Compared to the rest of the training facility, the infirmary is quiet. Not silent of course, that would be disconcerting, but comfortable. A window is open, letting in the distant sounds of the wind, birds, and drills going on outside. Sometimes people come in with sprains or bruises to be treated, but his bed is separated from that area. Being the unintended eavesdropper is interesting only for a moment. Otherwise, he is left alone to reduce the risk of his illness spreading.
Armin sighs. Alone. It’s not a feeling that he savors, but he’s deserved this turn of events. Anyone else could have kept going, but physical weakness continued to be his undoing.
Most times, cadets and soldiers alike are expected to work through sickness. He tries and for about a few days he partially succeeds. But during morning aerobics his legs gave out before he could even finish two laps around the quad and his coughing became so severe that he couldn't catch the breath he needed to right himself.
Eren is beyond upset, and rightly so. Both he and Mikasa stop to try and help Armin to his feet, to no avail. Eventually the sergeant scolds them back into pace with everyone else, although Eren looks like he's seriously considering violent action to stay near his friend. It was Armin that finally convinces him to continue daily practice without him, as the doctor is fetched and a few assistants with a stretcher come to gather him. As Eren jogs away, he continues looking over his shoulder, watching until Armin is well out of sight.
They bring him into the medical bay and examine him, coming to the broad conclusion of "upper respiratory" and send him off to rest. Some sort of herbal concoction is brought to him, which tastes cool and bitter and soothes his sore throat, along with a glass with a large pitcher of water from which he is encouraged to drink frequently. Then they abandon him for more important tasks.
He feels too warm and too cold at the same time, and his body aches, but the bed is blessedly softer than the ones they sleep on in the barracks and he has been given orders to rest. Armin can only be so disappointed in his lack of strength as his eyes close and he drifts off into a familiar dream.
Winter comes with death snapping at its heels.
Corpses return from the walls by the thousands, but for every body that is recovered, a hundred more rot in the stomachs of Titans. A great funeral pyre blazes during the day, lights the night, and never goes out for lack of fuel. It’s like a grim beacon in the distance, a horrible reminder of how hopeless their situation truly is and the cruelty of those who hold the reins of power above them.
Armin looks at that light from the fields as they work, and from the campfire that they gather around at night. He watches the massive tower of billowing black smoke ascend into the air. His grandfather told him that when people die, the thing inside them that makes them human becomes like a bird and flies beyond the clouds to a place in the sky where even Titans cannot reach. So he looks into the smog in hopes of seeing ashen wings.
The people that have been moved from the protection of Maria and into Rose and still survived the lottery do not have proper housing by any means. Tents and lean-tos exist to accommodate them, and people live in tiny "villages" where they encircle a single bonfire to serve many while conserving precious fuel. Food is just as precious. No one receives enough. And for several hours a day, they are all worked to the bone in the fields, caring for winter crops or maintaining dairies or landfills. Not even children or the elderly are spared this treatment.
The first winter bares its fangs. Their terrible living conditions contribute to the incubation of disease. Everyone is underfed, overworked, and cramped into close quarters. People begin to worry at the first cough, but there aren’t any medical personnel around to stop it. When the first person dies, it’s already too late.
Influenza spreads through the camps like wildfire, claiming lives left and right. Some fall down and die right away, like they had only been waiting for the opportunity. Others seem to get better, only to fall asleep and not wake up the next day. Eventually the epidemic control workers get wind of things and begin to separate the sick from the healthy to some unknown place... and those moved have a tendency to not return.
The first thing Armin notices is a heavy, leaden feeling in his arms and fingers as he tries to eat his daily meal. The hard rye bread they serve is even more difficult to chew than usual. The next day, he knows he’s barely contributing to the job of pushing the plow he, Eren, and Mikasa shared. He can't find his full strength or take a whole breath. He shivers himself to sleep, and in the morning, he can't rise at all. His body throbs and burns and is wracked with freezing cold all at the same time.
It’s amazing how Eren and Mikasa keep him safe for a whole day. The entire time they have to work, they support his limp body between them. He can stand just long enough to fool their supervisors. And they hide in the nearby forest when the epidemic doctors are doing their rounds.
But it only works for a day. Armin's coughing and gasping is too loud and too obvious. He’s soon found.
Eren tries to beat the personnel away with a stick.
"Come on kid, let it go!" one of them pleads with the rabid Eren, while the other tries to wrestle his stick away from him. "It'll all be over soon enough!"
They make no pretense: Armin is going to die.
"You can't have him!" Eren wails as he’s pulled away, kicking and screaming bloody murder. "You can't have him!"
As he refuses to let him go, Eren bites down on the man's arm so hard he spits blood afterwards. Mikasa runs in on the scene from the forest with a much, much larger stick. Soon the doctors realized that this isn't going to end without someone getting seriously injured.
"You dumb kids! You keep this up and we'll call the Military Police!"
"Go ahead! Fucking do it!" Eren snarls, with a vermillion residue still around his mouth. "I'll kill the useless bastards myself! Nobody can have Armin!"
"Bless the Walls, that one is insane," the doctor that had been bitten muttered, and looks at his wound like he might contract some sort of disease from it. "Come on. We'll get the MPs tomorrow; we still have work to do here."
They protect their tent until the personnel vacates the premises. Hours later, Eren cradles his friend close to his chest and fights tears. Mikasa wraps her scarf snugly around Armin's neck and leaves in silent determination.
The atmosphere is deathly quiet
"…Why aren’t you saying anything?" Eren chokes around the lump in his throat, "Aren’t you sad? Aren’t you angry?"
Armin blinks up at his friend. He doesn’t feel much of anything. Not his feet, or his fingers, or his heart.
"I’m sorry," he says, for Eren’s sake, holding his arm "I’m really tired."
It works. They don’t speak again until Mikasa returns.
She stands at the entrance of the tent with a sack slung over her shoulder. Eren looks up, but no-one responds, so she repeats herself.
"We're leaving. For the forest."
"...Will that work?" Eren snuffled uncertainly.
Mikasa shrugs the sack she’s carrying on to the floor. Inside is enough food to sustain them for several days.
"Did you steal that?" Eren speaks over Armin, just as horrified but much more willing to accept thievery as an option for survival.
"No," she replies, tying the bundle back up. "I asked around the tents. Everyone likes Armin, so they gave it to me. We're leaving, or else they'll come back with the Military Police."
For the first time in weeks, something like hope dawns on Eren's face. He nods, wipes at his face shakes his head roughly to get himself together and gives Armin a hug so tight that it hurts.
"You hear that? We're getting you out of here."
They dissemble their tent, gather their things, and set off for the forest. Mikasa carries the supplies and Eren carries Armin on his back. Both the sun and the pyre of corpses helps them stay on course and gives them a rough idea of where they are no matter how far they go.
Armin found himself watching the smoke again. He wondered if it was warm. It was so cold out here. Eren's breath made smoke too, as he struggled over the rough terrain. Armin’s own unsteady coughing made beads of condensation on the scarf brought up to his mouth.
Mikasa isn't satisfied enough to make camp until they’re all ready to collapse, but that’s probably for the best. They can't survive without a fire, and this far in they can safely make one without being seen. They get everything set up just minutes before it becomes too dark to see.
Eren and Mikasa eat little, but feed Armin as much as he can swallow. They soak small bites of bread in water first so it will be easier to chew and irritate his throat less. When it’s time to sleep, they take turns guarding the fire and cuddling close with Armin in the tent to stop his shivering. All his warnings that they will become sick as well fall on deaf ears. It’s all that they can do, and nothing will stop them from doing it.
Days pass, but he does not improve. Armin sits by the fire, stares at the smoke in the sky and speaks little no matter how he is spoken to.
Until it begins to snow.
It falls so thick and so fast that it blots out the ash rising from the great pyre by the wall. Their fire is safe, thanks to the canopy of trees overhead, but the beacon is gone. He can’t see it anymore. Anxiety rises in his throat, cold and clammy and grasping with icy fingers at his heart.
"No!" Armin shouts hoarsely as he staggers to his feet and reaches out for something he can’t touch. Eren catches him around the chest before he can fall, but he only struggles against it. "No, make it stop! I can't-- I can't see it anymore!"
"Armin, calm down!" Eren has never felt Armin fight so, scrambling as though his life depended on it, "What's wrong with you? You're sick! You shouldn't be up!"
"I can't see them anymore!"
Eren falls silent, dumbstruck. Mikasa stands by while pressing a hand to her temple, her expression souring with pain. Armin hits at Eren with blows aimed behind his back, but they still aren't enough to get him to let go. He flails and thrashes and screams until he can't anymore. His legs give way as his desperation turns into gross, coughing sobs and groans of sorrow.
"They're all dead," he chokes, slowly lowering himself to his hands and knees, his head touching the dirt. "I know that they're dead. Nobody came back from the expedition alive. But maybe, if their bodies were brought back, and they were burned in that fire, maybe they could fly to that place in the sky...”
He feels like the Earth below his very hands is falling out from beneath him. How is one supposed to live without parents? He’s not through with being a child. All he thinks about is the warm comfort of coming home. Knowing he has a place to return to.
"Maybe if I died, they would burn me too..."
Eren pulls him away from the ground, and holds him in his arms, nesting his head in the crook of his shoulder.
"They can't have you," he moans, over and over. His teeth are bared in a snarling cry as hot tears fall on Armin's face. The only love he has, terrible and warped, speak from the depths of his broken heart. Armin finds himself reaching out, and holds him in return in hopes of containing his madness. "You can't die. You're mine."
"You're our family now," Mikasa says, as though it’s the simplest notion in the world. She sits down and gently brushes the snow and dirt gathering in Armin’s hair away, "We're all family. So nobody gets to die."
He may not have a home anymore, but they were right. He did have a family. He couldn’t leave them, when they were just as alone as he was.
Armin cries with quiet, coughing heaves. Both his tears and Eren's fall down his face, along with the cold kiss of snowflakes; a sensation he will never forget.
"...Yes," he whimpers, and a weight rises from his chest. He places it on their young shoulders "Yes, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
"Armin... Oi, Armin!"
His eyes open in dusky pre-night darkness. For a moment, all Armin can see is shadows. But a lamp is lit beside him, and he blinks away the starbursts to ascertain his surroundings.
Eren is beside him with an anxious look on his face.
"Eren..." He stretches his back out in place, stifling a yawn.
"Are you okay? Is your body hurting anywhere?"
"No, not particularly." He feels quite well rested, although he has a slight headache. "Why?"
"Well, uh..." Eren scratches the back of his head. "You're kinda crying."
"Eh?" Armin's hands move to touch his face, and sure enough, his cheeks are wet with tears. He wipes them away in an embarrassed hurry. "Ah, no, I'm fine, really. I think I just had some sort of dream... Or I was remembering something..."
Eren looks this way and that, checking for possible voyeurs, then leans close and whispers, "Just between us, it happens--"
He cuts himself off mid-sentence and sits straight as a board as the door opens, and Armin can't help but smile a little. Mikasa enters the room with a small bundle under her arm.
"Armin." She nods to him, places her hand on his forehead briefly, and pats his soft hair. "Are you feeling any better?"
"Yes, thank you. It's just a passing cold. I'll be fine soon."
Mikasa sits down on his bedside and unwraps her package. Steam and good smells rise into the air. Wheat bread and warm goat's cheese; enough for three.
"It looks delicious Mikasa," Armin says, beginning to drool even though he lacks an appetite. "But I couldn't possibly eat all that."
"It's for all of us. Eren didn't eat."
"Eren?" Armin raises an eyebrow at him.
"I was worried, okay? I wasn't even that hungry..."
"No wonder you look sweaty. You came here as soon as training was over for the day, didn't you?"
"Is that some sort of crime? I'm being nice!"
Armin laughs under his breath. Mikasa hands Eren a portion of bread and cheese to keep him from going into a tirade.
Their meal is pleasant and reminds Armin of simpler times. Eren talks (and complains) about anything and everything that had happened that day while Armin wasn't there to see it, so much so that he chokes on his food a few times and has to drink directly from Armin's pitcher of water to force it down.
When the doctor comes back in to check on Armin, he's surprised to see Eren and Mikasa, but doesn't scold them. He sends Armin back to the boys’ bunk with Eren after maintaining that there really isn't any need for him to be taking up a bed in the infirmary anymore.
Back at the barracks some small taunts around thrown around about Armin's usual lack of endurance, but all are quieted by Eren's specialty glare of imminent death. After lights out, Jean complains about the coughing, but Armin apologizes and saves him from a pillow-rocket to the face.
Armin and Eren share two blankets and two pillows on one bed so he can be more comfortable. They whisper to each other about all the things they’ll see outside the walls until they can’t keep their eyes open anymore. Armin listens to Eren breathe as sleep slowly creeps up on him, and it reminds him of the silent, cold night when they became each other's reason to live.