The next instant will decide everything. We'll be gambling everything on this single attack.
Just What Else Needs To Be Thrown Aside is back, everyone! Apologies for the longer-than-usual hiatus. I was traveling through Europe for the past month, and haven't had as much time as I would have liked to write!
That said, while I haven't listed this story as 'complete' yet, from here on out I will only be writing chapters as they occur to me. I have a couple half-developed ideas, but I'm in no rush to write chapters for the sake of writing chapters, so I'll be waiting for inspiration to strike before I put pen to paper and add further to this work!
I'll probably be working on my alternate-universe Attack on Titan fic primarily for the next few weeks. If you like Star Wars, you might like it, so be sure to check it out here: s/10268284/1/Flaming-Water-Frozen-Earth
This chapter was inspired by the two things—my interest in chronicling some of Armin's earlier character development, and the question of how Armin might have responded to Eren's apparent death during the Battle of Trost. I was also interested in developing early interactions between Annie and Armin further, seeing as their conversation in Episode 16 of the anime during the titan test subject investigation implies that they're on somewhat familiar terms already. Chronologically, I also thought it would be neat to take a look at Armin immediately after he's just proved himself by saving the entirety of the 104th with his plan to retake the headquarters. I like to think that this moment was when Armin began to realize what kind of risks were necessary in order to fight the war against the titans. It fits in nicely with the canon storyline, at any rate!
As always, thanks for reading. Enjoy, and don't forget to favorite, review, and follow!
Chapter 8: The World the Boy Saw
Ragged cheers rose up within the supply basement—slow at first, then growing in strength and energy as more and more of them came to their senses and realized that, against all odds, they had survived.
A wooden ramp fell against the stone ground with a crash, and the pack of youths stumbled as though sleepwalking from the central elevator. Gasps and cries of relief gave voice to the jubilant disbelief that seized them as the trainees milled around on the floor of the warehouse, scarcely daring to believe that the seven decomposing titan corpses surrounding them were real, and that their desperate gambit had worked.
"We—" a girl exclaimed hesitantly, "…we did it!"
"We got them all!"
"Everyone, stock up on supplies—we're safe now!"
Muskets clattered to the ground, their muzzles still smoking, cast aside by the young soldiers as the first of them began moving towards the gas propellant tanks. Others, still digesting their escape from what had seemed like certain death, stood rooted to the ground, staring off into space as they reflected on the terrible fate that they had just avoided. Tears of relief, fresh grief, or both glistened on more than a few pairs of cheeks.
At Armin's shoulder, Marco suddenly sagged backwards. Armin and another trainee rushed to catch him as he sank to the ground in a dead faint with an expression of complete exhaustion written across his face.
As Armin stood amidst the crowd of his fellow soldiers, dimly absorbing the fact that trainees whom Armin had never spoken to before were clapping him heartily on the back, even yelling exuberantly in his ear, he became aware that his own legs felt suddenly as weak as twigs. The nightmarish weight of responsibility upon his heart as he had formulated their desperate attack—that weight of responsibility had lifted, vanishing and carrying away with it the specters of his worst fears from just a few moments ago. Frozen in astonishment, motionless as a statue, oblivious to the crowd tending to Marco at his side, Armin contemplated with shock the audacity of the operation that they had just carried out.
There was no mistake. Gas was still hissing as it leaked from two storage tanks, one perforated by a stray blast of lead shot, the other ruptured as a falling three-meter class titan had collapsed in death against it. Pockmarks dotted the brick walls and columns around them. The air was still full of the smell of smoke and burnt black powder from their musket volley. The clearest proof of all, however, were the seven slain giants sprawled across the floor of the garrison headquarters basement, filling the room with hazy steam as they dissolved.
"The titans aren't coming in! That berserker abnormal is keeping them out!"
"Let's get a move on!"
"Fill your tanks! We'll take it all!"
Bertholt and Reiner appeared in the dim light, Bertholt even giving Armin a lopsided smile as the two tall trainees made their way past through the mob. Reiner simply returned Armin's gaze, an approving gleam in his eyes. The two of them still carried their 3DMG blades, edges shining with the steaming titan blood they had drawn.
The sight of their blades, stained with gory crimson, finally drove the truth home for Armin.
Suddenly, he felt like sinking to his knees alongside Marco. Had he really done it? Had he really just saved everyone here? Were they really going to make it back to the top of the inner wall after all?
A part of him was euphoric, exulting in the fresh chance at life that his plan had bought them all. Another part of Armin, however, tempered his happiness with a touch of acute, almost acidic horror.
Had one of the titans been only partially blinded… or had there even been nine titans instead of seven in the supply room…
They had lived, but the margin between life and death had been decided by sword cuts just inches deep, delivered simultaneously in midair by seven picked trainees in a dimly lit room. His had been a plan that had demanded perfect execution. How on earth had everyone trusted him, even as he gave them directions that seemingly sent them to a near-certain death?
At that moment, Armin saw Mikasa break away from the group, walking off alone from the mob of trainees already busy refilling their gas canisters, her posture all but screaming that she wished to be left undisturbed.
That was when Armin remembered that one face in particular was conspicuously absent from among the crowd of youths filling the basement.
He, Armin, was alive… but, after today, life would never truly be the same.
Feeling the threat of grief's onset, Armin resolutely pushed his feelings aside. The anguish of loss had paralyzed him earlier that day, and once was enough. The time to mourn would come, but not now. Swallowing the swollen lump that had been rising in his throat, he stepped away from the other trainees, deciding that he, too, would prefer to resupply in peace.
Armin was far from unique in seeking the comfort of a little solitude. A short distance away, Armin spotted Jean and Marco sitting together off to one side of the supply room, talking softly as they refilled a small stack of 3DMG canisters. Jean's expression was hard and dark, set in a survivor's frown. Even the optimism in Marco's inaudible speech carried an unmistakable hint of weariness.
Walking further, Armin came across several other trainees—some wandering the basement in a shocked daze, others shedding tears alone in the privacy of the shadows. One soldier he passed, an older trainee, sat serenely on the stone floor as though bowed in prayer. Only when Armin drew nearer did he realize that the other soldier was weeping profusely, bent over the bloody body of a fellow trainee from the supply unit.
That was when he realized that more fallen forms could be seen all around them, clumped singly or in huddled pairs. His heart accelerating at the sight of the crimson patches spattered across the ground and nearby walls, Armin quickened his pace and averted his eyes. As though by design, however, a dead soldier seemed to materialize wherever he turned his head. Here in this part of the room, it appeared, was where much of the trainee supply unit had met their demise. Spotting the corpses slumped in dark corners or hidden behind the great storage tanks, Armin could see plainly how the last survivors had been dragged one by one from their hiding spots as they scrambled around the room, desperately throwing themselves into any crevice, any crawlspace that offered a hope of safety.
Shuddering, Armin had increased his pace yet again when a faint metallic ring just ahead made him flinch in surprise and fear. He froze in fear, briefly terrified that an eighth, hidden titan might have just emerged from behind the row of gas storage tanks. An instant later, however, Armin's eyes found the source of the sound.
In front of him, a girl with her blonde hair in a bun stood alone with her back towards him, quietly fastening a 3DMG gas canister to a storage tank's pressure hose. As she twisted a small valve to allow the gas to flow, the trainee looked over her shoulder, her eyes flashing briefly in recognition as she spotted Armin behind her.
"Annie…?" Armin breathed.
Holding the transfer hose apparatus in her hands, Annie Leonhart turned to face him.
"Armin." she said simply.
Armin was surprised to find her here in this secluded corner, and judging by her expression, she was just as startled by his unexpected intrusion. Briefly, Armin wondered if she, too, had been looking for an opportunity to be alone for a couple minutes. He glanced at her again, but saw no sign of distress. Her eyes were tired, but not tearful. The tension in her shoulders revealed only a grim focus, betraying no trace of hidden fears or feelings. Her movements even carried a certain energy, as though she was still more than ready for further fighting. All things considered, she appeared to be coping well with the day's events.
He supposed that he wasn't surprised. Annie tended to keep to herself even under the best of circumstances, after all.
As he stood there, Annie frowned. She inspected him for a moment, then moved her head slightly to point out the bank of compressed gas tanks behind her. "There's a full crate of canisters around the other side," she told him.
Conscious of the awkwardness of their encounter, Armin moved in the direction that Annie had indicated, retrieving two of the long cylindrical gas canisters from the container. Hesitantly, he walked to Annie's side and reached for the adjacent transfer hose, pulling it towards him.
As she moved over a few inches to make room for him, Annie commented evenly, "That was a smart plan."
Armin thinned his lips in response. He didn't look at Annie as he replied, "I'm glad it worked." He attached one of his canisters to the hose and checked the pressure seal. "Even then, if it hadn't been for you and Mikasa, we'd all have been eaten…"
The broken corpses of the trainees from the supply unit resurfaced in Armin's mind at those words. How long would it have taken for the titans to hunt him, Mikasa, Annie, Marco, and all of the others down and subject them all to the same fate, had his plan failed? He shivered as he imagined what might have been their last moments—a terrifying chaos as they scrambled around the room, trapped and screaming, making futile, desperate attempts to fight or flee, implacably pursued by the heavy footsteps of the three-meter titans...
A soft hiss escaped from the transfer hose as he opened the valve and the tank began to fill.
This basement might easily have been their grave.
At that moment, Annie finished replenishing her first canister, sealing it before reaching for a second. Her next words took him by surprise. "I don't think so."
When Armin turned towards her, confused, she continued, "What do you suppose would have happened if two or three titans had been left alive after the surprise attack?"
Joining her new gas canister to the transfer hose, she spoke again before Armin had a chance to answer. "Even assuming there were still three titans, it would have taken them several minutes to hunt down and eat all of us."
"I could have used the confusion to take a set of maneuver gear from a body from the supply unit. Then I would have taken down the rest of the titans."
Just then, the hubbub of chatter from the crowded center of the room intensified, and Armin caught a fragment of the conversation as Sasha raised her voice in awe, exclaiming that she wanted to know Mikasa's secret to remaining so controlled in the face of the titans. Several other trainees laughed, Connie making a reply that Armin couldn't discern from across the chamber.
She opened the valve. The motion dislodged a lock of blond hair from behind her ear, letting it fall to join the fringe of her bangs. "I'm sure Mikasa or Reiner had the same backup plan in mind, you know."
It was possible. Armin didn't doubt that the possibility had occurred to Mikasa.
"Even so…" Armin murmured, "dozens of us could have been eaten before—"
Annie cut him off gently. "But it would have worked either way. The important thing was reducing the number of titans inside the basement with your attack plan."
Armin looked over to his right, where the nearest of the slain titans lay, its flesh melting away beneath a cloud of vapor. If anything, Annie's exploration of the worst possible outcome had only made him infinitely more thankful that events had gone as smoothly as they had.
"I guess you're right…"
Armin realized that the flow of gas had changed in pitch, announcing that the canister he held had been filled beyond capacity. Hurriedly, he screwed the pressure valve shut, then released some of the extra propellant. His fingers slipped, and the excess escaped all at once with a barely-controlled blast of compressed air. Scowling at his own carelessness, he sealed the tank and set the refilled vessel aside.
Annie noticed his clumsiness, but said nothing.
Suddenly, she turned to look at him, and Armin momentarily thought that he saw something… something peculiar behind her eyes. When she opened her mouth to speak a moment later, however, Annie turned away.
"Thomas, Milius, Mina, Eren… are they really all dead?"
Armin's breath caught in his throat.
The inquiry sent an acute shock through every emotional nerve in his body. Just as the initial reaction wore away, however, the physical response arrived riding furiously on its heels. Suddenly, Armin could hear his heartbeat in his ears, accompanied by an oppressive, constricting grip around his chest that seemed to seize him with greater and greater force. He wavered as numbness overran him completely, plunging him into ice from head to toe, and it was all that he could do to remain standing as the vivid images from the past few hours flashed through his mind.
He remembered a broken voice that had not sounded like his own gasping out:
The members of Trainee Squad 34…
With every death, he had felt a thousand doors to the future slamming shut.
Thomas Wagner, Nack Tius, Millius Zermusky, Mina Carolina, and Eren Jaegar…
He had never imagined that it was possible for someone he knew so well, somebody he had shared years—a whole childhood—with to die so cruelly and painfully, right before his eyes.
Those five… have fallen in the line of duty!
His entire being had rejected the implications of the death he had witnessed, struggling with all his might to wake up from the terrible dream he had found himself living.
A shadow fell upon Annie's face as she realized what kind of a reaction she had provoked. She looked down at the apparatus in her hands, and a long moment of silence passed before she spoke again.
"I'm sorry about Eren."
Another involuntary shudder of hurt rocked Armin briefly, and he felt his eyes burning.
"It's not fair…" Armin found himself murmuring. "He wanted to make a difference, but he didn't even get the chance…"
A kaleidoscope of emotions flashed continuously through his heart, their impressions lingering no longer than the individual sparks of a sputtering fire. He swirled amidst the currents of his warring feelings as though foundering, buffeted and tossed about by his horror at how that morning's hopes had taken the form of a living nightmare, by his guilt over having lived after so many others had died, and even by a pathetic, petty, yet fierce anger at how Eren had so thoughtlessly left him to fend for himself in this desolate, doomed world so utterly without hope…
A part of him was crying out for any form of comfort, yearning for the solace of an understanding embrace. Adrift in a sea of sorrow and loneliness, he found himself wishing above all else for some measure of sympathy—for the familiar, reassuring consolation of his grandfather's arms, for Mikasa's rare, stern, yet steadfastly sincere grip, or even for the unthinkable, unknown qualities of a quick hug from Annie Leonhart.
Annie, however, did not move. Standing still in the dim light, with the reflected glow of the torches flickering upon her locks of hair, she simply let out a small sigh. "Could it have ended any other way?"
Almost imperceptibly, she lifted her head with a small motion. "Why else did we call him a suicidal fool? I think we all knew what would happen."
A ghost of a smile twitched at the corner of Armin's lips at Annie's mention of the nickname.
Just at that moment, one of the oil lamps hanging from the warehouse room's vertical supports sputtered out, and their corner of the basement became a shade darker. On the stone floor around them, a pair of the shadows at their feet winked out, melting into the gray surface.
Armin shook his head, and he felt his sad smile turn rueful. "I guess we'll all be joining him soon, wherever he is."
At that, Annie's head shot up completely. Her eyes, lit with sudden shock, fixed on Armin's.
Armin anticipated her question and quickly cut her off as she was opening her mouth to speak. "I guess I can't imagine how humanity can possibly survive now…" he admitted. "Once we lose the land inside Wall Rose, it's only a matter of time before..." He sighed.
Something wild and aggressive, almost primal, briefly manifested itself inside Annie's blue irises. Her mouth thinned defensively, as though stung by Armin's admission, and Armin remembered that what had motivated Annie as a trainee up until this point had been her hope for a safe, comfortable life within Wall Sina as a member of the Military Police Brigade. Was she, too, starting to realize that even her own, limited dream was perhaps just as much of an impossibility as Eren's goal of retaking the world the titans had taken from them?
"I see." Once again, Annie looked away. Her voice was soft.
As she finished filling her second gas canister, Armin noticed that her fingers had trembled ever so slightly when they'd moved to detach the cylinder from the gas line.
Armin tapped his own propellant tank. A hollow ring. Half full.
What frightened Armin most was the part of him that suspected that the true reality of Eren's death had yet to fully dawn on him.
What if the inner wall held, postponing humanity's demise for years… even decades? Would he ever be able to come to terms with and accept the knowledge that his friend was dead and gone? Or worse, would he instead become accustomed to this new world, this world without Eren? Would he relearn how to live and laugh as the years passed, letting the shade of his dead friend fade in memory to become nothing more than a collection of half-forgotten shared experiences?
Would that be how he would repay Eren's sacrifice—his friend's unhesitating exchange of his own life for Armin's?
Why hadn't he, Armin, done something?
He shut his eyes tightly in shame at the memory of how his training, his desire to save his best friend, and even his so-admired analytical mind had all faltered in the crucial instant when they would have mattered most.
What had been the use of joining the military if he was just a coward at heart? What was the use of earning top grades in theoretical tactics and problem-solving, or of graduating as a trained soldier, if he couldn't use those abilities in the face of his own fears? Opening his eyes, he shot a glare at his hands as he remembered how, that morning, they had been shaking so badly that Mikasa had needed to help him connect his tank's valve to the propellant hose.
He'd felt like a child, incapable of typing his shoelaces without his parents' help.
A voice broke through his thoughts.
"You couldn't have saved everyone, Armin. The world isn't that convenient."
Noticing the expression on Armin's face, Annie had narrowed her eyes at him, her voice suddenly firm.
She was done refitting and refueling her maneuver gear. Earlier, Armin had expected that Annie would simply leave once she'd finished, walking away without so much as excusing herself. Instead, she was still standing there, her maneuver gear freshly buckled at her hips, gazing at him in her own incomprehensible way.
Armin flushed, and he rebelled internally at Annie's words. He wasn't an idiot. He had no delusions of heroism. But… he had been able to save them. His blades had been sharp, his propellant tanks full, his gear in perfect condition—yet he had done nothing. Why hadn't he flown to the bearded titan's shoulder, slashing its nape open as Eren struggled with it? Why had he almost let himself get eaten? Had he acted even earlier, he could have saved Mina too, or Millius…
Another stab of guilt drove into his chest. Why hadn't he said something earlier? Why hadn't he spoken up at the time and told Eren that his impulsiveness would get them all killed?
Armin looked up at the dark ceiling of the storehouse basement, remembering how, just hours ago, the room had rang with frantic footsteps as dozens of trainees had raced across the floor on the morning of their first battle. Now, the dark oaken beams crisscrossing the rafters above him sheltered only a few handfuls of shaken, bloody survivors. If only he could turn back time…
"I know, Annie," he finally said.
He finished filling his own gas cylinder, twisting the valve shut with a bitter movement. "Anyone can tell that I could never kill a titan."
"Not everybody can kill a titan." Annie folded her arms across her chest. "You're naïve, Armin. The only difference between you and Mikasa is that Mikasa knows she can't do everything. She doesn't distract herself with what she wishes she could do; she only focuses on what she can do."
Annie's voice suddenly trailed off, but her lips continued moving for an instant, and Armin wondered if he had imagined rather than heard the two words he thought she'd added as she'd fallen silent.
In a motion that Armin suspected that even she was unaware of, Annie turned to look back over her shoulder at the elevator, her eyes unfocusing as they glanced over to the steaming skeleton of the titan she'd slain, just as it had reached out for Connie's life with its ugly hand.
To each, her own. She seemed to say.
Armin suddenly became aware that his breath was returning to normal, and he realized for the first time that he'd been sniffling. He hastily raised a hand to his eyes, and was relieved to find that he at least hadn't been crying.
Once again, Annie mercifully showed no indication that she had noticed anything.
Wasn't it ironic, Armin reflected, that of all the people who could have reached out to him in this hour, it was Annie Leonhart who had been the one to try and talk some sense into him?
Then again… looking over to where she stood, Armin wondered, and not for the first time, whether the way she always kept to herself, ever remote and impersonal, professing to view the world with such a cool, disinterested attitude, was in fact genuine. Was there more to Annie behind her armor of indifference, or was she really that detached from everything, nothing more than the suit of armor they saw her as?
Jean had walked into the center of the storeroom. Raising a hand above his head, he was calling out loudly to the rest of them.
"Start gathering over here if you're finished refilling on gas! The rest of you lot, hurry up—we should make a break for the wall as soon as we can!"
With a hint of awkwardness that suggested she was unsure how to conclude their interaction, Annie made a move as though to leave.
On impulse, however, Armin stopped her in her tracks with a question.
"Annie… will you be all right?"
He had expected a curt response, delivered without so much as a backward glance. Instead, Annie turned to face him. She did not make eye contact as she nodded her head slightly in answer.
Then she was walking away to join the others, merging seamlessly into the knot of people growing around Jean.
Armin turned away as well, looking up at the row of great gas storage tanks looming above him in the torchlight. He extended a hand, returning the nozzle of the resupply hose to the hook that it was supposed to hang from.
Soon enough, this headquarters would once again be under titan control. After they left, these torches and lamps would wink out one by one, until the room fell into total darkness—nothing more than a lonely tomb for those that had fallen here, visited only by the smaller titans that happened to blunder briefly inside.
It was a curious feeling, knowing that he, Armin, would probably be the last human who would ever use that pressure hose.
How long would it be until Wall Rose fell? Once that happened, how long would it be before all three walls and all twelve human cities became nothing more than a silent playground for the mindless, immortal, victorious giants?
Outside the building, the crashes and resounding howls as the beserker titan fought its kin had mysteriously died down. Had the abnormal succumbed to its normal cousins, or had its interest waned, leading it to move on, elsewhere? Were there titans waiting for them just outside?
As he bucked his maneuver gear on once more, Armin glanced over to the rest of the survivors from the 104th. He supposed it didn't matter. With gas, the large majority of them would easily evade the titans and make it back to the walls. With Mikasa, Annie, Reiner, and the other fully stocked once more, he was confident that they would be more than able to deal with any threats that still stood in their way.
Slowly, a crowd of trainees was converging in the middle of the supply room. They hurried to make room as he joined them, stepping aside to allow him through. Armin saw grins and smiles aimed at him, felt hands pat his back. This time, however, none of them spoke. Perhaps they had noticed something in his eyes that had given them pause.
No, Armin reflected. Not everyone needs to be able to kill a titan.
Five minutes later, they all stood gathered as a group—thirty nine strong, just as they had entered the basement. Christa and Ymir were the last to join the group, having conducted a final check of the headquarters to ensure that nobody was being left behind.
At the head of the group, Mikasa paced slowly, one hand raised to the scarf at her neck, a distant look in her dark eyes.
Just behind her, Jean stood, watching the crowd. His face looked ashen and pale, almost skeletal, and Armin could see the strain of responsibility hiding, tensed, just beneath the surface.
Signs of the day's battle remained written across all of their features. Their trainee uniforms were caked with dirt and dust, some of them spattered with drops of blood. Several of them bled from scraped knees or elbows where they had clipped the walls of buildings mid-flight. Armin's own uniform jacket and shirt were stiff from the dried phlegm left behind from the bearded titan's saliva. Nevertheless, despite what they had endured and despite the uncertainties of the near future, their spirits were high, and they traded subdued small talk and banter amongst themselves.
Their friends were dead. Tomorrow, they too might die. But, for today, they had lived.
"Are you all ready? Let's go now!"
Cheers and yells burst out from dozens of hoarse, tired throats, and they surged as a group through the open doors and into the sunlight.