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Pilgrims in an Unholy Land

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Annie has a nightmare when she’s six years old.

 She dreams she’s a monster, with bones crunching in her teeth and blood staining her hands. She stomps through a city and people flee from her, and those who don’t are crushed under her feet. She sees broken, lifeless bodies littering the streets, and a pair of sky blue eyes filled with hurt and betrayal, and she wakes sobbing without really knowing why.

 Vaguely, she registers her mother cooing apologies to her for telling her a story so violent at such a young age. She reasons that this is probably why Annie had the nightmare in the first place, and Annie accepts it and convinces herself it’s just a story while she sobs into her arms.

 She doesn’t even remember it the next morning.

 

 

 

They teach a solid semester of the Titan Story in classical literature when Annie is in high school.

 She only gets flashes of the dream she had when she was a little girl, but she’s far too focused on other things – grades, colleges, boys – to care much about a hazy memory. Admittedly, though, this is when her interest in the Titan Story takes its hold.

 They say that, once upon a time, humanity had been reduced to a population so small that their only chance of survival was to cower behind walls they had built while titans walked the earth.

 They’ve come a long way from that, she thinks, because humanity has spread far beyond those borders, and her own family lives across the sea in a country to the west of the Walled Cities. The remnants of the old Walls have been standing for almost two thousand years but she’s never seen them. She looks longingly at the pictures on postcards or in books and traces the lines of the catacombs on maps, hoping to see it all for herself one day.

 But the titans are just a story. There’s not a speck of evidence on their existence, so the real mystery of the Walled Cities is why they were ever walled to begin with. There are no records of floods, or disease that would ever narrow the human population down to what the stories say it was, and other disasters like meteor strikes and earthquakes don’t make much sense in context. Why walls? Why three? Why at all?

 She mulls it over in her mind long after the study on the Titan Story is done, and she can’t help but wonder why no one else seems as interested as her.

 

 

 

A university offer arrives in the mail just before the end of her senior year.

 It’s early, and Annie barely has her uniform jumper over her head when her father places the letter in front of her and puts a mug of coffee in her hand. She’s received offers already from other, more local universities, but the return address of this one makes her heart thump loudly in her chest.

 Admissions Office
The University of Wall Rose
104 Scout Avenue, Trost

 She drops the mug.

 

 

 

 Armin grows up in Shiganshina.

 It’s the southern-most city within the walls, and he lives most of his life fascinated by the ruins around his home town. The stories say Shiganshina was one of the first – if not the first – to go down after the fabled Colossal Titan kicked open the gates of Wall Maria and that various statues in town are actually chunks of the wall that were never moved. As a child, Armin had marvelled at them, studying the plaques and careful markings on each. He began to wander out to the main gate once he was old enough to go on his own and he has memories of staring up at it for hours, wondering how on earth they’d managed to build it so high.

 When he was younger, he’d quite happily believed that the titans were real. They had to have built the walls for a reason and he had thought that titans had made perfect sense.

 Now, though…

 He supposes he doesn’t really have a solid belief on the topic.

 He just wants to know the truth.

 

 

 

His friends think that his fascination with the Walls is kind of weird.

 Armin supposes he can understand. To them, the Walls have just been part of life. They haven’t been reading the stories since they were old enough to learn how, but Armin has spent his whole life devouring the books his grandfather had amassed over a lifetime of research. He knows the story like the back of his hand. He has visited the catacombs under Shiganshina more times than he can count. His grandfather even takes him on trips to the University of Wall Rose’s Museum of Antiquities all the way over in Trost to show him the various items he’d found in his days as an active archaeologist.

 His grandfather is a lot of the reason he’s so interested.

 He dies on his way home from Trost when Armin is eleven.

 Armin mourns for weeks.

 

 

 

 He graduates from high school at the top of his class, to nobody’s surprise, and he receives offers from various colleges within the Walled Cities, but the one that he wants desperately doesn’t send him an offer until just before he gives up hope.

 When it arrives, Armin stares at the return address for ages before he has the courage to open the envelope. The paper is thick, and the emblem shines up at him, and he reads the words ‘accepted into the Bachelor of Arhceological Science with Honours’ three, four, five times before he hugs the letter to his chest and takes off at a run.

 It’s six blocks to the cemetery but he doesn’t stop until he collapses in front of his grandfather’s grave.

 He lays the offer in front of the tombstone and grins, feeling words forming on his tongue that never make it out of his mouth. In the end, he laughs and he sobs at the same time, and he sits with his grandfather’s bones until Eren and Mikasa come to fetch him at dusk.

 

 

 

 They meet during orientation.

 Annie is a quiet little thing who takes a seat towards the back of the lecture hall for the dean’s welcome speech and she’s very obviously alone, even though she’s surrounded by a sea of chattering first years. She’s leafing through her orientation packet curiously when Armin taps her shoulder nervously and nods at the empty seat to her left.

 “Hi,” he says. “Sorry. Is this seat taken?”

 Annie shakes her head and nudges her backpack under her chair so he can get through.

 “Thanks,” says Armin, sounding relieved. “I’m Armin. Armin Arlert.”

 “Annie Leonhardt,” says Annie, shaking his hand briefly.

 “Nice to meet you, Annie Leonhardt,” he says, and he offers her a shy grin as he takes a seat. “Know what you want to major in yet?”

 Annie stifles a snort. “No,” she says. “I just got here. I don’t exactly want to jump the gun. The Titan Story’s always interested be though, and the Walled Cities are a minefield of artefacts so ideally, I’d like to focus on that. What about you?”

 “Oh!” says Armin brightly. “The same, actually. The Titan Story’s been my thing since I was like, seven.”

 Annie raises an eyebrow at him. “Bit gory for a seven year old, don’t you think?” she says.

 He laughs. “Yeah. I guess. I grew up in Shiganshina so, y’know, the walls have always been there and I’ve always wondered. The idea of digging up some priceless artefact is pretty appealing too.”

 Annie allows herself a quiet chuckle. “So you’re in it for the treasure hunt, huh?”

 “Not like that,” says Armin good-naturedly. “I like the idea of going on an adventure, y’know?”

 “I see,” says Annie, and she shakes her head and hides the smile he’s charmed out of her. She pauses, though, because there’s something about the brightness in his eyes that triggers what feels like a memory she doesn’t remember actually having. “You seem familiar,” she says at last.

 “Oh?” he says. “Maybe… I just have that kind of face,” he offers. “We’ve definitely never met before. I’d remember someone as pretty as you.”

 Annie narrows her eyes at him. She studies the enthusiasm in his eyes and the stupid grin on his face, and feels her face grow warm.

 She decides the feeling is probably just flattery and Armin Arlert being a smooth piece of work.

 

 

 

 Annie learns about Armin’s grandfather during a group project.

 Armin learns about Annie’s hometown during a study session before finals in their first year.

 Annie decides she quite likes Armin Arlert.

 Armin decides the same about her.

 He kisses her before she goes home for the summer.

 She kisses him when she comes back.

 

 

 

 The Titan Story becomes an obsession that they share, and their relationship grows as deep as they mythology is complex. Armin shares his grandfather’s library with her when he takes her with him to Shiganshina during a mid-semester break. Annie learns that Armin has never been beyond the borders of Wall Maria, so she takes him to the sea and then across it to meet her parents in her home town in the west.

 Annie feels like she’s known Armin her entire life, and he makes her heart flutter in ways she can’t even begin to describe. He is her best friend and confidante; her partner in everything from assignments to university balls. She thinks she’s in love.

 Who is she kidding? She is definitely in love, and she knows it. Life is good and happy and perfect as long as she is with Armin Arlert.

 Until one day it’s not.

 

 

 

 The nightmare she had when she was six visits her in their final year of study.

 She dreams that she’s a monster, and that she’s killed an inconceivable number of people, and there is blood on her hands and bones in her teeth. She dreams of the lifeless, half devoured bodies of friends she has made in her classes and of a pair of sky blue eyes, once bright and full of hope, now heart broken and full of remorse.

 She wakes screaming, and in her terror, doesn’t register the hands at her shoulders and the panic-stricken voice in her ears.

 “Annie! Annie, hey, breathe, it’s okay! It’s okay – shhh, it’s okay…”

 She forces herself to take in a sharp, shallow breath. She’s not a monster, she remembers. She’s in bed. Her legs are tangled in the sheets and her pyjama shirt is soaked with her sweat. The arms around her shoulders belong to Armin, and he tugs her to his chest gently and smooths her bangs out of her eyes. “A-Armin,” she manages hoarsely.

 He offers her a somewhat relieved smile. “Hey,” he says. “You’re okay. That sounded like a heck of a nightmare.”

 Annie swallows and sucks in another breath. “Sorry,” she mumbles. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

 Armin makes a face at her. “That isn’t something you should apologize for,” he says.

 She feels him press his lips into her hair, and she shudders and lets out a sob. Armin says nothing. He holds her against him and waits for her breathing to settle, fingers tracing reassuring patterns against her skin.

 “Sorry,” Annie mumbles again, and Armin pulls back momentarily and frowns.

 “Hey, now,” he says, cupping her face with his hands. “You’re okay. Everything’s fine now.”

 But Annie looks into his eyes and feels her blood run cold. All of a sudden, his touch feels foreign. She shivers uncomfortably and presses the heels of her hands into her eyes, but another – and for some reason, horrified – sob forces its way out of her throat. “I’m sorry,” she cries, burying her face into the sheets. “God, I’m so sorry.”

 “Annie?” Armin touches her shoulder gingerly, but she flinches away from him. “What’s wrong?”

 She doesn’t answer him because she doesn’t know.

 Only that the eyes from her nightmares are his and that she had broken him, once upon a time.

 

 

 

 She pulls away from him after that. In part, it’s because she doesn’t know how to face him. It’s as if she can’t forget the pain she’d caused him once; almost as if she’s afraid she’ll do it again. Armin Arlert is a wonderful, talented and kind human being, and she loves him with all her heart, and the idea that she could hurt him to the point of her nightmares terrifies her.

 Guilt wells in her chest when he holds her at night. She feels disgusted with herself and she can’t even understand why. Worst of all is that he can tell something is wrong, but she doesn’t know how to explain it to him without sounding like she’s lost her mind.

 So she swallows her problems instead. She pretends she’s fine. She pretends that the pressure of being a college senior is starting to get to her and that’s all it is. She lies to him because she doesn’t know what else to do.

 One night, while she pretends to sleep to keep him from worrying, he presses a kiss to her temple and tucks a lock of hair behind her ear.

 “I love you, you know,” he whispers. “Whatever it is you’re afraid of telling me… it won’t change how I feel about you.” His voice trembles as he presses his forehead to hers and Annie’s heart breaks in her chest. “Please let me help you, Annie. It kills me to see you like this and you have to know that whatever it is, I can take it. I’ll still love you.” He scoffs and settles beside her. “God,” he murmurs. “You could be a complete monster and I still would.”

 She says nothing.

 She was, once, she thinks.

 How could he love her, really?

 

 

 

 They’re both offered jobs before they graduate. Armin’s will take him across the world, to study the remains of other ancient cultures that he’s always wanted to see. Annie’s will take her to the inner ring, to study the ruins in the city of Stohess. It’s not exactly the situation they’d hoped for once, but it’s not one they can disregard either.

 Annie doesn’t know how he does it, but on the day they’re supposed to make a decision, Armin sneaks them into the staff access elevator at the Wall. He takes her all the way to the top of Wall Rose and sits her down on one of the benches overlooking Trost where the view is both breathtaking but strangely familiar, and Annie suppresses the shudder that runs up her spine. She forces herself to keep the images from her nightmares out of her mind’s eye. She can’t keep doing this to him, she realizes. She knows what she has to do.

 They say nothing for a while, before Armin slips his hand into hers and squeezes her fingers. “I don’t think I’m going to take it,” he says at last. “It’s not what we wanted. And… I don’t exactly want to leave you.”

 Annie pauses. “You should,” she mumbles quietly. “Take the job, I mean. It’s – you shouldn’t turn down an opportunity like that.”

 “I don’t want it,” says Armin. “I was thinking we could stay here, y’know? We could stay and maybe teach as part of the junior faculty. We could build a life together, Annie.”

 “Take the job, Armin,” she says again, louder this time. “Don’t… don’t tie yourself to me. I don’t – ” Her breath hitches. She wants to say she doesn’t deserve him but the word doesn’t quite make it to her lips. “You should take the job,” she says instead.

 He frowns a little. “Annie… what part of I don’t –”

 “I took the offer to go to Stohess,” she says quickly.

 A pause.

 Armin stares at her. “What?”

 It’s a lie. She hasn’t taken the offer to go to Stohess yet, but she wants him to go. He deserves to see the world. He deserves the offer more than anyone. Most of all, he deserves someone who’s not afraid of themselves. “Take the offer, Armin,” she repeats. Her voice wobbles. “Please.”

 He shakes his head like he doesn’t understand. “Annie – is this about whatever’s been bothering you these last few months?”

 She hesitates.

 Armin clutches her hand tighter. “Annie. Talk to me. Don’t force me to leave without at least telling me what’s wrong. Let me in.”

 She swallows. “Take the job, Armin.”

 “Annie.

 “It’s none of your business, okay?” she snaps at last. She wrenches her hand from his grip and gets to her feet. “God, Armin, just – ” She makes a sound of frustration and runs a hand through her hair. “I can’t – you wouldn’t understand –”

 “Then help me to.” He reaches for her hand again and Annie can see the desperation in his eyes. Her shoulders tense because it’s so close to what she sees in her sleep and, instinctively, she backs away. “Annie, what’s wrong? Is it something I did?”

 She sucks in a breath. “It’s – it’s me, okay, I just –” She chokes on her words momentarily. “I don’t want to do this anymore.”

 Armin scowls. Annie watches the emotion turn in his eyes, and he goes from desperate to angry like he’s been holding it all back for months. He probably has. She hasn’t been the easiest person to deal with lately. “That’s a lie, Annie, that’s all you’ve been doing to me for months!” he snaps. “Did you honestly think I wouldn’t notice something was wrong? I’m not stupid, okay, why won’t you talk to me anymore?”

 “I just… I can’t.” She shakes her head, hands clenching into fists at her sides. “I took the job in Stohess, Armin. It’s done. I’m done.”

 “Annie,” he practically begs, but she just flinches and turns to head for the elevator. How pathetic, she thinks. She can’t even face him. She hears him sigh in frustration. “You’re trying to act like you’re selfish or like you’ve done something terrible, but I know you. Talk to me. We can work this out – whatever it is – whatever you think you’ve done. You’re a good person, Annie and –”

 “Stop it!” she cries hoarsely. Something about what he says makes her heart feel like it’s physically breaking, and the image of him standing at the bottom of stairwell staring up at her with those eyes flashes through her mind. “Just… ” She takes a shaky breath. “Stop. We’re done, Armin.”

 “Please, Annie, I love you –”

 “Well, I don’t love you.” The words fly from her mouth before she even has the chance to rethink them, and it tears her heart apart to tell him something so untrue but… what else can she do? He has to move on – he has to get away from her, and she knows that this is the only way.

 There’s a pause, but after a moment, she hears Armin breathe in sharply. “That’s a lie.”

 Annie keeps her face turned away from him. “I never loved you,” she whispers.

 “Don’t do this,” he manages hoarsely.

 She swallows as the doors slide open. “I’m sorry,” she says again, and she turns her head enough to see him watching her with the same heart-broken, sky blue eyes she sees in her nightmares and what little resolve she has left shatters.

 For a moment, she wants to take it all back.

 Then she realizes what a monster she is and the elevator doors slide shut.

Chapter Text

 

 

six years later

 

 

 

“…news, a minor earthquake has rocked the Inner Ring of the Walled Cities. Seismologists say it registered only a 3.4 on the Richter Scale and – ”

 Buzz-buzz.

 “ – Although there have been no casualties, historians have reported damage to sites such as –”

 Buzz-buzz.

 “— the Stohess Heritage Museum and the Old City Catacombs. The quake resulted in the collapse of three tunnels –”

 Buzz-buzz.

 Armin groans. There’s a crick in his neck and an ache in his back something is buzzing rather loudly against the coffee table. Something else is talking over the top of it and he rolls over, trying to find solace under the covers only to end up tumbling onto the floor.

 He blinks. He’s not in bed, he realizes. The television is still on and his phone is buzzing rather incessantly next to a pile of papers he thinks he started grading last night. He stares blearily at the couch and all of a sudden, the pain in his back and neck make sense. He makes an “ah” of understanding and fumbles with his phone. “Hello?”

 “Armin, hey, it’s me –”

 Armin blinks again because ‘me’ doesn’t really mean anything this early in the morning. He pulls the phone away from his ear for a moment to check the caller ID. “Eren?” he says. “It’s five thirty in the morning.”

 “Yeah, I know, have you seen the news?”

 Armin bristles. “No. It’s five-thirty in the morning.

 “I can hear it in the background. Turn it up. It’s important.”

 Armin makes a face, but he sits up anyway and taps the volume button on the remote. There’s a woman standing in a dimly lit tunnel on the screen and Armin has done enough fieldwork and been on enough digs and seen enough images to know it’s in the labyrinth of tunnels beneath the Walled Cities. Behind her are four other reporters, most likely for other news channels, but behind them is an opening he definitely hasn’t seen before. He blinks dumbly.

 “...experts from The Sina Institute of Arts and Technology have put out a statement that the unearthed chamber may be an archive of sorts. Professor Nile Dok of SIAT told reporters this morning that he has already contacted the Archaeology Departments of the Universities of the Walled Cities for collaboration on what could be the most significant find of the decade.

 “So far, only six manuscripts have been deemed complete enough for immediate analysis, however the chamber itself is filled with what could be hundreds of texts. It’s hard to say how much of an impact these texts will have, particularly so early on, but it’s certainly safe to say that the world will be watching closely. I’ll have more news as it comes. Thanks Erd.”

 The camera cuts back to the anchor who shuffles the paper on the news desk. He drones on a little bit about what this means for the history of the Walled Cities, but Armin’s not listening. He knows exactly what this means for the history books and, suddenly, he’s wide awake.

 “How long ago did this happen?”

 It’s literally only been a couple of hours,” says Eren. “I mean obviously the earthquake happened a little earlier tonight but story is that the damage to the Heritage Museum had the guys in Stohess worried about the catacombs and they sent in a couple of people once they confirmed the tunnels were stable.”

 “Stohess?” asks Armin. Something heavy settles in his stomach.

 “Yeah,” says Eren. “Nile called Zoe who called my dad who called me. I bet you Smith has been trying to get a hold of you too.”

 Clumsily, Armin gets to his feet, stifling the groan that comes out of his mouth as his shin makes contact with the edge of the coffee table. He pads over to the kitchen counter, stumbling over the piles of textbooks and empty take out cartons on the floor, and taps the message bank button on his home phone.

 “You have: eight new messages from: Erwin Smith.”

 He coughs awkwardly. “Whoops.”

 He hears Eren snort. “Mikasa and I are taking the first train in this morning. You should get to UWR. Smith will want to see you.”

 Armin frowns. “Your dad’s not coming?”

 There’s silence for a moment. He has a suspicion that Eren might be shaking his head. “Nah,” Eren tells him. “Says he’s getting too old for this. Why? You think I’m not as good a linguist?”

 Armin rolls his eyes. “That’s not why I asked and you know it. Are you coming by Trost?”

 “Yeah, it’s on the way. We’re not scheduled to arrive in Stohess til tomorrow evening. Dok tried to push for earlier but we’re no good to him if we’re dead tired. We’ll see you in a few hours.”

 The line clicks.

 Armin lets out a sigh and glances at his mess of an apartment. For a while, he’d used lectures and grading papers and his own research as an excuse to just leave it as it is, but with the end of the teaching semester drawing near, he’d actually been hoping he’d finally have time to at least make it look tidy. Given the news, he supposes it’ll be a while yet.

 He unlocks his phone, grimacing at the red number 4 on the corner of the call icon – evidently, Dr. Smith had tried his mobile too – and opens the address book to call him back. His eyes land on Annie’s name at the top of the list and, for a moment, he hesitates.

 Then he shakes his head and scrolls to Smith’s name to make the call.

 “Hi, Dr. Smith. Sorry I missed your calls. I saw the news. I’m on my way in.”

 

 

 There are a huge number of universities within the Walled Cities but when the reporters refer to The Universities of the Walled Cities, they only mean three. The University of Wall Rose is one of them. The two others are Maria University in the south and the Sina Institute of Arts and Technology in the inner ring.

 Over the course of his academic career, Armin has managed to visit Maria University enough times to get to know its faculty members almost as well as his own, but has only visited Sina Arts and Tech once or twice all together. To be fair, Maria U’s archaeology department is in his home town of Shiganshina. Eren and Mikasa had both chosen to go there instead of coming to Trost because of Dr. Jaeger’s connections with its School of Anthropology and Linguistics. He has more reason to visit Maria U than Sina Arts and Tech, but he knows in his heart that his reasons for refusing to go to Stohess are pretty shallow.

 It’s been six years since Annie left.

 He’d known for a while that something had been bothering her, and he’d thought giving her space to process it on her own would help her open up to him again. She’d always been like that; always preferred to come to him in her own time than have him press for details she didn’t want to give. He’d thought she’d come back to him on her own.

 Evidently, he’d been wrong.

 Ultimately, he supposes he doesn’t blame her for what happened. He still has photos on his laptop from their days together as undergrads and he still keeps her old phone number in his current contact list just in case.

 He’d be lying if he said he didn’t still think about her.

 It’s pathetic, he knows. Six years is a long time to get over someone and they had only dated for three but he really did love her. Part of him always will. At first, he had no idea what to do with himself. He’d gone home to Shiganshina and moped for weeks without really explaining to Eren and Mikasa why. He’d almost given up the dream of being Trost’s premiere archaeologist because everything about the Titan Story reminded him too much of her. It was only after he’d spent an afternoon at his grandfather’s grave that the stupidity of giving up his academic career hit him like a ton of bricks.

 It’s not so bad now.

 Well. Admittedly, it’s still pretty bad but it’s better than it was. Mostly he hopes she’s okay, and that, whatever it was she’d been afraid of, it doesn’t scare her anymore.

 He wonders often if she still thinks about him.

 

 

  He gets into Dr. Smith’s office at around six-fifteen.

 Smith, of course, looks as professional as ever. Armin knows for a fact that he hasn’t had a wink of sleep – the message bank on his home phone logs his first missed call just before midnight and the other seven have been logged in thirty to forty-five minute increments – but he doesn’t have a hair out of place or even the slightest bag under his eyes.

 Armin, on the other hand, barely had time to wash his face and his shirt is wrinkled and still has faded stains on it from the time he spilled his coffee last week. In his defence, he hadn’t expected to be awake so early on a Saturday morning but he’s supposed to be a professional and even now, that excuse just feels lame.

 Thankfully, Smith has too much on his hands to care. “Armin,” he greets, when Armin stumbles in, messenger bag hanging haphazardly off one shoulder. “Good. My apologies for having to call you in so early. And for the number of messages I left on your phones.”

 “S’fine,” says Armin. He grips the strap of his bag awkwardly. “We have to go to Stohess, don’t we?”

 “No,” says Smith. “Just you.”

 Armin blinks at him. “You’re not coming?”

 Smith shakes his head. “I assume you’ve heard that Grisha Jaeger isn’t coming either.”

 “Um.” Armin coughs lightly. “Yeah. How come? This is kind of huge – I didn’t think this was something either of you would want to pass up.”

 “You’re certainly right about that,” says Smith. “But there’s a limit to everything. I’m needed here. You’re one of the best that’s ever come through the Archaeology Program here at UWR. I think you’re ready to handle this as our representative on your own.”

 Armin blinks again. “You want me to be the rep from UWR?”

 “Yes.”

 “As in, on my own? In Stohess?”

 Smith blinks back. “Is that a problem?”

 Armin gapes stupidly at his supervisor. “Um,” he says, an octave higher than usual. “I’m not sure I’m entirely qualified for this?”

 Smith waves him off with a snort. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he says. “If you weren’t qualified, I wouldn’t have asked you.”

 “But – ” Armin sputters for a second. “This could be ground breaking, I don’t understand why you and Dr. Jaeger wouldn’t –”

 Smith raises an eyebrow at him. “There’ll be plenty of papers we can publish after you retrieve UWR’s share of the texts, Armin, and it’s not like you’ve never gone to minor digs alone before.” He frowns. “Is this because it’s in Stohess?”

 “No,” says Armin quickly, and he twiddles his thumbs and looks at everything but Smith because it’s a blatant lie and Smith knows it. “Is – um – is –”

 Dr. Smith holds up a hand and shakes his head. “No. She’s not on the team from SIAT. Not from what Nile told me, anyway.” There’s a pause, and Armin can almost feel the way Smith studies his face. “It’s been years, Armin,” he says at last.

 “I know that,” Armin mutters hastily, and something settles in the pit of his stomach. He’s not sure if it’s disappointment or relief. “I just… wondered, okay? She was one of the best we had here too. I find it hard to believe she wouldn’t be involved.”

 Smith hums. “I only have what Nile told me,” he says after a slight pause. “And I haven’t heard anything about Annie Leonhardt being involved in this project.”

 Armin winces at the sound of her name but he says nothing for a while. Finally, he takes a breath. “When do they want me in Stohess?”

 Smith nods, pleased. “As soon as possible. I’m sure you’ve heard that some friends from Maria U are on their way here. I imagine they’re more than happy for you to join them when they depart for Stohess in the morning. You’ll need the day to pack your things anyway. A small team of postgrads will follow to help you out as soon as I can organize it. Nile and the team from SIAT will be waiting for you when you get in so make sure you report to them the morning after you arrive.”

 “Right,” says Armin. He takes a breath.

 Smith waits and raises an eyebrow when Armin says nothing. “Is something wrong?”

 Armin takes another breath. “No,” he mutters quickly. “I’ll get to work.”

 

 

 “I still don’t understand why your dad isn’t coming.”

 It’s fairly late in the day now. Armin had met Eren and Mikasa at the station when their train pulled in and they’d greeted him with a couple of bone crushing hugs and a care package from home. He’ll admit that it’s been a little while since he’d had the time to visit – and they don’t hesitate to remind him – but he’d let them drop off their things at his apartment before the three of them had gone out again for a proper reunion over pizza and drinks.

 They’re sitting at a table outside a bistro not too far from UWR. The sun has dipped far below the top of Wall Rose and it’s dark enough now for the streetlights to flicker on one at a time. Eren has a slice of garlic bread halfway to his mouth when Armin asks, but he just shrugs stuffs it in his mouth. “I think he’s ready to cut back on the fieldwork, to be honest,” he says, swallowing hugely. “He’s been in the game a long time now and he’s gotta retire from active fieldwork sometime.” He pauses. “What are you complaining for anyway? Hasn’t this always been the dream?”

 “Well, yeah,” says Armin, fiddling with his straw, “but that doesn’t mean he and Dr. Smith shouldn’t be on this project. You know what a find like this could mean for the Walled Cities, don’t you?”

 “To be fair, though, the find’s already been made,” says Mikasa thoughtfully. “I mean, what is this project really? We’re just going to divide the work up between the universities. Anything significant will be published after we process and translate everything, and they’ll be well involved with that.”

 “I guess,” mumbles Armin, and he lets out a sigh sips quietly at his ginger beer.

 Eren and Mikasa study him carefully. Armin’s pretty sure they think there might be a problem but he’s already had this discussion with Dr. Smith and he doesn’t entirely feel like having it again. He steers his mind away from that direction and thinks, instead, of the stories his grandfather used to tell him; thinks of the adventure he’d always wanted to have, and something like a grin tugs at the corners of his lips. Stohess be damned, he actually thinks this might be fun. “Hey,” he says. “Remember when we were little kids, and we used to sneak around some of the ruins in Shiganshina pretending we were on a dig?”

 “As if that’s something we would ever forget,” Mikasa chuckles.

 Armin chuckles too. “This time it’s real,” he says, grin widening a little. “No supervisors, no project leader handing the mundane stuff to us – ”

 “Oh yeah, we’re real explorers now,” says Eren, grinning as well. He raises his glass. “Lady and gentleman,” he says dramatically. “A toast! To adventure!”

 Armin and Mikasa both let out a snort, but they raise their glasses too. “To adventure!”

 

 

They leave for Stohess in the late morning the next day and the train ride there is as long as it is uncomfortable. Armin tries to spend most of it sleeping but the lack of leg room and cheap cushioning don’t help much. They pull into the station across from SIAT at last just as the sun begins to set, and Mikasa scrolls through her emails quickly to confirm where they’re supposed to meet the representative from SIAT.

“Dok says they’re supposed to meet us on the platform,” she says absently, tugging her pack from compartment above her seat. “Doesn’t say anything about who we’re meeting though.”

“Um.” Eren coughs and turns away from the window rather hastily. “That’s because I think one of us knows them quite well.”

Mikasa frowns at him. “Wh – OH.” She turns away from the window too. Across the aisle from them, Armin is still retrieving his luggage from the overhead compartment.

“What do we do?” mumbles Eren.

Mikasa shrugs, at a loss. “I don’t know. Is it too late to turn back?”

“Why would we do that now?”

They blanch, because Armin finally has all of his things together and has an eyebrow raised at them like they’ve both gone mad. “Come on.” He edges his way along the carriage and towards the closest door. “I thought you said the rep from SIAT would meet us here," he says, sliding the carriage door open. "We don’t want to keep them wait – ”

 He stops. The air leaves his lungs in a rush.

 Annie Leonhardt is waiting for them on the station platform.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

  

 

“Why didn’t I kill you then?”

  “I’m not coming that way. If we’re not going above ground, I won’t help.”

 Do I really look like such a good person to you?”

“I never expected you to push me this far.”

“When did you start looking at me like that… Armin?”

 

 

 

Annie wakes with a start. Her head is pounding, and she lurches forward, gulping down air in shallow, trembling breaths.

It’s six-thirty in the morning.

Absently, she reaches beside her, intent on waking the one person she has ever allowed to see her weaknesses, but her fingers meet empty space and she remembers that he isn’t there.

He hasn’t been for six years.

Annie sighs, and she presses the heels of her hands into her eyes and stifles a sob.

 

 

 

It’s a slow morning.

Things at SIAT have been hectic for days and Dok sends her one, two, three separate emails within the span of fifteen minutes about today’s schedule and the representatives from the other universities and urgent meetings. Annie glances at her inbox briefly over breakfast and ignores them, choosing, instead, to spend what’s left of her morning in the shower trying to get the image of Armin Arlert’s horrified face out of her mind.

When she finally steps out again, her phone is blinking still, and she taps the home button to find another twoemails and three rather insistent text messages about how she needs to be in Dok’s office for this meeting right fucking now, goddammit Leonhardt, this is urgent.

She scoffs. There’s a joke in there somewhere about the irony of ancient things being so urgent but her head is still throbbing and she doesn’t quite have it in her to be sarcastic just yet. She dresses slowly, hissing at the way her joints feel like they creak with her every movement, and when she’s decent at last, she downs a couple of paracetamol tablets and presses a glass of cool water to her forehead.

Her phone buzzes in her jacket pocket, and she snarls, slamming the glass against the counter.

What?” she snaps, pressing it to her ear.

“Oh, you’re awake!” comes the smug reply. “You’ve been sleeping it a lot, eh, Annie?”

Annie scowls. “What do you want, Hitch?”

“Dok’s losing it,” says Hitch matter-of-factly. “He can’t start this meeting without you. Says the representatives from Maria and Rose are due to arrive this afternoon and that we need to be ready to receive them or some shit.”

“’Receive them’,” repeats Annie, raising an eyebrow as she snatches her keys up from the counter. “What are they, royalty? And why the hell is it so important that I’m there?”

“The heck if I know,” drawls Hitch sarcastically, “it’s not like he put you in charge of processing or anything. Oh! Wait! He did!” She snorts. “You know, you’re track record as the head of this project is getting pretty shit. There are people who actually want to be on this project and there you are –”

Annie lets out a frustrated groan and hangs up. Hitch has never been very good at being a professional and Annie's patience for her bullshit has reached its limit for the day. She turns the phone off before she pockets it and glances briefly into the hall mirror, grimacing at the faint redness in her eyes, and steps out into the cool morning air.

 

 

 

Nile Dok’s office is not a particularly small room, but it’s not particularly big either, and Annie lets herself in to find it packed with people she both did and didn’t expect. Hitch is there (looking sour), along with the rest of the provisional team, but so is Chancellor Rod Reiss and Dot Pixis, head of SIAT’s higher security team. Dok isn’t even in the room, and Annie snorts to herself and settles in the corner of his office.

The minutes tick by somewhat awkwardly before the door slams open and Dok storms in. He catches sight of her on his way through and scowls.

“Look who finally decided to show up.”

Annie shrugs. “You know, normal human beings need sleep to be able to function at full capacity,” she deadpans. “Not all of us are vampires.”

His scowl deepens. “Drop the attitude, Leonhardt,” he snaps before turning to everyone else in the room. “My apologies for keeping you all waiting,” he says, pointedly refusing to acknowledge Annie. “Chancellor Reiss, thank you for coming.”

Chancellor Reiss waves him off. “It’s not a problem, Dok. I imagine it’ll save you a lot of trouble if I can just give my approval for everything now. I thought this project was to be kept discrete, though. Why have I seen reports on TV calling it ‘the find of the decade’?”

Dok huffs. “I don’t know,” he growls. “They’re making assumptions that we might not be able to confirm and it’s drawing more attention than we wanted. I’ve arranged a press conference for some damage control but it won’t be until the delegates from Shiganshina and Trost arrive.” He sighs and turns to Hitch and the provisional team. “I’m afraid I haven’t been as honest as I should have been and I apologize. Thankfully, we haven’t found anything monumental and – I can’t believe I’m saying this – hopefully, we won’t.”

Hitch stares at him. “What.

He sighs. “No doubt you’ve seen – or at least heard of – that ridiculous televangelist series about the Wall Goddesses,” he begins, “You know the one. They’re trying to bring back the Cult of the Walls.”

Annie feels herself nod absently because she does know the one. She’s seen the damn show on TV on more than one sleepless night; seen that asshole of a pastor appealing to impressionable idiots and families of the sick and dying for money to fund his attempt at bringing back an ancient religion.

“They’ve been gaining power since I’ve been head of this department,” continues Dok, running a hand through his hair. “It’s been an issue in the past and I’ve received word of extremists making threats. Serious threats. If we find and publish anything that could break their religion, we put whoever wrote the paper in potential danger.”

“You’re not serious,” snorts Hitch. “They’re idiots. What are they gonna do, bomb the university?”

Dok fixes her with a serious before. “They’ve done that before,” he snaps. “They bombed the train Reginald Arlert was on after he published an article about a find that discredited their religion years and years ago. It was all hushed up, so that gives you an idea of what this group is capable of. Do you really want to take that chance, Dreyse?”

Hitch’s jaw drops as she stares at him.

On any other day, Annie might find it amusing, but she’s staring at him too. “Reginald Arlert,” she repeats hoarsely, feeling something cold settle in the pit of her stomach. “From UWR?”

“There’s only been one,” sasses Dok. “That’s why we’re not involved, get it? The media is making this hard enough by broadcasting it as some amazing find – which it is – but as soon as my name gets involved – or Erwin Smith’s or Grisha Jaeger’s, for that matter – it’s marked as something that’s actually ground breaking. If we get involved, ‘potential’ danger becomes ‘definite’ danger for anyone on a team with us. Which is why they’ve sent delegates instead.”

“Do they know that?” snaps Annie. “Do they know that there’s substantial risk coming here to work on this?”

Dok purses his lips. “Not yet.”

What the fuck is wrong with you?” Annie pushes herself off the wall and crosses her arms in front of her chest.

“Annie –”

Why would you not tell them that? Why would you not tell us that? You know that you legally can’t call someone in to work on a thing if you haven’t informed them of the potential risks. You know that, don’t you?”

“She’s right,” quips Chancellor Reiss, frowning a little. “I hope you had a valid reason for this, Dok.”

“There was no way to be sure that we could inform them securely,” grumbles Dok. “Believe me, if we could be sure, then fine. But breaches like that have happened before too. That’s how the Ackermans were targeted.” He sighs. “Hitch. You’re going to brief them and help divvy the work. They’ll arrive in Stohess this afternoon.”

“Who are ‘they’?” bristles Hitch.

Dok pauses and flips through a file on his desk. “Eren Jaeger and Mikasa Ackerman from Shiganshina. Armin Arlert from Trost.”

Are you kidding me?” The question is loud and frustrated, and it slips from Annie’s lips before she even has the chance to consider that she’s speaking to her direct supervisor in front of the Chancellor of the Universities of the Walled Cities. “You just said big names couldn’t be involved, and you sent for Grisha Jaeger’s son, James and Eileen Ackerman’s daughter and Reginald Arlert’s grandson without telling them the risks of getting involved in this project?!”

“Annie – ”

“Oh. My God. What the hell is wrong with you?”

“Annie – ”

“Actual people have died, Dok, and you sent for their direct relatives without fully informing them of it?” Annie aims a kick at the waste paper basket. “Armin doesn’t even know that that’s how his grandfather died and you sent for him for a project that could put him in the same danger?”

I didn’t send for them,” Dok snarls. “Jaeger and Ackerman volunteered and Smith sent Arlert. They’re the best from their respective universities, how could they not be involved in this?”

“Maybe if you’d told them, they wouldn’t be!”

“That’s enough,” says Chancellor Reiss sharply. “Miss Leonhardt –”

Doctor,” she hisses.

Chancellor Reiss hesitates. “Doctor Leonhardt,” he corrects, “I understand your concerns, but that’s why we have Mr. Pixis here.” The old man waves. “I can assure you that the proceedings from here on out will be completely secure. Nothing will be released. Not even your names until we’re certain that the risk negligible.” He turns to Dok. “This was sloppy, Nile,” he adds. “Legally, this was terribly arranged. They are to be fully informed and given the opportunity to back out when they arrive, and compensation will be offered if they choose to do so, is that understood?”

Dok scowls, but Annie knows that he knows it’s true. “Yes, sir,” he grumbles. “Hitch, their train pulls in at –”

“I’ll do it,” interjects Annie. “I’ll brief them and divvy the work.”

“You can’t do that,” snaps Dok, “you’re in charge of processing our share of the articles.”

Annie shakes her head. “I don’t care. Put Hitch in charge instead. Do you really think she can tell Armin how his grandfather died tactfully?”

Excuse you?”

“Let me do it.” Annie stares him down, hands curling into fists at her sides. “I know them. I’m good at discretion and I can hold my own if anything does go to shit. If you can tell me Hitch can do both better, then fine.”

Hitch scowls. “Fuck you too, Annie.”

Dok snarls at the both of them and practically throws the files at Annie when he gets to his feet. “Fine,” seethes. “Do what you want. I don’t care anymore. Just report to me when you’re done.” He storms out of the office without another word.

 

 

 

It’s just a precaution, Pixis had said, but he assigns a member of SIAT security to tail her for the rest of this project. His name is Hannes, and he seems like a nice guy, but Annie would really rather he didn’t spend the rest of the afternoon keeping watch of her while she transfers the work on what’s been found so far to Hitch. Her headache from this morning has gotten steadily worse, mostly because Hitch won’t stop bitching even though she finally has the project she wanted to begin with, but it’s not until she’s halfway through Mikasa’s file that she realizes what a mess she’s gotten herself into. Armin’s file is last in the pile, and she’s been reading the same paragraph in Mikasa’s for twenty minutes to avoid it.

Their train is due in at five, and it’s quarter to when Annie finally gets through the first two. She traces Armin’s name on the third and, coward that she is, she drops it on her desk and reaches for her keys instead.

The wait on the platform is agonizing. It’s as if the universe knows she’s made a horrible decision and has slowed time down on purpose to let her mull it over. She thinks of the last time she saw Armin – thinks of the way he begged her not to go that day on the top of Wall Rose – and she buries her face in her hands and groans.

When the train finally does arrive, she puts on her best face and forces every ounce of her personal issues into the furthest corner of her mind. She watches as Eren and Mikasa’s faces blanch at the sight of her through the window, but she keeps her cool until she sees Armin get up from his seat across the aisle.

For a moment, she forgets how to breathe.

He opens the carriage door and he stares.

Annie?

And then the moment is over, and Annie takes a breath and steels herself for the rest of the conversation. “Doctor Arlert,” she greets with a nod. “And Doctors Jaeger and Ackerman. Welcome to Stohess. I can take you to your hotel and I’ll brief you once you’re settled.”

Armin’s still staring at her. “I – I thought you weren’t –”

“I wasn’t,” she admits, “but the situation has changed and it's far bigger than we could have imagined. Follow me, please. We have a lot to talk about.” She turns on her heel with the intent of leading them out of the station without much more conversation, and, behind her, Eren lets out a low whistle.

 “That’s putting it lightly.”

 

 

 

“You lied to me.”

Annie hears the outburst from the hall and she hesitates. The drive to their hotel was awkward, to say the least. Eren had saved them both the trouble by riding shotgun, but even then, she could feel Armin’s eyes digging holes into her through the rear view mirror. No one had said anything the whole way, and Annie had only realized she’d barely been breathing when they’d wandered off to check in.

She’s standing outside their hotel room now, waiting to brief them on the situation, and she cracks the door open the slightest bit to see Armin snarling into the phone.

“You told me she wasn’t involved in this project, what the hell, Smith?”

A pause. Annie sucks in a breath and clutches her files to her chest. She liked to think she had known him relatively well back in the day, but she can’t remember a time she’d seen Armin had been so angry.

“You didn’t know –” He snorts. “How could you not have known? No, don’t lecture me about professionalism when you lied to me about something like this. You could have given me some warning.”

“Armin.” Annie watches as Mikasa rests a hand on his shoulder. “Come on.” She jerks her head towards the door and Annie’s breath hitches. She tugs it closed again and waits the longest ten seconds of her life before she raises a fist to knock.

“Sorry to interrupt,” she murmurs, letting herself in. “I hope you’ve made yourselves comfortable.”

Armin glances up and makes a face, apologetic and guilty and surprised all at once. He mutters an “I have to go,” before he pulls the phone away from his ear to hang up. “Annie,” he greets quietly. He doesn’t look at her. “Um. Hi.”

“Hello,” says Annie, just as quietly. She doesn’t look at him either, and she drops the files on the coffee table in front of Eren. “I’m not here for pleasantries. I’m afraid you weren’t given the entire story when you agreed work on this project.”

Mikasa raises an eyebrow at her. “We’ve noticed,” she says, and Annie knows she doesn’t mean it as an insult but she can’t help the flinch that flickers across her face. She’d met Eren and Mikasa once, when Armin had taken her to Shiganshina with him over a mid-semester break during their second year at Trost. They’d gotten along well, but the two regard her now warily, as if they’re not sure she’s the same person they’d met years ago.

Annie clears her throat. She shuffles her feet for a moment, and she takes a breath. She intends to brief them; on what’s been found so far, on what’s supposed to happen next, and on the risks that come with this project, but she takes one look at Armin’s face and something entirely different comes out instead. “This project involves substantial risk,” she manages at last. “Grisha Jaeger and Erwin Smith know this – that’s why they’re not here. Frankly, I’m not sure you want to be either.”

They stare at her. Eren recovers first.

“’Scuse us?”

Annie takes another breath. “There’s – we’ve received word of extremist activity that could seriously threaten anyone involved here. The Cult of the Walls is making a comeback and if we find anything that might break them, we make ourselves a target. If I were you, I’d go home.”

They’re still staring at her.

Eren raises an eyebrow. “What’s going on here?”

She pauses. She knows what she wants to say – she knows she wants to tell them that what they’re getting themselves into is what’s responsible for Armin’s grandfather’s death, and for Mikasa’s parents’ as well – but she falters before she can get it out. “It’s complicated,” she says. “More importantly, it’s dangerous. And you shouldn’t get involved if you don’t have to.”

“We’re gonna need a little more to go on than that if you want us to go home,” says Eren, frowning at her. “The Cult of the Walls is an almost dead religion, I mean, there’s that one guy that’s got that show that’s on at like three-thirty in the morning and all the idiots that buy it, but they’re idiots. You’re saying they’ve sent threats to SIAT about this? That’s gotta be a joke, Annie, come on.”

Annie gives him a look. “Do I look like I’m joking?” she snaps. “This isn’t something you should be taking lightly – they’ve done things before.”

“Like what, exactly?” asks Mikasa coolly.

“I…” Annie hesitates. Her eyes flit from Mikasa to Armin and back again. “I can’t say.”

“Hm.” Mikasa scoffs lightly and leans back against the couch. “You don’t want us here,” she says, like it’s some sort of conclusion.

Annie scowls at her. “Yeah, because it’s dangerous, were you not listening?”

“Don’t think we don’t know, Annie,” says Mikasa. “About that day on Wall Rose. How you left Armin up there without an explanation.”

Armin frowns at her and, for the first time since she entered the room, speaks up. “Mikasa…”

“Yeah. We know.” She offers her an unfriendly smirk. “We know everything.

“No, you don’t,” interrupts Armin, but Mikasa isn’t listening.

“We get it, okay? But we’re not going home just because it’s awkward for you.”

“Mikasa, stop it.” The whole room seems to come to a halt. Armin’s hands are balled into fists and he’s glaring at nothing in particular. “You don’t know everything,” he mumbles. “You don’t. And you don’t get to be angry for me.” He lets out a shaky sigh, and Annie watches him steady himself before he finally lifts his head to look her straight in the eye. “What aren’t you telling us?”

She holds his gaze for maybe two, three seconds before she caves and looks away again. “…Everything’s in your files,” she mumbles. “I should go.”

She does without another word.

Chapter Text

iii. near them, on the sand

 

 

 

Armin wakes the next morning with a decision fully formed in his head. It’s almost as if his brain has been working all night, mulling over yesterday’s twist of events over and over until it had decided on the most reasonable course of action in this mess of a situation. He climbs out of bed and dresses quickly, suddenly very eager to get to work.

 He fiddles with his phone over breakfast and he stares at Annie’s name for ages but it’s not until he hears the alarm go off in Eren and Mikasa’s room that he takes a breath and hits call for the first time in years.

 The phone rings three times before it clicks. “Hello?”

 Armin grimaces. She sounds exhausted. “Hi,” he greets awkwardly. “It’s me. Sorry. I hope I’m not bothering you.”

 There’s a pause. “S’fine,” she mumbles at last. “Is there something I can help you with?”

 “Um.” He coughs. “No – nothing like that,” he says. “I was – I wanted to apologize for yesterday. We were just… caught off guard. And… I was hoping we could talk.”

 Another pause. Longer this time. Armin waits with baited breath.

 “Later,” she says finally. “There’s a lot to take care of first. I’ll see you at the dig site.”

 Well. It’s not a no. Armin lets out the breath he’d been holding and nods into the phone. “Okay,” he says. “See you then.”

 

 

 Admittedly, Armin hasn’t seen a lot of the new archives. To be fair, he’d only had, like, a couple of days of warning and he’d seen the news report, skim read the email Smith had forwarded to him, and read over the files Annie had left on the hotel coffee table, but that’s it. He’d assumed it was large-ish archive given how serious Smith had been and the fact that there had been threats made over it, but when they get to the dig site on their first morning in Stohess, Armin decides he may have underestimated the amount of work required for this project.

 Their taxi pulls up outside the tourist entrance of the Stohess Catacombs, and they clamber out of the car to find that Annie is already there. There are a couple of SIAT security officers next to her, talking quietly to each other – Armin assumes they must be there to keep the public away and to keep an eye on anyone suspicious – but she seems… distant and completely unaware of it. She stares into the darkness at the bottom of the stairwell like she’s lost in a memory, but she shakes herself out of it as they come nearer.

 Guilt churns in Armin’s stomach. It’s nine AM and she looks tired already. It’s been a stressful few days for the SIAT’s School of Archaeology and he knows this, and he imagines the way they acted towards her last night didn’t help.

 “Good morning,” she says stiffly as she unhooks the chain at the entrance. She nods at the security officers. “This is Hannes,” she says, gesturing to the man, and then the woman, “and Rico. We’re not expecting any trouble at this stage, but they’re here to keep an eye out for anything odd. Hannes and Rico, these are Doctors Ackerman, Jaeger and Arlert, from Shiganshina and Trost respectively.”

 “G’morning,” Eren offers, and Armin and Mikasa offer them grateful smiles as Annie beckons for them to follow.

 Armin hurries down the steps to her. Mikasa and Eren trail behind wearing identical frowns, but he pays them no mind as he catches up to Annie. “I – ”

 Annie shakes her head. “Not now,” she mutters quickly. She clears her throat as they approach a collapsed wall cordoned off with yellow police tape. “I hope you had plenty of coffee this morning,” she says dryly, ducking under the tape and climbing over the pile of rubble. She slips through the opening at the top and sticks a hand through the gap to beckon them to follow.

 They do, and Armin stifles a yelp when he loses his footing and slides down the pile of rubble and finds that the floor in here is much lower than the tunnel from before.

 Annie hesitates briefly, but she holds out a hand and helps him to his feet.

 “Thanks,” says Armin.

 She waves him off. “Don’t mention it,” she mumbles. “We have a lot to get through.” She fumbles in the dark for a moment before she manages to flip the switch on the floodlights near the opening.

 For a moment, the light is blinding, but Armin shuts his eyes tight and waits for them to adjust. The breath leaves his lungs when they do.

 “Holy shit,” mumurs Eren.

 “Yeah,” says Annie grimly.

 The archive is huge, to put it lightly. Armin thinks of the images from the news report and wonders exactly what he’d expected at the time because it sure as hell wasn’t this. The floor is cobbled and the ceiling is high – which is odd, Armin thinks vaguely, because the tunnel they came through was paved with uniform grey bricks – but he loses that train of thought when he takes in the rest of the archive. There are at least a dozen and a half floor-to-ceiling bookshelves packed with manuscripts and maps and the largest collection of ancient texts he has ever seen in his life.

 “I don’t think ‘archive’ really captures the essence of this place,” says Mikasa weakly.

 “It’s not as bad as it looks,” says Annie, but she’s still grimacing like she knows it’s going to take at least a month to properly catalogue everything here. “The provisional team retrieved about half of the first bookshelf over two and a half days.”

 “There are eighteen of those in here,” says Eren.

 Annie nods. “Yeah.”

 “Fuck.” Eren stumbles a little.

 “Dok has Erwin Smith and Hanji Zoe on standby,” Annie tells them. “It’s just us for now. Presumably, they only wanted a small team in an effort to pretend the find is much smaller than it actually is. After they hype’s died down, they’ll send in another – much larger – team.”

 Eren scowls. “Cowards,” he grumbles. “I mean, don’t get me wrong. This place is huge, but what do they think we’re going to find?”

 “I don’t think we can make any assumptions like that,” Armin manages at last, still breathless. “My grandfather would have given anything to see this…”

 There’s a pause, and in front him, Annie takes in a sharp breath. “Let’s get to work.”

 

 

It’s a blur of a week.

 Suddenly, Armin understands why Annie had been so insistent on having that talk ‘later’. He knows in his head that the four of them must have gotten through a substantial amount of the manuscripts and texts but they get to the site every morning and it doesn’t even feel like they’ve made a dent in their workload. The idea is to get through it systematically; Eren and Mikasa will take the incomplete texts for corroboration with complete records; Armin will take the maps and letters; Annie will keep anything requiring immediate restoration and analysis. They collect the texts they intend to take home in the mornings, and they sift through them in SIAT’s preservation rooms in the afternoons, and by the end of each day, Armin’s fingers are as papery and dry as the manuscripts they’ve been hunched over all day.

 It’s dull work. He’d be lying if he said he wasn’t disappointed. The dream had always been an adventure but this? This is about as far from adventure as humanly possible. It’s paperwork. Old and ancient, but still paperwork, and over five days, he’s managed to recover maps of the catacombs, a wad of faded letters dating back to the reign of King Fritz, maps of the Walled Cities, more letters, more maps, even more letters and a map to a coordinate, which doesn’t even make sense given co-ordinates give points on map rather than –

 He pauses. Frowning, he looks up momentarily to find that he and Eren are the only ones in the room. Vaguely, he remembers Mikasa getting up for a break which explains her absence, and Armin’s not sure if she’s actively avoiding them or if she just prefers working in her office, but Annie hasn’t been seen since before lunch. Rico is posted at the door and he assumes Hannes must be with Mikasa.

 He turns back to the map. “Eren.”

 “What?” comes the bored reply.

 Armin squints a little. “What do you know about The Co-ordinate?”

 Eren spins around in his chair and raises an eyebrow at him. “Is that an actual question?”

 “Humour me.”

 He makes a face. “The Co-ordinate? The actual one that gave the host ‘god like powers’ that could only get passed on by eating them? That Co-ordinate?”

 Armin scowls. “Shut up for a second and look at this.”

 Eren sighs a huge sigh, needlessly loud and exaggerated, and wheels his chair over. Armin shuffles over and pulls the magnifying lamp to the bottom corner of his map. “What does that say?”

 “It’s hard to say, whoever drew this map had really shit handwriting,” he deadpans.

 “Eren.”

 “It says Grab des Koordinaten,” he snaps. “You can read Old World script too, what the hell are you asking me for?” 

 Armin shoves the lens away and jabs a finger at his map. “It’s a map to a tomb,” he says. “And not just any tomb, but the Tomb of the final Co-ordinate. This is huge.

 “The Co-ordinate’s not even real,” says Eren with a groan. He spins his chair and tilts his head back against the backrest. “It’s just a weird ass deity people made up so they could have some sort of messiah figure way back when they thought Titans were a thing. It’s a myth, Armin. ”

 “Look at it again,” says Armin. “Look where it is.”

 Eren groans again but tugs the lens back over the map anyway. Then he pauses. Armin waits, watching the frown form on his brow as he studies the map. “This is Shiganshina,” he breathes. “Those are the old city ruins…” He drags the lens over the page. “So… the university would be there which means…” He blinks and taps the marking gently with a gloved finger. “The city library is there now.”

 “Myths don’t have locations that specific,” says Armin, feeling something like excitement bubble in his stomach. “And even if the Co-ordinate itself is a myth, we might still be able find something there. No one marks maps with something that significant to their religion – not something like this, anyway. This could be a lead to something even bigger than the archives.”

 The door slides open and Mikasa pauses at the doorway to drain the last of her coffee before she steps into the preservation room. She frowns at them. “What’s going on?”

 “Look at this,” says Armin. He and Eren both get up and nudge their seats out of the way for her.

 She raises an eyebrow at them but looks over the map anyway, arms crossed sceptically in front of her chest. She blinks once. Tugs the lens over and squints at the faded script. She stares at it for a long moment before her arms drop to her sides and she practically vaults over their abandoned chairs to her bench.

 “Mikasa?”

 “Hang on,” she mutters, pulling her gloves back on. She hunts through her pile of texts, careful not to damage the more fragile ones and, at last, she finds a tiny, tattered leather journal and takes it back to Armin’s desk. She mumbles to herself as she rifles through it and lets out a ‘ha!’ when she finds her page. “The host was hidden,” she reads. “For the Co-ordinate within him holds the power to bring back the Titan scourge. A map exists but…” she pauses and frowns and flips the page. “…it too was lost.”

 “Lost?” says Eren. “It was found in the same archive, how could it have been lost?”

 “It wasn’t built at the same time as the rest of the catacombs,” says Armin. “I thought it was weird when Annie first took us down there, but the architecture’s wrong. Floor’s too low, ceiling’s too high and the whole place is cobbled instead of paved. It’s possible that it was put there long after the tunnels were. It’s… almost like they found every primary document they could and hid them away. Which would explain why we’ve never found so many documents in one place.”

 “Holy shit.” Eren sits back in his chair looking stunned. “It’s no wonder threats have been made. This could make or break entire religions.”

 “Religions,” scoffs Mikasa. She looks stunned too. “This could make or break history.”

 

 

 Armin waits until Eren and Mikasa decide they’re done for the day before he puts the map into a document tube and takes it and Mikasa’s journal out of the preservation room (against his better judgement) and with the intention of heading to Annie’s office. He taps his visitor’s tag against the scanner on the wall and the doors slide open. He takes a breath.

 “Time to head back?”

 Armin yelps. He’d forgotten Hannes was still here. Rico had accompanied the other two back to the hotel – presumably, Hannes had stayed behind to keep an eye on him. “Um,” he squeaks – although, he doesn’t know why. It’s not as if he’s doing anything wrong. “Uh. No. Not yet. I – uh – wanted to have a word with Annie.”

 Hannes raises an eyebrow at him. “I see. Well, let’s –”

 “In private,” Armin adds quickly.

 “Ah.”

 Armin flushes like he’s only just realized the implication. “No – wait – that’s not what I meant –”

 Hannes raises an eyebrow at him. “You want me to accompany you then?”

 “Uh.” He coughs. “No, it’s fine.”

 “Do you even know where it is?”

 “Uh…”

 Hannes snorts a little, and Armin can’t help but blush even deeper even though there’s no real reason for it. “Her office is that way,” he says, jerking his head to the left. “Take the second right and it’s the third door down. I’ll be here when you finish your little talk.”

 “It’s not…” He stares at his shoes, but Hannes pats him on the shoulder and steers him in the direction of Annie’s office. His feet carry him the rest of the way without him even really realizing it and, when he gets there, he hesitates at the door.

 It’s six PM. She’s probably left for the day. Even if she is still in, she’s put so much effort into avoiding talking to him all week – he’s ninety percent sure she won’t want to talk. Ultimately, he knows how mad she would be if he cornered her in her own office.

 “This was stupid,” he mutters, He’s honestly about to turn around and leave when the door swings open and Annie literally bumps into him.

 Armin stumbles back awkwardly. He almost doesn’t notice the colour drains out of her already pale cheeks. “Annie!” he says. “I – uh – I didn’t think you’d still be here. I mean. I was hoping you were. I – uh – ” He coughs. “I’m sorry if I surprised you. I wanted to show you something, but I can go if you like.”

 She hesitates, and Armin notes the way she fiddles with the hem of her jacket and he takes one more step back to give her some space. “It’s okay, I can –”

 “It’s fine,” she mumbles, and Armin can almost see how hard she’s trying not to just bail. “You… wanted to talk.”

 “Oh,” he says. “I did, yeah, but that can wait, if you’d prefer. I know… this week hasn’t been easy.” He grimaces. “But I wanted to show you something.” He shrugs the document tube off his shoulder and holds it out for her.

 Annie studies him, and then the document tube, and then him again, before she takes it at last and beckons him inside.

 Armin releases the breath he hadn’t realized he was holding and shuts the door after him. Her office is small, but every inch of wall is covered in shelves and shelves of books. There’s window overlooking the quad beside her desk, and another door in the back corner of the room, and the bin beside it is filled to the brim with cardboard coffee cups.

 “Sorry about the mess,” Annie says quietly. “It’s been a hectic week. I haven’t had the time tostraighten things up.”

 He shakes his head. “You probably wouldn’t want to see what’s happened to my apartment,” he jokes, but he realizes too late that it was once her apartment too and that the joke is in awful taste. He coughs and nods at the document tube. “The archive,” he begins. “That was built long after the catacombs were, wasn’t it?”

 “Yes,” answers Annie, unscrewing the cap. “Although the documents themselves seem to be from all over the place. Some were sent to the analytics lab and have come back with dates ranging from the year 796 to the year 1060, but we won’t know when it was built for sure until the whole archive’s been catalogued which… could be a while. Presumably, that’s why the entrance collapsed. It’s a weak point in the tunnel.” She pauses. “Should I be doing this in a cleanroom?”

 Armin shrugs. “It should be fine if we’re gentle.”

 Annie frowns at him and pulls a pair cotton gloves out of her desk before she continues.

 “It’s a map,” he tells her. “Eren and Mikasa think it can be dated to about the year 896.”

 “What does this have to do with –” She stops and frowns.

 “Here.” Armin hands her a magnifying lens and a penlight. “This might help.”

 “You can’t be serious.” Annie squints at the map and straightens again with disbelief etched all over her face. “Grab des Koordinaten. The Tomb of the Co-ordinate. As in the Co-ordinate.”

 “Yep.”

 She makes a face. “It’s not real. Everyone knows that.”

 Armin nods. “Eren said that too but that’s a map of his hometown.”

 “It’s in Shiganshina?”

 Armin nods again and pulls the journal out his pocket. “This one’s dated 954,” he says, flipping to the page Mikasa had shown them. “They’re two separate documents, Annie. I think there might be something there.”

 “That’s impossible,” says Annie, shaking her head. “There can’t be. Someone would have noticed –”

 “The archive went unnoticed for nearly two thousand years,” Armin points out. “SIAT has been around for a quarter of that, and it has a bigger archaeology department than UWR and Maria U. If we missed something as big as the archive, it’s entirely possible we missed whatever’s in Shiganshina too.”

 “What, and you want to find it, do you?” She scoffs. “The Co-ordinate has always been a myth, Armin, and this is a huge assumption to make from two documents.”

 “I think it’s worth looking into,” he insists. “People don’t make maps about something that central to their culture for fun. There has to be something there – something important – something they believed could have brought back the Titans. This could break history, Annie, and I can have a proposal written up before I even go back to Trost –”

 “No. No, okay, you can’t go looking for this,” Annie snaps, and for the first time since they arrived in Stohess, she sounds less timid and awkward and more like the strong-willed, stubborn woman Armin had known once upon a time. “We talked about this before I took the three of you into the archive – there is danger in anything significant, and I will not be responsible for putting you in it.”

 “If there’s really that much at stake then I think we should find it before anyone else does, don’t you?”

 “Your safety comes first, Armin.”

 There’s a pause. Suddenly there’s tension in the air, and Annie looks away and reverts to the girl that had picked them up at the station – timid and almost ashamed that she’d allowed herself to show that she still cares. For a moment, Armin is angry and he doesn’t understand why.

 “You don’t have the right to be concerned about me anymore,” he says savagely and without thinking, and he regrets it immediately because Annie shrinks back against the wall and stares at her feet. He studies her – the circles under her eyes and the paleness of her cheeks, and his stomach twists in horror. “You still have them,” he whispers. “The nightmares.”

 Her breath hitches. “It’s none of your business whether I do or not,” she says.

“Annie…” Armin manages weakly. “I’m sorry.”

 “It’s fine,” she mumbles, making a bee line for the door and opening it for him. “Send me that proposal when you get it done. I’ll need a copy for Dok.”

 Armin sighs. She doesn’t need to tell him that she’s done with this conversation, so he packs up the map and the journal and heads for the door. “I really am sorry,” he says, using his hand to keep it open before she can shut it. “What I said was uncalled for.”

 Annie nods stiffly. “Have a good evening, Doctor Arlert.”

 She shuts the door in his face, and Armin lets out a slow, regretful sigh and presses his forehead against the wood. He thinks he hears a sob, and his heart clenches painfully in his chest. “Annie?” he mumbles. She probably can’t even hear him. He shuts his eyes tight in shame. “Call me if you can’t sleep,” he says at last.

 There’s no answer.

 He doesn’t really expect one.

Chapter Text

 

 

Annie avoids him like the plague for the rest of the next couple of days.

He can't say he's surprised. He'd been awful to her, and he spends the nights in the hotel tossing and turning out of guilt. He keeps his phone on his bedside table in case she calls – which is stupid, he admits, because she probably didn't hear him to begin with – but she doesn't, and it just makes him feel worse. He tries to take his mind off her by starting on his proposal for the Tomb of the Coordinate, and it's more effective than he wants to admit because it only takes him two nights to get it done.

Given how she purposefully keeps away from him, Armin's pretty sure she's not ready to hear from him yet, but he emails a draft to her on his third sleepless night anyway and is both pleasantly surprised she emails him back right away but somewhat alarmed because it means that she's not asleep.

Everything here looks fine, he reads. Do you have a team in mind?

Armin hesitates, but after a moment, he sends her a reply. I want it to be the four of us. Me, you, Eren, and Mikasa. Will you go with us?

She doesn't answer for a long time. Armin stares at his laptop screen for what feels like an entire half hour before the notification appears on his screen.

Sure.

That's all it reads.

Against his better judgment, he reaches for his phone and taps her name in his address book. The line rings for a while, and Armin feels his heart constrict somewhat because he realizes on the fourth ring that this is probably a bad idea –

But the line goes to Annie's message bank, and Armin's stomach squirms. He's not sure if it's relief or disappointment, or just more guilt. In the end, he puts his phone back on his nightstand, sends his proposal to Dr. Smith, and tries to sleep through the feeling in his gut.

 

 

The rest of the week is the same. They retrieve their documents from the archive in the mornings; they do preliminary analyses after lunch. Annie keeps to herself when the four of them are in the same room together, and then disappears entirely if she knows she doesn't have to be there. Twice, Armin considers going to see her in her office again, but after last time, he thinks it might be healthier for her if he just leaves her be.

She'd agreed to go to Shiganshina with them. He supposes that's enough for now.

Then he gets an email back from Smith. It's around lunchtime. Eren and Mikasa are out somewhere finding food and he'd elected to go back to the hotel for a quick nap. His stomach drops through the floor when he reads the subject.

RE: New Dig Proposal – REJECTED

He stares at the heading. When he opens it, he finds nothing else in the email. Not even a reason as to why. He snarls and calls Smith.

The line clicks, and Erwin answers with, "It's a wild goose chase, Armin."

"A 'wild goose chase'?" Armin bristles sceptically. "Did you reject it because of that or did you reject it for the same reasons you didn't tell me about the risks of this project?"

There's a pause. "I'm not having this argument."

Armin scowls into the phone. "I have a right to know why."

"You know why," says Smith curtly. "You were briefed about this."

"You just said that this was a wild goose chase," he snaps. "If it is, then the threats are empty aren't they? If we find nothing, fine, but if we do find something, isn't it more important that we get to it before someone who might use it to fuel a toxic religion?"

"It's too dangerous, Armin."

"We'll be discrete. You can tell the press it's insignificant."

Smith huffs. "I will not be held responsible if something happens to your team."

"I'll sign a waiver," he snaps. "If you're honestly telling me there's that much at stake, then this dig needs to happen so that we can get to whatever it is first."

"I'm not going to be responsible for sending you and your team on a wild goose chase that could get you all killed!" growls Erwin, sounding like he's had enough. "Do you not understand that your lives could be at risk here? People have died in the past, and I refuse to send you chasing after the same thing that got your grandfather killed!"

There's a pause. Suddenly Armin's hands are shaking and his heart is pounding loudly in his chest. "What?"

Erwin falters. "…You heard me," he says at last. It almost sounds like he'd just slipped up. "The Cult of the Walls is more powerful than they let you think. They are responsible for a number of terrorist attacks – including the one that got your grandfather killed. Don't push this, Armin."

Armin gapes at the wall, and he opens his mouth and closes it a couple of times before any sound makes it out. "How long have you known this?" he asks hoarsely.

"…Since it happened."

Fury bubbles in Armin's stomach. "Why would you keep that from me?!" he demands, hardly noticing how much he's raised his voice. "You didn't think I deserved to know that?!"

"It was for your own safety –"

"Like hell it was!"

"Enough, Armin," snaps Smith. "Show some damn professionalism. No aspect of your career or your grandfather's is worth dying over."

"I had a right to know!" snarls Armin. "You lied to me about why you weren't involved in this to save your own damn neck, and you lied to me about Annie being here, and you're telling me now that you lied to me for years about how my grandfather died?"

"I didn't lie to you about anything –"

"Lying by omission is still lying, Smith," growls Armin. "I had every right to know what my grandfather died for, you owe me this."

There's a long pause, and Armin waits with his breath in his throat. Then, finally, Smith sighs.

 

 

"We got approved," he tells Eren and Mikasa when he meets them in SIAT's preservation rooms later that day.

Eren raises an eyebrow at him. "That quickly?"

Armin makes a face and shuffles on the spot. "I had a row with Smith," he admits. "He rejected it at first, but we had an argument and he sort of. Gave up. We can head for Shiganshina as soon as the bigger teams turn up. They're due at the end of next week. I already sent your leave forms in."

"Always so prompt," chuckles Mikasa. "Is it just the three of us?"

"Uh." He clears his throat. "Annie's coming too."

Both Eren and Mikasa's heads snap up to stare at him and, Armin shuffles again. "I – uh – I asked her last night. She's game to come with us."

"Is… that a good idea?" asks Mikasa carefully. "I mean, don't get me wrong, Armin, but the entire time we've been here, she's barely said a word to any of us. Your history with her isn't exactly tidy either."

He waves them off. "This is her thing too. She can't not be on this dig."

"Then… it's the four of us," says Eren. He sounds uncertain and for some reason, this makes Armin a little mad.

He makes a face. "Look. That stuff happened years ago. I'm not angry at her. You shouldn't be either." He pauses and stares at the ground. "What happened wasn't her fault," he adds. "We both made mistakes in how we handled the situation but... the things that made her do what she did haven't gone away so don't make it worse for her."

"O…kay?"

Armin frowns. "She's coming with us. You're not allowed to be mad at her. That's the bottom line, okay?" He huffs and turns on his heel, deciding that he doesn't really want to have to explain any more of this to Eren and Mikasa. He understands, really, but given his last conversation with Annie, he feels as if their concern is misplaced. All this time they'd been worried about him. Meanwhile, Annie has been in Stohess alone and unable to sleep because of something she's afraid of in her dreams.

Guilt churns in his gut again.

He wanders into the hall (only vaguely aware of Rico's presence behind him) with no real destination in mind, but his feet carry him forward, then down the second hall on the left and all the way to Annie's office door. He knocks before he can even really think about it.

There's a pause. Then, the door opens and Annie blinks at him with tired eyes.

"Doctor Arlert," she greets.

Armin cringes at the formality. "Annie," he says. He rubs at the back of his neck awkwardly. "Sorry. I hope I'm not bothering you. I – uh – was wondering if we could have that talk."

She hesitates, but she steps back anyway and allows him inside.

Neither of them say nothing at first. Armin twiddles his thumbs stupidly and looks at everything but her, before, at last, he sighs. "I'm sorry about everything," he says. "I've – all three of us, actually – we've been awful to you since we got here and I am genuinely sorry for it. Especially knowing…" he trails off.

"Don't worry about it," says Annie quickly, keeping her eyes to the ground. "It's… understandable."

He frowns. "It's not," he points out. He considers, for a moment, listing all the reasons why it's unacceptable, but something else comes out of his mouth instead. "Why won't you look at me?"

Annie stiffens.

"Is it because of what you dream about?"

She says nothing and stares at the floor.

Armin sighs and figures that the answers is probably yes. He shifts towards her. "Listen," he says quietly. "I still care about you. It can't have been easy, being here and dealing with whatever's keeping you up at night on your own. Why won't you let me help you?"

"I don't need –"

"Don't lie to me, Annie." Armin swallows the lump that's growing in his throat. "It's been six years – please don't shut me out again."

There's a pause. Then, Annie lets out a sigh. "I'm… sorry about what happened back then," she mumbles. "But things aren't ever going to be the same."

"I'm not asking them to be," says Armin hurriedly. "I just – I want us to be friends again and – more importantly, I guess – I want you to be okay."

Another pause. Longer this time, and Annie fidgets and swallows and sighs before she looks up at him at last. Armin feels like this is the first time he has looked at her in years, and his heart misses a beat because even though the exhaustion shows on her face, she's still the same Annie he fell in love with nine years ago. She still has the ocean in her eyes and the sun in her hair, and all that's really missing is the thirst for adventure she had when she was younger.

He'd missed her. After all these years, he thought he'd gotten over her absence, but she's here now and he realizes that he doesn't just miss her as his partner – he misses her as his friend.

"What do you say?" he manages. He holds out a hand for her to shake. "Can we be friends?"

Annie hesitates, but after a moment, she takes his hand. "Friends," she mumbles. Her face is unreadable but Armin takes it because it's not the alternative. She clears her throat. "About this project you want to do…"

"Oh. Yeah." Armin had almost forgotten. He'd been so caught up on her that he hadn't even thought about bringing it up. "It's already been approved. I sent in Eren and Mikasa's leave forms for them. I can send yours in too?"

She blinks at him. "I'm honestly surprised that it was," she says slowly, studying him with careful eyes. "This isn't something you want to take lightly, Armin. You act like it's just another dig. People have died chasing after things like this, you know that don't you?"

Armin scoffs bitterly and nods. "I know. Believe me. I get it. But the point of only having four of us on the team is discretion. The faster we get it done, the better, and the media doesn't even have to know. I mean it's under the Shiganshina City Library and Eren and Mikasa have a friend – well, we all do, actually, you remember Marco? He works there now and can give us a hand. We'll be in and out. It'll be that quick."

Annie sighs. "Fine," she says at last. "When are you expecting to do this?"

"As soon as the larger teams from Maria U and UWR turn up."

Annie stares at him. "That soon?" she asks with a frown.

"Something this big shouldn't wait," Armin tells her. "This could be ground breaking - can you imagine how much worse it would be if papers started getting published and the Cult of the Walls knew to start looking for it?"

"You have a point, I suppose." Annie sighs and massages her temples gently. "Fine," she says. "I'll file my leave and let Dok know tonight."

"I'll do it for you if want," Armin says quickly. "It'll be faster and you look like you could use a proper day off. Let me handle all the paperwork."

She waves him off. "Dok is over this headache," she tells him. "He'll approve it now and read the fine print later, probably."

"Really," he insists. "It's no trouble at all and you have enough on your hands already –"

"It'll be fine, Armin," says Annie again. "I'll be ready to go before the larger teams arrive. Trust me. It'll get done."

 

 

True to her word, Annie texts Armin the next morning with nothing but 'Leave approved' and Armin can't help the sigh of relief that slips from his slips. He spends the next couple of days getting the rest of the trip organized, and everything is running pretty smoothly when the other teams show up. Annie is no longer actively avoiding him, and even managed a civil conversation with Mikasa about what they might find under Shiganshina Library.

They leave Stohess together. Annie immerses herself in the copies of the texts she'd brought with her and actually joins their conversations every now and then, and Armin's honestly surprised that it's such a pleasant trip. They pull into Shiganshina Central in the late evening, and they go their separate ways; Eren and Mikasa have an apartment to themselves, and Armin and Annie head for Armin's childhood home – Reginald Arlert's old townhouse in the suburbs.

He remembers taking Annie here once when they were undergrads, and when he glances at her as he unlocks the door, she looks almost apprehensive – but when he bids her goodnight after she settle in the guest room, Armin thinks he sees her smile, and he goes to bed that night feeling better than he has felt in years.

They leave for the library early the next morning. Annie still looks tired but she looks more rested than when they left, which, Armin thinks, is a lot of an improvement. Eren and Mikasa are already there when they turn up, and Marco greets them both with a wide smile.

"Armin and Annie!" he says, grinning at them. "It's been ages! How've you been?"

"Well enough," says Armin, returning the smile. "Same as the last I saw you, anyway. And yourself?"

"The same," chuckles Marco. "Annie?"

Annie blinks. "Oh. Yeah. I've been well too. It's good to see you Marco."

"It's good to see all of you together," says Marco. "You guys are here for a few days, aren't you? We should catch up."

Eren nods eagerly. "That sounds like a plan," he says. "We should try for lunch or something when this dig gets too hard."

Marco laughs, and then he nods and beckons them inside.

Admittedly, it's also been forever since Armin has had a reason to go into Shiganshina City Library but entering it always leaves him breathless. It's easily the oldest and largest library in the city but it's also the grandest, with its high ceilings and polished marble floors. He'd gotten lost in here once when he was much younger – his grandfather had panic-stricken librarians searching for him for hours before they'd found him curled up in a bean bag in the section for mythology and world religions. He snorts quietly at the memory as Marco leads them through halls and into the areas restricted to staff.

They stop at his desk. "Take these," he says, handing out visitor access cards to Armin and Annie and a walkie talkie to Eren. "The cards will let you in and out of restricted areas as you need. Security's pretty tight at Basement One, but just explain that you're here on uni business and they'll let you through. Eren and Mikasa are here often enough that they just have Staff Cards, so it's really just you two that need to worry about it. The walkie is because cell service down there is really gross and if you're looking for a tunnel that we haven't found, I doubt it'll be any better." He points them to an elevator on the far side of the room. "The Staff elevator's over there – I'd take you down myself but there's a ton of stuff I have to catch up on. Eren, you can take it from here, yeah?"

"Yep." Eren offers Marco a mock salute and a grin. "Thanks for the help, Marco. If we find something, you'll be the first to know."

They head for the elevator and Armin coughs and mumbles something about 'discretion' under his breath.

Eren gives him a look. "When have we not been able to trust Marco?"

"We're not 'not trusting' him," says Armin as the doors open with a whoosh. Eren taps his access card against the panel and pushes the button for Basement Three. "This is supposed to be confidential. We discussed this, remember?"

"He's right," says Mikasa. "You didn't tell him what we were actually looking for when you said we were coming, did you?"

Eren waves them off. "You guys act like I'm shit at discretion."

Both Armin and Mikasa snort. "You are," they say together, and beside him, Armin thinks he sees Annie's lips twitch.

"Rude." Eren huffs. "I didn't tell him anything, okay? The most I said was there might be another tunnel under here that we haven't found before and we wanted to check it out. Happy?" The elevator comes to a halt with a shudder, and the lights in Basement Three flicker on as they pile out. "Welcome to storage," he adds dryly, "Shiganshina's largest collection of furniture because the library's too lazy to sell."

Well, Armin thinks. He's not wrong. Basement Three might as well be a warehouse of disused bookshelves, broken lamps and dated armchairs. There are stacks of high backed wooden chairs piled along the walls and cobwebbed desks arranged like a poorly played game of Tetris. He wrinkles his nose. "You know the library would probably make a fortune if they sold all this stuff."

"Duh." Eren rolls his eyes. "I think dad's brought it up with management a couple of times but nothing's ever happened. Don't ask me. Mika, what are we looking for?"

Mikasa hums and unbuckles her satchel. "Some sort of marker," she says, flipping through a wad of pages she'd photocopied from the journal they'd found in the archives under Stohess. "'Legion stories speak of a tomb in the city of Shiganshina…' blah blah blah… oh – 'The stories speak of a tunnel, opened by crossed wings and crossed swords –'" Mikasa pauses. "The most obvious reading of that is the Legion symbol and of the Cadets except…" She glances around the basement and grimaces. "Shiganshina was one of the first cities to be taken back after the Walls came down – this very building was built by the Legion and used as a base for new recruits once the city was repopulated. Both of those symbols are everywhere."

"And in this?" Eren scowls at the various piles of furniture. "It could take days to find the right ones."

"May I?"

Mikasa glances up to see Annie motioning for the pages. She relinquishes them without a fuss and Annie mutters something under her breath in thought.

Curious, Armin peers over her shoulder as she glances up and then back at the page and then up again, but it's a whole minute before she says anything.

"I think there's a reason none of this stuff has been sold in the past," she says finally. "Some of these things would sell for a fortune and we all know the library and the university would be on that in a heartbeat if there wasn't some reason to keep them here."

There's a pause. "You're not serious," says Eren with a snort. "You're not, right?

"Do I look like I'm kidding around?" says Annie curtly, and Eren pales just a little.

"You realize the kind of conspiracy that implies, don't you?" he says weakly. "Annie. Seriously. Come on."

She makes a face at him. "There doesn't have to be a conspiracy," she says. "Some of the things down here – the shelves on the furthest wall and the vases and some of the desks in this room – they've all been down here for a couple of centuries at least. There might a footnote in the sale agreement of whoever owned this building before they sold it to the government saying not to sell any of the shit down here, and as it hasn't changed hands since, no one knows about it."

"She has a point." Mikasa hums thoughtfully. "What about the 'crossed wings and crossed swords' thing?"

Annie nods and jabs a finger at the far end of the room. "The pillars. The ones in each corner of the room. They've all got crests on them, but those two have the Legion and Cadet symbols on them and..."

Mikasa squints at them. "The angle of the swords in the Cadet crest is wrong." She snorts. "Nice. If I fix it up, think we might find the entrance to that tunnel?"

"I'd bet," says Annie. "Little high up though."

"I can get it." Mikasa rolls up her sleeves. "I did a ton of rock climbing things when I was in high school. Those two remember." She jerks her head at the boys. "See if you guys can move those shelves out of the way. Annie, can you give me a leg up?"

Annie does, and Armin has to physically stop himself from watching her monkey up the shelves in fascination. He'd almost forgotten that Mikasa was once the rock climbing champ at their high school. He focusses, instead, on helping Eren move some of the other stuff out of the way. It's ten minutes of huffing and Eren complaining about nothing in particular, before they move the last shelf out of the way and Mikasa moves the swords on the Cadet crest back into place. There's a rumble, and Armin lets out a yelp when the tile he's standing on sinks into the floor and disappears into the wall.

Eren can't help it. He laughs. "This is unbelievable," he says. He pulls his phone from his back pocket and turns on the little torch in the back. "I feel like we're in a movie or something. Who wants to go first?"

"Annie probably should," says Armin. "She solved it."

She shakes her head. "It's fine," she mumbles. Armin almost misses the way she hesitates.

Eren just shrugs and jumps into the tunnel just as Mikasa lands next to them rather gracefully.

"You next," says Armin, motioning for her to follow Eren, and she does, leaving him and Annie alone in Basement Three. "You okay?" he asks her quietly.

She nods. "I'm fine," she says. "I just… my head hurts, that's all."

"Do you wanna head back up?"

"No." Annie shakes her head firmly and closes her fists at her side. "I'm okay." She sucks in a breath and lowers herself into the tunnel gently.

Armin follows her and finds that Eren and Mikasa have already started ahead. He can hear their voices echo as they bicker about lighting the torches along the walls, and Eren is obviously winning because the first one is missing and all the others are lit. He rolls his eyes good-naturedly and motions for Annie to go first.

It's a long walk. Longer than they'd expected anyway – or perhaps it just feels like that because there's not much else to do. Armin's ninety percent sure that Annie's just pretending her head ache isn't getting worse, because he can see her knuckles growing whiter and whiter the longer they walk. He's about to say something about it when Eren lets out a yelp in the distance.

"Armin! Annie! I think we've found it!"

They exchange glances, and, without a word, they hurry forward. The tunnel twists a couple of times, but, finally, they find Eren and Mikasa waiting for them at a closed doorway with wide grins on their faces.

"Check it out," says Eren, waving his torch around. "Crossed wings and crossed swords. They look like buttons this time and Mika and I figured you have to push them at the same time, but we figured you should get to do it."

"Naw, you guys," chuckles Armin. "Annie, do you want to – " He pauses, noting the stiffness in her jaw and the way she's leaning against the tunnel wall. "Hey. You okay?"

"Fine," she manages hoarsely, and it's obvious to everyone that she's not.

Armin shakes his head. "We can do this later. We found it – we can come back."

"No," says Annie through gritted teeth. "Open it."

Armin frowns at her. He nods at the other two, and Eren and Mikasa exchange concerned glances but do as they're told. The tunnel rumbles, but Armin turns his back on them and slips his bag off his shoulder. "Here," he says, digging out a packet of painkillers and his water bottle.

Behind him, Mikasa calls out. "Armin?"

He ignores her. "If you don't want to go back up, take these for now okay?"

"Armin!" It's Eren this time, but Armin shakes his head and keeps his eyes on Annie and the way her hand trembles as she takes the pills from him.

"We need you functional for the rest of this dig. We wouldn't have gotten this far without you after all."

"Armin!"

"What?" he snaps, tearing his eyes away from Annie.

Eren and Mikasa look at each other, and then him, and then each other again, before Mikasa says, "You'd better take a look at this."

Armin sighs, and leaves Annie to take the pain killers, but it only takes all of three steps for him to realize why his friends look so confused. "It's… empty?" he says dumbly. He steps inside. "I don't understand," he says. "This doesn't make any sense. How can it be empty?"

Beside him, Eren sighs. "Man. This started off so cool, but I think it might be a dud, Armin."

"It can't be a dud," says Armin. "It's too well done. This is clinical."

"It's a dud, Armin," Mikasa says, and she touches his shoulder but he flinches away.

"Something's not right," mumbles Armin. "This wasn't empty to begin with. It was emptied. But… why…?"

The walkie talkie on Eren's belt cackles to life. At first there's nothing. And then –

"Eren." It's Marco's voice, and he sounds hushed and panicked. "Do you read me? You guys have to get out of there, something's –"

The line is cut.

The three of them stare at the walkie before Eren unclips it and brings it to his lips. "Marco? Marco what's going on? Do you read, over?"

Nothing.

Eren tries again. "Marco, do you read me, over?"

Again, nothing. But then –

"EREN! GET OUT OF THERE, TH—"

He's interrupted by a BANG. The line goes dead. The three of them look at each other, but there's an explosion of sound above them and the whole tunnel starts to shake. Dust falls from the cobbled ceiling, and there's a great CRASH in the distance. All of a sudden, Annie lets out a pained cry, and Armin pushes past Eren and Mikasa to find her crouched in the corner while the walls around her begin to collapse.

"Annie!" he calls, and he rushes out of the tomb and skids to a halt in front of her. "Annie, come on, we have to move!"

But she doesn't move. She crouches tighter, and he thinks he can hear her sobbing under her breath.

"It's my fault, Marco's gone, it's my fault, it's my fault, it'smyfault –"

The ceiling above her cracks, and Armin acts without thinking. "ANNIE, MOVE!" he yells, and he wrenches her up and all but drags her towards the tomb entrance. He shoves her through first. He leaps in after her.

The tunnel collapses and they are plunged into the dark.


Chapter Text

"Annie, help me!"

"He heard us talking. He has to die."

"It's all my fault…"

"Take his gear, hurry!"

"Annie, look at me!"

"You risked your life to save Connie's, didn't you? Why would you put yourself in that kind of danger? Have you started to feel compassion towards these people? Prove me wrong, now!"

"It's all my fault…"

"What are you waiting for? Take his gear!"

"Annie!"

Annie's eyes snap open. Armin's phone is face down on the stone floor beside her, and she squints against the little torch on the back. Armin's face is pale and worried, and behind him, Mikasa and Eren watch her hesitantly from the other side of the tomb. She shudders and presses her face into her hands.

"Annie," says Armin, gently this time, and his fingers find hers and pry them away from her face. "Hey. Look at me."

She sucks in a breath. "Marco's gone," she mumbles.

"We don't know that," he says, but even in the dim light, his face looks as white as a sheet and Annie can't bring herself to believe him. She'd seen Marco's death in her mind, and perhaps it didn't happen the same way, but she'd heard the crunch of his bones and watched the light leave his eyes and she knows in her head that he's gone and that it's her fault.

The tunnel rumbles a little and she stifles a sob.

"Hey," says Armin. She catches him eyeing the walls cautiously, but the rumbling stops and he focusses on her again. "Look. We don't know for sure what going on up there. Marco's – Marco's gonna be fine, okay? For now we just have to focus on getting out of here."

She says nothing.

Behind Armin, Eren lets out a sigh.

"We're completely fucked, aren't we?"

Mikasa and Armin glare at him. "Eren."

He blinks at them. "Are we not?"

"No," says Mikasa pointedly. "Do you not read anything that I send you?"

Eren huffs. "I'm a linguist, Mika, not everyone know ancient architecture like you do," he snaps. "I know what you're thinking, but an access tunnel is not something the people who built this would have considered. We're in a tomb. They weren't exactly expecting the person they left down here to get out."

"Not for him, idiot, what about the people who built this? You know that the Walled Cities have a ton of active fault lines – every chamber down here has an alternate route out. This one won't be an exception."

"That's a big assumption to make."

"Fine, if I find it, I'll leave you here."

"Armin." Annie swallows and touches his arm. Eren and Mikasa are still arguing, but he shakes his head at them and looks at her. "I told you this would be dangerous," she mumbles. "If – if we get out of here, you have to call this off."

He pauses. His jaw tightens and something unrecognizable flickers in his eyes. "I can't," he says at last. "Not after this. If the Cult of the Walls is going to these kinds of lengths… we have to find the co-ordinate before they do."

Annie shakes her head. "Marco's gone, Armin."

"We don't know that," he says stubbornly. "Why do you insist that he is?"

Annie hesitates. She pulls away from him and shrinks against the wall, but Armin doesn't look away. He stares her down like he knows he's owed an explanation, and she presses her forehead into her knees and lets out a shaky sigh. "I saw it happen," she whispers at last. "I let it happen. I took his gear and I left him for dead."

Armin blinks at her. "What are you talking about?"

She says nothing for a while. "That's what I dream about," she mutters finally.

A beat. "What?"

Annie keeps her forehead against her knees and curls her arms tighter around her body. "You wanted to know didn't you?" she says weakly. "You have to call this off."

"No – wait –" Armin falters for a moment. "I don't understand," he manages. "What do you mean 'that's what you dream about'? How does that make it your fault? Is that – is that why you left? Because – "

Annie lifts her head a little – just enough to peer over her knees at Eren and Mikasa, and Armin's gaze softens. "This conversation isn't over," he says quietly. "Promise me you'll talk to me about this when we get out of here."

"Promise you'll call this off," counters Annie. "Please."

Armin makes a face. "I can't, Annie, you have to understand – " He swallows. "I have to see this through."

"Why?" she demands, lifting her head properly at last. "Why is it so important that you find this thing first? What are you trying to prove?"

He glares at the floor and the tomb rumbles again. For the first time in the time she has known him, Annie can't read his face. Finally, he huffs. "I need to know what my grandfather died for."

Annie shrinks again and looks away, trying to hide the guilt in her eyes.

"You knew, didn't you?" he says. "That's what you wanted to tell us our first night in Stohess."

She nods.

He takes a slow breath. "I need to see this through, Annie. I need to know what was so important to these people that he had to die for it."

"And what about them?" she hisses, eyeing Mikasa and Eren over his shoulder. "What if they get hurt over this? Is it worth letting them die too?"

"No one's going to die," snaps Armin.

"Marco's already –"

"Stop saying that." He scowls and grasps her shoulders, bringing his face so close to hers that she forgets how to breathe. "Listen to me," he says seriously, "I know you think it's your fault but you did not watch Marco die. We don't know what's going on up there. But." He pauses. "Fine. They don't have to come. I'll see this through on my own."

Annie's breath hitches. "You can't –"

"Armin! We think we may have found a way out of here."

Annie's mouth snaps shut, and she looks over Armin's shoulder to see Eren and Mikasa standing by a narrow opening at the far side of the tomb.

"You owe me an explanation," he hisses, but he gets up and holds a hand out to help her up too. "Promise me we'll talk later."

She nods. "Call this off when we get out of here and we will," she says. She takes his hand and allows him to pull her up, trailing behind him almost timidly as he makes his way to his friends.

"It's a weak point in the wall," says Mikasa, shining the torch on the back of her phone into the opening, "Whatever's happening up there caused it to crack and we just dug out the rest until it seemed big enough to get through. It's a tight fit but we're all pretty in shape and it shouldn't be a problem. You can see it opens into another chamber on the other side. My only concern is –" she pauses as the ground above them rumbles a third time – "that. Whatever's going on up there is making everything down here a little unstable."

Armin nods. "Have you guys tried to get in touch with Marco?"

The two exchange uneasy glances. "Yeah," says Eren, unclipping the walkie talkie from his belt. He offers it to Armin. "We can't reach him. Or we can, and he can't talk to us. Something big is going on up there, Armin, it's… worrying."

Annie can almost see the way Armin's whole body goes rigid, but he takes a steadying breath. "We shouldn't make any assumptions," he says somewhat hoarsely. "And even if – even if he does need help, we can't do it from down here. We should get moving."

Mikasa lets out a huff of a sigh, but she nods and squeezes through the opening first. Eren motions for Armin to go next.

When it's just him and Annie left in the room, he pauses. "Is everything okay?" he asks her, and Annie looks up, startled. He looks almost worried. "You – uh – you scared us."

"Everything's fine," Annie tells him quietly.

He eyes her sceptically and peers through the opening to see if Armin has made it to the other side. "Armin still cares about you, you know," he tells her. "He always has. He blamed himself for ages after you left so… whatever it is you're having issues with, let him help." He jerks his head at the opening. "You next."

Annie says nothing. She squeezes into gap and shimmies towards the opening at the other side. Eren climbs in after her, and they're about halfway along when the walls on either of them start to shake again.

"Annie, move faster," grunts Eren, tapping her shoulder with his outstretched arm. "C'mon, hurry."

It's the tensest ten seconds of her life, and Armin grabs her arm on the other side and hauls her, and then Eren out of the gap before a great rumbling sound fills the room and the opening collapses completely. Mikasa shudders a little, and then points the light of her phone down another passageway.

"We should get a move on," she says, "before anything else in here feels like collapsing."

They start their trudge along the passageway. It twists and turns, and after a while, everything begins to look the same. A part of Annie's mind begins to wonder if this is a dream too, because the tunnels seem never ending and her head is beginning to ache again. Eventually, Mikasa's phone dies, and Eren takes the lead with his, and then, after what feels like hours, they come to a much larger chamber and Eren stops.

"I think I know where we are," he says, jogging forward a little. He points at a gated tunnel on the other side of the chamber. "This is one of the tourist tunnels," he says. "C'mon. That'll be the exit."

They hurry after him. Eren practically hurdles over the gate and starts up the stone steps, and when they do too, the sky comes into view.

"Oh, thank God," mumbles Armin, and they hurry up the steps after Eren, duck under the chain at the entrance to find that the street above them is in complete chaos. There is broken glass on the pavement from various shattered windows; there is smoke in the distance and fires on the other end of the street; police are everywhere and –

"Is that the library?" Mikasa gasps.

They look to where she's pointing, and Shiganshina City Library, once one of the grandest and oldest buildings in Shiganshina, is now nothing but a pile of rubble with plumes of smoke and fire rising from its ashes. Annie's stomach twists, and she doubles over, the image of Marco's broken body in her mind. For a moment she thinks she's going to throw up, but then her phone starts buzzing rather incessantly in her pocket.

She swallows hugely and answers it. "Hello?" she manages.

"Annie, thank God." It's Dok, and he sounds like he's had a hell of a day. "I've been trying to reach you all day. Are you all right? Is everyone all right?"

"Fine," says Annie hoarsely. "We're all fine. What the hell happened?"

"It's all over the news," says Dok seriously. "Shiganshina Library's been bombed. They're saying it's a terrorist attack."

Annie takes a breath. "It's not that simple though, is it," she says. It's not a question, and she treats Dok's silence as an affirmative. "Dok, we – we found it. The tomb. Everything went to shit after that."

"You found it?" asks Dok. Annie hears his breath hitch. "Well?"

Annie shakes her head at the ground and brushes her hair out of her eyes. "It was empty," she tells him.

Dok pauses. "Empty?" He huffs. "I can't believe this," he murmurs. "All this for nothing –"

"It's – it's not nothing," Annie says, "Armin said something while we were down there. It wasn't empty like there was nothing to begin with, it was clinical – like someone had gone into it and then cleaned the whole place out."

"Never mind all that," says Dok urgently. "Listen to me, Annie. I checked the proposal with Erwin Smith. That dig was never approved."

There's a beat. Annie stares at the pavement for a long while. "What?" she asks finally. "What do you mean 'it was never approved', how could it not have been –" She stops. She thinks about how insistent Armin had been about filing leave for her. Thinks about why they have a team of only four people. She glances up at him, and at Eren and Mikasa, and the horror on their faces. "Son of a bitch…" she mumbles. "I have to call you back."

"Annie, wait, you have to –"

She hangs up before Dok can finish the sentence. "Approved, huh?" she says, shoving her phone back in her pocket. She pushes past Eren and Mikasa and seizes Armin by the collar. "What the hell were you thinking?" she snarls, slamming him against the wall of the nearest building.

"Annie, what the fuck are you doing?!"

She feels two pairs of arms wrestle her back from Armin, and she fights against them, fists raised. "You said this dig was approved!" she growls. "You knew how dangerous it was to get involved in this and you did it anyway after Smith rejected your fucking proposal - what the hell where you thinking?"

Eren and Mikasa's grip go slack, and she lunges at Armin slams him back against the wall. "You could have gotten us all killed!"

"Armin, what's she talking about?" asks Eren.

Armin says nothing. He locks his eyes on the ground and hangs his head low.

"That… can't be true," mutters Mikasa. "Armin… you wouldn't…"

"People have died for this, Armin!" Annie shrieks. "Your grandfather – Mikasa's parents – I got involved to keep the three of you safe! How could you put your friends in danger for this?"

Armin falters. "I just – wait – Mikasa's parents too - ?"

"DON'T YOU DARE TURN THIS INTO A SHOW ABOUT LYING, ARMIN ARLET," roars Annie. She jabs a finger into his chest. "YOU. YOU LIED TO ALL THREE OF US! YOU PUT US IN THIS POSITION! HOW COULD YOU DO SOMETHING SO STUPID?" She lets out a breath and swallows the lump building in her throat. She can't remember ever being this angry in her life. Her throat is raw and she feels tears of anger prickling at her eyes. Her lungs feel like they're going to burst, and without even thinking about it, she raises a fist and slams it into his jaw.

Armin slumps to the ground, stunned. Eren and Mikasa are too shocked to do anything about it.

"THIS WHOLE TIME," she thunders. "I SAW MARCO DIE IN MY HEAD, AND I THOUGHT IT WAS ME – I CONVINCED MYSELF THAT IT WAS MY FAULT –" She takes a shuddering breath and gestures at the smoking pile of rubble in the distance. "BUT THIS? THIS IS YOU. ALL OF IT IS YOU, AND MARCO'S GONE NOW YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR IT. ARE YOU GOING TO BE RESPONSIBLE FOR US DYING TOO?"

"I—"

"DON'T," snaps Annie. "DON'T EVEN FUCKING START. MARCO'S DEAD, AND THAT'S ON YOU."

And then she storms away. She thinks she hears Eren and Mikasa turn and walk away too, and Armin is left on the pavement with a bruise growing on his jaw.

 

 

 

Annie lets herself into Armin's grandfather's house using the spare key he'd given her when they first arrived. For a moment, she regrets the way she'd reacted; regrets the things she said and the fact that she actually punched him – but then she remembers that he faked the acceptance of his proposal and sent all four of them on a goose chase so deadly that one of their friends – perhaps everyone else in that library – already paid the price. Her anger comes back in full force.

It feels wrong, she thinks, being here without him, but she's honestly not sure if she'll ever be able to look him in the eye again without wanting kick him or something. She has never known Armin to be stupid, or impulsive, or selfish – but his decision to lie to her, and to Eren and Mikasa, is all three. She storms into the guest room, intent on throwing everything into her suit case and leaving tonight, but she passes a mirror on her way there and notes the mess of her reflection. There's dirt on her face, and in her hair; her hoodie is torn in two places; and there's a split in her lip and a cut in her arm she doesn't even remember getting. Her her head is beginning to hurt again and she sighs. She supposes a shower won't hurt.

She peels her clothes off with a grimace. Her muscles ache and the gash in her arm stings now that she knows it's there. Her phone buzzes a couple of times with text messages from Mikasa – You're welcome to stay with us if you're not comfortable there and We're at 57 Colossus Ave, give us a call if you're coming over – and Annie thinks that she must be furious at Armin if she's offering her a place to stay after she'd decked him in the face.

She doesn't text her back, though. Not yet, anyway.

The shower is scalding when she steps into it, but she almost doesn't feel it. The water that runs off her is stained red and various shades of brown.

Marco is dead.

There's almost no doubt about it.

She thinks of the rest of the staff, and of the people who were in that library when they arrived and wonders how many of them are dead too. Hoping that a bombing like that would result in zero casualties is foolish. The reality is that a huge number of people would have died today; some from the actual bombing, and some from being trapped under debris. There will be countless more people who have injuries, and a number of them won't survive those either. She wonders which of those is responsible for Marco's death.

Part of it still feels like her fault – she can still see Marco's face as she runs from him with his gear in her hands; can still hear him begging for her to come back and help him.

She draws an uneven breath.

She stands there for an hour, at least, but she doesn't move until the pads of her fingers are pruny and her skin is bright red. Vaguely, she can hear her phone buzzing against the marble countertop, and she assumes that it'll stop eventually if she ignores it –

Only it doesn't.

Her lips twist in a frustrated scowl, and she slams the glass door open to find Dok's name flashing on the screen.

"What do you want?" she hisses when she answers it. "I didn't know about all this, okay? I'm not in the mood –"

"Shut up and listen to me, Annie," says Dok urgently. "I tried to tell you earlier but you hung up on me. You need to get out of Shiganshina now. All of you. Before it goes into full lock down and there's nowhere for you to hide."

"What are you talking about?" Annie snaps, reaching for a towel. "The library is gone. The tomb is gone. There's nothing to ruin their damn religion."

"This isn't just about the tomb, Annie, don't you get it?" says Dok. "The four of you found it. You're a threat to them."

Annie frowns. "It was empty, there's nothing we can even publish –"

"They don't know that," Dok tells her gruffly, "And even if they do, the fact that you know it was emptied is a threat to them and, if you haven't already noticed, they aren't afraid to eliminate what is threatening."

"That doesn't even make sense," says Annie, running a hand through her damp her. "The tomb existing supports their religion. If anything is a threat to them, it's the archive, why haven't they bombed that?"

"I've wondered that for a while," admits Dok. "But you need to get out of Shiganshina. All four of you. Now."

Annie lets out a sigh. "Fine," she says. "We'll be on the next train out of here."

Dok sighs too, sounding relieved. "Good. And Annie – keep me posted. I want to hear from you every couple of hours, do you understand me?"

"Right." She hangs up and pinches at the bridge of her nose. Tucking the towel more securely around herself, she raises the phone again to call Mikasa when she hears something like glass break in the hall. She pauses. "Armin…?"

There's no answer. Frowning, she crouches and rummages through Armin's sink cupboard for a moment, letting out a quiet 'aha' when she finds a pair of scissors buried under a pile of facecloths. She takes a breath and presses an ear to the door.

"Armin?" she calls again.

Nothing – except for the heavy footfalls thumping towards the bathroom door. She swallows because they're not Armin's. Gripping the scissors tighter behind her back, she wrenches the door open –

And finds herself staring down the barrel of a gun.

Chapter Text

 

 

Armin's jaw aches.

To be fair, he probably deserves it. Who is he kidding? He absolutely deserves it. He deserves that and more for knowingly putting his friends in danger after Smith had rejected his proposal – after Annie had warned him repeatedly of the dangers of getting involved with this project. He has reasons, but not excuses, and those reasons are selfish and stupid and embarrassing. He wonders if he'll ever be able to face any of his friends again.

For a moment, he tries to convince himself that maybe Annie's wrong – maybe the attack on the library had nothing to do with the Cult of the Walls, and maybe this isn't his fault at all – but no. There's too much riding on this to be a coincidence.

An ambulance speeds past him, and he winces at the wail of its sirens. Then he winces again at the amount of damage done to library and wonders how many more have been dispatched because of the attack on the library. Every hospital in the city will be inundated with people who are injured. There will be people with injuries so severe that they won't even get to a hospital. There are people who are already dead.

People like Marco.

Armin draws a shuddering breath. He wants to go home but Annie will be there – he's almost sure she wouldn't hesitate to punch him again for needlessly causing this hell of a situation. He could go to Eren and Mikasa's but they're probably furious too – there was no reason they had to be involved in this, and he'd lied to their faces after years of offering him their unending support. Smith will expecting his letter of resignation when he gets back to Trost – he imagines that if he hadn't purposefully blocked Smith's number before they left Stohess, he'd already have a number of angry messages in his message bank.

He sighs. He can't stay out here all night. No one in their right mind is still on the street. He gets up, wincing a third time when he finds blood on his palm from a stray shard of glass. He must look like a mess.

His doesn't really have an idea of where he wants to go but his feet carry him down a couple of blocks south. He's in front of his grandfather's grave before he even realizes it. He releases what almost sounds like a sob when he sits down and leans against the gravestone. "Sorry I haven't visited in a while," he mumbles. "I messed up really bad this time, Grandpa."

There's no answer, obviously. Armin lets out a mirthless snort. "You'd be angry too," he says. "Annie actually punched me." He pauses, tilting his head back against the cool marble. "The library's gone," he says. "It's a pile of rubble. There's nothing left. It's pretty clear that… that the people who got you did it. I know how that happened, by the way. Smith told me." He pauses again, fists closing tightly at his sides. "That's why I did it," he says at last. "I wanted to know why. But – " he snorts – "I put my friends in danger and people have died. I'm as much to blame as the Cult of the Walls is. You would be ashamed of me if you were here."

He fiddles with the grass over his grandfather's grave and falls silent. He can still hear the sirens from here; can still see the smoke and the orange glow of fires against the horizon. It makes him shudder. He sits there for ages and tries to let his mind wander, but it's hard, because even when he shuts his eyes, all he can see is the disappointment and betrayal on Eren and Mikasa's faces, the anger in Annie's eyes, and an empty tomb that reminds him this was all for nothing –

He sits up straighter. "I can't just leave it, though, can I?" he asks out loud. "That tomb was emptied for a reason, and bombing it doesn't make sense because the fact that it exists would support their beliefs. There's something else here. There has to be." He gets to his feet with a grunt. "Sorry to go so soon," he says to the grave stone. "I need to finish this. I'll visit again when this is all over."

 

 

Jean Kirstein was a friend during Armin's post grad days – he hopes he's still one now. Maria University is much smaller and much less grand than Shiganshina Central, but it's his only option and he doubts very much he'll have better luck at anywhere else. He spots Jean through the window, and he's hunched over his laptop with a concerned frown on his features.

Armin knocks against the glass.

Jean jumps and glances up. His frown deepens when he spots Armin, but he waves him over to the front entrance and taps his ID against the scanner at the door.

"Armin?" he says when the doors slide open. "Jesus, it's been forever." He pauses and studies Armin's bloodied hand, and the bruise growing on his cheek. "What the hell happened to you? What are you doing here? Everything's in lock down – "

"I know," interrupts Armin, "but it's urgent and you're the only who can help me out. I need to look something up."

Jean raises an eyebrow at him. "What, have you got a final or something in the morning?" he asks dryly.

Armin ignores him and pushes past. "You should go home."

"Uh. I can't," says Jean. "What, you think I'm still here because I want to be? The university's in lockdown and everyone was told not to leave until the all clear's given."

Armin pauses. He almost wants to laugh. "You probably shouldn't have let me in, then," he says.

Jean snorts. "Yeah. You're not exactly a threat."

"Rude." Armin shakes his head, but he offers Jean a smile that's both grim and grateful at the same time. "Sorry to barge in like this," he adds, hurrying up the steps to get to Mythology and World Religions. "I just need to check a few things. I'll be out of your hair before you know it."

"What on earth is so urgent that you have to check it now?" snaps Jean, stepping after him. "You know that the city's gone to shit, don't you?"

"That's why I'm here," he answers absently. "I… have an idea of who's behind all of this."

He can almost feel the way Jean is frowning at him. "Shouldn't you be telling the authorities or something?"

"It's not that simple."

"Armin." Jean seizes his shoulder. "I don't know what the hell you're playing at, but this isn't the time to be screwing around. Shiganshina Central is a warzone. People have died. Marco – " He falters, and, suddenly, the guilt is back in Armin's system. He keeps his eyes to the floor, and, behind him, Jean heaves an unsteady sigh. "I haven't heard from Marco all day. Given… he works in the city library… I'm worried."

Armin swallows. "Look," he says carefully. "That… attack isn't a one time thing. Something else is going on here and… I need proof before I take it to anyone else. Can you just – " he glances around at the almost empty library and sighs. "Keep an eye out for me. I'll be quick."

Jean throws his hands up in surrender and shakes his head. "Whatever," he mutters with a resigned sigh. "Do whatever the hell you need to do. I'll be downstairs."

"Sorry," adds Armin, shifting uneasily in his spot, but Jean is already halfway down the stairs again. He takes a breath and hurries on. It's not until he gets there that he realizes he has no idea what he's looking for. He huffs and just pulls down three books at a time.

There has never been any mention of a tomb before, he's sure of that, at the very least. Armin knows the stories better than most and he knows for a fact that there has never been a single record of any sort of tomb for any soldiers. There has never been full records of anything, now that he thinks about it, and he checks book after book after book – and there's nothing. It feels like he gets through the entire section before he fully agrees with the theory though: There is no evidence of the Titan Story.

That's why it's just a myth, he reasons. Apart from the walls, there has never been proof. There are no bones and no crystals and no firsthand accounts. There is nothing.

That is, until now.

Now, an entire archive exists, with maps to tombs, and letters from kings, and designs for manoeuvre gear. It's more information about the Titan Story than anyone has found in centuries and Armin remembers what he'd said to Eren and Mikasa when he first found the map in SIAT's preservation rooms – it's as if someone had gone and found every single primary document regarding the Titan Story and hid it all in the archives underneath Stohess.

The answer is so obvious that Armin wants to kick himself for not realizing it sooner. The map and the journal are centuries apart but were found together – in the same archive as a million other sources that no one had ever seen in recorded history. Someone had hidden them away. That same person must have emptied the tomb and hidden its contents away too. In the same archive they'd started in.

But –

Armin frowns. "Bombing the library doesn't make sense, then," he says out loud. "If anything, they should have bombed the archive but – " His breath hitches. "Unless they know it's there."

He stands up so quickly that the chair falls over.

"ARMIN!"

Armin looks up and lets out a yelp, ducking out of the way in time for a gunshot to go off and for a bullet to go whizzing over his head. He hears it thud against a bookshelf before the kid with the revolver – Armin swears he looks like an undergrad – cocks the hammer back again and aims the barrel at his chest.

His breath hitches in his throat but Jean comes out of nowhere, knocking the revolver out of reach as he tackles the kid to the ground. There's a scuffle – the kid uses the momentum to roll Jean onto his back – he wraps his hands around his throat – Jean gags and scrabbles against his fingers, and then tries to reach for the gun –

Armin does the only thing that makes sense in his mind, and he kicks the revolver towards Jean's empty hand and slams the heaviest textbook on the table against the kid's head.

The kid yelps, and Jean uses the moment's distraction to break free from his hold, smashing the butt of the gun into the kid's temple.

The kid goes limp.

Jean rolls him away and scrambles backwards into the desk. "What the fuck is going on?" he manages hoarsely, sucking in air in huge gulps. "What the hell have you been doing? Why are there people trying to kill you?"

"It's – complicated," Armin says shakily. "I think they're the same people who bombed the library."

"Why, though?" demands Jean. "What the hell do they want with you that they'd bomb a library over it, and then try to kill you afterwards?"

Armin hesitates – considers lying and keeping information from Jean so he can't get anymore involved – but he thinks of Annie, and of Eren and Mikasa, and of Marco, and thinks he's lied enough for now. Hell, Jean had just saved his life – he owes it to him. He takes a breath. "It's the Cult of the Walls," he says at last. "We found something they didn't want us to find. I told you the attack on Shiganshina Central wouldn't be a one time thing – they'll do this again, and – " He stops. He feels the blood drain out of his face. "Annie."

Jean stares at him. "Annie, your ex, Annie? Don't fucking tell me she's one of them –"

"No! No, she warned me something like this might happen and I didn't listen – and if they tried to attack me here, then that means…" He curses under his breath. "I have to go."

"Armin!" snaps Jean, clambering to his feet. He grabs Armin's arm. "What the hell? You owe me more of an explanation than that –"

"There's no time!" says Armin – the panic is starting to well in his chest, because if they knew he would be here, there's almost no doubt they know where Annie is too. He shrugs out of Jean's grip and hurries towards the stairs. "I need to get to home, now, because if they were willing to attack me here, then –"

Jean's eyes soften. "I'll drive then," he offers, "but you have to tell me what's going on."

"No, I –"

Jean scowls at him, and he makes a grab for the back of Armin's shirt and tugs him back. He shoves him against the railing of the stairs and glowers. "Shut up," he snarls. "You turn up looking wrecked claiming you know what went down at the library, someone tries to kill you, and then you run off again saying the Cult of the Walls is after you because you found something they didn't want you to? That sounds like complete bullshit to me, except that I haven't heard from Marco since before shit went down. There are people involved that I care about too, and you owe it to me to tell me what's going on."

Armin swallows and looks away. Jean is right. He has every right to an explanation, but it means adding one more friend to the list of friends who will hate him forever. "It's a long story," he says at last.

"Then talk quickly," snaps Jean. "Let's go."

 

 

The drive home is the worst.

Armin explains everything. He tells him about the archives in Stohess, and the map, and the empty tomb. He explains his theories, and the idea that they're being followed, and the fact that helping him might put Jean in danger too. The only thing he omits is the obvious gunshot sound they'd heard over the walkie-talkie when Marco had tried to warn them before the explosions started – in part because he's too much of a coward to admit that it's his fault, and in part because he's still trying to convince himself that Marco might be okay.

Jean says nothing the whole time. He drives with a lead foot, and he screeches to a halt in front of Armin's grandfather's house ten minutes later. They clamber out of the car, and Armin can feel his heart beating in his throat when they get to the front door to find it hanging open with broken glass all over the floor.

Jean tugs the revolver out of his jacket pocket.

Armin wants to say something about it, but something upstairs crashes into the wall before he can get anything out. Whatever plan he'd had in his head disappears and he practically vaults up the stairs.

"Armin!" hisses Jean, rushing up behind him, but Armin isn't listening.

He scrambles onto the landing, sprints down the hall, and shoulders the guest room door open –

To find three unconscious men and a fourth burly blonde man pinned against a wall with a pair of scissors embedded in the collar of his jacket. Annie is huffing on the other side of the room, arm outstretched like she'd just thrown the scissors with a towel clutched tightly around her body.

Jean stumbles in after him. "The fuck?" But the man on the wall struggles a little more, and Jean recovers quickly enough to point the revolver at him.

"Y-you're okay," Armin manages at last.

Annie glances at him, and then at the man against the wall, and nods.

Armin studies her carefully, catching the gash in her arm and the split in her lip. "You're bleeding –"

"It's nothing new," mutters Annie. "Not something these bastards managed anyway."

There's another pause. "You're in a towel!" croaks Armin like he's only just realized. The blood rushes back into his face, and he hesitates, unsure if he should turn around or do something about the stranger struggling against the wall.

"Thanks for noticing," snaps Annie savagely.

"No – I mean –" Armin stammers awkwardly. "I – uh – "

Behind him, Jean groans. "Are you okay?" he stresses. "Do you need us to leave so you can change, or?"

Annie sucks in a breath. "I'm fine," she says. She gestures at the man pinned against the wall. "But I'm not comfortable leaving this asshole here with you two."

"We'll be fine," Jean tells her, nodding at the revolver. "What do you want done with him?"

Annie hesitates, but she picks a bundle of clothes off the floor and edges out of the room. "Find out what he wants, if you can," she says. "I won't be long." She disappears down the hall.

Armin stares dumbly at the scene. Jean just shakes his head and turns his attention to the man on the wall. "Cult of the Walls, huh?" he says, nudging one of the guys on the floor with his foot. "You guys are dicks. What the hell was the point of all this?"

The stranger lets out a snort. "One you wouldn't understand," he sneers.

"You're damn right we don't," snaps Jean, "what the hell was worth bombing a library for?"

Armin holds up a hand. "Let's just talk," he offers. "We don't want to get in your way or anything, but if you're going to follow us around and attack us, we deserve to know why. There are some things I don't understand." He pauses, watching the man for his reaction. "Why blow up the library?" he asks at last. "The tomb exists. That supports what you believe in, doesn't it?"

The stranger snorts again but says nothing.

Armin just shrugs. "It was empty, though."

Something like a smirk crosses the man's lips and Armin nods.

"You knew it was empty."

"We know a lot of things," he says. "We know who you are."

"I know you know who I am," snaps Armin bitterly. "You people killed my grandfather."

"You're much more than that," laughs the stranger. "But we don't need you."

"Why try to kill me then?"

"Why do you think?"

Armin hums thoughtfully. "Because I know a lot of things too," he says after a moment. "You're threatened by what I know – or what I have the potential to find out. That gets in your way, doesn't it?"

"You flatter yourself." The stranger spits at him, and Jean cocks the hammer back. "You think I'm afraid of you?" he adds to Jean.

Jean snorts. "I think you are, or you would have pulled those scissors out of the wall and attacked me with them, even with this pointed at your face," he says. "My best friend was in the building you bombed today, and if he's dead… well. I don't really have a lot to lose. The problem is you have information and it'd be a poor move to lose that."

"Clever," says the man with a smirk. "I know who you are too. You're a lot like I remember."

"'Scuse me?"

The man nods at the doorway, and Armin spares a glance backwards to see Annie dressed and re-entering the room. "You remember too, don't you?" he says to her. "I see it in your eyes."

Annie says nothing. She studies him with carefully with something unreadable on her features. She folds her arms across her chest.

"Your friend's a traitor," the man says to Armin and Jean. "She knows it. She should be one of us. She should be helping us rewrite history."

"Why bomb the library then?" Armin asks again, taking his attention off Annie. "If you want to rewrite history, then burying the tomb doesn't make any sense. You want evidence. You want it to be accessible. You want – " He pauses. He thinks of the other attacks and of the show that plays in the early hours of the morning. Thinks of what Mikasa's journal had said – 'The host was hidden, for the co-ordinate within him holds the power to bring back the Titan scourge.' – and realization dawns on his face. "You… don't need the tomb, do you? You want to bring back the religion and to do that… you're going to try to bring back the Titans."

"Are you kidding me?" Jean lets out a snort so loud that he almost lowers the gun. "The Titans are a fucking myth, and –"

The man lunges, grabbing the scissors from the wall and knocking the revolver out of Jean's hand. He dives at them, scissors raised – but Annie moves so quickly, Armin barely even realizes that she's in front of them.

"I do remember you," she snarls, blocking the attack. "And I remember what you made me do." She slams a knee into his stomach – the scissors fall to the floor, and Annie – tiny, barely five-foot Annie – throws him in all his six foot glory over her shoulder and across the room. He hits the dresser with a sickening crack and slumps to the floor.

"Holy shit," manages Jean.

Annie ignores him. "We have to get out of here," she says. "Right now."

"What about these guys?"

"Leave them," says Annie. "Call the police or something and leave them for when they get here. But we don't have time to hang around and wait. We need to get out of the city before it goes into lockdown and they find us again."

"It's a bit late for that," says Jean. "Transport in and out of the city was cut about two hours ago. No one's leaving now."

Annie huffs. "Fine. We can use that. They'll think we're still here. Call Eren and Mikasa, we have to get out of here. We'll figure everything else out once we're out of the city."

Armin nods, and he fishes his phone from his pocket and is literally just about to tap Mikasa's name when it starts to ring in his hand. He blinks. "Mikasa?"

"Armin! Help – please – we – we were attacked – someone broke in and –"

Something in Armin's gut twists. "Mikasa – Mika, slow down. Are you okay? Is Eren okay?"

She sobs into the phone, and the feeling in Armin's gut worsens. "I dunno – they – they took him. They said they needed him and – Eren's missing, Armin – we have to help him but – but I dunno where they're taking him – "

Armin sucks in a breath. "I think I do. We need to get back to Stohess."

Chapter Text

 

 

Jean drives with a lead foot, and aside from the tinny sound of the radio newsreader’s voice, the silence in his car is deafening. Annie keeps her jaw clamped shut the whole way as they swerve through the empty streets of Shiganshina. The city zips past her window in a nauseating blur of dark bricks and yellow street lights, and for a fraction of a second, Armin’s eyes meet hers through the rearview mirror. Her stare hardens, and she spends the rest of the drive avoiding his gaze by staring at an empty soda cup on the floor mat by her feet.

Mikasa is waiting for them outside her apartment building when they arrive. She sits with her head in her hands on the little retaining wall by the line of mailboxes and she doesn’t get up when they pile out of the car. Annie doesn’t think she’s ever seen her look so distraught.

“Mikasa?” Armin tries gently. “Mikasa, we can go and get him but we have to go. Are you okay?”

Mikasa snorts into her palms. “ Am I okay? ” she hisses. “How can you ask me that?”

Armin hesitates, but he crouches over in front of her to place a hand on her shoulder. “Mikasa - ”

She shoves him away. “Shut up,” she snarls. “How could you do this, Armin? Eren, Marco, the library - none of this would have happened if you hadn’t been such a jackass .”

“I know,” mumbles Armin. “But we can still save him, Mika, we just have to go now.”

“How do you know?” snaps Mikasa. “How do you know he’s not already dead?”

“He’s not,” says Annie quietly. “They need him. If they wanted him dead, they would have killed you both - instead they’ve taken him and here you are. He’s alive, Mikasa. But if there’s any hope of getting to him before anything else happens, we need to get out of the city now .”

There’s a pause.

Mikasa sniffles a little but when she looks up at last, her cheeks are dry and her jaw is set. There’s a bruise growing on her left temple that looks pretty painful but she pays it now mind. She takes a breath. “How do we intend to manage that?” she asks at last. “The city’s gone into lockdown.”

“Hold on.”

Annie blinks. She’d almost forgotten that Jean was with them to begin with. She cocks her head curiously as he whips his phone from his pocket, taps a name into the search bar, and presses it to his ear.

“Ymir? Hey - I need a favour.”





Ymir, it turns out, is an old friend of Jean’s from the couple of years he’d spent doing an Engineering Major before he’d decided he didn’t enjoy it enough to complete it. Now, he tells them, she works for the cross country rail company and she’s rather good at making sure certain items make it to their destinations without any hassle.

Armin frowns at him. “You mean she’s a smuggler?”

“It’s not as bad as it sounds,” says Jean.

What , exactly, does she smuggle?”

Jean pauses, eyeing the three of them out of the corner of his eye. “A lot of things,” he says carefully. “She’s good at what she does,” he says shortly. “You can trust her.”

“Can we?” says Annie, eyeing him sharply through the rearview mirror.

Jean eyes her back. “More than most people,” he promises, setting his eyes on the road again. “Believe me. She really came through for Marco when - ” His breath hitches for a moment, but he shakes it off. “- When he needed help. She’ll make sure you get to Stohess without being seen.”

Mikasa scoffs. “How do you even know that any trains are still running?”

“Passenger trains, maybe not,” says Jean. “But the other cities still need resources and a lot of them come from border towns like Shiganshina.” He pulls up outside an old trainyard and turns in his seat. “This is as far as I go. Follow the fence line - there should be an opening about half a mile that way - and head for the south-most track. This is important: you need to get on the northbound train to Trost - aim for the eighth carriage - Ymir will be waiting for you on that - but it won’t stop for you . Nothing is supposed to stop in this city and she’s already sticking her neck out for you by making sure it didn’t get rerouted. You’ll have to jump it while it’s moving.”

In the front seat, Armin blinks. “Pardon me.”

“It’s the only chance you’ve got to get out of the city,” says Jean grimly. “It slows down a bit as it comes through here but it’ll still be a heck of a jump. Watch out for the guards too. Good luck.”

“Wait - ” Mikasa frowns at him. “Shouldn’t you come with us?”

“I can’t,” says Jean. He looks away. “If Marco - he might be okay, or someone might find him and if worst comes to worst…” He shakes his head. “I’m needed here.”

There’s a pause, but, at last, Armin heaves a sigh and claps Jean’s shoulder gently. “I’m sorry I got you involved in this,” he says quietly. “And about Marco, too.”

“Kill the bastard running this shit show and you’ll be forgiven,” says Jean. “Stay safe.”

“You too,” says Armin, climbing out of the car. “Thank you. For everything.”

“Go or you’ll miss it.”

“Right.”

Mikasa nods once more at Jean before she opens the door, and Annie glances at him in the rearview mirror before she opens her own. “Thanks,” she mutters finally, and she shuts the door behind her. The car lurches, and Jean sticks his head out of the window to wish them all a final ‘Good luck’ before he pulls back onto the road.

Annie watches his tail lights shrink into red pin-pricks as he drives off before Armin taps her shoulder and gestures towards the fence. She takes a shaky breath, trying to ignore the way her stomach flips in anticipation, and follows as he and Mikasa take the lead.

They find the opening without much of a fuss.

Mikasa shimmies under first, then Annie, then Armin, and they duck behind a rusty shipping container just as a guard with a flashlight wanders past. Annie peers out from behind it as the guard’s footsteps fade away, and she blinks against the darkness to find the easiest route to the southmost track.

Mikasa taps her shoulder. “Up,” she mouths. “Carriages close enough to jump.”

Annie nods, and she cups her hands to give her a leg up. She jerks her head at Armin to follow, and he swallows audibly and follows suit. Mikasa pulls him up and onto the top of the shipping container before she leans off the side to offer a hand to Annie as well.

It’s nerve-wracking work. Annie spends most of the way physically remembering that she has to breathe, and they get four tracks across before the adjacent carriage is too far to jump. A train whistle blows in the distance, and her breath hitches in her throat as she spots the northbound train rushing toward the trainyard.

“Shit,” mutters Mikasa.

Armin gulps. “Can we make that?”

“We have to,” whispers Annie. She glances left, and then right to make sure no guards are in sight before she nods at the others. “Run.”

They clamber off carriage. Mikasa ducks behind another shipping container, and Annie leaps between the two carriages of the adjacent train. She hears Armin’s footsteps following her, feeling him bump gently into her side as skids to a halt behind another shipping container. She starts to make a move again, only for Armin to yank her forward and hold her still as another guard meanders past the other side of their shipping container.

The train whistles again.

They’re still four tracks away.

Armin grips her arm. “Help me up the carriage,” he whispers.

What? The fastest route is that way !”

“Trust me!” he hisses.

Annie scowls at him, but she cups her hands together anyway. Armin mutters a ‘thanks’ under his breath, seizing a handful of gravel on his way up. He waits a couple of seconds when he gets there before he brings his arm back and hurls the gravel as far away from them as he can.

Clangs echo through the trainyard, and Annie hears a guard shout “What was that?” before she realizes Armin’s intent.

“Go!” Armin hisses, scrambling off the carriage. “Quick!”

They do. It’s a hell of a sprint - Annie winces at the sound of the gravel crunching beneath their feet but she counts the carriages on the northbound train as she leaps over the tracks and spots the door on the eighth carriage sliding open.

“There!” she manages hoarsely, just as someone rounds the corner and a flashlight shines into the corners of her eyes.

“Who's there?!”

“Fuck!”

“Just run!” cries Mikasa, hurdling over the final track just as the engine carriage hurtles past.

“We’ll never make that!” gasps Armin, stumbling a little over the final track.

“Don’t think like that!” grumbles Annie. “Keep going, we’re almost there!”

They’re sprinting alongside the train now - she counts the carriages as they pass, and Mikasa leaps and catches the handle at the front. Annie shoves Armin forward - “ Stop right there!” yells a guard, but she ignores him and practically screams - “ Jump Armin! Now!”

He does - Mikasa catches his arm and hauls him onto the train - before she holds out a hand for Annie but - “Annie, watch out!”

There’s a gunshot - Annie yelps - it’s now or never - she jumps -

Mikasa catches her arm, and they dive into the carriage just as the door slides shut with a heavy thud and they’re plunged into darkness.




For while, nothing happens.

The carriage smells funny. Something clucks before Annie has the sense to pull her phone from her pocket for light. She winces at the glare before she realizes that the smell is hay and bird droppings, and that the carriage is full of cage hens in wooden crates.

Armin is sitting against the wall, wheezing, and he fumbles with his inhaler before he takes one, two puffs, and his breathing settles.

“We sure know how to cut it close,” says Mikasa tiredly, slumping next to him.

“You think?”

Annie almost yelps. Too late, she realizes that the chickens aren’t their only companions, and a woman - tall and freckled and smirking - pushes herself off the wall and crosses her arms across her chest.

“Y-you must be Ymir,” says Annie stupidly.

Ymir raises her eyebrows in reply. “And you must be the fuckwits Jean called about. How the hell did you three get yourselves in so much shit, hey?”

“Long story,” mutters Armin, keeping his eyes locked on the straw. “Thanks for the lift.”

“I’d say anytime, but this was a pain in the ass,” grumbles Ymir. “Seriously. I had a date tonight.”

“Sorry to trouble you,” says Mikasa dryly. “This is sort of a life or death thing.”

Ymir smirks. “So I hear. Eh, well.” She pushes past Annie to wrench front carriage door open. - the sound from outside becomes monstrous as she does so. “Make yourselves comfortable, hey?” she says over the noise. “We’ve got a long ride to Stohess ahead.”





Chapter Text




It's a quiet journey except for the way the carriage rattles over every bump and screeches around every corner. Twice, Armin offers his jacket to Annie, and then to Mikasa, in case either of them want to get some shut eye before dawn, but either they’re still mad at him (fair), or they’re just as apprehensive (also fair), because they both refuse and, instead, choose to spend the trip watching the cage hens sleep the night away.

No one says anything for a long time. The air in the carriage starts to feel stale and the disappointment and betrayal that hangs between them honestly makes Armin wish that they’d just start yelling at him again.

They don’t, and the night drags on.

Just before dawn, Annie makes a phone call to Dok. It’s relatively short - mostly Annie letting him know they’re on a train to Stohess, followed by a number of ‘yes’s, and ‘no’s and one ‘how stupid do you think I am?’ before Ymir lets herself back into the carriage just as the morning sun starts to shine through the cracks between the doors.

“Rise and shine,” she drawls, tossing a muesli bar into each of their laps. “Y’all owe me - those are from my personal stash.”

Mikasa wrinkles her nose at it. “I’ll pass.”

“No, you won’t,” snorts Ymir, seating herself on a crate in the corner. “I won’t ask about what the hell you three got yourselves into, but do yourself a favour and don’t pretend you’re not fucking starved. Eat the damn muesli bar.”

“You should eat, Mika,” adds Armin carefully. “You’ll need your strength if we have any hope of finding Eren.”

Mikasa purses her lips, but Armin can see on her face that she knows they’re right. She picks at the muesli bar.

“What is all this?” asks Annie. Her voice is croaky from disuse, and Ymir smirks and tosses her a water bottle too. “Other than shady and probably illegal.”

Excuse you .” Ymir snorts loudly. “Illegal - yeah, okay. But this business is as wholesome as getting a puppy on Christmas morning.”

“How is that, exactly?”

Ymir clucks her tongue. “Well, I don’t smuggle drugs, for one.” She sighs and motions for Annie to return her water bottle. “You three aren’t the first beat up kids who’ve needed help. Let’s put it that way.”

Armin blinks at her. “You mean like refugees?”

“Refugees, kids trying to get away from shit families, people hiding from abusive partners... ” Ymir shrugs likes it’s no big deal. “People who need help, basically. It’s not my job to know - I’m just a chauffeur. But I owed Jean a favour from introducing me to my beautiful girlfriend - who I didn’t get to see off, by the way - so you three owe me pretty big.”

“Oh.” Armin stares at his shoes, because even Ymir, someone who regularly dabbles in the illegal, is a better person than him right now. “Thanks,” he mutters.

“Yeesh, you went dark real fast.”

“This is all kind of his fault,” says Mikasa dryly.

Armin winces. If he didn’t know her any better, he’d think she was joking but the fact that she’s not is made obvious by the way her lips are pressed into a thin, unsmiling line. She says nothing else, though, and Ymir glances at Annie for an explanation, but she shakes her head and says nothing too.

“...All right then,” says Ymir at last, and it’s clear that she doesn’t want to ask anymore about it. “We’re stopping by Trost. Should pull in in about half an hour. The other guy up front is getting off and it’s just me all the way to Stohess, so once we get moving again, you can come and join me up front where it doesn’t smell like bird shit.”

“Right,” says Annie. “When are we getting into Stohess, then?”

“Not ‘til dusk, probably.”

Mikasa pales. “ Dusk ?”

She offers them an apologetic shrug. “It’s the best I can do. This train has to make a quick stop through the Karanese district, and rerouting it will make people suspicious. It sounds like y’all are involved in some pretty shady stuff, so it might be better to wait until this evening anyway before you make your next move.”

“We can’t wait that long - what if -”

“She’s right, Mikasa.” Annie heaves a sigh and rubs her fingers against her temples. “He’s fine. They need him, remember? But we don’t even know where to start looking for him. We don’t even have a plan. And these bastards - they have guns , and they are obviously not afraid to die for this stupid Cult. We are horrendously unprepared for this - at the very least, we need time.

Armin nods. “We’ll find him, Mika. We will . But we can’t help him without a plan. He’ll be okay.”

There’s a pause. Mikasa’s jaw tightens, and the fear and frustration is more obvious on her face now than it has ever been, but she knows they’re right. She swallows, hands curling into fists atop her knees. “He’d better be.”

 


The stop in Trost is quick.

It’s just a shift change, like Ymir had said. Armin presses an ear to the side of the carriage to listen for information on track changes and for news before he hears Ymir climb back on and the train shudders into motion. The train whistle blows twice as they pull out of the Trost trainyard, and then once more when they’re out of view of any curious observers, before Armin wrenches the carriage door open.

The train tracks blur together below them, but Armin takes a breath and steps nimbly over the gap.

Seven carriages later, they settle into the stiff seating of the old passenger carriage Ymir and the other employees must use as a break room on long journeys like this one. It’s a welcome change, but the sunlight makes their state of unpreparedness even more obvious than it already is.

They are, in one word, a wreck. The cut on Annie’s arm has bled through her shirt and her jeans are stained with grease and bird droppings. Armin realizes too late that he hasn’t even managed a change of clothes since yesterday morning, and there are still bits of debris in the seams of his shirt and jacket. Mikasa looks the worst for wear - the shadows under her eyes and the purple bruise on her temple make her whole face look sallow and her bottom lip is raw from gnawing on it all night

“What’s the plan, then?” asks Annie, slumping in her seat. “What makes you so certain they’re going back to the Archives?”

Armin sighs and runs his hands through his hair. “It’s… just a theory,” he admits. “But right now it’s all we have. Think about it, right - it’s this huge extra room that we know was built well after the catacombs were, and holds every single primary document that we never even knew existed until now. It’s almost like… someone tried it before.”

Mikasa raises a tired eyebrow at him. “Tried what, exactly?”

“Well…” Armin takes a breath. “The guy who attacked Annie - he said some things that got me thinking. I think - and I know how insane this sounds but - I think their end goal is to bring back the titans.”

What ?”

“I know,” says Armin, holding up his hands. He almost wants to laugh at how ridiculous it sounds. “I know, right, but hear me out. Say someone tried it before. They did it - they got it horrifically right, lots of people died, but they manage to - to destroy it, I guess, and to make sure no one ever does it again, they scour the Walled Cities for every shred of proof and lock it all away. It explains a lot, if you think about it - the empty tomb, the documents dated three hundred years apart, and the fact that not a single primary document has ever been found until now. Then comes the Cult of the Walls.

“The guy who attacked Annie made it sound like they knew the tomb was empty - which means they know where the actual remains are - or they didn’t, and now they do.”

Annie makes an ‘ah!’ of understanding. “Right, okay - but then if they know where it is...”

“Right,” says Armin grimly. “Now, it’s just a question of whether or not they already have it - and if… that’s why they need Eren.”

Mikasa clenches her jaw and takes a steadying breath. “This is… ridiculous ,” she says. “This is - this is batshit crazy. They can’t seriously think this will work?”

“It doesn’t matter what they think,” says Armin. “They’re going to try anyway.”

Mikasa scowls at him. “Well, what do we do then?”

Armin grimaces, and he leans his elbows against the table and sighs into his hands. “Hope they don’t have it? Find it before them if they don’t?”

“We’re gonna need a little better than that, Armin.” Annie makes a face at him. She drums her fingers against her jaw and stares at a spot in the shitty plastic tabletop, thoughtful frown creasing her features.

Armin figures it out and asks before he can stop himself. “That guy at my grandpa’s house - he said something about you ‘remembering too’. What did he mean?”

Annie pauses. She says nothing for a long time, but, finally, she takes a breath. “I --”

THUNK.

She frowns at the ceiling. “What was that?”

Her answer comes in an explosion of glass as someone crashes through the window and breaks their fall on the stained carpet. For a second, everything slows - he studies them, and Armin studies him back - before he draws a sword from the sheath at his side and Annie yanks Armin back by his collar and out of the way.

“What in the fuck ?” shrieks Ymir, as a second something - some one THUNKS against the roof and slips into the carriage through the broken window.

“Well, well,” says the second man. He tips his stetson at them and draws his own sword. He smirks at them. Armin almost thinks he looks familiar. “You three have been a true pain in the ass. Game’s over now, kiddies.”

“Armin, get back.” Annie’s on her feet now, and she glances around the cabin for something - anything she can use as a weapon, and her intention hits Armin like a ton of bricks.

“Are you kidding?! You can’t take them alone!”

“Shut up,” she snaps, seizing his collar and shoving him into the driving compartment with Ymir. “Ymir, shut the door,” she snaps, yanking cushioning off one of the chairs.

The man in the stetson laughs and points his sword at them. “That’s cute.”

Mikasa scowls at him. “You guys picked a really shit day to fuck around.”

The men lunge. Annie raises the wood side of the back rest to shield herself from the blow, and Mikasa ducks under her arm, slides under the taller man’s legs, and swings her shin behind the stetson’s legs. He buckles, but he breaks his fall and recovers quickly.

“Annie! Mikasa! Are you fucking crazy?!” Armin pounds against the door. “Ymir - let me back in there!”

“What are you gonna do?” snaps Ymir, fiddling with the radio. “You’re a fucking stick - at least they can handle themselves.”

“Ymir!”

“Shut the hell up!” she snaps. “Control, do you read me, over? This Ymir Jones, driver on the northbound freight train en route to the Karanese District. I am under attack from suspected terrorists, does anyone read me, over?”

Armin scowls. “I don’t understand,” he mutters to himself. “How did they find us? No one saw us leave - Annie, look out!”

She heeds his warning too late. She slaps the sword out of the taller man’s hand, but even Armin can see it’s a bluff, and his elbow slams into her stomach. She staggers backwards, winded, and the man pauses and picks up his sword. Behind him, the man in the stetson knocks Mikasa backwards and draws a gun from the holster under his arm.

Armin feels the panic rise in his throat, and he pounds on the door -

But the man in the stetson points it upwards and fires it into the ceiling. “That’s enough!” he snaps. “We’re not here to fight.”

“Is that right?” hisses Mikasa, trying to right herself, but the man in the stetson raises his sword and aims it at her throat.

“Stay down,” he sneers. “You’ve got spunk, kid, but play time’s over. Here are your options. Co-operate - come with us and we can take you to your friend - or you can be three more academics we have to put in the ground. Take your pick.”

“Not much for choice, are you?” rasps Annie. “What do you want from us, exactly?”

The man in the stetson smirks. “Your co-operation, as I said. What’ll it be?”

Armin catches Annie’s eye, and then Mikasa’s, through the scratched window - they’re both bleeding again, and he reminds himself of Marco, Eren, his grandfather, and Mikasa’s parents. Ymir’s radio crackles to life - “ Jones, we read you. What’s going on, over?” - and he eyes the gun, and the swords, and he pounds on the door again. “You win, okay?” he yells. “We’ll co-operate! Ymir - stop the train.”

Ymir groans. “I’m so fired.”


Ultimately, Armin’s glad that this is the decision they go with.

The train grinds to a halt in the middle of nowhere, and the men zip tie their hands together before they radio for a helicopter buzzing overhead to come and get them. There’s another man sitting casually next to a bloody machine gun that Armin’s sure they wouldn’t have hesitated to use if they’d chosen not to co-operate, and they climb on without a word.

The way to Stohess is much faster in the air. The city comes within view in the early afternoon, but the chopper passes the entrance to the catacombs completely and lands on the rooftop of SIAT administration building.

They frown at each other but say nothing as they’re ushered out of the helicopter and down the emergency stairwell. Armin feels Annie’s shoulders tense as they’re led through the marble halls of the administration, and, finally, to the almost-forgotten chapel at the edge of campus.

The man in the stetson opens the doors for them, and Armin feels the air leave his lungs when he spots Eren, gagged and blindfolded in the front pew, with Chancellor Reiss waiting for them behind the altar.

“Welcome back, Doctor Leonhardt,” he says, smirking. “And Doctors Ackerman and Arlert. Welcome to SIAT. I hope your journey wasn’t too rough.”




Chapter Text

You .”

It’s all Annie can manage and she barely even hears herself say it. The air leaves her lungs in a rush and suddenly her blood is pounding in her ears.

In the front pew, Eren’s head lolls backwards, and Mikasa lets out a gasp and starts forward.

“Eren! Let go of me, you - ah!”

She stumbles, and the man in the stetson snorts and drags her back by her arm.

“He’ll be fine as long as you behave,” says Chancellor Reiss. He smirks at them. “Didn’t you wonder how my men found you?”

Annie opens and shuts her mouth wordlessly for a moment, but Reiss snorts and gestures for them to come in and take a seat in the opposite pew.

“Your phone calls to Dok,” he says. His men shove them forward - Mikasa snarls and struggles again only to be met with a gun in her face. “His concern for you was touching, but it made it keeping track of you rather easy. Doctor Ackerman, please,” he adds, “this will be much easier for all if you just co-operate.”

Mikasa scowls at him. “What have you done to him? What have you done to Eren?”

Reiss shrugs. “He’s a little drowsy but, as I said, he’ll be fine, as long as you behave.” He nods at his men, and the taller man takes a seat behind Eren and rests his swords on the back of the pew. Reiss’s face splits into an unfriendly grin. “Now then. I believe we have some things to talk about.”

Some things to talk about ?” Armin sputters for a moment. “ Some things ? You’re behind all this? You?

Reiss makes a face and shrugs. “Well, I suppose when it comes down to it, yes. But I promise you all it’s for a good reason.”

“A good reason?” snarls Annie. “You had a good reason for bombing the library, did you?”

“Oh, absolutely.”

Annie scowls at him. “You’re sick,” she manages, disgusted.

“You’re very quick to judge. You haven’t even heard why.” Reiss scoffs at the three of them. He folds his arms across his chest and leans back against the altar. “And I think you’ll be very interested to know, Doctor Leonhardt. I can’t imagine how it might feel to finally get some answers about those dreams of yours.”

For the second time today, Annie feels the air rush out of her lungs and her blood pound in her ears. She gapes at him, unsure how to react; unsure how Chancellor Reiss would even know - when she realizes that he isn’t the only one staring at her. Armin is staring at her too, brow wrinkled in a concerned frown.

“Annie?”

Annie swallows. “I - I don’t - ”

Reiss breathes in a long breath. “Where to begin…” he wonders out loud.

Armin tears his eyes away from her at last and coughs. “The tomb,” he says hoarsely. “You knew it was empty.”

“Of course,” says Reiss. “I know a lot of things, actually. One doesn’t become the Chancellor of such prestigious universities by knowing nothing.”

Armin frowns at him. “If you knew it was empty, why let us go?”

Reiss smirks back. “You would have gone with or without permission. You did, in fact - but I don’t think you need reminding of that.”

Shut up ,” snaps Annie. “ You did this. You tried to kill us.”

“No!” laughs Reiss, clapping his hands together and leaning back against the altar. “We never intended to kill you. No, you would have been quite safe in that tomb.” He purses his lips and examines his fingers. “I should apologise for making you feel guilty, if that’s how you feel. You shouldn’t - this would have happened anyway. We didn’t attack the library just because you were in it. We’d rather you hadn’t gone, of course - it would have made everyone’s lives much easier - but the attack on the library wasn’t because of you.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“How to explain...” says Resss thoughtfully. “What’s an empty tomb, really? What would you publish? Nothing that would reflect kindly on our beliefs, I imagine. And our beliefs - they’re much more than just that. They’re closer to… memories. We believe - no, we remember that we haved lived, and died, and lived, and died, and sometimes, we get glimpses of other times - other lives we witnessed - all the way back to the very first. And some things always happen the same. Some people don’t make it past fourteen. Others don’t make it past thirty. The further overdue they are, the worse it is when they do die. And those people in the library were well overdue, if you’ll pardon the pun.”

Armin actually laughs. It’s hollow and mirthless, but he throws his head back and snorts at the wooden rafters in the ceiling. “You’re insane,” he says at last.

“Am I?” says Reiss. “I’m surprised. Although, now that Doctor Leonhardt’s back in the picture, I suppose you don’t remember the lifetimes you spent looking for her after she locked herself away. Annie remembers though, don’t you, Annie? You remember all of it.”

Annie feels her stomach drop because - because she actually thinks she does . She stares at the dirt on her jeans and considers every nightmare she’s ever had, and the people they had convinced her she’d killed or betrayed.

Reiss smirks. “I know how it feels, Annie. Believe me. We’re the same, you and I.”

Fuck you ,” seethes Annie, but it comes out with less spite than she intends because it’s suddenly so hard to breathe. “I’m nothing like you.”

“You’re very like me,” says Reiss. “You remember all of it, like me. It’s awful, isn’t it - having the memories of the Traitor - knowing that you were responsible for the betrayal of so many, and the deaths of so many more. Other people, they get glimpses, maybe, but no one remembers the First Life as clearly as you and I. I thought I’d gone crazy when I first realized, you see, but there were too many coincidences - too many things I knew and couldn’t explain.”

“No,” says Annie. She shakes her head and presses her back against the pew like she needs to be as far away from Reiss as physically possible. “No. You are crazy. This - all of this - is insane.”

“No,” says Reiss firmly. “I’m not. And you know that.”

Annie’s gut lurches, and she swallows, because she thinks he might be right. How many times had she called in sick to throw up over what she thought was blood in her mouth? How many times had she seen flashes of the bodies of her friends strewn on the pavement on the way to work? How many times had she woken up with Armin’s heartbroken eyes staring up at her from the bottom of a stairwell fresh in her mind?

Reiss smirks at her. “I’ve seen the way you flinch at dig sites. I couldn’t stand it either, once. But we can fix this, don’t you see? You don’t have  to remember it all. All of my research; all of the resources at my disposal - it’s told me one thing, and it’s that we can reset the cycle. A new cycle will start. Everyone gets a blank slate. No more early deaths.”

“Enough!” Mikasa scowls at him. “The only reason those people died was because you killed them,” she snarls.

“It was a mercy to them,” says Reiss briskly. “They would have died anyway, in worse fashions.”

“They might not have!”

“They would have.” What looks like a grimace tugs at his lips for a moment. “I’ve lived this nightmare a long time, Doctor Ackerman. I’ve seen it happen over and over again, and it would be immoral of me to allow future lives to end early when it’s something that can be fixed.”

“How, exactly?” snaps Annie. “By committing mass murder?”

“By returning to the First Life,” says Reiss. “Which is why - ”

“You want the Co-ordinate,” Armin mumbles. He frowns thoughtfully - almost as if he might understand the concept but is still having trouble with the execution.

Reiss clicks his tongue at him. “Right you are, Doctor Arlert. Perhaps there were other lives before the First but this cycle - it started then, and we can end it now - together. You just have to co-operate. Tell you what. I’ll cut you a deal. The co-ordinate for Jaeger.”

Armin shakes his head. “We don’t have it.”

Reiss nods. “No, but you will have it. That’s what we’re both trying to find, isn’t it? Given the three of you are the best the universities have, I can assume you’ll have better luck finding it than any of my men. We’ll stay out of your way and when you find it, you bring it to me and you can have Jaeger back unharmed.”

“There’s no way we can guarantee that,” snaps Mikasa.

“If you don’t believe me, that’s your problem,” says Reiss briskly. “Find it or don’t. Jaeger stays with us until you do.” He waves his hand dismissively, and the man in the stetson cuts the zipties off their wrists with a pocket knife while the taller man behind Eren hoists him up and over his shoulder. He smirks, and follows his men out of the chapel. “Good luck,” he says. “You may need it.”

The chapel doors shut with a resounding thud , and silence fills the hall. No one speaks for a long time, and Annie is torn between wanting to throw up and wanting throw something across the room. Beside her, Armin sets his jaw.

“Well,” he says at last. “What are we going to do?”

Mikasa scowls at him. “What are you asking us for? There’s only one thing we can do.”

“We can’t help him.”

“We can’t leave Eren, either!” Mikasa snaps, getting to her feet. “This is bullshit. All of it. Reiss is fucking crazy and he has goons with a lot of guns. He gives us an option to not die, and to get Eren back in one piece, and you’re refusing based on what? The idea that his ridiculous idea might work?”

Armin shakes his head. “We can’t risk it, Mika - ”

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Mikasa shrieks. “The Co-ordinate isn’t real !”

“And what if it is?” snaps Armin. He gets to his feet too. “There are too many unknowns here! We can’t prioritise Eren if it means helping Reiss murder thousands of people , Mikasa, we’d be no better than him if we let that happen! There has to be another way!”

Mikasa snarls and aims a frustrated kick at the nearest pew. “How can you even believe him?” she hisses.

“Because either he’s right , or Annie’s as insane as he is - and we both know she’s not!”

Annie glances up at last to find Armin with his back to her and his hands in fists by his sides.

Mikasa falters. “How do we know she isn’t ?” she mutters, but her voice has no conviction and she looks away.

Armin scowls. “That’s why she left,” he hisses. “Isn’t that right, Annie?” He catches her eye over his shoulder and Annie nods wordlessly before he turns back to Mikasa. “God, Mikasa - you and I can’t even imagine what it must be like to - to have all that in your head. To question your sanity every day and not be able to talk to anyone about it. If what Reiss says is true - and we have to assume that it is - then she’s our only chance, and you know that.”

Mikasa says nothing but she glances at the pew Eren was sitting in and sighs. “What are we going to do then?” she asks quietly.

Armin sighs too, and he turns back to Annie and kneels at her feet. “Ann?” he says gently, clutching her hands.

Annie swallows. The air around her feels thick and it feels like she’s forgotten how to breathe. She catches his eye for a moment, and all she sees is him at the bottom of a stairwell, distraught and betrayed, and she flinches away from his gaze and shuts her eyes tight.

“Ann, look at me,” she hears him say, and she draws a shuddering breath and forces herself to focus on the feeling of her hands in his. “You’re not her. Do you understand? You’re not her. But we need her memories and you’re the only chance we have of stopping Reiss from killing a lot of people.”

“Then I can’t help,” whispers Annie, trying to wriggle away from his grasp.

He grips her hands tighter. “Yes, you can.”

“No,” says Annie. “I can’t. I don’t - I don’t remember anything after I - after she betrayed y - them . There - there was a fight - a big one - Mikasa cut me down - but Reiss isn’t there. I can’t help.”

“The crystal,” mutters Mikasa. “Armin, maybe she can’t - ”

Armin shushes her. “Ann, listen to me. Maybe she couldn’t help back then, but she can now - through you. I believe in you. Please.”

Something stirs in Annie’s memory but it’s hazy - she hardly knows if it counts. She takes a slow, focused breath and stares into the depths behind her eyelids, listening to the silence in the chapel and then -

“I killed someone a little while ago. I did it to save Jean, but - ”

“I saw it - the ocean - it just went on forever, it’s hard to believe it’s just been there the whole time - ”

“Historia’s coronation is tomorrow - ”

“If I told you about something like this, you might get worried over it - ”

“I’m supposed to be a doctor in this life -”

“Say something… please -”

Annie’s eyes snap open and she gasps like it’s her first breath in a very long time. Honestly, it almost feels like it, and when she looks at Armin now, she thinks she sees two of him. The one here, with her hands clutched tightly in his fists, and the other in the uniform of the scouts, crouched in front of her with a shell in his hands. Everything is clearer, and hazier, all at once.

“Ann? Annie. Hey - ”

She wrenches her hands out of his and claps them over her ears, trying to make sense the sudden burst of information. She’s not even really sure where it came from - there are no images with these memories - just what she thinks is Armin’s voice from a very long time ago. “He’s going to die,” she manages at last. “You did it last time - all of you - the uh - the Scouts? I don’t - I don’t really understand it all, it’s just what you told me. He transformed and the Scouts took him out. I think - I think right now - today, I mean - he might be dying.”

“What?” Armin stares at her, confused. “Start again, I don’t understand.”

“Neither do I,” Annie mumbles. “There’s… suddenly a lot more information and I don’t really know… how I got it? I think you told me. Back then. But Reiss had serum that he used on himself, I think, and he transformed and the Scouts took him out. It’s - it’s the same feeling I got with Marco, it’s how I know he didn’t…” She pauses and blinks at her hands. “Reiss is… in his own words - overdue as well. And I think he knows that, but becoming a - a Titan Shifter, I think, gives him thirteen extra years with advanced healing powers. He’s not just trying to reset the cycle, he’s trying to extend his own life.”

Mikasa scoffs and aims a kick at the pew. “He’s still insane but somehow that doesn’t surprise,” she grumbles. “So maybe he has a motive now, so what? How does that help us?”

Annie sucks in a breath. “All we have to do to get Eren is find it, right?” she says quietly. “Once we do that, we just have to find a way to destroy it to keep Reiss from using it.”

“He’s a little better prepared than us though,” says Armin, frowning.

Mikasa sighs. “I still think this is crazy ,” she says, “but I think I know a couple of people who can help.”

 



It’s a fair walk to the other side of campus, and they get a number of stares from unsuspecting students on their way, but at last, Mikasa stops at frosted door in the Engineering wing and knocks loudly against the doorjamb. “Sasha! Sasha, open up!”

The door swings open, and a tired looking brunette with a pencil in her mouth and a coffee in her hand shuffles into view.

“Hey,” says Mikasa. “Sorry to bother you but -”

The pencil drops. “Mikasa!” she squeals. (Annie and Armin wince at the sound). “What the heck! You could have called! It’s been literal years! What the heck happened to you?”

“Sash - ” Mikasa grimaces and shuffles guiltily. “Sorry - we don’t really have a lot of time - ”

“I see how it is.” Sasha scowls playfully at her and swats her shoulder. “So much for being close roommates. I get a research job two universities away and you visit me once in four years - ”

Sash. ” Mikasa grasps her shoulders. “This is really serious. We’ll catch up later and I’ll make it up to you then, I promise - but right now, we really need your help.”

Sasha cocks her head at them. “Oh? What do you need exactly?”

Mikasa casts a sidelong glance at Armin and Annie. “We need some gear.”

“Like… bike gear? Or an extra set of clothes…?”

“No, Sash,” says Mikasa. “The gear you and Connie have been trying to reverse engineer for years. The Three Dimensional Maneuver kind.”