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The Strength to Move On

Chapter Text

Armin was clinging to the reins, eyes watering as he focused furiously on the distant horizon, heart pounding as his horse raced beneath him. He didn’t know these lands, he didn’t know where he was going or what could be behind the next shattered ruin, but he charged on anyway, feeling adrenaline surge through him as he continued on.

He looked behind him once, and there it was, the female type titan, drawing closer to him with every step. He felt his chest stutter with palpitations, knowing he could not win the chase. She was close on his heels, and drawing nearer with every long stride.

Armin had to get away. He had to escape her reach, but knew intellectually that it was impossible. This time, unlike before when she was looking for Eren, she had only his capture in mind. Armin wouldn’t be able to get away now, not with his being the centre of her attention. He was the sole thing she had her eyes and mind trained upon.

Her feet thundered against the ground every time she made contact, but like all titans, she was much too light to jostle the horse. Armin used this to his advantage and kept on forward, kicking his feet into the horse’s sides. “Come on,” he urged it, but it was already straining itself, far beyond any speeds Armin had travelled at before. It couldn’t go any faster.

But he had to get away, else… Else…

The shadow of her hand covered the ground in front of him, and Armin tugged sharply at the leather reins in an attempt to veer his animal sharply left. It didn’t make a difference, since her fingers were now directly above them both and there was no escape, but at least he had tried.

He squirmed in her grip as she snatched him off the back of his horse, trying to get away, but there was no hope for him. He could not beat a human in a fight, never mind a fourteen metre titan. Usually, every time he was in a situation he couldn’t win, he had friends like Eren or Mikasa or Jean to help him. But this time there was no one and Armin was doomed.

“Annie,” he pleaded, as she brought him up to eye-level and watched him silently. Her eyes were a stark contrast to the deep red of her muscles, and her smile strained delicate and dangerous. She had a glint in her eye that Armin recognised from the training grounds; days spent being bruised, Armin remembered. Sometimes by Annie, sometimes by others whilst Annie watched. She used to ask him why he kept on fighting when he knew he would lose, when he knew it would only hurt him. He had replied, “Because I’ve lost if I give up”. It was a lesson the three of them, Mikasa, Eren and himself, had all had drilled into their psyches from a young age. Armin had a different reason for learning it, but the concept was the same: you had to fight, else you would never win.

“Annie,” he said again, at a loss of what else to say when she drew him closer to her face. He gripped at her thumb as it curled around him, pushing at it, trying to keep her away fm him. She bore him no mind. “Let me go!”

She bent down slowly, reaching out to the ground, and for an insane moment Armin thought she had plans to release him. He felt relief spread through his limbs, but it was cut short when she grabbed his horse in her free hand.

“Annie!” He screamed at her, his writhing even stronger now, his vigour to be released renewed with new-found anger and fear for his trusty companion.

She suddenly stood straight, and Armin barely had time to adjust to the shift in atmosphere before she held him in front of her nose and was glaring at him accusingly. Glowering back, he felt it unnecessary to defend himself. “You’ve killed my horse before,” he reminded her. “I also saw you kicked another half a mile, so, no, I’m not going to trust you with horses.”

She glared at him again, and though her expression hardly shifted Armin knew precisely what it meant. Where before it had been a hint of surprise, now her eyes were pointed.

“Alright,” he said, huffing. “You win. But I’ve told you before, I don’t need a personal titan to carry me around. I can ride horse you know.”

Annie looked at the seemingly endless expanse of the inner walls of Maria, and Armin understood. There were titans crawling around everywhere in these thousands of square miles, monsters lurking behind every corner, and though she was the fastest, though most could not outrun a horse, all Armin needed to do was overlook something trivial and he’d be dead before he could even signal for help.

With Annie, he knew, he was safe. If she could beat Eren’s titan in a fight when all he wanted to do was destroy her, then there was no better place to be than on her shoulder.

He saw her intentions, he knew she was right, and he kissed the tip of her nose for it. Her eyes remained steadily fixed on him as his attitude then immediately shifted into defiance. “I’m not completely helpless, either, you know.” He might find it difficult to kill a titan, but it was not hard to outthink one. He could survive here, he’d managed to come away from excursions into the land of the titans before, and that made him a survivor, a member of the Survey Corps. Annie, however, wouldn’t take that answer. She saw him as delicate, and that was probably because she was a fourty-six-foot-eleven titan and he was a five-foot-four fifteen-year-old.

She bent her head forward carefully towards him, and he reached out to touch her, knowing she only wanted him to survive. Behind them, the sun was setting, but it didn’t matter to them. They were alone, distracted, in the most dangerous place on Earth, and yet they were the happiest they’d ever been.

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There was a cold wind which rose up, cooling their faces despite the burning sun. They all looked upwards, Mikasa and Eren then glancing to each other, before Eren’s face split broadly. Annie had never seen him look so happy.

“That’s the sea breeze!” He cried, starting to pound his feet against the ground, racing forwards frantically. Mikasa was right behind him, Hanji doing her best to keep up, despite her prosthetic leg. The only one to stay behind with Annie was, of course, Rivaille. He stood steady by her right-hand, keeping a steely peripheral gaze trained on her.

They followed the sounds of cheers, of screams of both surprise and delight, and when they reached the top of a hill they could both see how the other three were stripping down to jump in the vast body of water which stretched on farther than any of them could see, beyond anywhere they’d ever travel.

It was not a surprise to Annie, who knew of and had seen the sea, but for those trapped behind the walls like Eren and Mikasa, it was something new and unimaginable. They were mystified, transfixed. Even poker-faced Lance Corporal Rivaille was staring, unblinking and, in his own way, amazed.

Annie, aware of her own limitations and how quick this man would be to kill her should she so much as twitch without permission, only moved when he did.

When they reached the beach, the others were testing the water, prodding their feet into it, dragging their hands along the foaming edges. Then there was Hanji Zoe, who was already knee-deep and screeching.

“Something touched my leg!” She gasped, clasping her hand around whatever it was submerged in the sea, dragging out a crab before laughing hysterically. Quietly, from the back of the beach, Rivaille and Annie looked on.

Hanji took Rivaille’s place briefly, allowing him to make his own discoveries, and the woman was happy enough to chatter to her about whatever was on her mind.

“It was his idea, you know,” She said, before clarifying. “The ocean, I mean. He only ever spoke about it once, illegal and all that, but when you’re a day away from potentially dying, a lot of stuff like the law just doesn’t seem quite as important as hopes. He would have loved it here.”

They had rode for miles, looking everywhere for a massive body of water. Eren and Rivaille had been at each other’s throats about it, with Eren insisting it was real whilst Rivaille demanded to know where it was hiding if it was. After days of bickering, Hanji and Mikasa had finally put their foot down, and started to grill Eren about all he knew about the ocean.

Finally, with some interesting leaps of logic and more than just a little dumb luck, they had made it. Annie knew it would have been sooner, if only someone else had managed to make it here, too.

“We only brought you along because he loved you,” Eren had reminded her more than once, eyes burning with betrayal and fury. Annie didn’t reply, because she didn’t know what to say.

She’d never been one for words, though if she had something to say she would not hold back. However, ever since the last battle, Annie had no words left to speak.

During it, that bloody fight in which too few, only the best, returned, a hand had been forced and a sacrifice had been made. A clever boy with no time to warn anyone rushed forwards to save his friends, and Armin Arlert had been killed in their place.

It seemed ridiculous, that a creature of such miniscule size and skill had saved someone of Eren’s magnitude and Mikasa’s talent. Yet, the truth remained that without his loss, the two saviours of humanity would no longer be standing.

Sometimes Annie thought the world would be a better place without them, with Armin still there with her whilst they rotted in the ground, but Armin would not exist without his friends, much like Eren and Mikasa seemed less bright with such a gaping hole in their lives.

Here, visiting the sea, was more than just a discovery to them. It was a last goodbye, as well as a final hello. Being here, realising Armin’s dream, brought him back to them and, just for a moment, it brought him back to Annie, too.

They hadn’t meant to catch each other’s eyes, because Annie knew that she would lose him. Nor could she do anything about it once he decided to throw his life away for the greater good. Reports say he fought hard, valiantly, like a hero, but Annie had long since known that death was coming for him and the end was never heroic.

Armin had first decided to like her in their training years, which made it so easy for him to identify her later as a titan, right when it counted. Annie was slower to catch on to her own feelings, but when she recognised them she fell quicker and harder than Armin ever did. The words ‘love’ had never passed their lips, so she was loathe to believe what Eren said when he harked on about Armin’s adoration and Annie’s betrayal. After Armin had discovered her secret, there would have been been no room for any love for her in his noble heart.

The breeze felt like a touch, the sound of the waves a song, and she closed her eyes to imagine. For a moment, when she reopened them again and watched the distant, ever-steady horizon, Armin was standing behind her, his arms wrapped around her waist and his head on her shoulder, and it was then that she loved him.

She would never see him again, never touch him or speak to him or hold him, but it was alright. Because she had experienced this moment, shared it, and for a little while it had seemed like he had loved her too.

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Mikasa, concerned with ensuring Eren’s protection as he shifted the boulder ever closer to the smashed gate, did not recognise what happened until she heard the screaming.

There was shrieking surrounding her, smashing into her from every direction as soldiers were eaten or squashed or torn into pieces, but there were certain voices Mikasa immediately recognised. One, of course, was Eren; her family. The other was her friend, Armin. Both their voices sounded out above the din of the world, and Mikasa knew that one scream was different from the hundreds of others around them.

She spun to face the noise, her heart throbbing in her chest. She had felt this fear before, when she had learnt of Eren’s apparent demise. She had no intentions to experience that same aching loss again.

She didn’t see Armin for a moment, expecting him to be caught up in a fist or trapped underfoot, but his shock of blond hair caught her eye and she realised he was slowly being crushed by titan teeth.

She was up in the air immediately, but was waylaid by a giant’s hand lashing out to catch her. She managed to avoid, utilising her drawn blades to cut the fingers from her, and taking the opportunity to slice into the titan’s neck whilst she was in close proximity. It was more training than her conscious mind, since any rational thought was consumed by the sight of the boy she had come to treasure fighting so hard to stay in one piece.

His cries were all in pain, tears streaming from his eyes, panicked and terrified. One of his blades had been lost, whilst another was slashing towards the titan’s eyes, trying to hurt it enough that it would let him free. His other arm was pushing at its jaw, attempting to relieve the pressure from his chest.

“Please no,” he was begging, but it was neither to the titan nor asking for a saviour in the people around him. He was praying for life, though there was little in his voice which suggested he believed his pleas would help him now.

Eren was preoccupied, and Mikasa was too far away. Over the flat terrain she couldn’t travel quickly enough, and nor could she help from bumping into more and more titans who were blocking the shattered entrance. She wouldn’t get to him in time to save him, and he would either be eaten or dissected. She needed to get to him faster-

With her focus zeroed in on her friend, with her ever-declining proximity to the monster who was killing him, it was hard for her to miss the way the titan’s eyes bugged, and it was a sign she had grown used to this last few hours; the expression a titan made when it had been hit in the neck. She aimed her 3-D gear at its face, pulling herself up to grab Armin in her arms. He slid easily from the slack jaw, and Mikasa made it clear of the gigantic falling body by a mere hair’s width.

She started to run towards the buildings, arms full, leaving her defenceless against any oncoming attacks, but it seemed someone was watching after her wellbeing. As soon as she made it to a rooftop unscathed, Annie was by her side, blades bloody. It was clear who had been responsible for killing the titan who’d had a hold of Armin.

Mikasa placed the boy down, lying him flat on his back, but kept a hand on his wrist. He was breathing, barely. His eyes were closed.

There was hardly any blood – the titan’s teeth had been broad and flat, made to grind rather than to tear. All the damage done to Armin would be internal, though the sight of his chest cavity turned concave with the force of the beast’s jaw was not surreptitious.

Mikasa did not want to let go of him.

“They need you,” Annie said, but Mikasa did not care about them. It wasn’t until she heard a roar, also familiar despite its monstrous overtones, that she remembered she was supposed to be supporting her teammates, the war effort, Eren. She drew her swords and stood up, but faltered when she thought for a second that the haltering rise and fall of Armin’s chest had stopped. Annie caught her eye.

Mikasa jumped from the roof only when the blond woman knelt down besides the blond boy. One of her hands tipped his head, and his eyes slowly opened to see her.

Later, much later, Connie, who had witnessed the scene up close, would tell both her and Eren that Annie clung onto Armin as each breath became harder and he struggled to stay awake. She spoke to him quietly, but he wasn’t able to reply. Eren himself only found out Armin was dead when he and Mikasa were reunited days later at the HQ of the Survey Corps.

Mikasa spoke to Annie before she left for the Military Police. She thanked her, even tried to prompt her to say something more personal, but Annie shook her head.

“Don’t,” the girl had insisted. “Don’t linger. He did not survive.”

Mikasa nodded and didn’t bring it up again, because there had been a moment, during the final battle in Trost, that she had glanced over at the right time, only seconds before Eren had placed down the boulder and closed up the hole. She had seen Armin’s fingers wipe at Annie’s wet cheeks, before his hand drooped limply. It had been caught by the girl cradling him, and had not moved again.

Eren’s success distracted Mikasa from anything else, and she didn’t care more about Annie’s reaction over the mix of her own sorrow and pride. Armin had died to protect this victory, and with it they had, for the first time in over a hundred years, emerged the victors.

It had all been thanks to Armin. Without him there would be no plan, Eren would have no control over his titan body, and both Eren and Mikasa alike would probably be dead. Armin had given his all to win this fight, including his life.

Mikasa knew she could battle on through the world without the brightness Armin brought to it, but she wasn’t sure if humanity would survive such a blow.

Without Armin, without his quick mind and startling ingenuity, who knows what would happen to them all?

This was the main concern, Mikasa considered: the many before the individual, and she could save her mourning until it was appropriate. Of course, in the midst of a war where friends and loved ones disappeared and died every day, there was never an appropriate time. She was a soldier, and had long since learnt to deal with loss.

Annie, it seemed, concurred. She ignored her own pain in favour of focusing on the goals set before them. For Annie it was the MP, whilst for Mikasa it was Eren.

Eren, Mikasa knew, would mourn enough for the three of them, and she’d let him. He would funnel that pain into rage, and he would avenge their friend. Eventually, perhaps they’d all kill enough titans that they would be appeased, and they would find the right number that quenched their thirst for revenge.

Armin was worth this many titan lives, they’d agree, and they would move on with their lives.

Mikasa, however, knew that they’d never find that satisfactory amount. Armin was invaluable, and to lose him so soon, so young and brilliant, would surely mean consequences no one in this world could afford to pay.

Until then, she would not think upon it. Nor would she question the gap Annie and herself left unconsciously between them when they stood in a line to salute the burning dead.

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To Armin, thoughts appeared like wax, and ideas came in the form of candles. They were a compressed collection of deliberations which, when put under the flame of reality and its constrictions, would melt into a pool of dismissed and rejected contemplations. The worse the idea, the quicker it would burn, and occasionally there was no one candle which would last long enough to light the way to the final destination. Sometimes, there was just no right answer.

But Armin never accepted that.

His heart could try to say something was false when it was not, but that was merely reliance upon faith. Faith, ultimately, could never withstand the truth of the real world, of the harsh practicalities of their lives.

And there always came a moment, to Armin, when every candle had extinguished, been melted down into mere memory, except one. That single flickering flame represented the truth, and Armin was never wrong.

There had been a reason he was the top academic student in the training program. His success had been down to him being able to work from practically nothing to find the answer, or, in some cases, making extraordinary leaps of intuition. But sometimes things just slotted together.

Armin was lying in the grassy fields of what once had been the safe land behind Wall Maria. He was sticky with blood, but he did not feel it. He was shaking as the shock settled in his bones, and now was the worse time for it. He had been thrown from his horse, his head was heavy, and there was a fourteen-metre titan staring down at him.

She was moving deliberately slowly, and had it been anything else than a creature Armin had seen toss away men’s lives like one would stamp down on a spider, he would have said she was trying not to spook him, as if he were a cornered mouse.

There was something familiar in her face; Armin had thought so before, when she had slipped the hood from his head and leaned down to look him in the eyes. She had then let him go, when, ultimately, it would have been easier to squash him. Since then, Armin’s mind had been whirring with potential solutions, slowly letting each candle melt down with improbabilities, until only a few remained lit.

And then, in what were possibly doomed to be his last moments, he realised who the human hiding in titan’s neck had to be. There was no one else, no other answer, and with it, he knew what he had to do to help Eren.

He pointedly ignored his own throbbing heart, his own sick stomach and broken faith, as he screamed out that Jean needed to avenge ‘the one who had rushed to his death’. It was a joke, in their garrison. Eren, the seemingly suicidal bastard, who swore to kill every titan no matter what the price. Only a few would recognise who Armin meant, and when the female type titan froze her fist in the air to listen to him, it only confirmed what Armin already knew.

His priority was Eren’s safety. It didn’t matter how powerful and untouchable the reckless boy thought he was in his titan form, he had yet to grasp the same seemingly flawless control that this titan possessed. Until the time where he had proven himself capable of keeping himself alive without outside assistance, Armin would keep on protecting him.

He’d address the stab of betrayal later, when he had time to come to terms with what he had learnt, whom he had lost, and grown used to the desperate feel of his own heartbreak.

Later, he’d whisper her name into his pillow, let tears stain it and allow his grief to overwhelm him. Yet, all the while, he wouldn’t be able to help the way the candles burnt in his mind, forming and melting and relighting with new thoughts and designs. In the end, even when he’d begin to torment himself to sleep with the memories of her pale eyes and the sliver of a smile she’d grace him with on warm mornings, he would be drawing up plans against her.

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Annie was there on the rooftop, overlooking the monster which had stood in the way of a cannonball. From her vantage point she saw how Armin Arlert defended his friend, recklessly, stupidly, without forethought. Whilst Reiner and Bertholdt focused on the decaying titan torso, whilst Jean glared, horrified, at the accusations being sent towards Eren Jaeger, Annie focused elsewhere.

Annie would not call her comrades and classmates dumb, but their priorities were skewed by the immediate threat of Eren. With this revelation that he was a titan, as it had been when the new green-eyed monstrosity had appeared for the first time, whatever plans to destroy the gates of Wall Rose with the armoured titan had been hindered; put on hold for further investigation into this new strange creature.

And underneath that titan flesh emerged Eren Jaeger, of all people. Eren Jaeger, who swore with every breath he could spare that his last act on Earth would be the annihilation of the titans. To prove to be one himself must be devastating. Annie wondered whether his hatred grew from knowing he had the power to become one, or whether this was a new, unfortunate happenstance.

Either way, the most obvious hazard, besides Mikasa’s murderous eyes and the dull glint of her prepped blades, was Eren. However, being the most apparent threat did not necessarily dictate where the real danger lay.

And then there was Armin Arlert. He stood defenceless, no swords, no 3-D gear, no back-up (not that it would do him much good should they decide to fire upon him again), his hands spread open to show he was not hostile. His words were carefully chosen and inspiring; brilliant in their subtlety and manipulation. Too bad the humans were not prepared to listen.

Annie did, though. Annie paid attention. Annie heard everything. She heard his plan to utilise Eren even when Armin didn’t enunciate specifics. Annie heard the quivering undertone, in which all Armin wanted to do was survive to see the end of this hellish day. Annie also heard something much more potent underneath all his precariously crafted words, and with it she realised that while Reiner and Bertholdt would worry about Jaeger, here stood their real opponent.

Wide-eyed and innocent, with floppy blond hair and sincerity etched into every line of his body, Armin Arlert could not win in a physical fight against them but he could think easy circles around them enough that ultimately he needn’t even lift a blade. He was quicker than his ingenuousness suggested he should be, and with his mind he could destroy them.

Annie felt, irrationally, that if he looked up now and met her eye, he would see her for what she was: a spy, an infiltrator. A titan.

She should kill him as soon as she had the chance, assuming the terrified soldiers didn’t beat her to the chase. They couldn’t see as she did the importance of the defiant trio, and nor did they see the good use they could be put to. Instead, they were scared of an enemy slipping in under their noses, and they were looking for scapegoats to alleviate that panic.

If they wanted traitors, they were looking in the wrong direction.

She should tell the other two of what she discovered, of what she knew they had to do else their whole plan may be compromised, if not utterly decimated. However, she ended up watching Armin silently, keeping an eye on his perfect, honest salute. With it, she felt a twinge of sorrow. It was a miracle he hadn’t died today, this weak little creature with his candid personality and affectionate nature. Likely, even if she didn’t kill him directly, there was only so long he would last if made to face the titans again.

Something else, however, stopped her from figuring out the simplest way of destroying him and everything he could potentially learn, and she realised that it was his words. He was trying to save their lives, certainly, but he was blindly protecting Eren, his childhood friend, despite what he had observed and the horrors he had been subjected to by creatures like the monster Eren could turn into.

For all he knew, Eren could be a titan masquerading as a boy. He was aware that even now, with the dark-haired soldier shaking with repressed fury by Mikasa’s side, that there was a beast lurking beneath that skin. Armin had seen people killed by the titans, had lost his home and his parents and his friends to the titans, and yet he still threw himself into the firing line and spoke up.

He could die, he could be shot at any minute by a cannon or by a petrified gunman, and he was more than smart enough to know it.

Yet there he remained, at the forefront of his friends, shielding them with his body when his words failed him.

And he was dangerous, just because of how much he was willing to sacrifice for the sake of his loved ones. If he ever knew about Annie, about Bertholdt and Reiner, well… Annie was not ashamed to admit that she was scared of what he would resort to in order to stop them.

But, at the same time, as Annie saw how Armin defended his friend, recklessly, stupidly, without forethought, she couldn’t help but wonder whether he’d do the same for her.

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Annie found him behind the female bunk building, curled up in the shade with his head buried in his arms. It was night-time, and his tears were silent.

She had felt restless that night, so had sought out quiet. She had found a boy sobbing, instead.

It was the second day of training, and after Jaeger had proved himself capable of manoeuvring the 3-D gear, the hours had been gruelling and challenging. Annie had taken to it, as it was no more than what she was used to and she was strong, but others found it difficult to adapt.

She should have left him there, crying into his sleeves with shaking shoulders, but against her own better judgement she stepped forward. She recognised him, the chin-length blond hair and his petite stature similar to her own, and not just from initiation. She had seen him around the homeless camps, waiting in line for food when all he had left was the clothes on his back and the friends he clung to.

“Arlert, right?” She asked him as she was only a few steps away, and his head shot up in surprise. His cheeks were red with tear-tracks, flushed from trying to keep himself quiet.

He didn’t seem to struggle for a name, but it must have taken time to blink away his tears enough to put her into focus. “Annie.” He returned, and she nodded. She didn’t remember his first name. It didn’t seem important.

“I’m sorry,” he eventually said into the silence, through which they could hear snores behind the walls from the female trainees as they slept. “I needed to come here, because Eren would try to find me-“

“You’re hiding from Jaeger?” Annie asked, thinking to the determined boy who wished with all his heart to slaughter every single titan on the Earth. She had no opinion of him, other than that his naivety was childish and bravely ambitious.

Arlert nodded, eyes dull as they stared at his hands. “He tries to help people, like a hero. To save them. He worked so hard last night to master the defective 3-D gear, and he seemed so miserable when he couldn’t do it. And today – he was proud. He can now avenge what he’d lost. He thinks he can save us all-“

Arlert stopped himself, biting down on his lip. It was clear that he disagreed with Jaeger’s idealistic dreams.

“You believe he’s wrong.”

“How could I not? I want to believe in him, and I know that he’s tough, if only in will rather than muscle, but I can’t. I no longer see any way to win back Wall Maria, never mind the world. Eren thinks he can, but Eren is blinded by his rage.”

Annie watched him for a while, noting how his tears had stopped but his expression remained tortured. His eyes were wet, glinting under the dull orange lamp-light in the far corner. It barely reached them, and with Annie’s arrival it had plunged Arlert almost entirely in black shadow.

Slowly, not liking why she was doing it but not questioning herself further, Annie sank down to the ground next to the blond and remained silent. He had more on his mind than merely Jaeger, and as penance for what Annie and her companions had already cost him she was willing to listen.

Eventually he recognised that she was waiting for him to say more, and though he initially hesitated he plucked up the courage to say, “I thought I wanted to be here.”

“Why are you?”

He breathed again. “They murdered my grandfather.”

“The titans?”

Surprisingly, Arlert shook his head. He said, “They sent him outside Wall Rose on that hopeless mission. I needed to sign up so I could change it, so I could have a say. I know what they should have done, I knew how to help, but they wouldn’t listen to me.”

“Do you think they’ll listen now you’re a soldier?”

“Once I’ve graduated, yes.” He said, before amending with a bitter laugh: “If I graduate.”

It was a fair assumption. Arlert was neither strong nor strong-willed like his friends Ackerman and Jaeger were. He was small, frail, fair of heart, and apparently clever. Though he had been there at the fall of Wall Maria, he had not seen the true horror of the titans with his own two eyes. In a way, he was still completely innocent. If any of them were going to die during the three-year programme, then Arlert was an obvious contender. And even if he did manage to make it through, there was little hope for any of them once Trost was breached.

“I’m going to die.” Arlert said, voice scratchy with choked emotions, and he hid himself in his arms again. His tears now were no noisier than before, despite the horror that had overcome his features. He was trembling, and Annie stopped herself from placing a hand on his back.

She slowly lowered her fingers and tried to ignore the guilt rising up inside her.

“Quit.” She stated plainly into the air, and Arlert just let out a watery laugh.

“If I quit, who would keep Mikasa in line? You don’t want to see Mikasa when she’s mad.”

Annie had already seen Ackerman in action. She wasn’t trained, but she was certainly talented. Blank-faced and impossible to read, Mikasa Ackerman would prove to be one of the best of them, and one of the hardest to defeat. But defeat, of course, wasn’t the point.

“I believed Jaeger was the one closest to Mikasa.” She said. “What is your role?”

“As Eren is blinded by titans, and Mikasa by Eren. She protects him, and I… well, I tag along.” He sounded tortured by this as much as he had been at the thought of being killed.

“So you hide because you do not wish them to know you’re scared.”

“They’ll try to protect me, too. They need to focus on themselves now. I’d rather die than become a burden to anyone.”

Annie felt herself inexplicably surprised. When she looked to Arlert his face had shifted into a frown, and though tears still crept down his cheeks, he voice had steadied. She stood up, whatever urge to stay with him now passed as he started to pull himself together. His eyes followed her.

She offered a final piece of advice before turning: “Quit. You’re going to die anyway.”

“What?” But she had no intentions to reply now she had started walking away. She made it to the light before Arlert spoke again, clearer now, his voice soft when it wasn’t thick with tears. Like a summer breeze, she thought, as it caught at your hair.

He said, “I can’t do that, Annie. I can’t abandon them anymore than they could me.”

She started to move again, only stopping when she reached the corner which would take her out of his sight. She replied with only, “What’s your name, Arlert?” Because suddenly it seemed that more important. For a moment, he had almost sounded like a fighter. Like someone who might see this war through to the bitter, bloody end.

His eyes were blue, she noticed for the first time. For some reason that was important too. “Armin,” He said. “I’m Armin.”

“Annie.” It was ingrained manners which prompted her to introduce herself and nothing more.

“I know.” And for the first time, he honestly smiled. Innocently, as if this filthy, evil world had never touched him, he smiled.

Within the next breath, Annie found herself impossibly hoping, her heart aching, that Armin Arlert would never die. And then the moment was over, and Annie left him behind, falling asleep to the sound of the wind in the leaves on a warm summer’s day.