Jean has been acting strange lately.
It's hard to shake off a thirty-plus-year-old habit, so in his considerably increased off-time Nino walks familiar paths, hiding behind the same old corners and fiddling with the camera in his hands, looking for a target he’s no longer compelled to find. Habit, he tells himself, is what takes him down the less travelled paths, too — all the way to the avenues of stripped tree branches in Kororë, where Jean turns into a side street and slips into a tiny shop radiating chocolate warmth.
While Jean is perusing the intricate displays, Nino flips through his inventory of Lotta-inspired bookmarks and comes to the conclusion that Jean is not here on his sister’s recommendation. Rather, this is the sort of place Nino would have recommended, should he have revealed himself to Jean ten minutes prior, and he is unsure how to feel about the fact that Jean has either bothered to use a search engine or is seeking recommendations from people who are not Nino.
There is at least one constant — Jean is currently tasting chocolate-covered strawberries. Nino sags against a lightpost and succumbs to the urge to take a picture: Jean with his hands perched on the counter, leaning in to look at the line of polished truffles with the hint of a smile on his face. Looking for something to get for Lotta, perhaps, even if Nino doesn’t think this is completely her type of store. More likely, Nino’s brain amends, Jean is picking up a box for the office.
He raises his camera again. Jean shifts on his feet, angling his body away from the glass case and casting a glance at the storefront out the corner of his eye.
After all these years, it’s still unnerving to be noticed. “Stuck for choice?” Nino asks casually, making his way into the store. The full warmth of the heating hits him in the face, melting the snow into his clothes.
Jean laughs at Nino’s obvious discomfort. “I might be,” he demurs, sucking chocolate from his fingers. “I was hoping you had a suggestion.”
“I’m partial to the dark chocolate coffee swirl,” Nino says. He points to a gold-speckled sphere. “I get the feeling that won’t be your favourite, though.”
The shopkeeper procures two for them to try; Jean downs his so fast Nino barely has time to capture the moment. While he’s still fumbling around, Jean swipes the other.
“Hey,” Nino protests, opening his mouth to complain, but then there’s chocolate bursting on his tongue, a brush of wet skin on his lips.
“Good?” asks Jean, drawing back. He wipes his hands on his jeans, face blank, as if him feeding Nino is a completely normal thing for the two of them. Stunned, Nino merely nods. “Good,” Jean repeats, ordering two boxes of six along with a dozen chocolate-covered strawberries. He pries the camera from Nino’s frozen fingers and replaces it with one of the boxes. “As thanks.”
“I feel I’ve coerced you,” Nino admits. “Now it just looks like I’m trying to swindle chocolates out of you.”
“As long as you enjoy them,” Jean says, shrugging his purchases onto one shoulder. He pauses at the doorway. “Lotta’s expecting my call soon. Are you staying?”
Every arch of his body is an invitation. “I’ll come,” says Nino, because it’s Jean asking, and also because he wants to pick Lotta’s brains for other good chocolate stores in the area.
Anyone else in the world, and Nino might be tempted to use the term clingy — as if this is a word to be associated with Jean Otus, of all people. Yet as Nino follows him back to Badon, Jean keeps stopping. His head turns just slightly; he pauses for a fraction of a second before walking through the glass doors to HQ, and it's enough.
Jean is not a subtle person. He is restrained by nature; he tends to conserve energy as much as possible. But he leaves his hair mussed when he’s tired. In conversation, he shares personal information without overt prompting. He answers, when spoken to, in a way that facilitates a response. For anyone watching, Jean is an open book, and Nino has been watching Jean for a long time.
So he notices.
“We’ve become regulars,” Nino comments, when the owner of a casual pub they frequent ushers them to a table already laden with large mugs of lager.
“It’s been quiet.” The chairs creak as they sit. Jean shakes off his coat, shrugging his shoulders to loosen out the knots. He rolls his head and shares a look of commiseration with Nino. Even slow days aren’t actually slow nowadays, with the reorganisation of ACCA and all the other bureaucratic changes coming around. Nevertheless, it is true that they’ve been spending more time together. There may be meaning to be gleaned from that.
Nino heaps Jean’s plate with chicken skewers instead. “After last year, I suppose anything would seem quiet to you.”
“Right.” Jean’s phone buzzes in his pocket. He gestures apologetically at Nino and thumbs the screen. “Yes, it’s me. Yes. I see. You’ll be alright.” It’s hard to tell who he’s speaking to over the chatter of the pub, but he doesn’t appear troubled. “I’ll make it to the next one. Yes. Enjoy yourselves. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Nino doesn’t ask. “Another drink?” he says instead.
“You’re already pouring me one,” Jean points out, without any true objection. “Knot’s been dragged out to dessert with the girls tonight.”
This time, it is fair to ask. “You weren’t invited?”
"I had plans," Jean says evenly.
Nino isn't accustomed to being a priority. Growing up an observer has taught him to treasure the spark in others’ eyes when they speak about their own loves. It had been impressed upon him for life, standing behind a door too large for him, that his father did not belong to him. Instead, Nino came to cherish the way his father's eyes lit up as he spoke about the princess and her beau and their two wonderful children, and he had come to cherish that family too, first by extension, but soon with genuine fondness.
He is more familiar with seeing smiles in profile. Coming face-to-face with Jean and Lotta has been made bearable only by the passage of time; even now, there are moments Nino only dares witness through a lens. Sitting directly across from Jean makes Nino’s heart race every time.
From the day his father orders him to turn his life back ten years Nino becomes caught as the intermittent target of Jean’s smile, of his guileless gaze. Finding, one by one, the things that elicit that smile — it is addictive. This is the family, Nino finds himself thinking — the family his father had been willing to give both their lives for, that his father had loved.
It takes time, but Nino comes to understand it. Because she apologised, rings in his ears. Because she was my mother’s sister. He holds another, similar phrase close to his heart.
Jean touches his arm. “Are you drunk already?”
“You wish,” Nino says. He grins, letting his head fall askew to frame Jean’s flushed cheeks in fresh perspective. “The day you outdrink me is the day Furawau rejoins the territories.”
“Don’t let Grossular hear you say that,” Jean murmurs. “You’ll break his heart.”
“He’ll survive.” Nino briefly assesses Jean’s readiness for a joke about Director-General Mauve, but he wants Jean tipsy tonight, not black-out drunk and crashing.
“I heard what you’re thinking,” Jean says. Nino looks away, mumbling out an apology, but Jean continues. “You can say it, if you like.”
The line is so typically Jean that Nino is startled into laughter. “You’re always like this,” he gasps, between breaths. “I’d say you’re a masochist, but it’s not like you’re enjoying it, either.”
“It’s okay,” Jean says, in the same tone he’d used to tell Nino someday, when you can. “I’m having fun.”
Nino used to wear big, chunky headphones in his second high school life. He’d use them to cut out background chatter, sometimes, so he could focus more on Jean. The isolated sound he hears has always sounded close to forgiveness, except for the fact that Jean always says it like Nino's done nothing wrong at all.
Salvation might be a more appropriate term.
The day before Nino’s birthday, Jean takes a flight to the other end of the country. “Honestly,” Nino pants, when he encounters Jean in a woolshed restaurant on the far side of town. “I thought you didn’t like travelling.”
Jean holds up a hand in greeting. “It’s not so bad once in a while. Besides, Lotta wanted potatoes.”
“I hope you didn’t drag me here solely to hold your shopping bags,” Nino warns. Jean sends him a secretive smile.
“You’re the one who showed up uninvited. Did you miss me that much?”
Nino’s heart catapults into his throat. “Don’t play innocent,” he croaks, over the drum beat in his chest. “You know exactly what you’re doing.”
Jean’s eyes gleam with something like anticipation. “We have a tradition going,” he says, patting the seat next to him. “I wouldn’t have wanted you to miss dinner.”
“That’s thoughtful of you.” Nino’s neck is prickling with the same sense he gets when he feels someone watching him. There is no reason for them to be assigned surveillance now, but it’s best to be cautious. Famasu is relatively close to Furawau, after all. “Same side of the table?”
“It’s easier to see the kitchen from here,” Jean replies, serene. “I hear the chefs here are particularly fun to watch.”
Once again, Nino is reminded that someone has been turning Jean into a connoisseur. “Who’s your informant?” he asks, because Jean hasn’t told him not to. Jean’s body heat radiates out through his jacket; the chairs are drilled into the flooring, close enough that Nino’s arm knocks against Jean’s when he tries to reach for the salad.
“Trade secret,” Jean says with a wink. He puts a hand over Nino’s camera, stilling the motion. “You’re forbidden from playing photographer today.”
This stupefies Nino as much as the sudden holiday. “Why?”
“Must you?” Jean counters. It is on the tip of Nino’s tongue to insist yes, he needs those photos — but observing Jean is no longer Nino’s job. The more difficult task would be to rationalise his own personal desire to capture these moments with Jean. “You don’t need to look so upset about it,” Jean says. He pats Nino’s cheek, smiling gently. “We keep each other company well enough without a camera.”
Jean’s voice spreads fire through Nino's chest. He downs a glass of beer to try and mask the sensation, mingling it with the burn of alcohol.
“You never showed me all the photos you took of me in school,” Jean starts. He refills Nino’s glass with something strong and yeasty, the colour of ripe corn. “Do you still have them?”
“Mostly. Hey, Jean – ”
Jean’s eyes snap to Nino instantly; the prickling at the base of Nino’s neck grows almost unbearable. It strikes him that Jean is the source of the gaze Nino’s been sensing. He pauses, momentarily losing himself, and Jean regards him patiently, waiting for Nino to recover.
He falls back on logical responses. “Do you want to see?”
Jean’s lips quirk up. Nino feels strangely as if he’s been manipulated into something. Jean is more the type to get caught up in things than to orchestrate something himself, but Nino himself is perhaps even more so. We’re a bit pitiful, the both of us, Nino thinks, smiling wryly at the thought.
When he looks back at Jean, he’s still staring. “You're smiling," Jean says, reaching out to touch the curve of Nino's lips — Nino flinches back automatically, and Jean’s fingers brush his chin instead. They stare at each other, surprised; Jean’s eyes flick to his own hand with mild disconcert.
"That is a thing I do sometimes," Nino protests, in an attempt to break the strange tension. "You must have the saddest impression of me."
“You encourage it,” Jean murmurs absently, curling his fingers into a fist. He has pretty nails, smooth and neatly clipped, not yet stained black with cigarette tar. “All those dark clothes.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“They look good on you.” Jean props his elbow on the table and rests his head on his hand, eyes flicking up to look at Nino with a hint of mischief.
Nino swallows thickly. “They help with the job.” The sun’s set while he hasn’t been paying attention, and now the artificial lights inside are making his head spin. The night-time crowd is starting to settle in, the buzz of conversation fogging up Nino’s ears, and Jean sits in the centre of it all, caught in the crosshairs of Nino's attention, everything else blurring into obscurity around him.
Nino is seriously beginning to question his own sanity.
“You’ve changed a bit,” he tells Jean, who laughs and pours him another drink.
“Trust you to notice.”
Nino wakes up with Jean's thin arm draped around him, a vaguely familiar rug thrown over them both. He identifies it as that blanket coat Jean bought back when a fashion brand did a collaboration with ACCA — part of the Grossular-inspired collection, if Nino’s memory is to be trusted.
(When it comes to Jean, it is.)
The movement Nino makes trying to sit up makes Jean stir, mumbling inaudible complaints and hugging the coat tighter. Nino puts his hand on Jean’s forehead and ruffles his hair. “Rise and shine.”
“What for?” Jean grumbles.
“You’re the one who bought a flight all of a sudden,” Nino says. “Don’t you have some sort of urgent work to do?”
“Oh, that.” Jean blinks. “In the fridge,” he says, which makes very little sense until Nino reluctantly opens the door and finds a large chocolate cake taking up the entire top shelf.
Jean’s leaning on the doorpost looking amused. “Happy Birthday.”
“Check the date,” Jean laughs. He’s got glasses on, but not his usual ones; the crumpled shirt he’s wearing is nearly falling off one shoulder.
Nino’s throat closes over. “Why are you wearing my clothes?”
Jean picks at a sleeve. “You were sleeping on them,” he says. “They were warm.”
“My glasses aren’t warm,” Nino points out. He still feels drunk, his head light and full of cotton.
“You’re wearing mine.”
Once Jean says it, Nino realises he’s wearing pants — thankfully his own — as well as one sock, half an earplug, and Jean’s glasses. There’s a mild ache behind his eyes from wearing Jean’s glasses, or maybe just the hangover. Nino lacks the presence of mind to assess anything properly, right now. “Sorry.”
"It's okay." Of course Jean doesn’t care. Jean only bothers with a highly select cluster of things, mainly related to Lotta, his work, and — Nino, apparently.
He knows this, on paper. It’s written in his profile, down in records at ACCA. He’s taken his time building up this identity, but it still surprises him to see it play out in reality. Nino has told Jean many times over the years that they get along because they’re similar, or merely because they’ve been together so long, knowing full well that this is a lie. They get along because Nino tried hard in high school and Jean gave in.
Then Jean says neither Lotta or I want this, says my partner-in-crime, and maybe if Nino had friends other than Jean and Lotta he’d remember more often that friendship is reciprocal. His unease must show on his face, because Jean’s brow creases and he tilts his head the way he does when he’s processing something.
"It’s not Kororë, but it’s still good cake.”
“I know,” Nino tells him, walking over to ruffle Jean’s hair again. “Thank you.”
Jean’s expression smooths out. He brushes past Nino and brings the cake to the table, tottering slightly under its weight. “Thank Lotta,” he says. “She passed on the recommendation.”
“Why Famasu, anyway?” asks Nino, cutting himself a large slice. “There are plenty nice places in Badon.”
“I suppose.” Jean props his chin on his hand. He tracks the motions of Nino’s hand with his eyes; Nino can’t resist swirling the spoon around a couple of times to check. “Is it good?”
Nino has chocolate crumbs on his cheek and his tongue is shrivelling up from sugar. “Yeah.”
"I'm glad." A smile crawls across Jean's lips. It makes him look soft, tender — precious, like the royalty in his bloodline. “There’s plenty of time, but the markets close at three, so we should allow ourselves an hour or so to browse.”
“For potatoes?” Nino confirms. Jean nods. Nino shovels another spoonful of cake into his mouth, tongue flickering between the layers of cream, syrup, sponge. “You might have to help me out.”
“Only a bit.” There’s plenty of space at the table, but Jean presses close to Nino anyway, covering Nino’s hand and helping himself to a bite. His pale hair tickles Nino’s nose. “It’d be better with strawberries.”
Nino shoves him lightly. “You’re the one who bought it. Don’t complain.”
“I didn’t buy it for myself,” Jean argues. Then he frowns, tipping his head down and away from Nino, whispering softly. “Though, I suppose I did, in a way.”
Jean turns back, brightening again. “Nothing,” he says, sweeping his finger across Nino’s mouth. “You have crumbs on your lip.”
“But you know,” Lotta says, “I think you’ve changed too, Nino.” The tall sundae in front of her is almost finished; by contrast, Nino’s has almost fully melted. He spares a moment to pity the sad drips rolling off what remains of the once-proud ice-cream tower.
Lotta hums, tapping her chin thoughtfully. “You squint more,” she tells him. “It’s all that staring into the camera you do. I think it’s made your eyesight worse.”
She’s beautiful, so Nino snaps a photo anyway. “I see.”
“There you go again!” Lotta exclaims. “You should take a break every now and then, Nino. It’s not good to overwork yourself. Look at Jean.”
“What’s wrong with Jean?” asks Nino, leaning back in his chair. Lotta complains like she’s telling a story — with wide, expressive eyes and expansive gestures. It’s a trait she’s inherited from her mother, Nino surmises, recalling the way the Princess had moved. Like water, his father had once said. There’s no-one more graceful than our Princess.
Nino thinks of Jean, hitching his shoulder up as he shifts his weight. Nino followed him the other day on a whirlwind tour of Badon’s best bakeries, loping from one store to the next without missing a beat. Jean inhales an entire loaf for lunch, smirking at the wall Nino’s hiding behind as if to say, try and stop me.
Lotta snaps her fingers. “That’s another thing,” she announces. “You and my brother both — you’ve been staring into space a lot when I’m with you.”
“Jean does?” Nino asks, surprised.
Lotta nods, sighing loudly. “I’m beginning to think you’re getting bored of me.”
Nino smiles at her. “Never,” he murmurs. This is one place where he can be genuine.
“I know,” says Lotta, smiling back at him. “I forgive you. It’s hard, being in love. It makes you silly.”
Nino chokes on air. For a moment he thinks the lack of chocolate is going to his brain. “What?” He’s being toyed with, now — he can recognise Lotta’s current smirk from countless nights with a more disinhibited Jean. “Me? Jean?”
“Both of you,” Lotta says. She pouts at him. “You of all people should know.”
“Me?” Nino parrots, in the face of Lotta’s incredulous gaze. “I’m not sure I understand.” He slumps down, heart racing like an unpolished liar. He could almost swear the ice-cream’s melting faster just being near him.
Lotta takes pity on him. “You’re usually quite smart, you know,” she says gently. “But you’ve always been rather silly with some things. Like your taste in chocolate, Nino. Your fashion sense is so good, but you can’t even appreciate the flower jelly they’re selling in Furawau right now.”
“It’s practically water,” objects Nino, putting aside all the confusing Jean-related mysteries in the face of this affront to good desert. “And they’re selling it for ten per jelly.”
“The price is a problem,” Lotta agrees, “but they’re so pretty, Nino. Don’t you like flowers, Nino?”
Nino digs his spoon through his soupy mess of melted sundae and sighs. “That depends on what they’re decorating.”
So apparently Jean is in love.
Nino drags the confession out of him on their next night out, plying Jean with liquor rather insistently. “I know what you’re doing,” Jean says, squinting suspiciously at him. There’s a high flush on his cheeks already, scoring red through the tip of his nose. He leans in and sighs. Nino’s mouth fills with smoke, bad air rushing through his lungs. Deep in his chest, his heart takes up a weak rhythm.
“What are they like?” Nino pries, pushing another glass into Jean’s open hand. “Older? Younger? It’s not still Director-General Mauve, is it? You know she’s taken.”
Jean slaps his arm clumsily. “You’re wrong,” he slurs, burying his face in his hands. “It’s not like that. I just…”
Nino’s arm burns in all the places Jean’s fingers rest. He rolls his arm to the side, tipping Jean’s hand onto the table, but Jean grabs his arm again, holding it firm.
“Y’know when you just want to do something nice for them,” Jean says. He looks up helplessly at Nino. “It’s like, you gotta give something back. Make up f’all the things they’ve done for you. But it’s not just that either.” He’s rambling, easily enough; all Nino has to do is listen. “It’s not just that, or it’d be easy. It’s when they look at you like that, man. Like they don’t know why you’re doing it. S’like it’s been twenty years and you haven’t comm-communicated a thing.”
Nino is drunk, but he’s not that drunk. “It’s not your fault,” he says, knowing it’s fruitless to try anything now. He regrets getting Jean that third beer. “You don’t have to worry about anything,” he tells Jean. “You’re not doing anything wrong.”
Jean sinks onto Nino's shoulder in exhaustion, soft hair falling over his eyes. "You’re missing the point again.”
Again. Nino seems to be missing a lot of things, lately. It’s a disgrace to his lifetime as a spy. I’ll have to figure it out soon, he decides. He’s the one who knows Jean best, after all.
Jean is starting to sag onto the table. Nino wraps an arm around him under the pretense of keeping him propped up. “You're very warm,” Jean says. He digs his fingers into the folds of Nino’s sweater. “I can hear your heartbeat.”
Anyone in a fifty foot radius could probably hear Nino’s heartbeat. Jean’s the only one close enough to say it, though, whispered harshly into Nino’s ear, smelling of beer and fried potato and cigarette smoke. You can’t photograph sound, Nino thinks, feeling a sudden pang of sympathy for how the old king must have felt speaking to Lotta for the first time in person. Not scent, either, or how this feels. His hands are starting to tingle with the same burgeoning addiction he’d felt spreading out his first set of developed photos. He wants to feel this over and over again with Jean.
You’re forbidden from playing photographer, Nino remembers, from a busy pub back in Famasu, and another piece of the puzzle slides into place.
Nino wakes up sober, with Jean’s hand splayed across his chest, realising in the fresh light of daytime: he was talking about me.
He bolts upright, staring wide-eyed at the wall, then whips around to stare at Jean, gazing sleepily up at him. “What’s wrong, Nino?”
“Unlike you,” Nino says, his tongue rattling the words out mechanically, “I don’t forget what I say when I’m drunk. Or what other people say.”
Colour blooms on Jean’s cheeks. “What did you make me say this time?”
“Nothing in particular,” Nino says. “You love me, don’t you?”
Jean groans. He picks up a pillow and smothers himself with it, curling his knees up to his chest. “Nothing in particular,” he says, disbelieving, the sound distorted through the fabric. “I’m never drinking again.”
Nino feels himself heat at the confirmation. He settles down facing Jean’s back and runs a finger down Jean’s spine. “I like it when you drink.”
“You would,” Jean complains, rolling back around to face him. “So?”
“So?” Nino echoes.
Jean pushes the pillow at him. “You love me too, right? I can tell.”
“Is that why you’ve been staring at me?”
"Took you long enough to notice," Jean says, in the tone that Nino can finally put a descriptor to. “It hasn’t just been this year, either.”
Nino should have known Lotta would talk. Jean lays the flat of his palm on Nino's cheek. He runs his hands down Nino’s neck, his shoulders, his back. His fingers halt briefly halfway down; there’s a slight interruption of sensation as his thumb brushes over the scars on Nino's back, and at this close distance Nino can discern when Jean’s jaw tightens, a complex look passing over his eyes.
“They don’t even hurt anymore,” Nino blurts out, wanting badly to see Jean relax again.
“That’s not the point,” Jean huffs in frustration. “How many times didn’t I notice?”
At least three hundred, Nino could say, starting from the time Jean bumped up against a crowd as a toddler and almost got knocked onto the street in front of a speeding car. Exactly three-hundred-and-fifty-eight. That would certainly be missing the point.
Nino doesn’t want to miss anything about Jean. “Say cheese,” he says, snatching the camera from beside the bed. He’s celebrating having the upper hand when Jean grabs his wrist and tugs him into the frame. Nino presses the shutter reflexively, taking six sequential shots of the two of them, horrendously messy, squinting at the lens. “Happy now?” he asks Jean, in a decidedly unhappy tone of voice.
Jean smiles and kisses his jaw.