“I visited your family personally,” Commander Shadis said quietly. “Your cousin was visibly upset, just like you expected. Your parents…”
“They never approved of me joining the Scouts. Hell, they never approved of anything that I did,” Hilde said sourly. “But then, what do you expect from Wall-Worshipers?”
Shadis pursed his lips. “It has been explained to you that you can have no contact with your old life?”
Hilde nodded, her eyes downcast. Leaving Mike behind was going to be the hardest part.
It had been agreed that it would be best for him to learn of her ‘death’ only after his return from the latest expedition. By then, she would have been moved on to another location, thus completing the ruse.
However, it did not feel right to deny him closure. “If I wrote him a letter, would you see that he gets it?” she asked, holding her blankets in clenched fists.
Hilde more or less hobbled her way down to the mess hall. She still had to tape up her ribs, but at least breathing had become less of a torture.
The room was long, with a tall ceiling. Fireplaces were spaced a few meters apart, but were currently unlit. A single trestle table dominated the room, and several squads occupied it for the evening meal.
“Hey, hey! It’s the new meat,” came a shout from the back of the hall. Following that, came a chorus of “Meat! Meat!” and the banging of fists on the long table.
“Alright, settle it down,” Ellis commanded from his seat at the head of the table. “We don’t want to scare her off.” Ellis gave her a wink while others chuckled loudly.
As Hilde was making her way to a spot at the table, a familiar face darted toward her. “Anais?” she asked in disbelief as she hugged her childhood friend.
“About damn time,” the other girl teased, giving Hilde a firm squeeze.
“Ouch!” Hilde yelped. “Broken ribs, remember?”
“Aw, you’ll heal. Now come eat!” Anais pulled her over to sit near to the head of the table.
Awkwardly, Hilde sat on the bench, making a serious attempt not to bump anyone in the process.
Once she had herself situated, a plate full of food was passed down the table to her. “Eat up,” Anais insisted. “You’ll heal faster.”
Hilde assessed the roast venison and root vegetables briefly before digging in. Those around her watched with amusement as she ate. “Here, have some beer to wash it down!”
A mug soon appeared before her and Hilde promptly took a gulp. Beer dribbled down her chin in her haste.
“Sorry, water and porridge is all I’ve been given for a while.”
That only served to crack them up more.
Ellis stood then. “Alright, you mutts, quiet down!” he bellowed.
The man to his immediate left began to pound his empty mug on the table. He wore a stoic expression, which his shoulder-length dark hair only served to make him look grumpy.
The pounding of mugs was echoed by several others down the length of the table. Judging from their playful scowls, they were squad leaders.
“We all have different backgrounds,” Ellis began. “The Garrison, the Military Police, the Survey Corps,” cheers went up from the former members of each branch. “And even those with no military affiliation at all.” Several raised their mugs in silent salute, including the man to the left.
“Tonight, we welcome one more into out cadre. Hilde Baumgard of the Front Line Spotters!” Loud cheers and pounding of mugs and fists answered the proclamation.
Then, the din only grew louder when Anais draped a black cloak about Hilde’s shoulders.
That evening, Hilde and Anais were up on the tower roof. A gentle breeze was blowing, causing Hilde’s hair to tickle her nose. “I need to cut my hair,” she said quietly.
“I think it looks fine,” Anais replied. “You would have to let it grow for quite a while before it ever got long enough to catch in your gear.”
“I keep it short so that it stays out of my eyes,” Hilde explained.
“Oh yeah, I forget how you Survey types needed to keep your head on a swivel,” she nudged Hilde playfully.
“I’m still mad at you,” Hilde admitted softly. “I never had a chance to say goodbye.”
“Yeah, that’s the part that sucks about this whole thing. You feel like absolute shit for leaving everyone behind,” Anais said quietly. “It does get better over time, sort of, until you bring home someone that you knew.” She pulled up her legs and wrapped her arms around her knees.
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Hilde murmured.
“So who was he? Spill!” Anais pressed.
Hilde shook her head, wishing that the pain didn’t keep her from pulling her own legs up to her chest. “Just someone from my squad.”
“No, he was not just ‘some guy’. You cared for him, and you still do.”
“It didn’t start out that way, you know,” Hilde said. “It was fun, and convenient, in the beginning. Then it just…” she shrugged.
“It got too serious, too fast,” Anais finished.
Hilde nodded. “And we had a stupid fight before this,” she pointed at her face.
Hilde gingerly touched her face, the skin still tender. Something in the titan saliva had caused the wounds to fester, and now she was left with scars from eyebrow to jawbone.
Each jostle of the wagon had been sheer agony on her broken ribs, while faceless voices hovered over the bandages that kept her blind. She would often awaken in the night to the sensation of fingers being run through her hair.
It had brought her more comfort than the voices, and even the sedatives.
Anais sighed, hugging Hilde about the shoulders. “Let me guess, he wanted you to transfer out of the Scouts.”
“I couldn’t do it,” Hilde said. “Growing up in Sheena, surrounded by all of those hypocrites. You and I both swore that we would never join the Military Police. The Regiment is not much better, the complacent drunkards…”
“Don’t let Ellis hear that. He was First Battalion Elite,” Anais scolded. “Porter though, he’s an MP prick. None of us are really sure why he’s here…”
“And I will not supervise trainees. There is no way that I will be able to sit back and watch the cadets march off to die.” Hilde pointed at the wall. “That is where I belong, out there.”
“And that’s why you’re here,” Anais said knowingly.