The loudspeaker crackled to life and a fuzzy voice announced the start of the final event between the Jinae Natatorium Swordfish and the reigning champs, the Sina Aquatic Center Titans. Participants in the 200 free relay, were to report to the starting blocks.
The Titans held a comfortable lead, thanks largely in part to some incredible performances by Annie Leonhart and rookie Mikasa Ackerman. Both would be moving on to compete at the national level, and were expected to perform well there too. The boys’ side had also put in some solid swims with Connie Springer nabbing second in the fifty free, and Jean Kirchstein pulling a surprising upset to win the 100 backstroke from lane two.
Eren blew out a long breath and struggled out of his warm-up pants, revealing his naked stump for the first time since the meet started. This was it. Nerves fluttered at the back of his throat like hummingbirds. He refused Armin’s outstretched arm and hobbled the length of the deck on his own, though he was sandwiched between Connie and Jean, whose hands reached out to steady him if he faltered.
Don’t want to be any more of a burden than I am already. Hell, I figured Coach’d stick me in an exhibition heat, not the final event.
As they approached the blocks, Levi sauntered over and cast a jaundiced eye over the relay team.
“I hope you’ve been practicing your hand-off,” was all he said before the referee blew his whistle and they hustled to the start, adjusting caps and goggles as they went.
“You ready?” Jean asked, biting his lip uncertainly.
Eren could only nod as Reiner gave him a comforting slap on the back that nearly bowled him over. Since when did the lights in here get so bright?
The gun went off and Connie was gone in a spray of water. Cheers rose from all sides, but Eren couldn’t bear to watch the race. In what felt like no time at all, Reiner was diving in and Connie was hauling himself out of the water grinning.
“That’s definitely a PR!” He panted, his excitement undimmed by exhaustion. “This is gonna be a meet to remember, I can feel it.”
Eren’s stomach turned. I’d hate to disappoint you guys, but I don’t think I CAN win.
Jean gave Eren’s hand a little squeeze before he too mounted to blocks in preparation for Reiner’s return.
Less than a minute to go…
The noise in the pool was deafening, which meant that the competition was either very close, or one team had pulled far ahead. Without speaking, Connie and Reiner proffered their shoulders to help him stand on the blocks. Eren swallowed hard. He’d practiced diving in off the side of the pool with Annie; an adjustment the ref would surely allow do to his condition. He hadn’t expected this.
Standing on top of the blocks, wobbly and unstable as he was, felt like a victory in and of itself. Murmurs rippled through the crowd and Eren tried to ignore the hundreds of eyes that were swiveling in his direction. Unconsiously, his gaze drifted to his mom’s old seat and he almost fell over in surprise at the sight of his father sitting there, clutching a program book as if his life depended on it.
Jean came in strong off his flip turn and was tearing down the pool. With a jolt, Eren realized his teammates had given him a nice, fat lead. He let the chaos around him fade away, tracking Jean’s entry into the wall like a hawk.
We’re not going to fuck up this time.
He tuned in to the beat of Jean’s stroke, watching the smooth skin of his back glide through the water like had so many months earlier. Behind him, he felt his teammate’s reassuring presence, ready to catch him should he stumble. Jean was closing in. His time had come.
Eren curled his toes under the block and propelled himself forward with every ounce of force he could channel through that single foot. He hit the water, his entire body tight and straining in streamline; he couldn’t afford to lose speed with sloppy technique anymore. Three kicks and he broke the surface, his arms working double-time to compensate.
Hold your breath, just a little longer. Breathing slows you down.
Out of the corner of his eye, Eren could see his opponent gaining on him and he drove himself harder, but the other boy still passed him with apparent ease. Eren turned his attention to the black stripe running along the bottom of the pool and let Mikasa’s words from the night before flow through his mind.
You aren’t swimming today to beat anyone. You’re doing it to prove you can in the first place. This is about you, not him.
He flipped a little too slowly, foot barely kissing the wall, but he refused to let that discourage him. His lungs were bursting but he waited until he’d covered the requisite distance to breathe. Eren’s arms burned from the exertion but the wall was still about ten yards away…
The rest of the world fell away until it was only him and the water; muffled splashing, the occasional gasp for air. His limbs were filling with static numbness, but he pushed harder.
Eren’s fingers slammed mercilessly into the wall, sending mini shockwaves all the way up his arm. He broke the surface with a huge gasp and his head was instantly filled with the roar of the crowd. Against his better judgement, he peeked at the scoreboard.
Dead last. Still…
A hand reached down, which he grabbed like a lifeline as he was half-dragged out of the pool.
“I can’t fucking believe it dude, you killed it out there!” Connie’s face was inches from him, vibrating with excitement like a sugar-high toddler.
Eren chuckled weakly as he stood on a shaking leg. Reiner was grinning from ear-to-ear oblivious to their loss, Mikasa and Annie were running towards him heedless of the slippery tile, Levi was nodding appreciatively, the crowd was on its feet, and Jean…
Jean was wrapping his arms around him, something warm and wet falling on his shoulder. Then he was pressing his lips against Eren’s in a sloppy, joyful kiss.
“My dad’s here, you know,” Eren muttered when they broke apart, the back of his neck flushing.
The tips of Jean’s mouth twitched up in a wicked smile.“So’s mine. Fuck ‘im.” And he kissed him again.
The car ride home was filled with stony, uncomfortable silence. Jean twiddled his thumbs in the backseat, avoiding the accusing eyes in the rearview mirror.
The triumph of the meet was still fresh enough that he could wrap it around himself like a protective cloak; Eren’s face shining as his teammates enveloped him, punching his fist in the air.
There had been revelry in the locker room since to top it all off, they’d still managed to win the meet despite the relay. Connie had stood on a bench and delivered a long-winded toast that was largely drowned out by various victory chants. During it all, Armin had carefully herded the four relay members together so that Bertholt, the only one tall enough for the job, upended the Gatorade cooler on their heads with a rueful, whispered “sorry.”
That just about made up for his father’s malevolent stillness, the air in the car stewing in preparation for their own personal storm.
Jean patted his hair, which was now beginning to dry in chlorine-stiffened clumps. He cleared his throat.
“My Coach’ll write me a letter of recommendation- I should definitely get a scholarship for Trost now.” Levi’s cold, iron handshake had assured him of that.
Mr. Kirchstein huffed through his nose and hit the brakes a little harder than necessary at the next stop sign.
“Are you sure about that?”
Jean looked up sharply.
“You need to watch your behavior,” his father continued, “That little…display could affect your chances if anyone saw you.”
“Are you kidding?! You didn’t seem to care when Mina ran up to kiss me before finals in eighth grade.”
“That was different.”
“Why, because she was a girl?” Jean wished he could snatch the words right out of the air and cram them back into his mouth, but it was too late.
The tips of his father’s ears reddened. Green, yellow, red; the light changed and they screeched to a halt at an intersection.
“I’m serious Jean. I want what’s best for you and this…” He threw his hands up in the air “fling, phase, teenage rebellion, or whatever could seriously damage your future prospects. I’m only trying to lookou-”
“Well maybe you should’ve stuck around,” Jean snarled, hands tugging at his seatbelt. The car was suddenly too small for the two of them, the tension heavy as a thundercloud about to burst. “I’m serious about this too- Eren is my,” he paused, gathering the term on his tongue like he could spit fire, “boyfriend. And maybe I don’t give a shit whether you like that or not.”
He yanked open the car door, deaf to the muffled cursing as the light flashed back to green and his father was forced to drive away. Jean took off at a jog, knowing full well that the elder Kirchstein would circle the block and come back for him. For a while he just ran aimlessly, determined not to think too hard about the consequences what he’d done.
Finally, Jean slowed to a walk and filled his lungs with chilly air.
Well there’s no going back to the way things used to be.
Instinctively he punched in Eren’s number, and was rewarded when he picked up on the second ring.
“It’s your dad isn’t it?”
Jean nodded breathlessly before he remembered Eren couldn’t see him.
“Yeah. I just gotta-”
“Where are you? Dad took his own car since he was coming from the hospital- Yo Mikasa, turn around!” He shouted without bothering to cover the mouthpiece.
“It’s fine,” Jean heard himself saying. “I’m just kinda… confused right now. I think I need to be a lone to process everything for a bit. Talk to you later though.”
The world felt dreamlike; sharp and intangible as he hung up against Eren’s protestations. His insides were tied up in knots, with too many complicated emotions wrapping around each other to pick out a single one.
What’s Dad gonna do? What if he doesn’t want to see me again?
He kicked out at a rock and watched it skitter down the pavement. Jean felt a small wave of guilt that he might actually be okay with that arrangement. Besides, now he didn’t have to hide anymore. Everything was all out in the open and he couldn’t control how his father would react. There was a small amount of comfort in acknowledging that.
It wouldn’t be my fault.
Jean blew out a long breath and looked up at the cloudy sky, which was beginning to darken. He chewed his lower lip. It’d be pretty awkward to come home now, his tail tucked between his legs because it was getting cold and dark.
He toyed with his phone before realizing he had a text message waiting for him already.
Eren: if u need a place to crash tonite our couch is free.
Eren: hell my bed is free. Dad was so excited about the race that he was busy high-fiving all the swim families and missed our smooch.
Jean blushed to the roots of his hair in spite of himself. After a brief, stiff call to his mother to assure her he wasn’t dead in a ditch and that he’d be sleeping over at a friends’ house (he pointedly neglected to say which one and his mom didn’t ask), he began the long trek to the Jaegers’.