Chapter 1: Superior and Subordinate
Armin was conflicted. They were superior and subordinate after all, kept apart by rules and regulations and just plain common sense. It was wrong. He was more than twice his age. But the heart wants what it wants, and it wasn't like there was much else that made Eren smile lately.
Armin noticed before Eren himself probably had, the way his eyes would follow Levi around the room. Of course he'd notice; he'd picked up on all sorts of things like that and he'd been watching his fellow cadets fall in and out of crush with each other for years. He never talked about what he knew, or about his own futile affections; he was pretty sure no one would get it if he did.
His crush was on Erwin. Bold, ruthless, brilliant, Erwin.
For a while Armin had been rather charmed by Eren's infatuation; it was just something else he had in common with his best friend, after all, and when he felt mopey (although he never said why) Armin could sit with him and say that he understood. Eren never noticed his wandering eyes; for a start he took several long weeks before Armin was even sure he'd realised his own feelings.
They could be hopelessly love-struck for unobtainable superiors together then, and frankly it seemed like the safest way to be given the odds any one of them would still be alive this time next year.
And then, something changed. It took Armin a while to notice, because Levi was very hard to read and was most certainly hiding his own feelings, but he looked after Eren. Not just physically, but he did his best, quietly, to make sure he was okay. And when he saw the three of them talking together, Levi would sometimes smile. The first time he noticed this, Armin's stomach lurched. He'd never considered the possibility that it would actually go somewhere.
Armin watched them grow closer, inch by inch. It was wrong, he told himself, but he knew it was envy rather than any real attachment to the rules that bubbled up in his heart. If Eren could receive soft smiles and quiet words, why couldn't he?
There were books at HQ. The first books Armin had acquired access to in years, and he spent every spare minute dusting them off and looking through them. Technically he was out past curfew, but as long as he didn't push it too late he could get away with it. He was heading back to the barracks, trying to remember who was rostered on patrol that night when he heard voices from the mess.
He poked his head around the door and saw Eren and Levi, talking. They were sitting in their usual places; Levi at the head of the table, Eren on his left but they'd dragged their chairs closer. They had tea cups forgotten in front of them, and they leaned in towards each other to talk.
Levi chuckled and shook his head and Eren said something and lightly touched his arm. It looked like summer over there. Neither of them had noticed him and he stepped back into the hallway. He couldn't see Levi's face but he could see Eren's, and the expression made his heart hurt. There were things he couldn't share with his childhood friend, and he'd always known they'd be coming, but now, already? But he looked so brilliantly happy, Armin couldn't resent him for it.
Armin put his back to the stone wall and sagged against it. He didn't want to see this.
He turned to go, find another route back even if he had to climb out a window to do it. He could not walk through that room.
“Promise me you'll at least try and sleep, Hange.” Armin was hurrying back along the corridor when he heard Erwin's voice, followed by the sound of a door closing and footsteps. Shit. If he was heading to the kitchen for a late night cup of tea he was going to walk right in to Eren and Levi's little meeting, and Armin was quite sure their commander would be sharp enough to know what sort of meeting it was.
Armin figured he had three options: one, climb out a window, head back to the barracks and pretend he was never there, two: clump back to the mess as loudly as he could giving Eren and Levi time to separate, or three: run interference with Erwin and let them do their thing a while longer.
It was no contest, really; the third option gave him some time with Erwin, even if all he got out of it was a dressing-down for being out after curfew.
He straightened his spine and kept walking.
“Armin,” Erwin was carrying two empty cups, presumably taking them back to the kitchen from Hange's lab.
“Good evening, sir.” Armin saluted.
“You're up late,” he said, and the way he said it clearly required some sort of explanation for this fact. He wasn't going to chip him just yet. He trusted that Armin had reasons for the things he did to a certain extent.
Armin thought back to Eren and Levi and his resolve wavered. Maybe he should try and stop this before it went too far. He didn't know. Erwin might have some advice, if he kept it general.
“Actually, I was looking for you, sir.” In the last thirty seconds, it was true, but it wasn't a lie. “I need advice.” He lowered his hand.
Erwin cast about and eventually put the cups on a nearby windowsill. “All right, Armin, I'll do my best.”
“Right.” Deep breath. “The rules about fraternisation are pretty clear, in theory. But I suppose I was wondering how they're applied in practice in the Survey Corps.”
Erwin blinked at him. “Oh. Oh that sort of advice.” He shrugged, a bit helplessly. “I'm not really sure I'm the right person to approach.” He thought about this for a few moments, running through the other possibilities in his head. “Well, I suppose you could have done worse. Armin, look, we know you're young and under a lot of stress, and we also know rules are almost impossible to enforce. Basically, don't get caught and we don't want to know about it.”
“No, I didn't mean among recruits, Sir. I meant.” He looked up into Erwin's eyes, “Between a recruit and an officer, sir. I know it seems really wrong, but if they both understood the limitations of of their roles and obviously tried not to get caught.” He recalled Eren's expression, and Levi's soft laugh and found himself mounting a defence rather than asking a question. “Being happy for a little while, because they could both use some of that, I think.” He smiled, hopefully.
The colour seemed to have drained from Erwin's face. He tried to say something and then sighed and leant against the wall. “Oh, Armin.”
No. Wait. He'd completely got the wrong idea. Oh shit. That wasn't what Armin had meant at all and his face felt like it was on fire. He drew breath to explain, to out Eren and Levi if need be but the words died in his throat when Erwin lifted a hand and brushed his cheek.
“I tried to hide it,” Erwin muttered.
“You did a good job; I had no idea,” Armin heard himself saying. He could hear his own heartbeat.
“Brave, aren't you then?”
“No, I completely-” He forgot what he was going to say when Erwin's finger curled under his chin, tilting his face up.
“What's one more sin?” Erwin murmured, and bent down to brush his lips against Armin's. It wasn't his first kiss, as both Mikasa and Eren had kissed him before, but it felt like it. It felt like something had been torn away when Erwin straightened up again. Armin chased it. He stepped forward and put his hands on either side of Erwin's face, and popped up on his toes and chased it, hungry.
Erwin let himself be captured. Armin could feel his ambivalence, the way he still held himself back, and Armin didn't push it for now, braving a taste of his lips but no further. Erwin wrapped his arms around him and Armin sank into his warmth. It was too new, too exhilarating to feel like coming home, but it still was a wonderful place to be.
“What?” Erwin asked.
“You know, I wasn't actually talking about us, earlier.”
He looked up to see Erwin frown. “Then?” His expression cleared and his lips thinned, “Oh, I see. That half-pint little deviant. He knows the rules-”
He released Armin and made to leave and Armin grabbed his arm.
“Erwin!” He gave him a look. “That's a bit hypocritical, don't you think?”
Erwin hesitated. “Where are they?”
“In the mess.”
“I suppose they can't get up to much there.” He relaxed and Armin did too. “Do you want to?” He looked at Armin uncertainly, “Oh, I don't know, go back to the library for a while?” He asked like he half-expected Armin would turn him down.
“I would really like that.” He didn't let go of Erwin's arm, and Erwin didn't shake him off.
The next time Armin saw Levi, they were saddling up for more training. He jumped when the Captain put a hand on his shoulder.
“Not bad, Armin. Not bad.”
Armin smiled. “Thank you, sir.”
“But tell our fearless leader not to leave dirty cups in weird places next time.”
Chapter 2: Stained Hands
Armin wasn't trying to wash away the blood with ink.
He'd articulated the idea when the three of them had stood by the ocean and wondered 'what next?' There was no shortage of things to do, but the war was over and they were free to choose. He wanted the truth to exist in physical form, because he knew a hundred years was a short time and vested interests would hijack their myth if they didn't guard against it. As soon as he hit upon the idea he knew he had no choice but to see it through.
Eren helped a lot. He was rebuilding the Survey Corps in his own image; to protect and guide humanity out of the broken shell of the collapsed walls and to avoid war with the other people they now knew lived out there. No matter how busy he got, every time Armin sent over a bundle of handwritten pages they'd be back in a couple of days with comments and changes appended to them. Mikasa read the draft as well, but seemed content to leave it mostly in Armin's hands.
Hange was writing their own series of books.
Levi said he preferred not go over the past, and went back to cleaning out the Underground, hauling out forgotten children from the lightless slums into the sun and giving them a chance at a life of their own.
The only other person Armin could have enlisted to help was Erwin, but Armin didn't consult him. For political reasons he'd been politely exiled to the tea plantation that was once within wall Sina, and Armin knew he was tired of putting words in people's mouths anyway. He sent Levi tea on a regular basis, and that was the only way they could be sure he was even still alive. He'd looked so tired at the end; he'd forced a smile to express genuine gratitude to the Queen when she'd pronounced his sentence, and Armin knew he thought he deserved much, much worse for his crimes.
Armin worked day and night. Occasionally his friends would drag him outside for a few hours, but his book consumed him. He had to get it all down correctly. It was important. It was also secret; humanity never changed, and Armin wanted his work complete and already distributed before the politicians passed judgement on it. So he didn't hire one of the commercial or government printers. Eren syphoned off some Survey Corps funding and bought an entire printing machine for Armin instead.
Armin learned to use it himself, setting the tiny blocks of letters and figuring out the mechanism. His hands, and quite often parts of his face, were stained black most of the time. He gave up trying to wash it off; he ate ink-smudged sandwiches. The cuffs of his shirts turned black. Months passed.
And when it was printed he took the folded sheets to a bookmaker, who sewed them into leather. One for one for Eren, one for Mikasa, one for Hange, one for the Survey Corps, one for the Queen – this first edition was only twelve copies. Armin put the spares in a bank vault for now, and packed the twelfth copy along with the unstained parts of his wardrobe in a satchel and borrowed a Survey Corps horse. He headed for the interior, or what everyone still thought of as the interior. The walls were gone, but the language was resistant to change.
He wasn't sure what to expect, but what he found was pleasant enough. A gentle hillside was covered in rows of tea plants, the leaves patiently plucked by workers with large baskets strapped to their backs. The main house was still occupied by the owner, who kept her royal appointment, and when Armin reached the main gates he was greeted with cautious civility by the manservant and informed that Erwin lived in a caretaker's cottage further up the hill. His horse was led to the stables and his bags carried into the guest room, but not before Armin unpacked the book and tucked it under his arm before following the directions to Erwin's house.
The cottage was hidden away near a strand of trees at the edge of the property. It was small and quiet, and Armin paused at the gate and looked in at a slightly overgrown garden.
“Hello? Erwin? It's Armin,” he called.
“Armin!” The familiar voice was behind him, and he turned to see Erwin walking up the slope in his wake. “They told me you were here. I was in the fields. It's good to see you.”
He grimaced. “Please don't call me sir.”
They halted and eyed each other up and down. Erwin was sporting a neat beard, which was shot through with grey; probably easier to take care of with one hand than shaving. He looked all right, all things considered. His skin was sun darkened and he was wearing simple peasant clothes and a large straw hat. A haunted air clung to him still, but whatever the state of his spirit his body looked better nourished at least.
“They make you work in the fields?” Armin asked.
“No, a one-armed tea picker is not much use. Ostensibly my job is to supervise, but they don't need my help. I pull the odd weed, feed the goats. You look very pale; you're not sick, are you?” Such concern in his eyes.
Armin shook his head, “I suppose I do look pretty awful. I've been working very hard recently.”
“Well, come inside and have a drink. It's warm out here.” He didn't ask about the book, still smelling of glue and leather, its pages uncut. Perhaps he should have cut them; Armin hadn't thought of that.
They sat at a wooden table and Erwin served water from the nearby stream flavoured with some lemon from his own garden. It was too hot for tea; summer was nearly there.
Armin got to the point. He put the book on the table in front of him, and slid it across towards Erwin.
“This copy is yours. If you don't object, I would like to hear what you think of it.”
The title was embossed on the cover: To You, 2000 Years From Now: A History of the Past Hundred Years Including an Eyewitness Account of the Last Ten.
Erwin rested his hand on the cover, regarding it thoughtfully.
“I see. You've been busy.”
“Please take your time,” Armin said. “I'm planning on staying for a few weeks; I need a holiday, some fresh air. I won't get in your way; I'll stay at the house, of course-”
Erwin held up his hand and smiled. “I'm looking forward to it. I have missed my old friends.”
They passed the afternoon peacefully, Armin catching Erwin up on all that their friends had been up to. He avoided talking about politics, and Erwin avoided asking about it. When he left at the sound of the dinner gong from the main house, Erwin promised to start reading his book that evening.
The next morning he hurried back to Erwin's house, and found the man himself sitting at the table, the remains of breakfast next to him as he continued to read. He had a sharp knife next to him, and he cut the pages one-handed with a deft flick of the wrist.
He put the knife down when Armin appeared and rose to greet him.
“Thank you,” he said softly, and Armin knew what he was referring to. The title page had a printed dedication: Dedicated to the memory of Johannes Smith, and to all other seekers and preservers of truth, who keep the light when all else is dark.When he'd heard the story of Erwin's father Armin had known he would have been a kindred spirit, and he could think of no better person to dedicate his work to. Armin had added a personal dedication underneath in ink: For Erwin Smith, who demanded everything for the greater good of humanity, and yet asked nothing for himself. He'd drafted and redrafted the dedication for weeks, and Armin still wasn't entirely happy about it, but Erwin seemed appreciative, and that's what counted.
As much as Armin wanted to know what Erwin thought, and he was still obviously making his way through the history part of the book. Erwin closed it and put his dishes in the sink and suggested he show Armin around the plantation.
It became a ritual. Armin would visit after breakfast and they'd spend the morning 'supervising' and generally lazily enjoying the sunshine, and Erwin would make lunch in a kitchen carefully outfitted to assist a cook with one hand, and in the afternoon he'd read in the back yard.
Armin had spent so long writing, it felt strange not to have a pen in his hand, so he wrote letters, although he had little to say, and sketched birds and flowers and occasionally, slyly, his companion.
They went trout fishing in the stream, now that Erwin had someone to help him bait his hooks and land the fish. It was a revelation , in a quiet way, to see Erwin without the mantle of Commander. He wasn't that different in his manner, but something had softened about him, something undefined and restful and Armin was so relieved it was there. The days were pleasant, but always in the back of Armin's mind was the question; what did Erwin think of the book? Sometimes he couldn't bear to watch him read it, and he'd roll over and try and nap on the lawn. Erwin didn't mention it either.
Armin had been there nearly two weeks when his nerve cracked. They had spent the morning climbing the hill above the plantation, and they were sitting among the long grass and wildflowers, looking down at the workers in the fields below and beyond them in the distance the hazy jumbled shape of the capital.
“What do you think of it so far?” Armin asked, not quite game to look at Erwin's face. He didn't answer for a while and Armin continued. “Just what you've read so far.”
“I actually finished it three nights ago,” Erwin said, and Armin shot him a sharp glance. Even after all this time he played his cards close. “I wanted to reread some parts and think about it before I told you. You should be proud, Armin, it's a fine piece of work, and your dedication to recording events as they happened, not as we might wish they'd happened, deserves respect.”
“Thank you, Erwin.”
“I would have expected no less from you.”
Armin flushed. Compliments from Erwin were rare, and he treasured them.
Erwin took a deep breath, apparently marshalling his thoughts.
“I know what you've done, Armin. I know what that book is. You've taken every objection I might have raised and refuted it. I cannot call you ignorant, when you know so much. I cannot question your judgement, when you have so thoroughly examined all my faults. I cannot question your dedication or sincerity.”
Armin frowned and bit his lip and wondered if it would be too obvious if he untied his hair so he could hide behind it. Probably.
“You've written the world's longest and strangest love letter, and I can only imagine what future scholars will think of the author's heart soaring when his inhumane commander returns to battle.”
Armin smiled a bit at that. “You're not inhumane,” he said.
“I tried to be.”
“That's over now. The book's written. Whatever happens after this, history won't remember.”
“All you've left me is the option to accept or refuse. I taught you a lot, didn't I?”
Armin didn't know what to say, so he merely smiled. For once his words were failing him, but he always knew they would. It's why he wrote them down.
“I don't deserve you,” Erwin said.
Armin reached out and took his hand. “None of us want what we deserve.” He certainly didn't. His breath caught when Erwin moved his hand, turning it over so he could grasp Armin's in strong, calloused fingers.
“I'll try not to disappoint you, Armin.” He made good on his word by leaning over and kissing him, and for a moment the sound of Armin's own heart drowned out the buzzing of bees and the wind rustling the wildflowers.
Chapter 3: Alternate Universe - Little Yellow Umbrella
It was Friday evening, and Erwin was too big for his umbrella. It had been a perfectly sunny day when he'd left for work that morning, but all afternoon he'd watched the clouds piling up outside through his office window with mounting concern. It would have been fine if he'd gone home with everyone else, but he hated having things hanging over from Friday on Monday morning and he did what he usually did, which was knuckle down and get through it before returning home for some well-earned pizza in front of the television.
He could only wish he was eating pizza in front of the television right now.
By the time he'd left work the skies were dark, and the thunder was loud enough to be heard even through the double-glazed windows. There was a collection of umbrellas that had been left in the office over the years, for emergency use should someone be caught on just such a night, but he clearly wasn't the only one who'd had to make use of them today.
There was one umbrella left. A bright yellow one so small Erwin suspected it belonged to one of Erd's kids. He sighed. Better than nothing, he supposed.
At least it wasn't too windy. The rain came straight down, and the umbrella kept his head and shoulders mostly dry as he slogged through sodden city to his bus stop. If he'd anticipated the rain he could have taken his car as well as his umbrella but hindsight is 20-20 and all that.
There was one other person waiting at the bus stop, a little old lady with a bag of shopping and an enormous black umbrella; at least she was dry.
Erwin stood next to her, holding his laptop case close to his body to try and keep it dry, and waited.
He glanced down the street every thirty seconds, scanning the oncoming traffic with his eyes narrowed against the glare of the headlights for the bus. He listened to the rain pattering on the plastic of his ridiculous umbrella and replayed the similar scene from My Neighbour Totoro in his head about fifty times in an attempt to approach the situation whimsically.
No bus showed up, furred or otherwise. He glanced at the old lady occasionally; she looked like she was asleep on her feet but he couldn't think of anything he could do to help. Rainwater collected in his shoes; he was soaked from the knees down, water was trickling down his right sleeve and he was starting to feel thoroughly miserable.
He pictured his warm, dry apartment longingly. He was hungry, too; pizza seemed a long way away.
Hurried footsteps preceded the arrival of a third would-be passenger, a young man with dark hair, no umbrella, and a leather jacket.
“Hey,” he said. “How long have you been waiting?”
“About twenty minutes,” Erwin replied.
“What? They're supposed to come every fifteen!” he said in an offended tone
Erwin knew that and he shrugged, irritated. It wasn't like it was his fault the bus wasn't here. The young man bent down to peer at the old lady.
“Is she okay?”
“She's been waiting longer than I have.” The thought guilted them both into silence, and the young man stoically huddled into his jacket to wait.
Erwin was starting to wonder if it was worthwhile calling a taxi instead when the young man suddenly shouted, waving his arms and stepping out towards the traffic.
“Hey! Over here!”
Erwin looked up expecting the bus, but it was a van that pulled up. Stage Left Theatre Co. was stencilled on the side.
“Hey Armin!” The young man grinned as the driver wound the window down. With nothing else to entertain him, Erwin watched with interest and met the eyes of a startlingly pretty young man with long blonde hair. He smiled at Erwin, probably amused by his umbrella, and Erwin found himself smiling back but the young man, Armin apparently, had turned his attention to his friend.
“Need a lift?” They were practically shouting to make themselves heard over the sound of the rain and thunder.
“Yeah but,” the young man glanced over his shoulder. “The old lady has been here for ages.”
The driver twisted around to look into the interior of the van. “There's no room in the back for anyone.”
“Okay, then take her. I can't get any wetter, and besides I've only been here five minutes. That guy's been there twenty.” He indicated Erwin with a wave of his hand.
Armin looked at him again, and Erwin gave him a resigned smile. What else could he do? Armin smiled back at him, and his heart thumped. Cute as hell, Erwin thought. Go on, help the old lady then come back for your buddy; I'll probably still be here when you do.
Armin frowned, obviously thinking.
“Okay, I got this.”
To Erwin's surprise he unbuckled his seat belt and got out of the van, ducking his head a little and squinting against the rain. He was wearing skinny jeans and a t-shirt that was almost instantly plastered to a lean, lithe body. Erwin appreciated the view and wondered what on earth he was up to.
“You drive the lady home, Eren. I'll wait for the bus.”
“Wait, what?” Eren looked utterly confused. The van's engine was still running and Armin hurried over and ducked under the old lady's umbrella to explain the situation.
“Oh yes, thank you dears. You're too kind.”
Armin lent her his arm and Eren, still looking somewhat puzzled, opened the passenger door and the two young men helped her inside, along with her shopping.
“I'll come back for you?” Eren asked. Erwin was by now paying very close attention, although Armin was carefully not looking at him.
“It's fine. I'll catch the bus. You've been up since six, so go home and eat. I'll catch you up later.”
Eren glanced at Erwin. “What if he's a serial killer?” he asked loudly and Armin turned a deep shade of red.
“Will you just go already? I'm trying to be nice.”
“All right, all right.” He gave Erwin a stern look before hurrying around to the driver's seat and climbing in.
Armin stood next to Erwin and waved as the van pulled away, water dripping off the ends of his hair. They stood in awkward silence for a few moments as thunder rolled across the sky.
“That was one of the smoothest things I've ever seen,” Erwin said.
Armin laughed, and brushed wet hair away from his face. “You think so?”
“I do. I'm Erwin.”
“I'm Armin.” He looked up at him. “I like your umbrella.”
“It's not mine.” Erwin held it out towards him a little, feeling the water line creep further across his back as he did so and Armin stepped up next to him to share it, for all the good it would do, still smiling shyly. Erwin realised that his wet socks and damp hair and empty stomach weren't bothering him at all any more, and just like that this miserable Friday night had become something entirely unexpected.
“I thought you looked like Totoro, with your tiny umbrella,” Armin said, his voice warm with laughter. “Um, it's from a kid's movie-”
Erwin nodded, “I know it. I was thinking about the resemblance myself earlier.”
“Really, you like it?” A pause, and a cautious look. “You don't have kids or anything, do you?”
“I'm single,” Erwin reassured him.
Armin stuck his hands in the back pockets of his jeans and rocked forward on his toes, smiling. “Cool.”
“Yeah.” It had been along time since Erwin last thought of his bachelorhood as cool, but right now it definitely was.
Armin's smile was so distracting, Erwin almost missed the bus going past. They flagged it down at the last moment and tumbled aboard, soaking wet and grinning. The bus pulled away and they spent the trip discussing My Neighbour Totoro and Erwin's blu-ray collection in general. Somehow, by the time the bus pulled up at Erwin's stop, Armin was texting Eren to let him know he'd be a couple of hours late and would get dinner elsewhere and Erwin was asking him what kind of pizza he liked and the rain had mostly stopped but neither of them noticed, huddling under a small yellow umbrella and discussing what they should watch first.
Chapter 4: Role Swap
It was the first time they’d been alone since it had happened. A hospital bed, a courtroom, a gallows- Armin had begun to resign himself to the fact that they were never going to see each other again. Yet here they were.
The door closed behind them and they stared at each other for one long moment before Armin closed the gap and flung his arms around Erwin. He pressed his ear against his chest and closed his eyes to better listen to his breath, his heartbeat.
“Armin.” Erwin wrapped his arm around Armin’s shoulders and squeezed him in that manner he had in which his muscles tensed with all his strength and yet he did not crush- it was like being hugged by a statue sometimes, but Armin understood both the force and the gentleness.
He gazed at the stump of Erwin’s right arm, hidden within the empty sleeve of his shirt.
“How is it?” he asked.
“Fine,” Erwin said, and Armin knew it wasn’t- knew he wasn’t, but demanding more details of him wouldn’t help matters. “I want you,” Erwin said, his lips pressed to the top of his head.
“Yes, of course,” Armin breathed. He didn’t know if Erwin would feel well enough to do anything, so he wasn’t going to push it, but he’d hoped, despite the bruises on his face, despite the arm, that they could make the most of whatever time they had. He tilted his head up and gazed at Erwin, so glad he was still alive, still with them, still himself. Armin had seen too much torture recently to trust that even if they got him back he wouldn’t be...damaged somehow.
Ever since they got Eren back from Reiner, things had skidded more and more out of control, and Armin felt himself scrambling to keep up; he didn’t have enough pieces to put together the right plans, they were anticipated, betrayed, and just plain wrong sometimes and he hated it. But they had Erwin back and maybe things were going to start looking up.
“Leave everything to me,” Armin said, but to his surprise, Erwin frowned.
“No. I mean, yes, but.” He looked away and then back again. “Don’t be gentle.” His hand went to his throat but he wasn’t wearing his tie. Armin understood the gesture anyway. He wanted to play that game? Now?
And then Armin understood. Of course he did. And Armin did too, for as much as Erwin wanted someone else to take responsibility, Armin wanted just as much to take control. He stepped back from Erwin, and felt the atmosphere change between them. Normally Armin would wear his tie, a physical symbol of their new roles, but tonight they’d have to do without a prop.
He only had one arm. No. If Armin asked too much of him, he trusted Erwin would say something.
“You’re a mess, aren’t you?” Armin said, tilting his head back so he could look down at Erwin despite his height.
“Yes, sir. I’m sorry.”
“Well,” Armin stalked around him, looking him up and down. “At least nothing really important was damaged.” He grabbed a handful of Erwin’s arse and watched him stiffen in response. “Right?”
“That’s correct, sir.”
“Well, strip. You’re no use to me clothed. No use to anyone clothed.” He didn’t sneer, he spoke matter of factly, and he felt a jolt in his loins when Erwin abruptly started unbuttoning his shirt, clumsily, undoing the first two buttons before tearing it off over his head. “Eager, aren’t you?” Armin said. “Good boy.”
He was eager. His pants went next, and his magnificent cock was already standing at attention.
“You’ve been neglected.” Armin ran his hand down Erwin’s spine, standing behind him for now so he wouldn’t see the pained expression on his face when he saw all of Erwin’s bruises. It would spoil the act, he knew. “It’s been far too long since you were fucked, hasn’t it?”
“You missed it. What did you miss?”
“Your cock, sir.”
“In my mouth, and in my arse, sir.”
“No one else’s will do it for you, huh?”
“I wouldn’t let anyone else try, sir.”
Armin raised his eyebrows. Erwin liked to play the cheap and easy tart usually, anyone’s to be taken, worthless unless wrapped around a cock, but things had changed a bit since then, Armin thought.
“You’ve been very, very good, haven’t you?” Armin stepped around in front of him to look at Erwin’s face. His eyes were modestly downcast, but his breathing gave him away. Armin was still fully clothed, but he wished he wasn’t. “Would you like a reward?” Armin asked coyly, running a knuckle along the underside of Erwin’s cock, making it twitch. Game or no game, he liked giving as well as receiving and he’d missed the taste of him. But Erwin frowned, and Armin went with it; sometimes it was hard to know what Erwin wanted, and they hadn’t had time to discuss it beforehand.
“Oops, too slow,” Armin laughed, letting him off the hook. “You can wait your turn like a good boy. Now get on the bed, on your hands and knees.”
Only now did Armin start taking off his clothes. He made a lot of noise, clinking his harness and dropping his boots a little, so Erwin could hear what he was doing, but couldn’t see. It was such a relief to get his cock out of his pants at last. Erwin was mouthwatering like this, all dutiful and quiet and pliant, and it made Armin desperate to hear him scream.
He walked around to the side of the bed. Erwin had aligned himself sideways so Armin had a choice of his mouth or his arse; so thoughtful. And frankly it was less awkward if Armin kept his feet on the ground; the bed was the right height to compensate for their difference in size.
At first Armin had felt a bit silly, like he needed to grow into Erwin like a new pair of shoes, but having this big, muscled blonde obey the lightest touch of his hand, the quietest whisper was even more satisfying than pushing him around. Erwin was propped up on his one remaining elbow and his bandaged stump, and that seemed to work okay, his arse in the air invitingly.
“Look at you,” Armin said. “Exactly where you belong. And you know it, don’t you? You were made for this.”
He approached, trailing his fingers up Erwin’s back, and digging them into a relatively un-bruised patch of his shoulder. Erwin’s eyes were shut and his mouth was slightly open.
Armin grinned wickedly and taking his cock in hand, pressed it against Erwin’s parted lips.
“Is this what you want?”
“Yes, sir,” Erwin mumbled, his lips catching on Armin’s foreskin. Armin could see a smear of precome on his chin. But he didn’t move. Not going to disobey and do something he didn’t have permission to do? But he liked punishments so much, usually.
Armin was beginning to run out of willpower. It had been so long.
“Fucking suck it then,” he said roughly, and as he swung his hips forward Erwin’s jaw dropped and his mouth engulfed him. Erwin squeezed his eyes shut harder, and Armin could feel his tongue on the underside of his cock as he swallowed. And then he sucked, his cheeks hollowing, and Armin groaned.
“You’re good at this,” he breathed, running his fingers through Erwin’s hair. “You’re so good.”
Erwin started moving his head, his nose touching Armin’s pubic hair every time he bowed his head down, Armin’s cock sliding down his throat. “Greedy,” Armin panted, rocking his hips forward. “Desperate for my cock, aren’t you?” He was beginning to forget how to form words properly and with an unhappy whine he pulled himself free of Erwin’s willing mouth before he came and ended the game early.
“Good, good boy,” Armin ran his thumb over Erwin’s swollen lips. Erwin nodded. “You’re working so hard, even for a desperate, dirty little thing like you.” He cupped Erwin’s jaw and tilted his face up. “What is it you want?”
Erwin looked at him with glazed, teary eyes. “Hit me,” he muttered in a desperate, broken tone.
“That’s a… punishment.” Armin was confused, thrown out of the scene for a moment. Where on earth could he hit him anyway, he was already so battered it didn’t seem right to smack a bruise- “Oh, you want to be spanked?” he still wasn’t certain.
“Yes sir,” Erwin whispered.
“What was that?” Armin asked. “What do you want? You’ve been so well-behaved up until now, so answer clearly.” He was definitely going to have a word about organising what activities were on the menu beforehand next time. But not tonight; he understood that tonight Erwin didn’t want punishment, he wanted praise.
“Spank me, fuck me, please. Sir.” Erwin looked up at him, desperate, but his voice was clear.
“Oh.” He took Armin’s breath away sometimes. “Oh yes, you’ve earned it, you’ve done so well.”
Normally Erwin would prepare himself, putting on a show while Armin told him how filthy he was, but he couldn’t do it one-armed unless he changed position and right now he was perfectly placed, as far as Armin was concerned.
“Don’t move,” he said. “You’ll get your reward.”
Erwin nodded, and Armin darted back to his clothes to look for the oil. This was his favourite part; his fingers or Erwin’s, either way this was when the older man always started coming undone.
“Okay.” Armin warmed the oil in his hands first and then started working it into Erwin’s arse. “Don’t worry,” he said soothingly. “You’ll get all of your reward in time, just be patient. Although I can see you’re not.”
Erwin made a small, choked sound in response.
“This is almost as eager as your mouth,” Armin said. “Can you feel that?” He worked his thumb in up to the knuckle and bent it just so and Erwin bucked against empty air.
“Yessss,” he breathed. “Sir.”
Armin started finger-fucking him in earnest, and when he’d worked out a nice rhythm he slapped Erwin’s arse with his other hand. He didn’t hit him anything approaching hard; the skin didn’t even redden, but Erwin yelped, and the sound went straight to Armin’s dick.
“You don’t have to be quiet,” Armin said, readying another blow. “Just let it all out, good boy. You’ve earned your reward.”
He slapped him a few more times and then switched hands. Erwin’s reddening arse was soon shiny with oil, and Erwin himself writhed and sobbed, utterly lost to everything but Armin’s fingers. Armin wondered if he was going to come just watching him. He felt drunk on power; this was what he could make the great Erwin Smith become. This was what Erwin wanted him to do to him.
“I’m gonna fuck you now,” Armin said, hoarse. “Okay.” He wasn’t sure Erwin had heard him. “Nod, please.”
Erwin nodded. Okay.
He didn’t need to be gentle at this point. He slicked himself up and stood up- he’d been kneeling on the bed- and took a deep breath before grabbing Erwin’s hips and holding him still while he buried his cock in his arse.
Armin stilled himself with an effort, wondering if he'd hurt him, but Erwin merely muttered 'thank you' over and over.
“Yes, you're welcome, good, polite boy. You took that so nicely.” Armin's hips were flush with Erwin's arse, so he couldn't keep spanking him, but he knew what else Erwin liked. He fucked him hard, as if he didn't care about anything but his own release, and when he felt it coming he eased off, gritting his teeth and forcing it back. Erwin wouldn't come, he knew, until Armin stroked him off, and in the meantime he could do as he pleased and the more selfish he was the more Erwin would like it.
Armin's hair swung in front of his eyes and he gave up trying to tell Erwin how good and how dirty he was because he couldn't seem to form the words any more. But he noticed Erwin had started to twist, putting more weight on his remaining arm. Time to wrap this up; Erwin was lost in his own torturous pleasure, but Armin would take care of him. He reached down and wrapped his hand around Erwin's cock, and this time he didn't back off when he felt his balls tighten and his hips snapped forward faster and more desperately.
He felt Erwin swell in his hand, impossibly hard and he knew he was coming, finally, yelling into the bedsheets and that was what Armin had been waiting for, coming in Erwin's arse with a series of hoarse choked gasps. He thought he saw stars.
As soon as he pulled out Erwin collapsed on his side, and Armin slumped over him for a few minutes, regaining his breath. He crawled up alongside him and cradled his face. Erwin looked almost asleep.
“Hey,” Armin said.
Erwin smiled. “Hey. I missed you. I missed you a lot.”
“Yeah, me too.” He pressed his lips to his forehead and staggered off to find a cloth to clean Erwin up. Once he'd done so he brushed the hair out of his eyes and told him he was facing the wrong way to get into the covers and gently nudged Erwin in the right direction, pulling back the sheet for him so he could crawl in.
He asked if he wanted tea but Erwin only wanted water, and Armin fetched it for him, secretly rather glad he didn't have to put his clothes on and face whoever might be keeping watch while he went and made tea (he hadn't asked about the roster; hadn't cared, and he knew Levi didn't expect him to take a turn tonight anyway.)
He crawled in beside him and wrapped his arms around Erwin's shoulders and Erwin pressed his face to his chest, for once the shorter one.
“I'm glad we can still do this,” Erwin said finally.
“We will always be able to do this,” Armin said firmly. “If we live. Right until we're too old to get it up.”
He felt Erwin chuckle, but drifted off before he could say anything further.
Chapter 5: Hurt and Comfort
Erwin was twenty-two and this was his fourth expedition. The expedition was due to leave Shiganshina half an hour ago, but some sort of screw-up he wasn’t privy to had meant a solid two hour delay. Everyone, save for a handful of guards to prevent any thieves getting their hands on Survey Corps supplies, was told to amuse themselves in the meantime.
Shiganshina was nice enough, Erwin supposed, but he knew no one here and there was nothing of particular interest he wanted to see nor anything he could imagine wanting to buy. He saved his precious coins for notebooks and extra food.
So he wandered aimlessly, feeling jangly and at a loose end; he’d nerved himself up for yet another expedition and now he just wanted to go. And, hopefully, come back alive.
The sound of children caught his attention and he noticed a ring of youngsters chanting taunts around one of their number, a small boy with blonde hair. The latter was crying and trying to mount some sort of defence, but couldn’t be heard over the insults; something about his parents being crazy and air-headed.
“Hey!” Erwin strode towards them and it was enough to see an adult in uniform paying attention to make them scatter, laughing.
He was left with the boy. He stared up at Erwin with huge blue eyes, wary and quiet.
“Are you okay?”
He looked dusty but uninjured. He pressed his lips together and more tears rolled down his cheeks. Erwin sighed and crouched down so he didn’t loom over him; he couldn’t be more than about five or six. Just tell me you’re okay, he thought, and my duty will be done. He didn’t want to draw attention, and he didn’t know how to talk to kids; it would look bad if the boy started bawling.
“I’m not going to hurt you.” He realised the boy was staring at the insignia on his jacket. Ah, insight; the kid was old enough to realise he wasn't wearing the Garrison insignia he'd be familiar with. “This means I’m a member of the Survey Corps. I’m not the Military Police.”
Those were the magic words. The boy took a few cautious steps closer and Erwin smiled at him.
“I wanna go home,” the boy said quietly, his voice hitching.
“Okay, I’ll take you home. I’m Erwin. Can you show me the way?”
The boy nodded and when Erwin straightened up and offered him his hand, he took it. It was dusty and covered with snot, rather like the boy himself, but Erwin was committed now and let the boy lead him through the town.
“Is it much further?” Erwin asked. He was starting to worry about the time. He didn’t want to be late. “I have to go over the wall today. I think we should pick up the pace.”
“Really?” The boy stopped altogether and stared up at him. “You’ve been over the wall? Tell me what’s it’s like.”
“It’s.” Erwin was lost for words. Terrifying. Horrible. Amazing. He wanted to neither encourage nor scare the kid. “Look, let’s get you home fast. Come on, I’ll carry you.” He knelt down and the boy scrambled into his arms, apparently having decided that he was a friend. Erwin lifted him up and the boy peppered him with unnervingly specific questions about the lands outside the wall, while he clutched at Erwin’s cloak.
We look like father and son, he thought.
“Is it big?”
“Yes, it’s big.”
“Are there mountains?”
“I’ve seen them in the distance.”
“Are there fish?”
“Um. I suppose there are.”
“Did you eat the fish?”
“That’s my house.” He pointed and Erwin sighed with relief. “Hey, I’m home, come and see!”
Erwin got the distinct feeling the kid wanted to adopt him like a stray puppy, given the proud smile he had on his face when his mother appeared at the door.
“What happened?” she asked, and Erwin noted she paid close attention to his insignia as well.
“He got a bit lost,” he said diplomatically, and the look on her face told him she knew roughly what had really happened. The boy detached himself and went to his mother’s arms, and Erwin was thanked and invited in for something to eat but he had to go.
The boy waved as he walked away and Erwin waved back.
And then he forgot about it entirely; his light-hearted mood lasted only as long as it took to rejoin the expedition, and the subsequent events drove the inconsequential incident from his mind entirely.
He’d been looking for Grisha. There was a reasonable chance that his activities had drawn the attention of the Military Police at one point or another, and Erwin was leafing through the records Levi’s squad had unearthed during their fruitless search of the Police HQ for Eren. He hadn’t found Grisha, but he had found George and Tabitha Arlet, and the pieces clicked into place as he remembered a sunny morning and a child in need of comfort.
He wasn’t allowed one single thing, was he, he thought bitterly. There was nothing in his life that wasn’t shadowed.
He slammed the book shut as his vision blurred and he covered his face with his hand. It wasn’t a good time for anyone to intrude, so naturally he heard a polite knock and the door open behind him.
“What?” he grated out.
“Commander Hange.” It was Armin, of course it was. “Says you’re to eat something and I have to make sure you do, sir.”
“Tell Hange I don’t need a nursemaid,” he said, as Armin approached. He could smell the food and he was hungry, but at the same time the thought of it turned his stomach. Armin set the bowl of stew on the table next to him.
He didn’t remember, did he? He hadn’t mentioned it.
He glanced up at Armin through his fingers and Armin gave him a sympathetic look.
“Did you find someone you know?” he asked hesitantly, wary of stepping over any lines.
“In a manner of speaking,” he replied. Armin deserved to know. “I found you.”
“‘Armin Arlet, seven years old. He is not considered a security risk and no further action is recommended.’ I’m sorry, Armin. They killed your parents.”
“I know,” Armin said calmly. He gave Erwin a sad little smile, “I mean, I haven’t thought they might be alive for a long time. With what we know now about the Military Police, it’s not really a surprise. But thank you.”
He’d come a long way from the boy crying in the dirt. Now Erwin looked at him, really looked at him, he wasn’t surprised he hadn’t recognised him; he’d grown up and seen and suffered so much loss.
“ I’ll tell Hange you’re eating,” Armin said, withdrawing to give him some space.
Erwin realised he didn’t want him to go. “Do you remember the first time we met?” he asked.
“The night we chose to join the Survey Corps?” Armin asked.
“Much, much earlier than that. You probably don’t remember. I’d forgotten it myself.”
Armin was drifting closer again, curious. Erwin pushed the chair back a little, distancing himself from the horrible book on the table in front of him.
“You were very small, and I was just a soldier. I was quite young. And you were getting teased, so I took you home. I met your mother.” She would have been dead in another year, he realised, and he wondered how the Arlets had stood to leave their son behind. They had to have known what they were risking, just like his father had.
Armin chewed on his lip and frowned. “I think...I think I remember my mother telling me about it. About the Survey Corps.” His gaze traversed Erwin’s face as he tried to remember. “That was you,” he breathed.
“Small world,” Erwin said.
What happened next he was entirely unprepared for. Armin deliberately stepped closer and wrapped his arms around his shoulders. He gave Erwin time to draw back if he wanted to, but acted without hesitation.
“I owe you,” he said, as if that were enough of an explanation.
Erwin sat there stunned for a few moments and then he cautiously wrapped his arm around Armin, and let his forehead rest against his chest. He smelled of sweat and gear oil and life, and Erwin realised he hadn’t been held in a very long time.
“It’s a miracle either of us is still alive,” he said.
“Yeah. I’m glad you made it, sir.”
“Me too, Armin. Thank you.”
Armin tightened his grip a little and Erwin let his eyes close and the stew went cold, but he was warm and that was enough.
Chapter 6: Breach!
“Breach!” Hange yells, and all eyes turn to the water. I can see patches of mist that I later learn are spouts, and I catch a glimpse of the huge animal seemingly hanging in space for a moment before it lands in the water with a crash I can hear over the sound of the engine and the wind in my ears. It is my first time seeing whales in the wild, and it will not be my last.
Armin sank back in his chair and reread the paragraph. His words were inadequate; he couldn't hope to capture what it really felt like, standing on the deck of the Indomitable and seeing a pod of humpbacks for the first time. But he had to try; it had taken him half a year of training and researching and begging to be allowed to join the crew of the Indomitable for a couple of weeks, and he had to try and bring that experience back and share it with the world.
Armin was a writer. Sometimes he felt like a blogger, and sometimes he felt like a reporter, and sometimes he felt like a nobody, but 'freelance writer' was the title on his business card, and he'd had articles published in the Huffington Post and other places. He was interested in the truth above all else.
And he was interested in the Indomitable and her famous owner; Erwin Smith. Everyone knew the basics; a privileged heir to a shipping empire, he spent the months of the Antarctic summer pursuing the Japanese whaling fleet around the Antarctic, and the other eight months pursuing them in the international court system. The man behind the cause was hard to pin down; he took mild offence at personal questions, and every interview he'd given revolved around whales and the other environmental projects he was devoting what had to be the majority of his fortune to.
He'd been called an irresponsible pirate, and an inspiration, and an obsessive. Armin wanted to see for himself. He honestly hadn't expected to get as far as he did; he wasn't representing a newspaper after all, but last August one of Erwin's 'people,' a personable young woman named Petra, had got in touch and explained the training Armin would have to go through before Erwin would feel comfortable having him on board.
Late in the year Armin packed all his winter clothes and flew to Sydney, sweltering in the summer heat. Now he had an exclusive lined up he was able to sell his story for an advance heftier than any he had earned before. He'd been in Sydney only two days before stepped on board the refuelling vessel that would meet up with the Indomitable and transfer supplies, mail, and one very nervous young writer.
He shakes my hand briefly, but I can tell his attention is elsewhere as he supervises the loading of supplies. He's bigger than I expect, rugged up against the weather like everyone else, a grey beanie pulled down over his ears and his nose red from cold. I don't feel unwelcome but I'm definitely in the way, and I do my best to stow my gear and take up as little space as possible as the ship is resupplied and the crew receives their mail.
The crew was a colourful collection of nationalities and personalities, and Armin had enjoyed verbally sketching every one of them. They were mostly Americans and Australians, but the first mate was a short, broad-shouldered Japanese man with a permanent scowl who frankly frightened Armin a little. He looked prepared to draw a knife at any time and repel boarders- or perhaps board another vessel himself. Armin nerved himself up to try and interview Levi a couple of times, but he was perpetually too busy to talk and Armin got the hint.
Hange was always happy to talk. A bona fide marine biologist cheerfully self-described as 'gone rogue' zie would talk Armin's ear off about the whales for as long as he could stay awake to listen.
For those first few days, Erwin merely observed him.
I sense someone behind me, and when I take my eyes off the whales Smith hands me a pair of binoculars. Mike cuts the engine and we drift. Eventually the pod gets close enough that I can hear them breathe, and I nearly forget to do so. By then I don't need the binoculars; we're among them. The crew is silent.
“They're so big,” I say, for lack of anything better, and when I glance at Smith he's smiling, as proud as if he'd hand-raised them himself. It might not be too far from the truth; when I press him for numbers he's evasive, but he has to have saved, at least temporarily, hundreds of whales.
They stood like that for some time, until the whales had moved away from the ship and they started moving again. Armin handed the binoculars back to Erwin and thanked him.
“We've got the whaling fleet on radar,” Erwin said. “We'll be escorting this pod for a couple of days.”
“Are you expecting trouble?” Armin asked.
Trouble arrives hours later in the form of a whale catching vessel accompanied by a security craft. Erwin ordered Levi to the helm, and the Indomitable began to try and block the vessels from catching up to the whales. The addition of the security ship complicated matters, and Armin made his way from the helm to the bow and back again, taking photos and keeping out of the way as the crew worked. Hange was filming the chase, and giving a running commentary into the mike, while Armin took photos of hir doing so.
A loud explosion made him flinch and Levi swung the ship around.
“A harpoon has just been fired,” Hange said.
The security vessel had blocked them. Another explosion and Armin felt his stomach lurch. By the time they'd swung around the whale chaser it was too late. The sea was red, and the wallowing corpse was being hauled against the side of the whaler with ropes. Armin knew that the factory ship would arrive to process the whale next. He didn't want to watch. He did.
The days are long here, and it's still light by the time we move on. I should be keeping up with where we're going next and why, but I haven't the heart to. We failed. Every dead whale is a failure, and it's one that I can tell everyone else is used to. We go on, the roster resumes. The day's catch is carefully logged, and I lean over the railing, staring out at an empty ocean and feeling tears freezing on my cheeks. I'm not used to this. I'd seen the footage before, but it doesn't prepare you for the smell of blood on the air, and the noise of the engines, and once again, the sheer size of the creatures.
“I know.” Smith is a my side again; I hadn't noticed him approach. He looks tired and sad. He's been accused many times of chasing the whalers for his own enjoyment, for the joy of righteous piracy, but right then his disappointment is palpable. I have no doubt that this is not just a game for him. I try to say something and he puts a hand on my back.
“We'll try again tomorrow,” he says. He stays. He stays until I've recovered my equilibrium, and by the time we go below deck I've fallen a little in love with him.
Armin stared at the blinking cursor at the end of the line and let out a slow breath. He couldn't leave that in there, but he couldn't bring himself to erase it just now either- it had taken enough courage just to type it, and now the phrase burned on his screen. He decided to leave it and edit it later; give him courage to keep on writing.
That night he hadn't been the only one crying. Hange sat at the dinner table reviewing the footage and weeping into the fried ham and greens. And then Erd suggested that Armin's article will lead to a movie being made, and Hange perked up slightly.
“Yeah, but they'll probably make my character a woman,” zie said sourly.
“I could be Hugh Jackman,” Mike said thoughtfully.
“Pff. If he's wearing stilts,” Erd replied, and the fantasy casting continued.
Erwin caught Armin's eye, and rose from the table. Armin followed, and Erwin relieved Nanaba of duty at the helm. The interior lights were off, but the instruments and radar panels gave off enough glow to see by. Outside, all was finally dark for the few short hours of the Antarctic summer night .
“They have to do that, don't they?” Armin asked. “Laugh, I mean.”
“It can be grim work.”
“Do you ever wonder if you're making it worse? That by putting pressure on the Japanese government they'll just dig their heels in?” he asked.
“All the time,” Erwin said. “But it's not just whales. The Antarctic and Arctic will need protecting in the future as well. If fish stocks fall too far we may start harvesting krill and completely collapse the ecosystem here. The fight for natural resources-” he smiled faintly. “Let's just say this is a partially pre-emptive 'occupy Antarctic' movement.”
“Can I quote that?” Armin asked.
“Everything is on the record,” Erwin said. “I stand by what I say.”
“Why whales?” Armin asked.
“I wanted to be a whaler, when I was young,” Erwin said. He smiled at Armin's look of surprise. “Moby Dick made a big impression on me. The battle; they took to the open ocean in row boats and flung harpoons with their bare hands, and many died. But now we have radar and grenade-tipped harpoons and ships with engines powerful enough to drag a whale through the water. It's a slaughter, not a noble hunt. The challenge lies elsewhere, in preventing it.”
“So it is personal,” Armin said.
Erwin had been watching the radar, but he turned his pale, intense eyes on Armin. “Why are you here?” he asked. “Is it personal?”
What do I say? Why am I here, at both expense and risk? What am I looking for that's worth all this trouble; not just an advance, surely.
“I want the truth,” I say eventually. “Not about whaling specifically, but about the ways people might change the world for the better. We need examples. We need to learn from our mistakes.”
“You need to know if I'm an example or a mistake.” He's smiling. “And it's personal,” Smith says. “Everything worthwhile is.”
Armin leaned back in his chair, remembering. He hadn't recorded that first interview, and he indulged in the fantasy of Erwin crossing the room and telling him he could see how personal this was and then leaning down and closing his eyes and- no, no no. More coffee, Armin thought, getting out of his chair. Then back to work.
It was the first of a few interviews conducted after dinner by the light of the instrument panel. Armin learned that Erwin did a lot of his thinking up there, and that he didn't mind if they were recorded. He didn't refuse to answer any questions, and Armin knew the article he would write would be worth the advance he'd been paid for and more.
They had better luck the next days. They co-ordinated with the Greenpeace vessels in the area, and Levi flung the Indomitable between the harpoons and the whales with great skill .
Armin asked him what would happen if the ship was hit by one of the explosive harpoons.
“We'd probably get a hole in the hull and start to sink,” Levi replied calmly. “This is an icebreaker, not a battleship.”
The danger was real, but it didn't put anyone off.
It's two days before we rendezvous with the Lamprey, two days before I'm due to return to dry land. We both know this will be the last interview.
“Japan could decide to cease whaling tomorrow. What would you do if you won?” I ask him.
Smith shrugs. “Take a holiday. Somewhere warmer, I think. And then I'd get back to work; there are no shortage of battles to fight.”
“Do you think you're being inefficient? As you say, there are a lot of battles to fight. Almost half the year you're here or preparing to be.”
“Stalin said 'Quantity has a quality all of it's own' and that applies to money as well. I could spend my time turning my millions into billions and make the argument that I could channel these resources into worthwhile causes, but money on that scale becomes an end unto itself. I grew up surrounded by people who had more money than they could ever spend; sometimes this was because their imaginations didn't stretch further than the next sports car, and sometimes this was just because they had so much. It's a weight on you; a responsibility. And I don't believe money in my hands would be any better than money in yours. How much debt do you have?”
“A lot,” I admit.
“And how does that affect your potential as a human being? Perhaps not so much for you; you're here after all, exactly where you want to be, but so much human life is wasted in the pursuit of enough money to live on. And so much more is wasted in the pursuit of more money than is needed.” He shrugs. “Besides, this is life-threatening work, and I could not ask others to do what I do not.”
I ask the question I've wanted to ask since I arrived. It's not on my list, but on the tip of my tongue.
“Why did you invite me on board?”
“I've read your articles. While you're deciding if I'm an example or a mistake, I've made my mind up about you already. We need people like you. Unafraid and truthful and eloquent. It's not enough to provide camera-phone footage; it's important of course, but what is also needed are people who can communicate context, who understand that cameras lie just like people do.”
He crosses the room and speaks seriously to me.
“If you ever get into trouble for the things you write, I want you to contact me and I will pay for your legal defence. If you're who I think you're going to be, you're going to piss people off.”
I don't think I've felt this proud since graduation.
Armin deliberately turned off the recording, and took a deep breath.
“Off the record,” he said slowly, raising his eyes to meet Erwin's. “Are you straight?”
Erwin stepped back, putting some distance between them. “That's not the question you should be asking,” he said. “And the question you should be asking isn't appropriate for you to ask right now.”
“Yeah.” Armin nodded. He knew he was right. He also knew that wasn't a 'yes.'
I'm leaving. Smith is the last to see me off and to my surprise he pulls me into a hug. With the puffy waterproof coat he's wearing it's suffocating, but I don't want to let go. I'm going to miss these people, and I feel like I've become one of them. I owe them a lot, and with the whales still singing in the Antarctic, we all owe them a lot.
Armin slumped back in his chair, emotionally drained. It was too sentimental for a proper article, but he was glad the draft was done. He was going to save this, along with the photographs and recordings, and when he closed his eyes he felt Erwin's arms around him.
The finished article was published some time later, and Armin was woken up a three AM by his phone ringing. A confused babble of voices was on the other end and it took Armin a few moments to realise he was talking to the crew of the Indomitable via their satellite phone.
“Why didn't you use the picture of me with the loud-hailer?” Hange asked. “That was a good one.”
“I didn't choose the pictures-” Armin pulled the phone away from his ear as some loud thumping noises came though.
“Well done, mate,” Mike said. Armin gave up trying to make sense of the conversation after that, he was just glad to hear from them all, and he laughed and accepted their congratulations.
Then the phone went quiet as it was wrestled away from the crew and Erwin's voice came through strong and clear.
“Well done. I'm glad you made the most of the opportunity.”
“Well, uh, actually, I think I missed something,” Armin said.
“Yeah, a question I didn't ask.” His heart was thumping. Courage, Armin, you've stared down explosive harpoons; this is just a question. “Would you like to go out with me sometime?”
“Hm.” He could hear the smile in Erwin's voice. “I'll be back in the US in two months or so. It's a date.”
Armin didn't manage to get any more sleep that night; he was too damn happy.
Chapter 7: The End
Armin insisted on the hood.
“He was my commander, and he's still my,” he faltered. “My friend. He has a great love for humanity, enough that he will walk to the gallows unaided if that is what is asked of him. So please, let his final moments be in his own head, with his own conscience, rather than with the howls of the mob he sacrificed so much for.”
They were going to argue, but Historia, their new queen, who so many underestimated, said she thought it was fair. As Her Majesty wishes.
Erwin Smith was hung at noon the next day, for traitorous crimes not quite too numerous to mention. Armin had watched, his expression as guarded as all the others; they were veterans who kept their own counsel.
The leaver was pulled, the trapdoor dropped, and the rope creaked. Armin breathed a sigh of relief; he'd seen enough hangings by now to know a clean kill when he saw one. The feet jiggled, but it was just nerves; his neck had been snapped. Fast. Painless.
“Congratulations, you're a dead man.”
The lamp flickered on the table between them.
“Who swung in my place?” Erwin asked quietly. He'd grown a thick scruff of beard, and his hair was hanging down over his eyes. Maybe he'd be hard for others to recognise, but Armin knew his features so well, memorised them over many late nights like this one as they plotted and planned by lantern-light.
Erwin hadn't asked to be saved; Armin knew if he had asked Erwin would have refused. No more deaths on his orders.
“Someone who deserved it.”
“I don't believe that.”
“No one you know then. Is that better?”
Erwin sighed heavily, “Yes, it'll do. I'll take what I can get. You organised for him to be missing an arm as well, I suppose.”
“It wouldn't have worked if I hadn't.” Armin met Erwin's gaze boldly; Erwin had, after all, cultivated Armin's ruthless streak like a delicate flower. It was too late to feel bad about it. It was too late to feel bad about a lot of things; Erwin had taught Armin that, too.
“Any news of Levi?” Erwin asked.
Armin shook his head. “We haven't found him, dead or alive. If he is alive he'd be sensible to stay hidden.”
“I shall choose to believe he lives on, then,” Erwin said. “The man's harder to kill than a cockroach.” He smiled faintly.
“You have to go,” Armin said. “Before it starts getting light.”
“I know. Thank you, Armin.”
“Thank you, sir.” Armin stood and saluted, one last time. “For all that you have done.”
“You won't be alone,” Armin said. “Sasha's people have already left the walls in search of new hunting grounds. Others will follow.”
“And when will you?” Erwin asked gently.
Armin bit his lip. “I'd go with you, but.”
“I know, duty calls.”
“The three of us are planning to leave next spring. The map I gave you- I've marked the direction we're planning to go.”
“If I survive the winter, I'll look for you.”
Armin nodded. This was the best he could do, sending a one-armed old soldier out into the wilderness with only what he could carry and hoping for the best. It didn't seem adequate, but it was better than a length of hemp rope and the mercy of the mob.
Erwin got to his feet and held out his hand. When Armin took it he pulled the young man closer, and Armin let himself be pulled, wrapping his arms around him in a hug made clumsy by the cloak around Erwin's shoulders and the pack on his back. Erwin smelled of the cell they'd been holding him in.
“It's going to be cold,” Erwin murmured, his arm wrapped around Armin's shoulders. “Stay safe, Armin.” As he drew back his hand cupped his cheek briefly, and Armin tilted his head back. Surely, now- but Erwin didn't kiss him. Smiled at him instead, like he still couldn't believe what he was seeing.
And then he was gone, the door shutting quietly behind him and Armin buried his face in his hands for a few moments before taking a deep breath and carrying the lantern upstairs.
There was smoke in the forests. Probably Sasha's people, but Armin had nevertheless drawn comfort from those ephemeral spirals all throughout winter. Spring had burst upon the countryside after months of frost and the three of them took their leave without fuss, on horses given to them by the Queen.
They took their time, gazing about and revelling in the freedom of not being observed, letting the horses set their own pace. Mikasa had let her hair grow long again, and it gleamed in the sun as she took the lead, even now still watchful for danger. Eren was practically breathless with excitement, pulling up beside Armin and asking if he'd ever seen that particular kind of flower before.
Yes, yes he had, but he was happy to see Eren's eyes lighting up again, and hear him laugh.
Mid afternoon, and Armin pulled up on the edge of the forest and fired a round of green smoke into the air. The others didn't say anything, as they rested their horses and waited.
He fired another. And again.
“It's all right,” Armin said eventually. “You go on ahead and find somewhere to camp. I'll stay here a bit longer.” He threw on his cloak and waited, as the shadows grew longer around him.