The alarm clock blared incessantly in Eren’s ear. He snaked a hand out from under his cocoon of blankets and fumbled around until he finally managed to shut the damn thing off by knocking it onto the floor. A calendar clung crookedly to the wall next to his head. With a bleary glare, Eren determined that it was in fact August twenty-fifth; a date circled in violent red sharpie, accompanied by a circle wearing a grimace and giant, angry eyebrows. Armin had doodled his “game face”.
Today’s the big day, Eren!
He imagined his mom’s voice floating over the sound of bacon and eggs frying in the kitchen.
She’d poke her head in the door, probably roll her eyes and tell me Mikasa’s already dressed and ready to go, but smile just the same.
He twitched the covers aside, a small shiver running up his spine as his feet hit the floor. The house always felt cold now, even in summer. Logically Eren knew that was because his father blasted the air conditioning and never remembered to turn it down at night, but the halls also seemed emptier now that she was gone; sounds muted as the three of them rattled around the place like pinballs in a machine.
Eren dug through a few layers of clothes on his floor, trying to remember which pile held the clean laundry.
Wait, did I ever take that load out of the washer? Shit.
He settled for a shirt that was, for the most part, visibly clean and passed the sniff test. He debated wearing pants at all, but eventually decided that coming home in his wet swim trunks wouldn’t be worth it.
Goggles, towel, membership card, water bottle… I think I’m set.
As he grabbed his duffel bag from its customary position under his desk, a worn photograph caught his eye. A small grin tugged at the corners of his lips. He rarely used the desk anymore; it was so covered with old homework assignments and random tchotchkes from over the years that there wasn’t really space to study, but he remembered how excited he was when they got it.
“Now that you’re going into middle school, your father and I think you should start being responsible for your own homework assignments,” She explained, as Eren ran his hands over the smooth, shiny surface.
He snorted. “I can do that. I bet Jean doesn’t even have his own desk,” he added with a touch of pride.
“That’s not the point,” his mother chided, “Besides, I ran into Mrs. Kirstein at the supermarket yesterday and she said that Jean’s going to private school this year.”
“You sound disappointed.” There was a twinkle in her eye.
“No way! He’s such a jerk. One day-”
“Alright, alright. Hey, don’t you think a desk this nice deserves some decoration?”
Eren rubbed his thumb over the worn photograph. The cheap, plastic frame had cracked a little but he could still see himself grinning back, hair wet and sticking up in all directions, his mother’s arm wrapped protectively around his shoulder despite the massive orange water wings sprouting from his arms. Mikasa peeked out from around her waist like a curious shadow. He knew the back read Eren nine years old, first swim lesson.
A grin tugged at the corner of his lips and he slid the photo into his bag alongside his other equipment.
Mikasa was waiting at the kitchen table with a frown and a bagel smeared with cream cheese, which she thrust into his hands.
“Let’s go. We were supposed to pick Armin up ten minutes ago.”
“I don’t like to eat before I race,” Eren grumbled, but he picked away at his breakfast as he followed Mikasa out to the minivan. “Why doesn’t dad ever leave us the car, anyway? Does he think you’re a middle aged woman or something?”
“Would you rather walk?” Mikasa asked waspishly. “If you started now, you might make it before tryouts are over.”
Eren shut himself up by taking an enormous bite. He forgot that Mikasa must be nervous too, even though she’d never admit it.
A few minutes later, they screeched to a halt outside of Armin’s house, a small single-story ranch tucked between an apartment complex and a defunct dry cleaners. The blond boy was already sitting on the curb, and wasted no time in lunging into the backseat. He clung to his duffel like it was a life raft.
“We aren’t going to be late, are we? I heard Coach Levi is a stickler about punctuality.” His knee was practically vibrating as he bounced his leg up and down, possessed by jitters.
Mikasa revved the engine in response.
They made it, barely. Eren and Armin tumbled from the boys’ locker room, blinking in the harsh florescent lights of the pool as thirty pairs of eyes pinned them to the deck.
“I didn’t realize so many people wanted to be on the team,” Armin whispered fearfully, casting a wary eye over the competition. “Looks like it’s gonna be tough this year.”
Eren nodded in agreement. He scanned the area and recognized several faces from years of lessons at the Sina Aquatic Center. Connie Springer, who’d been the fastest sprinter in the under-fifteen age bracket, was lounged against the lifeguard chair, chatting with Mina Carolina and Thomas Wagner. Like Eren, this was the first year they were eligible to make the advanced squad.
The older, more experienced members looking to reclaim their spots from last year stood in another knot off to the side. Two massive dudes were flanking a petite blonde girl who, Eren realized with a jolt, was Annie Leonhart.
Didn’t she win the 500 free at the State competition last year?
He felt his hands start to grow clammy with sweat. He nudged Armin, whose eyes were getting wider by the second.
“Can’t swim fast if you don’t have good competition, right?”
“Oi everyone, listen up!” A droll voice cut through the echo of shrieks and splashes as the younger age bracket began their cooldown laps. The swimmers snapped to attention. Coach Levi had a reputation for being a merciless, uncompromising hard-ass, but had a glittering trophy case and even a few Olympic medals to show for it.
“I’m not gonna mess around with time trials or any of that shit.”
Eren’s mouth fell open, and he snapped it shut before anyone could see. He’d never heard a teacher swear before, but the Coach kept on talking, completely unfazed despite the incredulous whispers that swept through the crowd.
No time trials? He can’t be serious.
“Instead, we’re gonna jump right into practice, and if you can’t hack it, you’re out. If you wanna be on The Titans, you gotta work for it. Most of you will quit on your own before I have to cut you anyways. Newbies stay in the outer lanes, and for God’s sake pay attention to the people who know what the hell they’re doing.”
Despite his small stature, Levi still managed to look down his nose at the team. His flat, grey eyes reminded Eren uncomfortably of a shark’s.
“Well? The workout’s posted on the board. Get moving.”
There was a flurry of activity as people grabbed fins, kickboards and snorkels, jostling for the best placement in their lane.
“Wow, this is so… serious,” Armin muttered. “Not like with Coach Ral, right?” He laughed nervously.
“You can do this!” Eren protested, punching him lightly on the shoulder. “I remember how hard you worked the past few years. I don’t think anyone’s dropped as much time as you have. Right Mikasa?” He asked loudly as their friend passed, but she didn’t even look at him.
Guess she’s already in the zone.
“Well um, I think I’ll go with lane eight just to be safe.” Armin knelt down by the starting blocks of the last lane to arrange his equipment. “You go on without me! I know you’ve got your pride to protect,” He teased as Eren opened his mouth to argue.
“Alright, see you after practice.”
Eren sauntered over to lane three, the closest he could get to the coveted center lanes without attracting the attention of the veterans. Connie had already made himself at home and gave Eren a wrist-shattering high-five in welcome.
“Titans or bust, amirite?”
“You bet!” Eren felt his limbs start to tingle with anticipation. He could still feel nerves jangling around in the back of his mind, but they’d faded to a mildly annoying white noise. Instead, there was a fire burning in his belly.
I can do this.
He took a deep breath and adjusted the straps on his goggles to make sure they were just right. He was about to ask Connie of he wanted to rock-paper-scissors for who got to go first, but a lanky pair of legs suddenly blocked his view.
“I was hoping you wouldn’t show up, but I guess a guy can’t have everything,” a voice sniffed.
You’ve gotta be kidding me.
Connie glanced over at Eren with a giant shit-eating grin.
Oh don’t you dare-
“Hey Jean! You should be in our lane. It’ll be just like old times, yeah?”
Eren almost punched him.
Connie waggled his eyebrows in a very unapologetic manner, as Jean ran his hands through his stupid hair.
Honestly, who dyes an undercut two different colors?
“Nah man,” he drawled, his mesh equipment bag slung over his shoulder with deliberate jauntiness. “I’m gonna take lane two. Coach can see me better from there, and I can take the lead, no questions asked. Plus,” a sly grin crept over his face, “I’ll look extra good kicking Jaeger’s ass.”
Eren slapped the water as hard as he could, sending a cold spray showering over both Jean and Connie, who let out satisfying little yelps. He let the anger run through him, hot and eager.
Feed the fire.
“We’ll see about that! I’ve been training hard, not dicking around at Saint Pants-less.”
“It’s Saint Frances,” Jean huffed, stepping off the deck and into the water with a delicate hop. He emerged, shaking water off his head. “How old are you, twelve?”
“I could still beat you.”
The other boy rolled his eyes.
“That was beautiful,” Connie whispered in the ensuing lull, wiping an imaginary tear from his eye. “We’re going to have so much fun this year!”