---'Just Be': Part 13 ---
Tense and anxious, the top ten stood at attention before Keith Shadis. Among their midst was Armin and Ymir, who had both witnessed your break-in and subsequent escape into the nearby forest. Shadis had requested - no, ordered their assistance in the current operation.
"You are tasked with the capture of a suspected renegade who is to be charged with the theft and unlawful possession of a full set of 3D Maneuvering Gear," he barked, assuming full and unyielding authority. "Because of that, she is expected to be airborne, highly mobile, and difficult to capture. Subject is [First] [Last], former trainee of the 104th Training Division, whom you should all know well."
A handful of the trainees stirred uncomfortably. Of course they knew you well. You were their friend and comrade for all of three years. Shadis looked no happier than they were at the prospect of having to arrest you.
"Regardless of her motives," He continued. "Your objective is to use everything in your employ to retrieve both the target and the stolen gear. Expect to engage her in the air. We cannot say for certain at this point what level of resistance she will put up, so proceed with caution."
"Question, Sir," Annie raised her hand. Shadis acknowledged her. "Since we cannot be sure of how she will behave during engagement, are we authorized to use our weapons against her?"
The tension mounted. Marco, Christa, and Sasha looked especially nervous. Jean remained unnervingly stoic.
"...The use of your dual blades is authorized, Trainee," Shadis informed Annie, after a distinct pause. "If her behaviour is hostile, you are to act within reason for the purpose of defending yourselves."
His gaze sharpened.
"Your priority is to capture her alive so long as she remains within the boundary of the military outpost. However, she is NOT to escape beyond the border under ANY circumstances. I will be blunt." Shadis looked absolutely grim. "The brass would prefer that we have her executed on the spot than to allow a potential fugitive retain possession of the 3D Maneuvering Gear."
This did NOT sit well with the majority (if not all) of them. Jean's eyes flickered to his right side, where Marco stood at attention. The freckled soldier's hands were folded behind his back - and they were trembling at the Instructor's words.
"Another thing," Shadis added sternly, once again commanding everyone's attention. "Though the rankings have been finalized, be aware that your conduct during this operation will reflect on your reputation as combat professionals. Regardless of any relations you may have with the suspect, do NOT allow that professionalism to be compromised. Set ALL personal emotions aside and focus ONLY on your mission objective."
Annie, Mikasa, and Reiner had already steeled themselves, though they did not look forward to the operation. The rest looked much less certain, obviously full of doubt - even outright reluctance. Only Jean remained enigmatically calm and serene.
Shadis began to wrap up the briefing. "You are to all split into groups at your own discretion. One member from each team is to provide ground reconnaissance on horseback. We will begin at the south-east quadrant of the forest, where she was last spotted. Make your preparations and rendezvous within five minutes. That is all. DISMISSED."
The operatives delivered their salute, but looked less than enthusiastic.
The moment Shadis was out of earshot, Marco caught Jean alone as the trainees divided themselves into groups.
"I don't like this at all, Jean," he said stubbornly. "I know what the law is regarding theft of the 3D Maneuvering Gear, but I absolutely refuse to let any harm come to her. There has to be another way."
"Is there? By all means, Marco, enlighten me," Jean said grimly, fastening his cloak. "You heard what Shadis said about letting emotions come into play here. Our goal is to capture [First] and aid in her arrest. Simple as that. Don't let your feelings blind you to reality, Marco."
"Jean, that's..." Marco was completely affronted by his friend's words and attitude. "How can you be so blasé at a time like this?"
"Marco, listen carefully," Jean uttered in a serious voice, gripping his friend by the arm. "At this rate, that little idiot is going to get herself either seriously injured, if not outright killed if we don't do something. Letting her escape is not an option - they hunt fugitives down like dogs. If she brings that gear out of the perimeter, she'll be charged with treason. You know that."
Faced by the sheer level of truth and rationality in those words, Marco fell speechless, unable to argue back. Jean continued.
"Do you understand what I'm saying?" he asked, urgency in his voice. "We have to do everything in our power to stop her. I'm the same as you, Marco. I care for her, deeply. And frankly, I would rather let them arrest her than to see her dead. I have no choice but to believe that she'll be better off locked up."
Jean checked to make sure that his harness was secure, his gear was operational, and his blades were in good condition. Standing up straight, he stared at Marco, completely resolute.
"You were right, Marco," said Jean. "There is something I can do to help her. Something that only I am capable of. You said it yourself - I am the only one who can catch up with her. No matter what happens, I swear to you I will bring her back to safety."
His expression became pleading. "That said, Marco - in order to do that, I'm going to need your help."
Staring at him, Marco sensed his staunchness to live up to his promise, and nodded. He smiled with equal determination. "Anything at all. ... For you, Jean. And for her."
Meanwhile, in the forest...
The weather relented, but only slightly. A full moon was promised, but even now the dark clouds continued to roll through the night. At least the rain was lighter now.
Standing on a branch in the pitch-black darkness, you pressed your back against the tree, drawing in deep sharp breaths. Drawing your cloak tighter around you, hood up, you gulped down a pouch full of water and threw the empty case away. You nearly choked. You heart was pounding. The more you realized the sort of situation you were in right now, the more frightened you became.
But the fear felt good. Heaven knew it, you were always something of an adrenaline junkie - a sucker for cheap thrills. The fear made you feel alive. Even better, it helped you perform better in the air.
You waited. No point in using up needless gas. No point trying to navigate deeper into the treacherous woods when you could barely see a foot beyond your nose. No, you were waiting for them - for the hunt to catch up to you. All the while, your heart pounded with anticipation...
...That was when you heard hoofbeats in the battering rain. Looking over your shoulder, with wide eyes, you spotted four pinpricks of light moving across the forest floor in a straight row. Then they split off, combing through the woods. It was the ground reconnaissance, bearing torches on horseback. Their job was to comb through the woods and illuminate the way for your airborne hunters. In the distance, you could hear bursts of wires being fired into the air. They were here.
From here on out, you thought, gripping the handles of your gear. There's no turning back.
You were the stealth expert of the 104th Training Division, but what was the point in hiding here, waiting for them to find you? You would rather go down and out playing a game of tag instead of hide-and-seek. With that in mind, you dropped from your branch, firing into the treetops above and swinging through the maze of trees. You set your sights on the nearest torchlight and headed towards it, drawn like an insect towards a flame. Your eyes narrowed tensely.
Who would you be facing first?
[Songstamp: 'Ghosts of Razgriz', from Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War]
Mounted on horseback, Christa served as the ground-based scout for the team lead by Connie Springer, who was airborne with Sasha Braus. Holding up her torch, and maintaining a steady pace through the woods, she bit her lip in anxiety while staring up into the treetops. Undoubtedly, nothing about this sat well with her at all. Even worse, it left her wondering - if she truly wanted to be the good person here, what ought she do? Follow the order to capture you, or help you escape somehow?
All of a sudden, the definition of 'good' wasn't so clear cut to her anymore. Which was why she hesitated to alert Connie and Sasha when she saw you hovering overhead.
"[First]! Don't do this!" she called out to you desperately, urging her horse forward to keep up with you. "You have to stop! At this rate, someone is going to get hurt! Don't you care about that at all?"
Of course you cared. And you were willing to accept the responsibility. Which was why you simply kept moving while she followed you from the ground.
In the end, she couldn't go against her orders. Biting back tears, she whistled loudly for Connie and Sasha, then continued to pursue you on horseback. Her torch was held up into the air to light the path for her teammates. "I'm sorry, [First]...!" She murmured sadly.
Yeah. I'm sorry too, Christa, you thought ruefully as Connie and Sasha swooped into view, barring your path.
Clicking your teeth, you pivoted mid-air and shot off in the other direction to avoid the duo. Christa was forced to halt her horse abruptly and steer it off towards the other direction to follow you. Being the torch-bearer, it was her job not to lose you in the dead of night.
Connie Springer let out a feral snarl and catapulted after you like an arrow. "OI, [First]! STOP SCREWING AROUND AND GET BACK HERE!" he called. Your eyes widened. For the first time ever, you were the one terrified of him. The little Midget of Mass Destruction was as fast as a bolt of lightning, even in these woods. Breathing fiercely, you zig-zagged your way through the trees at a hazardous pace, determined to evade him before he managed to close the distance.
Even so, you could sense Connie's hesitation. His reluctance. His plan was to close the distance - and then what? The fact that he didn't even have his blades out meant that he was unwilling to use force against you. Knowing that, he probably had no idea how to deal with you. This spurred your confidence. You gritted your teeth and glared up ahead, kicking off from tree to tree to conserve your gas.
That was when Sasha blocked your path, startling you out of your wits and forcing you to make a sharp swerve left. "Shit...!" you uttered, narrowly avoiding a collision.
Sasha chased after you, calling out with a pleading voice. "[First]! I really don't want to fight you!" She smiled hopefully. "Please, come down now! If you talk to them now, there's a chance that things will still work out! Just tell them it was a mistake, and it'll all be fine!"
Feeling your heart sting, you continued to evade her, wishing that her words were true. Right now, you weren't sure if you would regret doing this, but you knew that whether you landed sooner or later, this wasn't going to end well. It was better to keep up the chase for as long as you could ... and hoped none of your friends got hurt in the process.
Sasha had your tail. Connie was angling towards you out of the corner of your eye. You HAD to lose them NOW before the others could gang up against you. Steeling yourself, you suddenly shot straight towards Connie with a look of dangerous intent in your eyes, as though you meant to collide into him. He blanched and froze in place at the very sight of you, zeroing in on him like a hawk.
"GAH!" He swerved frantically to avoid you...and ended up bumping into Sasha's side.
Sasha gave a shriek.
Your feet hit the ground, sliding through mud and sending up a spray of rainwater as you landed. Breath caught in your chest, you looked up to see that Sasha and Connie were tangled up in each other's wires - unhurt, but in no position to move. With no time to sigh in relief, you swirled around at the sound of pounding hooves.
Christa came to a stop before you, wide-eyed with the torch in her hand. Jaw gaping, she stared at you, then at Sasha and Connie's struggling, entangled forms. The girl was stunned, and at a complete loss at what to do.
You fixed that for her. "Help them," you said curtly, nodding towards the squirming duo. Your expression was apologetic. Then, with another burst of wires, you launched yourself into the air and disappeared into the night. Christa watched helplessly, knowing there was nothing else she could do but give up the chase.
... 'Eight', 'Nine', and 'Ten' were out for the count. You stared grimly ahead. Who was next?
Ice blue eyes narrowed dangerously through the rain. Elite Number Four, Annie Leonhardt, surveyed the air like a predator. Blades drawn, she watched and waited, still as a stone.
"Oi, Annie. Are you serious about this?" Reiner growled nervously, standing perched on the branch beside her. "The Instructor ordered us to bring her back unharmed. You realize that?"
"Wrong," Annie said in a cold voice, not bothering to acknowledge him with a look. "Orders were to bring her back alive. Beyond that, everything else is fair game." She nodded towards Bertholdt. "Ask him if you don't believe me. No one is better than him at following orders."
Bertholdt stood upon a nearby branch, looking as nervous and indecisive as ever. Under Annie's domineering stare, he wilted. "...She's right... Shadis did authorize the use of weapons, after all..."
Scowling, Reiner protested, "That doesn't mean we need to resort to direct combat right off the-"
Hoofbeats upon the ground interrupted him. Ymir, their ground reconnaissance, called up to them with a dismissive wave of her torch.
"Heads up, you three," she said, impatiently. "We've got our prey inbound. Christa's group lost her." In a more aggravated tone, the brunette complained, "That brat. I swear to God. I could be doing far better things with my time instead of spending it out of doors on a miserable, rainy night like this."
"You're in luck, Ymir," Annie said austerely, eyes focusing on your form, approaching from the distance. "I plan to end this - as quickly as possible." Blades illuminated by torchlight, she leaped off of her branch and flew forward to meet you.
"Target sighted. Commencing attack."
"Oh, you'd best be shitting me-" Reiner glared in alarm towards Bertholdt. "C'mon, you! If we don't bloody take matters into our own hands, they'll both wind up in trouble!" Leaping up, he planted his feet firmly into the surface of the tree and kicked off. Bertholdt followed after, looking less enthusiastic.
"I know, Reiner... I know," the giant stammered fretfully, watching Annie catch you off guard in a dive-bomb. "But if we don't take her down fast, Ymir is going to book it and leave us in the dark. And given what we know about those two, Annie and [First]... both of them are almost nigh unstoppable-"
Bertholdt's voice went dead in his throat as bladed steel sliced through the air. Both men stared in horror.
Ymir had stopped her horse right in its tracks, mouth agape as she lifted her eyes upwards. "That crazy bitch..."
... With a crash, you landed clumsily against the trunk of a tree, clinging on for dear life, fingernails digging into bark. You were frozen, wracked with terror. With that murderous stare of hers, Annie had meant to intimidate you into a surrender. It almost worked. While she had not aimed to hurt or kill you, the fact that she had managed to slice your sleeve open from shoulder to elbow and cause no injury was enough to leave you petrified.
Annie turned mid-air and shot towards you again like an avenging angel, blades extended. Staring at her, eyes wild with terror, you found yourself hyperventilating.
"Annie, are you crazy?!" Bertholdt yelled at her. "You're not fighting Titans here! That's a human being!"
The petite powerhouse refused to listen to him, blue-eyes locking onto her target and not letting go.
"[First]! OVER HERE! QUICKLY!" Not far off, Reiner roared at you, gesturing with an open arm and inviting you to safety. Though his eyes were wide with fear for your well-being, he offered you a reassuring look. But you knew that for all his good intentions, he was baiting you into a trap. If either of the two strongest men of the 104th Training Division managed to get a firm hold on you, it would be all over. You'd be captured in an instant.
You bolted in the other direction, just in time for Annie's blade to slice inches deep through the tree you'd been clinging to, sending wood-splinters flying. She stayed in hot pursuit. Reiner and Bertholdt were not far behind.
Though it was in fact far from the truth, you really did believe in that moment that Annie would kill you. It made you want to scream.
"Surrender, renegade." Her voice didn't sound human. "All we need is that gear. Not you."
Wires flew all around you, missing you by mere inches. The hair on your neck raised as you heard Annie about to zip in from behind. Those blades were singing for your blood. As your panic mounted, the right handle of your 3D Maneuvering gear went to the storage box at your hip...
The single sword you wielded in your right hand crashed against the dual blades that Annie used against you, barring her attack. Steel locked against steel. The impact shattered your blade, and sent a piece of metal spinning haphazardly towards the ground. Gasping, Ymir deftly moved her head a few inches to the side to avoid getting stabbed through the eyeball, but emerged from the incident pale as a sheet. "Sweet flying Mother of Fuck...!!"
Annie seemed to falter at the look of outrage and desperation on your face - the look of a threatened wild animal.
By this point, even Bertholdt was agitated enough to shout, frantically trying to control the situation. "Both of you, STAND DOWN! NOW!"
But you were too caught up in the action to heed his words. When Annie refused to move away, you stared at her balefully. Clutching the handle in your left hand, you held it up so that Annie could see your fingers closing around the trigger. Her blue eyes widened. There was a reason why it was dangerous for users of the 3D Maneuvering Gear to linger within such short distance of one another...
One threat upon one's life deserved another, the icy blonde quickly realized. Eyes widening at what you were about to do, Annie immediately broke away just as you shot a wire from your hip, narrowly avoiding having her leg skewered.
Discarding your broken blade, you wasted no time fleeing the scene. Reiner and Bertholdt quickly moved in to catch you, forming a solid barrier of muscle to block your path-
You punched your way through the wall with an unprecedented force, sending Reiner flying into a branch and Bertholdt gasping for air after taking an elbow right in the solar plexus. The Elites ranked Two, Three, and Four were left rattled beyond belief. Ymir, fed up with the three of them (and you, for that matter), had already abandoned the group in search of Christa. Obviously, she was NOT intent on sticking around after that horrific fiasco.
You were completely, utterly gone.
Annie stood silently on a nearby branch, sheathing her blades.
"...My fault," she said finally, looking oddly remorseful. "I drove her into a corner."
Reiner spoke in a shaky voice, reassuring Annie. "It's fine. None of us are used to fighting humans like this. When driven to desperation...there's no knowing what they're capable of."
Using the wrist of his sleeve, Bertholdt dabbed sweat and rainwater away from his forehead. "Now that we've seen such a thing up close," he murmured cryptically, wearing a troubled frown. "...It's enough to unnerve all of us."
By this point, you were starting to realize the true consequences of your actions.
After your traumatizing encounter with Annie, you wanted nothing more than to hide, curl up in a corner, and cry. But your instincts kept telling you to keep running, to keep flying, or else you'll wind up getting killed. You knew now that you couldn't let yourself get caught, no matter what, even if you ended up dead in the process.
And just when you thought you could enjoy a few seconds of piece...
"Eren! She's at your two o'clock!" Armin yelled from below, blue eyes peering up at you form beneath a hood. Your form was illuminated by the firelight of his torch.
Your mind went blank. SHIT. Not those three...!
From out of nowhere, Eren rammed his shoulder into you, causing you to smack into a tree and lose altitude.
"Agh!" Your body exploded with pain, but you were still on the move. Firing another wire, you swung upwards, determined to disappear into stealth and lose Eren, that jumped-up little shithead. All the while, you thought yourself... One and Five are always together. If Eren and Armin were here, then where the fuck was Mikasa?
Hanging by your right side as you flew, Eren tried frantically to talk you down. "That's enough, [First]! What the hell are you trying to accomplish?! This is going nowhere, so please! Just give up and-"
"I don't HAVE anything left to give up!" you shouted back, tears springing to your eyes. "I've already invested myself, just like Mikasa said I should! I gave it my all, hoping that something would come of it. But now I have nothing left! NOTHING."
Eren shut his mouth, stunned speechless. At the same time, there was remorse in his expression. Your eyes widened. ...Was he just trying to distract you...?
Somewhere directly below you, Armin shouted. "NOW, Mikasa!"
You looked up just in time to see Mikasa soar overhead, blades glinting. In that moment, the tension on one side of your harness began to disappear. Your heart froze. She... cut my wire?
With nothing to support your right side, you were falling fast, dangling on your remaining wire. You couldn't secure a second grappling point at any rate. Mikasa had seen to that. The air was rushing all around you as you dropped altitude. Only a few seconds more until you ended up crashing grievously into the earth below. At this rate, you were going to break a limb, a skull, or your spine at the very least - if not all three.
...And yet, Armin was racing over to meet you on horseback, determined to break your fall and catch you mid-air. Don't TELL me the little bastard had planned this all along...! You thought, eyes blazing.
Armin's stare narrowed in concentration. He let go of the reins and lifted his arms towards you. "Almost got her...!" He reached up to catch you as you swung towards him-
He flinched as you snarled at him angrily. Your foot flew out like a whip, kicking his horse square in the shoulder. It screamed and bolted off in the other direction, forcing a frightened Armin to cling tightly to its neck to prevent himself from falling off. There was nothing preventing you from falling NOW, but you still had one more card to play - the one wire you had left.
Kicking off of Armin's horse had bought you another split second to remain airborne. You used that moment to fire off your remaining wire into the trees, and retract it. It wasn't high enough - as you propelled through the air, you were literally two feet off the ground and still in great danger of crashing. But if you knew this area well, and so long as your quick mind wasn't failing you, then by your guess...
...this should be right where the pond was. And so, instead of hitting the ground, your feet hit water. Instinctively, you braced yourself and leaned back with the entirety of your weight, offering the wire your maximum resistance. And prayed.
Your wire continued to pull you with a force strong enough to leave you skidding feet-first along the water's surface. Your speed and momentum prevented you from sinking, allowing you to travel smoothly across as though you were on skates. Just like magic, your heels sent up tremendous splashes of water as you shot from one end of the pond to the other, gained altitude, and took to the air once again.
Eren, Mikasa, and Armin witnessed all of this with expressions of shock and awe on their faces.
You were down one blade and one wire. And yet, you were still moving through the trees, alternating between free-falling through the air suspended by nothing at all, and pulling yourself forward with your final lifeline. With nothing to pull your left side, your right hip felt it might split to pieces. But you gritted your teeth and endured, slipping into the shroud of night once more.
"Are we going to go after her?" Armin asked his two best friends, as Mikasa and Eren both landed upon the ground next to him. His expression was fearful. "She's heading straight into the danger zone. At this rate, she might try to cross the boundaries of the military outpost. If that happens, then the brass will count her as a fugitive. There will be nothing we can do to prevent them from marking her for death."
"I know, Armin. That's why I'm going on ahead by myself. You two find the others and head back."
Mikasa drew her scarf up grimly as she said this. "Shadis made the request to me personally. I've been assigned with the task of..." She bit her lip. "...summarily dealing with her if she tries to escape the outpost. To that effect, I have permission to leave the perimeter to carry out the task."
"You can't be serious!" Eren shouted, looking both outraged and horrified. "For crying out loud, Mikasa. She's your friend. To do such a thing, even on the Instructor's orders-"
"I know, Eren," Mikasa told him impatiently. "That's why Shadis also told me to back off and wait until all teams have failed before stepping in. I'm going to follow her to see if she tries to escape, but all I'm going to do is observe for now. There's still one more chance for us to turn this around without having to eliminate her. If it doesn't work, then we fall to our last resort."
"But... the only team left..." Eren protested. "That's Jean and Marco. You have to consider the fact that they're the ones closest to her, by far. Would they even want to try and get her arrested?"
Armin placed a hand gently on his arm. "Eren, we've already broken the Instructor's orders to leave our personal emotions out of this. At this rate, everybody's resolve is compromised. Even Reiner, Bertholdt, and Annie of all people. Of all the mission operatives who have attempted to detain her so far, none of them want to see her become a fugitive, yet they don't have the will to stop her."
His blue eyes narrowed in thought. "But at this rate, maybe the ones who can convince her to give up this madness are the ones who know her and care about her the most."
Eren still looked greatly discontented about the whole thing, but sighed in resignation. "I guess we have no choice but to leave everything in their hands, then. Let's move."
With that, Eren and Armin broke off to regroup with the others. Mikasa flew off to relay information to Keith Shadis, who was observing the events in their entirety. He kept his thoughts to himself with ever the austere and professional demeanor, and ordered Mikasa to carry on with the mission.
Only when he was alone once more did he take the time to consider everything he had seen thus far, with a critical and calculating mind.
The rain had finally let up, and the moon was starting to show itself through the dispersing clouds. It shed a gentle light upon the forest, affording a bit more visibility.
Somewhere near the lakeside cliff that marked the boundaries of the military outpost, Marco remained perfectly still on horseback, guarding the area and keeping his senses alert for any movement in the air. The torch in his hand was unlit. In spite of everything else, he remained calm and patient.
His attention piqued as his ears picked up the zip of a cable. He spotted a shadow moving swiftly though the treetops. Something came to a stop in the branches above, and then there was silence once more. Frowning, Marco dismounted and approached the trees with careful, quiet steps.
A muffled, yet distinct sobbing could be heard somewhere above. Marco's eyes widened with realization. He looked up towards a low branch, just a few feet higher than him.
"[First]," he murmured. The shadow above his head froze. "It's you. Isn't it, [First]. You're here."
Your shoulders tensed. ...Marco. At this rate you didn't know if you ought to fear him as well. But even so, better to encounter him than Annie. Or Mikasa. Or even...
Suddenly beset by paranoia, you looked around but could see nothing through the darkness. "Where's Jean?" you demanded. When you were low on fuel and down one wire, the last thing you wanted to do was to pit your 3D Maneuvering Skills against his.
"Somewhere. Looking for you," Marco told you in an enigmatic tone. You could sense him smiling gently in the darkness. "He's not out to harm you, if that's what you're thinking."
When you refused to say a word, he smiled sadly. "...Rough night?" His words were light-hearted, but full of anxiety at the same time. "You're not hurt, are you?"
You whimpered in response, causing Marco to react with alarm. Nevertheless, he attempted to persuade you in a soothing voice. "[First], please come down. You're practically a step away from crossing the border. Do you understand? They won't let you leave with the 3D Maneuvering Gear. You have to stop."
Your reply came in a choked cry. "I know, Marco! But I can't! ... I already fucked up! I can't go back, not when I've caused so much trouble for everyone. They all want to kill me-"
"[First], you know that's not true. You haven't been thinking straight ever since that final exam, believe me," Marco said desperately, trying to reassure you. "Just give me a chance, and I'll show you that you're wrong - you can be forgiven. Let me help you. I said I'd be on your side no matter what, didn't I?"
You buried your face in your hands and moaned. "Marco, just stop. ...Stop trying to save me..." The tears kept coming, and you couldn't do a thing to prevent them. "I'm nothing but a criminal now. I know what'll happen if I turn myself in. The last thing I want is for you to watch as they lock me up. But if I keep running, I might still have a chance..."
"[First], that's not an option, and you know it," Marco raised his voice, sounding truly afraid for your well-being. "I know you're scared. I know you don't want to face everyone again. But believe me, you would be better off doing time in prison than to live the rest of your life marked for death."
For the first time ever, he sounded as though he might like to cry. "It's painful for me too, you realize that? ...Even so, you have to let yourself get caught, otherwise you'll throw your entire future away."
Listening to him, you found yourself smiling bitterly. "Future. What future? Someone as worthless as me... I don't have a future anymore."
Sniffling, you wiped away your tears and gathered the courage to stand up, staring into the lake beyond the cliff. "I've already failed at everything, Marco. I lost my one chance to make my own way in life. There's nothing for me to live for, anymore. ...Right now, all I want to do is to fly as far away as I can, for as long as possible."
Marco was devastated. "[First], don't do this. I'm begging you."
Guilt wracked your insides, but there was nothing you could do anymore. "I'm sorry, Marco. This is how it has to be," you told him wearily. The freckled soldier said nothing, as though realizing that there was no other way to convince you.
This was goodbye.
Thinking for a moment, you let out a wistful sigh. "You know... I really wanted to go to Wall Sina with you and Jean. To serve the king, live an easy life, and get to know you two a little better. ... But that'll never happen now will it?"
You smiled sadly, preparing to take off once more - this time to disappear for good. "...I'm sorry."
There was a distinct pause before Marco spoke again.
"... I'm sorry too, [First]," he said, in a strangely calm and quiet voice. "So, please. Forgive us for doing this."
Your eyes widened. ...Huh?
It took you a split-second to realize with horror what he meant. That split-second was a breath too late. Unable to see anything in the dark, you felt the air explode out of your lungs as someone flew at you with full-force, tackling you off of your branch and hurling you to the ground with an impact powerful enough to leave you stunned.
Strong, wiry hands roughly gripped your form as a familiar weight pinned you down into helplessness. Your attacker growled with exertion as he locked your arms against your back. Your eyes blazed with shock and rage. Motherfucker...
There was a sound of a flint striking. The area was suddenly illuminated by a bright flame.
"Jean! Did you get her?!" Marco shouted, the torch in his hand now lit. He stepped forward.
Having heard everything, the copper-blond man was livid with unspeakable anger as he continued to push you into the ground, fighting to keep you immobile. Even so, you thrashed violently against his hold, murder in your expression.
"Yeah. I got her," said Jean in a grim voice, struggling to hold you still. "Hand me the rope."
Hearing this, you screamed. That piercing, painful sound was enough to make both men flinch. Jean's grip weakened. Sensing this, you wrenched an arm free and threw him off, scrambling up to your feet and bolting into the woods. Jean hissed wrathfully, likewise racing to stand up.
"Marco, I'm going after her!" His cables shot into the trees, catapulting him into the air. "Keep a light on her at all times! If we lose her now, it's all over!"
"Understood!" Marco was pale, but equally determined as he climbed onto his horse and spurred it into a sprint through the woods. The two of them took chase after you. It was time to put Armin's advice to good use.
[Songstamp: 'I'll Face Myself' from Persona 4]
...Sprinting through the trees, you gasped for air as betrayal filled your heart. A goddamn trap. Those two bastards had been lying in wait all along, and had nearly outwitted you. And Marco - Marco of all people had been the one to keep you distracted, to ease you into lowering your guard while his partner-in-crime got the jump on you. Baiting you with kindness, and the promise to help... So much for trusting him!
Of course, their intent had been to genuinely help you. Marco was just right - you weren't in the ideal mind to think clearly about what was happening. You were blinded by your own fear and mistrust.
All you could think about now was getting away. Even so, the light of Marco's torch kept you in full sight as both men closed in. Hearing the thunder of hoofbeats not far behind, you decided to go for broke and take to the air on your single wire. At least you'd be faster airborne than on the ground, but you lacked your usual mobility and grace. All you could do was pull yourself haphazardly through the air, slowed down by a useless right cable. There was no way you could disappear into stealth like this.
Following you through the treetops, Jean noticed right away that something was amiss. "[First]! What's wrong with your right wire?" He shouted after you. "Stop right now, or you'll get yourself killed!"
"Don't you dare follow me, Jean!" you threatened, glancing over your shoulder. "Any closer, and I'm throwing myself over that border!"
Jean stared at you narrowly. "Fine. Go ahead, I'll follow you. You and I can be traitors together." When you stared at him in utter disbelief, he did a complete switch. "No, idiot. I'll hunt you down myself and bring you back kicking and screaming if I have to! Either way, I'm turning you in alive!"
He lunged at you. Sharply turning to avoid him, you scoffed. "Try it! Who the hell do you think you are? You're not the boss of me!"
"I may as damn well be if you're that fucking determined to throw your future away so carelessly!" he retorted, seething with conviction as he stayed right in pursuit. "No one this damned irresponsible about their own life should have this much right to behave as they please!"
Biting your lip with sudden guilt, you tore your gaze away from him and wove through the trees to evade him. You stumbled mid-air several times, hampered by your crippled maneuverability.
"Give it up, [First]! You're down one wire and running low on gas!" Jean shouted at you. "There's no way you can fly like that!"
You shot him a venomous glare. Just watch me, you flying fuckwit.
Sensing your stubbornness, Jean gritted his teeth in frustration as you pulled away from him once more. "Damn it...!" He suddenly snarled in anger. "[First], YOU COWARD! You can run away from reality if you want, BUT DON'T YOU DARE RUN AWAY FROM ME."
Your eyes went wide. Those words shot through your ego. Did he just call me...? You felt your fear dissolving - a desire for retribution took over. With that, you allowed yourself to enter a freefall in order to retract your spare wire. Firing it again, you swung into a one-eighty turn, catapulting back towards Jean with reckless fervor. For daring to call you a coward, the insufferable jerk-off deserved nothing less than the righteous beatdown of the goddamn century.
The gauntlet had been thrown at your feet. You rose up to answer the challenge.
The adversary himself was in your sights, grinning with a strangely manic glee at the sight of your fierce determination. Likewise, he shot straight towards you with uncharacteristic recklessness, eager to enter the fight once more. "Over here, little firefly..." Amber eyes, burning gold in the firelight, dared you to make the first break away from this inevitable collision course between you and him. You, however, stayed right on your path.
A familiar rush filled your blood. That was when you suddenly remembered something Jean had said to you once, not so long ago. Those words filled your ears as you flew up to meet your opponent midair...
"...You're a joy to tease, and so easy to mess with."
...with a growl, you aimed to ram your shoulder into Jean's solar plexus. He performed a midair change and dodged your attack, though not without seeing his entire life pass before his eyes for a split-second.
"It's just so damn fun to see you so pissed off, that sometimes it even scares me."
...You lost track of Jean - until he flew up to tackle you from behind. You slipped away, but wondered when in the world he had started imitating your surprise attacks. With a full tank of fuel, he was executing every aerial trick he knew in the book to keep up with you. You, on the other hand, were winding down to your last drops of fuel - but unlike him, you were spurred on by adrenaline and the fact that you had nothing left to lose. Neither of you were ready to give up the fight.
You remembered the challenge he issued, during the time you first met. Who was the real soldier here? The two of you were about to find out.
His words continued to resonate in your mind.
"These last two years, I've had to work myself to the core just to keep up with a crazy girl like you... "
You made your distance... then performed a hairpin turn, hurtling like an arrow straight towards him again. Your fist reared back threateningly. Jean likewise was making a lightning-fast beeline towards you, his own fist raised. Like knights in a jousting match, the two of you were locked in the ultimate staredown, bracing yourselves for the inevitable impact...
All along, Jean was your one true rival, even until the very end - the only one you cared about keeping up with.
"...and it made me feel alive."
Your eyes locked with his in the split-second before contact. You knew then what you wanted to say to him in that moment, knowing that your own eloquence would fail you no matter how hard you tried. But maybe, there was a chance that he already knew how you felt.
God knew why, but in the years you had spent struggling against him, arguing and fighting with all your might... you too had never felt more alive. After all, Jean Kirschtein was the only one you cared about keeping up with. He was the one who forced you to face your flaws head-on, the one who knew both your virtuous and ugly sides. It was Jean who encouraged you to grow into something ten-times better than what you already were, because he knew that you had it in you to confront your faults and rise above them. He was the one who forced you to face yourself, while you did the same for him.
And for you to face this world, he was the one you needed.
His knuckles collided with your cheekbone. Your right fist met his jaw. The impact sent you both flying backwards. You landed in a weave of branches. Jean hit a tree. Both of you were left stunned, struggling to breathe, and unable to continue the fight. Either way, you couldn't fly anymore. Having charged towards Jean, you had used your last burst of fuel.
Marco, who had witnessed the whole thing with both awe and horror, immediately recognized that the chase had come to an end. With haste, he reached for his flaregun - only to realize that it wasn't needed.
Everyone was here. The airborne trainees were all gathered around the commotion the treetops, and from the looks on their faces they had seen most of the confrontation between you and Jean. Christa, Ymir, and Armin rolled up next to Marco on horseback, staring with wide eyes into the air. Sasha and Connie gaped at each other in mutual amazement. "Did you see that...?" They whispered at the same time. Nearby, Eren was utterly speechless. Even Reiner, Bertholdt, and Annie had not been immune to the sheer wonder of it all.
Mikasa, who had been following your tail all along, hidden in the shroud of night, sheathed her blade. For the time being, there was no need to use it anymore. Letting out a soft sigh, she turned around - intending to depart the scene and inform Keith Shadis that the mission was over.
She stopped. The Instructor was already there, positioned some distance away. He, too, had witnessed everything.
...Slumped on a branch, you were out of fuel and out of fight. There was nowhere for you to run anymore. Your whole body hurt. Your FACE hurt like HELL. Moreover, your limbs felt drained of strength as you clung to the branch wearily, trying to prevent yourself from falling. Your efforts went to no avail. You felt yourself slipping...
Strong, lean arms caught you and cradled you tightly, preventing you from falling - or moving from that matter. Jean's hold was painful over the bruises that covered your body, but there was something fiercely protective about his embrace all the same. Not gentle, but brash and honest - just like he was. He had finally captured you.
Your bruises flared as your form was pressed against his. You winced but did not struggle. Sensing this, Jean loosened his hold ever so slightly, but continued to grip you close to his chest, pulling you to some obscure area in the treetops. Concealed by the weave of branches and leaves, the two of you were able to afford a bit of privacy from the eyes that were staring all around. Your head was nestled tight underneath his chin, and the side of your face rested against the protruding sculpt of his collarbone. The scent of his neck left your blood pounding, and your head dizzy. His own heartbeat was a powerful drumming in your ear.
It struck you as funny, how he could be so gentle after damn near shattering your cheekbone. Clearly this bore all the hallmarks of a healthy, functional relationship.
Leaning his head close, Jean began to murmur to you. Something about his voice rendered you helpless. "...Listen, [First]. I understand now, why you wanted to succeed so badly. I know why you tried so hard to keep up with everyone else. It's because you're scared to death of getting left behind."
Your eyes went wide.
"If you could prove yourself a strong and capable soldier," Jean continued, cradling the back of your head. "Then you would be valued by other people. No one would abandon you, or forget about you. You wouldn't ever have to feel the pain of being alone anymore. ...That's what you believed. Am I right?"
Those words made your heart sting. You thought you were already drained of tears by now , but somehow they sprung to your eyes anyhow. You blinked furiously, wondering how in the world a first-class moron like Jean Kirschtein had managed to figure out the truth about you.
Your nose was starting to hurt, so you covered it with the back of your hand, suppressing your sniffling and hiccups. Jean smiled wryly, his arms shifting into a more soothing hold around your form.
"[First], you're not worthless," he told you, his tone plain and simple. "Your life isn't over just because you couldn't pass an exam. There's more to life than matters of success or failure, and nobody is going to abandon you just because of an accident, or even because you made a few mistakes here and there. You haven't lost everything yet, so please... don't make an even bigger mistake by throwing it all away."
Jean's voice became wistful as it dropped into a low whisper in your ear. "I want you to know something, [First]. When I set out to chase after you, I made a bet with myself. ... If you managed to escape from me, then I would give up on interfering. You would have won your right to do whatever you wanted with your own life, even if it led to your own destruction. And as a way of punishing myself, I would have forced myself to watch helplessly, knowing that I had failed you. That I couldn't stop you from ruining yourself."
Already, you could scarcely believe what you were hearing, and that wasn't even the end of it.
"But..." Jean continued, this time in a more resolute, determined voice. "If I succeeded in capturing you, then you had to do as I say. I was going to force you to act more responsibly towards your own life, to value your well-being, and to take better care of yourself. And if you couldn't do that, then I was going to do it for you. And believe me when I say this, [First], I am prepared to do everything in my power to try and make things better for you, even if the whole world is against you."
His arms tightened around you, making it a little hard to breathe, but allowing you to sense his fear for your safety. "...So knowing that, and how desperate I am to save you, [First], I think you can understand why couldn't afford to lose that bet. And now that you're here, I can't let you go."
Jean gently moved his hand to tilt your head upwards, so that he could look into your eyes.
"Now that I've told you everything ..." He said, staring at you with a pleading look. "...Do you still want to fly away from me?"
Your emotions gripped your heart in a painful squeeze. Affirming your thoughts, you bit your lip and immediately shook your head no. And you meant it, with every fiber of your being. Looking greatly relieved, Jean pulled you in for another tight hug, leaning his face into the top of your head and burying his nose and lips into your hair. ...You almost suffocated, but found yourself hugging him back all the same.
It was almost a relief to be caught, for now there was no need to run anymore.
A large, callused hand drifted to your cheek, lifting your face up gently. You stared into those sharp, clear-cut features of his, noting the cut that had formed at the corner of his mouth - courtesy of your fist. As Jean leaned his face down towards you, those lips drew closer. Cheeks growing warm, you found yourself rising up to meet them, drawn by a familiar gravitation that pulled you two together...
... The moment was killed by the growling noise in your stomach.
Jean blinked. Your face flared with rage and humiliation. ...As you forced yourself to look up at him, a guilty expression formed on your face...
A wave of dizziness swept over, leaving you drained beyond imagining. You lacked the energy to think, or even move a muscle. You found your focus wavering as you struggled to look at Jean. ...Goodness, you were actually starting to see two of him now. How surreal.
Jean immediately comprehended what was happening, yet his voice was still full of disbelief - and barely suppressed rage. He grabbed you by the shoulders and shook you. Violently.
"Don't bloody tell me... you STILL haven't eaten? After all this time?!"
Not even caring anymore, you giggled weakly, feeling your consciousness slipping. As your head drooped, you could hear a voice fading off into the distance. Jean was yelling into your ear at the top of his lungs, but you barely heard him.
"YOU DAMN GIRL, DON'T YOU DARE GO COMATOSE ON ME NOW."
Spots filled your vision, obscuring Jean's expression of livid rage and horror. Shame really. You wanted to admire those handsome features for a little bit longer. Blacking out at last, you fell into his arms once more, out like a light. The dumbest of smiles lingered upon your face as you fainted against Jean's shoulder.
A few days later, Jean was at your bedside, trying to shove a spoonful of stew into your mouth. You kept it stubbornly closed, eyes narrowed sullenly like a spoiled child. He glared at you, annoyed.
"Don't make me force you, [First]," he growled, poking the spoon into your lips. "I meant it when I said I'd take care of you, and I think preventing you from outright STARVING yourself damn well qualifies."
You didn't bite. He was making a mountain out of a molehill. You were better now, and more than able to feed yourself, thank you very much. Jean was the one who needed to get over his sudden mother-hen urges over you. Seriously, all this doting and caring? From HIM? Quite frankly, it was starting to freak you out.
Gritting his teeth, Jean grabbed at your face, trying to pry that shit mouth of yours open. You were as unmovable as a statue. Looking incensed, Jean gave up trying to use force. You gazed suspiciously at him, recognizing that look on his face. ...He was planning something else.
A flash of inspiration hit him. Setting the spoon down on the tray, he remarked good-naturedly, "You know, for someone who came up with that rousing speech about honesty back in the bathhouse, you're remarkably tight-lipped - in more ways than one. After going through all that work, forcing me to spill the truth... you never told me how you felt about being kissed by me."
Your mouth flew open as you gasped with rage. "Don't tell me after ALL THIS TIME you're ACTUALLY going to bring that up-"
You cut yourself off at the sight of the most savage, animalistic grin you had ever seen. Jean's eyes were flaring with maniacal triumph. You found your breath cut short as he jammed a bun past your open lips and stuffed it into your mouth, stretching it wide open.
"Mmmmf-Rrgh!!" Tears sprang to your eyes as you endured the indignity of it all-
Jean flew back into a wall as you rose to your feet, fist still raised and eyes blazing with fury. His grin immediately faded as he shouted up at you, nursing a twice-bruised jaw. "Ow...! Fucking HELL, [First]! I don't remember you being this catty when Marco was the one playing doctor!"
You, the worst patient ever, flung your retort at him with lightning riposte. "That's because Marco didn't try to VIOLATE my mouth with a piece of bread, MORON!" You hurled the bun at him. It hit his head and bounced off, landing on the floor. "And how the hell did you know about that?! Don't tell me you were watching-"
At your accusation, Jean started to stammer an excuse, only to be cut off by a loud, scolding voice from not far off.
"Will you two bloody keep it down, before you GET ME IN TROUBLE?" That shout was followed by a sullen mutter. "...Damn lovebirds..."
You and Jean exchanged nervous glances with one another. Both of you looked slightly red at the other soldier's insinuations. Lovebirds, indeed. Quickly sobering up, you hauled Jean up to his feet by the collar. The argument about food was all but forgotten.
"Ugh, at this rate you'll mess up your uniform," You scolded him, fixing his collar. "Graduation ceremony is in a few minutes, isn't it? This is your moment, you want to look your sharpest, remember?"
"Now who's the one hen-pecking?" Jean looked down at you with a frown as you began smoothing out his shirt and dusting off his jacket. "Relax. They won't start without me. Not when I'm in the top ten."
"You could be wrong. They might just do that, you know," you remarked, grinning wryly at him and ruffling his hair, causing him to growl. "How terrible that would be." You shook your head in disbelief. "I don't know why you bothered seeing me at a time like this, but I appreciate it all the same. ...Not so much you trying to spoon-feed me. You know I hate being treated like a child."
"Yeah, well... I can't help it," Jean muttered lowly. "Knowing that you're here, of course I'll worry. And you know, I had to see you. Quite frankly, it's a miracle that I can even do that." He smiled weakly. "That's one perk of having a bunch of lazy asses in the Military Police, huh?"
"Shush, they'll hear you," you chided him, smacking him lightly on the cheek. Even so, you lowered your voice, murmuring ruefully. "Too bad they're not lax enough to let Marco in as well..."
Sensing your disappointment, Jean placed a comforting hand on your shoulder. "You'll see him later. I promise. He said he'll visit, as soon as he can. Wait for him."
Trying to feel reassured, you stared down at your feet, nodding silently. Jean watched you, wishing with all his heart that he could do more for you.
Visiting hours were over. The grouchy soldier from earlier, wearing the uniform of the Military Police signaled that it was time for Jean to leave. Immediately.
It was time to face reality, once again.
Reluctantly, Jean stepped away from you, but turned to face you once more as the guard produced a set of keys from his pocket. Creating a barrier between you and Jean, your cell door swung into its frame and slammed shut, leaving you alone in your cage once more. As the guard locked you in, you walked up to wrap your hands around the cold and unyielding metal bars that imprisoned you, peering through to the grate to gaze at Jean. The chain that was shackled around your ankle pulled you back, but you did your best to lean out as far as you could.
His expression was full of pain as he stared at you, and the way your form was obscured by those ugly lines that deprived you of your freedom. Sensing his conflict, you reached out through the cast-iron framework. In turn, Jean's hand entwined with yours, and held on fast. The warmth of your skin served to remind him that in the end, he had made the right decision to turn you in for arrest.
Three years had come full circle, and now were both safely home. Jean would move on to graduate, and live the life he had always wanted. You, on the other hand, would remain here, indefinitely. Even so, your time together had been fun...
Jean's hand tightened around yours, offering reassurance. "I'll come back for you," he promised resolutely, before leaving you to the solitude of your prison. You yearned to follow him, but knew that it wasn't meant to be. Still... he had tried his hardest to make up for your mistakes. You had to hang in there, too. And all things considering, this was probably the best outcome possible.
There was no point in having regrets.
Watching him disappear, you sat back down on the bed and lifted your eyes up towards the tiny window above your head, a brilliant patch of blue sky on a cold wall of stone. Outside were the familiar sounds and noises of your hometown. You smiled to yourself quietly, feeling strangely at peace. The stone tiles on the floor of your cell felt cool against your bare feet.
Long time no see, Trost. It feels good to be at home again.
"Instructor Keith Shadis." The voice of Nile Dawk, Commander of the Military Police, was dismissive and unpleasant. "In light of having our daily responsibilities interrupted, I hope you have an especially good reason for calling the three of us all the way out here."
His counterpart from the Garrison, Commander Dot Pixis, was far more accommodating in demeanor. "Don't be so tense, Commander Dawk. By the time you return to your post, Wall Sina will still be standing strong and in good order, I assure you."
With a calm and good-natured smile, the aged military officer turned his gaze towards the other person standing in the room. "In the meantime, let us hear what our old friend has to say. Shadis, it's been far too long. How may the three of us be of service?"
Shadis was stoic and impassive as he addressed his superiors, treating this matter with all the eloquence and professionalism of his being.
"I've come to request your consideration in approving one of my trainees for graduation," he stated, voice calm and even. "Her name is [First] [Last], member of the 104th Trainees Division."
"Ah," Pixis remarked, eyes twinkling. "The young woman who made a name for herself by stealing a full set of 3D Maneuvering Gear and sent the entire military outpost in a state of chaos?" His interest seemed to pique. So did his amusement. "I didn't expect you to go this far for the sake of a troublemaker, Shadis."
"If you mean for either of us to personally induct her into our respective branches, Instructor, then I can only say this - the Military Police will not take her." Commander Dawk appeared coldly resolute on the matter even before Shadis had stated his case. "Furthermore, I doubt my two fellow Commanders will differ in their answer. The military is not in the business of accepting failures or delinquents into their ranks."
"Don't be so hasty to speak for Commander Smith, or myself, Nile. At the very least, I would prefer to consider all of the facts at hand before coming to a verdict," said Commander Pixis. His tone was as agreeable as ever, but this time with a firmer edge. "Shadis is not one to show favouritism or act solely based on emotion. Therefore, he must have a truly legitimate reason for advocating the graduation status of this particular trainee. Troublemaker or no."
Indeed, Pixis was astute in his judgment. Shadis would not be here to argue your case if he didn't believe it was a matter that concerned the best interests of the military, and not just your own. Looking around the room, he narrowed his gaze and inquired, " Is Commander Smith not present for the meeting?"
"Unfortunately, Erwin confesses to having his hands tied up with preparations for the upcoming expedition," Pixis explained. "He sends his regrets at not being able to answer your summons personally."
He smiled wryly. "...But, as you can very well see, he has sent a worthy liaison in his stead to speak for him."
A cold and impatient voice cut through the air like a knife. While you were in your cell, awaiting the judgment that would determine your future, humanity's greatest soldier looked as though he would much rather be elsewhere, doing far better things with his time.
"Well. Don't keep us hanging in suspense, old man," uttered Levi, who was none too pleased at having to stand-in for Commander Erwin Smith. Crossing his arms, the famed Lance Corporal of the Recon Corps wore an acerbic expression on his pale face as he addressed Instructor Shadis. "By all means, enlighten us as to why we should deem this hell-raiser of yours worthy of our consideration."