“Out of all the shitty, stupid favors I’ve done for Armin, this has to be the worst.” Connie complained, his teeth grinding together. “Being the most agile doesn’t rush childbirth I thought he was fucking smar-OW!!”Connie howled over-dramatically, Annie’s digging grip hard enough to crush the bones in his hands.
“You make it sound like either of us had a choice in this.” Annie hissed hoarsely. She glowered at him from a side glance, a curtain of sweaty bangs over her eyes and light, gold hair spread out over the pillow in a messy halo. “So shut up already.”
Connie groaned, his fingers turning purple and body twisting about in the seat next to her. “For fucks sake Armin, where are you?! Your stubborn kid is taking forever!”
Annie pondered the same before laces from a spiked corset tightened around her torso. The lances sunk in deep, urging forth a tight pain so intense, Annie couldn’t hold back a strangled cry. "Ngh-ah!" Her eyes slammed shut as her shoulders and back curled up off the mattress, re-starting her fight against agony, and if the strain hadn’t been pulsating blood in her eardrums or quivering every muscle, she would have found Connie’s pained yowls and flailing more funny.
But Annie supposed she should be grateful. With pregnancy rendering her discomfitingly vulnerable, Connie watched over her. He was less of a runt now—still obnoxious, however—, but he always ensured her safety or quick passage of escape, going so far as to send Sasha off to spread word that her water had broken while he rushed Annie to the hospital. Even her crushing his hand bones into dust was his own offer, mumbling something about him fulfilling a debt to her before he outstretched his hand for her to grab.
But that was nine hours ago and Armin was nowhere to be seen. Did his team go beyond the wall already?
A vice clamped down on her swollen abdomen again, earning a jolt and a choked sob from its victim. She twisted blankets between her fingers, Connie’s hand no longer sating her urge to crush.
Marrying a Corpsman came with the territory that he wouldn’t be home much and Armin was exceptionally busy, his brain being the only weapon comparable to Titan abilities, if not more precious.
But she was selfish and the human desire she once caged so deep only Armin could call it forth was desperate for his hold. Healing abilities or not, if she had to bear any more of the razor-edged raking along her lower back and burning down below, Annie swore she would faint.
The midwife at the end of the bed encouraged her on, Connie somehow appearing more relieved than Annie to hear that one more push will end it all. Her inner warrior stirred, stimulating her to rise up to the challenge and act on a focus so fierce, Connie’s eyes bugged out his sockets, sputtering loudly for help, and a shriek at a height she’s never made before filled the room.
Annie released her stressball—or hand in this case?—and both of the soldiers fell, Connie to the floor, and Annie onto her pillow. Her head lolled to the side, eyes half-lidded and white-gowned chest searching anxiously for breath.
A shrill wail rang through the fog in Annie’s ears, the pitch growing stronger with every hitched breath. She glanced down towards the end of the bed, but her vision was too blurry and shaky. Closing her eyes, Annie opted to listen. An odd peace crept over her, warm waves lapping back and forth from inside her chest down to the tips of her numb limbs as loud, healthy lungs tested their function.
Boots clomped beside the bed and Annie’s instincts sensed a figure looming over her.
“Here you are.” The midwife announced cheerfully. “Careful now.”
She turned her head in time to see her body’s evicted tenant laid on the center of her chest, their flushed skin extraordinarily warm and soft. Clearly, the newborn disagreed and complained about this new thing called “cold” with hiccuped wails and squirming limbs, prompting a blanket to fall over their back. Annie’s arms ran on instinct and encircled the child, carefully caressing their back through the fuzzy blanket, tucking the fabric in for insulated heat to ease the loud cauterwals, her other hand’s fingers petting over a tuft of platinum blonde head curls.
Somewhere in her hearing, Annie heard the midwife speak and Connie moan, but she ignored them, favoring to note how much of a small, fussy thing this child was. A pink, scrunched forehead repeatedly buried into her sternum, the baby letting out a whine and curling and uncurling adorably small hands in frustration when it was discovered that burrowing back into their familiar cocoon was impossible. But an unshakable dedication inspired more nudges and wriggles, proving to Annie that already, this baby was too much like her.
Worry should have taken root, but adoration unhid the teeth from her smile instead.
“Annie!!” The door burst open with a kick. A sinewy Corpsman sprinted inside, his face red from exertion, and short, cropped hair slick with sweat. He looked over at her, panting, her head quirking up and brows furrowing with surprise to see his swords drawn and clothes a disheveled mess. His eyes fell on the blanketed infant on Annie’s chest, a smile peaking on his lips before swapping his attention over to the midwife, wordlessly searching for answers.
“I don’t think your wife heard me, so I’ll say it again: everything went perfectly.” The exposed skin on the side of the woman’s facemask crinkled up, hinting a smile. “You two have a healthy girl.”
Armin’s smile went impossibly wide and Annie’s head fell back against the pillow.
“T-Thank you!” Armin dropped his swords and grabbed the older woman’s hands with both of his, shaking them over-enthusiastically. “I can’t tell you how grateful I am for your help! Just thank you!”
A humoured snort left Annie, amused to watch the midwife eagerly yank back her hand and wave him off humbly. She collected her things, tiptoed around his swords which he scrambled to pick up, and walked out the door as Armin thanked her again for the sixth time.
“Excuse me!” A hand launched up into the air and waved about. “I think you’re forgetting to thank someone else here! Someone who you should start bowing to!” Connie brought himself up from the ground, groaning and clutching at his wrist where fingers bent in the shape of a staircase resided.
Connie poked Armin in the chest with an elbow, “Don’t forget this in my promotion letter when you move up the chain, Arlert. You owe me at least that much for this. Oh! Or maybe get Hange to make me a cool new set of fingers! Because shit, I’ll be lucky to wipe my own ass with this hand ever again.”
Annie’s eyes rolled while Armin retained a small, appreciative smile. “I can’t promise anything except that I‘ll ask.” He took Connie’s good hand and shook it. “Thank you, Connie. Really.”
“Yeah, yeah. Shut up and be with your family already you goob.” Just as Connie was taking his leave, he took the opportunity to look at Annie through non-tearing eyes. She nodded gently at him, her own form of thanks and he scratched the back of his head, his face growing a little softer. “Congratulations.”
The door closed. With her far-side vision clearing, Annie noticed a shift in Armin as he looked about the room. The happiness in his eyes blended with remorse and he cringed towards the waste basket, noticing the stained blankets that helped bring their daughter into the world. She knew his worry would worsen once he finally logged her almost transparent pallor and fatigued lines under her eyes.
She waved a dismissive hand, knowing what he was going to say, but Armin always talked too much for his own good. “I got the message just as we got back. There’s some festival downtown so the streets were packed and the horses wouldn’t move. I had to use my 3DM gear and break a window on the second floor just to get here and I don’t think the Survey Corp will pay for i-“
“All of that doesn’t matter.” Annie responded curtly. She tapped the seat next to her, ushering him over. “Look.”
Armin zipped over with the same speed of him spotting a new book. He helped prop Annie up with extra pillows as she winced and strained to sit up. His eyes twinkled, watching his wife resettle the fidgeting newborn into her arms until the baby was peacefully nestled inside. Annie’s hand took the side of her daughter’s face, running a thumb over a small forehead and down cheeks that were slowly gaining a pinkish hue. The baby’s eyelids trembled until finally, her eyes opened.
Grey-blue met her parent’s and Annie felt her stomach perform backflips. She wondered if this color was temporary or if she had to cope with her own eyes staring back at her for the rest of her life. The baby flinched from surprise when Armin slid the pad of his middle finger over her button nose; it was the one feature Annie was sure was she got from him.
“Annie, you did it.” Armin worded breathlessly. His smile was ear to ear. “You did it.” Lanky but assuring arms surrounded her shoulders and then a kiss met her temple, along with another, then another, then she had to shake her head to ward him off from further pushing sticky hair into her face and bargained for resting her head in the crook of his neck.
He kissed the top of her head. “I’m sorry. I know I should have been here and…”
She bumped her forehead against his jawline in a demand for silence, making Armin jolt and almost bite on his tongue. “I said it doesn’t matter. You’re here now.”
Relief loosened the tension in his hold. His cheek cuddled her crown and brought his hand over the one Annie used to brush her fingers over their daughter’s cheek. They stayed like that until Annie felt Armin start to fidget, his nudges pausing, like he was preparing to broach something.
“Annie, can I…?” His hand hovered over his daughter’s head, questioning.
“Of course.” He beamed as she twisted around to face him, easing the baby into the crook of her father’s arms.
“Hey there,” Armin bobbed his daughter up and down, his voice as light and hushed as one would use to coax out a frightened animal. A finger poked the tip of his nose. “This is Poppa, remember? I’ve read to you a lot, and even when Momma fell asleep, I always knew you were listening.” He gave Annie a passing glance to which she responded with an arching brow and crossing arms that scolded he would be tired too if he had to carry a life for nine months straight.
He bit his lips, obviously suppressing a laugh and glanced back down at the baby stuffing fingers into her mouth. Annie saw his sharp mind analyzing her, soaking her in until she heard him whisper. “You’re absolutely amazing. Wow, I bet you are going to be the spitting image of your mother. Come on, give Poppa a smile. Smileee. Don’t tell me you’ve got Mom’s sense of humor too.”
Two strikes and Annie shot him a look of warning but Armin couldn’t suppress a hearty laugh, widely grinning. He made it up to his exhausted wife by making a fool of himself, entertaining his girls by stretching out a cheek with a stuck-out tongue and wiggling his fingers under his chin. A smile tugged at the corner of Annie’s lips and the baby’s cooes turned gleeful.
Armin’s bouncing suddenly stopped, recollection sweeping over him. He quickly stood up. “Take her for a second.”
Annie pushed hair over her ear, blinking rapidly. “Leaving so soon?”
He touched his forehead to hers. “Not a chance. Just give me a quick minute.”
Armin filled the emptiness of her arms with her newborn again and darted out of the room. The baby was quick to cuddle up against Annie, burrowing and nudging her breast in a hunt for warmth until a nest was made. Lazy silver-blue irises rolled up to meet her mother’s, a silent acknowledgement told between them that she thought not being back in her originating home wasn’t too bad, that these arms were warm and felt like enough before letting her eyelids droop and fall.
Only twice had Annie’s heart shattered from such an emotion-riddled blitz. A war of happiness, pride, and a peculiar sorrow wracked at her shoulders and brought her head down, hair of the same color sweeping over her baby’s face. Annie sobbed silently like she learned to do and both arms curled her baby closer to her chest, her response grateful and explaining that no matter how much her daughter may wish otherwise in adolescent years, her mother will always be there.
She heard the door open and her hand snapped up to wipe at her eyes, quickly composing herself as Armin took his seat next to her. Annie kissed her baby’s forehead and lingered there to savor this new warmth before looking up and finding Armin flashing her a wide, dopey grin.
“Look who Sasha brought over.” He lifted up and plopped a small boy no older than three onto his lap. Annie’s breath caught. A warm affection tingled down her temples when the miniature face and bright, blue eyes of his father’s stared into hers. “Momma! Sasha took me to the market today and they had everything! Even fish bigger than Daddy! Can we get one next time we go? Pleaseeee?”
Annie’s finger tapped the curved nose her son inherited from her. “Only if you answer me this: you were out late tonight, with Sasha. You didn’t over-indulge at the sweet store next to the meat market she frequents, hm? She knows how much you like that place and you know how eating late bugs your stomach.”
Her son’s smile turned nervous. “...N-No the....the candy store was closed! It was closed and we ate fish instead of meat because the meat market was also closed.”
“The candy store, which doesn’t close tonight because of the festival, was closed and Sasha chose to eat fish rather than eating the sirloin celebration special.” She repeated candidly. “Is that right?”
At least when she lied, she tried to make it convincing.
“Today’s been a stressful day for everyone, so I think we’ll let it slide.” Armin amended with a small laugh. Her son’s biggest enabler ruffled the canary blonde locks atop his head. “Right now, we want you to meet someone.”
The twinkle in their son’s eyes shone like stars. Like them, he had been waiting for months to see the sibling he’d been teased about, and his excitement showed when he shot up, outreaching small hands towards the bundle with such speed it shocked his parents. Armin quickly grabbed his son’s hands, suspiciously pursing his lips. “You did eat something though, didn’t you? Did you wash your hands afterwards?”
The boy sucked in his lips, a delicate blush growing. “Uh…”
Annie breathed out her amusement through her nose, the corner of her lip pulling up, and Armin groaned. “Come on then, let’s go.”
He tucked his hands under his son’s armpits and lifted him up, the toddler complaining and thrashing his limbs about the whole way to the bathroom. An aching soreness pulsated through Annie, her inner wounds still left unhealed, and yet all she could focus on was how her daughter’s birth gave her the most beautiful excuse in weaseling out of cleaning their son for a small while. She was sure if Eren got enough soap suds splashed into his eyes, he would feel like his healing abilities would eventually be drained of all power too.
Once the whining and Armin’s gentle demands ceased, her boy clambered back up to the bed. Annie stroked the underside of her son’s pale chin, moving his head over to view his snoozing sister who she said was far too comfy to be woken up right now.
“She's really small…” The boy mused softly, tilting his head. Mini-ocean blue ran over his sister, his small hands touching his roman nose and hair in an odd acknowledgement that both siblings didn’t look completely alike.
“We all were at one point.” Armin’s voice was gentle and the squeeze on his son’s shoulders motioned the boy to look up. “That’s why she has us; why she has you. She needs her big brother to help protect her, so when she’s big, both of you can protect each other.” Armin’s hands brushed back the short bangs on his son’s forehead. “Being as big and strong as you are, Mom and I are confident you can do it. Think you’re up for the job?”
The boy’s eyes were the size of saucers. The dim flame in his eyes burst into a blue blaze and he tore out of his father’s grasp, leapt out to stand on the bed and threw his hands into the air. “You can count on me!!” He roared out. “I’m the son of a Survey Corpsman! No one will pick on her while I’m around!”
Annie could only cover one of her ears, her head still throbbing from strain and eyebrow minorly twitching. Armin’s jaw hung, a smile twitching on the side of his lips that was half proud of his son’s enthusiasm and embarrassed that his yell spurred forth loud, choked squalls from their daughter.
Annie bounced the baby gently, sighing, “Either your oratory skills have gotten better or you’ve been letting Eren babysit him for too long.”
Armin closed his eyes, his smile wobbly with apology while their once brazen boy paled. He dropped to his knees on the bed and waved his arms frantically before his sister. “I-I’m sorry! I didn’t—I just—please don’t cry!”
“Honey, sssshhhh.” Annie hushed. His eyes were watering and a reassuring comb of her hand through his soft, yellow strands helped him wipe at the tears leaking down his cheeks. She let her palm rest on his cheek, her thumb wiping away the rest. The boy’s sister finally quieted, choosing to babble and investigate her hands instead.
Annie observed her son carefully, noticing how his back steeled and eyes turned resolute as he schooched over closer. He was careful as he brought his face over the bundle in his mother’s arms, hesitating briefly before planting a lightning-quick peck to the top of his sisters head.
“I don’t want to make you cry...” He muttered sadly. He smooshed his plump cheek against his mother’s arm. “I’m sorry.”
Emotions combated within her again and a shaky inhale and sharp clearing of her throat was all Annie could do to keep herself grounded. Armin, on the other hand, sat on the opposite side of their apologetic son and wrapped his arms around his family. The Corpsman’s face was pulled up in a ridiculously sappy grin, tears budding at the corners of his eyes and Annie was amazed to find that even in his early twenties with two children and a higher position in tow, Armin still looked like such a boy himself.
Looking down, a smile from Annie that softened her eyes and graced her sharper cheekbones made her son blush and return a smile back. She kissed his little forehead and obliged the same to Armin’s cheek when she had the misfortune of seeing his most over-exaggerated attempt at a jealous pout ever. Her son rubbed his face against her arm with the fervor of a child who recovered their long lost teddy bear and Armin rested his head within the valley of Annie’s neck and shoulder.
A barrier of warmth encased her, the boys at both of her sides, her daughter insulating her chest. Warm currents of peace returned, enveloping her body and licking sore wounds until Annie felt like she was drowning. Her children’s giggles from Armin’s finger wiggling and silly faces sent her heart soaring and her husband’s nudges and kisses into her neck let her body know she was alive. She closed her eyes.
A knock at the door raised their heads. Armin rubbed her arm and kissed Annie’s temple in recognition he’d get it. After he opened the door, his eyes and smile were stagnant of emotion until they grew large, his arms raising up in welcome.
Annie’s heart stopped.
“You’re just in time!” Armin moved to the side, inviting the visitor inside. “Come in and meet your new granddaughter! We haven’t named her yet but I think you’ll want to hear it.”
Annie held the baby tighter, driving the infant to fidget while her son jumped from her side and sprinted away. Focused iceberg blue never left the door, watching as footsteps and a cane slowly passed the threshold. A hobbled leg was taken prisoner by the man’s grandson and Armin joined in to capture the old man in a hug.
When her father finally turned around to face her, the first thing Annie saw was his proud smile.
Annie’s eyelids flew open. The sharp sting of cold blew over her shoulders as her torso shot up, sweat dripping down her forehead and wetting the back of her neck.
Wide eyes discovered she was back in her cell, an iron-barred door clamped shut before her, the stones damp and dreary as the shadows of torchlight danced against them.
Panting, Annie fell back onto her cot, vibrating orbs staring at the ceiling through a cage of fingers. Her breath hitched, feeling her cheek and fingers wetten and come away slick with tears.
Every moment where her heart swelled and warmth alighted her nerves was a peaceful figment. Armin was beyond the walls, cultivating his strategies and analyzing the enemy; her father was across the sea, sitting with the limp she gave him, waiting for her return while she laid here, sweating on a creaking cot, free from her crystal and stowed away deep in the Survey Corps dungeons.
One more year to live, her purpose of ending the race within these walls still standing unfulfilled, and this place was such a hellhole. As horrid as Marley was, at least there was a chance to live a prosperous life and avoid invasion by man-eating monsters.
Annie balled her fists over her face, repeating a mantra she built to help keep her heart cold: Paradis and the world was her enemy, this place was a death sentence, Father is waiting.
So why didn’t these stupid tears stop?
She curled in on herself and cradled her pillow, desperate to fill an aching emptiness she never imagined feeling. Annie threw her paper-thin blanket over her back, wrapping it tightly around her arms and rubbing her cheek into her shoulder. Her eyelids fell, focusing on the warmth and softness around her, falling back into the dark, until slowly, the pillow in her arms stirred and cooed, her son’s giggle mixing with Armin’s laugh filling her ears, a barrier of warmth returning.
Only here, drowning in the depths of her dreams and desires could she have her father and call the most self-less man she’d ever known and his children hers.
She was home.
Ending inspired by song The Dark of You: Breaking Benjamin