A sullen darkness began to cloud the sky, signaling the approaching sunset. A rhythm of hoof falls and the rattle of wagon wheels punctuated the quiet among the Survey Corps. Gruesome images of the Female Titan and their comrade’s death were still fresh, surfacing every time they closed their eyes.
Fatigue was a heavy blanket among the soldiers, who silently began to dismount and dismantle their horse's saddles and reins. The headquarters loomed a few paces away, where the items of fallen soldiers would remain untouched until they were packed away and rationed out among the Survey Corps once again.
Levi dismounted with a slight wince, his chin tucked and his hair in his eyes as he made his way to the headquarters. Mikasa’s eyes flickered between Levi and Eren, finally resting on Levi’s lingering limp, a small scowl blooming on her face. She climbed off of her horse, her boots thumping against the ground as she landed. Mikasa moved to Armin’s side, who was standing not far from her, his horse's reigns clamped within his fist.
A clammy breeze rustled across the land, smelling heavily of rain. Mikasa wrapped her arms around her body and pulled her cloak closer. A stream of disheartened soldiers and exhausted horses moved around the two like a stream of water avoiding stones, all eyes downcast.
Armin could almost feel Mikasa’s urge to go to Eren’s side, who was laying in the cart not far from them, still unconscious and sizzling as he healed from his battle with the Female Titan.
“I’ll put the horses up.” Armin murmered, slowly unfastening his Survey Corps cloak and folding it under his arm. “Take him inside.”
Mikasa hesitated, letting her hand linger on Armin’s, giving him a thankful squeeze. Then she was walking, crouching, hoisting Eren's sleeping form into her arms, letting Jean lead the way. Armin watched, feeling his numb thoughts start to thaw.
Armin tried to suppress how fast his thoughts were moving, he tried to focus on Mikasa’s mare’s reins as he led the three horses towards the stables. Each step had Armin’s muscles aching, so he focused on that. The manuver gear straps felt like steel cords, relentlessly digging into his skin. It was nothing he hadn’t felt before. Pain was a constant during his training days. But there was something heavier than that, beneath the aches and bruises. Armin was tired... a new kind of tired.
The stable’s gates were already open and Armin could see faint lamp light coming from within. He silently ushered the horses inside, ready to walk them to their individual stalls. The strong smell of horse manure and soggy hay assaulted him, but Armin wasn’t repulsed. The smells were alive.
He paused when he noticed Connie’s silhouette hoisting up a saddle onto the rack on the far side of the stables. Armin couldn’t see Connie’s face, but he recognized the dimples in the back of his comrade's buzzed head. Armin took a few steps forward, letting his hand rest on the dial of the lantern and turning up the flame.
“Connie.” Armin spoke, loud enough for his voice to echo and distort.
Connie jolted, almost dropping the saddle. He turned slightly, his cheeks flushing hot with embarrassment. When their eyes met Connie quickly looked away again.
Connie wasn’t exactly Armin’s first choice, but he would do.
“Come here.” Armin reached out and gestured Connie closer, which Connie hesitantly obeyed, crossing the expanse between them with quick strides. There was the smallest flicker in his eyes, something similar to fear, but softer.
“What is it?” Connie asked, planting his feet a few steps away.
“Will you put my horses away for me?” Armin let his voice stay flat, watching for Connie’s reaction. He quickly gaged how he should approach Connie, how he could go about getting his comrade’s guard down.
Connie’s face immediately relaxed as he walked forward to take the reigns from Armin, hushing the horses as he lead them back towards their stalls. Armin watched silently, noticing Connie’s quick glances when he thought Armin wasn’t looking.
"How’s your head?” Connie began conversationally as he hefted off one of the saddles, letting it rest against his hip. “Reiner told me you almost… uh, well, I think your bandage might need some changing."
"I’ll do it later." Armin said, voice low, his eyes following the movements of Connie’s hands. Connie squirmed a little and looked over every few moments to see if Armin was still watching. He was trying to be subtle, but he wasn't doing a very good job.
When the last horse was back in it's stall, Connie turned to Armin, wiping his hands on his uniform pants and leaving dusty smears. "You okay?" Connie asked, raising a thin eyebrow.
Armin’s eyes combed Connie, assessed him. Connie’s features were harsh almost. His bland military cut only made his skin look paler and his eyes larger, but he was short and, Armin hoped, not sweet at all.
“You’re sweet Connie." Armin replied almost immediately, changing his approach.
Connie’s face turned bright red.
There was something on the surface, within reach, but for once Armin didn’t want to know. He didn’t want to know how all the pieces fit together. For once, he wanted to let go before he had the truth in his grasp.
“I need to get the keys to lock this place up, but I’ll be right back.” Connie hesitated once again. “It’ll only be five minutes.”
Armin wanted to grab Connie by the shoulders and shake him, scream at him, really, really scare him. He didn’t want to be left alone… not now.
“Go ahead.” Armin replied brightly. Connie smiled and nodded, running to the barn door with energy and slipping outside.
Armin let his body fall back against one of the posts and he slid to the ground. His head lolled back against the cold post and his heavy eyelids closed. This was a new kind of tired. This was a tired punctuated by icy blue eyes, hands clenched into the fabric of his uniform, clammy skin.
It was there. It was floating at the surface of his memories like a bloated body. It was disgusting. He felt disgusting, like that rotting flesh had touched him... and that he'd actually liked it. He'd liked it, hadn't he?
Armin twisted, pressing a hand to the pole and attempting to stand. He was trembling so hard that his legs folded beneath him. Armin pressed his palms to his mouth, as if that would somehow hold himself together. He could see Annie's cold eyes as she gripped the back of his neck and brought his lips down to hers.
Her bruised and hollow kisses. He was a pretty face and slender body. He was a hiding place beneath the trees or behind a shed. Armin was fine with being used. He'd always been the weakest, the slowest. It would be idiotic not to take advantage of him. That was just how the world worked. But... but he wasn't sure about Annie. It wasn't all meaningless, right? Meaning wasn't Annie's style, but what did he know of Annie? Why did she bother to kiss him at all?
How did he not see it sooner? Armin looked down at his trembling hands, gripping them, trying to still the shaking.
And now he had to tell. It was his duty. He had no other choice.
The very same grip on his palm had once been hers, hoisting him up during their training and shoving a canteen into his hands. Of course, at the time it had been a necessity that he’d complete the exercise since their whole squad was being graded.
It wasn’t affection.
Pushing off the ground, Armin steadied himself and stood, wiping his face and taking a few deep breaths.
A quiet patter picked up against the roof of the stables and steadily grew stronger. The dark storm clouds had finally arrived. There were quiet footsteps and then the doors to the stables creaked open. Connie slipped inside, grinning instinctively when he saw Armin. Armin noticed that Connie's uniform shirt was wet and sticking to his chest.
“I'm back. What’s up?” Connie asked, shuffling over to the last stack of saddles and hefting them up. Armin simply watched as Connie hauled the saddles to one of the empty stalls.
It would be idiotic not to take advantage of him.
Armin mimed his steps, following Connie inside the stall. Connie set the saddles down with a huff, raising a small cloud of dust, which he waved away, making a yuck face as he turned back to Armin.
“You sure you don’t want me to change your bandage?" Connie asked, this time more gentle. Armin was repulsed, but he kept his face blank. He didn’t need gentle.
Armin could feel his heart pounding as Annie took Armin's hands and wrapped them around her throat. He could close his eyes and feel the smirk on Annie's lips against his collar bone as she guided the knife in his hand to her shoulder blade. Armin did anything she asked of him. She left herself defenseless... against him, while really he'd been defenseless every moment they were together.
"Yeah, go ahead." Armin smiled, feeling as if there were pins beneath his skin.
Connie nodded, collecting some medical supplies from the box he’d brought with him and closed the distance between them. "Cool. I’m not that great though. Shadis always yelled at me."
“It’s okay,” Armin assured Connie, taking another step closer. "I can show you what to do."
Warm hands reached up, haloing Armin’s head. Armin found his eyes focusing on Connie’s face, while Connie concentrated on what his hands were doing. He could feel Connie’s hands trembling and he could see Connie’s flushed cheeks and he could see Annie looking disgusted as she reached up to grip his blonde hair.
He’d been the same way once... Trembling... Innocent... Until she had decided to close her fist around him and make him hers.
Connie’s hair was too short for fingers.
“Does this hurt?” Connie asked as he unwound the grimy bandage, lifting Armin’s fringe with the underside of his palm.
Armin felt frustration flare through him. Connie was being too gentle. Armin wanted to feel nails in his skin. He wanted to feel cold in his own body.
“Connie… why are you blushing?" Armin broached, letting his expression become playful.
Connie let out a shaky laugh. "I’m just overheated man... that’s all." He fumbled the rest of the bandage off and gave Armin a weak grin. Armin just raised his eyebrows and Connie looked away. "Okay, maybe not completely."
"What is it?" Armin asked, although he already knew what Connie would say.
Connie quietly chuckled, rubbing a hand over his head. "Once, okay no, recently I've been… well, really it started when I was uh…" His mouth opened and closed and Connie started to look mortified.
Annie had been direct. She had cornered Armin outside after dinner one night, when Eren and Mikasa were preoccupied, and asked him straight up if he wanted to fuck. But Armin couldn't do that now. Connie would spook too easily.
"Are you attracted to me Connie?"
Connie’s face burned even brighter and he started coughing, quickly turning away from Armin. Before Armin could offer to help, Connie’s hand shot up. "I'm… fine." He ground out with watery eyes, straightening up again. "Sorry about that. Yeah, yeah I like you, but I have no idea what I'm doing."
Annie's skin was always warm against his, but it wasn't comforting. In the dark Armin was completely blind. He’d fumble against her, trying to figure her out, but he was so inexperienced. She barely had to touch him to find and press and unravel.
Maybe she knew he liked it that way.
"I'll show you." Armin offered quietly, his eyes on Connie’s as he leaned closer, letting his eyelashes flutter. Connie was frozen, his lips parted slightly and his eyes wide, as if he’d suddenly been thrust into a dream.
Armin would rather not kiss Connie, but sometimes affection was necessary. Sometimes you had to spin a web before you could capture the butterfly.
Their lips only touched briefly before Armin was moving his hand to Connie's shoulder, stopping the boy from trying for another. Connie's lips were chapped, but warm. Connie was warm. He was alive.
Hesitantly, Connie took another step closer, keeping his eyes on Armin, trying to see if what he was doing was okay.
It was like something dissolved and Connie was starving, reaching for Armin, his hands shuffling down Armin's body and gripping at his uniform. Armin smiled softly in encouragement, letting Connie push him back against the stable's wall. Connie paused for a moment, his eyes dark with lust, his breaths coming out in trembly huffs.
Briefly, Armin wondered if Connie had something he was trying to forget as well, but he quickly reminded himself that it didn't matter. He shouldn't play with his food.
Connie moved in for another kiss, his teeth clumsily bumping and scraping against Armin's. Connie jerked back, looking sheepish.
Armin just shook his head and gripped the back of Connie's neck, pulling Connie's body against his own. He lifted his leg slightly, letting Connie grind up against it. Armin could hear the horses shuffling and the cicadas kicking up their song. The rain picked up even more and began to roar. Armin could feel Connie’s erratic heartbeat against his chest.
Connie’s hands snaked around to Armin’s front and gripped the waist of Armin's uniform. Connie pulled away slightly and shifted to his knees, cheeks heating as he started untucking Armin’s shirt and unbuckling the maneuver gear straps there.
“What’re you doing?” Armin asked quietly, gripping Connie’s chin and tipping it up until their eyes met.
“I- uh,” Connie grinned sheepishly, “Can I?”
Armin nodded, releasing his chin and leaning back against the wall. Slipping Armin’s pants and underwear to his knees, Connie's warm hands accidentally brushed against Armin’s thighs. Connie’s palm was against his skin and it was almost uncomfortably hot.
Connie looked up, his eyes asking for help. Silently, Armin closed his hand around Connie’s and showed him how he liked it.
It wasn't appropriate, but he was back at graduation watching her walk away. He couldn't believe that she could just leave him without another word. He couldn't believe he could die at any moment and this would be his last memory of her. She didn't look back.
But maybe she didn’t have to look back. Maybe she had known right then and there. Maybe she couldn’t bear to look, knowing what she had to do.
He had to tell.
There was nowhere left to hide. The water was all dried up. It wasn't just that bloated body at the surface anymore. He could see all the bodies that had been hidden beneath the inky water as well.
He had to tell.
“Go away Connie.” Armin muttered bitterly. Connie startled, his hand jerking away from Armin. It took a moment for Connie to register Armin’s tears and then he was standing and taking a step back.
“Just fucking leave!” Armin snapped. Connie nodded, eyes wide, watching as Armin brought his knees to his chest, curling up on himself. Then Connie was silently slipping out of the stall, his footsteps echoing along with Armin’s quiet sobs.
The door to the stables opened and closed, punctuated by a distant clap of thunder. He was alone. He hated being alone. His thoughts were moving so fast. He felt sick. He felt...
A sudden composure washed through him. His tears stopped and he leaned back against the wall behind him. A familiar numbness buzzed beneath his skin.
The days before Annie approached him, before their first night together, Armin would feel Annie's eyes on him, but he could never catch her watching.
Annie was not an idiot, but she put herself at a disadvantage. She spun herself a trap. She dug her own grave at his feet. He had to tell. He had to give her up. But why? Why had she shown Armin everything she had? There was no logical explanation unless... unless she'd been willing to give herself up to him. She could have chosen anyone, a complete idiot. She could have killed him at any moment.
She had known. She had known all along.