„I never run away."

xXx

Phew, this one didn't want to be written!

First time writing for Attack on Titan, so please bear with me if anything seems too strange.

Also, please tell me if it was easy to read in terms of flow? I usually evade present tense like the devil himself when I write any story, but it simply fit better than past tense with this one, so...? What do you think? This one is pretty much an experiment meant to further improve my writing skills.

Also I might have overdone it with this thing... I never put that much effort into stylistic devices before. I circled around 30 times before all the references and backcircling and parallels were just that way and honestly I'm spent right now. (My old german teacher would be proud of me though. She'd have a field day discovering all the hidden meanings and subthemes.) I hope it's become good enough for a few people to enjoy!

Uh, spoilers, I guess? I kept it vague though and only a few of the later parts could theoretically spoil something, but they are embedded in purely fanmade ideas so I hope it can be read without spoiling anyone season 4.

And lastly, for those not familiar with me/my stories, I don't do ships, so everything you read below wwas intended as platonic, but can be seen as romance if you believe who a character lusts after is more important than their personality or their deeds. (Kidding, ship away if you want, I simply don't do it. Just wanted to add a line on it to clear some things up.)

xXx

The first time Armin sees death he runs away.

It might have been stupid, but to his young child's mind it made perfect sense to run.

Looking back he can still feel the shiver running down his spine. He can picture the face of his grandmother all too vividly. She lies there, at the bottom of the stairs, face pulled into a tight and painful grimace. Her eyes are hollow.

He remembers letting out a blood curling scream and barging out of the door. He remembers crashing into a merchants cart and the angry screams following him while he's fleeing across the busy streets.

He doesn't remember how far he ran or even where. He collapsed somewhere in the middle of the forest – which one he still doesn't know – with his breath hitching and his legs burning.

When he wakes up it's to see his father sitting by his bedside, tussled ashen hair hanging into his almost black eyes – looking so horribly much like her and not at all like his son – and biting back tears. It's stupid, Armin remembers himself thinking, why shouldn't someone who lost his mother cry?

"Promise me, Armin", his father whispers softly. "Never run away again. Never."

Armin cries for both of them that night.

Armin had never been strong.

He was quick, in body but even more so with his mind.

He remembers the exhilaration upon discovering books, even when it becomes dampened after only two blissful years of being able to read when he found that book. His parents were angry at first, but when they saw his sincere apology they soften and tell him about the outside world.

It gets him beaten up almost daily, but he never runs away. He doesn't hit back. You shouldn't be mean to someone because you know more than they do, his parents had once told him. He knows about the outside world. They only know their small cage. If being a dreamer made him a heretic he would have to be alright with it. He had tasted the sweet poison called freedom and he wouldn't let go that soon. He never regrets reading about all those incredible wonders.

He only regrets there is no one he can talk to about his books.

Eren was strong.

Armin remembers seeing the boy a few times, standing in the shadow, his eyes so horribly confused. What was it he was confused about?

Everyone knew Armin dreamed about the outside world. Adults gave him head-shakes in passing, told his parents they shouldn't worry, it was certainly only a phase. They nod and smile and tell him not to listen. "I don't lose", he tells the stranger. "Because I never run away."

Then Eren's there and suddenly Armin has someone who dreams with him. He tells Eren about the world outside, about mountains so high they scratch the sky or those that spew liquid fire that becomes rock when it cools. He tells Eren about his parent's plans when the time comes. Eren listens with glistening eyes and dreams with him.

Eren takes the blows meant for Armin without complaining. Armin's dream becomes their dream and for the first time Armin has a friend. Then there's Mikasa and his world grows again. She doesn't dream with them, but she makes sure they stay safe. "We would be doomed without Mikasa", he jokes one day and no one says anything for a long time.

His father's voice contradicts those of everybody around him, telling him to run as fast as he can. His loyalty tells him to run after Eren and Mikasa but his feet won't move. He grabs at the air behind them, begging them not to run away without his mouth opening. All around him people run. Giant figures invade the city like a horde of rats. He stares and shivers and can't ever move an inch.

When he runs, it isn't to get away from the titans. It is to get Hannes. Because Hannes is a soldier and soldiers are supposed to protect people. He runs as fast as his still sore legs can carry him. Because that are Eren and Mikasa running towards the danger – Eren and Mikasa who maybe wouldn't have been so close to the titan attack if Armin didn't have to run here like a maniac – and they are his friends and he can't let them die. He remembers fleeing into his grandfather's arms aboard the ship and praying. He doesn't know to who – to that Christian God who is supposed to bring salvation and forgive everyone's sins and whose teachings are never to be taken by word or to that old Greek gods he only read about in a handful of texts but still held them in a special place in his heart. He even prays to the God that erected the walls and who isn't ever given a name.

He remembers staring out at the masses, looking desperately for Eren and Mikasa.

He remembers the weight falling fro his chest when he sees them. But he doesn't really see them until his grandfather advises to leave them alone for the time being. He hopes Eren won't become a slave to his sorrow.

The survey corps was difficult and different as well.

New faces and motives, feelings and clashing personalities. He's being thrown in a giant storm that will clip away at him ever so slowly. He knows he has to become a soldier if he wants to go outside, if he wants to live, if he wants to help Eren and everyone else.

But he is afraid, so afraid. He doesn't want to end up as the soldiers he saw most of the time (those soldiers so unlike strong and friendly Hannes), hard and cold. He doesn't want to be useless like they are called on a daily basis.

Clenching his teeth he rejects Reiner and forces his stumbling legs – how could it be that he didn't even build up a single ounce of muscle after all that work on the fields those last years – to move underneath him. He feels the eyes drilling in his back, knows he's the only one in danger of failing so far. But he's used to those eyes. Letting out a silent scream at the world he picks up his pace and manages to keep up with the rest. He won't fail. He won't be a burden. Nobody would ever have to run back for him. Not Eren, not Mikasa – nobody.

Eren is eaten and Armin's silent scream turns into an anguished howl. He knows it's broken free from his chest and tries to ease it down. There's nothing wrong with crying, he knows, but even he himself can hear how terrifying his agonized howl sounds. Even the titans seem to still for a moment. (Surely it has to be his imagination.)

Then Mikasa is gone and Armin is left behind and he feels like he's run away even though he hasn't moved an inch.

Eren's back and Armin stands in the crosshairs of a dozen weapons. He knows there's more. Suddenly he longs for his swords, the swords he can't even use properly, but he knows it's the only way.

He stands tall in front of certain death and salutes, raising his voice, demanding everyone in the vicinity to hear the proud shouting blaring within.

He doesn't budge even as the command to shoot is given.

Only when a fatherly voice praises him does he fall back into himself, does he remember he's nothing but a lowly cadet trying to play big bad soldier – he doesn't even like big bad soldiers.

Then they're taking back Trost and Eren's not listening and he doesn't know if his friend is gone or not.

When he runs, it isn't to get away. He rockets through the air as if he'd never done anything else in his life

Then Eren is back and Armin can breath again.

People often wear masks to hide who they really are, his grandfather had said once when Armin remarked a man's false smile in passing. Sometimes it's better not to dig deeper, he'd advised in that soft, low tone that always made Armin freeze on whatever he had been doing to listen to the old man. He had stories to share, stories about the outside world and about humans and humanity – because there was a difference there. Armin loved listening to him.

But he couldn't help digging, not when he saw the belt – the belt he was so familiar with, the one worn by a young man with a wide, smiling face and freckles and that nice laugh that always seemed to brighten up the world...

First it's Annie and his world breaks. When he hears about Reiner, Bertholt and Ymir he almost sobs. When it's Krista he stares at the bunk of his bed, wishing desperately for the whole world to vanish. No matter how long he lays there, he can never find it in him to sleep.

Those days he flees his bed, but he can never run away far enough to make a difference. He wouldn't anyway. It's not Eren anymore who he turns to. It's Jean, in all his apparently simple nature, who understands and reaches out when Armin collapses at the foot end of his bed, pulling him under covers and holding him close without trapping him. Only during those times does Jean keep his awfully honest mouth shut. There are no words needed between them anymore.

They both know the responsibility they took onto themselves in trying to lead their squadmates.

Jean also remembers that horrible day, that day where Armin might have lost it if he had been alone.

Jean never jokes about Armin hiding against his body and he never tries touching him. Especially not his chest. For that Armin decides he might just love him a little. He's become family too.

His mind went blank after Shiganshina.

He had killed before, but knowing he ate a man – a former comrade – was enough to make his stomach churn to no end.

He had beged Jean to tell him, tell him everything. He knew Bertholt had begged for his life when Armin's jaws had closed around him. He knew Erwin was dead because of him. Just how much pain had he brought to this world?

He could allow himself to focus on those things. Those were safe – horrible and repulsing, but still safe.

Jean looked at him with unreadable eyes when he found Armin desperately shying away from a candle. He didn't say anything, merely went forward and smothered the tiny flame out of existence.

There was nothing to talk about. Did it hurt?

Remembering the heat burning through his flesh Armin couldn't keep the helpless whimper inside.

Jean sits next to him and looks into the starry nightsky. "If all those stars are really suns" - and Armin hadn't meant to tell anybody that yet, it was the last thing he'd ever heard from his parents. They shouldn't worry about the stars being suns and there being so many more planets and probably so many more lives out there until they at least knew about the outside of the walls. Sadly he apparently had developed a habit of sleeptalking those nights where he couldn't sleep on his own from agitation, ergo the nights he spent with Jean - "Do you think they have different sunsets?"

And that surprises Armin so much he starts laughing. He didn't expect a question about the vastness of the universe from Jean or anything philosophic at all. "Didn't take you for such a romantic", he notes quietly, and they both know it's no teasing.

Jean smiles at the sky softly. "We have to take joy in the little things, right? Or we'll all go mad. Just look at Sasha, she's the glue holding all of us together. She's really something else."

Wind starts picking up around the small camp. Armin rises slowly and relights the candle. He focuses on the beauty of the flame, marveling at the color and the warmth it generated. He could still feel the burning in his flesh, still felt his nerves blazing, but during that moment it was just a little prick of warmth. A gently reminder that there was more out there.

"I wonder if suns can have other colors", he settles for after a long pause. "Can you imagine a sky lit up like a rainbow? Every day?"

And again Jean doesn't tease him – because yes, Armin does like vibrant colors and beautiful things – but he looks at the flame too and grins. "Hey, perhaps they all have dull, gray suns and we're the only ones who have a yellow sun and blue skies."

Armin leans his head into the older boy's shoulder and relaxes. There's a steady heartbeat underneath his ear, slowly lulling him to sleep.

The next morning Jean is sore all over. Someone throws a comment about the two of them and Jean breaks the man's nose. Armin can't even be mad.

"Why do you try to die so hard?"

Connie's voice is muffled by his tears. It's only the two of them staring up at the titan who was once Connie's mother. When Armin doesn't answer – because what is the point of his question, he didn't want to die? - his friend sighs and closes his eyes. "You are always ready to throw your life away, aren't you? I swear, you are as bad as Eren. Do you really want to run away from life that badly?"

And Armin almost chokes then, almost cries out about how he never runs, but he can't not think about Connie's words.

He loves life and he loves living. But if his life were the only thing which could save their friends, their countries – the whole, wide world even – then why should he keep it?

"I believed it was necessary." The desperate scream within him grows ever louder.

Connie doesn't say anything. He stares at his hands and Armin recognizes the hardened set of his eyes. He's seen it in the mirror after he killed the woman that day. (The whispers still won't leave him alone. He didn't even hesitate, shot a woman point blank! A woman at that! And he doesn't understand, for all his supposed intelligence he doesn't understand why killing a woman is worse than killing a man. He would have killed whoever stood above Jean that day because Jean was his friend and he couldn't have let him die. What kind of person did that make him?)

"I would have been the one to kill you", Connie whispers and Armin understands that at least. Because Connie wouldn't have killed a stranger to save his friend, he would have killed a friend to save his mother and how could he ever have lived with that guilt?

"Sorry", he whispers back.

And Connie cries and rages at the world, spewing out the names of all those who made their lives a living hell and smashing his fists into the wall until they bleed.

He doesn't tell Connie that it wouldn't have been his fault if he died because he wouldn't have been the one to do the killing. Connie would have been guilty just as much as Armin was guilty of killing Erwin. (Tears fall on his face freely now, reminding him that he now was the one to bear the face of humanities worst nightmare. Even Eren couldn't hide the fear and hate those first times Armin practiced transforming and took that form. He's glad he can't see himself, doesn't have to see himself wearing the skin of the creature that broke down the wall that day and killed Karla and- He forces the thought to end.) He only takes Connie's hands in his own and stops the bleeding, careful not to meet his eyes as he wraps the scarred fingers which had saved him so many times. (Which he sent to their certain death so often while he stayed behind and planned and schemed from a safe distance. Had he become even more of a coward without noticing?)

"When I saw you that day it felt as if somebody ripped my heart out", Connie confesses ever so slowly. "You were always so good to us and if you had died... and it looked so painful and... I'm glad you're alive. Don't throw your life away that easily, okay?" His arms shiver and he's shaking his arms every few seconds as if he hurt something by tackling Armin out of the air.

And Armin nods and assures him he won't. "Don't tell Mikasa", he pleads. Don't tell Eren goes unsaid. Perhaps Armin also doesn't want to take the chance of Eren not caring anymore.

In the end they leave the titan – the poor creature who even in this form still recognized her son but couldn't speak or even think enough to still be anything but a shell of his mother – and ride back, knowing their future looks worse with every passing second.

Then there's Eren, spreading his arms, looking like that child from what feels like a lifetime ago. He's smiling, sending an ache through Armin's chest. He almost cries right then and there, begging his friend to come home, just come home, he couldn't lose him too...!

"We're here at last", Eren beams, looking at the blood being shed below them. "This is that sight." It isn't. These aren't the frozen plains. These aren't the snowfields on sand. And the ever growing river of red isn't anything like the flaming oceans he's read of.

Eren looks so happy. He hasn't looked that happy since that faithful day in Shiganshina, not even when they saw the sea and Armin understood for the first time that maybe, maybe telling Eren so much about the outside world had been a mistake after all. He had become a slave to his desire for freedom – wasn't that just ironic?

"Right, Armin?", Eren finally asks, turning to his childhood friend.

When the vision is gone Armin wants to break down bawling, but he can't, because there are people here depending on him. He can't afford to break, he has to show them he was the right choice. Erwin. Marco and Sasha. Names and faces come to his mind and flutter away almost before he can picture them.

Eren was a force of nature, a hurricane tearing down everything in it's way. This time, it would have to be Armin's task to plant himself into the ground, a giant facing down the hurricane. It was his time to look up and tell Eren only one thing: Move. Armin's internal scream turned into a defiant roar, rising up and above, encompassing the whole world. Blue eyes stared at the sea, the wonderful sea he wanted to see with Eren. Curling his toes into the ground he anchored himself, roaring out a challenge only the Coordinate could hear. Don't you know, Eren? Those guys never could prove me wrong so they beat me down. If you want me to back away you'll have to do something more than that! But he doesn't want him to.

It might have been silly, but to his inner child it made perfect sense. And we won't do it either. There's another way. I know. After all, did I ever lie to you, Eren?

When he speaks to the unlikely ally his words are not directed at them – they are directed solely at Eren.

"I still want to believe there's a world we don't know about yet out there... Past the walls."

He begs Eren to listen in his mind, screams at him to look at me. Because he was never running away. He ran towards death so often, and this time, he would run wherever he had to.

Whatever it took to save Eren.