And we're just children wanting children of our own
I want a space to watch things grow
But did I dream too big?
Do I have to let it go?
O h God, what do I know?
Oh, don't you know I have seen
I have seen the fields aflame
And everything I ever did
Was just another way to scream your name
Over and over and over and over again
-Florence + the Machine, South London Forever
Tonight is a good night for Joana and her counterparts. The Crises had been out today, having organized some school biotech study thing that Matteo had volunteered to cook for, Lucas had been curious about, and Robbe had tagged along for at everyone’s request. Joana and her counterparts, therefore, had decided to go out and have some fun together, realizing that they hadn’t really hung out split like this since before Robbe and Sander had joined them.
Most of them have refrained from heavy drinking for the past couple of years. It tends to fuck with meds and minds in a way that is far from pleasant. The occasional bottle of beer or glass of wine with friends is okay, but for the most part they all tend to avoid vodka or more intense alcohol, especially avoiding binge drinking.
Which means that Joana's completely fucking sober when some creep tries to pick her up at the bar, despite the fact that she was just talking to David about the small film project he and Nico are currently filming. She had a hand in the pre-production, helping with set and costume design, and she’ll also have a hand in post-production once they’re done, helping out with polishing the special effects once Nico’s done with the sound mixing and soundtrack editing.
"I've got a girlfriend, dickwad," Joana says to the guy who just hit on her, her accent pulling at the words more heavily than usual.
This guy- this asshole- keeps leering at her. "She could always join in.”
Joana would normally slap him for that. (Or, well, Cris would, her beautiful, protective girlfriend.) But this time around- well, this creep’s bigger than her. A lot bigger, with giant shoulders and a good foot of height on her, and if he punched her back then that could cause some major damage.
And, well, Joana’s not in a self-destructive state right now. She’s actually pretty okay today, and she had been in a pretty good mood, hanging out with her counterparts. She doesn’t want to do something that might end with a black eye or maybe worse.
(And despite her outward bravado, Joana can’t help but feel fear run through her chest when she thinks about what happened to Sander and Robbe last week. What might happen if she starts a fight.
She nearly sighs. She just wanted a night out with her friends, and she'd had up until this moment, when this jackass has come in and just ruined everything.
Then David speaks up. "She said to get the fuck away from her,” David says, voice strong in a way that it rarely is. He's so quiet, usually, save among friends, and it warms something in her chest to know that he’s stepping up to defend her.
The guy’s nose wrinkles as he looks with David with an utter lack of care, almost as if David’s nothing but fly on the wall. “C’mon, honey,” he says, voice dripping with contempt, “She could use a good fuck, don't you think?"
As much as Joana appreciates David’s help- and she does- he’s actually as small as she is, as useless in a fight against as burly a guy as this guy, who has cords of muscle on his biceps and a good foot or two on each of them.
And David knows it, from the way he glances around the room as if looking for someone. It’s the same someone Joana’s looking for, most likely.
Even, Nico, and Eliott are a lot bigger than them. A lot closer in height and size to this creep. And though none of them are fighters- leave that to Lucas, Isak, or Cris- they can be rather intimidating if the case calls for it.
Unfortunately, though, Joana can’t even see Sander or Even, and Nico and Eliott are dancing with each other at the far end of the room. There’s literally no way to get their attention or to get any of them over here to get this guy to back off from her, to get some sort of size on their side to intimidate this asshole.
David must realize this, too, because he tries again. “Back off, man,” he says, “She told you no-”
The man turns back to Joana and leers. "This the girlfriend?"
Every ounce of fear and restraint leaves Joana’s body, and this time Joana's hand is in the air and her palm is stinging before she even realizes what she's done.
“He’s a fucking dude, you puta,” she snaps, insulting him in her native language rather than in Flemish.
The guy’s face flashes and his hand rears back in response but it’s caught by a relievingly familiar hand- it’s Even, tall and wonderful and beautifully imposing when his face is as stony as that. Though he wouldn’t hurt a fly- Isak’s the one who would get into any fight- Even’s really good at pulling off an expression that practically dares people to fuck with him. The joint behind his ear, the stern press to his lips, and the flickering lights of the club don’t hurt, either, making him seem far more intimidating than he ever is otherwise.
“Back the fuck off,” Even says, voice stony cold, and Joana sees Sander at his side, darting forward to stand by David and Joana, just a bit taller and not intimidating in the least but Joana sees the flinch in his posture and the line in his spine and she remembers how he grew up, the strength it must take to stand in front of a coming blow like that.
"Bitches," the guy spits as he turns away, yanking his hand from Even's grasp. “Those chicks aren’t worth it, anyway.” David flinches again by Joana’s side and she reaches out a hand to touch his shoulder. Her fingers are firm enough to give him reassurance, but aren’t so strong as to freak him out further. He relaxes, but only slightly, his expression staying pinched and nauseated as the guy fucks off and Even turns to them.
“You guys okay?” Even asks, concern clear, but Joana’s focus is on David and the shit that this dick just said about him.
Joana turns to David. "You all good, man?"
David's face is still a bit pinched, but he raises a concerned eyebrow. "Shouldn't I be asking that about you?”
“Perverts like him are everywhere," Joana says, "It's uncomfortable, but it's normal.”
“Well, bigots like him are everywhere, too," David says, not arguing but rather carrying a tone of sympathy to his voice, a lilt that says you're not alone that claws at Joana’s heart because David has to deal with this shit so often and he shouldn’t fucking have to. Still, though, there’s an ugly sense of recognition, there, of empathy because she knows what it’s like to have yourself questioned because of society’s fucked up understanding. She knows what it’s like to be judged and harassed for just being yourself.
“Sorry we didn’t get here quick enough,” Sander says, expression contrite. “We were outside smoking and talking and we’d just gotten back inside when you slapped him.”
“No need to apologize,” Joana says, looking to Even. “You got the dick away from us before a fight broke out.”
David nods. “Thanks, by the way.”
“No problem,” Even says, gaze steady as he looks over Joana and David. “I’ll always be here if you guys are in trouble."
And that Joana knows more than she is certain of nearly anything in the world. Her two certainties in life, incontrovertible facts beyond any challenge are that one, Cris will always be there for her, and two, that her and her counterparts will always be there for each other.
David glances away from Even and down at the ground. “I kind of just want to talk to Matteo,” David says, and he's doing a really good job keeping most of the panic and pain from dysphoria from his face. He's probably the best of them at pretending things are alright- probably because he's the most of an introvert among them.
“Yeah, this bar’s kind of a bust,” Joana says, a bit of a flippant smile growing on her lips. She looks up to find Eliott and Nico, to see whether it’s worth it to make the effort to cross the length of the club to grab them or to just text them, but she sees them heading toward them anyway so she just looks back to Sander. “I think we’re due to leave. Go somewhere else. If you want, we can walk you home, or you can call Matteo along the way.”
Sander’s eyes gleam in a rather mischievous way that Joana really shouldn’t trust, because she knows that look from every mirror she’s ever seen herself in, but that she can’t help but smile at. “Have I shown you guys the mural I painted for Robbe?”
“Fuck, you did what?” David asks, eyes going wide at Sander’s comment, and Sander nods, smile beaming.
(That smile thing is something that all six of them have in common. Or, at least, Joana’s been told that her smile also does the same thing that her counterparts’ does, that thing where sheer joy transforms their entire face to the point where sunlight doesn’t feel quite necessary anymore, where you can’t possibly picture imagining the black hole inside their heads because such happiness is displayed on their features.)
“I painted him a mural. Spray painted, that is. On a wall near the skatepark, where I first saw him."
“And I thought Eliott was extra when he and Lucas fucked in the paint,” Nico says, tone as teasing as his boyfriend's usually is.
“Are you guys ever going to stop bringing that up?” Eliott asks, voice more amused than annoyed.
“Never,” Even, Nico, and David chorus, while Sander’s just laughing as Even quietly lets Nico and Eliott know that they’re heading out.
“You two fucked in paint?”
"That's how they made the mural in the common area at their school back in France," Joana says even as they head out of the bar, her hand still on David's shoulder. He hasn't shrugged her off yet, so she thinks he might be taking some sort of comfort in her small touch. (Or, at least, she hopes he is.)
"The one that the one in the common room is based off of?"
Even nods, holding the door open for them all to spill out off. "Not made the same way, I promise, but that is where they got the inspiration."
As they exit the door, Joana can't help but observe them all. David's still a bit shaken from the misgendering, and there's still a bit of a sour taste in her throat from how close that douchebag came to her, but for the most part everything is looking up, with everyone now in a pretty good mood.
All six of them- they're all a bit fucked in the head. PTSD, Dysphoria, Bipolar, Borderline. Sometimes it's so easy to feel alone in their own heads against a world that hates them, that doesn't understand their brains. It's so easy to feel trapped in a high tower with no one there to save you.
But they have each other, to help save each other just like they have their partners to save them, too. There is something to be said for their partners, the loves of their lives, but there's also something to be said for how personally and deeply Joana and her counterparts understand each others' brains, of how protective they are of each other, of how much they will always be able to pick up on the small ticks and help soothe them away in whatever way they can.
Matteo shows up by the bus stop by the skatepark at the same moment that they do, and within moments he's by David's side.
"David," he says, and David catches him in his arms, tucking his head into Matteo's shoulder. Matteo holds him there, face pressed to David's, and within seconds, despite nothing but holding each other happening, Joana has to look away from what feels like an unbearably personal, intimate moment.
Joana pulls her phone out of her pocket to text her girlfriend. How's studying going?
it would b better if u were here to kiss me, Cris responds back nearly immediately.
Joana smiles down at her phone. You're not wrong.
Then, from Cris: is David doing ok? all of us were worried when David shot off that text to Matteo
Yeah, Joana texts back. Matteo's here & David's doing a lot better. You taking enough breaks?
Lucas & Robbe r on a permanent one, Cris texts her, attaching a photo of Isak and Marti bent over some textbooks that Joana recognizes as the same ones from her and Cris' kitchen table, with Lucas and Robbe in the background, apparently goofing off together in Nico and Marti's kitchen.
"So there's a mural you painted for Robbe?" Nico asks, low voice carrying through the night streets, and Sander nods.
Wishing you luck, mi corazon, Joana texts back to Cris, slipping her phone into her pocket in order to focus on Sander.
"After I moved in," Sander says with a nod as he leads them forward on a walk, giving David and Matteo some space. "I got a part time job to pay for my share of the rent, then every night I'd stay out for an extra hour and head down here to paint. Got it done in a couple of weeks, and then took Robbe to see it."
"We need to step up our games," Eliott says to Joana and Even as they turn the corner and Sander turns on the flashlight on their phone, turning it up to illuminate-
"Fuck," Joana breathes, seeing the absolute masterpiece in front of her, Robbe's face surrounded by halos of light and energy. It's easy for her gaze to trace the various lines of the painting, the sheer talent and love covering the entirety of the artwork. From the colors chosen to the lines carved in light and shadow to the detail of the explosion as well as the features of the subject, it's clear as to just how much the hands that painted this cared about what they were painting. "We really do."
Then Sander looks back to them, watching for their expressions, and she can see the vulnerability in his gaze as he waits for their reactions, for their expressions. He's baring his soul to them in the same way that Eliott did with Polaris, the same way that Even did with The Boy Who Couldn't Hold His Breath Underwater, the same way that David did with his Only Boy Awake film, the same way that Nico did with his EP The Last Lovers On Earth, the same way that Joana did with her painting series Coming Back.
This is his masterpiece, the story he wrote for the boy he loved, the masterpiece he created as a sheer explosion of his feelings, the closest thing he could make to love in art form. This is his soul, bared on a wall, for everyone to see how he feels about the love of his life.
(Joana remembers the reverse of these beautiful masterpieces. The sketches of a broken back peeled open on her Instagram, of a screaming man on David's, of a dead raccoon on Eliott's.
She follows Sander on Instagram, of course. She's seen his hell week sketches. Years later, the rest of them still have them. Or, well, their Crises generally do. Robbe doesn't have Sander's as everything blew up and healed a lot quicker between them than between any of the rest of them, but the rest of them- she knows that Isak still has the cartoons that Even sent him, knows that Nico's tiny little giraffe flipbook sits in a proud spot on their counter.
These tiny sketches- they're not as grand as a mural or a short film or an art exhibition, but they still bare the artists' soul in a way that show a different side of love. The painful side. The agony of your own mind devouring itself and you being left thinking that you fucked it up, that there's no way for anyone to ever rescue you, much less love you. The utter loss that all six of them experienced, in their own way, thinking that the person they loved had left them and would never return.)
The nasty feeling in Joana's feeling from what happened at the bar is dissipating quickly, replaced by a feeling of comfort, of understanding, because this mural is something she knows.
"It's beautiful," Even says quietly, the first to speak his mind aloud. He's closer to the mural than she is, just a foot from it, and his gaze is sweeping over it just as hers was, taking in the details.
Joana nods. "It says a lot," she says, thinking about Sander's soul on a wall, pinned their like they have all done for their own Crises. "I can tell how much you love him."
Something softens in Sander's face. "You can?" he asks, voice uncertain and hopeful and so, so young.
Eliott nods. "There's no way for it to be clearer."
"That's really fucking big," comes a familiar German accent, and Joana looks back to find Matteo and David have caught up with them, David's arm around Matteo's waist, Matteo slumped against David like usual. David has a small smile on his face and eyes wide as he takes in the mural, clearly feeling better now that he's with his boyfriend. "Impressive, man."
Sander blushes, the red in his cheeks clear even in the dim light from his flashlight. "Thanks."
"Seriously," Nico says, "I wish I could have made something like that for Marti." There's nothing jealous in his voice, rather something almost wistful, as if he aches to return to the past and do things differently or better this time around. A small ache of sorts, from a long ago healed wound.
"Nico, have you even listened to Marti's stories?" Sander asks, raising an eyebrow, and Nico's brow furrows.
"I've only known Marti for about four months, now, but in that time I've heard all kinds of stories about how you two fell in love. Haven't you seen the look in his eyes when he tells the story about that red string, or about the Last Man Alive thing you pulled off? What's that he says when he tells those stories? That it was quiet, but that it was the most beautiful thing he'd ever experienced?"
Nico's eyes are wide and a bit bright and Joana thinks of the fact that of the six of them, Nico has a tendency to still doubt himself a bit more than any of them. She's not entirely sure where it comes from, not when Marti is completely and constantly clear how much he loves Nico, but she understands and sympathizes with him and how much comments like Sander's could mean.
"You guys are all really good at wooing," Matteo agrees, and Joana looks to him, the lone Cris-counterpart among them, the only one of them who has experienced being the recipient of the baring-of-the-soul-art. "I mean, of course David's the best," he says with a smile at his boyfriend. "You can't really top an abandoned swimming pool that you get chased out of by a guard with a scary-ass dog, after all. But what you all did, for your Davids- they all loved it as much as I loved what David did for me."
Joana thinks about how the stories the twelve of them tell, about the differences between said stories and how they played out. So much was similar, but parts of all of those stories reflected their individual personalities as couples. They always tease Lucas and Eliott about fucking in the paint, but that's the kind of couple they are- impulsive, dramatic, and head-over-heels in love with the ability to turn any situation into a way to show how much they love each other. Sander's mural is giant, but the point of it wasn't in the sheer scale but in the amount of time he put into it as a way to show Robbe just how much he cared, how much he considered Robbe his home. Marti and Nico are much more quiet about their love, their expressions of it far more intimate and personal than dramatic. The red string story that Marti loves to tell just as often as they tell the fucking-in-the-paint story- that's about them, inside their home, with Nico showing Marti just how much he loved him in a language he would understand. Matteo and David aren't over the top or super sentimental, but their stories about adventure and abandoned buildings and play-fighting fit their rather low-key, intimate, and tactile style of love. Even and Isak's feel fated, a tale where each of their stories, even the domestic ones, lead from one to the next with the feeling of a grand story where two boys decided to make their own destinies in each other yet still managed to remain tender in the small moments.
And as for Cris and Joana? Well, she's not entirely certain which stories they tell the most, which memories that their friends would identify most with their love story. Personally, she likes to think of theirs as a steady one, where they're open and honest, where no matter how far Joana retreats Cris will come after her, find her, hold her, and stay there with her.
"Fuck, how do I miss him already and it's only been this morning since I saw him last?" Eliott asks, and though it's half-joking, and everyone chuckles, Joana can see the yearning in his gaze, the fact that he really does miss Lucas a lot.
"It's because you two are fucking codependent," David teases, and Joana raises an eyebrow at Matteo, who's dangling off of David's side.
"You're one to talk," she points out, and Matteo just flips her off.
"We're all pretty codependent," Even admits, and Sander nods in agreement, probably thinking of the fact that he and Robbe already share a room even before they've moved out of the flatshare.
"Should we go crash the study party?" Nico offers, a bit of a gleam in his eyes, his temporary moment of doubt gone.
"Those nerds could really use a break," Matteo says, smiling in that soft way he does when he's talking about his friends. It's not the blinding smile he uses for David, but still something fond.
Sander's flashlight drops from the mural as he turns it off and tucks it into his pocket. "Lead the way," he says with a smile that spells just how comfortable he is, too.
Looking around as they head to the bus so that way they can head to Nico and Marti's flat, where the study group decided to meet, Joana finds smiles on most of their faces. It's those smiles she was thinking about earlier, the soft ones that still manage to be bright even in the darkest moments.
Her phone vibrates in her pocket and she pulls it out to find that Cris has sent another photo. love u 2, mi amor, reads the text attached to a selfie of Cris smiling with Robbe and Lucas pulled in on either side of her, all of them smiling at the camera.
Joana finds herself beaming down at her phone as they all file onto the bus, unable to resist in the face of her adorable girlfriend's photo. On our way to you guys, Joana texts back as she slides into a seat next to Eliott. She then tilts the screen enough to give him a good view of the photo, and his face lights up when he sees Lucas' smile.
"Je l'aime tellement," Eliott mutters quietly, the French flowing past her ears in that wispy, almost-whisper sort of way that Lucas and Eliott's native language always does.
"Then you can either wait the fifteen minutes it takes to get to Nico and Marti's place or you can just text your boyfriend," Joana instructs with an amused smile, and Eliott nods.
"You've got a good point, there," Eliott says, digging out his own phone, and Joana smirks.
"I often do."
She glances around the bus, at Sander and Even and Nico lined up next to each other, talking about something, at Matteo and David sitting together, Matteo slumped against David with his head resting on his shoulder and David smiling into Matteo's blond hair. Despite the shit moment at the bar, it seems like they're all doing pretty well right now, and Joana's so happy to see it.