Jean blames Renee. It’s not often that he gets to do so, but this time she’s fully, unarguably the one at fault for everything about the current situation.
Deciding to visit France had been a choice which had required years, an unfathomable amount of papers and documents, three years of twice-weekly psychotherapy and a couple panic attacks during the past month. Jeremy’s unyielding support had been the major reason Jean hadn’t just thrown the whole idea in the trashcan, but he’d lie if he were to deny the impact of Renee’s promise to make sure he wouldn’t be alone during the trip.
Carefully crafted words. He should have smelled the trick, but Jean had always been weak to Renee’s soft smiles.
Therefore, here they are now, at the Charles de Gaulle airport, France, at five in the morning, waiting for the flight from Stuttgart to finish disembarking its passengers. Jeremy already hit a duty-free for coffee, unhealthy sugary treats and some useless trinkets for their friends at home. Like the Tour Eiffel shaped keychain he is currently playing with.
That will go to Alvarez, Jean decided. It’s ugly enough to match her present from when he first joined the Trojans; all those Christmas sweaters she shoved into his wardrobe in place of his old black clothes.
Jeremy pulls the thing in his palm and closes his fist around it. “I’m just saying, one twisted promise doesn’t make Renee a fae.”
Of course he wouldn’t think that. “You’re as naïve as usual.”
“Right,” Jeremy rolls his eyes. “I forgot the inhuman strength part. Did she tell you she’s allergic to iron, too?”
Jean glares at him, and offers no answer as he scans the incoming people as they approach the luggage retrieval. Since Jeremy decided to stop growing at the ridiculous height of 5'7", it’s up to Jean to find their unplanned guests in the crowd.
He’s almost immediately met by an intense stare, and he takes in the tall broad man who’s walking in their direction. He has slightly spiked blond hair pushed backward by a pair of sunglasses and mismatched eyes, one blue and one brown. There is a piercing to the tail of his left eyebrow with a couple of silvers balls, and a golden band to the higher part of the shell of his left ear. Jean has no knowledge of what they are called, but they suit the man’s appearance well. He still has no idea of who this might be.
The stranger takes up so much of his attention that Jean almost misses completely the other person making a beeline for Jeremy.
“Captain Sunshine!” yells Nicholas Hemmick – whom Jean hadn’t seen since his own graduation from USC and could have lived without –, as he throws himself at Jeremy’s neck. “Old grumpy Kev is gonna burst a vessel when I’ll tell him we’re going on a vacation together!”
“Kevin had some complaints he felt the need to share about our new baking hobby and Nicky is eager to get back at him, but I promise we’re honestly thrilled to be traveling with you.” The blond man sweeps into the conversation easily, voice pleasant with a curt accent, as he offers Jean a hand. “Erik Klose. I’m Nicky’s husband.”
Jean accepts the handshake – firm and no-nonsense, but in no way as aggressive as Thea’s – only half listening to Jeremy’s coos over Nicky’s ring. He takes in Erik’s tired looks and offers a polite nod in return. “I’m sorry if we derailed any plans you had.”
“Oh no, no other plans!” Nicky laughs. He is still hanging at Jeremy’s neck and Jean is just now realizing he has an eye-mask pushed to his forehead. “Except screwing with Kev, which we can still do very effectively by hanging out with you, so…”
Erik spares his husband a soft smile. “And it’s not like visiting France is an ungrateful task we just got saddled with. It will be a nice trip for us too.”
“Well, then,” Jeremy says, gracefully slipping from under Nicky’s arm to move closer to Jean and hold his hand instead. “Shall we go?”
Nicky launches himself in an enthusiast description of their flight, nevermind that he’s walking side by side with his husband – who was present to all of it – and Jean and Jeremy are just – somehow reluctantly on Jean’s part – following after them.
Jean bends slightly to bring his mouth to Jeremy’s ear. “Renee. Fae. I’m just saying.”
Jeremy elbows him in the stomach, but Jean knows the truth.
They got rooms at a B&B nearby the Hôtel des Invalides. Jean and Jeremy had considered taking something classier, more luxurious, but they had chosen otherwise when prospecting to have Renee along with them. The Peace Corps didn’t exactly shower her in money and she was already spending quite some on the flights from the USA to Paris; or at least, they had thought so.
Regardless, the area alone made so that the prices were astonishingly high for even such simple arrangements and Jeremy notices Nicky worrying his lower lip over it.
Nicky catches him staring and smiles back at him. “The twins and I lived off my two jobs for a while, when they were in high school. Now it’s completely different, honestly; I just still get irrationally nervous about big expenses every now and then.”
“My parents both got two jobs when I started at USC,” Jeremy smiles. “My scholarship was just partial. I just finished paying off my students’ debt now that I’m a good PRO.”
Nicky tilts his head toward Erik and Jean, who are talking with the innkeeper to get advice about what to visit first and a nice place for dinner. Jean’s French falls fluent whereas Erik’s is a bit more stilted, but they seem to have effortlessly slipped into an argument about sports somewhere down the line. “And then there are the human embodiments of a bank.”
Jeremy snorts and shakes his head when Jean turns to look at him with a curious expression.
The shirt he’s wearing is D&G.
Jean is not sure what to make of their improvised comrades. Erik is quiet and meek, smiling gently to everyone at every moment; he smells of musky cologne, and has a physique to rival with his own but a temperament to match Jeremy’s. Nicky, on the other hand, is everything Jean never expected a Fox to be: overexcited, over-sharing, over-everything, always. He knows better than to pin him as naïve, seeing he was so close to the Minyards and Josten when shit hit the peak in the whole history of Palmetto State College, but still. It’d be so easy to assume with the way Nicky just won’t stop babbling about the wide choice of breakfast at the buffet.
Jeremy holds Jean’s hand in sympathy. He knows this is not his type of crowd. Though, to be fair, Jean’s crowd is no crowd at all.
“So, what do we want to do today?” Nicky asks, an impressive amount of food in the dish in front of him. He’s taking a picture of it, and Jean imagines Kevin’s reaction when he’ll inevitably see it, since Nicky seems eager to send it to him. He almost smirks at the thought. “Which one of you captains this expedition? Actual Captain Jeremy or Local Native Jean?”
The only good point Jean has found to Nicky is that he pronounces his name right. “We have a couple museums we want to visit while we’re here, but we were thinking of seeing them in separate days and use the spare time to walk around.”
“Paris demands you to get lost in its alleys,” Jeremy mock-parrots, tilting his head to raise his nose unrealistically. Jean scoffs. They already talked about how that’s Jeremy’s impression of him because of how much shorter he is.
Erik laughs and nods. “An old city!” he claims. “I’m sure there’s lots to see.”
“Oh, shush, you’re just happy you’ll get to walk until your feet hurt, you freak,” Nicky huffs, shaking his head. “I thought the lack of mountains would have spared me.”
“You like walks?” Jeremy fishes, and Erik kisses Nicky’s cheek, apologetic, before smiling at him.
“I like hiking. My friends and I try a new trail every month, some even at pretty high altitudes. I find it exciting, but Nicky has an aversion.”
“To bugs, snakes, sweat and fatigue,” Nicky punctuates, sounding especially proud of himself for some reason. “Which makes hiking my most hated activity in the world.”
“You were a college athlete,” Jean points out, if slightly bewildered. “Sweat and fatigue are a given, in Exy.”
“And so are locker rooms full of hot men.” Nicky shrugs. “Too bad Kevin’s personality sucks, he really has a body worth getting slammed into plexiglass for.”
Jeremy stifles his laughter with his handkerchief at the sight of Jean’s half shocked and half offended expression. “Shall we go, then?” he asks instead.
Erik steals Nicky’s last bit of food to clear his plate. “Sure, we’re done here.”
“Hey! That was my sausage, Klose!”
Erik smiles, a bit deviously. “Let’s get going, my love, and I’ll let you have mine tonight.”
Jean flashes out of his chair so fast Jeremy can’t help but laugh.
Being in France is… worrisome. Jean cannot describe it otherwise, not today at least. Everyone around them is speaking French, speaking the language of secrets and dark nights and whispers, and Jean’s skin crawls whenever he hears a pitch a bit louder, a bit more forceful.
He keeps telling himself Riko is dead. Riko’s been dead for years. It doesn’t really help the feeling that he might appear suddenly to deliver punishment to the whole nation, for the offense of speaking a language he’s not apart of.
Jeremy reaches and squeezes his hand every so often. Jean doesn’t know which pattern he’s following, but he starts counting the seconds between contacts to keep himself anchored in the present.
The sky is clear and the air is warm, yet not stifling. There’s a breeze which ruffles both Jean and Nicky’s hair. The latter seems much more preoccupied with the fact than he feels.
“Alright, that’s it, this is ridiculous,” the man snaps as they wait for Jeremy to take pictures of Place de la Concorde. In the open space of the square, the wind is especially vexing and Jean can admit that it is starting to bother him a bit too. The weather’s hot enough, but the caress of the air through every opening of his clothes feels strangely intrusive and doesn’t help his feeling of oppressive phantom touch all over. “Tell me we’re planning on hitting a museum. I’m going to look like a damn porcupine if we keep walking around in this hurricane!”
Jean is pretty sure an American born and bred man would know the difference between an hurricane and the bare sigh of a couple currents, but Nicky sneaks past him before he can complain. They are waiting by the corner of the square, letting the two photography experts take their shots at the blissfully still half empty place before the tourists swarm in, so Nicky only has to take a couple steps to the closest street to read its name on the plaque.
He’s wearing thick and dark sunglasses, which Jean wants to blame for him saying, “Rue the Ravioli. Isn’t the Louvre Museum down this one or something?”
Rue de Ravioli. It would be unbecoming to lose his temper in the middle of the street, but that doesn’t stop Jean’s eye from twitching. “Rue de Rivoli,” he corrects, coldly. “And yes, the Louvre is not too far away.”
“Perfect!” Nicky bounces in his steps all the way to where Erik and Jeremy are comparing pictures on their cameras, apparently unfazed by Jean’s attitude. “Honey, we’re going to the Louvre!”
Erik, to his credit, doesn’t seem fazed by his. “Sounds lovely.”
Jean meets Jeremy’s eyes, a plea written openly in his. He used to be above groveling and begging, or at least he told so himself since he joined the Trojans, but now he’d gladly hug Jeremy’s knees to get out of spending even just a second longer with these absurd people.
“Can’t wait!” the traitor exclaims. He and Nicky exchange a loud cheer and end up draping on each other’s shoulders and marching, side by side, down the street.
Jean briefly considers abandoning them to their fate. It’d be just what they deserve. Sadly enough, Erik informs them they’re heading in the wrong direction before they can get out of ear-shot.
From that, it’s only a fifteen minutes walk to the Museum. The wait in the queue is much longer, and Nicky whines the whole time, so Jeremy takes Jean’s hand and kisses his shoulder in a silent request. Please, don’t murder our trip companions, I actually like them. If Jean had loved him any less, he’d have already ignored it.
Stuck in the line, he finds himself observing the other couple with some kind of desperate need to understand how could it work. Nicky is obnoxious and loud and Erik, whereas Jean has seen him as a normally pleasant person on his own, tends to fade in the background when side by side with his lover. If Nicky’s reactions to everything can always be counted on to be exaggerated and theatrical, Erik’s are ridiculously predictable: a love-filled look, a soft smile, his eyes never straying too far away from the other man.
Jean is well aware that people look at him and Jeremy and think the same. How did it happen, how do they get along, they’re so different, are just the kindest comments he knows fly behind his back. The worst twirl on his past trauma, sometimes leaning on how easily Jeremy could be taking advantage of him and sometimes falling on how too much broken Jean is to ever stand even with the Trojans’ most revered captain. Their past is always a factor people count in when trying to decipher their dynamics, like an equation with a multiplication by zero that nullifies all the time they spent getting used to each others, learning faults and how to work around them, falling for qualities and weaknesses alike.
But Nicky and Erik? Jean knows tidbits about either of them. He knows that Erik is patient and gentle and an early riser who brings his lover breakfast in bed but then steals the last bite. He knows that Nicky never shuts up and acts like a child most of the time and tips even in France by a very generous American standard.
Jean had been wondering how the two clicked in place with each others for a while now. For all he knew, it was an exchange student program that slammed one into the other’s path, but it seemed like a fleeting chance for love. At a certain point, they had to have considered it all a temporary chance, maybe something as casual and convenient as Jean and Jeremy had considered falling into each other’s bed at first. Maybe they counted on it being a nice distraction before the return to reality, maybe they never thought it’d happen, or maybe they even tried to resist it, aware that their time together had an expiration date.
So when did it turn into something they decided to uproot their whole lives for? When Jean had met Nicky, they had been in the middle of a long-distance relationship that eventually lasted roughly six years.
Now, Nicky is draped all over Erik, uncaring or disregarding of any look that might be sent in their direction. Jean takes a sweeping look at their surroundings, and finds that they seem to have gotten lucky because no mean glare is sent their way. Even if, he finds himself assuming that the other two would stand tall against it. Erik’s hands are protectively one on Nicky’s waist and the other carding his hair back in an acceptable shape.
“The world could end and they wouldn’t notice,” Jeremy comments lowly, almost directly into Jean’s ear. The sentence is much more innocent than the shiver down his spine oughts to make him feel. He steels himself away from leaning into the feeling of Jeremy’s breath against his skin.
He’s not surprised that he’s not the only one observing, though he’s pretty sure Jeremy knows more about their companions than him. He actually talked to Nicky during the Exy banquets, after all, and if there’s anything Nicky is shy with, it is most definitely not his personal history and curious anecdotes.
He doesn’t answer, because he’s not sure how to.
He turns to Jeremy instead, and takes in the shape of his profile, the gold in his curls under the sunlight, the freckles littering his cheekbones. The way his lashes caress his skin when he closes his eyes, the wrinkles that already are starting to settle at their tails as proud badges of years of laughters.
“Look at them!,” someone who sounds suspiciously like Nicky coos in his ear. “The town could crumble down all around and they wouldn’t notice!”
He thinks he stiffens, but Jeremy blushes and Jean is not too sure he’s not working himself to a similar shade.
Erik urges them all in before he can find something to snipe back.
Jean thinks, I did not come back to France to be banned for life from the Louvre. Jean also thinks, he’s very much close to end up just so.
Nicky is taking a selfie in front of one of the statues. He’s mimicking her pose and there’s a staff employee eyeing him from the closest door with unrestrained indignation. Jeremy and Erik seem unaware as they roam around each on their own, taking in the expositions and the labels of each.
So, Jean is probably the only one planning on pretending not to know the American in the black shirt with a rainbow American silhouette and the sentence 50 States of Gay in bold all capital letters.
Fine. He can work with this. He’s great at ignoring people, after all. Years of practice with Kevin.
They do not get thrown out of the Louvre. As a matter of fact, Nicky subdues fast and tags along with his husband to stare in awe the more they walk in. It takes them so many hours to visit everything that by the time they step out of the place, it’s five in the afternoon and they have skipped lunch.
Nicky cries starvation, Jeremy looks not too far behind, and Erik sends Jean a look that seems to say, what do you want to do, they are like children. He pushes down the urge to reply, I’m considering drowning them both in the Seine.
Instead, because he’s outnumbered, they get ice-cream and eat it walking down the river quay. There’s a bunch of stalls selling all kind of things, from trinkets to furniture. Erik talks his husband out of buying a bedside table that they would have to have shipped to Germany, and Jeremy peruses a table covered in old books.
They look a bit tattered, and some aren’t really in good shape. A few have traces of mold down they spines, some don’t have a cover anymore, and most have taken the yellow shade of old paper. Still, they somehow catch Jean’s eyes too and soon enough he finds himself randomly flipping pages, letting his eyes fall on the shapes of written French which somehow don’t feel as familiar as they should.
How long has it been, since he’s read something in his mother language? He’d never considered getting books shipped to his place, not even after he graduated from USC and got his own apartment, nor when he moved in with Jeremy. It was just a thought that never crossed his mind.
Now, though, he feels a tug in his chest and finds himself striving to catch on the translucent veil of an old memory; his mother reading to him before bedtime, soft fingers pointing at the words as she spoke them into reality, his eyes catching the shapes of the letters as he struggled with learning them. He can’t pinpoint a real episode, and the memory has the plastic feel of a bunch of details stacked together from various different instances, but he finds himself falling in it.
He doesn’t miss his mom. He truly doesn’t. All the times she said she loved him went crumbling down the moment she handed him to the monsters that still plague his nightmares.
But maybe, to a degree, he misses the life he could have had, had she loved him just enough to save him. Listening to French lullabies, playing Exy in the sunlight, pursuing something else in his life because he’s never been a die hard athlete as Kevin or Josten. As a child, he wanted to study poetry, he thinks, though all he can remember of his interest are a couple rhymes for kids, more funny for the way they sounded than interesting in their message. So maybe he wouldn’t have been a poet, but maybe he’d have been something else. Whichever he wanted.
The book that creaks under his fingers is a copy of Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal. He smiles darkly at the irony.
“What does it mean?” and it says something of his recovery, that Jean doesn’t jump straight out of his skin at the sudden voice. Or maybe it’s just Jeremy’s voice, in its low tone as if he’s scared of intruding something frail, that he’s grown so exquisitely familiar to.
“The Flowers of Evil,” he says, maybe a bit too low. He can kind of catch Jeremy’s frown from the corner of his eyes, but he looks up and meets the vendor’s instead. “C’est combien ça?”
Nicky has a big cloth bag hanging at his side. Jeremy graciously offers to ask him to carry their purchase for Jean, and he kisses the corner of his mouth thank you.
“Il est très beau,” the man from the book stand offers as Jeremy saunters away. When Jean looks at him, he has a crooked smile on his lips and his hands in the pockets of his trousers, but he looks genuine. “Ton petit ami.”
And maybe France is really bad for Jean, because he feels himself blush and can’t stop his traitorous thoughts from straying toward his father. This man is much younger than Philippe Moreau, but the fantasy of this dialogue happening between them is still a seed that has now planted itself quite securely in his brain. Merde.
Voice miraculously even, he says, “Il est vraiment,” but he’s not really talking about the physical beauty anymore.
The librarian nods, somewhat knowingly. “Alors, bonne chance pour tout.”
Four stalls down the quay, Jeremy and Nicky are trying scarves on and make exaggeratedly seductive faces at each others. Maybe a bit of luck is what Jean will need, indeed. He says so as he’s already walking toward them though, and that’s probably why an amused laughter follows him in his steps.
Erik and Jean take over the matter of dinner before Nicky and Jeremy can suggest anything extremely American, like getting take-out or something. Both of them look offended at the stereotype, but it’s a risk not worth taking.
They locate an hole-in-the-wall bistrot not too far from their bed-and-breakfast, with huge windowpanes instead of most of the walls and black lacquered chairs with straw seats in front of dark wood tables. The crystal chandeliers sparkle and the whole place looks bathed in golden light. It has good comments on Tripadvisor.
They get seated and Erik picks the wine, though Jean gets first taste. It’s a good red, new, not overly sweet. It’s not so structured that it’d be hard to like, but it’s also nice to accompany most of the dishes they order. Though, to be fair, with four adult men the first bottle is gone before their main courses arrive, and they order a second because they’re not going to be driving anyway.
The conversation flows so much better by the time the second corks is off.
“So,” Nicky says, with a flourish of the hand which is both potentially the gayest thing Jean ever saw and the practiced motion of an entertainer who’s told this story enough times to make fluent to all the details that adorn it. “I’m freaking out. As in, what the fuck, Erik, you mom just paid off my mortgage! kind of freaking out. And he’s there, chill as cucumber, as if it’s perfectly normal and reasonable that his mother spent that kind of money on an whole house for me and my children to live in.”
Erik smiles twirling his glass of wine on the table. “The twins hardly counted as children, love.”
Nicky swats vaguely in his direction. “Hush, you, I’m trying to convey the gravity of the situation.” Then, he bends forward toward Jeremy, who looks absolutely enthralled by the narration. “So, after hours of pestering and more freaking out, finally Erik tells me: Honey, it’s not necessary – which, of course it was, let’s be real! – but if you really want to thank them somehow, you – I’m not kidding you – could invite them over for dinner.”
Jeremy hoofs out loud and even Jean can’t keep a little smile at bay, though he’s not sure whether it’s for the story, the way Nicky filled his chest and deepened his voice to mimic his husband, or just the face with which he delivered the last words. Scratch that, it’s probably because of the alcohol.
Nicky deadpans. “A dinner. Of course. That’s perfectly reasonable, I mean, what else says thank you for the house like homemade dinner, right? Okay. Fine. So I tell Erik, I tell him: Very well, we’ll invite them over for dinner next time I come to Germany,–” he makes a pause, one that’s clearly meant to make Jeremy even more eager than he already looks, then he nods very seriously, “–and I will cook them my own liver to express my gratitude.”
“No!,” Jeremy exclaims, all delighted, and from the shake of Erik’s head the whole thing actually really happened.
“I was a bit worried he would do it for real,” Erik admits, though he sends a loving look in his husband’s direction.
Which Nicky ignores to pick up his glass and make a stopping motion with his free hand. “Of course not! But I did put myself in the list of organs donors in case your parents ever need it.”
Jean shakes his head. He’s pleasantly warm from the food and the wine, the place is pervaded by a lulling buzz of low voices and their table is secluded enough that they can indulge in Nicky’s hosting personality with tranquility. The Klose are, undoubtedly, a bit too much for Jean in the long run, but he can’t deny that they make good company for a night out such as this. And Jeremy looks marvelous with the soft yellow lights bouncing on his hair and the smile of a delighted kid on his lips.
Jean takes one more sip of his drink and lets himself relax against the back of his chair.
Jeremy is looking in awe at where Erik snatched Nicky’s hand and is now holding it with entwined fingers. “That’s amazing,” he says. “You guys have been together for so long and you look like you’re still in your honeymoon.”
Nicky positively coos at him. “Oh, don’t worry, dear, you’ll get there too and before you know it you’ll be sharing all the tales of Jean terrorizing USC with a smile on your lips.”
Jean’s body is so lax he manages to somehow not downright freeze, but he can’t help the widening of his eyes at those words. He can feel his shoulders stiffening a bit too, but he’s leaning backward and hopefully the motion won’t be caught.
Apparently it isn’t, because Jeremy groans and pitches in with some story from Jean’s first year with the Trojans, probably the one about that time in which Jean abandoned Alvarez to the mall and drove back to campus because she was taking too long and he was going to be late to practice if he waited on her.
Jean is left looking at him from the side, thinking about years. The thought it groundbreaking. For all his commitment to Jeremy and their relationship, it still sneaks up on him, sometimes, that he’s allowed to have this, to keep it with no deadline in sight. Sometimes he has to look at the date on his phone to remind himself that graduation came and passed, like any other day, with no bloodshed.
He’s still here. Jeremy is still with him. They’re in France, they’re with – reluctantly – friends and they are talking about years down the line. Because they really do have years to plan for and dream of.
“Amazing,” it slips out of his mouth, but just as Nicky turns to him, Erik raises his glass and comments that, well, thank you, he’s glad they are all liking the wine so much.
He winks in Jean’s direction as Nicky launches on some tale about a drunk escapade in college. Jeremy’s hand discreetly move to him, laying gently on Jean’s thigh and holding just enough to be felt, to assure him of his presence.
Okay, so maybe Jean’s little mind-boggle hasn’t passed as unnoticed as he thought.
Jeremy doesn’t look at him, though, he gives him time to collect himself, and instead looks at Nicky with interest, an elbow on the table and chin on his palm. Jean would normally chide him for his manners but he doesn’t feel like it, tonight.
Tonight, he feels like moving his hand on top of his boyfriend’s and hold; like letting the smile raise on his face without a fight; like listening to drunk stories of common friends.
“Wait,” he says, maybe the first words he’s pitched in since giving his order to the waiter. “What did you just say Kevin did?”
Nicky’s smile is predatory. “Oh, Frenchie, I have all the dirt on Day, you just have to ask!”
Jean lets it be a nice evening.
The early morning turns to be a bit of a difficulty, which is to mean that Nicky moans and complains and has Erik feeding him breakfast morsel by morsel so that they are an hour late on their planning by the time they finally hit the street.
They decided to hit the museum immediately today, to try and avoid skipping lunch again since both Jeremy’s and Jean’s dietitians and coaches would definitely not appreciate otherwise. Vacation or not.
Le Musée des Invalides is within l’Hôtel des Invalides, which means they get there in under fifteen minutes and somehow manage to sneak in when the queue is still rather short. This time, Nicky seems determined to nullify any and all attempts of Jean’s at pretending he doesn’t know them, and he keeps hanging at his arm demanding explanations for this and that and what does this mean in French.
Jeremy giggles behind the back of his hand as Jean’s frustrated, there’s the English translation right beside it!, gets answered with, but I like to hear you speak your sexy tongue, Moreau, come on, take the hint!
Erik seems unperturbed by his husband’s flirting and just shakes his head with not at all hidden fondness as they walk through the various rooms. He sticks closer to Jeremy, perhaps to avoid losing him as the other two keep a rather fast-paced speed, and it’s honestly nice of him so Jeremy tries to stir up a conversation.
They chat of Germany for a bit, of hikes and landscapes and photography. Ahead of them, Nicky forces Jean to read out loud just another label and Erik tilts his head to a side. “He’s not much comfortable with his language,” he says, accent barely present in his English. “He looks reticent, but then relieved when he’s pushed to speak it.”
It is an admirable insight on hard-to-read Jean Moreau, especially from an outsider which was not involved in the worst of the Ravens and the Nest and the Moriyama. Jeremy is surprised, for the all five seconds it takes him to realize Nicky was so close to Kevin and that he truly has no secrets with his husband.
Nothing of what Erik said was a question, but he still feels the gentle prodding in the tone, in the way his eyes trail after the other two men.
Jeremy bites his lips, but the words fall out all the same. “He wasn’t allowed to speak it for years. The habit is hard to break, still.”
Erik doesn’t dismiss it as childish or dumb. Rather, he frowns. “It’s dehumanizing,” he says, not picking his words, just as blunt as honesty can be. “To take his culture from him must have been awful. I get why Nicky is so pushy, now.”
Jeremy blinks. He looks back ahead, and sure enough Nicky is cooing at Jean’s pronunciation, already steering him toward the next sign and the next paragraph. The gesture is so exuberant and silly and cheery, so overwhelmingly Nicky that Jeremy hasn’t bothered finding a deeper meaning to it until now.
With Erik’s words still ringing in his ears, it’s easy to shift the prospective from whim to subtle act of kindness.
He wonders if Kevin had needed those too, after Riko.
Plaque after plaque, Jean’s voice comes smoother and more relaxed, curling around the French vowels like a sleepy cat jumping on the lines.
Jeremy says, “Oh,” because he doesn’t know what else to add.
Erik, luckily, doesn’t ask for it. “Nicky knows something about that,” he explains simply, voice much lower now. “His parents sent him to one of those camps that promised to have him fixed.” Jeremy stares, uncomprehending. “To make him straight.”
The horror creeps in immediately. All the queer people know some about the reparative therapies; whether through experience or from the strict warnings of fellow people in the community. There had been an older woman at the center he went to when he realized he wasn’t straight, back when he was twelve and he’d tremulously asked about whether it was true or not that there was a cure. Those things would crush you, they’d break you, and they never work, kiddo. Her eyes had been dark and sunk, as she spoke of only the barest surface of the issue.
Again, he has no words to offer. What can he say, I’m sorry they tried to make your husband hate himself? I’m sorry that they probably managed for some time.
Erik still looks ahead of them, where Jean is now reluctantly taking a picture of Nicky with one of the statues, if only to make him stop faster.
“I don’t always understand Nicky,” he says. “Sometimes he hurts from cuts I can’t see, or I thought closed, and sometimes he misses things and people who hurt him and I don’t understand why. The Foxes, they can help him better than I, more often than not, because they know because they went through some of the same shit and I just didn’t.” Jeremy considers, this must be the first time he hears Erik cuss. “It hurts, of course. Watching him crumble under my eyes and being completely unable to reach him makes me feel useless in ways that… well, actually you probably can understand.”
Jeremy can hear their lovers quarreling, he can mentally think how much longer before they get thrown out of the museum, but he just can’t look away from Erik’s gentle eyes. He’s had this talk with Laila a couple times before, but only with her. It’s weird to have a stranger pop up and hit all your insecurities spot on, and even weirder to know acutely how much they share them.
He turns his eyes away and they fall down, crushed by the weight raising in his chest. Absent-mindedly, he stares at the extravagant pointy metal shoes of a medieval armor.
Quietly, he hugs his own stomach. “Sometimes I remember that the Nest is still there. Just where it was before, like nothing ever happened. How? How do they get to go on when he’s still hurting like this? Sometimes–” he dares to say, in the lowest voice because he never wants Jean to see this part of him, “–I imagine to just set it all on fire.”
Erik’s feet enter his strict field of vision. “The first time I visited Nicky in the States, I had this plan to go to the facility where they held him, in Vermont. I didn’t have a clear plan of what to do, but I almost bought the flight for there. Then he called me, we chatted and I thought, who the fuck cares about them?” Somewhere to their right, Nicky is now complaining about lightening and focus and Jean sounds progressively closer to punch him by the second. “We can’t win all the fights, and it’s not easy to let them deal on their own even if it’s what they need.”
“That’s not really what I hoped to hear,” Jeremy admits. Now, he is half distracted from the dark miasma of unresolved issues in him and he looks up to his boyfriend. Jean seriously looks ready to punch Nicky, now.
“I guess not,” Erik laughs. “For what it’s worth, though, I learnt to wait for Nicky to be ready to come back from whatever memory pulls him away, and that he doesn’t lie when he says that finding me there for him when he does is all he needs from me.” He sends Jeremy a meaning look. “He never had someone to help him up when he went down. Just being there makes a difference.”
Jeremy is not sure they’re talking about Nicky anymore, right now.
He tries to think back to the first time Jean willingly opened up and offered something, anything, to him without the push of a panic attack to prompt the confession. Surprisingly, it was an occasion in which Jeremy himself had gotten hurt.
They were roommates at USC, Jean’s first year, and Jeremy had decided to cook him something sweet, a pie maybe?, after finding out that Jean hadn’t had any in the whole time he’d been at the Nest. After that, it had been some stupid accident, he couldn’t even remember what exactly, he closed his own hand in a drawer or something equally dumb and the next second he’d felt pain.
Broken fingers, two of them. He curled on himself whining and Jean, called to the scene by his scream, had pulled him to the couch and made a decent temporary bandage before taking him to the hospital. The car ride had given Jeremy the time to freak out about being out of commissions for their first official game of the year – the first with Jean on the line-up and wasn’t that a stress and a half already?!
Quietly, Jean had told him about Riko. About broken fingers and games he had had to play nonetheless. He had said, you promised me I would never have to play in those conditions anymore. You don’t get to do it either. We’ll win the game anyway. He’d given him a prognosis then that the doctor confirmed and Jeremy had felt like puking but not for his own injuries.
The first time they kissed, Jeremy kissed Jean’s crooked fingers immediately after. Even now, when they hold hands, he smooths his thumb over the familiar shape.
When the Trojans won that first game, Jeremy on the bench yelling and cheering and crying like a dumb child, Jean had pulled his helmet off and given him that smirk of his, the proud and confident one that always makes Jeremy’s knees go weak. Told you so. Damn bastard.
He smiles. “Jean helps me too.”
“Oh, yes,” Erik nods. “Nicky makes me whole, and keeps me up when I’m on the edge.” He looks again at the other two, and this time he sighs and moves a step closer, clearly intent on stopping the fight. He sends Jeremy one last look, though, and shrugs. “Loves like these can’t be one-way, otherwise they’re just a dependence.”
Jeremy watches him smoothly insert himself between the other men. His arm around Nicky’s waist makes the other go immediately putty and meek, slumping against his husband, and Jean watches with wide eyes as the fight leaves his opponent just like that. Maybe he feels a bit offended by the meddling, because his gaze looks for Jeremy immediately and–
“Are you pouting?” Jeremy giggles. “Really? Come on, babe, not everybody knows how to take good pictures, it’s okay.”
“I took good pictures, he’s just being annoying on purpose!” Jean frowns. “And I am not pouting.”
Jeremy just laughs, even as Erik slips an arm under Jean’s to drag him along toward the armor with the pointy shoes demanding a picture. Jean complaints and pulls his sunglasses down, claiming disguise, but Jeremy is still smiling and the picture comes out silly and all but threatening.
Nicky pats him on the shoulder before they move to the next room, and Jeremy pushes the last crumbles of anger and desperation under the carpet in his mind to be dealt with at another time.
They do manage to finish the museum throughout the morning, but the immense gardens left Nicky sprawled on a bench and refusing to take another step. Even Erik’s gentle prodding had failed, which was a first for everyone to witness.
“Go on without me,” Nicky cries dramatically, an arm outstretched to his husband. “Leave me behind. I’d only slow you down.”
“What, like it’s any different from the usual?” Jean quips. Jeremy wants to scold him, but it’s half-hearted at best, because the tone had been much less scalding than the usual.
Nicky looks unperturbed by his aggressiveness. “Leave the French with me. He can carry me to safety with his strong baguette arms.”
Jean’s outraged, my what?!, is covered by Erik’s laughter and Jeremy’s palm on his mouth.
After the morning at the museum, he’s now starting to realize that there’s often a second meaning to Nicky’s theatrics, and he’s pretty sure the request is quite too specific to be as casual as it sounds.
“We could split,” he offers then, trying not to sound too eager. “I’d like to take a walk through the alleys, honestly. Mind if I tag along with you, Erik?”
Jean is staring at him in betrayal, but that might also work in pushing him to stay with Nicky so Jeremy doesn’t return his look.
Erik also apparently has an itinerary already planned. The coincidence quite on the edge of too blatant.
“Perfect, then!” Nicky pipes up. “Go take your sweaty walk and you can join us back to the B&B when you’re ready to be lazy like all of us normal human beings.”
So Jean gets roped into taking a picture in front of the Tour Eiffel, Jeremy enthusiastically sitting on his shoulders, and somehow he smiles. Then Nicky drags him back to their inn like a dog with a bone.
There’s something to Paris that has an air of fictionality. Jean sits on the bench outside their B&B and stares at his surroundings waiting for a crack in the mask, a fail in the illusion. The wind brushes his cheeks and he expects to wake up any moment now.
It’d been so long since he dreamt of France, before this trip, yet he can’t shake the fear that any moment now he’s going to wake up and he’s not sure whether he’d do so by Jeremy’s side or back into the Nest.
The little bell above the door rings gently, and Jean looks up to see a freshly showered Nicky approach him with hands buried deep into his pockets and a tentative smile to his lips.
Jean turns to look back the street. Everybody speaks French here, and for some reason he doesn’t want to force himself into English right now.
Yet Nicky sighs and takes a step outside to let the door close behind him. “Listen, feel free to tell me to fuck off if I’m too invasive. People on my team did it all the time, I’m used to it, I’ll just ignore you with class. Just—” he shrugs, “—I know some of complicated family situations, okay? And if you want to, Marseilles is really not that far from here that we can’t take a drive there.”
There it is, the forbidden fruit dangling just in Jean’s reach. He honestly had expected Jeremy to play the role of the snake, but he should have known better. Jeremy knew him well enough not to confront him head on with this kind of choice when he was tired and half buzzed and cold, sitting on the steps of the backdoor of a B&B. Nicky, on the other hand, is surely less of an idiot than Kevin always said, but apparently not enough not to poke at the sleeping lion.
Still, Jean thinks back to Jeremy’s happiness these past days and forces his instinctive rage down. Instead, he forces out, “It’s a three hours drive.”
Nicky sits down by his side, but only to send him a disapproving look. “I used to flow twenty-six hours every other festivity to come and visit Erik when we were living apart, are you seriously questioning my judgement? If I say we can do it, we can do it. You just have to say the word.”
Jean turns his head the other way not to snarl something annoyed at him. “I don’t care about whatever excuse my parents might have.” And I don’t want to find out they wouldn’t bother with one.
“Alright,” Nicky says, and Jean can feel where their shoulders are touching that he’s shrugging. “But?”
But Marc had all those colored chalks that they used to draw things on the square, the safe zones for playing tag games or the jumping steps or just the amorphous shape of a monster to fight. Because Colette could dribble better than any of them and Jean never managed to stop her from scoring in goal, though maybe that was because he didn’t really like football. Because Philippe had the oldest gameboy Jean ever saw, that his cousin passed down to him, and only ever played Pokemon but everybody crowded around to watch him.
Jean played too, once. He caught a Pidgey. He went home, all proud, and told all of his epic battle to his mom.
She'd had a swollen belly and she had caressed it gently as she praised him. He’d felt his sister move for the first time just a few days later, he thinks. Or maybe nothing as exciting happened in the meanwhile and his memory of the evens is a bit skewed.
“You can tell me, you know,” Nicky says, pulling him out of the memories. “I won’t snitch to Jeremy.”
Jean somehow doubts it, and he shakes his head. The anger from before has mellowed into wounded longing, like bedridden dog whining at the window to the backyard. He sighs.
“I have a sister,” he spills out in a single exhale. Nicky stares, eyes wide, and Jean guess this isn’t what he was expecting. “And, uh, friends. If they still live there, I mean, I don’t know. I never got to keep in touch. And even now, I–”
“You have a sister,” Nicky repeats, voice so, so careful. Jean finds himself looking at him in silence, and somehow the other man takes a moment long to close his eyes, shake his head and exhale himself. “It’s not easy to go back to a normal and autonomous life after everything, uh?”
Jean hesitates. First year out of the Nest, he would have yelled. He would have spat that what would they all know?! But it’s been years since he’s left that place and he’s gone to therapy and he’s better at accepting that, yes, that was all but normal. And absolutely not worth all the pain he’d gone through.
Nicky shrugs at whatever emotion made it past Jean’s self control to show on his face. “Kev was like that too, at the beginning. And for a very long time, to be honest. He tried to latch on Andrew like Raven partners or shit, but my cousin told him he wasn’t going to be Riko 2.0; either he grew a spine or he could go back sniffling. Not that Andrew would have allowed him to after they made their deal, of course, but Kev didn’t know that and he thought the next best thing to latch onto was a bottle of vodka.”
Jean had seen Kevin at the banquets when Riko was still alive, but he’d assumed the drinking was reserved for the occasions directly involving Ravens. He’d thought Kevin’s devotion to the sport would have kept him from doing anything to jeopardize his health and his capability to play, but apparently he’d underestimated the power of trauma.
“I thought it wasn’t that bad,” he said out loud, and Nicky shook his head.
“It isn’t now. It was, though. After Riko’s death, Kevin had such a bad meltdown that Coach stepped in and put his foot down. Cut the shit or I’ll cut you off my team. You should have seen Kevin’s face.”
“I guess Wymack prefers a son with an whole liver and a long life to a son who’s a champion for just a short span of years before biting the dust.” Okay, Jean feels a tiny bit bad for the words that just left his mouth. But honestly, he doesn’t want to hear about how Kevin’s caring father grabbed him by the scruff before he could completely ruin his life.
“I don’t know,” Nicky says, apparently unbothered. Jean is surprised for a moment before remembering this man was a Fox at the same time as Neil Josten. He’s probably heard worse and more tactless things. “I like to think that Coach would have done it for any of us, if we ever got that bad. He’s only tough on the outside, you know; inside he’s actually some kind of cussing teddy bear.” He wriggles to pull something from his pocket. “But regardless, Kev went to therapy and here we are.”
Jean is suddenly met with a bright screen and the picture of Kevin’s scarred palm holding a tiny round chip. It takes a moment to elaborate the words on it.
4 Years Sober.
Jean mentally counts, and frowns because Riko’s been dead for seven years now. “Four?”
Nicky pulls his phone away. “Recovery ain’t easy or linear, sweetheart, you should know it.” There’s somewhat of a scolding in his voice that’s enough to make Jean feel properly chastised. “It was a bumpy road, but Kev’s taking it like the champ he is. And Thea’s helping lots, from what I know.”
“Well, I would be terrified to piss her off,” Jean offers, the weakest way to apologize he has, but Nicky groans out loud anyway.
“Yes!” he exclaims. “No joke, she’s so scary! Every reunion with the guys that she attends too makes me happier to be gay.”
That makes Jean laugh a bit. “She is intimidating,” he admits.
Nicky doesn’t answer, and they’re left in the silence to watch the cars run and the wind rustle a stray piece of paper on the sidewalk.
“I think,” Jean says, and he doesn’t know why he says it. He stops. He thinks once, twice, thrice, of anything else he could say to cover up the traitorous slip of his tongue. The paper twirls and falls flat on the ground. “I think I’d like to see Marseille again.”
He knows he would. He misses all of it, the crowded streets, the foreign languages bouncing against the walls of the alleys, the scent of the sea in the breeze from the port. Running to the sailors to buy the fresh fish straight from their boats. Cringing at the tingling sound of the bell atop the bakery door which chimed every time someone walked, but forgetting all about it while wolfing down the sugary treats from the counter as his mom bought bread and whatever else.
Nicky pats him vehemently on the back. It’s actually vehement enough that Jean wheezes out a breath. “Consider it done, Mr Broody. I’ll tell the stinky hikers as soon as they’re done showering.
They plan Marseille for after Disneyland. Jean is not surprised, but neither he’s disappointed. He’ll need time to be ready for that.
He has sex with Jeremy that night, and falls asleep as the little spoon with his boyfriend’s lips pressing butterfly kisses on his nape. “It’s going to be fine, Jean.”
Who wouldn’t believe him?
There’s something weird the next day. Nicky shows up with bags under his eyes and a tired expression, and Erik hoovers around him even more than usual.
Jeremy asks, because he’s the one with words between them, but Nicky just shrugs. He wears sunglasses as soon as they hit the street, and somehow the silence, the quiet… It’s not reassuring anymore. Jean has been wishing for this kind of calmness since the beginning of this trip, yet he finds his shoulders coiled and his muscles tense and his spine itching with unresolved nerves.
Erik leads them to the rental car they got for the day and starts driving with expertise even in the maze of streets. Despite this, he goes in the very opposite direction to Disneyland. When Jean points it out, hesitantly slipping into his navigator role from the passenger seat, Erik just says it’s a small detour, no longer than half an hour.
Erik and Jeremy keep talking, voices loud and fast to fill the silence that Nicky lets stretch. Every so often, his phone pings and his eyes widen, he looks at it with apprehension filling the lines of his face, but he always slumps back down in the seat. The continuous routine raises the tension in the car, but Jeremy is more stubborn than any wall of silence and he pushes through with inane comments that eventually end up on the Exy season.
When they finally arrive, it’s Versailles that greets them, but Erik seems uninterested in the huge statues and the imposing architectures, in the precious golds and rich colors. Instead, it’s a round, small thing, the temple Erik leads Nicky to, hand in hand, but Jean recognizes its importance and holds Jeremy back to let them have a moment.
“It’s the Temple of Love,” he murmurs, slowly, as he stares at the way in which Erik’s arms encase Nicky’s whole body, how their eyes never meet but they skins won’t stop to. “Something happened.”
“I saw his phone screen in the car,” Jeremy admits. He’s not shy of his inability to respect people’s privacy at time, Jean’s learnt of this, so there has to be another reason for the vicious way he’s biting his lower lip. “Some kind of press thing has been called and some friends of his were keeping him posted. It’s supposed to begin anytime now, I think? I didn’t get what it was about, though.”
In retrospect, Jean cannot remember ordering his hand to fish his phone out of the jeans’ pocket. But he has it in his palm with an internet browser page open as he’s still asking, “Any word in particular that you read?”
Jeremy has been on the wrong end of many screaming matches from Jean’s part, on the topic of privacy and stuff. He’d normally tease him for the sudden interest in uncovering whatever’s going on, but he’s much a better person than that. “The word Exodus. It was everywhere, but I can’t say I know what it means."
Jean types it in and hits search.
Exodus International. Sure enough, the top results are news about a conference called by the new head of the institution. It will supposedly start in fifteen minutes more or less, counting the time-zone, so Jean scrolls down and bit to get an idea of what the whole thing deals with.
Jeremy sucks his breath in before the words can register fully in Jean’s brain. Conversion therapy, ex-gay, healing. The words have only a foggy meaning in his head, but he knows enough to feel himself recoil.
“Nicky was there,” Jeremy mutters. “Erik told me his parents sent him in one of these when he was young. Shit, what do you think this is about?”
Jean wants to say, nothing good. He truly believes it.
He doesn’t say it.
It’s five minutes or something by the time the streaming feed has started to work, what with Jean’s data having terrible reception. Though quite some feet away from them, he can guess that Erik and Nicky, huddled around one of their phones, are doing the same. When it starts, Jean stills and Jeremy sucks in his breath, and clings to his arm.
As if English were suddenly an unknown concept, Jean swims through the words of the speaker like through thick molasses. He forces them into submission to his brain and then frowns because, could it really be?
It takes Nicky’s strangled sound turning into a laughter. It takes Erik’s boisterous cheer. It takes Jeremy’s murmured disbelief.
He looks up and Erik has Nicky in his arms, bridal stile with pride etched in every detail of their figure. They kiss, and the temple looks, for all its mean and purpose, like it was build with the very goal to stand here today and watch over this couple.
Jean takes a picture of them, just because he already has his phone ready. Jeremy immediately after slips the thing out of his hand, tags the photo with place, date and time and puts a cutesy #LoveWins on it before sending it to Nicky’s phone.
Jean lets him do with just a roll of his eyes, and ignores the time ticking away from them as they get later and later on their plan for the day.
Exodus International is shutting down its reparative therapies programs. He thinks they can allow Nicky a bit of time to breath.
When the tears are gone and the kisses have swollen up both their lips, it’s not surprising that Erik and Nicky looks absolutely beaming with energies and impatient to get back out of the car. Erik sings along to the French songs on the radio with made-up English words, no matter how much Jean begs him to stop or changes the station, and Nicky won’t. shut. up. But at least Jeremy looks eager to engage him. They're holding hands in between their seats, and Nicky's knuckles are just a bit too white, they still tremble just so.
It’s another hour to Disneyland, which means they’ll have lost most of the morning by the time they get there and will be forced to deal with unending queues and terrible crowds.
Still, Nicky and Jeremy jump up and down like kids in a sugar high as soon as they get out of the car, and Erik and Jean throw them their backpacks when they are already five steps in the gates direction.
Erik is still smiling too wide, even as he pulls a stick from his backpack. “Think I can get them to stay still enough for a photo?”
Jean looks at where both other men seem intent to break the record of high jumping and shakes his head ruefully. “Give up,” he orders, too lapidary to warrant the laugh Erik answers him with.
When he turns, Erik has already taken the snap with his phone and the selfie stick, and is staring at the screen and cooing. “Look at you!” he says, eagerly thrusting the device in Jean’s direction.
The picture shows just the outline of the amusement park, and what is visible is mostly covered by Jeremy’s and Nicky’s flying bodies. Erik is smiling at the camera, smug and content, but Jean is completely unaware of it. And in his ignorance, he’s looking at Jeremy.
Jean had been an honed weapon, an emotionless property, for so long; hiding what he was truly thinking and feeling being the only key to his survival. That’s why it’s hard to believe he can look at someone like this, that his face can display so much love and fondness without of his knowledge.
“Delete this,” he orders.
Erik puts his phone away without considering his words. “You don’t mean it,” he just says.
“Hurry up, slowpokes! We’ve got rides to get on!” Nicky bellows at them. A few people in the lot look up to stare at them, some with rather disgruntled expressions.
Jean sighs. “We’re going to get kicked out of Disneyland, aren’t we?”
“Probably,” Erik laughs. “But do you want me to believe it isn’t worth it?”
No, I don’t.
Jean doesn’t say it, but he hurries up. There will be time to worry another day. On this, he just wants to think of the sun on his skin and the one smiling at him from in front of the Disney castle.
Still, Kevin better never know about this.