Icarus & I

Ineffectual As Ever

Despite Marco's and my efforts, the air was still tense in the car by the time we reached El Paso.

Jean had calmed considerably since lunchtime, but he still scowled every time he caught a glimpse of Mikasa and Eren. Likewise, Eren kept sneaking glances at Jean, as if checking to make sure he wasn't causing any trouble. Mikasa flat-out ignored him, even when he spoke directly to her.

He'd apologized, of course. Neither Marco nor I would leave him alone until he did, even though he was scared they wouldn't accept his apology. Mikasa had nodded in grudging forgiveness; Eren had stiffly shaken his hand.

As another result of their fight, everyone kept asking if I was okay, how my nose felt, etc. It was, in a word, annoying. But understandable, all the same. I was used to it, anyway.

It got me thinking. Why did people feel such a need to protect me? Even strangers were willing to stand up for me, I'd learned.

The answer, of course, was simple, but I couldn't make it make any sense in my mind. I was a thin, pale blond boy with girlish features, a tendency to cry a lot, and a polite demeanor. I was almost the image of innocent, or helpless, in a way.

On the other side of that, I was considerably wise. I would even say that I was more mature than most people my age. I was intelligent and strong-willed when I needed to be. What was there to protect in that?

Why was I someone to be protected? Yes, I was an image of weakness, and yes, I needed protection, but why couldn't I be as strong as anyone else? How did anyone know whether the nerd they were defending could defend himself?

I knew I was being ridiculous, of course. People protected me for the same reason men avoided hitting women. That was it. Heroic instinct.

I suppose I was just frustrated. The most I'd ever protected in my life were a couple of children, once. Never anyone as capable as Eren or Mikasa. I did prevent Eren from hurting Jean too much, sure, but even when I'd stood directly between them, I'd been too weak to last long.

This belonged in my journal, anyway. Why wasn't I writing?

"You should write that down," Marco said. I jumped.

"How did you-"

"It's easy to tell when you're thinking, especially about yourself. Mikasa told me about your journal. There's no point in it if you don't record your thoughts, right?"

"Right."

I promptly opened my composition book and began to add what I'd just thought.

"So Marco," I began when I finished, "how can you tell when I'm thinking about myself?"

"You're face gets really serious when you're thinking," he answered, "and you start messing with your hair when you get self-conscious. I put two and two together."

"Huh." I played with my hair? Since when?

"It's girly, right?" said Eren from the front. It was the first thing he'd said in an hour.

"I don't think so," Marco disagreed.

"Speaking of which, did you think Armin was a girl when you first met him?"

Marco studied me. I knew my face had become flushed. I hated it when Eren brought this up.

"If I'm being honest, I wasn't sure," he said. "His eyebrows and flat chest kind of ruined the image."

Eren snorted. the sound was good to hear.

"I used to make him wear Mikasa's dresses when we were little. He was pretty."

My face was red hot. "Cut it out, Eren."

"Well, you were," Mikasa added, half-joking. I turned away, half mortified, half ecstatic. She was talking now, too.

"I'd bet you were," Marco agreed. Now he was in on it?

"Ugh," I groaned, hiding my face. "If I cut my hair, would you all shut up?"

There was a silence. I looked up, and then immediately wished I hadn't.

Eren's jaw was dropped mockingly. He looked around with a hand on his mouth, slapping the other hand on his knee with feigned excitement.

"Armin said the 'S' word!" he exclaimed.

"Shut up, Eren!"

"There he goes again!"

"I'm telling your grandpa," Mikasa warned.

"Let's calm down, now," said Marco. "Armin, wash your mouth out with soap."

I hid my face again. "Oh, my gosh."

"Did you just take the Lord thy Gosh's name in vain?"

The joking stopped. We all looked at Jean, who'd made the last crack.

Eren's face was simply shocked. Marco was grinning from ear to ear. Mikasa stared blankly at him from the mirror.

I cracked first. Soon enough, we all were laughing, even Mikasa.

"Armin's going to Heck!" gasped Eren.

"Gosh help him!" Mikasa choked between chuckles.

"Save him from eternal dangnation!"

"Shut up, guys, seriously!"

"The-...Ther…...There he….!"

At this point, no one could finish their joke.

Even if it was at my own expense, the tension had been washed away. This entire time, I had been wondering whether, in the end, we'd drop Jean and Marco off as strangers or friends. It was immeasurably pleasing to find that this was my answer.


As a polite gesture (and upon my insistence), Eren gave up his rights to the radio. Quietly convincing him without alerting Jean had been a challenge, to say the least; when I brought up the subject, he'd almost screamed in outrage. Nevertheless, I reminded him that he would have the radio the entire rest of the trip, and that Jean needed a real sign that we forgave him. Partly because my argument made sense and partly because Eren surprisingly has a pretty big heart, he said fine.

After a stop for Mikasa to restock her food supply (at a suspicious-looking store with what looked like several health code violations), Jean switched seats with Marco so he could rest his head properly. This arrangement made it so that Jean and I were seated next to each other, close enough to have our own conversation without having to raise our voices.

"So Armin," he said after a couple of minutes of attempted rest, "what's your family like?"

What a trivial question, I thought. He must have been bored. Still, I was happy to answer it.

"My mom's a botanist," I said. "And a part-time post secondary teacher."

"A teacher's assistant?"

"No, a college professor," I corrected, thinking of how to describe her. "She's small and dark-haired, I guess. She's a very organized woman, a planner. She can seem a little stoic at times, but she's a very loving mother and wife."

"How about your dad?" Jean asked, genuinely curious, to my surprise.

I thought. "He's a therapist, but he teaches at the university part-time, too. He looks a lot like me, tall. skinny, and fair, even though I have Mom's nose. He's very protective of my emotions, to the point where it's almost smothering. He likes to joke, too. He sets up these elaborate pranks when he has the time, and God help you if you're his target."

Jean was smiling now. I wonder if this was how Marco felt earlier, swept into the images in his head, unable to stop himself.

"Got any siblings?" he asked.

I shook my head. "I almost had a baby brother, once," I said. "Miscarriage."

"Oh."

"But," I added, sorry I'd mentioned anything, "I have a cousin. We were close when we were younger."

His smile, to my relief, returned. "Tell me about them."

"Her name's Brianna," I told him. "She goes by Bri. Extremely competitive, especially towards me. She lived with my family and I up until the sixth grade, when she moved back in with her mom, my aunt. We keep up with one another."

"That's really nice," Jean remarked with sincerity.

Before he could ask anything else, I asked, "What's your family like?"

For whatever reason, this question caught him off guard. He stumbled for a second, trying to fight his obviously blank mind for answers, but he eventually came up with something.

"I live with my mom," he said. "My pops serves in the Air Force, but he travels without us."

"What's your mom like?"

He rolled his eyes. "Smothering. She babies me one minute, paddles me the next. She doesn't know how to knock, either."

I frowned. "So she just walks in? What if you're changing?"

He snorted. "That doesn't scare her. Once, she confronted me in the shower. She says that she changed my diapers and whatever, so it makes no difference, but it kind of does?"

My face flushed at the thought. "Ugh, that's so bad."

"Your mom doesn't do anything like that?"

I shook my head. "She'd never. My parents have always been about personal space and giving me room to grow and the like."

Jean sighed. "That sounds nice. Consider yourself lucky."

"I do," I assured him. "I mean, it's a little….empty sometimes, but I'm glad for it all the same."

"Empty?" he repeated. "What's that supposed to mean?"

I shrugged, wishing I hadn't said anything about it. "Just lonely, I guess. I really don't mean to complain, though. I've always had Eren and Mikasa to keep me company."

He chuckled. "Sounds like you've got a good balance. I, on the other hand, have three parents: Ma, Dad, and Mohandas Gandhi over there," he said, gesturing towards Marco.

"So how long have you and he been friends?" I asked.

"Since daycare at church, from what we've heard," he said. "Ma and Mom- I mean, his mom- gush all about how we'd hang out as babies. Marco liked to hit kids. I stole everyone's toys right out of their hands. According to the available witnesses, we were quite the unstoppable team."

My smile was growing wider with every word. This was enjoyable. "How was he, growing up?"

Jean scoffed. "This is sounding like an interview, but whatever, I'll answer. Marco as a little kid, from what I can remember, was annoying. He was a crybaby. Towards, like, third grade, he started to get annoying because everyone liked him. Even worse, our moms set us up on playdates regularly, and he lived just down the road, so we were automatic friends. Next to him, I was a pile of turd. We're comparing this adorable little angel who was athletic and smart and cool and nice to a mean blueberry with legs who couldn't run across the playground without cutting his rolls open."

"You were….."

"Fat?" he finished for me, though that wasn't the word I'd have used. "Very. Kids on my block called me Fat Jonny. Kids at school called me Mrs. Puff. Wise guys called me Augustus Gloop. I could've rolled down Rainbow Road, I was so round.

"Anyway, yeah. Marco and I stuck together because we were what we knew. I tried to avoid him when middle school started, but then I was just plain friendless, and he was too nice to ignore me. Then, by the time high school hit, we were already best buds. Also, I'd thinned out and people liked me better."

"That's lucky of you," I said.

"More like I got so sick of kids bullying me, I begged my mom to help me get skinny."

"What? No, I was talking about your friendship with Marco."

"Oh." He looked embarrassed.

"You got bullied?"

"Of course I did. Big time, no pun intended. It was really bad."

A wave of empathy washed over me. "Same here," I admitted.

"You?" he asked, incredulous. Then he considered it. "Actually, no, yeah. I can see it. What for?"

"Almost everything," I said. "At first they went for calling me a nerd, but then they started to admire my grades. They targeted my looks instead. They called me Brittany, and they would trick substitutes into thinking I was a girl. During gym, kids would openly use me as a mark of failure. If you were behind me, you were an automatic loser. Once, some kids hacked my hair off. They told everyone I did it myself, which made no sense, but a lot of people- kids and adults alike- believed them."

"That's bad," Jean agreed, "but did they loudly announce it when your buttcrack was showing?"

I bit back a laugh. "No, but they gave me wedgies and hung me on the backpack hooks."

He hissed in pain. "That's a good one. Okay, in sixth grade, kids used to bounce stuff off of me, meaning I was basically hit with a random object every five seconds."

"Oh yeah? Kids used to stick gum in my hair."

"That's not so-"

"At my roots."

"How?"

I laughed. "Sometimes, I'd have my hair pulled up. Sometimes, my classmates pinned me down and stuck masses of it all over my head. They'd beat me up afterwards. For a while, my parents kept my hair in a buzz cut. It was awful."

Jean smirked. "Once, on a field trip, some kids made me pee myself by blocking the bathrooms and force-feeding me water. Later the same day, they pushed me down the river and told everyone I'd fallen trying to get a chocolate bar."

My eyes widened with shock. "I can't beat that," I said. "Didn't Marco try to help?"

"Well, yeah, but there's only so much one popular kid can do. Besides, these kids would get him out of the way before the prank was pulled, most of the time. Why, did Eren and Mikasa always save you?"

I nodded. "Eren was at my bullies' throats any chance he got. And all it took was a look from Mikasa, and they would take off. They're the reason I didn't have to go to therapy, because I probably would have, had the pattern continued."

Jean sighed contentedly. "It's pretty great just to have friends, isn't it? Like, that's such a dumb way to say it, but it's true. Sometimes, I just feel like I should stop and appreciate it."

"Yeah," I agreed. "I can completely understand that."


"Mikasa."

Silence.

"Mikasa."

More silence.

"Mikasa."

No words.

"Mikas-"

"WHAT!?"

Everyone stiffened with shock.

"Just asking if you were okay," Eren said defensively.

"I am," she replied. "Why wouldn't I be?"

We were all silent, unwilling to answer. Eventually, as she began to grow impatient, Marco, Jean, and I all turned to Eren.

"Miks…." he started, clearing his throat, "You were falling asleep at the wheel. And your hands are shaking."

"I'm perfectly fine," she assured him. "But we need to stop soon."

"We just stopped an hour ago," Jean objected.

"Not everyone can whiz in a bottle, Jean," she flashed.

Jean, who had notably not urinated in a bottle since we'd met him, wisely said no more.

"You sure you're fine?" Eren asked.

"Eren, I swear on your brother's grave-"

"But he's not dead. And isn't it supposed to be 'mother'?"

"Eren, I swear on your possible grave somewhere underneath these tires that if you don't keep your mouth shut, I'm going to send you to your grave under these tires."

"That…..didn't make much sense," Marco whispered to me.

"Marco, I will scrape your freckles off and eat them as sprinkles."

Marco turned pale.

Ears like a bat, I mouthed.

"That goes for you, too, Armin!"

Eyes like a hawk, I thought anxiously, scared she could hear that, too.

Obviously, something was wrong. There were many things Mikasa didn't do; yelling, constructing long and specific sentences, being irrational, and threatening the innocent were all on that list.

My first thought was that her time of the month had come, but I quickly remembered that A) that was a sexist and immensely rude thought (as Mrs. Jaeger had ferociously taught me), and B) from an outsider's perspective, Mikasa didn't really get a time of the month. It was always a shock to Eren and I when we found out she was going through it, because she acted just as normally as she always did.

This had to be something much worse.


When we stopped, Mikasa was in the bathroom for thirty minutes.

"Is she okay?" asked Jean, looking worried. "First she snaps at us, and now this."

Eren couldn't keep himself still. He was looking pale, and he sat at attention, completely caught up in his own thoughts. He was most likely debating whether he should go to check on her.

He always got like this when Mikasa seemed to be physically hurt or ill. I understood his worry, too. She was one of the strongest and healthiest people we knew; she had to have something considerably bad to look off her game.

"I'm gonna check on her," he finally said, standing up.

"I'll go with you," I told him. He clapped a thankful hand on my shoulder, and together we jogged to the store.

Luckily for us, the bathrooms were the kind that permitted one person at a time, so we could speak to her without being overheard or interrupted.

Eren knocked urgently. "Miks, you okay?" he asked.

We heard retching in reply.

"Mikasa, can you unlock the door?"

More retching.

Eren darted away, coming back seconds later with an employee.

"Your friend must've had something rotten," he remarked at the ruckus, fumbling with the keys.

"We're coming in now!" Eren announced as the employee turned the burst into the bathroom as soon as it was unlocked, racing to her side to comfort her.

She was leaned over the toilet, which was filled with vomit. As I thanked the disgusted employee, Eren pulled her hair away from her face and rubbed her back. I kneeled next to them and felt her forehead, which was thankfully only a little warm.

"Mikasa," I said, placing a hand on her shoulder, "what's wrong?"

"I don't know," she answered sluggishly. Her eyes began to tear up. "Armin, I need to lie down."

"I'm gonna get a bucket," I told Eren. "You stay here and help her out, okay? When I get back, we're going to carry her to the car."

"You're driving," he said immediately. "And okay."

Luckily for us, Marco and Jean came to help. I watched the cashier give us an awed look, and I supposed that we must have looked kind of crazy.

There's a little thing called Murphy's law. It says that anything that can go wrong will.

With Eren's cuts, Jean's black eye, my panic-stricken expression, and Mikasa's vomit, we might as well have been Cirque du Murphy. I found this funny, for some reason.


As it turned out, Mikasa had gotten some food poisoning. As neither Jean nor Marco had a driver's license, and upon Eren's insist, I took the wheel.

Mikasa finally stopped throwing up once we were on the road. Lamentably, that meant that we had a large, full bowl of vomit on our hands.

"This is so freakin' nasty," Jean complained, choking on the scent.

"I'm with you on this one," Marco agreed. "Armin, what should we do with this?"

I shrugged. "Think of something, before we hit any bumpy roads."

"Luckily for us, at the speed Armin goes, it'll be like the bumps don't exist," Eren reasoned. I decided to take that as a compliment.

"Maybe we can stop at a ditch or something," Jean suggested.

"Good idea," said Eren.

Marco cringed. "But what if an animal eats it? Or worse, a drunk guy?"

We all collectively shuddered at the thought, sarcastically thanking him for the image.

"Would you like to drink it, Marco?" Jean challenged. We all shuddered again.

"Ew, no," Marco answered.

"Then a ditch or something it is. There's no other way to get rid of it."

Eren made a face. "We really should've waited until she was done to leave."

"Brilliant idea," Jean said sarcastically. "Hindsight truly is 20/20."

"Hey, stop here," Marco told me. I pulled over next to a patch of woods.

Marco hopped out, dumped the bowl, and ran back in.

"Floor it," he ordered. I did.

"That was probably somebody's property," Jean noted. I caught his eyes in the mirror. "In this case, Armin," he said, "'floor it' does not mean 'press the gas a little harder than you normally would'. In this case, 'floor it' means frickin floor it."

"I am," I argued.

Eren slammed his hand on his armrest.

"For the love of Gosh, Armin, hit the gas as hard as you can!"

"Oh."

I did.


Mikasa was sound asleep by the time we stopped for dinner. By Marco's and my demand, we went to Subway, stopping at a park to our meals. The sun was beginning to set.

"Hey, Marco, wanna go eat in that fort over there?"

"You bet."

The two hurried away, grinning widely.

Mikasa's head lay in Eren's lap. At an attempt to be more considerate, Eren had draped his hoodie over her face to avoid getting food on her while he ate. I didn't have the heart to tell him what a ludicrous idea that was, so instead, to avoid laughing, I pretended as though Mikasa had gone with Jean and Marco.

We ate in comfortable silence for some stretch of time. I watched the sun set while Eren spaced off, scarfing down his food within a couple of minutes.

"Thanks," Eren said once we both were done.

"For what?" I asked, trying to keep my voice soft for Mikasa's sake.

"A lot of things," he answered. "This trip is supposed to be about helping you, but so far, you've helped everyone else."

"I wouldn't…." I started, but Eren was already objecting.

"First, you invite these guys. Then you kept me from seriously hurting Jean, which sounded good at the time, but probably would've bit me in the back later. Plus, you helped him and Marco make up."

"You saw that?"

He nodded "I caught glimpses. And on top of all that, you helped us really forgive each other."

I shook my head fervently. "That was a mutual effort," I argued. "Just because it was at my expense doesn't mean that-"

"That's what I mean, Ar. You haven't even considered that you could have stopped us, just because we were embarrassing you."

"Eren, please, I'm not-"

"Armin, you are." He gave me a smile, a real one. His entire face relaxed, affection filling his eyes. I suddenly remembered why we'd been friends since kindergarten.

"If it helps any with what you've been fighting, you're a selfless guy, Ar. Thats not my opinion, either; it's a fact."

His words lodged something into my chest and throat. I nodded and smiled, not trusting my voice.

Eren wrapped an arm around me in a hug, a considerably rare gesture, coming from him. I was grateful when he let go, afraid he would hear me repressing my tears.

You see, I had come to a realization.

Eren and Mikasa both had so much faith in me. They respected me, loved me. I felt the same towards them.

But what I'd said to Jean earlier? About us being a cooperation?

I'd realized that that was a lie.

Sure, we made a good team. I contributed something important, and I wouldn't deny myself that.

Nevertheless, we lacked something very important in a team. That is, balance.

Everyone's strength had to match the other's. My brilliance had to match up with Eren's heart and Mikasa's physical ability. And, in ways, it did.

It was my weakness that threw everything off. As I'd stated in my journal, I could find no redeeming quality within me to justify it, not for all of my brains.

So all this selflessness Eren was crediting me with? It wasn't true. He and Mikasa were always, always protecting me. I only ever did them a favor once in a while. We weren't a team; I was a parasite, and they were my ignorant hosts.

After dinner and before we were back on the road, I finally found something to write in my journal.

Eren is wrong about me.

I am weak.


Our next motel was about on par with our last one. The only difference was that they didn't, in fact, serve food. I felt queasy at the thought of eating at the nearby McDonald's for breakfast.

Mikasa had almost made a full recovery by bedtime, which honestly surprised neither me nor Eren. She was still sort of clumsy, but she seemed to be functioning just fine otherwise.

When it was my turn for the shower, I took it gladly, warily taking in the quality of the bathroom. A tad dingier than our last one, but it wasn't anything to cry over.

Once the water was on (the heat turned all the way up) and I was behind the curtain, I let my mind go blank, just standing there and enjoying the water running down my skin.

And that's when it made its grand reappearance.

What's the point?

There was an odd noise. It took me a second to realize I was wheezing.

The point doesn't matter, I thought desperately. No one knows what it is, but-

But what's the point?

It doesn't-

What's the point of you?

"Shut up." I hissed to myself, to my thoughts. I wouldn't let it crawl back. I wouldn't burden my friends again. There was no way I was letting it drag me down as soon as I'd started over.

For once, I rushed through the shower. I needed to get out of my thinking space. Thoughts were the enemy right then.

I tugged on my sweatpants and T-shirt, tying up my hair, swinging the door open-

And there were my two best friends, sucking face.

They weren't even just making out. From what I could tell, they were well on their way to third base.

Mikasa noticed me first. She sat up abruptly, grabbing her clothes and beginning to stutter something. Eren was a split second later, fixing his shirt and cursing under his breath.

There was something strangely disturbing and gross about it, like walking in on your parents. Feeling like my face was on fire, I muttered an apology and hid on the other side of the wall, hoping I wouldn't vomit.

"You're….out early," Eren remarked from the other side of the wall.

"Can we just, like, not talk?" I replied. "Please?"

"I vote we pretend this never happened," Mikasa said gravely.

"In favor," Eren and I chorused.

Thankfully, there was silence.

Until:

"Unless, of course, you're interested in a threesome-"

"Oh my God Eren!" Mikasa's voice had raised a few octaves.

"We could use your slender body-"

"This isn't even funny!"

Yet, as I screamed this, hysterical laughs bubbled through my words.

"You're on the floor for that," Mikasa said heatedly. Obviously, she wasn't as open to humor at the moment.

Eren and I shared the same awkward, painfully nervous, yet somewhat relieved guffaws . Mikasa made a heavy noise of exasperation.

I brushed my teeth and hair before sliding into my own bed, my face still hot and my head still spinning.

Later, I was grateful for the distraction. I realized that, had things gone as they normally did, my little voice would have creeped up on me sooner or later that night, and I would have been pushed right back down to square one.


Day 3/ Day 4

It's 2:27 A.M., and I'm scared.

I'm not afraid of the dark, though without this light I wouldn't be able to see. I'm not afraid of being murdered in a hotel, either. I mean, I used to be, but not anymore.

But now I'm scared. I can feel my thoughts spiraling out of control, running away from me. I'm thinking too much. It's too quiet in here. The AC isn't loud enough. Mikasa and Eren's breathing can't be heard from where I am. All I hear are my thoughts, my thinking, and I need it all to stop. Now.

I've never had trouble sleeping. Not chronically, anyway. But tonight I do. Something woke me up and kept me awake. Something's out to get me.

Even worse, that something is inside of me.

I'm beginning to hyperventilate. I need to write faster, to get all of it out, but I can't. I can't write that fast, I never could.

How do you stop thinking? Or do you never stop? Do you just keep on talking to yourself and talking to yourself until your brain dies? Why is it so easy to stop breathing when thoughts keep plowing through you, no matter what you tell them to do? I never told my lungs to stop, but here they are, stopping.

I can't breathe. I can't breathe.

I ca


I couldn't breathe.

Eren was by my side in seconds; my gasping must have woken him. Mikasa wasn't far behind.

"Ar," he said, trying to erase the panic stressing his face, "listen to me. Listen to my voice."

His voice. Deep. Steady. Sure of itself.

"That's it, Armin. Just concentrate on what I'm saying. Hold on to every syllable. Keep your eyes on me."

Eren. He was caring. He was like my brother.

"You're doing great. Just focus on me. You're okay. Can you breathe? Breathe for me."

I took a deep breath. The spots clouding my vision disappeared. I hadn't noticed them before.

"That's great, Ar. Keep doing that. Don't stop."

I breathed. I didn't stop.

Someone was stroking my hair. They sat next to me on the bed, held my hand. It was Mikasa.

"You okay?" Eren asked.

I nodded.

"Listen, Armin. If you need something to do, watch a movie. Eat something. Read a book. Mikasa and I are here for you, because we care about you, man. Take care of yourself."

"Thanks, Eren," I said, feeling better. "I'm sorry."

He replied with a worn smile. "Just don't scare us like that. If you need anything, wake us up, okay?"

I nodded. Mikasa planted a kiss on top of my head, squeezing me one last time before following Eren to the other side of the room.

I did as I was told, grabbing the portable DVD player and popping in one movie after the other. Still, as I distracted myself, I began to sink deeper and deeper into a sorrowful, regretting feeling.


I am so, so weak.

The next day, I woke to Mikasa shaking my shoulder. I'd overslept.

After I grudgingly opened my eyes, she said, "I would've carried you to the van, but you're just not so little anymore."

The worst part was that she wasn't even joking.

I groaned as I sat up. There was a light throbbing in my head.

"You still probably could've done it," I said, standing up. Then, realizing that I was at least a few inches taller than her, I mumbled, "Maybe not."

We cleaned after ourselves, met Jean and Marco in the parking lot, and loaded up the van.

"Well," Marco said as Mikasa pulled out of the lot, "today's the last day."

"Finally," Jean sighed. "Can't wait to be back home. Ma said she'd make taffy."

Marco grinned. "Now I can't wait."

After a pause, he looked at us.

"Do…."

"Marco," Jean warned.

"Do you guys-"

"Marco, n-"

"Do you guys wanna stay over when we get there?"

"Heck yeah," Eren answered, not missing a beat.

"Sure," Mikasa and I said collectively.

"Great!" Marco replied, excited. "Ah man, Marie and Mason'll love you guys. And- Jean- we could show them the….uh…..the tree thing!"

"I don't wanna show 'em the tree thing," Jean mumbled.

"Well, too bad, 'cause I know you do, so we're going to."

"Do you see my life?" he asked me exasperatedly. I chuckled.

"So your mom's making taffy?" Eren asked Jean. "What kind?"

"The kind that's not for you."

"Yeah, Eren," I said. "We can't just expect Jean's mom to make a bunch of food for some random strangers."

"Oh, she'll make food," Jean said. "You don't even have to ask her. Every night is Thanksgiving at my place. Just don't go asking for stuff, 'cause she'll go above and beyond, and next thing I know, she'll have a stroke because she's worked herself ragged."

"Okay," I said. "Don't ask for stuff, Eren."

"So we're staying at your place, Jean?" Eren asked.

"I never said-"

"Yes, you are," Marco answered, shooting Jean a meaningful look. Jean sighed and stared back out the window. "My house is full. Sorry. Jean, call Ma and tell her."

"Whatever," he grumbled, pulling out his phone.

"I have to show you our town," Marco said to me, his face bright with elation. "Maybe we'll run into some of Jean's and my friends. I know Mom'll want to meet you. Dude, this is gonna be so awesome."

"Sounds like we'll have a blast," I agreed, beginning to match his level of enthusiasm. It was almost impossible not to be excited when Marco was excited.

Jean held out his phone to the rest of us.

"Ma wants to say hi," he informed us with a particularly flat tone.

"Hi, everyone! I just want to say thank you for helping my son come home to me, and I'm honored to be hosting you later today. Have fun, kiddos! Can't wait to meet you."

"Thanks!" Eren, Mikasa, and I said in unison. Jean put the phone back to his ear, looking as though he was considering suffocating himself with the blanket on his lap.

"Ma said hi, Marco," he said.

"Tell her I said hi back," Marco replied cheerily. Jean's frown somehow deepened as he passed on the message.


Sometimes, I feel as though "firsts" get just a little too much credit.

Don't get me wrong; being the first is always significant. Without the first, a series doesn't exist.

But consider the "seconds". Sure, the first put the idea into existence, but it wouldn't be a series if the second hadn't shown up. We tend to discredit many second times just because they weren't as memorable or as significant at first times, when in actuality, if it weren't for the second time, the first would never have grown into the 100th.

I say this because, while Jean and Marco were the first passengers, the first adventure we encountered upon the Jaegermobile (as we'd officially named it), our next ones were equally, if not a pinch more, important in the pattern that was set. The next set of companions we found changed the course of our road trip. They set a pattern, a series. Because they were there to be our second adventure, my trip turned from seeing some interesting sights to really and truly finding and healing myself.

This is where my story really begins.


We were driving down a road lined along a sizable field. Jean and Eren were squabbling over the music again. I was reading, and Marco was staring out the window, camera at the ready once more. We'd only stopped a few times this time around, most likely because Marco was eager to get home. Once in a while, he'd turn to me and share some thoughts, but for the most part we stayed in comfortable silence. Well, silence plus Jean and Eren arguing. I guess that's not really silence at all. It's actually kind of the opposite of silence. Anyway, Marco and I didn't talk.

After a while of this, and out of nowhere, the van slowed. All of us looked up at Mikasa.

"What's up?" Marco asked.

"Hitch hikers," Mikasa answered. "They look around our age. Should we pick them up?"

Everyone turned to me. I shrugged, straining to see who Mikasa was talking about. "As long as there aren't a lot, we have some room. It'll be kind of crowded."

"Oh, I see them. There're just two," Eren said.

"Hey, Jean. Open the door," Marco said.

Once we slowed down to them, I finally got a good look.

There was a boy, small-ish and olive-skinned, and a girl wearing cowboy boots, her reddish brown hair tied into a high ponytail.

"Hop in," Eren said. "We're kinda packed, but you should be fine."

"Thanks," the girl said, climbing over Jean to the seat across from him. After clumsily asking permission, the boy sat between Marco and me. Jean shut the door. The two held their luggage on their laps. Mikasa started driving.

"So what are y'all's names?" Marco asked.

"Oh, I'm Sasha Braus," said the girl, "and the midget next to you is Conny Springer."

The boy, Conny, bristled. "So that's how you introduce me? Not even, 'this is my friend', but 'the midget next to you'?"

Sasha snorted. "Well, you said you were getting sick of the bald jokes."

"So you make fun of my height?"

She shrugged. "Maybe next time you can do the introductions? You can say anything you want about me."

"What about-"

"Except that."

"Dang."

"Okay, shut up now." She looked at the rest of us. "So who are you guys?"

Marco piped up. "The girl driving over there is Mikasa. The guy in the passenger's seat is Eren. The guy with the two-toned hair is my friend Jean. Over across from me is Armin, and I'm Marco. Jean and I are heading home, and these guys offered to take us. They themselves are just driving around, if I'm not mistaken."

"Nope," Eren confirmed. "We've got pretty much nothing to do."

"Where are you going?" Mikasa asked.

"New Orleans," Conny answered. "We've been traveling around for forever, but-"

"- it's time to stop," Sasha finished. Conny shot her a glare, but she ignored it. "My cousin lives in New Orleans, so we figured we'd hang there for a while."

"Why don't you just go back to your parents' house?" Jean asked. Sasha seemed to really notice him for the first time. She gave him a dirty look.

"Not everyone can live with their parents after high school," she shot. "My dad's struggling with money, and I can't get a job back home. I'd just be a burden."

"Oh. Sorry, I didn't mean-"

"It's fine. Honest mistake." Still, she didn't look at him.

After an uncomfortable period of quiet, Conny said, "I can't live at home either, 'cause it's jam-packed. I'd be sleeping in the backyard."

"Seven sisters," Sasha explained, probably glad that someone broke the silence. Everyone but Jean gaped at Conny, who was beaming at our reactions.

"All of 'em are a pain," he said. "Except Jasmine."

"Jasmine's cool," Sasha agreed. "Anyway, thanks for picking us up. We were out there for, like, an hour."

"She ate all of our snacks," Conny complained.

"Well, Conny, I was hungry. What else was I supposed to do?"

"Have some patience?"

"You want to talk to me about patience?"

"Jean," Marco said, "tell Ma we'll have more guests."

Jean scowled. "Ugh. Can't you guys just, like, stay at a motel nearby?"

"Of course," Sasha said without an ounce of sarcasm, visibly forcing herself to look him in the eye. "We'd hate to impose. Please, don't worry about us."

I studied the interesting expression that Jean's face formed. There was surprise, irritation, and- yeah, definitely- guilt. Lots of guilt.

"I, uh-" He cleared his throat. "I mean, it wouldn't be all that bad. Ma'd be happy to have more guests, since she loves people. It would save y'all some money. And her food is good."

Sasha's face softened into a smile. "That's really kind of you, but we really-"

"Please, just accept it," he spat. The van was silent.

Sasha nodded.

"Alright," Conny cheered, "Actual food!"

"You saying my sandwiches aren't enough for you?" Sasha challenged, flipping switches at the first chance she got.

"That's exactly what I'm saying," Conny confirmed. He was promptly met with a flying cap in his face.

"Then next time, I'll eat all of those, too."

"Like you weren't already."

For whatever reason, my mind flashed back to the night before. My head had been filled, overflowing, with thoughts and fears and crisis. Now it was quiet, observing, happy. How different these situations were. I suppose company made all the difference.

It wasn't until later that I realized exactly how true that statement was.

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