Categories > Anime/Manga > Attack on Titan

The Blood on Your Hands

by _Sorkari_ 0 reviews

Everyone has to make decisions, ones that are heavily influenced by mood and desires. The Shiganshina Trio are thrown head-first into a situation that requires them to make decisions that their liv...

Category: Attack on Titan - Rating: R - Genres: Angst,Drama,Horror - Warnings: [V] [?] - Published: 2018-07-06 - 14074 words

0Unrated
Just beyond the window, the river lay tranquil in its bed, still as if the lands had been blanketed in the embrace of black linen, and on the other side, a never ending row of oak trees. The threat of the twists and turns that were paved into the ominous crease of the hillside leading down into the river and the hills of broken concrete that were created through the overgrowth of the trees' roots were the only things that kept Armin awake. Beside him, Mikasa sat peering out the window, resting her head upon a folded hand, elbow quaking with the erratic rumbling of the van as it crawled over the uneven roads. She had lost interest in the map that was laid out in front of her, now curling into itself and gradually slipping off the dashboard.

Armin hadn't been paying attention to it, not when he had been slipping somewhere between awake and asleep, but he heard Eren snap out a snarky response to Mikasa's irritated murmur. Mikasa shifted uncomfortably in her seat. Somber eyes glanced up to the rear view mirror so she could address Eren, with teeth grinding and his fists clenched. Similar to hers, his eyes were sunken and framed in shadows that mirrored the river nearby. She averted eye contact as soon as it was made.

"And what? Now you're gonna ignore me?"

"Shut up, Eren," Armin grumbled, though it was too weak to be regarded, too sluggish to be considered.

Mikasa, hand curled in her scarf and poised just below her lips, replied, "We're not kids anymore. I'm not going to argue with you like this."

Armin let out a frustrated growl when the back of his seat suddenly jerked and the van, as feeble as it was, shifted along with Eren's movements. He listened to Eren, voice labored with the efforts of getting comfortable on the back seat, remark with a petulant sneer, "Says the one who started it."

Mikasa visibly bristled, and Armin knew, just by the way she allowed her scarf to fall limp across her chest, that she was not pleased with allowing Eren to have the final say in their argument. 'Twas how she functioned; efficient in every action, prideful with every stride, graceful with the sway of her hips, and there was no amount of enervation that would allow her to live with the shame, the sheer disgrace, of getting talked back to and, worse yet, allowing it to go by without castigation.

"I had every right to." Her snap, as vicious as its intentions were supposed to be, came out dull, hesitant.

She had also always been that way - to Eren, at least. Plagued with fear, usually, or contemplating the consequences of what she had to say. There was the wave of anxiety that clenched her in the unfathomable fist of ambivalence, in a constant state of insecurity that was spurred on by the fear of abandonment. It was something she absolutely could not tolerate - abandonment, betrayal, maybe even lies, depending on the cause. And that, Armin had realized, was what severely contradicted with her personality, her morals, her mindset, her actions, a crippling flaw that left her vulnerable.

In short, she struggled. Heavily.

And Eren knew it.

"And you done fucked up, Mikasa. You know that." Eren shifted again, now staring at the peeling fabric on the ceiling of his old, worn van. He threw his arms up with a ludicrous sigh, "Why do you even care? I don't get it. I don't."

But who wouldn't be hesitant, if they were stuck in her place? Who wouldn't be, if they held her feelings, understood how she loved her adopted brother and could not stand to hurt him? The drastic clash of both her pride and her tentativeness was evident in her actions, in the way her response, delayed by nearly a minute, came out slow and deliberate; "Of course you don't get it, Eren." She glanced over her shoulder to accusingly add, "You're not the one who's pregnant!"

"Was pregnant."

Armin's eyes blew wide with alarm, through the disbelief of the sheer audacity of such damage done to a fresh wound. "Shut up, Eren!"

Eren had never been pleasant towards Mikasa's new lover - a two-toned man with golden eyes and a love for martial arts - and, upon discovery of their engagement and Mikasa's pregnancy, abandoned all sense of shame. The argument, started a few hours earlier when the sun had barely started to set, stung brightly, metallically against Armin's teeth, such as the familiarity of the toxicity of these contretemps was. It wasn't that they hated each other; there was nothing but love between the two siblings. Which was what justified Eren's actions, depending on how one viewed it - his protectiveness, the possessive behavior, wanting nothing but the best for his adoptive sister, but there was only so much one could do before it became overbearing and abusive, which was something Eren didn't quite grasp.

In the soulless void that had enveloped them, the beginnings of light began to emerge. The river, previously dull and lifeless, yawned and stirred back awake once more as the moonlight graced its surface in its glimmering reflection. Shadows formed within the trees, now revealed to have been swaying with the wind, all that constantly moved and danced along with the glimmers of the river's surface. Upon the sudden elucidation, the road beyond them became much clearer, now illuminated far beyond their headlights' vision. It took Armin a moment to process; the car suddenly jerked as he narrowly missed a pothole, which seemed to further stir the turmoil.

Mikasa reminded lowly, "Eyes on the road, Armin."

"I am!"

"Guess no one's capable on this damn trip," Eren grumbled behind them.

"What's your problem, Eren?" Mikasa turned in her seat as best as she could, her voice now all the more evident. A dull throbbing sensation crept into Armin's senses, leaving his temples aching and his neck stiffer than it already had been. "All you've done is argue and give me no explanation as to why. We could've solved something earlier if you weren't so stubborn -"

Eren, taking offense to the passing comment, grimaced and spat, "It's not my problem. It's his."

Mikasa's breath left her in a slow, enervated sigh. Her eyes fluttered shut, sore from the stress of it all, aching from the red patches under her eyes, while she reached up to pinch the bridge of her nose. "Eren. . . ."

"Why can't you see how much of a piece of shit he is?! That horse-faced bastard only ever wanted our food and money, and you're here saying you're going to support him?"

Mikasa turned to face the front, out into the gnarled, dimly lit road, the vigor in her seemingly subdued for the time being. She deadpanned, "So that's the same excuse you're going to give me? Instead of fixing this, you're going to play clingy, protective baby brother -"

Eren sat up a bit, flaring angrily, "I'm not a baby -"

"Of course you are, when you're acting like a damned child who didn't get their way." Armin uttered under his breath, something similar to a protest, because he knew - he knew, just by her tone, by her apparent insouciance, that she intended to taunt. And of course, she ignored him. " I love you, but sometimes, I really wish you'd grow up and face your problems."

The back of Armin's chair jerked again, taking him by surprise, causing the van to lurch once more when he flinched. Eren's yelling rung vehemently in his ears, paraded through his sleep-depraved mind, and he wasn't quick enough to intercept the oncoming blow below the belt; "You wouldn't been a lot less bitchy with me if you just saved yourself the trouble and aborted that thing while you had the chance!"

"Eren -!"

Her shrill protest was cut short as the vehicle suddenly lurched to the side. Armin, narrowly avoiding the treacherously deep ledge that had suddenly cut into the main road, slammed his foot upon the break, and the van, already decrepit, could not withstand the stress. The screeching of rubber against concrete was soon accompanied by the metallic crunch of the hood of their van slamming into one of the trees that partially surrounded them. The vehicle rumbled and spluttered before the headlights flickered off and the engine died. The three were dazed by the shudder of the impact, though not grievously injured.

Mikasa was the first to regain her senses. "Eren?" She undid her seatbelt and climbed onto the seat, calling, "Are you okay?"

"Perfect." She didn't notice that he had been shoved off the seat and onto the narrow floor below it. He growled a spiteful profanity under his breath as he pulled himself up back onto the seat with some difficulty. "Perfect," he repeated, furious now.

That fury was smothered, however, as Mikasa's hands gripped his shoulders tightly and gave him a light shake, as if to test that confirmation. Her lips cracked into a gentle smile as she sighed, "Good. That's good. I'm glad."

It took Armin a moment to process exactly what had happened before he mechanically reached out to the keys, turned it once, twice, even thrice, though none could revive the old van. It merely hiccuped and whined before falling silent once more. Armin slammed his fist upon the dashboard, cursed, tried to force the van the wake back up, but he let go when Mikasa's hand wrapped around his own.

"It's not going to work, Armin."

"I know," he croaked. "I know that. Christ Jesus, why. . . ?"

Eren's head popped out from between the seats. "Are you okay? Hurt?"

"Not hurt, but definitely not okay." Armin let out a weak huff, a mere wisp of a laugh. "Grandpa's gonna kill me for this, y'know."

Eren sunk back into the backseat, rolled his shoulders, and sighed. Over his shoulder, suitcases and personal bags lay stacked on one another, and the mere sight of it was taunting, intimidating. He mused, "Now how the hell are we gonna haul all of that for another. . . . Where are we by now. . . ? Two hundred miles?"

"Two hundred miles." It hurt to say. "Two hundred miles," Armin repeated anyways. "And you're willing to haul luggage the entire way home in thirty-two degree weather. Right." He rest his head against the steering wheel. "Call a tow truck, Eren."

"You think I know fluent German? I stopped speaking it when I was seven when Dad learned English. Besides," Eren retrieved his phone from his back pocket and spared it a disinterested glance. "there's no reception this deep into the wild. I don't think I can even pull up a translator with this shit network service."

It was already cold in their van, given that the heater had broken down years ago when it had first been abandoned by Armin's grandfather, but the frigid air around them started to feel all the more constrictive. This wouldn't be the first time they traveled to Germany to visit the Jaeger household for the holidays, but it would be a first time that their trip ended up a total disaster. Each year became duller, and more areas of the van broke or ceased to function each time, and usually, by the end of the trip, they were fed up with one another and yearned for nothing but time alone in the comfort of their own bedrooms (they did, infuriatingly enough, share an apartment). Though this year it came earlier, with the introduction of a new rival for the center of Mikasa's attention bringing turmoil and conflict of a much higher degree.

Armin held his breath for a moment, weighed his options, then sat up and turned to address the two. He stated, "Okay then. We'll take our bags, leave the suitcases, and find the nearest village or something. Wherever we can get help."

"We can't just leave everything!" Eren whined.

Armin snapped firmly, "We can and we are. Who do you think's going to come along and take anything? The goat herder we saw a good fifty, sixty miles ago?"

The furrow in Eren's brow deepened, and for a moment, his countenance was laden with vigor, as if he was ready to argue against common sense. That was until Mikasa pointed out, "It's cold, Eren. We'll die out here if we spend hours trying to haul out everything in this van to the next village."

Eren's eyes widened, as if the bluntness surprised him - or rather, it frightened him, knowing how desperately he wanted to explore the world and live freely - and really, Armin could understand, because who wants to hear from their loved one that they'll freeze to death on the side of the road if they make the wrong decision? After a moment of contemplation, he mumbled out a small 'okay.' They popped their doors open (except Eren, who had to climb out onto the front seat and take that door out, because the sliding door in the center of the van refused to open anymore) and walked around to open the doors of their spacious trunk.

There, they took their backpacks and briefly rummaged through the other suitcases for other things; extra clothes, books, Mikasa's lighter, and food thanks to Armin's bad habit of midnight snacking. Armin glanced behind him, where just within eyeshot, he saw a sign, and after spending a few short moments of squinting and analyzing it, he realized that it was a warning for a sharp turn. Beautiful. Once the doors slammed shut, they headed off down the road, drenched in the moonlight, caressed by the gentle winds, and cumbersome with their numerous layers of clothing.

After some time - how long, Armin didn't know, and he was too cold to bother taking his phone out from his pocket to check - Eren moaned miserably, "This is hell."

It felt like hours, trudging along the uneven road, trembling violently from head to toe with each gust of the winds, which were starting to pick up now. Even huddled together, arms linked and shoulders brushing, each brush of the wind soaked through their clothing. They ceased in conversation after a while, but it picked up again once the silence became too unbearable. Maybe it had been hours that they were out there, because soon enough, droplets of white swirled and drifted down from the sky, slowly at first, before delicately landing onto the road.

A thick, white cloud left Mikasa's lips as she mused, "Snow already. . . ?"

There was no sign of emotion in either voice or countenance when Eren murmured, "What a perfect fuckin' disaster. Nothing's been going our way."

Armin's feet dragged, breath stuttered, and for a moment, being dragged along by Mikasa, he felt his face burn and chest ache. The new source of heat blinded him, left rapidly cooling streaks upon his already burning cheeks, but despite the lack of mobility, Mikasa continued to trudge on. She jerked him forward, closer to her, deadpanning, "You're not giving up yet."

He opened his mouth to respond, most likely with pessimism, some hopeless thing, but the thought of death, similarly to Eren, frightened him. Instead came out a small sob, and he was pulled closer to Mikasa, to bury his face into her shoulder and cry as he pleased. Eren's gaze turned to the ground, stayed glued there, inscrutable to what he felt, as if frozen into place. Armin couldn't quite understand it.

At some point, after conversation had completely died and their movements became slower, more labored, Mikasa gasped, "Do you see that?"

In front of them, past the thin sheen of snow that had blanketed the ground and the swaying of the trees, there was a vague silhouette of what appeared to be a building. The three of them, as if on cue, sped up a bit, loosened their grips, eventually breaking into a sprint upon eye contact. Surely enough, that silhouette grew as they approached it, becoming much larger than either of them assumed it would be. Armin started to fall behind as they approached the wired gates, though Eren took him by the hand and hauled him forward. Their linked hands forced him to go at Eren's pace, and by the time they arrived at the large, rusted gates, their feet were started to get enveloped by the snow with each footstep.

Mikasa slowed to a halt as she rest her thickly gloved hands upon the old, feeble metal. While she gave it a violent shake, Armin doubled over, held in place by Eren, as he caught his breath. The cold air scorched his throat on its way in and set his nostrils aflame on the way out, though he could not stop himself from heaving in long, wheezing breaths. Mikasa let go of the wired gate, panted for a moment to regain her strength, then slammed her foot into it. With a screech, it came open, and she uttered a breathless signal for them to slip past.

Armin, still leaning on Eren for support, could make out the vague outline of the building they approached; he could make out the numerous windows (a few of which were boarded up), support beams, doors that were sealed shut. The establishment, abandoned as it was, stood proudly upon bricks, cement, and wood, with chimneys sprouting from various locations around it. Off to the side, there was a windmill, accompanied by a small cabin.

Armin started shallowly, "Is that -?"

"A factory, probably," Eren offered. His tone, previously monotone and dead, regained its usual vigor, regained the vehemency that defined him. "What kinda factory, though?"

Mikasa nudged Eren with her shoulder off to the side, away from the direct road to the factory itself and towards the shed. "That doesn't matter now."

At a particularly harsh, frigid gust of wind, Mikasa started up another run, much to Armin's disdain. Upon arriving at the cabin, Eren allowed Armin to slump against the molded wall of the cabin, wheezing harder now, as he twisted and turned the doorknob. The pressure caused it to break apart, the metal heavy in his palm, while the lock itself completely fell apart under the unnecessary stress. The fragility of it surprised him, but he still took that as his cue to shove open the door with his shoulder. It screeched open and allowed them inside.

Armin rolled onto the ground once he was inside, the hay under him crunching and floorboards squeaking in agony. He complained miserably, "Water!"

He heard Mikasa's voice outside the cabin; "Already on it!"

Eren kicked the door shut, though it popped back open a bit, and no amount of force could keep it closed. While Armin curled into himself and rubbed his gloves hands together to create some sort of warmth, Eren inspected the shelter. The cold seeped through the walls, flooded the room like a river, though it was not too horrible inside with the lack of wind to tear at them. He rummaged through the pile of debris that circulated what looked to be a furnace. After some time of clearing the rubble and dirt from the furnace and gathering wood from the ruined pile, the door screeched open once more.

Mikasa slipped into the cabin and slammed the door shut with her back against it. In her hands were three cans, sealed shut and dusty, though neither of them were labeled. She stated gently, "There wasn't any water, but I found food, if that counts."

"Better than nothing," Eren responded. "Hand me your lighter."

Mikasa retrieved the lighter from her pocket, tossed it over to him, and settled a few feet beside Armin. The floorboard creaked miserably under her weight, though she paid it no mind; instead, she glanced around, towards the rubble first, then at the large shards of broken glass that were near a ruined full-body mirror. A few failed attempts and a frustrated kick to the furnace later, a fire erupted from the wood, slowly at first, then gradually enveloped them.

With a proud nod, he left his work to go and settle himself in front of his two childhood friends to form a triangle on the floor. As soon as he arrived, he was handed a granola bar by Armin, to which he responded brightly, "Thanks. I owe you one."

"It's the least I could do for not abandoning me out there, right?"

Eren gave him a toothy smile, a similar one, which erased all discomfort he previously had. The warmth of the fire reached out towards the rest of the cabin, caressing everything drenched in its gentle hues of orange and yellow with soothing heat. Armin started weakly, "Now what?"

Eren's eyes widened a bit, and he went still, contemplating the question, before following through in opening his granola bar with a shrug. "I dunno. Depends on how long it's gonna snow out there."

"What a fine day to be suicidal," Armin sighed. He tucked his knees up to his chest, rest his chin upon them, and wondered aloud, "Christmas is tomorrow, too. We're gonna miss it, aren't we? Damn. I don't even have enough crap for us to eat for the next week."

"Didn't you find something, Mikasa?" Eren inquired, his attention switching over to his adoptive sister.

Next to her, where a shard of glass lay broken in half with a blunt tip, lay the end of a discarded brick that had been cracked apart down the middle. She lowered the messily opened can from her lips, her countenance contorted in an odd grimace as she chewed. She licked her lips, glanced down into the can, and questioned, "What the absolute hell. . . ?"

Eren grinned at the reaction. "What? Did you find rotten peaches or something?"

The two men laughed a bit at her misfortune, though it faltered when she abruptly dropped the can and scrambled to her feet. As she bolted out the cabin door, with Eren following closely behind her with an air of hilarity, Armin scrutinized the contents of the can. Some thick concoction oozed from the opening, a deep red or perhaps a burgundy, with chunks of meat - or maybe fruit, judging by the glossy, almost mushy texture of it. He could hear retching outside, Eren's playful tone, Mikasa's eventual witty response as she, too, had come to take it as a joke, as some misfortunate little event that would be brought up later, whenever she opened a can of fruit.

With no water to be found, and absolutely nothing to do, they tucked their bags away (all except Eren, who felt uncomfortable leaving his behind), threw dirt into the fire, and ventured outside the cabin. Mikasa took it upon herself to throw the can outside and smother both the concoction and her bile with rubble. The winds had died down a bit and the snowfall was not as heavy as they assumed it would be. They approached one of the doors just a few feet away from the windmill, and after fussing with the jammed handle, they managed to let themselves in.

Without any light source, they were forced to use the flashlights on their phones. Armin wondered exactly when this factory was built, or why it was created, when it was destroyed to a surprising degree and build primarily of wood. The floors were sturdy, though, and besides the randomly spread piles of rubble, molded walls, and stale stench that they gradually got used to, there was nothing to really take caution of. There were a few hallways that all eventually led into the main room.

"I'm surprised we haven't found anything in here yet," Eren commented. His voice echoed in the large room, bounced off the decrepit walls and past the molded support beams, and it fascinated him. Holding his flashlight up, he added, "Or do you think everything's just sleeping?"

"What, exactly, are you trying to find?"

"I dunno. A bear, maybe?" His eyes widened. "Imagine that!"

In the dull light of his phone, he could see a ladder that led to the overhang that they didn't realize hung looming above them. He immediately run off into the darkness to find it. Armin started, "Eren, don't just run off -!"

"Might as well, right?" Mikasa shrugged at the enervated glance this elicited. "What's the worst that could happen?"

"You might find a bear, apparently."

Although she was smothered by the darkness, her laugh calmed him, urged him to follow the dancing ray of light in the distance that had ascended beyond ground level. Under the crunching of rubble grinding under their shoes was a scuffle, a soft one, almost imperceptible to them. Armin was the one to stop, leaving Mikasa talking to herself as she approached the ladder, and stared off into the darkness. He shined his phone in the direction, the light hazy and atmosphere stuffy, but he couldn't see a thing. There was no wildlife, no raccoons or badgers taking refuge in the building during the harsh winter, not even a bug to be seen, though that part was understandable.

Just beyond the light, however, once he had given up and started to turn away, was a quick movement, one that caught his attention. He leaned forward, reached out further, but nothing could be seen. For a moment, his eye adjusted to what appeared to be a silhouette, a dull outline, and his heart stuttered. It filled his body with liquid fire, flamed that erupted from his chest and onto his toes, the feeling of a burst of adrenaline as he took a step back.

His thoughts were interrupted as he flinched when he heard Eren's bellow from above; "Armin! Hurry up already! Don't tell me you're scared."

He glanced back in front of him, forced himself to move forward a short distance, and let out a frightened whimper, but all that came into view was another moldy support beam. A soft laugh left him, a sound of pure relief, in the hilarity of such ludicrous paranoia that gripped him, and he went off to join the others. That paranoia, damn it all, came back, but for good reason; the ladder creaked and trembled terribly under him as he climbed upwards, and he debated jumping back down early to save himself an injury, but just above him, Mikasa kneeled and encouraged him.

His arms burned and chest heaved by the time he climbed all the way up. Mikasa, seeing the enervation, offered him a hand. She helped him onto the perch, and although she had tucked her mouth into her scarf, he could still hear the amusement in her tone as she commented, "If I didn't know any better, I'd offer to carry you on the way down."

"Bite me," Armin snapped.

The corners of her eyes crinkled and her tone softened as she hummed, "You don't have to snap."

"And you don't have to mock me."

Their banter died early when footsteps eagerly approached them. Armin flinched and took an instinctive step back, though nothing met his heel, and he swayed dangerously over the edge. An electric shock sent his heart hammering against his ribcage, and he immediately clawed at the empty air in front of him. When nothing met his groping hands, he shrieked, but he was grabbed by the collar of his parka and hauled forward and into Eren's arms.

"Shit, Armin, I'm sorry!"

Armin, slightly swooning from the sudden onslaught of nausea, pulled away to go lean against the wall, far away from the ledge. He murmured, "Don't worry about it."

Eren stared for a second, a displeased hum issuing from the back of his throat. He ran his thumb, now exposed after he had discarded his gloves somewhere behind him, against cold metal, and he immediately remembered what he wanted to show them. Offering his outstretched hands to Mikasa, he laughed brightly, "Look at this!"

On his palms lay numerous coins, all of which were different shapes, sizes, and hues. Mikasa reached out to grab one and inspected it, and shortly after, so did Armin. Upon further analyzation, he saw the German carvings and unfamiliar faces. "Cool, huh? How old do you think this place is, Armin?"

"I don't know." Armin shined his light closer to the coin, then to the others. "A century? Two centuries, maybe. You see a lot of these in other countries, too."

"There's a lot more up here, but stopping there is boring. Let's check out the hallways."

With the light shining on his face now, Armin could see the flame, the bright vigor, the curiosity that had never died, even when his childhood did. And because he was forced into isolation after his mother died at such an early age, there were things he wasn't familiar with, traditions he wasn't aware of, and it affected his adulthood. His need to explore, the amount of time he invests in his friends in college, the excitement that accompanied him with every trip to a new place. It was nice, really. Pleasant. Cute, at times.

But unfortunately, his childlike behavior affected more than just his social life and basic interests. Eren stepped over towards the wall to remove his backpack and place his treasures inside them, and while he did that, Mikasa mumbled, "It'd be nice. Exploring like this, I mean."

"Exploring abandoned buildings is a lot more dangerous than you think," Armin warned.

Mikasa rolled her eyes. "I know. That's obvious. I already warned Eren. But that fear tends to die down a little after awhile, you know. Jean used to always show me the things he found on trips like these."

Hearing this, Eren abruptly stopped in his approach, instead turning his back to them. He scoffed, "Yeah, but he never visits places overseas."

"No, but that doesn't make it any less eventful." Mikasa paused for a moment. "Is that something you'd like to do?"

"Not with him, no."

"You won't even give it a try?"

"Not with him, no."

"Eren -"

"I don't like him, Mikasa, and all you've done was ignore me after the first few months! Don't you even care about me?"

Armin snapped a warning, though neither of them paid him mind. He couldn't see Mikasa in the dim lighting, but he could hear her breath hitch in the back of her throat, and while she normally would have approached Eren with warm affection, she merely stood there, as if petrified by such a question. The accusation of not caring enough frightened her, Armin eventually realized, but she never did admit it, nor did she show it directly. It was the little things, the pauses, the tentative responses, the distance.

"Of course I care, Eren, which is why I'm not going to support you attacking random people when they've done nothing to you."

"Right, yeah."

Mikasa neared him, reached out and touched his shoulder. "I want you both to be happy, you know."

He jerked his shoulder away from her. "Right."

"Eren -" Her plea was cut short as he clambered off, either in an angry fit or merely because he lost interest already, and with the heavy steps taken, the perch trembled. She swayed a bit on her heels, instinctually calling out, "Be careful!"

Armin gripped the wooden railing for support as the entirety of the overhang shook with each cumbersome step that was taken. In his flashlight, he could see Eren walking close to the ledge, guided by the railings while his flashlight was pointed elsewhere in search for a door. Armin followed after them, but not too far ahead of Eren, the railing was destroyed, first broken and hanging uselessly off the edge until it leveled out to the floor. If Eren wasn't careful, and if he continued to use the rail as his full support, combined with the dangerously shaking of the entirety of the overhand, he could very well fall over the edge.

Fall. Break his neck, or his spine, or both of his legs. Maybe he could live through it, but even then, there was no hospital nearby and no way to contact one. There was no saving anyone or anything that stepped into this building without already having the medical equipment needed. And as that realization dawned upon him, the automatic urge to call out a warning came to him, but it didn't come out. In his mind, along with the red flags of the situation, was the red flags of the arguments that had plagued them.

Just how stupid - or horrible - did one have to be to continuously use insults and accusations that they knew would most likely get them their way? They were all childhood friends. They cared for one another, loved each other, had encountered no argument that would completely ruin their friendship. But that didn't justify Eren's actions. That didn't justify the abuse, nor the pointless anger, nor the childish behavior. God, how selfish did one have to be to only care about what they liked, and not their own sister? What justified it in Eren's head? What?

He kept quiet.

That was until the spite had died down and he realized, with a soft gasp and an internal slap to the face, exactly who Eren was, what he had done, how much he cared. And, like Eren had done just a little under an hour ago, Armin ran forward, gripped his arm, and yanked him off to the side.

"What the hell, Armin?!"

"That."

He shined the light on the ledge, where the railing died short and the gap that had been broken into it somehow loomed dangerously close. Eren took another step back, gasping, "Oh, shit. Jesus, I would've. . . ." He sucked in a deep breath and hurried onward, now much closer to the wall. He pulled Armin along with him. "Thanks for that."

Armin didn't bother responding. He bit his lip, cast his eyes downward, allowed Eren and Mikasa to lead the way. He didn't bother trying to join in the vibrant conversation the other two were having. How did they always manage to recover so quickly? It didn't matter, he supposed. It didn't matter if Eren tended to over exaggerate. It didn't matter that he was possessive, or needy, or possibly jealous.

Nothing could ever justify Armin's previous mindset. Nothing could have excused his reluctance to warn his best friend that he was going to get himself killed. What kind of person allows their spite to get in the way of what was right? What kind of horrible person was he to demonize his best friend in the face of danger?

There was a door not too far away from them, but they skipped it in favor of the entrance at the very end of the overhang with the door barely hanging on its hinges. They carefully stepped through, but Eren accidentally bumped into it. It creaked, but did nothing. Their lights swayed this way and that in search of interest points. Eren pointed out the painting that had been knocked off its hinges and surrounded in a pile of dirt and broken chips of wood, and as he did so, a loud crash issued behind them. It radiated off the walls, rung loudly in their ears in such a small, quiet place, and caused them all to jump and immediately shine their lights in that direction. They could see nothing, however, past the few feet that their phones shined through.

After a moment of silence, once the echo died, Mikasa inquired, "What do you think fell?"

When she started to walk forward, Armin grabbed her forearm and yanked her back. He hissed, "Don't just go and blindly investigate! That never turns out well!"

Eren rolled his eyes and stepped forward as well. "So what? Do you think we have any other way out? That's our only exit, Armin."

"No, no! You don't just -" He spluttered a bit when they blatantly ignored him. He allowed them to walk forward for a short time, but with a short glance over his shoulder, he hurried along with them. "Wait a second, God damn it!"

He caught up to them, and in the lights of their phones, he could see that the door had finally fallen off its hinges. Eren stepped onto it with a cheerful laugh, "That took forever to fall! Better now than earlier, though. That would've scared the crap out of me."

Armin let out a weak moan, something similar to a protest, and it only elicited laughter from the other two. Enervated from the continuous scares and nervous in the ominous gloom of the darkness, he decided to stay close to Mikasa, lightly gripping her sleeve while she walked. Eren lead the way, pointing out the broken wood, the upturned floorboards, making up ridiculous scenarios about how they came to be. While Mikasa replied to one scenario with ridicule, Armin glanced over his shoulder once more, even shined his light in the direction, but he was met with absolutely nothing.

Above them, he heard something, a creak of the floorboard, and his mind immediately jumped to the worst conclusion. That was until he glanced up towards Mikasa, listened to Eren's odd reasonings, and the familiarity calmed him. That was until the creak got louder, accompanied by a scuffling and a dull shift. Dust rained from above and, for a second, he could see the floorboards above them breaking.

"Mikasa!"

Armin, already having a hold of her sleeve, hauled her backwards with all the strength he could muster in such a short notice. She reacted quickly, as well, and turned to run, and while she did get out of the direct impact, it still managed to catch her shoulder. A thick beam of wood slammed onto her shoulders, across her upper back and barely missing her head and nape, and caused her to fall her knees with a sharp cry. Dust enveloped them all and the crash of the destruction seemed to echo throughout the entirety of the building.

He got onto his knees, as well, quickly dusting her off after she shoved the beam away. He peered upwards again, the dust in his eyes setting them aflame and drawing tears, but he did not close them; he heard another shuffle, the crunching of rubble, and for a second, he thought the entire ceiling within the hallway would collapse. But it stopped almost as soon as it started, and for a second, everything was tranquil.

The tranquility shattered, however, when Eren shoved through the small amount of debris and kicked away the excess wood. He emerged coughing, though fighting through the lungfuls of dust to ask, "Are you two okay?"

It took Armin a moment to process the question before he stuttered, "I - I am. Okay. I - yeah, I'm - I'm okay. But Mikasa. She -"

"I'm fine." Mikasa's voice was labored, her breaths coming short, but she still managed to force herself to get up. Armin scrambled away when Eren hurried over to help her, but she pushed his helping hand away. "I'm fine," she repeated, firmly now, even when her knees trembled and her shoulders grew unnaturally stiff. "I'm okay. I am."

"Mikasa. . . ."

"I'm fine."

Eren's brow furrowed. He reached out, gingerly touched her shoulder, and she didn't flinch. Stood there, stiffened, gradually gaining control of herself again, but did not flinch, nor show any signs of it hurting her. He breathed, "You promise?"

"I do. I promise I'm okay." She experimentally rolled her shoulders, extremely slowly at first, then quicker as she grew accustomed to the ache. "A little bruised up, but definitely okay."

"Do you need to sit down?"

Mikasa scrutinized him for a moment, took time to contemplate the question, and Armin guessed that she was going to answer no. It was extremely unlike her to admit to defeat, or to even admit to feeling pain. And it was obvious now, after that incident, with her spine stiff and shoulders most likely aching terribly, and she was most likely going to avoid addressing it any further through sheer pride.

"No." He guessed it. "But I would like to lay down." Armin paused in his own motion of getting up; he wasn't expecting that. "Maybe we should call it a night and come back in the morning when there's light out. Makes things easier to see and experiences like that easier to avoid."

Eren smiled. "Yeah, okay. We'll do that."

Mikasa refused help as they started on their way out, and once again, Armin fell back into place behind her, mostly out of fear now that the same accident would happen again. Upon the feeling of ice dousing his shoulders and the hairs on his nape prickling, he quickly glanced over his shoulder, but for what felt like the hundredth time that night, there was nothing.

XXXXXXXX

The cabin later that night grew frigid and relentless as the fire eventually died out. The cold crept back into place, trailed its jagged nails down Armin's spine and sent shivers racing through his body. The world swirled as quickly as snow racing down with the winds during a snowstorm, but it died within the first few seconds. He incoherently mumbled something, turning to his side to snuggle into the warmth of Eren's shoulder, but sleep did not take him again. There was an odd discomfort, something that perched itself on his shoulders and sat looming there, watching his every movement, sending more shivers wracking down his spine and throughout his body.

Armin propped himself on one elbow, yawned, and rubbed his burning eyes. His stomach growled for attention once he was coherent enough to process it, and he reached out for his phone, which lay somewhere above his head on the ground. Light was shining through the window just above their heads, indicating that the snow had stopped falling and the moon was out again, gracing the lands with her life. When he reached out to his phone, something moved, shifted just out of his line of sight, and he immediately glanced up at the window.

Nothing was there, besides the thin pile of snow that had collected on the windowsill. Something was odd about it, though. He slipped out of the mass of clothes that they had all used as a makeshift blanket and wandered forward. He stared blankly at the window, still groggy, his mind completely blank besides the yearning to scramble back under the clothing and into the comforting arms of warmth. He merely stood there, though, yawned widely, and rubbed his eyes once more. After staring for an extended period of time, he regained his senses and his eyes widened.

There were long, distorted smudges on the window and a gradually fading haze, as if something had been pressing its face against the glass.

"Shit." His breath stuttered and he reached up to yank his hair. He thought for a moment, watched as the hazy cloud on the glass faded before hurrying back towards the other two. He nudged Eren's shoulder. "Eren?" He gave another gentle nudge, but something creaked in the cabin, and with a sharp glance to the door, he harshly shoved Eren. "Eren!"

"Hm?" His eyes cracked open a bit, squinted in the glare of the moonlight. "Armin?" he slurred, trying feebly to push himself up onto his shoulders. He rubbed his eyes and yawned, "What. . . ?"

"Wake Mikasa up." Armin stood back up and hurried off to the corner where he had stored his backpack and shoes. He slung it over his shoulders and straightened up, starting, "We need to -"

His voice faltered. As he glanced out the window, he could see tracks in the snow, all of which were distorted and sloppy. Eren already processed his request and lazily nudged Mikasa awake. Armin pulled on his shoes, and when he stood, he was met by Eren, who inquired grimly, "So? What'd you find?"

"I just - I don't know, Eren." At the enervated sigh, Armin insisted, "It's . . . creepy. Ominous. I don't know, but the point is, I don't think we're alone. We need to leave."

"Look, if you had another nightmare -"

"No, it wasn't just a nightmare! Look."

He pointed at the smudges, but they were gone by now, or at least imperceptible to them. But Eren did see the tracks in the snow, leading to and from their cabin. They stopped just before the window, and upon this observation, Eren turned to hesitantly ask, "Was someone. . . ?"

"Yeah."

Eren's brow furrowed. He stared a bit longer before saying with an unnerved murmur, "Okay. . . . You win."

"Good." Armin gathered up the clothes that they had used as a blanket, quickly folding them all as he said, "It's only, like, two right now. Or three, I think. We have plenty of time and daylight later to run into a village or something." He saw Mikasa stir and reached out to her. "Mikasa? Are you -?"

His words drifted off as an unsure murmur when she rolled onto her back. Her forehead shone in the moonlight with a thin sheen of sweat and he brows furrowed intensely. She moaned something, shook her head, and abruptly lurched forward to sit up. That was when she turned to retch off to the side, heaving before finally vomiting. Another moan left her, as she curled onto her side. Both Eren and Armin were speechless; it wasn't the first time they saw Mikasa sick to her stomach, no, but it was exceptionally frightening when they were being watched and, if they weren't careful, eventually hunted for their belongings.

"Mikasa?" Eren neared her, kneeled at her side, and ran a soothing hand over her shoulder. He massaged gently as he questioned, "Are you okay? Does anything hurt?"

After a long pause, she choked out, "I'm fine."

"You're not fine -"

"I am!" she irritably snapped. She started to get up, slowly, gingerly, as if every movement brought stabbing pains along with them. "I'm fine. I really am." She turned to face them. "It's just a stomach pain. I'm fine."

Armin bit his lip. "The hell was in that can earlier?"

"Who knows?" Mikasa heaved in a breath as she forced herself up onto her knees, and eventually, to her feet. "What are we leaving for, though?"

A wave of exhaustion hit Armin then; it weighed down his limbs, brought a dull ache to his chest, made him stare at Mikasa with an enigmatic countenance. It was disappointing to watch her struggle - not because it was expected of her to be pristine and robust, but because she was too damn prideful to admit to it. The way she'd refuse help, the way she'd brush off her problems, as if they were either insignificant or shameful. How far would that get her? He genuinely wondered sometimes.

"We don't like it here," Eren offered. "And chances are, there's a village not too far from here. It's not snowing, so might as well leave before it starts again."

Mikasa swayed as she stood and would have fallen if Eren wasn't gripped her upper arm. He made sure not to touch her shoulders directly, nor without extreme caution, not since the incident. She groaned, "Okay then. Grab your bags."

"Do you think you can make it?"

She paused. "I can," she reassured, but it didn't sound reassuring at all.

Regardless, they gathered up the extra clothing and shoved them into Mikasa's bag where they had gotten them from. Either way, whether they agreed to leave or not, the idea was proposed to her, and she enjoyed pleasing them, even if it meant shoving past her own problems. When Eren searched the corner where Armin had retrieved the other two backpacks, he found nothing but debris and broken glass. He rummaged through for a bit before scanning the room, even turned on the flashlight on his phone to further inspect the area.

"Where is it?"

"Hm?"

"My backpack. Where is it?"

"What do you -?"

"My fucking bag, Armin!" Armin flinched when he suddenly raised his voice. The anger in his eyes plagued him, injected him with liquid fire that would blind him. He added, "Where is it?! Where the hell -" He abruptly swiveled on his heel towards the window to address the tracks. "Ah, fuck." The sudden vehemency that had flared was already smothered, had already died down when he admitted, "I left it behind."

Armin repeated slowly, "You left your bag behind." He pinched the bridge of his nose. "You - Eren, God damn it, did you really?"

"Where else is it?! Nothing came into the cabin tonight. There's no tracks. And they would've taken your shit, too." Eren impatiently pulled on his other boot, hissed furiously when it wouldn't go past his heel, and stood up once more without bothering with it any further. "We need to go get it."

"Eren," Mikasa tried to reason, "you already made it clear that we had to leave. And we do." She cast a weary glance out the window. "Whatever's in there, you can get back later."

"I can't. Not these. I just. . . ." His fists tightened and knuckles whited. He unclenched them, having left crescent moon indents in his palms that almost dug deep enough to break skin. He licked his chapped lips, nervous now that he realized the spotlight that was put on him, and tentatively admitted, "My scrapbook's in there. And I can't just leave it. Her. I can't leave her. And the freak who's creeping around here might have her."

The intense urge to scream into the sky made itself known to Armin then. Eren was given a scrapbook when he was young, about fifteen, maybe sixteen years ago, as a present from both of his parents. He didn't value it then, being only three or four years old, but he understood the concept of it and kept it safe as they requested. He never took it into consideration until his mother fell ill when he was seven, which was the time where it dawned upon him - when he grew up earlier than he should have - that she would not be staying with him as long as she had always promised to. So he took pictures every chance he got as a child, up until he was nine when he both lost his mother and met Mikasa, and even added a few later as an adult that his father had sent him in the mail.

"Then we'll go back and get it."

Armin's eyes whited as they addressed Mikasa, with the way she stood there, slightly leaning on one leg, hunched over a tad bit, breathing shallowly, gently, having been standing far too long. She dreaded the walk to the village, they both knew it, but Eren was unable to make sacrifices. He couldn't sacrifice the things he cared about, couldn't let go of people he loves, and for that, he disregarded her suffering. It was infuriating on one hand, though incredible in the other; it was genuine, maybe even surreal depending on how one viewed it, and it made him confident that, in the same situation, Eren would go back for him.

XXXXXXXX

Although there was light now that poured in through the windows that hadn't been boarded up, it was still unfathomably dark, especially in hallways isolated from any windows at all. It seemed like a maze, almost, and while they constantly moved forward, there were always twists and turns in the way. Eren didn't realized just how quiet the building was until, considering the foreboding atmosphere that wrapped its claws around his throat. The lack of conversation drove his heart to race and his overall demeanor to become irritable, uncomfortable.

Mikasa always responded to his inquiries and always attempted to contribute to his attempts at conversation. Armin sometimes ignored them, whether it be because he's too busy needlessly fussing over worst case-scenarios that would never happen or because his mind was focused on other things that required his undivided attention. Eren could handle silence from one of them, but not both. Never both.

When they skulked through a doorway that led into the main room, now lightly lit with moonlight, Eren sighed, "Finally!" He turned to Mikasa, who failed to hide her grimace. Her face still shone with sweat, her body still shook despite becoming accustomed to the weather, and she looked pale now, perhaps nauseous, if the swaying and infrequent stutters in her footsteps told true. He asked quietly, "Do you think you can make it up there?"

"I can."

"Are you -"

"I can."

He smiled warmly at her, then switched the light from his phone ahead of him. Mikasa never did like to worry him, nor did she ever really need them help; she had always been independent, considerate, caring. Or at least tried to be. He wasn't quite too sure of the severity of her illness - some food poisoning, maybe, and she had always managed to hide the pain of cramps before. It was shameful, at some point, realizing how severely he lacked in strength, in willpower, in motivation. It invoked a sense of competition.

She followed shortly after him up the ladder, with Armin complaining about something behind them, but he didn't pay the other man any mind. He focused primarily on his backpack, knew exactly where it was, and as soon as he scrambled up from the ladder, he shone his light upon the area where he kept it. A thick block of ice slithered down his throat and burned his chest with frostbite when he saw that it was missing.

"Did you find it?" Armin asked.

Eren vigorously shook his head. His hands were trembling, now, evident in the stuttering of his light, as he confirmed, "It's gone."

First, there came the fear, the pumping of his heart that became evident, the swirling of the world crumbling around him - but that never lasted too long. Once his next scan over the area ended, he tightened his grip on his phone and seriously contemplated thrusting it against the wall with all his strength. The urge left him, however, when Armin's hand descended upon his shoulder, a soothing, caring gesture, but calm and gentle was not what he wanted.

"It's okay -"

"No, it isn't!" He stamped his foot against the molding floorboards, an action that elicited a dangerous tremor in the overhang. His voice, a snarl now, echoed as he snapped, "I don't care who took it. I'm gonna find the fucker and kick his damn teeth in!"

"Eren, please -"

"Please what, Armin?" Eren rolled his eyes when Armin shied away. "He has my scrapbook. Whoever took it has Mom now." His heart stuttered. Verbally confirming such a vile thing brought a stabbing sensation in his chest, like a hot poker stabbing through between his ribcage. He let this happen. It was his fault that he lost his scrapbook, his bad entirely, and it was his job to also take it right back. "I'm gonna find her. I don't care who took my scrapbook. I want her back."

Armin struggled a bit, his mouth opening and closing once or twice with naught but an unsure sound leaving him. Instead, Mikasa offered, "Okay. We'll find it. We'll retrace our steps and move on."

And that was exactly what they did; walked along the overhang, passed by the first door they found, and arrived at the final entrance. The door still lay where it previously was, though it was slightly askew, which bothered him more than it should have. The hallway grew darker as they plunged deep into it, until finally, all three of them had to turn the flashlights on their phones on. The wreckage wasn't too bad, now that they were revisiting and able to address the scene. Mikasa cast it a weary glance and rolled her shoulders a bit as they climbed through it.

They were required to take a few stops for Mikasa, lest they leave her behind in the dark. She suggested that they moved onward, which elicited a sharp snap from Armin; "We're not splitting up. The last thing we need is one of us getting lost and hurt in here."

Mikasa seemed surprised by the outburst, the sudden anger that filled him, something so rare to Armin, but she complied. Took a moment to rest before starting up a walk again, murmuring, "I understand."

She almost looked as if to be ashamed, most likely in herself, for bringing conflict and rousing concern. Eren didn't comment on it, though; instead, he moved onward, with Armin following closely behind him. Their footsteps echoed and the creaks of the floorboards sounded similar to sirens in their ears, but it didn't affect neither him nor Mikasa as badly as Armin. He kept glancing over his shoulder towards Mikasa, worrying himself sick, again, over scenarios that were never going to happen.

"Could you cut that out?"

Armin abruptly stopped in the middle of his brooding, though not for long. "What? Stop the fact that I'm scared right now because there's some freak roaming around in here?"

Eren gave a thoughtful hum, shrugged, then agreed, "Basically, yeah. It's creeping me out."

As they turned a corner, Armin said, "I'm not joking, you know. What are we going to do when we find someone? Kindly ask for your things back? I don't know what to do, Eren."

"I don't, either, but whatever."

"It's not just whatever -"

He hissed as his eyes came up in a flurry of fireworks, immediately reaching up to rub the dust out of them. They both knew, however, what was to come, and in the panic of the moment, Eren called out, "Mikasa?"

Through his squinted eyes, he could see Mikasa far behind them. Her flashlight bouncing along as she made a run - a fast limp, really - towards them, but the mounds of dust became dirt and rubble, and forced Eren and Armin back a few steps, lest they get crushed under the debris. Scuffling was heard above them, a desperate scratching that sped away from them at an alarming speed, which made Eren assume that he was hearing things. And that could very well be it; an illusion driven by the paranoia. The crash of the ceiling caving in echoed throughout the building, boomed in Eren's ears, sent a flurry of dust and wood chips flying up to envelope them. They were forced back several steps by the mass of debris, but it finally ended, and Eren managed to get back to his feet.

"Mikasa?" Eren inhaled a lungful of dust and was sent into a coughing fit.

Broken syllables of Mikasa's name left him as he desperately clawed through the debris. But there was too much to go through, too much dust to even breathe through, and it suffocated him, wrapped its hands around his throat and strangled him, dug its nails into his eyes, and it was Armin who had to drag him away form the mess. Once the dust had settled back upon the ground and his eyes no longer burned so terribly when he tried to keep them open, he called out again, "Mikasa?!"

"Here," came the breathless response. It was dull, muffled, but still evident. "Eren, Armin, you both go ahead. Okay?"

"No!" Eren lurched forward to claw at the debris, digging handfuls into the mountain, trying desperately to get through to her. "Mikasa, you can't - we can't just leave -"

"Eren. Please." He ceased in digging, his anger replaced now with a foreboding feeling, a sinking feeling, one that sucked him into a void and refused to let go. "My phone's about to die." That void only thickened, strangled him. "We can try and meet in the middle. There was another door back there, wasn't there? Let's shoot for that."

Eren waited for Armin's input, but it never came. The other man merely sat there, crouched in the mass of dust, staring blankly ahead of him, as if he was still trying to process exactly what had happened. But he acknowledged Eren, shrugged weakly, so he turned back to Mikasa's general direction and replied, "Yeah, all right. We'll do that."

There was a shuffling sound, a crunching of rubble, the dull thud of rocks against wood, and he knew that Mikasa was already off to fulfill the goal she had set. He offered Armin a hand, who took it immediately, and they also set off on their journey. Eren had a vague outline of where they were suppose to go - really, anywhere behind them, and any left turn they came across. Armin shuffled hastily behind him, breaths labored, hands wringing together as they shook, and all it did was increase the weight of the pressure again Eren's shoulders. There were two missions he had at hand, either hunt down his scrapbook or meet with Mikasa, and it was hard to choose between the two.

At the end of the hallway, barely visible as it stood just beyond the reach of the bright ray of light from his phone, was a staircase. Part of it near the mouth was shattered, completely broken beyond repair, and the rest of it, now molded and fragile, whined miserably when Eren set a portion of his weight upon the first step. He spared a glance towards Arming, saw the oceans in his whited eyes, both the fear and desperation that fought for dominance, and offered his hand. Armin took it and allowed himself to be led upwards, with slow, tentative steps, each one drawing another cry from the abused staircase.

A crash echoed somewhere behind them on the upper level, a dull crumble that was just barely muffled, but close enough for them to reach within a minute or so. That was when Eren let go of Armin's hand and hurried up the last few steps, sending treacherous tremors throughout the entire staircase, but it did not shatter, not even as Armin clambered up behind him. Eren's heart pumped with the distress of a hummingbird with a snapped wing, allowed the searing heat of adrenaline to rush through his veins, though it hit a sudden standstill, like a wave crashing against cliff, when Armin clutched his wrist and tried his hardest to keep him there.

"What, Armin?"

"You're not just going to blindly run up there without any way to defend yourself -"

A growl reverberated from the back of his throat, a frustrated noise, a call of despair. He harshly jerked his wrist out of Armin's grip and shoved him away. "I'm not like you, Armin! I don't need anyone to save me!"

The tears that had welled in the corners of Armin's eyes stayed there, swooned dangerously over the edge, as if they were ready to fall, ready to leave burning trails of salt that would stain such a delicate figure. He blinked them away, however, furiously now as he yelled, "Yeah, you sure as hell do, now that you're running around in a building that's practically falling apart on us trying to confront some psychopath with your backpack!"

"You don't understand, Armin."

"What don't I understand?!"

"Mom -"

"What do you care about more? Pictures of a dead woman you hardly remember or your life?"

Echoes bounced off the walls, repeated themselves in their ears, over and over again, the continuous stabbing pain of such harsh words. What made it worse, besides having to choose between two of his dearest things, the most important things in his life, was the fact that he really didn't remember his mother. He remembered how she looked like, sort of, how she wore her hair in a loose side ponytail, how she would play hide and seek with him in the linens, but not how those linens smelled, nor how gently she treated him, nor the stories she told, the meals she cooked. He murmured a small 'oh,' the vociferous nature in his desperation to take back what was his gone now, forgotten, slowly at first, like his memories of Carla.

Armin spluttered something upon the realization of what he had yelled, what he had chosen to say in such a vulnerable moment. He offered shakily, "I'm - I'm really sorry, Eren - Christ, I didn't . . . mean to. . . ."

Like a convection current that had recycled the water from the crash, through the still waters and back up to the beginnings of a wave, Eren regained his senses, ignored the needle that had pierced the most vulnerable part in his chest. He balled his hands into tight fists, snapping viciously, "Didn't mean to? Didn't mean to? The fuck kind of person are you if that's your first thing to throw out there when you're scared?"

"I - Eren, I'm trying to potentially save your life -"

"Like hell you are!" A fleeting thought became known to him then, something that could be whisked away for another time, for safer, less tragic moment. He thought better of that decision, however; he was being attacked, even humiliated, and he knew it. He added with a spiteful glare, "You know how important that scrapbook is to me. Don't you even care about me?"

"I - I do, I -" Armin threw his hands up in the air, and for a moment, it seemed as if the action was done in relinquishment. He shook his head and sighed, as if disappointed beyond a fathomable point of reason that he never assumed was possible for Eren to achieve. "You know I care. You know Mikasa does, too." Armin stamped his foot, motioned violently with his hands in the sheer ludicrousy of such an accusation. "Do you think that's still gonna get you what you want? I doesn't work on Mikasa, either!"

Eren's heart skipped a beat or so at the accuracy of the claim. "What're you -?"

"You know damn well what I'm saying. Quit being selfish, jackass!" His hand descended upon Eren's again, clutched him and tried to force him forward with all his strength, though it only drew a very small step. "We need to find Mikasa and leave. She'll faint eventually, when she's already been throwing up and can't find water."

Eren refused to listen; he refused to acknowledge the truth in them, refused to acknowledge that Mikasa, his saviour once upon a time and his beautiful sister that had never let him down before, was weak. It was a frightening thought. Mikasa, a powerhouse that knew no bounds, on the verge of passing out and perhaps dying of dehydration if they do not find a water source soon enough. Instead, he once again yanked his hand away from Armin's and continued onwards in a full sprint. The flames that enveloped his heart fueled him, sent his limbs shaking but still efficiently carrying him where he needed to go.

It hurt, almost, to consider that he was selfish. Selfish. A vile word, a disgusting trait of a person, and he refused to acknowledge it. He knew he wasn't selfish and refused to allow himself to be called such a thing. There was no remorse left for his actions, nor did he ever force himself to apologize; he was never in the wrong. It wasn't his fault that Mikasa went out and got herself knocked up by some random guy she hit off well with at the gym. It wasn't his fault that said random guy was a complete asshole that had somehow infatuated her. Why should Eren allow such a man to ruin her life, especially while she was still recovering from her past abusive relationship with a blonde, hook-nosed woman who beat her?

They drained her of her energy, occupied a majority of her time, left her enervated past the desire to even attempt holding a conversation for more than a few seconds. They had always been together, had shown nothing but love and support after their parents died. Who said someone can walk along and ruin the tranquility? It wasn't fair. It wasn't his fault that he wanted to preserve such a cheerful, peaceful life. It wasn't his fault that some bastard took his bag, took the most valuable belonging he had, one that he would sometimes look over with Mikasa on those rare nights. Who had any right to take that away from them?

He slowed to a stop at the first door that appeared to his left. As he reached out for the doorknob, Armin latched onto his arm, heaving laborious breaths. Instead of pulling his arm away, however, Armin wheezed, "Won't you at least warn me before you go running off like that?"

Eren allowed Armin a moment to catch his breath, replying, "I'm not a kid anymore. I don't have to warn you about anything."

Armin pulled away, the furrow in his brow still evident, a snap underlying his tone, "It's more for myself, you know. Jesus Christ, I can't keep doing this. . . ."

"Who's the selfish one now?"

"Oh? I thought you didn't want to be looked after like a little kid."

"Fuck off, Armin."

The doorknob stubbornly refused to turn in its socket, though fussing with it with harder twists and turns, it finally opened. A long creak issued from its hinges as it was pushed open, allowing him entrance to a room with a window in it. The moonlight shone through the window and dimly illuminated the room, enough for him to see its contents after taking a moment for a minor adjustment. This room, similar to many others, was small, littered with rubble, held a few molded bookshelves against the walls - and, in the corner, there was movement.

It was a secluded corner, one that only had enough enough light to reveal the silhouette of a hunched figure. It seemed to be humanoid, but it was large, the arch of its spine far too high to be that of a human. Eren took a step back, then another, glancing over his shoulder with a hesitant query, "Armin?"

He looked back, naught but two or three seconds later, only for his breath to fully cease and for the claws of fear to seize his body with paralysis. In the moonlight crouched this creature, lowly as if ready to pounce, with its shoulders popping up dangerously far from its collar and its pallid skin indenting deeply within the ridges of its spine. The lack of movement invoked a chill to race down his back, branching off from his shoulders and chest, though his mind still ran wild. Past the initial shock was the metallic screeching, the sirens that went off, the alarms that started to scream when he felt his eyes start to water, but he couldn't dare take his eyes off the entity.

Between both upraised shoulders and the large, outstretched hands that sported mangled fingertips, was its face, shadowed by the low dip in which its head had sunk to. Its eyes, bulging from its sullen sockets, never left his, and it kept him there, standing there, waiting, watching, his eyes burning, body freezing, and for eternity, all was still. It never moved, even under the stress at the abnormal, almost revolting disfigurement in its joints. That was until a scream pierced him, one that he realized, once he had came out of the trance that had put him in a constant state of unfathomable terror, that Armin was right behind him.

Armin took a fistful and forced him backwards, pleading something, but even so, Eren never took his eyes off the creature. It was only a matter of seconds overall, really, even though the earth had stopped rotating on its axis in his mind, but it started up its constant motion again, and he was again capable of thought. Or maybe it was instinct, rather, that he had chosen to focus on. The entity inched forward, slowly, unnaturally still despite the motion, and Eren knew it would pounce. He knew, with a glance to its jagged teeth, bared from the muscles of its lips contorting back into a constant grimace that mirrored the lips of a corpse entering rigor mortis, that there was nowhere to run now, not in such a close proximity.

Its teeth, uneven and discolored from rot, remained constantly exposed from the muscle around the distorted gums being stretched up along its swollen cheekbones similarly to plastic wrap. And suddenly, when the metallic screeching of nails on a chalkboard had ceased, he finally heard Armin's voice. His eyes finally left the entity, and upon addressing Armin, realized with a sudden standstill in the swirling of panic in his head; he wanted to live.

He was also more important.

Eren pulled Armin forward, then shoved him towards the entity. The force of it caused him to stumble backwards a bit, until he was over the threshold and away from the madness within the room. Even when he tucked his phone into his parka, the moonlight still graced them, still watched as the scene played out.

"Eren!"

The screech pierced him, left a bell ringing in his ears.

"Eren! Eren, please!"

His knees, trembling horribly like the string of a guitar, nearly gave out beneath him. The screeching in his ears intensified, mirrored that of a pig in a slaughterhouse, with both the desperation and fear of a helpless animal. The splattering of liquid roused a heavy onslaught of nausea, as the revoltingly wet ripping and grinding of flesh tore down every wall within his mind through sheer vehemence. Eren, movements stuttering and mechanical, pushed himself away from the area, away from the screaming that, by now, had escalated to a piercing screech that sounded too pitched to be human, too metallic to be real.

He wasn't aware of his movements, not fully, not when he could only stare ahead of him into the darkness. It was necessary. There was things he needed to do, something to find, someone to live for. People to protect, places to visit. People that Armin couldn't protect, places that Armin would have never bothered visiting. He breathed erratically - deeply, but still quite erratically - as he was forced onto his feet by some corner of his mind that had not shut down just yet. He stumbled a bit, fell back to his knees and accidentally slammed his forehead against the wall, though the pain of it was numbed by the pumping of adrenaline, similar to a shot of ecstasy, through his veins.

Behind him, once he had approached the staircase at the other end of the hallway leading upstairs, the noises stopped, and the building grew tranquil once more. But the tranquility was a blissful lie; he could hear the scuffling quickly approaching him, and that in itself urged him on to sprint faster, if possible, to run as if the ground were on fire beneath him. That was until, in the short view in his phone light, another humanoid figure appeared.

This one, however, was Mikasa, and if he hadn't reacted quickly enough, he would have slammed right into her.

She slumped against him, groaning, "Eren? Where's -"

"No time."

The darkness suffocated him, enveloped him closely enough to smother him, as if pressing a pillow against his nose, and the only thing gasping for air did was further deplete his oxygen supply. Mikasa stared at him, unsure as to what he meant, but she didn't protest. He took her hand in his and started off to another sprint, one that slowed down a bit when she lagged behind, murmured something, struggled to keep up, and for a moment, he wished that she could continue to keep up her facade, even if it was only for a minute. That she could push past the pain, past the discomfort, past the nausea for the sake of getting out of there alive.

Suddenly, the ground beneath him shook violently, nearly tripped him as it shattered. The floorboards crumbled and swallowed Mikasa whole, the darkness beneath yawning widely, and she let go of him, too weak to try, reflexes too lethargic in the haze of her sickness to react quickly enough. The wall itself caved in from the rot, filled the air with dust and an odd moisture, a thickness that weaved through his lungs and squeezed. He stumbled backwards, coughed hoarsely, and stared into the abyss that had claimed his sister. He let out a shrill noise, a brief one, a distressed call in the darkness. His attention snapped upwards, however, when he heard the scratching of nails against wood approaching him at an alarming rate, he had no choice but to dart into the other direction.

XXXXXXXX

Rocks thudded dully as they collided with the decrepit floorboards. The dust bloomed in the atmosphere and clung to every surface it could find, until the large cloud of it eventually settled on the ground along with the wood chips and mold. There was a muted thumping in the distance, one that faded shortly after she had processed it. With a deep breath, she hauled herself out from beneath the debris. Dust sunk its claws into her throat and tore it apart, stinging her with each swallow, caking her lips with it and refusing to leave even as she licked them.

Every movement lit flames in her abdomen, ones that sparked and burst with each methodical stab. Everything spun as she dragged herself along, her movements mechanical now, her eyes sealed shut and burning with the dust that had gotten into them. Wood chips tore through her layers of clothing and painfully dug into her, though they did not pierce through enough layers to draw blood. It was a mere pinch to her, however, compared to the hot coal that had slipped into her stomach and started to burn through with each long haul forward. Her tongue begged for water, lips ached and throat cried for mercy, until she eventually reached a large puddle.

The moisture against her fingertips dazed her; she let out a weak moan as she landed face-first into the water, into the gift the Gods had graced her with in her time of need. Mikasa took a few desperate gulps, allowing the liquid to smooth over her lips, past her tongue, and into her parched throat. The dust tasted horrible, bland, almost made her gag, but the strong stench of iron filled her nostrils, and she pushed herself up to sit on her knees. She furiously rubbed her eyes, her stomach, still being seared open by the hot coal within, churned. She lurched forward and dry heaved, each wretch eliciting another stabbing pain in her abdomen, until she finally released the bile from her throat.

Iron took control of her, accompanied with a scent similar to feces, and it filled her with nausea, until her eyes managed to adjust to the dull lighting. The moonlight shone through the window, gentle as it caressed her face, elucidating her surroundings with a delicate whisper. Mikasa glanced down in the pool she was sat in, rubbed her fingers together over the slimy liquid, until her senses gradually took back control of her feverish body. Her mouth tasted strongly of the canned fruit she had eaten hours prior. She glanced around in the room, at the oddly slimy, burgundy liquid, until she glanced directly next to her.

There Armin lay, eyes glaring up at the ceiling, still rimmed with tears and splattered with blood.

His clothing, drenched in blood and clinging desperately to his mutilated body, had been completely removed down his middle in one jagged-rimmed pit. Blue snakes lolled out of the pit of his bowels, pooling with a dull mixture of blood and excrement alike, the mushy texture glistening wetly in the moonlight. Towards the few claw marks on his chest, there was a lump, an unnaturally large kink occupying the area between his ribcage where his heart should be. A thick, white liquid oozed from the opening, which was clouded with torn muscle and flesh.

"Armin. . . ?"

Her hand, with seemingly a mind of its own, reached out to touch him, in some sort of sick, demented illusion that maybe, hopefully, he was alive. That maybe, she would not be able to touch him, that the swirling of her head and the nausea she felt were signs of her waking up from this disgusting nightmare. It didn't happen, however; as soon as she applied a light amount of pressure to the bulge in his chest, the clogged opening in his chest cavity burst open with the sloshing of tearing flesh. A murky pile of ooze spurted out into the cave of his belly, the kink in his chest emptying to reveal a pulsing sac of eggs, wrapped loosely with a slimy membrane.

A scream would have left her, but she instead scrambled away to curl up and dry heave harshly. She vomited over her front as she crawled over to the doorway, left wide open for anyone to come and go as they please, and struggled to her feet like a newborn foal. She retrieved her phone from her pocket, felt her eyes burn at the ominous three percent that shone on the top right corner, but still turned on the flashlight anyways. The world spun around her, as if she had been sucked into an endless void. The abyss slammed its hands upon her shoulders, left the bruises there crying, her abdomen screaming, her mind screeching, her entire being enveloped by the pain and shock of it all.

She approached a staircase, where she leaned against the railing in the middle for full support. It didn't quite matter that it threatened to give out beneath her, that it took her an extended period of time to haul herself upwards. Her focus sporadically faded, only to come back to her again, as if it was taunting her, forcing her to stay awake through willpower alone. God knew where she was by now; she leaned against the wall, moaned out a small profanity as she wrapped her arms around her abdomen.

The wood she had leaned her weight against cracked and fell apart, a motion that sent the entire wall groaning, the building itself threatening to fall apart on her. She dropped her phone in the process, though she didn't bother reaching for it again. Clouds crept into her vision, and she rolled onto her side. Those clouds rolled right out of view, however, as a pair of hands gripped her by the arms and pulled her out of the small pile of debris.

Above her, in her dazed mind and her clouded vision, she could make out Eren's features. The sweat that covered his forehead, the erratic rising and falling of his chest, the whited eyes, the way he had gone impossibly still. She murmured, "Eren? Are you okay?"

He didn't bother responding. His painfully tight hold around her never faltered. She tried again, "Eren. Eren."

She noticed that he had been staring off into the hallway, into the looming darkness, as it slowly enveloped them both. She tried to turn her head to look, as well, but his hand moved up to weave into her hair and press her face against his chest. "Don't," he breathed. "Please. Don't." She could feel how badly he was trembling now. "I'm sorry." Did she hear that correctly? She tried to look over her shoulder again, but his hold around her merely tightened. "I'm really, really sorry. Okay?"

His voice broke towards the end of his sentence. Breathing became too laborious in such a tight space, her mind too nebulous and hazy from the constant pain that, curiously enough, she was starting to become numb to. His thumb soothingly caressed her temple, eased her further into the blissful tranquility of unconsciousness that waited to claim her. Her voice was barely imperceptible as she queried, "Are you going to be okay?"

He took a deep breath. "You will, yeah."

"But will you? Will we?"

For a long time, Eren didn't answer. By the time she had already started to drift away, however, he replied softly, "It won't hurt anymore, Mikasa. I promise."
Sign up to rate and review this story