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(As we'd like to think)

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Armin will never admit it, but he’s given a form to his insecurities. At night, he hears the words failure and useless whispered to him in Eren’s voice, spat at him like curses. He feels them hot on his face, and hears them ring in his ears.

He can feel shadowy hands rest on his shoulders and push him into the ground during training. When they sit at dinner, he is an equal; out here, he falls behind the rest. Even hand to hand combat can best him and leave him a breathless, sore mess.

Connie may be smaller, but his body is wiry and lithe, perfect for executing quick movements that leave Armin panting on the ground. He opens his eyes, and prays that the world will stop spinning soon. His chest burns. He wishes, with all of his heart, that he could just crawl back into bed and tackle his shame another day.

Connie comes into his field of vision, blocking him from the sun. The shade is a welcome relief. He feels a hand tug at his, and slowly, he gets onto his feet.

“Sorry for being so rough,” Connie mutters. “Still don’t know my own strength.”

It’s fine, Armin wants to say. But when he blinks, his eyes settle on Eren and Annie. They move effortlessly now, an easily coordinated dance that they’ve practiced to perfection. It’s only a flash of a thought, sharp and quick like a needle pricking into his skin, but he compares their easy steps to his own clumsy movements, and thinks of how he’ll never be as talented as them.

The instructor’s call rings through the sandy patch of land, bringing a much-desired break to the trainees. Annie and Eren go their separate ways, parting with a smile and a joke that he’s too far away to catch. Eren offers him a grin as he rushes by, but all Armin can do is promise that they’ll talk at dinner.

The run wasn’t far at all, but his chest still burns by the time he catches up with her. She is crystal besides him; shining, beautiful, and much too hard to ever crack open. She casts him a cold gaze, the same look she gives insects that crawl on her shoes when she stands still.

“Um, Annie?” He begins hesitantly. His ability to weave words out of thin air is his only talent, yet it fails him now. He falls silent, struggling to find the proper phrases. She looks away from him.

“If you’re going to say something, spit it out already,” she says.

He takes a chance by throwing caution away. “I know you train Eren in hand to hand combat,” he admits. “Everyone does.”

She remains impassive.

“And I want you to train me.”

This prompts her to stop. She finally looks over at him. Her eyes are frozen over. He thinks of the fairy tales he used to read as a kid, ones with princesses locked away in lonely castles and trapped within magical stones. Those girls must have been based off of people like Annie.

She tucks a lock of limp hair behind her ear. “Do you really think I have time to train two weaklings at once?”

He wants to protest that Eren isn’t weak (hasn’t been for years, not in body and never in spirit), but that will get him nowhere. Instead, he turns to her. Even someone as tiny as her dwarfs him in sheer power.

“Yes.”

She smirks bitterly, quickly attempts a smile, and then gives up. “Then I guess you aren’t as smart as everyone said you were.”

He watches her retreat into herself as she leaves.

-

As the seasons roll into each other, the crowd of trainees steadily thins out. By the tail end of the first year, the cafeteria feels empty. A few hundred people still remain, but they scatter themselves across different tables, sealing themselves within invisible barriers that few are willing to break.

Armin’s table is still lively, still constantly packed with people. Eren and Mikasa attract others like honey attracts hungry rodents. Reiner, Bertholdt, Connie, Sasha, Mina, and Thomas all cram themselves onto the benches around him. They create an easy atmosphere that gives Armin the rare relief of feeling at ease with both himself and his situation.

Reiner sits on the other side of the table. Armin looks up from his bland soup just to see him attempt a wave, only to end it halfway through. His hand falls uselessly back down.

“What’s the matter?” Armin asks.

Reiner points to a place just over Armin’s shoulder. He cranes his neck to follow the line his arm creates, and sees Annie at the end. She sits alone at a table that’s not quite adjacent to them, listlessly stirring her food around on her plate.

“I think she’ll win an award for the friendliest trainee when we graduate,” he quips. Armin smiles, not because he was honestly amused, but only out of a desire not to hurt Reiner’s feelings. The joke wasn’t actually funny at all.

“She looks lonely, don’t you think?” Armin says. There’s no room for her at his table, but he could move over to hers without a problem.

“She prefers it that way,” Bertholdt says quietly, but Armin still stands up. Everyone at the table turns to look at him, and he looks down at a sea of confused faces.

His hands grip his tray so tightly that his knuckles turn white, but he still offers them a smile as he leaves. They’re only separated by a few meters of distance, but the walk over feels so much farther. His mind swims with uncertainty. She’s a hard person to hold conversation with, but he’d still like to try.

He sits down right in front of her. She looks up at him, wearing the same confused expression that he saw just moments earlier.

“So…” Armin begins, scrabbling for a topic, “I guess…you don’t like the food that much?”

“It all tastes the same to me,” she replies.

Armin lets out an awkward chuckle. “It really isn’t that good.”

“I don’t care either way.”

“Oh.”

They fall into an uneasy silence for the rest of dinner. Annie continues to swirl her food around; Armin continues to watch.

Dinner ends, and they part without a single word. Despite this, he seats himself directly across from her the next night, and the night after that, and the night after that.

He soon realizes two things.

One: he sits directly in Reiner’s line of sight. He and Annie can no longer look at each other.

Two: she doesn’t mind him sitting with her, and only wonders why he keeps coming back even though she has nothing to say.

-

Training expeditions to areas dozens of kilometers away from civilization are unfortunately common during winter. Even with the supposedly generous amount of money the military is given by the government, many trainees still go without decent blankets at night. In the comfort of the barracks, it isn’t so bad, but out in the wilderness, the harsh winds bite through their sleeping bags and chill them to the bone. It isn’t cold enough for hypothermia to steal their lives, but it is more than enough to make them all miserable throughout the night.

Armin is one of the lucky few awarded an extra blanket for the expedition. Compared to the quality of bedding he usually gets, this single piece of fabric is something stolen straight from the king’s castle. He wraps it around himself like a cocoon, spinning over and over until he’s nestled so tightly within it that he can’t move. It completely fills his sleeping bag, but he sighs contentedly, letting the layers of warmth lull him into a comfortable sleep.

His body is tired, but his mind is wide awake. He sticks his head out of his sleeping bag, and looks around at his companions. The only light comes from the stars above (the moon is nothing more than a useless sliver in the sky; it is almost worthless to mention), but his eyes have always been sharp, and they allow him to see the silhouettes of his comrades. Many of them move around, but one trembles like a newborn kitten that cannot find its mother.

Armin isn’t quite sure which drives him more, curiosity or concern, but they still manage to get him up and out of his bag to check to see who it is. The person’s head is hidden underneath a layer of black fabric, but they’ve curled up into an impossibly tiny ball, and he knows that only Christa or Annie could make themself that small.

Armin crouches down next to where he thinks their head is and whispers, “are you ok?”

He hears an irritated grunt, and knows instantly that he’s talking to Annie. Christa would never respond to him that way, no matter how cold she may be.

“I could see you shivering from my sleeping bag,” Armin says. He does not know her very well (no one does, regardless of how much any one person might want to), but he does know that she may take his words as an insult. He also knows that she’s the only one who always wears a thick sweatshirt underneath her jacket, even in the dead of summer when every other trainee throws as much clothing off as they can without getting in trouble. She handles the cold worse than anyone else he knows.

“I’m fine,” Annie says. The words are clearly a lie.

“I have an extra blanket, if you want it.”

“I don’t need your pity,” Annie bites out. Her mouth snaps shut, but Armin hears a faint, erratic clicking, and realizes that the noise is coming from her.

Armin stands up, squares his shoulders, and marches back to his bag. He pulls the blanket out, and tries his best to ignore the wind threatening to topple him over as he folds it. He is immediately thankful for the heavy fabric, since it stays mostly still while he moves it around. He holds it carefully in his arms like a fragile package, and carries it over to her. He sets it down, right next to her sleeping bag, and returns to his own.

He crawls back underneath, and though he’s chilled to the bone, his mind is now calm enough to let him sleep.

Armin wakes up early the next morning, when the sun’s light just barely shines on them from over a distant, snowy mountaintop. He pops his head out, and takes a breath of fresh air. It feels sharp within his lungs, but it helps to wake him up.

He looks around at his sleeping companions, and notices that the shaking bag from last night is still. It’s much thicker than he remembers it. The blanket has disappeared.

He smiles to himself. Her secret is safe with him.

-

In this world, no one can survive completely alone. Only the very elite can take down titans by themselves; every average soldier must rely on teamwork if they wish to survive.

Everyone knows that Annie is good. She’s one of the few who could kill them on her own effortlessly.

But her skill won’t protect her from missions where she’s forced to have a partner.

When the news is announced that they must find a partner and work together in order to complete the assignment, everyone rushes to find a companion. The results are fairly predictable: Reiner and Bertholdt naturally drift together; Ymir and Christa had already agreed to work together before Keith had even finished speaking; Marco waves Jean down the moment they break apart; Sasha and Connie high five when they come together.

Armin looks for either Eren or Mikasa, and sees them standing off to the side. This is one mission where their trio must disband. He’s slightly disappointed, but their gravitation to each other is understandable. In this case, he’d only hold them back.

Hell, he’s going to hold back any partner he gets, regardless of who they are. The thought almost freezes him in place, but he locks it deep in the back of his mind. He needs to find someone, and quick.

Annie is alone yet again. She stands off to the side, slightly slouched over, as if all the energy has been drained out of her body. Armin takes a deep breath, and approaches her.

“Hey, Annie,” he says, grateful when her eyes dart up to look at him, “do you have a partner?”

“I don’t want one,” she says blankly. “I’m fine on my own.”

“It doesn’t matter if you want one or not,” Armin tells her, trying to keep his voice gentle, “you’ll need one if you want to pass.”

“I don’t care about failing one little mission.”

“One little mission worth a lot of points,” Armin murmurs. He knows that he’s being manipulative. He’ll apologize later, when there’s not a chance of him failing this mission and ultimately jeopardizing his chances of becoming a soldier. “You want to stay in the top ten, don’t you?”

Her eyes widen. He sees fear shine from within her for only a moment before she freezes over again. She looks displeased, but that doesn’t stop her from sticking her hand out to him. “Well?” She asks. “Are we going to work together or not?”

He takes her hand, and shakes it gently. She squeezes so hard that it hurts.

(They end up finishing with one of the highest scores out of any team, by some stroke of luck. It’s a large enough boost that, for once, Armin can go to sleep without worrying if he’ll be sent off to the fields the next morning.)

-

Actual break days, days when they’re allowed to leave the training barracks and actually go into town, are a blessing. Most members of the squad are already cramming themselves on the cart to town by the first rays of dawn.

Armin is not one of those people.

“Are you sure?” Mikasa asks. It’s strange to see her in civilian clothes (covered neck to toe in gentle pinks, reds, and whites) after endless weeks of seeing her almost exclusively in her uniform.

“We don’t get this chance often,” Eren reminds him. It’s less jarring to see him like this, but jarring nonetheless.

“I know,” Armin replies. “But I have things to do here. Really, go on without me. It’s fine.”

They exchange slightly worried looks, but Mikasa turns back to face him, and nods. “You know where we’ll be,” she says.

“I guess I’ll see you tonight,” Eren mutters. The two of them turn to board the cart. He makes sure to wave them off as they leave.

By the time breakfast is called, very few people remain. Armin waves to Thomas – who came down with a nasty cold recently, and is too sick to want to travel anywhere – on his way past the mess hall, but he continues forward, a goal clearly in mind.

He finds her in the library, and that discovery alone causes a strange giddiness to bloom in his chest and spread through his body. He darts between two looming bookshelves and stands still. He continues only when the silly grin on his face disappears.

 He finds Annie sitting at a small table, nose deep in a fairy tale. He recognizes the cover. It’s slightly different from the one he took from his grandfather’s shelf so many years ago, but it’s close enough to invoke a sense of nostalgia.

He sits down across from her, and waits for her eyes to focus on him from over the top of the book before speaking.

“Hi, Annie.” Best to start out simply, he thinks.

“What do you want?”

“To keep you company.”

Her eyes widen a fraction of a centimeter, the only sign of her shock. He almost cracks a smile, but ultimately forces it down. She should be used to this by now. “What’s with you?” She asks. “You have plenty of other friends, but you always come to me. Why?”

Armin laughs quietly. “I thought it was fairly obvious…”

She’s genuinely curious now. He sees it in the way she sets her book off to the side and leans the slightest bit forward. “What?”

“I like you, Annie. You try to be cold, but I think you’re actually kind. I trust you.”

She tries very hard to keep her face neutral, but nothing can stop the faint blush spreading across her cheeks.

“I’ve only ever wanted to be your friend,” he says, and mentally adds, or anything more you might be comfortable with.

She’s silent for a long time. Armin forces himself to stay calm. He focuses on his breathing; in, out.

In.

Out.

He closes his eyes, and hears her voice, tentative but happy.

“Well, maybe you reached that goal a long time ago.”

He opens his eyes. She’s smiling, slightly. It’s crooked and a single tooth pokes out through her lips, but it’s still lovely.

They spend the rest of the day together. Armin never regrets a second of it.

He hopes that Annie doesn’t, either.