And if she asks you why, you can tell her that I told you
That I'm tired of castles in the air
I've got a dream I want the world to share
And castle walls just lead me to despair
Annie plays the words of the song in her head as she goes through the motions every day.
It’s a 2000 year old relic, a piece of the past that humanity has long forgotten. She’d come across it by chance in her old hometown, when she was out in the wilderness checking the family’s snares, half buried in the dirt between gnarled roots. It was a strange thing, and the black market trader she’d taken it to for appraisement called it a ‘record’, though she didn’t see recordings of any sort on it. In exchange for a bit of game, she got him to show her how it worked – and it was a magical experience, shuffling into a back room and listening in wonder as the tune and words filled the air around her. Annie had stayed as long as she could in that room, drinking the words in as they played on repeat. They followed her around automatically after that, lurking in the back of her mind and surfacing in any remotely applicable situation.
The words didn’t come to mind when she had to leave home and journey to Trost or wherever to join the trainee squad, because those were intended to be the important first steps on the journey towards realising their dream – there was so much hope and possibility in the air it squeezed her chest and made her lungs burn with anticipation. Slipping into the midst of fellow teenagers was easy, but feeling like she was part of them was difficult, despite having the same uniform and same training schedule and same superiors to answer to. Because wasn’t she special? – she, out of them all, had a special goal, at least. Well, that dumb trio seemed to think they were special too; shouting to the world about rebuilding walls and slaying all titans in existence and living freely outside one day; which is laudable, perhaps, but ultimately foolhardy.
On a stifling hot afternoon, the song swims around in her head, which is heavy from the mugginess of the air. It drives her to distraction, so she walks round to the back of the latrines, because it’s the only secluded spot she can think of that isn’t currently occupied by anyone else. The rough wood planks of the latrine wall scrape harshly against her back as she slumps against them and slides down, uncaring of her white pants. Gravel, packed dirt and dying weeds tend not to stain, in any case.
It’s the first and only time she’s sung the song aloud.
After all, now she’s older and she knows better, knows that songs aren’t really worth dwelling on because the only thing she is allowed to focus on is completing her mission. An old song won’t help with that, won’t help her capture Eren, and won’t make the world see how desperate the shifters are to protect themselves, too. When the last words of the refrain fade slowly from chapped lips, she lets her head loll back and sighs fully, but abruptly stops brooding to scan her surroundings for any people. A little pit of dread nestles into her stomach when she hears the cautious scrape of boots through the wooden partition – those are the footsteps of someone who’s been remaining deliberately silent for purposes of concealment. She can feel it when the intruder (on this private moment) exhales thinly and she tenses, ready for the ungainly scramble to leave and an overturned bucket or two, but not at all prepared for whoever it is to slide down too, and sit back to back with her. Annie narrows her eyes at the wood and hears a dry chuckle come from the other side. She huffs. It’s a male voice. Three guesses which guy in the whole squad would be the type to sit down in a latrine to listen to a girl singing a sad song. No one but Arlert fits the bill.
The boy shifts just then, angling himself such that he’d be facing her perpendicularly, if they could see each other. Annie stares at the gap between wooden partition and raised concrete, and soon enough white fingertips come into view.
“Hey,” the disembodied voice says, “can you sing it again?”
It interjects, “but slower,” before she can even blink.
So she does, despite every mite of her instincts telling her not to. Armin joins in after a while, and they sit there, brokenly whispering strings of words to some forgotten tune. Annie swallows the lump in her throat when his little finger curls tightly around hers, resting innocuously on the dirt surface, next to the burnished gleam of her shifter ring.
It does nothing for her.
She’s sixteen and jaded, and with every thwarting of her efforts by that blasted scouting legion, the dream becomes more distant, in both the literal and figurative sense. Annie’s always been short, but nothing has ever felt so out of reach as when she failed to scale those walls. Plunging to the earth, with the severed stubs of her fingertips still embedded in the wall, it occurs to her that they’re not the only walls she couldn’t scale. There are also walls between humanity’s truth and the shifter’s truth, walls within a family, walls between her and her peers (except maybe Eren, Reiner and Bert, Mina, and dare she include Armin?), the walls of castles in the air. She can’t climb the walls of those; it’s as she thought all along – unattainable dreams. She still doesn’t want to say she’s giving up, but perhaps that’s because of the fatigue.
Hey Eren, she thinks, as the crystal takes shape and solidifies around her form.
I’m asking you to say my last goodbye.
To Armin, of course.
Eren’s the only one who can do this for her. He’s rash and easy to provoke and much too angry at the world for his own good, but he’s probably the one who can empathise with her best. She admires that burning spirit of his when it comes to protecting what he thinks is important, even if he gets his ass handed to him repeatedly. She can see it in herself, albeit played out in a more covert manner, and on a much larger scale. Annie also privately thinks it’s a pity the last words they got to exchange before facing off had to be about choosing sides and all, but she’s never going to admit desiring more conciliatory topics of conversation with such people. They don’t get it anyway, they don’t get anything. No matter how much they think they know. No matter how much Armin thinks he knows – about her, and everything else.
If Annie could admit that in her last conscious moments she was being more selfish than selfless to a cause, she’d say that she didn’t want them to ever get it, because they didn’t deserve to know.
Eren wakes to hear the news that Annie is now encased in crystal, and is then promptly administered a sedative to ensure that he'll actually get some rest instead of wearing himself down again.
He dreams of looking over the walls in titan form, and seeing Annie in titan form too, carving out words on the barren landscape with a shard of crystal; the same phrases over and over again. It's all castles in the air and Armin and tell him, tell him, tell him.
He can't speak, he knows, but he tries to shape his mouth into a hello; she shapes hers into a goodbye.
Sea green eyes fly open at that - but they give nothing away. When Armin stands and leaves to fetch Mikasa, Eren watches him go, watches him go and wonders what could have happened between the two not-quite-friends and not-quite-strangers that he never saw.