"You shouldn't let me toss you around like that!" Reiner said, somewhat alarmed. "I might actually hurt you if you aren't paying attention!"
"I was paying attention," the smaller blonde, flat on his face on the dusty ground, groaned up at his opponent. He struggled first to his knees, and then accepted Reiner's offered hand and let himself be pulled onto his feet. Every muscle in his body ached from the sparring exercise, and he felt like the coating of dust he had acquired would never come off his skin. "You're just that much better at this than me."
Reiner's brow furrowed. "Here, let's go again," he said. "I'll go easy on you." But Armin was shaking his head furiously.
"L-Let's not! Y-You said you were 'going easy' on me this last time. I-If I take another hit like that, I-I'll rupture a lung!"
Reiner looked like he might argue for a moment, but then nodded. "Alright... but really, if you want any one-on-one training-"
"Thanks, Reiner, really! I'll keep that in mind!" Armin called, waving as he turned tail and made for the side of the sparring area. He ducked away from Shadis' gaze, slipping into the shadow of a nearby tree and breathing a sigh of relief as he slumped against it. He closed his eyes, taking a deep breath and feeling every bruise on his body throb gently.
The blonde jumped and squeaked at the voice, his eyes flying wide as Eren leaned in close to his face. He gasped for breath, one hand to his chest as he recovered himself.
"You scared me half to death, Eren!"
"What are you doing all the way over here?" the brunette asked, and Armin narrowed his eyes; he was in no mood to be questioned.
"And what exactly are you doing over here, Eren?"
Armin jumped violently again at the new voice, spinning to see one Annie Leonheart watching calmly from against the tree next to his. He had only seen the girl a few times before, in passing, but he did remember Eren saying how she was giving him special hand-to-hand combat training.
She was oddly mesmerizing, and Armin felt his jaw drop before he managed to get the reaction under control.
"And you're just hiding from your sparring partner, isn't that right?" the girl continued; Armin began to splutter an objection, but then she had pushed off the tree and approached him, resting two fingers on a particularly sore spot over his sternum. Armin gasped softly with pain. "Reiner, right? This is his favorite palm-strike target."
At that point, Armin could only nod, shamefaced. "Yes..."
"Are you okay, Armin?!" Eren demanded, and the blonde held up his hands.
"I-I'm okay, Eren, really! I-I just... he's a lot better at hand-to-hand than I am, is all."
"The idiot doesn't know how to pull his punches," Annie murmured, much to Armin's surprise. "He thinks he does, but it simply isn't in his nature to."
"It isn't as if you do, either," Eren said sorely, rubbing at one shoulder. Annie gave him a baleful look.
"You begged me not to on that last round and now you're complaining?"
Armin glanced between the two of them, surprised by how at ease Annie seemed; how cheerful Eren seemed. "Um... I-I guess I'll let you two--" he began, but Eren cut him off.
"No, Armin! Stay! Annie's a fantastic teacher- you should let her show you a move or two!" he suggested, and Armin spluttered an objection.
"I-I'm not... I'm not sure Annie... I wouldn't want to bother--!"
"It's no bother," Annie said simply, taking several steps back. She squared her shoulders and brought up her hands. "Come at me."
Armin swallowed hard but, at Eren's slight encouragement, he took a fighting stance. To back down, after all, would be cowardly. He took a long look at the girl standing before him; took in every inch of her. A vision of strength and grace- Annie Leonheart.
Then he charged; it was a good thing Armin had taken the opportunity to look at her while he had the chance, because suddenly his vision was spinning, and then he could see only treetops and the blue sky above. He groaned loudly, his back throbbing against the hard ground.
"I hear your strength is strategy." Annie appeared above him, and his eyes widened as her face eclipsed all else in his field of vision. "Now that you've faced me once, let's see you use it."
Armin, with little else to do, scrambled to his feet and found the girl already facing him; ready. ”I hear your strength is strategy... use it.” Strategy…
He examined her stance again; recalled the impact that had sent him sprawling. Strategy... strategy... she wouldn't say that... unless there was a weakness to exploit... somewhere...
Again he went back to the feel of her strike; the balance of her weight as she had thrown him. And again he examined her legs; the way she held her hips. He ran his eyes across every curve of her body once; twice; saw the coiled muscles beneath her skin, and the strength they contained.
And he saw the weakness in one of them.
Tensing, Armin leaped again at his opponent; the girl moved in the same way that she had before, coming to meet him with blinding speed. This time, however, he threw all his weight into his left foot, and when she moved to sweep his right out from under him, she only unbalanced herself. Her grip on his shoulders, too, meant to flip him, was weakened as she stumbled, and he managed to squirm away and stay on his feet. When Annie straightened, there was the ghost of a smile on her face. Armin felt his chest swell; he had gotten it right.
"You must have an injury to your left ankle; you've been favoring it. So using it to knock my left leg out from under me wouldn't be an option; you had to go for my right."
Annie's smile became a bit more real. "Once more, Arlert. Come. See if you can knock me down this time."
Armin wasn't nearly as reluctant as he had been; he already had a plan in mind, and shifted his weight easily to his left side, preparing to meet Annie on his right.
However, the girl didn't go for his right leg this time; she went straight for his left, and suddenly Armin found himself spinning and slammed harshly into the ground. Eren gave a sympathetic hiss as Armin groaned in pain, eyes tightly shut. His head throbbed in time to his pounding heart, and he felt confusion addle his thoughts.
“And one more thing.” Armin felt a finger appear on his nose, and looked up to see Annie crouched over him again. “Never assume the enemy isn’t bating you. Strategy is one thing- prudence is quite another.”
“... Point taken.” It was all Armin could think to say, his voice breathy. And then Annie had that vague smile on her face again.
“But you’ve got potential, Arlert. Come back for another lesson if you think you feel up to it. It’ll be worth your while if you can take it.”
Armin let his eyes close again, but he felt himself smile. “Y-Yeah, if I can take it… um… thanks, Annie.”