A/N: So...I'm terribly sorry about the wait, including those few who read any of my other stories along with this one. Holidays can be an exceptional bitch on folks like me, and this year was no exception. Regardless, I'm back with a new chapter, so celebrations are indeed in order.
I would have gotten this update out of the way much, much earlier but my damned extension cord has a nasty habit of shutting off at the slightest provocation, and I had to rewrite this six different times. Hell, I was happy with the first one, but nooo, it seems as though Fate didn't quite enjoy it as it was, so here we are, five attempts later. I'm uploading it now before my computer shuts off again!
Disclaimer and Warnings still apply from chapter one.
Chapter 3: Take a Chance, Make a Change
If this is what the next three years will be like, I'd rather be plowing a field, thought Mikasa Ackerman in vague irritation as she hung suspended from the training harnesses.
She and the rest of the cadets who hadn't already washed out had been awoken in the gray predawn hours for further weeding out...er...testing to see who was unfit for the Three Dimensional Maneuver Gear training. At first, it had been quite a thrill, leaning this way and that in order to find the sweet spot which would allow her to hang from the harness, but once she'd found it, tedium had quickly set in.
Fighting the urge to twiddle her thumbs, Mikasa glanced to her left, watching with no small amount of pride as Armin eventually found his balance, as shaky as it was. She caught his eye and made sure to give him one of her rare smiles. Many of the others were holding themselves up quite nicely as well, including the guy with the hair fetish and Potato Girl.
Or rather, Jean and Sasha, as Eren insisted she call them.
Speaking of Eren, she thought, turning to the right, where, several stations away, Eren was...
She resisted the urge to unclip herself from her wires and beat some sense into the fool. Everyone else had more or less gotten the hang of...well, hanging properly from the harness, and yet somehow, Eren was ramrod straight with his hands behind his head and looking up at the sky.
From his horizontal position.
Oddly, Mikasa had the bewildering desire to emulate him to see if she could do the same, but before she could, Shadis spotted his antics, and the vein in his temple began throbbing a staccato beat against his skin.
"Jaeger!" he bellowed. "What in the name of Maria's nylon pantyhose are you doing?"
"Maintaining balance, sir," Eren replied in a tone that most would hear as polite and submissive, but she (and Armin, more than likely) could hear the amusement dripping from his voice. "As was specified in our exercise parameters."
"Exercise parameters dictate that cadets must be in a vertical position in order to pass this portion of the test, Jaeger," Shadis bit out, visibly reining in his frustration. "Perhaps you could demonstrate a vertical position for the rest of your fellow cadets."
By now, most of their squad was watching the by-play, most with expressions that were equal parts humor and incredulity.
Shrugging lightly, probably so as not to jostle the wire, Eren suddenly flipped so that, rather than hanging parallel to the ground, he was perpendicular...with the back of his boots facing their head instructor's less than amused expression.
"Jaeger," Shadis growled warningly, but Eren seemed to be just as confused as to how he'd ended up as the rest. Mikasa saw a brief look of understanding flicker across her foster brother's face, and in half an instant, Eren was spinning around again, narrowly missing kicking the beard off Shadis as he rotated to an upright configuration.
He wobbled dangerously for several tense seconds before he eventually got it under control. Mostly.
Mikasa could see the small vibrations in Eren's wires as he constantly shifted his weight around to compensate for...something. Her own harness was about as still as a mountain pond, and yet Eren looked jumpier than those rabbits they used to trap in near Zhiganshina's forests. Well, she used to trap them, at any rate.
"Stop shaking, Jaeger," Shadis commanded.
"Can't, sir," Eren protested, shimmying his hips in a rather provocative, if entirely accidental, way, and Mikasa pulled her scarf higher to hide the slight flush she felt creeping up her neck.
Frowning, Shadis gestured to the two instructors maintaining the harnesses, who dropped Eren to the ground. "Get out of that gear," he said, and once Eren had complied, the bald man inspected the cradle thoroughly before unhooking the entire contraption from the wires.
"What happened?" Sasha asked curiously from Mikasa's other side, and the dark-haired girl simply shrugged, mystified.
"Looks like you've got some faulty gear," Shadis proclaimed, showing a metal clasp to Eren, who peered down in interest. "The lynchpin for the upper thigh harness had bent."
"So...was I doing it wrong, then?" Eren asked, and he and the rest of the cadets almost jumped out of their skin when Shadis let loose a booming roar of a laugh. Of course, Mikasa didn't so much as flinch, but she was just as surprised as any of them that their instructor could even chuckle, let alone give such a proper belly laugh.
"I doubt some of the fully-fledged Garrison members could have managed to stay with their head above their waist with such disabled gear, let alone stay parallel to the ground as long as you did."
Eren's grin brightened his face. "So I did well?" he wondered hopefully.
Instantly, Shadis' mirthful attitude vanished behind his drill instructor's mask of rage. "Don't expect any points for this, Jaeger!" he warned adamantly. "Now that you've shown your aptitude for the 3DMG, we'll be expecting nothing less than the best from you." The grizzled veteran tossed the cradle at Eren, who caught it with his face. "Take that to the armory, and make sure you let them know where the defect is so they can make a note of it."
"Sir!" Eren snapped off a quick salute before jogging southwest, toward a brown-brick building near the center of the training compound, flashing her a thumbs-up as he passed her.
"Alright, next batch!" shouted one of the instructors, and those hanging in the training harnesses were set down to make way for those who still hadn't taken this first test. Mikasa gratefully slipped out of her cradle and headed over to where Armin was just eschewing himself of the straps.
They made their way to the back of the crowd, where Armin smiled at her.
"You got the hang of that really fast!" he praised, then quickly added, "No pun intended."
It brought a wry smirk to her lips. "Of course not," she answered. "You figured it out well enough yourself."
"I dunno about that," her blonde friend answered, rubbing his arm self-consciously. "I think Springer's the only one who was slower than me in finding the right balance."
Mikasa sighed internally. One of the few things she disliked about Armin was his horrid self image. It seemed that he was the only one who wasn't able to see how canny he could be, and he was startlingly quick on the uptake of any situation they found themselves in. It was just as bad as Eren's reckless impulsiveness. Both needed to grow out of it, and if she had to beat one with the other to drill it into their heads, then she would, with only a little hesitation.
"Have you noticed anything...odd about Eren?" Armin asked, and Mikasa had a niggling suspicion that it was more to change the subject than anything else.
"Other than the fact that he seems to have grown a sense of equilibrium overnight?" Mikasa shot back, thinking about Eren's balancing act. "He didn't seem as standoffish last night with the other cadets."
"Yeah, you're right. I thought he would have blown up at the way they were badgering him about that day, but he just...he took it surprisingly well."
"Indeed," was her short reply, for she had begun to replay that scene in the mess hall over again in her mind's eye. Now that she really thought about it, Eren should have erupted at least twice in that hour or so, at least, the Eren she knew.
That quick afterthought sent her stomach for a cartwheel, as though she'd missed a step on a long flight of stairs. Is Eren outgrowing me? she thought with no small amount of panic. Has he suddenly changed too much to need me?
"Mikasa, are you alright?" Armin asked, voice suddenly full of concern.
"I'm fine," she deflected, a little too quickly, and she nearly winced. Casting out for a different topic, she shot Armin a sidelong gaze with a slight upward quirk of her lips. "So I noticed that you're eyes seem drawn to that bored girl over there."
Armin turned bright red as he chuckled weakly. "Was I that obvious?"
Mikasa shook her head, internally breathing a sigh of relief. "Most wouldn't have noticed it. I only did because I've known you so long. I suppose you could do worse," she shrugged.
"Come on, Mikasa," Armin snorted, his blush fading. "I don't even know her name, it's not like I'm going to woo her or something like that."
"Woo?" Even after years of practice, Mikasa couldn't help the short giggle that escaped her lips and cracked her calm facade. "Armin, you really need to stop reading those old romance novels."
Armin's blush returned with a vengeance. "Oh, shut up, Mikasa."
Eren thumped his head in irritation as he returned from the armory, cursing himself for not having better recall. His days as a cadet had been so long ago that his faulty harness had completely slipped his mind. He wasn't supposed to have the skill and balance needed to stay up even with messed-up gear yet. Hell, off the top of his head, only a few very gifted soldiers would have been able to do something like that before things had all gone to hell.
Forcefully drawing his mind away from those dark times when riding on defective gear was the norm rather than the exception, Eren tried to divine what else he'd already changed. Two days back and I'm already screwing with things, he thought dryly.
The most obvious and least important change was the fact that Mikasa hadn't lopped off most of her hair, which to his surprise had been pulled into a neat braid. When he'd asked her about it, she had replied, in clipped tones, that apparently her bunk mates were rather fond of her shiny hair.
Grinning, Eren shook his head. He figured that the main culprits behind that were Mina and Historia...er...Christa. Rubbing his nose as his smile disappeared, he realized that this would be incredibly more difficult than even his father's pessimistic predictions had warned.
I'm going to need to write all this stuff down, he thought. Top of the list: Don't call Historia by her name. That would be all sorts of awkward, and he doubted he was quick-witted enough to fast-talk his way out of that one. He briefly considered letting Armin know about his time jump, but then discarded the idea. He'd come back so that his friends wouldn't have to be burdened by that horrible future, not push it back onto them as soon as he was back.
Face it, Jaeger, he told himself. You're on your own on this one. And with that wonderfully bright point made, Eren suddenly felt the weight of just exactly what he was trying to do settle firmly across his shoulders. It was like lifting that boulder in Trost, but ten thousand times more crushing, and an iron band wrapped itself so tightly around his chest that he was at a loss for breath.
He literally had to lean against a nearby wall and breathe deeply several times before he was calm enough to think rationally again. I can do this, he repeated to himself over and over. No...not I can do this...
"...I have to do this," he finished out loud, the sound of his own voice bolstering his confidence. "I have to do this. I'm not going to waste the sacrifices of my friends. This time will be different."
With his fire rekindled, and his purpose restored, Eren straightened up and headed toward the cluster of new recruits, who were just then finishing up the initial 3DMG testing. Spotting Mikasa and Armin near the back of the group, he altered his course and headed their way.
As he watched, Armin flushed crimson and Mikasa's face gained downright mischievous cast. Drawing closer, Eren saw Armin's eyes flicker to the left, and he followed his gaze, curious.
His eyes settled on Annie Leonhardt, and his teeth ground together. They never had been able to wake her up or break her out of that chrysalis, even when everything had still been reasonably good. Grisha himself had been stumped, and the Female Titan had spent the rest of her days trapped in a crystal cocoon of her own making, eventually buried in the ruins of Stohess.
Seeing her now, Eren realized that he would need to come up with a plausible game plan regarding her and the other titan shifters. It would be difficult, even with all his knowledge of that other timeline. Bertholt and Reiner and Ymir had eventually returned from their village outside the Walls, bringing with them roughly a hundred other shifters. The resulting fight had been brutal, bloody, and one of the easiest he'd had to face, which just went to show how shitty it had all gotten near the end.
If he could get the other shifters on his side before it all went up in flames, he knew that he could avert the destruction of the Walls and save humanity.
Ridding himself of such thoughts for the moment, Eren figured that it wouldn't hurt to spend a little time with his friends, and smirked at Armin as he drew level with them.
"Already scouting for the future Mrs. Arlert?"
"You too?" Armin practically whined as he rounded on Eren.
"Ah, loosen up, would you?" Eren teased, clapping Armin on the shoulder. "She's quite pretty, actually." A brilliant idea struck Eren, and he said, "Why don't you go talk to her?"
Armin looked mortified. "Wh-what!? I don't even know her!"
"Then introduce yourself," Eren urged. If Armin struck up even a friendship with Annie, it would give him an excuse to start testing the waters, so to speak. They already shared barracks with Bertholt and Reiner, but if he could start forging ties with Annie as well, it could prove to be quite the boon to his mission.
Ymir, he would have to give some thought, but he figured that even in the last timeline, her first priority had been Histo-Christa. There had to be something there he could use.
"I can't just march up to some stranger and say, 'Oh, hello there. My name is Armin,' all willy-nilly!" Armin argued vehemently.
"Isn't that what you did with me?" Eren pointed out with a grin.
"I was four!"
"Yeah, and now you're twelve. That's three times the experience, so it should be a lot easier."
"Your logic astounds me, sometimes, Eren," Armin deadpanned.
"There isn't much to lose, really," Mikasa pointed out, and Eren shot her a grateful look. "As I see it, there are two outcomes. The first is that you form an acquaintanceship with this girl, which over time might become something more. The second is that she wants nothing to do with you, and that will be the end of it."
Armin looked like he was at a loss, and Eren mentally pumped his fist in victory. The blonde could ridicule his thought process all he wanted, but it was pretty hard to find fault with Mikasa's input.
After glaring at his friends in mock-betrayal, Armin set his jaw, squared his shoulders, and nodded. "You're right, Mikasa."
"Hey, what about me?"
"As I said, you're right, Mikasa. I'm going over there to introduce myself. Wish me luck."
"You don't need luck," Eren declared, fixing his friend's collar. "You're Armin Arlert of Zhiganshina."
After-Action Report: I know that I said this chapter would go through all the 104th squad's training and everything, but as I began to really focus on mapping out the plot, I realized that it would take a lot longer. As you can see, Eren's starting to really think about the repercussions of his actions, even something as small and insignificant as leaving Mikasa's hair long.
The main conflict, I think, in this story is going to be internal, rather than external. Yes, of course there will be bloody battles and epic Titan brawls, but the main focus is going to be how Eren deals with having to avert the crisis which occurred in his native timeline, and one of the biggest points is going to be whether or not he will be able to deal with all the planning and pressure alone, as well as dealing with his own residual pain from the future past.
I hope it's as fun as it seems, because I'm looking at one hell of a rollercoaster ride with this one. Oh, and by the way, I'm glad some of you caught that FUBAR reference. I thought it was too funny an opportunity to pass up. Anyhow, I hope you enjoyed this update, and I truly, truly appreciate every single favorite, follow, and especially review this story has garnered so far.