My Yellow Light in Your Soft Whispers - Chapter 8 - Anna_Wayne - Shingeki no Kyojin (2024)

Chapter Text

Beads of algid sweat trickled down from his forehead, bumping to the starched shirt, tightly pressed to the stiffened neck - at least, something in him was perfect, and it was always the suit. Two of his fingers slipped under the fabric, tugging it just a bit to let a few drops slink to his shivering body despite the parching sun above that day in March. It wasn’t enough, even not one bit, as the scorching air immediately drunk the precious specks of salty moist with the greed of a man lost in the desert. Maybe it wasn’t so far away from the truth, and his body was buried ten years ago under the vast land of Fort Salta. The rusty dust for his skin, the sandstone barren for the blood, burnt amber for his soul.

Armin felt it, close to his skin, cold and heavy, the hefty chains poured out to the edges with the iron of his mistakes, battle-scarred with the phantoms of the days long gone, all covered with scratches from the gust of thousands of mocking words and jagged spears of judgemental gazes. Every step he took became the shackles tied around his limbs to pull him up when the storm needed its conductor. Someone to make the tree take deeper roots and someone to respect the fury of nature that languished inside every beating heart.

Ten years ago, he accepted it, giving the key that would free him from the cuffs to the boy who wanted to find true freedom and who acquired it under the tree, upon that hill, six meters underground. Ten years ago, under the azure vault of heaven over crimson hell beneath his feet, Armin gave it all: his past, present, and future. The oath sealed by death and murky smoke was colored with the last words and crushed dreams that blanketed the terracotta horizons with an opaque touch as if he already knew the consequences of his promise would echo for eternity.

This decision led him here, ten years later, on the stage, behind the curtains that separated Armin Arlert-Leonhart, Commander of the Allied Nations and International Ambassador of Peace, from his true self, a man with a depleted heart that had the language on its own: it talked in quiet sighs between the brushes of his and Annie’s lips against each other, their bodies pressed together in the entwined dance of passionate oblivion; in silent prayers to all the saints and the devils to give him the direction to take in the booming thunder of this post-Rumbling world that was still roaring from the wounds impossible to heal; in shallows gasps from the cleft despair that loomed over him, that stole all his words and returned it damaged and tortured. The words that were never enough, macabre as they were silent, waiting until his calloused fingers would pick them up from the infertile ground of the broken world and turn them into the seeds that would grow like the golden strands of wheat in the softly hallowed breeze of the peaceful life.

Armin knew, oh, he knew far too well, far too close to his heart, that he couldn’t raise something new - only to destroy the old, turn it into a barren land with no traces of life. But the words chose him as their ally, not knowing that he would bury them with him.

Vows made in storms stayed in storms, Armin knew. It wore the fatal chaos like the dazzling crown - with the frightful dignity and pride, reflecting all the shades of the phantom past left behind in the history books, known as the tragedy of the Rumbling. It should have remained amidst the merciless, huffing winds and the threatening haze of the flamy veil across the turquoise sky; it should have drifted on the tight eddies of the air, playing with the vortices up to the beat of the roaring drum of thousands of Colossals.

It should have stayed there, far away. In memories, whispers, nightmares.

People said he had a big heart, enough to warm the chilly soul, to hear the silent pleas, to forgive the sinners, and to cry for others who lost their ability to grief. Enough not to abandon the pernicious storm with him here, into the new world. Armin took its hand and brought it here, where the sky was fragile and pellucid-blue, where the clouds carried the frail light of the new day and reborn sun that never shone with the ruby red full of frenetic screams and ireful vengeance. He sheltered this malignant squall between his ribs, allowing it to speak with his voice and breathe through his nostrils. To love with his heart, to see with his eyes.

It waited with him on the stage behind the curtains, counting the minutes till the myriads of tunes would fall into syllables, syllables into words, words - into sentences, and sentences - to speech that would dance from the tip of the tongue in pirouettes of his voice with the immortal language. It wasn’t the flourishing field full of melted sunshine. It was colored with a carmine shade of blood and gasped with the nickel smoke of the Rumbling.

His legs felt like wooden props, torn down from inside with the thousands of hungry termites as Armin fidgets restlessly, unable to find the position he wouldn’t tremble from the calamitous currents of anxiety that enveloped his muscles with the galling shivers - it was the futile attempts, anyway, as the only place he would feel at peace was between Annie’s arm, head pressed to her chest, counting her heartbeats - so persistent, so loud and so alive.

Mind spirally, his stomach churned with nausea as the fragments of words in different voices tickled his ears with various inquires - don’t forget to look for the first row at the camera, don’t forget to wave, to smile, to look like everything is alright. Mister Commander this, Mister Ambassador that, sometimes, from the bravest ones, Mister Arlert-Leonhart . Many people used his titles rather than his surname, which wasn’t surprising for him. In hushed conversations, they called it a tongue-twister. Armin called it a political speculation he and Annie were forced into, as a “union of Paradisian and Marleyan to lead the world after the Rumbling.”

So, so many words, and yet, so useless. So far away from the truth.

“Mister Ambassador,” he heard the tiny voice somewhere through the buzzing reiteration of the wild heartbeats in his ears. Armin blinked a few times, sharpening the mass of various colors into the shape that became a human in front of him - a girl with ginger braided hair, with her gaze even more confusing under the furrowing brows. Her fingers moved fast and precise, each movement - the solidified confidence, bred by experience and fine-grained attention to the most minor details as they carefully brushed his hair, adjusted his necktie, her palms slid across his shoulders, smothering the invisible fabric waves. From the strict, deep green skirt suit and the small bandage on the left side of her jacket, Freja Bladberg , the executive assistant, Armin recalled her, one of the crew of the organizations.

His voice quivered even before it found the traces of the words, and Armin managed to mutter a small - “Y-yes?” - half in suffocation from the salty water in his lungs, half with the muted gasp for air.

“Please, don’t forget that after the speech, you should announce the new program for the internally displaced people,” Freja said, not looking him in the eyes, focusing on the second round of her chore - brushed his hair, adjusting the necktie, smooth the fabric on his shoulders. “After that, please look to your right - wave to the photo camera crew. The third man from the left, in line, is Mister Alcantara. He’s the chief editor of the Voces cívicas . He wants to have a few words after, so he will probably invite you for the interview.”

Far in the distance of his whirring mind, the squall soared in a shred of time, blurring the horizons of the last drops of his composure into the writhing vehemence. It rose in walls of crushing water - untamed, agonizing, and dedicated to its devouring strength - crowned with lathery thorns, just to collapse in a tumultuous crash, sending a spray of sharp goosebumps all across the clammy skin under his suit.

He was tired. So damn tired.

A decade of repeats, mistakes, and elusive and fleeting words that meant nothing, scattered like dry wheat ears in the unmerciful gale. Armin was there again - alone, on the stage, amidst the withered hurricane that showed no signs of quitting- about to meet thousands of hopeful eyes, silent suspicions, loud compliments, and vengeful hatred.

Smile, wave, look like everything was alright. The pattern he knew far too well, the template he didn’t believe in.

His skull was on the verge of blowing up into pieces as the nagging headache buzzed the thoughts into the twirl of liquid fury, each word - a ravenous and insatiable wave, threatening to knock him off balance.

And yet, Armin stood here, his muscles ached with the persistent beating of the crawling crests, always there, inside of him, rolling in, coming on the shore, falling and coming back, with the new murmurs of the tempting tides - smile, nod, look like everything was alright. Withdrew, back to the storm, and spread again - smile, nod, look like everything was alright. Back. Repeat. Back. Repeat. And repeat, and repeat, and repeat.

Come on, he must behave. He must pretend.

Smile, be thankful, look like everything was alright.

Repeat.

And repeat.

And repeat.

There was no coming back, not after the decade of his voice becoming the sound of the storm, shrouded somewhere between the addicting sorrow and virulent bliss.

Not after he was so cowardly naive to promise his best friend to conduct the chaotic dance of peaks and troughs.

Not after he went so far.

Not after every gesture Annie gave him, big or small. Not after every the most tender brush of her lips against his, every loving gaze of her wintery crystalline eyes, hazed by the sleep and illuminated by the silky morning light, every smile and tear, her mellow laugh, and her skin pressed to his body. Not after the silent promise of years yet to come together, the serenade without lyrics, that sang only with her heart that loved him simply, honestly, and fully, against all logic and benefits.

Deep inside, Armin knew, tucked in the darkest corners of his mind and in the tongue-tied gasps after the nightmares, that she would have been happier without him. Far away from all the bright light and attention, with someone who would give her the peaceful life she dreamt about, someone who would make her feel like she deserved this love, someone who wouldn’t let her fade away like a zinc-silver halo of the moon ebbed with the sunsets, melting with the warm beams of the new day, spilled over the horizon, and giving him another try - to love her properly, to give her everything she was worse of, not to repeat, and repeat, and repeat this game of feigning that didn’t concern her - never her - but that lived between them like the misty suds from the crawling surges moistened the lonely coast, taking particles of sand and drown it in the all-mighty and greedy water. Of course, Armin knew he was like this - bit by bit ruining her shore, taking her far away from the calm, steady life with him right to the bottom. He knew it, and yet, with every enthralling kiss, with every silence they shared, with every embrace and night conversation, with long gazes across the room, stuffed with politicians, with every brush of their fingers, with every seductive gasp in unison, drunk by the flaming passion, with every beat of his heart he sold to the tempest, all he had in him, every breath and every drop of blood, screamed selfishly, loudly, that without her, he would simply disappear.

Annie made him a better person, someone Armin didn’t recognize. Someone who didn’t repeat because he had to, but someone who never was tired of repeating I love you because the feeling was too much to keep it shut inside; someone who smiled when he felt like this; someone who acted like everything was alright, because, with her , he was alright. He was alright between her arms; he was alright, tasting her name on his tongue, feeling like every fiber in his body flooding with rich blooming; he was alright, tucking her hair behind her ear; he was alright just watching her playing piano; he was alright, seeing her happy among others - her rolled eyes at Reiner’s big brother protective nature, secretly cherishing it; her gaze gleaming and her cheeks full of Jean’s fluffy pastry he baked for her with extra sugar and blueberry jam; her carefree and content body language, when she spent her free hours with Pieck, just staying in bed and reading books; her faint smiles and deliberate, careful hand movements when she wrote letters to Mikasa and Hitch; her sincere interest when Connie shared his memories of Ragako and his family or taught her making paper figurines. Armin was alright just watching her - breathing, her skin warm, and her heart beating ringingly, having this life, the one she almost was denied, the one that she didn’t even think about.

With Annie, he realized who he wanted to be; in war - who he really was.

Murder, destroyer, thief.

Liar.

This was his combat, thousands of battles and nine hundred and ninety-nine losses, and the victory - this petite diamond in the velvet darkness - felt like the theft: nobody told Armin that the stars were like flowers - if you took one, the whole sky would be in mourning. And it chased him, cussed him, hated him, no matter how much his knees were bleeding from apologies, his throat sore from regrets, his eyes red from rivers of tears, his heart exploded from all the hopes and expectations the bleeding world put in him.

He was so tired, so stupidly humanly tired, but did it matter when these pieces of the useless blood-pumping organ couldn’t replace the stars he took?

Come on , smile! Be thankful! Look like everything was alright! Repeat, and repeat, and repeat! This was the least he could do.

“Yes, sure, Miss Bladberg,” Armin heard him saying, not even feeling his lips moving. Something tickled his face, and he realized his mouth must have been stretching into the smile - polite and stiff.

Correct, smile . Check.

Now, be thankful .

“Thank you.”

Check.

Freja blinked rapidly, her hazel eyes narrowing and the golden traces in her irises tangled in the puzzled, muted question that froze on her lips, twisted in perplexed silence. She opened her mouth, but like the teetering earthquake, the trumpets took away all the sounds, swallowing it greedily with the boisterous melody of the hymn of the Allied Nations.

Both of them visibly flinched, looking at each other with a shade of surprise. They were momentarily paralyzed by the strident sounds ripping the air with the ear-splitting melody. But after the palpable second of shock, Freja took a step back, nodding, more to herself.

“It’s time, then,” the small sigh - and yet so heavy, from the bottom of her lungs - slipped past her lips, licked so fast as if it was some violation of the etiquette the executive assistant could commit. She seemed calm - almost - as Armin noticed her slightly twitching fingers, tightly interlaced in a lock, and his mouth split open to say something -not even knowing what exactly, but when it was the problem? He always found the words to say and the ones someone wanted to hear - but Freja swiftly raised her head, looking directly at him. “Your Ambassadors colleagues are already there, to your left. Your wife is there, too.”

The insidious thunder kept rumbling at the horizon of his mind, and his headache pressed to his skull with the new strength that was encouraged by the orchestra on the stage. Armin felt his thoughts embraced in the ominous clouds, and the only thing left was furious, gaining the power of all time winds that felt so free in the land without obstacles - no logic, concerns, no dreams, no worries. But when these words tickled his ears, out of nowhere, as if the sun took the advantage in the battle and tore through the pitch-black veil of the storm, the sudden jolt struck through his body with a warmth so vivid that it was enough to make his fragmented heart beating again with the new rhythm - wild and out of tune, but so alive.

His voice caught in his throat, and Armin nodded in acknowledgment without any words that would give away the blooming hope that still was too fragile to show to someone he didn’t know well enough.

Behind them, the final chords of the hymn echoed like a burst of fireworks— striking and intense—and the last sounds drowned in the cheerful and resonating applause. As if she didn’t want to disturb his ears with more sounds, Freja looked right into his eyes, a slight smile on her lips, and without any other words, just nodded once again, stepping to the side.

Here it was - the route of no return, the boat to sail in the storm.

A deep breath that ached. Head up, neck stiffened. Back straight.

Smile.

Wave.

Look like everything was alright.

Remember Annie’s lips against your skin, Jean’s tight embraces, your conversations with Pieck, Reiner’s support, Connie’s encouragements.

Remember all of it, when you take a step, that all the stars you stole, all the lies you said, and all the battles you lost, all of it was your anchors, the ones that didn’t let you drown.

Remember, the price of your life is the payback of your decisions.

Remember, and let the water carry you.

Don’t run.

Take a step.

And so he did.

Immediately, his eyes hurt from the myriads of ore gold lances of the sun that splashed before him in blinding ashy white, merging the thousands of faces into one whole entity of storm-tossed sea. The sharp, blazing light pinched his eyes. For a few moments, Armin didn’t see anything, just following the sundry sounds of swelled and crashed chants of the crowd - it was like the walk on a bow, tied above the groaning, riparian-blue vast waters, where even the wrong gasp for air could cost a life.

Each applause ricocheted like a thunderclap against his body, each encouraging whistle - a surge that threatened to engulf him with no crumbs left, each cheer - a crawling wave that was hunger for the new souls to devour. Blink once, twice, thrice, and with every heartbeat, the terrifying whiteness bloomed with the silhouettes of people - so different and alive, someone who wore the stitches on their bodies and hearts from the Rumbling, someone who saw it in nightmares, not even knowing why some giants chased them in dreams as they were too young to understand the horror they experienced a decade ago or someone who was born to the new era, where these stories lived in the history books or in whispers in the kitchen.

The silver disk of the microphone slightly hid the first rows - nod to the right, good, he didn’t forget this Mister Alcantara or whoever - and his gaze shifted to the left, with impatient eager to find them , people, who Armin wanted to see the most but stumbling by the figure of the boy who looked no older than sixteen, maybe, fifteen, years old. His eyes were fixed on him, but the shade they kept was not like the others: even from a distance, the bitter disdain in his stare was prominent, but there was no fierce hatred nor passionate malice, just a muted, almost humble, thin-lipped frown that bit Armin’s figure with the frost of unspoken blames. Not like it was challenging to find something to accuse Armin of - of course, he understood, he didn’t need more evidence either to hate himself - his pockets were full of stolen hopes and dreams, his back embellished with the bloody imprints of those who gone forever, his steps imprinted so well-defined traces as he was walking on this Earth with the weights of all the lives that never witnessed another sunrise. What a quite thorough composed list - choose whatever you like the most.

Still, something in this boy painfully reminded Armin of himself in his teens - the slim body, the slightly hunched back to look even smaller, and the sadness that he wore inside his heart that let its roots wonder inside the body with the parasitic avarice that mirrored in the wide eyes that wanted to see so much of the beauty of the world and met only the cruel disappointment. What his life was like? Where were his parents? Did he have siblings or friends? What tragedy did he see? What dreams did he have? Who did he want to be?

Maybe it was silly, but after the speech, he would find Miss Bladberg and ask her to find this boy, so Armin would try to ask him all these questions. But now, now his gaze glazed past. Finally, amidst the gurgling storm, trembling, throbbing to its all-mighty roar, it rested upon the saffron boat of light that carried his loved ones, those who always stayed by his side, no bulging blister of churning grey water or whistling surging wind could make them leave him for their own safety, and those who reminded him that every darkness can be lit. Just for a mere speck of time, for a drop to start the rain and for the match to start the fire, their eyes met, just a speck of time to outline everyone - Pieck, Jean, Reiner, Connie, and Annie, to give them a slight nod like the feeble lift of a sail that caught a favorable wind.

Smile, hands up, show your bloody open palms to the people like the war criminal he was, and slide down them, slowly as if he tried to tame the pulsating waves - fierce and unforgiving - inside and outside. Look like everything was alright, because here, on the stage, he had to be alright.

De-e-e-e-p inhale.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I do not come here as a soldier, a Commander, a savior, or a hope of humanity. I am here not for the morals, speeches, and lies, not for the glory or the selfish desire; I am standing in front of you as a human with the same wishes, the same heart, and the same blood in my veins.

I am not here to tell you about the past or how, ten years ago, our lives were changed forever. I am not here to teach you how to treat the wounds we all carry—visible or not. And we gather here today not as conquerors or victors, not victims or fighters; we are here as survivors and seekers of a better world.”

Pause. Look to the left. Glide with the gaze over the crowd. Deep inhale. Go.

And go.

And go.

And go.

Never stop, don’t run, just go - wherever the bloody trails and the path, covered with bones, would lead him.

The dazzling arrows of the raving sun pierced his body, and it bled with molten gold, but all Armin felt was only the tar-black ink that spilled in front of him, the sheer nature’s wilderness in the primitive form of all-mighty power of the revengeful tempest. Everything around and inside him was buzzing with the gushing tempo. His heart hammered against the ribcage like the fish on the shore without water. His heavy lips moved numbly, and the words sounded so heavy and monotone to him, but each syllable was kissed by the stormy foam that laced the edges with the loyal sound of the well-known game of pretend, his faithful ally, the one he found in the sapphire blue seashell instead of pearl.

The sea was the proud beast, and he knew that the water kept him alive not out of sympathy but out of pity: the sea never kept the outsiders - it used them, making them believe they were part of the family, and then when it drank all the human in them, throw the hollow corpses ashore, turning their swallowed souls to the seashells. All the bottom of the sea was the cemetery of the dead spirits - Armin saw it, Armin knew it, it was his home, his true place in this newborn world, his museum of abandoned promises and dreams. Maybe, back then, years ago, when his feet felt the warm water of the sea for the first time when his face was sprayed by the salty breeze, Armin found his soul as well - not the azure perfection of the calm surface that mirrored the cloudless sky, but the frail soul that was caged inside the conch.

The storm worsened as the jade veil fell, alerting all the senses.

The ridge, dark tides, murky black in front of the eyes and in the heart, ferocious wind in the lungs, menacing crests in veins—it was his realm, the one Armin found on the other side of the world, the same world he helped to ruin and the one he tried pathetically to save.

The words of the speech kept stumbling from his tongue, and every letter pulled with them the whirl of ominous grey and white inside of him, but his gaze kept drifting above the crowd, and he smiled, nodded, looked like everything was alright.

Check, check, and check.

Everything was like it should have been. The perfect image. The ideal game of pretend.

For everyone, everything was alright.

Until the flashing moment.

Until his eyes stopped at the boy. Young, weak boy. His hand straightened, face distorted by tears, and his fingers tightly wrapped around the gun pointed directly at Armin.

Until the jagged spears of lightning illuminated the sunless hurricane, and everything fell into place.

Here it was, the moment that chased him for the last decade, his return to the shore - and Armin must admit, his life was too cheap for the payback, too low-cost to put it in the seashell. But this is what the sea decided, who he was to decline the will of nature? He wasn’t a normal human, after all - no real human returned to life after they went to hell.

And suddenly, the storm calmed.

Nothing but the flawless tranquillity, just the mellow, metronomic murmurs of the waves, slumbering in its blue - so crystalline blue - robes that carefully hummed upon the flax-golden shore.

There was no pain, no sound from his throat, no missing heartbeat.

Only the pristine white lights echoed in its nifty chorus. All the stars Armin stole finally returned to their rightful place—far away, in eternal onyx space above, where he always wanted to fly, and reached it from the tower of bones.

It was so calm. So, so calm, carried by the gentle waves, the air was no longer suffocating but a silky caress of soft fingers laden with the seductive fragrance of spring. The silence wrapped around him like a delicate blanket, muffling even the slightest sound—he didn’t hear the screams of the crowd nor the painful cry of this boy.

He didn’t hear even his own heart; it was so peaceful. It was so right.

Did Eren feel the same, Armin wondered, when the cold blade touched his neck, conducted by his most loved one? Were his last thoughts the same - so quiet and serene? Were his last breaths so steady?

Was the dying felt for him the same - so liberating?

The solid wooden floor of the stage felt like the bed of wild poppies and sun-warmed shore against his body, and like in a trance, his palm touched the place on his abdomen that felt so ticklishly warm, bringing it closer to his face. Through the blurred haze, he saw nothing but the bursts of purple - his own crimson blood mixing with his midnight suit - and just for a second, he thought that it was the most beautiful color he had ever seen.

The color of atonement.

Just close your eyes, and don’t run; embrace this eternal slumber and drift away to the tides of tender oblivion. This was his last race, the one without the winner.

The world beyond was muted to a distant hum, and here, in that particular moment, with his body losing color, his heart slowing down, and his blood painting the stage, the debt was finally returned, and, without him, the harmonious crescendo of nature would pick up the rhythm once again. This was what the world demanded of him, wasn’t it?

It was almost like a déjà vu, the bizarre, twisted peace, one that lulled him with the tenderness of Annie: it caressed his cheeks with the softness only she could give him; it touched the parts of his body with the blood spreading with the trembling fingers and precise movements only she could know; it screamed his name with her voice - so broken, painful and raw that it almost sounded like the howling animal; it was flickering through the fog of his dimming vision with the shapes of her face - contorted by the anguish rivers of tears that streamed from her beautiful eyes, turning the mesmerizing shade of foggy blue into the ominous rainstorm.

The whole world waited for him the sacrifice, but was it worth it when his world looked like this, in anguish and despair, each sob from her quivering lips tearing him apart?

Armin wanted to reach out, touch her face, wipe away the tears, smile, nod, whisper that everything would be alright.

But the snoozing waves suddenly rose in strength, the furious wind whipped up, cutting through the air with a deafening roar, and the sea boiled, bloated to its confined depths. The cavernous tides stirred with the growling from the very bottom, and the edges of his vision began to darken.

He was so tired and wanted to rest so much, but why now, as his eyes finally began to close, his consciousness slipping further, why this world filled with chaos and uncertainty, the one he loved deeply and the one that broke his heart, why now it hurt so much, to leave behind his family, his dearest ones?

Annie’s shattered voice was the last sound he heard.

The tumultuous waves hauled him to the shore that opened before his eyes like a dense, murky fog of inky abyss. The infinite kingdom where even the shadows couldn’t breathe, where the darkness wasn’t just an absence of light, but the pulsating, palpable living entity, an eternal expanse so absolute that it devoured every flicker of light, every sound, and every thought. In this nebulous nothingness that drenched the endless horizons, no ground beneath his feet, no sky above, Armin wandered alone, all alone, trapped in a desolate purgatory of his own decisions with his most relentless enemy - himself. He could feel it, the charcoal of the sea of all the people he burnt alive, all the cities he turned to ashes, the waves tingled with the blood, their ghostly arches crashing over him and dragging him to even further places, devoid of hope.

The phantoms of his thoughts wrapped around his body like the serpentine vice, the suffocating silence adorned with emptiness within, carrying the strings of questions without answers: how much time passed? Was he dead? How was Annie? How were Jean, Pieck, Reiner, Connie? Did Mikasa already know? Historia? How did they tell Sigrid? Did the Captain scold him for being so stupid? How did Gabi and Falco react? Ah, yes, how did the world react?

Did it make any sense?

Was his blood finally worth something?

Armin deserved it, after all, didn’t he? To be here, in the aloof cavity.

So, so many questions, and yet, so useless.

But suddenly, he heard a sound. It shattered the emptiness - a cry, distant at first but growing in force, just like the colors of the dawn spilled over the horizons with the burning orange of the dying day, painting everything in the rich ochre, reminding us that even every ending can be beautiful. The cries resonated through the void, and Armin ran, ran, ran to the sound, his steps goaded by stinging desperation and grievous yearning, feeling like his legs were heavy and iron, touched by the swirling gasp of the jealous tempest that wrapped around his limbs with the devious possessiveness of the creature that didn’t want to let him go, the only sinner who came here and shared the lifeless eternity with it. Could he blame it? Not after he showed mercy to a devious storm ten years ago and brought it to the new world.

Armin kept running in the amorphous abyss; the sobs grew louder, more desperate, and each wail like a knife piercing his rancid heart, but for the first time, that seemed like an eternity in the lurid labyrinth where all traces were wiped out by all-mighty Stygian waters, this pain made him remember how to feel again, his silent to this moment heart started beating again with the galling intensity so wild it ached.

It ached, ached so badly, but Armin didn’t run away, only kept going and going and going, and, finally, he saw her, his most beloved, his glinting moon that ignited the never-ending nightfall with the argent-silver with the grace only she had. Armin opened his mouth to scream her name, the sound he almost forgot how it tasted on his lips. Still, his body stood rigid with horror as his gaze fell onto another figure, so desperately similar to him - same face, same hair, same height, same midnight-blue suit covered in blood, and even the same love for her in their eyes. All the same, but -

“I believed you, I even loved you, and look what have you done.”

Blood drained from the skin, and a hard knot constricted in his throat.

No, no, no, it wasn’t true! It was all him, all his fault, not hers! But Annie was paralyzed, looking directly at someone who wasn’t him, someone who kept telling all these lies. Someone who didn’t have any genuine love for her, like Armin did.

He tried to push himself forward, to reach her, to hold her even after everything he had done to her, after every pain he had brought to her; he was ready to spend the whole lifetime gathering the fragments of her shattered heart he tore to pieces if it meant that Annie would believe him again. Armin tried to run to her, but his body was caged with the invisible embraces of the darkness, holding him still, clutching with a tight grasp, making him watch. Watch how this pretender with his face was killing her.

A wave of bitter acid welled up in his belly as the sheer terror avalanched his body, and despite the sharp needles in his throat, he screamed, “Don’t listen to him! It’s not me!”

But the words didn’t reach Annie, her quavering lips whispering, looking not at him, “Come back to me.”

That someone just chuckled, shaking his head. “I’m tired, Annie. From everything. It would be better if I never came back”.

“I want to come back! I want to come back to you!” Armin tried desperately to rush forward, to simply destroy this damn pretender, to ruin him like he always did with everything and everyone. Why, f*cking why the only time when his true nature would do something good, he couldn’t move?!

His pleas didn’t even have an echo. They simply disappeared when the air from his lungs pushed the letters from his trembling lips. Armin watched Annie shattering piece by piece, falling on her knees and pleading this stranger to return to her, promising him she would never do it again.

Everything started and ended at this point, where all his fears, regrets, agonizing self-hatred, and enormous love twisted and merged with the darkness like two continents collided, the crumbled union tore the boundless abyss with the convulsions of his dying soul - and out of nowhere, through the cracks came the waves, sunlit with the skies and well-whipped brine. The obscure expanse was flooding with the rich waters of vibrant blue, and his eyes hurt from all the whirlpool of colors. Still, all Armin saw, all Armin cared about, was Annie’s hunched figure as she cried, cried, cried in so much pain, not even noticing the rampant tempest around them, her weeping blending with the untamed roars of crests. His heart shattered anew with each splash of water, and his body tried desperately to reach her again, but it was as if Armin forgot how to swim; he was drowning, drowning deep, deep down, once again, in the same place he came from, and the saltwater on his lips tasted like the venom, numbing his ability to move. He tried to lift the arm, but it felt like he was submerged in a thick, rigid sea. His vision blurred further, and Annie became just a sorrowful blur.

Every second was taking him away from her, and Armin tried to push himself forward against the torrent, against nature, but then, from above, someone who looked like him overshadowed Annie’s figure.

The crooked smile appeared on these spiteful lips, as the imposter said in the same voice as his.

“See? This is who you are, Armin. The destroyer.”

Overhead, the sky burgeoned in an infinite cerulean blue of silk.

Untouched perfection interrupted only by the tufty clouds of chiffon clouds - just like Armin’s wayward thoughts, they had their own meandering path towards salvation, their journey as uncertain as his own, with the only difference that the fluffy wanderers above had the lacy edges softened by the tender kiss of a forgiving salty breeze and drenched in lustrous embrace. His mind, however, was still in the dim maze, built from the obscure guise the world sprinkled on him from that day in March. Almost as the time that flew father up like the sun, that hid over the horizon, washing his body with the brilliant light that gave the darkest shadows.

The golden grains of sand were once so tender and warm against his skin. The satiny seashore that muttered all years ago a promise to give him its surface to paint the ornaments of his dreams with the carefree footsteps. His crib, with the mesmerizing lullabies of the sea’s breath, rose and fell with the rhythmic ease, the echo of his drained soul that always shone with the jewel-blue. Once, it was his desire, his joy. Now, every step was a struggle that reverberated with the harrowing pain from his leg through his whole body; now, the beach turned into the rebellious yielding dunes that resisted his limping walk, slowing him down and keeping him away from the sea.

In his right hand, a blank notebook and a pack of cigarettes; in his left pocket, the cool metal of the emerald pendant weighed heavily, carrying the times so far away that watching the faint memories as they rushed past in never-ending marathon, now, in awe and trepidation, Armin didn’t recognize himself in this boy with his hair longer, height smaller, eyes brighter and Wings of Freedom on his back. But the time was everything, flying like arrows of elusive waves, unstoppable and relentless in their currents, that neither waited nor wavered; a force that swept him forward, leaving behind the shores of his youth, the moments that once seemed endless - the lazy evenings in the barracks with Eren and Mikasa, his first love that kept him wide awake with the thoughts of her , not even imagining that this girl, later, will be his wife, long evenings with Commander Hange and Captain Levi, buried with the stalks of papers - were nothing but the humming waves that dashed steadily to the shore, vanishing as quickly as they crawled.

That Armin from the past hurt people -he hurt Annie too, but, at least, his heart bled with tormenting laments before making this decision; he couldn’t sleep, forgive himself, or look at himself in the mirror. At least that Armin was somehow more human. Armin, in the present, was able not only hurt his most beloved person, the woman he had cherished above stars - he shattered to pieces her trust after she granted him her zinc-silver light among the complete darkness, and just with the simple sentences, banal combinations of letters and sounds, he turned her shimmering diamond-flame of the melted silver moonlight into bullets that pierced her body with the dreadful eclipse. I’m going closer to the sea, he said , Just wanted to think a little, jaw tense, I just want to put down all the thoughts, dry lips nervously moistened. Of course, Armin could - he should - just stay at home, on the terrace, where Annie wouldn’t worry about him. Instead, these words slipped from his tongue with the hope that the sincerity of his sentences would make it fly into her mind with understanding and wouldn’t tumble over her like an avalanche of chilly snow. And Annie did, she understood, but the price of it was her trembling hands and the terrified gaze she tried to hide, turning her back away from him.

Armin paused at the edge, where the foamy fingers of the sea etched the shore with the spray of salty pearls, and he inhaled deeply, closing his eyes and reveling in the hypnotizing feeling of the briny air filling his lungs with a tickling nostalgia of the days long gone. The gasping waves rolled in, and without fear in a rhythmic crash, they groveled into the shore with the desperation of the devoted lover who refused to accept that their darling was gone, searching and searching for it in the myriads of ground stars that turned into the sand, only to come back with tiny pieces of soulless grains. In these metronomic murmurs that softly doused the shore, in the deep and eternal currents of remorse, all alone, Armin allowed the voices of his fears to wake up from the respite and take him into the depths.

Did he have any right to crave Annie as the sun waited for the sunset, only to meet the moon for mere seconds of the twilight before she would grace the velvet sky? Did he have the right to hold her close to his heart after sailing so far into the ominous waters? Did he deserve the second of her thought, the kiss longer than her heartbeat? Did he even have a right to mutter her name?

Somewhere between his ribs, where the eviscerating tempests sang the songs of gloomy lands, Armin knew the answer. The one that strangled his heart with the mangling winds, the one that kept him away from her warm, rosy lips, not wanting to suffocate her gentle affection with his lacerating hurricanes. He knew it, wearing the lashing storms of blanched skies inside him, but Armin was weak after all. He was so weak against her, always yearning, longing for her, searching for her in a crowd, in his dreams and nightmares. Armin turned around, seeking solace in her figure at a distance - and there she was, Annie, her silhouette even from afar, making his gasp at her beauty and wondering why she was still there, in the window of their cottage at the end of the world. But Annie looked back - like she always did - and their eyes met. His heart stirred with the cracking bloom of the frosty flowers that grew in him despite the dreary skies. In this thick lack of light, there was still a place for a fragile thing born of adoration and longing that kept him adrift, caught between the ebbing of his past and uncertain coasts of future redemption.

A smile tugged on his lips as Armin nodded - to himself and to her, silently promising not to be lost in the dim vortex, before turning his gaze back to the vast expanse of water that stretched in front of him in soft sighs of myriads of molten sapphire gems.

The grains beneath him shifted to create a seat under him as Armin lowered himself, feeling the slight aching ripples in his leg and abdomen. His eyelids involuntarily drooped, lulled by the tempting mist of saline bite, leaving only the echo of the fizzed hissing of the waves in his ears.

Those who can’t abandon anything can’t change anything, the pendant in his left pocket murmured between the steady pulse of the sea.

Maybe Armin never understood its meaning. Perhaps it was never about sacrificing but about the relics from former times that cumbered his body and mind with the burden of barren souls—the dead ones always weighed heavier.

The cadent slapping of the never-ending surging and retreat, the endless cycle of rebirth—maybe, like the water reshaped the shore, Armin could carve a new future from the knife-edged fragments he destroyed.

Would he?

The one who could only ruin, would he build something new?

Armin tried once.

A month later, after they arrived on the island.

He remembered the brittle small petals of the gentle amethyst shade that was too shy and not so drunk from sunny wine, bruised and battered by the tempest, on his trembling palms. The air shook from the menacing howls of the wind, scattering the cold raindrops like acute daggers onto his completely drenched figure. The flickering fingers of the lightning tore the ink sky with the dazzling force that lit the whole scenery for a mere second, but all Armin could see, all he could feel was the purple hyacinths he failed to protect. That day, he learned that only flowers with pure roots, nurtured with unconditional love and honesty, stronger than despair, would tint with the vibrant color of long life - just like humans.

The quivering fingers clutched the flowers, and his shoulders slumped. Armin curled himself on his knees and buried his face in its feeble scent as his throat bled from all the muted cries. He failed everything —these hyacinths, the whole world, his dearest family.

He failed Annie. He failed to apologize to her.

How would he be able to look her in the eyes after everything he has done?

How?

Just how?!

It felt like a requiem as the rain kept falling, his tears mixed with the drops of mourning.

Here, the game of pretend didn’t work. His smiles, nods, and talks that everything was alright are nothing but the fake flowers with poisonous roots, fostered by his lies and comfort under the mischievous sun that shone above only because his fraud was so dazzling that it blinded everyone, including himself. It took one squall to come with the boiling, dark clouds, and like in the purified stream, the bulging blisters of menacing crests wiped away all his façade, showing the world his true colors. The colors of the murderer.

“Armin, please, come back with me,” he heard Annie’s gentle voice, broken by the chattering teeth behind his crunched back. She pressed her cheek to his soaking skin, her arms tightly wrapped around his torso, carefully not to touch the wound on his abdomen - far too high to not hurt him, but just the precise distance she was afraid to cross, but her grip sturdy, genuine in her vulnerability, and not because of the ravishing hurricane around them.

There she was again, asking him, real him , to come back to her.

Once again, Armin stole the gleaming stars from the night sky—this time, not for the whole world, but from the peaceful life he failed to give Annie. With years, his greed grew, and, like a trophy, he took away the dappled grace of the shimmering argent halo of the moon, tinting everything in the everlasting grief of arrant darkness. Once again, he made her jump into the threatening abyss, and once again, he was too weak to let her go.

But something in him shifted that day when the storm was long gone. Armin opened his bloodshot eyes and saw the horizon embroidered with the first lights of the dawn—like the lifeless petals of the hyacinths in his ruinous hands reborn as the promise of another day with the fragile faith that felt the soft exhales of the future when everything was holding breath.

Annie’s arms were still around him, her cheeks pressed to his back, the warmth that didn’t leave him in the storm. Lowering his palms, Armin laid the dead flowers on the wooden floor that smelt with the fresh earthy scent, and his numb fingers, as gently as they could, touched the backs of her hands, slowly unclasping her freezing grip on him. His knees ached when Armin shifted to face her. Still, not as much as his heart when he saw her - her mesmerizing winter in her eyes turning into the red deserts, her hair wet and stuck to her tired face, and yet, she was still there, so loving, beautiful, looking directly at him, staying by his side.

He cupped her face; the moisture shivered the lines on his palms with the rigid traces of her tears, but Armin didn’t run.

This time, he wouldn’t run not because of his self-instinct for survival, not because the whole world expected it from him, but because he didn’t want to.

His lips softly touched her forehead, trying to soothe the wrinkles and tiredness he caused her. Just for a mere second, Armin felt the slight tremble in her whole core before her palms covered his hands on her cheeks, and she looked at him, real him.

He didn’t run.

And the new purple hyacinths grew.

They survived another storm, now gently conducted by the wind, but did he dare to dream of forgiveness after all? To imagine the future where his sinful lips would linger on Annie’s for more than a fleeting moment?

The sea offered no simple answers—just a steady pulse that reminded with each beat that even the deepest wounds could wait for the smoothed calmness tossed in the embrace of enduring tides, every wave a whisper of change, each retreat a promise of renewal.

Armin would wait—a lifetime or two, it didn’t matter. He would wait if she would allow it. He would wait one wave, two words, one tender moment at a time, one heartbeat louder than it was a moment before.

His eyelids slowly parted, bit by bit, returning him to the present, meeting the already changed horizon: the clouds grew, and at a distance, the first stains of the upcoming storm spilled with the inky dots as if the celestial arch couldn’t write the poem of the tempest, and halted the pen just a few breaths away from the paper of the sky.

Armin bent his left leg, taking a cigarette from the package. A few anxious click! click! - the chore that seemed so annoying to him, even after all these years - and the small light jumped from the lighter, touching the tobacco rod. His left elbow rested on his knee as the smoke exhaled through his lips and returned to his face with the slight pitch of brine. The light thud of something falling to the sand to his left brought his attention below, where the sparkling green of the pendant danced with the golden rays that were blindly vibrant, like every color before the tempest. Armin slightly crouched, wrapping the fingers of his free hand around the oval shape.

The rich green, so picturesque in its kaleidoscopic beauty, should have sang to him the tender lullabies; in its lack of any vivacious emotion, this shade should calm him down to make him rest. And yet, it screamed to him in a hissing chorus - Those who can’t abandon anything can’t change anything .

Maybe Armin never understood its meaning.

But now, when the right hand raised above his head, and with one strong throw, the emerald pendant was swallowed by the sloshing waves, he did.

Words to the tides, and tides - for the life.

Each night sky was a theatre.

The stars scattered above in its ethereal glow on the charcoal stage like actors - in their breaths drawn millennia ago, some stories shone with the reflections of the past and glimpses of the future yet unwritten. And just like the stars long dead, some stories outlived their spectators and crew, staging the play like a mono-spectacle even for years to come with the shimmering light that kept its fake soffits focused on the stage. The art could live only when it would have a demand, and Rumbling - even after the whole decade of traveling in whispers, exhaling in nightmares, pulsating in thoughts, laughing in hangover, and just existing in every survived one - was still the most famous play in the theatre, even if the main character was nothing but a buffoon hero. But the audience wasn’t too hungry for the grand artistry, and Rumbling lived, celebrating the first decade, never leaving the first lines of the affiches.

Ten years, huh? Rumbling was like a child who could write and run fast, being curious and always so sprightly; probably, it even had a sweetheart who made the young heart flutter with myriads of tickling fireworks. Rumbling was now almost the same age - a bit older - as Armin was when he met Mikasa for the first time, with the difference that Armin didn’t run fast, wasn’t sprightly, and, well, didn’t have a sweetheart.

Ten years, so long, and yet, they went so fast, leaving the memories like the black-purple silhouettes in tranquil slumber just like now, when at the twilight, the horizon was split in two - an indigo blade slicing through the amethyst drapery of the sky, leaving a wound that bled with the honeyed light of the amber sun. The water jealously kept the warmth of the daylight from the cool fingers of the evening as if the sea itself was clinging to the sun’s lingering touch, pretty much like how the loving heart hangs onto cherished memories long after they’ve passed, vying for the inevitable cycle of change.

The gentle waves caressed Armin’s ankles, his pants rolled up, and his fingers interlaced with the ones much bigger that he used to hold but still so dear and so soft to him, the hand of someone who was sister not by blood but by soul - something that was more durable than human bodies.

Ten years. One hundred twenty months for the whole world - to be reborn, three thousand six hundred and fifty-two days for Armin - to raise this world like a child, and three hundred and fifteen thousand five hundred and sixty-nine seconds for Mikasa - without her most beloved.

Between two infinities of the sea and sky in the endless kiss, the vast expanse in front of them was calm, slowly creeping onto them with the murmured slurpy slapping that felt like the feather caress crafted from the foam. Just behind their back, Armin knew that the kitchen was lively, with Jean, Reiner, and Connie preparing the dinner, and Annie and Pieck must be on the terrace. Just a glance away, their cottage was loud, once again, as if nothing ever happened.

But now, the sea’s tranquil heartbeat gave him and Mikasa a moment just for the two of them, the instant of stillness, molded from the agonizing years of separation that melted the exact second when Mikasa, alongside Jean, Connie, Reiner, and Pieck, ran through the terrace and just knocked off him from his legs right to the floor. The first moments of shock sipped into the pleasant sensation of being tangled between the arms of his most beloved - after this small place just on his front side wasn’t cold anymore too, warmed by Annie’s body - and what an ironical déjà vu, Armin thought: this time, when he was laying on the floor, he wasn’t dying, but feeling like the life was slowly coming back.

That day in March, Armin didn’t die.

The part of him was already gone ten years ago, with the promise to his best friend; he had already paid the pledge that now was waiting for him in hell - who knows, maybe devils weren’t that greedy, after all, waiting for his full payment, or, maybe, they wanted more of it, gambling on his loan if he would sin more, enriching with his bloody decisions. But he didn’t die that day - and with the chilly horror shot up his spine, Armin just prayed to all gods and devils that this time, it wasn’t instead of someone’s else life.

He didn’t die, but did he come back to life? How was he supposed to ask for forgiveness if Armin was the one to shoot the arrows in the backs of his family? Was there a place for forgiveness in this new symphony of the world with the new sheet music and new harmony to orchestrate? And he was the silent instrument, his voice and soul given away for another chance - but how could the broken instrument sing, when its sound ruptured to his past life his parents gave him, and two other ones, given to him by whom, by what power, for what sake?

Armin sometimes wondered if Captain Levi ever regretted his choice. He even tried to ask him a few times, always having as an answer, firstly a slap upside the head and, secondly, You overthink, kid . Even after that, to Armin’s protests that he’s already grown, Levi always sighed and told him, “Don’t put on frills, brat. The fact that you’ve changed your military uniform to suits and have a wife now doesn’t change that you’ll always be a kid to me.”

Did the forgiveness ever have an expiration date, or was it like the sea, the everlasting cycle of ebb and flow, carrying the words to those who were ready to listen and prepared to condone without forgetting what was done?

Ten years. Ten years for rebirth, demise, remorse, and acceptance. Ten years, and yet it felt like a lifetime - the one they’ve pulled out from the tight grasp of death.

The sea in front of him stretched endlessly, and as if not the promise of the soon stars that would freckle the sky with their gleaming pearls, there wouldn’t - almost - any difference from the memory of fourteen years ago.

Armin, his pants rolled up, the water softly enveloping his ankles.

Mikasa, near, her lovely smile as warm as the dazzling sun.

And someone who became the “almost” part of the sentence, who was once everything, his best friend, and Mikasa’s dearest one. Now, his presence was nothing but the bitter ping in the heart, the pained sigh before closing the moistened eyes, the phantom memory roaming in the darkest corners of the mind.

It was almost the same. With another world, with another them.

In the raspy echo of the lapping waves, there was the faint humming of battles fought, lives forever changed, wars lost, and people gone. The sacrifices they had known were like the hidden currents beneath the surface—unseen but profoundly felt, for is not the calmest sea also the deepest?

Ten years, were they enough? For him, for the world? For -

“Mikasa?”

“Hmm?” Armin heard her humming and the slight rustle of fabric as her eyes laid on him - he didn’t look back, but the tickling sensation on the side of his face gave enough reasons for his heart to beat faster.

Her hand was warm in his, familiar, and carried the memory of their hometown that lived only in their memories. It was Mikasa, the woman he had known for more than ten years. Mikasa, Mikasa, Mika—and in this instant pause between breaths, Armin swallowed dryly, letting it all out.

“Were you ever able to forgive Eren?”

For a fleeting moment, Armin felt her body frozen, and her steel-shaded eyes, still on him, stroked his skin with the tart immobility as if his name, muttered so suddenly, enveloped her core and mind with the numbness she thought she already learned to tame. But it was just for one star to fall and leave the sparkling trace of a tail, as if to give the possibility to capture it before their glowing would be lost in the somber universe, just for a second to think that Armin was mistaken and nothing happened. To think that it was just his imagination, but he knew Mikasa. He knew her, and he knew - the slightly tightly grip on his hand was the best evidence that it happened, that the shooting star did really paint the shiny curve.

Ten years. Enough to let the skin of her neck be kissed with salty breeze and sun, no red scarf longer around her. Ten years was enough for her not to forget but to cherish even more. A few years ago, Mikasa wrote in her letter that she tore a bit of her scarf - the hole wasn’t big and, in fact, even invisible to everyone - pretty much like her heart. But for her, it was enough to repair it, take it away from her neck, and keep it safe. When Armin read about it, the weird impulse drew him right to Annie, enveloping his arms around her in a tight embrace, bringing her closer until his face was buried in the daffodil gold of her hair.

“Hey,” he remembered her asking, her hand gently caressing his head, “what happened?”

“Nothing,” Armin lied, hugging her even firmer, nuzzling his nose along the strands. “I just love you. So much.”

The dusk descended more and more with every passing heartbeat, and the horizon blurred where the fading light of soft golds met the muted purples. Just like the sea devoured the light, it taught Armin not only to dream but to let it go: it accepted all these flows into its depths, it didn’t judge all the rivers that fed it, nor did it offended by the piqued storms, that seethes its soothing surface. It simply took it like the ultimate truth on Earth, with gratitude, as it was, what made the sea alive in an infinite cycle of dying and pulling back to heal and starting over again, surging forward with new compassion. The endless waltz of repeat, and repeat, and repeat. Maybe the sea was telling him all this time that he should repeat, but not deceit, not these fake smiles, nods, and lies that everything was alright.

“Even if I don’t forgive him, it doesn’t bring him back.”

Mikasa’s soft voice tugged Armin’s gaze to her figure next to him as if the shape of her would help him find how to breathe again as his chest grew tight with the hard knot constricted in his throat. He blinked rapidly, trying to lighten up her face with the glow that would be seen in the dusk, but just like Armin turned his gaze to Mikasa, something - someone - behind their back caught his attention.

He turned his neck slightly more, and his muscles tensed like everything went silent before the storm when his eyes lay on Annie, hunched in Pieck’s arms, her first clumping the fabric. Even at a distance, the small quiver of her back as she was crying - that much Armin could see, could feel even from afar - sent the tempo of rage in a moment inside of him; every sense or feeling would be simply wiped away, lost in this harsh whirlpool if not for Annie’s crooked figure being his compass but with the needles totally broken. Once, its steady needle always pointed the way out, leading him towards the sun-dapples horizons, but he twisted them, tore them, by the very hands that once held her so dearly, so lovingly.

It was he who did it to her.

Armin didn’t need to know what they were talking about to know that Annie’s tears were on him. It was a privilege to think it wasn’t - and he didn’t have any. He didn’t have a right to any.

His mind churned like a restless sea, but then, Mikasa’s voice, once again, pulled him from the turbulent waters - like she always did, like she always does.

“That’s why I just want to remember him as he was,” she said softly, each word - a delicate whisper that trembled like the candle with the withering winds. And yet, the slight curve of her lips was prominent in the velvet of the twilight. “Reckless, sometimes awkward, but still loving and caring.”

Armin squeezed her hand a bit firmer as his jaw grew even more tense and strained. The bitter words blocked his throat with the stones, which were impossible to swallow. Mikasa’s eyes didn’t leave the sea in front of them for a second; her eyes were intensely focused on the same direction all these years ago Eren couldn’t look away. But then, her free hand raised, and the fingers slightly touched the bare space of her neck before she turned to look at him, the lenient, fragile smile on her lips.

“I want to remember him like that, the one I knew, the one you knew, and this feeling is stronger than any other feeling.”

As the tiny droplets of the fresh sun filtered through the curtains and the room tinted in a soft glow, Armin stirred up, his cheek, warm against Annie’s tender skin of her chest, rose and fell with each breath. This gentle lull seduces him to close his eyes again, nuzzle into the softness of her body, and just let it all go. Even the slight ache in his neck from this sleeping position isn’t a valid reason for him to roll to his place on the bed - her arms around him, so loving and so delicate, this is his favorite place, his heart welling with the tiny sprouts after the spring bit out the snow like the sugar dissolves in the tea.

Keeping his eyes open, even if a bit, the thin line, almost glued with the honeyed slumber, is almost like the work that wasn’t worth - the serenity Armin didn’t feel in a while was so close to the enticing bliss, and what the world even could offer him better than this, when in the gentle passion of the delicate sun blooming over the transparent, cerulean blue of the sky, his breath is dancing in sync with Annie’s slow, serene heartbeat, their bodies tangled on the smooth bed sheets of their bed that keep wrinkles of their sleeping figures, so vulnerable and fragile?

His eyes almost pulled shut, and the low hum, which reminded him more of a purr, tickled his head with warm breathing.

“Armin.”

Oh, how he missed the way each morning started with his name in her voice; always, as each syllable - the sizzling hot stones on the beach, and her tongue carefully touched it, sensing with her skin the scorching surface, and the ending of his name from her dry lips sounded like she finally reached the cooling waters of the sea - with the peaceful sigh, so full of mollifying relief as if his name for her was something like the purgation, refreshing and mellow.

Or the morning when her name was the first thing he said, rolling the precious A, n, n, i, e like the caramel beads on his tongue, tasting each curve of the letter, melting his still groggy from the sleep voice with the enveloping sweetness she allowed him to taste in her - and it became his favorite flavor.

“I know you’re awake,” a slight sharp edge to her words from sleep made the corners of his lips tug in a smile. Despite the slightly stern tone, that was nothing but the joke in a core, her hands lightly played with the strands of his hair, tugging it slowly and tenderly, not to cause any pain from the knots that formed during his sleep. “So don’t try to trick me you’re asleep.”

“Nope, I’m so-o-o asle-e-e-ep,” Armin stretched the words into the fake yawn, nuzzling his nose against her exposed collarbone thanks to the loose fabric of Annie’s - well, his shirt she used - pajamas.

The tiny bubbles of her delightful laughter tingle his skin with the fragility of the sea spray and the way Annie tried to playfully nudge him, her wide smile deepening the wrinkles wizening her still slightly drowsy face, her eyelashes with the tiny remnants of the sleep trembling as she was giggling - everything made Armin just to stop and admire her, his straight arms keeping him over her frame.

She is so beautiful, so wonderful, so honest with him, showing him all these sides of her. And what about him? Does he even deserve these smiles, these laughs that chime through the air like the crystal lilies of the valley in the silky breeze of the spring wind?

The overwhelming love blended with shame welled up his eyes with pricking tears. Armin blinks rapidly to dissolve this sudden fog that blurred her face in front of him - he has no right to miss this enchanting view in front of him, Annie, his dearest Annie, in his arms, her shoulders relaxed, hair tangled from the sleep scattered like the daffodil petals on the pillow, the sincere smile playing on her lips, slightly dry from the steady breaths during the night, her small hands on his shoulders, warming his skin even though the fabric.

How on Earth is he even worth all of it?

Armin pushed the lump that blocked all his ability to breathe for a few seconds before leaning in, their foreheads touching. His nose brushed against hers in a soft nuzzle as the whisper stumbled from his lips.

“Last night, did you mean it?”

“Hm?” Annie croons, the puny shreds of her laughter still in her voice. Her eyes are closed, and instead of a broad smile, there is a gentle curve on her face.

“Purple hyacinths,” Armin clears his throat. “You said they’re beautiful.”

Her eyelashes fluttered for a second before swinging open. The misty lily-white of the melted icebergs looked at him so fondly that a chord of goosebumps ran across his spine, leaving his skin with luring softness.

“Yes, I did.”

Her fingers gently brushed his bangs, which fell into his eyes. “They are lovely. You made them like this.”

The euphoric relief coiled over him in the ravishing waves, and his eyes crinkled at the corners, feeling the whirling emotions spread warmth all over his body. This time, Armin knows that it’s impossible to keep the tears from falling, and his arms bend, enveloping his hands around her torso and rolling over to his back flat, holding her close to him.

“You know, my mom always said that the most beautiful things are crafted with love,” he whispers, battling against his voice, cracking under the persistent salt forming in his eyes.

Annie glides her finger across his chest, drawing the invisible patterns only she knows a meaning, but it’s so calming that Armin tries to cling to these hypnotizing movements across his skin so that his tears don’t fall.

Two tiny short touch like dots, then, a bit lower - another dot, horizontal line, two dots.

“She wasn’t wrong,” the tip of her pointing finger traces three horizontal lines over the fabric of his shirt. “These flowers are a great proof of it.”

Three dots. One horizontal line. A bit to the side - a single dot.

“I-”

One horizontal line, dot, line, line.

“I-i never thought I would be able to raise some-” His voice almost mutters the ending -one , but before the old wound would start bleeding again, his lips add in haste, “-thing.”

Three horizontal lines.

“But you did”, dot, dot, line, and Annie turned her head to look at him, slightly pushing herself to look better at his face. The same fingers that drew dots and lines on his chest faintly stroked his lips and jawline before moving to his hair.

“You did, Armin, because you love these flowers.”

I love you , not only these flowers, Armin would gladly stay like this for eternity if he could, but outside their room, the sounds of life stirring beyond their tranquil cocoon start to sip with the symphony of the morning, so unusual boisterous, but still pleasant - pots clanging, voices murmuring, a fragrant, enticing aroma of freshly cooked breakfast - no doubt, by Jean - drifts through the air, making both of their stomaches growl in anticipation.

“I guess we need to get up,” Annie murmurs with a soft yawn, still holding him close for a moment longer before her arms unwillingly push her away.

“Yeah,” Armin loosens his grip around Annie’s back, letting her go and rising from their bed.

His feet felt the cool floor beneath as he got up fully, such a contrast to the warmth they’d just shared, and yet, the steps that led him to the bathroom felt like a familiar dance of the routine, but with his heart just a tad lighter. Annie was already brushing her teeth as he entered the restroom, totally focused on the monotonous circular motion of her hand, not even noticing the right yoke of his shirt lazily slide down, exposing the alluring curve of her neck and the slope of her bare shoulder. Oh, this woman, always so effortlessly gorgeous, his lips sang it in butterflies whisper against the gentle arc of her collar before grabbing his own toothbrush. Her glance meets his in the mirror in front of them; her adorable furrowed brows couldn’t cozen him as the feeble, almost gauzy shade of pink shimmered on her pouty cheeks that pulled the corners of his lips into a goofy smile.

Side by side, shoulders touched, motions deliberate and known, yet it felt somehow different. Since the day they moved to this pristine white cottage, they never shared the mornings like this, like they used to before that day in March; Annie would get up earlier and go jogging, come back with fresh berries and fruits, the apples of her rosy cheeks lit with sunset’s kiss and yet, her face so sad and hollow, him - getting up twenty minutes later, taking care of hyacinths, checking all the vegetables, fruits, groceries, making a list of what they need, clean the terrace, start cooking breakfast. This is how it was for all these months. The only difference was in Armin’s companion - his cane.

But now, Annie playfully nudged him with her hip as she was hanging the towel behind his back after sponging her just-washed face, and he saw her frail smile in the reflection, which made him realize how lonely these mornings had been without her.

“I’m going to change and check what this gang already managed to do,” she said, brushing her hair.

“Well, judging by the aroma, something definitely delicious,” Armin muttered, focused on the blade, tightly placed between his fingers, guiding it across his jaw, covered with white foam.

“Maybe, but your pancakes are still the best,” her shoulders - and this seductive bare one! Focus on the shaving, dammit!- shrugged so casually as if it was the most evident thing, and somehow these simple words made his cheeks tinted in pink, heart swelling with an avalanche of warmth.

But before his mind came up with the answer, Annie turned around, already on her way out of the bathroom. Armin was on the verge of losing it completely as his shirt slipped from both shoulders , leaving her only in the light pink cotton panties with tiny daisies all over the fabric. Even after all these years together, after knowing each small change in her sighs and moans, every shade her mesmerizing eyes could turn, every curve of her body and every mole, every scar, her bewitching, almost bare, frame made him nearly cut his skin with a shaving blade. Armin was forced to look away to focus on the process that is, at least, not so dangerous as his wife, but not in the light the majority of the world knew Annie Arlert-Leonheart; this type of danger is known only to him, and Armin is gladly falling as a victim of her beauty.

The razor glides over his jawline with practiced precision, and this rhythmic scrape of metal against the bristle awakened the memories of the days long gone. His mind wandered to the cadet corps, to a boyhood where the act of shaving had been a mark of maternity, something the other boys had embraced long before Armin stumbled into it late - awkwardly, under the mocking scoffs and side eyes, just like the dancer joining a waltz already in full swing. Little did this boy with longer hair and slimmer shoulders know that this daily ritual would become as familiar as witnessing the sun rise again or that the girl who set his heart ablaze with gleaming woven strands, sunlit with the grace of bronze dawn, would one day claim his shirt as her pajamas, wearing the matching with his ring of golden thread encircling the same finger as his.

Could this fourteen years old clumsy boy with a dream even think about his twenty-nine like this, him being a man who would put this happiness below, the life he didn’t deserve but miraculously gained, turning it into the wind-scoured ochre dunes of regret with mirages of mirthful memories shimmering on the horizon that dissolved into arid nothingness as he approached them?

Only the bravest and most tenacious ones could survive in the arid wastelands, in a world where even the strongest feelings struggle to take root. Is there a place for forgiveness in a kingdom of the sweltering sun in the bones and dusty air in the lungs, where nature was born to withstand?

As Armin rinses the last traces of foam with a splash of cool water, his eyes catch the glint of gold around his finger - the color of waxmelt sun before the sunset, when it shines with the most bright shades of ore caramel, and yet, so dainty and soporific, the daisy promise of upcoming rest, shielded by the raven wings of the obsidian night; the color of the true-auric promise - he broke; the color so plain - and eloquent by all the shades of his wrongdoings.

Could he ever be worthy of it again, of this color?

The drained sigh left his lips with the silent whistle, and Armin drops his head forward, shaking it a few times, before drying his face with the towel. He needs to hurry up. Everyone must have been waiting for him - like it always was, always the last one, who made everyone else’s steps halt in their journey and wait for such a weakling like him, who made these people look behind, in the past, instead of looking forward, into the future that awaited for them.

Armin moved to his and Annie’s bedroom, where his wife’s habit of tossing her clothes around - well, in this case, technically, his, but who cares about such petty nuances - brings a smile to his lips. His fingers pick the discarded cloth from the floor, still warm from her skin and one sleeve slightly wet from washing her face, and he carefully folds the shirt, laying it on her side of their bed.

Switching to the simple black pants and dark blue shirt, Armin made his way to the mirror to comb his hair, which wasn’t that messy anymore anyway - Annie played with his strands so delicately after their sleep that it was already almost perfectly neat. His eyes land on his reflection again, on the glass double that looked a bit different: something in this gaze, upon the midnight blue of waves, meander the sunlit fireflies that turned his irises into a winsome azure mosaic that reflected all his fears from the past and hopes for the future.

Breathing deeply, his chest rising, Armin turns around and heads to the lively sounds behind the door. As he steps into the kitchen, the life unfolds before him with the strokes of chiffon morn tide spilling in pristine powder of fresh, rested light upon the terrace, tinting everything in a shade of riveting nostalgia.

The harmonious pouring of water with a wiggling motion, followed by the melody of gentle spirals into the Chemex filter, guided by Mikasa’s precise movements, effuse the kitchen with soothing cadence, three empty mugs beside her on the counter, waiting to be filled. Not so far away, near the sink and bathed in the diamond flows of the morning from the open window, Reiner hums in a hushed whistle while his hands deliberately dry the dishes after the cooking before putting them away in the cupboards.

The terrace door yawned wide, inviting the light ivory day-peep breath to twirl with the delicious aroma of freshly brewed coffee that stemmed from four mugs already sat on the table outside, their steam curling upwards. The sizzling omelettes, golden as the sunrise itself, were already served on almost all plates. Jean, an apron, relatively smaller for him, around his front frame, stands there on the patio, carefully flowing the cooked eggs from pan to the plate in a graceful movement - of course, who would even question that this man would miss the chance to showcase… Beside him, Pieck swayed lazily to the gramophone’s gentle hums. Soft as dawn light on still water, her gaze lingered on Jean in front of her as she murmured something that made him crane his neck and laugh, his shoulders shaking with the mirth. Just behind them, upon the vanilla sun rays, the hyacinths dandle in rhythm with the loitering sea breeze, their purple hue blushed into lavender with velvet rose tinge, the morning dew glistening like champagne pearls on the fragile petals, caressed by Connie’s fingers with the same care he folds his paper figurines, as he crouched in front of the garden. Annie stands there too, with her back bent and palms pressed to her knees and seems like she is explaining something to Connie, as the grey strands of the hair, now slightly longer on the top of his head, swayed with his eager nodding and turns of his face to her side and back to the flowers every five seconds.

Armin stands there, his eyes darting around the room and the plateau, wholly caught in the moment and unable to breathe. His family, his dearest ones, all of them there, in this blissful sunlit morning that erupts with so much love as if the sun had yearned to kiss the sky for so long that it set aglow those infinite blues to jasmine yellow with the delightful smooch. A lump rose in his throat, and emotions welled in his heart - too pathetically small to contain all the lapping waves of overwhelming happiness that threatened to spill from his eyes.

Does he deserve all of it? Another morning, when all the paths lay untrodden and unsoiled, the daisy light of the upcoming day calling birds to fly and the topaz skies waiting for the clouds to ruff in ripples and give to the infinite hue of blue the pulse that grants this world another day of living?

Does he?

The tears prick at the corners of his eyes, and his hands curl into fists, trying to resist the urge to weep. But then Pieck opens her eyes after laughing at something with Jean, and her gaze lays upon him across the corridor from the terrace to the place he had frozen. A radiant, beautiful smile spreads across her face, tainted by the gentle sepia brushstroke of the soft sun.

“Good morning, sleeping beauty-y-y!” Her voice, clear and warm, calls, her hand vigorously waving at him.

And just like by the spell, her greetings draw all eyes to his turned-to-stone figure, and the chorus of good morning! ’s in all the tunes so different but so endeared to him, enveloped his body in an embrace so frank and loving that it melted the rock stiffness of his muscles into the elated warmth that spread inside of him just like the barren branches burst with crisp green at spring, and Armin breaks.

Just for one second, he forgets about all his sins, all the things he has done, and what he ruined, and lets the sheer joy drip from his eyes as tears, no longer able to keep them—and no longer wanting to hold them.

“G-good morning, e-everyone,” he sniffed, covering the face with his palm.

“Oh, come on now, it’s only eight in the morning, and you’re already in tears!” Jean shouts, no malice in his voice, but rather the playful annoyance, graced with genuine worry he tries to hide with the slight groggy tint to his words, but everyone in this house knew him far too well to ken his true nature of being just adorably shy (and just a tad a bit silly) to show his concerns clearly. “Hurry up, I hear your stomach growl even in the distance!”

“Y-yeah, of course, sor-ry,” Armin chuckled, wiping away the wet traces from his cheeks with the back of his palm. But suddenly, his vision darkened with circular motions across his face, something mushy and quite pleasant to the touch.

“Wh-”

“Now, better,” the unexpected darkness disappears as quickly and hastily as it appeared, and blinking rapidly, Reiner’s figure defogs in front of him, the same cloth he used to dry the dishes in his hand and a comforting smile on his lips.

It was so absurdly flattering that Armin’s jaw dropped loosely before the profound laughter bubbled up from deep within him, and the string of amazed chortles fumbled from the grin that overtook his now dry face.

“Thank you, Reiner”.

“Any time,” Reiner pats Armin on his shoulder before turning around and tossing the kitchen towel to the cabinet. “We’re waiting for you and Mikasa with coffee on the terrace.”

With that, the wooden floor chimes with familiar creaks! and cracks! as Reiner makes his way to the patio, where Pieck is scolding Jean for being “an adorable pain in the ass.”

Blinking back the last remnants of tears, Armin moved towards Mikasa, who immediately turned her head to his side as he approached her. With a warm smile on her lips, she gave him a quick peck on the cheek.

“How did you sleep?” She asks, returning her attention to the water and watching it slowly drain through the filter.

“Wonderful,” the corners of his mouth lift, remembering Annie’s loving arms around him, her heart a mollifying ebbing tide as harmonious as dreamy waves. “Honestly, I didn’t sleep that good in a while.”

“I’m glad,” Mikasa nods, her fingers carefully hooking the paper corners of the filter and removing it from the dripper. She puts her palm under the acute conical end of the filter to prevent the drops from falling onto the wooden floor and paints it with coffee stars as she marches to the sink to let it drain there.

“And you?” Armin encircles his fingers around the wooden collar and gives the glass hourglass bowl a few swirls before starting to fill the mugs that were waiting their turn.

“Oh, excellent,” he hears her voice through the falling water from the faucet. “It’s very calm here. I love such secluded places, far away from everyone.”

A sudden stab of unease shrivels his gut with tension at these words, muttered so evenly and lightly as if Armin didn’t know about the wooden cabin, hidden amidst the mountains. The flashes of the place that never existed but was alive only in the Paths bloomed in his memory, recalling their first meeting three years from the Battle of Heaven and Earth, when Mikasa told him, under the tree, upon that hill. It was almost the same as it used to be. Mikasa, her hair so unusually longer and in a ponytail; Armin, the Ambassador hazelnut-colored suit on his grown body; and Eren, six feet underground. She told him, then, about this ephemeral paradise, rimmed with evergreen emerald green on the slopes, the silky grass, the serpentines of cerulean rivers, and the eternal stillness, where she could hear Eren’s heartbeat even miles away.

A hard pulse thumps in his throat, and Armin just nods, biting his bottom lip, putting the now empty Chemex bowl to the side on the counter.

“R-right, yeah.”

Mikasa appeared at his side just in a heartbeat, her hands immediately hooked around the handles of the mugs, and she glances at him with a slight shake of her head toward the terrace.

“Let’s go. Everyone is waiting for us.”

Together, they carry the steaming cups to the table, crowded with all seven plates, full to the brim with the golden omelettes, folded in half, their edges crisp, centers brimming with savory fillings, chives, and basil, scattered on top; just in the center - a large bowl of green salad, overflowing with the crispness of fresh cucumbers, nestled among the juicy redness of tomatoes, the peppery bite of radishes and the delicate crunch of spring onions with the sweet kernels of corn; nearby, a plate like an artist’s palette of slices peaches, their ruby and merigold hues glistening with ripeness, besides - the pile of sweet cherries, the small dots from the water still on the dark skins like the dew; another plater with cottage cheese cupcakes, its mouthwatering baked surface adorned with golden apricot jam and grounded almonds.

Everyone had already settled into their seats, and Armin sat between Pieck and Connie, just across Annie, her gaze intense at these circle-shaped cupcakes, and his mouth twitched in an amazed grin. She’s so adorable, he thinks, the curve still on his face.

His fingers grab the fork and knife, digging it into the fluffy surface of the cooked eggs, the satisfying sound of foamy bubbles popping in hushed puffs as Armin cut the small piece, already noticing that it’s filled with something green and white. He didn’t even have time to make some predictions: the hunger that wasn’t silent till this moment suddenly became very demanding and guided his hand immediately to his mouth, and his taste buds just burst with the delicate flavor of sautéed asparagus, mushrooms, and goat cheese.

“Ha, good?”

Armin raised his eyes to Jean across the table; his content smile couldn’t have gotten larger.

“It’s marvelous,” he says honestly, swallowing the food.

“Only you could call the food marvelous, ” Connie snorts, knife and fork deep into the omelette, which was already almost finished.

“Mom’s new recipe,” Jean ignores Connie’s comment, preferring Armin’s way of complimenting his cooking skills. He smirks, cutting the small triangle of asparagus with beaten egg for himself, sending it to his mouth. “She sent me this immediately once she learned we’re going to visit our beloved cousins, Aiden and Aelin .”

“Tell her my thanks,” Armin smiled, his bottom lip slightly quivering.

“It’s honestly very delicious.”

“Sure, will do,” Jean winked and turned his full attention to the food.

The morning tide of the sunlit light sky is carelessly drenching the terrace in a delicate silk veil, casting soft shadows that shimmered with a shade of summer yellow daisies, bloomed on the edges, and danced to the rhythm of the lulling sea at a distance, clutters of forks and knives against the plates and the low hums of the gramophone. Hyacinths weave their fragrant scent through the air, mingling in harmony with freshly cooked food and will-whipped brine, like lovers’ fingers laced together in perfect puzzle pieces.

Is this what Erem wanted for them, a long life, huh?

Is this serenity, this simple joy of existence, the moments of a calm morning, where the world seems to pause and breathe with them, is this what he wanted, them becoming not only the survivors - but alive, truly and freely, in the warmth of each other’s presence?

Armin scrapes the last morsel of omelette from his plate, savoring the last bite before reaching for a cottage cheese cupcake. The plate was already missing four, and he glanced around, noticing that none of them had yet finished their omelets… except for one culprit. His gaze tiptoes to Annie; the eggs on her plate lie untouched, and her cheeks flushed and full, half-lidded eyes soft and hazy from pure delight. Damn, I love her so much, Armin’s heart swelled as he watched her, so unguarded and completely lost in the sweetness of the dessert, savoring each bite, and he thinks that this was all he ever wanted. To see her happy, in the moment of ordinary bliss, the future of endless mornings like this one, the sun, the sea, the scent of flowers and delicious food, and Annie, always Annie, relaxed and careless.

“U-u-uhm?”

The small cough to Annie’s left brings Armin from his reverie, and he blinks swiftly, shaking his head and finally picking up the cupcake.

“What is it?” Armin asks Reiner, who is rocking back and forth in his seat and looking quite nervous.

“Uhm,” he started again, the fork swirling on the plate, which was also empty. “Will you tell me where Mrs Haugen is living?”

“Pf-f-f, Reiner, one day in a new place, and you’re already running on a date?” Connie’s lips parted in a beaming laugh, but he swallowed it immediately with the cherries he picked up from the plate.

“It’s not like that!” Reiner throws his arms out in protest. “I just befriended this lady on the ship, and she’s very nice. We just talked, and she said that her roof is leaking, and her husband lost his legs eleven years ago while he was serving in the Marleyan army, and now he couldn’t really amend anything,” his voice grows a bit stern, losing the energetic tune at the beginning. “And she’s afraid to climb up so high because once she fell, she now has problems with her back! And I just offered my help, that’s it!”

“Oh my, Reiner, who even would think that you’re such a lady’s pleaser,” Pieck mused, her eyes not even on him but closed in contentment as she sipped her coffee.

“It’s not like that!” In complete defeat, Reiner drops his head on the table with a loud thud.

“I will tell you, relax,” Annie pats his back before reaching for her sixth cupcake.

Reiner’s head swiftly raised from the surface, and he leaned to capture her in his bear embrace, “Oh Anni-i-i-e, you’re only one with the heart her-”

“No, I just can’t stand your sour physiognomy from the very morning,” her free from the cupcake palm stopped him, pressing it to his face, her voice unbothered and almost colorless, as if only Armin - and, truth to be told, everyone around the table - didn’t know that Reiner, in fact, was right about her kind heart. Well, in this, his wife matched with Jean.

“By the way,” Jean puts down his knife and brushes his lips with a napkin before continuing. “I also befriended one lady, and she told me there’s a waterfall on this island.”

“Well, you, it’s not a surprise,” Pieck hums, the light thud of her mug returning to the table. She reaches with her fork for the sliced half-moons of the peaches. “You’re like the flower full of the nectar for the bees.”

“It’s not my fault I’m so attractive,” Jean crosses his arms across his chest, head up, and a confident smile plays on his lips. But he hastily adds, with the subtle concern ringing, “But my heart is yours.”

“You’re just easy to spot,” Connie snorts, while Pieck just smirks, her face silently telling , not like I even doubted it. “ So stupidly tall.”

“You’re just jealous,” the pout in Jean’s voice was too prominent not to be amused, and Armin just shook his head with a soft chuckle fleeting from his mouth, while Pieck snorted and Mikasa also tried to hide her tiny giggles behind the mug.

“It’s not the point, dammit,” Jean rolls his eyes, leaning forward and placing his elbows on the table. “She told some legend, something about the Son of the Sea and the Daughter of Flames. There were lovers, despite being from the enemy clans, and they couldn’t even touch each other, but then, they visited the celebration of the harvest and jumped across the bonfire, becoming mortal. Now being able to love and touch each other.”

Armin didn’t even know that this island had such stories. Of course, how would he know, not leaving their cottage for months? And yet, he is fascinated with how much this world still has to offer - stories so different and yet so human, despite the place. Armin listens to it with his full attention; his hand froze mid-air with the fork with peach pricked on it, but then, just for a fleeting flip of bird’s wing in flight, he noticed Annie’s hand slightly twitch as her fingers picked the cherry from the plate. It falls back to the pile, and a few other round berries slide down and jump out of the plate to the table. But she is fast to pick another one and throw it in her mouth, as if nothing had happened a second ago, and Armin felt his brows forming a puzzled crease that tickle the wrinkles on his forehead, but his confusion didn’t last long.

“It sounds like a magnificent legend,” Mikasa smiles, her fork nibbling on the golden crust of the cupcake before slightly pressing into it, chipping herself a small piece.

“Yes! God, the only person here who understands!” Jean exclaimed, his head actively nodding. “So yes, there’s also a festival in August because of this legend. Something… uhm…” he stops, brows furrowed, trying to remember the name. “Something to do with Tides.”

“Luminous Tides Festival,” Annie says, her eyes on the mug between her hands. But then, she raises her gaze to Armin, and in a whisper, she adds, just for him. “Rósa told me.”

The sudden hesitance slows his nod, his eyes on hers across the table, but eventually, he shakes his head in acknowledgment, his brows slightly jumping with oh, right, I see expression.

“Bingo!” Jean snaps his fingers, his mouth in a broad smile. “Anyway, this waterfall, from this legend, it really exists, and the way this lady described it, it’s beautiful.”

“So?” Connie leaned back in his chair, arms stretching.

“So I want to go there. Who wants to join?” The loud clasp of excitement elevated Jean’s spirits even higher, his toes tapped rapidly under the table with rhythmic thuds. His eyes outline everyone, stopping at Reiner, and he waves his hand at him. “Well, this heartbreaker is already out of consideration, but who else?”

“I told you it’s not like that…” Reiner covers his face with his two palms, the tip of his ears red.

Armin gulps his coffee, suddenly more bitter than it was the minute before. His eyes find Annie, his heart drumming in his tight chest, already preparing to see her beautiful face distorted by anxiety. But when his gaze lingers on her, she looks calm, unbothered even, her shoulders relaxed as she munches on the peach slice, a bit of juice on her lips.

There’s no sound from everyone for a few heartbeats, and Pieck is the first to shutter this sudden tranquillity.

“Alright, then, I have a plan,” she declared, standing up and going around the table, reaching Annie and Mikasa sitting side by side. She stands just before the two girls, putting her right palm on Mikasa’s left shoulder and her left one - on Annie’s right. “So, our Prince Charming goes to Mrs Haugen,” Pieck grins, ignoring Reiner’s groans, “and you, sweetie, Connie, and Armin go to the waterfalls.”

“And what about three of you?” A single raised eyebrow on Connie’s slightly confused face looks almost like the tail of the question mark, while Jean slightly shifts in his seat, his cheeks just a pinch aglow from his pet name, his fiancée declared in front of everyone.

“We stay here and have a girl’s day only on the beach,” Pieck’s eyes sparkle with sheer enthusiasm and thrill. She cranes her neck. “What would you say, girls?”

Armin’s stomach clenches into a tight ball, but to his surprise, Annie just nods without any other emotion that would make his heart shut to pieces.

“Sounds good to me,” she shrugs, her eyes on Mikasa. “What about you?”

“It would be lovely,” Mikasa smiles, her cheeks slightly rouge with an almost transparent blush.

“Settled, then!” Pieck swings her arms wide in a victorious gesture.

And just like that, plates, bowls, and cups, filled with bursts of colors and delightful food not so long ago, now stand in towers near the sink in the kitchen while Armin scrubs away the remnants of their breakfast, his hands submerged in soapy water. His thoughts swirl in his head like the frothy bubbles in the washbasin; the question of his journey with Connie and Jean to the waterfall sat heavily on his tongue with burning concern, each time he nervously licked his lip, leaving the embers on the soft skin.

He handed Annie a freshly rinsed plate and glances at her just for a moment, his mouth already open to ask her if she’s really alright with it, but their kitchen bustles like a beehive, so crowded with others moving in and out.

With the last fork found its place in the drying rack, Armin wiped his hands on a towel, the fabric soft against his skin, and he moved through their cottage to their bedroom. He pulls out the soft wool mustard cardigan, the package of the cigarettes, and a lighter to his pants pocket, and his eyes fall upon his cane at the corner. It stands there, a silent, wooden stick that tangles his mind into the web where every decision would lead him to a dead end. A knot of uncertainty tights in his chest, his hand hovering hesitantly over the handle, inches apart, and yet, it turns to stone, with no movement forward.

“Armin.”

Armin rocks back, his hand flying away from the cane, and he blinks rapidly at the sound of his name in Annie’s voice—gentle yet firm, just like the bell ringing in a quiet valley. She stays there, in the door frame, and he opens his mouth to speak— finally —but her soft eyes meet his. The look in her gaze answers this question before the words stumble out of his mouth.

“Just be careful,” she steps closer, and the toeballs of her feet push her slightly higher. Armin also leans forward to meet her butterfly lips against his cheek.

“Is everything-”

“Yes,” Annie whispers, her feet flat against the wooden floor. Her hand finds his, the same one that hovered above the cane handle, and she squeezes it, her gaze focused directly on his eyes. “Enjoy your time, alright?”

.

.

.

The long viridian blades of grass waver upon the flowing tides of languorous salty breeze and the tender wind that guest warmly between the verdant ribbons. It made everything around the thin, barely visible path that snaked through the labyrinths of green sterns pulsate like the sea, and Armin just let the rich emerald waves carry him, Jean’s back in front of him, and Connie’s whistling behind, just a few steps away. Mountains loomed on the horizon, clothed by the golden glow from the sun high above, marooned in the clarity of the azure sky, pierced only by the craggy silhouettes of the snowy peaks and wisps of cotton clouds, their downy feathers shapes melding in a slow, dreamlike lullaby.

What an irony, Armin thought, making their way through the idyllic scenery, knit by the daydreaming threads, fulgent in its graceful lucidity, the wind carrying their laughs, bright and free, as they remember all the fails and triumphs of their cadet days: he promised Eren to come to him to hell after his death, and what his soul greedily drinks at that moment is nothing but heaven nectar, so magnificently mind-spinning.

Months ago, the exact amount of which he isn’t even sure as the days blurred into one endless calendar sheet, Armin stepped into this land of wild beauty, but all his mind could really capture at that time was Annie’s arm around his, and the rhythmic thuds of his cane, strangely ricocheting in his chest louder than his own heartbeat. He didn’t even look around, his gaze locked on the pebbles beneath his feet and the striking pain in his leg and abdomen, but now his neck was already sore from all the turns and twists, trying to embroid his memory with every green leaf, every shade of the stoic mountains that stand sentinel, of every stone that made his feet slightly slip, of every cylinder of light, pouring through the puffy clouds in gleaming shadows that play upon the green waves in ghostly stains.

As they walk, the landscape suddenly changes. On the edge, where the infinite symphony of green ribbons abruptly merges with the massive mountain rubbles, they hear the graceful murmur of lacy poetry in a silver veil of cascading water. And before them opens the beauty of untamed nature, the raw, rugged rocks stand like the spine of the hunched beast in their stony, endless slumber, cursed by the ancient gods, and the waterfall washes their face with liquid crystals like tears of their weeping soul, giving birth to the serpent of the river, that carved its way towards the distant echo of the gasping sea.

So, this is what this waterfall is, from the legend about the Son of the Sea and the Daughter of Flames, two lovers who cannot touch each other, and giving their god’s souls in exchange for mortal lives. What did this place mean for these lovers, Armin wondered, as he, Jean, and Connie stand still in muted awe, not even breathing, eyes wide and heart drumming loudly. Was it their place of secret dates? Was it where they vowed to love each other no matter what, or was it here where their hearts were broken, longing for each other’s touch?

Armin first noticed the small lake nestled at the waterfall’s feet, the vitreous surface so crystalline it’s almost invisible as if not for the reflection of the clear sky. Something glimmered beneath the water, bringing him to all these years back- he’s fifteen again, the god of destruction inside of him, and the curiosity that always marched step by step with him, pulling his legs right to the lake. Armin rolls up his pants, and the chilly embrace, as he wades into the pool, sends shivers up his spine, but his eyes are enamored by the kaleidoscope of stones below, which sheen with the beauty of antique times. His fingers plunge beneath the surface, breaking the stillness of the gauzy silken canvas, the ripples tiptoeing in a tranquil circle around him.

Each stone he lifts, polished by the water’s soft kiss and cool against his palms, is a world unto itself - pools of colors trapped in minerals - powder blues, dusty pinks, lilac laces, mint clouds, porcelain moons - and all of the shade carry the stories of this island’s long memory, the witnesses to the love of the Son of the Sea and the Daughter of Flames.

Just out of pure impulse, Armin brings one stone to his ear, with the futile hope of hearing its hushed whispers and tales of the lovers from enemies’ clans, to know how these two opposites were able to challenge nature itself, but his skin just shivers from the frigid sensation.

The absolute silence, despite the waterfall, roars just behind his back.

Only then does Armin realize he’s alone in the lake, with no Jean or Connie beside him. A prickling sensation of shame shoots across his skin, and he swiftly turns around, water lapping at his knees, a few stones falling back to the lake from his palms with the soft bulK!

There they were, still rigid at the same spot where he left them, their first firmly clenched, so chalk-white even at a distance faces stiff and stern, a web of wrinkles on their foreheads as they clearly tried to hold something back, eyes fixed directly on him.

“Guys, what’s wrong?” Armin’s eyes dart from Jean to Connie, his voice feeble with confusion.

Something in them cracks and then - shatters. Loudly. Fiercely. Till the last piece.

Suddenly, they’re in motion, their feet barely touching the ground, and just like the tidal wave, unexpected and hissing, Jean and Connie crush into Armin, arms wrapping around him, their grips solid and desperate. His world turns upside down even before his mind can comprehend what happened, and together, they tumble into the lake’s embrace, welcomed by the tender yet biting splash.

Through the roars of the waterfall, Armin hears their sobs, raw and unrestrained, echoing against the stone cradle, and they cling to him as if they were afraid he would dissolve into the frigid mist that dances around them.

Not sure what was happening, Armin tentatively raised his hands, putting his palms on Jean’s and Connie’s back as they hugged him.

“Hey, what hap-”

“We thought we would lose you too!” Jean screamed, his fingers clenching Armin’s damp shirt, the deep cobalt blue turning into coal.

Too.

His arms slip from their backs and hang limply at his sides. A tingle rushes across his skin, now so numb, and all the air in his lungs just froze, turning into icebergs, eyes widening. Wha-

“We’ve told you a goodbye o-once in Shiganshina, but you came back!” Connie sniffed, his face buried in the crook of Armin’s neck. “But this time, you wouldn’t! There’s no any other serum or whatever s-s-sh*t anymore that would bring you b-back!”

Their tears mingle with the waterfall splashes, now indistinguishable— each drop is a memory of their story, of all the shared nights and mornings, battles fought, holidays spent, wide smiles, and loud cries.

The soaked and heavy clothes stuck to his skin with a frigid grip, and yet the warmth of his friends’—no, brothers’ —bodies against his own kept his heart still beating, hammering wildly like the bird that wants to taste the world not in bars.

“What if… what if we have lost you too?” The tight knot on Armin’s back from Jean’s clasp felt even slightly painful, but Armin sat there unblinking, muscles locked in paralysis. “What… would we… do, Armin?!”

In this suspended moment, a whirlwind of thoughts collided like storm clouds; the magnitude of what he had done hit with the force of a thunderclap.

“We’re still here, do you hear?”

“We’re still together.”

“We’re so glad you’re alive.”

“We’re so, so, so glad.”

Here, at the place where moons and suns witnessed millennia of change and past and future alloyed into the gushing pulse, in the tumbling waterfall in front of him, in its endless cascade, he felt the incessant flow of time, of love that wins even in the face of the world colliding, because waterfalls never fall—they fly, without resistance, just dash where they want to go.

Don’t force it.

Let it happen.

And Armin does.

A single tear escapes, blending with all the water around them, no longer understanding whether it’s his tears, Jean’s, or Connie’s - or maybe everything is just a waterfall. It doesn’t matter when, slowly as if waking from a deep, deep slumber, Armin’s trembling arms rise, encircling Jean and Connie, pulling them even closer.

Closer to his heart, so they hear, so they know he’s honest.

Armin means it when he smiles through the streaming tears, nods, and feels like everything will be alright.

Because, one day, he will be alright.

“I’m glad I’m alive too.”

My Yellow Light in Your Soft Whispers - Chapter 8 - Anna_Wayne - Shingeki no Kyojin (2024)
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