All coherent thought vanished once he hit the water. The only language he could understand was the burn of his muscles and lungs as they cried out for oxygen. He had only the thick, black line on the bottom of the pool left to guide him. Every cell screamed faster until his vision began to grey at the edges, but he was almost to the wall he just had to reachoutandtouch.
Eren broke the surface with a gasp. He instantly glanced at the scoreboard, a breathless hope in his chest.
“LANE 5 DQ” flashed out in harsh neon.
Oh shit, oh fucking shit.
Eren hauled himself out of the pool, unable to look at his teammate’s faces.
I saw him coming up to the wall. Jean must’ve held back before the finish…
Regardless, it was the diver’s responsibility to wait until the touch.
Levi was already hustling along the length of the deck towards them, storm clouds rolling in across his brow. Reiner let out a huge sigh and cracked his neck, as if preparing himself for whatever onslaught they might face. Connie just shuffled his fee awkwardly, watching Eren out of the corner of his eye. Jean, however, was livid.
“I can’t believe this,” He hissed under his breath. “I thought you’d gotten better since you were ten, not worse.”
“Maybe if you’d learned how to finish a goddam race-”
“What the hell happened out there?” Levi cut in. His tone was flat and expressionless as always, but every word tingled with electricity. “Each and every one of you completely fell apart. One of the worst relays I’ve seen in my entire fucking career,” he griped, running a hand through his hair.
“But-” Eren started to protest, but Levi raised his voice a few decibles.
“A disqualification is a failure on the entire team’s part, not just an individual. That’s why I don’t usually put rookies together in relays- they haven’t learned each other’s rhythms yet. I honestly thought you could handle it.” The sarcasm was caustic.
“Despite your shit performance, we still managed to win the meet, so you can thank your other teammates that you won’t be swimming laps tomorrow. Though if I were you, I’d think long and hard about showing your face around my pool again.” With that, he pivoted and stalked off, hands clasped behind his back.
“Don’t worry, he always says that,” Reiner explained, rolling his eyes. “Seriously, I think I’ve been kicked off the team…,” his face contorted as he gave an exaggerated squint, “Seven times now? Sure he’ll be pissed for a couple weeks, and FORGET about landing good heats for the next meet, but he’ll get over it eventually.”
Eren didn’t find this comforting, and looking around at his friend’s faces, they didn’t either. Connie had turned an odd grey color, while Jean’s lips were compressed in a flat, hard line. He flashed Eren a look of pure loathing. His left hand twitched into a fist, as if he wanted to pound Eren into the deck right then and there. Instead, he snorted through his nose and stomped back to his spot on the bench.
Eren watched his retreating back with an odd mixture of indignation, rage, and yearning swirling in his gut. Despite what Levi had said, somebody was at fault for the disqualification, and both Connie and Reiner’s handoffs had been clean.
It wasn’t my fault, though that asshole will never admit it. We’d actually been getting along before the race, now I don’t think we’ll be able to be in the same room without throwing punches.
He was vaguely aware of Armin slinging a comforting arm around his shoulder, steering him towards the locker room.
I didn’t think it’d be possible for the bus ride back to be any worse…
The alarm clock buzzed gratingly in his ear. A reminder that even though it was Sunday, he still had practice to attend and both Levi and Jean to face.
His first instinct was to smash it against the wall.
If I skip today, everyone’ll know why and they’ll all think I’m a coward.
Eren jabbed the snooze botton, wishing he could dig his finger all the way down to its little electric brain and shut it up for good. He dragged himself into the kitchen with his bag slung over his shoulder. It was still full of all his damp equipment from the meet, but he couldn’t bring himself to care.
Mikasa was sitting at the table, hands folded primly in her lap and chewing on her lip; an uncommon display of nervousness for her.
“I can’t drive you home from practice today.”
Not nervous enough to take away her blunt edge, apparently.
He grunted in response, fishing around in the cupboard for a box of Poptarts. Wouldn’t be in issue if Dad let me get my damn license.
“Annie and I are going on a date after.”
“Fine.” Eren tried not to let sourness cloud his tone, but the thought of dragging his sorry ass a mile and a half back after such a grueling ordeal wasn’t helping to improve his mood.
“Do you think I should wear something nice?”
He almost dropped the box in surprise. He searched his memory for a time when Mikasa had ever worried about her appearance. It wasn’t that she dressed poorly, quite the opposite in most cases, but she definitely chose function over form; leaving her with a simple, spare wardrobe. Fashion as a statement had never interested her.
“Mikasa, you went to the Scholar-Athlete dinner wearing your swimsuit underneath because we had a meet later and it was ‘more practical’.”
She rolled her eyes, as if Eren was being intentionally dense. “This is actually important.”
He sat down across the table from her and shoved half a Poptart in his mouth.
"If you don't like like people, what’re you even gonna do on a date anyway?” He muttered around the crumbs.
Mikasa sniffed. “I might allow her to hold my hand.” Only a small gleam in her eye betrayed the sarcasm behind her words. “What would you know about dates anyways? Is there something you aren’t telling me?” Her eyes narrowed.
Eren narrowly avoided choking to death.
“H-hey you’re the one who asked me for advice,” he spluttered, hoping that Mikasa would attribute his red coloring to food going down the wrong pipe, rather than embarrassment.
“Uhh I don’t feel like Annie cares much about that sort of thing. Wear what you’re comfortable with, I guess.”
A muscle in her cheek twitched in annoyance.
“That’s not helpful.”
“Fine! Wear that black skirt you have and… A white top?” That’s cute, right?
Mikasa nodded. “That’d look good with my scarf, too.”
Eren managed to muffle his exasperated sigh as he glanced at the clock on the oven. Usually she was the one shoving him out the door, not the other way round.
I’m happy for Mikasa.
Really. It’s nice that she and Annie have… Whatever it is. It’s been tough for
her the past couple of years too, Eren thought desperately.
Still, as he watched them walk into the Aquatic Center- so close their shoulders brushed, Eren felt something rise painfully in his chest, like it was trying to twist and claw its way out. Even Armin was oblivious, scuttling behind them with his nose buried in a Chemistry book in a frantic attempt to grab some last-minute studying.
Eren gritted his teeth, staring down the front door, hating the way failure tasted on his tongue.
You’re gonna go in there, and you’re gonna show them that you won’t back down. Quitting isn’t an option. Ever. Since when did you care what other people thought about you anyways?
“Oi Eren! Decided to show your face around here after all?”
Eren whirled around to find Jean smirking at him.
“Fuck you!” He spat, his hands curling into fists. Remember, he’s in deep shit with Levi too.
“Hey, I’m just being honest.” Jean shrugged exaggeratedly as if to show he meant no harm, though the nasty quirk of his lips spoke otherwise. “Levi gave a nice little speech about teamwork yesterday, but we all know SOMEBODY has to be at fault. I dunno if he was trying to spare your feelings or what-”
Eren felt the dull ache in his chest start to throb and expand. It was pulsing through his temples, down his arms and into his palms, which were getting sore from the pressure his nails were exerting.
“Shut up,” he growled.
You have no idea what it’s like, what I’ve been hiding. I’m sick and tired of all this shit.
Eren reached out and snagged a fistful of Jean’s jacket, pulling him close.
“Dude calm down. You take everything so damn personally,” Jean jeered. “What’re tryin’ to do anyways, punch me or kiss me?”
Eren could feel the other boy’s breath on his face, lips slightly parted.
He hesitated a second too long. Saw confusion flit across Jean’s face like a cloud before then sun. The heat between them suddenly became oppressive, the pounding in his temples intensifying until it felt like his heart was beating right inside his head. He shoved Jean, who stumbled back a few paces.
Eren’s throat worked convulsively, trying to create an excuse, an apology, but all he could manage was an uncomfortable wet click.
“The hell-”Jean began, but Eren didn’t wait for him to finish. His bag fell with a soft thump on the asphalt as he turned and sprinted away from Sina Aquatic Center as if the devil himself were chasing him.
His feet pounded out a harsh tattoo, matching the blood signing in his ears.
Don’t think, just move.
It wouldn’t do to dwell on the fact that he had very likely ended his swimming career over a moment of ill-timed lust, or that he was currently running from the only thing he’d managed to care about since his mother’s death. And the only people who’d supported him.
They can’t help me this time.
No, it was best to push on, even as his lungs screamed for air and the town around him faded to a muddy blur as his eyes filled with tears.
He wasn’t watching the traffic light. He wasn’t aware of anything really, other than the desire to tear off his own skin.
The sharp blast of a horn sounded to his immediate left and his head snapped up, but it was far too late. Eren got a fleeting glimpse of the driver’s panicked eyes before the world exploded into screeching tires and the ominous crunch of metal on bone.