Armin is fine, when they get back. He is fine when answering the expected questions, describing the gory tragedy that left everyone in his squad but himself and Eren dead, fine in the ride back with the 104th’s careful consolations, fine even when he can feel Eren’s eyes burning fearful on the back of his neck. Maybe even too fine – Corporal Levi, when checking on Eren, gives Armin a steady, bluntly quizzical look, and soon enough the Commander, prosthetic still tick-ticking out of a glitch Hanji hasn’t fixed yet, rides by, making easy, reassuring conversation.
The itch of dead blue eyes on him makes Armin’s palms sweat nervous, but Armin has had an entire life of playacting behind him, a fucked up prophetic preparation for this, he guesses. So Armin’s voice has the perfect tremble, now, eyes watering in a way that isn’t quite fake as his lips shiver sadly over his words, and he can see the Commander fall for it. Hook, line, sinker.
He is only human, and Armin is very good.
Armin is fine, until he isn’t.
It’s stupid, and Armin hates himself for it, so fucking stupid, but he was twitchy already from sleep interrupted by nightsweat and the taste of human heart on his tongue, anxious already from Eren’s terrified treatment of him – he didn’t go so far to save his best friend just to lose his best friend anyway – and – and –
The chewing is just so fucking loud.
Armin sucks in a thorny, desperate breath, hearing it leave his lips again as a whine and his eyes are roving over the mess hall, focusing on people’s teeth, how they bite down into the meat to tear it away and chew –
His fingers feel numb, shaking and empty, and Armin looks down to see that he’s dropped his tray, that he’s standing in the front of the center of the mess hall frozen but he can’t move. People are starting to look, his breath loud and tasting coppery over his tongue, tasting like heart, Armin swaying as his weight shifts, flighty, without his permission.
“I – I –” He stutters over vowels, hands clenching and unclenching and he needs to move, he needs to get away, away from the sound and the meat but he can’t move – “Please,” he whispers, and he’s not sure what he’s asking for.
“Arlert,” the Corporal says, decisive as the hand of God but so much more present, grasping one of Armin’s forearms lightly and placing his other hand on Armin’s shoulder, pressing gently to march him, steady, from the mess hall. Armin’s breath is coming faster and faster, loud in the empty hallway, his feet beginning to stumble, his hand clenching automatically on the one on his forearm.
“Just a little further, Arlert, then you can collapse, I promise,” Corporal Levi says. True to his word, Armin is only pushed a few steps further until he’s allowed to curl up, pressing his back to the wall and sliding into the tight, protective corner made by bisecting walls.
Armin has a feeling this spot was chosen on purpose.
He’s saying something, he thinks, or at least trying to, spitting out mangled syllables between choked gasps, and he can’t really hear what it is or what the Corporal is saying back, hands gentle as they stroke up and down Armin’s arms. There is a burning in his throat and in his eyes and he moans when he realizes he’s crying, that’s all he’s good for, is crying, and watching people die, and –
“—Armin, Armin Arlert, that is not true and I will not have one of my people thinking so,” the Corporal’s voice hums, warping into something Armin can hear. “Erwin has half a fuckin’ mind to start grooming you for Commander now –”
Armin shrieks out a laugh. “Oh God, humanity would die, I –” he breaks down, doubling over in laughter that feels more like harsh sobs, frenetic and vile in the air.
“Fuck, I was waiting for this,” Corporal Levi mutters, adjusting his arms around Armin until Armin is cradled in them, Armin letting his head roll into the crook of the Corporal’s neck, boneless. “You were way to fuckin’ composed, should have goddamn known it was hiding a fuckin’ flood of trauma. You fuckin’ kids do shit all to help yourself, you know that?”
His words are harsh but his tone is not, hands gentling Armin’s desperate breaths with slow circles on his back, rocking the two of them back and forth. Armin feels himself steady, eventually, heaving in gummy breaths and hot-cold shivering like he always does after he’s cried for long enough.
Then he realizes what a vulnerable position he’s gotten himself into, how the secret on his back is weighing much heavier now. He snorts in a breath and coughs, detaching himself and rubbing his nose with his sleeve to give him some time to fix his expression. Shake it off, he thinks to himself bitterly, remembering his father’s words the first time he came home with a bully’s love mark.
“Thank you, Corporal,” he says, sweetly sincere as he lets his eyes drift over the ground, timidly avoiding eye contact.
“It’s a fuckin’ horrorshow, how you do that,” the Corporal steamrolls, rocking back on his heels and looking Armin over. “I know you’re just a kid, but are you human, even?”
Armin flinches, and the Corporal cringes, shaking his head. “Forget that. That was my own shit talking. You good?”
Combing fingers through his hair, Armin nods. “I’m alright.”
Sniffing in a breath, the Corporal nods. “Good.” He nods again. “Well.”
“I’m going back to the mess hall,” Armin says wearily, unwilling to deal with a clumsy wrap-up to an awkward meltdown he shouldn’t have let himself have.
“You okay?” Eren asks him from across the table, guardedly, sort of quiet. Mikasa looks sad and confused and Armin hates that, how she glances between himself and Eren like she’s trying to figure out which parts she needs to fix.
Armin swallows, cuts his eyes away from where Eren is biting into his ration of beef – beef, he chants in his head, beef cow animal not human not heart – and shrugs. “Yeah, I just – I’m tired, so.”
He picks a splinter of wood off the table with his bitten-down nails, flicks it away.
“You sure?” Eren presses, and something sunlight warm and good bursts in Armin’s chest, because Eren doesn’t press anymore, usually just lets it go but he’s pressing. Glancing up at Eren cautiously, Armin meets his eyes, waits hopefully and feels like vomiting when the flicker of fear still lights Eren’s eyes up brighter.
His gut sours. He isn’t hungry anymore, though he has barely eaten half his portion. “Yeah, I’m sure.”
Pushing himself up, he slides his tray down to Sasha. “I’m done,” he says, listens with half an ear to her grateful sobbing and her yelled praises of his name as he leaves.
He ducks his head to avoid the Corporal’s eyes as he does.
Then he fucks up.
Not badly, not enough to hurt Eren or the integrity of the story keeping Eren safe, but Armin can see the moment after he pulls the trigger on his left grapple that it won’t make the next wall in the obstacle course, that he is going to fall.
Shunting his weight to the side in the air, Armin heaves himself toward the lower wall, skid marks from other’s boots streaking down like tear tracks, and yelps when his body cracks against it. He rolls, striking the supporting columns and falling onto another platform, his weight forcing his movement to continue, rolling him off the edge and onto the ground with a thump.
After a long, slow moment of numbness, Armin groans, dizzying pain awakening in his limbs, rising heavy inside his gut. He cracks his eyes open, staring at the sky and feeling them water at the light.
He doesn’t think he’s ever been in quite so much pain.
“Armin!” Eren’s voice rips desperate, and Armin can hear the sounds of a messy landing, hear Eren’s lolloping run towards him and Armin can’t move through the fire that locks his muscles up. “Armin, oh fuck, Armin –”
Eren drops to his knees beside Armin, hands fluttering over Armin’s chest as he mutters. “Holy fuck, what the fuck do I do, your spine – fuck, can you feel your legs?”
Armin wiggles his toes, whines his affirmative, and Eren breathes out a sigh. “Okay, I – I don’t think you should move –”
Armin responds with a scream of laughter, and Eren winces. “Yeah, okay, um. Fuck. We should wait till Levi gets here.”
“Levi is here,” the Corporal says, striding toward them both with Mikasa at his side. She rushes to where Eren is crouched, falling at Armin’s other side and joining Eren in fluttering her hands over Armin desperately and uselessly, before very, very gently brushing some hair back from Armin’s face.
Mikasa smiles at him, gentle and kind. Armin tries to smile back, but it falls into a grimace as his lip splits.
“Can you wiggle your toes?” Levi barks, squatting and pushing Eren away with a hand on Eren’s face. Armin nods. “Your ankles?” Armin can, when he tries, but it makes pain roll up through his body and Levi gestures for him to stop. “Alright, so you can probably walk,” he concludes, and Mikasa glances at him sharply.
He glares acerbically right back. “The fuck did you expect me to do, whip some medical training out of my ass? Carry him back to his room, let him sleep it off, if he can’t move tomorrow come and get me.”
With that, he pushes himself to his feet, turning to the rest of the squad and snapping at them to get back to work.
Eren fits warm, careful arms under Armin’s knees and shoulders, and Armin sucks in a breath when Eren lifts him, walking slow and gentle out back toward HQ.
“What happened, Armin?” Mikasa asks quietly, a hand moving to play with her scarf while she walks alongside them. “That wasn’t like you.”
It’s a kinder way of saying the mistake Armin made was juvenile, and about two years of training behind him.
“I haven’t been getting a lot of sleep,” Armin says shortly. Mikasa cocks her head, eyes calm as they gaze at him.
“Since the mission?” she asks, and neither he nor Eren could stop the stiffening of their muscles. A hand on Eren’s shoulder stops him, and Mikasa moves to stand in front of them. “I want to know what really happened.”
“Five Titans attacked,” Armin begins to reel off, and Eren cuts him off.
“I ate people. I – I killed and ate people and Armin covered it up.”
It’s a broad explanation, notably lacking some cannibalism-related details, and Armin watches as Mikasa processes the words, watches understanding backlight the horror in her eyes.
“Oh,” she says, very quiet. Eren swallows, keeps his eyes locked with hers as they communicate in the wordless way they have. Seconds pass like years before Mikasa nods, slowly, carefully, and steps to the side to allow Eren to pass.
“Thank you,” she murmurs with a squeeze to Armin’s ankle, and then Armin is crying again, because he’s being thanked for being a monster.
Eren helps him into bed, hands firm on Armin but his eyes always on the ground, and when Armin is being tucked in like a child he mutters, resentful, “I don’t like that you’re afraid of me.”
“I’m not –” Eren starts, but he stops himself at Armin’s glare. He flushes, fiddles with some of the blanket over Armin’s knee. “It’s hard not to be,” he admits, soft.
“You fed me someone’s goddamn heart, Eren!” Armin yells, a sob caterwauling up his throat and splattering between them, ugly. Eren flinches away, shoulders tensing.
“After you stabbed him, Armin,” he mutters, and Armin draws in a breath. “I just – I know what I did, I,” he laughs, a desperate huff, “Believe me, I know what I did, but. You did some scary shit, too.”
“Because you made me,” Armin says numbly, “Because I needed to so you’d be safe.”
Eren cringes away from those words, linking his hands in his lap. “I know.”
“It was only ‘cause – only ‘cause you ripped Elise’s back open,” Armin fumbles, breath speeding. “And ate her. After you’d finished killing Willem. Who you ate. That’s the only reason I – because if I hadn’t –”
“I know, Armin,” Eren says, and his voice is so wrecked, so broken, and Armin shakes his head, a hysteric half-laugh catching behind his teeth.
“You’re not allowed to be afraid of me,” Armin cries, “Not after I fucking – picked corpse meat out of your teeth, and – and buried people that I knew, I liked them, and – Eren, you can’t, not after I did all that for you. I did it all – you can’t when it was all –”
“That’s part of the problem, fuck!” Eren yells back, and Armin’s breath is coming in gasping heaves and his face is hot and wet and he shakes when Eren shouts. “Goddamnit, Armin, if you’d do that, what else would you do for me?”
His eyes are wild, chest heaving with breath and Armin sways, blood rushing too hot inside of him.
“Anything,” he says, sort of distantly but sort of not because this is the truth, at the end, the truth driving this entire fucking train wreck forward. “Anything, I’d do anything for you…”
Eren whines behind his teeth. “Please don’t say that, please don’t fuckin’ say that.”
“It’s true, though,” Armin says, voice gaining strength with the surety he feels behind his words. “I’d do anything for you, to keep you safe, I’d kick the Walls down if you needed it –”
“I don’t want to know that!” Eren snarls, and then he’s pawing his way onto Armin’s bed, sliding forward and his grip on Armin’s chin is as tight as it was when he was feeding Armin Joden’s heart when he kisses him, all rough and clumsy-hot.
Armin makes a noise of surrender and feels his muscles unspool inside his skin, sinking back and Eren follows him down, a hand on either side of Armin’s head.
Their lips part with a wet smack that puts something trembling between Armin’s hips, and Eren takes in a quick breath.
“Eren…” Armin murmurs. Eren pushes himself off the bed, and Armin rises onto his elbows. “What?”
“I’m sorry, Armin,” Eren blurts, loud as his eyes dart around the room. “I’m really fuckin’ sorry.”
Then he’s scrambling from the room, shutting the door behind him with a crack.
The 59th excursion beyond the Walls goes well right up until it’s almost over, the Recon Corps trudging back with an optimistically low list of casualties when Armin hears the first horrific snaps of bone twisting under skin.
Jerking his head to the side, he watches as Eren’s hands drop the reigns, eyes unfocusing as his head tips back to the sky, a low groan beginning in the back of his throat.
“Eren?” Armin asks, panicked. He gets no response, and Armin breaks formation as he canters toward where Eren has bent himself back in a series of loud, sickening cracks, ribcage heaving under his skin. The groan arches into scream, Eren slumping sideways off his horse and Armin whimpers when Eren’s limbs elongate and jaw re-shape in a series of shudders.
Planting one hand on the ground, then the other, Eren arches his back and roars, spooking Armin’s horse. Armin fights to get the beast back under control before he just pitches himself off the saddle, unable to spare the time.
Eren has risen to balance on the balls of his feet and his palms, poisonous green eyes flickering forward and latching onto where the Commander has dismounted, facing Eren a distance away. Armin can hear the animalistic intake of breath on Eren’s part, see his eyes focus on the Commander and Armin thinks hysterically that the Commander probably thinks Eren would still stop for him.
“No, Eren –!” Armin cries, when Eren grunts and picks up a four-legged loping gait heading toward the Commander, gaining speed as he goes. Heaving in a breath, Armin pitches himself forward, closer to the Commander than Eren is and cutting through the space on an angle to get there quicker.
Commander Erwin’s eyes never flicker as Eren approaches, and Armin thinks miserably that he’s going to die, that Armin can’t stop it –
He skids in front of the Commander, throwing his arms out. “Eren, no!”
Pulling back into a stop and falling onto his ass, Eren blinks at Armin twice before growling, heaving his weight onto his feet and thrusting himself forward, arms splayed in a pose that mirrors Armin as he howls back. He snorts in a breath, shunting Armin back a couple steps when he paws at Armin’s shoulder, like he’s trying to get Armin to step aside. “No, Eren,” he repeats, “no, you can’t, you can’t –”
Eren screams at those words, drawing his fingers down his face hard enough to gouge eight red divots in his flesh, tearing at his stomach and eviscerating himself in three neat cleaves, first with his right hand, then his left, then his right again. He screams, tossing his head – one bloodied eye still rolling sightlessly in it socket – and picking his gaze off the Commander, turning it outward.
Grunting, he takes three steps in Jean’s direction, Armin scrambling to stay in front of Eren.
“No, you can’t, please, please.” His voice breaks as he mutters those words, gripping the sides of Eren’s face on tiptoes and tugging it down to his level, Eren’s spine bending fluidly. “Not again, Eren, please, I can’t fix it if you do it this time,” he pleads, knowing understanding is beyond Eren.
Eren blinks, desperate breaths puffing out over Armin’s lips, and then he howls again, tucking Armin under one arm and stalking to where his horse stands, reaching forward and burying his fingers into the meat of her neck before biting down on the top of her head, crunching through the skull with cerebral fluid dripping over his chin.
Armin sobs. Eren loved that horse.
He is tossed onto the ground, Eren hunching down in front of him and spitting his first mouthful at Armin’s feet, growling.
“Yeah,” Armin says, distant as his eyes start to lose focus. “That’s fine, Eren.”
Eren picks the hunk of brain he spat at Armin off the ground and shoves it into his mouth, burying his fingers between his horse’s ribs and using the bones as handles to drag her closer, biting into the neck with a satisfied purr.
Armin takes in a juddering breath.
There are mutters floating in the air around him, and it takes a colossal amount of effort to take his eyes off of where they were fixed onto the clever movement of Eren’s hands to let his gaze pass over their surroundings. Mikasa is closest, blades drawn and standing protectively over Armin, but even she flinches at the sound of Eren enjoying his meal.
There are several cracks as he forces the ribcage open, then a pleased chirruping and the sloppy noise of the lungs tearing, Eren mashing the pinkish flesh into his mouth greedily. Eren’s arm reaches out, slinging over Armin’s shoulders and he slumps forward, doll-like, when Eren drags him through a patch of blood and close to his unnaturally warm side. Head leaning on Eren’s ribs, Armin looks at the faces of those around him, sees the Commander and the Corporal walking toward Eren and Armin turns his face into Eren’s side to hide from them. Gurgling out a curious noise, Eren perks and fixes his eyes on the approaching figures, throwing an arm protectively over his kill.
“It’s fine,” Armin says tiredly, still not moving. “It’s fine, Eren.”
Snarling in a breath, Eren licks over his forearm before grunting and sticking his hands back into the steaming cavern of flesh, ignoring the Commander and Corporal thoroughly now that Armin’s assured him they won’t take his meat.
“Arlert, are you alright?” the Corporal asks, and Armin sighs, numb and so, so tired.
“I’m alive, sir,” he answers, and Eren growls when Armin speaks, looking up at the figures and back to Armin before he growls again, slapping a blood-covered hand onto Armin’s face, pressing Armin into his side a moment. Holding Armin there, he grunts before letting go, eating the liver in a few messy bites.
“What is this, Armin?” the Commander asks next, fixing his corpse’s eyes onto Armin.
“I don’t know,” Armin breathes.
“Was Eren what killed your squad?” His next question is blunt, and Armin shakes his head.
“He transformed when he saw the five titans, and lost consciousness as he transformed back,” Armin says, the lie flowing easily, thoughtlessly, from his lips.
“Did he eat any human flesh?” the Commander asks next, and Armin sees how the Corporal shifts with he hears this question, hands already moving to his blades. Armin grits his teeth.
“Really.” The Commander’s eyes are drilling into his. Armin straightens his shoulders, meeting his gaze firmly.
“I didn’t let him,” and the ambiguity of the statement is what gives it credence, he thinks, watches as Commander Erwin swallows the lie like Armin knew he would.
The grip Mikasa has on her blades relax just slightly when the Commander nods, the Corporal’s body shifting into something safe again.
Then Eren ruins the lie by pulling the heart from the emptied cavern, just like he did last time, holding it as he grips Armin’s chin in the other, just like the last time, and Armin can’t stop his scream.
“No!” He struggles backward, and Eren rumbles, irritated, as he slings his arm tighter around Armin, holding him still against Eren’s side. “No, Eren, don’t –”
“Eren!” Mikasa cries, alarmed, and then Eren has pressed his mouth to Armin’s, tongue shoving the torn piece of heart into his mouth. Drawing back, Eren watches with unblinking eyes as Armin dry-heaves, the taste making liquid panic eddy in his gut. Shaking his head, Armin tries to spit it back out but Eren clamps his jaw closed with one hand, bending his back and butting his head into Armin’s stomach.
Shivering, Armin looks out at where a visibly stricken Levi is being held back with a few fingers at his wrist by the Commander, whose eyes are calculating as they watch Armin begin to chew.
“Aw, fuck this,” he hears Jean curse behind him.
Eren makes a pleased purring noise when he sees Armin swallow, nips affectionately at the underside of his jaw before Eren pinches more meat between his teeth, tearing it away and passing it to Armin with something he refuses to call a kiss.
Armin almost falls into a trance, at the rhythmic pattern of chewing, dry-heaving till he swallows, parting his lips for the next piece and starting to chew again. Mikasa is – Mikasa is crying, tears trickling down her face silently and Armin wishes she wouldn’t, when Eren grabs at Armin’s jaw as he feeds him, hearing the murmurs spin dizzily in the air around him.
Eren’s horse’s heart was bigger than Joden’s, takes more time to eat, and by the time Eren splays his bloodied palm in front of Armin, Armin’s stomach feels swollen and angry. He hiccups on his sobs when he licks the blood away, encouraged by Eren’s curious tugs at his hair with his other hand and rough noises of satisfaction.
Nuzzling close, Eren sticks out his tongue and licks Armin’s tears away, happy hum buzzing against Armin’s cheek. He pats at Armin, coiling his hair over long fingers, pressing his face into the crook of Armin’s neck, cooing again and again like he’s praising Armin for something.
Armin chokes, spits up some bile to swallow it back down, uninterested in finding out what Eren’s reaction might be like if Armin were to vomit.
“Eren…” he says dazedly, and Eren chirrups in response. Pushing at Eren’s shoulders until Eren gives Armin space, he totters to his feet, forcefully keeping himself from looking at anyone else.
He feels…odd. Vulnerable. Sort of used.
Swaying to his feet beside Armin, Eren seems to at last take notice of their surroundings, growling low. Mikasa, looking unsure, takes a step back, and Eren makes a protesting noise in his throat, wiggling one of his fingers under the chest strap of her 3DMG and tugging her close again.
He grunts decisively before wiggling his finger out, poking with oddly gentle curiosity at the scarf she wears.
Mikasa’s eyes are wide and watery, staring up at Eren as he gurgles and babbles, unwinding and winding the scarf around her head.
“Armin?” The Commander asks, tone cautious. It feels like it takes a while, for Armin to remember how to feel his own body, for him to turn his head stiffly in the Commander’s direction. “We need to move.”
“He should,” Armin starts, clears his throat when his voice rasps uselessly, “He should be good, now.”
The Commander nods, looking…hesitant? Corporal Levi shoulders past the man, holding the reigns of a horse in one hand as he walks toward Armin.
“Are you in any way okay right now?” he asks as he hands them to Armin. Armin nods sort of numbly, mostly on instinct, and Corporal Levi looks deadbeat miserable. “No you’re fuckin’ not. Fuck, kid, I’m sorry.”
Armin just nods again, drifting back to where Eren is holding Mikasa up by her arms, gazing at her as intently as she is gazing at him.
“Eren,” he says, and Eren drops Mikasa, turning to the horse and clambering up on it, gazing down at Armin when he’s done and burbling, expectant.
“Good job, Eren,” Armin says, hears Eren’s vocalizations pitch happy. Then he swings up on the horse in front of Eren, letting Eren lock long arms around his waist.
Armin avoids the eyes of the 104th, cheeks burning as he rides past them.
Eren doesn’t transform back.