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The Ghost of Trost

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Armin took a deep breath. The sight of Trost below him brought tears to his eyes although he wasn’t sure if they were tears of hope or tears brought on by the rekindled pain of his memories. It had been six months since the battle of Trost, six months since Armin should have died, and six months since he had lost his best friend.

A cool hand on his shoulder made him jump. Mikasa had found him. She always did. It wasn’t the first time Armin had snuck up to sit on the wall after a sleepless night. He didn’t need to glance up at Mikasa to know her face would be unreadable and the hand not comforting Armin would be clutched to the scarf around her neck.

Last night had been their first night back in Trost since the events of the battle, and it had probably been equally rough for Mikasa. He felt her sit next to him, both their legs dangling freely over the wall. If she had been anyone else Armin would have tried to quell the tears in his eyes, but now he let them fall quietly. Mikasa didn’t ask him if he was ok or grill him for the source of his silent tears. She already knew the answer to both those questions. She knew exactly what was on Armin’s mind because it was also on hers. He was thinking about Eren.

Sitting on top of the wall was peaceful, the morning sounds of humanity rebuilding below them were distant and muted. After a quiet moment, he felt Mikasa lay her head on his shoulder. She never cried anymore, not really. It was as if her strength had been twisted inward. She was strong enough to win the battles with herself Armin lost every day.

Losing Eren had been hard. No, that wasn’t it. Losing Eren had been everything. At first, there had been shock and numbness followed by a deep sense of loss and pain. Those were all things Armin could deal with, those were things many of his fellow soldiers lived with. The feeling Armin couldn’t handle, the feeling that made his food taste like ash and his nights full of screams, was guilt. Guilt Eren died for him, guilt he had let Eren join the Survey Corps, guilt he wouldn’t fulfill their shared dream of seeing the outside world, guilt he was failing Mikasa and everyone else, ...guilt Eren had died for nothing.

It had gotten so bad Mikasa asked Jean not so subtly to lock up Armin’s blades at night for fear he might do something to hurt himself. Armin liked to think Mikasa was being over-cautious and he’d never do something like that, but then he remembered that Trost rooftop. The rooftop where he’d asked her to leave him behind with a broken blade so he could choose his own way out. He’d been serious then, so he didn’t blame her cautiousness afterward.

Times like that Armin felt he didn’t deserve Mikasa’s friendship. The deep bond they shared was yet another gift from Eren. Most of the fond memories in his life were. Eren had gotten him through his childhood, through his grandfather’s death, through the years of military training, and Eren’s final act had been getting Armin through his first battle. Eren may have seemed suicidal to some people, but to Armin, he was loyal above all else. In the moments before his inevitable death, Eren had smiled at him. It was a small smile, a secret smile, a smile which haunted Armin’s memories more than the sight of Eren’s severed arm thumping to the ground as the titan that killed him clamped its jaws shut. It was Eren’s way of saying he didn’t regret dying for his friend and remembering it made Armin’s guilt feel sharp inside him.

Most of the soldiers who remembered the battle of Trost remembered it for a very different reason. Not only was Trost the first time humanity had managed to beat back the titans, but it was also the first appearance of the Rogue Titan. No one knew where the Rogue Titan came from or why it attacked its own kind. After clearing the supply depo and nearly being ripped to shreds in the process, the Rogue Titan had set its sights on trying to patch the massive hole in the wall. Armin and his squad had followed the Titan and watched in wonder as it frustratedly tried to block the hole with whatever objects it could find, only to have the makeshift barriers ripped apart by the incoming stream of titans.

Armin hadn’t been sure what had come over him, but as he had watched the Titan he had found himself yelling at it. Screaming at it to use the large boulder he knew lay in the northwest corner of the city. Although part of Armin was still convinced it may have been a coincidence, by some miracle it had actually seemed to listen to his suggestion. The Rogue Titan had successfully hefted the boulder onto his shoulders and plugged the hole in the wall, managing to seal himself away from the awestruck humans in the process. In the seconds between the titan backing through the breach in the wall and the boulder slamming down to seal the path behind him, Armin swore he felt the titan’s eyes on him.

He was questioned extensively by his commanding officers after the battle had ended, but the one thing he never admitted to anyone, not even to Mikasa, was that the titan’s eyes had looked...sad. There was no other name for it. The Rogue Titan had looked at Armin with sad eyes and the part of Armin that was driven by curiosity was determined to find out why.

Since the battle of Trost, the Rogue Titan had been spotted on the horizon a number of times, usually in the early mornings. In some instances, the mysterious titan was seen pulling smaller titans apart in apparent rage, while other instances the titan was spotted just gazing at the walls without moving. Some soldiers began to speak of it as if it were some kind of good luck omen or benevolent deity, while others spoke of it with fear and hatred. The titan had become an enigma that never wandered close enough to the walls to provide any real answers.

Armin often wondered what Eren would have thought of the mysterious titan. Those who were fearful of the titan speculated it didn’t come close to the walls because it was biding its time and planning an attack. Armin, on the other hand, theorized it kept it’s distance because it was afraid of coming within canon range, or perhaps it feared the soldiers housed within the walls. As frustrating as it was, Armin had to agree the titan’s decision to keep its distance was a wise one. Tomorrow, however, the mystery of the Rogue Titan was to be investigated.

The Survey Crops, including himself and Mikasa, were in the midst of preparing for a mission to engage with the Rogue Titan outside the walls. The goal was to gather as much information about the Titan as possible using whatever means necessary. With no real idea of how the titan would react to soldiers while in titan territory, the mission was a major gamble. The titan had already proved itself to be intelligent and extremely resourceful, and if it decided to attack, Armin knew his squad did not stand a chance.

It had last been spotted two days ago to the west of Trost which was why Mikasa and Armin found themselves biding their time in the city while they waited for the command to ship out. Like Mikasa, Armin had come to hate his free time. Free time meant he had nothing to distract his thoughts from wandering back to Eren. Yesterday he’d picked up one of his old books with the hope it would serve as a distraction, but the memory of reading to Eren came back in full force and he’d nearly flung the book across the room. Not being the greatest reader himself, Eren had loved it when Armin would read to him. Now Armin could barely read to himself. The realization made Armin sigh defeatedly.

At the sound of his sigh, Mikasa lifted her head from where she had rested it against Armin’s shoulder, drawing him from his thoughts.

“Hey, I think the view might be better on the other side”

“Yeah, you’re probably right”

Armin offered her a grateful smile as she stood up and offered him a hand which he took in his own. The pair turned their back on the city and on the memories of what had happened there, instead, letting their feet dangle over titan territory. It was early morning and Armin soon began to feel the rays of the rising sun warm his back. Years ago sitting on the edge like this would have terrified him, but now he barely gave it a second thought.

Mikasa sat with her hands clasped above her knees, her sharp eyes scanning the terrain below them. To their left, a small 7-meter titan pawed at the wall, but there was no other titan movement visible. No matter how many times he had seen it, Armin always found the birdseye view of the outside world breathtaking. Joining the military did not come with a lot of perks, but having access to the top of the wall was definitely one of them.

Armin turned his gaze away from the view to watch as Mikasa pulled the scarf from her neck. Instead of folding it like she usually did he was surprised when she spread it across both of their laps. The worn red fabric did little to combat the early morning chill, but Armin found it comforting. Eren used to love sitting up here with them. Suddenly Armin heard Mikasa draw in a breath.

“Armin, look”

She pointed towards the horizon where a large shape was moving into view.

“Is that…?”

Armin squinted against the bright morning light, trying to make out the shape in better detail. After a few moments, Armin could distinctly make out the pointed ears and strong silhouette of the Rouge Titan in the distance.

“It’s him”

Armin knew it without a doubt. The titan’s movements, even from this distance, were familiar. It didn’t lumber like the other titan’s Armin had seen. It moved with purpose. A purpose that betrayed its intelligence. Armin felt a chill run down his spine. In just a few days his friends and himself were going to confront that titan.

They watched the Rogue Titan move towards the wall where it stopped just out of cannon fire range. In a strangely human-like gesture, the titan plopped to the ground where it sat with its legs crisscrossed. He was probably imagining it but Armin could have sworn he heard the titan sigh even from this distance.

The titan swung his head to the right and slowly scanned the area in front of it. When its eyes reached the stretch of wall Armin and Mikasa were sitting on, it suddenly sprang back to its feet, more gracefully than Armin would have thought possible given its size. It stared up in their direction and Armin stared back. The titan’s body language was...distressed. Its hands were twitching at its side and its shoulders were hunched like a child expecting to be smacked. Its eyes were wide and they were blinking rapidly. This was definitely not typical titan behavior.
Trusting his sudden instinct, Armin moved to stand up slowly. The titan took a hurried step backward at Armin’s movement and almost tripped over its own feet in the process. It was almost comical but neither Armin or Mikasa were laughing.

Not quite sure what to do next, Armin raised one hand and waved at the titan. Armin felt Mikasa’s eyes on him but didn’t turn to look at her, fearing if he broke his stare with the titan it would flee towards the horizon. After a few long seconds in which Armin found himself feeling very foolish, the titan slowly raised one huge hand and returned Armin’s gesture causing Mikasa to gasp and also spring to her feet.

The titan had actually… waved back? Now Armin was the one blinking rapidly. As Armin took a moment to reign in his shock, the titan slowly lowered its hand and took another step backward. The sound of the elevator mechanism bumping to life behind him made Armin jump so badly he would have almost fallen off the wall if it hadn’t been for Mikasa’s hand on his uniform. When he regained his balance he glanced back to see the titan below them had vanished.

“Dang ...he’s gone”

Armin’s voice was almost a whisper. Inside he felt his heart pounding in his chest. Had that encounter really just happened? Why did the titan respond so dramatically at the sight of them? What exactly was the Rogue Titan? He felt Mikasa’s grip tighten on his shoulder.

“Armin, should we report it?”

He shook his head, still reeling from the shock.

“No, there is no point. The mission is tomorrow and it looks like his position hasn’t changed since the last sighting”

Mikasa looked convinced with his answer but deep down Armin wasn’t as sure. On one hand, his reasoning was solid, but on the other hand logic wasn’t the driving factor for his response. He had felt the need to keep the sighting a secret from the others, but he wasn’t sure why. Would the titan have waved at just anyone?

“Oh hey! There you guys are!”

Armin turned around to see Connie and Sasha stepping off the elevator platform and on to the wall. Connie walked towards them with a carefree grin while Sasha walked to the nearest edge and leaned over it curiously, letting Connie do the talking for them both.

“Jean was trying to get a group together to play cards. You guys in? It’s not often we get this much downtime!”

Armin returned the other boy’s smile. Connie was a nice fresh breath of normalcy after the encounter that had just happened.

“Sure, as long as you don’t cheat like last time, Connie.”

Connie just waggled his eyebrows.

“Mikasa, you in?”

She gave a silent nod and the four of them made their way towards the elevator. A round of cards would be a nice distraction from the uncertainty of tomorrow’s mission.

Armin was the last to board the elevator platform, his eyes still scanning the forest edge and horizon. Wherever the titan had gone it was well out of sight, but it was not out of Armin’s mind.

----

It was them. Even at this distance, Eren could tell.

If their scent hadn’t given them away, Armin’s golden hair and Mikasa’s red scarf would have. He had assumed he’d never see them again. He had even tried to come to terms with it. Deep down he hoped to one day be reunited, but he tried to douse that hope whenever he felt it rise to the surface. He didn’t deserve to be reunited with them. He needed to stay as far away from his friends as he could.

It had been six months since he had last seen them. Six months since they had fought together. Six months since he’d felt the fabric of Mikasa’s scarf. Six months since he had heard Armin’s voice.

And then suddenly there they were, sitting together on the wall just like the three of them used to do. The sight of them shocked Eren. His muscles had itched for him to flee, but his heart told him to stay. His heart wanted to know that they were alright.

Whenever he daydreamed about seeing his friends again, Eren always imagined himself back insides the walls with his human body. He imagined the walls had never been breached and the battle inside of Trost had never happened, what he had become had never happened.

More often than not, his daydreams were memories. Memories that seemed brighter now he realized how much he had taken for granted. He imagined opening his eyes to Mikasa’s cold hands shaking him awake and he imagined falling asleep to the sound of Armin’s gentle voice. For a long time, Armin and Mikasa had been the only source of gentleness in Eren’s entire world. Why was he just now realizing it?

When Eren had first become conscious of his situation, he had made the mistake of assuming what had happened to him had been an accident and his comrades and commanders would help him after the battle had been won. He had been glad to have survived and let his fear and confusion of the transformation be burned away by rage and instinct. Crushing titans with his bare hands and teeth had felt good.

It wasn’t until he saw caught sight of the expressions on his comrade’s faces that he realized the truth. He had become a monster. He was a monster. He deserved to be slaughtered just like any other titan. He was an inhuman enemy and his friends could never know the truth. It was better they believed their friend to be dead than to know he had become a monster. The agony of that realization had made him roar into the sky. He had somehow gotten what he had always wanted, the power to kill titans, but the power had cost him everything.

When he found himself on the wrong side of the wall with cannons aimed at his face, Eren had fled into the forest. The confusion and the fear and the pain had nearly overwhelmed him. Desperate to get back to his friends, Eren tried everything he could think of to try and force himself to change back, ranging from imagining himself small to ripping off his giant arms (only to watch in horror as they grew back).

After the first week of exile, Eren accepted he would be a monster until he died.

After the second week, Eren gave up hope his friends would see him as anything other than disgusting and frightening, and after the third week, Eren decided to give up hope of returning to the walls altogether.

By week four Eren was at a loss as to what to do with himself. He considered leaving everything behind and exploring the outside world, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave. Not when he knew his friends were still in danger. Sure he had sealed the hole in Trost, but the Colossal and the Armored titan were still out there.

To make matters worse, the brief bit of exploring he had managed to do had led him to a startling conclusion. The titans lumbering towards the walls were being replenished somehow. For every titan he killed another seemed to take its place the next day. Somewhere on the other side of the horizon, there was a source. The new titans Eren crushed each day always came from the same direction. The Survey Corps, his friends included, didn’t stand a chance.

While Eren did little to explore his surroundings beyond the forest he had decided to call home, he did much to explore his new abilities. One of the first things he had noticed about his new self was his skin. It was tough and less sensitive than he was used to. He also guessed he was probably hot to the touch but couldn’t tell for sure. The next thing he took note of was his newfound senses, especially his sense of smell. If he lost any of his senses he knew he would be able to navigate the world just fine using the remaining ones. Sometimes he caught himself marveling over his own ability to see in the dark or the distance at which he could sense animals moving below him. His other realizations were less marvelous.

After the first few nights in the forest, Eren realized he hardly needed to sleep. For some reason, this realization disturbed him greatly. The few times when he had managed to sleep had been times when he had suffered significant damage from his clashes with other titans and his body had needed to heal. With no trauma to exert itself on, his body seemed content to stay awake forever as long as he received sunlight.

With a body that needed almost no maintenance from its driver, Eren had become dreadfully bored in between hunting the titans that strayed near him. He wished desperately he could pick Armin’s brain for guesses to the questions Eren had begun to form about himself and the world around him. Even when he didn’t know an answer, Armin had a way of talking through problems Eren could never do on his own. Eren could listen to Armin explain the most mundane of things and not get bored. God, Eren really missed his friend’s voice. Even with his newfound hearing ability, the forest was awfully quiet.

Perhaps it was the quiet that had led Eren to wander close to the walls that day. An irrational part of his mind had convinced itself that if he didn’t overhear human speech he would lose the ability to understand it and become as mindless as the titans he took pleasure in ripping apart.

Although his friends had been far away, Eren could still make out their faces. Mikasa’s expression had been as unreadable as ever, while Armin’s had been ...curious. When Armin had moved his hand to wave at Eren a million different thoughts had sprung to his mind. His first thought was Armin was giving some hidden signal and soldiers were about to spring out of nowhere and attack. He then thought perhaps he was mistaken and Armin wasn’t really waving at all, and for a brief moment, Eren couldn’t hope but consider perhaps Armin had recognized him and had forgiven him for becoming a monster. That last thought had stung the worst. He had thought he had done a better job at tampering his hope.

When it had become apparent Armin really was just waving out of curiosity, Eren couldn’t stop himself from waving back. Doing so without thinking probably wasn’t the best choice but Eren had never been the best at controlling his impulses. Controlling Eren’s rash impulses had always been Armin’s job.

He apparently heard the sound of the elevator moving behind Armin before Armin did because the sound of the pulleys caused his friend to jump and almost lose his footing on the wall. Without thinking, Eren lunged forward but stopped himself when he realized Mikasa had a hold of Armin’s uniform. Seeing them look so broken had become too much for Eren, and he took the momentary distraction as his queue to flee the scene.

He had hoped seeing his friends would make him miss them less, but the ache he felt for them had only increased. He longed to comfort them, to tell them he was alive, to hear what they had been up to for the last six months. For a moment he allowed himself to mourn before squeezing his eyes shut and listening for the sound of a titan to rage against. Next time he saw his friends, if there was a next time, he would stay hidden.