XX

Epilogue: December 1924

He heard knocking on the door, quiet and polite. A glance at his window made him think, at first, that this was a dream. So instead of turning over to try to let it pass, he indulged in the fantasy. He rolled off the bed and got onto his feet, body humming with fatigue as he yawned and stumbled into the other room. The knocking persisted and stopped suddenly, but he reached forward to unlock his door anyways. He mumbled scratched the back of his neck as it swung open for him to stand in his pajamas and greet the visitor.

The tall brunet looked more like a skeleton than he did human, but his eyes were bright and very much alive. He spoke with an accent, though Armin could barely identify it in his groggy state.

It wasn't until a name was spoken that Armin began to realize that this dream was more like a nightmare.

"We have to leave immediately."

He finally recognized the man, but by that time he was already packing his bag and following him out the door. He never noticed how beautiful and eerie the city could be in the quiet hours of the morning. He supposed he never really woke up early enough to fully understand or experience the chills that captivated the skin on a December night before the snow fell.

As he climbed into the back of the car, it occurred to him that only a few years ago he'd spent those nights and mornings in her arms, and the rest alone in his room. A black bag slipped over his head and he supposed it would be better to try to forget, since the concept of 'Her' was no longer, well, real.

His mind was not as nearly as crisp as it was before, but it was alert all the same. He listened to the road sounds and the calls of birds starting a new morning in song. None of these things were familiar until the soft scent of sea water hit him, even under the thick, dark cloth. A hand gently tugged the bag off of his head as the car stopped and he had to blink quickly for his eyes to adjust to the new light. He prayed to God he was still asleep when his feet touched the sandy earth and the familiar man led him carefully, quietly, into the old house that loomed before them.

Armin had been here before. In a far off time with someone whose face he couldn't quite remember. All was silent except for the footsteps that echoed through the empty place. The furniture was gone, the house empty - save for the dust and dirt. He walked from room to room, wandering, stepping into slow and silent memories with every passing step. He didn't feel lonely, or sad. He just felt empty, abandoned even. Mostly just tired. Tired looking at the places he'd been before, tired stepping in the places where she'd stepped, tired trying to keep himself standing upright, tired remembering what happened here.

They'd made love in this house. She told him beautiful, back-breaking things in these rooms. He'd learned so much between these walls, loved so much. He blinked, coming back from the memory, from the fading image in his mind. He swallowed and inhaled and returned to the place of the living. Any longer in dreamland and he'd have to write a sequel to his novel.

His hands were in his pockets and he didn't bother asking why they brought him here. He laughed when he thought that perhaps they'd finally kill him, he had been the cause for Her death after all.

Well, that's how he assumed they saw it. In the past few years, they'd never spoken a word to him. No letters, telegrams, break-ins, muggings. They didn't even tell him if She'd had a proper burial.

But then he heard his name and shook himself back to reality. Lead feet carried him back into the main room and he felt his skin begin to crawl. The house was aging, its insides dark and only illuminated by the dim light of the morning son. The brunet stood by the back door, forehead glistening with sweat and eyes weary. It seemed as if Armin wasn't the only one whose sleep had been interrupted.

Armin noticed him gesture to the door. It was almost like a scene in a book, but instead of building the tension all he felt was discomfort and longing.

Armin stopped before reaching for the handle to the door, eyes locked on the other man's. His name was... Bertholdt, wasn't it? Who was he kidding? He remembered his name as clearly as he remembered Hers. He remembered all of them, each and every face, every moment, every word.

Bertholdt, yes.

He silently begged the man to say something, to break the thick silence between them, but he didn't. Armin nodded once and exited the building, turning back to close the door behind him.

A cold wind hit him as soon as he stepped away from the house and onto the path towards the ocean. He imagined, for a moment, the tall blond (Reiner? Yes. Him.) standing by the water, some sort of pistol in his hand. He wondered if he would even spare a word before turning Armin to face the ocean and placing the barrel to his temple.

He could hear the clicking sound now, feel his belly churning in anticipation.

He continued walking, despite the horrifying image, and made his way over the dunes, hand still tucked in his pockets. He stood at the clearing before the shore came into view, eyes blocked momentarily by thick blond strands. He blinked, inhaling deeply before allowing himself to gaze upon the shoreline.

His stomach dropped when he saw it.

He'd been right; there was a blonde on the beach. The figure had their back turned to him, arms crossed and back slouched just slightly. Their hair was longer than he remembered it, covering their nape and brushing the space between their shoulder blades. Perhaps it was long enough to tie up now...

Somehow he found himself being drawn to them, hands slipping out of his pockets to shiver at his sides. Time passed so slowly it seemed to stop, and when he was only a few yard away, they turned to face him.

He felt all the air rush out of his body at once, and his heart plummeted to his stomach.

She was different, a softer form of her previous self. Her face was sharper, more defined, but her body was a contrast. Her eyes were serious and cold, but they were still as blue as the first day that they'd met. His eyes moved down her body, noting hollow collar bones, muscular arms and slender hands, taut belly under tightly pulled fabric. Her hips seemed to jut out at the junction beneath her ribs, and her thighs were thicker, fuller from defined muscles that continued down to her thin ankles.

He was unable to swallow as his eyes flicked back up to her face. Her cheeks were flushed, eyes like caverns in her head. Her lips... daunting, still soft and rosy like he remembered. They were open and moving, trembling, when he looked into her eyes.

What a lovely, lovely dream this was.

She was crying. His hand reached up to touch her cheek, but contact never came. He hesitated, withdrew his hand. There was something salty on his lips, but he pretended it was the ocean spray. There was hurt in her eyes as he seemed to drift away from her, but she smiled anyways.

Yes, a lovely dream.

"Hello Armin." her voice was not as sweet as it once was, glazed by an unconcealed accent, but that did not matter to him. It had been a long time since he'd heard it, but he knew it was hers.

"Annie." her name came in a single outward breath. She stepped into him, arms so tight around him that he could barely breathe, and his one hand came to rest where the bullet has exited her body. She'd been so... broken, then. His other hand sat on the back of her head, holding her to him, and all he could do to try to believe in this beautiful moment was close his eyes and swell with the waves and crash into her.

He didn't utter another breath as she pressed herself to him, sobbing into his chest as he buried his face into her hair. She smelled like sweat and cigarette smoke, and she felt like a sad memory with her fingers digging into his back.

She spoke a collection of delicately matched words into his body, shaking. He couldn't hear her, but he knew exactly what she'd said.
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