"Say, don't you know some of these Survey Corps people?" Hitch asks lightly, tugging her rifle over her shoulder. The air, bloated with cold, presses down on them as they walk through the stone streets behind Wall Sina. Her hair does not like this weather—it wilts. Hitch scowls as she catches her reflection in a window.
Annie's shoulders stiffen.
"Really, Hitch?" Marlowe asks.
"Really what?" Hitch purrs, spinning on her heels to look back at his face, as solemn as ever, but with the slight differences she's grown to recognize over the past few months: the creases between his brow that means he's concerned, the crinkle next to his lips that means he's annoyed and not in a pleasant way.
"You know perfectly well that she was part of the 104th division," Marlowe states, his gaze darting to their shirt, blond companion. Not that Annie looks back at them.
Hitch is frustrated. Annie's the only one of the 104th top ten that actually joined the Military Police, and when Hitch asked Annie why, all she would say was "Trost," and then she clamped her mouth shut, wouldn't talk about it.
But if she doesn't talk about it, how will she get better? Hitch wonders.
"So, you're just trying to provoke her," Marlowe says, brushing past Hitch to join Annie. She barely glances at him.
His disapproval rankles Hitch. "Well, it'd bother me if I had to go spy on people who used to be my friends!" she hollers before she catches up with them. "But maybe Annie's different." She nudges Annie's shoulder.
"I'll do what we have to do," Annie says blandly.
Damn, Annie, can't you show some sort of emotion? Hitch sometimes wants to shake her roommate. At least the brief moments when Annie's pissed off she knows that Annie's human. She cackles.
"Why is everything a joke to you, Hitch?" Marlowe grouses.
"You're not," Hitch says, needling. Annie's eyes, crystal blue, cut to her. "After all, I bet you wouldn't know a joke if it danced in front of you naked."
Marlowe's face flushes beet red.
"For real?" Hitch rolls her eyes. Thanks for proving my point, dork.
Annie almost looks as if she's going to smile, but of course she doesn't.
Hitch opens her mouth, and then stops, because something blue and gray catches her eye. "Ooh, look!" She grins back at her roommate. "This color would look great on you, Annie."
Annie peers in the shop window. Dresses, one royal blue and shining like a gemstone, dangle to catch the consumer's eye. "Or you."
"Did you compliment me?' Hitch gasps, her hands flying to her cheeks. "Say it ain't so."
Annie narrows her eyes. "You would."
"Eh, green's more my color," Hitch comments.
Marlowe stands behind them, baffled and tapping his rifle against the ground. A gaggle of children race by.
"Where are they going?" Annie asks.
"Toy shop," Hitch says, nodding. "I've heard of Fischer's. They sell, like the most expensive toys in Wall Sina. I once asked my dad for a doll from here. He laughed."
"As if you could afford it," Marlowe says reproachfully.
"It wasn't new, idiot," Hitch retorts. "There was one girl in our district, Elena, and she was rich and had grown out of it and her parents were selling it for a lesser price." But her father wasn't wrong to laugh, Hitch figures. They did need the money for food, for clothes. Practical clothes, although her father was so obsessed with saving that he wouldn't let her or her mother spend money on anything deemed excessive. Only the most drab of outfits, but Hitch knew it had nothing to do with being concerned for their futures and everything to do with maintaining whatever control he could have over them.
He hadn't been happy when she joined the military. "But you watch," she told him. "I'll make something of myself." I'll have the life you never could.
"Sounds like a good man," Marlowe says, and Hitch could stomp on his rigid foot.
"We have a place to go," Annie says tiredly.
"Did you ever play with anything, Annie?" Hitch asks. "When you were growing up?"
Annie kicks a pebble. It skips over the stones. "I didn't have time." The way she presses her lips together convinces Hitch she's not going to say anything else.
"And you, Marlowe?" Hitch presses, turning back to him. "Let me guess. You played all sorts of cops and robbers games, except whenever someone cheated, you raised a big stink and the other kids got all—"
Marlowe's face blooms scarlet. He stares at his boots and swears.
"Well, you didn't have to admit to it," Hitch says with a shrug. "So, Annie. Will we get to meet this idiot you spoke of? The one whom Marlowe reminds you of?"
"Probably," Annie confirms.
"Name?" Hitch wheedles.
"He's the Titan shifter. Eren."
"I remind you of a Titan human person?" Marlowe splutters.
"Don't take it personally," Hitch tells him, her hand grazing his shoulder. "Must mean you're powerful. And strong. And—what else, Annie?"
"Stupid. Thinking you can change the world," Annie puts in.
Hooray for playing along! Hitch gives Annie a thumbs-up. Annie gives Hitch an awkward smile.
"Better to be that than be cynical like you or someone who plays the system like Hitch," Marlowe retorts.
Is that really what you think of me? Hitch scowls.
Because as much as she claims she doesn't care—and she doesn't exactly, because she wants to live, she doesn't want just to survive—she wants a good life—she also wants Marlowe to understand.
"Are you for real?"
The voices from the stables hit Marlowe, sending sweet relief coursing through him. His knuckles ache, chapped, and his fingers are stiff with cold. Hitch's teeth chatter, but she refused his jacket when he offered it.
"Why not?" gushes a voice, sweet and androgynous. "I think it's a great idea, and Commander Erwin is so interested in exactly this kind of thing—"
"Um, because it's illegal?" comes the first voice, disgusted. Annie's nose crinkles.
"My grandfather's dead and his book is rotting back in Shiganshina," retorts the first voice. "It wouldn't make a difference—"
Annie surges forward, Marlowe's hand rises to stop her—this might be exactly what Zackley wants them to report on, illegal doings by the Survey Corps—but she's too fast. "Dammit," he growls.
"Come on." Hitch tugs him up, her nose red and scabbed with cold. "We can't—"
"What the hell?" erupts the first voice. A boy about their age charges at them.
"Annie!" Marlowe shouts, aiming his rifle. Hitch rushes at them.
Annie thrusts her leg out, sending the boy flipping over, cracking his head on the frozen grass. Her eyes find Marlowe's, her brows twitching as if to ask were you really worried?
"What the hell?" wheezes the boy again.
"Jean!" A blond kid, short and slight, darts towards them. He skids to a stop. "Annie!"
Annie's jaw hovers open for a moment, before she slams it shut and raises her hands.
"Annie?" questions Marlowe. Hitch looks terrified.
"Oh my—it's really you!" He springs at her, throwing his arms around her. Annie stands stiff, and then her arms collapse over Armin's shoulders as if she's trying to hug him back but doesn't quite know how.
"Why?" Jean complains, hauling himself to his feet.
"These are my friends," Annie says, and it's such a strange label, not exactly true and not exactly a lie. "Hitch Dreyse, my roommate, and Marlowe Freudenberg."
"Well, you need to come inside!" Armin declares. "It's frigid out tonight. Eren'll be happy to see you—I think—"
But Marlowe's teeth start to chatter now, and Armin shakes his head and gestures for them to follow. Marlowe blows on his hands and sees, in the silver moonlight, Hitch's face starting to drain. And he knows what she's thinking.
We're not supposed to be friendly with people we're supposed to report on.
It's dishonest, isn't it, this whole thing? The fact that the Military Police is determined to spy on another segment of the military? Marlowe's conscience prickles. He rubs the back of his neck and regrets it. Cold.
He can't remember it ever having been so cold in his life.
"Eren! Mikasa!" Armin calls as they duck inside and warmth floods Marlowe, releasing his shoulders and elbows and spine from the tight knots they've worked themselves into. A tall boy, huge and blond, appears, followed by an even taller boy with brown hair.
"Annie," says the blond in surprise.
"Reiner," she says without a smile. "Bertolt."
"The high and mighty military police have graced us with their presence?" gasps an older man, staggering towards them. He clutches his mouth as if he's bitten his tongue.
"Oruo," scolds a redheaded woman. "Don't insult them."
"We have several days of leave," Annie recites their lie, and Marlowe's grateful she's the one doing it, even if it should be him.
What goes into justifying a lie—justifying himself? In the mazes of Military Police logic, Marlowe feels like he's getting lost.
"And I wanted to visit my friends."
Armin's face breaks out into a smile, but another boy—dark-haired and scowling, raises an eyebrow. The Asian girl next to him crosses her arms.
"This is Eren, and Mikasa," Annie introduces. "I know you're not scheduled for another expedition for two months." A break in their schedule, on decree of Zackley. He's suspicious. Of what, Marlowe doesn't entirely understand.
"Don't we need to—" he'd tried to ask.
"No! You need to obey," snapped Nile Dok, although he seemed to have misgivings too. But like the rest of the Military Police, he would do whatever gave him the most benefit.
Eren, the idiot she mentioned. The Titan boy. He doesn't look threatening, Marlowe notes. Not very tall. The girl next to him, on the other hand—she looks like she could kill them all without flinching.
"It's so cold," the redhead says to them.
"Perfect for Christmas," Armin says excitedly.
"For what?" Marlowe asks, confused.
"Nothing," a boy with freckles cuts in.
"You can stay for the night," the redhead tells them. "Tomorrow, Erwin will contact the Military Police."
"We are on leave," Hitch says in disgust. "Do you really think we'd desert and show up in another—"
"We'll see," Oruo tells them.
Four others head over to them—a brunette who offers them some bread and a short boy with a shaved head who laughs at everything whether it's funny or not, a tiny blond girl who looks like an angel and a tall girl who slings her arm over the blond girl's shoulders. Sasha, Connie, Christa, Ymir.
"I can't believe you guys seriously want to celebrate a long-dead holiday," Ymir complains.
"Ymir," hisses Christa.
"I'm pretty sure it's illegal too," Ymir continues, watching Marlowe, Hitch, and Annie as if she expects them to squeal. Sweat beads the back of Marlowe's neck. Hitch takes a defiant bite of bread. "Isn't it? Celebrating a holiday from the outside world?"
"I—wouldn't know," Marlowe tells her. "It might be more—bending the rules."
Annie rolls her eyes. Hitch studies him, and Marlowe wants to kick the mug he's been drinking from into the fire. Damn it, damn this, damn me!
Sometimes he doesn't recognize himself—not in a mirror, where he looks the same as ever, but in his thoughts, in the new patterns taking over his mind, in the ways of thinking he's so long judged in others and now wonders how much anyone can resist. Corruption is less about a few people and more about a virus infecting an entire culture, he's finding, and he's frightened that one day he'll look back and he won't remember how he got to be just like them, and he'll see that the Military Police is just as corrupt as it was when he joined them, and his life will have meant nothing.
"What is Christmas?" Hitch questions, leaning forward. She widens her eyes as if she's flirting, and Marlowe's stomach sours.
"Um—" Armin bites his lip. "Before—it was a holiday where people would celebrate the birth of their God, and it was a celebration of love and peace and where people would give each other gifts, decorate with trees, etc. It's on December 25."
"Isn't that Captain Levi's birthday?" Mikasa asks.
"It's about celebrating by showing the good that is in humanity—kindness, generosity—and celebrating hope, too," Armin says. "This God supposedly came to save humanity from death."
"Where is he now?" jokes Connie.
"I think Eren thinks he's the reincarnation," Jean remarks.
"Shut up," Eren says, curling his fists. "Peace isn't my method."
"The book Erwin has has all sorts of stories and traditions, and recipes—" Armin starts.
"Recipes?" Sasha shrieks, her eyes lighting up. Marlowe cringes.
Book. Hitch jabs him in the ribs. Annie remains impassive.
This is exactly the kind of information Zackley's after.
"Well," says Commander Erwin, crossing his arms as he looks down at the three of them. He's a handsome man, but intimidating. Hitch squirms. She didn't sleep well that night, despite the warmth, and judging from the circles under his eyes, neither did Marlowe. Annie, it's impossible to tell.
"Yes?" Hitch squeaks.
"A messenger arrived from the Military Police an hour ago."
"Saying that we're on leave," Marlowe supplies.
"Yes, but also requesting that Freudenberg and Dreyse be sent back at once. Leonhart is welcome to stay for a week." Erwin rests back on his desk.
"What?" Hitch yelps. "Why?"
Marlowe's jaw hangs open. Annie doesn't even look surprised.
Did you arrange for this, Annie? Hitch wonders. She actually likes some of the people they met last night—not that idiot, Eren, but the others. Christa. Sasha. Marco. Reiner.
"Did he happen to say why?" Marlowe ventures.
Erwin's eyebrows, huge and bulky, shift up his forehead. Good grief, he's pretty much what Hitch imagines Marlowe will be in twenty years, or would want to be, minus the blond hair. "Just that you're needed."
Why do they trust Annie more than they trust us?
"Did you know about this?" Marlowe asks Annie as they leave Commander Erwin's office.
"No." Annie doesn't look at them.
"Is this because you work better by yourself?" Hitch demands.
Annie spins around to face them, her blond bangs flying in front of her eyes.
"You did know," Hitch accuses. "Dammit, Annie, can't you see that sometimes we want to work with you? That you're not invincible and we'd like to help you because we like you?" She's trying to keep her voice down so no one will overhear, but fury cuts through anyways.
"Don't be ridiculous," Annie tells her, and Hitch wants to smack her roommate. I care, Annie! Can't you see that?
Within an hour, she and Marlowe depart albeit with bread in their bags, Hitch dragging her heels. "That bitch. I can't believe she—"
"Don't call her that," Marlowe says reproachfully.
"She thinks she's better off alone, and I'm sick of it," Hitch vents. "She's not. And those are her friends."
"They seem like likable people," Marlowe agrees. "Even if they're breaking the law."
"Right, so she might need us, our support," Hitch presses.
"She might not be there long. If we report that the Commander has that book…"
Christmas. Were they stupid, to tell Hitch and Marlowe so much last night? Or do they really trust Annie so much? Or is it a trap? "Are we really going to say something, or wait for Annie's report?"
Marlowe halts, staring at her.
"Well?" Hitch presses. "Don't you think it's a little odd? That they were talking so openly about it? And if so—" Annie could be in danger.
"I don't know," Marlowe says weakly, squeezing the back of his scalp.
"Never thought I'd hear that answer from you," Hitch quips. "Maybe we should—instead—try to figure out a way to help her from back in Wall Sina."
"Unless we can develop telecommunication, that's a pointless endeavor."
"You use such huge words," Hitch disparages, before she suddenly bursts into laughter. "Wait. Were you making a joke?"
Marlowe's face is red again.
"You were!" Hitch teases. "Aw. It wasn't bad." She swallows. "But seriously, we should consider how to—"
"I don't think it's possible."
"See, that's your problem," Hitch complains, throwing her hands in the air. "You always think inside the box. Your brain's so wrapped up in righteousness that you refuse to consider that there are other ways to the same end."
Marlowe tightens his fists. "Less honorable ones. Which I'm not interested in."
"So ratting on people who gave us shelter for a night is honorable?" She smirks at him. "You're going to have to violate your conscience either way, aren't you?"
"Why does that make you happy?" he demands, almost as if she's hurt him.
How? Hitch's stomach flip-flips. They're approaching Wall Sina. Her legs ache, and her shoulder, from carrying this stupid rifle. "Well, maybe you should consider alternative ways to do the right thing. If the right thing's your endgame, is there a wrong way to go about it?"
"Yes," Marlowe retorts. "If you're hurting other people."
Hitch rolls her eyes. Frustration grows. "Right. So let's say I bribe someone with gold not to tell that I'm having an affair with my single boss. I'm not hurting anyone, am I? And in having an affair, I'm actually somehow helping my family. So is it wrong, just because it's against the rules?"
"Don't be ridiculous," he snaps.
Stop calling me that. Hitch scowls. "Well, other people have different opinions of what the right thing is. And sometimes it's not so clear." Her voice catches. They pass through a checkpoint, the unicorn embroidered on their jackets giving them a pass. Their comrades nod in mutual respect.
For what? Hitch imagines Marlowe's thinking. Or maybe that's just what she's thinking.
She realizes that he's stopped, and she turns around.
"What are you saying?" he asks.
"I'm trying to convince you to help me figure out a way to help Annie," she answers, walking back towards him.
His Adam's apple bobs. "But, Hitch—"
"Have you cheated the system before?"
"Duh. I joined the Military Police to cheat the system. A girl like me shouldn't have a good life, but damn, I'm going to have one anyways." Hitch smirks, clapping him on the shoulder.
"So is it true?" he asks her, eyes flashing.
Hitch takes a step back. Her pulse picks up pace, beating in her wrist, her neck. "Is what true? I mean, I just told you—"
"What Boris said. When we'd just joined." Marlowe watches her in horror, as if the possibility had never occurred to him.
And now rage flashes. Hitch glares at him. Would it matter? Would a yes or a no make a difference? What right does he have to judge her regardless? And what right does she have to be upset no matter his answer? "What did Boris say?" she sneers. She'll make him say it, watch those terrible words roll right out through his pretty lips.
His eyes dart about the streets, at the people praying to the walls on the corner by the toy shop. Crazy people, Hitch thinks. "That you got into the Military Police through dishonorable means."
"What dishonorable means?" she prompts, tossing her hair.
"No, Marlowe, if you're actually accusing me of something, then you better be able to put a name to it, don't you think? It's the righteous thing to do." Her tone is a rifle itself, firing into Marlowe. She's never spoken to him so viciously. To anyone in the Military Police, really, or anyone except her father.
She half expects him to back down.
But he doesn't. "That you slept with someone to get in," he says, face red again, but eyes focused on her as if he wants to see her reaction.
And it stings more than she thought it would. "I can't believe you, of all people, are asking me this," Hitch tells him, voice wobbling. "Don't I seem smart to you? Or do I seem weak in combat? What, exactly, makes you think that?"
His eyes narrow at her non-answer, but Hitch refuses to give him the satisfaction of a yes or a no. "I—"
"You're an asshole," Hitch says, and to hell with it, she feels tears burning her eyes. "Screw you." And she spins and runs away, through the crowds of people, and he doesn't chase her.
I'm an idiot for sure.
Hitch disappears into a crowd, and Marlowe's legs finally work again. He barges after her, hollering her name.
But he can't spot her head of messy sandy brown hair.
He didn't mean to hurt her.
Regardless of the answer, what does it matter now? What's the right thing to do? If she said no, he would respect that. And if she said yes… she's not an incompetent policewoman by any means, and she's sixteen. That would have meant she would have been thirteen, fourteen, fifteen…
The thought makes Marlowe want to vomit. He hates himself, in this moment more than any others.
Which of us is more righteous, Hitch? he wonders, staring at his hands, and the skin that's cracked from the cold, red and peeling. Me with my cold rules, or you?
He'll meet up with her in the barracks, Marlowe decides.
What if she won't forgive me?
Marlowe hesitates, and ducks inside a shop. He still feels sick—his head pounds and his muscles feel strangely weak. I'm sorry, Hitch.
He doesn't like being the wrong party.
Even if, by the letter of the law, you're right to report on the Survey Corps, do you want to risk hurting Annie?
Not if it means experiencing this sticky feeling of grime coating his insides. Shame crushes his lungs, and it's hard to breathe.
He leaves the shop, mumbling as he talks to the cashier, and hurries towards the barracks.
"You came back," Hitch comments dryly. She sits on a bench about a block away, fiddling with the threads on her Military Police jacket.
"I wasn't going to run," Marlowe snaps.
"Well, good." She rises, still refusing to look at him, and it hurts more than he thought it would.
"What?" she snaps.
"I'm sorry," he says. "I should never have—I'm sorry. You are smart, and you are good in combat, and I shouldn't have—it was wrong, and there's no excuse, and I'm sorry. I do trust you. With my life."
"Well, now look at you. Lying," Hitch remarks as she folds her arms. Her eyes sparkle though.
"I'm not lying," he insists. He does trust her. "And—you're right. Let's work out a way to help Annie. We'll tell them we heard nothing last night. But can you—"
"Do the talking?" Hitch supplies.
"Yeah," Hitch agrees, her eyes bright now. Is she crying? "Thank you."
It should absolve him, but it doesn't. Dammit! "I bought you this," Marlowe calls out, holding out a bag.
Hitch bursts into laughter. "Oh, for the sake of the walls, Marlowe. You really are the real deal, aren't you?"
He can't quite figure out what she means, not in this context.
"Why?" Hitch asks, nose wrinkling.
"I wanted to apologize,' he repeats.
"You can't buy forgiveness, Marlowe. Or earn it." Hitch rolls her eyes, and he feels strangely ashamed again. But she takes the bag, and her mouth opens. "Oh. Oh."
"They are well made," he offers.
"What the hell am I going to do with a doll?" Hitch demands, but she's laughing, and there's something girlish and innocent about her laugh as she pulls it from the bag. "I'll call her Marla," she proclaims.
"Oh, look who's back early minus one," comments a voice. Boots clap against the cobblestones. "How did you get information so fast?"
"Annie's still there—we were summoned back," Marlowe answers, turning to face him.
"Did you fuck Commander Erwin for information?" Boris asks, snorting. Hitch's eyes narrow, and she clutches the doll against her chest.
Boris, you're a boar. Something snaps and Marlowe lunges at him, his fist slamming into Boris's nose. The other boy screeches and tumbles backwards, onto his bottom.
Hitch's jaw dangles open.
"Say you're sorry," Marlowe orders him, kneeling down and grabbing Boris by the collar. "Say it."
"Marlowe—" Hitch starts.
Maybe she's about to thank him. Maybe she's about to say it doesn't matter. Maybe she's about to say it's true and she deserves it, and either way, whether it's true or not, Marlowe doesn't think Hitch deserves to have anyone doubt her like this. She's their colleague, and Marlowe's friend. He glares at Boris. "Well?"
"I'm sorry, Hitch," Boris mumbles.
"Thank you." Marlowe lets him go, and the boy schlepps off to the barracks. He looks back at Hitch, uncertain of what to say.
She slips the doll back into the bag. "Thanks."
"You're welcome." Marlowe nods. "Let's go and lie."
"I'll go and lie. You be quiet." Hitch steps closer, and then wraps an arm around him. Marlowe inhales. She smells like cinnamon and day-old perfume. Do you coat your jacket in the stuff?
"Marlowe?" she asks.
"Hm?" He looks down at her.
She grasps him by the back of his head and presses her lips against his, and for a moment he panics—is this her way of thanking me?—and then she pulls back, looking anxiously up at him, and he realizes she's worried he's thinking exactly what he is thinking. "Sorry."
His fingers rub his chin. You really like me like that?
"Let's go?" Hitch invites.
"Hitch, wait." He grabs her arm and pulls her close again. He's not very good, he knows, but his lips close over hers again, and she doesn't seem to mind. Her hand grips his shoulder, and when he pulls back, she presses her forehead against his. She's not short, but she's small, and he folds his arms over her.
He doesn't know how well Zackley will take their non-information, or how they'll be able to help Annie.
But he trusts that if there's any way, he and Hitch will figure it out.
Her hands pull back, taking his and squeezing as they walk towards the barracks.