Chapter 1: Offseason
Their season was over.
For animals like Kevin, like Neil, this was problematic because their identity wasn’t seasonable. They could lock up the courts and stop selling tickets and the coaches and referees and vendors could leave, but the smell of the game lingered. They stank of it, animals like Kevin and Neil, year-round, probably infinitely.
But for a few nights of the year, they had to transfigure all of that into lapels and collared shirts and hemmed pants. The banquet was hardly the most watched event of the Exy world, but it was gaining in popularity thanks to the danger of giving some individuals a golden award and a microphone. There was entertainment value.
Last night’s award ceremony had given the goalkeeper award—the Walter F. McDonald Award for Excellence in Goalkeeping—to Not Andrew Minyard, which had been, especially to the company gathered at the overpriced sports pub in downtown Chicago, been a massive, tyrannical, possibly-the-sort-of-slight-that-goes-down-in-history error.
Andrew Minyard himself was nursing a whiskey, neat, and observing the ruckus with something akin to clinical interest. Interest was the wrong word.
“Elephant in the room. They gave it to Hall because he’s straight.”
There was a sort of communal wince at Neil’s statement, spoken with a sort of slurred steadiness that Andrew had come to expect after he’d downed a few Jack and Cokes. In their company was Kevin, who had managed to not mention the fact that he’d won league MVP for the fifth year in a row; Thea, who had probably threatened him into not bringing this year’s plaque to the bar; Matt and Dan, who nodded in absolute solidarity with Neil, Matt making a sort of fervent nod of righteous anger as he finished his drink; Jeremy Knox, who was distracted by something on his phone; and Jean Moreau, who—well, Andrew looked around curiously, had disappeared.
“There’s this lingering prejudice. I don’t give a fuck how many articles they publish in the magazines, or how many fucking times I have to talk to ESPN about it, there’s this absolute refusal to-,”
Andrew tuned out Neil. He wasn’t interested in his impassioned stance. Hall was a decent enough goalkeeper. His team had won the championship, which, Andrew suspected, was really what had Neil fired up. They’d led the Hurricanes to semis, but had faltered to Arizona in the last two minutes of a long, brutal game. It wasn’t a great way to end a season. But then, Andrew thought absently as he gestured to the bartender for another drink, no season ever ended well. It just ended.
As Andrew shouldered through the crowd to the bar to retrieve his drink, he caught Knox following him. No—Andrew corrected himself, as he looked at him sharply—he wasn’t following him, he was just behind him. He was still absorbed in his phone and he had his credit card out. “Leaving?” Andrew asked him, voice low and flat. Knox blinked as if he’d been surprised, and smiled fleetingly. Andrew could tell he was about to serve him some kind of pre-manufactured excuse. He forced his eyes not to roll.
“Oh, yeah,” said Jeremy with a well-practiced chuckle. He slid his card across the bar. “I was out late last night after the ceremony. Can’t do two drunken nights in a row anymore, you know? Getting old.” For some reason, he patted his belly as if that had any kind of tangential relationship. Andrew blinked slowly, unrelenting. Jeremy glanced again at his phone before pocketing it. “Jean doesn’t do well in crowds,” he added, his cheerful spark a bit dimmed. This was closer to the truth. “I’m just making sure he got back to our hotel. He was supposed to text me.”
“Crowds,” Andrew mused, keeping his voice even as he watched Jeremy scribble his name on his check. Jeremy nodded brightly and stuck his hand out to Andrew. Andrew stared at it. “How long is Moreau going to be afraid of Neil?” he asked, cutting across the low din of the bar. Jeremy blinked, startled, and dropped his hand. “His disappearing act isn’t subtle.”
Jeremy swallowed and frowned, glancing behind him as if to make sure no one was listening. Neil was oblivious, of course, in the midst of demonstrating some kind of move with Matt serving as his life size model as Kevin nodded vigorously. “He’s not afraid of Neil,” Jeremy said finally, once they’d both lost interest in the demonstration.
Andrew said nothing. He hadn’t thought of Knox as particularly dishonest, but his opinion was changing.
Jeremy ran a hand through his hair. “There’s some…history, and I think any kind of memory…Well, he just tries to avoid memories of that time,” he finished lamely. Andrew’s jaw tightened.
“From what Neil has said, it seems like the bad memories are pretty one-sided. Generally speaking,” Andrew leaned closer, getting in Jeremy’s space. He could see the grey streaks in his blue eyes, the freckles splashed over his straight nose. He could smell the gin he’d been drinking. “The party helping the torturer doesn’t have the same right to martyrdom as the party being tortured.”
“He didn’t torture-,” Jeremy began, heated, but as Andrew’s eyes narrowed slightly, he lost his nerve. He tapped the pen he’d been using to sign the check once, twice on the bar top before straightening up. He smiled again at Andrew. “It’s late. I’m tired. Nice to see you and Neil. Let me know next time you guys are in Los Angeles.”
Andrew probably could have stopped him, but the fact was that, as annoying as he found Knox, he wasn’t a threat to Neil. And Moreau—well, Andrew thought scornfully as he finally got his second drink and wandered back to the crowd of idiots he associated with, a cowering relic. Andrew took his seat next to Neil, who immediately folded into him subconsciously as he listened with rapt attention to Kevin and Thea argue about the new officiating rules about overtime.
Andrew ignored them all, his eyes finding Jeremy who was climbing into a black cab outside. When he turned back, Neil was looking at him. “Hey,” he said softly, his eyes bright and crinkled around the edges. “What were you talking to Jeremy about?”
Andrew watched a bead of sweat trickle down Neil’s temple and was suddenly very aware of how hot it was in the bar, dense and pressing. “Moreau,” he answered. He’d tried to speak quietly, but hadn’t noticed the conversation around him getting quiet. Much to his annoyance, Kevin had overhead and was now listening intently.
Neil frowned, puzzled. “Jean isn’t here, though,” he replied.
Andrew scoffed. “Some of us are capable of having discussions about things that are not right in front of us,” he replied, standing. Neil rolled his eyes in a casual sort of exasperation before launching back into conversation. Andrew collected his empty glass.
Chapter 2: Balcony
He’d given the taxi driver a 50% tip, Jeremy realized as he boarded the elevator and selected the right floor. He’d been so eager to get out of the car and back to Jean that he’d just grabbed whatever bill he could find in his wallet.
Jeremy hurried back to their hotel room and rushed inside, breathless and windblown. He looked wildly around the room and did not see Jean, and his heart skipped a beat. But then he saw that Jean was on the balcony, wrapped in a blanket from the bed and reading the book he’d bought at the airport. There was a glass of red wine beside him. The door was slightly open, enough so that the slight breeze was rustling the morning paper on the desk.
Jeremy bit his lip and frowned slightly. He shrugged off his jacket and dead-bolted the hotel room door. He couldn’t tell if Jean had seen him, so he tried to make as much noise as possible as he took off his watch and his shoes and his socks. He popped out his contacts and dropped his glasses deliberately. As they clattered to the floor, Jeremy stared out at Jean. Jean had not moved.
With a sinking feeling, Jeremy put on his glasses and stepped forward. He made sure to approach Jean from the front, forcing his broad frame through the small opening without opening the sliding door any more than he had to. Jean still didn’t look up. Jeremy’s heart had started to beat a little faster, a heaviness settling on his chest. If Jean was having a rough night—if he was lost in his own thoughts…
He opted to sit down in the opposite chair, trying to keep his expression calm and neutral. “Hey,” he said softly. Jean didn’t look up, staring down at his book. Jeremy wondered if he wasn’t reading, if he was going through the motions so that he could keep himself grounded. God. This was worse than he thought. He blew out his breath slowly. “I’m here when you want to talk, Jean.”
The wind rustled through again, flipping one of Jean’s pages forward. “No spoilers!” he mumbled, annoyed, and as he flipped back, he noticed Jeremy. “Oh--,” he said, and then he was taking something out of his ears. Jeremy frowned, confused at what he was looking at, and Jean held up two small black dots. “Wireless headphones,” he explained. “I went to get some wine and the store was selling these. I think I left my other ones on the plane. I have to stop doing that. Probably a flight attendant took them. I accidentally gave her a gift, even though she-,” he broke off, frowning a little at Jeremy. “What?”
Jeremy blinked. Jean’s frowned quirked deeper as he slid his bookmark into the paperback and set it on the table next to the wine. “Um,” said Jeremy, flustered, taking off his glasses to rub at his eyes. “Nothing. Nothing. Just—when you left early tonight I figured…”
Recognition dawned on Jean’s face. “I told you,” he said, making a face. “I wanted to go to the hotel and relax. I told you exactly-,”
“-I know, I know,” Jeremy said. He stood up, wringing out his hands. He felt kinetic; energy that had been tense with anxiety a minute ago had burst into cold relief, a flushing embarrassment. He’d done it again. He was always, always doing it. He always-,”
“-Overthinking,” Jean said flatly, taking a sip from his wine. Jeremy swallowed, staring at the street below. There was still a ton of traffic, even though it was late. He had sat in the car, feeling that it was absolutely urgently critical he get back to the hotel, cursing the congestion on the city streets. Now the cars looked orderly. Now his earlier urgency seemed childish, stupid. “Jeremy,” Jean said, and there was a note of amusement in his voice as he joined him leaning against the railing.
Jeremy sighed dramatically and shrugged. “I got worried,” he admitted. “When you said you wanted to go back to the hotel. When you didn’t text me when you got back. I thought, seeing everyone must have…” He trailed off. "I don't know. Ignore me."
Jean planted a light kiss on his temple and drained the rest of his wine. “What is the enjoyment I’m supposed to find at these disgusting bars you always choose? The drinks are terrible and they’re so loud.”
Jeremy laughed once, glad to change the subject. “I didn’t choose it,” he defended himself. He hadn't. But he would have selected a similar venue, had it been left up to him. He loved a dive bar, an old juke box, a bar full of craft IPAs and over-salted pretzels. “And if you’re subtly hinting that you don’t like Los Angeles’ Greatest Dive Bar-,”
“-Not subtly,” Jean fired back, smirking as his grey eyes crinkled a little around the edges. “It is probably one of the absolute worst bars-,”
“-Let me stop you right there,” Jeremy said, turning to plant a kiss on Jean’s lips. Jean smiled again before returning it. Jeremy pulled away gently a moment later and smiled, still mildly embarrassed. “So it doesn’t bother you? Seeing Kevin and-and Neil?”
Jean’s smile slipped a little as he got a second glass and filled both with wine. “I’ve met them before,” he said dryly, handing Jeremy his drink. Jeremy smiled fleetingly and knew, in an objective part of his brain, that he should drop it, let it go, forget what Andrew had said. Not make this a thing. Not insist on making this a thing.
“It’s just-,” he started, for some reason. “Andrew Minyard came up to me and sort of…he implied…he thought you not being there was because of Neil. Like you were—I don’t remember exactly what he said—freaked out, or something, by seeing him.”
Jean stared back without blinking and drew up straighter. Jeremy winced a bit, regretting this entire conversation. “Not everything is about Neil Josten. Or Nathaniel Wesninski. Or whatever name he wants to use.”
His words, warm and wry just a minute ago, had turned poisonous. He spat them like he spat out pits in olives. Jeremy dodged each barb, furrowing his brow as he took a nervous drink of the wine. “I think Andrew just-,”
“-He needs to leave me alone,” Jean fired back, pushing back his dark hair as his fingers tightened around the stem of the glass. He swallowed hard. Jeremy could see the curve of the scar that ran jagged from his ear to his chin in the glow of the lights inside their room. “He doesn’t know anything about me. It’s-it’s hebetudinous.”
Jeremy broke up his anxious nodding but cocking his head slightly. “Heb—what did you say?”
“That isn’t a word.”
“It is. It is English. Probably from Latin.”
Jeremy burst out a laugh. Jean’s glowering lessened slightly as he rolled his eyes and sat back down in one of the chairs. “Jean,” said Jeremy quietly, mimicking him and leaning back to recline slightly. “Look. Maybe I’m overthinking you not wanting to hang out with us tonight—maybe you really do think all decent bars are complete shit—but I see the way you kind of…well, not flinch, but you do avoid Neil. It’s been a long time since-since the Ravens. Maybe it’s just about having a conversation-,”
“-Great idea,” Jean cut him off. “How about we invite them to brunch tomorrow. Maybe we can get omelets. Share some-some cinnamon rolls. Bottomless mimosas. Then we can talk about our feelings for hours and hours. We can compare scars! Chit chat about our favorite memories.”
Jeremy gave him a look. “Alright, snarky,” he said, but his tone was warm and he reached out a hand to hold Jean’s. “Just a thought. We’re all stuck here this weekend to do that press event tomorrow, and the draft is the next day. Just think about it. I’m not suggesting some massive heart-to-heart. Just—you know, we have some stuff in common with them.”
“With Minyard and Neil?” Jean said with disdain dripping from his tongue like molasses. “We are nothing like them.”
Jeremy shrugged. “Just a thought,” he said lightly. He made a face as he took another drink of his wine. He held the glass out for inspection, holding it up to the light and squinting at it past his glasses. “Honestly, Jean—what is this? You abandoned me at a bar so that you could drink off-brand merlot?”
“It’s a cabernet,” Jean said, gloriously wounded. Jeremy burst out laughing as he mimed the act of spilling it over the balcony, to which Jean pretended to be overcome with outrage.
Neither of them noticed the text message that Jean had received from Neil. “Going for a run tmrw @7. Want 2 come? Kevin busy w/press.”
Chapter 3: Run
Jean triple-tied his shoelaces before leaving the hotel room. Jeremy was still in the mess of covers on the bed. Coffee bubbled in the corner of the room next to the ironing board, which they'd left erect and assembled, one of Jeremy's button downs strewn across it. It was cloudy outside.
"Do you know what route you're taking?" Jeremy asked. It was not quite six thirty, and his eyes were squinty behind his wire-frames. He hadn't changed out of the shirt he'd slept in, which said TROJAN PRIDE in rainbow-colored font.
"No," Jean replied, voice low. He hated mornings. "He said meet in the lobby at six thirty."
"Hmm," Jeremy replied, getting up slowly as the coffee maker clicked off. He inspected the single cup it had produced a bit critically, as if suspicious it was really coffee. Jean's stomach rolled a little as the smell reached his nose. He never ate breakfast these days; food before noon nauseated him. Jeremy took a tentative sip and then made a face. "Hot!" he complained. "Do you think Andrew will be there? I can't really see him going for runs. Maybe Kevin."
Jean huffed out an annoyed breath as he straightened up to his full height, shoes tied tightly. "Kevin doesn't do morning runs," he replied. "He doesn't do morning anything. He is lazy in the morning."
"Me, too," Jeremy replied around a yawn. He took another cautious sip of the coffee and then returned to sit on the bed.
"I'm leaving now," said Jean, tension turning his voice cold. Jeremy smiled warmly, setting the steaming coffee on the bedside table and opening up his arms. Jean rolled his eyes a little, without malice, and went to him, folding himself down so that Jeremy could squeeze him tightly, just for a moment, and plant a kiss behind his ear. Jean felt some of the tension leak from his shoulder blades as his muscles curled around Jeremy's embrace.
Finally, Jean pulled away. He straightened. "Bye," he said, although made no move to go.
Jeremy nodded. "If he brings up the Nest, just remember that it's all behind-,"
"I know, I know," Jean snapped. He couldn't rehearse this. If he rehearses all the topics of conversation that could come up, he would return to the bed, never leave. "Bye, Jeremy." This time he turned, shoved the room card in his pocket and shut the door closely behind him.
The hotel was fancy and had a glass elevator. This was really quite ideal for Jean, who still had to force himself not to cringe at the sensation of sinking, of going deeper into the ground, of falling. The glass elevator revealed a brightly lit building populated mainly by housekeeping and hotel employees. The guests seemed to be asleep.
Jean found Neil stretching outside the front entrance. Neil saw him but didn't react, earbuds in his ears. Jean lingered uncomfortably a few feet away. After a minute, Neil yanked the earphones from his ear, took in Jean's lanky form awkwardly watching him, and scoffed, irritated. "Are you trying to be as socially incompetent as possible, or is this some weird Raven shit?"
Jean frowned. "At least I am not doing yoga," he shot back, folding his arms over his chest petulantly.
Without missing a beat, Neil lifted one leg behind his head. "I'm sure Jeremy wouldn't protest if you worked on your flexibility."
Jean felt a blush creep up from his neck. Neil dropped his leg and shook out his arms. "Flexibility is half of exy. People think it's all stamina. Stamina is important--we have that, that's why we're number one--but flexibility gives you that edge. You see that Philly game? They got that last shot because of the striker's shot from a kneeling position." He stopped his posing and put his hands on his hips. "It's not fucking yoga."
Jean waved him off as they started to jog. Neil wouldn't shut up. This was predictable. Jean let him complain and complain about the lack of foresight possessed by the current ownership of his team, about the fact that Andrew Minyard hadn't won the top goalkeeper award, about how it was really truly bullshit that Kevin's team had stolen some hotshot dealer out of Miami simply because they offered a higher signing bonus.
Jean grunted, hummed and nodded along but offered up nothing in return until Neil, forced to stop at a red light, turned to him accusingly. "Do you ever think about the Nest anymore?"
The light remained red. Jean's heart slammed against his chest, suddenly kicked into action. "Yes," he answered finally, squeezing it out between stiffening throat muscles. Neil narrowed his eyes.
"Me, too," he said. "And you were there a lot longer than me."
Jean willed the light to turn green.
"Kevin does, too. If you want to, you know, commiserate with him. I don't know."
Jean shook his head and Neil studied him. "Do I remind you of that time? Andrew thinks I might be, like, a human trigger for you. That's how he said it."
The light turned green.
"How much do you remember?" Jean finally asked after a block of silence. Neil scoffed.
"How much do you?" he shot back.
Jean swallowed. "Everything," he said, in French, slowing down to a stop. There didn't seem to be enough air in his lungs, like it was escaping through a pinhole in his windpipe. "Everything."