Neither of them slept at all the night they arrived back in New York. The boat they'd taken home put them directly at the port in New York City which had been much more convenient. Armin wondered how she managed to get them aboard so quickly, but he didn't ask.
He didn't speak to her directly until after they'd returned to the room. She was unpacking one of her bags, shaken but desperately trying to stay calm. Her guard was up, her muscles were tense, and her face was paler than he'd ever seen it.
He'd already tucked his clothes away and changed into slacks and a white short-sleeve. It took quite a bit of courage for him to even enter their room, as he'd finished up his organizing earlier in the evening and evacuated as soon as he saw her coming. She was dead silent, hands forcefully gentle with her dresses and undergarments. He slipped just inside the door to observe her, his own hands clammy and shaking from fatigue and anxiety.
The room was dark, except for a single lighted lamp at the corner of the room. When he stepped closer, she visibly tensed, her entire body going rigid. She slowly set the dress in her hands down onto the bed and turned her body to face him, keeping her head tilted away so her gaze fell behind him instead of on his eyes.
"What's happening?" he asked, voice darker than he expected it to be. She didn't move. He stood perfectly still, fear and curiosity creating a striking mixture in his chest.
"I'm..." she paused, hands twitching as she sat down onto the bed, allowing her fingers to lace in her lap. Armin moved forward to crouch beside her, hand reaching upwards to rub gentle circles on the small of her back. She immediately flinched at his touch, so he pulled his hand away. He leaned in closer to her just slightly, lips parted to speak, but was interrupted.
"Reiner is like my brother," she said, soft and quick. Armin shifted his weight and pushed her near-empty luggage down the bed so he can take a seat beside her. He sat down gently, keeping his distance. She settled in the silence for a while, tossing around words in her mind as he'd seen her do so many times before. Annie then crossed her legs and let her eyes shift downwards to the floor. "And I will do anything to help him," she said flatly, hands fiddling with the ends of her dress. It sounded like an excuse of some kind, and Armin found himself even deeper in his state of confusion.
She took a deep breath in, body quivering as she released the air. "
anything..." her eyes quickly flicked over him but return to looking at the ground immediately after. "Armin..."
The blond's head lifted in acknowledgement. He told himself he must let it come to her, give her time or she would never tell him. "There are things you're going to learn about me. I... I don't want you to think differently of me when you learn those things." she reached up suddenly, perhaps on instinct, and touched the back of her neck. "But I know you will." her voice was more certain, more heavy. Eyes flick back up to him, burning with confliction.
A sinking feeling came over Armin as he watched her, seeing her shrinking inside herself as he continued to stare.
"Then tell me now." he said quietly, careful not to sound too eager. His hands reached down to grab hers, but she pulled her own just out of reach before crossing her arms and shaking her head.
"I can't." she breathed, eyes glistening with tears unspent. He didn't ask why, but instead stood, brushing himself off, and reached down to pull her up. She glared at him from below and he fought back the urge to laugh. He remembered that stare, the one he saw on her face the day they met. Now, it could not be mistaken for apathy, but then was a different story. Back then, things hadn't been so... bizarre. Getting to know a person meant being able to read them, if only a little. Annie was like a book that Armin could never get enough of.
"Then answer my questions. You promised me you would," he said, voice low. She stopped to observe him, blinking once and then once again as if she were making a decision. She then lifted her hand to allow him to pull her up, and he took her smaller hand and softly helped her stand. As they ambled into the living area, Annie's eyes lingered on the small kitchen.
"Would you like for me to make some tea?" he asked, noticing her longing look. It took him a moment to realize it wasn't tea she craved, but she nodded anyways, slipping out of his grasp and towards the kettle.
"I'll make it... go ahead and sit," she said, her voice gentle, "we can talk while I steep the leaves." Armin stood stiff at the center of the room, taking a moment to get his bearings and fall onto the soft white couch. He was much too tired to be able to recognize this room, recognize the place around them. They'd been in England far too long, he assessed, and even Annie looked a little lost in the big kitchen area as she slowly began the process of making tea.
"If coffee is easier than-"
"No, no, I can do it." she insisted, her voice much louder than either of them expected it to be. She stumbled back a little, catching herself on the counter ledge. Armin watched her carefully but she did not return the look, nor look in his direction at all. The silence between them was worse when the dull sounds of clanking metal and boiling water filled the air. He swallowed, looked towards the dark window, and opened his mouth to speak.
"Why is the fact that Reiner is in jail important?" he asked, almost certain he was already overstepping boundaries. She didn't seem fazed though, because he didn't hear any sort of hesitation or volume added to her movements.
"Without a leader, a group of people cannot be properly organized," she began. Armin could hear her pouring the tea and the warm scent filled the air. It wasn't comforting in the least, though, and he patiently waited for her to continue, feeling, for some reason, as though he should be writing this down. "Reiner is not only a skilled leader but the key to the doors that make our business successful."
Any number of years ago, Armin would have snickered at the reference to a gang as a business, but the tone in Annie's voice and the memories of the work she'd put into her "job" made him feel the weight of the word.
"If the Surveys were to obtain the information that Reiner holds, they would be able to manipulate the balance of all that makes our business run. Essentially, all would come crashing down around us if Reiner isn't returned in a few days..." Armin looked to her when her voice became chilling. She was staring down at the cups in her hands, eyes wide and vacant, "Reiner is strong, but we all have weaknesses... And I already told you," she finally started to walk towards him, two mugs carefully held in her small hands, "he's like a brother. If anything happens to him, there will be hell to pay."
Armin nodded as she sat, noting that she kept her distance from him on the couch. He reached forward and took the mug in his hands, bringing his knees up and crossing his legs on the couch as he sipped. Again, he noticed that she didn't look at him during the silence.
"We always expected something like this," she surprised him by continuing, "we expected we'd have to give something away to remain on top but... not like this." her voice was different as it explained. It hardened and cracked as the sentence came to a close. Armin wanted to reach forward and rub her back, draw over her X's or kiss her cheek. The look on her face was more than uninviting and he feared he might get hurt if he made any sudden movements towards her.
"What else?" she suddenly croaked, eyes wide but weary. She didn't turn her face to look at him, not even when he didn't reply for a long time. They both sipped their drinks slowly, Armin barely able to watch her in her shaky state.
"How... how does this all work?" he asked tentatively, but she remained unfazed. "How do things happen? What exactly goes on?" there was a flash of uncertainty in her eyes as she turned her face to answer him, eyes still glued to the floor.
"We give loans to businesses," she began with a soft sigh, twirling the mug around in her hands before continuing, "we set an interest price. In exchange for that, as well as the loan, the businesses... do favors for us. Things like lend us messengers or allow us to rent out rooms for meetings... things like that. Sometimes businesses pay us for our protection. If there's a rival company they're worried about, we deal with it. If they think they'll be under attack, we handle it. All for the right price of course." to Armin it sounded as if she'd carefully strung these words together just for his ears, but he stayed silent and did not comment.
"There's a lot of theft involved... stealing from rivals, sometimes there's violence if the business doesn't pay their taxes or give us what we need when we need it. That was a long time ago though," only then did she look to him when she spoke, trying to reassure him, "I - Reiner and Bertholdt and I handle things with diplomacy. Threats are as far as we've gotten since I first joined besides a few isolated incidents. Everyone knows we do good on our promises, so they do what we say."
"Has anyone ever... gotten hurt when you were around?" he asked quietly, and she visibly flinched.
"I told you Jean Kirchstein's friend was killed, didn't I?" she asked, voice dripping with guilt and breathing heavy, "His name was Marco. There was a bit of a border conflict- the Surveys were trying to encroach on our territory. They fired first, and my- some Titan people were on the scene and shot back. Marco was hit directly in the chest, killing him instantly, but because of where his body landed he took on another handful of bullets. He was barely recognizable when they found him..." He could see her hands shaking, but he didn't reach to comfort her. His mind was awhirl, disgusted by the story with a heavy knot in his stomach.
"What about... Levi's fiancé?" he prodded, suddenly reminded of the conversation at the party so many months ago. Annie's eyes widened, then closing tightly in response.
"She was... It was wrong-place-wrong-time. She intercepted a deal on accident... she wasn't supposed to get shot- she wasn't even a part of the gang, she was just going to see Levi and then..."
Armin tried to recover the conversation immediately, hopelessly lost as to why the woman's death would affect Annie so much, "You don't need to go on... I see... what- what else can you tell me about how everything is run?" he wanted to avoid the topic of people getting hurt altogether, and his stomach churned as Annie swallowed and slowly tried to speak again.
"We mainly have partners in other countries that supply us with... certain goods. Alcohol, drugs, illegal things. We sell it to restaurants, businesses, service industries; they make a profit out of it and give us a percentage so we can pay the partners." She went back to looking away, "Reiner is in jail because that restaurant we went to on my birthday," she didn't look at him, but her voice rose slightly as if she was asking a question. Armin nodded, remembering, "they sold us out to the Surveys, and they Surveys were able to plant enough evidence for Reiner to be locked up... for a little while at least." she grunted, "No doubt the police are working with the Surveys now. We have some officers on our side, but not as many as the Surveys." Annie paused, and Armin took his chance to interject.
"You mean there are... police officers working for the gangs?" he frowned as the word slipped, but Annie's face did not change.
"Yes. Not as many as I make it sound, probably, but enough. I'm fairly certain a couple of our own have double-crossed us... The Surveys were always good at persuasion." she paused, thinking, and then carried on, "Once the police realize they can't convict him, they'll set him loose. Right into the Surveys' arms." she stopped, setting the mug down onto the floor and pulling her legs up onto the couch. She wrapped her arms around her knees and leaned back against the back of the furniture. "I expect they'll pad down his file... fill it up all nice for when they can pin him..." she sighed heavily, closing her eyes with frustration, "We've been so careful... and the Surveys are so close..."
"Close to what?" he asked immediately, leaning forward enough to startle her. She shot him a cold glare, offended almost, and buried her face into her knees.
"Close to taking us down. They'll never be the organization we were but... they've got a shot at breaking us. Like I said, without a leader, we'll crumble... associates only trust Reiner. Without him, we have no more allies." her voice was not only muffled but it seemed forced to him, especially when Reiner's name is mentioned. The blond wasn't sure what to make of it. There was no jealousy, nor malice in her tone, but there was something else, something more cryptic.
"Tell me more about... what you do. What everyone else does." he said, repeating the action Annie just took and pulling his legs up to his chest. He finished his tea in a quick swig and set the mug down quietly, watching her lift her head and rest her chin atop her knees.
"Reiner, as you know, is the," there was hesitation for a beat, "top man. He knows nearly everything, does nearly everything. Bertholdt's a messenger of sorts... helps Reiner and I with things. He translates for us, organizes attacks and dealings. That sort of thing." her voice lowered when speaking of herself, "I deal with the trade partners, usually. But I have other small responsibilities." she didn't go on, and moved from the subject, "Back in her home country, Ymir was a hired out assassin. She worked for the organization that was trying to bring communism into the system, but she never agreed with their efforts. She came here for a better life, and obviously fell into our clutches." Annie gave off a huff, "She works as a sort of hit woman... she meets who needs to be met, gets rid of people who need to be out of the way. Reiner makes the order, she carries it out, that sort of thing."
The thought of Ymir taking a life was suddenly very chilling to Armin, but he remained silent.
"I..." Armin's ears pricked and he looked up at her, catching her gaze with his own. "We're not..." her voice cracked, and Armin immediately leaned forward to brush his hand over her cheek. She didn't move away from him, and he took this as a good sign, scooting closer to her and stroking her cheek with his thumb.
"Annie. I-" there was an abrupt knock, and both of them turned to stare at the door. It came again, but in a precise pattern. Armin couldn't quite put his finger on it until Annie jumped off the couch and rushed to the door. It was the same knock he used to enter the bar. He began to stand as the door swung open. A tall, familiar brunet stood at the door, face drenched with sweat and eyes darker than Armin had remembered.
In an instant Annie and the man were chattering in another language, and the man stepped into the room, hands swinging in violent gestures. Annie returned them with vigor, leaving Armin confused and hoping she'd translate for him. It was as if their minds were in sync, because a moment later she looked at him with a frown.
"Armin, this is Bertholdt... You've met before, I think." Armin nodded, remembering the night he interrupted their dinner. Bertholdt glanced between him and Annie for a moment, suspicious, but did not say a word. "He'll be here for a few hours... we need to get things sorted out while Reiner is away." she frowned. "I know you want to help... but I would appreciate if you just..."
Armin narrowed his eyes at her for a moment, thinking she'd just read his mind. After an extended moment of his staring, she relented. "It would be nice if you wrote things down for me. We'll be speaking in German from time to time, but I'll do my best to translate." she paused, "Do you think you can manage that?" He nodded, and Bertholdt opened his mouth to speak.
"It's nice to meet you, Mister Arlert." he said, voice softer that the impression his body gave, a German accent heavy on his tongue, and he nodded. "Thank you f-for your help. I apologize for barging in on you, especially after you just got back from your trip." Armin shrugged, noting the man's thick accent and crooked posture.
"I think this adrenaline is enough to keep me awake for a while... I'd love to help you if you'll allow me. I don't want to just sit and be useless to you."
Bertholdt and Annie exchanged a look, one that Armin deduced took years of practice to perfect, and they both nodded. Annie quickly made her way towards him, expression and voice steadier than they had been merely minutes before.
"Alright then. Let's get to work."
Their business dealings and shouting matches carried on through until late morning. The sun had already risen before Bertholdt had even stood to stretch his arms and legs. Armin found himself in the middle of several loud conversations in several different languages, writing notes that covered dozens of pages, and staying far away from Annie as she paced back and forth.
The two Titans had decided to close several speakeasies in town, shut down shipments or rearrange routes so neither carrier nor product made its way into or around Survey territory. This was just the beginning, though. Connections were called from all across the state, told to keep their mouths shut and their ears open. Bertholdt took one telephone and Annie took the other as they directed resources and people to different locations in case of any "emergency" or "release of confidential information". Throughout the night several messenger boys were called up into the room to deliver handwritten messages, most in some sort of code that Armin decided he'd crack at a later time. The man soon became aware of the fact that the business was a lot more organized than he'd ever imagined. Even the knock to be allowed into the speakeasies had a meaning, though he wasn't quite sure what it was, and was to be changed immediately in case of a leak. A leak of what, though, Armin wasn't exactly certain of.
Armin also came to know that there were spies located all across the city, now on high alert. Men and women were spread all over, trying to seek out what the Surveys were planning to do now that Reiner was in such a vulnerable position. The blond man had actually helped with the redirection of routes, explaining his knowledge from when Eren was a runner for the gang and drawing out little maps of the rougher parts of the city where the Surveys reigned. Annie had kissed him on the forehead for it and followed his plans, causing Bertholdt to gaze between them for a long time until Annie caught his attention again with a German slur. Many of the other things that they discussed went completely misunderstood by Armin, and all he wanted after the situation seemed to be over was to know more about the happenings of the gang and how it functioned. When Bertholdt stood to leave, though, he realized he wouldn't be getting answers.
Annie stood up to follow him out, glancing with narrowed eyes at the brightly lit window before stepping towards the tall brunet.
"Danke, mein Freund," she breathed, leaning against his chest with purple eyes and heavy limbs. Bertholdt just nodded. He slowly wrapped his arms around her, sighing and closing his eyes tiredly.
"Anything for you..." he replied, voice quiet and hands shaking. When the two parted the taller man shot Armin a worried glance, but said nothing as he left out the front door. Annie followed him and closed the door, locking it lazily and turning around to face the blond, back leaning against the door with her arms behind her.
"Come here." her voice was oddly accented now, heavy and tired. He didn't move for a moment, watching her stand there, body crooked and chest rising and falling in the morning sunlight that now streamed through the half-open windows. She had to say it again for him to move. "
, my love." her voice was soft but commanding. He smiled at her gently and made his way towards her, steps slow and small until he stood in front of her. Their eyes locked for a moment, her lips parted just slightly as if her breath were words.
"Those notes are important... I won't be able to remember everything that happened... especially since it's..." his hand lifted to pull her arm from behind her, tug her forwards just a couple inches. Their breath mingled between them but her face gave no expression.
"Eleven o'clock in the morning?" he said with an inward chuckle. She nodded in return, allowing her other arm to slip to her side, hanging there as he traced his fingers from her wrists to her shoulders. He watched her wet her lips with her tongue and flick her eyes over his face with a solemn look in her eyes.
"You were helpful, Armin." she whispered. He nodded silently, smile dissipating as she leaned in closer. "I promise."
"I believe you." he said, nose brushing her gently. She didn't take the bait though, and spoke once more.
"One day... you're going to write a book about us," she said suddenly, and Armin leaned back in surprise, hands lacing in hers to catch himself from falling, "one day... you'll be an author and you'll be happy-"
"I am." he said, interrupting her, "I am happy."
She remained silent, and for the moment he could tell she didn't believe him. "I ask too much of you-"
"You ask nothing of me-"
"Maybe that's the problem." she snapped, and his hands' grip loosened on hers. Her eyebrows shot upwards as he tried to lean away from her, her hands grasping his tightly and pulling him forward. "Armin you're a good person... and I'm..."
He pushed forward and kissed her, silencing her in a heartbeat. When these things happened there was always a response, a kiss in return. This time she was cold and still beneath his lip, tugging backwards even when he tried to press onward. He slowly pulled away, and as he did so she entangled herself in him, wrapping her arms around him and standing with her feet between his and her head buried in his shoulder.
"I think," he paused, lifting a hand to stroke her hair, "we should go to bed." She didn't answer him immediately, sighing quietly into his shoulder and holding on like she was never going to stop. His hand lingered in her soft hair, raking through white-blonde tresses and brushing the back of her neck. He felt her shiver under his touch, and he glanced over her neck, tracing the place with his index. The motion elicited a muffled groan out of Annie, so he stopped and held her tighter. "What do they mean?" he asked quietly.
She tilted her head so he could hear her and answered softly, "Two kisses. One for each parent I lost, and one for each boy I love." he smiled at this, letting his arm fall to encircle her waist.
It took a while but they somehow found their way to the bedroom. Although it was light outside now they shed their clothes and fitted themselves into pajamas, hands or bodies touching the entire time. Annie closed the curtains tightly as Armin made up the bed. Once the room was dimmer and quieter than before they both climbed into bed, taking their respective positions beside each other with intertwined fingers in between.
"Will you stay with me when I return to school in the fall?" Armin asked quietly, breaking the heavy silence between them. Annie shifted, causing the sheets to roar for a moment, and scooted in close to him so that their bodies faced.
"I'd never dream about leaving you..." she breathed, and when he looked into her eyes all he could see was sincerity.
"I suppose I'll have to be careful now," he said, trying to be funny but the worry in her eyes was instant, "I mean-"
"It's okay," she shushed him with a look, closing her eyes as he untangled their hands and placed a hand on her hip, "no one's going to hurt you, Armin." she said so quietly he almost didn't hear it.
He lay for a moment, thinking, reading the notes and the poems he wrote in his mind as he worked with them that night. He'd done his best to understand them, to help, but had it been enough?
"I love you." he whispered to her quietly. She didn't respond, so he said it again, "Annie I love you." the words almost sounded like an apology, an apology for giving love but not enough. When she opened her eyes to look at him then, he wondered if she loved him as much as he loved her.
The blonde's body was still for a moment, watching him, calculating and sizing him up as if he were a challenge. The look softened at his smile, and for once she seemed at peace.
She reached up with one hand, placing it on the back of his neck and pulling him into a firm kiss. It had been a long time since they'd kissed like this, quiet and strong. She meant it, every thought that was running through her mind, every impulse that was running through her skin. He could tell by the way her lips moved against his. He could tell by the way her eyes were shut tightly and her body was warm.
She broke away from him, hand now on his cheek and forehead rested against his. Her eyes were still shut, and his were glistening like water. His hand brushed her thigh, pulling her closer to him until he could taste her breath and all he could feel was her warmth.
"Stay with me forever," she whispered, eyes suddenly open wide. He looked at her the way he looked at the ocean. The way he looked at the city streets at night or the moon in against the windows after he'd kissed her breathless. He looked at her with complete awe, with curiosity, and with yearning. A single finger brushed across her lips, his touch tender and his heart thundering, answering her for him.
He nodded as they lay beside each other, his arm around her waist and her hands at his back. He looked into her eyes until he couldn't keep his open anymore, but as he drifted to sleep she buried herself into his body and he breathed, "I'll never let you go."
The bed was stone cold when she opens her eyes the next morning. An arm shot out to brush the empty sheets and an unoccupied pillow. Her heart stopped in her chest when she sat up and listened to the room. There was only silence. She leapt from the bed and into the main room, wandering on bare feet and with a churning stomach.
She called out his name, "Armin!" and opened every door until she was convinced he'd disappeared. She rushed back into the bedroom, climbing on the bed on her way to the phone to call the police. She stopped herself at the phone, thinking suddenly that this would be a bad time to phone up the police until she saw the note tucked away on the bedside table. She let out a long sigh of relief and slumped down on the bed with the note in her hands, flipping it open to read what it said.
"Annie- Went out to see Eren. Woke up several hours ago, possibly five or six in the morning, and didn't want to wake you. I'll be back by the afternoon. Sleep well. XX, Armin."
Her eyes scanned the page a dozen times before she was completely satisfied, almost certain that nothing had happened to her lover and that he'd actually just gone out to see his friend. She slipped back under the sheets and collapsed into the pillows, moaning as loud as she could as she stretched her limbs against the soft fabric. It smelled like him, she noted, and she shut her eyes to fall back asleep, despite the excruciating sunlight coming in through the window. Her eyes fluttered open just minutes later upon realizing it must already be afternoon.
Annie was never one to describe herself as well rested, but as she rose from the bed, note in hand, she thought that she'd never felt this satisfied with sleep in her entire life. She hummed quietly on her way to the clock in the kitchen, glancing at the time before frowning to herself.
It was only eight in the morning, meaning that Armin wasn't late and she'd slept for almost twenty one hours. She scratched her nose at the thought, pondering the last time she'd slept that long, if she'd ever.
She dragged her feet on her way back to the bedroom, desperately avoiding the thoughts of the day before with all of her might. She slipped back into the covers, rubbing her eyes as the soft linens fitted around her lithe form and she tried to slip back into sleep. The aching absence beside her, though, was quite distracting, and after an aggravating half hour of failed attempts at rest she shoved half of the pillows on the bed into the sheets beside her and tucked herself in once again, arms slung around the soft shapes that smelled just like the person they were laying in place of. It only took her a moment to fall back asleep this time, thinking to herself that Armin would be home any moment to join her.
The next time she woke it was well into the afternoon and the phone was ringing off the hook. Her eyes were slamming shut against the sunlight and her body ached from the odd position that she'd slept in throughout the day. Her legs groaned and quivered as she stood, tossing the covers away and stretching her arms. Blue eyes narrowed towards the ringing device by the bed, the sound causing her head to feel as if it were going to explode. She nearly shouted at it to make it stop, but a moment later she came to her senses and reached to answer it.
"What?" she snapped, a yawn escaping right after as she tugged the heavy receiver away from the hook so she could glance into the other room. She could see the hands of the clock from her position at the door, and she noted quickly that it was almost four in the afternoon. "Hello?" she said, hearing nothing on the other end. She thought, perhaps the operator had accidentally dialed the wrong room, and placed the phone back on the hook. She stretched her arms again, moving towards the window and slowly pulling back the curtains that hung there, revealing the warm late-summer light of New York City. She felt her body shiver at the touch of the light, and she hummed quietly, moving across the room and towards the bed. She began to fold the sheets back and move the pillows, only now remembering why they'd been set out in the first place.
She smiled lightly, taking her time to rearrange the bed so it looked decently made, and she strode over to where the note sat on the table, face brighter and cheeks red. Fingers grazed the paper, sliding it open once more as she read it again. Annie's eyes widened at his comment about the time he'd be returning, and she quickly rushed into the other room to check the clock again. At the sight of the hour hand on the four and the minute hand on the twelve, her heart sank to her stomach. The letter dropped from her hands, mind beginning to race as the silence of the room took her and caused her blood to turn to ice. He should be back by now, she thought, something has happened to him. She scrambled to pick up the letter, stumbling into the bedroom as she read it over and over to make sure she wasn't mistaken.
Just as she reached for the phone to dial up Bertholdt, it began to ring again. Her eyes became saucer plates as she watched it buzz, the sound becoming overwhelmingly similar to her own thundering heartbeat. Thin fingers grasped the black knob and she pulled it off the hook to silence it, and raised it slowly to her ear. There was breathing on the other end, not quite familiar but haunting.
"Hello?" her voice was shaky as she spoke, and during the silence she became acutely aware of the dark metal's chill beneath her skin and the way she could tell the person on the other line was enjoying her panic.
"2040 West Stohess Avenue." they huffed. She tried to hear if their voice was familiar but she couldn't; the connection wasn't strong enough to hear their voice clearly.
"What?" she inquired, both hands now grasping the receiver tightly to her ear, letter tucked between knuckles as she held on.
"Be there with maps, plans, a list of international and local partners and... any notes that will be of any importance to us." she swallowed, leaning forward just slightly as she listened. Her initial response would be to slam the phone down and load her gun, but Armin was missing... he was supposed to be back...
She turned her body just slightly, a part of her hoping he'd waltz through the door while this exchange was taking place and he'd smile and show her that everything was alright. She straightened her back, faced the phone again with a deep frown and a churning stomach. "Or what?" she growled, nails digging into the metal of the receiver.
"Lover Boy's got a cute face. Wouldn't want anything to... happen to him, now, would we?" Her brows furrowed instantly, body on high alert.
"If you touch a hair on his head I swear to God I'll rip your-"
"I forgot one thing. Along with those plans and notes, bring us the name of the lead Titan. We know Reiner's just for show, now. It's time we know the truth about your little organization, Miss Leonhardt." they spat her last name like it was the most vile thing they've ever tasted, and the line went dead only a moment after.
Her body lurched and she placed the phone back on the hook gently, and she dropped the note in her hand. A moment later she was making a beeline to the bathroom. She vomited several times upon realizing that they'd used Eren and Armin's friendship to trap the poor man in, to lure him into the trap that was meant for her. They took advantage of his yearning for companionship, his yearning to know another and to help the ones he cared for. She ran her hands through her hair, shaking as she stood. There was no way in hell they were going to hurt him. There was no way in hell they were going to touch Armin, the man who'd fallen into her heart and refused to leave. She tightened her fists in her hair, nails scratching her scalp as she stormed into the bedroom to make a call.
She dialed as fast as she could, catching the operator and insisting on calling the only people she knew could help her.
"Ymir. Ich brauche deine Hilfe." there was a pause at the other end, and then a shuffle.
"Ich bin auf dem Weg."
Eren was acting strange, to Armin. Eren had never liked walking for so long and for so far. Eren had never agreed on going to corner bakeries unless Mikasa was there, and he certainly did not like sitting inside when he could be out exploring or watching the world. In general, Eren did not like to sit at all, but today he was glued to the seat at the restaurant they'd finally decided on.
Early that morning Armin had woken up, expecting Annie to be awake, but when his eyes opened there was someone sound asleep next to him, body curled against his and arms around him loosely. He'd smiled, realized this had never happened before, and took it upon himself to steal a moment of bliss. He'd watched her in her sleeping state for a long time, seeing her delicate and peaceful features as the sun rose. Armin had pushed her hair back, watched her breathe, and let it sink in that every inch of this woman was beautiful, perfect even. He began to grow restless though, and decided to go for a walk, thinking it would do him some good after all that happened the morning before, and he slipped out of the room with a final glance back to Annie.
He'd reached the bottom floor in no time, and as soon as he stepped outside into the warm morning air he bumped directly into the brunet, causing them both to give a laugh and smile. Armin had hugged him tightly, nodding quickly when the idea of an outing was brought up. He rushed back upstairs to jot down a quick note to his still sleeping lover, and grabbed his wallet before going back down to meet his old friend.
"I'm so glad we got to go out together," Armin said as he sipped his coffee. It was nearing five o'clock and he was certain Annie would be worried by this time, "we should do it again soon." he took the last sip of his drink and began to slide out of the booth, watching his friend carefully as panic washed over him and he reached across the table to pull Armin back down into the seat.
"W-wait! Armin- we can't- uh- leave yet." he said, glaring at his friend from across the booth. Armin cocked a brow and smiled, trying his best not to look like it was faked.
"Oh we can't, can we? Why not? I have to get back to Annie-" he stopped when the blood from Eren's face drained, causing him to look like more of a ghost than anything possibly human.
"We can't leave yet." he repeated, and Armin glanced down to notice that his hands were shaking against the table.
"Eren," Armin's tone sunk and became guarded, "what's- what's wrong?"
The brunet only looked away. Armin had known Eren his entire life and had always known that Eren was one of the worst liars he'd ever seen in action. Armin did not speak again for a moment, watching Eren look out the window as if he were undergoing some sort of internal warfare. Armin glanced at the clock again, realizing it was past time he should be home, and he slowly began to slide out of the booth again. A sense of urgency began to take over, noting that Eren's panicked state was not getting any relief. Eren didn't seem to notice Armin's slow movements and he continued to stare outside, hands quivering. Armin tried to calm himself by keeping in mind he'd left a note for Annie and that everything was going to be just fine, but a certain unease had fallen over him and only a quick escape could allow him to find refuge.
It was still alarming that something was wrong with Eren, and as the other man grew more and more uncomfortable, the idea that something was truly wrong came to mind. Eren's actions all day led up to this, and he knew that if he didn't leave now, something of even greater consequence might occur.
He said nothing as he continued to slowly climb out of the booth, and just as Eren opened his mouth to speak, Armin rushed out of the restaurant, going as quickly as he could, hearing Eren shouting his name behind him as he went. Faces belonging to the Surveys flashed in his mind, actions taken all day to avoid areas of the city were unearthed as he scooted through the street, and all at once Armin realized what exactly was going on.
All he had then was the sense that he needed to get out of there as quickly as possible, but a loud banging behind him from the street made him come to a screeching halt. It was a gunshot, he assumed, because as soon as the weapon was fired he heard screams from all around him. There was a sickening pause, a twist in his stomach, and then he turned, seeing a directly line of cleared pavement between him and Eren. He swallowed.
"Eren... why is that pointed at me?" he asked, voice shaking and fists clenched at his sides. Eren's eyes were wild, hand shivering as he held the gun out, directly pointed at Armin.
"I was just supposed to- I just had to keep you away-" Eren coughed, chest heaving from breathing so heavily. Armin stood, leaving his arms out to his sides, eyes wide and panicked. A year ago Armin would have never guessed this, never seen this coming. A year ago he and Eren went out for drinks every few weekends and Eren helped him study while Armin desperately tried to get him to quit the Surveys. A year ago Mikasa was on Armin's side until she too joined the Surveys to protect her adoptive brother. Armin was so close to joining them, so close to trying to do the right thing for his friends, but they'd always told him he had a future somewhere else. He had a future in the real world. His heart was racing, roaring in his ears.
But what kind of a world was this?
"What are you talking about, Eren?" Armin called out slowly, "Keep me away from what?"
The man looked so conflicted Armin isn't even sure why he was asking him anything. He didn't even look sure of himself, of anything around him. Somewhere inside Armin, he knew Eren is just carrying out orders, mindless like the rest of them. But Eren was not mindless, and neither was Armin.
"You're not going to shoot me, Eren." he said, voice strong, commanding. Eren looked startled but he listened. "You're my best friend... I'm going to help you." Eren's green eyes widened at this, and Armin took a step forward.
"Armin stop, I-" he stopped mid-sentence, glancing away, "Armin... I'm... so sorry..." Eren seldom apologized for anything, only when he truly knew what he'd done had hurt his friends, but this apology was not for the gun, it was for something much deeper.
Armin's mind raced, calculating what Eren and the Surveys were trying to keep him from. This morning they'd met outside the hotel, in Titan territory. They walked for miles into Survey territory. They were so far away from any of the centers of activity now that they wouldn't run into any other members. Why had Eren wanted him so far away from - He shattered when his mind clicked. Annie.
"Where do your true loyalties lay, Eren?" he asked, taking another step forward and watching Eren grimace with every inch he stepped closer. "What are you really fighting for?" there was a pause, and he continued to walk closer to his friend. Eren's face darkened, the shock wearing off to become something different, something like sadness. "Is this so important that you'd turn your back on the people who love you?" Armin stopped right in front of him, the gun pressing into his shoulder as he locked eyes with Eren. The man shook, and the weapon lowered. Armin rushed towards Eren, wrapping his arms around him tightly and hugging him as hard as he could.
"I'm so sorry, Armin," Eren choked out, hands finding Armin's back, "They told me if I didn't do it someone else would and I knew- I knew you'd figure it out and I didn't want to let them hurt you-" he stopped, clinging to the blond, "I can't believe I thought I could hurt you myself."
Armin held onto him for a moment, and then pulled away, grasping his arms with his hands. "You have to take me to her. You have to lead me where they don't want me." Eren sheathed his revolver and nodded slowly, coming to terms with the events that had just occurred.
"They're using you as leverage. They're making her think that you're going to be hurt if she doesn't cooperate." the blond nodded in return. "We have to run if we're going to make it in time. They're going to hurt her if you don't stop them. She'll give away everything if she still thinks you're alive, I know it," he found a single second to smile, "I know she loves you. I saw it that night at the party and I see it now..." his smiled disappeared, "But they're going to use that love, they're going to break her for what's happened."
"What's-" before he asked Eren grabbed his arm and began to rush down the street.
"There's no time, you need to be there as quickly as possible." Armin nodded and ran after his friend, following him with a heavy heart and a wishful thought that everything would be alright if he just saw her again.
They ran as fast as they can until they reached the address that Eren described. There was shouting in a nearby alley, and before Eren could stop him, Armin rushed into the shadows. The blond was greeted immediately with a sight he'd never wished he'd see. He gasped, and Eren rushed to place a hand over his mouth and drag him back, but it was too inhabitants of the alley had already seen him and every set of eyes was wide and watching the young man writhe in Eren's grip.
There she was. Body straight and lithe, dressed in all black, hair pinned back and two guns in her hands, one for each palm, one for the man named Levi and one for the man named Erwin. Armin looked around, hands clawing at Eren's arm as he noticed the shorter man's hand clutching Bertholdt's bloodied hair and the taller holding a gun directed straight at Annie. Annie saw him briefly, but her attention was back to the other parties as soon as she could blink. Her body was tense, now, and he realized he'd made a grave mistake in coming here.
Eren's grip released as another figure stepped into the light. Hange Zoe is holding a revolver straight at Annie with a dark look on her face, half of her attention on Eren and Armin and half of her attention on Annie.
"I didn't tell them nothin', Annie, swear t' God-" Armin's head snapped sideways to see Ymir struggling on the ground, face bloodied and bruised and arms tied behind her with knotted ropes. The urge to release her was strong, but with another glance he realized he was outnumbered if someone were to catch him. A strong voice commanded all attention in a flash.
"Halt den Mund, Ymir." the woman snapped her mouth shut as Annie spoke. The blonde woman inhaled deeply, and Armin couldn't help but to notice her arms shaking. Another figure came into Armin's line of sight, and he nearly gasped at her stoic face. Mikasa stood, a gun in her hand pointed towards the blonde and a worried look on her face directed at her brother.
"Tell us what we need to know," Levi's voice riveted through the air as his gun moved from Annie to Bertholdt's head, "or your partner's head gets blown off." The German man's face cringed as he struggled against the hard metal, trying not to show fear but failing miserably. This action caused Annie to startle, her eyes widening. There was a pause, and Annie nodded.
"Bring Armin into my line of sight." she demanded, and Levi nodded to Eren. Eren swallowed, pushing Armin gently into the field of Annie's vision. Their eyes met for a panicked moment, and Annie returned to looking at her enemies. "Did they hurt you?" she called to him, and he shook his head. He then thought this was useless, and answered aloud.
"No." he said, and all eyes landed on Eren. He swallowed, thinking fast, "I escaped Eren when we came upon a crowd. I knew something was wrong, and I ran back this way to find Annie. I knew she'd be somewhere in Survey territory, probably dead in the middle to mask if something happened to her... I heard shouting and came here." there was no reason to blame Eren now, so the lie is accepted as soon as it is told.
"Armin." she said slowly.
"Stop stalling, bitch," Levi called out, gun burrowing deeper into Bertholdt's scalp. The man gives a short howl of pain and his hands shoot up to catch Levi's arm in an attempt to pull it off of him.
Annie's eyes narrowed and a look Armin had never seen on her face passed over her. Her gun moved so fast none of them had any time to register what was happening. The barrel then pointed towards Eren's chest, and everyone's eyes widened at once. Mikasa stepped forward, both hands on her gun as she seethed.
"You bitch!" she screamed, but Zoe's hand held her back. Annie's eyes only narrowed further, and she glanced at Armin once more. The man shook his head, his entire body on high alert. He told her in his mind that he didn't want to lose Eren, didn't want to lose her either, he just wanted everyone to live, to be okay. She softened as if she'd heard him, and looked back to Erwin.
"We're going to make a deal, Smith." she called out. The man narrowed his eyes but did not move beyond that. "I will put my weapons down and tell you what you need to know. You're a smart man, you know I know everything about my business, and what I don't know I know how to find out." she paused, voice level and breathing steady. "But in exchange you're going to take the gun away from that beast of a woman, and then you're going to help Ymir get untied, let Bertholdt go, and then you're going to bring me Reiner. I know he's nearby. You plan well, Survey man, you knew Eren was weak and that your Armin leverage would fall through." she frowned, "I also need full insurance on that man. I need to know you won't touch a hair on his head, and if you do, I swear to God your entire world will crash down around you. I've already made the arrangements, and if certain people are hurt my people know what to do. I will need this done immediately, or the deal is off and your people start to die."
Armin nearly fainted at how serious she was. He recognized the look in her eyes now. It was something he'd only heard of, but it was not burned into his mind: it was the look of a killer.
Erwin frowned, but dropped his weapon, putting everyone else in the alley on high alert. Armin could feel the sun going down as they spoke, guessing it to be nearly seven o'clock. It felt like an eternity before Erwin spoke again.
"Levi, drop the henchman, and go untie the rat." Levi shot the man a menacing look, but did as he was told, tossing Bertholdt to the ground and sheathing his gun as he walked over to Ymir. He gave her a strong kick to the gun and Annie barked at him.
"Hey! That's not a part of my deal, Levi." the man sneered at her and leaned down, untying the knots with expert ease and setting Ymir loose. The woman writhed on the ground for a moment, rubbing her purple wrists and wiping the blood from her lip and eyes. Bertholdt was now standing on his own two feet, wiping the blood from his face and hair onto his shirt.
"Bring out the other one." Erwin's deep voice shouted, and only a moment later another voice could be heard. Reiner was shoved into the alley, knees hitting the ground as a grunt escaped him.
"Good." Annie growled, glaring at Mikasa for a moment until the black-haired woman lowered her weapon. Another glare was given and Mikasa dropped the gun altogether, eyes shifting from side to side as if she were still being threatened.
A moment later Annie's guns are being lowered to the ground. She laid them down on the pavement and stood up, hands crossed over her chest. "You can't kill me because you know I know everything." she hissed, then giving an apologetic glance to the still-shocked Armin. "I know you're a man of your word, Erwin, but it's time I finish what I started." she looked to Reiner for a moment, eyes softer than before. He seemed to understand the look and began to shake his head.
"Annie stop you can't tell them they're only going to-"
"I wouldn't do this unless I knew what they were going to do." She looked back to Armin, her hand twitching like she wanted to reach out to touch him. She could have, he thought, but she didn't. "They want the leader, you see," she explained, voice soft. It felt like it was only the two of them here, now. It was one of their midnight conversations, but she was far away, "Reiner has always been the scapegoat. He's always been the guise. Since he wasn't the real ringleader there was never enough evidence to tie him down. There's someone else that calls the shots, makes the deals. There's another name that will take the fall when things come crumbling down, and only the four Titans in this alley know their name." she turned to Erwin with a smirk. It was knowing, scary to Armin.
"It's time to tell us, Annie." the man called out anxiously, angered by the amount of time it had taken to get this far.
"I think you've known who it was this entire time, Erwin," she called to him, taunting, "I think you've known all along it was me."
Armin's heart stopped.
"Why don't I believe you?" the older man said back, tone airy and amused. Armin watched her then, thinking. She looked as if she'd just been given a difficult challenge. She blinked and glanced away.
"Annie, no," Reiner pleaded, but Annie had already accepted her fate.
"Marco was shot with five bullets. They came from a Colt pistol. I personally took each of them out of his body before his autopsy so that no one could find them, but you knew this already. Raids on your territory are planned in intervals of two weeks. One day I send word to Ymir. Two weeks later she sends word to her friends. Two weeks later the plans are made for where. Two weeks later the message is passed on again. We do this so that if one person is intercepted there's no way everyone knows everything until the last possible second. Last raid was four weeks ago while I was away. Several shipments of booze were stolen from your warehouse- the one on Trost Avenue. I think it was thirty two shipments-"
"This doesn't tell me anything, how do I know you call the shots?"
Annie frowned and swallowed, "I paid the restaurant three streets down from Broadway to burn itself down so your money closet next door would be damaged and reported. I got that information from one of your weasels that couldn't keep their mouth shut. I know you've been sending Krista death threats for her relationship with my hitwoman. I know you've been sending them from before Petra died." Levi tensed at this, "The day Petra died we were only supposed to take from your warehouse. The attack on your other storage facilities was unplanned; it was to get back at you for threatening Krista... Petra came up on me, trying to get me with a butcher's knife. I didn't see it coming, and I shot her."
Armin's stomach writhed in his stomach.
"It was an accident, I would have never killed her, even if she'd attacked me but I didn't know who she was. There were others with her and they were dealt with as well, but Petra- it was dark and I-"
"You killed Petra." there was a dark voice in the alley, and all eyes landed on Levi. Zoe's arms flew up to grasp him before he lunged at Annie, "You killed her!" he screamed, and the woman on his back had to knock the gun from his hand before he tried to shoot her.
Armin watched the man move wildly, doing his best to get at her.
"Control yourself!" Erwin roared, head moving swiftly to face Annie again. "Go on. I need to know more."
Annie swallowed, posture rigid. "I control the weapon trade. I control the assassinations. I control the destinies of my members. I control the cover ups, the false identities, the money flow; I control the businesses and the bank accounts. If you don't believe me Reiner will testify."
The silent blond spoke up then, "Annie... you promised me you would let me do this, you promised me I would take the fall for you if anything like this happened. We agreed-"
"I'm going back on my promise." she snapped, a pained expression on her face. As she turned back to Erwin, a scream was heard behind them. All bodies turned to face the small figure in the entry of the alley.
"Historia." Erwin growled, and Armin jerked to look at him. The girl was obviously Krista, but he'd called her by a different name. Before he could speak up to ask, Ymir was rushing towards her.
"You swore to me you wouldn't follow me when I went out you -"
"I thought you were dead!" she shouted, grasping Ymir tightly as they met.
Levi shouted at them, "Both of you, stand here!" Armin watched them embrace, Ymir's hands finding Krista's cheeks so their noses brushed in the middle. Ymir's hands fell, and all but Armin were oblivious to the exchange that took place as their hands met between them. Krista pulled a dark object out of the waistband of her skirt and slipped it into Ymir's hands. They both turned, the object tucked away at Ymir's back, and walked slowly hand in hand towards the center of the scene.
"Historia why are you here?" Erwin boomed, and Armin noted his distress from her presence.
"I thought her name was Krista," Armin croaked, and all seemed surprised to hear him speak. Annie looked at him longingly, and shook her head.
"My father was influential in the Surveys before I was born," the blonde woman spoke now, addressing Armin without taking her eyes off of Ymir, "he built a small fortune with them, and when my mother, his lover, betrayed the Surveys after my birth she died and I was left for him to leave his wealth to. After I took possession of this wealth, I changed identities, knowing that where the money was the Surveys would follow..." she paused, glancing to him, "I promised to never get involved with the gangs... and once that promise was made known to both sides, they were to leave me alone... but now..." she looked back to Ymir, who was glaring fiercely at Erwin.
"Everyone will stay where they are, now," Erwin said, taking a step forward, gun still pointed towards Annie, "I believe you Annie. We'll be taking you with us to-"
"We'll kill her now if I have anything to do with it," Levi lurched forward, and Armin felt the earth shatter beneath his feet. The dark-haired man's hand reached out to grasp Krista by her hair, and as she screamed all hell broke loose around them.
Ymir lunged, pulling out the gun Krista had given her and aiming at Levi, but before her shots were heard, another weapon was fired. Armin whirred around, eyes wide as thick red liquid seeped into the clothing around Erwin's stomach, coating his lower half in crimson. The look on the man's face was one of horror and confusion, and all was silent for a single moment until more gunshots rang out through the air. There was no time to react to this now, as Ymir began to fire as well, and Armin scrambled to get to Annie. She'd already picked up the guns that she'd sat down, firing wildly as she backed into the alley wall. Krista is screaming in the background, her wails ringing in his ears as names are called and bodies rushed and fell. He turned quick enough to see Levi falling to his knees, defending a crumpled Zoe, and as he fired upwards Armin realized there must have been Titans on the roofs, keeping watch.
"I can't lose any more of the people I love!" he heard a throaty scream, and it was Levi, turning Zoe's limp body over on the ground, hands on her wound as he pushes against her chest, trying to revive her. Armin's heart broke for them as the wedding ring on his finger was slowly coated in blood.
He heard Mikasa's shouting and Eren's scream, and everywhere people were running, flooding into the alley. In the distance he could hear police sirens and screams into the darkness but over all the gunshots he recognized a single gasp. His head turned as he rushed to Annie. Her weapons were at the ground, her body bent in an unnatural posture. She turned to face him with soft eyes and blood-stained palms. There was red spilling from her lips and Armin was frozen to the ground beneath him.
She opened her mouth and all that came out was oozing red blood, and her knees buckled beneath her. He screamed at the realization that she'd been shot, and he dove forward to grasp her as she fell. He cradled her in his arms as he looked around, desperate to find the perpetrator. Levi was standing only a few yards away, gun in his hand that was falling from its position. Zoe was on his back, limp and arms slung over his shoulders as if she were really clinging to him. Armin knew better, and they leapt out of sight before he could say a word.
His attention fell back on her immediately, hands stroking the hair from her face as her eyes widened and she gasped for air in his arms. He tried to calm her, looking over her wildy to find the wound. She was panicked, body moving in all directions, hands bent and eyes pained. His hand found the wound on her abdomen, and he held his hand over it, trying to keep pressure on it. She only winced and let out a scream.
"Annie I'm so sorry- Annie, please, don't-"
"Armin," she spoke, it was quiet and soft, but she said his name. His breath was broken, body rigid as he held her tightly. He couldn't breathe, he couldn't think. There were sirens blaring but all he could see and hear was her. The color was draining from her face as she reached up to touch his face, fingers smearing hot blood across his chin as she stroked his cheek lightly. She was dying in his arms, she was broken and bleeding out all over him and there was nothing he could do. He screamed for help, but he knew none would come. It was too late. "Armin," her voice was even softer now, gentle like her touch. Her hand fell and she watched him, an overwhelming peace falling over her as she coughed and struggled to breathe.
"Don't speak, Annie, I'm going to get you help," his voice was a sob, broken and weak. He pressed harder to her wound, trying to bring her back, trying to allow her to live. It was like trying to put the blood back in her. There was no use. He leaned over her, wracked with sobs, trying his hardest not to cry, but the tears on his face began to soak the front of her dress, drip down her neck. He pried his eyes open, knowing that this could be the last time they would speak to each other, "everything's going to be alright, I'm not going to let you go, now, I-"
"Armin..." her voice was but a quiet flower in a buzzing forest. He choked back sobs to hear her, leaning over her to allow her to bring his ear to her lips. She reached up again to brush the hair from his face, so she could see his eyes. There was ghost of a smile on her deep red lips, "Armin... I... I love..." the touch of her fingers disappeared as she wilted, and only a moment after seeing her dimming blue eyes, everything went black.
He woke up on a hard surface, head pounding and hands shaking. He forgot who he was for a second, where he was. It was dark, and he blinked, trying to adjust to the light until he realized there was something covering his head. He reached up, arms aching, and pulled the dark fabric off of his head. He groaned when the darkness was replaced by dim lighting, and his hands and body came into view. A panic surrounded him as he glanced down, seeing his hands and clothes were stained in blood. He gasped, scrambling to stand, but he fell again.
His body lurched and he remembered. He remembered it all. He choked out a sob, hands covering his mouth as he struggled against the floor. It took a long time for him to stand, and the sun was already up by the time he struggled to his apartment door. The door was unlocked, and he stepped inside wearily, mind awhirl as he stumbled in through the threshold.
Bertholdt must have hit him over the head- they must have dragged him out of the alley and brought him here- and Annie's body- Annie-He slumped against the closed door, and all was black once again.