Eren just stared at Annie, flabbergasted. Did she really just say that?
"Uhh," he began with his usual eloquence.
"Yes, that's my dad," Annie groaned. Eren couldn't see much of a resemblance, aside from some short, cropped blond hair on top of the Shifter's head. Judging from her tone and icy expression, Annie herself didn't seem all too pleased about the fact that he was there. That seemed a bit unfair when Eren thought about it, especially considering that the guy had swooped in at the last second and saved their asses.
Although, it may have been too early to start thinking that. Kneeling in front of Annie's shifted father was Eren's own Titan form, clutching its head and growling low and sinister as the wound regenerated. The Voice that was pulling the strings certainly wasn't down for the count, just yet.
Not far from where it was crouched, the last surviving Order member lay motionless. Eren had a feeling that guy wouldn't be going anywhere for a while, or ever again, if his batshit insane Titan had anything to say about it.
"Are you kids alright?" Annie's father boomed. Eren noted the deepness of the man's voice and, even if the guy was shifted, couldn't help but feel a little jealous. His own voice when shifted could be considered anything but manly.
He did not voice these concerns, however, and for good reason. If Reiner didn't hit him on the head first, Annie would eat him alive for choosing a time like this to be acting insecure.
"We're not kids," she yelled indignantly, "and we're fine!"
Well, at least now he had ammunition if she ever did decide to call him out on his insecurities. Eren barely suppressed a smile, and instantly felt puzzled. Why would he be smiling, now of all times?
It was then that he noticed the iciness was gone from his chest. His breathing wasn't as erratic. The perverse elation he had felt before was replaced now with a more gentle kind of happiness. He realized that this was something he had not felt in a very long time, and was happy to be feeling it once again.
Eren looked confidently at the back of Annie's shifted father, admiring how steadfast the man remained despite being glared at by a monster with unspeakable power. They were going to make it through. They were all going to survive!
His brief feelings of jealousy from before were now replaced with grudging admiration. He wanted this man's strength for himself. No, he wanted even more than that. Eren wanted, more than anything, for others to one day stare at his own back and be filled with hope.
First, he needed answers. He would go to this Valhalla, this oasis of Shifters, and he would meet his father once again. He would tell the man that his son was an instrument of vengeance, that Eren had claimed revenge for them both by crushing the Titan that had killed his mother. What came after, he would deal with when the time came.
First, they had to survive.
Eren looked to his friends, then to Annie's father and at last, back to the beast that was wearing his Titan form.
First, they had to defeat the monster ahead.
"Annie," her father suddenly spoke, "if things look bad, I want you to Shift and take your friends home. I'll catch up after."
Annie's eyes widened. "I will, but…"
"Make no mistake," her father continued, his voice low and intimidating. "This fight is already over. But there is no guarantee that I can win here without using all of my strength, and doing so would endanger all of you down there. I will kill this...thing...and take you all home, personally. If that is not possible, then you will flee at my command and trust in me to follow. Do you understand?"
"...I do," Annie replied, quietly at first. Then she rose to her feet, and cleared her throat.
"I do!" She yelled.
Everyone looked, then, to the one who had spoken. To Eren.
He was clutching his head, eyes wide with fear. Annie had never seen such a terrified look on his face.
"It's useless. He's...it, is not even using all of its strength right now. It's just been toying with those Order guys, but that's all over. It knows. It knows this one is a threat!"
"What makes you say that, Eren?" Reiner questioned, tilting his head to look at the troubled boy. "I know you aren't aware of what the guys in Valhalla are like, but Annie's dad is ridiculously strong. This one time, he-"
"Do you think any of that even matters now?!" Eren yelled back, causing the other boy to jump a little in surprise. "You don't know what I know. You can't hear what this thing is thinking!"
"But you can?" Annie inquired.
Eren didn't reply, his face growing increasingly pale.
"Eren," she tried again, placing a hand on his shoulder. Eren immediately shook her hand off and stepped back, as if she were the monster.
With a touch of bitterness, Annie noted that he wouldn't exactly have been wrong in that assumption.
"Laughing. The fucking thing is laughing! I can hear it, I can hear it in my mind!"
Eren fell to his knees and clutched his head, yelling. Trying to block out the poisonous laughter echoing throughout his mind.
"My vessel speaks the truth," Eren's Titan form mocked, rising from its kneeling position to stare at Annie's father. "You carry yourself differently from those fools. Yours is not arrogance, but knowledge. You are worthy prey."
"I have no idea what you are rambling about," the taller Titan replied, raising its fists in a perfect mimicry of Annie's famed fighting stance.
"You have the eyes of one who knows his own power and relishes each and every chance he has to show it. You are like me, a hunter. A beast. Struggle in vain as I devour you, and die with honor."
"You're sounding pretty arrogant, yourself," Annie's father countered.
The possessed Titan laughed, crouching low and barely scraping the dirt with elongated fingernails.
"You should savor every breath of air, human, rather than wasting them on words. Soon you will breathe no more."
"Are you going to flirt with me, or fight?"
The other Titan bared its teeth and leapt at Annie's father with incredible speed, kicking up a massive cloud of dirt the moment its feet left the ground.
Quick to react, the Shifter sidestepped and immediately bent into position, throwing out a massive roundhouse kick to meet the offending body. Crystal met with simple flesh and the other Titan was sent crashing into the forest, ripping through one giant tree and stopping dead at the one behind it, slumping against the resilient wood. The first, after much creaking, fell to the ground below and sent tremors throughout the area.
Not wasting any time, Annie's father ran into the trees after his wretched foe. All while Eren writhed on the forest floor, tortured by the voice he could not escape.
And amidst this despair, he found himself once again in the endless ocean of midnight that resided within him.
Before him once again was the massive serpent, the Voice, the will that was not his own and yet somehow commanded his power. His power!
Staring at the beast that stared past him, Eren felt angry. That power was his alone, it was his strength. It did not belong to some nameless monster, something that should be nothing more than a figment of his imagination!
This thing did not deserve his power. It didn't deserve to live inside of his head. It didn't deserve…
It didn't look at him.
Eren relaxed the fists he forgot he had clenched and his shoulders went slack, his face relaxed from a scowl and returned to his typical, confused look.
The serpent continued to speak, but it did not move. It did not look at him, or berate him, or try to swallow him whole.
"...kill you. I'll kill you. I see your strikes, I am learning your movements. I have adapted to you. I will crush you."
Eren waved his dream arm, motioning to the snake and trying to get its attention. Nothing. He almost tried calling out to the beast, but decided against it. Better not to test that thing's concentration.
Concentration...wait a minute.
"...left, right. Duck, strike. Feint. Reach, grab, no. Arrogant. Fall back, back to the fledglings. Lure...lure…"
The whispers became somewhat unintelligible, then, and Eren was certain he would gain nothing more from listening.
Then he caught something interesting.
Back on the forest floor, Eren's eyes snapped open and he sat up. Once again, he sent feelings of shock and terror coursing through poor Reiner's body. And, once again, the big guy went tumbling down on his rear end, whining again about Eren's compulsive nature.
But that didn't matter. This was no time to indulge the other boy's silliness.
He knew how they could win. Sure, he could continue to trust in Annie's father, but this was better. Instead of hoping for victory, now he could ensure it.
"I know how we can win against him. The Voice, the thing using my Titan form."
"How?" Annie leaned forward. She could see it again. It had returned to him.
That fire in his eyes.
"Just trust me, okay? I have to focus only on the information I'm getting."
"When your dad comes back," Eren continued, "do everything you can to get his attention and have him listen to what I say. He can handle the attacks himself, this is just to help him survive the fight."
"Hold on a second," Reiner interjected, stepping forward. "How do you know her dad is coming back?"
Eren grinned. "Wait for it…"
The sound of snapping wood and falling trees filled the air around them, and moments later Annie's father came flying through the trees beyond, sliding against the ground and coming to rest on his back.
Reiner just blinked. Eren looked away from his friend and back towards the fallen Titan, who was already pulling himself up as Eren's possessed form approached.
"It came back," Eren went on, "because it already gleaned from her dad's behavior that he was fighting defensively, fighting to defend us. It wants the battle to turn in its favor by depriving him of any desire to fight offensively. It's going to make this a battle of attrition, as its own energy is limitless when it wears my Titan form. Without a human in the nape, there's no drain. It could fight until the world ends and it would still be the last one standing."
Eren glared at the powerful body he once called his own. "It's going to go all-out and keep the fight in this area, so that Annie's dad stays distracted and incapable of fighting to his full potential."
Reiner wiped a little stray drool from the side of his mouth and shook his head, causing Annie to sweat a little and feel some second-hand embarrassment.
"Spit it out, already. How exactly do you know all this?" Annie raised an eyebrow.
Eren turned to her and flashed her a grin, an expression that was foreign to him. An arrogant look, one she'd never seen him wear before. This wasn't like when they were trainees. It was wild, animalistic.
"I can read its mind. Or our mind. Whatever. I know what it's thinking, and we can use that to our advantage."
Eren shut his eyes and dove into the abyss within himself, standing once again in front of the massive serpent that dwelled within. On the outside, he remained completely motionless. Annie was about to touch his shoulder again when Eren finally spoke.
"My Titan is going to slide and make to kick your dad's feet out, but it's a ruse. It plans to follow that move with a leap, hoping to take advantage of the opening in your dad's counter."
Eren spoke these words without moving, his eyes still firmly shut tight. Reiner crossed his arms, eyebrow raised.
"FATHER!" Annie yelled with all her might. "Don't counterattack after the kick, it's a trap!"
"What are you-?" The older Shifter began, cut off by the enemy's sudden assault. The enraged Titan sprinted towards him, giant feet punishing the forest floor as it drew closer to him. Out of nowhere the Titan suddenly fell to the ground and slid towards him, its feet now heading right for his shins. Annie's father sidestepped and settled into a stance, fists raised.
Doubt surged through the man's mind, and Annie's father relaxed for just a moment.
The Titan immediately stopped sliding and kicked off into the air, leaping towards him from just outside arm's reach. Instinctively, he sidestepped again before taking a few cautious steps back, astonished at what he'd just seen. His daughter had known what the Titan was going to do?
"Father," Annie yelled again, stepping forward. "Trust what I'm telling you! Counter at the next opening!"
For just a moment, her father turned his head to look at her, staring with the same intensity she had always known. She turned her attention to a boy with charcoal hair, the one he did not recognize, and promptly turned back to him with newfound urgency.
"And," she continued, "use your specialty! It doesn't know the extent to which you can use the ice! It's trying to keep you pressured and prevent you from shielding yourself even further!"
"Infernal girl, be silent!" The Titan in question suddenly growled, glaring down at her. Annie just glared right back, satisfied with the confused and panicked expression it was wearing.
As was her father, who harbored no further doubts.
The wretched enemy charged once again, alternating between punches and swipes as it lashed out wildly and with all the rage of a cornered animal.
"You've eroded its confidence!" Annie shouted.
Slash, swipe, punch, kick. A flurry of reckless blows, all deflected. Slowly but surely, a smile worked its way onto her father's face. And all the while, the beast only grew more and more furious.
"You've won, now finish it off! Use that!"
Wild eyes came to rest on her form once again, filled with incredible hatred. That nightmarish, bloodstained mouth opened wide enough to swallow her whole, wide enough to scream of contempt and slaughter.
There was only silence.
Only a startled wheeze, a surprised sound was made as a crystalline hand came to rest on the Titan's chest. Calm at last, Annie's father slowly removed the hand and stepped away. For a moment, nothing happened. The monster, still overcome with fury, turned its attention to Annie and stumbled her way with teeth bared and fingers itching for gore.
Then came a sickening crackle. The grating sound of grinding, cracking ice filled the air as the Voice's borrowed form was immediately encased in that strange material. Like a virus, the crystalline substance scattered away from the chest and enveloped its entire body in a single, blinding moment.
Sighing with relief, Annie turned back to Eren and watched as the boy fell to his knees, sweating and shaking. She felt an unfamiliar twinge of pain as she watched him suffer in silence, drinking in the air around him as if he would never do so again. As he did so, Bert, Reiner, and Anastasia all ran to her father's waiting hands. They cheered and they filled the forest air with jubilant laughter. They laughed, and Eren suffered at her feet.
Whatever he had done, however he had acquired that information...clearly, the process was one he had no prior experience with. Judging by the look on his face, Annie got the distinct impression that he had no real desire to gain that experience in the first place. Strangely, it felt to her like she was looking into a mirror.
Though very different from her own in its origins, his was a tortured soul. And her sins, as well as the sins of her comrades, were very much to blame for the pain that had been inflicted upon him. She had known this for some time, and still was no closer to accepting it than from the very first day she had heard his story. And now, it seemed, there was an even deeper abyss within him.
Something else was torturing him, gnawing at the corners of his mind and relishing his pain. Something evil, something alive.
Something that no other Shifter was afflicted with.
She needed to know. The desire was overwhelming, and no matter how selfish it seemed, Annie could not restrain herself. She had to know, he had to tell them what he had been hiding up until now.
"Eren," she said. Empty, flat. Her typical, lifeless sound. Her self-loathing bubbled up again, after being buried for so long.
Her fortress was now her prison and she knows it, she's known it for long enough. But there's no use crying over what was done, and it was too late for her to change. To return to what was.
Her domain was ice and even her voice would hold the same chill. Nothing could change.
Annie swallowed and clenched her fists, biting back the pain. She needed his words. His voice held the truth, and again she ignored her own affinity for the sound.
A single blink of the human eye can capture the world, and that single flash of her eyelids captured the genesis of something that she would never forget.
Horror and rage, a torrent of emotion that she had never felt from him before permeated the air. Eren lept to his feet, turning towards her and kicking away from the ground with all of his strength. Not far from where they were standing, a single crack split down the middle of the beast's encased form.
The very world around her was made of molasses. Her breaths were short and fearful, and she didn't quite understand why. Nothing was happening. The fight was over.
So why was Eren suddenly so afraid? So angry?
It was so very dreamlike.
Why was he running to her, and why was he moving so slow? It was almost comical, considering how much effort he seemed to be putting forth. Blinking again, Annie exhaled.
With a terrible roar the nightmare came to life once again, its icy prison shattered as the possessed Titan dove for her with a single outstretched hand.
Annie looked on with wonder as the talons reached out for her body, yearning. Closing in. By the time she could hear the others yelling, it was already over.
The grass at her feet drowned in vibrant crimson, and Annie could breathe no more.
Beneath the midmorning sun, two serpents were locked in a deadly battle.
The first, a reptile with scales of purest green, had merely slithered too far from its own territory. Without rhyme or reason, it ventured far beyond the comfort of the familiar and soon found itself gazing into a glimmering pool.
But when the scales of green gazed into the mirror, it saw only midnight.
Quick as lightning and just as brutal, the black snake burst forth from the water's surface and lashed out at its enemy. Fearful but resolute, the green snake held its ground and fought back with all of its might.
The heat of the sun beat down on them both, boiling their blood as each snake sunk its fangs deep into the flesh of the other.
Writhing beneath the blaze and locked in an endless struggle, the limitless resolve of both snakes came together to maintain equilibrium as they formed an ouroboros.
And with this, balance formed from chaos.
Electricity coursed throughout Annie's entire form. Quivering, she fell to her knees and stared unblinking as Eren slowly tugged on the massive talon embedded in his chest.
In that single moment, his speed had been inhuman. Even for a Shifter, whose normal body was enhanced by the gift bestowed upon their kind, such movement was impossible.
It should have been her blood all over the ground, not his. Damn him.
Damn you, Eren Jaeger.
Her unspoken curse was like a virulent poison, burning in every vein, pulsing in her heart and skull. He had every right to kill her for what she had done.
He had no right to go around sacrificing himself for every little thing.
He had no right to sacrifice anything for her sake!
But even with her pride, even with her sense of honor, it was all Annie could do to not collapse on the ground. It was shameful beyond words.
She was completely safe, comfortable on her knees as Eren gripped the talon meant for her.
And all the while, his knees did not even bend.
Caught in her maelstrom, Annie almost didn't catch his eyes as he turned his head her way. Almost.
They were the same.
Looking up, doing all in her power to look away from the growing pool of crimson at his feet, Annie stared at the two of them.
The beast who had taken control of Eren's Titan form, resting on its stomach with its head raised and facing forward. The monster with its wretched voice and eyes of hate, gazing at her with indescribable power.
The Shifter who she had trained with, fought against, and even cried for. The most frustrating and, even now, most confusing person she had ever known. The boy who had vowed to kill every Titan, whose legs would not give out even as the beast's talon delved deeper into his body. He looked at her, and only her. Despite the clear pain, he still managed to put on a gentle face.
The line between those two very different souls now began to blur as she looked from one pair of eyes to the other.
They were the same.
Familiar coldness gripped her heart, and Annie felt real fear for the first time since she was a child. At long last she surrendered to oblivion and collapsed on the ground, unable to endure any more from the world.
His expression hardening once more, Eren brought his serpentine eyes crashing against those of the wretched being before him.
"You dove into the dark of your own volition."
Remaining silent, Eren stopped tugging at the nail in his flesh.
"You used the connection between us, turning my instincts into a weapon. I know what I was thinking in those last few moments, as did you."
His Titan form stopped speaking for a moment, clearly waiting for some kind of response. When it was clear that Eren was choosing not to speak, the beast continued.
"Without the slightest hesitation, you shielded that human girl from my spiteful blow. Have you no regard for your own life? Would you not strive to draw out your miserable existence for as long as possible?"
"You can't kill me," Eren finally replied.
His Titan form merely blinked.
"You can't kill me," Eren continued, tugging on the nail with renewed vigor, "because I'm the only reason you're conscious at all. I learned this from you when your mind went off on a tangent about killing us. You never planned to kill me at all."
The Titan's mouth slowly curled into a grin. Eren winced as the talon finally began to slide free from his body.
"You won't kill me," Eren spat, "because if I die, you'll go back to whatever you were before you woke up. Dead or nonexistent, whatever the case is, you're scared of it. You're terrified, and that fear is feeding your hatred. You're pathetic."
"Such venom," the Titan cooed, suddenly ripping the entire nail from Eren's body and sending a wave of shock through him. Unable to cope with the sudden change he fell to his knees, gasping for breath as his black blood began to seal the gaping wound.
"Your venom, eyes, and strength are all gifts from me, proof of our eternal bond. With the last of your ruby life now seeping into the earth, only obsidian runs through your veins. Even your blood is now yet another tie between the two of us. We are one."
Staring back at his own body mirrored in the beasts eyes, Eren could not find the strength to deny its claim. For just as the Voice had said, Eren could plainly see that the eyes in that reflection were no longer his. They had changed, and there was no telling how long ago the change had occurred, but he could not deny it. The proof was right in front of him, resting in his eye sockets.
"Truthfully, I could kill you. I could kill you at any time, for any myriad of reasons, each one more appealing than the last. I am not afraid of death, but of what death would deny me. The truth of our situation has escaped you. Whatever made you think that killing you was my only option?"
Eren's reptilian eyes widened, and the truth reached him just as the words were leaving the Titan's lips.
"If I cannot kill you, I will simply make your body my own. With this last, reckless action of yours, the barrier between our souls is now weaker than it has ever been!"
Eren could hardly move. Petrified, frozen in place as the beast mocked him, his eyes came to rest on the others some distance away. He knew they could hear every word. How couldn't they, when the creature's voice boomed throughout the area like that?
"Desperate to save her, overwhelmed by these precious feelings…"
"Shut up," Eren whispered. He wanted to yell. That was supposed to be a scream. If he didn't scream, it wouldn't hear him and obey.
If he wasn't loud enough-!
"...you cast away your own life, and any thoughts of safety…"
"Shut your mouth." Eren mumbled.
"...how easily you forgave her, how eager you were to suffer in the place of your mother's killer…"
"No!" Eren yelled at last, eyes wide and burning.
"Ha ha ha ha! How exquisite! Oh, the taste of your anger as you dug your greedy fingers into a power you did not understand! All for the sake of a murdering, self-absorbed-"
"GO TO HELL!"
Driven by instinct, Eren slammed the palm of his right hand against his Titan's forehead and surrendered himself to anger. In that single moment, nothing else mattered.
He was done talking. For good. He'd see to it that the bastard never opened his mouth again.
The moment his hand made contact, the Voice immediately fell silent. The eyes of his Titan rolled into the back of its head, shaking in place briefly before falling still.
Finally, as the sun reached its zenith and the Voice returned to the back of his mind, the battle was over. Steam billowed forth as the empty Titan dissolved, stripped of its invisible puppeteer.
Broken and battered, Eren took two steps towards Annie and collapsed.