“I’m home.” I always said it when I walked inside, hoping deep in my gut somewhere that I’d hear an answer from someone other than Mikasa.
“Hey.” Again, though, it was only her, regarding with me the standard half-smile that only looked sunny if you caught her by the eyes. She hurried through the door of the kitchen and snapped the air as she passed into the hallway. “Hey, did you need the car for anything?”
By asking, she was asking if I needed a ride anywhere. Dad had given me permission to use the station wagon whenever he was gone (which was always), but 1) it was a station wagon, and 2) it broke down more reliably than it started. Following the inevitable pattern, it hadn’t lasted one full day into my first week at Trost High. I’d been sure to cover all the angles for making a good first impression at a new school, but everything had blown up in my face by the time I dragged Mikasa over to jump the battery with her Buick in the parking lot at the end of our first day.
“What? Oh, nah. I’ll probably walk to the donut shop later, grab something to eat.” She was putting on a pair of earrings in the doorway, watching me while I slumped into the couch and grabbed for the remote control. “What?” I prompted her.
“That party’s tonight; do you still not want to go?”
“Tsch.” I turned on the TV and started flipping through the channels compulsively. Like I’d give anyone the satisfaction of a pity invitation. I’d only been asked along because Mikasa made a good impression on an upperclassman, jumping a car battery all by herself in a pair of overall shorts after school. I’d been in earshot when the details were discussed.
“Your little brother can come too,” was the begrudging way I’d been included. I only kept an eye on the guy because he was checking her out; if I couldn’t have a car, maybe I could at least start a fight on my first day.
“Step-brother,” Mikasa corrected him. It was easier to explain than ‘foster brother’, and no one ever asked us to explain it.
“Your little step-brother.”
“I don’t want to go to that stupid party. It’s gonna be full of rich kids and preps. I’m just going to get through this school year as quickly as possible. I don’t want to meet anyone.”
“Armin can do what he wants!” She noticed, though, that I stopped flipping through channels at that. What was Armin doing, going to that party? He was like fresh bait for the sort of kids that went to Trost High. He’d barely been a blip on the food chain at our old school. I looked over at her and lowered the remote to my lap. “What? Is this some ploy to get me to come along, so I can look after Armin?”
“It’s going to be fun.” She sighed.
I left the TV on when I got up, and grabbed my keys off the coffee table. The school parking pass was still dangling from my keyring, but I didn’t quite feel like giving up on the idea of having a car to put it in just yet. Maybe, way in the back of my mind, I was hoping that dad would come home with a new Neon as a very late birthday present for me.
“Are you leaving? Eren, you just got home.” Mikasa sounded disappointed, but also like she was scolding me. She was barely a year older than me, and it got on my nerves more and more as we got older to hear that parental tone slip into her words.
“I’m hungry!” I snapped back, and left.
Our house was near the paper factory, in an area of town that always smelled like chemicals and never seemed to get any sun. It was full of shuttered businesses and ill-maintained roads. Even the schools had closed, and all the kids unfortunate enough to live in the area were bussed to the next district. The two years I’d been able to spend at Shinganshina High before it was defunded had been pretty good, I thought. Being poor wasn’t so bad when you were surrounded by other poor kids. The move to Trost High, on top of requiring us to leave thirty minutes earlier every morning, meant that suddenly I was on the bottom – way on the bottom. It had only been three days. Already I wanted to run off and beg the Peace Corps to take me at 16 years old. I’d lie if I had to. Dad wouldn’t even notice I was gone. Pretty much the only thing keeping me from packing a suitcase and heading to the bus station was Mikasa.
The donut shop on the end of the street was the only place to get food unless I wanted to hoof it another three miles to the downtown area. I never wanted to do that, not even when I had a car to drive. Besides, I’d long ago grown fond of the hot dogs they served. I ordered my usual dinner and sat down at one of the outdoor tables that hadn’t dry-rotted into a fire hazard yet. Suddenly I wasn’t hungry, but two dollars was two dollars. I looked around with a sigh, trying to build up my appetite. I’d have the house to myself for the evening, at least. I could try to catch the neighbors’ satellite dish signal and watch Cinemax, jerk off a couple of times, and not worry about having Mikasa around.
She’d been right, though, in that annoyingly manipulative way she always was. I couldn’t think of leaving Armin at the mercy of our new classmates.
A dark green Camaro, an ’89 by the look of it, came crunching through the gravel parking lot and rolled to a stop behind the building, just within my line of sight. With nothing better to focus on, I watched as the door opened and someone – presumably an employee – stepped out.
I knew most of the people who worked at the donut shop, but I’d never seen this guy. Unfamiliarity combined with an undeniable envy over his gorgeous car, and I blatantly followed him with my eyes as he gathered his things from the backseat.
He was short; he was absolutely short. Like, shorter-than-most-of-the-freshmen-at-my-school short. Despite that, he was undoubtedly older than me. His hair was parted down the middle and he was dressed in all black. When he turned to walk toward the building I noticed three things: his pants were made of leather, his wallet chain hung down to his knee, and his boots had just slightly more heel to them than most guys could get away with.
He was a goth, I realized with an almost-sneer. Just as quickly as I thought it, I noticed his head jerk my way, and he unmistakably looked right at me. As stupidly resolute as I was to start some trouble before the end of the night, I just looked right back. He smirked at first, eyes not deviating until he was sure I’d seen him. When he scanned the rest of the table, however, I saw him pause.
I hadn’t actually wanted him to walk over. Immediately I started to come up with a reason why I’d been eyeing him so evilly. It was just the way my face looked, honestly; everyone thought I was trying to pick a fight, regardless of circumstances (usually I was). With that excuse at the ready, I looked down at my chili dog and forced myself to summon forth an appetite as he approached.
“Hey,” he tried to regain my attention, the heart of exasperation in his tone like he didn’t care if I paid attention or not. “Kid. Hey, kid.”
My eyes flicked over, almost like my body was forcing me to regard him one way or another. He didn’t wait for me to address him before he went on. “You go to Trost?”
He pointed at the keys I’d left on the table beside my food, more specifically the Trost High School parking pass. He’d been particularly eagle-eyed to catch that from so far away, but I supposed if one was looking for it, it was difficult to miss a giant ‘T’ in electric blue and white hanging from an otherwise measly set of keys. Especially in the bleakness of the Shinganshina neighborhood, the bright colors stood out.
“Yeah, I do now,” I replied bitterly. Finally I lifted my eyes to look at him. I tried to rein in my surprise. His brows were unnaturally thin and he was wearing eyeliner. I didn’t like admitting this about other guys, but it wasn’t the first time it had happened: he was strange, but he was pretty.
I looked down again almost immediately.
“What’s your Vice Principal named?”
I’d not been expecting another question at all, much less that one. He was still pointing at my keys. I was trying to keep from blushing. I could normally buck off authority with a well-timed roll of my eyes, but his tone of voice was persistently keeping me pinned down. It felt exhilaratingly annoying. “Vice Principal?” I repeated. “You mean Vice Principal Smith?”
He withdrew his pointing finger primly, curling his wrist back in a subtle flick before he turned to walk away, just like that. He didn’t even thank me for my answer, just made his way over to the donut shop and went in through the back entrance. Maybe complete confusion drove me to finish my food, but it was definitely gross curiosity that made me go back to the window for a drink before I left.
He was behind the counter, still wearing his eyeliner and black t-shirt, with the addition of a dull red employee apron. I gave him a puzzled look before I even asked for a large Dr. Pepper, hoping he would catch my drift and throw me a bone.
“What is it? Do you want something?”
“Yes! Why did you ask me that? That was really weird.”
“Oh.” He learned forward just slightly, presumably out of his manager’s earshot. “I know him.” That answered absolutely nothing, and a slow blinking reaction was all I could give. “If you’re not going to order anything, stop wasting my time.”
I got my drink and left. His nametag said ‘Levi’. I’d definitely not seen him before.
The sun set completely on my way home, and it was dark by the time I pushed the door open and informed Mikasa that I was back.
Armin was sitting on the couch. It wasn’t unusual for him to show up at our house, of course, and normally I’d sit down and tell him all about the weird new guy at the donut shop who asked about Vice Principal Smith. But Armin was dressed up. Armin looked nervous. Armin was eyeing me like he was about to cling to my leg for help.
“I’m not going to the stupid party!” I said immediately.
Thirty minutes later, I was trying for the third time to lock the door on Mikasa’s Buick as I lamented getting into the car in the first place. “No, Eren, you need to hold the handle up while you—“
“I know! I know, okay?” I tried one last time, finally got it right, and nearly tripped over the curb as I turned to join Mikasa and Armin on the unfamiliar lawn.
“Oh my god, Eren, you’re freaking out. Calm down,” Mikasa instructed me as I hurried over.
“It’s really nice here,” Armin pointed out, eyeing the more expensive cars lining the road. “This is a rich neighborhood.”
And that, I would have explained to Mikasa, was why I was freaking out. Poor kids didn’t go to Trost High. Poor kids didn’t go to rich kid parties. My defenses were off the charts. “Whose house is this, anyway?” I asked.
“That guy who was in the parking lot with us the other day. Jean.”
I bristled at the thought of the guy who’d been undressing Mikasa with his eyes. “So how did Armin get invited?”
“I’m in Physics with him. We sit next to each other. He’s nice!”
Something about it felt upsetting, like we were being set up for an elaborate prank. Not Mikasa, of course (which was part of the problem). Whatever his intentions, there was absolutely no reason to trust one of Trost High’s elite as “nice” until I vetted him for myself.
“Mikasa!” Jean found us within minutes of entering the crowded, vaulted-ceiling, noisy house that smelled of privilege. “Welcome to mi casa!”
“Oh my god, I hate him,” I muttered under my breath.
“Don’t be a jerk tonight.” Mikasa pinched my arm before returning the greeting.
I’d expected a few words and maybe a vague insinuation that Mikasa should ditch us before Jean went on to the rest of his friends, but instead he stuck around us most of the evening. Even when I tried to wander off on my own, Mikasa would always find me, and where Mikasa appeared, Armin and Jean weren’t far behind. Eventually I resigned myself to the inevitable horrors of forced socializing, and we all wound up in papasan chairs in Jean Kirschtein’s sunroom, drinking Bud Light and trying to find even ground.
He asked us about things both pertinent and impertinent, presumably trying to get to know us, but I was sharp enough to notice that he addressed Mikasa most of the time. I wasn’t budging in my determination to give him the cold shoulder, even if he was providing me with beer and a safe place to drink it. “My dad’s a cop,” he explained. “He doesn’t mind if we drink, as long as no one tries to drive home after. By the way, since you’ve never been to one of my parties, here’s the spiel: feel free to crash. Don’t drive because my dad does have people pulled over if he knows I’m throwing one of these things.” I didn’t like the way he looked at Mikasa after saying all that.
“Your parents really don’t mind?” Armin asked, something close to enchantment in his voice. I almost felt embarrassed for him.
“No, they go next door and hang out with the Hoovers. My parents are cool, guys. Chill out. Welcome to Trost, I usually do one or two of these a month.” He offered his beer can to the center of the circle of chairs, and Mikasa politely toasted him with her own. Armin followed. I hesitated.
“Okay, I can no longer ignore that you’re being a total shit.” He pointed at me and laughed just above his breath. At the last moment before I would have usually taken it as an invitation to throw down, Mikasa managed to catch my eye and gave me a stern bow of her eyebrows.
I just sighed. “I don’t feel comfortable.”
“I don’t know what else to tell you, man. If you can’t feel comfortable here, I don’t know what else to tell you.” He leaned in and spoke carefully, then. “I know someone who might be holding, so if you wanna get high in a few, if that would help, I can—“
“Why are you being nice to us?!” I suddenly cried out, half in desperation and half in true frustration. Everything was surreal. We weren’t supposed to be there, it was not where we belonged.
Jean’s eyes darted all around, worried maybe that my outburst would draw the wrong sort of attention. “I like making friends?” He replied, a rhetorical question on the end of his tone. “You guys have it hard enough, coming over in your senior year to a whole new school, and—“
“I’m a junior,” I interrupted him and sighed.
“Me too,” Armin added. “I’m just in advanced classes.”
Jean shrugged. “Well, there you go, though. It sucks to be at a new school, but you seem cool enough. I mean, Mikasa and Armin do. Eren, whatever your deal is, you need to knock it off. Take a pill or get laid, I don’t know man, but do something. You’re like… grrr… all the time.”
“Hey, don’t you worry about my sex life, okay?” I chuckled, trying to mask my nerves with bravado.
“Hmm, I don’t tend to worry about things that don’t exist.” He leaned back with an insufferable smirk on his insufferable face. Mikasa seemed too stunned to react, but Armin stifled a laugh. I sucker-punched him in the arm immediately.
“Armin, you’re supposed to be on my side!”
“But it was funny!” He lowered his voice, but not low enough. “And true.”
Jean shot fingers at both of us; first me, then Armin. “Virgins?”
Armin just shrugged. He’d never been one to boast, and he’d never been one to lie. I deflected the attention. “Hey, hey, hey, why aren’t you asking Mikasa?”
“Because, Eren, you ass,” Jean explained like I was the biggest idiot he’d ever encountered, “it is rude to ask a lady about her sexual history.”
“I’m not a virgin,” Mikasa blurted out.
I glared at her in horror. Jean’s eyes went from me, back to her, and landed on me again. “Ew, I sincerely hope you two didn’t—“
“No!” We cried out in unison. Even Armin recoiled just a bit at that.
“Okay, so we need to get the two of you laid, then. I’ll try my utmost to make it happen tonight. Armin, who do you like?”
Armin froze and I automatically felt sympathy pains. I should have known by the way his voice wavered just slightly when he first told me that Jean was “nice”, but now it was fairly blatant. At least it was blatant to me. As far as I knew, I was the only one Armin had told since he started to care about boys far more than he cared about girls. “I don’t… like anyone…” he said bashfully, eyes cast down.
“We’ll find you someone, then! What’s your type? Tall, short, blonde, brunette, big boobs, long legs?” He leaned over and started to tousle Armin’s hair. Armin was blushing, but he was laughing uncomfortably nonetheless.
Mikasa had been right to bring me along, after all. I stepped in before he cracked. “What about me?”
“I was talking to Armin.”
“He obviously doesn’t like anyone!” Certainly not you. God, I hope his taste improves as he gets older. “And besides, I’m the one you said needed to get laid.”
“You’re totally on your own.” He snorted and turned to Mikasa. “You live with him? How do you stand it?”
“I’ll bet you I can get laid.”
“Eren…” Mikasa started.
“Oh? A bet? Really? Really, ghetto kid, you want to place a wager?”
“All the more reason you should be scared to take it. Don’t underestimate me.”
He pointed at Mikasa. “Again, if you two are secretly—“
“Ew, no!” Mikasa shoved his hand away, but I noticed her squeeze it just slightly when she did. “Stop suggesting that, you’re the perv here. Eren’s a total virgin, god! Eren, don’t do anything stupid tonight.”
Jean shrugged again, flourishing his now-empty beer can. “So what are the terms?”
“I’ll bet I can get laid before the end of the semester. If I don’t…”
“End of the semester? That’s a pretty broad scope. I can give you three or four names that wouldn’t discriminate tonight, not that I’ll give them to you.”
“Maybe I actually want to like the person.”
This seemed to spark something. He raised one eyebrow challengingly. “Maybe I want proof that the person actually likes you. Which I think is going to be more impossible.”
“So if I win, you pay the down payment on my car.”
“Whoa! Whoa, that’s pretty steep!”
“What? Money is like, nothing to you, right? You’re loaded.” I gestured around the room. Maybe his dad was a cop, but there was some serious money coming into that house. “Besides, you’re so sure you’re going to win, aren’t you? What’s it to you?”
Mikasa just rolled her eyes and leaned over to say something to Armin. I saw him nod out of the corner of my eye, but Jean got my attention back just as quickly. “Okay, good point. And, since I’m a nice person, if I win, you don’t have to give me anything. You just need to live with the fact that you failed.”
“Listen,” I chuckled. “If you’re still trying to win points with Mikasa or something, I assure you that she’s not going to do it with you tonight so you might as well give up.”
He ignored me. “Whatever. So do we have a bet?”
“Yeah, you’re on!”
I remember drinking another few beers after that and talking about how many fights I’d been in, and how many I’d won (I hadn’t won any of them, technically, but neither Armin nor Mikasa was around to refute me). I woke up in the den splayed over a couch cushion that had been dragged halfway across the room. My head was pounding. As soon as I remembered where I was, I tiptoed clumsily around the place, searching for Armin and Mikasa. Armin, I finally found sleeping next to the stairs, wrapped in something that looked suspiciously like a letter jacket with Jean’s last name on the back. I purposefully didn’t think about it, and told him we needed to find Mikasa and leave.
“Why?” He asked blearily. “Jean said no one has to leave until this afternoon, and his parents are buying lunch for whoever stays to help clean up.”
Because I fucking hate Jean Kirschtein, that’s why we have to leave, is what I wanted to say. “Because the game’s on this afternoon. I wanna get back in time to watch it.”
“Oh yeah,” he yawned. “Mikasa might be upstairs still.”
“What do you mean still?”
“I don’t know, leave me alone. My head hurts so bad…”
The last thing I wanted to do was go upstairs. Lucky for me, when I opened the front door to get a bit of fresh air, Mikasa was sitting on the steps drinking a cup of coffee. “Where’d you get coffee? I want coffee.” I sat down next to her and fought against how the sun made my stomach turn.
“Jean made it this morning. I think there’s still a cup left.” She looked at me over the brim as she took another sip.
“No, thank you,” I growled immediately.
“God, Eren, don’t hate him. He’s a cool guy.”
“You seemed to think so.” I knew I was being a brat, but it was just in my nature, especially after I’d just woken up.
“What do you care? At least I didn’t make any stupid bets about stupid things.”
I remembered the bet with a groan. “Oh, yeah. Well, if I lose at least I don’t lose anything.”
“Except your pride.”
“Don’t remind me.”
Mikasa threw her arm around my shoulders and grabbed me in a quick hug. “You’re such an idiot,” she said almost-sweetly.
I caught a whiff of her and didn’t quite like it. She didn’t smell like Mikasa. “So what did you end up doing after we all split up?”
“I went to Jean’s room.”
I actually found it impossible to react. My face screwed up a little, but for the most part I just sat there, staring at her. She glanced away and shook her head slightly. “It was okay, I guess.”
“I don’t want to know how it was,” I said in a grave whisper.
She stood up and wiped off the back of her jeans. “He finished too fast. I wouldn’t do it again, but he is cute.”
“Oh my god…”
“Are you ready? Grab Armin.”
Like a zombie, I walked back into the house and found Armin sitting in the kitchen, drinking his own cup of coffee. Unfortunately, Jean was leaning over the counter and talking to him. It was too late to shrink back around the corner once I’d caught sight of them, so I just gritted my teeth and walked forward. “Armin, we’re leaving.”
I turned around and started back out before he even said, “Okay.”
I turned around in the front seat to talk to him once we were in the car. I wasn’t currently on speaking terms with Mikasa. “You look happy for someone with a hangover,” I told him.
I narrowed my eyes and tried to extract his meaning. Armin just bit his lower lip and gave me a clandestine grin. I wondered if anything more than the obvious was going on, but whatever the case I didn’t like how happy even a brief interaction with Jean had rendered my best friend. I turned back around and rolled my eyes, sighing. “I really need to win that bet,” I muttered.
“Armin, are you gay?” Mikasa suddenly asked. I sat bolt upright and turned as slowly as possible to look at him again.
Again, Armin was not one to lie. However, he hated being caught off guard. “Um! I… yes! I think! Yes, I am! I’ve never… but yes!”
“What the hell, Mikasa, where did that come from?” I asked, flicking her shoulder with my forefinger.
“Jean asked,” she explained. She, apparently, was still honoring our agreement to not speak for the time being, and addressed Armin. “He thinks you’re cute.”
“What is with that guy?!” I asked, yelling at no one in particular.
“Eren, everyone likes Jean except you,” Armin said softly, but I could practically hear the squeal of excitement over what Mikasa had told him.
“I am going to win that bet,” I buried my face in my hands and tried to deny how badly I wanted to throw up.