"And here you come
with a shield for a heart
and a sword for a tongue"
- Carol Ann Duffy
Jean squinted in the blinding California sun as the automatic doors of the airport shut behind him. He shouldered his duffle bag and tightened his grip on his suitcase and swept his gaze over the sea of cars entering and exiting the drop off zone. Jean exhaled slowly and looked for the yellow Jeep Jeremy told him to expect. The five-hour flight had been the first time in months he had been truly alone. With the smell of the ocean on the breeze, the warmth of the sunshine, and the cheery palm trees, California seemed like something out of a dream. Untouched and untainted like a blank canvas.
He couldn’t shake the thought that had been obsessively floating around his mind since take off. Was he just walking into another nightmare? Walking in of his own accord, an unknowing lamb led to the slaughter?
It didn’t take long before he spotted the bright vehicle or it’s equally sunny driver. Jean used the time to take in the sight of his new captain. Jeremy was staring at his phone, his attention focused on the text he typed out as he leaned against the hatchback. The blond looked relaxed in his aviators. His broad shoulders, bared by his tank top, sported a tan. At the sound of Jean’s approach, Jeremy glanced up and grinned at his new Backliner. Pushing up his sunglasses, his gaze fell to the 3 inked on Jean’s cheek, but his smile didn’t waver
“Jean! Welcome to California. Let me get your bag.”
Jeremy opened the trunk and stowed Jean’s bags away. When he slammed the door shut, his eyes crinkled with a soft smile.
“Ready to go?”
Jean nodded and wordlessly turned towards the unlocked passenger door. As Jeremy crossed over to the driver’s door only then did his smile falter. Two minutes in and he was already getting the silent treatment. He took a steadying breath before climbing in to join his new teammate.
Jeremy spared a glance Jean’s way as he started the car. Jean sat still, staring out the window. A living statue of what Jeremy imagined was a practiced state of calmness. No, not calmness, control. Not a fidget of anxiety or pent up energy that Jeremy was all too familiar with, this was just…nothing.
His grip on the wheel tightened.
Jeremy swallowed, and adjusted his rearview mirror, “You good with the Beachboys, Jean?”
“Cool.” Jeremy smiled to himself and slid his sunglasses back on. Jean pulled out his phone as Jeremy pushed the play and let the Brian Wilson’s voice fill the silence.
Noticing a notification from Jeremy, Jean glanced over at Jeremy who tapped along to the upbeat song, and read his message first.
Jeremy Knox: Hey man, I’m parked behind the silver land rover. Let me know if you need me to come in and help with bags :)
Jeremy Knox was all smiles and exuded a sense of warm confidence. He seemed the same as he always presented himself on court and when they’d crossed paths at the banquet during the season. Over the years, Jean had watched as Jeremy rose in Kevin’s favor. It hadn’t been merely keeping an eye on the enemy. No, this had been more and Jean saw it when they played against USC. However foolish it was more than an appreciation of another strong player.
It was respect.
Jean never mentioned it to Riko. Besides, at that time he had still considered Kevin a friend.
When Jeremy called, Jean had listened and taken the proposal seriously. Kevin and Renee trusted Jeremy and it wasn’t as though he had a lot of options, so Jean signed. But even so, the warm reception from the Trojans and their captain did little to calm Jean’s fears. He knew the kind of twisted lies that could hide behind such a smile.
Jean’s hands started to shake and he clenched them into a fist in his lap.
It seemed foolish now, willingly going back to this life, this game. Trusting the word of a former teammate who walked away from him, a girl with her own broken past, and a boy who smiled too much.
But in the end, what choice did he have? He still owed the Moriyamas.
Jean relaxed his hand and looked down at the rest of the texts.
Renee Walker: Have a safe flight Jean! Text me when you land.
He quickly typed a reply to her.
Landed. Headed to campus.
Jean glanced up from his phone at Jeremy who was focused on the road ahead. His lips moved, silently reciting the lyrics.
He was everything Riko was not. Unpolished with his toothy grin, relaxed and unkempt with ruffled blond hair and an earring in his left ear. He turned to Jean, and smiled, “So, how was the flight?”
“Yeah, well, we’re happy to have you join us, Jean. I think we can learn a lot from each other.”
Jean scoffed. Jeremy’s brow furrowed, but his tone was light, “You don’t think so?”
Jean’s smile was not kind, “I think you’re going to regret this.”
This time it was Jeremy who gave a small chuckle, “Oh Moreau, I don’t have regrets.” He checked the passenger mirror and turned onto their exit, “Besides, it wasn’t all my decision.” Jeremy smiled at Jean’s confused look.
“It wasn’t just me who wanted you here. We took a vote as a team and it was unanimous.”
The expression on Jean’s face would not have inspired confidence. His look of confusion was replaced with a blank stare and a flat tone. Jeremy grit his teeth and let out a quiet, even breath as he remembered the latest conversation he had with Kevin at the end of the year banquet.
“This isn’t going to be easy Jeremy. The Nest is all he’s ever known. I was lucky-,”
“I don’t think lucky is the right-,”
Jeremy would never forget the look that haunted Kevin’s expression.
“No, I was lucky compared to Jean. He’s going to expect you to demand everything from him, that you won’t accept failure. And with the Ravens, its…,”
His eyes had widened and his breath came fast as he explained, struggling to rein in the memories of his own past. “Your worth is reduced to your game. You are not an individual. You are a number on a jersey.”
Jeremy had nodded, “I’m going to do my best to help him, Day. We all are. He has a new home now.”
“And another thing, Ravens travel in pairs. We were never alone. Ever. He’s going to latch on to someone- probably you since you’re the captain-whether he likes it or not. He won’t be able to help himself.”
“I understand. We’ll make it work. We figured he’d need a close eye, my roommate transferred out anyway so, he’ll be with me.”
“Call me if you need anything.”
“I’m serious Jeremy.”
“Well, I won’t just be your captain, Jean. If you don’t mind, I’ll be your roommate too.”
Jean narrowed his gaze, and Jeremy shrugged, “My roommate transferred out a few months before we offered you a spot on the team, so it seemed like a good fit. Sound ok?”
“Do I have a choice?”
Jean wanted to laugh at that. The sincerity in Knox’s tone made him sick to his stomach and he bit his tongue at the acid taste in the back of his throat. He stayed quiet instead. He lost track of how many times keeping silent had saved his life. Early on in his time with the Ravens, Jean had learned his limits. He’d taken risks to learn them and had the scars to prove it.
And now he was going to have to do it all over again and was cowardly enough to admit that he thought it might kill him this time.
A soft, “Jean” tore him away from his thoughts and Jean realized that they were parked. The campus was empty around them and the tall red brick dorm stood before them, seemingly vacant.
Jeremy turned off the Jeep and faced Jean, his voice pitched low, “No one’s going to make you do anything you don’t want to do. You’ll always have a choice.”
Jean stared ahead his jaw clenched tight. Jeremy noted his
“Two boxes worth,” came the tight-lipped reply.
Jeremy nodded, “We’ll keep an eye out for them. I’ll show you where we get mail after I show you the room.”
“And when do we practice?”
“Tomorrow. The main line up is already here. The rest of the team will trickle in over the next couple of days. C’mon.” He jerked his head towards the door.
When Jean joined him by the trunk, Jeremy was already shouldering his duffle bag. Jean grabbed his suitcase as Jeremy reached for it.
“I’m not weak,”
Jeremy froze, his eyes wide with surprise.
Jean huffed, “and I don’t need your pity either.”
Some part of Jean was pleased when he saw the fleeting look of hurt wash over the other man’s expression.
“I know you’re not, Jean. And none of this is out of pity.” He flashed a toothy grin and his expression brightened, “you’re a hell of a backliner.”
“Can we go?”
They took the elevator up to the fourth floor. Stepping out, Jean was met with sunlight. Large windows stood at each end of the hall where there was a small lounge. It gave way to a sprawling view of the city surrounding them.
Jeremy lead him down the hall and explained, “Most athletes are in this dorm, but we also have a few other residential communities here too. Like my old roommate was a theater major.”
Jean looked disturbed at the thought, but Jeremy was focused was on sliding the key card in to their room. It was smaller than his old room. On each side was a half-lofted bed. Two desks faced the window and in between them was a mini fridge with a microwave sitting on top of it. A door led to a small bathroom.
Jeremy set down the duffle bag on the bare bed. “We have the bathroom to ourselves so that’s nice. It’s small but,” He shrugged.
It was no Evermore. The thought was equally frightening and freeing.
Il est mort. Il est mort. Il est mort. Riko est-
“Do you have bedding with you, man?”
Jean looked away from the empty space he’d been staring at and shook his head. Jeremy went to the carved-out closet space on the other side of the room and pulled out a set of red and gold colored sheets. It matched the rectangular rug beneath their shoes. Jeremy looked sheepish as he handed them to Jean who started unfolding them.
He stretched an arm and scratched his head, “Yeah, my mom. She went a little overboard with the school colors when they made me captain.” Jeremy glanced around the room as if taking in his room with the eyes of an outsider. “Feel free to add to or take down,” he made a sweeping gesture, “probably could do with a little redecorating.”
Jean looked up from his task and glanced around the quaint dorm room. He raised an eyebrow at the cluttered space around Jeremy’s desk and bed. Hiking boots lay sprawled out at the foot of the desk, an open laptop and an array of photos scattered across the keyboards, notebooks were piled high on the built-in shelf.
Posters of movies Jean had never seen hung on the walls next to pictures of mountain ranges. Jean straightened and stared as the memories flooded back.
“Maman et papa! Dépêchez-vous!” In his memory, his jaw was slack and his eyes large as he sized up the mountain that seemed to almost kiss the sky. As a child, he couldn’t imagine ever reaching the top.
“Il est tellement plus grand que l'Étoile!”
Jean took a shaky breath and finished making the bed. “I don’t care. It’s your room.”
“Our room.” Jeremy reminded. “I’ll let you unpack.”
Jean didn’t respond and started to make the bed before he unpacked his clothes.
Jeremy sank into his seat and brushed aside the photos from his most recent hike. He brushed a thumb over the glossy image. He had intended to try to make good time, but with classes nearing, he had focused more on scouting potential locations than on the minutes ticking away on his stopwatch.
The buzz of text broke the silence and Jeremy watched out of the corner of his eye as Jean slowly put down the pair of Adidas and picked up the phone. His stance was wide. Confident in a way that seemed contradictory to everything Jeremy had prepared for.
Renee: How is it going?
Jean: He talks too much.
There was another quiet buzz.
Renee: Most people do.
Jean smirked as texted and let the phone drop on the bed before he moved onto unloading his suitcase.
Renee: Give him (and the team) time. I know for me it took a while to feel comfortable with the Foxes. Be patient with yourself, Jean.
Jeremy glanced back up in surprise when he heard a dry, quiet laugh. It was rough and broken, as though Jean had never experienced the type of laughter that left you aching. And just as quickly as the thought came, so did its answer.
He probably hasn’t.
Jeremy shook the thought away. He couldn’t imagine the man in front of him losing himself in something as simple as carefree laughter.
A few minutes later, Jean tucked the last shirt away in the dresser drawer and looked around at the busy room. He sighed and part of him cursed Kevin the initial idea and the Trojans for orchestrating the transfer. He had locked himself away in Abbey’s spare room back in South Carolina. The days bled together and reality felt too raw to try and live in. It still felt that way.
The day Kevin had proposed the idea, Jean had gaped at him like a fish on land, pathetic and at its wits end.
“It’s your choice, but you’re rotting away in here, Jean and no matter what she says, you can’t live in Abby’s spare bedroom forever. Time to start fighting again.”
Kevin’s hard and commanding tone was no surprise. The softness had been beaten out of him around the same time as Jean.
“What if I don’t want to anymore?”
Maybe it was because he had been half hidden in shadows-Jean had kept the shades drawn, but light still seeped in the cracks- but Jean thought he had seen something akin to understanding paint Kevin’s cool expression.
“He’s gone. You survived. Play or don’t, it’s up to you, but you need to get out of this fucking house.”
Then Kevin had shoved a piece of paper in his hand and shut the door. He hadn’t heard from him since.
After that moment, the room felt less like a haven and more like another cell. Riko used to drag him out of bed during his first month. At the feeling of fingers curling into his hair and the sharp pain that blossomed as he pulled, Jean had resisted. For every punch or kick to his ribs, he had enough within him to match Riko’s mocking smile.
When the knives were brought out and he had lost his voice from screaming, he’d count until he passed out from the pain. Then came the bucket full of cold water, biting and stinging as the water rinsed the blood from the new cuts.
Days turned into weeks and months to years. It took Riko 42 days to break him. Six weeks till Jean learned that if he wanted to survive, he had to stop fighting. Looking back, he wasn’t sure if he was foolish for trying to outlast a psychopath or brave. Either way he hated himself for giving in.
Maybe dialing the numbers scratched on a piece of notebook paper was the first step to hating himself a little less.
Jean stood up from his kneeling position in front of the dresser and turned to his new captain who was staring pensively at the computer screen. The sight of his foot jiggling restlessly against the floor destroyed the picturesque expression of quiet, contemplation. Feeling the weight of Jean’s gaze, Jeremy glanced up at him. Noting the empty luggage, Jeremy stretched and smiled, his words caught the tailend of a yawn.
“How about a tour?”
Jean gave the barest of shrugs that Jeremy accepted as something between resignation and a halfhearted yes.
Jeremy snagged a pair of square framed Ray Bans off his desk and gave Jean a once over, “Cool. We gotta get you some sun.”
Jean looked down at his pale arms and spared a glance at Jeremy. The man braced a hand against the desk and taut, sun-bronzed arm down to grab a USC baseball hat off the floor.
He straightened and grinned at Jean, and pulled the hat on backwards. “Alright, you want to change into shorts? It’s like 80 degrees out.” He said as he ghosted a hand over the pockets of his shorts, feeling for keys.
Jean shook his head. Jeremy shrugged, “Suit yourself.”
They walked downstairs and Jeremy pointed out the study lounge, laundry room, and front desk with the mailboxes along the way. When they stepped outside, Jeremy let out a content sigh and slipped on his sun glasses.
Jean squinted and followed as Jeremy chatted pointing out the academic buildings. He stopped and turned, “I forgot to ask you, what are you majoring in?”
Arching an eyebrow, Jean’s voice was cold, “Didn’t you read my file?”
Jeremy’s eyes widened, “Shit man, that’s what you think?” Blowing out a breath, he shook his head and continued softly, “The only part of your file I looked at were your stats and your tapes, besides I don’t-,” He stopped and fished for his ringing phone, flashing an apologetic look Jean’s way when he answered, “Sorry. Hey Alvarez...”
Biting his lip, he listened and nodded at the enthusiastic voice on the other end. “No, that sounds fun. I’ll text you. Ok. Bye.”
Shoving his phone back in his pocket, he cast a weary glance in Jean’s direction, “It’s totally up to you, but Laila and Alvarez are going out for Italian and asked if we wanted to join. I know I didn’t get to show you the court and all, but-,”
“Would you go if I wasn’t here?” Jean asked.
Jeremy nodded, “Yeah, but you’ve had a long day with the flight, if you want a night in that’s comple-,”
“It’s fine. And I’ve seen your court before.”
Jeremy didn’t miss Jean’s unimpressed tone.
Everything about his expression and tone was bored and conciliatory. Jeremy rubbed his jaw, “Alright. I guess no time like the present to meet them-off court anyway.” He sent a quick text to Alverez and they headed back to the parking lot to Jeremy’s Jeep.
While they drove, a voice crooned over the radio and Jeremy tapped along to the beat on the steering wheel. The sun was setting low in the distance. The warm summer wind swept over Jean’s hair as he leaned his head against the headrest, watching the city pass by. The whole thing felt like a fever dream-uncomfortable and restless.
They parked and Jean exited the car wordlessly. Jeremy chatted about Alvarez and Laila as he lead Jean inside the Olive Garden.
In the sea of elderly couples and families, Alvarez and Laila sat in a booth and chatted enthusiastically. They sat close to one another, thighs pressed together. Alvarez grinned at Laila, but when she spotted them, Jean was surprised to see her big smile get even bigger.
“Oh Captain, my Captain! Good of you to join us.”
Her eyes locked on Jean as he slid in next to a grinning Jeremy.
“Moreau, good to meet you. Alicia Alverez.” She stuck out a hand over the table. Jean took it and shook it with a nod. Laila flashed a small smile and gave a wave, “Laila” before she asked, “So, what exciting things have you two been up to?”
Jeremy shrugged as he leaned against the booth, “Oh you know, unpacking and showing him around campus.”
Alvarez slumped against Laila’s shoulder and closed her eyes and pretended to snore. Laila shrugged her off with an endearing grin.
“Boring! Honestly, Jean I wouldn’t blame you if you hightailed it out of here after that thrilling afternoon.” Alverez said before taking a sip of her sangria.
“Babe. How could he after this awesome meal we are going to have at the one and only Olive Garden.”
Jeremy snorted and Jean glanced up from the menu, “This isn’t even real Italian.”
Alvarez laughed at his dry tone, “True.”
As she leaned in, Jean leaned back. “But what it lacks in authenticity it makes up for in their never-ending pasta bowl, so there’s that.”
Jean was spared from having to respond as their waitress came up to their table with a smile. After their orders were taken, Jeremy asked the girls about their summers which launched a conversation that Jean was happy to not partake in. When their chatting moved in the direction of Exy, he listened while sipping his water.
Laila raised her hand and Jeremy shook his head with a laugh, “Yeah, Laila.”
“So. What are the big plans for the season?”
Jeremy cleared his throat and gestured as he spoke about the lineup and making improvements. The girls nodded as they followed along as he touched on a few of the Trojan’s weaker points.
When he finished, he asked, “How do you think the team will handle it?”
The girls looked at each for a moment and then shrugged, “Oh you know us and the team, Jeremy. We’re always up for trying something new.”
Their meals arrived a few minutes later and Alvarez rubbed her palms together before she dug into her pasta enthusiastically. Jeremy twirled his spaghetti and smiled as Laila shared her story about her baby cousin’s attempt at riding the family dog.
Jean glanced around the restaurant in between bites of his ravioli and marveled at the mundanity of it all. His eyes settled on a family of three. A mother, father, and young son. The father colored with the son as the mother watched with a fond expression.
“So, when are we going to start on Raven drills?”
He jerked his head back to Alvarez.
Laila’s eyes were wide and she nudged her girlfriend’s leg under the table.
She huffed at Jeremy’s pointed stare, “Oh come on, Jere.”
Alvarez turned to Jean, “Look. Just tell me to shut my face if I overstep, but I bet you want to kick some serious Raven ass and I think with Riko’s accident and you here, we have a fucking good chance. So are you going to help us get there?”
Jeremy bit his lip as he waited for Jean to break his silence, his leg bounced restlessly under the table. Laila was quiet, her expression was stern while Alvarez merely looked expectant.
Jean studied her. She looked determined and ready for a fight. “How much do you want to beat them?”
Alvarez held his gaze, “A lot.”
Jeremy sighed, “Now Alvarez, winning isn’t-,”
Lila rolled her eyes, “Jesus, Jeremy. Yes, we know. Winning isn’t everything. But it sure is fucking nice sometimes.”
“Jean.” Alvarez repeated, “You got me on the edge of my seat here.”
He looked at the three. They looked eager and bright. Everything he was not, but he did want to beat the Ravens. Even he had dreamed of it while stewing away in the dim bedroom over the summer.
“I’ll teach you. If you think your team can handle it.”
Jeremy ‘s face lit with a grin and he stared at Jean, his brown eyes wide with excitement. “They can handle it.”
“If you say so.”
Alvarez laughed at the doubt in his voice and pointed at him with a knowing smile, “You’re going to like us, Jean. I don’t know when, but you will.”
Jean didn’t respond.
“So, Laila, what classes are you taking?” Jeremy asked. Alvarez rolled her eyes at his attempt to steer the conversation away from Exy.
Jean went back to finishing his dinner and stayed quiet for the rest of the night, committed to one word answers.
They paid their bills and said their goodbyes. Jeremy gave a wave as they parted. The two women walked hand in hand before Lila pushed Alvarez towards the passenger seat of the Focus.
“Babe, seriously? It was one sangria. I’m fine.”
“One sangria too many.”
Their voices faded as the car doors slammed. Jeremy smiled, “They’re good for each other.”
When they returned to the dorm, Jeremy sighed happily as he stepped through the door and kicked off his shoes. Jean toed his way out of his and placed them in his closet. Gathering his things, he gestured to the bathroom. Jeremy settled on his bed with his laptop and waved, “Go for it”.
Jean shut the door and turned on the water, releasing an even breath as the small room became hot and humid. He stripped and stared at the mirror until his reflection blurred and faded as the mirror fogged up.
He had his mother to thank for his grey eyes, but hers had never been so full of apathy. His face was composed of hard lines and a cool composure.
That was his father.
His hands were scarred and he flexed them remembering every broken finger, every crunch of bone. The cruelty? That was all his. He never gave much thought to the violence he himself had committed. But sitting in a restaurant next to three of his new teammates talking about summer break and class schedules had felt like an out of body experience.
They had no fucking clue about him.
Jean sneered at the thought and climbed into the scalding water. He hissed and turned the knob till the water turned lukewarm.
Jeremy had watched him with weary eyes and Jean knew that pity danced behind his idiotic smile. He gritted his teeth as he washed, his fingertips scraping over old scars. He hated that look. He had seen it all summer, like he was a wounded animal-beaten into submission.
He hated it because it was true.
Abby had told him he had been brave.
He ended up telling her that she was full of shit.
He had survived. That was all.
Jean ran a hand through his hair and winced at the still sensitive areas where hair had been ripped from his scalp. He shut off the faucet and sighed, knowing he wouldn’t be resting easy that night.
After he dressed, he returned to the room to find Jeremy sprawled out on his stomach on the bed. His face was lit by the light of the laptop screen, only a few inches away from him. Jeremy met his gaze for a second before his attention returned to the video playing on his screen.
Sitting on his bed, he pulled out his own laptop and began scrolling through the USC course guide. His gaze wandered to the other man’s screen as scenes of geysers shifted to aerial views of mountain tops. Jeremy’s eyes stayed glued to the screen over the next two hours.
When the credits started rolling he sat up with a low “oof” and stretched. Meeting Jean’s gaze, Jeremy swept a hand through his blond hair and smiled, “Ken Burns. Helps me relax.”
“Are you nervous?”
Jeremy’s laugh was quiet, “Yeah, you could say that.” The other man looked embarrassed as he twirled his earbuds around his finger, “First practice is tomorrow.” He shrugged, “I just want to start making good on my promises.”
Jean nodded and went back reading the course description he pulled up. There was silence and Jean glanced up to find Jeremy looking at him, he arched an eyebrow and waited.
Jeremy blushed, “Are you? Nervous that is.”
The look Jean returned was as cold as his one word answer. “No.”
He shut the laptop and leaned forward to place it on his dresser. “No.” He repeated, “This is nothing.”
Jean didn’t elaborate that starting practice with the USC Trojans did not inspire any fear in him. That was reserved -had been- for Riko’s unpredictability and for the knowledge that he knew of new ways to inflict pain.
Jean Moreau knew fear and it had nothing to do Jeremy Knox and his team.
Jeremy’s eyes grew wide, “Oh. Gotcha.” He untangled himself from his earbuds and rose, “I’m going to shower. Practice is at 9:30 so I’ll probably wake up at 8.” Jean didn’t answer him and he sank into his bed when he heard the bathroom door shut.
Gone were the days where life was a simple routine: Riko. The game. Pain. Recovery. The game. Class.
Jean rarely challenged the mindset he’d developed over the years. It had given him the tools he needed to last through the day. Guilt was a threat and on the rare occasion it flooded his senses, he buried it down deep.
That didn’t stop it from eating at him while he dreamed. Reality blurred with the ghosts of his old self and he’d wake with the childlike voice asking, “Qui es-tu?” ringing in his ears.
He shut his eyes and rolled over listening to the sound of the shower on the other side of the wall. Nervous. What did Jeremy Knox, Le roi du soleil, have to fear in his life?
A few minutes later the door opened and light flooded the dark room. Jeremy shuffled out and Jean heard the mattress creak as he sank down with a sigh and spoke, his voice was almost a whisper,
He heard Jeremy’s sharp inhale as Jean broke the silence with an answer to a question he hadn’t forgotten asking Jeremy looked up from his phone in surprise, “What?”
“My major.” Jean muttered, before he rolled over leaving his back to Jeremy.
Jeremy’s grin was framed by the glow of his phone as he opened Kevin’s text and typed out his very late response.
Kevin: How’s the first day?
Jeremy: Not too bad :)
I think I was craving Olive Garden the day I wrote this so yeah XD
Chapter 2: Day 2
"If I tell my bones they’re a cage
maybe they’ll keep this
snarling heart contained."
- Elisabeth Hewer
Jeremy fell asleep by 11:30.
Jean rolled his eyes at the sight of his roommate sleeping peacefully on the other side of the room. The sighs of contentment continued even in his sleep. Meanwhile, he was left staring up at the picture of a sepia picture of an old man with a rather extensive beard taped next to a poster of the Andes. It was 2:00 am and he was wide awake.
He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t lay in bed pretending that he didn’t need to be on the brink of exhaustion to finally give in to sleep.
He couldn’t ignore the ticking clock on the on the opposite wall counting away the hours or the hum of the city and bustle of traffic echoing outside. He wasn’t used to the disturbance.
The Nest was an underground bunker and a vacuum to the sounds above it.
“This isn’t a fortress,” Neil had said, pausing to spit out blood into the sink. His piercing blue eyes locked with his in the mirror before he continued, “it’s a goddamn tomb.”
Jean had stared back. Committed to silence. It was enough of a confirmation though.
Neil waited for him to deny it and shook his head when Jean told him it was time to leave.
“Fuck this place. Fuck you. And fuck him.”
“Save your breath for something more useful than pointless insults.”
Other nights he heard him mutter, “I’m going to kill him.” The first time, Jean slapped a hand over his mouth, staring at him incredulously. Was this boy an idiot?
“Do you know what he’ll do to you if he hears you?”
Neil shoved his hand aside angrily, “What else can he do?”
It became something of a mantra to Neil. A quiet promise. Even when he didn’t speak it aloud, Jean saw it in his eyes. They were dark with intent.
Jean’s hands shook when he pushed Neil out of the car at the airport. Neil had stumbled and groaned as he straightened and walked into the terminal. He stared at him until he disappeared into the crowd and every muscle fiber and nerve sang with jealousy and he saw red.
Why did he just get to leave? Why was he so lucky? And a voice in his mind, gentle and cooing, spoke of a tempting fantasy Jean knew to be a lie- “You could leave too. You could run. You could follow him and beg to go with him.”
Instead he pulled the car out of the drop off area and drove back to Evermore. Riko met him at the base of the stairs with a twisted grin that sent a pang of fear through his body.
Jean took a shuddering breath and sat up as he desperately pushed the memory away.
Il est mort. Il est mort. Il est mort.
The words were on a constant loop. Playing in the background in every thought.
He glanced over at Jeremy, his lips were parted as he took soft, shallow breaths in his slumber. Jean threw off his covers, grabbed his well-worn copy of Huis Clos from his desk and padded softly into the bathroom.
Shutting the door, he flipped the light switch and sank down onto the cool tile. Leaning his head back against the door, he opened to the first page and began to read until his eyes drifted and vision blurred.
In what felt like only minutes, he woke in a cold sweat with a gasp. It hadn’t been the sound of the court door slamming shut that tore him from his dreams. It was a knock on the bathroom door and he felt the tremor of it against his back.
There was another knock.
“Jean? You ok?”
With a hand braced against the counter, Jean pulled himself up, ignoring the soreness in his neck. He opened the door to find Jeremy, mid knock.
Relief washed over the blonde’s face. His eyes flickered over Jean’s form, taking in the book in his hand. The relief turned to confusion, “Did you…did you get any sleep last night?”
Jean shouldered past Jeremy, “My schedule is different than yours.”
“Shit. Right. Kevin told me about that.” He grimaced, “I’m sorry, I should’ve remembered that.”
It was 8:45. The traffic still buzzed below, but now he heard birds chirping too. He placed the book on his desk and glanced back to Jeremy, who wore a disappointed expression.
“It doesn’t matter,” Jean mumbled.
Jean began to pull clothes out of his dresser. Jeremy opened his mouth as if to argue, but only offered a quiet, “Ok” before he headed into the bathroom.
When he returned a few minutes later, he saw Jean had changed into a grey t-shirt and black shorts. Jeremy shuffled over to his mini fridge and pulled out a carton of milk. The sound of dishes clinking made Jean glance up from his phone and he found Jeremy offer him a large bowl of cereal with a smile.
“The dining halls won’t open till August so,” He shrugged and passed the bowl to Jean who glanced down at the cereal clusters.
Jeremy laughed at Jean’s failed attempt to hide his look of distaste as he stirred the spoon in the bowl.
“After practice we can go pick something more to your liking. I take it Kashi isn’t a big hit with the Ravens.”
Jeremy laughed and sat on his own bed, he drew up a hand to cover his chewing. His words were muffled, “So what do you like?”
Jean swallowed his bite before he spoke, “Muesli.”
“Oh yeah, I’ve taken that on a few hiking trips before.”
Jean didn’t answer and continued to eat his breakfast. He had no interest in discussing breakfast or his past with him. There was a brief pause and for a moment when Jean thought the silence would continue.
He was mistaken. Jeremy smiled, Jean didn’t know at what, before he started talking about the various hiking trips he’d taken over the years.
Jean halfheartedly listened to Jeremy prattle on as they finished their breakfast. His captain was a film major and a documentary enthusiast. He spent most of the summer rock climbing and hiking with his younger siblings. Jean didn’t ask their names. He didn’t ask where they hiked or why his captain was so interested in the natural world. He didn’t ask what he could possibly love about a movie so much that he had to hang its poster on his wall. He didn’t ask what he liked about being captain or what separated him from the others.
He didn’t ask because he didn’t care.
When their bowls were empty and washed, they grabbed their things and left the dorm. Jeremy continued to chat while he drove. His freckled face was animated as he described the rest of the front line up. Jean listened as he stared out the window. Campus passed by in a blur of redbrick and greenery. When the stadium came into view, Jean felt his muscles tense. He had played on this court in the past, it was certainly no Evermore, but USC was certainly no Palmetto either. It was its own.
Red and gold flags danced in the summer breeze.
They stopped at a light and Jeremy followed Jean’s gaze.
“God, I love this place. It’ll be good to get back to it.”
Jean glanced away from the stadium to the large screen on the corner advertising the Trojans.
“When will I start teaching drills?”
Jeremy shrugged, “I mean that decision is ultimately Coach Rhemann’s, but probably pretty soon. Everyone’s gotta get back and we’ll discuss the new line up. Plus, we’ll need to get a handle on the freshmen. Let everyone adjust.”
Jean scoffed. His eyes roved over the screen as the image shifted from a list of achievements to a picture of the captain himself looking more serious than Jean thought was possible.
“You want to beat the Ravens? It would be better to start sooner.”
He hadn’t even stepped foot on the court yet and the pace was already frustratingly slow.
Jeremy laughed and Jean gritted his teeth.
“All in good time, Jean. Besides,” he flashed a toothy grin, “we came pretty close last spring.”
It was so blasé and ridiculously easygoing that Jean didn’t attempt to hold back his sneer, ‘Pretty close?” He shook his head, “What do you think the Ravens will be doing while we are wasting our time “adjusting?”
Jeremy parked the car and turned to face him, the small stud glinted in the sunlight streaming in through the jeep, “I don’t know. You could probably tell us, but honestly I don’t really care.”
Jean shook his head again.
“Vous êtes au-dessus ennuyeux”.
It was muttered under his breath, but Jeremy didn’t miss the obvious annoyance in his tone.
Jeremy grinned, “I don’t know what that means, but I’ll tell you why I don’t care.”
His smile faded and his tone grew serious, “Because we’re not them, Jean, and I sure as hell don’t want us to be. We will gladly learn from you…probably even vamp up some plays, but if they don’t work for the team, then we find what will.”
He leaned back into his seat and removed his earring, placing it in the small change holder in the arm rest. Jeremy was quiet as he waited for Jean’s response.
All he got was the sound of the passenger door slamming shut as the backliner exited the Jeep.
Jeremy closed his eyes and took a deep breath before he grabbed his own bag with a huff. In his mind, Jean was a full-fledged Trojan. No trial period was necessary, only a commitment to stay and work with them.
Conflict never really scared him. It was just something you dealt with. It was a force of nature to tread lightly through, like one of his more risker climbs. As terrifying as it always was, it was usually worth it.
He watched the tall, dark haired man walk away from him. It was so full of purpose that Jeremy felt himself smile.
He did like a challenge.
Jeremy jogged and caught up with Jean, “Been here enough to know the way?”
Jean rolled his eye and Jeremy opened his mouth to speak, but the shout of his last name from behind them caused his parted lips to turn up in a toothy grin.
The dealer greeted Jeremy with a half embrace and shifted his bag over his shoulder with a relaxed smile, “Ready for this year?”
“Hell yeah. Owen meet Jean.” Jeremy waved between the two as they shook hands for the first-time off court.
The other man was lanky and lean and carried himself with ease. Jean saw no reservations in his expression. His voice was deep and kind as he spoke.
“Gotta say it’ll be good to see you on our side of the court. Heard you’re the lucky replacement roommate. This guy giving you any peace and quiet?”
Jean’s reply was a firm “No.”
Jeremy’s cheeks flushed pink and Owen clapped a hand on Jeremy’s shoulder, “No surprise there.”
“Owen, stop making your boyfriend blush.”
Jean turned around to see USC’s alternate dealer join them with a warm smile.
Owen grinned back, “If only I was so lucky, Prisha.”
A second round of introductions were made and Prisha’s once over of Jean did not go unnoticed as the group made their way to the lounge. His hand twitched at his side when he felt her burning stare.
The three tattooed on his cheek was the first thing people noticed. When he was with the Ravens, he hardly gave it a second thought. It had been years since they held him down and he felt the sting of the needle.
Since leaving the nest, however, it felt like a fresh wound.
The girl met his gaze and flashed an apologetic smile. “Sorry Moreau, innocent curiosity, that’s all.”
He ignored her and walked through the door that Jeremy held open for him.
The lounge was bursting with the team colors-a cardinal red coated the walls with a thick gold stripe in the middle. A few teammates were lounging on the U shaped couch that sat in front of the flat screen. They looked up as the group entered the room. Laila and Alverez jumped up off the couch to greet Prisha and Owen.
Jean eyes traveled over the rest of the room. On the opposite wall hung pictures of the teams over the past few years. Around the corner were three offices and a small kitchen.
Jean looked up at the white letters painted above the doorway to the locker room.
PALMAM QUI MERUIT FERAT
“Let him who merits the palm possess it.”
Jean glanced over at the man who spoke, his arms crossed as he read over the words. He was short, only coming up to Jean’s shoulders. Trailing out from under his sleeve, Jean noticed a tattoo of a swallow etched into his dark, brown skin.
He flashed a small smile and extended a hand Jean’s way.
“Eli. Sophomore goalie.”
His grip was firm and his eyes were honest.
Eli laughed at Jean’s unenthusiastic observation.
“Not really. I’ll be the alternate goalie. Our last guy graduated and the Coach and Cap’n over here,” he grinned at Jeremy’s approach, “are taking me off the bench.”
Jeremy grinned, “About time, right? Jean, let me introduce you to the rest of the main line up. The other sixteen are still getting into campus, so they’ll join us in a few days.”
He recognized a few faces from previous games. If the Trojans were sore about losing, they certainly didn’t show it. They were all smiles and friendly comments. It was as unsettling as it was overwhelming.
Jean watched as Jeremy made his way around the room. He didn’t miss how his new team member’s eyes lit up with delight as they spoke to him. With each greeting, he led with a hug or handshake that was warmly returned.
Jean had seen it on the court before, after their games when the Ravens were focused on celebrating their victory. Jean always liked to look back to see how the others handled defeat. Over the years, he had seen racquets thrown to the ground, punches landed on unexpected faces still drunk with victory, and he had seen absolute madness.
But the worst reaction he had seen came from his own captain, when Riko’s practiced composure faded into nonexistence as his racquet nearly struck Neil’s head on in front of a full stadium.
The cameras caught it all.
Jean grinned at the sight that unfolded on the television screen. It was ugly and brutal, but he had smiled.
He had seen Riko’s patience tested in front of an audience before. He had tested it himself in the beginning, but that moment had been different. It was utter madness and uncontrolled rage on full display.
There was no going back from that.
But at the end of every game against the Trojans, all Jean saw was the same behavior he saw before him- hands being shook, claps on the backs, well wishes given and returned.
He knew the power an audience could have on a person’s behavior. In the end, it was the same person who wore the best of smiles and charmed every talk show host that beat him behind closed doors. It left him without a shred of confidence in people’s good intentions, save for one person and she was back in South Carolina, so Jean watched with disinterest as the team he was now to call his, reunited.
He heard the quiet approach of Coach Rhemann and was met with a kind smile. His face was weather worn, but there was still a sense of youthfulness about him, even with the crinkle of crow’s feet that touched his eyes. His voice, like gravel, made Jean’s back straighten.
“Welcome to USC, Jean.”
“Thank you, sir.”
His handshake was strong, but he released Jean from it quickly and turned to the group.
“Alright Trojans, change out and meet on the court. Knox! A word.”
The buzz of conversation started up again as everyone went to change. Jean followed, sparing a glance at the captain heading in their direction.
Jeremy flashed him a smile, “See you out there, Jean.”
Rhemann waited to speak until the door shut behind Laila, cutting off the team’s noisy chatter. Rhemann’s expression turned serious and he nodded in the direction of the locker room.
“How’s Moreau doing?”
Jeremy shrugged, “Adjusting. I mean I’ve really only spent a day with him and we’ll see how he does playing with the team.”
Rhemann nodded and rubbed a hand against his jaw.
“I spoke with Edgar Allen’s President in confidence over the summer. Has Jean mentioned anything about his time with them?”
“No, not really.”
The older man sighed, “Kevin Day’s statement should give us some indication of the kind of environment the Raven’s practice under.”
“Yeah, Kevin confirmed it when we played them last spring. I-,” Jeremy swallowed, remembering his shock when he had first heard, “Do you know what happened to Jean?”
Rhemann shook his head, “Only vague details and it’s not my story to share. My point in this conversation Jeremy, is to say that you are a student first. I think Moreau will benefit from your guidance, but I need you to come to me if it gets out of hand. Do you understand?”
He paused before answering, “Yeah. Yeah, I understand.”
Rhemann gave his shoulder a squeeze, “Alright, go get changed and let’s get to work.”
When Jeremy stepped onto the court he found the team being led by Prisha through stretches. She waved at Jeremy’s approach and made a move to step out of the circle surrounding her, but he smiled and gestured for her to continue. He jogged a few laps around the red lines painted along the wood before he joined Jean on the outskirts of the group.
Jean watched Jeremy’s approach with disinterest and returned his attention to stretching out over his long legs.
Jean looked up and met the green-eyed stare of the man closest to him. His eyes were wide and he cracked a smile, “I’m jealous, this is the best I got.” With an “oof” he attempted to reach past his ankles with no success.
“Who are you again?”
“Sam, newest backliner. Hey, is it true that Ravens have a dungeon and have like team orgies and shit?”
Jeremy made a choking sound next to Jean, but Sam continued to stare, his smile faltered when he saw Jean arch one eyebrow, unimpressed.
“Jesus Christ Sam,” The redhead girl next to him scrunched up her nose in disgust, “you have no fucking filter.”
Jeremy lifted his face out of his hands and sent a sheepish look Jean’s way and nodded at the girl, “Thanks Serena. Sam, let’s give Jean a chance to settle in before you bombard him with wildly inappropriate questions, ok?”
Jeremy gave his head another shake of disbelief and stood up.
“Alright Trojans, before we get started let’s just go around and introduce ourselves, we’ve got some freshmen starting so let’s get to know each other.”
Jean tapped a restless finger against his leg as the introductions continued. He blew out a breath and looked around the stadium.
He hadn’t stepped foot on an Exy court in months, but there was no twinge of fear or concern now.
How many hours of his life had he spent on the court? He had stopped counting. It all blended together and it was in his blood now.
It had taken two weeks of wallowing and wasting away in a stranger’s bed until he took Jeremy’s call. It gave him a timeline to work with. He remembered how frustrated he felt realizing how much strength he had lost over the short time span.
He had plenty of time to whisper proclamations of Riko’s death aloud in the dead of night. It had been a halfhearted attempt to believe an impossible truth.
In the Nest, he knew just how far he could push before he felt a stinging blow or sharp kick. There was no forgiveness until punishment had been served. Riko had thought he wasn’t a quick learner, but he was. He always had been.
But even with such certainties, Riko’s affinity for cruel chaos kept everyone on their toes. He was driven by pure emotion.
The Trojans seemed to at least have that in common and the similarity was unnerving.
He had to start all over and he fucking hated it.
Jeremy felt a spark of excitement as he practiced. It was a restlessness that didn’t fade even as his muscles burned with each passing minute. He brushed an arm across his forehead and beads of sweat clung to his wrist.
“Damn Knox, tired already?” Alvarez taunted as she jogged over to her spot behind him. She winked and he laughed.
He had a damn good team.
He saw it in the way Owen demonstrated footwork to their new wide-eyed dealer, Beckett. He noticed it in the brief exhale Zoe let out before she pitched the ball towards the net. Laila blocked it, but not without a solid dive first. He felt it when Sam and Serena’s bickering gave way to renewed focus as they paired up to practice passing.
Jeremy started out with a few basic drills before he made them progressively harder. Jean cycled through them all with a graceful ease. He looked completely bored.
If Jeremy wasn’t so awestruck by his roommate’s presence on the court, he might have taken Jean’s dispassionate expression personally.
He did nothing overtly to draw attention to himself, but it was hard not to stare and Jeremy wasn’t alone.
Each movement was precise and fluid. The image that kept coming to mind was that of a bird of prey as arced and dove, striking talons first on its unknowing victim.
Jean feinted left, pivoted and hurled the ball towards Prisha who caught it and didn’t waste any time throwing it towards the goal. The ball struck the net. Eli gathered the ball and sent it back out to mid court and gave the striker a thumb’s up.
Prisha jogged over to the line and met Jean halfway.
“Nice job with that pass Moreau!”
Jean nodded, but Jeremy saw the twitch of a muscle as Jean clenched his jaw.
When they started scrimmaging, Jean was relentless.
“He does know this is just practice, right?” Beckett asked breathlessly Jeremy, bending over his knees. He glanced up, his expression mixed equal parts terror and wonder, “I mean… I don’t know if I’ll be able to get past him.”
Jeremy gave Beckett a friendly smile and a pat on the back, “I don’t think Jean has a practice mode Beckett. Don’t worry about it man, you’re doing great. Besides, it’s only our first day.”
A hell of a first day Jeremy thought as the team split to shower. Owen nudged him as he passed by, “Gonna be a good year, brother.”
The chatter continued as the steam rose and their voices echoed in the communal space. Jeremy laughed at the joke Sam cracked and started to lather up his hair. The laughter was short lived when he heard a small gasp from the other side of the shower and with it the conversation died.
Jeremy glanced over his shoulder and barely contained his shock at the sight of Jean’s marred skin as he walked into the showers. He blanched at the array of wounds-some still puckered, others faded and white.
It was quiet except for the sound of the water spraying and the high-pitched squeal as Jean turned on the faucet of the shower next to Jeremy.
Jean was the only one who looked composed as he started scrubbing a bar of soap over his arms. His expression was calm and his breathing even. The only hint of any discomfort was the tight grip he held the bar of soap in. Jeremy stared at the backline’s fingers, noting something off in their elegance. He swallowed hard, remembering Kevin’s insistence, “No…..no. I got off lucky compared to Jean.”
Funny how he’d never noticed it before. Then again, he’d been a little preoccupied with Moreau’s stormy gaze the past two days to notice his hands.
Jeremy didn’t know what expression he wore, but he hoped it looked better than how he felt.
His eyes widened when Jean met his gaze. The dark haired man’s lips were pressed in a straight line as he turned to spare a look at the rest of the Trojans, still shocked into silence.
“Your team needs some work.”
Eli was the first to regain composure. He let out a laugh, “Shit man, don’t spare our feelings or anything.”
Jean shrugged, “Doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”
Sam clapped with boisterous laugh, “Damn, this guy is savage.”
The tension broke and everyone turned back to their conversations-everyone except Jeremy. With a furrowed brow, he rinsed and dried off.
Eli passed him on the way back to the locker room and muttered “Keep it together Knox” lowly before heading to his cubby.
Jeremy swallowed hard and nodded.
Jean followed in behind Owen, towel hanging low on his hips. He swept a hand through his dark, wet hair and set about to changing, unperturbed.
Jeremy fumbled with pulling his change of clothes out of his duffle bag and Eli sent him a pointed stare.
Keep it together.
He took a slow, steadying breath. Pulling on his tank top, Jeremy forced a smile, “Jean, you still up for heading to the store?”
Jean nodded and collected his things before he followed Jeremy out of the locker room. He brushed past Jeremy when he stopped to wave to his remaining team members.
The walk to the Jeep was quiet and Jeremy stared at his feet, listening to the sound of his shoes scuffing against the asphalt.
“I’m sorry about earlier Jean. I didn’t…we didn’t mean to stare.”
They continued walking and Jeremy wondered if perhaps his quiet apology had gotten lost in the hum of traffic.
“I wasn’t hiding them.”
He said it so casually that it made Jeremy stop short, pausing to touch Jean lightly on the arm, “Even so.”
Jeremy meant for his words to be comforting. Although, Jean didn’t flinch from his touch, the haggard look that broke his cool exterior made Jeremy pull his hand back as though it were near a flame.
Jean swallowed and glanced up at the bright sun before his gaze landed on Jeremy’s brown eyes. The captain snagged his bottom lip between his teeth and Jean cocked his head as he studied him as they continued to walk.
He looked nervous.
Jean knew he made people uneasy. He couldn’t even blame that on the Ravens. He had always been a quiet child, content with a book or riding his bike through the streets of Marseille. He kept to himself and that tended to put people off. He only withdrew more into himself when moved into the Nest.
Riko thrived off the ability to inspire fear.
For Jean, his own ability had never been truly intentional, rather it had been more an unwelcome side effect of his drive for self-preservation.
Submission had been the expectation, but not weakness. Never weakness.
Jeremy looked at Jean like he was breakable and that didn’t sit well with him.
The controlled, neutral expression Jeremy had been holding during the silence broke into a full grin.
“Hard habit to break, so no promises.”
Jean rolled his eyes and climbed into the Jeep.
Jeremy drove with the windows down. The roar of the wind muffled the song playing on the radio, but the lilting, melancholy melody was just noticeable. The heavy weight of exhaustion set in and it descended over Jean all too easily. The hour or two of sleep he’d managed the night before, all but useless.
He hadn’t felt that way in a long time. Despite Abby’s disapproval, he continued his sixteen hour days during the summer. Slowly, he let his head drop back against the headrest and a stray thought begged him not to give in to sleep, but he was already fading- unable to resist the pull as he slipped into unconsciousness
Jean dreamed of flying.
Of soaring at lofty heights with outstretched wings. The wind passed over inky feathers as he careened into the changing current. His steady movements faltered, but only for a moment.
The world was below and he high above it, guarded among the clouds. Alone and blissfully unafraid.
Have you heard the story of the brothers and the sparrow? The boys were young, like you. Barefoot, they walked along the dirt road near their father’s farm. Stalks of wheat towered over them and the sun beat down on their backs. The older boy clutched his most prized position as he walked. In his hands was a slingshot, a gift from his father and he kept his eyes peeled for any signs of movement in the wheat. The younger brother trailed behind him, slow, too busy looking at the tracks preserved in the mud to notice that his brother stopped in front of him. The older boy cocked his head and listened.
The younger boy listened too, but all he heard was the quiet chirp of a sparrow, nestled in an ear of wheat.
The song ended abruptly and the young boy looked up to see his brother holding the slingshot in front of him. The tiny pebble had been released.
The boy gasped at the sight of the fallen bird. Kneeling, he saw where the small stone had struck. Its eyes stared ahead, glassy.
The older brother was walked away, leaving the younger brother was left to bury the bird alone.
“Mais pourquoi papa? Pourquoi l'a-t-il tuée?”
“Because my son, sometimes people are cruel for the sake of cruelty. You cannot understand the motivations of a mad man.”
Jean flew, until he felt a sharp sting.
And then he fell.
Jean gasped and woke to the sound of the Jeep door shutting. Jean’s eyes were wide and Jeremy saw naked terror in his gray eyes. Jean pushed himself up into a sitting position and Jeremy didn’t miss the way his hands shook. Taking a ragged breath, he raked a hand through his hair before he paused, as if noticing Jeremy for the first time since waking.
The blond looked tentative and watched as Jean’s wild expression turned guarded. He kept his voice low.
“Hey. You fell asleep and I didn’t want to wake you so I ran in and grabbed a few things for you.”
Jean glanced back at the full canvas bag in the backseat.
“Take a look, let me know if anything won’t work.” He laughed, “I realize this might’ve defeated the purpose of us coming. I mean I don’t even know if you’ll like this stuff. I kinda just raided the fresh produce and imports aisle.”
Jean cast a weary glance his way as Jeremy rambled on.
He paused, his voice hoarse with emotion as he fought to regain composure.
“I’m sure it will be fine.”
He unbuckled his seatbelt and leaned over the console to peer into the bag.
There were a few boxes of Muesli, a carton of eggs, a block of cheese wrapped in plastic, a baguette peaked out of a brown paper bag, a few apples and bars of Ritter Sport chocolate bars.
Jeremy waited with a sheepish look on his face. Jean almost laughed at his captain’s eagerness to please. If Jean already wasn’t so unsettled, the other man’s kindness would have been the source.
It was quiet and Jean appreciated that Jeremy merely acknowledged his words with a small nod before he started the car and drove them back to campus.
It wasn’t much, but the gesture was enough to spark that little bit of recognition of life overseas. Of home and his childhood.
The sensation was new.
Much like everything else that surrounded him since he had been dragged out of the Nest into blinding light.
Chapter 3: Withdrawal
"It’s okay. Everyone’s survival looks a little bit like death sometimes."
- Andrea Gibson
It took almost a week before Jean’s calculated patience snapped. He had felt it stretching and waning as the week progressed. Each warm smile and tentative glance was met with flat affect and a pointed stare. The Trojan’s consideration for their new team member was genuine enough that it made Jean want to cringe.
He knew he should be grateful. Knew he had was lucky, but the awareness wasn’t enough for tight feeling, like a noose around his neck, to loosen. The lack of sleep didn’t help with his attempts at forced politeness.
He was strung out and waiting for the short drop.
The Trojans had heart, but what good was heart if your game was just shy of perfect?
The feeling wound itself tighter that afternoon at practice as Jean held off Zoe’s attacks on Eli’s goal. The goalie stood ready and waiting, deflecting a few shots made from a far, but the infrequent action on his end of the court was enough to warrant a yawn. When Serena joined Zoe in her attempt, Jean’s interest peaked and dwindled as he held them off.
Coach Rhemann blew his whistle with a shake of his head and beckoned the team over. Jean took off his helmet and carried it under an arm, gritting his teeth when Jeremy jogged over and slowed to walk with him.
With a hand on Jean’s tense shoulder, he stopped him gently.
“You look angry.”
Jean exhaled slowly and glanced at the rest of the team wiping their sheen of sweet from their foreheads and guzzling down water.
A week had been plenty of time to compile a mental list of their misgivings.
Jean scoffed, shrugging from Jeremy’s touch, and nodded towards Zoe and Serena who smiled as they chatted, “Your team is sufficient to beat most teams, but they lack discipline. If they can’t make it past me, they won’t make it through the Raven’s defense.”
Jeremy narrowed his eyes, “We haven’t even finished our first week. Your assessment seems a little premature.”
“Trust me. It’s really not. If your sixteen other players are the same, don’t expect a win.”
Jeremy wasn’t smiling now.
“Don’t you think that’s a little unfair?”
“You hardly know us. If memory serves, we gave the Ravens a run for their money on multiple occasions and whether you like it or not, Serena and Zoe are your teammates and they’re not going anywhere. Why don’t you help us instead of shitting all over us.”
Jean shook his head and his laugh was cold.
Jeremy sighed, running a hand through his blond curls as the fight left him.
“I don’t care about a damn ranking or number on a jersey, I care about the player wearing it.”
His words were lost on Jean and in a rush of frustration, he blurted out, “I’m not trying to make a perfect court, Jean.”
Jeremy winced at his own words and when he glanced back at Jean, his gray eyes were furious.
“You don’t know a goddamn thing about it.”
Before Jeremy had the chance to speak, Jean strode away from him and let the gate slam behind as he walked off the court past his gaping teammates. Alvarez stared at him, open mouthed while Laila’s eyes tracked his movements, lips pursed angrily.
Jean left the court ignoring Rhemann’s call after him. He didn’t release the breath he’d been holding till he was alone in the locker room. He only stayed long enough to prop his racquet against his locker before he exited the stadium all together.
Riko est mort. Il est mort. Il est mort.
“Let him go Coach.”
Rhemann pinched the bridge of his nose and turned to face a weary looking Jeremy.
“You and I are going to have a talk later.”
Clapping his hands, Rhemann walked them through the next set of drills. Jeremy was ashamed to notice that he was only half listening to the instructions. Jean’s last words played over and over in his mind.
It wasn’t so much Jean’s tone as it was his cold and hardened gaze. Jeremy wasn’t used to that. Most people liked him or at least warmed up to him. Deep down, he knew it wasn’t really that personal, but it still stung.
Laila squeezed his arm and Jeremy straightened, realizing Rhemann had finished.
Jeremy smiled, though none of the Trojans would admit it, it was weak.
“Alright guys, lets finish up strong.”
Practice ended an hour later and everyone’s mood had since improved. Rhemann walked them through their strong areas and politely pointed out areas of improvement. He let the rest of the team share their thoughts before Jeremy made his points.
Just as he was finishing up Sam raised his hand.
“You coming to the party tonight?”
A few of his teammates laughed and Alvarez shook her head, “Sam, dude. Maybe next time, save that one for after Coach dismisses us.”
Rhemann took a sip of his coffee and nodded at Alvarez, “I’d listen to your teammate if I were you, Sam. As always, I expect a sober season, so be smart tonight.”
With that Rhemann walked back to his office, his eyes bright with amusement.
Sam raised his hand again and Jeremy sighed.
“So is that a yes?”
“It’s a definite maybe.” Jeremy rubbed the back of his neck with a grim look, “Alright, I’m going to go hunt down our backliner.”
Owen sent him a look of mock sympathy, “I’ll be praying for you.”
“Awesome, thanks. And guys? Coach is right.” He shrugged, “I know it’s our last hoorah before we settle in for the season, but be smart. Get an uber, drink water, and put your friends on their left side if they-,”
“And don’t sleep with your ex no matter how much of a ‘total babe’ he is, right Jer?,” Alvarez interrupted with a pointed stare.
Jeremy glared at her, “That was one time.”
The team laughed and slowly started to shuffle off the court. Laila pinched Jeremy’s flushed cheeks when she passed him, “You’re cute when you blush”. He halfheartedly swatted her hand away and followed her out.
Jeremy ran through his spat with Jean as he showered. There was no point in rushing, they both needed to cool down and Jeremy didn’t want to have this conversation angry.
He rested his head against the tile and stood under the spray of hot water until he felt ready.
While Kevin had never disclosed Jean’s past experiences, he didn’t hold back from sharing his own. Jeremy’s grip on his phone had tightened, the whites of his knuckles bared when Kevin spoke to him quietly, not sparing the details of his trauma. Remembering it was enough to bring about a wave of nausea.
“I’m not trying to make a perfect court, Jean.”
The words tasted bitter on Jeremy’s tongue, even if they were the truth.
He dressed in the empty locker room and checked his texts when he left the parking lot. There were two from his mom and none from Jean. Jeremy found him sheltered in the shade sitting on a bench in a nearby alcove.
He sat hunched over, staring off into the distance.
The sight of him, still and hidden in the shadows, left a lump in Jeremy’s throat.
Film had always been his preferred medium. Nature, his choice of study. But the man in front of him, a live wire he longed to touch, was statuesque in his pensiveness. It was almost as if a rolling clip wouldn’t do him justice. No close up, no slow pan. The techniques of his trade now seemed to lack the same kind of permanence that sculpture captured.
Jean looked up briefly before he sat up with a look of resignation.
The moment wasn’t lost- the scene had merely shifted.
Jeremy swallowed and slowly approached with a nervous flutter in his stomach.
Jean must have changed out of his gear right after he fled practice. Despite the black pants, he didn’t look uncomfortable in the dry heat. To Jeremy’s surprise, he looked calm.
Jean broke the silence first and his words were a quiet taunt.
“Should I pack my bags?”
Jeremy pointed at the empty space at Jean’s side and Jean nodded. Jean watched as Jeremy sat and stretched back, his palms flat against the cool concrete.
“Not unless you want to.”
The sound was low in his throat as he narrowed his eyes and breathed out slowly, “Mon choix.”
Jeremy didn’t respond and settled into the comfortable silence. He looked up at the branches of the tree overhead, squinting at the light that streamed through. It was a matter of seconds, but the moment was a gentle reminder of the summer’s fading presence. He lost count of the number of times he’d veered off the trail near his mom’s house to sprawl out on the grass and watch the clouds. It was always better with Charlie at his side. She’d make up stories for the figures in the sky they pointed out to each other.
It had been his last summer at home before he graduated and leaving had felt different this time. The team was his second family and even with them he’d have to say goodbye eventually.
His bent wrists protested and Jeremy straightened, turning towards Jean.
He could guess where he was mentally.
In what Jeremy assumed was a rare lapse in control, the former Raven talked back to his captain and walked off the court. It didn’t take a genius to guess that both actions would have been met with harsh consequences by his old captain and coach.
Jeremy pushed away the dark thoughts and focused on the man at his side.
“Do you want to stay with us Jean?”
Jean let out a dry laugh, “I don’t know where else I would go.”
Shrugging, Jeremy gave him a small smile, “Oh, you’d have options. No doubt about it. Any team would be glad to have you. Or…”
Jeremy gave him a sly look, “Or you could tell Exy to go fuck itself and do something totally different. Something you’ve always wanted to do.”
Jean let out a choked laugh and Jeremy stared. It was not a quiet laugh of disdain, it was a laugh that carried promise.
“That’s not something I can do.”
Shaking his head, Jean back at Jeremy with a bewildered look.
“Because it’s not that simple.” He blew out a breath and muttered, “It’s this or nothing at all.”
“Save your breath, Captain.”
Jean brushed a hand through his dark hair and felt another wave of exhaustion wash over him. For most of his years, he’d been a spectator to his own life. An unknowing audience member watching as the set changed on the stage, right in front of him.
His parents had been silent as they drove down the winding road to the private hanger at the small country airport. He remembered his mother staring out the window. Her grip on his hand had been tight. His father drove with rigid control and he didn’t look back at them in the rearview once.
Jean had been afraid, but he never dared to ask where they were going.
They had parked in the grass and walked through overgrown grass towards the hanger. His mother’s hand slipped in his. It had felt like a ghost town, the kind he’d read about in books about American cowboys.
But then there had been a man waiting at the hanger and he saw a jet on the runway and he squeezed his mother’s hand.
And he remembered his mother broke her silence at that moment and turned to his father. Her words a desperate plea.
“Il doit y avoir une autre façon”
But his stern face gave nothing away.
Aside from his impeccable dress, there was nothing special about the man standing before them. He nodded a greeting and ignored Jean, gesturing to the plane.
And it was then that Jean’s mother started to sob. The strangled sounds were still burned into his memory and he remembered how his heart had beat faster and accompanied by a sharp stab of panic when he glanced at his parents in confusion.
His father had put a hand on his mother’s shoulder, but she had jerked away from his touch, dropping to her knees in front of Jean.
“Je suis désolé mon fils. Je suis désolé. Je t'aime toujours. N'oublie jamais cela. Pardonnez-nous.”
Tears were running down her cheeks and he had felt them stain his own cheeks when she hugged him. He had to cry when his father pulled her from him. His father had seemed unreasonably cold to him that day, especially when he stared down at Jean.
“Reste fort. Un jour à la fois, Jean. Un jour à la fois.”
And then the stranger had pulled him from his parents. Jean had struggled every step of the way, begging the man to let him go, but the man only grunted, picking him up and pulling him in to the small plane.
The last Jean had seen of his parents were their disappearing figures in the grass below. The last memory he had of his mother was of her begging him to forgive her.
He hadn’t been allowed to cry.
His education began that day on the plane and he was still reeling from the first blow.
One day at a time.
Those were his father’s last words to him and it had been a comfort to him as time went on until Riko had told him about the deal. After that it had felt like his father had been mocking him. Selling him and then leaving him worthless advice.
It didn’t matter. He had followed his words anyway.
Jean took a deep breath, breathing in the Californian air, grounding himself in the present. Forgetting whatever he had been so hell bent on fighting. He sighed and gave Jeremy the answer he had withheld on the court.
“They’re too easy to read. They’re predictable.”
“Serena and Zoey.”
Jeremy started to nod, “I can see that. Any advice?”
Jean shrugged, “They varied their approach so that was good at least. But they’re not anticipating my next move.”
“How about we start those drills in starting tomorrow? Rhemann gave me the ok-if you’re still ok with teaching us, that is.”
Jean studied Jeremy under a narrowed gaze.
Stay or leave. It wasn’t really a choice-he had nowhere else to go. He’d be dead if he ever left Exy for good. No Fox or Trojan could stop that fate.
What he could do was help this team win.
He nodded and Jeremy grinned.
“Awesome. The team will love it.”
“…That’s doubtful. It’s not going to be easy.”
“We like a challenge.”
Jeremy smiled, “By the way, there’s a party tonight- the last one before the season officially starts for the athletes. You should come with.”
Jean looked anything but thrilled at the idea.
“What about the rest of the team?”
Jeremy looked confused and then laughed, “Oh, you mean about you walking off earlier?”
He stood up and stretched, “Dude, you’re not the first one to walk out of practice,” he shrugged, “Just matters that you come back. Besides, I think Sam will piss himself if you make an appearance.”
Jean shot him a look of disgust as he stood, but nodded.
The plain, three story house was a few blocks from campus and already crowded at 11 when they showed up. The muffled thrum of the bass from inside greeted them before the group of people talking on the lawn did.
Jeremy waved and returned a few hellos, but didn’t stop to chat. Sam was one of the first people who spotted them and Jean stepped casually out of his way as Sam opened his arms and hugged Jeremy.
He yelled over the music, “I’m so happy you came! And you got Jean to come. Wow.”
His eyes were glassy, “I’m just so happy right now.”
Jeremy laughed and managed a quick wave to Laila before Sam started to drag him through the crowd towards the kitchen.
When he realized Jean wasn’t following, Jeremy looked back in a panic, but Laila waved him ahead calling out, “Don’t worry about him. I got him,” before she sidled up to Jean.
She leaned in close to be heard, “Jean, good to see you! Can I get you a drink?”
“No, thank you.”
“Well, maybe you’ll change your mind. You might need one after Jeremy gets trashed and starts demanding everyone do Karaoke. He’s a big Bon Jovi fan.”
Laila let out a laugh at the disconcerting look he gave her, “You think I’m kidding. Hell of a roommate you got there, Moreau.”
Before he could respond, Laila’s eyes lit up as Eli joined them in the corner.
Eli nodded a greeting, “Laila, your girlfriend demands your presence on the dance floor.”
He took a drink from his red cup and jerked his head over to the living room that had been converted into a dance floor, crowded with couples grinding against each other. On the outer edge, Alvarez swayed to the beat and caught Laila’s eye. Grinning, she beckoned her over.
Laila patted Eli on the shoulder, “Thanks friend.” She laughed and raised her cup high as she went to join her. The two kissed and slowly started to dance.
Eli passed Jean one of the cups in his hands, but Jean shook his head, “I don’t drink.”
“Neither do I. It’s water. People stop asking when they see a cup in your hand.”
Nodding, Jean took the cup and glanced around at the other couples.
He was surprised to see Jeremy among them. His head was thrown back against the young man he danced with. He pulled his hips closer and Jeremy laughed while the other man grinned, planting lazy kisses along Jeremy’s neck.
Jean turned back to find Eli watching him.
“Problem?” He asked politely, as he raised an index finger off his cup to gesture at his captain.
“No” replied Jean.
Jean leaned against the wall and watched the party unfold around him, content with the end to the conversation. His skin prickled with sweat as the air became humid from the flurry of motion around him.
It was dizzying.
He took a sip of the water and watched his various teammates interact with the other athletes. It was a jarring sight, one he was not used to and he almost expected Riko to come around the corner and drag him out of the house by his hair.
“I’m going to get some fresh air.”
“Sure thing man.”
Jean weaved in between the sweaty bodies and relaxed when he felt the soft breeze as he stepped out onto the porch. He took a seat on the steps with a sigh. The lawn had emptied out in the time since they arrived and Jean was grateful for it.
He took another sip of water before he took out his phone and texted Renee.
“How long do people usually stay at parties?”
She replied in a matter of seconds.
Renee: “Are you at a party or waiting for Jeremy to get back?”
Jean: “At one.”
Renee: “It really just depends unfortunately.
Renee: How are you otherwise?”
Jean: “Ok, just tired.”
Jean glanced up to see Jeremy. His eyes were bright and his smile was relaxed, more so than usual. Jean peered around Jeremy as if expecting the guy he’d danced with to follow behind him. He had been mentally preparing himself for more awkward introductions.
“You doing ok?”
Jean nodded and eyed Jeremy. His cheeks were rosy in the heat and the small stud in his ear winked under the porch light. He hadn’t noticed he’d put it back in after practice.
“I get how it can get a little overwhelming.”
“No, it’s fine.” Jean murmured, “Just wanted some air.”
The stairs creaked as Jeremy took a seat next to him with a low groan.
“I haven’t had this much to drink in a while. Kinda had to stay sober during the summer.”
Jeremy flashed him a smile and pulled out his phone to scroll to a picture of a brown haired, teenage boy raising his arms high as he stood near a rocky edge. The background revealed a sloping valley below. His smile was carefree and the likeness to the man at his side was striking.
“This is Peter-Pete- my brother. And this,” he scrolled to a different picture, “is Charlotte, my baby sister. She’s a handful.” The little girl had blond curls and was grinning so big that her eyes were closed tight as she posed in red rainboots.
“Anyway,” Jeremy tucked the phone back in his pocket, “my mom works, so I had to take care of them-mostly Charlie- but sometimes Pete. We did a lot of hiking together so that was nice.” He trailed off and stared out at the empty street.
Jean took another sip of water and glanced wearily at Jeremy’s shocked expression.
“Don’t look so impressed.”
Jeremy accepted the cup and took a sip, “Ah. Smart.”
“You should probably have the rest of that.”
“Are you insinuating that I’m inebriated?”
Jean stood and looked down at Jeremy, his eyebrow arched as if daring Jeremy to argue.
Jeremy snorted and rolled his eyes, but downed the rest of the water and set the cup on the steps before he moved to stand. He swayed on his feet and Jean’s hand shot out to steady him. Jeremy murmured an apology, but didn’t move out from Jean’s grip until he was down the stairs.
The moon was full in the night sky and as they walked, the sound of the bass faded and the hum of crickets chirping filled the silence. Whereas Jean stared ahead, Jeremy stared up at the bright moon.
He stumbled a few times and laughed as he caught himself.
“Jean, can I ask you something? It’s a little personal, so you don’t have to answer.”
Jean didn’t answer right away, but finally he nodded.
Jeremy shoved his hands in his pockets and dropped his gaze to the street ahead, “Kevin covered up his tattoo. Do you think you’ll do the same?”
Jean stopped and took a quivering breath, ignoring the look of guilt that passed over Jeremy’s expression.
Jean had thought about covering it since the day they’d branded him. When he saw Neil’s burned flesh he had almost been jealous until he thought about the potential repercussions. When he saw Kevin’s new design, it gave him pause.
And after that it felt like he was finally asking the right questions.
What did it mean to be owned? What would it take to reclaim your story?
Until he could answer those, covering it would only be a foolish attempt at cowering from his own past.
“No. I don’t think I will.”
His voice was unyielding.
The scars were his to bare and he wasn’t going to hide anymore. They were as much a part of him as the memories that haunted him. Learning to live with them was a harsh welcome to life outside of Evermore, but freedom never came without its costs.
Under the light of the streetlamps, Jeremy looked at him as if seeing him for the first time. He had been intimidated the first time he’d met Jean on the court. Tall, dark, handsome, and a complete asshole. That character flaw hadn’t changed, but his gray eyes looked a little less harsh now.
When they returned to the dorm, Jeremy’s head spun when he laid down. He listened as Jean quietly moved about the room and started to doze- a question brewing on his tongue, but it was lost when sleep took him.
Jean sank onto his bed and shut his eyes, listening to Jeremy’s quiet snores and the soft drone of the never-ending traffic.
When he opened his eyes, sunlight was streaming through the blinds and he woke up in a panic. He grabbed for his phone, searching for the date and time. He relaxed slowly when he realized it was mid-morning the next day.
He had slept a full night free of nightmares.
Chapter 4: Through a forest wilderness
"Living is like licking honey off a thorn."
- Louis Adamic
The double practice days hadn’t been his idea. In fact, it hadn’t even been Jeremy’s. The blond’s eyebrows had risen when a few of the underclassmen suggested upping their practice time. Although impressed with their initiative, he looked less than thrilled at the idea. At their eagerness, his expression relaxed and he agreed.
Rhemann looked at the group like they were crazy and shrugged, “It’s your free time. You’ve already improved a hell of a lot, so who am I to stop you. Just don’t hurt yourselves.”
Jeremy frequently began the extra practices with a few gentle reminders to remember to take time to rest and not to push it.
Alvarez rolled her eyes when he started dropping the word “time management” and Laila smiled fondly at him before she leaned over to Jean to whisper, “I think the only one who needs this pep talk is him.”
After two months of living with him, Jean found that he had to agree with her. His roommate never seemed to stop. It was either practice, going to his brother’s basketball games, filming the team for his senior project, editing into the early morning hours or disappearing from campus to hike. His energy was a well that never seemed to run dry, but looks could be deceiving and Jean doubted he would last much longer.
Jean liked a slower pace. Purposeful and unhurried. His studies were going well. It had been an adjustment having the freedom to actually devote time to completing his readings and putting a fair amount of effort into his essays. So much so that the instructors were complimenting his work in the discussion group.
He’d never been good with such attention, so he gave them a small nod and a quiet thank you, ignoring their look of disappointment when he didn’t engage in the conversation.
The team had warmed up to him too. Although hesitant, their fear was less palpable when they approached him on court to ask for pointers. He was a harsh critic. The first couple of times it happened, Jeremy passed him a pleading look, begging him to be kind. Jean rarely complied.
But it didn’t matter, because they took his advice and it worked. The team was improving and their first game of the season was approaching fast.
Jean wasn’t concerned. Jeremy on the other hand was. Jean saw it in his forced smiles and the nervous flick of his pencil as he studied.
Jean didn’t ask. It would be opening a door he wanted to stay firmly shut, but there were some things he couldn’t ignore.
Jean looked up from his readings and glanced over at Jeremy, buried under blankets in his bed. He was still sleeping- his hair a blond mess as he rolled over-giving no indication of getting out of bed anytime soon.
Practice started in an 30 minutes and the captain was still snoring despite his muttered promise that the nap was going to be short.
He kept his voice low, but the other man just rolled over at the sound of his voice. Jean sighed and walked over to the edge of his bed.
He groaned and Jean shoved the leg that was half splayed out of the bed.
Jeremy lifted his head up, his eyes bleary and his voice rough. Jean handed him his phone and tapped at the time. Comprehending the time, his eyes widened in panic and he scrambled out of his bed, snagging a pair of shorts off the floor.
They ended up winning their first game.
Jean wasn’t surprised. The Trojans had beat the team in the past. Their stamina and communication had improved since the start of summer. The victory was celebrated and everyone returned to practice with bright eyes and a renewed focus.
Renee had texted him that night. A polite, but fond congratulations that he responded with a simple thank you. Her texts helped.
He would never admit it, but if he were to guess, Jean would expect that she herself had already gathered that fact.
Jeremy had mistaken his increasingly frequent text conversations to be with Kevin and his eyes rose when he learned it was actually Renee Walker.
“That’s great, man. Hope things work out.”
Jean rolled his eyes, irritated at the implication, “It’s not like that and it never will be.”
“Oh,” It was barely noticeable, but his tone had lightened, “Well, it’s nice that you’re keeping in touch.”
And when he had announced that he was going to skype his old roommate with Owen, Jean happily watched him leave.
The Trojans, despite their win and commitment, continued to frustrate him.
What made it worse was that Jean could never pinpoint the exact reason. It wasn’t their incessant optimism. That could be ignored. It wasn’t even their relaxed state of being. They walked slower, talked freer, and smiled more than any group of people Jean had ever met.
The answer he had settled on was that it was the way they looked at him. Their eyes were kind and full of patience.
It had taken years for him to shake the feeling that his lot in life had been deserved.
When he was young, almost as if pressing rewind, he poured over every memory he could bring to mind of his interactions with his parents. Had he said something or done something to make them want to send him away? It was a cruel, unprescribed torture.
Eventually, realization hit him. His parents had reacted out of fear and fear breeds cowardice. And if he learned anything after being a Raven, it was that cowards will do anything to survive.
There were some things Jean doubted one could be forgiven for. He was at least certain of two: knowingly surrendering your only child to a monster, and being the right hand to one.
He had watched Riko take Neil Josten apart. He had seen the blood seep out and the bruises swell. He heard every scream and whimper-and yet it made no difference. He had locked the door and watched dispassionately, swallowing the acrid bile as it rose with the knowledge that the scene before his eyes was only all too familiar and he was doing nothing to stop it.
But he had shoved aside the guilt. The fool had decided to come after all. And in Jean’s mind, no one was worth making that choice for. No one was worth protecting at such a cost.
After everything, Jean was still being welcomed with open arms. The enemy invited to live with the flock. It left an uncomfortable knot in his gut and he stuck with the only method of self-preservation he knew.
He kept to himself even if he was always surrounded. He knew Jeremy was humoring him. The other man did his best to stick close to his side or extend Jean the offer to join him- no doubt at Kevin’s coaching.
They had a routine. Jean would join Jeremy in the library after class and they’d study quietly before practice. After they would go out to eat with a few of the other team members or grab dinner in the dining hall with Jeremy’s friends from his classes. Jeremy’s bright smile lit up as they discussed the films they’d watched in class or their aspirations after graduation. He was just as passionate about his major and this friend group as he was about his team and the game.
Jean struggled to grasp the concept of such duality.
Life beyond Exy.
As invigorating as the idea was, it also felt misguided and a threat to one of the few certainties left in his life.
He knew the game. He played it well and he lived another day.
And now he had free time and it left him standing on shaky ground.
He filled it with homework and books- quiet contemplation as he slowly indulged in his new-found freedom.
He learned Jeremy’s quirks, and Jeremy had learned his.
The captain knew when to push and back off. He knew that Jean liked his side of the room neat and he even made the effort to tidy his own space. Jeremy was perceptive, more than Jean had originally given him credit for. He noted the way Jean’s pace slowed as they walked between campus, the way Jean closed his eyes and took a breath while they sat in the sun, the look of contentment-a contrast from his usual stark expression.
Jeremy couldn’t imagine living life so reserved, so when he saw a break in his composure-whether it was during an argument on the court or a fleeting look of panic when he woke at night- Jeremy took note.
What he gathered from the months spent together, was that they had at least one thing in common.
They both preferred to be outdoors.
For Jeremy, he liked the element of surprise and discovery that came from walking the same paths or climbing the same boulder and having a different experience each time. There was something to be learned about his surroundings and himself. It helped him think about something other than himself and his fears.
For Jean, he suspected it was simpler.
When you’ve been without the sun and its warmth, holing up in a dorm room for the rest of the day would seem like a crime, so Jeremy found new places for them to study in, like the philosophy library with its grand arches and the sun cascading through the windows.
Jean seemed at ease in places like that and there was something beautiful in seeing the tension fade from his face.
Even now, with a furrowed brow, his eyes flickering over the words on page of his book, there was a relaxed set to his shoulders. When Jean glanced up, he caught Jeremy staring.
“Can I help you?”
“Yes, actually.” Jeremy folded his arms on the table and leaned in. Jean watched his movements with a careful eye, but didn’t withdraw.
“I have this project due at the end of the year for my film major. In the past, I’ve used the team a lot, so I’m trying to branch out a bit more- spend more time exploring aspects of nature.” He shrugged, “Maybe weave together a bit of both worlds-the two things I care most about. Anyway, the theme I think I’m going with is change and unity. So-,”
Jeremy paused as he clicked and quickly adjusted his screen before he swung his laptop around for Jean to see two minimized frames, side by side.
“I’m going to use a quote in the opening. And I’m wondering which you think you think might work best with that theme?”
Jean looked over at the screen and back at Jeremy, who watched him, his chin resting on his knuckles. His brown eyes were patient as he waited.
The library Jean had come to love suddenly felt stifling, “I don’t know anything about film,” he muttered.
“You don’t have to.”
At Jean’s continued silence, Jeremy flashed a relaxed smile, “C’mon man,” prodded Jeremy, “I’ve seen the shit you read. Don’t pretend you’re not a deep thinker.”
Jean scowled, but glanced down at the screen anyway.
The two quotes were displayed in a simple type, white against a black screen.
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
Jean nodded at the screen once before he turned back to his book, “The second quote speaks more to change, and the first to unity. Make the second your opener and the first your closer.”
He quieted and flipped the page of his book. Jeremy grinned and pulled his laptop back in front of him, “That’s a really good idea. Thanks.”
Jeremy knew he was staring again and he scolded himself for it. But goddamn-his frustrating, impatient, moody, roommate was also strong, smart, a damn good backliner, and unfortunately attractive.
And it was becoming a noticeable problem.
Jean sighed, his gaze still glued to the page, “Something else, Captain?”
“No. That was-,” he smiled and didn’t look up from his screen, “You should talk more. You’ve obviously got good things to say.”
“Something to consider then.”
Jean rolled his eyes and their quiet conversation died as they resumed their work.
Chapter 5: I know places
"Courage doesn’t always roar.
Sometimes courage is the quiet voice
at the end of the day, saying,
‘I will try again tomorrow’."
- Mary Anne Radmacher,
If there was one thing Jeremy hated, it was going to bed angry. Even as a child, when worry sent his thoughts racing around in circles as he tried to fall asleep, he’d force himself to get out of bed and go downstairs to apologize to his mother after an argument.
He’d find her sitting at the kitchen table with an even stack of bills, her check book, and a calculator laid out in front of her. The exhaustion was evident on her face. In the moments when he caught her unaware, she looked fragile in a way that left a feeling of unease in his stomach. A nervous flutter that seemed to burrow deeper within him.
She’d look up at him clutching whatever stuffed animal he had carried down with him and smile warmly. And just like that her strength appeared to return.
His mumbled apology was always met with a word of thanks and a few endearing words that culminated in a tight hug before she sent him back to bed to sleep soundly as his worry faded.
Jeremy doubted Jean would react similarly.
The thought almost made him chuckle as he turned over in his bed, desperate for sleep. He was doing a good job of ignoring the man in the bed next to his. He had a hard time, however, not replaying the scene in his mind from the game earlier that night.
Jean, who had been playing recently with a level-headed restraint had been non-existent. There was a thorn in his side and whatever it was had him playing with a ferocity that Jeremy considered reckless.
When the team passed Jeremy questioning looks to which he could only shrug. He didn’t know the reason, but it was his responsibility to address it. Rhemann had tried to get through to him at half time. Jean had listened, but his fingers gripped his racquet tightly and his jaw was clenched.
It had done little to curb his behavior.
Before he went back in, Jeremy had snagged Jean by the sleeve of his jersey and his voice was uncharacteristically harsh when he told him to knock it off.
Jean had flinched, his gray eyes were cold and his voice flat when he responded with a quiet, “Yes, captain.”
Jeremy’s stomach had dropped at his dead tone and before he could stammer out an apology or clarify, Jean jogged away from him.
The game proceeded with only a few more calls that were against the opposing team. Jean had settled and followed through, but although the rest of his game had been tame-as tame as Exy could be- it had been lifeless and that set Jeremy on edge.
They won and even though he knew he hadn’t really done anything wrong…that he had been within his right as a teammate and captain to check risky behavior, Jeremy felt like utter shit. Jean didn’t speak a word to anyone the rest of the night and ignored Jeremy’s attempt at conversation on the way back to the dorm.
He changed, read a bit, and shut off his light, rolling over, his back to Jeremy.
Jeremy ignored Owen’s inquiring text and Laila’s words of encouragement and tried to fall asleep. He hated that uncomfortable feeling that came with the knowledge that he had let someone down. That something he had said caused such a change in a man who was so closed off with his emotions. They had made so much progress since the summer and sure, they had a few little arguments here and there, but he’d never seen him just shut down like that and never during a game.
He kicked at his sheets with a heavy exhale and sat up on his forearms, glancing around at the dark dorm room. Just as he was about to roll over, he heard Jean gasp and whimper.
“Please. Please stop.”
It was a quiet, desperate plea and Jeremy tensed at the broken sound of Jean’s voice.
Jeremy threw off his covers and crawled out of bed to turn on the light
“Jean, wake up.”
He knelt next to Jean’s bed, his knees pressed into the rug.
At the sound of his friend’s distress, he spoke a little louder, “Jean, you’re safe. He can’t hurt you anymore. No one’s going to hurt you here.” His hand shook when he touched Jean’s hand.
Jean jerked awake with a choked cry as flinched away from Jeremy. He backed himself against the wall and his eyes were wild with fear as he took in the room around him and the man kneeling before him. His chest rose and fell in harsh breaths, but Jeremy saw recognition.
Jean’s sounded raw with pain and uncertainty when he spoke.
“You were having a nightmare. I-It didn’t seem right not to wake you.”
“Fuck.” Jean hung his head down and pressed his hands against his neck.
Jeremy couldn’t see his face, but he heard him take a slow breath. When he looked up again, his expression was calmer and he looked more of his usual self.
His voice hardly wavered when he spoke again.
“Sorry to wake you. Go back to sleep.”
Jean’s voice was cold and he regarded Jeremy’s confusion with a bored look. When Jean made a move to shut off the light, Jeremy blocked the movement.
“No. Don’t shut me out right now. Let me help.”
Jean gaped at him and his mouth turned up into a sneer.
“Help? I don’t need your help.”
“You sure about that? C’mon, I’m your friend. Talk to me.”
“You’re my captain and my roommate. That is all.”
His words stung and Jeremy let them wash over him without flinching.
“Well looks like this a little one sided then.”
Jean glanced at him wearily and Jeremy’s voice softened, “Alright. So at least tell me what I can do to help you next time? I shouldn’t have touched you and I’m sorry about that, I just…didn’t know how to wake you up.”
Jean shook his head, his body still tense with fear, “Just…leave me be, Knox.”
He said it so simply and Jean glared at him, “I don’t need your fucking help.”
Jeremy inhaled sharply and raised his eyebrows, “You’d rather just ride that out then? Because that didn’t sound like a good time to me.”
“I can manage on my own.”
“But you’re not on your own anymore.”
That bought Jean’s silence and he turned to stare at the window. Jeremy shifted and scooted back to lean against his bed.
“Is this,” he sighed, “Is this because of what I said…during the game?”
Jean scoffed, still refusing to meet his gaze, “Don’t flatter yourself. This isn’t anything new.”
Jeremy stared at him in shock and Jean let out an unkind laugh at his expression.
“You’re a deep sleeper.”
Jean rolled his eyes, “Don’t you dare apologize. Don’t waste my time.”
“Then about tonight?”
His jaw clenched and pressed his lips in a firm line before he answered.
“I was having a bad day. That was all.”
Jeremy nodded. He wasn’t winning this argument tonight. He stood and shut off the light before he crawled back into bed. He knew when he’d been beaten and there was no point in running around in circles.
For now, he’d have to take Jean at his word. He listened to Jean’s movements as he settled back in bed, wondering how long it would take them both to fall asleep. His eyes drifted shut as his mind wandered to memories of sights he’d seen over his summer hikes. The last one he remembered before he drifted to sleep was of ravens circling a carcass. He hadn’t stayed long enough to watch them tear it apart.
Jean knew the exact moment Jeremy fell back asleep. It was accompanied by a gentle snore.
His heart had finally slowed, but the sick feeling of fear lingered.
He had lied.
Jeremy’s words had been a factor tonight, but only just barely. Jean hated how a title, one word, made all the difference. If it had simply been Jeremy Knox, Trojan Striker, the issue might have been null and void.
But he was his captain and his roommate.
With his history, that distinction meant something. It meant a hell of a lot more than he was willing to verbalize.
But Jeremy was not Riko. Not even close.
Riko lead from a position of power. Jeremy shared his willingly.
Riko took without asking. Jeremy gave and invited the team to join him.
Riko liked pain. He enjoyed playing on fear and making good on threats. Even more so he enjoyed surpassing them, charting new territory rather than revisiting the old.
Jeremy’s strength was not a force built on cruelty. His stemmed from an energy that felt almost like a driving impulse. Kevin had recognized it, whatever it was, and now Jean felt the flicker of its flame too.
Both demanded loyalty and there was the crux of the problem. Whereas Riko’s loyalty was bought with blood, Jeremy hadn’t even asked, but that didn’t stop Jean from feeling compelled to surrender to it.
That was one red flag that he couldn’t ignore.
So when the voice of his captain, usually so warm and full of joy, turned harsh and cold-something in Jean had opened up and bled. He had struggled the rest of the game to stop the wound from bleeding him dry.
Whenever he felt like this, he remembered his father’s cursed words.
Un jour à la fois.
They stayed with him over the years, even though he couldn’t recall his face or the sound of his voice. Jean fell back asleep slowly, his mind trying to piece together the picture of a man he didn’t forgive, but missed all the same.
They didn’t talk about it the next morning.
Jeremy had enough tact to not bring up the topic, though that did nothing to stop his concerned eyes from following Jean throughout the day.
It wasn’t until three weeks later that Jean jolted awake again, swallowing a scream. Jeremy’s voice sounded all too distant and out of reach and Jean felt as though he was still in his room in the Nest. Riko peering over him, slowly tilting Jean’s head back while he grinned.
“One more time for good measure, Jean.”
The blow to his head struck like a clap of thunder and somewhere in the back of Jean’s mind he knew it was storming outside of his nightmare.
Blood trickled down his nose and Riko laughed. Jean flinched at the sound, a mistake all on its own and another punch came. He sobbed and even with his eye swelling shut he saw the washcloth descending to cover his face.
“Let’s see how long you can last this time.”
He remembered the freezing cold water and then the panic when he realized was drowning.
“Jean! C’mon I need you to wake up for me.”
His body remembered the pressure, the pain, the tightness in his chest as he struggled to take a breath that wasn’t waterlogged.
“Open your eyes, Jean. You’re not there anymore. You’re here with me. You’re safe.”
Light seeped in and his breath hitched in his throat as he drew up a hand to shield his eyes from the blaring dorm room light. Slowly, he lowered his hands and stared at the man in front of him. His brown eyes were wide, but his voice was calm and quiet.
It was barely a whisper and Jean shuddered, relief ringing through him as he clung to the present. Everything was vivid and saturated with color. The barely-there freckles on Jeremy’s tanned skin, the red of the rug on the floor, the photographs on the wall. Silly details that made all the difference.
Jeremy’s hand hovering near his, “What do you need? What can I do for you, Jean?”
His voice sounded gravelly to his ears and Jean hated how it shook with fear.
Jeremy’s hand settled on the bed, near to Jean’s.
“I know. I know you are.”
There was a hint of sadness in his eyes as he sat next to Jean. He left a generous amount of space between the two of them. Slowly, Jeremy leaned back against the wall and Jean followed suit. He watched Jeremy glance out the window as lightning struck.
“Me and my brother used to love thunderstorms when we were kids. We always-,”
A smile and a fond laugh interrupted his train of thought.
“We always used to climb out of bed and sneak downstairs where there was this big window that we could stare out of. By the time my mom would find us, we’d be passed out asleep.”
He ran a hand through his hair, “I miss that.”
Jean leaned his head against the wall and listened as Jeremy continued to talk. He closed his eyes knowing that light and the present were just a blink away. Jeremy’s voice was mellow and inviting as Jean tried to picture the stories Jeremy told them. Jeremy didn’t pause to ask Jean any questions and didn’t demand anything from him.
He just talked
It was a one-sided exchange that became another part of their routine.
Jean would wake, afraid and unsure of reality until Jeremy’s voice reached him. Grounded him. They sat side by side and Jean listened to his stories into the early morning. Sometimes Jeremy’s voice would slow and become heavy. When he paused, mid story, Jean would open his eyes to find the blond had started to doze, mid-sentence.
Jean never held it against him. By that time, the memory had faded into the recesses of his mind.
Those nights had been easy.
As the match against the Raven’s approached and started to feel alarmingly real, Jeremy’s quiet voice wasn’t enough to wake him. Riko’s grip was tight and choking. It held fast even in death.
That night he did scream and Jeremy’s voice had shaken with panic as he struggled to wake him. When he finally did, they both sat against the wall, breathing heavily.
“We’re going to get through this weekend, Jean. He’s rotting in the ground and what’s left of the team is crumbling.”
Jean nodded at the words and glanced up at Jeremy, who looked equally haggard. His breath was almost as shaky as Jean’s.
The fear didn’t subside so easily as previous nights. His breath caught in his throat and it wasn’t a thought, only a reflex, when he reached out to clutch Jeremy’s hand.
Jeremy looked up in surprise, but Jean didn’t let go. He gripped it tight and exhaled when Jeremy brushed his thumb over his.
“I shouldn’t need this.”
Jean’s utterance was built on quiet anger.
“It’s ok if you do.”
“I don’t want to need this.”
Jeremy leaned his head back against the wall and held Jean’s hand loosely. It’d be easy for Jean to pull out of, but he let himself hold on for a little while longer.
For all the nights they had shared, Jean had never once said thank you. It helped knowing that he didn’t have to.
Chapter 6: Unshackled
"Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you."
- Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean's heart raced when he stepped onto the court. With the roar of the fans in the stands and the echo of each beat ringing in his ears, it felt as if time had slowed. Almost as though he was trying to wade through rough waters.
He stopped just outside of the gate when he saw the black uniforms and the recognizable faces turn to glare at him. Owen bumped into him and Jean flinched away.
Owen reached out a hand and grabbed the netting of Jean's racquet- holding it still as Jean steadied himself.
"We've got your back. Play the game and screw the rest, yeah?"
When Jean met the gaze of the Raven's new Captain he felt his skin prickle with apprehension.
"Sure,” He huffed before jerking his racquet out of Owen's grip.
Jeremy had already given him a speech and it had done shit for his nerves. This wasn't a game or a rematch, it was revenge.
It didn’t take long after the whistle blew for things to get physical. The Ravens weren’t playing smart and the realization shocked Jean. He almost laughed. It seemed with the death of their late captain, they had become sloppy and emotional. The Trojans noticed it too and they pushed back hard.
The revelation quickly turned sour when Jean saw who they were saving their hardest hits for.
The ref called the first shot-an elbow slammed into Jeremy’s side. There was a collective gasp in the stands when he crumpled against the plexiglass and slowly righted himself.
Owen was at his side in an instant and growled something to the offending Raven.
His words were lost in the roar of the crowd, but Jean saw Jeremy grip Owen’s arm tightly, holding him back from making a move.
The ref threw a yellow card, but if the gesture was intended to deter the Raven’s violence, it only made them more devious in their attempts.
By half time, most of the Trojans had felt the hard blow of the Raven’s racquet or been tripped during a play. Everyone except Jean.
Rhemann’s face was red and the control in his voice wavered as he addressed the team in the locker room. “I want you to keep playing smart, you guys are doing a hell of a job with the shit they’re pulling and these refs need to get their heads out of their asses.”
He took a breath, “Rumor has it the Ravens are on probation and I’d say their behavior tonight is a sign of their downward spiral. Just keep that in mind. It’s personal,” he met Jean’s gaze before sweeping across the room, “but I expect you to rise above it. Keep that defense tight and communicate with each other.”
By the time they returned to the court, Jean had forgotten Rhemann’s words. It was all too easy to give in to anger and the fiery pleasure of imagining delivering a similar blow to any one of the Ravens. It didn’t take long for him to get his chance.
It didn’t take much more than a weak taunt for Jean’s composure to break. After he cleared the ball down the court, he shoved the Raven striker against the glass. The man sneered, his cheek pressed against the plexiglass.
“So that’s what it takes to get a rise out of you. You his new lapdog?” He nodded downcourt in Jeremy’s direction
Jean snarled and pushed him harder into the glass. The Raven only laughed, “Funny, always thought you were more a pussy myself.”
Jean didn’t get a chance to respond as Alvarez pulled him off the striker. She held his arms in a strong grip and whispered to him.
“Jean, let him go.”
He saw the refs eye them wearily, getting ready to jog over, and Jean reluctantly took a step back.
“That all you got, Moreau?”
Alvarez’s angry gaze fell on the Raven’s mocking smile. Her eyes narrowed and she waved dismissively at him.
“Run along fuckwad.”
He shot her a dirty look, muttering, “Watch yourself” as he jogged away. She rolled her eyes and took a step closer to Jean.
When he was gone, Alvarez dropped her cool composure and looked Jean in the eye. Her tone was tense.
"You need to calm down. Fuck that guy. Look at me.”
Jean pulled his gaze away from the retreating striker to his fellow backliner.
She held his wrists loosely, he could escape if he needed to. But he didn’t trust himself not to catch up with the Striker. He glanced down and saw she was reigning in her own anger.
He spoke through gritted teeth, “They shouldn’t get away with this.”
She pitched her voice low, with a glance at the refs, "I know and I want to punch every single one of their fucking faces in for it.”
Jean grinned a wicked smile, liking the image it conjured, but she continued.
“But we play fair, even when others don’t. Jeremy’s stronger than he seems. He can take it. Just don’t let those bastards score, ok?”
Jean nodded and Alvarez took a step back and gave him a nod. They returned to their positions. Jean tightened his grip on his racquet and waited for the whistle to blow.
Jean watched Jeremy during the press interviews after the game. He wore a toothy smile and kept his tone positive, but Jean knew what signs to look for.
You didn’t last long as a Raven if you didn’t know how to conceal pain.
His smile was forced, though Jean doubted anyone in the crowd recognized it or even cared. His usual restless energy was contained as he sat straight in the chair at the table.
His hands were clasped tight-tendons jutting out.
But his voice didn’t betray him. It was soft and upbeat as ever.
“You know we’ve made a lot of progress and we’re going to keep making progress. Two points from winning? I’m thinking we can do something about that the next time we face the Ravens.”
He answered a few more questions before he stood to leave, steering clear from the reporters goading for a response to the violence against him.
Jean met him in the lounge, their bags already hanging on his shoulders. Jeremy approached and grabbed his bag, “You’re a mind reader.”
He winced as he drew it over his shoulder, “You good with just showering at the dorm?”
Jeremy nodded mutely and they walked out into the parking lot.
He noticed he was favoring his left side as they headed for the Jeep and the sight made him feel sick. Jean glanced up at the stadium towering above them as they drove past, the lights were bright and harsh. There was still a slow trickle of fans were walking out.
Jean sighed and spoke quietly, “I’d offer to drive, but the Raven’s weren’t interested in covering my driver’s education.”
Jeremy’s laugh was unexpected and wild to Jean’s ears. He wasn’t used to evoking laughter that came without a shove or kick. Jeremy’s was cut short by an “ow” as he brushed at his split lip, but he gave Jean a smile.
Weak as it was, it left Jean feeling a little steadier.
“It’s all good”, His voice was low and Jean wondered what force in Jeremy’s life had left him so skilled at putting on a mask. Jeremy sniffed as he made the turn onto the main drive to the dorm, “It is a contact sport. Not like I haven’t been hit before.”
“Not this hard,” Jean muttered.
Jeremy nodded agreeably, “No. Not this hard.”
When the door was shut to their room, Jeremy kicked off his shoes and let his duffle bag drop to the floor with a dull thud. He pulled off his jersey with a gasp and headed to the bathroom.
Jean drew in a sharp breath at the brief flash of skin he saw. Bruises blossomed over his torso-a mottling of purple and red welts.
The Ravens had been ruthless and Jeremy had been an easy target. Going after Jean would have been a waste. They had all witnessed Riko’s torturing. Nothing they did could even come close.
But his new team? Fair game. Weaken those that dare take him in as refugee.
The Raven’s new coach looked overwhelmed and Jean did not envy his position. The months since Riko’s death hadn’t done much to curb their manners. The Ravens always toed the line when it came to sportsmanship, but they had always checked themselves when it came to the Trojans. Tonight hadn’t been the same case and it had shocked them all.
It should have been him.
He should have stopped it sooner.
Jean set his bag down and followed Jeremy to the bathroom.
With a hiss, Jeremy twisted to look at his back in the mirror. He gave a small chuckle and glanced over at Jean leaning in the doorway. “I think I’m going to have to go a little slow at practice tomorrow, but I think it was worth it. We got pretty close tonight.”
Jean quietly reached out and took the washcloth out of Jeremy’s hands, noting the man’s look of surprise.
Wordlessly, Jeremy nodded. He watched Jean’s gray eyes scan over the various cuts and bruises as he gently cleaned away the dried blood. He wouldn’t meet Jeremy’s eyes and something in him softened at that. Going into the game, Jeremy was ashamed to admit he’d expected Jean to shut down in fear or retaliate with the same viciousness. But the aggression Jeremy saw from Jean was contained -mostly.
Jeremy had wanted so badly to hit back. It took everything in him not to strike back. He wasn’t too proud to admit that now.
He hissed as the washcloth brushed over tender skin. Jean withdrew his hand, but the raw skin still stung. Jean took a step back and leaned against the bathroom wall. Jeremy straightened and reassessed his wounds. They were still red and fresh, but they didn’t look as bad.
Jeremy glanced up in surprise and turned to face Jean. He gaped at him.
“Why are you apologizing to me?”
Jean didn’t answer. His attention was fixated on the tile below.
Jeremy took a step closer.
“Jean. Hey,” Jeremy gently pried the red tinged cloth from his tight grip, “Talk to me. Why do you think you need to apologize to me? You played impeccably tonight. You should be prou-,”
Before he could finish, Jean snatched his hand away. He took a deep breath before he met Jeremy’s concerned gaze. There was so much in his expression that Jean didn’t have the energy to decipher. All that mattered right now was that Jeremy was the one suffering.
Jean’s voice was flat, “It should have been me.”
Jeremy’s expression turned from one of concern to bewilderment. He swallowed thickly and shook his head, “No. No Jean. Don’t even think that.”
“Don’t be naïve.” He snarled, “You think they would have played like that if I wasn’t here?”
Jean’s eyes narrowed when the blond merely shrugged his shoulders, refusing to be drawn in by Jean’s anger.
“Maybe. They’ve been pretty shitty lately.”
Jean huffed. His answer felt like a cop out, but Jeremy continued. His teasing tone turned serious.
“I’m not naïve, Jean. Yeah, your presence probably pissed them off, but so what? We handled it and this,” He gestured to his bruises, “will heal.”
Jean shook his head and Jeremy sighed.
“Look, I don’t know what they did to you and how bad it got, although I’m getting a better idea.”
Jean jerked his head up at his words. Jeremy paused, his voice was low and rigid with his own anger as he took in Jean’s haunted expression.
His hand hovered over Jean’s wrist, “But it’s still not your fault and trust me…”
Jeremy gave him a small smile, “I wanted to hit them back, but that’s not us. That’s not how we play.”
Jeremy laughed and Jean felt it resonate through him.
He glanced down, noticing for the first time that Jeremy had his hand laced in his. He hadn’t even noticed the pressure of his touch. A wave of panic washed over him at the thought, but he refused to pull away.
“Is it?” Jeremy challenged.
“So you just do nothing? That’s weak.”
Jeremy took a step closer, “No Jean. We wait. We hold back now and then beat them at their own game.”
His voice hitched low and Jean shivered at his words. They sounded all too familiar.
“I want to see them on their knees for what they did to you and Kevin.”
Jean took a ragged breath and Jeremy traced a pattern in his skin as if soothing a long-forgotten wound.
“But I also want us to win because we deserved it. Not because we played dirty.”
His last words were a whisper and Jean had to look away from Jeremy’s eyes. They were full of want and hope and things that Jean didn’t feel capable of giving back.
“You’re not theirs anymore, Jean.”
“Then whose am I?”
And with a sad smile, Jeremy withdrew his hand and slowly placed it against Jean’s cheek. A thumb brushed over his inked skin and Jean tipped his head forward.
Jeremy met him halfway. Jean breathed him in.
“You are your own, Jean Moreau.”
Jean felt the gentle brush of lips against his cheek before Jeremy stepped back. He resumed cleaning away blood and sweat, quietly waiting for Jean to gather himself.
Jean took a few breaths before he straightened and shut the bathroom door behind him. He sat on his bed, listening to the hiss of the pipes as the shower started on the other side of the wall.
He stared at his hands, they were ugly in their form. His own cruelty had been brought to light in the Nest and he was not without his own brutality. Everyone Jean had ever met seemed to carry that same potential within them.
He knew few who managed to pass through life without learning of the existence of that dark thing inside them-dormant and waiting for a spark to ignite to bring it to the light.
Jean hardly remembered being happy. He counted his days, his hours, and the minutes of his life by pain and the sound of his beating heart, the heavy thrum of blood pumping. He had thrived off instinct and of letting go of self-blame and of asking why.
Whys only got you more beatings.
But now? Now he was out.
There was a time he would have dragged himself back to the Nest. He would have crawled down the stairs that lead to the belly of the place he never once called home. But Riko was dead and he had faced his former teammates tonight. All that remained was a contract to be fulfilled. And a captain who wanted everything for him and nothing from him.
Jean stripped and changed, and laid down on his bed.
The images of the mountains on the wall didn’t fill him with the same heartache as they had beforehand. He stared at them as his eyes started to sag with sleep. His book lay on the floor below him and the words from the most recent passage he read lulled him into his dreams.
La liberté est ce que vous faites avec ce qui vous a été fait.
Chapter 7: Feelings?
"Those who do not move, do not notice their chains."
- Rosa Luxemburg
Jeremy Knox, for all the quips about his sunny personality and positive words, was not without his bad days. Graduation loomed in the background as the games were ticked off the calendar and speculation about his plans after became talking points during the post-game interviews.
He’d taken to giving his best smile or a wink with a “Well, I have to graduate first, but I’m considering all my options and starting to have those important conversations. Trust me,” he flashed another smile-one that the reporter couldn’t help but return, “when I know, you’ll know.”
He hadn’t been lying. He was starting to have those conversations with Rhemann at his side on speaker phone. The coaches were eager to have him and Jeremy was thankful to have so many options, but thinking far ahead had never been his strong suit. He lived in the present and anticipated challenges only so far into the future.
The problem was he was distracted: the team, going pro, Jean, his senior project, his family, class, and what he wanted in life in general.
After one promising phone call with the coach of the Florida Panthers, Rhemann sat him down.
“What are you thinking Knox? What do you want for next year?”
Jeremy had chuckled, flipped his cap around on his head before leaning over his knees, “That’s a good question, Coach.”
Rhemann had nodded and shrugged, his voice was kind and his eyes were patient, “You’re not going to have a problem with offers, but your decision should be yours alone. Think about what you want and go from there. You give a lot to others Jeremy, you owe it to yourself to take some time and do what’s best for you.”
The problem was time.
There were not enough hours in the day for him to accomplish all that he wanted. He’d make joke about transitioning to Raven’s schedule, except there was nothing about the Raven’s that Jeremy felt like joking about.
Not after what he knew.
The other problem was space.
Jean was hardly an overpowering presence. In fact, he did his best to fade into the background, that sometimes Jeremy felt like he was the only active force keeping his existence from being something more than temporary.
Even in the silence, it was hard to think straight.
The team was well onto their way to the championships, where they’d no doubt be facing the Ravens once again.
He woke up in a cold sweat on the Sunday morning after their most recent win, and this time it wasn’t Jean that sat up with a gasp. There was no memory or image tied to his reaction, only a feeling. An all-powerful, overwhelming constricting feeling in his chest and he shot out of bed, barely making it into the bathroom before he started retching.
He felt Jean’s gaze from the doorway as he flushed and stood. Jeremy ignored him, choosing to look in the mirror instead. His pale, tired reflection stared back. Jeremy brushed his teeth to chase away the taste in his mouth and turned to leave, surprised to find Jean still standing and baring the exit.
“What’s going on?”
“I’m alright. Just nerves.” He lacked the energy to try and hide his weariness.
Jean narrowed his eyes, but stepped aside.
He leaned against his desk and watched as Jeremy changed out and filled a small backpack with a few Cliff bars, two full water bottles, and a few other supplies. The panic had eased somewhat, but the restlessness hadn’t retreated yet. He tugged on his boots and stood, finally meeting Jean’s gaze.
“I’m going to go for a hike.” Jeremy tightened his laces. “Out at Sullivan Ridge. You gonna be ok?”
Jean crossed and his tone was terse, “I’m not a child.”
Jeremy sighed and stood, “Didn’t say you were Moreau. Text me or any of the team if you need anything. Eli or Laila. I’ll be back in a few hours.”
Jeremy paused at the door to reply, but Jean had already shut the door to the bathroom. He wanted to wait. To buy some time to tell him, “No really, it’s not you, it’s me”, but the dorm was starting to feel like a cell.
He shook his head and left with a small pang of regret heavy in his chest.
Jeremy pulled the Jeep onto Capri Drive and shut off the engine, subsequently silencing the rough echoes of Bon Jovi’s plea. He sat still and looked out at the city in the distance, the steady thrum of crickets in the tall grass. He leaned over and grabbed the pack occupying the passenger seat before sliding out the Jeep.
He swung the bag over his shoulders and tightened the straps and did a quick check. On an afterthought, he pulled out his phone and texted Laila.
Out for a hike. Keep an eye on Jean?
Laila: Will do. You ok?
Jeremy: Will be. Thanks.
Laila: You do what you gotta do, Captain <3 I’ll make him come to lunch with me :P
Jeremy: Excellent :) see you later
Letting out a sigh, he tucked his phone away and started to walk. When he usually hiked here, he liked to make the day of it. Start early and do the full 8 miles both ways. Today was different, today he had no end goal other than to walk until he felt like turning around. He slipped his sunglasses down off his forehead and picked up his pace.
He felt like he could finally breathe.
The sight of the mountains, the gentle slope of the land around him and crunch of the dirt beneath his boots…it all grounded him in a way that Exy never could. He loved playing, that was without a doubt. But being out here satisfied another other part of him the sport could never reach. Something that ached for more and demanded attention.
Underneath the blue sky, he felt whole.
He hiked for almost an hour before he stopped for a water break, eyeing the incline ahead of him. After a few swigs, he put the bottle away and started once more. The trail was relatively empty, but it was still early. He expected to see a few faces as the day progressed. For now, he’d enjoy the solitude.
Jeremy had been surprised when Kevin had suggested Jean join the Trojans. Surprised, but equally excited.
What he had seen from the Foxes made him rethink their whole approach. The Trojans were a phenomenal team and he was proud to be their captain, but they were in a rut. Switching up the numbers was a good start. Bringing on one of the best Exy players and their former rival seemed like a guaranteed move to inspire change.
None of it was easy and it was a strain on Jean’s comfort, Jeremy could see that. But for all his bored looks, his harsh criticisms, and silence-there was something else there. Something that kept him moving forward and pushing back.
Not to mention the idiosyncrasies Jeremy discovered.
Jean liked black coffee and he sipped it slowly as he studied. He read in his spare time, thick books in French. When he was frustrated, he tended to grit his teeth. Sometimes he’d stare off, a serious expression shadowing the elegant lines of his face, and over time Jeremy realized that he wasn’t angry or remembering anything particularly painful, it was just the look he got when he was thinking deeply. Not surprisingly, he wasn’t a fan of mainstream movies. At first, Jean hadn’t even been a fan of movies in general and that was something Jeremy couldn’t live with as a film student. So, his grumbling shadow had accompanied him to the movie nights he had with a few of his classmates.
Jean rarely spoke and his friends had stopped trying to make polite conversation. But when the lights were dimmed and the movie started, out of the corner of his eye Jeremy saw Jean’s gaze rooted on the screen. Throughout the semester, Jeremy found himself watching Jean in his periphery more than the movie itself.
His friend hardly exhibited the same emotional reaction as the others, but the dim halo coming from the screen was just enough light for Jeremy to see the subtle signs: the arch of his brow, the fine line of his pressed lips, the tilt of his head at a poignant piece of dialogue.
And then there was Jean on court.
He played liked he lived. With precision and control, but always a half a breath away from rage. It was like waiting for the rumble of thunder after lightning strikes.
Jeremy paused on the edge of the trail, taking in the sweeping view of the mountains.
He had it bad.
He didn’t want to think the whole truth into existence. Preferring to dance around it with fond memories and metaphors. For as much as Jeremy valued honesty and being genuine, he was doing a shitty job with his own feelings.
He liked Jean, liked him a hell of a lot more than he probably should.
Jeremy shook his head at the thought and kept walking.
It didn’t hurt that much to admit it. No, the hurt came with the knowledge that his feelings were and would always be unrequited. He wasn’t one for self-pity or indulging in what ifs. That tended to only make things worse. The fact of the matter was Jean had been through more shit than Jeremy could imagine. He was a) probably not interested or b) straight (with Jeremy’s luck).
Not to mention that Jeremy was his captain. Even after living with him and doing his best to show him that he was his equal, Jeremy knew that it wasn’t that simple. There was a history that he couldn’t erase. Sweat trickled down his back and he shivered.
Rhemann had asked Jeremy what he had wanted and Jeremy was starting to realize he wanted what he couldn’t have.
The important thing, he reminded himself, was that Jean was adjusting. He doubted anyone other than the team and himself would notice a difference. However slight it was, it was there.
The issue was he didn’t know what to do about it all. There really wasn’t anything to do besides move on.
He’d been in this situation before and he’d gotten through it. Though he’d never had to share a room with said person before. It also didn’t help his case that Jean didn’t shy away from his touch as much as he used to.
Either way, he had to try.
Jeremy focused on his breathing and the racing beat of his heart as he hiked. His muscles ached and he loved it. Coming to an overlook, Jeremy sat and took in the sight of the city in the distance and the ocean-a wash of blue meeting the clear sky. He squinted in the sun and raised a hand to his brow.
With the mountains surrounding him, it was hard not to get lost in the perspective of them. He was a visitor, temporary and of little consequence out here.
The timelessness of it all gave him something to cling to. Something he couldn’t quite describe, something that was just a feeling. Jeremy closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
He didn’t have any answers when it came to Jean. That was something to watch and wish away as the days went on.
As for the rest, graduation and all. The answer seemed simple now. This was his home and who was he to try and run from it. His family was here, both by blood and by sweat. The Coyotes were an up and coming team, established in the league, but still finding their groove and he always loved a challenge.
Jeremy sat for another half an hour, enjoying the breeze and the quiet. When he stood to leave, he took his time and walked back slowly.
When he got back to his car and checked his phone, it was almost 1:00. His stomach growled as he drove and he blindly fumbled for the last Cliff bar in his pack to hold himself off for his left overs in the fridge back in the dorm.
He took the stairs two at a time, his legs burning, but when he got to his room he paused outside the door, hand hovering with his keycard in hand. He hadn’t left on the best of terms and his stomach did a little nervous flip as he slowly opened the door to find an empty room.
Lila must’ve kept good on her word and dragged Jean to lunch with her and Alvarez. Jeremy couldn’t hold back a smile at the mental image of it all. The girls rarely let Jean be completely silent when they all hung out together. Setting down his things, he gathered a change of clothes and showered.
He wasn’t sure how long he stood in the spray of the warm water. Long enough that it was nearing lukewarm. He changed into his sweatpants, forgoing a shirt, and opened the bathroom door. He froze when he heard the dorm room open, his eyes widened as Jean walked in.
Jean let the door shut behind him as he strode over to his desk. Jeremy hung awkwardly by the bathroom door, legs locked in place. While Jean opened his laptop, and resuming his work. Jeremy swallowed his worries and folded his arms before he leaned against the door way.
He cleared his throat.
“I’m sorry about this morning.”
“Sorry for what?”
Jeremy blushed at the memory of the morning. He knew he tended to shut down when his anxiety bubbled over.
“I know I was a little….terse this morning.”
Jean shrugged and Jeremy continued, “I’ve just been a little stressed about things.”
“What things?” Jean murmured, but his attention had shifted to his screen.
You. “Championships and going pro.”
Jean leaned back in his chair and his mouth twitched up as he gave Jeremy a once over, “You’re worried about championships.”
Jean smirked, “No, not really.”
Jeremy brushed a stray, damp curl from his forehead and gave a half smile, “Well that’s encouraging at least.”
“And the pro teams?”
“Not so worried about that anymore. I think I’m going to stay local, stick with LA.”
“They’re a new team. Sloppy.”
He didn’t hide his disapproval. Jeremy grinned and shook his head.
“That doesn’t scare me. There’s,” he thought for a minute, ‘potential. Besides, it’ll be nice to stay in the area.”
Jean watched as Jeremy pushed himself off the wall to take a seat at his own desk. “You never said anything….about being stressed.”
Jeremy stared at him, “I didn’t think you cared.”
He shut his mouth and smiled, keeping his tone light, “Maybe you do.”
Jean narrowed his eyes, “Laila said you tend to deflect.”
“Did she now? How was lunch, by the way?”
Jean rolled his eyes and scowled, “Enlightening.”
“How so?” He ignored the sarcasm and focused on Jean’s answer, enjoying the sound of his voice.
“Apparently Alvarez and Dermott have their differences.”
Jeremy nodded and flashed a fond smile, “Oh yeah? In?”
“Choice of pets.”
“Oh yeah, I’ve heard that debate before. Did they rope you in?”
“Well I hope you sided with Alvarez, she might hold it against you on court.”
Jean blew out a breath, “Whatever you say Captain.”
Jeremy laughed and pulled on a sweatshirt before he sat down to takeout his notes from his backpack.
“Say what you want Moreau, but I’ve seen you two during games. That’s some top-notch comradery there.”
He opened his notes and absentmindedly remarked, “It’s ok to like people, Jean.”
When his comment was met by silence, Jeremy glanced up. Jean had stilled, though his hand carried the faintest tremor of movement.
“You wouldn’t.” He glanced over at Jeremy, his eyes cold, “After everything. You wouldn’t like people either.”
“Fuck.” Jeremy hung his head and sighed, “Jean, that’s not what I meant.”
“It doesn’t matter.” He muttered back.
“Of course it does!”
Jean glanced up at the sharpness of Jeremy’s tone.
Lowering his gaze, Jeremy swallowed and spoke softly, “I mean, your experience matters. I don’t want-Shit,”
He ran a hand through his hair and took a breath, “I can’t imagine what you’ve been through and I don’t ever want to sound insensitive or be hurt you-,” He couldn’t keep the regret out of his voice.
Jeremy looked up to find Jean staring at him as though he was crazy.
“It’s fine. I’m fine.”
“Ok. Yeah. But I just-,”
“I get it.”
Jeremy took the hint and stopped talking. The rest of the afternoon passed slowly and with few words. Jeremy did his best to focus on editing the footage he took from one his earlier hikes and not on his roommate.
Laila found Jeremy tucked away in a corner at a table in the library the next day. Their break period in between classes overlapped and it was one of the few times blocked in his schedule that he was without Jean. He glanced up from his laptop and smiled, “Hey Laila.”
She pulled out a chair and earned a few disapproving looks at the grating sound it made. Ignoring them, she sat with a small huff before she returned Jeremy’s glowing smile.
“How goes the senior project?”
“Good. How goes Econ?”
“Terrible, as usual.”
He gave her a sympathetic look and continued to type. It took him a few seconds before the weight of her gaze forced him to glance back up in amusement.
“Something on your mind, Dermott?”
Folding her hands, she pursed her lips and leaned in. Jeremy paused from his work and joined her, “Shit this is serious.”
“Yeah. You know you can tell me anything, right? You know I won’t judge you.”
“Um, yeah.” He chuckled as if her disclaimer was absurd, “What’s this about?”
“Do you like Jean?”
Jeremy tried to play off his surprise, but the sound of his laugh was nervous, “Yeah, he’s a good teammate and I think he’s making good progr-,”
Laila rolled her eyes, “Jere, cut the bullshit.” But he only stared back, brown eyes wide with wonder.
“God, you’re going to make me say it. Do you ‘like like’ Jean?”
He swallowed thickly. It had been one thing quietly admitting his feelings to himself alone on a trail in the mountain. It was another having to face them in front of his best friend in the library amidst the wall of books and underneath the richly decorated ceiling. If he spoke the words aloud, they’d hang in the air and follow him when he left the quiet study space. He didn’t want that and he certainly didn’t want to see Laila’s reaction.
“No. Uh, no I don’t.”
Laila sighed and the look on her face was one of pity, “Oh, Jeremy. Denial doesn’t look good on your beautiful face.”
He groaned and covered his eyes with his hands. When he felt Laila guide his hands back down the table, he didn’t resist and she didn’t let go.
“Is it that obvious?”
She smiled and her eyes were warm at his words, “No. I just know you.”
“Don’t push me on this one, Laila.” His voice broke and she brushed a finger over his thumb soothingly.
“How long have you been torturing yourself with this?”
“I only just realized it yesterday,” He trailed off and his eyes searched for something other than his friend’s green eyes to focus on, “but a couple of months.” He finally admitted sheepishly.
“That would explain the recent death of your sex life.”
He laughed and she looked happy to hear the sound and she patted his hand, “It’s ok, Jeremy. It’s a crush. So what?”
“So what? I’m his captain and if that’s not awkward enough, also his roommate. Plus, the guy’s been through hell, I’m sure dating is the last thing on his mind and even if he was, he’s probably straight. It’s just…” Jeremy shook his head, “it’s just a stupid crush. It’s not going to go anywhere and I have to move on.”
Laila leaned back with a heavy sigh, “I get what you’re saying, I do. You’re worried about the implications and what’s best for him because he’s your friend,”
Jeremy nodded and saw her shrug, “but you’re also selling yourself short and playing it safe. And that’s not the Jeremy Knox I know. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try and move on or anything like that….but you’re not going to be his roommate and captain forever. And you never know with people. I certainly didn’t. Just…don’t give up yet.”
She gave his hand a squeeze and he squeezed back, before he caught the time on his phone.
Laila laughed, “That time already. Thanks for letting me badger you with questions, Jere.”
He slid on his backpack and smiled, “Thanks for listening.” He turned to leave, but Laila grabbed his hand. Her expression was serious and she spoke quietly.
“He looks at you too.”
Jeremy pulled back in confusion, “What?”
“Jean. He looks at you too.”
She dropped his hand and shrugged, “I don’t know what it means, but it’s definitely not nothing.”
Jeremy felt his breath hitch, “Thanks Laila.”
It didn’t feel like enough. A small thank you in exchange for the seed of hope sprouting in the marrow of his bones.
“Sure thing, Sunshine. Don’t be late for class.”
He grinned a toothy smile and felt like himself again. “No ma’am.”
Jeremy waved and left the library, taking a deep breath as he hustled down the steps in a rush to class.
Chapter 8: Regret
"The fear: that nothing survives. The greater fear: that something does."
- Richard Siken
To anyone who followed Exy, it came as no surprise when the Trojans advanced to the championships. Each consecutive victory was a point in their favor. The loss against the Ravens early in the season was seen as merely a minor setback. Even the PSU Foxes’ success was not entirely unexpected, and fans were eagerly awaiting the rematch after the previous year.
The Trojans still celebrated like it was the first time.
Jeremy beamed with pride when it was officially announced and Rhemann congratulated them on their hard work with a pleased smile. In the lounge, while the others chattered with excitement, Jean watched silently at the end of the couch.
He was pleased, he wouldn’t deny that, but winning or being one step closer to, never truly felt like a prize of its own right. The Ravens had made sure of that.
Victory was an expectation, hardly an option. It was objective to be met with the same efficiency demanded of them at every practice. After all the blood and sweat, the bone deep pain, to Jean- winning only meant a weaker beating than had they lost.
But no one had laid a hand on him here and it was reminiscent of his dreams-full of light and free from pain and he wouldn’t chance it crumbling before him. Not now. If he accepted the truth that now appeared to be his life, who was to say he wouldn’t wake up from this fever dream bruised and dressed in black?
For all its certainty Jean wouldn’t risk it, so he stayed seated and silent-content in his own isolation.
His thoughts were interrupted when Eli stepped around Zoe, her arm swung around Prisha as they chatted about their chances against Palmetto, and took a seat next to a perturbed looking Jean. His dark eyes glanced up sharply at his approach.
Eli’s expression of calm never seemed to waver around him and that seemed an important detail to Jean. It was worth taking note of and considering.
Leaning forward and taking in the room, Eli nodded at the other team members.
“What do you think about PSU? Think we’ll stand a chance against Day?”
Jean shrugged, eyeing Eli as the other man started to wipe off his glasses while he waited for Jean’s answer.
“I think they’re desperate for this win. Desperate people are unpredictable.”
“Hm. Interesting way to put it.”
Eli put the lenses back on and smiled at Jean, “I have a non-Exy question for you.”
Jean raised his eyebrows in surprise. They rarely talked outside of simple pleasantries and practice, but he nodded for him to continue.
Eli jerked his head towards Owen, “Owen’s my roommate, but he’s graduating this year. I don’t know what you’re doing next year, but if you need a roommate, I’d like to toss my name in the hat.”
Jean studied him for a moment, weary.
“What’s in it for you?”
Jean’s eyes darted from Eli’s over to Jeremy, who was chatting with Beckett in the corner of the room. The blond seemed fully absorbed in his conversation, hardly aware of Jean and Eli. That didn’t settle the rising suspicion in Jean that he had something to do with Eli’s request.
Eli’s laugh pulled Jean’s gaze back to the man in front of him.
“Knox has nothing to do with this Moreau. This is me asking.”
“You still haven’t answered my question.”
“What’s in it for me, right?”
Eli flashed a small smile before he answered Jean’s question.
“You’re a quiet guy, I’m a quiet guy. We’ll both have the same, grueling schedule when it comes to morning practices so that’s something. Seems practical.”
Eli shrugged and then stood at Jean’s silence, “I know it’s not the strongest case and you don’t have to decide now, but think about it man.”
He gave Jean one last fleeting smile before he left Jean to his thoughts.
His fifth year still seemed so far away.
It was a timeline he knew he should have been thinking more about. His lively roommate would be long gone and Jean would be left with one more year before he had a debt to start paying. Even so, Jean hadn’t thought about sharing a space with anyone else and he felt his stomach drop at the realization.
It was true, the man talked too much for Jean’s liking and stayed up too late watching films Jean had never heard of. He couldn’t keep his side of the room clean for more than a day and a half and he’d finally stopped apologizing for the mess. He ate cereal that tasted like cardboard and drank disturbing colored shakes. Too often, Jean caught him staring distractedly out the window rather than working on an essay that was only a few hours from being due. He had a smile for every occasion and a comeback ready on the tip of his tongue.
Jeremy Knox had a way of getting under his skin like a damn paper cut -seemingly insignificant, but burrowed deep and out of his reach.
He was the only one who could talk him down and chase away any trace of fear that held him captive when he woke, breathless and afraid. It was Jeremy’s voice, soft and low, while he shared his childhood moments or the plots of his favorite movies, that caused Jean’s breathing to slow. It was his touch that stopped his hands from shaking.
It was almost as though Jean could only accept such a thing in the late night or early hours of morning, just before dawn. Only when he was reeling from the rush of his own memories and future fears. To bring that into the light of day ran too great a risk and he just might break from the weight of it all.
Conversation winded down and the team started to disperse.
Jean stood and waited for Jeremy to finish up his conversation with Beckett. Out of the corner of his eye, Jean saw Alvarez head in his direction. Like the rest of the team, she had changed out after practice.
“Jean,” she gave him a sly, but warm smile, “Are you going to bite my head off if I invite you to dinner tonight. I could use the company.”
“Is meeting her study group at Panda Express.”
“Has that date.”
He cocked his head in surprise and Alvarez cringed.
“Shit, I thought you knew. Figured you’d be free since he was-,” She waved a hand, “No matter. Now that you know you’re free, how about it?”
Jean weighed his options. One looked like a quiet night in and the other filled with an enthusiastic Alvarez. It wasn’t really much of a choice.
He glanced back at Alvarez and she narrowed her eyes at his silence and huffed.
“Don’t look so eager Moreau. How about if I promise I won’t make you talk?”
Alvarez grinned and gave him a thumb’s up, “Awesome. I’ll pick you up at 6.”
The rest of the day passed with no mention of Jeremy’s evening plans. His silence, however inconsequential the topic was to Jean, felt like some small act of betrayal. Jean had never asked about the other man’s love life, but he also wouldn’t describe Jeremy as ‘self-contained’. He had always been eager to share. Mutual disclosure was not something that interested Jean, but he wouldn’t have survived this long if he didn’t notice subtle differences in behavior.
And however silly this one seemed, it was a difference. It also wasn't the first time Jean had sensed something being off between the two of them. Jean would be lying if it didn’t instill some doubt in his mind and doubt never sat well with him.
Secrets, while Jean didn’t have many left, were well worth the added weight. Riko hadn’t been able to glean everything from him.
Jean wondered what other things Jeremy held close and away from prying eyes.
His thoughts swirled up distorted memories as he mutely followed Jeremy to one of the picnic tables outside their dorm.
They had both finished with classes and it was too nice of a day for the library. The table creaked and sagged under their weight. It was the only break in the silence.
Jeremy gave him a small smile before he started working on his assignment.
Jean studied him out of the corner of his eye.
The bags under his eyes that had been so prominent in the weeks before had faded and he looked well rested. Jean was the only one waking up with nightmares now and even with Jeremy at his side, he almost felt just as alone as before he had come to USC.
If Jeremy had expected him not to notice how he no longer touched him, he was mistaken. That was one alarming detail that Jean had not missed. He hated that he had to brace for its absence now. Hated that he missed it.
Jean sighed and squinted under the bright sun. Confrontation came with its own risks, but he had grown accustomed to standing on solid ground now.
Jean capped his pen and grit his teeth. The blond typed away, unaware of Jean’s frustration. Before he could second guess himself, Jean asked the question that had been causing him to lose sleep over the past week.
“Do you regret signing me?”
Jeremy tore his gaze away from his screen at the sound of Jean’s voice-aloof and firm. His own voice sounded shaky with shock.
“Jean no, never.”
Jeremy paused and his expression changed to one of anger. It took everything in Jean not to flinch at the sight. The stern set of his eyes and tight line of lips, so controlled and so opposite his usual openness, was a rare sight to see.
Jean was so used to claiming that expression as his own.
Jeremy didn’t notice the way Jean’s fingers curled inward, but he took a breath and the anger faded to a look of concern.
“Has someone said something that would make you think that?”
Jean immediately shook his head.
Even when Jean was at his worst and snapped at their gestures, the team never responded in kind.
“No. No one’s said anything.”
Jeremy gazed at him as if waiting for him to continue, but Jean didn’t elaborate.
“Jean. Is everything ok?”
It was the tilt of his head, the widening of his brown eyes- the color of warmth- and the small parting of lips that Jean didn’t know what to make of.
Jean glanced around at the campus around him, bursting with color and life. He’d walked the halls and been settled in for months now. But it wasn’t home, the only home he’d ever known was a thousand miles away-probably empty or inhabited by strangers.
“Yeah. Everything’s fine.”
His words sounded clipped and harsh. Jeremy winced and Jean shifted back away from him.
Jeremy didn’t look convinced and he looked hurt, “Jean I-,”
“I’m eating with Alvarez tonight.”
Jeremy stared at Jean and Jean stared back, waiting.
Jeremy laughed nervously and his voice sounded unsure.
“Yeah, I meant to tell you that I have plans tonight. I don’t expect to be out too late. I mean I never met the guy before, so I’m not sure how it will go- blind dates and all.”
He stopped when he realized he was babbling and cleared his throat.
“Anyway. I’m glad you’re hanging out with her tonight,” he smiled, “She’ll like that.”
Jean gave a quiet grunt and let the silence fill the awkward void between them.
Jeremy was still looking at him with his lower lip snagged between his teeth, but his voice sounded firm.
“I don’t regret signing you, Jean. And I’m happy you’re here.”
He thought he saw Jeremy’s hand twitch with movement, as though he intended to reach out towards him.
Jeremy caught his gaze instead.
“I mean it Jean.”
Jean swallowed and nodded.
It came out as a weak mumble, but Jeremy didn’t press him for anything more. They settled into a somewhat more comfortable silence. And although Jean didn’t feel like he had gained much, Jeremy’s insistence and the subtle movement was as much of an offering that he was ready to take.
Alvarez picked Jean up promptly at six, just as Jeremy was getting ready to leave. Jean knew any other roommate would slap Jeremy on the back and wish him luck, but Jean never was one for such displays-even if Jeremy looked like he might have appreciated the encouragement. Jean still hadn’t gotten used to how Jeremy oscillated between wearing a smile that exuded confidence to one that was forced and cheap-a last attempt to save face.
Jean slid into the passenger seat of the Focus and buckled up with nothing more than a quiet, “Alvarez.”
Alvarez grinned at his hello, “Moreau. Gotta tell you, I’ve been looking forward to this all day.” Her dark hair was pulled up in a bun and her eyes were bright with excitement.
He snorted and she laughed, “I know, I know- ‘at least one of us is’ right?”
She pulled onto the street and they drove the few minutes to the restaurant. It was quiet on the ride over except for the pop music playing on the radio. Alvarez stayed true to her word and didn’t try to force conversation.
They settled into their seats in the cramped restaurant and she was just starting to glance over the menu when she remarked, “I was surprised to hear Jeremy had a date! Been a while for him-though he never had a hard time racking them up.”
Jean raised an eyebrow.
Alvarez chuckled, “You surprised?”
It was obvious, even before he came to USC, that Jeremy Knox was well liked. Friendly, polite, charming...no it wasn’t surprising to confirm something he already knew.
It was different to hear the words spoken so casually. Dating was forbidden among the Ravens. Sex, less so.
Sex was a hunger that could be satiated, but a relationship like that? It was a distraction. Few tried and the ones that did didn’t last. Secrets didn’t stay secrets in the Nest for long.
They ordered and watched the people pass by outside the glass front of them. Alvarez took a sip of her water and regarded Jean with a thoughtful look, “Did you ever hear the story of how Laila and I got together?”
Jean shook his head. Alvarez nodded and fiddled with the straw wrapper absentmindedly, “Well, I might as well tell you while we wait.”
She looked at Jean, as if waiting for him to protest, when he didn’t she gave him a soft smile.
“It started last year. Coach had just pulled me up to the main line up my sophomore year. I’d been drooling over Laila since freshman year.”
She laughed and tugged the paper wrapper into a tight knot.
“But I wasn’t out yet and had no fucking clue about her. It took months till she told me she was gay. Those were a long couple of months.”
Alvarez smiled fondly at the memory and paused and looked up at the blur of people walking past.
“Why did you wait?” Jean avoided her gaze, content with ignoring the way her hazel eyes lit up with warmth at his attention.
“Well, I guess I wasn’t even thinking about anyone else. It was probably stupid since I didn’t know if I had a chance with her, but it’s one of those things where you just know that what you have-whatever it is, like I was on my best behavior, let me tell you, so she didn’t realize how far gone I was- but even when it was just our friendship, it was something I couldn’t give up on. I couldn’t imagine being with anyone else, so I stuck with it. I was expecting to get hurt. I really was, but-,” She took a breath and smiled, “but then she kissed me first and I cried. I was so happy.”
“And then it was easy?”
“Well, relationships are never easy, but yeah. It was easier in the sense we were both on the same page.”
“You two seem happy.”
Alvarez leaned away as the waiter placed their food down with a smile and Jean quieted.
He didn’t answer and took a bite of the chicken and rice, wincing as Alvarez’s silver wear clanged on the table as she unrolled them. She took a bite of her meal and swallowed loudly, “So, who are you betting becomes captain next year?”
Jean took another bite and Alvarez didn’t wait for an answer before she rattled off her guesses while he listened.
He didn’t speak up much the rest of the dinner.
Jean returned to an empty dorm room. Alvarez had invited him to her room to hang out, but they both knew he’d refuse. Despite her wild antics and lack of filter, Jean respected the other backliner. She was tough and played the game with a focus that had surprised him at first. She had his back and that was a new feeling to get used to.
He showered and took to reading a book in bed. Jeremy came back around ten. Jean gave him a little nod as he walked into the room, but didn’t speak.
Jeremy looked content and relaxed as he sat on the bed, leaning down as he untied his shoes.
“How was dinner with Alvarez?”
“Good. How was…”
Jeremy blushed and Jean felt as though it was an answer to a question he hadn’t meant to ask.
“Oh, good. Ben’s nice. I think we might see each other again next week.”
Jean nodded and Jeremy slowly sat up. He looked nervous.
“Jean, is this going to be weird for you? Because I’m gay.”
He bit his lip as he waited, gauging Jean’s response. Jean was calm and answered in a firm voice, all the while meeting Jeremy’s embarrassed gaze.
“No. It’s not an issue.”
Jeremy released the breath he’d been holding, “Great.”
He laughed, “I honestly was a little nervous. You never know when it comes to sports and I didn’t know how the Ravens were-,”
“The Ravens have always been concerned about appearances. They didn’t want bad press.”
Jean shrugged, “Besides, I’ve known you were gay since that party.”
Jean gave him a confused look, “You were- Were you trying to hide it?”
“I mean no, I just…you never mentioned it.”
If Jeremy looked close enough, he might have seen something akin to pity in Jean’s gray eyes. But the image was lost when Jean rolled them.
“There’s a lot I don’t mention.”
Jeremy gave a breathless laugh, “Maybe you should start…mentioning things.”
Like how you’ve changed, at least on some level, over the past few weeks. Like how my family has ties to one of the most powerful criminal families in the world and I was used as a bargaining chip? Or how I owe them eighty percent of my income after I graduate?
“Good try, Knox, but no.”
Jeremy huffed and started angrily.
He exhaled, letting a quiet “Fuck. Never mind,” and stood and walked to the bathroom.
He paused at the doorway, his brown eyes were stormy with uncertainty, “If you want to start talking one day. I’ll be there.
Jean glanced up sharply and stared at Jeremy until the door to the bathroom shut. Jean felt his breathing quicken and vision blur. He squeezed his eyes tight and forced himself to breathe at an even pace.
He could do this on his own. He had to prove it to himself that he could.
"We never believe we’re beautiful, no matter how many times we hear it. We never believe it until someone says it in the right way."
- Francine Prose
They had a week before they faced the Ravens for the second time on their court this season.
It was their weekend off and they were hanging out in Owen and Eli’s room, a suite, just a building over from theirs. Owen and Jean sat on the couch, watching a movie Eli had on before Jeremy asked if he could get a quick interview in with Eli.
Seated in the bedroom, their voices were barely distinguishable over the TV playing.
Owen turned to Jean, “Jeremy rope you in for his video for his senior project yet?”
Owen chuckled and took a sip of his coffee, “All in a matter of time, man.”
Jean glanced at the closed door and remembered Eli’s request.
“How’s Eli as a roommate?”
He didn’t expect Owen to give him a sly look and shake his head.
“You don’t have to play it so cool, Jean. I know he asked to room with you. I’ll be straight with you…Eli’s a fantastic guy and an awesome roommate. Pretty quiet, but communicates when it matters, does his fair share of cleaning, respects the sock on the door.”
Owen shrugged, “I mean obviously I love the guy and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t so I’m a little biased, but I think you two wouldn’t have a problem next year.”
Jean nodded and asked quietly, “What’s he studying?”
Owen smiled, “Oh he’s doing his undergrad in sociology so he can get his masters in social work. I’m telling you, Moreau. He’s a good guy. No drama.”
He continued, “This is me telling you that you should say yes.”
“Thanks for the unbiased advice.”
The door to the bedroom opened and the Jeremy and Eli walked back out into the living room.
Owen laughed, “Knox. I like this guy.” He pointed at Jean, “There’s just…” he scrunched up his nose, “I don’t know, something about him that’s like equally terrifying and loveable at the same time.”
Jean did not look impressed and Eli’s eyes were wide.
“Wow, Owen. Did you spike the coffee this morning?”
“I didn’t, but I should have.”
Jeremy grinned, but his phone rang before he could comment.
After a few seconds, Jeremy’s content expression turned wild, “Is she ok?”.
The others quieted and glanced his way.
“Shit man,” Owen whispered, “Pete’s his little brother.”
Jean shot Jeremy a glance. He looked tense as he bit his lip and he listened, “Is Charlie with you guys?”
He started to gather his things, “Ok, I’m heading out now. Just hang in there and I’ll be there soon.”
Jeremy hung up with a sigh, and looked at the stern faces of his friends.
“That was my brother. My mom got in a car accident and they’re in the ER right now. I think she’s fine, but Pete’s only seventeen and he’s got Charlie with him. I don’t know how long I’ll-,”
“You should be with them. You can call us if you need anything.”
Eli interrupted quietly, noting Jeremy’s fleeting glance at Jean, who was sitting still and silent.
At his words, Jeremy nodded and headed to the door.
Jean suspected that he’d lose the look of panic the instant he stepped through doors to the ER. Even Jeremy, who prized authenticity to a degree that left Jean gritting his teeth, even he wore masks in front of the people he loved.
“Jean, will you come with me?”
Jeremy was half out the door when he asked.
Jean looked up at the blond worrying his lower lip between his teeth. Wordlessly, Jean nodded and stood.
When he met Jeremy at the door, the other man looked relieved.
As they headed to Jeremy’s Jeep and started to drive, it was that look that Jean replayed over and over.
When they walked into the ER, Jean felt a small bit of satisfaction. His prediction was correct.
There was no fear in Jeremy’s expression, only a focus on the problem ahead. Jeremy walked in and scanned the faces in the waiting room. He sighed and smiled at the teen reading to the small girl sitting on his knee. The brown-haired boy glanced up and the girl looked away from the page to Jeremy and pushed off the boy’s lap and ran over.
He crouched low and picked up the girl. Blond curls framed her plump face and she hugged Jeremy with a weak grip as they walked to meet.
“Hey pumpkin. You being good?”
“Knew it. Hey Pete, how’s mom?”
Jeremy leaned over and gave his younger brother hug. The boy glanced over at Jean curiously, but answered, “She’s fine. A few bruises and stiches. The cars going to need some work.”
“We’ll worry about that later. Can we go see her?”
“Yeah, I just didn’t want to take Charlie back there.”
Jeremy nodded and shifted the girl’s weight on his hip, “Jean, do you mind?”
Jean shook his head, “That’s fine,” and he took a seat and watched as Jeremy lowered his sister down in the seat next to him.
“Charlie, this is my good friend Jean. He’s going to keep you company while Pete and I go see mom, ok?”
She smiled, “Ok!”
“Ok then.” Jeremy looked over her and passed Jean a grateful look.
“Go. We’ll be fine.”
The brothers walked to the front desk and were soon escorted back through a pair of double doors.
Jean looked down at the girl and found her staring up at him. She studied him for a minute before she pointed at his cheek, “Why do you have a three on your face?”
Brown eyes stared back expectantly and he took a breath, “Someone put it there as a joke.”
“Oh. Does it come off?”
“That doesn’t seem very funny.”
She grew quiet, a stern look on her face. She glanced up at him suspiciously, “You sound kind of different when you talk.”
“I’m French. I have an accent.”
“Do you still speak French?”
“Not as often anymore, but sometimes.”
Charlie smiled, “Can you teach me something in French?”
Jeremy walked out back into the waiting room a half an hour later to find Jean leaning over the arm of the chair as he counted on his fingers alongside Charlie. His expression was relaxed and content.
Jeremy wanted to commit the sight to memory. The smile playing on his lips and the little bit of life in his eyes softened the hard, beautiful lines of his profile.
As he approached them, he heard Jean’s quiet voice slowly counting in French. Jeremy hated to interrupt.
Jean looked up and sat back, “How’s your mother?”
Charlie glanced up eagerly waiting for Jeremy’s answer.
“She’s fine. They stitched her up and nothings broken, so that’s good.” He exhaled and smiled again, “They’ll be out soon. Pete’s just going to have to take the bus to school while mom borrows his car in the meantime.”
He lifted Charlie up and took a seat next to Jean.
“Jean has an accent because he’s French.”
Jeremy laughed and Jean’s mouth twitched up in a small smile. Jeremy couldn’t help but stare.
“I like it.”
He glanced down at his little sister and hugged her tight.
Jean sat quietly and listened as the two chatted. The bustle of the waiting room drowned out the sound of their voices.
His wounds were always treated behind closed doors- underground and out of sight. He let himself zone out and observe the bodies around him.
Jeremy’s eyes wandered and caught Jean’s a few times as he kept Charlie busy.
A few minutes later, Pete walked out with a woman. She was blond and younger than Jean had expected. Her blue eyes were tired, but warm. She looked calm even though she walked with a stiffness to her gait that Jean could relate to. The gash along her temple was still a little puffy, but neatly stitched. The scar would hardly be noticeable.
Jeremy shut the book he had started reading and held Charlie’s hand as they walked over to meet her. Jean tried to hang back, but Jeremy waved him over.
“Mom, this is my friend, Jean. Jean, this is my mom- Leah Knox.”
Jean held out his hand and Leah shook it firmly with a pleasant smile, “So good to finally meet you, Jean. Thanks for coming out with Jeremy.”
Jean nodded and gave her a small smile, “Nice to meet you too, Ma’am.”
Leah laughed, “Oh he’s polite, but I’m not surprised. Jere’s told me wonderful things about you.”
Jean passed Jeremy, who was blushing furiously, a wry look, “Well then he’s been overly generous. How are you feeling?”
“Oh, I’ll be ok, but that’s sweet of you to ask.” She shoved the papers in her hand into her purse and reached out to take Charlie’s hand with a smile.
“Jeremy, I’m really ok. Why don’t you two go back to campus and Pete or I will just text if we need anything.”
Worry etched its way into Jeremy’s brow and he shifted, glancing at Pete and his mother, “Are you sure? I can always drop Jean off and come back home for the rest of the weekend. I don’t mind.”
Leah’s stopped shuffling the contents of her purse and her expression softened, “I know you don’t sweetheart, and I love you for it. But you don’t have to take care of me anymore.” She squeezed his arm, “I’m completely fine and it’s time Pete earned his keep.”
She nudged her other son who rolled his eyes, but he waved off Jeremy’s look of concern, “Dude, it’s fine.”
Jeremy sighed, “Alright.”
He leaned over to hug his family and stooped low to squeeze Charlie tight.
“Good seeing you guys. Feel better, Mom.”
“I will.” Leah smiled warmly at her son and Jean. “Nice meeting you, Jean.”
They shuffled out of the lobby and through the automatic doors to the valet services podium. Jeremy handed over his ticket and waited with his hands in his pockets as the man went with Jeremy’s key to fetch the Jeep.
Jean glanced at Jeremy with a wry look.
Jeremy laughed, the tip of his ears turning pink, “Shut up.”
Jean nodded, but his smirk still lingered.
Jeremy turned to him with a smile, “And I wasn’t being overly generous, asshole.”
“Right, because I have such a pleasant personality.”
Jean’s words dripped with sarcasm.
“Well, generally speaking no, but you tend to keep us all on our toes.”
The Jeep rolled up in front of them and their banter eased into a comfortable quiet that persisted as they drove. Rather than take the turn back to campus, Jeremy kept driving. Jean didn’t comment on it and Jeremy didn’t explain. He didn’t have to because before long they parked in front of a beach. Jeremy shut off the engine and the sound of the waves beckoned.
It felt like coming home.
Jeremy glanced at Jean and his voice was kind, “I realized on the way over, you’ve been here for months and I’ve never taken you to the beach.”
Jean’s throat felt dry, “Can we…”
They walked a short way to the sand and Jeremy immediately took off his shoes. Jean followed suit.
When his feet touched the warm sand, he couldn’t help but reach down to scoop up a pile in his hand and he let the grains sift through his hands. As they got closer to the water, Jean felt something in him stir. A longing and a desperate desire to cling to a memory.
His parents had often taken him to the beaches of Cassis to swim in the rich turquoise sea underneath the towering limestone formations. He floated under a clear blue sky. He felt safe and sure of his life.
Jean hadn’t felt that way in a long time. He walked into the water and took a breath. He closed his eyes at the smell of the salty air, waves lapping at his ankles. Jean didn’t know how long he stood there in the water with the sun setting before him. He didn’t know and he didn’t care.
The sky was a blur of orange and pink when he walked back onto the white sand. Jeremy was sitting a few feet away with a look of utter content and he smiled at Jean when he sat down next to him.
“I love this place.” Jeremy dug his fingers into the sand and he sighed, “I have to sign with L.A. That’s just the way it is.”
Jean kept his eyes on the waves seeping higher and higher into the sand before them.
“I think you’re the only one trying to stop you.”
Jeremy laughed and Jean almost felt like leaning into the sound.
“You’re probably right.”
He glanced at Jeremy and in the bright, fleeting sunshine his freckles stood out.
“You have a good family.”
Jeremy stilled and waited.
“They’re good people. It isn’t wrong to want to stay near them.”
The weight of his words felt tangible and Jeremy knew he’d remember them over time. Jean’s quiet words were thoughtful and kind. They tugged on his heart in as if pulling him back to a place he was trying to run from.
Jeremy swallowed and slowly reached out to lace his fingers with Jean’s.
Jean flinched and glanced at Jeremy with surprise.
“Is this ok?” Jeremy asked, his words a whisper and an abbreviation of everything he really wanted to ask.
They sat listening to the waves mix with the hum of traffic. The sun was a mere sliver ahead and the colors blurred. Jean’s hand protested and Jeremy let it go before Jean could, but he went for his phone and took a quick picture of the sunset.
He grinned at Jean, “Sorry. Can’t resist.”
Jean shrugged and hugged his knees. He thought back to earlier in the day. It didn’t have to be him that Jeremy asked to accompany him. He could have stayed with Eli and Owen.
“Why didn’t you ask your boyfriend to go with you today?”
Jeremy looked at him surprise, “My boyfr-, oh you mean Ben?”
Jean nodded, confused by Jeremy’s look of shock. Jeremy cleared his throat and a blush crept to his cheeks.
“Well, Ben’s not really my boyfriend. It’s a uh, pretty casual thing. I mean I like him, he’s really sweet and a nice guy, but we’re not like ‘together together’.”
He brushed off the sand from his hands and rested them over his knee.
“Besides, it’s different.”
Jeremy sighed, “Yeah. I mean I trust you and you’re my friend. I’m happy it was you who came.”
Jean buried his fingers back into the sand and said the closest thing to honesty he could muster.
“I’m not…good at this.”
“At what? Expressing things?”
Jeremy smiled at the hint of annoyance in his voice.
Jeremy brushed a shoulder against his, “That’s ok. You’re doing just fine.”
Jean laughed, but it was dry and lifeless. He shook his head and gave Jeremy a cold stare, “You don’t know what I’ve done…what’s happened. You wouldn’t be able to look at me if you knew everything.”
He didn’t dare look at Jeremy, but a gentle hand underneath his chin was more convincing than his will.
“Look at me.”
He did and he saw the Jeremy who sat by his side when the memories clamped down on his reality, constricting and merciless. His eyes were kind and his voice soft.
“I would and I’d still call you my friend. You can trust me on that one.”
Jeremy pulled back and looked back out to water and he smiled as the blip of sun faded once and for all. They sat for a few more minutes in the dark.
“You want to head back?”
They stood and brushed off the sand and carried their shoes back up to the Jeep. When he laid down in his bed a few hours later, he thought about why he had agreed to go. True, he preferred Jeremy’s company to his other teammates, but he wasn’t particularly fond of hospitals or the idea of meeting families.
It had boiled down to loyalty.
Jean knew all about loyalty. It could be bought and it could be earned. Rarely was it deserved. The thought made his stomach flutter. He felt as though giving Jeremy this betrayed the few pieces of himself that had survived over the years. It was most certainly a gamble and he was parting ways with the last of his chips.
It terrified him.
Jean closed his eyes and remembered the sound of the waves.
The swell and the fall. His breathing slowed and with the memory of floating on a foreign sea, he drifted to sleep.
I just really liked the idea of Jeremy having a little sister ;A;
Chapter 10: A foolish impulse
"I must endure & endure & still endure."
- Tennessee William
The night before the championship game against the Ravens, Jean hardly slept. His trembling hands hadn’t steadied after he woke, even after Jeremy held them. Quietly he reassured him-words of comfort that rang dull to his ears. His nerves sang and his heart raced.
Jeremy’s well-meaning pleas to “Breathe” lead Jean to growl out a harsh, “I’m trying” between his shuddering breaths.
He remembered scooting to the edge of the bed and hanging his head down. Closing his eyes, he mumbled the words like a prayer, “Il est mort. Il est mort. Il est mort.”
Jeremy asked if it was ok to touch him and he hadn’t answered, the words stuck in his throat. He felt like he couldn’t breathe.
“What do you need, Jean?”
He needed sleep. He needed space. He needed a distraction.
Jean raised his head and looked at Jeremy. His gaze flickered from his lips to his brown eyes. They were wide with concern and a flutter of something else that Jean didn’t recognize. It’d be frightening if it was someone other than Jeremy sitting next to him.
His blond hair was sticking up at odd angles from sleep and there was something odd about seeing it on someone who looked so distressed. Jean wanted to laugh about it, but he couldn’t bring himself to.
Jean wanted to lean in, just to see if Jeremy would too.
It was a foolish impulse.
Jean stood up and walked over to the closet to pull on his shoes, “I’m going to the stadium.”
Jeremy straightened, “It’s five in the morning.”
“Just go back to sleep.”
While Jean pocketed his phone, Jeremy scrambled off the bed and exclaimed angrily, “Fuck that, Moreau.”
He shucked off his pajama pants and changed into the pair of shorts on his dresser before joining him by the door, “I’m not letting you walk across campus at five am like this.”
“Like what?” Jean asked flatly.
“While you’re upset.”
Jean narrowed his eyes, “That’s why I’m going.”
“Ok. I’ll drive.”
Jean shook his head and closed his eyes to block out the sight of Jeremy, unconcerned. He wanted to argue or just shove the other man out of his way, but he was exhausted and didn’t have the fight in him. He opened them and saw that Jeremy’s expression had softened.
“Fine.” He said dryly and opened the door for them both.
Jean didn’t know how long he stood throwing the ball against the wall. With each dull thud, the sound of the ball sounded more and more like a heartbeat. Slow and steady. Controlled and precise. Familiar and real.
Jeremy hadn’t joined him on the court, choosing instead to sit on the bench. He knew he’d already pushed it when he invited himself along. The sound of Rhemann sitting down next to him drew his attention away from Jean.
Rhemann studied Jean for a minute before he shifted his focus to Jeremy.
Jeremy swallowed and nodded to his coach, “Yeah. He had a rough night. Wanted to come in early.”
Rhemann raised his eyebrows, “And by early you mean about twelve hours before your call time.”
A small chuckle escaped and Jeremy ran a hand through his hair, “Yeah. That’d be it.”
He sighed as Jean continued to mechanically swing the racquet to catch the ball as it bounced back to him, “He seems better though. More relaxed.”
“Remember what I said to you earlier in the summer? About you not being responsible for him?” Rhemann’s voice was stern, but his delivery lacked any true bite.
“I remember.” Jeremy swallowed thickly, “Given everything, I think he’s doing pretty well.”
“I agree, but how are you doing? You’ve got one of your last games tonight as captain and not to be rude, son, but you look like shit.”
Jeremy grinned, “Thanks Coach, but I’m ok. Really. Just concerned about a friend.”
His words were met with a grunt, “I didn’t know Moreau had any friends.”
Jeremy winked, “Well, none that he would admit.”
Rhemann laughed and the sound was bittersweet.
Jeremy looked at the man who had mentored him over the past four years of his life and felt his gut clench. He was on his own next year. His decision to play for the L.A team was all but official except for signing the final paperwork after he graduated. He wasn’t the same person as he was when he started at USC and by no means the same player.
He had Rhemann to thank for that.
“Coach. I just wanted to say thanks. For everything.’
It felt trivial to try to put to words that even at his age, Jeremy felt like he had finally gained something akin to a father figure in his life. It felt cliché, but hardly cheap.
Rhemann smiled and clapped a hand on his shoulder, “We’ll miss you, Knox. But you won’t be far. Busy, but not too far. Though you should probably make yourself scarce. Prisha won’t want you around, you’d steal all her thunder as captain.”
Jeremy threw his head back and laughed, “That sounds like an accurate prediction.”
With a content sigh Rhemann stood, “Well, I better get back to it. Make sure he doesn’t wear himself out. We need him tonight.”
Before he turned to leave, Rhemann paused, “And Jeremy, if you see those Ravens coming after you the same way tonight, push back.”
Jeremy’s eyes widened, “Coach?”
“Those refs were blind the last game and if they don’t make the right calls, I want you to push back. I know you won’t take it too far. God knows I should have just benched you the last time or called the game, because that was a blatant attack.”
“I’m alright though.”
“I know, but you could’ve been seriously injured and in the end-it’s just a game.”
Jeremy nodded, “I understand.”
“Good. Now go make that kid take a break.”
At Jeremy’s insistence, Jean stopped and followed Jeremy through a half hour of stretches. It was lunch time when they returned to the lounge and Rhemann pulled out a couple of sandwiches from the fridge before returning to his phone calls.
“Are you feeling better?” Jeremy asked, his voice muffled as he chewed.
“Yes.” Jean replied before he bit into his own sandwich.
“Good. You think the Ravens will pull the same shit tonight?”
Jean raised his eyebrows and set down his sandwich, brushing his hands off over the plate, “I doubt it. I would be extremely surprised if they weren’t punished after their behavior. The stakeholders of the Ravens have not been fond of the way they’ve been drawing attention to themselves in the past few years.”
Jeremy looked sick, “Punished?”
Jean shrugged, “I doubt it could be anything too drastic with the spotlight that’s on them since Riko’s death.”
Jean narrowed his eyes, “It’s what they deserve after what happened to you.”
Jeremy shook his head, “No. I don’t want that. I would never ask for that. There’s always some risk with full contact sports I kn-,”
He was interrupted by Jean’s scoff, “Do you remember Seth Gordon from PSU?”
Jeremy nodded and leaned forward, he brushed his arm at the goosebumps that rose at the memory.
“It wasn’t an accident.” Jean stated calmly, gauging Jeremy’s reaction. He stared at him and Jean stared back. Jeremy shivered and shook his head.
“That can’t be.”
“Trust me. I know.”
And Jean prepared himself for disgust to unfold and for harsh words. He was dancing around a truth about himself, but Jean kept his expression closed and his words cold.
“That is just one example of the kind of people tied to the Ravens. Once they buy you, they own you. There’s no going back, no matter the distance.”
Jeremy stared at Jean. His wide eyes were full of fear, though Jean sensed it was more for his well-being and not fear for himself. All Jean saw sadness and pity.
“This is why I didn’t want to tell you anything.” He sneered and hissed, “I don’t need your pity.”
Jeremy was quiet.
He let his eyes roam around the room and they settled on the Latin motto painted over the doorway. The information that Jean decided to share with him was merely a preview of the hurt and darkness from his past. He needed to tread carefully with his response if he ever wanted to know more.
His gaze settled back on Jean who waited patiently.
“I’m sad for you, Jean. I know you don’t need it, but you have it anyway. I’m sad that you were forced to be surrounded by such people.”
At that Jean laughed again. It was a harsh sound and it clawed at Jeremy’s heart.
Jean leaned forward, a wild look in his eyes, “You don’t understand what I’m telling you, Knox. I might as well be one of them. Did I want to do the things they made me do? No. But I did them. And that’s what counts.”
Jeremy’s expression hardened and Jean grinned a cruel smile. This was what he had been waiting for.
“What would have happened if you didn’t do what they asked, Jean?”
Jean’s grin faded and a scowl took its place.
Jeremy sat back, “That’s what counts Jean. You already told me you didn’t want to do what they made you and it’s too far complex an issue to put to rest over sandwiches, but I’m not going to let you push me out. It’s not going to happen.”
“You’re-you’re,” Jean sputtered and stared at him.
“I’m what?” Jeremy grinned, “Ridiculous? Annoying? An idiot who talks too much?” Jeremy took a sip of water and watched with amusement as Jean’s brow furrowed.
Jeremy laughed, “I’ll take it.”
After lunch Jeremy sprawled out on the large couch and turned on the TV. Jean stayed seated at the table and collected his thoughts. From the speakers, Jean expected to hear the frivolous banter of talkshow hosts or an ESPN reporter breaking down tonight’s game. Instead he heard a British man narrating about Mount Everest.
Jean rolled his eyes at the sound of the documentary. He wasn’t sure why he was still surprised. He listened to drone of the man’s voice and a few minutes later Jean heard the faint sound of a snore. Jean stood and glanced over at the sleeping striker. He looked at peace and Jean felt a faint spark of jealousy. Jean settled in one of the chairs tucked away in the corner and listened to the documentary while he checked Renee’s latest text.
Renee: Good luck tonight Jean! I wish I could be there to root for you in person, but I’m looking forward to seeing you (and playing against you) soon.
Jean: Thank you. It should be an interesting game.
The text bubble lit up as she started to text back.
Renee: Definitely. How are you doing?
She always asked the question, but it always seemed more like an invitation that he was gradually learning how to accept.
Jean: It was a rough night.
Renee: I’m sorry to hear that. And how are you now?
Jean’s thumbs hovered over the screen. He felt better. The change of environment and focusing on the simple task of catching the ball had successfully diverted his attention from the content of his dreams. Jean glanced over at the sleeping captain and thought back to the urge from the early morning. He had wanted to chase away the nightmares with the touch of lips and shuddering breaths. It was more difficult to categorize those feelings than his fear.
It was a lesson in control.
Letting out the breath he’d been holding, Jean typed his reply.
He paused and typed on the question he would ask her if she was with him in person.
Jean: Do they know about your past?
He set down his phone and waited. To say he was surprised when Renee confided in him about her life before Palmetto would be an understatement. It seemed like an impossibility that the girl who seemed like the epitome of all that could be good, had her own scars. She was the closest thing to hope he had seen in a long time.
Renee: A few do. It took time to slowly start talking about it with them. For me it came down to trusting the other person. I saw it as a way to have some control over what was done. My story is my own and that helps.
Jean read her words a few times before he pocketed the phone.
It was something to consider.
Voices carried from outside in the hall and the door opened revealing Laila and Alvarez. They paused midsentence at the sight of a napping Jeremy. Laila laughed and waved at Jean while Alvarez took out her phone and started to lean close to Jeremy.
Holding the phone out in front of her she kneeled next to her sleeping captain and whispered, “It’s the first night of championships and here we have Jeremy Knox, captain of the Trojans, put to sleep by his prized nature documentaries.”
Jeremy blearily opened his eyes and stretched, “Fuck off Alvarez.”
She grinned and lowered her phone, “That’s not very polite. Where’s that award-winning sportsmanship, Sunshine?”
He closed his eyes and flipped her off.
Alvarez gave a hearty laugh and stood to face Jean, “Jean. Ready to kick ass tonight?”
She smiled and took a seat next to Jeremy who shoved his feet onto her lap. Laila plopped down next to her and grabbed the clicker.
“No, but honestly can we change the channel?”
Jeremy made no objections and groaned as he sat up. His eyes fell on Jean and he smiled though Jean didn’t miss the question in his eyes.
Are you ok?
Jean gave a curt nod and watched the ESPN anchors discuss their chances, only a few hours away.
“And that’s what’s so exciting, Mitch. With these two teams, you never really know what is going to happen.”
“Now Lorie, I don’t know-,”
The woman smiled and listened to her partner. He held up his hands and shrugged, “Yes, the Trojans have been having an excellent season-their only loss being to the Ravens. But, the Ravens have been going through some major changes, even with the loss of Moreau, I can see them taking this championship game. They have the experience.”
“What a crock of bullshit.” Alvarez exclaimed.
With a huff, she switched the channel and tossed the clicker on the couch before she stood. Glancing at her watch, she pointed at Jean.
“We have an hour before we have to be changed. Want to show me that feint again?”
Jean nodded and followed Alvarez onto the court. Laila and Jeremy watched from the sidelines.
Jeremy smiled knowingly as Alvarez mimicked Jean’s movements. They were not as fluid as his, but she came pretty close. Some people needed stillness to invoke a sense of calm, others-like them-needed action.
They practiced for another thirty minutes and then changed early. Eli and Prisha were the first to arrive at the call time and the rest trickled in after.
Jean watched with a weary gaze as they all gathered in the lounge. When Rhemann came out of his office, everyone quieted. He gave them a fond smile.
“I am so proud of each and every one of you. We’ve had an amazing season and you should all feel good about the work you’ve done. Play smart tonight. Keep them on their toes and trust yourselves. You’re ready for this win. Jeremy, anything to say?”
Everyone turned and looked at their captain.
He smiled, “I think Coach said it perfectly. Let’s go have some fun.”
Jean rolled his eyes and followed the team out to the court. The crowd cheered at their entrance onto the court. His eyes darted around the crowd. Red and gold met black in the sea of bodies. Jean had no love for the spectators. He glanced up at the box seats and he felt the flutter of rage pass through him. Ichirou was probably already seated and patiently waiting.
The feeling of a palm on his back, barely touching yet still present, drew his attention away from the crowd. Jeremy was at his side and his eyes were as warm as his touch.
“You doing ok, Jean?”
“Good.” His fingers trailed over Jean’s jersey before they fell to his side, “I’ll be watching your back tonight. We all will.”
“Perhaps we should be watching yours.”
Jeremy laughed and his pace crept into a light jog that the team fell into easily, “Maybe, but I’m not worried.”
Jean quieted when they passed the Ravens stretching. They glared at him and he let his eyes pass over their anger stricken faces to the bounce of Prisha’s braid in front of him. Contrary to what his teammates might have thought, he wasn’t nervous.
Playing Exy was always was the one certainty in his life and not even the animosity between the opposing team could distract him from that.
They warmed up for a few more minutes before the whistle was blown and the strikers met in the middle of the court.
Jeremy offered the Raven’s captain a handshake. There was a pause and for a moment it seemed to the crowd and other players that the other captain was going to refuse Jeremy’s offer of good will. That was until the woman took his hand and gave him a tight-lipped smile, murmuring something between her teeth that Jean couldn’t catch.
Jean smirked at the sound of Jeremy’s barking laugh which, judging by the woman’s expression, was not the reaction she had been anticipating. She gritted her teeth and followed suit when Jeremy sunk low-waiting for the ref to blow the whistle.
The whistle blew and the Raven’s striker sent the ball soaring down the court towards the Trojans. Before Owen could intercept it, another Raven shouldered past him and took the ball, sprinting towards Laila and the goal.
Jean started running.
When he saw the approach of the striker, readying for another pass, Jean blocked her and stole the ball, hurling it back towards Jeremy. He caught it easily and with Owen hovering on the outer edge of the court, he went for the Raven’s goal.
Their goalie reached and missed.
The sound of the buzzer rang and the crowd rose to their feet and screams of delight filled the stadium.
Jeremy grinned and slapped Owen on the back as they jogged back to the center of the court. Jean met Jeremy’s gaze and gave him the barest hint of the smile. At that, Jeremy’s smile grew wider and his eyes lit up.
The Raven’s tried to score three more times before they made their first goal. Laila stood up from her crouch and rolled her shoulders back. She looked unfazed about the goal and she gave Jean and Alvarez a thumb’s up.
Alvarez’s smile was almost a snarl, “That’s my girl.”
She tapped the end of her racquet on the floor and grinned at the backliner down court.
The Trojans had a 3-point lead by halftime. Jeremy drank from his water bottle and stared at the score board with a glimmer of pride in his eyes.
“So far so good Moreau, wouldn’t you say?”
Jean took a sip of his own water and eyed the score of 5-2 and kept his tone controlled, “I’d say it’s a little too early to celebrate. We’ve had this lead and lost it in the end.”
Jeremy nodded and laughed, “Alright, alright. Point taken.”
Serena who sat next Jeremy shook her head and rolled her eyes at Jean, “You are such a downer.”
“I’m a realist.”
Jean wouldn’t admit it, but there was something different about tonight. He didn’t believe in superstition, but there was something tangible in that difference and he wanted to guard it for fear of losing it.
In the locker room, Rhemann smiled at their determined expressions, “Don’t get sloppy now.”
They didn’t. The Raven’s pushed forward, struggling to get past Jean and Alvarez’s defensive line in the second period, and the Trojan’s pushed back. Jean’s heart raced when the first yellow card was thrown against the Ravens for checking Serena against the wall mid catch of the ball.
They were the ones who were getting sloppy.
With five minutes left the Ravens scored again on Eli, but it didn’t make a difference.
At the sound of the final whistle, Jean’s lungs sang with relief as he slowed and came to a stop next to Jeremy.
They both stared up at the red numbers with glazed eyes. With a score of 8-5, the Trojans had won. The roar of the crowd was numbingly loud and Jeremy whooped. He laughed as the team rushed in around him and Jean.
Jean slipped out of the huddle and attempted to walk away, but Laila snagged his jersey and tugged him back towards the outer edge.
She smiled, “Now don’t be trying to escape just yet, Moreau. You play with us, you celebrate with us. You should know that by now.”
Jeremy pulled away from Sam and hugged Laila tight, “You did a damn good job with that goal.”
Laila ruffled his hair and Jeremy let her go. Her eyes widened as Alvarez jumped in her arms and kissed her thoroughly. Laila gripped her girlfriend’s legs and held her up.
Jeremy laughed happily and the sound demanded Jean’s attention. It sounded light and free and it was everything Jean had ever longed for.
They lined up to shake hands with the Ravens. Jean watched as they moved down the line. It was purely for show and both teams knew it. The Trojans were the only ones to comment as they shook hands, a “Nice game” and a “good job tonight” met with silence and a heavy stare.
When they got to Jean they his hand in a painfully tight and sneered. He matched their sneers with a small, cool smile.
As they exited the court, Jeremy was pulled aside for interviews and before Jean knew it he was being herded over by another reporter. He eyed the microphone distastefully, before he met the woman’s eager gaze.
“Jean, how is this victory feeling for you right now as a Trojan?”
“It has to have been a wonderful experience working with such a talented team and charismatic captain. How has this year been for you overall?”
The woman laughed at his one word answers and it sounded fake. She leaned in and rested a hand on his arm. His fingers twitched at his side.
“Now, Jean, last year Kevin confirmed that his injury to his hand was not due to an accident. Do you have any perspective to offer about that event? What was being a Raven really like?”
Jean stared at the woman. His muscles felt tense and he knew he was doing a poor job at maintaining a look of calm. Anger radiated from him and the woman’s cheerful expression faltered.
That is, it did until Jeremy stepped into the frame and slung an arm around Jean.
He laughed and the woman seemed to take a breath.
“Now Shelia, Jean’s a Trojan now and it’s has been an amazing experience having him join us.”
Jeremy rambled on for a minute or two and the reporter hung onto every word. While he spoke, he gently gave Jean’s shoulder a squeeze.
The interview quickly ended and Jeremy drew him into the locker room, guiding Jean till his back hit the wall. Most of the team were still on the court and Jeremy breathed a sigh of relief at the empty space.
Jean’s hands still trembled and his breathing was harsh.
Jeremy’s brown eyes were full of concern, but he smiled and spoke gently.
“Look at me, Jean.”
He tilted his head up and Jeremy brushed aside his dark hair, careful to avoid the fading white scar on his temple.
“You’re ok. You’re safe. They can’t hurt you anymore.”
Jean’s eyes closed and he tipped his head back against the wall. He blew out a breath and met Jeremy’s gaze when his breathing slowed.
It was more than mere politeness and it meant everything to Jeremy.
He nodded and left his hand trail down to Jean’s and he traced patterns over his skin. His words came out breathless, “Of course.”
Jeremy took in Jean’s grim expression and he knew that today had been hard for him. Harder than he had let on.
“Are you happy with your team? With this win?” Jean asked, his voice still rough.
The question surprised Jeremy and he nodded, dumbly.
“Yeah. Yeah I am. I’m proud.”
Jean nodded and focused on the grated space of the locker ahead of him.
Jeremy squeezed his hand and took a step towards him.
His gaze snapped back down to the blond.
“Am I what?”
There was so much want in his voice that Jean shook his head and gave him a small, sad smile, “Oh Jeremy.”
His laugh was quiet and without any heart, “It’s not that easy.
Jean’s lips pressed into a firm line and he let his gaze wander back across the room. Jeremy spoke with such hopefulness that Jean didn’t want to try and rise to meet. He sighed instead and let his own words numb old wounds.
“It never will be. Not for me.”
At that, Jeremy was silent. He brushed his thumb against the back of Jeans’ hand.
“I know that.”
Jeremy lifted his hand to Jean’s cheek, it hovered for a moment-giving him the chance to pull away. But Jean held his gaze as if daring him to touch. He was close enough for Jean to count the freckles on his skin, a galaxy of their own.
Jeremy repeated his words, “I know that, Jean. It’s ok.”
The kindness in his voice and the honest acceptance left Jean feeling as though a dam had burst. His shoulders slumped against the wall and the anger and fear left him. Jeremy rested his forehead against his.
It was silent, but for the sound of their breathing, mingling in the space between them. Jeremy’s eyes were closed and his hands, calloused and rough traced, Jean’s collarbone.
The sensation of Jeremy’s touch left Jean reeling. His body tensed with both fear and longing. It took everything in him to remain still, but there was no pain, only gentleness.
Enough to chase away the loneliness, enough to fill the silence. Enough that Jean leaned in ever so slightly. Jean felt, more than heard, Jeremy’s breath hitch when his fingers curled around the other man’s arm.
“I want-,” Jean ducked his head at the sound of his own voice and it only brought their lips closer.
“I want-,” He let out a frustrated growl and Jeremy’s lips parted.
“What do you want?”
The blond’s words were breathless and it only made Jean’s heart race.
Jean leaned down, filling the little space that was left between them-a half a breath away from a kiss.
A door slammed and the two sprang apart at the sounds of voices approaching.
Jeremy looked panicked and he quickly went to his locker to grab his towel and clothes.
Zoe and Bennett were chatting animatedly as they entered the locker room, still smiling from the win. They waved at their teammates and continued their conversation.
When Jeremy glanced over at Jean he was quietly gathering his own things. He envied the other man’s look of calm and ease.
The rest of the team followed in after the underclassman and Jean didn’t stick around, opting to head to the shower ahead of the crowd.
Jeremy swallowed thickly and felt his own breathing slow. He shut his locker door and leaned his head against the cool metal.
There was a clap on his back and his forehead pressed deeper into the metal. He glanced up to see Eli grinning.
“You look way too stressed for a guy who just won.”
Jeremy laughed, “Yeah.”
Eli raised his eyebrows, “Seriously, man. You good?”
“Yeah, definitely. Overwhelmed by it all.”
The other man nodded, “For sure. Look, let’s all get showered and go get some grub.”
When Jeremy walked into the showers, his eyes traveled over the scars on Jean’s back. He blushed and turned the faucet to cold.
Chapter 11: Fight On
"How I would like to believe in tenderness–"
- Sylvia Plath
It was late when they get back to the dorm. Jeremy trudged towards the elevator and leaned against the wall with a heavy sigh as they ascended. Jean stood silently next to him and was the first to leave when the doors opened. Jeremy followed him down the hall and into the room. His gait was lazy and he knew he was hardly buying himself any time.
Jean was seated on his bed and pulling off his shoes when Jeremy shut the door behind him. He glanced up and there was an understanding in his gray eyes.
Jeremy mirrored him and started to take off his shoes before throwing them in the direction of his closet. Jean gave him a disapproving look as he stood up and placed his neatly next to the other pairs.
He laid back down on his bed and started to text. His eyes didn’t move away from the screen until Jeremy cleared his throat.
Jean raised his eyebrows expectantly, but when Jeremy opened his mouth to speak he was only met with silence. He started to turn back to his phone when Jeremy spoke, stammering his words.
“I’m not-Fuck. I’m not usually this nervous about this kind of stuff.”
His gaze didn’t stray from his screen, even when Jeremy’s voice became desperate.
“Don’t pretend that didn’t just happen.”
Jeremy bit his lip and waited for Jean to look at him. He wasn’t surprised by Jean’s aloofness, but that didn’t stop it from hurting. He had felt Jean move closer. It hadn’t been one sided. Jeremy was certain of that and he wasn’t going to let the present muddy his memory of it.
“It was a moment of weakness. It won’t happen again. My apologies if I led you on.”
Jeremy grit his teeth at the other man’s bored tone.
“You really think that’s all it was?”
Jeremy didn’t bother hiding his frustration.
Setting his phone at his side, Jean finally looked at him. His eyes were steel and as hard as his words.
“Of course, what else would it have been?”
The sound of Jeremy’s laugh, usually bursting with joy and happiness, was bitter and harsh. It was that distinction that almost made Jean’s composure waver.
“You know, you’re a lot of things Jean, but I never took you to be a liar.”
Jean snarled and sat up, his fingers gripped the edge of the bed tight.
“What the fuck do you want me to say? That most days I’m barely holding on. That you’re the only person left who might give a shit and I should be grateful? That I hate that it’s your voice I need to hear to bring me back.”
His smile was cruel, “That I want to fuck you or that I want you to fuck me, even after everything they did to me.”
Jeremy flinched, but Jean continued, “You don’t know shit about me, Knox. I’ve hurt people and I’d hurt you too. I’m not going to be your goddamn pity project. I have nothing to give to you except pain and misery.”
The fight died in him and the exhaustion from the emotional turmoil of the day set in. Jean ended with a strangled, incredulous laugh, “I don’t know what you want from me?”
Staring at his hands, Jeremy swallowed before he met Jean’s gaze. He looked tired, but calm.
“I want you to finish your sentence. Finish what you started to say in the locker room.”
Jean scoffed and Jeremy waited. The seconds ticked by and Jeremy shook his head at Jean’s silence.
He swallowed and looked around his room.
He met Jean almost eight months ago. Eight long months. Jeremy wouldn’t say he gave anything up. He willingly shared this space and himself. He’d do it again. Resistance wasn’t something to be feared and he wasn’t afraid now, only frustrated.
His voice was hoarse and he surrendered. Jeremy wanted to fight and argue. To press his lips angrily to the man in front of him who spoke with such violent intent, but he stayed seated. His nails bit into the palm of his hand and he continued.
“I don’t know everything, but I at least know some shit about you Jean. I’d elaborate, but I’m tired as hell.
His expression was fierce and Jean had to guess at the emotion behind his weary gaze. Something close to devotion.
“I care about you and I’m sorry I’m attracted to you. It’s not like I fucking planned that. I don’t care if you get angry or yell, but don’t try to push me away. Not after everything.”
Jean wouldn’t look at him and Jeremy kept talking, “I told you before I’m not going anywhere and I meant it. I’m not looking for you to give me anything and I sure as fuck don’t want a goddamn thank you. I just want you to live your life and find something that keeps you going.”
He swallowed and paused, “And if you truly don’t feel anything for me then I will accept that and nothing will change. But if there’s something there then please don’t push me away. Please.” Jeremy’s voice broke, “When you’re ready we can talk about it.”
He didn’t wait for a response. Instead, he turned out the light and rolled onto his side, away from Jean.
It took hours for Jean to fall asleep.
The rest of campus was still celebrating and reeling with excitement from the victory when the two men woke the next morning.
Jean expected Jeremy to give him the cold shoulder. What he got instead, was space and quiet. Jeremy was hardly tiptoeing around him, but he wasn’t stupid enough to pretend yesterday didn’t happen. It was mid-morning when Jeremy spoke to him.
“I think I’m going to go for a hike. Want to come?”
It was an olive branch. Jean knew it and he knew he’d be stupid not to take it.
Jeremy let a small smile escape, “Cool.”
Jeremy took the trail at a moderate pace and Jean followed a few steps behind. There was a lightness to Jeremy’s steps and Jean could tell he loved this-nothing between him and the sunny sky. Sweat trickled down Jean’s back and his muscles protested the strain of more physical activity.
They reached a break in the trail that gave view to the thriving city and the ocean in the distance.
Jeremy plopped down in the dirt and squinted at the sight and he sighed happily. Jean dropped down slowly and sat next to him with his legs crossed. He accepted the water bottle that Jeremy offered and met his gaze when he noticed the other mans distracted stare as he drank.
To Jeremy’s credit, the blond didn’t try to hide his pointed look with a sheepish smile.
Jean set the bottle down and stared ahead. He liked the image of the water bleeding with the line of the sky. It blended together in a way that was almost dizzying.
“Do you think we’ll beat Palmetto?” Jean asked quietly.
Jeremy shrugged and thumbed at a blade of grass, “Hard to know. I’d say they’ve been doing equally as well as us, maybe even better.”
Jean looked at him sharply and Jeremy shrugged again, “I only say that because they finished strong last season. And they’ve had plenty of time to work out the kinks.”
He smiled at a thought and laughed, “Plus I don’t think Kevin could stand a loss after such a win.”
Jean sent him a curious glance, “Can you?”
He stretched out and settled back on his forearms, considering Jean before looking back out at the view.
“Yeah, I can stand it. Winning isn’t everything.”
“Simple as that?”
Jeremy paused and then nodded.
“Yeah, simple as that. Winning doesn’t change the way I feel about the team or the hours of hard work we put in. Losing is a setback, but it’s never the end.”
“That’s very deep of you, Knox.”
Jean’s voice resonated with sarcasm and Jeremy smiled a toothy grin.
“Thank you, Jean. Awfully kind of you to notice.”
Silence settled between them and Jeremy was happy. After a night of uncertainty, today felt safe and secure. Despite the feeling, it didn’t stop him from asking outright.
“Are we ok?”
The wind blew and swept up his hair in the breeze.
Jean didn’t answer right away. He gazed at Jeremy with purpose and Jeremy waited for him to find his answer.
“Yes. We’re ok.”
He spoke barely above a whisper, but his voice was firm. “I need time.” Jean spoke the words without shame or fear.
It was the answer Jean was both dreading and desperate for.
He scoffed and shook his head, “You shouldn’t.”
He wanted to elaborate. That no, he shouldn’t wait for something that may never happen. Why put your life on hold for something so fragile and broken?
Jean tensed at the thought. They were harsh, but rang with truth.
“Maybe so, but I will anyway. I’ll tell you if I get tired of waiting. Fair?”
Jean’s gray eyes burned bright and he nodded, “Fair.”
“Good. Also, I had a thought -this was before yesterday, just so you know.”
Jeremy blushed and tugged on the blade of grass caught between his fingers, “Have you thought about housing for the summer?”
Jean’s brows drew together and he passed Jeremy a quizzical look.
“The dorms close after finals. “Because,” Jeremy’s voice was quiet, “I was thinking-if you want-you could stay with me. That is until they open back up in August for pre-season practice.”
He rambled on, “I’ve started looking at apartments and there’d be plenty of space.”
Jean took a moment to consider his options. He didn’t really have any and this one felt right.
“Really?” Jeremy grinned,“I figured we survived our first fight, right? Might as well ask.”
Jean scoffed, “That was hardly our first fight.”
They stopped talking and sat a few minutes longer. With one last look out, Jeremy stood and Jean joined him. They turned back and walked down the trail at a leisurely pace.
The rest of their Sunday followed in a similar stride.
It was quiet, yet comfortable as the two men settled in at their respective desks and studied for finals. Occasionally the low hum of the coffee maker brewing drew Jeremy’s attention away from the final edits he was making to his senior project.
Around 8:00, he moved from his desk to his bed. His earbuds were in as he watched and re-watched the footage. Jean had long since finished his work and retreated to his bed with a book.
At 10:00, Jean set his book down, quietly calling out, “Knox.”
Jeremy pressed the spacebar and pulled out an earbud, “What’s up?”
“When are you going to sleep?”
Jeremy laughed and the glow of the screen made his eyes look brighter, “Sorry. Soon.” He glanced at the clook, “Ish. It’s due at midnight and it has to be perfect, so…”
He trailed off as he stared at the screen-lost in thought.
Jean rose off the bed with a sigh and sat on the end of Jeremy’s bed and held out his hand, “Let me see?”
Jeremy handed him the laptop and the earbuds dragged across the bed. Jean wordlessly put them in and dragged the cursor back to the beginning of the video and watched. He ignored Jeremy’s disclaimer and focused on the screen.
When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe~ John Muir
It was hard to say if it teetered on the edge of cliché and beautiful, but it was all encompassing of everything Jeremy loved: his team, his family, and the outdoors. There were stories shared while cloud watching, fantastic only because they were spoken with the wonder of a child. Clear shots of the California sky with mountains rising high. A slow pan around an empty stadium and the breathtaking laughter of his teammates as they spoke of their love for the game.
It was pure heart and soul.
The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness ~John Muir
Jean pressed pause on the final frame and passed the laptop back to Jeremy who waited. His face bore a grimace and Jean kept his voice gentle.
“But what about-,”
“Submit it. It’s finished.”
He left Jeremy staring after him as he crawled back in bed, ignoring Jeremy’s dumbfounded “thank you”. A few minutes later Jean heard the quiet sound of Jeremy’s laptop shutting and the rustle of sheets as Jeremy laid down to sleep.
Jean stared ahead at the wall.
“You know you’re a lot of things Jean, but I never took you to be a liar.”
The argument came back to him in fragments and the words carved their way inside-sharp and cutting deep after a lifetime of scars.
He could call yesterday a moment of weakness, but Jeremy was right, he didn’t make a habit out of lying.
He had wanted to kiss Jeremy. To press him up against the lockers and feel the heat of his body against his.
Perhaps he couldn’t call it a moment of weakness, maybe ‘distraction’ was a better fit. Maybe he just wanted something that was physical and real to hold onto. Something to build new memories from.
This time it’d be willingly given. It would have been shared. It would have been his choice.
Jeremy had kept his promise- Jean had always been given a choice.
Jean shut his eyes and forced himself to breathe slow and even.
In a week, they would play the Foxes. In a week, he would look Neil Josten in the eyes for the first time since the summer.
In a month, the year would be over and Jeremy would pack his things. They would be roommates once more for a few months and then Jeremy would leave again.
Jean hated that he had come to rely on the captain this year. He could barely stomach admitting it, even just to himself.
Being with the Trojans had left him soft.
He thought back to the days he had pleaded to a non-existent God to let him die. There were nights when he had hoped the last beating would be enough to let him pass in the night.
He had been so ready for death that when the short, redheaded idiot told him he had a future it was a shock to his system. One that he was slowly healing from.
Even with Jeremy’s departure, even with what he owed to Ichirou he held more pieces of his life in his hands than he had ever had before.
Jean felt himself sink into sleep and his thoughts stretched and collapsed around a feeling of certainty.
He would make it through.
Chapter 12: Second chances
"From bitter searching of the heart
we rise to play a greater part."
- Leonard Cohen
They flew out to South Carolina a day early. Coach Rhemann had said that he wanted to give them a chance to get settled after stepping foot off the plane. He didn’t want them going straight into the final game after a six-hour flight.
Jean and Jeremy sat next to Owen and Eli on the plane.
Jean took the window seat and Eli took the seat next to him leaving Owen and Jeremy on the end seats near the aisle.
Jean stared out the window during takeoff watching the world outside from the limited view of the small oval window. The engines roared and the plane picked up speed. His stomach flipped at the feeling of lift off.
Beside him, Eli gripped the arms of the seat tightly. Only Jean noticed his discomfort as Owen and Jeremy chatted excitedly.
“Does your offer still stand?” Jean asked, glancing back out the window. This time he was met with the sight of clouds.
Jean looked Eli in the eye, “For rooming together?”
Realization struck Eli and his pressed lips broke into a wide smile. He relaxed slightly as he spoke.
“Yeah, my offer’s still good. You interested?”
“Perfect! We’ll get the form all signed we get back.” He gave Jean a warm smile, “I think it will be a good fit.”
“If you say so.”
Jeremy’s laugh drew Jean’s attention away from the specks of the city below. The captain leaned over and nudged Eli, his eyes were bright and his tone teasing.
“Don’t let him fool you with the aloofness, Eli. Jean is actually very opinionated.”
Jean narrowed his eyes, “I’m not sure what you mean by that Knox.”
“You wouldn’t let me leave the dorm room in my Birkenstocks!”
Jean rolled his eyes and reached in his carry on for his book, “That’s because you were wearing socks with them.”
Owen let out a booming laugh, “Oh Jean, never come between a man and his Birkenstocks.”
Jeremy did his best to look offended, but his toothy grin gave him up and Eli chuckled.
The three other men jumped from topic to topic and to Jean’s surprise the flight went by fast. Waiting for their luggage, however, did not. By the time they got to their hotel, everyone was restless. Rhemann passed out keys and ran down the schedule for the next day.
Jean collected the key and Jeremy followed him intent on texting. When they got to the room they set down their suitcases. Jean sat on his bed and watched as Jeremy started to text again. Jeremy glanced up to find Jean staring at him unimpressed.
“Let me guess. Kevin.”
Jeremy flushed and sat on the other bed, “Yeah. He wanted to hang out. Would you want to come?”
Jean laughed, his eyes dark, “No. I’m not interested in spending any time with him off court.”
Jeremy nodded and he paused.
Jean sighed, “Ask.”
Jean stretched back against the bed and glanced at Jeremy, “Ask whatever is obviously on your mind.”
Jeremy laughed, “I guess I have to work on my poker face.”
“You have no poker face. Ask.”
Jeremy glanced around the room before settling on Jean. He took a breath before he spoke quietly.
“You two were friends once.”
Jean snorted, “Barely.”
He sat up and ran a hand through his dark hair, “I taught him French when we were young. We spoke it in secret and talked about books, history, Exy, anything. Those conversations might have been the only thing that kept me sane over the years…,”
His voice trailed off and he shook his head, “But after everything.”
Jean took a shuddering breath, “After all the violence, he did nothing. He either stood there and watched or he walked away.”
He glanced up at Jeremy’s horrified expression, “You tell me which is worse.”
“I’m so sorry, Jean.” Jeremy’s voice sounded hoarse.
“He had his reasons, but after his injury he left. He left and didn’t even say goodbye.”
Jeremy was pale and he jumped at the sound of Jean’s phone ringing. He watched as Jean answered with a cool composure.
Jeremy couldn’t make out the voice of the person on the other end, but Jean relaxed as the conversation continued.
“Yes. I would. Thank you.”
He hung up and glanced over at Jeremy who still looked ashen.
“Renee Walker is going to pick me up.”
“Oh, ok” He gave a weak smile.
Jean sighed as he gathered his things, “I didn’t tell you all that so you would…” he gestured at Jeremy, “react like this.”
Jeremy swallowed, “It’s just… a lot to take in.”
Jean hummed, “Well. Nothing to be done about it now.”
The two stared at each other for a moment before Jeremy stood and they walked out to the lobby together. It didn’t take long before a blue truck rolled up under the awning. Kevin gave a half wave at Jeremy and stared at Jean for a moment before he glanced away.
Jeremy gave Jean’s shoulder a squeeze.
“I’ll see you in a bit, yeah? Text me if you need anything.”
Jean nodded and watched the blond climb into the truck. Kevin smiled a greeting, a rare sight, as Jeremy shut the door and buckled in. Kevin laughed at whatever Jeremy said and his eyes found Jean’s one last time before he pulled the truck away.
If it had been anyone other than Kevin, Jean would almost describe the look as wistful.
Renee drove up in a blaring pink Porsche and Jean looked at it distastefully before he opened the door and sat.
“I’m very glad to see you Jean.”
Bright eyes hid behind a curtain of hair-the tips still an array of rainbow pastels. She pushed her hair back and smiled at him. Everything about her exuded warmth and solidarity. Jean felt like he could breathe again.
“Renee. Nice car.”
Her laugh was full of delight, “I know. It’s a little much, but it’s not mine.” She winked and started to drive, “Allison was kind enough to let me borrow it.”
They pulled onto a main stretch and headed into the downtown. The streets were busy with pedestrians wearing orange. Jean spotted a few
“I thought I’d take you to a favorite restaurant of mine. It’s quiet and I wouldn’t expect it to attract anyone interested in Exy.”
The restaurant was small- only a line of booths and a few tables and chairs in the center of the room. Framed pictures covered the walls. Many were faded with time and featured stern faces. The lighting was dim, but comfortable.
They chose a booth in the back and Renee thanked the waitress. After they ordered, Renee leaned in with a smile, “So tell me everything about USC and the Trojans?”
Jeremy stared into his almost empty bowl of noodles. It was his second serving and he was stuffed. He had laughed at Kevin’s simple explanation for his choice of restaurant.
“Unlimited noodle bowls. We need to carb load before tomorrow.”
He had only laughed harder when he realized that Kevin was being serious.
Throughout dinner, as Jeremy spoke with Kevin, he found his thoughts returning to Jean’s story. The man before him was hardened. It didn’t take a genius to notice that, but Jeremy was waiting for the truth to click into place. Waiting for the knowledge he had gained to
There was nothing for him to do about the past. What mattered was the future of Jeremy’s two friends.
Jeremy blinked and realized he was staring. He grinned sheepishly, “Sorry. What were you saying?”
“I asked how long you and Jean were together?”
The fork fell out of Jeremy’s hand and clattered in the bowl. He stared at Kevin in shock and stuttered,
“I’m no-, he’s. We’re not.”
He laughed nervously, “What gave you that impression…that we were together?”
Kevin raised his eyebrows and set down his forkful of noodles, “It just seems like you two are comfortable around each other.”
“And that makes you think we’re dating?” Jeremy asked weakly.
Kevin looked at him with amusement, “Given that we’re talking about Jean here? Yes.” His tone lowered and turned serious, “I’m sorry if I offended you.”
Jeremy’s eyes widened and he smiled, “I’m not offended. Just surprised. I didn’t think I was being that obvious.”
“Oh, so you do care for him?”
It would be easy to deny it, but Jeremy met Kevin’s curious gaze head on.
“Yeah. I do. I didn’t expect to but,” Jeremy shrugged and twirled his fork around a lukewarm noodle, “I just don’t know if anything will come of it. He said it would take time. I mean of course it would, he’s been through hell.”
Kevin was silent and Jeremy grimaced, “I’m sorry, Kevin. I know you both have.”
“His hell was worse than mine. How…” Kevin took a breath, “How is he?”
Jeremy smiled, “Better than when he started, but it definitely hasn’t been easy for him.”
Jeremy nodded slowly, “You too?”
Kevin’s expression was guarded, “Sometimes.”
“Do you ever think about calling Jean? Talking about what happened?”
He sighed, “You think he would answer?”
Jeremy shrugged, “Maybe. What’s there to lose?”
“Hm.” Kevin studied Jeremy.
The Trojan’s captain had caught his eye soon after he’d been announced. He was strong in the way he carried himself and the way he pushed the team. It was obvious he loved the sport, but cared about his team more. Kevin couldn’t always relate to that, but he respected it.
“You’d be good for him.”
Jeremy glanced up in surprise.
“I’m serious. I mean,” Kevin raised his eyebrows and his voice was firm, “It’d be a risk to both of your careers if you ever moved into a relationship, but I’ve been told on many occasion to “shut the fuck up” about the issue, so what do I know?”
Jeremy laughed and flashed a small smile, “Well I appreciate the concern, but I don’t think it will happen.” He smiled the hurt away and held back the words he knew to be true.
He’d be good for me too.
Jeremy shook his head, “But enough about me. What’s new with you? Josten seems to be doing well under Dan’s guidance.”
Kevin rolled his eyes and dug his fork angrily into the pile of noodles, “If only you knew the shit I’ve had to put up with this year. Absolutely juvenile.”
His words dripped with such bitterness that Jeremy could only raise his eyebrows and laugh. From then on the steered clear of mentioning Jean or the nearing game. Instead, they found themselves comparing classes and discussing the pro teams.
Kevin was still trying to convince him to sign with a “better team” by the time they both got their checks.
They talked for hours and soon they were the last two in the restaurant. Renee listened with an intensity about her that were it anyone else, the behavior would have unsettled Jean. She sat still and gave Jean her full attention.
When he first met Renee, she had been an outlier. With her colorful hair and the cross around her neck, Jean had underestimated her. Her good-natured attempts at keeping the peace had seemed foolish and naïve like the religion she was advertising. He hadn’t given her a second thought until she approached him after a game. Maybe it was that the hand she offered him shook his firmly and the smile she gave him was genuine. Or that she had been a pretty face in his dark world and she had treated him with kindness that turned out to be much harder to ignore. It became impossible after she shared her story with him.
As they walked back to the car, Jean asked the question he always thought pointless to ask. For whatever reason, it seemed important now.
“Renee, why do you believe?” He gestured to her necklace and held her gaze.
She paused for a moment and gave him a thoughtful look, “Because it’s all about second chances and I needed one, desperately. What do you believe in, Jean?”
Renee let out a quiet hum of agreement and didn’t say more.
Outside the entrance to the hotel, Renee took his hand and gave him a smile, “I’m really happy we’ve stayed in contact Jean.”
“Me too, Renee.”
She gave his hand a gentle squeeze and he let himself out of the car. Renee tilted her head and caught Jean’s gaze as his hand hovered on the door.
“Get some rest Jean. We won’t go easy on you guys tomorrow.”
Jean smiled, “I would be offended if you did.”
Renee grinned and waved as he shut the door. He waited and watched the nauseatingly pink vehicle drive away. The sun had long set and the night air was pleasantly cool. Jean walked back into the hotel and glanced at the latest text from Jeremy sent an hour and half ago.
Jeremy: Hey :) I think I beat you back! I’m at the pool with Laila and Alvarez if I’m not in the room when you get back. Come join if you want!
Jeremy was in fact, back in the room, when Jean returned. His hair was wet and a towel draped his shoulders as he watched TV on his stomach. He sat up and smiled at Jean’s return.
“Hey! How was dinner?”
Jean peeled off his shoes and sat on his bed eyeing the playback footage of the Raven’s game, “It was good. You?”
When Jeremy blushed, Jean narrowed his eyes in suspicion. The man did not have a poker face.
“No, it was fun. We had a good time catching up. Kevin wants me to sign with another team.”
Jean scoffed and muttered, “That’s not a surprise.”
Jeremy chuckled, “Yeah,” he cleared his throat and glanced up at Jean, “but I think he’s having a hard time too. Dealing with what happened to…”
“You can say his name.”
“With what happened to Riko. He just looked…empty like,” Jeremy caught himself and stared at Jean with wide eyes.
Jean finished his sentence, “’empty like you’, right?” Jean huffed a laugh and his lips pressed together in a tight-lipped smile, “It’s alright. I suppose we have more than one thing in common.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean anything by-,”
“I know, Jeremy,” Jean sighed and stood, “You are harmless.”
He walked over and gathered his clothes and toiletries. Jeremy’s voice was soft and careful, but Jean heard the edge in his words.
“Am I? Harmless?”
Jean paused in the door way to the bathroom and glanced back at the man. Jeremy had been right to question him. He was pushing and waiting to see if Jean would fold and fall.
“No. No I suppose you’re not…”
Jean saw Jeremy swallow and Jean’s fingers tightened on the doorknob. He’d hate himself later for being this honest.
He left a stunned Jeremy and retreated to the bathroom. Jean shut the door and crossed over to the tub. His hands shook as he turned the faucet and it wasn’t long before the bathroom fogged up with steam from the scalding water. Jean breathed a sigh of relief and welcomed the jolting shock of the hot water. The high-pitched whine of the shower wasn’t enough to distract him from his nagging thoughts.
His feelings for Jeremy scared him.
It felt like he couldn’t trust himself and he had always at least had that to fall back on.
Jean took a sharp breath and watched the drops of water slide over his scarred skin. He traced the puckered flesh and held back a flinch.
Not tonight. He didn’t need to think about that tonight.
He was safe. Jeremy wouldn’t hurt him.
At this point the only threats were his own memories. The future shouldn’t scare him as much as his past, but it still did.
Jean took a few slow even breaths and then shut off the shower. When he went back in the room, Jeremy was staring at the screen, flipping channels. He settled on a black and white movie and set the remote aside.
“Want to come watch with me?”
Jean gave a shrug of agreement and sat with his back against the headboard. He listened to the southern drawl of the woman speaking and felt himself slide down a little into the bed.
“Maycomb was a tired, old town, even in 1932 when I first knew it. Somehow it was hotter then.”
Halfway through the movie, Jean heard Jeremy’s soft snores and felt the blond’s head slump against his shoulders. He looked down and the man was sleeping comfortably against him.
Jean hesitated before he put his arm around Jeremy. It wasn’t easy, but it didn’t hurt as much as Jean expected. Jeremy leaned in and Jean let him. He glanced back at the TV and let the unfolding story and weight of Jeremy against him distract him from his own thoughts.
Chapter 13: Game Day
"I do not need to get used to your silence. I already know it. I quite possibly love all of it."
The team was restless in the hours leading up to the game. At lunch, Sam knocked over his cup of coffee and the hot liquid made Zoe yelp in surprise as it landed on her lap. After a handful of donated napkins, the mess was contained, though it took a teasing “You can shut up now, Sam” from Owen to stop his apologizing.
Beside Jean, Jeremy’s leg bounced at an erratic tempo. When he couldn’t take it anymore, Jean placed his hand on Jeremy’s thigh to quell the movement. Jeremy muttered a “Sorry” and took a sip of his orange juice and resisted the urge to fidget.
When Jean glanced back up across the table, he saw Laila look away with a faint smile.
Jeremy was finally calm when they arrived at Palmettos stadium. Jean glanced at the orange and white wearily as they made their way towards the visitor’s locker room. Coach Wymack, Kevin and Neil were waiting to meet them.
Rhemann shook Wymack’s hand and the two smiled and joked like old friends.
Just as Kevin’s eyes brightened at the sight of Jeremy, Neil’s darkened upon seeing Jean. Nevertheless, the redhead stuck out his hand to Jean. Kevin’s eyes widened and he paused mid-sentence to watch as Jean took Neil’s hand in a firm grip.
The name Nathaniel danced on the tip of his tongue, but he swallowed the impulse.
The scarred flesh of Neil’s cheek was a bitter reminder of their time together and Jean felt the weight of his own brand inked on his cheek. He felt a spark of fear at the sight of Neil’s marred skin, but he held fast and kept his expression calm.
Jean felt heavy under Neil’s blue eyed stare. If he had to guess, the striker was making a comparison to the last time he had seen Jean in person. Whatever he saw satisfied him and he moved on to shake Jeremy’s hand.
“Josten! Thanks for having us. I’m expecting a hell of a game.” Jeremy’s excitement broke any tension that lingered.
Neil grinned, “Good, cause you’re going to get one.”
The man moved on to offer a few polite words to Rhemann before he received a quick hug from Alvarez. Neil’s face lit up with surprise, but he hugged back before she let him go. She gestured to Prisha and introduced the Co-Captain to the Trojan’s future captain. He matched her smile and shook her hand.
With a final clap on Rhemann’s shoulder, Wymack laughed and headed out. Neil and Kevin followed. Kevin paused as he was about to pass Jean.
The man looked uncomfortable, but with a serious gaze he offered a hand.
“We should talk. After the game.”
Jean considered Kevin for a moment before he clasped his hand.
Kevin nodded and walked out. Jean glanced over at Jeremy and the blond gave him an encouraging smile and headed into the locker room.
After they had changed, they met in the hall that lead to the court. Jeremy cleared his throat and the conversation died down.
“Alright guys, I feel like I kind of suck at big speeches, but I just wanted to say thank you. You guys have made these past four years really, really special. Being your captain has been such an honor. I’ve learned so much from each and every one of you and it’s been a lot of fun. So whether we win or not, I’m happy and I’m proud.”
Rhemann smiled fondly as Jeremy quieted, “Now, we’re pretty evenly matched with the Foxes, but they’ve come a long way in a year. So now’s the time to give it all you’ve got.”
They entered the court to the sound of cheering. Jean glanced around at the crowd and followed Jeremy’s gaze to the stands. His eyes widened in surprise and he broke into a grin at the sight of his family near the front row. He waved and they waved back excitedly.
“I didn’t know they were coming.” Jeremy breathed out.
They wore the cardinal and gold proudly. Pete wore his brother’s number and Jean stopped mid-step at the sight of Charlie grinning ear to ear wearing Jean’s number. Jeremy paused and leaned in close so Jean could hear over the roar, his hand rested lightly on the small of Jean’s back.
“She’s your second biggest fan. Wouldn’t stop talking my mom’s ear off since the hospital.”
Jean shook his head and laughed quietly, “That so? Who’s number one?”
Jeremy flashed a toothy grin, “Me, obviously.”
Jean rolled his eyes and started to walk down court next to Alvarez. He left Jeremy laughing and ignored his captain’s shout, “What? Too cheesy?”
The Foxes won the coin toss and Kevin put the ball into play. Jean was immediately forced to combat Dan and Neil’s combined attempts to score on Laila.
He felt himself smirk. They had improved.
But then again, so had the Trojans. The Raven drills and stamina work had been paying off during their season and they were counting on it for this game.
The Trojan offense quickly set to work and broke through Matt and Nicky’s defense to score first on Renee. Their lead lasted until the last five minutes of the first half when Neil’s throw hurled the ball just past Laila’s dive.
Jean’s vision was filled with a blur of orange and white as the stadium erupted into cheers. Jeremy managed to bring their lead up to four before the buzzer rang.
Both teams still looked winded when they returned to court after the break. The sound of feet stomping on the benches announced Andrew’s arrival onto the court.
Jean didn’t miss the look of utter disdain on Andrew’s face as he locked eyes with Jean on his way in. Jean narrowed his eyes, but held back a retort.
It wasn’t his fight anymore.
The Trojans heard the thunderous noise and watched grimly as the goalie settled into position. They had all watched the game play and seen him lock down the goal. Many of them remembered it from last year.
At the blow of the whistle, Zoe passed Jeremy the ball as they pushed forward towards Andrew. The goalie blocked their attempt and the ball whipped towards the Trojan’s end of the court. Jean gritted his teeth and sent it spiraling towards Zoe. She feinted and passed it back to Jeremy who evaded Aaron’s attempt at a check and shot the ball forward.
A collective groan was heard as the buzzer sang in the Trojan’s favor.
With fifteen minutes left in the game, the Foxes had scored their way to a tie. At risk to their defense, Serena stepped forward to assist the Strikers attack on the goal. Sam had switched out with Alvarez and he grinned with anticipation.
The minutes went by in a blur and it wasn’t long before Jean was fighting to keep Kevin away from Eli’s goal. The Trojan’s were racing to secure their lead when the final bell rang.
They had won, twelve to ten.
Jean pulled off his helmet and wiped away the sweat that had gathered on his brow. His eyes found Jeremy’s across the court and the blond never looked happier. He immediately set to shaking the hands of the Fox’s closest to him. They returned his kind words with a tired, but content smile.
A moment later, both teams lined up and shook hands. When Andrew moved down the line, he gripped Jean’s hand in a crushing grip. Jean refused to wince. At the sound of Neil’s curt, “Andrew” from behind the goalie, Andrew released Jean’s hand with a murderous look.
Jean shook out his hand as he retreated to the gate while Neil and Jeremy walked over to the press.
Kevin’s expression was guarded as he approached Jean.
Jean knew it was for more than one reason. As much as he loved the Trojans and their captain, he still hated losing.
Jean pulled off his gloves and waited for Kevin to speak.
“Teaching them the drills payed off.”
Stuffing his gloves in his helmet, Jean cocked his head, “You noticed?”
Kevin scoffed and rolled his eyes, “Of course I noticed.”
He wasn’t good at this.
“They played well.” He gestured to the Foxes.
Kevin shrugged, “We still have much to work on.” He eyed one of the freshman who stalked off the court angrily.
“So do we.”
At Jean’s words, Kevin’s eyebrows rose with surprise, “You sound…committed.” He saw Jean’s eyes darken and his lips purse.
“I have to be.” He muttered angrily.
Kevin nodded, understanding his point. Nevertheless, his voice was hard.
“Yes. It is all less than ideal isn’t it?” His eyes travelled around the emptying stadium, as though he expected to see Ichirou himself leaving with the crowd.
“You think he was here?”
Kevin shrugged and glanced back at Jean.
“I think he was watching either way.”
Jean tensed and Kevin’s eyes flashed before his lips curled into a sneer.
“Cheer up, Jean. You were on the winning team. At this moment, your future is brighter than mine.”
Jean tapped his own cheek and a look of alarm replaced Kevin’s sneer. His words were cold and he eyed the tattoo of the queen wearily.
“You’re forgetting your own worth.”
It was a cruel thing to say, but Jean had no incentive to take them back. Kevin paled and swallowed hard. His voice turned tired.
“Now is not the time for this conversation.”
Jean knew he was right of course. The awkward tension between them would not be resolved in the next few passing minutes. Besides, their teams were waiting for them.
Jean sighed, wondering if he would regret his words.
“You still have my number?”
Kevin stared at Jean’s weary expression for a moment, before he nodded and spoke.
“I’ll call you.”
He muttered the words quietly and walked off the court without a glance back. Jean watched him leave and was surprised to find that he felt hardly anything. Neither hatred nor a desire to forgive. Not happiness, but not unhappiness.
Just present and in control.
As he exited the court, he let the door slam into place behind him. Jean exhaled and waited for Jeremy to finish his interview. He looked as though he was trying to control his giddiness. Trying and failing. When it was over, he caught Jean’s eye and held up a finger, and nodded at his family.
Jeremy’s family enveloped him in a warm embrace. His mother had tears in her eyes and his brother grinned. Jeremy laughed at whatever Pete said to him and scooped Charlie up in his arms in a tight hug. Jean watched the interaction unsure if he was supposed to feel jealous after his own loss or afraid of the way it left him feeling hollow.
Jealousy seemed wasteful and childish. He wasn’t even sure exactly what he’d be jealous over. Afraid seemed like an overstatement.
Jean settled on unsure and curious.
He straightened at their approach and barely flinched when Leah Knox hugged him. The sincerity of her compliments left him ducking his head as he thanked her. He was interrupted when he felt Charlie tug on his jersey. His smile was faint, but he dropped down and something in him broke at her beaming face.
Jean spoke to her quietly, asking her about what she thought about the game. He felt Jeremy’s gaze on him, but didn’t dare look away from the short lived and dramatic reenactment of the game Charlie presented to him.
Leah laughed at her daughter’s enthusiasm, “Alright now Charlie. That was a very good recap, but these boys have to go celebrate and we need to go to bed to wake up early for our flight tomorrow.”
Charlie pouted and Pete gently took her hand. Leah pulled Jeremy close for one last hug, “Honey, I am so proud of you.”
Jeremy held tight to his mom, his voice was muffled, “Thanks Mom. Thanks for coming all the way out here.”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Her voice wavered for a moment before she forced a smile, “Alright gang, let’s head out.”
Pete and Charlie waved as they all walked out. Jeremy waved back until they were out of sight. He let out a content sigh and turned to Jean. His blond curls were damp with sweat and his cheeks were still flushed from exertion. He looked completely exhausted, but his smile was as strong as ever.
“God. I am so fucking happy right now.”
Jean flashed him a half smile. Jeremy nudged him with his shoulder and started to walk slowly back to the locker room. Jean glanced at Jeremy out of the corner of his eye. He wanted to call the flutter in his stomach an inconvenience, remembering the feeling of his body pressed close to Jeremy’s when he leaned down to kiss him made his hands shake. That could only be described as a problem.
Jeremy’s gentleness was entirely unforgiveable.
Jean could no longer justify ignoring the man as a form of self-preservation.
Freedom was as much a state of mind as it was physical and he was tired of hiding. It was reminiscent of a past he would never forget.
Jeremy’s warmth was intoxicating and not just a mirage created by the blaring Californian sunshine. Jean still didn’t understand Jeremy’s patience with him. Kevin never had much to spare when it came to Jean. Jeremy’s seemed never ending and the thought was terrifying because one day it would surely run out. How could it not?
The question might have concerned him if he wasn’t fully aware of his captain’s loyalty. The real question was whether or not such loyalty was misguided.
Everyone had their doubts about Jean when he transferred. At that point he had hardly cared. All that mattered was the game and making it through the next two years.
It was less simple now.
Jean knew the year had taken a toll on Jeremy. There had been the arguments and the long bouts of silence. Looking back now, Jean could understand Jeremy’s confusion. He had no interest in interacting, but couldn’t bear to be alone. Nonetheless, Jeremy stayed by his side.
He was kind. Fierce and steadfast. A man who saw beauty in the mundane and desperately tried to capture it. A humble learner and willing teacher.
As they passed through the tunnel, Jean paused under the flickering fluorescent lights. Jeremy walked a few more steps before he noticed that Jean had stopped. He approached Jean, his brows drawn together with concern.
They were details that Jean had noticed and filed away as ‘inconsequential’, only now it all seemed overwhelmingly important. He struggled to understand why.
“Jean, is everything ok?”
Jean bit his lip and exhaled softly. His eyes darted towards the ground, but at the feeling of Jeremy’s touch-light on his arm-he glanced back up. Jean wet his lips and took a breath, but failed to speak the words that were difficult to form.
“Hey.” Jeremy smiled and his thumb brushed over Jean’s skin, “It’s just me. What’s going on?”
Jean closed his eyes and took a breath.
When he opened his eyes, he saw Jeremy staring back, a breath away from asking him another question.
When Jean kissed him, Jeremy made a noise of surprise before he pulled him closer. Jean’s tongue begged entrance and Jeremy opened to him with a low moan. Jean let his hand travel down to Jeremy’s waist as he pushed him back against the concrete.
Jeremy’s back hit the wall and Jean lowered his lips to Jeremy’s neck and Jeremy gasped at the pressure.
Jeremy’s voice was low and full of want.
Jean glanced up and smiled at the other man. His eyes were closed as he arched his neck, his head pressed against the wall.
Brushing his thumb against the skin of Jeremy’s waist where his jersey had ridden up, Jean glanced up, “Is this ok?”
Jeremy breathed in sharply, “Fuck. Yeah. Yeah, it’s ok Jean.”
Jean pressed his body against him and kissed him slowly. Jeremy gently rested his hands on Jean’s shoulders and groaned.
He broke first and took another breath, “Wait.”
Jean lifted his hands off Jeremy and took a step back. Jeremy swallowed hard at the sight of Jean’s dark eyes and full lips.
“I’m going to regret this, but,” he ran a hand through his curls and laughed weakly, “we should probably talk about this first.”
Arching an eyebrow Jean took in Jeremy’s flushed cheeks and chest rising with each breath.
“I’m not very good at talking.”
Jeremy shook his head and laughed, “Not going to get off that easy.” As soon as he said the words, he winced and muttered, “Poor choice of words.”
He inhaled and tried again, “This is important Jean, and as much as I want to continue-” he sucked in a breath and Jean smirked, “the team is probably going to start wondering where we are.”
Jean started to walk away first, glancing back to see Jeremy peel himself away from the wall and follow after him. They found the team packing up their gear in the locker room. Most had already showered. Laila grinned at their arrival and set down her jersey she was folding over her bag.
“What took you two so long?”
Jean walked away from her to gather his things and Jeremy cleared his throat and smiled.
“I was saying goodbye to my family since they flew in.”
Laila narrowed her eyes and shared a suspicious look with Alvarez, “Uh huh. Well, Coach wants us loaded up in five so you might want to just shower back at the hotel.”
“Yeah and you better make it quick Captain because we’re going to be hosting a little shindig in our room after Owen shows up with the alcohol.”
Jeremy laughed at Alvarez’s interjection and looked doubtful, “Pretty sure we can’t fit the whole team in your hotel room.”
Alvarez crossed her arms, “Well, we’re damn well going to try.”
The two bantered back and forth about logistics until they were on the bus driving back to the hotel. Jean sat quietly at his side. Jeremy chatted with his teammates across the aisle from him, occasionally glancing back at him. He was still and looked at ease. Jeremy breathed a quiet sigh of relief.
This was not how he pictured this night going. He took a steadying breath and held back a smile. Jean caught his eye and rolled his eyes at whatever he saw on Jeremy’s face.
Back at the hotel, they dropped their bags down and Jeremy collapsed on the bed with a groan.
“I’m so fucking tired. I don’t know how the others have the energy.”
Jean snorted and pulled out a change of clothes from his suitcase, “You are still the Captain, no? Seems like you have an obligation to go.”
Jeremy sat up and glared at him, “Don’t act like you’re not coming with me.”
“Well you are. And,” he swallowed and absentmindedly ran a finger over new bruise forming on his thigh, “do you want to talk tomorrow? When we get back to campus?”
Jean’s hands stilled and Jeremy saw a flash of some emotion-fear, concern, anger- he couldn’t tell, flash over his features before he glanced over at Jeremy with a calm expression.
Jeremy felt a stab of apprehension in his chest, but he smiled and nodded. The feeling lingered throughout the rest of the night.
Jeremy took a breath and took another sip of bourbon.
Despite his reservations, Jean joined him. They stayed into the early hours of the morning. When Jeremy saw that they would be leaving in five hours for their flight, he grinned and suggested they turn in. Sam and Alvarez grumbled, but not long after everyone filed back out to their respective rooms.
Jean helped guide a tipsy Jeremy back into their double. He leaned into Jean’s shoulder and his voice sounded muffled.
“I’m really, really happy.”
Keeping an arm around Jeremy, Jean slid the key card in and walked them in, “I know.”
He gently pushed Jeremy onto his bed and watched, amused, as Jeremy kicked off his shoes and scooted back onto the bed. Jeremy slipped under the covers and turned to face Jean.
“Are you happy too?”
Jean was thankful for the dark room to hide his grimace, but the darkness did nothing with his silence. Jean heard Jeremy take a breath. It wasn’t the question itself. Jeremy had asked him all sorts of things over the months and even though this question stemmed from a place of innocence, it was as sharp as a knife.
“Sorry Jean, I just uh, I want you to be happy too.”
Jeremy sounded sheepish and that drove the knife in deeper to the heart of the issue. Jean was certain that if he couldn’t answer this question, then they didn’t stand a chance.
Jean couldn’t even rightly explain it to himself other than he was chasing after something that still felt out of reach.
Jean sighed and folded his hands together and sought after Jeremy’s gaze in the darkness.
He felt like he and Jeremy were speaking two different languages.
Happiness to Jeremy was the thrill of the game, walking in the sun, new discoveries and seeing hard work pay off. Happiness to Jean was a fading memory, a night where sleep came fast and the pain superficial. It was the sun and comfortable silence.
His definition felt like so much less in comparison.
“I’m not unhappy and that’s,” he blew out a breath, “that’s enough for now.”
Jean could hear Jeremy’s smile in his voice, “Well, then it’s enough for me too.”
He heard sheets rustling as Jeremy got comfortable and Jean leaned back to lie down. He pressed a finger against his wrist and felt his steady pulse.
It beat slow and strong.
He didn’t know if Jeremy was already asleep or not, but he asked his question anyway. The pit of his stomach felt hollow, just like every other rare time he articulated his fears.
“What if it’s not enough one day?”
The radiator kicked on nosily. Jean thought that perhaps he was spared an answer, but Jeremy’s voice rose over the sound of air filtering through.
“Then we’ll work through it together. I won’t abandon you Jean.”
Jean glanced over at the man in the other bed. Through the red glow of the alarm clock, Jean saw the outline of Jeremy’s form. Jeremy waited quietly for Jean to find the words and Jean half regretted having this conversation now, but perhaps it was better like this.
They couldn’t see each other’s expressions and the hum of the radiator filled their silences. Time felt slow and the world seemed a little less cruel. If he wanted to, Jean could fixate on the darkness or the dank smell that accompanied most hotel rooms. If he started, the memories would fill in the gaps.
But he didn’t want to.
Instead his eyes traced over the line of Jeremy’s shoulder down to the lumpy covers until he could only see blackness.
He swallowed and asked the second question that had been taking root in his mind.
“What do you expect in return?”
He heard Jeremy roll over and imagined him staring up at the stippled ceiling. When Jeremy spoke, he sounded tired and a little bit older.
“You might not know this, but it wouldn’t be hard to figure out since you’ve met my family, but” Jeremy cleared his throat, “My dad wasn’t around for me and Pete when we were young. My mom raised us on her own and she made a lot of sacrifices for us -ones that can never be repaid.”
Jeremy paused and Jean waited, quiet and still.
“Anyway, about six years ago, he showed up again-‘a new man’.” Jeremy scoffed.
“Unfortunately, it took some time to figure out that no, in fact he hadn’t changed. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, right?”
Jean heard Jeremy’s voice break slightly, but he continued, “I never wanted anything to do with the man, but Pete. Pete latched on like a fucking leech. When my dad found out my mom was pregnant with Charlie, he wanted her to get rid of her. Long story short, my mom refused and he up and left with a good chunk of our money. Mom blamed herself, Pete was devastated, and I was bitter. Still am. The only reason I’m here at USC is because I got an athletic scholarship.”
He sighed, “My point is, I won’t take this lightly. I care about you and it’s not going to be me giving you something and you paying me back. It’s both of us talking about what’s working or isn’t working. I know you’ve been through more than I could ever know,” Jeremy let the words sink in, “and I don’t want to push you into something you’re not ready for or don’t really want, but it can’t just be physical for me. It was easy with other guys, but not you. You mean more to me than that.”
Jean closed his eyes and breathed out evenly. After what Jeremy shared with him, Jean considered his next words carefully.
“That wouldn’t work for me either. I have -, fuck.” He inhaled sharply.
Jeremy’s “It’s alright. Take your time,” brought him back.
Gritting his teeth, Jean growled the words out hoping it would hurt a little less that way, “People hurt me. That way.”
He waited for Jeremy to respond, but he was quiet. For once, he didn’t apologize and Jean was grateful for it.
“I know what I want. I just-,” Jean squeezed his eyes shut tight and opened them again, ignoring his hoarse voice, “It helps being able to…initiate.”
“I understand. We’ll communicate, ok? And stop when we need to. I trust you Jean.”
Jeremy’s voice sounded equally gruff.
Jean nodded and then remembered himself.
He felt himself shake and pulled the covers around him tighter. Jeremy’s quiet laugh surprised Jean and made him search in the darkness for his smile.
“So much for talking about this when we got back.”
After a few moments, it seemed like something had broken or a page had been turned. Jeremy rolled over in bed and his words were a mumble that Jean only just made out.
Jean smiled and closed his eyes.
“Bonne nuit, Jeremy.”
Chapter 14: Past Wounds
"He’s so damned nice and he’s so awful. He’s my sort of thing."
- Ernest Hemingway
The day they got back from championships, they both dropped their bags down and collapsed on their beds. Jean woke up in the evening, disoriented and numb. The whole weekend felt like a dream and he wasn’t sure if he was ready to wake up from it yet.
They had gone to sleep without shutting the blinds and Jean threw an arm over his eyes to block out the light that streamed in. It was quiet except for the ticking clock on the wall and the sound of their breathing, slow and even.
Jean lowered his arm and squinted at the room around him. It had become something of a home. Of sorts.
He now recognized the faces in the pictures on Jeremy’s desk. He knew the names of the mountains on the posters and maps that were taped to the wall. The old man with the beard was John Muir and Jeremy had laughed when Jean had asked if he and Kevin had compared their “cherished historical figures” yet.
The movie poster was for “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and it was Jeremy’s favorite movie. The journals stacked on his desk were scattered with to do lists and film ideas. It still left Jean feeling shocked that something other than Exy could occupy one’s time.
“Everyone needs a hobby, Jean.” His eyes had been bright and he wore a faint, teasing smile, “What’s yours going to be?”
It had been a challenge and an admittance that Jean’s preoccupation with the sport hadn’t gone unnoticed. It’s not that Jean even loved the game for the game’s sake. That had always been Kevin. It wasn’t love, it was more of a compulsion.
He hadn’t been able to answer Jeremy then. Jean had matched his smile with a frown. Now…now Jean would simply gesture to the stack of books next to his bed.
Jean glanced over at the other man, expecting to find him still sleeping, but brown eyes stared back. A sleepy smile played on his lips and Jean ignored the wave of desire that passed over him.
Jeremy’s voice was still hoarse with sleep and Jean’s wasn’t much better.
Jeremy sat up and rubbed his eyes as he yawned. He still looked dazed as he stood up and glanced at the clock. It was six in the evening and Jeremy blew out a breath.
“We really slept the day away.”
“Staying up till three am and making a seven am flight will do that to you,” Jean replied.
Jeremy turned to him and grinned, “Worth it, though.”
Jean stared back for a moment before he leaned over and tugged Jeremy over to his bed. The blond looked surprised, but not displeased at his position in Jean’s lap. Jean smirked and pressed his lips against his. Jeremy let out a low, greedy sound from the back of his throat and Jean felt his lips part as Jeremy begged entrance. Jean welcomed the warmth of his tongue and brushed his thumb against Jeremy’s back where his shirt had ridden up.
Kissing Jeremy felt like finding the answer to a question he hadn’t known he’d been asking. With each soft caress, there was as much risk as there was gentleness. For the first time in a long time, Jean wanted to toe the line.
Jean pulled Jeremy closer and felt him roll his hips against his own. His grip on Jeremy’s hips tightened and he mimicked the movement inciting another moan from Jeremy. Jean broke the kiss with a gasp and rested his head against Jeremy’s chest.
Jeremy slowed and rested his hands on Jean’s hip. When Jean glanced up, Jeremy’s eyes were dark, but patient.
“We can stop.” He sounded breathless and it made Jean want to pull him closer. To lay him down and slowly rut against him until he came. He wanted to taste him and swallow him whole.
Jean wanted more than he was ready to give.
Lingering in the space between his desire and the memories he’d buried, he felt something tug open and bleed, like the rupture to a stich he desperately needed in place.
Jean sighed and leaned back onto his bed, but kept a hand resting on Jeremy’s thigh to keep in him place. He knew Jeremy was different. His calloused hands had never inflicted any violence against him and his promise to never harm him still held strong.
He could taste the words on his tongue-something like trust and hope. He wanted to follow it and never let go.
Jean breathed and exhaled slowly. The tight feeling of fear faded as his chest fell.
“We don’t have to.”
A questioning brow rose at the edge hanging onto Jean’s words. Slowly, Jean trailed his hand up Jeremy’s leg and toyed with the waistband of Jeremy’s sweatpants. He grinned a devilish smile and there was no weariness in his voice.
“I don’t want to stop.”
Jeremy’s smile reached his eyes and he leaned forward to press his forehead against Jean’s and lace his fingers in his. Jean groaned as he felt his lips press against his neck. His hips bucked against Jeremy’s when he felt his tongue against his skin.
Jeremy moaned and Jean rolled over him, breathing hard at the sight of Jeremy’s flushed cheeks and bright eyes. His gaze roved over Jean and he bit his lip in appreciation. Warmth pooled in Jean’s stomach and leaned down to swiftly kiss the look of desire away from Jeremy, he wasn’t used to such a sight. Not when it was directed at him.
He felt a twinge of nervousness and Jean pushed their intertwined hands deeper into the mattress.
He let go to tug at the waistband of Jeremy’s sweatpants and felt Jeremy jump at his touch.
“Jean…” It was a breathless plea and Jeremy rolled his hips against him. Jean couldn’t hold back his low sound of approval at the feeling of him hard in his hands. Jeremy’s heavy sighs were everything Jean wanted and didn’t know how to ask for. It was the sweet sounds of his breathing quickening that made Jean’s hand flex and stroke faster. His own hips rutted against Jeremy and he groaned when he felt Jeremy shudder beneath him.
Jean stayed buried in the crook of Jeremy’s neck as his breathing slowed and withdrew his hand, wiping it on the sheets. He felt Jeremy’s huff of a laugh and knew the action hadn’t gone unnoticed.
Jeremy’s voice was rich with warmth and Jean shivered as Jeremy gently trailed a hand through Jean’s hair.
He didn’t want to speak just yet. Words felt like useless tools and he had said all he wanted to only a few moments ago. Touch, or the lack of, always held more weight in his mind and the urge to withdraw into the silence was overwhelmingly tempting.
Jean rolled over onto his side next to Jeremy and stared at the other man. He gave Jean a rare, tentative smile and Jean felt a fondness unfold for the man in his bed. He didn’t need this, but he was thinking that it was becoming alarmingly clear that he might want it.
“There’s nothing to apologize for.”
Jeremy beamed at Jean’s words and his smile grew when he laughed.
Shifting into a more comfortable position, Jean waited for him to elaborate. When he didn’t, Jean hummed and Jeremy laughed again.
“I was going to say, they’re my sheets anyway.”
Jean rolled his eyes and cracked a small smile. He glanced back at Jeremy when he felt his stare. Jeremy looked at Jean like he was something wonderful and it sent a nervous flutter through Jean. There was a question in his eyes as the blond leaned closer.
Waiting for Jean to pull away, Jeremy hesitated. When he didn’t, he pressed his lips softly against Jean’s. Jeremy smiled into the kiss when Jean’s grip on Jeremy’s shirt tightened.
All too soon, Jeremy pulled away and settled back against the pillow. Content with the quiet, he pulled out his phone from his pocket and his focus turned to the emails in his inbox.
The restlessness that hit Jean was sudden and he sat up. This was unfamiliar territory and he wanted nothing more than to make for steady ground-the court or alcove outside. Somewhere to gather his thoughts and distract him from the warm body next to him.
But then Jeremy jerked up from the pillow with a gasp and stared at his phone in disbelief.
Any trace of humor Jean had was replaced with a cold tone, bracing for trouble.
Jeremy swallowed and leaned against the headboard. He stayed quiet and Jean huffed.
He heard him laugh nervously as he passed Jean his phone. Jean took it impatiently and glanced down. It was a bank statement. There had been a hefty deposit, what Jean assumed, to be Jeremy’s first paycheck from the Coyotes.
The number hardly surprised Jean. In fact, to him it seemed a little low, but that seemed beside the point.
He glanced up and saw Jeremy still looking queasy.
Jean handed the phone back to him, “Did you not know?”
Jeremy let out a nervous laugh and pocketed the phone and sat cross legged on the bed. He had followed Exy his whole life. He knew what a pro athlete’s salary was, but that didn’t slow his racing heart.
“Knowing about something isn’t the same as experiencing it” Jeremy muttered.
He still sounded shocked and Jean pursed his lips at the other man’s wide eyed gaze.
Jeremy knew what he really wanted to do with the money. He’d promised himself when he was younger that if he ever made it pro, he would start saving for Pete and Charlie. It just didn’t feel real now that he actually had signed with a team.
“This is a good thing.” Jean’s voice was firm and his eyes searched for recognition in Jeremy’s expression. Jeremy’s confidence stemmed from everything around him, except himself and Jean thought it to be one of the strangest phenomenon’s he’s encountered. But the tension faded and whatever Jeremy heard in Jean’s commanding voice he held on to.
He nodded and exhaled.
This is a good thing.
Finals had everyone in a frenzy. Everyone it seemed except Jean. He regarded them with an absentmindedness that Jeremy envied. School never seemed to be a stressor to him. He handled it with a level headedness that left Jeremy gritting his teeth.
When he had commented on it the weekend before the first exam, Jean had scoffed.
“Jeremy, you’re graduating in a week. If anyone should be concerned at the moment, it should be me.”
Jeremy glared at him, but Jean knew he had made his point.
Jeremy was marking his days in “lasts”.
Last lecture. Last scantron test. Last essay. It had a numbing effect and he knew it was all inconsequential. He would miss his film class. He would miss his friends, but it was nothing compared to his last practice.
The season was over and they had debriefed about it. Bittersweet did not begin to describe it. The Trojans were his family and his second home and although he wouldn’t be far and already promised to come to the games on his weekends off, it still left him feeling hollow. He, Owen, and a few other seniors took their time saying goodbye to the place that Jeremy could only describe as sacred.
He was leaving a piece of himself behind with them and that left him quiet.
Jeremy didn’t have any regrets. He gave all he could and all he had for the team. He lived and he learned and he would start all over again soon.
A few nights before graduation, Serena hosted a party. The team was jam packed in the apartment and the sound of laughter and the music could be heard at the entrance to the building. Jean regarded the gray complex with weariness, but the brief touch of Jeremy’s hand at the small of his back left him feeling grounded.
Walking into the hot apartment brought back a flood of memories from the beginning of the year. Bodies touching, dark corners, and drinks spilled. Jean felt dizzy just crossing the threshold. Jeremy gently squeezed his arm and flashed him a small smile of encouragement.
These were his teammates.
Even if he didn’t grant them the same trust as the former captain at his side, he knew them. He was fairly certain of their intentions and they were only good. Jean breathed and crossed into the kitchen, following Jeremy as he headed straight for Owen, Laila and Alvarez.
Owen slapped Jeremy on the back and passed him a drink. Alvarez was tucked into Laila’s side and she peeled herself away to shake Jean’s hand with a grin. He didn’t miss her sly smile as her gaze slid from Jean to Jeremy.
The group chatted and Alvarez’s unrelenting questions distracted Jean from crowded room. Eli joined them a few minutes later and he and Jean drew towards the open space in the corner while the rest of the group went to dance. Jean’s gaze followed Jeremy as he was pulled onto the makeshift dance floor by Laila.
Occasionally Jeremy grinned suggestively at Jean from across the room as he danced. Jean rolled his eyes, but when they made it back to the dorm room, Jeremy’s eyes were clear and focused on Jean’s adept fingers loosening Jeremy’s belt before he sank to his knees.
He stared up at Jeremy with a hungry look and the sight left Jeremy even more breathless. He placed his hands over Jean’s and the other man’s hands stilled. He glanced up at Jeremy, his brows drawn together in confusion.
Jeremy smiled at his concern. “C’mere.”
Jeremy bent low and Jean rose to meet him. Jeremy kissed him and at the warm touch of his tongue, Jean growled low in his throat. He pulled back and resumed his task of undoing Jeremy’s belt.
“You know you don’t have to, right?”
Jeremy’s voice shook and Jean pressed a quick kiss against his hip.
“I know. I want to. Do you?”
Jeremy swallowed and nodded, “Yeah. Yeah I do.”
Jean smirked and planted a trail of kisses along the juncture of his hip. Jeremy groaned when Jean slid his tongue over him and sighed when he felt his mouth close around him. Slowly he began to work him over in time with his hand. When Jean glanced up at him with dark, gray eyes and it was too much.
Jeremy moaned and arched against the wall Jean had pushed him against. He threw up a hand to brace himself against the door to their room when his legs started to shake. They hadn’t talked about it, but Jeremy didn’t dare card his fingers through Jean’s hair, not now-not like this.
Jean picked up his pace and took him in deeper. Jeremy’s breath quickened and he felt his muscles tighten.
“Jean. Fuck. Jean…”
The other man didn’t slow and when Jeremy cried out, he didn’t pull back. He watched with bright eyes as Jeremy slid down to the floor, his limbs feeling loose and his mind muddy with pleasure. Jeremy’s eyes were glassy and his voice warm, “Holy fuck Jean.”
Jean smiled briefly. It disappeared as he brushed away the wetness on his mouth.
“I’m glad you enjoyed yourself.”
Jeremy snorted and raised his hips to tuck himself back in his pants.
“Can I return the favor?”
He kept his tone light when he asked and his index finger traced the underside of Jean’s wrist.
Jean tensed and Jeremy let his hand drop as he waited for Jean to answer. He saw Jean’s jaw clench as he considered Jeremy’s words. He tried to imagine what Jeremy was asking and he grew hard at the thought.
The floor creaked as Jean stood and Jeremy looked confused until Jean held out his hand to help him up. He kissed Jeremy desperately, hoping to stay ahead of the prickling fear of hands holding him down and the pain.
Jean lightly pushed Jeremy down on the bed and hovered over him. He studied Jeremy, committing his huff of a laugh and smile-friendly and innocent- to memory before he took Jeremy’s hand in his and slid it to his waistband.
When Jeremy touched him, Jean braced himself, waiting for the flashbulb memory to capture his senses, but all felt was Jeremy and warmth starting to pool low in his stomach. He held back a moan and pressed his lips against Jeremy’s neck.
He rolled his hips, emboldened to close any space between them. When Jeremy’s thumb brushed over his head as he continued to lazily stroke him, Jean couldn’t hold back a low growl and pushed his hips harder against Jeremy’s hand.
He wouldn’t break so easily.
Jeremy’s movements sped up and Jean’s breathing became harsh.
Jeremy leaned forward to press his lips against Jean’s chest. Even over his shirt, Jean felt his lips dance over his scars. It carried more weight than words. He came soon after and it felt like falling.
He sank onto his side with a sigh and closed his eyes. The space previously occupied by fear echoed with something like freedom.
Jean took Jeremy’s hand and brushed his lips against his knuckles, “I’m good.”
His smile was everything.
Graduation day passed in a blur. One minute Jeremy was fiddling with his tie in the bathroom-gratefully accepting Jean’s assistance- and then he was picking up the cap he had just hurled into the air.
They graduated in the morning. The sky was a clear blue and he had to squint his eyes at the keynote speaker. His family took him and Jean to lunch before they went to pack up his Jeep. After all the boxes were packed, Jeremy stared at the empty space. The only trace of his presence were the tiny holes left in the wall from the thumb tacks.
And for a moment, it all felt like a dream.
The sound of Jean’s cough made him turn. He hovered, unsure, in the doorway. The sight made Jeremy smile and that was enough to ground him in the present. Jean didn’t know what to do with Jeremy’s nostalgia and it was plain to see.
Jeremy took one last look at the room. It was a space and nothing more. Whatever he had brought, he was taking with him. Jeremy picked up the last box and walked past Jean with a smile as Jean shut off the light and closed the door behind them.
The apartment wasn’t far from campus. A fifteen-minute walk and a five-minute drive. It was a convenient detail that Jean tucked away for reference. He had two months with Jeremy before he would move back into the dorms with Eli to start up for the new season.
The complex was modern, but hardly as expensive as it could be. Jeremy stopped in the office for the keys and they brought up the first of the boxes. The one bedroom was spacious and Jeremy ran a hand over the marble counter tops with a look of wonder. He caught Jean staring at him and he blushed.
“It just feels weird.”
Jean set the box down and joined him in the kitchen.
Jeremy shrugged and glanced around. By the end of the day it would be full of the furniture Pete was bringing from home and it would be bursting with color and life.
“The fact that it’s mine? That it’s new? Just can’t believe college is over.”
Jean nodded, but his expression was distant as though he couldn’t relate to Jeremy’s sentiment. Jeremy didn’t fill the silence and merely smiled before he led the way back to the Jeep.
By the end of the day, the cars were emptied and the apartment full. Jeremy seemed more at ease and when Alvarez and Laila stopped by, he was his usual self. The girls gushed over the place while Jean pulled down the wine glasses from the cupboard.
They drank and talked well into the night. Choosing the floor over the futon, the group splayed out on the carpet. Laila had her head in Alvarez’s lap and Jeremy rested against Jean. They spoke freely and loudly, ignoring Jean’s gentle reminders that they had neighbors.
Jeremy’s cheeks grew rosy as another glass was poured while Jean sipped slowly from his first glass. Jeremy looked shocked when he accepted the glass from Alvarez, but he merely shrugged. He didn’t have to explain that a crowded house party was different than Jeremy’s new home.
The girls left around three in the morning. Jean insisted on cleaning up despite Jeremy’s pleas to leave it till the morning.
“It is the morning, Knox.”
Jeremy shushed him, but picked up the towel and started to dry the glasses anyway. Jean glanced up from gently scrubbing the glass and took in his new surroundings. He had expected to feel more out of place, but it only felt right. He wasn’t sure if he had changed or if it had something to do with the man at his side.
He suspected both were factors.
They finished and while Jeremy went to get ready for bed, Jean started to prepare the futon. He had the pillows and blankets all set up when he heard Jeremy tread back into the living room.
“What are you doing?”
Jeans’ movements stilled and he glanced up to see him staring at him in confusion.
“Getting ready for bed.”
“You don’t have to sleep out here.”
Jean shrugged and finished drawing back the sheets before he muttered quietly, “I’m not used to sharing a bed.”
Jean winced at the disappointment in Jeremy’s voice. He exhaled slowly and ignored the prickle of fear that crawled up his spine. His cool expression must have had a trace of nervousness because Jeremy crossed the room.
“Jean,” Jeremy took his hand and gave him a reassuring smile, “It’s fine, I just assumed. I don’t want you to do anything you’re uncomfortable with.”
That first night Jean laid on the futon and stared up at the ceiling. For the first time in months, he thought back to his parents. He hardly remembered their faces anymore. He didn’t know if they were living or dead and he wondered if he was cruel for not caring about the answer.
At this point, it made no difference. They would not be at his graduation in the coming year. They wouldn’t be at any of his future games. They were a memory and nothing more.
The only thing that mattered was what lay ahead on the other side of graduation. That and the man sleeping in the other room. He had left the door open and Jean could hear his gentle snores.
He fell asleep to the sound and dreamed of making Court.
Chapter 15: Scars
"I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become."
- C.G. Jung
It took Jean a week before he started sleeping in Jeremy’s bed. The first night Jean followed him into the bedroom, Jeremy didn’t comment on the change, rather, his expression softened and kissed him gently before retreating to his side of the bed.
Practice with the Coyotes had started the Monday after they moved in and Jeremy looked exhausted. It didn’t take long before the two settled into a routine. Jean would join Jeremy for a light breakfast and when Jeremy left for the stadium, Jean left for a run.
His days were quiet when Jeremy was at practice. His mornings were spent reading and in the afternoons, he cooked. It didn’t take long for him to discover that, although Jeremy had many talents, cooking was not one of them. He stared at Jean in disbelief when he came home to find the table set and a full home cooked meal at the center of the table.
Jeremy’s hair was still wet from his shower after practice and he ran a hand through the damp curls as he sat down in surprise.
“I didn’t think you’d have to cook for yourself at Evermore.”
Jean tensed. They hardly talked about the Ravens or Evermore. Jeremy noticed and winced at his mistake.
Jean sat down and started to serve the chicken and roasted veggies, his voice was light, with an air of cool detachment, “It’s fine. I learned last summer. Abby taught me.
Jeremy nodded and took a bite, “It’s really good” he mumbled as he took a bite. He swallowed and laughed, “My mom always tried to teach me, but anything I ever cooked ended up burning so, seems like a lost cause.”
Jean scoffed, “Oh? So you’re not perfect. Someone should text Kevin.”
Jeremy stared at him dumbfounded. His fork hovered in his hand, halfway to his mouth.
“Quit staring, Knox.” Jean growled.
“Did you just make a joke?” Jeremy’s face lit up with a grin and it only grew at Jean’s exasperated sigh.
“Don’t get used to it.”
Jeremy shook his head and laughed again, but relented and changed the conversation to one Jean didn’t mind contributing to. He talked about his new teammates and the drills they ran at practice. There was a pause in the conversation when Jean didn’t immediately add his perspective like he usually did.
“Something wrong, Jean?”
Jean’s eyes flashed up at Jeremy’s and he tapped a finger restlessly against the table. Clearing his throat, he shifted in his seat.
“Do you think Coach Rhemann would grant me access to the stadium to practice?”
Jeremy’s eyes widened, “It’s the off season.”
Jean gave him a pointed stare, “There is no such thing as an off season. Not for me.”
Jeremy nodded. Jean’s request actually wasn’t that shocking. He had never been good at doing nothing and Jeremy could understand that.
“Do you want me to give him a call?”
There was a hint of annoyance in Jean’s voice, “I am more than capable of calling him.”
Jeremy held up his hands in surrender, “Not saying you aren’t, I was just offering.”
Jean’s finger continued to tap out a quick tempo against the wood and Jeremy eyed it before he pushed his plate aside to lean in.
“Is there something else on your mind?”
Leaning back in his seat, Jean sighed.
“I got a job.”
Jeremy glanced up at him in surprise, “Oh! Jean that’s great….I mean seems like a good thing, right?”
Jean rolled his eyes at Jeremy’s response, but the tapping slowed and stilled. “I don’t want to be a charity case. I want to help cover the costs for the summer while I stay here.”
Jeremy raised his eyebrows, “That’s really nice, but I don’t expect you too. One, you’re my boyfriend-I’m happy you’re here and two, I make more than eno-,”
“It’s not about that. It’s about contributing and doing what’s right.”
His voice was firm and the matter was as good as settled, so Jeremy nodded and acquiesced.
“Where is it at?” Jeremy asked curiously.
“Doheny Library, at the front desk.”
“That will be good.”
“It’ll pass the time.” Jean mused and he relaxed at the sight of Jeremy’s smile of agreement.
Jean called Rhemann that night. The Coach hid his surprise well and the conversation was brief. Rhemann didn’t expect anything less from Moreau, but he agreed to give Jean a keycard and the code.
The next morning, Jeremy dropped Jean off on campus on his way in. Jean entered the empty stadium and felt entirely at ease. He took his time warming up and then set to starting on a few drills. He preferred this solitude to the empty apartment. Here he felt he at least had a purpose.
His job was as expected, quiet and dull, but nonetheless Jean enjoyed it.
The days bled together and Jean felt as though he was living in a dream. They spent Jeremy’s days off hiking or at the beach. Out in the sun, tan with wind tousled hair, Jeremy looked utterly content and Jean marveled at his happiness.
There were days where Jean doubted.
His last nightmare was a month ago and their absence was as disconcerting to Jean as their presence. If Jeremy noticed, he didn’t mention it to Jean and he didn’t know if that made it worse. As though the fear was just around the corner, too close to sense, but waiting. Jean felt locked in place either way.
The nights he spent pressed up against Jeremy were a balm to his slowly healing wounds.
They began with a whisper or a trailing touch and when Jean breathed in Jeremy’s soft gasps, he felt whole. It was a push and pull. Not a game, not a battle. It was reciprocity. It was more than an escape. The heat and the pressure. The tension and brush of skin on skin was a dance that Jean was slowly learning to enjoy.
The first time he let Jeremy undress him, his hands shook as his scar ridden skin was exposed to the cool air. Jeremy had seen them before, but never so close. His gaze flickered from Jean’s stony expression to the puckered scars.
Wordlessly, Jean took Jeremy’s hand and placed it on the scar on his chest.
Jeremy’s eyes widened as his fingers traced the jagged outline.
He breathed his name like he hoped it could take back every wound.
Jean shivered at his touch and slowly Jeremy’s fingers travelled over Jean’s scarred body. He counted the constellation of freckles on Jeremy’s body, losing track of time as the number rose.
Jean trembled the first time he slid into Jeremy.
His heart felt heavy in his chest and he felt lost-thrown into a stormy ocean and tossed under the overpowering wave.
“Jean. Look at me.”
Jean’s gray eyes darted up to meet Jeremy’s heavy lidded stare. His breath came in short gasps and his grip on Jean tightened, but he breathed out a sigh and held his gaze.
“Focus on me.”
Jean nodded and slowly started to roll his hips noting every gasp and every moan that escaped from Jeremy’s parted lips. He kept his eyes locked on Jeremy’s and felt the stirring of pressure building. He reached down to grasp Jeremy and slowly stroked him in time with the movement of his hips. Jeremy’s back arched and warmth filled Jean’s hand. Jeremy’s breath hitched as he began to move with Jean, urging a faster pace, pushing Jean towards his own release. He felt his hips buck against Jeremy’s and he came with a quiet gasp.
He held onto Jeremy and Jeremy planted a quick kiss on the jagged scar on his chest. Jean was quiet after he pulled out and rolled over onto his back. Jeremy turned onto his side, resting his chin on his hand.
“Still with me?” Jeremy spoke with a gentleness that left Jean feeling heavy with an unforeseen weight.
His voice was hoarse and he knew it sounded weak, so he tried again.
“I’m with you.”
Routines were dangerous and that was a painful lesson to relearn.
The phone call came about a month and a half after they had moved in. Jean had half a month left before practice with the Trojans began. His fifth and last year was almost underway.
Jeremy was finally feeling like he had found a place among his new team and the dark bags under his eyes were starting to fade. There was a new sense of ease between them now and Jean felt as though he was slowly finding his way to steady ground.
His phone rang at two am on a Saturday morning and it was enough to wake Jean from his slumber. Jeremy groaned and rolled over at his side. Jean didn’t recognize the number, but on a gut instinct he answered anyway as he peeled off the covers and tread into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him.
He flipped on the light and leaned against the counter.
There was a moment of silence before a cold voice greeted him.
Jean froze, the phone still pressed against his ear. Terror gripped him and his breath felt trapped in his chest. He saw his reflection and the man in the mirror was one he hoped to never meet again-wide eyed and trembling with fear.
“Are you really that surprised to hear from me? Have the Trojans made you soft or did you forget about our arrangement?”
Jean swallowed the lump in his throat and fought to form words.
The voice lost its light tone and grew hard, “I expect an answer Jean. Would you prefer I paid you and Mr. Knox a visit? It would be easy.”
“No.” It was a whisper and Jean winced. He closed his eyes, avoiding his own reflection. He needed to come from a place of strength and he found none in the mirror, “I would hate for you to waste your time Lord Moriyama.”
The silent pause before Ichirou spoke felt like an eternity and Jean’s grip on the counter turned white knuckled.
“And what about my previous question, Jean. Have the Trojans made you soft?”
He felt backed in a corner. Trapped, with a gun against his head and Jean felt his heart race. He glanced in the mirror and forced himself to look at himself as he slowed his breathing.
He had been here before, even if it felt like a lifetime ago. He had faced this every day of his life and survived.
He would do it again, but he couldn’t if his mind was hazy with fear.
Jean breathed out evenly and clutched his phone harder.
“No, my Lord.”
“Good. I would hate to think that your years spent with my family had been for nothing.”
His light taunt served as a harsh reminder. Remember. Remember or I will make you relive it.
Jean’s voice was tight with control, “They were not. I would be foolish to think such a thing.”
Ichirou’s laughed at Jean’s polite words. It was a lie and they both knew it.
“Very well. Now, onto business. The Raven’s loss this season was a disappointment, your success on the other hand has been most promising. Be sure it continues.”
“I will, my Lord. I have not forgotten your generosity.”
“I should hope not. Always a pleasure, Jean. You can be sure that you will be hearing from me again soon.”
The line went dead before Jean had a chance to reply. He dropped the phone and listened to it hit the tile. Whatever control he had cracked and his breath came in sharp stuttering gasps. Riko was dead, but his brother was alive and reigning.
He had been a fool to forget it.
His vision started to blur when he heard the quiet knock on the bathroom and Jeremy’s concerned voice.
“Jean? Is everything ok?”
He shook his head, but it did nothing to clear his racing mind and he slid down till he was seated, back against the cabinet. Jean closed his eyes and tried to shut out the barrage of memories replaying in his mind.
Jean heard the door open and Jeremy slowly sit down across from him, careful to leave space between them.
His breathing was still fast and he felt dizzy. He wanted to laugh, at least the memories were starting to feel fuzzy. He could hardly focus on them.
“Jean. You have to slow down your breathing. Take a deep breath for me, ok? I’m going to put a hand on your shoulder, it’s just me.”
He felt the warm weight of Jeremy’s hand on his back. Solid and real.
Jean inhaled slowly.
“Good. Now again.”
He did it again and again, following Jeremy’s gentle commands. When he opened his eyes, Jeremy was at his side. His brown eyes were calm and Jean tangled a hand in his shirt and sank into him. Jeremy pulled him close and leaned against the cupboard, murmuring words of comfort as he listened to Jean’s breathing slowed.
Jeremy waited patiently and didn’t speak again until he felt Jean relax against him.
“Who was on the phone, Jean?”
He was met with silence and he heard Jean’s breathing hitch. The man tensed, as if ready to run. Jeremy tightened his grip on Jean.
“Jean.” It came out as a weary warning.
Whatever response he was expecting, it wasn’t the harsh laugh that Jean let out. The sound made Jeremy want to wince and he bit back an equally cruel retort.
“It’s for your own goddamn good.” Jean continued said before he sighed, the fight left his voice and he sounded tired. More tired than Jeremy had ever heard him.
“I can’t help you without knowing the problem Jean.”
“You won’t be safe.”
His words left sent a shiver down Jeremy’s spine. He had seen Jean’s scars. He knew the legitimateness of such wounds, but even that knowledge didn’t sway him.
“Tell me anyways.”
Jean turned to glance up at him. His expression was cold and calculating, reminiscent of their early days together. For a moment, it looked like he would explain, but then he shook his head.
“It’s not worth the risk. Not to you. Or your family. Hell, even to the rest of the Trojans. Do you understand? These people are powerful and know how to hurt you. It’s not worth it.”
Jean sounded defeated and Jeremy let his words sink in.
His life had not been without challenges, but he had never had to consider such things before. Jeremy glanced down at Jean and he had his answer.
He wasn’t ready to let this go.
“It’s worth it, Jean.”
It was a quiet admission and the shock in Jean’s eyes was enough for Jeremy to know that his message had been received. He didn’t have to elaborate. Jean heard it in the warmth of his voice. Felt it in his touch. Jean believed in it and his acceptance of Jeremy’s love was the closest he could come to speaking such words back.
In the early hours of the morning, Jean told Jeremy everything.
He started with his parents and his life in Marseille. He told him about the drive to the airport and being dragged on a plane by strangers. He told him about how hard he fought and his voice broke from the weight of his memories. Jean gathered himself and with renewed composure he told him when he had finally given in. He told him about Riko and his voice sounded clinical as he gave a brief synopsis of their time together. He didn’t stop, even when he felt Jeremy shake.
He told him about Riko’s reaction to Kengo’s death and Renee’s part in his rescue. Through the doorway to the bedroom, Jean could see the sunlight starting to peak into the bedroom. He ended with Ichirou’s deal and his summer in South Carolina.
Jeremy had listened quietly, but he slowly lost his calm expression as his tale unfolded. Now, they both looked tired. The color had drained from Jeremy’s face and Jean’s voice was hoarse.
He had no more secrets and he waited for Jeremy to speak and beg him to go.
The blond took a breath and ran a hand through his curls before he faced Jean. He lifted up Jean’s hand and pressed his lips to his knuckles. Jeremy had heard every word and flinched at each description of his wounds, trying not to imagine the crunch of bone breaking when Jean had described it.
Thanking him for his honesty felt too detached. Expressing his sympathies for the violence done to him seemed cheap.
Jean looked at him and Jeremy knew he understood. Though, he didn’t miss the lingering look of doubt and uneasiness.
He could at least address that.
Jeremy stood up slowly, feeling his bones creak, and held out a hand towards Jean. Without hesitation, Jean accepted it and snagged his phone off the tile before he stood.
Jeremy pulled him onto the bed and wrapped an arm around his waist and pressed his lips against the crook of Jean’s neck. Jean leaned back into him with a sigh.
Finally, Jeremy spoke.
“You’re a survivor, Jean. No one can take that away from you.”
His voice was heavy with emotion and his arms tightened around Jean.
“We’ll get through this together.”
Jean nodded, hearing his words and he chose to accept them. They laid in bed for the rest of the morning, drifting in and out of sleep. Jean lazily kissed Jeremy and felt him smile beneath his lips as he tugged Jean closer.
It was enough to hold his fears of the future at bay and it was the closest thing he’d ever felt to coming home.
"Care, because it is what you do. Care, and be vibrantly alive."
- Ralph Marston
It felt odd to Jean to be returning to the dorms right as he was finally feeling settled with Jeremy. After Ichirou’s check in, Jeremy had suggested calling Kevin. Jean had balked at the idea at first, but the suggestion ate away at his resolve and by the end of the week, he relented and called Kevin. It was awkward, but the relief of finding out he hadn’t been the only one of the three to receive a call was worth it.
When Kevin asked how he was doing, Jean had paused before he answered him honestly. When he said he was doing well, Kevin knew him enough to know it wasn’t a line. They spoke for a few more minutes about the upcoming season and Jeremy’s first game before the conversation dwindled. Before they hung up, Kevin said he would call him in a few weeks. Jean didn’t argue.
Jean, along with Laila, Alvarez and Eli, attended Jeremy’s first game. It was strange to watch Jeremy play in person and not be on the court with him, but Jean felt an overwhelming sense of pride as he watched him help lead the team to a stunning victory.
He joined Jeremy back at his apartment that night and went to practice tired the next day, ignoring Alvarez’s teasing comments and Laila’s knowing smile.
It didn’t take long for Jean to realize that, for all his quirks, he missed living with Jeremy. Eli was quiet. Not that the silence bothered Jean, but it was a change of pace from Jeremy’s restless energy. Eli was steadfast and soft-spoken. Jean found the other man easy to like and in time they had their own routine. Most of their conversations occurred in the morning, waiting for their coffee to brew. He learned about Eli’s summer internship in Chicago and Jean told him about the most recent hike he took with Jeremy. It was easy and Jean appreciated that.
Jeremy’s absence, along with the other graduated seniors, was noticed and the first couple of practices Jean gritted his teeth, though it wasn’t enough to stop a few frustrated jabs escape. It became apparent that Prisha wouldn’t tolerate his attitude. Rhemann watched with quiet approval on the sidelines.
“We heard you the first time, Moreau. Now are you going to be helpful and show us how to fix it or keep whining?”
The new freshman stared at her, gaping, waiting for Jean’s anger, but he only smiled-a fleeting smirk of amusement- before he began his critique and walked his teammates through the remedy.
Jean felt like he was finally summiting and seeing the mountain he’d been climbing this whole time. His muscles still ached and he still struggled to breath, but the perspective gave him a moment’s relief.
When classes started and Jeremy’s team started travelling, it felt like he was slipping backwards. His nightmares started up again to his dismay. Eli gave him sympathetic looks in the morning, but didn’t force the conversation. Jean was grateful for it, but it didn’t help the gnawing, hollow feeling burrowing inside him.
Jeremy told him to call anytime, but Jean knew about the traveling life. It was cramped and based on someone else’s schedule. Besides, Jeremy had a job to do and Jean vowed early on that he wouldn’t be a cause for distraction.
It helped when Jeremy called him first.
Sometimes Jean was already in bed, but he’d peel back the covers and take the conversation to the hall. He’d listen to Jeremy ramble as he paced slowly up and down the hallway. It wasn’t the same as having him at his side, but it was the best they had for the time being.
At Rhemann’s insistence, he had started seeing one of the school’s psychologists. Jean had resisted at first, but the coach left little room for argument.
“If you can look me in the eye and tell me that you’re honestly coping just fine then you can cancel the appointment.” He eyed Jean with a weary respect, “but I have a feeling that’s not the case.”
Jean didn’t challenge him and wordlessly took the appointment slip from him.
The Trojans did their best to prevent Jean from isolating himself. Alvarez seemed to be leading the cause. After about a week, he brought it up while they were studying in the library. He glanced up from his notebook briefly at her frantic typing and muttering.
She caught him staring and narrowed his eyes.
“I know that look, Jean. What?”
“You don’t have to do this you know.”
She clucked her tongue, “Do what?”
He rolled his eyes and gestured between them with his pen, “This. Hang out with me. I’m fine.”
Alvarez stopped typing and turned to face him. She gave him a thoughtful look before she smiled.
“That’s awfully nice, Jean, but I actually like hanging out with you.”
He stared at her and she chuckled.
“You think Jeremy put us up to ‘this’?” She shook her head, “Jean. We like you. You spend time with the people you like.”
This time the looks she gave him carried a hint of pity.
Alvarez grinned and turned back to her screen, “Yeah. ‘Oh.’ So don’t be such an asshole to us all the time.”
Her tone was playful and he flashed a small smile before he turned back to his reading. Alvarez was beaming.
The Trojans were still committed to being the best and that served Jean’s interests well. On the afternoon of their first game, he got a text as he was changing out.
Jeremy: You should check the first row tonight ;)
Jean: I thought you weren’t getting back till tomorrow…
Jeremy: Caught an early flight <3 kick ass tonight.
Jean smiled and slammed the locker shut. When he walked onto the court, he found Jeremy’s face in the crowd and he grinned, one that his boyfriend matched. The rest of the Trojans chatted excitedly and waved when they spotted him.
They won the game easily and no one gave Jean a hard time when he changed out quickly. When he walked in the common room, Jeremy blushed at the sight of him and excused himself from his conversation with Rhemann to meet Jean by the door.
He looked sheepish and Jean rolled his eyes, grasping his hand and tugging him out the door, ignoring the whoops that came from his teammates. The parking lot was practically empty and Jeremy chatted excitedly about the game. Jean added a few comments, but by the time they reached the yellow Jeep, his impatience got the better of him.
He pressed Jeremy against the Jeep and kissed him mid-sentence. Jeremy’s lips parted under Jean’s and his hands went to the back of Jean’s neck, pulling him closer. It wasn’t long before Jeremy pulled back. Jean glanced at him in surprise.
“What if someone sees?”
Jean huffed, “I don’t care.”
Jeremy grinned and tugged him back.
When they broke apart and Jeremy took to the driver’s seat. He hesitated before starting the car, turning to Jean. He looked giddy.
“Are you tired?”
His muscles ached, but he felt wide awake. Jean took in Jeremy’s half smile and felt a renewed sense of certainty.
“I know you don’t like surprises, but I’ve got an idea that I think you’ll like. What do you think?”
Jean shrugged, “I suppose we’ll see won’t we.”
Jeremy laughed and started to drive. They talked the whole drive. Jeremy asked about classes and the library job. Jean wanted to know about the last game he’d missed.
As they drove out of the city, the sun started to set, painting the sky a blurry mix of orange and pink.
The landscape surrounding them was vast and vacant. They hadn’t had a car pass them for a while now. They drove for a little while longer and the horizon held a lavender sky when they pulled off the road. Jeremy seemed unconcerned as he drove the Jeep further off the side of the road. He shut off the Jeep and reached in the backseat for a few blankets. Jean stared at him as he hopped onto the Jeeps’ hood and climbed up to sit on the top.
He leaned over and Jean heard him call out, “You coming up or what?”
Jean rolled his eyes and followed him, settling at his side. Jeremy spread a blanket over them and glanced over at Jean as he took in the sight around him.
The sun was just disappearing, leaving a hint of color behind. There was nothing but the sound of the wind and buzz of crickets in the brush. It was desolate and wonderful.
Jean laced his fingers through Jeremy’s and rested his head on his shoulder.
“Thank you for bringing me.”
Jeremy pressed his lips against Jean’s temple in a quick kiss and whispered, “Anytime.”
When Jean looked up, the seemingly endless sight of stars took his breath away. It was without a doubt, the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. Slowly, he laid down on the hard top of the Jeep’s roof and Jeremy joined him and Jean rested his head against his chest.
The air cooled and Jean tugged the blanket closer. He stared up at the sky and breathed in the earthy scent around him. He felt as though if he stretched out his hand, perhaps the Heavens would reach back. Jean didn’t believe in an afterlife, but if he did, he’d want it to be here-a witness to an eternal desert sky, hovering just below the stars.
Jeremy’s heart beat slow and steady beneath him and it resonated through him. It was the only sound that ever mattered. Each heavy thud, a valid reminder of his existence, his continued fight. Beneath the stars, Jean knew he was supposed to feel insignificant and temporary, but as Jeremy breathed in and out-warm against his skin- Jean felt whole.
He had lived a prisoner’s life and he felt sure it would haunt him the rest of his life. The mind could be a cruel weapon and his was unforgiving. Jean had never given much thought to resilience. His therapist had brought the word up to him and Jean hadn’t thought much about it since. But lying out in the desert, where only the resilient survived-he thought, perhaps he might be too.
Happiness was a foreign concept that he was only just beginning to learn to recognize within himself. Good and bad blurred together too easily for him. It was a muddy painting of ugly colors that he had no skill in deciphering.
Perhaps his answer lay in finding a new canvas. A new artist. One who wasn’t colorblind and could help him pick the right colors.
One who told him he was deserving of peace and good things.
One who grounded him during his darkest storms and was unafraid of the ones on the horizon.
Underneath a billion flickering stars, Jean felt known for the first time in his life. His secrets were shared and his scars bared. He was on the other side of disaster and walking towards of life built on hope.
Jean let out a content sigh and Jeremy tightened his arm around him.
“You want to head back?”
“Not just yet.”
Jeremy smiled and stared up at the starry sky, happy and completely in love with the raven-haired boy in his arms.
Thanks for giving this a chance and reading! <3 This was a lot of fun to write and a change of pace from one shots.
Be sure to check out the amazing artwork that was inspo for the last scene (with artist permission).
And another huge thanks to @smokesontheroof for all the help <3
Sped things up a little bit too, we know from the extra content that Jean isn't even slightly ok till the end of his last year with the team.