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Armin yelps, falling onto his back with a loud thud. His head is spinning and his temples thunder tenderly—he always hates the hand-to-hand part of training.

Leather boots crunch away from him, the holder speaking in a flat voice, “Next.”

From Armin’s upside-down vision, he sees Annie stand alongside him with her body at the ready, her front knee bent forward and back straight.

Shadis’s lips curl devilishly. “You heard the lady, gentlemen. Remember, dinner is at stake here. Next wave is up!”

Leave it to their instructor to make them perform something nearly impossible. In exchange for defeating hordes of anxious cadets, Shadis promised Annie that she will not need to attend lecture for two weeks whereas with the opposite, the winners are promised a large serving of meat to share.

“I don’t need a reward for something so simple.” Armin remembers her scoffing and as he watches Annie perform, he sees she is right.

Her elbow slams against jaws and firm legs kick her contenders five feet away, toppling into those behind them and falling to the ground like a line of dominoes. She effortlessly dips and dodges and assaults ankles with the front of her foot before grabbing hold of their uniform, twisting her body around to throw them into a larger challenger.

Admiration rises in Armin’s cheeks, transfixed that someone with such a large height and strength disadvantage is so well equipped and balanced in her fighting. The caution always nipping at the back of his brain warns him to be afraid of such a force to be reckoned with, to stay away, but his heartbeat thumping loudly in his ears overrides the instinct.

But Armin does notice something. Her hand repeatedly tucks away strands of hair flowing in front her face, something which must be a nuisance and almost allows Reiner rushing from the side to get the jump on her. He closes his eyes in thought—and to also block the painful image of her unforgiving boot digging into the bulky teenager’s groin.

He remembers through Reiner’s howls of pain that they have a little over two weeks until they are granted a week break for the holiday and like a complicated arithmetic question, he struggles to solve what he should do for her, what she might like.

Eyelids hiding brilliant blue eyes shoot open.

He smiles.


 

Over the next couple of days, the cold grows worse. Annie shivers, the warmth of her hoodie not enough to fight against the dry wind nipping at her cheeks. She sighs, resigning herself back to her noisy barracks for the night. When she passes by her gossiping squad mates and finally reaches her bunk, Annie stops.

Across the way, Ymir notices Annie and a sneer hikes up her lips. “Looks like someone actually found something to like about you. I hope you gave your sweetie a compass to catch your nose’s magnetic pull. That way, they’ll never lose you.”

“Ymir!” Historia loudly reprimands. She yanks her friend down by the ear, though the freckled girl’s face maintains its mocking grin. “Stop being so rude and apologize! It’s very sweet that someone thought of Annie.”

“Why should I? It’s not like she talks or even tries to converse with anyone. Don’t tell me you’re not surprised.”

“It doesn’t matter what I think! This is a time of happiness and giving and it’s very thoughtful that someone wants to share it with Annie! Now why don’t you give me a present and apologize already.”

Annie is unphased by the raucous dispute beside her, having already blocked out the world five minutes ago. Her long, confused pause is aimed at what rests on her pillow. She had humiliated 97% of their class and rather than get a pile of dung under her pillow from the “shit-fairy” like she expected, a small, carefully wrapped gift is nestled comfortably on where she sleeps.

The platinum blond girl preserves her impassive expression and disregards the gift into her drawer. She hides underneath the covers and ignores the world, pretends to sleep until the entirety of her barracks puts themselves to bed. Annie then carefully retrieves the gift, slowly opening her creaky drawer and unwraps the crinkly paper beneath her pillow to stifle the noise from her nosy squad mates. When Annie brings up the box to peer inside, a hairband embroidered with pink flowers and green stems paired with a rose hair pin to match it wait inside.

Long-lashed eyes blink repeatedly, noticing a piece of folded paper inside. When she takes the tag, she mentally reads the message:

“I hope this helps make you more amazing than you already are.

The blond cadet sees, breathes, and hears only the sentence for the longest moment and suddenly, Annie feels such an overwhelming rush of tingling contentment from such words that she frowns, because it's so unexpected, so unfamiliar.

She stares at the message for the rest of the night.


 

Armin sees his gift on top of the trash the next day, the box stomped on and tag he left an illegible, shredded mess for all to see. He’s thankful he did not write his name or mention this idea to anyone, what with the cadets gossiping Annie’s discontent with it, passing by mocking and laughing at the denied present amongst the rubbish and he didn’t need more ridicule than he already receives.

Honestly, the rejected boy is more so disappointed than angry. The idea consumed him for hours and an internal war rages havoc on his brain: did he indirectly insult her? Did her pride become defensive when someone dared think there was something that could go against her? Or was he simply too bold to leave it out in the open? Should he have given it to her in person?

Armin groans. He doesn’t know and the contemptuous face she makes when she storms out of the woman’s barracks speaks to Armin that he must have done one if not all of the above. The clear-blue fury bristling in her eyes is aimed at everyone, but Armin deciphers when Annie rolls her vision to his, her anger is locked on him.

He gulps. She knows.

He never meant to make Annie unhappy, only wanted to turn his admiration for her into something tangible so she could remember someone thought she truly was amazing.

That night, Armin’s slim form draws its maturing shoulders back, steeling himself to walk over to where Annie stands guard by her lonesome at the end of the training grounds. He’ll save her the embarrassment of being confronted in public—and himself a beating— and as he walks over, he struggles to find her, the new moon not providing much light in the pitch-black night.

Anxiety constricts his lungs. The young boy worries this might be creepy, that he must look like some weirdo preying after an uninterested girl, and when he comes closer to retreating, a crunch close by startles him into a statue.

The tree trunk he’s next to hides him as Annie returns from the outhouse. She stands underneath the shadow of a tree, hiding from the moonlight with the strap on her rifle slung over her shoulder.

By carefully peering past the edge of chilly bark, Armin recognizes Mina’s mirror in her hands, deducing she had stolen it and as grey-blue depths stare at herself, ocean gems widen, taking in the rose pin adorably keeping her bangs to the side, the hair tie keeping her hair up appearing like a tiara of flowers.

The young boy’s heart flutters like an excited bird’s wings. She likes it, can see it in her studious face as she examines herself with the mirror from angle to angle and he wonders if she destroyed his well-made box just to keep up her hardened image to the others.

“Make you more amazing than you already are…” Armin hears Annie repeat. A jet of air streams out her nostrils. “What a joke.”

Armin doesn’t hear her usual venom or condescension in her tone—he hears hurt and a sadness so bottomless, it cuts the fragile surface of his heart.

Dry fingers claw at the fabric over his left pec. He’s never believed the claim from gushy romance books that hearts can speak to each other, only thinking it was nonsense reserved for people dreaming of fairy tale romances. But was this knife-splitting sensation what his storytellers were talking about? To hear such a depressing sadness within words that his heart empathizes by collapsing in on itself, to make sure he also understands?

Armin knows Annie will not bleed her feelings so easily—if at all— and will hide away, save her vulnerable self for no one to see, like she does now.

His hand resting over his heart balls into a fist. No one should feel this way and no one should self-impose that this is how they should feel. Annie doesn’t need to hide away, doesn’t need to stay in the dark pit she keeps herself in.

Armin quietly tears himself away, a determination in him flowering that he wants to take one step closer to Annie through the miles she keeps between her and everyone else.

He does so by doing the same thing every day for twelve days, hiding her gifts in places only she would find—a bag of hard candy underneath her pillow, a book for more boring days of lookout duty, a hoodie infused with fur to ensure she stays warm.

When Annie suddenly has more items than her squad mates remember, the other girls call her secret admirer creepy in the mess hall, taunt that he/she is wasting their time on a bland, social leper— to which Armin considers getting them a “present” from his cleanup duties in the barn—while Annie keeps up her irritated glares and cold exterior.

But Armin can’t stop himself from grinning as he lays in his bunk, listening to his companion’s snores reverberate the room. Winter has come and gone and Spring is now here, and Annie still treats him the same as she does the others. The passing months have proven to him that Annie is like a rocky shoreline slowly shrinking over decades of abuse from angry, crashing waves, that her shield will chip slowly and slowly could mean days or months—maybe even years—, but Armin doesn’t mind.

He doesn’t mind because Annie thinks he isn’t looking when he sits across the room with his friends, doesn’t know he’s just as adept at analyzing from a side-glance like she is.

He grins because now every time at lunch when he catches Annie sneak a quick look to his table, her clear-blue pools are aimed at him and growing softer and softer each time.