Armin could hear his breathing echo back to him from the darkness in the little castle library. It was a secluded room, filled to the ceiling with old books, always smelling dusty and maybe a little mouldy no matter how many times the corporal ordered them to clean it.
He was sitting at a little table in the middle of the room with a stack of books he'd picked out haphazardly. Of course, he'd never get through all of them. He just wanted to read a couple pages...
That's what he told himself, even if he knew that he would read a little more, then maybe just some of that other one, then screw it he was already up late so there was no use stopping now, he might as well keep going. That was one of his flaws. He'd pay for it at training tomorrow.
The rain from outside continued to pour, dribbling and pooling on the windowsill (which, much to Armin's pleasure, they had found had been covered up by someone before the castle was abandoned so as to shelter the books from the moisture). He'd always found the sound comforting, and the fresh, cool air helped him focus.
And what he was focusing on at the moment happened to be something about agriculture and weather, which he knew Eren would roll his eyes at and complain about how utterly boring it was, and Mikasa would silently refrain comment because she would be thinking pretty much the same.
The thought of his siblings interrupted his reading and he smiled wistfully, sighing again at the thin paper. He closed the book and placed it on the top of one stack, exchanging it for one halfway down another pile, red spine and faded black lettering. He opened it and started reading again, hunching over in the dim candlelight until his face was mere inches from the letters.
He was so engrossed that he didn't register the door creak open, or the change in the air or the silent steps, until something suddenly dropped onto his shoulders, little golden hairs falling next to his face.
“Hi Annie,” he whispered, tentative to break the silence.
“Hi,” She said back quietly. In the soft light of the flame Armin saw her lips curl into a smile.
“Why are you here, boy?”
Armin shrugged as much as he could under her weight. “We don't get a lot of free time. And we have this whole library,” he gestured around, “...just sitting here. It'd be a waste.”
“You're such a nerd.” Annie stood up, and the fresh cool air once again graced his back where her warmth had been. When he looked at her she had her back turned to him and was looking around, hands on hips, barely more than an outline in the darkness. Annie was always aloof, but to Armin it seemed like he was the only one who could do right by her. Sort of. Most of the time.
“Books, books, books...” she sighed. “Could drive a woman mad up here.”
You could drive me mad, thought Armin. His hand rapidly flew to his mouth and he violently repressed the sudden thought. What?
At his silence she turned around to face him, waiting for her friend to say something.
“Yeah... I like it. I've always liked reading, and we never had many books around. And it's quiet. I don't think anyone other than me and Bert ever bothers coming up here. Well, and you now, I guess.” Armin smiled. “And you can see lots of stars from the window...” he trailed off as Annie walked over to the table he had been sitting at and examined his pile of books. Closer to the light, Armin could now see that she was in her sleepwear, and he blushed, and wondered why.
“What is this? Myths and folk tales....” she muttered the title. “Well, it's probably one of the less bland things you could have picked out.”
“Yeah. I'm sure if you looked, you'd find something that interests you! Maybe a combat text, or an old story?”
“Eh, books aren't really my thing...” Annie said with a smile that made Armin think she wasn't entirely telling the truth.
“What about you, then? Why are you still up?”
“Huh? Oh...” Annie shrugged. “Couldn't sleep.”
“Is something on your mind?”
“Not really. Just needed a walk, is all.”
Armin nodded and sat down at the table again, picking up his battered red book from where Annie had deposed it face-down. If he read quickly, he could get in a couple of chapters before exhaustion overtook him.
But he felt that weight on his shoulder again, drawing his focus away from the volumes in front of him.
“Why don't you come to bed?” murmured Annie, and Armin's stomach felt light.
He smiled a little. “Okay,” he said, and they stood up together, leaving the books on the table, and carried the candle out of the room.