Armin touched her hand, encased in crystal. She looked happy, or some semblance of an emotion he had never seen on her face before.
In the interval of silence he could breathe. He gathered the pieces of himself that had splintered at her feet and reassembled himself in the shape of a man who could survive in this world.
He kept thinking if he had known her better this would have made sense, but it wouldn’t have. It wouldn’t have changed anything. Getting to know someone was an afterthought. A personal detail was too much. It etched the beginning of a person. It haunted him. He kept staring at her face. The more he looked the more he ached. She wasn’t dead and yet he had still lost her.
In a way he understood why she had done it. She had snapped. Who could blame her? Who could blame any of them? Armin felt a darkness dwelling within him. It wasn’t the same as anger or sadness. It was bleaker, disparaging, it dragged him to the bottom of the ocean floor. He sat there, his hands in his lap, and waited to drown.
There was a ticking in his brain, counting down the seconds (sometimes it got so loud it drowned out everything else) until zero. He would go off like a bomb, leaving shrapnel in everyone who cared about him. But he never did snap and he didn’t know why. The not knowing scared him.
Eren had his rage and Mikasa had Eren. All he had was this sickening obligation to them for not leaving him behind.
Armin didn’t fight back. He never fought back even when his mouth was full of blood and his hands were balled into fists so tight his nails dug into his palms. He never fought back because he knew he wouldn’t be able to stop himself from killing them. He let them beat him. He let everyone think he was weak. It was better than being seen as some kind of a monster. He curled up inside himself and never let alone come in. Annie was different or at least he had been fool enough to think so.
“You’re pretty, Annie.” Armin mumbled. It was one of those times when he wasn’t even aware he was talking. So few answered him when he spoke he wasn’t sure what came out anymore and what was left festering in silence.
Her hair was always pulled up in a ponytail or hidden by the hood of her jacket and her eyes were a pale, sharp blue. Her features were severe, but pretty like a coming storm.
She met his compliment with unmatched silence. Not even a smile.
It had been a week since his foot-in-the-mouth incident, he had almost forgotten about it, but she remembered. She remembered everything he had ever said to her. Annie approached him with her head held high and a foreboding expression that creased her forehead and tightened her lips. It made everyone afraid of her, but not him. Armin knew it was an act and that knowing cut past the way she carried herself. It cut straight to the core of her and he liked what he saw.
Annie supposed “handsome” was the right word, but what came out was, “You’re pretty too, Armin.”
Armin looked up at her, startled. He felt the wind get knocked out of him just by those words.
“Some might even say beautiful.” She added.
“You really think so?” Armin asked quietly.
Annie raised an eyebrow. “Why do you care what I think?”
“Because we’re friends aren’t we?”
Annie laughed shrilly. It echoed through the hallway. She brushed strands of her hair back and looked down at the floor, her laughter turning to silence. She smiled sadly. It cracked any illusions he had of her.
Armin smiled too. It made the corners of his mouth ache. Had it really been that long since he had smiled? He wasn’t sure what hurt more, smiling or the feeling behind smiling.
“Are you afraid of me?” She asked.
“No.” Armin said. There was no doubt in his voice. Not even the fading impression of hesitation resonated.
The small of his back was pressed against the wall. The plaster was peeling and bits of it stuck into his skin. Everyone was watching them. The hallway had become even busier in the last minute as if everyone had been called upon to watch the freak show. He could hear them whispering to each other. It made his skin crawl.
“Forget about them.”
Annie put a hand on top of his head. For a second he thought she was going to ruffle his hair, the way everyone bigger than him did, but she just ran her fingers through his hair lovingly. The way his mother used to.
She kissed him softly. Her lips were a language of her own – as different as the night from the day, as delicate as a promise, and as sweet as wine. In the dark they wrote confessions on each other’s skin.
Resting her forehead against his she whispered, “I don’t care if everybody hates me as long as you don’t.”
“Nobody hates you.”
“I don’t know anything about you. Who are you, Annie? Who are you, really?” Who was anyone anymore? They didn’t have lives or dreams. They weren’t cowards or heroes, or good or evil, they were simply alive until they weren’t.
She hadn’t wanted to be a victim – some tragedy in someone else’s story.
“I’m sorry I never asked.” Her body pressed against his, her hands pinned his above his head, her mouth teased his open. They didn’t have any conversations that didn’t involve losing their clothes. She left without a trace with the sunrise.
More of them would die of disease and hunger than be killed by titans. A quiet death no one would remember. What if by some fluke he would be left alive when everyone else was dead? Maybe she was trying to escape getting left behind. She was trying to make them hate her enough they couldn’t forget her, but he didn’t hate her. He couldn’t hate her no matter how hard he tried. She was his blind spot.
“Do you dream?” In the way no one dreamed anymore. Dreaming of places so beautiful they couldn’t possibly be real and sleeping soundly through the night on the prayer that with morning everything would be better.
“Sleep well, Annie.”
Armin heard the sound of footsteps. He looked behind him, but didn’t see anyone.
“Who’s there?” He called out.
“It’s just me.” Eren answered. “You shouldn’t be here.”
Armin shrugged. “Since when do you follow orders?”
“Since you stopped,” Eren smirked.
“This could be you one day.”
“Suppose they’ll just kill me first.” Eren muttered, smiling at the look of horror on his friend’s face. “I’m joking.”
“It isn’t funny.”
His breathing was faint and he still had his hood up. It cast shadows across his face.
“How long were you standing there?”
“Long enough…I know you liked her, but—”
“But what, Eren? They thought you were a monster. They still think that.”
They were bathed in the glow of the crystals. It was a soft blue hue that lit the prison they had confided her to. Armin didn’t see why they had to hide her down here. She was already locked away in her own walls.
“I’m not like her.”
“Why are you telling me? I never doubted you for a second.”
“I know.” But he didn’t know. Eren didn’t know why he had friends like Armin and Mikasa when he had only treated them with abrasiveness.
“You could be dead tomorrow.”
“I’m not going anywhere.” Eren brushed his thumb across his palm.
“Don’t,” Armin pulled his hand away. “Don’t promise me that.”
“How many times have I come back to you?”
“You got lucky.”
“My luck hasn’t run out yet.”