His chest is pressed against Annie’s back, face resting comfortably in the dip between her neck and shoulder. The muscles in her throat no longer stand out like cords when he holds her from behind, she’s more comfortable with this, but an impatient elbow still ends up digging into his ribs.
“I can’t move.” Annie flatly explains. Armin nudges the side of her head with his own, not really answering her. He feels her lips wrinkle down into a frown. “Armin.”
Armin detects the growing authority in her voice so he lifts his face up, his lips poking out in a pout. “But I’m comfortable.”
“Well, I’m not so move.” She pokes him again to push him back and logic yells at him that he really should let her go, yet Armin chooses to respond only with a smile. His arms are wrapped around her waist with his fingers laced in front of her swollen belly, taking in the movement softly fluttering beneath his hands. A giddy sensation burns Armin’s cheeks and his face starts to ache; he isn’t used to smiling for so long.
Knowing when Armin is happy has become a sixth sense for Annie and it prompts her to raise a curious brow. “The baby moves every day.” She explains matter-of-factly. “I don’t see why this time is so different.”
She isn’t wrong. This isn’t the first time the little one has moved and much to Annie’s chagrin, it won’t be the last either. Armin lifts his head, searching for the answer Annie looks to him for.
He recognizes that it’s because of this setting. For the first time since Annie awoke, Hange agreed to let them meet outside her cell, to cook her own dinner in the wood-paneled Survey Corps kitchen rather than it be served on a metal tray. Soldiers standing sentry are visible through the window before them, voicing to Annie a silent threat that she is and always will be surrounded, but the starry, night sky with the moon glowing at its zenith overpowers their presence. All of it makes Armin feel like this is how it should be: to be safe in a house with Annie where they could come and go as they please, free from the chaos always pounding at the wall’s gates.
To be alone with each other and their baby.
“Armin, I’m serious the food is about to burn so you need to move now.”
Reason reigns Armin back in and he steps back, letting his arms fall away from her. He combs his fingers through his short, flaxen hair while she frantically works to juggle seasoning and sautéing vegetables. Armin makes a concerned hum and steps to her side to offer his help, but he holds back when Annie whips around and points a threatening wooden spoon at his nose.
“Ah-ah, sit down.” She orders him. “I told you, I’ve got this.”
He obeys her outright this time lest his hand--or his head--gets whacked. He takes a seat at the long, wooden table in the middle of the room, admiring how much this room has changed. Many nights were spent here, theorizing how to break Annie free, only food was hard to come by and when a loaf of bread was given, Armin was too in his head to eat. Now he’s surrounded by surplus, the cabinets full of fresh crops and preserved meats, showing how far this starved little island has come.
Armin gravitates back to Annie when she moves, her nightdress flowing beneath her knees as she travels from the spice rack to the stove, putting the final touches to dinner. Months have passed since she escaped stasis and his mind can’t help itself from studying her.
A golden waterfall of blond cascades past her shoulders along with her waist and hips sporting more shapely curves, but Annie has gained barely an inch of height, her skin somehow paler due to lack of sunlight. Armin hopes he can bring her out some day, let her feel the sun on her face, even if it’s only for a moment. He’d beg Hange if he had to, especially if she is open to him taking a picture with Annie outside, where he could carry the photo in his pocket and pretend it was taken on a family picnic day.
He would take anything if it meant having something that keeps his family close when he’s away.
Armin snaps out of it when a flaky mackerel is placed before him. A bundle of vegetables sits next to it and he’s not sure where she got the rice came from. He isn’t too keen about dinner staring back at him but Annie has worked hard at it; he also knows she’s annoyed at the unexpected amount of waddling she did while cooking, and if he dares chuckle at how adorably difficult it looks for her to walk and sit down, Armin can kiss goodbye the luxury of having an unfractured skull.
Orbs filled with seawater twinkle as he says, “Thank you, Annie. It looks delicious!”
Annie can’t manage to suppress the pleased curl lifting the side of her lips, but Annie’s eyes expresses her skepticism. “Save your praise until after you try it. I haven’t exactly gotten used to the age of your kitchens...or had practice.”
“Nonsense, I’m sure it’ll be great!” Armin sticks his fork into the mackerel and plugs the chunk into his mouth. Slowly, his cheeks flare with heat and he manages to keep his smile even through the awkward silence and lip-twitching over his fork. Invisible puffs of smoke burst out from his ears; he’s not a spice person and she’s used far too much paprika and the fish is dry and tough as he munches. A tiny fish bone pokes into his gums, but he pegs that as his own fault for not checking first.
Her arching brow is paired with an imperceptible smile. “That bad, huh?”
Armin waves his hands in front of him. “H-Hang on, I’ve only had one bite! Maybe it’s a little overcooked and the amount of paprika is a bit much, but maybe some people like it that way!” He aims his utensil at the cluster of veggies on his plate. “And I still have this left to try.” He scoops it up and shoves it in his mouth. “Mmm, tasty!”
The ice-blue torches that are Annie’s eyes always feel to be analyzing him, picking him apart bit by bit. If Armin didn’t do the same thing to her, perhaps he would feel more uncomfortable about it. “If my food tester says so.” She sighs amusedly. “After all, you wouldn’t lie about something being good for a pregnant woman after she slaves away for you.”
Armin almost chokes on one of the small fish bones. He’s aware she is trying to get a rise out of him and he really is telling the truth that half of dinner is good, but Annie calls attention to a book he remembers reading. He can’t believe he’s forgotten and as Annie brings up the fork, his hand shoots forward, blocking her mouth from the slice of fish at her lips.
“This is good...but I don’t think it’s good for you. One of the medicine books the Marleyans gave us say this fish has a lot of mercury and it can cause problems in pregnant women.” Annie’s heart skips a beat when the sincerity in his gaze eases the skin around his eyes. “Sorry, I should have said something before you went through all this trouble. I’ll eat it this batch and then I’ll make dinner for you.”
Annie’s face is relaxed but Armin can see the touched surprise in her eyes. “You don’t have to be polite.” She reasons. “Just say you don’t want it and we can throw it away. You don’t have to force yourself to-”
Armin stuffs the fish into his mouth forkful after forkful, a focused trench stuck between his eyebrows the whole way. Annie nearly chuckles when she observes how her vegetables and rice are swallowed more easily than the fish; Armin actually looks pleased after each gulp.
When the plates are empty, Armin lifts his head, his wide smile childish with flecks of skin bordering around his lips. “Done.”
The persistent curl edging Annie’s lips shows she is flattered, thankful even, but she is not above teasing during a tender moment. “Mm, and don’t you look like you think you deserve a medal for finishing it all.”
The napkin Armin rubs on his lips scrapes away the scales and hides his amused smile. His stare explains she shouldn’t give him more openings to critique her cooking, but Annie only shrugs, a gentle laugh escaping that shakes her shoulders as she rests her face in her hand. She surrenders, for now.
“Sasha de-boned some chickens today.” Armin brings up. “I can find them and cook that for you instead.” He stands up, his eyes warm and Annie’s heart hammers against her ribcage. “I also read that it’s healthier for both of you too.”
Annie’s right hand holds her face until she snaps it to the side, hiding her blush from him. Her persisting shyness is cute to Armin and it spurs a plume of triumph to inflate his chest and move more quickly about the room to find the poultry Sasha hides.
While Armin works his way around the booby-traps Sasha has set-up around her stash, the young mother-to-be drums her fingers against her cheek. This flood of emotions could be tagged as her own hormones raging once again, but she finds that isn’t entirely true. Her thoughts for the past few months have been a mess, exacerbated only by her past following her to the island and the discovery of her pregnancy. She doesn’t understand many things, like why Armin doesn’t leave to find some noble girl instead of trapping himself in social isolation with her. He still has a chance to maintain his image, and in her perspective, him not running away while he has the chance is the stupidest thing Armin’s ever done.
“Ow!” Armin hollers.
Annie’s sight zips to the irritated blond who shakes his bright-red fingers. “Ow...putting a nest of rat-traps around food is just unnecessary and mean.” He sucks on his injured digits. “...I guess I should just be thankful Sasha didn’t put some poison gas tripwire if I got to the food…”
Armin thinks about how the idea isn’t exactly far-fetched and quickly swipes the chicken breasts from their hiding place. He unwraps it from the paper, humming a tune as he starts the stove and plants the chicken inside the pan.
Annie stares out the window while Armin cooks. Beyond the walls is where her desire for a normal life was born, sitting alone in the house she grew up in. Guilt vines around Annie’s heart, wondering how Father is doing, how disappointed he would be to see her not only being friendly with the enemy, but working on a family with one of the island devils too. The frightened child inside still yearns for his praise and love, begs to be released from her duties.
It’s a cycle she worries she’ll impose on her children too.
Armin’s baby keeps struggling to get comfortable, so much so that Annie shifts a bit in her chair and moves her hands to rest where her underbelly meets the top of her thighs. The sensation is not... entirely annoying, but she is acutely aware of her lack of patience and is nervous for how she will be pushed further once the baby is born. She’s selfish, not good with words or physical contact, overprotective of what little she has, and damn it, if one could detect a bad mother by smell she would reek.
“We both agreed to try and not think too much.” Armin points out from the stove. Her vision locks onto the Corpsman’s back and for a fleeting second, Armin feels as if a hot beam from a magnifying glass is aimed between his shoulder blades. “And if we are thinking too much, we’d talk about it.”
“Only if you tell me what you were thinking too.” Annie quickly counters. “I know that look you get. You can’t tell me you weren’t doing the same thing earlier.”
He looks back at her, ocean spheres softly challenging her. “Not if you think I was worrying about the baby.” He turns around to let the chicken sear, his palms resting at the edge of the counter. His focus is glued on her. “You’re not going to be an abusive mother, Annie.”
And how would you know that? She thinks to herself. Her father showed remorse and love at the end, but his callousness robbed her of a childhood. Who’s to say she won’t find a way to repeat what her father started?
She doesn’t see Armin walk up to her. She flinches when he affectionately fans out the pads of his fingers over her stomach, resting his palm on its peak. The infant inside has ceased moving seconds ago, allowing Annie some much needed peace and she breathes out a long sigh. She lifts a hand and places it over Armin’s.
“We also haven’t thought up of names yet.” Annie spots how his voice dips with gentle caution. “It’s past seven months and we don’t have anything lined up.”
Annie doesn’t buy that he hasn’t thought of names as Armin is the type to look towards the future. She, on the other hand, wars with herself to tell him why she holds back. Armin is close friends with a Beast whose onyx dots watch her every move, shoot her the elevator daily to ensure she is taking care of herself, that her dinner tray is empty, and Annie isn’t naive enough to think that she does it all for a traitor’s sake. Armin is precious to Mikasa, so therefore his children are, but Annie’s glacial glare fights her rival at every turn, warning that if she’s bold enough to think she can so much as touch her baby, she’ll see a true monster.
“Annie,” Armin says so gently, the armor around her heart cracks. He kneels down next to her to get on an even level with her. “Please tell me what’s going on.”
Mikasa’s stare and comments are lodged in Annie’s brain like a pesky thorn and she swears the wound is infected. It’s putting her head in a daze, the shell she wears cracking all around her until a wide enough gap forms, allowing Annie to blurt out, “Mikasa thinks it’s a boy.”
The only reaction Annie gets from Armin is a rapid series of blinks. “How can she tell for sure? Not even Marley has the technology to find out the gender.”
Annie hesitates again. She isn’t sure and after Annie prodded Mikasa with the same question Armin asked, the black-haired girl admitted to not knowing either.
“Just a hunch.” Annie remembers the black-haired woman saying. She stood before her in the cell, eyes averted and far-away in thought. I’ve heard somewhere that boys sit lower in the womb than girls and mothers can tell when they are carrying differently.” Eyes too similar in looking as soulless and hollow as Annie’s stare back at her. “That’s what you look like.”
“A hunch.” Annie responds. “That’s all she’d say.”
“Then that's probably all it is.”
That made Armin’s brows rise. Mikasa is intelligent, but Annie figures she assumes off a baseless gut-feeling. Sasha’s instincts, on the other hand, are razor sharp and has bred livestock for years. Instincts attuned to nature paired with fierce intellect made their son’s existence more convincing.
Armin scratches his chin thoughtfully. “Okay. Then is that why you’ve been acting this way? A little more...”
Before he can finish, Annie’s lips peel back into a snarl. “Acting in what way?”
Armin’s eyes widen in realization that he’s talked himself into no-man’s land and quickly backpedals. “What I meant was, is Sasha and Mikasa telling you the gender a reason why you wanted to cook? Do more things outside the cell? You’ve never wanted to before and you...you’ve even asked for a book on how to knit.”
His tone is incredulous and it makes Annie’s stare turn icy “I’m trapped underground all day and get bored. I’d read anything.” The female shifter still glowers at the soldier bowing his head in surrender, but she decides to think about his question more deeply, “Her saying that just made this all feel more...real.”
Armin curiously tilts his head. “Being told it’s a boy makes it feel more real than the baby moving?”
He is asking a genuine question, but she flashes him an angry glare anyway and Armin slaps his forehead with his palm in acknowledgement that he isn’t doing well at being sensitive right now. “Yes. I don’t know how to explain it, but that’s how I feel. It’s not like being a mother was ever on my life’s agenda.”
Armin’s gaze is apologetic, sad even. He holds the hand atop her stomach tighter, running a thumb over her knuckles. “I know you don’t believe me, but I know you’ll do great. Whether it’s a boy or girl, we’ll be okay. Just wait and see.”
She doesn’t believe him, though the comforting lilt in his voice and grounding hold makes Annie more open to the possibility. She feels that what could be their son is comfortable now, resting and waiting like his parents to see him in two months. Anxiety constricts her chest.
Annie has heard of both women and babies dying during childbirth and this occurring in a place where science is more advanced. If Marley has birthing troubles, who's to say this remote island won’t have it and it be ten times worse?
She’s distracted from her worries when a charred smell stings her nostrils. Annie recognizes the aroma and lets out a chuckle that’s between amused and condescending. “I think overcooked just became burnt.”
Armin gives her a puzzled look before his memory starts up again. “Oh, Oh crap!” He darts back to the stove, scrambling to save the chicken. Annie waits patiently until she sees that all he brings back are two crisp chicken breasts too close to being completely burnt.
“I guess neither of us have very good timing.” Annie posits with a light smile.
Annie has to fight not to laugh as a tight-lipped line forms across Armin’s mouth. He crosses his arms and sits back in his chair, disappointed. “...I was distracted.”
“And I was being held captive. Not so easy to beat the cooking clock, is it?”
Armin’s displeased frown stays aimed at his failed attempt at dinner, keeping his arms crossed. It’s not long before he snickers, more snickers escaping through his teeth, then soon erupts into laughter. Annie can’t resist and laughs a little with him. “I guess both of us need a little more practice.” Armin sheepishly admits. “At least you did better than me. Yours actually looked like dinner and you’ve been gone for years. Mine is just...there.”
She almost wants to punch him for reflecting her teasings so easily and even dragging her along to laugh with him. “Yes, you could have done better.” She puts it bluntly. Her desire to tease evaporates and is replaced with sympathy. “But at least you tried.”
The Corpsman nods at that, murmuring quietly, “Right.” They sit across from each other for a silent moment, the plates in front of them becoming cold until Armin reaches out for her hand. She grabs ahold and his voice is beautifully genuine when he says, “Practice makes perfect, Annie. In more ways than one.” He squeezes her hand. “So, keep trying.”
Tears burn behind Annie’s eyelids, her stomach dipping like she’s swallowed a stone. This man caressing her is sweet, considerate, and motivating, everything she wanted in a father. She hangs onto his hand for dear life, thankful to know that even if she happens to misstep during motherhood, Armin will be there to help her and their baby—their son. She’s never made good choices but choosing Armin and carrying his child to term are the best decisions she’s ever made.
Annie brushes her thumb over his fingers. Her doubt isn’t completely broken, but she can believe in herself when she responds softly with, “I’ll keep trying.”