The sun shines brightly inside the Sina district, reflecting effortlessly from the numerous marble surfaces, illuminating everything within its reach, enhancing the atmosphere of peace and calm which only people dwelling in the innermost quarters are privileged to bask in.
His tears dry fast in the benevolent sunshine.
There's no way he can oppose his tyrannical father without causing another heart attack to his beloved mother who is way too impressionable to stop worrying over her only son. Her lamenting rings in his ears all the way to the court. Of course he will obey father's demands – when his mother's life is at stake, there isn't much choice he has, right?
Imagining him going outside the Wall Sina is her worst nightmare. She wouldn't listen about the ever-present Walls Rose and Maria nor about the Stationary Guard out there to seclude the inner perimeter – in her exalted perception the world ends at the gates of Hermiha and she won't live past watching her precious child going through them. Leave it to the rebellious son to desire nothing more than enrolling into the Survey Corps therein torturing his fragile mother.
Erwin is conflicted about the decisions he makes for as long as he remembers himself.
He never feels he does the right thing – which is an essentially strange feeling for the noble-born like him, and a dangerous one – for the future judge he's forced to become. Tales of the Scouting Legion are nothing but a ploy, his father says, for the street urchins in the poverty-stricken districts of outer walls to ensure they meet their inglorious deaths in some titan's stomach with pride shining in their heathen eyes.
His father is highly religious and expects the same from his family.
Getting outside the walls is nothing but an ugly sin in the face of the faithful – for this shows distrust in Maria, Rose and Sina's powers of protecting them. His path in life is brightly lit and welcoming – respect the Wall Cult and help the King ensure justice within the remains of humans' realm; same path awaits his son and sons of his son, because that's what loyal servants of the royalty are destined to become.
Erwin is considered a prodigy – but the pride in his father's eyes is devoid of any parental feeling.
It's sheer mercantile sense of accomplishment, of living up to their society's standards. On the other hand, the love of his mother seems to be always laden with fear, for she knows her son's freedom-loving nature more than anybody else. When enraged, his father regards him as no more than a failure to their ancient well-respected kin, an introverted creep with suicidal tendencies who raves about re-conquering the lands occupied by the titans and pays zero to none attention to family matters and his parents' aspirations.
The youth just doesn't feel at peace inside his placid home, knowing that somewhere out there the fate of mankind is being decided; probably at the very moment he's studying law instead of learning how to fight humanity's greatest threat. He's constantly being told to suck it up and cut the childish delirious talk, get professional and not disappoint father with his antics.
Father is disappointed far too easily, yet physical means of punishment don't seem to beat the forbidden thoughts out of Erwin's head, if anything, his desire to become a fighter only grows stronger – whether it's the youthful spirit of opposing everything the older generation believes in or the simple wish to be free and be himself – Erwin never knows which straw is the last one, he just can't go this way anymore. He can't be, won't be the judge but will gladly let others judge him when his time comes.
This is how he learns to make his first sacrifice, that being his mother's state of mind and may be her very life.
His mother, the dainty small noblewoman who silently survived the arranged marriage to the man she never loved in the first place and managed to plant all of her aspirations onto her fifth child, the only one who made it past the tender age of a year; the mother who encouraged him to dream and fight for his dreams when she herself was far too weak to struggle – yet her faith in him was as unwavering as the sun rising in the east, that is one of the few things Erwin is sure of.
He knows perfectly well that his decision is likely to destroy her forever. At that moment he mentally agrees with himself to burn in hell for all eternity. Once the agreement is made, there's no more time to spend idly – for there's so much he has to learn and do before death comes claiming her rights on him.
The money father gives him for maintenance is spent on bribing the Military Police to let him out of his gilded cage.
It's ridiculous how the perimeters are guarded from both outsiders wanting to go inside and native citizens wishing to leave. Travelling isn't really looked well upon, much less when it's directed to the outside – the opposite destination of everyone's dreams. Everyone but Erwin.
The young man doesn't stop once Wall Sina is overpassed and flees past Wall Rose, straight into the Maria district where he's sure his father will rather announce him dead and unworthy heir than bother looking for him. He enrolls in the Shiganshina's trainee corps in the middle of the term (what's left of his money really proves to be useful), and everyone looks funny at probably the one and only citizen of Sina district to ever study in Shiganshina, since it's preposterous beyond any rational thought – to abandon a secure future in favour of dubious soldier romantics, strict discipline, malnutrition and looming prospects of death in the Survey Corps or going insane from perpetual drunkenness of the Stationary Guards.
They question him a lot within the first few months for his reasoning, but he never answers.
The pain of losing all sorts of contact with his mother is much more unbearable than he could ever predict. A loner by nature, he's often teased that if a titan attacks him there would be no friends to come to his rescue. Though, in truth, they all secretly wish he was eaten by one – mistaking his innate insecurity around crowds for arrogance everyone thinks is natural for the dwellers of Sina district. He never reassures them – and this only leads to rumours being spread that he thinks too much of himself, too noble to indulge in conflicts with low-lives like them.
Erwin is hated for his silent demeanour just as much as for his success in the disciplines they've been mastering for half a year – until the newbie arrived and started playing prodigy in front of them. He hardly talks to anyone and sometimes the loneliness becomes excruciating – but deep within Erwin feels like he's made the right choice, despite all the pain it brings him. He feels like getting closer to the destination he can't put into words yet, and can't wait for the graduation.
Somehow it comes as an obvious fact among the trainees that Erwin is going to join the Survey Corps – for he could become the Military Police officer any moment given his origin, and he doesn't strike them as one who'd sit idly at the Garrison either.
One day someone intercepts the mail and trainees have the time of their lives learning how Erwin's father officially disowns him and hopes for Erwin's fierce death as the warmest of his fatherly wishes.
Another reason for all the hate emerges from Erwin's unnaturally good relationship with the higher in command.
The trainees practically seethe with jealousy listening how their superiors praise the gifted student, and given they do it all the damn time, the situation becomes pretty tense. Worst of all, Erwin fights when they corner him in the sheer desire to show him his deserved place. And he fights well, although some scars will be his precious reminders of trainee days till the very end. In a year or so he's left alone for good.
He spends the time free from the bullying attempts reading and learning. He talks to his superiors about defense strategies all the time – and while they laugh at him first, his intelligent speech and respective take on the conversation eventually becomes addictive – they crave for talking to him, and thus by the time graduation approaches Erwin knows so much more than your average senior.
What he himself yearns for is to understand how he is supposed to re-conquer the lands when even most skilled of soldiers can hardly make it alive and it's considered the best among their achievements. The amounts of information are scarce and Erwin feels certain security agencies prefer it this way – and it infuriates him to no end, because the information is no less vital than fighting prowess when it comes to reclaiming what once rightfully belonged to human kin.
Soldiers of the Survey Corps don't seem to know more than their Stationary Guard colleagues, which is surprising, in a very bad way – for Erwin feels that the answers are close, so close it frustrates him he can't figure them out.
At least, no one questions him of his descent and reasons to join them – Erwin learns scouts are all very private people devoted to their cause more than they allow showing. He feels astonishingly at ease among them where they're all just wings of freedom and no noble backgrounds can interfere with fighting for the humanity. He learns to talk to people anew, as never before has he discovered the need to get close to anyone, but among these soldiers it seems natural to open up a little from his regular hideout within the expressionless façade.
He's soon to understand some scouts are only overly emotional because they never know when the joy of being expressive ends.
They drink and shout and fall in love and tease Erwin about his non-existent escapades because they cherish every little moment of being alive. They mean no ill-will behind their boisterous attitudes, and after all the years of closing up in his morbid shell, Erwin suddenly feels at home.
The first expedition outside the walls he partakes in as part of the Survey Corps appears to be planned incorrectly for they have to flee back into the safety of Shiganshina once the titans are sighted.
Something goes incredibly wrong and Erwin experiences that dreadful feeling of being chased to its very utmost. He hates the sensation. He wants to be the hunter, not the prey! But he doesn't know what can turn the tables in mankind's favour.
On their second expedition he's nearly torn into shreds by a particularly curious deviant type who seemingly wants to take a closer look at his intestines. Erwin is saved by his squad leader before he can remember how to use the blades to protect himself.
Said squad leader is killed shortly after and the sound of flesh being ripped apart is unforgettable in a very, very disturbing way. Erwin did try to prepare himself for the inevitable the outer world consists of, but the reality is far too harsh for rational processing – he almost passes out when blood of his comrades obscures his view and their screams deafen his ears.
This is when Erwin learns the truth behind the survival rate and the percentage his commanders are forced to deliver to the central headquarters – they wary a great deal from each other, but for some reasons the authorities in Sina imagine the scouts as some greedy bastards with extremely vivid imagination – who else would create reports filled with such gore peculiarities – and demand so much funds to continue their glorious fighting against the titans?
It's only logical the inner military forces prefer to ignore the blatant facts and fantasize that the increase of orphans is the result of something else – anything, actually, but not the constant failures of the Survey Corps. They all live a lie, Erwin realizes, but a lie carefully nurtured and almost worshipped with an eerie adoration. Likewise he questions the Walls and their history quietly in his mind but dares not ask questions.
He kills his first titan on their third expedition, yet it doesn't save the legs of his half-eaten comrade.
They do treat him for the best of their abilities, but a legless soldier who can't fight any longer and knows nothing but the battlefield – he isn't suited for the peaceful life within the walls, and sanity leaves him way before he can fully recover.
What's more – such occasions happen one after the other, because saving a life isn't always saving the spirit, and each one leaves a deep and bleeding scar somewhere in Erwin's subconscious – he may try to forget the names, but their faces, of dead and wounded together, they can't leave him and keep haunting both his dreams and reality. He grows afraid of making friends once the first people he opened up to are ruthlessly killed in front of his eyes.
At the same time he perceives the primordial need for such affections – they won't be humans otherwise, and if they aren't, what right it is they have to fight in humanity's name? So Erwin tries to grieve without closing up on himself, but fails.
Apparently, this lesson is meant to be failed for all of them who keep returning to the safety of the walls alive.
The first time he sees her, she doesn't see him back.
Her appearance is wonderfully dishevelled and her only glasses are broken again (a girl can't be that clumsy… However Zoë can) – but purchasing the new pair is too expensive. She hopes that perhaps when her father returns from his yet another expedition outside the walls he will be merciful enough to buy her the new ones (and won't scold her too much for her unlady-like antics) – since she can't afford it on her own, and working without seeing what she makes doesn't seem like the best option.
A perfect circle is completed, she needs his help, because her mother is strict and probably hopes that going a month or so without being able to see properly will teach her careless daughter to appreciate hard-work and diligence. It's not that Zoë isn't hard-working – on the contrary, she sometimes gets too zealous to get things done, but in their meticulous endeavour of needlework this often does more damage than good.
So she dashes through the crowd screaming her father's name in such joy Erwin nearly cringes at the irony. Can she not see the state they've returned in? Can she not notice all the injured, limping, bleeding soldiers? The answer is – no, she can't discern anything at all, for the crowd is nothing but a blur of greens and maroons, and she runs along their path in hopes to hear her father answering her greetings.
As the corps marches further into Shiganshina her yells become more eager and desperate. There's a distinctive feeling of a question she cannot ask out loud as none of the passing soldiers answers her plea.
Her high-pitched scream rings in Erwin's ears in its eerie lack of the initial joyous emotion, as the realization dawns upon her and she keeps mechanically repeating her father's name and the crowd is staring her down when she can't stare back at them.
Her voice grows quieter as they march away but the intonation alone is so shrill Erwin feels his heart being clenched by the powerful grip of that voice. He's heard many mournings marking his return but this one screams such betrayal he can't force himself to neglect it.
They receive the official notification the next day – the very day Zoë excuses herself and runs away to enroll in the military, before her mother can object, too engrossed in lamenting over the one and only man she loved so dearly. Zoë can't stand watching her mother fall apart – neither is she capable of preserving her own sanity – and so she runs to the only place where they'll be thinking instead of her and ordering her around until she's capable enough to avenge her father's death.
They tell her he died for the great cause of protecting mankind in general and his family in particular, and that an infantile girl like her should go home and comfort her mother – not engage into the possibly suicidal affairs, for it's as clear as a daylight the likes of her won't survive an hour against the titans, let alone she has troubles with her vision.
She refuses to leave and pleads for them to buy her a pair of glasses to prove herself. They laugh at her but then more news from the latest expedition leak out and the death rates are published officially and if anything, the Survey Corps will need each and every volunteer, capable or not, to sustain the very existence of their establishment.
So Zoë is bought a pair of glasses and threatened to be kicked out of the trainee corps the moment she breaks them, which seems like a fair enough deal to her.
Out of someone's old and useless harness she cuts the necessary material and sews herself a pair of goggles that won't fall from her head even if she were to use 3d maneuver gear (which she isn't allowed to in the next few months due to her poor and untrained physique).
Her sewing abilities seem to have impressed her superiors for they leave her be as their local weirdo – since no normal person will engage into a training fight as if it was some real crime scene, let alone a person who's anything but strong in both bulk and evasiveness. Zoë has nothing but her intuition, yet intuition doesn't help cure her bruises. Sometimes Zoë thinks it's for the better – the physical pain being so all-consuming she has little to no time to indulge into the mental pain within her heart.
She seems to keep going on thoughts of revenge alone but those around her don't mock her much about it – for most of them have similar reasons. Some people join the corps for the hopes of a better life in the innermost district and thus strive to excel in everything they do, some are just escaping the poverty of their homes and few freaks are deranged enough to proclaim they're learning to fight in order to die outside the walls.
Zoë is sure she won't survive, not with her ridiculous weakness and bad eyesight. Of course, goggles are a blessing, and frankly speaking, she's doing much better than many of her peers, but Zoë continues seeing her father's disapproving face in front of her every time she returns from another successful training session, and she knows she just isn't good enough to be a soldier like him, not good enough to avenge his name, not nearly as mighty and amazing as her father was.
Somehow standing out from the crowd can end up really bad even if you never intended anything of the sort at the beginning.
Zoë is investing all of herself to training, but her goggles seem to distract everyone from her actual achievements. She can't recall when or how that began because for quite a while everything was going fine with her struggles to become as independent and capable as her all-seeing comrades, and the next moment she's being openly laughed at. She suspects that's because she suddenly became too good in whatever it was that triggered their envy for she can't pinpoint any other reason behind the sudden animosity even from the people she thought she could trust with her heart.
– Can't become like daddy, can you? Or maybe it's because you're just a sad excuse of a daughter, ain't you, Zoë?
She may be successful in the way she fights physical attacks but fending such jabs is something Zoë continuously fails at. She wouldn't allow them to see her breaking; she will avenge her dad no matter how inferior they think she is, even if she dies in the process. And die she does, albeit slowly and on the inside – witnessing people you considered friends bullying you isn't what you'd call an inspirational experience.
Outwardly Zoë grows more and more wild and uncontrollable in everything she acts and looks like, as a volcano ready to burst which provokes certain suspicions in the headquarters.
A handicapped female can't be allowed into the elites of Military Police.
That's her unofficial verdict – no one speaks about the real one, but everybody knows why they won't allow her graduate within the top ten. Even though she doesn't ever express any slightest hint of desire to join the guards of Wall Sina. On the contrary, her very erratic being all but suggests losing herself to the unpredictable fate of Survey Corps. But you never know for sure with those females, so the authorities are solid in their decision.
It doesn't really matter that Zoë excels in most disciplines and is a student any teacher could be proud of – overcoming the preconceptions of a successful Military Police officer wearing glasses is still too difficult, or so they tell her with sham care, wary of her badly suppressed wrath.
Zoë knows the truth, and glasses or handicap have nothing to do with it. It's her attitude and attitude alone.
She can't be trusted based just on her physical abilities, and hence her fierce loyalty is discarded – for one can't tell for sure whether it's her devotion to the cause or hidden hysterical tendencies that promise to turn homicidal any moment. They don't exactly need new madmen in active duty as they have enough of their own to let her in.
She knows of her fate and tries to dismiss the burning ache in her chest every time a hushed derisive "handicapped" is heard here and there. Albeit it doesn't refer to eyesight anymore. This is Zoë's way of learning not to care, which is nearly impossible given her marvellously failed exam in anger management.
The day before the official graduation, however, the mockery becomes nearly unbearable – everyone feels it as their duty to inquire about her disability – even those she's beaten multiple times in training combat enjoy shoving the obvious into her face. After all she's just a weird highly instable and hardly distinctive as female specimen driven with blind thirst for revenge, so she has to take the blows accordingly to her lowly status.
Therefore Zoë doesn't wait for the public humiliation to commence at the announcement of top graduates and leaves without permission straight to where she hears the nearest Survey corps disposition is. Right as they assume her unsteady nature would make her act.
Thanks to her handicap (or rather, the extreme focus on leaving the goddamned place as soon as possible) she misses the scouts who arrive for the new recruitments, thus when she's finally at the corps' assumed headquarters there's no one in the authority to accept her as a volunteer but Erwin who's left in charge of the place until his superiors return with hopefully some fresh blood.
He recognizes her immediately by that voice which never actually left his nightmares.
Albeit at first Erwin dismisses the likeness because coincidences like this simply can't happen in their cruel world, it must be his tortured mind playing tricks on him. She pleads with him for the permission to join the Survey corps then and there, but he's in no position to neither accept nor deny her plea, and so he tells her.
This is where he learns about the furious Zoë, the regular one being an angel whose antics are nothing compared to that Harpy in front of him – no, she's not blaming Erwin for the inability to make a decision, she understands it's not in his powers (yet), it's just she hates all that bureaucracy that hinders her on the path to revenge, and when Erwin can't handle her rage anymore without snapping himself and is about to send her back to where she's come from (which would totally end all of her aspirations) she breaks down crying.
It's a shame, of course, to fall apart in front of this mighty scouting soldier, but Zoë doubts she can take it anymore. All her struggles to keep herself together, after all these years of abandoning her mother, of giving up on life and blinding herself with revenge, all of that is for nothing, if she can't accomplish such an easy task as joining the Survey Corps. Perhaps her bullies were right and she's nothing but an unworthy specimen doomed for her own fury to eat her alive?
In the meanwhile Erwin is at an utter loss of what to do – during his training years dealing with women's tears wasn't on schedule. Scouting legion ladies were tough material and hardly cried in front of others, and even when they did, words of comfort were the last thing they wanted, or so the other men told him at the time. But that was long ago – and at the moment Erwin sees something beyond desperation in Zoë's eyes, something that reflects his inner conflicts so well, something that screams bloody murder and intense, unwavering certainty among all the pain and fear he feels are practically mirrored from his own gaze.
He lets her stay in the corps' disposition until the superiors come back the next evening, bringing several hot-headed idealists with them. Zoë mildly recognizes the guys as those who weren't teasing her which is good news, but they weren't even acquainted enough to discern anything else about them. Apparently, most of her trainee squad decided to join the garrison, much as expected.
She faces the commander and his faithful subordinates, and they're obviously not impressed with her escapade. Before Zoë is even able to finish her entreaty she's told to return back to the garrison because of her insubordination.
She can't explain her reasons to them because this would only multiply the humiliation, and at the same time she cannot leave once she's reached the final point of her destination. And so she tells them, which is regarded no less than another act of shameful disobedience, and several soldiers are ordered to drag the hysterical girl away from the headquarters.
She resists and screams, for this is all what's left for Zoë's struggle. For the life of hers she can't comprehend why the scouts aren't welcoming her voluntary joining them, and are sending her away. She's naïvely hoped that in Survey Corps of all places such formalities won't take place yet her hopes are crashed once again.
Erwin witnesses the whole thing but can't act against the higher-ups. Secretly he hopes the girl will be able to abandon her revenge and won't look at the world with the glare that resembles his own so dangerously.
He's then ordered to pick people from the newcomers to form his very own squad, which doesn't come much of a surprise since the corps always lacks organized units, and since all of Erwin's past squad members are dead, without leaders to order him it looks like his time has come to issue orders himself. It's only natural routine of the scouts, and that routine never ceases to amaze him in its ruthlessness.
What's more shocking is that his first decision in the position of a squad leader is bringing the crying Zoë back into the disposition and enrolling her into his squad.
– Welcome to the Survey Corps, wild child.
He doesn't really register why he acts the way he does, nor why he calls her a child when she clearly has to be a capable adult, but he knows she won't let go of her death wish and worse than that, he'd be blaming himself for the rest (whatever there's left) of his life if he saw her kicked out and didn't act.
The commander however only smirks at such twist of that weirdo's fate and threatens to feed Erwin to titans if his new subordinate acts out of the directives one more time.
She's breathless from joy and her tears are glistening in the light of numerous bonfires.
Her goggles are discarded for the tears won't stop, and that's the first time Erwin actually notices she wears glasses, which doesn't bother him at all and if anything, makes him wonder how she was able to fight her way through the trainee corps with her hindered eyesight. He discovers something akin to respect for this strange girl who rushed to join the scouts after the probably merciless training added to her trauma he remembers so well about. He knows no fact about her trainee days but her eyes speak volumes, and Erwin realizes he can relate to the sensation.
Overall, he feels decidedly incredible – powerful yet definitely scared of suddenly becoming responsible for this unintelligible human being, who's now completely at his mercy, and eager to comply, and above all, cries because of happiness. It's definitely not grief in her wails and ill-concealed shaking, and this is a novelty for Erwin, who has almost forgotten people could cry for reasons other than death and pain.
He's not sure whether she disobeys his orders later, runs amok and becomes the end of him as a squad leader, all he sees is the overwhelming gratitude washing over him in an almost soothing manner from within her hazelnut-coloured eyes.
Zoë looks at him as if he is the saviour, as if his acceptance is the testimony to the worthiness she has craved for all along, and it's as pleasant a feeling as it is disconcerting for Erwin senses himself blushing for the first time in many, many years.