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Armin can be kind.

People always tend to make the mistake of assuming that makes him nice.

Armin makes a point to be kind, to keep his voice soft and eyes wide, to keep himself gentle and helpful and trustworthy.

Armin can be very kind, but Armin has never been nice, he doesn’t think.

He can’t help but feel the distinction clanging dissonantly in his chest as he sprints down the last living member of his squad, blade already in hand, Eren’s sloppy chewing noises behind him.

See, if Armin was who most think he is, he would be back at Eren’s side, trying to counsel him out of whatever breakdown he’s having and building up Eren’s saving case for court in his head. But Armin knows there is no way to explain this without it ending in Eren’s execution, no convenient subplot to rise up and smooth over the edges of this disaster.

Better for it to go away entirely.

Armin can be kind, and if he were nice his greatest loyalty would be to the Scouting Legion and humanity. But he is not, and his greatest loyalty lies with his greatest loves.

He’s gaining on the man – Joden? Jarek? – close enough to hear his desperately fearful mutters, and Armin heaves in a breath through his belly, pushing himself faster. There is a slight incline in the ground beneath his feet, and Armin bends his knees, jumping down the hill with his blade held high.

The blade reaches Joden’s back first, piercing flesh easily and jamming itself deep into the man’s ribcage when Armin’s body slams into his, pushing them both to the ground. Joden’s mutters rise to a screech, and his eyes roll back to meet Armin’s, betrayal making the hazel of them brighter.

Armin meets those eyes, grips the hilt of his blade in both hands and puts the strength of his shoulders into one good push down.

Earlier this morning, at breakfast, Joden had offered Armin some of his portion – ‘you pubescent fucks need more food than they’re giving you, anyway’ – and Armin had took it with a smile, before they’d had a meandering, hours-long conversation that lasted until Eren ripped their squad leader’s throat out with his teeth.

Armin swallows and pretends he doesn’t taste grief as he does.

Once he’s sure Joden’s dead, Armin sniffs, drawing his sleeve under his nose as he shifts his weight and swings his leg off of Joden’s corpse.

Fuck, the corpses. He was going to have to do something about them, before he finds their horses, comes up with their tragic story and they make their way back to the Walls. It wouldn’t do for another squad to see the bodies, not when it’s obvious none of them were Titan victims.

Armin bites his lip, the first buzz of anxiety beginning to hum beneath his skin. Then he hears a low growl, and freezes, turning his head to meet Eren’s eyes.

Eren, whose hair is longer, mouth wider and teeth sharper than they should be, his limbs elongated strangely and a maddened, animal desperation in his gaze. There is blood streaming from his mouth down his neck and chest, and gore under his fingernails, up his forearms, between his teeth. There is no recognition when he looks at Armin, and Armin swallows dryly, wonders if this is how he’s going to die.

Being killed by his best friend, no matter how impaired Eren is, was never something Armin thought would happen, not even when he saw Eren’s full Titan form and knew him for who he was, but he’s…ambivalent to the idea now. Better than being killed by a Titan, he supposes.

“Eren,” Armin sighs, and then the low, continuous growl is cut off as Eren tips his head to the side, digging his fingers into the dirt beneath him and shuffling closer.

When he is inches from Armin’s face, hunched over like an animal and balancing on his palms and the balls of his feet, Eren opens his mouth and roars, giving Armin a glimpse of just how much gore is stuck between Eren’s teeth.

He’s not a thorough chewer, not even when he’s fully human, and Armin doesn’t flinch as fleshy speckles of his squad members dot his face. Eren’s breath smells hot and meaty, the sickly sweet undertone of rot it’d have in his full Titan form missing.

Armin is not sure whether that’s a positive sign or not.

“Eren,” he tries again, and Eren whines, digging his fingers into his stomach and tearing deep gouges through the skin, before he knocks Armin to the ground and plunges his fingers into the soft flesh of Joden’s side, dragging the body closer and widening his mouth horrifyingly to take a bite from the man’s neck.

There is a snarl Armin might call pleased from Eren as he flips the corpse around and rips into the belly, shoving his face into the chasm of flesh and biting down. It’s a wet, slurping, messy meal, Eren bracing his feet in Joden’s eviscerated abdomen to pull his ribs apart, eating at the meat cushioned between the bones and at the lungs. He paws at the flesh to tear it, rending it between nails that seem too sharp.

He eats around the heart, tearing strips of meat off Joden’s limbs and stuffing them into his mouth with an eerily gleeful smile. The gouges in his stomach heal slowly as Armin watches Eren’s abdomen expand.

It’s horrifying, and Armin’s sight drifts numbly from where Eren is hunched over the corpse to the two bodies ahead of them, the horses grazing calmly near the twisted jumbles of bone and ligament and torn meat.

They can’t even be called bodies anymore.

This makes a giggle burble up in Armin’s throat, and he bites his lip till blood, wrapping his arms around himself. He shouldn’t laugh, shouldn’t draw attention to himself –

If Eren killed him, Eren would kill himself, and that just can’t happen.

But Armin can’t stop the hysterical bursts of noise from escaping between his teeth, when he thinks of how Corporal Levi had only just begun trusting Eren’s control enough to let him work with other squads. Levi thought people would be safe with Eren.

Armin thought people would be safe with Eren.

That’s the thought that pushes him over the edge, makes his thin control snap and frenetic laughter pour from his belly onto the ground like bile, holding onto his sides as he shakes. Eren makes a thorny, disgruntled noise, and Armin laughs harder as he thinks that this is it, he’s going die, and it’s going to be Eren that kills him and Armin can’t stop laughing for long enough to do anything about it.

A scalding hand with too-long fingers grips his jaw tightly; Armin hiccups in a breath and realizes distantly that his vision is blurry. He’s crying, too. Always the fucking crybaby.

Eren forces Armin’s face to look up at his, tightening his grip further when Armin tried to stop it. He didn’t want to look at Eren’s inhuman face before he died. Armin’s neck is fully bent back now, as he looks up at Eren, and Eren’s eyes are bright, feverish, feral. He tilts his head again as he looks at Armin, pulling his top lip back to show the front row of his teeth as he does, sliding his tongue over the slimy, blood-coated surface of them.

Armin isn’t prepared for when Eren leans his face closer and licks a stripe over Armin’s cheek. Freezing, Armin’s breath judders heavy as Eren moves to his other cheek, carefully – almost tenderly – licking away the tears.

Eren leans back, flicks his tongue over his lips and looks pleased with himself before tapping his forehead against Armin’s, his other hand rising to his mouth and Armin whimpers when he sees Joden’s heart clasped in Eren’s fingers, raggedly torn arteries still leaking blood. Nipping at his chin, Eren snarls in that almost-pleased way before he pinches some meat delicately between his teeth, jerking his jaw to sever it from the rest.

Then he jams his mouth onto Armin’s, and Armin chokes as he tries to reel back, realizing what Eren wants him to do.

“N – mmf!” Armin’s word is cut off as Eren works a thumb between his jaws, putting enough pressure on his lower jaw that it aches and thrusting his tongue – and the piece of Joden’s heart – into Armin’s mouth and keeping it there. The elongated muscle almost presses on the back of Armin’s throat, curling around the piece of meat and pressing it down onto Armin’s tongue.

He only draws back when he feels Armin start to chew.

Armin shakes as he forces his jaw up and down, feeling the thick, fibrous muscle grind into coppery paste between his molars, blood sliding from the flesh because of the pressure and pooling under Armin’s tongue. It takes three tries for him to swallow the sticky mass without a dry heave stopping him, and when he finishes he opens his eyes again – funny, he can’t remember closing them – and sees Eren already biting off another piece.

Armin groans, tries again to shuffle away and stops when Eren’s hand squeezes, that inhuman anger flaring in Eren’s eyes. Eren snarls, flesh held between his teeth, before he bends his back, spine overly-pronounced even through his part-way torn shirt, and butts his head against Armin’s stomach, snarling louder.

Uncurling, Eren presses his mouth to Armin’s, and before he can choke Armin with his tongue, Armin fits his teeth around the shred of heart, drawing it into his mouth. Eren purrs.

Armin chews.

Armin swallows.

The taste is easier the second time around.

They continue this pattern until the heart is gone, Eren’s mood growing steadily better throughout. By the time Eren splays his red-slicked palm in front of Armin and encourages Armin to lick the blood away with slight pressure of his other hand, he’s almost playful, burbling with noise that doesn’t sound aggressive, angry. He tucks his face into the crook of Armin’s neck, licks a stripe there, leans back to watch him with unnerving satisfaction on his halfway-Titan features.

He nips Armin’s nose.

Armin has started crying again, but he’s brave enough now to push Eren away with a firm ‘no’ when Eren chirrups, sticking his tongue out. Eren relents, and Armin gasps, scrubbing his hands over his face and tries to keep from hyperventilating.

Mikasa used to have panic attacks – they don’t talk about it a lot, it being the kind of thing that kept to the hours between midnight and three, but she said later that deep breaths in through her nose and out her mouth helped her get the air she thought she couldn’t. Armin claps his hand over his mouth and forces it shut, breathes deeply just through his nose instead because if he opened his mouth he’d start screaming.

He stays there, hunched in on himself, for what feels like hours until his heartbeat and the ringing in his ears aren’t the only things he can hear. Then, even more carefully, he raises his head again.

It’s to see that Eren has wandered back to the other bodies – the horses, oddly enough, are unbothered by his presence – picking off the last of the meat with clever fingers before eating it. Armin grits his teeth, ignores how his stomach roils hatefully, and forces himself to his feet.

“Eren,” he calls, voice cracking, and he’s not sure if Eren is responding to his name or just the sound of Armin’s voice but he twists around wickedly fast, locking eyes onto Armin’s figure as his lips are licking the last few shreds of his squad members into his mouth. Armin clears his throat, and when next he speaks, his voice is clearer. “Bring the bodies here.”

Eren growls confusedly. Armin points at the bodies. “Bring them here.” He points at his feet.

This seems to make Eren happy, that Armin should want the bodies, and he gathers them up in his lengthened arms with puppy-like enthusiasm, loping over the Armin and dumping the sticky heap of human remains at his feet. Tilting his chin down, he chirrups at Armin, and Armin recognizes that pitch – it’s the pitch that Eren uses when he wants to be praised but doesn’t want to admit to it.

Armin feels sickened, but he reaches up on his tiptoes to touch his hand to Eren’s hair. “You did a good job, Eren.”

His voice is so tired.

Eren – Eren yelps, sort of, turning his head and chewing lightly on Armin’s wrist, gentle enough that there are no marks on Armin’s skin when he’s done.

Sighing, Armin drops to the ground again, beginning to dig with his hands. He supposes it’s convenient that Eren has gnawed them all down to bone and tendon and cartilage – smaller hole, less digging, less time – but every time Armin glances at the pile that’s slowly going putrid in the sunlight, his stomach tries to rebel against him, always aware of what fills it.

Armin pushes this thought away. He will not think about what he holds in his gut.

Eren makes a series of confused, distressed garbles, before he throws himself down beside Armin, shunting him to the side. He rips into the earth like how he ripped Elise’s back open, the movements broad and brutal, and soon enough Armin is patting Eren on the side and telling him he can stop.

Reaching for the remains, his hands freeze without his permission, cold, sour sweat breaking out along his skin and his stomach snarling its displeasure. Fuck, he thinks, his breath going high and whistling. Just touch them just grab them and put them in the fucking hole just do it just –

His breath tears through his chest in a sob, and Armin swallows back the vomit that rose into his mouth with an uncontrolled heave as he curls his fingers around the gummy, slimy bones, dropping them into the hole as quickly as possible.

A glance over his shoulder tells him that Eren is currently involved in a staring contest with one of the horses, swaying rhythmically from side to side, fingers twitching and clasping themselves around his thighs occasionally.

Armin shudders after he’s done filling in the hole and patting down the dirt, rubbing his hands over the grass again and again with the sinking feeling that he will never be able to scour the feeling of cold stickiness from his palms. He gives himself five minutes to break down, to cry and scream into his closed mouth, tug at his hair, slam his fists into the ground and hate Eren, just a little bit, for making Armin a willing monster.

He doesn’t have the excuse of being a Titan shifter.

When he’s done, he takes a few careful, quiet breaths, waits until his heartbeat doesn’t match a rabbit’s. Then he wipes his face, finger-combing his hair and rising to his feet.

About ten paces from the horses, Armin jumps when Eren’s attention abruptly re-focuses from his equine friend to Armin, his overly wide mouth opening in its entirety as he releases a rough, roiling noise. Pausing, he waits until it’s obvious Eren isn’t going to turn on him now before he approaches the horse closest to Eren, grasping its bridle and kicking the other horse in the side, spurning it into a panicked run.

A lethal Titan attack will be easier believed if they only have one horse.

There’s a river in their eyesight, and though most times the Scouting Legion avoids running water outside the Walls – Titans sometimes seem mesmerized by the stuff, and better too cautious than dead – Armin leads the horse there, grabbing at Eren’s wrist when it seems like he doesn’t realize he should follow Armin.

At the river’s edge, he stops the horse and turns to Eren, and despairs slightly. His clothes are torn from how his limbs changed and how his abdomen warped, leaving him an eight-foot cadaverous figure covered in a coat of gore.

His clothes do not usually tear because of Titan transformations, and Armin bites his lip, mind spinning out a lie to cover for this indiscrepancy.

“Eren, come into the water,” Armin says, stepping into the water himself and holding his hands out invitingly. They tremble. Armin clenches his jaw and stiffens his muscles until they stop.

He won’t let Eren think Armin’s afraid of him.

Eren makes a confused, burbling noise, and Armin smiles encouragingly. It feels brittle and false. “It’s okay. Come on, come into the water.”

It takes a few more minutes of coaxing – the horse eventually dips its head into the water to drink in the meantime, the birds in the forest nearby chitter loudly – before Eren steps cautiously into the blue, snapping his jaw a few times at the feel of it.

“Come where I am,” Armin urges, splashing the water around himself. He is waist deep, and when Eren walks to him, the water level is just barely at his mid-thigh. Armin grabs Eren’s hands and dunks them into the water, rubbing the blood away and picking the flesh out from under his nails, splashing the water up his arms and scrubbing away as much of the blood as he can from the fabric, glad that dirt is so encrusted to the shirt that it’ll be easy enough to pass the rusty stains off as mud. Eren watches him do this with fascination, wiggling his fingers every so often.

“Crouch,” Armin orders, more comfortable in Eren’s presence now. Eren does nothing, stares at Armin and Armin sees his understanding of the situation drain away. Shaking his head, Armin demonstrates. “Like this.”

The water swirls up to his chin. Bending his legs, Eren crouches as well, the water reaching his ribcage. Washing his mouth and neck is harder, because the skin there is hotter, baking the gore onto Eren so well that Armin has to pick solidified chunks of it off. Rubbing his hands up and down Eren’s chest, Armin tries not to think about how he would have wanted to do this when Eren was human, in a different situation, his touches giving Eren pleasure rather than getting him clean.

Better not to think about that at all. Ever.

Sniffing, Armin puts his fingertips inside Eren’s lips, poking at the solid wall of teeth until Eren opens his mouth, wide, wider, till it almost looks like his head will separate by halves. It takes much longer to pick all the meat out of Eren’s teeth than it did to pick it out from under his fingernails, Eren making discontented noises all the while.

Armin wonders if his best friend will ever be human again. The thought burns him, hurts worse than the bullies’ punches did when he was younger, hurts worse even than knowing his grandfather wasn’t going to come home.

Eren is his home.

He doesn’t let himself cry again, just leads Eren out of the river and spends a few minutes coaxing him onto the horse. The horse doesn’t seem to feel Eren’s weight at all. Swinging himself in front of Eren, Armin takes a moment to orient himself before he kicks the horse into a gallop, heading back to the Walls.

The strange snap-creak of bones changing starts a half-hour after they start to ride, and Eren groans, his head rolling forward to rest on top of Armin’s.

It’s weird, because Armin can feel him shrinking, feel his ribcage heaving against Armin’s back as it re-shapes itself.

Armin could weep from relief, but he’s cried enough for a day so he bites his tongue instead, forcing the prickling heat from his eyes. Eren’s head slides down to rest in the crook of his neck, and Armin can feel deep, rhythmical breathing on his skin.

Eren will be okay. Eren always manages to be okay.

“Mmmm,” Eren hums tiredly, questioningly, against Armin’s neck. It puts a shiver down his spine, and then Eren yawns, jaw cracking. “What – what happened?”

He doesn’t sound alarmed, arms clasped around Armin’s waist, but he sounds curious. Sounds tired and out of it, mostly, but also curious.

“Five Titans attacked. You were knocked out and they were all killed. We were just shit lucky,” Armin says shortly. He feels Eren nod, sort of dazedly.

Then he stiffens. Then he stiffens and chokes, leaning to the side to puke.

“That’s not what happened,” Eren gasps, a hysteria rising in his voice. “Fuck – fuck, Armin, that’s not what happened, I – oh, fuck.” His voice is high and thready with terror and self-loathing. “Shit, Armin, I’m so sorry, I’m so fucking sorry –”

“Yes, it is,” Armin cuts him off, and even Armin is surprised at how cold, how hard, his voice is. “Five Titans attacked. You were knocked out and they were all killed, and we were just shit lucky.”

Eren goes so quiet behind him that Armin looks over his shoulder in concern.

Eren is looking at him, and at first Armin can’t believe the fear he sees in his friend’s eyes.

And then he can.