“So I went for a tour of the high school, and their pool is awesome! And guess what? The middle school team even gets to use it,” Jean hooked his arm around the lane line, addressing a small but appreciative group of fifth grade girls in the next lane over. Eren could tell from the way his eyes kept darting back over his shoulder and the over-amplified volume of his voice, that he and Mikasa were the intended audience.
“I guess I’ll miss this place,” Jean sighed with exaggerated nostalgia, “but Saint Francis has one of the best programs in the state. I expect I’ll be able to make much more out of my swimming career.”
Eren couldn’t help but roll his eyes. “Does that mean you’ll stop crying every time you lose a race?”
The other boy’s ears turned scarlet.
“I do not!”
“Do too! I saw you last weekend after your hundred backstroke. You even had to get a tissue from your Mommy,” he spoke the last word with relish.
“At least mine still comes to see me swim,” Jean muttered with a small gleam of triumph in his eye. “I bet yours doesn’t want to see your stupid face anymore.”
A loud CRACK echoed through the pool as Eren hauled back and punched him right in the mouth. Jean gasped as fat drops of blood leaked through his fingers and into the water. Coach Ral immediately blew her whistle, signaling everyone to evacuate, and marched over with a grim expression.
Mikasa, who had been watching the entire exchange expressionlessly, fixed Jean with her steely gaze.
“She’s just been very tired lately, that’s all. Some days she sleeps through the meets.” She then put her palms flat on the deck and hoisted herself up and out of the pool in one fluid motion.
“I’ll meet you at the front desk,” she said to Eren without turning around.
“But first I’ll be seeing both of you in my office,” Coach Ral ordered, folding her arms sternly across her chest.
Eren squirmed in the chair, rubbing his knuckles where he’s scraped them against Jean’s teeth. The other boy sat slouched beside him, clutching an ice pack to his split lip. He managed to glare ferociously at Eren before Coach Ral looked up from her paperwork.
“Boys, I know you two don’t get along, but fighting in the middle of practice? What’s going on here?”
“He started it,” Jean snapped. “I was just minding my own business…”
“That’s not true!” Eren felt embarrassingly close to tears; his chest heaving with the effort of keeping his breathing steady.
“Okay, okay,” Petra held her palms up in a placating gesture. “Jean could you step outside for a minute? Eren and I need to talk in private.”
With one last smug smile, he strutted out of the room.
Silence descended. Eren stared resolutely at the floor, trying to count the faded grey and white tiles.
“Areyougoingtokickmeofftheteam?” The words tumbled out in a rush. His cheeks burned and the corners of his eyes prickled, threatening to betray him.
“From what your father told me, it sounds like you’re going through a pretty tough time at home.”
“She’ll get better soon,” Eren mumbled around a throat that was rapidly closing. “Dad said he’d be able to look after her extra special since he’s a doctor but I don’t see how he can do that if he’s working all the time.” He clenched his fists tight against the sides of his thighs. “It’s like me and Mikasa are the only ones who care!”
Coach Ral stood from her desk and knelt down beside him.
“I understand that you’re angry, and I agree that it’s not fair. But your mother is very strong, and I know that she’s going to fight as hard as she can for you. Do you think she’d be proud of the way you acted today?”
Eren sniffled and shook his head.
“I’m not going to kick you off the team; however, there must be consequences for your actions. I want you to stay after practice and do an extra set every day for the next two weeks.”
The young boy looked at her wide-eyed, a slow grin spread over his blotchy face.
“Th-thank you Coach!” he scrambled out of his chair, as if he was hoping to leave before she could change her mind. “I won’t let either of you down again, I promise.”
Levi’s whistle blew mercilessly throughout the practice; a cruel reminder to the swimmers that the meager moments they had to catch their breath were now over as they plowed into the next set.
I am going to die, Eren thought. I will drown right here in this pool.
His arms had gone beyond sore and into numbness. He moved mechanically through the motions of each stroke, hoping only to keep moving forward. The relaxed grin had long since vanished from Connie’s face. However, his spirits had not been dampened enough to stop him from whispering “just keep swimming, just keep swimming,” in an annoying sing-song. Eren made a mental note to never, EVER let him watch Finding Nemo again.
He glanced enviously over at Mikasa, who was holding her own in lane five without any apparent effort. Ten minutes into practice and Levi had stopped everything to move her over to swim with the very best. Sure enough, Annie Leonhart was heading up the group; her petite body gliding through the water with crisp, precise strokes.
I’ll get there too someday. Doesn’t matter if I have to work harder than everybody else.
Thomas had gotten out to “go to the bathroom” half an hour ago and hadn’t returned. From the looks of things, Mina wouldn’t be far behind him; every lap she fell a little bit further behind. She was barely making the intervals now, which meant no time to rest in between.
Unfortunately, Jean showed no signs of giving up. A small consolation was that he hadn’t managed to pull ahead. The two boys were still finishing at roughly the same time.
I can use this. Dig deep, find a way to go just a little faster. Knock that dumb smirk of his face for good.
After two hours of chlorine-scented torture, Coach Levi gathered the remaining on deck.
“Even for Day One, that was pretty pathetic.”
Are you kidding me? Eren glanced at the exhausted faces around him. Only the returners were rolling their eyes, as if they’d heard this speech a thousand times.
“I hope you all go home and think long and hard about if it’s even worth dragging your sorry asses to practice tomorrow. Dismissed.” His voice still managed to sound flat and colorless, despite the echo-y acoustics of the pool.
Eren lingered as the rest of the swimmers limped back towards the locker room, hoping the coach would maybe give him a piece of personal advice, judging from what he’d seen. He slowly bent down, pretending he was adjusting the straps on his equipment bag.
He remembered my name!
Levi raised an eyebrow at the formality, but didn’t comment.
“Your technique is shit.”
And with that he turned, and strolled into his office, leaving Eren standing dumbstruck in his wake.
The caseworker had neat blond hair that was parted fiercely to one side, so straight and even that it looked like he’d used a ruler. His piercing blue eyes scanned the house as he silently made notes on a clipboard. His mother seemed nervous; her hands moving much more than usual, flitting from her hair to her throat to her waist and back again.
“Well the house looks great!” He said finally, the corners of his eyes crinkling when he smiled, breaking his icy demeanor. “Clean, well-organized. You seem like dedicated parents. Do you mind if I talk to your son for a bit?”
Karla nodded. “Mind your manners, Eren,” she said mildly, but he could hear the warning in her tone.
The caseworker grinned and squatted down to his level, holding out a hand.
“Nice to meet you, Eren. My name’s Erwin.”
He nodded cautiously, and grasped his palm in a firm shake like he’d seen his father do when they had Important Guests over for dinner.
“You like sweets?” He set aside his clipboard and a large manila folder full of files to reach into his pocket and retrieved a slightly linty hard candy.
Eren eyed him with suspicion and shook his head.
Erwin chuckled, popping the candy into his own mouth.
“I see you’re a tough case to crack. Most kids warm up to me as soon as I bring the goodies out. Guess I’ll get to the point then; how do YOU feel about becoming a foster brother?”
Eren chewed his lip but didn’t respond.
“It’s a pretty big change, huh?”
“It’s the right thing to do!”
He thought of solemn-faced newscasters, scenes bathed in flashing blue-and-red, waxy headshots with eyes closed. The corners of his father’s mouth drawn down into a tight line after a long day at work, hushed tales of children taken from their homes with bruised bodies. Alone in the giant hospital while nurses dressed their hurts and social workers scrambled to find them a place to go.
“Some parents are evil people who treat their kids like dogs.”
Erwin nodded gravely.
“You realize they might be sad or scared when they come to stay with your family? They might say hurtful things at first, and take up more of your parent’s attention.”
Eren returned his gaze to the floor, cheeks flushed from the passion of his earlier statement.
“Yeah. But I can protect them. That’s what a brother’s supposed to do, right?”
Eren’s arms felt limper than the spaghetti on his plate. His stomach growled fiercely, but reaching up to pick up a fork would require movement…
“If you bring your head down to your plate and start eating like an animal, I’ll smack you with a rolled up newspaper,” Mikasa stated calmly as she set down a bowl of salad on the table.
Since when are you psychic?
“But I’m hungry and my arms are sore!”
“I suppose I could feed you if you didn’t have the strength,” she deadpanned.
Eren rolled his eyes and stuffed a breadstick in his mouth. The golden-brown, garlicky crust yielded to a fluffy interior, and he sighed.
“This is the best thing I’ve ever tasted.”
Mikasa loaded her plate with food, unimpressed.
“You say that after every practice.”
As expected, they had returned to an empty house. The only sign Grisha Jaeger had been there at all was a barely legible note next to the front door. Called away on another emergency, no doubt. Eren hadn’t bothered to read it. His reasons didn’t matter anymore.
“So how’d you do?”
Eren stabbed at a rouge lettuce leaf, the carbohydrate high dissipating as his sour mood returned.
“I thought we talked about that in the car already.”
“I still don’t think Coach wants you to quit.”
“He said my technique was shitty!”
Mikasa pushed her bangs off her forehead, so she could face him more directly. “Well, you do tend to plow through the water. I bet if you cleaned up your stroke, you’d be a lot faster.”
“That’s easy for you to say, Miss Perfect. How’s life in the fast lane?” Eren snarled. He knew he was being unfair; in fact, she was right, but that only served to make him angrier.
“It’s fine,” Mikasa replied coolly. “Annie’s a great swimmer. I think I can learn a lot from her.”
“I wasn’t actually interested.”
“I don’t think you should take your frustrations out on me.”
“I’m not, okay? God, not everything’s about you.” Eren swiped his plate off the table and dumped in in the sink with a loud clatter. Mikasa watched with her impassive, infuriating calm. He knew he was being childish, but he stomped off to his room nonetheless.
The bag with all his wet equipment inside was lying haphazardly on his unmade bed where he’d thrown it in his rush to the dinner table. His phone rested next to it, blinking impatiently.
With a muffled curse, Eren shoved the damp sack onto the floor with one hand and woke up his phone with the other.
Armin: I think I died and went to hell.
Armin: I’m never moving my arms ever again.
Armin: Oh god how am I going to get dressed tomorrow?!
Armin: Even texting is hard.
Eren debated whether or not to respond. He wasn’t sure if he was really in the mood to think about swimming anymore.
Eren: sry i was eating.
Armin: wow you can lift a fork. good 4 u.
Eren couldn’t help but grin a little. Armin’s texts were usually full sentences with correct grammar and punctuation, but apparently that took too much effort as well.
Eren: Mikasa said she’d hit me
Eren: bc of course she gets to play house all the time when dads not home
Eren: she’s not even my real sister.
Armin: What happened between you two? Did you guys have a fight? Do you want me to come over?
Eren: nah 4get it
No sooner had he put his phone aside to deal with the soggy towel and trunks that were bringing his duffel ever closer to being a full-on petri dish of mold, then the raucous tune of The Hokey Pokey blared out.
He’d forgotten Connie has switched Armin’s ringtone at the last end-of-season party. Apparently he thought the whole “arm in, arm out” thing was funny.
“Aaaand you turn yourself around. That’s what it’s all-”
“Hey Armin, look I really don’t want to talk about this right now.”
“Too bad.” Was his friend’s clipped reply. “C’mon, SOMETHING pretty serious must be bothering you,” his tone softened “You guys hardly ever argue.”
“I just hate it when she acts so cool, ya know? Nothing ever pisses her off. She just sits there and doesn’t blink a goddamn eyelash. Makes me look like an idiot for getting mad,” he muttered.
“Mhmm,” He could almost see Armin nodding his head sensibly at the other end of the line. “So were you mad at her specifically, or were you frustrated with something else?”
“Oh God,” Eren groaned, rubbing his temple. “I forgot you’re just as bad. So level-headed and sensible. It sucks.”
Armin laughed, but didn’t say anymore as he waited for a response.
“I dunno, what Coach said about my technique ‘n stuff.”
“I thought that might be it!”
“Don’t sound so excited, asswipe. I think he wants me to quit.”
Armin blew out a loud breath into the phone, creating a rush of static.
“Well are you going to?”
“What, quit? Hell no! They’ll have to drag my cold, dead, body out of the water before that happens.”
“Then stick with it until you improve,” Armin said simply. “It sounded like Levi wanted us to weed ourselves out first before he made any cuts. Show him that you’re better than the first impression!” A pause. “Uhh look I hate to be the one to call you and then ditch, but I really am beat and I still have to work on the final paper for that college class I’m taking over the summer….”
“No problem, man. Thanks for the advice.”
I’ll prove Coach wrong all right. Him and Jean both, Eren promised silently after hanging up.