Squad Leader Armin Arlert of the Survey Corps was the single most intimidating person currently in existence, Rena had no doubt about it. There couldn't possibly be anyone worse than that man. Rena had been part of his squad for months now but never once had she managed to look him in the eyes for more than a few seconds.
The fact that he could turn into a ten meter tall titan anytime he liked, paled next to the Squad Leader's frankly frightening intelligence and ice cold ruthlessness. His quickfire mind had both saved her and damned her comrades on multiple occasions. It was nothing but pure luck on her end. She wasn't stupid enough to believe anything else. Squad Leader Arlert was cold and distanced from his subordinates on a good day. Non of them held any delusions of favoritism. Rena certainly didn't.
In training they had heard that Squad Leader Arlert was colder than the inside of a frozen lake. That he brushed off the deaths of those under his command like they were nothing. That he would do anything to and everything “for the betterment of humanity”.
She had thought they were exaggerating. They hadn't been.
And he was good at it. She could see the logic behind every one of Arlert's decisions. He sacrificed or saved on split second decisions, putting the mission first and the lives of himself and his squad second. She wanted to be able to hate him for it. He was a bastard and didn't care about their lives, about her life or those of her friends. She hated that she couldn't. Because, as it turned out, their squad had the highest mission success rate to ever be recorded within walls and it wasn't just because they had a shifter on their side. Even their death rate was unusually low, but 25% were still 25%. Titans didn't stop eating you just because you planed for them not to do so.
She had know about that before she enlisted in the survey corps, sure. Or she had thought that she had. They had returned from their latest excursion with less than half of their original number. Among the dead – no, among the abandoned, the left behind – had been part of her friends from her trainee days. Ansgar, Hortensia, Lennart, and Lara. She wanted to shout at Arlert. Scream and cry and shake him for leaving them, but she couldn't. She knew that she was only still alive because of their sacrifice. They were dead now. Dead so that she and the rest of the squad could live, but Rena would not forget them. She would keep their memory alive, would not let them only be another statistic and a set of condolences letters. Even if all she could remember were screams.
Her steps echoed in the empty corridor and she walked a little faster, trying to outrun the shadows and the dark thoughts, if only for a minute. It didn't work. They clung to her like dirt, a stain on her mind that she couldn't – wouldn't – wash off. She wanted to forget but she couldn't let herself forget. It was a paradox and she hated herself for being so torn. Remembering was painful, almost unbearable but what sort of person would she be if she let herself forget her friends this easily? To put them out of her mind just so she could sleep a little better would be cowardly, and she would not let herself be a coward. She owed it to them to be strong for their sake.
When she passed on of a window and the light of the moon fell over her and she stopped for a moment. It was nighttime and the moon was waning so she couldn't see very far. The courtyard looked empty, nothing moved and no matter how much she strained her ears, she couldn't hear anything. It felt as if she was alone in the world, surrounded by thick stone walls and darkness.
The silence was both soothing and oppressive. It was good, though, that she was alone. She should not have been up and haunting the halls like she this. It was well past curfew and she wasn't a trainee anymore. Getting caught out of bounds would earn her more than just a reprimand and some extra laps to run. She didn't care.
She hadn't been able to sleep, plagued as she was by memories and – if she did manage to fall asleep – nightmares. Wandering the halls to think wasn't going to get her any rest but it was better than keeping the rest of her squad awake with her screaming. Not for the first time she wondered if she was really cut out for this job. If anyone could be.
She turned away from the window and walked on, taking turns at random, not caring about where her feet would take her or about finding her was back to the sleeping quarters. So deeply sunken in thought she was that she didn't notice her feet carrying her past the administrative offices and towards the COs' rooms. She only stopped when she heard a low noise from one of the rooms she'd passed. Startled, she turned back and walked over to the door she'd just passed. Who else would be awake at this hour? The door was leaning slightly open and she hesitantly glanced through the crack to see who or what had made the sound.
She slapped her hand over her mouth to keep herself silent. On the other side of the door, only just visible through the crack, stood a sofa. On it she could see the backs of the blond head of her CO, Armin Arlert and someone with brown hair who she can't immediately place.
She had wandered right up to her Squad Leader's private room. If he caught her here, there would be hell to pay. Slowly, she started to back away, trying to be as quiet as possible when she heard it again. This time she heard it clearly. Someone was crying quietly.
No, that couldn't be right. Arlert was not someone she would expect to comfort a crying... what? Subordinate? Friend? Who was that guy? Despite her urge to turn around and act like she never saw a thing, Rena stepped closer once more as her curiosity won over her better judgment. She leaned closer to the doorway and started to listen.
For a while there was only quiet sniffling and low murmurs that she couldn't hear quite clear enough to understand. She felt awkward, standing there, watching this stranger cry. It had to be the stranger, right? There was no way it could be... There was another low murmur and then,
“Armin, hey. That's enough.”
“But...” Rena's eyes widened. She had never heard her CO's voice this hoarse before.
“No, Armin. No 'but's. Hey, come on. Look at me. You did the best you could. You did everything in your power to make them all come home safely. I know this, because I know you. It isn't fair. It isn't okay, but it's also not your fault, do you understand me?”
“Eren...” Rena was very glad that her hand was still firmly pressed against her mouth, because she suddenly realized who the other man sitting on the sofa must be. Captain Eren Jäger was a legend. As the first known titan shifter and “Humanities Last Hope” he had made quite a name for himself and she'd so far only seen him from afar. She had heard that he and Arlert had been in the same trainee group but she hadn't realized that they were this close.
“Look, Eren. I know I did all I could but that's the point, isn't it? I should have been able to do more! I should not have to leave half my squad behind to save the rest! I should be stronger than this by now!” There was open, unrestrained emotion in that voice and Rena could hardly believe what she was hearing. Arlert sounded wrecked! She had thought the man to be emotionless and cold. Now she could see that not only was that not the case but he was actually crying. Rena's mind struggled to grasp the concept. When Jäger answered, his voice was calm and soothing, but his words were not.
“Armin, shut up. No one can save everyone. That's the world we live in. Commander Erwin couldn't. Levi can't. I certainly can't either. People will die. People will die for you. Because of you. You are a shifter, and that makes you more valuable almost everyone else. That is the way it is. You can hate it all you like. You know I do, too, but we can't change the fact.” Arlert shuddered and seemed to curl in on himself even more.
“How do you stand it? How can you... how do you live with it?”
“You live by honoring their sacrifice. By working twice as hard, to make it worth it. We cannot die, Armin. We cannot let them down. Not just because humanity needs us but because we need to remember that we are only here because others are not. If we give up, their investment in us was meaningless. That is how you live with it.”
"It's not fair.” Arlert's voice was so small Rena could almost not believe that it was him.
“No, Armin. It's not.” And there was something gentle in that tone that Rena couldn't quite decipher.
“Let's get you to bed, yeah? You need sleep. Tomorrow will be hard enough without you falling over from sleep deprivation.” Rena could see a blond head nod, then she heard;
“Stay?” The word sounded so vulnerable, she suddenly felt even more like an intruder. Like this was not something she should be seeing.
They got up and while they were shuffling about, getting ready for sleep, Rena finally tore himself away from the door and walked back to her own sleeping quarters. What she had heard that night would stay with her for a long time. Not only had she found out that, while outwardly cold, her CO was just as affected by the death and destruction around them as she was. It gave her a strange sort of comfort, just knowing that she was not the only one who suffered in silence. And then there was Jäger, whose words had struck a cord within her. “We need to remember that we are only here because others are not. If we give up, their investment in us was meaningless.”
If she wanted to honor her friends death, she would have to live on for them, make their sacrifice mean something.
Ansgar, Hortensia, Lennart, Lara. I will see to it that you are remembered. I will finish what we started. She thought to herself. And I will protect the Squad Leader and I will not die. He deserves at least one person who will do that for him.
Though, thinking back to the conversation she had overheard, she thought that roll might already be filled.