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failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged

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Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged

Missing me one place search another

I stop somewhere waiting for you

 

**

 

Cultural shock. That’s how USC’s school psychologist John Burges describes what Jean is going through right now. It’s probably the nicest way Jean’s ever heard anyone describe ‘you were tortured and beaten down both mentally and physically and deprived of your freedom and personal space and now you’re not anymore and that’s a lot to take in’.

 

Jean doesn’t like him. At all. A part of him knows the feeling is just a simple reflection of his aversion to therapy and talking about what happened to him, and that some discretion towards him might do him good since even the slightest, minuscule things trigger him into a full-blown panic attack these days. But he doesn’t want it. Just say he was tortured. Just say he was assaulted. Just tell him he was broken down again and again and again. Just tell him the facts and then give him answers how to get over it all. He doesn’t want understanding—he just wants to get on with his life. The feeling is crushing and devastatingly urgent inside him.

 

Jean leaves in the middle of their first session. He says, ‘this isn’t working’, voice tight and insistent like a teenager who’s angry at the whole world. He is. The Trojans’ coach James Rhemann is sitting outside the office when Jean storms out of the room, making him stop dead in his tracks. He asked Rhemann to come pick him up after his therapy session, insisting that he doesn’t know the premises yet and that he wants to get escorted into his rooms. Demanding felt funny and wrong, like a whole hand being shoved down his throat and squishing his lungs, but he had to, fearing his poor psyche couldn't handle being left alone in a middle of a crowd. It’s been barely 30 minutes since Jean got in so the only possible answer to why Rhemann is sitting on the bench instead of coming to pick him up an hour later is that he expected Jean to storm out early.

 

John Burges, Jean was told, is part of the Trojans’ annual checkups. Burges is also their main contact if there’s something that needs to be addressed, mental health wise. From the look on Burges’ face Jean could see someone had filled him in on Jean’s arrival and labeled him as “a difficult case”. The gleam in his eyes belonged to someone who wanted to solve a puzzle, not help. Maybe he found Jean’s resistance to talk fascinating - a breath of fresh air after treating one burned-out student after another. Jean felt sick under the gaze.

 

“Sometimes it takes a while to find a counselor you click with. Burges is a part of your mandatory check-up, but he’s not the only option. He’ll refer you to a colleague now,” Rhemann says lightly, his tone heavy with it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright. Jean doesn’t feel better about it but he doesn’t actively want to punch a wall and that’s more than he can ask for right now.

 

As they walk down the hall, Jean, in a burst of irritation and sadness, says: “If I can make a request, I’d prefer a female psychiatrist.” He doesn’t bother elaborating it further, and Rhemann doesn’t ask. Jean shivers—the way Burges kept using his hands to gesture things, the way he rolled his pen between his fingers while he considered Jean with lazy, detached professionalism felt threatening and familiar. It reminded him too much of how Riko used to go quiet and malicious just before he snapped, the way he talked slow, vibrating with dangerous energy, eyes piercing and hungry like a tiger circling his prey before attacking.

 

Burges made Jean summarise his feelings for Exy—maybe because Jean was determined not to say anything explicit about his past, and didn’t budge when Burges kept insisting that talking about it might help. Exy was the only thing Jean agreed to talk about, to a degree. Jean grudgingly described his relationship to it—despite the negative undertone it currently has in Jean’s mind because it reminds him of Evermore, he still has a soft spot and a passion for it, and Exy is all he has. Burges had suggested Jean leave the team and see if the distance helps him deal with his emotions. Jean already knows it wouldn’t. Hell—he wouldn’t care even if it did help; he won’t let the ghost of Riko take him down with him. Besides, Burges doesn’t know of Jean’s arrangement with Ichirou. Dropping Exy is not an option—even if it was, he’d walk away from it on his own terms. Not because he’s too afraid he’ll never stop seeing the suffocating, dominating colours of red and black flashing behind his eyelids every time he picks up a racquet. Jean didn’t bother explaining any of this to Burges; there’s no way he’d understand. This—all of this—is now Jean’s life, and he has to learn how to live with it, make himself strong enough to carry his baggage around.

 

Rhemann walks him to the dorms, about a mile or so from the university’s main building. Jean tries to take mental notes about the whereabouts of everything, even when the realisation that he has to start walking around by himself makes him dizzy with anxiety. Rhemann points out cafes, grocery shops, the library, and other essential places along the way should Jean ever need them. He walks Jean right to his door and Jean knows he’s spoken with Abby, and that she’s told him about how Jean hasn’t been alone in months. Rhemann hesitates, but Jean shrugs him off before he can figure out how to tactfully ask what they should do with the Jean-and-an-empty-room situation, insisting he needs a nap and some time alone to go over the course catalog to decide which classes he’s going to take, anyway.

 

Expectedly yet completely unanticipatedly, Jean’s mental resources are drained from him the second he closes the door behind him, and he realises just how tightly he’s been holding himself together up to this point.

 

The travel to Southern California was both a relief and a complete, utter fucking shock. The last time he’d travelled alone before was when he joined the Ravens years ago —so that, alone, had been stressful. Renee, Coach Wymack, and Abby gave him a ride to the airport and Renee walked Jean as far as she could without a plane ticket, and Coach Rhemann was on the other end waiting for him. Jean was then too tired and groggy from his painkillers to really acknowledge him beyond quick introductions. Luckily, Rhemann seemed like a reasonable man and didn’t expect him to make small talk, having been informed of the reasons for Jean’s transfer loosely by Wymack. Jean fell asleep in the backseat feeling nervous and sick but he took what he could, and sitting in a car with someone he didn’t know but sort of trusted by proxy was enough to make him lose drop his guard in dizzying relief. When they reached USC, they went straight to Rhemann’s office, where he handed off information to Jean concerning everything from Exy to practicalities he’d have to sort out with the school; he hesitated after that, and told Jean about the check ups he’d have to go through first before playing, mentioning that Burges had free appointments whenever Jean felt ready. Jean was already overwhelmed and worn out but he insisted he wanted to go through all that as quickly as possible. Now, though, he thinks he shouldn’t probably have jammed so much things into his first five hours in LA. At least they’d scheduled his medical checkup for tomorrow.

 

Jean lets his bag fall to the floor,only vaguely paying attention to the living room. He wants to know where he’ll be sleeping. That feels important, more important than anything else at the moment. He wants to know the space where he’ll be falling asleep and waking up every day, wants to know how he’ll react to it—as if to predict his future and see what his days were going to look from now on. Jean sees a door on his left that’s slightly ajar, remembers Rhemann mentioning his bedroom is on the left side of the dorm, and heads there.

 

Jean lets out a breath that shouldn’t be shaky, but is.

 

The room is airy and spacious, and the walls are bare if one doesn’t count occasional Exy-related posters and newspaper clips here and there. The room is high in the upper floors; so high that Jean sees the tops of the trees planted in the college yard. The Exy court can be seen from behind them. It’s walking distance, probably as far as the uni is from the dorms but in the other direction, but Jean still finds it weird that the court is in another building and that he’d actually have to walk there to go practise. He can’t decide whether he likes it or not—a part of him feels like whatever minutes could be spent on the court are wasted in the time it takes to get there. But then again, the suffocating reality of living under an Exy court, underground, is behind him now. He doesn’t know how to handle the physical or emotional distance.

 

There are two beds, two desks and two dressers, placed on the opposite sides of the room. The window is between the beds, at the far end of the room, and there are doors next to both of the dressers. With the other being the door to the living room, Jean assumes the other is the bathroom.

 

Jean feels disoriented as he tries to digest it all. He finds himself, unavoidably, comparing everything to Evermore. The bedding of the bed is white - not ink-black. The light that shines into the room undisturbed, creating a perfect square of light for Jean to stand on, is new and welcomed. There’s a kitchenette in the living room with a coffee maker, a microwave and a fridge—being able to eat on his own, when he feels like it?—and there’s a big TV in the corner with two, mismatched sofas; clearly second-hand. It's the exact opposite of the Nest.

 

He’s frozen in place and has trouble taking it all in, to say the least.

 

Well. Maybe he didn’t realise just how different even the smallest things could be, and how big of an emotional importance those things could have in Jean’s mind. Cultural shock might not be so far from the truth, after all.

 

Jean’s gaze shifts to the bed that belongs to his roommate and regards the messy, unmade bed. As if on cue, the door in the living room bangs open and shuts as forcefully. Jean dies a little inside at the scare but manages to compose himself by grounding himself in the space he’s in: Not Evermore, not Evermore, not Evermore

 

A head peeks in through the door and there’s a record-screech in Jean’s mind.

 

He’d known that he’d be having Jeremy Knox as his roommate. His first reaction upon hearing that was annoyance, as if it was decided beforehand that it was for the best for the Trojans’ captain to see first-hand what kind of a liability Jean was going to be to the  team with his current emotional instability. At the time, Jean had averted his gaze, just like he’s learned to do whenever something he couldn’t completely mask showed on his face. Rhemann must have seen it anyway, because he then explained that Jeremy himself insisted he should be Jean’s roommate because he was a tutor—therefore being able to help Jean with any school-related issues. It sounded like bullshit to Jean.

 

Now Jean thinks that maybe he was paired up with Jeremy because Jeremy practically represents the Trojans, and they wanted him to see, first-hand, what kind of team he'd be playing in. The Trojans are known for their friendly, sunshine-y image and the fact that they never say anything bad about any other team. And Jeremy Knox as their captain feels right. The captain should always represent the team appropriately, and Jeremy Knox goes fucking overboard with it. When he smiles, the sun seems to find him wherever he is and kiss his face with its warmth. There are tons of attractive pictures of him smiling at reporters like they’re the apple of his eye. Jean did research on the Trojans before his transfer —and he wasn’t at all surprised to find there’s more than one video going around the internet where a reporter loses the track of their words when Jeremy gives them a dazzling smile, all freckles and dimples.

 

Jeremy has sandy blond hair and green eyes. His hair isn’t like the rays of sun and his eyes aren’t like emeralds - a few descriptions he found online - but they’re close. Jean thinks he’s just overreacting and falsely associating a good tan and a nice smile with something unearthly, but it’s so far from what he’s used to being around that he can’t exactly help feeling dramatic.

 

Jean finds something new and uncertain settle in the pit of his stomach when Jeremy walks into the room and introduces himself to Jean.

 

**

 

The more he thinks about it, the less it bothers him that he and Jeremy share a room. If he weights in all the possibilities, it’s actually a relief that it’s Jeremy, because Jean at least knows Jeremy Knox by name—and that he’s good enough a person that Kevin reached out to him to help Jean. Even if he and Kevin aren't in touch anymore, he sort of trusts Kevin when it comes to judgement of character. It’s not the fact that they were friends once; it’s the knowledge that Kevin went through a similar sort of trauma as Jean and he wouldn’t put Jean in the hands of someone who could potentially hurt him.

 

Jean thinks Jeremy knows the reasons behind his transfer. It’s unsettling to say the least, but it’s easier on him like this. So far, he hasn’t been bombarded with questions that are hard to answer, that hit a sore spot without meaning to. Maybe Jeremy’s knowledge doesn’t go past the general knowledge of Jean deciding to leave Edgar Allan after something inside him snapped or broke, but it’s enough. Jeremy hasn’t asked him invasive questions and he doesn’t seem to mind Jean’s vague answers to everything. Granted, it’s only day one, but every second Jean doesn’t have to think about his past is a victory.

 

Jean doesn’t know where Jeremy’s roommates are; somehow he doubts that Jeremy lived by himself in a dorm room that has a living room and two bedrooms, in both of which there are two beds, but the dorm is eerily quiet and there aren’t any personal items of other people in the shared area.

 

Maybe Jeremy sees Jean looking at the other bedroom with a quizzical look, because he says: “Hey. If you prefer some space, you can definitely sleep in the other bedroom. We—" Jean doesn’t know what Jeremy means by we and he doesn’t want to interrogate even though a flash of anxiety runs through him,“—just thought that sleeping alone might feel—I don’t know, overwhelming?” Jeremy searches Jean’s eyes. Jean ignores it and looks around the space. “Correct me if I’m wrong. I want to help as much as I can and I don’t want to make assumptions.”

 

Jean wonders whether Jeremy is this straightforward with everyone he meets,  or if he just does that with Jean to get through to him. Jean thinks that maybe Abby or Kevin or Coach Wymack gave a heads up to Jeremy before he came here, because he didn’t even flinch when he met Jean, who still has bandages on his arm, a piece of tape covering his crooked nose—the skin under his eyes black from exhaustion, blue from bruising.

 

Jeremy clears his throat. “Although... You’re making it real hard for me to not make them when you don’t give me your input.”

 

Jean turns to look at Jeremy. His tone isn’t biting; he’s grinning when Jean quirks a brow at him.

 

“Don’t you have roommates?”

 

Jeremy scratches the back on his neck, looking a little bashful while still keeping the friendly grin on his face. “Well. I thought it would be easier for you to settle in if it’s just you and me for a couple weeks at least. Aidan and Spencer—you'll meet them soon— were in the other bedroom, but we agreed they’d be sleeping elsewhere for the time being.”

 

“You don’t have to drive anyone away for me,” Jean says, trying to keep his voice even and clinical and not let offended fury lace it. “They can move back in whenever they want.”

 

Jeremy holds up his arms and retreats into the kitchen and he’s smiling (does he ever stop?) while doing it. “We’ll talk about it, okay?”

 

Jean huffs and shrugs one shoulder, then turns back around and stares at his and Jeremy’s bedroom door. Inside, there are Jeremy’s clothes and things all over; the other desk is full of books, flyers, notebooks and pens, a few elastic bandages unrolled on top of everything. Some of his things have migrated onto Jean’s desk as well. Maybe Jeremy’s become blind to his scattered belongings because he hasn’t moved them, but Jean doesn’t really care. He doesn’t have that many things with him, everything he owns in one duffel bag under his bed. 

 

Jeremy’s bed is closer to the window but Jean’s is closer to the door. It’s obviously just a happy coincidence—Jeremy probably just chose the bed on random when he first moved in—but Jean still appreciates it. Hell, he appreciates that the bedroom has a window. He doesn’t feel unsafe in Jeremy’s presence, but the fact that there’s nothing and no-one between him and the door makes him feel heavy with relief. The door doesn’t have a lock, either. (Jean learned to pick locks years ago, both with paperclips and full body force so locks can’t really hold him back, but he still hates them.)

 

Jean looks at the room and how the window seems to be perfectly placed for the sun to shine directly in for most of the day. He then looks over his shoulder at the door of the other bedroom. He imagines bare walls and two perfectly made beds, no personal touches whatsoever. Obviously it must be lived-in despite the fact that there isn’t anyone currently there, but that’s how Jean’s mind pictures it.

 

He tries to weigh which would be less stressful—sleeping in the same room with someone he doesn’t know after he’s spent years, around the clock, in other people’s company - or sleeping alone in a quiet room with empty walls and the echo of his loneliness.

 

Neither sound perfect. But somehow, his senses being filled with another person and their belongings, their air and presence everywhere, sounds a lot better than having to fill the void inside him all by himself.

 

“We can share the bedroom, it’s okay,” he says aloud and turns back to Jeremy, then frowns. In the time of Jean’s internal monologue Jeremy has jumped onto the counter in the kitchen and now he’s watching Jean with his head cocked to one side like a confused puppy. Jean has no idea how long he’s been watching.

 

“Tell me if that changes,” Jeremy says. He’s kicking his heels against the lower cupboards. To Jean, he comes across as a person who’s got inexhaustible energy sources. A fleeting, irrelevant thought crosses his mind: he’d like to take Jeremy with him to one of the morning run/gym/practice drill sessions he used to go through in Evermore and see whether Jeremy has energy to bounce any part of him afterwards.

 

Whatever. He’s being cruel. Jeremy’s not in bad shape and could definitely keep up with Jean. He is more muscular than Jean, too, so maybe he could even outrun him.

 

“What are you thinking about?” Jeremy asks.

 

“Raven drills,” Jean says, truthfully.

 

“Oh?” Jeremy’s brows lift up. “Anything good we could adopt?”

 

Jean shrugs his shoulders. “I don’t know whether you’re good enough to try any of them.”

 

Jeremy laughs. “Tuesday, 7:30PM PST, USC, Jeremy and Jean’s dorm room: The first time Jean cracked a joke! I’m impressed. I thought it would take me weeks to break you.”

 

“You think I’m joking.” Jean says it with a passive face, but the side of his mouth twitches when Jeremy dramatically puts his hands over his heart.

 

“I think we’re gonna get along just fine, Moreau,” he says in a lighthearted way that tells Jean that he hasn’t really even doubted it. He should.

 

“You’re pronouncing my name wrong.”

 

“For that, I’m naming you my official French tutor this year,” Jeremy grins.

 

“I understood that you didn’t take French,” Jean says. Rhemann attempted to make conversation with him earlier and told what he could remember about the Trojans, trying to remember whether anyone on the team speaks or studies French - assuming that would make Jean feel more at home.

 

“It’s not too late to start,” Jeremy grins, and Jean thinks no one’s ever been so amused in his presence.

 

“Coffee?” He asks Jean and hops off the counter without waiting for an answer. He flicks the water kettle on and stands on his tiptoes to find a glass jar of Nescafé from the cupboard.

 

“Instant coffee?”

 

“That’s how I roll, baby.”

 

“There’s a perfectly decent-looking coffee machine right there.” Now that Jean glances at it, though, it looks mostly unused.

 

“That’s just for show. So? Will you? I thought we could go over your class schedule together and make sure there are no double bookings and that nothing’s overlapping our Exy practices. I still want you to be able to attend the classes you want, so let’s see what we can do.”

 

“Okay,” Jean agrees. “I haven’t really thought about the classes I want to take, to be honest.”

 

“That’s alright,” Jeremy says. “What’s your major?”

 

“International business.”

 

A low whistle. “Wow, you’re smart.”

 

Jean shrugs a dismissive shoulder. He didn’t have much say in the matter, but Jeremy doesn’t need to know that. Exy came first, but despite that he was forced to pick a major that could someday - at least in theory -  be of use to the Moriyamas. Jean really couldn’t see the reasoning behind international business, since he only was an insignificant pawn in Riko’s twisted game and someone who wasn’t meant to see the life after the Ravens. But he tries not to be bitter about his major - there’s no use in changing it now, and it isn’t so difficult or time-consuming that Jean has to give it too much space in his head. He’ll see this one through and rethink his life after Exy once it’s time. “What’s yours?”

 

Jeremy grins. “Me? I’m just one of your basic uni athletes. I’m majoring in physical therapy and minoring in journalism. If my career in Exy doesn’t pan out, I at least have a few career options that I can still connect to Exy, y’know?”

 

Jean nods  in understanding. He can see Jeremy being someone like a sports journalist one day. His passion for Exy is visible in his every action; he’s making his life decisions orbit around Exy, even if he won’t be playing it in the future. It’s not like some other people Jean knows - Kevin, for example, with his earth-wavering passion for playing and only playing. Sometimes, Jean thinks, it’s all Kevin knows. In his mind, if he can’t play there’s not much use in existing. But sometimes, Jean saw these fleeting moments where Kevin’s other interests surfaced for a few blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments, like when he summarised for Jean what they’d been talking about in his European history class, or when he read a really good book and for a moment looked content thinking about something that wasn’t Exy. That always left Jean thinking about where Kevin would be if he hadn’t been raised the way he was; who he’d be if he’d been allowed a space to be interested in something other than Exy. He’d still be passionate about Exy, Jean knows, but maybe it would be more of casual interest rather than the day I can't play is the day I’ll die interest.

 

Jean's just a sappy daydreamer, he knows. He'll probably never understand Kevin's infatuation with Exy, maybe because he's never felt the same rush of invincibility Kevin got after winning. A part of him wanted to show Kevin that there’s more to life than Exy, in the moments when he'd stroke Kevin’s back when he retched over the toilet in panic. He knows that if he’d ever done that he would’ve been insulting all that Kevin is, all Kevin's sacrificed his life for—so.

 

Jean just wanted to reach out, somehow, and pull Kevin away from the Ravens’ influence.

 

Kevin managed to do that by himself, in the end.

 

“That sounds...very you,” he says out loud, ignoring the fact that he doesn’t really know Jeremy.

 

His eyes zone back from his memories to Jeremy’s face. Jeremy frowns just a tiny bit.

 

“You look tired, Jean. We don’t have to go through anything today. You’ve had a long day already,” he says.

 

Jean shakes his head. “No, it’s fine. Let’s do it.”

 

Jeremy nods his head, but not before giving Jean a searching look. “Alright. You have a laptop?”

 

Jean shakes his head again.

 

“That’s okay, I’ll go get mine. Pick yourself whatever coffee mug you like the most; I’ll come back soon.”

 

Jean doesn’t understand what Jeremy means until he opens a few cupboards to find where the dishes are and sees a full shelf of mismatched coffee mugs. They all have stupid text or pictures on them, and Jean doesn’t need to hear the story to know this is some sort of a running joke of Jeremy and his roommates.  He turns the mugs around in his hands before settling for a mug that says ‘Living My Best Life!! ’. Jeremy seems the type of person who’d use it unironically, but Jean, with his haughty look and fading bruises on his face, black clothes and eyes bleary with exhaustion, clearly doesn’t. Jeremy seems to find his choice funny, because he gives Jean a toothy grin when he returns. Jeremy takes a black, chipped mug—it looks more used than the others—with the text 'I like my coffee as black as my soul' on it. He doesn’t get the joke until a little later, when Jeremy prepares them both coffee and then adds milk to his own mug until it’s barely soft beige; 70% milk, easily. He then gives Jean a brilliant smile. There could easily be a halo on top of his head, that’s how angelic he looks.

 

Jean feels like he’s being punched in the chest, but he swallows down that feeling with his coffee. They’re equally hard to swallow.

 

**

 

Slowly, Jean begins the process of healing. It’s hard, because most of the time he feels like he's not standing upright. Like he doesn't have a footing anymore. (Though, did he ever?)

 

Between having learnt how to count his self-worth in Raven wins and his profitability as a player, and being sold like a commodity to someone, Jean doesn't really know who he is and what he's worth.

 

Who is he when he’s not useful to anyone, anymore? What's the point of him if he's only a waste of space?

 

He was useful and convenient to his parents when they used him to settle a debt. He was useful to Riko because he wasn’t— isn’t? —a bad backliner. He was useful to the Ravens, like that, as well. He was useful to his teammates because it was Jean that Riko used as a punching bag before anyone else. He was useful when he tried to keep Neil Josten alive, even if they returned him barely in one piece.

 

He should be so, so grateful for the chance to finally find out who he is, to finally have the opportunity to figure out life on his own, outside of Exy. Make his own decisions.

 

Why does it feel so fucking scary, then?

 

Healing doesn’t feel like healing. It’s more like having to clean his bloody, dirty wounds; it hurts, but somewhere in the back of his mind he knows it’ll help. It’s like his head has been submerged in a bucket of saltwater; everything feels numbing, but the pain is still throbbing and ever-present.

 

It’s like he’s opened his eyes for the first time in years. Everything is—too much, too stimulating and too new. The only place he feels remotely at home is the court. It’s stupid, because Jean doesn’t think Evermore was ever home, and yet he still feels like he’s been dragged away from it. He feels immense relief that he’s not in the Nest anymore, but yet close to nothing feels comfortable. He feels off-balance even in the moments when he’s not panicking or having his anxiety levels go through the fucking roof, a bit like everything’s suddenly a mirror image; something feels wrong but he can’t put his finger on it.

 

Oh, there’s plenty wrong in LA, Jean thinks, but it’s a hell of an improvement on Evermore. Jean’s memories from Edgar Allan are bleak, heavy and grey, and the contrast to sunny California is stark. Hell, he is a contrast to everyone here. Jean is sure he looks like a ghost or like he’s seen a ghost, most of the time.

 

He doesn’t like it. He doesn’t like that someone might look at him and say, “he’s clearly still a Raven”.

 

Jean shifts on his feet and stares at himself in the mirror, eyes hard. When Renee came to take him away, Jean barely had half a mind to take his personal belongings with him, stuffing his duffel bag with whatever he found within arm’s length. He left with essentially no clothes except the ones he was wearing at the time of the phone call; a black, long-sleeved shirt and black jeans. Black is a Raven thing, even off-court.

 

It’s also harder to spot blood on dark fabrics.

 

Renee and Abby bought him enough clothes to get by, but they were clothes that didn’t chafe any wounds and were easy to change: large hoodies, soft t-shirts and college pants. That’s all Jean has now; he threw away the black attire from Evermore, since his dried blood on it was like a crusty shell and the mere thought made Jean queasy with nausea.

 

Jean considers how far he’s willing to demand and reach, but in the end it only takes him a few minutes to decide—he doesn’t want to go alone, but he needs to go shopping. He texts Renee and asks whether she’d be free to talk to Jean over the phone later, sort of to accompany him when he’s by himself. Jean thinks fleetingly about taking Jeremy with him, but the idea of someone waiting around while Jean is trying to figure out what kinds of clothes he likes feels awkward.

 

Renee texts him back almost immediately and says that she’s free whenever Jean is, and so Jean decides to just get it over with. He doesn’t look forward to shopping —as a concept— or shopping —being alone surrounded by dozens of other people in a store with chaotic music blasting in the stereos— but it’s better to just do it. He knows the first impression he’s given of himself isn’t the best one, and wearing the same pair of grey college pants day after day after day isn’t going to be doing him any favours.

 

He still has a few classes today—but after that he’s free, since he still hasn’t been given the green light to join practices. Jean insists he’s fine, but after Jeremy saw Jean’s faint limp and him favouring his right leg a week ago he hasn’t been listening to anything Jean says about his condition. Jean thinks Jeremy’s just overcautious because he’s a physiotherapy major. He also hates the way Jeremy’s eyes gaze over his frame like a fucking x-ray, ready to spot any injuries Jean’s lying to him about.

 

Renee is a good person and an amazingly good at keeping Jean company. Jean hates talking over the phone, because he’s not wasteful of his words and if you remove all the tiny flicks of his eyes, body language and hand gestures, there isn’t much left. Jean fears he’s not very good company. Renee doesn’t seem to mind; she talks to Jean about everything that’s going on with her life and fills Jean in about the Foxes, as well, talking about Kevin more than anyone else. Jean loves her for it. Jean doesn’t know how to reach out to Kevin; even if he did, he’s 100% positive Kevin doesn’t even want to hear from him. A part of him aches when he thinks about Kevin —and  won’t probably ever stop aching —  but hearing that he’s doing okay settles something fierce inside Jean. Renee asks questions Jean can easily answer: Yes, Jeremy Knox is exactly what everyone describes him as. No, Jean doesn’t like the climate. No, red and gold don't really suit him. Yes, he’ll start playing next Monday with the team.

 

Jean admits that he has no idea what kind of clothes would fit him, too used to wearing simple, black clothes whenever he’s not in Exy or gym gear. He’s determined to find something else, though. While Renee gives him helpful suggestions and helps Jean decide when he asks her things like “elbow patches, yes or no?” (no), Jean focuses more on Renee’s voice than the clothes before his eyes, to be honest—afraid that if he starts focusing on his surroundings, he’ll realise he’s all alone in the middle of a crowd, and start panicking. Renee, knowing of Jean’s current shortcomings, doesn’t let Jean think about it for too long, keeping his attention on her voice. She reminds him to get a few other items besides clothes he needs in the dorm— things like sheets, towels, school supplies. At the end of his shopping spree, Jean walks through the nearest store that sells all three and buys the first things he sees, choosing convenience over preference.

 

He ends up coming back to the dorms with three plastic bags of clothes and they’re all a different colour: yellow jeans, bright red sneakers, a pastel turquoise and lilac windbreaker jacket and regular t-shirts in browns, blues and greens.

 

His eyes hurt at the sight, but it still feels victoriously like the biggest fuck you in the universe.

 

When Jeremy comes home from practice a few hours later and glances at Jean studying in the living room, wearing four different colours simultaneously, his brows shoot up to his hairline and a wide grin appears on his face.  

 

“Hey Jean, the 90’s called and they want their colour palette back.”

 

“Fuck you. It’s not my fault you can’t pull off anything like this”, Jean grumbles at him. He can’t stop his face from heating up a little, knowing full well he looks ridiculous. He almost hurls the coffee mug Jeremy hands him a few minutes later back in his face, and not just because it says ‘You’re a little bitchy without coffee so here, take this’.

 

“I know”, Jeremy says good-naturedly as he starts gulping down his coffee like he’s only now getting his caffeine fix of the day. He’s walking between the living room and the bedroom, looking for the uni assignments and notes he’s missed again, Jean suspects. “You look insanely good in all that—how is that possible?”

 

Jean doesn’t know what to say to that so he just pretends he doesn’t hear him.

 

**

 

There are spots dancing in his peripheral vision and he has to lean his palms against his knees; he can’t get enough air standing up. Sweat trickles down his back and drops from the tip of his nose. He’d find it embarrassing unless the feeling wasn’t overridden with endorphins. Even with all the baggage and trauma tied together with Exy in his brain, he still has a fondness for it; the court is the only place where he’s ever been able to run free, use up all his miserable, terrified, angry energy, and he’s always been good while he’s at it.

 

“So,” a hand comes down to rest on Jean’s upper back. Jean doesn’t miss it’s not like the slaps on his back that used to scare Jean shitless from the surprise and the force of it. No; it’s careful. First, a step into Jean’s vision, then a careful, gentle hand on him. Jean wonders whether it’s intentional because of Jean or whether Jeremy is just like that - incredibly mindful. “Still thinking about those Raven drills?”

 

“You’re crazy. All of you,” Jean wheezes out between pants. Granted, this is the first time he’s had a full practice since...since Evermore. Since Riko flipped his lid. Again. For the last time. There are still marks, cuts and bruises on him and Jean wonders whether they’ll ever leave his body. The Trojans’ nurse Florence said that Jean should take care of getting enough nutrients and vitamins, that any deficiencies might slow down the healing. Jean didn't even have to ask - she’d just noticed, how during his physical Jean’s gaze had kept returning to the bruises he knew were from fingertips, on his thighs.

 

Jean straightens his back and flips his sweaty, wet hair from his forehead. The look he gives Jeremy says I’m going to kill you in your sleep.

 

Jeremy’s grin goes even wider. “Did you think we just give hugs and words of encouragement to each other on the court?”

 

“Yes,” Jean says and lifts his hands over his head to relieve the pressure in his neck. How the Trojans play is different from the Ravens - he knew that even before ever playing against them because of how they dissected their opponents’ teams thoroughly back in the Nest. Jean knows what the Trojans are like in a game, but he didn’t know how they practised until today. The Trojans make everything look easy and fun— and now Jean sort of regrets that he didn’t psyche himself up for this beforehand. Of course there’d be a lot of work behind all that easy-going attitude. He of all people should know what can lie beneath the surface.

 

Their practice, hard and unforgiving, consisted of laps, speed exercises and a practice game. Jean just tried his best to keep up and adjust to weird new drills and a complete new pacing when it came to practising. He faintly remembers just how exhausted he was when he joined the Ravens, how his heart had to learn how to pump blood in a whole different speed, how he had to get used to his muscles going lactic acid and the taste of copper in his mouth. This was nothing as bad as that, but Jean is— impressed.

 

There’s a flicker of excitement in his chest, but it isn’t quite enough to surpass the wariness that’s constantly his companion these days. Hell, when has it ever not been?

 

He’s a little humbled by how poorly he was able to keep up with the Trojans, but he blames his injuries for it. He’s been here for a few weeks now and they—Florence and Jeremy, mostly—agreed that he’d be given at least a week to settle in and nurse his lingering wounds. He repeated, multiple times, that he was fine and that he’s played entire games in much, much more worse states. At that, Jeremy looked at him, quiet and collected, and said that that was precisely why he wanted to make Jean wait longer.

 

“I might’ve gone a little harder today than usual. You know, to show you what we’ve got,” Jeremy says lightly and waits beside Jean until he’s sure that his legs won’t give out when he takes a step forward.

 

Jean blames his absolute exhaustion for what happens next. He knows where he is—it’s hard to ignore with the bright colours of gold and red, the Trojans banners and logos hanging from the ceiling, and the chatty, easy discussion around him the Nest never had—but he still can’t stop himself.

 

“Hey, Moreau!” someone yells at Jean, and it takes Jean a moment to process the voice and realise it’s Alvarez. Jean has just enough time to turn around on his heels before she yells: “You forgot your racquet. Here, catch!”

 

She grins and throws Jean’s racquet—indeed, forgotten on the floor right next to where Jean spent the last five minutes heaving and puffing—at him. It’s a controlled throw, one she clearly wants Jean to catch. Jean doesn’t. Something in his brain simply short-circuits and his world flips sideways. He doesn’t even attempt to catch the racquet, instead just flinching on instinct and covering his face like he was whipped across the mouth with a lash. He steps backwards and trips over his own feet, falling ass-first onto the ground. Jean’s vision swims before his eyes and his heart slams against his ribs like it’s desperate to claw its way out of Jean’s chest —like a caged animal being held in a tiny room against its will.

 

Jean tries apologising to Alvarez, feeling like an absolute fool for not catching the racquet as it clatters to Jean’s feet, but nothing comes out of his mouth except tiny gasps of breath. He wants out but his legs won’t work - like his feet are nailed to the floor by daggers of ice. Everything hurts.

 

He’s faintly aware of Alvarez’s alarmed look, how Jeremy crouches down next to Jean. He lifts Jean up with success even though Jean’s legs keep buckling, murmuring it’s alright, we’ll go grab some water and take a five, yes? Jean wants to punch him for treating Jean like a child but, honestly? He can’t get out of the court fast enough. Blindly, he let’s Jeremy lead him out, only crumbling down the wall when they’re outside the building.

 

He buries his face in his knees, breathing in and out in a way he’s dealt with panic attacks before — imagining a slowly expanding and shrinking circle before his eyes, trying to match his breath to the tempo.

 

Jeremy lets him have his moment even though he’s awkwardly shuffling on his feet, hovering close to Jean but not touching. He seems anxious to maybe go get Florence or at least Coach, but he doesn’t want to leave Jean. He places a bottle of water on the ground next to Jean’s legs.

 

“Can you—can you breathe okay?”

 

Jean nods his head. He just needs some time, that’s all. The chilly feeling in his lower back hasn’t left yet, but he keeps saying you’re okay, you’re okay, you’re okay to himself like a mantra. He’s safe, no matter what his treacherous body that’s filled with landmines of trauma thinks.

 

Jean can’t even tell which memory flashed before his eyes as Alvarez threw the racquet at him. Maybe the first time Riko broke his nose with one, precise crack of his racquet and Jean ended up concussed as Riko didn’t exactly bother avoiding the rest of his face? Maybe the second? Or maybe when he applied his racquet against Jean’s windpipe after making him run laps around the court for what felt like hours? They all merge together into one, big tangle of aching memory in his head; he only remembers the pain, how he was forced to stand his ground and take it, how when he opened his eyes again he only saw his own bloodied feet, his black sneakers creating a perfect colour palette for the Ravens when his bright red blood got mixed in it.

 

“I’m sorry. Alvarez—she, she didn’t think—she doesn't know —“

 

“No,” Jean shakes his head, taking the cold water bottle next to his feet, placing against his sweaty forehead. He takes a breath and it doesn’t get caught up in his throat, and for that he’s grateful. “It’s fine. I was caught off guard. I’ll be prepared next time.” He’d let down his defences, confident and relieved of being surrounded by red and gold, and that ended up biting him in the ass. If he were back in Evermore, he would’ve readied himself for an incoming punch and stand his ground when it happened, as per instructions. If he flinched, the upcoming punishment would be worse. Something like this wouldn’t have happened there as he was always expecting the worst, always ready for it.

 

“I’ll be prepared,” he repeats, weakly.

 

“Jean — no ,” Jeremy says, quiet and gently, and Jean can’t stand the pity in his voice. “That won’t happen again, I promise.”

 

Jean swallows and it feels like choking.

 

“Fuck off.”

 

**

 

Jeremy is nothing like Jean expected—and at the same time, everything. Jeremy has a reputation of being the sunniest, kindest person on earth, and that instantly makes Jean wary to be around him because there has to be something more under the surface, right? Jean’s spent most of his life living around lies, treachery, violence and pain. He doesn’t trust it when someone puts on a pretty front and smiles for the cameras. He doesn’t believe someone could be as genuine as they seem. All Jean knows about other people is that there is always a layer after a layer after a layer—smoke and mirrors.

 

But Jeremy is exactly what he seems. He hasn’t got even a hair of maliciousness in him. He’s not short-tempered even in the mornings. He just wakes up and, by some magic, is ready for the day with open arms and a dazzling smile—whereas Jean drags his sleepy haze around with him for hours after waking.

 

Jeremy doesn’t seem bothered by Jean’s presence or the fact that Jean is a huge, huge weight on the Trojans. With the Ravens still dealing with negative press of the investigation and their perfect cult crumbling down bit by bit after their loss after Kevin decided to fuck it , after their star player and King—supposedly—killed himself after losing at the finals, the Trojans taking a Raven under their wing was not exactly a power move. Jean Moreau is a good backliner and Edgar Allan is still a prestigious team, but with everything slowly unraveling, from harsh teaching methods to players leaving the team to Tetsuji stepping down from coaching, the Ravens now have an undertone that can’t be dismissed.

 

And Jean, with the number three tattooed on his cheek and his harsh, unlikeable personality, doesn’t belong with the Trojans.

 

And yet, despite everything, against every rule and assumption, Jeremy tries to be Jean’s friend.

 

Jeremy, who’s all smiles and confidence and unwavering passion for Exy, for his team, for life, took Jean in without even a blink, like Jean isn’t a burden and a liability to the team. He’s even—he—

 

—he talks to Jean, outside of Exy. Outside of being roommates. Outside—everything.  

 

He talks to Jean like Jean’s entire existence isn’t a neatly wrapped tragedy. He walks with Jean to practices and back and accompanies Jean to his classes, only departing with him when he realises he’s late for his own (“Oh, for the love of - Jean, how’s my hair? I think I need to play suck up to the sub today again” - “Your hair’s not gonna save you, Jeremy. Better just run.”). Jeremy was shocked to find out how abysmal Jean’s knowledge of tv shows and movies is, so he invites Jean to watch whatever trash he’s hooked on with him several times a week.

 

That’s one of the things that leave Jean feeling out of focus all the time — how much the Trojans spend time together outside of Exy. He doesn’t understand it at all, and Jean feels like he’s learning English as a secondary language again — except this time it’s human behaviour he can’t quite understand; he knows the basic laws and concepts, but new situations throw him off. The Ravens spent all their time together but it was simply out of necessity. It was nothing like this — spending time with teammates just because you want to, doing things together that have nothing to do with Exy.

 

His first, impulsive reaction upon discovering all this was that the time the Trojans spend time talking gossip, watching movies and going on car rides together, they could be practising to be better . Back in Evermore, Jean sometimes spent every waking moment of his day on his feet repeating the same drills over and over again. Sometimes days merged together, only pulled apart by mandatory school lectures here and there. If the Trojans would do the same, they’d be— invincible.

 

Jean almost feels like clawing out the tendons in his hands when he realises just how fucked up he is. He can’t block the constant stream of comparison, and the direction of his thought never fails to make him heartbroken because it always follows the same pattern: This isn’t done right. They’re not trying hard enough. They’re lazy. They’re - happy. Have I ever been? I don’t think so.

 

**

 

Jeremy has an infuriatingly efficient way of inserting himself into every aspect of Jean’s life. Jean expected himself to be a part of USC Trojans and then figuring himself out alongside, alone. He didn’t expect he would spend time with any of the team members outside of Exy. He would never have guessed he’d someday be living a life where he wakes up in the morning to the sound of the kettle and know that in a couple of minutes he’d be handed fresh (instant) coffee to bed. (It sounds weirder than it actually is - Jeremy just likes drinking his morning coffee in bed instead of the living room, answering texts on his phone or going through notes for a class for 20 minutes before getting dressed —he’s just polite enough to bring coffee for Jean, too.)

 

Jean still battles with insomnia, nightmares and restless sleep so he’s usually incredibly tired each and every morning when his alarm goes off. He remembers that back in the Nest he fell asleep the second his head hit the pillow, having programmed himself to get sleep and peace when he had the chance. On top of that, he was always nurturing both old and fresh wounds and his body was doing its absolute best trying to fix everything — and knocking him out cold with sleep seemed to be the most efficient way of doing some damage control. But now he isn’t being stretched to his absolute limits and beyond every day, and that results in his body vibrating with all kinds of feelings in the middle of the night, interrupting his sleep. Hopelessness, sometimes. Sometimes hesitant hope, or contentment after a good game. Nightmares, every now and then.

 

Jean hopes he hasn’t woken Jeremy up during the night because of his nightmares or otherwise restless trashing. He hasn’t at least said anything. Then again, he isn’t the type of person to bring up something like that. No—instead of keeping tabs on the state of the black circles around Jean’s eyes, Jeremy has taken a habit of coming back from the kitchen with two coffee cups in his hands. The other he places on Jean’s bedside table, the other he cradles between his hands.

 

Jeremy seems to find Jean’s aversion to his wide collection of tasteless mugs funny, and so he picks a different one for Jean every morning. At first Jean didn’t notice it, simply reaching for a pick-me-up with his eyes half-closed, but now he’s started paying attention—and he sees Jeremy expecting Jean’s reaction from the corner of his eye. Jean usually just rolls his eyes in mild exasperation, but that seems to be enough for Jeremy, gathering from the smug-yet-happy look on his face.

 

Jeremy pays attention to Jean and his moods in general as well. Jean’s a little annoyed by it, but Jeremy does it so effortlessly and genuinely that Jean finds he can’t be mad about it. If Jeremy’s being considerate towards Jean during Exy practices, he’s a saint when it comes to everything else.

 

Jean’s therapist —a much better one than Burges, thank god —says he’s got to give himself time to adjust and be kind and all that shit; after being in a very controlled, tight space for years, it’s going to be a while until he’s used to a different environment, whether he likes it or not. She suggested that Jean should open up to a friend about his issues, saying that he would probably feel more comfortable if someone sharing his space knew about Jean’s thoughts and fears. Jean ignored the request with a dismissive gesture of his hand, thinking he didn’t want to drag anyone further deep with his issues; him being here is burden enough.

 

But Jean didn’t have to tell Jeremy anything. Not about his social anxiety, his depressive thoughts or his occasional panic attacks. No—Jeremy — a certified mind-reader, Jean’s sure— simply starts adjusting his own schedule around Jean so that they leave at the same time in the morning. He takes note of Jean’s classes—Jean has the schedule taped on the fridge door —and more often than not Jean finds Jeremy already waiting for him outside classrooms when his classes ends. And when their schedules overlap, he texts Jean. Stupid, meaningless things like ‘I just saw a cat inside someone’s hoodie at class??’ and ‘the person next to me cracked open a can of energy drink and it made me remember I’m a weak, weak man. Stop me if I ever want to relapse and drink them’ . Somehow, it all makes Jean feel more grounded. Annoyed as fuck, too.

 

It makes Jean think he doesn’t quite deserve all this. It makes him try his fucking hardest at Exy because Jeremy deserves to see Jean at his best. Jean feels far from his best even if his physical injuries are almost all healed by now, but he tries. It’s hard and sometimes he can only do the bare minimum—which is that he shows up. Despite Jean’s fluctuating motivation, Jeremy always gives him a warm, friendly smile when he sees him pick up a racquet.

 

—and something inside Jean uncoils every single time. 

 

**

 

“A soda or something else?” Jeremy yells from the kitchen.

 

A small horde of Trojans all yell simultaneously, answers varying from ‘a soda with ice’ to ‘d’you have gin?’ and ‘I want coffee!’ Jean regards them from the spot two-seat sofa he’s vacated. The Trojans are a fairly big team and Jeremy seems to be good friends with all of them, but he has a few people he likes to spend more time with: Laila Dermott, their goalkeeper, and her girlfriend Teresa Alvarez. Alvarez is a backliner, too, so Jean spends quite a lot of time on the court communicating with her. Then there are Aidan Kelley — defence — and Spencer Helberg — striker — who were Jeremy’s roommates — still officially are — before Jeremy kicked them out until Jean’s settled down. Jean has insisted that they are more than welcome to move back in whenever they like, but they always shrug him off like it’s not a big deal. Jean’s not sure whether he should feel insulted or simply relieved. Relieved, maybe, since he has needed to use the empty bedroom a few times when, after a nightmare, he couldn’t stand to be in the same room with another person, the shared space far too suffocating and instantly triggering his fight or flight response (flight flight flight flight) . Besides—it’s not like Jean’s depriving Jeremy of his friends when they’re spending most of their time together, anyway; they gather at least a few nights of the week in someone’s dorm room. Usually Jeremy and Jean’s because they have the biggest living room with enough space for everyone, thanks to the ugly couches Jeremy has acquired.

 

“I was only asking Jean but, like, whatever,” Jeremy sing-songs from the kitchen and, with dramatic sigh, starts looking for more glasses to fulfill his friends’ demands.

 

“Favouritism!” Kelley gasps, his mouth full of cheese puffs. “Jeremy, I thought you were one of the good ones.”

 

“I’ve never made such claims,” Jeremy says and looks at Jean expectantly. “So, Moreau?”

 

“I have two functioning legs,” says Jean.

 

Jeremy’s mouth quirks up. “Good for you! Should I just bring you a soda, then?”

 

Jean shrugs a shoulder. “If you like.”

 

Jeremy does, and four minutes late he’s handing everyone refills on their drinks. He then sits back down next to Jean on the sofa with complete ease. They unpause the movie they’re watching and Dermott continues her running commentary on the events of the first movie (because they’re watching a sequel and Jean hasn’t seen the first one either, obviously). Jean is listening only with half an ear, too busy staring at the mug Jeremy gave him.

 

“You brute. Why did you pour my fucking soda into a cup?” Jean huffs a breath. He already knows why — Jeremy is doing his stupid mug thing again where he tries to get Jean to react to whatever shitty pun is printed on it. Jean is sure that Jeremy orders them somewhere, custom-made, because there is no way in hell a store would sell something as atrocious as ‘irony is the opposite of wrinkly’ . But then again, the whole team seems to be on board with Jeremy’s weird obsession, and Jean guesses that 27 idiots looking for the worst, worst coffee cups in the world is more efficient than just one idiot.

 

Jean turns the mug in his hands enough to see the text on in, and then— blinks. His wrist twitches and he almost knocks the contents of the mug in his lap. It’s white, with the Trojans’ logo on the left, and next to it, in golden and red—

 

Jean Moreau

#29

 

He takes a shaky breath and lifts his gaze to Jeremy who actually looks a little bashful, for once.

 

“I have one too,” Jeremy offers. “It’s tradition. Well, my tradition. Your name looks good in red and gold, no?”

 

Jean’s speechless, overcome by a rush of everything at once. These stupid, small things Jeremy keeps doing for him twist something inside him so tightly he feels like he might snap, and he doesn’t know what’s going to happen if he does. He’s afraid to find out, but the lingering, growing feeling of giddiness inside him is equally terrifying.

 

Sometimes, Jean estimates how his day is going by imagining he’s texting Renee. (He does, in reality, a few times a week, but he doesn’t want to babble every insipid thing in his mind to her, so he’s taken this as sort of a side coping mechanism.) He’s finding hard to imagine how he would be able to summarise just how significant and meaningful something like this feels to him. Today was a good day because Jeremy got me a coffee mug. That’s it. It’s true, and it’s important.

 

“You mean the ‘Jeremy Knox - Exy captain by day, superhero by night’ mug?” Jean asks when he finally gets his voice back.

 

Jeremy grins; it was a birthday present from Dermott and Alvarez and he loves that mug.

 

“Ha! I mean,” Jeremy says and points at Jean’s mug, “one with my name and player number. But we can get one like that for you too,” he says.

 

“And what would it say?” Jean asks. His thumb keeps caressing the rim of the mug with his thumb.

 

Jeremy purses his lips in thought. “Backliner extraordinaire by day, incredibly h —”

 

“Jeremy!” Helberg says over his shoulder from where he’s sat himself between Kelley’s legs. “Will you stop flirting with Jean and let us watch the movie?”

 

Jean can’t help but glancing at Jeremy at that, but he doesn’t seem bothered, only flipping Helberg the finger with a grin.

 

Jean doesn’t know what he should make of that; how unbothered Jeremy is of Helberg’s quip, or how unbothered he is of it. Jean has purposely tried to put Jeremy in the ‘objectively attractive’ pile in his head. Jean, distantly, knows he finds Jeremy pleasant in almost every way possible (even when he’s being infuriating with his weird little quirks and trying to get a rise out of Jean at least nine times each day) but he always shoves the thought deep, deep down.

 

Jeremy is popular. Among both boys and girls. He talks a lot on the phone and gets interrupted on his way to class. He always looks delighted when someone stops him in the hallway to talk, being the epitome of sunshine that he is. He never lets any of it interfere with Exy, though, politely turning down propositions in favour of spending a few extra hours on the court or hanging out with the Trojans.

 

Jean doesn’t know whether Jeremy’s straight or not. He hasn’t thought about it— and if he’s completely honest with himself, he doesn’t even want to get into that. Because if Jean were interested in Jeremy, through all his barriers and walls, he doesn’t think Jeremy would ever find him even remotely passable. Jean’s not pitying himself; it’s just facts. They’re too different and Jean feels like he’s already pushing his luck by having Jeremy as a friend, so he immediately shuts those doors.

 

**

Or rather, tries to. Despite Jean’s efforts, it’s getting harder and harder to ignore Jeremy. Jean’s fully aware at least half the school has a crush on Jeremy—him being the perfect mix of a golden retriever, passionate athlete, perfect son-in-law and a hot jock—and he’s careful not to stand in that line, as well.

 

It’s just so hard when Jeremy is such a big contrast to everything Jean’s ever experienced. It’s an uphill battle not the get caught up in it. In him.

 

Jean wants everything Jeremy is. He wants the life he radiates, he wants to be surrounded by his presence, he wants to—not be him, but rather—

 

Well. When Jeremy smiles, Jean understands exactly why all those reporters lose their train of thought.

 

When Jeremy looks at Jean, Jean feels understood. He feels like there’s someone on his side, someone who wants him to be happy. Jean wants Jeremy to feel like Jean’s got his back, as well. He doesn’t really know how to show it except by doing his best at Exy and agree to whatever stupid movie Jeremy wants to watch. He doesn’t know how to explain just how Jeremy's mere existence makes it easier for Jean to breathe.

 

Jean's not good at reaching out, okay?

 

But when Jeremy suddenly leaves for a three-day holiday in the middle of the week, Jean tries to. The reason behind his holiday is hush-hush, but that tells Jean enough. Jean knows it’s something bad, from the way Jeremy informs only Rhemann and Jean of his holiday, and how Rhemann doesn’t even blink before letting Jeremy skip close to twenty hours of practice. During his absence, Jeremy—being the saint that he is— keeps texting Jean at least twice a day—maybe to ease Jean’s separation anxiety or simply to keep him company.  Jean’s uneasiness from being left alone gets forgotten and morphs into worry towards Jeremy. He’s up every night, the cursor of his phone’s keyboard blinking alone in the chat window, desperate to come up with something to make Jeremy feel better. He doesn’t come up with anything, and it’s frustrating.

 

So when Jeremy comes back home, four days later, at 10 pm, Jean’s not surprised to see his eyes tired and lifeless. Jeremy still smiles at Jean like nothing could ever affect him, and says, “Wow. I know this will sound super douche-y, but flying economy? Ouch.”

 

Jean isn’t fooled by the brave front Jeremy’s putting on. He waits a few careful beats before opening his mouth.  “Do you—want to talk about it?”

 

Jeremy’s shoulders sag. “Hell, no.” The defeated tone in his voice makes Jean ache.

 

Jean considers whether there are any words he could say to make Jeremy feel better. He comes up with nothing.

 

“Do you want to sleep?” He asks instead.

 

A sigh. “No.”

 

Jean gets up on the sofa and fishes Jeremy's keys from his hand. “Change into something more comfortable, then. We're going to the court.”

 

Jeremy looks tired in a way Jeans never seen before, and for a moment Jean thinks he's pushing it, but Jeremy only blinks as he drops his bag onto the floor and disappears into his room, only to come back a minute later wearing sweatpants and a hoodie.

 

At the court, time stops. Just like Jean hoped, like it always does.

 

Jean takes charge of their conversation for once, talking to Jeremy about the Trojans, the Ravens. Everything he’s observed, everything he's learned. Anything to do with Exy, anything to distract Jeremy.

 

He places a row of cones to the far end of the court. “Kevin was always really anal about everyone perfecting this drill,” he offers in a uncharacteristic bout of honesty.  “With me being Riko’s third, Kevin made sure I would keep up with him and Riko. My hand cramped for three days after he first made me do this.”

 

“This?” Jeremy's voice is still a little disconnected, but Jean can hear interest perking up.

 

“What we’re about to do.” Jean points out to the cones. “You’ll knock them down one by one, maximum of three seconds between hits. Start from the one in the far left, then the right one, making your way towards the center. If you miss, you’ll start again.” In theory, the drill sounds pretty simple, but in practise it requires loads of strength, precision and speed. If you manage to hit the first two cones, you’ll surely fail at the third strike because you’ll either miss the cone, underestimate the distance to it or spend too much time adjusting your aim that you’ll miss the three second window. Jean should know.

 

So far, despite his dedication to Jeremy and the Trojans out of sheer gratitude, Jean’s taken a passive role in the team. He shows up, he tries his best, he leaves. His motivation fluctuates and he only gives his input and effort some days. He answers to Jeremy’s questions and inquiries, but he isn’t passionate about it. Jean is sure he still loves Exy, but he can’t seem to make it his top priority, right now. He’s certainly never suggested anything like this to Jeremy before, hasn’t even thought about what he could bring to the team besides his skills as a backliner. Jeremy hasn’t pried even though he’s shown interest in Jean’s sometimes painstakingly different playing tactic, too busy being tactful of Jean’s past trauma and reluctance towards talking about it.

 

The look on Jeremy’s face right now is flabbergasted, both in hearing Jean actually give him something and the content of his words.

 

“That’s not possible,” Jeremy says.

 

“No?” Jean lifts a brow and hurls the first two balls towards the cones in left and right, respectively, effortlessly knocking them over.

 

“That’s - Jean, you’re not even a striker and you’ve got more finesse than me!” Jeremy says and he’s shocked in a way that tells Jean he hasn’t realised the depth of Jean’s skill - or the fact that Jean still does have some skill left. Jean hasn’t given him much to work with, so it’s really not his fault.

 

“Despite that we sometimes worked around the clock with the Ravens, despite Riko’s utopian dreams of grandeur that made everyone in the team lose the skin of their palms daily, despite Kevin’s batshit crazy dedication to Exy that he imposed on me as well,” Jean talks as he goes to correct the cones he knocked over, “I would still sometimes come to the court, all alone, when something was bothering me. It might not have been the healthiest way to deal with it, but it was the only way I knew how to.”

 

Jeremy looks at him and there are questions on his lips, but he seems to decide to drop them for now, and, with a determined nod, gathers his racquet and starts practising as per Jean’s instructions.

 

At 20 minutes, he can only hit three of the cones in a row.

 

At 45, he gets frustrated and almost flings his racquet at Jean when Jean doesn’t say anything, only walking to pick up the cones he’s managed to knock over.

 

At 70 minutes, Jeremy starts talking. He tells Jean why he went to see his family, how he spent the last three days trying to talk his step sister into going to rehab— pleading —and how it all fell on deaf ears. Jean doesn’t interrupt him, letting Jeremy talk and talk and talk until his numb, tight face morphs into exhaustion, the kind that leaves you feeling empty but cleansed inside out. Jean’s a little heartbroken to learn about all the fucked up things in Jeremy’s family, but he decides not to voice out his sympathy because, right now, Jeremy needs distraction, not pity.

 

At 120 minutes, Jeremy is shaking with exhaustion and he’s clutching his right bicep in a manner that indicates he’s about to injure it if they continue practising, so they stop. The second Jean says “all right, I think that’s enough”, Jeremy’s racquet slips from his fingers and clatters to the floor.

 

“Out of curiosity, what do we do when I can knock over all of them?” He asks, wiping sweat from his forehead, panting into the crook of his elbow as he goes to  lie down on the floor next to the racquet.

 

“Then you’ll learn to do the same with your left,” Jean says.

 

A pause. “Can you?”

 

Jean shakes his head. “No. Neither did Kevin, back then. I think—I think that’s why Riko only bashed his other hand. He didn’t think Kevin would ever play after that,” he says, then licks his lips. “It was lucky Kevin wasn’t determined to perfect his game with his non-dominant hand back then. If Riko’d seen it…” He lets the ending of the sentence die.

 

Jeremy lifts himself enough to lean on his elbows and look at Jean. “This is the most you’ve talked to me about—your life before the Trojans,” he observes and Jean doesn’t miss the way he pauses in the middle. Jean thinks he might’ve wanted to say “about Riko” or even “about Kevin”.

 

Jean shrugs a shoulder. “There’s something about an empty court. Makes you want to work through your shit.”

 

What he means is, I’m giving you something to show you I trust you, and that you can trust me, too.

 

He offers Jeremy a hand to help him up. Jeremy accepts it with a genuine, shy smile.

 

**

 

For the longest time, Jean never dreamed. He guesses his body was too focused on keeping him alive and functioning that there simply wasn’t enough energy to ever dream.

 

The nightmares started the second he left Evermore. Sometimes they are excruciatingly accurate memories from what happened; sometimes they are simple what-ifs. What if Riko hadn’t stopped, what if Jean had hit back, what if someone had found him earlier, what if he’d never left?

 

Sometimes Jean can’t remember the dream; he just knows it was a nightmare from the phantom feeling of wet fabric in his face, making him jolt up and scramble the sheets off of him. Jeremy never wakes up when Jean does, so at least Jean doesn’t have a habit of dying his his sleep loudly.

Jean still always wants to make sure, through his bleary, tired panic, that he hasn’t woken up Jeremy, which is why he tonight, as well, glances towards Jeremy’s bed the second his eyes stop playing a film in front of him. He expects to see a bunch of messy hair under under a mountain of blankets, but the bed is empty.

 

Jean blinks away the fuzziness surrounding his brain. It takes him a moment to process, but when the the realisation hits him, it hits like a fist to the throat. Jeremy hasn’t come home tonight.

 

Jean thinks, no.

 

No, no, no.

 

He gets up, his heart hammering in his chest so loudly and violently that it makes him want to throw up. A cold, cold chill runs through him and settles on his lower back—Jean wants to scratch the feeling right out of him.

 

He left Evermore. He left.

 

The weight of those words surrounds him like suffocating smoke.

 

He was their property,

 

and he left.

 

Jean’s seen this before—Riko warning the person he wants to destroy by hurting their loved ones, first. Inching closer and closer and closer.

 

Riko is dead. Dead, dead, dead.

 

Repeating it doesn’t help Jean, the words not connecting; there are only scattered thoughts crossing his mind.

 

While Riko’s abuse was a nightmare now ended, the Moriyamas are still there - and they all know what Jean did.

 

Jean’s deal is only valid for as long as Ichirou decides so.

 

Jean was insolent, and now they’ve taken Jeremy.

 

Hot, panicky tears are rolling down Jean’s cheeks, and it’s humiliating. He needs to get out, he needs to know where Jeremy is—is he—is he still—?

 

Jean stumbles to the living room, forcing his legs to work because he’s almost convinced he’s going to meet faces from his past waiting for him there. It’s empty, and faintly Jean thinks he might be overreacting, but that thought doesn’t quite hit home. His hands shake like it’s the night he left Evermore all over again, and the feeling of there’s no way I can win this is heavy, devastating and familiar. He finds his phone in his hand, surprised, not remembering grabbing it from the nightstand when he got up. His phone saved him the last time; maybe it’ll save him now, as well.

 

He tries once more to push logic to the surface, but with feeling like someone is crushing his lungs in their fist makes it’s impossible.  He can’t talk sense into himself. All he knows is that Jeremy always comes home. He cares too much about Exy and school to go to parties or meetings late in the evening. And If he does, he always makes sure to be back at the dorm by eleven. Now it’s already 1.34 am and there’s no sign of him.

 

Jean’s hands are shaking but he manages to text Alvarez, knowing she sometimes stays up late to play video games from when Dermott loudly voices her concern at practices towards her sleepy yawns. The fact that she only ever looks concerned when her girlfriend is keeling over in exhaustion instead of berating her for staying up playing tells Jean that maybe she battles insomnia or something of the like.

 

Jean is very, very lucky, because it barely takes a minute for Alvarez to answer Jean.

 

“im not sure but he talked abt going on a date this week, maybe its that?  is he not home yet”

 

It makes sense, it does. Jeremy is popular, of course he’d be on a date on Friday night. But a part of him still thinks it’s too convenient an explanation. He feels his throat slamming shut at the force of his anxiety and the vivid memory of I don’t know what to do.

 

Jean closes his eyes and he can’t get a hold of a single clear thought. He should decide on whether to believe everything is fine or either go looking for Jeremy if he thinks he’s truly in danger.

 

Pick one, pickonepickonepickone.

 

He’s so conflicted he feels dizzy with it. In theory, he knows everything should be fine, but every atom of him, every bit of DNA in him is screaming in fear and doubt. He lets out a loud, helpless sob and leans against the wall behind him.

 

He should just call Jeremy and make sure he’s okay. Jean can’t. He’s distantly aware that his phone is pinging with more messages but it’s just dead weight in his hand, by now. He’s hot and nauseated — he knows it’s just a panic attack, but the knowledge isn’t making it any easier to bear.

 

Somewhere, he hears Kevin calling his name.

 

A key turns in the lock and Jean wants to die. In the one second it takes the door to fully open, Jean thinks it can't be Riko — knowing it will be, nonetheless.

 

Jean blinks.

 

It’s Jeremy. In one piece. There’s no blood visible —it doesn’t mean anything, but Jean still almost keels over in relief.

 

“Jean? Teresa called me—is everything—”

 

Jeremy’s voice cuts through the haze in Jean’s mind like glass, forcing its way through Jean’s overworked and heated brain.

 

“Oh - shit," Jeremy says quiet enough that it seems like he’s talking to himself, not Jean. Jean’s face must be like a slideshow of everything going on in his head because the look on Jeremy’s face is all worry and remorse. He crosses the room in a few quick steps and stops in front of Jean. Jean, who’s breathless with relief and mortified with embarrassment. He’s still clutching his phone in his hands, and he crumbles a bit against the wall behind him. The walls around him aren’t caving in; Jean is.

 

“Hey, you,” Jeremy says and this time it’s definitely directed at Jean. Jean’s heart thumps against his throat so hard he feels it close up.

 

He wants to hug Jeremy. He wants to punch him. He wants to check Jeremy for injuries, methodically go through his body, starting from temples —making sure his pupils are the right size. Then moving onto his throat; untouched? Then collarbones, hands, elbows—Jeremy’s instrument. He can’t play if he’s got a hand injury, he —Jean wants to check Jeremy’s sides, stomach and back to see there’s no bruises or cuts around his kidneys, his ribs, his —

 

“Jean.” Jeremy’s voice is insistent, but not loud. “Jean, look at me.”

 

“I am looking,” Jean says through the ringing in his ears, through the tremors and the sweat.

 

“No, you shit. Look me in the face.

 

Jean can’t lift his eyes from Jeremy’s body. It looks unharmed, and yet yet yet . The phone in his hands clatters to the floor as Jean’s fingers reach for the hem of Jeremy’s shirt.

 

He feels warm hands grabbing his cheeks and lifting his head. Jeremy’s palms cradle Jean’s chin and Jean shivers, just a bit.

 

“Breathe,” Jeremy says. There’s a kind smile on his face and he doesn’t let Jean to look elsewhere than Jeremy’s face.

 

“You’re —“ Jean doesn’t want to finish the sentence. It all sounds ridiculous. Of course he’s alive. Of course he’s well. “I am breathing.”

 

“No, you’re not,” Jeremy says, and the palms on his neck tighten just the tiniest bit, enough to push his reassurance through Jean’s layers. “Try harder.”

 

Jean does. The alarms in his head go louder and the fire in his chest turns hotter with every gasping breath. He feels weak and insignificant like there’s a whole volcano inside him erupting, and it that doesn’t care if whether he tears apart in the process or not. There are scorchingly hot tears travelling down his cheeks, to Jeremy’s fingers.

 

“I’m not crying,” Jean says, meaning it’s just a reaction to stress, I’m not sad.

 

“I know,” Jeremy says. “Keep breathing.”

 

He does, closing his eyes and letting the ridiculously small puffs of breaths be his center until they get longer.

 

Jeremy is unwavering as he’s standing in front of him. His thumbs stroke Jean’s cheeks to say I’m here, and I’m fine.

 

To say, it’s all alright.

 

As if to say, I’m here for you.

 

**

 

After Jean’s embarrassingly vivid, telling panic attack, Jeremy starts to make sure to let Jean know if he’s going somewhere without Jean. Jean brushes it off with a violent shrug of his shoulder, telling Jeremy he’s not accountable to Jean in any way. Jeremy still doesn’t stop. They don’t talk about the fact that Jeremy left his date in the middle of the night for Jean. Jean’s too embarrassed to even think about it; what Jeremy thinks of him after he made a huge scene out of being left alone during the night.

 

He was just surprised, that’s all. If he hadn’t had a nightmare and if he’d known where Jeremy was, he would never have freaked out. Simple as that.

 

Still doesn’t mean Jean can look Jeremy in the eye for the next week.

 

Jeremy doesn’t let Jean ignore him. Either he’s not bothered by what happened or he’s just infuriatingly persistent in not letting Jean act like a complete shit to him. They walk together to classes and back. Jeremy tags along to Jean’s runs. Jeremy makes Jean watch his old Exy favourites with him. Jeremy talks to Jean in practises. Jeremy keeps courting Jean’s sense of humour with his stupid mugs. He always, always keeps an eye on Jean.

 

No one has ever tried so hard to reach Jean and Jean doesn’t know what to think about it.

 

**

 

“Kevin asks how you are.”

 

Jean freezes mid-movement, pen in hand. He’s been taking notes of what’s happening over in Europe, politics vice, by surfing around the internet on Jeremy’s laptop. He has this weird inkling that his next essay in international politics might be about that.

 

It takes a few moments for his brain to process what Jeremy says.

 

Jean doesn't dare to look at Jeremy, who's on his back on his bed, phone in hand. He's been like that for the last hour. Jean just assumed he was texting one of the Trojans.  “Kevin—Kevin Day?”

 

Jeremy doesn’t roll his eyes because he doesn’t do those kinds of things, but the side of his mouth quirks up and he turns from his back to his side to look at Jean. Jean's on his own bed, with Jeremy's laptop perched on his knee.  “No—Kevin Costner. Of course Kevin Day.”

 

A flash of anxiety so deep cuts through Jean he knows he’s either getting nauseatingly pale or blotchy red in the face in an instant. He shakily puts aside Jeremy's laptop and gets up from the bed, spiders suddenly crawling up his hands. He hates being ambushed by his feelings like this, the sudden tug in his heart still as fresh and painful as ever.

 

“He’s your biggest fan,” Jean says, hostile, because he just can't filter himself to sound unaffected. A part of him says, take a deep breath and try again, but the rest of him doesn’t care.  “He wants to befriend you and asking about me is the least suspicious way of getting in touch.”

 

Jeremy frowns, confusion written on his face. “No—I think he just genuinely wants to know how you are.”

 

“Then why hasn’t he asked me?” Jean snaps, and the shard of glass in his voice is not at all unexpected. The bitterness tastes violent and ugly in his mouth, and he forces himself to take a deep, grounding breath.

 

Fuck it. Fuck everything. It might be almost midnight and they just retired from the gym, but suddenly Jean wants food. Or caffeine. Maybe both. Oh , him starting to eat his feelings would be the cherry on top of his fucked up mental health. He stomps into the kitchen, unjustified anger clawing at his insides.

 

Jeremy follows him. He leans against the doorframe of the kitchenette, a frown of worry on his forehead. “He thinks you don’t want to hear from him.”

 

Jean lets out an offended laugh and methodically goes through the cupboards in the kitchen, not sure what he’s looking for. A distraction or sugar—both would work.  “Whatever.”

 

There’s a quiet moment, during which Jean wants to burst into tears and disappear. Jeremy seems to consider all the possibilities where he could go with the conversation, but in the end he gives up, breathing out. He goes into the living room and comes back with his car keys.

 

“I’m kinda hungry, let’s go get something to eat?” He suggests kindly, as if it’s not Jean who’s maniacally banging around in the kitchen.

 

“Fine,” Jean says, pointed and tight. He slams a cupboard door shut with a satisfying bang. “Let’s. And you can tell Kevin Day to fuck right off.”

 

Jean knows he shouldn’t plunge this deep into his unresolved issues in Jeremy’s presence. He still can't stop, after just being punched in the face by a hot, shameful feeling he didn't predict: jealousy. It’s an ugly feeling and Jean wants it out. He doesn’t even know at what or who it’s directed. At Jeremy, for talking to Kevin—Jean's old friend who he still wants to be in good terms with? Or at Kevin, for talking to Jeremy —the only person Jean trusts? Or is his jealousy the kind that isn’t directed at anyone, but is simply a feeling he associates with being alone—with a strong understanding that life is something that happens elsewhere, out of his reach? Around him?

 

Jeremy doesn’t attempt to start a conversation with Jean. Jean keeps staring out of the window, trying to wrap his head around his stupid, illogical feelings. It doesn’t work; there’s just static noise in his head. Sometimes Jean thinks he’s completely lost his ability to have a logical discussion with himself. Everything is a fucking fight with his exploding emotions standing in the way.

 

Jeremy drives them to a McDonald’s drive-through and—after Jean’s excessive shoulder shrug—orders a bit of everything. Jean’s never been to McDonald’s and that seems to amuse Jeremy quite a lot. He makes polite conversation with the cashier who’s probably falling head over heels in love with him, then drives the car into the parking lot, to the farthest corner of even when they’re the only people there.

 

Jeremy reaches for the chicken nuggets first. Jean—despite his earlier insistence of finding something to eat —regards the food with vague disinterest,  but settles on a milkshake.

 

The silence is heavy between them.

 

“I’m sorry,” Jeremy says after a while. “I should’ve said I was talking with him. I thought perhaps you were in touch with him as well. It’s been casual, I—”

 

“Don’t,” Jean interrupts him. He lifts his legs to the dashboard of the car, ignoring how the car might be just a little too small for his long legs. “I was just surprised, that’s all.”

 

Jeremy is silent for a moment. “I’d like to know more about—you know,” he says, quietly. “Sometimes I feel like I should be more considerate around you.”

 

Jean almost tosses his milkshake in Jeremy’s lap.  He settles on making a stripe of dirt on the car dashboard with the toe of his sneaker. “I don’t want that. You already walk on eggshells around me,” he says, “being kind and funny and like an absolute fucking saint in my presence. Just be the real you,” he says, frustrated. He doesn’t want Jeremy needing to do damage control every time something remotely unpleasant happens to Jean —yet here they are. Again.

 

Jeremy huffs, amused. “You think I’m an asshole who’s just good at pretending to be nice when I’m with you?”

 

“Maybe, who knows,” Jean teases, then sobers up again. “It’s just—” he takes a deep breath and shoves down his ugly insecurities to be able to give Jeremy a slice of honesty. “I want you to be comfortable around me—to be the real you.”

 

“This is the real me,” Jeremy insists. “We train together; we play together. We live together and eat McDonalds at midnight together. Hell, we watch cooking shows together. I wouldn’t do all that if I wasn’t comfortable.” Jeremy’s tone is unsure, like he doesn’t know why they’re suddenly talking about Jean’s fear that Jeremy doesn’t want his company.

 

“I’m not saying you’re faking it,” Jean corrects him. “I just want you to be yourself around me. Whatever that means. Be frustrated with me, criticize me when we’re playing, call me out on my shit, whatever.

 

Jeremy throws a chicken nugget at Jean. “Alright. So far, nothing you’ve done has made me irritated, but I’ll keep that in mind.”

 

Jean glances at Jeremy. He’s grabbed a burger and is now working his way through it enthusiastically. Jean is pretty sure Rhemann might actually kill them if he saw them fucking up their diets like this.

 

“Will you tell me why you got so upset about Kevin?” Jeremy asks once he’s swallowed. He places the rest of what’s left of the burger on the dashboard with a grimace as if he’d realised what a bad idea it is to eat something so heavy when they have to be up and running in six hours.

 

It takes a while before Jean finds the words to summarise his feelings for Kevin in something that’s less than a monologue. “He was my friend,” he says.

 

Jeremy nods. He turns sideways on his seat to get a better look at Jean.

 

“He left and...I was still there. With Riko,” Jean says, and the words make something like bile rise in his throat. “It’s complicated. If I were him, I wouldn’t have wanted to hear anything from Evermore, either. But —it still hurt. Riko going batshit crazy because Kevin left didn’t help.”

 

Jean puts his milkshake into the cup holder between the seats and hugs his middle with both of his hands, scooting lower into the seat, his bony knees almost knocking him in the face. He keeps his eyes forward, letting his gaze skirt around the empty, dark parking lot before them.

 

“You needed a friend,” Jeremy says, quiet.

 

“Yeah,” Jean agrees. “And,” he continues even though it hurts to talk, “To me, you are— God , this sounds like I have a really strong jealousy streak. I don’t. I just don’t want you to—leave.”

 

“I won't,” Jeremy says. Jean wonders how he manages to say everything with such confident finality.

 

“I’m really, really not blaming him,” Jean says. “He got the worst of everything Riko threw at us.”

 

Jeremy tugs at Jean’s hoodie at the elbow, his fingertips ghosting over the fabric like he’s taking off lint. “Did he really?”

 

Jean takes a shaky breath. Goosebumps are rising on his skin where Jeremy touches him through the fabric.

 

“What made you call Renee?” Jeremy prompts. His fingertips are still on Jean’s elbow, skittering upwards towards his bicep.

 

Jean doesn’t know. He was used to the pain, and what Riko did to him that night was only a little bit worse than what he’d been through times and times again. He doesn’t know how it happened, and why. Maybe it was when he fell into his bed in exhaustion, he hit his cheekbone against his phone that was lying next to his pillow. Maybe it was because there was an unread message from Renee on his phone, an offensively blinking red light like a message from the future he could someday have, the life outside Evermore.

 

“Jean?” Jeremy’s voice is gentle and fragile. His fingers are now still on Jean’s arm. Jean doesn’t know whether he tries to comfort himself with the touch, or Jean.

 

“I thought...I thought that I have to try to leave,” Jean says. There are snakes under his skin and they’re eating their way out of Jean. “That night, Riko did something to me and I didn’t fight back. That moment I knew I was close to giving up for good,” he says, “in more ways than one.”

 

There’s an earth-shattering silence. The glass breaks but there are no shards; Jean feels like falling but he doesn’t hit the ground.

 

Jeremy pulls away from Jean, abrupt— turning his eyes forward, fingers gripping the steering wheel. The sudden withdraw hurts Jean more than it should.

 

“I’m going to kill him,” Jeremy says and his voice is low and dangerous. Jean doesn’t look at him, but from the corner of his eyes he sees Jeremy squeezing the steering wheel until his knuckles are whitewhitewhite.

 

“Stop,” Jean says weakly. “He’s dead already.” He can’t have this conversation again; he’s already had it in his head thousands of times.

 

“Doesn’t matter,” Jeremy says, taking a shaky, barely controlled breath. “I’ll personally bring him back from the dead and kill him again.”

 

Jean feels Jeremy's angry tension thickening the air. It’s so unlike him, alien and vile, that Jean feels dizzy. He doesn’t know what to make of Jeremy’s unexpected anger; he’s not usually like this. He never gets angry, he never insults anyone—he sure as hell doesn’t threaten to kill someone, even if it’s just words. Jean thought Jeremy might pity him—he didn’t expect him getting furious on his behalf.

 

“Don't...Don't do that. I can’t—” he starts, alarmed. He doesn't think he'll ever want to be in a room with someone with barely contained self-control, instantly feeling like a target even if their anger isn’t directed at him.

 

At once, Jeremy's tension leaves him and he's back to himself —his gentle, kind self. His fingers unwind and he smoothes them across the steering wheel as if in apology. He runs a hand through his hair and takes a deep breath, turning back to Jean. Now, Jean changes his position so that he’s mirroring Jeremy; one leg on the car seat, one on the floor, sitting sideways. There’s only the gearshift and a fuckton of trash food between them.

 

“I’m glad he’s dead,” Jeremy says, with finality.

 

“Me too,” Jean says. “But Jeremy, this is why I didn’t want to tell you. You already treat me like I’m made of glass and I don’t want that. I just want - good memories on top of all the bad ones. Oui?”

 

Jeremy’s mouth quirks up at Jean’s accidental slip of French.

 

“Oui, Jean.”

 

“Your French is appalling.”

 

“Well you’ve been slacking with the tutoring.”

 

“You don’t take French.”

 

Jeremy laughs, loud and clear, and it clears the air between them. Even Jean laughs a little, even if it’s closer to a wet sob than actual laughter.

 

“One more thing before I’m going to drag us both to bed,” Jeremy says. “Okay, two things: Firstly, eat the burger I bought you. And secondly—”, Jeremy considers him with interest, ”what kind of memories count as good ones?”

 

Jean’s breath gets caught up in his throat and he feels a possibility lingering in the air between them if he’s just brave enough to take it. He might be wrong—god knows his intuition is shit —but he wants to take it, wants to play with fire. So far, he’s been able to snap out of thinking like this. But with Jeremy sitting now in front of him, just the two of them far away from distractions and people, in the dusk, it’s harder.

 

“This, for example,” he replies, soft. “When you bring me coffee in stupid mugs. Playing together. You dragging me with you everywhere you go, making me to interact with the Trojans. It’s...good.”

 

“I’m not being too pushy with all that?” Jeremy asks, and the tone of his voice is new to Jean. It’s honest, but there is a tinge of something else too—if Jean has to pick, he’d say Jeremy’s tone is teasing.

 

Jean shakes his head and almost leaves it at that before deciding to take that tiny bit of courage hanging above his head.  He says: “Jeremy, there’s almost nothing you could do that I would be against.”

 

It’s the closest he can get to I wouldn’t be opposed to kissing you.

 

“Really?” Jeremy asks, and there’s a slow, knowing smile on his lips, now. It’s weightless and sunny and his green eyes light up in the process.

 

“Yes, really,” Jean confirms, but it’s a miracle that he can even talk. He thinks back on all the moments he’s shared with Jeremy and how every single one of them is laced in soft kindness and affection. It feels greedy and selfish to ask for more, but Jeremy’s not stupid—he wouldn’t be inching closer to Jean if he didn’t realise what Jean is hinting at.

 

There’s a moment between them—a heavy, expectant feeling. But then— something in Jeremy snaps and he leans away from Jean, a flash of worry cascading over his features.

 

“Jean— ” he says, unsure how to continue, but Jean already knows what he’s thinking about. He’s seen the scars on Jean’s thighs and chest, his lower back. The constant reminder on Jean’s cheekbone.

 

“Jeremy,” Jean says, hurt, quickly spiralling towards a state where he’ll end up holding back wet tears, “for years I’ve been nothing but a property, nothing but a pawn in some fucking game I didn’t ask to be a part of. I’ve lived my life through Riko’s hands,” —he has to pause to swallow as a wave of anxiety washes over him like a suffocating wave of black water— “and if you decide it bothers you, I will continue to do so for as long as I fucking live. I don’t want that.”

 

Jeremy is staring at him in stunned silence. He looks conflicted.

 

“Don't walk on eggshells around me”, Jean says again, defiant and pissed-off. He’s angry—at Riko, at himself for almost crying in frustration, at the state his life’s in.

 

“You’ll tell me if anything ever, ever feels wrong?” Jeremy asks. His request goes far beyond one—kiss?— but that’s something Jean has to process another time.

 

He nods instead. Jeremy is looking at him expectantly and with something Jean is able to now name as adoration or affection.  He wants Jeremy to keep looking at him like that. It feels funny, craving something so much, so selfishly and so loudly. He feels bold when he doesn’t break Jeremy’s gaze.

 

“You’re sometimes very quiet,” Jeremy observes. He doesn’t sound at all accusing. “Until you’re not.”

 

“I feel loud,” Jean admits. What he means is, am I too demanding?

 

He doesn’t know how to explain the gravity of—this. Them. His feelings for Jeremy.

 

As one of Riko’s chosen ones it was hard to stay in the background, but he tried his best to keep his thoughts and opinions to himself, to shut everything inside him down so that only the will to survive the day remained. It was easier to do what was asked of him when he didn’t let sadness, fear or any other emotion show on his face. They’d be used against him - sometimes they were.

 

Once, Jean smiled at a boy in his class for too long and Riko scared him so shitless he transferred schools within the same week. It was a clear message: you’re mine and you’re here for me.

 

That’s why letting down his guard felt —feels—a bit like failure. Like freefall.

 

“There’s nothing wrong with loud,” Jeremy says. He shifts to his knees in his seat and scoots closer to Jean. “You should be loud about what you want.” His voice is barely a whisper, now.

 

Jean doesn’t want to explain how so many things he’s wanted have evaporated in front of his very eyes the second he’s let himself wish for them, doesn’t want to explain how hard it is to open his heart to something like this. The fact that he wants it so much makes it even scarier.

 

But Jeremy makes it easier, somehow. He’s confident in everything he does and he doesn’t look they’re about to blow up everything before their eyes.

 

“Tell me what you want, Jean,” Jeremy encourages.

 

“Kiss me,” Jean says and holds his breath.

 

No matter what Jean said, how ready for this he made himself seem just now, he’s still not prepared for Jeremy's lips pressing against his. He lets out a tiny gasp, overwhelmed. Jeremy’s lips are soft and careful against his, barely even touching Jean.

 

Jeremy pulls back and observes Jean. His eyes are serene and calm, but there’s a blush decorating his cheekbones.  He lets Jean have his heart attack, perhaps understanding that despite Jean's bite that was close to a first kiss for him. Jean is tight as a bow string and his mind is going through all the situations ever happened to him, his self-destructive brain trying to come up with something bad from his past to connect to this, to ruin this moment, to ruin Jeremy's kiss for Jean.

 

Nothing happens.

 

Jean doesn't believe it and lets out a loud, shaky breath. He doesn't believe there could be something like this that hasn't been ruined for him.

 

But it's not just a kiss, right? That’s why.

 

It's affection.

 

That's something no-one could have taken from Jean. Something that has remained untouched. No one has ever been so gentle towards Jean as Jeremy is—has been, from the first day they met. In Jean’s mind, there’s nothing bad or twisted connected to the tenderness Jeremy has treated Jean with.

 

There will probably be things Jean won’t be able to handle now or maybe ever, but this— this

 

He nods, sincere and determined.

 

“Yeah?” Jeremy asks, face flushed with uncontained happiness.

 

“Yeah,” Jean confirms, and he thinks he's smiling.

 

Jeremy kisses him again.