"Is this really right?" Reiner asked stiffly. He stuffed his hands into his pockets.
"We don't have a choice," Bertolt reminded him. The two of them stood looking out at the Forbidden Forest, alone. "We have to follow his orders, Reiner, we can't back out now."
"I just…" Reiner trailed off, sighed, kicked at the ground with one foot and then took his hands from his pockets and placed them firmly on his hips. "No, you're right. We have to do this. It's for the best - we're warriors, it's what we were made for."
"Right." Bertolt nodded, glancing briefly at Reiner and then back to the thick expanse of the forest. "It's best to do this sooner than later anyways. If we leave it too long the others might get suspicious."
No-one knew where they were, hopefully hadn't realised they'd left their assigned posts, but they had to be careful, had to be quick. This wasn't the time for second thoughts, this was the time for action, and it would do them both well to remember that.
"What about her?" Reiner asked. Bertolt ran a hand through his hair and shook his head.
"No idea where she's standing. She has her mission, all we can do, really, is trust her."
"I don't know if we can."
"What choice do we have?" Bertolt said hotly, cutting off the tail of Reiner's words. Reiner was quiet then, the silence between them mounting thickly and uncomfortably until neither of them could take it anymore and they wordlessly began walking forwards, into the thick foliage.
The sun was shining, illuminating the melting frost and glittering enticingly; delicate and ephemeral, crunching and snapping under their heavy boots. Unlike the others, Reiner and Bertolt didn't need to be afraid in the Forbidden Forest - the creatures all knew to steer very much clear of them. Those who didn't take heed the last time they'd been here had been devoured in the last attack.
Reiner had been posted over the other side of the school campus, far enough that he wouldn't be suspected anywhere near here. He'd made sure as many people as possible saw him, too, made sure he had an alibi, just on the off-chance something went wrong. Bertolt was stationed further this side, but that was the plan. All they needed now was for everything to go well, it wasn't optimum, they didn't have all of the pieces they needed, but they had the tools to turn the tides.
That was the thing with these new titans, they would do almost anything they were told.
Sitting so closely to such a problematic woman was causing more problems than Armin thought it would. Originally, he'd intended to sit quietly at the far back of the classroom, out of the way, listening and observing the lesson as it progressed. That was, however, becoming increasingly difficult with how disruptive Umbridge seemed bent on being.
"Are you sure you should be teaching these students this sort of potion?" Umbridge asked in her sickly-sweet voice, tapping her quill against a sheet of unrolled parchment. Armin tensed, anticipating Snape's reaction. Snape had been getting more and more irritated the longer the lesson dragged on - clearly tired of the interrogation and clearly tired of his teaching position.
"It is perfectly suitable," Snape said, staring chillily at Umbridge, who paid no heed and continued to scribble things down.
"The Ministry probably wouldn't approve…" She muttered knowingly under her breath. Snape turned to write something on the board in chalk, it scraped achingly across the surface. Across the room, Armin could see Harry fumbling with some strange ingredient, tipping a little into his cauldron and looking guiltily around himself when the colour of his potion suddenly changed. Hermione noticed and shook her head at him, then, she turned to Armin and motioned for him to join her.
"I'm not sure I'm supposed to be interrupting lessons," Armin said nervously, glancing at Snape's back but not daring turn around to check what was currently occupying Umbridge's attention.
Hermione shook her head.
"It's fine, I just thought you might like a closer look."
"Oh, yeah." Armin smiled and shuffled a little closer to Hermione, looking down into the bubbling cauldron. "What exactly is in here?"
Hermione reeled off the ingredients with ease, she clearly knew what she was doing, which was more than he could say for the rest of the baffled-looking students, and although Armin hadn't a clue what any of them were and what any were doing, he found it fascinating to listen to Hermione explain it nonetheless. Though she didn't offer to let Armin stir the pot, nor did she let him lean too closely for too long. Armin found it endearing that she was so protective over her classwork - Hermione was very studious, and Armin respected her for it.
Snape, turning his attention away from the board, upon which he'd written a long list of ingredients and instructions in cursive white chalk, noticed Armin hovering around Hermione's desk right about the same moment he realised Umbridge was doing the same thing on the other side of the room. Armin could see Umbridge, from the corner of his eye, interrogating some of the Slytherin students - apparently her favourites if Malfoy's smug face was anything to go by.
"Mr Arlert," Snape drawled, his cape billowing out behind him as he strode closer, apparently having decided on him as the easier target. "Please do not disturb my students."
"Oh! Um - Right." Armin jolted in surprise at the attention, felt his cheeks heating up. He'd never really had a proper schooling, not in this sort of sense, and he'd never been told off by a teacher either. Despite the burning embarrassment, he kind of felt like he was making up for lost time and he couldn't find it in himself to really be offended at the normalcy he was being offered. Or about as normal as a magic secondary school could be.
"It's alright," Hermione told Snape. " I was just explaining the make-up of the potion to him."
Snape raised an eyebrow. He looked into her cauldron and Armin caught the slight shift in his expression before he covered it, saw the realisation Hermione's potion was one of the better ones, and told her to add a little more of something Armin couldn't pronounce, moving instead onto Harry.
"Professor Snape!" Umbridge called across the room before he could reach his mark, her voice high and shrill; grating Armin's ears. Really, he'd rather listen to Snape clawing at the blackboard in chalk than listen to her.
"Umbridge," Snape said shortly. He sounded bored. Armin noticed the tightness in his jaw under his pale skin as he turned to face her. Umbridge smiled at him, it was very obviously fake.
"How long did you say you've been teaching here?"
Snape told her.
"And you have been regularly applying for the Defense Against the Dark Arts position since your initial application?" Umbridge cocked her head to the side, very clearly already knowing the answer. Armin couldn't imagine what her aim was with this.
"Yes," Snape ground out, looking away from her and instead to somewhere distantly outside the window. Umbridge noted something down with a quiet hum. The classroom was silent. Armin felt uneasy, though he wasn't entirely sure he could pin it all on this.
"Any ideas why you haven't been successful?"
"Why don't you ask Dumbledore." It was intonated as less of a question and more of an imperative. Armin felt very much as though he wanted to leave and never come back.
The rest of the lesson passed just as uncomfortably. Umbridge sat in for a little more of the lesson, spouted some gibberish about the Ministry, and then took her leave, likely to interrogate her next victim. Armin couldn't have been any more grateful for the end of the lesson, it had been nice at first, learning about potions and such (which was probably the closest thing to a normal lesson one could get in a school such as this), but the longer it dragged after Umbridge's intrusion, the more uneasy Armin felt.
He figured that the feeling would go away once he got out of this dank, dingy, classroom and back up into fresh air. It didn't though. The feeling festered in his stomach, it felt familiar, but he just couldn't put his finger on it.
"Got your bodyguard, Potter?" Malfoy laughed as he walked past jauntily with his goonies. Armin didn't miss the way Malfoy purposely avoided walking near him, as though he was scared of being restrained like before again - he avoided eye contact too. Small victories, Armin guessed. They were on their way to Divinations, Harry's next lesson, and, since Levi had pretty much instructed him to stick to Harry until he came to talk to them, Armin was going too.
"Don't rise to him," Armin murmured lowly to him, watching Malfoy carefully as he careened past them and continued on his way.
"He's full of bollocks anyways," Ron huffed. Armin heard rather than saw Hermione slap Ron on the arm as a reminder to watch his language. Harry, who was walking slightly ahead of Armin, opened his mouth as though to say something and then shut it with a grimace.
Divinations, Armin found, was what he imagined being drugged to feel like. The air was so thick with fragrance he could almost see it and he'd only just stepped through the doorway. He coughed and covered his mouth with the crook of his arm.
"Is this normal?" Armin asked hoarsely.
"Yeah, mate, sorry."
"I don't understand why this is compulsory anyways," Hermione muttered under her breath. "Load of rubbish if you ask me."
"You don't like Divinations?" Armin said, surprised. Hermione's face scrunched in distaste.
"I just don't see the use of it. It has no real basis," she told him as she glanced carefully between Armin and the Professor, who sat at the front of the room, muttering.
"I mean it's magic isn't it?" Armin asked, "isn't that the case with all of it?" Hermione, throwing herself down into her seat, looked incredibly offended.
"That's not true at all! Magic isn't baseless."
"Then how is this any different?" Armin was genuinely confused. Surely if this glorified fortune telling was part of the school curriculum, the magical world, it must have its importance. Behind Hermione, Ron was making chopping motions across his neck, Armin figured he was digging himself into a hole he couldn't see here. Next to Ron, Harry looked miserable.
Hermione opened her mouth to retort and, even though this conversation was edging on an argument, Armin really was interested in what she had to say; the professor interjected, her warbling voice cutting over the chatter of students.
"Gather, gather, take your seats." The professor, Trelwaney, Armin had overheard, spread her arms wide and peered around the room with wide eyes framed behind thick glasses. She looked a little crazy, Armin thought, a little like Hange might in ten years if she carried on the way she was. Armin, realising he was still standing, took a seat at an empty desk beside Hermione's, he figured he needed a bench to himself to comfortably sit with his equipment.
As he took his seat, Trelawney began handing out thick, battered textbooks - though something told Armin they weren't battered from thorough reading. The Dream Oracle, read the front of the book. Armin opened the copy Trelawney seemed to have absentmindedly placed in front of him and flicked through it, scanning the pages quickly, looking out for anything particularly interesting.
Then Trelawney dropped the heavy stack, her face falling slack. Armin jumped, the sudden noise giving him an adrenaline rush, and his head snapped up to focus on her.
Trelawney turned to look at him.
"There… There is grave danger," she croaked out, it didn't sound natural. Armin felt a cold sweat break out, smothering his skin in liquid fear. That feeling was back, he could feel it, his throat closing up, his guts squirming, his hands clamming up. Something was going to happen, he could feel it.
Distantly, Armin could hear Hermione complaining under her breath; not this again, she said. Other students began talking amongst themselves, mumbling, muttering, all around him Armin had this sudden claustrophobic shock, like everything was circling on him, spinning, he felt heavy and trapped.
The door slammed open.
"Armin!" It was Jean. "Go, move now, move your fucking ass, let's go!"
"Jean!" Armin gasped, his body leaping up from his seat on pure instinct.
"Grave danger! You… You will die!" Trelawney cried out, her eyes partially rolled back in her head.
The students were silent.
"Armin, now!" Jean, face blanched, hands trembling, climbed through the entrance to the classroom, making his way straight for Armin, grabbing him by the arm when he was close enough. "Snap out of it, let's go. Titans - Titans are in - the Forbidden Forest, we gotta-"
The ground shook, the students screamed, Jean and Armin crouched low, covered their heads as blinding light beamed through the gaps in the thick curtains drawn across the windows. There was an unmissable roar; Eren.
"Everyone, stay put!" Jean ordered the room, still trying to bodily haul Armin away.
"Oh God," Armin said breathlessly, snapping out of his dumbfoundedness and watching as Trelawney collapsed against one of the desks, her body sagging down in exhaustion, looking as though she had no idea what had happened. "What's happening?"
Jean pushed Armin through the classroom entrance, followed after him, and the two of them broke immediately into a run; Armin prayed the students would stay put, Harry, Hermione, and Ron in particular. They always seemed to be at the heart of everything, but not this time. This fight wasn't for them.
"Bertolt - Bertolt was posted near the forest and he came running-" Jean broke off with a heaving breath, running slightly ahead of Armin to direct them. "He was terrified, they shouldn't have posted him alone near that Goddamn forest. But, yeah - he heard something suspicious, ran into the forest to check, and he - he saw a titan. Abnormal. Ran to the next post, to Sasha and relayed what he saw, asking for backup."
"Where's everyone else now?" Armin asked. There were too many stairs in this school, navigating it was impossible, so, taking the initiative, Armin withdrew his blades and decided to put his maneuvering skills to good use. Jean smirked at his decision despite his obvious fear and followed.
"Well Sasha sent up a signal flare which the next post saw, then all the posts on her side of the castle saw and converged; that's Eren, Levi, Sasha, Bertolt, and Mikasa currently engaged. Hange, Krista, Ymir, Connie, and Reiner have been told to remain on guard in case of multiple appearances."
"So plus us that's seven against how many?"
"Two titans confirmed. Levi ruled we don't need to take the others from their posts for that. If things worsen we'll send up flares but it shouldn't come to that."
"Are they sure?" Armin asked nervously., squinting against the sunlight. Now outside, Armin could almost feel the noise vibrations from Eren's angry growls.
"Yeah, for now anyways. Between Eren, Levi, and Mikasa we should be fine even without us helping. Anything could happen though, they need everyone at the ready."
Despite the reassurances, Armin didn't feel any better. He still felt uneasy, like something was going to go terribly wrong - not that there was any real way for a titan attack to go right, other than quick, successive take-downs. Adrenaline thumped through his veins; they used their gear where they could and ran when they had to, they were at the scene of the fight, not too far into the forest, in what felt like a second.
Eren towered over them, looming and violent, already locked in combat with a titan, almost as tall and twice as vicious. It had a sort of look in its eye Armin didn't think he'd be able to forget. It had a completely different aura from any of the titans they'd faced before. This one was far more beastly, more insistent, perhaps, even, more intelligent.
"Arlert, Kirstein, keeping heading north into the forest, team with Mikasa," Levi ordered as he noted their approach. Armin nodded, Jean grimaced, they did as instructed.
Despite the daylight, the forest was dark, slightly misty, full of overgrown foliage and thick trees - Armin wasn't sure how the titans were even able to move. What was more, where had they come from? They were barely a hundred metres into the forest and already Armin felt at least a thousand in, it was near impossible to stay locationally aware, it was as though the forest was its own entity, stretching on and on for eternity. The titans couldn't have simply wandered in. They must have been put there, but how?
"Mikasa!" Jean called, pausing on a branch high in a tree adjacent to the one Mikasa was perched in. Below them were footprints, small for the creature that made them, but no visible titan. Had she taken it down already?
"Stay put!" Mikasa called out to them. Jean seemed taken aback but took the message and Armin hoisted himself a little further up his own tree, making sure to remain within earshot.
"Where's the titan?" Armin asked, looking to Mikasa. Grimly, she pointed to a cave-like alcove Armin hadn't noticed before, its opening shrouded in vine-like plants. And, there, sticking haphazardly out, was unmistakably a titan's leg.
It was crouched, its back to them, clawing into something Armin couldn't see.
"What do we do?" Jean whispered, just loud enough for them to hear, looking from Armin to Mikasa.
"We need to lure it out so we have room to take it down," Mikasa told them. She was right, there would be no way to take the titan down from inside it.
"One of us needs to be bait then?" Armin mused.
"I'll go," Jean said suddenly, the terror in his eyes betraying his steadfast expression. In the near distance, Armin could hear shouting, the clanking of blades and the whir of wires, a roar cut off by a sickening crack. Then the thudding grew nearer and for a second Armin's stomach dropped, but then Eren broke through the trees, Levi, Sasha, and Bertolt on his shoulders and Armin felt relief instead. Maybe none of them would have to be bait after all.
The titan in the alcove froze as the vibrations of Eren's footsteps grew nearer, it scrambled out of its cave and seemed to contort itself grotesquely back to its regular standing height, the remains of some poor creature clutched bloodily in its hands.
That wasn't right. Titans were only supposed to consume humans. Considering the hesitation he could sense, Armin realised everyone else must be thinking the same thing.
And, in that instant of confusion, there was a flash of light, the titan lunged, the ground shook, the trees splintered apart and barrelling through them, the Armored Titan.
The plot is heating up my dudes, expect a bit of deviation from the canon materials from here on out (as though I haven't already, like, deviated madly by merging these things in the first place, haha)
See you (hopefully) next week! :)