It had been three months to the day the Titans surrounding Paradis were all exterminated, yet there was nothing much to be done at present. Rebuilding the damages and consoling the families of those recently deceased took up time, consumed resources, and once the illusion of immediacy fell away it left Armin bitter, yearning for an attack, something, anything to indicate their victory was not so hollowly earned; but that change had already come, and he did not wish to consider that he might for a minute sound like Eren.
To-day: a sunny after-noon alone in the library at Trost's Legion HQ, waiting for Eren to come back from another series of tests with Commander Hanji; his powers were only beginning to grow, and making guillotines out of crystal was just one proven expenditure. Mikasa was busy enough, training with Captain Levi to assume a similar position; Armin was happy for her, even if it didn't alleviate his loneliness. Annie made decent company when she decided to tag along.
"Why does he do it?" Armin thought aloud, already knowing the answer. Eren will never be content until he's sure that his actions are well-earned. It might kill him someday.
"He wants to think he's in control of himself," Annie said, matter-of-factly. "What about you?"
Armin hesitated. "What about me?"
"Are you in control?"
"That's a broad statement. I don't have the context to answer you appropriately."
Annie seemed to ruminate on that for a while. "What context?"
He figured she could see it in his eyes, or sense it in his hunched posture; the duality he tried to suffocate, this conflict between the friend he feared to lose and the tenuous alliance he'd formed with her — for now.
(Annie's betrayal was old news to most who were there when she'd first crystallised herself — and there was really no one left to care about her besides Eren or Hanji. She's like a bug behind glass, he'd thought, in the days before she'd woken up. A petty nuisance. I don't know why we're bothering to keep her.
Though Eren had likely surpassed her in sheer ability, by now; perhaps she was still superior in terms of technique? Supposing Eren's Titan would be able to consume her — well, it's called the Female Titan — or was the title more significant?)
"He's told me before, what he thinks will happen after the Marley arrive. I don't think he's too keen on budging," Armin grumbled.
"Have you asked him lately?"
Armin couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Why do you care?"
She shrugged. "I don't, really."
Armin considered that. Regardless of his inheritance, he was sure that he had never felt anything towards her before, besides apathy. He told himself in his head until it stuck — but it was something beyond his control, at least theoretically, and he could not afford that kind of vulnerability. It made him leery to talk to her, but it also forced him to try; he would not be cowed by mere hypotheticals. Besides, it was nice to talk to somebody who didn't expect much in return.
"You're his friend, Arlert. It's not my job to be a messenger."
He had tried talking with Eren. Several times, in fact. It usually went something like this:
"This revenge you want so desperately; it's not end-all, so what will be left afterwards?"
"We'll have ended the war," Eren said simply. He sounded tired, more often these days, in a sense that Hanji's ruthless testing or the strange new anxiety brought on in a world without Titans could not be faulted for; it penetrated his eyes, went beyond the physical strain. Armin did find it wearisome to keep running around the same concepts like this, day-in, day-out, like military ritual. That was one of the bigger reasons they weren't talking so much; let Eren come to him for a change, for old time's sake.
And Armin couldn't remember the last time they had talked about unimportant matters, but he himself had no patience for triviality anymore. The sight of the ocean had thrilled him, yes — enough to smuggle back a shell with him in his quarters, while Eren had carried nothing at all but his newfound revenge — but that had been some time ago. Armin did not want to see the new cadets that would never quite understand what it was exactly they were being trained for, would never experience the fresh horror of something like Trost, watching your best friend slip away into the belly of a Titan and know you could do nothing but scream.
(There was hardly a need anymore, Armin mused, to strongly emphasise teaching them how to use manoeuvre gear. Give them guns, and instruct them more thoroughly in how to lead each other to victory in human combat — it was only a matter of time, given what he and Eren had seen in flashes, this terrifying, beautiful World Beyond the Walls.)
Eren was the only one who would humour him and listen when they talked about strategy — Annie was becoming familiar, but Armin did not like to dwell on this notion for long, as it incited the same pit of mistrust in his gut; she was never your friend, she may have spared you once, better not to test it, despite what Bertholdt's memories say.
This ritual began every time he put his thoughts to paper: your name is Armin Arlert, you are sixteen years old, no, seventeen, and you are in the Scouting Legion.
He supposed his friendship with Eren was not something that would last indefinitely, no more than Eren's relationship with Annie, but nothing was truly indefinite from the human perspective. Mortality was their only constant.
Armin was a patient boy, now nearly a man, though he did not feel like he had grown up very much between the years. Several years of exhaustive military training had hardened his body, but that could be said for any one of them. Now, the miraculous, unexpected nature of his rebirth turned him strange and flawless. Cuts were quick to heal and he did not tire as easily as he had before. Energy was abundant, always itching beneath his skin and muscles.
The Colossus Titan, when he transformed, was nothing like what he had imagined it would be, all those times pulling Eren from the nape of his Titan, feeling the heat of his skin. It was a laborious thing, heavy on his back and in his chest, burning so intensely he knew it would have grievously wounded him as a mortal boy.
It stuck with him upon reawakening in the Garrison's infirmary, Mikasa at his side.
"Eren's worried," she'd confided, "about you."
Of course, he had thought. Eren is still my friend. We may have our differences, but even so, he's my friend. He'd die for me still, and I don't deserve it. I don't deserve him.
All he had said was: "Tell him I'd love to talk."
"I'm worried about you," Armin told Eren now, careful to keep his tone clinical. "You shouldn't push yourself too hard; you'll be ill-fit for combat."
"You sound like Mikasa." Eren wiped his nose, sitting up on the cot. "Both of you worry too much. It's going to shorten your lifespan." He flashed him a grin through the crimson blotting his lip; Armin did not reciprocate.
"You don't talk to anyone about normal things, anymore. All you seem to care about, from my perspective, is this war that we haven't even started yet. We don't know exactly what is out there waiting for us."
"It's out there, we can't ignore it forever. And why d'you care?" His tone was oddly brittle, churlish. Armin didn't understand.
"You're — we're friends, Eren."
"So what? I can look after myself."
If the right person talked to him, gave him a clear sense of direction, he would probably do almost anything if it meant getting a leg up over the enemy. Armin felt tired again.
"I never asked you to worry about me," Eren said bluntly. "Not all the time. We can —" he glanced back at him, suddenly anxious "— shit, I mean. I want to look after you, as well."
"You're not — this isn't like what you have with Annie," Armin said, defensive, "and you know it, don't you?"
Eren let his hand drop, curling to an empty fist. "Armin," he croaked. "That's not what I meant."
But the emotion was there, bleeding into his voice, the clenching of his jaw. Armin felt light-headed. "What are you saying, then?"
Eren's face contorted, like he was at odds with himself. "I…" he licked his lips, would not meet Armin's eyes, "I thought you'd moved on, so."
Armin resisted the urge to take him by the shoulders and demand clarification. "You replaced me in your mind with someone else? Is that it?" He could not help the incredulity.
Eren's scowl deepened. "What? Goddammit, no. You're different from her, but that's not…" he grit his teeth, "I-I care about you. Both of you, not like Mikasa, and — I don't want to see you hurt, but… Christ, I don't know what that means." He looked miserable within conviction. Armin wasn't sure what to make of this.
"Does Annie know?"
Eren flushed. "Shit, I dunno."
Mikasa wasn't around often enough to give counsel; Armin had never really how much they struggled without her until now. But they were only getting older, and there was the ambiguity of the future ahead of them. They would need to work this out on their own.
"Are you going to tell her, then?"
Eren blenched, but did not answer.
It was a week or so before Eren got back with him; during this time, Armin found it difficult to hold conversation with Annie, who had gone quieter than usual. He threw himself into his duties as a solider and tried very, very hard not to dwell upon ambiguities.
Puberty had afflicted him later than most of his peers in Military Academy, which had kept his mind sharp, of course, but also disillusioned him greatly to the prospect of sex and desire — even now, it was something he treated as inefficient, messy and not something he could afford if he wanted to get ahead in life. Ignoring it was less of an option as he grew older. Masturbation was only a short-term solution; and it was difficult not to acknowledge who it was he circled back to in the end; he had tried blocking this out, thinking about other boys who would never look his way — not a difficult feat. This was hardly the time to address it. But when was that prudent moment, exactly? Was he going to be hoping until the day he died for something that simply didn't exist outside the boundaries of his ill-fitting, selfish desire to be wanted, like anyone else?
But Eren had said that he wanted him. He wanted him. He would not, could not, dispel this truth from his mind, invoking a dangerous, possibly hedonistic sense of optimism that kept him humming, impatient for what was next.
"So what did she say?" Armin asked him at last. "Annie, I mean." Eren didn't answer immediately. "You did ask her?"
"I think she knew." He sounded mystified. "She didn't really say anything. Is that, uh." He looked hopefully to Armin, who wasn't sure he liked where this was going — he told himself this firmly.
"What are you getting at?"
"Is it bad?" Eren mumbled, "that I, you know." They bumped shoulders; in the context of their conversation, it was a strangely intimate gesture.
Armin chewed his lip. "I don't know, Eren."
Eren laughed, low and nervous. "Well, I meant what I told you. And…" he chanced a glance at him, "I want to show you, what I mean."
Armin's head was spinning. Eren's hand was rough and sure in his.
"I-I really don't think that's —" Armin trailed off, half-hearted.
Eren squeezed. "I want you to know. Not just by me saying it."
"What about Annie?" Armin blurted.
"Didn't you talk to her?"
Armin could feel his face go hot. "What are you — oh God, Eren, she's not my friend."
Their laughter was shared, anxious. "O.K., O.K., I'll get her. We can talk —" his thumb kissed the ridges of his knuckles "— about this, someplace quieter. Meet me up at the square to-morrow morning, I've got nothing to do before then."
The place to meet, as it turned out, was a non-descript inn somewhere in Trost's outskirts. The man at the bar seemed confused when he asked for the names of his fellow soldiers.
"We're travelling through the city together on down-time," said Armin confidently; it was a white lie, after all. "We were planning on staying for a while —"
"Three of you?" the man cut in. Armin did his best not to look confused.
"That's correct, sir."
"If they're not out on the town, I expect they're up there. Already paid in advance. The room's the second one on your left, as soon as you come up the stairs."
Armin could barely contain himself. "Th-thank you, sir." Climbing the stairs with a mounting sense of anticipation, his hand gripping the rail tightly. He barely took in his surroundings, looked instead for the room on the left; the door was closed, which was a little worrying. He heard movement behind the door and lifted his hand to knock.
Someone cursed; footsteps approaching, and before Armin could hope that he'd picked the right room, the door opened and Eren was there. He looked dishevelled, missing his jacket and boots — Armin's eyes settled on the ridge of his clavicle.
"Armin," he said lowly. "Glad you could make it."
"What's with — oh."
Eren looked at Annie, who looked back at him half-naked from the bed, and Armin felt a little like dashing out quickly, inconspicuously, while there was still time to forget this had ever happened, but his feet wouldn't move.
It was Eren who met his eyes again, muttered: "Close the door behind you."
"Arlert?" Annie, sitting up, eying him intently. Her nudity seemed less indecent in close-quarters — or maybe he was just starting to accept this as a venerable outcome.
He was afraid, in the back of his mind, of what he would see when he looked at her — the memory of the surrogate intercepted by its inheritance — but they had known each other before, as cadets, then enemies, now soldiers, and had talked with their own names, and he was sure enough that he possessed memories before the retaking of Shiganshina, a personality that was all his own. But the same could be said of Eren.
"I-I'm not sure what you expect me to say," Armin muttered, staring intently at the wall above her left shoulder. "I didn't think you'd get started without me."
"Is that what you think it is about?"
Armin flustered. "God, no. I don't — want that to be the reason I'm agreeing to —" he could not look at Eren for very long without his mouth going dry.
Annie frowned. "No one said you had to agree to anything."
It was Eren who reached out and touched his shoulder; his hands were very warm, and Armin wasn't sure anymore, what or who he needed. "Armin," he said, very quietly. "What d'you want?"
"I —" his voice broke; he sucked in a furious breath "— I want to be sure this is my choice, right now, not — anyone else's." He did not add that there were several other, less emotionally compromising ways to accomplish this feat. "I don't want to get in the way of this," speaking quickly, evasive, "I can leave now, if you —" Eren's grip on him turned brusque; Armin flinched before he could stop himself.
"This isn't just about us," said Annie. "It's… " she faltered; offering reassurance was clearly not what she was used to, "…you and I, Arlert, we're not together. So we have nothing to lose."
"Because you have each other," said Armin, forcing himself to be patient, because neither of them would acknowledge what seemed to him so laughably, irrefutably obvious.
Her eyes hardened. "Well, you aren't like Bertholdt, are you?"
Armin shot her a furious look; how dare she bring that up now.
"Enough," said Eren curtly. Annie relented. "Right, Armin. You don't have to do anything you don't want, but. I don't mind if you stay a little longer." He had softened at the edges, his gruffness giving way to a kind of reckless certainty that Armin knew all-too well.
"What do you mean, stay?"
"You could watch," Eren muttered, going pink. "Think about it, then decide for yourself." He looked once more to Annie; she was sitting up straight, almost impatient. Armin didn't quite understand when Eren flashed him a cautious grin before walking over to rejoin her.
"Hold on, what about her?" Armin retorted.
Annie blinked. "What about me, Arlert."
"I —" suppressing the need to roll his eyes, because he didn't always want to be the sense of reason "— shouldn't we talk about this, first?"
Annie blinked. "He's willing, I'm willing, and you're still here."
Armin opened his mouth to dispute the point, but what was there to dispute? She didn't want him the way she did Eren, and he wouldn't have asked her to feel that way, but — maybe it wasn't so concrete, anyway.
"You want me to watch," he repeated. "Both of you."
He could see the blush splotching her cheeks as Eren rucked down her trousers. No one said anything to the contrary. Armin was still able to acknowledge the existence of his own human frailties; bit his tongue, weighing the desire that he had thought he'd long-since forgotten, but had known to be there all along.
"O.K.," he said lowly. "You, uh, don't have to wait for me."
Annie's eyes glinted. She took Eren's face in her hands, muttered something he couldn't make out at this distance. Eren swallowed dryly.
They were kissing again. A tentativeness persisted in Eren's hands as he pulled her into his lap, cupping her thighs and stomach and breasts, kissing her slow. Armin wondered if that was ritual, or if he should be thinking about their private lives in detail; in the present, Annie grunted and held Eren to her breast. Armin wanted to avert his eyes completely, but that would defeat the point, so in compromise he tried looking at her face.
They locked eyes and Armin couldn't have said a word, even if he'd wanted. She seemed to jolt in turn, wide-eyed and flushed, but then she groaned, rolling her hips against Eren's thigh, mussing his hair.
"Armin," she tried, the syllables heavy on her tongue, "Armin, c'mere."
Eren's shoulders shifted beneath. "Oi, are you still over there…?" he teased.
They weren't putting him on the spot, but it elicited the same swoop in his gut. They had talked about this before, then. He did not love her, not in this way; but of course, one didn't need to be in love to fuck another person? Shouldn't think like that. Shouldn't think at all, actually.
"Shit —" groaning, she tucked her head away. Eren kissed her in concern.
"No." Her voice was small.
"Hey, look. We, uh, don't have to."
"Do you want —" she bit her lip, undulating "— this? Us?"
Armin wondered who she was asking, really. Eren shivered. "Fuck, I…" he seemed to forget how to speak a moment, "yeah."
Annie raised her head. Her eyes were shiny when she called: "Arlert?"
On the bed, in a daze, he didn't remember getting there. And they didn't kiss, didn't touch, just held him. Mainly Eren. He could smell him, this close. Now, kissing him — would she feel left out? — Eren, palming him roughly through his chinos. "You want this, too?"
Armin nodded. "What do you…" going quiet as it struck him that perhaps Eren, like him, hadn't thought about this in a while.
"Strip," he told him. "I want to see you."
Armin unbuttoned himself with trembling fingers. Eren drank him in silently, the same unabashed desire in his eyes.
"You're beautiful, both of you," Eren muttered, flushed up to his ears — Annie bit her lip — and Armin felt ten times warmer than he had before. Eren seemed at a loss for what to do with himself after this revelation.
"Armin," he croaked, nuzzling him, reaching for her. "Annie." She stretched herself out languidly on the bed, eliciting a low sigh. Armin still felt overwhelmed. "You wanna go first, or…?" he grunted, nudging him with his shoulder, and Armin realised he meant him.
Armin scowled. "You were busy."
"Now I'm not." Licked his lips, hesitant, then said bravely: "Want me to suck you?"
Armin stared blankly at him. Even Annie made a little huffing noise in the back of her throat.
"I meant it," Eren grumbled, going pink again. "I want to."
Annie made no effort to conceal her amusement; Armin scoffed in retort. Eren took him by the shoulder.
"You trust me, yeah?" he muttered, and the sudden switch to undertones told him that he had not had much practise.
In an effort to save face, Armin said: "I'll do it first."
Eren stopped dead. "Shit, Armin."
"Let me try," he insisted. He did not add that he was worried he wouldn't be able to control himself.
Eren shivered with delight, kissing him. "O.K., O.K." Then put him on his knees — must've known, then, what he really wanted — and he ached for what was going to happen. It was Eren who sighed, offering himself promptly.
So Armin kissed it. Eren gasped a little, which was encouragement enough to continue; kissing, tonguing the head, until he was pushed back and Eren was muttering his name, yes, his name, stricken, and it was the same heady rush of infatuation as in dreams, only dizzyingly strong. So Armin took it in his mouth and the hand in his hair drew a fist, tugging him forward. Annie's weight shifted, came around his back, her mouth soft and sure over his nape and — he moaned drunkenly when he felt her hands curl around him, and Eren cursed, tugged a bit harder.
Armin felt him hit the back of his throat and gagged; Eren cupped his face, mumbling feverish apologies. He wanted Eren at his back, touching him, kissing him; he wanted him inside, he wanted to be fucked, giddy and terrified at the thought, but not in front of anyone else, not Annie.
In the end, Eren didn't let him finish and he was left gasping, indignant. "Don't wanna come like that," he mumbled. "You O.K.?"
"Fine," Armin grunted, sitting up and blotting at his mouth. Annie kissed his cheek tentatively. "Oi," he muttered, reaching back for her, "you don't have to —" melting when she pumped him again, and he moaned "— God, will you just — ah!"
"Shh," she breathed, catching his thighs and digging in lightly with her nails. "Not yet."
Armin groaned, his hips churning on air. Eren just laughed hoarsely, leaning in close enough to kiss but speaking soft instead: "How do you want us?"
So Armin rolled over onto his back and Annie was straddling him, cautious; he understood, vaguely, what he was supposed to do and took her by the hips, sank. He felt Eren come up behind him again, nipping his jaw, sitting him up, pulling him back by the waist and grinding recklessly against his ass and — it was too real, all of a sudden.
"Wait —" he gasped, arms back to brace himself insufficiently. "Eren, I can't." Too many variables outside of his control; diseases, the lack of any proper lubrication — he felt again like an obstruction, the weight of reality becoming an insufferable inconvenience.
Eren didn't let go, kissed his neck: "We don't have to." The same anxiety echoed in his voice; Armin was light-headed.
It was Annie who gripped his chin, said: "Arlert." She drew herself up on her knees and sank down slow. It felt good enough that he could relax, somewhat.
Eren, to his credit, wrapped his arms around them both and started to move in tandem. Clumsy, because none of them had ever done this before, but Annie was solid in his lap, kissing him pointedly, and Eren behind him, holding his hips, nose in his hair — he was getting taller every month, it seemed — this was such a simplistic, base way to express affection; Armin tried to think, but it was easier to hold her waist, kiss down her throat to the little jumping pulse in her neck — read once about this, because he was curious about the stimuli that was all — and her breath stuttered, walls squeezing him aptly.
He knew he wanted to move faster but couldn't, pinned between their bodies, too warm to think with any kind of clarity.
"Wait," he gasped. "Wait, you two."
Their responses were almost synchronous; Armin had to chuckle. "I-I can't really do much, from this position."
"Oh." Eren was sheepish. Annie held his gaze.
"Move back a little," Armin said to her.
She raised her eyebrows, but obliged; she was pretty enough, he supposed, leaning back on her hands against his knees and exposing herself inadvertently — he didn't look down, figuring that would be too much. She didn't look away as she sank onto him again, but her eyes fluttered when he twitched, unable to help his body's reaction.
She tried a couple more times, panting slyly, grunting in satisfaction once she found whatever she was looking for: "There, Arlert."
Eren perked up. Armin was trying not to make any noise. Her brow creased.
"Oi," she said, tapping his chin again. Armin squeezed her hips out of reflex.
Eren reached around and cupped her breast; she hummed, arching forward and Armin wondered if this was too far, too private, but she rocked faster atop him, grabbing his idle hand to place it on her other breast, huffing: "you can touch me, Arlert," and who was he to refuse?
Eren throbbed insistently against the small of his back; Armin was nearly there himself.
"Annie," he hissed, "stop, I'm going to —"
She shuddered, raising her hips. "Pull out."
He did so, and Eren, wrapping a hand around his dick, nuzzling his jaw, groaned, "'rmin, let me help you —"
And Armin grunted, shunting his body back like they were wrestling. Eren's mouth curled, capturing him in a feverish half-kiss, their skin wickedly hot like the aftermath of a Shift; he kept fumbling over Armin's name between rough strokes, kissing harder, thumbing him; Armin, curling into his chest, felt his eyes roll back, knew he was going to scream, so close it almost hurt to be touched; knew that Eren wasn't going to stop pushing this time until he snapped.
He tried to gasp, or call out but his voice was halting. Ended up coming in Eren's fist and across his own stomach. When he recovered, Annie was still there, flushed and considering him through her bangs. She also had her hand between her knees, grunted something like: "Jaeger."
"Armin?" Eren's voice was thick at his ear, a little strained. He was still hard.
Armin moaned stupidly.
"Shh. That was good, you're good — you rest for now," Eren pecked him on the cheek, brief and brusque before he disentangled himself, crept over to Annie and teased, "oi, oi, we're not done," hefting her by the waist, he threw her left leg haphazardly over his shoulder and sank into her cunt without preamble.
Armin heard him grunt as she hissed, cursing — turning his head to catch the sight of them, tangled up in each other — Annie coiled her arms around Eren, snarling: "hurry up and fuck me, Jaeger" and they went at it for about half a minute, hard enough to make the headboard rattle, before she lost herself with a hoarse shout; Eren muffled a growl into her neck, pinning her to the mattress — he couldn't keep the momentum going after he spent.
Annie caught his eye and blushed, like she hadn't expected him to watch. "Sh-shit, Arlert."
The uneasy feeling returned, more like envy or guilt — he really shouldn't be here at all.
"Mm. Armin?" Eren, unravelling himself from her with a fleeting buss to her forehead. "How was that?"
Armin didn't know if talking was even necessary.
"Arlert?" Now Annie was up, crawling over and gripping him by the shoulders. "Speak."
He sighed through his nose. "You really need to work on your approach; you're much too brusque for this."
Annie stared blankly at him. Eren came over and kissed her jaw, making her suck in a breath. "Ease up with him, yeah?" he chided, thumbing circles into her hips.
"Shut up, Jaeger; he's fine," she huffed, pressing into the contact nonetheless.
"I'm right here, you know," Armin groaned, and for the first time he felt left out in a way that didn't leave him guilt-ridden.
Eren smirked. "C'mere, then."
So Armin sat up and turned into his embrace; Eren kept him close, Annie did not reach for him so easily.
I don't know if this was a mistake. I don't know what I'm going to tell Mikasa, or if I'll tell her anything. Maybe she'll know. Maybe she already knew. I'm not going to think about this now.
"Armin," said Annie quietly.
Armin hesitated. "Yes?"
"Do you think," she began, "that you would come to regret this, to-morrow?"
Eren shivered. "No."
"Not you," she said, impatient, "I mean Arlert."
What he said was: "I don't want to lose either of you."
Eren pulled them closer, while Annie offered him a tired smile that didn't reach her eyes.