Ash clogs Annie’s throat.
She can still smell the sickly-sweet scent of the corpses they collected that day, still taste the decay in her mouth as if she had been the one to chew them up and spit them out undigested. There is a warmth in her palms from when she moved Marco’s destroyed body, laying him gently against the wall after she took his gear—a memory of his shape that she can feel burning into her consciousness so she won’t forget what they’ve done, what her band of traitors is capable of.
So strange, to see Marco like that: a thing, not a person; an empty husk to be handled by whoever might choose to move him. She’s glad for the pyres that remove every trace of the thing that once housed a clever, smiling boy.
She almost wishes she could climb onto one of the pyres herself.
She turns to the voice, her body attuned to its every cadence even now. Armin. Hadn’t he left already, with Eren? She had thought so. She had tried to close off the part of her that cared.
He reaches up, his fingertips brushing her cheeks. They come away wet.
“I thought you were gone already,” she says, her voice very distant.
“Not until the trial. They—wouldn’t let us stay with him.”
His voice breaks. She knows how much Eren means to him, but she isn’t sure what she can do to make this better. Their connection feels tenuous, now, with their first battle behind them. She thinks that maybe she dreamt up the furtive glances between them, the way her pulse used to race when he was near, the unexpected gift of his affection.
It had been unthinkable. Unconscionable, even—but she couldn’t resist. She remembers kisses, conversations, the way it feels when he holds her, but that was before Trost, before her whole body turned to smoke and ash and illness.
“Annie,” he says, and the trembling in his voice pulls at her own shivering center, her own helplessness. “Can we please—go? Away from the pyres?”
She nods, but she’s not quite prepared when he grabs her hand. Her breath leaves her as his warmth bleeds into her palm, dulling the memories of Marco’s dead husk. She turns to look at her companions from the 104th—Reiner and Bertholdt look back at her with worried faces—but when Armin begins to lead her away she doesn’t stop him.
He leads her to their guest quarters here, where bunks are pushed up against the walls. Ymir and Christa are in the girls’ room, so Armin leads her to his and they find it blissfully empty. He doesn’t let go of her hand, even when she goes to light the lantern. Orange light fills the room.
“This is the first time I’ve slowed down since the battle,” Armin says. “I don’t think—”
He sags, suddenly, and Annie catches him and moves him to the nearest bed, laying him down on it. She wonders if she should pretend at weakness, lie next to him, but it seems wrong to pretend. She brushes his hair back from his face almost clinically, not sure how to touch him now.
“I saw Franz and Hannah,” he says. “She was—she didn’t—he was dead and she just kept pumping his heart. His bottom half was gone.”
Annie shivers at the mental image, then again when Armin meets her gaze, not wavering.
“What if we…? What if one of us…?”
“I won’t let that happen,” she says, surprising herself.
He smiles sadly. “From inside Wall Sina?”
She looks away. “Don’t join the scouting legion. Please.”
“I can make a difference—”
“I know you can. That’s not why I’m asking.”
Armin doesn’t respond. The fight goes out of her, and at last she lets herself lie down next to him, wishing she could move closer. Images flash before her eyes: the bodies, the looks on her companions’ faces, the blood spattering walls and clothing. She isn’t sure she’ll ever stop seeing them, and her body aches for a distraction—but she can’t bring herself to touch Armin with the same hands that took a dead man’s maneuver gear, with hands meant for killing and stealing.
Tears are tracking down her temples again, quiet, because it’s the only way she knows how to cry. “I love you,” she whispers, her eyes pinned to the top bunk. “Whatever happens.”
Armin moves to cover her with his body, his hands coming to rest on either side of her face. She feels him wipe away the tears with the backs of his fingers, feels his forehead lower until it rests against hers. So nice, to feel his warmth and his weight. She wishes she felt deserving of it.
“Annie, what’s wrong?”
He will remember this night, she thinks. Later, when her role in all this is known, he will resent the tenderness he shows her now, the way he tries to dull her shaking with kisses. He will regret the way he whispers her name like a charm, the sweet nothings that pour from his lips, the unthinking comfort he gives her. And because she is weak, she rises to meet him.
Her back arches into him, pressing their bodies together. She catches his mouth in a desperate kiss. She halts his words and his breath and loses herself in him, sinking into him as he sinks into her. Every breath becomes shared, every touch hotly anticipated. Annie finds herself straddling him, her hold bruising, her mouth leaving marks on his exposed skin.
He makes a noise—of pleasure or pain, she’s not sure—and she draws back, some of the haze leaving her mind. She looks at the way one of her hands curls around his wrist, the knuckles white with how tight she’s holding him—a painful grip. Why didn’t he tell her to stop?
He meets her gaze, and she sees her own hopelessness reflected back at her. That look is why: because he wants to be lost, too. He looks at her like a man drowning, and she wonders what he sees: whether it’s Eren being eaten or something else he witnessed—or something yet to happen. She grabs the straps across his chest and lets her forehead rest against his sternum, her posture tight. A moan escapes her, laced with pain, and he shudders in response. He clutches her shoulders tightly as his body starts to shock irregularly, and she hears gasping, quiet sobs.
“Armin,” she says, her own voice trembling. She presses her face into his chest, still straddling him, shaking now. He wraps her up in his arms, and they stay like that for a long time: trembling together, both of them whole, both of them wounded beyond all repair already.
And it’s only just beginning.
Eventually, the shaking stops. Annie moves off Armin, but he keeps her close. They huddle beneath one of the blankets together, and when Armin asks her to tell him a story—something she usually asks of him—she can’t bring herself to refuse.
So she begins to tell him one of her father’s stories, a fairytale about an unnamed kingdom, the one where a king falls in love with a beautiful woman under a terrible spell.
“Each time someone looked at her she aged,” Annie explains. “Faster than any mortal should. So he locked her away in a dark room, where no one could see her. Servants brought her food and water, and books printed in a script for the blind. He did it out of kindness, because she would die otherwise. And on very, very special occasions, he visited her, and looked at her by the light of his lantern.”
“And she aged again?”
“Yes. He didn’t look for long—a few minutes at a time, here and there. But they were years for her. Her cheeks sagged, and wrinkles crept into her face, and her hair went gray, but she was still beautiful, because that was the nature of the spell.” Annie stares across the room, at the opposite wall.
Armin nudges her. “You stopped. What happens?”
“What do you think happens?”
He thinks about it. “She’s a sorceress, who put the spell on herself, and when he’s just about looked her to death she reveals herself and punishes him for being greedy. She crowns herself queen of all the land.”
“So that’s what happens?”
“No. He looks at her until she dies. He tries to collect her bones, because even her bones are beautiful, but they turn to ash and blow away as he approaches. There is nothing of her left.”
Armin’s quiet for a long time. “Where are you from, Annie?”
“What do you mean?”
“Where does that story come from?”
“My father told it to me.” She looks at him, wondering if he’ll guess her betrayal now. There’s a strange weight to his stare, and she knows she picked badly when she chose to tell him this fairy tale. Does he suspect, now? Maybe that’s what she wants, deep down.
“You shouldn’t love things too much,” Armin says. “That’s the lesson, isn’t it?”
“Something like that, I guess.”
“I disagree. I don’t think it’s like that at all.” He looks at her seriously. “My friends saved me twice already. We all need each other. I—need you. I don’t want you to think like that.”
“You need me?”
He wipes his red eyes and smiles. “I needed you tonight. I wanted to feel close to someone. I still do. Will you stay?”
She looks at the empty room, wondering when it will fill. “If the others don’t mind.”
“I don’t think a lot of us will be sleeping tonight, and we won’t be the only ones sharing a bed if we do. Please?”
“I’ll stay. Of course I’ll stay.”
She presses a kiss to his temple, and, much later, when they’ve both stripped off their gear and lie beneath the blankets, she savors his warmth for what might be the last time. The horror is held at bay for the time being—she forgets Mina’s death, and Thomas’s, and Marco’s, and all the others who she’ll never see again. Her fear and revulsion can’t reach her here, in the circle of Armin’s arms. She won’t let them.
Annie cuddles closer, and Armin sighs in his sleep. She shuts her eyes tightly and tries to think, to plan, to come up with a solution that will keep her from hurting Armin. She doesn’t want to destroy the person she loves most in the world—but it seems inevitable. As inevitable as her own destruction, her own broken heart.
She can accept her own destruction; it’s Armin’s that she can’t accept, that she’ll go to any length to prevent. Even once he knows. Even once he hates her.
She will love him until there is nothing left.