Beyond these walls, death awaits…
Mounted on your horse, you behold Karanese’s front gate, your heart pummeling against your ribcage. Before long, this monumental structure shall be hoisted, and you, along with your fellow comrades, will venture into the Titan-infested lands, in a seemingly futile endeavor to reclaim human territory from the beasts. Indeed, their abominable appearances and vast numbers are daunting, but you are more concerned about the fact that there will be severe casualties - it’s the inevitable outcome of every expedition, after all.
…The question is: who will it claim?
Incoherent chattering of the local residents swirls around you as your gaze travels downwards, only to be greeted by the grim demeanors of some of your friends. No doubt they are just as apprehensive as you are, though one expression stands out from the rest, and it has caught your attention. Turned over his shoulder, Armin stares at you with utmost solicitousness. Right when you are about to ask what troubles him, a nearly hushed profanity enters your earshot, which causes you to glance at its origin. Thus, the blond boy frowns, and rivets his eyes straight ahead.
”What is it, Jean?” you inquire, a mix between curiosity and worry lacing your voice.
Disquieted, the said teenager blinks at you, droning, “This whole damn thing…it can end badly, you know?”
”Yeah,” you respond in a lower tone.
”I mean, there’s no guarantee we’ll be back in one piece,” he states, brows knitted together.
Gulping down a lump, you murmur, “That’s true…we do lose a lot of comrades during expeditions.” You pause for a brief moment, taking in a breath. “But I highly doubt that something will happen to our squad.”
Truth be told, you have spilled such words in attempt to boost Jean’s morale. You’ve witnessed the tragic fate of crestfallen soldiers countless of times. Their judgement gets clouded by the bleakness, which then banishes every rational thought from their minds. They often lay down their swords, allowing the enemy to devour them. You do not wish to see that happen again.
”Well, I trust in our squad leader’s experience.” You turn your head just enough to able to look at him out of the corner of one eye. “Besides, you seem to forget how skilled you really are.”
With a barely audible grunt, Jean averts his gaze back to the front. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to you, Armin’s scowl deepens, for he has been listening to your conversation. Nauseous, he cannot fully fathom the revolting feeling that slithers in his chest, while a memory of Jean saving you from a titan now plagues his mind. As glad and grateful as he is that Jean had done such, he can't repel a bitter sensation from burning the pits of his stomach... He tries, a lot, but perhaps...yes, he is almost certain that neither he nor his capabilities are worthy of your acknowledgement, let alone to help you. They aren't worth your praise, surely. It hurts; his grip tightening upon the reins of his mount. If only he could prove himself to you, to make you realize that he is strong enough; a person who is meant to protect yo--
”OPEN THE GATE!”
The rattling of chains assaults everyone’s eardrums as the stone building is slowly being raised. When the path to the outside world is finally revealed, the Survey Corps departs from the walled stronghold, and Armin smiles at the idea that he has conjured up.
The pounding of hooves cuts through the air as your squad advances across the endless grasslands, rushing wind whipping your skin. Inhaling, you revel in the scent of untainted nature, though you are well-aware that this tranquil atmosphere threatens to falter at any given moment, only to be replaced with nothing but pandemonium.
”Remember, if we encounter titans, avoid them at all costs. Fighting them in an open area like this puts us in a great disadvantage. I don’t want any mishaps. Did I make myself clear, [Last]?” your squad leader hollers whilst leading the way.
Furrowing your eyebrows at the reminiscent, you answer, “Yes, Sir!"
Shortly thereafter, you catch sight of Armin staring at you again out of your peripheral view. But this time, dread does not radiate from his features. In fact, he gives you such a foreboding look that evokes a faint shiver within your spine. Hesitantly, you meet his gaze.
”Is…is everything alright, Armin?” you stammer.
Your question, concern in your tone, seems to snap Armin out of his ominous daze. He blinks, confused at first, but a smile soon sweeps across his lower face; as soft as it is, signs of a smirk try to unveil themselves.
"Eh? Oh, don't worry, [First]. I'm sure you'll be fine!" he assures you, rotating his head back forwards to watch in determination the horizon.
Huh? While I do appreciate those words, something tells me that-
A loud, harrowing roar suddenly fills the world around you, alarming your entire squad, interrupting your thoughts in the process. The source of such foul noise then comes into vision; a fourteen-meter aberrant, accompanied by a slightly shorter titan, charging at you from the side, shaking the ground violently with each footfall.
”Keep moving!” Your squad leader fires a black flare, and spurs his steed.
”Sir, they’re too fast!”
Soon, the two creatures stride over. The smaller one lunges itself at your squad leader, and creates a shock wave upon falling down on its stomach; it is clumsy, yet swift enough to grab the man before he gets the chance to escape. Subsequently, the cacophony of his wails and the horse’s neighs starts to reverberate through your bones as you, along with the remaining members of your team, take a sharp turn, all the while endeavoring to outrun the other monster.
”Those bastards,” you seethe. “Let’s just go back, and-“
”…And risk getting killed ourselves?” Jean interjects curtly, causing you glare at him. “Look, I hate leaving a comrade behind as much as you do, but we can’t fight here properly.”
You sigh, glancing away to the blond boy riding next to you. “Armin, do you have any suggestions?”
Now’s my chance, he muses.
”I got one, but it’s kind of a long shot…”
”Well, at this rate, we’re bound to attract more titans, and as you already know, we can’t fight them here…so we’ll head for the forest, but we’ll also need to split into two groups. You and I will try to find reinforcements, while Jean and the rest enter the forest. Titans will go for Jean’s group because there are more people in it, but they’ll be a lot easier to avoid or kill,” he explains, eluding all eye contact, sheer apprehension carved into his countenance.
Hopefully, the titans will kill-
Wait, what am I doing? I can’t just send Jean and the others to their deaths…[First] will never forgive me if they die…
”What are you, insane?”
”That's never gonna work!"
”Calm down,” you speak up firmly. “I don’t like it either, but Armin’s plans haven’t failed us yet. I say, it’s worth a shot.”
And so, without further objections, your squad divides in two groups; Jean’s group leads the pursuing titan to the forest, you and Armin going the other way.
In the end, Armin’s original plan has failed; the reinforcements have arrived in time and managed to rescue your squadmates. Nevertheless, he is grateful, for you have not received a single injury during the expedition, and neither did he. As he rides lethargically alongside you, marching through the streets of Karanese with the remnants of the Survey Corps, he offers you the gentlest of smiles, compelling you to do the same.
”You know, your plan actually scared me a little, making a gamble like that is something Commander Erwin would do.” You let out a laugh that’s more of an exhale of breath, placing your hand on the boy’s shoulder. “I never really doubted you, though.”
”Ah…thank you,” he mumbles, turning his head away from you, and his expression becomes grim.
Someone who can't sacrifice anything can never change anything. Accepting this sentiment hasn't been easy, but for you, [First], I am willing to sacrifice everything…even if it means forsaking my humanity.