Consciousness had come in stages. First was the cold, flowing over her like water as the crystal that held her safe turned from austere solidarity into cracking, splintering shards. The cold air came through like so many needling shocks to a system kept at a consistent temperature until now. Movement was change when everything had been in stasis.
Second was sound. Before sight returned, before taste or scent, Annie heard the cracks that fractured her internalized world, deeper than the realms of dreams. Jagged jolts to her eardrums drew her up and up through layers of consciousness. I'm cold, followed as a thought after, I'm breaking.
Taste came back as a dryness, her mouth open and gasping for chill air while time tried to reassert itself. She still couldn't see.
Third was movement. The shattering of her self-generated crystal as it dissolved removed all the support that kept her standing. Legs unprepared to handle her full weight collapsed as she fell forward, arms fighting the remaining crystal to prevent her from crashing face-first on the floor. She had her forearms in front of her at the last second, the air pushed out of her lungs with a strangled grunt. She'd bruise, even while the bruising would heal itself. As long as she had enough energy over time.
Struggling to breathe, her vision started to return. Darkness receded from the outside first, flickering light from torches making her turn her head. She stopped the effort soon after. Her stomach rebelled as she slammed her eyes shut, pushing herself back and away from the floor. It was a wasted effort. She had barely propped herself up on her elbows before she found herself dry heaving, then vomiting, bile hot and thick in her throat and over her tongue as she arched her back, curling into herself.
When the urge had passed, Annie finally came completely to stage four: vision.
There were her arms, on either side of yellow, foamy bile. There were the evaporating shards of her crystal prison. There were the stones of the military prison, and as she went through the Herculean effort to push herself off to one side, rolling over and struggling to her knees, there was the closed door and the sound of feet running down a corridor.
Whoever had been on guard duty was already off to find their superior officer. Did that leave her in the hands of the Military Police or the Scouting Legion that had set her up to be captured in the first place?
She wasn't supposed to stay around to find out. Climbing to her feet took more effort than she expected, including the assistance of a wall she leaned heavily against. Even then she felt faint, forcing the feeling back as much as she could to walk over and attempt to open the door.
Nothing. There was no give in a handleless door. She rested her forehead against the dead wood and cold metal, counting in her breaths. She wasn't surprised.
What she wasn't looking forward to was what came next.
She hadn't expected Armin, or Connie, or Sasha. She looked up, lips pressing into a thin line, then looked away.
Erwin observed her from the entrance. No one else moved after her name had been said. No one spoke, until Erwin did.
"You're several floors below ground, as you've likely suspected. You may be able to bring this crashing down around your ears, but you will not make it out alive. That's a guarantee, Annie Leonhart."
Annie looked up to meet Erwin's gaze. She didn't doubt him, though she wondered why it was she remained in the Scouting Legion's control. It was against most recognized probabilities.
What have I slept my way through?
She opened her mouth to speak. Only a croak emerged.
Erwin nodded, turning toward Armin. Connie couldn't stop staring at Annie, expression going between disbelief and anger, back to disbelief all over again. "As we discussed," he said, a dismissal made before moving past them all out into the hall. Annie had no idea what that meant. For the moment, she couldn't entirely bring herself to care. As he'd been moving out, her eyes had been drawn to the floating sleeve at his side.
When did the Commander lose his arm?
Armin stood at attention while the Commander left. He seemed taller in the torchlight, but Annie couldn't say if that was her looking for an indication of passing time or an optical illusion created by the unsteady light. Connie seemed like he was settling on feeling sick. Sasha looked distressed.
"Do we have to?" Connie said, looking to Armin for support.
"We have our orders." Armin didn't look any more pleased than Connie. He examined the wall a foot above Annie's head, brow furrowed in concentration.
"Armin..." Sasha took a step closer, reaching out, then pulling her hand back. She glanced toward Annie, eyes darkening before she had to look away too. Annie wondered what was making all of them act as they did. It wasn't her actions alone that could account for this. If it had been, there'd have been more anger. Outrage. Demands for the answer to why she'd done it, what she'd hoped to gain.
Instead, there was this. She felt like the way the acted had little to do with her directly at all.
"We're not good people anymore." He spoke like he was giving them both a reminder. All three of them looked toward the ground, varying degrees of the same brand of unhappy misery. "Hanji and Levi aren't able to be spared, and so we..."
"I can't do this! I can't be like they are! Even if this weren't Annie-"
Connie's objections were cut short as he heard a strange, rasping sound. He looked to Annie, brow furrowed, mouth dropping open as it registered. Annie Leonhart was laughing, or as close to laughing as she could get with a dry mouth and throat and a pain that ached through her and had her clutching her arms around her chest.
"Annie?" Sasha took a step forward, stopping herself with a fearful glance at Annie's unbound arms and legs. There was coiled potential in her misleadingly small form. Sasha knew that as well as anyone else, and she hadn't been involved in the direct offensives against the Female Titan. She'd known Annie through their years as cadets. Even if the two hadn't spent much time in each other's company through direct contact, no one came through training and remained weak - and no Titan shifter was to be counted as incapable.
There were too many unknowns, too many gambles in having her alive and outside of her crystal cage. Would darkness weaken her? Would the threat of the earth above all their heads hold her hand? Would she sacrifice herself anyway?
Annie let her chin drop down to her chest, dry laughter dying down into a coughing fit she had trouble stopping. "When you planned to corner me," she said in-between coughs, "You always knew how this would end. Even if I were innocent, how would they have learned?"
She looked up, eyes on Armin. He gave her the courtesy to meet her gaze, lips pressing into a thin, malcontented line. He knew. Even if he hadn't wanted to linger over the thought, it was the same possibility he'd tossed at Reiner and Bertholt when he thought there'd been nothing else to use to slow them down.
What will I do for Eren? What will I give?
"We're not like the squad leaders." He turned toward Connie, remembering how sick they'd all been, hearing those screams. "We'll have to handle this our own way."
Annie felt a shiver of fear shoot down her spine. Why? Leaving her to the untrained would be a greater benefit to her than to the military. So why fear it?
I don't know what he's planning. Watching Armin turn to leave, Connie and Sasha in tow, she could acknowledge that truth to herself. Her body would repair physical damage. She could endure those pains, bury what knowledge she had, retreat best as she could from the immediate world to hold them safe inside herself.
But she didn't know what Armin would find to use against her, or if she'd be able to turn away from the manipulations she'd gone along with when she'd been able to maintain control. She didn't know if she wanted to, but she couldn't do anything but hold on to what she had.
There was nothing else.
Armin looked back once as he left, not meeting her eyes. His voice trailed behind him as the outside guards closed the door, metal bar settling into place with a muffled finality. "She'll need a bed and a chamberpot. Water. Sheets too. Connie, Sasha, you have our orders."
Two unhappy yeses were followed by several retreating sets of footsteps.
Annie closed her eyes. Of all the things she'd expected to face when she woke, Armin wasn't one of them.
Erwin Smith was a very canny man indeed.
How a play about a lover's spat could be turned into a set of roles the two of them could follow from their own outside perspective remained a mystery. A painful, overacted mystery, with Sasha standing with her hands on her hips and glaring down at Annie with a hint of fear and unease underlying her entire expression.
Annie stared back, keeping the familiar, neutral mask she'd worn for years in place.
"If you won't tell us what we need to know, I'll kill him! I really will!"
"Him?" Annie said at length, after the ongoing expectant pause from Sasha had lasted for over five minutes.
Sasha seemed grateful for Annie's eventual reply. "Reiner!" she said at last, like it was a grand reveal and threat that Annie would know to take personally.
She did, but it wasn't something that she'd believed Sasha would know. Nor was it something Sasha should have said, if the sudden shout from Connie was any indication.
"Lover! Your lover!"
Annie sat stiff in her chair, feeling drained and horrified all at once. If they knew about Reiner, it was unlikely they remained ignorant of Bertholt. She couldn't claim any particular closeness to either of them, knowing their goals had never been perfectly aligned, but she no more wished this on them than she did on anyone.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
Sasha, flushed and apologetic, tried to school her expression into the kind of face she might have worn while on the hunt. Focused, single minded: the face she wore in pursuit of food.
"We know all about him," Sasha said instead, taking up Connie's lead. "We know what he means to you."
"There are sacrifices we're willing to make. If you help us... or you hold us back..."
Connie looked more and more unsure. He and Sasha were a matched pair in this stupidity. Annie was sure they'd lost track of their own narrative.
"You'll do what?" she said, voice steady.
"Let you go?" said Sasha.
"Let him live?" said Connie.
Sasha turned toward Connie as he turned toward her. "Wait, wouldn't we do both?"
"Well, yeah, but if the point is sacrificing yourself for someone else -"
"Or for your own sake?"
Annie started to tune them both out. At the point where they were both yelling in each other's faces, using their argument over nothing as an outlet for their discomfort with the situation, she finally deigned to point out one of the many mysteries of their narrative choice.
"Who is he?"
They both stopped, turning to her with a collective, shouted, "What?"
Annie turned her palms up, using what freedom of movement she had in the chair she was presently tied into to complete the gesture. "My lover. I seem to have forgotten in all this time... how long has it been?"
Both held their tongues. They were better at not saying things than they thought, though Connie clearly had to literally bite down on his tongue to avoid answering. Annie waited, but nothing was forthcoming.
She half closed her eyes, looking down at the stone floor. "That long, huh. I've forgotten all about him. Or was it her?" She looked up, eyes flashing with an emotion caught between amusement and irritation. The irritation won out.
"This person you say I care about. Who is it?"
Neither one had an answer. Perhaps one person could reply, but Eren probably didn't even register that he had that answer, if he knew she was awake. She didn't doubt he did. She'd heard him shouting in the distance two nights ago. They were keeping him away for now. She wondered how long that would last.
Longer than this present silence, she presumed, but not longer than she'd been encased in stone.
"If you have nothing worth saying, shut up." She closed her eyes, blocking out the sight of both their faces. She could feel their irritation as it overcame the fear that kept them both just out of her immediate reach. She wondered if they'd even thought twice about why she'd let them tie her down.
"Annie, you have to tell us. If you don't, then they'll do terrible things to you! Which they should, sort of, I'm sorry, but you've been horrible, but not that horrible, and isn't it worse if they can keep pulling nails for days on end because they keep growing back in?"
Connie slammed his hands over his ears, prompting Annie into slitting her eyes open. Sasha had her hands at her face, looking between Connie and Annie.
"I'm sorry! I didn't mean to -"
"He wouldn't stop screaming," Connie said with a moan. "It makes me sick, just remembering!"
It made Annie sick too. Was she strong enough for that kind of single minded torture? Would it be easier to give in? Accept the death that would wait at the end of everything, once she'd given the Scouting Legion what they didn't want to hear?
It was ironic how Sasha and Connie lapsing back into being themselves was more horrifying than their attempts at staging plays. Was it Reiner they spoke about? She doubted it, knowing his technical capacity, but she didn't know.
Like so many things, down in this dark, musty cell, she simply didn't know.
Her two incompetent information extractors fell into shared miseries before retiring to her table, pulling the remaining chair out. Connie leaned against the table's edge, while Sasha sat down in the chair backward.
When Annie finally opened her eyes, it was to see Sasha and Connie looking dejectedly elsewhere. Sasha's chin rested on her folded arms, expression solemn and unhappy. Connie's arms were crossed over his chest, a frown turning his worried look into one closer to constipation.
Sasha caught Annie's eye, lifting her head up and squinting. She had no idea how to go about torture, and she wasn't in a mood (or of a temperament) to learn.
Instead, she reached out toward Annie's meager rations, picking up the chunk of hard bread.
Slowly, methodically, she bit into it, chipping away with teeth and saliva. Crumbs stuck to her face, falling down the front of her shirt and onto the seat and floor.
Annie watched with a kind of twisted fascination. She hadn't been able to eat earlier, and now she both did and didn't want anything to do with the bread Sasha was eating with such directed ferocity. She found herself narrowing her eyes, watching Sasha as the farce continued.
The door was opened to a soft exchange of words right as Sasha shoved the remainder of Annie's bread into her mouth. Annie's stomach growled. Both women continued to stare each other down while Connie pushed off the table and frowned at the door.
Armin took in the scene from where he paused in the threshold. His expression, when turned on Sasha, was exasperated. Turned on Annie, it was considering. She'd have said calculating, but it lacked that edge of purpose she'd have been uncomfortable to see. Cataloguing the situation was something she could understand.
She looked away from them all, keeping them in peripheral vision.
"Sasha, you shouldn't be eating the prisoner's food," he said, stepping inside. Connie snorted.
Sasha objected. "She didn't eat any of it!"
"It's her choice if she wants to starve," Connie said.
"Maybe, but we're not supposed to make it easier on her." Armin pointed out, pausing again by the other two. "How long has she been tied up?"
Connie counted backward on his fingers. "Since when we came in? A few hours."
Armin pressed his lips together. It wasn't a good idea to leave anyone tied in any position for longer than necessary, even when they wouldn't take lasting damage.
"We should untie her." The unspoken addition being that it would take three of them in order to make sure she didn't retaliate in damaging ways for the duration. Armin looked back her way, taking a step toward Annie.
In the meantime, Annie had twisted and wiggled her arm back through the ropes, skin chafing and tearing under the rough weave of the rope. By the time Armin was looking back her direction, she was pulling her hand free. "Don't bother. I'll untie myself."
Her delivery would have been more intimidating if her fingers didn't tremble and slip on the knots holding down her other arm. Her scrapes might already be starting to mend, but that didn't leave her with any more ease of bloodflow through the parts of herself that had been held in place under her agreeance to Sasha and Connie's farce.
After his initial pause, Armin continued forward. There was a tenseness in the way he held himself that Annie read plain enough, but in spite of that, he knelt down by her bound arm and began unworking the knots himself. She was satisfied to an extent to see him struggle with the knots as well, but it was galling. She could do anything right then. Strike out, push him away, demonstrate how she still had power of a kind even when so blatantly under their control. She could kill him.
She curled the fingers of her free hand around her elbow and waited instead.
"It's our job," Armin said at some point, an edge to his voice that she tried to place. She wasn't sure if he was making a point or trying to remind someone. "This isn't where we need your help."
He looked up at her, blue eyes serious. Where's Eren in all of this? She asked herself that question, knowing there had to be some element of his best friend involved in the very seriousness of his expression.
Eren is what he thought he had to hold against her. Eren, and the thin thread of loyalty that might have tied some of her emotional investment back to the 104th, as evidenced by her choice to spare who she could have so easily slaughtered.
She wondered if he ever figured out an answer to his question from... how long ago? No one would tell her. Weeks, months? It couldn't be years. Studying the lines around his eyes, she didn't see any deepened ones. He hadn't filled out the way one expects a man to fill out as he arrives closer and closer to his twenties. He was still growing, to some extent.
It hasn't been years. So she can wonder if he ever figured out the answer to his question from months before. Why did you spare me back then?
"I have nothing I can give you."
I don't want you looking at me with those eyes, Armin.
"I don't believe that's true." He finished untying her arm, tugging the rope free and unwinding it from around her wrist. He looked up, eyes lingering on her face. There was a degree of that calculation that made the pit of her stomach turn cold, and a hint of resignation.
They all had their loyalties, after all.
She watched him bow his head as he untied her ankles, rubbing the blood back into her arm. She didn't care what he believed. None of it mattered, not the why of what she'd done, and not the how of her failure. She could see that how too clearly.
He was kneeling before her, and not for one second could she even pretend it was in anything approaching defeat.
When her ankles were both free, Annie shifted her feet forward, hinting at a kind of violence that spurred everyone in the room into action. Connie and Sasha moved forward, having inched closer while Armin worked, until both were at her arms and pinning her back down to the chair. Armin had pulled his arm up to defend his head, pushing back and locking gazes with Annie.
She lowered her leg back to the ground, rolling her ankle with deliberate slowness as she did so.
"Thanks," she said, knowing the moment it registered to Armin that if she had wanted to follow through with the violence she threatened, she could have. Sasha and Connie, for all they wrenched her shoulders and snapped her head back, resulting in a dizzying moment of whiplash, hadn't been fast enough.
Knowing the moment it registered, and knowing he'd not have to spend too much time wondering why. She gained nothing from hurting them, but she gained much by keeping them off balance. She was in control of nothing but her own reactions.
She'd walked into a trap he'd set, well aware of what she did, and even then, she'd maintained control of herself.
Remember that, she thought, refusing to look away from him. Remember who you're dealing with.
After all, she was having to do the same.
Armin looked away first, standing with a shakiness he shed as he straightened. "It's fine," he said. "We're fine. She won't do anything. Will you?"
Annie remained silent, making herself go limp in Connie and Sasha's grip. Reluctantly, they let go, Sasha followed by Connie. They retreated as if stung, stepping back and out of range, Sasha's hands held up high, Connie's down low.
"If you're sure." Connie seemed anything but sure as he spoke, looking between Annie and Armin.
Sasha looked relieved. "Does this mean we're done for today?"
"Mmm!" For a moment, Armin was relieved alongside Sasha. "We're not on guard duty tonight. Ah," he said, glancing back at Annie. "The Commander instructed me to inform you any specific requests can be given to your cell guards for review." He was quoting someone, probably Erwin himself. She could tell. It was there, in the way he rolled his shoulders back and straightened almost imperceptibly.
He didn't seem to expect a response. Annie didn't give one. She watched all three leave, taking their awkwardness with them. She didn't try to stand until the door was closed and locked behind them.
She didn't need any of them seeing how weak she really was.
She barely stirred when the door creaked open an hour later. Annie kept her breathing regular, eyes focused on the wall she faced. Whoever stood at her threshold moved in, two quick steps taking them to her table after an extended period of watchful silence. They said nothing, and she didn't challenge them. She merely listened.
They set something down with a muffled thud, only loud for a lack of white noise to run interference. She blinked, resisting the urge to glance back over her shoulder.
A minute later, and they were gone. She waited until she heard footsteps retreating down the hall, and waited longer still, until she felt like the chances of her guards looking in through the open bars on the small window of her door were small.
Annie rolled over, eyes skimming the table.
On it sat a roll of bread. One of the hearty, compact loaves better used during longer stints on the road.
Her mouth watered. She turned back toward the wall.
She knew who had brought that down. She didn't understand his game now anymore than she did earlier.
I don't have anything to give to you, Armin. Stop asking for what I can't be.
She closed her eyes, forcing herself to sleep as the torchlight flickered, casting impossible shadows across her implacable prison walls.
Learning her cell was part of the receiving end from the floor above was an unpleasant, unnecessary reminder. If there'd been anything pleasant, a hint of information even, some upside to what sounds filtered down (bird song, rustling leaves, murmured plots, complaints of soldiers at the end of a long day), Annie might have welcomed the company.
She didn't welcome the sporadic, unpredictable interruptions of enthusiastic couple's copulations.
She groaned, clamping her hands over her ears and trying to drown the noises out. Annie would have believed it'd be easier than it was, but it was as if someone had been amplifying everything and concentrating it down on her.
She knew her guards could hear the same things. They snickered, or gasped, or made uncomfortable sounds in the backs of their throats. Only they had shifts in rotation.
Annie didn't have an escape.
Overall, it would have been little more than an annoyance if she hadn't been feeling more and more of the strain of her position as the days wore on. There was no concept of time passing, no day and night for her to track. She was becoming more sleep deprived, on edge and expecting the next two faces she'd see inside her cell would belong to Levi and Hanji.
On another one of those nights she curled in on herself and tried to hum away the intrusion on her few precious hours of rest. Moans and groans cut through when she thought she'd blocked them all out, followed by exclamations and shouts, florid dirty talk and repetitions of yes, and yes, and more yes, and harder, faster, oh yes, right there, come on, come on, give it to me.
They had to know how stupid they all sounded. Biting down on her tongue to avoid shouting at whoever the most recent couple was to shut the fuck up, she chose to believe they knew how stupid they sounded.
By the second week, Annie was starting to keep score, rating the unknown voices on pointless scales. A score for volume, a score for genuine enjoyment, a score for the pretense of enjoyment. Female and male voices came in all different groupings, leading in with conversation she couldn't quite make out half the time. The other portion went straight to business, wet sounds and smacking flesh and pauses for air or other such pleasures.
Sex may have been a fact of life, but she was tired of hearing it.
The sleep deprivation and hypersensitivity to sound was weighing her down, growing worse day by day as the farce from Sasha and Connie was replaced by the intense quiet of Mikasa.
Erwin had to be insane, leaving this to the former members of the 104th. If this was meant to be ploys for information, she couldn't find it effective. Annie couldn't read Erwin's game, or why he would place anyone of their age in charge of an important prisoner and information extraction.
They had more effective means. Unless she was already obsolete?
If they had Reiner and Bertholt, they wouldn't be bothering with me. She was a late game player by most accounts. Her brief, intense spat of violence and murder had a visible trigger in Eren. If there wasn't something they wanted from her, she'd be dead now.
Possibly put through a military trial, but unlikely. There'd be no way to contain her if she didn't want to be contained on any level closer to the surface than they were now.
She toyed with the idea of shifting anyway. If the rubble did crush her, what was the loss? It'd end the waiting.
Her promise to her father and tenacious hold on life kept her from ever doing more than entertaining that thought as a mental distraction while her eyes locked with Mikasa.
They were women of few words until words were merited. Now could have been one of those situations, but neither Mikasa nor Annie were willing to break their tense silence first. There was no love lost between them. No hate, either; not with Eren safe, and Annie reduced to the idea of a threat she once was.
So they waited, and they watched each other, and Annie remembered to roll and stretch her body while never looking away from Mikasa's form. Being tied on some days, left free on others, but always with more than one person standing as quiet shadows by the door of her cell.
Mikasa only spoke when Armin entered the room, relieving her of her time spent watching Annie. "The Female Titan won't be of any use. She won't talk."
He didn't nod, but he did duck down his head, a bob of acknowledgement and unstated disagreement. Annie didn't like seeing that doubt. It made her wonder what he thought he had to break through her control that would be more efficient than what she assumed was waiting in the wings.
She didn't love pain. Eventually, she'd break, telling them whatever they wanted to hear. If any of it was true, if any of it mattered... that was another gamble she'd have to make.
"We need you upstairs with Eren." He made it sound like an apology, clutching sheaves of papers in a sturdy binding to his side.
Mikasa stood, stretching with an eye for the necessity of action at any given moment. Annie stretched her legs out in front of her. Today was the first unbound day in its entirety. She wondered why.
"You'll be all right?" Mikasa stepped close to her longtime friend, for all he wasn't as old a friend to her as he was to Eren. She was a relatively late intrusion into both their childhoods. "Remember how I raised you."
Whatever that line meant between the both of them had Armin squaring his shoulders, standing straighter than he had before. "Eren's waiting." It was a statement, paired with his stance, that she didn't need to worry about him.
Annie might have appreciated the exchange as an onlooker. Instead, she found her eyes focusing on the papers threatening to escape from the sheaf at his side. What were those? Logs? Why in the world would he bring them down here?
What does he want to show me? What does he want me to believe?
It was an unending game, asking these questions.
Mikasa left after watching Armin in silence, her gaze less harsh and more considerate than when she looked on Annie. Annie tried to see what it was Mikasa was looking for. She couldn't find it, not knowing where Mikasa stood in the first place.
Concern for a friend? Secondary only to Eren. So many of the sacrifices they'd all made had been for the sake of something surrounding Eren.
Eren, who they still wouldn't let near Annie.
Armin moved toward the no longer dusty table, setting his papers down and piling the cup and plate to the near end, by the door. It was another sign that they weren't worried, giving her ammunition if she wanted to use it. She didn't know if it was saying anything good about her that she refrained, aside from her decision made to find the path of least resistance.
Seeing Armin set up to do accounts in earnest, she wondered what the hell resistance meant to all of them. What acceptable costs were.
What the hell Armin was doing paperwork down here for in the first place.
He didn't address her, settling in and angling the paper advantageous to the torchlight. It held steadier than the one that had been on the far wall, where the chains still hung as a reminder of what they should be doing. Chaining her up. Holding down the monster that could heal.
She moved as the silence lengthened, broken by the scratchings of lead against paper. Annie watched Armin tense, looking to the door for his own guards, but they weren't there.
She frowned. She knew he was up to something, but how she responded to that knowledge was for her to decide. Putting herself through stretches, she tried massaging the aches out of her muscles. It helped steady her.
Each time she glanced toward Armin he was bent over his papers. She could see the tension in his back, belying his apparent ease with his present situation. She'd still give him credit for bravery where he didn't have the physical strength to win by might alone.
It was that, as much as the lure of mental activity, that eventually drew her close. Dragging the other chair across the ground, lips twitching up into a brief smile when Armin jumped at the unfamiliar sound, Annie took a seat near his non-dominant side.
He glanced her way, then turned his attention back on the sheets of paper collected in front of him. He was comparing two ledgers from what she could see.
Annie reached out, hand hovering over one of the sheets set to the side. She could see the dirt under her nails more clearly when contrasted against the cream paper. She curled her fingers into a fist.
Armin reached out, sliding the paper toward her. It made her aware of the distance between them, and how long it'd been since she'd been able to clean up. That much water wasn't one of the luxuries she'd been provided. She had to smell.
She let her fisted hand rest on the table, paper trapped underneath. The lines of numbers ran as she expected. These were shipment ledgers from somewhere within the Walls.
Armin grunted. Any further answer was delayed as he made a notation in the margin of the ledger open in front of him. "Cross-checking the Military Police's logs against inventory and supply ledgers."
He said nothing else, lips pressing together into a thin line. Annie estimated he may have already said more than he planned, only realizing so in knowing that Annie might be able to piece together pictures of a larger story.
He had to know about the Reiner slip-up from Sasha by now.
"Determining how much has gone missing in recent years?" She knew the Military Police was corrupt. The precise degree had been mildly surprising, but she didn't need them to be a good organization. She only needed them as a conduit.
Or had needed them in the past.
"Mmm." Armin remained non-commital.
"Knowing who's stood to benefit most from this exchange of supplies?"
He looked at her sideways, intense blue eyes locking with her own. He said nothing.
She said nothing, but she blinked, planting an elbow on the table and resting her chin in her dirty hand. "The money the merchants were willing to part with must have made it worthwhile. That type of corruption... why does it interest you now?" Annie watched him out of the corner of her eye.
He had no answer at first. Then he frowned, spreading his fingers out over the numbers on the page before him. "You're jumping to conclusions."
"You're pushing to find answers no one's going to like. What will you do with what you find?" She paused, considering her words with care. "Plead with the King?"
Armin stiffened, a motion she would have missed if she weren't watching him so carefully. His wasn't the expression of a man devoted to his leader.
What he said brought her chin up out of her hand in surprise.
"Plead with humanity to find the means of survival. The King has nothing to do with that." Armin noticed her surprise a beat after he spoke, seeming to flush in the poor light. He offered a weak attempt at smiling, intensely focused on the papers in front of him. "Nevermind. None of this is your concern."
No love was lost there for the King.
"When you bring these things to me, you make it my concern. I only have to wonder what it is you're hoping to achieve." She was tired, physically, mentally, emotionally. Finished with games, finished with waiting for the worst possible solution to walk into her stone-walled world.
Their stone-walled world, built on the backs of liars and giants. Standing on those shoulders, what was it that Armin hoped to see?
What if he didn't want to stand on those shoulders at all?
"We want your help, Annie." He used her name like a weapon, something that cut, that could make her bleed, then something that made entreaties. She didn't like knowing she could hear that and want to respond. At least he would never again say she was a good person to him.
She rested her chin in her hand again, looking away from him. "I have nothing to give you." It was the same response every time.
"Then what can we take?"
Annie straightened in her seat, surprised for the second time in so many minutes. She locked eyes with Armin, both their expressions inscrutable.
"There are easier ways to find out." She said at length. It made her stomach sick thinking about those means, but it was as Armin had said before. None of them remained good people, did they?
He didn't break their mutual gaze. "There are."
"Why don't you use them?"
He fell silent for a moment, before he looked down and away. Armin examined the back of the closed door, fingers curling into fists of his own on top of the ledgers. "I want to avoid that, if I can."
"If you can't?"
He looked back to her then. "I don't think it'll come to that."
"What makes you so certain?"
He said nothing for a minute. Slowly, he relaxed his fist. "Nothing precisely does or doesn't. It's a gut feeling I have."
She pushed back from the table, rising unsteadily to her feet. Annie hid the unsteadiness by latching on to the back of her chair, giving Armin a neutral stare. She concentrated on breathing through the lightheadedness and black edging in from the outskirts of her vision. Don't pass out.
"It's the one thing you always had. Guts." Turning, she moved off toward her cot. Whatever his games were, whatever his goal, she would leave it to him. Armin wasn't going to fall back on the easy sorts of torture. His way of waging war had already begun.
She'd have to construct her walls against it, that nebulous concept of ideas and suggestions.
She closed her eyes, intending to listen as he returned to work. Instead, she slept.
It was the first dreamless rest she'd had in what felt like weeks.
There would be the time spent asking or demanding for her compliance. There was the sex, which far too many people were having (in her opinion) that disrupted her nights. There was Armin, and slowly, there were his ledgers, and her own hands growing graphite-stained as the need for mental stimulation led to her quiet assistance combing things over.
When she didn't sleep, that was. Armin's presence was becoming a balm of sorts, allowing her rest even while it put her on edge. This wasn't by chance alone. She knew it had to be planned, that in time this would undermine her as surely as Armin intended to, but it didn't change the reality.
Only once did the enthusiastic couples start their evening trysts with Armin still present. Annie had been surprised at the intrusion, but only enough to elicit a groan of displeasure before burrowing her head further into her arm where she lay on her cot.
Armin stopped in his work at the table, scooting his chair back as he listened. "Annie?" She didn't trust the note of concern in his voice. "Are you all right?"
Was he serious? Annie hadn't decided by the time she heard him standing and approaching her cot, standing by her middle. The moans from upstairs filtered through, and he made an abortive move to reach out to her.
"Why are you--"
She moved her head back, squinting up at him in consternation. "Armin. That's not pain."
He blinked. "Ah? I just thought--"
He looked from Annie's closed mouth toward the ceiling, hand coming back to rest awkwardly at his side. He looked like he wanted to do something more, brush off imaginary dust, occupy that hand with anything more than empty air.
Annie glanced toward the ceiling as well. "We could try and outcompete, if you wanted." As far as jokes went, it wasn't much.
It did send them into a silence punctuated only by the bedroom antics of those upstairs.
Armin stepped away, clearing his throat. He was back at the table, packing up his supplies after a few more awkward minutes. Annie watched him rather than the wall. She felt a small degree of amusement at his discomfort. She was so used to dealing with this it felt par for the course.
As he left, she felt the urge to speak. "Goodnight, Armin."
He hesitated with the door half closed behind him. Without turning around, he responded. "Goodnight, Annie."
It was the first and last time they were ever interrupted by other people's loud sexual exploits while Armin was there.
The day he announced Levi and Hanji were going to be there would be the end. Unless she caved in first. Unless she told him, or any of them, what she could.
She was afraid that was exactly what she would do. Why fear it? Why fear meeting an inevitable end?
I have to live. For one promise, and one person outside of herself. The only person on her side.
"We're on your side, Annie," Armin said on one of those visits. She looked at him in disbelief, breaking down into laughter into her hands. He had no idea what he was saying. It was impossible for anyone other than that one person to be on her side.
"Are you really?"
He seemed unnerved by her laughter. He steeled himself, expression turning into one of stubborn determination. "The Military Police would have you killed outright. We might be able to-"
She didn't want to hear any more of the lies. Annie cut him off, offering one of the more absurd means of derailing. She figured it would work on Armin. "Kiss me?"
"What?" Armin's surprise didn't need to be affected. Annie was faintly surprised at herself. It was an effective derailing at least. That much was true.
"The kinds of absurdities people do with those on their side." She settled back in her chair, her small smile matched to tired, amused eyes. She was done. She didn't want any more of this.
She wanted to go home, if there was a home left to get back to. One person who could wrap his arms around her and apologize for all the things he could never have undone.
Just like her.
She missed Armin steeling himself, turning confusion into contemplation, then the assessment of her bluff.
She blinked up at him as he stood, not quite understanding. Annie went still, eyes widening as Armin bridged the few feet between them. With him standing at her shoulder, her head and neck craned to look up at him over her shoulder, neither one of them seemed to have any idea of what they were doing.
It was almost enough to make her want to laugh all over again. Why not? It'd be a form of relief. What wasn't relief was the hesitation before Armin leaned down, the way he was tensed, waiting for her to react with violence, or the way his lips pressed a chaste kiss to the corner of her open mouth.
Annie couldn't keep herself from looking dumbfounded. She probably could have stopped herself from shooting out of the chair, the sudden screech of legs against the stone bringing the outside guards crashing in. They looked from the startled Armin to the Titan shifter with her arm up at her mouth, wiping away something that wasn't there.
Her blush was disguised in the torchlight. Her obvious angry indignation was not.
"Are you okay?" one of the guards asked Armin who nodded and looked about to say something more.
Annie threw her hand down, looking ready to attack someone, anyone. "Out." Her voice was a growl. "Get out."
Weapons were lowered to her, Armin being the one to make the call to have them all retreat. For a moment, Annie was afraid he might not.
She was going to lash out, and it wouldn't even matter in this second if it'd be the end of her.
"Prisoners don't get to tell their guards what to do!" Still, the protesting guard listened when Armin nodded, ordering them all outside anyway. He left the ledger papers on the table, not liking the palpable anger coming from Annie.
It wasn't until the door closed behind them all, and he gave a fruitless shrug to both of his fellow soldiers in response to their whispered, angry questions of what happened? that he realized what had happened.
And how little he was going to enjoy reporting back on this to Erwin, too.