Jean’s gone soft. At least that’s what he thinks to himself as he jogs his way off the court, finding himself too breathless for his liking after the match. His eyes narrow slightly and he tosses an accusing glance towards Jeremy as he falls in place at his side.
“Aw come on now, what’s that look for?” Jeremy grins at him. Jean huffs and looks away, refusing to allow the man’s perpetual cheer to seep into him.
“This should have been effortless,” he pants the words out. “This-” a pause to gesture to his labored breathing. “is unacceptable.”
“I hate to break it to you Moreau, but this is kinda what happens when you work your ass off."
"No,” Jean declares. “This is what happens when you spend too little time on the court, and too much away.”
“Too much?” Jeremy shakes his head, laughing breathlessly. “Jean you don’t spend nearly enough time away from this place.” He points a finger in Jean’s face. “You still haven’t let me show you that diner."
"I don’t need to see a diner,” Jean rumbles. “Why would-"
He stops as they make it past the press, as they find themselves face to face with a group of young kids. Bright, toothy smiles are angled up at them, but Jean only has eyes for the child in the middle.
"Can I-” the child begins, interrupted by a cough from his mother. A laborious sigh before he continues. “May I please have your autograph?"
A gentle touch on his shoulder from Jeremy bristles annoyance in him. He can’t possibly believe Jean would harm the child. But when he glances at Jeremy, the concern isn’t directed at the child, but at him. Jean snaps his eyes away, back to the little one holding up the paper. He tries, and fails, to avoid looking at the clumsily painted 3 on the boy’s cheekbone. He manages a tight smile, hyper aware of the press still lingering. He can practically feel Riko’s voice, icy and mocking and sliding its way up his back and neck to his ears. Toy. Fool. Worthless. Mistake. Unwanted. Unloved. Un-
He smiles tightly but curtly at the child and nods, his voice foreign to him. "Of course.” He takes the paper from the hand clutched around it, raising a brow in surprise as a green crayon is pressed into his palm. The first thought that enters his mind is that he’s never held a green crayon before. He latches onto that, bringing it to the front of his mind. He memorizes how the wax feels against his thumb, how the crease of the softened wrapping slips under his fingernail. Anything to keep his attention from the child’s cheek. Jeremy taught him this, taught him to focus on something mundane and simple, and find the details in it. He had scoffed at first, and was unable to hide his surprise the first time it’d helped ease the panic away. He was grateful for it now. He signs the paper with a delicate hand, and returns the prize to the boy. He feels a tightness in his chest that he can’t place when the boy’s mother beams at him. He absently realizes that it is a good feeling, and some of the tension leaves his shoulders.
“When I grow up, I wanna be just like you and Kevin and R-”
The mother’s face flushes brightly as she shushes the child before he can finish, but it doesn’t matter. Jean had heard the beginning of the syllable, had seen Riko’s name start to pass the boy’s lips. His heart flips in his chest, and he feels a dull roar in his ears. Jeremy’s touch on his hand reminds him to breathe, but he can’t. His legs won’t cooperate either. Stay still, Moreau. You know if you move I’ll just make it worse. A cold sweat spreads over him and he turns his gaze to Jeremy, stomach burning with shame at the desperation he knows is written on his face. But Jeremy simply nods, eyes soft, and turns the smile at the child and the mother. He gives the kids a quick speech, no doubt something encouraging and cheerful. Jean would expect nothing else from him. He doesn’t hear the words, just the rhythm of Jeremy’s words, the warmth in his tone. He closes his eyes and tries to focus on that, but it’s not enough. It could never be enough he was foolish to think it could be enough why did he-
Jeremy pulls him away, away from the court, away from his thoughts. Away. How far away would he need to go to escape this? Would it ever be far enough? How could it? He clenches his jaw and curls his hands into fists, shaking with fear and then shaking with rage from being afraid. Jeremy stops when they’re alone and turns to him, cupping Jean’s face in his hands. His thumbs brush small circles into Jean’s cheeks, soothing away the protest rising to his lips. Jean’s breath comes in ragged, raw pants, and the tightness in his throat is relentless.
“I hope we meet him again someday,” Jeremy murmurs.
Jean’s confusion is a momentary distraction. “Who?”
“Alex,” Jeremy says, clarifying when Jean stares blankly at the name. “The boy.” He continues before Jean can break, holding him together. “He wants to be like you, Jean. You first."
"And then Kevin and-” Jean’s jaw snaps shut painfully. He won’t say his name.
“Riko,” Jeremy whispers calmly. “He’s gone, Jean. His name won’t bring him back."
"You don’t understand,” Jean hisses tightly.
“I know I don’t. I never will. But listen to me. Listen. Alex doesn’t need to be like Kevin. He doesn’t need to be like Riko. If he grows up to be like you first, that’s all he’ll need. He’ll grow up strong. Resilient. Stubborn.” Jeremy smiles fondly. “Intelligent. Resourceful. Brave."
"Brave?” Jean laughs manically.
“Brave,” Jeremy replies evenly. “Dedicated. Fierce. Unbeatable."
"I am not unbeatable,” Jean curls his lip. “Don’t coddle me, don’t lie to me."
Jeremy strokes his cheeks again, his voice somehow getting softer. "I’m not."
His voice is soft but his eyes are bright, determined, and honest. Jean feels his mouth go dry.
"I don’t…understand,” he croaks.
“Every time you fall, you get back up. You’ve survived atrocities I can’t even begin to imagine. You are unbeatable, Jean Moreau, and if just one child grows up to be like you the world will be better for it."
Jean stares at him, disbelief wrinkling his brow. Jeremy stares back, his gaze unwavering. Until.
Until Jean believes him. He doesn’t believe what Jeremy says is true, but he believes that Jeremy believes it.
And for now, that’s enough. The shackles of Riko’s burning words loosen and Jean closes his eyes. He is speechless, but he knows Jeremy doesn’t mind.
"Baby steps,” Jeremy murmurs. “We’ll get there."
"We?” Jean questions tentatively.