Manhattan, New York
a.d. iv Kalendas Septembres, 2766 A.U.C.
The thin, glossy pages of the vaguely old fifty-cent X-Men comic crinkled beneath his sweaty fingers. He had begun to hum idly, a vaguely familiar tune to an old nursery rhyme or a hymn from his childhood that had long since bled dry into the faded landscape of his memory. The words drifted loftily in his mind, but he could not form them, and he could only catch wisps of a verse like grasping at smoke. Meine Hände sind verschwunden… The late August heat had invaded the little comic shop on the lower floor of the massive mall he had dragged Hange into a few minutes earlier. There was a little fan cycling behind the front desk, white and rapidly circulating stale air, blowing back humidity with a whirring breath. The comic shop was a little underwhelming, and Eren was considering just leaving out of disappointment. Also, he was really, really hungry, and he was beginning to feel the vicious vertigo effect that overtook him when he neglected to eat a full meal or two every few hours.
"See anything you like?" Hange asked, hopping up beside him. They'd materialized from the shadows, creeping up on him as they liked to do when they noticed him focused on something moderately more interesting than a microscope.
"Not really," Eren said, flipping the page of the cheap comic book. "Where'd you go, anyways?"
"I saw myself on the news in Sears," Hange said, their large brown eyes growing wider with excitement. "They didn't even cut out my rambles about quantum physics this time!"
Hange Zoë was a very willowy person, with a lithe frame and a lax posture. They dressed in very loose, ambiguously casual clothing that could easily pass for formal with the addition of a vest or suit coat, which they tended to have hidden in the back of their car. Hange was a brilliant physicist, an entrepreneur, and a philanthropist. They had taken in Eren Jaeger five years ago, and adopted him the previous summer.
"So can we go?" Hange asked, adjusting their glasses and glancing at their watch. "Because I've got that thing."
Eren's knuckles closed tightly around the edge of the comic he was holding, and the pages made a soft crumpling sound. "You mean that thing that I can't go to?" he asked bitterly.
"You mean because you're grounded?" Hange smiled brightly. "Yes! I do, actually!"
Eren clapped the comic shut, and shoved it back into the box he'd unearthed it from. "It's not like anyone died," Eren snapped.
"Nope," Hange said, their smile big, but their eyes narrowed dangerously. "But five people are in the hospital, and three are critically injured."
"I didn't mean—!"
"Shh," Hange hushed, their gaze flashing to the lone worker of the comic shop. It was a young lady, probably in college, with a pen cap wiggling between her teeth as she gazed down at the counter. Eren was relieved to see white earbuds stuck inside her ears. "I know. But you need to understand where I'm coming from."
"I don't think I'm dangerous," Eren whispered furiously from behind a rack of new releases.
Hange merely smiled, and rubbed his hair affectionately. "Of course you are," they laughed, eyes glittering vaguely with something Eren could not describe, but he knew well. It was that mad look Hange got whenever the subject of Eren's ability was brought up. The terrible, terrifying curiosity that burned inside Hange's large brown eyes that signified that they needed to know more, and they were willing to push Eren to the edge for that information.
But thankfully, despite Hange being more than willing, they did not push Eren farther than they thought he could go. And he was grateful for it. Mostly.
"Bullshit," Eren growled, glaring at his feet. "I'm just… a little out of practice, okay? I don't get to go all out often."
"For this reason exactly," Hange reminded. Eren scowled at them, and they laughed again, though Eren could sense how forced it was. "Lighten up. I only grounded you for a week. And, hey, aren't you always complaining about missing your TV shows?" Hange grinned and snapped their fingers. "There we go! Watch some Netflix! Or better yet, make some friends!"
"I have friends," Eren said stiffly. "And fuck you, I can't watch the episodes I've missed of any of my shows on Netflix."
"I'm sorry, then why do we own this?" Hange blinked rapidly, and they frowned. "I'll work on that. Till then, I won't tell on you if you watch stuff illegally."
"Okay, whatever," Eren grumbled, shoving his hands into the pockets of his jeans. He glanced out into the mall, and he sighed. "I'm hungry."
"Then go eat."
"I don't have the money," Eren said, glaring at them with his scowl still firmly in place. "Because someone only gave me three dollars to buy a comic book."
"How terrible," Hange cooed, fishing their wallet out of their pocket and offering it out to him. "Promise me you won't max my card."
"You have like, seven, Hange," Eren retorted, snatching the wallet and whirling around. He paused, and he spun to face them again with a furious expression. "Don't you dare go outside and smoke."
"Whoa!" Hange threw their hands into the air, and grinned broadly. "Wasn't gonna. But, now that you mention it, I'm feelin' a little low…"
"This isn't a joke!" Eren shouted. Hange looked surprised, but they smiled nonetheless. The girl at the counter was watching them with a frown, one earbud clutched in her fist. "I'm gonna go and— and burn 'em, every last solitary cigarette!"
"Isn't that the point?" Hange offered weakly.
"No, it—!" Eren paused, and he clamped his mouth shut. His shoulders were squared, and he scoffed in irritation. "Whatever! Go on, burn up your lungs, see if I care!"
"I love you too!" Hange called as Eren whirled away again and marched out the door. "Have fun! Make good choices!"
Eren kicked a trashcan on the way out the door, and gave a rather startled squeak when it tipped over. He glanced around, and hastily put it back up, feeling guilty for letting his anger go unchecked. He could hear Hange laughing. Practice what you preach, Eren thought bitterly, his cheeks flushing.
He adjusted the backpack he had slung over one shoulder, vaguely remembering something about homework, but school had only just started, and he wasn't very concerned. He could probably just deal with it later. So he wandered around the ground floor of the mall, searching the signs for something to eat. The food court was on one of the upper floors, he was pretty sure, but that didn't mean there wasn't a little pretzel place or something lurking around somewhere.
Eren checked his phone. He probably should have eaten something about an hour ago, maybe, but whatever. He could deal with running on reserve power for a little while.
Due to his unique ability, Eren rapidly used up his energy. He was narcoleptic and diabetic, so he had to be careful to monitor himself when he used his power. This was one of the reasons why he rarely transformed entirely, and instead only partially grew massive limbs. It was tedious, but safer on his body and for everyone around him. Nobody wanted a fifteen meter monster crashing into skyscrapers, no matter the monster's good intentions. The first time he had ever transformed in a densely populated area, he'd nearly killed twelve people. He'd slept for two days afterward.
He probably should check his blood sugar and take his insulin, but food came first because he wanted food really bad, and he'd checked it a few hours ago, so he was probably fine. He passed a drug store, and he paused for a moment. Then he glanced at his phone, and tucked it in the pocket of his backpack, walking slowly into the bland, off-white maze of shelves.
Eren was checking out nicotine patches when the distant sound of screaming piqued his interest. He glanced around wildly, his fingers moving slowly toward his backpack. And then he remembered that Hange had confiscated his uniform. Fuck, he thought glumly, glancing around the drugstore hastily. There was a man at the counter, looking a little stunned, and Eren met his terror-filled eyes.
"What's happening?" Eren asked casually, hooking his thumb around the strap of his backpack.
The man's face contorted in vague irritation. "Well, yeesh, kid, I don't—!" A walk-talkie spluttered into life beyond the counter, and a broken, panicked voice gasped, "Gunshots on seventh floor."
Hey, Eren thought amusedly. That's where the food court is. He thought it was funny. If he hadn't been distracted by Hange's awful smoking habit, he could have been up there, already kicking ass. Except, he remembered, I'm in my goddamn civvies.
Being a hero was less of a choice and more of a necessity. There was no Eren Jaeger without Rogue. See, he'd always been Rogue in some sense, but Hange had been the one who had placed a mask over his eyes, and declared him a hero. That was something he'd needed when he had been younger. He'd needed that optimism, that gentle word that shed light on Eren's potential. Hero.
Because being a monster didn't mean he was bad, or anything. It just depended on what path the monstrosity inside Eren took.
And so far, he thought he was being a pretty nice monster, actually.
His fingers were tingling with anticipation as he mulled over what to do. He could just leave it to Hange, or the police. But by then, people could die.
No, Eren thought firmly, whirling away from the counter and weaving between the shelves furiously. No one is going to die.
He passed a shelf full of children's art supplies, and he grabbed a bottle of green finger paint, tearing off the price tag and slapping into another shelf as he bolted from the store. Outside, chaos had enveloped the entirety of the mall. There were throngs of people leaping toward exits, running down stairs, some were screaming and some were on the phone, and Eren took a deep breath and threw himself into the streams of bodies pushing the way opposite of his destination.
Eren would be able to handle this situation faster than Hange. Hange was much more recognizable, and beyond that, they were human. Eren didn't want to risk Hange's safety over something that he could easily do on his own. Of course, he knew they were more powerful as a team, and he was totally cool with that, but on short notice like this Eren was the one with the power to stop a shooting, not Hange. Eren didn't even know if Hange had their uniform with them, unless it was in the car.
They weren't like, professionals, or anything. It's not like either of them had any how-to guides to super heroing, aside from comic books, which Eren found ill informing. Keeping identities a secret was way harder than it looked, and not to mention all the crazy stunts that just didn't work in real life! Eren had his ability, yes, and he was pretty good at hand-to-hand combat, but he would never be able to scale a building or drop from one even with his ability. He'd probably take the building down, honestly.
Eren tore at the plastic around the cap of the paint bottle as he fought through the stampede of people running down the stairwell. He could hear sirens vaguely in the distance. Eren flicked open the bottle of finger paint, and paused upon the flight of steps leading to the seventh floor. He was suddenly very alone. He could see a figure lurking at the landing, and Eren carefully ducked behind a pillar.
He decided squirting the paint would make too much noise, so he just yanked the entire cap off and scooped a glob of green paint out of the bottle with two fingers. Eren was thinking really only of security cameras, because Hange was very careful not to let the media take pictures of him. No one would recognize him in his civvies, but it was a precaution he needed to take. He was a little jealous of Hange, who had developed a pretty good cover for their secret identity. They were perceived by the media was being female which they said didn't bother them much, but Eren was not so naïve anymore as to believe that. As a hero, the media used male pronouns for them. Thus, no one ever made the connection between Hange Zoë and Polymath, who were both heroes of technology in different senses.
Eren closed his eyes and smeared the paint carefully around the hollows of his eyes, spreading the green goop across his cheekbones and the bridge of his nose, and he could smell the distinct acidity of the cold, dripping liquid. It was clumping in his eyelashes, plastering his hair to his cheeks. He didn't care much.
He tossed the bottle of paint aside, and it bounced against a step, clacking noisily as green paint coagulated against worn granite. Eren was already running up the steps when the gunman guarding the stairwell turned around.
Eren grabbed hold of his wrist as he moved forward, and he blinked rapidly to dispel the paint from his vision. Then he squeezed his right hand, and gave it a quick, painful twist until a sharp crack spat through the silence, and pain shuddered through Eren's arm like a jolt of electricity pulsating slowly, and then rapidly, crackling and bursting with a sudden life that tingled his nerves and caused his olive-toned skin to split open with a steaming hiss.
The man's eyes momentarily went wide behind his mask, and his gun swerved in Eren's direction momentarily before a mighty, half formed fist came crashing down on him like the hand of god squashing a fly. The man crumpled on impact, and Eren streaked past him before he even hit the ground.
The stairs opened up on the food court, and it might have been a lifesaver to him if he had the chance to actually get food. He listened to the sound of gunshots, his arm throbbing from the mass of nerves bulging from the appendage into the fleshy mass of his Rogue arm. He had two ways to trigger his ability— broken bones triggered a controlled variation, where he could choose what part of his body he wanted to go Rogue, and breaking skin, which triggered the full on Rogue transformation.
Becoming fifteen meters tall was not optimal on the seventh floor of a building. Nor was it particularly great for Eren's health.
Eren spotted a group of people clustered between tables, sitting with their hands over their heads and their eyes on him. A hostage situation? Eren had to frown, and wonder where the logic was in that.
He covered himself with his Rogue arm as gunfire rang out in rapid succession of whooshing bullets. He felt one or two graze his Rogue arm, steam flooding the air upon impact, but it did no damage to his actual body, so he didn't really care. He spotted a few gunmen, who were looking at him vaguely with terror and awe, and he grinned at them broadly.
"Hey!" Eren cried, waving his rather disproportionate right arm in the air wildly. "Recognize me, huh?"
Eren had learned pretty quickly that the only way to act in these situations was carefree. Otherwise he'd over think what he was doing, and it was important that he kept all attention on him. He didn't want any hostages getting hurt.
"Hold on," called a woman, her arm flying out and her chin jerking at one of her lackeys. Her eyes were on Eren, her chin high, and Eren thought perhaps he recognized her. She was vaguely familiar, but there was a mask covering her dark face. Eren tilted his head. He prepared to begin punching out anyone with a gun, but something flickered out of the corner of his eye. Someone standing amongst the sitting hostages.
It was a familiar sort of flicker. It sent a wave of déjà vu flooding through him, as he recalled the troublesome games of hide-and-seek, a boy who had only wanted to go outside for just a few minutes to feel the sun on his skin, the uncanny memory of disembodied blood dribbling effortlessly from an invisible wound and glistening as it hovered in midair, accompanied by distant, breathy sobs that came from nowhere, and came from nothing, and yet erupted with the voice of a miserable child from the corner of a scathingly white room. Did they beat him, Eren wondered, or am I remembering wrong?
Eren could feel his Rogue arm unraveling, threads of artificial flesh sloughing from bone in a mist of heat and Eren felt his heartbeat accelerate in alarm and excitement and confusion, his eyes roving the crowd of hostages once more to try and find that familiar flicker just one more time. He didn't notice his arm fall away, because he wasn't thinking. He was too busy floundering with this idea that perhaps that flicker could have been the same as the boy from his memory.
He took a wild, dizzy step forward. If only for a moment, he forgot where he was. Remnants of his Rogue arm fell to the ground like glistening red ribbons, chunks of flesh still clinging to a giant steaming bone. He whirled around, his eyes darting desperately around the expansive room, and he fumbled for breath as a thought fluttered through his mind, shouting into an empty ether. Armin!
"Where did you…?" Eren's eyes widened as five gunshots split through the air.
Eren didn't feel the sting. He didn't even realize he'd been hit until his blood burst outward from his chest in a glimmering red cascade. It startled him. It made him feel idiotic, and he was suddenly furious at himself for being so weak and vulnerable. He blinked rapidly as the pain finally settled in his chest, rattling his busted ribs and blooming across the front of the Mikky Ekko shirt Hange had gotten for him when they had taken him to that concert the summer before, and Eren was a little pissed because he fucking liked that shirt, and now there was fucking blood on it, and his human blood didn't evaporate like his Rogue blood, and he was just so fucking stupid and he hated himself and everyone around him a little for it. Fuck, he thought dizzily, blood sloshing in his mouth as he heard a distant shout. A girl amongst the hostages had jumped to her feet. I fucked up, I fucked up, oh my god, I fucked up.
He noticed, as he wobbled on his feet, blood dribbling from the corners of his mouth, that the blood, which had been expelled from his chest due to the gunshots, was now splattered across the air. Eren saw his blood glistening in a spatter of color, suspended by some invisible canvas. Eren's vision was unfocused, but he thought he could see a vaguely human shape amidst the crimson silhouette. Eren blinked rapidly as the world began to flicker around him.
No. Not around him. Before him.
Like a faulty television screen, the sight of a small boy flickered in and out of existence right in front of Eren's eyes. Eren saw the contours of his face as the appeared and disappeared, blood framing his cheeks and smearing across his pale hair. He was wearing a white hood, and that too was stained with flecks of Eren's blood.
Eren knew that he was smiling, and he realized perhaps that looked unusual on a boy who was supposed to be dying.
Armin looked almost the same, as though the years had not touched his child-like appearance, as though time could not touch the innocence in his eyes as they glimmered with unshed tears. Eren could only choke on laughter and blood as he finally collapsed to his knees at Armin Arlelt's feet. Eren was upset, because this wasn't how they were supposed to meet again. Eren had concocted the entire scenario a thousand times. He hadn't accounted for Armin's powers, or Eren's lack of focus.
It occurred to Eren that the shooters might go for Armin, and his heart stuttered in shock. Because his mind had given a vicious command upon the revelation. Protect Armin. Eren could feel his body begin to react, but before he could fully transform, a scream split through the air. The scream was louder than any gunshot, and it shuddered and cracked and unfurled like a flag of rage and pain, bearing a crest of shame and shock and sharing none of the blame and simply reaching and rumbling and crashing like waves, and Eren felt the scream in his bones, felt it rattling inside him like a wounded animal against a cage, and he felt it in his heart and felt it in his head and felt it crash against his mouth, sloshing against his tongue, and he felt it in his eyes and in the blood that pooled beneath him as he toppled over in utter shock, breathless and bleeding and broken and bested by foes that he didn't even know, and there was screaming in his head, and screaming all around, and Eren thought perhaps he was screaming too though that was impossible because there was blood filling his mouth, and he was pretty damn sure his lungs were filled with bullets and blood and bits of bones.
The scream imbedded itself inside Eren and festered fast, blooming deadly and darkly, dusting his mind with poison. It was a shock that blasted throughout the entirety of Eren's being, and it was unlike anything he had ever felt before, like someone was in his head and ripping him apart from the inside until there was nothing left but a chilly blank slate, and Eren was scared for that reason as the entire world seemed to shatter at that very moment, a scream still shuddering through the air at a banshee's pitch, and Eren could not keep consciousness anymore.
He drifted into an almost peaceful slumber, with the face of his childhood friend illuminating the darkness that shrouded Eren's mind.
It was very white in the institution. Eren and Armin and Mikasa had once tried to count the colored walls, and they had gotten to six. But they weren't allowed everywhere in the building, so that hindered their progress a little bit. All in all, it was a rather boring little life they had. They had classes, and they had their own rooms, and sometimes they were allowed to watch movies if they were well behaved and didn't bite the doctors when they did their tests.
It was a pretty boring life. A stifling life.
Eren felt as though he was being kept in a cage and being raised for slaughter.
"Don't say that so loud," Armin whispered, his frightfully bright eyes rapidly scanning around them. "They might hear you."
Mikasa agreed sullenly, and Eren scowled at them. "But it's true," he hissed, glaring at the crayons they'd been given. They were told to draw a picture. Eren had drawn the blinding of the Cyclops from the Odyssey, which they were supposed to be reading in class, but Armin was the only one who actually did the work. Eren didn't really understand much of it. "They keep us locked up in here, and for what? Don't you guys miss the outside world?"
"Of course," Armin whispered, hugging his knees to his chest. Mikasa bowed her head, and Eren rounded on her.
"Well," he said furiously, "don't you?"
Mikasa frowned, and she glanced at him. Her pretty, round face was curtained by her long black hair, and she closed her eyes. "Yes," she said mildly. "Of course."
Eren huffed, and let the wax of his crayon build up along the texture of the paper. "Anyways, we're missin' a whole bunch of stuff, nice stuff, like the sunrise. Mom and I used to wake up every day to watch the sunrise." He stopped, and he looked down at his drawing, and he set his crayon down and decided he didn't want to draw anymore.
Mikasa were quiet after that. Armin was too, until he began to sing that dumb nursery rhyme again, and Eren found himself humming along quietly, not knowing the words, and even Mikasa bobbed her head to the lofty, foreign words.
"Meine Hände sind verschwunden, ich habe keine Hände mehr, ei, da sind die Hände wieder, tralalalalalala…" He paused for a moment, his voice lilting as he blinked sadly downward. And then, he picked the nursery rhyme up again. "Meine Nase ist verschwunden…"
It was before they'd all gotten their powers, back when they still sorta felt like the institution was safe. Back when Eren had still believed in his father.
Eren had to suppose he had been lucky. His procedure had only been a series of shots to the nape of his neck. Eren didn't know why they had chosen him to test that particular serum (if the serums were even different), but he had to suppose they had tested on a few different people and had been unsuccessful until they tried it on him. His father had been present during the procedure, and Eren remembered that it had been the first time he had seen his father in months, and he'd been so excited for that very reason.
What a joke.
"How are you feeling?" his father asked, just before it had started. Eren felt mildly confused.
"Um," he said. "Fine, I guess. Where have you been? What's going on?" He vaguely remembered being hoisted in the man's arms, his arms around his father's neck. His legs had felt very heavy.
His father smiled sadly, and placed a hand on his head, ruffling his hair between long fingers. "Don't worry, Eren," he whispered. "Don't worry."
Well, after that was kinda a blur. As though Eren's memories had become disjointed, fracturing away from a larger, bolder picture that stretched across the massive expanse of his mind. There were gaps in his memory that spanned months. Sometimes he'd have little flashes, like someone had lit a fire in his chest, and now he was left to inhale chips of ice in order to put it out.
Armin was constantly rubbing his newly shaved head, and tentatively asking Eren if it looked bad, and Eren always replied no, though he was lying. He had a scar from the incision line, and Eren liked to touch it to see Armin get all jittery, though Mikasa had yelled at him for that.
"But what about you?" Eren asked her. She was thoughtlessly examining the ends of her hair, never looking at Armin or Eren directly. "Did you get your procedure yet?"
Mikasa shook her head. Armin and Eren exchanged a look. "Really?" Armin asked. "But we've all gotten them by now. Even Annie—"
"I know," Mikasa said, cutting Armin off sharply. She looked at him with a chilly gaze. "Maybe I just don't need one."
"We all need one," Eren said slowly. "It's part of the… the… ugh, what's it again, Armin?"
"Experiment?" Armin looked a little uncomfortable, and Eren wondered if perhaps the boy needed to lie down. He was having dizzy spells lately, but less now, Eren thought.
"Yeah," Eren said, waving idly. "That. I mean, it's not any big deal, or anything, and I think we're okay…"
"Eren," Mikasa hissed. "You were asleep for three months."
"I woke up sometimes," Eren grumbled.
"Eren, they cut into Armin's brain," Mikasa grabbed the smaller boy by the arm, and he gave a trembling, agonized scream of shock as his little arm gave a grotesque crunch beneath Mikasa's slender fingers. Eren, upon instinct, lurched forward and shoved himself between his best friends, sending Mikasa toppling to the ground as he shoved her very, very hard.
"What the hell, Mikasa?" Eren snarled. He could hear Armin's quiet, mangled sobs from behind him as the boy cradled his arm to his chest, staring past Eren and at Mikasa with a watery, hopelessly confused gaze.
Mikasa was lying upon the white floor of the common room, staring with mild horror at her hands. Her slender fingers were trembling. "I…" she said breathlessly, her eyes raising to meet Eren's. "I didn't…"
Before Eren could yell at her some more, one of the institution's male doctors came striding up to them, cutting between Eren and Mikasa with a stern expression. "I think that's enough playing for today," said the man, carefully pulling Mikasa to her feet. She stood on wobbly legs, staring at her hands with wide, terrified eyes. The man held her wrist very tightly, studying her as though she had fallen down while running and skinned her knee. "Armin, come here. Let's get you to Dr. Jaeger."
"N-no," Armin gasped, his voice quivering and tears streaking his ashen face. He was cradling his arm to his chest, and Eren felt the urge to wrap his arm around the boy's shoulders to shield him from the doctor. Eren didn't know his name, or he didn't remember it. "No, sir, I-I'm f-fine, I'm—"
"That's enough, Armin," said the doctor steadily, his warm eyes assessing Armin with the gentlest of gazes. Eren realized the man was very young, probably like a teenager, or just out of being a teenager, or something like that, because his face was still pretty round, and he looked nicer than most of the other doctors. "Please come with me."
Armin looked at Eren sadly, and slowly followed the doctor out of the room.
It was never really clear to Eren before their powers manifested that the things going on at the institute could be evil. Previous to the procedures, he had just that they were being treated unfairly, but Eren still believed his father knew best despite his doubts and irritation. But then Mikasa had hurt Armin. Mikasa, who Eren sought to be the rock in his world, had harmed their friend, and he had almost damned her for that. She had avoided him and Armin for weeks and weeks, and when she appeared to class she often had bandages wrapped around her knuckles so thickly that she appeared the barely be able to hold her pen.
It wasn't until Armin's powers manifested that Eren began to realize what was truly going on. The experiment they were part of, it wasn't just data and research. It was variables, and those variables were them. They weren't taking part in any experiment. They were the experiment.
In introduction, I would like to say two things.
One, happy birthday to Steph, and happy belated birthday to Saro.
Two, I hate myself for this.