They share a saddle. Armin's horse knows the roads in and around their settlement, but this area is wholly virginal, with its tall spring grasses not yet rent by boots or metal horseshoes. Every clod of dirt the horse turns up is fresh, and Eren knows that Armin can smell the loam even better than he can. "There are all these purple flowers around us," Eren says into Armin's hair. The wind keeps blowing it into his face. "They group on really long stems. They're like... columns. Big leaves, too."
Armin smiles off to the left and fingers a bit of the horse's mane. "They might be larkspur," he says. "When we get back, you should tell someone they're here. I think larkspur's toxic."
"No one's gonna be eating any flowers," Eren says, a little incredulous. He can, admittedly, picture Sasha with a bouquet between her teeth, and Jean with a daisy sticking out of his mouth.
"Kids, though," Armin chides, face turned forward. His chin is tilted up and Eren imagines that the sunlight is spread over his mouth and the bridge of his nose. Lucky sun.
"Yeah, kids, I guess." Eren peers around Armin's shoulder, trying to see what the sun does, but Armin notices, and nudges him back into place, smiling. "I tried to eat a foxtail once," Eren admits, and Armin smiles even further.
"I remember," he says. "So let's tell someone about the flowers."
"It's nice out here."
It seems like an inane statement -- it's nice out here -- but everyone in the settlement says it all the time. It hasn't lost its novelty yet. Out here. The horizon seems impossibly far away, and everyone likes to look at it, likes to watch the sun sink. On the clearest days, the southeast of the horizon has raised edges, just a tiny bit. Hanji says they're mountains. How can mountains be that small? Armin's only answer was, "The end of the horizon is even further away than it looks."
"Oh, yeah?" Eren had asked. "Then how far's the end?"
Armin had smiled in a tired way, strong, but glassy-eyed. These days he was always tired and strong, and people were always asking him questions. Probably less stupid ones than Eren asked, he thought, and scuffed his boot against the ground, but Armin set his hand on Eren's shoulder and leaned in to make ready for a secret. "There is no end," he'd said quietly.
When they've been riding until the sunset starts in with its orange, the tall grass starts to get thinner. Armin can tell from the way things sound, and he turns his face around like he's looking. Eren wonders if that's just habit or if it actually helps. "The terrain's changed?" he asks, and his brows furrow in a concentrating way. "I hear water?"
"Yep." Eren reins the horse to a halt. The grass is sparse here, but there's still enough for grazing. "Come on, let's walk the rest of the way. We're not gonna get back till dark, but I just, I really wanted to show you." Ugh, faux pas. He could kick himself in the teeth, and grinds his molars a little. "I wanted to bring you here," he mutters, seething at himself, while Armin bumps his shoulder forgivingly.
"But no one's been this way yet," he says, starting to dismount. He can do it expertly by now, but Eren still gets this feeling in his throat like Armin's going to catch his foot the wrong way and fall off. "How did you know where we were going?"
"Hanji said if I followed..." He keeps himself from saying You got it? and taking Armin's elbow. Armin's feet touch the ground and he pulls back from the horse, facing towards Eren and absently pushing some hair behind his ear. "If I followed, uh, I'd find the source -- I don't want to spoil it for you yet, come on, you've got to be there for yourself." He takes Armin's hand to guide him. Armin lets him because he likes for his hand to be held.
"My boots are sinking in funny," Armin says after a couple of minutes, suddenly ginger, almost tip-toeing. Eren thinks he looks like an alleycat with string caught in its claws, walking awkwardly and oblivious to its problem.
"We're about there, just a little further. Yeah, good." Any moment, Armin will know.
And then he does, and his eyes with their glaze go very wide, and he turns his face sharply to Eren, as though he's really looking at him. "This is sand?" he asks, gaping. "Are we at the ocean? How did..."
Eren's thumb rubs the back of Armin's hand in a sheepish way. "It's not the ocean, we haven't found it yet... It's a lake. I found a pretty big creek--"
"A big creek is just a river."
"--A stream, and Hanji told me I'd find the source if I kept going. And there was sand around the creek bed--"
Eren flicks his hair. "Stream! I thought there'd be sand at the lake, too, once I found it. And I was right. It's a big lake, too, so if the ocean's any bigger than this, it's got to be really huge..."
There's more to say, maybe, but he trails off when he sees Armin drop to his knees, scrabbling around with splayed fingers. Armin's face has gone white, and he's spreading his hands through the sand like a rowdy kid might do in some mud. "Wow," he says, softly and over and over. "Wow." Eren wants to touch it, too, but mostly he wants to keep watching Armin touch it. Most days, Eren will look at the way Armin doesn't look at anything and think, It should have been me. Right now, though -- he can't say it, but right now, that hurts too much to think about. Watching how Armin's muscles flutter with his excitement is even better than seeing the tiny suggestion of far away mountains. It's better than fields of larkspur. Armin stops, and sand rolls along his knuckles. "Does it look like the moon?" he asks. He isn't quiet; he doesn't sound sad. He just wants to know.
Eren crouches down and plunges his hand into the sand. It's fine, and feels bizarre and very good. "It looks like sand," he says.
That's a good answer. Armin smiles.