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Meet In the Middle

Chapter Text

“Seems I finally found you, mon ami ,” Jean-Paul says as he lowers himself into the small outcove he’s just discovered at the waterside. Waves crash just feet away at the shore, the water as blue as the summer sky, sparkling as they drift across crystal clean sand. Antonio sits at the back wall of the cave, chin resting on knees pulled up to his chest, his hair and hands covered in dirt.

Jean-Paul crawls in and sits next to the man, their arms brushing. It’s much cooler down below the ground and out of the sun, with the ocean’s breeze drifting inside.

“I assume you dug this yourself, mm?” He nudges his side. Antonio chuckles, inspecting his own palms.

. It is nice and cool, and dark.”

“Claustrophobic.”

“Cozy.” He smiles sideways. “Better with company.”

That earns a laugh from Jean-Paul. He shifts, adjusts himself into a more comfortable position against the dirt wall and into Antonio’s broad flank.

“It is definitely better down here than in the sun. And there are no bitchy Americans down here either!” He chortles. Antonio tilts his head, unsure smile.

“Do you mean Sheena? She is… not so bad.”

“Ah, even you don’t like her. I hope that means no more company down in this hideout. Three is a crowd, you know.” Jean-Paul rubs his nails with his thumb, flicking away dirt. He’d rather not have to deal with the company of any other classmates right now, and he would especially dislike it if they were to find this little cove.

Black Sheep was decent- a bit of a little brat if he were being honest- a show off and scoundrel. Gray was bland like cardboard, extremely average besides his whiny voice. That weird redhead kid was creepy, no thanks . To top it off, Sheena was just a massive bitch. There were some other dull classmates but Jean-Paul cared not for them in the least.

Antonio, however, was the best there was; big and strong yet compassionate and so obliviously endearing. He appreciated nature even more so than Jean-Paul, just in his own unique way. It only took but a few days for he and Antonio to connect, like two magnets finally clicking. Call him selfish, he didn’t mind, but he wanted the man’s attention all to himself.

Antonio shifts his weight, leans slightly more towards Jean-Paul to support him.

“I did not intend for this cave to house two people in the first place.”

“Oh?”

“But I am glad you are here. I… did not really want to be alone right now.” He gazes wistfully at the ocean. “Your company is always welcome.”

“Of course it is! You couldn’t get rid of me, anyways. Say, what say we bring some cheese and wine down next time, hm? Perhaps a few candles, too, and some blankets. I will steal some of Sheena’s so we don’t have to get our own dirty,” he suggests. Antonio smiles softly.

“Ah, maybe we can bring something healthier instead? Where would we even get wine?”

“We could-“

“Steal it, of course.”

Jean-Paul elbows him. “Put our training to use, mon ami! What, scared of getting caught?”

He is shoved away playfully. Antonio’s charmingly weird laughter bounces off the walls.

“Of course not! We are an unstoppable team! I just fear the power of the cleaners, is all.”

Jean-Paul crouches as low as he can in the small space, arms raised on each side. Antonio holds up his arms defensively, yelping in shock when Jean pounces at him.

“Haha! And you are not wrong! Those two scare even me!” He exclaims.

They tussle, a mess of thick and nimble limbs twisting and turning. Jean-Paul pulls Antonio’s right arm behind his back, his legs wrapped around his stomach from above. The thicker man grunts and flips them around with his brute strength, managing to pin Jean-Paul below him. He sits atop his stomach, big hands holding down skinny wrists. They pant, face to face, half laughing half breathing.

Jean-Paul chuckles, noticing the way Antonio’s hair has somehow become dirtier. In fact, they both were covered in soil now, their beige uniforms stained with dark brown and black.

He could escape, if so desired. Antonio’s weight is heavy where it rests on his hips, thick thighs pressed into his ribs, but he has left his upper body vulnerable for attack.

As much as he is enjoying their wrestling, it is way too small in this cave. He nods his head to the side. “You win, now get off me you big lug. I’m filthy.”

Antonio shuffles to his side, dropping down into his stomach with an oomph. They lie still, lazy and aimless. Saturday means no classes, so they have the entire day to ignore their homework and chill.

Jean lifts a leg to press his foot into the ceiling, flinching when excess dirt falls directly into his eyes and mouth. He sputters, rolls to his side and swipes at his eyes. Beside him, Antonio watches in amusement.

“How do you enjoy this?” He hisses, completely undignified.

“Enjoy what?” Antonio flicks away a speck of dirt under his eye gently, the brief contact exhilarating.

“Eating dirt. Being dirty. It’s gross.”

“I don’t eat- you think it’s gross?” He sounds slightly hurt, the fingers hovering above Jean-Paul’s wrist wavering.

He scoffs- “On me, yes,” then reaches over to pat his friend’s back reassuringly. “It fits you just fine. I admire the way you constantly smell like a freshly dug grave.”

Antonio smiles, but cringes. “That’s morbid.”

“Fine, like a musty forest.”

“Eh…”

“Like a pile of dirt, then!”

Antonio grins, rough fingertips resting on Jean’s exposed wrist. They’re calloused and filthy.

“That’s okay.”

Jean-Paul clasps Antonio’s left hand between his own.

“Let us shower then, hm? We can grab dinner before the line forms if we hurry.” At the thought, their stomachs growl, causing them to grin and laugh. Antonio pushes himself up, pulling Jean-Paul out of the cave by his hand.

“Careful,” he whispers under his breath, lifting Jean effortlessly over the small cliffside.

The taller man pulls the shorter up after him, returning the favor from earlier by brushing dirt off his cheek once they’re both standing. Antonio shies away from the touch, cheeks dusted with blush under a layer of dirt. His eyes are trained on the ground.

“L-Let us go,” he says, itching his cheek and pushing past.

Jean-Paul follows, head filled with fireworks.

Chapter Text

“You can do it, mon ami!” Encouraging words are shouted down to his dear friend. At the foot of the rock climbing wall, Antonio crouches low to the ground and shakes his head, palms pressed flat against the polished floors. From the peak, he cannot hear his friend’s mumbling, but he sees the fear in his posture.

It is agility class- something Antonio never truly does favor. Ground level obstacles do not phase the man, nor do slightly elevated platforms. Climbing the wall, though? Impossible.

Coach Brunt stands to the side with her arms crossed over her chest, judging glare trained on the grounded man. She monitors the class with eyes akin to a drill sergeant's.

“Climb the wall, groundhog, or it’s five hundred sit ups!” She bellows.

Antonio whimpers, refusing. “I’d rather do one thousand than climb this death trap!” He hisses.

The woman remains unimpressed. “Fine. One thousand sit-ups for everyone if you don’t scoot your butt up that wall this instant.”

Surprised complaints echo from students all around the gymnasium, all eyes suddenly trained at the man who continues to shrink into himself. Jean-Paul frowns, glancing at his wristwatch timer. He’d rather help his friend than do one thousand sit-ups any day, even if that meant deducting his score. Nimble, and with the grace of a bird, he drops down from the wall right next to Antonio.

The man flinches, hand flying protectively over his head as he glances up. Jean-Paul crouches down, providing a supportive pat on Antonio’s back.

“That scared of heights?” He says softly. The man shakes his head.

“Bad day,” he grunts. Jean-Paul hums, rubbing his back. It seems his friend is suffering from over-stimulation of the senses. It has only happened once before- though not during class, thankfully.

“I see. Well, it’ll only get worse if you have the fury of several thieves on your back, so let’s climb this wall, okay? We’ll go nice and slow. Together .”

Antonio briefs a glance up at him, eyes glossy and brow pinched. He nods wordlessly. They get to their feet together, one of his hands under Antonio’s arm and the other gripping the wall.

“Up you go,” he whispers soothingly. Antonio stares at the wall with the concentration of a bull as he climbs, knuckles white and teeth clenched. It takes an entire two minutes before they reach the top, and Antonio is pale and sweating bullets, but they’ve made it. They both press their hands into the scanner, marking their times, and begin the journey back down.

Once they reach the floor, Antonio groans, shaky legs collapsing beneath him as soon as his feet hit solid ground. Jean-Paul squats next to him, hand on his shoulder. He looks terrible, vulnerable, it’s not a good look, not something others should see. He shields the man with his body, looking back over his shoulder. Most of the other students are too busy running their courses to peak. The silent kid watches them from afar, expression unreadable. Sheena, on the other hand, grins menacingly like a tiger after the kill, hands on her hips and chin held high.

Jean-Paul glares at her. I dare you , he mouths. She says nothing, simply flips her hair and struts away, her smug aura gag-worthy. He hates her.

“I’m sorry.” Antonio’s mumble draws his attention. The man holds his head in his hands, ashamed.

“Hey, you made it, didn’t you? Now come on, the rest is easy. I’ll be by your side the entire time.” He offers his hand and his best supportive smile. Antonio accepts, allowing himself to be hoisted to his feet. Their hands stay connected for a moment, bodies close.

Jean-Paul leans in and whispers, “ None of those idiots compare to you, Antonio. Prove me right .”

~

Agility class ends early into the night, just when the sun begins its descent. Students file out of the class after a closing speech from Brunt. All except for one.

“Jean-Paul, a moment .” That southern accent cuts through the air. Eyes land on said named man, whom of which remains unfazed, nose turned upwards. Antonio hesitates by his side but he shoos him away, nodding.

I’ll be fine, you get out of here, he thinks.

Jean-Paul stands straight before Coach Brunt. She is a large, intimidating woman with the strength of an ox. She is not someone he wishes to anger.

“Yes ma’am?” He asks, alert. He has not yet been punished in his time at the academy, and he does not wish to find out what exactly punishment ensues at a school for criminals.

She uncrosses her arms, hands falling into her pockets. Her look is empathetic, but firm.

“He’s only going to drag you down,” she says, and ouch that hurts a little . His eyebrow twitches.

“With all due respect, Coach, I do not agree.”

She laughs, but it’s not friendly. “Oh, is that so? Then care to tell me why your scores are significantly lower whenever you two are paired together?”

“I-“

“And that embarrassing display earlier on the rock climbin’ wall? In the real world you’d have been taken down with him in a second. Sure, we work together, but when it comes down to it thievery is ‘every man for himself,’ and you, sir, need to man up.”

Jean-Paul lowers his head. Even he is powerless to her utterly crushing presence.

“Yes ma’am,” he says dutifully. Despite the raging fires within his chest, his voice is steady and obedient.

“Good. As long as you understand, you’re free to go. I expect more of you, soldier. Goodnight.”

Jean-Paul exits the gymnasium with a snarling frown and fingernails digging into his palms. How dare she. How dare she insult Antonio like that. The man has one bad day and she acts as if he is anything but unqualified, as though he is lesser than. He will show her. He will be by Antonio’s side as long as he thieves, and they will be the best pair of criminals she has ever seen. She will be proven wrong.

Outside the classroom is none other than his best friend himself. Unexpectedly by his side are Black Sheep and Gray, both perking up at the sound of doors slamming. Black Sheep is the first to run up to him.

“Did she yell at you? Did she make you do something? Are you o-“

“Hey now, let's give him a moment, aye?” Gray interjects, pulling her back. She nudges him off, pouting, but is in no way upset. Jean-Paul stands by Antonio’s side, his hands relaxing a fraction at the light contact of their arms brushing. He pointedly raises his chin.

“Hmph! It was nothing. She simply expects me to bend to her will is all. As if I am not the most agile student in the class.”

Sheep grumbles. Gray ruffles her hair.

Antonio sighs. “It was my fault, wasn’t it? You shouldn’t have assisted me.”

Jean-Paul opens his mouth to object, but is cut off by the other pair of thieves.

“Absolutely not!” They both yell. Gray clears his throat. “Sorry, just, uh, no - I was not about to do one thousand sit-ups.”

“Yeah, and she would have made everyone do it, too! Not even an exaggeration,” Black Sheep adds. Scary as it is, he trusts her on that.

“It’s not your fault, Antonio ; there is no shame in helping a friend,” he claims, wrapping his arm around Antonio’s broad shoulders. The man shrugs, dropping it at that, obviously not convinced.

The four thieves walk back to the dorms together. Black Sheep and Gray provide most of the conversation, the girl jumping around here and there, completely animated and full of energy, Gray indulging her in her antics with a tired smile.

Jean-Paul keeps his arm around Antonio, holding him supportively. He hopes his friend knows he is in no way a burden, knows that he is the best damn thing on this island. If not? He will help him understand.

Chapter Text

 

“Psst, wake up, mi amigo.”

What was it, like, 4:00 AM? Hell no.

Jean .”

And who the fuck was shaking his shoulder?

Begrudgingly, Jean-Paul cracks open his eyes, eyelids heavy like stones. Inches away from his face is Antonio’s own, somehow already covered in dirt and small scratches. He is shining brighter than the morning sun. Too bright. Jean blinks, moans, and rolls over.

“Lemme sleep,” he mumbles, already drifting back off.

“Nope!”

The bed is suddenly ripped out from under him- or, was he ripped off of it ? It’s hard to tell when he’s in a state of panic, shock, and sleep all at the same time. His yell is muffled by a large hand covering his mouth- hand covered in dirt. Ew.

Once they’re out of the shared bedroom— Jean in Antonio’s arms bridal style— the hand is removed from his mouth. He spits, gasps for air, and spits again, the lower half of his face now covered in grime. Antonio does not look the least bit sorry as he continues his trot down the halls. Jean stares and him, baffled and offended.

“What in the hell do you think you are doing?!” He whisper-yells. The man, absolute bastard he is, just snickers and continues jogging. Jean sits in his arms at loss of what to do as he’s transported, arms crossed and face pinched. Dim hallway lights buzz above them.

“The bags under my eyes were doing just fine, thank you, no need to assist them in their growth!” He hisses.

“Oh shush, you’ll like this,” Antonio silences him. It’s still pitch black outside, only a faint glow from the sliver of the moon lighting their way as Antonio treks across the field and to the beach. It’s brisk and damp outside. As soon as they reach the shore a gust of wind hits them and it wakes Jean-Paul up just enough for him to realize where they are.

It’s the outcove from just a few weeks ago, except this time different. There are candles in lanterns, blankets, pillows, and even a bottle of wine. But the most noticeable fact was the size. The cave was at least two times bigger since the last time Jean was here, and it looked… kind of welcoming.

“Ah Ah Ah, NO,” he says, scrambling to cling to Antonio’s neck as the man begins to lower him down. “You dragged me out here in my night clothes with no shoes on. I am not stepping one foot onto anything that is not a blanket.”

Antonio laughs, readjusting Jean in his arms.

“Fine.”

He walks into the outcove and sits against the back wall, pillows and blankets covering every corner. Jean ends up falling into his lap. He sighs, defeated, and accepts his fate.

Antonio pushes him to the side and crawls over to the bottle of wine, pulling back a comforter as he returns to Jean’s side. He hands the bottle to him, smile wide.

Jean-Paul lifts a brow.

“Wine? At four AM?”

Antonio blinks, as if just now realizing the error in his ways.

“Oh, um, you don’t have to drink it, I just thought-“

“Idiot, of course I’m going to drink it.” He slaps Antonio’s shoulder. “Who did you get this from?”

“I uh, stole it from Miss Cleo.”

Jean swallows, coughs, and bangs his chest. “ That’s probably why it is so good. Well done, mon ami!

He pulls him into a side hug and kisses his cheek, laughing.

“To steal from a council member, oh the bravery! I am so…” he trails off, gazing down at his friend. Proud of you. Enamored by you. Utterly awestruck. “ Impressed.” There is a warm flare in his gut, and it’s definitely not from the wine.

Antonio scratches his nose, turning his cheek.

“Ah, well, I figured you would like it. Sorry for waking you up so early, though, I just didn’t want us to get caught.”

Jean nuzzles his nose into Antonio’s hair affectionately.

“Of course I love it. I love all that you do, even if it is waking me up before the sun exists.” The man beside him huffs, fingers linked together on his lap.

Jean takes a swig of the wine then holds it out. Antonio declines politely. The Frenchman shrugs and continues drinking.

Comforting silence fills the cave as Jean-Paul nurtures the wine, arm slung around Antonio’s shoulders. The stars blink in the ocean’s reflection of the night sky. It is a beautiful sight. Maybe he should take up early morning jogging. Would Antonio join him?

“The blankets. Where did you get them?” He asks. They're awfully comfortable- much better than the ones in their cots.

“Oh, I actually asked Black Sheep to help with that. She got them for me, said they were from her old room.”

“Ew?”

“They’re washed, mi amigo.”

He snorts, presses his face back into the man’s soft fluffy hair. “And you are not. Why are you always so filthy? Have you nothing better to do than play in the dirt?”

“I like the Earth. I feel safe down here- much safer below than above. Though I do wish I weren’t so afraid of heights.”

Jean places the bottle of wine aside, turning on his side so he can wrap himself around Antonio. Like a big teddy bear, he was.

“I’ll take you hiking someday…” he mumbles. “But now, I am going to sleep.”

Antonio goes rigid beside him, a hesitant arm finding its place around his back. He is dirty and firm and such the perfect pillow.

“Oh, okay. I’ll wake you up in a bit, then.”

“Mm.”

Jean-Paul falls into a light sleep, hyper aware of how Antonio slowly relaxes into him, his breathing and the crashing of waves serving as calming ambience. The ocean is dark, save for the reflection of the moon and stars. Out here on VILE isle, the sky is beautiful to stare at, no matter the time of day.

 

By the time Jean-Paul awakens feeling well rested- too well rested- the sky is cheery blue and the sun is up and out of sight. He lifts his head and looks up at the face of his human pillow. Antonio is sleeping as well.

Their limbs are in a mess of entanglement, it being mostly Jean’s fault, and he notices the prominent weight of hand holding his hip. It seems moving any further would only serve to wake his friend, so he settles back into his hold.

Sure, Antonio might flip a little when he realizes they’re missing their classes, but one day of hooky never hurt anyone. He would let the man sleep- and definitely not because he was selfish. No, not at all.

Sighing, he wraps his arms around his friend’s broad middle and nuzzles into his chest, his legs wrapped around Antonio’s shorter ones.

Instead of sleeping, he basks in the moment, the crashing of waves, the comfort of Autumn air, the soft breathing of Antonio, scent of dirt and all. Jean-Paul finds he has grown to love the smell.

Chapter Text

“It is just a small ledge, Antonio! You can do it; I believe in you!” 

Antonio stands below him at the foot of a wall, his gray eyes glaring up at Jean-Paul. The man’s lips are pulled into a pout, arms crossed at his chest. 

“You said we would be going hiking, not climbing up the side of a mountain!”

Jean laughs, leaning over the edge and extending his arm. “It is not nearly a mountain, mon ami . Just one wall and that’s it! Come on, stop stalling.”

Antonio huffs stubbornly, then warily steps towards the wall and begins to scale it. He is unsteady at first, lost as to where the indents are, but eventually he steels himself and reaches the top. Jean’s offer of assistance is ignored. 

Once on the top, the man immediately shuffles away from the edge and onto safer ground, mumbling complaints as he does. 

The plan today had been to take Antonio hiking along a favored path. Also on the menu was some friendly sparring, light flirting, and maybe sneaking in another kiss on the cheek if he was lucky. The way Antonio blushed at any hint of affection was too good a show to pass up. Now he just had to survive the rest of the trip, which shouldn’t be too bad. 

“Let us make haste! No more scaling from here, I swear.”

He pulls Antonio to his feet and leads him further up the path. The forestry is healthy and vivid, the air cool and refreshing. It reminds Jean of his rock climbing days, where up in the sky the air was thin and pure, just a man and nature. 

“It’s actually kind of nice up here,” Antonio comments. He stands close by Jean-Paul’s side, eyes traveling around the trail in wonder. Leaves as big as themselves hang above, providing shade. 

“Imagine how much nicer it is thousands of feet up!” Jean exclaims, throwing his hands to the sky. Nothing beats the view from the peak of a mountain. There is no other feeling quite like the adrenaline one feels when he has only his skill to keep him alive on the rocky mountainside.

Antonio’s head tilts curiously. “Is that why you climb? For the view?” 

They duck under a low branch in the trail. Jean-Paul flicks a wet leaf, humming. 

“I climb for the thrill . I feel happier the higher I am. There is a freedom to escaping the Earth’s clutches, wouldn’t you say?” He grins, knowing his friend believes the exact opposite. Antonio smiles back but shakes his head. 

“I’m fond of the Earth, actually. There is security in the ground, a bond with nature. Everything we have comes from the soil. I’m sure you knew that, though.”

“Well aware, my friend. I am the best rock climber in the world. Have I told you that?”

“You briefly mentioned it when we first met.”

“Yes, I remember. I mean it, though; no one loves it more than I do.” He spares a glance at his friend, smirking. “But it just got so boring. There was no challenge. Not enough danger. I needed something new in my life.”

Frogs and insects croak and chirp around them. Their music fills the air. They are almost at the end of the trail. 

Antonio continues trekking, silent. Jean grabs his wrist gently, asking for his attention.

“I never really thought to appreciate the Earth in the way you do, Antonio.” The man’s eyes widen. “Thank you.”

“Thank me? For what?” He sputters. His cheeks darken, eyebrows high and mouth agape, truly surprised. Jean-Paul offers the cheekiest grin he can. 

“For accompanying me on this hike, of course! We have reached the end, I hope it does not disappoint!” He claps his shoulder and trots away to the destination. Before them is a small pond surrounded by rocks, covered in shade, and completely hidden from view. As far as he knows, only he is aware it exists. Well, now Antonio is, too. 

The muscular man pads into the clearing, amazed. “Whoa,” he mutters, spinning as he inspects the area. Jean stands proud on a rock as he watches his friend explore. 

“Do you like it?” He asks, already knowing the answer. Antonio grins at him, the most cheerful he’s been on this trip. 

“Yes! It is beautiful! Like something you see out of a movie.” He joins Jean-Paul on the rock, arms out on his sides for balance. They inhale the crisp air, shoulder to shoulder, taking in the moment. It’s perfect weather outside. If they were to believe hard enough, it was almost as if they were not on an island for criminals, rather, a tropical paradise. 

“What do you say we take a dip?” Jean suggests, taking no time to throw his shirt off. 

“Oh, okay,” is all Antonio says as he watches. 

The Frenchman strips himself of his pants, purposely bending away in an unnecessary matter, laughing internally at the choked cough from Antonio. 

“Are you not going to join me?” He asks, kicking his clothes onto a dry stone and stretching his arms over his head. His friend chuckles nervously, eyes downcast. 

“I’m not a big fan of swimming, actually,” he admits. 

“Well, not to fear,” he begins, then tackles Antonio into the pond with a shout, “ Because it is shallow !”

The other man screams as he’s dunked into the cold water, arms clutching onto Jean-Paul in a deathly bear trap. They sink to the bottom but emerge seconds later in a fit of splashing and coughing. The pond is roughly only five feet deep, so they both stand with their heads well above the surface. Nevertheless, Antonio glares angrily at Jean-Paul.

“You ass! I am still wearing my uniform!” 

Jean snickers and shifts into a fighting stance. 

“Then you’d better lay them to dry while you still can!”

Antonio lunges for him, shouting, but Jean easily evades him by diving under and kicking past. He swims to the water’s edge to a tall rocky wall with the perfect indents for climbing, and begins scaling. 

When he looks back down over his shoulder, Antonio is stripping himself on the rocks, grumbling and delicately laying his clothes out in a sunny patch. Water clings to his rippling, tan back muscles, and his hair falls in the same way it does after a shower- to the side and over his forehead. Jean-Paul swallows. He definitely needed a closer look, and maybe get his paws on some of that action. 

“Catch me, mon ami! ” He shouts, kicking off the wall and into the air. For a moment, he soars. It is a feeling akin to bungee jumping or skydiving, but worlds above because he is bare and weightless. Antonio squawks and makes the dive to catch his friend. He lands in the man’s strong arms and they, yet again, sink into the pond. 

Below, Jean-Paul opens his eyes against the chilling water. Antonio is already glaring at him, unimpressed with his spontaneity. He’s dangerously adorable when mad. 

Jean grins, oxygen bubbles seeping through his teeth and towards the surface. After an intense underwater staring battle, they both stand, meeting again at the surface. Antonio flips his hair back, not unlike a mermaid. Although, instead of singing a luring song, he yells. 

Eres un idiota imprudente! What if I could not catch you? You would have gotten hurt!” He splashes Jean, angry. 

“But you did!” Jean responds as sincerely as he can. Antonio pouts, sagging into the water. There is something deeper in his expression, something serious. 

“That might not always be the case,” he mumbles. 

Jean crouches lower, too, eye to eye with his best friend, and beams. 

“I have no doubt you will always be supporting me from below, mon chérie.

“Oh,” Antonio says. Jean-Paul winks, clapping his shoulder. 

“And I, of course, will always be looking out for you from above.” 

~

After spending the rest of the day swimming and sunbathing, the two students hike back to the academy. It is a weekend well spent in Jean-Paul’s eyes, even if he did not chance a kiss. Simply put, this man brings a happiness into his life that he wasn’t aware existed.

Time spent with Antonio is more valuable than any artifact they may end up stealing.  

Chapter Text

Jean-Paul is a strong man. Rock climbing required a great deal of muscles and stamina, not to mention agility, quick-thinking, and adaptability. 

Despite all this, the man never found himself fond of any fighting classes, especially not hand-to-hand combat with Shadowsan and Coach Brunt. This was a joint class, meaning both council members taught, and there was a larger number of students attending than usual. 

Per the norm, Jean stands by Antonio in the back, their knuckles resting against each other comfortably. Black Sheep stands in the front a few rows ahead next to Gray, who acts as a wall between the girl and Sheena. The quiet redhead stands to Antonio’s left. Jean assumes the mute man does not want to be near the rowdy three at the front, either, but desires familiarity in a fellow roommate. He is definitely weird, but Jean-Paul has nothing against him personally. 

Coach Brunt steps forward after Shadowsan finishes explaining the exercise. They were to pair up into three’s and work on their technique, blah blah. Jean rolls his eyes. 

“We’ll be watchin’ you while you fight so remember: no excessive rough housing, and no blood! You’re not at that stage yet.” She finishes with an evil smirk. Unsure laughter floats amongst the trainees. 

“Now go! Work on that fancy step Shadowsan so kindly showed y’all.”

Jean turns to his left with crossed arms, brow raised. “I assume you want to pair with us, Monsieur Muet?” 

The man nods, unable to reciprocate eye contact. Jean sighs, but waves him over to where Antonio has already claimed a spot in the gym. The burrower greets the quiet kid with a small smile and a nod. 

“Who shall go first, hm?” Jean asks, clapping his hands together. 

The step Shadowsan demonstrated had been an evasive/defensive maneuver where Person A, the attacker, throws a jab at Person B, the defender. Person B is to dodge the punch, take out the knee, grab their arm, and slam them to the ground. 

“I will,” Antonio volunteers. He steps onto the yoga mat, cracking his knuckles. Jean spares a glance at their silent classmate and huffs. 

“Fine. I will go as well. You defend first, Antonio, see if you can outspeed me,” Jean says. He takes his place in front of Antonio on the mat and cracks his neck. 

“I won’t need to,” Antonio chuckles. 

Jean lifts his fists and bounces, his stance open and loose. They circle around each other slowly, testing the waters with light punches and kicks. Jean feigns a left kick and goes in for the strike to the gut. He lands it, and for a moment he thinks he has bested his friend, but suddenly there is a deathly grip on his wrist and the world spins as he’s slammed into the ground. 

Augh! ” He cries as his back collides with the mat. All breath is knocked out of him and he wheezes. Is it supposed to hurt that much? Or was his friend just not aware of his own strength? 

Antonio stands above him, worried yet amused smile on his face. He holds out a hand. 

“Are you okay?” He asks. Jean grunts and accepts the help. He is pulled to his feet swiftly, as though weightless. He rubs his back, wincing. 

“I am fine, but fuck that hurt. You do not know your own strength, mon chérie,” he groans. The quiet kid looks at him quizzically. 

“I do know my own strength,” Antonio laughs. “I am very strong.” Jean-Paul squawks as the world spins yet again and he finds himself dipped low, hovering just inches above the ground, eyes wide and face to face with his friend. Antonio‘s smile is dark. 

“And I am much faster than you think, mi amigo.

Jean-Paul blushes for the first time since he’s been on the island. Words lodge in his throat. A choir sounds from somewhere deep in his mind. This is the first time he truly realizes that yes, Antonio is a criminal just like him, has ultimate desires just like him, aspires to wreak havoc just like him. 

And if that isn’t the hottest thing in the world…

He is pulled back to his feet wordlessly, sparing only a cough into his hand as he attempts to regain his composure. Antonio stands smugly aside. The silent one watches with an observatory frown. 

“I will defend now,” he mutters, still fighting back the blush on his cheeks and uproar between his ears. 

~

Hand-to-hand combat drags on for Jean-Paul. Between the hawk-like supervision from Coach Brunt and Shadowsan, and the several bruises forming on his body, the clock seems to be taking its sweet old time. 

Fighting Antonio is one thing; he’s not just all brute strength, he’s adaptive and innovative in his fighting in a way that always takes Jean by surprise, no matter how much he thinks he knows the man. It’s fun to spar him (and an excuse to get his paws all over the merchandise).

But the quiet kid? What a disaster to fight. The man evades every attack perfectly to the point of barely retaliating. On the rare chance he does manage to strike back, his attacks always end up just an inch away from contact, as though he’s afraid to land the hit. This frustrates Jean-Paul to the point of tackling the man to the ground in rage, then having to be pulled off him seconds later by Antonio. They do not pair up again after that. 

 

Coach Brunt decides to spectate their group sometime into the exercises, and currently watches as Antonio slams the redhead into the ground. Her smile is dark and proud; she must recognize his strength and respect it as a musclehead herself.

“Nice work, groundhog,” she praises. 

Jean internally scoffs. It’s about time. 

Their eyes meet. He lifts his nose, as if to challenge her. She says nothing, but her nod and raised brow speaks for itself; she has recognized his worth. 

Antonio pulls the kid to his feet, patting him on the shoulder with an apologetic smile before turning to Coach Brunt. 

“Thank you, Coach,” he says, hair a mess and grin wide. She offers her own smile of approval, almost motherly, then moves on to a nearby group. Jean skips over to his friend and claps his back. 

“Well done, mon chou! You truly excel when it comes to fighting! I will wear these bruises proudly!” 

“Thank you, mi amigo .”

Chapter Text

 

It’s night time and a small group of VILE students sit in a corner of the library. Textbooks of all kinds are scattered everywhere, along with notebooks, highlighters, pencils, and various other study tools. There are several technical tests tomorrow in Doctor Bellum, Professor Maelstrom, and Countess Cleo’s classes. Yeah, all three in one day. They don’t hold back. 

Jean-Paul sits perched atop a book rack, mindlessly flipping through a pamphlet about wires and circuit boards. Below him, Antonio, Black Sheep, and the quiet kid (Jean-Paul has decided to dub him Le Muet ) huddle around a book that contains information on the psychology of fear. 

“Ugh, this totally sucks! I thought this was a school for thieves, not middle schoolers!” Sheena whines. 

“Really? With you around I often forget this isn’t grade school,” Jean replies. He ducks his head to the left as a sharp pencil flies by, not even bothering to look away from his reading. Black Sheep giggles. Antonio sighs. 

“Come on mates, keep it civil,” Gray says. He is seated next to Sheena at a table, hair pulled back into a tight bun and coffee in hand. He and the girl have been agonizing over a worksheet from Cleo’s relic class for hours. 

“Man, this is killer! At least Doctor Bellum’s test won’t be so bad,” the Aussie mumbles. 

“Easy for you to say; you are an electrician!” Jean grumbles, throwing his head back. 

Antonio joins in. “And I do not understand even half of Maelstrom’s teachings!”

“I don’t think anyone does,” Black Sheep adds. They all moan. With that small break of banter, they begrudgingly return to studying. 

Jean-Paul leans back so his head is resting on the metal of the cart, one arm hanging off the edge and one holding the pamphlet over his face. His fingertips rest on Antonio’s fluff of white hair, mindlessly tracing circuit patterns into his scalp as he reads. 

PCB’s have layers. Silkscreen, soldermask, copper, substrate. FR4 is the base material, usually fiberglass. Blah blah blah, further on, something about copper and adhesives, more pointless facts, something something wires something something board. 

Jean sighs, exhausted, and closes his eyes. His hand, along with his guide, rests on his chest. The circuit patterns morph into mindless swirls as Jean plays with Antonio’s hair between his fingers. The man does not seem to mind so far. Jean-Paul takes a moment to listen to the conversation around him. 

“So the biochemical response is…?”

“Universal.”

“Okay. Then that makes the emotional response individual.”

“Yup!”

“It is a matter of fight or flight versus circumstance.”

There’s a beat of silence. 

“What part are you confused about?”

“Um. I don’t…”

“Can you point to the words to form a sentence?”

“No?”

… 

“Do you know sign language?”

“That’s not American Sign Language, is it? Nah, I didn’t think so. I only know ASL.”

“I do not know any sign language, sorry.”

The dim light above Jean-Paul fades after a small bout of shuffling and whispers. He cracks open his eyes slightly. Black Sheep leans over him, her smile childish and innocent. 

“Hi, Jean-Paul,” she says. 

“Hello, Black Sheep,” he replies. “What do you want?”

She grins, bouncing back and away from the book rack. Like this, she resembles a kid asking their older sibling for a favor, her hands held behind her back and her legs crossed. 

“You’re French! Do you know any French sign language? Our friend here needs some help!” She nods towards the silent one who sits with his head turned, red hair falling like a curtain to hide his face. 

Jean-Paul ponders the request, wonders if this is worth his time or not. Antonio flicks his dangling hand sharply, earning a small hiss. Jean rolls his eyes stubbornly. 

“Yes, fine , I do know a little. Go on,” he says. 

Le Muet anxiously turns his body to Jean, hands shaking as he signs his question. This is the most verbal anyone has ever seen him, and the tax it’s taking shows.  

Jean watches with a snotty scowl. Were he a different man, like Antonio, maybe he would have showed some sympathy to his classmate’s very apparent anxiety. But he’s Jean-Paul, self proclaimed asshole, so he doesn’t. His classmate finishes his signing and his hands fall back into his lap, hunched over and eyes to the ground. 

Jean rolls the translation around in his head, tongue pressed to his cheek in thought. 

Can we review the section covering hypnosis and brainwashing?” He asks, his words directed at Le Muet himself. It’s not exactly what he signed, but Jean has read that chapter of the book before, and knows this is what the redhead was referring to in his question. The man nods and looks up at him. His eyes are strikingly pale. 

Thank you , he signs. 

Jean-Paul scoffs and turns away. Could he not have simply just pointed to his desired reading section? Or written a note? Such a pathetic nuisance does not belong in an academy for criminals. Jean-Paul wishes not to befriend him. 

Black Sheep and Antonio continue their dialogue after a concerning pause. Jean does not miss the way Antonio has leaned forward and out of his reach. His fingers twitch. 

It is a small detail, so miniscule and unnoticeable to the others, but Jean feels it. The sudden tension between him and Antonio. It weighs down on him, like several tons of cement crushing his chest. 

The Frenchman stares up at the bookshelves, their stature reaching up at least forty feet high. Up there he is sure that concentration will come to him and he will not be asked for any more pointless assistance. The drowning feeling will dissipate up there, alone and safe on high ground, above sea-level.

Without a word, he slips his notes between his teeth, stands on the shaky book rack, and begins his ascent. 

It is a brisk climb, easy with consistent rows to grab, although he has to be mindful not to kick off any books. Once he reaches the top, he feels wide awake. Despite the thin layer of dust, it’s much nicer. The lights shine brighter and the air is way cooler. Plus? The noise is next to nonexistent. Now this is his element; he should study up here more often. 

Chancing a peek over the edge, he sees his classmates all staring up at him, eyes wide- all except Antonio, who frowns with crossed arms and a heavy glare. 

Uh oh. 

So he wasn’t imagining the pressure choking him after all. The revelation is not exactly relieving. That was a confrontation he was not looking forward to having later. 

Settling back into his little nook, he sighs, eyes glued to the ceiling. Great — now he was dealing with the guilt of disappointing his best friend. Did Antonio actually like that silent weirdo? His friend was softer personality wise, obviously, but surely he must recognize this is no place for the weak , no?

Merde. ” Jean curses under his breath. The pamphlet in his hand feels heavier as he opens it and continues reading. Why must everything be so heavy?  It takes all his concentration not to dwell on the dreadful weight in his gut. 

~

Later that night, when the academy has turned in and fallen into slumber, Jean-Paul decides to tire himself out before residing to the room, lest he lie awake in bed restless all night. 

By now he knows every inch and crevice on the walls and roofs of the buildings so he scales them with ease. There is no moon tonight, hidden by clouds, so he climbs with only a dim green light to assist him. This is no challenge. 

Atop one of the lower buildings is a familiar female figure with short red hair. She sits on the edge of the rooftop, knees drawn to her chest. It appears she is speaking softly to herself. Jean-Paul is no eavesdropper— at least, not off the job— so he alerts her to his presence with a cough and scuff of his shoes against the pavement. 

Not unlike a real sheep, Black Sheep startles, scrambling to pocket something and face her company. Caught in the headlights she stands, but Jean means no harm. He holds up his hands passively. 

“Sorry to bother you, petit mouton. I am simply a passerby,” he says. She relaxes, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. 

“It’s okay, I just didn’t hear you. I was, uh, practicing— my Chinese. Singing. My Chinese singing.” She stumbles with her words. It’s a lousy excuse that he sees straight through. Nevertheless, he plays along, walking over to the roof’s edge and taking a seat. She is hesitant, but sits next to him. 

“Do you come up here often?” He asks. Black Sheep kicks her legs in the air, back and forth, swaying side to side. 

“Umm. No?” A lie. Jean chuckles. 

With her childlike charm he has always wonders how old she is. When asked before, the girl had denied an answer, but she must be just under 18. He suspects he is at least three or four years older than her. Were he not so gruff, perhaps he could see her as a kid sister just as Gray does. Antonio definitely regards her in the same way. 

Jean does find himself just a tad fond of the girl. Fondness by proximity, he supposes.

“Can I ask you something?” Black Sheep blurts out. 

“Yes.”

“Why are you so mean to the quiet kid? He hasn’t done anything to you.”

Jean-Paul frowns. 

“Unlike most of you, I’m not here to make friends. What does a thief have to earn by playing nice?”

Black Sheep eyes him. It seems she has much to say, but she treads carefully with her next words. 

“You’re nice to Antonio . And sometimes you’re nice to me and Gray. I understand hating Sheena, but why him?”

“I was not expecting to be interrogated tonight,” he laughs softly. Black Sheep watches him from the corner of her eye. He sighs. “I am not a good person, Black Sheep. You will find that most of the people on this island are not.”

I’m a good person. So is Gray. Antonio. The quiet kid. Talia. Mateo. Neal. Coach Brunt. I could go on.”

He snorts. “No need to rub it in.” 

Black Sheep shrugs. “Just sayin’. We’re kind of like a family, don’t you think? We only have each other, really.”

A family. 

Jean-Paul rolls his neck, then pushes himself to his feet. 

He’s run his mouth enough for one night, plus he has no fitting response to give the girl. 

As he begins to leave, he pauses, turning his head slightly. 

Black Sheep doesn’t quite seem to understand the ulterior motives of her fellow peers, their true goals. As much as he tries not to get attached to people, he would feel bad were she to be led astray. He thinks of Antonio’s evil grin in class, of Gray’s sinister laughter under Doctor Bellum’s influence, and of Coach Brunt’s soul-crushing aura. 

No, these are not good people.

“Just… be careful who you trust,” he mumbles, then hops down and out of sight. For a moment he stills, leaning against the wall listening, but does not hear Black Sheep’s voice over the distant crashing of waves and buzzing of generators. Perhaps she is taking his lesson to heart. 

As Jean-Paul strolls on the path back to the dorms, he repeats Black Sheep’s words to himself. “ A good person, hm?” Does a truly good person even exist?  

Not on VILE isle, certainly. 

Chapter Text

Recreational activities on a remote island were hard to come by unless one enjoyed reading textbook after textbook, or playing chess nonstop. The library was an endless source of knowledge- that is, knowledge pertaining exclusively to committing crimes. Additionally, the sparse selection of board games left much to desire. Jean-Paul was not fond of reading nor droning tabletop games, so he entertained himself with exercise, napping, and talking with Antonio. 

It is near the end of October, and the steady heat of the sun has not quite lessened, but it was never brutal in the first place. Jean-Paul often idles himself with scaling the buildings of the academy, inside and out, inventing new paths and beating his own records. 

Atop the highest roof of the academy Jean-Paul usually finds himself dozing off, the wind jingling his earrings and the world silent. He has obtained quite the unfavorable tan from falling asleep up on that roof every afternoon. 

The temptation of a nice nap out in the sun beckons him now, for Countess Cleo’s test had been the last and most brutal of the three that day and he is itching to get some fresh air and stretch his limbs- to get away from the pens and paper, work his muscles and rest his eyes.

On top of three wrist-aching tests, there was also the fact that Antonio had been pouty with him all day. A cold shoulder and disapproving eyebrow all because Jean was less than coddling with a peer. He almost guffaws in disbelief. The nerve! He has nothing to apologize for, and his friend just needs to realize that. 

The other students definitely noticed the tense air between the two close friends, as well as the physical space they put between themselves. Black Sheep’s ever-observant eyes were glued to Jean-Paul every second of the day that wasn’t occupied by testing, and even alone in the hallway he felt an itch on his neck. She was too curious for her own good. 

“Hey, mountain boy, are you busy?” The nasally voice of Sheena draws Jean from his thoughts. He turns to face her, eyes slits. She sauntered towards him with an unamused expression and a hand on her hip. A pink bubble of gum rests between her purple lips, then pops, echoing in the otherwise empty hall. 

He crosses his arms and snorts. “No, I am not busy, snobby girl . What do you want?” Sheena pops another bubble then shrugs, her initial air of dominance dissolving. Then, she pulls a strip of gum from her pocket and holds it out. 

“Gum?” He takes it. “Cool. So I’m like super bored, and you’re the only other person on this island who’s even close to being on my level, so I was wondering if you want to, like, I dunno. Hang out or something.” She shifts her hips to the other side and pointedly looks away. “I’m only asking because- again- I am extremely bored. And did I mention desperate?”

Jean-Paul laughs, slides the pink stick of gum in his mouth, and flicks the ball of wrapping at her forehead. She yelps like a cat at the impact, hackles rising. Before she can hiss, he answers. “Sure, I will join you.” Sheena is a bitch, and very petty and full of herself, but so is he. Admittedly so! He smiles. “What shall we do?”

 

They end up on the floor by Sheena’s bed, a neat row of makeup lined up between their crossed pairs of legs. Jean-Paul places down a stick of mascara, lips pursed. 

“That’s all you brought? Seriously? Oh my god,” Sheena says in disbelief. She drags a hand down her face. 

“I do not wear anything else. What? I am not here to be a beauty guru .” He flicks over a tube of purple lipstick then rests his chin on his hand. Sheena lifts it back upright and huffs. 

“Just because we can’t be seen doesn’t mean we have to look tacky .

“I look fine!”

“Well you definitely look better than some of the men here. Anyways-“ she waves a hand dismissively, “I think you would look really good in some lower lash eyeliner, and maybe some smoky eyeshadow.” She holds up several brushes with a cat-like grin. “What do you say? Wanna be my personal play-thing?”

Jean-Paul rolls his eyes. To think he’d stoop so low as to let Sheena of all people give him a makeover. Well, he was pretty bored, and after a day of testing it would be nice to sit back and be pampered. 

And… she actually wasn’t horrible when there wasn’t a crowd to please. 

Oh, why not.

“Fine, but do not expect me to return the favor,” he says with a resigned sigh. She cackles. 

“Ha! No, I wouldn’t let you near my face in a million years with those calloused fingers. Now lean forward and close your eyes.”

He obliges. Sheena applies makeup to his face with steady hands, her sharp nails occasionally poking his cheeks as she adjusts his face for a better angle. As she works, they gossip, and Jean-Paul has never felt more like a schoolgirl. But it’s fun, and something new. It takes his mind off of everything. 

It only takes her about twenty minutes to finish the look, a rapid-fire monologue spanning the duration of her work. 

“-like yeah he’s cute and all but god talk about a cardboard personality. And his voice? What, did you never hit puberty or something? And do something with your hair before I use you to mop the floors!” 

Jean-Paul snickers, examining himself in Sheena’s pocket mirror as she rants about a certain Australian peer. Their subjects of gossip had jumped from professors, to classmates, and finally to roommates. As it turns out, they share very similar opinions on the other residents of the island. Jean-Paul contributed significantly less to the pot, but only because Sheena was quite the chatterbox. It seems as though this was her first time actually sitting down and venting to someone since arriving at the academy.

Gray was currently the topic of the minute, and Sheena was absentmindedly sharpening her nails as she rambled on about all her gripes concerning their roommate. 

“He is certainly not my type, but you seem to be a bit obsessed with him, no?” Jean smirks. Sheena laughs, high and shrill, and swipes the mirror out of his hands. 

“As if! I could roast everyone on this island just as badly as him- don’t tempt me. And we both know what your type is.” She smiles, all sweet and faux innocence, both hands propped under her chin. “Big and sweet, but oh-so filthy!” She fakes a gag. He rolls his eyes and leans back against the cot. 

“What, and your type is old rich men on the brink of death?”

She purrs and nods. His grin is shit-eating. 

“So Professor Maelstrom-“

Shut up!!! ” She shrieks, kicking at his legs as she grips her stomach and falls into a fit of giggles. 

Jean-Paul watches with an amused smile. She is not so bad, he realizes, when she acts like a fellow human being like this. Another young adult turned criminal by mere circumstance. Behind the thieving they are all still people, after all. People with distinct personalities and backstories. 

Ah, there it is. The guilt from last night. Right on cue. 

Jean-Paul grunts as he pushes himself to his feet, brushing off his legs with his single tube of mascara in hand. Sheena tucks a loose strand of hair behind her ear as she watches him stand. He looks down at her, and he sees a young woman who might have been his friend in another life.

Family. 

Eugh. 

“Thank you. I must be going now,” he says, and almost forgets to feign disinterest. She rolls her eyes, begins collecting her makeup. 

“Its whatever. Go take a picture, because the next one won’t be free.” 

He doubts she will charge him a fee, considering she is the one who offered in the first place, but he leaves with a coy smile nonetheless. As he exits the room, he passes Black Sheep, who stops for a double take. She grins at him in awe.

“Wow. Did you do that? It looks so good!”

Jean-Paul smirks and presses a finger to her forehead, leaning down and speaking lowly. 

“I would not enter the lion’s den right now if I were you, little lamb. It is currently occupied by la lionne .” 

Black Sheep swats his hand away and pouts.

“Fine, I just wanted to take a nap anyways. Where are you going?”

She matches his pace as he starts to walk away. 

“Why do you care?”

“I dunno, I’m bored. Man, those tests today were easy. Way too easy! Time just dragged on forever .”

“Easy, you say?” He snorts. There is a hop in her step as she follows him. They walk outside, Jean unwillingly leading her towards the path of his favorite resting perch. 

“Well, yeah, I basically grew up learning all that stuff.”

“Mm, s’that so…” He begins to scale the base of the main hall, not bothering to look back and check if his younger classmate is following. She is, and she continues the conversation as she copies Jean-Paul’s movements below. 

“Yup. I had nannies from all over the world teaching and raising me! I know French, too, actually.”

“Remind me why I should care?” He swings himself upwards and onto a small ledge of the building.

“Because you’re French, duh.”

Black Sheep climbs up as far as the indents in the building will allow, and visibly contemplates attempting the same maneuver, biting her bottom lip as her eyes scan the wall. Jean-Paul sighs, rolls his eyes, then crouches down to offer his hand. She reaches up and grabs his wrist. He pulls her up next to him easily, responding to her grin with his own unamused expression. However, he cannot help the small hook of a smile forming on his lips. He turns away in an attempt to hide it, but the small giggle from the girl indicates his failed effort at aloofness.

“So when you say you were the best rock climber in the world, did you mean that literally? Do you hold the record for most mountains climbed or something?”

“I meant that I am the best simply because I am. I need no documentation to prove that.” He offers his hand for yet another ledge. She manages to swing herself up this time, then smiles cheekily at him. Yet another eye roll. He should really keep a counter by now. 

“You are really good at this, and you don’t even use equipment! Think you could teach me a few tricks?”

“I believe I already have, no? Watch and learn, as they say.” 

“They do indeed say. Hey, where are we going, again?”

“Well, I am going to my favorite spot for napping. I do not know where you think you are going.”

“I was just following you.”

“Really? I had not noticed.”

They are on the roof now, and Jean has reconciled with the fact that he would not be alone for his nap today. Pity. 

“So what’s the deal, huh? First you’re giving Antonio the one-two and then you’re hanging out with Sheena? Did you hit your head too hard in self defense today?” Jean-Paul lies back, resting his arms behind his head. He closes his eyes with a furrowed, twitching brow. Back Sheep sits next to him, no consideration for personal space. 

“What happened to family? Does Sheena not count?” He smirks playfully up at her. She pouts. 

“She does! But… Sheena is like an older step sister- I think. Like in Cinderella, but not ugly. She’s just a bully who’s mean for no reason.”

“Ah, so like me.”

“You’re not-! Well. You’re not as mean. More indifferent than anything. You mind your own business!”

He chuckles. Black Sheep giggles under her hand. Then, she tilts her head, gaze curious. 

“Were you mean to Antonio? Is that why he’s mad at you?”

His smile falls. 

“I do not see how this concerns you,” he grumbles. 

“Well, we’re roommates, and Antonio is my friend; you two being in a bad mood kind of messes up the flow for all of us…”

“Antonio is my friend as well, and our personal matters stay between us. Ne me dérange plus .” Even though the concrete is a bit uncomfortable to nap in such a position, he turns to his side, away from the growing annoyance that just won’t leave. 

“Fine! I won’t bother you anymore about it… for now. But I do think you should talk to him.” Her voice falls soft. “Antonio, that is. He seemed really upset.”

Jean-Paul does not answer. 

If Antonio has an issue, he can state it directly. He is a grown man, after all, not a child. 

“Whatever. Either leave or sleep; I am done talking.”

 

The sun is well set when Jean-Paul wakes up. He is on his back, and the body pressed against his right arm is warm. Black Sheep snores softly next to him, a thin trail of drool on her chin. He snorts. 

While a bit gross, it is also somewhat endearing. 

Eugh. He sticks his tongue out in disgust at the warmth in his chest. Him? Feeling fond of such a pest? Unheard of. 

He stands, stretching his arms up high as he does. Black Sheep shivers, then blinks awake with a yawn. She wipes her mouth and looks around, confused, before looking up at the man with crossed arms above her. 

“Hi,” she says sheepishly. 

“It is supper time. I recommend you go eat before the cafeteria closes, petite fille ,” he states. Black Sheep hops to her feet and stretches in a similar fashion. 

“Alright, let's go! Dang, sleeping on concrete wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as I thought it would be.” 

Because you were using me as a pillow… he huffs silently. 

She begins to skip off. Jean-Paul begrudgingly follows. 

They arrive at the mess hall together, one student more peppy than the other. Jean-Paul accompanies Black Sheep not because he is hungry or particularly wanting of her presence, but because he finds himself aimless at the moment. 

It is odd to not have Antonio by his side. 

Almost unnerving. 

Gray is sitting alone reading a manual at one of the tables, more interested in his book than the bowl of soup next to it. Black Sheep skips over to him after they retrieve dinner from the line, and sits right next to him. Jean-Paul takes Gray’s other side, opting to sit on the table with his feet on the bench instead. 

“Well hey there, Lambkins. Where have you been all evening?” He raises the spoon to his mouth. 

“Jean-Paul and I were sleeping together.” He lowers the spoon back into the bowl. 

“Huh?”

Jean-Paul rolls his eyes. Gray looks up at him with a very concerned look. Not that he should have to explain himself to the likes of the man, but-

Seigneur… The little scoundrel followed me to my napping perch. I did not ask her to be there!” He throws his hands up in frustration, then scoffs and takes a bite of his sub. 

Uhuh… so, Black Sheep-“ Gray turns his attention back to the girl, and Jean-Paul loses interest. The ambience of the crowd serves as his music while he eats his dinner, scowling at the floor. 

It has been a stressful day, and although he did not detest his time spent with the girls, they did not provide the same… comfort that Antonio did. His soft kitten-like smile and his droopy eyes. Fluffy hair and broad shoulders to lean on… Jean-Paul bites his lip to stop from grinning like a lovestruck idiot. 

When he is done with his meal, he looks up, and by the grace of the cruel gods his eyes lock with Antonio, who has just stepped into the building. Like two helpless fools, they simply stare at one another- until Antonio is bumped into by another student. Jean watches as his friend breaks eye contact to profusely apologize to his peer for standing in the way. 

When Antonio turns back to him, Jean-Paul is already on his feet and closing half the distance between them. 

Oublie! If Antonio would not tell him what is the matter, he shall find out for himself. 

“Antonio! We must talk- come with me.” His friend opens his mouth to object, but Jean-Paul makes haste in grabbing his hand and dragging him outside. Antonio sighs and follows with no protest. 

Once they are alone in a dark corner of the hallway, Jean-Paul backs Antonio up against the wall, towering over him with his magnificent height. Antonio pouts right back up at him, not intimidated in the least. 

“I am hungry, why have you dragged me out here?” The shorter man grumbles. Jean crosses his arms and frowns. 

“You ‘ave been cold with me lately, mon ami. I am-” he sighs, shoulders sagging. It is impossible to speak so strictly with his dear friend. “Why are you ignoring me?” 

Antonio softens at his defeated tone. In the dim light, his pupils are large. Jean-Paul could drown in them. 

“You left me frustrated last night, mi amigo. Ah, well, not so much frustrated as… disappointed.”

Disappointed?

Antonio nods, gaze shifting away, his own arms now crossed loosely. “It pains me to see you treat our friends so poorly! And for no reason.”

“No reason? Why, Antonio, I have all the reason!” Jean-Paul cups his friend’s cheeks between his hands. “It is simply because none of them compare to you! Why should I waste my love on anyone else, mon amour ?”

Antonio squirms under his overly-doting praise, failing to stop the grin breaking out on his face. 

Jean-Paul ! Do not try to flatter your way out of this!” His scorning falls flat for he giggles like a schoolgirl. Jean-Paul grins smugly. “I am serious !” He swats Jean’s hands away. “ Por favor ! I am not even asking you to be nice- just not so rude, dios mío!

Jean-Paul groans. 

There is no fun in playing nice! Half of the appeal of being a thief is the satisfying feeling of ruining others’ lives! 

But… The Frenchman gazes down at his friend, his frown morphing into a fond smile. Ma deuxième moitié, who am I to deny you a simple request?

“Fine, you have my word; I will be on my best behavior, Maître.”

Antonio smiles. “Good! Ahora ven, I have not yet eaten.” He takes a step back towards the cafeteria then pauses. Bashfully, he points to Jean-Paul’s face. “And- um- your makeup looks nice, by the way. I like it.”

Jean-Paul chuckles.

“Is that so? Perhaps I will wear it more, then, just for you.”

Antonio coughs into his hand and turns away, ears burning. 

Sheena was going to have her hands busy.

Chapter Text

Growing up, Jean was always taught that crying was a sign of weakness. 

The strong and hardened do not shed tears. 

To break down and cave to your emotions is to fail. 

His early life as a child and teen was far from lavish; being the black, closeted gay kid who liked to climb on furniture didn’t exactly give Jean-Paul an advantage in the social world. But, coming home from school with tears in his eyes simply was not an option, not with a strict father who had a sharp backhand and a worryingly regressive outlook on gender norms. 

So he sucked it up, and developed thick skin. He became the bully, and he was good at it, too. Over time he developed a sharp tongue with quick reflexes and muscles to match. Although he had no friends, he also did not have bullies, and that was all he needed. For as long as he can remember, Jean-Paul has only had himself. 

After graduating high school, he moved out and never looked back, depending on minimum wage jobs and his pick-pocketing skills to get by. Was he a coward for running away without even saying goodbye? Or was he smart for breaking free from the one thing holding him back from being himself? Years later and he still does not have the answer to that question. What he has, instead, is a strong resolve to become a thief and find a new purpose in life. 

Crying solves nothing, and thus it serves no purpose.

 

That all being said, Jean-Paul is about to cry.

He isn’t sad or depressed, no, just extremely frustrated. Frustrated to the point of shaking fists, a clenched jaw, hunched shoulders, and tunnel vision. He is supposed to be the best . Perfect at everything. Better than anyone else. 

So why can’t he do such a simple task? 

Shadowsan’s non-origami classes are usually on the easier side for Jean-Paul. Agility, speed, and precision were the core teachings of the wise council member, three things Jean prided himself on. 

So it would only make sense for him to succeed at an exercise that requires these three qualities, right? Well apparently, this was just not the task for the stubborn mountain climber. 

Sitting still and waiting patiently for the sound of a projectile being thrown, then intercepting it before it could make contact, all while being blindfolded. This was the training Shadowsan had conducted for the past two days. 

In these two days, Jean-Paul has succeeded a grand total of zero times, all the while his classmates began to succeed, some more quickly than others. 

Black Sheep, naturally, picked up on this as quickly as she does everything else. Antonio and Sheena followed, and even Gray had it down on day one. 

But the most infuriating fact of all? Even the silent kid was good at this. Actually, he was probably second best right after Black Sheep. 

Everyone in the class except Jean-Paul has managed to get a handle on this training. 

He was utterly ashamed. 

He sits in the front of the class, now, blindfolded and on his last straw. Even blinded he can feel the pitying stares, their judgement and snide thoughts. Antonio, although sweet and ever supportive, surely must be embarrassed for him. It is - for lack of a better term- a vile feeling. 

In his angry brooding, he loses all focus, and the rubber ball smacks him square in the chest. Shadowsan sighs. Classmates snicker. His throat tightens. His eyes burn behind the black fabric. 

“Again.” 

He grits his teeth, attempting to clear his mind and prepare for his next chance. By now his classmates have learned there is no point in holding their breaths; they know just as well as him that his efforts are futile. 

Minutes must pass. His leg bounces impatiently. 

Another ball hits his chest. 

He stands. 

“I must use the restroom,” he says, quiet, composure hanging on by a thread. He’d rather turn tail than face this level of mockery. Shame. Failure

Sometimes running away is all you can do. 

“You have not yet finished the assignment, Jean-Paul. Sit down, now,” Shadowsan orders. 

For a moment, he stands silently, blinded and knuckles white, contemplating. It is hushed in the dojo, yet he swears he hears a thousand murmurs over the intense beating of his heart. 

No. He cannot- will not do this. He will not make a further fool of himself- a complete laughing stock. 

The blindfold is tossed to the floor next to his several failed attempts. 

Biting his tongue, he walks down the center aisle towards the exit, keeping his eyes forward and his chin held stubbornly high. All gazes follow him, stay on him, like spiders crawling under his skin. He will not show his emotions. 

Vulnerability. 

As soon as the sliding door is shut behind him, his numb expression breaks. He sprints down the halls, searching for any escape. Above, he spots a vent, and does not hesitate to jump up and latch onto it. He opens the grate, climbs in, and shuts it tightly behind him. 

It is dark. Enclosed. Tight. He hates it here. 

For a moment, he is still, stuck staring at the dark wall of the vent. 

Ping. 

Ping. 

Ping. 

Tears drop onto smooth metal, the reverb of the impact echoing. Jean-Paul stares at the forming puddle as he pants, shakes, yet crouches so still. He is frozen in disbelief. Had he really just done that?

Jean-Paul has not cried in many years. Not since he was still a teenager and broke his ankle after a nasty fall. There had been visible bone and blood and yet he had only cried because he had failed. The pain was a mere afterthought (as was the realization that this meant medical bills, and an angry father, but those feelings were buried much deeper).

Now here he was… crying in a vent over some rubber balls. 

What is wrong with me?

Suddenly now realizing the weight of his actions, he blinks. That was Shadowsan he just disobeyed. The hardass samurai who respected nothing more than respect itself. 

A teacher hellbent on following the rules surely had some sort of punishment planned, it was only reasonable. 

Accepting his defeat, he lies down, curling up his long arms to hug himself so he may fit somewhat comfortably in this- may it be reminded- random vent in the hallway. 

Different scenarios and outcomes run through his mind. What could he have done differently? Did he make the worst or the best choice? Were his fellow classmates actually laughing at him? How could he ever show his face in the academy again?

He lies there on the verge of a panic attack for what must be an hour, considering the length that remained of Shadowsan’s lesson, before he hears the chatter of students in the hall below. He listens, almost against his own will, for anyone that speaks of his name. Any laugh, any chuckle- his mind forces him to believe they are directed towards him. Because what else could they possibly be laughing about?

The case should be that he cares not in the least of his peers’ opinions. 

But… he does care about Antonio, and surely the other students will judge Antonio for having such a pathetic thief for a friend. The mere thought of the other man seeing him as anything less than capable tightens his chest painfully. 

A small voice in the back of his head scorns him for acting so dramatically. 

The louder voice yells that he is responding suitably for a coward. 

Time passes at an untraceable rate as Jean lies still. His limbs go stiff and a fuzzy numbness has taken over his right arm, yet he doesn’t find the strength to move. 

There are still two more classes left of the day, but he has no desire to attend them. There is no chance he will show his face again today after the stunt he pulled. Surely the others will target him now, just as they target the silent kid. 

A decision based on emotion rather than logic. Eugh

The halls have been quiet for a bit now, so he chances crawling through the vent to the other side, nimble and silent like a mouse despite his temperament. He has most of the vents, air ducts, and rooms of the academy mapped out from above by now, so he knows this vent just leads to the other end of the hall. Still, he is cautious when he peaks through the grate and pokes his head out of the opened exit. 

The coast is clear, so he slides out, holding himself up just long enough to slide the grate back in place before dropping to the ground. Then, fueled by the fear of being seen, he runs as far as he can, away from the classrooms and any potential witnesses. 

Upon turning the last corner, he slams into someone and yelps, raising his fists on instinct. Standing before him is none other than the mute, who rubs his forehead with a silent wince. Jean-Paul clicks his tongue in distaste and relaxes his stance. 

“Ugh. You .”

The redhead cowers, his hands raised protectively over his face. It’s like looking in a mirror. A cold flash of dread whips Jean’s chest. 

“I am not going to hurt you. Tch. Just get out of my way.” He pushes the man aside half-heartedly and stomps past him. At least he will tell no one about this. Ha. Haha…

Ugh. 

It is not the tallest building that he turns to. Nor is it the wilderness or the dorms. In his storm of emotions, Jean-Paul treks down to the beach to a familiar den in the cliffside. 

He hadn’t been here since Antonio snuck him out a few weeks ago, but it’s obvious that his friend has been. The cave was deeper by many meters, and wider, too. It was empty, and dark and hidden; the perfect spot to tuck tail and hide. 

The Frenchman crawls in and sits against the back wall, pulling his knees to his chest and slumping. As always, the waves on the beach crash at a steady rhythm. Although usually finding relief in scaling to the highest peak, something about this tunnel calms Jean-Paul’s nerves. Perhaps it was the memories attached to it, or maybe the smell of dirt- anything that reminded him of Antonio, he supposed.

After living so much of his life alone, it’s odd to finally have a friend- and a very close one at that. Were he willing to take a closer look into his own psyche, maybe Jean-Paul would realize that Antonio’s unfamiliar blend of softness and masculinity was what intrigued him. It was something uncommon to the Frenchman, to see an emotionally resonant man who was also secure in his masculine side. This could be a reason why he felt free to express his affections around his friend, because he knew he would face no repercussions, no harm, no disapproval. 

But the stubborn man was in no state to psychoanalyze himself, so these revelations remained undiscovered. 

Instead, he sits and watches the ocean waves until the sky goes dim. His eyes are irritated and red, and the bags underneath them are heavy. Oh how he wishes he could erase today from history, or just maybe get a redo. Is that too much to ask? 

“Jean-Paul? Please be in here… ” 

He perks up at the sound of the familiar voice, his chest immediately fluttering. From the ledge above the opening drops Antonio, who instantly gasps in a mix of relief and worry. 

“Oh, gracias a Dios! Mi amigo!” He runs to Jean-Paul and skids down on his knees next to him, throwing them into a tight hug. “I was looking everywhere for you,” Antonio says on an exhale. Jean-Paul closes his eyes and relaxes into the hug. He grips Antonio’s shirt harder than intended. 

The other man pulls away, his hands resting with firm grips on Jean’s shoulders as he stares him down. He looks at him with extreme concern and warmth. Jean-Paul has to look away. 

“I looked to every ceiling for you. Then, when that did not work, I even asked Black Sheep to climb some buildings for me. To see you just run off like that I had feared the worst but-“ he frowns, “You scared me!” Then he softens. “You were crying...?” 

“What? No.”

He points to Jean’s cheeks. 

“Your makeup.”

Jean swipes a palm over his cheeks defensively. 

“I am fine!” He declares, but instantly deflates. To lie to his best friend would be pointless. It is safe down here, just the two of them. “You should not have to see me like this.”

Antonio leans closer. His lips are so close. Heat is rolling off of Antonio like a comforting blanket. Jean-Paul could just close his eyes, lean in and…

“Like what?”

He sighs. 

“Defeated. Cowardly. Weak,” he begins to list off. “I could continue.”

“Please don’t,” Antonio chuckles. He pushes Jean’s legs down so they’re crossed on the ground, and holds his knees. He smiles softly. “You know I don’t think poorly of you.”

Jean snorts. “I would not blame you if you did, mon ami.”

“But I do not, so do not think otherwise.” He sits on his heels, his large hands two searing spots on Jean’s legs. He does not know whether to focus on how close Antonio’s face is to his own, or how firmly he holds his knees. 

Antonio’s hands run up his thighs and onto Jean-Paul’s hands, which he holds between his own. His large grey eyes are nothing but caring, their lazy gaze igniting fires in Jean’s stomach at the mere look. 

“Would you like to talk about it?” He asks. 

“Mm…” he responds stubbornly. 

“Okay. Um. Can I-“ he shifts into a crouch and pulls Jean away from the wall. “Let me try something.” He then sits behind Jean-Paul and wraps his arms around his center, his legs outstretched on either side. Jean’s back is pressed into Antonio’s broad chest, and his heart is pounding. 

“What are we….?”

“Close your eyes, relax, and wait,” he says, his chin resting on Jean’s shoulder. 

So he does that. 

Jean-Paul sighs, rests his arms on Antonio’s, closes his eyes, and waits. 

First he listens to the ever-present crashing waves. His mind follows the visual through audio alone, picturing a scene of clear water hitting the sand. 

Next he focuses on Antonio’s breathing. It is soft, but shares a similar pattern to the feeling of the heartbeat against his shoulder blade. 

He feels like crying again, but not in the bad way. 

Mejor ?” His friend whispers.

Oui.” He answers. He is better. It is hard not to be in such a position. With two thick arms wrapped around his center and a broad chest as his pillow, he feels at home. Like he was meant to be sitting here. 

“Good. Now let us go finish your assignment.” 

What- “ He is scooped up and carried out of the cave in one fell swoop, leaving no time for him to gather his words in a cohesive manner before Antonio is scuttling through the field of grass towards the academy. 

Getting swept away by his friend seems to be a common occurrence on this island. 

“Shadowsan should still be in his classroom! We must make haste if you are to still have a chance, mi amigo!”

Jean-Paul struggles in Antonio’s over-the-shoulder hold, making small cries of defiance as he tries to escape. 

“What do you mean?! Let me go! I cannot just demand a redo!”

“But you can ask for one! Vámanos, there is still time!”

Any attempts at escape in Antonio’s strong arms are impossible. Jean-Paul slumps in surrender, resting his chin on his palm as Antonio escorts him to the dojo. In front of the sliding metal door, they stop, and Jean is allowed to slide down to his feet. 

He looks down at his friend, unsure and honestly a bit scared. Shadowsan is the council member to fear, especially if you’re on his bad side. 

He does not want to feel the sting of knuckles on his cheek, not after so long. Antonio rubs his finger soothingly over his own knuckles. 

“You will be fine, so long as you remember one thing.”

“And what is that?” 

Antonio smiles. 

“That I believe in you.” He jumps slightly. “Oh! And here-“ Antonio reaches up and grabs Jean-Paul’s face gently. His breath catches behind his lips, eyes widening a fraction as he is lead down. 

Time slows. 

Is this it?

Time stops. 

Is this their first kiss?

Antonio wipes Jean-Paul’s cheeks with his thumbs, then pats them light-heartedly. 

“There we go! Now go show him what you are truly made of!” 

Ah .

Time resumes.

Although the touch does nothing to calm him down, quite the opposite in fact, the sentiment is what actually matters. Not to mention, Antonio’s hands are warm and gentle, as rough as they might be. Jean traces his own cheeks with a feathered touch. 

Alright.

A deep breath. 

Okay. 

Head held high. 

Show time. 

 

As it turns out, Shadowsan is not as harsh as previously feared. 

Jean-Paul ends up explaining the situation to the best of his abilities- opening up about his emotions and how they get in his way. Intermittent explosive disorder, general anxiety disorder- totally normal average things everyone experiences because Jean-Paul is not a freak and he’s not a weakling. He also made sure to mention how he’s deeply sorry for the show of disrespect and that he wishes to prove himself worthy. 

Blah blah blah. 

Responsible stuff. 

The older man nods silently with unreadable eyes as Jean confesses. His hands do not so much as even twitch. 

Then, Shadowsan instructs him to sit, wear the blindfold, and do what is expected of him. 

When Jean-Paul sits this time, his leg does not bounce. He does not fidget. His head remains clear. 

He thinks of Antonio’s secure embrace. 

Calming. 

Caring. 

Loving

Surprising even himself, he performs the exercise almost perfectly, earning a nod of approval from Shadowsan. 

“You have done well, Jean-Paul. You may retire for the night. Do make sure another incident like this does not happen again.”

He bows a bit awkwardly, biting back his pleased smile. 

“Thank you, Instructor Shadowsan.”

When he exits the classroom, he can’t help the huge grin that explodes across his face. Antonio, who had been nodding off against the wall, jolts awake when Jean pulls him in for a hug. 

“You were right, mon chérie! Merci, merci!” He giggles as Antonio twirls him around in the air in celebration. 

“Wonderful, mi querido! Wonderful!” Antonio drops him back to his feet, but holds his hands firmly. His eyes sparkle in the dimly lit hall as he gazes deeply up at Jean. Unable to hold back his enthusiasm, he hops up onto his toes and pecks Jean on the cheek. “Let us go to the library; you have some classwork to catch up on!”

Jean grins, too elated to groan or mewl over the task ahead of him. “Of course,” he says softly, stars in his eyes as Antonio leads him down the hall, their fingers entwined. 

He’s been to the tallest peaks in the world, but his head has never been this high up in the stars.