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Equinox

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Mina squinted under the bright sky, the mid afternoon sun still high and beaming down on Stohess District. It was an unseasonably humid day and she could feel the sheen of sweat collecting around her forehead, back of her neck damp. She pursed her lips, hoping the large straw sunhat would offer enough protection to shield her powdered face from sweating off under the sun. It had been a few weeks since her last visit above ground and she was finding it hard to adjust her eyes to the brilliant blue sky. The town was busy, families out to enjoy the beautiful weather, bustling through the market place, bright smiles and cheery faces.

 

Mina walked slowly, keeping her pace even and casual with those wandering around her. She made sure to look up occasionally, as if taking in the sights and sounds of the day, always angling her face away from those close by, so as to avoid any lingering stares over the identifiable marks on her face that could only be covered from a distance, only muted under the cheap face powder. She looked to her right, quickly catching the eyes of Niklas, dressed in slacks, a light shirt and a waistcoat, a hat pulled down low, a charming smile as he conversed with a man at the market stall. It didn’t matter to him if he got too close as unlike her, he was just another unremarkable face in an unremarkable crowd. As if feeling her gaze, he looked up quickly, eyes catching hers before glancing to the man she had been tailing. He gave her a quick nod, a confirmation that she had found her target, before turning back to the man at the market, the silent exchange between them so subtle and quick no one would have noticed a thing out of sorts. Mina turned to face ahead, eyes locked on the man she had been following for the past twenty minutes; sure enough, he was the same man Niklas had clocked an hour earlier. His nod had confirmed it. Her eyes narrowed in on his right hand tucked into the pocket of his slacks.

 

She counted the seconds as she stepped in time with him. He pulled his hand out again, the gold pocket watch clutched in his palm, rising it up to his face before returning it back into his pocket. Every thirty seconds or so he had been doing this movement, Mina guessed he was in a hurry and anxiously checking the time.

 

Good. She thought. His attention will already be muted…his thoughts elsewhere. Distracted.

 

Mina picked up her pace, just slightly, listening to the sound of her worn boots hitting the cobbled streets, the chatter in the air, bellowing laughter. She had a small window of time to grab the watch, knowing she needed to obtain it not more than a few seconds after he had returned it to his pocket. This would allow her the time to get herself well out of sight, before the thirty seconds were up and he reached down to check it again. Her focus grew more intent, not lettering her eyes off of him. She could only see the back of his head; the slight greying hair brushed back neatly, the slope of his shoulders underneath the spotless jacket. She wondered what it would mean to him, to lose his pocket watch. She eyed the jacket again, the spotless shoes, the briskness of his walk.

 

He has money. She affirmed to herself. This will be a mere inconvenience to him. He doesn’t need it to survive. You do.

 

She watched as his head turned. While he walked, he had either been looking ahead or inkling his head to the left every so often. She guessed his was looking for a turning, unfamiliar with this part of town and trying to escape the market centre to make his way back on route to his destination. She knew her window of time had narrowed considerably, she needed him in the market, busy, bustling, where she could slip in and out unnoticed. She picked up her pace again, advancing on him quickly until she was only a few footsteps behind, syncing up with him to the exact beat. She watched as he reached into his pocket, grabbed the watch, lifting it into his vision, sighing irritably, before returning it back.

 

Now.

 

Two bigger steps, matching his stride, before she veered slightly to the left, using her shoulder to bump into his right side. Her form was steady but she feigned a stumble, catching onto his arm as his footing tripped with her.

“I am so terribly sorry!” She exclaimed, pulling herself up, right hand on his left forearm, left hand moving quickly. “I am in such a rush and I didn’t see…a bunch of children just came charging into me out of nowhere, nearly knocked me off my feet! I am so sorry!” She gushed, pitching up her voice, making it shake with sincerity as her left hand worked its way into his pocket, slim fingers moving deftly, just the fingertips pinching the chain of the watch, pulling it out swiftly and cradling it into the palm of her hand, the undetectable movement over in mere seconds.

He shook his head at her, still straightening up as she pretended to balance herself on her feet, moving her left hand to rub her leg through the light pink dress she wore, slipping the watch into a hidden pocket at her side.

 

“It’s quite alright.” He grumbled as she moved off of him, giving him some space as she straightened out, brushing his hand across the front of his jacket awkwardly.

“I’m very sorry sir, I hope I didn’t hurt you.”

“No, no…of course not.”

 

She flashed a quick smile, not letting him see the expanse of her face, a small nod of sincerity before she turned on her heel quickly, moving to her right, slipping into the crowd, working her way through streams of people, out of sight in mere seconds. She pushed through the market center, now knowing she had to get out of the busy streets and into the side roads and alleyways. She turned her head minutely to catch Niklas’s eye again, still at the same street vendor, waiting for her signal. She gave a small nod, just the subtlest jerk of her chin and he flashed her a smile. She fidgeted with the high neck collar of her dress, feeling the sweat pooling underneath the scratchy material, moving faster out of the direct sun, turning sharply to her left, a precise switch of her foot to disappear down one of the many alleyways she had memorized. She took of her sunhat once sheltered form the crowd, feeling her thick hair plastered to her face and cranking her neck irritably at the sensation. She palmed the pocket watch quickly, taking another left, hiking her foot up onto a drain to pull herself up, quickly, onto a low roof, shimmying across on her stomach to cross the wall, dropping to the other side almost silently in front of Niklas, who stopped with a start.

 

“Damn it!” He cursed, shaking his head, running his hand through his own sticky hair. “I hate when you do that.”

“Let’s go.” She muttered, taking the lead down the alleyway and out onto another open street, wincing as the sun once again found them in the open. He fell into stride beside her, taking her arm in the crook of his, their walk synchronizing into a casual stroll. He kept a grin on his face.

“You get it?” He asked.

She glanced up at him, expressionless.

“Right, sorry.”

Mina always did what was required of her. She wouldn’t have left until she had done so.

 

He sniffed, pulling her closer, eyes darting around. Mina watched as he looked every few seconds, turning his head back, tilting it to the left, then to the right, as if agitated. She sucked her teeth.

“You were by that vendor an awfully long time.”

He let out a breathy laugh. “Yah, the old man didn’t see a thing. I probably swiped half of his morning’s takings while he prattled on about apples.”

Mina’s eyebrows furrowed ever so slightly.

“Relax. He had a good set up, looked light on his feet. Nice gold chain round his neck too, if only I could have gotten closer to that. It won’t do him any significant damage in the long run.”

“Mmm.” She glanced at him again out of the corner of her eye as he cranked his head again, peering behind them, to the left, to the right. She then looked at the hat in his left hand. “Niklas. You took that hat off after you let the square…right?”

He gave an evasive hum.

She pursed her lips, feeling the anxious energy prickling on his skin, heavy in the air, in the way his fingers were pressing into her shoulder.

“How many?”

He was quiet for a few seconds.

“Huh?”

“Niklas. How many people saw you?”

“Jeez…you really do know me too well.” He laughed without humour.

“Niklas.” Her tone was sharp.

“Okay, okay…not the market seller, I was done with him….just some middle aged guy and his wife…I swiped some coins and failed to see the fucking five inch kid at his feet.”

“Niklas.” She exhaled, face hardening in anger.

 

He’s getting too reckless. This is not how we survive.

 

“Mina, calm down okay. I had my hat off yes, I was sweating like a pig okay and this stupid fucking outfit…look the kid saw me, as soon as he did, I was off. I doubt the father turned round quick enough to see my face okay… I was gone.”

Mina pursed her lips as he continued to grin, keeping up an appearance for any passers-by. He rubbed her shoulder.

“You don’t believe me?”

“Not when you’re breaking your neck to look around every five seconds.”

 

Their stride hadn’t faltered throughout as they cut across a busy street. Mina rearranged her features, softening them slightly, tucking her head down so that the right side of her face was hidden under her hair. They continued to walk in silence, too crowded to talk. Niklas tugged her to the left as she went to carry on down the road, to cross the bridge out of town.

“He’s parked back here.” He muttered.

 

Out of the busy street once more, down a back road, the cobbled street narrow, buildings slimmer and higher, blocking out the sunlight so that the air was tinged with a blue filter. Down the alleyway, they took a sharp turn to the right, to see the carriage waiting for them. Mina patted the horse’s head absentmindedly as she approached, receiving a snort in return before she climbed into the waiting carriage without a word. Niklas followed, leaning over Mina to pull the curtains to her right tightly closed. They settled. To Mina’s left, past Niklas, the curtain opened and Niklas smiled, nodding his head towards the familiar MP that stood on the other side.

Mina didn’t look in his direction, not needing to in order to know he probably wore the same smug smirk he always did, shirt pressed, uniform jacket pulled proudly around him, copper hair slicked back.

“Whatcha got for me?” He asked, his voice nasally.

 

Mina knew she had disliked Peter when they first met, as soon as he had first opened his mouth.

 

“A good haul my friend.” Niklas replied, pulling out the cloth satchels he stored in the pockets in the inside of his waistcoat, the smaller one stuffed up his sleeves. He jingled them in front of Peter’s face. “Not just coins. Snagged some jewellery too. A lot of wives seemed to be shopping their selves silly today, and lucky for us, dressed to the nines.”

 

Peter grinned, a slimy smirk as he took the bags, stuffing them, into the various pockets and crevices of his uniform.

He nodded towards Mina expectantly. “Your sister?”

Niklas grinned. “She got the real good stuff.”

 

Mina didn’t bother to turn to look at either of them, fishing her hand inside of her pocket to retrieve the watch. She placed it into Niklas’s open palm, eyes trained forward, staring at the soft tassel of the curtain in front of her instead. Niklas passed it to Peter, whose eyes widened slightly, letting out a low whistle.

“Once again…you never let me down little Mina.”

 

Mina could imagine the self satisfied smirk on his face, the lilt of his voice making her grimace inwardly.

“That’s my Mina.” Niklas said.

Mina stayed quiet.

 

Peter tutted as she made no move to acknowledge either of them, seemingly transfixed with the space in front of her. “She could do with learning some more manners. I know they don’t teach you shit down there except how to act like animals.” He scowled in her direction, pocketing the watch.

Niklas forced a toothy smile, strained. “You know how she is by now. Don’t take it personally. She’s just not as sociable as me.” His voice as charming as ever.

Peter didn’t look convinced, eyeing her up in dissatisfaction.

“She gets the job done though. That’s the most important thing.” Niklas affirmed.

 

Peter let out a low chuckle “Of course.” He nodded at Niklas. “I’ll be counting this up and tallying the worth. You’ll get your payment in a few days’ time.”

 

If Mina was forced to find any redeeming qualities in Peter, it was that he never shirked on their share of the money. Sure she was forced into this position and their cut of takings was only 10%, but he was always good on his word.

 

“Once again, it’s been our pleasure.” Niklas grinned again, tilting his head towards Peter.

Peter snorted, throwing another scowl at Mina before pulling the curtain shut. Mina heard him call forward the carriage driver, who had been waiting out of sight, sure enough bribed with a nice pocketful of change to pretend he hadn’t seen or heard a thing. It was quiet as they set off, Mina working to unbutton her dress as she listened to the gentle pattering of the hooves, fingers fumbling as she bounced with every divot and dip in the cobbled street. She pulled on large slacks and a shirt, grateful for the loose, breathable material that covered and hid her body. Niklas adverted his eyes, waiting until Mina was finished.

 

“You done?” He asked.

She hummed in response.

He looked at her as she pulled the collar of her shirt up, hiding her neck, moving her hair forward to fall over her face.

“You did well today Mina, that watch…that will keep us comfortable for a good few weeks at least.” She nodded. “You know….Peter is pretty good to us…as good as anyone can be in this shitty place. It wouldn’t hurt you to not piss him off every time we do this. We need him on our side.”

 

“I didn’t say anything.” She muttered, not looking at Niklas’s narrowed eyes.

 

He sighed. “That’s precisely the problem.”

 

It was quiet for a few moments again.

 

“You’re getting reckless.” Mina murmured.

“What?” He asked, almost incredulous as he turned to her again.

She was quiet for a few moments again, before shifting her head slightly to look at him. “Ever since we started working above ground…little by little…you’re getting sloppy….over confident…you need to be careful.”

He frowned at her. “You’re talking bull...i know what the fuck I’m doing Mina…I’ve been doing this for longer than you.”

She shrugged. “Like you said…we’ve got a good thing here…you don’t want to have it all blow up in our faces because you suddenly think you’re invincible.”

“Don’t start up on your high horse again Mina, I don’t need you talking like my fucking mother. I know what I’m doing. You think you could do all this without me?”

Mina stared at him, unreadable as she took in his angry features. “Maybe not.” She said slowly, considering her next words. “But you couldn’t have gotten that watch today without me.”

 

He scoffed at her, shaking his head and turning away. They rode in silence, back to the stairs that would take them under.

 

 

 


 

 

 

Peter had caught Mina and Niklas almost a year prior. He had been part of a gaggle of Military Police doing the rounds in the Underground, throwing their weight around, pointing guns in faces, sneering and scowling in disgust. Peter had seen Niklas pocketing goods from passer-by’s. He had broken away from his fellow MPs, cornering Niklas with what he called a proposition, rather than calling it the blackmail that it truly was. He even went so far as to try and paint a pretty picture for Niklas.

For a taste of freedom, every once in a while, Niklas would work for him.

 

Peter would organise for Niklas to have access to above ground, taking him to different cities and districts for the morning…for the afternoon…to see the sun, the sky, the warmth, the light…all that…in exchange for his pick-pocketing skills. Niklas had refused, thrown a few punches, easily gaining the upper hand until Peter pressed the barrel of his shotgun into Niklas’s stomach, reminding him that as an MP, he had all the power in the world to get him arrested, executed without trial.

Niklas had no choice but to play along, soon enough his own ego getting in the way, almost pretending as if it was some sort of fair deal, that he was equally in control of the situation as Peter, as if Peter didn’t have him dangling on a piece of string.

 

Niklas had his selfish reasons for involving Mina. It put her at risk, he was aware, but she was skilled in ways he wasn’t and it gave them greater opportunities. It kept her by his side, always hesitant to leave her alone for such long periods of time. She seemed to attract trouble when left alone. As well as that, Niklas knew Mina dreamed of living above ground and he was determined to give her a taste, despite the high risk and low reward.

 

 

“I’m a good man Niklas.” Peter had said after their third excursion above ground, Mina having swiped a gold broche off of a woman whilst asking for directions. Peter was keen to keep the pair sweet and motivated, his gamble paying off more than he could have imagined after they had come back to him with pokcets full. He was keen to give them more incentive to take more, to have it play out better for him in the long run. “How’s a 10% cut sound? I just ask you to aim just a bit higher from now on,yeah? Keep this momentum up.” He flashed the broche up to the sun, a twisted grin on his face.

 

Niklas had even begun to see Peter as what he referred to as a “good man”, the cut of money enough to stop them from stealing off of their own in the Underground, something that he knew would keep Mina awake at night with a heavy pit in her stomach.

 

 

 

“We have to Mina…it’s the only way to survive.” He had explained this to her time and time again when she was younger.

“But we’re only taking from the bad guys right?” She asked, eyes wide, hesitant.

He clicked his tongue. “There aren’t really any good or bad guys down here Mina…we’re all the same…just trying to survive. Don’t feel bad. We steal off someone. Someone steals off us. It’s just the way things work down here. No one else second guesses this.”

 

 

Niklas knew it was true. No one in that hellhole looked out for anyone but their selves. It was the only way to survive. He knew that was why he needed to be firm with Mina, to install in her the believes needed to survive. Her mother had taught her too many things…had taught her right and wrong…good and bad.

 

And he knew it made her weak.

 

With their new taste of freedom and money in their pockets to at least keep them from going hungry, Niklas was sure that Peter was one of the so called good guys. Mina didn’t hold him to the same standard. She watched the way he sneered at their dirty clothes, heard  his patronizing tone, listened as he laughed to Niklas about his parents paying him his way into the Military Police Brigade, where he was free to drink and play cards all day.

She didn’t like anything about him.

She especially didn’t like the way he would keep his hand by his side, lightly resting on his gun whenever they happened to be alone.

“What the fuck happened to your face?” He had asked her when they first met, his grimace, his narrowed eyes, his nasally voice making her inwardly squirm.

 

She knew he was one of the bad guys.

 

Just like her father had been.

Chapter Text

“I’m going out.”

Niklas's voice was resounding. Final.

 

Mina’s fingers stilled over the coins she had been counting as she sat hunched over on the floor, the rough wooden boards scratching at the skin of her knees. She looked up at him, blinking, taken out of the whirring of her brain. She had been meticulously running through every scrap of  money they owned all day, making a mental note of everything they could afford for the rest of the week. She wasn't sure what had happened, but after every final tally, the amount was so much less than she had expected it to be. They could barely afford to feed themselves for the next to days. All they could do was wait for Peter to come through with their earnings.

 

The inside of her mouth had started to bleed as she chewed at it. She hated that they had become dependent on Peter.

“Just you?” She asked, looking at the floorboards.

“Yes.” He was staring at her, waiting.

 

Mina had to stop her teeth from chewing again. It hadn't taken her long to piece together the parts, to work out where he would be heading. He knew she had it figured out the moment he had spoken. Ever since they had met, ever since they had been kids, Niklas was always reluctant to let Mina out of his side. He did all he could to keep her by his side every moment of the day. There was only one place he would insist she stayed home when he visited it.

 

“Don’t.” She said, watching as he adverted his eyes from hers. “Please don’t.”

She rarely ever asked anything of him.

He ran a finger through his sandy hair.

“It’s good money Mina.”

“We’ll have our payment from Peter any day now.”

He huffed in frustration, fingers clutching at the ends of his hair and pulling hard.

“It’s not enough! It’s never enough…Mina…i've made a decision...being out there has made me realise...i’m getting us out of here okay? I’m getting you out of here if it’s the last thing I do.”

It was Mina’s turn to advert her gaze, sighing softly as her fingernail scratched at an indent in the floorboard. “It’s pointless thinking like that.”

She had given up on that dream a long time ago.

“No. That’s not true. If we don’t think like that then we will never be able to do it. We'll just keep getting by. We need to make a plan. Look…there has to be a way…we’ll get more gigs from Peter, we'll have to take food instead of paying, we’ll scrape together enough money to find someone out there…someone with a price to be paid...someone who can get us some documents…who can find us some place to work…a floor to sleep on…and we’ll go from there.” He was gesturing frantically, starting to pace the floor as his ideas unraveled. 

Mina simply stared, the sight too much for her heart to handle.

“Niklas.” She shook her head.

“We can do it…I know we can…we just have to find the right people looking for the right amount…we’ll start with nothing but hell, if that’s not what we’re used to…we’ll start from nothing and work our way up…anything will be better than this life.”

Mina closed her eyes, the desperate hope in his voice like a punch in the gut.

“Mina.” His tone had softened. “Mina…you used to…you used to dream of getting out of here….remember when we were kids…the lives we were gonna lead above ground…you dreamt of that freedom everyday Mina…your mom dreamt of that freedom for you.”

The mention of her mother was like a fatal blow, one that had Mina inhaling sharply before she spoke. “I can’t afford to waste my energy on dreams Niklas, not anymore, not after everything that has happened. Dreaming gets you no where. All I care about is surviving.”

“That’s not what life should be like!” Niklas cried.

“It’s the only choice we have.” Mina replied, keeping her voice even and eyes downcast. “It's the only life we will ever be given. Down here…we only have two choices. You either choose to fight for survival everyday or you choose to give up and die. That’s all we are ever going to have. We don't have the luxury of dreaming. It will cost us in the end.”

“God fucking dammit!” His fist slammed down on the table while Mina looked up at him, unflinching. “ I hate that this is who you are now…we didn’t…it wasn't always like this.”

 

Mina was quite, considering for a few seconds.

 

“I hate that I made you like this.” He said quietly, the words Mina hadn’t yet spoken out loud.

“I just wanted…I needed you to stay alive.” His voice was shaking, not bothering to try and conceal it.

 

Mina looked up at him, her composure slipping under his heavy gaze.

 

“I’m not gonna break that promise.” She said quietly.

He closed his eyes, inhaling heavily. “Me neither.”

 

He turned, looking at the space next to him.

 

“I still…I need to go. It won't be all night. It’s just a few rounds and I’m getting paid whether I win or lose. Winning will get me extra of course and you know how good I am.”

 

It was Mina’s turn to close her eyes, compose her shaky thoughts. Niklas rarely fought these days, not after his older brother left. He had been the one to introduce Niklas to it, first making him tag along to the basements of the pubs, just to watch at first,  then throwing him in the ring as soon as he was old enough. His brother taught him well, and Niklas was strong, had the right build for it, learnt quickly and when he realized he could earn money from it, he was determined to become stronger.

What Niklas had learnt, he tried to teach Mina. Her small stature and limited strength rendered some moves useless, but she was able to pick up some things, some things that could save her life, like they had saved his own life. She supposed for that she was grateful. But she wasn’t grateful for the way Niklas was placed in a cage like an animal, sparring with his fists until he couldn’t bare to stand anymore, until his limbs gave out...all for a measly few coins that would last them a few scanty meals.

 

“Stay inside.” He ordered her, watching as she hunched back over, pushing the coins into piles with her fingertips.

She didn’t respond.

“Mina…I’m serious…I can’t be fucking worrying about you while I'm there. Just stay here for me...please.”

“Where would I want to go?” She said, almost sarcastically, as she began to scrap the coins into separate cloth bags, securing them tightly.

 

He didn’t answer, both of them knowing the only two places she would frequent.

 

“Mina.” His voice was softer and she looked up.

“I won’t go anywhere.”

He nodded, knowing despite everything, she wouldn't lie to him.

She stood up, moving to hide the cloth bags in the various crevices of the walls.

“Don’t wait up for me. Try to get some sleep.”

 

Mina didn’t say a word but the look she threw his way spoke volumes.

 

They both knew she would be up all night with worry, waiting for him to come stumbling back in the door, collapse onto a chair where she would wipe the blood off his body and stitch up his wounds.

He crossed the space between them, giving her shoulder a gentle squeeze, pulling her into a half hug and resting his chin on her head.

“I’ll see you in a few hours.”

She didn’t respond, but her fingers quickly squeezing his forearm, signaled what he knew she wanted to say.

Stay safe. Come home in one piece.

Mina looked away as he strode out of the door. Niklas didn’t look back.

 

 


 

 

 

Mina had grown to be resilient. Hard to shake. Not a lot scared her anymore, like people in the Undergound.

Being afraid made you weak.

Made you vulnerable.

Made you a target.

 

 

An hour had passed and Mina knew he  would have started his first fight. The anxious pit in her stomach grew, gnawing away at her painfully so that she couldn't even bring herself to move, sat on the dirty floor, fingernail scratching over the same indent again and again, picturing Niklas's body being hit and punched again and again.

A piece of wood splintered off, slicing the pad of her finger and she startled, bringing it to her face. A thick drop of blood welled up at the cut, coming to a head before it overflowed, spilling down her finger. She watched the blood fall, staining her skin and she froze, a super-cut of images suddenly imposed behind her eyelids before she could stop them.

 

She thought of her father, hitting her across the face so hard that the blood would trickle down her nose and Mina would wipe it with her hand, starting at the red smeared across her palm.

She thought about Niklas, finding her on a roof, crying as she bled, as he wiped it away with the end of his shirt and swore to her that he would kill him one day and set her free.

An image of her mother appeared, frail and thin, in the last weeks of her sickness, arms wound round Mina to try and protect her as her father screamed and raged at them, a bottle in his hand, breath rancid with alcohol, having spent any money they had on his daily fix.

 

“Stop. “ Mina whispered to herself, curling her hands up into a fist and squeezing. “Stop.”

 

But the images wouldn’t stop.

 

Her mother, brushing Mina’s long hair back and braiding it, telling her of the blue skies and sunlight and rain... promising her that one day she would live a life above ground, under the stars, away from violence, away from pain. Mina could hardly believe it when her mother said that in the morning and night, the sky would often turn pink and purple.

 

She thought of Maximus, her younger brother, scooped up in her arms, sleeping by her side as she wiped the dried tears from his face.

 

“I made Mom a promise Maxi.” Mina had said to him one night as they sat awake, listening for their father to finish his drunken tirade downstairs. “We’re going to get out of here one day. You, me and Niklas. We’re going to live a beautiful life.”

“You promise?” Max asked her, eyes wide and lips trembling. 

She brushed the blonde curls out of his eyes, let her hand rest on his dimpled cheek.

“When have I ever broken a promise to you?”

He pursed his lips, considering for a moment.

“Never.” He whispered.

“Exactly” She smiled at him. “I promise.”

 

The image faded and was replaced by another…an image of Max's lifeless body, eyes open but unseeing, torso covered in blood, laying on the floor as Mina stared at him, frozen, body numb, turning her head to stare at her father, who had watched the whole thing, without even trying to stop it from….

 

“Stop!” Mina cried out loud, shoving herself off the floor, chest contracting heavily as she tried to control her erratic inhales and exhales. She blinked, unsure as to why her vision was hazy until she felt coolness on her cheeks, silent tears streaming down her face.

Her hand went to her hair, fingers finding the thin braid on her left side, the beads from her mother's necklaces twisted in tightly. She rolled a bead underneath her fingertip as she worked to compose herself, fighting a losing battle against her body.

She held her head in her shaky hands, pressing her palms into her sockets as if to hold in the tears, the house suddenly feeling as if it was shrinking, closing in on her , the walls squeezing around her ribs, compressing her head.

 

She waited a few minutes before looking back up.

 

“I;m sorry Niklas.” She muttered to herself, moving to grab her knife and hide it under her dress, pulling on one of Niklas’s threadbare jackets and escaping out the door.

 

 

 


 

 

Mina’s body seemed to move on instinct through the streets of the underground. She felt like her feet had memorized every crevice, every stone, every crack, her hands knew every wall and could name the texture of each stone or wooden slate.

When she had to start stealing to survive, she learnt to move quick. Light on her feet, making her already small frame seem smaller, able to twist and turn her body at the click of a heel, learn how to duck and slide and press herself into the smallest spaces. She had also learnt how to climb, how to shimmy her body up a drainpipe, how to find the perfect hole in the wall to slip her toes into, a piece of stone to grip her fingertips on, and within seconds pull herself up, onto a roof, where she could run, jump, crawl across, avoid the streets, stay hidden and silent.

That’s what she did tonight, walking a few steps before she turned quickly on her heel, fingers finding the piece of wood that jutted out, feet finding uneven boards, steadying herself, heaving herself up high. She moved swiftly across the jagged roofs, jumping across from building to building, occasionally having to land on the street again for a few seconds before she was up in the air, her body working for her unconsciously to carry her to where she needed to go, before her mind had even been made up.

 

 

There were very few places of beauty in the Underground.

Mina was grateful she had found one.

Right off the beaten track, were the buildings grew scares and the streets grew narrow, to the edge of the Undergound walls, where no one bothered to go anymore, many years ago, Mina had found a building. It was tucked away down a dead end path, half finished and eerily out of place, with the remnants of turrets and a domed ceiling, Mina had learnt that the structure was supposed to be a place of worship, built for those who worshiped the walls, back when people still believed the Undergound would be a place to thrive.

It was supposed to be a holy building, to pray, to celebrate, to preach. It was never finished, the depravity of the Undergound taking over and the plans for it, like many others, completely scuppered. It now stood garish against the bleak backdrop, hues of brilliant blues and golds that Mina had first stared at in awe when she was younger. She had taken Max to this building regularly and told him that outside, above ground, the sky was that shade of blue and the sun was just as bright and beaming as the gold. He used to sit beneath it, eyes wide, a smile on his face as he proclaimed to Mina that he was sitting under the sun.

 

Her throat tightened as she approached.

It had been a while since she last visited.

She listened to her feet patting against the floor, the drumming of her heart in her ears.

She came to a stop,  looking up a the blue and gold, wondering when it had gotten so ugly.

 

“Maxi.” She whispered. “I’m so sorry this is all I could ever give you. I’m so sorry I broke my promise.”

 

She closed her eyes, letting the tears pool in them, letting her heart ache so intensely it felt like it was throbbing, pulsating against her rib cage, about to burst through the bones.

 

“I’m sorry.” Her voice shook.

 

Her skin suddenly prickled under the coat, the faintest scuff of a shoe, the feeling of another presence cutting through the stillness of the air.

She stayed still, body freezing as she listened, tensed, ears straining to listen, skin prickling to feel.

Another noise, almost inaudible but just enough for Mina to hear despite the roaring of blood in her ears.

 

To your right.

 

She moved quickly, bouncing back to reach down and grab the knife under her skirt just as a body lunged at her, able to grab her by the shoulders and throw her to the wall, but not before she had the knife up, pressed against the stranger's throat, the blade already sinking slightly into the skin.

 

“Huh.” The stranger chuckled. “Nice to see you too.”

 

Mina’s eyes widened and her body almost went slack at the voice, just for a second, but she kept still, knife pressing harder, arms and legs tensed for a fight.

 

While it was no stranger, she knew she still wasn’t safe.

 

“I thought you’d died.” She replied, staring at him incredulously. 

 

It was true. He had always come in and out of her life. When she was younger, she grew used to his visits being unpredictable, sometimes days went by, sometimes weeks, sometimes months.

 

This time...it had been years.

 

“Thought or hoped?” He chuckled again as Mina looked a the face, a few more wrinkles and lines but the same sardonic smirk and ever amused eyes.

“Which one do you think?” She pressed the blade harder, drawing blood. He made no attempts to move, keeping her still. Mina knew if he wanted the upper hand, he could have easily taken it. Instead, he was toying with her.

 

Just like he always did.

 

“I’m impressed you move so fast. Remember all my tricks do you? Even so, I could have said hello a long time ago. You really should had noticed me following you earlier. Anyone else and you would have been dead by now... I was just letting you have your little moment you see.”

She pursed her lips.

He sighed. "Cooooome on!" He dragged out his words, ever the dramatic.  "This is a bit overkill isn’t it? A knife to the neck? Not a way to greet your old man?” He drawled the last part, flashing her a grin.

She grimaced “You’re not my father.”

He shrugged. “Still, you’re holding that knife exactly how I taught you. Would make any old man proud I would think.” He clicked his teeth. “You’re right though, I do keep trying it out from time to time but it really just doesn’t suit me, does it? I mean, we know I did more for you than your real father ever did but that’s not exactly a high standard to meet now is it?” He laughed cruelly and Mina's hand trembled with anger, eyes glaring.

“Don’t look at me like that! You look like a damn animal. I thought the teenage emotional phase was over by now? I’m glad I never was a father if this is what i get.” He grumbled the last part, cocking his head to look at her before the smile slipped slightly, growing bored.

 

He pushed away from her roughly, letting her body slump slightly. Mina held the knife tightly still, body coiled up tight and ready to spring into action as she watched him back away, a grin on his face, hands up, mocking her.

“I’m surprised I caught you away from dear old Nickey. He still keep you on a tight leash?”

Mina kept her face impassive, holding everything back to not rise to his words.

“I'm sure he does. “ He clicked his tongue. “Never liked that kid.”

 

Niklas had never liked him either.

 

“You don’t need him you know.” He wagged a finger at her. “You’d be right and dandy without that shit for brains. You know he could have never gotten a knife on me like that.” He clapped his hands together, beaming at her. “But what can I say, you were taught by the best!”

Mina looked away. “I would have been fine without you.”

He laughed, a deep, sincere laugh. “Please. The way you move, the way you hold your knife…Look at the way you're standing now…all your instincts come from me kid, don’t you forget it. I bet they’ve saved your ass more times than you can count.”

Mina didn’t say a word.

They both knew he was right.

“A thank you would do nicely now.” He tilted his head at her, his voice playful.

Mina fought back the urge to scoff at him.

 

She wouldn’t ever say thank you to him.

Yes...he had helped teach her how to fight, how to handle a knife, how to shot a gun. He taught her how to steal, how to cry on demand so that she could distract men, distract women, distract other children. When she was young, he used her for bait , used her to provoke concern in anyone in the Undergound that still had an ounce of empathy...that empathy he rewarded with goods stolen, guns shot, a stab in the back.

He had taught her how to stay alive.

But he had also taught her violence...pain...selfishness.

He had taught her how to lie.

For that she would never thank him.

 

“Worth a try. “He shrugged. “Sooooo...how's my little prodigy doing these days?"

She tilted her head back against the stones behind her, the damp on her neck a relief from her whirring mind. He had always wanted something from her. When she was younger, she had believed he cared, felt he could have been the father she always wanted...and he always used that to his advantage.

 

“Hes one of the bad guys Mina.” Niklas had warned her.

 

“What do you want?” She asked quietly, exhaustion clear in her voice.

“Well, seeing as you look like shit, i'm gonna guess you're not doing so hot. I’m doing great thanks, Mina my dear. Thanks for asking!” He chuckled, his voice still as gravelly as she remembered.

 

She settled him with a stare that had him laughing more.

 

“Well.” He moved, starting to pace up and down, boots stomping heavy. Mina listened to the sound as her fingers wound round the handle of the knife tighter. She wasn’t about to get caught up in one of his schemes, put her life on the line for him, risk everything for him to make some quick money.

If she had to fight him, so be it.

“I was down here doing business you see…a little collection of sorts from some old friends…and I thought…well! It's been a while since I've seen my oldest friend of all!  All the rest are dead you see." He chuckled to himself. “And I thought, while I’m here…I’d do you a favor.”

Mina lifted her head to look at him as he stopped pacing,staring at her.

“I’m a generous man me.”

Her knuckles were white.

“You see…I’ve heard you and Nickey have been up to no good above ground.”

Mina's heart jumped and her stomach dropped. She fought to keep composure, to not let anything break on her face.

He tilted his head at her, noticing the small changes in her expression.

He laughed. “Well that just confirms it then. My, my…I only had my suspicions you see.”

Mina was unable to hide the way her eyes widened.

“You see…I’ve got myself a nice gig above ground too! Real comfy living like…i'm in with the big wigs these days. “ He wigged his eyebrows for effect. “They all make me sick to my fucking stomach but hey…you win some you lose some! And you see…there's been some talk of a thief targeting all the towns. They've made quite a name for themselves, causing quite the nuisance. It's becoming a real problem." He paused. "You know…at first I didn’t think anything of it…what did it matter to me? I became interested however when the MP's started putting two and two together...the thief knew too much, was able to get away too quickly...access to too many places...the rumors started to make sense...some thugs in cohorts with an MP...it's all a big inside job!" He threw his hands up laughing. "And i thought...where better to find some thugs than this shitty place?"

Mina watched, frozen, feeling like he could see her heart beating through the heavy coat she wore, sure he could at least hear it.

“I kept thinking…there's so many scumbags down here...but they're all too obvious...you could spot from a mile away that they were some filth from the Undergound…who could have scored a deal like that and keep getting away with it?! I was quite impressed!" He cocked his head. "And then…I heard someone saw a man, stocky, around 6 foot, green eyes, blond hair, a real pretty boy face…and I thought to myself…no…it can’t be…not that little shit head Nickey. Sure is a coincidence though.” He was tapping his finger on his chin before he looked at Mina “ And I thought to myself. Not shit for brains Nickey. He couldn't be doing all this by himself…not wracking up that amount of goods. No... It would have to be someone much more skilled...faster...smaller...a pretty little face but still able to go unnoticed...and if they did notice...they wouldn't ever think....Bingo!” He cried suddenly, jabbing his finger at Mina.

Her wide eyes had him laughing once more, big belly laughs.

“You know… I'm feeling quite sentimental really, it feels like all my hard work is coming to life before my eyes. How much money has been lost, how much uproar there is that you still haven't been caught... you’ve got those slimy MP assholes heads all spinning! It's quite a beautiful sight." His grin was manic.  "I cant say I'm surprised though. No, I knew you always had it in  you. You’re just like me in that regard.”

“I’m nothing like you.” She spat, her composure breaking again.

“Oh no…me and you…we have a lot in common. You’ll do anything to survive, always have done. You’re just like me. I’ll step over anyone or anything that’s in my way.”

“So is that what this is? You’ve got me and Niklas in a corner now. What do you want? Money? For us to put our necks on the line for you now we have no choice?” Mina spat.

“Hmmm..those are some good ideas, I will admit. Maybe another time.”

 

Mina assessed his position, he was still too far away for her to get a good hold of him. If she moved, she knew he would move quicker and have the upper hand. Her fingers tightened around the knife once again and she glanced at his open torso, picturing herself throwing the nice straight into his stomach.

“You see, it’s nothing to do with me yet…I’m more preoccupied up their with other matters that I'm actually getting paid for…so as of now..I couldn’t give a shit. Of course, the second they get me involved and there's a price on your heads, I'll be sure to be giving them your full names and address." He smiled. "Nothing personal of course. You know how it is.”

She eyed his stomach again and he caught the shift in her movements, shifting his own body in accordance.

“Just thought i'd come to warn you is all.” There was no sincerity in his tone. It was condescending instead.

“You’ve never done anything for me if there wasn't something in it for you.” Mina bit out.

 

He tutted. “That’s not true.” His eyes moved to the scars on her cheek, the movement almost missed by Mina.

 

“I have my moments of…sentimentality I guess you could say. Like I said, while there's nothing in it for me, I thought I would give you a head start.” He flashed enough smile before holding her eyes. "They’re on to you now, you’re not going to last many more trips until they catch you both. It’s a shame really, this probably could have been a good gig for you if it wasn’t for that shitty idiot Nickey.” He shook his head,  feigning sadness, a dramatic sigh.

“Those MPs catch you, you’re as good as dead kid. They won’t even need evidence, you won’t get a trial, you wont get a say. If they don’t torture you first, they’ll execute you on the spot. “ He spoke nonchalantly, shrugging at her as her blood ran cold and her legs shook.

No. She told herself. No, no, no. Stay firm.

“You don’t believe me do ya?" He eyed her fierce gaze, opening up his hands in mock surrender. "Look kid, I've worked up close and personal with these guys now. They’re all a bunch of spineless vermin.  Down here, we do bad shit, sure, at least were fighting for something. Those guys up there…" He sneered, his eyebrows furrowing. "They do it because they're bored, because they've got nothing else to do with their meaningless existence, with their pathetic lives. I'm telling you kid. Once they get their hands on you...You’ll be dead. Or wish you were dead.”

Mina shook her head, unable to understand. “Why….why are you telling me this…why..” Mina's voiced tailed off as she clutched the knife with both hands, staring at him, trying to stop her teeth from chattering.

He shrugged again. “It’s a pitiful way to die, at the hands of those bastards. I taught you better than that. When you die, at least have it mean something kid.”

He chuckled to himself again, scratching his beard. “You know, I think I'd rather feed myself to the titans than have one of those assholes tie a noose around my neck.”

He sighed again, clapping his hands together. "Well, I'm feeling like this reunion has been a little one sided really. You haven't even cracked a smile. It's hurting an old mans ego.” He punched his fist to his heart dramatically before cocking his head at her again.“Never much of a talker were you?”

Her answer was silence.

He tutted again, shaking his head to himself, looking up as if in deep thought.

He suddenly turned to her, bowing his head slightly, lowering his voice.“You should get home, it's not safe for a girl your age to be out on the streets at this time.”

She frowned in confusion at the sincerity in his tone, the look  in his eyes as he searched her face.

He broke, roaring with laughter  and doubling over. “Who am I kidding? You were waiting to stab me through the heart with that thing.” He nodded to the knife in her hands, grinning widely. “That’s my girl.”

He saluted her.

“I'll see you around kid. Hopefully I won't have to kill you next time I do.” He gave her another grin before turning, making his way quickly into the shadows, disappearing into the darkness, out of sight.

Mina fell, legs finally giving out beneath her, crumpling to the floor as she breathed, shaky inhales and exhales, clutching the handle of the knife so tightly she thought her knuckles would burst out of the skin.

“See you around Kenny. “ She muttered into the still air.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Mina watched Niklas out of the corner of her eye, trying to hide her worried glances in his direction, knowing her outright concern would only serve to frustrate him.

It had been three days since his fight and just as Mina had predicted, she had spent that night cleaning the red stains from his skin, closing the wounds, staying up until morning as she sat on the floor and watched him as he slept in a chair, passed out from exhaustion.

It had been three days since her encounter with Kenny and she was still mulling over his words, torn between telling Niklas and trying to figure a way out of the situation they were stuck in.

She knew they couldn’t risk leaving the Underground again, but for how long, she didn’t know. She didn’t know how she was going to tell Niklas this fact.

She glanced at Niklas again as he let out a small hiss, hand coming to his right side to hold his ribs. Mina was worried about the bones there, having seen the mottled purple skin and wince on his face every time he moved too fast.

“Sit down.” She muttered.

“I’m fine.” He said between clenched teeth, stopping for a few seconds to catch his breath before resuming his anxious pacing.

“Where the fuck is Peter with our money?”

His fist hit the table.

Mina didn’t flinch.

“He is never this late…” Niklas tilted his head up, his features contorted. “I bet that watch was worth more than he let on and he’s screwed us over…probably set him up nicely and left us in the fucking dirt.”

He ran a hand through his hair, huffing heavily.

“Maybe he actually has to do his job for once.” Mina shrugged. “If something comes up…I can’t imagine it’s easy for him to slip away.”

Niklas was shaking his head. “No…no…something doesn’t feel right.”

Mina’s stomach churned as she recalled Kenny’s face. She kept her own expression as still as she could when Niklas glanced her way.

“What do you think?”

She paused. “I think you haven’t slept properly in three days and it’s making you paranoid. Go upstairs… get some sleep.”

“How am I supposed to sleep? We haven’t got any money Mina! We’re completely out.” He huffed again, jaw clenched as he looked her way. “When was the last time you ate?”

She didn’t answer the question. “I’ll go get us some food.” She muttered, casting her eyes away.

He shot her a look, knowing what it meant. “It’s been a while…and I know you hate doing it.”

Mina was already moving, grabbing the big jacket she wore to hide her frame, hand gazing over her hip to feel for the knife tucked inside the pocket she created in all of her dresses.

“Mina. “He sighed, the next words dying on his tongue as she turned to give him a long stare.

She didn’t speak, her face said enough.

What else are we going to do?

“Be careful please.”

She nodded, grabbed the cloth sack, stuffing it up under her coat, ignoring the creases in Niklas’s forehead, the furrowing of his eyebrows, before slipping out of the door.

 

 


 

 

It was midday. Mina only knew this because of how busy the streets were, the never ending darkness and dankness of the air making time distort. 

Mina had often lost days at a time without even realizing.

 

She watched the crowds as she made her way to the market, keeping high or keeping pressed up against walls, snaking round corners and disappearing around bends. She grimaced at groups of men, already drunk, filtering out of taverns and laughing raucously, the sound of glasses smashing, voices rising, and shouts echoed in the air.

Mina knew which stalls to whisk by, reaching a hand out and grabbing a loaf of bread, a stale roll, quickly stuffing old potatoes into her pockets, moving so quickly in between the shoals of people, so quick that unless anyone was looking for her, she wouldn’t be found.

 

She always picked the stalls owned by the men she didn’t like.

There was the man who she watched grab and grope at woman as they passed, leering at them grotesquely before he called it a day, stumbling into a tavern.

There was the man who would berate his wife on the street, screaming at her until the veins in his neck popped, raising his hand to slap her across the face.

There was the man who also owned one of the factories, who liked to swagger around the streets with a gun in his hand and spit at those who lay on the path, begging.

These men she could let herself take from.

 

Then there were the men who looked as dirty as her, as skinny and as tired, the men whose children helped them all day on the streets, the men who worked to feed their families and not just their selves.

 

Mina would rather starve than take off of those men.

 

It had been easy that afternoon. It had been quick. Quicker than she expected and as she carried herself out of the market square, pockets stuffed with food, Mina barely registered that she was heading towards the opposite direction of her home.

 

I’ll get more food on my way back. She thought to herself as she set off to her new destination.

 

 

 

Mina knocked on the door, three fast knocks, a pause before her loudest fourth knock.

She heard footsteps running across wooden floors, rustles and voices growing louder before it was thrown open, a beaming face looking up at her.

“Mina!”

Mina let the small boy crash into her, head pressed against her stomach, arms wrapped around her legs.

She wrapped her own arms around his shoulders tightly, giving him a squeeze.

“Let’s get in Oscar, we shouldn’t stay out here.”

She ushered him gently inside, where three more children stood eagerly waiting, the same beaming smiles.

Mina looked at them, swallowed with dirty clothes, sunken faces, dark circles, tired eyes, but with smiles so wide, so joyful still, despite it all.

She bit back the image of Max’s smile as she greeted them.

“Mina!” Sophia moved to throw herself around Mina’s side, hugging her legs and bumping Oscar, their dark heads pressed together.

She bent down to press her palms to their cheeks, a small smile as she stroked their faces softly, letting them lean into her touch.

“Meema!” The youngest lurched forward, nearly knocking Mina over as arms circled round her neck, burying his face into her collarbone, buzz cut head scratching at her chin.

“Hello Theodore.” She hummed in amusement, hand coming to rub at his back.

She looked over his shoulder at the eldest, seven year old Grace smiling at her shyly, not yet approaching her.

 

Mina had started visiting the orphanage when Grace was just a baby. She had watched them all grow, despite her infrequent visits, despite Niklas’s urging her not to, Mina had done everything she could to help provide for them in any way that was possible.

 

She held out an arm to Grace, who approached slowly, hesitating before holding onto Mina’s shoulder, letting herself be tucked into Mina’s side.

“Hey Gracie.” Mina whispered, stroking the back of her head. “I missed you guys.”

“It’s been so long!” Oscar wailed.

“I missed you.” Sophia pouted up at her, pigtailed hair lopsided on either side of her head.

Theodore mumbled some incoherent words, his speech stilted despite approaching three years old.

“I know…I’m sorry.”

 

Mina was sorry. So deeply sorry. Every time she had left, she didn’t know if she could allow herself to return.

 

“Mina.”

Mina stood up straight at the voice, watching as the old woman shuffled into the room, the clunking of the heavy wooden stick louder than then footsteps. She kept her distance, stood at the other side of the room, straightening up slightly to stare directly at Mina. Mina had always known Ms Wravern as an old woman but she seemed to have aged years since the last time they had spoken, though it had not been anywhere near that long. Her eyes, though still staring fiercely at Mina, had sunken back into her skull, her wrinkled skin pulled taut, the colour of it mottled, her hair merely a few wisps on her head.

Mina knew the sure signs of sickness when she saw them. And she knew what that meant in a place like this.

She swallowed thickly.

“Hello Ms Wravern.”

She simply stared and Mina felt the guilt claw its way up her body, taking hold of her heart and squeezing it tightly.

 

I shouldn’t have come.

 

 

 

Mina had not understood the old woman’s initial hostility towards Mina, all those years ago, when Mina had first stumbled upon the makeshift orphanage and would drop by with pieces of food, coins, stopping to play with Grace when she was old enough to toddle, continuing to return to cement herself in the lives of every child that came through the door.

It wasn’t until one conversation on a night when Mina had turned up again with food, as well as an obvious head wound, that Mina had finally understood.

She had gotten into a scuffle with a man who had spotted her full pockets and had tried to mug her. Mina had managed to get in a few swings before she had knocked him to the ground and gotten away. She had tried to hide the bleeding, tried to hide the limp in her walk, but the children had been worried and questioned her about it, to which Mina stayed silent.

Ms Wravern had put the kids to bed but asked Mina to stay.

Mina had sat tensely on the chair, watching the old woman’s displeased face, shadowed in the dim lighting, staring her down with ferocity.

“I suppose you assume that I do not like you Mina.” The old woman had asked.

“I do not like to assume too much so I try not to think much about it.” Mina said sincerely.

“Hmmm.” She eyed the gash on Mina’s forehead, stepping closer. “I know what you do…how you make your way around down here…how you survive.” The woman pursed her lips. “I know it’s all some people can do and I am in no position to judge you as a person for it…but it does not mean I agree with it….it does not mean I want these children to witness it…to grow up thinking it’s the only way.”

Mina swallowed.

 “They will find a way through this life…without having to lie…to steal…to fight.”

Mina felt the words like a blow to her stomach, a sudden revulsion within herself, her skin prickling with disgust.

“Somehow they will. I’ll make sure of it.” The words were fierce as she settled Mina with a hard stare. “I understand your good intentions. Truly I do. But I cannot have them know who you really are. Not when they adore you so…I cannot have them realising that even people like you are still ruled day to day by the corruption and filth of this place.”

Mina’s palms were bleeding, the nails of her fingers cutting into her skin from her tightly balled fists.

“Mina.” She sighed, almost sad. “It’s dangerous for all of us down here…but the path you have chosen is more so than others. You’re just a young girl…how long can you keep this up? You’ve gotten away with it so far but…there’s only so much luck this life can give you. Every time you show up, I am once again surprised you are still alive.”

She adverted her eyes from Mina, staring at the floorboards.

“Those kids love you. I can’t let you be such a big part of their lives when your days are numbered like they are now. I can’t do that to them. I won’t let you get that close if you are just going to be gone one day.”

 

 

Mina couldn’t bring herself to be erased from the picture but she knew she had to at least pull back. She stopped her frequent visits to check up on them, dropping by only occasionally, never staying for too long, leaving enough time in between visits for them to be happy to see a familiar face, to not miss it too much when she was gone, allowing the features and sound of her voice to blur in their memories.

 She tried to keep her distance to stop them from growing too attached to her visits, to get them used to a passer-by in their lives.

She thought it was working.

But there was Grace, who had known Mina for too long, who was old enough to start asking questions, to realise just how long the gaps in between visits had been. She had started to look at Mina wearily, approach with caution, hesitate and withdraw herself.

Mina knew that feeling…knew how it started…how it had started with her and Kenny.

 

I’m selfish. I’m disgusting.

Mina told herself this as stared at Mrs Wravern, letting the children settle into her more, listening to their babbles, nodding and throwing them occasional smiles, unable to register their words as she fought back the regret.

Every time she visited, she told herself it would be the last time. She told herself that she needed to be completely removed from their lives, scrubbed raw from their memory before they were old enough to etch her into it forever.

But every time she failed.

 She was too weak to stay away forever.

 

 

She hoped her eyes were enough of an apology as the old woman stared her down still, the disappointment and anger clear in her face. Mina didn’t speak, she couldn’t in front of the children, she couldn’t even if they were gone.

She knew she was too much of a coward.

Instead Mina let her stare as she knelt, reaching into her pocket to pull out some of the bread, the softest parts she could find, allowing herself to laugh as they munched on it happily, chatting with her, touching her hands, her hair, her shoulders, her legs, committing her to memory.

Mrs Wravern had taken a seat at the table, staring out of her window.

 

Grace leant against Mina’s side, staring up at her intently.

“This time was the longest.” She whispered the words, almost as if telling Mina a secret, as if she didn’t want the others to hear what she knew.

Mina’s heart stilled a beat.

“Longer than all the other times.”

Her throat was thick, like swallowing cotton.

Mina looked at Grace, who was staring up at her unflinching, eyes knowing too much for someone so young.

“I’m sorry.” Was all Mina could manage in response.

 

She never lied.

Never made excuses.

Never made promises.

Not to them.

 

 

Grace continued to stare for a few more seconds, eyebrows furrowed before she let her head drop, pressing it against her shoulder.

“Please don’t stay away for so long next time.”

Mina swallowed down the sickness rising, hands reaching up to stroke Grace’s hair once more.

She didn’t say anything in response.

There was nothing to say.

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

Mina took longer to get home than she had planned, having to stop not long after leaving the orphanage as the nausea grew too strong. Her stomach twisted as she pictured Grace’s eyes and she had to stop, leaning against a wall to wretch painfully, bringing up bile, tears burning her eyes, a stabbing pain ripping through her abdomen as she gagged violently.

It took a while to calm herself down, to stop her body shaking and to clear her vision before she could set off again.

She knew Niklas would be worried.

Angry.

 

She was ready to face the inevitable as she scaled her narrow house, landing through the broken second story window with a soft thud.

 Niklas came barrelling into the room at the sound, eyes wide, chest heaving as he lunged at her, hands grabbing her shoulders.

“Where the fuck have you been?!”

His fingers dug into the skin painfully.

Mina tensed under his fierce grip, shrugging her shoulders free. “Get off of me”

“Mina! What the fuck?! I’ve been going out of my mind!”

“I was at the orphanage Niklas.” She took another step away from him, eyeing him wearily. She knew he would be angry but this was different, his face alight with a manic expression, his voice shaking so that his words were almost beyond comprehension.

 “You’re okay?” He breathed, eyes searching her face wildly.

“Niklas…”She began, trying to find the energy to explain.

“The Military Police are at the fucking door.”  His voice suddenly dipped stone cold.

It was then she heard a banging from downstairs, a steady rapping of a fist against their door.

Her blood run cold.

“Fuck.” He fisted his hair. “Fuck, fuck…Mina. I’m sorry, I’m so fucking sorry. I’m gonna get us out of this okay? You’re getting out of this.”

Mina was still, eyes wide as she watched his face, hopeless and panicked.

 

They’ll execute you on the spot.

Kenny’s words echoed in her head.

 

“Stay up here. Don’t make a fucking sound.” His hands tugged at his hair painfully hard as his eyes darted around, trying to keep up with his panicked thoughts. “They’re probably gonna take me. “ He muttered the words quietly. “I’ll put up a good fight though.”

“No! No, Niklas…they’ll kill you.” Mina whispered, hands clinging at the fabric of her dress, twisting it to try and stop the shaking.

The banging grew louder.

Niklas glanced in it’s direction, head snapping round widely before he turned back to Mina, breathing in deeply through his nostrils, clamping his hands down on her shoulders.

“You promised me. You stay alive.” His eyes bore into hers, a sudden determination in his face. “Don’t let them get you Mina. No matter what. Stay up here…stay quiet. No matter what you hear them doing to me, you stay hidden. Don’t get fucking caught.”

“Niklas I-“

 “You get out of here okay? Do whatever the fuck you need to do to survive.” He hissed the words through clenched teeth as Mina searched his face in sheer panic.

“Niklas Klaustev!” 

A deep voice boomed his name.

Mina couldn’t move as Niklas pressed his forehead against hers, taking another inhale.

“We don’t go down without a fight. Never have. Never will. Stay fucking alive.”

And with those words he wrenched himself free frpm her, moving swiftly down the stairs to the door.

“Alright, alright! Can’t I take a shit in peace around here?”

 

Mina felt like her whole body had stilled, her blood frozen in her veins, her lungs paused mid inhale, her heart stopped halfway through a beat. Everything was very still, very quiet, the terror taking over…the utter hopelessness almost consuming her entire body.

 

This is how it ends.

 

Mina let the thought linger for a few seconds, let the defeat wash over her, almost let herself drop to the ground.

 

No!

 

It felt like a snap, a force she couldn’t control that suddenly pushed through her body, sent her blood rushing, heart thumping, lungs working double-time.

 

Don’t let them get you Mina.

Stay fucking alive.

That’s right. She thought. Stay alive. I made a promise.

 

 

She moved quietly, grabbing another knife to hoist into her boot before turning to the corner of the room, carefully picking up the bundle of rags she kept pushed behind a dresser. She unwrapped the cloth gingerly, hands grazing over the cold metal, willing her trembling fingers to still as she familiarised herself with the weight and shape of it in her hands,

It hadn’t been touched in years.

She held the gun up in front of her, remembering her stance, remembering how to keep her body tight and steady. She checked the bullets, slim fingers working silently to load it, before she shrugged off her jacket, tucking the gun into a hidden crevice of her baggy dress.

 

Would I really? She thought to herself suddenly. Could I use it?…if I had to?…If I have to survive…to stay alive…

 

She took two quiet steps, freezing behind the door, listening to the assortment of heavy footsteps pile into the one room downstairs, voices slightly muffled, but when she quietened her breathing, quietened her heart, the rush of her blood…she could hear everything.

 

 

 

 

“I normally expect a call in advance. Sorry I couldn’t tidy the place up for you.”

Niklas leant against the wall, watching the way the smaller dark haired man eyed the cramped space with a look of disgust.

“Niklas Klaustev I assume.” The tall blonde man spoke, the depth of his voice immediately getting under Niklas’s skin.

“One and only.”

Niklas glanced at the two other men stood by the door, not quite blocking the view of a third loitering around outside.

“Awful big gathering you’ve got going on there.” Niklas commented, tilting his head.

“Well. We weren’t quite sure what we were dealing with and how much of a fight would be put up.” The blonde man gave Niklas a small smile.

“You need help being pointed in the right direction?” Niklas  asked, raising his eyebrows

The blonde man paused. “That won’t be necessary.”

He took a step closer, eyes sweeping over the room.

“You live here alone?”

Niklas nodded, kicking a foot forward.

“Niklas Klaustev.” He repeated. “You have a brother…Victor.”

Niklas scoffed. “I didn’t think the big wigs above ground cared so much about us to keep tabs on our family trees.”

The blonde man didn’t comment, simply waited for an answer to his unspoken question.

Niklas clicked his teeth. “Haven’t seen him in years. Dead for all I know.”

“So…it’s just you here alone.”

“That’s right.”

The blonde man smiled again. The shorter man caught Niklas’s eyes before making a point of moving them, eyeing the two glasses of water on the table, moving to linger on the small pair of shoes by the door, undoubtedly not belonging to Niklas.

The dark haired man raised an eyebrow at Niklas before he began to pace. “Let’s not waste any more of our time Erwin.” He sounded utterly bored.

“Niklas. I’m sure you know why we’re here.” The blonde man- Erwin- asked sincerely.

“Not the faintest idea actually.” Niklas replied cockily.

“Does the name Peter Loghorn mean anything to you?”

Niklas stilled, unable to hide the changes of expression on his face like Mina could. It took him a few seconds to compose himself.

“Never heard it.”

The blonde man gave another smile, just a small quirk of the lip. “That strikes me as quite bizarre… considering he’s the one to give us your full name and your exact location.”

Niklas wavered, exhaling loudly through his nose. “Well…isn’t that funny.”

“That’s all he’s given us at this moment in time but we’re working on it.” Erwin assured him.

Niklas’s hands balled into fists.

“I was happy to leave it at that but Captain Levi here…“ Erwin gestured to the dark haired man, stood by the wall, face impassive. “He was certain you must have had an accomplice.”

Erwin eyed the two glasses.

“And I’m starting to think his hunch was correct.”

Niklas was quiet, watching as the men surveyed him carefully, an air of ease in their bodies, where as his was wound up tight, every cell in him ready to burst.

Erwin glanced to the stairs and Niklas’s eyes followed his look, a flash of panic on his face that was enough for Erwin to know his answer.

“I suggest you make this easier for yourself. The more you lie, the more you are losing any ground you could possibly have to stand on.” He eyed him. “If you want to prove your innocence, the best thing you can do is to cooperate with us.”

It was quiet, quiet as Niklas crumbled a bit inside. He had to think quickly, make a move, give himself some sort of control. His shoulders slumped as he made the split decision.

“She has nothing to do with this.” Niklas spoke quietly, adverting his eyes.

The dark hair man, Levi, titled his head.

“Look…I’ll go with you.” Niklas held up his hands. “No questions asked, I’ll go with you and we can talk about this misunderstanding but…whatever this is…it has nothing to do with her.”

“Is that so?” Levi drawled.

“I’m afraid it’s not that simple.” Erwin responded.

“Look…she’s my little sister okay? She has no idea what’s going on right now, just that a bunch of MPs were banging at door…she’s scared  out of her mind so I told her to stay upstairs.”

“Sister?” A man by the door spoke up. “Commander, he had no sister on record.”

Niklas sighed. “Not by blood…but I’m still her big brother, I’m all the family she has. I’ve looked after her for years, okay? She’s not involved in anything I do….she’s been through hell and she doesn’t need to be caught up in my shitty mess.”

“Get her down.” Levi said simply, tilting his head towards the men at the door, Niklas’s plea landing on deaf ears.

The men went to move and Niklas’s body jolted forward.

“Wait! Wait! Please!” He stopped, holding his hands up in surrender, fighting down the anger inside him to try to appear sincere. “She’ll come down, you don’t need to….”Niklas sighed heavily, running a hand over his face. “You’ll terrify her. Let her come down by herself.”

The men paused, looking at Levi for instructions. He stared at Niklas for a few seconds, before nodding to the men, jerking his head to the left to tell them to retreat back to their guard at the door.

“Can she hear us ?” Erwin asked.

“Yeah, probably.” Niklas muttered, raising his head up to the stairs, taking a deep breath as he got ready to start the show “Katya!” He called up the stairs. “It’s okay! Don’t be scared.”

Mina had been still, listening intently.

“Katya!” He called again. “They just want to talk. It’s okay.”

 

Katya.

She knew who she had to play. The scared, young sister…the innocent little girl…confused…weak…vulnerable…and most importantly, completely clueless.

 

Stealing all the air she could, Mina moved, reshaping her body, hunching her shoulders up, tucking her chin down, wiping her features clean to try and replace them with something softer, more scared. She moved down the first set of stairs slowly, coming into view of the men downstairs. She dragged her left leg, letting the toes scuff the ground, exaggerating a limp. She came to a stop before the second set of stairs, not yet descending them, allowing them to see her fully, allowing herself to see them, steadying herself against the wall, feigning a wince as she leant against the wall for mock support.

“It’s hard for her to get down the stairs when she hasn’t got her cane.” Niklas muttered as Mina slumped her body.

Levi looked at the girl.

She was all but obscured, obscured by the lighting, by her outfit, by her long hair. She wore a long dress, ballooning her in size, buttoned up high around her neck, sleeves long, the skirt reaching down to her ankles, the colour probably once a plain beige, now grimy with dirt. Her hair was dark, long, reaching down to her hips, straggled and tangled curls that stuck together.

“Katya.” Niklas called to her gently. “You okay?”

She looked at Niklas, nodding slowly, the motion allowing Levi to see her face.

Pale, almost sickly so, purple stains under her big eyes. Her lips were chapped and bleeding, the top lip puckered slightly so that her front teeth were exposed, a soft, childlike feature that made it harder to place her age. He caught a glimpse of something on the right side of her face, marks across her skin, starting at her hairline, skating down her temple, across her cheek, disappearing into the mass of hair.

Erwin assessed her  small form, offering her a small smile.

“Need any help there?” He asked, referring to the way she slumped against the wall.

She shook her head.

“Katya is it?”

She kept her eyes wide, body hunched, not answering.

“Yes.” Niklas answered for her.

“And you’re just a friend of Niklas?”

“I look after her.” Niklas reiterated.

“Is she mute or something?” Levi asked, crossing his arms.

“She’s scared out of her mind.” Niklas bit back, the lazy tone in which the man spoke grating on his nerves.

“The thing is Niklas.” Levi begun to speak again. “A lot of the shit you’ve pulled off above ground has been pretty impressive…a bit too impressive for just one person to pull off by themselves. It doesn’t really add up. That break in at one of the noble’s family homes a few months ago…through a window wasn’t it Erwin?”

Erwin nodded as Levi paced, the same bored expression on his face while Niklas quietly seethed.

Mina stood still, waiting.

“I can’t see you fitting through many windows, to put it bluntly.” Levi said. “You stick out like a sore thumb.” He tutted. “It helps to have an accomplice…someone smaller, faster…someone who can easily blend into a crowd…”

 

It was quiet…the tension in the air thick as they all listened to the heavy thumping of Levi’s boots.

 

Levi stopped pacing suddenly.

 

“Someone just the right size as her.”

He turned to glance at Mina, a nod in her direction before looking back at Niklas, eyebrows still heavy, eyes still glaring.

“What do you think Niklas…you think I’m on to something?”

“I think you’re talking bullshit.” He spat back, unable to hold onto any calm façade.

Levi strolled back over to the bottom of the stairs, staring up at Mina’s still slumped form, eyes traveling over her intently.

“Funny that.” He mused, cocking his head. “Do you see that Niklas? On the right side of her hip…it almost looks like…well it looks like she’s hiding a gun under there.”

 

 

 

Only silence followed.

 

 

 

Levi held Mina’s gaze, watching as her face changed, the soft expression wiped clean, a blankness wiped over instead, dark eyes staring at him, eyes so big that Levi could see the whites underneath her irises.

 

 

Then it snapped.

 

 

 

Niklas hurled himself forward, lunging at Erwin.

A distraction.

“Go!” He screamed at Mina as Erwin moved to block him. “Get out of here!” Niklas cried, thrashing wildly as the two men by the door had run to restrain his arms.

Levi watched as Mina’s face flashed with a sudden panic at his words, before her body moved swiftly. She straightened up her hunched form, moving her weight, leaning it all onto her right side, onto her supposed bad leg. Levi watched as her body reared back with the movement…before she flung herself forward as hard as she could.

 

Levi realized too late just why she had stalled at the top of the stairs, why she had stood cautiously right next to a thin glass window.

 

Mina threw her body with all the force she could possibly muster, crashing through the glass, barely registering the sound of it shattering in her ears, the burn and sting of thousands of shards piercing and pricking her skin. She barely felt the impact of the ground as she landed, the burst of pain that should have been as she took the brunt of the fall onto her side so as not to damage her legs.

All she could feel was the adrenaline that shot through her limbs as she sprung up straight from the ground, gathering herself.

She had to move.

She sprang into action, launching her body into a sprint.

 

I promised Niklas.

I promised I would stay alive.

Chapter Text

Mina couldn’t bring herself to think of Niklas’s fate as she ran, not allowing herself the distraction as she pumped her arms and legs, passing through dank passages. It was an instinct, the way her mind was unravelling a plan in that moment, mapping out the streets and hidden corners she could use to lose them, preparing to easily slip into a crowd, the buildings she knew lay abandoned…which one could she hide in… if it took days, if it took longer…to stay holed up…hidden…to stay alive.

A whirring sound caught her attention, loud over the sound of her boots thumping on the ground, over the sound of her sharp inhale and exhales, over the sound of the people who yelled at her as she pushed past, launching herself through bodies.

The sound grew louder, closer, not allowing her to ignore it.  She turned her head, eyes widening as she caught sight of figures in the air. She faltered slightly, a small stumble, cursing as she picked herself back up, forcing her legs to carry her further.

They’re in the air.

 She didn’t dare turn to look again over fear of slowing herself down.

She had seen enough.

A strange contraception at their hips, wires shooting out and hooking into the buildings, propelling the people forwards, closer to her.

Mina’s mind scrambled as she realized she needed to change her route, the advantage she thought she would have from clambering up the highest buildings now gone.

Okay. She thought. Stay low then.

The pathways around the underground splayed out in her head and Mina’s body unconsciously carried her throughout the twists and turns, taking the sharp corners and narrow backstreets, hoping all the sudden bends and abrupt changes would slow them down.

But every time she tilted her head to look, she could see their bodies flying through the air, hear the whirring of the wires, watched as they thrust forward, keeping up with her turns, right on her tail. The only thing keeping Mina in the lead was her initial head start.

I can’t slow down. I can’t lose my lead.

She pushed forward, until she wasn’t sure how long she had been running for, her sense of time slipping away. Her legs were screaming, her lungs hurt, she felt a cool metallic taste in her mouth and a twist in her stomach as her body began to fatigue. But her mind was stronger, willing her to get out, willing her body to keep moving, to ignore the aches, the sweat, and the burning. Every time she felt her body reach its limit, she dug deeper, willing herself to find more, gaining a second wind and new found strength.

But I can’t do this forever. I can’t out run them forever. If I can’t lose them…I need them to lose me. I need to get out of the open.

She made a decision.

Mina made a sharp turn, heading towards the market square, knowing it would be her best option for a big crowd. It would slow her down; having to make her way through throngs of people, but all she needed was one distraction.

A drunken man, a scantily glad woman, or a small crying child…just a second of distraction for her to slip away.

 She could hear the crowd before she came into contact with it, the roaring jeers and protests before she felt the contact of skin, shoving bodies out of the way, throwing her own body through the mob like a cannon ball. Mina waited until she was fully submerged before she adjusted her form, hunching over as she run, immersing herself into the people, heat and filth and sweat as she barrelled through before throwing herself onto the ground.

She allowed herself a few seconds to pause, to take one big inhale, to collect her body and brace herself, before she moved again. She shimmied on her stomach, pulling herself underneath a line of wooden stalls. Once underneath she began to crawl, avoiding feet, listening to her heartbeat in her ears and the sound of her heavy exhales.

She looked up, a wave of relief almost crushing her bones into the dirt as she saw a turning at the end of her makeshift tunnel, a passageway directly in front of her. She couldn’t hear the whirring anymore and glancing up at the air around her, she saw no figures.

She could escape.

She kept on all fours until the last possible second, unravelling up from under a stall and turning sharply to the left, tucking herself almost into the wall as she skirted past it. The passage was narrow and dim. She made no hesitation to move down it quickly, a light jog that took her further away from voices until all she could hear were her boots tapping a steady rhythm, her shallow breaths working in time with her shallow heartbeat. 

In the quiet, Niklas’s face flashed behind her eyelids.

 

Are you even alive?

 

 

Before she could let the question hold too much weight, she shook her head to clear the image of him, refusing to become distracted.

 

Just keep going. Only a little further….

 

 

A body suddenly landed in front of her, the heavy thump of boots on the cobbled floor followed by a grunt.

Mina’s body nearly folded in on itself as she skidded to a stop, stumbling before she steadied herself upright, winding up every muscle in her body for preparation.

 

The few seconds in which she had thought of Niklas had been enough to distract her from the familiar sound of whirring from up above.

 

 “Well!” The man said with a grin on his face. Mina noted he was probably around her age, or only slightly older, with ashy hair and an easy stance. “You’re fast, I’ll give you that! My finding you may have been pure dumb luck but…here we are.”

Mina stood on shaking legs, a feeling of fire erupting over her body as she continued to assess the man in front of her, average build and height, dressed In the same uniform as those men that had been in her house.

 “There’s nowhere to run now girl…just come with me and we’ll go easy on you.” His tone was cocky and Mina bristled.

He took a step forward as she took one back, eyes darting around to find any means of escape.

He tutted.

“Don’t make this any harder than it needs to be. You can’t run now. This is the end. Just come with me and there will be no need for me to restrain you.”

He took a step closer and Mina’s mind scrambled with possibilities.

 

 Turn and run…? I don’t have enough space to gain a strong lead.

 

She felt the weight of her gun at her side instead, hand brushing against it for a brief second before she stopped herself.

 

No…I can’t.

 

She watched him take another step, clearly growing weary of her.

 

Her mind was made up in the moment he hesitated.

 

There’s no way in hell I’m coming with you.

 

Mina let him take another step closer before she made her move.

 

She lunged, swinging her right hand to crack at the side of his head, taking him by surprise.  He was knocked off balance and Mina grabbed his shoulders with both hands, using them as leverage to bring her knee up into his stomach hard.

 Hard enough that he doubled over with a groan, head falling down. She grabbed it, taking each side of his head in her heads, thumbs pressing into his temples, almost as if she was cradling it with affection. She held it steady, taking enough of its weight to minimise some of the impact as she pushed it into the wall with a loud crack, knocking him unconscious instantly.

 

Her mind flashed back to the first time Kenny had taught her that move, how he had been laughing at her when she had clenched her fists, stared up at him with fury and told him she didn’t want to learn anything that could kill someone.

“Well that won’t do you much good.” He had wagged his finger at her grinning. “You gotta bite the bullet one day kid. You don’t take the first shot? They’ll take it at you instead.”

He rolled his eyes at her as she shook her head fiercely, pinching the bridge of his nose in annoyance.

“Fine.”

He crouched down in front of her, bringing himself to her eyelevel and cocking his head to the side.

“Hmm…how about this little trick instead?”

His large hands had moved, using them to engulf her head, fingers splayed out across her cheeks. For a split second, Mina had thought the gesture a tender one.

He grinned.

“This will only hurt for a second.”

 

 

 

 

“Oluo!”

Mina spun, seeing two more men in uniform appearing from the mouth of the alley on foot, staring between her and the unconscious man sprawled out on the floor.

“You bitch!” One of them sneered before launching into a sprint.

Mina had no time to think, turning her own body to keep running forward, intensely focused on the sounds of their footsteps reverberating too close behind her.

 

They saw me attack one of their own.

I’m no longer harmless.

I’m a threat.

Any chance I had now is gone.

 

She panicked.

 

With the men close on her heels and her brain clambering to keep up, her body acted out of instinct and made the mistake for her.

Before she realized it, she had turned, throwing her hands up a wall and hauling her body up, landing clumsily on a flimsy tin roof.

I don’t know this route.

She had never climbed up this line of buildings before and she felt the tears of frustration and despair well in her eyes as she pushed forward, watching only in front of her as the buildings got higher, leaving her no room to turn.

No room to jump down.

No other route but to keep running forward.

 

 

She heard whirring once more, louder than it had ever been, ringing in her ears.

She tilted her head to see men flying through the air, flanking her on both sides.

She tried to ignore them, willing herself to keep going, forcing her legs to keep pumping, jumping across the gaps between houses with a recklessness she had never known she possessed, barely catching the landing each time.

She had no time to think, she couldn’t afford to.

 

If I just keep going…I’ll find a way out…just keep running Mina…stay alive.

 

Mina had been climbing higher.

Up ahead, there lay no more paths for her to take, only a one way drop down.

She realized this at the same time she realized more figures had appeared, surrounding her from every angle, herding her onto the route that pushed her to the edge.  The sound of whirring drowned out the sound of her thunderous heart.

 

Enclosed on all sides, she had no way out.

 

A brief flash of panic almost seized her entire body.

 

No.

Not like this.

I’ll give myself an out.

 

She skidded to a stop, turning her body round to face the crowd of men who had formed in a semi-circle around her.

She gave them no time to react, bracing her body as she reached into her side, pulling out her gun and thrusting it forward in front of her, holding it steady and confident.

The men all slowed, landing on the roof deliberately, eyeing the gun, eyeing her as she took slow steps backwards, creating a distance which they didn’t dare yet to broach.

Her eyes were searching among them, scanning over their figures wildly, searching for the right target.

 

The tall blonde man came to the front, approaching her slowly with a collected gaze. Mina recognized him instantly. She had assumed back at the house that he was the one in charge. His approach only confirmed that for her.

 

Got you.

 

Mina stood her ground and aimed her gun at him, the barrel pointed at the space between his eyes.

 

“Commander!”

Erwin held his hand up to silence the voice behind him.

“It’s okay!” He called back, voice low and calm.

He took a few more steps forward and watched Mina carefully.

 He watched the way her eyes were the only thing on her face to emote, her features blank apart from the fierceness and determination held in her gaze. He watched the way she squared her shoulders, fingers tightened round the gun, the way they didn’t shake or tremble, the way she held the weapon perfectly still, an almost comfortable ease.

 

“It seems we have started off on completely the wrong foot, don’t you think?” He tilted his head to Mina, approaching her as one would a stray and feral cat. “I don’t think you want to hurt me.” He said to her.

 

“Commander!” A voice called out from behind him. “She’s already knocked one of our men out cold! She’s not what she looks like!”

Mina watched as the blonde man considered this fact, the hint of a smile on his lips. “Huh. I suppose so.”

He took another step forward and Mina’s finger stroked the trigger.

“I don’t want to hurt you.” Erwin said calmly, holding up the palms of his hands to her. “None of us here do. I just want to talk so I can explain our intentions. Would you let me do that?”

 

He’s playing a game.

He wants my guard down…he wants to distract me….he wants me to feel as if I have another choice…how could I possibly have another choice?

 

She didn’t move an inch.

 

“There’s nowhere else for you to run now, nowhere else for you to go.” He continued in his even tone. “If you did shoot me…what would you do next? Do you think you could shoot all of my men too before one of them took you down?” He paused, as if letting Mina think over his words. “This is the end. It would be much more favourable for you to come with us now and to come without a fight.”

 

This is the end.

 

The words echoed din Mina’s head as she thought of the promise she made Niklas.

 

It can’t be…not like this.

 

“Yes we are arresting you…” He continued, taking another step. “I will not lie about that. But you will learn that I have proposition for you…I would say a favourable one compared to your current circumstances.”

 

Mina barely registered the words, not a cell in her body moving, frozen as she let the gun mould itself into her hands, replaying his earlier statement over and over again.

 

This is the end.

 

If they don’t torture you first, they’ll execute you on the spot.

Kenny’s words again…again and again.

 

She allowed herself a second to think of Niklas’s fate.

 

If he’s not captured…he’s already dead. If he’s not dead…he will be.

 

This is the end.

 

 

Her finger on the trigger trembled.

Erwin watched.

“Lower your weapon.” His voice was stronger, the words more of an order. “You’re surrounded. There is no way out of this now. It is in both of our best interests for you to come without a fight. We don’t want to have to hurt you.”

 

So that you can keep me alive to torture me later? Make me suffer first before you end it?

This is the end.

At the hands of these men.

 

 

Erwin held out his hand and locked eyes with Mina.

 

“Put the gun down. It’s over.”

 

Yes.

Yes.

You’re right.

 It’s over.

 

Mina had never had any control of her life. They only thing that she ever had control of was how hard she chose to fought every day to stay alive. And she had always chosen to fight hard, despite everything…because of everything.

 

This is the end.

 

And she knew that if it had to be the end, she was going to at last take back some control.

 

I’m going to choose how this ends.

 

She took a breath, tilting her head to the sky.

 

Erwin watched.

 

 

“Sorry Niklas.” She said, a small smile appearing on her lips, a small laugh escaping, a tear rolling down her cheek.

She took a deep breath, almost like a wistful sigh.

She levelled her head again to look at him, the blonde man staring at her, suddenly bemused.

 “Looks like I’m going to have to break another promise.” She muttered, smiling again, a bitter, sorrowful smile.

 

She moved the gun quickly, aiming it at the space next to Erwin’s left shoulder.

 

She fired.

 

She fired one shot, enough to startle him and to surprise all of his men, to send them into a few seconds of disarray before they realized no one had been harmed… before their attention fell again on Mina.

Mina had thrown the gun on the floor, taking the final few steps back. She stretched her arms out wide, like wings sprouting from her shoulders, felt the breeze at her fingertips, felt the empty air behind her.

She let herself lean back…back…back…until her toes lifted, the heels of her feet losing their ground, until there was nothing, nothing to tether her to any surface.

 

Now…this is the end.

 

 “Levi! Go!”

 

Mina’s mind went blank as she felt gravity pull on her limbs, the lurch in her stomach and the rush of air on her skin almost making way for a peaceful resignation. Her body was falling like a dead weight but she felt buoyant, not as if she was falling to her death, but as if death was reaching up to catch her.

 

This is the end.

 

A sudden force knocked her off course, crashing into her so roughly that she choked on the air that suddenly escaped her lungs, grimaced at the sharp jolt of pain that ran all throughout her limbs.

She hit the floor then.

But it was softened, sheltered by another body that took control of the fall, slowed down the impact and braced her for landing.

She gasped as her head cracked back onto the stone floor, one second of confusion before she forced herself into alertness. She opened her eyes to see the familiar man with black hair staring down at her, trapping her body under his after intercepting her fall. 

 

She moved on instinct, rearing her head back to make impact with his, a sharp crack that had him rebounding. She used the second of distraction to move, bringing her knee up to his stomach hard, and his grip on her loosening enough for her to swing her left elbow into his face. Her left hand moved down, gripping the knife she had hidden, twisting it in the air to catch the handle, holding it fiercely, in front of her, aiming for the space of his chest.

He had regained composure, right hand holding down her right wrist, his left forearm coming up under her neck to keep her down, legs trapping hers, pressing her into the damp ground, a scowl on his face, steely eyes locked with hers.

She was breathing heavy, acutely aware of every part of his body, waiting for his next move, waiting for the retaliation…the final strike.

He made none, simply holding her body still, letting her hold the knife in front of her, in the small space between their chests.

Her body was tensed as her mind scrambled to understand.

He has the upper hand…he can easily knock the knife out of my hands…turn it  back round on me…why is he not doing anything? I could drive this thing into his heart…why is he giving me the time to even think?

He held her immobile, leaving his whole torso open for her to target, staring at her with an expression that Mina could only depict as annoyance.

“Are you giving up or what?” He asked gruffly, his forearm pressing harder into her throat so that panic bubbled in her veins.

She made no move, only her fingers gripped tighter around the knife, her knuckles white.

He’s giving me an opening….why?

She didn’t understand, but she knew she was losing time trying to figure it out.

I don’t want to have to…but I can’t give up.

 

Levi watched as her eyes set with a decision.

 

She finally made her move, striking the knife forward, above his heart and into the space above his collarbone. It was not a deep puncture, but it was enough to make him rear back. It gave her the upper hand to push herself free, if only for a few seconds, kicking out at him, moving her body to break out of his hold, freeing her limbs to crawl away…

His fist connected with her face, the force unlike anything she had ever felt, sending black dots into her vision.

Her mind suddenly scrambled and her body suddenly went limp.

He huffed in annoyance, grabbing a fistful of her hair to yank her head up hard, before smashing it back down into the ground.

The black dots fizzed and scattered, growing bigger, a ringing in her ears almost swallowing her whole.

The shooting pain in her head was all she could register before Levi cracked her head down hard onto the ground again, sending everything into total darkness.

 

 


 

 

 

 

“Where the fuck is she?!” Niklas struggled in the arms of his captor, hands tied and restrained behind his back as he was pushed through the doors into Erwin’s office.

He glared at the commander, straining to break free and flailing his body around widely, desperate and clumsy, and unable to make the man holding him even so much as flinch.

Niklas’s face was contorted in anger, teeth bared, neck pulsing.

 “Where. Is. She.” He spat each word at Erwin, who sat nonchalantly behind his desk, fingers interlocked as he assessed the boy.

“I said we would talk when you had calmed down.”

“How can I calm down when you won’t tell me if she’s even fucking alive?!” Niklas snarled in response, thrashing his body wildly once more.

Levi sat in a chair on the left side of the room, watching Niklas with a bored expression.

“Sit him down Miche.” Erwin nodded at the empty chair opposite Levi.

Niklas was pushed forward roughly, protesting all the while as Miche pushed him down into the chair.

Levi grimaced.

“You’re going to have to clean that later you know.”

Erwin ignored his comment, turning to Niklas.

“Niklas.” He sat, watching as Miche held him firmly by the shoulders. “We want to cooperate with you. But you need to meet us halfway there.”

He titled his head as the man scowled deeper.

“Your sister is alive. And the more you cooperate with us, the more we can tell you. “

Erwin watched the fracture in Niklas’s face; the relief washing over his features as his shoulders sunk. He took a shaky inhale.

“She’s alive?”

Erwin nodded. “Yes. Although she wouldn’t be if it wasn’t for Captain Levi’s quick reflexes.” Erwin nodded in Levi’s direction. “You have him to thank for her still being here.”

Niklas glowered at the dark haired man. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

Levi folded his arms in front of his chest. “Let’s just say she was willing to do anything she could to get away from us. Who put that clever idea into her head?”

Niklas closed his eyes, inhaling heavily again.

“Stupid girl.” He muttered.

He opened them to stare at Levi, rearranging his face into anger. “So what? You saved her life just so you could be the ones to kill us later? Needed us both alive for all the shit you’ve planned to do with us?”

“Niklas…” Erwin started with a gentle tone. “You’re grasp of the situation is all wrong. We went to such lengths to keep you both alive because we want to offer you a deal.”

“I don’t give a shit about your mind games.” Niklas shook his head. “Tell me where she is. Now.” He moved again before Miche pushed him back roughly, knocking the wind out of his lungs.

“Like I said.” Erwin drawled. “We would appreciate your cooperation. If you calm down, if you listen and answer my questions…then you can see your sister.”

Niklas’s eyes flashed. “Using her as leverage huh? You piece of shit.”

Erwin considered his words for a moment before deciding to drop the nice guy act. “Not just that as leverage. We also have the fact that you were working with an MP above ground. That you were carrying out crimes that have amassed to an awful lot of important people losing an awful lot of money.”

Niklas laughed at him. “You don’t have shit on me.”

Erwin ignored him, moves deliberately slow as he reached to place a stack of papers onto the desk in front of him. He he skimmed through them lazily.

“Niklas Klaustev.” Erwin cleared his throat. “26 years old. Born in the underground to an Ancel and Anna Klaustev, both deceased from plague. One older brother, Victor…the one who taught you to fight you said?”

Niklas simply stared as Erwin peered at him. “So what? You know my family tree. Big deal.”

Erwin titled his head again, waiting.

Niklas remained silent, a single eyebrow rose at Erwin in defiance.

“Okay.” Erwin said, producing another stack of papers.

“Mina Verenich.”

 

The name was clear, every syllable enunciated.

 

Levi watched closely for a reaction.

 

Niklas blanched.

 

“23 years old. Born in the underground to a Karina and Alexander Verenich.”

“Stop.”

Erwin looked up at Niklas’s pale face.

“What’s the problem?” He asked.

“You don’t…” Niklas choked on his words. “Not her….please.”

Erwin studied Niklas for a few seconds, looked at the way Niklas didn’t even try to hide the despair now written across his face.

“The Military Police Officer you worked with has confessed. To everything. That’s how we have your names.”

“Fucking piece of shit.” Niklas spat, tilting his head up to the ceiling, breathing heavily.

“You two caused quite a stir. You must realize that you have made a lot of important people very unhappy. The MPs want your heads on a stick.”

Niklas thrashed suddenly again, trying to lunge out of his chair in desperation before Miche grabbed his upper arms roughly, pulling him back into the chair again.

Levi sighed at him.

“Calm down.” Erwin ordered. “The Military Police don’t have your details…not yet anyway.”

Niklas glared at him. “What?”

“We got to your accomplice before they did….Peter…He’s actually in our cells now…his fate ultimately rests on your decision.” Erwin’s lips quirked up.

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

“We captured Peter before the MPs found out his identity. Not a strong constitution that one. He had told us everything before we could even get him into the cell.” Erwin almost looked amused. “But we are the only ones he has confessed to, we are the only ones who have your names. No one else knows.”

Niklas blinked.

Erwin leaned forward suddenly, holding Niklas’s eyes. “We want to make you a proposition.”

“Is this some sort of game?”

“Not at all. You see…if you accept our offer, Peter has agreed to conceal your identities on the basis that we also don’t turn him over. If you happen to decline, we hand Peter over, he will tell all…but he’ll most likely get away with it. He will say that he was coerced….an underground thug with a knife to his neck that kicked him around, threatened his family, and threatened his loved ones if he didn’t play along with your dirty scheme. The MPs will eat it all up of course, and you and your sister will be dead before the morning.”

Niklas lost it again, thrashing around like a wild animal being sent to slaughter.

“You piece of shit! You sick son of a bitch! What the fuck is this?! Huh?! You’re enjoying this, playing with our lives like this?! You don’t know shit!”

“Niklas. Calm down.”

He glared at him in his restraints. “You wouldn’t know shit about what it’s like down there, none of you could ever imagine.” Niklas’s breathing accelerated, words spat out through gritted teeth, eyes ablaze. “Every day is just a fight to survive. We have nothing! No food, no money, no jobs, nothing to keep us going except that last piece of fucking human instinct that keeps you alive. It’s hell. Every single fucking day is a waking hell. So you do what you can to get through it.”

Niklas shook his head, continuing as Levi and Erwin stared silently. “We had nothing! We had no choice! Stealing from some rich folks who wouldn’t even feel the dent in their wallets? What’s so bad about that? Why is that so fucking wrong when it was the only thing keeping us alive! What makes their lives more important than us, huh? What makes them more worthy of living?”

Spit was flying form his mouth as he seethed, chest heaving, face turning almost purple in rage.

“We spend our days starving, we spend them watching others wither away, and dying from sickness they could cure if they had just been born somewhere else. You watch that and you do anything it takes to stop it from happening to you. We had to survive…I had to help Mina survive…I did it because we had no other choice! I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want Mina to die. She has a life outside of that place. So I did whatever it took. Where’s the crime in wanting to survive? Why are we being punished for wanting more than to just die?!”

 

He spat on the floor.

 

It was silent for a few seconds as his head hung low, as the room waited.

 

“It was all me.” Niklas’s voice was quieter. “It was my fault. Not her. Not Mina. I’m that one that dragged her into this. She had nothing to do with it until she had no choice. I made her come with me. I set up every lie, every robbery, and every break in. I told her what to do, who to steal from, found every target, calculated every single move. It was all me.”

 

Erwin waited as Niklas stared at the floor, whole body moving as he tried to catch his panicked breath

 

“I appreciate you being so honest with us Niklas.” Erwin said after a while. “But that’s not the impression Peter gave us…if anything…he seemed to think she did most of the work.”

“Only because I told her to!” Niklas yelled. “Since she was a kid…I told her that this is what she needed to do to survive. I told her to take off other people. Put herself first. Do anything to survive. We had no money, no food, no hope for anything…then this opportunity…she couldn’t say no to me…not when I made her believe our lives were on the line for it. She was taught this way of life…it’s not her fault. She hasn’t ever had a damn thing.” His fists clenched on his lap. “Her mother died from plague too, her piece of shit father drunk away any money they could have used for medicine. He used to knock them all around. Her dad got what was coming to him, a couple of loan sharks got sick of waiting around for payment and shot him in his kitchen…but her younger brother was home and they didn’t want to leave a witness…he was just a kid…not that it made a difference to those bastards. She was left with nothing, with no one…only me. I’m all she had…all she has. And I fucked her up.”

His voice grew shaky, eyes widening, wet.

“Please. Please. Leave her out of this. She’s not like me, not one bit…she’s not like anyone in that fucking hell hole, I swear it! She’s good. It’s in her bones. She’s one of the good ones.” His words were spilling out manically. “Me? I’m a piece of shit, probably to my very core. Hell, if I ever got out of that place I couldn’t ever say I wouldn’t be the same. I would probably still be lying, stealing, and fighting to the end. It gives me a rush. It will always be me. But not her. Mina’s different. She only ever stole because she had to. Only ever fought because she had no other choice. She would never hurt anyone if she had the choice not to. But she has to! If not, she might as well just lie down and die. She hates it. She fucking hates it.”

He started to laugh, tears flowing, a hysterical bubble in his throat. Levi threw Erwin a glance and Erwin could read the expression his face.  He gave Levi a subtle shake of his head in response.

Don’t stop him yet. He’s giving us too much.

“You wanna know where she was before you came to our house? She was visiting this fucking orphanage. She goes as much as she can. She takes them food, toys, our fucking money…she hasn’t eaten in three days yet she fed them before she fed herself. You know what dreams I had waiting for me when I left that place? Sure I wanted Mina to be safe…but I’m greedy. I wanted money and women and power over people. But Mina?” He shook his head. “She wanted to escape so she could have a family of her own. That’s her dream. That’s all she has ever wanted in life. She wants to be a Mom one day and she knows that’s not possible down there, she knows she can’t bring more life into that hell. But there’s still a chance for her…she can get out of there. Don’t….Don’t take that chance from her…please.”

It was quiet, a heavy tension in the air.

Erwin reconciled with himself, hearing the sincerity in the man’s please.

“You certainly paint a favourable picture of her.” Erwin said finally, sparing a look at Levi.

Levi’s face had softened slightly, the raw images Niklas had conjured all too familiar to him.

Miche looked between the two of them, finally breaking his silence. “Are you forgetting that she shoot at us earlier Commander? And that she stabbed Captain Levi?”

Niklas’s head shot up. “She used her gun? Shit.” A new expression of panic set over his face as he held Erwin’s eyes. “You don’t understand…for her to have…she must have panicked…she must have thought there was no other way…I told her to get out…to stay alive…please don’t…she had no other way!” He took a deep breath, one word falling over the next as Erwin raised an eyebrow in confusion.

“Is he dead?” Niklas’s question was barely audible.

Levi’s brows furrowed. “Huh?”

“The person she shot.” He snapped at Levi. “Are they dead?”

Erwin’s eyebrow rose higher. “Definitely not dead. They’re doing perfectly fine…I was the one she shot at after all.”

Niklas’s eyes widened slightly and he sat frozen for a few seconds, before his lips tugged at the corners. “No!” He cried out suddenly. “You see! You see! “He laughed.

“He’s losing it.” Levi muttered.

“She didn’t miss! She never….well, I can’t remember the last time she missed! She wasn’t actually trying to shot anyone! She doesn’t want to hurt anyone! Just like I said!”

His wild eyes shot to Levi. “She stabbed you? You look alright to me.”

“Is that the point?” Miche asked.

Niklas ignored him. “Let me guess…it wasn’t very deep…and she picked a spot that couldn’t possibly be fatal.”

Levi tutted and Erwin shot him a glance.

“She had an opening…I was waiting to see what she would do.” Levi drawled, crossing his right leg over his left knee as he returned Erwin’s stare. “She didn’t take it…barely let the knife in before she pulled back.”

Niklas laughed again. “I told you! Look! There’s your proof! She was just trying to distract you all!” His eyes, set with determination, found Erwin’s once more. “She was never going to shoot any of you. She’s not a threat. She wouldn’t ever hurt anyone unless her life was on the line.”

 

 


 

 

Mina’s eyelids fluttered open, closing quickly again as the first sensation hit her. A throbbing pain in her head had her almost retching.

She winced and grimaced, groaned quietly as she let the sensation settle, let herself adjust to the pain before her eyelids tried to open again.  Her vision was bleary, her head swam and she felt as if her limbs had detached from her, weak and limp. She just wanted to shut her eyes and go back to sleep…..

 

She jolted herself upright.

I’m alive.

She blinked rapidly, wincing again as even that gentle motion seemed to aggravate the pain piercing her skull.

She went to move but found herself stuck, slumped on the ground in front of a beam, legs splayed out in front of her awkwardly, hands tied behind her back, secured around the beam, tight enough that her shoulders were aching from the angle.

The ground was cool and the air had a chill that made goose bumps rise on her flesh. She licked her lips. Her mouth felt like cotton and she had a rancid taste at the back of her throat. She swallowed, the action hurting, as if she was forcing down a ball in her oesophagus.

Everything hurt.

Her head.

 Her limbs.

 Her bones.

Even her skin.

 She hung her head forward, squeezing her eyes open and shut, adjusting to consciousness as she wracked her brain, everything suddenly coming back.

Niklas. The police. The chase. The jump. The man who grabbed her.

“Rise and shine.”

She lifted her head wearily at the voice, her vision still unsteady, finding it hard to focus on the shapes around her. She took in the bars in front of her face and the two men that stood behind them, one closer with his arms crossed while the other hung back slightly.

She let herself still, becoming accustomed to the dim lighting, to the aches and pains.

Her vision settled.

The man with his arms crossed she recognized, her eyes darting to the deep purple bruise forming around his eyes.

The man in the alley.

The other man she wasn’t sure of.

Was he one of the guys on the roof? I can’t remember, all their faces look the same….except his…the man with dark hair and the grey eyes…I can picture him clearly.

She winced again as she tried to straighten up, becoming aware of a cool sensation on her face, running down her cheek.

I’m bleeding.

“Hurts like hell I’m sure. “ The man with the folded arms huffed at her.

She closed her eyes, letting her head tilt up again, thinking through the possibilities

Keep me captive? Let me starve and wither away down here? Torture me in this cell? Send me off to be hung?

She swallowed, the pain in her shoulders nagging her. She tried to adjust her body again and a sharp jolt run up her side, making her gasp.

The man snorted.

“Knock it off Oluo. She’s obviously in a lot of pain.” The blonde man at the back scolded him.

“Pfft…so I’m supposed to feel sorry the Captain beat the shit out of her? Not like it wasn’t deserved.”

“Just because she got the upper hand on you for a second doesn’t mean she deserves to be left in this state.”

Oluo glanced at her, a flash of pity on his face. “To be honest, I think she pretty much looked that bad before the Captain got a few hits in.” He mumbled quietly to Eld, who shared the same look of pity.

Eld came closer to the bars, staring at Mina who was listening to their conversation, but barely showing any signs that she was still conscious. She still had her head up, eyes closed, breathing shallow through the pain.

“Hey…do you want some water? You must be thirsty.” His voice was low, as if talking to a child.

She ignored him, focusing on her breathing, feeling every throb and pulse of her head as she wondered how long she could last.

“I really think you should drink something.” He tried again, peering at her closer, searching over her bruised and bloodied face.

She made no move.

“Look, I’ll take a drink out of the same cup…there’s nothing wrong with it, see?” He made a show of pouring himself a glass of water, making noise as he waited for her eyes to open and watch.

 Mina stayed still, eyes closed, stayed silent.

Eld sighed.

“Just leave her to sulk Eld.” Oluo muttered, eyeing her wearily.

Eld took a few steps back again, also eyeing her cautiously. “I don’t like how quiet she is.”

“Well it’s not like she wants to have a conversation with us.”

 

Mina wasn’t sure how long she sat there, unmoving, blocking out the men’s chatter in the background, accepting her pain, her fate…thinking about Niklas, her mother, her brother, watching the images behind her eyelids play, trying to find something to soothe the fear that threatened to consume her.

 

Is this how it ends?

 

Mina wasn’t sure how long she had been sitting there for when she heard a new noise, a door opening and heavy slow footsteps approaching.

“Finally.” Oluo mumbled dejectedly as Levi walked over to the men, casting a glance at Mina, before turning back to them.

“Captain. She’s been conscious for two hours now.” Eld reported before a crease appeared between his eyebrows. “But she hasn’t said a word. She hasn’t even moved.”

“She’s kind of creeping me out.” Oluo said and Levi scoffed in response, turning to look at Mina, not able to see much in the dim lighting, only seeing her eyes closed, head titled up as she rested against the beam.

She made no move at his arrival.

“Not a thing huh?” He asked.

“Completely silent.”Eld confirmed.

“Huh. That’s funny. Your brother hasn’t been able to shut up about you.” He raised his voice, an almost lazy drawl, addressing Mina directly.

 

Inside, everything seemed to jolt awake.

He’s alive? He’s alive. Can he be alive? No...they’re trying to trick me…he can’t be…he’s alive?

Outwardly, she kept still.

 

“He’s even been crying if you happen to care.” Levi began to pace and Mina listened to his voice, the tone deep in a way that got under her skin.

The tone bored in a way that made her skin itch.

“He won’t stop asking us if you’re really alive, doesn’t seem to quite believe us. He won’t shut up about you and it’s really starting to grate on my nerves. It’s a shame that same concern isn’t being extended from you. You didn’t even bother to ask if he was alive? Tch.”

He stared down at her, watching as his words had no effect. He realized she wasn’t taking the bait, not stupid enough to react to his obvious toying.

“You know, it’s awfully rude to ignore the man who saved your life.” He clicked his tongue. “I don’t know if you remember sticking a knife into me after that? I’ll skip the gratitude but the least I expect is an apology, don’t you think?”

Silence.

Levi frowned before turning to his squad.

“Erwin’s ready for her. Get her up and to his office. Keep her restrained.” He ordered abruptly, turning to leave.

“Captain…you’re not going to help?”

Levi paused, barely looking at Oluo over his shoulder. “Help? What, you’re scared of her now Oluo?”

Olou flushed, standing up straight, indignant. “Of course not! I just…I’d rather not do any more damage to her if she puts up a fight.”

“Does she look like she’s going to put up a fight?” Levi asked, exasperation leaking into his tone. “You’re a big boy Oluo, I expect to see her in the office in no more than ten minutes.”

Chapter Text

 

Mina put up no resistance while being moved to a different location, letting Eld un-cuff her hands from the bar, only for him to lock them back together again behind her back as she stood. She let Oluo wearily take her shoulder and push her along, while Eld kept a firm grip on her forearms.

She was weak, legs shaking and feeling like they would buckle, having to use every piece of her strength to stop herself from leaning all of her weight onto one of her captors. She moved as if in a daze, treading through a thick fog.

Pain shooting across her head with every step, Mina let the men lead her up a long flight of stairs, out of the darkness and into maze of corridors, high stone walls, daylight filtering in softly through big windows, warming her cheeks.

 

Am I dreaming? It almost feels like it…

…no…this is real…

…get a grip Mina.

I can’t make a run for it…I’m too weak…I would barely make it a few feet.

 

But this is my only chance….they could be taking me straight to my death…I’m just going to let them?

Any second now…it’s going to be too late….

…but Niklas…

…if he’s alive…

…if there’s any chance.

I can’t risk running.

I have to see him.

 

She came to an abrupt stop, the men halting in front of a heavy set of doors. Eld steadied her slightly, noticing her sway on her feet and wince again in pain.

Oluo moved forward, knocking quickly out of courtesy before pushing the heavy doors open, giving her a small nudge into the room. Mina stumbled slightly again, a burst of sunlight fracturing through a set of large windows, making her grimace and lower her head to the floor.

“With one minute to spare.” She recognized the deep drawl.

“Try to jump out of any windows again?” Another voice asked with a slight gruff laugh at the end.

“She hasn’t tried anything.” Eld said from behind her, his grip still firm. “Hasn’t spoken. Didn’t make any attempts to escape. She came willingly this time.”

“Not as stupid as the brother then.”

Mina’s head snapped at the word as she was pushed forward a few more steps, coming into the centre of the room.

 

“You’re alive!”

 

The voice…the only semblance of home left.

 

Mina turned to see Niklas jolt out of a chair, the relief on his face quickly fading, contorting into anger when he saw her face, saw the bruises and the swelling and the blood.

“What the fuck?! What the fuck did you do to her?!” He lunged forward, quickly intercepted by a tall man with shaggy blonde hair. Mina watched as Niklas struggled in the stranger’s grasp, furious eyes on her face. “You sons of bitches! I’ll kill you all!”

Mina stared, heart sinking at the mania across his features.

 

He doesn’t know what he’s doing…he doesn’t have a plan.

 

“Yeah, so you’ve already told us.” Levi said, rolling his eyes up to the ceiling.

Niklas reared his head back suddenly, bringing it forward sharply to head butt Miche. The blow barely touched him but was returned with a punch to the side of Niklas’s face, the impact causing his whole body to almost buckle.

“Niklas!” Mina’s body was suddenly propelled into action, jerking forward involuntarily before Eld and Oluo tugged her back.

She stopped.

 

No. Don’t fight them.

 

She stilled herself, letting them return to a steady hold on her as she held Niklas’s eyes, watching the blood drip from his nose. “Stop.” She said, her voice a mere whisper. “Don’t.”

He stared at her, knowing the pleading look in her eyes, the same look she would give when he went out to fight. His breathing was still ragged, his face still twisted…but he let himself still in the man’s hold, let himself be pushed back roughly into a chair.

Erwin sat behind his desk, watching the exchange with curious eyes.

 

In the bright afternoon sunlight, Mina’s sickly appearance was much more apparent, and she had no protection to stop the strangers in the room from scrutinising her. 

Levi held back at a grimace at the sight of her, a raw embodiment of the filth and poverty of the underground. She was unhealthily pale, an almost blue tinge to her skin, body swallowed up by her long baggy clothes, almost covering every inch of skin. But the skin that showed, the slender curve of her neck, the thin spindly fingers, and the sunken cheeks were enough to know that she was emaciated.

Her dark hair was matted, curls stuck to her face, clumps formed at the back and tatty ends that fell at her hips. Levi noticed the cuts and scratches on her hands, the bleeding on her nail beds. He noticed the scabs on her lips, chapped and cracked and dry, the puckered top lip exposing her front teeth. He watched as her eyes blinked and strained, tried to hide her emotions as she looked up. The left eye was swollen slightly, an inky bruise forming around her temple and socket, blood caked in the hairline and dried in streaks down her face. They were big eyes, that almost looked too big for her face, big eyelashes that resembled a cow’s, with the whites apparent underneath her irises.

The eyes brought softness to her face.

Levi noticed in the bright light that they weren’t as dark as he had thought, a deep blue instead of black.

Like the others in the room, Levi failed to avert his gaze from the right side of her face. Although it was somewhat hidden by her hair and bruising and blood, the scars there were illuminated under the sun.

The deepest scar started from her hairline, running down her temple and just skimming the corner of her eye, slicing across her cheek and curving round her chin, down her neck, and disappearing into the neckline of her dress. The skin was puckered slightly, the scar itself a pale white, almost silver. It was accompanied by many more scars, deep slices and cuts that travelled down her temple and disappeared into her jaw. Hasty and quick cuts, Levi noted, but definitely all in one assault. They littered her entire temple and cheekbone, covered the skin around her eye, carved into the cheek and cheekbone, gathered around her jawline and down her neck. Levi noticed another darker one, a straight horizontal slice across her throat, stopping a little more than half way, a deep indent that looked like an attempt to slit her throat.

He looked away, sure she could feel the stare but not wanting her to see it.

“Any injuries she has sustained have been through her own fault. It took a bit of force to restrain her. Believe it or not, we don’t go throwing punches for fun.” Erwin tried to assure Niklas, who simply scoffed in response.

Erwin turned his attention back to Mina, taking in the strain of her neck as she shifted her wrists in the cuffs, tightly pulling on her tense muscles, the pain clear in her face though she tried her best to remain impassive.

“Un-cuff her.”

“Commander?” Oluo asked.

“I would prefer her to be comfortable while we had this chat. Free her hands please.” He nodded towards her.

Eld hesitated.

“Commander…are you sure?”

Erwin raised his eyebrows.

“Of course! Sorry Commander.” Eld stuttered, moving with Oluo to help release her hands.

“Besides…”Erwin settled Mina with a stare as she felt the metal loosen, fingers fumbling at her wrists. “You’re not going to try anything silly now, are you?”

Mina simply stared, letting the cuffs fall free, letting her arms hang limp at her sides, closing her eyes at the release of her shoulders.

Oluo and Eld continued to watch her wearily, ready to jump on her at any sign of a struggle.

Mina stood still, opening her eyes again to look at Erwin.

 

“Why don’t you sit down Katya?” Erwin nodded to the empty space on his left, the burgundy chair opposite Niklas.

 

Katya…they don’t…they don’t know who I am yet? How can that…?

 Niklas must have something up his sleeve then.

It’s not over yet.

 

 

Erwin didn’t miss the way Mina’s eyes swivelled to Niklas, didn’t miss the minute nod the man gave her before she chose to move, walking slowly to the chair, almost mechanical as she lowered herself down. She let her eyes run over the room, a quick head count, and a look towards the door to her left, a quick glance at the big open windows. Erwin’s lips quirked slightly as he watched her try to map out any possible escape routes.

 

“Now…let us discuss what we’ve proposed to Niklas.”

 

Mina listened; feeling like every muscle in her body had turned to stone, unable to sink back into the chair. She stayed sat upright, wound tight as she tried to take in the Commander’s words, tried to understand….tried to figure a way out, all whilst trying to stop the bile rising in her throat.

She listened, eyes staring at a space on the desk, fixated on the swirls on the dark wood, fingernails digging into palms. She listened as Erwin explained how Peter had been captured, how he had sold them out, how their fate had been sealed if the MPS got their hands on them.

She listened to the threats she already knew.

Prison. Torture. Death.

Erwin spoke as if it were a promise.

 

Erwin then went on to explain his role, Commander of the Survey Corps, delving into a history of the unit, the sacrifices soldiers made beyond the walls for the sake of humanity, his hope for the strides and progresses they could make to ensure a future where titans were understood, where people could live without fear, and where humanity would thrive.

Mina felt herself growing more and more stunned at his impassioned words, confusion creeping in amongst the fear as Erwin went on to introduce the soldiers in the room…Oluo, Eld, Gunther, Section Commander Miche and lastly, Captain Levi.

 

What is this….why is he telling me all this? It doesn’t make sense…

 

 “And this brings us to you two.” Erwin finally said, settling Niklas with a stare as he grew restless in his seat, before turning his attention back to Mina. “You see….my mind wasn’t completely made up. We could have easily turned you over to the Military Police as soon as we caught you. But first, I needed to test something. I needed to see how hard you would fight.” Erwin clasped his hands on the desk. “And seeing the lengths you were willing to go….the fight to survive…I believe that fight is one of the most important things one can possess in this world…I believe you both have what it takes. With the proper training, you would both be great assets to our team.”

Mina’s ears began to ring.

 

I don’t…I don’t understand…he can’t mean….

 

“This is where I offer you a choice.” His voice boomed, shaking Mina’s bones. “I will be honest…Niklas is not sold on the idea yet…but I feel like you could persuade him.” Erwin smiled. “In exchange for Peter’s silence, in exchange for our silence, I am asking you to join the Survey Corps.”

It felt like a wave had crashed down on Mina, taking her breath away, drowning her, blasting through her bones, shattering her to pieces.

The ringing of the waves in her ears was almost deafening.

“I can understand how it may feel unfair…like you are being backed into a corner here…but I truly believe what I am offering you is an opportunity that will save your life…in more ways than one.” Erwin spoke with pride, chest puffed and shoulders squared.

“This is unbelievable.” Niklas muttered and Erwin held his hand up to silence him.

“If you turn this down, you will be handed over to the Military Police and most likely die in their custody, so yes, accepting my offer will give you a way out. But that’s not where this ends. It’s not just that. Joining the Survey Corps will a give you a way out of it all. It will give you a new life…a better life.”

“A better life?! Are you fucking serious?!” Niklas snapped. “You’re asking us to let you turn us into titan chow! Whatever way you swing it, we’re dead no matter what!” Niklas turned to Mina. “It’s obvious, right? For some reason, they can’t kill us their selves so they’re using this as a ruse…let the titans eat us to get rid of us the easy way. I’d rather take the MPs, at least with them I can put up a fight.”

Mina was silent, mulling over his words. Erwin could see the cogs turning in her head, no matter how hard she tried to keep her face resigned, no matter how hard she tried to keep her eyes away from his.

“I guess it could appear that way, I hadn’t thought of that….” Erwin rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I can assure you that I have dedicated my heart to this cause, all of us standing in this room have. It is not something any of us approach lightly. I would not play with your lives like that. This is a serious offer. It’s written in black and white. No grey areas, no games, no hooks. I want you both to become Scouts.”

“Because you ran out of warm bodies? Need more bait? Huh?” Niklas words were dripping in venom. “I know what it is! We have no one to miss us, right? Makes it easier when someone with no family ends up in a titan’s mouth. You don’t have to look a mother or father in the eye and tell them that their child died for your ego. No one will cry over us. It suits you just well.”

“I would like you both to consider the danger I am putting myself in with this offer.” Erwin leant forward, ignoring Niklas’s outburst. “In exchange for your cooperation, I am willing to gamble on the hope that Peter will choose to remain silent. I’m harbouring two of the MPs’ most wanted under my roof. If they ever found out I was withholding your identities from them, things would get pretty ugly between our regiments, uglier than they already are. I’m willing to do all this because I see something in you both, something hard to come across anymore.”

“You just want to use us.” Niklas muttered.

“I want to use every person on my team and I always do so. I believe every single person who is part of the Survey Corps is valuable to the survival and progression of humanity beyond the walls. Everyone is here for a reason. Everyone offers something that can be used. Everyone is valuable and every sacrifice moves us forward.”

“You’re saying we’re valuable? You trying to sweet talk us now?” The venom in Niklas’s voice turned sarcastic.

“You’re smart Niklas. You’re strong. I can imagine you paint yourself to be whatever version best suits other people; it makes you excellent in a team. But you can also lead. You take initiative.” Erwin responded calmly, making Niklas frown.

“Your sister.” Mina couldn’t help the way her head tilted up, unable to avoid Erwin’s eyes as he captured hers. “She’s quick on her feet…physically and mentally. She’s resourceful, intuitive and willing...determined to fight with every last part of her. You’re exactly what we hope our cadets to be.”

Mina tore her stare away, hating how his light eyes seemed to burn with excitement as he appraised her, focusing her gaze on the space above his head instead, breathing shallowly, tasting acid, hearing her heartbeat.

“I don’t know what sick game they’re playing but you know this sounds insane right?” Niklas pleaded for Mina’s attention while she continued to stare. “You’ve always been smarter than me….always made the right calls…always proved me wrong when you needed to. This is bullshit. They just want us to die…they don’t give a shit about us.”

Erwin let Niklas speak.

“Look, I’m gonna take the fall okay…I’m taking it all. I’ll do whatever it takes to convince them you had no part in any of this, whatever it fucking takes to make them let you go. The MPs…they can do whatever they want to me but I’ll make sure they don’t suspect you…I have to…I will! I will make sure you get out of this okay?”

This isn’t how he sounds when he has a plan…he’s never this desperate…it’s all words…he has nothing really.

 We have nothing.

No choice.

 

“Hmmm.” Erwin hummed, looking thoughtful. “Maybe…maybe that could work…I guess it depends on who takes charge of the arrest…how generous they’re feeling. Like I said, I’m sure you could paint quite the picture Niklas. Maybe she would get out of your mess while they hang you out the front of their offices.” Erwin’s eyes swivelled to Minas sharply. “But what would you do? Go back to the Underground? Live out the rest of your life scraping by, day by day, just to survive. Going hungry? Dirty? Alone? Is that what being free means to you?” His voice was urgent, pressing on her chest.

She swore she could feel the constriction round her lungs.

 

I can’t….I can’t think…I can barely breathe….

 

“You’ll be free of this place Mina….one way or another…we’ll get out…”

 

Niklas’s words, always a constant, rang in her head. It echoed before it was suddenly replaced with a different voice, a familiar voice, softer and gentler.

 

“Mina…my sweet girl…my good girl…I promise you…I’ll do whatever it takes to make you into the sort of person that can escape here…you’re going to get out one day…and live a beautiful life…you have to promise me you’ll fight every step of the way to make that happen, okay? Promise me that you will get out of here? Whatever it takes.”

 Mina could almost feel her mother’s phantom fingers brushing her hair out of her face, whispering to her desperately, her tear’s falling onto Mina’s cheeks.

 “Promise me.”

 

 

“This is your chance for true freedom. To live a life that means something, that has a purpose. You’ve been fighting every day to stay alive, only ever for yourself. You’ve done this within a place that has no meaning, would never give you a purpose, fighting every day to obtain nothing in return…and I am truly sorry that this has been your life until now.”

Mina’s heart stuttered at the heaviness in Erwin’s voice.

“Being part of the Survey Corps means you can wake up every day and know you are part of a bigger picture. Your fight will be valuable. Your fight will have meaning. What could have more purpose than the fight for humanity? You can be a part of the greatest feat mankind has ever undertaken. Imagine that life for yourself, imagine that purpose.”

 

The fight for humanity? How could I ever be part of that?

Why should I? What has this world ever given me?

All I ever wanted from this world I could never have….

My Mother.

Max.

 

Mina inhaled.

 

Gone.

 

Mina exhaled.

 

But Oscar. Sophia. Theodore.

Grace.

They’re still here.

And so many like them.

So many that were just like me…

 

 

…Imagine a future for them.

 

 

 

 “You will be a cadet. You will train. We will help mould you into a soldier, strong enough to fight. You will not be put in any harm’s way until you are strong enough.”

 Erwin’s voice thundered yet Mina felt like he could have been miles away.

 “You will not leave the walls until I know you are ready, you have my word on that. You will not have to wake up every morning wondering how you will get your next meal. You will have food at the table and a bed to sleep in. You will have friends here. Family. You will have more than just scraping by. You will have so many reasons to keep fighting.”

 He paused for a few seconds.

“This next part might interest you more than any of that however.”

Mina looked up.

“Once you become a full-fledged cadet, you will be paid for your service. You will be officially and legally documented. You will be a citizen of the walls. When your service is over, you will never have to go back underground again. You can build a life above ground. A home….a family. You can live.”

 

A home?

A family?

 

Mina blinked slowly, feeling as if the tension in her bones was slowly uncurling.

 

Another waved crashed down. This one rolled in slowly, steady, take it’s time to surge across her body, not a force upon her, but a force clearing something out of her.

 

 “No…no way…it’s all too good to be true, you’re just telling us what we want to hear!” Niklas called for Mina’s attention again. “Don’t listen to any of it…he’s trying to bait us…I should have never opened my fucking mouth about you.” Niklas grumbled, shifting in ager again. “A future? We won’t ever have that chance…we’ll be dead.”

“You will be trained to stay alive. I won’t put you out into action until I’m confident of your chances. You have my word.” Erwin stood up suddenly, staring Mina down. “This right now is your last chance for freedom. Will you take it? Will you ensure your life has meaning? Will you push forward every day, not just for yourself, but for your comrades, for the fate of all mankind? Every single day can mean something. You can be free. You can live the life you always dreamed.”

 

Always the dramatic…Levi thought to himself, finding it hard to observe Mina’s minute changes in expression, finding it easier to look away when he noticed the despair in her eyes.

 

 “Dedicate your hearts.”

 

This could all be a trick…one big game…maybe he doesn’t mean a word of it.

 

Huh. It’s all very dramatic.

Mina almost smiled to herself.

 

But if there’s a chance…if there’s any possibility…

…for a future…for me…for others…

Maybe they’ll kill us later…maybe tomorrow

But while there’s a chance…

…I’ll play along for as long as I need to.

 

 

“You can’t….you can’t say this to us…you can’t…let her think like this…” Niklas’s voice was quiet, desperate, breaking slightly.

“I’m taking a gamble…but I believe it will pay off. Something is telling me that I can learn to trust you. I want to believe it wholeheartedly. I want to put my trust in you. But I know it will take time. As I know it will take time for you to trust us. I’m willing to put in the work if you are.” Erwin rounded the desk. “I have been nothing but honest, perhaps to a fault…I may have divulged information that could put me in a dangerous position if it falls into the wrong hands. But I am willing to put my trust on the table. We have to start somewhere…don’t you think?”

 

Mina looked up, catching Erwin’s eyes, his gaze intent, urging her.

 

Promise me.

 

Her mother’s words rang clear in her head, clearing out the last of the fog, sweeping away the daze.

 

Mina made the decision, knowing it would be final, knowing there was no going back.

If this was her only chance at freedom….she would take it and not let go.

 

She sat up straighter, letting her shoulders drop, her eyes hardening again, her expression almost defiant as she titled her chin up to meet Erwin’s eyes squarely.

 

 

 

“Niklas I am going to request you do one thing for us while we have this same talk with Mina.” Erwin had said casually to the man while he waited impatiently for Captain Levi to return with his sister.

“You’re asking favours of me now? After the shit you just pulled? You’re insane.” Niklas had spat, fidgeting under Miche’s hands.

Erwin ignored him. “I’m asking you to refrain from saying her name. I want her to believe we still are unaware of her identity.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Niklas, this isn’t so much of an ask of you as it is an order. You want to see what she truly thinks of my offer don’t you? Well, I do too. Giving her this last piece of leverage will make all the difference in the end. What she chooses to share with me will reveal her true intentions.”

 

 

 

 

“My name is Mina….Mina Verenich.”     

 

Her voice was quiet, soft but unshaking.

 

 

Niklas slumped in his chair, eyes closing.

Erwin smiled, a small tilt of the lip.

Levi cocked his head.

The rest of the men stared, glancing between her and Erwin, still unsure.

 

“It’s a pleasure to properly meet you Mina. I’m glad we’ve been able to come to this arrangement. I promise you, you’ll find something here that I’m sure you’ve been looking for.” He smiled again, turning his gaze to Niklas. “I don’t want to be presumptuous but I’d like to imagine you will now be joining us too, Niklas?”

Niklas scoffed, lifting his head up slowly, defeated. “You assholes.”

His eyes were bleary and Mina had to look away, not wanting to acknowledge the tears. “Yeah. Sure. Sign me up for titan bait.”

“We’ll get you settled in straight away. You’ll be on a probation period for a little while, just so we can both be sure of each other’s intentions. But training will begin tomorrow.”

Mina blinked at him, the sudden change in his tone startling her slightly.

“You are expected to act as every other subordinate would. Everyone training you will be your superior so every order is expected to be followed without question, just like what we expect from any other cadet. I do believe everyone here understands the concept of mutual respect. There won’t be any of my soldiers taking advantage of their power so don’t worry about any unfair treatment.” Erwin settled Mina with a stare again. “But like any other cadet, intolerance and disobedience is met with some form of punishment, severity depending on the crime. I’m sure they will be a few kinks to settle out at the beginning but I expect cooperation and understanding of your position now from both of you. Any untoward behaviour that makes me regret this decision will not end well for either of you. I’m sure you can both understand where I’m coming from.”

Niklas was sucking his teeth, glaring daggers into the floor.

 Mina gave the slightest nod of her head.

“Excellent.” Erwin stood up, a pleased smile on his face. “Eld, Petra should be waiting outside to take Mina.”

Eld nodded, disappearing out the door for a few seconds while the room sat silently, Mina staring at the glare of the sunlight until her eyes began to sting.

She heard the door open again but did not move her head.

“You are dismissed now Mina. Petra is a member of Captain Levi’s squad and she will escort you for the rest of the evening.”

Mina didn’t move, not quite understanding what was expected of her.

She felt a presence behind her, Oluo moving again with the cuffs and ushering her to stand.

“No need.” Erwin held his hand up, halting him. “They’re not our prisoners anymore. I’m sure force will not be necessary.”

Mina resisted the urge to raise her eyebrows at Erwin’s almost playful tone of voice, standing slowly, her body feeling alien and disconnected. She turned, eyes sweeping over Levi’s impassive expression; arms still folded, sat back lazily in a chair, watching her movements but avoiding eye contact.

She settled her eyes instead on Niklas, studied how he sat slumped forward still, head hung heavy but eyes looking up at her…looking through her…looking past her.

She swallowed, letting her eyes travel round to see a girl standing expectantly, hands clasped behind her back, with strawberry blonde hair and a heart shaped face, only slightly taller than Mina, dressed in the same uniform as the men around her.

“Petra.” Erwin nodded at her as a way of introduction and Mina couldn’t help but stare inquisitively, not expecting to see a woman so young.

Petra nodded, casting a quick glance to Mina’s un-cuffed hands, a brief flash of anxiety across her face before she settled her features into a professional smile. “If you would follow me please?” She gestured to Mina.

“Gunther, if you could take Niklas please.” Erwin requested.

“Wait, wait, wait.” Niklas finally spoke again, rising up. “Where is she going? Where are you taking her?”

“You’re both going to get ready for training, there’s really no need to worry. You’ll see each other tomorrow.” Erwin tried to assure him.

“Why are you separating us? No. No...you’re not...i don’t like this…Mina.” Niklas took a step forward, reaching for her, and Miche followed his movements wearily, ready to intervene.

Mina let Niklas take her wrist, eyes boring into hers, searching for something, for reassurance, for an answer, for any semblance of a plan…Mina wasn’t sure if it was any of those things or all of them.

“Mina…when I thought you were dead….” His grip tightened and Mina stared, noticing the way everyone in the room was waiting tensely for him to make a move.

“Niklas.” Mina said softly. “We have to do this.”

He closed his eyes again. “We’re all we have. It’s just us. Promise me you’ll prove me wrong again, yeah? Promise me.”

His eyes were fierce and Mina could only stare, absorb the information in them, remember it whenever she faltered.

 

All these promises.

It really isn’t fair.

I’m just one person.

 

Instead, she nodded, gently tugging her wrist free and not looking back as she let Petra place a hand on her shoulder, guiding her out of the room.

 

 


 

 

Mina kept pace with Petra’s brisk walk, the young woman visibly relaxing once she had gotten Mina out of the tense atmosphere in Erwin’s office.

“It’s nice to meet you Mina!  Apologies for the brief introductions but I’m sure we will get to know each other a lot better over the coming weeks! You’re going to be training with me a lot! I’m part of Captain Levi’s squad, as I’m sure you heard. So rest assured, you’re in safe hands!”

 Her voice was chirpy and Mina could only blink at her, eyes still adjusting to the sunlight as she followed Petra down the long halls, the shift in dynamic throwing her off.

 

What is this?

It doesn’t feel…real…it’s a trap.

Niklas could have been killed as soon as I left that room.

 

 “You won’t be training with Captain Levi just yet, unfortunately. Commander Erwin has him far too preoccupied at the present moment…it’s a shame as being taught by the Captain would be invaluable! He’s humanity’s strongest soldier, did you know?” Petra clasped her hands behind her back, a skip in her step. “He’s killed the most titans out of anyone. His strength is unparalleled, almost too strong for a human! It’s incredible really. All round…he’s an exceptional soldier.” Petra let out a breath. “But you’ll have the rest of Captain Levi’s squad helping you train. Me, Eld, Gunther…Oluo, unfortunately.” She let out a quick laugh. “I’m sure he will come around to you. Honestly…I’m hoping you knocked some sense into the man.” Her voice lowered to a grumble and Mina struggled to keep up.

“Miche, the tall blonde guy with your brother has also been enlisted to help, as well one of his squad members, Nanaba. They’re veterans, they’ve got years of experience that makes them extremely knowledgeable!”

 

Years of experience? So you really can survive that long…

 

“I’m not sure of your schedule just yet but you’ll most likely be covering multiple things each day, there’s a lot of ground to cover after all! There will be stamina and strength work…sword training… ODM training…horseback riding… hand to hand combat…miscellaneous weapon training….”

The words almost became nonsensical to Mina, terms and phrases she had never heard in her life and she couldn’t even begin to picture what they meant.

Petra continued as they walked, her voice peppy, professional, a human advertisement for the supposed greatness of the Survey Corps and all of those in it. It stirred a strange mix within Mina, the bubbly energy doing little to coat the fear and anxiety within her, only serving to make it sickly, nauseating.

Mina also noticed, despite her chipper demeanour, the way Petra angled her body towards her, always watching Mina in her peripheral, ready to spring into action if she attempted anything deemed suspicious.

 

She’s talking to me like we’re close friends.

But there isn’t an ounce of trust between us.

 

“I know this must be hard for you…well…I guess I don’t know actually…I can’t imagine the position you’re in right now.”

Mina was startled by her words, her soft tone.

“And it’s not going to be easy. The next few weeks are going to be tough for you…adjusting to this life. I know it’s going to take some time for you to trust us but you need to understand that nothing works here unless we all trust each other…you need to be willing to put in the work on all levels, okay?”

Mina just stared at the girl, not knowing an appropriate response to articulate. Petra sighed at her silence.

“It’s like a family here. You’ll see.”

 

 


 

 

“You need to strip.” The doctor cast an exasperated glance between Mina and Petra. “I can’t get an accurate weight with all these clothes on.”

 

Petra sighed, casting Mina a sympathetic look, who had visibly tensed, yet kept her face calm as always.

 

“Mina, all cadets have to do this upon entering. It’s a full medical examination; we need to know that you’re healthy enough to start training. We can’t start until you’ve had the sign off from the doctor.”

 

And if I’m not? If I’m not good enough? What happens to me then?

 

“There’s nothing to be embarrassed about young lady.” The doctor, who had curtly introduced herself as Doctor Mason, sniffed in annoyance as Mina looked around vacantly. “I’ve seen it all before.”

Mina swallowed. She kept as much of her skin covered as possible, at all times, even around herself. She was uncertain, not embarrassed, not sure what it felt like to be exposed in such a way, not sure what feelings would arise…that’s what scared her the most.

“Mina, it’s okay.” Petra cooed reassuringly. “I’m going to go sit by the back and give you some privacy okay? I won’t see anything.”

The doctor stood frowning, wrinkles deepening in the creases around her eyes and forehead.

“She’s going to need to ask you some questions as well Mina, okay? You’re going to have to answer.”

Mina could see the Doctor fighting back the urge to roll her eyes at Petra’s soft tone, talking softly as if she were a child or a pet.

“Mina?” Petra tried again and Mina gave a small nod in response.

“Okay. Call me over if you need help.” Petra made the remark as if she was addressing Mina but her eyes moved swiftly to the doctor at the last second.

 

Call me over if she tries anything.

 

The doctor simply batted her away with her hand.

 

Mina wasn’t sure what she felt about her body as she stood naked, letting the doctor weigh and measure her, fingernails scraping tender skin, innocent places such as the crease of her elbow or back of her shoulder having never been exposed to touch before.

She couldn’t see what her body looked like but she could feel everything against it, the air, the slight cold wind raising goose bumps along the flesh, feel the years of struggling and scraping by moulded into her, out open for the stranger to the see. She almost felt as if her scars had become bigger; cut deeper, fresh again, seeping over across all parts of her skin.

 

Perhaps that all I am.

My body…what it amounts to…

…it’s all just one big scar.

 

 

The doctor made no comment on her scars, barely glancing at them as she moved her eyes and fingers across Mina’s body, pressing into tender skin, feeling bones and muscles, prodding at her organs through thin flesh. She used her hands and various instruments and needles, asked Mina to lay down, stand up, raise her arms, sit back down, look left, look right.

Mina responded almost unconsciously, trying to block out every touch that felt like an intrusion to her past.

“Okay, you can put your clothes back on now.” The doctor said, nodding to the dirt pile on the floor and sitting down with a notebook, beginning to scribble away furiously.

“I’ll ask you some questions while you change, okay?”

Mina nodded, hurriedly moving to pick up her dress.

“Do you smoke?”

Mina shook her head no.

“Drink?”

Mina shook her head again.

“Are you aware of any degenerative diseases in your family?”

Mina’s throat thickened at the word family but she shook her head no again.

“Are you sexually active?”

Mina’s fingers fumbled over the buttons, head snapping up at the doctor. Mina shook her head furiously.

“Ever been pregnant?”

She shook her head no again.

The doctor clicked her teeth. “Have you ever been sexually active?”

Mina swallowed, not understanding why it was relevant.

 The doctor noticed her hesitation.

“I need to know if you have ever possibly been exposed to diseases transmitted through sexual activity.”

Mina thought of the women that hung around outside the taverns of the Underground and the men that groped them, leered at them lazily, and followed them inside dirty buildings. She thought of their faces…sad, desperate, empty.

 

“You’re not gonna end up like that kid.” Kenny had said to her as he watched Mina stare at a group of women, watch them beckon in drunken men from the streets. “You got the pretty face for it, I’ll say. In a couple years time you’ll have those scumbags in there promising you a pretty penny. But I’ll be damned if you end up as one of them.”

He grinned at her suddenly, ruffling her hair.

 “That’s why you gotta listen to old Kenny here and stop whining about not wanting to kill anyone. You’re not gonna get very far with that pissy attitude.”

 

 

Mina blinked out of the memory.

She shook her head.

“That’s a no then?”

“No. Never.” Mina finally spoke.

“Okay.”

 

Mina continued to shake her head at the remaining questionings as she finished pulling her clothes back on, adjusting her collar as high as she could, pulling her sleeves down passed her wrists.

“All done.” The doctor called to Petra, who had been dutifully staring out the window, back facing them the whole time. “You can turn back around now.”

Petra smiled, walking over to Mina.

“A perfect patient.” The doctor remarked dryly, moving around to gather up some things from various stations, uncapping bottles and pouring out liquids.

Mina sat hesitantly at the end of the chair, watching and waiting. The doctor had made no indication on whether Mina was healthy enough to train.

 She tried to fight back the panic.

 

They want me to fight….if I can’t do that…I’m useless.

I’m dead.

 

“So?” Petra asked after a few minutes. “Can you sign her off?”

“Yes, yes, hold your horses.” Doctor Mason said, capping another bottle before turning to Petra. “Overall, she is healthy enough…well, as healthy as one can be living in those conditions I suppose. But yes, I would deem her fit enough to start training.”

“Great.” Petra beamed at the doctor and Mina.

Mina only blinked, wondering why she didn’t feel as relieved.

“Just a couple of things.” The doctor muttered, standing in between them both. “The black eye and cuts to her face are fresh…I’m assuming a welcoming gift from one of your guys?” She raised a stern eyebrow at Petra.

Petra grimaced slightly. ”There was a slight altercation.”

“Hmmm.” The doctor pursed her lips. “She has a fractured cheekbone but it shouldn’t hinder her much. Might be painful when eating…or laughing…though something tells me you won’t need to worry about that.”

Petra frowned at her.

“Try not to land anymore punches on that side of her face for a little while. Should be fine in a couple of weeks time and the bruising will fade along with it. She has a slight concussion so she may experience headaches for a little while.” The doctor sniffed and Petra shot Mina a guilty look.

Mina barely saw the glance, listening intently.

“Bruising on the legs and torso but no internal damage. No broken bones. Organs all feel healthy. Steady heart rate. Good reflexes. Eyesight looks good. All in all, she’s fit to start training tomorrow, though she’s going to be weak and find it rather painful.”

Petra nodded while Mina thought of all the times she had been weak and had been in pain, but still kept moving forward.

 

It’s never been an option for me to stop.

 

The doctor turned to Mina, handing her a glass bottle.

“This is a rinse for your hair. You need to use it every time you wash. Your hair is filthy and matted and you’ve got sores on your scalp. You’re lucky they haven’t turned into a nasty infection. Make sure you really scrub it in, okay?”

Mina blinked in confusion.

“A haircut would probably do you good.” She raised her eyebrows and Mina wondered if she should have felt embarrassed at the scolding of her hygiene.

“Your hands.” The doctor said, passing Mina a small metal tin. “They’re blistered and ripped to shreds. Your nail beds are completely bruised and broken.”

Mina knew her hands had seen better days. She used them constantly and without hesitation, to grip onto stony services, pull herself up metal pipes and broken windows and splintered wood. The skin was often raw and bleeding, but she had grown accustomed to the discomfort. She was sure she had lost all of her nails more than once at various points throughout the years.

“I don’t know what you’ve been doing with those hands but you’re not going to be able to use the ODM gear with them in that state, you’ll be in too much pain. You’re also risking infection. You need to use this salve consistently throughout the day. Consistently. And keep using it even when they’re healed.”

Mina nodded, taking the tin gingerly.

“I can administer painkillers for any headaches if they get too severe but I’m assuming she is not going to be permitted to keep the supply herself?” The doctor glanced at Petra who nodded.

“Yes. I’ll hold onto them for you if you need them Mina, let me know how the pain goes?”

Mina simply nodded.

“Last but not least.” The doctor sighed. “But I’m sure you already know. She is underweight. Very much so. If she wants to keep up with her training without injuring herself then she needs to be serious about getting up to a healthy weight. It’s going to take a lot more than a few pounds for that.”

“She’ll be monitored at mealtimes.” Petra assured her.

Mina knew her body was small, knew clothes hung off of her, knew as she got older, her body only seemed to shrink as the fight got bigger.

But she wasn’t sure what a healthy body should look like.

She glanced at Petra’s thighs, the fat in her cheeks, and the curve of her hips. Suddenly, Mina could feel the skin across her stomach, how it pulled tightly, how her ribs jutted out, how the bones of her collarbones, shoulders and elbows looked like they were piercing the almost transparent layers of skin.

Kenny had told her she had a pretty face. The thought had terrified her when she later learnt what that could mean, what dangers that would bring.

Even after the scars.

She wondered what these people thought when they looked at her.

 

What does it mean to be pretty?

What does pretty look like?

Is it a colour? A feeling? A sound?

When you see something pretty, do you think of these things?

The blue of the sky…

The laugh of a younger brother…

A mother’s smile….

 

 Underground, she had hoped every part of her was ugly.

 She wondered if that ugliness, now she was above ground, was what made these soldiers so weary of her.

 

The doctor nodded, picking up her papers again,

“I’ll finish writing this all up and drop it off to the Commander this evening. You’re free to go.”

“Thank you so much.” Petra beamed at the Doctor before nodding to Mina. “Let’s get you cleaned up now.”

Mina stood wearily, clutching the bottle and tin, waiting for some sort of catch, a payment, a debt to be owed.

Petra saw her hesitate.

“Come on.” She urged her, moving towards the door.

“Hey.” The doctor muttered to Mina, who turned to catch her eye. “Look after yourself, yeah? “ Her expression softened as her eyes flickered to the scars on Mina’s face.

 

Don’t look at me like that.

I’m ugly.

 You saw it all.

The ugliness.

 

 


 

 

 

“Damn it, Oluo’s made such a mess of this room!” Petra shook her head in exasperation as Mina stood awkwardly to the side, looking at the discarded heaps of clothing strewn across the floor.

Petra had taken her to a small storage room where they kept an array of civilian clothes that Mina could stock up on for her training.

“You won’t get your uniform until your probation is over, you see.” Petra had explained.

 

“The idiot was looking for a waistcoat when he went to Trost last week.” She sighed again, pinching the bridge of her nose. “Now I’m gonna have to clean this whole room before the Captain sees.”

She glanced at Mina who was watching wordlessly. Petra smiled guilty.

“I’ll do that another time. Let’s find you some clothes!”

Petra got to work looking through the piles and Mina watched as she pulled out various flimsy materials, draping them over her arm.

After a few minutes she passed the pile to Mina. “These look good?”

Mina took them cautiously, fingering the soft cottons and chiffons. She pulled the layers apart, looking at the button ups that showed off her arms, the loose shirts with a collar that swung too low, the skirts that didn’t meet her ankles, and the slacks that looked too tight.

Mina pursed her lips and Petra’s smile faltered slightly.

“What’s wrong?  This is stuff that all the girls here wear in their free time.”

 

All the girls wore this?

Is this what I’m supposed to look like?

 

Mina didn’t dress for comfort, she didn’t pick colours she liked, she didn’t dress for other people, nor did she even dress for herself. Mina dressed in a way that was functional to her entire purpose.

 

Hidden.

Invisible.

 

“You can have a look for things you like then. Go ahead.”

Petra gestured to the piles and Mina dropped the clothes, picking apart the fabrics.

She pulled out a large button up shirt, long sleeves with a high collar.

“That’s a men’s shirt I think….” Petra trailed off when Mina picked up another men’s shirt with long grey sleeves, realizing.

Petra moved wordlessly to resume her searching, looking for the baggy and masculine fits, devoid of scooped necks and short sleeves.

Mina cleared her throat awkwardly when she was done, a small pile gathered in her arms. Petra showed her the pieces she had picked in return. “Is this more like it?”

Mina nodded, a grateful expression on her face.

Petra beamed again.

 

 


 

 

“I’ll give you some privacy again but I can’t leave you alone. I’ll be over by the door.”

Mina blinked, teeth chattering slightly in the cool air. They were in a dimly light room, stone walls and flooring, filled with strange wooden partitions and contraptions fitted to the walls.

Mina couldn’t hide the confusion on her face.

Petra peered at her.

“Uh…do you know how to work this?” Petra gestured to the wall.

Mina shook her head.

“Have you not ever used one before?” Petra couldn’t hide the astonishment in her tone.

Mina furrowed her eyebrows, shaking her head again.

“Oh…well.” Petra tried to recover her tone. “That’s okay. Here, look.” She stepped forward, placing her hand around the dial. “Just twist it. It does get a bit stiff sometimes. A twist to the right turns it on, the more you twist, the harder the water pressure.”

Mina jumped back as water spurted out of the wall, cascading down with a hissing sound.

“It’s not the warmest water but it does the job. Then just twist it back to the left to turn it off.” Petra demonstrated, grinning at Mina. “Easy, see!” She shifted her weight. “Remember to use the rinse on your hair, yeah?  You can put your clothes to the side…your clean clothes are hanging up there. Call me over when you’re done.”

She gave another gentle smile before spinning on her heel.

Mina wasn’t sure how long she stayed under the water, letting it beat down on her skin, twisting the dial to the hardest pressure so that the droplets began to feel like pinpricks. She scrubbed at her hair, feeling the bumps and scabs on her scalp. The smell of the rinse was almost overpowering, a minty scent that made her nostrils burn and had an almost dizzying effect.

She watched the water run red with blood; watch it run murky with filth and grim.

 She let it wash off.

Let the water run clear.

Let herself stay underneath until the pressure was painful, until her skin felt raw.

She wished it could scrub away at her skin, scrub every part of her clean, wash all of herself away, let it run into the water, drain into the sewer, rid her of everything she was, start again empty.

 

Is Niklas okay?

 

She snapped to her senses again, taking one long inhale before twisting the dial to the left, worrying that Petra would become impatient and come to turn the water off herself.

Mina dried herself off, casting a glance at her tattered dress with an odd sense of longing, stomach churning as she pulled on the fresh clothes, ridding herself of the last pieces of home. The long cotton shirt swamped her. The dark slacks she had to roll up and pull the drawstring as tight as possible, but the feeling of the material covering all her limbs was a comfort.

She cleared her throat and Petra turned, taking in Mina’s shivering form, her sodden hair dripping puddles onto the floor, soaking her shirt, making her quiver underneath the lumps of clothes. The blue and purple hues of her bruises seemed brighter against her clean skin, the cuts and grazes now a fresh ruby red, the grey shadows under her big eyes now not mistakable for dirt.

 

“Okay.” Petra sighed. “Let’s go.”

 

 


 

 

“Ah they dropped off dinner for us!” Petra exclaimed as she pushed open the door to the small room.

 Mina stood awkwardly in the doorway.

“Perfect! Now you can just settle in for the night.”

Mina gazed around the small space, the cool stone walls and wooden flooring, pale blue light filtering in through the large window, the sun almost having set behind the horizon. It was sparse, two beds on either side of the walls, a small table in the middle of the room and a chair pushed up beneath the window. It smelt slightly sour but fresh, cleaner than any room she had ever slept in before.

Petra had explained that they would be sharing a room together; a temporary lodging during Mina’s training.

Mina quickly realized that in no moment would she ever be left by herself.

It was then Mina noticed the food on the small table, two trays adjacent to each other, a plate of greens, a bowl of something murky looking, and wedges of bread.

“We’re normally required to eat in the canteen during meal times so don’t get used to this.” Petra laughed breathily. “You can put your stuff down at the end of your bed; sorry there isn’t much storage space in here. It won’t be until all the other recruits arrive that we will have allocated rooms.”

Mina gingerly placed down her pile of folded clothes, her bottle and metal tin, all the belongings she now owned.

Petra had sat herself down on the floor, sitting crossed legged and throwing Mina a welcoming smile.

“I can’t imagine how hungry you must be!”

Mina joined her, awkwardly folding her legs underneath herself to sit across from the woman, who nodded towards Mina’s bowl.

“Remember what the doctor said. You need to be eating all your meals to put on that weight.”

Mina gingerly held the spoon, stirring round the dark liquid. The smell hit her, earthy and spicy and salty. She could feel the steam from the soup on her cheeks.

Her mouth watered instantly.

 

When was the last time I had a hot meal?

It smells incredible…

What if…there could be something in it…maybe I shouldn’t be so-

 

“Sorry it’s not much. I mean, there are a lot of potatoes in the soup so it’s very filling, but it’s not the most exciting thing to eat. The bread is fresh, take as much as you want.”

Mina glanced at Petra who had begun to delicately spoon the broth into her mouth.

Fresh bread?!

Mina looked at the crusty hunks, the butter thickly slathered across them.

 

Fresh, buttered bread?

 

“Here.” Petra’s hand hovered over Mina’s bowl, the thickest slice of bread held it in. “You need to eat up…it’s not going to be very nice if it gets too cold, okay?

 

 

 

 

 

Mina lay staring at the ceiling, hands resting on her stomach. All the lights were off but a pale glow filtered in from somewhere outside, the sky not black like she had imagined it to be at night, but navy.

Her fingers pressed into her stomach, feeling the bones of her ribs, feeling the almost uncomfortable fullness from her meal.

Mina couldn’t recall a time where she had gone to bed without pangs of hunger.

She wanted to stay awake.

She wanted to spend this time in her head to digest everything that had happened, to unravel all the messy pieces, to formulate something of a plan so that she didn’t feel so blind.

 

Niklas.

Please.

Please be okay.

What are we going to do…?

 

She glanced at Petra’s form, a bundle under thick blankets, her bed now moved at an angle so that it blocked the door.

 

Petra had thrown Mina a guilty smile as she had heaved it across the room earlier than evening.

 

Mina could hear her breathing softly.

She listened to the steady inhales and exhales as she felt herself sink deeper into her own bed, her eyelids heavy.

 

I should stay awake.

Who knows what will happen if I fall asleep…what they could do to me…

 

But something about sharing a room with a sleeping girl, who had done nothing but smile and reassure and offer her the thickest slices of bread….something about listening to her breathing, fallen into a deep sleep without a worry in the world…

 

She trusts me.

She trusts me to at least not try anything while she sleeps.

She’s not scared of me.

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

Mina didn’t remember falling asleep, nor her last thoughts before her eyes closed.

She woke with a headache, a dull throbbing in her temple and behind her eyes.

She shot up in bed, unable to prise her eyelids fully open with the early morning light streaming into the small room.

 

Shit.

 I actually fell asleep.

 

She blinked, pressing her fingers into her temple as if trying to smother the pain with the pressure. She let her eyes slowly adjust, familiarising herself with her surroundings.

Same bed.

Same room.

 

I’m okay.

 

“You’re awake!”

Mina turned sharply at the voice, brain still trying to shake off the last pieces of sleep as her body tensed, eyes fierce at the unfamiliar presence.

 

It’s Petra.

 

Mina softened her face, slumped her shoulders slightly as Petra took a step back, wide eyed.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you.” Petra laughed, a weary edge to the sound.

Mina blinked again, rubbing her temple, her forehead, fingers travelling down to press into her neck and shoulders.

It felt like she had a weight attached to her somewhere, dragging her limbs down.

“Are…are you okay?” Petra peered at her furrowed brow and occasional grimace.

Mina nodded, squeezing her eyes again against the bright morning sunlight.

“M’okay.” Mina spoke, so softly Petra wasn’t sure if she had imagined it at first.

“I probably let you sleep in too long, sorry about that. You just looked so comfortable and I didn’t want to wake you.”

Mina turned her head away from Petra’s smile, not used to having anyone see her in such a vulnerable state.

“We’re going to be late for breakfast now so we should probably get a move on. I’m sure Niklas will already be there.”

 

 


 

 

 

Mina obediently followed Petra down the stony corridors, glimpses of daylight bursting in through open arches and big windows, sounds of distant footsteps and muffled voices. Petra chattered as they walked, gesturing to different rooms they passed but didn’t enter.

Petra explained that the new recruits wouldn’t be expected until the start of spring, which gave Mina and Niklas around five months in which to train the basics. It was on the cusp of autumn, coming up to winter soon, in which a lull of activity was expected. Veterans were busy on small reconnaissance missions outside the walls, travelling to try and enlist new recruits, strategizing for new activity in the spring or visiting family…those who stayed simply trained and patrolled the perimeters.

Mina listened. The only indication of this for Petra was that every time she turned to glance at the smaller girl, she saw her eyes watching her, the usual silent expression.

On the inside, Mina felt like every bone was about to burst through her body at the thought of seeing Niklas, hardly believing they were both still alive.

 

 “Okay, here’s the canteen. Like I said, it would normally be a lot busier than this.”

Petra steered Mina into a bigger room, sunlight streaming in through the vast open windows in the grey walls, leaving golden shapes and fractures on the floor and warmth on Mina’s cheeks.

She looked up to see a huddle of figures that she recognized. Oluo, Eld, and Gunther were standing together with their arms crossed, all with varying degrees of annoyed expressions on their faces, staring at the man that had his back turned to Mina.

At the sound of approaching footsteps the man turned sharply and his angry expression quickly rearranged into that of relief.

 

“Mina.” Niklas breathed. “You’re alright.”

He walked briskly towards her, pulling her into a hug.

“If you would have just calmed down enough to listen, we told you that she had to come down from the far side of the castle.” Oluo said irately.

“They wouldn’t tell me if you were okay..,” Niklas breathed into her ear and Mina inhaled the strange scent…fresh, unfamiliar.

He pulled back, holding her shoulders firmly, blinking as he took in her face, clear in the daylight, now scrubbed of dirt and grime. He took in her sallowness, sickliness, the hollow of her cheekbones and shadows under her eyes, his expression sorrowful.

“How did I let you get like this?” He murmured softly, closing his eyes and shaking his head.

Mina stared at him, noticing his features for what also felt like the first time, the angles of his face that cut deep, the creases around his eyes, the same sallow skin. He looked older, suddenly aged overnight.

“I’m okay.” Mina spoke softly to him and he simply shook his head, pulling back slightly to look her over.

“Nice outfit.” He remarked and she saw that he was dressed in something similar, dark cotton slacks and long sleeved shirt. Her lip tugged up slightly as he grinned.

Mina hadn’t noticed Petra fussing around a table to their right until she returned to their side, a tray in her hand and smile on her face.

“Okay, breakfast first! Then training can begin!”

 

 


 

 

 

 “Okay !” Petra exclaimed, smiling at the two although her eyes shifted around nervously. “Let’s start shall we! “

Eld stepped forward with a bucket and placed it at their feet while Petra handed Mina a rag and Niklas a mop.

Mina accepted it, bemused, while Niklas simply folded his arms, eyeing the mop suspiciously.

“Is this a joke?” He snapped.

“No. Why would it be?” Petra retorted.

Niklas pointed at the mop. “You want us to clean?”

“Yep.”

“This is your idea of training us? Cleaning?”

“You’re not supposed to question our orders, cadet.” Eld remarked and Niklas rolled his eyes.

“Cadet? Oh come on! You’re going to call me cadet and in the same breath say that cleaning this kitchen is part of our training?”

Petra sighed. “Look, we all pull our weight around here; we all have various roles we need to switch out to keep the grounds in order. The Survey Corps doesn’t have the funds to be hiring civilians to cook and clean for us; we band together as a team and do the roles ourselves. Maintenance is as important as drills. If this place falls apart, so does the whole Survey Corps.” Petra said enthusiastically, puffing out her chest with pride.

Niklas screwed up his face.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” He asked.

“Hey! That’s no way to speak to a superior!” Oluo chimed in, moving to Petra’s side in defence.

“This is an order Niklas.  It’s no different to when we will order you to run laps or to charge into battle. You need to learn that every order deserves respect and compliance. Cleaning may seem beneath you but it builds bond between cadets, it installs disciple and regime.” Eld spoke with composure.

Niklas scoffed. “Yeah, I’m really sure mopping the floor is going to do all that. I can’t stand the way you talk around here…you sound just like that Erwin guy. Do me and Mina get the honour of being brainwashed as part of our training too?”

 

He turned to throw another sarcastic comment towards Mina but stopped abruptly, startled to find her disappeared from his side. He swung round to see her at a counter, wet rag in hand and scrubbing at the surface, ignoring the conversation.

“Mina!” He cried. “Oh, come on! Put up a bit of a fight with me, will ya?”

She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye but kept scrubbing.

“You’d be best to follow your sister…you’re pushing the line already and it’s only been five minutes since we got started.” Eld remarked.

“Mina! You not going to back me up here?” Niklas called to her incredulously.

“Cut it out Niklas.” She muttered in response, earning a muffled laugh from Oluo.

“Damn it.” Niklas muttered, snatching the mop out of Petra’s hands and shoving it roughly into the bucket before sloshing it over the floor.

“It needs to be cleaned properly otherwise you’ll be in here all day. You’re not done until we are satisfied.” Oluo commented, smiling gleefully at Niklas’s furious expression.

 “Just feed me to the titans already.” Niklas spat in response, working with a sulk on his face.

 

The pair continued to clean under the watchful eye of their superiors, Niklas mumbling obscenities under his breath every so often while Mina stayed quiet, seemingly absorbed in every chore. She would occasionally throw a glance to Petra after finishing a task and Petra in return would nod to another area or hand her another piece of cleaning equipment.

At one point, Oluo and Petra were summoned by another soldier and the two left, informing Eld, as well as Mina and Niklas, that they wouldn’t be long.

 

Mina was on the floor, scrubbing at a piece of blackened substance near the big open furnace. Niklas glanced at the solitary Eld and back again at Mina before moving closer to the blonde man.

“Can I go help her?” He asked Eld, indicating to Mina on the floor.

Eld pursed his lips.

“She’s been scrubbing away at that area for ten minutes now…I’m sure you want to be out of here just as much as we do.”

Eld sighed, giving Niklas a knowing stare. “Go ahead.”

Both men knew what he was really giving Niklas permission to do.

 

Niklas strode over to Mina, going to his knees and grabbing the sponge out of her hands, working away at the floor instead. He threw a glance over his shoulder, relieved to see Eld simply watching, not bothering to move and eavesdrop in on them.

Mina waited.

“What do you think?” Niklas said through slightly gritted teeth.

She blinked in response.

He sighed heavily. “This whole thing is so fucked up. Cleaning their damn kitchen? It’s like they’re toying with us.”

Mina furrowed her brow, unsure.

“No? You don’t think?”

“It’s just…a lot of effort to go to…just to mess with our heads.” She mumbled.

“It’s probably entertainment for them. Not got anything else to do but sit on their asses all day or offer their selves up to titans. They all need their heads checked.” He grumbled, scrubbing harder.

Mina thought of Petra’s warm smile.

“I guess we’ll just have to see.”

Niklas paused. “What? No. We need a plan. We need to get out of here.”

Mina shook her head. “No.”

“Huh? What do you mean no? Have they let you know more than me? Am i missing something here?”

“No.”

“Then we get out. We’ll find a way. Before they get bored of whatever this shit is.”

Mina rubbed the skin around her right thumb with her pointer finger, feeling the raw wound there, the slice of scabbed blood.

 She pressed on it.

“It’s not that I haven’t been trying to think of a plan…it’s just…we haven’t got a lot of options right now. They’re in control of everything. We have no advantages…”

“There’s always a way.” Niklas affirmed with dark eyes.

“We don’t know where we are. We don’t even know the lay out of this place. We’re outnumbered. Unequipped. They don’t need to keep us in chains when they have our names. One wrong move is all it will take. We have no other options at the moment then to do as they say.”

“No..this can’t be it…we’re not giving up.”

“We need to wait. Take each day as it comes. There is no possible way for us to get out of this now, knowing so little. This isn’t giving up.” Mina whispered, no urgency or fear in her voice, only acceptance.

“So we just follow every order blindly and play their shitty littlie game?”

“We wait and see.” Mina reiterated. “I’m not dying because we acted too rashly.”

“I’m not letting you die Mina, no matter what.”

She levelled her gaze at him. “Please then. Be patient. Until their intentions are clear.”

He was silent and she pressed at her thumb again.

“If you truly think there is any other way…you know I will follow you no matter what. If you really think we can get out of this alive right now Niklas, then tell me the plan.”

He held her eyes, looking unsure.

 She tried to keep a still face, tried to reassure him with a look.

“Okay.” He said finally, exhaling. “I don’t like it. Not one bit. But I trust you.”

She nodded.

“Hey!”

Oluo had entered the room, enraged to see Niklas and Mina sitting together while Eld watched dispassionately from the other side of the kitchen.

Petra followed, frowning slightly.

“Eld-” She began to say, before Oluo cut her off.

“They’re not supposed to be alone together!” He yelled, marching over. “Who knows what they’re talking about?! What they could be cooking up together!”

Niklas rose slowly, sponge in hand as he held up his arms in mock surrender.

“Yeah, I was telling Mina to take you out with the mop while I’ll grab the broom and make a run for it.” He rolled his eyes, stepping away from Mina with a smirk. “And it would have worked I’ll have you know.”

“Stop being so dramatic Oluo.” Eld muttered, crossing his arms over his chest. “They’re fine. They can’t possibly do anything.”

“Yeah, you tell that to the Commander when they make a break for it.” Oluo grumbled, watching as Niklas moved to clean a window with a wide grin on his face.

“Eld.” Petra mumbled, casting a glance at Mina who was back to scrubbing the floor. “You shouldn’t have left them out of earshot.”

Eld shrugged.

 “I figured we can’t expect trust from them until we start extending some of the same.”

 

 


 

 

Mina and Niklas were kept separated as they continued to clean for the rest of the morning, taken into various storage rooms as Petra affirmed she was sure Captain Levi would inspect them in the next few weeks, glaring at Oluo to not mess them up in the time being.

They met again at lunchtime; all five of them huddled together on one bench. Niklas stopped biting out comments as he devoured his meal, access to a large portion of warm breads, rice and potatoes not something he wanted to complain about. Mina enjoyed the warmth also, but her stomach still felt full from breakfast. She was only able to manage to scrape away half of the plate, earning an almost motherly scolding from Niklas.

She ignored him, fishing into her pocket to pull out her metal tin, remembering she hadn’t applied the soothing lotion to her hands since the early hours of the morning. She rubbed it in absentmindedly, feeling the grooves and raised lines in her fingers, the indents of bones.

“What the hell is that?” Niklas asked, earning a glance from the rest of the table.

Mina showed the tin. “For my hands.”

He chewed his food suspiciously. “What’s it supposed to do?”

She shrugged. “Stop them from looking like this.” She stretched her raw and red fingers and Niklas winced slightly.

“Mmmm.” He observed the men and woman opposite him, narrowed eyes. “And they just gave it to you?”

“The doctor prescribed it to her.” Petra interjected.

“You can’t expect us to pay for this shit later.” He pointed his fork at her and Petra narrowed her eyes.

“We’re not expecting you to.”

“All medicinal expenses are covered.” Eld said smoothly. “You’re no use to anyone if you’re sick or injured.”

Niklas was quiet, turning back to his meal as he stabbed at a piece of potato with his fork, his brow furrowed and lips downturned.

 

 

 


 

 

 

Mina wondered if Niklas could hear the drumming of her heart against her ribcage as they walked side by side, following the three soldiers out of the castle, into what Petra explained were the training grounds.

“No cleaning.” She had promised.

 

Mina faltered in her steps as they came to a clearing, the largest expanse of green she had ever seen. Clusters of trees dotted the perimeters, hues of almost emerald, the sky a brilliant clear blue. She could hear chirping in the distance, feel her skin bathed in heat while the breeze pulled up goose bumps underneath her shirt.

She hadn’t realised she had stopped completely, staring until the colours seemed to blur together.

She hadn’t seen the outside like this before, only ever seen busy town squares and built up estates.

Never the green.

 Never the blue.

 It was almost dizzying, overwhelming, her eyes struggling to adjust to the colour.

She was having troubling focusing, blinking frantically as colours and shapes turned into hazy blurs until they seemed to fade away at the edges, a vision clear and precise taking centre stage.

 

She focused on it…

…on something…

…on someone…

…two people, running around the field a few metres in front of her.

 

Mina watched, the older woman in a yellowed dress running with her arms outstretched, barefoot on the grass, long dark hair blowing behind her in the wind. A smaller boy run a few feet in front of her, also barefoot and grinning wildly, with fair curly hair, green eyed and dimpled.

“You can’t catch me!” He called, laughing boisterously.

The women, Mina’s mother, laughed back, speeding up just enough to engulf him in her arms, wrapping himself up in her hair as they landed on the grass softly, giggles and squeezes and kisses in the earth before they both looked up, locking eyes with Mina.

“Mina!” Max called, his smile wider than ever.

“Mina.” Her mother repeated, softer, outstretching an arm. “Come. Come join us.”

 

 

“Mina.”

She gasped, her stomach dropped, an ache in her chest, an anchor tugging at her heart, trying to drag it down, down, down. She blinked, her mother and brother disappearing as soon as they had appeared.

She realized her vision was now blurry from the glassiness of her tears.

“Mina.” The voice was softer and she turned, seeing Niklas move closed, face contorted with concern.

The three in front had stopped also, turning round to assess the problem.

 

It hurt.

 In every cell of her being it hurt.

 

But Mina couldn’t help but smile, her lips breaking open, a big toothy grin despite the wetness in her eyes.

“It’s pretty.” She breathed, voice shaking.

Niklas smiled, the saddest smile she had ever seen on his face.

 He stepped closer to bring his arm around her shoulder, squeezing her into him.

“Yeah.” He muttered, gazing out at the sky. “I guess you can say we made it…even if under strange circumstances.”

“Is everything okay?” Petra called out to them, watching with Eld and Oluo, confused, weary and surprised at Mina’s smile, the first they had ever seen on her, her whole face suddenly alight.

Niklas didn’t answer, turning his head towards Mina.

“Are you okay?” He asked her instead.

She nodded.

“I haven’t seen you smile like that in….well….i guess it’s been years.”

“I’m okay.” She assured him, her face settled again, her smile smaller, softer.

Niklas kept his arm around Mina as they continued walking, Petra and the others eying them with caution.

A flash of colour caught Mina’s eye and she stopped again, bending down quickly to look.

A small cluster of flowers, petals stained pale blue and white stuck up from the earth, fluttering in the breeze.

Mina stared for a few seconds before going to pick them, stopping only to look at Petra, who was watching her closely.

“Can I?” Mina asked.

“Uh…yeah sure…go ahead.”

Mina picked a handful carefully, holding them in her hand gingerly, looking at the petals that lay across the scared surfaces of her palms.

“I really like flowers.” Mina said.

“Oh. Okay.” Petra tilted her head. “Uh, pass them here. You’ve got nowhere to put them.” Petra moved forward, taking the flowers gently and reaching into a pocket of her jacket, placing them in cautiously. “I’ll give them back after practice?”

Mina smiled again, nodding. “Thanks.”

Petra blinked, taken aback once more by the smile and the softness of Mina’s face, how she suddenly looked years younger.

This girl... Petra suddenly thought. What on earth has she been through?

“No problem. We better hurry up. Miche is waiting.”

 

 

 

“Mina, Niklas, I know you’ve briefly met but there was no formal introduction. This is Miche Zacharius, Scout Regime Section Commander.” Petra announced proudly.

Miche stood firm with his hands clasped behind his back. He didn’t speak, simply nodded at the two.

Niklas sighed heavily at the familiar man.

“Miche is one of our strongest soldiers, second to Captain Levi. Having him assist in training will be an incredible opportunity for you two.” Eld offered.

Mina watched as Miche tilted his head up, sniffing the air.

Her eyebrows crinkled.

“Ignore that.” Petra stated.

“You two ready?” Miche asked gruffly, eyeing Mina and Niklas, curiously taking in Minas chosen attire.

“Do we have a choice?” Niklas asked.

“Not the right attitude.” Miche mumbled before turning abruptly. “You see that tree with the red flag?” He pointed and Mina and Niklas both had to squint off into the distance.

A lone tree stood far on the horizon, a flash of red against the trunk.

“And that one there with the yellow?” He pointed to the left, so far out again that Mina and Niklas could only just make out the splash of yellow. “You run to the red, then to the yellow, and then back here. As many times as possible.”

“Huh?” Niklas asked.

“I want to see how many laps you can complete.”

“You want us to run around in circles? What sort of training is this?” Niklas asked, throwing his arms up in the air.

“It’s a stamina test. You need good endurance for every facet of being a solider. This is one example of that. Of course being able to run fast is useful, but being able to sustain and push past your limits, especially when your life is in danger, is what counts. If your body can do that, it will ultimately be the difference between life and death.”

Mina frowned at his words, an uncomfortable familiarity within them.  

 

“I know your fast kid and you scale these walls like a damn animal, but you’re not always gonna get away. You need to go for the kill. Their life or yours. Their death or yours.”

She blinked fiercely, pushing Kenny’s words out of her head.

 

“Start here.” Miche gestured to the space in front of him. “And just keep going. I don’t want to see you talking to each other either; you need to conserve your energy.”

He stared at them fiercely but Mina felt something in his stare was different, different to the way Erwin had looked at them, different to how Eld watched or Oluo glowered or Petra gazed.

“Ready?” He asked again, his eyes focusing on Mina.

She nodded, moving in front of him, followed reluctantly by Niklas who was muttering again.

Eld chuckled.

“Go whenever you want. It’s not a race.” He stated, folding his arms over his chest.

Mina hesitated, glancing at Niklas who shrugged, taking off towards the tree. She followed and for a while they kept pace, running side by side.

Niklas tried to initiate conversation a few times but Mina only shook her head. They reached the first tree together, both following a steady pace.

“Wanna make a run for it?” He asked, grinning. “Really show them how fast we are?”

Mina knew he was joking but she wanted to concentrate, focusing on her heartbeat, her breathing, trying to set a rhythm.

“You should stop talking.” She said instead. “It will slow you down.”

He scoffed. “Slow me down? Yeah, right.”

He sped up, charging his legs forward harder and faster, pulling ahead of Mina so that he reached the yellow tree while she was still only halfway towards it.

She didn’t care, concentrating instead on the rhythm she willed her body to fall into.

She completed her first lap, jogging up towards Miche who stood firmly still.

“You can go faster.” He said as he watched her approach.

She threw him a confused look.

“You’re holding back.”

 

Because my life isn’t in danger right now.

 

Miche held her eyes as she passed him.

 

You can go faster.

 

Mina decided to do just that.

 

Mina speed up, the warm breeze and crunching of earth under her feet an alien surface to run on, thinking about the usual clunk of boots on cobbled stone. It started to burn, a familiar feeling, a heat in her thighs, a pain under her soles and tightness in her chest. She was used to it, able to push through it, until it all became a background noise.

Still I’m holding back…I guess when there’s no real danger…

She wasn’t used to running without adrenaline.

 

Niklas had faltered, clearly spent after expending all of his energy at the start. His pace had slowed considerably and Mina passed him with ease, not even sparing him a glance yet she heard his frustrated groan.

He tried to pick it up again and managed to pull ahead of her, beating her to the yellow tree and trying to gain some more ground.

But it was too much. Mina watched as his legs shook, holding out just enough to pass Miche before he came to a shaking stop, hunched over, hands on knees, back moving erratically as he tried to catch his breath. She could hear him retching even from a distance.

Mina slowed, watching him with slight concern.

 

Should I stop with him? Why am I still running? Still trying? Have I ever run without a destination, without someone on my tail?

 

Miche caught her eye, shaking his head as he saw her body slow. “You can keep going.”

She blinked, readjusting the falter in her body.

Something in his tone, not an order or an insistence…it was warm, encouraging.

She nodded before pushing ahead once more.

 

Mina lost count of how many more laps she completed. She slowed her pace to go for the long-haul but continued to push, push past the familiar aches and pain until it became meditative, running with no worry or no fear.

 

Red tree.

Yellow Tree.

Miche.

And again.

 

 

Her body knew how to endure survival.

“Mina.” Miche called as she came to pass them again. “I know I told you to keep going but I’m revising that plan. We have other training to get through, take a break.”

She glanced, only slowing slightly, wandering.

He could read the expression clearly.

“Not a test.” He said, shaking his head. “I just underestimated you.”

She slowed to a soft halt, letting her body settle into the burn, breathing big, controlled, to regulate her heart and her lungs.

She averted her eyes from the stares.

 “I never expected you to keep going that long. You’re fast. Your endurance is excellent.” Miche nodded, a pleased expression on his face. “Very well done. I’m impressed.”

Mian glanced at Niklas, who sat sprawled out on the ground, glancing at Miche suspiciously before throwing Mina a smile.

“I went easy on ya.”

“Catch.” Petra called suddenly, tossing Mina something small and round. Her hands went up instinctively to grab it, only realising it was an apple when she peered into her palms.

“Fuel up for round 2.”

 


 

 

Oluo landed on the ground with a groan, Niklas sat on top with a satisfied smirk on his face. Mina had watched the fight intensely. The brute force, wild movements and constant assault was the technique Niklas used for all of his brawls, earning him a solid reputation in the Underground fighting scene.

“I win, right?” Niklas grinned at Miche, who shrugged.

“I suppose. You’re a terrible fighter though.”

“Huh? How you gonna say that when I won?” His knee dug into Oluo’s side in annoyance.

“You’re extremely sloppy. You’re very strong, yes, but you rely solely on that. You have no defensive techniques what so ever. If he had gotten one punch in, you would have been done for.”

“But he didn’t.” Niklas was frowning deeply, standing up off Oluo who rose quickly, brushing of his uniform and clicking his teeth.

“Pure luck.” Miche shrugged. “It really could have gone either way.”

“Ridiculous.” Niklas muttered, shaking his head.

“Mina, you’re up!” Petra chirped.

Mina stood wearily.

 

This is new.

I’ve never had to fight like this.

How can I fight when I’m not really defending myself?

I don’t know how to do this…

 

“Hold on.” Miche held up his hand. “Oluo, swap out with Eld.”

The men frowned.

“Why?”

“I thought I wasn’t participating in combat until next week?” Eld queried.

“I know. But she was watching you like a hawk.” Miche said to Eld. “She already observed too much from that one fight. Let’s make it fair.”

Mina stared at Miche, unaware he had been watching her and seen how Mina had spent most of the time absorbed by Oluo’s movements, trying to etch his techniques into her brain.

Oluo went to join Petra as Eld stood.

Niklas scoffed under his breath, patting Mina on the shoulder as he passed.

“Give em hell yeah?” He grinned at her and she gave him an indifferent look, struggling to find the humour in the situation.

 

 

The pair faced off, Mina making the first move when Eld had hesitated for too long, clearly unsure how to approach when he knew nothing about her.

She had caught him off guard enough times to land a few blows. Others he blocked with ease. She felt awkward, her body hesitating too much.

I can’t fight like this.

She left her right side exposed, to which Eld quickly delivered a swift kick, lunging over her so that he could grab her hair. She reared back, going forward with a head butt, a punch with her right hand, a left hook, a kick of her own, creating space to fall back slightly and analyse.

 

His left side is his dominant.

He likes to wait for me to make the moves.

 

So she waited, waited for him to come closer, protecting her torso as he lunged for it, spinning on her heel so he was caught off balance. She landed another blew.

It lasted for a few minutes, Mina waiting for the perfect opportunities, catching him off guard enough times for him to falter, making him move to her so that she could spin and dodge. She wore him out enough so that the next time he moved, she took her chance.

She watched his left fist come towards her, blocking it, gripping it and using it as leverage to spin, dealing a hard blow to the right side of his face. She followed with a knee to his stomach and a kick to his legs, hard enough to have them fold under. She moved quickly again, grabbing his right arm, which he had swung up desperately to hit her, and yanking it hard as she ducked behind him, pressing her foot into the centre of his back. She pressed down hard so that he hunched over, her hold on his right arm tightening to yank it behind his back, under her foot.

He let out a yelp of pain.

She waited, whole body tensed for a struggle, breathing hard, hair sticking to her damp forehead.

She looked up to see Petra and Oluo staring wide eyed.

Niklas was grinning.

Miche watched silently.

 

“Miche, she’ll break his arm.” Petra said hurriedly, eyes glancing frantically between the two.

Niklas laughed. “Yeah, that’s the whole point.”

Mina waited, unsure, tugging Eld’s arm again to receive another groan. She glanced at Miche, who continued to look at her, a slight tilt of an eyebrow.

 

Is that what he’s waiting for?

Does he want me to break his arm?

Surely not?

 

“Am I…am I done?” she asked, unsure.

“I don’t know.” Miche answered coolly.  “Are you?”

“Miche! You want her to break it?!” Petra exclaimed.

“I want her to do what she thinks will mean the fight is over.”

She blinked, hand tightening slightly, unsure.

 

I want to win.

 

A foreign feeling.

A sick feeling.

 

Winning before had been about surviving…

This is about my ego.

 

She released him abruptly and Eld slumped to the floor with a groan, moving his arm in front of him to cradle it while rolling his shoulder out for a few seconds. He rose slowly to look at her, nodding slightly.

“Well done.” His voice was gruff but sincere.

 He held out his left hand, still rolling around his right arm.

Mina stared, not moving.

“Fight’s over.” He assured her and Mina moved timidly, like a scared animal, outstretching her hand and placing it in Eld’s.

He shook it firmly, offering her a smile before turning to joining Petra and Oluo.

“Who taught you to fight like that?” Oluo asked, no malice in his tone, just curiosity.

Mina pursed her lips.

“I was wondering too.” Miche commented, standing to fold his arms over his chest.

Mina’s heart thudded.

 

Did I do something wrong?

Was that a dirty move?

Were they waiting for me to slip up… just like that?

 

 “You think we could have just gotten by without learning how to fight?” Niklas asked, suddenly coming Mina’s side.

She quickly realised he was also unsure how to read their questions.

 “We…She had to learn all she could…otherwise she would have been killed…” He glanced at her quickly, barely taking in the scars on her face. “Or worse.”

“Your grasp on hand to hand combat is fantastic.” Miche commented.

“We picked up things from all over. “Niklas spoke hurriedly but shrugged as if it was no big deal. “We see other people fight and learn from them. We learn from our own fights and our own mistakes. From time to time we’ve had people take pity on us and teach us a thing or two. It builds up over the years.”

“Do you always have to answer for her?” Petra asked, irritated.

“Maybe because I know she doesn’t like to talk about this shit huh, ever thought about that?”

“Yet your techniques are different.” Miche ignored his outburst.

Niklas shrugged again. “I learnt how to fight for money. It didn’t matter what I did, I knew I was strong and could win about any fight with any scumbag they threw at me. I didn’t need to learn more. Mina…well, being a girl in the underground is basically a death sentence in itself…she hasn’t got the strength so she needed to learn how to fight smarter…even dirty if needs be. Like I said, she’d be dead if not.” He shot Miche another accusatory look.

“I never said there was anything wrong with it.” Miche replied, unfazed. “Niklas, I would suggest working on your tone and to have a think tonight about how you should speak to your superiors from now on. As it’s your first day, I will overlook it just this once.”

He turned to Petra and Oluo.

 “I think that’s enough for this afternoon. We’ll pick up again tomorrow morning.”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Unfortunately for Mina, her second day of training hadn’t fared as well for her as the first day had.

Out on the training field, Miche had called Mina over to practice some more hand to hand combat, this time requesting she tried her luck at getting the better of him.

Mina hadn’t questioned the order, but as she watched the tall man shrug off his uniform jacket and square his shoulders, she had involuntarily taken a step backwards.

Niklas protested as soon as he saw Miche begin to square up to her, his form dwarfing Mina’s to the point that it was almost comical.

“He won’t hurt her.” Petra had hissed a whisper at Niklas, stepping in front of him as she caught him approaching the pair. “He knows how to control a fight for exactly this purpose.”

“I assumed you would have more faith in your sister.” Oluo had quipped.

Niklas bit back a glare.

 

 

 

The fight hadn’t lasted long.

Miche barely gave Mina room to think before he was lunging at her, allowing her only a fraction of a second to spin on her heel and dodge out of his grip.

He was relentless, only ever pulling back to approach from a different angle, trying to make contact with every swing. Mina tried to watch his movements, the way his shoulders would angle, which foot would step forwards first, trying to figure out his tells in order to block his attacks. But he was landing more blows than she could defend, always making sure to keep the hits away from her face and softening the force as he swung.

It hurt.

But Mina could tell he was trying not to inflict any real damage.

 

Mina resorted to pulling back, simply trying to keep out of his way, use her size and speed to duck, turn, spin, and sometimes stumble out of his grasp.

 

There is no way any of my attacks can work.

But…

…If I can wear him down…tire him out like this…

 

She managed to land a few blows, but her form was shaky and nothing hit with any serious impact. Her energy was being expended on defence and avoidant movements.

He wasn’t tiring as quickly as Mina had hoped, and as she lunged again to throw a blow to his stomach, he had grabbed her shoulders, spinning her around and yanking both arms behind her back. He clasped her wrists together and forced her to the ground, pressing her onto her stomach and trapping her legs with his own.

She winced at the tension in her shoulders, trying to lift her head up only for him to apply more pressure.

She succumbed to the dry earth, dirt rough against her left cheek.

 

But he was being careful, having manoeuvred her body slower than he needed to in order to soften the blow when she landed on the floor. He was careful to balance his weight on his knees so that it wasn’t falling against her, grip firm but deliberately not applying more pressure than necessary.

She waited, an odd feeling of shame and embarrassment creeping up on her when she realized just how easy it had been for him to pin her down.

“Okay.” She felt his weight disappear from her, the grip on her hands releasing and she exhaled as her shoulders loosened.

She pulled herself up, not seeing his outstretched hand to help her as she rose to her feet by herself, gaze on the ground.

Miche noticed the aversion.

“That wasn’t too bad. You got in a good few hits. I appreciate that you tried to focus on defending yourself…I can see what you’re trying to do and you’ve got the right idea.”

Mina nodded, hand coming up to rub at the twinge in her left shoulder.

Miche watched the movement.

“Did I hurt you?”

“I’m fine.” She muttered quickly.

 

I’ve had a lot worse.

 

Miche nodded, gesturing for her to take a seat before raising a hand and beckoning to Niklas.

“You’re up next.”

Mina almost smiled at Niklas’s almost audible gulp.

 

 

 

 

Niklas didn’t manage to last any longer than Mina. He ended up in the exact same position as her, face pressed into the earth, hands behind his back as Miche lowered his weight to stop him from kicking out, keeping him paralysed.

Mina watched Niklas’s face screw up in frustration, huffing and puffing as he tried to crank his head around.

“Alright! I’m done, you win.” He grumbled.

Miche showed no signs of moving.

“Hey! I said you win! Get the hell off of me you giant son of a bitch!” Niklas yelled, trying to jerk his head back.

Miche raised an eyebrow and Mina watched as he leant forward, distributing his body weight so that his knee dug into the back of Niklas’s thigh, his grip around Niklas’s wrists tightening to pull his arms back further.

“Shit! Fuck!” Niklas cried, his face contorted in pain, upper back pulled off the ground while Miche dug harder into his legs. “Shit, I’m sorry, I’m sorry! Cut it out!”

Miche let go abruptly and Niklas’s body dropped to the ground as he groaned, trying to stifle the sound into the mud.

Miche moved to stand up again, expressionless as he watched Niklas’ haul himself off of the ground, swaying on his feet slightly as he tried to straighten.

“Well.” Niklas muttered, shooting Miche a dark look. “There goes Erwin’s little speech about abuse of power.”

“I think most other soldiers would do a lot worse if one of their subordinates called them a ‘giant son of a bitch’, don’t you?” Miche countered. “And you should not be referring to the Commander by his first name.”

Niklas clicked his teeth, turning to approach Mina and mumbling to her under his breath.

“What a fucking freak. I bet him and the titans get along just swell…probably have the same view of us all from up there.”

His murmuring wasn’t as quiet as he had hoped.

“Niklas.”

Even Mina winced at the sharp tone.

Niklas stopped and rolled his eyes before turning back to Miche, holding his palms up. “Just a joke man.”

“Ten laps round the field. Go.”

Niklas didn’t even flinch. “For a joke? Lighten up, would ya?”

“That’s an order Niklas.”

Niklas smiled. “I respectfully decline.”

“Twenty laps. Now, Cadet.”

Niklas’s smile turned into a sneer. “You can go fu-”

He stopped as he felt a hand on his arm, turning his head to see Mina staring up at him, eyes saying enough.

 

Stop making this so hard on yourself.

Play along.

 

He inhaled deeply, a vein pulsating in his neck and anger rolling off of him, palpable in a way that made Mina quickly withdraw her hand.

He didn’t look at her again as he took off, starting up a light jog, passing  Miche without a glance.

“Pick up the pace. No stopping. No cutting corners. I’m watching.” Miche had called after him.

Mina watched as he quickened, running off into the distance. She could hear him start to shout, too far away for the words to be coherent but she was sure she could hear Miche’s name thrown in between the cries.

 

She tried not to grimace as she imagined the obscenities that Niklas was punctuating the name with.

 

“Doesn’t like being told what to do very much, does he?” Oluo asked, him and Petra having watched the exchange silently as they warmed up.

Mina shrugged.

“Has he ever had anyone telling him what to do?

Mina didn’t answer.

“What about you?”

Mina looked up.

Oluo was peering at her.

“He seems to enjoy bossing you around and you don’t ever question it. What’s that all about?”

“Oluo.” Petra softly scolded, tugging at his sleeve in warning.

 

 

 

Mina’s finger traced at the indentations on the handle of the knife, finding her solid hold on it, centring the weight.

She angled her body, a leg forward, knees bent slightly, drawing her shoulders away from her ears, just like he had told her to do. She reached her arm back, keeping it taut, before propelling the knife forward with a laboured grunt.

The blade sunk into the soft wood, landing at a slight angle but hitting the centre of the crudely painted circle.

“Bulls-eye!” Kenny said with a wide grin on his face. “Good girl.”

He reached to yank the knife out before crossing the distance to meet Mina again, handing her the weapon once more, a glint in his eyes.

“Again.”

Mina took the knife but shifted hesitantly, biting her lip and lowering her gaze.

“I think I should go now…Niklas might start wondering where I am….”

Kenny scoffed. “Keeping secrets from Nickey again, are ya?”

Mina’s teeth dug deeper into her lip.

“It ain’t any of his business anyway.” Kenny muttered, settling Mina with a hard look. “You oughta stop letting that kid boss you around.”

“He doesn’t.” Mina mumbled back, shifting from foot to foot. “He just… my mama is still sick and Niklas helps look after me, is all.”

Kenny ignored her. “Stop letting him tell you what to do. He ain’t your Daddy. Hell, don’t listen to him either. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you what to do. That ain’t how it should be.”

Mina picked at a piece of skin around her nail.

It was quiet as she considered his words.

“But…you always tell me what to do.” She said finally, averting her eyes, worried about his reaction.

Kenny looked at her for a few seconds before letting out a laugh. “Hah! You got me there! Well, of course I do…but I’m different, see?”

Mina furrowed her eyebrows.

“Niklas can’t look after you the way I can. He can’t teach you the things I can. I’m the one that’s gonna keep you alive kid, not Niklas, not anyone else in this place. You wanna stay alive, don’t ya?”

Mina nodded.

“And you wanna know how to protect your Mommy? Your lil’ brother?” He peered down at her.

She nodded again, more enthusiastically.

“That’s settled then.” He clapped his hands, straightening up suddenly.

“Now…do as you’re told. Go again.”

 

 

 

 

Mina pulled herself out of the hazy memory, looking up to see that Petra had dragged Oluo  off to finish up their exercises, knowing when to give Mina some space.

She felt eyes on her still and turned her head slightly to see Miche, watching her intently, as if still waiting for an answer to Oluo’s question.

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

Strength training in the afternoon had gone disastrously.       

 

“I’m not going to get a fully accurate reading of your strength in one afternoon but we’ll start with some basics.” Miche said, crossing his arms over his chest. “Let’s start with push ups. Let’s see how many you can do.”

Niklas grinned, dropping down to the ground without hesitation and Mina stared, taken aback by his sudden compliance.

 

Ah. She realized as Niklas effortlessly started a set of push ups, barely breaking a sweat.

 

Niklas knows when he is good at something…and when he is …he likes an audience.

 

Miche nodded at him before turning his gaze towards Mina expectantly.

She hesitantly lowered herself onto the ground, arms already starting to shake as she set herself up into position.

She tried to copy Niklas’s form but her whole body started to quiver, bending her elbows only an inch before they gave out and she fell face first into the ground.

She heard Niklas laugh from beside her.

“Try on your knees.” Petra suggested, coming to her side to demonstrate.

Mina copied the woman, bending her elbows again, only to collapse no more than two seconds in.

“Hey, we can’t all be good at everything.” Niklas called to her, setting himself up into another round while Mina tried her best to ignore him.

“Try holding a plank.” Miche offered and Mina looked at him, puzzled.

“Like this.” Petra demonstrated for her again and Mina tried to copy the position.

Her arms felt limp, the shakes and burn in her back, torso and thighs not something Mina had ever been accustomed to.

It was a different type of strength than what was required from running, a different expectation on her body than when she would heave and tug herself up bricks and wood.

Again, Mina’s arms buckled after a few seconds and she grunted into the dirt.

She hauled herself up, throwing Miche an almost apologetic look while he simply shook his head.

“We’ll work on it.”

 

 

 

Niklas had excelled through the afternoon, fatigued, but not without having completed every exercise Miche presented in the circuit, exceeding every rep number, lifting every weight up and above his head.

 

Mina couldn’t even move the lightest weights an inch off of the ground.

 

By the end of the afternoon, her face was covered in dirt from the sheer amount of times her body had collapsed into the earth.

 

“We have somewhere to work from now.” Miche had said, picking up on Mina’s creased forehead and bitten lip. “We all have our weaknesses. Now we know what they are, we know where to start.”

 

But if I can’t get stronger…

…If they can’t find any use for me…

 

“My first day of training I puked in front of our instructor, I found it so hard.” Petra whispered to Mina, offering her a sympathetic smile. “You’ll be okay. You didn’t give up. Not once. You tried to do everything. That’s what matters.”

“Niklas.” Miche addressed him and Niklas’s head shot up at the warmth in his tone. “Good job today.”

Niklas frowned, averting his eyes. “Huh? Yeah, well…it’s not like I really have to try at this sort of stuff.”

“You have the single worst attitude I have ever come across, you know that?” Oluo jibed, folding his arms across his chest.

“Oh jeez, I’m sorryyyyyy.” Niklas dragged out the words. “I’m so terribly sorry it’s not coming across to you all how grateful I am…really, I am so grateful for this opportunity. It’s what I’ve always dreamt of. When I was a young boy, I always said to myself…one day Niklas, you’ll end up in a titan’s stomach. Yeah. That’s the dream.”

“Niklas.” Miche warned.

“You can all sit up on your high horses all you want, acting all morally superior and shit. But don’t forget…you forced us to do this…blackmailed us…you played just as dirty…and you’ll be the ones to have blood on your hands.”

Mina stepped forward to stop Niklas, catching the familiar pulsation in his neck and trembling of his hands.

 

A sharp pain stopped her, a red hot flash behind her eyes that pierced through her skull.

 

She hissed, halting suddenly, clutching a hand to her forehead where the pain had settled, drumming at the bone.

“Mina?” Petra hurried to her side, only for Niklas to reach her first.

“What’s wrong?” He asked, panic in his tone, knowing Mina was always one to conceal her pain.

He grabbed her shoulders, trying to straighten out her hunched back, examining the way her eyes had screwed shut, palm pressed into her forehead, fingers gripping at the roots of her hair.

“Mina?” He said again, voice rising higher.

“Just give me a second.” She muttered, trying to push herself away only for Niklas to pull her closer, holding her unsteady weight.

She waited, teeth clenched as the thumping in her head began to ebb away slowly, shifting into a dull ache rather than the searing burn it had sprung up as.

“Here.” Miche had come closer, offering her a drink of water from his canteen.

She took it gingerly, fingers trembling still and Niklas searched her face restlessly as she took three big gulps.

“I’m okay.” She tried to reassure them all, moving her hand away from her head and steadying herself on her feet.

Miche was watching carefully while Petra frowned.

“It’s a warm day.” Miche said finally, taking back his canteen. “You should be drinking more.”

“It might be the concussion.” Petra offered, sighing deeply. “I’ll get some medicine from the doctor before dinner tonight.”

“Concussion?” Niklas asked, eyes narrowed on Petra before turning to Mina. “What concussion?”

Mina moved her gaze to a patch of grass.

“Mina?” He pressed again, holding her shoulder. “What concussion?”

“It’s nothing.” Mina shrugged. “When I was trying to get away…”

“The doctor said she might experience some headaches for a while and they could be quite painful. Don’t worry, she has medication to help alleviate the pain.”

Niklas continued to stare at Mina.  “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“It’s not a big deal.”

“You should have told me. Mina…you know that.” His voice was almost urgent and Mina pulled away as his grip on her shoulder tightened.

“I’m fine.”

“Let’s take a break.” Miche interjected, glancing between the two. “I think we all need it.”

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

Mina’s body ached in ways she had never felt before.

Days had passed and Miche had prioritised strength training at the forefront of Mina’s schedule. She found herself spending the afternoons in the mud, attempting sit ups or push ups, while Niklas ran laps around the field, his complaints filtering in and out as he passed the pair.

Mina was used to strains in her shins, burns in her calves, tender forearms and throbbing hands. She wasn’t prepared for the aches in her thighs and hips, the throbbing in her stomach, the soreness in her shoulders and upper back.

She was physically exhausted, despite the fuller plates that were served to her at meal times, despite her sleeping through the night as soon as her head hit the pillow.

Mentally, she felt similar aches and pains. Her brain felt like a giant bruise, burnt out from the constant probing of every query, every glance, every remark or tilt of the head thrown her or Niklas’s way.

Mina couldn’t stop questioning every little thing.

 

 

She sat at the end of her bed, right hand kneading a pain in her right thigh, trying to soothe away the ache.

She stared at the windowsill, looking at the flowers she had placed along it, lips turning down slightly at the wrinkled petals, tinged brown.

The blue was starting to fade.

It had reminded her of a dress her mother had worn, a periwinkle shade that swished around her ankles.

Mina’s hands came up to her hair, absentmindedly feeling the thin braid there, running her fingertips along the cool beads from her mother’s necklace.

 

She looked so pretty.

 

“We can pick some more.” Petra’s chirpy voice broke Mina out of her daze. “Before it starts to get colder. I can find something heavy to press them with. That way, they will last forever.”

 

Forever?

 

Mina recalled how after her mother had died, her father had burnt all of her clothes…even her favorite blue dress.

 

 


 

 

 

“How are your headaches?” Niklas watched Mina from across the table as she distractedly chewed her food.

The two were on a bench alone, the rest of the soldiers deciding to give them their space at mealtimes, but still seated only a few tables over, glancing at them every minute or so.

“S’okay. The medicine is helping.”

Niklas nodded, spearing another piece of potato into his mouth and watching as Mina pushed her own food around her plate.

“You need to eat more.” He said.

“They give me too much.”

“But you need it.” He looked at her again, studying her features carefully. “But I guess...I can see it already.”

She threw him a quizzical look.

“You’re putting weight on. I can see it in your face.”

Mina shrugged. “I can’t tell.”

Niklas was quiet for a few moments before releasing a deep sigh. “Figures, huh? They’re looking after you better than I could all these years. It really is some sort of sick joke.”

His put down his fork, fingers coming up to rub at his forehead before tugging at the ends of his hair.

“Three meals a day. Warm beds. Actual fucking medicine. We’ve never had it this good, huh?” He shook his head. “But at what cost? What are we going to have to sacrifice for all of this?”

His voice trailed off into a mumble as he stared over Mina’s shoulder, gazing out of the window, watching the puffy clouds drag across the sky.

Mina stared at her plate, unable to eat anymore.

“It shouldn’t have been this way.” He spoke again after a few minutes of silence, the distant look in his eyes ebbing away into something else, an expression of resolve. “But it still doesn’t have to be, right?”

He looked at Mina.

“We’re not giving up.”

She swallowed.

She nodded.

“No. We never give up.” She affirmed to him.

He smiled at her answer, picking up his fork again to continue eating.

“So, it looks like they’re serious about this whole cadet thing after all.” He waved his fork around in the air, chewing thoughtfully, keeping his voice low. “They’ve gone to too much trouble at this point for it to be a cover for something else.”

Mina nodded in agreement.

“So…we’re still playing the long-haul it seems. We’ve gotta get through all this training shit and wait till we’re the real deal, when our probation is over. By then, they’ll have the new recruits in, right? Which means they won’t be sitting on their asses with nothing to do but babysit us. Hopefully, they’ll stop giving a shit about us when this place is full up.” He gestured around the canteen with his fork.

“They’ll trust us.” He levelled Mina with a stare. “When we’re cadets, when we’ve seen it through to the end, when to them, we’re just like all the other brainwashed morons in this place…that’s when we’re gonna get out, okay?”

Mina pursed her lips, thinking.

 

What are our chances?

 

“Obviously I’m not clear on the details yet. But it’s the next step at least. We’re heading towards something.” His eyes were determined. “It’s our best shot.”

Mina nodded.

 

Something tells me…it’s not going to be that simple.

 

“Man, these potatoes are good.” He chewed enthusiastically, spearing at his food with vigour. “I can’t believe those guys always complain about the food.” He jerked his head towards their superiors. “Ungrateful bastards, am I right?” He nodded to himself again. “Yeah. We don’t owe them shit.”

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

It was time for ODM gear training.

 

Miche and Eld had taken Niklas and Mina to a storage room to supply them with the gear, demonstrating how to buckle the straps around their torso and limbs

Mina watched, bemused, as Eld showed them how to secure the straps round their feet.

Niklas was able to secure the harness to himself quickly, working the straps around his stomach and hips and buckling them into place under Miche’s instructions.

Mina managed to pull half the harness over her shoulder before stopping in confusion, staring lamely at Niklas and watching as he finished up with a grin on his face. His grin dropped when he saw Mina.

“What are you doing?” He tilted his head as he watched her try to wiggle the rest of herself into the harness, only managing to get her arm caught and tangled in the strap.

“I don’t get it.” She muttered, trying to hide the flush of her cheeks under her hair as Niklas laughed.

“It takes some getting used to.”Miche said, stepping forward to help Mina, his hands grasping the belt round her shoulder to pull it forward, knuckles brushing over the exposed skin of her neck, making contact with the coarse scars there.

She flinched back and his hands dropped.

“I’ll do it.” Niklas grumbled, refraining from shouldering Miche out of the way as he pushed passed him, lips pursed as he adjusted the straps around her, quietly instructing her to lift her arms.

She pretended not to see his eyes glance to her neck, just for a second, before pulling them away.

 

 

Even Niklas grew confused as Eld and Miche helped attached the rest of the mechanisms, heavy cylinders and boxes and holsters resting awkwardly at their hips, lower back, and sides. Mina’s head span as Eld spoke while he tinkered with the equipment, talking about compressed gas, iron wire, grapple cables, hooks and turbines.

“You getting any of this?” Niklas muttered to Mina, who shook her head, her expression muddled.

“These.” Eld gestured to the two cumbersome boxes positioned at the side of the thighs. “Are where the blades are normally stored. We’ll get to that another time.”

Mina shifted her weight from foot to foot, experimenting with the feeling of the gear. It felt difficult and as she tried to walk, her movements appeared slow and clumsy.

“Like I said.” Miche remarked, watching her weary steps and sways. “It takes some getting used to.”

 

 

 


 

 

 

Mina and Niklas followed Eld further out across the training field, further thn they had ever been allowed to go, approaching a line of trees that they usually only saw from a distance.

Mina watched as a figure came into view.

A woman, standing with her hands on her hips, suited up in ODM gear.

“Huh.” Niklas said under his breath as they came to step a few feet away from her.

Mina stared at the woman, a few years older than her, not much taller, her blonde hair cropped short. Her eyes were sharp and reminded Mina of a cat. There was a crooked grin on her face as she barely glanced at Niklas, settling her light eyes on Mina’s small form.

“There she is!” The woman called, her voice surprisingly deep, a gruff edge to it.  “Heard a lot about you.”

“This is Nanaba.” Eld introduced her. “She’s one of the members of Miche’s squad. She’ll be your primary instructor when it comes to ODM gear.”

“You’re our teacher?”Niklas asked, incredulous as he grinned, eyes wandering over her body.

Eld threw him a sharp look.

“Aren’t you guys lucky?” Nanaba grinned wider.

“I’ll say.” Niklas cocked his head.

“Hey.” Eld turned to glare. “Don’t even think about it.”

“Its fine Eld, I’m a big girl, I can look after myself.” She turned to Niklas. “I’m sure Niklas will treat me with nothing but respect.”

Her voice lowered suddenly, all the playfulness gone.

“Otherwise, I’ll hang his ass upside down from that tree and leave him there all night.”

Niklas faltered, blinking.

“I think he gets the picture.” Nanaba’s face broke into a crooked smile again as she turned back to Mina, nodding her head.

“I’m glad we’re finally meeting Mina, I always love seeing another woman join the ranks, especially one who can show these boys what’s what.”

Mina’s mouth opened and closed, unsure of how to respond.

“Lost for words? I have that effect.” She winked.

“She’s not one for a lot of words Nanaba, I doubt it’s your influence.” Eld muttered. “I need to go help Petra at the stables. You’ll be alright on your own?”

Nanaba waved her hand at him. “Go, go…leave us to play.”

He raised his eyebrows but turned to leave, not before shooting Niklas a warning look.

Niklas rolled his eyes in return.

“Right.” Nanaba said, hands back on hips as she began to pace, tone serious once more. “The ODM gear is an essential piece of equipment when facing titans in combat. It allows us to fight in a 3D space as opposed to a 2D one. We can hit the titans from every angle imaginable. It allows us to surprise them, and perhaps more importantly, escape them. Mastering the ODM gear will give you tremendous mobility out on the field. It could mean the difference between life and death.” She paused. “But I’m not going to bullshit you. It’s hard. It’s incredibly demanding. It’s a skill that requires full body strength, incredible focus and mental dexterity. When you’re up in the air, you may only have a split second to decide your next direction. You need to understand how to navigate the space and not falter until pressure.”

She stopped her pacing, staring at them both intently.

 

Not even Miche speaks like this… with this hard tone…

 

 “This isn’t a part of training you can half ass your way through. I’ve seen good soldiers die in combat from making one small mistake.”

“Inspiring.” Niklas muttered, casting his annoyed gaze to the sky.

“I’m not going to babysit you. It’s not my job to be on your ass about this, I simply don’t have the energy nor do I get paid enough. You’re adults. Taking this seriously will ensure you a much greater chance of making it out there, out of these walls. You wanna fuck around and roll your eyes and slack off? Be my guest. It’s your life…right until the very last moment.” Niklas glanced at her and she held his stare. “When you’re staring up a titan and pissing your pants and wishing you would have listened to me.”

Mina’s nails were digging into her palms again, fists clenched so hard she was seconds away from drawing blood.

Niklas’s licked his lips nervously and Mina watched his eyes dart around, avoiding Nanaba’s harsh gaze.

Mina’s fingers uncurled as she looked at him, startled.

 

He looks more rattled than me…

 

 

“It sounds simple enough.” Nanaba said, turning to face the trees. “You simply aim, fire the hooks at a surface and then activate the gas. This will reel you towards said surface.” Nanaba tiltedd her hips, her fingers moving before a loud ‘whoosh’ sounded through the air, the sound of clunking metal followed as the hooks sunk into the bark of a tree.

She pressed another trigger gently and her body moved forward, heels barely skidding across the ground as she reeled herself in towards the tree, stopping before she collided with it.

“Looks simple too?”

Niklas and Mina were quiet, watching.

“Not when you’re up in the air. Not when you’re having to think on your feet. Not when you’re having to move from object to object, constantly changing aim and direction. It’s never going to be this straightforward.” She gestured to the tree, unhooking the wire. Mina watched as it snapped back into her canisters. “It’s not easy to stay stable while being propelled through the air. You have to constantly be engaging your body, centring yourself so that your weight doesn’t tip. If you slack, your body will lose balance and spin in the harness. Once that happens, you’re done for.”

“You have to factor in steering. You can’t exactly use the wires to turn so it’s up to your body and momentum. If there is a titan up head and you’ve got nothing else to latch onto, you gotta be able to swing around it instead.” She turned to see Mina staring at the marks in the tree, a crease in her forehead.

“Hey.” Nanaba called to her. “Don’t look so scared. You’re gonna give this your all, right? It’s gonna be difficult and it’s gonna take a while but you’ll get the hang of it. It will all make sense.” She grinned. “And once it does, it’s a good time. “

 

 

 

 

 

“So the controller grip.” Nanaba pulled out the handle from her side holster, gesturing for Niklas and Mina to do the same.

Mina held it gingerly, finger hovering over the trigger, trying not to imagine the familiar feeling of her gun.

She glanced at Niklas out of the corner of her eye to see him studying the grip too, his expression set, having stayed silent and complying to Nanaba’s every order without complaint.

 

Mina wasn’t sure why that made her nervous.

 

“The top trigger.” Nanaba showed it to them up close, finger hovering over it. “This fires the anchor. The bottom.” She gestured again. “Fires up the gas to move. There is a lever here.” Nanaba demonstrated to them. “You pull this to reel the wire back in, which will in turn, reel you in. When you let go, the wire will stop. The controller grip will also serve as the hilts for your blades.” She looked up suddenly.

“Niklas. The bottom trigger. What’s that for?”

“Uh.” He stuttered, his eyebrows furrowed as he thought. “Fires the anchor.” He responded confidently, expression faltering when Nanaba raised an eyebrow.

She turned to Mina.

“Mina?”

“Fires up the gas.”

“What fires the anchor?”

“Top trigger. The lever reels in the wire.” Mina spoke quietly, quickly, running her fingers over the triggers to commit them to memory.

Nanaba smiled.

“Good.”

 

 

 

 

Mina watched Niklas intently. After his third try, he had successfully hooked himself onto the tree Nanaba had demonstrated on and reeled himself in, heels on the ground, stopping before he collided with it.

He went at it for a while, successfully anchoring into every trunk Nanaba instructed him towards, applying a careful force, maintaining a precise control so that his body remained upright, feet never leaving the ground.

“Good work.” Nanaba said as he unhooked himself once more, steady on his feet. “Mina. You’re up.”

 

Mina stood shakily, the ODM gear suddenly feeling heavier, her heart in her stomach as she trudged over slowly, as if wading through water.

Niklas clapped a hand on her shoulder as he passed.

She stood, hands gripping the controller so hard her knuckles almost popped out of the thin skin, fingers hovering over the trigger as she glanced at Nanaba, back to the tree, back to Nanaba.

“Angle your hips to the right a bit.”Nanaba called. “The tree just in front, let’s start close. Okay, now hold in the top trigger.”

Mina took a deep breath, pressing it in, her body jolting as the wires shoot out in front of her, a dull thunk as the hooks wedged themselves into the tree.

She stopped, swallowing thickly.

“Okay. Now press the gas but don’t forget the lever. If you’re not reeling the wires in you will have no control over where the gas moves you.”

Mina nodded, shaking fingers moving.

She jolted forward again, the gas suddenly driving her forward with more force than she expected. She panicked, pulling the lever to try and gain control, only to yank it back with too much force, wires snapping in too hard and jerking her body forward so forcefully that she fell, winded by the sudden impact of her body hitting the ground.

“Mina!” Niklas called.

“She’s fine.”Nanaba called back, coming to her side to haul her up by the forearms. “You good?”

Mina nodded, straightening up with a wince.

“You panicked. Take your time. This is just the basics, there’s no rush.”

Nanaba helped her unhook and set up again.

 

Mina pressed the top trigger, anchoring herself.

She took deep breaths, forcing all of her focus.

She released the gas, pulled the lever, shot forward…only for her weight to falter. The holsters at her side felt like blocks of cement, throwing her balance completely off so that she skidded, twisted, fell face first again.

Nanaba was at her side in seconds, hauling her up, assessing her form.

“You’re probably still too weak for all this equipment. Your body is too small to distribute the weight. Maybe we should get rid of the blade holsters.”

Mina shook her head.

“I’ll try again.”

Nanaba blinked.

“Okay.”

 

Mina set herself up, trying to engage every muscle in her body, knitting in her ribs, tightening up her core, winding up her arms and legs as she anchored herself. She inhaled deeply, releasing the gas and pressing the lever….shooting forward...heels skimming the ground…

She twisted.

Stumbled.

Fell forward again, this time landing on her side, her shoulder taking a fierce blow.

 

She groaned, picking herself up before Nanaba could reach her.

“Okay.” Nanaba said. “You’re not strong enough to keep balanced. We will come back to this in a few weeks’ time.”

“No.” Mina shook her head furiously.

“You’re going to seriously hurt yourself if you keep taking hits to the floor like that.” Nanaba peered at Mina, studying the hardness in her eyes as she moved to unhook herself.

“I’ll try again.” Mina said.

“Mina! Don’t be so stubborn!” Niklas called to her.

She shook her head.

“I’ll try again.”

 

 

Countless more tries and countless fails, Mina continued to pick herself up and try again.

Niklas scolded her from the side lines while Nanaba stopped trying to argue with the young woman, simply watching the resolve on her face every time she hauled herself up off of the ground, brow set, straightening out her body to go again.

Her hands were bleeding, the cuts reopened and her face was covered in dirt. Nanaba was sure her sides and arms were covered in bruises.

 

 

 

“Get her to stop, would you?” Niklas called in exasperation, grimacing as Mina hit the floor again.

Nanaba shook her head. “I told you, I’m not here to coddle you guys. If she wants to keep trying, let her try.”

Niklas shook his head in frustration.

 

“Why do you keep trying?” Nanaba asked as Mina picked herself up from the floor again.

Her tone wasn’t scolding nor was it accusatory.

It wasn’t sarcastic or patronising.

She was curious.

 

“Because.” Mina spoke in her usual soft tenor. “You said it could mean the difference between life and death. I have to get it.”

Nanaba stared at the girl, stared at the alertness in her eyes despite the tiredness in her face, gaze hovering over the scars across her cheek and neck.

Nanaba smiled.

“You know, I think they’ve got you all wrong.” Nanaba leant back against the tree she stood in front of, crossing her arms leisurely while Mina offered her a confused look.

 “Eld, Oluo, Petra…sure the whole jumping through a window and knocking one of them out cold thing was badass…but they seem to think you’re meek and mild…timid. I thought…I thought that couldn’t be right.” She smirked, eyeing Mina up. “You’re not any of those things, not all at. Let me tell you…I’m glad about it.”

Mina stopped, searching for something awry in Nanaba’s smile, only to find satisfaction.

“Does it bother you?” Nanaba asked. “What people think of you?”

Mina threw a glance to Niklas, who was sat on the grass, head cocked as he watched the two talk.

Mina had a feeling that if she lied, Nanaba would know.

“Yes. But…but I don’t even know what I think of myself.”

“Ah.” Nanaba nodded, eyes knowing. “See. That’s what really counts. My mom used to say that I should be able to look in the mirror and know who it was staring back….that I should be proud of that person.” She pointed a finger at her.  “You should work on that too.”

Mina forced a lump down her throat as she swallowed.

“Going again?” Nanaba asked with another smirk, gesturing to the tree.

“I’m going to get it.”

“I don’t doubt it.”

 

 

 

“FINALLY!” Niklas had sprung to his feet, pumping his fist in the air after Mina had stopped, a mere inch away from the tree, still upright, still teetering on her heels. “Okay! You did it! That’s great! Now, you’re gonna stop before you kill yourself.”

Niklas muttered the last part of his remark, marching over to Mina and Nanaba with resolve.

“Well done.” Nanaba eyed Mina’s smile, the brightness in her eyes. “But your brother is right. Take a break now. We’ll pick up again tomorrow.”

Mina nodded, unhooking herself and letting Niklas squeeze her shoulders.

“You never know when to give up, do ya?” Niklas muttered, ruffling her hair affectionately.

“I can see that.” Nanaba quipped, hand on her hip again.

Mina fidgeted with the straps, fingers digging into the leather wearily as she eyed Nanaba, finding it harder to speak when she wasn’t responding to a question.

Nanaba watched. “What’s up?”

“To be better at this…”Mina trailed off, finding her words. “I need to be stronger? All over?”

Nanaba nodded. “You need more weight on you, sure, but you also need a better understanding of your body. Stronger muscles, tighter and sharper engagement, a stronger core to aid with balance…it’s a multifaceted skill.”

Mina nodded, thinking over the words.

“Okay. I’ll get stronger.”

Nanaba smiled.

“That’s what you’re here for.”  She cracked her neck from side to side. “You guys head back. I’ve got to pack up here. It will be dinner time soon.”

“Shouldn’t we wait for Eld to come get us?” Niklas asked.

“Huh?” Nanaba quirked a brow at him.

Niklas clicked his teeth. “We’re not supposed to be left alone after all. “He smiled sardonically.

Nanaba rolled her eyes.

“Just get back to the canteen. If anyone gives you shit, tell them I allowed it and to come take it up with me, okay?”

Niklas shrugged. “Sounds good to me. Let’s go Mina.”

Mina nodded at Nanaba before letting Niklas steer her around, walking in silence across the field. Niklas waited until they were a good distance away before he spoke.

“You were talking to her an awful lot.” He remarked, eyes ahead.

“Hmmm.”

“Probably the most I’ve seen you talk to anyone that isn’t me….” He tilted his head as he turned his gaze to her. “I’m not saying it’s a bad thing…just…thinking out loud.”

“She’s easy to talk to.”

Niklas scoffed. “Easy to talk to? The woman is terrifying.”

 

 

 

 


 

 

“What’s she doing?” Miche walked up behind Eld in the canteen, gazing out of the window and onto the field.

The sun was just rising, the navy blue sky tinged with an amber glow. The men watched Mina on the field as she held her body up into a plank before collapsing onto the floor. She got up instantly, stretching her shoulders out, before moving back into position again.

“She’s been out here the past few mornings. Uh…Petra gave it the all clear.” Eld shot Miche a nervous glance, suddenly wondering if they should have run it by him first.

“It’s fine.” Miche shook off his worried expression. “But why? She’ll be doing this exact same circuit in a few hours time.”

 Miche watched as Mina set herself up into push ups.

“Her ODM training isn’t going so great. She didn’t say much to Petra, just told her she needed to get stronger.” Eld shrugged.

“Huh.” Miche responded.

“I went to watch their training yesterday and her ODM technique is definitely not going to be her strong point.” Eld said sympathetically. “But…she seems to like Nanaba…she was constantly her asking questions….I’ve never seen her talk so much.”

“Nanaba, huh? Out of all the people.”

“Maybe she needed someone more extroverted to get her out of her shell?”

“Maybe.” Miche considered. “Make sure to record all this information for the Commander, okay?”

 

 

 


 

 

 

“Okay, let’s call it a night!” Nanaba called out to the pair.

Mina watched as Niklas propelled himself down from the air, hopping from a branch to land softly onto the earth.

It had been a couple of weeks since they first started their ODM training and Mina was still working from the ground, practicing her anchoring and propelling techniques. Her falls had been reduced to only one or two per session and she had managed to shoot and land the hooks from a greater distance.

Niklas however had started working up high, anchoring himself to climb up the trees and, with Nanaba’s help, had been practicing how to suspend his bodyweight in mid-air.

He had a wild grin on his face as he approached Mina, cheeks flushed, hair mused up.

“Man, being up high like that is incredible. It’s such a fucking rush.” He dragged a hand down his face, grin faltering when he saw Mina’s downturned expression.

“Hey, you’ll get there. Try not to stress.”

“All okay?” Nanaba asked, eyes seeking out Mina’s forlorn expression.

“Nanaba.” Mina started, trying to stop the words tripping on her tongue. “I want to get better at this. I…I have to.”

 

I have to be useful.

I have to have a chance out there.

 

“You will.” Nanaba assured, bringing a hand down on her shoulder. “You got the right attitude. It will just take some time.”

Mina threw a glance at Niklas, who was resting on the ground, laying on his back and gazing at the sky.

“Would you…I mean…I’m probably asking too much…” Mina’s fingers fidgeted with the buckle at her waist, digging the cold metal into her skin. “If you have any spare time…could I… could we…could you teach me more?”

“Extra classes?” Nanaba cocked her head and Mina nodded eagerly.

“Hmmm. I don’t want you to burn yourself out.”

Mina shook her head.

“I’m not….weak. What I’ve done to get here…what my life has been…I’ve been burning myself out for years. This isn’t the same. Don’t worry about me.”

Nanaba was quiet,

Mina pressed her fingertip harder into the metal.

“Okay.” Nanaba nodded. “Extra classes. You’re on. We’ll start tomorrow evening.”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Mina saw her first real rainfall.

She had been watching the sky as the afternoon dragged on, staring up from the ground whilst in her sit up position, gazing at the grey clouds that rolled in, swallowing the pale sky whole.

Niklas had tilted his head up to the sky also, his brow furrowed as he stared at the angry surges that had quickly blackened out the sun.

He jumped.

A raindrop landed on his nose.

Mina heard the heavy splat, followed by another and another, splashing onto the highpoints of his face as he continued to look upwards.

Mina jumped up, staring up in unison with Niklas, feeling the water make contact with her skin, rolling down her cheeks and neck.

“Just because it’s raining doesn’t mean you can stop.” Oluo had called to them, watching in confusion.

They both ignored him as the rain picked up, pelting down from the sky and making sharp contact with their skin.

 

It almost feels like burning.

 

Niklas had begun to laugh, arms outstretched as he reared back further, almost teetering backwards on the edge of his heels as he offered his body up to the rain.

Mina watched him, a smile on her own face as she copied his movements, arms outstretching and neck craning back as far as it could go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Ugh, I don’t know how you do this every day.” The then young Niklas grunted as he finished heaving his heavy body up drainpipe, coming to collapse down beside Mina on the roof.

She grinned at him, tucking her knees into her chest and beaming out across the horizon.

“Practice.” She said, eyes scanning the jagged lines and shapes of far down buildings, shadows of people who looked as small as ants, and the lights, as far as she could see, dots and beams and spatters of lights.

Back then, she could still convince herself that there was some beauty in it.

“This isn’t the best view but I don’t think you would have managed any higher.”

“Hey.” He scowled at her. “I could!...Maybe not today but I can climb just as high as you!”

She smiled at him again, turning her eyes back to the view.

“I think this is what the stars must look like. Lots of small lights against the darkness. My mama told me so. She said it’s hard to describe though.” Mina affirmed, nodding her head excitedly.

Niklas shrugged, following her line of vision. “Maybe.”

We’ll see them one day, right? The stars?” Mina asked suddenly, still nodding in excitement.

“Of course!” Niklas replied, standing up abruptly in resolve. “We’re getting out of here Mina, you know that. We’re going to see everything. The stars. The moon.”

Mina watched as his head tilted back, eyes closed and arms outstretching, as if sprouting wings, offering his face upwards.

“The sky.” He smiled, eyes still closed. “We’re going to see it all Mina. We’re going to be free.”

 

 

 

 

 

“Hey! Would you two knock it off! Get back to training!” Oluo called over to them, startled expression only deepening when Mina started to laugh in sync with Niklas.

“Oluo.”Petra said softly, coming up to place a hand on his shoulder. “Just…give them a few minutes.”

“WAAAAHOOOO!” Niklas cried, almost triumphantly, his voice echoing through the clearing, the jubilation in it almost a static in the air.

Mina laughed louder, spinning around to feel the rain hitting every part of her body.

Niklas grinned at her, shaking out his wet hair and feeling his sodden clothes. “This shit feels great, right?”

Mina nodded, running her own hands through her drenched hair, both sharing the same childlike awe and wonder.

A loud crack reverberated through the sky, followed by waves of booming resonance that echoed across the clouds.

Mina had jumped.

The sound reminded her of the pull of a trigger.

Her eyes darted round the clouds to pinpoint the noise.

Another crack echoed, followed by a spear of light that slashed its way through the clouds and landed on the horizon.

“HOLY SHIT!” Niklas cried, jumping up before turning to Petra and Oluo, pointing towards the light. “What in the shit was that?!”

“It’s lightning.” Oluo said, eyebrows raised. “We told you there was a storm coming.”

Niklas stared, bewildered for a few moments before he laughed again. “Holy shit. That was insane! Will it happen again?”

“Uh, yeah…probably.” Petra offered a small smile.

Niklas turned wildly to Mina. “Mina! Did you see that? How it lit up the whole sky?!”

Mina nodded, sharing his enthusiasm in her own reserved way, in the wideness of her grin and the changing light in her eyes.

“Man.” Niklas settled his eyes on the horizon again. “It’s incredible.”

“Okay, I’m being serious now you two!” Oluo’s demanding tone was faltering into an impatient whine. “The rain’s not going anywhere. Back to training!”

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

Mina saw her first snowfall.

 

Miche and Nanaba watched by a doorway, permitting Niklas and Mina to spend some time outside after watching the pair stare out the window throughout lunch, barely touching their food as they gazed with awestruck expressions on their faces.

 

 

Mina stood in astonishment, watching the flurries almost consume her vision, the sky a murky white, the trees grey, feeling the snowflakes melt on her cheeks and lips.

She stared at her boots, trudging slowly and experimentally, feeling the sink of her feet into the ground, listening to the soft crunch. She bent down to pick it up, her fingers instantly tingling and numb, pressing the clumps of snow between her palms, feeling it melt between her warmth.

She heard Niklas laughing and looked up to see him diving straight into the ground, the heaping piles of snow softening the blow.

“This is crazy!” He called out, holding his own handful of snow and squishing it between his fingers as he studied it.

“Hey!” Oluo had called out, appearing from another doorway to watch them. “Just don’t eat it!”

“Do you think I’m an idiot?!” Niklas had cried back.

“Do you really want me to answer that?”

“Listen here you piece of-” Niklas’s ranting was cut off as something made impact with his face. It stung for a moment, settling onto his skin, before the mound of snow began to dissipate, sliding down his cheek and neck. 

He looked up in shock, staring at Mina who swayed from foot to foot, a small smile on her lips as she shrugged.

“Hey!” He called to her, a smile of his own. “You’ll pay for that!”

Mina couldn’t turn he body fast enough in the snow. Niklas charged, tackling her and hurling both of their bodies into the cold ground.

 

“Do you think that’s enough for now?” Miche asked Nanaba as he watched the pair wrestle. “Mina still isn’t exactly the picture of health; I don’t know what this cold will do to her.”

Nanaba snorted. “She’s fine. Stop babying her. Besides, have you ever seen her laugh this much?”

Nanaba and Miche both gazed at Mina’s face, the wide grin, the high giggles and sputters.

“I guess not.”

 

 

 

 

“Hey.” Niklas hissed to Mina as he brushed the snow out of her hair, glancing to his left quickly before looking back at her. “Oluo’s facing the other way. The back of his head is wide open.”

He scooped a pile of snow with a wide grin.

Mina blinked at him.

“Come on, before he turns back around.”

“No, Niklas.”

“Awww, come on!” Niklas pouted. “I’ll give you my bread roll at dinner time.”

“I don’t want it. Why don’t you throw it at him if you’re so eager?”

“You know your aim is way better than mine! You’ll get the perfect hit!”

“I’m not doing it Niklas. He won’t find it funny at all.”

Niklas sighed, accepting defeat as he stared forlornly at the back of Oluo’s head, before glancing to Mina again with another grin. “Hey…you know what would be funny though?”

 

 

 

 

 

“Hey Miche! You not gonna come out and have some fun?” Niklas called to the man, taking a few steps closer.

Miche watched him carefully, noting the sheepish expression on his face and hands hidden behind his back.

“Don’t even think about it Niklas.” Miche warned and Niklas sighed heavily, releasing his arms to let the snowball slip from his palm.

“Seriously?” Miche asked with a raised eyebrow. “I’ve been fighting titans for years and you think you can catch me off guard as easily as-”

Miche was cut off when the snowball hurled at him from his right side made perfect contact with his face, smothering his eyes, nose, and lips so that he spluttered in surprise.

He turned in it’s direction, startled as he saw Mina, standing with her arms clasped behind her back, eyes wide and a look of regret already painted across her features.

Besides him, Nanaba broke into raucous laughing, clutching at her side. “Miche, you should see your face right now! What a picture.”

Niklas smirked.

“You were saying?”

 

 

 

 

“Okay, that’s enough now.” Niklas pushed Mina into the doorway, hands holding her face to inspect it, frowning at the pale blue colour of her trembling lips. “You said you weren’t that cold!”

“I wasn’t.” Mina’s teeth chattered. “I guess it just hit me now.”

Miche stepped forward to study the girl, the only person left watching the pair after Oluo had complained of the cold and Nanaba had grown bored.

“Let’s get you inside.” Miche said gently, taking Mina’s shoulders to steer her into building, hurrying her along the corridor as she shivered and shook, Niklas scolding and chiding her as he followed alongside them.

Miche took them into the common room and softly pushed Mina down onto the sofa in front of the open fire.

“I swear Mina.” Niklas sat down next to her. “If you end up losing all your toes, I’m not spending the rest of my life carrying you around. I got better things to do.” He tried to keep his tone light and playful but Miche watched the way his worried eyes never left her face.

“M’fine.” Mina shuddered out,

“Won’t be a minute.” Miche said quietly, leaving the pair on the sofa for a moment before returning, a mug in one hand, a heavy blanket draped over his other arm.

He set the mug down on the table besides the sofa, looking at Mina who watched him wearily.

“It’s only water but I warmed it up for you.” He explained, before moving over her. “Here.”

He opened the blanket to wrap it up around her small form.  Mina tried to stop the flush of her cheeks, not enjoying being babied by either of the men.

Niklas watched Miche, his eyes suspicious as the tall man stepped back to look at Mina once more. Niklas read the concern on Miche’s face clear as day, before tearing his own eyes away, staring at the fire as he mumbled one solitary word to Miche.

“Thanks.”

 

 

 

 

“It’s funny.” Miche said, looking at Niklas from across the room, watching the way his eyes never left Mina’s sleeping form. “Sometimes with you two…it’s like watching a mother and their child.”

Niklas bristled despite Miche’s gentle tone. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I don’t mean anything by it… I guess it’s just a dynamic I have never seen before.”

Niklas shrugged, face surly. “She lost everyone. She was still so young… I couldn’t just be her big brother…I had to act like a mother and a father. I had to be everything for her.”

“Have you considered taking a step back a bit? Now you’re here…you can maybe let her breath a little.”

“I don’t know what you’re trying to accuse me of but-”

“Niklas.” Miche held up his hand, keeping calm as he interrupted the man’s outburst. “I’m not trying to start an argument here. I think you’ve done an excellent job looking after her, I really do. I’m just suggesting something…if you took a step back and gave her some space…I think she would surprise you.”

Niklas’s brow was furrowed and his lips were pursed as he stared at Mina, eyes roaming over the shadows under her eye, the hunch of her small shoulders….the scars on the right side of her face.

“You don’t understand.” He said quietly. “She needs me.”

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

“Excellent, Mina.” Miche nodded his head. “Really good work.”

Despite still lacking a lot of upper body strength, Mina had surprised Miche with her sword wielding skills, quickly picking up the correct form and technique over the course of only a week.

Despite her movements sometimes slow and lumbering, always having to consciously work to balance the weight of the blade, Mina was able to hit every mark.

Miche had her made her change angles, made her approach the target from different sides and distances. Each time, Mina was able to make the sword hit, swinging it forward in a steady and sharp line, the blade sinking deeply into the tough, rubbery material that mimicked the nape of a titan.

“A clean cut every time.”

Mina smiled up at his pleased expression, nodding gratefully.

She was appreciative of her training with Miche, thankful for his warm eyes, his tone that never faltered, always steady and encouraging.

Her fingers flexed around the handle of the blade again, and she watched fragments of her blurred face in the reflection of the steel.

It felt natural to her, to hold the sword, to brandish it steadily and swing it towards the target, almost intrinsically knowing she wasn’t going to miss.

 

 

Because it’s a weapon.

Because it reminds me of my knife.

Because it’s no different to holding a gun.

Because the intent behind them all is the same.

 

 

“Your form is excellent and your aim is seriously impressive.” He tilted his head at her. “It made me think…your brother once said you don’t ever miss…when we thought you had tried to shoot the Commander, Niklas explained that you must have never really been aiming at him. I guess I still wondered what he meant. And I guess this is it.”

Mina blinked.

“How is it…that you don’t miss? If you don’t mind me asking? Years of practice?”

Mina hesitated, a lump in her throat, a tightness in her chest, not quite constricting, only uncomfortable.

 Something in her chipped away and she found the words tumbling out before she could stop them.

“Someone taught me.” She said quickly, averting her eyes to the sword. “When I was younger. They taught me how to use a knife…how to shoot a gun. They told me how important it was…to never miss. They told me if I did…I would be dead. So they made me practice…again and again…until I didn’t miss anymore.”

Miche stared at her, silent for a few moments.

“I never knew…I never knew there was someone else helping you down there.”

“Can we…I’m sorry…can we not talk about it?” Mina’s eyes were slightly frantic and Miche nodded slowly.

“Of course Mina…I’m sorry… I shouldn’t have pried.”

“It’s okay.” Mina’s expression had fallen again, wiped clean, a blank slate, walls back up under Miche’s hard gaze.

But he had seen it.

He had seen it waver.

 

 

“I love this thing!”

Miche and Mina turned at the voice, watching Niklas stride over to them from his corner of training, brandishing his sword while Eld and Oluo followed, eying him carefully.

He grinned at Mina, moving his body into position and swinging the blade across the air in front of him.

“Bad-ass, right?”

Mina just stared at him and Miche raised his eyebrows.

“How’s he doing?” Miche asked the men.

“His aim still needs some work but he has good power behind his swing. Sinks it in real deep.” Eld said.

“I’ll be killing titans in no time.” Niklas grinned as Oluo rolled his eyes.

“It’s not that easy. It can take years before someone gets their first kill.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Niklas swung the sword out again, the blade cracking through the air. “Hey, is that all you use these bad boys on? Just titans?”

“What do you mean?” Eld asked.

“You don’t really seem to do much around here, is all. Wondered if you work with the MPs in all your down time and whipped out these babies instead of relying on the regular old hangings.”

Mina looked at the jovial grin on Niklas’s face, before glancing at the rest of the men, hoping they would realize he was just trying to get a rise out of them.

Unfortunately, Oluo’s face was almost unrecognizable behind it’s anger.

“Are you seriously accusing us of what I think you are?!” He sputtered out, a red flush creeping over his skin. “You think we go around killing people?!”

“Hey man, I don’t know what you get up to. It’s all very mysterious still.”

“Well, out of everyone here, you should be the one to know what a murderer looks like!”

Niklas’s expression changed suddenly, eyes darkening. “You know, I was just joking, of course I don’t fucking think that.” He shook his head. “But now, I really would like to know what you meant by that, Oluo.”

Oluo blinked suddenly at the shift in Nikla’s tone.

“Well…I uh…you know.”

 “I know? I know what? What the hell do you mean?” Niklas spat at him.

“Hey, Niklas. Easy.” Miche stepped in front of the man.

“Well….I…uh….” Oluo’s face had grown more startled as he began to trip over his words.

Niklas spat at the ground. “Really?! You think I’ve killed someone?!”

Oluo continued to stare in confusion and Niklas glared, the anger on his face giving way suddenly to an incredulous look. “No! I haven’t fucking killed anyone!”

Oluo faltered. “Oh…well…I guess…I just…”

“I think.” Eld interrupted, attempting to subdue the situation as Niklas turned his glare on him instead. “He assumed…I mean…well…you constantly talk about surviving in the Undergound…how we wouldn’t understand the stuff you had to do to stay alive. You never really elaborate on it…we assumed you had to…”

Niklas shook his head furiously. “Look. I’m a piece of shit yah, we’ve all established that? And I’ve done some fucked up shit I’m not fucking proud of done there. We both have. But killing someone is a whole different fucking ball game. That’s a different fucking type of scum. We’re not like that. Never will be. We’ve never fucking killed anyone. We’re not murderers!”

Mina stared at his face, an unfamiliar expression strewn across his features, eyes wide, lips down turned, a sudden flash of hurt before he managed to compose himself, settling back into his usual bored and slightly smug look.

“Right…I didn’t realize…I’m sorry, okay?” Oluo mumbled, looking anywhere but Niklas’s face.

“Yeahh, yeah, whatever.”

His anger had subsided as he scuffed his foot against the dirt,before throwing Mina an exasperated look.

Mina did not return it.

“They think we’re murderers now Mina. Jeez. Can you believe this shit? Give us just a little a bit of credit, would ya?”

 

 

 


 

 

 

Mina and Nikla’s schedules began to change as new faces entered the castle, not yet the fresh faced recruits, but lower ranking veterans returning from travelling or different stations.

Mina and Niklas would spend the mornings together as usual, but were separated after lunch, as Nanaba had explained they each had their own specific weaknesses that they  needed their training to be tailored to.

Unfortunately, Nanaba and the rest of the usual crew were busier than usual, preparing the grounds for the arrivals of the young new cadets.

The afternoon sessions were often cut short, Miche or Nanaba having to scurry off, replaced by a hastily briefed returning solider, who often didn’t seem thrilled with the task at hand.

Mina didn’t think much of these new additions; neither did they seem to care for babysitting her. She barely spoke, not caring that her blank expression and frequent silence unnerved and repelled her new teachers. They quickly learnt to communicate with her using yes or no questions, so that an answer could be received with either a shake or nod of a head.

Mina’s indifference to these new faces was not something Niklas could relate to, and she was surprised to learn this fact.

Walking through the corridors, she would catch a glimpse of Niklas on the training grounds, see him grinning at the men around him, arms gesturing wildly, breaking into raucous laughter.

She would often finish up earlier than Niklas, her teacher dismissing her hurriedly for dinner time, where Mina would sit at her usual bench, alone and waiting.

She would look up at Niklas’s voice, watch him saunter into the room, flanked by men around his age, laughing alongside him as he spoke. His expression, his eyes, his body movements were all animated, his presence magnetic.

 

 

When he wants to, he can be.

He can be everything and anything he needs to be in that moment.

Likeable.

Charming.

Polite.

Charismatic.

Whatever version he wanted other people to see.

He can switch it on with the click of a finger.

 

 

 

Mina watched him, watched as he made one last quip, relishing in the laughter of those around, before he waved them off, earning a pat on the shoulder or back, a few fond farewells.

His eyes found Mina’s , and he moved quickly to join her.

“Hey.” He greeted her, cheeks red and eyes bright.

Mina nodded, glancing at her plate. “New friends?”

“Friends?” He scoffed. “Course not.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Didn’t look that way to me.”

He rolled his eyes. “Oh come on. Look, they’re not as uptight as Miche and the rest of those guys. They let me have some fun, they know how to take a fucking joke at least. Might as well take advantage of that while I can.”

He stretched out lazily, arms in the air as he levelled Mina’ stare, hating the way she looked right into him.

“Mina. They’re not my friends.”

“Hmmm. “ She considered her next words for a few moments. “So you’re still just playing along then?”

His face suddenly wiped itself clean of any amused emotion. “Of course I am. What are you trying to say?”

Mina was silent in response.

He shook his head, letting out a frustrated grunt, irritation clear in his eyes. “What about you, huh?”

He held her gaze this time, something dark in the way he looked at her, and she knew he could read it all.

 

 

 

Her smiles with Miche.

Her laughter with Nanaba.

Extra classes that only she herself requested.

Asking question after question.

Always listening, always nodding her head.

Pushing herself past every limit possible.

 

 

“What about you Mina?” He asked, still holding her eyes.

There was still darkness in his expression, still irritation, but something else, something that seemed as if he was pleading with her to challenge him.

 “You still just playing along?”

 

 


 

 

 

“Excellent, Mina.” Nanaba grinned at the young woman as she propelled her body down from a tree, landing steadily before reeling her wires back in. “You’ve really come on leaps and bounds.”

Mina smiled softly, averting her eyes as she fiddled with the buckles again. “It’s really because of you, Nanaba.”

“Please, you’re the one out here busting your ass every day.”

Mina smiled gratefully at Nanaba’s recognition of her hard work, but still felt her earlier statement was true.

Nanaba had never missed an extra class with Mina, despite her increasing workload, making sure to carve out time every single day to have Mina improving as quickly as she could.

There were no more falls and stumbles, and Mina could confidently navigate through the tree tops without Nanaba hovering just below, ready to intercept any fall.

There had been a few close calls at the start.

Not as strong as Niklas, nor able to master some of the more complicated manoeuvring skills, Mina had still found her own stride. She was quick, and able to mentally map out the terrain in front of her, steering herself around any obstacles in an extremely efficient manner.

“Want to take a break?” Nanaba asked Mina, watching as she stretched her neck from side to side.

Mina looked at her. “What do you think’s best? I don’t know how long we’ve been out here…”

Nanaba shrugged. “It’s up to you how you spend your time.”

“Well…uh…really Nanaba, it’s whatever you think we ought to do.”

“You do that a lot.” Nanaba said suddenly, her gaze intent. “Avoid making a decision.”

Mina was quiet.

“With your brother mostly…it’s like you wait for his approval before you act. You always seem to do exactly as he tells you.”

Nanaba watched Mina’s expression shift, becoming guarded, trying to close herself off.

Nanaba persisted. “Force of habit?”

“Niklas…Niklas does what he always thinks is best for me.”

Nanaba tilted her head. “Ah. See. There in lays the problem. What he thinks. He can think about what’s best for you as much as he wants. But he can never know. Not truly. No one can know that but you.”

Mina wasn’t sure how to respond.

“Mina. You have to understand. Only you know what’s best for you. In all situations.  Always.”

Nanaba’s tone was gentle, peeling away at Mina’s exterior, trying to reach something raw and tender, pressing harder until Mina’s shoulders softened slightly, her eyes losing their steeliness.

“It’s what I’ve known all my life.” Mina started, trying to find the words, trying to pick them out from something dense and weighty in her head. “People…telling me what to do. I guess…it’s what’s kept me alive, doing as I’m told.”

Nanaba considered her words. “You’ve mentioned your mother before…but never your father. Was he one of those people?”

Mina’s stomach churned, her fingers trembled as she pressed her nails into her palm again, focusing on the prick of pain.

“Yes. And to protect my mother and my younger brother…I had to listen to him.”

Nanaba was quiet, her own gaze averted, staring up into the sky. “My father was the same. A real piece of shit. Used to knock me around, preferred to use his fists first, and then talk later.”

 

I would have…I would have never imagined…

 

“It was part of the reason I joined the Survey Corps. I wanted to get away from the version of myself he had created for me. Being here…it made me into the version of myself I was always meant to be.”

Nanaba’s gaze moved, holding Mina with a fierce look, her face set in a way Mina had never seen before.

“Mina. I couldn’t be that version of myself until I stopped doing what other people told me to do. It wasn’t until I started making decisions for myself, when I put myself first, when I thought of my own best interests and mine alone…that was when I knew who I was…and It was when I learnt how to be happy with who I was. Sure, sometimes it makes me selfish. But it has to be done.”

Nanaba sighed heavily.

“I know you love Niklas. I know you care about him and want to protect him. But he can never make the right decisions for you. Only you can do that. And he does not need to be part of every decision you make, Mina. I’m not saying he means any harm, but it is…it’s harming you…if you cannot act with your own best interests in mind. You’ll never truly figure out what it is you need…what it is you want, not until you think for yourself.”

Mina was quiet, eyes glassy as the words clung to her, turning weighty, dragging down her bones into the earth.

“Not just with Niklas. In every situation, you need to make the best decision for yourself. Even here.” Nanaba offered a smile. “Look, I’m not saying start to start a rebellion or anything but… a lot of what it means to be a good solider and to survive outside the walls, means following your gut.” Nanaba looked her squarely in the eyes again. “If you are given an order, and you believe, you truly believe in your gut that it is the wrong call, then you disobey that order. If you truly believe something is wrong, that it’s going to put you in harm’s way....if it’s avoidable…then you best fucking avoid it. I’m serious Mina. Out there, a split second counts for a life time. If something doesn’t feel right, you trust your gut. You trust yourself above all fucking else, okay? That’s what’s going to keep you alive. You’ll know it in yourself. Trust that feeling. Don’t hesitate over a decision. Promise me okay? Promise me you’ll do that?”

Mina stared, taking a few moments to collect herself, the almost desperate edge to Nanaba’s voice making Mina clench her fists harder.

“I promise. “Mina finally said, nodding.

“Knowing yourself…having that trust in yourself….It will keep you alive.”

“I’m going to stay alive Nanaba, I promise you that too.”

Nanaba smiled. “It’s funny. A lot of soldiers say that. It doesn’t mean a thing. But with you…I see it. I see that determination and will to live. A lot of people are scared of death, and that fear can help you keep fighting. But when it’s not matched with the will to keep living, when you are so consumed by the fear of death, that’s when it all goes wrong. In that moment, you just focus on escaping death…when you forget about fighting for the other half of it…fighting with the same intensity to live…that’s when you aren’t strong enough.”

“I’m not afraid of dying.” Mina’s words shocked even herself.

It was quiet as Nanaba stared at her.

“I mean…there has been many times when I thought I would die. I don’t think I’ve ever been afraid, not in any of those moments. Even now, thinking about dying. It doesn’t scare me. But I don’t want to die. Even on my worst days in the Underground, even when I had nothing left in the world to keep living for…I never wanted to die. I’ve always wanted to keep living. For something. However, I’m not sure exactly what that something is.”

Nanaba’s hand came down on Mina’s shoulder, squeezing it tightly. “I think…somehow…you knew…all along. You knew that there would be more to your life. That there would be a day when there would be a future for you, Mina. When there would be something worth fighting for.”

 

 

 


 

“It seems Niklas’s new mentors have taking a liking to him. A positively glowing review.” Erwin’s eyebrow was raised as he looked over the last few pages of Niklas’s training report.

Oluo scoffed. “That’s only because those guys let him slack off so Niklas decides to reward them with his Mr Charming act.”

“Yes, quite the charmer it seems.” Erwin hummed thoughtfully. “At least we know he can be a good team player when needs be.”

“Only if the other people on his team aren’t trying to give him orders. “ Eld interjected.

“But physically he’s extremely capable.”  Levi spoke from his usual corner of the office, perched in a chair with his right ankle crossed over his left knee, lazily skimming through his own copy of the report. “I see he shows outstanding promise with the ODM gear, as well as sword handling. That’s exactly the skills we need to start making a dent in the titan population.”

Miche nodded. “Yes, his training has gone excellently on all accounts. Now that he has put on weight and receiving adequate rest, he could potentially be one of the strongest we’ve had.”

Erwin hummed again.

“However.” Miche started, holding Erwin’s gaze. “He still lacks respect for authority. He questions nearly almost ever order. He only will give 100% when it suits his mood. I think we’ve established that he’s not necessarily a threat…but his temperament is a liability. Having a loose cannonball like that outside of the walls will not do a lot to reassure other soldiers.”

Erwin stroked a thumb across his chin. “But if his trajectory for training keeps on the same path, he could become an invaluable assist.”

“I would not argue with that.” Miche agreed.

“And Mina…well…her newer reports from her mentors aren’t so favourable.” Erwin skimmed through and read a few comments out loud. “Rude. Vacant. Solitary. Unreadable. Unsociable…ah this one here may be my favorite. ‘She has more than just a few screws loose.’”

Nanaba scoffed. “Those assholes don’t know what they’re talking about. They haven’t even bothered to try and get to know her.”

Erwin was quiet.

“Commander, you must have read our reports also? We’ve spent so much time with her; we know her character far better than any of those idiots. That’s all she needs…she just needs more time with people.”

“Yes, I can see that she is opening up more to you and Miche…however…Oluo’s, Eld’s, Gunther’s and Petra’s reports still hold a lot to be desired in that regard.”

Nanaba shot Petra a look. “Seriously, Petra? I thought you liked her.”

“I do!” Petra exclaimed suddenly, a guilty expression on her face. “I just…look, she hasn’t connected with me as well as she has with you, and it’s still hard to get much out of her. She really only speaks to me still when I speak first. Otherwise, I get nothing.”

“She seems quite fond you then, Nanaba.” Levi commented, eyes moving across the report. “And you of her.”

“I see a lot of promise in her.”

“It’s interesting.” Erwin commented. “Why only the two of you…maybe she sees something in you that she thinks she can use.”

“You think she’s manipulating us?” Nanaba said, outrage in her tone.

“I believe she’s a lot smarter than her brother.” Erwin chose a diplomatic response.

“No.” Miche shook his head, tone firm. “No, she is not manipulating us. Not for a second do I believe that Commander.”

“What makes you so sure?” Erwin peered at him.

“Commander, you’ve worked with me enough years to understand what a good judge of character I am. I knew from the first session I had with her, I knew that look in her eyes and what it meant. I truly believe she wants this.”

Erwin rubbed his chin again.

“Look, you’re missing a really important point. Have you ever considered that maybe she’s so closed off, is because she doesn’t understand how to act any other way? Maybe she prefers to keep silent because it’s what she knows best. She’s not had much experience any other way.”

Erwin looked curious, waiting for Nanaba to continue.

“From what she’s told me, it’s only ever been her and Niklas. She’s never been around people, let alone people her own age. Consider that for a moment. You’re suspicious of a part of her that she probably has no control of. She doesn’t talk to people because she doesn’t know how to.”

“Yeah.” Petra chimed in, nodding. “That makes sense…I mean…if you’ve lived all your life practically by yourself…how can you know how to act around people? What to say? All things considered, she’s probably just…shy.”

“And she still has every right to be as weary of us as we are of her.” Nanaba affirmed.

“I appreciate the points you are making but I cannot in good conscious rule out the possibility that she has more to her than she is letting on.” Erwin said, tone stern. “And as every single one of you has mentioned in your reports…she is smart. Very much so.”

Erwin paused.

“While her temperament may be the opposite of Niklas...it still poses the same issue. With her being so closed off…when we are in combat, can we be sure she will be leading the charge with us?”

“On paper, she’s the perfect solider.” Levi muttered dryly, flipping onto another page. His pointer finger followed the words, skimming through, reading off comments until he reached the bottom. “Extremely compliant.  Follows every order to her best ability. Unwavering. Determined. An aptitude for learning, along with the willingness to learn. Miche here has written that she always gives ‘120%’.” Levi’s eyebrows rose at this comment.

“She requested extra classes with you Nanaba?” Erwin asked, referring to her report once more.

“Yes. To improve her ODM technique. She explicitly told me that she wants to train to get better. She gives it everything she has, every day. Her progress has been fantastic because of this, especially in such a short period of time.”

“She’s also taken it upon herself to run through her own training sessions, in the morning before breakfast, she will be out on the field for an hour or so.” Eld offered the encouraging information to Erwin.

“Does that sound like someone who isn’t truly committed?” Nanaba challenged Erwin, arms folded over her chest.

“What she lacks in strength, she makes up for in speed.” Miche added. “Both on the ground and using the ODM gear. She might not be the strongest with the blade but her technique is outstanding. She doesn’t miss.”

“She’s a quick thinker.” Nanaba continued to vouch for her. “She may not be getting as high with the gear or pulling off anything too complicated, but the way she understands how to navigate her body around the surroundings is second to none. She doesn’t buckle under pressure. If something isn’t working, she makes it work.”

“I won’t lie to you, I am extremely pleased to hear that my hunch was correct, that the spark I saw in her is coming to fruition.” Erwin sighed, flipping over the last page of the report before clasping his hands on the desk in front of him. “My main problem right now is her unwillingness to cooperate with others. Her inability to connect.  If she doesn’t care about anyone else out in combat, apart from Niklas that is, then will her presence be of help? Or will it merely be a hindrance? We’ve only gotten this far because we train as a cohesive unit, every single person has a purpose outside of the walls, and fulfilling that is of the upmost importance for everyone else on the team. If one cog is faulty, the whole system breaks down.”

He was quiet for a moment, a thoughtful look on his face.

“Outside of the walls, if it came down to it, if she was the only soldier there for you to rely on, to have your back…would you trust her?”

“Yes.” Nanaba answered instantly, levelling her stare with Erwin. “Yes.”

“I believe so.” Miche spoke softly.

It was silent.

Erwin’s eyes found Oluo, Eld, Gunther, and Petra, watching as they shifted uncomfortably.

Nanaba shoot Petra a look of betrayal.

“I’m sorry Nanaba.” Petra said sincerely. “But I can’t in my heart say I could trust her.”

“Neither could I.” Eld agreed, whilst Gunther and Oluo nodded in agreement.

Erwin considered their words again.

Levi watched his face intently, trying to read the expression, trying to pick apart his decision before he spoke the words.

“Niklas. With him, I believe what you see is what you get. But Mina…there is something there still that makes me uneasy. Maybe in time we can crack it open, but as of now, it feels like she still has a lot she is hiding from us.” Erwin considered.

“She is one of the strongest cadets I have ever trained.” Nanaba spoke fiercely.  “Not physically. Mentally.  I’m telling you, her head is in this. Pardon me for the way I am about to word this Commander, but you would truly be an idiot to let her go.”

It was quiet again, Erwin staring stoically at the woman before a small smile tugged at his lips.

“Okay Nanaba, you’ve presented a good case. Mina should be very grateful that she has you in her corner.” He clasped his hands together again. “The new recruits are to arrive in a few days’ time. The next step then, is to see how Mina gets along with her fellow cadets.”

Nanaba nodded and the tension fell from Miche’s shoulders slightly.

“Miche.” Erwin said, stacking up Niklas’s files and reaching over to hand them to the tall man. “You will be Niklas’s primary mentor from now on. When he is not training with the other cadets, you will decide which of the basic elements of training he still needs to work on. You can delegate the training to whomever you wish is most suitable. I expect any changes to be written up and on my desk that same day.”

Miche nodded, taking the papers carefully.

“Now… for Mina.” Erwin’s eyes looked slightly troubled . “Nanaba, I understand she has grown closest to you but I believe I need to shake things up a bit for her. I fear if she gets too comfortable with you by her side, it will prevent her from opening up to others.”

Erwin seemed to collect his thoughts, chin in his hand once more, silent for a few moments before his head turned to his right, looking at the dark haired man in the chair, who was silent, eyes still trailing over Mina’s papers.

“Levi.” Erwin spoke evenly. “You will want to hang onto those.”

Levi looked up, brow furrowing further.

“I’m assigning you to Mina.”

Levi tutted, but his expression didn’t move.

“Am I permitted to ask why? I already have enough on my plate with the Yeager brat.”

“Excluding Miche and Nanaba from the picture, I believe you will be the best fit for her.”

“Two leftovers from the Underground ?” Levi clicked his tongue. “Going for the obvious, are we Erwin?"

“You’re the only one here who can truly understand what she has experienced. I believe having someone on her side who shares that commonality could be a breakthrough for her. That, and she seems drawn to more authoritative figures. I doubt your dispositions will clash too much.”

“Is this another one of your gut feelings?” Levi drawled as Erwin quirked an eyebrow at him.

“I truly believe the development we need from her could happen under your command, Levi.”

Levi’s eyes were unreadable as always. Glancing down at her report again, eyes picking out the words.

Determined.

Willing.

Unwavering.

“Fine.” Levi sighed, almost bored, as if resigning to the fact, though he knew he wouldn’t ever question Erwin’s decision. “I’ll take the girl.”

“Last thing.” Erwin said. “From the reports, it is evident that the pair depends on each other far too much. Eld, for example, you have written ‘if one moves, the other has to follow.’ Like I said before, this can be dangerous. We need them to care about more than just each other.” He pursed his lips. “I see you all mentioned that Mina is constantly following Niklas’s orders. But I wonder…is it all as surface level as it seems. Who do you think is in control, really?”

 

It was quiet, the soldiers in the room ruminating over Erwin’s question, perhaps not quite understanding, perhaps not wanting to answer.

 

“Which one of them really holds all of the influence?”

It was quiet again.

Oluo looked clueless, Eld’s eyebrows were furrowed and Petra bit her lip.

Nanaba frowned, clearly displeased with the question.

“It’s Mina.” Miche was the only one to answer.  “Whether she knows it or not. Yes, she doesn’t seem to think for herself yet and Niklas is always the one telling her what to do… but every decision he makes is anchored down by Mina. He stayed because of Mina. He listens because of Mina. He fights because of Mina.”

“With Mina. “Nanaba offered, eyes suddenly distant as she thought back to past conversations. “There is another motivation there, maybe one she doesn’t even realize herself yet. “

“Niklas told me something once. And I wondered…I wondered if he was trying to convince me, or trying to convince himself.”

Miche paused, recalling the few words he shared with Niklas while Mina slept by the fire.

“Niklas couldn’t do this without Mina. He needs her.” Miche affirmed. “But Mina…if she didn’t have Niklas...if it ever came to it….she wouldn’t need him.”

Erwin nodded. “That’s useful to know. We may need that information in the future.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Ever since Mina woke up one morning and saw the first pale pink buds sprouting from the bare branches of the tree, anticipation had risen within her, bubbling under her skin. With that, came the urgent uncertainty, the uncertainty that had her walking on egg shells, trying to read any unfamiliar expression on a face or lilt in a voice, searching for a hidden meaning in every gesture.

Mina still felt like she was waiting for a ball to drop, for the revelation that it was all in fact, a lie.

Sometimes, in her particularity agitated moments, she would glance towards a door, waiting expectantly for a flurry of MP Officers to barge in and whisk her away.

 

When will I stop questioning?

 

She would stare longer at Miche, who would return her gaze with a muddled look of his own.

Her eyes would linger on Nanaba, who would turn and frown at Mina. “What? Is there something on my face?”

 

 

Friends.

Are these people my friends?

What does that mean?

Are we all just…using each other?

 


 

 

The meeting with Commander Erwin, in which he would officially pronounce their probation period at an end and declare them as fully fledged Scout members, was unexpectedly delayed.

Petra had explained over breakfast how the unforeseeable situation had arrived, in the shape of an unprecedented discovery.

A teen boy had been discovered, with the ability to shift into a titan. He was now under the security of the Survey Corps as they looked to study the revelation further, and looked to use the boy in the efforts to advance humanity’s battle against titans.

Mina had stared dumbfounded, not understanding if it was a joke, her grasp on other people’s sense of humour still shaky.

Niklas had muttered a few choice words, asked if Petra thought he was an idiot, and asked if she had snuck in a bottle of liquor with her breakfast as he shook his head, incredulous and annoyed.

It wasn’t until Petra explained that they would probably meet the young man in the near future, and perhaps see his abilities up close and personal, that it had finally sunk in.

Niklas had dropped his head on the table, groaning.

“Why? Why is it one thing after another?” He moaned into the table. “This place is insane. I’m starting to miss the Underground, you know? At least I knew what to fucking expect.” He glanced at Mina, who shared his same wide eyes. “Humans turning into titans?! I’ve officially had enough. Hey, wanna make it a run for it now?”

Petra had resisted the urge to smack the back of his head.

“How long now till our big day then?” Niklas had enquired, chewing thoughtfully as he looked at Petra.

She considered. “He should return by the end of the week. The Commander is keen to have you enrolled before the new recruits come piling in.”

“And you’re gonna be at this little meeting?”

“Of course.” Petra beamed.

“Well, I’m sure you’ll be singing both of our praises, right? I know we can count on you, Petra.” Niklas smiled cheekily at her. “Who else?”

“Everyone else who has been working with you. Miche, Eld…Oluo-”

Niklas cut her off with a groan. “Never mind then.”

He flashed Mina a smile. “Sorry Mina, they’re probably kicking me out. You’re on your own from now on.”

Mina frowned at him.

“Don’t joke about that. “ She muttered.

“There may be others there, I suppose the Commander wants you meeting as many of us as possible.” Petra continued, ignoring Niklas’s comment. “And Captain Levi, of course!”

Mina visibly winced at the name, the gesture caught by both Niklas and Petra.

“Hey, what’s that all about?” Niklas prodded his fork in her direction, forehead crinkled.

“Just…could have made a better first impression, is all.” Mina spoke softly.

Petra gave her a sympathetic look. “Hey, I’m sure it’s all forgotten about. Captain Levi isn’t going to hold any grudges over that, he understood the position you were in and what you felt like you had to do in that moment. He’s a fair man, Mina.”

Mina pushed her food around her plate, avoiding Petra’s gaze.

“I’m serious. I mean, he can come off as quite standoffish…abrupt…sometimes rude perhaps. But it’s important not to judge a book by its cover. I don’t know anyone who cares as much about their soldiers as Captain Levi does. He truly cares about all of us. Out in combat, time and time again, he fights for every single one of us…he’ll stay with soldiers till their lasting dying breath if he can…” Her voice grew quiet, a distant look in her eyes, her lips pursed, raw memories bubbling at the surface.

Niklas and Mina watched her, weary for a few seconds, before she pulled herself out of the memories, settling back into herself with a wide smile.

“I just don’t want you to get the wrong idea about him. Don’t take offence if he’s not so ….forthcoming with either of you. It’s just the way he is. You have a lot more in common than you realise.”

“What do you mean?” Niklas asked.

Petra shook her head quickly. “It’s uh…not my place to say exactly why…just know that, he can understand a lot of what you’ve been through.” She smiled at Mina, a small laugh escaping her lips. “Actually, I think you will have a lot more in common with him Mina…he’s uh…pretty awkward in his own way. It might not be your brand of awkwardness but maybe you’ll actually appreciate his…character.” She threw Mina a worried glance suddenly, light eyes wide in fear she had cause offence. “Sorry, not that you’re awkward in a bad way of course! It’s endearing, actually!”

Mina moved her eyes away from Niklas’s scoff.

“And… please don’t tell him I called him awkward, if you could?” Her pale cheeks flushed pink, mimicking the strawberry of her hair.

Mina nodded.

 

I hardly doubt that will come up in conversation.

 

“So this Captain Levi guy?” Niklas was looking at Mina, eyes searching for her attention. “I think I remember him. He’s the one that saved your life?”

Mina inwardly winced again.

 

Was I really so desperate that day?

That I was prepared to end it all?

I wasn’t scared.

But in that moment…I felt ready.

Like there was no other way….

But now….

 

Mina nodded. “Yeah…” she coughed awkwardly as Niklas peered, not having probed her about the incident, knowing Mina had been too embarrassed by her actions to ever want to talk about it. “He caught me.”

“Huh.” Niklas said, looking down at his plate, nodding. “Seems like I owe this guy a thanks after all.”

 

 


 

 

 

The day had come.

 

Mina felt a jolt in her bones when she looked in the mirror, eyes searching through the stranger in the reflection to find herself. Her stomach twisted uneasily as she raised her arm, watching the figure in the reflection copy the movements, felt the skin of her forehead as she brushed a small stray curl behind her ear.

Mina hadn’t properly looked at her reflection in a long time, only catching glimpses of herself in glass surfaces or mirrors, sometimes hastily looking in one when inspecting a wound, careful to narrow in on one spot, blur out the rest.

But still, the person she saw now in the mirror felt like an imposter, a body holding herself hostage, a foreign entity….

Mina looked more, staring at her face, her eyes, the strange uncanny feeling starting to dissipate until it all seemed to fall into place.

 

The body felt familiar.

 It wasn’t what she was used to.

Not what she was expecting.

 But it felt like hers.

 

 

“You look really pretty.” Petra said softly, unsure how to read Mina’s wide eyed unblinking gaze.

Mina blinked suddenly, turning to look at Petra with the same bewildered look.

“Pretty?”

 

What makes me pretty?

How is pretty seen or judged or measured?

If she could see more…would she still call me pretty?

 

“You look strong. Healthy. Like a solider.” Petra reaffirmed quickly, before hesitating again. “But still…pretty too.”

Pretty?

 

When she thought of that word…it was never associated with herself…or anyone else around her…only one person.

 

“My mother was very pretty.” Mina said suddenly, thinking of her face, always soft despite her sickest days, eyes always warm, crinkled with her bright smile.

Petra blinked, her face softening. “I’m sure she was. To have you as a daughter…she must have been beautiful.”

 

 

 

 

Petra felt Mina hesitate behind the double doors, footsteps faltering slightly.

She was remembering, remembering the last time she was here, hands cuffed, shoved into the room, bruised and broken, and not knowing if that was her last day alive.

“Hey.” Petra whispered softly.

Mina glanced at her.

“Knock ‘em dead, okay?”

Mina could only smile timidly in response.

Petra pushed open the doors, entering first before letting Mina step in front, coming to a halt in the centre of the room, aware of the Commander at his desk and various familiar faces gathered around the walls of the room.

 

Mina tried to blur them out as she stood under the burst of sun pouring through the arched windows, knowing all eyes were assessing her. Almost six months had passed since she saw some of the faces. Those six months had scrubbed her appearance clean, moulded her body, shaped her in a way so that the Mina, from all those months ago, dirty and tattered, could barely be found.

Despite the freshness of her form, there were still the old lingering wounds. They were unable to be hidden by hair or clothes, more visible than they had ever been in Mina’s life, a reminder of who she would always be.

Even those, like Miche and Nanaba, who had trained with her the most, had been the closest to her throughout the months, hadn’t seen her scars like this.

 

The eyes fell on her face first.

The scars were most evident there, no hair falling forward to hide her right cheek, the deepest scar from the temple to the jawline always the first one people noticed. Their eyes would then follow the slashes that littered the hairline, the skin around her ear, creeping across her cheeks, down her cheek, all above her jaw.

The white button up of the uniform left her neck uncovered, the slope down to her shoulder and the beginning of her collarbone visible. There too lay the scars, some etched deep and dark, some faint and quick, too many to count as they crisscrossed their way down the right side of her neck and clavicle, disappearing under the shirt. She knew the eyes would look across the darkest horizontal line, the slash half way across her neck that almost cut too deep.

The eyes continued to her exposed forearms, the shirt rolled up to the elbows, hiding the scars along her shoulder and upper arm but exposing the cuts that travelled down to her wrists, varying in depth, but all very careful, avoiding anything too deep, avoiding anywhere that would have hit an artery.

Calculated.

Everything Mina had hid for years, her most vulnerable parts, now on display.

 

Not just the exposed skin, but her body, now at a healthy weight, noticeably stronger in her legs, the curve of her hips and the muscles of her arms, no jutting elbows or prominent wrist bones. Mina hadn’t understood what clothes on a body like this could feel like, but standing, suddenly in material that clung to her, outlined her, no drooping or slouchy material to curl up under, felt like a different kind of exposure.

Her body unrecognisable, as nearly was her face.

She had pulled her hair back, refusing to have it cut despite Petra’s requests , working the long curly mane into a single braid that reached down to her tailbone. Her cheekbones still sat high, but there was roundness to her chin and jaw, no more shrunken and sallow skin, plumpness where gauntness used to be. Her full top lip still lifted slightly, showing the top teeth, her nose slightly crooked, brows dark, eyes still big and downturned, but not staring out of hollow sockets, no longer surrounded by purple or blue hues. Her skin was brighter, still pale from years of darkness, but a slight olive hue, pinkness on the bridge of her nose and cheeks from the sun, a smattering of faint freckles.

Her eyes seemed lighter somehow, a few shades faded from their original navy blue, her almost black hair suddenly catching hints of deep brown in the sunlight.

She stood upright, shoulders drawn down, neck long and straight, hands clasped behind her back.

For both those who had been training her the past six months, and those who hadn’t seen her since, the woman standing in Erwin’s office was almost unrecognisable.

“Mina.” She moved her eyes at her name, looking to see Niklas rising from his chair, dressed in the same uniform.

She noticed he looked bigger in the outfit, broad and stocky, almost as if he had grown taller too, the sandiness of his hair lighter, a pink tone to his once pale face.

“Hey. Who are you and what have you done with Mina?” He tried to crack a smile but there was a distant look in his eye.

Mina knew he was joking but the harmless question seemed to ricochet inside her skull.

 

What have I done with Mina?

Or is it that….now I finally feel like Mina?

 

“I haven’t seen your hair like that since…” NIklas trailed off, unsure before his eyes settled on her again.

 

Since before the scars.

 

“You look just like her Mina…your mother…the spitting image.”

Mina smiled.

“Whew.” She heard a low whistle and turned her eyes to see Nanaba grinning at her. “Who knew you would clean up so good, huh?”

Her eyes trailed the room to see Oluo, Eld, Gunther and Miche, all with various bemused and unreadable expressions.

Her eyes landed on an unfamiliar figure, sitting upright on a chair, brunette hair tied up sloppily on their head, eyes wide behind a thick pair of glasses, a gleeful grin on their face which only stretched wider when their eyes met with Mina.

Mina let her eyes slide over the stranger quickly, before stopping on another familiar face, one that looked exactly the same as it had six months ago. He was leaning up against the furthest wall from her, pushed up in a corner, arms crossed over his chest,  strands of dark  hair hanging in his face as he looked up at her, averting his eyes to Erwin when her gaze shuddered to a halt on him.

Captain Levi.

 

She let her eyes finally settle on the Commander, who sat forward on his chair with a small, pleased smile.

“Good Afternoon Mina. It’s a pleasure to finally see you again.”

She nodded.

“Hello Commander.”

“Ah. It’s nice to hear your voice too. How have the past few months of training been for you?”

Mina glanced at Niklas quickly, wondering for a brief second if he had already stood where she stood and answered the same questions, whether he had obliged, whether he had put up a fight….whether they waiting for her reaction first.

She couldn’t read his expression, his eyes still boring into her as if trying to find something.

She licked her lips, aware that the question still hung in the air.

She was still weary of Erwin above all else, and having to talk with an audience, all staring, waiting, watching, rattled her bones so that her fingers slipped from their interlocked grasp, a nail of her pointer finger digging into her palm.

She averted her eyes to the window, a motion not lost on the Commander and Levi, focusing on the ribbons of sunlight cutting through the room instead.

“I think it’s gone very well.” She chose her words carefully. “I’ve learnt a lot.”

“Indeed. You have a glowing report across the board from those in this room who have had the pleasure of training you.”

 Mina’s eyes fluttered in the sunlight.

 The praise felt strange.

 

I just did what they asked of me.

Surely that was what was expected…

 

“I believe you possess all the qualities necessary to make an excellent solider Mina Verenich. You’re already on your way there, and with the right guidance and experience…we all believe you could be an extremely valuable asset in our fight for humanity’s freedom. . Who knows what the future could hold for you.”

 

 

The future?

I wonder…If I really do this…how much of a future will I have?

 

“I can see you are determined. Your progress in such a short period of time is commendable. Not just physically, but mentally, the shift is apparent. Your dedication and willingness to learn is by far one of the most important parts of being a soldier. It’s not something that can be taught.”

 

Mina’s eyes were starting to burn as she continued to stare at the beams of sunlight.

 

Dedicated…determined…for what?

My future?

Niklas’s future?

Humanity’s future?

What do I do this for?

What have I done any of this for?

 

“Being part of the Survey Corps is no easy feat, I’m sure you have learned this already. What you have experienced in training so far is only a taste. The real thing, outside the walls, faced with death at every turn…”

 

Faced with death at every turn?

Hasn’t that always been my life?

Every day trying not to die.

Every day trying to survive.

So if I do this….what’s really going to change?

The chance of a future?

 A future that is not guaranteed…I continue to fight every day to live for what..?

…for myself?

For something that I can barely let myself even imagine as it’s so far out of reach….

 

 

“But to accept that fear….to put everything aside…to ignore every instinct in your body to continue fighting…for the sake of humanity…for the sake of a future without walls…without titans…to find out the truth…”

 

For the sake of humanity?

What has the rest of humanity ever done for me?

I should fight for their future….but what about my own..?

How is that fair?

…..

A world without walls.

A world with a future.

A world without fear.

If I can’t have that chance…could I really give it to someone else?

Am I capable of that?

 

 

“Do you think you’re capable Mina?”

 

 

She startled suddenly, tearing her eyes away from the window to see Erwin peering at her curiously, noticing her detached expression, her wide eyes, searching for answers not from him…searching someplace else.

She didn’t see Petra’s furrowed eyebrows, nor the weary looks of the men. She didn’t notice Nanaba’s hard gaze or Niklas’s concerned eyes.

She didn’t see the way Levi observed every flicker of her face change, watching her with an intense concentration.

 

Am I capable of living for others?

To wake up every day and not just fight for myself?

I used to be…I used to fight for my mother…for Max.

Maybe I can’t have the future I wanted….but others can.

They can…because of me.

 

An image flashed in her mind of the children at the orphanage, always smiling despite their tired faces and small bodies, still able to hope and dream of something more.

 

A world without titans…without walls…

…for them… what would that mean?

A future?

Could I give that to them?

 

 

“Mina. Are you ready to dedicate your heart?”           

 

To dedicate my heart?

To this.

To this cause.

To almost certainly die for this cause….

….

No.

I made a promise.

I made a promise to my mother.

To Niklas

To Max.

I have to do whatever it takes…for all my promises I’ve made…

…to keep them.

To stay alive.

I’ll do everything I can.

And if I can’t…

…I’ll at least be fighting for the life I could have had…

…maybe one day it can be someone else’s.

 

 

Mina’s eyes suddenly focused, no longer elsewhere, resting them solely on Erwin, as he too, noticed the resolve.

She didn’t glance at Niklas, didn’t need to read his expression to solidify her decision.

She bought her arm up fiercely, clenching her right fist and pressing it against her chest, feeling the thud of her heart.

 

It was quiet.

 

“It’s a pleasure to have earned your trust Mina.” Erwin finally said, the faintest smile at his lips.

She stared at him.

“I hope I can continue to earn yours.” She replied.                   

“So this is it.” His smile quirked again. “The new recruits will be arriving soon. And you will be one of them. You will train with them, but as you and Niklas are obviously still behind in regards to skill and strength, your individual basic training will continue. You will have a mentor for this, someone who can monitor your progress and tailor your training to your specific areas of weakness. They will delegate whatever solider they deem the best fit to help you through.”

Erwin paused as Mina waited expectancy, heart continuing to thud in her throat.

“Captain Levi will oversee the next few months of your training period. If you have any issues, please report to him. I expect a great deal to be learnt from his guidance”

Mina blinked, heart stuttering for a split second, but willed herself to keep her eyes off of the man in the corner, not looking to see if he was watching her or not.

She simply nodded in understanding and Erwin offered the tilt of his lips once more.

“Welcome to the Survey Corps, Mina.”

Mina saw Niklas move out of the corner of her eye but another figure beat him to it, approaching to clap a hand down on her shoulder and pull her in.

“That’s my girl.” Nanaba jostled her gently. “Nice to see that face.”

 She tucked Mina under her chin playfully as Niklas stepped forward, trying to catch Mina’s attention.

“Well done Mina.” Another hand was gently patting her on the shoulder and Mina glanced to see Miche smiling down at her.

She nodded towards him, moving to face Niklas before she was halted once more.

“Mina!” The unfamiliar voice shrilled in her ear, a figure suddenly appearing as if from thin air, a hand clasping her own and shaking it with enough vigour to make Mina’s body jolt. “Very nice to meet you! I’m Section Commander Hange!” The bespectacled person spoke, continuing to shake her hand.

“Nice to meet-“

“You look like a smart gal! Willingness to learn, huh?  Yeah, I’ve read your report. What you know about titans? More so, what do you wanna know about titans? It’s fascinating, isn’t it? SO many unanswered questions are at our fingertips! Well, at my fingertips! Yours too if you’re interested!”

Her hand was still wildly shaking Mina’s and Niklas stepped forward to pull it free out of the grasp.

“Hey.” He eyed Hange wearily. “Aren’t you that nutjob that experiments on titans?”

Hange simply laughed as Mina’s eyes widened, now recalling the person from a previous conversation with Petra.

“Defeating titans isn’t about brute strength you know. We need knowledge to overcome them, to overpower them! The more we understand them, the better chance we have!  It’s really not as crazy as everyone makes it out to be. It must be done!”

“Yeah…sure.” Niklas muttered, moving Mina back cautiously.

“Oh come on Mina, aren’t you the slightest bit interested! I bet you know nothing about titans. Wouldn’t you like to learn?” Hange peered forward curiously and Mina watched the flash of their eyes behind the glasses.

 “There! I see it in your eyes! That willingness to learn!” Hange cried victoriously.

 “I’m telling ya, whatever you wanna know, you come to me alright? And I’m always looking for fresh faces to bring me fresh ideas! And if you want a more hands on experience with the titans, I’m accepting volunteers!”

“Hange.”

The low voice interrupted a mixture of a threat, a mix of exasperation. Mina watched as Captain Levi took a few steps forward, arms still crossed over his chest, face unreadable.

“Put a cork in it, would you.”

“I’m just getting to know the girl that could be a prospective member of Squad Hange!” They winked at Mina, who simply looked back in bemusement, while Niklas kept a cautious air between them.

“Yeah, right. You’re not going anywhere near them again.” He muttered in Mina’s ear.

“You two go… enjoy the rest of your day.” The Commander called to Niklas and Mina. “The new recruits arrive tomorrow. Enjoy some time to yourself before it gets busy.”

Mina wondered if he could possible mean...

“Us two? As in…just us?” Niklas’s eyes widened.

The Commander nodded and Niklas grinned.

“Don’t need to tell us twice. Let’s go Mina.” He held her forearm to give a gentle tug when she paused.

“Hold on.” She whispered to him.

He looked at her but let go, allowing her to turn back around.

 She composed her face as she did.

“Captain Levi.” She addressed him quietly, watching as his head snapped up to meet her gaze with surprise.

“I’m sorry about what I did…that day…your shoulder.”

His grey eyes held hers for only a second before he looked away, responding to her in a low tone.

 “It was barely a scratch.”

 

Right.

Humanity’s strongest after all.

It was nothing to him.

 

“All the same.” She nodded towards him. “I’m sorry. And thank you.”

She turned before she could see his response, allowing Niklas to usher her out of the room.

 

 


 

 

 

“This is nice.”

Mina made a barely audible hum in agreement. There was still a chill to the air, spring only just breaking, but the clear skies and high afternoon sun provided them a blanket of warmth, gentle and comforting. Mina felt the grass scratching her forearms and she knew there would be dirt in her hair and on her fresh uniform.

She didn’t care, not with the breeze caressing her, the smell of earth, the sound of birds.

“You think we can have this?”

Mina turned her head to her right slightly to watch Niklas who lay next to her, hand outstretched towards the sky, staring at the sun.

“Every day. Imagine. Just us. The sky. The changing seasons.” He turned his head to look at her. “We could do it.”

Mina smiled slightly.

“This is what we wanted right? To be out here…but not…not like this.” His hand grabbed his shirt, clutching at the uniform. “We’re not free like this.”

Mina was quiet for a few seconds.

“I think about my mother and Maxi out here.”

Niklas stared at her intently as she looked back up to the sky, not meeting his gaze.

It was quiet again, even the birds had stopped singing, the rustling of the wind had weakened.

“Maxi would have loved the fields and trees. To run around and to climb. I hear the leaves in the wind and see him behind my eyelids. And my mother…she would have loved the sun…I imagine her garden like this…lots of grass and trees...flowers she picks every day and brings inside…vegetables she grows…running around after Maxi in the evening, when it’s still warm despite the setting sun.”

“Mina.” His voice shook sadly.

“I can imagine it all.”

He sat up, staring at her fiercely.

“We can do that…I can make that happen Mina…we’re still playing along, right? We can get out of here…let’s just….let’s just go.”

Mina smiled sadly. “Niklas.”

“I’m serious. Screw the Survey Corps. Look, we’re all the way out here. Let’s make a run for it now.”

“Stop.”

“It’s the only way…we can only get a taste of it here…we answer to everyone else…we have no control over our own lives…yeah they’ve fed us promises for after this is all over, but will we make it that far? What are the chances? How many soldiers spend years fighting titans and live to tell the tale?”

“Niklas.”

“No. This isn’t enough. To stay here. It’s only a fraction of what we could have…our future after this isn’t promised….if we go…run now…at least…we take back control…we have a say…we-”

“Niklas. We can’t just run now. We won’t get out of here that easily.”

“We’re far out right now…the closest guard doesn’t have their ODM gear, I saw as we passed…if we run fast enough…use the trees for cover…we could…there’s a chance.”

“A one in a million chance.”

“It’s still a chance. Imagine. If we took it. We got out.”

“And where would we go?”

“Anywhere! We find somewhere off the grid…we do what we do best…we’ll find someone to take us in…even if we have nothing…we have each other…and we have this.” He outstretched his arms, tilting his face up to the sun. “This freedom. It will be ours.”

Mina watched him, her face contorting in sadness as his own face broke, the smile on his face faltering, the crease in his eyebrows deepening, his eyes fluttering open, finding Mina’s etched in despair.

“Is it not worth a try?”

“I wish we could.” She whispered, hands digging into the earth, pulling at the grass. “Make our own choices. Live our life the way we want to… but we can’t…you know we can’t just run away now.”

“Why?” His voice was barely a croak.

“It’s a one in a million chance. If they caught us now, it would be over. I’m not willing to take that risk. I’m not willing to do die for it…to have you die for it.”

“That won’t happen. You know I promised I wouldn’t let you die. And you promised me you wouldn’t die.”

She closed her eyes.

“You know I’m being serious. No matter what happens, you’re not dying Mina. You’ll live through all of this. You’ve got so much to live for…so much you want to do. And you’ll get it. I promised you that.”

“Niklas…don’t talk like that.”

He shrugged, turning back up towards the sun, his shoulder slumping, the urgency seeping out of his tone, accepting defeat.

“You made me those promises I didn’t ask for.” Mina said. “Why is it that when I ask you to stay alive…you can’t promise me that?”

He smiled, eyes closed towards the sun. “Easy. You’ve got so much more to live for.”

“Ni-“

“You’re a good person. You do good things. And you need to live to show that to more people, to bring more good into this world.”

Mina was quiet as the words seemed to puncture her heart, stilling it for a few seconds.

“Ugh.” He fell back, slumping onto this back flat on the ground again. “You know, they really still don’t trust us.”

His voice was light and playful again.

Mina felt her heart finally beat.

She gave him a quizzical look at the change of tone.

“You got Captain Levi overseeing your training now. The Commander told me I have Miche.”

Mina furrowed her brow. “Why?”

Niklas shrugged. “Like I said…they still don’t trust us…trying to keep us split up as much as they can. We’ll be on different training regimes, so who knows how often I’ll see you now.”

Mina pursed her lips.

“Well.” He sighed. “I guess a minute ago I was talking about running away…so me whining about trust is sort of a moot point.”

His titled his head to look at her.

“You trust them?”

“You still think they’re setting us up for something?” She retorted.

“Maybe.”

It was quiet.

“You didn’t answer my question.” Niklas mumbled.

 

Mina thought of Miche, his nods of approval, his quiet encouragement.

She thought of Petra, her kind words and reassuring smile.

She thought of Nanaba, her no nonsense attitude, her fierce sincerity.

 

She thought of her father, the man who was supposed to spend his life protecting her.

She thought of Kenny, the man she thought wanted to replace him, to be the father she should have had. She thought of how Kenny had let her believe that, believe it for his own gain…until she was old enough to realise.

Until she ran out of use for him.

 

“I don’t trust anyone but you.” Mina said quietly, staring at him before turning her gaze back to the sky.

“Yeah.” He said, with a sigh of contentment.

Of sadness.

“Me too.”

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

Petra had left Mina’s room that night, another gaggle of soldiers coming to remove her bed, replacing the space with a small, slightly battered looking, cabinet.

“You finally have a place for your things!”  Petra had beamed while Mina stood awkwardly, the only things belonging to her being her medication, spare training clothes, and various flowers and autumn leaves she had laid on the windowsill.

There was more leg room without the extra bed, but suddenly the space seemed far too big, too empty, too much for Mina to have all to herself.

“I thought you would be sharing with the new recruits but it seemed they had no use for this room anyway. I know it’s still very small, but not even some of the veterans have their own dorm!” Petra had encouraged, watching as Mina opened a drawer to the cabinet to place her carefully folded clothes down, the other drawers left closed and barren.

 

Mina didn’t sleep well by herself that night.

 

 


 

 

 

Petra was early to collect Mina the next morning, earlier than the usual breakfast time, and Mina followed Petra to the canteen, confused by the stillness in the air, even more startled when she entered the canteen to find it completely empty.

“So.” Petra had smiled at Mina, but not met her eyes.

“The recruits are still staggering in throughout the day. The Commander felt it best to give it a few days for us to work out our schedules, for all the kinks to be smoothed out before you get thrown in with them!”

“Where’s Niklas?” Mina had simply asked in response.

She watched as Petra moved her eyes away once more.

“Oh…must be oversleeping!”

 

 

 

Mina spent the next three days by herself, running through strength and stamina work with Eld or Petra all day, no Miche or Nanaba in sight.

She was assured it would go back to normal soon.

She ate at her meal times alone, always ushered into the canteen by Petra earlier than usual, only catching glimpses of new cadets on her way out, passing them in the hallways, seeing them from afar on the training field, shouldering past faceless bodies on her way to the toilets or showers.

She hadn’t seen Niklas.

Petra explained that he was sticking by Miche for a while and helping him out with work around the grounds. It was what was keeping him away at mealtimes, Petra had assured Mina, often coming down with Miche later than anyone else.

Mina simply nodded, always watching the way Petra averted her eyes.

 

 

 

On the fourth day, Petra had come to collect Mina at a later time. Her smile was wider as she stood at Mina’s doorway, her eyes brighter.

“Okay! We’re all good. You ready to face the crowd?”

 

Mina raised her eyebrows but nodded.

 

She faltered a few steps behind Petra as they walked to the canteen, her fist clenched, unclenching, fingers moving to smooth down her shirt, wishing she could un-tuck it, let it hang around her, wishing she could unroll her sleeves and pull her hair down from its braid.

She swallowed as she heard voices, a distinct buzz, a hum of chatter and laughter.

 

I haven’t heard this much noise since…

…Not since leaving the Undergorund.

 

Petra came to a stop, smiling as Mina came to stand next to her at the entrance of the canteen, looking at her with soft, encouraging eyes.

Mina pressed her nails into her palms, eyes scanning across the heaving canteen. People piled onto benches, wondered around, stood by the walls, all laughing or talking, arms slung around shoulders, smiles and occasional jeers across the room.

“It’s still pretty rowdy. They’re all very excited still, it seems.” Petra tried to explain, watching Mina’s wide eyes drag nervously across the room.

 

It’s too many people….

I can’t…

They’re gonna see me…

Everything I am…

 

A raucous laugh broke through Mina’s thoughts, snapping the worries into pieces so that they scattered in her mind, obscuring her vision for a few seconds as she wildly searched for the source of the sound.

Niklas.

She found him, in the centre of the room, sat on a bench, wedged between a group of people, all pressed close together, not touching their plates of food as they laughed, most looking at Niklas, watching his gestures and listening to his words.

Mina watched, his cheeks flushed, eyes bright, throwing his head back to laugh again, the people around him echoing his laughter.

  He looked up suddenly, as if sensing her, eyes snapping to find her.

“Mina!”

He shot up, a look of relief clear across his face, moving off of the bench quickly to stride towards her.

Mina tried to keep her eyes level, focusing on his face and not the curious gazes of those who watched to see who had drawn his attention.

He drew her into a hug, squeezing her tightly.

“Those assholes.” He muttered in her ear so Petra couldn’t hear, before pulling away. “They wouldn’t let me see you! Do you know how many laps I’ve had to run for you?! I’ve been on their asses these past few days; It’s been driving me insane!” He pulled her into a hug again. “I knew nothing was really wrong…I just hated not knowing how you were.” His breath tickled her ear, the relief in his tone trickling across her skin.

He pulled back, noticing her confused face as Petra laughed, nervous.

“Yeah, like we said Niklas, our schedules have been out of sorts while we settled in. I told you she was working with me.”

“So you’re not in any of my classes?”

“I haven’t…I haven’t started classes.” Mina stared at him for a few seconds.

His forehead creased. “You been with Nanaba and Miche?”

“I haven’t seen either of them in days.”

 

Suddenly, it all snapped in to place.

 

 

They knew how this would pan out.

Niklas wouldn’t be able to leave my side…with all these people around…he would be my shadow.

They couldn’t have that.

They needed him relaxed.

They needed him wanting to be liked.

He can’t do that when he’s always looking out for me.

 

“Get some breakfast Mina, before the food gets cold.” Petra smiled at her, strained, eyes wavering again.

“What’s going on?” Niklas asked, glancing between the two. “What do you mean you haven’t started? What have you been doing?”

Petra bit her lip, watching as Mina stared at her with knowing eyes. “I’m sorry Mina. It was the Commander’s request.”

Mina just nodded.

“I’ll let you two talk.” Petra said, nodding at Niklas again before hurrying off into the crowd.

“I don’t understand…” Niklas said, glancing at Mina again as he held her shoulders, searching her face.

“Let’s…let’s sit down and eat first.”

Niklas followed as Mina moved to grab a plate, her eyes unfocused, trying to blur out all the faces, turn the eyes she knew were staring at her into distant shapes and hazy colours.

 

They can see my face.

My scars.

No.

They can’t see me,

Just…

….Breath.

 

She inhaled sharply, a gasp leaving her lips, the air shuddering into her, fingers trembled as she let Niklas lead her to an empty table. He pushed her gently down onto the chair before taking a seat opposite her, eyes worried.

 

“They separated us on purpose.” Mina said, fingers pressing into her temples as she felt stares on her form.

Niklas’s brow furrowed.

“You’ve been in class? With some of these people?” Mina asked quietly.

“Yeah…the cadets at that table…I’ve met them over the past few days.”

She nodded. “You’re friendly with them.”

He pursed his lips. “Mina…don’t start this again…it’s not like-“

“No.” Mina shook her head. “I’m not…that’s not what I’m getting at. They wanted you…the Commander wanted you to get friendly with people…he knew you couldn’t do that If I was around. You’d be too focused on me.”

He was quiet as Mina speared at her food.

“First impressions count after all.” Her tone was soft, the words should have sounded bitter but they came out too quiet, too gentle. “They wanted you to settle in without me first…so that you could relax with these people, sit at their table, eat with them, laugh with them,…without worrying about having to hover over me,”

“Mina…it’s not like-”

She shook her head. “It’s good. It’s what they want you to do. I think the more you stay on their good side, the better.”

“I don’t want to stay on their good side Mina, for fucks sake I-”

“But you should. I don’t think they’re going to be as…lenient…not in front of all these cadets now, not when were supposed to be one of them. Besides…we need them to trust us. If after all this…we still plan to get out one day….” Her eyes were distant, staring out the window behind Niklas’s head.

Her voice was distant also, detached.

Niklas listened with a pit in his stomach.

“Maybe backing off of each other a bit is a good thing…maybe they won’t be so suspicious of us…that works in our advantage, right?”

“I’m not backing off from you Mina, damn it. Not when they’re still messing around with us like this. Maybe…maybe it’s worse than that…maybe they’re trying to tear us apart, make us hate each other? Then they know they will have us trapped. Get rid of the one thing we care about.” He shook his head, a furious expression on his face suddenly.

“I’m not sure if it’s like that exactly…either way…” She looked up at him, gaze steady. “You shouldn’t be worried about eating with your friends. You don’t want to alienate yourself because of me.”

“I don’t give a shit what they think of me Mina.”

She shrugged. “If we’re still trying to be tactical here…you should make friends. You should be seen with other people. It will be good for us in the long run.”

Niklas looked exasperated. “You’re overthinking this Mina. We don’t have to act any differently, not for anyone. I’m not ditching you for any fucking body.”

“Your friends are watching us now. Probably wondering when you’ll go back over.” Mina said quietly, glancing just for a second to see the turned heads, necks craning to get a better view.

Niklas shook his own head again. “Come sit with us then.”

“I don’t think I’m the best company.”

“Mina, you’re not…”

Mina looked up at him from her heavy eyebrows.

His expression faltered and his words trailed off.

 

He stayed with Mina for the rest of breakfast.

Neither spoke.

They both listened to their own thoughts.

 

Petra had returned at the end of mealtime to inform Mina her first class would be hand to hand combat.

“You know where to go.” Petra smiled encouragingly.

Niklas stood in unison with Mina, steps falling into synch with hers to follow her out.

“Niklas. You have ODM training, right?”

Niklas shot her a look.

“So?”

“So…your class is the other way.” Petra jerked her thumb in the opposite direction. “You can’t be late.”

Niklas’s frowned, throwing Mina a glance.

She shook her head at him.

“I’m fine Niklas.”

He shook his head in return.

“It’s not fair, them throwing you in blind like this…I’ll come with you…I’m sure Miche will understand.”

“Niklas. I’m not having you get into more trouble for me. Go. I’ll see you later.”

Mina turned before he could protest, hurrying out of the canteen and making her way down the halls.

 

 


 

 

 

She was one of the last to arrive to the clearing, her pace having slowed as she had tried to calm her heart, having to slump against a wall to take a few deep breaths, to clear out the black dots in her vision, swallow back the bile in her throat.

There were around ten other cadets on the field, some sitting, some standing, all dressed in the same white uniform as Mina.

 

Why do I feel like it’s different for me…wearing this?

 

There were two green cloaked figures at the front of the crowd, talking quietly to each other.

Mina recognised the first as Eld, his blonde hair scraped back into his usual ponytail.

The second was smaller, partially hidden behind a horse, one hand resting on the horse’s neck as he lowered his head closer towards Eld, peering at a piece of paper in Eld’s hands.

His dark hair fell forward, the strands obscured and Mina could see the beginning of the undercut around his nape, her eyes glancing over the white ruffled cravat that sat at his clavicle.

 

Captain Levi.

 

There were quiet murmurs between cadets, waiting patiently for the class to start. Mina kept her eyes on Eld, who was scribbling away on the piece of paper, nodding occasionally at Levi’s words.

 Her approach was quiet, but she felt as if her heart sounded like the thunder of a storm, like that day in training, thumping against her ribs, thumping against the clouds, reverberating through the sky so that everyone in front of her could hear it.

She was sure they could hear it, especially when all heads turned in her direction, hearing the soft steps on the grass behind them.

A few of the stares lingered and Mina tried to block them out again, tried to focus her eyes on the green of the glass and blue of the sky, tried to make the colours blur and erase out their faces.

“Mina.” Eld nodded towards her in greeting, his look almost sympathetic.

 

The nod of her head in return was almost imperceptible.

Captain Levi merely let his eyes brush over her for a second.

 

“Hey.”  A soft voice called her attention, high and warm.

Her eyes turned wearily to a young man, sitting cross legged on the grass, smiling up at her.

She took in his features, eyes straining to focus, picking out big blue eyes, floppy blonde hair and a smile that was all white teeth.

“Mina? You’re the new transfer? Niklas’s sister?”

He already knew the facts but posed them as questions, trying to be warm and encouraging to start a gentle conversation with her.

She noticed two figures sitting to his left side, a small blonde girl, peering up at curiously, a taller brunette, staring with a slight frown on her face.

Mina dug a nail into her palm.

She nodded.

“Cool! My name is Armin!” His grin grew wider so that his eyes crinkled, almost closing.

She nodded again, taking in the way his smile wobbled slightly, eyes blinking as he looked at her…waiting for something.

 

For what?

 

She could almost hear Niklas’s annoyed tone in her head respond to her internal question.

 

For you to talk to him, you dumby!

 

“Niklas…” She tried the words out, mouth feeling like cotton wool. “You met him?”

He nodded excitedly. “Yeah! He’s a really funny guy!”

Mina licked her lips.

She nodded.

His smile faltered again.

 

“Okay.” Eld called their attention, his eyes on Mina and Armin.

She wondered if he had heard her pitiful attempts at conversation and had decided that would be the moment to save her.

“If I could have your attention.”

It was quiet as the cadets stared up at him, eager and excited to start.

 

Mina felt like she was underwater, Eld’s voice muffled and distant.

“I’m going to be pairing you up to practice your hand to hand techniques. I’m going to get a feel of your strengths and weaknesses, what needs to be worked on as a whole. This class may seem obsolete in the grand scheme of things; of course you are never going to go hand to hand with a titan. But every advance you make in training serves to mould you into a well-rounded solider. Both physically and mentally. I expect no slacking off. Do your best.”

 He nodded to the class. “The pairing will be random.” He opened his palm to reveal pieces of torn paper. “You never know if an opponent will be bigger or smaller than you. The unexpected is the only way to learn. Captain Levi will be monitoring today’s session with me. Like I said, we’ll be watching…so we expect nothing less than 100%”

Mina kept her eyes forward, painfully aware of Levi’s presence at the front of the class, his eyes scanning over the small crowd with intensity.

She concentrated instead on the voices, mumbles as they waited for Eld to stir up the names.

“Ah, hand to hand is definitely not my strong point. And now with Captain Levi watching? Ah man.” Armin fretted, putting a hand to his forehead.

“I’m no better!” The small blonde girl had exclaimed.

“Hey, hopefully you’ll be paired up with me then.” The brunette girl nudged the blonde girl’s shoulder. “I’ll go easy on ya, baby.”

“What about you?” Mina blinked, her swimming vision coming to focus on Armin’s face as he looked at her with an encouraging smile.

“Any good with this?”

“Uh…I’m not too bad.” Mina settled.

“Ya know, I’m curious to see what you got, new girl.” The brunette girl smirked in her direction, cocking her head to the side.

“Be nice, Ymir.” The small blonde scolded, before shooting Mina a smile of her own.

“I’m Krista, it’s nice to meet you!  It must be really hard for you, not knowing anyone here…if you need help with anything, I’d be happy to lend a hand!”

Ymir snorted. “Yeah, yeah, calm down Miss Goodie Two Shoes. I’m sure she can handle herself just fine.”

Mina didn’t miss the way Ymir’s gaze fell on her face, taking in the scars with an intent look in her eyes.

Mina turned her head.

“Okay.” Eld called their attention once more, before he began to read out names.

“Armin Arlert!” Armin shot up to attention, eyes wide as he waited. “Pair up with Krista Lenz!”

His shoulder sagged in relief and he shot Krista a smile, who returned it gratefully.

Ymir rolled her eyes. “Oh jeez. It’s going to be like two pillowcases fighting each other. You’re both too soft, you know that?”

Krista ignored her, moving to join Armin, the pair beaming at each other.

“Ymir….” Her head cocked up as she waited. “Pair up with Bertolt Hoover.”

She snorted. “Great. That lanky son of a bitch. Just my luck” She grumbled to herself, stalking off to find him.

“Reiner Braun!”

There was a pause while Eld hesitated.

“Pair up with…Mina Verenich.”

Her head shot up at the sound of her own name, watching as her opponent quickly picked her unfamiliar face out of the crowd of his comrades.

He was quite a bit taller than her, and extremely stocky, broad shoulders and arms and short blonde hair, his face angular and severe in expression.

He walked over to her, face softening slightly as he greeted her with a nod of a head.

“Hey.”

She nodded back in return.

“Transfer, hey? Where abouts you from?”

Mina averted her eyes. “Just a small farming village way out…most people never heard of it.” She recited the words Petra had prepped her with.

“You’re older than a lot of the guys here.” He peered at her, arms folded across his chest, words not accusatory or suspicious, simply trying to get a read on her.

“I…I had to take a couple of years out…to look after family…they got sick.” The words were easier to say when they weren’t her own. It was easier to get the lie out between her almost gritted teeth when it was the cover formulated by Petra.

“Well. Sorry to hear that. But don’t think I’m gonna go easy on ya, alright?” His voice was low and gruff, but there was an edge of playfulness to it, a hint that he wasn’t as serious as he outwardly appeared to be.

She nodded.

“Start sparring!” Eld had called out.

Mina and Reiner moved, pacing to an open space, eyes not wavering from each other.

His face had hardened again, watching her carefully, the way she stood perfectly still, face blank, eyes unblinking.

To him, it appeared as if she had no idea what she was doing.

 

Mina was waiting for him to make the first move.

 

 

Her inhales were deep  and lengthy, drawing in every breath to tighten and contract her muscles, every exhale sweeping away the anxieties that pounded at her skull.

 

I can do this.

It’s no different than sparring with Miche.

Focus.

Don’t let yourself down.

 

Mina was aware of the grunts and heavy gasps around her, every other sparring pair moving in action, limbs connecting with flesh, sounds of exertion filling her ears.

She glanced to her right at a sudden moan, seeing a flash of blonde curly hair hit the floor, the first cadet to be pinned down.

As her eyes moved back to Reiner, they caught Eld and Levi, watching from a few feet away, both pinpointing their attention solely onto her.

 

Her eyes caught Reiner’s just in time as he moved.

 

She dodged, spinning on her heel to shift her body away from his attack. His rebound was quick, his foot digging into the earth for leverage to come at her with a swing of the arm, which she ducked under, twisting on her foot again to move her body another quarter turn around him.

They repeated this motion a few more times, his turns trying to follow hers, always one beat behind, not able to find his balance as she danced around him, anticipating and predicting his every move.

 

He’s way bigger than me.

I can’t rely on my strength.

But he’s slower.

He’s not taking the time to watch my movements; he only wants to focus on the charge.

I’ll wear him down.

 

 

She moved quicker, twisting her body at more extreme angles to dodge out of his way. He started to flail, swings become wilder and more desperate, stumbling on his turns.

She could hear his heavy inhales and exhales as she waited for the perfect moment.

She ducked under his right arm again as he swung it forward to punch, tripping over his feet, his body lurching forward.

 

NOW!

 

She grabbed his right arm as he faltered, fingers digging into the rubbery muscle of his bicep, using it as leverage to swing her body underneath.  She spun the arm with her to pin it behind his back, her other hand shoving into his left shoulder. Her legs came out to kick at his calves, watching as he buckled in on himself.

He fell to the ground and she used her body weight to push him forward, so that he landed on his stomach. The hand that trapped his left wrist moved, bringing his arm behind his back to join the right wrist. Mina centred her bodyweight on the tender part of his legs, pressing him into the earth.

 

Just like Miche had taught her.

 

He groaned, his breaths shallow gasps as she kept her hold.

Her own breaths were even, steady, one stray piece of hair unravelled, falling into her vision as she stared at the back of his head, before glancing up, knowing Eld and Levi’s eyes were still watching.

Eld nodded, a small smile and pleased expression on his face.

Levi’s arms were crossed, his brow low, eyes sharp, face impassive.

“Again.” He said, eyes focusing from Mina.

Eld glanced at him but said nothing.

Mina pursed her lips, releasing Reiner’s hands and moving off of him quickly.

He heaved himself up from the ground, rolling out his neck as he stared at Mina, his face sharper, letting out a gruff exhale.

“You got me that time.” He muttered, glancing at Eld and Levi. “They want us to go again?”

Mina nodded, moving to make space as they began to circle each  other.

“No problem.” Reiner said with a grin. “I know all your little tricks now.”

 

 

 

 

 

Despite his strength, Reiner was far too slow to keep up with Mina, and just as before, she pinned him to the ground within a few minutes, hands tight behind his back, his face pressed into the earth.

“Again.”

Mina turned her head at the low voice, Levi’s eyes moving from hers to look out into a space next to her shoulder.

She moved off of Reiner, her nerves now dissipated, as her brow furrowed. Reiner steadied himself, confusion growing on his face.

Eld glanced at Levi again.

 

Am I doing something wrong?

 

“Okay.” Reiner spoke with a shrug and a sigh. “We go again.”

 

 

 

 

 

Mina grunted as she pressed Reiner into the ground for the third time, sweat starting to trickle down her face, collecting at the back of her neck, her breathing growing harsher.

She was aware of the other cadets watching her, clearly confused as to why they were the only pair being singled out.

Mina looked up at Levi expectantly before he could speak.

“Go again.” His eyes only found hers for a brief second.

 

 

 

“Again, Mina.” Kenny shook his head at her as her body slumped, back  moving erratically to try and catch her breath, fingers trembling as she tried to ball them into fists, holding her arms weakly in front of her face, her defensive stance wavering as fatigue threaten to take her legs out from underneath her.

“I can’t.” She whispered, tasting the salt on her tongue, the sweat dripping down in her cheeks in rivulet.

Kenny bent down to match her height, hands holding onto her shoulders, pressing his palms into them hard, so that her body shook under the weight.

“I don’t care that you’re tired, kid. You need to learn to push past that. You think you’re gonna catch a break out there just because you’re tired?”

He clicked his tongue, clearly irritated as she stared up at him, eyes wide and desperate to please.

“Let’s go again.”

 

 

 

 

“Captain Levi, is there a problem?” Eld’s eyes were narrowed on Levi’s face, before glancing back at Mina’s expression.

Her eyebrows were knitted together, face set hard as she backed off of Reiner once more, straightening herself up and moving into an offensive position.

Reiner shook his head, frustration growing within him also. “What the hell gives?” He hissed under his breath.

 

 

I’m doing something wrong.

He’s not happy….Captain Levi.

But I’m pinning Reiner every single time.

He’s barely getting a hit in.

What am I doing wrong?

 

 

 

Mina moved again, every shift of her body mechanical and planned, watching Reiner’s own movements with intense focus, trying to plan two steps ahead of his every action.

 

This is what Miche taught me.

 

Mina stepped, turned, and swung.

 

 

I’m doing everything right.

 

 

“You’re holding back.” Levi’s voice was low and firm.

 

He didn’t address Mina by name.

But she knew the comment was aimed at her.

 

Her body shuddered, locking up, freezing.

 

 

 

“You’re holding back kid.” Kenny tutted at her, grabbing her fist once more as she swung at him. “I know you got more than this.”

Mina shook her head. “We’re just practicing…does It matter?”

“Does it matter?” He laughed. “Of course it fucking matters, kid. You don’t ever hold back. You think this is a game?”

He pulled her towards him harshly, fingers tightening around her wrists so that she winced, hot breath fanning across her face.

“This attitude of yours is not gonna keep you alive. You wanna hold back? Sounds more like you wanna end up dead.”

 

 

 

 

Reiner watched her body still, just for a second, as if an invisible force had seized her, knocking out all the motion from her body.

He took his opportunity.

He lunged, using the power of his legs and heaviness of his upper body to tackle her, engulfing her arms to knock her body back onto the ground.

She gasped in shock as her back hit the earth, feeling her insides jolt back into awareness, hands moving to block the swing to her face.

He had her pinned, knee pressing into her stomach, her arms raised tight above her head as he pinned her wrists, his face hovering over hers, determined and slightly smug.

 

 

Shit.

Miche. What would Miche do?

This position…I don’t know…I don’t know how to get out of this…

 

 

 

 

“I can see it in your eyes.” Kenny tilted his head. “You’re wasting your time...trying to predict my next moments…trying to strategize.”

His voice was a low drawl, as if he was bored with her.

“That aint gonna do you any goo,  kid. By the time you’ve thought up a pretty little plan to escape a hold, the bullet will have been shot through your brain.”

Kenny tapped her forehead with his pointer finger, a grin on his face.

“Don’t think. Just act. Use your animal instincts. They know how to keep you alive.”

 

 

 

 

That’s what Miche had tried to wean out of me…my instincts to fight…to fight without thinking…to let my body act for me.

Technique and form and planning….what does it matter when there’s a gun to your head?

 

 

 

“You’re holding back.” Levi’s words echoed in her ears again.

 

 

Fine.

If that’s he wants.

No holding back.

 

Mina let go.

She let herself believe there was a danger.

Believe that there was a knife to her neck.

A gun to her throat.

She let her body act.

 

 

Mina arched her back, forcing her weight up to press into Reiner’s torso, feeling him shift in accordance to the move, pressing his own body weight harder into hers to stop her escaping, bringing himself closer, his head only an inch away.

She turned her face, pressing her left cheek hard into the earth, turning it as far as she could go. She arched deeper, before she cranked her neck round, bring the side of her head forward with as much force as she could muster, cracking her skull into Reiner’s temple.

His grip fell as he groaned, his head snapping back, startled.

She moved within a fraction of a second, left hand coming up to grab tufts of his hair, wrenching his head back only to slam it forward, hard into the earth.

“Fuck!” He cried.

Reiner blinked away the black dots that swam in his vision, pain now reverberating behind his eyelids as he struggled to catch himself, limbs clumsy and confused as he scrambled to attack.

His knee was still above her stomach and Mina used her left thigh to hook it, pushing herself up off the ground and flipping Reiner’s body underneath hers, shifting the position to press her own knee up into his torso, his arms stuck behind his back as he tried to shift, her forearm pressed hard into his throat.

His eyes widened as she leant forward, her arm pressing in harder, making him splutter. He tried to wriggle out of her grasp, the pressure sending panicked signals to his brain.

It was quiet.

Mina could hear her laboured breathing, the heartbeat in her ears, see Reiner’s startled face through the strands of her dark hair.

She swallowed.

“Enough.” Levi’s voice called out to her.

She blinked.

Reiner stared up at her, a flash of alarm clear across his face.

She moved, bringing her arm up off his neck, listening to his sudden gasps of breath as she launched her body off of his, her own fingers trembling slightly, legs shaking.

She was aware of an audience, every other cadet having stopped to watch, a silence in the air so heavy, that Mina suddenly felt as if she was swallowing it, letting it suffocate her from the inside out.

 

She didn’t dare look at Captain Levi’s face.

 

 

I shouldn’t have done that.

I should have been more careful.

I was…too much.

That’s not how I’ve been taught to fight…not here…

They’ve seen too much.

 

“Okay, show's over.” Levi called, annoyance evident in his tone as he glanced at the rest of the cadets. “Go cool down.”

 

Mina went to move, wanting to make as much space between her and Reiner as possible, scrub the image of the fear in his eyes clean out of her mind.

He was on the ground still, hands up to rub at his neck.

 

She hesitated.

She swallowed.

She inhaled.

 

 

Reiner looked up, surprised to see a hand reaching out towards him, Mina standing with her lips pursed, eyes shifting around his expression, keenly avoiding holding his gaze.

He moved, his large hand coming up to clasp hers, feeling the gentle tug as she helped pull his body up, knowing it wasn’t needed, but understanding the gesture.

“Thanks.” He said to her, nodding gratefully.

She nodded back; face expressionless but eyes moving around still. “I didn’t mean to…” she trailed off, unable to find the words.

Reiner smiled. “Hey, don’t worry about it. This is what training is for. You did a good job. I wouldn’t have guessed you’ve been out of action for so long.”

She nodded in response and Reiner almost chuckled at the unsure expression on her face.

“You should teach me some of those moves sometime. I think they could come in handy.” His hands were on his hips, a grin on his face

Mina tried to offer a smile in return, not sure if the tug of her lips came across before he had turned, moving into a jog, joining the other cadets on their cool down lap.

 

“Hey.” Mina turned to see Ymir approaching her, a smirk on her face. “Nice job new girl! Never would have guessed looking at ya.” She cocked her head to the side. “Where’d you learn all that?”

“Ymir, leave her alone.” Krista muttered, coming to her side and tugging on the taller girl’s sleeve.

Ymir chuckled, slinging her arm around Krista’s shoulder. “What? Just asking. She’s just a tiny thing.”

Ymir looked at Mina again, something in her eyes causing Mina to bristle.

 

Can she see me?

 

“Besides, it was good to see Reiner get his ass kicked. That guy really grinds my gears.”

“Reiner’s a nice guy.” Krista came to his defence, earning a glare from Ymir.

“Yeah, and doesn’t he love to be told it. Please, his whole White Knight thing is so self-serving.” Ymir rolled her eyes, sticking her tongue out as if mimicking throwing up.

“Nice job, Mina!” Armin also approached a small smile on his lips.

 

Mina pursed her lips, clasping her hands behind her back and swaying on her feet, unsure, despite his sincere tone and warm smile.

“You cadets going to gossip all afternoon? Or join the rest on the cool down?” Eld approached the small group, his tone fierce and eyebrows raised.

The four echoed a “Yes, sir!”, setting off to start their jog.

 “Mina.” Eld stopped her quickly, letting the others create some distance before he nodded his head over towards Levi. “Captain Levi wants a word.”

Mina dug her nail into her palm, following Eld without a sound.

Levi was by his horse again, hands fiddling with the harness round the animal’s thick neck, eyes intent on the task in front of him, not looking at Mina as she approached.

Mina’s brain was scrambling, formulating a defence, an explanation, anything to minimise the punishment she expected to receive.

“You can resume your training with Nanaba for however long you see fit.” He spoke quietly, his usual low tone, his eyes still on his horse, the longer strands of black hair falling into his face as he stooped down to inspect something around his horse’s upper leg.

Mina blinked.

“She explained how beneficial the extra classes have been for you. I’m leaving that portion of your training entirely in your hands.”

He straightened up again, arms reaching overhead as his fingers moved along the horse’s neck, not once turning his gaze to her.

“She’ll be waiting for you this evening, as usual.”

Mina nodded, before realizing he couldn’t see the action.

“Thank you, Captain.” Her words came out steadier than she had expected.

She watched him quietly for a few more moments, his silence and preoccupation with his horse enough of a wordless dismissal for her to turn back around, passing Eld without a glance and setting into a jog.

She watched the group of cadets clustered together in front of her, running far behind them at her own solitary pace.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Hey Fresh Meat!”

Nanaba stood with her hands on her hips, a grin on her face as she watched Mina approach, picking up into a light jog, the grin slowly growing on her face as she got closer.

“How was your first day?”

Nanaba watched the grin on Mina’s face slip, watched the way she moved her gaze down onto the ground.

“Hey.” Nanaba said, pulling Mina into her side, arm going around her shoulders to give her a squeeze. “What’s with the face?”

Mina shook her head. “M’fine. Just…getting used to all the people.”

“Hey. I’m proud of you, you know that, right?” Nanaba said sincerely, tilting Mina’s chin up to look her in the eyes. “You’ve worked your ass off to get to this point. And it was hard. But at the same time, this type of work was familiar to you. But…it feels different now? Being around people?”

“I think it’s going to be harder than anything I’ve done so far.” Mina confessed.

Nanaba nodded. “That’s okay. You’ll get there. Working on a team is just another part of training.  Like this.” Nanaba gestured to her ODM gear. “You might suck at it at first…and it will take some time to feel comfortable…but you’ll get there. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself” Nanaba squeezed her shoulder again.

Mina smiled gratefully.

“Right, enough of the mushy stuff.” Nanaba glanced at Mina’s loose straps and undone buckles, raising her eyebrows.

“I think I put my arm through the wrong part again…”Mina said awkwardly, shifting around in the loose harness as Nanaba rolled her eyes.

“Let’s get you dressed.”

 


 

Mina perched on the branch of the tree, testing out the weight with her foot first before settling herself on it, unhooking her wires, peering out across the horizon.

The bare branches had begun to sprout life, buds opening into pale pink flowers, pale green leaves already blooming under the late afternoon sun.

Mina listened to the rustle of the wind amongst the shrubs, the hushed whisper of the leaves, the crackle of birds. It was warm, despite the goose bumps on her arms from the breeze, and Mina wondered if this feeling would ever grow old.

Her skyline adventures in the Underground had always provided her with a high, a desperate and fleeting sense of freedom, a moment in which she could block out at least some of the noise.

This high was different, gazing up at the sky, the never-ending horizon, the fragments of sunlight that dripped off of her skin and spilled onto the ground far below. It had Mina’s blood soaring, an everlasting wave that rolled in and in and in…the final crash never coming.

She could forget everything.

Block everything out.

Bask in a complete and utter sense of carelessness.

 

She felt as if she had all the time in the world.

 

“Hey.” Nanaba landed on a branch across from her. “You still with me?” She tilted her head in amusement at Mina’s far away expression.

Mina nodded.

“Okay.” Nanaba jerked her towards the left, signalling out across the distance. “I’ve marked the tree. Can you see it?”

Mina peered in the direction, having to crane her head at an odd angle. It took a few seconds for her eyes to zero in on the flag hastily wedged in between the branches of a tree that sat a little way out, partially blocked behind taller and thicker trees.

“How would you get there?”

Mina pursed her lips, considering, eyes quickly taking in the terrain, mapping out the most efficient route across the foliage.

“I would hook to my right.” Mina gestured at a thick tree to her side. “That gives me chance to line myself up and move into the centre.” She pointed around to another tree. “Then from there, I can go straight across.”

Nanaba nodded. “That’s good. What if that tree wasn’t there though? The one to your right?”

Mina bit her lip, eyes scanning again.

“On my left…there’s a big-“

“That takes you further out. You have to go back in again. It’s wasting time.” Nanaba interjected. “Wanna know what I would do?”

Mina nodded.

Nanaba pointed to the tree straight in front of them, one that completely blocked out the view of the marked tree behind it.

“Hook onto there and swing straight around. That should get me from point A to B in one motion. No need to go hopping from tree to tree.”

Mina’s eyebrows creased.

“I can’t swing like that yet.”

Nanaba grinned. “Which is why, we’re going to practice.”

 

 

 

The sun had nearly dipped behind the horizon, navy blue seeping across the sky, and after many failed attempts and many collisions with tree trunks, Nanaba had called their class to a halt for the evening.

Mina winced as her fingers touched a tender spot on her cheek, feeling the graze and already blossoming bruise.

Nanaba shook her head. “I should have made you stop ages ago, silly girl.” Nanaba peered at the cheek, sighing heavily.

Mina shook her head. “If I stop then I can’t get better.”

Nanaba pursed her lips. “It’s a hard move. Don’t beat yourself up about it. You’re probably not strong enough still, it can take years to build the strength to manipulate your body in the air like that. “

“I’m going to keep trying.” Mina affirmed.

Nanaba sighed.

“I know you will. All I’m saying is don’t feel bad if you don’t get it. You’re smart. You can adapt. The first answer you gave me worked, that route was mapped out perfectly and didn’t require any advanced techniques.”

Mina nodded, not wanting to speak the words at the tip of her tongue.

 

But if I needed to be quicker….

If it was a matter of life and death….

The most convenient route isn’t going to keep me alive…

 

 


 

 

“What happened to your cheek?” Niklas frowned as he slid onto the bench to sit opposite Mina at breakfast the next morning.

She sighed. “A tree happened.”

He laughed, his eyes crinkling. “What’d you do to piss it off?”

“Very funny.”

Mina glanced up to the busy table in the centre of the room, the one she had spotted him sitting at the day before.

Niklas followed her gaze and sighed.

“I’m not going to leave you alone at every meal, Mina.”

She shrugged. “I’m okay.”

“You know, I do actually enjoy your company, believe it or not. I’m not obligated to sit here.”

“Not just babysitting me then?”

He rolled his eyes. “Look, I’ll give you some space at dinnertime or something.” He grinned. “Besides, I can still babysit you from across the room.”

She ignored him, gazing out of the window as she chewed.

Niklas watched her distant expression.

“You know…I know it’s hard for you…but it wouldn’t hurt for you to try, right?”

Mina glanced back at him.

“To make friends? Not like I’m best buddies with those guys or anything but being friendly with them makes my life easier.” He shrugged.

Mina looked indifferent.

He waited.

“I don’t want to make friends.” She said finally.

“Probably because you’ve never had any Mina…” His tone bordered on pity and her fists clenched.

“I’ve got Nanaba and Miche….they’re my friends.”

He shook his head. “But they’re your teachers. Besides…you know how I feel about those guys still. These guys however…” He gestured around the room at the new cadets. “They’re harmless. They’re all young. Painfully naïve and ignorant, most of them. These guys we have nothing to worry about. It won’t do no harm in getting closer to them.” He shrugged nonchalantly.

Mina continued to eat her food, not saying a word.

“Look…I know this is completely new territory for you and it’s hard…I know you’re probably scared. “ Mina looked up at him. “But…it would be good for you Mina…good for us. Like you said, the more we blend in…the less suspicious they’ll be.” He lowered his voice. “The better chance we have of getting out of here.”

Mina pursed her lips.

“Just…promise me you’ll try at least, okay? Can you promise me that?”

Mina dropped her fork, her appetite suddenly gone.

He held her gaze, eyes wide and pleading.

She considered the look in them.

 

He’s worried for me.

 

“Okay.” She said quietly. “I’ll try.”

 

 


                                           

 

Mina was less than thrilled when Petra had caught her at the end of breakfast, informing her that her morning schedule would consist of an ODM class with Nanaba.

She was grateful at least for the comfort of Nanaba, but having to demonstrate her lacklustre ODM skills in front of an audience had a ball of anxiety bouncing around the confines of her stomach.

 

 

Nanaba had moved to greet her as she approached the training grounds, noticing the worried lip and clenched fists from afar.

“Hey, rearrange that face right now, Missy.” She laughed lightly, eyes peering at her curiously when she saw Mina catch sight of Levi.

He was talking to an unfamiliar cadet. Mina could only see his profile but the severe look on his face was perceptible still from a distance.

“Okay, not a face like that Mina.”  Nanaba said, glancing between Mina and the Captain. “Scared of the big boss man? He’s just here to observe your training.”

Mina moved her eyes across to the space next to Nanaba’s head.

“I don’t…I don’t think he likes me that much.”

Nanaba tilted her head. “Look, I know he doesn’t come across as the friendliest guy ever but I doubt Captain Levi dislikes anyone here. He’s a very respectful man and I know he thinks highly of anyone who has the guts to do a job like this.”

“Mmmm.” Mina said, unconvinced, thinking of the way his eyes always strayed from hers, his tone almost dismissive when addressing her.

Nanaba tilted her head.

“You know…you two have more in common than you would think.”

Mina furrowed her eyebrow. “Petra said the same thing.”

Nanaba smiled. “Don’t think too poorly of the man, yeah? Just don’t take his attitude to heart.”

Nanaba clasped a hand on Mina’s shoulder, laughing slightly, the sound catching the Captain’s attention, his eyes zeroing in on the contact.

“Oops.” Nanaba said, the grin still on her face. “Can’t have him thinking I’m giving my favourite student any special treatment now, can i?”  She grinned, before jerking her thumb over to the small group. “Go join the rest. You’ll be okay.”

Mina nodded.

 

 

 

“Who’s the new chick?”

Mina glanced at the voice. It wasn’t addressed to her directly but she could feel eyes on her all the same.

A boy was staring at her, though he tried to avert his wide gape when Mina glanced over, tilting his head to start whistling conspicuously, rubbing the back of his shaved head.

“Connie! You idiot, don’t call girls chicks.” The young woman next to him smacked the back of his arm, her wide brown eyes looking at Mina apologetically, messy brown hair falling into her eyes as the wind picked up. “Sorry about him.” She offered a smile and tilt of the head.

Mina nodded.

Connie rubbed the back of his neck guilty, also offering Mina a smile.

“Hey, you must be the cadet that transferred with her brother!” The girl exclaimed, smiling again. “My name’s Sasha! Nice to meet you.”

“Mina.”

“Her brother? Oh!” Connie’s eyes widened in recognition. “That Niklas guy, right?”

“Huh.” Mina looked towards the new voice, at the young man to Connie’s left, standing taller than the two, with ashy brown hair, sharp eyes and narrow features. “That guys your brother? He really loves the sound of his own voice, doesn’t he?”

Mina blinked while Connie scoffed.

“Wow Jean, that’s real rich, coming from you!” He exclaimed, shaking his head at the taller man who glared down at him in response to the comment.

“Hey! What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Jean!” Sasha cried, hands on her hips. “You’re really gonna insult her brother in front of her like that? What’s wrong with you?”

Sasha smiled at Mina again, holding up her hands apologetically with a cheerful tone. “These two are idiots, I’m sorry about them.”

“Uh…It’s okay.” Mina tried, shifting from foot to foot under their stares.

“You know, Ymir told me you kicked Reiner’s ass in training the other day.” Connie said, his laugh rough and playful. “Man, I would have paid to see that!”

“I bet you’re pretty good with the ODM gear too then!” Sasha exclaimed, nodding her head enthusiastically.

Jean crossed his arms over his chest, cocking his head as he looked at her.

“Oh…no, not at all.” Mina said hurriedly, hoping the words hadn’t tripped out, hoping they didn’t sound too mechanical. “I’m really….rusty, actually. Been out of practice.”

“Oh! Well, maybe Jean could help you out! He’s pretty good.” Sasha offered while Jean chuckled lowly.

“Yeah…I was best in our graduating class after all. “He shrugged, feigning nonchalance. “I’m sure I could teach you a thing or two.”

“Oh jeez.” Connie muttered, giving Sasha a side eye glare. “Wait a go Sasha, you’ve just gone and inflated his already big head.”

Jean snapped round to him again. “Hey!”

“Okay guys, enough chattering.” Nanaba approached them, trying to paint her face into a serious expression, although Mina didn’t miss the twinkle in her eye, clearly pleased to see her interacting with others.

Mina kept her eyes off of the figure hanging back from Nanaba, standing by the tree line, eyes watching under the pretence that he was there to observe the whole class.

“Go get ready by the starting mark. It’s gonna be a long one today.” Nanaba instructed to the group.

Mina set off in the same direction as Connie and Sasha, keeping a distance behind them as they chattered, her mind wondering as she played with a strand of loose hair.

She hadn’t realised Jean had hung back behind her, so when his long legs had strode over to catch up, his voice suddenly at her ear, Mina had whirled around violently, a fierce look on her face at the sudden surprise.

 “Hey!”

She blinked at him, stepping back instinctively as his figure loomed over her.

He titled his head.

“Didn’t mean to make you jump. Just…”He gestured down to her leg and Mina looked, a piece of the brown leather strap flapping down below her knee, the buckle undone. “You missed a bit.”

“Oh.” Mina said lamely. “Yeah.”

She reached down to strap it up and Jean watched as her fingers fumbled, becoming confused by the adjoining straps that run up her calf as she struggled to clasp it all back into place.

“Here.” He bent down quickly, fingers working to deftly secure the buckle within a matter of seconds, Mina bristling at the feeling of his fingertips brushing her shin as he tightened the leather around her knee. “All done.”

He straightened out again, nodding at her and offering a friendly smile.

“Be careful, yeah? If that came completely undone while in action, I’m sure you would have had a nasty accident on your hands.”

Mina nodded, averting her eyes. “Yeah. You’re right. Thank you.”

“Let’s go.”

She turned to follow him into the woods, glancing to see Captain Levi’s eyes on them.

 

She tried to keep her expression as blank as his.

 

 


 

 

Mina was late to dinner than evening and the canteen felt busier than usual.

She tried to blur out the throngs of people as she weaved her way through the crowded benches to search for a plate of food, ignoring the buzz and heat of so many bodies packed into one room. She grabbed a tray, eyes almost magnetically pulled to a table to her left where she was surprised to see a group of familiar faces piled in together.

Miche and Eld were in deep conversation across the table from each other, Nanaba was laughing, her hand clasped on the shoulder of Hange next to her. Petra was leant forward, her chin in her palm, listening intently.

Captain Levi sat, his body almost angled away from his comrades, one hand resting on the mug in front of him, his gaze distant and distracted.

Mina moved her eyes away quickly, turning away from them and making her way to her usual table.

She jumped at a thud to her left, body tightening at the tinny sound that echoed in her ears, a plate rattled across the stone floor, the sudden shrill noises making her body contract and tighten.

She relaxed slightly when she saw a boy on the floor, his plate of food dropped around him, only seeing the back of his curly blonde hair as he shakily pushed himself up.

 

Must have tripped.

 

“Watch where you going.”

 

The low tone came from a figure standing above the boy on the floor, a tall, burly man, with a broad face and wide shoulders, a smug sideways grin and narrowed eyebrows.

 Mina’s body instantly bristled at the sight of him.

 

No.

The boy didn’t trip.

 

“You…you pushed me.” The boy on the floor countered, Mina watching him slowly rise, his back straightening up.

Her eyes glanced to the bigger boy again.

“If you had been watching were you were going, I wouldn’t have had to.” The broad boy seethed, tone low, only drawing a few glances from those sitting close by, not causing enough commotion for anyone to really care.

 

I shouldn’t care either.

Just walk away Mina.

 

But she couldn’t move, her feet planted onto the ground, watching the back of the blonde boy shrink under the man’s towering form.

The bigger boy tutted suddenly, moving to brush past, stalking out of the room.

Mina still couldn’t see the smaller boys face, his back still to her, but she didn’t miss the slight tremble in his shoulders.

She watched his fist clench and unclench.

 

She swallowed.

She tore her eyes away.

 

She found Niklas as she moved across the room again, his attention drawn away from the crowded table as he spotted her. She watched his face break into a smile, his shoulders straightening to stand and join her

She shook her head, eyes glancing back down to the table.

 

Stay.

 

He hesitated, eyes unsure, mouth downturned as she held him with a determined look.

 

Stay.

I’m fine.

She broke the stare, tray in hand as she moved passed him.

She pretended not to notice the table of veterans with their eyes trained on her, watching her walk to the far end of the canteen by herself, sitting at an empty table by the window, staring out, face blank, as she ate alone.

 

 

 


 

 

Niklas’s sour expression at breakfast broke into a joyful grin when Miche strolled over to their table to inform him and Mina that he would be joining them both for another hand to hand combat session that morning.

Niklas had smiled at Mina across the table, the promise of being together again for training enough to invigorate them both.

Miche almost looked guilty.

“We’ll have company….Captain Levi wasn’t happy with either of your combat assessments when he observed last week. He’ll be sparring with you both this morning.”

Niklas’s face had dropped instantaneously and Mina wondered what interactions he had already had with the dark haired man, assuming by the look on his face that they weren’t favourable.

 

Perhaps…perhaps he holds a grudge against us both.

 

“All work and no play.” Niklas muttered, screwing his nose up as he looked down at his plate of food.

 Mina herself was toying with her fork, stomach already turning as she thought of the Captain’s cold disposition, the hard look in his grey eyes.

“I thought you were in charge of my training now, Miche. Why is he getting involved?” Niklas questioned.

Miche sighed. “Levi is the best solider we have. He wanted to spar with Mina after watching her in class, and I suggested a training session for both of you with him. He understands where you both need to improve. Having his guidance would be instrumental for you both. None of us veterans understand combat as well as he does.”

Niklas raised his eyebrows. “I don’t get it. Surely he must get his ass kicked from time to time? I’ve seen kids taller than him.”

“Niklas, if you continue to talk like that around Captain Levi, don’t think for one second I’m going to back you up.” Miche shook his head, grumbling under his breath. “I already let you away with too much as it is.”

“I’ll be on my best behaviour.” Niklas wagged his eyebrows at Mina. “Promise.”

 

 

 

 

Mina blinked again in shock as Niklas landed on his back with a thud,  her brain still trying to catch up with the last of Captain Levi’s movements.

 

He had been on his right side….

Suddenly…

He was at his left…

All it took was one swing…

 

One swing to Niklas’s chest, the flat surface of Levi’s palm knocking the wind out of him, leaving Niklas gasping on the ground.

 

It was like he appeared out of thin air…

 

Levi was fast, his movements so agile and smooth that Mina’s eyes could barely keep up, still processing his last steps while Levi had already taken two more, his small figure cutting gracefully through the space, almost a blur.

Mina had been hoping to pick up a few of his movements, track at least one common tell, at least one minute weakness.

It was no use.

Mina couldn’t keep with him.

The only thing she had been able to keep count of was the number of times Niklas had landed flat on his back.

Mina pulled her knees further into her chest, hugging them tightly from her seated position on the ground.

She had just watched the fourth.

From above, Miche sighed.

“I told him to tone it down.”

Miche was referring to Niklas’s attitude, having sauntered in with his usual charm and nonchalance, grinning at Captain Levi and cracking a light hearted joke about even Oluo being taller than humanity’s strongest.

Levi had simply stared with his usual stark expression.

“Captain Levi likes to set an example.” Miche muttered as Mina looked up at him briefly. “No that he particularly enjoys kicking people around but when it comes to respect…it does the job.”

Mina tried not to widen her eyes at Miche’s words.

 

If that was an attempt at a defence of Captain Levi’s character…it was a pretty weak go of it .

 

“Okay.” Niklas said, his voice slightly croaky. “That one really fucking hurt.”

He pushed himself up, chin tucked slightly as he winced, rubbing a hand to his chest before looking up at Levi with a weak smile.

“Can I uh…call it a day?”

Mina heard Miche’s faint grunt.

Mina wasn’t good at reading expressions, hadn’t had enough experience to pick up the small tells on people’s faces, only recognising Niklas’s emotive range, sometimes able to decipher a look from Miche or Nanaba if she stared hard enough. But Levi’s face was unlike anything she had ever tried to pick apart, barely a flicker ever moved across his features, permanently set in a stare that danced between severe, or simply, disinterested.

Levi looked down at Niklas, tutting quietly under his breath.

“Your form is still sloppy and I can feel you giving up within the first minute I start to gain the upper hand.”

Niklas simply stared at his expressionless face.

“We can call it day, sure…I have much better things I could be doing with my time anyway. Just know however, that your piss poor attitude is going to cost you in the long run. You have the strength, you need to listen and learn how to utilize it correctly.”

 

His tone…

Was it harsh?

Severe?

Abrupt?

Something had shifted in it towards the end…while he sounded cold…

…he was only telling the truth.

It can’t always be sugar coated.

 

 

“Right…” Niklas muttered, not bothering with a snide comment or cocky comeback, eyes looking up wearily before he averted them.

Niklas stood, a few feet away from Levi, towering over him in height, yet the way Levi looked at him, the way he held his body and regarded Niklas with his stare, Niklas might as well have been cowering underneath Levi’s heel.

“I’ll try harder next time.”

Levi let out a quiet huff. “Next time?”

“Mina.” Mina looked up to see Miche peering down at her. He gave a gentle nod of his head in the direction to where Levi stood. “You’re up.”

She inhaled shakily and nodded, uncurling her legs to stand up quickly, smoothing down her shirt.

Niklas passed her with a pained look on his face, still rubbing at his chest.

Levi didn’t regard Mina as she walked closer, still staring at the space where Niklas had just stood. Mina moved into that vacant spot, eyes on the ground as she settled her feet, before flickering them up to hold Levi’s.

She took in the details quickly, the head that only stood a fraction taller than her, the lean body in the same white shirt and pants, tan jacket pulled close, having rid himself of the green cloak. She looked at the point of his chin and cut of his jaw, the high cheek bones and small sharp nose. His eyes were narrow and heavily lidded, severe eyebrows pulled down low, wisps of his black hair almost looked wet under the sun, falling down from the middle part to obscure parts of his forehead.

She observed it all only for a few seconds, as that was all it took for him to look at her, grey eyes dancing across her face quickly, body rigid and unmoving, before she saw him inhale, saw the flare of his nostrils, before he looked away, head turning in Miche’s direction though his eyes never looked at the man directly.

Mina’s heart raced.

“Miche. You come up to spar.”

Miche’s face contorted in confusion.

“Me?”

Levi nodded.

“I won’t be sparring with Mina today.” Levi said, keeping his eyes averted till, already walking away from the space, while Mina blinked in confusion.

“I wasn’t supposed to be sparring today.” Miche said, folding his arms over his chest. “The whole point of this morning’s session was that they fought with you.”

Levi shook his head. “I changed my mind.”

“But you just practiced with Niklas.” Miche affirmed, watching as Levi came closer before passing him completely, coming to stop a few feet behind.

“I think it would benefit Mina more if I simply watched her technique.”

Miche’s eyebrow furrowed further.

“And then you’ll spar with her?”

It was quiet, Levi turning his head so that all Mina could see was his profile, the sharp slope of his pointed nose, furrowed forehead and the angle of his jaw.

“I won’t be sparring with Mina today.”

Miche looked frustrated as he glanced at Mina, as if expected her to have the answers.

She stared back with a wide eye clueless expression.

“Captain Levi, I understand that you’re the primary mentor for Mina now but surely the most beneficial thing for Mina’s technique at this point in her training would be for her to spar with you?”

“I cannot correct her technique if I am not able to see it.” Levi responded simply, nothing in his tone altering.

“That hasn’t stopped you with others in training before. Surely fighting with her is the best way to understand it? The best way to help her improve?”

Levi finally looked up, eyes somehow narrowed on Miche’s.

“Are you disagreeing with me, Miche? Questioning me? Or trying to overrule my decision?” His voice was level, the words harsh but tone almost bored.

Miche looked him steadily.

“I wouldn’t ever want to overrule you, you know that. Nor would I ever disrespect you by questioning your knowledge. But do I disagree with you? Respectfully, yes I do.”

“That’s fine.” Levi said. “Feel free to disagree.”

Miche pursed his lips, annoyance etched across his face. “You just fought with Niklas, this doesn’t make sense. We agreed that in order to improve, she needs to be fighting stronger opponents. You’re the strongest here. She needs the experience, not comments from the side-lines.”

“I’m her teacher Miche, I’m making the final call. If you have a problem with it, take it up with Erwin. If you want to plead your case and take over for her instead of me, be my guest.”

His low tone coursed through Mina’s skin, making it prickle, her mind racing to catch up with all the questions being thrown around in her head, pounding at her skull and demanding an answer.

She made eye contact with Niklas, who had been glancing between the three of them with a perplexed expression of his own.

He mouthed something to her, and Mina tilted her head, furrowing her brow to try to read the words.

What did you do?

She shook her head, confused.

He grinned and continued.

To piss him off?

 

Mina almost flushed, moving her eyes away from Niklas’s accusatory face.

 

Not since that day in the Underground…I haven’t done anything to him.

He just….

Doesn’t like me.

 

“I don’t want to do that Levi.” Miche said, sighing heavily again. “Okay. I trust your judgement on this. If you believe it’s the best way for her to train-”

“I do.”

“Okay.” Miche shrugged. “Then I spar.”

He turned from Levi, who watched impassively, crossing his arms over his chest.

Niklas gave Levi a side eye glance, almost nervous.

Miche approached Mina with a smile.

“Stuck with me again.”

Mina smiled weakly back.

 

I should be relieved….

But…

What did I do to him to make him act like this?

 

“I don’t mind.” She said softly.

“Just when I thought I had the day off.” His tone was light but he cast Levi another quick look, before settling his attention solely on Mina. “Okay. Let’s go.”

 

 

 

Mina knew her technique had improved a lot over the months, always listening to Miche diligently and scoring his demonstrations into her brain, mimicking his movements and steps.

She had managed to land a far few hits, the impact considerable, and had him pinned for the longest time yet, despite him overpowering her at the end and wriggling free.

As usual, the sparring ended with Mina as the opponent to be pinned, Miche holding her down gently, his breathing slightly laboured.

He released her, helping to yank her back up and steady her on her feet.

“That was good! Longest one yet.” Miche smiled at her which Mina softly returned, her enthusiasm slipping away when she glanced at Levi, seeing him avert his eyes to Miche, a displeased expression on his face.

“She’s picking up bad habits from you Miche.” Levi spoke finally, assessing the tall man.

“What are you talking back?” He responded defensively. “Her technique and form is nearly perfect…she just needs to get stronger.”

Levi shook his head. “That doesn’t matter. You’ve taught her how to fight just like you…that’s not what she’s best at…she needs to fight the way that she knows best.”

He pursed his lips before speaking again.

“You’re overthinking.” Levi addressed her, arms folded over his chest yet his eyes tilted up to the sky as Mina watched him. “I can see you thinking through ever single step. It’s too mechanical. It’s slowing you down. You’ll never be able to gain the upper hand.”

Mina looked at Miche for help, the man only able to glance back at her, unsure.

“I…I uh…what should I do then?” Mina asked softly.

She waited.

“A lifetime of training cannot compare to what has been ingrained in you. Fight the way you know best.”

 

Is this like before?

What he wanted…that time with Reiner?

 

Mina stood, not moving, waiting.

Levi lowered his eyes, catching hers for a brief second.

 

“Do what you have to do.”

 

To survive…

It’s like…he knows...he can see me…

He can see what I’ve done to survive.

 

His eyes had moved again, regarding Miche expectantly.

The tall man sighed, clasping a hand down on Mina’s shoulder. Her attention turned back to him, peering up blankly while Miche tilted his head, grinning at her.

He gave her shoulder a squeeze.

Levi watched the interaction, before his eyes found the ground once more.

“Okay.” Miche said. “You just…fight the way you’re most comfortable with, okay?”

Mina nodded, trying to not let her features flicker as her memories threatened to pull her under, tugging her deeper below the surface, her lungs filling with something thick and suffocating.

She thought of all the times she had been forced to fight.

 

When plans with Kenny had gone askew.

When she had been followed and cornered in alleyways.

When a man noticed the jewels in her hair and had tried to snatch them out.

When men had seen a girl…a small, frail, scared looking girl…and they had assumed…they had assumed that they could do whatever they wanted.

 

Every time Mina had fought her way out, the instinct to survive seizing complete control of her body, barely conscious of the way she moved, never thinking any part of it through.

She spat, kicked, clawed, and gouged her way out every single time.

Like an animal.

But it kept her alive.

 

They began to spar again.

She had been hesitant once more, unable to flick the switch within her when there was no perceived threat, unable to find the shift within her when all she could see was Miche’s careful face.

Her movements were controlled still, and it didn’t take long for Miche to have her pinned again.

She struggled underneath his heavy hold, desperately trying to map a way out of it, wanting desperately to prove herself stronger.

 

Why?

Why do I care so much?

Why do I care what he thinks of me?

 

“Do what you have to do.”

 

I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.

Not like this….

 

Mina inhaled, closing her eyes, imaging the weight above her as a stranger, picturing the sweaty grimy faces, toothless balding men, the putrid stench and hot breath.

 

Mina would have rather died than let them touch her.

But she never wanted to die.

So she had to fight instead.

 

She moved.

Her knee came up hard to make impact with Miche’s groin, the pained groan nearly causing him to buckle his entire body weight on top of her.

It was almost a blur, the way she lunged at him, wild kicks and scratches, tackling Miche to the ground and immobilizing his body too quickly for him to find a space to break free from. Her body knew the way to move, an instinct, knew how to manipulate his limbs, despite his overpowering strength, so that she had him on his knees, with his arms wedged and trapped behind him. Her left hand was pulling his head back by his hair, her right arm wound round his throat, applying pressure.

He gasped as she pressed harder.

Kenny had taught her just the right amount of force to use, how to make them panic, how to make them realize their air supply was slowly depleting and that there was nothing they could do about it. He had had shown her how to press harder, until their eyes rolled back into their heads, until their body went limp, knocking them unconscious.

 

 

 

“I don’t want to kill them Kenny.”

“Yeah, yeah.” He waved her off. “You won’t kill them like this. You’ll just put them to sleep for a lil while.”

 

 

 

 

She felt Miche sag slightly, his body slackening, gasps catching in his throat.

She counted.

1…

2…

3.

 

She dropped him quickly, arm unwinding from his throat, her own body completely backing off and watching as his heaved for breath.

Panic seized her immediately, paralysing her bones as she felt her own breathing hitch, a band around her lungs pulling tighter.

She stared for a few seconds before the band snapped, air flooding into her.

“Miche.” She said quietly, arm reaching down to hesitantly touch his back, fingertips grazing the broad muscles. “Are you okay?”

He let out a grunt, a slight chuckle, straightening up and shaking his head to clear out the fog, taking another deep inhale.

Mina let her fingers drop slowly back down to her side.

“I’m sorry.” She said.

He shook his head. “Don’t apologize. I’m fine. I’ve had worse than that.”

 

They saw me.

 

“Mina, it’s okay.” Miche touched her shoulder again. “It might not be the way I choose to fight, but you know your stuff. Don’t feel bad about doing what you have to do to gain the upper hand. It’s saved your life so far, right? That’s all that matters.”

He pursed his lips.

“Maybe I have been approaching this all wrong. I guess Captain Levi was right.” He mumbled the last part to her, before turning to face the dark haired man. “Happy now?”

As usual, Levi didn’t look happy, nor sad, nor any other expressive emotion.

“It’s ugly work.” Levi said slowly, eyes dancing across to Mina for a millisecond to indicate that he was addressing her. “But it doesn’t matter…as long as it does work. Play to your strengths. Always.”

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

Mina’s agitation settled within the few days that followed, Captain Levi’s sudden absence from her classes feeling like a respite. Miche had explained to her that the Captain was away with his squad and Hange, experimenting with the titan shifter boy.

She was starting to fall into an almost comforting rhythm, monotonously making her way through the days.

It felt like that on her way to the canteen for dinner that evening, the predictable routine almost feeling like luxury.

That was until she stepped into the doorway, freezing in her tracks, some invisible hold seizing her entire body.

Her eyes moved on their own, zeroing in on the table of veterans in the far corner of the room.

Miche and Nanaba sat opposite each other, talking animatedly, Nanaba’s hands gesticulating wildly while Miche nodded in response. The rest of Squad Levi was piled in around them…the Captain sitting at the far end, almost obscured by the shadowy corner.

She tore her eyes aware quickly, scanning instead around the room for Niklas, only to find his usual bench empty.

She grabbed her tray of food, moving to make her way to her usual table by the window, now familiar with her solitary meal times.

 

“Hey, Hugo!” The high pitched voice caught Mina’s attention, her eyes involuntarily zoning in on the sound. “That’s mine! Give it back.”

She frowned.

It was him again, the blonde boy, the one she had seen picking himself up from the floor of the canteen a few nights before.

He was a few tables away, but this time, his figure was facing hers.

She could see his face.

Her heart skipped a beat.

His hair was short, the blonde curls catching around his ears and swirling around his forehead. His eyes were wide, the green of the irises catching light under the rays of sun.

He looked so young.

Too young.

His cheeks still round with baby fat, a soft chin, button nose and pursed lips, the angry expression on his youthful face almost looking comical as he stared up at the broad boy in front of him, the same boy that Mina had seen in the canteen too.

The broad boy, Hugo, laughed and Mina watched his fingers clasp tighter around a small object, eyes examining it as he twirled it around in front of his face.

“Don’t know whatcha talking about.” Hugo said, a jovial grin on his smarmy face.

Mina’s heart thudded in her throat as she stood frozen in place, watching.

“Hugo.” The blonde boy’s face cracked, a desperate look in his eyes, lips turning down.

 

Mina could see the dimples in his cheeks, even from a distance.

 

His face morphed suddenly, the features all too similar and Mina watched as the stranger’s face blurred, features softening further until she was staring at someone familiar, too familiar, so familiar that her heart almost spilled out of her chest.

All she could see was Maxi.

She let out a sharp, shuddered gasp, fingers slackening suddenly so that her tray fell, only for a seconds, before she scrambled to catch it again. She closed her eyes tightly, screwing them shut and holding her breath.

No, no, no, no.

She waited for her fingers to stop trembling.

She opened her eyes, staring at the boy again; the same familiar features, but his face no longer identical to that of her younger brother.

“Please. You don’t understand. Give it back.” His voice cracked.

A few heads had turned round at the sign of a commotion, eyes assessing the situation, not regarding it as anything important, before turning back round to their meals, to their friends.

“Like I said.” Hugo grinned again, cocking his head to the side. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He threw the object in the air, catching it deftly before slipping it into his pocket and turning on his heel.

Mina’s fingers tightened around her tray, white knuckled, her eyes hard.

“Hey!” The young boy’s voice called out, shaking fingers clasping at Hugo’s sleeve. “You can’t-”

Hugo spun around, knocking the boy off balance so that he stumbled, steadying himself on a chair, looking up with wide eyes and a trembling bottom lip.

“Don’t touch me!”

“Hey.”

A senior soldier stepped forward, having wandered in for his own meal, only catching the tail end of the altercation.

“Knock it off, you two.”

“Sorry, Sir.” Hugo’s face moved, his expression light.

The soldier narrowed his eyes. “What’s the problem?”

Hugo smiled sincerely. “Just a misunderstanding.”

He flashed the small boy a warning look.

The blonde boy stammered, mouth opening and closing, shoulders hunched as he tried and failed to get the words out.

The soldier nodded. “Just get back to your meals.”

He walked off, leaving the young boy to stare up at Hugo, pleading with his tear filled eyes.

Mina was transfixed on the distraught look painted across his face, the image piecing through her lungs so that she almost gasped for breath again.

Something hot fizzled underneath the surface of her skin.

Hugo turned.

Mina saw his grin, the crooked smirk, the jauntiness in his shoulder and carelessness in his swagger as he made his way to leave.

 

I know what type of person you are.

 

Something exploded in Mina.

She swore she heard the crack run through her bones and echo inside her skulls, a white hot fury setting her cells on fire.

She didn’t think about the veterans eating their meal a few tables over, their eyes as always, periodically glancing over to her, continuously watching.

She didn’t think about what would happen if they saw.

If they heard.

She didn’t think of consequences.

She didn’t care.

 

She acted on animal instinct.

It’s what she knew best.

 

She made a beeline, striding quickly over to Hugo’s direction, setting herself up so that her pace matched his, moving her body so that she was walking directly in front of him, watching as he whistled to himself, swaggering, eyes distracted.

She turned on her heel at the last second, minimising the impact so that she wouldn’t knock herself completely over in the process. Despite this, she made sure to use enough force so that her shoulder jostled his large body, sending him stumbling, tilting, rearing back on his heels.

She took those few seconds to reach out her left arm, balancing her tray on her right hand, moving her fingers deftly into his pocket as he staggered to catch his balance.

She feigned a stumble of her own, the angle allowing her to delve deeper, grabbing the object from his pocket swiftly before pulling her hand back out again and setting it behind her back.

“I’m sorry!” She said, painting on wide eyes and an apologetic smile, offering a softening of her face as she looked up at him. “I really didn’t even see you there!”

It was easy to smile at the stranger when the smile wasn’t her own, easy to let words slip out of her mouth when she didn’t mean them.

It was all too easy when she was playing a role.

His eyebrows furrowed at her, confusion  and annoyance clear on his face as he took in her meek expression, straightening himself up and smoothing out the front of his shirt.

Mina slipped the object into her pocket as he kept his eyes on hers.

“Watch were you’re going next time, yeah?

Mina nodded, another bright smile on her face. “Of course! I’m such a klutz sometimes, honestly!” She let out a small laugh, rolling her eyes at herself. “Hope I didn’t hurt you!”

He frowned, clearly offended by the assumption. “Of course you didn’t hurt me.” He grumbled. “Just watch it, yeah girl?”

Mina smiled at his patronising tone, tilting her head. “Will do.”

He hummed in response, shouldering past her and making his way out.

Mina stood still for a few seconds, her face falling again, wiping itself clean as she collected herself.

 

Miche.

Nanaba.

Petra.

Captain Levi.

….how much did they see?

 

She didn’t dare look in their direction, waiting expectantly for one of their firm voices to ring through the air, to call her name…to call her out.

 

Nothing came.

 

Mina kept her eyes ahead.

 

If they saw…what must they think of me?

Now they’ve seen who I can be…

Does it matter?

It’s all part of me.

Why should I care so much what anyone thinks?

 

 

Another breath.

 

Don’t let it go to waste.

 

She moved.

 

She approached the young boy’s table, faltering as she stopped at the side of the bench opposite him, unsure of how to gain his attention, staring at his blonde curls as he sat hunched over, face pressed into his hands.

She swallowed the lump in her throat.

“Hello.” She tried quietly, blinking when he jumped up in shook.

She held his gaze for a few seconds, seeing the glassiness in his eyes, wet with fresh tears, the green so vibrant behind them still.

 

Maxi.

 

He stared at her in confusion, a flush creeping over his cheeks as he dragged the back of his hands across his eyes to collect the tears.

She averted her gaze.

“I uh…sorry…I just wondered…if anyone was sitting here?” She gestured to the empty bench.

He blinked at her before shaking his head, sniffling fiercely and brushing his hand through his blonde curls.

 

Maxi.

 

She slid in carefully, eyes dancing over the chubbiness of his cheeks once more, the fresh rosy skin.

 

He’s even younger than I thought.

 

She set her tray down carefully, trying to stop her eyes from glancing at him every few seconds, stirring the food around her plate and absentmindedly taking a few bites, barely tasting a thing.

The sniffling subsided after a few minutes and she looked up to see him staring at her, his brow furrowed slightly and biting his lips.

“Why’d you wanna sit here?” He asked, voice soft and high.

Mina shrugged.

“There’s plenty of room at the other tables…probably better company too.” His voice was dejected and he glanced down at the table.

Mina cleared her throat. “I don’t really like a crowd.”

He looked up at her again, wide eyes blinking.

She offered him a small smile.

“You’re in my hand to hand combat class!” He said suddenly, eyes lighting up.

Mina blinked, brain blanking for a few seconds until she remembered the moment just before she had begun sparring, remembered the blonde curly hair pinned to the floor next to her within the first few seconds of fighting.

“Oh…sorry, I’m still…learning faces.” She tried awkwardly and he sighed.

“It’s okay…I’m not very good and have to sit out a lot because I kept getting nose bleeds.” His lips twisted. “You were great though! I saw how you pinned Reiner! And he’s so much bigger than you but you got him every time! It was so cool!”

It was too much, the vigor and excitement in his voice as he grinned at her, dimples deep in his cheeks.

Mina’s hands trembled around her fork, almost dropping it.

 

Maxi.

 

“Man, I wish I could fight like that.” He looked wistful before his expression dropped slightly.

Mina swallowed.

“That guy…”

His eyes flashed up to hers, a flush on his face again before he turned his head to the side.

“It’s nothing.” He said quickly.

“I…I saw him the other day too…when he pushed you…”

The young boy sighed, sniffing slightly again and keeping his eyes locked on the table.

“I….he…he doesn’t like me. I caught him trying to sneak out past curfew and…well...I’m not a snitch I swear! I was just…scared I would get into trouble if someone found out I knew and I hadn’t reported it…so I had to tell our superior…I didn’t want to get punished too! I’m already on thin ice…I’ve been warned if I don’t make enough improvements before the next expedition, I’m going to get kicked out. A liability, they said.”

His hand came up to rub his forehead and Mina’s heart ached at the wounded expression on his face.

“So…that’s why he’s doing that…he’s tormenting you because you reported him?” Mina pushed.

He nodded, fingers coming up to the table, clasping them together, bottom teeth sunk deep into his bottom lip.

“He…” his voice shook again. “He took my mother’s broach…I…I carry it with me sometimes. I like looking at it during the day…he saw me with it and took it.” His voice was breaking, trembling, spilling out in fragments as the tears slipped down his cheeks again. “It’s one of the only things I have left of her. And he took it!”

Mina’s heart rattled, a sudden urge taking hold of her, wishing she could wrap the young boy up, carry him far away, up high, into the trees, make him a home there, some place safe.

 

He shouldn’t be here…he shouldn’t…he shouldn’t…

 

“I’m from a small village near Shiganshina.”  His lips shook as he moved a hand to brush away another fresh fat tear. “When the titans attacked…I was the only one in my family to make it out alive. That broach was one of the only things I had to remind me of my mother…of my family… and… and…”  He chocked the words out between sobs. “And I wanted to join the Survey Corps…to get strong...to fight the titans…to kill the things that took my family away from me…and…I can’t even do that for them…I’m failing…I’m failing them.” He dropped his head down low, the grief overtaking him, unable to stop the words from spilling out to Mina, a complete stranger, the wound bleeding before anyone could move quick enough to apply pressure.

Her eyes were wide, dancing across his shaking form, a pull in her bones, pulling her towards him…closer, closer, closer.

 

“It’s okay.” Her hand found his on the table, cupping the back of it with her scarred palm and squeezing gently. “I…I understand. I lost all my family too. Not in the same way…but still…when I was younger…I lost them all.”

His eyes looked up to meet hers, wide and vulnerable.

“Really? But…aren’t you here with your brother?”

She pursed her lips.

“Yeah…but…he’s not my brother…not by blood. He raised me…yes, he’s my family. But my real brother…and my mother…I lost them both.”

Mina could hardly believe the confession slipping out between her lips so easily, opening herself up, so raw and intimate.

 

His wide eyes, tender face, soft features.

 

It’s like I’m looking at Maxi.

 

We bleed from the same wound.

 

She felt herself tugging it open further, letting the blood spill out between them.

 

“So…what I’m trying to say is…that I know what it’s like…to feel like you’re alone…to feel like you’ll never be strong enough. You’re not alone in that feeling.”

Her hand still covered his as he stared up at her in awe, blinking fiercely, eyes clearing out some of the haze.

“But you’re strong…I’ve seen you…you’re so strong.”

She shook her head. “I wasn’t always. It took time….you…you can become strong too.”

His eyes widened, incredibly so, the tears stuck on his long eyelashes as he gazed at her.

“You think?”

She nodded.

“Here.” She moved her hand off of his to reach down, fishing out the object out of her pocket.

His mother’s broach.

She slid it along the table gently, offering it up to him with a small smile.

A gasp fell from his lips, hands reaching out to clasp it, holding it up to his face in wonder.

“How…how did you…”

She smiled slightly. “He may be a lot bigger than you or me but it’s not very perceptive…I have a feeling he’s all talk and no walk.” She shrugged.

The boy’s lips trembled again, gazing at Mina with an indecipherable look.

She wavered underneath, an anxiety suddenly seizing her again.

Have I…have I done the right thing?

“Thank you. Oh wow, thank you so much! I can’t…I can’t tell you how much this means to me!”

“Just…keep it somewhere safe, yeah?”

“Thank you! I can’t…I can’t even find the words.” He smiled up at her. “But why? Why do this for me when you don’t even know me.”

“I…I have something that belongs to my mother too, that I like to keep close to me at all times. I can’t imagine how I would feel if that got taken away from me. I…I just knew…whatever he took…I knew it meant something special to you.”

 

We bleed from the same wound.

I just knew it.

 

He nodded, clasping the broach to his heart.

“Thank you.”

It was quiet for a moment, Mina turning back to her plate, her appetite having dwindled underneath her torn emotions.

“Hey.” He laughed. “I just realized, I never even told you my name!”

She looked up to see him beaming at her, bright eyed and dimpled. “My name’s Jasper!”

She nodded. “Mina.”

“Mina! Cool! You know…when I first saw you in training you terrified me! But…I guess I was wrong! You’re really nice! I’m sorry for judging you.” He looked away, almost guiltily.

She inhaled heavily. “It’s okay… I guess you can never be sure.”

He nodded eagerly and Mina wondered, wondered if she dared move her eyes over to her right, to glance a few tables over and take a peek.

 

How much had they seen?

 

She took a deep breath, chancing a quick glance over at the table.

Every face was turned in her direction.

She moved her eyes back down to the plate in front of her.

 

Damn it.

Too much.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Please tell me you saw that”? Oluo hissed, glancing from Mina’s frozen form, standing in the middle of the cafeteria, before looking back to the rest of the table.

Nanaba avoided his gaze, looking down at her plate.

Miche pursed his lips.

Levi stared ahead, face unreadable.

“She took something from his pocket, right? Did you guys catch that?”

“It was so quick.” Eld muttered.

“Never mind that! She was smiling…positively beaming at him! And she spoke…I’ve never heard her voice sound like that before…what the hell was that?!”

“Stop being so dramatic.” Nanaba glared at him.

“You’re just gonna pretend you didn’t see that little performance then?” He shot back at her.

“It was very…unlike her.” Petra considered, avoiding anyone else’s gaze. “The look on her face…”

“You know, I always wondered how they got away with it so long…above ground, working with that MP…surely people seeing a girl like Mina would know she didn’t belong, would know that something was up.” He shook his head. “But I get it now. The way she pulled that off…her whole demeanour switched up…like a completely different person.” His voice lowered to a grumble.

“And I thought Niklas was the manipulative one.”

“Hey.” Nanaba stared him down. “Look, we already knew all that.  We already knew what her and her brother had done. You think it’s easy for her? You think she wanted to do it? You have no idea what’s she’s been through.”

“Oh, and you do?” Oluo countered.

“I know enough!” Nanaba said. “Bits and pieces…I can imagine the rest.” Her eyes looked away, swallowing thickly.

“She’s been through hell...they both have.” Miche agreed.

“Maybe that’s the real Mina, right there.” Oluo said, pointing his fork in her direction. “Not that placid thing we’ve come to know.”

“I swear Oluo, I’m going to knock your head off your shoulders if you carry on. You’re talking out of your ass.”

“Nanaba.” Miche said, shaking his head, before looking at Oluo. “No. It’s not. We know Mina, she doesn’t put on an act for us. That….that was just…”

“That was her surviving.” Levi interjected, taking a casual sip from his mug, eyes not falling onto any of them.

It was quiet for a few seconds.

“Captain.” Petra hissed suddenly. “She’s approaching that boy…should I intervene?”

He shook his head. “No, leave her be. Just wait and see what happens before you all jump the gun.”

He sighed as they turned their heads to look at her.

“Try not to make it so damn obvious.” He muttered.

 

 

The table watched her slide into the seat opposite the boy, watched her initiate the conversation.

“Who’s that kid again?” Nanaba asked.

“Jasper Aubert. The youngest we have.” Miche sighed. “Freshly fifteen years old.”

“Ever seen them together before?” Eld asked, glancing around the table.

They all shook their heads.

 

They watched as they spoke briefly and the young boy began to cry, watched Mina’s eyes soften, widen, her face torn in despair as she reached across to clasp his hand.

“That’s the real Mina.” Nanaba muttered, shooting Oluo a harsh look.

“I don’t understand.” Petra said, watching as Mina slid the object she had taken from Hugo’s pocket across the table towards Jasper. “She…stole something for him? But she doesn’t even know him.”

“She didn’t steal anything.” Levi sighed, glancing at Petra, his eyes steady over the rim of his mug, fingers splayed awkwardly around the top.

He took another sip, setting it back down, a look of agitation on his face. “She’s giving it back.”

It was quiet, the veterans turning back to their half-finished meals, an awkward silence as they continued to glance periodically over at Mina, watching the way she had settled into the bench, watching as Jasper spoke to her enthusiastically, his face animated in her presence.

She nodded occasionally, offering an occasional smile, not touching her food.

“Hey.”  The soldiers turned to see Niklas approaching the table, sweaty and grimy, turning up to dinner late after a cleaning shift in the stables. His eyebrow was furrowed as he glanced across at Mina, who was nodding again at Jasper’s words. “Who’s Mina sitting with?”

“You don’t know?” Eld asked.

Nikals shook his head. “Never seen the kid.”

“It appears Mina has made a friend.” Oluo said sardonically, raising his eyebrows while Nanaba kicked his shin under the table.

“A friend?” Niklas peered across at the boy, taking in his blond curls and bright smile.

Niklas’s mouth opened slightly, eyes wide for a second, closing his mouth again and looking away with a frown.

“What’s wrong?” Miche asked.

“Nothing.” Niklas shook his head, glancing up again. “He just…he looks like someone.” Niklas grumbled the last words, running a hand through his hair. “How old is he anyway? He looks like a child. You guys really that desperate?”

Nanaba rolled her eyes at his tone while Miche shot him a warning look, glancing at Levi who appeared to barely be listening.

“He just turned fifteen.” Petra said.

“So he only just met the cut off? Wow, you’re really starting them early.” Niklas shook his head. “Why take him? Just look at him. He can’t be any good.”

It was quiet, the silence enough to confirm Niklas’s words.

Niklas frowned again at Mina.

“Typical Mina.” He grumbled, running a hand through his hair in agitation.

“You don’t look very happy about this.” Levi spoke suddenly, leaning back lazily in his chair as he observing the Niklas’s tense figure and contorted features.

“I guess I just don’t appreciate Mina’s habit of picking up strays.” Niklas’s eyebrows furrowed further.

 “It’s gonna get her into trouble one of these days.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Mina could see the flag from across the treetops, the torn piece of red fabric fluttering in the breeze, her body perfectly lined up so that all it would take for her to snatch it was one solid swoop forward, an arm outstretched, a quick tug.

She moved through the air, hopping from her tree branch, securing her hook to the next tree in front of her. Her body propelled through the leaves and she angled herself so that she could obtain the flag in one single reach.

A laugh echoed to her right, a shadow dancing across the ground when Mina glanced beneath her feet, the image moving quicker, coming closer.

Mina moved sharply to the left, no other choice when the body was on the exact same path as hers, not intending to slow down.

Mina wasn’t sure if she would be able to land safely if they made impact.

She unhooked, securing herself to a tree on her left, completely off course and the flag now far out of reach.

She landed on a thick branch, looking up to see Sasha, perched on a tree trunk a bit away, flag in hand.

“Sorry about that.” Sasha rubbed the back of her neck. “Quick reflexes though!” She offered the compliment with a grin, the joyful expression deeply sympathetic as she looked Mina over.

 “Sorry. Connie’s got more than me and I reallllllllyyy wanted to beat him today.” She dragged out her words, whining like a child.

Mina stared.

“Maybe next time, yeah?” Sasha offered.

Mina simply nodded, not able to harbour any resentment, despite being so close.

She hoped the gesture was enough to show she held no hard feelings.

After all, it was everyone’s prerogative to do what they could to win.

Sasha saluted her playfully, attaching the flag to her belt before whirring off to the right and disappearing into the darkness of the trees.

Mina sighed heavily to herself, fingers playing with the bare belt around her waist, yet to capture any flags despite her best efforts, despite the sweat collecting at the back of her neck and burn in her thighs and shoulders.

 

No point wasting time feeling sorry for myself.

 

Mina set off again, trying to enjoy the wind against her skin, the fluttering of leaves, warmth on her cheeks, the slight twist in her stomach as she soared above the branches.

It was hard to enjoy when Mina was at war with herself, unable to accept that her best efforts were all she could give yet it still wasn’t enough.

 

She spotted a flash of colour in her peripheral, steadying herself quickly to see a ribbon of blue, half hidden in the shadowy undergrowth, wedged at the base of a tree, on the ground.

 

Huh.

I guess we all expected for the flags to be up in the treetops.

But it makes sense to throw us off the path.

 

It was quiet, the faint snapping of branches as birds moved to and fro, rustling and whispering of the wind, Mina’s own heartbeat in her ears.

She lined herself up, perching to steady herself, hooking onto the tree in front, inhaling deeply before she lunged off. She let her body swing through the air in one straight motion, lining herself up before she unhooked quickly, letting herself fall.

It wasn’t a technique Nanaba was particular fond of, scolding Mina whenever she saw her use it.

 

“You can’t just let yourself free fall through the air like that Mina, that’s crazy!”

Mina furrowed her eyebrows. “Why? I always land it.”

Nanaba shook her head. “You have no back up. One wrong footing, one sudden obstacle in your path, and you’ve got no safety net to stop you from hitting the ground.”

“It’s easier for me to land this way.” Mina tried to explain.

“I don’t care. You need to stay hooked onto something, you crazy girl! One miscalculation and you’ll break your legs on impact. And that would only be the best possible outcome.”

 

Mina disagreed, although didn’t bother to argue with Nanaba over it.

Mina had let herself fall from further heights over the years, jumping down from buildings to hit the cobbled streets, constantly taking shortcuts, ignoring safer landings in favour of those from a greater height.

Mina was willing to take the risks if it meant she got away.

 

 

My body knows how to land.

Why waste time hooking onto another tree?

Why waste time in the air, moving my body further away…just to go back again?

Why? When I know I can just….fall.

And I will land it.

I always do.

 

She landed with a soft thud, boots pressing into the dewy earth, softening the impact so that she barely felt it, straightening up quickly and smiling to herself.

The blue flag was directly in front of her, a mere arm’s length away.

Mina reached forward.

 

Something swooped across her vision, a body in front of her, so quick it was almost a blur.

She felt the body brushing past the tip of her nose, a lanky arm outstretched to snag the blue flag before Mina’s fingertips could reach it.

She spun round to see Jean, having swung down from a tree above in a perfect arc. He had judged the angle perfectly, so that his feet had barely touched the ground, allowing one clean swoop to retrieve the flag successfully before Mina had barely had the time to blink.

He landed on the ground gracefully, unhooking himself, blue flag in hand.

“Not quick enough.” He grinned at her, a slight smugness to his voice, though Mina detected softness in his face, his usual mixture of cockiness and playfulness. “I guess it really wasn’t fair.”

He attached the flag to his belt, a belt that happened to be adorned with many other colours. “No one is faster than me when it comes to this.”

He patted his ODM gear for effect.

Mina didn’t say anything. Her small interactions with Jean so far had been enough to know he never meant any harm.

The annoyance pushing up under Mina’s skin as he spoke was not placed on him, but directed instead at herself.

All these feelings were unfamiliar to Mina. It took her a while to figure out that it boiled down to a silent competition between her and the other cadets, an unspoken contest between them all, regardless of close knit friendships.

Who was faster, stronger, swifter…?

Each cadet had everything to prove. To themselves. To others.

No matter how hard they all tried to resist, it was a facet of training that was impossible to fight.

 

 “No hard feelings though, right?” Jean queried, a smirk still on his face, but a crease in his eyebrows as he took in Mina’s unblinking, unreadable stare. “I saw how you landed just now. From quite a height too. That’s pretty clever.” He nodded towards her.

She swallowed.

“Thanks.”

He nodded again, eyes glancing down to her bare belt.

“No luck again?”

Mina averted her eyes into the treetops.

“Hey, don’t feel bad about it. Still rusty and all that?”

“Yeah, I suppose so.” Mina offered in response.

“Well. “ Jean walked over to her, a confident stride. “Keep up with a positive attitude and I’m sure you’ll get there.”

His arm moved to clap her on the back, a gesture of encouragement and solidarity.

Mina moved out of his reach quickly, staring up at him in question.

His hand dropped, a flash across his face for a brief second, before he rearranged it into a smile.

“Right. Sorry. All still getting to know each other here.”

 

A loud whistle blew out amongst the clearing, a signal that the race was over, and Mina pressed her nails into her palm as she knew she would have to return to Nanaba with no flags, once again.

 

She trailed behind Jean as they made their way out of the woods, glancing around at the other cadets, all with flags attached to their belts, Jean’s the most decorated.

Nanaba flashed her a sympathetic smile as she welcomed the cadets back, pausing to congratulate Jean.

“Ugh, not again!” Connie groaned, glaring at Sasha.“I thought you said you were sure you had him beat!”

Sasha shrugged guilty. “Hey, he must have picked up a few more since I last saw him.”

“Sorry guys.” Jean put his hands on his hips, grinning. “It’s hard to compete when it comes to natural talent.”

“Oh give me a break.” Connie grumbled, slapping his palm to his forehead.

Mina didn’t miss the way Connie and Sasha’s stare moved to her empty belt, her eyes glancing up to catch them the second they awkwardly looked away, guilty expressions flashing across their faces.

“Hey. Just keep practicing and working hard and you’ll be picking up all these flags in no time.” Jean said boldly, puffing out his chest, a righteous tone in his voice as he levelled his stare at Mina.

Sasha crinkled her face up in embarrassment while Connie groaned again.

“Knock it off man! You know Nanaba is the teacher here and not you? It’s painful listening to you talk sometimes.” Connie rolled his eyes, rough voice growing deeper in annoyance.

“Oh, that’s rich. Have you heard the idiotic nonsense that comes out of your mouth, Connie?” Jean shot back. He pointed his thumb to his chest. “I’m just trying to help her!”

 “That’s really noble of you man.” Connie’s eyes flashed to Mina. “How about we reverse the roles here, maybe Mina could help you out instead? I’m sure you could teach him a thing or two about sparring? How about it Jean?” He grinned at the tall boy, whose face had blanched. “You and Mina, a quick one on one? See what you can learn from her?”

Jean looked away quickly. “Uh...no…that’s not necessary. My sparring technique is just fine, thank you.”

Connie laughed. “Yeah right, you suck! Come on, I think you could really use Mina’s help here.”

Mina stared blankly, not able to work out if it was joke between them or at her expense.

“I do not suck!” Jean yelled back at him. “Why are you so eager? You wanna practice with her instead?”

“No way!” Connie held up his hands in playful surrender.

“Why? What’s the problem?”

“I’m not having her kick my ass!” Connie cried, eyes bulging.

“Well, I’m not having her kick mine either!” Jean cried back.

It was quiet suddenly, the boys glancing at Mina as if just realizing what they had said out loud. Their faces cracked, both offering her tentative, sheepish smiles.

She moved her eyes away, pretending to be busy unhooking herself from the gear as the boys bickered between one another, voices now lowered.

“I don’t know what’s going on here but you guys need to cut it out and get back. I’ve got things to do.” Nanaba’s stern voice broke through the boy’s squabbling, before she turned to Mina, hand on her shoulder to guide her out of ear shot from the rest of the cadets.

“How you doing?”

“I’m okay.” Mina said, eyes carefully distant, looking down at her undone buckles, fingers moving to release the straps.

“These guys have years of experience on you. I want you to keep that in mind, Mina.”

Mina nodded. “I know.”

“Just remember that…whenever you doubt yourself.”

Mina looked up, unable to resist her warm tone.

Nanaba smiled.

“You’re doing great. Don’t forget it.”

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

Mina swung her sword forward deftly, using her hips to twist, using the power of her shoulders and arms to bring the blade forward in a graceful curve, making a single clean cut through the rubbery stump.

“Whoa Mina, nice one!”

Mina turned her head to see Armin grinning at her, holding his own sword in front of his body with a hunched form and weak grip.

She nodded at the boy, once again noting the pattern that seemed to be arising from him. He was often offering small comments, directing questions to her, throwing her smiles, working to involve her in conversations.

He kept this up, despite how many times Mina had remained silent in response, despite her averted eyes and single expression.

He never gave up trying.

 

It’s like he knows I don’t belong…

He watches me…I see him.

And he can tell what an outsider I am.

 

But what Mina couldn’t put her finger on was his insistence to keep trying.

 

Why does he care?

 

“Armin, not like that.” Mina watched as the tall, slender girl, with elegant features and cropped black hair came to his side once more.

Her voice was soft and calm. She placed her hands on his shoulders, moving his body to correct his stance, raising his sword higher for him. “You’re too loose.”

Mina watched Mikasa step back to observe Armin’s feeble swing, a finger coming up to toy with the edge of her red scarf.

Mina had watched Mikasa a lot since Armin had introduced the pair to one another, Mina managing a small nod while Mikasa offered a small smile and a soft “Hello.”

She seemed to hover over Armin, always encouraging and gently correcting his technique. Mina would glance over when Mikasa moved to practice her own skills, always standing strong and steady, moving the sword with an immense power and force, barely having to adjust her body as she swung it forward to hit the mark deep every single time.

There was something about her that Mina wanted to observe more, something about Mikasa’s almost palpable strength, combined with her softness and warm energy, that felt comforting to Mina.

Mina turned back to her rubber block, moving again but changing to her left side, the arc still the same graceful slice through the air, hitting the target cleanly.

A low whistle came from her right side and Mina glanced towards the sound. She spotted Ymir standing close by with a hand on her hip, her other hand nonchalantly dangling the sword by her side, a tilt of her head and grin on her lips.

“Nice, new girl.” Ymir commented, sizing up Mina’s small form once more. “Where’d you learn to swing like that?” Her tone was playful, drawling and lilting over the words.

Mina looked back at the deep cut across the rubbery stump.

“Same place as you.” She responded.

“You would think. But you move different to the rest of us, like you’ve been taught a different technique."

 

She sees me.

 

Mina didn’t look up, feeling Ymir step closer.

“You look real comfortable, new girl. Perhaps it’s because you’re familiar with other weapons too?”

Mina’s head snapped up, her careful gaze looking over her right shoulder, eyes holding Ymir in a silent stare. Mina watched the way Ymir’s eyes narrowed slightly, a crooked grin on her lips, gaze flickering over the scars on Mina’s face and neck.

 

She sees me.

 

Ymir took another step forward.

“Where did you say you were from again?” She peered at Mina, as Mina looked back down at the sword, adjusting it in her grip, holding the handle tightly.

“Not somewhere you’ve heard of.” Mina responded, shoulders rolling back, lowering the sword but keeping the tension tight.

“Why don’t you try me?” Her tone was cocky.

 

She sees me.

 

Mina swung, slicing the sword up high behind her, bringing it down with more force than before, cutting her deepest mark yet.

“Hey!” Ymir exclaimed, jolting back. “Watch what you’re doing! You almost hit me!”

Mina regarded her coolly over her shoulder. “Maybe you shouldn’t stand so close.”

The two stared at one another, Ymir’s eyes narrowed still, but the rest of her face did not hold as fierce. Mina stayed silent, kept her face blank, the emotions rolling off of her, landing heavy enough in the air to do all the talking for her.

“Look.” Ymir finally said, breaking the stare down. “I don’t give a shit about making friends in this place, that’s not my prerogative. But I’m not going out of my way to make enemies either. I just think there’s more to you than meets the eye.”

“So what if there is?” Mina countered slowly. “Why’d you care?”

Ymir smirked. “Let’s just say I’m curious.”

“Ymir! Mina!”

Mina inwardly winced at the voice, looking up to see Miche’s rapidly approaching figure, eyes dancing between the two slowly.

Lost in the sudden emotions that had seized her, that had screamed at her to stop Ymir seeing any more than she already had, Mina had all but forgotten she was still in class, with not one, but two teachers watching her movements.

 

How much had they seen?

 

Mina looked at his face, caught the careful expression in his features as he regarded her. She knew he had been out of earshot, but he had still be close enough to read Mina’s dark expression and guarded body language.

“Is there a problem here?” Miche asked.

Mina kept her eyes away from the man that hung back behind Miche, arms crossed over his chest as always.

“Not at all.” Ymir grinned at Miche. “Just trying to make friends…but  Mina doesn’t seem to be in a very friendly mood.” Her words were slow, taking her time to draw them out, her tone always deep and sarcastic.

Miche glanced at Mina, a troubled expression quick across his features.

“Both of you should be concentrating on training.” Miche scolded, though Mina caught the hesitance in his tone.

“Maybe enough time, yeah new girl?” Ymir winked before spinning on her heel.

Mina ignored Miche’s searching gaze, turning back to her rubber stump to go for another swing.

 

“You’re twisting too much.”

 

The low voice had Mina pausing mid swing, eyes moving automatically to find the source.

Captain Levi stood nearer suddenly, regarding her from the neck down, not holding her gaze.

“Miche, check her form.”

Miche’s eyebrow furrowed. “What’s wrong with it?”

“She’s twisting too much.” Levi repeated.

Miche looked at her stance, tilting his head. “Mina. Swing again.”

Mina complied, swinging at her usual angle, the same force and momentum, cutting deep and clean.

“I don’t see a problem.” Miche commented.

“You need to adjust her hips. They’re twisting too much as she moves.”

Miche shook his head. “I don’t see it. If it’s such a problem, you can come and correct her.”

Levi pursed his lips, not making a move.

“You need to readjust her stance, her legs need to be wider and hips stationary. More stabilization in the core.” Levi instructed, nodding towards her legs as he spoke.

“As you are the one pointing out the problem here, Captain Levi, I suggest you be the one to come and adjust her form.”

He moved his eyes again. “This is your class Miche, I’m just here to observe,”

“That doesn’t prohibit you from making adjustments to the students.” Miche countered, eyes assessing Lev in confusion.

Levi stayed still, silent, face unreadable.

Miche clicked his tongue. “As long as she’s getting a direct hit that’s deep enough, does it matter that a little stability is compromised?”

“It matters when she’s up in the air aiming for a titan’s neck. It matters when she swings too hard and sends her body spinning in the ODM gear.” His voice was gruff.

It was quiet.

Miche nodded. “Okay.”

He moved closer to Mina, hands at her side to adjust her torso towards the centre, instructing her to move her legs apart, placing a hand on her stomach and motioning for her to pull in tighter at her core.

Mina listened intently, nodding as she stood up straight, pulled in tighter, kept herself firmer, rooting herself down harder in the earth, all while trying to keep Levi’s cool stare out of her mind.

She swung again, surprised to feel more force behind her strike, more power rooting up from her legs as she kept her hips as steady as she could.

 She hit the mark clean and deep once more.

Her eyes immediately turned to the captain, watching as he moved his gaze quickly away to look at the cut across the rubber.

“Better?” She asked him, in a tone that she felt she only reserved for him…questioning, wanting and waiting for approval.

Levi nodded. “Better.”

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

Mina let her eyes slide across the canteen, tray of food in hand as she began her walk to her usual table by the window.

She caught sight of Niklas, who smiled at her, once again making a move to come join her before she shook her head at him, earning a frown in response.

She moved her eyes away quickly before he could continue his silent argument, hoping he would stay put around the table filled with laughter and smiles.

Her eyes, almost unconsciously, fell onto a table near the back wall, zeroing in on the boy who sat alone at the bench, facing her, waiting for her to spot him.

He was sat up straight, eyes wide as watched her from across the room, a beaming grin on his face. He sat up almost straighter when he finally caught her attention, his right hand coming up high to wave at her.

She hesitated.

 

I shouldn’t.

Keep walking Mina.

 

The words were feeble in her head, and before she even realised it, her body was carrying her over to the blonde boy, drawn to his bright eyes and smile.

“Hi Mina!” He waved at her again as she came to stop at the table, looking down at him.

“Uh… hi Jasper.”

He noticed her hesitation, face almost dropping. “Oh, it’s okay if you don’t wanna sit here! You don’t have to…I just thought…I don’t know…you’d probably prefer to sit with your friends though, right?”

He looked almost guilty for having drawn her attention to him, eyes moving across the room frantically.

“Friends?” Her tone was almost perplexed, comical, a small smile on her face at the word.“Huh.”

 She slid into the seat opposite him, placing her tray down on the table before holding his eyes. “I don’t have any friends.”

He blinked at her. “Oh! Well…me neither, I guess.”

It was quiet as they began to eat, small and careful bites of food, the odd atmosphere between them slowly starting to dissipate.

“Your brother is looking at me funny.” Jasper whispered, despite Niklas being too far away to hear him.

Mina peered over her shoulder to see Niklas’s narrowed gaze.

She turned back to Jasper.

“Ignore him.”

“Is he mad at me?” Jasper asked, leaning forward over his plate. “For you sitting here and not with him?”

Mina shook her head. “I don’t sit with him much anymore. Like I said, I don’t like a crowd.”

Her quiet tone wasn’t convincing. Jaspers wide and panicked eyes remained unchanged.

“He’s not mad at you.” Mina tried again. “He just…likes to check up on me a lot.”

“Oh, okay! That makes sense. Sounds like a good big brother.” Jasper smiled.

Mina nodded. “Yeah…he is.”

It was quiet again.

“Well, feel free to sit here anytime you like!” Jasper beamed. “I don’t mind at all.”

Mina nodded, having to deter her eyes away from the deep dimples and bright gleam in his green irises.

 “Thank you Jasper…that’s a nice offer.”

Her words had him positively glowing.

She cleared her throat.

“Have you…have you had any more trouble with Hugo?”

 

Why…Why are you asking this…

What does it matter to you, Mina?

 

Jasper’s fall fell, looking at his tray. “No…I haven’t. But the thing is, I don’t know how long it will last before he’s back on my case again.”

 

Okay.

You got your answer.

Leave It now.

 

“You should tell me.” The words spilled out of Mina’s mouth. “If he does anything else. Tell me.”

“Really?” Jasper looked at her curiously. “Why?”

“I know guys like him…I know what they’re about. I don’t like it. It’s not fair.”

“There’s not much I can do. He’s so much bigger than me, I can’t exactly scare him off.”

“Then we tell our superiors. I’ll help explain what’s been going on…I know some people that will definitely listen to us about this.”

Jasper bit his lip. “They already all think I’m weak enough as it is…I can’t give them anymore reason to kick me out.”

“But it’s not right.”

“I’ll be okay, you shouldn’t worry about me.” His smile was shaky and weak.

Mina’s heart felt like it was being compressed.

“I’ll help you Jasper.” Her voice was firm. “We can’t let him get away with this. I’ll help you.”

Jasper stared at her for a few moments, holding onto her words with wide eyes and an unsure expression.

Mina looked back down at her plate, unsure if she had said too much, unsure of his silence.

“You said…you didn’t have any friends.” Jaspers voice was soft.

She looked up at him.

There was a faint flush on his cheeks.

“We could be friends…if you want…I mean, I would like to be your friend.”

 

This is your chance.

No.

Get out now Mina.

You’re in too deep.

 

He smiled at her, the softness of his expression so sweet and young.

“Okay.” Mina breathed the word out. “Friends. That sounds nice.”

He broke out into a wide grin, all white teeth and crinkled eyes.

 

It’s too late to turn back now.

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

Mina was one of the last cadets left in the stable, not yet practiced enough to finish feeding and cleaning her horse in the mere fifteen minutes it had taken the rest of the soldiers.

She rose off of the ground, sighing at the mud caked across her knees from the awkward crouched position she had been in, desperately trying to scrape the filth from her horse’s hooves.

She pretended not to notice Gunther watching her carefully as she ran a hand through the horse’s mane, used to his stares and preference for silence.

She grunted softly as she picked up the heavy bucket, making her way to the back of the stables to drain the dirty water away.

Her eyes caught the dark horse stood pushed into the corner, t’s white markings catching her attention, a feature none of the other horses shared. She tilted her head, confused as to why she had never seen the horse out on the field before, sure she would have recognised its unique coat.

She dumped the water quickly before approaching the horse slowly, watching the way he caught her approaching, nostrils flaring slightly, a loud huff of air escaping them.

“It’s okay.” She mumbled.

The horse moved, shuffling its hooves and huffing at her again.

Mina outstretched her hand gingerly, holding it in front of the horse, letting it adjust to her scent.

She titled her head at the large animal as it quietened, large, dark eyes staring back at her.

“It’s okay.” She repeated, letting her hand fall onto its nose, keeping a gentle contact for a few seconds before she moved up, stroking the underside of its face, letting her fingers brush up the ears and down the mane slowly.

“Fargo doesn’t normally like strangers.”

Mina glanced towards Gunther, who was watching her carefully.

“It’s very unlike him to let anyone new near. He’s very temperamental, only a few soldiers have been able to ride him.”

“Maybe they’re not gentle enough.” Mina said, continuing to run her fingers lightly down its neck.

Gunther considered her words. “Maybe.”

“Is that why I’ve never seen him before?”

Gunther shook his head. “He’s injured. He hasn’t been out for a ride in a while. I’m not sure how much longer he will last.”

Mina frowned, tilting her head as she peered into the dark eyes again. “The injury is that bad?” She almost whispered, as if the horse could understand her.

She felt like it could.

 

His eyes look sad.

 

“It’s nothing too major, but it has compromised his strength and speed. He cannot be ridden for long periods of time anymore.”

“So, it’s just a small injury?” Mina turned to look at Gunther in confusion.

He blinked at her. “Well…yes. But the horses here have one purpose. When we are out of the walls, they are one of our best assists in escaping titans. If the horse is not fast enough, it will cost the cadet their life.”

“Okay.” Mina said. “Just don’t take him outside the walls. Keep him here.”

Gunther frowned. “But he has no use to us. We don’t just keep these horses around as pets. It costs us money to maintain them. We can’t be spending our funds on an animal that serves us no purpose.”

Mina bristled, trying to keep the anger off of her face, unsure if Gunther caught the glint in her eye.

“So you kill the horse because you have no personal use for him?”

Gunther hesitated. “Look, if you put it like that it doesn’t seem very fair at all, I know. But there’s a bigger picture to understand here. If we keep-”

“You’re going to murder this animal.” Mina said quietly, holding his eyes. “Simply because it is too slow.”

Gunther swallowed, blinking nervously. “It is another mouth to feed. What’s one horse’s life…when we could spend our resources on a horse that could potentially save a cadet’s life? That’s the bigger picture I am trying to paint.”

Mina was silent, hand dropping down from the horse, fingers twitching and flexing.

She didn’t look up at Gunther again as she picked up her bucket to leave.

 

Who are you to decide the fate of another’s life?

 

 


 

 

 

 

A few days passed and Mina was making her way towards the canteen for breakfast as usual, peering at the early morning sun through the windows as she passed, distracted by the warmth and light, but not enough to miss the way she encountered only a handful of bodies.

She paused at the door to the canteen, scanning the empty benches in confusion. There were only a few people sat eating, spaced out from one another sporadically, a hush fallen onto the usually bustling room.

She hesitated for a few seconds, before moving to grab her own food and sitting down at her usual bench, for once not the only cadet that sat alone while they ate.

She glanced at the faces in the room, none of them looking surprised or particularly bothered by the emptiness, so Mina settled in, confused but unalarmed.

 

Half way through her meal she heard her name being called, the voice shrill and jarring.

Mina turned to see Hange approaching her table, a gleeful slope to their walk, a manic grin on their face, hair messily pulled back, eyes alight behind the glasses.

She collapsed onto the bench beside Mina and Mina blinked, feeling their arm press against hers, thighs touching one another, personal space quickly thrown out of the window.

“Good morning!” Hange beamed at Mina. “And what a beautiful morning it is!”

Mina nodded in return.

“Commander Erwin sent me to find you! I’ve got some exciting news.”

She waited for Mina to press her to continue, slightly disappointed by Mina’s unbothered stare.

“Your schedule is cleared for today! Enjoy! Relax! It’s your day off!” Hange cried, clapping her hands together.

Mina blinked, wondering if she was supposed to be waiting for a punch line.

Hange noted her confusion.

“No training for you! Nah da! Zilch!”

Mina titled her head, dropping her fork. “What’s going on?”

“It’s visiting day for the cadets. They’re all off to see family and friends.  Veterans too, some haven’t been away in a year or so. Petra’s with her father. Miche with his grandparents. Nanaba is visiting her mother.” Hange explained.

Mina nodded. “Oh. Okay.” She glanced around the room. “Where’s Niklas?”

“Ah.” Hange winced slightly. “Cleaning duty all day. He had a few choice words for Oluo last night.”  Hange chuckled, clearly amused. “While I admire your brother’s wide and colourful vocabulary, there is always a time and a place. Unfortunately for him, last night wasn’t one of them!”

Mina reprised a sigh.

“SO! A free day for you! That’s your cue to smile!”

Mina blinked at Hange again. “Um.” She managed a feeble tilt of the lips.

Hange titled their head.

“Ah, come on! What’s wrong? A day to spend doing whatever you want! Well, within reason. What’s there to not be happy about!”

Mina stirred the remainder of her food round her plate distractedly. “Well. I don’t really have anything to do.”

Hange’s face was still for a few seconds, staring at the young woman. Mina watched as it suddenly broke, eyes wide, a grin spreading from ear to ear, body propelling forward so that their nose was suddenly almost touching Mina’s.

Mina reared back, startled.

“I know! Of course! This is perfect!” Hange cried, slamming a palm down on the table. “You can spend the morning with me! Ah, how the stars have perfectly aligned for us!”

Mina licked her lips, face blank.

Hange pointed at her. “This is no small feat, my dear. You have a rare opportunity at your hands; the chance to learn all there is to know about titans! Isn’t this what you’ve been waiting for! I can bestow as much of my knowledge onto you as possible.  This is not an opportunity to be taken lightly, Mina. Oh no, not at all! Time to grab it by both hands! What’d you say?”

Mina’s mouth opened and closed again, staring doubtfully at Hange’s wild and gleaming expression.

Mina didn’t have the heart, nor perhaps the courage, to even try to politely decline.

“Okay.”

“Great!” Hange pumped a fist in the air. “I knew it when I first saw you! You’re a curious one! Eager to learn more!”

They grinned down at Mina, watching as she sat still, eyes unsure.

“Well, hurry up and eat! I haven’t got all day! Time is of the essence!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hange pushed open a set of heavy oak doors with gusto, having dragged Mina by the wrist through parts of the castle she had yet to explore, leading her down towards the research rooms located in the basement of the building.

“Here we go!” Hange cried, arms wide as they pushed Mina inside. “Not many eyes have seen this place, would you believe? I don’t just allow any old cadet down to check this place out!”

Mina couldn’t help but wonder if that was because no other cadets actually wanted to come.

Hange ushered Mina further in and Mina’s eyes moved quickly around the rooms.

 It was dimly lit, no windows or open arch ways for the sunlight to pour in, only dark stone walls scattered with amber lanterns. Mina looked at the shelves and end tables stacked and filled to the brim with books, the papers strewn on floor, across wooden surfaces, or piled up messily on desks. Strange vials and liquids littered the tables around her, odd contraptions and equipment unfamiliar to Mina.

She paused by one of them, looking curiously at a particular bulky piece of apparatus sat on a table.

“That’s a microscope!” Hange exclaimed excitedly, noticing Mina’s wandering eyes. “It allows me to view a substance in the most absolute minute detail!”

Mina titled her head, confused, Hange’s explanation doing nothing to clear up her bewilderment.

Mina looked up at the sound of footsteps approaching, a tall man coming into view, arms clutching a pile of books close to his chest, muddy brown hair parted neatly across his forehead.

“Ah! Moblit!” Hange grinned at the man, gesturing between him and Mina. “Mina, this is Moblit, my right hand guy! Moblit, this Is Mina, one of the new cadets. “Hange wagged their eyebrows at him and he looked at Mina, a knowing expression on his face.

He nodded. “Nice to meet you Mina.” He said politely, a small smile on his face.

She nodded in return.

“Mina! Come look at this!” Hange pulled Mina over to a table, picking up a pile of papers and flicking through them roughly, discarding a few sheets carelessly to the side.

“Section Commander!” Moblit cried, putting down the books to hurry to their side. Mina noticed the exasperated expression on his face and in his tone. “I just organised those for you!”

He moved to try and take the papers out of their hand but Hange turned their back to him, continuing to hastily flick through them.

“Section Commander!”

They ignored him. “AH HA! You should have a read of these, Mina!”

Mina awkwardly took the papers Hange thrust into her hands, eyes glancing over the scribbled writing.

Mina felt a lump in her throat, her reading comprehension severely underdeveloped as a result of her missed childhood years.  Before her mother got sick, she had tried to teach Mina the basics, something Mina had only retained little knowledge of over the years. Mina’s eyes scanned over the paper hurriedly, not able to muster up a guard to hide the worried expression on her face, realizing she was only able to pick out a handful of words from the messy scrawls.

“Hange.”Moblit sighed. “No one can read your writing.”

He noticed Mina’s apprehensive expression and smiled at her, offering out his hand to take the papers. Mina gave them back slowly and he nodded.

“Don’t worry, its incomprehensible to me most of the time too.”

“Doesn’t matter.” Hange waved their hand in dismissal. “We don’t have time to sit around and read anyway.” There was a determined look on their face. “No, I should talk and you should listen. Oh! Come look at this!”

Hange gestured Mina over, moving quickly again to the other side of the room.

Mina followed slowly, while Moblit tagged along beside, eyes worried and anxious, never straying far away from Hange and their frantic searching.

“Section Commander!” Moblit cried when they throw open a drawer, rummaging through and bumping into the table behind them in consequence. A vial of clear liquid teetered, rocking on its edge before Moblit lunged forward, grabbing it in his hand before it toppled over and spilled. “You need to be more careful!”

Hange ignored him once more, producing a piece of paper with a flourish, holding it up in the air with a grin before she pressed it into Mina’s hands.

“Look at this!”

Mina blinked, holding the paper gingerly for a few seconds, before she peered down.

It was a drawing, crudely sketched in pencil across a wrinkled piece of paper.

Mina frowned, taking in the two figures printed onto the page, lips downturned at their grotesque figures, bulbous eyes and heads and oddly proportioned limbs.

She glanced up at Mina.

“That my dear, is a picture of the titans I captured.”

Mina’s eyes grew wide, glancing down at the paper again.

“Captured?”

“Yup! Sawney and Bean. Oh, they were dears. Unfortunately, tragedy struck. There was a dreadful incident and they are not with us any longer. I can’t even bring myself to talk about the details.” Hange looked down solemnly.  “But at least I have that picture to hold onto their memories.”

Mina stared, bewildered at the sudden thickness in Hange’s throat, the tears shining behind the glasses.

Moblit glanced between the two.

“The Section Commander gets very attached to their research.” He tried to explain.

“Sawney and Bean were not just research! You know they meant much more to me than that!” Hange exclaimed, frowning at Moblit with a hand over their heart, before turning to Mina again. “Well? What do you think?”

Mina blinked. “I don’t know…I’ve…never seen a titan before.” She glanced at the gruesome image again, not able to wrap her head around the fact that these things actually existed in her world.

“Well, they’re bigger than that of course.” Hange laughed, peering over to look at the picture, a wistful expression on their face. “But the likeness is all there.”

Mina was silent, moving the paper further away from herself, hearing her heart beat begin to increase.

It suddenly seemed to hit her.

 

I fought monsters in the Underground.

Now…I have to fight monsters like this?

How can I possibly do this?

 

 

“Let’s sit down!” Hange cried, yanking Mina forward suddenly by the arm. “I can tell you all about them!”

 

Mina sat obediently, perched awkwardly opposite Hange who sat on the edge of the chair, leaning forward in excitement, hands gesticulating wildly in the air as they described their research, their findings, the numerous experiments conducted on Sawney and Bean and all the discoveries gathered as a result.

Mina listened diligently, trying to absorb as much as she could.  Hange spoke rapidly, often tapering off on tangents, before suddenly picking back up again with a renewed ferocity, eyes holding Mina’s all the while. Mina couldn’t help herself from leaning forward as she listened to the section commander speak. She couldn’t help herself from nodding eagerly and mirroring Hange’s wide eyes.

She couldn’t help but be fascinated.

 

The world is so much bigger than I ever knew.

 

“Section Commander.” Moblit’s restless voice broke through Hange’s rambling. Hange spared him a glance and he nodded to the clock. “I’m sorry to interrupt but we have to get going soon.”

“Oh, would you look at that! Time flies when you’re talking about titans, or so the saying goes.” They gave a wave of a hand.

Mina smiled. “It was very interesting.” She admitted.

Hange grinned. “Don’t I know it!”

Mina licked her lips, fingers clutching at the edge of the chair. “Actually, before you go…I Just wanted to ask you something.”

Hange turned to her with eager eyes.

“Yes! Go on!”

“Not about titans…sorry.” Mina looked apologetic as Hange’s face dropped. They sighed dramatically.

“Okay, go ahead.” Their tone was now subdued.

“I’ve just been thinking about something…ever since you told me where the cadets were today and well, I would like to ask the Commander’s permission regarding...a personal matter.” Mina chose her words carefully as Hange examined her.

“Hmmm. Commander Erwin is away for a few days…is the matter urgent?”

“Oh.” Mina shook her head. “Not really.”

“Hey!” Hange smiled again. “Captain Levi is here. You can ask him instead! He’s supposed to be the one you report to, after all.”

Mina’s eyes widened slightly. “Um…I don’t think I should. I’ll wait for the Commander.”

Hange shook their head. “Oh come on, don’t be shy!” They teased, already standing up.  “We can go now! I’ll show you where his office is.”

“It’s really not that important.”

“Nonsense!” Hange exclaimed, pulling Mina up out of her chair by the wrist. “There’s no time like the present! Let’s go!”

Mina glanced at Moblit, who flashed her sympathetic smile and gentle wave goodbye, before letting herself be pulled out of the room by Hange.

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 “Hange, I don’t think this is a good idea.” Mina mumbled as they came to a stop behind Levi’s office doors, finally pulling her wrist away from Hange’s grasp.

Hange titled their head. “What’s your problem? You’re not scared of him, are ya?” Hange laughed at their own words while Mina moved her gaze.

“No. I’m not.”

 

It’s the truth.

I’m not scared of the man.

But…I feel like avoiding him will make my time here smoother.

Ever since I’ve been under his watch…I haven’t felt the same.

Things have felt different.

 

“He’s all bark and no bite.”Hange said with a crooked grin, before it slipped suddenly while they considered their own words. “Actually. That’s not true at all.”

They laughed again.

“Well, depending on who you are. But don’t you worry.” Hange grinned at Mina. “He won’t bite you.”

Mina blanched as Hange reached forward behind Mina’s head, knocking roughly on the door before Mina could protest.

“Who is it?” The deep voice called from the other side.

“Your dear Hange!”

It was quiet for a few seconds, before Mina heard a deep sigh.

“This better be important.” He called back.

“Oh, it is!”

Hange grinned, hand moving towards the doorknob. “Go on in, Mina. I’ll see you around yeah? We’ve got a lot more to talk about!”

Mina barely registered the next moments, Hange throwing open the office door and pushing Mina in, before spinning on their heel and disappearing down the hallway.

Mina stood still, suddenly standing in the Captain’s office, staring at his figure sat behind the desk directly in front of her.

“Could you at least close the damn door? You’re letting a draft in.” His voice was irritated; his eyes not yet glanced up to see the real identity of his visitor.

Mina didn’t speak, reaching behind her to push the door shut with a gentle click.

Her hand lingered on the handle for a few moments, before she retracted her arm slowly, letting it hang limply at her side.

She took a deep breath, taking two steps forward, staring at him.

He sat in a small chair behind the desk, posture rounded in, pen moving furiously across the papers in front of him, eyes cast down, dark hair falling to the front and obscuring most of his face.

“Hange, I told you not to bother me this morning, not with all this-

He stopped mid-sentence, his deep drawl coming to a halt the exact second his eyes glanced up to see the person standing in front of him.

His pen had stopped, frozen, the nib suspended in the air mere millimetres above the paper.

He didn’t move his eyes away, not like he usually did when he regarded Mina, too taken aback by her unexpected presence.

She swallowed. “I’m sorry, Captain.” She offered, hand coming up to brush a stray hair behind her ear, levelling her stare with his. “Hange was showing me where your office was…I didn’t know she was going to just leave again.”

Her words were soft but not quiet enough for Levi to have to strain to hear them. He continued to stare still, blinking slowly, heavy lidded eyes looking darker under the shadow of his furrowed brow.

He swallowed, finally moving his eyes away, looking back down to the paper.

He rested the pen back on the sheet, his hand still unmoving, as if collecting himself.

It was quiet,

“It’s nothing urgent. I can come back…if you’re busy.”

He shook his head. “You’re here now.”

It was quiet again as he waited, pen pressing harder into the paper, an ink blot beginning to form under the pressure of the nib.

“I wasn’t sure if I….” Mina shook her head, rearranging her thoughts, straightening herself up, tilting her chin. “I had a question. I was going to go to Commander Erwin but Hange informed me that he was away and insisted I come to you instead. As my primary mentor, she thought it would be appropriate.”

Mina was surprised to hear the words rolling off her tongue easily, trying to regard him as formally as she possibly could,  not wanting to give him anymore instances in which she thought he could take a dislike to her.

Levi nodded, staring down at the ink blot that had bleed deeper into the paper, seeping into a wider shape with every passing second.

He didn’t need to look up to feel her presence, to know the way she was standing, the steady expression on her face, coupled with the soft eyes.

“Go on.” He simply said.

“Today….the cadets have gone to visit family, they’ve been allowed to leave the grounds.

It was quiet again as he waited for her to continue.

“I was wondering…if sometime soon, it would be possible for me to do the same?”

He looked up suddenly, finally releasing the pen from the paper as his forehead crinkled in confusion.

“I know I will not be allowed to leave these grounds by myself, I completely understand.” Mina said quickly, noting the heaviness of his brow.

“Where do you want to go?” He asked.

Mina hesitated, the words caught in her throat. “Back.”

That was all she could manage.

Levi leant back in his chair slightly, eyes up towards the ceiling as he pondered over her words. “Why would you ever want to step foot anywhere near that place again?”

“I …I need to see something.”

“You need to see something.”  He repeated the words lightly, as if trying them out for himself would help him understand.

“The orphanage.” She said quickly, the words escaping her. “There is an orphanage I used to visit…to check the children there were okay. It’s been so long and the woman who looked after the children, she was very sick.”

It was quiet for a moment.

“It’s too big of a risk for you to go back.”

Mina’s heart stilled at the words.

 

No.

I don’t care If he doesn’t like me.

I’m not going to just let this drop.

He can harbour as many bad feelings towards me as he wants.

 

 

“I just need to see if they are okay. That’s all. If other cadets are allowed to leave the compound, why should it be any different for me?”

“Because.” Levi’s sigh was edged with annoyance. “You would need to be guarded at all times, not just to watch your movements, but to watch everyone else’s around you. If you go back, your safety would be in question.”

Mina furrowed her eyebrow slightly.

“The risk of someone seeing you…of noticing you now as you are, it’s too high. Yours and Niklas’s true identity would be in danger if someone down there happened to be paying too close attention. Erwin has risked too much for that to happen.”

“No one knew me down there.”

 

All but one man.

 

“No one would know it was me.”

“It puts the Commander at risk. It puts all of us higher ups who know who you really are at risk. All it would take is one person.”

“I’ll… dress how I used to…look how I used to. I’ll…I won’t even go to see the children, not face to face at least. They don’t need to see me. I just need to see them. That’s all.”

Her voice was still soft, but urgent, pressing on him.

“It would mean pulling a lot of soldiers out of their usual work…I don’t know if we have the manpower or time for this.”

“I’ve never once asked for anything, not once all this time while being here. I’m just asking…for you to at least think about it.”

Her voice wasn’t desperate, but steady and assured.

Levi’s eyes shifted on their own accord, taking in her pleading expression, the way she tried to hold her body firm and still, his eyes darting over the clench fists.

“Please. I need this. I need to know they’re okay.”

He picked up his pen again, his grip firm, body rigid, muscles in his forearm contracting as if he was holding something dangerous, something like his knife.

“Please.”

“I will see what I can do.” His eyes moved again to see her face, the sudden fracture, the softness that fell upon her features. “I will speak to Commander Erwin. But I can’t make any promises. I can only speak to him about this.”

She nodded. “I understand.”

He sighed, at Mina’s expression, at himself.

“Try to keep you expectations sensible. I will relay everything you’ve said but it will be up to the Commander to weigh up the risks. Like I said, I cannot promise you anything.”

“I don’t expect you to make me any promises.” Mina said quietly.

 

I’m not someone who takes them lightly.

 

He held her eyes for a few more seconds, her words holding heavy in the air, before he turned back to his paper, pen poised and pressed against it once more, not yet able to  make it move.

“Thank you, Captain.” Mina said earnestly.

He nodded, not looking up.

It was quiet again and Mina took the silence as her cue to leave.

She let her eyes linger on him for a second longer, the obscured face, his eyes pressed down into the paper in front of him, gaze intent. She assumed he was lost in the words, concentrating on his reading and all but forgetting she was still there.

She moved quietly, opening up the office door and shutting it softly behind.

Levi waited, waited for the subtle click of the door closing, eyes staring at the piece of paper, the paper that was completely blank.

He looked up finally, gazing at the empty space, sighing to himself heavily and rubbing his forehead lightly with his fingertips.

He sat still for a moment longer.

The only movement came from his leg bent under the table, the leg he began to bounce rapidly up and down in agitation.

 

 

 


 

 

 

Erwin and Levi watched from the window at Mina on the training field, her whole body animated in the presence of Nanaba and Miche.

Miche had begun to work through some more strength training drills with her, only for Nanaba to come sauntering into the picture, clearly bored and determined to distract everyone else as her only source of entertainment for the afternoon.

Levi watched as Miche would position Mina’s body, adjust her form, hold her steady.  Mina never flinched, comfortable under his hands and with his contact.

“She’s gotten a lot stronger.” Erwin had commented as he watched.

Levi watched as Nanaba stood at the side-lines, making comments which would earn a smile from Mina, a grin he had never seen on her face before, her whole expression easy and alight.

Nanaba moved suddenly, coming to a stop in front of Mina, feigning a few punches in her face, while Miche nudged her softly out the way. Nanaba turned her attention to him instead, punching at his biceps as he scolded her, while Mina laughed, her whole posture relaxed.

There was nothing rigid nor still, nothing forced or guarded in her being in that moment.

Levi watched as Nanaba slung her arm around Mina’s shoulder, an affectionate gesture he was used to seeing the two of them implore on her, pulling Mina closer to her and squeezing her softly.

“She’s different with them.” Erwin said, tilting his head. “Her guard is completely down. She’s open.” Erwin’s lips titled slightly. “Laughing like that, she looks like a completely different person, don’t you think? Isn’t it a strange…what the presence of particular people can do to someone? How vulnerable it can make you?”

Levi pursed his lips. “You should have given Mina to either of them instead of me.”

Erwin shook his head. “No. I trust my judgement. She needs to be pushed out of her comfort zone or we won’t make any progress with her.” Erwin glanced at Levi. “Miche mentioned to me that she’s eager to please you when you’re observing her training.”

Levi’s expression remained static.

“And she came to you to request permission to leave the grounds.”

“Only because Hange stuck their nose in, as usual.” Levi drawled, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Still, by the sounds of it, she was comfortable enough to plead her case to you.”

It was quiet, both watching as Nanaba tackled Mina playfully, Miche now watching from the side with his arms crossed, unable to keep the small smile off of his firm expression.

“Have you put any more thought into her request?” Levi asked suddenly.

Erwin hummed.

“Like you said, the risk isn’t exactly something I want hanging over my head right now. But something tells me I shouldn’t be so quick to shut her down.” He glanced at Levi again. “You don’t believe there are any ulterior motives to the request?”

He averted his eyes. “She seemed sincere enough to me.”

Erwin nodded. “Okay, I’ll give it some more thought. “

It was a few moments longer before Erwin spoke again.

“Tell me, Levi. To what extent do you think circumstances shape a person? To what extent do you believe someone’s character to be innate?”

Levi averted his eyes from Mina once more, turning to glance up at the man with a curious gaze.

He raised his eyebrows. “If we’re done spying on Verenich, then I would rather be getting through the mountain of paperwork you had delivered to my desk this morning, not standing here answering one of your riddles.”

Erwin smiled, eyes still watching Mina intently. “I simply cannot shake the feeling that there is something about her she is still determined to keep us from ever finding out.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“You gonna pretend like you didn’t see that?”

Levi turned to Hange with his usual dull expression, a slight raise of an eyebrow in regards to their question, fingers splayed out across the rim of his tea cup.

Hange grinned at him, having watched Levi’s eyes follow the dark haired girl the minute she had entered the canteen, regarding how Levi watched her eat, in her usual solitary spot by the window when neither Jasper nor Niklas were there. Hange had seen Levi’s eyes track Mina’s movements once more as she left to dump her tray of food, and Hange was sure he must have spotted the way Mina bent down to adjust something on her shoe, her right hand reaching out to grab an apple from the basket above and slip it deftly into her pocket as she straightened back up.

He had been watching her so carefully; Hange was certain it hadn’t gone unnoticed.

“See what?” He responded, his tone bored.

Hange rolled their eyes. “Mina? Take that apple? It was pretty quick but come on, you can’t have missed it!”

Levi clicked his tongue. The pointer finger of his right hand began to tap against the side of his cup.

“So?” He glanced at Hange, who peered at him behind their thick glasses.

“Huh. Just thought you’d want to call her out on it, is all.” Hange shrugged, Levi’s indifferent attitude rubbing off on them as they turned their attention back to their own meal.

“I’ve got bigger things to worry about.” Levi muttered, bringing the cup up to his lips to take another sip.

“Wait…so Mina did take that apple?” Oluo interjected, having eavesdropped on the conversation happening at the end of the table. “Petra thought she saw something, but she wasn’t sure.”

Petra’s eyes shifted guilty as Levi let out a deep sigh.

“Captain. She’s already had her rations for today. She wasn’t permitted to take any more food.” Oluo said, shaking her head.

Hange let out a small laugh.

“Oluo, it’s just an apple. Do you really think it matters?” Levi responded dryly.

Oluo noticeably bristled, but was not ready to let the subject go. “I’m sorry Captain, but it goes beyond that. It’s the principle of the matter. How can we enforce the rules for all cadets if we pick and choose when to let it slide? Imagine…if we said it didn’t matter, when four or five or six cadets started taking more than their allotted rations…it would turn into chaos.”

Hange flashed Levi a guilty grin as they watched the man’s eyebrows narrow, knowing what they had started.

“Whoops. Sorry.” Hange hissed across to Levi.

“Oluo, don’t get all bent out of shape over this. I can’t be bothered to deal with your self-righteousness today.”

Oluo pursed his lips. “Today, it’s just an apple…tomorrow, who knows? Who knows what can happen if she gets too comfortable and believes she can get away with this blatant disregard of the rules.”

Hange was suppressing another laugh at Oluo’s dramatic tone, while Levi placed his cup on the table and pressed his fingertips into the skin of his forehead.

“Me and Petra should go and give her a talking-to. Of course, being her first offence, nothing too firm, but enough for her to realize can’t get away with anything like that again.” Oluo nodded to himself, already pushing his chair out from under the table to stand.

“Hold on.” Levi pressed his forehead deeper into his fingertips, glancing at the sparse table, wishing Nanaba or Miche had been there for him to send after the girl.

His eyes found Hange, who was grinning at him, chomping enthusiastically on their food. “Hey. Don’t look at me. I’ve already been making Moblit wait for far too long as it is.” They raised their eyebrows. “You should go, Levi. You are her instructor, after all.”

“Captain, if you are busy and would rather I go, I would be more than happy to. Like I said, I believe that-”

“No.” Levi cut Oluo off, standing slowly.

That was the last thing he wanted.

“I’ll go find her.” He was clearly irritated and Oluo sat back down upon hearing his tone, nodding quietly.

“Smile, Levi.” Hange said playfully, suppressing another laugh as Levi shot them a quick glare. “You’ll scare the poor girl.”

 

 

 


 

 

Mina was aware of a presence behind her, having heard the soft footsteps approaching down the hilly slope. She could feel their eyes on her back.

She made no move to turn, letting Fargo slurp the remnants of the apple off of the palm of her hand, the course tongue tickling her fragile skin.

She stilled herself, before glancing slowly over her right shoulder.

Her mouth opened in slight surprise when she saw Levi’s figure at the doorway to the stables, arms crossed over his chest, his left shoulder leaning against the wooden frame, left leg crossed over his right as he regarded her, his expression shadowed by the backlight of the sun.

He turned his face away from hers quickly, so that her stare rested on his sharp profile, the strands of hair that fell across his left eye, the tick in his jaw, the slope of his nose.

“Next time…I’ll give the horse my own food. I’m sorry.”

Levi made a noise under his breath, not moving to look at her as he spoke. “I really couldn’t have cared less but you managed to draw too big of an audience.”

He glanced above her, looking at the horse.

“You’re willing to put yourself out to feed a horse?”

His tone always revealed itself different around her, devoid of the sarcastic edge or tough bite, more slow and steady.

Mina looked back up at the horse, running her hand through its mane.

“He’s injured. I wanted to give him more food…to help him build his strength back up.”

Levi’s brow furrowed, watching her hand run softly over the horse’s neck.

“He’s not even your horse.”

Mina glanced at him, unaware he knew of the smaller, ruddy brown horse she was familiar with in training.

Mina turned back to the Fargo when she was met with Levi’s side profile once more.

“I wanted his injury to heal. Gunther said he would be killed. He’s lost his use, after all.”

Levi was quiet for a few moments, mulling over her words.

“It’s a shitty situation, sure. But it’s hard to put our resources into an animal that we can’t ride into battle…not when that’s the whole point of them being here.”

Mina was quiet, keeping her gaze on the horse’s big black eyes.

“Is that what you do with soldiers? When they have no use to you anymore?” She glanced over her shoulder again. “Are they disposable too?”

Mina watched Levi’s eyes shift, narrowing, a clench in his jaw as he continued to look away from her.

Mina swallowed, wondering if she had gone too far.

“No.” She turned again at his firm voice. “Never. Every loss is a gutting blow. But… there is always loss, and there will continue to be for a long time. So…we make sure that every loss means something in the end. Not a single soldier will die without it meaning something.” He tilted his head up towards the sky. “Ever since I first left the walls, I made sure to learn the names of every single soldier that fell. And I remember them all. And when this is all over, I’ll make sure everyone else knows their names too, and know that their sacrifice was not in vain.”

Mina was stunned by his words, the sudden outpour of a confession, a thickness in his voice she hadn’t heard before.

She watched the way his eyes cast down again, searching for something, a new expression on his face, yet it somehow felt familiar to Mina.

 

Petra…she told me to not judge him so easily…

But…

I fear that might be exactly what I have done.

 

 

“We won’t kill Fargo.” Levi said suddenly, and Mina was surprised again to learn he knew the horse’s name.

He pursed his lips.

“I’ll find some use for him…even if it’s just menial tasks around the ground.” He waved his hand in the air, almost dismissively.

Mina’s heart stilled for a second, before it picked up again, beating in her throat double time.

“Thank you, Captain. “ She breathed out, hand grasping in Fargo’s mane, feeling the horse nudge her cheek with his nose.

He nodded.

It was quiet for a moment again, Levi shifting his body away from the door, hesitating for a few seconds, before turning to leave.

He took two steps out before stopping again suddenly.

Mina watched his undecided form, stilled again for another couple of seconds, before he turned around once more to face her.

“I spoke to Erwin about your request.” The words came out quickly, voice still low and tone hard to decipher. “He said he will look into it for you. But that doesn’t mean it’s a yes just yet.”

Mina straightened up suddenly, hands balling into fists as her eyes widened.

Her breath caught in her throat before she could find her words.

“Thank you Captain. Thank you so much. You have no idea what this means to me, I really am grateful for you even considering it.”

Levi shifted his eyes as she gave him a small smile. “Yeah…well…It’s not…It’s not set in stone, like I said.” He cleared his throat suddenly, pushing his next words out clearer. “I’ll let you know when Commander Erwin comes to a decision.”

Mina gave another small nod, another tentative smile, which he turned away from, walking briskly out of sight.

 

 

 


 

 

“Feel like I hardly see you anymore.” Niklas said through a mouthful of food, the pair joining each other at the same table for breakfast.

Mina shrugged, rolling her neck around and wincing at the pain that seared across her shoulder blades.

 

I need to stretch more often.

It feels like I’ve been worker harder than ever before…

Pushing myself further.

Every part of my body hurts.

Even my skin.

 

 

“I’m serious Mina.” He shook his head. “I should make more time for you.”

She glanced down at her plate. “It’s not exactly easy for either of us to make time.”

“We should start eating together more often again. “ He offered.

Mina glanced up at him. “And ditch all your friends?”

He frowned slightly. “Like I said before…they’re barely my friends. “ He took a giant gulp of water, eyes watching her intently. “What about you?”

Mina tilted her head at the question.

“You don’t wanna leave your friend all alone?” His stare held hers, something knowing in his expression.

“I don’t always sit with him.” Mina simply responded.

Niklas scoffed. “Please…that little blonde kid is attached to your hip.”

Mina swallowed. “His name is Jasper.”

“Jasper. Right.” Niklas’s eyes narrowed again. “He a nice kid?”

“Of course.” Mina responded quickly. “I wouldn’t be friends with him if he wasn’t.”

“Huh.” Niklas leant back in his chair. “So he really is your friend.”

“Why wouldn’t he be?” Mina kept her voice level, but her stomach started to turn at his words.

Niklas took a deep inhale through his nostrils, glancing away as he collected his thoughts.

“I know who he looks like.” Niklas said carefully.

Mina was silent.

“And I know you see it too. I know who he reminds you of.”

She dropped her fork on the plate, holding Niklas’s stare.

“Is there a problem with that?” She challenged.

Niklas run a hand down his face, his expression dragged down with the motion. “Mina. You’re playing a dangerous game here…getting attached to him.”

“I’m not attached.”

“You called him your friend. I watch you with him…the way you look at him, hover over him. I’ve seen you give him your food and hold his hand. This isn’t going to end well for you.”

“I thought you wanted me to make friends, Niklas?” She kept her voice even against his fluctuating tone.

“Not like this…not when I know what he means to you.”

Mina flashed him a dark look.

“He’s not gonna make it Mina…look at the kid. He doesn’t stand a chance. You think you can handle what that’s gonna do to you? I’ve seen what’s happened to you before…Mina…what happened to Maxi. It wasn’t your fault.”

Mina pushed back her chair, standing up abruptly.

“Don’t you dare.” She pushed the words out slowly. “Don’t you dare go there, Niklas.”

His face dropped, painted with sympathy as she stared down at him, expression unmoving, eyes distant despite the glare.

He knew she was thinking…remembering…suddenly stuck in a place from a long time ago.

“And I’m the one who picked you up out of it, remember? It was me who helped you keep going. I don’t want to see you like that again.” Niklas continued despite her warning.

“Nothing is going to happen to Jasper.”

“Mina…you can’t be sure of that.”

“I can. Because I’m going to be the one to make sure of it.”

“Mina…you sound ridiculous, listen to yourself. You’re just one person. You’ll end up putting yourself in danger all because of that boy.” His words were softer, almost pleading with her to see the sense he believed he was making.

“No. No. You don’t get to decide this for me.”

“Mina.” Niklas’s face crumpled slightly. “I’m not trying to decide anything for you, I’m just-”

“I know what I’m doing. I know what’s best.” Mina moved her eyes away from him. “You’ve carved out a space for yourself here. You don’t get to pass any judgement on any of my decisions, not now I’m just trying to do the same.”

Niklas blinked, speechless for a few seconds, before his soft voice called to her again.

“Mina, I-”

“Hey!”

The pair were interrupted by Petra’s soft voice, shouting out to them as she jogged over, a frantic expression on her face which she tried to hide with a smile.

“I’ve been waiting for you outside for over fifteen minutes; do you know how late you are?” Petra said hurriedly to Mina, glancing over her tense figure and Niklas’s avoidant eyes.

“Oh…I…I must have lost track of time.”

Petra shook her head. “You need to get a move on. Class has been switched up this morning. You’re…expected at the ODM clearing.”

“But I thought I had ODM training this afternoon?” Mina asked in confusion.

Petra shook her head. “This isn’t training…It’s…It’s something different. An…assessment of sorts.”

Mina blinked in confusion, stilling at her words.

“Don’t look so worried!” Petra said, laughing lightly. “There’ll be a lot of other cadets joining you, you’re not alone.” Her smiled wobbled slightly as she spared a glance at the heavy clock on the wall. “But you need to get going and get in your gear as soon as possible! I can’t explain much, just try not to worry and it will all make sense when you’re there, okay?”

Mina managed a feeble nod and Petra squeezed her arm encouragingly as she passed. “As quick as you can please Mina!” Petra called over her shoulder once more.

Mina swallowed, body taking a few seconds to catch up with Petra’s words, before she paced out of the canteen in silence, not looking back at Niklas as she passed.

 

 

 


 

 

Mina had struggled with buckling herself up into her ODM gear, the word “assessment” still ringing in her ears, causing shaky hands and fumbling fingers.

As a consequence, she was the last cadet to arrive to the clearing, jogging towards the group at a hurried pace, breathing heavily, winded more so by nerves than by physical exertion.

She quickly took in the familiar faces around her, a mix-match of cadets from various classes, now all gathered onto the field.

She spotted Armin’s blonde head, the boy talking quietly beside Jean, who was fidgeting with his fingers behind his back.

Krista stood behind them, talking to Connie, who looked at ease, grinning and chatting animatedly to the small girl.

Her eyes fell on Reiner, standing with his arms crossed over his chest and an easy smile on his face. He stood next to a taller, broader boy, his profile partially hidden, but Mina recognised the smirk instantaneously.

Hugo.

She slowed down to a walk, catching eyes with Nanaba and Miche, who made no acknowledgement towards her late arrival.

To their right, Captain Levi stood, the smallest of the trio, but with his arms over his chest and brooding expression, his presence was the most notable.

At least it was to Mina.

She took in his uniform; the green cloak wrapped around him, buckled and belted up with his ODM gear, the white cravat at his clavicle, partially tucked into his pressed shirt.

If he noticed her presence, he made no sign of the fact, his eyes scanning over every cadet but her.

There were more veterans spaced out behind the trio, Mina scanning over Petra and Eld’s face, alongside at least ten more veterans Mina did not know the names of.

They all held the same stern, serious expression.

Mina’s heart picked up a beat.

She turned her eyes again back to the group, hesitating, unsure where to place herself within her fellow cadets.

“Mina.” Her name was hissed quietly and she turned, seeing Jasper standing towards the back of the crowd, waving at her timidly, giving her a small smile.

She hurried over to him, coming to a stop by his side.

“Hey.” He smiled at her, his grin bigger, but Mina could see the nervousness in his body, the way his hands were clasped together, twisting and rubbing each other in anticipation. “You know what’s going on?” He asked.

She shook her head. “No idea.”

 

“Okay, now that all of you have arrived.” Mina didn’t miss the way Miche’s eyes slid over her quickly, an unspoken scolding regarding her late appearance. “We can begin. Listen up carefully, we won’t be repeating ourselves.”

Nanaba stepped forward and Mina eyed the fabrics bunched in her right fist. “Today, you will be expected to utilize the many different skills you have learnt while training with us these past couple of weeks. While we will be assessing your performance, we suppose you could also call it a competition of sorts.”

A hushed whisper fell among the crowd, cadets glancing at one another, murmurs of excitement and nervousness.

“Oh man, this doesn’t sound good.” Jasper whispered beside Mina.

She made no comment in return, hands clasped behind her back, shoulders tight, eyes intent as she waited.

“In my hand I have four colored flags.” She held her arm up in the air. “Blue. Green. Yellow. Red.” She made a show of flourishing each individual flag towards the crowd. “Each individual colored flag is worth 20 points.”

She turned to Miche. “The white flags.” Miche briefly show the cadets his bundle. “Are worth 5 points each.”

Nanaba turned back towards the cadets. “We will be assigning four cadets one individual colored flag each. The rest of you will start with one white flag. You will attach these flags to your belts.”

Nanaba smiled slightly. “The first cadet to snag 40 points will win.”

Whispers crawled across the cadets once more, in confusion, in surprise, all quickly realizing this was unlike anything in training they had done before.

Nanaba hushed them quickly.

“Listen up or you will miss the rules. You can obtain one colored flag and fill up the rest of the points with white flags, or take two colored flags. Those already assigned a colored flag will not be allowed the 20 points from their own flag. You must obtain the points from another cadet’s flag. This is to make it fair, of course.” She flashed the group a smile.

“Now, there are only two things we ask of you. First, your flags must be attached to your belt at all times; they must be visible from at least one angle and not hidden on your persons at any moment. Secondly, you must not draw your swords on another cadet for any reason what so ever…they are simply there to mimic circumstances when outside of the walls. And that’s it.” Nanaba put her hands on her hips. “We will have veterans posted throughout the woods and following you at all times, so any rule violations will be caught. You will be pulled out of the assessment and sent to whatever punishment I see fit, depending on the crime.” She raised her eyebrows, a wicked glint in her eyes. “The rest is up to you. There are no more rules. You can obtain your flags from other cadets in any way you please. You can work solo. You can work as a team. You can sabotage.” Nanaba shrugged. “I don’t care. I just want to see those 40 points. As quick as possible. We’ve all got things to do. As soon as a cadet has the points, we will shoot out a signal flare to the rest of you. That means the game’s over.”

Mina could feel the tension in the air, the twitching of fingers, the rolling of shoulders, the determination set across some faces, the worry set across others.

“A word of advice” Miche announced suddenly, his low voice commanding the attention of all. “As of the nature of this competition, you may feel like we are emphasising the use of your ODM gear. Try not to get hung up on that fact. We are not here to assess how well you can move with your gear. This is an exercise that takes into account all facets of a solider. We will be watching everything. Use your heads.”

Mina blinked at the words, uneasy under the heaviness in his voice and narrowed eyes.

Nanaba nodded in agreement, before taking a step forward.

“I will be calling out the names of those assigned a color flag. The rest of you will be given your white flags by Miche. Once they are all attached, we will be splitting you up to gather at different starting points through the woods.”

Nanaba licked her lips before starting.

 “Jean Kirstein.”

 She held up a blue flag.

Mina watched as he hesitated slightly, awkwardness in his feet as he took a few stumbling steps, before straightening up and retrieving the blue flag with a nod, turning towards the crowd to grin and attached it securely around his waist.

Mina reprised a sigh, recalling his agile and quick moves.

“Reiner Braun.”

Mina watched the broad boy step forward, retrieving the green flag from Nanaba, attaching it to his belt with a look of determination.

 

 

Jean…Jean is by far the quickest with the ODM and has the best grasp of technique and mobility in the air.

Reiner…he is strong…but there are stronger…no…it’s his determination and levelheadedness that makes him a hard opponent to beat.

 

“Hugo Becker.”

 

Mina’s fists clenched and she heard Jasper let out a shaky exhale from behind her.

 

She watched the stocky boy let out a small laugh, confident steps forward to take the yellow flag presented to him, grinning widely and puffing out his chest in excitement.

 

 

Hugo…easily the strongest out of all of us here.

So that’s it.

The colored flags…the most points…they’re being given to the most capable cadets.

Of course that makes sense…they’re going to want to make obtaining the points as hard as they possibly can.

 

 

“And finally.” Nanaba said, hesitating slightly, before she titled her chin.

 

Mina spared another glance at Jasper, who lips were pursed and face drawn in tightly, staring ahead and blinking rapidly, trying to get a hold of his fear.

 

“Mina Verenich.”

 

Mina’s head snapped forward to connect with Nanaba’s hard gaze.

She stilled, eyes glancing between Nanaba and her outstretched hand, the red flag presented towards her.

 

 

This can’t be right….

 

 

“Mina.” Jasper hissed from beside her.

She looked at him, eyes wide in confusion.

He nodded at her, offering a small smile.

“Go! You got this.”

He gave her a thumbs up and she turned back, swallowing thickly.

She rearranged her face, settling her startled expression, shaking off the eyes that followed her curiously as she stepped slowly forward, parting from the crowd to stand directly in front of Nanaba.

She took the flag slowly, eyes not leaving Nanaba’s as she attached it to her belt.

Nanaba nodded at her.

Mina didn’t see the way Levi was watching her every movement with intent.

 

“Mina, with me.” Nanaba said suddenly. “Hugo you will follow Eld. Petra you take Jean. Miche you take Reiner. We will show you to your starting positions while the rest of the cadets get ready.”

Nanaba took another hard look at Mina. “Let’s go.”

 

 

 


 

 

 

Mina followed a few steps behind Nanaba, the blonde woman moving fast between the trees, leading her into a thick and dense part of the forest, dimly lit, shadowed and damp.

Mina could feel the tension in the air, a thick silence hanging heavy. Mina felt she wasn’t only picking her way through tree stumps and gnarled branches, but tripping over all the apprehension and unspoken words.

“I can hear you thinking.” Nanaba said, not turning round to look at Mina.

Mina pursed her lips.

“Come on, I know you wanna ask. I saw your face.”

Mina was quiet for a few moments, listening to the distant squabble of birds and snapping of twigs under their feet.

“Why did you pick me?”

Mina watched Nanaba shrug her shoulders. “Why would we pick any of the cadets?”

“Jean is fast. His ODM technique is far superior to any other cadet.” Mina started. “Reiner is reliable; he always remains clear headed and has one of the strongest temperaments out of any of us. Hugo…Hugo is strong…undoubtedly the strongest out of all the cadets in this group.”

Mina was quiet again, waiting for Nanaba to speak, only for Nanaba to remain silent, waiting for Mina to say more.

“So. You gave the most points to the most adept cadets. This exercise is supposed to be as challenging as you could make it…otherwise…what’s the point? Only having to secure two flags to win means it had to be difficult.”

Nanaba nodded. “Yes. We had to challenge you.”

“So why pick me?”

Nanaba came to a halt suddenly, Mina only just able to stop behind her before bumping into her back.

Nanaba turned, sighing heavily, shaking her head. “You’re sabotaging yourself with self-doubt. It’s going to ruin you.”

“No.” Mina shook her head, her soft voice firm. “This isn’t as easy as just believing in myself. I’m talking common sense. These cadets have years of experience on me, you said so yourself. Jean, Reiner, and Hugo are much more capable, well rounded soldiers; neither you nor I can argue that.”

Nanaba tutted. “No, I suppose we can’t.”

“So why am I here?” Mina clutched at the red flag. “Some delusional ego boost you’re trying to give me?”

Nanba titled her head. “You know, you’re barely raising your voice and yet this is the most fired up I’ve ever seen you. Kinda scary.” She waggled her eyebrows playfully and Mina averted her eyes to the side.

“Mina, you’re missing the big picture here. Remember what Miche said. This is much more than an assessment of your strength, or speed, or ODM capabilities. We want to see how you all think. Outside of the walls, that can count for everything. It can give you the chance to come back home.”

Nanaba sighed, running a hang through her hair, the cropped blonde pieces falling back messily into place.

“We picked four soldiers based on individual strengths. You were right about them all, the reasons why we selected them, Jean, Reiner, Hugo…so what about you huh, you’re wondering what your strength is still?”

Mina stood firm, eyes heavy.

“Mina, I’ve never seen a cadet adapt the way you can, face challenges like you do…you acclimatize yourself to any situation so that you can come out the other side. You might not be the strongest or quickest, but somehow…you make everything work. You find your own way through any problem that arises, and you push yourself past all limits so that failure isn’t an option. That is where all your power lies.”

Nanaba clasped a hand over Mina’s shoulders.

“You’re strong. And you know that. You know that you’re strong otherwise you wouldn’t have ever made it this far, not in training, not in the Underground. You survived despite all the odds. But Mina…you still don’t realize how strong you are. “

 

It was quiet again for a few moments, Mina letting Nanaba’s words sink into her, work their way under her skin, into her bones and her cells, firing up a new sense of vigour.

 

“All my life…I’ve been against people bigger than me, stronger than me…people who had the ability to overpower me.”

“Yet you never let them.” Nanaba finished for her. “Remember that.”

Mina nodded.

Nanaba smiled gently.

“Sorry for getting so heavy on ya.”Nanaba clapped her once more on the back. “I just wanna see you take this. I know you can do it.”

Mina inhaled shakily, nodding again.

“So, me having a flag wasn’t down to favouritism or anything then?” Mina tried to joke, Nanaba used to the awkward playfulness in Mina’s tone.

She chuckled. “Wanna know something? You were the first choice of cadet to get a flag…but I wasn’t the first one to suggest it. Neither was Miche.” Nanaba’s eyes flashed to Mina quickly. “The first one to put your name forward was Captain Levi.”

 

 

 


 

 

Mina perched on a tree branch, holding on to a stick above her, feeling the rough bark press into her skin as she shifted her weight forwards, balancing on her toes to lean as far out as she could to survey the ground beneath her.

It had been a while since the assessment started and Mina had only heard distance voices and hushed whirring of the ODM gear, not yet having come close to any other cadet.

She sighed, rubbing her forehead lightly with her finger.

 

I’m being too cautious.

It’s going to be over before I’ve barely made a move.

 

Mina had been moving slowly, taking her time to transfer herself from treetop to treetop, trying to stay hidden beneath thick foliage, apprehensive to start swinging around any higher or faster, knowing the more she exposed herself, the more danger she would be in.

She couldn’t shake the feeling of knowing she was being watched…maybe by Nanaba, or Miche…or Captain Levi…and that pressure felt like a smothering weight on her shoulders.

 

I can’t compare to any of these cadets on the ODM gear…if I get out into the open…there is no possible chance of me getting away once spotted.

But…

This fact is stifling me.

I can’t make any movements.

 

 

She closed her eyes tightly, watching the sparkles and blurs of colours twist and melt behind her eyelids, pressing herself to think through the obvious obstacle.

 

 

 

I don’t have a chance of my ODM Gear….

But remember what Nanaba said.

What Miche said.

This isn’t about testing my ODM skills…it’s not about my technical capabilities…

So.

Why am I trying to work with something that is my obvious weakness?

 

 

 

Mina opened her eyes, the decision made in an instance as she unhooked herself quickly, hopping down to a lower branch before letting herself land onto the damp earth with a soft thud.

 

 

 

I want to win.

More than anything…more than anything I have wanted in all these months here.

I want to win this.

So.

I play to my strengths.

 

 

 

Mina set off on foot, pressing herself to the trunks of trees whenever she heard an unfamiliar noise, ducking and diving and moving deftly through branches and roots, imagining herself as she once had been in the Underground, stuck to the shadows, always on high alert, always ready to turn and run at the slightest noise, at the slightest twist in her stomach that didn’t feel right….

 

A loud hiss rang through the air, the distinct noise of ODM gear being used close by.

 

Mina pressed her back up against a tree trunk, tightening up every muscle in her body. She focused on drowning out the noise of her heart, honing in on the noise of another presence instead.

She peered her head around the trunk, catching sight of a body perched low on a tree in front of her, his back to her, but lanky figure recognizable.

 

Jean.

 

She glanced down to his belt, seeing the blue flag still firmly attached, alongside two newly obtained white flags.

 

 

 

30 points.

He only needs 10 more.

I can’t let him win.

 

 

She watched his closely, realizing he hadn’t move in a good minute, taking his time to survey the area, perhaps setting up a position for himself.

 

 

 

He’s stopped so low down.

I wouldn’t even need to use my ODM gear.

I just need to use my speed...I need to stay quiet…invisible…hidden…like I know how.

And I could take it.

It wouldn’t be anything spectacular.

A cheap and easy shot.

But it’s possible.

 

 

Her eyes surveyed the surrounding area, mapping out the easiest route to take in order to creep up on the tall boy, the direction in which she needed to travel to escape and survive.

 

 

Survive?

 

 

Mina caught the thought, holding it into place as she considered the word.

 

No. This isn’t that serious…

It’s more like a game.

Survive…even in these circumstances…that’s all I think about.

 

 

Mina hesitated, her stomach lurching.

 

 

 

But…

…To play to my strengths.

Maybe that’s what I need to do.

Make myself believe this is about survival.

That’s when I’m at my best, that’s when I think clearest, when I’m able to do the most…

When I turn it into a game of survival.

That’s how I win.

 

 

 

Mina moved, body shifting into an almost animal state as she let her instinct take over, stopped the cogs from constantly turning in her mind, swiping it into a blank slate, everything crystal clear and suddenly defined.

It felt as if the woods parted for her, clearing out a path for her as she moved swiftly in and out of trees and branches, almost silent in her approach, deadly in her attack.

So deadly, that when Mina jumped up, hands outstretched to tug the blue flag from Jean’s belt, he barely felt the pull, her body already leaping out of sight and into the heavier bush with incredible speed before Jean could look down to see his belt now empty.

 

“DAMN IT!”

 

Mina heard his frustrated cry as she hurtled her body through the almost impenetrable foliage, forcing her way through thick thorns and heavy shrubs, attaching the blue flag quickly to her belt as she moved.

 

Her heart was in her throat, thumping gloriously as a jubilant smile overtook her face, a light laugh escaping from her mouth in a bubble, the energy making her legs stretch further, arms pump faster.

She heard the whirring of wires.

 

He’s coming closer.

 

She was sure she was still hidden from his view, but she didn’t know how long she

could continue running in the undergrowth before he spotted her form through the sparser branches.

 

And with the ODM gear, it wouldn’t take long for him to swoop down and snag his flag back, alongside stealing hers.

 

Hide.

Hide.

Hide.

What will Nanaba think?

Miche?

Captain Levi?

Is it cowardly to hide?

…..

No.

It means.

I survive.

 

 

 

Mina threw her body onto the floor, crawling now through dirt and twigs, not caring that it stained her uniform, that it coated her face. She pushed her body into a large log, curling up inside the dark tunnel, feeling the rough interior scrape at her arms and scalp, listening to her heavy breaths in the dark.  

She heard the whirring grow louder overhead, heard Jean’s voice exclaim again, this time an obscenity, before it faded, the hissing sound growing fainter and fainter.

 

Mina waited, to be sure, waited, counting her breaths and her heartbeat, before crawling back out the other side of the log, standing up straight and brushing herself off.

 

She fingered her two flags, unable to keep the grin off of her face.

 

Nanaba?

Are you watching?

I’ve got this.

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

Mina had continued on foot, staying in the shadows as she tried to work out her next movements.

 

Hearing a voice suddenly, she pressed herself further into the undergrowth once more, peering out cautiously to find the source.

She spotted it, through the twisting branches and speckled leaves, Hugo’s figure, yellow flag still hanging at his waist, swaying as he paced up and down.

She heard his laughter, followed by a new voice.

“Hugo! You can’t do this!”

Mina’s body froze, her bones shuddering, a chill rolling down each single set of vertebrae as she stared.

 

 

Jasper.

 

 

Hugo laughed again. “Funny. I don’t recall Nanaba saying so.”

He paced again, moving to his left and giving Mina a clear view.

Jasper was suspended up in the air,  hanging awkwardly to the side, his body twisted in the wire that was attached to a tree to his right, the wire at his other hip secured to a tree at his left side.

Hugo crossed his arms over his chest, admiring his work.

“Hugo!” Jasper voice was pleading. “Please. This isn’t fair!”

“Who said anything about this being fair?” Hugo shrugged. “Besides, I believe this comes right under the definition of sabotage. I’m well within my rights.”

Jasper shook his head, the motion spinning him awkwardly in his harness so that this body flipped, now almost hanging upside down.

Hugo laughed again.

“Please Hugo!” Jasper voice was strained, the words cracking under the tears Mina could not yet see. “Please let me down!”

Mina was alight again, the fury bubbling under her skin, her whole body warm and flushed with rage.

“Nah, I don’t think I will.” Hugo smirked. “Look, I’ve been real generous as it is. I gave you some time to run, didn’t I? Not my fault you’re too slow.”

Jasper couldn’t respond, his head hanging down to hide the glossiness of his eyes.

“And I let you keep your flag.” Hugo nodded to the white fabric at his hips, a smirk on his face. “But I suppose it’s just as worthless as you, so why would I bother taking it in the first place?”

 

“Hugo!” A different voice called to him from a close distance, the owner out of sight, yet Mina recognized the steady tone.

 

Reiner.

 

Hugo titled his head towards the sound, before turning back to Jasper.

“Gotta be on my way. Nice playing with ya Jasper, now it’s time for the big boys to win this thing.”

“Hugo, you made your point! Please just let me down! Don’t leave me like this!”

Jasper was starting to flail awkwardly again, trying to adjust his body upright, his limbs too tangled, not strong enough to heave himself up.

Hugo laughed again, the sound a cruel taunt.

“I’m sure someone will let you down eventually. Unless they forget about you, that is.”

He shrugged, before he turned, making his way towards where Reiner had called him.

 

Mina inhaled sharply, feeling the nails press into her palm as she tried to settle herself, sparing a glance at Jasper.

 

Hold on.

 

 

She turned to follow Hugo first, keeping quiet and still in the shadows, mirroring his movements as he made his way into a sparser part of the woods, the trees growing thinner and smaller.

 

We’re near the clearing.

 

She watched from a distance as he jogged up to Reiner, who stood with his arms folded, still with his flag attached.

Hugo grinned at him.

“Any luck?” Reiner asked.

“Nah.” Hugo shook his head. “Can’t find Jean anywhere. No sign of that weird girl either.”

 

They’re working together.

 

Reiner titled his head.

“You were gone a while.”

Hugo grinned. “Yeah, got distracted and started chasing down another white one, but they got away.” He shrugged nonchalantly as Reiner hummed, turning his head around.

“Let’s go back towards the clearing, I have a feeling that the cadets will start to circle back once they’ve exhausted all other options.”

Hugo nodded.

“Good plan.”

 

Mina watched them disappear, her brain scrambling, bursting, mapping out a plan of her own, detail by detail, her whole body bubbling up and up and up until it almost burst….

 

Not yet.

 

Hold on a bit longer Mina….

 

Then…

 

 

Then you can let go.

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

Mina made her way back to Jasper, heart twisted to see him still tangled up in the air, small sniffles and sobs from his limp form.

She stopped in her tracks as she heard a noise from overhead, pressing back into a tree and glancing up to see a flash of green fabric, the deep shade that matched the Scout’s uniform.

 

 

They’re watching me.

I wonder who…

I wonder how many…

 

 

Mina shook her head.

 

Doesn’t matter.

 

She approached Jasper slowly, keeping her footsteps light before announcing her presence.

“Jasper.” She said softly.

His body jerked in the air, trying to turn to see her. “Mina!” He cried, a mixture of relief and despair, his voice still torn and heavy,

“It’s okay.” She said to him, watching as his neck cranked back to catch her gaze. She tried to offer a smile, the attempt feeble upon seeing his muddy, tear stained cheeks. “I’m gonna get you down, okay?”

He sniffed, a red flush seeping across his cheeks, turning away in shame.

He nodded.

Mina moved to inspect his ODM gear, pressing at the triggers that should have released the hooks, only to find them dented and misshapen.

“He busted my gear.” Jasper whisper. “Jammed the triggers so that I couldn’t get out.”

Mina inhaled shakily, fingers twitching in anger as she moved back, withdrawing her blade steadily.

“I’m gonna cut you down.” She said firmly.

Jasper shot her a panicked look.

“It’s okay. You’re not too high. I’ve taken hits from further up and been okay. You just need to twist your body as you fall, okay? Make sure you shoulder the weight on your side, got it?”

Jasper hesitated, before nodded, biting his lip as another tear spilled down his face.

“Okay.”

Mina made the first swing, cutting the left wire so that his body jerked, falling a few metres before stopping, suspended upside down by the remaining wire.

“Twist to your left, okay?”

Jasper nodded again as Mina sliced through the right wire, stepping back as his body turned sharply in the air, landing with a heavy thud, awkward, but managing to take most of the impact to his side.

She sheathed her sword again, hurrying over to his crumpled form.

“Jasper.” She crouched down to help him up, his body relenting to her strong hands heaving him up by the armpits, steadying him on his feet as he looked away in shame, feeling her hands squeeze his shoulders. “Are you okay? Can you stand?”

He nodded feebly as she let her hands drop, swaying slightly on his feet before righting himself, head still titled down.

Mina stared for a few seconds, cleaning and unclenching her fists, pressing her nails so deeply into her palms that the crescent shaped indents began to fill with blood.

A sob broke through and he looked up at her, all the energy having escaped his body, not able to try and hide it anymore.

“It’s not fair!” He cried, shaking his head.

Mina outstretched a hand, fingers cupping his jaw lightly, thumbs brushing the apples of his cheeks, collecting the tears there, just like how she used to do with Max.

“It’s okay.” Her voice was soft and assured.

He shook his head fiercely.

“It’s not! He…He…Look what he did to me! All because he could! He didn’t even want my flag! He just did it because…he had the power to! He wanted to humiliate me. It’s like a sick to game to him! And it’s not fair!”

He dropped his head.

“They’ve been watching haven’t they?” His voice was suddenly quiet.  “I thought I saw them in the trees earlier.”

Mina glanced up to her right again, where she had seen the flash of a green cloak.

She pursed her lips.

“I’m done for. After seeing this, how useless I am… they’re gonna kick me out for sure.”

He dragged his hands fiercely across his eyes, taking a deep breath.

He looked up at Mina, his smile weak and shaky.

“Hey, you got Jean’s flag at least! You should go. Try and win this. I’m sure you can.”

Mina blinked slowly, staring at the pools of tears still filling his eyes to the brim, the green so vibrant it reminded her of the blades of grass,  his peach skin still blotchy from exerting so much emotion.

“I can.” Mina agreed. “I can win this. I know how to.”

Jasper blinked in surprise at her assured words, the sudden look of determination on her face, her eyes darkening.

“Okay. That’s good then.” He said awkwardly.

“And you’re going to win with me.” She stared at him in resolution.

His eyebrows pulled together.

“What…what are you talking about?”

“You and me. We’re going to take this. I’ve got a plan.”

“M-Mina….this doesn’t…I can’t win. It’s not going to work.” He shook his head and she reached forward, holding his hands in her grasp.

“Hugo and Reiner are working together. I know where they are right now. We have to be quick though.”

Jasper’s eyes were wide, staring at her, bewildered.

“Mina. I can’t-”

“You can.” Mina squeezed his small fingers. “My plan doesn’t work without you. We’re going to take their flags. But I need you to help me do it. It only works with you.”

Jasper shook his head, trying to pull himself free. “No! I can’t help you. I can’t help anyone….I’ll just…screw it up!”

“No. You won’t. Not if you do everything I say.”

“Mina…” Jasper’s voice was a breathy whispered, the fierceness of her eyes and sudden sharpness in her features taking him aback. “I don’t understand.”

“You need to trust me.” Mina pressed.  “Please. If you just…trust me. We can win this.”

“But…how…how can I help. My ODM gear-”

“You’ll use mine.” Mina straightened up suddenly, beginning to unbuckle the straps before hesitating. “First…take my flag. To make sure it counts, you better take it directly from me.”

Jasper titled his head. “I don’t understand.”

“Jasper, just take my flag…please. I’ve got Jean’s.”

He hesitated, before reaching forward, fingers trembling, eyes moving up to her face every second as if still seeking approval.

He unhooked the red flag from her belt, holding it awkwardly in his palm, eyeing it like an unfamiliar creature.

“Okay.” Mina nodded. “Now, you need to wear my ODM gear. It might be a bit small but I’m sure you can operate it just fine.”

Jasper rubbed at his face in despair. “I can’t! This doesn’t make any sense Mina! I don’t think you’re thinking this through.  How can we do anything if you don’t have your gear?”

“I don’t need it. It doesn’t matter to me.” She stepped out of her harness, thrusting it into Jasper’s hands.

“Here. You need to be quick. Suit up. I’ll explain while you do.”

Jasper hesitated, fingers stilled gingerly over the harness.

She held his gaze.

“Jasper. This is your chance to win. To prove to everyone you should be here. To prove to Hugo. They’re watching, remember? Trust me.”

She saw his chest heave with a shaky inhale.

“Okay.”

He took the harness and began to strap himself up, eyes glancing to Mina every other second with a look of disbelief.

“I don’t need the ODM gear. I’m going to approach on foot. My best chance is going to be gambling on Reiner’s empathy. Hugo clearly has little, so I won’t be able to get as close to him. But Reiner…I think I can make him trust me enough.” The words were quiet, almost talking to herself, her eyes distant as she ran through her plan once more in her head, straightening out all the kinks.

Her eyes found Jasper’s again. “That means you’re going to take Hugo’s flag.”

Jasper’s mouth opened and closed like a fish gasping for breath.

“Trust me Jasper.”

He stilled as she held his eyes.

He finally nodded, but looked away, hands trembling.

“Okay.” Mina stepped forward as he finished buckling up the last strap, her hand reaching out to retrieve her sword from the canister at his hip.

She held it in front of her face, looking at her distorted reflection in the silver gleam.

Her hand was steady, fingers tight, her mind already made up.

 

 

 

Despite them watching.

Despite them all seeing what I really can be.

My mind is made up.

 

 

“Mina.” Jasper hissed. “What are you doing? We’re not allowed to use our swords on another cadet!”

Mina nodded. “I know. I’m not planning to use this on anyone else, don’t worry.”

She flashed Jasper a smile, before spinning the sword deftly in her left hand, pointing it down and making one quick and clean vertical cut down her right forearm.

“Mina!” Jasper lunged forward as if to grab the sword out of her hand.

She took a step back, watching the blood pool at the surface of the slice, spill out from the deep wound, the folds of skin now clearly parted, crimson pouring out in rivulets across her pale flesh.

 

 

What does one more scar matter to me anyway?

 

 

Jasper was staring at her, his eyes the size of dinner plates, a look of sheer terror flashing across his features.

“What are you doing?!” He exclaimed, blinking rapidly, unable to tear his eyes away.

“It’s okay.” She nodded at him, wiping the sword on the damp earth to clean it of blood before pushing it back into the canister at Jasper’s waist.

Her blood felt cold, trickling down her palm and running off of her fingers, dripping onto her white pants, smeared at the rolled up cuff.

“Trust me.” Mina said quietly. “It’s part of the plan.”

Jasper visibly gulped, eyes wide on the deep wound, watching the blood pour out while Mina paid it no mind.

Mina looked at him.

“I need you to hit me.”

“Have you gone insane?!” Jasper cried, his body tense, on edge, alarm bells in his head almost deafening her words. “Mina. This is….this isn’t-“

“I need….I need to trick them. This is the only way. I need to make it look like I’ve been attacked.” She held up her forearm. “I’m going to approach them and I need to look as vulnerable as possible…I’m going to be a threat to them otherwise. I won’t be able to get anywhere near them.  If they think I’m hurt, Reiner especially, they’ll let their guard down to help me. Then, we can make a move and grab their flags while they’re distracted.” Mina explained. “But it needs to look bad for it to be believable. They’re both smart. I need to really look hurt. That’s the only way I’m going to be able to get close enough. It’s the only way for it to work.”

Jasper’s features softened slightly, some part of him beginning to process the words.

“I need you to hit me to make it look more convincing.”

Jasper shook his head. “I can’t hit you!”

“Of course you can. It’s basic combat.”

“No! This is different…I can’t just…hit you!”

“Just think of it like training, okay? Except…I’m not going to try to block it. You can do this Jasper.”

He shook his head, biting his lip.

 “I would do it myself. “ Mina started. “But I don’t think I can do it hard enough…my body is going to tense up too much.”

Jasper ran a hand through his hair. “I can’t hit you.” His voice was shaking.

Mina pursed her lips. “Okay. If you really can’t…I’m just going to have to knock my head against a tree or something then.”

She made a move to turn and Jasper’s eyes bulged, lunging forward to grab her clean wrist.

“No! Don’t do that!” He sighed heavily. “Okay. Okay. I’ll do it.”

She nodded, turning to face him, rolling back her shoulder and tilting up her chin.

“Okay.” He raised his fists feebly.

“It’s okay Jasper. I trust you. I wouldn’t ask you to do this if I didn’t think it would work.”

He nodded, moving forward quickly to release his arm, hitting her hard in the jaw, enough impact to make her head rear back slightly, but not enough to do any visible damage.

“I’m sorry!” Jasper cried instantly, clutching at his hair with his hands again.

“Jasper! It’s okay.” She shook her head, facing him again. “Aim for my nose. Make it harder. You won’t do any lasting damage, I promise. Don’t think about it. Just swing.”

He took a few hasty breaths, gathering his energy, hyping himself up.

“Okay. Okay. I can do this.”

He nodded to himself, positioning his body, fists up to his face, exhaling loudly through his mouth and letting out a cry as he swung forward, his arm tense, fist clench hard.

The hit landed square in her nose, the force sending a spasm up her face, an instantaneous jolt of pain that ached and throbbed like a heartbeat.

She blinked, steadying herself, feeling the cool liquid dribble out of her nostrils and fall down her lips.

“Mina! I’m sorry!”

“No! Jasper!” She grabbed his forearms, letting the blood run a steady river form her nose. “That was a good hit.” She nodded. “We got this.”

Jasper stared, still bewildered and dazed.

“Still trust me?” She asked him.

He hesitated, looking at her bloody nose, the weeping wound on her forearm.

He looked up, at the resolution in her eyes, the firmness of her face.

“Yes.”

She nodded.

“Okay. I’ll explain the rest as we walk. Let’s go.”

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

Mina didn’t let herself think, crushing every cog in her mind that spun with worry and question.

 

 

 

Who saw?

Which one of them has been watching me all this time?

 How many of them?

….

No.

It doesn’t matter.

This is my plan.

To win.

 

 

She thought of Jasper’s tear stained faced, Hugo’s laugh as he taunted the blonde boy, ignoring his pleas.

 

 

I have to win.

 

 

She inhaled, clearing her mind.

 

I’ll do my part.

Let’s just hope Jasper can do his.

 

She pressed her thumb deeper into the wound on her forearm, drawing out more blood and spreading it around her arm, wiping the stained hand across her shirt, smearing it crimson.

She did the same with her face, dragging her hand across her bloody nose, smearing it further across  her cheek and mouth.

 

 

Right now….

Get rid of Mina.

Bury her far away.

Don’t let her escape.

 

 

 

She let out a few gasping breaths, letting her breathing deregulate, feigning a panic, taking shallow, hasty pants so that the panic started to become real. All of It became real, the shortness of breath, the sweat clinging to her forehead, the tears in her eyes.

She blinked, letting them well up more, letting them spill, letting out a sob, letting her fingers tremble as she clutched her forearm tightly.

 

 

 

 

 

“Think of it like a game, Mina.” Kenny regarded her across the room, watching the blood dribble out of her nose as she looked up at him, stunned. “And we’re on equal footing with our opponent. We need an advantage point. To do that…we need a secret weapon.”

He leant forward in his chair.

“You’re our secret weapon.”

He smiled at her as she blinked, sniffing heavily.

“You know, there’s not much that can catch a man off guard down here.” Kenny considered, clicking his tongue. “But a sweet lil girl, looking all lost and sad and beaten…well…that’s gonna have their attention for a good moment or so…just enough time for me to make my move.”

He flashed her a toothy grin.

“But…It…It doesn’t seem very fair. To trick them.” Mina mumbled.

“Fair?!” He laughed, the raucous noise bouncing off of the walls. “Those guys don’t give a shit about it being fair. They’re bad guys Mina, remember that. They get what’s coming to them. Guys like that…this is the least they deserve.”

He leant forward again, tilting his head as he observed her.

“Come on kid, give me a few more tears than that. We gotta make it believable.” He smiled. “I know you got it in ya.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hugo is a bad guy.

It’s the least he deserves.

I have to do this.

Whatever it takes to survive.

 

 

 

“Help! Please! Someone help me!”

 

She stumbled out into the clearing, feigning a slight tumble on her shaky legs as she appeared from the tree, tears now streaming down her cheeks, sobs audible from a distance.

She watched as Reiner and Hugo spun around, facing her, both with similar bewildered expressions.

“Please! I can’t find any of our instructors! I don’t know what to do about the blood!” Mina pitched her voice up high, let it shake, crack, crumble, let the sobs distort her words.

“What on earth….” Reiner’s words trailed off as he watched the small, dark haired woman take a few more steps, blood seeping down her arm, red smeared across her uniform and face.

“What the fuck?!” Hugo bit out, body rearing back in disbelief.

“Please. I think I need to go back…I think I need medical help…could one of you help me find an instructor?” Mina’s voice was quivering.

Reiner began to walk forward before Hugo grabbed his wrist.

“What are you doing?” Hugo hissed.

Reiner shot him a glare. “What does it look like?! She needs our help.”

Hugo dropped his arm, letting Reiner approach, too confused and startled to act.

Mina adjusted her body, shifting her stance so that Reiner couldn’t see…couldn’t see the blue flag attached to her belt firmly, hanging loose at her back.

“Mina. What the hell happened?” Reiner’s eyes were narrowed, worry and concern clear across his features.

Mina’s heart tugged.

 

I knew this would be hard.

After all…It’s not his fault.

But I can’t let him distract me.

He just happened to be in the way.

 

“Are you okay? You should come sit down…It’s a lot of blood.” Reiner touched her shoulder gently, moving to guide her.

She shook her head.

“I don’t know what’s going. I thought the instructors were supposed to be watching but they must be busy elsewhere.”

She turned her teary gaze up to Reiner, who was staring at the wound on her arm with a firm expression.

“I…I…I got Jean’s flag…but there was a fight. I don’t know if he meant to…he just got so mad…I don’t think he meant to hurt me.”

“Jean did this?!” Reiner exclaimed in horror.

“Jean?” Hugo echoed, having come closer, distant still but in earshot.

Min nodded. “He pulled out his blade, just to scare me. Told me to give the flag back….But I ran and he caught me…He took back the flag but I tried to fight him for it…He didn’t mean to…we both just fell and he was still holding the blade…He panicked I think…He ran off.” Mina let the words fall out, disjointed, faking confusion, eyes looking muddled, forehead creased  as if struggling to remember the details.

Reiner shook his head, coming closer, crouching down to look at the fresh set of tears rolling down her cheeks, eyes glassy, bottom lip trembling, chest shuddering with each strangled breath.

“He got spooked…knowing he broke the rules…I don’t know…” Mina shook her head, letting gout a cry of pain.

“Hey…hey...it’s okay.” Reiner offered. “That doesn’t…that doesn’t sound much like Jean…but, I’m sure like you said, it was a freak accident and he panicked.” Reiner shook his head. “He shouldn’t have left you though, even if he was scared.”

He straightened up, unrolling the sleeve of his shirt and grabbing it with his hand, tearing apart the excess piece of fabric.

He bent back down again, pressing the shirt to her arm, trying to staunch the blood flow.

He winced as she drew in a shaky breath, gasping and crying.

“Sorry.” He said, his voice sincere.

 

Mina swallowed the guilty bile rising in her throat, trying to avert her eyes from the distress clear across his features.

 

He’s just in the way.

 

“We’ll…We’ll try to find an instructor to help. Maybe I should take you back to castle and Hugo can go find someone? You’re gonna need stitches for this…after all that I can find that punk ass Jean and teach him a lesson for ya.” Reiner tried to make his tone light, but his eyes were still dark and narrowed.

Mina glanced at Hugo, who was still hanging back, eyeing her wearily, having moved closer, but keeping pressed up to the trees.

 

He’s in the perfect position.

 

 

Mina stilled, taking in a breath, hoping that Jasper was watching and waiting.

“Thank you Reiner. I…I really appreciate you helping me.”

She glanced up at him as he offered a small smile, head still bent as he examined her arm, form hunched, guard completely down…open…distracted…vulnerable.

She glanced up again at Hugo, knowing that the window of opportunity was narrowing.

 

If I want to act…it needs to be now.

 

“I’m sorry.” Mina said, her voice thick.

Reiner glanced up in confusion.

“What do you have to be sorry about?”

She titled her lips, the words almost caught in her throat as her body tensed, muscles coiled, ready for action.

 

She thought again of Hugo.

Of Jasper’s trembling lips and tear stained cheeks.

 

Please Jasper.

Please be ready.

Please do exactly as I told you.

 

“I’m sorry….for what I have to do. I hope you don’t take it personally. We all want to win after all.” Mina was speaking almost inaudibly.

Reiner brow furrowed.

“What are you talking-”                 

“Now!” Mina cried, letting everything inside her burst and rupture.

Mina moved, jerking her head up so that the top of her skull cracked into Reiner’s chin

Reiner stumbled back, not before Mina could launch herself up, tackling his body to the ground, immobilising him on his stomach, hands behind his back, her own thighs trapping his tightly as she pushed all of her bodyweight onto him, keeping him down.

She spared a glance to her right, unable to stop the beam across her face as she saw Jasper, having dropped down from the tress on the ODM gear, using the force of his swing to shove Hugo into the ground, landing on him the exact way Mina had instructed, paralysing his legs and restraining his arms.

She turned back, holding Reiner’s squirming body still as her bloodied hands fiddled with his belt, unhooking the flag at the exact same time as Jasper worked at Hugo’s, turning all of his fear and anger into adrenaline.

Despite Jasper’s much smaller frame, the position Mina had described for him to use had worked perfectly to his advantage. Upon landing on Hugo with force, he had pressed his knee into the tender part of Hugo’s legs and restrained his wrists at an awkward angle, so that any time Hugo tried to struggle out of the grasp, the pain in his shoulders became far too strong to fight.

 

“Jasper! Now!” Mina called, signalling for him to present their flags together.

His hand shot up at the same time as Mina’s, both holding the coloured fabric high in the air.

Jasper beamed at Mina, pressing harder into Hugo’s back as he held the yellow flag victoriously above his head.

Mina smiled back, Reiner’s green flag in her hand now stained with blood, blood that continued to drip down her arm as she held it high, streams of it rolling down her into her sleeve.

 

The boom of the flare gun sounded, Jasper and Mina watching the smoke burst into the air from only a few metres behind them.

 

 

It’s over.

 

Jasper jumped up, instantaneously making a wide berth between him and Hugo. The bigger boy stood up quickly, his body trembling and flexing, turning to Japer with a wild look in his eyes, his fists clenched.

Mina stood up slowly, watching.

“Hey! “ She called to him. “The instructors are in the trees. You wanna try anything? They’ll see it all.”

She moved closer to Jasper, watching as his eyes darted to her in relief. She came to move in front of his body, a protective stance, blocking his form from Hugo’s view.

“You can’t do this!” Hugo seethed, staring at the pair with blazing eyes. “This isn’t fair!”

Mina raised an eyebrow. “We can’t? I don’t see why not. After all…” she settled him with a stare, her voice quiet and cool.  “Who said anything about this being fair?”

He blinked, taken aback by the mirroring of his earlier words used to taunt Jasper.

Mina could see figures approaching; see their green cloaks entering her peripheral vision.

 

She knew.

Somehow she knew.

They had seen it all.

Yet…

She couldn’t find the energy to care.

Not when she had survived.

Not when she had helped Jasper survive.

 

 

She wondered how she looked to them, standing with her arms spread in front of Jasper, bloodied and stained and determined, her dark eyes still honed in on Hugo.

She wasn’t done with him yet.

“I don’t know what your problem is with Jasper.” She said to Hugo, keeping her voice low and fixed. “But you ever come near him again, and I promise you…I’ll make you regret it. I’m not someone who breaks a promise.”

Hugo blinked again.

Mina turned, looking towards Jasper’s frozen feature, hand still clutching the flag.

She tried to offer a smile. “I told you to trust me, right?”

“Mina.” He breathed, his eyes wide with a new set of tears. “We did it!”

He threw himself at her, not caring about the blood, body shaking as he pressed his face into her shoulder.

She placed her hands on his shoulders carefully, giving them a gentle squeeze, breath caught in her lungs as he pulled back with a blinding smile.

“I…I…thank you! I didn’t think I could but…something happened…I don’t know how I did it…but something came over me, when I thought of the look in your eyes…and I knew…I knew I just had to do it! I couldn’t let you down.”

Mina smiled softly. “You did great.”

 

“Mina! Jasper!”

 

Mina inhaled, steadying herself for the moment.

She turned.

 

Petra hung furthest back, staring at her with wide eyes, glancing over at the blood on her face and across her arms.

Eld stood next to her, sharing a similar expression of incredulity.

Miche had his lips pursed, hands on his hips, face unreadable. He caught Mina’s eyes and he offered a small nod.

Nanaba had titled her head, an eyebrow raised at Mina, before she glanced to Petra and Eld behind her and let out a deep sigh at their expressions.

 

Mina let her eyes fall on him last.

 

Levi didn’t look away when she did, letting his gaze hold hers, face still, almost blank, but surprisingly, not as firm as she usually found it.

“Well done.” He nodded at her, his eyes shifted over to Jasper to extend the same congratulations. “Good work, both of you.”

Mina didn’t miss the way Petra and Eld glanced at him in confusion.

 

She inhaled shakily, turning to look at Reiner who was approaching Hugo, staring at Mina with a look of hurt and anger.

“I’m…I really am sorry Reiner.” She offered.

He glanced down to her forearm and looked away again.

“But…you should really think about who you keep company with. I don’t think I’m the only one who tricked you today.” Mina glanced at Hugo.

Reiner followed her eyes, his brow furrowing.

Hugo stared back at her, expression aglow with fury.

 

 

“Hey!”

Voices came tumbling out of the forest, Jean the first to approach, his long legs carrying him over quickly.

“Who won?” his eyes caught Mina, zeroing in on the blood.

He stopped mid stride.

 “Whoa! What happened to you?!”

Reiner glanced between the two, sighing heavily and rubbing his forehead in frustration.

“Damn it.” Mina heard Reiner mumble.

 

“Mina, are you okay?” Jean asked her, approaching cautiously, eyes wide with worry.

 

She nodded.

 

More bodies followed, spilling into the clearing, curious to see who had obtained the points, eyes all falling on Mina in confusion and shock, before noting the flags both her and Jasper held.

She stepped away from Jasper, letting the cadets fall in to congratulate him, clearly more comfortable around the harmless looking young boy. He beamed up at the claps on his backs, words of “well done” and “wow, how’d you do it?”

He had laughed nervously, eyes light, a grin on his face, answering every question with the same response.

“I couldn’t have done it without Mina!”

 

Mina hung back, unsure how to explain, unsure who to approach.

She glanced at Nanaba, hoping she would make the first move to her.

 

Hoping she didn’t see her any differently.

 

“Mina.” Nanaba said, noticing her frantic eyes. “You okay?”

Mina nodded.

“Well.” She laughed suddenly, an incredulous breathy sound. “You know… I had a feeling you could do it…I guess I just didn’t expect it to pan out like that. Want a drink tonight to celebrate?”

Mina felt her shoulders drop in relief at Nanaba’s easy words.

“You need to go to the infirmary. “Miche said lowly, eyes travelling over the still bleeding wound.  “Before you even think of doing any celebrating.”

Mina nodded, eyes glancing over to Levi and Petra, who were talking quietly, heads turned away and out of earshot.

 

 

 

 

 

“Captain…I…I don’t think this is right.”

“Care to explain why, Petra?” Levi’s tone was bored.

“What she did…how…how can we let it go?”

Levi shrugged. “She didn’t break any rules. We told the cadets that it was up to them to do as they pleased. They could go about this any way they wanted.”

Petra blinked in astonishment. “Yes but to go to that extent?! To…To take a blade to herself like that…to cry like that…to act like that! I just…all of that…just to win?”

Levi shook his head. “No. Not to win. To prove a point.” He glanced across at Mina, her eyes still watching Jasper protectively.

“To prove a point to us. To herself. To him.” He nodded to Jasper. “She wanted him to win more than anything. That wanted to prove him capable.”

Petra frowned. “Look, I get it. She’s taking on a sort of… mentorship role with the boy. But that doesn’t mean any of that was normal!”

“Maybe to her it is…” Levi flashed Petra a hard stare. “I’m not going to stand here and judge how she made it out alive after all those years.”

“I just…” Petra struggled to find the words.

“It doesn’t do much to help us trust her.” Eld interjected, stepping closer. “Seeing her shift like that…it proves how unpredictable she is, more so than Niklas.”

“She’s not unpredictable.” Levi countered. “She did that to protect herself and to protect the boy. There’s an obvious pattern emerging.”

“It’s not a pattern I like.” Eld said coolly.

Levi shrugged. “She didn’t hurt anyone. She played to her strengths. She adapted and found a way through all the weakness that set her back amongst every other cadet. And she came out the other side and won. Isn’t that why we agreed to give her a flag in the first place?”

Eld averted his eyes and Petra pursed her lips.

“I understand where you’re coming from Captain, but you have to admit that her behaviour went beyond all of our expectations.” She moved her eyes away from his hard stare. “I’m going to have to write this up to the Commander, I hope you can understand.”

Levi exhaled through his nostrils, not trying to hide his frustration. “Do what you believe is best Petra…” He titled his head down, glancing across at Mina again as she continued to linger near Jasper, ignoring Miche and Nanaba’s insistence to take her to the medical bay. “Just don’t go in blind. I will talk to Mina first. If you want to report this to the Commander, then let her have a voice too.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Mina stood outside the door to Levi’s office, fingers trailing over the fresh stiches that closed up the gaping wound on her forearm.

She had barely been stitched up, perched silently on the edge of the medical bed as the doctor snipped the last of the black cord, when Petra had appeared as a hesitant shadow in the doorway, requesting Mina maker her way to Captain Levi’s office as soon as she was finished

 

Mina looked at the stiches, regarding the thick black jagged lines of the thread as uglier than the wound itself.

She sighed, gathering herself up as she raised her clenched fist to his door.

She was grateful for the opportunity to explain herself at least, and more than that, she was almost relieved that it was Captain Levi she would be talking to.

For some reason, out of anyone, it was him she wanted to justify her actions to the most.

She knocked on the door, three rapid knocks, then a pause before the fourth and final one.

It was quiet.

“Come in.”

She stepped inside the familiar room slowly, taking in the barely furnished space, one chair behind the desk, one chair in front of it but pushed off to the right. There was one oak cabinet pressed up against the wall to the left, and a stack of shelves pushed up at the back wall, filled with books, stacked in uniform rows, not a binder or page out of place.

His desk was spotless; a mass of papers neatly piled up and placed at the edge of the wooden surface, a pen lying next to them, placed down with conscious thought, as opposed to dropped onto the table after a long day of work.

He stood with his side to her, his green cloak and tan jacket neatly folded and placed over the edge of his desk chair, his exposed forearms in the white button up shirt crossed over one another as his attention seemed to be drawn to the view outside the window behind him.

Mina stood in the centre of the room, waiting.

He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, before he nodded to the vacant chair.

“You can sit.”

Mina wished she had insisted to stay standing as soon as she found the chair, now having to tilt her head up to look at the dark haired man across the room from her, still with a brooding gaze out the window, Mina not comfortable with the way it felt like he had placed them on unequal footing.

It was quiet again, and Mina noticed the way his left pointer finger began to tap against the skin above his right elbow.

“I didn’t break any of the rules Nanaba set for us.”

Levi’s finger paused at the sound of Mina’s sudden voice, having been waiting to gather his thoughts and assemble the right approach, not expecting her to be the first one to break the silence.

Her voice was quiet, but not in any way out of anxiety and apprehension. It was her normal, assured, unreadable tone.

“So if I’m to be punished, it can’t be because of that.”

Levi’s finger resumed its tapping as his brow pulled further down.

“You’re not going to be punished.”

Mina stilled.

“Petra is going to write a report to Erwin outlining today’s events…in accordance to your behaviour being…unexpected.”

His tone was quiet also, a low heavy drawl.

“I doubt the Commander will really find many faults with your actions themselves…like you said, you didn’t break any rules. It’s just-”

“It’s just doesn’t do much for me when you’re still figuring out how far you can trust me.” Mina finished for him.

Levi glanced at her again.

“When you take me out of the Underground…but can’t shake from me what I know from living there. That unsettles some of you still.”

“Some of us.” Levi agreed, a minute nod.

 His finger began to move quicker as he pursed his lips.

“I doubt Commander Erwin will do anything drastic, but he will catalogue this incident for future reference and it could interfere with any decisions made regarding your training later on. I don’t want this to affect your progress so far or do anything to hinder it in the future. We can’t afford that.”

Mina waited, unsure.

“So, I supposed it was fair enough to let you have a voice, so that Erwin isn’t hearing just one side of this morning’s events. I think it would be beneficial for him to understand.”

“I’m not proud of it.” Mina said suddenly, staring at Levi’s profile, willing him to turn his head towards her so she could desperately try to pick apart any look across his face, to work out what he was thinking about her. “I hate it, actually. I hate that it’s the only way I know how to survive.”

Levi blinked.

“I hate that’s what helped me win. I can try to be stronger, or be quicker. But I’m never going to be able to shake that part of me off. And that’s the part of me that gave me the upper hand. I hate that that’s all I can ever rely on.”

“You shouldn’t hate the parts of you that have kept you alive all this time.” Levi said quietly.

“Even when they feel like the worst parts of me?”

Mina didn’t understand how the words fell out of her mouth so easily, how her guard crumpled in his presence.

It was quiet again.

“I understand why you did it.” Levi said. “When pushed into a corner, and when you couldn’t rely on your strength…you had to figure out a different route. You have to use your head in a way these other cadets will never be able to. You have to be tactical in a way the other cadets cannot be. That’s why we gave you that flag. You adapt. I’m not here to judge how you work your way out of tricky situations. That would never be my place. It shouldn’t be anyone else’s either. You do what you have to do. I understand that more than anyone.”

Something flashed across Mina’s face, Levi catching the flicker in her expression before he moved his eyes away again.

 

 

You understand more than anyone?

How could you possibly understand?

 

 

“I…” Levi’s deep voice grew gruffer, a rough crackle to the tone as he cleared his throat, waiting before he spoke the next words slowly. “I grew up in the Underground too. I was born there.”

Mina’s breath caught in her throat, the floor underneath her feet suddenly feeling as if it was tilting and slipping out from underneath her.

“I won’t get into the details.” He shook his head. “But much like you, I was recruited by Commander Erwin, in order to use my skills outside of the Walls. I resented him at first, I resented everyone here. I didn’t know how to be much else than who I was down there.” His face was completely titled away from Mina, so that she could only see the line of his neck as he turned, the short hair of his undercut, the back of his collar and slope of his shoulder.

“I’ve done far worse than you ever could have while down there. Some of my behaviour was more warranted than others. I’m not proud of that that. But at the end of it all, I’m still alive. So I’m not going to waste any of my time regretting it, and I’m not ashamed to admit that. It’s a different world down there. None of them could ever understand that.”

Mina was still reeling from the first second of his revelation, staring at the Captain as if seeing him through new eyes, things that still didn’t make sense, others that suddenly all fell into place, picturing him…like her…fighting every single day.

She wanted to ask him everything and anything all at once.

“You said you resented them.” Repeating his earlier words was the first thing she could manage to utter. “Not anymore.”

It wasn’t a question.

Levi gave a small shake of his head.

“No. This isn’t the life I would have picked for myself but Its where I’m meant to be.”

Levi’s voice was still rough, an air of detachment to it.Mina watched his tense figure, a distinct lack of emotion in his tone, despite sharing something so vulnerable with her.

 

 

He probably regrets sharing so much.

 

 

That was a feeling Mina could relate to.

 

The urge to reciprocate was overwhelming, an intense feeling that she had to crack open a part of herself, peel away a layer to reveal something raw, to even the playing field.

 

At the very least, she wanted him to understand why.

 

“There was someone in the Underground who taught me how to think like that…act like that…like how I did this morning. He took me under his wing, I guess you could say.”

Levi turned his head a fraction, a small tilt of the chin and angling of his jaw to look at her, the afternoon light behind him shadowing the sharpest points of his face.

“My father…well I could barely call him that. He wasn’t any father to me or my brother, wasn’t a husband to my mother. He was a gambler. An alcoholic. Violent. He’s was the reason my mother and brother died. He gambled away every penny we had for my mother’s medicine and my brother…he…” Mina felt her body shutting down, not able to delve into that part of her past any further. “I’m not saying this for you feel sorry for me. I’m just trying to explain. This man, he knew what my real father was like, and I thought…he let me think that he could be a father to me instead. That’s why I trusted him. It’s why I did as he said.”

Mina sat up straight, tone steady and assured, trying to detach herself from the violence of her past, the fear and anger and grief that suddenly threatened to swallow her whole in that very moment if she didn’t keep her head above water.

Levi continued to watch her.

“He taught me how to fight. How to use a gun. How to use a knife. Niklas didn’t have much to do with him, never like or trusted him. But I was too far gone under his promises and pretty words.”

Mina looked past Levi as she spoke, finding the words from some distant version of herself, a piece of herself she wish she could rip out with her bare hands and stomp into dust.

“He could be nice to me…and he made me feel proud of myself. No one had ever done that before. He told me that what he was teaching me was all for my own good, that the minute I strayed away from his way of thinking, I would be dead. But, he was really just using me. Teaching me how to lie…how to cry when I didn’t mean it…how to put on a fake face, a fake name…If he was ever in a bind, if he was outnumbered or overpowered or underprepared….he would use me. I was his best distraction. A bloody nose. Tears in my eye. A ripped dress. Maybe they didn’t all jump to help me with open arms, but it was enough for them to do a double take, to let their guard down…to lower their guns. That was all he needed.”

Mina didn’t dare look at Levi, worried she would lose the courage to continue, to keep speaking the words she had never uttered before, barely even to herself.

Levi frowned. “You don’t have to-”

“He told me they deserved it. Bad guys, he would call them. They were bad people. He said people like that deserved to be lied to…to be tricked…to be stolen from. I never liked it…I never liked the feeling of becoming a bad person myself. But he promised me it was the right thing to do…to keep me alive…to keep my family alive.” Mina looked down at her hands, staring at the swirls of her fingerprints, the faded scars, indents and raised skin. “My mother used to say I had to be a good person. In order to survive. She told me only good people make it out. If I ever wanted to get out of there…I had to be good. Then, it would work out for me. Somehow. She told me to never let myself become like the rest of them.  My mother was a very good person. So was my brother. And they both died. Being good people got them killed in the end.”

“I always wanted to be the person my mother wanted me to be. Which is why I hate that part of myself. I hate that way of thinking. I’m not proud of it. Of the lies and the tricks and the mind games and the stealing. It’s what he made part of me. And in the end, when I run out of use…he  just left me. I resent him for leaving. I resent him for engraining this into me.”

She spoke coolly and calmly, not letting her beating heart or turning stomach seep into her tone.

“Hugo reminds me people down there…maybe that’s why I did it.  I wanted to win...but more than that…I didn’t want him to win. I’m sick of the bad people always winning. Jasper…Jasper is tormented by that boy. I know you saw what he did to him in the tree…just because he could. That wasn’t the first instance. I couldn’t let him…carry on thinking he could get away with that…and Jasper…I had to help him win, to show him what he was capable of. To show him he doesn’t have to be scared. That’s why I did what I did…why I went to extreme lengths. I resorted back to what I knew how to do best. I’m not sorry for it, not when I know Jasper knows how to fight harder now, and not when it means Hugo may realize he can’t be so cruel anymore. I’m…I’m just sorry you all had to see it.”

The silence seemed to stretch on for an immeasurable amount of time; Levi’s pursed face staring out at the wall in front of him, yet to turn his frame fully towards Mina.

Mina felt her breathing begin to regulate again, the water slowly draining away, her limbs and head feeling lighter.

 

 

I didn’t…I didn’t need to tell him all of that.

But.

I wanted to.

I wanted someone to know.

I wanted him to know.

 

 

He sighed heavily, finally.

“I’ve done a lot worse.” He settled on his words finally. “In my past. But it doesn’t mean I’m still the same person.”

He glanced at her again.

“You’re oversimplifying things. It’s not black and white. There’s no such thing as a truly good person. In this fucked up version of a world, it’s impossible to share the same morals and values. One person’s idea of right is not the same as another’s. What’s lawful isn’t always just. We just do the best we can…for us…for those around us…it’s not so simple as the good versus the bad, it would help you to start realizing that. Stop putting other people or yourself or your actions into just one box. Stop trying to justify your actions. It’s your choice. That’s enough of a reason. You don’t need anyone else’s judgement or approval. What you did in the Underground doesn’t have to define you now, although it wouldn’t matter if you let it. There’s some real pieces of shit down there and I wouldn’t blink an eye…That man…I’m not saying I agree with everything,  but he was right. Maybe they did deserve it.”

Levi’s words were firm and steady.

He paused.

“None of us here believe you are bad person, not you or Niklas. Erwin didn’t believe that when he recruited me. Despite knowing more of my past than any of us knew about yours or Niklas’s.”

 Levi glanced down, his next words rougher and slightly muffled. “Do what you believe is right. Not what you think other people are going to approve of.”

Mina blinked.

Her next breath felt fuller and easier.

A cleanse.

“Are you going to report all of this to Commander Erwin?”

Levi’s eyebrow quirked. “I’ll tell him the condensed version…I’ll explain your affiliation to Jasper and that other boy.”

Mina nodded. “And that will be enough?”

“Like I said, there’s no such thing as a strictly good person. The commander has done things in his life he’s also probably not proud of. We all have. None of us are in any place to judge. If anything….”Levi paused, a small huff of dry amusement escaping his lips. “He would have probably wished he was there this morning to see you himself.”

It was quiet again, Levi turning completely to stare out of the window, his back now facing Mina.

“You should go. It’s been a long day.”

Mina nodded, more so to herself. “Thank you Captain.”

 

 

 

What am I thanking him for?

For listening?

For sharing?

For…understanding?

 

 

 

Mina hesitated, wondering whether to explain just what she was so thankful for. She glanced at his back again, before she decided it best to wordlessly leave his office instead.

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

Mina made her way to the mess hall, stealing herself to face a crowd for the first time since the morning, wondering just how fast word had travelled round.

She had barely taken her first step into the room when a sea of faces turned to regard her presence.

 

Very fast, apparently.

 

Mina kept her face blank, letting her eyes drift over the blur of faces, filtering through the expressions, tuning them out and letting them fade into the background.

It worked for a little while.

She was frustrated with herself for letting Armin catch her eye, his smile visible in her peripheral vision, angling his body towards her as if demanding her attention. She couldn’t help the swivel of her eyes to him, watching as he smiled wider, reassuring her.

Her focus snapped and her eyes scanned the figure next to him, Mikasa greeting her with a small, gentle nod.

Her eyes continued, falling onto the next table over, seeing Jean with his chin rested in his palm, tilting his head as he regarded her carefully.

She dragged her gaze away, trying to focus once more on pushing out the curious, wondering eyes, but not before she caught Ymir’s amused stare, the young woman leant back in her chair, hands behind her head as she watched Mina.

They locked eyes and Ymir winked, her smile growing wider.

Mina looked away.

Jasper was waiting for her at their usual table, his beaming smile guiding her towards him, an unconscious pull of her body towards the green eyed, dimpled boy.

“Hey. Ignore them all.” He said quickly as she slid her body opposite him, his grin now taking a sympathetic turn as he noted Mina’s avoidant stare. “I promise they’re not thinking badly of you.”

Mina regarded him coolly, a slight quirk of her eyebrow in question.

“I’ve been speaking to a lot of people, they all wanted to congratulate me but I made sure to say how awesome you were! A lot of them thought it was pretty cool! You know Connie and Sasha, right? They think you’re bad ass!”

“And the rest of them?” Mina asked, knowing the answer.

Jasper averted his eyes slightly. “Well…I guess it was just a bit unexpected and weird for some people. I don’t think it’s anything too bad! It’s mostly…they’re just a bit scared of you, is all.”

Mina paused for a few seconds, considering the words.

 

 

All my life I’ve known fear.

Fear of others, fear for myself, for my family, my future…

Now…for me to be the one people are scared of.

What does that say about me?

 

 

 

“Who cares what anyone else thinks? You’re amazing, Mina! You should give yourself more credit!”

He beamed at her, and she offered a small smile for his sake, trying to satiate his desperate need to uplift her.

“How is your arm?” He glanced down to the stiches worriedly.

Mina shrugged. “I’ve had a lot worse. Just stings a bit, is all.” She caught his attention as it flickered to her face. “And that was just a nose bleed. Its fine now, don’t worry.”

Jasper nodded again, waiting for a few moments to pass before he spoke again.

“How…how did you come up with a plan like that? How did you keep so calm?”

Mina looked up at him, leant forward in his seat, eyes eager and keen to learn.

She moved her gaze to the window to her left, watching the clouds roll by the treetops for a few seconds.

“I come from somewhere…where it was very easy for me to be overpowered. I wasn’t…treated the best. There was no way for me to be stronger than those who were cruel to me. So…I had to rely on other types of strengths. I had to learn how to plan and escape certain situations….I had to be resourceful, I guess you could say.”

Jasper nodded, noting her hesitance to divulge any specific details, the distant look in her eyes and the guardedness of her expression.

“That makes sense.” He spoke quietly, nodding to himself. “Well…I think it was incredible and so smart. I’m glad to have you on my side.” Mina caught his warm smile . “I really can’t thank you enough but….” A faint flush crept across his face, the apples of his cheeks turning a pink hue. “I want to show you something…if you don’t mind.”

Mina blinked.

She nodded.

He held out his left wrist onto the table, placing it clearly in Mina’s view.

She stared in confusion.

“This bracelet…my mother made it for me.” Mina looked at the thin leather woven around his wrist; a detail she had caught sight of before but not thought anything of it. “My family owned a store…selling leather goods…my dad made furniture and my mother made clothes. She used to say if she concentrated hard enough, she could work her feelings into the pieces she made…she never made anything when she was upset. She said the feelings would carry. If she wanted to create something special for someone, she had to be happy and grateful and full of love.”

 His voice was quiet, shaking slightly as his right finger came up to trace the bracelet.

“She made me this…she said she made it with all the love she had in her heart. This red piece.” Mina peered closer, a red piece of fabric woven in tightly among the fading leather, an intricate string of twists and braids. “She said the red piece represented that love. That no matter where I went, I would carry her love with me here. No matter where she went, her love would be closer to me always.”

Mina swallowed, as the pieces of her own mother’s jewellery wrapped tight in the thin braid of her hair suddenly felt like weights woven into her scalp.

“It’s beautiful.” Mina managed to breathe out.

Jasper smiled sadly.

“She made me a few different ones…all with different parts of her…I like to keep them safe so I don’t wear them all. Just this one. It’s my favourite.”

Mina nodded.

Jasper hesitated suddenly, before reaching down to his pocket, pulling out another piece of leather cord.

“This one…this one I’ve never worn. I…I….wanted to give it to you. For you to wear…to say thank you.”

Mina’s eyes widened as Jasper’s cheeks flushed deeper, his eyes dancing around her unsure face with apprehension.

“If you think it’s silly you can just say.” Jasper said quickly, “I just….I really wanted to thank you and I didn’t know how to thank you enough. I thought…I wanted to give you something…and this…this felt right.”

“I….I can’t take something your mother made for you Jasper…I don’t want to do that.”

“But I want you to have it.” Jasper said, unfurling the bracelet in front of her. “Here. See.” He pointed to the blue fabric woven into the leather cord, his finger snaking over it slowly. “My mother said this one is for protection. She told me to wear it and it would mean she could keep me protected, no matter how far away I was from her. But…I want to give it you now, I feel like I should.”

“Jasper.” Mina breathed, fingers shaking slightly. “It’s…it’s beautiful but it’s too much. I can’t accept this…it means too much to you for you to just give it to me.”

“That’s why I’m giving it to you. Because it’s special.” Jasper pressed, reaching his hands closer to her. “I want to protect you like you protected me. But I can’t really…I’ll never be as strong as you, or as brave. But this...at least with this…this can help protect you.” He bit his lip. “You think it’s silly?”

Mina hesitated.

“No.” She shook her head. “Not at all.”

“Then take it please. It would mean a lot to me if you did.”

“I….” Mina trailed off, the pleading look on his face too much for her heart to reject.

She reached up her right arm slowly, placing it on the table for him.

“Okay….Can you tie it for me?”

Jasper beamed again, nodding, before he hesitated. “Other arm.” He said.

Mina titled her head.

“The left arm…so it’s closer to your heart…my mother used to say.” Jasper muttered the words quietly, flushing again.

Mina obliged, placing her left forearm on the table, the one free of stiches and scars.

Jasper moved gingerly, lifting her hand to wind the cord around, pulling it snugly over her wrist bone, securing it with multiple tight knots, the tip of his tongue caught between his teeth in concentration as his fingers worked with the fiddly material.

“There.” He said with a satisfied grin. “All done!”

Mina raised her arm to her face slowly, twisting it carefully to see.

“This…this is probably the nicest gift I’ve ever received Jasper. I really don’t deserve it. But thank you.”

Jasper’s grin almost split his face in half. “You deserve more than that Mina! Much more! Just for how nice you are to me, if anything!”

Mina averted her eyes.

“And now…you’re protected forever! No matter what, if you keep that bracelet on you…nothing is gonna happen, okay? I promise!”

Mina’s heart stilled.

 

 

 

I promise.

He shouldn’t…he shouldn’t be making any promises to me…

He doesn’t realize what it means.

 

 

 

“Thank you Jasper.”

 

 

 


 

 

 

Mina had bid farewell to Jasper after dinner, staying sat at her bench for a little while longer, an odd heavy feeling on her chest, not wanting to retreat to her empty room for the night just yet.

 

 

“Mina.”

She turned to see Niklas striding across the hall, his features sharp and twisted, the anger seeping from his skin and palpable in the air.

Mina let out a heavy sigh.

“Niklas. Don’t.” She warned softly.

He shook his head.

“What the hell do you think you’re playing at?!” He seethed, coming to a stop next to her bench, towering over her.

The hall wasn’t yet empty and Mina would rather the few faces left over weren’t around to witness his outburst.

“Not here.” She said quietly once more, moving her eyes down.

“Why not here? After all, every single cadet is talking about the little stunt you pulled this morning.” He shook his head. “What were you thinking?”

Mina stood up slowly, levelling her gaze with Niklas.

“I’m not doing this now Niklas.”

He stayed standing firm in front of her, his expression hardening.

“Well too bad. Because I am. How many times did I have to listen to you? Telling me to be careful? And you go ahead with that performance this morning?”

His eyes glanced down to her forearm, the long line of stiches.

“Fucking hell Mina.” His eyes widened, the wound more severe than the other cadets had let on. “What the fuck?! You did that to yourself?” His eyes were bewildered, as if looking upon Mina as a stranger.

 

Why.

Why are you looking at me like that.

You know what I’ve done.

 

“It was a game Niklas…a competition. It was my only way to win. To trick them.” Mina spoke steady, the nonchalant tone only serving to anger Niklas more.

“Since when have you cared about anything like that?! Since when would you act like that just to win something? Just to be better than others?”

“I wasn’t strong enough. Or fast enough. I’ve been falling behind other cadets. I wanted to win something, is that so bad?”

“No. This isn’t you.” Niklas shook his head.

Mina moved her eyes away. “I was told to work with my own strengths. So I did. I’m fine. Everyone else is fine. There’s not a problem Niklas, you need to calm down.”

“Don’t you fucking tell me to calm down when this could have cost you your life! What would have happened if the Commander hadn’t liked your little performance, huh? What if that was the final straw? And he got rid of you? You think I would have been able to stop him? There’s a limit to how many times I can have your back, Mina.”

Mina bristled at his words.

“I don’t need you to have my back.”

She spoke slowly and hard.

Niklas stepped closer to her.

“It was that fucking kid, wasn’t it Mina? And you’re still trying to protect him now. By lying to me. I heard exactly what happened, you helped him win. It wasn’t just you. You didn’t give a shit about winning, not really. You did it for him.”

“I’m not talking about this now Niklas. I’m tired.” She made to move past him but he reached out, strong hands coming to clamp down around her right forearm, stopping her movements.

She whirled round at him, skin ablaze in anger under his touch.

She stayed still, waiting for his next moments, waiting for him to release her.

He kept her firm in his hold, staring into her eyes with a heavy expression.

“You wanna know why I’m so pissed Mina? Because what’s happening now is exactly what I didn’t want to happen. Exactly what I knew would happen. You shouldn’t have gotten so attached to that fucking kid.”

“Let me go Niklas.”

“I knew this would fucking happen. You’re going to throw away all rational thought to help that kid, to protect him. It’s going to make you reckless. It’s going to put you in danger.”

“I know what I’m doing.”

“No. No you don’t. You wouldn’t have pulled that shit you used to do in the Undergound out here…not if you hadn’t been trying to help someone. How many times did that get you into trouble, huh? How many fucking times have you only just escaped death because you let your guard down trying to help someone else? Too many fucking times.”

“Niklas. Let. Me. Go.”

He shook his head. “You need to listen to me. You need to drop that kid! He’s going to fuck up your judgment! You need to look after yourself Mina, he shouldn’t be your problem!” Niklas voice had risen considerably.

“Stop shouting at me.” Mina said quietly, closing her eyes suddenly against the noise.

“Why? I need to make you see sense somehow!” He raised his voice higher, louder, commanding the attention of everyone in the room, of every passer-by. “He’s going to get you killed!”

“Niklas. Stop. Shouting.”

 Mina spoke the words slowly, choking on them.

Niklas’s face suddenly dropped, noting how her whole form had tensed under his voice, how her shoulders shook, how her expression had altered, reminding him of the scared face he used to see all those years go, Mina having run to find him after her father had….

“Mina.” The words came rushing out, all anger suddenly dissipated, and his tone weak and feeble “I’m...Mina…I didn’t mean…I’m not…”

Mina’s face was still guarded, her eyes flashing to his.

He winced, as if the expression had hit him square in the chest.

“No.” He said, reading the look on her face, his voice suddenly weak. “Don’t. I’m nothing like him.”

Mina held him with a long stare, one that grew harder by the second.

She spoke quietly.

“Then why are you hurting me?”

She glanced down at her wrist, where Niklas’s fingers pressed into the tender skin, digging into the fresh stiches so hard that her whole forearm burned and ache, the pressure of his fingertips leaving marks in her flesh.

He dropped her arm like it was hot coal, yanking his hand up and away from her, staring at it, as if it was an alien limb.

Mina moved slowly, her left hand coming to stroke the now throbbing skin.

“Mina.” His voice cracked, his form suddenly shrinking, shoulders hunching, hands coming up to rub at his face, run through his hair in despair. “I’m…I’m sorry. I’m sorry.  I’m sorry.” The words were babbles, breaking, tears welling in his eyes. “I’m just scared Mina. I don’t…I can’t…I can’t lose you. I couldn’t ever live with myself if something happened to you. I can’t even think….”

Mina watched the tear fall down his cheek, suspended at the curve of his jaw, before it dropped onto his collar.

She looked at the small wet blot instead of his face.

“I’m so sorry.”

Mina blinked, unable to respond, unable to look at him any longer as she concentrated on pain radiating down her forearm.

She moved to turn on her heel.

“Mina, wait!” She turned back to him as he reached forward, his hand outstretched, as if to stop her again, before he stopped himself instead.

He stared at his outstretched hand, before trying to hold her eyes.

“Please. I’m sorry.”

“I’m going back to my room Niklas. If you’re really sorry, then you’re not going to stop me. You’re just going to let me go.”

She held his stare for a few more seconds, as his features trembled.

She turned again, pausing when she saw Commander Erwin at the doorway, flanked by Hange and Captain Levi.

Hange was staring with wide sympathetic eyes, appearing as if they wanted to approach, hesitance evident on their body.

Commander Erwin’s eyes caught Mina’s for a brief second, his usual stoic expression still firm as he regarded her, his eyes glancing over to Niklas momentarily.

Mina let her eyes move again, to fall on Captain Levi, whose own troubled expression was turned away from her.

 

 

How much had they seen?

Enough, I’m sure.

 

 

Mina moved her eyes away from all of them, walking briskly towards the door, her shoulder brushing against Hange’s arm as she pushed her way past, not sparing anyone a backwards glance.

 

 

 


 

 

 

Despite the bracelet meaning to be a one-sided gift of gratitude, Mina could not shake the troubled feeling within her that told her to give Jasper something back in return.

This culminated in Mina offering Jasper lessons in hand to hand combat.

Jasper had accepted the offer eagerly over their mealtime union, Mina nodding and smiling while he gushed about becoming stronger, and being able to take someone like Hugo on by himself in the near future.

Mina ran the idea past Miche, who tentatively agreed to let her use the training field before breakfast. Mina pretended not to notice him lingering by the window during the first morning session.

Jasper had staggered onto the field yawning, hair sticking up at odd angles, peering through bleary eyes at the sky, which was still losing its navy tinge.

Mina ran through the basics with Jasper, adjusting his loose limbs and shaky form, strengthening his defence, encouraging him to not be so timid in his attack.

Every wrong foot, stumble or mistake was followed by an outburst of apologies from Jasper, which in turn, was met by gentle encouragement from Mina.

“Jasper, it’s no problem.” She had assured him what felt like the hundredth time. “You can try again if you want. There’s no rush to be perfect.”

Jasper nodded, his eyes set and determined.

“I just…I want to be as calm as you are…like you were that morning with Hugo and Reiner. I want to be strong like that.” Jasper frowned for a second, thought etched across his face. “You know…before that morning…I honestly didn’t know what I was still doing here. It felt all wrong. I had come here on a whim…some crazy plan to pay back my family…It doesn’t make any sense…no matter if I get outside the Walls….if I get to kill a titan…it’s not going to bring them back. So why am I here?” Jasper looked at Mina. “But that morning…when I grabbed the flag from Hugo. I felt it. A strength I had never felt in my life. I believed I could do it. And I did! I’ve never felt so sure of myself before. It was the first time I felt like this is where I’m meant to be.”

“You’re strong Jasper.” Mina said softly. “After what you’ve been through…you’re incredibly strong. And all this…” She gestured to his raised hands and clenched fists. “If you just keep practicing and give it all of your strength…it will all fall into place. You belong here, just as much as any of us.”

Jasper beamed at her. “Thanks Mina. You’re a great teacher, you know! Much nicer than Eld and all those other guys.” He scrunched his face up, recalling the stern words and scolding, the eye rolls and exasperated sighs.

Mina smiled. “Well I’m not really a teacher Jasper….I’m your friend…I just want to help you.”

Jasper’s face was positively alight at the word “friend”, dropping his stance completely to stand and smile at her, his grin brighter than the slowly rising sun creeping up on the horizon behind him.

“Come on.” Mina said. “The sun’s nearly up. Let’s make the most out of the time left.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the third morning, Mina pretended not to notice Armin watching the pair out of the window, having risen early and taken a seat at a table to read one of his books, only to be distracted by the figures sparing out on the field below him.

Mina ignored the way the boy’s eyes would flitter down to his page, only to look up again and watch through the window curiously, distracted right up until the moment Mina and Jasper came wandering back in.

Mina saw him shut his book quickly, hoisting it up under his arm and hurrying over to her before she could leave the room to clean up for breakfast.

“Mina! Hi! Good morning!” He called to her, the words coming out quickly, followed by a smile. “Good morning Jasper.”

Mina nodded at him, while Jasper gave a grin and a wave.

“You’re up early!” Armin commented, a smile still plastered on his face.

“Yeah.” Mina agreed, eyes moving to his book.  “You too.”

“Yep! I don’t have much time other than early mornings or late at night.” His eyes glanced between the two. “What were you guys up to down there?”

Mina hesitated, unsure, before Jasper piped up chirpily for her.

“Oh! Mina’s helping me train! I’m not much good at combat you see, so Mina is teaching me all she knows!” Jasper grinned at the blue eyed boy, who nodded back in an eager response.

“Oh wow! Yeah, I thought that’s what it looked like you were doing…so uh, is this something you guys have to do because your instructors said so….?”

“Nope!” Jasper spoke quickly again. “Mina’s just helping me out! She’s a great friend. And a great teacher!”

“I’m not really a teacher.” Mina interjected awkwardly.

“You looked like you knew your stuff, from what I could see.” Armin grinned across at her, fidgeting with the book in his hands before he spoke again. “Well you see…I was uh…just wondering…well I could really use some more practice when it comes to combat too…if you wouldn’t mind me joining you guys next time?”

Mina was slightly taken aback by the request, unable to find the words before Jasper’s excited voice piped up again.

“That would be cool! Wouldn’t it, Mina?”

Mina glanced across at Jasper as he gave her an encouraging smile.

“It would be good to practice with other people, don’t you think?”

Armin nodded eagerly as Mina blinked, gathering herself before she nodded slowly.

“Okay. Sure.”

“Great!” Armin exclaimed. “Thank you so much!”

“We’ll be here tomorrow! Same time, same place.” Jasper told him.

“Perfect! Thank you! I’ll see you tomorrow!”

Mina watched Armin skittishly leave the room, blinking after his disappearing form, before moving her eyes to Jasper, who grinned at her cheekily.

“Jasper…I’m not actually a teacher, I don’t know if I should be doing this…”

“Nah, it will be good! Besides…” He grinned at her again. “We both could do with making some more friends.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Armin was not a second late to practice the next morning, and diligently listened to Mina, a serious and sombre expression on his face during the walkthroughs and adjustments, always nodding and asking questions, which Mina always briefly and hesitantly answered as best as she could.

Armin chattered a lot, despite his initial reserved and timid exterior, he was comfortable talking to Jasper about anything, even extending the conversation to Mina despite her preference to listen in silence.

During the breaks and cool downs, Armin spoke about his friends, his books, other personal pieces of himself, quickly warming up to their presence.

Mina only tuned in to listen when he began to talk about his closest childhood friend, the titan shifter boy, Eren Yaeger.

Armin explained that Eren was currently in and out of experiments with Hange, Captain Levi and the rest of Levi Squad. Armin spoke about how it had been a month since he had seen him, and how he and Mikasa were dreadfully worried about his condition, despite being reassured by their superiors that the boy was doing just fine.

Jasper’s mouth had stayed open in disbelief the whole time, eyes wide as he listened to Armin describe Eren’s titan reveal, how he had been eaten, had most certainly died, before emerging from the decaying shell of his titan form.

Mina had listened in stunned silence, unable to make any of the information feel real. It felt more like an odd dream she was having, the conversation whimsical and nonsensical, floating by and not fully processing.

 

 

 

They grew up together…and after the titans attacked…they were all each other had.

They lost everyone else.

Like me and Niklas.

They’re a chosen family.

Imagine…how could you possibly wrap your head around someone you love being a titan?

 

 

 

 

“I should see him very soon though!” Armin had concluded with a smile. “We’re joining him on the upcoming expedition outside of the Walls.”

Mina’s blank face had broken at his words, a flash of alarm, a twist of confusion.

“Upcoming expedition?”

Armin turned to her quickly, eagerly nodding as she finally spoke out of turn. “Yes! At the end of next week. Did you not know?”

Mina furrowed her brow before shaking her head. “No…I didn’t.”

She glanced across at Jasper, who shot her a guilty smile. “I’ve been made aware and I’ve been running through some training for it with the others but…it’s still undecided whether I’ve made the cut yet.” He confessed.

Mina’s brow furrowed deeper.

“I didn’t want you to worry about me.” Jasper said.

Armin glanced between the pair as Mina pursed her lips.

 

He’s already aware….

He’s aware of how much I worry.

Damn it Mina.

How deep have you gotten yourself in to this?

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

On the fifth morning, Mina stared in confusion as Armin approached her and Jasper on the training field, this time with a friend.

Mina watched the small blonde girl trail along next to him, wide eyes staring apprehensively, hair almost falling out of its low ponytail, heart shaped face gazing up at Mina as she came to a stop in front of her.

“Hi Mina.” Krista had greeted the girl with a smile. “I hope you don’t mind…”

“I might have let slip I’ve been joining you guys.” Armin said guilty. “Krista is sort of in the same boat as me.”

“I suck.” Krista interjected, sighing heavily.

“And well…I assumed you wouldn’t mind just one more extra?” Armin continued, glancing at Mina sheepishly, biting his lip.

“I understand if not.” Krista said quickly. “I have just imposed myself on you after all.”

“It’s fine.” Mina nodded. “I mean…like I explained to Armin. I’m not a real teacher, I’m just…sharing as much as I know.”

“No! Not at all! Anything is great, really!” Krista nodded and grinned. “Thank you! This is so nice of you to do this!”

Mina averted her eyes. “It’s nothing, really.”

“She’s a great teacher.” Armin praised. “I’ve learnt so much already!”

Mina glanced awkwardly away from the bubbly pair, eyes catching Jasper who grinned, noting her discomfort and offering her an encouraging, if not slightly sarcastic, thumbs up in return.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Would ya look at that.” Nanaba spoke slowly as Miche approached the window from behind her, joining the blonde woman to peer out across onto the training field below.

The pair watched Mina motioning with her arms, the blonde trio standing a few feet away and listening intently, giving their new teacher an occasional nod in understanding. Nanaba and Miche watched Mina walk slowly around her fellow cadets as they copied her moves, watched as she placed her hands on them to adjust their forms, came beside them to demonstrate the technique once more, moving slowly and clearly for them, before offering a small smile.

“She’s coming for our jobs.” Nanaba grinned at Miche.

“Just when I think I have her figured out.” Miche mused, smiling in slight amusement.

Nanaba shrugged. “She just wants to help those kids out.” Nanaba frowned slightly. “You know, that’s one thing I agree with Niklas on. She’s too helpful for her own good, I’m trying to get her to think about herself a bit more.”

Miche hummed.

“She’s a good teacher though, look at her go.” Nanaba nodded to the way Mina pulled Jasper aside to demonstrate a restraint technique to Armin and Krista.

“Yes. “Miche agreed. “She is.”

“Think it’s our influence?” Nanaba grinned up at the tall man playfully, who quirked his lips in response.

“Maybe….” Miche was quiet for a few moments, recalling a past conversation. “She told me before…during combat training…there was a man in the Underground who taught her how to fight.”

Nanaba glanced at Miche.

It was a piece of Mina’s past she hadn’t yet divulged to the blonde woman.

“Maybe…” Miche continued, staring out with a slight frown. “Maybe it’s his influence instead.”

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

Mina hadn’t caught a glimpse of Niklas for almost a week since their argument, her eyes always falling on his empty spot at the busy table in the centre of the room.

Miche had assured her he was still turning up to all his classes and was probably just taking some time to himself. Mina had caught Miche’s sensitive stare as he spoke, knowing he had been made fully aware of their argument and the cause of Niklas’s distance.

 

Mina lingered at her table again after she had finished her meal, waiting to spot Niklas’s sandy hair or hear his deep laugh, only for the room to clear out, Mina left alone, and running extremely late.

 

 

Mina buckled up into her ODM gear hastily, jogging across the clearing to meet Nanaba for their afternoon session, apologies at the tip of her tongue as imagined all of the sarcastic remarks Nanaba would make in regards to her late arrival.

Her pace slowed when she saw an unfamiliar figure standing in the clearing, her eyes zeroing in on the dark haired man stood in Nanaba’s usual spot.

Mina came closer, watching the way he stood, with his profile to her again, the curve of his jaw as he glanced down, as if staring at the tip of his boot, arms folded over his chest.

He looked up briefly at her arrival, stare blank as she stood silently in front of him.

If he was annoyed that she was late, he made no comment on the fact.

“Good afternoon.” Mina greeted quietly, glancing over at his ODM gear.

“Nanaba wanted me to observe you today.” He answered her unspoken question, looking down at his shoe again. “She’s unsure of what to do next with you…you’re not yet ready for more technical work but she doesn’t want to keep going over the basics. I’m here to help devise the  next part of your training.”

Mina nodded softly, mulling over his tone, the usual bored, smooth drawl to his voice.

“Is she running late?” Mina asked.

“She’s not going to be with you today.” Levi frowned to himself at the words “She says she wants my opinion without being here as a distraction.”

Mina frowned.

He glanced over at her again. “Let’s go.”

 

 

Unlike Nanaba’s method of training, Levi had provided no flags for Mina to retrieve or markers for her to move to. Levi instead decided to guide Mina through the treetops by verbal cues only.

He zipped alongside her leisurely, no strain or effort in his movements as he watched and followed her moves, suddenly telling her to veer left, move higher, drop down, twist to the right or turn back around.

Mina struggled to keep up with his rapid instructions, the commands no more than a few words long, his voice gruff, forcing her to make quick and hasty decisions.

His comments were sparse, occasionally throwing out a remark on her form, offering a verbal adjustment, or instructing her on a more effective route than the one she had happened to choose in the split second he gave her to decide.

 

“To your right…land on that branch.”

Mina followed Levi’s gaze, the chosen tree a far few metres away, the branch climbing higher than her current level.

 

 

I’m going to need a lot of force on this swing to reach that.

 

 

Mina moved quickly, hoping the momentum would help propel her body through the air, hooking onto the tree and aiming to arc through the branches to help her body reach the necessary height to make the landing.

She let her body drop into the swing, feeling a twist in her stomach at the sudden dip in motion, using her core to keep steady, arching her body back as far as she could to increase the thrust and drive through the air, a whistling in her ears, climbing higher as she ascended from the drop.

Her body jerked suddenly, a ringing sound in her ears as she felt something slack, felt the straps that usually pressed into the flesh of her legs loosen, her body twisting as the harness slipped, losing her balance and momentum in the air.

Mina acted as fast as she could,  hands coming up to grip the wire attached the tree as the buckle on her right side began to unravel , her leg slipping out, the harness around her waist suddenly slack and unsecured.

The cable burnt her palms as she hang on tightly, her body dropping again, shuddering as the wire pulled taunt with her weight, no longer providing her a steady arc to glide across, instead a strained line guiding her head first into the tree.

Mina twisted with a second to spare, grunting as she took the brunt of the impact on her shoulder and left side of her body, the cable searing a burn into her skin. Mina used the rebound off of the tree to coil her body up, glancing down to determine the height, before letting herself drop, the landing heavy and ungraceful, a grunt and a stumble before she managed to steady herself.

She blinked furiously, a hand coming to her left side, feeling the tender ache there, her heart ringing in her ears, a deafening thrum.

“What the hell happened?!”

Mina looked up to see Levi land in front of her a second later, barely giving her time to process before his tense form was upon her.

His hands were gripping the triggers of his gear tightly, the knuckles popping under the pale skin, his expression darker than she had ever seen, drawn tight and narrow, his voice a deep and rough bark.

“Mina. Fucking explain.”

She bristled at his stern tone; the words bit out between clenched teeth.

She realized he had never directly addressed her by name like this before.

 

 She winced again as she moved to look at the harness that hung off of her, only a few straps around her left arm and left leg still buckled together.

“I’m still practicing how to do this up correctly…”

“What the fuck.” His voice hadn’t risen, but the anger was evident in every morsel of his words. Mina watched as he paced up to her, dark eyes dancing over the loose straps and harness, her breath catching and body tensing as he stopped only inches away, never having approached her this close before.

“Is this a fucking joke?” He seethed, not looking at her as he spoke, bending down, and hands reaching out to grab the leather pieces and beginning to secure them around her again.

Mina blinked, staring down at the top of his dark hair that sat just under her chin as his hunched form worked to secure the harness around her left arm, bringing the pieces back around her waist and legs.

Mina felt his fingers at her hip, dancing over the thin fabric of her shirt, a scorching trail underneath his fingertips as he worked deftly through the buckles.

He was silent, the anger still rolling off of him as Mina blinked, looking at his fingers move across to her front, his hands working quickly.

They were pale and slender, his knuckles were rough and his thin skin was littered with faded pink scars and small puckered lines. His nails were short and clean, the blue veins under his flesh pulsing and protruding across his hands and down to the crease of his elbow.

“I’m sorry.”

She forced the words out as she felt his fingers brush the outside of her left leg.

He stilled suddenly, body frozen, hands suspended in the air, fingertips ghosting lightly over the strap on her left thigh.

It was quiet.

“Nanaba usually checks me over. She’s not here and I forgot. I slipped up. It won’t happen again.”

It was as if her voice broke him out of his reverie.

She heard his sharp inhale, watched the way his fingers trembled slightly before he reared back, so sharply and suddenly it made Mina blink in surprise. He coiled his body far away from her and stepped back, creating a wide berth,

She stood awkwardly, staring at him as his hands came to grip the triggers at his hips once more.

Mina glanced to his face, missing the way his hands continued to tremble and flex.

He turned his head sharply, as if staring off into the thick foliage of the tree.

Mina watched the Adam’s apple in his throat bob, the tilt of his chin, the shadow of his jaw, the stray pieces of dark hair hiding the look in his eyes.

Mina waited, stilled, feeling as if the points of her skin where his fingers had touched still burned.

 

 

I’ve never…seen him look so angry.

 

“I-“

“Do me a favour.” Levi interjected before she could get her words out. “Don’t ever use that gear unless you’ve had one of us double check it.  Get someone to triple check it if you have to. Just make sure it’s fucking secure.” His tone had lost its powerful anger, clear and steady with just an edge of irritation.

 

She watched a tick in his jaw.

 

“I’m not having something like that get you killed.” He mumbled the last part, as if not concerned if she heard him or not, his eyes cast down.

 

Mina nodded.

“I will make sure I do that.”

It was quiet again and Mina stared a few moments longer, trying to pick apart his unreadable expression, before she reached down, working to complete the rest of the buckles on her leg.

“Leave it.”

Mina looked up but Levi had already averted his gaze again.

“We’re done for today.”

 

 

 


 

 

 

Mina felt a presence in the second before she woke, her body jerking up to see a pair of eyes hovering over her, only an inch away, a body hunched over her sleeping form, their breath warm on her face as they waited for her to wake.

Mina nearly crashed her skull into the stranger’s head as she reared back, fighting under the heavy blanket that her body managed to wrap itself up in tightly during sleep.

She blinked rapidly, her consciousness slowly coming to, lethargy leaving her body as she stared at the figure now standing a few feet back,

“What….”

“Morning Sunshine!” Hange beamed at Mina. “Jeez, you’re a heavy sleeper. Do you know how long I’ve been standing here for?”

Mina blinked again, fighting her groggy limbs out from under her cover.

“Up and at ‘em!” Hange exclaimed, a wild grin still on their face and hands placed on their hips. “We’re already late!”

Mina’s brow furrowed, half shut eyes glancing over to her window, a navy light still in the air, sun only beginning to break through the far away horizon.

Her confused face found Hange’s again, and Hange laughed at Mina’s bewildered, sleepy expression.

“We’ve got a meeting to get to, my dear! Sorry it’s a bit last minute, but the Commander only came to a decision late last night. Come on! Let’s go!”

“A meeting?” Mina asked, swinging her legs out from the side of her bed, shivering as her bare feet hit the cool stone floor.

Hange nodded. “Yep. In the canteen, not enough room for us all in the Commander’s office! Come on, we gotta get this over with before everyone else starts waking up!”

They clapped their hands together, laughing again. “I should have woken you up earlier but i couldn’t find your dorm! What are you doing all the way out here on your own?”

Mina tucked her hair behind her ear. “This has always been my room.”

“Cosy, I guess.” Hange offered, glancing round the small space.

Mina paused, staring again.

“Come on, come one, get a move on!” Hange leant forward to help heave Mina out of bed, warm hand clasped around her arm.

Mina tried to pull herself free.

“I need to get dressed.”

“Huh?” Hange peered down at the young woman, barefoot, clad in loose grey pants and one of her baggy men’s training shirts. Hange shrugged. “You don’t you have time. You’re fine as is!”

Mina blinked again, muddled, glancing at Hange in disbelief, shivering in the cool morning air.

“Chop, chop!”

Mina just had time to grab her off-white knitted cardigan, one she often used as an extra blanket on cooler nights, wrapping it around herself quickly before Hange dragged her out of the door.

 

 

 

 

Mina stood awkwardly in the centre of the mess hall, the table full of veterans turning to look at her unusual appearance, each studying her with varying degrees of amusement.

Mina stood, still barefoot, draped in her oversized clothes and in a thick cardigan, with her arms wrapped around her middle, shivering still slightly. Her dark hair was free from its usual braid, the long curled locks falling to her hips, thick and messy from sleep. Her face was swollen slightly, lips and eyes puffy as she blinked blearily, still working her way out of her muddled slumber.

The soldiers watched as her heavy lidded eyes danced around  the room in a daze, barely taking in their faces as she brushed her hair back behind her ears again, trying to shake off her bleary gaze and unsteady weight of her still tired body.

Mina’s eyes settled on Nanaba drowsily and the blonde woman laughed. “Good morning sleepy head.”

Mina blinked at her, shifting awkwardly.

Nanaba grinned again. “We interrupt a good sleep?”

Mina frowned. “I woke up to Hange staring at me.”

The groggy, deadpan voice only caused Nanaba to roar with laughter, Miche chuckling lowly and even Petra stifling a giggle.

“Hey, she was out cold!” Hange said, coming to Mina’s side. “You should have seen her. She sleeps like a baby.”

Mina blinked as Hange reached out to pinch the fat of her cheeks, their fingers warm and rough. “Isn’t she adorable?”

“Leave her alone Four-Eyes.”

Mina glanced up to see Levi striding slowly over to the table, holding his cup of tea in his usual odd fashion, grabbing the rim by his fingertips.

His heavy eyes had already taken in Mina’s sleepy form from across the room, lingering on the wild hair, the shivering figure, the swollen face and hazy gaze.

He made sure not to look any closer as he approached, casting his eyes to the rest of his comrades on the table as he slide himself in.

Petra looked up at Mina, tilting her head. “Why aren’t you dressed?”

Mina’s eyes looked up to the ceiling. “Hange said I was late.”

Petra smiled. “The Commander is running late actually.” Petra glanced at Hange. “You could have at least let her dress.”

Hange shrugged, throwing Mina a guilty smile. “Woops. My bad.” They moved to join their friends at the table.

Mina waited, uneasy still, feeling out of place as she continued to stand, and feeling out of place as she pictured herself joining them at the table.

Her eyes caught the dim morning light beginning to filter in through the window, the sun finally breaking across the darkest points of the sky, pastels beginning to streak and swirl as the early morning clouds parted.

Mina walked over to the window, leaning up against the cool stone wall next to it to peer out across the field, tilting her face up towards the barely there sun.

She stared out at the sky, her eyes flittering over the warm amber and peach hues, colours she could have never believe existed, colours her mother used to promise her she would one day see.

Mina closed her eyes, watching the sunrise from behind her eyelids, imagining her mother next to her, fingers running through her long hair, Maxi pressed up tightly to her leg, all huddled together, skin to skin, watching the morning arrive.

 

 

 

 

“I promised you Mina.” Her mother smiled down at her, her always warm face sending a flood of heat through Mina’s bones. “I promised you would see the sunrise.”

Mina smiled up at her.

“Didn’t I Mina?” Her mother repeated.

“Mina.”

“Mina.”

 

 

 

Her mother’s soft voice distorted slightly, lower and deeper, growing distant.

 

 

 

“Mina.”

 

 

 

Funny.

That sounds like Niklas.

 

 

“Mina.”

 

 

Niklas called to her again, the tone of his voice clearer, but as if reaching her ears form somewhere far way.

 

It was quiet.

 

 

 

“Mina.”

 

 

 

The last voice was different, a deeper, smoother tenor that suddenly commanded all of her attention, making her body leap free from the way it had been slowly sinking into unconsciousness.

Her eyes opened slowly, adjusting, seeing Levi staring at her, having moved from his seat, stopping half way across the room to watch her distant expression, to call her to attention after Niklas had stood and repeatedly spoke her name to no avail.

Mina blinked at the captain, whose gaze danced over the softening of her features, before he moved it away, signalling to Niklas.

Mina followed his eyes, taking in Niklas’s form, the tall and broad man looking years younger than his age as he stood awkwardly in the middle of the room, face uncertain and weary and desperate.

“Mina.” Niklas said, offering her a small smile, wanting to approach, unsure how to. “Are…are you okay?”

Mina moved piece of hair from her face again, fingers catching in the thick waves, skimming over her mother’s jewels intertwined within the thin braid at the side of her head.

“I’m okay.”

He nodded, his body still tense, expression still cautious.

“Mina…” He glanced over to the table of veterans, who were doing their best to pretend as if they were not watching or listening to the pair. “I’m…I’m so sorry. You know I would never…I never meant to hurt you. But I did. And I can’t that back. But I’m sorry. I just…lost control of how fucking scared I was for you.”

Mina blinked.

 

 

Niklas.

My family.

I chose him to be part of that.

We chose each other.

 

 

 

“It’s okay.” Mina nodded slowly. “We were both…fired up.”

Niklas shook his head. “Don’t make excuses for me.”

Mina’s face was steady, her tone assured. “It’s okay Niklas.”

She held his gaze in hers, heavy and sure.

He hesitated, before crossing the room quickly to engulf her into his arms, resting his chin on her shoulder as he squeezed her.

“I don’t want to fight.” Mina murmured into his chest.

She felt him shake his head, squeeze her righter.

“We won’t. Not again. Me and you against the world, yeah?”

Mina ignored the turn in her stomach.

“Yeah.”

He broke off, finally taking in her form, her bedraggled hair and loose sleep clothes, tilting his head at her.

“What….why do you look like this?”

Mina heard Nanaba’s laugh.

“Hange was my wakeup call this morning.” Mina mumbled, earning another laugh from Nanaba and a sound of protest from Hange.

 

Mina followed Niklas to slide into their own seats at the large table, Mina smiling opposite Miche and Nanaba, feeling Niklas’s warm arm brush against her as they settled in.

Mina glanced around the table, noting how it was oddly quiet, the only conversation so far being the light hearted jokes at her expense, the soldiers taking quiet sips of their water or tea as they waited.

Mina felt something was off, heaviness in the air, an uncomfortable ball of anticipation bouncing between them.

She glanced again at Miche, noting how he had his chin resting his palm, a distant expression on his face.

Nanana smiled again as Mina looked her way, not able to hide the slight tense expression in her face.

 

 

 

Something’s wrong.

 

 

Mina was broken out of her thoughts by a gentle clinking sound on the table in front of her, a cup placed down quickly, the pale slender fingers that had been wrapped around it disappearing out of view before Mina could turn her head.

“It will wake you up.” Levi’s steady voice informed her, already making his way around the table, not looking at her as he took his seat at the furthest end, out of her line of sight.

Mina didn’t have time to thank him, the moment passing before she could even register it.

She blinked down at the cup, the liquid inside a faint amber color. The smell was strong and the steam hit her cheeks.

She gingerly held it, taking a tentative sip, tasting something citrus and spicy, warmth suddenly melting across her chest.

 

It’s good.

 

She took another sip, catching Miche’s eyes over the rim of the cup.

He titled his head, staring at her curiously, his gaze moving quickly between her eyes and the cup she held.

 

For some reason unknown to her. Mina felt a faint flush creep across her cheeks.

 

“Good morning everyone.”

Mina placed the cup down, looking up to see Commander Erwin striding briskly into the room, blonde hair brushed back, uniform sharp and pressed, not a hair out of place despite the early hour. He offered the cadets at the table a nod in greeting, coming to sit at the seat next to Levi, eyes glancing over them. “Thank you for all gathering at this time in the morning.”

He eyes landed on Mina’s, pausing for a second longer as he glanced over her appearance, a small smile at his lips before he looked away.

“As you know, I’ve assembled you here in case of any last minutes objections…but as you also know, the decision has been almost unanimous between you all. This has assured me that I am confident in the final decision I came to last night.”

Mina’s eyebrow furrowed and she felt Niklas’s thigh beginning to bounce up and down next to her.

Erwin’s gaze turned to them. “Niklas. Mina. I’m sorry to have kept you in the dark but I did request that my soldiers not utter a word of this and instead, let me be the one to tell you.”

He cleared his throat, his shoulders rolling back.

“In a week’s time, the Survey Corps will once again be leaving the confines of the Walls. We are commencing our 57th Exterior Scouting Mission. You haven’t been explicitly told of this yet, but I assume you may have heard whispers among your comrades.”

Niklas swallowed thickly. “Yeah. I heard.”

Mina glanced at him, before nodding in agreement, recalling her conversation with Armin and Jasper.

“Every new recruit will be joining us on this expedition. Some have already faced titans in combat before but none have yet left the walls. Regardless, all are ready for this mission.” Erwin paused, his face set in a determined expression. “I have been spending the last few weeks trying to determine something.” His gaze fell upon them. “Trying to determine if you, Niklas and Mina, are also ready.”

Mina’s hand moved instinctively, a sudden loss of sound, a buzzing in her ears as if submerged under water…vision, hearing and touch all muffled, her hand still searching for Niklas in a daze.

He found her first.

His hand gripped hers.

“Niklas and Mina.” Erwin addressed them directly, holding them both in his stare. “I would like you both to join us on our 57th Expedition outside the Walls.”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Mina tried to concentrate on the warmth of Niklas’s hand, his strong fingers intertwined with hers, the heat of his palm as he squeezed tighter, the only anchor holding her to her spot.

Mina couldn’t see, a sudden flash of black, her ears plugged, not even able to hear her own heartbeat. It felt as if for a moment, everything slipped away, the stone floor, the walls, the earth beneath her, all disappeared within a second, leaving her suspended, afloat, in danger of never being able to find her way back down if she let go of Niklas’s hand.

He held her tightly.

 

 

 

How…he can’t possibly be suggesting this….

We’re not ready.

No way.

We can’t.

It’s too soon.

It’s too much.

We’re not ready….

 

 

 

 

“I thought you said we weren’t leaving these Walls until we were ready.” Niklas’s calm, assured tone made Mina’s vision settle once more, colour and bodies slowly forming again, the cool stone suddenly reappearing underneath her bare feet. “We still have a lot of work to do in training…this doesn’t feel like we’re ready just yet.”

Erwin nodded.

“Indeed, you do still have a lot of work to do. But… we feel like you both are prepared for this particular mission.”

Niklas was quiet for a moment, his body tense, inhaling deeply.

“You cannot be possibly suggesting that we are ready to fight titans, can you?”

Erwin gave him a brief smile. “No, of course not. You are not ready for that.”

Niklas frowned as Mina concentrated on his words, picking them apart through the distant ringing in her ears.

“Then what are you saying?”

Erwin cleared his throat, clasping his hands together as he placed them onto the table, settling Niklas with a focused stare. “This expedition is not one in which we will focus on combat with titans. We have been planning a strategy and working on a formation with the cadets in order to avoid contact with titans at all possible costs. I don’t want any of my soldiers making contact with titans on this mission if they can avoid it…that is not what we are leaving the Walls for.”

Niklas remained quiet, waiting for him to continue.

“The next step in our battle against the titans is to reach Shiganshina District. Thanks to what we have learned from Eren Yeager, we believe in there lays a key piece of information that could prove vital in our understanding of titans. We must reach Shiganshina. This expedition is not one in which we will fight, but one in which we will start to construct this plan. We are aiming to begin to plot a course from Calenth District to Shiganshina.”

“So essentially….” Niklas’s forehead was creased as he dissected Erwin’s words. “You are leaving the Walls to start a route from point A to point B. Not to battle? ”

Erwin nodded. “And I wish to keep all causalities to an absolute minimum. Like I said, this isn’t about engaging with titans, as we have done on previous expeditions. We want to avoid them at all costs in order to ensure a steady route is being formed. We are implementing a new strategy to help us with this feat, the Long-Distance Enemy Scouting Formation.”

Niklas suddenly leant forward in his seat, face still creased, more so with intrigue than concern, peering carefully at Erwin.

Mina couldn’t bring herself to look at anyone, her blurry vision cast up towards the ceiling as she listened, holding every cell in her being together to stop from falling apart.

“This formation will have the Scouts spread across a greater distance as we advance. New recruits will be kept at the back. Those at the front will be the first to spot incoming titans and warn the rest of the formation. In doing this, we can re-route our course in order to move around the titans instead of fighting through them. This enables us to minimize contact with the titans.”

“So…no one will be fighting titans?”

“There will inevitably be a few encounters, but the Scouts in the front division will handle this, and will be will be tasked with re-routing the rest of the formation. These are the most experienced Scouts we have and utilizing this plan will enable the majority of us to keep out of combat. Including you and Mina.”

Mina could feel Erwin’s eyes turn to her, watching her every moment, every flicker of her face as her brain began to unravel all the possibilities, everything that could go wrong…

“You two will be positioned in one of the most secure flanks of the formation.” Erwin’s steady words finally grabbed Mina’s attention, her eyes moving to find his. “You will be stationed in the middle, towards the back of the formation. This ensures that the path ahead of you will be clear of titans, as all the stations up front would have seen them approaching. There will be no outliers coming in from your sides, as the far left and right flanks will have made you aware of this and dealt with it. The same goes for any outlying titans that may approach from behind. There shouldn’t be any possible way for a titan to breach the formation to reach you.”

“There shouldn’t?” Mina spoke suddenly, finally letting go of Niklas’s hand as she found her own footing, her own strength to keep her body rooted. “Then it’s not a certainty we will be safe.”

The soldiers at the table glanced at Mina, as Erwin eyed her carefully, tilting his head. “You of all people should know that there are never ever certainties in this world, Mina. I cannot promise you that. But I can say I am extremely confident in assuring you of your safety. And I have implemented a protocol for yours and Niklas’s flank if anything were to go wrong.”

Mina regarded him coolly. “Why take the risk?”

Erwin’s lip quirked up. “I like to think have a pretty good handle on weighing up the pros and cons when it comes to taking risks…you and Niklas being an example. You have both proven to be excellent soldiers and continue on a most promising trajectory. The risk I took in seizing you most definitely paid off. And I like to think you are both a lot more content with your life here than the alternative.” Erwin moved his hand to rub his chin with his pointer finger. “It’s not just years of training that the other cadets have on you…it’s the experience. Like I said, some, If not all, have faced titans in combat. They have witnessed the harsh realities of the world we live in, felt that fear and have become better soldiers because of it. They know what is truly at stake here. It makes them stronger, mentally and physically. It makes them sure of what they’re fighting for.”

Erwin settled her steady stare with one of his own. “A little bit of fear can inspire greater lengths within you. I believe that you and Niklas are ready to leave the Walls because you’re ready for the next step…It’s necessary for you in order to keep progressing.” He smiled. “That being said, with your position in the formation, I don’t plan on you coming anywhere close to a titan…you may not even see one, perhaps a glimpse from a distance. This is how I can be confident of your safety.”

“So we’re doing all this yet we might not even see a titan?” Niklas asked.

Erwin smiled. “If I can help it. This expedition for you will be more of an extension of your training, rather than the real experience. It’s an easing into the reality of what it means to be a Scout, I suppose you could say.”

He cleared his throat again.

“You are not expected to follow the rest of the formation through the course. You will only be riding up a fraction of the way. There, you will stop with the medical supply team and wait for our return once the rest of the formation has completed their route. If anything happens to go wrong on our end, we advance on as best as we can, that’s what we are trained for. For you however, if the slightest thing is to go wrong, if anyone on your team has the slightest inkling, then your orders are to turn back around and make your way back to the Walls.”

“So we’re really being kept out of the thick of it all, huh?”

Mina turned her head to Niklas, regarding his slow tone, his downcast eyes, the contortion of his face.

 

 

 

Is he…is he…

disappointed?

 

 

 

“This is the best way to balance experience while taken precautions in order to ensure your safety. I’m very much aware that while you’re fully fledge cadets, you’re still in training.”

He smiled again.

“Of course, I want to keep this mutual trust we’ve gradually been building between us intact. As you are still training and will not be an integral part of the formation, I am going to give you both a choice. I am not going to command you join us on this expedition. I am going to leave the choice up to you. It is your decision.”

Erwin was aware of Mina’s unimpressed gaze before he looked at her, landing on her doubtful eyes without a shred of surprise. “No catches. No repercussions. This isn’t a test. I would completely understand if you were to opt out. It’s up to you.”

 

 

 

A choice?

This feels like the first real choice I’ve had while here…

Is there a right or wrong decision?

I supposed there is…depending on who I’m trying to keep happy…

There must be.

Will Commander Erwin be angry?

Will Miche or Nanaba be disappointed?

If I say no…

What will Captain Levi think?

 

 

 

Mina couldn’t help the way her gaze swiveled to his, the sudden turn of her head to locate his far away brooding figure.

 

She blinked when she saw he had been staring at her first.

 

 

 

What is the right decision here?

For who?

I have to…think for myself.

It has to be a decision made for me.

Do I want to take the risk?

Is it possible?

Niklas…

He won’t let me go on my own. If I say yes, he is sure to join.

Can I make that decision, knowing I will be forcing him into this with my answer.

 

 

 

 

“Unfortunately, I cannot permit you much time to think this over.” Erwin’s deep voice broke Mina out of her contemplation. “As we leave in a week, I need to ensure you are spending as much time as possible to learn the formation.”

 

 

 

It’s too soon.

It’s too much all too soon.

It has to be a no.

We can’t-

 

 

 

 

“Yes.”

Mina’s head snapped round sharply to see Niklas, eyes catching the alertness of his profile, his lips set in a straight line, the rough bump of his nose, the heaviness of his brow, his eyes set intently on Commander Erwin. “Yes. I’ll go.”

Mina’s heart stuttered, followed by a roll of nauseous

 

 

 

What…

No.

He can’t be serious.

 

 

 

 

Erwin almost looked surprised, a slight raise of his eyebrow as he glanced between Niklas and Mina, watching her eyes search his face desperately.

Niklas inhaled heavily, before turning to meet Mina’s scrutiny.

“You can say no. I’m sure you’re aware I would prefer it if you did…”His smile was almost sad as his eyes took Mina’s uncertainty in. “But this is what we signed up for, right? It was inevitable one day. Time to bite the bullet.”

She blinked in surprise.

Niklas smiled again. “Mina…what are you afraid of?”

 

Mina almost laughed in his face at the absurdity of his question, the list of fears almost endless as they unravelled in front of her eyes, images and scenarios playing out in front of Niklas’s still face. She searched his eyes again…looking…finally finding it…in his soft smile, his tenderness…his assuredness.

 

 

 

All those promises he made me…

About how he would never let anything happen to me…never let me die.

That’s why he’s asking…why am I afraid when he’ll be the one to keep me alive.

Except…

He can’t.

He can’t promise that.

He can’t think like that when he needs to concentrate on keeping himself alive.

I can’t…I can’t let him think like this.

 

 

 

But.

 

 

 

 

I can’t leave him.

 

 

 

 

 

“Yes.” Mina’s voice was soft, almost inaudabile as she stared at Niklas for a few more seconds.

She swallowed, turned back to the Commander. “I’ll go too.”

 

The commander smiled at her, nodding his head. “Very good. I’m glad of your decision. Now we can spend the next week getting you ready.”

 

Mina let her eyes fall on the rest of the figures, on Oluo, Eld’s and Gunther’s tentative smiles and nods of their heads.

Petra’s grin was warm and encouraging as their eyes met.

She moved over to Hange, who gave Mina a thumbs up and a crooked grin.

Miche and Nanaba’s encouraging faces were more reserved, Mina hesitating slightly on their guarded expression, before Miche nodded at her in approval.

Her eyes fell on Captain Levi last, sat stiffly in his chair, arms folded over his chest, his face tight and features pinched together in agitation, eyes cast up towards the ceiling, a bite in his jaw.

As if feeling her stare, he gazed down, holding her wavering gaze for a second before he pushed back, the wood of his chair scraping harshly against the floor, moving his body tersely upright and stalking out of the room without another glance.

It was quiet for a few seconds, something thick wavering in the air before Hange laughed, a chortle and a snort as they proclaimed. “Jeez, he’s been grumpier than usual lately. What’s with the dramatics?”

“Does he ever like, not look pissed off?” Niklas queried, frowning at the empty space where the Captain had sat.

“He had things to do.” The Commander said simply, dismissing them both.  “We all do. The day is nearly starting. Mina, Niklas, your usual training is suspended for the next week. You’ll be preparing for the expedition only. Understood?”

Niklas smiled and Mina nodded softly.

“Good.” The commander nodded. “I have faith in you two. Don’t let me down.”

He nodded at them briskly again before leaving the room, the rest of the veterans slowly beginning to pack up and dissipate also before the rest of the cadets started to make their way in for breakfast.

“You wanted to say no.” Niklas said, his low voice only audible to Mina.

She glanced at him.

“It doesn’t feel like we’re ready.”

Niklas shrugged. “I didn’t think so either at first…but as Commander Erwin began to explain it…it made more sense. I feel ready for this.”

 

Mina blinked at him.

 

 

 

He’s excited.

He’s excited for this mission.

He truly…He truly wants this.

 

 

 

“You heard him. No combat…not contact…We’re staying far away from all of the action.”

Mina eyed him. “Don’t sound so disappointed.”

Niklas pursed his lips, averting his eyes. “And if I am? Is that such a bad thing…to want to see a titan? To know exactly what it is we’re dealing with here…exactly what it is that one day we are expected to down?”

 

 

 

His voice….

I’ve never heard him like this before…

Never heard him sound…

Sound so…alive.

 

 

 

 

When did he stop playing along?

When was that moment?

 

 

 

Mina pressed the nail of right thumb into the palm of her left hand…deeper, deeper, deeper.

 

 

 

When did we both stop playing along?

 

 

Who was the one to let go first?

 

 

 

 

“It sounds like a good plan.” Niklas continued to affirm. “All things considered…I can’t see any problems with it.”

 

 

 

He trusts them.

When….when did he start trusting them?

Do I?

Do I trust them to keep me safe?

To keep Niklas safe?

 

 

 

She looked up at Niklas’s eager eyes.

 

 

 

More importantly…can I trust Niklas?

Can I trust him to keep himself safe?

If it ever came to it…who would he pick?

My life?

Or his?

Can I trust him with that decision?

 

 

 

“Mina…this is who we are now…the day was going to come sooner or later. This is what we agreed to do.”

His voice sounded so far away, so far away from any reality she had ever pictured for them both.

“Don’t worry Mina.”

Her eyes fell on his.

“I’ll look after you. Like I always have. I’ll keep you safe. I promise.”

 

 

 

No.

Wrong answer.

No.

I can’t let you do this.

Niklas…you have to trust me to look after myself.

I can’t let you make the mistake of choosing me.

 

 


 

 

 

Mina washed up and got dressed, skipping breakfast completely to pace around her room, wring her hands together, press her palms into her forehead as she tried to think, think, think…

 

 

I’m late.

I’m going to be late.

 

 

Mina had to head to the stables to begin formation practice, not a moment given to let her decision settle before she was being thrown straight in.

 

She left her room hurriedly, letting her feet carry her down the long halls, past open windows, moving instinctively before she realized she was heading in the opposite direction to where she was expected to be for the morning.

She passed Commander Erwin’s office, not able to collect herself enough to stop and go in, even though her brain screamed at her to do just that, unable to make her body comply with her desperate thoughts.

She continued walking, further away from the room, rounding down corridors, unsure, lost, completely and utterly clueless.

 

She stopped suddenly, two lone figures stood at the end of the hallway abruptly catching her attention.

She recognized Bertolt’s long and lanky form, leaning up against the wall behind him, his shaggy brown hair catching the sun from the window above him, staring intently at the boy a few inches away.

Reiner stood in front, his broad, stocky body planted firmly and confidently as he spoke to Bertolt, hands crossed over his chest, eyes narrow and features dark.

Mina couldn’t quite hear them, only able to pick out the gruffness of Reiner’s voice as he spoke quickly, his tone urgent and pressing.

 

Bertolt looked over to her first, as if sensing a presence, his head snapping, his slouched body suddenly straightening up to look at her.

Reiner quickly followed, eyes darting over to her, expression shifting when he recognized the small, dark haired girl standing at the other end of the hall, watching them with a blank expression.

Bertolt frowned slightly and Reiner’s eyes found the stiches on her exposed forearm, his brows narrowing faintly.

Mina wanted to speak, she wanted to explain her actions, to justify them, to apologize.

She found herself rooted to the spot, unable to move, let alone talk, strength faltering under their disapproving stares.

 

 

 

Why am I hesitating?

Why do I keep…hesitating?

 

 

Both boys turned away from her, Reiner’s stare lingering a fraction longer than Bertolt’s, before they began to walk away, bodies tense, shoulders brushing one another as their steps fell into unison.

 

 

 

In some ways I’m strong.

In other ways…In a lot of ways…I’m lacking.

Captain Levi told me…he said I shouldn’t have to explain my choices.

Not when they’re mine.

That alone is enough.

Why do I keep hesitating?

I need to do what I feel is right.

 

 

Mina turned sharply on her heel, body set with determination as she retraced her steps, walking back up the long corridor, round the turns, coming to a sharp stop outside the heavy oak doors.

 

Her clenched fist paused in the air.

 

 

Stop hesitating.

 

 

She knocked loudly, three knocks in quick succession, before a fourth.

 

It was quiet.

 

“Come in.”

 

Mina pushed the door open, not faltering when she came across the Commander sat behind his desk with a guest, Captain Levi stood at the wall to the Commander’s left side, arms crossed tightly, narrowed expression faltering slightly as he looked at Mina in confusion.

The Commander tilted his head at her.

“Mina…are you not supposed to be with Gunther at the stables right now?”

“I’m sorry Commander, but I need to speak to you.”

He cleared his throat. “I’m sure it can wait until later on this evening, preparing for the mission is of upmost importance.”

“I’m sorry Commander but it cannot wait. I’m prepared to accept any punishment for disregarding my training but I must speak with you.”

Mina’s voice was calm and level, her words intent as she stared at the Commander, who peered up at her in quiet regard.

“Mina, I think it is best if you-”

“Niklas is not ready for the upcoming expedition.” Mina interjected quickly. Erwin blinked at her and Levi watched carefully. “I know him more than you could ever understand and I know he is not ready. I know you are keen for both of us to join and I am still prepared to go, I am confident in my abilities. I will even move flanks if needs be. I strongly suggest however, that you pull Niklas out.”

It was quiet again as the commander blinked in sudden surprise, before rearranging his face.

“Well.” He said, standing up behind his desk and straightening out his shirt, a slight raise of the eyebrow.

Levi’s eyes were trained on him, his face shadowed in the corner, waiting for his answer.

“Levi.” Erwin spared him a glance. “We can pick this up this evening. I think it’s best if you leave me and Mina to have a word alone.”

Mina stayed still as Levi’s eyes narrowed, glancing between Mina and the Commander, hesitating, before he pushed himself off of the wall.

“Of course Commander.” He answered dryly.

Mina felt his body moved past her, keeping some feet away as he left the room, hearing the click of the door close before the Commander sighed, pacing around the side of his desk to rest his back against it, gesturing to Mina.

“Have a seat.”

She followed his upturned hand to the armchair a few feet away from him, sitting down cautiously, not appreciating that once again; she was lowered down to peer up at someone as they discussed something she regarded important.

“I must admit…If I was expecting a circumstance like this, I was picturing it the other way around. I had images of Niklas berating me and insisting on not allowing you to join us.”

Mina nodded. “You’re not the only one.”

Erwin titled his head in slight amusement.

“He seemed very eager about his expedition, didn’t he? And you weren’t expecting that?”

Mina swallowed, moving her eyes away from his searching gaze.

“Perhaps you should give yourself more time to let it all sink in. I can expect all of this is quite sudden for you…Niklas’s eagerness being part of that surprise.”

Mina shook her head. “It’s not just that. He’s not ready.”

Erwin folded his arms across his chest. “I understand what it takes to be a good soldier more than anyone here. I can assure you, from my observation and that of my comrades…I believe he capable and ready.”

Mina had enough of sitting, of staring up at him as he peered down at her, his expression almost challenging.

She raised her body from the chair, standing and straightening slowly and carefully, taking her time as he watched her.

“Niklas is strong. He is smart. He is capable. When left to his own devices, I am confident that Niklas can look after himself. The problem is me.” Mina stood straighter. “I don’t have it in me to stay behind whilst knowing he has left the Walls. I have to go. But me being there will be the problem. Niklas will be watching me, looking out for me…doing everything he can to protect me. He doesn’t trust himself enough to not act like that. He doesn’t trust me enough to be able to look after myself. That’s his weakness.”

Erwin’s expression changed slightly, his eyes moving as he began to think about her words, his face etched in concentration.

“If something were to go wrong…if something happened to him…it will be because of me…it will be because he disregarded looking after his own damn life and looked towards me instead. I don’t know how to…get rid of that part of him…but I know it’s still too strong at the moment. That’s why he’s not ready.”

Erwin pursed his lips.

“Could not the same be said about you?”

Mina shook her head. “If it came down to it, I know I trust him to be strong enough to survive. I trust myself to survive. Niklas…he still cannot see that in me.”

Erwin hummed, his gaze still thoughtful as he looked over Mina once more, her unwavering stare, the tilt of her chin as she regarded him, not as one would or should regard their superior.

Erwin almost smiled.

He moved instead, walking back around the desk, eyes cast down onto the paper strewn across it.

“You make a valid point. But I still believe this is the best course of action for you both to experience a piece of the world outside of this comfort. While Niklas can make an excellent soldier, he lacks a lot of things you have. Discipline being one of them. He is still not pushing himself like I know he is capable of, he is still unable to work himself into the headspace he needs…he still takes things too…lightly I guess you could say.” Erwin looked up at Mina again. “This is the opportunity to shake that up for him. To push him into the right headspace needed for a solider. I guess I’m hoping that this expedition will mature him…a few years in one day. I believe it’s possible.”

Mina faltered under Erwin’s small smile.

“Without this, I’m worried he won’t progress, I’m worried he won’t take on the responsibility and dedication needed to keep him alive. Wouldn’t you rather him this, this expedition in which his safety is all but guaranteed, than wait until the next time, when you might have to face titans head on?”

Mina’s words caught in her throat, unable to rebuttal the point.

Erwin knew he had her caught, smiling again.

“I wouldn’t have suggested you join just for the sake of it. Everything I do with my soldiers has a purpose…a reason. I do not make any decision lightly.” He glanced down again at the papers, his pointer finger skimming across as he studied it.

“However, you do bring up a good point. Which is why, I could make some adjustments for you both.”

His finger stopped at the bottom of the paper, stilling over his formation plan.

“I’ll separate you into different flanks. Still towards the back of the formation, still with soldiers either side, still both secure. But…you won’t be anywhere near each other. You’ll be separated. Which means, if anything were to happen, you would have no one to look out for but yourselves.”

Erwin waited, watching the shifts in Mina’s face as she mulled over her words.

“I believe that is an agreeable compromise to the situation, wouldn’t you?”

 

“It does sound…like a better option.” Mina hesitantly agreed.

Erwin smiled again. “And like I said, I am not expecting anything to happen to any of my soldiers that are not in the front flanks, let alone you or Niklas. This is the safest you’ll both ever be while out there.”

 

Mina couldn’t quite work out if she fully agreed, Erwin’s smooth and deep voice taking on it’s reassuring tone, so steady and confident, it was hard to argue with, it was hard to see anything else other than the points he was making, hard to muster up any problems when he made it sound so fool proof.

 

Mina almost laughed to herself.

 

 

 

What a dangerous man.

 

 

 

“I understand your concern Mina. But I made you a promise. You would not leave  until you were ready. Niklas is ready for this. You are ready for this. I really am settled on the fact. And so are my soldiers.”

Mina nodded, brushing a stray piece of hair behind her ear before she considered his earlier words, a certain remark suddenly stuck out in her mind.

“At the table…you said…it was an almost unanimous decision.” She looked up at him. “Which means…they didn’t all agree.”

Erin let out a small chuckled. “You certainly don’t miss much, do you?”

 

He regarded her cool stare with an amused look of his own.

 

“Well no, I will be honest…perhaps not all soldiers at first. But you still had a great majority vote in your favour.”

Mina stilled, question gnawing at her mind.

“Can I ask?” She held his stare. “Who is was that didn’t believe we were ready?”

Erwin raised his eyebrows. “Actually, it was only you that they disagreed with. Everyone was unanimous on Niklas.”

 

Mina tried to hide the flicker of frustration at that fact.

 

Erwin titled his head.

 

“I’m not sure if I should divulge such information, not with that expression on your face.”

Mina quickly settled her face steady again, quiet for a few moments.

“Was it Oluo? Or Petra?” She thought back to the flag training incident, the worries and apprehension of trust.

Erwin smiled, sighing to himself, adjusting before he sat down in his chair.

“If you really want to know…Nanaba was adamant in her protests at first.”

 

 

Nanaba??

Nanaba…who has encouraged me all this way…given me the strength I needed…pushed me on at every turn…

 

 

Erwin could read Mina’s contorted expression easily.

“Fortunately, she had little substance to back up her reasoning. I believe it was all down to her personal feelings for you, rather than any judgement on your skill or capabilities. She’s very protective over you, Mina.”

Mina’s face dropped for a second, features softening.

“I know Miche had a long talk with her and she eventually came around and agreed you were ready.”

Mina nodded. “So…it was just Nanaba?”

Erwin rubbed his chin and Mina looked at him, catching the flicker on his face.

“Unfortunately, Captain Levi does not believe you are ready for the expedition. He is the only one to stand firm in that assessment.”

Mina’s stomach churned.

“Which is truly unfortunate as I do hold Levi’s opinion on such matters in extreme high regard. It was what was keeping me from making the final call.”

 

Mina’s fist clenched.

 

Captain Levi…

All that time observing me..

Teaching me.

He still doesn’t believe me capable.

 

 

“But at the end of it…he was sorely outnumbered. And I went with my gut.” Erwin looked at Mina taking in her tense figure and far away gaze. “I suppose then Mina….”

Mina glanced back to him, the slight amused quirk taking over his face again,.

“This is your chance to prove him wrong.”

 

 


 

                      

Mina was grateful that the commander broke the news to Niklas concerning his separation from Mina during the expedition as something he had decided on from day one, not letting slip of Mina’s impromptu meeting with him. The rest of the veterans played along too.

Niklas was unsurprisingly frustrated and displeased with the new piece of information, working his way up into a not so respectful argument with the commander.

Mina had subdued him as best as she could, reminding the  stubborn man that he had initially been the one to show the upmost faith in the commander’s plan, and that arguing with him would only get him pulled out of the mission.

Niklas reluctantly agreed and his agitation settled, back to insisting that Mina shouldn’t worry about a thing.

 

Mina was also made aware of another new development in regards to the expedition.

Jasper had made the cut by the skin of his teeth, his performance with Mina during the flag game being the deciding factor for him to get the all clear…and he would join Mina in her flank.

 

 

Mina was unsure as Erwin relayed this information to her.

 

 

 

“Jasper isn’t a terrible solider by any means.” Erwin had begun. “He is hardworking, loyal and persistent. However, he lacks a certain…confidence in himself. He depends a lot on those around him to guide him and reaffirm his choices. It’s hard for him to act single minded.”

Erwin had turned to Mina’s worried gaze.

“He is too lacking to be placed anywhere near the front or in the outlying flanks. Under your eye however, he possesses a new found confidence and levelheadedness. You seem to bring out the strongest parts of him.”

Mina was sure Erwin meant that as a compliment, but something in his eyes and tone made her stomach turn.

“That’s what I need out there. Strong soldiers. I believe keeping close to you will help stop him from wavering.”

 

 

 

Jasper had been ecstatic to learn of the news, professing that leaving on his first expedition side by side with Mina was the most perfect way he could have imagined it to be.

Mina had simply nodded, far less enthused by the idea.

 

Mina and Jasper were spending their days together for the rest of the week, working with the veterans in charge of their flank to run through formations, speed and agility tests on their horses, practicing how to efficiently and quickly load up the medical cart, as well as being quizzed on the appropriate response if any problems arose.

 

 

 

 

“Any sign of trouble, any inkling any of us have that something has gone wrong, no matter how small it may be, we will turn around on our horses and head back. Commander’s direct orders. No hesitation, no questions asked, no what ifs. No delay. We had straight back. That is an order that will be met with punishment if not obeyed.”

 

Jasper and Mina had nodded in understanding.

 

“If anything were to happen in which the route back was unsafe, we fire our flare guns and head to the highest ground nearby using ODM. We wait there for assistance. Once again, this is a direct order from the commander. Our flank’s priority is not to push forward, not to solve problems or help others. Our only objective is to leave and return to the castle in one piece. If we can’t get back, we call for assistance and wait it out safely.”

 

 

 

 

“It seems kind of cowardly, don’t you think?” Jasper had asked her later that day. “To not be able to even try to help anyone, to run and hide if something goes wrong…it doesn’t seem very fair on the others.”

Mina would be lying if she said the thought hadn’t crossed her mind multiple times, thinking of the Scouts in the front flank who would come closest to the titans, and have to fight them if needed be.

“There’s not much else we can do.” Mina had settled, casting her eyes down. “Even if we were allowed to help…we wouldn’t be able to.”

 

 

 


 

 

 

The night before the expedition, the mess hall was alight with conflicting emotions, a buzz of excitement and anticipation in the air, in the hurried chatters and raucous laughter, a swell of nervousness and fear in the lowered heads and huddled shoulders.

Mina ate her dinner with Jasper, who seemed to be louder and bubblier than usual.

Mina settled on his wild hand movements, the cracking in his voice as he spoke and bright eyes.

 

He’s overcompensating…

Trying to hide his nerves from me.

 

Mina made no comment on his behaviour, worried about embarrassing him or simply making it worse.

As they parted for the night, Jasper had approached for a hug, which Mina allowed him to take, the young boy quickly learning she wasn’t one for openly physical gestures of friendship.

She squeezed his shoulders.

“See you tomorrow morning.”

She pulled back to see his eyes darting around her face nervously.

“Try to get some sleep, yeah?”

Jasper nodded, words escaping him as he gave a smile to bid goodnight.

 

Niklas hung back to walk Mina to her dorm room, glancing at her usual still expression, her steady walk and collected gaze.

Niklas however was bursting with trepidation, a bounce to his stride, hands fidgeting with his hair or uniform, voice oddly high as he spoke.

“Ready for the big day?” He had asked her,

Mina spared him a glance and a shrug. “As ready as I can be.”

“Aren’t you excited?”

Mina shrugged again. “What’s there to be excited about?”

Niklas had given her an exasperated look. “Leaving these Walls Mina. Not like it’s a big deal or anything.”

Mina didn’t reply as they came to a stop outside her door, waiting in silence for Niklas to speak, seeing the wanting on his face to push her for more.

“Aren’t you…nervous?”

Mina considered this for a bit. “I’m not sure. It’s hard to tell.”

Niklas waited for her to elaborate.

“As we’ve prepared this week, Erwin’s formation makes a lot more sense, and I’m confident in it. We’ve been prepped on what to do if something goes wrong. And like everyone keeps telling us, there isn’t any reason why something should go wrong in the first place.”

Niklas nodded.

“I’m not sure if it’s nerves.” She continued, considering the heaviness of her heart, the tightness of her lungs, the sharp pull in her stomach. “But I feel…maybe it all feels too simple, too good to be true. I guess I’m preparing myself for the worst before it's even happened.”

“And what do you think is going to happen Mina?”

Niklas peered at her as a series of images flashed through her mind, all too dreadful to say out loud.

She blinked out of his gaze.

“I don’t know. It just an odd feeling.”

Niklas stared at her for a few more seconds, considering her avoidance, her detachment, the same as it had been throughout all the years he had known her, the same look in her eyes, the same unwillingness to talk.

“It’s going to be okay, Mina. I promise. You don’t need to worry about anything.”

Mina nodded.

She moved to turn and enter her room before Niklas spoke again.

“I’m sorry.”

Mina peered at him over her shoulder.

“For the other day…for letting you think for even just a moment I could be like your father.”

Mina closed her eyes. “Niklas, I told you. Let’s forget about that.”

Niklas pursed his lips.

“And I’m sorry I couldn’t do it.”

Mina stilled in confusion.

“I’m sorry…all those years ago…one of the first times you came to me crying, the bruise already visible on your face. I said…I said I would kill him for you. As crazy as it sounds...I should have. If I had…before it all got worse…maybe your mother…Maxi…If I had just been strong enough.”

“Niklas.” Mina clenched her fists. “Stop. Don’t…Don’t say that. You couldn’t….you can’t…” she shook her head. “You’re not a killer Niklas. And I never wanted you to be one, especially not for me.”

“I just can’t help but think what if-”

“You don’t think I go over the what ifs?” Mina stared hard at him. “What if I had stood up to him more? What if I had tried harder for my mother, to help get her better? What if …I hadn’t gone out that day…If I’d had been at home…for Maxi…what if then…”

“Then you might have been dead too Mina….your father didn’t stand a chance...they killed Maxi…if you were there…they would have killed you.”

Mina was quiet, eyes staring at the floor.

“Then I guess we can’t keep considering the what ifs.”

Niklas inhaled. “I guess you’re right.”

He pulled her into a hug quickly, fiercely, all of him pressing against her.

“I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Mina didn’t miss the shake of his voice as he pulled away, turning on his heel quickly to disappear out of sight.

 

 

 


 

 

 

Mina was unsure of the time, but she knew it was late, probably past midnight as she wandered barefoot down the castle halls, shivering slightly in the night  air as she wrapped the knight cardigan around her tighter.

Sleep was carefully evading her, and she couldn’t bear to lie in bed staring at the shapes and shadows in the dim light of her room, dragging her uptight and frantic mind out into the halls instead.

The night was crisp, the air clear, the sky a dark navy slate, cloudless and cool. Mina glanced up towards the stars, the sight doing enough to move her body, pulling her out onto the courtyard where she placed her barefeet onto loose pieces of the stone wall, fingers finding the pits and gaps between the cement, using it as leverage to haul herself up, higher, and higher , and higher.

She pulled her body onto the tiled roof, perching at the edge, letting her legs swing down against the columns beneath her, tilting her head up to watch the stars, nothing like the lights in the underground, completely and utterly incomparable.

 

How could I ever have let myself think that all of this could ever be compared to that place?

 

 

Mina stared at the pinpricks of crystal scattered out across the sky, at the pale half-moon cutting a stark shape across the black, feeling the damp beneath her fingertips, the moisture in the air wetting her cheeks.

“What the hell are you doing out here past curfew, Cadet?”

Mina recognized the deep voice instantly, despite the impersonal and sharp tone.

Captain Levi came into her view as she gazed down, walking out from underneath the courtyard columns, his face tight with annoyance at the sight of a pair of feet dangling over the edge of the roof, the harsh expression shifting slightly when his eyes fell onto who the feet actually belonged to.

Mina blinked down at him, still dressed in his uniform, pressed clean and neat, cravat in place, obviously the thought of retiring for the night still far out of his mind.

She watched the way his eyes quickly searched her, looking for traces of the ODM gear in confusion.

“I climbed.” She said softly, answering his unspoken question.

“You shouldn’t be up there.” He said simply in response, his tone now devoid of his initial sharpness, making a simple statement instead.

Mina pursed her lips, lowering her body down and finding the edge of the roof with her fingertips, twisting to find a ledge for her feet, shimmying down slightly, before letting herself drop, landing almost silently, the cold of the floor smarting the soles of her feet.

Levi looked at her bare feet with an obvious frown. “You shouldn’t be doing that either. One wrong move and you’ll break your neck.”

“I’ve fallen from higher up.” Mina said in response.

Levi’s eyes flickered to hers for a second, before casting them away again, folding his arms across his chest.

It was quiet as Mina waited for the further reprimand that never came.

“Couldn’t sleep?” She offered.

“I could ask you the same.” His voice was a quiet mumble.

“I couldn’t.” She offered him in response.

It was quiet again.

“Are you…anxious about tomorrow?” His voice was soft again as he turned his body to the side, facing away from her as he spoke.

Mina looked away also as she answered. “Maybe. I’m not sure. I’m confident in myself. In Niklas. In you and the rest of the soldiers. So…I’m not sure what this feeling is.”

Levi tutted quietly under his breath. “Maybe a bit of nerves will do you good.”

 He glanced up to the roof she had been sat on, wincing inwardly at the sudden mental image of her losing her grip and slipping off.

“You shouldn’t be that high without gear. It’s reckless.”

He was unable to stop his eyes from glancing at her again, her shivering body under her loose sleep clothes, long hair a soft frame around her figure, her soft, downturned eyes.

 He glanced away with a thick swallow.

 “You’re going to get sick out here like that. You won’t even make it out of the gates at this rate.”

 

 

 

Isn’t that what you wanted?

 

 

 

Mina offered his profile a small smile. “I’ve…been in worse circumstances.”

It was quiet again as Mina waited for him to continue, only for silence to follow.

“Do you get anxious? About expeditions?” Mina asked quietly, tilting her head as she watched his brow furrow.

He seemed to almost sigh to himself, glancing down. “No. It’s all routine to me now. It almost gets…predictable.”

There was a sour edge to his tone, a bitterness in his face.

A sudden breeze blew by the pair, making Mina’s teeth chatter and arms find one another in a hug.

Levi glanced at her again.

“Get inside. Go to bed. You shouldn’t be out here.” The words were hardly a sharp order, more like a quiet whisper in the night air.

Mina nodded.

“You need the rest for tomorrow.”

Mina nodded again, leaving Levi to stand in the courtyard; his head titled up to the stars as she retreated to her room, suddenly more alert and wired up than she had been before she left.

 

 


 

 

 

The morning was still, not even a ruffling of leaves or a breeze across Mina’s limbs, the air almost stifling as it hang heavy, apprehensive, waiting for something to break.

All around her stood the cadets, buzzing and chattering with anxious energy, spectators ogling from the sides of the streets and house windows, an uneasy electric coursing through every single cell of every person there.

Miche and Nanaba had already checked in on her, offering pats on the back and playful hair ruffles as they wished her good luck, Nanaba lingering a moment longer to give Mina a stare, her expression shifting slightly.

“Remember what I said…in training…I know it was a while ago now. But remember. Go with your gut.”

 

She turned before Mina could question her any further, disappearing into the crowd with Miche.

 

 

Niklas had just departed from his tight hug and final words of assurance, his promise that everything would be okay and that he would sit with her for dinner that evening, heading over on his horse to join the rest of his group in their formation as they waited for the gate to lift.

Mina stood on the left side of her horse, her right hand distractedly petting it’s mane as she willed herself to believe Niklas’s words.

She stared up at the wall in front of her, having never been so close to the edge of their small little world, the mountain of bricks the only thing standing in front of her and the unfathomable unknown of titan territory.

 

 

“Mina!”

Mina turned to her left to see Armin waving at her, a small smile on his face as he pushed along with his horse to his position in the formation.

He came closer to talk to her.

“Good luck out there, yeah? It’s all going to be okay.” He gave her an assured nod and she returned it briefly.

“Oh. Eren!”

Mina looked to see a young man by his side, choppy brunette hair, wide teal eyes and a face she never expected to belong to that of a titan shifter.

 

He’s just…he’s just a boy.

 

“This is Mina! She’s the one who has been helping me train!”

Armin introduced the pair.

Eren glanced at her, giving a small nod. “Nice to meet you.”

His voice was gruff, his eyes moving away from her to stare up at the wall also, clearly distracted and preoccupied with what was to come.

“Yeah, you too.” Mina offered softly.

Mina glanced behind him at Mikasa, who was watching Eren’s form carefully, her eyes trained on his face, studying his expressions.

She looked up briefly to Mina, feeling her eyes on her, and offered a small smile.

“Thanks for helping Armin.” Mikasa said.

Mina blinked. “It’s nothing.”

Mikasa nodded, her smile still warm, all too aware of being the one who likes to listen first, talk later.

“We should get going.” Eren spoke coolly, an edge to his tone.

He nodded again at Mina as he moved, Mikasa giving her a small wave and Armin grinning.

“See you when this is all over?”

Mina nodded, her fingers threading deeper into her horse’s mane.


The trio passed and made space for Mina to lock eyes with the man who had been peering over at her as he stood by his own horse.

Mina caught his stare, the dark haired man looking away quickly, casting a glance down, stalling for a few moments before he turned sharply, suddenly walking over to her.

Mina watched the way his eyes darted over her gear.

“Have you had that checked?”

Mina nodded. “Niklas. And Nanaba.”

Levi nodded, his stride coming to an abrupt stop, standing awkwardly a few feet away as his eyes lingered over the buckles and straps. He turned his head to the side again, a tick in his jaw and a heaviness in his brow, as if coming to a decision.

He moved forward quickly, so quickly that Mina was slightly taken aback by his body suddenly bent down in front of her, hands coming to tug and pull at the straps around her torso and legs, testing out their secureness, his fingers shaking slightly as he reared back up, nodding to himself as he gazed back to his left.

“Like I said, triple checking doesn’t hurt.” His voice was almost inaudible.

Mina nodded, blinking.

“You know your orders?” Levi asked, his deep tone steadier. “If there’s anything we don’t like the look of, you know what to do?”

Mina nodded. “Yes.”

His eyes found hers, holding them for a fierce second as he spoke. “Don’t be nervous.”

He broke the stare just as fast as he had found it, turning back towards his horse as Mina was called forward by her teammates, Jasper smiling and waving at her as he approached her side on his horse.

“You ready?”

Mina nodded, heaving herself up onto her own horse, feeling suddenly off balance and unsteady, hands shaking slightly as she gripped the reign.

 

 

 

Don’t be nervous.

All your life…everything has been uncertain, unfamiliar…terrifying.

But you made it through.

And always will.

That’s the way you’re destined to live Mina.

You’ve done it time and time again.

Don’t be nervous.

Embrace that fear….

Embrace what you’re never going to be able to run from.

 

 

 

She inhaled, looking directly at Jasper, who began to bite his lip, watching the formations line up, the bell begin to ring, a deafening clanging in Mina’s ears as it signalled the start of the mission.

“It’s going to be okay.” Her voice had never felt so clear.

Jasper smiled again, nodded.

Mina watched the gate rise, the energy in the air sparking and fracturing, overflowing and spilling out across the crowds.

Mina ignored it all as she went inwards, blocking out the noise, barely registering the Commander’s triumphant voice as he announced the start of the expedition, hardly hearing the cadets that cheered, thrusting their blades into the air.

 Mina stayed still, focusing.

 

This is it.

The beginning of the end of the unknown.

 

 


 

 

 

 

Mina and Jasper fell into a comfortable rhythm besides one another on their horses, the gentle clacking of hooves and even exhales setting Mina into her own comfortable pace, one in which she focused solely on the next breath she was going to take, not allowing herself to think ahead, staying as present as she could.

It had been endless green, long roaming fields and far away trees.

 

The air was still, the rest of Mina’s flank in a sharp V formation, silent in their advance forwards, the words unspoken hanging heaviest in the air.

Mina looked up at the sudden faint whizzing sound, a burst of red dispersing through the air, almost out of sight it was so far away on the horizon.

There had been a few red flares, all out as far as the eye could see, signalling the presence of a titan. These flares had been followed by a rally of green flares, all pointing in the new direction the Scouts were to head in.

Mina watched as the green flares began to burst into the sky, veering to the right as they came closer.

“Okay.” The soldier at the front of their formation called. “We deviate to the right. Follow me.”

Mina and Jasper feel back into sync as they swerved to the right, changing the angle of their advancement.

Mina looked up again at the last remnants of red smoke far up in the sky, unable to wrap her head around what that really meant.

 

 

 

For us…it’s barely anything.

A warning sign.

A change in direction.

For those at the front…it’s contact with a titan.

 

 

 

“You okay?” Jasper called to her from his horse.

Mina nodded.

“You look like you’re thinking hard.”

“I’m concentrating.”

“There’s no need to worry.” The soldier at the front glanced back, hearing muted conversation behind him. “This flare system and formation is working just as the Commander wanted. It’s a genius design. We’re keeping well aware from any titans. At this rate, you won’t even get to see one.”

It was quiet again as Mina and Jasper fell back into their silence advance.

“We’ve almost finished the first quarter of our course.” Another soldier affirmed. “It’s gonna be an easy one for us today.”

 

 

 

That’s right.

We’re not even going halfway out.

While the rest fight forward for us.

 

 

 

“Abnormal! To the East!”

Mina’s head snapped around, spotting the black smoke signal erupt into the sky.

All the rest of the soldiers watched carefully, continuing to advance but observing the horizon.

“Why does that look so close?!” Jasper called out, his head snapped round also.

Mina frowned as it stayed quiet, fearing the answer that not even her superiors were saying out loud.

Someone finally spoke.

“It means the titan’s broken through.”

Mina’s hands went numb around the reigns, a ringing in her ears, louder than any flare gun, louder than the bells that had chimed earlier, louder than the cadet’s victorious roar as they advanced out of the gates.

 

 

 

I knew.

Somehow….

I knew something would happen.

It was all too…easy.

 

 

So now.

I have to stay strong.

Prove to Niklas.

Prove to the Captain.

Keep my promises.

 

 

 

Mina suddenly came to, moving a hand quickly, clutching at her waist to unhook her gun from its holster, thrusting her arm in the air to fire off a black smoke signal of her own.

“Mina!” Jasper called to her. “What are you doing?”

“Alerting the rest of the formation.” She responded simply, shoving her gun back into her harness as she stared at the veterans in front of her, all turning their gazes to peer over.

“We don’t have time to waste.”

Their leader nodded. “You’re right, well done Mina.”

“We turn around now?” She called to him.

He shook his head.

“No. That initial flare gun position means we can outrun it if we keep going forward.”

Mina’s stomach turned. “If something goes wrong we turn around. Those were our orders.” She called.

She saw him shake his head. “The path back isn’t clear…if the titan is coming from that direction than there is a chance we will only run into it by turning around. We keep going.”

Mina’s hands gripped around the reigns, glancing at Jasper’s sudden pale face and wide eyes.

“We’re not supposed to keep going. If something goes wrong, we’re supposed to get to safety.”

“The titan is too far away.” Another solider called to her. “We’ll continue going, we find some higher ground to retreat to, and then we will stop and wait for help. That’s the best option at the moment.”

 

It made sense, though Mina hated to admit it, the familiar feeling in her gut, one she was used to in the Underground, one that saved her life countless times, was working its way into her skin.

 

 

 

No.

Run.

It’s wrong.

They’re wrong.

Run.

Hide.

Get out.

Turn around.

Danger.

Danger.

Danger.

 

 

 

Trust your gut.

 

 

 

 

“Holy shit!”

 Mina was broken out of her thoughts at the strange outcry.

“What the hell is that?!”

 

She turned towards the direction of the black smoke, seeing a figure arising from the horizon, massive, looming, even from a faraway distance, the outline of a gigantic body heading their way.

 

 

No.

No.

NO.

 

A titan.

 

 

Mina snapped her head to Jasper, whose face had taken a green tinge, his breaths audible to her even over the sound of the horses’ hooves.

“Jasper.” She called to him. “It’s going to be okay.”

 

 

 

It has to be okay.

I’ve made too many promises.

This is the time.

It’s up to me to make it okay.

I rely on myself.

Myself only.

 

 

 

“Have you ever seen anything like that?” One of the soldiers called.

 

Mina looked again, the titan now closer, Mina’s whole body wanting to recoil in horror as she stared at the red outlines of its flesh and muscle, a ginormous body shed of its skin, its sinewy pink form pumping its arms and legs as it ran, not ran, sprinted towards them.

 

“Turn around!” Mina yelled.

She snapped her head to Jasper. “Turn around now Jasper!”

 

Jasper was unable to tear his eyes away from the titan, glossy gaze staring in pure horror.

“It’s…so fast…it’s coming towards us…we can’t…

“TURN AROUND!” She all but screamed, the first time in years her voice had raised like that, ready to pull on her reigns and direct her horse backwards.

“Mina, those aren’t our orders. We can’t just-”

“I don’t give a shit!” She cried back, eyes ablaze with fury and desperation. “I don’t give a shit what they tell us right now. Turn your horse around and run!”

“Mina! Jasper!” The soldier at the front of the formation called to them, eyes glancing between them and the rapidly approaching titan, its heavy footfalls echoing through the air.

“Don’t panic! You need to keep going! We’ll break off and have some of our guys distract it, try to take it down while we advance to higher ground on ODM.”

“It’s heading straight for us!” Another soldier yelled a mere second after, eyes wide in panic.

Mina shook her head. “Jasper! Let’s go! We can’t out run it! We need to change course!”

“Change course where?!” He cried desperately, tears started to roll down his cheeks.

 

 

 

No.

Jasper.

Trust me.

I can…

I will.

 

 

 

“It doesn’t matter! Just turn back around! We’re going to run into it head on if we keep going. We’re not fast enough! We’ll figure the rest out later!”

 

Mina glanced over to see three of the men break away from the formation, turning their horses towards the titan, heading straight for the beast to try and slow its path.

Mina stared up in horror, the grotesque humanoid face of the titan set, it’s massive eyes staring straight ahead, it’s arms and legs continue to pump it forward, faster.

 

It was unlike anything she had ever seen.

Ever imagined.

Even in her darkest thoughts.

Her darkest nightmares.

Nothing could or would ever compare.

 

“They’ll slow it down!” Someone called to Mina. “And we’ll keep going! It’s an abnormal; it seems to be heading in one direction. It’s not even looking at us.”

 

Mina’s heart jumped in her throat at their refusal to listen.

 

 

Danger.

Danger.

Danger.

Run.

 

 

“Jasper!” She screamed again as she turned to look at him. “We need to turn around! Please!”

“We can’t!” He cried back.

She pursed her lips, fingers tightening around the reigns.

 

 

Trust your gut.

 

 

 

“Jasper, I’m going to turn around! Whether you follow me or not! I’m not continuing!” She glanced across at the titan. “I..I don’t want to leave you! But If I have to, I will!”

 

 

 

 

Rely on yourself.

You promised Niklas.

Your mother.

You have to make it out alive.

There isn’t another choice.

Act for yourself.

You’ll be okay.

 

 

Be

 

Selfish.

 

 

 

 

“Mina!” He cried, his voice breaking with tears, his face crumpled into desperation, the look of a boy who had already given up. “I can’t.”

 

She stared, stared at the wide teary eyes and sorrow on his face.

 

 

Go Mina.

Turn around.

You’re running out of time.

You need to turn.

 

Now.

 

There won’t be any time left.

 

Maxi.

Your mother.

Niklas.

 

Make it count.

Don’t let them down.

 

Turn around.

 

Now.

 

 

NOW!

 

She couldn’t tear her eyes away from Jasper.

His face morphed suddenly, his features softening, shrinking, eyes widening.

 

Maxi.

 

Mina gasped.

 

 

 

I can’t…leave you.

Not again.

 

 

A guttural scream ripped through the sky and Mina’s head whipped around to see the bodies of the advancing soldiers strewn through the air, landing with a sickening thud, as the titan discarded them out of her path with a  swift kick.

 

 

So close.

 

 

 

So close Mina could see the tendons and flexing of the bare muscles, feel the shake of the ground with every step.

 

 

 

Too close.

 

 

 

 

 

I’m out of time.

 

 

It was as if the world slowed down for her, in that moment, watching the titan’s last few steps towards them, before it shifted, veering its left leg back, front body leant forward slightly to balance, coordinated and careful.

Mina watched as the leg began to swing forward, arcing through the air towards the soldiers…towards Jasper…towards her.

 

Mina felt every cell in her body seize up in terror, for a fraction of a second, a flash of the death promised to her in a few moments behind her eyelids.

 

 

 

 

No.

Not with all these promises.

I need to stay alive.

I have to.

I will.

This isn’t how it ends.

 

 

 

Mina let go, let her hands loosen from the reigns, pushing her feet out, using the force of her legs  to thrust her body away from the horse, propelling herself forward with as much strength as she could muster, the most strength she had ever used in her life.

She pushed, pushed her body through the air, pushed her arms out, her legs following, pushed herself to drive through the space as hard as she could.

Mina felt her body spin in the air as she dove, trying to stretch her arms to catch herself on the ground, trying to twist her body to alter the impact of the landing.

As she spun, the world continued to slow for her, allowed her to take in every single inch of the massacre, of the enormous foot connecting with every soldier in her flank, kicking them up like dirt, bodies flying through the air, limbs tangled as the titan booted them out of its way.

 

Mina watched, in that last slowed down second, watched Jasper’s body arc through the sky, impossibly high, limp and lifeless, soaring like a ragdoll through the air, before disappearing out of sight.

 

That was the last thing Mina saw before her body landed, her left shoulder making impact on the dirt at a sickening angle and with an unbearable amount of force.

Her head cracked on the ground, her skull bouncing off of the earth, a blinding light behind her eyelids before

 

 

everything

 

went

 

 

 

 

black.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

There was a ringing in Mina’s ears.

 

The first sense to awaken with her consciousness was her hearing, Mina wincing at the shrill sound in her head, in her throat, behind her eyes.

Mina was aware of the back of her eyelids.

Black at first.

Then spots of colors and odd shapes, fizzes and sparkles of light.

Then came the pain.

In her head.

Like a hammer.

Being hit again and again and again, at the back of her head, at her temples, the top of her skull, a 360 assault.

As she continued to ease her way into consciousness, Mina felt the pain in her shoulder next, throbbing and searing down her left side, pounding at her shoulder socket as her body began to shift.

Her eyelids flickered open, hesitantly, small burst of light coming through, encouraging Mina to close her eyes again, press them shut, shut out the blinding pain.

She tried again, a flicker of her eyelids, seeing a flash of green, of blue, of sunlight too bright it only caused searing agony, Mina shutting her eyes again, blocking it all out, wanting to keep them shut, stay in the darkness, go back to sleep….

 

Mina saw the titan as she closed her eyes.

It’s pink naked flesh.

She heard the screams.

She saw Jasper’s limp body flying through the air.

 

Mina wrenched her eyelids open, suddenly remembering everything, the pain all but subsiding as the sheer panic and fear engulfed her entire being, overwhelming all of her senses.

It was blurry, her eyes adjusting to the high afternoon sun and the vibrant colours of daylight, still blinking in a daze as she forced her vision to clear and focus, lifting her head up wearily.

There was a metallic taste in her mouth, mixed with something sour and bitter.

She moved her arms, going to heave herself up, only for the pain in her left shoulder to reverberate so fiercely that she screamed, her stomach rolling, moving just quick enough to vomit onto the earth in front of her and not down the front of her shirt.

She gagged, back heaving as she tried to force the next wave of nausea down, blinking away the tears in her eyes, the acrid burn in her throat, the trembling of her limbs.

Her breathing was erratic, sharp and small gasps as her body succumbed to panic, her oxygen depleting as her lungs closed off, her fingers going numb, her body threatening to shut down as she tried, tried, tried to pull herself together.

 

 

 

 

 

Breathe.

Breathe Mina.

Come on.

You’re alive.

Right now.

In this moment.

You are breathing.

So use it.

Use your breath.

Breathe.

Get a grip.

You’re alive.

Don’t take that for granted.

Not before it’s too late.

 

 

 

 

 

Mina looked up, her vision almost settled, some things still hazy, the ground beneath her titling slightly.

She felt something cool and wet run down her face, dripping off of her lips.

She moved her hand to feel the open gash across the right side of her forehead, pulling her fingers away to look at the sticky crimson blood that stained them.

She winced, dragging the rivulet of blood off of her face with her hand, and then rubbing her hands across her shirt to rid them of the blood also, the stain on her skin already too far etched in.

She managed to pull herself up, her limbs almost feeling detached from her body, as if she could touch her leg and her hand would pass through her bones.

She lent back on her heels, clasping her hands together as she breathed, try to breath in the fact that she was still alive, trying to breath out the shaking and trembling of her body, the rolling of her stomach, the pounding of heart, the pain in her head and shoulder.

 

 

 

 

Breathe Mina.

If you want to stay alive.

You need to breathe.

One step at a time.

First.

Get it together.

And breathe.

 

 

 

She titled her head up towards the sky, taking her final long inhale, releasing a shaky exhale, the images once again flashing behind her eyes.

 

 

 

 

The titan.

Jasper.

The titan.

My flank.

All in the air.

All….

Dead?

 

 

 

 

She opened her eyes again; her breathing still labored and shallow, but steadied, finally bringing back oxygen to all parts of her body, her fingers sparking as they awoke.

 

 

 

I’m alive.

I’m going to stay alive.

For my mother.

For Maxi.

For Niklas.            

 

Niklas…

 

 

Please…

 

Please be alive.

You have to be.

Because I am.

I kept my promise.

I always will.

 

 

 

 

She moved gingerly, shifting her body to stand up slowly, taking her time to rise first to her knees, and then shifting to use her right hand, pushing into the earth, stumbling on her shaky legs.

She straightened, blinking blearily under the sun, hearing the sound of her breath as she began to snap her head around wildly, taking in her surroundings, trying to listen, to focus, to find the danger.

All she could see was green.

The rolling green expanse of field in front of her, behind her, to left, to her right.

She was wide out in the open.

 

No titans.

No soldiers.

All alone.

 

Jasper.

 

Her heart panged, a broken sob escaping from her lips, eyes welling with tears again as she turned, taking tentative steps, her head screaming every time the soles of her feet made impact with the ground.

Her shoulder hurt too, an agonizing burn and throb, and Mina realized the limb of her left arm didn’t felt right, too loose, too heavy, almost dragging her down.

She kept her the arm still by her side, not trying to move it as she continued on her unsteady, slow amble.

 

 

 

Where am I going?

 

Jasper.

 

Think.

I need a plan.

 

Jasper.

 

What do I do?

 

Jasper.

Jasper.

I let him down.

I did it again.

 

No.

Think.

You need a plan Mina.

You’re alive.

Don’t waste it.

 

Jasper.

I couldn’t save him.

It happened again.

I couldn’t save him.

 

No.

Think!

Think of Niklas right now.

Alive.

He has to be.

Alive.

And waiting for you to return to him.

Waiting for you to show him you’ll always keep your promise.

 

 

 

Mina stopped, her eyes zeroing in on the limp bodies strewn across the field, the horses crushed and trampled, arms and legs bent at unnatural angles, blood staining the earth, necks crooked, bodies reduced to bumps contorted underneath their green cloaks.

Mina’s stomach rolled again.

 

 

 

No.

Hold it together.

This isn’t the first time you’ve seen death.

Don’t lose it now.

You can’t let it get to you know.

You need to stay strong.

 

 

 

Mina took another few steps forward, her feet scuffing across the dry mud, eyes wide as she flittered them across the ground, a stab in her stomach, in her heart, in her head and lungs, as she counted the number of dead bodies.

 

5 bodies.

There should be one more.

There were 7 of us, including me…

Right?

Wasn’t there?

Why…I can’t quite remember…

Maybe it was 5?

I don’t…I don’t know.

 

 

 

Mina took another tentative step forward.

 

 

I need to see…

Jasper.

I need to….

I can’t leave his body here.

I need to…

Help in an anyway I can.

 

 

 

 

Mina moved slowly, bending down to pull back hoods and turn mangled faces towards her, trying not to recoil, trying to keep the bile in her throat, as she looked at the caved in and bloodied faces, pieces of skin, exposed skulls, trying to examine their broken features.

 

She stood back again, taking a deep breath, clenching her fist.

 

 

His body.

It’s not here.

Where…

 

 

Her eyes closed, another wretch taking control, dropping to hunch over and place her hands on her knees, only able to gag, her stomach empty.

She inhaled, trembling, a pathetic whimper leaving her lips as she thought of Jasper, his body, high up in the sky….

 

 

 

He must be…

Further out.

 

….

What am I doing?

I’m going to die here.

If I don’t…move.

If I don’t come up with a plan.

I’m going to die here.

 

 

Mina looked up, scanning the horizon again, her eyes suddenly stopping on the thick bundle of woods that appeared far out past the hills to her right.

 

Okay.

Trees.

High ground.

 

She fumbled with her ODM, tracing around the straps, ensuring it was all still secured, trembling fingers playing with the triggers and examining the gear.

 

It’s intact.

I need to go.

To the trees.

Find higher ground.

Fire up a flare…

 

Mina hesitated, her gun holster empty.

 

She moved back to one of the bodies, grimacing as she fumbled around at the hip, feeling blood and crushed bone beneath her fingertips, pulling out a flare gun from the corpse’s holster.

 

 

 

Okay.

I’ve got a gun.

I can’t stay here.

If a titan comes…I’m dead.

There’s no outrunning it.

I need the trees.

To use my ODM.

I can’t do much.

But I can do enough.

Get up.

Get high.

Shot the gun.

Wait.

Wait for someone to help me.

Wait to see Niklas again.

 

 

Jasper.

 

 

She closed her eyes, feeling the breath catch in her lungs as she thought of his body, destroyed and left alone somewhere far out on the field.

 

 

 

I can…

I can try and get to him.

To find him.

 

 

No.

I can’t risk it.

Someone else will surely help…

Try to find his body for me.

They can’t just….

Leave him here….

Surely….

Would they…

Could they….

 

 

Mina bought her right hand to her pounding head, pressing her palm hard into her skull, another sob leaving her lips as her body fought itself, her brain fought itself, the animal instinct in her telling her to move

move

move

move.

 

Find higher ground.

Stay safe.

Stay alive.

 

 

But it was conflicted.

With something.

Another part of her instincts

Telling her….

Screaming at her.

 

 

 

You can’t leave him.

Not out here.

Not all alone.

 

You…

 

 

Can’t.

 

Mina let out a cry, a scream, her voice cracking and lilting as she stared ahead at the trees, turned back around to the point she had seen Jasper’s body in the air, spun back towards the trees, towards safety, turn her head sharply again to her left, towards Jasper.

 

 

 

Why.

Why can’t i…

Why can’t I have peace?

Just once.

Just for…one second.

 

That’s all I want.

 

I just want…rest.

 

Mina gritted her teeth, fighting back the animalistic noises that threatened to escape as every fiber of her being battled with another.

 

 

 

I need to stay alive.

I have to.

There isn’t any other way.

Niklas is alive.

He has to be.

I can’t leave him.

Not like this.

Not now.

Not ever.

I have to stay alive.

I promised….

 

 

 

But Jasper…

Another one.

Good.

So good.

And look where that got him.

It happened again.

It keeps happening.

The good people…keep…dying.

Keep leaving me.

How many more.

I let him down.

I should have done…more…

 

With Maxi…

 

I should have done more.

 

I left him.

 

I shouldn’t have left him.

 

Jasper.

….

 

 

 

 

I left you.

 

 

No.

I need to get to safety.

I have to.

My orders.

I’m following my orders.

Directly from the Commander.

Get to higher ground.

Shoot the flare.

Wait for help.

 

 

Mina’s almost crumpled to the ground again, exhausted from the internal battle, from her tense body on high alert, waiting and listening for any sound, any oncoming approach, knowing the longer she stayed put, the less likely it was that she would make it out of this alive.

 

 

My orders.

I have to follow them.

 

 

Why am I…hesitating?

Again.

Again.

And again.

 

 

Because….

Jasper.

Because in my gut.

 

It doesn’t feel right.

 

To run.

To hide.

My gut…it’s telling me not to.

It’s telling me to find him…to bring him home.

 

Somehow.

Someway.

 

 

 

 

Nanaba….

Is this what you meant?

 

 

 

Mina straightened up again, her face set, every cell in her body determined.

 

 

 

Jasper.

I promised you…that you would be okay.

I broke that promise.

I’m sorry.

I’m going to do what I can to make it up to you.

I’m not going to leave you here.

I’ll bring you home.

 

 

 

I can do this.

I can bring you home.

Bring myself home.

 

 

 

If I leave you now.

I live with that for the rest of my life.

I’m not making another mistake.

 

 

 

So.

Jasper.

I’ll find you.

I’ll just never forgive myself for not being able to do more.

 

 


 

 

 

 

Mina wasn’t sure how long she had been walking, each small step feeling harder than the last, her body on the brink of shutting down, her mind the only thing keeping her moving.

 

 

Mina,

You’ve done this before.

Survived.

Despite the odds.

You’re strong.

You always…survive.

It’s what you do best.

Keep.

Going.

 

 

Mina came to another dip in the ground, a gentle slope and descent down a hill, her eyes rolling down the wave of grass, down, down, down…listening…watching…

 

 

Staying alive.

 

 

Her body stopped, eyes zeroing in on a mass of shrubbery, thick bushes and wild plants growing together at the bottom of the hills, sporadically sprouting from the earth across the wide flat expanse.

Her heart tilted.

 

A green cloak.

 

 

Mina moved, running down the hill, ignoring the pain in her head and shoulder, the trembling and stumbling of her feet as she all but flung her body towards the figure.

 

As she came closer she saw the outline of a body… an arm, a leg, sprawled out across the dense foliage.

 

A head of curly blonde hair, catching gold under the sun.

 

Jasper.

Jasper.

Jasper.

 

 

Mina collapsed next to his body with a sob, hazy eyes unable to work out much of him, seeing dirt and blood, blood stained across his shirt, his exposed skin, the leaves beneath him dripping in it.

“Jasper.” She croaked her voice a strained whisper. “Oh, Jasper.”

The tears dripped down her chin, the salt mixing with the metallic taste of blood, lingering on her lips as she let herself cry, let it fall without reserve or hesitation, shaky hands coming up to his face.

She blinked furiously, her eyes settling on his expression, eyes shut, mouth open and slightly parted, his face still soft, almost content, as if he were just asleep.

Mina brushed back the curls of his forehead, her fingers staining the golden locks with crimson.

She moved her hands to cup his jaw.

“Jasper. I’m so sorry. I’m so, so, sorry.”

She bent down  to press her cheek to his forehead, wanting to pull him impossible close, thinking of the day she first met him, when she wanted to wrap him up and take him far away.

 

“You never belonged here.” She whispered.

 

She stayed still for a few moments, her tears dripping onto his cheek,  the feeling sickeningly familiar to the day she had held Maxi’s dead body, pressed herself against him, clutched at his hair, his face, stroked his cheek, felt the cold skin beneath her fingertips….

 

 

Cold.

So cold.

Maxi had been so cold.

 

Jasper.

 

Mina moved her thumb across Jasper’s cheek again.

 

Warm.

He’s warm.

 

Mina pulled back suddenly, staring at his face, the warmth still in his skin, the pink hue across his cheeks.

 

 

 

Maxi.

Had been so pale.

Almost blue.

Mottled.

Purple.

 

 

 

Jasper…

Looks….

Feels….

So…

Warm.

 

 

 

She moved again, fingers trembling to place them above the left side of his chest, ear coming up over his mouth.

 

She gasped.

 

A slow, steady thrum.

Underneath her palm.

So slow…

So faint.

But still beating.

 

 

She felt the whisper of air escape his lips.

 

 

Still beating.

Still breathing.

 

 

“Jasper!” She cried, lurching back to look at him again, scanning his body. “Jasper! Can you hear me? Jasper!”

Her fingers trembled as she brought them up to her face, dragging them across her skin as she surveyed his still and unconscious body, now staring at the subtle rise and fall of his chest.

“You’re alive.” She whispered in awe.

 

 

Alive.

Alive.

Jasper.

Alive.

 

Nanaba.

 

You were right.

 

 

“Jasper.” There was a smile on her face; her voice shaking through the sob, vision distorted again through the fresh set of tears. “Jasper. I’m going to help you, okay? I’m going to get you out of here. We’re both going to be okay.”

She leant forward again, hand reaching down to clasp his clammy, still fingers and squeeze them, pressing her forehead to his once more.

 

“I promise.”

 

She moved to assess his body, running her fingers over the limbs, eyes wide to see them intact, set in all the right angles, limp and still, but every part of him in every place it should be.

It was the wound across his stomach that worried her, his shirt ripped open, the skin torn apart, flaps of flesh hanging to the side, a deep laceration that was weeping blood consistently.

 

“Okay.” She said to herself, taking a shaky inhale. “Okay.”

 

You made a promise Mina.

 

She moved to take off her green cloak, wrapping it up tightly into a wad of fabric, pressing it into his stomach, wincing as she came closer to see the flesh peeled away, wet and pink muscle shining underneath.

 

Her mind flashed to the image of the titan, its raw, pink muscles flexing and straining as it sprinted towards them.

 

She shook her head fiercely, pressing the fabric into the wound to staunch the bleeding.

Her shaking fingers came to the belt around his pants, unbuckling it and tugging it loose, carefully winding it around his torso and pulling it tightly across the fabric, holding it in place.

 

“Okay.” Mina repeated to herself.

 

She could barely feel her own pain anymore, the aches and searing a distant thrum as the adrenaline coursed through her body. Her instincts, her fight, her determination, it was all working to drive out every other sense, tunneling all of its energy into Jasper.

 

I made him a promise.

 

She bent down to reach her arms underneath him, cradling him securely as she braced her weight, bent her knees, inhaled, before standing and pulling him up, holding his heavy form close to her, her legs trembling, her shoulder protesting with every move.

 

I have to get us to the trees

 

 

She tried to take a step, gasping, wincing, her legs buckling beneath her.

 

I’m so…weak.

Tired.

He’s heavy.

 

 

 

My ODM gear.

It’s weighing me down.

And with Jasper.

It’s too much weight.

 

 

 

Her legs crumpled and she clutched the limp body towards her as she landed on her knees, crying out at the pain that jolted through her, echoing in her head and shoulder once more.

 

Damn it.

 

She gritted her teeth, clenching her jaw and breathed heavily through her nostrils.

 

 

We need to get out of the open.

We’re sitting ducks.

It’s too dangerous.

I need to get us of here.

 

 

She bit her lip, remembering the gun in her holster.

 

 

But…who knows how long it will take them…

If they’ll even see it.

I can’t wait here, not knowing if they’ll even be looking.

I can’t waste time.

I don’t have any time to waste.

 

 

But…

I don’t have the strength.

It’s too much weight.

 

 

 

Mina hesitated, for a second, before making a decision.

She placed Jasper carefully back down onto the earth, before working to unhook his straps and buckles, doing a messy job of it, but unbuckling enough to remove the heaviest parts of the ODM gear, tossing his canisters and holsters off to the side.

There was no hesitating as she did the same to herself, wrenching the harness completely off of her body, throwing her gas and blades off to the side, feeling naked and defenseless.

 

Mina almost laughed to herself.

 

 

 

How many orders am I breaking now?

 

I guess…

Orders don’t matter now.

I’m working with what I have.

I need to get out of the open.

This is the only way.

 

 

 

Mina gingerly picked up Jasper again, clenching and groaning at the pain in her limbs as she stood, right arm hooking under his knees, left arm supporting his upper back as his head lolled out across her forearm.

 

She took a step.

 

Okay.

This feels better.

I can move…

Easier.

With less pain.

 

I can get us out of here.

 

Just hold on for me Jasper.

Just hold on.

And we’ll survive this together.

 

 

 


 

 

Mina’s knees gave way beneath her, just as she moved past the entrance to the woods, stepping into the thicker foliage, the sheer relief of being out of the open too much to handle, crumpling slowly, and working carefully to lay Jasper’s body down beside her.

 

She collapsed into the earth, stretching her body out as she rolled out onto her back, feeling the damp mud beneath her, the chill on her skin as the leaves ahead blocked out the sun, the air filtering through dark and with an eerie green tinge.

She gasped for breath, letting the aches and protest of her body scream at her, for just a second, before she blocked them out, giving them no time to linger or hold her down.

She moved to asses herself again, wiping the blood form her forehead, knowing her face was streaked with red, dried and crusted to her skin and hair. Dirt was spattered across her face, tear marks tracking through the mud on her cheeks.

Her arms, her hands, her shirt…every part of her was seeped in blood.

 

 

Jasper’s blood.

 

 

His blood that continued to ooze out slowly from her makeshift tourniquet, the wound too big to be completely plugged, the blood still soaking out from the sides.

Mina touched her shirt, which was more red than white.

She wandered if it would stain her forever.

 

Jasper’s blood.

 

 

She turned to look at him, his eyes still closed, his face still soft and easy, the gentle rise and fall of his chest the only thing keeping her  thoughts coherent.

 

She sat up again, feeling the ease in her torso now without her gear, a laugh escaping her lips, a small, frantic bubble of noise.

 

 

 

I really just…dumped it all.

My gear.

My swords.

The only thing I had to protect myself.

The way to escape.

I just…threw it away.

 

 

It’s done now.

I’m going to make it out of this.

And when I do.

 

Everyone else is going to kill me instead.

 

 

 

She laughed again, another bubble, before the sound caught, choking her slightly, trapping the air in her lungs, allowing her to feel the searing pain for a few seconds, before it broke through, a tangled sob escaping instead.

 

 

 

No.

Hold it together.

Jasper.

Jasper.

Think of Jasper.

You promised him.

 

 

 

Her right hand rose, feeling the thick leather cord around her left wrist, running her finger along the woven material, feeling the bumps and grooves with a shiver.

 

 

I’m alive.

He’s keeping me protected.

Like he said he would.

I need to protect him.

 

 

She stood again, despite her body screaming at her to sit and be still and rest, rest, rest.

 

 

Okay.

I can’t…get to higher ground anymore.

Not an option.

But here at least….

I’m covered.

I’m sheltered.

The woods is dense.

 

Titan’s wouldn’t come through here….

I have to believe that.

 

 

She glanced across at Jasper’s body again.

 

 

The flare gun.

I should…fire it.

For help.

Those are my orders.

 

 

 

My orders.

How many orders have I disregarded already?

Thrown into the mud.

My orders…where will they get me now?

Right now…

My orders are useless.

Is anyone looking for me?

Will anyone see?

How many…are still out there?

How many will be looking for me….will even know I’m gone.

I could be waiting here for hours…

They could….leave me.

 

 

If they do see the flare…

How long will it take?

Will they be able to help me?

 

I’m okay.

But Jasper.

 

 

Her mind flashed back to Fargo, the lame horse in the stable, along with Gunther’s words.

 

 

Jasper.

Will they….

Save him?

If they think…he’s too far gone.

If this whole thing really has gone to shit….

Will they…take the time…for someone who may never be able to fight for them again?

Risk it for him?

I…don’t know.

I don’t know if they would.

 

Mina pressed her palms into her eyes.

 

Captain Levi.

He would.

He would help me.

Get us both out.

I know he would….

But…

He’s with Eren.

That’s his priority.

It won’t be him.

It will be someone else.

I don’t…

Trust many others.

Miche. Nanaba….

If it’s not them….

Who will help me?

If everyone is trying to escape…retreat….

How much time do they have…how much man power is left?

I don’t….trust them

I only trust myself.

 

 

I can’t stay here.

Waiting.

Waiting for an uncertainty.

I have to….

Act.

I have to make something happened.

I can’t wait for them to come to me…not when that isn’t promised.

What I can do….

Is go to them.

Is find them.

That…

That is my best chance right now.

That’s what…

My gut is telling me to do.

 

Mina shifted, moving her heavy and clumsy body down to heave Jasper up into her arms again, pressing him close, feeling the light thud of his heart, holding onto that noise, that pressure, willing it to stay…using it to keep her going.

“Jasper.” She whispered again, taking another labored step. “If you could see me right now…I know you would think I’m crazy. But trust me. I know what I’m doing. I know it’s our best shot. Trust me. I’m getting us out of this mess.”

 

 


 

 

 

Mina retraced her steps back, using her cracked compass to navigate her movements, walking at the edge of the woods, trying to head back towards where the titan had intercepted them, planning to head further through, as far as she could go back to the Walls, not sure where any other soldiers were but knowing they would all eventually go back.

Eventually…she would find them.

 

I have to believe that.

 

 

 

Time seemed to slip away from Mina as she pushed forward, all of her senses started to dilute.

 

How long has it been?

Since I found Jasper?

Since I started walking?

 

It has only been a few seconds.

Why does it feel like it’s all happened in a few seconds.

 

 Mina let her mind wander.

 

No…it feels like days have passed.

 

 

It was growing humid, sweat stuck to her neck and underneath her clothes, the material sodden with perspiration and blood. Her throat was dry and sore, her vision constantly wavering, the ground beneath her titling, the tree’s almost undulating as she passed, their shapes flexing and expanding underneath her weakening line of sight.

Mina felt pain everywhere, no longer just in her head and shoulder, but underneath every pore of her skin. Every single inch of her ached and burned in some way, as she did all she could to keep Jasper’s body close to her, hold him steady, feel the weakening thrum of his heart, matching her steps to the beat.

Another wave of nausea almost paralyzed her, her skin prickling and trembling as a cold sweat arose, a full body chill causing her to gasp, steady herself, swaying slightly as black dots exploded in front of her eyes.

She gagged, blinking in a daze, stumbling to find a tree, in which she lent her back against, letting her legs fold up underneath her again, keeping her arms around Jasper as she sat.

 

 

Just…

A small rest.

Until…

I feel stronger again.

 

Mina gasped for breath, trying to blink away the dots that swam across her vision, fingers loosening around Jasper’s body as her limbs went numb.

 

“Jasper.” She whispered. “I’m so tired. I don’t think…I’ve ever been this tired before.”

She lent her head back against the bark of the tree.

“Jasper. Please. Talk to me.”

She swallowed, the sound loud and thick

“I hate being alone.”

 

 

It was quiet, the sounds of birds and her own heavy breathing the only response to her plea.

 

“Jasper. I feel like…I’m the only one left in the world. I feel so…lonely. And tired. I’m so tired.” Mina couldn’t stop the words from babbling out of her mouth, her voice a hoarse whisper as her tongue seemed to lose control.

“I wonder...how many are looking for us…if any…maybe…they left us here.” Mina laughed, the sound a manic bubble. “Maybe we’re all alone.”

She inhaled sharply, grimacing.

“No…Niklas. He’s alive. I just know it. And he’ll be looking for me. I’m sure he’ll be here any second now…”

Mina’s head lolled slightly.

“And…Captain Levi. He’ll look for me. He won’t…leave me. Don’t you think Jasper? Captain Levi won’t leave me here.”

Mina swallowed again; her body going limp and numb, an invisible weight pressing down on her muscles, rooting them to the ground, to the tree, her vision continue to dim.

“I’m so tired. I think…I think...I’m going to go to sleep. Just for a bit. Until they come get us. Yeah. They’ll be here soon. I’ll just…close my eyes. Just for a bit. “

Mina let her eyelids droop, her head lolling, the static in her mind starting to grow, Jasper’s body suddenly feeling far away, the ground beneath slipping out from under her. Mina felt as if she was suspended, floating in mid-air as consciousness started to ebb away.

 

 

 

It’s okay Mina.

You’re tired.

Just…

Rest a bit.

Niklas will be here.

Captain Levi.

Maybe…

Maybe your mother will come.

And she’ll bring Maxi.

Yeah.

They’ll all be here soon.

 

 

Mina’s eyes snapped open, the image of her mother and brother so vivid behind her eyelids that it made her jump, her body jolting, crashing back down into the earth with an almost sickening force.

She gasped, as if haven been under water, trying to catch her breath, regulate it, as her fingertips began to tingle, feeling Jasper’s heavy, warm flesh pressed into them

 

 

No.

Mina.

You’re alive.

You need to stay alive.

You need to.

Keep moving

It’s the only way.

If you stay…

You’re dead.

Move.

Get back.

Find the others.

Stay alive.

 

She groaned, trying to bend her legs again, trying to steady her body and force it upright from its crumpled position on the ground, the effort aching and burning, feeling like her limbs had turned into jelly, unable to gather any strength.

 

I’m so tired.

But I have no other choice.

If I don’t move now…

If I fall asleep.

Will I ever wake up?

 

“Damn it!” Mina cried, her legs failing again to push her up, weak and limp as they splayed out in front of her.

 

Tears welled in her eyes.

 

“Not like this.” She whispered. “No. I need to get up. Mina. Get. Up.”

 

Get up.

Keep moving.

Survive.

You promised.

Niklas.

Your mother.

Kenny.

 

 

Kenny.

 

….

 

 

I promised….

Kenny?

 

 

A sudden memory flashed in front of Mina’s eyes, one she hadn’t recalled in many years, one she had tried to bury in the deepest recesses of her mind when she thought he had left for good.

 

 

 

 

 

Kenny was drunk.

He sat at the table, fingers of his right hand wrapped loosely around the neck of a bottle, catching Mina’s eye as she lingered by the opposite wall, holding her weary stare as he lifted the bottle to his lips to take another gulp.

He had been mad.

Furious.

 

Because Mina had hesitated again.

 

 

The knife had been in front of her, clutched in her hands, her knuckles white as she pointed it out towards the two men approaching, thrusting it into their space, the leers on their face’s not shifting.

They hadn’t been scared.

They had seen her hesitance.

They had lunged for her, one grabbing the knife, the other hold her back and restraining her.

 

Kenny had been watching.

 

Mina had screamed at Kenny not to kill them, which only seemed to anger him more, but for some reason, he complied, using the end of his gun to knock out the two men instead of turning it round and shooting them.

He had stayed silent, eyes dark as he glared at Mina’s trembling form, before stalking off into the alleys.

Mina followed after him,  staying in his shadow as he kicked open the door to one of his small hideaways, not looking at Mina as he reached into the cabinet, pulled out a drink, and flung himself down at the table.

He hadn’t said a word to Mina, but she had stayed, watching him, trying to find words of her own, as he downed bottle after bottle.

 

Usually, there was little Mina hated more than a drunk man.

They were loud.

Violent.

Disgusting.

 

But Kenny.

Kenny had been different.

She had only seen him drunk a few times, and each time, his behaviour had shifted.

He had been talkative, his words loose and careless, asking Mina more about her life, divulging small snippets of his own, not enough for Mina to paint a picture, only for her to catch glimpses.

He would smile, and laugh, the grin sometimes different to the sarcastic, cocky smirk she was used to.

He would ruffle her hair or tuck her under the chin.

He was more…open.

Warm.

Which was why Mina felt comfortable staying.

 

He banged the bottle onto the wooden table, pulling the back of his hand across his mouth as he stared at Mina, before pointing his finger in her direction.

 

“You could have died.”

Mina pursed her lips.

“If I wasn’t there. Like usual. You could have died.”

He shook his head.

Mina listened, staying quiet, recognizing the familiar drunken drawl to his tone.

“Or worse. Much worse. What those guys probably wanted to do to you.” He shook his head. “You might have wished ya were dead.”

Mina clenched her fists. “I’m sorry.”

Kenny slapped his hand hard on the table, teeth grit as he groaned in annoyance.

“And I didn’t even fucking kill em. Now they free to get back up and do the same to another girl. You know that right?” He wagged his finger at Mina, whose lungs constricted at the words.

“I’m sorry.”

“Sorry ain't gonna do anyone no good now, kid.” His tone dipped towards the end, his eyes holding Mina’s for a few more seconds, before he sighed, glancing off to the wall.

“Those bastards don’t deserve to live. One day you’ll understand that. There are people in this world who don’t deserve to be here. So…it’s up to people like me to get rid of them. To take out the trash.” He shook his head. “I hope the day you realize that; I hope it won’t be too late for you.”

Mina swallowed, unsure of his words.

He took another swig of the bottle, not meeting her eyes.

“What they would have done to you. Because you hesitated. Because you let the weakness in. Because you weren’t strong enough to keep fighting. You gave up.”

He shook his head, running a hand through his long hair.

“Just like Kuchel did.”

Mina stilled at the unfamiliar name and the sudden softness of his tone, his face contorting, his eyes dancing across the table, his mind far away.

“She gave up. She lost her strength. She let herself stop fighting. Look what happened to her.”

He let out a laugh. It was dry, void of any humor, a bitter sound.

He sucked his teeth hard, the air in the small room thick and oppressive as Mina stared at the unfamiliar expression on his face, her heart starting to beat faster for reasons she couldn’t understand.

Kenny looked up at her again, his eyes intent, though his face was clear of any anger.

“Kid. You promise me something , yeah? You not gonna end up like that, are you? Not like Kuchel? You ain't gonna give up like that?”

Mina didn’t understand, she didn’t know who Kuchel was, she didn’t know what had happened to her.

She blinked.

“Kid.” Kenny said, his voice more insisting, the alcohol thick in his unguarded tone and expression.  “No matter what happens to you in this shithole, you keep going, yeah? You don’t let those assholes win. You don’t end up like her. You keep fighting. You keep surviving. Promise me that, kid. You find that strength from somewhere and you keep fighting every damn day.”

His voice shook towards the end, a tremble, a tremor, softness in his face that had Mina’s heart twisted.

She blinked again, staring, catching her breath to respond, knowing he wouldn’t remember the conversation tomorrow but wanting to hold onto it anyway.

“I promise.”               

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mina’s hand moved unconsciously, her right fingers coming to trace Jasper’s bracelet once more.

 

 

 

Who is protecting me?

Who has it been?

Was it him…all this time?

What he taught me.

Ingrained  in me,

Has it always been him keeping me alive?

Has it always been him protecting me?

 

 

Mina gritted her teeth, pulling Jasper’s body tight once more, bracing her muscles to push, push, push.

Push herself up off the ground.

Steady herself.

Stand taller.

Find every piece of strength she had left.

To keep going.

 

 

 

I keep going.

Like I always have.

Like I always will.

 

 

I survive.

 

 


 

 

 

Erwin stood firmly with his hands clasped behind his back, staring off into the horizon, his peripheral vision catching the soldiers that stumbled into view, their faces shell shocked or sorrowful, leaning on one another for support, words quiet and hushed.

Erwin was steady.

Upon hearing word that Eren was still alive, Erwin regained his steadiness. Despite all the failures the mission had resulted in, all the deaths, Eren was alive, and that was enough to keep Erwin steady.

Erwin turned his head slightly at the familiar figures approaching him, Miche striding forward with a heavy set brow and displeased expression, Nanaba trailing behind whilst she called back to Niklas to wait with the likes of Armin and Sasha.

“Niklas.” She scolded him. “Go back to your horse. You need to be ready to leave. You did well.”

“Like hell am I going anywhere until I’ve seen Mina.” He called back, jogging to catch up with her stalking figure.

 

Erwin pursed his lips, turning his eyes back to the horizon as Miche came to a stop by his side.

 

“Captain Levi is on his way with Eren now. He shouldn’t be long.”

Erwin nodded. “Good. As soon as he’s here, we make our way back.”

Miche was quiet, continuing to stare at Erwin’s face, before his eyes started to look around.

“Miche.” Nanaba said, a sudden urgency in her tone as her own eyes took in the cadet’s faces. “Have you seen Mina?”

“No. I haven’t.” Miche’s voice was low as he turned back to the Commander. “Commander. Is Mina with the medical crew?”

Erwin’s face did not falter, but somehow, Miche could read the expression in his gaze and he could guess the answer before the Commander responded.

“No. She is not.”

“Hey!” Niklas called, coming up behind Miche, before he turned to Erwin. “Where is Mina?”

“Niklas.”

That one word from Erwin, the one utterance of his name, the low dip in his tone as he spoke, said nothing, said so much, said enough for Nanaba to gasp, for Miche’s expression to darken, for Niklas’s face to suddenly blanch.

“Where the hell is she?!” Niklas shouted, taking another step forward.

“Niklas. I am not going to sugar coat this. And you are not going to like what you are about to hear. I’m sorry for that. But you deserve nothing but the truth.” Erwin gazed at him steadily. “Mina is suspected dead, along with the rest of her flank”

Niklas’s expression did not change, blinking in bewilderment at Erwin, before a smile cracked across his face; a manic laugh escaped his lips.

“What? What the hell are you talking about? Mina isn’t dead!”

“We’ve had soldiers surveying the areas in which the Female Titan intercepted our flanks. The entire right side of our formation was wiped out completely. We lost a lot of lives today.”

Niklas shook his head, coming closer, as Miche and Nanaba stared at the Commander, speechless.

“No. No! She isn’t fucking dead. You don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“I’m sorry Niklas, but it is the truth. “

“Suspected?” Nanaba mumbled, her expression shell shocked. “You said suspected?”

Erwin hesitated for a second. “We haven’t recovered her body yet. But the rest of her superiors were found dead.”

Niklas run a hand through his hair, his eyes wide, and his expression wild as he stared at the Commander with a fury in his glare. “You haven’t even found her? And you’re telling me she’s fucking dead? Have you heard yourself? How can you say that! She’s alive! Somewhere! She’s not…she can’t be dead!”

“I’m sorry Niklas, but the likelihood of her surviving the attack is almost unthinkable, especially when the veterans with her were not able to.”

“No! Fuck you! You don’t have a fucking clue! She isn’t fucking dead, you hear me?!” Niklas was shouting, the veins in his neck started to protrude grotesquely, his skin mottling in rage.

“I truly wish this could have gone any other way Niklas, I sincerely do.”

“Shut the fuck up!” He screamed, his furious eyes turning to Miche and Nanaba. “Miche. Nanaba. You’re not listening to this, are you? She’s not dead! You heard him! They haven’t even found her! He can’t just stand here and say this shit!”

Miche swallowed thickly, avoiding Niklas’s stare with an almost guilty expression, his fingers shaking slightly.

Nanaba had her face turned up to the sky, her lips down turned, and her eyes wet and glossy.

“No. No! Don’t you dare give up on her! Don’t you fucking dare!” He turned back to Erwin. “What the fuck happened?! You said…you fucking said if anything went wrong then there was a plan. Like my flank…we followed the plan. You fucking told us there was a plan!”

Erwin’s face grew troubled. “I did. A plan put in place for the titans we expected to encounter. This…this was not something any of us could have truly planned for. It was…an anomaly. The outliers in the formation…they didn’t stand a change. No matter what they did.”

Niklas’s face contorted, his mouth clenching, head rearing back as he spat a wad of saliva at the Commander’s face.

Erwin didn’t falter, wiping his face with the back of his hand slowly as he stared down at Niklas.

“You piece of shit. Look at you. That fucking look on your face. You don’t give a shit. Not about Mina. Not about any of us…To think…to think I actually thought I could trust you…respect you.” He laughed, his expression wilder than before. “More fool me.”

He whirled round. “I’m going to find Mina. She’s alive. She’s out there. You’re all no fucking use to any of us.”

“Niklas.” Miche said steadily, stepping forward. “I know…I can’t imagine…how unbearable it is to hear this right now. You know I cared about Mina too. But you need to listen to what the Commander is saying. You need to think clearly about this. Mina isn’t alive.”

Niklas’s face flushed, a mixture of anger and betrayal. “How can you say that?!”

“Niklas.” Nanaba’s voice was quiet, holding his eyes with her own gaze, her face remorseful. “Please. Listen.”

Erwin had turned around, walking to a cart behind him and picking something up in his hands. He returned slowly to Niklas, who continued to stare in wild anger.

“Her horse is dead. All the horses from her team are dead. The soldiers found this instead. This.” He produced the piece of equipment from his hands, moving it into Niklas’s line of vision. “Is her ODM gear. Do you know what this means?”

Niklas’s expression dropped, the despair and hopelessness seeping in, barreling through the anger and denial.

Nanaba was the first to break, a sob escaping her lips, her shoulders shaking as she turned, hand coming up to cover her mouth and muffle the noises.

Miche titled his head down, his expression heavy and sorrowful, taking steady breaths.

Niklas was frozen, his body shut down as the information slowly started to break through.

Erwin held him in a determined stare. “We are in titan territory. No horse. No gear. It isn’t possible for her to be alive. I’m sorry Niklas. There is no way she could have survived this.”

 

It was silent, horror flashed across Niklas’s face, his entire body stuck in limbo, the weight of the world collapsing on top of him.

He couldn’t move.

Couldn’t think.

Couldn’t….believe it.

 

Mina.

Dead.

 

He cracked.

Pure unfiltered fury seized his entire body, as he lunged, his hand moving swiftly to withdraw his sword from his holder, plunging it towards Erwin’s body.

Erwin reacted quickly, catching Niklas’s wrists, the hand that held the sword, and wrenched it to the side, as Miche sprang forward, pulling Niklas back by his shoulders.

“I’LL KILL YOU! I’LL FUCKING KILL YOU!” Niklas screamed, the tears starting to stream down his face as Erwin continued to stare, slowing dropping Niklas’s wrist as he watched the grief consume the man’s body.

“You piece of shit.” Niklas rasped, breathing heavily. “You killed her. You killed her. You murdered her. You fucking filthy murderer. This is all your fault.”

Erwin blinked slowly. “Yes. It is. And I’m sorry for that Niklas. I will hold that with me every day of my life.”

Niklas let out another choked sob, letting Miche’s grip loosen, listening to the buzz of his words by his ears, telling him to calm down, trying to steady the wild emotions coursing through him.

“She’s dead.” Niklas’s words were hollow, as he went completely limp in Miche’s hold, his eyes staring up at the sky. “I can’t…do this without here. None of it. It doesn’t mean a thing if she’s not here. All of this…was supposed to be for us. Together. So…”

Niklas stared down at the sword hanging loosely in his trembling grip.

“So what’s the point?” His words were a whisper, his voice breaking as he came to a sudden resolve.

 

“There is none.”

 

 

He moved quick, bringing his right arm up to press the sharpest point of the blade across his neck, feeling the cool silver on his hot flesh, pressing deeper, ready to swipe it across, end it all in with one clean slice.

Miche reacted quicker, arms coming out to yank the sword out of Niklas’s grip, the force making Niklas cry out, the blade clattering to the earth, Niklas’s body following as he collapsed, screaming, sobbing, crying out into the ground as the grief shattered his existence.

Nanaba stared, stunned for a few seconds, before she turned, her fist connecting with the cart behind her, lashing out in rage, wanting to feel something, for just a second, to numb some of the pain.

“Shit!” She shouted, the tears falling down her face. She clenched her hair her with her hands, looking at Erwin with a shake of her head. “We fucked up. Shit.” She turned to look away, wiping the tears of her face with shaking fingers. “Mina. I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry.”

 

 

 


 

 

Levi arrived shortly after, seeing Eren and Mikasa off into the cart with the medical team, leaving the pair to find Erwin, who still stood, his face troubled, staring off into the distance.

“Levi.” Erwin said, his tone steadied, not looking at the dark-haired man but feeling his footsteps stop in the space beside him. “I’m truly sorry about your squad.”

The images of them all, their bodies broken and crumpled and bloodied, flashed in front of Levi’s eyes for a second, a pull in his chest, a tightening of his expression, before he settled it, following Erwin’s far away gaze.

“That titan’s intelligence was…inconceivable. I’ve never seen anything like it.” Levi glanced down, his voice quiet and thick. “It’s like they never stood a chance.”

Erwin waited for a beat before he spoke again.

“But the boy is alive. What that, we can keep going forward.”

Levi gave a minute nod of the head, thinking about the bodies of his comrades being piled into the cart, his nostrils flaring slightly, the words he wanted to say held back, as always.

“How many did we lose?” Levi settled to ask, hardly wanting to hear the answer.

It was quiet again.

“Too many.”

It was then, Levi noticed.

He noticed Miche, standing off to the side, his arms crossed over his chest, head titled down to the ground, his face dark and narrow.

Levi’s eyes swiveled over, to see Nanaba, sat on the ground, leaning up against a cart, knees pulled in to her chest, head tilted up to the sky, the remnant of tears still staining her face.

Levi heard Niklas before he saw him, the sound of guttural cries, the young man on all fours on the ground, clutching at his hair, circled in by a few soldiers who watched him carefully, eyes weary and unsure as the boy screamed into earth.

 

 

Levi’s heart missed a beat.

 

 

 

“The entire right flank was decimated.” Erwin explained, watching Levi’s expression carefully, the slight widening of his eyes, the drop in his expression. “Her superiors were found dead. No horse. Her gear was discarded. She’s one of the many missing bodies.”

Levi’s mouth opened slightly, his expression suddenly unguarded, stunned for a few seconds, a tug in his stomach, in his chest.

“I’m sorry Levi. I know you saw great promise in her.”

Levi’s expression tightened up, his mouth closing, pressing into a straight line, his eyes narrowing and falling onto the ground.

“How the fuck did it go so wrong?” Levi mumbled, his tone quiet and heavy as he willed the ache in his chest to dissipate.

“Like you said, the Female Titan’s intelligence was not something any of us could have ever been prepared for.”

 

It was silent for a few beats, Levi desperate to block out the sound of Niklas’s cries, desperate to stop thinking about the what ifs that started to turn and tumble through his mind, desperate to turn the time back, a few minutes, to what he didn’t now know.

 

“You should have listened to me.” Levi settled Erwin with a dark stare. “The others...they died trying to protect Eren. In the end, we got him back. What…what did she die for?”

Erwin met Levi with a steady eye. “The fact that we still have Eren alive is enough. We have that hope. We make their deaths mean something with that boy.”

Levi’s eyes darkened. “Her death wasn’t necessary. And you know it. I told you she wasn’t ready.”

 

 

Erwin recalled the evening in his office, Levi’s refusal to accept Mina as part of the expedition, his tone grower louder and fiercer as he tried to make a point to Erwin, citing all of his reasons as to why Mina wasn’t ready.

Erwin had watched Levi’s face, the anger held in it, the frustration in his voice stronger than what Erwin was familiar with, as Levi insisted that the Commander keep Mina off of this expedition.

The volition in Levi’s tone and agitation in his body as he argued his case was not something that Erwin had seen presented by Levi in a very long time. It took the Commander by surprise, leaving him confused and unsure, almost faltering and wielding to Levi’s insistence.

 

 

“Levi.” Erwin had said, his tone firm as he had ordered the man to calm down. “This isn’t like you. Not at all.”

Erwin peered closer.

“Levi…what is this really about?”

 

Levi had stayed quiet, narrowed features fixed on Erwin, giving him a long hard stare before he had turned on his heel, striding briskly out of the office, leaving Erwin’s question unanswered.  

 

 

 

 

“None of us were truly ready for this.” Erwin settled with.

“I don’t want to hear any more of this shit.” Levi bit back dryly, struggling to keep composure as he fought back the aching in his bones.

“Commander.”

The pair looked up at Nanaba’s firm tone, the woman approaching, her face cleaned, her eyes still slightly wet.

“I would like to request permission to survey the area of interception once more. I would…like to bring Mina’s body home.”

“Nanaba, I understand you’re grieving right now but I cannot allow you into that situation by yourself.

“I’ll go with her.” Levi said quickly, fixing his stare on Nanaba.

Her expression softened in gratitude.

“No.” The Commander said. “I’m not losing any more lives today. It’s time we had back.”

Nanaba was quiet, swallowing thickly, the tears welling up slightly in her eyes again.

Levi had to look away.

“I’m sorry Nanaba. But we’ve had enough loss today. Get Miche to help you with Niklas, he’s not in any state to ride back; he’ll have to be placed in a cart. It’s time to head back to the Walls.”

 

 


 

 

 

How long have I been walking for?

Hours?

Days?

I don’t know anymore…I can’t make sense…

Of…

Anything…

Just….

That I’m alive….

And so is Jasper.

And I’m going to keep it that way.

 

 

Mina continued to trudge forward, aware that the pain in her shoulder should have been excruciating, but hardly feeling it through the heaviness of fatigue, and the deliriousness of her brain.

There were only two things she could focus on.

 

Her breath.

The inhales and exhales.

Jasper’s heart.

Its faint, but still audible, beating.

 

Mina used this, used these two things, to keep her going, to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

 

 

No matter how long it takes.

No matter how tired I am.

I keep going.

When that’s all I can do.

I can’t allow myself to give up.

 

 

A sound.

 

Mina froze.

 

She waited.

 

There had been so many sounds.

That had her body freezing.

Had her suddenly jolt awake.

Had her body crackling on high alert.

 

Watching

Waiting.

 

For danger.

Danger.

Danger.

 

 

For another gruesome humanoid figure to come and decimate her world again.

 

 

They never came.

 

Mina had started to wonder if the noises were all in her head, her sanity seemingly slipping away the longer she pressed forward.

 

She tried to listen, tried to filter out the sound of her gasping breath.

 

She heard another sound, a rumble across the ground, steady and dull.

 

Mina’s vision swam for a second as she steadied herself, forcing herself to listen harder.

 

 

Clanking.

Rhythmic tapping.

It sounded like…..

Hooves.

 

 

 

 

Mina startled, a gasp leaving her lips as she lurched forward, almost losing her footing completely, her stomach rolling, her skin pricking in another cold sweat, barely allowing herself to believe what she was hearing.

 

She moved, coming to the edge of the woods, spurting out of the thick branches and trees, holding Jasper tightly as she came out into the open, feeling the sun beat down on her face again as she stared into the distance.

 

Horses.

Pulling carts.

Their wheels rumbling on the field.

People.

The soldiers.

Going back to the Walls.

 

 

I did it.

 

 

Mina almost laughed in relief, her eyes welling with tears of joy as she stood still, weak body taking a few seconds to catch up with the release in her mind as she watched them.

 

 

 

Move.

I’m not there yet.

I need to…

Move.

 

 

Mina began to walk forward, her legs feeling heavier than before, the ground tilting again, her peripheral swimming, the last pieces of exhaustion she had been battling now threatening to overtake her in the last moments of fight.

 

She watched the blurry figures continue to advance forward, despite Mina coming closer, no reason for them to happen to turn their heads and catch her approaching figure.

 

They kept going as Mina struggled to keep up.

 

I’m too…slow.

They’re not going to see me.

 

 

Mina’s heart began to pick up, black spots once again fizzing and bursting across her line of sight.

 

 

 

They’re going to keep going.

They’re not going to see me here.

They’re going to leave me.

 

 

I can’t go faster.

 

 

 

Mina’s feet were stumbling.

 

 

I can’t keep going.

They need to see me.

I need to….

Make them look.

Make them see me before it’s too late.

 

 

“Hey.” Mina had wanted to shout, wanting to scream, but the word came out a harsh, rough whisper. “Hey.”

 

It cracked, the sound carried away on the wind.

 

Not now.

Not like this.

I survive.

Come on Mina.

Keep going.

Keep.

Fighting.

 

Don’t.

 

Give.

 

Up.

 

 

 

 

“HEY!”

 

 

 


 

 

 

“What was that?” Nanaba asked, hearing what she thought sounded like the call of a muffled voice.

Miche furrowed his brow as his ears had picked up the same sound.

“I’m not sure.”

 

“HEY!”

 

Their heads snapped to their left at the sound, the guttural scream of a voice that broke towards the end and shuddered off into silence.

They stared, catching sight of an approaching figure, now about 100 metres away, blotted in red, stumbling slowly, a body held firmly in their arms.

They stared in silence, stunned and immobile as the faltering person continued to come closer.

“That’s Mina!” Nanaba cried, throwing herself off of her horse as she made to run.

 

Levi, who rode at the front of the return party a few horses over, snapped his head to attention at Nanaba’s cry.

He stared at the figure Nanaba was running to in confusion, before his eyes widened,  her words echoed in his head and realization finally caught up to him.

 

That’s Mina!

 

“I ….I can’t believe it.” Miche whispered, pulling his horse to a stop and dismounting. “Is this real?”

Levi continued to stare in astonishment as Erwin trotted over him, not having heard the exclamations, peering at Levi’s shell-shocked expression.

“Levi? What’s wrong?”

Levi was silent, words failing him for a few seconds, before he sprang into action.

“Medics! We need medics!” He shouted, dismounting off of his own horse and following Nanaba and Miche.

His face was set tight as he watched the soldiers around him slow in their own surprise. “What are you standing around for?!” Levi barked, frustration clear in his tone. “Get the fucking medics down here now!”

 

Levi moved briskly, watching as Nanaba caught up with the girl, hesitating as Mina blinked up at her, swaying on her feet as Nanaba came to cup her face.

“You’re alive!” Nanaba cried. “How the hell are you alive?!”

 

Levi took Mina in, his eyes widening again.

 

Her uniform was covered in dirt and blood, the red liquid completely saturating her shirt, the material of it so soaked it stuck to her stomach.

Her face was streaked in mud, the open wound on her forehead still running down her cheek and chin,  the blood from it smeared across  her entire face, her hair almost coming loose, the curls plastered to her skin, thick pieces of dried blood caked in it alongside the mud.

Her complexion through the blood was deathly pale, a strange tinge to her skin, the shadows under her eyes almost black, her pupils blown wide, her eyes dark as they searched around frantically, taking everything in, seeing nothing.

Levi’s eyes turned to the body in her arms, Mina’s bloodied hands gripped firmly under the legs and around the shoulders, Levi taking in the familiar curly blonde hair that lolled off of her left forearm.

Levi heard another horse approaching behind him, the Commander riding over to stare at Mina, trying to keep his expression still but unable to hide his own shock and confusion.

Mina opened her mouth, eyes searching around for something, trying to take another step, stumbling, Nanaba holding her shoulders and talking to her urgently.

Mina looked at her, confused, her eyes wild as she searched, looking for something, anything to steady her, to ground her to this moment.

 

Her eyes found Levi’s.

 

“He’s alive.” She said, her voice rough and raw as she held his uneasy stare. “He’s really hurt. But he’s alive. I tried…” She glanced down at Jasper’s pale face. “I tried to stop the blood. There’s so much blood. I tried to stop as much as I could.”

Levi blinked at her, his stomach turning, his heart suddenly audible in his ears as he continued to stare at the bloodied girl.

“Mina.” Miche said. “You need to come with us, okay?”

Miche’s eyes were panicked as he stared down at the girl in shock.

Nanaba’s eyes began to fill with tears again, a smile on her face as she hovered close to the girl.

“No. Jasper…He needs help.”

“We’ll get him help Mina.” Miche assured. “Let Nanaba help you first, I’ll take Jasper.”

“I’m fine.” Mina said, shaking her head. “I need you to help him. Not me. I need Jasper to be okay. There’s so much blood. “

Her tone was growing stronger, steadier, a look of determination on her face as she shook of the delirium.

“Mina.” Erwin’s firm tone called to her.

Her eyes looked up at him.

“Let Miche take Jasper.”

Mina’s face hardened.

“No. I’ll go with him. I need to make sure he’s okay.”

Her hand around his shoulder moved, to clutch his head, as if cradling an infant.

“I’m not leaving him.”

 

“Where are the fucking medics?” Levi seethed under his breath, watching with tight features as Mina refused help, wanting to move, wanting to grab her himself to get her out of the open, wanting to fully believe that she was actually alive and shake off the numbness that had seeped across his bones.

 “Mina. You look like you’re going to collapse any second. Jasper is going to be okay. You’ve…you’ve done amazing. Let us help you now.” Nanaba assured her.

“I’m not leaving him now. I’m fine. I don’t need help. Just Jasper.  Concentrate on him. Just get Jasper help.”

Her words were slipping slightly, her eyelids fluttering as she stumbled forward again, Nanaba and Miche moving quickly.

Levi found himself take a step forward, his hand outstretching slightly towards her before he faltered.

Erwin watched.

 The medics came jogging over, stunned expression on their face as they approached Mina cautiously, peering at her face.

“Not me.” She shook her head at them.”I’m fine. Nanaba, tell them I’m fine. Just Jasper, Focus on Jasper.”

“Okay, okay. Mina. They’re going to help Jasper, okay? But you need help too.”

“I feel fine.”

Nanaba shook her head. “No, you don’t. It’s the adrenaline Mina. You need help.”

“Not until you’ve helped Jasper first! No one is touching me until Jasper is okay.” Mina bit out, swallowing, feeling the earth spin around her again.

“Mina, they’re here to help you both, okay? They’re not going to forget about him.” Miche spoke calmly to her.

Mina’s mouth opened, the words stuck, before her hazy mind pushed them out, without thinking of their impact. “You already did.” She whispered. “You forgot about us already.”

Nanaba and Miche’s faces dropped at the words and Levi expression tightened, as Mina tilted her head up to the sky, a slight smile on her face.

“You told me to trust my gut Nanaba,” Her words were slurred, as if drunk, her head lolling forward as she met Erwin’s gaze.

“I did. I trusted myself. I saved myself.”

 

It was quiet, Erwin regarding the girl silently with a cool expression.

 

“Mina.” Levi’s voice broke through, steady and quiet, holding the girl’s dazed eyes. “We won’t forget about either of you now. Let them help Jasper. He’s bleeding out in your arms. You’ve done all you could. Now let them keep him alive for you.”

Mina blinked.

“You promise?”

Her voice cracked.

Levi’s dark eyes kept still on hers. “I promise.”

Mina bit her lip, glancing down at Jasper again, before nodding.

“Okay.” She whispered hoarsely. “Okay. I trust you.”

She softened, letting two of the medics take jasper’s limp form from her arms, her gaze following him, worry etched deeply on her expression, her body sagging as his weight was released from her, almost collapsing as Miche and Nanaba held her up, Levi taking another tentative step forward, eyes widening at the sight.

 

A medic hurried over to her, instantly spotting the drop of Mina’s left shoulder as her right side lent into Nanaba.

He came to inspect it, hands examining the socket, pressing firmly into the bone.

Mina let out a scream of the pain at the touch.

Levi winced at the sound, looking away from her contorted expression

The medic flashed Erwin a look.

“Her shoulder is completely hanging out of its socket.” He shook his head. “She carried that boy…for who knows how long. The pain she must have been in…the strength that takes to overcome…”

Nanaba bit her lip, shaking her head as she brushed Mina’s hair out of her forehead. “You stupid, silly, crazy girl.” Nanaba’s voice cracked. “I’m so proud of you.”

 

“MINA!”

Niklas came scrambling forward, lurching out of the restraints of the soldiers who had tried to subdue him, almost collapsing onto the ground the moment his eyes met hers, a fresh set of tears streaming down his face, broken sobs from somewhere deep and fragmented within his chest.

“You’re alive.”

His eyes traveled over her appearance, widening at the blood on her shirt, his expression blowing wide open.

“It’s not…it’s not my blood.” Mina managed to whisper.

 

He almost lunged at her in panic, hands coming up to touch her face.

“Niklas, careful.” Miche warned, steadying the frantic man.

Niklas’s eyes searched Mina wildly, almost in awe, as Mina blinked at him in a daze.

“You’re really alive.” His voice was barely a whisper. “I knew it. I fucking knew. I told him.”

He pressed his forehead into hers.

Mina closed her eyes, feeling his tears wet her cheeks.

“I told them you were alive. You couldn’t be dead. I just knew it.”

“She needs to get off of her feet before her body goes into shock. I don’t know the full extent of the damage yet but I don’t like that wound on her head.” The medic said sternly, trying to pull Niklas back. “This is all too much. She needs to rest.”

“Get her on the cart.” Levi barked an order, watching as Nanaba and Miche glanced in surprise at the fierce tone in his voice. “Now.”

“I’m not leaving her.” Niklas said fiercely, glaring up at Miche as the tall man moved to support most of Mina’s weight.

“Of course.” Miche agreed, glancing at Erwin, as if challenging him to argue.

Erwin’s face was tense, eyes watching Mina for a few seconds, before he nodded at Miche.

“Go with her Niklas.” Erwin agreed.

Niklas came to her other side, guiding her to the cart, her body limp and almost lifeless, her feet barely dragging across the ground, head lolling as Miche picked her up, placing her into the cart gently.

Levi stood, rooted into place, the sound of his heart not steadying, his face coiled up tightly, fingers trembling as he made to move.

“Levi.” Erwin called to him. “Ride alongside her cart.”

“I thought you wanted me up front?” Levi muttered, looking off into the distance.

“I know that’s not where you want to be right now.” Erwin challenged.

“I don’t give a shit where you put me.”

“Then I’m ordering you to ride alongside her cart.”

Erwin tilted his head as Levi averted his gaze, finally willing himself to move and mount his horse once more. He trotted slowly over to her cart, coming into a pace beside it, keeping his eyes away.

Levi's body was tight, fingers gripping the reigns, jaw tense and rigid as he stared straight ahead, not wanting to look her bloodied body lying across the cart , nor wanting to see the man crying tears of joy over her.

 

But he had to.

Just to be sure.

To be sure it wasn’t a dream.

That she had actually made it out alive.

 

 

Levi glanced over at her, eyes flickering across her tired face, her chin titled up, her blue eyes staring at the sky.

 

His heart skipped a beat.

 

 

 

“Jasper…” Mina mumbled, almost incoherent.

“Jasper’s going to be okay.” Niklas tried to assure her through his shaky voice. “He’s with the medics right now. They’re looking after him.”

Mina managed to nod.

“They told me you were dead.” Niklas muttered, clutching her hand. “They…made me believe it wasn’t possible for you to be alive.”

Her head lolled over to him, a small smile on her lips, the last of her delirious mind working to speak.

“Dead?” A small laugh escaped her lips, her words slurred. “Of course not…I made you a promise, didn’t I?”

Her body finally succumbed to exhaustion, her eyes fluttering shut as Niklas gripped her hand, his tears spilling into her skin so fiercely that he was sure they would leave a stain.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Levi didn’t want to linger.

He had only meant to pass by the infirmary, perhaps catch a wandering doctor on their way out and maybe query as to the extent of Mina’s injuries, seeing as he needed to know when she would be fit enough to start her training again.

Levi couldn’t afford to stick around.

Not after the disaster of the mission.

Not after barely being afforded the time to process his squad’s murders, before Erwin was requesting an emergency meeting to culminate the next steps with the Yeager boy before the Military Police got their hands on them.

So, when Levi had walked the empty halls of the infirmary, the doors closed and no doctors in sight, he had meant to pass by without a word.

A scream had him stop in his tracks.

High pitched and raspy, crackling and breaking as it dragged down towards silence.

Levi’s bones were frozen into place, not knowing how long he stood still for, eyes widening, yet barely seeing, as he knew who that screamed belonged to, felt the voice in his chest.

 

What if that was her last scream?

The blood…her body…none of us could see how badly she was injured….

What if that is the final sick twist to this whole thing…

 

“Oh! Captain Levi!”

Levi was broken out of his thoughts, looking up to see a doctor barrelling out from a door in front of him, a troubled look on their face and hurry in their step.

Levi blinked at the doctor, who tilted her head in confusion, before their expression rearranged in understanding.

“Are you here for Mina?”

Levi felt like he was struggling to focus, unsure how to read the muddled expression on the doctor’s face.

Unsure if he wanted to speak his next words.

“Is she….”

“Awake?” The doctor finished his question, assuming the end, a different question to what Levi’s mind had proposed for him to dare to ask.

The doctor clicked her teeth. “Just about. I don’t think you’re going to get much from her yet if you’re here to talk. Best to leave her to rest for a few more hours if you don’t mind.”

Levi swallowed thickly, his voice low and gruff as he asked the next question. “Her injuries…”

“Will need some time.” The doctor answered for him again. “She regained consciousness just as we were bringing her in and, unluckily, stayed conscious while we were setting her shoulder back into place.  She had made a right mess of it. Needed a few attempts and some necessary force, unfortunately. I think she was still a bit delirious so she was spooked more than anything.”

Levi’s eyes narrowed again, more so in understanding, as he recalled the scream.

“Rather that than make a piss poor effort of it, otherwise it will popping out again as soon as she starts training. With some rest and awareness, it should heal and not pose any major issues in the future.”

Levi nodded.

“Anything else?”

The doctor pursed her lips. “No internal bleeding. No broken bones. Scrapes and bruising, as to be expected. Dehydration. Some stitches on her head and a concussion, but like I said, nothing that a little time and rest won’t heal.”

Levi nodded.

“She’s done remarkably well, all things considering.”

“All things considering.” Levi murmured under his breath with a sigh.

 The doctor levelled her gaze with him. “Hey, is it true she carried that kid all across titian territory?”

Levi sucked his teeth, folding his arms over his chest. “How is he?”

Levi opted to pose another question instead of divulging any sensitive details.

The doctor’s expression shifted. “He’s lost a lot of blood. A lot. My team are working on him now with a transfusion; I’m on my way over to see how it’s going.” Her face was stern. “The next few hours will be crucial for him.”

Levi nodded in understanding. “Thank you for you work, Doctor.”

She nodded, offering a small smile. “Of course.  I know some of us here may come across a bit jaded, we may not understand these expeditions, and I’m sure you hear all the whispers going around…but not once do we ever want to lose anymore of you. I’m truly sorry to hear how things turned out for you today.”

Levi moved his eyes to the door, nodding in gratitude at her words.

The doctor followed his line of sight. “Like I said, she needs rest. I assume whatever you wanted to talk to her about can wait?”

“Yes.” Levi agreed. “It can wait.”

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

Mina felt the earth shake beneath her feet, the thundering echo of each heavy footfalls sending a jolt of sickness and despair through her bones, the echo reverberating up her skeleton until it sparked inside her head.

Mina didn’t want to look up.

But she had to.

So she did.

Despite everything inside of her screaming to look away.

She looked up at the titan sprinting towards her, the glistening naked pink flesh coming closer and closer, moving at a nightmarish speed.

Mina was frozen.

Rooted into the ground.

Staring up.

Watching.

Waiting.

Not able to fight.

Only able to stare as the titan’s foot arched back, its gruesome body coiled as it kicked, the foot coming towards her, ready to send her flying into the air, with a force that would tear her body in two.

Mina turned her head at the last second, away from the titan, not wanting it to be her final vision before death.

Instead, she saw Jasper, staring at her, his body limp on his horse, his face blank, his skin pale and sickly green, his eyes a milky film, his lips dried and crusted.

Already dead.

 

 

 

Mina gasped, the sound spluttering in her throat as her body jolted awake, the relief of her next inhale almost crushing, as if she had been holding her breath until her face turned blue.

“Hey, hey, Mina. Mina. It’s okay.”

A gentle voice assured her, fingers at her face, stroking her forehead, tucking her hair back from her sweat slicked skin.

“Mina. It’s Niklas. It’s me. You’re okay. Breathe. It’s okay. Everything’s going to be okay now.”

His voice was hurried, an edge of franticness slipping into the assured tone as he tried to soothe her tight body back into the sheets, gently pushing her down onto the bed and rearranging the pillow beneath her head.

“You’re okay. You’re here. You’re alive. With me. It’s all going to be okay.”

His voice was as warm as his lingering fingertips, the sensation of skin on skin enough to break Mina from her daze, eyes blinking and adjusting to the hazy daylight filtering into the room, her heartbeat steadying, her breathe regulating.

 

 

Jasper.

I found him.

The titan.

We…

I….

I found him.

I saved him.

They found us…

No…

I found them.

 

 

“Jasper?” Mina asked, her voice breaking, a raspy whisper and a burn in her throat.

She felt something cool at her lips, taking a second to realize Niklas was offering her a glass.

“Have a drink Mina. You need to drink.”

She shook her head, eyes adjusting to his figure, focusing on his face, his exhausted features, the shadows under his eyes, the worry etched across his expression as he sat, pulled up close to her bedside, his uniform still dirty, gear still attached from the expedition.

“Where’s Jasper?” She asked again, trying to push herself up off of the pillows as Niklas moved again to steady her down.

“Jasper’s…he’s getting the help he needs right now.”

Mina was coherent enough to read his careful words, an alertness creeping into her body, an instinct driving up under her skin.

“What’s wrong?”

Niklas pursed his lips, the glass of water held tight in his hands.

“Mina. You need to rest. You shouldn’t be stressing yourself out anymore right now.”

She shook her head again. “I’m fine.”

 

It was a ridiculous thing to say, but Mina wasn’t all lying.

She had lived through many days of pain and fatigue in the Underground, and her idea of fine was one that often included discomfort and ache, even on her best days, she never expected to not ache in some way.

She could feel the pain now.

Still thumping at her skull and still burning in her shoulder, but the fatigue and exhaustion she had felt, out there, carrying Jasper’s blood stained body, was now long gone from her system.

“Mina, please. Stop trying to move. Have a drink. You need to rest.”

Mina shook her head once more, pushing herself up further, feeling the pins and needles scatter across her body as her limbs began to move again, ignoring the searing hot flash in her shoulder as she rubbed at her temple, blinking rapidly, moving to swing her legs over the side.

“Mina.” Niklas’s hand came down on her right thigh, stopping her motion, his gaze down, avoiding her face as she peered at him.

“Mina.” His voice was quieter, shaking slightly. “I know…you’re strong. I know you fight through everything. And I know you’re worried about Jasper right now. But please. I thought…I thought I had lost you. I really…they really let me believe it. You don’t understand what that felt like Mina…I ….I can’t…” He trailed off, the thickness growing in his voice as Mina stared, unblinking. “Please. Just humour me. Lay back down. Please try to rest some more. That’s all I’m asking.  Please Mina. For me.”

 

Mina swallowed, stilling for a few moments as she stared down at Niklas’s crumpled form.

 

 

They all…

They all gave up on me.

 

 

Mina pushed the intrusive thought from her mind; eyes glancing down at Niklas’s dejection, the sorrow and weakness of his slumped figure, the sight tugging too hard at her heart to fight it any longer.

She moved again, this time, to extend her arm, taking the glass from his grip.

Niklas looked up, eyes glassy, watching as she brought it to her mouth and took a few tentative gulps

She returned the glass to him and he took it wordlessly, barely daring to move as she adjusted her body back down onto the bed.

He offered a small smile and took her hand, squeezing it.

“He’s alive. Jasper is alive. Because of you Mina. You saved him.” His voice trembled again, giving her hand another squeeze. “I don’t know much…I just know there was a lot of blood loss. He’s still…he needs a lot of care still. That’s all I know Mina. I’m sorry.”

Mina closed her eyes for a few seconds, letting the images of his limp body and sleeping face filter through, let herself almost feel the weight of him in her arms, let the phantom coolness of his blood flood across her skin.

She opened her eyes again.

“He has to…he’s going to be okay.”

Niklas remained quiet, giving a small smile, before looking away from her eyes.

“You should try to sleep some more.”

Mina shook her head, her body and mind now alert, agitated and wired up, a nervousness and edge pricking up under her flesh. “I can’t sleep.”

Niklas sighed. “But you’ll try to rest?”

Mina was quiet.

“I’ll try to rest.” She agreed.

She shifted in bed, feeling the weight of the blankets uncomfortable, her skin almost sensitive and hot to every touch.

“Am I…” Mina tried, eyebrow furrowing slightly. “I’m not sure what damage I’ve done. Is it anything serious?”

Niklas frowned. “Concussion. They had to stich your forehead up. Your shoulder was badly dislocated. Do you not remember them putting it back into place?”

Mina’s face was blank as she shook her head.

Niklas rose an eyebrow. “You screamed like I’d never heard before…well….It sounded like when…” He trailed off.

Mina inhaled sharply. “I don’t remember.”

Niklas looked at her for a few moments, before turning his head away.

                  

Mina watched his inhales, the rising of his chest and back as he steeled himself for his next words.

Somehow, Mina knew what was coming.

She gathered herself also.

“How…” His voice broke as he spoke, clearing his throat before he tried again, eyes staring down at his hands splayed across his lap. “How did you two…survive the attack?”

 

 

Lie.

Lie Mina.

 

 

 “I….” Mina’s words were caught.

 

You don’t want to.

But you have to.

If he knew what you really did...would he ever understand that choice?

Would he ever…forgive it?

Suck it up.

And lie.

 

“I told Jasper to jump.” Mina’s voice was steady. “To jump off of our horses. I saw….the titan.” She closed her eyes again as the figure flashed across her line of sight. “Coming. Fast. Too fast. We had to get out of the way. So we both jumped. We were riding so fast….the impact….”

Niklas’s face was contorted.

“His injuries are so much worse than yours.”

“I think…he didn’t quite clear it. He got caught…somewhere. I jumped first.”

Mina hoped the breaks in her voice were that of a woman trying to recall a tragedy, rather than a woman trying to fumble together half-truths.

Niklas nodded.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t make you go through this again.” Niklas sighed to himself heavily, shoulders hunched.

Mina blinked. “I guess you’re not going to be the last person to ask me this. Far from it.”

He looked up at her. “I want to know every single detail. At the same time, I want to forget any of this ever happened.”

Mina nodded. “I almost feel the same.”

It was quiet again, Mina watching as Niklas began to twist his fingers together, and fighting back words he wanted to speak, not sure if Mina wanted to hear them.

“All I remember next is waking up.” Mina continued, eyes turning to the window, remembering the painful afternoon sun beating down on her battered body. “And seeing Jasper.”

 

Lie. Lie. Lie.

 

“I thought he would come to like I had….but there was so much blood.”

“Your ODM gear.” Niklas said abruptly, holding Mina’s eyes. “Why….why did you take it off? You could have…used it to get to safety. Saved yourself so much…pain.”

 

 

Lie .

Mina.

Lie.

 

 

“The trigger was jammed.” Mina said softly. “Buckled in on impact probably. I didn’t have time to go looking for another one. We were out in the open. I just had to get us out of the open. So that’s what I did.”

“And….and you came looking for us?”

Mina nodded. “I knew I had to find you. I just…knew it was the only way.”

“With Jasper in your arms.” Niklas’s voice was distant as he turned his gaze away again, fingers moving rapidly together. “You almost died saving that kid. You were prepared to die to save him.”

“I wasn’t going to die.”

Niklas moved his eyes to hers again, his expression fierce. “You could have.”

“But I didn’t.” Mina held his stare, willing him to see the parts of herself he refused to acknowledge. “Niklas. I can do this. I can and will survive. I always will do whatever it takes. You have to trust that I can always do this. Always come back to you.”

Niklas’s features faltered under the heaviness of her words.

“You would do it all again wouldn’t you? Despite knowing…what could have been. What it would have done to me. You would still put everything at risk to save that kid.”

“Yes.” Mina nodded. “I would do it all again.”

Niklas’s face didn’t change, a resolve in his eyes as he nodded, not anger, not disappointment, something Mina couldn’t quite pull apart.

She stared at him.

“I love you Niklas.”

He smiled, a sadness to his face as he turned his head, looking out of the window.

 “I know.”

Mina wasn’t sure how long the silence stretched on for, not taking her eyes away from Niklas’s face as he stared out across, his features illuminated under the sun, distant and far away from her, despite his hand on hers, his knee touching her thigh, the warmth of him right there.

His face changed suddenly, twisting.

“That fucking Erwin” He muttered, gritting his teeth.

Mina was almost relieved.

“He wouldn’t listen to me. I told him. I fucking told him there was no way you were dead. I just knew it. I could almost feel it. That you were alive. I wanted to look for you. He wouldn’t have it.”

Niklas clicked his teeth, his fingers tightening around hers.

“What sort of Commander is that, huh? How many others has he left for dead? What a piece of fucking shit. He’s unbelievable. Really. I think he would fit in just great in the Underground, you know. Says all the right things. Puts on this big fucking show.  But doesn’t give a shit. Uses us like were disposable to him. Probably are. Always another idiot to enlist. Always someone desperate enough to believe his lies.”

“Niklas.” Mina said quietly. “I don’t think…that’s truly how he feels.”

Niklas frowned at her. “Are you kidding me? His whole expedition went to shit. Do you know how many people died? Yeah, he would fit right in. He would be one of those gambling types, you know? The ones who liked to talk big when putting their money on me. Except even they didn’t gamble with real fucking lives.” He spat the words out in disgust.

“There was no way he could have known.”

“Mina. He left you there for dead. If you hadn’t had your wits about you, you never would have made it. They weren’t looking for you. Already fucking crossed your name off of the list.”

Mina swallowed, a turn in her stomach. “He had every reason to believe I was dead Niklas. I don’t…resent him. I don’t blame him. You shouldn’t either. I knew I was on my own. And that was okay. Because I got out on my own.” Mina stared hard. “I didn’t need him or anyone else to come save me.”

“I don’t know how you can say this Mina.” Niklas shook his head in exasperation. “Miche and Nanaba. You know they gave up on you too, right? They left you.”

 

Mina ignored the ache in her chest at those words, trying to surface from the waves of hurt and betrayal that suddenly crashed into her.

 

They couldn’t have known.

No one could have.

It doesn’t matter now.

 

“It doesn’t matter.” Mina spoke assuredly. “Because I trusted myself.”

 She swallowed.

“Niklas. Did you see the titan?”

Niklas blinked. “I…I was up in the forest with the rest of the cadets. I saw all kinds of them. Ugly fucking things.”

Mina watched his throat bob, a flash of something across his face, a grimace, a tremble.

“Okay. But did you see the titan? The one…that killed my flank?”

Niklas licked his lips. “No. No I didn’t.”

Mina nodded. “Then you don’t understand. How…big it was. How unbelievably massive. How fast it moved. How….strong. There was nothing…no stopping it…there was no chance.”

Mina’s right hand moved, to pinch the bracelet around her left wrist.

“There shouldn’t have been a chance for me. There wasn’t any way for them to believe…to hope I had made it out…not for the Commander, not when he had seen what that titan was capable of. Niklas. There was no way they could have expected me to survive this. I realized that. That’s what made me move. If I had held my faith in them…I would still be in those woods right now. And they would all still believe me dead.  I knew the only person who could believe I was alive was you.”

Niklas was quiet, his face downturned, eyes wet again.

“I want us out of here.”  He mumbled, almost inaudible.

“This is our life now.” Mina responded simply.

 

 Both Mina and Niklas jumped as the door busted open, the doctor hurrying in, pausing with a smile upon seeing Mina’s adjusted body and opened eyes.

“Mina! Nice to see you awake! How do you feel?”

“I feel fine.” Mina muttered, while Niklas scoffed.

The doctor raised her eyebrows, coming over to inspect Mina once more.

“I highly doubt that.”

Mina stayed still, unblinking and tight as the doctor examined her quickly, nodding and humming to herself every so often.

“There will be some pain with the concussion. Definitely no strenuous activity for a little while. You might experience some on-going dizziness and nausea.”  The doctor explained, scribbling away as she spoke.

Niklas stared at Mina with a frown.

“You’re probably not going to feel like yourself for a little bit. Tired. Fatigued.  A bit spaced out. Probably going to ache all over too. Hopefully that will pass with plenty of rest.” The doctor nodded to herself, before pointing at Mina’s shoulder. “That wasn’t a fun one. Badly dislocated. I’m going to put it in a sling so you don’t jar it while it’s healing. Keep it on for a few days.  I want that thing set before you start using it again. Otherwise we’re back to square one.”

Mina nodded while Niklas shifted in agitation.

“Apart from that, nothing that should cause you continuing concern. You’re an extremely lucky young woman.” The doctor raised her eyebrows and Mina moved her gaze.

 

Lucky?

This wasn’t luck.

This was my choice.

I choose to survive.

 

“I would suggest more rest for you but you’re strangely alert.” The doctor muttered, writing something down with an eyebrow raise. “You’ve got some visitors outside, been waiting a while for you to come back to us. If you’re up for it, that is?”

Mina blinked, swallowing, knowing she would have to face the masses sooner or later.

“Okay.”

 

The doctor nodded, bustling over to the door and leaving as she called their names out, giving them the all clear to enter.

 

Nanaba was the first to burst in, her cropped hair messier than usual, her face flushed and beaming, hurrying over to Mina’s side.

“I want to hug the bones off of you but I don’t want to move another limb out of place.” Nanaba said breathily, Mina choosing to ignore the edge to her voice as she came close to her side, opting for a hand on her hair instead of said hug.

Miche tailed in after, the tall man suddenly taking up most of the space in the small room, a soft smile on his face as he came close to Mina’s side, nodding at her.

“Welcome back.”

 

Mina heard Niklas sigh heavily, heard his chair scrape as he moved, walking over to the window to give the trio some space.

“How are you feeling?” Nanaba asked, eyes scanning the stitches on her head, before dropping her gaze to her shoulder.

“I’m fine.”

Nanaba rolled her eyes. “I don’t know why I bother to even ask you that question.”

“You should know by now, Nanaba.” Miche mumbled.

“A concussion and dislocated shoulder.” Niklas called from his spot at the window, not looking over as he spoke. “But all she can do now is rest.”

It was quiet for a moment, Miche and Nanaba nodded, Mina watching as she could see the hesitance and apprehension in their faces, see the worried cogs turning behind their eyes.

“Mina. “Miche started, his voice low and quiet. “We’re sorry. I’m sure Niklas has told you how things went down by now.”

Niklas’s snort interrupted Miche, who paused for a second.

“How…How we thought you hadn’t made it. Giving up on you…not believing what you were capable of…I didn’t want to let myself hope. I chose not to.  I’ll regret that choice for the rest of my life.”

Nanaba’s eyes welled with tears, quiet, but her face enough to mirror Miche’s words.

Mina titled her head up to the ceiling.

“Don’t apologize. I understand. You couldn’t have known. None of you could have. It was something I came to terms with myself. “

“Why didn’t you try to get help?” Nanaba said. “What happened to your flare gun?”

“I trusted my gut Nanaba. “ Mina’s voice was quiet, so that only they could hear it, eyes glancing over to Niklas, who seemed absorbed with the view outside. “Like you told me to. I had to trust myself to save my own life. And Jasper’s. That was all I could be sure of. I couldn’t be sure of anything else. I had to forget everything else and trust what I knew I could do.”

There was an expression on Nanaba’s face, a flash of astonishment, of confusion, then realization.

“You didn’t trust us to try and help you?”

“I didn’t trust anyone to choose to save us both. To be looking for us while everything was happening. I did what I had to do.”

It was quiet.

“You did well Mina.” Miche said gently, gazing at her as he moved his hand to squeeze her fingers softly.

“The look in your eyes terrifies me sometimes.” Nanaba gave a smile, almost regretful as something fell upon your face.

Mina blinked at her.

“Too determined for your own damn good.” Nanaba’s voice was a whisper. “I want to shake it out of you sometimes. You stupid, crazy, remarkable girl.”

 

Mina was stunned to hear of the fate of Levi’s squad, Miche and Nanaba not going into the details, Mina not wanting to know how a group so strong and experienced could have been completely wiped out.

Her heart tugged and bobbed in her chest, feeling as if it was being pulled and strained, compressed under a heavy weight as she thought of Eld’s patience during training, Gunther’s steadiness, Oluo’s almost comical tenacity….

 

Petra.

 

The always warm smile and sweet face, soft voice paired with a no nonsense attitude.

The woman who had been the first to usher Mina into her new life with warmth and gentleness, to share her room, her food, her kind words.

 

Petra.

Dead.

I should have…tried harder.

To let her know.

That I was…trying.

I should have said.

Thank you.

It’s the least she deserved.

Petra.

I’m sorry.

Thank you.

 

 

 

 


 

 

Miche and Nanaba had to filter out of the room for a debriefing with the Commander, and Mina was surprised to see two blonde heads waiting outside her door to replace them.

Armin and Krista had tentatively stepped in, both glancing at Niklas who was leant against the wall, arms crossed and eyebrows raised, cutting an opposing figure.

Armin turned to Mina with a smile, hovering further away from her bed and giving her as wave.

Krista smiled too, nodding towards Mina.

“Hey Mina. Sorry, we hope you don’t mind the visit. We just wanted to see how you were doing.”

“You’re more popular than I thought  Mina.”Niklas muttered from across the room.

“We heard what you did.” Krista said, her voice soft and floaty. “It’s just…incredible. You’re incredible Mina. You’re so…brave.”

 

Mina shifted uncomfortable, not wanting to meet the eyes of the wide eyed girl standing in front of her.

 

 

Brave?

No.

Just…doing what I always do.

Every day of my life.

 

 

“It’s really good to see you awake and well…looking so well!” Armin spoke encouragingly, before his eyes glanced over the dried blood on Mina’s skin with a subtle flash of guilt.

Niklas frowned at him in confusion, tilting his head at Mina who ignored his curious eyes.

“Well….thank you both.” Mina tried, her words stilted and awkward.

“We’re truly glad to see you’re okay, Mina!” Krista tried again, shifting her weight from each foot and glancing at Armin for help, who smiled and nodded.

“And we hope you make speedy recovery! After all, what will we do without our favourite teacher?”

Mina inhaled and Niklas’s bemused expression grew.

“I’ll….do my best.” Mina’s unsure response only added to the awkwardness in the air.

“Mikasa says hello and she hopes you’ll feel better soon!” Armin said. “She just…she thought that she didn’t know you as well as we do to come down and say it herself.”

Mina nodded in understanding.

“And Jean and Connie and Sasha all send their well wishes!” Krista gushed.

“Yep!” Armin agreed, his face screwing up slightly.” Actually Connie wanted to come down himself but I was afraid of what he would say and ask…I Just told him I would pass along the message.” Armin threw Mina a soft and knowing smile, one that had her lips almost quirking up in response.

“Well, we better leave you to rest.” Armin said, wrapping up the short and sweet visit. “We’ll see you back in training soon, yeah?”

Mina nodded. “Thank you. It was…nice of you to take the time to see me.” Mina hoped the words hadn’t come out forced.

Armin and Krista’s face lit up at her gratitude, and Mina was relieved with their reaction and the fact that her sincere thoughts had travelled through the struggle to find the right words.

The pair left the room hurriedly and Niklas took a step closer to Mina, arms still crossed, head still titled.

“What was that all about?” Amusement was evident in his tone.

Mina shrugged.

“Favorite teacher?”

Mina sighed. “I just…helped them with combat training a few times is all.”

Niklas snorted, a smile on his face.

“Looks like you got your own fan club.” He grinned. “I’m jealous.”

Niklas’s smile was cut short as a figure in the doorway caught his eye, Mina only able to pick out a glimpse of a torso and a single leg from her angle in bed.

“Hey.” Niklas said, an unsure expression falling onto his face. “What are you doing here?”

Niklas voice wasn’t angry or demanding, instead, laced with confusion as he assessed the unknown figure.

“I…I don’t actually know.” The voice replied, gruff and hesitant.

Niklas’s eyebrows furrowed deeper.

“I just…I heard some guys talking about what happened and…I just wanted to find someone who could let us know how she was doing…I didn’t realize I had made it to her room.”

 

Mina blinked at the familiar tone.

 

“I can….leave.” The voice said as Niklas watched carefully. “I don’t want to intrude.”

Niklas glanced at Mina, who stared back with her own confused expression, before nodding at Niklas.

Niklas sighed. “She says its okay.”

 

Mina watched as the man stepped into the room, his stance awkward and unsure, a hand coming up to rub the back of his short blonde hair, eyes finding Mina’s hesitantly.

 

Reiner.

 

“I’m sorry. I didn’t really come here expecting to see you…I was looking for a doctor or someone…”

Niklas watched Reiner carefully as Mina nodded.

“It’s okay.”

Reiner’s eyes scanned her appearance, an unreadable look on his face, features tight as he took her in.

He cleared his throat, the sound deafening in the sudden stillness of the room.

“And you’re doing okay?”

Mina nodded. “I’ll be okay.”

He look agitated, moving restlessly, his brow low and face scrunched up, not meeting Mina’s eyes as he struggled with something.

“I….I think….I wanted to know how you were…because…when I heard what you did. I…I had to apologize.”

Mina blinked.

Reiner finally looked up, the torn expression on his face settling somewhat. “What you did for Jasper on the expedition. It’s the same. As what you did to help him win, that time in training. I understand now. I didn’t understand then.”

Mina’s voice was caught as she tried to speak.

“I get it now. “ Reiner nodded. “You were just trying to protect him. I…judged your character. And I was wrong. I wanted to apologize for that. I felt…you deserve an apology.”

There was rawness to his words, vulnerability in his voice, a feeling that had Mina reciprocating, words falling out of her own mouth with ease, as if she was familiar with Reiner and his character.

“It’s okay. You didn’t know me then. You barely know me now. I expected you to judge me, based on how I behaved. Who wouldn’t?”

Reiner pursed his lips. “I didn’t understand that you were trying to protect Jasper. I thought…you were selfish. I didn’t understand your intentions.”

“How could anyone?” Mina asked.

“But I shouldn’t have. I should have realized…we’re all…looking out for someone while we’re here. Whether its family. A friend. Ourselves. I’m in no position to judge that.”

Mina was quiet, considering his words.

“You don’t need to apologize Reiner. There was nothing…wrong in the way you felt about me.”

His breath was heavy. “At least I understand now. Your motives. I guess I just regret judging them in the first place. ”

“I’m sure anyone else would have done the same.” Mina was uncomfortable under his heavy expression. “But…I understand the way you put it. Being here…we all have our motives.”

Reiner’s expression changed suddenly, the guilt and heaviness shifting, something narrower and darker coming into play as he moved his gaze away from hers.

It was quiet for a few moments, before he spoke once more.

“That’s right.” He said lowly. “We do.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reiner left shortly after, with an awkward farewell and well wishes for Mina’s health, as Niklas watched him carefully, a scrunch to his nose as he looked at Mina.

“I don’t like that guy.”

Mina had ignored him, watching as he paced up and down the room, stretching his arms and cracking his neck side to side, the shadows under his eyes darker.

“You should get some sleep.” Mina said quietly.

Niklas shook his head. “And miss all of this fun? Really Mina, why didn’t you tell me you had so many friends? Let’s see!” He stretched wide, arms fanning out as he looked towards the door with a triumphant expression on his face. “Who will be next to bestow their unworthy presence on my dear Mina.”

Mina sighed as Niklas made towards the door, shut again after Reiner’s departure.

“Who could the next lucky person be? I’m sure at this rate, the line is miles long!  Let’s see, let’s see!” Niklas voice was loud and boisterous as he flung open the door with a cheer and grin.

He stopped suddenly, his body tensing, his arms frozen in mid-air, his face falling and blinking, his smile turning to an awkward grimace.

“Oh.” Niklas dropped his arms. “Sorry. I didn’t actually expect anyone to be there. Just…trying to cheer her up, you know?”

Mina frowned, trying to move her head to see around the door frame.

Niklas titled his head at the visitor, a frown on his face, a darkness in his eyes.

“Actually, she looks like she falling asleep again. Maybe come back later. Or tomorrow?”

Mina frowned. “Niklas.”

Niklas shot her a look, anger evident in his features, before he sighed, crossing his arms over his chest, taking slow steps back, coming to stand at the foot of Mina’s bed, his stance almost nonchalant to those unfamiliar.

 Mina could easily read the defence in it.

 

Mina watched as the figure stepped in slowly, a slight limp in his walk, moving further away from the bed as he entered, putting space in between himself and Mina, gaze on Niklas, silent for a few moments, before he tore his eyes away to look at Mina.

Captain Levi.

His expression was heavy, his usual blank and bored expression drawn and tight, his brow low, face almost shadowed as he took another step back.

Mina looked.

 

Captain Levi will come and save me, right?

 

She blinked her gaze away before he could do so first, swallowing heavily.

The air was thick, still, stuck.

“It’s good to see you awake.”

Mina’s eyes were drawn back to him, watching as he stood still, uptight, heavy gaze cast down.

 

 

His squad.

Oluo.

Eld.

Gunther.

Petra.

He must be grieving.

 

“No thanks to you.”Niklas mumbled.

Mina inhaled,  settling his bitter stare with a warning look of her own.

“I’ve been briefed by the doctor about the extent of your injuries. I’m…It’s good to hear that all you need now is rest.” Levi spoke slowly.

It was quiet again.

“Do you know how Jasper is?”

Mina blurted out the question before she could help it, watching something flicker across Levi’s face, his eyes kept firmly away from her as he spoke.

“The Commander has requested that you attend a debriefing. Niklas, yours will be tomorrow with the rest of the new recruits. Commander Erwin would like to speak to Mina alone.”

His words were smooth and cool, eliciting an angry reaction from Niklas as he glared at the seemingly indifferent man.

“Are you serious?  She’s only just woken up and you already wanna drag her about to some shitty meeting. What do we need to debrief about anyway?  Trying to save face? I swear, if you even start-”

“It’s routine procedure Niklas.” Levi’s voice was still even as he interrupted; only the subtlest edge to it as he turned his narrowed eyes to the man, still managing to sound bored over anything else. “It’s the same for every cadet.”

“Not every cadet has been through what Mina just went through.”

“Which is why Commander Erwin wishes to speak to her alone.” Levi sighed. “I’m not saying she has to come now Niklas, don’t be stupid.” Levi’s voice lowered as Niklas continued to glare. “Whenever she feels rested and well enough.”

Niklas crossed his arms. “That could be days.”

“That’s fine.” Levi replied dryly.

Mina shifted in bed, agitation growing as the men spoke about her rather than to her, Levi’s avoidance back into full force, Niklas speaking as if he were her mouth piece.

“I can come now.” Mina spoke quietly, but loud enough to draw the attention of both men.

Mina held Levi’s blinking stare.

“I’m fine. I’m rested. Now is fine.”

“Mina, don’t be ridiculous.” Niklas sighed, looking at her as if scolding a child.

“I’m fine.”

“Stop fucking saying that.” Niklas bit back, trying to hold in his frustration as he paced up and down the room.

Levi averted his gaze from Mina’s steady stare once more.

“You…you should rest some more.” He said, finally addressing her again.

“I’ve rested enough.” Mina replied, sitting up straighter. “And I would rather get this over with.”

“Mina, give it some time, you’ve only just-”

“I don’t need any more time.” Mina cut Niklas off, her tone still soft and steady, her eyes holding his with determination. “I cannot sit here any longer just…thinking.”

It was quiet again, Niklas holding her stare before Levi spoke.

“Whenever you’re ready.” He mumbled, already making his way to the door. “I’ll leave you to wash up.”

Niklas watched him leave, stunned for a moment before he spun around to stare at Mina.

“What the fuck is wrong with that guy?!”

Mina bit her tongue, holding down the defence that wanted to spill from her lips, moving and swinging her legs out of the side of her bed.

Niklas hurried to her, supporting her back as she stood, as she felt the ground spin slightly, her limbs tingle with an odd numbness, the pain in her bones beginning to thump again.

“I’m fine.” She breathed out, noting Niklas’s displeased expression as he took in her shaking form.

She took her time to settle, to concentrate on her breathing, for her body to feel weighty and firm once more, for the stone beneath her feet to hold steady.

She looked once more at Niklas.

“I’m okay.”

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

Mina knocked on Commander Erwin’s office door, moving awkwardly, still getting familiar to the feeling of her arm tucked up against her chest, pressed tight in the sling, the knot rubbing at the back of her neck.

“Come in Mina.”

Mina steeled herself for one more breath before she pushed open the door, stepping slowly into the familiar room, to see a sight she was now used to, Commander Erwin sat at his desk, Captain Levi pushed up against the wall to her left staring ahead darkly.

“Take a seat Mina.” Erwin said, gesturing to the chair.

She paused.

“I can stand.”

Erwin blinked up at her, taking in the fresh cuts and bruises across her the planes of her face, the shadows under her eyes, the arm up in its sling, the loose civilian clothes that hung almost comically off of her body.

She stood straight, neck long, face set and resolved as she held Erwin’s stare, the expression blank and ready, not the expression of a girl that had just been through hell and back

Erwin knew she was prepared for this conversation.

He held back a smile.

 

“First, I will state the obvious.” Erwin began. “How remarkable it is you are still alive, and how grateful we all are to have you still here with us. I’m pleased to see your injuries are not permanent and you are as well as you can be.” He nodded towards her.

Mina waited.

“I would like to ask you a few questions. It will mean recounting the events of the expedition. If you are not in a fit state to do so yet, I would rather you tell me now.”

“I’m fine.”

Erwin stared at her a moment longer, feeling the stillness in the air around her, as if she was commanding every piece of the room to wait and listen.

“Okay.” He said, leaning back in his chair as he regarded her. “The black flare from your flank was sighted. This meant that you had seen the Female Titan approaching?”

 

The Female Titan.

Huh.

It has a name.

 

Mina nodded.

“And what were your orders after that?”

Mina swallowed, licking her lips as she pushed back the image of the titan coming closer over the horizon.

“To keep going forward.”

“And so you did?”

Mina nodded. “They said that turning around and changing course was just as dangerous…that we couldn’t be sure we wouldn’t intercept the titan by doing so. They felt we had a better chance of advancing and out running it. Then we would go on to find higher ground and wait for help.”

Erwin nodded. “Those were your orders given before the expedition.”

Mina’s eyes moved and Erwin caught the subtle shift in her face.

“Did you agree with those orders?”

 

Lie.

What’s the point in lying now?

It’s obvious.

What I did.

What I chose.

If I’m punished for it…

So be it.

He already knows.

 

 

“No.” Mina said steadily. “I didn’t.”

“But you followed them?”

“I wasn’t going to. I told Jasper to turn around with me. He didn’t listen.”

“So you headed back by yourself?”

Mina shook her head, pushing back the panic in Jasper’s face, the cracking of his terrified voice, the horror n his wide eyes as he had already accepted his death.

“I…hesitated. I ran out of time to turn around.”

Erwin tilted his head. “Yet you came out relatively unscathed.”

“I listened to my instincts.” Mina said. “I jumped off my horse in time to miss….the titan’s kick.”

It was quiet for a few moments, Mina staring at the spot above Erwin’s head, feeling his eyes on her, his gaze heavy, pressing her down into the floor.

She didn’t dare look at Captain Levi, his brooding presence so tangible to her, as if he was breathing on her neck.

“What happened then? If you don’t mind continuing.” Erwin’s voice was light, encouraging, hiding the insistence in his tone, making Mina feel as if she had a choice.

“Nothing. Blackness. I don’t know how long it was before I came to again.”

“And you saw Jasper still alive?”

Mina hesitated.

 

What does it matter anymore?

 

“No. I went looking for him.”

 

There was a noise as Erwin shifted in his chair, leaning forward, hands pressed together, his gaze heavier than ever, peering at Mina and not allowing her one instance to flinch.

“You didn’t go looking for safety?”

“No. Not at that moment. I wanted to find Jasper first.”

“You disobeyed your orders.”

It wasn’t a question.

Mina nodded.

“Yes.”

Erwin blinked.

“I had to find his body.” Mina said assuredly. “I had to bring him home.”

“And so you found him….what next?”

“I took him to the woods with me. To find cover.”

“You dumped your ODM gear.”

Mina nodded again.

“It was in my way.”

Erwin blinked, a small smile of incredulity creeping up at the corners of his mouth at her words.

“It was in your way?” He repeated, as if not believing her words. “Your only mode of transport, your only advantage over the titans…and it was in your way?”

Mina stayed calm. “I couldn’t carry Jasper with it on. It was too heavy. I was too weak.”

“You didn’t fire your flare.” Erwin said. “You had the gun in your holster still, fully loaded. You didn’t call for help.”

“I didn’t know if you would help me.”

Mina didn’t miss a beat.

Erwin was quiet.

“I couldn’t take that risk.” She elaborated.

“I’m not sure i understand what you mean Mina.” Erwin drew the words out, holding Mina with another intent look.

“Jasper was severely injured. If you found us…I didn’t know how much power you had left to use. I quickly realized that so much had gone so wrong. I didn’t know what you were trying to conserve. If you couldn’t afford to save us both, I knew who would be left behind.”

“If we had found you both.” Erwin’s voice was lower, a furrow in his brow. “We would have done everything we could have done in order to save you both.”

Mina didn’t let herself think. “I couldn’t have known that. I couldn’t have known you were even looking for me at all. Actually, I assumed you already believed me to be dead. My assumption was correct. And I’m glad of it.”

Erwin’s brow furrowed deeper.

“That allowed me to think. To act for myself. To save myself and Jasper. I found you because I knew you were not looking for me. If I had let myself believe there was still hope that you would find me, then I would have been dead. I learnt a long time ago, there’s no point in hoping for others to save you. I had to look out for myself.”

It was quiet again, as Erwin considered his next words, picking through his options carefully.

“I can’t image how that must have felt for you. To know we had given up on you. For that, I am sorry Mina.”

He sighed.

“But. You directly disobeyed your orders. In fact, you probably did everything to act opposite your orders.  If you had shot your gun then and there, someone may have found you much sooner. And they may have gotten to Jasper faster.”

“They may have. “ Mina agreed, settling him with a stare. “May. It wasn’t certain. The only certainty I had was myself and my own actions. So that’s what I used.”

“It’s an incredible way to look at a situation.” Erwin pondered.

Mina was quiet.

“I wasn’t going to leave him. I couldn’t. He…reminds me of someone. Someone I left behind before. And I lost them because of it. If I had made one different decision that day…I wouldn’t have lost someone I loved. But that decision cost me. It cost them their life. I wasn’t about to make that same decision. I wasn’t going to leave him. I wasn’t going to make that same mistake twice.”

 

Am I…confessing this to get him to understand?

To help…justify my actions?

As to why I disobeyed?

Does it matter?

Does he care?

I’ll be punished regardless.

Who am I trying to convince?

It was my decision.

And it was the right one.

I shouldn’t have to explain a thing.

If I’m punished….

If they get rid of me.

At least I have no regrets.

 

 

The commander’s face was unreadable for a few moments, Mina’s words lingering in the air around him.

He saw the shift in her expression, the softness and vulnerability flicker over her careful guard for just a second.

“Mina.” Erwin started with a sigh, a wistful smile a ghost on his lips. “You proved yourself to be a remarkable soldier. Your actions today were unlike anything I have seen in a very long time. You keep surprising me. And yet…I feel like I shouldn’t be surprised. Not in the least.  Your strength and courage is truly admirable, to all your fellow cadets, and to your superiors. The way you managed to push through, despite all the odds, to save not one, but two lives, is nothing short of a fantastical feat. I hope you realize that, Mina.”

Mina blinked, her mouth parting in confusion as Erwin stared at her.

“Your potential continues to grow and flourish. I hope you can continue to find a place here in which you can foster it comfortably. I can ensure you that we will always help every step of the way. Your capabilities and limits could truly be extraordinary. It is rather…exciting to watch. I hope that you can be excited by your potential too.”

 

I don’t…quite understand.

 

“I’m glad you listened to your gut today, Mina. I truly am very grateful for it. It would have been a sore loss to us if things had turned out differently.  You disobeyed your orders, but you made all the right decisions in the moments that came after. To have you still with us is truly one of the only pieces of today that I am grateful for.”

 

I don’t understand.

I disobeyed…

Am I not…

Being punished?

 

“Your training is suspended.”

 

Oh.

There it is.

 

 

“Until you get the all clear from the doctor.” Erwin nodded towards her shoulder.

Mina blinked.

“I don’t want to jeopardize the recovery by throwing you back in full force, not just yet. We wait until you’re fully healed before you get started again.”

He straightened up.

“You’ll be placed on kitchen duty while you wait to start training again. Nothing strenuous or tiresome, mind you. If anyone asks, then that is your appropriate punishment, alongside a ban from participating in training. Captain Levi here suggested that perhaps you wouldn’t mind having something to do with your time during the day.”

 

Mina blinked again, unable to stop her eyes from swivelling to the dark haired man who stood in the corner still, quiet and unshakable.

 

“I…” Mina stared, before clearing his throat. ”I’m not being punished?”

“I just said you were on kitchen duty, didn’t I?” Erwin raised a brow, playfulness in his tone, a quirk to his lips as Mina stared.

“You’ve been through enough Mina. Although I don’t wish to comment on whether I truly believe your initial actions were wise or justifiable, I cannot reprimand you after the way everything unfolded.”

Mina blinked, her face unreadable, the tone in her voice the only thing to give away her gratitude. “Thank you.”

Erwin nodded at her.

“You should get some more rest.”

Mina nodded again, blinking, making her way to turn and leave.

 “Mina.” The low, cool tone of Levi’s voice made her head turn quickly, to look at his profile turned away from her.

“Jasper is in Room 3 of the infirmary. Visitors are not usually permitted at his time but I suppose the circumstances mean the rules can lax a little.” His voice was dry, almost unbothered, before he turned his gaze to her. “You’re dismissed for the rest of the evening.”

Mina was only able to stare, wide eyed for a few seconds, breathing out another hurried thank you, before hastily leaving the room.

 

 

Erwin stared at the empty spot in which she had defiantly stood, face deep in concentration before he spoke once more.

“I’ve been in this field for a very long time Levi, a very, very long time. And yet, I don’t think I’ve come across anyone quite like her.” Erwin threw Levi a glance. “Present company included.”

Levi scoffed under his breath, turning to look out of the window.

“Have you?”

Levi didn’t turn his head at the question, clicking his tongue.

“Have you ever met someone like that, Levi?”

It was quiet.

“No.” Levi finally spoke, low and smooth. “No I haven’t.”

 

 

 


 

 

 

Mina could taste her heartbeat as she careened down the halls of the castles, heading back towards the infirmary, knowing Niklas would be waiting for her in the canteen, the worry a fleeting thought, her hurried footsteps a startling noise against a quiet backdrop.

She listened to her footsteps, hearing Jasper’s name with every echo across the stone floor.

 

She hesitated behind his door, for just a second, before bursting in with a wide eyed stare and tense body.

A doctor stood up suddenly from their seat, eyes creased as they approached Mina with caution, just before their features rearranged into recognition and understanding.

“You must be Mina.” They said softly.

Mina blinked, dazed, before nodding.

The doctor smiled. “The Commander informed me you would probably be visiting this evening.”

“Jasper….I…”

Mina didn’t know what she was trying to ask, eyes suddenly frozen on the doctor’s face, not daring to peer around their figure to see the body beneath the sheets in the bed at the far end of the room.

“He’s in and out of consciousness, so I’m afraid you probably won’t get much conversation out of him if he does come around again.”

“He’s okay?” The question was a long exhale, a shudder, a release of water that had been filling Mina’s lungs to burst.

The doctor nodded. “I would use the term okay loosely. He has pulled through the hardest part and out of any immediate danger zones. But he’s still very weak and needs all the rest he can get. He’s been extremely lucky. Well…he’s extremely lucky to have had you.”

Mina pursed her lips.

“You saved his life. With every decision you made. I hope you know that.” The doctor smiled as Mina moved her eyes. “I’ll give you some space.”

Mina stood frozen, listening to the door shut behind her, gathering up her aching bones and shaky limbs to turn her gaze, finally, to him.

She approached slowly, cautiously, as if any wrong footfall could shatter him into a million pieces.

The covers were pulled up to his neck, his head propped up slightly, eyes closed, mouth parted, the steady exhales audible in the stillness of the room.

Mina stepped closer, looking at the rise and fall of his chest beneath the blanket, his clean face, the peach colour tinted across his checks, watching the flicker and flutter of is eyelashes as he dreamt.

 

I hope he’s dreaming.

I hope…

It’s not a nightmare.

 

Mina’s legs suddenly gave way, the relief crippling her as she let her body sink, let the tears prick at her eyes as she stared at the golden hair boy, the one she didn’t leave behind.

The one she was able to save.

His hand had fallen out of the covers, dangling over the each of the bed, and Mina reached for it, grasping it tightly, gasping at the warmth of his skin.

 

Alive.

 

“Jasper.” She whispered. “Thank you. I knew you could do it.”

 

She clutched his limp hand with both of her palms, bringing it up to her forehead, pressing it there, her head bowed as if in prayer, sat on her knees, feeling his skin and listening to his breath.

 

She wasn’t sure how long she stayed there for, afraid to let go, afraid that if she did, she would wake up, and he would slip away.

 

Mina wanted to hold onto some part of him forever.

 

A noise made her head snap up, a small groan, the sound of material rustling as his body shifted slightly, followed by another groan.

Mina looked up, watching his features scrunch and contort, his eyelids flickering more rapidly, his hand shifting and twitching in hers.

“Jasper….” Mina breathed. “Are you awake?”

He groaned in response, head turning slightly from left to right on the pillow, mouth opening as he released a sigh.

“Mina?” His voice was barely audible, a croaky, course whisper.

Mina shoot up, coming to hover over him, hand going to his forehead to brush the curls out of his eyes.

“It’s me. I’m here.”

“Mina.” He said again, almost a sigh.

“Hi.”

He groaned again, trying to shift some more, unable to move his body, only able to turn his head and twitch his fingers.

“It’s okay. Don’t try to move. I’m right here.”

“Mina.” He said again, his eyelids flickering, once, twice, finally opening.

His gaze was blurry, Mina watching his green eyes dance around her face, hazy, unsure, before they focused, growing clearer, and gaining the strength to hold the worried eyes staring back at him.

“Mina.” His voice was slightly stronger.

“I’m here.”

He blinked up at her, groaning and winching as he tried to shift again, Mina cooing him and encouraging him to stay still.

“They…they told me. You saved my life.” His words were a cracked whisper.

Mina smiled. “I just…kept you safe.”

“I should…have listened…when…you said…turn around.” His face twisted in pain once more and Mina shook her head.

“No. You didn’t know. It all happened so fast. “

“They said…you found me. You…carried me back.”

Mina exhaled.

“Why…why…you could have died. You shouldn’t…”

“Jasper. I wasn’t going to leave you.”

Jasper shook his head weakly, his brow furrowing.

“I wasn’t going to leave you.” Mina’s voice was sure. “Not then. Not ever. I promised you it was going to be okay.”

Jasper didn’t speak.

 Mina listened to his next shaky, feeble inhale.

“You helped me too.” Mina whispered, bringing her hand up to touch her bracelet. “You kept me protected. Remember? Your bracelet. It worked.”

Jasper made a small noise. “You think so?”

“I know so.” Mina nodded her head, a feeble smile on her lips.

It was quiet again, Mina watching as Jasper forced down a heavy swallow.

“I remember some parts….some I don’t….I remember some parts with you...carrying me…talking to me…I could feel and hear you.”

Mina forced her own thick swallow. “You kept me going Jasper.”

His head lolled, a faint smile on his lips, his body slacking again, clearly exhausted just from the small conversation.

Mina squeezed his hand.

“Thank you Mina.” He managed to whisper before sleep engulfed him once more.

She smiled, watching his eyelids close, his jaw fell slack, his inhales and exhales beginning to deepen.

“Thank you Jasper.”

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

Levi was exhausted.

He had enough of the debriefings, of staring round at the shell-shocked and sullen faces of his comrades. He had enough of Erwin’s always assured and steady tone, despite the horror and absoluteness of the situation, the way he was able to make their eyes spark again with his words, a hint of a smile once more at their lips as he promised not all was a failure.

 

Wake up. Levi wanted to tell them.

Look at what is truly happening to us.

 

Eren Yeager was back in his cell, and Levi was annoyed that once again, soldiers had to be used to guard him around the clock as the Scouts were forced to sit back and wait for the Military Police to make their next move, the ball in their court, their decision determining what Erwin chose to do next.

Erwin was already spinning a plan of action regarding the Female Titian, his eyes alight and expression set as spoke his theories and suspicions into existence.

Everything continued to move forward, while Levi felt crushed under the grief, the loss of his squad, all gone within moments, within seconds, as if their lives meant nothing to no one.

Levi wanted time.

More than anything.

Time to understand.

To digest.

To try to justify and rationalize their deaths in the way that Erwin seemed to do so easily.

It took Levi time.

But he had none.

He had to keep moving forward.

All their deaths could mean at his point in time was a minuscule piece of something bigger.

The bigger picture.

The bigger fight.

Until it was finished.

They could only be a small part of it.

 

 

 

 

Levi had enough of paperwork, moving out of his office in the late evening to head to the kitchen for some tea, to shake some part of himself out of his tiresome thoughts.

“Captain Levi!”

Levi looked up to see the manic face of Niklas approaching down the corridor towards him, eyes wide and almost stumbling over his own feet.

“Have you seen Mina?” Niklas asked, his words coming out in one hurried rush.

Levi’s brow furrowed.

“We had the debriefing with her earlier today.”

“Yes, I know that!” Niklas said in exasperation, running a hand through his hair. “She never showed up to dinner.  She’s not with Miche and Nanaba. Her dorm is empty. I can’t find her anywhere!”

Niklas’s voice cracked, his expression so rich with worry and fear that Levi had to look away.

“Calm down Niklas. She can’t have gone anywhere far.”

“Then where the hell is she?! I’ve looked everywhere!”

Levi frowned, a snippet of confusion, the slightest edge of his own worry creeping in under his skin as he watched Niklas’s face stare at him in unhinged panic, Levi’s brain beginning to turn and work faster under the pressure.

Before he realized.

Levi sighed heavily.

“I know where she is.”

“You do?!” Niklas’s eyes widened, taking another step forward. “Where?! Where is she?”

Levi held up his hand to the man. “Go back to your room. I’ll sort this out.”

“What?! No! I need to see if she’s okay! Where is she?!”

“Niklas.” Levi said firmly, eyes settling on him. “She’s fine. I can promise you that. She’s not in any position that you need to worry about. You haven’t slept. You’re in no state to see her now anyway, and you’re breaking curfew. Go to bed. Get some sleep. You’ll see her tomorrow morning. When you’re rested. When you’re calm.”

Niklas blinked at him, face shifting as if to argue, before Levi interrupted again.

“Do you think she is in any state to have to babysit you? To be the one to calm and reassure you while you fret around her? You need to compose yourself when you’re with her. Otherwise she is just going to be wasting her energy worrying about you. She needs to rest.”

Levi’s words were harsh and firm, but his tone lacked the usual scolding edge he often adopted with Niklas, sincere and steady instead.

Niklas was quiet again, a faint flush of embarrassment on his face which was undetectable in the dark, looking down at the ground before he nodded.

“Okay. She’ll be at breakfast tomorrow?”

“Of course.” Levi nodded.

Niklas settled him with a stare.

“I’m going to kick your ass if she’s not.”

Levi could only blink in response, not even mildly amused by the empty threat.

He watched Niklas stalk away before sighing to himself, collecting the last pieces of energy he had left to face the person he felt, in that moment, he was totally unable to handle having to see again.

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

She was still slumped on the floor.

Levi stared at the young women on her knees, head rested on the edge of the infirmary bed at an awkward angle, her shoulders hunched, one arm stretched out, her fingers interlaced with Jasper’s tightly, their breathing almost in unison.

He stilled for a few moments, wondering how best to approach the situation, staring at her sleeping figure, her expression and features hidden in the dark shadows of the room.

He took another step closer.

As if sensing his presence, she stirred.

 

She blinked groggily, her shoulders moving, a small groan leaving her lips as he lifted her head, wincing at the pain in her neck, moving it slowly side to side, straightening up to rub her bleary eyes, staring at Jasper for a few moments, before her head snapped round in realization.

She stared at Levi.

She let go of Jasper’s hands, shooting up, grimacing at the pain in her sudden movements, unable to read Levi’s face in the dark.

“Captain…I…” her voice was groggy with sleep. She cleared her throat softly, straightening her shoulders. “I’m sorry. I must have fallen asleep.”

She could only just make out the small nod Levi gave her.

“You should go back to your dorm.” He spoke quietly.

Mina blinked, the idea of lying in bed alone, staring up at the ceiling, left with the time and space to let her thoughts run free, to remember…

She shuddered.

“I…I would rather stay here.”

Levi stilled for a moment.

“You can come visit him again tomorrow.”

“I don’t want to leave him.” Mina whispered.

It was quiet again.

“He’s not your responsibility.” Levi said quietly. “He’s in good hands now. You shouldn’t still be here.”

“I don’t want to be anywhere else.” Mina said, her voice dipping as she spoke her next words. “Not alone.”

Mina was grateful that it was too dark to read Levi’s expression.

She heard his soft sigh in the dim.

“You haven’t eaten.”

It wasn’t a question.

Mina shifted.

“I’ve been asleep for a while.”

Mina heard her heartbeat in the silence.

“You shouldn’t be missing meals.  Not in the state you’re in.” His words were framed as a scolding, but his tone was gentle and quiet, almost a resigned mumble as he spoke.

“I was heading to the kitchen anyway. You should get something to eat.”

The offer was a weak one, not a command, a gentle suggestion, a sliver of an invitation, as Levi was already turning on his heel to leave the room without a backwards glance.

Mina spared one last look at Jasper’s sleeping figure before she followed Levi into the night.

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

Levi did not need to turn to see the woman following close behind him, keeping a steady walk as he made his way into the canteen, where he gestured, with his back still to Mina, to a seat at one of the empty tables, not stopping his stride as he disappeared through the doors at the back of the room.

 

Mina stilled for a few seconds, before turning to sit at the suggested table, waiting with her hands clasped tightly in her lap.

Captain Levi returned shortly after, Mina heard his footsteps and felt his presence behind her, where he stooped down slightly to place something on the table in front of her, turning round and leaving again before she could utter a thanks.

A plate of breads, rice and potatoes, now cool and stodgy, but still edible and much needed, as Mina finally settled and recognized the sharp hunger pains in her stomach.

She heard his slow footsteps once more, and watched his slender hand come into view in front of her, placing down a cup with a gentle clatter, before his pale fingers disappeared quickly out of sight again.

Mina blinked, keeping her eyes trained on the cup as she listened to his footsteps, as he paced around to the far end of the table, taking a seat of his own as far away from Mina as the space allowed.

He had his own cup, which he held oddly, fingers splayed out and gripping the rim, holding it chest level as he stretched out in his chair, turning to the side so that he angled himself away from Mina, staring at the wall in front of him as he moved to take a slow sip.

Mina watched for a few seconds, before tearing her eyes away and picking up the fork.

“Thank you.”

He hummed in response.

It was quiet as Mina began to eat, the food feeling like thick cotton in her dry mouth. She stopped to take a drink, the liquid a faint green colour, mellow, earthy and warm.

She swallowed.

“I’m sorry about your squad.” Her voice was quiet as she picked her words carefully.

She knew what it felt like, to be burdened further under a sympathetic gaze or words. She kept her tone steady and even.

Levi paused as he lifted the cup to his lips again, the rim lingering on his lips.

“Oluo, Eld, Gunther…they were good teachers. Petra as well. She was very kind to me.”

Levi hesitated for a second, before placing the cup on the table, stretching out his leg, his palm coming to knead his thigh, his face tense.

“They were good soldiers. They were good people.” His voice was low. “It’s up to us to take on their deaths and use it to keep moving forward.”

Mina watched the way his eyes lowered, the angles of his face illuminated by the dim candlelight, his hair falling forward, the sharp line of his jaw and length of his neck.

It was quiet again as Mina turned back to her food.

“I thought the Commander was going to punish me.” Mina spoke eventually. “For disobeying orders. I don’t know what I expected, but I was prepared to be let go completely.”

Levi’s jaw clicked again as he glanced at her, as if he couldn’t help his eyes from falling on for just that split second.

He looked away again, his pointer finger beginning to tap against the side of his cup, his right leg beginning to bounce up and down gently.

Mina waited.

“The Commander was too impressed with your accomplishment to punish you. And like he said….” Levi picked up his cup, hovering it over his lips before he spoke. “You’ve been through enough.”

He took another sip as Mina watched quietly.

“I didn’t do anything…extraordinary. At least, it doesn’t feel that way to me.”

Mina watched Levi’s lips purse, the bounce of his leg distracting her slightly.

“I just did what I always have done. Since I got here. Since I was born. It’s always been about survival.”

She paused.

“People keep…congratulating me. What I did for Jasper…they’re praising me. It doesn’t…feel right.”

Mina was unsure again, unsure why and how the words were spilling so easily from her lips, staring down at her plate, unaware of Levi’s eyes glancing to her again before he turned away.

He cleared his throat. “Why’s that?”

“He reminds me of my brother.” Mina said, the words finally spoken out loud.

They lingered heavily, as if a betrayal.

 “My brother was murdered. By people after my father. My father was murdered too…I don’t know why…why…they had to take my brother.” Mina’s voice was quiet, thick, struggling as she inhaled, taking a breath as Levi turned slowly to look at her.

“I left him that day. My brother. I never left him alone. I was always…with him.” Mina swallowed. “We had no food. He wasn’t feeling well. I was so worried. I had to get him something to eat. After what happened with my mother, I couldn’t let him get sick too.” Mina’s fingers began to draw across the table, tracing the indents of the wood with her nail.

Levi watched her finger carefully, watching the way her face was carefully set, listened as she tried to detach her voice, not able to fully hide the shake.

“Our father was asleep. I thought Maxi would be safe. I was only gone…for…twenty minutes. If that. I left him. For the first time. I left him alone with my father.”

Mina looked up at Levi.

“They came when I was gone. They left before I returned.”

Her eyes were unfocused, far away as Levi stared.

“If I had been there…If I had stayed with Maxi…maybe I could have protected him. I had a gun. I knew how to fight. I could have stopped them. I could have saved Maxi. He didn’t have to die. But he did. It was certain. It was certain because I had left him.”

Mina turned to Levi again.

“I couldn’t leave Jasper. Because he reminded me of the person I had left behind before. That was what made me look for his body. I couldn’t leave someone alone, not again.”

Mina moved her eyes again.

“Which is why…I feel like…I saved Jasper for the wrong reasons. If I wasn’t thinking of Maxi…would I have still taken the risks?” Mina’s voice was airy, soft, laced with bitterness.

It was quiet for a few moments, Mina staring off into the distance as Levi gathered his thoughts, staring down at his cup as his finger began to tap against it once more.

“What do you know about Jasper?” He finally asked.

Mina looked up, blinking in confusion.

“What do you mean?”

“Do you know a lot about him?”

Mina swallowed. “I think so.”

“Tell me something.”

Mina frowned. “I don’t understand.”

“Tell me some things about him. Things I wouldn’t know.”

Mina paused, the steadiness and gentleness in Levi’s tone urging her to talk, to open, despite her confusion.

“He was an only child. He wished he was big brother. He told me he would have liked a little sister.” Mina cleared her throat. “He doesn’t like early mornings. He prefers night time. He likes looking at the moon. His birthday is in the Autumn. He likes to bake. His favorite thing to eat is fruit bread, but I don’t know what that is. He complains about the bread here. He took in a stray dog when he was 12 years old.”

The words continued to roll off of Mina’s tongue easily, the pieces of Jasper’s life, the information she had unknowingly retained in their conversations over mealtimes and during training lingering always with her.

Levi cleared his throat. “You know a lot about him. Even if it seems like insignificant pieces of his life. Its pieces no one else knows.  You know them because he’s your friend.”

Mina blinked at him.

“What were you thinking about? When you were carrying his body through the woods?”

Mina closed her eyes, stilling herself. “I made him promise. That he was going to be okay.”

Levi nodded. “You made that promise because he was your friend. You helped a friend. You saved your friend’s life.”

Levi glanced away, his expression narrowing.

“Regardless of your past…of your brother…you helped Jasper because he is your friend. I believe…” Levi inhaled sharply, his fingers flexing on his thigh. “That’s what you always would have done. It doesn’t matter what he reminds you of, It doesn’t matter about the regrets you hang on to. You would have always helped him. Because he’s your friend. And you care about him deeply.”

Mina’s fingers trembled. “Does that make me reckless? Or weak?”

Levi titled his head down. “It makes you human.”

 

Mina was unsure of how long they sat in silence, the time stretching out between them, alongside the space, not uncomfortable, just still.

“Thank you.” Mina spoke quietly.

Levi nodded, eyes still cast away from her, fingers still flexing and curling on his lap as his leg began to bounce up and down again.

“You…You should…” His voice was gruff, catching, clearing his throat before he spoke again, almost a mumble. “You should probably head back to your dorm. Get some rest.”

Mina nodded.

“I’ll try.”

Mina waited for him to look her way again, a parting glance or a nod of farewell.

He continued to stare at the wall.

Mina stood slowly, picking up her plate to take it back to the kitchen.

 “Leave it.”

Levi spoke firmly, eyes swivelled in her direction for a fraction of the second she looked away.

“Just...I’ll…I’ll clean it up.” His voice was a stammer, casting his gaze firmly down at the ground again.

Mina blinked, shifting as the air suddenly felt thicker, unable to look away from his fingers curling and flexing in agitation.

As if feeling her staring, he turned his head completely away from her, so that she was left to stare at the back of his neck.

She swallowed.

“Goodnight Captain.”

He didn’t turn, didn’t speak or look at her, waiting until he heard her gentle footsteps leave the room, before he let out a shaky breath, moving to rest his elbow on the table, and drop his forehead into his palm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Mina was restless.

Niklas sat with her dutifully at meal times, trying to inconspicuously spoon portions of his own food onto Mina’s plate when he assumed that she was lost in her thoughts and not taking any notice of his actions.

The unimpressed stare she would hold him with made him quickly retreat.

He would do most of the talking, as always, pushing her to answer and converse. Whenever she lingered too long in the silence he would hit her with a worried stare and immediately ask what was wrong or what was hurting.

Mina would sigh.

“I’m fine Niklas.”

He tried to ignore the glances she would throw to the empty table usually occupied by Jasper.

Niklas would finish up and head to practice, throwing Mina an apologetic look as she would stare after his retreating figure wistfully, wishing she was back in training.

Wishing she was moving.

Doing.

Hurting.

Anything to stop the thinking.

 

 

 

 

Mina would head to the kitchen after meals, ready to occupy some of her free time and assist in cleaning up.

There she would often see Nanaba or Mike, or both, and they would give her a half-hearted excuse as to why they had stopped by again, just at the time in which she was supposed to be completing her chores.

Miche would usually end up taking the cloths from Mina’s free hand, and Nanaba would distract her with gossip and nonsense, talking animatedly to Mina, wrapping up the mostly one sided conversation just in time for Miche to proclaim he had finished up the cleaning for her.

On the fourth day, the doctor came to visit Mina and asses her shoulder. She was allowed out of her sling, which Mina was grateful for, unable to get used to the constriction and awkwardness of her immobile arm. However, her shoulder was still weak, the injury too fresh, and she was prohibited to participate in any strenuous activity. This, alongside the spells of dizziness Mina reluctantly admitted to experiencing, meant that she was still not yet cleared for training.

 

“Miche.” Mina sighed heavily, reaching again for the rag in his hand as he wiped down the condensation on the window. “Give me that back.”

“I’m nearly done now. “He grumbled. “Besides, you can’t even reach this high.”

Mina frowned as Nanaba laughed, coming up beside the young woman to squeeze her good shoulder affectionately.

“This is supposed to be my punishment.” Mina said.

Nanaba rolled her eyes. “It’s barely a punishment.”

“My shoulder is a lot better now.” Mina proclaimed, demonstrating the gentle shoulder rolling exercises the doctor had recommended for her. “Maybe I can ask the Commander for more chores around the castle?”

Nanaba stared at her as if she had grown another head, while Miche threw her a worried glance.

“Two things. One. Who in their right mind asks to do extra chores?” Nanaba put her hands on her hips. “Two. You’re still supposed to be resting and healing.”

“I’ve done enough resting.” Mina said softly. “I want to do something now.”

 

 

Never in Mina’s life had she done so little.

Had the time gone so slow.

Had the day dragged on with no task or need or worry.

Had she ever had so much time to sit in her own head.

Had so much time to be occupied by all her many thoughts.

 

 

 

Mina wasn’t sleeping well.

She often woke up, gasping, sweating, and clutching at her sheets in a blind panic, the Female Titan’s sinewy form fresh behind her eyelids, the echo of its feet, the sounds of screams, Jasper’s lifeless body, the feeling of his blood running down her skin.

When it woke her, in the early hours, Mina stayed up, staring at the dim shapes of her small room, unable to will herself to close her eyes again.

 

 

 


 

 

 

“Jasper.” Mina sighed heavily, staring at the wide eyed boy with a blank expression. “Stop trying to give me your food.”

His outstretched arm, which held a freshly buttered warm roll, retracted slightly, a sheepish expression on his face.

Mina had been visiting Jasper multiple times throughout the day, often only able to swing by for a few minutes before the doctor ushered her out, only able to put her head around the door and leave quickly again when she found him fast asleep, his evening meal time the only guaranteed hour in which she was allowed to pull up a chair next to him and properly converse.

He was growing stronger, now able to sit up and move around by himself, hold conversations with Mina, smile and laugh with her.

He had just been babbling about how he had walked up and down the hall today unassisted, before trying to thrust the food into Mina’s hand, something he had started doing every evening.

“I want to give you something.” He mumbled.

“I don’t want your food Jasper.”

“But they give me so much of it down here!”

“Because you need it.” She sighed again. “You need it much more than me,”

Jasper pursed his lips.

“I told you I’m fine.” Mina spoke softly, offering a smile. “I’m on kitchen cleaning duty, remember? Would they let me do that if I wasn’t well enough?”

“That’s your punishment, it hardly counts.” His face contorted again with guilt, his eyes crinkled as he looked at her, lips down turned. “I’m sorry.”

Mina sighed, having lost count of the number of times he had apologized to her.

“Jasper. Please. There is nothing to be sorry for.”

“You’re hurt and being punished all because you saved my stupid life.” He grumbled, the dark words not really a tragic admission of self-loathing, sounding more like that of a child sulking.

Mina levelled his forlorn stare. “I would do it a hundred times over. I would take any punishment if it meant I had got you out of there alive.”

“I don’t deserve it. I don’t deserve how much you do for me.”

Mina blinked. “You deserve to live Jasper. You don’t have to do anything special to deserve that right. No one does.” She paused. “And I did it because you’re my friend. I don’t need anything in return for helping a friend.”

“But I want to give you something.” Jasper stressed. “I want to say thank you but nothing would ever be thanks enough. How could I ever possibly thank you for this?”

Mina shook her head. “You’re my friend. You don’t need to thank me. I didn’t do this just to expect something from you…I made a promise to my friend. I wasn’t going to break that.”  She smiled. “I would like to think you would have tried to do the same for me.”

Jasper snorted. “Tried.”

 He sighed heavily, giving her another wide eyed stare and soft smile.

 “I would have tried Mina. I would have done anything to help you too if the roles were reversed. I just don’t think I could have ever pulled it off like you did.”

Mina shrugged. “You never know how strong you are until the situation calls for it. When it’s the real thing…the limits that you thought you had are thrown out of the window.” Her voice grew quieter, her brow furrowed, her gaze averted.

Jasper watched her carefully.

“You’re strong Mina. And you’re nice. And kind. And anyone would be beyond lucky to have you as their friend.” He smiled. “I’ll always be thankful that you let me be one of them.”

 

 

 


 

 

 

Mina was completing another one of her laps around the castle grounds, having finished all of her cleaning chores, and unable to disturb Jasper’s sleep. There was no sign of Miche or Nanaba to take sympathy on her and keep her company, so she took to wandering the grounds. She walked slowly around in circles, trying to focus on every detail, trying to listen to every sound, so as to stop her mind from wandering with her feet.

She came into the common room, where a few cadets sat, talking quietly to one another, dressed in uniform  but not needed in class.

With the loss of so many veterans during the mission, and those left being busy with Erwin’s upcoming plans, Mina wasn’t the only cadet left twiddling their thumbs.

While they still had some classes, and were expected to complete more chores and training in their own time, the young recruits were left with a few more hours in the day than they were used to.

Mina had spotted most using the spare time to hang out with one another, which explained why they weren’t left to pace up and down the hallways in boredom like Mina had been doing.

She pursed her lips, walking further into the room, planning to circle around to the back doors and continue her lap throughout the castle, when she paused half way, her feet lingering as she spotted Armin, pushed in at a table by the big latticed windows, head down, concentrating intently on the book in front of him.

Mina blinked at the boy.

She hadn’t seen him since his impromptu visit to her sick bed, and since then, had found out from Niklas just what he had been through, both during the mission, and the fallout after it.

She had found out that Eren was back in his cell. The failure of the expedition and his unpredictability as a titan shifter meant that the Scouts were not permitted to continue training him, and instead, had to wait for the Military Police to make their decision on what was to happen next to the boy.

Whilst there were whispers going around that Erwin was conducting a plan in case they sought to take him into their custody, Mina could only imagine how worried Armin and Mikasa were while they waited to hear of their friend’s fate.

She had also found out that he too had encountered the Female Titan. The details were hazy as they had been passed between so many people, but Mina had heard that Armin was the only survivor from his team, and with Reiner, he had actually come into close physical combat with the titan.

And lived to tell the tale.

Mina stared at the boy hard, gazing over his slightly hunched shoulders, his shaggy blonde hair, his small and thin frame.

As if sensing her staring, he suddenly looked up, blinking a few times, before his blue eyes widened and he broke out into a boyish grin.

 

 

I judged you too, didn’t I Armin?

You come across so…hopeless.

But…

You’re not hopeless.

Not in the slightest.

I guess….

It’s one of our biggest weapons.

People assuming our strengths…rather, assuming our weaknesses.

We have that in common.

 

 

 

“Mina!” He beamed. “Good to see you!”

She clasped her hands behind her back awkwardly, giving the boy a curt nod.

His smiled turned sympathetic as he gazed at her. “I heard you’re not allowed back in class yet.”

Mina gave a short nod again. “I’m still too injured.”

He smiled in acknowledgement.

It was quiet.

Mina could almost touch the hesitance and awkwardness between them.

 

We have that in common.

 

“I’m sorry.” Mina blurted out as Armin titled his head.  She paused to find the words. “For not being able to help teach you again.”

Armin smiled. “Don’t worry about it. When you’re better we can start back up!”

Mina could see that he was trying, his tone taking on the warmth and encouragement it normally did around her, trying to egg the conversation out of her, show her that there was no need to be hesitant or stuck.

She inhaled.

“I’m sorry about Eren.”

Armin’s smile flickered slightly and he let out a small sigh. “It’s okay.  I trust Commander Erwin has a plan to get us out of this mess.”

Mina nodded, swallowing, shifting on her feet as she moved her gaze out of the windows.

Armin looked at her, noticing, noticing the shadows under her eyes, the sway of her body, the mark on her lip from where her teeth had sunk into the flesh too many times.

“Are you okay?”

Mina blinked, turning her gaze back to him, noticing his eyes had slightly narrowed, peering at her deeper.

 

Armin.

Always looking.

Always observant.

 

“I’m fine.” She breathed out too quickly.

He pursed his lips. “You don’t have to…take it all on yourself.” His voice grew quieter. “There are people here who want to help you. If you need the help. Don’t be afraid to ask.”

Mina’s breath caught in her throat.

 

 

Too observant.

Always picking up on those parts of me.

Reading me like a book.

It’s fitting.

 

 

Mina managed a feeble smile. “Thank you.”

 

It wasn’t an admission on her part, nor was it a complete dismissal of his words, but it was sincere and all she could manage to offer to him at that moment.

 

He smiled again, knowing this much.

 

Her gaze dropped down to his book and she shifted gain.

“I better go. Don’t want to interrupt you.”

Armin shrugged. “It’s fine. I’m not busy. Besides, I’ve read this book before.”

Mina blinked. “You’ve already read it?”

Armin nodded with a smile.

“Why…why read it again? If you know…if you know the story. If you know what happens?”

Armin smiled again. “It’s nice that way. I know what to expect. I don’t have to worry or try to guess or work anything out. I can just enjoy the words. It’s a nice distraction.”

Mina nodded, not fully understanding, but offering a timid response. “Sounds nice.”

Armin’s expression shifted. “Do you want to borrow it?”

Mina’s eyes widened slightly. “Oh. No. It’s okay.”

Her answer was awkward and abrupt, which Armin mistook for her trying not to inconvenience him.

“Seriously, I don’t mind! I’ve read it before, and I’ve got plenty more to read. It doesn’t bother me one bit!”

“It’s okay.” Mina mumbled, shaking her head.

Armin frowned. “No! I insist! It can be my way of saying thank you! For training me and Krista!”

“Armin.” Mina’s voice was barely a mumble and her gaze had dropped to her shoes. “It’s okay.”

“It’s a nice distraction! Like you said!” His smiled twitched slightly when he saw Mina’s downturned eyes, her rigid body, the faint flush creeping across her cheeks. “Mina? What’s wrong?”

“It’s nothing.” She shook her head, face growing redder, voice breaking.

“Mina.” Armin’s eyes grew worried as he hesitated in his chair, not sure whether to approach. “I’m sorry. Did I say something wrong? Did I upset you?”

Mina sighed, tilting her head up to the ceiling, not quick enough to avoid his worried gaze, guilt gnawing at her as she realized she was the one to cause it.

 

As if he doesn’t have enough on his plate.

 

 

She inhaled, her hands clasped together behind her back again.

“It’s not…I’m fine.” She took another deep breath, the hesitance as she worked up her courage only serving to cause more anxiety on Armin’s part. “It’s just…I’m not very good at reading, is all.”

Armin blinked at her as she tucked her hair behind her ears.

“I just…can’t read like I should be able to. Or write. I know a little bit.” She said quickly, finally meeting his gaze. “When I was younger…where i come from…it’s not really…seen as important.”

“Oh.” Armin said, blinking in shock, before quickly rearranging his features, smoothly formulating a considerate and level reaction to the admission.

Mina could feel her cheeks burning as he tried to approach the situation tactfully.

“That’s okay! We all have different upbringings, so I guess we are all going to have things we know more about than others.”  He smiled at her. “I only read so much because of what my grandpa taught me. You’re from out in the country right? Somewhere rural? It must be very different!”

Mina nodded hesitantly.

It was quiet for a few moments, Armin’s face twisted as he thought carefully.

“I can…teach you if you wanted?”

Mina’s head snapped up to his as he smiled sheepishly.

“I mean…i hope you take no offence to me offering! I’m no real teacher, after all. I just want to help.”

“I couldn’t…I mean…that’s a very generous offer.” Mina’s words were stilted.

Armin smiled. “You did the same for me. “

Mina shook her head. “I really can’t let you spend your time-”

“I’m sure you’ve noticed Mina, but we all have a lot more free time at the moment.” His voice had a bittersweet edge. “I wouldn’t offer if I didn’t want to help you.”

Mina shifted.

“I really just want to help Mina.”

Mina looked at him, his eyes sincere and big, his smile warm and encouraging.

 

 

 

I…

I do want to learn

I really do.

 

 

 

“If you’re sure it’s not a bother…” Mina trailed off awkwardly.

“Positive!” Armin beamed. “We can start now!”

Mina blinked. “Now?”

“Unless you’re busy?”

Mina shook her head.

Armin smiled.

“Take a seat!”

Mina hesitated for a few moments, before walking slowly over and drawing out a chair.

She sat down cautiously, face blank as Armin continued to smile.

“Hmmmm.” His lips were pursed as he stared at the pages of the book, before twisting it around at an angle in which both of them could see.

Mina peered at the pages.

“How about we start like this. I’ll read out loud and you follow along the words with my finger. Then we can take it from there!”

Mina was unsure, but his unfaltering smile had her nodding weakly.

“It doesn’t matter if you don’t know understand the story.” He explained. “It just so I can get an idea of how much you can pick up on from the words.”

“Okay.” Mine breathed.

He smiled, his finger coming to the top of the page and pressing under the line as he started to read.

Mina followed along diligently.

He spoke slowly, carefully, making sure to enunciate all the words clearly, trailing his finger deliberately as Mina’s eyes picked apart each letter.

The sentences made no sense to her, unraveling the middle of a story in which she knew not of the characters or their journey. Instead, she concentrated on each individual word, as if each were a story of its own, listening to the pronunciation carefully as she read the letters Armin dragged his finger under.

“How was that?” Armin finally asked as he completed the final page, deciding to wrap it after estimating almost an hour had passed.

Mina licked her lips, straightening back up, nodding hesitantly. “It was…okay. I can read a lot of the basics. It’s just…the bigger words. The longer ones. I don’t recognise a lot of them. It’s hard to sound them out in my head.  And then when the sentence is long…I start to mess up the basic words too.” She admitted bashfully, ducking her gaze.

Armin smiled. “That’s okay!  Once we start practicing, you’ll find it a lot easier!”

Mina nodded, biting her lip. “I…can’t remember the exact age I stopped learning.”

Mina was unsure at what her age her mother grew sick, the age her mother stopped writing out stories onto pieces of paper as they couldn’t afford to buy actual books, the age in which her mother stopped sitting with her at the table, encouraging her to read the words out loud, to copy the letters onto her own sheet, to praise her gently and hold her close.

“I used to be able to read children’s books.” Mina swallowed the lump in her throat.

Armin nodded, looking thoughtful.

“Okay! Children’s book! That’s okay! Now I know where to start!”

 

 

 

 

Mina jumped at the thud on her table, the sound and reverberation on the wood cutting off Niklas’s rambling as they sat together over breakfast.

She looked up with a frown.

Armin beamed at her.

“Sorry! I was just so excited that I managed to find this last night and couldn’t wait to show you!”

 He gestured to the table.

“It’s very old” Armin admitted apologetically as Mina’s confused stare finally turned to the object he had placed roughly down onto the table in front of her.

She blinked at the worn binder, the blotchy forest green cloth covering and indistinct words faded across the front.

“What the hell.”Niklas mumbled through a mouthful of food.

“I did a quick skim through and it’s a good book to start with!” Armin said as Mina blinked up at him again. “It’s the perfect reading level for you.”

Mina flushed slightly, despite his tactful words.

Niklas titled his head, glancing between Mina, the book, and Armin.

“Are you busy after lunch?” Armin inquired.

Mina shook her head.

“Great! We can start on it then! Hange gave me lots of notebooks for us to practice your writing on too!”

“Armin.” Mina said awkwardly, averting her eyes from Niklas’s stare. “Are you sure this isn’t too much?”

“Not at all!” Armin assured her. “I’m looking forward to it!”

He blinked at Niklas, as if just noticing his presence, offering a nervous smile and chuckle.

“Hi Niklas.”

Niklas nodded. “Yeah. Hi.”

Armin turned his eyes quickly back to Mina.

“This afternoon?”

Mina exhaled. “Okay.”

“I’ll leave the book with you then! You can have a look through before we start.”

Mina turned back to her food as she felt Armin leave, aware of Niklas’s eyes on his retreating figure, before they turned curiously to her.

“What the hell was that all about?”

Niklas peered down at the book with a grimace.

“What is this shit?”

“A book.” Mina responded simply.

“Yeah, I can see that.” Niklas rolled his eyes. “Why? What’s going on with you two?”

Mina sighed. “I had a conversation with him yesterday. “Mina spoke coolly. “And…he wants to help me get better at reading and writing.”

Niklas frowned. “Why?”

Mina shrugged. “He wants to return the favor.”

“Okay, but why do you want to waste your time with this?”

Mina furrowed her brow. “It isn’t a waste of time.”

Niklas snorted. “Reading and writing isn’t going to help much outside of the Walls.”

“It isn’t…” Mina struggled with her words. “It isn’t for that.”

It was quiet.

Mina looked up, meeting Niklas’s hard stare. “It’s for later. After this is over. When we get out of here.”

Niklas’s stare narrowed.

“When we have our own lives, you know? I’m going to need to get another job and well…seeing as I can’t win people around with words like you can…I think reading and writing is a necessary skill for most places.”

Niklas didn’t say anything, and Mina couldn’t work out the expression on his face.

“It’s not a waste of time.” She repeated. “It’s for our future.”

Niklas remained silent as he looked away.

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

Mina was on another one of her slow morning laps of the grounds when she saw the usually empty hallway occupied by a group of figures.

Mina’s glacial pace slowed even more so as she began to recognize their faces, teetering on her tiptoes hesitantly, before she spun quickly, moving to head back in the direction she had come from.

 

“Mina!”

 

She stopped still, inhaling.

 

Damn it Nanaba.

 

Mina turned slowly, catching the sympathetic smiles of Jean and Sasha, as well as the smirk on Ymir’s face.

 

“There’s the woman of the hour.” Ymir called, the usual half grin on her face growing wider.

 

I don’t have the energy for this.

 

“I’ve been looking for you.” Nanaba tilted her torso, a hand on her hip as she stared Mina down. “Get over here”

 

Mina approached slowly, hands clasped behind her back, keeping her eyes on Nanaba, away from Sasha and Jean’s searching gaze, both of their eyes laced with the pity that Mina did not want.

“Hey.” Jean said.

Mina knew it would be rude not to look at him, trying not to grimace at the sympathy in his stare or in the small smile he threw at her. “Good to see you doing well.”

Mina nodded. “Thanks.”

“Yeah!” Sasha agreed, nodding her head enthusiastically and rocking on her heels. “You and Jasper! You’re a great team, hey?”

Mina’s eyes moved away, to Nanaba’s raised eyebrow, before moving to look at the floor.

“I guess.”

“You’re out of you mind.” Ymir’s dry voice cut through the awkwardness. “Seriously unhinged. I wouldn’t pull that shit for anyone.” She cocked an eyebrow at Mina, who dug her nail deeper into her palm, trying to ignore the bubbles of anger.

“Ymir! Why would you say that?” Sasha exclaimed as Nanaba scoffed at the girl.

“You’re all talk.” Jean shot back. “With how you dote on Krista? Pfft. You don’t even like anyone looking at that girl for too long.”

“Shut your mouth Kirstein.” Ymir bit back, a glare on her face.

Mina glanced between the trio, her eyes finally landing on Nanaba, who tried not to laugh at the discomfort in Mina’s expression, her eyes pleading for the blonde woman to intervene.

“Yeah, yeah, I’ve got you.” Nanaba muttered to Mina, turning as she settled a stern stare on the cadets. “Cut it out you guys or you’re staying behind.”

 

Staying behind?

 

Mina tilted her head slightly.

Nanaba turned to grin at her.

“How’d you like the sound of a day trip?”

Mina blinked.

“Commander Erwin’s giving us the day off today! “ Sasha exclaimed, hands clasped together in excitement. “We’re going to Stohess! And all the markets are up! Imagine all the food they will be selling! I’m drooling already at the thought!” Sasha’s voice grew higher as she squealed, almost jumping up and down in excitement.

 Her wide eyes turned to Jean. “Do you think there will be meat?”

Ymir’s face was drawn in disgust as she regarded the girl with an unimpressed stare.

“A day off?” Mina asked, still not quite understanding.

Nanaba titled her head. “The Commander wants you guys to have a chance to enjoy yourself a bit more. It’s a well-deserved break.”

Mina blinked.

“Or he’s trying to make us forget what a shit show the past week has been.” Ymir muttered under her breath, kicking her heel into the ground.

Nanaba crossed her arms, shooting the girl a warning glare, which Ymir turned away from with a roll of her eyes.

“So what do you say Mina? You in?”

Mina’s mouth opened and closed again in confusion.

“I get to leave…the grounds?”

 

Her stints above ground working as a petty thief, alongside the moments before the expedition, were Mina’s only taste of the little world they all lived in outside of the Scout’s headquarters.

 

There was still so much she hadn’t seen.

 

I didn’t expect to be allowed this much so soon….

 

 

Nanaba could read the hesitance in Mina’s gaze, unravelling what she was thinking.

 

 

Is it…another test?

To see…if I can be trusted?

 

“We j

ust want to give you a break Mina.” Nanaba said, her tone almost resigned as she sighed, willing Mina to listen and believe her. “That’s all.”

“I bumped into Niklas earlier and asked if he wanted to join us.” Jean said to Mina, an awkward look on his face. “He uh…said he’d go if you were going.”

Nanaba shook her head with a snort.

“Have you ever been to Stohess?” Sasha asked, peering at Mina curiously, trying to work out the hesitance in her face.

“Uh…no, I haven’t.”

“Then you have to come!” Sasha exclaimed. “It will be so much fun! Armin, Connie, Mikasa…we’re all going!”

Mina nodded, licking her lips as she looked at Nanaba.

“Are you coming?”

Nanaba smiled softly. “Unfortunately, I’m working with the Commander today. But Miche will be with you. And Captain Levi.”

“There goes our fun then.” Ymir muttered.

Nanaba stared at Mina, and Mina could read the look in her eyes, the words not said but hanging heavy in the air between them.

 

 

Try Mina.

Join in.

Try to have fun with your peers.

It will be good for you.

 

 

Mina’s heart tugged, suddenly thinking of Jasper alone in his bed.

 

“I…I might just spend the day with Jasper actually.”

Nanaba pursed her lips. “The Commander is allowing some of your wages to be retrieved.” Nanaba gave Mina a knowing look. “It would be nice to get Jasper something, perhaps?”

Mina blinked.

“We get to…spend money?”

Jean tilted his head as he looked at her, Sasha also shooting Mina a curious gaze at the oddly posed question.

Ymir was quiet, no sarcastic comment as she watched Mina carefully and steadily.

Nanaba smiled. “It’s your hard earned money to spend.”

 

My hard earned money?

 

 

“Okay.” Mina finally succumbed, watching Nanaba almost visibly sag in relief.

“Great! I’ll go round up the rest of them and find Niklas. You’ll probably be in the carriage with him and Miche for the ride over.”

Mina nodded, fingers clasped together, biting down on her lip.

Nanaba paused as her eyes quickly took in the small woman, scanning her from head to toe, the too-long slacks that Mina rolled up at the bottom, the men’s shirt that almost reached her knees, the sleeves hurriedly pushed and folded up.

“Mina…uh…perhaps you should go find a different outfit?”

Mina blinked.

“I should?”

“You look like you’ve shrunk inside your clothes.” Ymir remarked dryly, raising an eyebrow at Mina.

Mina didn’t fully understand that Ymir’s comment was meant as a wry insult.

“Oh.Uh. Okay.”

Mina shifted awkwardly, a look of panic flashing across her face which almost had Nanaba letting out a laugh of sympathy.

“You know where we keep the spare civilian clothes, right? It’s a warm day, maybe just look for something not so…big.”

Mina nodded, her eyes falling on Sasha, glancing over at the beige dress she wore, the short sleeves, the fitted tan waistcoat snug over her torso.

 

It’s pretty.

 

“Not so big.” Mina repeated the words carefully and Nanaba raised her eyebrows.

“Just…come meet Miche in the courtyard when you’re changed yeah? I’ll tell him to wait.”

Mina nodded, standing awkwardly as Jean and Sasha nodded a quick goodbye, turning to follow Nanaba out.

Mina made to move, before she saw Ymir lingering, her dark eyes trained on Mina’s face.

“Hey.” She said, commanding Mina’s full attention. Her expression was sharp and severe, chin titled up as she assessed Mina. “I knew there was more to you than meets the eye.”

Mina stared back coolly, firmly, waiting.

“They can’t see what I can.” Ymir muttered, eyes scanning over her again, lingering on the scars across Mina’s face. “I think we’re more alike than you realize. And those guys have no idea what it’s like for people like us, do they?”

Mina blinked, confusion seeping into her guarded expression.

“I’m glad to see you made it out.” Ymir said quickly, nodding at her. “Don’t act so stupidly again, yeah? Look after yourself.”

Mina stared at Ymir’s quickly retreating figure, her breath stuck in her throat for a second, her exhale long and shaking.

 

 


 

 

Mina almost fell to floor in despair, staring at the crumpled clothes on the floor around her and clutched desperately in her hands, unsure of the shapes and sizes, everything feeling out of place and impossible to wear.

 

She sighed heavily, scolding herself.

 

 

You’re being absurd.

Just…pick something.

Anything.

When have you ever cared what you looked like?

 

 

 

Mina’s head snapped up at a sound of the door opening, a small wide eyed figure stopping suddenly at the door way.

“Oh! I’m sorry. I didn’t think anyone was in here!”

Mina blinked as Krista threw her an apologetic smile.

“I wanted to look for shawl for today.” Krista blinked at Mina. “Are you coming on the trip?”

Mina moved her eyes away and nodded.

Krista smiled. “That’s great!”

Her smile faltered slightly, her eyes dropping as she surveyed the situation, the clothes strewn around Mina’s ankles and hanging limply in her grasp, alongside the muddled expression on Mina’s face.

“Are you okay?”

Mina blinked, suddenly aware of a hot feeling of her cheeks.

“Nanaba said I should change.”

Krista nodded. “Okay.”

Mina looked down at the material in her hands. “I don’t…I always wear the same thing. I don’t know what to wear right now.”

“Oh!” Krista exclaimed, her smile bright again. “You need help picking an outfit?”

 

I need help?

To pick an outfit?

 

Mina felt her cheeks heat up even more so, trying to turn her head and hide the flush under her hair.

 

“I’m just…not quite sure.”

Krista nodded, stepping closer with a smile.

“I can help! I’d be happy to! I owe you at least that after you let me join you in training!”

Mina nodded, keeping her face tilted down and letting her hair hang forward.

“It’s warm today.” Krista tried. “So something light and airy would be good!”

Mina looked up slightly, gazing at Krista from underneath her hair.

 

She was wearing a dress that stopped below her knees, the skirt pleated, the collar ruffled, the shade a few shades lighter than her hair, a faded yellow.

 

 

 

Pr etty.

It looks so pretty.

 

I….

It would be nice to…

Wear something pretty.

 

 

 

Mina swallowed.

“I…I like your dress.” The words were stiff and awkward in Mina’s mouth and Krista’s smile grew.

“We’ll find you something like this then!”

Krista beamed before moving along, setting to work to inspect the various articles of clothing.

Mina let the shirts drop from her hands and stood lamely, watching Krista with an unblinking stare, as the girl pulled up various dress of different sizes and colours, each time Mina assuming it would be the one Krista would present for her to wear, each time Krista scrunching up her nose upon closer examination and discarding it back into the pile.

Mina began to shift, fingers playing with one another as she watched silently.

“Ah!” Krista suddenly exclaimed, pulling out a dress and holding it in front of her, eyes inspecting it closely before a smile broke out across her face. “I think this one!”

Mina blinked, staring closer at the dress, unable to make much out of it as it hung limply in Krista’s arms, until she realized the colour.

Her heart fluttered.

The fabric was dyed blue, clearly faded and worn from wash and wear, maybe once a deep cerulean, now a pale azure, like a clear spring sky, like the petals of the flowers Mina had picked…

Like the blue of her mother’s dress.

“I like that one.” Mina breathed.

Krista smiled, tossing it over to Mina who caught it, letting the soft material slip through her fingertips, her mouth parted slightly.

“I’ll turn around.” Krista said.

Mina furrowed her brow.

“Put it on now! I’ll turn around!” Krista already had her back towards Mina, pacing over to the door. “And I’ll make sure no one comes in.”

Mina blinked, waiting silently, staring at the back of Krista’s head, before she moved, fingers shaking slightly as she unbuttoned her massive shirt and tugged down her long slacks.

She swallowed, stepping into the dress, having to wiggle and pull the tight material over her hips and up her chest, contorting her arms to push them through the sleeves, huffing as her fingers struggled with the small buttons up the front, hands fumbling to tie the sash around the waist into a bow at her back.

She swallowed, palms gliding down the material, feeling it fit close to her body, to her skin,.

She cleared her throat.

Krista turned back around, blinking for a few moments before her grin broke her face in half.

“Wow!” Krista breathed. “It looks amazing! That color is so pretty with your hair and skin!”

Mina blinked.

 

Mina watched as Krista dove forward, letting her grab and tug at her wrist, pulling her over to the mirror.

“Look! Even your eyes look more blue!” Krista gushed.

 

Mina titled her head, staring at the reflection.

 The material was light and thin, the skirt of the dress hanging just below her knees and swaying with each of Mina’s small movements. The waist was pulled in by the sash, tighter than Mina’s uniform, but buttoned up to a high neck and collar, a small expanse of the skin at her clavicle and collarbones exposed, the sleeves covering her shoulders but revealing the lengths of her arms.

Her scars littered down the expanse on her right arm were more visible than they ever had been.

Mina found herself not lingering on this fact too much.

 Mina heard her inhale, and she was unable to stand still as she continued to stare, fingers moving to fiddle with one another, to play with the hem, to pull at the sash around her waist, finding it impossible to keep still as she slowly recognized herself, recognized her mother staring back at her.

 

 

 

It looks…pretty.

Is this…

What it feels like?

 

 

“You look beautiful.” Krista gushed again.

“I like it.” Mina nodded, pulling at the collar slightly, smoothing down the skirt.

“I found something else.” Krista said, and Mina looked to Krista’s reflection to see an off white ribbon in her hand, pulled from the sash of another dress.

“I thought… your hair looks so pretty down, you should keep it like this. But to keep the front pieces off of your face…”

Mina watched in the reflection as Krista stood on her tip toes behind her, arms reaching to gather Mina’s hair in her hands and pull it back down her shoulders.

Mina flinched, bristling, her body suddenly jerking away.

Krista’s eyes went wide, stunned slightly, before she stammered.

“I’m sorry.” Krista mumbled. “I just thought...it would look pretty in your hair.”

Mina’s heart thudded, the phantom feeling of Krista’s fingers at her scalp echoing that of another.

She closed her eyes.

“I’m sorry.” Mina said softly. “I…It’s just…my mother used to do my hair for me.”

Mina swallowed thickly, averting her gaze.

Krista’s brow furrowed slightly, a small gasp leaving her lips, her face dropping as her own gaze cast down.

“I understand.” Krista said quietly. “My mother…when I was younger.” Krista looked back up to hold Mina’s gaze, something shifted in her expression. “I don’t have a mother anymore.”

Her voice had changed, dropping lower almost, something harder creeping in, matching the settling of her features, the line of her lips as she pressed them together.

Mina blinked.

It was quiet.

“Another one.”

Krista tilted her head at Mina’s odd remark.

Mina waited to find the right words.

“Like me. Like Jasper. Like so many people here. They seem to have lost their family.” Mina looked at her clasped fingers. “Is that why we’re all here?”

Mina heard Krista’s shaky inhale.

“Maybe.”

It was quiet again.

“I’m sorry I startled you.” Mina said. “I just…wasn’t expecting it.” She held Krista’s eyes. “If you don’t mind…”

Mina awkwardly gestured to her hair again.

Krista smiled softly, nodding, coming up behind her again.

Mina stayed still this time, focusing her eyes on Krista’s figure in the mirror, trying not to concentrate on the feeling of fingers brushing back her hair, ignoring the pang in her chest.

She felt Krista’s fingers run over her mother’s necklace, the beads twined delicately between a thin single braid.

 “This is pretty.” Krista breathed.

“It was my mother’s. Her necklace. It broke…and well…I have it there to keep her close to me.”

Krista was silent, her fingers stilling in Mina’s hair for a few seconds, before she pulled all the wayward pieces off of her shoulders, letting the curls fall down her back, securing the ribbon in place, around the nape of her neck, bringing it up behind her ears, before tying it at the top of her head to act as a headband.

“Thank you.” Mina said again, hands coming up to run her finger over the ribbon, skin prickling with guilt over Krista’s hesitant gaze. “I’m sorry again that I jumped. My mother used to love brushing and braiding my hair. It just…reminded me of her.”

Krista was quiet again.

“That must have been nice.” She said, her voice distant, low, an edge to it Mina didn’t recognize, hardly sounding like herself. “It makes me wish my mother had done the same.”

 

 


 

 

Mina fiddled with the material of her dress again as she moved down the corridors, feeling unsteady in her pace, out of place as she felt the hem of the material brush against her bare legs, felt the warmth on her arms, an uncomfortable lightness to her body without her baggy clothes, without her uniform buckled up to her limbs.

She swallowed, suddenly wanting to cover herself back up again in her slacks and oversized shirt,  a brief panic in which she wished to wrap up all the parts of her now exposed.

Her pace slowed as she heard voices, coming to stop and lean against the wall before she rounded the corner, recognizing the familiar tones.

“What is taking her so long?” Niklas’s annoyed grumble sounded out.

“Nanaba already explained to you that she had to go change.” Miche said with a sigh.

“I should go look for her.”

“Niklas.” Miche scolded softly. “She’s fine. Stop worrying.”

It was quiet for a few moments.

“Why is he with us again?” Niklas grumbled.

 

The reply came from a different voice, low and unimpressed. “I can hear you, you know.”

 

Mina swallowed.

 

“I thought you’d have better things to do than babysit us.” Niklas bit back.

“I’d rather watch the grass grow.” Captain Levi’s deep voice had Mina still.

“So you are babysitting us? “

“I’ve got to make sure you’re on your best behaviour.”  Levi’s reply was sardonic.

“I’m always on my best behaviour.” Mina could hear the playful lilt in Niklas’s voice, and could only imagine the distaste on the Captain’s face in response.

“Niklas.” Miche sighed. “One day. Can you just rein it in for one day?”

Niklas scoffed. “I was in a lovely mood earlier, actually. Positively ecstatic. That was until I found out i would be stuck in a carriage with him for over an hour.”

“And you think I’m jumping for joy at the idea?” Levi drawled back.

“The day you jump for joy at anything is the day I wrestle a titan to the ground with my bare hands.” Niklas muttered, and Mina distinctly heard Miche’s awkward cough, as if trying to cover up a bite of laughter. “Seriously. It’s like you suck the joy out of every room you enter.”

“I hope you realize the number of laps I am going to make you run this evening just continues to grow the more you keep running your shitty mouth, Cadet.” Levi warned darkly.

“Niklas.” Miche cautioned again. “Give it a rest.”

“Don’t I have a right to be offended that you still don’t trust us?” Niklas bit back.  “You think I don’t know why the Commander stuck Captain Levi with me and Mina? He still thinks we’re going to use this as an opportunity to pull something.”

“The Commander doesn’t think you’re smart enough to pull off anything.” Levi said dryly. “He just wants me to keep an eye on all the idiots.”

“Ah!” Niklas cried. “I’m telling Mina! Cause you’re keeping an eye on her too, right? Wait till she hears this. She won’t think so highly of you then.”

Niklas mumbled the last sentence and Mina winced at the silence that followed.

Mina inhaled sharply, before turning abruptly around the corner, making her footsteps heavier, purposefully calling their attention to her in the hopes that Niklas wouldn’t say anything more now she had arrived.

She felt their eyes staring at her, and Mina was suddenly aware of everything again, of her exposed skin, the shape of herself underneath the dress, the hair pulled back off of her face, unable to grasp onto anything to hide.

She bit her lip as she came to a stop.

Niklas’s stare was incredulous.

“You lose a bet or something?” He asked with a scrunch of his nose.

Mina’s hands came together, fidgeting.

“No.” She mumbled, averting her eyes. “Krista helped me pick it. Nanaba said I should wear something different.”

Niklas blinked.

“You’ve never…dressed like this.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

Niklas stared over her again, his brow furrowed, expression muddled. “No. It’s…nice. It just…odd. Different. You look…different.”

Mina shrugged.

“You look lovely Mina.” Miche said gently, offering a small smile.

Mina’s cheeks flushed. “I bet Nanaba would made fun of me like this, right?”

Miche’s smile grew. “You know her well.”

Niklas tilted his head again as he regarded her.

Mina’s eyes moved finally, to look at  Levi, leant up against a stone pillar a little bit away from her, dressed in dark dress pants and a white button up shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his forearms, his ankles crossed together, arms folded over his chest, his eyes looking over her quickly,  wide as she caught his gaze.

He tore his eyes away hurriedly, turning his head, Mina just catching the bob of his Adam’s apple as he swallowed.

She hadn’t been aware of the way his eyes had not left her since the moment she turned the corner, not aware of the way they had been following her intently since the moment she first came into view.

She bit her lip and glanced away.

It was quiet.

“You all good to go?” Miche asked.

Mina nodded.

“Well, the carriage is waiting for us outside.”

“I’m going to go in the next one.” Levi spoke suddenly, pushing himself off of the pillar, face tense as he glanced quickly at Miche. “You go ahead.”

Miche frowned. “The Commander expected you to watch over these two today.”

Levi moved his gaze.

“It wasn’t a direct order.”

“It might as well have been.” Miche countered. “I believe he told you to keep them in your sight at all times?”

Levi huffed quietly under his breath. “It’s ridiculous.” Levi muttered. “We both know they’re not going to try anything.”

Mina shifted awkwardly as Niklas made small noises of agitation under his breath, rolling his eyes at Mina.

“And if the Commander catches you leaving after us?”

“Then I’ll deal with it.” Levi muttered tensely, shooting Miche another look. “You’re fine without me.”

“Levi.” Miche’s expression shifted, eyes narrowed in confusion. “Where has this come from so suddenly? You’ve been waiting here with us to leave and there wasn’t a problem up until now. If something is wrong, I need to know.”

Levi shook his head. “I’ve just realized I’ll feed myself to the titans if I have to spend an hour with this one.” He jerked his head over to Niklas. “I’ve had enough of his attitude.”

Miche furrowed his brow.

“I’ll stop if you ask me nicely.” Niklas flashed him a grin.

Mina continued to play with her fingers.

Miche continued to blink at Levi’s skulking figure. “What is going on Levi?”

“I…I need to sort something out.” Levi took a few awkward steps forward, swallowing again. “I left something…I need to …get it. Before we go. You go ahead without me.” His words were practically a ramble as Miche’s brow continued to furrow, his gaze growing more bewildered.

“Fine by me.” Niklas muttered. “Let’s go Mina.”

Levi was unable to stop his eyes from glancing over at Mina again, a subtle flicker in his gaze, one she missed as her attention was on Niklas.

Miche did not miss the movement.

He stilled.

“Niklas.” Miche said slowly. “Next time Mina wear something different, you should probably refrain from calling it odd.”

Niklas shrugged. “Well for me it is. Not used to seeing her dressed like…a girl.”

Mina pursed her lips, mildly offended at his words, thought she realized her outfit was out of the ordinary.

“She looks nice Niklas.”

Niklas shrugged again.

Miche pressed his lips together, eyes glancing back over to the dark haired man, whose hands were in his pockets, stare cast down.

“Doesn’t she Levi?”

Levi’s head snapped up to meet Miche’s gaze.

Miche titled his head as Levi’s brow furrowed.

“Doesn’t Mina look nice?”

Mina blinked, shifting from foot to foot, suddenly wishing her hair was framing her face again so she could let it fall forward to hide herself underneath it.

Miche continued to smile as he held Levi’s stare, trapping him to answer.

Levi swallowed again, giving a short, sharp nod, eyes not turning back to Mina as he cleared his throat, his response stiff and awkward, almost robotic. “Yes.”

Miche smiled again, more so to himself.

Mina felt the flush on her cheeks spread down her neck.

“Can we go now?”Niklas whined, running a hand through his hair. “We were promised a great day out and so far I’ve had to stand here staring at you two.”

Miche ignored Niklas’s taunts, simply nodding before glancing at Levi again. “We’ll meet you there then?”

Levi nodded tersely.

“Okay, here we go!” Niklas said, pulling Mina by the wrist gently, as she wrenched her eyes away from Levi’s back and turned to follow after Niklas, hearing Miche follow closely behind.

“Got to beat the lunchtime rush Miche! I can never get away with anything when there’s a big crowd…Mina however is much stealthier.”

“Niklas” Miche warned darkly.

Niklas rolled his eyes. “Lighten up!”

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

The market place was heaving, packed with people, sounds, smells, colours, all an overload on Mina’s senses as she recalled the last time she was here, the memory almost painful.

 

 

Last time…

I was looking

For a target.

I was watching.

Waiting to make a move…

Holding my breath…

Sick to my stomach.

Today.

I can just…breathe.

 

 

Mina glanced around, at the people similar to her, young woman in dresses, enjoying the sunshine, enjoying the sights.

Mina could not be as oblivious as them.

But, if even just for a second, with her own money in her satchel and able to take in her surroundings with no ulterior motive, Mina could almost imagine how carefree it must have felt to be like them..

 

Mina stayed close to Miche and Niklas, the day trip already having an impact on Niklas’s mood, the young man talkative and animated, holding conversations with Miche as they remarked on various buildings and sights.

She was acutely aware of Captain Levi following close behind them, having arrived not so long after their own carriage pulled up, not having said a word since he joined them, keeping a few steps back, so that anyone who happened to glance over would assume he was wandering the markets solo.

Mina turned her attention, peering past Niklas and Miche’s broad frame at the group ahead, the rest of the cadets trusted to wander around the markets at their own leisurely pace.

Jean, Connie and Sasha stuck together as a trio, Mina watching as Jean seemed to scold the pair often, Sasha stopping at every food stall and pointing excitedly at the all of the many options, Connie often making wild gestures which Mina guessed were sometimes inappropriate, Jean having to physically drag them away on some occasions.

Mikasa and Armin stayed closed together, walking slowly side by side, seemingly not taking in much of what was offered around them, often glancing at one another, their lips moving quickly in conversation.

Mina watched Krista’s blonde head bob around the different stalls, Ymir following closely, her tall figure stooping down over Krista’s shoulder as Krista would call her attention to point at something. Mina watched at one point as Ymir slung her arm around Krista’s shoulder, pulling the small girl close, letting her small blonde head rest on her shoulder.

Reiner and Bertolt moved as a pair also, taking their time to let their eyes wander over everything, not speaking much to each other, seemingly regarding everything with a quiet curiosity.

A few other cadets scattered around sporadically, and Mina found herself catching Hugo’s eye, which she had done so a handful of times, in training, in the canteen, moving past one another in the halls.

Hugo was always the first to hurriedly look away.

 

Mina finger’s drifted down to the satchel at her side, feeling its weight and hearing the gentle clink of the coins as she walked.

 

 

Money.

My own money.

I didn’t steal.

I didn’t blackmail.

I earned.

It’s just….

Mine.

 

Mina was barely acknowledging the sights , sometimes letting her eyes linger over a piece of jewellery or a leather accessory, but not quite understanding how to go about spending this money she now regarded as irreplaceable.

 

I don’t….need these things.

I don’t need anything here.

I’ve always taken what I desperately needed.

Only ever that.

Now…

I can buy what I want?

After all these years.

All my life.

To just…spend it.

It feels like a waste.

 

 

Mina pursed her lips again.

“See anything you like?”

Mina blinked as Miche turned his head to glance at her, offering a smile.

Mina shrugged.

Niklas was rubbing the back of his neck.

“Weird isn’t it?” Niklas regarded Mina, throwing her a knowing look. “Having our own money to spend? Where do we even start?”

 

 

They continued to pace slowly forward, the smells growing stronger as they approached the food stalls, tangy spices and warm herbs, pungent savoury smell of meats, the fresh, earthy scents of dairy and bread, sickly sweet wafts of pastries and cakes.

Mina’s eyes almost watered at the over-stimulation.

A different, distinct smell caught Mina’s attention and she turned, catching the eyes of an old woman, smiling at her from across the path, stood behind a wooden stall laden with different shaped and color loaves.

Miche caught her gaze.

“Want to have a look?”

Mina nodded hesitantly as he ushered her closer.

The old woman’s smile grew, her eyes crinkling at the corners.

“Beautiful day, isn’t it Dear?”

Mina smiled politely, her eyes scanning over the hunks of bread, the smell of cinnamon and ginger growing stronger.

“Would you like to try some?” The old woman gestured across the front of her stall and Mina smiled awkwardly, shifting slightly as her hands moved, unsure how to politely decline.

“It’s fruit bread. All different kinds.” Miche mumbled quietly behind her, recognizing the unsure expression on Mina’s face.

Mina blinked. “Really?”

Miche tilted his head and nodded.

“This is Jasper’s favorite food.” She whispered, coming closer.

“What would you like to try?” The old woman beamed across at her.

Mina shook her head slightly. “I’m okay, thank you. My friend…would like some of this.” She tried to converse clumsily, hands fumbling with her bag.

Her eyes glanced over the bread again.

“I’m not sure which one…”

“We have orange, apple, apricot, fig…” The woman continued to list off the flavours, pointing them out to Mina, whose eyebrows crinkled, biting her lip.

“I….don’t know what he likes….how much for a piece of each?”

She relayed the price and Mina nodded, fumbling in her bag again to find her coins, using her fingers to count the right amount slowly, her face screwed up in concentration, as Miche smiled fondly at her side.

“I have enough.” She nodded, dropping the coins into the woman’s open palm, who moved to carefully cut up the breads and spoke about how lucky Mina’s friend must be, before depositing the food into a paper bag for Mina.

Mina smiled again gratefully, thanking the woman, ignoring Miche who laughed at her as she turned, unaware of Levi’s eyes on her from a few feet away.

“That was nearly all your money, wasn’t it?” Miche said, raising an eyebrow.

Mina smoothed down her skirt absentmindedly. “Yes.”

“The whole point of today was for you to have a little bit of fun getting something for yourself.”

Mina shrugged. “I don’t need anything.”

Miche shook his head, glancing over at Niklas, who had become distracted, leaning up against the post of a stall and talking animatedly to a blonde haired woman. Mina’s eyes flickered over to him, watching his charming smile and tilt of his head, the blonde haired woman laughing as she stared up at him.

Miche chuckled lightly. “That doesn’t look like it’s his first time.”

“It’s not.” Mina mumbled, following closely behind Miche as he helped pushed through the growing throngs of people.

“That smells good.” Miche commented, turning to look at a stall to their right, full of pastries and cakes.

Mina didn’t recognize the smell, it was sweet, but unlike the citrus, fruity smells earlier on, and distinct from any sickly vanilla scents.

She furrowed he eyebrow.

“What is it?”

Miche blinked at her. “It’s chocolate.”

Mina’s face was blank. “I’m not sure I’ve heard of it...”

Miche’s eyebrows rose, almost laughing, before he shook his head. “It’s good. Expensive though. Just one of those will probably cost you that whole bags worth of stuff.” Miche nodded to her earlier purchase.

“It does smell good.” Mina agreed.

Miche smiled. “That’ll teach you for spending all your money on someone else. Next time, yeah?” He glanced over to pinpoint Niklas once more, realizing he hadn’t looked over at the man in a few minutes.

Mina looked also to see Niklas’s hand now resting gently on the woman’s forearm, smiling at her as he jerked his head to the left, pulling her gently with him as they began to retreat away.

Miche sighed. “You have got to be kidding me.”

He turned back to Mina with an apologetic look. “Captain Levi is right there. “He nodded over at the dark figure a few feet away. “I’ll go deal with Niklas. Don’t go too far.”

Mina nodded, watching his tall figure disappear into the crowd, turning back to the stall where she lingered over the chocolate treats, enjoying the smell once more.

She glanced at the Captain out of the corner of her eye, his hands deep in his pockets, gazing at the stall in front of him, seemingly not watching Mina, although she saw his feet step closer as she began to edge away to her left.

She sighed to herself, the smells and throngs of people suddenly overwhelming, the warmth of the sun, the colours, and the noises all overpowering her senses.

A wave of lethargy had suddenly hit, and Mina felt oddly light headed and distant form her body, an ache behind her eyes, thrumming at the back of her skull.

She looked around for a break in the crowd, for a respite from all of the stimulates, her eyes spotting a bench a few feet away, tucked up under the shade of a tree.

She turned, to see Levi looking down, not watching her, but she knew he was close enough to hear if she spoke.

“Captain Levi.” She addressed him steadily.

He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye.

“I need to go sit down.” She gestured over to the bench. “Just for a few minutes.”

He straightened up, brow furrowing as he looked at her.

“My head hurts a bit.” She said lamely, shifting from foot to foot.

His brow furrowed deeper but he nodded, and she ducked her head gratefully, hurrying through the crowd to take her seat in the shade, letting her shoulders drop and hunch over, clasping her hands together in her lap as she stared at them, gaze following the scars.

She closed her eyes, enjoying the sudden coolness on her skin, the prickle of a chill, the feeling of the ground beginning to steady and limbs returning to their weighty self now that she was off of her feet.

She waited a few moments, breathing steadily, willing the ache in her head to dissipate, finding it harder to block out when she wasn’t training, when she wasn’t pushing the rest of her body, the pain of physical exertion always overcoming many of her mental aches.

She opened her eye suddenly, sensing a presence in front of her, straightening up in her seat when she saw Captain Levi standing a few feet away.

He wasn’t looking at her, his head tilted up and angled slightly to his right, a twitch in his jaw, his Adam’s apple bobbing with each hard swallow.

Mina blinked.

His left hand was deep in his pocket; his right was holding something, clutching the ends of a paper bag.

“I’m just a bit tired.” She said weakly.

He didn’t respond, face still partially turned away from her as his fingers tightened around the bag.

He cleared his throat.

“Here.” He said gruffly, abruptly, right arm jutting forward roughly to present the bag in front of her.

Mina blinked, staring at it, not moving to retrieve it from his grasp as she didn’t quite understand what he was trying to do.

It was quiet between them for a few moments.

“Well.” He said again, voice rough, almost as if he was angry. “Are…are you taking it or not?”

Mina blinked again, fingers twitching as she stared at the paper bag, as if it were a strange, unknown entity.

“I don’t understand.”

“Miche is right.” Levi grumbled, still looking away. “You shouldn’t have spent all your money on someone else.”

“I didn’t want anything…” Mina trailed off as she saw Levi’s face tighten.

She hesitated a few more seconds, before her hand finally came up, to take the bag cautiously from his grasp.

His fingers released it to her instantly, his arm dropping, stuffing his hand into his pocket, turning his whole body to the side so that he was facing away from her.

Mina held the bag lamely in her hand for a few seconds, swallowing, unsure as she watched Levi’s tense figure.

She finally moved, placing it on her lap, carefully unrolling the crumpled top, pulling it apart to peer inside, the smell hitting her instantly.

“From the chocolate stall?” Mina asked softly, her voice quiet in bewilderment, her heart beginning to thump loudly.

Levi responded with a humph of acknowledgement.

“Is it…for me?”

Levi’s head tilted up towards the sky as he released a sharp sigh, features twitching  as his jaw tightened.

“Yes.” He said again, short and abrupt.

“Why….” Mina trailed off as Levi pursed his lips.

“You…You should have spent your money on something you wanted.”

Mina blinked. “Miche said it was expensive. I can’t take-”

“Just take it.” Levi’s voice was a bite of exasperation, his left hand moving out of his pocket to rub his forehead in agitation.

 

 

Is he…

Angry with me?

 

 

“Thank you.” Mina whispered, the smell enticing her as she opened the bag once more, taking out the small crumbly pastry, the chocolate centre melting and oozing on her fingertips. “Do…do you want some too?” Mina offered lamely.

Levi made a noise at the back of his throat, a sharp shake of his head as he tilted his chin up again. “It’s yours. Just eat it.”

His words were abrupt and terse and Mina fumbled before she took a bite.

The taste exploded on her tongue, her eyes widened, and Levi couldn’t help but glance over to watch her reaction.

“It’s good.” She nodded softly, taking another bite, catching Levi’s eyes. “Are you sure you don’t…”

Levi moved his gaze away again, shifting. “No. It’s….too sweet for me.”

 

The air was heavy and still, a thickness hanging between them as Mina took another bite, her brain scrambling to find words, usually the one to cause and sit in the awkwardness, not normally the one trying to find anything within her to break through it.

 

 

Should I thank him again?

Offer to pay him back?

Give him something I bought earlier?

What do I say?

 

 

“Do you not like sweets?” Mina almost grimaced at her lame question, her words unsure and stuck in the air as Levi shifted again, nose scrunching slightly as he gazed off into the distance.

“Some.”

“What sort?”

Levi blinked, throwing her another glance, his eyes drifting and lingering across her mouth.

“You have some…” He spoke quietly, slowly, before he trailed off awkwardly, eyes shifting away and clearing his throat. “I like…vanilla…lemon.”

Mina blinked at his equally awkward reply, sitting still as the chocolate began to drip down her fingers.

 

She was broken out of a reverie when she heard a cry, her head snapping around to see a young boy, of about five years, on his knees on the stone floor, mouth twisted, red flushed cheeks, and tears pouring down his face as he screamed.

Mina flinched, as if to move to help him, before she stopped herself.

A woman came hurrying over, her arms outstretched as she swooped down to pick him up, gathering the child to her chest and muttering into his ear, hand coming up to cradle his head and gently stroke his scalp.

A man approached soon after, an arm coming up around the woman’s shoulder to pull her closer, gazing at the boy in her arms, hand moving to stroke his cheek, leaning his head close to talk to him.

 

Mina stared, unblinking, watching intently as her heart churned and warped almost to breaking point.

Levi followed her line of sight, glancing between the family and Mina’s vacant, hazy stare.

 

The man smiled, his finger coming to poke his son  gently in his cheek, pulling back to offer the young boy a funny face, letting out raucous and silly noises.

The boy’s face broke out into a grin, the tears halting, a loud bubbly laugh escaping from his lips as he watched his father, laughing at his expressions with sudden joy.

The mother smile fondly at the pair, coming down to kiss her son’s forehead, while the father moved closer again, pressing his face into his wife’s hair.

 

Mina swallowed thickly, the ache in her chest almost paralysing her, before she managed to tear her eyes away, looking down at the floor.

Levi watched the softening of her features carefully.

 

“There you are!”

Mina looked up suddenly to see Niklas approaching with a grin, Miche following slowly behind.

“He’s ruining my fun.” Niklas jerked his finger back at the tall blonde man behind him, who held a look of strong disapproval.

“I did that poor girl a favor.” Miche countered.

Niklas shot Miche a glare as Mina sighed.

Niklas came to a stop, tilting his head at Mina. “Hey. That looks good.” He looked at the pastry in her hand. “Can I have some?”

Mina’s eyes flickered to Levi, who looked away quickly, turning his body to stare off to the side once again.

Miche regarded Mina curiously, staring at the familiar sweet in Mina’s hand, brow furrowing in confusion.

Mina pursed her lips. “Just a bite.” She muttered as Niklas threw himself down into the seat beside her. “It’s mine.”

Her eyes flickered to Levi again, Miche still watching her, catching the quick, barely there movement of her gaze.

He blinked.

“Yeah, yeah.”  Niklas said, leaning in to take a bite from Mina’s hand, pausing as drew closer to her.

He let out a laugh as he peered at her face, the chocolate smears on her chin and streaked at the corner of her lips.

“You’ve got it all around your mouth.” Niklas chuckled as Mina frowned. “Honestly, Mina. How old are you again?”

He licked his thumb and began to wipe at her face as she tried to pull away, causing him to laugh louder.

Miche watched, his eyes dancing between Mina and Levi’s figure, watching the way the dark haired man kept his back facing them, his arms crossed tightly over his chest, staring out into the distance with an unreadable expression.

Miche pursed his lips to hold back the smile.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

A loud voice called to Mina as soon as the young woman had disembarked the carriage upon returning to the castle grounds.

Mina stood awkwardly, watching as Nanaba came hurrying over, a bemused expression on her face before she stopped in front of Mina’s small figure, hands on her hips, eyeing her up and down.

“So…did I hit my head? Or did you?”

Mina blinked at the question.

Nanaba gestured to her dress. “What’s with the fancy get up?”

Mina furrowed her brow. “You’re the one who told me to change.”

“Sure as hell wasn’t expecting this.” Nanaba said with a head tilt.

Mina’s hands came to the hem of the skirt again, fidgeting with the light material.

Nanaba sighed. “It’s nice, don’t get me wrong. Just not my style. Maybe I preferred the old look.” She eyed her exposed limbs wearily “Hey. No one gave you any funny business, did they?”

Mina blinked again.

Nanaba jutted her chin forward. “If any sleazy guy tried anything on with you, I promise you I’ll track them down now and make them regret even looking in your direction.”

Mina was startled, not picking up on the playfulness in Nanaba’s tone. “No.  I was fine.”

Nanaba rolled her eyes.

 “Are you being nice Nanaba?” Miche’s voice suddenly sounded from behind Mina, flashing Nanaba a warning look.

“Of course. She looks beautiful, as always. All grown up. Very proud of her. All that crap.” Nanaba grinned at Miche.

“Can I go give these to Jasper now?” Mina mumbled, fidgeting with the bag in her hands.

“And you come back bestowing presents? What did you get for me?” Nanaba beamed at the woman.

Mina blinked, her features slipping with a slight panic. “I’m sorry Nanaba, I didn’t-

“Mina.” Nanaba sighed, clapping a hand down on her shoulder. “I’m kidding. It’s fine” She raised an eyebrow. “Here I was thinking you were getting better with the whole sarcasm thing.”

“She’s tired. She’s had an eventful day.” Miche muttered, to which Mina bit her lip and Nanaba threw the tall man a curious glance.

“So can I go?” Mina enquired again, looking up at the pair hopefully.

Miche hesitated and Nanaba sighed.

“It’s getting late…”Nanaba started, eyeing Mina’s wide eyes. “I suppose…as long as you come back and don’t miss dinner, okay?”

Mina nodded eagerly, clutching the bag tighter.

“I mean it!” Nanaba wagged her finger at the girl. “Back here for dinner.”

“I promise.” Mina nodded, glancing at Miche who smiled in agreement, before she turned quickly to head off towards the infirmary.

“Remind me to never become a parent.” Nanaba muttered with her arms crossed. “Too much worry.”

She glanced again at Miche.

“Eventful day, huh?” Nanaba muttered, siding up to the tall man as they watched Mina’s figure disappear.

Miche hummed in agreement.

“And I missed all the fun?”

Miche smiled slightly.

Nanaba gazed at him curiously again.

“Seriously? Did something happen?”

Miche let out a small chuckle. “They were all just over excited. I had to stop that one from sneaking off to who knows where with a woman under his arm.” Miche jerked a finger at Niklas who was chatting animatedly with Jean and Connie off the side.

Nanaba raised an eyebrow.

“Sly dog.” She muttered.

“I doubt Erwin thought that was going to be my biggest concern of the day.”Miche muttered as Nanaba laughed.

It was quiet for a few moments.

“That’s all?” Nanaba asked again, peering at Miche out of the corner of her eye.

Miche hesitated, his own gaze swivelling quickly to Levi, who was just stepping out of his carriage with his usual sullen expression.

Miche turned back to Nanaba. “Like I said, they were just a bit carried away with the excitement.”

He shrugged.

“Nothing else to report.”

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

“Eh…eh…x...kit….” Mina tried to break apart the letters slowly, making the sounds she thought should be spoken, her brow furrowed deeply as she couldn’t work out how to turn the letters into anything familiar. “Eh…eh….”

She threw a glance at Armin, who sat closely next to her, the blonde boy watching and waiting to see how far she could manage to sound out the word without him needing to intervene.

 He smiled, peering closer at the book, letting his finger come up under the word and trail along slowly as he spoke out loud.

“Eh…X…site…ing.”

He broke the word apart into recognizable sounds, and Mina’s brain suddenly clicked.

“Exciting?” She asked with a blink.

Armin nodded. “Yes! It’s a tricky one.”

Mina nodded.

“Try again from the beginning. “He encouraged gently.

Mina nodded, finding her place again, sticking her finger under the line so as not to get lost while she spoke. “She….had….f…fff…fun….play…playing….the…game….it…was….ve…very…ex…exciting.”

Amin nodded. “Better!” he said. “You’re doing really well.”

Mina flushed slightly under his wide eyed bright smile.

He nodded eagerly again.

“Keep going”!”

Mina’s lesson with Armin had become a regular occurrence, meeting together in the common room, or hanging around after meal time to pull up a seat next to each other, Armin’s arm laden with books, papers and pens as he grinned warmly, enthusiasm always rich in his tone, starting each lesson with an encouraging affirmation.

They always started with reading, Mina making her way slowly through the pages of the children’s book Armin had supplied for her.

She was slow, speaking almost robotically as she struggled to sound out the words, face scrunched up in concentration as she got stuck on unfamiliar combinations of letters, or sentences too long for her brain to handle, suddenly becoming overwhelmed then with even the easier words.

Armin always talked her through it, vibrant as he encouraged her to keep going, keep trying, offering hints and clues, until the points where he would graciously intervene and sound out the word for her.

He did everything with a smile and patience, looking even more excited than Mina appeared to be when she finally got a word right, never rushing her slow and stuttering pace.

After, he would shove a pen into her hand and smooth out a piece of paper in front of her.

He would make her copy passages from the book, indicating the sentences to write out, which words to repeat again and again.

He helped her practice common words and names, suggesting different familiar objects found around the castle grounds and asking her to try and spell it out by herself, breaking it apart for her verbally.

Mina’s writing skills were even more under developed than her reading, her spelling nearly always wrong, the words wobbly and sloping, gripping the pen awkwardly as she struggled to keep the letters close together or all printed in one size. Armin continued his gentle praise, celebrating every small victory with her.

Mina was experiencing a different kind of ache, a pressure in her skull, a stinging of her eyes, a thrum in her head from the straining and concentrating and inpouring of new information to memorize.

Armin recognized when her mind would fatigue and often offered breaks, or offered to completely pack up the lesson all together.

Mina was always keen to keep going and to end the lessons as late as possible, always asking if Armin was okay to stay a few minutes longer, to go over a sentence one more time, or to help her copy out a word just once more.

It was slow progress.

But it was progress none the less.

 


 

 

 

Mina had taken to carrying her book under her arm on her visits to Jasper, offering to read him a page or two for practice.

Jasper had been as sympathetic and as tactful as a young boy could be when Mina explained she wasn’t able to read very well, his eyes wide and solemn, affirming that he was happy for her to practice with him.

However, he lacked the patient Armin held and often found her pausing, stuttering and creased forehead more amusing than he liked to admit, lips pursed as he listened to her pronounce a word wrong, struggling to remember he was supposed to be correcting her.

Jasper had grown a lot stronger, now permitted out of bed multiple times a day and able to walk around unassisted and gently exercise, which made the stints in which the doctors ushered him back into bed unwelcome and aggravating. He found himself still pent up with too much energy, and unfortunately for Mina, he often let it out with her.

“F….F….no wait…Th…rog…huh…throghuh.” Mina’s face contorted in confusion as she sounded out the unfamiliar word.

Jasper pursed his lips again.

“Let me see?”

Mina slid the page over to him, pointing at the word.

His face broke, a peel of laughter bursting form his lips, not the first time Mina had heard him laugh at her mispronunciation.

“I’m sorry.” He apologized again; face still cracked with laughter as Mina blinked at him with a blank stare.

“I’m not laughing at you, I promise.” He tried to hide his face.

“Yes, you’ve said.” She responded dryly.

“I swear Mina.”

She almost rolled her eyes.

“Here.” He pointed to the word again. “Th…rew…It says through.”

He offered her another apologetic smile as she blinked at the word.

“Through.” She repeated.

He nodded.

“I’m sorry. I’m supposed to be helping you.” Jasper’s face had turned more serious again as he noticed Mina’s downcast gaze.

“It’s fine.” Mina said.

“I think I’m going a bit stir crazy stuck in this bed is all.” Jasper shifted uncomfortably.  “I’m just bored. And this is the only bit of fun I’m having lately. This and when you bought me all that bread! Hey…are you going back to Stohess any time soon?”

Mina blinked vacantly, recalling his gratefulness and awed expression as she burst into his room with the breads from the market, the young boy almost crying with gratitude as he shared the sweets with her.

“Right.” Jasper nodded at her expression, another playful grin on his faced. “No more treats for Jasper until he becomes a better teacher.”

“It’s not your fault.” Mina sighed, playing with the ends of her hair as she stared at the pages.

“Mina, don’t be sad. Please.” She gazed at his pleading expression. “You’re doing so well! Like seriously, it must be so difficult! But you’re trying really hard and you’re not doing as bad as you think. Honestly!”

Mina nodded.

“I don’t mean to laugh, really. It’s just…nice to see you a bit more human, is all.”

Mina swallowed, averting her gaze, a sudden iciness pricking under her skin.

 

 

 

A bit more…human?

Am I….

That out of place?

That different from you?

From everyone here?

Can you all see it?

 

 

 

“I didn’t mean like that!” Jasper said quickly, noticing Mina’s shift in expression.

“I just mean, it’s nice to be better than you at something is all. You kick my ass in everything else. It makes me realize we all have our weaknesses. And that’s okay. It wouldn’t make sense if we were all the same!”

He offered the encouraging words with a smile, which Mina feebly returned

It was quiet for a few moments, Jasper watching as she turned her attention back to the book, reviewing the last few sentences she had gone over.

“You seem….better?”

Mina looked up at Jasper’s apprehensive face.

“I’m fine.” She said steadily.

He smiled softly. “Mina.”

She swallowed.

“You know I can see it. And…you would say the same to me…for me. You wouldn’t let me keep…lying.”

Mina tilted her head to the side, knowing his anxious gaze during the first week of visiting had been on the shadows under her eye, the haziness in her gaze, the restlessness in her body.

But her nightmares were becoming less frequent, she found it easier to stomach food again and her new learning venture was keeping her mind occupied for most of the day.

“I’m…doing a bit better.” She said lamely, an almost guilty smile on her lips.

He nodded.

“It’s good you’re learning new things.” He offered, before his eyes wandered over her outfit again. “Trying new things, I guess?”

“Don’t start.” She grumbled, recalling how he, like Niklas, had been confused when she first entered his room in her light blue dress.

Since the day in Stohess she had been making adjustments to her wardrobe. The oversized shirts were now a forgotten pile on her floor, Mina adorning herself in dresses, skirts and short sleeve button ups, finding her fingers fiddled less with the material, finding her body held itself straighter, realizing that she didn’t cross her arms or rub anxiously at the scars down her right side.

“You shouldn’t worry about me Jasper.” She gently scolded him again. “Focus on yourself.”

“That’s rich coming from you.” He bit back playfully before pulling a face. “I’m not a baby you know. I’m doing a lot better too!”

Mina nodded. “I know.” She said gently. “It’s good.”

“It is.” He agreed, staring at her intently, holding her gaze. “Let’s keep getting better, yeah? Both of us…together.”

 

 

 


 

 

 

Mina took to reading by herself for most of the day.

Armin’s daily visits grew shorter as tensions rose between the Scouts and the Military Police, his anxieties and various meetings with the Commander meaning he had to excuse himself with a sympathetic smile and a promise to try and find more time for her the next day,

Miche and Nanaba grew busier also,