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the ties that bind

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Let's get one thing straight -- Annie and Armin aren't friends.

This is an important thing to acknowledge, out of respect to himself if nothing else. Armin isn't sure Annie actually has friends. She has people she tolerates, on a good day, and people she clearly looks down on like they're dead bugs beneath her indiscriminate shoe. The people who don't fall into this category seem completely below Annie's notice.

That's just the way it is, and it seems that Annie prefers it that way. Annie keeps to herself. She doesn't join in with the other trainees' banter. She doesn't mess around during shower or meal times. Before bed, she prefers curling up in her bunk with a book to gossiping or playing card games like the other girls.

(Armin only knows this because he went out of his way to ask Mikasa. It's occurred to him before that he might pay too much attention to Annie sometimes, but he can't help it. Armin likes to be intrigued; he likes interesting people. Annie is a mystery, a puzzle he's missing most of the pieces to, and he wants to figure out at least some of her.)

The list of people Annie tolerates can be counted off on one hand. Her closest companion is Mina Carolina; Mina’s also her bunkmate, so their friendship is probably half the result of proximity, and half down to Mina’s personality. Mina is friendly, clever and undemanding, good at making conversation where there is none. Talking to Annie is doing ninety percent of the work yourself, so Armin respects Mina for it. If Annie can be seen with anyone, it will usually be with Mina chattering by her side, or just working in silence together.

She can also endure the presence of Marco; Bertholdt, sometimes; Eren, when they're not trying to one-up each other; and Armin.

The last one is most intriguing to Armin, for obvious reasons. He likes Annie; he thinks he likes her more than she likes herself. They don't talk, usually, but Annie likes quiet and Armin can do that. Their interactions are usually limited to sitting together in silence, reading or writing while the rest of the 104th reels like a hurricane around them. Annie is the eye of the storm, the quiet where it is least expected, and Armin often seeks her out without meaning to.

This doesn't make them friends. Armin knows that.

Today is one of the rare days they have off from training. Breaks are a treasured commodity among the 104th, and any “vacations” are usually spent lazing around to the full extent of their capabilities, as only teenagers can. Those who live in Trost or nearby often go to visit their families. Others prefer picnics, relaxing in the training fields, or grouping together to pour over books and games they've kept holed up in their bunks.

Armin’s eyes scan the open field as he searches out a tiny corner of solitude. He has a heavy chapter book clutched to his chest, and he needs a place to sit fast. The corner of the hardcover is digging into his ribs; he's been toting this book around all morning, and his arm is beginning to go numb. He hasn't gotten to read more than a page since breakfast, and on a day off that's simply unacceptable. All he wants is a quiet spot to sit and read.

It shouldn't be hard. Of course, among the 104th, things are never that easy.

He first makes his way over to a relatively secluded spot, by a few flat tree stumps. Only a few people are sitting over there, and Armin’s first thought is that it should be quiet enough. He makes his way over to the tiny group without hesitation.

"It's one of my biggest fears, you know," Connie is saying as he sits down, and Armin's attention is piqued. He doesn't mean to eavesdrop, but he can't really help it either.

Next to him, Reiner is nodding seriously. "I get it."

"Like, one day, you know --" Connie makes a series of vague but enthusiastic hand gestures, smacking Reiner's bicep in the process. "If I woke up, as like, a donut --"

"You would eat yourself."

"I wouldn't even question it."

Connie' eyes are wide and haunted. Reiner looks sympathetic. Armin maintains his poker face for another five seconds before getting up and walking away.

He can find somewhere else to read. It's really, really okay.

Next his eyes fall on a huddle of girls sitting around a large rock, which seems to be covered with magazines. Admittedly, the reading material draws his eye a second before the people do; but as he's already making his way over he recognizes friendly faces among them. Sasha is enthusiastically thumbing at one of the pictures, while Mina and Krista look on with awe. A few feet behind Krista, her ever-present shadow lounges back in the grass. Ymir wears a twisted expression, like someone peed in her morning coffee and she drank it anyway, but that's not unusual for her.

“Hey, Armin!” greets Hannah when she spots his approach. The other girls wave their hands in greeting, and Armin smiles back as he settles down on the outskirts of their circle.

“Okay, tell us what you think.” Sasha grabs one of the magazines off of the rock, and Armin feels a familiar spark of interest at the idea of new reading material. It fizzles out in a second -- the page Sasha has open is all pictures, with very little writing available. What's more, the images themselves are startling -- pencil and pastel sketches of women in a variety of brightly patterned contraptions that are probably meant to imitate clothing.

It's awful. There's a woman wearing a cage around her waist, a harsh metal contraption which imprisons her hips and legs. Another woman has a hat the size of her fist pinned down to the mess on top of her of head which more resembles a pile of laundry than a hairstyle. There are women wearing dog fur as coats, women in skirts that could conceal an army, women wearing sleeves the size of balloons -- one lady even has a cat on her head, blended into her hair.

It's the worst thing Armin has ever seen, save maybe titans. The girls look thrilled.

“Marta’s mother sent these from Wall Sina! These are the fashion magazines all the ladies there read -- aren't they great?”

Suddenly he's put on the spot, everyone eagerly anticipating his verdict. Armin casts a helpless glance over his shoulder. Ymir, his only hope for a kindred spirit, simply smirks in response: Yeah, I know. She offers no help. Armin didn't really think she would.

“Yes,” he says, as if on autopilot. “I mean, they're -- wow. They're really… unusual.”

Krista’s face falls. “You mean, you don't like them?”

Armin hates them. “No, they're nice! They're just very different from the fashions in Trost. You don't see things like that here in town.”

Mina runs her hand down the page reverently. “Don't you think they're beautiful?”

They're terrifying. “I do,” says Armin empathetically. “I like them a lot.”

His answers satisfy the girls. It takes a moment for them to lose interest in him; once they do, he can't escape fast enough.

Now he finds himself at a loss once more, seeking out refuge where there isn't any to be found. Jean and Marco are playing a loud, enthusiastic card game. Daz is showing off some moves to a group of his friends which will “totally let him take down anyone” the next time they have hand-to-hand training. Mikasa and Eren are sitting in the grass, and they almost look peaceful -- up until the point Armin notices how intently they're looking at each other, the way Eren’s lips move in a low, unfaltering rhythm. They get like this sometimes, Armin knows, and it's not for him to share. He is their best friend (“their brother,” Eren always says) but there is still always some unbreachable distance between him and the two of them. Eren and Mikasa have been through things together that he can not understand. They have their own tiny chip of the world, and when they go there, it is not his place to intrude. He turns away.

That's when he spots her. Maybe he sought her out, unconsciously; maybe he's gotten so used to looking for Annie in a crowd that his mind didn't even register is until he found her. Somehow he knows exactly where to look. He is not surprised to see her lounging at the foot of a great oak tree some distance away from the other troops. Annie seeks out silence as much as he does; she's just always been better at finding it.

She has a book in her lap, and is hunched intently over it. Blonde strands of hair frame her angular face, casting shadows across her pale skin. She is still, peaceful beneath the tree and backlit by a clear blue sky.

For a moment he finds himself hesitating. What right does he have to intrude on her solitude? From this angle, she almost looks like a painting -- a small figure hunched beneath a towering shadow, the sun casting her hair in a golden halo, her eyes downturned and half-shut. She looks so peaceful that he can't help the way he hesitates, wondering if it would be wrong to take a piece of this for himself. It doesn't belong to him.

Armin is on good terms with the majority of the 104th -- he'd even be willing to call them friends. He and Annie are not friends. Friends share their thoughts, feelings, interests. Friends look after each other. Friends tease each other. Friends talk to each other.

Armin looks at the figure curled up at the base of the tree, weighs the silence, and thinks, what the hell?

“Hey, Annie. What are you reading?”

Annie looks up. There is no surprise in her face as she takes in Armin, but she doesn't smile. Instead, she simply lifts the book from her lap to reveal the cover.

Armin smiles. He's read that one before.

“That's a good one.” Annie still offers no reply, not even a nod. He has to steel himself. He's come this far; why not go all the way?

Armin takes a breath, and settles himself down in the grass. His back is against the tree; there is enough distance between himself and Annie that it does not feel cramped, does not feel forced. He looks down at the page, and smiles.

“So, what do you think of it so far?”

It's a long moment before Annie says, in a voice as careful and cool as ever: “I like it.”

Three words, thinks Armin. It's a start.

The quiet between them now is not lonely; it is simply content. Smiling to himself, Armin pulls his knees up to his chest and opens his own book.