Annie wins their first fight.
It takes half an hour, the two of them grappling in a tight circle of their peers. Annie runs cool where Mikasa runs hot; it’s the only thing that gives her an edge over Mikasa’s speed and strength. She loses track of the times Mikasa knocks her down, the number of stinging punches Mikasa lands on her arms and shoulders, but she endures, learns to wait until the last moment to twist out of Mikasa’s path. And when they’re both dirty, exhausted, and slowing down, Annie fakes a stumble to lure her in.
Mikasa’s teeth are bared and she lunges blindly forward to take advantage of Annie’s weakness. Annie, steady, uses Mikasa’s own momentum to take her to the ground, and twists Mikasa’s arms behind her back with what strength she has left. Her arms shake with the effort of holding Mikasa down, but she does it.
“Do you give up?”
Mikasa tries a few times to wrench her wrists out of Annie’s grasp, but finally her shoulders slump. “You win,” she says, and it sounds more like a promise of retribution than admitting defeat.
Reiner whistles, and Bertholdt nervously shouts Annie’s name, but most of their fellow trainees are wide-eyed and silent when Annie looks up. They may be impressed, but they’re afraid of her, afraid of Mikasa.
Mikasa wipes her bleeding lip on the back of her hand when Annie lets her up, her eyes as bleak as ever. She sizes Annie up like the fight isn’t over, like she doesn’t believe in losing. Annie shrugs it off and walks away, leaving Mikasa to stare after her. Her knuckles sting, and one hard fall scraped the skin off her cheek, but those distant aches aren’t enough to distract her from the feeling of Mikasa’s eyes on her back.
The next time they practice hand-to-hand, Annie is paired with Bertholdt, who sweats and stammers every time she looks at him. She hates fighting him; it's hard not to feel guilty when she's twisting his gangly limbs into knots. He’s helpless, and more than that, Annie gets the feeling that he wouldn’t hit her even if he got the chance. Every time the instructor tells him to be the aggressor, he blushes a violent red and makes the weakest lunge toward Annie, only to gasp in pain and relief when she throws him to the ground.
Annie’s about to cut practice early to spare him when Mikasa walks up behind Bert and takes him by the arm. “Spar with Eren,” she says, with her voice of soft command. She ignores his sweating and stammering as she steps between him and Annie, a blunt wooden knife in her hand.
“Mikasa,” Annie says lightly. Mikasa’s grip tightens on the knife and she raises it, the challenge clear.
Annie rolls her shoulders slowly and settles into a defensive stance, letting her eyes wander down the taut lines of Mikasa’s body, tracing the tension in her legs. She’s ready when Mikasa springs at her, crossing the empty space between them in a single lunge and swinging the dagger at Annie’s throat. It’s vicious, but predictable. Annie moves around her and sweeps Mikasa off her feet with a single kick.
But Mikasa expects this. She lands, rolls once, and hooks her heel around Annie’s ankle, wrenching her to the ground. Annie lands bruisingly on her right arm and Mikasa, already poised, throws herself onto Annie, straddling her waist and bringing the knife down on her neck. Annie only has time to seize her wrist and stop the knife an inch from its target, digging her nails into Mikasa’s pale arm.
Mikasa breathes hard, but silently, her eyes full of that lethal calm she gets in training. Only Annie knows how quickly Mikasa’s rage can flare, and she wonders if it will, if Mikasa really hates her for winning.
But when she speaks, Mikasa’s voice is quiet as ever. “We’re even,” she says.
Annie nods, though she wants to ask if Mikasa really thinks she could open Annie’s throat from this position. Which of them is stronger? Could Mikasa force the knife down if Annie pushed back?
She doesn’t. Mikasa stands, her arms limp at her sides, fingers curled loosely around the knife’s hilt. When Annie sits up and rubs her arm, Mikasa’s eyes widen, then soften. “Are you hurt?”
“I’m fine.” Annie climbs to her feet, ignoring the ache of her new bruises. Half of the other trainees are staring at them; Annie fixes her eyes on the distance so she doesn’t meet anyone’s gaze. There’s something nagging at her and she doesn’t know what it is until Mikasa starts to turn away. “Mikasa,” she says casually. “We should train together. We’ve both memorized all the moves they’re teaching already.”
“I’m going to practice with Eren,” Mikasa says. Of course. Everything she does is for Eren’s benefit. But she hesitates, pulling her scarf up over her mouth as she catches Annie’s eye. “We can spar after dinner.”
“Fine,” Annie says. She brushes dirt from her back and pretends not to watch Mikasa leave.
It’s as if proving they could beat each other was all they needed to clear the air; now their sparring is almost amiable, and becomes a regular addition to their training. Mikasa picks up on the techniques Annie’s father taught her relatively quickly, although she rarely uses them; Mikasa is developing her own fighting style, one that mimics how she moves in the 3DMG, acrobatic and precise. Annie is as patient and steady as always, but she finds herself sharpening to match Mikasa’s blinding speed and vicious blows.
They never stop practicing before the both of them are dusty, tired, and bruised, although Annie barely registers her bruises anymore. Training with the 3DMG has left her with constant, vibrant bruises in the shape of her harness, and she goes to sleep with aching legs and a sore back nearly every night. It becomes routine, almost comforting, like fighting Mikasa.
The two of them don’t speak much; Mikasa is stoic as always, and Annie isn’t willing to be the talkative one. Still, there are some things you can only know about someone once you’ve seen how they fight. Annie becomes aware of the ambition Mikasa keeps hidden inside herself, the reason she’s willing to throw herself into battle with Annie after a day of brutal training. It’s the source of that blank fury that overtakes her when anything defeats her; it’s the reason that most days, Annie finds herself flat on the ground, pinned under Mikasa’s weight.
Everyone knows by now that Mikasa Ackerman is a prodigy, but they think the girl herself is quiet, modest, as if her abilities come to her without effort and focus. They don’t see whatever it is that burns her up and demands that she be better, better, better. Before long, Annie is sure that Mikasa knows how powerful she is; it can’t escape her notice that she’s starting to outpace their instructors already. But she keeps pushing herself, past perfection. Annie watches Mikasa swing between the dummies in their practice course with dreamlike precision, taking down three or four in the time it takes her classmates to topple a single one. She’s a natural killer.
It’s not that Annie thinks the monsters inside her and Mikasa are of the same breed. But when they fight and Mikasa lunges for her like a starving wolf, Annie feels more human than she ever has, like there might be something human about the predator’s instincts lurking under her skin. The two of them know that the battle isn’t over until the enemy is dead, so they never stop at disarming each other; they fight until one of them goes limp under the other. They fight like real enemies, even though Annie thinks by now they might be friends.
Or something else. Sometimes, when Annie manages to wrestle Mikasa into the dirt and hold her down, she feels Mikasa’s fire licking around the pit of her stomach, and her fingers grow hot where they dig into Mikasa’s wrists. A flush crawls up her neck and she stands to let Mikasa up, but she doesn’t want to. She wants to watch the rage of defeat catch in Mikasa’s eyes, and she wants Mikasa to lunge up and find the strength to throw her off. She wants Mikasa to throw her down and cage her with her arms the way she does when she’s caught up in the fight and can’t let Annie go.
And one day, Mikasa does.
She snarls and twists her knee into Annie’s stomach, hard enough to drive the breath from her body. Rolling over, she lunges and pins Annie on her back, panting, her hair in her face and nose bleeding slightly from a blow Annie landed earlier. She grabs both of Annie’s wrists and slams them into the ground and slumps forward, so close that the heat of her breath flares across Annie’s mouth.
Annie huffs a laugh, more sigh than sound, as she stares up into Mikasa’s eyes. “Your nose doesn’t look broken. That’s good.”
“You thought you could break it?” Mikasa asks, her voice still trembling on the edge of hostility. A drop of her blood lands on Annie’s cheek and Annie jumps, her throat dry.
It’s one of their instructors, Linde, the graying woman who walks with a cane but can still knock most of the trainees down with ease. She comes hobbling up to them at great speed, her mouth tight with disapproval. Mikasa scrambles off of Annie and hides her mouth and nose behind her scarf. Annie quickly wipes the blood from her cheek.
Linde doesn’t seem convinced when Annie explains that they were just sparring, and berates them for risking injury without their instructors present, but eventually she lets them go with a warning. Annie glances at Mikasa as they trudge inside their cabin, but Mikasa’s face is hidden in her scarf. They don’t speak.
Annie jerks awake at the feeling of callused fingers on her cheek, and seizes the intruder’s wrist before she knows where she is. Blinking into the dark, she recognizes the dim outline of Mikasa’s hair. Somewhere in the cabin, Sasha is snoring loud enough to drown out Annie’s voice when she whispers, “What?”
Mikasa pulls her wrist from Annie’s grip and steps back from the bed. Her boots scuff softly on the floor, and Annie realizes that Mikasa is dressed, even though it’s well into the night. Her scarf is wrapped around her face.
“I can’t sleep when Sasha’s snoring,” Mikasa says quietly. It’s too dark to read her expression.
Annie knows she’ll regret this; she’s already sore from a day of training, and she’ll wake cursing herself in the morning if she crawls out of bed now. Still, she sits up, pushing aside her bedcovers. “If you’re tired enough, you’ll sleep,” she says. “We can spar in that clearing by the training grounds.”
“We can’t get caught.”
“We won’t,” Annie says, because by now she’s turned sneaking out into an art form; in her early days, she spent her sleepless nights walking in the forest, learning to move softly and leave no trace. When Mikasa nods and curls her fingers around her scarf, Annie grabs her clothes from under the bunk. She pulls her nightshirt over her head because it shouldn’t matter if she does this in front of Mikasa, and when she looks up to find Mikasa watching her, she knows that it does matter.
She fumbles on her trousers and boots as quietly and quickly as she can, and the two of them slip out of the cabin and into the dark. There’s only a thin slice of moon, faint starlight dappling the forest floor, but Annie knows the way intimately.
In the clearing, they face each other, and they fight. No wooden knives this time, just their fists and feet, which are better weapons anyway. Mikasa comes at her faster than Annie can follow, faster than she herself can control. It’s what Mikasa does when she’s frustrated, Annie knows, and right now Annie feels the same urgency. But it isn’t until Mikasa grabs her and slams her back against a tree that the urgency takes shape, when instead of trying to throw Mikasa off Annie grabs her by the hair and kisses her.
Mikasa gasps, startled, but her hands are already on Annie’s waist, pulling her up on her toes so they can kiss deeper, as if this was always their plan. It’s sloppy, and Annie doesn’t know if Mikasa has ever kissed someone before. That doesn’t stop her from wrapping her arms around Mikasa’s neck to pull her close, grabbing fistfuls of her shirt and hair and liking Mikasa’s hiss of pain. Mikasa pushes a knee between her thighs with stubborn aggression and Annie chokes on her own breath. Then she grabs Mikasa’s hips and twists her around, shoving Mikasa against the tree as she sinks to her knees in the dirt.
It’s not that she thinks the monsters inside them are the same, but that Annie can’t tell them apart.
Mikasa buries her hands in Annie’s long hair and shudders as Annie licks between her thighs, and Annie swallows in the sight of her, Mikasa’s face tight and tense like when she fights. Mikasa is loudest when the fury overtakes her in the middle of a sparring match and she shouts with every swing of her sword or knife or fist, and she’s loudest when she comes, panting and whimpering and rolling her hips against the flat of Annie’s tongue.
Annie wipes a hand across her mouth and gets to her feet, almost smiling when Mikasa bites her lip. She reaches over to fix Mikasa’s pants and goes to kiss her again, maybe a softer kiss this time.
Instead, Mikasa grabs her and falls into her, landing on Annie and straddling her thighs with all her usual speed. She kisses Annie hard, kisses the breath out of her throat while she shoves a hand down Annie’s pants. Mikasa can’t live with being second best, knowing that she could be better. The pads of her fingers are rough from gripping the hilt of her sword and she drags them through the slickness between Annie’s legs, curls her fingertips as she rubs insistently at Annie’s clit. Annie closes her thighs around Mikasa’s hips with a groan, shaking and jerking against Mikasa’s fingers for more friction. When she lets her head fall back, Mikasa seizes the opportunity to put her mouth on Annie’s throat.
Annie slams her fist against the ground when she comes, panting. She grabs Mikasa and yanks her in for a kiss, as Mikasa pulls her hand free of Annie’s trousers. This kiss is softer, the competition fading. It’s comfortable between them, at least until the cold of the grass starts to seep into Annie’s back, and she realizes Mikasa is shivering.
“Are you tired yet?” Annie asks.
Mikasa looks away, and Annie thinks her face might be red, but it’s too dark to tell. “Yes,” she says, stoic as always, and she helps Annie to her feet. They walk back in silence, their shoulders bumping.
In the cabin, they separate and change back into their nightclothes. Annie curls up on her side and smiles, listening to the rustle of the sheets across the room as Mikasa settles in, straining her ears for the sound of Mikasa’s breathing until she falls asleep.
In the morning, Annie is washing her face when she finds a bruise on her throat in the shape of Mikasa’s mouth. She slinks over to Mikasa’s bed, where Mikasa is still fast asleep. Without a second thought, she grabs Mikasa’s scarf from under the bed and wraps it around her neck, before heading out for breakfast.
Halfway through the meal, Mina gets up the courage to ask about the stolen scarf. “Reiner dared me to take it,” Annie says.
“Oh,” Mina says, with concern written across her face. “Why—” She stops, her eyes fixed on something beyond Annie, and her face grows pale.
Mikasa slams her palms down on their table hard enough to rattle the plates. “Give it back.”
The look in her eyes is frightening, but Annie doesn’t quail. She looks up at Mikasa for a moment, and then shrugs. “Okay.” She starts to unwind the scarf from her neck, with exaggerated slowness, so that Mikasa has time to see the bruise. She watches Mikasa’s eyes flicker down, and go wide.
Mikasa turns suddenly and violently red.
“What?” Annie asks.
Mikasa seizes the end of the scarf and yanks it back into place around Annie’s neck. “You can borrow it for today,” she says loudly. “But if you get it dirty, I’ll kill you.” Then—for the first time since Annie met her—she retreats to her seat beside Eren and Armin. One of them asks her what’s wrong, and she snaps, “Nothing,” loud enough to make everyone at the table flinch.
Annie looks down at her breakfast and allows herself a tiny smirk.
“Annie?” Mina asks, mystified.
“She owed me,” Annie says, and leaves it at that.
By the end of the day, Mikasa gets Krista to give her a plain brown scarf. She walks up to Annie with the scarf clutched in her fist and thrusts it out at her. “Now give it back.”
“I was just getting used to wearing it,” Annie says, tossing the red scarf into Mikasa’s hands. She can’t resist adding, “It smells like you.”
Mikasa pulls her scarf up over her face hastily, barely covering her blush.
It’s not a fight, but Annie still feels like she’s winning.