Armin is the first to figure it out. He and Eren are five years old and playing in his mother's garden. He stops, his hand halfway outstretched towards a flower.
Eren stops too, once he realizes Armin isn't moving.
"What's wrong?" he asks.
For a moment, Armin considers lying, making up some half-hearted excuse. But this is Eren. Eren is the only one who deserves the truth. He whispers it in Eren's ear.
Eren's not as quick to accept it as Armin is. He blinks in the sunlight like he had lived his whole life in darkness. He wonders how soon the dawn comes when the sun doesn't have to climb all the way over Wall Maria.
"Don't tell my mom," he says, and "Where's the other one?"
Armin shrugs. "I dunno," he says.
Eren nods briskly. "We'll find them." It sounds like a promise. It's not though. It's just a fact.
When Eren is nine, his father brings him to meet Mikasa Ackerman. Eren knows his father is upset that he only has one friend. Eren only needs one friend though. At least until they find the other one.
It's raining as they walk. Eren remembers Armin's book and wonders how much it would have to rain to fill an ocean. Then he wonders where the salt comes from. Sometimes the other children hit Armin until he cries and his tears are salty. It's raining and it looks like the sky is crying.
When they reach the cabin, there's blood on the windows and bodies on the floor. Eren's father ushers him away, tries to hide his eyes from the gruesome sight, but it doesn't matter. Eren's already seen everything he has to.
There are two bodies on the floor. Three people lived in the cabin.
"Go wait at the foot of the mountain." Eren hears.
"I will," he says, but it's just words.
He goes to the foot of the mountain and he waits. He waits, like he's told. He waits until Armin arrives, a small package tucked into his coat.
"I heard what happened," Armin says, giving him the package.
"Will you come?" Eren asks.
Armin shakes his head. "You're stronger than I am."
Eren nods. He unwraps the package and tucks the contents away.
Then he goes to the hunting cabin deep in the woods. He giggles to himself as he walks. He thinks it's funny that they would hide there of all places. There isn't much fun in hunting if he knows exactly where to find his prey.
He knocks on the door, eyes wide and fearful, voice shaking. When the tall one pats him on the head, he has to resist the urge to bite the hand off. He settles for brushing it away as he buries Armin's gift deep into the beast's stomach.
When his work is done and three dogs lie dead on the floor, he sees his sister for the first time.
"I found you," he whispers, astonished beyond belief.
His scarf is the color of blood and when he gives it to her it feels like a promise. They are family now after all and he has had enough of both on his hands to know that blood is so much thicker than water. They may not share blood from their parents, but the three of them have spilled blood together and that should be good enough.
The boys don't completely understand why they hate Armin so much. They know that he is a heretic, but they don't know what that means. They know that he is weak and he's easy to hurt, but they don't know why that means they need to hurt him.
The whys don't really matter to them though. They understand the how well enough.
They know when he is alone and when his parents or his grandfather will protect him. They know to lay low when Mikasa stalks beside him and to tread carefully when Eren slings an arm over his shoulder like a brother.
They know where to hit him to hurt, and where they can't hit him because then Dr. Jaeger will find out and not even a grown up would ever cross Dr. Jaeger.
There's only one thing the boys don't understand at all.
Armin always laughs.
Even with tears streaming down his face, even when he can't bear to stand, he always laughs like they've just told him the funniest joke in the world. They sneer and posture and call him weak and he laughs and asks them if any one of them would fight him without the others to back him up.
They've never seen him try to strike a blow before, so they back down. Maybe he's secretly insanely strong like Captain Levi. But he still lets them hit him anyway.
Sometimes they call him stupid and he laughs hysterically. It's ridiculous and they know it. Armin's smarter than a lot of grown ups they know.
And then there are the times when they call him a heretic. Armin doesn't laugh then. He doesn't even smile. He just looks at them. His eyes bore into them like knives when he looks at them like that, but they don't have to look him in the eye to punch him in the gut.
There are still days when they run home with their tails between their legs and as their mothers patch up the scrapes and bruises Mikasa and Eren left, they vow never to lay a finger on Armin again. But they can never keep their promises.
In one day of hell, Wall Maria is lost, his mother is lost, his home is lost, and the only things Eren has left to him are his brother, his sister, and his rage.
Tears blur his vision and he can barely make out the figure of the Titan that broke through the wall. It looks deceptively normal, for a Titan. Then, in a flash of light, it's gone. It looked almost like a human, he thinks, as he blinks away the afterimage burned into his eyelids, but that doesn't matter to him. He's killed things that looked much more like humans before. The Titan killed thousands and that's the only thing he'll ever need to know about it, except how to kill it.
As Eren opens his mouth to promise his vengeance, tears roll onto his tongue. They taste like salt. Suddenly, he is appalled at the clear skies. If the heavens could grieve Mikasa's birth parents, then surely they could mourn an entire city and everyone else he knows will die. But it's sunny. There's not a cloud in the sky.
Beside him, his brother is planning.
Armin stares upwards, whispering to himself. There will be shortages, he knows, and work will be hard for his grandfather to find, even without three extra mouths to feed. They will have to rely primarily on whatever rations can be spared to feed a wall's worth of hungry mouths. Thousands will die and he doesn't dare to try and care.
He already knows how long he and his brother and sister can survive without food. Dr. Jaeger had some interesting books hidden away where he thought small fingers couldn't reach. But Armin knows that won't be enough. They might be able to find enough for a few months before food runs out and then another solution will have to be found. He suspects the crown will realize that soon enough. He's too young to be drafted right now, but his grandfather is not.
It's with that though that he finally breaks down. He can't mourn the dead; he has no idea where to start. He resolves to mourn the living instead. There are few enough of those. He starts with his grandfather and with his sister.
His sister is silent and still.
Perfectly composed, Mikasa stares inwards and down at the floor of the boat. Surrounded by eyes dulled with grief, Mikasa's are perfectly clear. Her fingers brush Eren's scarf and she wonders if it's worth is to try to pick up the shattered pieces of her heart.
If she leaves them, the shards will cut her apart from the inside out, but if she touches them, she'll slice her fingers. She needs her hands to fight, to protect Eren, to make sure he can never feel her pain. And she wants desperately to live.
If she wins, she lives. The only she can win is if she can fight. She needs her hands to fight. She needs her hands to win. She needs her hands to live. She doesn't need her heart. She loves her brothers, but she will not love anyone else. She can't afford to anymore.
Mikasa's mind is as sharp as the shards of her heart and as clear as the cloudless sky. Falling feels an awful lot like flying, and the ground is still so very far away.
There is no one single day, one single announcement proclaiming that the citizens of Wall Maria must die to keep the rest fed.
Perhaps this is done to soften the blow, but nothing can ease the pain of families torn apart so soon after they survived so much. Especially not when so many children are left with no one to care for them.
The survivors, and they consider themselves just as much survivors of the crown as survivors of the Titans, do all in their power to keep the children fed, but they have so little power.
There are three children especially this refugee camp adopted. They are the only known survivors from Shiganshina. The rest have been sent off to reclaim Wall Maria, or are already dead from starvation or disease. Two boys and a girl in a red scarf. They could be family, if they didn't look so different. There are a few people who whisper about the girl's foreign features, but that's not what most of them choose to whisper about when there are much better outlets for well-meaning concern or morbid curiosity.
The two boys are angry and they make no attempt to hide it. The one with the striking green eyes tells anyone who will listen about how he will join the Survey Corps and annihilate the Titans. There is fire in his blood and he burns bright enough that some people even dare to hope. The rest wonder silently when he will burn out.
The blond boy is quieter and knows far better the value of discretion, but he makes no secret of the fact that most of the arable farmland in Wall Sina was property of nobles. We could have all been fed, he says, barely loud enough to be heard and never to more than one person, but the nobles needed their parks more than we needed our lives.
The girl is angry too. Her eyes flash whenever a member of the Military Police draws too near to one of her brothers. If anyone should dare speak ill of the dead, she picks the offender up with one hand and hurls them across the room. But the difference between her and her brothers is that she is silent. Even when performing impossible feats of strength, no sound ever passes her lips. That by itself isn't so strange. More than a few people have gone mute, haunted by the horrors they can't even begin to describe.
The girl isn't one of these people. Her lips are always moving. Slowly and deliberately, like she's reciting a poem. At first, people wondered what she was saying. Now, they are certain she says nothing at all. If any of them found the courage to approach her, they might realize that she isn't reciting a poem and she isn't mouthing nonsense. Every syllable that refuses to fall from her lips is a name and every name is worn by a corpse lying without even a prayer to comfort it beyond Wall Rose.
Her mind is sharp and her eyes are clear as she counts the deaths that will be repaid.
Eren plops down across from Mikasa. Dinner in the barracks is watery soup and stale bread. A week into training, and he's still slightly amazed by the abundance.
"Jean likes you," he says, watching the horse-faced boy scrunch up his nose in distaste at the food. There were days when he would have killed for a dinner like this. The only thing that stopped him was no one was lucky enough to have that much food.
Mikasa hums noncommittally.
"I mean, he has a serious crush on you," Eren clarifies, because clearly his sister can't possibly understand the gravity of the situation.
MIkasa nods and gives him a third of her bread like she always does.
"He's obsessed with you, Mikasa," Eren continues, not even trying to give her the food back. By now, he's realized it's a futile effort. Besides, he has more important things to worry about. Things like Jean's crush on Mikasa. "He has this secret sketchbook and he draws you every night. It's kind of freaking me out."
"I dunno," Eren says. "They're freaky drawings."
"Are they good drawings?" Mikasa asks.
"Why?" Mikasa asks.
"I dunno," Eren says helplessly. "Because he's drawing you?"
"Do you think I'm a freak?" Mikasa sounds hurt, but her eyes are bright with laughter. She's known about Jean's crush for a while.
"Of course you are," Armin interrupts, placing his tray neatly beside hers. "What are we talking about?" He takes his portion of Mikasa's bread and spoons some broth into her bowl. Eren pours half his water into Armin's cup. Armin isn't as fit as the other two, and he dehydrates much more quickly.
"Jean likes to draw me," Mikasa explains. She thinks it's sweet.
Eren tries to impart the severity of this problem to Armin with just his eyes. It doesn't work. Armin actually grins.
"Great," he says. "Connie's pretty good at woodcarving, but he needs a reference, so between the two of them, I should finally be able to get my custom chess set."
"No." Mikasa cuts across Armin's enthusiasm like Captain Levi's blades through a Titan's nape.
"Why not?" Armin asks, nearly whines.
"First, because people tend to be unnerved when you use them as literal chess pieces. Second, because if you use people as literal chess pieces, some of them will realize that you use them as metaphorical chess pieces too and they don't generally like that. And third, because you know how annoyed Eren gets because I'm ranked higher than he is. Imagine that, times however many people here you're using as pieces."
"Oh, yeah," Armin says with a sigh.
"So which poor bastard have you tricked into playing chess with you?" Eren laughs.
"Thomas," Armin replies. "He's actually not terrible."
Mikasa shoots him a look. "You let him win," she accuses.
"I gave him a chance," Armin groans. "I even let him take Mikasa and Sasha and he still lost." He buries his face in his hands. Eren doesn't know why Armin's always so surprised. He's pretty sure Armin was six the first time he beat Mr. Hannes at chess. Then again, Mr. Hannes was probably going easy on him. Being drunk all the time probably didn't help either. Still, Mr. Hannes never beat him again.
"Which one's Sasha?" Mikasa asks.
"King side bishop," Armin says.
"You should have given him a rook," Mikasa says.
"Rooks are useless if you're already losing before mid-game," Armin points out.
"Maybe there's a way to play chess against a team?" Eren suggests.
"No," Armin says. "Too much dissent in the ranks."
"They'd have a common enemy though," Mikasa points out. "That'd get them working together. At least for a little while."
"Two words," Armin says. "Wallist Church."
Mikasa giggles at that and every eye in the room turns to them in shock and awe.
Ymir generally makes a point not to pry into people's personal lives. It invites prying into her own and that's not something she can really afford.
Still, she's curious and when reclusive, mysterious Mikasa asks to spar with her after dinner, it's not an offer she's going to pass up.
They square off out behind the barracks. Technically, they aren't supposed to be here, but Mikasa's Shadis' favorite. She could kill someone right in front of him and he'd find a way to get her out of trouble.
"So why do you want to spar so bad all of a sudden?" Ymir asks, circling around her carefully. She knows Mikasa won't leave an opening, so she prepares to defend.
Mikasa lunges forward and Ymir has to resist the urge to leap out of the way, settling for a dodge she hopes looks nonchalant. "I wanted to get to know you."
"You could start playing Truth or Dare with the rest of the barracks," Ymir offers. She takes a few experimental swings at her sparring partner. Mikasa lets them land. She doesn't even flinch.
"You don't play either," she points out. "You have your own secrets to keep."
Ymir almost freezes, her combat instincts taking over. Mikasa doesn't know. Mikasa can't know.
"Where are you from?" she asks. "I've never seen anyone who looks like you before." She winces internally as the question leaves her lips, but she has to distract Mikasa, just in case. She sweeps Mikasa's legs as she speaks.
Mikasa bends backwards in a perfect flip. "Shiganshina," she says as she lands. "But my mother was an Oriental. The last, if you care to know." She is perfectly calm, but Ymir has enough demons in her own head to recognize Mikasa's. "What about you?"
"South Maria," Ymir says. "Little house in the mountains. Closest town was a mile off."
"Bullshit," Mikasa says. "You're not from Maria."
"Why do you say that?" Ymir asks neutrally.
"I'd know if you're from Maria."
"What do you mean?"
Mikasa sighs and the weight of the world settles onto her shoulders. "I'll keep your secret if you keep mine," she offers.
They aren't precisely friends after that, but they spar every night. It's as close to friends as either of them is going to get, even if it's more like mutual blackmail.
Connie had heard stories of the Colossal Titan. The first day of training, Eren had mentioned that it was nowhere near as big as some of the stories said. At the time it had been a relief. Now, he realizes that size has nothing to do with the terror it instills in him.
There is something almost familiar about the Colossal Titan, about it's skinless flesh, about it's monstrous teeth, about the shudders of the earth as Wall Rose crumbles. Maybe Armin's just that skilled a storyteller.
Connie hopes so, but he doubts it.
To think, he muses as he carries Armin through the maze of rooftops, just this morning his only concern had been whether Sasha would get caught with meat.
He doesn't think anyone will have time to care about meat anymore, but they didn't have time to care about meat before, and they did anyway.
They make it to the supply depot safely. There's at least one corpse already inside, but he focuses on congratulating Armin's plan instead. Armin's the one who will get them out of there alive. Armin won't do too well if he sees the corpse.
Jean's already not doing too well. He's pale and shaky and not even Mikasa's presence is cheering him up.
Jean's usually pale and shaky around Mikasa anyway, but for different reasons. Simpler reasons.
No, not simpler reasons. Safer reasons. Survival is the simplest reason there is. It's everything that goes along with it that's tricky.
There's something familiar about the Titan that saves them too, and the way Armin and Mikasa act with complete surety that it would not dare harm them. If Connie was a Titan, he wouldn't dare harm Armin either. Not where Mikasa could see.
The Titan's roars are almost comforting, but Connie tells himself that's just because of Armin's plan and Mikasa's unfailing steadiness at his side.
Connie hopes so, but he doubts it.
Eren's hand hurts. The manacles dig into his wrists and the ground is hard under his knees, but he doesn't care about any of that. His hand is in agony.
He can't even begin to imagine what his sister feels.
He's in a courtroom, surrounded by fat pigs who think they can determine his fate.
He's allowed them that delusion for so very long, but he's sick of it.
His eyes flicker towards his brother and his sister. His brother nods once, the movement barely visible. His sister tenses, ready to spring if anything should go wrong.
The trial is a disaster, just as they had hoped.
Commander Zackly tries to give him a fair chance, but with the Wallist Church is howling for his blood, and with the backing of the Military Police, none of Erwin Smith's schemes can save Eren. He manages to keep himself from laughing.
They decide to get the execution over with as quickly as possible. Commander Dawk does the honors with Captain Levi waiting in the wings in case a gun isn't enough.
Dawk lines up the gun, fires true. A single bullet embeds itself in Eren's skull.
He shakes his head in irritation, rising to his feet, manacles springing open. The wound in his forehead neatly seals itself without a trace of steam.
"What the hell are you, Jaeger?" Dawk demands harshly, but he's shaking in his boots. Good.
"That's not my name," the being says. He coughs, spits the bullet out into his burning palm, lets it slip through his fingers where everyone can see.
"My name," he says, "is Rose."