A scream pierced their peaceful afternoon like an arrow through armor.
The plastic dinosaur Eren held poised above Mikasa’s carefully constructed block fortress fell with a clatter from his nerveless grasp.
Mikasa’s feet were already disappearing around the corner of the living room when he finally forced himself into action. The hallway to his parents’ room had never stretched so long; miles and miles of bare hardwood floor, until his socks slid up to the door.
His mother was hunched over on the floral comforter, one hand over her mouth and the other pressed against her temple. Her eyes were wide open, but they stared into space, blank an uncomprehending like a frightened animal.
Mikasa slid into the bed, pressing herself against Karla’s side as if she could help her by pure will alone.
“It’s alright,” She whispered into her ear, face milky-white. “Me and Eren are here.”
“I-I’m gonna call Dad!” Eren squeaked. He raced back toward the kitchen but something was wrong. The phone loomed over him, cradled safely in the receiver, far out of his reach. Even the emergency numbers, neatly transcribed in sharpie marker and taped to the wall, seemed to stretch up and away. It was like looking through the wrong end of a telescope; the more he strained his arm out, palm open, grasping, the higher they appeared. Three feet, six, ten… A skyscraper with the one thing Eren needed in the world dangling uselessly from the top.
He woke with a gasp. The alarm clock blinked out 5:30 in the grey light of early morning. Eren rolled over with a groan. He hadn’t had that particular nightmare in years.
Well I have been pretty stressed out lately…
Two weeks had passed by in a chlorinated haze. Even the long hours in class had been spent visualizing his technique; directing every last bit on energy into the upcoming meet.
And on avoiding Jean Kirschtein.
While swim practice had always been physically demanding, Eren had always found an emotional outlet as his muscles burned from effort. Now it was hell.
He was so exposed. Not just in a constantly-wearing-a-Speedo way, but the fact that he was now aware that everyone around him could potentially read his mind. Any glance, touch, or comment could condemn him.
Each time Jean jostled against him for a better position on the wall, he’d freeze; a violent collage of emotions warring within him where there had once been only irritation. Anger usually won.
Even Connie had noticed that their fights were taking on a nastier edge. Rather than egging them on, he’d merely cast a concerned eye over both parties and shook his head.
As for Jean himself, well…
He should just stop breathing down my fucking neck all the time. I was gonna feel sorry for him because of the whole breakup thing but he doesn’t even seem sad about that. He just keeps going on about how he’s gonna get a scholarship to swim for Trost, and won’t ever come back to this shitty little town again. Acting better than everyone cuz he’s gonna move to the city.
Eren snorted, flicking back the covers angrily. It was just late enough to make going back to sleep pointless. Levi had wanted them on the bus and ready to roll at 7AM sharp, which meant they’d have to leave at 6:30 to get Armin.
Might as well get ready to race.
His bag had all been laid out the night before, but he checked it once again just to make sure.
Extra cap, towels, plenty of snacks. Should I pack another suit, just in case?
He felt a small shiver of pride at the thought that most teens his age were fast asleep in their beds with a normal, boring weekend ahead of them.
Excitement was starting to spark through his veins despite the challenges of the past week- a simmering anticipation that traveled like a shiver up and down his spine. Eren decided sitting still was hopeless and bounded into the kitchen, rifling through the cupboards for some pancake mix.
Ha! Hope Mikasa doesn’t drop dead from shock when she sees I made breakfast this time. Then there’ll be no one left to drive …
By the time they’d pulled up to the Aquatic Center, Eren was starting to regret the three pancakes he’d scarfed down. Carb-loading was one thing, but combined with the adrenaline pumping through him, they sat with an uneasy heaviness in his gut.
“Let’s break some records today, yeah?!” He crowed, slapping Armin on the back as he hopped out of the van.
The smaller boy smiled wanly. “Honestly, I just want-”
“To swim faster than ever before!” Eren cut in. He knew that calming Armin’s pre-race jitters usually did wonders for himself as well.
Mikasa ignored the exchange and breezed past to the group of people milling about the bus. Levi was looking grumpier than ever, a cup of coffee clutched so tightly in his fist that his knuckles were white. He kept consulting his clipboard and muttering under his breath, occasionally making a vain attempt to organize the chattering swimmers into some sort of boarding line.
Hanji on the other hand was as cheerful as ever, the thrill of the first meet heightening their mania. They bounced through the crowd like an errant pinball, fist bumping swimmers and divers alike.
“Arrrrrre you ready kids?”
“Aye aye captain!” Shasha and Connie responded in perfect unison, before Levi clamped a hand over Hanji’s mouth, silencing the exchange before it got any further.
“It’s time to get on the bus, but first I have a few things to say.” He snapped, and the parking instantly fell silent.
“One. There will be no singing, chanting, cheering, or any other extraneous noise about your average speaking voice. Two. If you eat on the bus you are to dispose of any and all trash in the bag at the front of the bus immediately. Three. The team we’re facing today is a pathetic bunch of brats, so if we lose to them you’ll be swimming broken 1000s until I say you can stop.” He waved his clipboard in to air menacingly. “You’re gonna be seated in alphabetical order because I’m not dealing with your whiny asses fighting over who gets to sit where.”
“He even put little nametags on the seats, isn’t that cute?” Hanji mumbled gleefully around his hand.
There was a wave of discontented grumbling at this announcement but no one dared step forward with an official complaint.
Jeez, does he think we’re in Kindergarten?
He noticed Armin was looking at him with a smug smile.
“Yeah, yeah, you’ll probably get to sit up front with Mikasa, while I’m stuck halfway to the back with some random lose-”
He would not be sitting with just any random loser.
Is it too late to tell Coach that there’s been a mistake on the roster and that 'Jaeger' actually starts with a ‘Y’?
“You’d better hope he’s forgotten about the whole ‘wet willy’ thing on the way to the beach. If you guys get into a fistfight in the aisles, I’m pretty sure Levi will literally throw you under the bus without even blinking.”
Eren wasn’t even listening. He was too busy running through scenarios that would be preferable to this.
A plane crash.
Sudden lightning strike.
Eren forced his wooden limbs to move down the narrow aisle. The tangle of sprawled limbs and bags seemed to stretch endlessly in front of him.
Play it cool, Jaeger. Maybe I’m forgetting someone. One of the seniors could have a last name in between ours, right?
But then he spied his name, written out in neat block letters, clinging to the back of the seat next to Jean’s.
Eren cleared his throat nervously, but the other boy only quirked an eyebrow at him before turning back to stare out the window.
It looks like he has bags under his eyes. Was he having trouble sleeping because of the meet or is he still upset about Marco?
Eren pushed those thoughts out of his head as he focused instead on sitting down without touching any part of Jean; tucking his elbows into his sides, and crossing his ankles so their knees wouldn’t actually brush. Jean refused to acknowledge his presence, jamming earbuds in his ears with a scowl.
Eren huffed out a sigh. It was going to be a very, very, long ride.
The deck was a chaotic mass of bare legs, soggy towels, and granola bar wrappers. Excited chatter swelled to a dull roar, amplified by the tiles. Karla gave his hand a squeeze before she left to claim a spot on the bleachers.
“Swim fast you two- I’ll be cheering extra loud!”
The palpable tension in the air before a meet never failed to energize Eren. He bounced rhythmically on the balls of his feet and swung his arms in circles to keep the blood flowing. His first event wouldn’t be for a while, and he knew that once he got revved up, he wouldn’t be able to rev down until the adrenaline of the meet wore off.
Eren strolled along the deck, watching everyone’s pre-meet rituals with mild interest. Mikasa was off stretching in a corner, her head bowed low over her outstretched leg so that it obscured her face. Annie was contorting herself similarly next to her.
No surprise there.
Armin had his eyes closed, fingers pressed against his temples, meditating. He was seated cross-legged on a towel like some sort of speedo-clad guru. Eren knew that he was visualizing the race; mentally stacking himself up with any statistics he’d gleaned on his opponents, searching for weaknesses he could exploit.
“Okay how about this, if you get less than fourth place in the fifty free then you have to… post one of your baby pictures on the bulletin board for the whole team to see!”
“Alright, but if you fail any of your dives then you have to eat my swim trunks.”
Sasha and Connie shook hands.
Eren paused when he reached the end of their team’s section, marked by a sudden change in the color of bags and jackets. Jean was squished onto the end of their bench, head bobbing along to music only he could hear. He was frowning down at his hands, eyebrows knit in concentration. Eren figured he wouldn’t appreciate an interruption and, despite their rivalry, neither boy would dream of breaking the other’s focus before an important race. He almost kept walking, when he caught the sound of a familiar beat.
“No way,” Eren murmured to himself, before pivoting to face Jean. “No, WAY,” he shouted this time, inflecting his voice with equal parts disbelief, disgust, and glee.
“IS THAT BRITTANY SPEARS?”
A red flush crept of the back of Jean’s neck like an unsightly rash. He yanked out his earbuds and stuffed them hurriedly into the pocket of his warm-up jacket. His lips moved, but his words were swallowed by the clamor.
“I CAN’T HEAR YOU!” Eren grinned with satisfaction as he noted that most of the team had now zeroed in on their conversation.
“It gets me pumped up, okay?” Jean folded his arms across his chest in an attempt to be nonchalant, but was betrayed by his burning face. “What do you listen to, screamo garbage? At least Brittany was um, a well-respected pop artist in her time who…,” he trailed off helplessly as Connie collapsed into giggles.
“You haven’t changed a bit,” the words tumbled unbidden from Eren’s lips.
Jean froze, his mouth hanging open slightly in confusion.
“Like, didn’t you listen to really corny songs at meets even when we were back with Coach Ral?” He added hastily.
The other boy relaxed in increments; his shoulders beginning to uncoil, lips slipping back into their habitual smirk.
“Let’s not forget who was the one who danced to them!”
“That was ONE TIME,” Eren protested. “We’d been sitting for hours. I had to do something or I would’ve died of boredom.”
“Jittery dork,” Jean chuckled.
Eren let out a snort. “Says the one who goes to private school. Anyways, I’m gonna go stretch. You can keep up your weenie ‘meditation’ or whatever, just be ready to have your ass kicked.”
“I’ll be picturing the way your face is gonna look when you lose,” Jean sneered, but he held his hand out for Eren to slap.
“Holdup, is this a genuine moment of affection between Kirstein and Jaeger? I must capture this for posterity!” Connie exclaimed, pretending to click the shutter on an imaginary camera.
They raised their middle fingers in unison, but Eren felt an odd fluttering in his stomach that was totally unrelated to nerves.
I don’t have time for this shit.
Fortunately, Levi was beckoning them over with an impatient jerk of his head. Whatever crazy, mixed-up emotions Eren was feeling, they would have to wait until after the meet.
I can’t believe this is actually happening.
Eren barely noticed the slick, chilly tiles under his feet as he approached the starting block. The whistle blew and Connie stepped up, giving a brief thumbs-up to his teammates without turning around.
Coach picked us, three ROOKIES, to swim the 200 free relay. The last event. We could be the deciding factor in this meet.
‘Take your marks!”
Connie grasped the block’s rough underside, head tucked as if in prayer.
The gun went off and he shot forward, his small statute putting him at a momentary disadvantage. Until he hit the water, that is. A wave of white spray erupted as Connie broke the surface, legs fluttering at a frenetic pace. Teammates on the sidelines whooped as he started to pull ahead.
By the time he touched the wall, he’d build up a decent lead for Reiner, a Junior year veteran who turned his bulky frame into an absolute powerhouse in the water. He wasn’t the quickest however; his true strength lay in breast stroke and mid-distance, but Eren hoped his solid and dependable technique would pull through.
Because in the end it’ll all come down to me…
Any trace of cockiness had vanished from Jean’s face as he rolled his shoulders and stepped up to the blocks. Reiner was coming in steady, but another swimmer was now hot on his heels. His hand slammed into the touchpad as Jean dove in with surprising grace.
Eren’s eyes instinctively flicked to the bleachers, searching out the place where his mom used to sit.
Front row, all the way to the left. Same spot no matter where we were racing, so we’d always know where to find her.
It was now occupied by a balding man holding up a sign that screamed “GO JOEY” in all capitals. Eren shook his head to bring himself down to earth. Jean was on his way back, fighting tooth and nail to stay even with the boy next to him.
So it’s gonna come down to me after all. Time to show Annie and Levi that all the tutoring paid off.
Eren’s world narrowed as he stepped up to the blocks. His teammates melting into a blur of multi-colored towels, their cheers fading into a dull roar in the background. All that mattered was the 25-meter strip of water ahead of him.
Jean plowed forward, the muscles on his arms and legs straining from the effort.
Eren’s shoulders twitched back in preparation for the handoff. He was suffused with an uncharacteristic warmth, a nervous tingling that spread outward from his belly.
Wait for it…
Jean’s back was almost beneath him, a flash of smooth, pale skin that stood out from the surrounding spray.
He leapt forward.