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To say Armin was nervous about this training expedition was a bit of an understatement—this was their first big independent expedition, labelled as a form of survival exercise by their instructors, and knowing Shadis, it was not going to be an easy one. Armin knew he still wasn’t physically on the same level as most of the other trainees, and he had worried himself to sleep the night before fearing his weakness would cause him to disappoint his teammates, a thought that often tormented his anxious mind at moments like these.

He’d been tired enough that morning for even Eren to notice and ask if he was doing okay, but Armin brushed him off with a gentle smile and a simple: “I’m just nervous, don’t worry.” Eren had nodded before being quickly distracted by taunts from Jean and Connie, the two luring him into an argument about which one of them would “totally win” the survival expedition.

The memory gave him a smile small as he sat up on his horse and stretched, feeling a slight soreness in his back and down to his thighs from having been riding all morning without breaks. Shadis and another instructor had come with the trainees to help get them get set up into groups and start the survival exercise, but so far they had not revealed any further information about what the training would entail.

They had ridden in silence, the only sounds the pounding of their horses’ hooves and the hot panting breaths of humans and beasts alike. The sun shone brightly in a cloudless sky, and Armin was glad when they’d finally entered the small forest and stopped for a break next to a large pond.

Armin and the others all dismounted with a mixture of sighs of relief and groans of pain. Mikasa had been kind enough to catch him when he’d accidentally gotten his foot stuck in the stirrup and almost fallen to the ground in a graceless heap. Cheeks red, he offered her a whispered thanks and hoped that nobody else had spotted that embarrassing moment. Luckily, everyone else seemed too distracted by the shade, the nearby pond, and the promise of lunch as the adults began unpacking their rations for the midday meal.

“Go for a soak, kids,” the instructor called out. “Lunch won’t be ready for a bit.”

Sasha and Connie whooped with delight and were the first to shed their extra layers and jump into the pond. The other followed suit, some of the guys (and even the girls) stripping down to just their underwear, while others like Armin decided to keep their shirts on as they waded into the cool, refreshing water.

“Hurry up and wash yourselves, you all smell horrible,” Shadis barked at them as Armin dipped lower into the water, releasing a breath and watching the air bubbles brake the surface of the water in front of him.

He stood back up and took a deep breath, feeling a lot better than he did moments before. His earlier tiredness had started to wear him down during the ride, but the cold water and promise of food had revitalized him for the time being.

He spotted movement to his right accompanied by a low groan of pleasure. Armin looked over just in time to catch the tail end of Jean’s stretching motion, his arms falling back down into the water at his side. “When did he take his shirt off?” thought Armin as Jean started to wring out the wet garment.

Armin was far from complaining though, as the lack of shirt offered him a nice view of Jean’s bare back and shoulder. Though Jean would probably always retain his generally lanky figure, Armin had noticed over the past few months how well-defined the undercut-sporting teen’s muscles had become. Jean had gotten quite toned over the course of their training, no doubt helped by the endless 3DM gear practice the teen did to further hone his skills in attempt to claim one of the top ten spots in their group.

Armin observed the way Jean’s back and shoulder muscles flexed underneath lightly tanned skin as he wrung out the shirt. There was such power compacted in a much smaller frame than someone like Reiner, whose newly gained muscles only added to his general bulk. Armin much preferred Jean’s physique, however, and was almost disappointed the other boy didn’t turn around a fraction so he could admire his equally well-formed chest, and the droplets of water no doubt dripping from his neck down his pectorals and over his abs, down to the waistline of his…

Armin shook himself with a start when he suddenly realized he had been staring at Jean for quite a while in a rather obvious way. He blushed as he remembered how uncensored his thoughts had been while checking out someone whom he wanted almost desperately to consider him a friend. Looking away in embarrassment, he couldn’t help but feel that Jean would have every reason not to talk to him ever again if he knew of Armin’s inappropriate thoughts.

Even so, he couldn’t help himself but sneak one final glance in Jean’s direction before they were all called out of the water to eat.

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~~~

“Ok trainees!” barked Shadis as everyone was finishing up their post-lunch cleanup. “I need all of you to pair off into groups of two! Choose your partner wisely because you’ll have to put up with each other for the entirety of the expedition.”

Armin’s stomach fluttered nervously. Pairs? That meant…

As expected, Mikasa grabbed Eren by the arm to drag him off so the two could start getting themselves ready. She gave Armin an apologetic look, but he waved it off, knowing it was for the best that she would be looking out for their hot-headed friend.

The others were also pairing off as expected, and Armin looked over at Jean with a sigh. Connie and Sasha were already sauntering off, arm in arm, and Marco was turning back to Jean… when Mina popped up out of nowhere and excitedly grabbed the freckled teen’s arm, flashing him a beaming smile the kind boy apparently couldn’t refuse as he let himself get pulled away towards her horse, looking back to Jean apologetically and bringing his free hand to rub at the back of his neck.

Jean seemed a little disappointed for a moment, and Armin couldn’t blame him. It was no secret among the trainees that Marco was the one person Jean truly got along with, but his freckled friend was overly kind and had a hard time saying no to anyone.

Just then, Jean’s eyes caught Armin’s gaze, and the blond’s heart sped up when Jean gave him a timid smile and an inquisitive tilt of the head. Why his eyes hadn’t passed over Armin in his search for a partner puzzled him, yet also filled him with a nervous hope.

Armin nodded quickly and walked over, fighting to keep a blush from tinting his cheeks. The taller boy gave him a wide, relieved smile as he approached, and Armin’s heart seized in his chest.

“Looks like we’re the odd ones out, eh?” remarked Jean casually, and Armin laughed.

“Yeah, but I’m not disappointed,” he replied, instantly cursing himself for saying something so… so… lame.

“Ah, well, me neither,” said Jean warmly, and Armin had to turn and start walking towards where the rest of the pairs were crowding around Shadis, since he could no longer fight the need to blush. He felt more than heard Jean fall into step behind him, the taller boy’s presence like a shining beacon to Armin’s flustered senses.

“Ok so now that you’re all in your groups, I’ll explain exactly what you’ll be doing for the next two weeks,” Shadis began once everybody was within earshot. “Using only the supplies you have at the moment, meaning your 3DM gear, extra canisters, blankets, water canteen, first-aid kit, compass, rope, wire, and emergency rations, each group will travel to a different area of the surrounding region, where you’ll spend two weeks surviving in the wilderness to simulate what would happen if you got separated from the group during an expedition beyond the wall. You’ll have to hunt and scavenge for your meals and find a freshwater source in order to survive. You’ll also be responsible for filling in the map you’ll receive of your area, marking down any sources of food, water, shelter, danger, and any areas of forest with tall enough trees for fighting titans. After two weeks, you’ll meet up back here at noon and we’ll all head back to the base. Make sure you keep track of the days, because if you show up a day late, you can bet your ass we won’t still be here waiting around for you. Any questions? No? Ok, dismissed!”

The other instructor began handing out the maps to each group, giving them quick directions on how to reach their designated area. When Jean and Armin finally received their map, Armin was surprised to see how big the area to cover was, and how far theirs was from their current location.

“Yours is a bit far out, but I’m sure it’s something you boys can handle,” said the instructor after pointing out the path to take from here.

“Thanks,” Jean said, and the two turned and headed back to their horses to finish packing their stuff and prepping for the journey ahead.

 “Poor Armin! You got stuck with stinky horseface!” joked Eren as he suddenly appeared and slung an arm over the blond’s shoulders.

“Hey!” retorted Jean, but the volume of Eren’s words had attracted others, and before he could say more he was also tackled by Connie and Sasha.

“Which direction are you guys going?” asked Connie excitedly, peering over at the map in Armin’s hands.

 "Ooooohhhhh, look at that! Isn’t that off towards that bandit village Thomas was telling us stories about?” Sasha exclaimed.

“Don’t be dumb,” scoffed Eren, “those are just stories. I bet he just made it up to have the best campfire story.”

“Yeah, you can’t trust Thomas,” joked Jean.

“It’s nice to see you two agreeing on something,” commented Armin with a laugh.

“Hmmph,” grumbled Eren, giving Jean a glare, and the taller boy simply rolled his eyes.

“Weeellll, don’t come crying to us when the horse bandits come and slit your throats while you’re sleeping!” taunted Sasha gleefully as Jean finally managed to shake off his two parasites.

“Sure, whatever you say Sasha, real funny,” he grumbled as the two ran off towards their stuff.

“Eren, we need to finish getting ready,” said Mikasa, appearing out of nowhere, and Eren sighed.

“Yeah, guess you’re right. See you, Armin! Take care, ok? And don’t let horseface get you lost haha!”

“Thanks Eren! Bye guys!” Armin said, laughing as his two friends left.

As the two finished packing their stuff into their small bags, it finally hit Armin that he’d be spending two entire weeks with Jean, alone. He tried not to let himself get overwhelmed, however, because as a survival challenge this was bound to be exceedingly difficult, and he couldn’t afford to let himself get distracted by trivial things like his feelings.

As Jean made to strap his bag to the side of his horse beside his extra canisters, Armin had a sudden thought, inspired by Connie and Sasha’s earlier words.

“Wait! I think… I think we should keep our packs on our backs, just in case.”

“What do you mean?” Jean asked curiously, arms stilling. Glad that he hadn’t been shot down outright, Armin continued:

“Well, even if there aren’t bandits like Sasha and Connie were joking about, it would be best to keep our stuff close. If this was a real expedition, and I mean, it is meant to be practice for one, well then we’d be in danger of losing our horse to a titan at any moment, so it would be much safer to keep our essentials with us instead. That way, we can focus on keeping ourselves alive without having to worry about losing valuable supplies.”

Jean’s brows furrowed as he considered Armin’s words, but he was nodding in agreement nonetheless.

“Yeah, you know what, that’s a pretty good idea. Makes sense, I mean, might as well practice while there aren’t real titans around, too,” Jean said, still nodding, and Armin couldn’t help but smile.

~~~

The forest grew thicker and the trees taller the closer they got to their designated area of the map. They had had a brief conversation going when they’d first left, but had since lapsed into silence as they carefully picked their way through the undergrowth, watching where their horses walked to avoid anything dangerous.

After another hour or so, Armin had them stop for a break so he could double-check with the compass that they were still headed in the right direction. Jean tied their horses to a branch at the edge of the clearing they were in while Armin spread out their map on a large flat rock.

“Ah! Ow…” Armin gasped, his fingers burning where he’d brushed them against the rock.

“What’s wrong? Are you ok?” asked Jean worriedly, hurrying over in time to see Armin rapidly shaking his hand in an attempt to cool them off.

“Ah, no, I’m fine… this side of the rock is just boiling hot from being in the sun all day.”

“Here, let me see,” said Jean firmly, extending a hand.

The warmth of Jean’s hand was comforting after the scorching heat of the rock. Armin’s stomach was in knots as his fingers were the subject of intense scrutiny. Jean hmmm-ed a few times, turning the fingers over as he inspected the slight redness on them. He eventually let them go to dig around in his pack for his canteen.

“Jean, you shouldn’t waste water on that…” Armin began as Jean started to poor the cool liquid over his fingers. Amber eyes met blue as Jean gave Armin a long look.

“Your hands are important. It’s fine; we’ll find more later.”

“R-Right.” Armin took a deep breath as he shook the water from his hand, Jean going back to his bag to put away his canteen. “Thanks, Jean.”

“No problem,” he said with a smile. “Ok, so where are we at by now?”

The two poured over the map, Armin quickly determining that they were still relatively on-course but had veered a bit too far south. Satisfied that they’d figured out which direction to head out in, the two folded up the map went back to the horses.

They started up another conversation when a brightly coloured bird flew past, reminding Armin of pictures he’d once seen in a book. It was slow-going at first, but Jean’s interest and gentle prompting encouraged Armin to open up a bit more, the blond slowly getting lost in his passionate explanations as he recounted the stories from books he’d cherished as a child.

By then the sun was starting to set, and the air was slowly starting to cool off a bit as darkness fell. Their goal was to reach their area and try to find shelter there before setting up for the night, that way they could spend the most of the next day searching for food and water.

All of a sudden, Armin’s horse gave a startled whinny and tipped forward, catching itself with a front leg before it could fall over completely or topple Armin from his seat. The horse tried to take another step with its other leg, but gave a loud shout of pain and quickly took weight off the leg.

Jean immediately hopped off his horse and knelt down to inspect the injury while Armin made soothing motions against the horse’s neck, trying to calm it down.

“Dammit, there’s some kind of shallow hole back there, must have missed it in the dark,” said Jean as he stood back up, wiping the dirt from his knees. “Doesn’t look broken though, so it could just be a sprain. We’ll have to walk the last bit and just take it slow.”

“That would probably be best,” agreed Armin, climbing down gently and giving the horse another few pats on the neck. “Let’s go; we’re close enough, so things could be worse, but I really want us to find shelter before the sun sets completely.”

“How much sunlight do you think we’ve got left?”

“Hmmm, I’d say an hour at most. We’re lucky it’s summer, otherwise we’d have lost our light hours ago.” Jean nodded in agreement.

They set off, progress even slower than before as Armin’s horse gingerly made its way on three legs. Armin was glad they weren’t dealing with any broken bones and hoped the injury would be healed enough for him to be able to ride the horse by the time they would have to head back to the meeting spot.

~~~

Darkness was almost upon them. The sun had not yet set, but within the heart of this dense forest there was little light that filtered through. According to Armin’s best estimation, they should be getting close to an outcropping of rocky hills that delimited the edge of their designated area, but in the fading light he could barely see beyond the trees immediately in front of them.

A sudden itch in his nose caused Armin to release a loud, echoing sneeze, which managed to startle both of the horses and his companion. After a moment of silence, Jean began to laugh heartily as he kept a firm grip on the lead of his frightened horse.

“Somebody must be talking about you, Armin,” he said, and Armin, still weak from hearing the other boy’s laugh, blushed and spluttered.

“What, no um, what do you mean?”

“It’s an old wives’ tale, my mom used to say it to me all of the time: when you sneeze out of the blue, it’s because somebody elsewhere is talking about you!”

“Hah, well… I guess I shouldn’t be surprised people are talking about me behind my back…” he said quietly, looking dejectedly at the ground.

“What, no!” Jean said, not having meant to hurt the blond’s feelings due to a misunderstanding. “Nobody does, why would they? You’re smart and attentive… besides, I bet it’s just Jaeger sobbing about how much he misses you. I bet Mikasa’s being rough on him and he’s wishing he’d picked you as his partner, haha!”

“Um, thanks,” Armin replied, a tentative smile gracing his lips thanks to Jean’s efforts to cheer him up.

A sudden noise interrupted their conversation. It came from off to their right, and sounded like a loud clang someone had unsuccessfully tried to muffle. The light of a lantern appeared like a speck in the darkness, growing bigger as whoever was out there rapidly approached. Gruff shouts rang out and the clatter of hooves became distinguishable from the rumble of noise that announced the arrival of a large group of men and horses. When Jean and Armin finally managed to spot a few of the men through the trees, their blood ran cold at the sight of the many guns and knives in their possession.

“Horse bandits!” Armin yell-whispered, sharing a panicked look with Jean.

“We have to get out of here!” Jean shot back, moving as if to re-mount his horse.

“We can’t! It’s too late, they’ve spotted us,” he said, knowing his own injured horse would have gotten him nowhere. Perhaps Jean could have escape on his own, but he doubted the taller teen would abandon him so easily.

“Guess you’re right…” Jean agreed. “They know we have two horses… even if we both got away on mine, they’d still give chase. Dammit!”

“We just have to be ready for them,” Armin stated, gaze focused. “We might need to use the 3DM gear to get away…”

“But the horses!”

“We have our essentials, and our lives are more important than theirs. Don’t forget, we’re in the middle of a survival expedition. This is surviving.”

“Sorry, you’re right,” agreed Jean, nodding. “Besides, they’ll want the horses alive. Us? Probably not.” The two of them unsheathed their blades and prepared for the worst.

They watched with growing apprehension as the men grew close enough they could make out the twisted grins on their dirty faces. A man with a patchy beard, riding a black horse, confidently waved his gun at them as he brought his horse to a stop just a few meters in front of them.

“Looky here, Boss, we caught ourselves a couple o’ them kiddie soldiers,” he rasped before turning off to the site to spit out a wad of saliva. A man in a hat, presumably the boss, brought his pinto to stand between the first guy’s horse and another man’s smaller grey one. That third man had a crooked nose and kept his gun trained on Jean while he appraised Armin with a lewd grin, making the blond shiver with disgust. The rest of the bandits crowded around them in a circle, not so close but near enough to make it clear that they were trapped.

“Hmmm, looks like they’ve damaged the merchandise, stupid brats,” said the boss as he assessed the state of both of their horses.

“Well, I’m sure we can find more ‘merchandise’ to make up for it,” said the third man, licking his lips. “Blondie over here looks like she could fetch a pretty penny… Wouldn’t mind havin’ a go at her myself ehehe.”

“Hey!” shouted Jean angrily. Any further words were silenced when the man fired a quick shot into the air. Armin’s observant eyes did not miss the way his grey horse jittered at the sound.

“Shut up, brat. Or the next one goes through your head.”

“Try to restrain yourself,” said the boss, though it was clear from his tone that he found the man’s threats amusing, and would probably be quite entertained to see him actually shoot Jean. “But you’re right about the girl, we’ll take her with us too. And I know someone who’d love to get his hands on their equipment, no matter the price.” He turned to the man on the black horse.

“You take the girl, I don’t want to risk him tainting the merchandise ‘cause he can’t keep it in his pants.” Patchy-beard guy grunted as he gave a lazy nod.

“Aww, Boss, no fair! I just wanna have some fun!” the third guy whined, and Armin could hear Jean growling through clenched teeth.

“You can do what you want with the other one, as long as you don’t damage the equipment,” the boss answered with a devious grin, which the other quickly returned.

“Jean,” Armin whispered, but Jean was still seething angrily and glaring at the men. “Jean! Focus!”

“Ah! Sorry, Armin,” Jean replied in a whisper, his amber eyes quickly catching his before turning back to the men. “What’s the plan?”

“We aim for the trees by going over the one on the grey horse,” Armin began, though he regretted having to go anywhere close to that disgusting man. Jean’s face showed he clearly felt the same, so Armin quickly continued: “His horse is tense and jittery, and was the only one to jump at the sound of a gun. Must be new; if we catch it off guard we can probably scare it and it’ll distract the guy long enough for us to pass overhead.”

Jean nodded, and reached out to pat his own horse as a gesture of farewell. Slowly, they both shifted their stance to prepare for takeoff. It would be difficult starting from the ground, for Armin especially, but at this point all that mattered was getting away from the men and out of range of their guns.

Just as Jean trusted Armin to plan their course of action, Armin trusted Jean to lead them on said course, so when the bandits started advancing on them he waited for Jean’s signal.

The taller teen kept still until the pervert moved his gun away from pointing directly at him, momentarily lifting it as he tugged on his horse’s reigns.

“Now!” he cried out, and the two of them took to the air, the hooks of their cables whizzing past the grey horse, causing it to lose its calm and rear up on its hind legs. The two teens felt a morbid satisfaction to hear the thud of the man falling and the crunch of bone as something of his broke under his horse’s wild flailing, his own screams soon echoing after them along with the furious shouts of the other men.

Just as they thought they were in the clear, however, a shot rang out, almost seemingly too loud for how far away they were. The two tried to maneuver away to avoid the path of the bullet, but clearly it wasn’t fast enough. Pain erupted from the back of Jean’s right shoulder as he was sent spinning into the trunk of a tree, luckily slumping down unto a thick branch close below as a fierce, burning sensation took hold of his shoulder, and he could feel the warm wetness of his blood spreading through the layers of his clothes.

"Jean!” Armin cried out in a panicked voice. He struggled for a moment to see where his partner had gone, but was quickly by his side once he did.

It was almost too dark to see much by then, with only the light of the moon and the stars to guide them. This low visibility was much too dangerous for using their 3DM gear, but in this instance they did not have much of a choice.

“Jean! Can you move?” asked Armin worriedly as Jean struggled to stand.

“Yeah, ah, ow!” Jean said, wincing as he finally got to his feet. “It hurts like a bitch, but it doesn’t feel like the bullet’s in there, so it must just be a graze.”

“Oh, thank goodness!” Armin exclaimed, almost wanting to sob with relief. Now that they’d stopped moving, the emotions of the night were starting to catch up on him, but his body was still thrumming with adrenaline and he knew they needed to find shelter before he could allow himself to break down completely.

“Are we close to those rock things you were talking about?” Jean asked, slowly rotating his shoulder and trying to hide how much the movement really hurt.

“Well, we must be, but… it’s so hard to tell in the dark.”

“I know you can do it, Armin. I’m ready to go when you are.”

“Are you sure?” Armin asked quietly, wondering about both the state of the other boy’s shoulder and his apparent faith in the blond.

The sound of angry shouts approaching snapped them back into reality, and after a quick look around to gather his bearings, Armin settled on a direction and pointed their way. Jean gave a terse nod and motioned with his hand in a sort of “after you” gesture. Armin took off with Jean close behind, his vision swimming as the pressure and weight of his body using the gear aggravated his wounded shoulder and drowned his senses in pain.

The next few minutes were filled with the sound of whizzing wires, occasional bursts of gas, and the heavy, laboured breathing of the tired trainees. After another near-collision with a dark tree, Armin finally spotted the outcropping of rocks that had been indicated on the map, and he aimed for the end that was closest to a small river that cut through their area.

Just as he was picking out a safe place to land, Armin heart a shout from behind him as Jean lost control of his wires and went crashing to the ground, his fall somewhat cushioned by the thick undergrowth. Armin swung around the area a couple of times until he was low enough to land, stumbling as he tried to keep his balance but otherwise unharmed.

Jean was completely unresponsive to Armin’s shouts of his name, leading the blond to suspect he had lost consciousness from the fall. He was worried Jean had sustained a head injury, but after dragging him from the bush where he’d fallen, Armin quickly realized that his ankle was the one worse for wear, along with the previously wounded shoulder. After a gentle examination of the ankle, it seemed that like with his horse earlier, it was only a nasty sprain and not a broken bone.

Armin sighed with relief. He didn’t feel any bumps on Jean’s head, and for the most part the rest of him seemed in okay condition, with only a few minor cuts and scrapes. He counted himself lucky that with all that had happened that evening, Jean’s injuries were nothing his first-aid kit and minimal medical knowledge couldn’t handle. Even the shoulder wound, though it was bleeding heavily now, was rather shallow and would heal well with proper care.

In what was clearly a fit of insanity, Armin tried hoisting the unconscious teen onto his back in order to carry him to the shelter of the rock face. He didn’t last standing very long as the weight of the taller teen and both their bags, added to his already shaky stance, caused him to collapse onto the ground, where he was momentarily winded from Jean’s body falling onto his.

He lay there for a moment, crushed, exhausted and beyond dirty. A broken sob escaped his throat. He almost wanted to cry, but a treacherous part of his mind decided to point out how nice it felt to have Jean’s warmth spread over his. He quickly dismissed the thought, however, and laboured to remove himself from under Jean, brushing himself off as he stood up.

“A-Armin?” Jean’s voice was rough and dry, and his inquiry was followed by a painful-sounding cough.

“Jean, yeah, I’m here,” the blond quickly replied, hovering over his injured partner. “You passed out for a bit after you fell. Your ankle is badly twisted, so don’t put any weight on it, okay?”

“Hah, guess that explains the pain,” Jean barked out humourlessly as he tried to sit up. “We close to the rocks?”

“Yes, very. Think you’ll be able to make it if I help? I know I’m not strong, but…” he looked away, still feeling embarrassed by his earlier failure.

“Yeah, of course,” Jean replied firmly, and Armin felt his amber gaze searching for his own, but he kept his eyes on the ground. “Ok, come over here, I’ll need your help getting up.”

It was slow-going. Jean hobbled at Armin’s side, uninjured arm draped over shoulders as he leaned most of his weight onto the shorter boy in order to keep his right ankle off the ground as much as possible. Their gear and their packs made the closeness clunky and uncomfortable, but Armin still took notice of Jean’s warmth as it seeped from the taller teen at every point of contact, and of how each his breaths was huffed and short, the strong flow of air tickling Armin’s cheek as it blew past.

By the time they made it to the rocks, they were both equally exhausted. Armin wanted to cry with relief when he spotted the shadow of a cave entrance along the bottom of the cliff that faced the river. The two shuffled inside and lazily stripped off their gear, Armin helping Jean as certain movements were quickly becoming too painful to accomplish on his own. Jean sat down, drowsy, and Armin lit a candle from his bag. He wanted nothing else to curl up in a ball and sleep, but knew Jean’s wounds had to be tended to immediately in order to help with the swelling of his ankle and to prevent any risk of infection in any of his open wounds.

Armin took out their blankets, placing one bundle under Jean’s ankle to keep it elevated. He carefully wrapped the joint before taking a clean cloth to disinfect all of Jean’s small cuts. He had to wake up a groggy Jean to get him to sit up and remove his shirt so he could clean and bandage his shoulder.

Armin’s gut twisted as he ran a cloth other the smooth expanse of Jean’s back, cleaning up the rest of the blood. Just hours before he had been admiring the strength and form of the body that now lay before him, bruised and injured but still the very same person he was back then, glistening in the pond. That image almost seemed impossibly ethereal to Armin now, and with a sad sigh he forced himself to look away, to let Jean sit back down gently and go to sleep. He let the other teen keep his own blanket and lay down to sleep with his pack as a pillow, almost regretting it wasn’t cold enough for him to propose sharing blankets and body heat, and yet at the same time feeling relieved.

He quickly dozed off, his overall weariness blessing him with a deep, dreamless sleep.

~~~

When Armin finally drifted into wakefulness the following morning, the hazy heat and bright light drifting in from the cave entrance signaled that it was well past their usual early wakeup hour and probably closer to noon. He groaned as he sat up and stretched, his growling stomach instantly reminding him that they had never actually stopped for an evening meal the previous day, what with all that had transpired.

A glance over at Jean was enough to jolt him into full alertness, the boy’s flushed, sweaty skin and slight trembling enough of a signal that he’d come down with a fever sometime during the night. Armin grabbed a spare shirt from Jean’s pack and use it to wipe off his face, and he even took a moment to pat dry Jean’s two-toned hair as he seemed to be shivering and removing the excess moisture would hopefully help him conserve his body heat. Luckily it seemed like the day would stay warm, though Armin would have to make sure he’d get Jean to drink plenty of water as he risked becoming dehydrated.

For the moment the taller boy was quite unresponsive, so Armin ate a small meal in silence, planning all that needed to be done as soon as possible to ensure their survival. When Jean next woke he would take the time to feed him, hydrate him, inspect his wounds and change his bandages. In the meantime, Armin would refill their canteens at the river and explore the area around the cave to see if he could find any edible roots or berries or other plants, and perhaps also try to set up some wire traps for animals like Sasha had once shown all of them during their last group expedition. Between the two of them, they did not have much wire, so he would have to be smart about where he placed the traps.

Armin sighed, wondering how long they’d last if he didn’t manage to find any food. Their rations would last them perhaps another two to three days if they played it safe, but Jean was hurt and needed fresh, nutritious food in order to help him heal as quickly as possible. Perhaps the river has fish…

Armin was jolted from his thoughts when a soft groan reminded him of Jean’s presence. The other teen seemed to finally be awake, and Armin had to stifle a laugh at the sight of his terrible bedhead. Jean didn’t seem to notice and lazily scratched his head as he sat up, smacking his lips at the dry feeling in his mouth. From the look of him he still had a fever, so Armin would do what he needed to do quickly then usher him back to sleep. The heat of the day should help break the fever; Armin hoped it wouldn’t last much longer, seeing as they didn’t have any kind of medication on them to help if Jean’s condition took a turn for the worse.

“Water?” Jean all but croaked, voice hoarse and deep and wow Armin needed to get away from there fast, his mind was going to places it most decidedly did not need to be right then. The blond turned quickly and pretended to fumble through their things looking for a canteen as he willed the redness in his cheeks to disappear.

Once he deemed he was in the clear, he turned back and handed the water to Jean, who downed the whole thing in a few rapid gulps, Armin watching as his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down, some of the water missing his mouth and dripping off his chin and down his neck. He was vividly reminded of the view he’d had back at the pond.

His cheeks feeling warm once again, Armin somehow managed to power through the twisting slew of emotions in his gut to calmly tend to Jean’s wounds and force him to eat a few bites of food even though he claimed his stomach was feeling a bit off. Jean’s ankle was quite swollen, but there was nothing he could do except tightly re-wrap the bandages and make sure it was propped up once again, this time on his own pack so that Jean could have both blankets draped over him. For now he was still shivering, even as the rising temperature promised another sweltering day just outside of the shadowy safety of their cave. Armin felt sweat beginning to drip down his spine as he tucked Jean back into his makeshift bed.

“Hmm, hey, Armin,” Jean mumbled just as Armin was about to walk away.

“What is it, Jean?”

“T-Thanks man,” he sighed, closing his eyes. “For everything.”

“Anyone would have done the same.” Jean huffed a laugh.

“Not Jaeger, that’s for sure.” Armin had to laugh at that. “I mean it though, thanks,” he added, tone once again serious. “Marco’s a great guy and all, but out of my friends, you are by far the most level-headed. I’m really glad you’re my partner for this.”

“Ah, um,” Armin babbled as he tried to find something to say through his embarrassed blushing. Something in him felt like soaring: Jean had called him his friend! Said he was happy they ended up together for this expedition! “I, uh…”

“Hmmm,” Jean murmured sleepily as he sunk down into his cocoon of blankets, finally drifting off to sleep.

Cute,” Armin thought, blushing.

~~~

The next few days followed the same general routine: Armin would wake up, relieve himself, take a quick dip in the river, tend to Jean, attempt to catch a few small fish if there was nothing in his traps, scavenge for berries and roots, and have lunch with Jean. The afternoons he spent working on their map, since they couldn’t afford to neglect the true purpose of their being out there after all. He would mark down any places he’d managed to find food that morning, and take a walk around other areas close to their cave, taking note of what was to be found. He had a feeling he was probably being much more detailed than necessary, but it gave him something to do away from Jean.

He wasn’t trying to avoid his friend, but well… okay maybe that was exactly what he was doing. Armin’s emotions had been quite a mess since those first two days, and sitting around in that cave next to a sleeping Jean was torture for him, as he longed to reach out and stroke his face, touch his hair, but knew that was not something he should be doing. As a friend.

Besides, Jean was improving well and Armin hoped he’d be feeling good enough soon to help him with their task. The fever had broken late afternoon on that first day, and Jean had since tossed the extra blanket and shed a few layers to be able to sleep comfortably during the day—that lack of layers was another reason Armin was avoiding spending too much time in the cave.

His shoulder wound was also starting to heal up quite nicely; the swelling in Jean’s ankle had gone down after the fourth day, and Armin was confident that Jean would soon be able to put enough weight on it to walk again. Hopefully with Jean’s help they’d be able to finish the map quickly. They would have to leave a few days earlier to make it back to the rendezvous point on time since they no longer had horses, and with Jean’s ankle they would no doubt need frequent breaks, not to mention the fact that their gear itself was quite a weight to lug around. They would also need to gather and pack enough food to last them that entire trip back to avoid having to waste time hunting along the way.

The sixth day, Jean was finally able to stand on his own. He did so with a wince, but the pain got no worse when he took a few tentative steps, so they figured that for now he was in the clear. Armin made him promise not to push himself too hard, since the ankle was still healing and they couldn’t risk Jean injuring it further and possibly permanently damaging it, thus making it impossible for him to ever use 3DM gear properly again.

Jean was able to leave the cave and explore the small open space by its entrance for the first time since they’d arrived. He hobbled over to join Armin, who was by the river cleaning the two small fish he’d just caught. Hearing Jean approach, he turned to smile at his friend, but had to wrinkle his nose in disgust as he got to his side.

“Ok, wow, you really need a bath,” Armin said, trying and failing not to laugh as he pinched his nose. The pout Jean gave was equal parts adorable and hilarious.

“Oh I’m sorry, it’s not like I’ve been stuck in a cave for a week or anything,” Jean grumbled sarcastically. He smirked as he thought of a sudden comeback. “I’d figure you’d be used to smells like that, what with how you hang around Jaeger all of the time!” Armin burst into another fit of laughter.

“Just, haha, just get in the water, will you?” he managed in between laughs.

“Only if you come too!” Jean exclaimed with a wide grin as he pushed the blond into the river.

Armin came up spluttering, and a large splash indicated Jean had jumped in after him. Bright laughter rang out, and Armin smiled. He hadn’t seen Jean this happy in a while, and the feeling was quite infectious.

The two had a short but intense bout of water battling as they each tried to splash each other with the biggest wave possible. They were no doubt scaring away any other fish or animals in the vicinity, but at that moment neither of them could quite care any less.

They stopped when Armin slipped on a rock and fell in, Jean coming over to help pull him back up, his hands a strong grip on Armin’s own. Armin was still all smiles as he came up, however, and he caught a glimpse of something passing through Jean’s expression, but it was gone before he could place it. They stood there for a second, smiling and breathing harshly from their earlier exertion, hands still clasped together, and though Armin’s emotions would usually be a mess in this kind of situation, there was simply a calm, content feeling that permeated the moment.

Jean was the one to break the spell, looking away and bringing a hand up to rub the back of his neck. Armin dropped his other hand as he waited for the other to speak.

“Ah, sorry, can I borrow your soap? I left mine back inside, and I should probably get around to cleaning up.”

“Oh, sure,” Armin replied, and got out of the water to go grab his soap from his pack. He tossed it back to Jean, who was nowhere close to catching it as it bounced off his arm and hit him square in the forehead, even though Armin’s aim had been quite accurate.

“Thanks man,” Jean said with a quick smile before starting to undo the buttons of his shirt.

“I’m a bit tired, so I think I’ll take a quick nap,” Armin said as he turned away and walked briskly back into the cave, lying down in his spot and wrapping himself up in his blanket after stripping from his soaked clothes.

Only then did all that had just happened catch up to his brain, and his head and heart felt like exploding from the barrage of emotions that finally hit him full force. He didn’t know how to explain what had happened, and he still wasn’t sure how he was supposed to feel about it through the swirling mass of excited confusion that clouded his mind.

Perhaps he never would know, but for now he was content to curl up into a little ball of happiness and try to sleep off the rapid pounding of his heart.

~~~

For the days remaining before they would have to depart, Armin and Jean spent a lot of time together, mostly while hunting and while exploring to add to their map. Now that he didn’t have to worry about Jean’s safety, Armin felt comfortable going farther and farther away from their cave, until they eventually covered the entire area they had to explore.

Armin figured they’d been quite lucky having the river nearby as the small but consistent supply of fish helped cut down on the time they had to spend hunting other creatures to eat. This meant that even with all their other setbacks, the two managed to complete their task of filling in the map the evening before they planned to set off.

Armin almost regretted having to leave. Sure, he wanted to go back to the camp and see Eren and Mikasa again, but the past few days had been especially nice. He had gotten used to having Jean’s warm, strong, and steady presence by his side in the quiet of the forest, and it would be strange going back to the noise and bustle of the group after it being just the two of them for so long.

But soon enough it was time to go. They’d packed up their supplies and replenished their food stock with strips of dried, smoked fish and meat, along with the rest of the wild carrots they’d managed to dig up the day before. They both still have a pack each of crackers from their original emergency rations, so after filling their canteens in the river for the last time, they were ready to head out.

Armin sighed as he cast a final glance at the cave they’d been calling home for the past week and a half. Jean placed a gentle hand on his shoulder and gave him an understanding smile. Nothing needed to be said. They left, the shadows of the tall forest instantly surrounding them as they began to weave their way through the thick trunks.

The first day of travel was slow-going. Though it was tightly wrapped, Jean’s ankle was still giving him trouble and started to pain him after an hour or two of walking. Their hike was rather difficult to begin with, so the added burden of the injury made it quite taxing on him. The two took rather long breaks every time they came across a body of water where they could drink and refill their canteens.

They stopped for the evening just as the sun started to fade. Jean groaned as he sat down, massaging the sore joint after having removed his boot. Armin turned to go fetch some firewood, but paused as he saw something drifting up from the trees in the distance: smoke.

“Jean! Look!” he exclaimed.

“What is—whoa! Smoke! Do you think it’s a village? Maybe we could get help!” Jean added excitedly. Armin shook his head unhappily.

“No, I don’t think so… there were no villages marked on any of our maps, and besides, it’s just a single fire… a village would have many more. Also, this is still a densely packed area of forest, I don’t think there’s any room among these trees for more than a single cottage, which we probably would have noticed on our way over.”

“Darn, that’s too bad… How far along do you think we are? Know if we’ll make it on time?”

“It’ll be tough, but we should.  By my guess, we’re quite close to where—” Armin began, but his words were cut off as he inhaled a sharp gasp. “The bandits!”

“Shit, do you think that’s them? What if they find us again?” Jean asked worriedly, hurrying to shove his foot back into his boot.

“Nothing bad will happen,” Armin said with a sudden sense of calm. “At least, not to us. And they won’t find us; no, we’re going to go to them.”

He turned and gave Jean a rather frightening grin, and the taller boy had to suppress the shiver he felt at seeing his friend make such an expression. He was glad, and not for the first time, that the intelligent blond was on his side, and not the other way around.

~~~

The two crouched as silently as possible as they hid in a bush at the perimeter of the small clearing where the bandits had set up camp. Armin had worked out a few ideas on the way over, but his plan only solidified itself once he was able to assess the situation first-hand. So far he had yet to share any of it with Jean, but the taller boy strangely did not feel worried about it as he trusted the other completely.

The two were glad to see neither hide nor hair of the pervert who had tried to get his filthy hands on Armin, meaning the man had probably sustained heavy injuries from being trampled by his skittish horse.

They could also tell that the bandits had managed to steal half a dozen other horses, as eight frightened-looking animals were secured to a couple of branches and were restlessly huddled together, stamping their feet and letting out the occasional whinny. The hearts of the two trainees had soared upon seeing their own horses still among the group, and Armin was especially glad to see that his own mount seemed comfortable putting weight on both of its front legs, meaning its injury probably hadn’t been as severe as Jean’s. That was promising as they would most certainly be in need of a speedy getaway.

There was a tent set up a ways away from the fire that Armin guessed belonged to the boss. The only person they’d seen enter it was the man with the patchy beard who’d been riding the black horse, and since he had seemed to be the second-in-command, Armin figured his guess was accurate.

After observing the remaining men for a few minutes, Armin decided it was time for them to take action. They slowly made their way towards the end of the camp where the stolen horses were being kept. As luck would have it, the guard posted there passed right in front of them on his way to take a piss without even sparing a glance in their direction.

Armin gave Jean a pointed look and tipped his head in the guard’s direction. Jean nodded and leaned down to grab a sturdy branch from the group before straightening up. He quickly moved behind the peeing man without making a sound, and the resounding crack as the branch was brought down unceremoniously on the man’s head, knocking him out, was drowned out by the sound of another guard closer to the fire having a coughing fit. Jean gave a hiss of pain from how the movement had strained his shoulder, but silently signaled to Armin that he was fine.

They passed the bandits’ horses on their way to the others, these ones standing around much calmer and quieter as they were used to the presence of the men. Armin and Jean quickly untied their reigns from where they were tethered to a differed branch. The horses made no move to run away, but this was all according to Armin’s plan; if the horses drew the attention of the men too early, they would be unable to get to theirs in time to escape.

Next they moved on to the stolen horses, taking a few moments to pat their necks and calm them down. Their own were happy to see them, and their now relaxed and friendly demeanor helped settle the rest of the group. Starting with their horses, the two trainees quickly untied all the stolen horses before mounting their own.

All had gone smoothly so far, and Jean knew for a fact that Armin’s focus and calm was what had helped him feel so fearless throughout, even though the men who had threatened and shot at them were standing but meters away.

Things had gone off so well that the bandits only noticed their presence once they sent the rest of the stolen herd running with loud noises and claps. The men were only just managing to get up and grab their guns when Armin and Jean put in motion the final part of their plan: using the stick and the gun Jean had taken from the guy he’d knocked unconscious, the two ran screaming at the bandits’ horses, Armin smacking a few in the rear with the stick, and Jean sending off a few shots right over their heads.

The up-till-then stoic horses scattered as a result, and Jean and Armin quickly turned and fled for themselves as the angry voices of men sounded from the campsite. They followed a couple of the bandits’ horses for the first stretch to discourage the men from shooting at them and possibly injuring their own horses. Once they seemed to be in the clear, Armin steered them back on course, towards their meeting point with the rest of the trainees.

They sped through the night, adrenaline erasing their exhaustion of the day for the moment. After a while Armin starting giggling as his stress and anxiety dissipated, leaving a pleasant feeling of relief and excited satisfaction. Soon Jean joined in, the two laughing wildly as they rode through the darkness.

~~~

Armin’s legs were still shaking as he laid out his things for the night, his body finally starting to crash after the high from the adrenaline wore off. They’d managed to find another cave for shelter and Armin had gone inside seeing as his legs had decided that standing was no longer a thing they wanted to do.

He sat down and closed his eyes. He could hear Jean still outside where they’d secured the horses to a sturdy branch. The other teen was taking the time to brush and sweet talk his horse now that they were reunited, and Armin smiled at how adorable Jean could be sometimes. What a dork.

He heard Jean bark out a laugh as he entered the cave and opened his eyes to see him grinning wildly, hands tugging at the longer locks of his hair.

“Holy shit, I still can’t believe we did that,” he said, shaking his head. “You are one crazy guy, Armin.”

“The good kind of crazy, I hope,” Armin asked as he returned his smile.

Jean’s eyes gained a sudden fondness to them, and his reply was much softer than his earlier tone: “Yeah, you’re one of the good ones.”

Armin opened his mouth as if to reply, but his words got stuck in his throat as Jean came down to kneel over him, a warm hand coming up to cradle Armin’s face as the other brushed a few stray locks of blond hair away from his eyes. Jean’s intense amber gaze was focused on Armin’s, as if attempting to gage his reaction while also committing his expression to memory.

Armin was paralyzed by the shock of just how unreal the moment seemed and by the electricity he felt coursing through his veins, emanating from every point his skin had come in contact with Jean’s. Warmth blossomed in his chest and his breathing quickening as Jean leaned in closer, his eyes still searching Armin’s for an answer.

When Armin finally gave him a slight but unmistakable nod, Jean closed his eyes and sighed as he brought his forehead down to rest against Armin’s.

Armin,” Jean whispered, his voice deep and filled with emotion as he nuzzled the blond’s cheek. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed how you’re always watching me… admiring me… wanting me…”

“Jean,” Armin sighed, tilting his head back as the taller boy dipped lower to kiss a line down his neck, from the corner of his jaw to the edge of his shirt collar. “That means, ah!” his breath hitched as Jean’s lips latched onto a sensitive spot. “That means you’ve been watching me too.”

Jean sat back up and once again looked Armin in the eyes, his own amber ones filled with a passion and lust Armin had never seen in them before.

“You have no idea,” Jean all but growled as he leaned in again to capture Armin’s lips with his own.

Jean lead their first kiss with fiery energy and with roughness that was betrayed only by the tender way his arms cradled the smaller teen. Armin slowed the kiss down as they started to run out of breath, his cheeks ablaze once his earlier bravado ran out. He started to question what someone as beautiful and as talented as Jean could see in somebody like… him.

When he started to voice his concerns out loud, however, he was silenced by Jean’s sudden glare.

“Why do you put yourself down like this? Do you really not know how others see you? How I see you?” Armin gave a hollow laugh.

“What’s there to see?” he said darkly as he looked away.

“Everything! You’re so smart, and everyone knows they can trust you and depend on you, absolutely. You care about others, your friends especially, and you always have something interesting to say. Armin, Armin! You’re beautiful, so beautiful, you just need to look at yourself through another person’s eyes to see it.”

Armin shut his eyes and shook his head but Jean’s steady hands stopped the motion, and he dipped down for a quick kiss.

“I love the way you look when you’ve just figured out a brilliant plan, you know?” Jean said softly before sharing another gentle kiss with Armin.

“But not as much as your cute blushing face when you’re embarrassed about something,” he added with a laugh. “See, just like that!”

“Shut up, I’m not the only one who’s cute here,” grumbled Armin.

“Aww, thanks, but tonight is all about you,” Jean said with a cocky smirk. “Feel free to praise me every other day of the week.” He yelped when Armin smacked his arm.

“Not funny,” he said, but his smile betrayed his words.

“Can we get back to the kissing thing now?” Jean asked, his fingers absentmindedly going back to gently stroking Armin’s pale skin. “I kind of liked that part.”

“Ugh, yes, please,” Armin huffed. “You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to get my hands on you without a shirt on.”

“I’m all yours,” Jean said with a grin before diving back in for Armin’s lips, pressing the length of his body against the blond as the two melted into the sensations of finally giving in to what they had both craved and desired for so long.

~~~

Now that the two had regained their horses, they were able to make their way back to the rendezvous point at a very leisurely pace—one that allowed for frequent breaks for them to either descend into another round of strong, passionate kissing, or sometimes just to lay around in each other’s arms and enjoy the silence of the forest. Their tranquility and solitude would not last much longer, and they both took full advantage of the time they still had alone together.

In the end they were the first pair to make it back, a full half-day before the others were supposed to arrive, though their instructor and Shadis were bound to show up earlier than the promised hour.

They decided to make use of their last few hours alone to take another dip in the pond, their splash fight soon turning into another heated make-out session. They took a nap in the sun afterwards to dry off before slipping back into their clothes and taking out the last of their rations for a quick lunch.

Shadis and the instructor showed up just as they were settling in to eat and soon sat down to join them. Armin was giving the adults a brief run-down on how the exploration process had gone for them when Mikasa and Eren returned, Eren and Jean immediately getting into a loud argument at the sight of one another. Armin had to supress a laugh at the ridiculousness of the two, especially when Connie and Sasha showed up with a couple of the others and started to egg the two on.

“Some things never change, I guess,” Armin wondered aloud, and shared a knowing smile with Mikasa as she sat down beside him.

Once the rest of the trainees had come back, some worse for wear but overall doing well, it was to be expected that sooner or later someone would suggest a swim in the pond—or more like, Reiner shouting “Canonball!” before jumping in, splashing a good half dozen people, and everyone else hitting the water soon afterwards.

If neither Armin nor Jean removed their shirts this time, well, perhaps it was to cover up a few marks that could not be so easily explained as “injuries”. For now, what they had was theirs, and they were in no hurry to share it with the others. Armin, for his part, was selfishly happy to know that he would be the only one to enjoy the view (and feel) of Jean’s shirtless body for what he hoped would be a very long time.