They have bad days: days when Victor doesn’t speak at all; when he doesn’t go to class - days when Robert returns home from school without a word and screams into a pillow from behind the locked door (of what he calls his bedroom - those days). There are days when their only exchanges are bitter words and cold eyes. Victor’s countenance those days is not as sweet as Robert remembers. It bites like a starving fish at the bottom of a lake, and Robert’s hands are covered in cuts from the effort of dragging Victor to shore.
This is rare. Their good days make the exhaustion and aggression and isolation look like the moon beside the sun: but from Earth, of course, both celestial beings appear roughly the same size, and in the throes of agony, their separate perceptions of the relationship before them don’t equal reality.
It is on one of these days that Robert timidly approaches Victor. Victor hasn’t moved for hours. As Robert approaches, Victor’s hand shatters the glass it’s been clasping.
Still - “Victor,” Robert says. And now he says it without thought of himself - without presenting the idea that perhaps this time they could cling to each other instead of fighting for air like men drowning. Now he takes Victor’s hand in his and cleans it of broken glass. And he looks up into Victor’s eyes and says
“The walls are grey.” A dirty grey. They weren’t like that originally.
Victor doesn’t look at him. There’s a shallowness in his eyes. Like a puddle that used to look like it was deep as an ocean, and now Robert can see the pavement beneath. Robert knows it’s only a reflection.
“Victor, the house is grey.”
“I know,” says Victor. “What do you want me to do about it?’
A square of sunlight lands on Victor’s right eye.
“I want to paint the walls,” says Robert.
Victor’s voice has gone a little softer: “White?”
Robert drives them to the store and they get paint. They get several bottles of white paint and - light blue? asks Victor, and that’s when Robert sees a little bit of excitement start to build; even though he can’t feel it himself yet, he’s gladdened for his partner - light blue for the bedroom. Victor wants to paint the basement, too, but the walls down there are already a nice, warm brown, and it’s hard to paint wood, anyway. Victor is upset. He wants to buy a similar shade of brown to the basement walls in case there are spots he’d like to touch up. Robert reiterates that it’s hard to paint wood, and the paint would likely melt anyway from the chemical fumes off Victor’s experiments.
It is during this very conversation that Robert spots his chemistry professor.
Prof Frollo is alone - at least, he looks it. Not for long. He is quickly reunited with his companion, who is carrying a family-size pack of Skittles in one arm and a plastic bag of candles in the other. Robert’s mouth drops open.
“That,” says Victor, stepping forward to get a better view - “is that your friend from class? And our - ”
Pierre Gringoire heaves the Skittles into the shopping cart. They can’t hear him, since he’s quite a ways down the aisle, but his mouth is moving and he’s pulling candles out of the little bag. He appears to read the description of one of them aloud to Frollo, and Frollo smiles and takes the candle to smell it.
“This isn’t real,” says Robert, paint forgotten.
“Should we go say hello?”
Victor’s already halfway down the aisle. Robert is rooted to the spot. He watches Victor greet Frollo and Gringoire warmly - and oh, how is it that the broken man whittled away before his time can be so warm to strangers? When it took days for him to open his heart to Robert?
Frollo looks a little bewildered when Victor points down the aisle. It’s impossible now for either pair to hide what’s going on here. Robert meets Gringoire’s eyes with an ounce or two of horror in his own: they’ve had a few conversations about their lovers, sparing details, bored in class, certainly, but Robert (polite, innocent Walton) had never asked for a name. It is beyond unthinkable to assume that Gringoire was describing his own professor, but that’s what all the evidence suggests, and now Robert’s cringing because he can’t stop imagining them together. That’s not an image he asked for.
Victor drags Gringoire and Frollo to Robert and, for Robert, it feels like he’s watching one of his nightmares come to life.
“Tell these men what we’re doing,” Victor commands. Robert picks up one of the paint bottles and mutely waves it at Gringoire and Frollo.
“Yes!” says Victor. “Robert, they can help us.”
“I - ”
“Well, our apartment isn’t small,” Victor urges. “There’s a lot of walls, and this could be fun, Robert.” Robert’s starting to panic.
“Do they…” His eyes speed over Gringoire and - his own teacher! - quickly away. “Do they want to help us?”
Gringoire and Frollo don’t look like they quite expected this either. They look at each other.
“Well,” Gringoire says at last. “We’re not… we’re not doing anything this afternoon.” Frollo closes his eyes. He looks like he is resigning himself.
“Wait - ” Robert feels a laugh bubbling up inside his throat - this really isn’t going to happen, is it - ?
Victor gives Gringoire directions to his and Robert’s apartment. “We have to buy these” - the paint; he gestures at it - “but we’ll meet you there,” he says. “In ten minutes.”
“Victor - ”
“Robert. Come on.”
Robert stares over Frollo’s shoulder at a rack of shampoo for a moment before turning to follow his partner, still clutching the bottle of white paint. It’s useless to ask Victor why he was willing to condemn the two of them to the most awkward afternoon Robert can envision. Perhaps Victor truly did think it was a way they could throw off today’s gloom.
At the very least, Robert’s been getting to know Gringoire. Maybe that’ll make this latest adventure easier for both of them to swallow.