The last day of summer vacation was a sacred time, which was why Eren found himself awake at the ungodly hour of eight in the morning, digging frantically through his drawers for a pair of swim trunks.
“Why don’t you just wear one of your practice suits?” Mikasa called from the living room, where she was keeping an eye out for their ride, which was due to arrive any minute.
“I’m not bringing a Speedo to the beach- I’ll look like a total tool!” Eren snapped back. He gave a cry of triumph as he found a pair of knee-length “board shorts”.
“It’s the same with girls,” he continued his argument as he strolled down the hall, “You guys all wear bikinis and shit not-” Eren stopped when he noticed Mikasa was in fact sporting her habitual black one piece.
Fortunately, the raspy blare of Connie’s horn saved him from any further damage. The aging monstrosity of a van, dubiously called “Trusty Rusty” by its owner, sat in their driveway in all its peeling grey glory like a beached whale.
Sasha waved excitedly from the passenger’s seat. Pink heart-shaped sunglasses perched on top of her head, and she had what looked to be a giant inflatable shark squished between her legs. Surfin’ Safari was blasting from the speakers, which she promptly turned up in honor of their arrival.
“Grab a seat!” Connie hollered over the din. “You guys were the last stop, so don’t complain about the options.”
Eren slid the side door open carefully, prepared for the inevitable avalanche of empty takeout containers. With a flash of irritation, he noticed Jean settled into one of the bucket seats in the first row. Armin was buckled into the other, an apologetic smile on his face.
“You two are really gonna have to squeeze in the back…”
Wait aren’t there three seats?
To his surprise, he saw Annie curled up cat-like next to the window. Eren squeezed his way past the two boys, making sure to stick his butt extra close to Jean’s face. He took the remaining window seat with a triumphant grin at Mikasa, who rolled her eyes and folded herself into the middle.
Connie cupped his hand in front of his mouth in an imaginary radio. “This is your pilot speaking. Today is going to be sunny with a 100% chance of awesome. Are you suckers ready to end the summer with a bang?”
“LET’S GO SURFIN’ NOW, EVERYBODY’S LEARNIN’ HOW, COME ON A SAFARI WITH MEEEEE,” Sasha belted.
“You said it, babe.”
And with a cough of Trusty Rusty’s engine, they were off.
After two hours of listening to the Beach Boys played at an earsplitting decibel level, Eren was beginning to regret the decision to leave Sasha in charge of both the playlist and volume control.
He tried to get Armin’s attention, but that soon degraded into screaming “WHAT DID YOU SAY?” back and forth, until they gave up. Mikasa and Annie were closer, but somehow locked in their own private conversation.
They must be telepathic because I’m pretty sure I went deaf thirty miles ago.
Which meant resorting to annoying Jean for entertainment. Fortunately he was seated right in front of Eren, his vulnerable undercut exposed.
Fortunately there was plenty of random trash within reach for Eren to choose from. He selected a sheet of what looked like math homework from two years ago, and began rolling strips of it into little balls.
He flicked one with his thumb and forefinger, sending it bouncing off Jean’s ear. Armin turned around to shoot him a warning glare, but Eren’s intended target didn’t appear to notice.
The neck this time.
The paper missile pinged perfectly against the bare skin right below his hairline. Jean reached back to scratch at the spot.
Frustrated with the lack of response, Eren swiped his tongue along his pointer, ensuring that it was well-moistened before jamming it directly into Jean’s ear.
The piercing scream that followed drowned out the music entirely, and caused Connie to slam on the brakes.
“WHAT THE HELL, JEAGER?!” Jean roared, contorting his upper body in a vain attempt to grab him. Eren ducked sideways, slamming into Mikasa, who let out a disproving huff.
“Yo do you wanna walk to the beach?” Connie called from the driver’s seat. “Trusty Rusty’s under enough strain without you two assfaces jumping around in the back.”
The two sparring boys both muttered their dissent, Jean shooting Eren a look of pure loathing.
”God, you really are like a twelve year old. Don’t think I’m gonna let this slide.”
Eren reached up and pointedly scratched his nose with his middle finger. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Armin bury his head in his hands.
It was low tide when they arrived; the waves making small, frothy peaks as they broke gently across the shore. A mild breeze blew in from the ocean, smelling of salt with an unmistakable fishy tang.
“We’ve lived to tell the tale, me hearties. The glorious beaches lie before us, ripe with wenches and treasure!” Connie gave Trusty Rusty’s steering wheel a comforting pat.
“Aye, avast!” Sasha chirped, shoving the massive inflatable shark out the open window so she was free to retrieve a picnic basket crammed under her seat.
Eren leapt over the backseat and into the trunk space before Jean, now unencumbered by a seatbelt, had a chance to seize him. He was rewarded with more muffled cursing and a stammered apology from Jean as he accidentally fixed Mikasa with his most murderous glare.
The trunk popped open and Armin’s head materialized against a brilliant blue sky. His cheeks and nose were streaked white from a liberal application of sunscreen. A battered, wide-brimmed straw hat sat perched atop his blond hair, giving him the appearance of a baby-faced fisherman.
“I’d get a move on if I were you. As soon as Jean’s finished being embarrassed, he’s gonna shove your head in the sand, or worse. Also, you’re sitting on the umbrella.”
Eren took off across the sand, tossing his shirt and shoes behind him as he ran. The wind sang in his ears, reducing the hoots and cheers of his friends to an indistinguishable white noise.
The sand between his toes brought back memories of hot summer days, sticky ice cream, and muggy nights at the boardwalk with his mother laughing as his father tried to win her a stuffed teddy bear. Then his shins hit the ocean spray- a fierce, refreshing tingle and he fell forward, embracing the water with a bellyflop.
When he surfaced, Connie’s grinning face was inches from his.
“Wait! Connie don’t-”
His plea was drowned by an enormous splash of salty water, as Connie jumped on his shoulders.
“I’ve got ‘im Jean, get your ass over here!”
Tan limbs bucked and flailed, but the smaller boy clung on like a monkey as Jean strolled through the surf, his mouth twisted into a predatory leer.
“If you wanna fight like a fifth grader, I am so not above stooping to your level,” he jeered, a hand shooting out towards Eren’s chest.
Oh God no.
“Purple nurple!” Connie crowed, as Eren let out an undignified shriek.
Jean only pinched harder, finishing off with a vicious twist.
“Give me another wet willy and I’ll cut ‘em off next time,” he muttered darkly.
Through the haze of pain emanating from his pectoral region, Eren swung his leg forward in a weak attempt to kick the other boy in the crotch. Before the fighting could escalate any further, Connie spotted Sasha waving from the beach.
“Forget revenge, it’s lunchtime!”
Ok, so Sasha has terrible taste in playlists but I can totally forgive her, Eren thought as he surveyed the magnificent spread set out on a red and white checkered cloth.
Thick loaves of brown bread, spread liberally with butter, waited to be topped with lettuce and a fine assortment of cold cuts. Watermelon, cheese, ice cream sandwiches, and at least three different kinds of potato chips rounded out the meal.
Even Jean seemed impressed, though it was hard to tell because he’d slipped on a pair of giant, douche-y sunglasses.
Balancing a loaded plate in one hand, Eren searched for a place to sit among the sprawled limbs of his friends. He headed instinctively towards Mikasa before realizing that she and Annie were still deep in conversation, their heads bent so close together that their noses almost touched. Neither girl looked up no acknowledge him; not even after he accidentally put his foot in Sasha’s cup, eliciting a small screech.
Feeling snubbed, he turned to Armin, who had settled into the only beach chair anyone had thought to bring. He clutched a massive tome that no one but Armin would consider a “beach read”, periodically glancing up to check that he was still under the massive shadow of the umbrella.
“No food?” He asked, popping a chip in his mouth with a satisfying crunch.
Armin made a face. “It always gets all sandy, no matter how careful I am. Also, I have this like, traumatic memory of seagulls chasing me down to get my bag of pretzels when I was five.”
Eren laughed. “Was that the day your grandfather took us all together?”
“That’s right!” His friend’s blue eyes widened in betrayal. “He was trying to stop you and Mikasa from paddling the blow-up raft out to sea, leaving me at the mercy of the birds.”
“Hehe, you cried for like, an hour after.”
“Seagulls are scary! You haven’t faced down a flock of them when they’re all staring at you with murder in their eyes.”
“Hey Mikasa,” Eren called, “What would YOU do if you were surrounded by a group of bloodthirsty birds?”
“C’mon that’s not fair!” Armin protested.
Instead of her usual dry response, Mikasa merely shrugged her shoulders and got up to re-fill her place.
“It’s okay for her to have other friends, too,” Armin murmured quietly, noticing Eren’s clenched fist. But his voice held a breath of sadness; of the three of them, Mikasa had always been their rock.
Even when everything went to hell after mom died, she was always so calm. She made sure there were groceries in the fridge, that Dad came home to sleep every once in a while, that I kept my grades up so I wouldn’t lose my spot on the team…
He snorted in response. “I don’t see what’s so great about Annie anyways. She’s stuck up. Probably thinks she’s better than everyone else. Maybe that’s why they get along so well.”
Little Miss Perfect.
“Eren-” Armin reached for his arm, but he jerked away, standing up quickly in an attempt to disguise the motion.
“I’m fine. Stop worrying about me all the time.” He turned in a huff, only to run smack into a bare-chested lifeguard, ruining all chances of a dramatic exit.
“Marco? Is that really you?!” Sasha leapt to her feet, scattering sand everywhere.
Eren stepped back, his face flushing from both anger and embarrassment. The dark-haired boy beamed down at the group, his freckled cheeks stretching into a smile.
“Wow this is crazy!’ He exclaimed, wincing a little as Sasha tackled him in a side-hug. “I never really expected to see you guys again after graduation. Are you all Titans now?”
“You bet!” Connie chimed in.
“Final roster hasn’t been posted yet,” Jean griped. His gaze was focused studiously on the sand between his toes.
“Oh hey Jean, shoulda figured you’d be trying out this year too,” Marco laughed nervously. The other boy cleared his throat, his mouth puckering down in a scowl.
“If only you were younger!” Sasha wailed, breaking the awkward silence. “There’s this new girl, Krista. She’s a freshman and she’d adorable and suuper good…”
Eren tuned out the conversation as the two began chatting animatedly about diving.
“I’m going for a walk,” he muttered to Armin, who nodded without looking up from his book. Jean had also stood up, crumpling his soda can and tossing it halfheartedly towards the garbage a few yards down the beach. Eren decided, for both their sanities, to take his stroll in the opposite direction.
Unfortunately the soft, sand of the beach began to morph into more rugged rock about half a mile down the shore. Eren cursed, thinking of the shoes he’d left back in the van. Not yet ready to rejoin the group, he circled back; taking the boardwalk, which would shield him from view with ice cream stands, surf rentals, and tacky t-shirt shops.
The light was beginning to fade; the sky turning soft pink where it met the ocean. Eren kicked at a discarded cigarette butt, ash sprinkling over the sun-warmed planks.
Eren, if you want to make friends, you have to be nicer to the other children. His father’s words still echoed in his ears, sending tendrils of frustration curling like vines in his stomach. He bit at the tender skin on his thumb.
As if it was that easy. What am I supposed to do, let people walk all over me? Like hell. Sometimes the other kids aren’t too nice themselves. It was easier to be “the guy with the bad temper” than “the guy with a sick Mom”.
He heard a soft, desperate sigh behind him. Eren paused, the hairs on the nape of his neck prickling.
“Keep it down,” A voice reprimanded.
That sounds familiar…
A muffled giggle. This time he could pinpoint the noise. An alley between a boarded-up pizzeria and an indoor golf course to his right. Eren couldn’t help his curiosity. He crossed the wide boardwalk, taking care to stay on the balls of his feet. He pressed himself against the peeling gray front of the golf course, but still couldn’t see anything.
A small thump, followed by rustling. Another breathless noise, almost a moan.
What the hell?
Eren peered around a large cut-out cartoon figure in a cowboy hat, advertising “Hot n Ready Steaks” further down the path. His jaw dropped open.
Marco, the diver, the friendly freckled lifeguard was pressed against the rough brick of the pizzeria, mouth open as someone nipped playfully at his neck.
Someone with an all-too-recognizable undercut.
But I thought… Mikasa…
“Why, do you liiiike him?”
“Shut the fuck up Jaeger.”
Eren’s stomach puckered. He was watching something private, forbidden.
If I stepped out, or even took a picture in secret…I could destroy him right now.
But he hushed the more vindictive part of his mind. There was danger here, yes, but also something… exciting? Eren’s chest felt oddly tight, his heart knocking at his ribs. It was as if he was being swallowed by a giant boa constrictor; the fight-or-flight instinct sending random impulses racing through his body.
Get out of here before they see you! Just pretend nothing happened.
His feet stayed glued to the planks. Marco gasped again, short and harsh. Eren realized with a sickening certainty that, to some extent, he was enjoying it.
Nonono this is all wrong.
“Fuck, I missed you,” Jean muttered into his collarbone.
What about Annie? Everyone else thinks we’re dating and she’s definitely pretty, I should like her right? Oh my God.
“I know, I’m sorry,” Marco said sadly, pulling away.
“Yeah,” Jean was staring at his feet now; head bowed uncharacteristically like he was trying to make himself smaller. “College, right? The distance…”
Marco squirmed a little, his fingers reaching out for the other boy but then stuttering back. “And my parents. I’m still not-”
“I get it!” Jean spat. He squared his shoulders, all traces of vulnerability vanishing. “We’re just a hookup thing,” he turned and for a moment Eren was afraid he’d been spotted.
“It’s fine. Seriously.” His eyes were flat, devoid of emotion.
“Okay,” Marco’s voice had a slight quaver to it. “See you around then?”
“I guess.” He prodded a loose nail with his toe.
They’re about to leave. Gotta get out of here.
Eren backed away, head spinning dizzily, nails digging into sticky palms. As soon as he was out of earshot he began running blindly, vaulting over the rail and down to the beach. Blood pounded to the rhythm of his feet, beating a fierce tattoo in his ears.
He crashed against the incoming tide, gagging into the surf. The cold water splashed up and stung Eren’s cheeks, mixing with the clammy sweat that was beading on his neck. From somewhere far away, he heard voices calling out for him and Jean.
What the fuck is wrong with me?