When he first joined the military as an unsuspecting trainee, he had no idea what his life would have in store for him. Standing between one of his best friends, Eren Jaeger, and a complete stranger, he quaked in his newly distributed uniform as one of his squad's commanders, Keith Shadis, barked his way through a long list of rules.
"First and foremost," he hollered, eyes bulging madly, "as trainee cadets, you must offer your beating heart to the good of humanity, and to his royal majesty in Wall Sina's innermost district. Secondly, you must be prepared to dedicate your life and soul to your training, and to the protection of your comrades, and finally, if any of you shitheads bring dishonour upon this squadron, you will be punished as severely as fits: no illegal substances or possessions, no excessive violence, and no sexual activity between cadets. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, sir!" Armin fought to make his voice heard, drowning the unified chorus of hundreds of uncertain teenagers sacrificing their hearts and souls.
"Any rule-breaking," Shadis started, folding his arms behind his back in too calm of a manner, "and it's not titans you dogs'll be pissing yourselves over."
Well into his fifteenth year, Armin was accustomed to the brutality of training: while his muscles weren't as hardened as Eren's or Mikasa's, his body had become a product forged by intense physical labour and day-long sessions of hand-to-hand combat. His mind had expanded into fields upon fields of knowledge, a wealth of information crucial to his own and his friends' survival.
He wasn't quite a man, but he was close.
For the most part, he spent his days among amicable company, associating primarily with his childhood friends and the rest of the still-breathing trainees. Despite all of the different faces present in his squadron, he found his place relatively quickly, among faces giddy and grave alike. Eren, Mikasa, Jean, Marco, Sasha, Connie, Reiner, Bertolt, Krista, Ymir, Mina, and so forth – they formed an alliance between themselves, going above and beyond the requirements of team-mates on and off the battlefield – sometimes there were arguments, especially between Eren and Jean, but each member of their group was essential.
And then there was Annie: their honorary pseudo-ally, the anti-hero of their social group.
She didn't talk much and she was friendliest with Reiner and Bertolt (despite the fact that her version of "friendly" didn't quite warrant the conventions of a stereotypical friendship), but she was a valuable asset nonetheless. She helped Eren train himself, and gave Mikasa a worthwhile sparring partner, and her mind was as sharp as Amrin's, just not as dedicated or as interests in academic pursuits.
Sometimes she sat with them, when they all managed to squeeze themselves onto two benches around one table, grimacing slightly as her shoulders were often wedged between Armin's and Sasha's; sometimes she spoke, contributing towards conversations with observations or anecdotes in a small but alluring voice; sometimes she even cracked a smile, or laughed on extremely rare occasions.
Annie was definitely the "lone wolf" character of the 104th trainees squad, but she wasn't as anti-social or as cold-hearted as people often claimed upon first glance. She was quiet in group situations, often preferring to listen instead of speak, and she was objective more often than not, but she was also kind in her own way, beneath her clinical stand-offish perspective. Or so Armin thought, at least. He grew to treasure her interactions with the group. In such a dark world, he needed the light of as many people as possible, and Annie Leonhardt shone like a star amidst a bleak, never-ending cosmos.
"Hey Annie," he called early one morning, having gathered the courage to propose something he'd been considering for a while.
She was standing away from him, leaning with her back propped up against a sturdy tree, watching as her classmates fought with one another over the control of a flimsy wooden prop. She raised an eyebrow when he addressed her, turning to face him with curiosity glimmering in her crystal eyes. "Arlert." She nodded. "What is it?" She brushed the curtain of her fringe out of one eye and behind her ear.
Armin grinned toothily, glad to have her undivided attention and a moment alone from the rest of their friends. "I was wondering if you'd spar with me." He smiled earnestly, stepping closer and abandoning the leather-bound book he was clutching to his chest, kneeling down to place it by the roots of the tree trunk. "I need the practice."
Annie regarded him with apprehension, before the faintest of smirks tugged at the corners of her lips. "You can't be serious." She murmured, but he didn't show any signs of revoking his request.
"I... I'm completely serious." He offered, staring down at her with wide and hopeful eyes. "I need to train!"
The blonde girl shook her head lightly. "Train with Krista." She told him. "Or even Connie, if you think you're up to it."
"I want to train with you." He insisted, straightening his back. "Come on, Annie. Just once, and then I'll leave you alone. You train with Eren and Mikasa, why not with me?" Armin pleaded, suddenly feeling inadequate and somewhat useless. Sub-par.
Annie glared at him, her smirk disappearing into a frown. "I'm not afraid of beating the shit out of either of them. They can handle it, and I can handle them." She explained, crossing her arms over her chest. "If we spar, Eren will have to bury you tomorrow."
From across the training grounds, Eren was busy trying to initiate an argument with Jean, grabbing him by the collar of his shirt as Mikasa futilely tried to talk sense into them both from the sidelines, beside Marco, whose reasoning wasn't much help either.
"I can handle it." Armin reassured. "Just once. Please." He stepped even closer and lightly curled his fingers around Annie's shoulders, but she recoiled almost instantly, shuffling away and ducking her head.
"Alright, fine." She relented, unfolding her arms and walking towards the dusty draining grounds. It hadn't rained in weeks, and the mud was all dry and cracked. It'd hurt when she was slamming him into it, that was for sure.
"Really?" Armin beamed, forgetting all about his book as he jogged back over to her side. "You'll do it?"
"Sure." Annie confirmed once more, turning against him with her fingers curled into the palms of her hands, outstretched in front of her body. "Just don't complain afterwards."
"B-But we haven't even got a knife yet." Armin pointed out, suddenly a little concerned. He knew he was biting off way more than he could chew, facing off with Annie Leonhardt of all people – the girl who could probably toss a titan over her shoulder with minimal effort – perhaps that was an exaggeration, but she was yet to try. They were starting to attract interest, from Reiner and Bertoldt in particular, who were preoccupying themselves with whispering about how he had to have a death wish.
Annie raised an eyebrow, sceptical. "Do we really need one? How about the winner is the cadet who manages to restrain the other?"
"...Alright." Armin agreed, but the reluctance was clear in his voice. He steadied himself, placing one foot in front of the other, mimicking her combat stance, curling his hands into balled-up fists.
"Are you sure about this?" There wasn't any emotion present in Annie's words, just objectivity, as usual. She didn't care if she hurt him anymore, he was the one who wanted combat practice. She was offering him one final opportunity to walk away free of bruising.
"I'm sure." Armin insisted, gritting his teeth together and bracing himself. "Come at me, Annie."
And she did.
In a flurry of jerks and kicks, she'd managed to get him on the ground in seconds, holding him down so that his face was pressed into the mud. She forced her knee into his lower back, pulling at his arms so he couldn't move.
"Annie!" He squawked, spitting dust and dirt from his mouth. He could feel blood running down his top lip.
"Are you satisfied?" Annie crooned, leaning her lips down to just above his ear.
"Hey!" Eren called from across the training grounds, jogging over to where Annie had his best friend pinned. "What are you doing to-"
In an instant, Annie released Armin, brushing the dust off her trousers before offering her sparring partner a helping hand. "We were training." She muttered as Mikasa joined Eren's side. "He asked to be my sparring partner."
"He's nowhere near your level!" Eren argued, taking Armin off Annie's hands, holding him up by pulling one of his arms around his shoulder, but Armin tried to stumble away.
"No, really!" He wheezed, bringing his hands up to cup his bloodied nose. "I wanted to spar with her."
Mikasa shot Armin a look full of pity, frowning. "Armin, you need to pick and choose your battles." She chastised, reaching into the right breast pocket of her uniform jacket and pulled out an old rag, tossing it his way. "Here."
"Are we done now?" Annie spoke up, brushing her fringe out of one eye once more.
Armin nodded, holding the rag to his nose and mopping up the blood. "This time tomorrow, yeah?" He suggested, speaking into the rag, prompting three sets of protests.
"Fine." Armin frowned, taking the bloodstained rag away from his nose and offering back to Mikasa with a sheepish look etched upon his face. "Sorry." He mumbled her way and she nodded.
"Maybe if you get stronger," Annie suggested, averting her gaze from the trio of friends, "I'll fight you again if you train harder."
Armin wiped his nose with the back of his wrist, wincing. "Of course." He smiled. "I look forward to it."
"Did you hit your head?" Eren baulked.