Sweat poured down Eren’s face as he navigated the obstacle course Pixis had set up for him. Stairs were gradually becoming more manageable, but it still required a lot of effort and concentration to perform an act that he hadn’t had to think twice about before.
I can’t wait until I can get fitted for a damn temporary prosthetic.
His stump was shaping up nicely according to the doctors, due in no small part to Mikasa’s careful wrapping, but Eren itched to fill the empty space in his pant leg, to ditch the crutches that left ugly purple welts under his arms no matter how much he padded them with hand towels.
Not to mention a more natural gait, he thought, cursing aloud as he tripped over a weight that had been left lying on the floor from someone else’s therapy.
“Well done!” Pixis nodded approvingly. “How do you feel?”
“Tired.” Eren had long since learned it was useless to lie to the old man. “But it’s a good kind of tired.” Like I just finished a hard workout at practice.
“You’ve made excellent progress. Let’s think about trying a temporary next week, shall we?”
Pixis nodded, and wheeled himself closer so that he could put a hand on Eren’s knee.
“You’ll have to keep getting new ones as your stump settles into its final size and shape, but the sooner we get you used to the feel of the thing, the better your results are going to be.”
“That’s great! I can’t wait to get rid of these,” Eren made a face at his crutches. “There’s just one thing I’ve been meaning to ask you…” He hesitated. Do I even want to hear the answer?
“What about swimming?”
Pixis’ eyes twinkled. “You’re healed enough to submerge the limb, so I don’t see why not. Obviously you can’t swim with a standard prosthetic on, so you’ll have to make some adjustment to your technique. And don’t try it without close supervision!” He admonished, his mustache bristling sternly. “You’ll find that it takes a lot more energy, just like walking and everything else. Be careful about over-taxing yourself.”
Eren was barely listening.
I can get back in the pool again! And he said I can’t swim with a standard prosthetic, does that mean…
“Certain companies do make custom swim legs,” Pixis continued, as if reading his mind, “but let’s worry about that later. You’ve still got a ways to go, son.”
I’ll fight my way back, no matter what it takes.
Eren took a long drink of water and braced himself for another round of hobbling about the room.
“You look happy,” Mikasa noted as soon as she picked him up from therapy.
It didn’t take long for Eren to relay the good news. Mikasa brought the car to a full stop so that she could lean over and envelop him in a hug. They sat in the embrace for a full minute without speaking, until Eren realized she was trying not to cry.
He started to awkwardly pat her head, which made her sit up and wipe the corners of her eyes in a businesslike manner.
“Have you told anyone else yet?”
Eren waved his phone at her so she could see he was already halfway through composing a text to Armin and Jean.
“I think I’m gonna wait to tell the rest of the team though. Wouldn’t want to jinx it right?” He chuckled nervously, “You can talk to Annie about it or whatever, I don’t care.” If she doesn’t already know. I wouldn’t be surprised if you two had some weird telepathic connection at this point.
“My lips are sealed until further notice,” Mikasa promised solemnly.
The conversation turned to lighter subjects; the various facial contortions Hanji brought about in Levi over the course of a single practice, Annie’s penchant for wearing mismatching socks, and a lecture from Mikasa about how Jean’s birthday was coming up and that he should stop putting off gift shopping.
He was saved when his phone started to blast ‘Toxic’ by Brittany Spears.
“Hey Jean, Mikasa and I were just talking about how much of a loser you are.”
“Fuck, dude.” A muffled sob.
“Not you too!” Eren’s own voice was shaking; partially from shock, partially from disbelief, but mostly from the overwhelming relief that he could see light at the end of the tunnel.
Jean choked out a chuckle. “Alright, fine. Should I tell Coach to make an extra special workout to kick your ass for being away for so long? Seriously dude, I’m so happy for you.”
“Honestly, I’ll be so glad to get back in the pool again, I don’t care if I have to do a whole workout with Levi sitting on my back.”
Even Mikasa smiled at that.
“Do you think um, you could come over? I’m really excited and all but…” The past few weeks have been such a roller coaster. I don’t know if I can wrap my head around all of this yet. Part of me’s still frustrated that this is what I have to be thankful for.
“Are you kidding? I started walking the minute I got your text. Hell, I’ll probably get to your house before you do.”
Jean fought the urge to pace the front porch as he waited for Eren and Mikasa to return. Armin sat next to him, the thick schoolbooks put away for once. Together they shouldered the oppressive anticipation in silence.
An approaching motor.
“It’s them! I’d recognize the sound of that van anywhere!” Armin sprung from the step as they pulled into the driveway. He almost knocked Eren over with the force of his hug, and his “congratulations” was lost in the fabric of Eren’s shirt.
Jean hung back, suddenly unsure.
Does this moment belong to me? We haven’t even been dating for very long and it was sort of my fault to begin with. Maybe I should just go home and call him later tonight…
Mikasa grabbed his sleeve and dragged him over to the little group.
“I guess this means I’m part of the family now,” he muttered sarcastically to hide the lump in his throat as he was enfolded into their circle.
“Don’t spoil the moment,” Mikasa deadpanned, but she gave his wrist an affirmative squeeze.
They decided to stay outside and enjoy the beautiful autumn sunlight that would soon fade to bleak winter days. Armin disappeared into the house and came back with a jug of apple cider that they passed around. Eren nestled his head against Jean’s shoulder, and he reveled in the warmth.
“Is that your phone?”
“Huh?” Jean snapped out of his reverie.
“You’re vibrating,” Eren grumbled. “I didn’t think you were THAT happy to see me.”
“Guys, PLEASE,” Armin yelped, cradling his head in his hands. “I thought Annie and Mikasa playing footsie all the time was bad enough-”
“Don’t bring me into this.” Mikasa took a calm sip of her cider.
As they continued to argue about who did what and in a grosser fashion, Jean awkwardly shifted his hips so he could see who was calling without disturbing Eren. It was a number that he only saw a few times a year, usually on holidays or birthdays.
Shit. Dad’s plane must’ve come in.
“Who is it?” Eren asked, poking Jean in the side where he knew it’d make him jump.
“Nobody important.” Jean sighed and rested his back against the step. The sky was clear and blue, he was surrounded by friends, and his boyfriend was on the mend. It was time to celebrate. His father could wait.
Eren flopped down hopelessly at a table at the foodcourt. Never before had the mall’s gleaming white tiles and orderly rows of shops seemed so daunting. Not to mention, he was ready to punch the next person who couldn’t stop staring.
“Mikasaaaa, what should I get him?”
“You’re his boyfriend, shouldn’t you know best?” Annie reached across the table and snagged a potato chip off his plate.
“I didn’t ask you,” Eren grumbled crossly.
Mikasa shrugged her shoulders. “What does he like other than swimming? Though if you ask me, a nice pair of goggles is a practical gift.”
I should’ve asked Sasha to come instead. She’s pretty good friends with Jean and there’s an off change she wouldn’t just suggest gift certificates to different restaurants as a birthday present…
“Music?” Annie suggested.
Eren shook his head, shuddering at the thought of standing in front of a real live cashier holding something that was suited to Jean’s taste.
I’d never be able to go back to FYE again.
“What did I say about waiting until the last possible minute?” Mikasa asked archly.
“Come on, I was excited about the whole prosthetic thing!”
“For three whole days?”
Without warning Annie froze, and slid her chair a foot away from Mikasa’s, her posture so rigid and uncomfortable that you’d never guess they’d been holding hands a moment before.
“My dad’s here,” she whispered through clenched teeth in response to her girlfriend’s startled look.
Mr. Leonhart shared his daughter’s blond hair and icy eyes, though his face was squarer and less graceful. He nodded at the group without smiling, and Eren got the same chill he did when he first met Anne.
I can see where she gets it from.
“Hey Dad, these are my friends from the swim team I’ve told you about.” Annie said in an uncharacteristically small voice.
“So these are the people you’ve been spending so much time with, eh? I didn’t realize ‘Eren’ was a boy. Guess that explains why you’ve never had them over.” He ruffled Annie’s hair affectionately. “What? You thought your old man would be the protective type standing out on the porch with a shotgun?”
“Cut it out,” she hissed, brushing his hands away is if they were flies circling her head.
“I’m just sayin’ you can tell me about these things.” Mr. Leonhart winked at Eren, who smiled weakly. “It’s natural for girls your age to start looking at boys. Just stay out of trouble!” He cuffed her shoulder. “Alright, I’m done embarrassing you. Call me if you need a ride.”
As soon as he was gone, Annie slammed her fist down on the table hard enough that Eren could feel the vibration from where he was sitting.
“I hate this,” She whispered, half to herself.
Mikasa didn’t say anything, but her napkin was shredded into a snowy white pile in her lap.
They left without getting Jean a present.
“So how’s school?”
Jean shook his head, still trying to shake the twilight-zone feeling of having his father sitting in their living room munching on a bowl of peanuts like he hadn’t been gone for a year and a half.
“Your mother tells me you’re still swimming?” He loosened his tie and took another sip of beer.
“Mhmm. I made the Titans this year.” Normally Jean would’ve been ecstatic to pass this news on. Swimming was the one thing his mom never could manage to get interested in. Now his palms were coated in sweat and all he wanted to do was get this stupid dinner over with.
Once upon a time, I’d have made you laugh with stories about Coach Levi. You’d call me ‘champ’ and we’d run through the statistics of everyone one the team. I can’t look forward to that anymore. Not with mom and I hiding a secret right under your nose.
“Atta boy!” Mr. Kirchstein chuckled. “You still aiming for Trost University?”
Jean nodded, longing to pull out his phone to text Eren about how ridiculous it was that he thought he could just drop in and out of his life as he pleased without repercussions. And that Jean would be fine with that.
“Yup. I should be able to get a full ride with Coach Levi’s recommendation.” He hated the small spark of pride that flared in his chest when his father beamed even harder.
Hurry up Mom, come in and tell us dinner’s ready before he-
“So, do you have a girlfriend yet?” Mr. Kirchstein winked conspiratorially, as if Jean would’ve tried to hide that information from his mom.
Instead of anger at the assumption and the awkward questions that were sure to follow, Jean felt pity.
He doesn’t know me anymore. He’s just trying and failing desperately to connect, going through all the motions but not understanding that all the questions in the world won’t bring back the bond we used to share.
A snarky response about how he must’ve finished reading the “Absent Father’s Guide to Parenting” on the plane danced on the tip of his tongue, but he was saved when his phone vibrated in his pocket.
“Sorry Dad, I really gotta take this. It’s um from the sport’s recruiters at Trost.”
Jean ducked around the corner, then into the broom closet across from the living room.
“Hey Eren, what’s up?” Please make it quick.
“I’ve got a surprise for youuuu,” the voice on the other end of the line taunted. “Okay not really. I was a dick and forgot to get you a present for your birthday, so you gotta come over to my place so I can feed and entertain you and shit.”
“I can’t, sorry. Family dinner thing tonight.”
“Oh so I’m not invited?” The change in Eren’s tone from teasing to irritation was so sudden it was like a slap in the face.
“I’ve only been to your house like, twice since we’ve started dating and your mom seemed cool enough! Are you embarrassed of me?” He continued scathingly.
Jean felt the pressure that had been building in his temples all evening start to throb.
“My Dad’s here, otherwise I would’ve asked you, Jesus.” There was a small hitch at the back of his throat.
“Sorry,” Eren muttered, chagrinned.
“Don’t worry about it,” Jean snapped. “Anyways, I’ve got to go. Talk to you later.” He hung up abruptly.
I just needed a little support. Why’d he have to pick a fight? Stupid, selfish asshole made it all about him. And now I gotta go back out and pretend that everything is fine.
He took a few long breaths to collect himself in the darkness, concocted a suitable lie about college inquiries and swim team policies, and plastered a fake smile on his face before he strolled back into the living room.
Eren threw the phone down moodily on his bed.
How was I supposed to know his family situation was so tetchy? He never mentioned any problems, and I don’t even remember his dad very well. He was off on business trips all the time when we were kids.
He rubbed at his stump, still red and raw from therapy. Pixis had warned him that chafing would be normal as the skin adjusted to the new surface of the prosthetic, but his leg felt like one giant blister. He couldn’t imagine wearing the thing for a single hour, let alone all day.
Though I guess I shouldn’t be one to talk. Mikasa and I haven’t exactly been sharing our lives with Dad either. Would he be okay with it, or would this just be something else to fight over?
Eren frowned. He’d never thought of his father as a political man, but surely his mother would have supported him and Mikasa. He couldn’t picture her mouthing off against people like the red-faced bigots that occasionally made it onto the news.
His musings were interrupted by the sound of footsteps down the hall, followed by a soft knock on his door.
“Come in,” he grunted.
Too heavy to be Mikasa, but Dad never comes-
“Eren, I’ve been thinking.”
“Well that’s not a good sign.”
Grisha clenched his fist, then loosened the tension slowly, consciously.
“I haven’t been fair to you or Mikasa in the past few years since your mother died.”
Eren’s eyebrows climbed towards his hairline. You can say that again.
“And?” If this was some sort of apology, he wasn’t going to make things easy.
Grisha sighed and took a few hesitant steps into his son’s room. He opened his mouth soundlessly a few times before he was finally able to speak.
“And, and your accident has only made me realize how precious the two of you are to me. You know that your mother and I were intending to adopt Mikasa officially before she got sick…”
A small flame leapt to life in Eren’s chest.
Grisha swallowed hard. “I think it’s long past time we made that happen. It’s what your mother would have wanted and I’m so sorry-”
“It’s okay, Dad,” his voice wobbled dangerously. Eren half-rose off his bed, but his father met him the rest of the way, wrapping him up in a tight embrace. He closed his eyes and breathed in the familiar, woody scent of Grisha’s cologne; he still smelled like a dad, even under the antiseptic hospital scent.
“I want us to be a family again,” Grisha whispered into his shoulder.
“Me too, I missed you.”
They pulled away, each wiping at their cheeks, embarrassed.
“Did you tell Mikasa yet?” Eren managed to get out.
An old glint returned to his father’s eye; one Eren though had died along with his mom.
“What, and ruin the surprise?”
The flame in his chest burned a little brighter.