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Saturday Sun

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Oh, Saturday sun

I met someone

Out on the West Coast

I gotta get back, I can’t let this go

Oh, Saturday sun

I met someone

Don’t care what it costs

No ray of sunlight’s ever lost

 

--

 

When Jeremy arrives at LAX just ahead of Jean Moreau’s arriving flight, he has a few minutes to contemplate what is about to happen.

He knows only a little of what Jean has been through, and he knows even less of Jean himself. He’s played against him before, gone up against him on the court, but aside from a few jeers and taciturn nods, they’ve never actually spoken.

What Jeremy knows is this: Jean Moreau needs his help. Jean was taken from Evermore bloody and beaten and broken, and the details of that are mysterious and baffling. Jeremy loves Exy. He loves it more than words can say. But it is a game, and at the end of the day, it is far from the most important thing in the world.

The Ravens are an alien and, now, with this new knowledge, horrific aberration of what sport should be. Jeremy loves Exy because it’s fun. And he’s never gotten the impression that the Ravens find anything fun, least of all Exy.

He had worked out the details of Jean’s arrival with Renee Walker as a relay; Kevin Day had offered the ominous advice to not leave Jean on his own; that Ravens always travel in pairs and being alone would be upsetting for Jean. It sounded cult-level crazy, but when Renee had confirmed it, Jeremy vowed to do everything he could to help Jean. Jeremy is a helper; it’s what has made him a good captain to his team, he thinks. When Larsson comes to him asking for homework help, he sits down with her to offer it or tracks down a tutor as needed. When O’Brian is struggling with a particular drill, Jeremy offers him one-on-one time to practice it.

In short, when someone needs help, Jeremy can never resist. And Jean needs help very badly, if Kevin and Renee are to be believed.

He sees Jean before Jean sees him. Jean’s expression is bored, and his skin is very pale. Not just pale; his face is like a mask of death, all sickly white flesh and gaunt cheeks. His black hair is cut very short, with patches of it torn out and scabbed over. Old scars are visible on his face and his neck and his hands. What’s more is that he’s covered in freshly healing bruises and cuts, with one black eye, and there are stitches visible on the side of his throat leading down under his black button up shirt. Actually, everything he’s wearing is black. Jeremy thinks maybe they should start with a shopping trip. Too much black is no good in the California sunshine.

His head is angled down and he looks fairly relaxed, a lie that is betrayed only by the tight set of his jaw; it’s evident that he is ready to fight or flee at any moment if the need arises.  Considering he’s a backliner, the former is more likely. And of course, on his left cheekbone is a tattooed number 3. Now that Jeremy understands a little of what Jean’s life has been like, and knowing how Kevin had had his “2” covered up by a new shape, he believes that it isn’t a sign of arrogant pride as he had once assumed. Or at least, not for Kevin or Jean.  Jeremy thinks that it must be a mark of possession someone else has left behind.

Jean looks up as he moves down the hall towards baggage claim, meeting Jeremy’s brown eyes with his grey ones, and Jeremy smiles brightly at him. It comes naturally, smiling; Jeremy has always been a pretty positive person. Laila and Alvarez fondly call him Captain Sunshine. He’s been told his smile is very comforting.  Jean sees him and does not look in any way comforted. If Jeremy is being honest, Jean appears to be steeling himself for the interaction.

“Hey, Jean!” Jeremy says. “How was your flight?”

“It was fine,” Jean answers stiffly. His voice has the lilt of a French accent, which Jeremy immediately decides he likes. He took French for a bit in high school but he’s not very good, and he only remembers bits and pieces of the basics. But he’s always found the language to be beautiful, and now he’s hopeful that Jean might eventually be willing to teach him some.

“Do you have luggage to pick up?”

“No. This is everything.”

Jeremy glances over the fairly small bag that Jean has with him. The bag looks brand new, as do Jean’s clothes. It seems as though he had taken nothing with him from the Nest. Jeremy expected that; Renee had told him she’d send anything she could manage to retrieve later, but that she wasn’t certain there would be much of anything left.

“Okay, cool,” he says, continuing to smile. “Coach Rhemann gave me the p-card, said to grab you anything you needed after you got here. We can swing by Target or wherever.”

Jean nods, looking uncertain and suspicious. Like he’s waiting for something to happen.

“Here, let me take your bag for you,” Jeremy says, and he reaches out a hand, moving suddenly and with little warning towards Jean. Jean flinches away from Jeremy, instinctively going on the defensive with a steely glare. Jeremy immediately withdraws his hand, and has the grace to look sheepish.

“Ah, I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” he says, trying to lower his voice to something soothing. Jean’s face calms and his body language relaxes, but his jaw is still clenched. “I’m sorry. I promise I’m not going to take anything away from you. Or—or hit you or whatever. No one is, promise.”

Jean looks like he doesn’t really believe him, but despite his reaction, he doesn’t look scared. Jeremy thinks he looks tired, maybe? Angry, but resigned. Like he expects not only to have things taken from him, but that eventually someone might punish him for resisting the theft.

Jeremy shoves his hands into the pockets of his shorts.

“My car is parked this way,” he tells Jean, indicating the direction with a tilt of his head. Jean follows, eyes darting around like he’s waiting for something to happen to him. But of course, nothing does, and Jean puts his bag in the back of Jeremy’s yellow Jeep and climbs into the passenger seat as Jeremy starts the engine.

“Are you hungry?” he asks.

Jean looks down, at his feet, and mumbles, “Yes.” He looks embarrassed, or pained that he even admitted to having a human need, but Jeremy just pulls his sunglasses over his eyes and grins. Each word he’s managed to pull from the other man is something of an achievement, it seems.

“Great! I’ll take you to the best diner between here and USC. It’s where the team always stops to eat when we have an away game.”

Jean nods, buckling his seatbelt. Jeremy pulls out of the lot and away from the airport; he can already tell that Jean is not interested in a conversation, so he turns on the radio and drives.

--

Jean becomes a fixture in Jeremy’s life immediately. When Jean’s transfer was approved by the university, Jeremy had registered Jean as his roommate with the student housing. He expects that Jean is already deeply uncomfortable, and having a complete stranger as a roommate would certainly be no help. Plus, Jeremy doesn’t want helping Jean adjust to become another Trojan’s responsibility; he himself accepted the task, after all, and while Jeremy considers himself a pretty average guy, he knows that Jean has been through hell and could definitely use a friend. Jeremy is determined to be that friend.

The USC athlete dorms are set up as one-bedroom apartment suites; two or three students (depending on the dorm) share a bedroom, bathroom, kitchenette, and small sitting area, with five apartments on each floor. The rooms are simply furnished by USC, with basics like beds and desks and chairs and lighting, but Jeremy brings along his own multicolored floor lamp, tapes up some pictures of his family and the team, and has his own printer to prevent last minute midnight library runs. He also has a TV for the sitting area which will inevitably be moved around between Trojan rooms for various movie nights during the school year. Alvarez always calls dibs on it first.

Jean’s side of the bedroom is bare; he has no photos, no posters, no saved concert tickets or local takeout menus or even so much as a calendar. On their initial trip to Target, Jean purchases two sets of sheets, both the same patternless grey, a little lighter than the stormy color of his eyes. At Jeremy’s insistence he also buys some more suitable clothes for So-Cal, and they pick up some food to stock their shared fridge.

Jean’s injuries heal, the stitches all removed with no problem, his hair grows in more evenly, and the USC Athletics medical supervisor clears him to play just as practices begin for the year.

August is difficult; the team arrives for summer practice, and for the entire first meeting with Coach Rhemann, Jean is like a shadow at Jeremy’s side; gloomy and mean, with a pinched expression like he’s expecting something terrible. And he likely is, although he doesn’t seem sure which direction it’s going to come from. Laila Dermott and Sara Alvarez, who have always had some kind of sixth sense about people in need, decide right away to adopt Jean as their friend, much to Jean’s chagrin. The other senior players have some vague understanding about the Ravens and have seen Jean’s scars, and they do their best to accept and absorb what they can from Jean. The underclassmen are all afraid of him.

Jean is angry, deep inside his soul, the Trojans can all tell. He gets snappish during practice, cruel as he points out mistakes and slow timing. Within the first hour of their first day he makes a freshman cry, and seeing him crying only makes Jean angrier.

“Back off,” Laila calls as she emerges from the goal, annoyed. “He gets the point.”

“This is fun,” mumbles O’Brian, a starting defensive dealer standing next to Jeremy and Coach Rhemann by the bench. “You sure having him come here was a good choice?”

“He’s one of the best backliners in the league,” Jeremy answers. “He’ll adjust.”

“God, I hope so,” Rhemann says with a sigh. Laila leads the freshman over to them, and Rhemann pulls the kid aside for a good old fashioned pep talk. Alvarez marches up to Jean on the court and gets in his face.

“Did making him cry help anything at all? Is he suddenly playing so much better because of your super useful assholery?” she demands, scowling. “No? Weird! So, like, now that we’re all done with that, let’s get back to actual practice, Moreau.”

“The Ravens would never tolerate this kind of weakness,” Jean snaps, turning to Jeremy for sanction.

“We are not the Ravens,” Jeremy reminds him simply, and Jean falls silent once more and resumes his scrimmage position.

--

Jeremy texts, but Kevin is rarely helpful. He’s an Exy genius and a total history nerd, but he’s not big on healthy ways of dealing with feelings, Jeremy discovers. Kevin is, it turns out, what Jeremy might refer to as “an alcoholic”. Eventually Jeremy switches to texting Renee instead, and she is much more helpful. She suggests refocusing Jean’s abrasive coaching into a useable resource.

So when Jean gets angry at practice, infuriated by the imperfections and flaws in his teammates, Jeremy pulls him aside, hears what he has to say, and turns it into actual advice for the other players. And despite his nature and his harshness, Jean is usually right about Exy.

“Your footwork is incredibly sloppy,” Jean says at a late August practice with a sneer as he watches Evans, a striker sub, go sprawling on the ground, having tripped over Levinson’s extended racquet.

“You’re a bitch, Moreau,” O’Brian calls from center court, over the sound of Fisher cackling from the goal.

“Yes,” Jean replies, undeterred. “And Evans needs to watch his fucking feet.”

Larsson tosses a glare over at Jeremy as she helps Evans off the ground, and Jeremy shrugs.

“Well, Evans, you do need to watch where you’re going a little more closely,” he offers sympathetically. “Maybe we could run some more drills to help with that?”

Jean is so angry, and very sarcastic, but Jeremy knows he’s also pretty scared. He flinches when a locker slams shut too hard. He avoids Coach Rhemann as much as possible. On the court, he’s a perfect backliner. Strong, fast, forceful, a solid wall of muscle that even Jeremy struggles to best. Off the court, however, and despite his physical advantages, he flinches at surprising movements and his eyes sweep constantly around like he’s waiting for someone to strike him. Jeremy knows that he is. He’s cautious in their shared dorm apartment too; he watches Jeremy out of the corners of his grey eyes. Jean is expecting something from Jeremy. Jeremy has no idea what it is.

The beginning of Jean’s time at USC is difficult. But by the third month, a while after classes have begun and Jean has begun to relax, Jeremy notices Jean making plans with Laila and Sara without too much of their insistence. He speaks more calmly during practice; still with harsh criticisms of his teammates, but his tone is a little softer and he seems surprised when people accept his judgment with grace and make attempts to take his advice. He still gets angry a lot, but the Trojans have grown mostly used to it by this point. Some adapt to it better than others, but overall the team has seen the endless scars on Jean’s skin and understands that he’s doing his best.

It’s not perfect, but it works, and after they win their first two games of the season, Jean puts real effort into being a little less angry, although certainly not less rude. As Jean gets less angry, however, he is forced to confront his fear. Jean has kept carefully tight-lipped about his days as a Raven; Jeremy gets most of what he knows from Renee. Jeremy saw how messed up Jean was in August, and finally asks about it. She tells him that Riko had physically hurt and abused Jean, that he had lived with Riko’s family for many years, that she took him from the Nest only once he had asked, and if she hadn’t, he absolutely would have died. Jean doesn’t talk about any of it.

That changes the first time Jean wakes Jeremy up in the middle of the night.

He certainly doesn’t do it on purpose; Jeremy is awake and blinking into the dark of their room, wondering what woke him, and then he hears the noises from Jean’s side of the room. His roommate is gasping for breath, thrashing around in his sheets, and forcing out words between his gritted teeth. Jeremy doesn’t know a lot of French, but he remembers enough to recognize “stop” and “please”.

Jeremy moves without thinking, crossing the distance between their beds. He reaches to shake Jean awake, but then thinks better of touching him, and instead kneels beside Jean’s bed to speak to him in a clear, calm voice.

“Jean,” he says. “Jean, come on, wake up. You’re safe. No one can hurt you now. You’re here at USC. Come on, Jean. I won’t let anyone get you, I promise.”

Ne me touche pas!Jean gasps, curling himself inwards. Trying to protect himself.

“I’m not going to touch you. No one is going to touch you without your consent ever again.”

And he wakes up then, eyes snapping open, mouth open in a shocked expression as he struggles to breathe, kicking his way free from the twisted sheets as he sits up.

“Hey,” Jeremy murmurs, trying to be comforting. “It’s all right. You’re safe.”

Jean barks out a laugh, cruel and unbelieving. Then, in the dim moonlight, Jeremy can just see his face relax from angry to afraid. Jean doesn’t let his guard down this much in the daytime. He turns to look Jeremy in the eyes, expression finally neutral, and Jeremy meets his gaze.

“I guess I should explain myself,” Jean says, and it’s a surprise to Jeremy, because up until now Jean has kept tight-lipped about what happened at Evermore and about what he’s feeling. Jeremy is kind of thrilled that Jean is finally starting to open up to him, but this is not how he had anticipated it happening.

“You can tell me anything,” Jeremy promises. “I’m your friend.”

Jean stares at him for a moment, eyes sharp and piercing, before something in him seems to shift. It must be exhausting, Jeremy thinks, to keep so much inside you for so long.

“Is that what you are? I think I’ve never had a friend before,” Jean says, sounding far away. “I used to think that Kevin was my friend. He did what little he could for years and years when Riko hurt me. But then the one night Riko hurt him, Kevin was gone. And he didn’t care what happened to me after he left. He knew what Riko would do to me, but it didn’t matter enough to him. I didn’t.”

“I’m sure he—“

“You are sure?” Jean asks dryly. “Are you?”

Jeremy answers, “He’s the reason you’re here. You coming to USC was entirely his idea and his plan.”

Jean is silent for a few moments before he answers. “I know I could have followed him. That night, or another. But I did not see the point. There was nowhere either of us could go where Riko could not get to us eventually. I thought he was completely idiotic, for going to the Foxes for help. And I think I would have said no, if he asked me to leave with him that night. But he did not ask. Maybe that is my own fault.”

“I’m… I’m sorry,” Jeremy says.

“It was not your doing, Jeremy.”

Jeremy likes how Jean says his name, the soft J and the slightly rolled R of it.

“That doesn’t mean I can’t be sorry that it happened.”

Jean rolls his eyes. Jeremy asks a question that he’s been wondering about for ages.

“Why did you ever join the Ravens?” Jeremy asks.

“I did not have a choice.”

“Why not?” Jeremy asks.

He’s quiet for a moment before he answers. “You have lived a normal life, Jeremy, until I came here. If I tell you this, you will know things that most people with normal lives never have to think about. Are you sure that is something you are willing to give?”

Jeremy thinks about it. He thinks about Jean, waking from nightmares no worse than the last 10 years of his life. He thinks about how injured Jean was at the airport the day he arrived. The scars and the bruises and the stitches and the hair and the number 3 tattooed forever on his face in raven-black ink. He thinks of desperation in Kevin’s eyes the day he asked Jeremy to take in a stray. The trust he’d put in Jeremy to do right by Jean Moreau when no one else ever had.

“I’m sure,” Jeremy says.

Jean doesn’t seem surprised, but he does sigh like he’s resigned to it.

“No one has ever ordered me to keep a secret. I might as well. The truth is, I never had a choice in joining the Ravens because I was given to Riko and Tetsuji Moriyama when I was 11 years old, to settle a debt between my parents and the Moriyama Yakuza family.”

Jeremy and Jean look at each other. It sounds like the plot to a video game, Jeremy thinks. Or a movie. But Jean does not tell wild stories and he never lies, and he has no reason to change that, so it must be the truth. It sounds criminal and horrendous but Jeremy just nods, with no option but to accept that Jean spent nearly half his life as Riko Moriyama’s personal property.

“Master was not interested in training me,” Jean continues. “I was nothing to him. So of course I became Riko’s plaything. He was violent and petty and monstrous. As I am certain you already know.”

“…Yeah.”

“When I first arrived here, I thought that I was finally lucky.”

“I’m glad you—“

“I felt lucky because everyone in college Exy knows you, Jeremy. Everyone knows how kind you are, how generous. I had no way to know how much of your reputation was true, how genuine your known behavior was, but I felt lucky because I knew that it would be better for me to belong to you than to him.”

Jeremy recoils, and he knows Jean can see it in his face. Jeremy feels sick to his stomach at the thought that Jean had come here willingly while under the impression that he had been sold. That he truly believed that he physically belonged to another person. To Jeremy. That his only option in life was to be someone’s property, and he was just relieved it was finally someone nice.

It is sickening to know that another human being had at any moment believed that Jeremy owned them. Jeremy can never not know this about Jean. And he isn’t sure what it is that Jean believes now.

“You aren’t anyone’s property, and the fact that you ever were…” Jeremy is at a loss for words. How can this even be real? “You do not belong to me. To anyone. I am not your… That’s just… It’s just not… oh my god, that’s.”

 Jean sits up straighter and says, “I decided on the flight to California that I would not wait for you to drop your act with me. You would be nothing like Riko, I knew, but beyond that? I had no idea. So here we are. And now you know. So I believe it’s time you tell me what you want from me and we can both get this over with. I prefer a strike I know is coming.”

“There is no strike,” Jeremy forces out, and Jean sneers at him.

“Don’t be foolish,” he snaps. “Hmph. Some master you are.”

“Jean,” Jeremy says, shaking with anger at everyone and everything that made Jean feel this way up until now. “I am not your… No one here is going to hit you, not ever. That’s not how we do things at USC. We’re all part of the same team. We are all equals.”

Jean rolls his eyes. “Jeremy. I am a backliner. I can take a hit. That is my purpose. It wasn’t hitting that I was concerned about. It was all the rest. Riko could do anything he wanted to me, so he did. I know you have seen what I look like.”

Jeremy has; it’s impossible to change clothes in a locker room with people and not see anything. And once he’d caught sight of the battleground of Jean’s skin, it had been difficult to look away. His skin is covered in scars. There are some burns from a lighter, but mostly there are cuts from a thin blade that had carved lines and shapes and words into his back, into his chest and his belly, on his arms and legs too. Even his face bears a few knife scars. Jeremy had to scold some of the other guys on the team for staring, later, but even he had been hard pressed not to look.

“Riko liked knives,” Jean says, voice calm. Jeremy feels sick. This is beyond college hazing and messing with new players on a team. This is beyond even the wildest stories he’s ever heard from friends at other schools. This is beyond anything Jeremy understands. “But it didn’t have to be knives. There are all sorts of things he tried on me.”

Jeremy feels sick just thinking about it. What the hell kind of school lets its students do things like that to each other? What kind of coach encourages this kind of violence? How could this go on for ten years and nobody did anything?

“Anyone wants to touch you again,” Jeremy says, and he means it with every cell in his body, “They’ve gotta go through me first.”

Jean appraises him for a moment, and then smirks very slightly.

“Interesting. I have never heard you make a threat before.”

“I’ve never wanted to,” Jeremy admits. He feels protective over all his players, as the captain, and moreso over Jean since his arrival. And now? Jean is his friend, and his teammate, and Jeremy knows now that he would tear down the sky itself to keep him safe. It’s a foolish thought, considering the involvement of the fucking Japanese mafia, but Jeremy doesn’t care. He means it.

“You are exactly like everyone has said, you know that? You are so… nice. All the Trojans are. But you especially. It is strange to know that even someone like me could have a friend like you. You have all been very gracious even though I have done nothing to deserve it.”

Jeremy is suddenly struck with an anger he has never felt before. He’s lived an ordinary life; two parents, two sisters, a standard childhood, a college scholarship, a close group of friends, decent grades, an active social life with a couple boyfriends and girlfriends along the way. He’s been annoyed before, he’s been mad, but up until this moment Jeremy has never been so furious in his life. The man sitting next to him had flown across the country with the sincere belief that he was going from one master to another, and had accepted that. He had been cut up and beaten down and probably so many more truly horrible, awful things that Jeremy can’t even imagine, because up until meeting Jean he’d believed this sort of thing only happens in movies.

But Jean is real, and his scars are real, and even though he’s obviously suffered more than any person ever should, he really thinks he is undeserving of something as easy and as simple as kindness.

It costs nothing to be kind, and so everyone in Jean’s life until now has taken the time and the effort to be cruel. He sees Jean’s arms, bare below the sleeves of his tee-shirt, covered in scars and burns and marks and he wonders when was the last time Jean willingly let anyone touch him at all.

“Jean, can I hug you?” he asks before he can stop himself. Jean stiffens, and clenches his fists nervously.

“Why?” he asks suspiciously.

“Because I think it’s been a long time since anyone touched you without trying to hurt you,” he says honestly. “And I promise that you don’t have to let me. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.”

Jean hesitates. It’s clearly been some time since he was allowed to say no.

“…I don’t want you to hug me,” he finally says.

“No?”

“No.”

“Okay, that’s fine,” Jeremy says. “That’s good. You can say no. You can say no to me, or to Coach, to your teammates, whoever. No one will ever get mad at you for that. If nothing else, I want you to know that your ‘no’ will always be fully respected by everyone on the team. So if you don’t want me to touch you, then I won’t.”

Jean stares at Jeremy for a long time before he answers.

“I believe you,” Jean says.

“About what?”

“About whether or not I am still property.”

“People aren’t property,” Jeremy says. “No matter what they said to you, no matter what they did. It was wrong. And I… I’m… I’m glad Riko Moriyama is dead.”

It feels strange to say it, to acknowledge a death and be grateful for it. Jeremy is surprised at himself, but he doesn’t waver. He’s glad that Riko can never touch his friend ever again. Jean takes a moment to answer.

“I am concerned,” he finally says. “You are too easy to talk to. Today I was more or less the same as the rest of your team. Tomorrow you will know better.”

“Jean, I don’t mean anything bad by it, but I’ve known since the day we met that you’re nothing like the rest of my team. And that’s okay,” Jeremy assures him. “But I think you could use a little extra help. Maybe it would be good if you started seeing a therapist? It’s their job to listen to everything you have to say and to help you work through it, right? I see a therapist from time to time. Levinson goes every week. Dr. Riley works out of the school’s med center, I can get you her number if you want. Of course you don’t have to, obviously, but…”

Jean hums, thoughtful. “Maybe… it is not such a terrible idea. I will think about it.”

They sit in comfortable silence for a while, and when Jeremy finds himself falling back towards sleep, he stumbles back into his own bed.

“Jeremy,” Jean says softly.

“Mmngh?” he groans, face already buried in his pillow.

“Thank you. For waking me up. And… for not being what I expected.”

--

Jean begins weekly therapy with a Dr. Anne Riley, USC-employed psychologist, and while progress is slow, it seems to be helping. They win their next home game against Washington State, with no small thanks to Jean’s improvements to their practice drills and Jeremy’s easy leadership. As they make their way to the locker rooms after the game, Jean cautiously offers Jeremy a handshake, which Jeremy excitedly returns. Despite his frequently cold demeanor, Jean’s hand is warm.

The whole team goes out for drinks at the closest bar to campus, and to everyone’s surprise, Jean comes along too. To be fair, he mostly comes because Alvarez and Dermott kept begging him until he finally says yes, and he spends the beginning of the evening glued to Jeremy’s side and barely says anything aside from a few snide comments under his breath. This is a blessing because Jean has developed a penchant for picking fights with Evans, who is easily riled.

By the end of the night, Laila and Sara have pulled Jean to the side to ask for critiques of their game, and Jeremy mingles with his team.

He is distracted by the sound of laughter.

Laughter is hardly rare among the Trojans, who always joke and mess around together. But Jeremy has never heard this laugh before. He turns to see the table where Jean and the two girls are sitting. Laila is grinning wickedly, having made some sort of joke, and Alvarez has her face buried in her hands as her shoulders shake with mirth. Across from them is Jean. And he is laughing.

Jeremy has never heard Jean laugh. He’s seen his genuine, non-sarcastic, non-aggressive smile a few times in the past few weeks, a tentative and precious thing, and still often at someone else’s expense, but now Jean is laughing, cheeks bright, eyes closed, and he looks happy. He looks like a college student. He looks like the softest version of Jean Moreau that Jeremy has ever seen.

And Jeremy thinks, ah, shit.

--

After a few more games (mostly wins, a few losses) and a lot of traveling together with the team, Jean has adjusted to some casual touching from his teammates. O’Brian will tap his shoulder to get his attention while they unload the bus, or Levinson will smack him on the back in excitement after a good play or a victory on the court. Laila will hook her arm through Jean’s while they walk. And sometimes now he even lets Jeremy hug him, never more than a moment, and only when they’ve won a game. Which Jeremy is privately really happy about. The winning, but moreso the hugs. His raging crush on Jean has become background noise to their daily interactions, but Jeremy values their friendship above all else, and he wouldn’t expect Jean to think about him the same way, so he focuses on giving Jean his usual contribution of support and cheer. In the meantime, he vents about his unrequited feelings to Sara and Laila.

Jean is doing well. His grades are good, he’s enjoying his classes, and his therapist has given him some great advice and solid coping techniques. He goes places by himself, sometimes without even thinking about it. Jeremy is so proud of him.

Most of the Trojans stayed on campus for Thanksgiving, particular the ones from the East Coast, but the dorms close over winter break which is already fast approaching. Laila and Sara have been talking about their venture to Arizona to stay with the Alvarez family. Larsson and her family are taking a vacation to Ireland. The rest will scatter around the country to their respective homes, and Jeremy is no different.

Everyone is looking forward to the time off, although the Trojans will only have two weeks, whereas the rest of the USC student body will get a full month. Despite that, spirits are up, even Jean’s, although it can be hard to tell due to Jean’s standard behavior. But recovery is not a straight line. That’s something Jeremy is constantly reminded of when Jean wakes in the night from a cruel dream, or Jeremy doesn’t give him enough warning when he approaches him and Jean instinctively tries to make himself smaller, or after a practice when Jean stands and stares into his locker unmoving and frozen as if he can’t process the colors he’s seeing.

Jean still has somewhat frequent nightmares, and while they don’t always wake Jeremy up, he sometimes finds himself awake in the dark of night with Jean mumbling in troubled French. (Jeremy wonders if Jean knows he dreams in his mother tongue.)

One such night, Jeremy awakens to the sound of Jean scrambling for breath, moving around in his bed as if he’s trying to get away from something, and this time when he speaks, it’s in English.

Please don’t do this to me,” he gasps, and it sounds like he’s begging. It chills Jeremy down to his bones. Jean sounds small and terrified and hurt, and before Jeremy can stop himself he’s across the room with a hand on Jean’s shoulder to shake him back to wakefulness.

Jean awakens with a scream, yanking himself away from Jeremy’s hand and panting hard, labored breaths.

“It’s just me,” Jeremy says quickly and gently, hands raised in a sign of surrender. “I’m sorry, but it seemed really bad, and I just… I wanted to get you out of there.”

“Okay,” Jean answers, but he doesn’t sound even a little okay. Jeremy takes his usual seat at the side of Jean’s bed and waits. Jean looks at him in the dark, and sighs, very deeply.

“We don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to,” Jeremy reminds him like he does every time. “You sounded… more upset than I’ve ever heard you.”

Jean sighs again, rubs his eyes with the heel of his palm.

“I thought I was doing better.”

“Jean, you’re doing great!” Jeremy insists. “I can tell. Everyone can tell.”

“He is dead,” Jean says, like he didn’t even hear Jeremy speak. “He is dead, and yet when I close my eyes he is still holding the leash.”

“There is no leash. Not anymore.”

“Maybe.”

Another few minutes of silence pass, and Jeremy thinks maybe Jean has fallen back to sleep, and he stands up to do the same, when Jean says, so softly, “Wait.”

He turns back to Jean’s bed.

“Sit with me?”

“Sure.” Jeremy sits down on the edge of the bed as Jean scoots over to make room for it. When they’re sitting side by side, Jean leans against Jeremy’s shoulder, and Jeremy takes the weight easily. Jean is clearly exhausted in more ways than one.

“When I was sixteen,” Jean tells him, and he’s whispering, like if he says it quietly enough maybe no one will actually hear it. “One night I woke up handcuffed to my bed. That wasn’t strange. That happened all the time. What was strange was that Riko was in the room with another person. It was a Raven goalkeeper, I believe. I am not certain his position. What I do know is that he was a large, strong man, bigger than I was by far at that age, and he was deathly loyal to Riko even then.”

Jean pauses, and for a moment Jeremy thinks he will change his mind about telling this story.

“He handcuffed me so I was face down,” Jean continues, “And then he told the goalkeeper to fuck me.”

Jeremy flinches hard, but forces himself to remain seated. Jean is leaning on him, and he cannot fail him now.

“It… hurt. And I cried. I begged him not to. I begged the goalkeeper to stop. I begged Riko. Riko watched. He thought it was… entertaining, maybe.”

Jeremy cannot think of anything meaningful to say, and he blurts out, “You were sixteen?”

“Yes.”

God.”

“It happened a few more times over the following two years. Sometimes it was because I had been defiant, or sometimes because he was just bored. Sometimes he brought multiple people in one night. And every time… I would beg. I think that he wanted me to beg. He looked happy when I begged. But the last time, when he brought a man into my room and told him to fuck me, I did nothing. I was so tired. I already knew the choice was not mine, that my body was not mine, and knowing that, what did it matter what happened to it? So at last I did not cry, or beg, or resist. I did nothing at all. I just let the man take me. After that, I think Riko grew bored of the game and moved on to other methods. And by then, we were both actually enrolled as students at Edgar Allen, so we were playing full time.”

Jean says it all matter-of-factly, like it happened in a story or to someone else. A horrible, awful thing that should never happen to anyone. Jeremy feels sick to his stomach, but Jean’s aversion to touch makes so much more sense now than ever. Jeremy thinks there are a million million ways to cause someone pain, and this is the most terrible one.

“Oh my god,” Jeremy breathes out, because he has no fucking idea what to say. He had promised Kevin and Renee that he would take care of Jean.

Jeremy is great at inter-player squabbles, at extra practices and homework help, at drunk players needing a ride home from a party, at bloody noses and twisted ankles and handling college drama. But he has, quite fortunately, never dealt with a single thing like this.

“It causes you grief, to hear it,” Jean says quietly.

Yes,” Jeremy chokes out.

“I am… sorry.”

“Jesus, no. You are the last person who should be sorry.  I just feel… like an idiot. I told myself when you came here… that I was going to help you, because that’s… I like to help people. But Jean, I have to be honest. I am so far out of my league here, I think.”

Jean laughs joylessly. “That is what Dr. Riley told me too. Not about this. It was when I told her about the waterboarding.”

Jeremy is suddenly struck with a vision of Jean, strapped to a chair and slowly drowning as Riko Moriyama grins, and he feels his stomach drop dangerously. He lunges off the bed and towards their attached bathroom, reaching the toilet just in time to vomit up his dinner and his late night snack. It was so much more horrendous than he could comprehend. It was so, so much more. Whatever Riko and Kevin and Jean had been taught at Evermore, it wasn’t just wrong, it was vile. It was poison. And the fact that two of the three came out of it damaged but alive is actually a wonder.

To hear Jean speak about the torture he endured so calmly and distantly is horrific. That he spent years down in the Nest being treated in such a way and not one person called the school board, the university president, the police… The fact that he is still alive at all is a miracle. The things that Jean endured would have long since broken just about anyone else, Jeremy is sure. He has seen the scars on Jean’s body, but he is only beginning to understand the scars on Jean’s soul.

When his stomach is empty, he rinses out his mouth with water and then mouthwash and walks sheepishly back to the bedroom.

“Uh. That was really. I’m sorry—“

Jean is staring at him calmly from his bed, and Jeremy has no idea why.

“You are such a gentle person,” Jean says, perplexed, like he’s found a mythical creature wandering around campus. “You are nothing like I thought you would be.”

“Well to be fair, you thought I would be like Riko, so not only was the bar low, the bar was like. Under the earth beneath anywhere normal people can even reach.”

Jean murmurs, “Perhaps I could have warned you.”

“About which part? The repeated rape or the fucking waterboarding?” Jeremy asks, frazzled. Jean just shrugs.

“I was dumped in your lap with little explanation for the state of my being. You have been by my side for every inch I have managed to pull myself up from that hole. You have done so much for me, and I do not know how I can thank you.”

Jeremy loves his family, and Jeremy loves his friends. That love comes with a reasonable amount of protectiveness, the same amount he expects back. But Jean is something else. Jean is somehow both a baby bird with broken wings and a massive steel wall all at once. He is untouchable. He is unreachable. He is full of cracks and scars, but he is solid and unyielding. His very existence turns Jeremy’s world upside down. He is here, he is right here, and Jeremy thinks, with all that he knows of the past, with all he feels right now, he would do absolutely anything to guarantee Jean a future.

Sometimes Jeremy is afraid that if he looks away, Jean will be long gone, beyond his reach. That he’ll turn and suddenly Jean will be in the pitch black of Evermore again, and this time no one will be able to pry him out. Jeremy has never met someone who, unintentionally, demanded so much of him, and he has never met someone who deserved it more.

Jeremy says, “Come home with me for winter break.”

“Uh… what?”

“We’ll be off for two weeks and the dorm will be closed. Did you have other plans?”

“Not, um, exactly…”

“Great! Then you’ll come home with me. You can meet my parents. And my sisters. And the dogs.”

Jean looks a little concerned. “Dogs?”

“Yep. Two big golden retrievers. Benny and Beans. They’ll love you. They love everyone.”

Jeremy is jittery now; he had been planning to invite Jean to his home for the break but he hadn’t anticipated having the conversation like this, after barfing up the contents of his stomach upon hearing a horrific tale from Jean’s mysterious past.

“…Ah… All right,” Jean finally says. “Although I don’t see how imposing on your family is by any means a thank you.”

“Knowing that you’re safe and not spending the holidays alone is the best thank you,” Jeremy insists.

Jean stares at him for a while, and then sighs, mouth curling into a hesitant smile. “You are a strange person, Jeremy.”

“There are worse thing to be than that.”

--

Jeremy’s mom, Vanessa, welcomes Jean into her home with the usual Knox family enthusiasm and kindness. Jeremy had told his mom about Jean over the months at USC, and she had been excited to hear that he would be joining them for the holidays. When Jeremy opens the door, they are greeted first by Benny and Beans, as promised, two large and slightly fat golden retrievers with wagging tails and drooly mouths. Jean hides from them behind Jeremy, and they proceed to jump up onto Jeremy, and eventually he ends up on the ground with the dogs while Jean stands off to the side contemplating escape.

Vanessa sweeps over to the door, grinning, and holds out her hand to shake Jean’s. Usually she would have moved right to a hug, but Jeremy had warned her about touching Jean, so she leaves it at a handshake, which Jean hesitantly accepts.

“Welcome home, Jer,” she says to her son, who is still laughing on the floor while the dogs lick his face. “And you must be Jean! Welcome, we’re so glad you’ll be here with us for the holidays!”

“Uh. Thank you,” Jean says, quiet and hesitant. “It seems very… lively.”

“Oh, it always is around here,” she says, beaming. “The girls are still at school but the bus should be dropping Laura off in an hour or so. And two hours after that will be Molly. Laura is the oldest after Jeremy, she’s 16, and Molly is 11. My husband, Ryan, he’s upstairs finishing some work.”

Vanessa turns and yells up the staircase to the second floor, “Honey! Jeremy’s home from school! And he brought his friend!”

A voice from upstairs, presumably Ryan Knox, calls back, “Be down in a minute!”

She turns back to Jean and smiles apologetically. “That means we’ll be lucky to see him by dinner. Can I take your bag, Jean?”

Jeremy pulls himself away from the dogs and stands back up, wiping dog fur and slobber from his face and his clothes. Jean hands over his bag, which strikes Jeremy funny as he remembers how Jean had clung to it the day he arrived in California. He feels a swelling of pride as Vanessa carries the bag up the stairs and leaves it in the guest room, across the hall from Jeremy’s childhood bedroom.

“Jeremy can show you where it is later,” she says as she comes back down. Beans sits down at her side, pushing his nose into her hand, and she pats his head. Jeremy steps forward, finally able to hug her, and she squeezes her arms around him tightly.

“It’s good to see you, Mom,” Jeremy says.

“Missed you, kiddo,” she answers.

Vanessa shows them to the kitchen, and tells them to help themselves to whatever they can find; Jeremy pours them each a cup of apple juice and offers Jean some garlic crackers from the pantry, and he takes a few.

“Your mother seems nice,” Jean says, quiet but content.

“She’s great,” Jeremy agrees. “My dad is a journalist, and she’s a lawyer.”

“Strange parents for an aspiring professional Exy player to have.”

Jeremy laughs. “You think so? Well, we can’t all be born from Exy royalty and mobsters. I think you’ll find that among the Trojans at least, most of us have parents with pretty standard jobs. I think the Ravens and the Foxes are more like outliers, really.”

Jean snorts and shoves a cracker into his mouth.

“So Laura will be back soon, and she’s a pretty big Exy fan. Especially for the Trojans,” Jeremy continues with a grin.

“She and Kevin have that in common.”

Jeremy just laughs. “And Molly only cares about one thing, and that’s horses.”

“Huh,” Jean says. “I don’t think I’ve seen a horse in person since I was a child.”

“Not a lot of horses around Exy courts,” Jeremy agrees. “But if you’re interested, we’re pretty friendly with the people at the stable where Molly takes her lessons. Maybe, if you wanted, we could see if they’ll let us take some for a ride?”

“Jeremy, surely you’ve guessed that I have no idea what to do on a horse.”

“It’s not that hard, I’ve seen Molly ride. You hold the reins and you tug a little to make it turn. Squeeze with your legs to make it go. Pull back to make it stop. Seems straightforward.”

“…Maybe,” Jean accedes, and takes a sip of his apple juice.

As promised, an hour later the door opens and Laura walks into the house. She dumps her backpack on the ground by the door, kicks off her shoes, and runs into the kitchen.

“JER BEAR!” she exclaims, and throws herself into Jeremy’s arms. Jeremy picks her up and spins her before putting her back on the floor.

“Hey Laura! How’s things?” he asks cheerfully.

Jer Bear?” Jean mutters to himself under his breath.

“Good! Mostly A’s on my last report card, and I’m visiting Riri in Chicago for New Years!”

“What’s she doing in Chicago?”

“She had to move, ‘cuz of her mom’s job. But it’s okay, that just means I get to visit her. You visited before?”

“No, I’ve never been to Chigaco,” Jeremy says.

“Really?”

“Well, they’re not in the same region as USC, and their college Exy team hasn’t been good enough to make it to the end of the season, so…”

 “Makes sense.” Laura nods and moves over to the table to grab a cracker when she finally notices Jean. “Hey, I know you. Jean Moreau, yeah?”

“Yes,” Jean says, and his face is blank but Jeremy can tell he’s nervous for some reason. Laura assesses him for a moment, and Jeremy is concerned he’ll have to do damage control, but then his sister just smiles.

“You look better in gold and red than you did in black,” she says.

Jean nods his head. “I think you may be right.”

Satisfied, she turns back to Jeremy, winks at him, and goes to retrieve her backpack to bring it up to her bedroom.

“I thought you were so strange when we met,” Jean says casually, “But I see your entire family is just the same.”

“The same what?”

“Intuitively nice. I never knew kindness could be a strength or a skill, before I met you.”

Jeremy smiles, and feels his cheeks warming with the uncommon praise.

“You’re kind,” he says.

Jean shakes his head. “I can be pleasant,” he corrects. “Because I was trained to be.”

“Hm. You know, you’re not that pleasant. Particularly during practice,” Jeremy teases, and Jean scoffs. “Very rude. Especially to Evans.”

“I said can be pleasant. I just choose not to be.”

Jeremy laughs. “Well, I think you’re kinder than you give yourself credit for. I think it doesn’t come as naturally to you because of where you’ve been, but that doesn’t mean it’s not in you too.”

Jean opens his mouth to disagree, but then Vanessa comes back into the kitchen from the basement, where she’d retreated earlier. She is carrying a large cardboard box that Jeremy recognizes excitedly.

“The ornament box!” he exclaims, and she grins.

“The ornament box,” Vanessa confirms, and places the thing down on the kitchen counter. Jeremy practically bounces over to it, and Jean follows curiously.

Inside the box is a series of smaller boxes and a lot of styrofoam, and among those boxes and foam pieces are several dozen Christmas tree ornaments, some string lights, and tinsel. Jeremy eyes the box joyously.

“It’s for the Christmas tree,” he says to Jean.

“I’ve never decorated a Christmas tree,” he admits, looking at all the shiny shapes and figures.

 “Well, we’ll have to fix that, won’t we? But Hanukkah is first this year; tonight’s actually the third night, but there’s still plenty of holiday left. That’s why Hannukah is better than Christmas,” Vanessa says with a conspiratory wink, and Jeremy laughs.

She gestures to the menorah sitting in the center of the counter that has four candles in it; three in a row from the right, and one raised above the others in the center.

“You’re Jewish?” Jean asks, eyeing the thing curiously.

“Half,” Jeremy says. “Mom’s side is Jewish, Dad’s side is Baptist, so we celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas. But obviously a menorah is easier to set up than a whole tree. Speaking of which, did you already get one, Mom?”

“No, your dad wanted to wait until you got home,” she says. “We can go tonight if you want.”

I wanna go tonight!” Laura yells from upstairs, and Vanessa laughs. Jeremy glances at Jean and smiles apologetically.

Later, after Molly has arrived home, they all pile into the Knox family minivan. The girls sit in the middle row and Jeremy and Jean cram into the back, and they listen to Christmas songs on the radio the whole way there.

“Does the radio always play Christmas songs so early?” Jean asks quietly.

“Early? Christmas is next week. They’ve been blasting them for like two months already,” Jeremy answers. “Sorry, are they bothering you? We can switch stations.”

“No, it… it’s fine. Just strange,” Jean says. “Christmas was little more than a distraction in the Nest, so…”

Jeremy makes a “tsk” sound and says, “Just give it another week. You’ll be sick of them.”

“If you are all so sick of them, why do you listen?”

“Well. It’s Christmas.”

Jean rolls his eyes and stares out the window.

--

Six days and nights pass, and every night around sundown the Knox family gathers around the kitchen counter island to light the candles and say a prayer. At Molly’s insistence, Jean lights the candles himself one night, taking the shamas and lighting the others from right to left. He doesn’t have the Hebrew memorized yet, but he mumbles along a little when Laura recites it, and he smiles gently as he watches the row of small flames flicker and glow.

Jeremy watches Jean, and thinks briefly on the tale of the holiday. Of the Jewish people so desperate to hold onto their sense of identity in the face of persecution and death that they coded it into new books and children’s toys. He thinks about how they fought and fought to keep what little they had of themselves.  And how, ultimately, when all hope was lost in a dark temple as they held out against an unstoppable army, a small flame burned, unyielding and unlikely and vital. The last vestige of hope, burning long after it should have gone out. A miracle of light. He thinks of this story and he thinks of Jean and his heart is as full as the firelight.

Rather than give gifts every night of Hanukkah and again on Christmas, the Knoxes buy chocolates and candy to play dreidel during Hanukkah, although Vanessa’s parents always send Hanukkah gifts for Jeremy and his sisters. Laura teaches Jean how to spin the top while they play, and Vanessa fries up some potato pancakes for dinner on the last night, making sure to pile too much applesauce onto Jean’s plate during dinner.

Hanukkah ends, so Jeremy, Jean, Laura, and Molly get to work decorating the Christmas tree. Jeremy personally likes having these two holidays because they are both celebrations of life that allow different kinds of merriment. Hanukkah is a festival of peace and light, a celebration of survival and faith. Christmas is bright and loud, a proclamation of joy and unconditional love. He prefers the years when the holidays don’t overlap, so that he gets to enjoy each of them independently.

This year Christmas comes just a few days after the last night of Hanukkah, and in the morning Jeremy awakens to Molly launching herself onto him and shaking his shoulders aggressively.

“Get up!” she exclaims with a wild grin. “Come on come on come on!”

“Mnnghgh.”

“Jer Bear!”

“I’m up, I’m uuuuup,” he groans, eyes blinking open. “Am I the last one?”

“There’s still Jean,” his little sister says. “Mom said to leave him alone. Is this really the first time he ever had any holidays?”

“It’s his first really good time.”

“And he’s gonna miss Christmas morning?”

“Let him sleep, Moll,” Jeremy says with a laugh, rolling himself out of bed and letting his littlest sister pull him down the stairs by his hand and deposit him in front of the Christmas tree where his parents and Laura are waiting.

“There he is,” Ryan says warmly. “Now we can open presents.”

“Remind me again,” Laura says, slowly and tiredly, “why we can’t open presents at noon?”

“It’s because Jeremy woke us up around this time every year when he was little. And then when you were little, you did it. And now Molly gets to do it. And when she’s done, it will finally be our turn to wake you all up and you will give us all the presents,” Ryan says wickedly. Vanessa nods her agreement and grabs the first wrapped box on the floor, checks the tag, and hands it off to Molly, who rips into it greedily.

The Knox family has a strict no gift cards rule, and as such it can be difficult to find meaningful gifts every year, especially for Vanessa and Ryan who are The People Who Have Everything. Whenever he finds something he needs, Ryan just gets it for himself, so he’s the hardest to shop for. As a result most of their gifts are silly, pointless things, knick-knacks or toys. Sometimes Laura will want a particular video game, or Jeremy will be after a new piece of Exy equipment, or Molly might get some new gear for horseback riding.

As they’re unwrapping, Jeremy feels eyes in the back of his head and he turns to see Jean watching hesitantly from the doorway to the den. His eyes are wide and searching, like he’s not certain he should be there at all.

Molly looks up and sees him, and with a grin she races over and reaches for his hand. She telegraphs her movements enough that Jean doesn’t flinch when she takes his hand in her own and leads him to sit down next to Jeremy.

“Good morning,” Jeremy says to him. “Merry Christmas.”

“Um. Merry Christmas. Why are you all awake so early?” Jean asks quietly, observing the carnage of colorful wrapping paper and cardboard surrounding him.

“Jews celebrate holidays at sundown, and Christians celebrate them at sunup,” Ryan says, and Molly scolds him for lying to their guest.

“Knox family tradition,” Laura clarifies.

“Oh! Don’t worry, we didn’t leave you out, honey,” Vanessa adds warmly, grabbing a gift wrapped in blue paper and handing it over to Jean. He stares at it for a moment and then looks stressed, cheeks turning pink as he turns the thing over in his hands nervously.

“I don’t have anything for you, I—“

“You’re a guest, don’t be ridiculous,” Ryan interrupts gently, and Jean falls silent.

“Open it!” Molly shouts.

Jean opens the package carefully, like he’s afraid to rip the pretty paper, and when he pulls away the wrapping he sees that it’s a book of classical French poetry.

“We didn’t know what to get you,” Laura admits. “Jeremy picked it out. But it’s from all of us!”

Jean turns the book over in his hands gently, a little reverent.

 “I noticed, well, that you only have one book in French,” Jeremy explains. “So I thought, uh, maybe you’d like another one? I know you liked your reading from your classical poetry class, so…”

“I—thank you,” Jean says stiffly, grey eyes uncertain as he runs his fingers over the binding.

“You’re welcome!” Molly cheers loudly. “I want latkes!”

“It’s not Hanukkah anymore!” Laura replies.

“So what?” Vanessa asks. “I’ll make them anyway.”

“Okay, okay,” Jeremy says, and pulls himself to his feet. “I’ll be right back, just let me grab my phone from upstairs.”

“Hurry up,” Laura answers with a yawn. “We’ll eat without you, I swear.”

Jeremy walks back upstairs, and it takes him a moment to realize Jean is behind him. When he reaches the landing, he turns to say something, but the look on Jean’s face moves him to silence.

He’s cradling the book in his arms like it’s precious, and his cheeks are still flushed, and his eyes are serious like he’s working through something.

Jeremy finally says, “If—If you want to go back to sleep, don’t worry about it, we’ll save some for you to eat later.”

“I might do that,” Jean answers. “I don’t think I have ever slept in before…”

“Oh. Um. Are you okay?”

“Yes,” Jean says softly. “It’s just… I do not typically receive presents. And considering how my last Christmas went, it feels… strange to be here. Surreal, even. Your family has been very welcoming, and you’re… I… I didn’t think about giving anyone a gift.”

“Hey,” Jeremy murmurs, moving closer to Jean, who looks like he’s fighting off some emotion Jeremy cannot possibly begin to understand. “No one expected that from you. We just wanted to get you something so you wouldn’t feel left out when we did our thing, you know?”

“I…”

From the direction of the kitchen, Laura shouts, “IF YOU’RE STILL STANDING AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS, LOOK UP!”

Jeremy and Jean look up at the same time to see a sprig of mistletoe hanging haphazardly from a hook in the low ceiling.

“Ah,” Jeremy groans, and shouts back, “THAT’S A DIRTY TRICK, LITTLE SISTER!”

He turns back, and Jean is staring at it like he isn’t sure why it’s there or how it came to be.

“That’s, um, another Christmas tradition, it—“

“I know what mistletoe is,” Jean answers, looking annoyed.

“Yeah, but like, I don’t—“

“Oh, shut up,” he says, and he leans in and kisses Jeremy on the mouth.

It happens so fast, and it’s so soft that Jeremy halfway thinks he might have imagined it, but then Jean is drawing back red-faced but content, his expression unreadable to anyone who doesn’t know him very well. But Jeremy does know him very well, and the slightest upturn at the corner of his mouth indicates smug satisfaction.

“Um, I, uhh,” Jeremy stutters out stupidly, and Jean rolls his eyes even though he looks pleased with himself.

“Merry Christmas, Jeremy.”

“Uh, yeah. Right.”

Jean nods his head slightly and goes back to the guest room. Jeremy stares long after the door is shut.

He stands there like an idiot for a few moments, and then drags himself to his own room and flops down on the bed, trying to assess where he completely lost his basic understanding of how Jean feels about him.

Jeremy has long since accepted that he’s essentially head-over-heels into Jean. But Jeremy also accepts that, given his situation and the fact that he has been a big factor in Jean’s ongoing recovery from his long-reaching trauma, that’s just a Jeremy problem and not an address-it-out-loud problem.

It isn’t just that Jean is insanely attractive (in Jeremy’s professional opinion). He’s deeply intelligent, and his desert-dry sarcastic sense of humor is hysterical, and his intensity is electrifying, and he’s an amazing Exy player with an eye for detail that is unmatched anywhere, and the soft roll of his French accent is really sexy, and the fact that he retained it all these years entirely out of spite is phenomenal, and he’s probably the strongest person Jeremy’s ever met, and his eyes are grey like a storm and—

“Fuuuuuuck,” Jeremy whines under his breath, burying his face in his pillow. So, Jean is incredible in every way and Jeremy is head-over-heels about him and is just completely screwed.

He decides to text Alvarez, who is always up at 6am for a quick run no matter what, and he drags his phone off the charger so he can type.

JEREMY: heyyyy Merry Christmas!

ALVAREZ: Feliz Navidad, Captain

ALVAREZ: you’re up early

ALVAREZ: okay wat do you want

JEREMY: hey, how do u know I want anything? maybe I just wanna say hi

JEREMY: okay so it’s like this

ALVAREZ: HA

JEREMY: so I got Jean a book for the holidays so he would have something to open this morning with the rest of the fam

JEREMY: and then when we were going back upstairs Laura had put a mistletoe at the top and I was like you don’t have to do anything of course

JEREMY: and then Jean kissed me??? on my mouth??? With his mouth??? Help??

ALVAREZ: wow you’re one big bisexual disaster huh

ALVAREZ: im getting Laila

JEREMY: cool more witnesses

ALVAREZ: ye

ALVAREZ: okay so like. Wat is the question here

JEREMY: idk??? I mean. Should I talk to him about it?

ALVAREZ: I mean, everyone knows ur in love with him

JEREMY: it’s a CRUSH

ALVAREZ: sure

ALVAREZ: anyway the astronauts on the ISS can see all the way from space that u love Jean so just like. Tell him my dude

JEREMY: but I’m his ROOMMATE

ALVAREZ: Laila says “omg they were roommates”

ALVAREZ: listen we all know Jean has been through a lot. Most of it we don’t know and that’s fine. But I think u do know a lot more of it, and that means he trusts u the most, right?

ALVAREZ: Laila says to use ur words

JEREMY: words are haaaaard

JEREMY: Jean has been hurt so much by people who should never have been allowed to touch him. I can’t be anything like that. I don’t want to hurt him ever.

ALVAREZ: that’s why you should TALK TO HIM you IDIOT

JEREMY: I’m like half of his support network here you know, I can’t do anything to mess that up, his health and safety is more important than my dumb gay feelings

ALVAREZ: Laila says he also has dumb gay feelings for you and that’s why he KISSED YOU

ALVAREZ: u moron

JEREMY: did he tell her that

ALVAREZ: she ss

ALVAREZ: Okay hi hello it’s Laila. He never says anything about his feelings cuz he’s Jean but he looks so much happier any time we’re talking and your name comes up okay the boy gets the Jean equivalent of heart eyes which is like. More humanlike than any other time I guess??

ALVAREZ: talk to him CAPTAIN OBLIVIOUS

JEREMY: you’re both so mean to me

ALVAREZ: we just want you both to be happy

ALVAREZ: it’s Sara again

ALVAREZ: if u want 2 know why he kissed you the fastest way is to ask him

ALVAREZ: we’re gonna go back to sleep til noon, goodbye Jer, good luck

ALVAREZ: and tell us EVERYTHING afterwards!!!!

Jeremy puts his phone down with a groan and rolls over onto his side so he’s facing the wall and he stares holes into it. His mouth feels warm, like he can still feel Jean’s lips on his, and he knows he’s totally screwed.

--

They don’t talk about the kiss until New Year’s Eve. Laura leaves for Chicago to visit her friend, and Vanessa and Ryan are going to a party at Vanessa’s office, and when Jeremy asks Jean if he’d like to go out or stay in, he elects to stay in, which Jeremy’s parents approve of because it means they won’t have to hire a babysitter.

“We can watch the ball drop on tv,” Molly says cheerfully, and Jeremy agrees.

That being said, Molly falls asleep by 10pm, and is passed out on the floor in front of the television, sandwiched by the warm furry bodies of Benny and Beans, who are also asleep. Jeremy comes back from the kitchen and laughs softly when he sees the three of them.

“I don’t get it,” he says quietly, amused. “When I was 11 I could stay up all night. Maybe she should have had more sugar?”

Jean is watching the New Year’s Eve show from Times Square. They’re in California, so the show is already three hours old; it’s the next year already in New York. Jeremy received a cheerful text from Fisher an hour ago; she’s from Maryland, and she flew home for the holidays.

On the screen is some singer onstage under hundreds of multicolored lights, wearing a ridiculous outfit and singing a silly pop song. The crowd seems really into it, all bundled up in their coats and gloves and hats.

“The people in the front must have been camped out there for like two days,” Jeremy says, pointing at the screaming crowd. “I wonder how bad they all have to pee right now?”

Jean snorts. “You are so charming, Jeremy. I am swooning.”

“Hey, I’m just saying, I bet they’re not allowed to leave that once they’re in it.”

Jeremy has a party hat on his head made of cardboard, colored gold, with the words HAPPY NEW YEAR! emblazoned on it. Molly had placed it on his head hours earlier, and he had neglected to take it off. Jean had also worn one at her insistence, but had removed it once she had fallen asleep, and before Jeremy could sneakily snap a picture.

Jeremy has a decent number of Jean pictures now, taken during practices or after Exy victories, a few in their shared dorm room, a few with other teammates, and Jeremy’s favorite, one of Jean asleep on the Trojans’ bus on the road home from an away game, his expression open and peaceful. Jeremy feels a little guilty about having taken the picture, but he figures if he never shares it then it’ll probably be fine. It’s the most peaceful Jean has ever looked, Jeremy thinks, and he treasures that moment.

Jeremy grabs the popcorn he’d been popping from the microwave and carries it back into the den, sitting down next to Jean, who reaches over and takes some without looking away from the screen.

“It’s pretty much the same thing every year,” Jeremy says, nodding towards the television.

Jean answers, “I have never seen it before. In Evermore, the winter holidays were distractions. Ravens were allowed to visit their families, because the school wouldn’t allow Coach Moriyama to prevent them from going, but it was discouraged, and anyone who left for more than a few days  would have to practice twice as long for the following week to make up for it. The Nest never closed for the break like the rest of Edgar Allen. And I was not allowed to leave at all. New Year’s was nothing, because we were operating on 16-hour days anyway. Weeks would go by when I didn’t even know for sure what year it was, let alone the date.”

Jeremy stuffs a fist full of popcorn into his mouth, glaring at the screen. He knows Jean is looking at him now, but he’s too pissed off to look back.

“It makes you angry,” Jean says.

Jeremy nods, chewing and swallowing his snack particularly harshly.

“You know, I often have to remind myself that Riko is gone,” Jean says. “Maybe I should be reminding you as well.”

With a surprised laugh, Jeremy places the bag of popcorn to the side.

“Oh, man. I’m used to it, but Evans would have killed to hear you tell a joke.”

“I will tell Evans a joke if he can manage to get past me in practice even once,” Jean scoffs.

Jeremy laughs again and reaches over to pet Benny, who has abandoned his place beside Molly to beg for some popcorn. He tosses a few pieces up in the air and the dog catches them, looking pleased as dogs often do. Jean reaches out a hand and pats the top of Benny’s head carefully, like he’s experimenting.

“Soft,” he murmurs, and Benny leans his head into the touch. “Good dog.”

Jeremy feels his heart swell with pride, watching Jean pet his dog. Jean has come so far in these past few months at USC. He remembers the girls’ advice from Christmas morning.

“Jean,” Jeremy says nervously. “Why did you kiss me?”

He watches as Jean’s cheeks turn pink; he keeps petting the dog.

“I wanted to,” he says simply. “Is that acceptable? I’m—I’m sorry, I thought that the mistletoe…”

“Oh, I, no, no, I don’t mean it like that. I—I liked it. I wanted you to,” Jeremy admits. His own face is hot, and he’s glad Molly is asleep and Laura is gone, because they would tease him about this for years if they heard it. “I just mean. Did it… Was it just because of the mistletoe?”

Jean is silent for a while, hand moving to scratch behind Benny’s ears. Beans comes over as well, and Jeremy reaches out to give the other dog the same attention.

“No,” he says quietly. “It was not just because of the mistletoe.”

“Oh,” Jeremy breathes. “Um. Good.”

“Good?”

“Definitely good.”

Jean stops petting the dog and turns to face Jeremy. Benny whines and nudges at his hand, but Jean ignores it. His face is as unreadable as ever, except for the flush in his cheeks. Then he takes Jeremy’s face gently in his hands and kisses him. It’s not lightning-quick like on Christmas morning. Jean takes his time, Jeremy’s eyes flutter closed, and he leans into it, hoping he can telegraph his wants into the movement. Because he wants the whole deal, holding hands and love notes in packed lunches and matching ugly holiday sweaters and everything.

When Jean does finally draw back, his grey eyes meet Jeremy’s brown ones like he’s looking for an answer.

Jeremy, who is hopeless over this boy and dopey from the kiss, just smiles at him, all sense gone from his head because wow Jean just kissed me again and it was extremely good!

“I wanna be your boyfriend,” he says dreamily.

“You are ridiculous,” Jean answers.

“Yeah,” Jeremy agrees. “I mean it though. Can I? I mean, will you let me?”

Jean looks down at the dogs, then across the room at Molly, still fast asleep on the floor. “Ravens are not allowed to date,” he says almost robotically.

“Trojans, however, are welcome to do whatever they want,” Jeremy counters. “And you’re a Trojan.”

The corner of Jean’s mouth tilts up into a small smirk. “I am still figuring out how to be a Trojan, you know.”

“I know,” Jeremy says softly. “It’s okay if you say no. I want you to be happy. I want you to have everything that you want. I care about you, Jean.”

 “…I care about you too,” Jean murmurs.

“So what do you think?” Jeremy asks.

“I would… like to try it,” he finally mutters, embarrassed, and Jeremy feels his heart pounding in his chest, and he leans in to kiss Jean again, and their mouths move hesitantly against each other, the tip of Jean’s tongue tracing the seam of his lips, and Jeremy opens his mouth to slide their tongues together and Jean sighs shakily into his mouth and—

Benny barks, loudly, and the two men jump apart in surprise. On the floor by the television, Molly shifts and sighs.

"What?” Jeremy snaps, and then he realizes that Benny is trying to pull the forgotten bag of popcorn onto the floor. “Christ. Here, you mangy dog.” He tosses a few more pieces over towards the dogs, and Benny and Beans snap up the snacks from the air, and Jean laughs, a real laugh, just like the first day that Jeremy realized he was completely gone on this boy.

“Your laugh is beautiful,” he says without thinking, and Jean’s face turns the pinkest it has ever been.

“Don’t be foolish,” Jean replies, but he looks pleased.

Molly sits up on the floor, rubbing her eyes and looking at the clock on the cable box.

“Did I fall asleep?” she asks. “Did I miss it?”

“No, Moll, you’re just in time,” Jeremy assures her, checking his watch. “We’ve got five more minutes. I was going to wake you up for it, promise.”

Beans walks back over to the girl and licks her cheek, and Molly wraps an arm gently around the back of the dog’s neck. Jeremy gets up to clean up the popcorn, and Molly climbs up onto the couch next to Jean.

“Are you having a good time?” she asks him.

“Yes, I am,” Jean answers.

“I’m glad. You look sad a lot. New Years is one of my favorites though, because it means the year you just had is over, and now you get to have a brand new one. And I thought maybe you needed to have a new one.”

Jean smiles at her. “You’re right. I did. I am glad I get to start this one right here with you and Jeremy.”

Jeremy grins to himself in the kitchen, out of sight but not out of earshot. He puts their dinner dishes into the washer and sets it to run, and comes back into the den with three of his mom’s nice wine glasses and a bottle of sparkling white grape juice.

“And you know we can’t ring in the new year without a toast,” Jeremy says, handing one glass to each of the others and popping open the juice.

“Party juice!” Molly says. “It’s the good kind,” she adds, glancing over at Jean, who nods seriously at her explanation.

Jeremy pours a little of the grape juice into each glass and sets the bottle down on the coffee table.

“They’re counting!” Jeremy says, indicating towards the television.

“10! 9! 8! 7! 6! 5!”

Molly screams along with the people on the tv, and the dogs weave around the room in delight, not knowing why the humans are excited but all too happy to participate.

“4! 3! 2! 1! HAPPY NEW YEAR!”

 “Happy New Year, Jean,” Jeremy says to him with a smile, and he leans in to steal a quick kiss at the stroke of midnight. Jean meets him eagerly, smiling against his mouth. Molly drinks her juice and then grabs the noise maker she’s been saving and blows into it exuberantly, jumping up and down while the dogs bark happily after her. Somewhere outside, the neighbors begin setting off fireworks.

“It may be a good one,” Jean answers, and it sounds like a promise.

--

A few days later, after a comfortable drive back to USC, they arrive at the athlete dorms to find that Laila and Sara have arrived ahead of them. Laila is leaning against the door to their room, which is right across the hall from her and Alvarez’s.

“Gooooood afternoon,” she says, grinning. “Welcome home!”

Jeremy puts his bag on the ground and goes to hug her. A few weeks without seeing the Trojans is weird, even if they’ve been good weeks.

“I see you over there, Moreau!” she exclaims after she releases Jeremy from the embrace. “Get in here.”

Jean goes and allows her to hug him briefly, even patting a hand awkwardly against her back. He retreats quickly, as he usually does on the rare hug allowance, and she doesn’t take it personally.

“Where is Alvarez?” Jean asks.

“Grocery store,” she says. “We have no food.”

“Ha!” Jeremy gloats. “My mom loaded us down with leftovers.”

“Please, like you’re not gonna share all the delightful goodness with me and Sara,” Laila says.

“I dunno,” Jeremy answers. “Maybe I’ll hoard it all for me and Jean. We’ll eat all the turkey. All the pie.”

“Oh, your dad made pie?”

“Hell yeah he did.”

“Give me some!”

“Hey!” Jeremy says with a laugh, yanking his bag away from her grabbing hands. “Let me unpack first. We can all have pie when Alvarez gets back.”

Jean unlocks the door and goes inside, and as Jeremy moves to follow him in, Laila grabs his arm and pulls him back.

“So,” she whispers, quiet enough that Jean can’t hear her. “What happened to Operation Christmas Smooch?”

“Did you name it?” Jeremy hisses back.

“Of course we did. Now spill. You never texted back.”

Jeremy can’t help but smile thinking about it. Jean is his boyfriend now. It seems like a strange, childish word to apply to Jean, who has been through so much and never dated at all before, but Jean had agreed, and Jeremy is thrilled.

“Aha,” she answers, grinning. “I see, I see. All’s well in Jeremy and Jean Land.”

“You could say that.”

She smiles at him, eyes bright. “I’m happy for you two, really. Sara will be too. You’re the best and you deserve to be happy. And Jean, well… of course he’s very particular. You better live up to his standards.”

“Lucky for me, his standards appear to be low,” he answers wryly.

“Hey, don’t talk about my captain that way.”

He laughs.

“Jeremy, get in here and help me put this food away,” Jean calls from the kitchenette.

“Duty calls,” Jeremy says, and follows his boyfriend inside.

--

For the next month, everything is amazing. Jean holds Jeremy’s hand when they walk on campus, they get coffee together on what is actually Jean’s first date ever, they cuddle on the couch in their room and watch movies, and Jean smiles more and more all the time. Jeremy is stupidly in love. He’s always been the type to get too serious too soon, and the people he’s dated in the past had been mostly put off by that, but Jean doesn’t seem to mind the exuberance, and Jeremy vows to keep the L-word to himself until the time is right. They even go on some double dates with Laila and Sara. They take Jean bowling. He’s terrible at it, and it’s the best.

Jeremy has dated before. He’s had a few boyfriends and girlfriends. But Jean is unlike anyone else Jeremy has ever known. He came into Jeremy’s life with so much pain inside him, so much anger. He is strong where anyone else would be broken. He is fragile but at the same time indestructible. He fills Jeremy with awe, and he always has.

Every time Jean reaches for him, every press of lips and every knowing smirk and every sarcastic comment makes Jeremy’s heart race like nothing else. He wants to shout, wants to tell everyone how wonderful and incredible his boyfriend is. Wants to tell the world how in love he is after just a few short weeks. How in love he has been for months, truly. Jeremy never knew he was missing this, but now he’s sure he never wants to be without Jean. It’s hard to say for sure if Jean feels the same way, but Jeremy isn’t in a rush for the answer. Things are going so well.

Things are going suspiciously well, actually, Jeremy thinks, right around the time something goes wrong.

They’re on their way back from an away game in Oregon that they lost, and Jean is asleep on the bus, head on Jeremy’s shoulder, when he jerks himself awake with a choked off shout and looks around the bus in terror. His eyes are wild and unfocused; he’s having a panic attack.

“Jean,” Jeremy says, reaching out for his boyfriend, and Jean instinctively curls himself up small, falling out of the seat and onto the floor of the bus to do it.

Laila and Alvarez are there in an instant, but in his panic Jean doesn’t recognize them either, and he begins to plead quietly.

“I will behave,” he promises, whole body shaking. “I will do better. I swear, I will, please.”

Jeremy and the girls glance at each other, unsure of what to do, when Coach Rhemann shoulders his way to the back of the bus where they’re sitting, pushing Laila and Sara into the seats so he can move past them. Behind him is Monika, the team nurse.

“Moreau,” Rhemann says, keeping his voice calm and low.

“I did my best,” Jean says. “I played the best I could, don’t drown me again.”

“You played a great game tonight,” Monika says soothingly. “The Trojans were so close.”

“The Trojans were so close,” Jean repeats, parroting her tone. Then he says, “But I play for the Ravens.”

“No, honey, you don’t,” she says, kneeling down at Jean’s side but not touching him. The rest of the team remains in their seats, glancing backwards in concern, and Jeremy waves at them all to sit down and keep quiet. O’Brian looks like he wants to argue but Larsson yanks him back down into the seat.

“I am a Raven,” Jean says. “I always will be. I will be the rest of my life.”

“You aren’t a Raven anymore,” Monika says again.

“Then I am already dead,” Jean answers, and he says it so easily, acceptingly, like he knew it would happen inevitably. That one day Riko would really kill him. He almost sounds relieved.

Jeremy feels his heart clench and without really thinking about it, he reaches out to put a hand on Jean’s shoulder. He can feel Jean trembling, like he’s fighting the urge to move again. Like he’s forcing himself to be touched because the consequences of fighting are too dire. Jeremy pulls his hand back, and when he does, Jean finally looks up at him. He is shaking, but his eyes are dry. He has learned that crying is an intolerable weakness and trained it out of himself.

“Just do it,” he says, miserable. “Just bring the water already.”

Rhemann glances over at Jeremy.

“Water?” he asks.

Jeremy pauses, unsure of whether he should say, but it seems like an emergency.

“Riko Moriyama… a few times, he…  uh, he… he…”

“He what?”

“He… fuck, Coach, Riko waterboarded him,” he says, whispering it as quietly as he can. Alvarez gasps in horror somewhere behind the coach, and Rhemann’s face goes stony and dark. Monika looks like she might be sick, and Jeremy knows the feeling. A torture that not even the worst of the worst would approve of, done to a college athlete in his own dorm by his own team captain.

“Oh my god…” Monika murmurs.

Jeremy knows that touching Jean right now is a mistake, but all wants to do is wrap himself around his boyfriend like a squid, ready to fight off anyone else who would dare come near. Jean is tall, and strong, and sometimes he just seems so breakable that Jeremy aches with it.

“Riko Moriyama is dead,” Jeremy says, and when he does, Jean shudders and blinks.

“No,” he answers. “He is still here.”

Jeremy knows that what Jean really means is that Riko is in his head.

“He can’t lay a hand on you ever again,” Jeremy insists. “Riko is dead. Riko is gone.”

Jean blinks a few more times, and slowly begins to uncurl himself.

Il est mort,” he mumbles.

C'est ça!” Jeremy answers, drawing on his severely limited French vocabulary. “You’re safe here.”

Jean snorts. “Safe.”

“That’s right,” Monika says, finally placing a hand on Jean’s shoulder delicately as his panic subsides, rubbing calming circles against his back.

Jean shakes his head, looks at Monika and Rhemann, and then at Jeremy. As he realizes fully what’s happened, a look of horror dawning on his face, the coach and Monika just look relieved.

“It’s my fault we lost,” Jean whispers. “I should have performed better. The last shot they made happened because their striker got past me and I wasn’t fast enough.”

“You played just fine, Moreau,” Rhemann tells him. “I’m proud of the game you all played tonight, okay? You did good. No one is angry with you, and no one is going to… no one is going to punish you.”

“I… Yes.”

“Do you want to come and sit with me, Jean?” Monika asks kindly.

“No,” he says. “Thank you. I will stay here.”

“Okay, honey. I’m gonna bring you a water bottle, and I want you to drink it slowly. Come get me if you need anything else. That’s what I’m for.”

Jean nods, and Rhemann makes his way back to the front of the bus. Laila moves towards Jean, but Jeremy shakes his head at her, and she stays back.

Slowly, Jean gets up, looks at Jeremy with clear eyes, and sits down in another seat by himself. He stares adamantly out the window, and all of Jeremy’s attempts to make eye contact again are ignored. Monika gives Jeremy a sympathetic glance as she brings Jean the water bottle, but Jean doesn’t look at her either. He just mumbles a thank you and keeps his eyes on the road.

Jean doesn’t say a word for hours, not until they get back to USC, unload all their equipment from the bus back at the Trojan court, and Alvarez drives them back to the dorms. By now it’s dark, and late, and Jeremy unlocks the door to their apartment, waving goodnight to the girls, exhausted. Jean shuffles in past him, dumps his bag by the couch, and goes into the bathroom to take a shower.

It’s already well past midnight, and when Jean emerges from the bathroom in his pajamas, he climbs into bed without a word. Jeremy follows suit, showering quickly and pulling on his pajama pants and a ratty tee-shirt, brushing his teeth, and flopping down onto his bed, truly exhausted. He thinks Jean is asleep, until finally he speaks.

“You should get a better boyfriend,” Jean says softly in the dark.

“…Are you breaking up with me?” Jeremy asks, unable to control the tremor in his voice.

“No,” Jean replies, and he sounds disappointed. “I thought I should, for your sake. But I am too selfish to do that. It would be better for you if I did. I would understand. You could have someone who suits you far better. You deserve someone who does.”

“I don’t want that. No one could be better,” Jeremy argues.

“Oh, no? No one could be better than a broken thing that panics when we lose a game and occasionally cannot differentiate you from his lifelong abuser?”

“That isn’t your fault, Jean, none of it.”

“Maybe not. But it also is not yours, and it still became your problem. I still became your problem. And why? Because Kevin asked you to take me. Renee called you to help me. And you love to help. You could not have known it would be like this. I wonder sometimes if you feel trapped now, here with me.”

“Of course I don’t. I’m your boyfriend. I.. I care about you so much.”

“You are kind,” Jean says, softer. “It is your strength. But it is also your greatest weakness.”

“I disagree.”

Jean laughs again, dark. “Of course you do. But it will be your undoing, Jeremy. Maybe not today. But the more time you waste with me, the further you follow me into the world I come from, the more you will regret it. I am a Raven, in the end.”

“You are not a Raven,” Jeremy argues. “To be honest, I don’t care if you never want to play Exy again. I don’t care if you don’t want to be a Trojan, or if you don’t think of yourself as part of the team! But you are not theirs and they can’t have you back.”

“This is foolish,” Jean murmurs. “I’ve been wasting your time and my own. I can only be what I am.”

Jeremy reaches up and switches on the light. Jean recoils slightly, not expecting it, and Jeremy gets up and walks across the room and then plants himself on the edge of Jean’s bed. He reaches out his hand and, after a moment, Jean sighs and slips his hand into Jeremy’s, expression softening.

“Things that make you happy are not a waste of time,” Jeremy says. “If us being together doesn’t make you happy, then—“

“No,” Jean interrupts quickly. “It’s not that.”

“Is this because of what happened on the bus? It’s okay. The team understands, you know, panic attacks happen. No one is mad at you. Least of all me. I’m not upset, or hurt, or afraid.”

“Maybe I’m afraid,” Jean says. “Jeremy. You do not need me, or this, and I know that. I thought that I could try be something you might need too. I was optimistic. But I do not think I can be. I am not a… a college student with a boyfriend and a sports scholarship. I am merely a surviving investment for the Moriyama family. A Raven.”

Jeremy is silent for a long moment, looking at their hands clasped together.

He says, “You’re not. Because Ravens stay in pairs, do as they’re told, train until their fingers bleed, don’t date, don’t associate with non-Raven students, or, as you recently informed me, eat birthday cake. But I guarantee that every single Trojan does all that stuff. Especially the cake part. And I totally saw you eat two pieces at Levinson’s birthday party last weekend.”

Jean cracks a smile, just barely.

“Listen,” Jeremy says. “If nothing else, you don’t get to decide what I need. That’s my job. And you’re wrong, because I do need you, and more than that, I want to be with you. It’s okay if you’re scared, but I promise, I’m with you. And you are a college student with a boyfriend and a sports scholarship.”

Jean looks at him for a long moment, face red, and then he murmurs, “I… I don’t…”

“Do you trust me?”

“Yes,” Jean answers, unhesitating and soft.

“Then believe me when I tell you that I see you, and I know you, and I love you. I love all of you. And, like, I know it’s kind of soon? For me to say that? But honestly, and sorry if it’s weird, I’ve been sure that I’m in love with you for months.  I don’t expect you to say it back. It’s okay if you don’t, because I’m not telling you with any expectations or ulterior motives. It’s not something I want to hold against you or use to control or change you. It’s just… I just want you to know that what you are is everything I want, and I love you.”

Jean’s mouth twitches, like a hundred different responses are fighting to escape, and his free hand clenches hard into the sheets.

Finally, he says, “How can you?”

“Easy,” Jeremy says. “You’re the most amazing person I’ve ever met.”

“I stayed at Edgar Allen because I was a coward, because I wasn’t smart or brave enough to run. I’m so foolish that I couldn’t even ask someone to help me until staying meant death. What could be amazing about that?”

Jean clenches his jaw and Jeremy realizes he’s fighting back tears. Tears that he hasn’t let himself cry since he was eleven.

“Nothing that happened at Edgar Allen was your fault. Not any of it,” Jeremy says quietly.

“…I know,” Jean answers, physically shaking, and Jeremy lets go of his hand to pull him into an embrace. After a moment, Jean drops his head onto Jeremy’s shoulder.

“I know you learned not to do it,” Jeremy whispers, “but if you need to cry, it’s okay. I won’t let anything happen to you. I’ve got you, sweetheart.”

He chokes out a tiny sob, and as Jeremy holds him, Jean finally airs out a pain that he’s kept long hidden, and it can finally begin to heal. Jeremy holds onto Jean as he cries, nearly silent, until the shaking subsides. Jean pulls away and meets Jeremy’s gaze for the first time all night. His eyes are red and wet, and he looks so tired. Jeremy reaches up and gently wipes the last of the drying tears from Jean’s cheeks.

“You’re beautiful,” Jeremy blurts out, because it’s true.

“You’re impossible,” Jean replies, and that’s also kind of true. “After everything I have told you, everything you’ve heard, you still… you’re also crazy.”

“I know. But I love you.”

“I accept that,” Jean says, and then he hesitates. “I… I think that is not the answer you wanted, but—“

“Don’t be stupid,” Jeremy says. “That’s the only thing I ever wanted.”

“What, a neutral response to your love confession after I cried like a child on you?”

“To be accepted.”

Jean rolls his eyes. “Ridiculous,” he murmurs, and squeezes Jeremy’s hand with one of his own.

“Can I kiss you?”

Jean considers it. “Yes,” he says.

Jeremy moves in, kisses him softly, angling his head so their noses don’t bump together, and slides his free hand gently into Jean’s dark hair. Jean leans into it, and lets himself be kissed.

“I love you,” Jeremy says. “No matter what happened before, or what happens next. I’m with you. You can have this, if it’s what you want. I’m all yours.”

“Ridiculous,” Jean says again, but this time he’s smiling. He’s never had anything that was his before.

--

They win their next game, and after an evening of celebration with the Trojans, Jean and Jeremy find their way back to their dorm apartment. Jeremy is pleasantly buzzed, and Jean as usual drank only water, but they both enjoyed themselves.

“I told you,” Jeremy says as they close the door to the hall and the whole world narrows down to just them. “I told you we’d win the next one. Last year the Foxes surprised everyone but this year the Trojans are gonna take it all.”

Jean scoffs. “You could have won last year, if not for your stunt with the reserve players.”

Jeremy shrugs. “Maybe. But to be completely honest? I knew that. I just… when I saw Josten in those interviews, talking about how the Foxes would take down the Ravens… I could tell he believed it. He believed it so much that Kevin believed it too, and… so did I,” he admits. “I wanted to see them come from the bottom and take the Ravens out even more than I wanted to win. Most of the team understood, you know how we are, but the fifth-year seniors were pissed!”

“I would have been too.”

“I know,” Jeremy answers with a laugh. “But don’t you remember how it felt to watch the Foxes win?”

Jean frowns, reflecting, and for a moment Jeremy’s wonders if he’s crossed a line or said the wrong thing, but Jean’s grey eyes are bright with inner fire even as his face remains neutral, and Jeremy can tell that Jean had felt it too.

“Josten is out of his mind,” Jean finally says.

Jeremy laughs. “Well, yeah. But that’s the game.”

Jean says, “Last Christmas, Riko blackmailed Josten into coming to the Nest for two weeks. Three weeks in Raven hours, with the shorter days. Riko did everything he could to break him. He held him down and cut him up. He told me to help do it, and I did. And whenever Riko got bored and stopped, I would patch Josten back up and I would tell him to yield. It was such a foolish thing, to resist Riko Moriyama. But Josten… but Neil never did. He wouldn’t sign the transfer contract no matter how delirious, no matter how pained he was. And when his time was up and the season began, Riko had no choice but to let him go back to his Foxes.

“I drove Josten to the airport. He was hurt so badly, and he could barely stand, and I put him on the plane to freedom. I stood there after his plane had departed and wondered why I could not find it within myself to get on the plane with him. There was no one watching me then. No one tying me down. It was just me, watching Josten go back to his… family. And I got back in the car, and I drove myself back to Evermore, and I did not see the sun for a month after that. I knew it would be the same as when Kevin left. I knew that Josten’s refusal to sign the transfer would fall on me, and I would bear the brunt of Riko’s fury, but I still went back. My second real chance to escape with someone who could help me, and I didn’t follow them.”

Jeremy lets out a low sigh, pained. What could he possibly say to that? What could he possibly add?

“You’re here now,” he decides on. “You did get on that plane eventually.”

“Renee got me out.”

“Because you asked her to. Because you decided it was enough.”

“Maybe,” Jean concedes.

Jeremy says, “I’m so glad you’re here.” Jean looks up at him sharply, cheeks getting pink. “I’m so fucking happy you’re safe now, that you’re alive. That you’re free.”

“So am I,” Jean murmurs, and he looks unusually soft. He doesn’t usually; he saves it for small honest moments like these. For Jeremy. “But doesn’t it bother you?”

“What do you mean?”

“I am not innocent. I did what Riko told me to do, and I never tried to spare Josten anything. I helped Riko hurt him. I helped Riko hurt many people. I never tried to stop him. I never tried to save anyone. I even… sometimes, when it was someone else and it wasn’t me, I was relieved. Doesn’t it upset you that I hurt people?”

Jeremy thinks about it for a moment, reaches for his hands, and Jean allows it. Jeremy lifts Jean’s hands up to his mouth, thumbing over his cuff-scarred wrists, and kisses the rough knuckles of his practice-worn hands, the uneven lines of his fingers, shaped strangely after several poorly healed breaks.

“Maybe I should,” he admits. “I guess. I can’t say I understand any of that, because to me it just seems insane. The mafia stuff, the violence. I know it’s all true, but sometimes I can’t wrap my head around it. So maybe I should be upset, but I’m not. I’m just angry that he made you do it.”

Jean whispers, “But I still did it, didn’t I?”

Riko did it,” Jeremy says firmly. “He just used you as a tool to make it happen. I know you’re a good person, Jean. I know it for sure.”

“How can you know that?”

“I just do.”

“You’re impossible,” Jean says.

“Yeah. But I love you,” Jeremy tells him, because it’s true, and because he wants to.

Jean kisses him then, and Jeremy releases Jean’s hands in favor of sinking his own fingers into Jean’s silky dark hair as one of Jean’s arms wrap around his waist, a strong hand against his back between his shoulder blades, keeping him just there. Jeremy shivers, and reminds himself to behave.

But Jean seems less interested in behaving. His other hand is spread on Jeremy’s lower back, warm through the fabric of his thin tee-shirt, and slowly Jean slides that hand towards Jeremy’s hips. When he reaches the hem of Jeremy’s shirt, Jeremy pulls away from his mouth with a quiet gasp. He realizes how desperate he is for Jean’s affection, for his touch, and he also realizes that this is probably his last coherent moment for a while if he doesn’t say something now.

“W-wait,” he mumbles weakly as Jean’s hand creeps underneath the tee, calloused fingers against the firm lines of his back. “Jean. Wait.”

Jean stops, pulls his hand away.

“You don’t have to—“

“I know I do not have to,” Jean snaps, and Jeremy realizes he’s embarrassed. “Can I not want to? Do you think I’m incapable of figuring it out?”

“Oh,” Jeremy says stupidly, heart pounding with the knowledge that Jean wants to touch him too.

Jean sighs, a little flustered. “If you don’t—“

“Oh, I do,” Jeremy says far too quickly. “I really, really do. But. I just have to say this thing because you should know, more than anything, that if I do anything you don’t like all you need to do is say so and—“

Jeremy,” Jean interrupts, exasperated. “You really think I don’t know that?”

“No. You’re right. I’m sorry,” Jeremy says. “I just, fuck, I love you, and I don’t wanna hurt you by being careless.”

“You care about everything too much to be capable of carelessness.”

“Uh… good point.”

“I know it is,” Jean answers, and he’s standing so close that Jeremy can feel the warmth of his body, and Jeremy wants him. “You do not know how long I’ve been thinking about it, Jeremy. About you, mon coeur.”

Jeremy is frozen in place. Jean can be very intense, but typically it’s on the court. Here in their own little corner of the world, it’s hyper-concentrated , and nearly overwhelming. Jeremy thinks he might pass out, because like Jean, he’s also been thinking about this.

“I. Uh. Yeah, I. I don’t kn—what did you, um, just call me?”

Jean smirks, and it’s very sexy, and Jeremy thinks he might die tonight actually of spontaneous combustion.

Mon coeur,” he repeats, enunciating the words slowly, voice low and smooth, grey eyes half-lidded. Jeremy’s face is hot, and his whole body is hot, and Jean is standing nearly chest-to-chest with him, reaching for Jeremy’s jaw with one hand and thumbing over his bottom lip gently.

Tu es un miracle,” he murmurs, searching Jeremy’s face for something unknown. “Est-ce vraiment le mien?”

Jeremy’s brain short-circuits, wiping out his horrible and severely limited knowledge of the French language, so he’s not sure what Jean is saying to him, but Jean is giving him this look like he’s wondering the best way to eat him and Jeremy finds that he’s beyond okay with that.

Finally Jean leans in to kiss him again. Jean is quite tall, and while Jeremy doesn’t consider himself to be short, Jean is the taller of the two by quite a bit. He’s also more muscular, a backliner built for strength and endurance rather than a striker primed for speed and accuracy. Jeremy likes it, all of it, likes everything about Jean. Now he’s learning new things about Jean that he likes. He likes the way Jean’s hand feels against his skin as he feels his way up Jeremy’s body. He likes the way Jean smells, clean and masculine. He likes the way Jean kisses him, deeply and thoroughly and methodical. He likes all of it, and he’s dizzy with it, wrapping one hand around the back of Jean’s neck to pull him in closer, to keep their mouths together.

Jean’s thumb brushes over one of Jeremy’s nipples and Jeremy gasps into the kiss, and he feels more than hears Jean’s huff of laughter at his reaction.

When Jean pulls away, Jeremy whines a little pathetically, and Jean’s whole face is red, but he looks pleased with himself. Jeremy feels like a mess, his hair wild from Jean’s hands in it, his shirt rucked up, his lips swollen from kissing.

“Holy shit,” Jeremy says, and Jean smiles.

“Jeremy,” Jean says, and fuck Jeremy loves the way Jean says his name. “Mon ange.”

“I don’t know that one either,” Jeremy admits.

Jean regards him for a moment, and then begins walking back towards the bedroom.  He shoots a meaningful look back at Jeremy as he goes, and Jeremy rushes to follow him.

Jean seats himself on Jeremy’s bed, regarding him with soft grey eyes, and Jeremy glances him over as Jean tugs his shirt over his head, eyes his pale skin, marred with an innumerable amount of scars. The places that are less marred are lightly freckled, a new development from spending more time in the California sunshine.

“Fuck you’re gorgeous,” Jeremy breathes out. He doesn’t really do it on purpose, but Jean flushes, pleased, and he scoots himself back on Jeremy’s bed so Jeremy can climb onto it with him, taking off his own shirt, suddenly desperate to feel their skin touching.

Mon chéri,” Jean says, and he’s really just doing it to drive Jeremy crazy, and it’s absolutely working.

“That one I know,” Jeremy says, and kisses him. “‘My darling’.”

Jean sighs, accepting the kiss and wrapping his arms around Jeremy as they settle beside each other on the bed.

Jeremy hums, pressing a kiss to Jean’s throat, and Jean moans lowly.

“What can I do for you, baby?” Jeremy mumbles against the skin of his neck. Jean groans again, and Jeremy sucks a bruise into the juncture between his neck and his shoulder. Jeremy moves, kissing down Jean’s chest and belly, leaving light marks in his pale skin, and Jean is making very sweet little noises in response. Jeremy loves them. He rubs his cheek against the dark coarse hair leading down from Jean’s belly button and past the hem of his pants, and he looks up through lidded eyes at Jean, who is flushed red.

“Can I use my mouth on you?” Jeremy asks, and Jean drops his head back against the pillow with a low whine.

Merde.”

“Is that a yes?”

Yes,” Jean says, and Jeremy wastes no time in undoing the button of Jean’s pants and pulling them down. Jean lifts his hips to help him, and as he kicks his pants off somewhere off the bed, Jeremy finally gets a real look at him.

They’ve been naked or mostly naked before, changing as they do in the locker room with the other Trojan men. Quick glances here and there. Jeremy tried his best not to, out of respect but also because he knew if he took the time to look at Jean naked that would be it for him right there before practice and he’d never live that down.

He takes the time now, Jean flushed and wanting beneath him, grey eyes dark with desire, a pretty blush spread from his cheeks down to the top of his chest. The perfect curves of his defined muscles. The trail of hair on his belly leading down to his mostly-erect cock. Jeremy’s mouth is watering. He never knew he could want like this.

“Fuck,” Jeremy says, running a hand through his own hair, pushing it back from his face as he looks and looks and looks. “You’re so. Jesus Christ. Jean, you’re so fucking beautiful.”

Jean makes a sound in his throat like a hum and pulls Jeremy down again, crushing their mouths together, and Jeremy grinds his hips against Jean’s and they both gasp. Jeremy’s head is spinning and light.

“I love you so much,” he pants out against Jean’s mouth.

Jean says, “Fuck, Jeremy…”

Jeremy knows what he means. He wastes no more time, trailing his mouth quickly down the path he’d taken before, but he doesn’t stop at Jean’s waist, he moves down to where Jean is hard and flushed, precome beading at the tip. Jeremy wants to taste it, so he does, tongue flitting out at the fluid. It’s bitter, but he knew it would be. Jeremy has done this before. But it never felt like this, he thinks, as he mouths at the flushed head of Jean’s cock. Jean gasps as Jeremy sinks partway down, sucking the head into his mouth, tongue swirling around it, teasing at the crown as he braces one hand against Jean’s hips to steady them both.

It has been a while since he had a partner in bed with him though, and it takes him a few tries to get Jean further down his throat, but it’s worth it when Jean throws his head back into the pillows and moans, low and dirty and sweet. It’s the hottest sound Jeremy has ever heard, and Jeremy wants to hear more of it, working the muscles of his throat around Jean’s cock.

“Oh, fuck,” Jean whines, hips straining against where Jeremy is holding him still. “Jeremy, fuck—“

It’s all the warning Jeremy gets before Jean comes down his throat, but Jeremy has been expecting it, and swallows it all down as he pulls off, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. Before he can think, Jean is grabbing him, flipping them around so Jean is braced above him, licking his way into Jeremy’s mouth where he can taste himself on his boyfriend’s tongue.

Jean is sweaty and hot and gorgeous and Jeremy can only grin up at him and reach to brush his black hair back behind his ear.

“I love you,” Jeremy says breathlessly, because he wants to, and because he does. “I love you more than anything.”

“Hmm,” Jean hums, and he bites down gently on the skin of Jeremy’s throat, eliciting a whine from him. “Anything?”

“Yes.”

Jean laughs. “Even Exy?”

Yes,” Jeremy forces out as Jean bites down again on his shoulder, less gently, but then he licks over it with the flat of his tongue soothingly. One hand swipes up Jeremy’s side slowly, sweeping over his ribcage, and Jeremy pushes into it with a hiss.

Everything about this is overwhelming in the best way possible. Jeremy has had this dream a hundred times, Jean beautiful and perfect over him, the two of them together like this again and again and again. He hadn’t thought Jean would want that, not after everything he’d been through, but Jean is more than eager now and Jeremy has no idea what he’d done to deserve Jean’s affection and trust but he’s too distracted to consider it much. He sinks a hand into Jean’s soft hair as Jean presses a kiss over his heart, and then looks up to meet Jeremy’s gaze.

“What do you want, mon coeur?

“Just touch me,” Jeremy begs, and Jean obliges, slides his hand from Jeremy’s chest down to where he’s hard in his jeans, and Jeremy groans, rolls his hips up to the touch.

“You’re close,” Jean says.

“I liked having you in my mouth,” Jeremy answers in way of explanation, unabashed, and Jean hums, and Jeremy wriggles out of his jeans with a little help. When he’s as naked as Jean is, Jean takes Jeremy’s erection in hand and strokes once, slowly and satisfying, and Jeremy gasps.  Jean smiles at him, takes his hand from Jeremy’s cock, and brings it up to his own mouth to lick it before resuming his rhythm with his now wet hand. It’s so hot Jeremy thinks he might potentially die, and he tilts his chin up for a kiss; Jean obliges him again.

Eventually it becomes too much to focus on, and he lets his head fall back as he gasps and moans against Jean’s mouth, one hand pressed gently against the side of Jean’s neck as Jean strokes him, steady and unhurried but unrelenting, the way Jean does everything.

“You like it,” Jean murmurs, shifting so he can speak into Jeremy’s ear. Jeremy nods desperately in agreement.

“I love you,” Jeremy answers, and it’s not a complete answer. What he means to say is, I like it because it’s you, because you’re here, because you chose me and you let me choose you. He means, I like it because you trust me. He means, I like it because I love you.

He comes into Jean’s hand with a low groan, leaning his face against Jean’s as his boyfriend strokes him through his orgasm and doesn’t stop until Jeremy lets out a pained whine as he comes down from it. Jean sits up and reaches for the tissue box on the bedside table and grabs a few, wiping Jeremy’s come from his own hand before, after a moment’s hesitation, reaching over to clean off the mess on Jeremy’s belly.

They’re both sweaty, and more than a little gross, and the last thing Jeremy wants to do is move. He feels like he’s floating, dreamy and good, and he reaches up towards Jean who folds himself down into Jeremy’s embrace, returning it with his own arms around Jeremy.

They hold each other in peaceful quiet for a few minutes, or maybe more. Time seems to stop existing for Jeremy, just for a while, and he can just be this, a boy with a boyfriend that he loves very much.

He breaks the silence first, as is his nature. “I love you, Jean.”

Jean laughs quietly, face pressed into the curve of Jeremy’s neck. “Thank you for that.”

Then Jean is sitting up, and looking down at Jeremy, expression cool and unreadable, but his eyes are warm. Jeremy smiles at him dopily, and the corner of Jean’s mouth twitches up.

“This feels like a dream,” Jean admits in this rare moment of vulnerability.

“I know what you mean,” Jeremy answers.

“Oh, but you don’t,” Jean says. “I never… not once, during all those years… I never thought… I did not think it could be like this. For anyone, but least of all for me. You are… an impossible man.”

Jeremy shakes his head, still smiling. “I feel relatively possible, all things considered.”

They stay together like that until they fall asleep. When Jeremy blinks awake again, they have shifted, his head pillowed on Jean’s chest, with one of Jean’s arms over Jeremy’s waist. He can hear Jean’s heartbeat, and he remembers a word from his high school French class.

Coeur. Heart.

My heart, Jean called him.

Jeremy goes back to sleep.

--

“Your hair is getting long,” Jeremy remarks one evening after practice.

They’re in the locker room changing out of their gear; most of the guys have already showered and left, but Jeremy has to lock up when everyone else is gone, and Jean always waits with him.

When he first arrived, Jean’s thick black hair was cut quite short; there had been patches of it missing that Riko had pulled from his head, and he kept it all tightly trimmed even after it all finally grew back equally. The cut of it is still neat, as Jean likes to be, but it’s longer on the top now; he has to use a red headband to hold it out of his eyes when they play.

Jean’s cheeks flush pink, and he looks down at his feet.

“I thought I would try growing it out a bit,” he says. “Do you not like it?”

“Hm? Oh, no, it looks good! Not that it wasn’t nice before!” Jeremy says quickly. “It’s good, really. I just noticed you were growing it out. Alvarez usually cuts it for you before it’s long enough to hang in your eyes.”

“Well,” Jean says hesitantly, “I did not really have much of a choice, before I came to USC. And Laila said it… would look… cute.”

Jeremy grins. “She’s right. It looks very cute. You’re very cute.”

“Shut up,” Jean says, the flush on his face darkening. “I should just cut it off again. This is silly.”

“No, no!” Jeremy exclaims, coming over to where Jean is sitting, reaching up to run his fingers through Jean’s shower-damp hair. The sides are still clipped short, but the top is long enough now that it’s obvious there’s a natural, gentle wave to Jean’s hair. He’s always been incredibly handsome, in Jeremy’s humble and completely unbiased opinion, but it’s a good cut given the shape of his face, it’s very flattering. Alvarez did a good job shaping it up.

“I’m sorry, honey,” Jeremy says. “I didn’t mean to tease you about it. I think it looks great. I was just curious about why you decided to grow it longer.”

Jean says, “Riko would grab it if it got too long. But Laila pointed out that I don’t need to worry about that anymore, and if I decided I didn’t like it I could just cut it. It feels strange, but I think I like how it looks.”

“It’s important that you like it, more than anything,” Jeremy tells him. “But I really think it looks nice.”

“Thank you,” Jean says. He’s got a distant look on his face, like he’s contemplating something else, but Jeremy knows by now not to interrupt his thought processes, and that if he wants to talk about something, he will when he’s ready. So Jeremy gets up, checks the locker room to make sure everything is clean and put away, and they make their way back to the dorms.

It’s another day before Jeremy catches Jean in their bathroom, standing with the door open, staring at his reflection in the mirror. He isn’t vain about it; he merely shifts his head one way and then another, as if examining the way his hair falls on his forehead. He observes his reflection with his head tilted to the right, looking intently at the left side of his face in particular.

This is the side of his face where the “3” is still tattooed just underneath and to the side of his eye. Thinking about it now, and about what he knows of the Nest, Jeremy is certain that it was put there against Jean’s will, and that looking at it in the mirror every day must give him mixed emotions.

Jeremy shivers; he remembers when he got his first (and so far his only) tattoo, it had felt kind of like a sunburn, and the artist had explained that different places hurt more than others, depending on the amount of body fat and nerve endings in the location. Jeremy can’t imagine a worse spot for a tattoo than right next to an eyeball, and he has no idea how old Jean was when he was held down and made to accept the mark.

He knows that Kevin, marked with the number 2, has since gone over the old ink with a new shape of his own choice; a queen piece from chess. People had teased him about it, but Jeremy understands. The queen is more useful and skilled than the king. And Riko had considered himself a king, of course.

Jeremy pretends he hasn’t seen Jean examining himself in the mirror, and instead pulls out his statistics homework in the hopes that he’ll be able to do more than just stare at it.

--

Jeremy wakes to the sound of Jean having a nightmare. He’s used to it by now, but every time it hurts his heart to know that in his sleep, Jean is still trying to escape from that dark place. He sits up and crosses the room and gently shakes Jean’s shoulder until he opens his eyes.

“Okay?” Jeremy asks softly, and Jean shakes his head no.

Jean makes his way to the bathroom where he washes his face and stares at his reflection for a few extra moments. When he returns to the bedroom, he looks at his twin xl dorm room mattress with contempt, which gives Jeremy an idea.

“Do you want to sleep together? In, like, a sleep way I mean. Just like together. So you won’t be alone,” Jeremy says.

“I would,” Jean admits, “but dorm beds are shit no matter what school you go to.”

“Let me show you a magic trick.”

“A… what?”

Jeremy smiles softly at him and pushes his narrow bed across the room to Jean’s. The two small mattresses pushed together become one full sized bed, perfect for cuddling. Jean watches as understanding dawns on him and he looks as pleased as he ever allows himself to look in private.

“Ta-da,” Jeremy says as he rearranges the blankets over the two of them once they’ve arranged themselves comfortably.  Jeremy holds Jean and rubs calming circles against his back as he ruminates on whatever horror he relived in his dream. Jeremy can’t see Jean’s face where it’s tucked into the crook of his neck, but he can feel the fear still emanating from him, despite his attempts at levity. He lifts a hand to stroke gently against Jean’s cheek where the tattoo is emblazoned, and Jean stiffens for a moment before he relaxes again.

“He will never, ever, touch you again,” Jeremy whispers fiercely in the dark, because all of Jean’s nightmares are about the same man. He feels Jean nod against him. “He’s dead. And if he came back, he’d have to go through me first, and he never could because I’m never letting anyone hurt you ever again. I’ll protect you no matter what happens.”

Jean nods again, silent, but releases a long sigh against Jeremy’s neck as he settles tiredly. He doesn’t even point out that he’s physically stronger than Jeremy is, or that Riko cannot actually rise from the grave, or that Jeremy is hardly a brawler. He just listens as Jeremy murmurs reassurances and rubs Jean’s back gently with one of his hands.

“You can do anything you want and he can’t keep you from any of it. He’s dead and you’re safe and I love you.”

Jean falls back asleep eventually, and when Jeremy wakes with a crick in his neck but a peacefully slumbering boyfriend in his arms, he counts it as a good night after all.

--

At the dining hall with Laila and Sara, Jean brings up the topic of his tattoo. Jeremy is proud of him for mentioning it and for wanting to talk about it with their friends.

“If I were to go over it with a new shape,” Jean says, “what would you suggest?”

Sara’s face lights up; she loves tattoos, and has a full sleeve on her right arm as well as a few smaller ones scattered around the rest of her.

“Oh, that’s a great question,” she says, looking eager. “Fortunately it’s not too big, so I doubt it would be difficult to cover. It would have to be a solid shape though, and you don’t want it to be any bigger than it is already.”

“You do have a lot,” Jean points out. “When you chose yours, how did you decide?”

Alvarez stops and thinks about it for a moment before answering. “People always say that tattoos should all always have some special meaning. But I think that’s crap. Half of the ones I got are just stuff that I like. If you like something and you think it’s cool, that’s a good enough reason.”

“That’s not helpful. What’s your favorite one?” Laila asks her girlfriend, poking a finger at one shape on her shoulder blade.

“I like the sugar skull,” Sara answers, pointing out a Mexican-style skull tattoo on her left forearm. “My parents are both immigrants, so I’ve tried to incorporate their backgrounds into some of my own stuff, because it’s the story of our family. This one I got because it reminds me of my abuela, who still lives back in Mexico. I don’t get to see her often, and it just kind of makes me feel like I carry my family’s home wherever I am.”

Jeremy nods. “That’s really cool, Alvarez.”

Out of the corner of his eye he can see Jean staring at Sara’s arm, covered in colorful ink, bright and joyful like the woman herself.

“You look like you have an idea,” Laila says, watching Jean think it through.

“I might,” he answers.

“Well?”

“It will be a surprise,” he says, looking almost devious. “Is there an artist in town that you would recommend?”

“Oh definitely,” Sara says. “My guy Troy in Chinatown is the best, if you’ve got time to head into the city. He’s great, and you can just text him your idea and set up a day. He’s pretty good at squeezing people in.”

“Could you give me his number?”

“Sure,” she says, pulling her phone out of her pocket and texting Jean her tattoo artist’s contact info. His phone lets out a chime, indicating the message delivery, and Jean sends a quick message off before digging into his dinner.

“Do you have more tattoos, Jeremy?” Jean asks, glancing over at his boyfriend.

“Nah. Just the one so far, the racquet on my forearm,” Jeremy says, holding out his arm for inspection. Jean rolls his eyes, and Laila cackles.

“That figures,” she says. “You’re predictable, Captain Sunshine. But at least you know what you love.”

Jeremy grins at Jean and answers, “I sure do.” Jean shakes his head in exasperation, but it still makes him smile, so Jeremy considers it a win.

After they eat, the four of them head back to the dorms to watch a movie together; on their way there they run into O’Brian, Evans, and Levinson, who end up joining them as they all cram into the girls’ apartment to watch some stupid comedy movie.

Jeremy wonders what Sara said that gave Jean his idea; halfway through the movie, Jean gets a text, presumably from the tattoo artist, and sets up an appointment for the following weekend.

“You want me to drive you?” Jeremy asks.

“If you’re not busy,” Jean answers. Then he softly adds, “I have never gotten a tattoo that I wanted before.” He grimaces at the memory, and Jeremy frowns and squeezes his hand.

“You don’t have to go anywhere alone if you don’t want to,” Jeremy promises. Jean smiles gratefully and kisses his cheek.

--

The tattoo place seems nice, sort of like Jeremy expected it to, with drawings and sample images all over the walls, as well as old black-and-white photographs of tattooed people of all genders, races, and ages. The machines are all pristine and there are boxes of disinfectant wipes everywhere as well as a stack of instruction cards for the care of new ink. Jean takes one and slips it into his pocket.

There’s two artists in the shop when they arrive, and one of them is Troy, who nods when Jean introduces himself and explains that he had been referred by Sara Alvarez.

“So,” Troy says. “I printed out what you sent me in the size you told me.” He grabs a sheet of strange thin paper and holds it up to Jean’s cheek, assessing how well the shape covers the 3. Jeremy can’t see it, but the artist nods approvingly and cuts the shape out of the paper before he applies it to Jean’s face like a temporary tattoo. Then he has Jean lie down on a padded table that is obviously a repurposed massage bed, and has him turn his face towards Jeremy so his left cheek is facing up.

Jeremy finally gets a good look at the shape on his boyfriend’s face; it’s a fleur-de-lis. A symbol of France, where Jean was born and lived until he was eleven. The place he loved so much that he wouldn’t let go of the language even when threatened. The home of the language he dreams in.

“What do you think?” Jean asks as Jeremy assesses him.

“It’s perfect,” Jeremy answers. Jean reaches for his hand, and Jeremy takes it. Meanwhile, Troy is setting up the tattoo gun with black ink, and as it powers on it becomes a loud buzz.

“It’s not the best place for a painless tattoo,” the artist admits, “but it’s not big, so it should only take two or three minutes.”

“Fine,” Jean says, and he squeezes Jeremy’s hand.

While the artist is working, Jean’s expression is perfectly blank; he does not flinch, or squeeze his eyes. He remains completely still, aside from his tight grip on Jeremy’s hand. It must be painful, but Jean does not react. After a few minutes, the fleur-de-lis is complete, and Troy cleans it up with medical-grade antibacterial wipes and then lets Jean get up and examine himself in the shop’s big mirror.

Jean observes himself in the mirror, looking at his new tattoo, which is already becoming a little red around the edges, which is normal, but otherwise it looks great, in Jeremy’s opinion.

“Good?” Troy asks as he cleans up his station.

“Yes,” Jean answers. “Thank you.”

“You took that a lot better than most people who get face tattoos,” the artist comments.

“I have been hurt worse and for longer,” Jean answers, and Troy accepts that with a shrug. Then he reaches into a drawer at his desk and pulls out a bandage.

“Here,” he says, and Jean lets him cover the shape. “Keep it covered for the next two hours, and clean it a few times every day, two weeks. If you didn’t, grab a care guide from the front desk. You’re also going to want to moisturize it with a fragrance-free moisturizer after the first week. The last thing you want is for it to dry out, especially that close to your eye.”

“Thank you,” Jean says, and he pays Troy, plus a tip. Alvarez had reminded them the importance of a tip, citing that it’s not a good idea to underpay the person who puts needles in your skin for a living.

“Sure, any time,” Troy answers. “If you need a touch up or anything, let me know, okay?”

Jean nods and leaves, Jeremy follows him out, and they climb into the jeep.

“So,” Jeremy says with a smile. “A fleur-de-lis.”

“Yes,” Jean answers. “Before you ask, it isn’t about my family. I don’t know where my parents are now, or if they’re alive. And to be perfectly honest, I do not care. I picked it because Riko would have hated it more than anything else I could have picked.”

Jeremy bites back a laugh, because of course that would be Jean’s personal criteria for choosing a tattoo.

“It isn’t that I have any particular pride in my nation of origin. It’s simply that for many years, it was the only thing about me Riko could not control. He could control how I cut my hair, what I wore, where I went, what I ate, when I slept, what I did, what he did to me. But he could not touch where I came from or that I knew a language he didn’t understand. He hated it more than anything. He refused to learn it. He would beat me for speaking French with Kevin, but I did it anyway. I forced myself to keep my original accent when he tried to train me out of it. For ten years I kept all the parts of myself that I could get away with,” Jean says. “And now, I can grow my hair out if I want. I can pick out my own clothes and try new things. I can get rid of the mark he forced on me.”

“I’m really proud of you, honey,” Jeremy says. “I don’t even think Riko would recognize you if he saw you.”

“That’s more than fine with me,” Jean answers. Then after a moment he adds, “The scars he put on me are still here though. He would know them. I could never cover them all up if I tried. ”

“Don’t try, then. They make you look mysterious and ruggedly handsome.”

“Oh? Wonderful. My physical allure is finally unparalleled.”

Jeremy laughs, and squeezes Jean’s hand in his own as he drives back to campus.

--

The Trojans face the Foxes at semifinals, which is an away game at Palmetto State; Rhemann drags the whole team to LAX at an ungodly hour of the morning and they fly across the country to South Carolina to get ready to play the Foxes again. Jeremy feels that this year, with their improved endurance and Jean’s contributions to their training regimen, they’ll surely bring home a victory.

The orange and white stadium is packed with students and Exy enthusiasts from around the country, all eager for the rematch. Jean and Kevin and Josten all make the game absolute hell for each other, with Josten being the only one of the three visibly enjoying himself. Despite Kevin playing with his dominant hand again (intimidating) and Minyard in the goal in the second half (terrifying), the Trojans outmaneuver the Foxes and win their semifinal game of the season.

After the game, and after press duty, the Trojans meet up with the Foxes in the bright orange Court lobby. Some of the Trojans have already retreated back to the hotel, but Jeremy wanted to say hello to the Foxes, so they follow the hallway through to the court lobby where the Foxes are waiting to retreat back to their dorms.

“Oh, hello Jean!” Renee says sweetly as she walks over to give Jean a hug, which he accepts with a small genuine smile. Jeremy also makes sure to stop and greet the woman who saved Jean’s life. He’s not sure there’s enough love in the world to thank her for her actions all those months ago, but now that Jeremy knows the whole story, he’s sure he’ll spend the rest of his life thanking her for her courage and kindness.

Jeremy gets into a conversation with Dan about endurance training, and Alvarez and Laila start a friendly debate with Kevin regarding racquet sizing (at least, the girls think it’s friendly; Kevin is too competitive to ever be sure). Jeremy notices that Jean is avoiding Kevin entirely and he seems afraid to go near Josten beyond their initial handshake. Jeremy figures out that it’s not because of Neil himself, but because of the tiny blond goalkeeper at his side who watches Jean with a blank, unyielding stare whenever he ventures too close. His lack of expression is, in Jeremy’s opinion, kind of unsettling. He’s heard a lot of things about all the Foxes, especially about this man, but he knows better than to believe what he hears, and when Rhemann comes to herd the rest of the Trojans back to the hotel, they all part ways with no physical altercations.

Jean and Jeremy share a bed in the Holiday Inn Express and they both bypass the small celebration in the hallway to go to sleep early. Jean does not bring up his lack of interaction with Kevin. Jeremy thinks that neither of the two know what to say to each other, but he hopes someday they’ll find the words.

--

The Penn State Lions beat the Edgar Allen Ravens at their semifinal match, making this the first year the Ravens don’t play in the finals or win the championship. Without Riko as captain and with their reputation in tatters, the new Ravens are disorganized and tend to lash out rather than stay strategic and unified. That in and of itself is historic for college Exy, but Jeremy is determined to make history again with a victory on the Trojans home court.

They’re tied right down to the wire, and Jeremy desperately shoots around the Lions’ backliner and lights the goal up red barely a second before the buzzer sounds to end the game.

For a moment, Jeremy can’t hear anything besides his own rapidly pounding heart echoing in his ears. All he sees is the red goal, the Penn State goalkeeper having thrown themself to the ground in a failed attempt to stop the shot.

Then all of a sudden O’Brian is leaping onto him from center court, and then Larsson, and in a moment the entire Trojan team is a writhing mass of screaming, hugging Exy champions. The court comes back to him all at once, and Jeremy can hear the crowds shrieking and cheering, his team yelling and crying, and the USC cheerleading team celebrating courtside. Jeremy loses track of everything; he’s won. His final play of college Exy and he’s used it to win his team the championship, to win the whole damn thing, and he’s filled with so much pride in himself and his team, his friends, because they worked so fucking hard and finally, finally their effort has been rewarded.

Eventually the Trojans disperse, moving from a group hug to individual embraces, rushing around just to confirm with everyone that yes, they did it, they really won! The Lions are shaking hands with the Trojans good naturedly, some are hugging, others look less enthused, but the game was well fought and the energy is positive. And being that this is the first championships ever without the Ravens, it’s easily the most cheerful championship court ever.

Jeremy is dripping with sweat, holding his racquet in his right hand as he takes it all in with wide eyes. He sees Alvarez and Laila embracing, bodies tight together and laughing; Alvarez is pressing a kiss against her girlfriend’s red and gold helmet. Across the court, Fisher is clasping hands with a Lions dealer, both smiling and chatting. The scoreboard suspended high above the court reads 6-5.

Jeremy turns around just as Jean slams into him, one arm wrapped tight around Jeremy’s shoulders. Jean is trembling with excitement, with joy, and he’s beaming. His helmet has been lost somewhere in the chaos, his grey eyes are bright and jubilant, his black hair a sweaty mess against his forehead. He is joyous and radiant and victorious.

This has meant everything to Jeremy, but even more to Jean. Jean has been here three times before, winning this same game, twice winning it against Jeremy. But you wouldn’t know it looking at Jean now. Jeremy has no idea what he can say to his boyfriend, who has won this trophy before but has never owned any part of it, was never allowed to be victorious, has never called any triumph on the court his own.

Jeremy has no idea what to say, but Jean does.

Merveilleux,” Jean exclaims, the French rolling off his tongue, and his face is glowing, and he’s so fucking beautiful Jeremy thinks he might cry. Then Jean is unstrapping Jeremy’s helmet and dropping it on the ground and then he’s leaning down and they’re kissing right there on the court, thousands of fans and two dozen players all around them, the world watching from televisions across the nation, Jeremy’s family somewhere in the stands. But the moment Jean kisses him, it all goes silent again, because Jeremy has everything he’s ever wanted and more.

When they pull apart, Jeremy knows there are tears in his eyes. Jean’s gloved and padded hand is cupping the back of his head. He presses their foreheads together, and this great big world narrows to just them for this moment.

Je t’aime,” Jean tells him. “Je t'aime avec tout ce que j'ai.

Jeremy drops his racquet, wraps his arms around Jean’s neck, and pulls him down for another kiss. Somewhere, someone wolf whistles at the two of them as they stand pressed together. When they part, Jean is smiling so beautifully.

“Would you have told me that if we lost?” Jeremy asks breathlessly, teasing.

“We were never going to lose,” Jean answers, and Jeremy’s heart is filled with light.

Rhemann comes onto the court to hug some of the Trojans and to herd them into some semblance of a line and Penn State’s coach does the same, the teams shake hands mostly good-naturedly, and then the Trojans go back to the locker rooms to shower and change as quickly as possible. The team is a sweaty mess now; there will be time for professional photoshoots and interviews later, but Jeremy as team captain is expected to make a brief post-game appearance. Levinson tosses a towel to Jeremy and he catches it, scrubs it over his wet face and neck quickly, and rushes out to talk to the press.

There are cameras flashing in his face as he grins brightly, Coach Rhemann beside him. They stand for a few minutes with the trophy at the behest of the photographers before sitting down before the crowd of sports reporters.

“Jeremy!” One woman calls out, holding a mic up annoyingly close to his face. “How do you feel after that last-minute win?”

“Amazing,” he answers honestly. “Both teams played an incredible game, and I’m so honored to have played against the Lions tonight.”

Another reported calls out, “Do you have a professional contract lined up after your graduation next month?”

“I do,” Jeremy says, “But I’m not at liberty to say which team yet, sorry. When the contract is finalized you’ll all be the first to know!”

His good nature puts the reporters at ease. His entire body is buzzing with the victory, the flashing lights, the roar of the crowd still echoing in his ears.

“Jeremy, everyone saw Jean Moreau kiss you after the game ended. Last year around this time you made waves announcing his transfer to USC; is this a more recent development?”

Rhemann interrupts, “Please keep your questions Exy-related, if you all don’t mind!”

Jeremy doesn’t offer anything else to them on the matter, because he and Jean haven’t discussed this at all and it’s no one else’s business, so the reporters instead ask about the Trojans, their training regimen, and Jeremy’s feelings about the game. Eventually Rhemann shoes Jeremy away to go get changed out, and Jeremy leaves the press room behind with a friendly wave.

When he reaches the locker rooms, he’s not surprised to find most of the Trojans already dressed and waiting for him. They congratulate him again before he hurries to shower and change. When he’s clean, they all leave together in one enthusiastic group.

Outside the doors is pure chaos; USC students are screaming and singing the school fight song, campus security is holding the line against the press and the fans. A few Trojans’ families are there, and they have been led through the reverie by more security. Vanessa, Ryan, Laura, and Molly are there waiting, all wearing Trojan merchandise; Laura has a jersey with Jeremy’s number on it, and Molly has one with Jean’s. Vanessa and Ryan rush forward to embrace Jeremy.

“We’re so proud of you, kiddo,” Ryan says, squeezing tightly. When they let him go, Laura grabs him next, and then Molly.

Vanessa looks over to Jean. “We’re proud of you too of course, honey,” she says with a smile. She holds her arms out wide, looking at him hopefully. Jean hesitates, but then he accepts her embrace, and Vanessa looks impossibly proud. They separate after a moment, and Jean seems happy when Molly approaches for a hug of her own.

“We’re sure you wanna go party with your team,” Laura says to Jeremy. “But we couldn’t leave without telling you we love you.”

Jeremy grins. “I’m glad you’re all here.”

“Like we’d miss the championships!” Ryan says. “What kind of parents do you think we are?”

Jeremy only laughs, and hugs his father again.

“It was one hell of a game,” Vanessa adds.

“That last shot was wicked,” Laura exclaims. “I thought that backliner was gonna have you on the ground but then all of a sudden you were behind them and wham! I’ve never been so happy to see the color red in my whole fucking life.”

“Language,” Vanessa says, but she doesn’t seem that upset about it.

“You were really good too,” Molly tells Jean, who is now holding her hand. “Right after the break, their guy was all over you and you did that crazy thing with your feet and turned him all around. That was cool!”

“Thank you,” Jean says sincerely, and he says it like he’s accepting serious criticism from a professional athlete, which Jeremy finds incredibly endearing.

Laila and Sara make their way over to greet Vanessa and Ryan.

“Ah, there’s my favorite Trojan girls,” Ryan tells them brightly. “Way to keep the goal locked down the second half, Laila.”

“I know, right?” Alvarez says, reaching over to ruffle Laila’s short blonde hair. “She’s so cool.”

“Not as cool as when you knocked that dealer on his ass in the first quarter,” Laila answers.

“I got yellow carded for that.”

“Worth it.”

Laura nods in agreement, and Jeremy goes back over to Jean and Molly.

“Did you have fun?” he asks his youngest sister.

“Yes!” she answers. “I still don’t really get it but you looked like you were all having a good time, and Mom says that’s what’s most important.”

“Mom is right,” Jeremy agrees.

“Exy still makes more sense than football,” Molly adds. “If you’re going to hit each other a lot you should just go with the big sticks. So you can hit people and the Exy balls. It’s cooler.”

“Baseball has hitting balls with sticks too,” Jeremy points out, and Jean looks mildly betrayed.

“But not slamming into each other!” Molly says with a laugh. “Unless they do it bad, I guess.”

“Horseback riding doesn’t have slamming into each other or hitting balls with sticks.”

“No, but you know what it does have?” Molly asks.

“What?”

“Friggin’ horses!”

Jean immediately begins laughing really, really hard, until he’s doubled over and holding his sides as he laughs. The Trojans all around the area notice and watch with mixed amounts of delight, surprise, and curiosity. Their Jean is always rude and judgmental, even though he has grown more personable over their months together. They seem happy to know that this formerly angry, terrified person who they met in July has become someone capable of this laughter by the tail end of April.

A tap on Jeremy’s shoulder distracts him from family and team, and he turns to see Kevin Day standing, looking as pleased as he is capable of looking, which is fairly neutral but betrayed by a bright passionate glint in his eyes and a barely noticeable smirk at the corner of his mouth.

“Kevin!” Jeremy exclaims. “Didn’t expect to see you here! Aren’t you and your Foxes busy?”

“Well, with our season ended early, I made time. I just flew in for the game,” Kevin answers. “So I’ll be back to Pamero State tomorrow morning. We do still have finals. But I wasn’t going to miss the Trojans playing the Lions, especially not after you beat us so soundly last month.”

Jeremy laughs. “Well, as you can see, we worked on endurance. We’re a much stronger team, thanks to that hard work.”

“And thanks to your newest backliner,” Kevin says quietly, nodding towards where Jean is talking to Molly, Alvarez, and Laila. Jean hasn’t caught sight of Kevin yet. Jeremy isn’t sure what will happen when he does. He had refused to even look at Kevin when they had played before, but now Kevin is here out of friendship and not to play.

“Yes,” Jeremy agrees. Then he frowns. “You know, we didn’t get a chance to talk after our last game. I wanted to say… Jean told me everything. Really, everything.”

Kevin winces, barely noticeable, but Jeremy catches it. He knows to look. “Hmm. I see.”

“I’ve thought about it a lot, after it all came out. I’m the only one who knows, so don’t worry about anything spreading. I guess you’ve got your hands full with enough rumors over there.”

“Yeah.”

“It sounds seriously insane, you know? Yakuza debts and whatever wild and terrible shit the Ravens got up to. The things that happened in that school are unforgiveable. And I just don’t understand how you could have ever found any of that remotely okay no matter how much you wanted to win. I love Exy, but really, it’s just a game.”

“It isn’t,” Kevin answers. “It never was with Riko.”

Jeremy says, “Not with you either. Maybe that’s your problem.”

Kevin doesn’t answer, but he looks like he disagrees.

“I know Jean has to keep playing Exy to satisfy the Moriyamas,” Jeremy continues, more quietly. “And that’s fine, I guess. But aside from whatever that transaction looks like? No one from that fucked up world is gonna touch him ever again. And if it tries, it’s got to get through me first.”

“Good,” Kevin answers. “He deserves that. A future and someone to watch his back.”

“He’s a Trojan now,” Jeremy says. “We take care of each other.”

Kevin starts to speak but then changes his mind, face dark, like he’s looking for the words. Like the words really matter to him. He says, “I… The night I left… It was… I had panicked. I was only thinking of my career, of my game, of myself. I was… I am… Regret is pointless, Jeremy. It serves no purpose and it’s a distraction. But… I would say that’s one thing I regret. How I left him behind. I should have asked him to come with me. No, he would have refused. I should have dragged him out of there with me, and I didn’t.”

Jeremy says, “It isn’t my place to forgive you or to not forgive you. I wasn’t there. But for what it’s worth, you did get him here in the end. You and Renee. You didn’t let him die, and you didn’t leave him with nothing. You gave him a chance at USC, and for that, I’m really grateful. And not just because of how I feel about him. Just because it’s what he deserves.”

Kevin looks pensive for a moment before he speaks, and when he does he looks less an Exy player with a complicated past and more a curious college kid who wants to know the gossip but is tired of all the gossip being ridiculous. Jeremy thinks it’s hysterical.

Kevin blurts out, “He kissed you.”

Jeremy laughs. “I assure you that it wasn’t the first time.”

“That wasn’t exactly… what I had planned, you know. When I asked you to take him on.”

“Would have been weird if it was,” he answers cheekily.

“You do realize that it will make your professional career more difficult, considering—“

“Oh, please. Everyone can eat my ass if they have a problem. I don’t care what they say about me, or us,” Jeremy says, and he’s smiling brightly. “I don’t care how hard it gets, as long as I can stay with him.”

Kevin snorts rudely, but there’s a hint of a smile behind it. “You’re not the only person who ignores my good advice, you know that?”

“Oh, I’m sure those Foxes are a handful. Especially Josten.”

Kevin lets out the world’s longest, most exhausted sigh. “You have no idea.”

“Ah, but you love that, too.”

Kevin shrugs noncommittally, which of course means that he does love his Foxes, although he’d die before he ever said so.

Jeremy glances back over at his family, and sees that Jean has turned to find him and has noticed Kevin at last. His stare is even and carefully blank, just as it was back in the beginning. Jean watches them from across the lot.

“You could tell him,” Jeremy says quietly to Kevin. “You could tell him you’re sorry.”

“There’s no point,” Kevin answers, a little sadly. “It wouldn’t be nearly enough.”

“It could be a start,” he offers, and Kevin does not respond. Then Kevin extends a hand, and Jeremy takes it, and they shake firmly. Kevin’s grip is strong and his eyes are severe.  “I know you really care about him. And I know he cares about you too. I hope that someday you can both meet in the middle. I think you’ve been through a lot of the same pain.”

“Thank you for helping him,” he says quietly. “Thank you for everything, Jeremy.”

“Yeah. I’ll see you around, Kevin,” Jeremy answers, and then Kevin turns to face Jean. He seems to psyche himself up for a moment before crossing the parking lot. A few people notice and start murmuring about it but Kevin ignores that. He walks up to Jean and says a few things to him; Jeremy doesn’t hear what he says, but Jean seems surprised enough that it’s obvious on his face. Then Kevin reaches out his hand, as he did with Jeremy, and Jean hesitates before taking it. And then Kevin Day makes his way back home. When Jeremy rejoins his boyfriend, Jean is smiling.

Eventually the Knoxes have to leave, and an increasingly impatient campus security team escorts the Trojans back to the athlete dorms. Waiting for them are the players and participants from the other USC sports teams, and together with an air of school pride they spend the night laughing and drinking and enjoying their victory.

When it’s late, very late, Jeremy finds Jean arguing happily in the corner with Evans, O’Brian, and Larsson. Jeremy nods towards the door; Jean bids goodbye to his teammates, and follows him to the elevator, down the hall, and into their dorm apartment.

It’s just before 4am. The hall is quiet; nearly everyone is still at the party, and anyone who isn’t is surely deep asleep. Jeremy tosses his bag somewhere in the direction of the couch and before he can say anything, Jean is on him, kissing him thoroughly and roughly, his big calloused hands cupping Jeremy’s jaw, and Jeremy melts against his boyfriend, wraps his arms around Jean’s waist and closes his eyes.

“You were incredible tonight,” Jeremy whispers when he pulls away. “You’re the most magnificent, amazing person I’ve ever met.”

Jean laughs, no more than a few soft huffs against Jeremy’s cheek as he presses their foreheads together gently. “Am I? Clearly you have not met my boyfriend, then.”

It’s such a sweet, silly thing to say, and Jeremy can’t get enough of it. “I love you.”

“I… I love you too,” Jean murmurs. “Mon coeur.”

Jeremy shivers. He loves when Jean calls him those little pet names in French. My heart. It’s lovely. Jeremy’s favorite part of it isn’t the “heart” though. It’s the “my”.

Mon ange,” he continues. “Mon amour.”                 

“Je t'aime,” Jeremy says, one of the bits of the language he knows by heart. His accent is atrocious, but it always seems to make Jean happy.

Jean repeats the words back, his voice curling around the words delicately in a way Jeremy’s just can’t. Jeremy doesn’t mind one bit. He suddenly feels breathless as Jean looks at him, his grey eyes warm and gentle.

“The Riptides are lucky to have signed you,” Jean says at last. Jeremy laughs.

“I don’t want to talk about Exy now,” he tells him.

“I am not talking about Exy,” Jean insists. “I am talking about you.”

Jeremy smiles, presses a kiss against Jean’s lips, and wraps his arms around his boyfriend’s waist.

“Hmm. If you say so, honey.”

Jean moves out of his embrace after a moment, but takes Jeremy’s hand and tugs him towards the bedroom.

“Let’s sleep in until noon tomorrow,” Jeremy says conspiratorially. “I won’t tell the girls if you won’t.”

Jean laughs softly. “I don’t know if I can stay asleep that long. But I would not mind staying in bed with you, if you wanted.”

“It’s a plan.”

--

The next day finds Jeremy blinking into wakefulness when the sun is already high in the sky.  Jean is across the room sitting up in his own bed and reading. Jeremy looks at Jean for a long moment, taking in all the soft and sharp details that he’s come to love. His firm jawline and the slight wave of tousled black hair on his head. The fleur-de-lis on his cheek standing out stark against his pale skin. His slightly crooked nose from a poorly healed break, the smattering of scars in every shape and size all over his body. His thick muscular shoulders and arms. The scattered freckles, and the little mole on the side of his neck. Jean is so incredibly handsome, Jeremy thinks dreamily.

Jean realizes that he’s being watched, and he glances over at Jeremy with an unimpressed look.  It’s the look he gives whenever Jeremy gets too sappy. Jeremy loves it so much.

“Good morning,” Jeremy murmurs, smiling gently.

“Good afternoon,” Jean corrects him, the corner of his mouth tilting up into a smile. “Sara texted while you were asleep. She and Laila want us to go out for dinner tonight. I already told them yes.”

“Nice.” Jeremy yawns and stretches his arms. “Jean, have I ever told you how gorgeous you are?”

“You say that to everyone who helps you avoid talking on the phone.”

Jeremy laughs, drags himself out of bed, and crosses the room to Jean. Jean scoots over towards the wall so Jeremy has enough room to sit down, and he slides himself under the blanket and curls up into Jean’s side. Jeremy kisses his cheek.

“No, but you are incredibly beautiful,” he tells Jean. “I mean it.”

Jean wavers a moment there, like he’s suddenly found himself in unknown territory. Jeremy knows that despite his attitude, Jean is a little self-conscious about the scars left behind on his skin. Or at least, he’s self-conscious where Jeremy is concerned, which is ridiculous, because Jeremy already thinks Jean is the most attractive man alive.

“I know you do,” Jean answers softly, and Jeremy knows he means something like thank you.

“So, I was thinking,” Jeremy says.

“How exciting.”

“Rude! Okay, so we have finals in the next two weeks. Then my graduation. And then we’ll both have like six weeks with nothing planned. No practices, no classes, no obligations. You’ve got until the second half of July, and I have until August before I move into my new apartment. We can do anything we want.”

“That is true. Did you have an idea on what to do during those six weeks?”

“Yeah. Well, not all of the weeks. I know Mom and Dad will want to see us, and we could go visit Laila and Sara wherever they end up over the summer… But I thought maybe we could go somewhere? Just you and me? On a trip. Like, on a vacation.”

“Hmm.” Jean puts a bookmark into the pages of his book, places it on the bedside table on top of everything else, and turns to look at Jeremy. “I have never been on a vacation.”

“Where would you like to go?” Jeremy asks. “I’ll go anywhere if it’s with you. Would you maybe want to go to France? I know it’s been a long time since you saw it.”

“No.” Jean shakes his head. “I would like to go somewhere new.”

“I don’t think I can find you a private island, babe,” Jeremy says. “But I’m sure we can figure it out.”

--

Every single Trojan survives finals; afterwards, Larsson throws a small party in her room and everyone from the team shows up, and they end up playing Never Have I Ever, which Jean abstains from on account of all the weird shit he’s done and all the normal shit he hasn’t done, but he watches amusedly from his perch on the back of the couch. O’Brian and Evans get completely tanked, and the night devolves into a strange but reasonable mix of beer pong and Disney movie marathon featuring the world’s drunkest sing along. It’s the last hurrah for Jeremy, Larsson, and O’Brian, the three fifth-year seniors on the team.

The underclassmen all move out when the dorms close (except Jean, who is technically breaking school rules by staying behind) and the seniors graduate. After the ceremony, Jeremy and Jean load up the yellow Jeep with their belongings and meander their way north to the Knox family house where they prepare for their well-deserved vacation.

They ultimately decide on a trip to Iceland. Ryan and Vanessa pay for their venture as a graduation gift to Jeremy. It’s a somewhat strange vacation spot, especially for a pair of college students (technically one college student and one graduate by the time their flight leaves LAX) but it’s unusual and out of the way and after they’ve read up on all the things they can see there, they’re excited to go. It takes Jean a little while to sort out a passport issue. It had been given to the Moriyamas when Jean was, and so he had to jump through a few hoops to retrieve it from Tetsuji’s personal belongings. The last thing the Moriyamas needed was any sort of publicity, so they handed it over with limited fuss.

Jeremy and Jean rent a small Airbnb apartment just outside of Reykjavik, and they spend ten days exploring the south of Iceland. They visit the Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach, a place known for the pitch black volcanic sand making up the shore. Despite the time of year, it’s cold, and Jeremy is unprepared, so he purchases a hat and some gloves made of local Icelandic sheep wool. The hat has a little line of cute little sheep woven on it, and the gloves feature some adorable puffins. Jeremy loves them; Jean just shakes his head when he sees the bright blue hat with the birds as Jeremy emerges from the gift shop with a broad grin on his face and aforementioned hat on his head.

They try local cuisine (such as hákarl, the fermented shark that all the tourist spots recommend visitors try at least once) and they go whale watching on a ship. Jean looks absolutely ridiculous bundled up in the provided insulated jumpsuit, but as the small ship is tossed around in the water and the rain pours down on the deck, Jean draws the hood up so tight on his head that all Jeremy can see is his bright grey eyes, the same color as the stormy sea. They see a few whales, and a pair of dolphins, but they mainly see a lot of puffins; the birds are much smaller than Jeremy had imagined, and they’re adorable, and they’re absolutely everywhere.

After they leave the whale watching ship, they stop for hot chocolate at a café in downtown Reykjavik. Because they’re there in the summer, Iceland is experiencing its Midnight Sun season; due to how far north on the planet the small country sits, during the summertime the sun never sets. Jean and Jeremy stay up all night to see it; around one in the morning the sun appears like it might start to set, but an hour later it’s back up in the sky, bright as midday.

They see waterfalls and glaciers, visit museums, and go to a natural hot spring (complete with volcanic mud masks that look so silly that Jean has a laughing fit), they see some of the famous Icelandic moss as they drive through the area outside of Reykjavik (which they are repeatedly warned not to touch, as the moss is sensitive and if damaged can take more than 100 years to heal), and they wander through the streets of the city hand in hand, ducking into shops and stopping wherever they please. Jean seems peaceful; it’s the most relaxed Jeremy has ever seen him, and the longest he’s ever seen it.

The people of Iceland are wholly uninterested in US college-level Exy, being a country that largely favors soccer, and the previous year’s public drama surrounding the Ravens and the Foxes seems to have never reached the distant nation. So Jeremy and Jean are no different than any other pair of tourists to the people around them.  There are no paparazzi, no crowds, and no awkward questions that have no answers. At one bus stop, as they wait to take a van to the Golden Circle, which is a large and particularly beautiful waterfall, Jeremy notices a family of American tourists standing nearby; there’s a young boy bundled up in a Ravens sport jacket, and he’s staring at Jean intensely. Jeremy shifts over a little and catches the kid’s eye, glances over at Jean, and then looks back at the kid and shakes his head no in tiny, firm movements. The boy nods back, seeming to understand that he should keep his mouth shut, and turns back to his parents. Jean never notices at all, but Jeremy brings their joined hands up to his mouth and kisses Jean’s fingers anyway.

Just before they have to leave, the pair of them splurge and sign up for a ride on some Icelandic horses through the Reykjanes preservation area. Before they mount up, the guide tells them that the Icelandic horses (which are, according to the guide, NOT to be referred to as ponies, despite their relatively smaller size) were brought to the country by the Nordic settlers and the breed has changed very little since those days. There are laws about preserving the breed; a horse taken from Iceland for a competition cannot re-enter the country for fear of upsetting the gene pool. Similarly, no horses from outside of Iceland may be brought in for any reason.

After this brief lesson, they ride along a set trail, following a few other people in the same group, their guide leading the way. It’s nearly dinner time, but due to the time of year, it might as well be noon in terms of sunlight.

“I told you we would go horseback riding someday,” Jeremy says teasingly from the back of his mount, a pretty mare named Jonna. “It was my New Year’s resolution.”

“Oh, was it? And here I thought maybe you had used the occasion more productively,” Jean replies rudely, as he often does.

Jeremy laughs. “I can’t wait to tell Molly and Laura that I really got you on a horse. I’ll show her my pictures. ‘Look girls, it’s Jean, doing a sport that has no sticks and no score!’”

“One trail ride is hardly what I would call ‘doing a sport,’” he says snippily. “But Molly is going to be jealous of us.”

“Nah. She’ll just be mad that she didn’t get to ride with you and will beg for you to drive her to her next lesson. She adores you, you know that?”

Jean smiles and doesn’t answer, but Jeremy gets the idea that Jean feels the same way. It makes him feel warm and bright inside to know that Jean has come to love Jeremy’s family; Jeremy has every intention of, someday, eventually, convincing Jean to officially become a part of it.

Jeremy, the sap that he is, spends his free moments daydreaming about what life will be like after Jean graduates. He imagines an apartment with a bed that is not a dorm room standard twin extra-long, or two of them pushed together. He imagines shared meals and away games around the US, he imagines them making National Court together.

Jonna the horse takes advantage of Jeremy’s lapse in concentration and drops her head down to bite off a mouthful of grass, which unbalances Jeremy and forces him to yank her head back up with the reins. He scolds her for her behavior, although he’s willing to concede that probably she only knows Icelandic and thus does not understand his reprimanding of her behavior. Jean notices the horse misbehaving and laughs at Jeremy.

After dinner and drinks at a local restaurant, they arrive back at their borrowed apartment, Jeremy’s phone filled with several dozen pictures of himself, Jean, and the horses. It’s pretty late; they’re exhausted from the long ride so they just take a quick shower before they get ready to sleep. Because it’s so light outside all summer, most bedrooms in Iceland have blackout curtains so that the residents can find some darkness to sleep in. Jean lowers the ones in their bedroom before he gets in the bed. The curtains are so thick it’s almost like turning off the sun.

Jeremy slides under the covers, pressed up against his boyfriend, and he reaches for the lamp on the nightstand when Jean catches his hand gently.

“Are you tired?” Jean asks, but it seems like he’s asking something else.

“Nah,” Jeremy answers softly. “Never too tired for you.”

Then Jean is kissing him and Jeremy feels a heat in his chest that spreads low in his belly as Jean shifts, hovering over him carefully.

“Jeremy,” Jean says, “I want.”

“Yeah,” Jeremy breathes. “Anything.”

“That is very broad.”

“I know. But I mean it.”

Jean bites his lip and looks for the words.

“I had a dream like this once,” Jean whispers. “That I could go anywhere I pleased, and do anything I desired. I dreamed my body was mine, and I could want things with it. That there would be someone else who would want the same things.”

Jeremy already knows he wants the same things as Jean because he wants all of it, he wants every single thing of Jean that he can have. And in return he wants to give everything back to him tenfold.

“Maybe this time we should talk about it first,” Jean adds, and his face is flushed pretty and red in the dim lamplight.

“It’s okay,” Jeremy answers. “Tell me what you want and it’s yours.”

“You always give so much of yourself for me.”

“I only give you what I want you to have,” Jeremy answers. “I’ll take you anywhere you wanna go, and I’ll follow you everywhere you’ll let me come with you. I think you deserve the world, sweetheart.”

Jean says, “Je veux faire l'amour avec vous, mon coeur.

Jeremy sees the look in Jean’s eyes, feels Jean’s warm hands on him, hears the tone of his voice and the sound of his words and he understands perfectly.

Yes,” he breathes.

Then they’re kissing again; Jeremy pulls away so he can yank his own tee-shirt over his head, and quickly starts unbuttoning Jean’s pajama shirt while sucking a kiss under his jaw; Jean sighs, shrugs the open shirt off his shoulders and arms and tosses it somewhere to the floor, and then Jeremy’s hands are sliding over his muscular chest; his fingers are met by a battlefield of scars, as familiar to him now as his own two hands. He knows where to touch, where to lick and kiss and bite, he knows what Jean likes, and he loves it, loves making Jean feel good. It’s his favorite thing to see a man as put together as Jean fall sweetly apart by his hand.

Je t'aime,” Jeremy murmurs, mouthing his way across Jean’s chest, and Jean slips his fingers into Jeremy’s curly hair and tugs him back up and kisses him like he wants to taste every last inch of his mouth. Jeremy wants that too. Jeremy wants everything he can get.

They kiss for what feels like hours, but might only be minutes. Time flows strangely in a country where the sun never sets, and they’ve adjusted to that over the past week and a half. Plus, kissing Jean always distorts Jeremy’s sense of time; he loses himself in the sensations, in the warmth and the closeness and the need. Somewhere along the way they lose the rest of their clothes, pressed together, skin on skin on skin. Jean rolls his hips down and Jeremy gasps into his mouth, and he feels Jean smile. Now that it’s been offered, he’s desperate for it, desperate for Jean to open him up and fill him, desperate to be connected to him as physically as he can be.

“I have, uh,” Jeremy murmurs as he pulls back. “Let me get something.”

Jeremy reaches down into his suitcase where it sits beside their borrowed bed and fishes around blindly for the unopened bottle of lube he brought along. Because you never know.  Jean glances over the label quickly and takes the bottle with hesitant fingers.

“I, uh, I wanted to be prepared,” Jeremy explains himself, a little uncertain. “I didn’t expect anything and obviously, I mean, I can’t read Icelandic so if we needed, I thought, um, I guess, just in case?”

“Are you sure about this?” Jean asks quietly, and Jeremy sits up to cup the side of Jean’s face, stroking his cheek gently with his thumb.

“Absolutely. Are you? Your hands are shaking, sweetheart.”

“I’ve never done this before,” Jean says mildly, and his face and chest are flushed pink. “Can I not be nervous?”

“Ah,” Jeremy answers, and he feels like kicking himself. “Of course you can. I’m sorry, baby. I just worry about you.”

“But I…” Jean swallows nervously. “I need you to tell me how to do it.”

“Sweetheart, I’m right here with you,” Jeremy murmurs.

Jean smiles softly. “I… yes. Of course you are. You really take some of the most difficult things and make them easy, you know that?”

“You make it easy,” Jeremy says, and it’s true. It has been difficult at times watching Jean work through his pain and his trauma, and not being able to do much but listen to his troubles. But being there for him, from the first day at the airport, has been as natural to Jeremy as breathing. Even when Jean was deservedly angry, and scared, and bitter, even when he was snappish and far away, it was the easiest thing in the world. Falling in love with him was even easier. Jean accepts Jeremy as he is, energetic and enthusiastic and emotional and nosy and stubborn to the end. They complement each other perfectly.

“I have never made anything easy in anyone’s life and you know it,” Jean answers, and Jeremy laughs.

Jean opens the tube and glances at Jeremy, as if looking for some secret distaste for the act of penetrative sex, but he doesn’t find any, because there is none.

“How should we…?” Jean asks hesitantly, and lets Jeremy arrange them.

Jeremy wants to see Jean’s face, and avoid any particular angles that might be upsetting for Jean, so he sits up on his knees and kneels over Jean’s lap, letting Jean’s hands grasp his hips as he rests his hands on Jean’s shoulders.

Jean’s wet fingers circle Jeremy’s cock and stroke once, slippery and cool, before reaching back to palm over Jeremy’s ass teasingly. Jeremy gasps quietly, and the corner of Jean’s mouth tilts up into a smirk. He is, despite everything, still smug and slightly insufferable as always. Jeremy loves it. Jean presses the pad of his index finger against Jeremy’s hole, testing, and Jeremy lets out a sigh, draping his arms around Jean’s neck and carding his fingers through his thick black hair.

“Come on,” Jeremy murmurs.

Jean slips his fingertip inside and Jeremy groans, lets his head drop forward onto Jean’s shoulder, and his eyes close. Jean curls his finger experimentally, stroking Jeremy’s insides as lightly and as gently as he can, and then he slips out and pushes back in at a slightly different angle, several times. It feels nice, Jeremy thinks, vaguely, but then Jean moves and drags over his prostate and Jeremy moans loudly in surprise, leaning forward against Jean, who presses a kiss against the side of his head . He’s sensitive to it, maybe because it’s been ages since someone fucked him, and maybe because it’s Jean, who he loves entirely, and it sends a wave of pure pleasure through him and he rolls his hips down against Jean’s hand with a soft moan.

Oh,” Jean says, sounding a little surprised.

“Yeah,” Jeremy agrees, nodding desperately, and Jean pulls his finger out carefully, adds more lubricant, and slides back in with two, trying to establish a rhythm in which he hits that bundle of nerves with every stroke, and Jeremy thinks it’s a little stupid how desperate he is for it already, but Jean doesn’t seem to mind, especially not when, after he’s worked Jeremy up to three, Jeremy reaches back to tug at Jean’s hand.

He pulls Jean down to kiss him again, trying to express just how sure he is with his tongue as he fumbles for a condom from the suitcase (Jeremy is always prepared, sort of like a hopeless bisexual boy scout)and shoves it into Jean’s hand. Jean moves back so he can pull the package open and roll the condom onto himself, hands trembling.

Jean tilts Jeremy onto his back, the head of his cock brushing against Jeremy’s entrance. Jeremy bites his lip to muffle a whine, and then Jean pushes in just a bit, and Jeremy can’t keep it back, he lets out a gasp that would be embarrassing if he wasn’t so turned on, wasn’t here in this bed with Jean Moreau, who he loves, who loves him back, and Jean’s movements are hesitant and unpracticed but god, it’s so good, and when Jean has pushed in as far as he can go, back bowed, he leans down to bite a bruise into Jeremy’s neck.

 “Okay?” Jean asks, mouth moving against Jeremy’s sweaty, heated skin, and Jeremy nods.

“Very,” he says. “Very okay. Extremely okay. You?”

Jean is hot and flushed and he moves to nip at Jeremy’s earlobe and he murmurs, “Vous êtes céleste, mon coeur.”

Jeremy never had much of a thing for hearing foreign languages before Jean, but now he totally has a thing for it and when he hears the word he whines desperately, curling his arms up around Jean’s back so he can grip his shoulders, and Jean rolls his hips experimentally, not really pulling out so much as shifting slowly inside him, and Jeremy moans.

“Oh, fuck,” Jeremy gasps. “That’s it, just like that, baby…”

Je t'aime,” Jean answers, voice tight. “Tu te sens si bien.

He draws out and then back in, and Jeremy cries out softly as he does, and Jean seems to like that because he does it again, and again, still slow, but with more intent.

“Oh, god,” Jeremy gasps, and one of Jean’s arms hooks under Jeremy’s leg, hitching it up higher so he can thrust deeper inside, and Jeremy keens, his grip on Jean tightening, fingers brushing through Jean’s damp hair. “Fuck, Jean, it’s so good, you feel so good…”

As Jean attempts a mostly steady movement, Jeremy feels himself getting lost in it. He’s always like this, he knows, always so ready and desperate for affection, absorbing it all like a big needy sponge. But Jean has never minded that; Jean has his own understandable reservations about emotional and physical affection, but he’s made it clear that what he has to give is for Jeremy, and Jeremy has never doubted that for a minute.

So Jeremy arches his back, doesn’t bother to restrain his whines and groans and gasps; he wants Jean to know how good he is, how nice this feels, how much he wants to be right here in this room an ocean away from home doing this more than anything else in the world.

“I love you,” Jeremy whispers, wrapping his legs around Jean’s hips as if he can keep Jean inside him forever. Jean’s hands find his, pressing them down into the mattress by his head, and he takes Jean’s full weight as Jean fucks into him, deep and thorough and so incredibly good. “Love you, love you, love…”

Jean bites gently at Jeremy’s exposed throat, and Jeremy cries out, fingers tightening against Jean’s.

He feels that warmth in his belly, he knows he’s so close, and how could he not be when Jean is like this? Jean’s pale, scarred skin is flushed and sweaty, his grey eyes are dark with desire and his mouth is swollen and pink from kissing and biting, his movements steady and irresistible and demanding and so good.

“Jean, Jean, please, sweetheart, I need…”

Understanding, Jean releases one of his hands and reaches down between them to grip Jeremy where he is hard and leaking, and Jeremy moans softly, lost to sensation. Jean jerks him off, trying to match the pace of his thrusts but not entirely making it; Jeremy doesn’t care, it’s all so good anyway. Jean leans back to look down at him, and Jeremy is sure he looks like a mess, but he doesn’t care about that either.

 “I love you, Jeremy” Jean murmurs, and Jeremy comes with a soft, needy cry. His head feels like it’s full of white static, and he feels Jean stroking him through it, and it lasts and lasts and lasts until Jeremy lets himself collapse back against the bed, breathless.

Jean goes to pull out and Jeremy tightens his legs.

“Wait,” he says, “I want you to finish inside…”

Jean’s expression is unreadable but after a second or two he resumes his movements cautiously; Jeremy feels raw and strung out, and Jean’s incessant drag over his prostate leaves him just on the right side of pleasure/pain, and he loves it, loves watching Jean take pleasure from his body, wants him to have it.

“Yeah,” Jeremy whispers thoughtlessly as he moves up into it. He reaches up to brush dark hair back from Jean’s sweaty forehead. “Jean, s’good. Come on, baby... You’re so good…”

A moment later, Jean comes, his strong body bent over so he can push his face into the crook of Jeremy’s neck, and he lets out a quiet, nearly imperceptible sob against Jeremy’s skin, and Jeremy tangles his fingers into the hair at the base of Jean’s neck as Jean gasps and twitches against him.

“Love you,” Jeremy murmurs, reveling in the heat and the closeness of their bodies, and Jean sighs peacefully as they settle together. “Wish I could keep you here just like this forever.”

Jean snuffles a little laugh against his skin, and it tickles. “And who would be the Trojans’ starting backliner then?”

“Mm… one of the new kids can do it.”

Jeremy shifts just slightly, and Jean lets out a soft groan. Jeremy tilts his head up and kisses him.

“I suppose I can call the Riptides,” Jean mutters. “’Apologies, your newest player is unavailable this season after all. He and his boyfriend live in a bed in Iceland now. Unfortunately, signing with the Los Angeles Exy team was simply not convenient enough. Feel free to sign on a different player.’ Something like that, mon coeur?”

“Can you blame me?”

Jean lifts his head to meet Jeremy’s eye. His cheeks are flushed, hair a mess, and he’s beautiful.

“I love you,” Jeremy says.

“You have mentioned that…” Jean answers teasingly, breathless, and he kisses Jeremy’s forehead before he does pull out, ties off the condom, and allows Jeremy to tangle their limbs together in a way he finds satisfactory.

Jean is quiet, but he’s got a slight smile on his face, and he kisses Jeremy’s forehead again as they settle, burying his nose in Jeremy's curls. Jeremy decides he’ll accept the consequences of falling asleep like this in the morning, because he never wants to move ever again. He rests his head against Jean’s chest, and listens to the rapid beating of his heart.

--

FIVE MONTHS LATER

Jeremy arrives back at LAX at 7:12am local time, jet-lagged and exhausted and very happy to be home. The Riptides had played in New York over the weekend, and it had been a tough game against the Bears. Jeremy had been benched partway through after a particularly rough check into a courtside wall by an aggressive defensive dealer, but after a few ice packs and a Tylenol, he was feeling fine and flew home on the first flight out.

He has his LA Riptides duffel back slung over his shoulders, and he follows the crowd from his plane through the halls down to baggage claim where he has to grab his suitcase, which is primarily full of gifts for his sisters, parents, and friends. His racquet and away gear have been sent home separately along with the rest of the team’s stuff.

As Jeremy approaches the baggage claim, he sees his boyfriend waiting by the carousel designated with his flight number.

Jean is standing there looking slightly bored, but unbothered, arms crossed lazily as he watches the conveyor belt for Jean’s luggage, and Jeremy feels his heart swoop longingly. They haven’t seen each other in nearly a month. Which is just way too long, in Jeremy’s opinion, despite their almost nightly Skype sessions and their constant texting and frequent phone conversations.

Jean is as pale as ever, but with a healthy glow about him. He’s wearing a slightly faded Trojans tee shirt with Laila’s name and number on it, a pair of sunglasses big enough to cover his fleur-de-lis, and a pair of artfully distressed skinny-leg jeans. He looks good, Jeremy thinks, totally not biased at all.

Jeremy looks across the big room at his boyfriend in something of a daze until another weary traveler bumps into him on the way into the room, and his feet carry him down the hall into the terminal where finally Jean turns and meets his gaze.

When Jeremy’s eyes catch Jean’s, he only has a moment to contemplate what is about to happen.

Jeremy picks up his pace until he’s nearly running; Jean walks almost calmly, except he takes bigger, quicker steps until they meet in the middle and Jean pushes his sunglasses up on top of his head and then Jean leans down to kiss Jeremy, one hand cupping the back of his head.

They are totally oblivious to the other airport denizens; the rest of the room fades out and Jeremy honestly loves his new team but this is really the happiest he’s been in a month, because he loves Exy but he loves Jean Moreau even more.

The pair of them jump apart in surprise at the loud buzzer on the luggage carousel that sounds as the suitcases from Jeremy’s flight begin to come up from the gate at the top of the belt.

“Good flight?” Jean asks as they turn to watch the bags roll past, waiting for Jeremy’s to appear.

“Can’t complain,” Jeremy answers. “Coach Lao bumped me up to business class so I got better snacks than usual.”

“The girls want you to come by campus later tonight. Captain Alvarez has been bugging me for days,” Jean says dryly, and only sort of mockingly. “But we have the whole day to ourselves.”

“God, I love you,” Jeremy says.

Jean’s lips curve up into a sly smile, and he doesn’t respond. Jeremy spies his bag coming up the line so he reaches over and yanks it off, sets it on its wheels, and turns back towards his boyfriend.

“So,” Jeremy says brightly. “Where are we parked?”

Jean leads the way to the parking lot where Jeremy’s yellow Jeep is waiting. He unlocks it and climbs into the driver’s seat, so Jeremy tosses his stuff in the back and sits down on the passenger side.

“Hungry?” Jean asks. “I know a decent diner nearby.”

Jeremy laughs and buckles up, and Jean turns the key in the ignition, pulls his shades back down over his eyes, and shifts the car into reverse.

“Hey,” Jeremy says. “I missed you.”

“I missed you too,” Jean answers, and he doesn’t add anything to it except a fond, teasing smile that makes Jeremy feel warm from his head to his toes.

They don’t have to say anything else; they both already feel all of it. Jeremy closes his eyes and breathes in the California sunshine, breathes in the familiar smell of his car, breathes in Jean’s aftershave. Jean has nothing to add. The car speeds on down the highway in the familiar direction of USC.

It’s Saturday morning, and there’s plenty of daylight left. They have all the time in the world.