Jean was reading the newspaper when there was a knock on his door. He frowned, halfway through an article on the school district’s funding problems, and stared at the door in confusion. He checked his phone, but it lit up to show no missed calls or texts, and his friends were the type to always forewarn him before visiting his apartment.
Friends, he thought derisively. More like Renee. Kevin, maybe, when he wasn’t being a little shit, but that was most of the time. Neil, when either of them was bored enough.
He looked down at Napoleon, but Napoleon looked just as confused as him. Well. That wasn’t surprising for a dog.
He made his way to the door, not even thinking to put the paper down, shoulders tense as he tried to think of who could possibly be visiting. It couldn’t be him , he was dead , and nobody else would come to collect anymore, Neil had promised, he had promised , but then again who even was Neil to promise such a thing–
He opened the door before his thoughts spiralled anymore, Napoleon close behind.
His first thought was almost comically simple: blue. Bright blue eyes were gazing right at him, the exact color of the ocean of his childhood, or at least how he remembered it.
He blinked. Blinked again. Was sure he didn’t recognize the man on his doorstep, with his bright eyes and enormous grin and wavy blonde hair. Waited for him to explain himself with a simple raised eyebrow.
“Hi!” the man finally chirped. The sound was happiness channeled into a single word, and Jean wasn’t sure how he didn’t hate him already.
“Hello,” Jean responded when it seemed that Blue Eyes wasn’t going to continue without some kind of acknowledgement. Napoleon nosed the back of his calf, unsure of the situation. Jean couldn’t blame him.
“Sorry to bother you! I actually live right below you? I’m Jeremy!” he said, still all sunshine and smiles. Jean felt an impossible urge to smile back. What the fuck?
Jean stared impassively at him, waiting for further explanation. Jeremy had paused, probably expecting Jean to share his own name, but he was too thrown by a combination of inherent distrust in the unknown and the oddly appealing way Blue E– Jeremy was grinning at him. His smile didn’t even falter as Jean stared him down.
“I just came by, well...it’s probably really weird, actually, but since I live below you, I just hear your dog running around and barking a lot?”
Jean glanced down at Napoleon, who crowded closer against his owner’s shins. Napoleon wasn’t exactly the quietest dog around, sure, especially because his main way of distracting Jean from his inner demons was to badger him into wrestling, or playing fetch, or just running in circles while barking. He was surprisingly effective, but then again, that was rather the point of a therapy dog.
Jean wasn’t exactly over his distrust over anything involving the idea of “therapy” yet.
“I’m sorry,” Jean murmured, frowning. What was he supposed to do? He could move, that would probably help, find a unit on the first floor of a building–
“No, no! Sorry, I’m being all weird about this, but I’ve had like, the longest day ever? And...I was just wondering if I could pet him? Or her? I really miss my family dog, but I can’t exactly drive two hours north just to pet our dog, you know? I’ve got grading to do!”
Jean blinked. Blinked again. Jeremy’s grin was still in place, had hardly dimmed at the cold reception, but there was a nervous edge to his words despite it, especially in the way his sentences somehow lilted into questions.
“Sure,” Jean finally conceded, once he had recovered from the deluge of words. He was quietly impressed at the amount of personal information the other man had managed to disclose in such a short conversation. He shuffled aside, trying to move Napoleon in front of him. “This is Napoleon.”
Jeremy crouched immediately, his grin brightening impossibly as he held a hand out. Napoleon cautiously sniffed it.
“Hi, Napoleon! I’m Jeremy. You sure are a cutie, aren’t ya?” he cooed, his voice going up several octaves. Jean watched the interaction with bemusement, folding up the paper that he was still holding.
Apparently, Napoleon accepted Jeremy, as he flopped to the ground and rolled over after just a minute of Jeremy’s careful petting. Jeremy turned his attention to scratching at his belly and Jean was surprised to see his shoulders loosening. Who was that bright and smiley even when knotted up so tightly?
Jean leaned up against the doorframe, tucking the paper under his arm and quietly taking in the scene, before Jeremy looked back up, a softer smile in place. The blue of his eyes was still drawing Jean in, and he was itching to pick up some oils or something, because that color was evoking things he hadn’t known he still had in him–
“Thanks so much!” Jeremy grinned, his hand still carding through Napoleon’s fur carefully. “I really appreciate it. Wow, dogs are just the best, you know? Well, obviously you do, because you own one.” He laughed, the sound bright and clear and who even was this guy and seriously why didn’t Jean feel like punching him – “I’ll stop interrupting your evening and your paper time now. I feel a million times lighter!”
Jean continued staring as the blonde stood up, stretching his arms above his head. His clothes were nice but mussed up, his red and gold tie loosened and crooked, untucked button-down hopelessly wrinkled. Jean tried to ignore how good of a look it was.
Jean tried to reply, coughed, averted his eyes to the wall behind Jeremy. “You can come and pet Napoleon again, if you want. He loves attention.”
What? He hadn’t meant to say that at all. Damn blue eyes.
Jeremy perked up at that, straightening up and turning his megawatt grin back on. “Really? That would be great! Are you sure? I don’t want to impose any more than I already have.”
“I wouldn’t have offered if I didn’t mean it,” Jean replied, raising an eyebrow once more. Jeremy’s smile didn’t waver for a second, taking it all in stride.
“Thank you! I guess I’ll see you around.” With a wave to Jean and a few more cooed words to Napoleon, Jeremy turned towards the elevator and disappeared in a flash.
Jean lingered in the door, still reeling from the unexpected encounter. He waited a moment for the panic and regret to set in, but felt only confusion and something that could, perhaps, be an unexpected interest in seeing those eyes sometime soon.
It was a week before there was another knock on the door, and Jean only tensed up for a few seconds before forcing himself to relax. He was reading the paper again, this time scanning the Arts & Entertainment section, forcing himself not to linger over the picture of Kevin and his new exhibition opening downtown this week.
Napoleon perked up from his spot beside him on the couch, brown ears flicked attentively towards the door. His tail wagged experimentally as Jean unfolded himself from his position and padded to the door.
At the door, Jean blinked once more at the overly bright smile of Jeremy, his obnoxiously blue eyes and white teeth and soft hair just as Jean remembered it. The blonde was dressed more casually this time, wearing incredibly beat up Vans and skinny black jeans that were really working for him and a blue T shirt that impossibly had the outline of an orca on the pocket and dammit, why was Jean cataloging every detail?
“Hi again! I was wondering if I could possibly borrow Napoleon for a few therapeutic moments?” he said.
Jean nodded wordlessly, stepping back as he had done before, letting Napoleon nose his way towards Jeremy with a few excited tail wags. The blonde man sank to the ground, shoulders loosening immediately as his hand found Napoleon’s back.
“Who’s a good boy?” he asked, once more adopting the ridiculous voice of a human in close proximity to a cute animal. Jean absolutely did not smile.
After almost ten minutes of Jeremy petting Napoleon, Jean leaning in his doorway and watching the two like a fucking creep and not in any way drinking in the angles of Jeremy’s face or planning out a soft, gentle painting of the moment, Jeremy finally rose with a final pat on Napoleon’s head.
“Thanks again!” he grinned, stuffing his hands in his pockets as Napoleon retreated behind Jean once more, resting his head against his legs to make sure he was fine. “Are you sure it’s fine?”
Jean nodded, not trusting himself to say something that wouldn’t be ridiculously weird. (He was pretty sure it wasn’t normal to tell a stranger that he was inspiring Jean almost as much as sitting by the ocean did, or that he had been hoping to see his eyes again to make sure they’d come out right last time, or– well, any of the other things that he kept in his buried in his head.)
“That’s really nice of you, man. I can’t tell you how much it helps to pet him. God, I need to go visit my family asap, you know? Anyway, see you around!”
Jean watched him round the corner to the elevator, swallowing down any of the things he wanted to say. He closed the door slowly and let out a long exhale when he settled back to the couch, and the picture of Kevin in the newspaper suddenly seemed more like good news than it had before.
It became something that he came to expect, part of his routine. (Routines are good, his therapist reminded him, over and over. They help to ground you.)
Once a week, there would be a gentle knock on the door, and Napoleon would race ahead of his owner to play with his new friend. Jean would watch from the doorway as the two played for a few moments before Jeremy took his too sunny smile around the corner, leaving Jean to stare pathetically after him.
Renee noticed something after the first few visits, when she visited him in his studio and studied his latest painting, something blue and abstract, but with gentler lines and curves than his normal style allowed. It wasn’t too overt, not to most people, but Renee had never been most people.
“He sounds good for you,” she hummed, after Jean explained what had started happening. He raised a challenging eyebrow. “Seriously! Talking to new people is good for you, Jean. And I’m really proud of you for reaching out like that, inviting him back.”
“I don’t think I’ve even told him my name,” Jean admitted after a minute. He was sitting on a stool in front of his easel, Renee sipping hot chocolate and examining some of the other canvases he’d left lying around. “I get all tongue tied when he turns up. I’m afraid of saying something ridiculous.”
“Why don’t you make that a goal, then?” she asked gently, turning back to him with her soft gaze and softer smile. “Say hi to him next time, maybe ask him how he’s doing?”
Jean shrugged lightly before redirecting the conversation away from that line of questioning.
After the fifth visit, Jean was ready to talk to Jeremy. He’d mapped out the conversation in his mind, had planned for any response and– he was an adult, dammit, he could talk to his cute neighbor.
He deserved to be happy, he repeated to himself, something Renee and his therapist had been telling him for years.
Maybe someday it would be internalized.
Then again, what was he supposed to say to his neighbor/maybe friend who he'd known for over a month but didn't yet know his name? It was officially well past the time when he could say it without everything because uncomfortable as fuck.
He swung the door open, glanced down at Jeremy and stepped aside. As Jeremy sat down on the floor, Jean cleared his throat. Hello, how are you, my name is Jean, I love your eyes, your smile is starting to creep into my dreams –
“Does something particularly stressful happen on Thursdays?” he asked instead. He wasn’t sure if he was glad that’s what he landed on or not.
Jeremy’s neck snapped up in surprise, sunny smile in place as ever. His hands continued their strokes along Napoleon’s flank.
“Yeah, we’ve been having weekly meetings with the local school council to discuss the budget,” he replied, eyes remaining on Jean as he spoke. “And because I’m an idiot, I volunteered to be the teacher rep on the council, so I have to go and listen to all this financial bullshit and pray to God that none of my colleagues get fired because of fucking politicians and their corrupt priorities.”
Jean stared. He blinked. He had not accounted for the possibility of Jeremy launching into an impassioned rant that actually dimmed his smile.
“I’m sorry,” he said finally, once Jeremy’s attention had shifted back to Napoleon.
Jeremy shrugged. “It’s not like it’s your fault. Or, well, I guess I don’t know that it’s not your fault. You’re not a politician, are you?”
It was probably a joke, but Jean responded anyway.
“No, just an artist.” He leaned back against the doorframe, eyes on Napoleon’s happy squirming.
Jeremy let out a noise of excited surprise, glancing up at Jean before turning back to the dog before him.
“That’s awesome, dude! An artist? I can’t even imagine that. I don’t have an artistic bone in my body. Although I guess my handwriting is bad enough that it could be considered some kind of art...”
Jean let that sit out there, heart already pounding against his chest. He had actually said things, things that made sense and weren’t weird or anything. He would have to tell Renee about that as soon as Jeremy left.
The blonde finally rose and departed a few minutes later, smile back and brighter than ever as he said his goodbyes.
“He’s an artist, guys, an artist ,” Jeremy repeated again as he trailed behind Laila, carrying the stack of papers she had thrust at him. “He makes art for a living .”
“We do know what an artist is, Jeremy,” Alvarez replied dryly, distributing the packets she was carrying around the room as she wove through the desks.
“And he asked me about why I always come on Thursdays!” Jeremy enthused, not letting her attitude drag him down in the least. “He pays attention to when I come! And he asked me about it! He has the cutest accent, guys. I think he’s French.”
“But you still don’t know his name,” Alvarez pointed out. Laila shot her a look that Jeremy failed to notice in his excited state.
“It’s only a matter of time, don’t you think?” He was practically bouncing as he came to a stop beside Laila’s desk. “I wonder if I could go more than once next week. His dog is the cutest, guys, you don’t even know. He’s so sweet!”
“We know,” the couple chorused, sharing a look of amusement and fondness.
Jeremy seemed to calm down at that, but his dopey grin remained in place.
“Don’t you have to get your own classroom ready, Knox?” Alvarez asked after a moment of silence. He glanced up at the clock and almost dropped the papers he was carrying in surprise.
“Oh buddy, I should’ve left like ten minutes ago!” he cried, setting his stack of paper down on Laila’s desk. “I’ll see you guys for lunch!”
He booked it out of the room, ignoring his friends’ laughter as he thought back to last night. An artist . Jeez.
Here’s the thing:
Jeremy hadn’t meant for it to be a thing at all.
He’d just been having a shitty day, with the budget cuts and the endless bickering and the burning sense of injustice in his chest that he couldn’t ignore, and after he dropped all his shit in his apartment and downed a glass of wine, the pitter patter of paws above him became too much. He wanted his dog, but a stranger’s would have to suffice for now.
He’d originally gone for the dog, but he’d sure as hell stayed for the ridiculously attractive guy who answered the door. He was all angles and his grey eyes were unreal, his dark clothes and the bird tattooed on his cheekbone working way too well for him. And even if he seemed cold or indifferent, he had invited Jeremy back. Jeremy would have to be an idiot to say no to something like that.
After that, it was more a question of when than if . Every night, Jeremy suppressed the desire to go up and demand entry to Hot Frenchie’s apartment, to cuddle with his adorable dog and learn everything there was to know about him. He wanted to see the apartment that was always shielded by the man’s dark silhouette, wanted to know what his favorite food was, wanted to marathon Star Wars with him. Even the prequels.
But he didn’t even know his name.
There was something about the man, something that made Jeremy more curious than he could ever remember being, but something that stopped him from running his mouth more than he should. He didn’t want to push him into anything; it had to be volunteered, had to be something he wanted Jeremy to know.
Besides, there was something about the wary way that Hot Frenchie opened the door, shielded the apartment from view, didn’t take his eyes off of Jeremy and his dog. It seemed like perhaps he could use another friend. Maybe Jeremy could be that.
Until then, well. Napoleon was pretty cute, anyway.
Jeremy gave in the Tuesday after the Thursday when he learned that Hot Frenchie was an artist and plodded upstairs before he even registered what he was doing.
His hand had knocked on the black door before he could stop himself, and he allowed himself one moment of panic before plastering on a grin and pushing that anxiety down. Hot Frenchie had said he could come whenever, ok, it would be ok–
The door opening interrupted Jeremy’s thoughts, and he blinked in surprise at the small woman who stood there, no Napoleon in sight. Jeremy’s mouth opened and closed wordlessly for a moment, not sure what to say, when Hot Frenchie stalked into view.
“Hello Jeremy,” the man intoned, eyebrows raised slightly in apparent surprise. Jeremy grinned at him and then looked down at his adorable dog, who was trailing slightly behind him as ever, tail wagging excitedly. “Bad day?”
“This budget, man,” Jeremy sighed, running a hand back through his hair. The woman watched the exchange silently, but with a small smile. Her hair was a splash of colors, totally different from the conservative clothes she wore, and something about her put Jeremy at ease. “I’m sorry to interrupt you two, though, so I can just go deal with it like a normal adult–”
“No worries,” Hot Frenchie interrupted, stepping back to let his dog out as normal. “Wouldn’t want to disappoint Napoleon now that he’s seen you, would we?”
“Who would want to disappoint a cutie like you?” Jeremy cooed, sinking to the floor and reaching out for the dog. He couldn’t even bring himself to be embarrassed at his behavior in front of the strangers, or wonder about their relationship, or think about much of anything, really, as Napoleon gently licked his cheek.
“Jean, shouldn’t you go check on the food?” the woman’s voice floated, somewhere above Jeremy and his dog-induced haze. Jean. Finally, a name for the face that had settled somewhere in Jeremy’s bones.
Jeremy glanced up as Jean disappeared from view, hand still scratching just behind Napoleon’s ears.
“I’m Renee,” the woman said kindly, reaching a hand out towards Jeremy with a friendly smile. He grinned back, accepting the hand before him and replying, “Jeremy. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Sorry about Jean,” she commented lightly after another minute of watching Jeremy and Napoleon cuddle on the ground. “He...isn’t always the best with strangers. He doesn’t mean to be standoffish.”
Jeremy could feel his brow crinkle.
“Oh no, he’s not standoffish!” Jeremy protested. “I’m a stranger who gets to play with his dog every week. That’s the opposite of standoffish. I really appreciate that he lets me do this at all.”
Renee’s gaze was heavy on his head, but he didn’t look up to see whatever judgment she was passing. He just hoped it wouldn’t put an end to whatever this had been, because it had definitely been a highlight in the ongoing battle of budgets and too little free time.
Jean appeared back at her side after a minute, holding a spatula. “Dinner’s ready, Ren.”
Jeremy rose immediately, sensing that it would be best to leave them to it. He grinned to the best of his ability at the pair, especially the sight of dark and gloomy Jean (he had a name! A French name!) holding a bright purple spatula.
“Well, I don’t need to take up any more of your time,” Jeremy declared, stretching out again once he was standing. “Thanks so much for lending me Napoleon. Have a great night, y’all!”
Renee sent a quiet “good night, Jeremy” his way, while Jean’s eyes were a weight on his back as he rounded the corner and let out a shaky breath, trying to process everything that had just happened.
Hot Frenchie was, in fact, Jean. And Jean apparently had a girlfriend. A sweet, quiet girlfriend who was really nice and impossible for Jeremy to resent.
At least he’d always have Napoleon, Jeremy mused, as he crashed back on his couch a few moments later, swigging directly from his bottle of wine with no class and no shame as he texted Alvarez and Laila about this latest development.
“He seems really, really nice,” Renee commented after the door had closed, Napoleon had settled over Jean’s feet, and they had tucked quietly into the fish he had cooked that evening.
Jean let out a strangled moan, head dropping dramatically onto his hand on the table. “I know,” came the muffled reply a moment later, as Renee calmly took a bite of her salmon and smiled at her ridiculous friend. “He’s going to be the death of me.”
“His eyes are very blue,” Renee agreed, not doubt enjoying the high-pitched noise that Jean emitted at that.
On Thursday, Jean was definitely, not at all waiting anxiously for the knock at the door with a plan in mind. Definitely, not at all, no siree.
When it came, he sprang into action, taking a quick bite of the cake he had been eyeing for the past hour, and stumbled towards the door.
As expected, Jeremy stood on the other side, the day resting heavily on his shoulders. He was dressed more formally again, his tie hopelessly loose and crooked at his collar and his hands deep in his pockets.
“Napoleon!” he cooed, laughing as the dog jumped up on his chest, forcing his hands out of his pockets. Jean swallowed the cake in his mouth with a small smile, watching as some of the tension eased out of the blonde man’s shoulders.
“Hey, Jean,” he grinned after a moment on the floor, and Jean had to blink once more to process hearing him say his name. It sounded– well, it sounded wrong when any American said it, but it was warm and kind and some of Jeremy’s sunshine seemed to envelop it, if that was possible.
“Do you want some cake?” Jean asked, with absolutely no charm or lead-in or anything that normal humans do when interacting with each other. “I have half a cake and only one mouth to feed, so it’s either going to take forever to finish or wreck any self-control I pretend to have.”
As ever, Jeremy looked unfazed by Jean’s sudden friendliness, his grin only brightening. “That would be wonderful! Are you sure you don’t mind?”
“Not at all,” Jean replied quickly, then rethought this answer. “I mean, I don’t mind at all. I’m very sure.”
Jeremy let out a bright laugh at that, and Jean felt like he was fucking drowning in blue, and then he turned away before he said any of the dumb things on the tip of his tongue, like what’s your number or would you like to move in? You could be with Napoleon like all the time or can I sketch you? or–
“Come on,” he tossed back over his shoulder, when he realized that Jeremy seemed inclined to respect all the boundaries that Jean had constructed, and would need explicit permission to enter his house. He turned the corner to his kitchen, heading straight for the half-eaten cake on his counter. He got down an extra plate, cut into the cake, and handed it to Jeremy, who was looking around his apartment carefully.
“Thanks so much!” the man grinned when he received the plate, eagerly scooping a bite up. “What’s the occasion?”
“Oh, it was leftover from a party the other day, and it was unwillingly forced onto me,” Jean shrugged, leaning against the counter. He inclined his head towards the stools across from him. “You’re welcome to take a seat, if you’d like.”
With another bright grin, Jeremy rounded the counter and plopped down across from Jean. Jean looked down at his cake to avoid the happiness that settled in his chest at having Jeremy in his apartment.
“So is all this art yours?” Jeremy asked after a minute of silent cake eating. Jean glanced up, taking in the small sculptures on the counter in front of him, the various paintings and drawings hung up around living room. The kitchen and living room blended together, one large room separated only by the counter peninsula that Jean was leaning against. It was a nice apartment, a place that Jean was happy to spend time in, where the dark furniture was offset by brighter walls and art everywhere. “Wait, I’m not trying to imply you stole it or anything, I meant like...your creations?”
Jeremy’s sunny smile had been replaced by a slight grimace as he tried to correct his comment. Jean refused to be charmed.
“No, it’s mostly my friends’ stuff,” Jean said, looking over to walls again. “It feels a bit weird to have my own work on my wall, I guess, and they like giving them to me.” Because my apartment used to be hopelessly depressing and none of them wanted me to be triggered, he didn’t add. He frowned at the sculptures by Jeremy’s elbows. “Wow, I think those are even Andrew’s. No idea how I got them...”
“Andrew?” Jeremy looked surprisingly curious to hear more, even as he shoved another bite of the cake into his mouth.
“He’s...a tiny blonde psychopath,” Jean explained, thinking over the best way to describe him. Jeremy looked amused. “His...boyfriend? Partner? Fuck, they could be married and wouldn’t tell us...um, well, Neil is one of my friends, I guess, so sometimes Andrew gets strung along for the ride.”
Jeremy nodded, like anything Jean had said made any sense to him.
“How’s the budget stuff coming along?” Jean asked after another moment. He was done with his cake, but reluctant to look ready to end their conversation, such as it was.
“It’s an absolute nightmare,” Jeremy groaned, dropping his head onto his arms a tad dramatically. “I’m not built to deal with these levels of bullshit. We’re coming up on the end of the negotiations, though, so at least it’ll calm down soon. At least I’m not the Union rep anymore, I can’t even imagine.”
Jean tried to let out a sympathetic noise. He thought he failed.
“So...you’re a teacher, right?” Jeremy lifted his head back up, nodding enthusiastically. Jean was impressed at how quickly Jeremy’s emotions seemed to change. “What do you teach?”
“Oh, I can’t believe I haven’t told you before!” Jeremy took another bite of the cake before continuing, and Jean absolutely did not follow the movements of his lips or throat or anything like that, he was a fucking normal adult . “I’m a high school English teacher, over at SC High? It’s not a great neighborhood, absolutely enormous school and the public schools here have, like, no funding, so it can be stressful, but my students are the best. And some of my best friends work with me there, so it’s a pretty sweet gig all around.”
Jean raised an eyebrow at that assessment.
“Well, okay,” Jeremy quickly amended, laughing at Jean’s look. “Maybe not a sweet gig. But I know it’s helping the kids, and that’s all that matters, right? Plus I get to ramble at them about Shakespeare for like, forty minutes, uninterrupted, so who am I to complain?”
“It sounds like you’re really...passionate about it, so that’s nice,” Jean responded, trying very, very hard not to be an absolute idiot and failing spectacularly. Jeremy straightened a bit more, his blue eyes endlessly cheerful.
“I definitely am,” Jeremy agreed before taking the last bite of his cake. “Well, this was some excellent cake, thank you for sharing! Today was feeling especially long, but this more than makes up for it.”
“Anytime.” After putting both their plates and forks in the dishwasher, Jean stuffed his hands in his pockets and silently watched the other man. Jeremy stood, stretching his back, before patting Napoleon on the head one last time with a soft smile. Jean led them back to the front door.
“See you around, Jean!”
Jean watched as the blonde disappeared around the corner, leaning against the doorframe and wondering why on earth this ridiculous teacher had such an effect on him. Napoleon nudged his head against his calf, a familiar gesture, and Jean closed the door, grabbing his phone from his pocket.
I’m so fucked, he texted Renee without thinking. Who even has eyes that blue?? And he’s always smiling?? How?? Why?? Merde, je ne comprends rien...
Do you understand him?” Jean asked, staring down at his dog, who cocked his head innocently back. Somehow, that response was more satisfying than the simple :) he received from Renee.