The snow was packed down so hard and firm, Eren could balance on top of it, leaving only the faintest shadow of a footprint.
It was 1939. Bears marched from the East, to clash with wolves from the west.
Eren Yeager was of a different breed. Born of a Turkish mother and a German Jew father, he had no place in the brand new paradise that the wolves were bringing, unlike his friend Armin with his soft blonde hair and big blue eyes and quiet, fastidious nature. Eren was loud and brash and golden-tan, with green eyes that saw both too much and too little, and hair as wild and untamable as the boy who owned it. He was precocious and questioning, a nature fostered by his father, A Very Important Doctor, and encouraged by his soft-spoken mother. Eren was just beginning to wake up, in 1939, when it was far safer to remain asleep.
His mother had sent him out to play earlier, giving him one of his father’s old physician bags packed with food. At the bottom lay clothes she must have forgotten to take out, and sewn into the bag’s pockets was money in case – well, that part hadn’t been all that clear to Eren. His mother had told him to go play in the woods, and she assured him she’d let anyone who ventured that way know he was there, so that they might play a game together. Eren didn’t have to ask her what game – hide and seek was his favorite, and he was very, very good at it.
But now, hours later, with the sun riding the edge of the horizon, Eren was homesick. His mother had given him permission to stay out as long as he wanted, but the novelty of his newly minted freedom soon wore off. He was tired and somewhat cold, and very much craving warm food accompanied by the soft melody of his parents’ conversation.
So Eren turned and headed down a street he knew would lead him back to his house, twisting the leather straps of the physician’s bag tight around his little fists.
He walked an abandoned street as the shadows grew long, and tried not to let the looming darkness unsettle him.
He didn’t get far before he spotted the woman. Mostly because she was blocking his path. He was almost too busy inside his own thoughts to realize there was person in front of him, a person who didn’t seem inclined to move, but Eren always saw the strange, and this person was strange personified.
She couldn’t have been much older than his own mother, but there was nothing motherly about her. Blond hair cropped short, thin wire-rimmed spectacles, a tweed suit and worn physician’s bag, just like his. A tattered black umbrella hooked its curve around her forearm, tucked neatly next to the crook of her elbow. A passing pedestrian, one of the only ones on the lonely shadowed street, sped past Eren and greeted her, voice gruff. Eren didn’t understand why the man had hailed this thin, strange woman as “Herr Doktor.” Something in Eren bucked uncomfortably at the sight, and he attempted to skirt around her without throwing out a word of acknowledgement, head down and eyes screwed shut.
“You’ll fall if you walk like that.”
With a squawk, Eren toppled over, fright spurring him into movement rather than paralysis. Movement right into the pavement, unfortunately. “Ah. Too late.” He turned to look up incredulously at the person who spoke. They locked eyes for only a moment before Eren cast his back down. He didn’t like those colorless irises that assessed him up-and-down and up-and-down. There was a controlled power in that gaze, one that reminded him of the one time he had begged to go to the zoo, and his parents obliged. There had been a lion there, with dark, dark eyes that looked the exact opposite of those staring at him now, but at the same time, were the exact same.
Eren trembled and shivered under the weight of the woman’s gaze, finally giving in to the unease that plagued him all day.
Eren was seven years old. He was smart, astute. He was the son of A Very Important Doctor. But Eren was alone and wishing very hard for his mother to come find him and carry him home. Eren was a child without the comfort of his parents, and that is a very forlorn child indeed.
“Ah, don’t cry,” a voice sighed from above him, gently. “Don’t cry little one. Here. Watch.”
Eren did, jerking his head up to pin the woman with bright, tearful green eyes. She whistled, spilling notes into the cold November air that sounded exactly like the sharp edge of glass on the shards of his mother’s broken vase. The woman clicked her tongue, and it was Eren’s blood on those shards, bright and red and distracting, distracting him from the pain.
A series of answering chirps – and birds were fluttering down to land all around him, entrancing and magical. Their twisting paths of flight were reflected in huge young eyes. “How do you do that?” he breathed, distracted by birds now, instead of bright red blood. “Can you teach me?”
“Little one, I know many things. I would question my own validity as a teacher, however,” the colorless eyes replied. She reached down a callused and rough palm, so at odds with her refined appearance. Eren placed his own small hand in hers, tan against scarred white, and allowed her to pull him back to his feet.
“My daddy is a doctor,” he said, forgetting his fear entirely in the face of all those birds, dancing and singing and playing in their own little bird ways. “He isn’t a very good teacher either. I still learn from him.” A thought occurred to the boy in that moment, and he couldn’t help but voice it: “What do you know that he wouldn’t?”
“Besides that?” An arched eyebrow. A tiny shoulder shrugged in response. “Dangerous things.” Those eyes glittered, like icicles hanging heavy off the boughs of trees in the early morning. “I probably know a little less and a little more than your father, though perhaps not either way. There is no way to measure these sorts of things, and I doubt your father’s field and mine would overlap. Regardless, it is in my experience that doctors don’t know what they say anymore. Unfortunate business, that is.”
Eren puffed up indignantly. “My daddy knows what he says – always! And – aren’t you a doctor?” He gestured towards her leather bag.
A thin smile answered him. “Smart boy. Ah, but you see, doctors don’t even realize that what comes out of their mouth does not match the thoughts in their head. And I have a special translator, so my thoughts don’t get lost on their way to my mouth. It’s not just doctors, either. Most adults don’t have translators, so you mustn’t trust what they say because even they don’t know what they say. It’s an affliction caught after time and simply endured. You’ll get it someday, I presume.” Eren looked vaguely horrified at the thought, promptly forgetting his fervid defense of his father’s expertise.
“I don’t want that! I want to always say exactly what is in my head!” Something about the woman hardened imperceptibly, and Eren shrunk back at the coldness radiating from her gaze.
“That is dangerous, little one.”
“But don’t you do that? You have a translator.”
“I use it sparingly, and only for myself. Since most everyone has this disease, they dislike hearing thoughts from those who don’t.” The woman paused, glancing up at the overcast clouds which hung heavy and bloated above dull brick buildings. They had darkened considerably. “Come, let’s get you home. To be found, especially here, is to be lost forever.”
“What does that mean?”
“It’s wisdom given to me that I am giving to you. I didn’t know what it meant when I first received it, just as you don’t know now. Be patient. You’ll understand in time.” She looked at Eren, something akin to sadness lurking behind her placid expression. He thought he hear her murmur, “Perhaps a child is the only creature in the world that could benefit from being found.”
Eren followed behind the woman, puffing to keep pace with her long strides. He mulled over her words, letting them sink into his being and hoping to glean some spark of understanding even after she warned him that he would not find it. Not yet, at least.
Eventually, he gave up and tucked away her wisdom for later contemplation, trotting along now at her side, humming quietly to himself – innocent and unquestioning, trusting her to lead him home.
He wouldn’t realize until much later, after he had grown and when he understood, that he had never told the woman where he lived.