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Like Poison From a Wound

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He was everything.

He wasn’t everything in the way teenagers were expected to be everything to one another. It wasn’t love, not really, because love was a gateway to emotions Annie couldn’t afford to have—but he was the one thing she allowed herself to treasure, and therefore, he was everything.

She couldn’t bring herself to kill him.

It was easy to look down on the others, who mistook insignificant moments of kindness for proof of her benevolence. They looked at her as if they knew what lay beneath her prickly shell: a well of good waiting to be released at a later date. They saw her as one of them, someone who would rise to the challenge when the time came, but they were wrong.

She would not fight with them, after all.

Armin was different. He didn’t make assumptions, and he suffered no delusions where she was concerned. Where others saw self-deprecating humor, he recognized self-loathing. Where others saw harmless laziness, he recognized the signs of depression. He took the time to see her, all of her, without dismissing the ugly parts—but what he saw still seemed to please him. He still smiled when she entered a room.

It was as if he saw something she didn’t, beneath it all. Like one day he’d reveal it all to her in some great trick, and she would find out she’d been a good person all along.

Maybe that was why she couldn’t kill him: she wanted to see him do just that.

When the fight within Sina turned sour, she knew she’d never get the chance to. As the crystal formed around her torso, encasing her heart and lungs and fanning outward to enclose her shoulders, her neck, she spared a thought for him. She had betrayed him now, confirmed that she was responsible for countless deaths, and now he would hate her.

It didn’t matter. It was her responsibility to crack open this world, to penetrate its dark shell and draw out what agonized trace of humanity remained, like poison from a wound—to stamp out all life within the walls.

Only once they were all dead—only then—would the world be rebuilt.

Not by her. She was infected with the same festering disease as everyone else, for all that it took a different shape. The world would be rebuilt by others, by people who didn’t exist yet, who weren’t tainted.

She didn’t think of those people when the crystal took shape around her, though. She didn’t think of hope or the mission or her father’s lessons.

Instead, she thought of him.

 


 

 

Annie lived in a realm of warm weightlessness, where there were no other people and no responsibilities. Nothing hurt. She didn’t think, didn’t plan, didn’t drift—her existence was void, until the crystal slumber began to come to its end.

Waking from the crystal was like waking up on a winter morning, huddled warm beneath blankets as the world outside shivered. Thoughts were fleeting, rising to the surface of her mind only to sink back down before they could fully form.  

It didn’t last long enough. The fog in her mind cleared, and she found herself not waking but awake, bracing herself for hell. She was in a dank vault, strapped to a bed. Her arms and legs were tied down with thick leather belts, her fingernails cut to the quicks. A gag kept her from biting down on her tongue.

A stranger was looking down at her, peering into her eyes.

“She’s awake,” he called, though Annie couldn’t see who he was talking to. She craned her neck to see the rest of the room. There was nothing in here save a nightstand and a few stools, illuminated by a large lantern hanging from a hook set in the ceiling. There were no bars locking her in, just a heavy-looking door that opened to reveal another stranger—a woman, this time.

“I’m going to take off your gag,” the woman said, approaching the bed, “If you try to bite your tongue, I’ll be forced to put it back on more permanently. Given the depth of this room, your transformation would only make the whole place cave in on top of you.”

Annie laid her head back against the mattress—there was no pillow—and closed her eyes. She didn’t want the gag taken off. It wouldn’t make any difference. She wondered, vaguely, whether Bertholdt and Reiner were still alive. If she was still in captivity, did that mean they were dead?

“I’ve been waiting for this a long time,” the woman said as she took off the gag. “You really had us fooled, you know that?”

Her words were enough to make Annie open her eyes again, examining her. She didn’t wear a uniform jacket, but perhaps her face was familiar after all. It was—yes.

One of her former military police teammates. Clutch, or something.

She was older now, her face less rounded and her hair longer, tied behind her head, but she still had a face that annoyed Annie. Most people had faces that annoyed Annie, but Clutch’s was worse than most.

“Remember me?” Clutch asked as she finished with the gag. “We joined the military police together. My name’s Hitch.”

Oh, Hitch—right. Close enough.

Annie said nothing.

“Let’s talk, hm? Let’s start small. Why were you trying to kidnap the Jaeger boy?”

They still hadn’t figured that out? From Hitch’s face, Annie guessed she’d been in the crystal for at least five years now—about as long as she’d intended, though crystallization was no exact science. She’d expected things to be decided by now, one way or another. Five years had seemed like an eternity to Annie when she chose the approximate length of her sleep. It had seemed like a logical decision at the time, but perhaps it was weakness—an attachment to the people she knew—that caused her to choose such a short period to lie in waiting.

“Won’t talk, hm? I can make you talk, you know. I’ve learned a lot since we last saw each other.”

Annie’s guts twisted. She hated pain.

“You don’t look so brave now,” Hitch said, grinning.

“I’m bored,” Annie said. Her voice was rough with disuse, though not five years’ worth. She wondered how long it would be before her body’s functions would resume—before she’d need to eat and drink and empty her bladder. She hoped it would take a while; thirst was a potent form of torture. “If you hurt me, I’ll crystallize again.”

“She’s bluffing,” the man behind Hitch said. He was older, with glazed-over eyes and a stupid-looking face.

“I’m not,” Annie said, striving for a careless tone. The truth was that she couldn’t crystallize without her titan flesh around her, but it was a truth she’d never speak—not if she valued her skin. “But I don’t want to crystallize again, either.”

Hitch took the bait. “And why’s that?”

“I’m curious,” Annie stated. “If I’m asleep, I won’t know what’s going on. And if I trigger it—well. You see how long that lasts. If I do it wrong it could last even longer.”

The other woman’s lips thinned. She wanted to cut into Annie, Annie could tell—but losing a valuable witness wouldn’t count in her favor, either.

“You fill me in on what’s happening,” Annie said. “Maybe I’ll tell you some of what I know.”

Hitch glared, but there were no more threats of violence. She said she’d consider it.

The gag was back in place shortly after, and Annie was left alone.

She hoped they believed her.

 


 

 

They didn’t torture her.

That was to say, it wasn’t torture, even if it was humiliating. They had designed some sort of jacket to keep her hands bound to her chest, and her legs were fettered whenever they walked her around the room for exercise. When she needed to use the bedpan, someone else loosened her pants and let her have one hand free to wipe herself off. There were always two people in the room during those times, as if they thought she could fight them with only one arm free. At night—or what she guessed was night—they strapped her down to the bed the way they had that first night. They left her in pitch darkness.

She told herself it wasn’t torture. It could be so much worse.

Hitch told her about some current events, while leaving out others. She said the government had been overthrown, and that a woman named Historia was now queen. Annie guessed that was Christa, though she said nothing. Hitch also said the crazy leaders of the scouting legion were calling the shots, and Annie had no idea whether that worked in her favor or not.

There was no mention of Eren, who was essential to Annie’s cause. No mention of Armin, either, though he was not essential.

She reminded herself of that daily:

Armin Arlert was not essential.

 


 

 

Annie didn’t know how many days it had been since she’d woken up. Her life was a slow progression of inane questions, embarrassing bathroom breaks, and long hours spent staring into darkness, and it was better if she didn’t keep count.

So she didn’t know how many days there were between her waking up and Armin Arlert walking through the door of her cell, but she knew it had been five years since she had last seen him, and those years had made a difference. The lantern in his hands revealed that much. She watched as he hung it from the hook on the ceiling.

The boy she knew was gone. He was a man now: taller, angular, shoulders thick with muscle, the baby fat in his face gone. His hair was longer, too, tied in a half ponytail behind his head. It was no longer an awkward mop of yellow.

Annie hated it. She hated the man who had taken Armin’s place.

“Long time no see,” he said, and his smile was the same: a little tentative, a lot sweet. She knew it to be false.

“Apparently,” she tried to say. The gag didn’t allow for much enunciation.

“How are you feeling?”

She shrugged, though it was awkward lying down.

Armin approached the bed. “Would you like to sit up?”

She made an affirmative noise.

First he undid the gag, his hands careful, blue eyes intent. She looked away as he undid the belt over her chest, then the one over her stomach. He released her wrists from their restraints a moment later, and she sighed in relief. It was the most freedom she’d had since waking up: her whole upper body free, and only one other person in the room. She wondered how Armin had been allowed to do away with security procedure; no one else undid her restraints alone.

A ploy, probably. Armin was fond of those.

She didn’t look at him as she sat up, stretching sore muscles. Like this, she could get her whole back, and loosen her shoulders. It felt amazing.

“I know you can’t transform here,” Armin said, sitting down on one of the stools. “I’ve told your guards. You should be more comfortable from here on out.”

Her head snapped around. “How could you know a thing like that?”

“You’re not the only titan shifter in the world. We’ve learned a few things.”

She tried not to look too interested, though it was hard. Eren was their hope; if he was still alive, if the coordinate was still known, they might all be saved. “Eren?”

“He’s not the only titan shifter, either.”

Armin was watching her in that measuring way of his, though it looked strange on his grown-up face. He was handsome, she thought, probably greatly admired by younger recruits who didn’t remember him as being weak.

She had never thought him weak, not in the ways that mattered.

“You’re not going to tell me if he’s alive,” she said, letting annoyance slip into her voice. She didn’t think she could play this version of Armin when he held all the cards. Instead she tried to read the truth in his face, wondering how Eren’s death would affect him. Would it break him? Was the man in front of her broken?

There were scars, certainly. Most of them were across his hands and forearms, visible where he’d rolled up his shirt sleeves. His face was mostly untouched. She wondered if there were other scars beneath the straps of the 3D gear, beneath the white military uniform he wore. Imagining his form beneath the clothes sent an unexpected lance of heat through her.

Well. That was new.

“They say you’ll crystallize again if we hurt you,” Armin said, oblivious to her embarrassment. “But this must be torture for you, too. So I wondered why you would endure so much.”

He folded his hands before continuing.

“I don’t think you were telling the truth about crystallizing,” he said, making her stomach roil with nerves. “But I won’t tell them that, because I don’t think you’d crack under pressure. I do think you were telling the truth about being curious. You want Eren, don’t you? You still do.”

“He’s important,” she agreed. The coordinate. The one with the power to control the titans, and to find it. She didn’t mind admitting that they wanted him when Armin knew already.

“Why? What is the coordinate? Why is he important?”

She pretended not to hear the question, and he sighed.

“I don’t suppose there’s anything else you want to tell me?”

He expected an apology, maybe, for killing all those people. She wasn’t sorry; they were flies. She’d swatted them.

That was what she told herself, anyway.

She looked up at Armin, at his new body. He was no longer the boy she’d treasured, no longer her everything. She’d been foolish to think he could remain that way, probably, but it made her angry nonetheless, and it made her lash out.

“You think you have the upper hand,” she said. Her voice was flat. “You think that things are looking up because you have your queen, because you have Eren. You’re wrong, Armin. There is no upper hand. Eren is our hope, not yours. One day you’ll realize that.”

He looked at her intently. “How?”

Annie shook her head, knowing she’d failed to scare him. She hadn’t dented his armor, not even a little. She wanted him broken and apologetic. She wanted him as lost as she was, but he wasn’t. He had become the kind of person who stood out—like Eren. The kind of person who kept going when you pushed them down.

“I’ll come see you again soon,” he said, when she refused to answer. “Maybe you’ll tell me more then.”

She’d already told him more than she’d ever told Hitch, but that was no mistake.

Whatever she might tell herself—however much she hated this new, more confident version of Armin—she wanted him to keep coming back.

 

 

Her life got more comfortable after Armin’s visit. One of the guards brought a pillow, and the leather restraints were replaced with one iron manacle that hooked into the wall. With only one wrist restrained, Annie could move around in bed at night and—best of all—work on regaining lost muscle. They brought cold water for her to wash with, and eventually they even sent new clothes to replace the crusty hoodie and uniform pants she’d been wearing since the fight within Sina.

It helped her feel vaguely human—that and the fact that people no longer had to watch her wipe her ass.

Armin visited every day, bringing books. Their conversations were always short and fruitless, for all involved, and the books allowed Armin to prolong the visit. He read to her about oceans and sand seas and mountains. Another ploy, to make her remember him as he was: a bright-eyed trainee with a passion that could set others alight. The problem was that she did remember him, and she remembered he was smart, and dedicated to the cause.

She also remembered that he ought to be angry with her, and he wasn’t.

She couldn’t trust a boy—man—who didn’t get angry.

Despite the lack of progress, the readings didn’t stop, and Annie didn’t mind.  She didn’t let his deepened voice work on her heart strings, didn’t imagine that he was reading to her like a friend might read to a convalescent. She refused to let him dredge up memories of the boy she had come close to loving, and so she did all she could to distract herself from his words.

She became an expert at imagining his clothes off. She would start with the front clasp across his chest, so she could worm her hand under one of the shoulder straps and slide it off. She would run her hands over his chest, feeling his warm skin through his shirt, and he would inhale sharply. She’d slip off the other strap shortly after, and the back brace would fall to the floor with a dull thud.

What are you doing? he might ask. Or maybe he wouldn’t—the man in front of her couldn’t be a virgin, after all. He would gaze at her knowingly, not moving.

She would continue to undress him.

In her fantasies, he went along with it eventually. He was keen to manipulate, and he’d use anything he had at his disposal, including his body.

She would unzip his uniform pants and release his erection from its confines—he’d be hard already, even though he hadn’t meant for it to happen—and she would stroke along his shaft like she knew what she was doing. Then she’d grab his shoulders and press up against him, straddling him, so he hit her just so—

“Annie?”

“Hm?”

“Are you listening?”

She’d told him flat-out that she wouldn’t listen the first time he’d come down here with those stupid books. “Of course I’m not.”

His erection would be hard and warm against her, and she’d feel it through the material of her pants—

“Why not?” he asked.

“I already know about the outside world,” she said in frustration. “Why would I need you to tell me about it?”

His eyes widened, and for a moment Annie thought she glimpsed the real Armin.

“Tell me, then,” he said. The look on his face stole her breath. It made her chest feel tight with longing for the boy he’d been, the one who hadn’t known what she was.

She flopped back onto the bed with a rattle of chains, frustration running through her. It was all an act, she reminded herself. Even if it made her heart speed up. Even if it made her want to kiss him and tell him anything.

She was his enemy. It was a stroke of luck, really, that the pure boy she’d known was gone.

“Have sex with me,” she said. “I’m bored. You’ve done it by now, right?”

He closed the book he was holding, tilting his head curiously. “What’s your plan? Hold me hostage against the people outside? Tell them you’ll kill me if they don’t let you out?”

She raised an eyebrow, wondering what he was talking about—until the meaning sank in. He thought she was trying to trap him. It was almost enough to make her laugh.

“No plan,” she said to the ceiling. At the very least, she’d made him stop reading.

He made no response, just looked at her curiously, and she couldn’t bring herself to ask a second time. He left soon after.

 


 

 

“Are you ready?” Armin asked, standing next to her. She was blindfolded, and her hands were tied in front of her, but her feet were free. A walk, he’d promised her. Just down the hall.

She nodded.

There was a sound of a door opening, and a flood of comparatively fresh air. She drank it in greedily.

They walked together, Armin’s hand on her shoulder so she wouldn’t walk into anything. Now and then he turned her, or told her about an uneven section of floor, but for the most part they walked in silence.

It made her longing for the outside world worse, if anything.

The underground complex was built in a square, and from brushing the walls Annie knew the cells were set on the outside of the square. She wasn’t sure whether the center of the square held stairs or an elevator shaft, but she would make a run for it either way.

She knew where the exit was from Armin’s carefully modulated breathing. She knew there were no guards on this floor, not right now; whatever Armin influence had—and it seemed like he had a significant amount—he had used it to give her privacy.

This was her chance.

When they’d made their way around the rectangular passage several times, she made her move. She swung her bound hands up under Armin’s jaw, knocking him away, then dashed in the other direction, reaching for her blindfold as she ran.

The hallway was poorly lit, but it looked bright to her dark-adjusted eyes. She headed for the exit, and it felt so good to run that she almost cried in relief.

She didn’t cry, though. Instead, she burst through the door to the exit, catching a glimpse of an elevator shaft before half a dozen guards blocked her vision. They jumped on her, forcing her to the ground.

She ignored the pain, the pressure, how hard it was to breath. She bit into her thumb hard, her mind clear with purpose, thinking of the shaft and how to fit in it—but nothing happened.

This time, tears really did reach her eyes. Armin had planned this. It would have been clear from the start if she hadn’t been so blindly optimistic, so desperate to get out. Had it been a test? A cruel joke? If it was a test, she’d failed.

The warmth and the tangle of bodies overwhelmed her at last, and she barely struggled as her arms were wrenched. Her previous bindings were loosened, and her hands were tied behind her back instead.

A lot more sensible than tying them in front. She should have known, damn it.

They marched her back to her room without the blindfold, done with the pretense that it mattered what she saw, and she schooled her expression. Her eyes were no longer threatening to spill over when she saw Armin rubbing his jaw outside her cell. He looked almost apologetic when she bared her teeth at him.

She wasn’t angry at him, really. She was angry at herself, for being so easy to manipulate. It was the crystal sleep, the inactivity, the lack of knowledge—it was hard to reach her center here. They treated her like a caged animal, and so she became one.

She would have to remember what she was, next time.

 

 

“I still don’t think you’re a bad person.”

Annie jerked up in bed, gasping. There was someone in her room, sitting beside her bed in the pitch darkness.

“You’ve done bad things. But I know you had a reason.”

Annie held up her blanket, as if it could protect her. When had he snuck in? Why was he sitting in the dark?

“I know you believe that reason,” Armin continued. Would he ever stop talking? “But I’d like you to consider that you may have been lied to.”

“You think I haven’t considered that?”

“I think you think you’ve considered it.”

She lay back in bed. “No reason to lie.”

“You can’t say that without knowing their motivations, and you can’t know their motivations. Not at this point in time. You’re a piece in their game.”

“And you want me to be a piece in yours?” she asked sardonically.

“I care about you. It’s more than you can say for them.”

Warmth bubbled in her stomach at his words. She ignored it, remembering her father instead. What would he say, if he could see her now?

That she should have climbed that wall faster, probably.

Armin didn’t know who “they” was; he was guessing blindly, hoping something would resonate. He couldn’t understand that the end of all human life was an end none of them really wanted. It was the rebirth that was important, and they wouldn’t be present for that.

“Have you learned where titans come from?” she asked, knowing it was a bad idea. She was going to tell him things, even though her safekeeping relied on her not telling him things; she would find herself missing a head if she ran out of things to say.

“Humans. Yes.”

“Does it strike you as odd?”

“Not really. I mean, no odder than them suddenly appearing out of nowhere. In a way it makes more sense, though science can’t explain it.”

“A disease, then?”

She heard him tap his fingers against something. “Diseases spread. They have traceable routes of transmission.” His voice made it clear no routes of transmission had been found.

“And they have incubation periods,” she said.

“You’re saying we’ll all be titans soon?”

“I’m saying we all have the potential to become titans. Only a select few of us have the ability to shift back, and that’s a dying art.”

“It can be learned?”

“No.”

She really was telling him everything tonight.

“Annie…”

He sounded tired. It was the first time he’d sounded tired, and between the darkness and the weight in his voice, she was tempted to tell him more. She was tired, too; tired of doubting him, tired of not knowing what the future held. Reiner had it in him to be brave, but she didn’t. She wanted to give up and leave the worrying to others.

“I should let you get back to sleep,” Armin said. His statement was followed by the scrape of chair legs, closer than Annie had expected, and she found herself reaching for him. Her fingers encountered the soft, worn cotton of a shirt—not the crisp white uniform one he usually wore. Had he come here straight from bed?

He caught her wrist. It was in self-defense, but she couldn’t help the shiver that went through her at his touch. “What is it, Annie?”

“What do you hope to accomplish?”

“To get outside the walls. You know that.”

“We can help,” she said, somewhat desperately. “Give us Eren. We can leave you in peace.”

“Forever?”

“For a long time.”

He sighed heavily. “Even if that was possible… I don’t have that kind of authority, Annie.”

Stop saying my name like that, she thought, hating the way he made it sound all soft around the edges, like something precious or fragile. He knew she was neither.

“We’d help him kill titans,” Annie said. “Outside the walls. We’re the only ones who can keep him safe. You’d have years to—to live peacefully.”

Provided the ape titan didn’t visit.

“I have a different idea,” Armin said. “You help us. You fight with us against the titans. You give up on your mission.”

“That’s not a possibility—”

“You think it’s not a possibility. You’ve been told—something. Some hopeless version of the truth. That we’re all infected, maybe? It would make sense, then, why you don’t feel much remorse for killing. What I can’t figure out is whether you brought down the walls to kill people or to get Eren. If it was the former, why stop there? Why not push through to Sina?”

Because we need you to distract them, she thought. We cull the titan herd until it’s manageable. Then we take down the walls and bring the ape titan back with us.

It seemed an impossibly large task while she was chained to the wall of a cell deep beneath the ground. The darkness didn’t help; it made her feel like she was already entombed, her days on the earth over. It scared her.

She reached for Armin with her free hand, catching the hand that held her wrist. She didn’t twist, or dig in her nails, reaching instead for his pulse point. His heart beat reassuringly against her fingertips, a little fast.

“There’s no future for any of us,” she said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want it this way, either.”

She drew back from him, trying to retract both hands, but he didn’t let her.

“Annie, please. Your version of the future has no hope. I know you believe there is none, but we’ll figure something else out. Please.”

He was holding both her hands now. She wished she could see his face, but she’d have to make do with her imagination. She knew what expression he wore, even in the dark: the hopeful one that tore her apart. It was strange to imagine it transposed onto his older face.

“Grisha Jaeger went against the people from your village, didn’t he?” he said, and she recognized a last-ditch attempt at convincing her when she heard one. “He was a smart man—there’s no denying that. If he saw a flaw in the plan, there’s a good chance there was one. You could help us, like he tried to. Please, Annie.”

Her hands shook, even in his grip. “Help you?” she whispered. “I know you’ll kill me, Armin.”

“Kill you? What are you talking about?”

“You could never trust me. Once my usefulness is void, I’m dead.”

His exhale was loud, surprised. “That’s what you think? Annie, no—we want you on our side. I’ll prove it to you, that your truth is wrong. And once you know that, we can trust you completely. I can trust you completely.”

She’d killed. She’d killed so many. And if she changed her mind now, those kills would count. They wouldn’t be hapless flies she’d swatted.

“Help us. Make up for what you did. I’ll get you your new truth, I promise.”

He gripped tight, just once, before letting go of her hands.

She was left alone once more, but not fully in the dark. Maybe.

She was so desperate for hope, she wanted to believe him. Believe in him.

 


 

 

Annie was lying on her side in bed, staring at the pictures in one of the books Armin had given her. The door opened, and she spared a glance for one of the guards who brought her food. He scowled at her.

She turned back to the book, wondering if she ought to believe that mountains could spew fire and smoke. She wanted to talk to Armin about it. The book showed a mountain before and after one of these “eruptions”, and the after picture had the top of it blown off. If they all did that, surely there would be no mountains left by the time they—

Hands clamped down on her ankles, and another pair grabbed her free wrist roughly. The book dropped, and she was turned onto her stomach, her arm twisted behind her.

A knee came to rest in the small of her back, the bed dipping with additional weight.

“I don’t think you can turn into that rock anymore,” a male voice whispered into her neck. The guard who’d scowled.

Cold fear slicked her armpits, dried her throat.

You won’t crack under pressure, Armin had said, and he’d been right. She’d lived and breathed pain during her training—but the thought of enduring it lying down made her stomach twist sickly. Her father had always made sure she was standing up.

“Tell us,” the woman holding her feet hissed. Hitch?

“Tell you what?” Annie asked, keeping her voice flat.

“Everything,” the man said, digging his knee in harder.

She let out a sigh and waited for worse. It came in the form of her arm being twisted further out of its usual range, until she was sure something would pop soon. Tears of pain gathered in her eyes.

“You think your champion will save you? He’s not here. He won’t be coming.”

Annie laughed at the title, at the thought that Armin was her champion. It was a long laugh—the kind that tended to creep Reiner and Bertl out, seemingly devoid of hope or sanity.

The hold on her arm loosened.

“You think he’s my champion?” she said at last. All her frustration poured out of her, all the fear she’d felt, all the times she’d known she was being manipulated. The times she’d hated herself for believing him—the way she hated herself for still wanting to believe him. “You’re nothing compared to him. I’d take your interrogation over his any day. Please tell your superiors you’re taking over. I’ll look forward to our sessions.”

“He comes to visit you at night,” Hitch said, but there was hesitation in her voice. Annie wondered at the suggestion that it had happened more than once, but she didn’t question it. “He’s sweet on you. Going easy on you.”

“You think we’re screwing?” Annie asked. “I wish. Now there’s nice way to spend an evening.”

“Shut up!” the man yelled. “It doesn’t matter. He’s not coming. What is your purpose within the walls?”

He clenched her hair in his fist, pulling at it. Annie stopped herself from flinching—it was important they thought she couldn’t feel pain, so the threat of her bluff still stood—and wondered how many lies she could tell convincingly.

 


 

 

“You should have screamed,” Armin said, pacing. His face was set in a mask of disgust, his sleeves rolled up. “Someone else would have heard. Would have come running.”

He’d found her lying weakly in bed, some hair ripped out, one shoulder dislocated, cuts across her arms and legs. They hadn’t healed; her titan abilities seemed to be gone completely, but the fact that Armin didn’t comment on it made her think it was expected. He attended to her wounds silently, his jaw tight.

There was probably something in the food. That explained a lot, and if she had the energy to hate him for it she might have.

She was so tired.

But Armin looked like he was waiting for a response, so she shrugged her unhurt shoulder. He had set the other one, leaving a dull ache and full range of motion.

“I’m sorry, Annie,” he said. He was laying it on a bit thick with the concern. Had he sent the guards who’d hurt her, to break her down? To make her trust him? “I thought I could trust the people here.”

She shrugged again. “They’re afraid to do much. Just in case I’m not bluffing.”

“And are you?”

“You think I am, don’t you?”

“That’s just my theory. I can’t be sure. Can you do it?”

Annie glared. She wouldn’t give him confirmation on anything, not when it might mean more attempts at torture.

Armin looked surprised for a moment before he smoothed his expression. “You… really don’t trust me, do you?”

She shook her head mutely.

“What if Eren promised? Or Mikasa?”

“They’re still alive?”

Armin nodded.

Her body felt shaky. For weeks she’d tried to manipulate the information out of him, and now he was giving it up for free? Just like that?

“I wouldn’t trust them because they’d kill me the moment they saw me again.”

He huffed out a breath, before touching his hand to his lips thoughtfully. “Probably true, although Eren hates Reiner and Bertholdt more than he hates you.”

Annie’s guts clenched at the mention of her former companions. It must have been hard for them, when the other trainees found out about them. Her disgust for them—her disgust for all three of them—precluded any feelings of affection, but she could empathize.

“Still want me to fight for your side?” Annie asked, thinking of Eren’s hatred. It would be hard to fight alongside him, that was for sure. Armin regarded her seriously.

“I do. It’s the one way to make them stop hating you.”

“And you?”

“Me what?”

“Will it make you stop hating me?”

He’ll tell you anything, Annie reminded herself, expecting him to deny hating her, but his response surprised her.

“I’ll still hold you accountable,” he said. “You could have helped us, told us—you could have decided we were worth telling. But I realize you were trying to do good. You must have been; I can’t believe you hurt people just because you felt like it. I can’t think that way forever, though. If I’m not successful—if I can’t get you over to our side—you’ll be my enemy.”

There was a lump in Annie’s throat. She tried to think of the mission, but all she could think of was being Armin’s enemy. She imagined walking up to the executioner’s block, her eyes meeting his one last time. Seeing disgust.

Or would the scouting legion keep her here, for testing? Would he visit, then, with cold eyes and tight lips?

She covered her face with her hands, drawing her legs up, pressing into the wall behind her as if she might disappear entirely. This underground cell wasn’t life. So what if she jeopardized the mission? Couldn’t she find her own way to go about it? If everyone was doomed to transition eventually anyway, couldn’t she wait until then? Why speed the process up with killing?

Grisha had placed his trust in humanity—in his son. Following in his footsteps would mean she could never return to her father, to her home, but did she want to? For so long the thought of seeing pride in her father’s eyes had kept her going—a fantasy where he grinned and ruffled her hair when he saw her again, his voice rough with affection—but now she wasn’t sure anymore.

Her father loved her, but maybe—maybe not for the right reasons.

“Annie?”

Of course, she couldn’t trust Armin either. He made it sound like they’d let her fight for them, but when it came down to it they were likely to pump her for information and kill her, or let her rot down here while they did tests on her body.

She couldn’t trust anyone.

The bed dipped under Armin’s weight as he hopped up to sit next to her, making Annie jump. This was the closest he’d ever come with her unrestrained.

“What are you doing?” she asked. If she wanted, she could jump him; she had a fair chance of knocking him out if she used the manacle to strike his head. Was he that confident in his new body? Or did he think her wounds would slow her?

He looked at her, and she noticed again how he’d grown. Seated next to one another, backs to the wall, her eyes were only level with his chin.

“You’re considering it, aren’t you?” he asked.

“That’s what you want, right?”

“It is.”

Betray her people. Betray the cause.

She wasn’t a stranger to betrayal, though. Her father had made sure of that.

“What do I get out of it?”

He looked surprised. “What, besides out?”

“I can’t trust that. I don’t think you’ll let me out, and if you do, I foresee a lot of harassment, and people trying to kill me, and people telling me to feel guilty. So what’s in it for me, besides more pain?”

He sighed. “What do you want to be in it for you, Annie?”

“Have sex with me,” she said, her voice and her stare as flat as she could make them. She wasn’t quite prepared for him to snort loudly and surge forward, clutching his hands over his mouth as if she’d said something hilarious.

“Wait,” he said, after a long look at her face. He sat back slowly. “You were serious? That time?”

She allowed a small smile, mortified as she was. “I’m not likely to experience it, otherwise.”

His expression turned thoughtful. “And you think this is the only way? Convincing me? You think you have to strike a bargain for it?”

She folded her arms. “Yes or no, Arlert.”

Suddenly—unexpectedly—he blushed. She stared in amazement. She’d forgotten he could still be embarrassed, and the sight of it made her stomach twist almost pleasantly.

“I, ah—well. I think you have the wrong idea.”

It was like a punch in the gut. She’d been expecting it, but at the same time it hurt to hear, absurd as the request was.

“No,” he amended, seeing her face. “Not that. I mean—I think… ah. The kind of sex you probably have in mind—I haven’t done that before. It’s not exactly encouraged in the legion.”

He looked away, beet red.

Hope unfurled in her chest. It wasn’t a rejection of her terms, after all. The idea that he wasn’t as experienced as she’d imagined didn’t matter, as long as he was still willing to screw her. Why she should care so much about being with him physically, she didn’t know. It had started as a distraction, imagining him like that—but it had changed into something else. When she touched herself thinking about him, she forgot that he resented her, forgot the real Armin.

It would be so nice, to have him forget with her. Maybe he could. He did a good job of pretending to stand her, most days.

That was why it had to be him. He was the only one who could convince her—

Who was she kidding? It had to be him, period. It always had to be him, for her.

“So is that a yes?” she asked. “Or a no?”

He buried his face in his hands. “I don’t know. Let me think about it.” His face appeared a moment later, the blush already fading. “You really mean it, though? That you’ll--?”

“I’m considering it,” she said. In truth, she’d more or less decided—but she would get what she could out of the bargain.

He left soon after, still embarrassed in a way that reminded Annie of his younger self. The fact that he’d never done it before was a disappointment—in her fantasies he always took charge, maneuvering her under him, his lips and hands bruising—but she’d be satisfied with anything. At heart, she wanted to be close to someone. Once.

To be with him while he was still pretending to be within her reach.

 


 

 

The next day, Armin didn’t visit. It wasn’t unusual for him to stay away for a day at a time, but that day passed, and then another.

Two days in a row was rare. Someone else took off her bandages, and the skin beneath them was healed.

She wondered how long it took full humans to heal. The same amount of time? Longer?

Time passed slowly. She was considering sleep at the end of the second day when Armin came to her in the pitch darkness, the way he had that night. He said nothing, for a time, but she knew she had heard the door open—had seen the dim hallway behind him.

It was him, and yet—she wanted to make sure. Armin could have picked a lookalike. It wasn’t probable, but it was possible.

“Marco’s gear,” she said, trying not to let her voice tremble. “What was the most obvious marking?”

He let out a breath. Maybe he’d expected to find her asleep. Maybe he wasn’t Armin at all, and readying some excuse for not knowing.

“The long V,” he said. “On the left scabbard.”

Annie’s heart thudded painfully. It was him. He was here, in the dark, with her.

“You took your time,” she said. Vaguely, she wondered if maybe he’d found another person, so his first time like this wouldn’t be with her. Was there someone in his life? She hadn’t even considered the possibility before.

He approached the bed, saying nothing. She drew up her legs, and the bed dipped a moment later. Annie reached, and Armin reached back. Her breath caught.

A part of her wanted to backtrack, to tell him he didn’t have to. This was coercion. It was wrong. It was one more sin on top of all the others.

His fingers slid along her wrist, up to her elbow. Her resolve weakened. He moved closer, so she felt his warm breath across her collar. His fingers reached the skin of her neck, where her pulse thudded.

Her resolve was gone.

I love you, Armin.

It was on the tip of her tongue, but if she loved him she wouldn’t make him do this. She loved selfishly, and was it ever love, if it was selfish?

“Annie,” he whispered. He managed to make it sound like a greeting, a sigh. His acting was top-notch; she gave him that.

She let out a shuddering sigh.

Armin’s head bumped hers. He shifted, and their mouths met.

Her first kiss.

It was hard to breathe with her chest so constricted, but it wasn’t hard to move her mouth against his. Her hands came up to hold his face, her fingers sliding into his soft hair. It was tied back the way it always was, bangs covering his forehead, and a part of her bemoaned the lack of light. She wished she could see him, enjoy him. She wished she could look forward to seeing his face as he held her close, as he found his release—but perhaps this way he could imagine someone else, and she couldn’t resent him for that.

His hand moved to cup the back of her neck, his mouth forceful. His tongue drove into her mouth, causing heat to blossom in her chest. He wasn’t gentle, the way she’d feared he would be. If he was gentle, the pretense would be too obvious; she needed him to be rough.

His hands grasped the blanket, pulling it back so it was no longer between them. She slid down onto the bed, and with her legs free she was able to place them on either side of him, to wrap them around his hips and pull him into her.

There: his heat, his weight. She looped the chain around her wrist and rolled them, using the chain as an anchor so they didn’t move past the edge of the bed. She ended up on top, pressing down against him. Her fingers found the buttons of his shirt, her mouth still on his.

Every moment she expected him to say no, to stop her, but there was no sign of hesitation. His hands were hot on her thighs, and his lips met hers with enthusiasm—she could feel him pushing up against her, holding the contact.

She sat up briefly, to open up his shirt when all the buttons were undone. Armin let his head fall back against the pillow as she ran her fingers over his chest, feeling the bumps and ridges of scars, the calluses where maneuver gear had chafed for years.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” Armin said, sounding almost clinical about it. His erratic breathing was the only sign that he wasn’t a scientist observing aberrant behavior. She laughed, just a little.

“Neither can I.”

He caught her wrist, the free one, holding it still against his chest. “We can’t—you know. Risk anything.”

“What?” What did he mean? “You think I’ll tell?”

“Not you. Your body.”

For a moment Annie was confused—was he worried about leaving hickeys?—but then she caught on. “Oh. Pregnancy.”

A rustle indicated a nod of his head against the pillow.

“You don’t have to worry about that, with me.”

“Oh?”

She sighed, wishing he’d conceal his interest better. This wasn’t the time to explain about her overactive immune system, how hard it was for female shifters to conceive. Close to impossible unless they were trying—and one transformation would undo whatever life had formed.

“Trust me?” she said tentatively. That might not be good enough for him—he might think she was trying to entrap him. “I don’t—I wouldn’t bring a child into this world, not even if it meant my freedom. I promise.”

He pulled at the wrist he held, rolling so she was under him again. He brushed the hair back from her face.

“Then trust me,” he said. “If you help us, you’ll have your freedom. I promise.”

Her throat was tight.

“Do you believe me?”

No, she thought, but she didn’t say it. She touched his cheek. “Yes.”

His mouth came down on hers, and her hand fisted in his shirt’s starched collar, holding him close. Tears stung her eyes, though she wasn’t sure what caused them: the comfort of his weight on her, maybe, or the sincerity in his voice as he promised her freedom.

She blinked them back. For one night, she was allowed to pretend he was hers. She wouldn’t waste it.

His fingers tugged at the bottom of her shirt, causing her breath to catch. Somehow, she hadn’t expected him to be quite so… eager for her. Not that she was complaining.

She raised herself up so he could pull up the shirt, cold air ghosting over the skin he exposed. Armin pushed her shirt up onto the chain, out of their way, then bent down over her. His partially-clothed chest brushed against her nipples, making her bite her lip. When his teeth grazed her jawline, she bit down harder, a helpless noise forming in the back of her throat.

He kissed her neck lightly before latching on, sucking at the sensitive skin there.

“Ah—” she breathed, her legs twitching in response. She wanted him there, between her legs, where she pulsed with pleasure and longing. She needed him.

Her legs hooked around his hips, drawing him down against her, and she felt him then: right where she needed him, his erection pressing against her. He rolled his hips, and she gasped a breath.

She pulled at his open shirt, trying to get it off him. She wanted all of him against all of her, inch by inch, to make up for the darkness.

The shirt was gone a moment later, and she ran her hands over his shoulders, his back, arching up against his chest. When he noticed what she was doing, he pinned her down roughly. One hand came up between them to palm her breast, his hold firm, his hips still moving against her in sharp thrusts. Her mind went hazy with desire. She wanted him to be driving into her already.

He seemed to share the sentiment, because a moment later he’d moved, and his hands were clumsy on the drawstrings of her pants. It was hard for him because their hips were still joined, but she wasn’t unlocking her legs from around him. She bucked up against him, once, just to see if it would worsen the shaking of his hands, and found that it did.

There was something very gratifying in that.

But then her pants were loose, and he was traveling downward, his mouth marking a trail over her clavicles. His nails were short, cut to the quick, but she felt them digging into her side nonetheless, his grip hard enough to bruise. She bit back a moan when his other hand cupped her breast. He pressed into her, and this time she really did moan. She heard his breath shudder in response.

“Armin, I—”

He was pulling at her waistband. She lifted her hips, losing track of her thoughts. For once, Armin didn’t seem all that interested in what she had to say.

Soon she was naked beneath him, but he wasn’t done with his exploration. His lips traced the curve of her breast while his hand held her ass tightly, making her want to buck up into him—but he held her captive against the mattress. He descended further, and one of his hands came around to press between her legs, all along her slit, reducing her to a gasping mess. Arousal had slickened her folds, and she couldn’t bring herself to be embarrassed.

“Armin—”

His teeth grazed her hip. “Yes?”

“Why—how do you know—?” She couldn’t say it. How do you know what to do? How do you know what feels so good? She didn’t think she could return the favor. Her extensive knowledge of anatomy was limited to causing harm, not pleasure. Overheard conversations and a brief but embarrassing lesson during training could hardly make up the difference. He’d done this much before, she was pretty sure.

He pressed a kiss just above her pubic bone, right where the hair started. “Maybe I’ll tell you.” Another kiss, and his thumb moved to rub against her clit, sending shockwaves through her body. “One day.”

Her legs quivered. He wasn’t trying to be coy, she thought, but the words sounded teasing anyway. She imagined him looking up at her, blue eyes crinkled at the sides, a smile playing about his lips.

I love you, she thought, and then his hand moved again to make room for his mouth and it became hard to think anything at all. Her legs shook as his tongue flattened out against her, licking upward to her clit. A whimper escaped her.

“Armin—”

He sucked. Her gasp of breath sounded like a sob. Each movement of his mouth reduced her further, and she didn’t know how to tell him what she needed, that this pleasure—mind-blowing as it was—was hollow for her. It made her ache with longing; there was no satisfaction in it.

“Please—”

His finger slipped inside of her, and she gritted her teeth. He was doing it on purpose. Each time she almost managed to say something, he undid her again. A second finger joined the first, and she tensed around them, aching for the sensation of being filled. Fingers weren’t going to be enough—she wanted him closer than that.

Still, when he rutted his fingers into her, mouth still moving on her clit, she couldn’t help gasping with pleasure. A familiar pressure was starting to build, seeming centered along one side of her entrance. He didn’t always hit it, but when he did—oh. She could feel his knuckles pressing against it, blanking her thoughts.

Almost. She was close. She wanted to scream at him to stop it, to thrust into her the way she wanted him to, but the thought of that mounting pressure kept her quiet. Shudders passed through her.

“I’m—” she said, and gave up again. He didn’t increase his pace—just kept going, and between his soft mouth and his curving fingers she came undone, that pressure releasing in unbelievable waves of pleasure, spreading out through her body until it was everywhere, until her muscles pulsed around his fingers.

It wasn’t enough.

“I want—” she gasped “—I want you. Please.”

“Are you su—”

Her hands were at his waist instantly, undoing the buttons of his uniform pants. She got past them, slipping her fingers down to meet the hard length she had felt earlier. A shudder went through Armin when she made contact, and she heard the hitch of his breath.

Sudden worry flooded her, her fingers stilling on the silky skin of his erection. “Is this—all right?”

You’re coercing him, you idiot. Of course it isn’t all right.

“Don’t stop,” he whispered, and maybe he was playacting but he didn’t sound like he was and she wanted him, she wanted him so much—

He moved forward, just a little, and their foreheads bumped gently. His lips caught hers once more.

She tasted herself on them. Her hand tightened around him, and he gasped into her mouth.

Power sang through her as she realized the way his body jerked in response to her touch. She caressed his length, moving her hand up and down experimentally. His head dropped to rest on her shoulder, and she kicked at the remainder of his clothing.

She loosened her grip, allowing him to crawl out of his pants. There was wetness at the tip of his cock, which she hadn’t expected. Wasn’t that supposed to happen after? She smeared it over the head anyway, hoping it was a good sign.

From his groan, she thought it might be.

“You can back out,” she said, her voice hushed. She swallowed painfully. “If you want—”

“I don’t want to back out.” His voice was ragged. There was something in it, some emotion she couldn’t quite recognize, but she had no time to examine it further. He hovered over her, placing a kiss on her eyebrow, then the corner of her mouth. “Turn over.”

She let him draw her up onto her knees, turning so her back was to him. Her breath was short. She’d seen a raunchy deck of playing cards, once, and she recognized his intent immediately.

“Closer to the wall,” he whispered into her neck, sending shivers down her spine. She moved forward, until she could hold her hands against the cool, flat surface at the head of the bed. She didn’t reach for the wall, though; she reached around for him, catching his hand.

His warm chest met her back. She dragged his palm over her skin, but he needed no help: his hands found their own way from her hips to her chest, callused fingers dragging over her body. One of his hands tightened on her breast; the other rose to caress her neck, her jaw. She pressed back into him, feeling his coarse pubic hair against her ass, his hard length brushing between her spread legs.

She moved her head, trapping his thumb between her teeth and biting gently.

“Is this okay?” Armin asked.

She nodded wordlessly, knowing he’d feel the motion. He was holding her tightly, arms wrapped around her torso, and she reveled in the feeling of being so close to another human being—so close to him. He pressed a kiss to her neck. Not for the first time, she wished she could tell what was false and what was real. Was his desire real? Was his gentleness real?

Suddenly, she noticed the strange sensation in her back—the rapid tattoo of Armin’s heart beating against her. He was nervous, she thought. Aroused, yes, but nervous too.

She loosened his grip, turning to face him. His arms went slack as she took control, as if he’d been conforming to a script so far.

Maybe he had been. “Did someone tell you… how? For this part?”

She reached for his cheek, wondering if she’d feel it warm with a blush. He looked away, even though it was dark.

“A mix of sources,” he said. “It’s easier when I’m—not involved. I’ve done all the rest before.”

“You could be the worst partner in the world for this and I’d still want it, you know.” I’d still want you. “You don’t have to be nervous.”

“Since you don’t trust any of my promises, I think it’s important how well—”

She placed her fingers over his mouth. “You know, don’t you?”

“Know what?”

“How I feel.” She let her hand rest over his heart, fingers gentle. “About you.”

He dropped his head. “I don’t understand why you would. I—never have. Understood, I mean.”

Not I don’t, but I don’t understand. It made her wonder what his impression of her was—as aloof as she’d tried to seem? Strong? Cold?

“You could be the worst partner in the world for this,” she said, again. “And I’d—still want you.” Vulnerability ripped through her. She was done for, but she’d known that already. Her willpower was gone, and her pride was hot on its heels.

She surged up to meet his mouth, her hands holding his face. His lips were slow to respond to her, and there was something fragile in the way he held her, how his hands came to rest on her waist. She imagined it was guilt that slackened his grip, for planning whatever he was planning. She didn’t care.

Annie pushed him down against the mattress, mimicking his motions earlier—laving the skin under his ear with her tongue, trailing kisses, letting her fingers dig into him. She threw her leg over his waist, straddling him, and felt his erection pulse under her in response. So he hadn’t completely lost his fire.

“Stop worrying,” she whispered. “Unless you want to stop?”

The sound he made in response was curiously muffled, and when she felt around for the reason she found he’d thrown his arms over his face.

“I don’t want to stop,” he mumbled. “I should want to. But I don’t.”

She rolled her hips experimentally, letting her wetness coat him. He made a strangled noise.

“Annie—promise.”

“Promise what?”

“I don’t know. Not to kill any more people. To give me a chance to prove—”

“I promise.”

“You do?”

“I do.”

His hand found her thigh, touching gently. She curled her fingers around his, rocking back against him again. His groan filled the small cell.

“Can I?” she asked.

“Is this—how you want it?”

Was it? This was certainly one of the ways she wanted to do this, but if there was just tonight, she wanted—she wanted his warmth all around her. She wanted him to overwhelm all her senses.

She slid down to the mattress in answer, and he made space for her, seeming to understand her intent. She drew him down to her, wrapping her legs around him once more. He let out a shuddering sigh, his face hidden in the crook of her neck.

“I wish I understood,” he said. “We’re just… flies to you, right? Isn’t that what you said once?”

“Not you. Never you.”

She felt him shake his head. “And… not the others, anymore. If I join your side.”

He pressed a kiss to the skin of her neck. “I won’t let you regret it.”

She wasn’t sure that was something he could control, but she didn’t say so, opting to open her legs instead. There was still an ache inside of her, and she didn’t want to take chances. If she waited too long, this opportunity might be taken away from her.

Given his earlier nervousness, she reached down between them, guiding him to her entrance. When he was lined up, she let go and angled her hips up to him.

Armin let out a shuddering sigh. She wanted to say something to reassure him, but she wasn’t sure what. She’d never been good with words.

He pushed forward, and she gasped at the sudden sensation. It was different from his fingers, more of an imposition. She pushed up, trying to take in more of him, but he seemed to be having trouble breathing. Or rather—he wasn’t moving at all.

“Armin—” she started, but he thrusted again, and this time he filled her up completely. Whatever words she’d been forming turned to random sounds, and her legs clenched around him tightly, keeping him there. Her hand fisted in his hair.

He didn’t ask if she was okay, this time. When he began to move, she nearly came apart again. There was pain mixed in with pleasure, and her whole body was attuned to him. She wanted to live and die with his weight on her, his warmth around her, his cock inside of her. His hips moved slowly, never fully retracting—she wouldn’t let him. She kept him close.

“Annie,” he whispered. He rocked forward, his face pressing into her neck. She met him, bucking into him with all her might. He muted his moan against her throat.

The great, mounting movements became faster. They’d been so slow at first—infuriatingly slow—and the change in pace made her groan with the added mix of pain and pleasure. She wanted him ramming into her, but even this was too much. She was coming apart too soon.

But there was no relief, not yet. Armin’s mouth moved against her neck, sucking, his hips rocking. Annie’s back arched and a sobbing noise escaped her. She wanted him so much. She wanted him more than just this once. She wanted the gentle boy she remembered to be hers, to give him all she had, all that he deserved. A bright new life beyond the walls.

She knew that gentle boy was gone, but her body didn’t. It was still filled with the soft feelings that had weakened her in Sina. The soft feelings that would always weaken her.

“Armin,” she whispered. She really was on the edge of crying. The grind of his pubic bone against her, his arms tight around her, his hands in her hair, pulling. “Please.”

How he knew what she wanted was beyond her, but the gasped words unlocked something in him. The rolling waves became sharp thrusts, hard and unforgiving. Her walls clenched around him, and she pushed up against him. She needed more—more pain, more of his harsh, gasping breaths, more of him rubbing up against her.

The pressure mounted, and she bit back a scream. The thrusts didn’t stop, though they became erratic. She grabbed at him, desperate, and then she was screaming his name, coming around him, falling apart and not caring. He was everything. He was everything. He always had been.

She thought she felt him shudder into her, rocking forward brokenly, but the high of her own release made it hard to tell. When his hips stilled, she tightened her arms around him.

She would hold onto him for as long as she could.

“I didn’t pull out,” he said, sounding dazed. He was slumped over her, one hand touching her face gently. “I was going to pull out.”

She laughed a little. He sounded so disappointed in his lack of self-control. “I told you. I won’t get pregnant.”

“Even with your titan abilities suppressed?”

Her hand stilled on his back, where she’d been tracing patterns. “I didn’t think of that,” she said. Then, hesitantly: “But it wouldn’t survive a transformation.”

He groaned. “You have no idea how much I’m looking forward to you explaining everything.” He moved his weight onto his elbow. “You are… going to tell us everything, right?”

“As much as I can,” Annie said. It made her stomach twist to think of it, but Armin had given her what she wanted. If she backed out now, he would have more cause to hate her.

She remembered her earlier thoughts. She did want to give him everything, still. Maybe he was older, and a manipulator besides. Maybe that gentle boy was as distant from him as the sun—but this man was all that remained of him.

And there was something in the way he touched her. He’d been rough before, but now his hands were gentle. His lips brushed kisses across her skin as he pulled out and wiped them both off with something. He even held her for a while.

She wanted to savor his presence for as long as she could, but her body was starting to feel heavy with sleep. Vaguely, she felt him sliding her underwear back up her legs, then her pants. He kissed her to wake her a little, and pulled her shirt back down over her head. When he was done, she cuddled in close to his naked body.

He exhaled softly, brushing her hair back from her face. She was dreaming, she thought. He’d held up his side of the bargain. He’d left already. This Armin who stayed with her until she was asleep was a figment of her imagination, dreamt up to quell the aching loneliness inside of her.