titan was waiting for his response, he could tell, but Mike's throat had gone dry.

“Hmmmm... I was pretty sure we both spoke the same language...or are you so frightened that you can't speak...? Oh?” The Titan leaned in closer, and Mike felt himself backing away. “I see you use something that looks like swords, huh? Then you must have some idea about what's in the nape of our necks? Oh well. It doesn't matter. If I just bring it back with me...”

Mike's body shook so hard that even his vision was blurring; the Titan was reaching down toward him. Abandoning his dignity, Mike curled up into a ball and held his hands over his head, fearing that these would be his last moments.

But to his surprise, the deviant Titan only wanted the little gas pack on his back. It plucked off the mechanism, not even bothering to take his blades, or him.

Panting, Mike stared up at the beast for a moment, then shifted his gaze back to the ground. There was really no way out of here now. He was going to be stuck here, and with the way his legs were mangled, even if he did escape, he would not be able to fight again.

“We will have lost only when humans give up and stop fighting. As long as they keep on fighting, our defeat is not certain.”

Those were his own words, and now look--here he was, shaking like a coward. He had not joined the Survey Corps so he could give up and die. No, he joined so that he could fight.

Finding his strength again, Mike gripped the handles of his blades, pointing them toward the deviant Titan. He knew it was hopeless, but he had to keep fighting.

“Ah, now you're free to do with him what you want.”

At these words, the remaining Titans in the area suddenly burst into action. They came thundering toward Mike, who was still holding his sword, dumbfounded.

“NOOOO!” he screamed as one of the Titans grabbed him by the arm. “STOOOP!”

Mike's feet left the ground again, and the last thing he saw was a red-orange twilit sky, blurred with his own cowardly tears.

 

…......

 

It's been three years since I left my village, and I haven't been back since...

As she rode her horse down the familiar trails toward her hometown, Sasha sighed through her nose and looked around. It seemed as though everything had been deserted--not a soul was in sight, not even anyone out for a hunt. She had gone off on her own in hopes of finding at least one person from her village around, but in the end, she had only forced herself into isolation. Everything around her was eerily quiet.

The reason why soon became quite clear; glancing down, Sasha could see a Titan's footprint on the dirt path. She slowed her horse, and her eyes followed the trail of footsteps into the forest.

No! Titans have already made it here!? she thought, her heart plummeting into her stomach. Does this mean the Titans that appeared in the South weren't the vanguard...? I can't believe they've already made it so far into human territory... Was it an Abnormal...?

Sasha knew this area quite well, and in her head she could clearly see where the Titan would have had to come from in order to make it this far so quickly. But it just didn't make sense.

But before she could continue to consider all of the possibilities, Sasha noticed something else quite odd. Just a few hundred meters away was a small village that she had never seen around here before.

That is...a new village...? But if the wall has fallen...humans won't be able to live on this land any longer... And I...won't be able to return to my village anymore...

Sasha did not consider herself brave or strong; however, she knew that the military-trained version of her was an improvement on her old self. Before entering training, she had been an immature, selfish child who knew nothing about any other way of life outside of her own. She had joined the military partially because her father had been frustrated with her and wanted her to grow up, but she also joined so that she could secure a good life for herself in the Military Police.

And yet here she was, riding around in the middle of a forest by herself, a full-fledged member of the Survey Corps. She was working in the regiment with the lowest salary and the highest death rate, and she had not been forced into it. Sasha had chosen this life.

If she was entirely honest with herself, she would never have guessed that she would live this long. Even on this very day, she was surprised to make it all the way out to this tiny village all by herself, completely unarmed. Indeed, she had changed, and now, she could make things happen.

Sasha lost her breath at the sight that greeted her upon entering the village. It looked like most had run off before the Titans could come, but she could quite clearly see the Titan footprints leading up to a small house. The front door was open, and inside was that Titan, kneeling down on the floor. It held a human body in its hands, and its face and chin was smeared with blood.

She did not have a real weapon. She did not have a lot of courage. She didn't even know if it would be worth picking a fight with this Titan. But for some reason, she felt very compelled to try.

Conveniently, there was an ax resting in a tree stump just outside of the house; Sasha plucked it from the stump and held it in her shaking hands.

She didn't have a real plan; she just wasn't that kind of person. Sasha was a soldier who relied on her instincts, and she valued her ability to use them to her advantage.

With a great shout, Sasha ran into the house, the ax held high above her head. She swung the blade into the Titan's neck, then did it again and again. In a perfect world, she would have chopped its head off without any troubles. But to her dismay, every strike healed within just a few seconds; by the time she could strike again, the previous wound was already mostly healed.

It's not working! she realized. Unless I cut the nape of its neck out cleanly, its wounds will just keep closing in an instant!

Her head was pounding with panic, and she could feel her hands getting sweaty. The combination proved to be a dangerous one, and as Sasha attempted another strike at the Titan, the ax flew out of her hands and latched itself into the wall opposite her.

“Ahhh...!!” Sasha gasped, her voice so weak that her squeak of terror was barely even audible. She was just about to turn and make a run for it when she noticed a little girl kneeling in the corner, facing the wall.

“A child...” Sasha breathed, staring at the girl. She stared back with large, wide eyes.

Glancing down at the woman the Titan was eating, Sasha could see that she had, at the very least, lost consciousness. There was no saving her, but her daughter was a different story.

Rushing over to the girl, Sasha grabbed her by the arm and pulled her to her feet.

“Forgive me...please,” Sasha murmured as she dragged the girl out of the house. “What is your name, child?” The girl only stared up at Sasha with blank eyes; Sasha couldn't tell if she was scared or confused, or just plain expressionless. “It is...going to be fine now. Please trust me...”

“What is?” the girl asked as they reached Sasha's horse.

“Eh?” Her response was not what Sasha had expected, and as she typically did, she became flustered as she tried to manage a decent reply.

“Ah, um, well...” Just as Sasha started to form a string of coherent words, her horse began to whinny and grow restless, as if it sensed her inner chaos. “Wait...eh? Hey! Easy, easy!”

Sasha reached for the reins to untie them from the wooden fence, but as soon as she loosened the knot, her horse jerked its head back, and the reins slipped out of her grip.

“Wh-what?!” Sasha gasped as her horse began to run off. “Hey, wait! Please!! Oh please, you have got to be joking!! Not now...! Please wait, please!!”

But despite her desperate, tearful pleads, her horse kept on running. Even a whistle couldn't summon him back, it seemed.

“Why are you speaking so politely?” the girl asked suddenly, unfazed by all of the action.

“Eh!?” Sasha gasped, turning around to face her. As she did, she noticed in the background a terrifying sight: the Titan inside that house was now coming out. It had its eyes locked on them, and Sasha knew she had to act fast.

“That...that was a Survey Corps horse...” she muttered, looking around the area for anything she could use to protect them. “That Titan...looks like just a three meter class... Nothing to be afraid of...!”

Sasha felt a brief wave of relief wash over her when she caught sight of a nearby set of bow and arrows. They weren't much different than what people in her hometown had used to hunt with, and so without a second of hesitation, she snatched the weapon up and grabbed the girl's hand once again.

“Come on!” she cried, dashing off with the girl in tow. “Please run! It will be fine!”

“Why? Everybody's already run away,” the little girl stated. Her eyes were still blank; it was if she was already dead. “The villagers...they all knew my mother's legs were bad. But...no one came to help us. And even me--I didn't do anything but just watch...”

For some reason, the little girl's words resonated in Sasha. She couldn't help but think of her friends; before knowing them, she had been no different than this child. She had always been sure that no one was worth trusting, that no one would ever help her. But her friends had always wanted the best for her--whether that meant she changed, or stayed exactly the same. And she was so, so grateful.

Why...am I recalling these things at a time like this...? Sasha wondered as a brief memory of her trainee days flashed in her mind. Such a trifle thing...my everyday life... My memories...are full of scenes like that...

“Hey, listen to me for a bit,” Sasha said to the girl, remembering Ymir's words that had strengthened her so long ago. She slipped right into her dialect as if putting on a cozy pair of slippers and continued, “It's gonna be okay. Just run down this road. It doesn't matter that you're weak, because there'll be people who'll come to your rescue. Maybe you won't meet them right away, but don't give up, and keep running until you meet them! So...get goin'!”

Releasing the girl's wrist, Sasha about-faced, taking an arrow into her hand. Her eyes met those of the approaching Titan, but she could still sense the presence of the little girl standing behind her.

“RUN!!” Sasha screamed, taking aim at the Titan. As soon as she heard the footsteps of the little girl, she took her first shot, nailing the Titan right in its throat.

If I crush his eyes...I'll be able to buy enough time... she told herself, taking aim yet again. This time, though, the Titan was ready for her, and it moved its head just in time.

“Ugh!” Sasha grunted, growing nervous again. Only...two arrows left... Calm down... This prey is big...but slow!

Steadying her body and straightening her posture, Sasha sent another arrow flying, right into the Titan's left eye. She could hardly believe it, but she didn't have time to question it. Breathing hard, she scrambled up onto the small hill next to the trail, putting herself at almost the same level as the Titan's face.

I hit it... Only one arrow... If I miss...I won't be able to escape from him. If I miss...both me and that kid will be...

Sasha couldn't risk it; throwing the bow aside, she gripped her only remaining arrow in her hand. Letting out a scream, she ran toward the Titan's face and drove the arrow into its eye. She grunted as it tried to wrap its arms around her; she had blinded it, so there was just no way in hell she could let it win now.

Gathering all of her strength, Sasha shoved her hand into the Titan's chin, and then pushed her way out of its grasp. Soon she was sprinting across the path again, away from the abandoned village and the injured Titan.

Good thing his blood was slippery, she thought as she brushed at her clothing. That's really what saved me. Anyway, now I need to find my horse and that girl...

The familiar sound of hoof beats filled the air, and Sasha turned toward the source of the noise. She felt her jaw drop as a group of familiar faces rode by her through the forest; one of them locked eyes with her and slowed his horse to a stop. His whole face seemed to light up with delight, and even from where she stood, the disbelief in his eyes was obvious. But she, too, felt as though she might be in a dream.

“Sasha?!” her father cried. Sasha stared up at the man, her heart feel light and happy--back to its usual self.

 

…......

 

“...What are we supposed to do now...?”

Eren didn't even glance in Armin's direction as his friend spoke, but he could hear the exasperation in the tone of his voice. It had been the longest twenty-four hours of their lives so far--and that was really saying something.

But unfortunately, that was just how things had unfolded; a breach in Wall Rose meant that Eren would have to find a way to plug up the hole, just like with Trost, but so far there was no news of where the breach was located, and the Survey Corps soldiers were so spread out trying to locate it that there was no time to come up with a good battle formation.

“Wall Rose was breached all of a sudden, and now I...I don't know what we should do anymore,” Armin went on. “Even if we manage to transport Eren to the front line squads, I doubt it will change anything at this point. And...why...do we have a priest from the wall cult with us...?”

Eren looked up at Pastor Nick, who was sitting beside Squad Leader Hanji with tightly pursed lips. He could not have looked more uncomfortable--or at least, that's what Eren thought until Hanji wrapped an arm around Nick's shoulder.

“Ah, that... Well, we're friends with Nick now, you see,” Hanji said, grinning. “Right?”

“...” Pastor Nick only glanced at the soldier with disapproval written all over his face.

“He knew about the Titans in the wall, but until now he's been keeping silent about this amazing fact,” Hanji went on. “I have no idea why, but he seems quite adamant about keeping his mouth shut tight in regards to what he knows about the secrets of the walls, even if he has to die because of it... Apparently, the members of his sect know a lot more about the wall, too.”

Eren couldn't help himself; he sprung out of his seat on the wagon, wide-eyed in alarm and surprise. It wasn't just this one man who was hiding the truth--a whole group of people within the walls knew so much. These were the same people he had tried to protect only days before; he felt betrayed.

“Huh?!” he gasped. “What the hell!?”

Before he could continue his tirade, Eren suddenly felt dizzy and teetered a bit. The rumbling floor of the cart beneath his feet was not helping anything. He was still in a bit of a daze from his brief coma, after all.

“Stay put!” Mikasa scolded him, dragging him back down into his seat. “You haven't completely recovered from your Titan transformation yet.”

“I was going to ask some other sect members,” Hanji said, picking up right where she left off. “But he chose to come with us out of his own will. The situation has changed, so it seems--after he witnessed everything that happened, he's been having doubts if he should still follow the rules, so he wants to see the real state of affairs with his own eyes...”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Eren said, still wide-eyed. “It's just weird to hide something like this, y'know? If you know something, please just tell us...! What can be more important than preventing the total annihilation of the human race?!”

“I wonder about that...” Hanji glanced at the trio of teens, then back to Pastor Nick. “The pastor looks like an honest, upstanding person to me... That's why I think that maybe, just maybe, there might be a cause more important than preventing the downfall of humanity...”

Eren stared at the pastor, confused. He didn't understand at all what Hanji was getting at, because to him, there was not a single thing more important in this world than the freedom of humanity. Anyone or anything that opposed that right to life was an enemy in his mind--but was that way of thinking too stubborn? Was it childish to want something like that? He had never really questioned it before, but now, he felt lost, and he could only sit in stunned silence as they rode through the night.

 

Chapter Text

“Hey, check it out…” Bruno turned his head in the direction that Rowen was pointing. They came to a half and watched in silence as a pair of Military Police officers dragged a woman and child through the front door of one of Sina’s many townhouses. It used to be odd to see such a ruckus in the confines of Wall Sina, but these days in the Hermiha district, it was not uncommon for refugees to take up hiding in people’s houses or stores.

“Please, I’m begging you!” the woman cried, gripping one of the Police soldier’s arms as if trying to fight his hold on her. “We’ve come all the way from Shiganshina—my husband was killed in the military, and we have nothing right now! We never planned to stay long, please!”

“I’ve heard this story a hundred times,” the soldier declared, his voice cold and authoritative. “You’re not the only one struggling to survive in this world!”

“If you really cared about your child, you would not have broken the law!” the other soldier added, sneering at the woman. Bruno could see the tears streaming down her cheeks even from afar.

“Harsh,” Rowen breathed.

“This is disgusting,” Catherine muttered. “They’ll look for any excuse to execute someone these days—all to keep the population down.”

Bruno said nothing; both of his friends were right. Even in Wall Sina—arguably the safest place in the world—there was chaos, and the people were not governed by the king, but by their own terror. He had known this for a while now, and so his heart was heavy as he watched the woman and her child be dragged into a Police wagon and locked into a cage like wild animals.

That was how it was, though; even within the wealthiest part of the world, people were still suffering. And it was only going to continue, so long as no one stepped up and tried to change it.

 

“Well, from where I stand, this guy seems to have some guts, but what about the other fanatics from his little sect? I highly doubt all of them can boast this kind of willpower...”

Mikasa stared at Captain Levi as he spoke; both Squad Leader Hanji and Pastor Nick were both side-eyeing the man, and the latter was drenched in sweat.

“Oh well. There are a lot of ways to make a person talk,” Levi went on, glaring at the priest. “I may be useless in combat right now, but I sure as hell am capable of keeping close tabs on some old man. So do us both a favor and don't try anything that might result in me opening up new holes in your body.”

When she started in the Survey Corps, Mikasa had heard rumors about Captain Levi: supposedly, when he was younger, he had been a notorious thug in the underground. He should have been arrested, but instead Commander Erwin pulled him into the Corps, and the rest was history. At the time she had thought it was a stupid story, but at that moment she wondered if she had been too quick to dismiss those claims. She could see a glint of metal coming from Levi's right hand--tucked away in his jacket was a revolver, and the muzzle was shoved into Pastor Nick's arm.

“On another note...” Captain Levi leaned forward and stared up at Hanji. “It seems to me that you have a new hobby of playing with rocks.”

“Ah, yeah, well...I do...” Hanji admitted; Mikasa hadn't even noticed until now, but in Hanji's left hand was a small oval rock. She held it up for the group to see. “Except...this is not your ordinary rock. It's a piece of the Female Titan's hardened skin that was left behind.”

Armin gasped, leaning forward in his seat toward the Squad Leader.

“It didn't disappear?!” he cried.

“Nope!” Hanji replied. She seemed to be feeding off of his energy. “It got cut off of Annie's Titan body when we tied her up with those ropes... Unbelievable, I know, but even after the rest of her body decayed, it didn't evaporate, and it didn't disappear.”

Hanji looked from Armin back to the rock in her hand with a distant look in her eyes. “And I had an epiphany... When I compared this piece to the broken fragments of the wall, the crystal composition and structure turned out to be really similar. In other words, the walls themselves were likely made by the Colossal Titans, who became its supporting pillars.”

Mikasa glanced at Pastor Nick; his head was hung low and his expression had darkened.

“So it's really...just like Armin said,” Mikasa murmured, turning and staring at her friend. She had always known he was bright, but this time, he was already several steps ahead of the game. Maybe things weren’t so hopeless after all.

“Ah...!!” Armin gasped, his eyes lighting up. Then...then--!!”

“Stop right there!” Before Armin could voice his conclusion, Hanji shoved her hand in Armin's face, covering his mouth. “Allow me the honor of saying it, Armin!” The Squad Leader eyed the group, looking at each of them in turn. Mikasa could see the fire in her eyes now more than ever. “The way things are now, it's gonna be difficult to plug Wall Rose, right? Because there just aren't any boulders big enough in that area... But what if the transformed Eren could plug the breach using that Titan ability to harden his body...?”

Mikasa felt Eren tense up beside her. She could hardly believe they were proposing this.

“Plugging the breach with...my body...?!” Eren echoed, his voice shaking.

“The material properties are identical...” Hanji told him. “So after you release yourself from your Titan body, you should be leaving behind a huge petrified statue that won't evaporate or disappear. What if you could actually do that...? That's what I've been mulling over, anyway...”

“I think it's well worth gambling on that possibility,” Armin said quietly. Mikasa glanced over to see a small but confident smile on his face. “And if we could use that tactic repeatedly, then our prospects of conquering Wall Maria back will look brighter, too! The standard approach in use today requires the Survey Corps soldiers to bring a lot of raw materials first, so there’s a need to have a lot of manpower and to plan and create supply routes, and any progress forward could be made only after establishing supply points along the way... That approach would take twenty years to come to fruition. But if the need to bring carts along is eliminated, then I believe it may be possible to make a beeline for the Shiganshina district.”

“I see...” Hanji murmured. “With a small group, we could make it all the way to Wall Maria in no time...”

As much as Mikasa hated the idea of putting Eren in any more danger than necessary, Armin's plan made perfect sense. She couldn't deny it, even though there was still a lot that could go wrong...

“What if we carry out that operation at night?” Armin then suggested, his eyes widening.

“At...night...?” Hanji echoed.

“Yes! Titans can't move at night! I'm aware that torches are enough of a light source to run at full speed at night, but even at a slower pace, a small group should be able to make it to Wall Maria before dawn.”

Mikasa watched as Hanji stared at Armin; her face seemed to soften as she looked down at the rock in her eyes, and Mikasa could swear there were tears in her bright brown eyes.

“Even though our situation is as desperate as ever, there's still hope...” she murmured.

“Yes...it's just that...everything rests on the gamble that Eren would be able to plug the wall,” Armin said, turning to Eren. Mikasa did not like his tone--did he doubt Eren's abilities that much? Was he really so afraid that Eren would not be able to pull through for them? Or was he just trying to err on the safe side?

“I doubt he can give us a definite answer right now even if we ask,” Hanji said cheerfully. “But still, do you think you could do it?”

“...Y-yeah...” Eren mumbled, but his voice held no confidence. Mikasa was not the only one to notice this, either.

“It's not about if he can do it or not,” Captain Levi declared, looking even more irritated than usual. He then turned his gaze on Eren. “Do it. You have to do it. You don't have a choice.” Leaning forward in his seat, he continued, “You're aware of the situation we're all in. At this point, the Survey Corps can't do anything other than try their damnedest. So make sure you succeed.”

“...Yes, Sir!” Eren exclaimed with more of his usual vigor as Levi sat back in his seat once again. “I will plug the breach, without fail!” Eren paused, gripping the key hanging around his neck. “I'm fed up with not knowing what the hell is going on. First, I'll plug Wall Rose... Then I'll plug Wall Maria, and after that...the basement. If what my old man said about the answers being in there is true, then there should also be some clue there as to his whereabouts... All the answers are there, I know it... When I reach it, I will finally learn...where I should direct this anger boiling in me...”

Mikasa glanced at Eren; his face was now shining with sweat, and there was a fierce, almost manic glow in his eyes. He had always been hot-headed, but lately it had gotten to the point that she worried about him. She didn't know if it was the influence of his Titan powers, or stress, or something else entirely. But whatever the source of his anger, Mikasa wanted to eliminate it. She hated seeing him like this. He deserved to be happy.

“The Hermiha district--we're almost there,” Hanji said suddenly.

“Our stop, then. This is as far as me and the pastor can go with you,” Levi said, finally tucking away his gun. “I'll leave everything to you--you're the members of the impromptu squad Erwin chose, after all. I trust you understand your role, Armin? Keep coming up with ideas together with Hanji like you did. Mikasa, use your strength to protect Eren.”

“Yes, Sir!” Mikasa answered without hesitation. “I will.”

“...I don't know why you're so attached to Eren, but remember to control yourself. Don't make another blunder.”

“Yes, Sir.” Mikasa narrowed her eyes as memories from the fight in the forest flashed in her mind. “I will make sure there won't be any this time.”

 

…......

 

One thing that Levi had always noticed about the districts within Wall Sina was how quiet they were at night. He had passed through various parts of the inner regions with Erwin during the evening hours before, and the streets had almost always been clear of people. Instead, everyone was inside, and soft glows of light emitted from the windows of houses. The atmosphere was always so gentle, and Levi had always found himself wondering how different his life might have been had he grown up in that kind of world.

But this time, things were very, very different. Even at this late hour, the streets of the Hermiha district were packed with people; the crowd was a mix of refugees from Wall Rose and residents of Hermiha making a run for it. However, despite the huge change in atmosphere, Levi was not all that surprised. It was only logical that people were panicking.

“Oi...keep walking,” he snapped at Pastor Nick, who had come to a standstill near the South gate. Levi thrust his right foot into the man's lower back, shoving him forward. “I don't need you getting lost and making extra work for me.”

“Wh-what is this...?” the old man breathed, and Levi narrowed his eyes.

“What did you expect? Of course things aren't gonna be pretty and bright. The wall has fallen, after all...”

Levi stood in silence as he watched a crowd of refugees pass by them. He could hear a child crying for his parents; had this been years ago, back before joining the Corps, he might have reacted differently. But now, Levi knew that there was nothing he could do. He was only good for one thing: eradicating the Titans. But now he couldn't even do that, what with a leg injury that limited his mobility. Now he was just dead weight.

Pastor Nick let out a gasp as he started to head toward the crying child.

“Hey.” Levi grabbed the man by the shoulder. “Where the hell d'you think you're going...? This reality looks somewhat different from the pretty illusions you dreamed up in your little sect, huh? These are the faces of the sinners you’re trying to cast away. Take a good look at the faces of people who lost their homes--they're feeling pretty shitty right now...”

Levi paused, once again scanning the crowd. He didn't know a single person in this district, but he knew what they must be going through. He knew what it was like to lose a family, or lose a home.

“But suppose your wishes come true and the lands within the wall are filled with Titans--the last expression people will wear on their faces won't be what you’re seeing now,” Levi went on. “The end will be the same for everybody. Everyone will lose their lives to the Titans' jaws, but not before suffering the worst experiences imaginable. All us humans, together, like best friends--no exceptions.”

Levi released Pastor Nick's shoulder at last; he could tell that the man wouldn't run off now. He seemed more somber than when they had started, and Levi wondered if maybe he had changed his mind.

If we can get this sect to cooperate, and if we can use Eren's powers to seal those gates, we can end this sooner than any of us thought, Levi thought, frowning as he watched the crowd. If not, we've wasted our time here...

“Let's go,” Levi grunted, walking past Nick toward the public stables. He had agreed to meet Hanji and the others there, assuming that Nick did not try anything funny. To Levi's relief, the man continued to trail behind him, keeping his eyes on the crowd as he walked. Levi, too, found himself scanning the faces of these people. No one he knew lived here, and yet he felt as though he was looking for someone.

Before long, they arrived at the stable. Hanji was already there with Moblit and the others.

“Did you...” Hanji murmured, walking toward Pastor Nick. “Did you, by chance, have a change of heart?”

Levi had no idea how Pastor Nick would answer, but he certainly had not expected him to stay completely silent. It was as if he was still trying to decide.

“There's no time for this anymore!” Hanji then shouted, marching up toward the man. “You realize that, right?! Decide if you're going to talk or not! I'm begging you!”

“…I cannot tell you anything,” Nick stated at last. “I expect the other members will not talk nor change their minds.”

“Well, thanks a lot! Putting us through all this trouble just to tell me this in the end! That helped us tons!!”

“This was... This was a very grave decision for me,” Nick told her. “The burden we are saddled with is heavy... This ironclad pledge has been around for generations, and we can entrust the secrets of the wall only to a group of certain blood relatives. None of us can tell you anything--however...I shall tell you the name of the person who can reveal those secrets to you.”

“...Shifting the responsibility to someone else to protect yourselves and your organization, huh?” Hanji muttered.

Took the words right out of my mouth, Levi thought, glaring up at Pastor Nick.

“...Yes...” Pastor Nick paused, and for a moment Levi wondered if he would flake out and change his mind. “Five years ago...this person was dragged into a strife between her relatives, which caused her to go into hiding under an assumed name. The girl herself does not know anything yet, but...she has the right to choose to speak publicly about whatever wall secrets she wishes to share. I heard she joined the Survey Corps this year. Her name...is Krista Lenz.”

“Eh?!” Armin gasped.

“H-Her, of all people...?” Eren stammered.

“Huh? Who...?” Hanji breathed, looking at the boys. Levi sighed through his nose; he did not immediately recognize the name, but if she was in the Survey Corps, that meant that she was out in Wall Rose with no gear. By the time they could get to her, she might already be dead.

“Go find her,” Nick ordered them. “She might know truths unknown to even us... However, it is up to her to decide whether or not to tell you what she knows... Revealing her name to you is the only compromise I can afford to make. The rest shall depend on you.”

“That girl...” Hanji murmured. “If she's from the 104th trainee squad, that means...she's on the front lines right now...”

“Let's hurry!” Eren cried, turning to run toward the inner part of the stable. “We need to get to the breach as soon as possible anyway!”

“Hang on!” Hanji exclaimed. “I still don't know all the names of our new members from your class, so could you--”

“She's the petite girl!” Eren interrupted.

“She has long blonde hair...a-and she's pretty!” Armin added, following after Eren.

“She's the girl who always hangs around with Ymir,” Mikasa then said.

Hang on--”Ymir”? Levi thought, his eyes widening. It had been a while since he had heard that name, but he recognized it immediately.

“Eh?!” Hanji gasped. “Ymir?!”

But the trio was already running off and did not reply. Levi sighed, walking up next to Hanji. The Squad Leader scratched the back of her neck, obviously flustered.

“Where the hell is Catherine when we need her?” she mumbled.

“You can bug her about it later--we need to find that girl now,” Levi told her.

“You're right. Let's go.”

 

…......

 

“All right... Now, let's head south.”

Ymir glanced up at Nanaba, their acting squad leader, with narrowed eyes.

“But why...?” she grunted. “No one lives to the south from here, anyway.”

“We need to determine what part of the wall was destroyed,” Nanaba replied. “We'll run along the wall and search for the breach from the west side. This way, we can help the south squad locate it faster.”

A feeling of panic began to well up within Ymir. She knew what could happen if they were ambushed out in the open. If anything was to happen, she knew what she would have to do, and it was a punishment worse than death.

“You didn't forget that me and Krista aren't equipped for battle at the moment, did you?” Ymir countered, getting defensive. “The lands to the south from here must be full of Titans... There's an awfully good chance we'll become their snacks. Please allow me and Krista to withdraw from the front lines.”

“Ymir?!” Krista gasped from beside her.

“I can't,” Nanaba replied. “Anything could happen. I want to have at least one member I can use as a messenger, just in case. I understand how you're feeling, but...you chose to be a soldier, so brace yourself. Everything depends on our performance during the initial stages of this plan.”

Ymir grimaced, staring daggers into Nanaba's back. She didn't hold any particular personal grudges against her, but she was ready to just turn around and call it quits. But Ymir knew that if she did, she'd be an open target for questioning, and her efforts to keep a low profile would go to waste.

“Ymir...I want to try my best in the situation we're in right now because...it was my choice to join the Survey Corps,” Krista then said. “But...in your case, it's different, isn't it? The one who chose to join the Corps was me, not you.”

“Huh?! You?!” Ymir shouted. “I'm only here for your sake--is that what you're tryin' to say?!”

“Then why are you here right now?” Krista asked. Ymir could see tears in her eyes, and she almost felt bad for having yelled at her. “If you have no reason to stay here, you should escape...! I know that...my abilities are not nearly enough to have earned a place in the top ten of the training squad... And if you ask any of them, our classmates would answer that you should have been in the top ten instead of me.”

Krista's voice had grown quiet, and she had turned her face away from Ymir. The brunette pursed her lips, not daring to say a word unless she had to. As much as she hated to hide things from Krista, she knew that now was not the time to come clean.

“I don't know how it turned out like it did, but...you always urged me to join the Military Police...and you even made it so that I had the privilege to choose to join them...” Krista's voice trailed off; Ymir could feel the blonde's eyes on her again. “Why...why are you willing to go to such great lengths for me...?” When Ymir did not answer, Krista inquired further, “Is it because...of my family...?”

“Yeah. That's right,” Ymir replied, smirking. Krista has practically offered up that verbal scapegoat; Ymir would have been a fool not to take it. “But Krista, rest assured--I'm here for my own sake.”

“I see...” Krista murmured. Ymir watched as the blonde smiled brightly, looking genuinely relieved. “I'm so glad to hear that!”

The reply caught Ymir off-guard, and for a moment, it was all she could do to keep herself from staring at Krista as she continued to smile, her big blue eyes glittering in the setting sun.

 

Chapter Text

“C'mon, Sunny!” Connie cried, barely able to form words through his laughter as he watched his little sister toddle across the floor. She had only just learned to walk, so with such a heavy coat and boots on, it was quite comical watching her attempt to cross the room.

“Connie, play nicely with her,” his mother warned from the adjacent room.

“Yeah, yeah, I am,” Connie replied, sighing. “But you're the one who dressed her up in this!”

“It's for her own good--she'll freeze out there otherwise!”

“It's a pretty cold winter...” Glancing out of the window in the front room of his house, he could see snow flurries fluttering in the frosty air.

“Right--and so you had better take good care of your sister.” Connie's mother glanced up from her cooking, her large round eyes sparkling with mischief. “If you don't, your father and I will just give you more siblings to watch over.”

“I wouldn't complain,” Connie told her, grinning as Sunny finally collapsed into his lap, obviously exhausted. “I'm the coolest big brother there is!”

“That you are,” his mother said with a quiet laugh. “Well, then, I guess we should go ahead and tell you... You're going to have another little sibling soon--a brother this time.”

Connie gasped, whirling around to face his mother.

“R-really?!” he breathed, his heart pounding with excitement. He could barely contain his joy, and so he scooped Sunny into his arms, squeezing her tightly. “I'll teach him everything he has to know! Everything!”

 

“Connie, wait! Calm down!”

A deep frown creasing his face, Connie ignored Reiner's desperate shouts and continued on ahead at full speed. They were almost to his village; he could just see the outline of the houses on the horizon.

“We don't know where Titans might be!” Reiner called after him. “Fall back for now!!”

Again, Connie ignored him, only slowing down once he was finally on the main path that ran through his village. He looked around, scanning each and every broken house in sight for any sign of life, but no a soul was in sight. Panting, he could feel tears behind his eyes, and he gripped his horse's reins tightly as he willed himself to keep calm.

“You gotta be kidding me...” he breathed, slowly moving further into his hometown. “Somebody...?! Anybody! Isn't there anyone here?! It's me! Connie! I'm back!!!”

Connie's shouts disappeared into the quiet air, and not a single reply came his way. He could feel his heart throbbing in his chest, and his composure was completely ruined.

“I gotta check my place...!” he told himself, kicking his horse's sides as he rode further inward. “Dad...Mom...Sunny...Martin...”

He had passed several large footprints on the way to his house, but even that hint could not have prepared him for what was waiting for him. Lying on top of the ruins of his house was a Titan; it was like nothing Connie had ever seen before. Its head was huge, especially in comparison to its tiny body and limbs, which were as thin as twigs. Two large, round eyes gazed back at Connie, and it seemed to be smiling, as if happy to see him.

“Connie, fall back!” Reiner had caught up to him; he grabbed Connie's wrist, trying to pull him away, but Connie kept his horse still, his eyes locked with the Titan's.

“M-My home... It's my...”

Reiner then gave his arm a sharp tug, and Connie, with no energy to resist, followed him away; it was then that their squad leaders appeared, circling around his house with their blades drawn and at the ready.

“Fall back at once!” Gelgar cried.

“Check the surroundings!” Lynne added, waving her blade at them as if shooing them away.

“That Titan...” Connie murmured as he rode alongside Reiner, away from his house. “It's just lying on my house... It can't even move... Did you see its limbs? Like...like sticks... How the hell did it even get there...? And why my house?”

“Connie, you can ask yourself those questions later,” Reiner told him, grimacing. “We need to look for survivors first! Let's split up, all right? Bertholdt and I will meet you back at your place!”

“...All right,” Connie murmured, lowering his gaze.

But Connie already knew that there would not be any survivors. This was the quietest he had ever seen his village, and the whole atmosphere just felt wrong. In fact, a small part of him wanted to believe that maybe this wasn't his hometown, that maybe they were in a neighboring village with similar housing and layout. But that would have been too easy. He knew they did not live in that kind of world.

Connie took a quick lap around his village, picking up firewood as he went along. It would be nightfall soon, and they would need torches. There was no sense in leaving any resources behind in this abandoned place; no one would ever be able to use them again.

Not even you, Connie thought as he finally returned back to his house, where the immobile Titan was still lying. My hometown has...become a wasteland...

“Connie!” It was Reiner again, but Connie did not turn to greet him. “Any survivors?!”

“...None,” Connie murmured, staring at the Titan. No one but me. “No one survived. It's...the end... There's no one here anymore... My home...doesn't exist anywhere anymore...”

Connie's voice trailed off. He didn't really have anything else to say--the situation was quite obvious, and there was nothing he could do to change it anymore.

Suddenly, Connie felt a hand grasp his shoulder; he glanced to his left, and through his tear-filled eyes he could see Reiner beside him. The young man was grimacing, his eyes closed and his head bowed. He looked sincerely upset, and though it made Connie sad to see his friend feeling so somber because of him, he was grateful for such a good friend.

 

…......

 

Bertholdt had always admired Reiner for not only his physical strength, but also his strong will and sense of duty. Even as a child he had tried to emulate those qualities, but the sad truth was that they were nothing alike. Still, Bertholdt had looked up to Reiner and respected him very much.

So, it was beyond sad for him to watch his best friend fall apart--it was unbearable. And Bertholdt knew it would only get worse as time went on, which left him silent as the grave, unable to come up with the right words to console his friends. Was that even the right thing to do, to console Connie and Reiner? Or would his attempt at kindness only push Reiner further into that other part of his mind? He had no idea anymore, so he kept quiet. After all, the less he said, the less he would have to worry about--or at least, that was what he had been telling himself for the past five years.

“Hey, there's something strange about this place,” Gelgar said suddenly, interrupting the moment. Bertholdt had never been so grateful for a distraction before. “Did any of you see dead bodies around?”

Never mind, Bertholdt thought as he stared at the Squad Leader. He could feel the sweat on his palms soaking the firewood he was holding.

“...No,” Reiner answered, and Connie shook his head.

“I didn't see any, either,” Bertholdt finally murmured, glancing away from Gelgar.

“Is it even possible? For Titans to destroy a whole village without leaving a single drop of blood behind?”

“I'd say that means they all managed to escape!” Lynne exclaimed, her eyes brightening. It was all Bertholdt could do not to sigh in relief. “Because if they really had been devoured, there would've been at least some traces left! But there's none at all, which means no one was eaten--I'm sure of it!”

“...! That...must be what really happened!” Connie cried. “There's no other explanation, right?!”

“They probably all escaped safely a few hours prior to us arriving,” Lynne agreed, “and they might have even already arrived at Wall Sina by now!”

Bertholdt kept his eyes fixed on the ground as he listened to Connie and Lynne go on. It was like listening to someone comforting a child, and a part of Bertholdt almost felt embarrassed for Connie. Who would really be so stupid as to believe such blatant lies?

But I suppose...if he's desperate, then he’ll probably accept whatever makes him feel better, Bertholdt realized, glancing up at Lynne, who had a kind smile on her face. Connie seemed to be feeling more at ease now, too, which meant that they would hopefully be leaving here soon. And the sooner they could leave, the sooner Bertholdt himself would feel at ease, too.

“Did you all gather enough wood for torches?” Gelgar then asked. “We're going to set out to locate the breach in the wall now. All hands, get ready to depart!”

“Yes, Sir!” Connie cried; Bertholdt had already turned to run for his horse.

“Bertholdt, what's wrong?” Reiner asked quietly as the brunet mounted his horse.

“...Reiner, doesn't this make you think of our home?” Bertholdt replied. He watched as the expression on Reiner's face hardened.

“...Yeah. It does, actually,” he said in a low voice. “But our hometown had blood.”

“Yeah...it did.”

Just as Reiner opened his mouth to say more, a strange, quiet voice interrupted.

“Wel...om...back...”

Bertholdt glanced back at the Titan lying on Connie's house; it was staring right at Connie, still smiling brightly, and Connie was staring back. He had obviously heard it speak, and Bertholdt felt his hands start to sweat again.

If he asks…there's just no way to explain that--

“Hey! Connie!” Reiner's shouts pulled Bertholdt out of his thoughts. “Hurry up! Or you're gonna get left behind!”

Bertholdt could see what Reiner was up to; distracting him was the best move at that point, or perhaps the only move.

“Reiner... Did you hear...? Just now, that Titan...”

“I didn't hear anything!” Reiner told him, narrowing his eyes. “Now's not the time to be talking! Focus on the mission!!”

“You know…somehow...that Titan...” Connie's voice was shaky, and his eyes were wide with confusion. “...I know this is crazy, but still...somehow it...it looks like Mom--”

“Connie!” Do you realize what kind of situation we're in?!” Reiner bellowed. “Do you understand how many thousands of human lives are at stake here?! Or would you rather prioritize indulging your bizarre delusions--is that more important to you?!”

He knew better than to butt in, but Bertholdt couldn't help but notice the irony of Reiner's words. It made his heart sink; the ferocity with which he was scolding Connie was quite alarming, so how much harsher was he being with himself?

“If you're gonna let your imagination run wild, then at least use it to picture your family escaping!” Reiner went on, turning his back to Connie at last. “And if you're a soldier, then you'd better do your best right here, right now!”

“Y-you're...right... That's right!!” Connie cried.

Soon, the three of them were racing off, following Gelgar and Lynne away from Connie's hometown and toward Wall Rose. Connie seemed to have calmed down now, but Bertholdt still felt uneasy. He knew better than to bring it up again, but he couldn’t be so sure about Reiner.

Don't even think about it, Bertholdt thought as he watched Reiner glance at Connie over and over. Remember why we're here. Remember how we got here, Reiner...

 

…......

 

After hours of riding around in the dark and feeling nothing but mounting tension, when Nanaba and her group finally ran into Gelgar and the others, she felt almost disappointed. There had been all of this build-up, and yet there were no hints as to the status of the breach, nor to the location of any Titans.

“...You guys have been running along the wall as well?” Gelgar asked, casual as ever.

“Yeah,” Nanaba replied, nodding once. “So...where's the breach located?”

“Huh?”

“What do you mean, 'huh'? We've been running along the wall all the way from the west, but we've found no abnormalities,” Nanaba told him, raising an eyebrow. “So, since the breach wasn't on our end, it must be on yours.”

It was only logical--that was the only explanation as to why things had been so uneventful since breaking apart from the other squads. Nanaba knew that it was impossible to have missed a breach big enough to let Titans in, so this was the only other possibility.

“No...we didn't find any breaches, either,” Gelgar murmured.

Nanaba sat back in her saddle, pursing her lips as she stared at her comrade. Part of her wanted to just slap him across the face for saying something so ridiculous and illogical, but she could tell by his expression that he was not lying.

“Could you have overlooked it somehow?” Lynne suggested, her voice quivering.

“Impossible,” Henning replied, pulling his horse up next to Nanaba's. He had been so quiet all evening that she had almost forgotten he was with her. “We're talking about a hole huge enough for Titans to squeeze through, after all.”

“All right, so what now?” Gelgar asked, shifting his gaze to Henning. “Should we check one more time?”

“We should, but both we and the horses are pretty much at our limit,” Henning replied. “You can't expect much focus from us in this state.”

“If only there was some moonlight, at least...” Lynne sighed, glancing up at the cloudy night sky.

“Agreed...” Henning mumbled.

Nanaba sighed through her nose, turning her horse toward the open lands of Wall Rose. Gelgar did the same, then quietly gasped.

“What's that...?” he asked, staring out at the horizon. Nanaba turned toward where he was looking; to her surprise, there was some sort of building just a few hundred meters away. She could just barely make out its outline in the dim moonlight.

“Looks like ruins...of a castle,” she replied, feeling a bit relieved. Perhaps the night would not be so rough after all. If they could rest there for the night, they could return to work in the morning. She'd had enough of running around in the dark for now.

Everyone else seemed to have the same idea, and without another word, the group turned and headed toward the castle, keeping their pace slow and steady. It would have been a horrible irony to run into the Titans now that all of them were bunched up together. Then again, with four veterans in their ranks, their chances of survival actually would probably be higher, since they could execute group techniques.

Nanaba did not want to get too optimistic, though; they still knew nothing about the breach's location, and they had not heard from Mike since he went off on his own to deal with the Titans.

Don't even think about it, Nanaba told herself as she and her comrades reached the castle's stable. We can look for him in broad daylight tomorrow. He'll be fine.

Soon the group had settled into the castle; their horses were safely unsaddled and tied up in the stable, and they had started a decent-sized fire. This castle made for the perfect hideout, and as they made themselves comfortable, it became obvious that someone else had thought the same thing.

“Wow, this castle is so close to the wall, and yet there are signs of someone living here until just recently,” Gelgar said as he stuck his torch in a holder on the wall. He crossed the small, circular room where they all had gathered, opening the door to an adjacent room. “Some hoodlum made this their hideout, I bet...”

“The doorplate said that these are the ruins of Castle Utgard,” Lynne told them, staring into the fire.

“I had no idea there was an old castle in this area,” Nanaba murmured.

“Hey, look what I found.” Gelgar appeared from out of the side room with a small bottle in his hand. He looked quite pleased with himself, and from just a glance, Nanaba could see why. “To think that there's even something like this here... Hn...what does this label say...?”

“Gelgar, is that wine?” Lynne asked, her eyes widening. “Don't tell me you're going to drink it!”

“...'Course not,” Gelgar mumbled, his face falling a bit as he avoided Lynne's watchful gaze. “Not at a time like this.”

“But still, who could've thought we'd have a nice little respite here, thanks to some bandits leaving behind their loot?” Henning chuckled, crossing his arms.

“It's kind of hard to tell who the real bandits are now,” Nanaba replied. Lynne let out a laugh, but she was the only one. The new recruits had not said a word since arriving, and many of them were sitting against the wall, away from the veterans. Nanaba couldn't help but wonder if they were angry about getting caught up in this mess; she couldn't blame them at all if they were.

“You rookies make sure you rest well,” Gelgar said, setting down the wine. “It's been dark for a while now, so I doubt there are Titans left that can still move. But to be on the safe side, we're going to take turns being on lookout. We'll set out four hours before dawn.”

“Excuse me...” The smallest of the group, Krista Lenz, spoke up, her large blue eyes lined with dark circles. “If the wall really isn't breached, then where could those Titans have possibly come from...?”

“We're going to look into that tomorrow,” Gelgar told her, smiling gently. “Right now, just worry about getting some rest.”

As he headed up the stairs toward the top of the tower, Krista spoke again, turning toward the group.

“Could it be that...the situation is very different from what we initially assumed? It's just...”

“Yes, far too few Titans have appeared,” Henning interrupted, narrowing his eyes. “I have to wonder if the wall has really been breached.”

“The only Titans we came across were the ones that we saw in the very beginning,” Nanaba added, staring into the fire. It was all so illogical and confusing, it almost seemed like a dream. Of everything she had experienced in the Corps so far, this was by far the strangest.

“Connie, what happened with your village?” Ymir asked the small boy sitting nearby. He had been with Gelgar and Lynne, and Nanaba had yet to hear any details of their experiences, so she too was interested to know what all had happened.

“It was destroyed,” Connie answered. “We arrived there after it'd been trampled over by Titans.”

Ymir and Krista stared at Connie, their eyes wide with shock. The former then lowered her gaze; it was the most emotion Nanaba had seen the girl show all day.

“I see...” she mumbled. “I'm sorry to he--”

“However, no one was eaten.” Connie stared into the fire as he spoke. “Seems like they all managed to escape safely. So...at least that’s something...”

“...But didn't you say the village was destroyed?” Ymir's face was now back to its usual detached and bored expression.

“Well, the buildings were destroyed, but there were no victims among the villagers. When people are devoured, you find blood and other traces at the scene, right? There was nothing like that there, so the only logical conclusion is that they all escaped in time.”

Nanaba watched as a disturbed look made its way onto Ymir's face. Narrowing her eyes, the veteran soldier then looked back at Connie. If anything could be gathered from Ymir's reaction, something about the situation at Connie's village was very abnormal—and it wasn’t just Nanaba’s imagination. No blood, but other traces of Titans having passed through...? Titans exist to kill, that much was certain--right? Suddenly Nanaba was not so sure.

“Only...there's something that's been bothering me ever since we left...” Connie murmured. “The Titan lying on my house--it couldn't move with its body like that, yet for some reason it was taking a nap right on top of my house. And the thing about it is...somehow...its appearance really reminded me of my mom... What the hell is that supposed to mean...?”

“Connie...you're still going on about that nonsense?” The muscular blond sitting next to Connie spoke up at last, narrowing his gold eyes at his comrade. “Are you really that fucking stupid?”

Just then, Ymir let out a loud laugh, slapping her thighs.

“You saying your mom is a Titan, Connie?!” she cackled. “Then how come you're such a midget?! Whatddya have to say about that, huh?! The facts don't quite add up that way, you know! I've always known you were an idiot--or maybe you're the opposite! Maybe you're a genius? Well??”

“Ah, enough already...” Connie muttered as Ymir continued to howl with laughter. He scratched his head, grimacing. “Shut up already. You're making me sound ridiculous...”

“Hey, so...” Ymir leaned forward toward Connie, an uncharacteristically large grin on her freckled face. “If what you said is true, doesn't that make your dad a Titan, too? Cause if he wasn't, they, y'know...couldn't do it, y'know?”

“Shut the hell up, you shithead!! Go to sleep already!!”

Nanaba sighed through her nose, glancing at Lynne and Henning. They seemed to be on the same line of thought as her: the situation at Connie's village was probably something they should come back to at some point. After all, if there was an immobilized Titan still there, Hanji might be able to use it for research, and maybe they could find out why the hell Titans appeared out of nowhere inside Wall Rose.

But for the time being, there was nothing left to do but wait, and Nanaba's patience had worn thin.

“I'm going upstairs to find Gelgar,” she announced, standing from her spot by the fire. “You all need to get some rest. Good night.”

 

Chapter Text

It had already been several hours since departing Wall Sina, and Hanji was starting to feel exhausted. But she knew they were on the right track--now that Pastor Nick had finally opened up to them. Even if it was just a small clue, it was still something to work with, and at this point, Hanji was more than willing to accept even the tiniest hint.

Glancing up from her map, Hanji squinted through the darkness, then turned to Moblit. His face wore its usual worried frown; it was obvious even in the dim light of his torch that he was hesitant to be out in the open at night like this.

“To the southwest, there's an old castle right next to Wall Rose,” Hanji told him, looking down at the map again. “There should be some sort of lookout tower, and from there we should be able to survey the wall. It's as good of a place to start as any.”

Taking a deep breath, Hanji pushed her goggles up her nose.

“We're heading for Castle Utgard!” she cried, pushing her horse forward. Not a word of reply came from the soldiers behind her, including Eren and his friends. She glanced behind her, making sure that they were still there.

The three members of the 104 th graduating class were riding alongside one another with such determined faces that Hanji could barely believe they were new recruits. She didn't know any of them particularly well, but she felt respect for all of them. As Hanji turned around, she couldn't help but wonder if these three were the only ones with such amazing bravery and determination. Even if not, there was definitely something that set these three apart from the rest.

 

“Ymir...what're you doing?”

Glancing up from the box she was rummaging through, Ymir briefly locked eyes with Reiner. She smirked, then went back to her scavenging. It was obvious that he was not going to try to stop her, and considering that this was exactly how she had survived on her own for so long, she knew she had the upper hand anyway.

“Oh, it's you, Reiner,” she muttered. Her smirk widened a bit as she faced Reiner. “What, sneaking up on girls at night with some dirty intentions?”

“That's surprising--I didn't think I looked like the kind of guy with interest in women,” Reiner replied, raising his eyebrows at Ymir. A knowing smile crossed his face as he added, “But you really don't look like a girl who's interested in guys, either.”

“Hah...” Ymir grimaced as she turned back to the crate. “I've been searching for something to fill up my stomach... It does look like this may be our last dinner, so...”

“...About Connie's village...” Ymir paused, waiting for Reiner to finish his thoughts. He was so ridiculously unpredictable at times, Ymir had to really focus to figure out exactly what kind of mindset he was in. “...You did all you could to make him drop the subject, didn't you? I want you to keep it up...so that he doesn't worry unnecessarily about his family...”

“What the hell are you goin' on about? ...Oh! Found something!” Ymir tightened her grip on the small can as she pulled it out from the crate. “Looks like this'll do...though I can say I'm all that fond of herring.”

“Maybe there's more in there?” Reiner suggested, holding out his hand. “Lemme take a look.”

“...Sure.”

Ymir held out the can of herring and placed it into Reiner's palm; she was not nearly as nervous as she felt she probably should have been. There was no way he would be able to read that label--she was probably the only person in the entire group who could read it, and maybe one of the last people in the world who knew that set of characters. Normally, she would have been a little more discreet about that knowledge, but to be honest, the best person to relay that information to would probably be Reiner.

Ymir was not stupid--she could see that Reiner was like her, and she could also see that he was coming unhinged. It had been a slow but steady change over the years, and it was almost sad to watch him struggle. But she had learned how to take advantage of it, and she planned to continue to do so as long as she could.

“Canned food, eh...?” Reiner chuckled. Ymir kept rummaging through the crate as Reiner fell silent. “What...are these characters? I can't read them at all... Do they say 'herring'...? You...sure can read them with no problem, huh, Ymir...?”

Ymir watched with a strange sense of satisfaction as Reiner's expression became more and more horrified as he stared down at her. She knew he must be even more confused than the average dumbass, what with his frequent reality tune-outs and considering his own fucked-up background.

I'm exactly who you think I am, she thought, staring Reiner down. I'm exactly what you think I am...

“Everyone, wake up!!”

Lynne's shout came from the upper part of the tower and echoed down to the room they were in. “Get up to the roof! This instant!!”

Ymir watched in satisfaction as Reiner dropped the can of herring and bolted through the door. As she got up to follow him, she gave the can a sharp kick and sent it flying into the shadows on the other side of the room. With any luck, she would able to avoid questions for at least a little while, until whenever Reiner decided to remember that ordeal again.

However, what awaited them outside made Ymir's heart start pounding all over again. Down below them were several Titans, and a few were big enough to easily scale the outer walls of the castle. The only thing keeping them from becoming Titan fodder now was the sheer height of the lookout tower.

“The moon finally came out from behind the clouds...and that's when I saw...” Lynne breathed.

“Why?! How?!” Gelgar gasped, obviously panicked. “How can they still move?! It's been several hours since the sun went down!!”

“What is...going on...?” Krista murmured from Ymir's side.

“Hey, look! Over there!!” Connie shouted, pointing to the north. Ymir felt a chill run down her spine as she turned toward where Connie was gesturing; she had expected things to get messy, but never like this. “Just what is...that huge...thing?”

As they all watched the giant, ape-like Titan lumber away from the castle, Ymir glanced at Reiner and Bertholdt; the expressions on their faces were ones of shock and surprise, but there was a quality to them that differed from everyone else's.

Just as I thought... Ymir told herself, glaring at them for a moment before turning her eyes back to the ape Titan.

“A Titan...? But it looks more like a beast...right?” Connie asked, but no one could answer him. Even Ymir was at a loss; this was a catastrophe, to say the least. “Oh... He's...heading for the wall...!”

Suddenly, the ground beneath them shook, and Ymir looked down to see one of the bigger Titans ramming its shoulder into the tower.

“Huh?! Oh, come on!” Gelgar whined, his eyes wide as he peered down over the side of the tower. “Oi, oi, oi, oi! Just what's going on?! Why the hell are they entering through the door? You gotta be bullshitting me...” With surprisingly intense ferocity, Gelgar pulled his blades from their holders and screamed, “Don't you fuck with me!! I didn't even get to drink that wine!! All because of you freaks!!!”

Gelgar was up and over the side of the tower wall in no time, and soon Ymir felt someone else pushing past her.

“You rookies step back,” Nanaba said, looking as calm as ever. “It's the 3D maneuvering gear's turn to play.”

 

…......

 

As she watched her Squad Leaders and the other Survey Corps veterans take down a couple of Titans, Krista could not help but feel impressed. They were indeed the bravest of the brave, and their various skill sets seemed to balance one another perfectly. She admittedly felt safer with them around, but the second Lynne popped back up to the roof of the tower, all hope faded from her mind.

“Titans got inside the tower!” the woman reported. “You'll have to go inside and set up a barricade to defend against them--and hurry! Our 3D gear will be useless indoors. If your defenses are breached and you've no other choice, run back up here!”

Krista watched Lynne's face closely as she stared down at the others still fighting. Her light hazel eyes looked tired, and her wavy brown hair was dripping with sweat.

“We can't guarantee we'll be able to save you in time, though,” she warned them quietly. “We don't even know if we ourselves will be alive at that time. Too many of them are still left... I'm not sure our gas and blade supplies can last long enough...but that won't change the one thing you all must do: keep fighting as long as you're still breathing! Got it?!”

“Got it!” Connie and Reiner cried, leading the pack toward the stairwell again.

As usual, Ymir ended up running alongside Krista, but the blonde grimaced, forcing herself to speed up. She did not want to be seen as useless now, and besides, this would be the perfect opportunity for her to test her limits and really push herself.

But it was not just because she did not want to be seen as a burden--no, Krista had a much more definitive goal in mind. She had joined the Survey Corps not because she was brave, nor because she wanted to drive out the Titans. At the end of it all, Krista planned to die.

“I'll go check how deep Titans have already penetrated into the tower!” Reiner cried, snatching a torch off of the wall. “You guys go find planks, sticks--anything, and bring them to me!”

“Reiner!” Krista exclaimed as the blond rushed away.

“H-Hey!” Connie cried, picking up speed, but his small legs could not match Reiner's strides. There was only one other with any hope of catching up to the young man, and he was gaining speed with each step.

“Reiner, wait!” Bertholdt shouted. This was by far the most aggressive Krista had ever seen him be. “Wait, I said!”

But even Bertholdt could not catch up with him--Reiner disappeared through the door and down the next flight of stairs in an instant. The others slowed their pace, all in mutual understanding that there was no stopping Reiner now.

“Reiner...that guy...he never changes, huh?” Connie grunted. “Even when something is happening for real, not in training...he's always taking up the most dangerous assignments... We can't hold a candle to him...”

“Yes,” Bertholdt murmured. Krista could barely hear him above the clamor of their footsteps. “It's his bad habit...”

Upon hearing Bertholdt's reply, Krista began to wonder if perhaps she and Reiner had more in common than she realized. She did not know much about his background--only a rumor that his hometown had been demolished by the Titans, and only he and Bertholdt had survived. He seemed to possess an unusually strong will, and she had always interpreted that as the will to survive. But now she was not so sure; looking at it from a slightly different approach, it might also be a strong will to die.

Perhaps I am not the only one... she realized as she came to a halt near the door with Ymir. We are all such ugly creatures...

Krista knew that she did not belong in this world, but if she could maybe give herself purpose, or at least die trying, she might find some self-worth. The only other person in the world who seemed to give a damn about her was Ymir, and she had made it quite clear that the main reason that she was sticking around was because of Krista's heritage.

But it's not like I can even do anything about that, she thought as she peered down the dark stairwell. Surely Ymir realizes this.

Krista was jerked out of her thoughts by a sudden shout from below.

“There's a Titan down here!!” Reiner cried. “Bring me something, anything to barricade the door with!!!”

 

…......

 

There were very few things that scared Reiner, and even fewer things that made him fear for his life. He had never considered the Titans to be much of a threat to him, because he had various ways of fighting them, and he knew he was strong enough to win.

But as he stood with his back against the thin wooden door, and as a Titan's arm broke through it right next to his head, Reiner thought it really might be his end.

“You're kidding me...” he breathed, dodging the Titan's desperate grasps.

He's gonna break through the door in no time...! he realized, his heart pounding in his ears as he saw the bottom part of the door start to bend. At this rate...I'm gonna... Here...? Is this the place where I'm gonna die...?

Reiner stared ahead of him as the door behind him rattled and trembled against his back. He had felt this desperation once before; he remembered it all too clearly. It had by far been the worst day of his life, and it still haunted him, even all of these years later.

A while ago, Reiner had been friends with another boy from his village--his name was Marcel Berrick, and he was the pride of their village. Reiner felt powerful from having such an amazing friend, as if he could do anything, and with Marcel and Bertholdt by his side, he feared nothing. But on the day his village was attacked, that feeling of invincibility was shattered as he felt Marcel's hands push him out of a Titan's grasp--only to be snatched up in exchange.

Reiner and Bertholdt both had been powerless; they could only watch as the Titan crushed Marcel's head between its jaws. That moment had changed Reiner's life: it was the day he decided he would never let himself feel so helpless ever again, no matter what.

No...not here, Reiner told himself as Marcel's face faded from his mind. Not in this place.

Just as the Titan finally burst through the door, Reiner jumped away, whirling around to face it head-on. He had no plan of attack, but he would not go down without a fight.

“REINER!”

Reiner glanced over his shoulder just in time to see Bertholdt sprinting down the stairs, a pitchfork in his hands.

We're gonna return to our hometown...without fail... Reiner reminded himself as Bertholdt shoved the prongs into the Titan's eyes. The blond grabbed hold of the handle as well, and together they began to shove the Titan back down the stairs.

“Reiner, are you all right?!” Bertholdt gasped.

“Yeah...” Reiner replied. The young man glanced at his best friend, whose face was shiny with sweat. “Bertholdt...we are going to survive and return to our home, no matter what.”

“Y-yeah!” Bertholdt said, nodding once. “We will!”

“Reiner! Bertholdt!”

At the sound of Ymir's voice, Reiner turned around to see the rest of his friends standing at the top of the stairs. They were slowly pushing a large cannon, but Reiner could not quite understand what they had in mind.

“Hey...isn't that a...” he mumbled. Still keeping a firm grip on the handle of the pitchfork, he then shouted, “What about gunpowder?! And cannonballs?!”

“Don't have any!” Ymir cried. “That's why we're gonna give you this whole damn thing! Outta the way, you two!! Here goes!!!”

Reiner and Bertholdt leaped out of the way just as the others shoved the cannon down the stairs. It then smashed into the Titan, pinning it underneath its weight. Though it was still alive, it could no longer see, and between the cannon and the remnants of the wooden door, its limbs rendered useless.

“Well, looks like it worked...somehow...” Ymir muttered, hands on her hips as she stared down at the Titan. “By way of a miracle...”

“Yeah...” Bertholdt agreed. “This Titan probably can't get up now...”

“Dwarfed by that cannon, eh...?” Reiner chuckled as he turned around and headed for the stairs.

“But now what?” Connie asked. His eyes wide, he held up a small dagger and added, “All I found is this knife... Should I try to cut into the nap of its neck with this?”

“Don't,” Reiner replied. “Even if he's only trapped, he should already be wounded pretty severely.

“L-Let's all retreat to the upper floor for now,” Krista suggested, leading the way back up the stairs. “If one Titan found its way in, others will follow...!! CONNIE!!”

 

…......

 

Bertholdt had seen this scene played out once before. It was one of the worst memories of his already bleak childhood, and it was something that would always stick with him for the rest of his life.

But now, things were different--now Reiner was the one pushing Connie back, instead of the one falling to the ground in shock. Now Reiner was the one letting himself become a sacrifice, and there was no way to protect him. And Bertholdt did the same thing that he had done back then: he stood there slack-jawed, eyes wide in horror as the Titan clamped down onto Reiner's arm.

“Reiner!” he gasped. “Wha...?”

Bertholdt had always known that Reiner was strong, but he still could not help but be amazed as Reiner let out a loud battle cry and in one swift movement, lifted the Titan onto his back. He then began to slowly march up the stairs, heading toward the large window nearby.

“H-hey?!” Connie cried. “Reiner, you can't be planning to jump outta the window together with it?!”

“What other choice do I have?!” Reiner screamed, one knee already on the window's ledge. Bertholdt was still paralyzed with fear, but luckily, Connie sprang into action.

“No, wait!” he exclaimed, digging his knife into the Titan's jaw. “If I can just slice the muscles in his jaw...!!” Bertholdt watched in amazement as Connie quickly sawed at the Titan's mouth, and soon he was pulling Reiner away from the Titan. “Your arm's free!”

Though its jaw had been sliced up, the Titan was still moving just fine; it sat on the windowsill for a moment, as if trying to recover. But Bertholdt couldn't stand the sight of it anymore. He was not usually one to feel so aggressive toward a Titan, especially one as small as this one, but he was burning with anger at the thought of having almost lost his best friend to it, and soon he was lunging toward it.

To Bertholdt's surprise, Ymir appeared beside him just as he reached the Titan; she slammed her heel into its face, and as it began to teeter backward, Bertholdt pushed its legs up, forcing the beast backward out of the window. Panting for air, he watched as it plummeted to the ground, and as soon as he knew it wouldn't be coming back, he whirled around to Reiner. The blond looked more shocked than anything else; he did not say a single word even after they returned to the main room. As Connie and Ymir bolstered the door leading downstairs, Krista went to work on Reiner's wound. Bertholdt did not know what he could do to help her, so he instead opted to join Connie and Ymir. If they were going to be stuck in here together, he might as well put himself to use for once and help them in whatever way he could.

“What are we gonna do when they break through again?” Connie muttered as he hammered a wooden stake in place. “There's no way we'll get that lucky a second time...”

“Agreed,” Bertholdt said quickly. “My sentiments exactly...”

He glanced back at Reiner, who was sitting on the ground with Krista; she had recovered the wine Gelgar had found earlier, and she was pouring it over the gaping wound on Reiner's arm.

“Sorry! Sorry...” Krista whimpered as Reiner clenched his teeth. “The bone is fractured, I think...”

“Yeah, looks like it,” Reiner muttered in reply. Bertholdt looked away, pursing his lips. The sooner they could get out of this castle, the better; there was no point in Reiner having to suffer like this.

“Okay, we have a brace and now we need some kind of bandage... Ah, I know.”

Again Bertholdt looked over at the pair; Krista was now ripping off the bottom half of her long skirt. She wrapped it around Reiner's arm slowly, frowning.

“Um...I'm afraid this dirty cloth is all we have...” she mumbled. “I'm sorry...”

“Don't be,” Reiner grunted, the embarrassment written all over his face. “Thank you.”

“You all right, Reiner?” Connie asked.

“Yeah, more or less.”

“Hey, Krista, I cut my finger, too,” Ymir said suddenly, holding up her hand.

“Huh? That's barely a cut,” Connie told her. “Just spit on it and you'll be fine.” He then turned to Reiner, his face falling. “Reiner, I'm sorry for what happened earlier. Seems like all I do is get saved by you, huh? Come to think of it, you risked your life to save me from Annie, too, didn't you...? One of these days, I gotta return the favor...”

“...It's nothing. Just forget it,” Reiner replied, his voice low. Bertholdt could see the distant look in his eyes, and he knew exactly what he was thinking about. “I'm a soldier... I only do what I'm supposed to do.”

“Well, I wonder about that,” Connie chuckled. “You never hesitate to put your life on the line. I doubt my resolve can compare. Say, Bertholdt...has Reiner always been like this?”

Bertholdt glanced at Connie before looking back at Reiner. Connie's question was more complicated than he probably even realized, and that made Bertholdt feel incredibly sad. Their lives had not been easy in the past, but it was still better than the way things were now.

“No... In the past, Reiner was a warrior,” Bertholdt finally declared. “Different from how he is now...”

“What's that supposed to mean?” Reiner said, looking up at Bertholdt. “Warrior? What're you even talking about?”

Bertholdt sighed through his nose as he looked down at Reiner; there was still a distant look in his eyes, but it had changed since earlier. He had become detached again, Bertholdt could tell, and there was nothing he could do to control it.

“For the time being, let's scrape together everything that we can use as a weapon,” Ymir told them, heading toward the window, “so that we don't have any regrets when it's our time to die. ...Well, actually, part of our chance of survival--” Ymir grunted as she hopped up onto the windowsill. “...Is riding on our commanding officers' strength... Ooh...that's the Survey Corps for you, all right. They're on a whole different level than the soldiers from other divisions...”

Bertholdt and the others joined Ymir at the window, staring down at their Squad Leaders. They had already managed to kill off most of the Titans in the area, despite being clearly outnumbered.

“Eh? What's that noise?” Krista asked suddenly. Bertholdt squinted through the darkness; indeed, there was a strange noise coming from nearby, and it was getting louder by the second.

Before anyone could reply, the ground suddenly shook beneath them as the stable exploded into pieces. As the smoke began to clear, Bertholdt could see that it was not a mere explosion--a giant boulder had come flying into the castle grounds from afar.

Only a Titan could lift something that huge, Bertholdt realized, but before he could do or say anything, he heard the noise again.

“Get down!” Ymir shouted, and the five teens huddled down just in time as another boulder slammed into the castle--this time into the top of the tower.

“What was that?!” Connie cried, straightening up and bolting up the stairs. Bertholdt and the others followed him; luckily, the path up to the top of the tower was unaffected, and their signal fire was still burning brightly. However, the group came to a halt as they stared down at the fresh corpses of two of their Squad Leaders: Henning and Lynne.

“There's nothing we can do for them anymore...” Gelgar was saying as he smoothed Lynne's hair. Her right arm was completely gone, and Henning's head was smashed in from the left side. When he noticed the new recruits had joined them, he added, “They both died instantly. Be careful... A rock came flying from the direction of the wall--they were both crushed by it...”

“Oh no,” Krista whimpered.

“From the direction of the wall...?” Ymir echoed.

“It's him!” Connie broke away from the group, running toward the side of the tower closest to Wall Rose. Bertholdt turned to face where he was pointing, and sure enough, he could see that same Beast Titan sitting atop Wall Rose. It was unlike anything he had ever seen. “It's the one we saw headed for the wall earlier! That beast-like Titan!! It's his doing...!! Whoa!!”

Bertholdt knew what Connie was about to say before he could even turn around; he could feel the earth rumbling with Titans' footsteps, and it was obvious what was headed their way.

“A great number of Titans incoming...!! More than twice as many as before...” Connie gasped.

“What did you say...?!” Gelgar breathed, his tone as dark as his expression.

“The moment they chose to show up--all of this looks like they're acting according to some kind of actual plan...” Nanaba declared, getting to her feet. She grimaced as she looked at the oncoming Titans. “It almost feels like we're being toyed with...like we have been right from the start...”

 

 

Chapter Text

“Then it's you, ain't it...? The illegitimate child of a mistress driven out of the house.”

Ymir's tone was always somewhat unpleasant, but between her harsh words and the bitter cold, Krista felt ready to collapse into a heap in the snow. She had thought that she did a good job of hiding her true heritage--and her true nature--from everyone, but somehow, this girl...

“Why...? How do you...”

“Oh, I'm right on the mark, eh? It really is you.” Ymir gave Krista a small smirk as she went on, “I happened to accidentally overhear a certain conversation at a church in the innermost land back when I was going 'round ‘borrowing’ money to keep living. It was dangerous talk that no outsider was supposed to hear: there were an heiress to a certain important house, a direct descendant by blood but born out of wedlock, which made her unacceptable as a successor for many of them. They thought everything would be so much easier if she just dropped dead--or at least renounced her name and lived like an ordinary person... Only then would they be willing to overlook her existence. And the girl they were talking about did just that--she changed her name and joined the military trainees after having been driven out of the house, they said...”

Krista stared at Ymir with wide eyes. She wasn't entirely sure if she believed that Ymir had just overheard all of that information, but no matter how she had found out, the fact that she knew so much made Krista uneasy.

“Don't worry...I've not intention to sell you out,” Ymir added after a brief pause.

“Then...you joined the trainee squad just to find me?” Krista murmured, trembling as she stared into Ymir's narrow gold eyes. “Why would you go to such lengths...?”

“...Who knows...maybe because we're alike...?”

 

Letting out a cry as she cut into a Titan's hand, Nanaba swerved just in time to avoid being snatched up. She hadn't touched solid ground for a while now; they had been fighting the Titans all night, and while her energy level was fine, her supply of gas and blades had seen better days.

This is bad, she thought as she swooped down and shot a hook into the Titan's neck. I'm almost out of gas...

Using her momentum, Nanaba launched herself above the Titan, then zoomed down and cut into his neck. Her slice took off the Titan's entire head, but she still looked back over her shoulder to confirm that she really had hit the nape.

Did I finish him off? she wondered as she shook her short, sweaty blonde locks from her eyes and focused on her prey.

Indeed, her strike had killed the Titan, but as it fell to the ground, it knocked into the smaller of the two towers--the same one that she and Gelgar had been using as a sort of base for the duration of the fight.

“Shit,” she hissed as she landed next to Gelgar on the side of the main tower.

“Guess that's it for our convenient hangout,” he murmured.

“I'm pretty much out of gas...and you?”

“Same--plus I used up all my blades. The dull ones in your hands are your last ones, too, right?”

“Yeah,” Nanaba grunted, looking down at her swords.

“I wonder how many of them just the four of us killed here...”

“Dunno... I had no time to count...”

“All things considered, I think I did pretty well here...” Nanaba smirked as she listened to Gelgar. He was as casual as ever; she was glad he was the one that had been able to stick with her until now. They worked well together, and she was proud to call him a team mate. She knew Mike would be proud of him now, too, if he could see all that he had done.

“It's just...before I'm gone...I wish I could have had a drink--wine or something...anything, really...”

“Gelgar...” Nanaba murmured, turning to face her partner. She was met with a sight that made her jump in shock; blood was dripping from Gelgar's head at an alarming rate. With so much blood lost, she was surprised he was even still conscious.

“Sorry, Nanaba...” he mumbled, staring down at the Titans with heavy-lidded eyes. “It hit my head...and I...have no strength left to...fight...anymore...”

To her horror, Gelgar clicked one of the triggers on his handles, and the single hook still holding him to the wall popped out from the old brick.

“GELGAR!!” she screamed as he began to fall face-first toward the Titans.

No, she told herself as she watched the tallest Titan snatch the man by his leg. Not like this, not like this...

Nanaba did not hesitate--this was one thing that she never hesitated about, after all. If she had learned one thing from Mike, it was that protecting her fellow soldiers was a top priority, even if it cost her own life in exchange.

In one swift motion, Nanaba pushed herself off of the wall and toward the Titan. She shot one of her hooks into its forehead, and with a quick burst of gas, she swung right over the top of its head, driving her blades into its nape. They cut through the Titan's skin, then shattered apart in Nanaba's hands--but her main concern was still Gelgar. As it died, the Titan had flung Gelgar through an open window and back into the castle.

“Gelgar!!” she cried, hooking herself back onto the tower wall once more and propelling herself toward the window.

Suddenly, she felt her gas pack shudder, and it began to sputter out bits of air at a time--nothing that she could get airborne on at all.

“Ugh?! Shit...” she whispered, gritting her teeth. “Now I'm really all out of fucking gas, huh...?” Her only option now was to try to scale the brick wall by hand and reach that window; if she could manage that, she might be able to escape safely and perhaps find another approach at fighting the Titans.

But by the time she had landed on the tower again, the Titans were already moving in, and they were head straight for her.

Oh god... she thought, her eyes widening. There was just no avoiding the reality of the situation: she was going to die. These pathetic gasps were going to be her last breaths. She should have anticipated this kind of ending, having joined the Corps and what not, but up until now, she had felt so full of power and life that it seemed impossible that she could really die.

But at least...at least those kids and Gelgar...

As a Titan reached out for her, Nanaba reached out with her stub of a blade to slash its fingers. But she was not fast enough--another Titan grabbed her arm, and in one strong tug, it pulled her off of the tower.

I don't want to die a coward...!

But Nanaba could not help herself; the only thing she could hear above her own shrieks was the sound of Gelgar screaming alongside her. Her efforts to save him had proved to be useless, and so they would be dying together after all. She did not have time to feel remorse--the pain of the Titans ripping her apart was too much, and soon she lost consciousness, her dying breaths nothing but tiny whimpers of fear.

 

…......

 

“Aah...Titans got them...”

Ymir had seen a lot of gruesome deaths in her lifetime, but for some reason, seeing Nanaba and Gelgar be ripped to shreds affected her more than usual. Perhaps it was that these soldiers had tried so hard to protect them, despite knowing how futile it all was.

From beside her, Krista gripped a piece of the crumbling tower in her hands, and with a small grunt she threw the piece of brick down at the Titans.

“Stop it, Krista,” Ymir scolded her, grabbing her by the collar. “This tower is barely holding up as it is. Any more, and it'll come tumbling down.”

“B-But...in our place...Squad Leader Nanaba and Gelgar...have...”

“Ahh...shit...” Connie, who had been standing on the other side of Krista, plopped down against the wall, clutching his head in his hand. “At this rate, there is where all of us are gonna... I mean, all we can do now is sit and wait for the tower to collapse and for them to devour us next...? Is that it...? Is this really...it...?”

In a sudden fit of rage, Connie slammed his fist against the wall behind him.

“Isn't there something--anything we can still do?! Shit! SHIT! SHIT!!” No one else said a word--he was right after all, and Connie seemed to get what their silence meant, too. “I...wanted my death to at least have some meaning, some purpose... But we're all gonna be annihilated without even completing our mission...”

Ymir could already feel the sudden mood swing radiating from Krista before the blonde even said a word. She knew what was coming: her usual bullshit, the good girl act. Ymir was tired of it, especially now in what would probably be her last minutes alive.

“Me, too,” Krista agreed, staring down at the Titans. “I don't want to go down without a fight. I wish we had some sort of weapon...then we all could die fighting together...”

“Krista...how can you still be spouting that bullshit?” Ymir blurted out, staring at Krista with wide eyes.

“Eh?”

“Don't you dare look at our superiors' death that way,” Ymir went on, getting angrier with each word. This behavior had gone on far enough, but now, here, it was just down-right offensive. “They didn't die so that you could use their deaths as a convenient excuse to commit suicide.”

“Y-you're wrong... I never intended to...”

“You're not like Connie or our commanding officers! I should know! It's not like you really want to not die--you're just always thinking about what way you could die so that you'll be praised for it. Am I wrong?”

“N-no... I-it's not like that...!”

Ymir could see that Krista was getting defensive, and she couldn’t help feeling a little bad for having been so harsh. But she had her reasons for being so blunt. She gave a damn about Krista. She wanted better for her than this life. Krista was the only person in the world Ymir cared about enough to take risks for, or to play the bad guy for...and that was never going to change. Ymir hated it, but she knew this was her role.

“Krista,” Ymir said, gripping the girl by the shoulders and staring her down. “You might have forgotten what I said to you long ago, but...since it's...probably the end...I want you to remember.” Krista's wide blue eyes began to blur as Ymir's own eyes filled with tears. “Try to remember what you promised me back when we were in training, in the snowy mountains...”

A small smile crossed Ymir's face as the memories flooded her head. She had taken a huge risk back then, not necessarily to save Daz's life, but to prove something to Krista. Ymir had just wanted to see Krista try to live for something for once--even if it made them into enemies. But even after revealing herself to Krista, the girl showed no malice, and she had never held it against her.

Slowly, Ymir straightened up and released Krista's shoulders, blinking back her tears. She could see the sun starting to rise, and she knew that if she didn't act now, they would all die miserable deaths, just like their Squad Leaders. Ymir didn't care so much about the others, but if Krista were to face that kind of end...well, it went against everything Ymir had been pushing for since the beginning.

“We got to see the dawn of our last day before dying, huh...?” Connie murmured as the sun began to peek over the horizon, lighting up their tired faces.

“Connie, gimme that knife for a sec,” Ymir said, holding out her hand.

“Here,” Connie grunted, handing her the dagger. She smiled, patting him on the head.

“Thanks.”

“What do you need it for...?”

“Well...” Ymir lowered her hand, turning back toward the Titans. “For fighting.”

“Oi, Ymir?” Reiner gasped. “What're you wanting to...?”

“Dunno. I'm really not sure myself.” Ymir glanced back at the boys, then turned again to Krista. “Krista...I have no right to tell you how to live your life. So just consider this my wish: live your life with your head held high.”

A confused smile crossed Krista's lips.

“Eh...?”

Well...goodbye.

Bursting into a sprint, Ymir ran right past Krista, leaping from the tower's edge.

“Ymir?! Wait!!”

But Krista's cries were not enough to stop her now. She was already falling toward the Titans, still gripping the knife in her hand.

Krista...I used to be like that, too...thinking that it'd have been better if I had never been born... I was hated for the simple fact of my existence in this world...and I died for the happiness of many people. But...there was one thing I wished for with all my heart: if I was ever given a second chance in life, my sincere wish was that...I wanna be able to live only for myself.

Without another second of hesitation, Ymir struck the blade of the knife against her palm and tightened her bloodied fist, ready to fight.

 

…......

 

Resisting the temptation to lick her lips or fidget, or show any sign of her nerves, Serene stood tall in the at-ease position. She was naturally self-disciplined, but she had rarely been this nervous before.

Calm down, she told herself. You know these three. It’s fine.

But Serene could not easily ignore the harsh stares coming from Bruno and Bianca Sertoli. She felt like she was on trial, what with the way they seemed to be judging her from head to toe. Both were sitting with their legs crossed and straight-backed in their chairs; they looked nothing short of royalty. Claus, who was sitting on the other side of Bruno, seemed out of place next to them, with his elbow resting on one arm of the chair, chin in his hand. He, too, was staring up at her, but his gaze was much more kind and forgiving.

“Serene…do you know why I keep my squad so small?” Bruno asked suddenly, his tone flat and completely unreadable.

“No,” she answered, shaking her head. “I mean, I’ve wondered about it before, but I never known the exact reason. Not that I think it particularly matters—as long as you have confidence in your decisions, then I think the rest of us will feel the same.”

I think I said too much, Serene realized as she watched Bruno narrow his eyes. He did not seem mad, but he could have been furious, and she never would have known. Both Bruno and Bianca excelled in keeping their emotions in check--to an almost alarming degree, really.

“What about your brother’s squad?” Bruno then asked. Serene let out a soft laugh.

“I wouldn’t necessarily refuse, but I don’t think that would end well,” she admitted. “I came into the Military Police to use my abilities to help the people in these walls, and I don’t want to limit that to just the rich, or just the people with power… I want to help anyone I can, but Ed has…a very different perspective than me.”

“I see.” Bruno then glanced at Bianca; she had not moved an inch since they had started, and her eyes were still fixed on Serene. “Bianca, what do you think?”

The blonde lowered her eyes, then looked back at her brother.

“It’s up to you,” she replied in a quiet voice. “I trust your judgment.”

Serene admittedly felt a little disappointed with Bianca’s reply. She had never quite been able to tell what the young woman was thinking, and she wondered if maybe Bianca just didn’t like her for some reason. The thought made Serene quite sad; they had a lot in common, and she wanted to be friends with her if possible. But that would require Bianca to open up to her, and for now, she was still her usual self: the unreadable, unpredictable ice queen of the Police.

“And you, Claus?” Bruno inquired, glancing at the red-head. He straightened up, shrugging a bit.

“I’m fine with it, but it’s your squad,” he replied casually. “It’s like Bianca said—it’s up to you.”

Bruno looked back up at Serene; his eyes were boring into her, and in that moment she found him almost frightening. But he was an elite soldier and had survived this long, so there was really no reason for her to not trust him. And whether she ended up in his squad or not, she was going to do her best, so there was no reason to be so nervous.

“…All right, Serene. I’ll welcome you into my squad,” Bruno declared at last. “Normally this kind of change would require permissions from your previous Squad Leader, but seeing as he is dead, this will be effective immediately. You’ll be moving to Bianca’s room, too. Please do so by the end of today.”

“Th-thank you!” Serene gasped, her eyes lighting up with delight. She was surprised that Bruno had let her into his elite team, yes, but she was even more stunned that Bianca would agree to let her be her roommate.

“Keep this in mind, though: our group recently lost two members to the disaster in Stohess,” Bruno continued, his voice low. “The Military Police is thought to be the safest place to be employed within these walls, but in this squad, there may come a time where you will have to put your life on the line. Do you still accept?”

“Yes,” Serene said, giving him a confident nod. “I have been prepared to die since I joined the military—but I don’t plan to let that happen anytime soon.”

“That’s good to hear.” Bruno gave her a small smile. “I look forward to seeing what your skills can offer us. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”

Serene brought her fist to her heart in a salute as Bruno stood from his seat; she watched him in silence as he left the conference room, and as soon as the door closed behind him, she dropped her pose, letting out an exasperated sigh.

“Welcome to the club!” Claus exclaimed, jumping up from his seat with a big grin on his face. “Finally, someone with a bit more sanity…”

“Thanks, but…” Serene let out a laugh as Bianca gave Claus a dirty look. “What d’you mean by that?”

“Shut up, Claus,” Bianca said quickly as Claus opened his mouth to speak again. “Let her make her own judgment calls.” The blonde stood from her chair, straightening up her uniform jacket. “Serene, we should get started on moving your things. We can save any conversation for later.”

“Right,” Serene murmured, lowering her gaze. Suddenly she was wondering if this had really been the right decision. She hadn’t even given it a thought until Claus spoke up, but as she followed Bianca out of the room, Serene realized that she did not know what Bruno’s goals or motivations were at all. In fact, she barely knew anything about the Sertoli siblings, and judging by Bianca’s cold silence as they walked down the hallway toward her room, she might not be able to get to know them well at all.

“This is it,” Bianca said as they rounded the corner. She unlocked the door and swung it open; it was a very spacious room, and there was an empty bed on the right side of the room. The left side obviously belonged to Bianca, and Serene couldn’t help but feel curious. This was the first time she had ever gotten a good look at this room.

“Here’s your key.” Bianca held out a brass key to Serene; she dropped it into her hand, then slipped off her shoes and walked inside. Serene quickly did the same, trying not to stare too much at Bianca’s belongings. “You can ignore my brother, by the way.”

“Eh?”

“Bruno often says things that scare people, but that’s not his intent,” Bianca explained, plopping down in an armchair next to a small round table near the room’s large window. “He’s not the most tactful person.”

“Oh,” Serene giggled. “It’s okay—my brother’s kind of an idiot, so I’m used to that kind of thing. But…still, it must be nice to be in a squad with your brother.”

“I guess.” Bianca shrugged a bit, glancing out of the window.

“Well, I mean, even if that isn’t so great, at least you have Claus, right? You guys are really close.” Serene let out a quiet laugh, her gaze falling to the rug beneath her feet. “I’m a little jealous. None of my close friends joined the Police.”

“Just because we’re close now doesn’t mean that we always have been or always will be,” Bianca said abruptly. “Claus and I used to hate each other.”

“What? Really?” Serene couldn’t help but feel shocked. Bianca and Claus were obviously close, so it was hard to imagine that they were ever not friends, let alone hated each other.

“It’s true. When we were in training, we couldn’t stand each other.” A sly smile crossed Bianca’s lips. “He was a shitty little brat, to be honest… But I guess I was, too.” Her smile fading, Bianca looked up at Serene. “We’ve both changed, I think. Before I wouldn’t have been sorry to see him die, but now, I’d gladly give my life to protect him. I’d like to think that he feels the same way.”

“That’s so crazy!” Serene exclaimed, grinning. “I never would have guessed that you guys didn’t get along. What happened to bring about such a turn-around?”

Serene watched as Bianca shifted her gaze away from Serene, back towards the window.

“…Some things happened. Some things were said. That’s all you really need to know.”

Her face falling, Serene looked away from Bianca and toward the empty bed. For a moment, she had thought that maybe it would be possible for her to become close to Bianca. But judging by Bianca’s statements about Claus and her attitude in general, Serene felt like an idiot for having assumed such a thing. It would not be that easy—it depended on Bianca as to how their relationship would change.

“…I’ll start packing up my things,” Serene murmured, pocketing the key and leaving the room.

 

Chapter Text

“Captain Hannes, wait!”

Upon hearing Milena cry out, Yasmin turned just in time to see Hannes take off on his gear, leaving the Squad Leader standing alone, her hand outstretched.

“Milena?” Yasmin called out, jogging over to her friend. “Is everything all right?”

“…No,” Milena said in a firm tone. “Things are…the opposite of all right.” The blonde whirled around; Yasmin could see tears in her eyes. “They discovered that the person controlling the Female Titan…was Annie.”

“Annie?!” Yasmin gasped. “You can’t be serious. Our Annie? The one we trained with? There’s…no way…”

“That’s not all.” Milena lowered her gaze, her lips curling into a frustrated grimace. “Rosaleen hasn’t shown up today because Hannes sent her off on a job already—Titans have appeared in southern Wall Rose.”

It was all Yasmin could do to keep her knees from buckling.

“No…that’s not possible…” Yasmin mumbled, her throat closing up. “We’re so close to Trost right now—if the gate had been destroyed, we would have seen it happen.”

“…It appears Wall Rose has been breached.” Milena looked out toward the territory of Rose—or could they even call it that anymore? At this rate, mankind would be pushed back behind Sina. “Captain Hannes is going out with a small squad to find the location. From there, it’s up to Eren and the Survey Corps to take care of sealing the hole… All we really can do now is keep doing what we’re doing and wait for further orders.”

Yasmin turned her face to the sky, holding back tears. She should have known better than to let herself become so optimistic. Their reality was a harsh one; never before had she been so desperate to be home.

Facing the east, Yasmin squinted out at the horizon, sighing deeply. She was much too far away to see her hometown from here, but she wanted to believe that things would be all right for her family. At least now she had the power to do something—at least now, she knew how to fight back.

 

“Krista...did you know that Ymir was a Titan...?”

Connie looked up at Reiner; his normally calm and carefree expression was gone, and in its place was a dark and gloomy visage. Not that Connie could blame him--this was the last thing he had expected to see before he died. When Ymir had taken the knife from him and leaped over the edge of the castle tower, Connie did not think that she would survive. He thought she might be sacrificing herself for a distraction, or committing suicide, or something--anything but this. Anything but becoming a Titan.

“No, I didn't...” Krista finally answered, staring down at Ymir's Titan form. It was much smaller than Eren's, but fast and nimble, with a large head and skinny limbs. What she lacked in brute strength, she made up for in her agility. “We've been so close all this time, but I...I had no idea. I can't believe it. We've known each other for three whole years, and yet...what is... Is this...is this really Ymir?! It...can't be... I can't even... I refuse to believe it.”

Krista sounded as though she was in great denial, and again, Connie couldn't blame her. He felt the same, even more so than he had with Eren. He knew that there were Titan shifters out there now, but that Ymir, of all people, was one of them...?

“In other words, she...knows some answers to the mysteries this world holds,” Reiner stated, his voice shaky. “Geez...I never would've imagined...”

“She should have revealed her true identity and contributed to the cause of the Survey Corps, like Eren,” Bertholdt added, sounding a little frustrated. “Does the fact that she didn't do it mean that she simply couldn't for some reason...?”

“Hold on a sec!” Connie exclaimed, eyes widening as he continued to watch Ymir. She was tearing the Titans below apart as fast as she could, but she was still overwhelmingly outnumbered, and it was obvious that she understood this. Her movements were quite strategic, and her attacks were quick and to the point. “Eren didn't even know he could transform into a Titan, right? But in Ymir's case...it looks to me that she had some idea about her Titan powers, y'know?”

Connie paused, waiting for someone to interject or tell him he was wrong. But no such reply came, and his head began to throb.

“If that's the case, then...whose side is she on...?” he murmured.

“On whose side?” Krista echoed, looking at Connie with wide blue eyes. “You mean Ymir could be an enemy of mankind?”

“Yeah...” Connie admitted, the very thought sending a chill up his spine. “Now that I think about it, she always acted so disinterested no matter the situation, like it didn’t have anything to do with her at all. Was that because she possessed this kind of hidden power? And I could never tell what she was really thinking, y'know...?”

“Just what...is Ymir's objective, I wonder...?” Bertholdt added. Connie admittedly felt guilty for doubting one of his friends, but it made him feel better to know that he was not the only one who was confused and hesitant to trust her.

Krista did not reply, and so Connie continued to watch Ymir struggle. She was now perched on the side of the castle tower, swinging her arm down at the Titans as if to bat them away.

All of a sudden, one of the larger Titans snatched Ymir's wrist. Connie heard Krista gasp from beside him as Ymir's grip on the brick loosened, and she started to fall into the crowd of Titans below.

“YMIR!” Krista screamed as Ymir tumbled down from the tower. Despite the other Titans eagerly trying to get a bite out of her, Ymir was still fighting. With her razor-sharp teeth, she tore off the hand of the Titan that had grabbed her, and she ripped her other forearm out of another Titan's jaws. Digging the claws of her feet into the Titan's head, she leaped into the air, reaching out toward the tower's brick wall once again.

But before she could get a good grip on the wall, another Titan caught Ymir's leg; her nails were dug into the pieces of brick she was holding, but the Titan below was pulling so hard that the bricks were coming right out of the tower. Instead of trying to climb up the wall or swipe away the other Titans, though, Ymir just looked up at the four of them, and she released her hold on the wall.

“Wha--?!” Krista gasped.

“Sh-she...!! She let go of the tower?!” Connie cried as Ymir fell into the hands of the Titans once again. “Why?! Don't tell me it's because she doesn't want the tower to collapse?!”

“...Yes, precisely,” Krista replied, her voice low. “If she had wanted to, she could've easily escaped on her own by using that Titan power of hers... And her Titan form isn't big enough to stand a chance at defeating all of the Titans gathered here. But despite all of that, Ymir is fighting with her life on the line right now...because...she's desperately trying to protect us.”

 

…......

 

“Why...? Ymir...”

Despite her attempts to seem as sweet and kind as possible, deep down Krista hated most people. She knew more than most how fickle and disgusting people could be--like animals with no sense of values. So much had already been taken away from her in this life that the thought of losing the only person she actually cared about scared her.

She had lied about not knowing Ymir's abilities--she had known since back when they were training in the snowy forest, when Ymir saved Daz by carrying him down a cliff. But she had lied to protect herself, like a selfish little child. Krista knew that she did not deserve to be treated with any real respect, since she was so miserably fake and just as disgusting as the rest of humanity.

And yet here was Ymir: she had revealed her darkest secret and was now sacrificing herself so that Krista could live. It was more than she could bear, and she no longer could make herself care about keeping up her good girl act. There was just no way she could live with herself if she let Ymir die for her sake.

“Don't die, Ymir!” Krista screamed, jumping on top of the edge of the tower. “Don't you die in a place like this!! Don't put on the good girl act, you hear?! Don't tell me you hold us so dear that you want to die for us, you idiot!!”

Krista felt Connie try to pull her back down from the wall, but she pushed him away and continued to shout.

“You're a person who values herself above all else, aren't you?! You're Ymir, the person with the worst personality imaginable--don't you forget that!!! Live for yourself!! If you're planning on dying while protecting this tower, then to hell with it! Just break it down already!!”

Krista was not even sure how much Ymir could hear of her words, but it was obvious that she had heard enough; Ymir started pulling bricks from the tower and flinging them behind her. They smashed into the Titans' faces and bodies, stunning them, and soon she was free of their grasp once again.

“H-hey!!” Connie cried.

“She's...really gonna destroy this tower?!” Reiner gasped, obviously panicked.

But Krista could have cared less. She was so proud that Ymir was still fighting. She was so, so glad that things were back to the way that they should be: a selfish Ymir trying only to save herself.

“WAY TO GO, YMIR!!” Krista shouted, raising her fists above her head in delight. She could feel the tower shuddering beneath her, and she knew it wouldn't be long until they all would fall to the ground, maybe even to their deaths--and all because of Ymir. But Krista didn't care. If she was going to die, this would be the best way to go.

But it seemed that Ymir had another plan in mind; she appeared before them, her beady eyes staring down at them as she perched herself on the edge of the crumbling tower.

“Wanna...live...grab...on...”

The voice that came from Ymir's Titan was growling and deep, and it barely sounded human at all, but Krista could still hear Ymir in there. There was no doubt in her mind that they could trust her--and if they wanted to live, they wouldn’t have a choice.

Leaping toward Ymir, Krista reached out and grabbed onto her hair. It felt just like human hair, but slightly thicker and much stronger. Once all four had grabbed a hold of her, Ymir jumped on top of the falling tower; Krista could feel gravity pulling them down, and when she glanced behind her, she could see Lynne and Henning's corpses sliding away. She could feel the bricks collapsing beneath them as they rode the tower down, and she could hear the groans and cries of the Titans as they became pinned beneath the rubble. Soon they were on the ground, and it was safe to let go of Ymir at last.

“I can't believe this...” Connie breathed, staring up at Ymir. “She made it so that the Titans were buried under the debris... One hell of an idea for her to come up with...”

Glancing over her shoulder at the Titan shifter, Krista smiled, her heart swelling with pride and joy. They had survived, all because of Ymir, and if that didn't prove she was on humanity's side, Krista didn't know what would.

“Ymir...” she murmured. But before she could say anything else, Krista felt the bricks beneath her feet start to shift. The boys, too, seemed to notice movement, and there was only one possible explanation.

“The Titans are trying to get back up!!” Connie cried.

“No way...!” Krista gasped.

“Hey, fugly! Finish 'em off, c'mon! Hurry up!” Connie then shouted, turning to Ymir, who had already started toward the first Titan pushing its way out from under the brick. She dove straight for the nape of its neck, but just as she was tearing the flesh away, another Titan reached up and grabbed Ymir by the hair. This Titan was easily twice her size, and with hardly an ounce of effort, it swung her up into the air, then slammed her down head-first into the bricks.

“Oi, oi, oi...!” Connie breathed as more Titans began to pop up out of the rubble. “This is so not good... They're...eating Ymir...”

It was true—it seemed that Ymir was now too weak to fight back, and now the other Titans were tearing her apart. They had already pulled off her arms, and the smaller ones had closed in on her head. If they kept this up, they'd get to the human Ymir in no time.

“Ah...no way...” Krista whimpered. “This...can't be...”

Unable to stop herself, Krista sprang into action; she clambered over the bricks and toward the Titans, shouting Ymir's name. She could hear the boys calling after her, but she didn't care. There was something important that she had to take care of.

“Wait! Ymir!” Krista screamed, short of breath as she tried to hold back her tears. “There is still...still something I need to tell you...!! I have yet...!! I have yet to tell you my real name!!!”

Before Krista could reach Ymir, though, yet another Titan pushed its way up from the wreckage; it locked eyes with Krista, reaching toward her slowly.

“Wait!” she cried, freezing in place. “I still need--”

Krista was interrupted not by her impending death, but by a much more benevolent force. A blur of brown and green flew into sight and shot across the back of the Titan's neck.

“...Mikasa?!” Krista gasped as the soldier landed beside her. The teen's black hair waved around her face, and her eyes were narrow and serious as always.

“Y-you...! Why are you--”

“Krista,” Mikasa said, cutting Connie off. “All of you--stand back. We'll handle this from here.”

In the heat of the moment, Krista had not noticed, but the area was now filled with Survey Corps soldiers. She could see Armin and Eren among them; the latter landed near them, cheering triumphantly after striking down a Titan. As relieved as she was to see them all, she was still concerned for Ymir; she was now physically incapable of defending herself, and Krista did not want her to fall prey to people's fear and be judged before being given a chance to explain.

Krista lunged forward once again, crawling over bricks and Titan corpses alike. She could see that the Titans who had been eating Ymir had been cleared out, and so she scrambled over to the brunette, whose human form was visible once again. Clenching her teeth as she held back her tears, Krista knelt down beside her, gently pulling her into her arms. Squad Leader Hanji was already there; she was holding a rag to Ymir's gut, trying to slow the bleeding. Krista smiled as she took the rag from the Squad Leader without a word.

“Ymir...” she whispered, looking down into the teen's unconscious face. To her relief, Ymir slowly opened her eyes and looked at her, obviously still in a daze. “...My name is...Historia.”

A small smile appeared on Ymir's face, and slowly she closed her eyes again, looking the most content that Historia had ever seen her.

 

…......

 

Heaving a deep sigh, Rowen pushed open the door to the Survey Corps mess hall; he was not surprised to see Catherine sitting alone inside. After all, she was one of the few actually crazy enough to be up this early. The sun had not even risen yet, and breakfast wasn’t for hours; there was no good reason for anyone to get up at this hour.

“Couldn't sleep?” she asked him, glancing up from her cup of coffee. Rowen shrugged, walking over to her.

“I slept for a little while, somehow,” he answered, taking a seat across from her. “But I... I couldn't stop thinking about it...”
“Me neither...” Catherine narrowed her eyes, staring at the wooden table. “I just feel useless, y'know? There's a breach in Wall Rose, and all of our peers are out looking for it, but we're stuck here? I just...can't figure out what Commander Erwin is planning.”

“Well, if everything goes to shit, we're going to be the ones to pick up the slack,” Rowen pointed out, giving his best friend a gentle smile. “After all, we've been around a while, Cat.”

“So have Mike and Nanaba--and yet they were instructed to take those new recruits out. I don't get it.” Catherine leaned back in her seat, lifting her gaze to the ceiling. “Even Levi went out with Hanji and the others--and he's injured. It just feels like a waste of time to be waiting around here.”

“I know...but I also trust Commander Erwin. He has yet to lead us astray, so he must have something in mind that we just don't understand.”

“...Maybe.”

Rowen could tell that Catherine was still frustrated; she drank down the last of her coffee in a single gulp, then swung her legs over the side of the bench.

“Well, if I'm going to be stuck here all day, I'm going to get some studying done,” she declared. “You're staying in here, right? I'll bring some stuff down. Maybe you can help me or something.”

“All right,” Rowen murmured, nodding as he rested his elbows on the table. Putting his chin in his hands, he watched Catherine as she walked toward the door. Her footsteps were quick and made her impatience even more obvious. Closing his eyes, Rowen listened as they got farther away, then suddenly stumbled to a stop. Upon hearing Catherine's startled gasp, his eyes flew open again, expecting the worst.

He immediately relaxed when he caught sight of what had started her--it was more amusing than it was frightening. Catherine was standing at the door, her hand on one of the handles, and on the other side of the door was Captain Levi with another man standing behind him.

“God, you scared me...” Catherine muttered, stepping out of the way as she pulled the door open. Levi said nothing, but Rowen could tell that he had been startled, too. Letting out a quiet laugh through his nose, Rowen then turned his attention on the other man. He was dressed in black robes and wore his hair short--even from where Rowen was sitting, he could tell the man was from the Wall Church.

“What's going on, Captain Levi?” Rowen asked, trying to hide a smirk as Catherine let out a quiet, exasperated sigh. “To what do we owe the pleasure of your company so bright and early?”

“First, drop the 'Captain' shit,” Levi replied, glancing over at Catherine before looking back at Rowen. “And I'm not here because I want to be. I don't have a choice, as long as Nick is here with us.”

“Nick?” Catherine echoed, stepping away from the door. “...I can tell he's from the Wall Church. Levi, why is he here?”

“He's going to be hanging out with us for a while,” Levi told her. “Actually, you'll probably enjoy chatting with him--he knows quite a bit about the Titans and the monarchy alike, including about the Titans in the walls.” Glaring up at Pastor Nick, he added, “The problem is getting the information out of him. He's only given us one little hint so far...”

“Wait, wait a minute.” Eyes wide, Catherine rushed over to the priest. “Why...? Why would you insist on hiding such important information? You know we might be able to use it to save humanity, right?”

“He doesn't seem to give a damn, unfortunately,” Levi muttered. “I even took him on a special tour of the Hermiha district, and despite seeing the sad reality of our world, he's only given us just one tidbit of--”

“Whoa, wait, what are you talking about?” Rowen interrupted, quickly standing from the table. “The Hermiha district? Sad reality? What's going on?”

“It should be obvious. The refugees from Wall Rose are filing in, and the residents of Hermiha are leaving for the inner wall in result.”

Rowen felt his throat close up, and he looked at Catherine. Her eyes were still wide, and her face was paler than usual. She was looking right at him, and he could tell she was thinking the same thing: Hermiha was their home, and they still had family there--and if the Titans continued to move north, it would be the next target.

“Are you sure?” she murmured, turning to Levi again.

“How could I not be sure?” Levi muttered.

“Rowen.” Catherine faced him again, taking a few steps toward him. “We should go. We aren't doing anything here anyway, and--”

“Cat, we can't just leave,” Rowen said, feeling his heart sink.

“Why the hell not?!” she cried. “We've been on standby for hours now--and who knows when we'll get another order?!”

“But what if Commander Erwin needs us?” Deep down, Rowen agreed with Catherine; he hated to think that his mother and fiancee might be in that crowd of fleeing citizens, but even if they were, what could he do about it? “There's nothing we can do, anyway! They're just doing what they think is best!”

“But what about Lucia? She's your fiancee, and--”

“Cat, enough!”

 

…......

 

Any time that Levi had ever seen Rowen, he was smiling or screwing around. Even out on the field, he seemed energetic and excited to be there. Levi did not expect him to be perfectly happy at all times, but it felt odd to see the man yelling at someone, especially the person he was closest to.

“Enough...” Rowen put a hand to his forehead, grimacing. “I know, okay? I know Lucia is still there. So is my mom, and so are your parents. But there's nothing we can do. We signed up to be in the Corps and use our skills that way—we got our orders, so we should leave the evacuating to the Police.”

Levi glanced at Catherine; she had looked away from Rowen and was now staring at the table beside her. He could see that she was still anxious, but it was obvious from her body language that she was not willing to pick a fight with him over it.

“So you two have family there, then?” Levi asked. Catherine turned toward him, nodding.

“That's our hometown,” she replied. “And...there are still people there waiting for us. Or at least, there were until now...”

“Your hometown...? You two are from Wall Sina?”

Both Catherine and Rowen nodded, somber looks on their face. Levi could hardly believe it.

“You mean you two left the interior to join the Survey Corps?” Nick asked suddenly. He seemed to be as surprised as Levi was.

“Yes,” Catherine replied, raising an eyebrow. “Why is that a big deal? It's not as though we're the only people to ever do this.”

“That's right,” Rowen then said, looking at Catherine. “We're not--there's Bruno. He's in the Police, Cat. He'll be there to help them. Lucia will know to look for him.”

“...”

“Who?” Levi interjected, looking back and forth between the two. He knew he had heard the name at least once before, but he still felt as though he was being left out of some kind of inside information--which wasn't too far off, really.

“He's another one of our friends from Hermiha,” Rowen explained. “He joined the Military Police, and he's one of their most valuable men.” Rowen then turned back to Catherine. “Bruno won't let anything happen to them. He'll know to look for our families.”

“...You're right.” Catherine looked up at Rowen; she still looked a bit uneasy, but it was obvious that she believed what Rowen was saying. “I'd trust Bruno with my own life--I think I can trust him with the lives of our families, too.”

Levi watched in silence as Rowen nodded at Catherine, a small smile appearing on his face. He couldn't help but feel a little curious about this “Bruno”--this was not the first time he had heard the name mentioned, and if it was indeed the same person, he was quite a force to be reckoned with. The last time Levi had talked with Erwin, he had brought up using Bruno's influence in the Military Police to their advantage, but he had glossed over specifics, and at the time, Levi could have cared less. Now, however, he couldn't help but wonder what was so special about this Police soldier.

“...If Erwin has you both on standby, it probably won't be long until he comes back,” Levi finally said, crossing his arms. Catherine turned to face him as he added, “Is he still in a meeting with Pyxis?”

“As far as we know,” Rowen replied.

“...I still don't like that we're stuck here,” Catherine said quietly, glancing away from Levi. “We still haven't heard anything about the soldiers who went out to locate the breach.”

“Hanji went out to find them,” Levi told her. “She should have more information on the breach soon, too, and she's with Jaeger. That kid can use his Titan powers to do something or other, right?”

“Will Eren really be able to plug another breach?” Rowen wondered out loud, pushing his glasses up onto his face.

The room fell silent; Levi did not have an answer for Rowen. Like with most things these days, there was just no way of knowing for sure. But it would at least be worth trying. They didn't really have any other options at this point, anyway.

“So, wait...” Catherine turned her gaze on Pastor Nick once again, pursing her lips. “Levi, you said that Nick told us one thing--what was it?”

“The identity of our true queen,” Levi replied flatly. “Turns out the king we have right now is just a figurehead for the Police to play with. The real monarch is actually a kid from Jaeger's graduating class.”

Thinking back to the conversation, Levi suddenly remembered one other detail. He stared at Catherine; she would be able to use this information better than anyone else.

“Oh,” he murmured.

“Oh?”

“There's something else... Catherine, you remember Ilse's journal?” When Catherine nodded, he continued, “You got to read Hanji's notes about it, right?”

“Yes...why?”

“Do you remember the name 'Ymir' being mentioned?” Catherine nodded again. It was obvious he had her full attention now; her eyes were boring into him. “Apparently, our true monarch has a friend with that name. She's also in that same class...and she also joined the Corps.”

“...Which means she's one of the unarmed recruits...” Catherine's eyes grew wide in a mix of shock and wonder. “...Dammit. She had better make it back here alive.”

“Do you really think she'll talk?”

“She has to,” Catherine said quickly, her eyes glittering. “I'll do whatever it takes to make her. If this isn't by coincidence--if she's really the Ymir that Titan mentioned...then she knows more about this world than all of us in this room put together. She has the answer to how we can save humanity...!”

 

Chapter Text

“Please believe me! It's true: Ymir revealed her secret and fought as a Titan to save us!”

Hanji looked down at the petite girl as she continued on about the circumstances of Ymir's Titan transformation. She could hardly believe that this tiny little girl was Historia Reiss, the true monarch of the people--but then again, she knew some other tiny little people who were capable of some pretty big things...

“She even disregarded her own life to save us!” she went on. “It clearly shows her loyalty to us as comrades! I know that her actions up to that point are inexcusable... She withheld information of vital importance to mankind. I suppose until then she was only concerned about herself...but she has changed.”

Hanji watched as the girl's expression grew serious; her large blue eyes were glowing with such ferocity that it made Hanji wonder if there was something more than camaraderie between these girls.

“And now Ymir is mankind's ally! As someone who's known her for a long time, I assure you that she's a lot simpler than she might seem!”

“...I see...” Hanji murmured, putting her hands on her hips. “Well, don't get me wrong... I'd rather be friends with her if possible. Regardless of what she did up until now, the information she can provide is a treasure to humankind. Of course I want to be on good terms with her.”

Hanji turned away from the teen, pursing her lips. She hated having to be a realist; it was against her very nature.

“It's just that...while Ymir herself might be simple by nature, the state of affairs in our lands is very complicated.” She motioned for Historia to follow her, and as they began to walk back toward the unconscious Ymir, she added, “You said your real name was...Historia Reiss? Reiss, as in the famous nobles?”

“Yes...”

“Is that so... Well, nice to meet you, Historia!”

 

Even as Mikasa pulled Connie up on top of Wall Rose, she kept part of her focus on Eren and Armin nearby. She did not like having to pretend like nothing was wrong--the last time they had tried this kind of plan, things had not ended well, and she had a hard time believing they would turn out any better this time, either. But for now, she would have to keep her distance from Eren so as not to seem too suspicious.

Still, she could hear bits and pieces of their conversation with Reiner and Bertholdt, and it was hard not to eavesdrop, and even harder not to just walk over there and end this with a single swipe of her blades.

“Is everyone here?” Hanji asked as Connie climbed up onto the wall. “We'll have to deal with Ymir later. First, we have to put a plan to restore the wall into action.” Mikasa watched as Hanji began to pace along the cannon railing, staring out into space. “I expected to see hordes of Titans around the breach, but...hm?”

Hanji fell silent quite abruptly, and her gaze dropped down toward the ground. Mikasa stood upright and began to walk over to the Survey Corps veteran. As she did, she turned toward where Hanji was staring and noticed a small group of soldiers riding toward them down below. However, instead of the blue-and-white wings of freedom on their cloaks, they donned red roses. As they grew closer, Mikasa recognized the man leading them.

“Hannes?” she murmured as the soldiers slowed to a stop just below them.

“It's the vanguard of the Garrison,” Hanji gasped. “They must have located the breach!”

Mikasa had known that Hannes had become a Captain in the Garrison, but she still had not expected to see him out here during a time like this. From her left, Mikasa could see Eren and Armin running toward her; it seemed that they, too, had noticed Hannes' arrival. At that moment that Mikasa couldn't help but think of their lives back in Shiganshina. They had run to greet Hannes back then, too. But now, the circumstances were entirely different.

Hannes reached the top of the wall using his gear to pull him up; it was obvious he'd had a lot of practice doing this before, and scaling the last bit of the wall did not seem to faze him. However, as he reached the top and locked eyes with the group, Mikasa noticed the dark expression on his face.

“There's no breach anywhere,” he announce, gritting his teeth as he pulled himself up.

“What...?” Eren gasped from beside her. He reached down toward Hannes, taking his hand and pulling the man to his feet.

“We've been searching all night, and I can guarantee you that at least between the Trost and Chlorba districts, there are no abnormalities in the wall,” he told them.

“What did you say!?” Hanji cried; her shrill exclamation rang in Mikasa's ears.

“We met up with the soldiers dispatched from the Chlorba district on the way and double-checked the wall, retracing each other's paths. And also, during all this time, we haven't come across even a single Titan.”

“But...we saw Titans here inside the wall! There’s no doubt about that...!” Armin murmured, looking perplexed. Mikasa always hated when he made that face. If Armin had no idea what was going on, then there was likely no one else that would understand their circumstances, either.

“You're sure you searched the wall thoroughly?!” Eren asked. “Maybe you're still drunk or something?!”

“As if I'd drink in a situation like this!” Hannes exclaimed. “And come to think of it, why are you guys even here?”

Mikasa turned her gaze back to Hannes, a grim frown creasing her face. There was no way they could answer that question now. It was too much of a risk to even half-ass a response.

“Hmmmm...” Luckily, Hanji was quick to cut in and redirect the conversation back to its original topic. “Well, if there's no breach in the wall, we have no choice but to call the operation off.” She turned toward her squad and added, “For the time being, we'll be on standby in the Trost district.”

As Hanji and her squad began to walk away, Hannes turned toward the trio once again.

“In any case, don't let your guard down just yet,” he muttered. “My squad will take our leave ahead of you.”

“What the hell is going on here?” Eren mumbled as Hannes walked away, going to meet up with his squad members that had finally scaled the wall.

“What does this all mean, I wonder...?” Armin added, slowly turning to follow after Hanji. Eren and Mikasa did the same, the latter watching the former in her peripherals as much as possible.

“Eren.”

“Nothing happened for five years,” Armin continued, as if he had not heard Reiner's voice from behind them. Here he was again--his acting was worth envying. “But now all of these strange things keep happening, one after another...”

“I need to talk to you,” Reiner then said in a louder, clearer voice. There was no way any of them could have ignored it, but only Eren turned to respond. Mikasa kept following Armin, but she moved her hands to the handles of her gear, gently wrapping her fingers around the hilts.

 

…......

 

Eren knew he could be dense sometimes, but he wasn't a complete idiot--or at least, not anymore. He had made the mistake of trusting people in the past, but he knew he couldn't afford that luxury now. He knew too much now.

“What is it?” Eren asked as he stopped to face Reiner and Bertholdt. The latter looked even more flustered than usual, while the former had a resolved expression on his face. It made Eren a little sad, to be honest--he had truly wanted to believe in them.

“...Five years ago...we were the ones who destroyed the walls and launched the attack on humanity,” Reiner said. “I'm the Armored Titan, and he's the Colossal Titan.”

Reiner plopped a hand on Bertholdt's shoulder; the brunet was now sweating profusely, and he was staring wide-eyed at the blond. Eren's blood was boiling, but he knew he had to control himself. He had to keep calm. He had to play along.

“Huh?” he grunted, raising an eyebrow at the pair. “What are you even saying...?”

“Wh-what are you saying all of a sudden, Reiner?!” Bertholdt gasped, reaching for Reiner's arm.

“Our objective was to wipe out all of the humans within the walls,” Reiner continued. “But...we don't have to do that anymore. Eren, if you come with us, we won't touch the walls ever again. You...get what I mean, right?”

“Huh?!” Eren gasped. “No, wait! I don't get you at all!”

“I'm telling you to come with us. Sorry it's so sudden, but we've gotta leave right now.”

“Right now?! Where to, anyway?!”

“I can't tell you that...” Reiner clenched his teeth, looking away from Eren. “But...well... Think of it as our home village.” Eren couldn't help but stare at Reiner; what he was proposing was so ridiculous that it made Eren want to punch him right then and there. “So? What's your answer, Eren? The offer's really not so bad, considering any crisis will be averted with us leaving.”

“Mmm...what should I even answer...?” Eren mumbled, glancing at Mikasa. She was staring at them with an intense gaze; there was no doubt that she had heard at least part of the exchange, judging by the hatred in her eyes.

“Hey! Are you guys coming?” Armin shouted from afar, waving his hand.

“Mmmm...” Eren closed his eyes, lifting his face to the sky. As he folded his arms across his chest, he slowly opened his eyes, gazing up at the clouds slowly passing by.

Well, I'm in deep shit... Eren thought, pursing his lips. And my brains has been fried since yesterday anyway...

Eren knew that at this point, there was no avoiding a confrontation with Bertholdt and Reiner--Reiner's confession aside, they had found out too much about the duo already. There was now evidence to Squad Leader Hanji's initial theory, and as much as it bothered Eren to doubt people he once called his friends, he couldn't deny the truth. He had already tried that once before with Annie, and the results had been unfavorable, to say the least.

But it was still painful to face this kind of reality. Bertholdt had been a quiet, passive, nervous wreck the entire time Eren had known him, and Reiner had been like their playful but strong older brother. It was hard to imagine that either of them had any malice toward humanity. Hadn't they all been friends once...?

Armin's claim about Reiner's behavior during their encounter with the Female Titan was too perfect to write off as coincidence. And the more Eren thought about those two, the more he realized that there were all kinds of other things that were suspicious. But what probably made Eren the most upset was that neither of them seemed to show any remorse.

“Look, you're...you're just tired,” Eren said at last, placing his hand on Reiner's shoulder and shaking him gently. “Right, Bertholdt? You both just went through hell, so it's no wonder you're a little delirious.”

“...!? Y...yes!” Bertholdt stammered, his eyes wide. “He's right--you're just tired out, Reiner!”

“Besides, if you really were the Armored Titan that's behind the mass murder of mankind, why would you wanna have this talk with me?” Eren continued, releasing Reiner and shrugging. “You can't expect me to simply agree and meekly follow you if you just ask me that out of the blue, right?”

“Ah...haha, yeah, that's right...” Eren watched as Reiner's expression changed completely. He hardly looked like the strong and steady person that they had trained and fought alongside for three years. Now, he looked more like a mad-man. “What was I thinking...? Have I really gone mad…?”

“Anyway, let's go back to town for now,” Eren told him, beginning to walk away. But before he could even take one step toward Mikasa and Armin, he heard Reiner speak again.

“I've been here for too long...” His voice was low and full of spite; when combined with his words, it made Eren uneasy. “I've spent three years of my life living here, surrounded by fools--that's why I said something so stupid.” Reiner's voice cracked with that last word, as if he was spitting it out. Eren turned to face him again, only to find him with sweat dripping down his face and tears in his eyes.

“Back then, we were just brats who didn't know anything...” Reiner went on. “If only I'd never learned about those fools...I'd have...never had to become the shitty, pathetic bastard I am now.” Eren's eyes widened as he watched Reiner pulled off the sling from around his neck. As he spoke, he slowly began to unwrap the bandages around his injured arm. “I don't know what's right and what's wrong anymore... But what I do know is that no matter what results came from my actions, no matter what consequences my choices brought about...as a warrior, I gotta take responsibility and fulfill my duty until the bitter end.”

Eren could feel his chest growing tighter and tighter with panic as he watched steam start to come off of Reiner's arm. He could see the broken skin pulling itself back together, just like a Titan.

“Reiner...you're gonna do it?!” Bertholdt cried, looking as frightened as Eren felt. “Right here?! Right now...?!”

“Yeah!” Reiner shouted, facing Eren. “We'll settle this here and now!!”

 

…......

 

Bertholdt had never been a quick thinker, but honestly, he had never had to be. He spent most of his life exercising as much caution as possible, never rushing into action. Usually, he left that kind of thing to Reiner, and most of the time, he could deal with whatever consequences came along with his friend's decisions.

But this was the first time he had truly hated his passiveness.

Mikasa came in quickly, her blades at the ready. She was focused on her target, and with strength befitting of a valedictorian, she cut through Reiner's right wrist in one fell swoop. He had thrown up his left hand to try and block the blow, but her blade sliced straight through that arm as well, stopping midway through his left forearm, just barely slicing into the side of his head.

Bertholdt wanted to scream, to run--he wanted to do something, to actually take action for once. Yes, Reiner had spoken up too soon. Yes, Reiner had put them into a bad spot. Those once-sharp decision-making skills had gone downhill over the years, and this was the outcome. But that didn't mean that Reiner deserved any of this.

Before Bertholdt could even try to jump in and try to stop Mikasa, she whirled around, sending her other blade into Bertholdt's raised right wrist and deep into his neck.

Only now could he scream.

Everything hurt so much. His neck and wrist were gushing blood now. He could hear Reiner's terrified screams now, too. It had been a long time since he had heard that sound from his best friend. They had been living quite well these past few years, up until this point.

But the most painful thing was what Bertholdt realized as Mikasa knocked him down onto the top of the wall. The most horrible part of all of this was knowing what would have to come next if he wanted to survive. There was no more going back to that fake life, that fictitious play at being normal. He had never been normal.

Bertholdt could hear Mikasa and Armin shouting at Eren to run, and he wanted to be able to do the same. That would have been so much easier. If only he could have just escaped without having to be faced with this kind of decision...

“Bertholdt!” Reiner cried, his voice cracking. Bertholdt choked back his screams, then shakily pushed himself up and looked toward Reiner. The blond was getting to his feet, staring down at the wide-eyed Eren, who was lying on the brick, obviously too stunned to get up. Bertholdt felt sorry for him at first, but then he caught sight of Mikasa's blade still stuck into Reiner's arm. It was clear what he had to do now.

Tears in his eyes, Bertholdt stared at Eren, his heart pounding in his throat. Neither of them had asked for this--they really weren't so different, actually. But talking this out was no longer an option.

In a burst of steam and light, Bertholdt felt the familiar warmth of his Titan form surround his body. From the corner of his eye, he could see Reiner transforming, too; his Titan arm was reaching toward Eren, who was struggling to get to his feet between his shock and the strong gusts of wind. Taking Eren with them was essential, but bringing along one more person might help. With his slow, giant, clumsy hand, Bertholdt reached out toward Ymir and gently grabbed ahold of her. Beside him, Reiner was already jumping down off of the top of the wall with Eren in tow.

Another bright light flashed, and a familiar roar filled Bertholdt's ears.

You shouldn't be surprised, Reiner, Bertholdt thought as he saw Eren's Titan form materialize. You should have known he wouldn't go down without a fight...

Below him, Bertholdt could see the Survey Corps soldiers under Hanji's command starting to get into a battle formation. With as much speed as he could muster, Bertholdt smashed his free hand into the wall. He could feel something moving right by his fingers; he gingerly closed his fist around a soldier's body.

We...are monsters... Bertholdt told himself as he brought the soldier and Ymir closer to his face. There is nothing that will change that now... Now, we have to act.

Lifting his head toward the sky, Bertholdt then tossed the two into his mouth, and without another second of hesitation, he closed his jaws around them.

 

…......

 

It had been a long day, to say the least. Milena had never really realized it until today, but her work was really cut out for her as a Squad Leader. She had to play the role of both a leader and a subordinate, choosing when to wear which face. Up until now, nothing too serious had really happened--the worst thing had been the Titan fight in Stohess, but that had not directly affected her division.

But today was different, and the reality of their situation was frightening. Milena knew, however, that she had to keep her chin up. No matter how worried she was, she could not let herself show it in front of her squad.

“Rosaleen!”

Milena whirled around at one of her squad member's outcry; sure enough, the red-head was climbing atop the wall. Her face was flushed pink, and her eyes were wide. She looked as worried as Milena felt, but at least she had made it back from the inner walls safely.

...And at least she decided to actually come back, Milena realized as the red-head ran toward her, her long ponytail trailing behind.

“What's the news?” Milena asked when Rosaleen reached her. The teen was panting, clutching at her stomach.

“There...there's no breach,” she breathed, her eyes welling with tears.

“...What...did you say?”

“There's no breach,” Rosaleen repeated, wiping the sweat from her forehead and face. “I wish I was kidding, Milena, but that's the message that got passed on to me on my way back here. And that soldier--he was from Hannes' elite squad, so he would have known. There's no breach.”

“Where is Captain Hannes now?” Milena inquired, clenching her fists. This was not the kind of news she had been expecting.

“He should be back soon.” Rosaleen turned toward the south, in the direction of Trost. “I was told that he went to report directly to Squad Leader Hanji of the Survey Corps. And...this is just my assumption, but I think it's safe to say that he probably is checking in on Eren and the others.”

“Checking in...?”

“Many of the graduates from our class were outside unarmed,” Rosaleen then said, her voice growing quiet. “No gear, no weapons. I don't know why, but that's what I heard from Margaret.”

Folding her arms across her chest, Milena bit her bottom lip. Nothing Rosaleen had said made any sense. How could there be Titans within Wall Rose without there being a breach? It's not as if they dropped from the sky; that would be a little too conspicuous. And this thing about their comrades being sent out unarmed? Why in the world would Commander Erwin give such an order...?

“Rosaleen, you're back!”

Milena lifted her eyes to see Yasmin jogging toward them, a soft smile on her face.

“I'm glad you're all right,” she said, giving the red-head a quick hug. “So? What's our next step?”

“God only knows,” Milena muttered, looking away again. “Supposedly there's no breach after all.”

“Huh? No breach? But...how... That doesn't make any sense...”

“Everyone is confused,” Rosaleen assured them. “Hopefully when Captain Hannes gets back, we can figure out what happened.”

“The Survey Corps also sent out the new recruits unarmed,” Milena added, watching Yasmin's face as her eyes grew wide.

“...What...?” she gasped. “How is that even considered acceptable? Isn't that against the law? Like, I know the Survey Corps soldiers are supposed to be ready to become sacrifices at any second but--”

“The only thing I can even halfway consider is that...perhaps...Commander Erwin was testing them,” Rosaleen murmured.

“Testing them?”

“I mean...considering that Annie was a traitor--maybe he had reason to suspect that more traitors were among them.”

“...I can't think of anyone who fits that description,” Milena admitted.

“Me either. Unless it's Jean,” Yasmin added, laughing through her nose. “But all jokes aside, I don't think it could be him—if nothing else, I think Marco would have noticed something and would have stopped hanging around him.”

“But who knows, really,” Rosaleen said. “After all, I roomed with Annie for three years, and I never noticed anything about her that would have indicated she hated humanity enough to try to destroy it.”

Sighing loudly, Milena lifted her face to the sky, trying to think. Was there someone suspicious in their class that she had just never noticed before?

Suddenly, Milena was jerked out of her thoughts as the wall shook beneath them.

“Whoa!” Rosaleen exclaimed. “An earthquake?”

“Guys, look!” Milena turned toward where Yasmin was pointing; there was a massive cloud of smoke coming from the top of the wall. “An explosion!?”

“...Something about it...” Fighting against her shaking hands, Milena snatched the binoculars from her belt and lifted them to her eyes. After focusing the lenses, she could see the smoke beginning to clear. Then, out from the cloud of steam came something she never would have expected to see: the Armored Titan was jumping down from the wall.

“Oh my god,” she whispered. “This...can't be...!!”

The wall shook again, more gently this time, and a flash of light came from the same area. Milena could see Eren Jaeger's Titan form appear right next to the Armored Titan.

“What the hell is going on!?” she shouted, nearly tossing down her binoculars onto the brick.

“Let me see,” Yasmin insisted, yanking them out of Milena's grip. “...That's... Is that really...?”

“Oh god,” Rosaleen whimpered. Milena could see why; now that the steam was clearing, the Colossal Titan's figure was visible even from this distance. It was only half formed, its ribcage gripping the wall, like some sick, disfigured monster.

“How?!” Yasmin yelled, taking the binoculars down from her face and turning to her friends. “How is this possible?!”

“...Rosaleen, you were right,” Milena realized. “Commander Erwin must have suspected there were other traitors in the Corps, and it looks like he was correct. So...this means...two other soldiers are actually...Titans...”

Turning on her heel, Milena faced her other subordinates; they had gathered at the edge of the wall, all of them facing toward Trost.

“Maintain your positions here until we receive further instruction!” she shouted, causing the soldiers to whip their heads around toward her. “Do not panic! We'll be safe from this distance, and Captain Hannes should be back soon! In the meantime, do what you can to prepare yourself for the possibility of engaging in combat--and I don’t mean just with our cannons!”

Milena paused, then looked toward Rosaleen again.

“Stay here for now,” she commanded her in a quiet voice. “I want you to stay for the full story before you report this. Understood?”

“Yes,” Rosaleen whispered, pursing her lips. “Don't worry--I want to know who did this, and I will stay until I find out.”

 

Chapter Text

“Annie...I give up... I give up, okay...?”

“Give up?” Eren could barely hear Annie above his own gasps for air. “I don't need you to give up--I need you to learn how to use your strength...and also how to talk to girls.”

“I-I get it!” Eren cried, his throat burning. Despite being so petite, Annie was strong, and the hold she had him in now was quickly draining his strength. “I've memorized the move, so let me go already!”

“Really...? Want to learn more of the same?”

Before Eren could answer, the air he had left in him was knocked out in a single blow. Something heavy had landed on top of him, and for a brief moment, he whited out. When he came to, he could see that the heavy mass was none other than Reiner; he looked just as stunned as Eren felt.

“What the hell?!” Eren gasped, sitting upright as he looked at the blond, who had rolled off to the side. “You just came down from outta nowhere!?”

“Hey, Annie...” Eren would have recognized Mikasa's voice anywhere--sure enough, when he turned around, he could see his childhood friend walking toward them. “Why don't you teach me those moves, too?”

“Well, I don't know about that...” Annie replied, getting to her feet. “These moves are intended for humans to use, you know. I really don't think someone like you needs them at all. But...I'm a little curious to see if they'd work even on a beast.”

“I-Is this for real...?” Eren murmured as he watched Annie put up her fists. He could hear their comrades whispering all around him; it was obvious that these two had become the center of focus for everyone in the area.

“Who do you think will win, Eren?” Reiner asked suddenly.

“Huh? Well, I...” How was he supposed to answer that question? They were so evenly matched, despite being so different from each other. Even though Mikasa was his long-time friend, he wasn't entirely sure if she could beat Annie. “...Really, which one...?”

 

Huh...?

The world around Eren was a blur, and he felt pain all throughout his body. The only thing that was clear was the image of Mikasa and Annie about to face off after months of building tension.

So, in the end...who was it that won, again...?

As if trying to interrupt his vision, a searing pain burst in Eren's head, and he opened his eyes to darkness. He was still inside of his Titan, but he felt weak, and everything was turned upside-down.

No, wait...why am I remembering this, especially now, of all times...? he wondered as he blinked slowly, trying to focus his efforts on healing himself and standing up again. Is this that thing people talk about...? When your whole life flashes before your eyes as you're about to die...?

Could that really happen...? Was he really going to die here and now? Would his cause of death really be one of his old friends, a person that he once looked up to and stood shoulder to shoulder with, someone he fought alongside...?

Oh well. Whatever, I guess. No point in dwelling on it, Eren told himself as he slowly stood up. His chest ached with horrible pain, but he knew he had to keep breathing. I feel like shit anyway.

“Eren! Don't do it!!” Eren could hear Armin's voices ringing through the air; he sounded far away, but logic told Eren that his friend must still be on the wall somewhere. “Fighting him won't get you anywhere!! Retreat close to the wall! You must not fight!!”

Looking over his shoulder at Armin, he narrowed his eyes. Reiner was slowly approaching him, and Eren's body had yet to heal from the first barrage of attacks. Still, to give up, to run...was that really the right choice?

Eren had tried that way of thinking before--the result had been the deaths of many Survey Corps soldiers and Captain Levi's injury, as well as the death of four of his comrades. His hesitation in Stohess had brought about even more death and destruction, and as much as he knew Annie held part of the blame, he also knew that, had he not been so hesitant to fight her, he could have prevented a lot of the damage done to that area.

Lifting his face to the sky, Eren let out a scream. He could hear his Titan's shouts echoing around him, and the inhuman sound only made his blood boil even more.

He knew what he had to do. He knew that he had to fight.

Sorry, Armin, he thought as he lunged toward Reiner. He could hear Mikasa shout his name, but he ignored her and pulled back his fist, as if aiming for Reiner's face.

But at this point, Eren knew better than to try to punch Reiner at all. With that hardening ability, he was nearly invincible in a simple fist-fight. Luckily, Eren knew some other tactics.

As Reiner rushed at him, Eren ducked down and dodged the punch, then grabbed Reiner around the neck. Just as Annie had done to him years ago, Eren trapped Reiner in a tight headlock, and with as much strength as he could muster, he threw the Armored Titan to the ground.

I have no idea...why you did what you did... Eren thought as he stared down at Reiner. He suddenly felt Reiner grab him by the waist, as if trying to lift him off, but Eren was ready. ...But now that I think about it, I realize that you guys made a lot of blunders in the process. And one of them is that you guys taught me how to fight.

Just as Reiner flipped him onto his back, Eren grabbed Reiner's neck again--this time using his legs. Grabbing the Armored Titan's wrists, Eren pulled the traitor down, cracking a small part of Reiner's jaw in the process.

I did it...! I've got him in a submission hold! Eren thought, staring Reiner down. I can still win!

But it was obvious that Reiner was not going to go down so easily. He began to struggle hard against Eren's hold; Eren did his best to restrain one of Reiner's arms with his hands while keeping his legs locked around Reiner's neck.

Shit! No--I'm not done yet! Moving as swiftly as he could in his Titan form, Eren pushed his left leg under Reiner's chin and forced him face-first into the ground, pinning him by the neck. Like hell I'll let you get away from me that easily!

Now was his chance--Eren had the clear advantage over Reiner, and he could easily disable him like this. With a loud scream, Eren grabbed a hold of Reiner's right arm and jerked it up toward him. It snapped off in just a couple of seconds, and Eren threw it to the side, as if it was just garbage.

“Eren!!” It was Armin's voice again, sounding much closer this time. “Can you hear me?! You must escape for now! Head back to the wall!! Reiner's objective is to kidnap you! They have yet to succeed! We've got to prevent that from happening!!”

All right, Eren thought, getting to his feet as Reiner began to push himself up with his remaining arm. I'll go for now.

“That's it, Eren! That's the right choice!” Armin cried, but Eren was still not so sure about that. All he really could say for sure was that this was his only choice left.

 

…......

 

Up until this point in her career, Hanji had only ever had to outsmart regular Titans and the occasional abnormal type. Her opponent had never been so intelligent before, nor so dangerous. She knew they were lucky to have Eren around to help them fight; no mere human would be able to take down the Armored Titan, especially knowing that a trained soldier was sitting at the controls of that behemoth.

“Listen to me, Eren!” Hanji exclaimed as she hopped down onto Eren's shoulder. “We need to stop Reiner's movement and buy some time in order for you to escape. Do you think you could use that locking move on him again and break his legs? Our swords are pretty much useless, but if we use our heads, I'm sure we can figure out something even in these circumstances!”

To Hanji's surprise, Eren gave her a nod of the head, looking right at her. Had the situation not been so serious, she would have jumped for joy. After years of research and countless failures, she was finally communicating with a Titan.

“O-Okay, I see you get what I'm saying...” Hanji stammered, staring with wide eyes back at Eren. After taking a moment to collect herself, she nodded back, then shot one of her hooks up at the wall. “We're counting on you!” she shouted down to him as she joined the others above her.

Hanji turned around just in time to see the Armored Titan suddenly rushing at Eren; she had never expected him to be able to move this fast. The two collided into the wall, Eren pinned beneath Reiner's iron grip. Still, despite being at an obvious disadvantage, he was still putting up a fight, and soon he had grabbed onto one of Reiner's calves. There was no way he could take a Titan that size down in that position, though; all Eren could manage to do was get up on his feet again, his back resting against the wall.

But that lull in the action only lasted for a couple of seconds before Reiner came rushing toward him again. Gritting her teeth, Hanji shot after them, her squad right behind her and Mikasa right beside her. They kept close to the wall and high above the fight, but they were still close enough to see what was going on.

“He can't defend!” Kenji shouted. “Dammit! Why the hell is that armored bastard moving so fast all of a sudden?! We can't do jack shit like this!”

“...!! No, wait...!” Hanji said, her eyes narrowing as she watched the Titans struggle against one another. “With a body covered in hard skin, he ought to be as stiff as a statue... He shouldn't be able to move like that... But, if you think about a suit of armor, there are parts that, due to the human body's structure, couldn't be covered with metal...like the armpits, the crotch, and the back of the knees.”

Hanji did not have to explain any further--Mikasa took off toward Eren and Reiner, the former of which now holding the latter in a headlock position again. He let out a loud roar, and for a moment, Hanji wondered if he might lose control of himself. Luckily, there were still visible signs of human intelligence behind the power struggle; Eren was concentrating his energy on pulling on Reiner's neck.

In a blur of green, brown, and black, Mikasa swooped down toward the two, bringing her blades across the backs of Reiner's knees. A feeling of relief washing over her, Hanji came to a stop on the wall, Moblit landing beside her. She could see quite clearly that Reiner's calves were splitting away from his thighs.

“She cut through!!” Hanji cheered, unable to hide an excited smile.

“He's...going to win...!” Moblit breathed. Hanji glanced over at the young man; his eyes were wide with disbelief.

Hanji opened her mouth to reply, but her words died in her throat as she once again looked down at the Titans. She was not sure what Reiner had in mind, but he apparently would not go down so easily. With what little mobility he had left, he began to slowly crawl across the ground, dragging Eren, who still had the Titan in a headlock, along with him.

“What the hell?” Hanji breathed, her smile fading fast. It did not seem like Reiner was trying to get out of the headlock--there was no point, after all, because even if he could have escape, he physically would not be able to run. So what was the point of struggling like this? He was only prolonging the inevitable; Eren still had a firm grip on Reiner's head, and he was still pulling with all his might.

“Squad Leader...!!”

Moblit's voice was immediately overpowered by the sound of the Armored Titan's scream. It was nothing like the Female Titan's shrieks in the forest; there was far more hatred and anger in this cry, and for the first time in a long time, Hanji was afraid of a Titan. Still, she knew they had to act--if they had learned anything from Annie Leonhardt, it was that a Titan's scream could call other Titans into the area.

“Check the surroundings!!” Hanji shouted to her fellow soldiers. “He called Titans!!”

Hanji was just preparing to push herself off of the wall again when she heard a loud cracking noise, accompanied by a human voice.

“ABOVE YOUUUU!! DOOOOOODGE!!”

 

…......

 

Not much had changed in the Trost district since Erwin's last visit. The town was still mostly in ruins, and it was still what most might consider uninhabitable. All of the Titans had been eliminated, but that was only one step in restoring the area to its former glory.

Still, it was one step forward, and Erwin refused to see it as anything less than that. He knew that many lives had been lost trying to earn back even such a small piece of land as Trost, but that was the way their world worked. Sacrifice was a necessary evil.

That was what Erwin had told his subordinates time and time again, and it was also what he had been told by Commander Pyxis many years ago. He had tried his best to operate under that principle, and he knew Pyxis did the same. Although Erwin did not know much about Pyxis personally, they worked well together, and he respected the man's opinions more than most people.

“Commander Pyxis!” Erwin called out as he shot up the wall of Trost toward the man. He was facing out toward the lost territory of Wall Maria; one of his subordinates, Anka Reinberger, was standing beside him. She had a slightly irritated look on her face, and Erwin wondered if something else had happened.

“Hn? Oh, it's you, Erwin,” Pyxis mumbled. His voice sounded hoarse, as if he had just woken up. Still, as Erwin landed on top of the wall, he got to his feet, shaking the blond's hand. “I hear you managed to catch one of those little rats after all, eh?”

“Yes, we did...” Erwin replied. “But, unfortunately...we weren't able to make any further progress than that.”

“Still, all of that must have gotten the central government thinking...about whether or not they have the balls to commit suicide together with their trite customs.”

A glimmer of a smile crossed Erwin's face as he looked down into the Trost district.

“Indeed...” he murmured. “There is a testament to that right below us. As you can see, they finally ordered the Military Police to leave the safety of the inner walls and come all the way here to the area under immediate Titan threat.”

Pyxis did not say a word, but he let out a laugh through his nose; the smile on his face was a satisfied one.

“Shall we?” Erwin then said, and Pyxis nodded, his smile not wavering a bit.

The two Commanders, along with Anka, then made their way down towards the Military Police and Survey Corps soldiers waiting nearby. There were just as many Police members as Corps members, but there was hardly any mingling between the two groups. Most of the Police soldiers were keeping to themselves; Erwin could feel an aura of arrogance emanating from them. Though he normally did not care what the Police soldiers were up to, there was still a small part of him that felt a prick of guilt about their situation. It was very unlikely that many of them were truly prepared for what might await them, and Erwin knew that most of the casualties would probably be Police soldiers, not the Corps members.

But it was just part of the game. Sacrifice was necessary.

Erwin led the way toward the center of the group, where Captain Levi and Pastor Nick were sitting inside a wagon. The former had been charged with supervising the soldiers to make sure nothing got out of hand; Erwin was glad to see them all behaving so civilly, because he knew that Levi's patience was already worn quite thin with watching after Nick and being forced to sit on the sidelines.

“Oi, oi... We've come all the way here 'cause it was supposed to be some full-blown emergency, and look what we found! It couldn't be more peaceful!” Erwin heard a Police soldier declare as he passed by.

Just as he and the others reached the wagon Levi was sitting in, a young Police soldier ran up in front of them, staring at Levi with an annoyed expression.

“Hey, Levi! Where's the enemy?” he asked. Erwin could see Levi's eyes burning with rage, but the man kept his cool as usual.

“Oh?” Levi turned over his shoulder and look down at the young man. “You guys look like you regret that it's peaceful here, huh? Well, sorry for not providing you with a hot Titan date. You may be out of luck this time around, but you know...there's always plenty of opportunities to go outside the walls on a recon expedition.”

The crowd around Levi fell silent; he had caught the attention of several Police soldiers now, and none of them looked pleased with what they were hearing.

“So, how about it?” Levi continued, staring down at the Military Police members. “Why don't we all join forces and go fight Titans? You know, you and us, together, side by side?”

“W-Well...” As the Police soldiers continued to stammer, Erwin glanced at Commander Pyxis; he received a knowing gaze in reply.

“The vanguard squad is back!!” came a sudden shout. “Someone inform Commander Pyxis!!”

 

…......

 

As the soldiers around him began to gather around the Garrison messenger, Claus stayed where he was. The Sertolis stood with him, as still as statues and with hardened expressions. Only Serene seemed to want to follow the crowd; she hesitantly looked over at her fellow Police soldiers, then pursed her lips and lowered her gaze.

Claus could tell that she did not like the idea of hanging back and appearing detached. Based on what he knew of her, she was a gentle soul, but she was by no means the type to sit back and let things go to shit. He had been the same way before joining Bruno's squad, and to a certain degree, he did still have that kind of spirit deep down. Unfortunately, this was just how Bruno did things; he observed from the sidelines and only acted after evolving a decent plan. Claus appreciated a good strategy as much as the next guy, but sometimes the level of detachment was just too much.

“W-We found no abnormalities or breaches in the wall...” the Garrison messenger said, still gasping for air. Claus had to really focus to be able to hear him clearly.

“I see...” Pyxis murmured, barely audible above the murmurs of the crowd.

“B-But the situation is still grave! On our way back to Trost to deliver our report, we encountered the Survey Corps forces lead by Hanji! They had several new recruits from the newly graduated trainee squad with them--and none of them were equipped with the three-dimensional maneuvering gear!”

Claus narrowed his eyes, a frown slowly appearing on his face. Something about this seemed very suspicious. Commander Erwin surely would not send any soldier out on standby unarmed unless he had a real reason for it. Though it was possible that the recruits had just not put their gear on for some other reason, it seemed odd that they would just happen to be so vulnerable right when things went to shit. But if the Commander was trying to prove something, Claus was not sure what it was.

“Among those recruits...!” the soldier breathed. “There were three...! Who turned out to be Titans!!”

The crowd of soldiers fell eerily silent, and Claus glanced over at Bruno. He was looking at Bianca, whose eyes were narrowed and focused on the messenger. Her normally tanned face was pale; Claus could tell she felt uneasy about this. Annie Leonhardt had already come as such a surprise...

“What the hell are you saying?!” a voice cried out from the crowd. A young man stepped forward toward the messenger; he donned the telltale Wings of Freedom on the back of his cloak. “There were more Titans among them?! You said three?! Who?!”

“Jean, wait,” Commander Erwin said, holding out his arm as if to settle the soldier down. The man seemed relatively calm, and his attitude only convinced Claus further that the unarmed recruits were sent out like that on purpose. “What happened after their identities were exposed?”

“The Survey Corps engaged the Colossal Titan and the Armored Titan in battle!” the messenger declared. “By the time we joined them, it was already too late--and in the end, Eren Jaeger was kidnapped!”

“Again?” Serene murmured from beside Claus. The red-head sighed, running a hand through his hair.

“...Well, that's our signal, everyone,” Erwin stated in a loud, clear voice. “Ready your horses and supplies--we depart immediately!”

That escalated quickly,” said a voice from behind them. Claus turned his head to see Rowen and Catherine standing nearby; both had their arms crossed, and the latter had a particularly sour look on her face. “I mean, it's not that I didn't think we'd have to go out and fight--I just wasn't expecting the Colossal and Armored Titans to show up during all of this.” Rowen let out a loud sigh as he added, “And it turns out they're just kids, too. What a world...”

“Hush,” Catherine hissed. “Kids or not, they've committed horrible crimes to all of humanity. It's our job to fix the messes they've made.”

“I know, I know.” Rowen then turned to Bruno and the rest of them, flashing a bright smile. “I guess it's good that we're all in this together, huh? Just like old times?”

“...Just like old times,” Bruno murmured in reply, a soft smile appearing on his face.

“Ugh, please. You guys are such sentimental losers,” Catherine muttered, rolling her eyes--but Claus could tell that she was feigning her irritation, because there was a gentle glow to her eyes that had not been there just moments before.

Claus had only met Rowen and Catherine once before, but he knew that they were both very close to the Sertolis. They had graduated in the same class as Bruno, and they had met prior to training when they were teachers at the main school in the Hermiha district. But that was the extent of his knowledge about their history together.

Still, he was curious as to why they had chosen different regiments. After being in his squad, Claus could understand why Bruno chose the Police--but had he always thought that? Had he ever had any intentions on joining the Corps? Or was it the other way around?

Claus was curious, but not curious enough to ask them, especially at a time like this. After all, Catherine was right: they had a job to do. They had sworn to help humanity. That was the priority, not some silly internal struggle between these three.

“Take care of yourselves,” Bruno told Rowen and Catherine. They nodded, then ran off after Commander Erwin. Bruno then faced Claus and the others and said, “Prepare your horses, and do not get separated in this mess. Let the others take the lead behind the Corps--we'll follow up in the rear guard. Avoid any unnecessary combat. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Sir!” Claus and his squad mates shouted, saluting to Bruno.

“I'll meet you three back here with my horse. Hurry!”

Without another word, Claus turned on his heel and began running toward the stable nearby. It was a total madhouse; he quickly linked arms with Bianca so as not to lose track of her, and he could feel Serene grab a hold of his jacket from behind.

“This is insane,” she whispered.

“Welcome to a day in the squad,” Claus said with a bitter laugh.

“Enough, both of you,” Bianca scolded them, her voice nearly lost in the racket around them. “Save your complaints for later--focus.”

Claus pursed his lips to keep himself from saying anything else. He could tell that Bianca was on edge; the news of more Titan shifters had surely scared her, and he understood why she would be anxious.

It's fine, he wanted to say. You'll be fine. Bruno is looking out for you, and so am I.

 

Chapter Text

“...Hanji's coming. Behind us.”

Erwin glanced at Mike, absentmindedly straightening out his trainee jacket. He and Mike had been friends for a while now, but still he was still always so impressed with the young man's unique abilities. That skill would surely be put to good use in the Survey Corps.

“YAHHH!”

At the sound of Hanji's yell, Erwin whirled around, intercepting the young woman before she could jump them. Her gasp was so boisterous and full of surprise that he couldn't help but laugh at her.

“You should know better by now,” Erwin told her as he released his grip on her arms. “Mike can smell you coming from a mile away.”

“Aww...” Hanji pouted, looking up at Mike. “Say, Mike, if I took a bath with different soap or something, would that throw you off?”

“Not really.” Erwin watched as a small smirk appeared on Mike's face. Hanji let out a frustrated sigh, shaking her head.

“I wish I could be angry with you, but you're so damn nice to me,” she admitted, giving them both a crooked grin. “Well, I just thought I'd say hi. Gotta go to training now. See you later, yeah?”

“See you,” Erwin said, waving as Hanji trotted off, her ponytail swinging behind her. “...You know, Mike, she's got a point. I don't think I've ever seen you be mean to anyone.”

“Probably because I've never met someone who deserved to be hated,” Mike replied, sniffing the air quietly.

“You sure do put up with a lot, then, huh?”

“Hell yeah I do.” Mike chuckled as he shot a glance at Erwin, who furrowed his brows in response.

“What's that supposed to mean?” Erwin laughed. He knew that Mike was only poking fun at him, but still, Erwin felt something prick at his conscience. While he would not call himself a bad person, he knew he was not as good of a person as Mike Zakarius. He did not know of anyone who could measure up to him, either. It was truly an honor to be able to call him a friend.

 

Though she had not known him very long and was not as attached to him as the rest of her friends, Yasmin was unbelievably relieved when Hannes appeared with the rest of the vanguard soldiers. He was obviously not in good spirits, though; his face was pale, and instead of his normally goofy smile, there was a deep frown. Wrinkles of worry creased his forehead, and Yasmin braced herself for the worst.

“Captain Hannes!” Milena cried, rushing over to him.

“Milena, gather your squad,” he commanded. “You all will be joining us as reinforcements. Understood?”

“Yes, but--”

“I'll explain on the way--just hurry!”

Yasmin pursed her lips as she watched Milena turn and face them. Her dark brown eyes were narrowed, and her frustration was written all over her face.

“Did you hear that?!” Milena shouted, waving her arms at the other members of their squad. “Grab your gear and get ready to head out! Now!”

What's going on? Yasmin wondered as she rushed after Rosaleen and the other members of her squad.

Yasmin was not sure why or how, but there had been another explosion along the wall, and when the smoke had cleared, Eren, the Armored Titan, and the Colossal Titan were all gone. There was no way that they could have just vanished, though--they had to have gone somewhere.

I just hope everyone is alive, she thought as she pulled her gear from her storage locker. She could hear nervous murmurs all around her as her squad mates did the same. I want an explanation. I hate not knowing what's going on...!

“Hurry!” Milena cried, and Yasmin gritted her teeth as she checked the gas level on her tanks. This would be her first real expedition outside the walls, and she could not afford to make any blunders. After all, she was just getting started.

Watch over us, Marco...

Running over to Milena, Yasmin pushed her sweaty hair out of her face. Her emotions were a mess right now—she was worried for her friends, and she knew the others had to be the same. As exciting as it was to actually be put to work, the circumstances were bleak, and Yasmin could not help but fear for her life.

“Everyone here?” Milena asked, her voice strong and confident. “...Looks like it! All right, let's get going! Follow Captain Hannes!”

“Come on!” Hannes cried, taking off on a sprint toward where smoke was gently curling up into the sky. “Run!”

“What?” Rosaleen gasped. “We're running? Why?”

“To conserve gas,” Yasmin replied. “Don't you get what's happening? We're going to have to go outside of the walls and fight. There's no point in wasting gas here.”

Yasmin watched as Rosaleen's face turned a sick shade of pale grey.

“I...guess I didn't want to believe it,” she admitted.

None of us do, Yasmin thought as she followed closely behind Milena, who was just a few paces behind Hannes.

“You said you'd explain on the way, so let's hear it: what's going on?” Milena asked, not bothering to hide her irritation.

“...I'm sure you saw it, but...the Armored Titan and Colossal Titan appeared again,” Hannes began. “Eren tried to fight them, but the Colossal Titan fell down off of the wall on top of him and the Armored Titan, and it looks like they've succeeded in kidnapping him. Squad Leader Hanji and many of the other Survey Corps soldiers were injured, so we need to pick up their slack and go after them. I've asked Caprice's squad to join us as well.”

“Who was it?” Yasmin asked, unable to keep silent any longer. “Who did it?”

“Yeah, who are they?” Rosaleen jumped in. “The Armored and Colossal Titans?”

“...I'm not sure what their names are,” Hannes confessed. “There's one thing I did hear, though, about a third shifter…”

“A third!?” Milena gasped. “Who?!”

“Her name is Ymir. Supposedly, several of the newest recruits were sent out unarmed, and she revealed her Titan form to protect them.”

Ymir!?” Rosaleen squeaked. “Our Ymir?! Of the 104th squad?! That Ymir?! Really?!”

“That certainly does explain a lot,” Milena said, letting out a bitter laugh. “She always kept to herself and never bothered to get involved in anything that didn't have some kind of merit for her. That must have been the reason why.”

“I can't say anything on that issue,” Hannes interjected, “but I should also mention that she was eaten by the Colossal Titan. He grabbed her and tossed her right into his mouth. She was unconscious at the time, and her injuries were so great that it's not likely she could have fought back, anyway.”

“Ymir...she can't be...” Rosaleen's voice faded away, and Yasmin bit her lip. Ymir just did not seem like the type to die that easily. Then again, she did not seem like the type to be a Titan shifter, either.

Hell, what do I know? Yasmin thought. Nothing makes sense anymore. It's probably safer to assume that everyone can become a Titan at this point.

“Anyway, as for the other two, ask Armin,” Hannes told them. “He and Eren were talking to them just as I arrived, right before everything went to hell. We'll be there in just a few minutes.”

“Good,” Milena grunted, nodding once. She then turned over her shoulder and began running backwards. “We'll arrive at our destination soon! Wait for further instructions before doing anything? Is that clear?!”

“Yes!” came the various voices of Milena's squad.

“We should find Armin right away,” Yasmin told Rosaleen, and the red-head nodded.

“If there's anyone we can trust, it's him,” she agreed.

 

…......

 

Feeling as if she was awakening from a deep sleep, Mikasa slowly opened her eyes to a beautiful sky above her; somehow, she was outside, and it took her a moment to recall the events that had unfolded before everything became a blur.

Eren!

The recollection made the air from her lungs disappear in a single gasp, and she quickly sat upright. It seemed that she had indeed been unconscious for quite some time.

Looking over to her right, she could see several soldiers lying in a line along the wall; they all appeared to be either unconscious or too injured to move. Mikasa then looked to her left, only to see more of the same thing. She could also see that more Garrison soldiers had arrived, and she recognized many of them to be comrades from her graduating class.

Eren was not to be found.

Before she could push herself to her feet, a sharp pain shot through Mikasa's head. She winced, gripping the side of her head with a shaking, clammy hand. Those last few seconds of consciousness had been a blur, but it was obvious that she had been knocked out by the impact of the blast. Though it had hardly hurt when she first awoke, her chest was now throbbing with pain. But it was all nothing compared to the mental agony of seeing their obvious defeat.

“Mikasa!” Armin's voice rang clearly through the air. Mikasa look to her right again to see the blond headed her way. “Wait, don't move just yet--”

“ARMIN!” Mikasa cried, grabbing Armin by his cloak and pulling him down toward her as soon as he was in reach. “What happened to Eren!? Where is he?!”

“Mikasa, calm down! And stop moving around!” Armin shouted, looking alarmed. “We still don't know the extent of your injuries!”

Armin probably had a point, but the last thing Mikasa wanted to do was sit back and do nothing. Tossing her friend aside, Mikasa dragged herself over to the edge of the wall. Below her was a giant crater, as well as a couple of small Titans wandering around. There was no sign of Eren, Reiner, or Bertholdt.

“Where is he?!” Mikasa shouted again, turning back to Armin.

“Eren was kidnapped!” Armin replied. “Along with Ymir! By...Reiner and Bertholdt...”

Mikasa watched with wide, horrified eyes as Armin's face fell.

“The moment the Colossal Titan's body made contact with the ground, he suddenly vanished,” he explained. “At the same time, those of us who were on the lower part of the wall were hit with a heat wave as well as the wind pressure from his fall, and many of us took heavy damage and were injured. The attack was so intense that even those on top of the wall couldn't get close to us for a while.

“During that time...it was nearly impossible to see anything, but what I did manage to make out was...Eren's fallen form, after having suffered defeat at the hands of the Armored Titan,” Armin continued, his eyes narrowing. “Reiner was the only one who managed to withstand that attack. He bit out the nape of Eren's Titan. And then, when the heat and wind receded, Bertholdt appeared from the remains of the Colossal Titan, carrying Ymir in his arms. He was wearing the three-dimensional maneuvering gear of the soldier he swallowed earlier; he then jumped onto Reiner's back, still holding Ymir.

“After that, they made their escape, taking Eren and Ymir with them... It's been...five hours since then.”

This was so much information to process at once, and all of it was so bleak, that Mikasa felt sick to her stomach. She was silent for a few seconds before she could form even a simple question.

“Is anyone...chasing after them?” she asked.

“No.”

Again, Mikasa grabbed Armin by the cloak. She wasn't meaning to be so rough with him, and she could tell she was scaring him a bit. But it was really all she could do to not take off on her own after them.

“Why?!” she hissed.

“...Because we can't transport our horses to this side of the wall.” Gently, Armin put his hands on Mikasa's shoulders, looking her straight in the eye. “All we can do right now is wait for the elevator to arrive so that we can transport the horses and start a pursuit to rescue Eren. For now, please just prepare for that...and start by checking how bad your wounds are. Squad Leader Hanji and many of the other superior officers are heavily injured and can't move at the moment. In order to deploy a formation for enemy detection, even a small one, we'll need a lot of people--as many as possible, really. Especially skilled people. ...Do you understand?”

Mikasa entirely understood what Armin was saying, and it made perfect sense--but to wait even longer was to risk losing Eren forever. She had almost lost him several times before, but it never seemed to get any easier.

Suddenly, a sharp pain shot through Mikasa's head hard; she leaned forward a bit, grimacing.

“Ah...this again...” she murmured, staring down at her knees. It had been a while since her head had hurt like this, and she had hoped that she'd never have one again.

“Are you hurt somewhere?” Armin asked, looking at her with nothing but concern in his large blue eyes.

“Nah, it's nothing,” she replied, slowly removing her hand from her head. “I just...hit my head pretty hard, it seems. I'm fine...but...” Mikasa's voice trailed off for a moment, and she was silent for several moments before finally speaking again. “When Annie kidnapped Eren in her Titan form, I started pursuit right away--I fought together with Captain Levi...and...somehow...we managed to recover Eren. But...this time, five hours have already passed...”

Mikasa could feel tears behind her eyes, and it then hit her that she was missing something. Slowly getting to her feet, she walked over to where she had been lying earlier. Gently, she picked up her worn red scarf, running her thumb over the faded knit.

“Hey, Armin...” she murmured, methodically wrapping the scarf around her neck again. “Why... Why does Eren always...end up going far away from us?”

“...Now that you mention it, I think you're right,” Armin admitted with a small laugh. “Even in the past, Eren always ran off on his own, leaving us behind... Whether he wants it himself or not, things always sort of end up this way. It's just the fate that was bestowed upon him, I suppose...”

Mikasa could not help but agree, but that did not make her feel any better. In fact, it really had the opposite effect--it made her feel powerless, and it also made the situation feel even more hopeless than it already did.

“All I want...” Mikasa murmured, wrapping the scarf over her nose and mouth as she tried to hold back her tears. “...Is just to be by his side... That's all I've ever wanted, and yet...”

 

…......

 

As much as Armin would have liked to have comfort Mikasa, he did not feel that he could. He was already feeling so hurt by everything that had happened on the wall that seeing her in so much pain only made him feel worse. Armin had known this for a while, but at that moment, he could see it quite clearly: Mikasa loved Eren more than anyone in the world. And now, he was gone, maybe for good.

“Hey, guys.” Armin glanced up to see Hannes standing beside them, a gentle smile on his face. “Are you hungry?”

“...Hannes...” Armin murmured, but Hannes interrupted him by holding out a small brown rectangle. Armin recognized it to be the hard loaves of bread they typically took on missions.

“Here, eat this. Field provisions are all we have, but hey,” Hannes told them with a shrug. “Here. And for you, Armin.” Plopping down beside them, Hannes took a bite of his own bread, grimacing a bit. “Yep...neither bad nor good...just normal, like always.”

Armin closed his eyes; he knew that Hannes was just trying to cheer them up, but nothing could erase the guilt he felt that easily.

“...It's always been this way, hasn't it?” Opening his eyes at the sound of Hannes' voice, Armin clenched his hands into fists, then released them again. “It's always been your job to take care of the trouble that willful brat lands himself into, right? They call that an inseparable bond, y'know? You can't escape even if you try.”

Hannes chuckled to himself, his face softening.

“Geez, seriously... The times and circumstances change, but you three don't. You're still up to the same old routine as when you were kids. Don't you think?”

Armin laughed quietly, shrugging a bit.

“The height difference between local bullies and Titans is a little conspicuous, though...”

“...Despite not being all that strong in a fist fight, that idiot always jumped right into the fray, never giving a damn how many guys he was up against,” Hannes went on. “And he always ended up beaten and bleeding by the time Mikasa came to his rescue, or us soldiers came and stopped the fight. But, you know...while I've never seen him win, I've also never seen him give up, even when he was losing.”

Armin looked up at Hannes; the man's expression was serious now, and he had obviously moved past just trying to make them feel better. His words were genuine.

“He had that irrepressible tenacity that scared even me from time to time,” Hannes told them. “He would get knocked down over and over, and he would get back up every single time. That's just how he is... So, do you really think that a guy like that would obediently go along with his kidnappers and let them do as they please? No--he'll try to raise hell with everything he's got, all the more so if there are only two enemies. No matter who his opponents might be, he'll make sure to give them as much trouble as possible until you guys or I come to his rescue. That's always how it is with him, y'know?”

He's right, Armin realized, his eyes widening a bit as he stared at Hannes. Eren Jaeger does not know how to give up. In all the years that I've known him, I've never seen it happen.

“I miss those days...” Hannes murmured. “Maybe they really were only days of false peace, just like Eren said...but still, I was content to just be a good-for-nothing drunkard soldier. I will do whatever it takes to get those ordinary days back, no matter how much time it takes...”

Armin watched as Hannes clenched his fist, a look of determination written on his face. It was an expression Armin had never seen him wear before.

“I'm going with you,” Hannes declared. “Those good old times just won't be the same for me without all three of you together.”

...You said it, Hannes.

Without a word, Armin unwrapped his bread and took a bite out of it. It was hard as a rock, and normally he would have been worried that he cracked his teeth. But there were far more important things to worry about than a pretty smile.

To Armin's relief, Mikasa did the same; the fierceness had returned to her eyes, and seeing her back to her usual self made Armin's spirits lift.

We can do this, he told himself. Eren, just wait a little longer...

 

…......

 

Despite being hard to surprise, Erwin could hardly believe they were running on horseback across the top of one of the walls. He had lost his fear of heights some time ago, but he still felt uneasy about it. It was obvious that the horses were not comfortable, either--the whole thing was dangerous, and he was well aware of the consequences of one wrong step.

But it did not matter, not right now. He knew he had to do whatever necessary to get to his soldiers and get Eren Jaeger back. They had worked so hard to keep him in the Corps; Erwin would not let those efforts go to waste just yet.

As they approached their destination, Erwin noticed the line of soldiers lying across the top of the wall. Whether they were fatalities or not, he could not tell, but he recognized several of them almost immediately. It appeared that Hanji and her squad had taken the brunt of the attack; they were all obviously too injured to move, but Erwin had a hard time believing they all would go down that easily.

“Commander Erwin!” a Survey Corps soldier shouted as his group slowed to a stop. Erwin jumped down off of his horse as the young man approached him. “Huh?! Even the Military Police tagged along?!”

“You arrived just in time, Sir!” another soldier said, an enthusiastic smile on his face.

“Has anything changed?” Erwin asked him.

“No, Sir!”

Erwin was just opening his mouth to ask another question when he noticed one of the injured soldiers roll over and grab the leg of a nearby Garrison soldier. It was Hanji, and her normally bright eyes were narrowed, as if someone had just woken her up in the middle of the night. Her glasses were nowhere in sight.

“S-Squad Leader Hanji?!” the Garrison soldier gasped, obviously startled. Hanji kept a firm grip on the man's ankle, staring straight ahead. Erwin wondered if she could even see that she was addressing someone outside of their regiment.

“G-give me...the map...” she muttered, clenching her teeth.

Sighing through his nose, Erwin walked over to Hanji as the Garrison soldier quickly pulled himself out of Hanji's grasp and ran over to one of his superior officers. While he was relieved to see that Hanji was still alive, he did not like the idea of having to go outside the walls without her. She was a welcome asset to their regiment, and she was often his backup for when things got shitty.

The Garrison soldier placed the map down in front of Hanji; the woman squinted, her nose just millimeters away from the faded parchment.

“...There's a forest of those giant trees here, but it's pretty small,” Hanji then told them, pointing to a spot on the map. Erwin knelt down beside her; her voice was weak and barely carried far enough to reach the soldiers that had gathered around. “That's where you should head to... I mean...I doubt the Armored Titan would bother to cover his tracks...but, still...there's a very good chance they're heading there.”

“What makes you think so?” Erwin asked.

“It's a gamble, but...” Hanji looked up at Erwin, her face covered in sweat. “Even if they have the power of their Titan form...they're still in danger from other Titans outside the wall... After all the fighting they had to do...they must be pretty exhausted--not as much as Eren gets, but...still... I heard that Annie slept a long time after her rampage in the forest.”

Hanji paused to catch her breath, and it was then that Erwin realized there was something missing from this scene--or rather, someone. While he was fully aware that Levi was stuck back at the headquarters, Mike was nowhere in sight. If he was around, he would have surely joined this little crowd around Hanji. But even after scanning the faces around him, Erwin did not see him, and he felt his heart sink.

Surely not... he thought, even though he knew how possible it was that Mike would not ever be coming back.

“Now, let's assume for a second that...their destination lies beyond Wall Maria...” Hanji continued, her voice gaining a bit of strength. “And let's also add the fact that they have no stamina left to cover such a long distance... With all of that taken into account, their immediate concern should be finding a place to rest where Titans won't reach them. So that way, they can rest there at least until nightfall, when Titans aren't able to move!”

Hanji stared up at Erwin; her eyes were still somewhat dull, but there was a spark of energy there that made Erwin feel hopeful again.

“You have time until nightfall!” she told them. “If you can make it to that forest before then, you just might be able to catch up with them!”

Erwin said nothing, only nodded at Hanji's declaration. As he got to his feet again, Hanji slowly lowered her head back onto the brick, closing her eyes. There was no way she would be able to join them, let alone make it back to headquarters for quite a while.

As much as Erwin hated the idea of leaving behind more of his soldiers, he knew it was a necessary evil.

“...Rowen, Catherine--you two stay here and get the injured back to headquarters,” Erwin commanded, turning to the veterans.

“Hah?” Rowen breathed, raising an eyebrow, but before he could say anything more, Catherine stepped in.

“Understood,” she grunted, nodding.

“The rest of you--prepare to depart!” Erwin shouted. “Group up into your squads and resupply if necessary! We leave immediately!”

“Yes, Sir!”

The cry of unified voices rang through the air, and Erwin felt a chill run down his spine. He had never seen humanity so united before, and while he knew it was only because the circumstances were just right, it also gave him hope that, perhaps, the world they were working to change was starting to improve.

 

Chapter Text

“Whoaaa, long time no see!” Connie exclaimed as Yasmin, Milena, and Rosaleen came running toward him and Krista. “What are you guys doing here?!”

“Captain Hannes ordered us to come along for the recovery mission,” Milena replied, putting her hands on her hips. “Just because we're in the Garrison doesn't mean we can't fight, too, y'know...”

“We're looking for Armin,” Yasmin said, taking a step forward. Though Connie had never considered himself close to her, he still could see how tired she looked now.

“Ahaha, I thought you were Armin--I mean, you look exactly the same from afar,” Rosaleen mumbled to Krista with an embarrassed laugh.

“It happens,” the blonde replied. “Armin is over there with Mikasa. What do you need from him?”

“We wanna know what happened,” Milena said. “Or, I guess the better question is, who are the Titan shifters?”

“Beats me,” Connie answered, frowning. His heart was heavy with worry, and with a quiet murmur, he added, “Eren's gone, and I haven't seen Reiner or Bertholdt, either--”

“Don't you get it?” Krista interjected, her normally bright blue eyes dull. She hardly seemed like the same person. “It's them--Reiner and Bertholdt are the Armored and Colossal Titans.”

“...What?” Rosaleen breathed, her eyes wide. Connie felt his stomach clench; he did not want her words to be true. Of all people...

“Th'hell you sayin' that for?!” he shouted at Krista, but the blonde did not even flinch.

“Connie, it's them. They transformed right in front of us.” Her face darkened. “There's no point in trying to deceive ourselves anymore.”

 

Long before Eren had ever become a soldier, he had hated sleeping. It was such a long process to get ready for bed every night, and when he would finally wake up in the morning, instead of feeling rested, he would feel restless, as if sleeping had just made him lose time more than anything else. The same concept applied to the few times he had been knocked unconsciousness; on top of all of this, not being able to control when he was awake frustrated him. Therefore, he had never minded the long hours during training, or as a member of the Survey Corps, because at least he was doing something. At least he didn't feel so goddamned helpless.

On top of all of this, Eren hated sleeping because he hated his dreams. He rarely ever enjoyed the pleasant escape of a good dream; anything else besides a nightmare was usually just blank space in his head. Surely, every once in a while he would have a good dream--but those were never the ones he remembered. Instead, the nightmares were vivid, and he gladly welcomed the sudden jolt of consciousness in the mornings.

This time, it was the smell of a forest and the sound of steam hissing brought Eren out of his empty sleep. Slowly, he opened his eyes, and as he regained consciousness, he sat upright. His entire body was sore, but before the pain could fully register, he was distracted by the sight right in front of him: Reiner and Bertholdt were just a few meters away from him, the former standing tall while the latter was crouched in the shadows of the tree leaves. Eren could only assume that he, too, was on a tree branch, and when he glanced to his right, he could see someone else sitting beside him. It was Ymir, and she was looking at Eren with raised eyebrows.

“Hey, Eren,” Reiner said, “you awake?”

“...” Eren stared at Reiner; just days ago, Eren would have been happy to see him. But now, things were different--now, they were enemies. “Oh...!”

Eren's instincts were telling him to fight, and so the teen wriggled his arms out of his cloak and started to reach toward his blades. But when he looked down at his hips, he noticed two things out of place: one was that his gear was gone, and the other (and more alarming) thing was that his forearms had been reduced to stubs.

“Wha...What is this...?!” Eren gasped. “My arms...”

“Eren, look,” Ymir said, and Eren glanced over at the girl. Both her right arm and right leg were the same as Eren's--stubs that appeared to be oozing steam. “I'm like that, too. Guess we're both having a shitty day, huh?”

“...Ymir...why...are my arms gone...?”

“I did that--sorry,” Reiner replied. Eren glared up at the blond as he added, “We were in too much of a hurry for me to bite you out of the nape cleanly, and your arms were in the way.”

As he lowered his gaze, Eren felt a bitter smile cross his lips. The last thing he could remember was having Reiner's Titan locked in a good hold, and then...it was a blur, but whatever Bertholdt had done after that, it had given Reiner the advantage again.

“I see...” Eren murmured. “I guess I lost, then...”

Eren paused for a moment, staring up at Reiner. He could still hardly believe that this person, who he had thought of as one of his greatest allies, was really a foe of all humanity. He had now won against Eren twice--and that was two times too many.

With a small sneer, Eren quickly brought his forearm up to his mouth.

“Eren!! Stop it!!” Bertholdt pleaded, jumping to his feet. Before Eren could sink his teeth into his skin, he felt his arm being jerked out of his mouth.

“Just wait a sec, Eren,” Ymir said, narrowing her eyes. “Take a good look around us. This is one of the giant forests inside Wall Maria. It seems we're quite a ways away from the wall. And so, of course, that means there are Titans all over the place--look.”

Eren looked down to where Ymir was staring; he could see several Titans at the base of the tree in which they were now sitting. There was even one lying on its back, staring up at them. It was definitely one of the most unusual things he had ever seen a Titan do.

“That one's probably an abnormal type,” Ymir muttered. “It looks like it's just lying there, but its eyes keep looking in our direction. There are a bunch of small ones under us, too--that's also a threat. And over there's a huge one...” Ymir gestured off to her right; sure enough, there was a Titan hiding behind a nearby tree, staring at them with listless eyes. “...Though he's just watching us, not trying to approach us or anything. He's a subtle one, it seems. And then, there’s those guys.”

Releasing her grip on Eren's arm, Ymir put her elbow on Eren's shoulder and pointed up in the tree at Reiner and Bertholdt. Eren had never known Ymir well, but he was pleased that she, too, regarded Reiner and Bertholdt in the same class as the brutish, primitive Titans down below.

“Those bastards are wearing three-dimensional maneuvering gear. Reiner is wearing what you had on,” Ymir pointed out. Eren clenched his teeth as Ymir slid her elbow off and clapped her hand on Eren's shoulder, still glaring up at the duo. “I don't think it's a good idea to be so reckless as to transform into a Titan right now. Not only can they do the same thing, but they can easily escape up into the trees. And even if that wasn't the case, there are just too many other Titans here. It's hard to survive in Titan territory, even if you have Titan powers. Got it? You can't just lose it out here.”

“Actually, you guys can't turn into Titans now anyway,” Reiner interrupted, his arms crossed and his brows furrowed. “It's not that convenient. There's a limit to your physical strength. Right now, it looks like your bodies have their hands full just with trying to recover your limbs.”

“Fuck you,” Eren growled, glaring up at Reiner. “Who cares what you say?”

The air grew heavy as silence fell on the group. After several long seconds of silence, Ymir finally spoke up again.

“...Well, when it comes to Titan powers, I don't know a whole lot, either,” she admitted to Eren. “All I know is they function very differently from us...” She then turned toward the traitors, narrowing her gold eyes. “Hey, Reiner! Didn't you say that you'd talk after Eren woke up? Hurry up and say it: what are you guys gonna do with us now?”

 

…......

 

Bertholdt stared down at Ymir and Eren with pursed lips; as horrible as he felt about the circumstances in which had led them to become enemies, he was relieved to finally have things out in the open. Reiner seemed to be acting more like himself, too. Perhaps not having to keep up the act of a soldier would help him settle down again.

“We're taking you back to our hometown,” Reiner told the other shifters. “We already know that you're not just going to tag along obediently--but as Ymir just said, we're deep in Titan territory. If we try to kill each other now, when we're all weak, we'd just be eaten alive by other Titans. In other words, we have no choice but to stay here until nightfall, when the Titans stop moving. That will be the time when either you try to escape from us, or we take you with us quietly.”

I doubt it'll be that simple, Bertholdt thought as he caught Eren's spiteful gaze.

“What's your reason for staying here instead of just running back to your 'hometown' as the Armored Titan?” Ymir then asked. “Did you get tired and decide to take a break?”

“...I'll leave that to your imagination,” Reiner replied.

Good. Good answer, Reiner. Bertholdt relaxed his shoulders; he hadn't even realized he had been tense. There's no need to tell them anything extra. They already know too much.

“The Titans back at the castle moved just fine in the middle of the night, didn't they?” Ymir countered. “So what about the ones here?”

“These Titans can't move at night,” Reiner answered. “You should have already known that, Ymir.”

So much has happened that I almost forgot...Ymir might know things that we don't, Bertholdt realized, squatting back down onto the tree branch.

Bertholdt could understand why Eren hated them now--they had affected Eren's life directly with their actions, and it was only fitting that he would be furious. But Ymir was another story entirely; she had hidden things from humanity, too, and even now she knew more about them than they knew about her. She was much more clever than Eren, and her motivations were harder to read. In fact, she really didn't seem too upset about being kidnapped--she instead was acting more like it was an inconvenience.

As much as Bertholdt wanted to turn around and drill Ymir for answers, he knew he could not outsmart her, and so he kept silent. Reiner seemed to be on the same page; he sat down quietly on a tree branch next to him and crossed his arms, a sour look on his face.

“Reiner...” Ymir called out a few minutes later. “We don't have any water, do we? At this rate we're gonna die of dehydration, you know...”

“I know, but...it's impossible to get any in this situation,” Reiner replied.

“You're right,” Ymir stated. “This really sucks...”

“...Now that you mention it...we've been working non-stop...ever since yesterday afternoon, when the Titans showed up.” Reiner's voice was quiet, and his tone seemed much gentler now. Berholdt glanced down at him; from afar, he could see Ymir watching with keen interest. “We've barely had anything to eat or drink, and we haven't even slept...” A small smile crossed the young man's face as he added, “Well, fortunately, the wall wasn't breached, so for now, I'd just like to get some sleep. We can talk about promotions later...”

Dammit, Bertholdt thought, staring at Reiner in concern. The transition had been so smooth that he hadn’t noticed the change until it was too late.

“...Reiner...” he murmured, but the blond kept on.

“I think...we definitely did enough to deserve it...” he chuckled. “We did quite well in a situation that we knew very little about. As soldiers, we ought to get some kind of consideration or appreciation... That'd be...nice...”

“...Reiner...what the hell are you talking about?” Ymir asked, a sly smile on her face. Bertholdt could tell that she knew what was happening, and he wasn't sure if he was relieved to have someone else know this burden or not.

“Eh? What?” Reiner glanced down at Ymir, looking a bit flustered. He jumped to his feet, laughing, “I'm not saying I should be promoted to Captain right away or anything.”

“That's not...”

“Ah, by the way...! That cannon came outta nowhere, right? You guys really helped out back there. And the whole thing with Krista was...really strange. The truth is, Krista was always especially nice to be but--”

“HEY!” For once, Bertholdt welcomed Eren's angry shouts. “Are you fucking kidding me?!”

“...Why are you so angry, Eren? Did I say something wrong...?”

“I'm gonna kill you if you keep on talking like everything's just fine!!” Eren screamed, getting to his feet.

“Wait a minute, Eren,” Ymir said cooly, reaching up to grab the teen's cloak. “No matter how you look at it, this just isn't normal... Right, Bertholdt? If you know something, you shouldn't just keep quiet. Tell him.”

It's better this way, anyway, Bertholdt thought as Reiner turned toward him with a confused look on his face. Nobody else really gets it but me...

“...Reiner...you are...not a soldier, remember?” Bertholdt murmured. “We're...warriors...”

“...Yeah...that's...right...” Reiner slowly replied, his voice low. Putting his hand over his eyes, he sat back down on the tree branch, and Bertholdt lowered his chin to his knees.

“Huh...? What's going on...?” Eren asked quietly.

“I think I might have an idea...” Ymir declared. “I thought it was strange that the guy who destroyed the wall would risk his own life to save Connie. But he didn't even realize that he had done something contradictory. I don't exactly know how it happened, but maybe...he was originally a warrior whose goal was to destroy the wall, but somehow, while he was leading a soldier's life, he lost track of his original identity and couldn't tell which was real anymore.”

Bertholdt sat back against the trunk of the tree as Ymir went on.

“Or maybe he couldn't stand the knowledge of what he had done, and to protect his sanity, he escaped to the belief that he really was one of the soldiers protecting the wall, and he submerged himself in that belief, resulting in his consciousness splitting and the creation of false memories. If you take a look at Bertholdt's expression, this must happen quite a bit...or something like that. Amazing--even with your naturally sincere personality, you became like this...”

“Shut up.” Reiner's voice was low but loud and clear. “Shut the fuck up.”

“...Oops. I guess I said too much,” Ymir chuckled.

 

…......

 

Ymir had made a point of not getting attached to her comrades (save for Historia), but she knew that Eren and Reiner had been close, so she wasn't so surprised to see Eren's shock written all over his face.

“St-stop fucking around...” he murmured, staring up at Reiner with wide eyes. “Why are you acting like you're the victim here...? How can you...? What were you thinking when you asked me about that day...?! Huh, Bertholdt? You bastard!”

Ymir glanced up at Bertholdt; his face was solemn but unwavering, and she was surprised to see that he didn't look like his usual nervous wreck.

“I told you, didn't I?” Eren went on. “I told you about my mom getting eaten by a Titan, right? And that a piece of the gate that you destroyed with your kick landed on my house--and my mom wasn't able to escape? You knew...didn't you? You knew what I was talking about... What were you thinking...? Tell me... What were you thinking?!”

“...At the time, I felt sorry for you,” Bertholdt answered.

“Ah...is that so...?” Eren breathed, his eyes wide. Ymir had seen him riled up before, but now he looked positively wild--especially in comparison to Bertholdt's solemnity and Reiner's angst. “You guys...you guys are neither soldiers nor warriors... You are just murderers. You killed so many innocent people... You are mass-murdering psychopaths...!!”

“I know that already!” Reiner suddenly shouted, bringing his hand away from his eyes at last. “I don't need you to tell me!”

“Then don't go around grieving as if you actually give a fuck!!” Eren screamed. “You guys aren't human!! You're the ones who turned this world into a living hell!! D'you get that, you murderers?!”

“What the hell do you want from us, then?! Do you want us to atone?! To apologize?! To tell you 'killing is bad'?! Will that satisfy you?!” This was the most eloquent Ymir had ever heard Reiner be, but she could tell by the look on Eren's face that he wasn’t moved by these words. “The people you knew don't exist anymore!! If screaming makes you feel better, then carry on!!”

Reiner's last words echoed in the forest for a moment, then faded into silence. For once, Ymir felt bad for them--all three of them. She had seen them together a lot during training, and even after they joined the Corps. They had obviously been close, but none of that mattered now. It had all been a giant waste of time, and now nobody was going to budge to do anything to help things get better.

“...You're right,” Eren murmured at last. “I'm being naive... There's nothing I can do...except to make sure...that you both die in the most excruciating way possible... I swear...I will...”

You're making the enemies of humanity look good, Eren, Ymir thought as she clicked her tongue in disgust.

“No, not like that...” she muttered.

“Huh?”

“Eren, c'mon... I can't expect anything of you if you keep saying childish shit like that...”

“What?”

“I'm saying that if you make such small fries your enemies, it's not much of a match.” Ymir turned her gaze back to Reiner; they had gotten far off-topic, and at this rate, she would not have enough information to make her getaway at sundown worth the effort. “Hey, Reiner. What was that monkey?”

“Monkey?” Reiner echoed. “What do you mean?”

“Hm? You don't know? I mean, considering that you two were gawking at it with twinkling eyes at the time...”

“...What's this about a monkey?” Eren asked.

“Well, listen: that monkey, the Beast Titan, was the main culprit behind the uproar this time around. It brought forth Titans inside the walls...maybe to measure our strength?”

“So these two are after that Titan's location?” Eren asked. Ymir shrugged, turning to Reiner and Bertholdt.

“If you find him, you'll be able to go back to your hometown, right?”

“Y-you...” Ymir glanced back up at Eren; to her surprise, he was staring down at her now. “Tell me everything you know!!”

“Wait a sec--our situation doesn't exactly allow for that right now.” Ymir narrowed her eyes, sighing. It was really too bad that Eren was the other person here with her right now. She had hoped for a more...intelligent ally. “But, well... Eren, if you think killing those two will put an end to all of our troubles, you're making a big mistake.”

“What is the enemy?!”

“Enemy?” Ymir scoffed. “If I say that, it--”

“YMIR!!”

Startled by Reiner's sudden shout, Ymir whirled her head around to face him. Despite the tone of his voice, though, his expression was surprisingly gentle.

“Do you think that this world has a future?” he asked her.

Ymir stayed silent, staring up at Reiner with wide eyes. It was a question she had never really given much thought before--or at least, not in this lifetime. After all, she had promised herself a long time ago that she would live only for herself, and she was still planning on doing just that. But it was worth thinking about, whether or not this world would last much longer...

The longer Ymir stayed silent, the more Reiner's face began to harden, and soon the intensity had returned to his eyes.

“If you know that much, think about the path you should take from here,” he told her. “It's still possible for you to come over to our side, isn't it?”

“Are you telling me to trust you?” Ymir chuckled darkly. “No way! There's no way you two'll trust me, either.”

“That isn't true. I can trust you. Your goal is to protect Krista, right?”

Again, Ymir fell silent. Here she was, having thought that she was the only invulnerable one in their current circumstances...but Reiner had read her like a book. Was it that obvious?

“That's the one instance in which we should be able to rely on each other,” Reiner continued. “It might seem like I'm joking but...don't you think we can agree that we both want to do something for Krista? And, do you really think that Eren's powers are more reliable than ours?”

“Huh?!” Eren gasped loudly, obviously insulted. Ymir looked up at him, her gaze steady and harsh. Reiner was right--Eren had heart, but he did not know how to control his powers like Reiner and Bertholdt did.

“It seems like you were planning on using Eren to get out of here. You're probably thinking that you have to save your own ass before we take you away.” Reiner's voice lowered as his expression darkened. “If I’m being honest with you, you're right. We can't really guarantee your safety, either. But when it comes to Krista, there might just be something we can do.”

How the hell do YOU know? Ymir wanted to snap back, but she bit her tongue. Arguing with Reiner now was not going to help things--he was right, and the choice had been practically made for her. ...This isn't much different than how things were before, huh...?

“Your own little life...or Krista's future...it's up to you.”

Lowering her gaze, Ymir pursed her lips. Reiner was making this seem like there were two options to choose between, but really, they were one and the same.

“HEY!” Eren shouted, and Ymir gave him a side-glance. “What about the identity of the enemy?!”

“...Who knows,” Ymir sighed before turning away from the teen.

Obviously frustrated, Eren growled under his breath and turned away from her; Reiner turned away as well, and soon he and Bertholdt started a private conversation.

I spent years eavesdropping, Ymir thought. Time to get back into practice, I guess...

But it was a fruitless effort--the only words she caught were names of familiar people and places, and the rest was just garbled nonsense. At this rate, she really would have to go with them. She didn't have any other choice.

Suddenly, interrupting Ymir's tumultuous thoughts, she heard the popping sound of the 3D gear in action, and in the blink of an eye, Reiner had jumped down in front of Eren.

“Wha!? What is it, Reiner?” It's not night yet,” Eren breathed, taking a step back away from the blond.

“Oh well. We're leaving,” he grunted in response. “Eren, don't put up unnecessary resistance, all right?”

Eren narrowed his eyes at Reiner for a moment, then let out a cold laugh.

“...Hey, no need to act so violent, yeah?” he said, holding up his arms. “Look at what kind of condition I'm in... I could hardly resist like this, right? C'mon now...”

As Bertholdt landed beside her, Ymir watched Eren swing his elbow at Reiner's face, smacking him in the teeth. The impact of the blow knocked him onto his back on the tree branch. “DIE! DIE!!”

Despite Eren's desperate struggling, he was still helpless without his hands, and soon Reiner had the teen in a choke-hold. It was almost a funny sight; Eren looked like a bird flailing under a predator's grasp.

“I'LL KILL YOU!! I'LL FUCKING KILL YOU!” Eren screamed.

“...Hey, Bertl, why are we leaving already?” Ymir asked. The brunet turned to her, a sad expression on his face.

“Ymir...” he mumbled. “...After you went back to being human, were you still able to remember who you ate?”

That was not what she had been expecting at all. She could understand why he would ignore her question but...why would he ask this so suddenly?

“...No?” she answered, raising an eyebrow. “I don't remember, but...that was about five years ago...” Suddenly, everything clicked. “Was it one of your comrades?”

Bertholdt's answer was written all over his face. There was a far-off look in his eyes, and Ymir could not help but feel a prick of guilt.

“I see... I'm sorry...I don't even remember...”

“It can't be helped if you don't remember,” Bertholdt said quietly, turning away from her to look down at Eren and Reiner, the former of which was now biting into his arm, trying to trigger a transformation. “...It was the same for us, too.”

“I see... Eren doesn't seem to remember, either...so it's that kind of thing, huh...? Do you hate me?”

“I don't...really know,” Bertholdt replied. “I'm sure you didn't want to eat anyone, either... Just how long were you wandering around outside the walls?”

Ymir paused; she wasn't sure if sharing this kind of information would come back to bite her in the ass later, but if she was going to tell anyone, she wouldn't find many better people to tell than the normally docile Bertholdt.

“About sixty years,” she finally told him. “It was like...I was having a never-ending nightmare...”

 

Chapter Text

“How...did this happen...?” Levi murmured as he gently placed a hand on Hanji's bruised forehead. Her eyelids fluttered a little in response; she was definitely still alive, but she seemed too weak to even open her eyes. Levi had never seen her like this before, and it was anything but a pleasant sight. He had always hated hospitals, anyway.

“We don't know all the details,” Rowen replied, shrugging a bit, “but from what we were told, the Armored Titan and the Colossal Titan appeared where Hanji and the others were.”

“That explains the sudden summons for you two to join Erwin,” Levi replied, “but that doesn't explain what happened to this one.”

“She and the others were injured in some kind of explosion,” Catherine murmured. “I heard that the Colossal Titan threw its body fall off of the top of the wall and down on top of the Armored Titan and Eren's Titan, who were fighting below. After that...they disappeared.”

“And?” Levi said impatiently, glancing up at Catherine and Rowen. He did not understand why they were being so hesitant to tell him everything. They shouldn't have had any reason to distrust him or withhold information from him.

“Commander Erwin is leading a team out to chase them down,” Catherine finally replied. “But, Levi...it's been hours since Eren was kidnapped. The chance that they'll be able to bring him back is...not very high.”

Damn that Erwin, Levi thought, pursing his lips. Always pulling the most dangerous stunts without us...

“Anyway, I'm sure Hanji and the others will be able to tell us more when they wake up,” Rowen said with a gentle smile. “For now, we'll just have to wait.”

 

“For now, we need to focus on finding a place without Titans around,” Reiner called back over his shoulder to Bertholdt. The brunet nodded, as did Ymir, who had her arms wrapped securely around Bertholdt's neck and shoulders. Though Eren had put up a struggle, Ymir seemed quite content, and Reiner realized that she had made her choice: she would be joining them, after all. With Ymir now compliant and Eren now unconscious, they would be able to make a relatively smooth getaway through the forest with their gear.

“First, we've gotta get away from those ones,” Reiner continued, glancing at the Titans chasing after them. “My Titan is slow-footed, so if we are surrounded, I won't be able to protect you guys very well.”

“So why didn't we wait until nighttime, then?!” Ymir snapped.

Before Reiner or Bertholdt could speak up, Reiner caught sight of a couple of pillars of green smoke on the horizon. They had lost precious time; the Survey Corps was already much closer to them than they had been only minutes before.

“...?! Signal flares?! The Survey Corps came to rescue us!” Ymir exclaimed in disbelief.

“Shit...” Reiner muttered, glancing back at Eren, who was tied securely onto his back. “All the way here already... This is all because Eren had to go nuts back there...”

Of course, none of this was really any surprise to Reiner. He had known from the start that Eren was going to put up a fight. That was just Eren's nature, and also the nature of the circumstances. But still, it was inconvenient, and because of the delay his struggling had caused, they might lose everything they had worked so hard to gain.

“REINER!! IT'S KRISTA!!”

“Wha!?” Reiner gasped, Ymir's sudden shout startling him out of his thoughts.

“Krista's come all the way here!” Ymir screamed at him. “If you're going to take her, now is the time!!”

“How do you know she’s there?!” Reiner shouted back. “You can't have possibly seen here from here!”

“She's definitely here!” Ymir argued. “She's a good person, to idiotic extremes! She came to save me!!”

Ymir was not wrong--Krista was definitely good-natured to an almost dangerous extreme, and considering her actions at Castle Utgard, she would definitely join the Survey Corps soldiers to find Ymir.

“Even if you're right, we can't now!” Reiner countered. “We'll have to wait for another opportunity!”

“Huh!?”

“The likelihood of success is low now, right? Just how to plan to take Krista out from the middle of their ranks!? Wait for your chance!!”

Wait for my chance?!” Ymir growled. “Like after I'm devoured by your warriors?! No way! I can't trust you!”

“TRUST US!” Reiner was getting frustrated now--there was just no way to plan for anything if Ymir was going to keep switching sides and changing her mind. “We need Krista as well!!”

“Then do it now! Prove it to me right now! I-it has to be now!!” Ymir's voice quieted, and when Reiner glanced back at her, he could see her eyes were wide. She was pleading with them now, something Reiner had never imagined Ymir would ever do. “I want to see her now... At this rate...I won't ever be able to see her again, right?”

“We can't,” Bertholdt interrupted, gritting his teeth. “I'm sorry, Ymir... I don't even know if we get away as things are, under these circumstances...”

“I promise you, Ymir!” Reiner shouted. “We will make sure Krista remains unharmed during all of this! We will..!”

Despite saying this, Reiner still did not feel confident. After all, part of this also depended on Krista's will--if she decided not to cooperate with them, then they would have no other choice but to force her into it. Reiner did not want to hurt Krista, but if he had to choose between her and Bertholdt, the answer was clear.

I will not let anyone else die for my sake, Reiner told himself, narrowing his eyes as he zoomed through the trees.

“...When it comes to the geography here, I'm the strongest,” Ymir declared, breaking the silence once again.

“Ymir?” Reiner turned to look at the young woman; her arms were now wrapped around Bertholdt's neck and face, one hand covering his right eye.

“Eh!? Hey, l-let go!” Bertholdt stammered, wobbling on the wires of his gear. “Ymir...!?”

“That being said, don't you think I'm in charge here?”

“Wha--? Ymir, let go!” Bertholdt exclaimed, clumsily shooting one of his hooks into a nearby tree to try to regain his balance. “We're gonna fall!”

“I'll be fine,” Ymir said, uncovering Bertholdt's eye. “If I turn into a Titan, I won't be as powerful as your Titans, but I can make use of these trees and move much more quickly. I can probably even take Eren from you and go right to where the Corps is... If you guys don't go get Krista right now, I'll fight you guys here and get in your way.”

“What'll happen to Krista?!” Reiner shouted, his anger at a boiling point. “We won't be able to help her because of your selfishness!!”

“Yeah...but that's fine,” Ymir said, putting her hand over her heart and looking up at Reiner with tear-filled eyes. “Even if it means taking away Krista's future...I want to see her. Because...I really am a shitty human being. You guys don't understand, do you? She smiled at me, and she was kind to me, despite knowing what kind of person I am...”

“You...” Reiner brought himself down to her level, staring her down.

“Don't get angry,” she told him, mussing Bertholdt's hair. “I do have a plan. I'll fight as well, so it'll be easier to get away than it is now!”

Suddenly, Ymir grabbed a hold of Bertholdt's hair and pulled his head closer to hers. “OR SHOULD WE KILL EACH OTHER INSTEAD?! HUH?! YOU THINK I'M FUCKING WITH YOU?!”

 

…......

 

“I don't like the looks of this,” Milena murmured to herself as a bright flash of light appeared in the forest ahead of them. She could hear her comrades around her gasping and whispering. Everyone seemed to be thinking the same thing: that light was from someone transforming into a Titan. The question was, who?

“Everyone, split up!” Commander Erwin shouted, and Milena's grip on her horse's reins tightened. “Find Eren and take him back! We can assume that the enemies have already transformed into Titans! Battle is not the priority! No matter what, prioritize Eren's retrieval!!”

As the Commander called out his orders, several smaller Titans began to rush out from the forest, straight toward their forces.

“This way!” Hannes exclaimed, jerking his horse to the left.

“Follow Captain Hannes!” Milena cried back to her squad mates.

Milena did not consider herself the best strategist, and she knew that she was not as clever or smart as many of her friends. But at this point, even the most intelligent soldiers must have been at a loss of what to make of this situation.

They had been riding full speed toward this forest, soldiers from all three regiments working together as a single unit, and they had one target: Eren Jaeger. The objective was relatively straight-forward, and it was also quite clear who their enemies were. Still, Milena felt as though they were riding right into chaos. Splitting up did not seem like the logical choice; letting each regiment have complete control of their individual actions could end up a mess. After all, it was obvious that no one from the Military Police was happy to be there, and most of the Garrison soldiers that had come along were probably never expecting a mission like this.

We don't have a choice anymore, Milena told herself as she leaned forward on her horse. She could see many of her friends in the Survey Corps riding ahead of her, and Yasmin and Rosaleen rode beside her. ...But, even if other people bail out, at least Eren has us.

“Phil! Lead all the horses around the forest!” Hannes shouted to the Garrison soldier on his right.

“Got it!” the man cried as Hannes shot his hooks into a nearby tree.

“The enemies should be trying to exit the forest!” he called down to the others. “SCATTER!”

I see... Clenching her teeth, Milena turned toward her squad; they all looked terrified, but no one had run off, and her heart swelled with pride.

“Half of you, come with me!” she commanded. “The rest, follow Phil!”

“Milena!?” Rosaleen gasped, but Milena did not stop. Following after Hannes, she shot up toward the trees. She could see her Survey Corps comrades doing the same, and soon Yasmin and Rosaleen had joined her. If they could recover Eren here and now, then they would have a better chance of survival. There was no way that Reiner or Bertholdt could safely transform in this dense of a forest.

Just then, Milena heard a loud, shrill cry ring through the trees, startling her out of her thoughts.

“A Titan's cry!?” one of her squad members gasped. She could hear others shouting behind her, but Milena kept moving