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The Care and Keeping of Jean Moreau

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Don’t panic. Call Kevin Day.

You have no idea what you’re getting into, making Jean Moreau a Trojan.

Jean has always been something of a black box. Whereas Riko Moriyama and Kevin Day spent so much of their childhoods at Evermore in the spotlight, the details of Jean Moreau’s personal life have been kept largely in the dark. In post-game interviews, he’s always blended into the monolith of Ravens standing behind Riko. But until Kevin called a couple weeks ago, you thought you at least had a general impression of Jean Moreau: an absolute nightmare of a backliner, with the ruthless ambition and arrogance expected of any Raven — especially one marked for Riko’s so-called Perfect Court.

The person waiting for you in baggage claim at LAX is like someone else entirely.

It’s not just that Jean looks more like he recently walked away from a car wreck than a fight — No, not a fight. Kevin said… well, Kevin didn’t say much, except that Jean needed to get as far from Riko Moriyama as possible, as fast as possible, because Riko apparently… did this. The fading bruises on Jean’s neck and the butterfly bandages on his brow. One arm gloved in gauze up to the elbow, the other in a sling.

Jean meets your open-mouthed stare with a set jaw, like he’s daring you to say something. But his shoulders are drawn forward, like he wants to hide behind something.

You have no clue what to say, since the icebreaker you practiced on the drive over — a joke about how Kevin Day convincing a Raven to play for USC is an even bigger miracle than his right-handed comeback — no longer seems appropriate.

You finally get out a “you made it” with a smile that feels as fake as Jean’s stoicism.

“Yes,” is all Jean says.

A nearby mother pushes down the arm of a small child who’s openly pointing at Jean’s battered face. Best not to drag this out.

“Here, let me get that,” you say, stepping forward to take Jean’s bag from his shoulder.

No.” Jean steps back and pulls the duffel protectively to his chest.

You freeze.

Jean freezes too, and drops his gaze to the floor. “It’s fine,” he bites out. “Thank you.”

You swallow, struggling again for words that are not the train of what the fuck’s running through your head. “No problem,” you say, eyeing the death grip that Jean’s bandaged hand has on the strap of his bag. “Is that all you’ve got?”

Jean nods at the floor.

“Cool,” you say, and wince at yourself. “Uh, follow me, then.”

Jean does.

His first month at USC is as rough as you expected, but for none of the reasons you expected.

You thought the hardest part would be convincing Jean and the rest of the Trojans to play nice on the court. The team was wary when Rheman announced Jean’s transfer, for good reason. The Ravens have always liked to play dirty — but especially against USC, trying to goad you into ruining your own reputation. One of your third-year strikers, Omar, almost got into a fistfight with Jean a couple years back over an illegal bodycheck. That kind of bad blood doesn’t just go away.

But the whole issue is rendered somewhat moot by Jean spending most of his first few weeks in California in physical therapy. At practices, he sits on the sidelines and makes notes, reporting his findings to various teammates during water breaks.

“Who asked you?” Omar demands, the first time Jean appears behind him like a phantom at the cooler to give advice on proper curveball wrist motion.

“I did,” Rheman says. “As an outsider, Jean is uniquely suited to identify weaknesses in our game that we’re overlooking in each other. Isn’t that right?” Rheman looks at Jean.

Jean looks at the floor. He seems to have trouble maintaining eye contact with Coach for longer than a few seconds at a time.

Rheman sighs and looks around at the rest of the team. “Anyone got a problem with that?”

No one does.

Most of the Trojans are surprisingly open to Jean’s critiques. It helps that he’s usually right. It probably helps more that Jean delivers his observations with the clinical detachment of a doctor making a diagnosis, rather than the thinly veiled contempt of Tetsuji Moriyama awarding USC the Day Spirit Award because “for all the Trojans lack in technical skill, they make up for in heart.” (Barf.) By the time Jean joins practice for real near the end of June, he fits in nearly as well as any new freshman.

It’s life outside practice that worries you.

Like, even though Jean seems to get along well enough with the team on the court, he avoids everyone the rest of the time. A couple weeks after moving into the dorm, he pulls several stitches on his side while trying to reach a mug in a high cabinet of the hall kitchen, rather than asking any of the three Trojans sitting in the common room for help. Another night, you come home to find Jean sitting on the sidewalk outside the dorm, waiting for a passerby to open the door, because he locked himself out. When you ask why he didn’t text for help, he gives you a blank stare.

That seems to be Jean’s attitude toward sharing a room with you, too: taking up as little space and attention as possible. When you’re both home, he folds himself up in the back corner of his bed and works silently with headphones on. Everything he owns — a little more than a duffel's worth, now that Rheman has gotten him some new clothes and school supplies — is packed neatly inside his dresser or closet, or hidden under his bed.

Living with Jean is almost like living alone, with one major exception: Whenever Jean leaves for anything but practice, he always tells you where he’s going.

“What does he think? If he’s unsupervised for ten minutes, I’m going to assume he’s on the phone with Edgar Allan somewhere, giving away all our new plays?” you ask Kevin one night as you pace your room.

It’s only the latest of several phone calls you’ve had with Kevin about your new recruit.

“He’s still figuring out your rules,” Kevin says, “so he’s following Riko’s.”

“There are no rules,” you say. “I’m not Riko.”

The more Kevin tells you about Evermore, and the more you watch how Jean operates, the sicker that comparison makes you.

“You’re still his captain,” Kevin says. “He’s at USC at your will.”

You stop pacing. “He’s not worried I would cut him,” you say incredulously.

“I’m sure he’s worried about everything,” Kevin says, “and doing nothing without explicit permission. He’s probably barely left your room except for practice.”

You blow out your lips. “Yeah.”

Kevin hums knowingly. “At the Nest we did everything in pairs,” he says. “Jean’s partner was Riko. They did everything together.”

Realization sinks like a rock in your stomach. “Jean didn’t have any other friends?”

Kevin hesitates. “Me,” he says. “Only me, and Riko wouldn’t — Riko would have kept him closer after I left.”

You rub your jaw, staring absently at Jean’s crisp, blank side of the room. “How did you get him out?”

“Renee Walker drove to Evermore and kidnapped him, then blackmailed the university into letting him transfer,” Kevin says, a note of pride in his voice. “Jean tried to go back, though. He only stopped after Riko died.”

You pinch the bridge of your nose. This is so fucked. You know Rheman is forcing Jean to see one of the university psychologists, but you’d bet your future spot on the U.S. Court that Jean isn’t telling her anything. Even if he were, you’re pretty sure no school counselor is trained to deal with Jean Moreau’s unique cocktail of trauma.

“Kevin, I don’t know if I’m qualified to handle… this.”

“I know,” Kevin says. “But I wouldn’t trust him with anyone else.”

The doorknob clicks.

“Gotta go,” you tell Kevin. “Thanks.” To Jean, as he comes through the door, “Hey.”

Jean halts in the doorway, deer-in-the-headlights at the sight of you standing in the middle of the room, waiting for him. “I was at the 7-Eleven,” he says, holding up a handful of protein bars as evidence, even though he told you where he was going before he left.

“Cool,” you say, and sit down on your bed so that he’ll actually enter the room.

Jean toes off his shoes under his desk, deposits all but one of his protein bars in the top drawer, then goes to his bed and does that thing where he tries to make his 6’3” frame as small as possible.

You chew your lip, then decide screw it, and say, “You don’t have to do that, you know. Tell me where you’ve been.”

Jean just stares at you.

“I mean, you can if you want,” you add, “but you don’t have to.”

More staring.

“I trust you,” you say, a little desperately, because you need him to get this.

Jean fiddles with the wrapper of his protein bar. “Okay,” he says eventually. “Is that all?” Apparently waiting for some kind of dismissal.

You sigh. “Yeah. That’s all.”

 

 

Do get him to talk to other people.

This seems like the obvious first step in project I Am Not Riko Moriyama. And Laila and Alvarez are the obvious first choices.

They’re the Trojans Jean has spent the most time around besides you, since they run laps with you at practice and sit beside you at team meetings. Plus, Jean doesn’t seem to be as afraid of Laila and Alvarez as he is of you (although he definitely should be). At least, he’s comfortable openly glaring at them when they barge into your room to talk while Jean is trying to read. You think their chattiness might actually be a good counterbalance to Jean; he barely says anything, and Laila and Alvarez talk enough for three people, at least.

It’s just a matter of getting Laila and Alvarez on board.

“I’m not asking you to hang out with him all the time,” you say, because you’re probably not going to sell anyone on the idea that Jean is great company. “But if you could talk to him at least once a day outside practice, I think that would help.”

This may be the weirdest favor you’ve ever asked them, but Laila just nods sagely and says, “Like socializing a feral cat.”

You blink. “Is that a yes?”

“Sure,” Alvarez says with an easy shrug. “I have just the thing to get us started.”

The next evening, you invite Laila over to watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Not to force Jean out of your room, per se, but at least to deter him from staying when Alvarez comes in, strides up to Jean’s desk, and plants a hand on it to get his attention.

Jean raises an eyebrow at her and pops out an earbud. “May I help you?” he says in a profoundly unhelpful voice.

“Yes,” Alvarez says. “I’m designing some new backliner drills, and I’d like your input.”

Jean’s expression remains unimpressed. “The only drills worth inventing were crafted by the Master.”

“All right,” Alvarez says. “Teach me those, then.”

Jean scowls at her.

“That’s what I thought. Listen.” Alvarez flips her hair over her shoulder and crosses her arms. Even though Jean is almost as tall as she is while sitting in his desk chair, Alvarez seems to tower over him. “I get that you think you’re hot shit because you trained under the founding father of Exy, or whatever. But if you really understood the game, you’d know that Exy is a weak-link sport. Know what that is?” She doesn’t give him time to answer. “It means a team is only as good as its worst sub. So if you ever want to call yourself a national champion again, you’ll make yourself useful and help me figure out how to whip these freshmen into shape.”

Your cheeks are tight with the effort not to smile when Jean turns wide eyes in your direction. You give an I’d do what she says shrug. Jean looks slightly betrayed.

“I think it’s a great idea. The team could really benefit from your expertise,” you add, because you’ve been trying to microdose Jean on compliments lately. During a scrimmage last week, you made the mistake of shouting “That was amazing!” after Jean made a point from clear across the court, and he was so flustered that he tripped over his own feet on the way back to the first-court line.

Jean looks just as disconcerted by the vote of confidence now, shifting uncomfortably in his chair. “Fine,” he says, possibly only as an excuse to leave the room, and exits swiftly.

Alvarez follows him out, throwing a wink at you and Laila as she goes. This is either the best or worst idea you’ve ever had.

“Ten bucks says they’re at each other’s throats within ten minutes,” says Laila, who spends too much time on the #Betting channel of the PSU Foxes’ Discord.

Ten minutes later, you venture out into the common area to see whether Alvarez and Jean have, in fact, killed each other. You find them standing at a whiteboard in one of the study rooms. The door is closed, but through the window you can see Alvarez gesturing expansively with an Expo marker while she explains something. Jean hears her out, then takes the marker to add something to whatever she's drawn on the board. Alvarez studies it, tapping her lip, and nods her approval.

“Good news?” Laila guesses, eyeing your smile when you re-enter your bedroom.

“Yeah,” you say, settling back down and hitting play on Hulu. “Might be good news for our entire defense line.”

 

 

Don’t let him play Exy all the time.

You should have been more proactive about this, you realize, when you find Jean at the stadium at three a.m. in August.

For the last few days, Jean has been out almost all night. He doesn’t tell you everywhere he goes anymore (good), so you’ve been left to wait up and wonder (less good).

You should have known.

“What are you doing here?” you say, words echoing through the nearly empty court as you approach Jean.

Jean doesn’t so much as glance away from the ball he’s rebounding off X’s of tape across the court wall. “What does it look like?” 

Why are you here?” you amend, raising your voice over the smack of the ball against the plexiglass. Even sleep-deprived as hell, Jean’s aim is lethal.

“Couldn’t sleep.”

You frown. “More than usual?”

Jean’s sleep schedule has been a disaster since he got here, between his frequent nightmares and bizarre circadian rhythm on account of — what did Kevin say? Sixteen-hour days? Fucking cult.

Jean backs up a few paces and starts his next round of rebounds without responding.

“You’re asking for an injury, overworking yourself like this,” you say.

Jean grits his teeth and flings the ball at the highest mark, just below the court ceiling. It slams dead-center against the X and lands neatly back in his racquet. “I’ve played through much worse.”

“I know,” you say, sharp enough that Jean flinches. You inhale and exhale, and soften your tone. “Look. I don’t need my best backliner burnt out before the season even starts.”

Jean fumbles his next rebound, just barely catching the ball after it initially bounces off the strings of his racquet. He plucks the ball from the netting and turns it over in his hand. His fingers are long and elegant, even the ones that obviously never healed properly from fractures.

“It’s a good distraction,” Jean says, without looking at you.

“I’m sure we can find other ways to distract you.”

Jean flushes slightly.

“I mean,” you say, rubbing the back of your neck awkwardly, “what do you like to do besides Exy?”

Jean shrugs. “Read.”

Okay, you knew that. “What else?”

Jean shrugs again.

“What did you do at Evermore when you weren’t practicing?”

Jean stares intently at the middle distance, as though trying to remember something from a dream. “There was a pool table in the lounge,” he says slowly. “We used to play sometimes, but Riko would — he didn’t like it much. We watched movies, too. Mostly Japanese films. Some I liked. I don’t want to watch those, though.”

No, you don’t suppose he does.

“Anything you liked to do without Riko?” you ask, even though you’re already pretty sure of the answer.

Jean fiddles with the strings of his racquet. “He didn’t leave me alone much,” he says. “I tried to run away a lot, when I was younger.”

“Really?”

You like the idea that at least once upon a time, there was a version of Jean Moreau that dared defy Riko Moriyama.

Jean glances up at the delighted curiosity in your voice, with the barest hint of a smile. It fades fast, but you hold onto the mental image of it like a rare artifact.

"If you had more time away from Riko," you say, "how would you have spent it?"

Jean considers. “I took guitar for an arts credit one semester," he says. "I liked that.” 

"Yeah?"

"Yeah." Jean's expression isn't a smile exactly, but at least the potential for one — until he grimaces. "But Riko saw it as a distraction,” he says, curling his hand — the left one, with the crooked middle and ring fingers — into a fist.

You almost sigh. Of course that’s how that story ends.

Except, it’s not over yet. Because Riko is dead, and Jean is here, and you have at least three hallmates with guitars they could probably lend to Jean. “Trevor plays,” you say. “He could teach you.”

Jean’s brow furrows. “What?”

“He gives lessons to kids at a music shop near campus,” you say, “and he owes you one for helping him with that sweet hook shot.”

Jean looks skeptical.

“Think about it,” you say. “In the meantime — the student center is open twenty-four-seven and there’s a pool table in the basement. You any good?”

Jean, it turns out, is amazing at pool. You’re glad he’s not letting you win, the way you suspect he would Riko, but this is getting embarrassing.

“I want a rematch,” you say on the edge of dawn, after he’s beaten you easily for the third time in a row. “But tomorrow. Or — ” through a yawn “ — later today?”

“Okay,” Jean agrees, looking exhausted but pleased in a way that fills you with satisfaction.

“But to rebuild some of my shattered self-confidence, we also have to do something I’m good at,” you say. “You ever played Mario Kart?”

Jean has not. But the problem with teaching Jean Moreau new things, you discover, is that he practices everything with the same militant rigor as he does Exy. Within a few weeks, he’s beating you at almost every round of Mario Kart. And chess. And ping-pong. Luckily, Jean isn't nearly as insufferable a winner as you thought he'd be. He's always as quick to compliment your good moves as he is to exploit your bad ones.

By the time the semester starts, it’s not that hard to convince Jean there are better ways to spend the half hour between class and practice than running himself sick on extra laps. You can’t even be mad about losing all the time, at everything, and the relentless shit that Laila and Alvarez give you for it, because the way Jean covers his mouth to conceal the threat of a smile whenever he defeats you is its own kind of victory. That, and unleashing him on other unsuspecting Trojans.

 

 

Do help him figure out what he likes.

Talking to Jean is often like talking to an extremely sheltered child, or someone who’s been in prison for a long time — neither of which, you suppose, is completely off the mark. There’s just so much stuff he’s never done. Food trucks? Never eaten at one. Marvel movies? Never seen one. Concerts? Never been to one.

When Jean first got to California, you thought you were doing him a favor by giving him space. You didn’t want him to mistake your invitations for obligations. But the more Jean talks to you, the more you realize that even if he wanted to spend a day to himself off-campus, he’d probably have no idea where to start. And the more you trust Jean to actually tell you no, the more comfortable you are inviting him places.

It usually takes some detective work to figure out what Jean does and doesn’t like. If you ask him where he wants to go for dinner, for instance, he’ll shrug and tell you to pick. But given any set of options, Jean always chooses sushi.

Sometimes, he’s easier to read. Like when you and a few other Trojans drive out to Malibu Creek Park to stargaze in October. Maya, your resident amateur astronomer, brings her telescope and spends nearly half an hour showing Jean all the moons of Jupiter and various other things in the sky, while Jean peppers her with questions. This might be the most you’ve ever heard him talk outside practice.

“Huh,” says Alvarez.

You turn to her, sitting beside you in the bed of Omar’s truck. You expect to find her watching Jean, too, or looking up at the sky, but her eyes are on you.

“What?”

“That smile,” she says.

You didn’t realize you were smiling. “What about it?”

“Nothing,” Alvarez says cryptically, and leaves you to go stand with Laila and Omar.

Bemused, you look back at Jean, who has stepped away from Maya’s telescope to tip his head back and stare at the sky. Over the last couple of months, you’ve gotten used to seeing some softer expressions on Jean’s face. Amusement. Curiosity. Hope. But you’ve never seen anything like the wide-eyed wonder he’s wearing now.

You slide off the back of the truck and walk up to him.

“Didn’t know you were such a big fan of stargazing,” you say, wincing when Jean gives a startled flinch, apparently having missed you in his peripheral vision. “Sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Jean says, looking back up at the stars. “I’m not — or, I wasn’t. I’ve never been before.”

“Never?”

“Didn’t have much opportunity for it, during the decade I lived underground,” he says matter-of-factly.

Sometimes, you wonder whether Jean has any concept of how messed up his life is.

Jean looks over at your silence. “Sorry,” he mumbles.

“For what?”

Jean lifts a shoulder and drops it. “I know it can make people uncomfortable when I talk about — myself.”

Your stomach clenches with guilt. “That’s not your fault.”

Jean doesn’t respond.

“Hey.” You move to stand in front of him. Jean looks down at you, eyes guarded. “You shouldn’t not tell people things just to not make them uncomfortable.”

Jean frowns, clearly working to untangle that series of double negatives.

“You can tell me stuff,” you translate, a little helplessly.

Jean tilts his head to the side. It’s a catlike gesture he makes often and you find oddly endearing. “Why?”

“Why… can you tell me things?”

“Why would you want to know?” Jean says bluntly, though he sounds more curious than suspicious, which you take as a good sign.

“Because that’s what friends do.”

Jean opens his mouth and closes it again. His voice, when he finds it, is hesitant. “Is that what we are?”

This kid. Honestly.

It requires every ounce of your self-control to not trap him in a hug. “Obviously,” you say, trying to keep your voice light despite the heaviness in your chest. “Only my friends get to hear me singing off-key Ariana Grande in the shower.”

Jean processes this. “Do we have to be friends?” he says, and your stomach lurches — until you catch the corner of his mouth twitching.

It surprises a laugh out of you. “Oh, fuck off,” you say, grinning so he knows you don’t mean it. “And yes, we do.”

“All right then,” Jean says with one of his rare, unguarded smiles. “Friends.”

Happiness, you decide, is a good look on him.

 

 

Don’t handle him with kid gloves.

The Trojans dominate the fall season.

Your defense is impenetrable, creating wide point gaps even against Stanford and Berkeley, where you could only hope for narrow victories before. Jean, the most offensive defenseman you’ve ever seen, perfectly complements Alvarez, who tends to hang behind the first-court line with Laila. Even Jean and Alvarez’s flock of underclassmen subs, trained on their newly invented drills, can take on starting strikers.

When you crush UW in the final game of the fall season, it feels less exciting and more inevitable. The biggest thrill, honestly, is watching Jean submit to a celebratory bro-hug from Omar without flinching.

On the court, Jean looks every inch a Trojan. He hasn’t gotten so much as a yellow card all year, and has finally gotten the hang of high-fives and fist-bumps. At home, when Jean is watching NOVA with Maya or picking at Trevor’s guitar, it almost feels like he’s been here all along. He occasionally ditches his headphones to listen to music aloud in your room (a lot more Taylor Swift than you would have guessed) and has cultivated enough opinions about TV to criticize yours (the day Jean sits down to watch an episode of the Kardashians with you and Laila, there's definitely at least a tiny part of him that regrets ever coming to California).

Slowly but surely, Jean Moreau is making his way into the neighborhood of normalcy.

But it’s impossible to ever truly forget Jean’s past. Every time he changes beside you in the locker room, there it is: a lifetime of pain written across his body in scars of various sizes and sources. At least a few times a week, you’re awoken by a sleeping Jean pleading into his pillow in Japanese. Every so often, Jean makes a throwaway comment about some miserable thing, like not having celebrated any birthdays since he was a child, that makes you want to tuck him against your side and hold him there for a long time.

Maybe that’s an absurd impulse to have about someone who could easily take you in a fight. But you defy anyone to watch Jean Moreau walk around holding the turned-out pockets of his own sweatpants like security blankets when he’s anxious and feel any different.

Which is why, before your spring championship game against the Ravens, you ask Coach Rheman for a favor.

Jean doesn’t take it well.

He’s silent all the way home from the team meeting where Rheman announced the USC lineup against Edgar Allan, but as soon as you step inside your room, Jean slams the door behind you.

You pivot to face him with raised eyebrows. You’ve never actually seen Jean… angry before. Irritated? Sure. Cranky? No doubt. Sullen? All the time. But Jean has never so much as raised his voice at you.

He still doesn’t raise his voice now, when he says, “If you doubt my loyalty to this team, then you should not have let me play a single game this year.”

You open your mouth, but no words come out, because you were a complete idiot not to realize this was how Jean would interpret being benched.

Jean, apparently taking your silence for confirmation, makes a soft scoffing noise in the back of his throat that’s probably meant to convey contempt, but mostly just sounds hurt.

“No, hey — Jean.” You take a step toward him, but halt when he steps back, bumping into the door. You hold your hands up, palms forward. “That’s not what this is. At all.”

“Really.” Jean’s voice is steely with skepticism. “Because Rheman doesn’t strike me as a gambling man.”

Jean is right about that, at least. It’s risky, bordering on stupid, to sideline Jean against the Ravens. You’ll have to cobble together the strengths of at least three subs to make up for his absence. Rheman took a lot of convincing. Luckily, Coach is pretty receptive to your borderline stupid ideas when they serve the integrity of the game or the good of your team.

“It’s not about trust,” you say. “It’s only...”

Only that it would go against every moral fiber of your being to make Jean face off against the team that once owned him — against teammates who, by Kevin’s account, were complicit in at least some of Riko’s abuse. But you don’t know how to say that without it sounding like pity.

Turns out, you don’t have to, because Jean can apparently read it all over your face. He draws further back, pushing himself flat against the door. “You don’t think I can handle playing against them,” he says, tone full of accusation, but with an undercurrent of vulnerability that causes a tightening in your chest.

“I don’t think you should have to,” you correct.

But Jean shakes his head. “You’re wrong,” he says, a pinched, rueful expression on his face. “I do have to. You have to let me. Please.”

The bottom drops out of your stomach. You can’t remember Jean ever telling you he needed something so directly, let alone asking for it.

You swallow. “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” Jean says firmly, stepping away from the door to stand right in front of you, forcing you to tip your chin up to meet his eye. “If you do trust me, trust me on this.”

On Saturday night, in front of 20,000 screaming fans, Jean proves just how well he can handle playing the Ravens. After one of Edgar Allan’s strikers illegally bodychecks Maya into a wall, Jean retaliates by clotheslining the striker with his racquet so hard that the Raven doesn’t get up for a full five seconds. The smack of his helmet against the court floor is so satisfying that you can’t even fault Jean for earning the Trojans their first yellow card of the season.

“Think that hurt?” you say, smirking at Jean when Rheman swaps him out for Penny.

“Not as much as getting pushed down a flight of stairs,” Jean says grimly as he drops down beside you on the bench.

That wipes the smile off your face.

You watch the Raven striker stagger back to the far-court line and, for the first time ever, weigh the risk of getting a red card to land a few hits on that piece of shit.

“Don’t,” Jean says, and you turn back to find him watching you with knowing eyes. “Don’t do anything stupid. I shouldn’t have done that.”

“He deserved it,” you say, hands curling into fists over your knees.

“Maybe,” Jean says, “but a Raven knows no worse pain than a wounded ego. The easiest way to ruin them is a clean win.”

You gape at him, trying to come to terms with this bizarre new reality where you’re getting lectured on sportsmanship by an ex-Raven.

Jean Moreau, you think, is one of the strangest, most remarkable people you’ve ever met.

“You’re right,” you say, bumping your shoulder against Jean’s and feeling a sudden surge of affection when Jean leans into it. “Let’s kick their asses like gentlemen.”

 

 

Do be gentle with him.

It starts with the hair clippers.

The electric clippers appear on Jean’s side of the cabinet under the bathroom sink in mid-February. They stand out, like every new item Jean brings into your room, because he owns so little to begin with.

At first, you don’t give them much thought. Jean’s hair has grown out a lot from the aggressively short buzz cut he wore as a Raven. You kind of like it longer — it gives Jean something of a softer, younger look. But you can tell he’s getting tired of shoving it out of his face during practice. Makes sense he’d want it cut.

But then the clippers sit under the sink for weeks, untouched. In early March, you catch Jean standing in front of the bathroom mirror, staring at the set of clippers in his hand like it's a bomb he needs to defuse.

“Giving yourself a trim?” you say, mostly just to announce your presence, since Jean doesn’t seem to have heard you come in.

Jean’s head jerks up, and startled eyes meet yours in the mirror. “No,” he says quickly, shoving the clippers away and stepping out of the bathroom. He goes to his desk and starts to organize already neatly arranged stacks of paper.

Curious.

“If you don’t want to do it yourself, I could set you up with my barber,” you say. “Patrice is really good, and he doesn’t do small-talk.”

“I can do it,” Jean snaps.

“Okay,” you say, noting the defensive set of Jean’s shoulders. “It just seemed like maybe you didn’t want to.”

Jean’s shoulders drop. He shoves a hand through his hair, and you wonder idly whether it’s as soft as it looks.

“I need a haircut,” Jean says to his desk, “but I don’t know how, and I can’t have some stranger, you know…” Jean makes a generalized helpless gesture that you interpret as touching me.

An unexpected tenderness wells up inside you.

“Well, there’s a simple solution to that,” you say. “I can do it.”

Jean cautiously meets your eyes.

“I used to cut my little brothers’ hair all the time,” you say. “It probably won’t be as clean as going to a pro, but it’ll get the job done.”

“Very confidence-inspiring,” Jean says dryly, and you grin, because Jean giving you shit is a pretty good indicator of his comfort level.

“Come on,” you say. “Don’t you trust me?”

You’re mostly joking, but Jean gives the question serious consideration.

“Yes,” he decides finally, and marches back into the bathroom with solemn intent.

Well, shit. No pressure.

“Why don’t you sit there,” you say, following Jean into the bathroom and pointing to the lip of the tub. “Shirt off.”

Jean does as he’s told.

You would have thought that Jean’s scars would get less shocking over time, but they never do. They’re just so extensive. Jean has never bothered trying to hide them from you, but even if he wanted to, it would probably be impossible. Maybe that’s why it feels so important to avert your eyes.

You pull out the clippers and hand Jean a towel to drape over his shoulders. As you stand over him, fiddling with the clipper guards, Jean flexes his hands so that all his fingers are splayed out and rubs his palms anxiously back and forth across his knees.

It’s okay, you want to say. I’m not going to hurt you.

But in your experience with Jean, showing is usually better than telling.

You stand between Jean’s knees and run a careful hand through his hair. He shies away from the touch, shoulders pulling up to his ears.

“Relax,” you say, laying your hand on the towel over his shoulder to try to soothe some of the tightness from his posture. You card your fingers through his hair again, at first to assess the length, then again because it is as soft as it looks.

“Sorry,” Jean mumbles, screwing his eyes shut. “Haven’t done this in a while.”

“Someone at Evermore did it for you?” you say, but even as the words leave your mouth, you realize you already know the answer.

“Riko,” Jean says, tugging out the pockets of his pants and clenching the fabric in his fists.

Your hand pauses in his hair as you note a scar just above Jean’s hairline at his temple. The evidence of past nicks around his ears.

Anger roils like lava in your gut, and you have to take several deliberate breaths before you trust yourself to speak again. “Well, I know I can do better than that,” you say, brushing your hand through Jean’s hair one more time before turning your attention to the clipper settings. You pick out a guard a little longer than Jean used to wear his hair, figuring you can always go shorter if he wants.

“Ready?” you say, and wait for Jean to give a short nod before starting.

At first, you’re grateful for the buzz of the razor filling the silence. But if Jean’s rigid posture is anything to go by, the sound is only stressing him out.

“You’re a much easier customer than either of my brothers,” you say to distract him. “One of them used to squirm so much.”

“Conner or Ben?” says Jean, eyes shut against the tufts of hair drifting down around his face.

“Ben,” you say, then do a mental double-take. “How do you know their names?”

“You told Maya they were fans of that indie band she made us go see at The Echo in January.”

You quirk an eyebrow. “You remember my brothers’ names, but not the band?”

“Was the name of the band important?” Jean says.

A smile pulls at your mouth. “Only if you’re talking to Maya about her undying love for the man-bun front man,” you say. “It’s Folk Me Up, by the way.”

“Noted,” Jean says with an almost-smile of his own.

“Do you have any siblings?” you say, realizing you’ve never thought to ask.

“No,” Jean says. “Just my parents and me.”

“Extended family?”

Jean opens his eyes to send a bemused look up at you. You put a finger under his chin, angling his head back to avoid getting hair in his eyes. “What’s with the questions?” he says.

“Nothing,” you say. “I just don’t know that much about you.”

“I’m sure you’ve heard enough from Kevin,” Jean says mildly, and gives you a wry smile when your hands go still in his hair. You wonder when he figured it out — or whether he’s always suspected, and you just confirmed it for him.

“Sorry,” you say, going back to work, grateful for the excuse to break eye contact.

“Don’t be,” Jean says. “I actually prefer it that way, to be honest.”

“I just didn’t know what else to do, in the beginning,” you continue, because you at least owe him an explanation. “I wanted to understand, so I wouldn't accidentally hurt you.”

Jean goes quiet. “Because we’re friends,” he says after a space.

You exhale. “Because we’re friends,” you say, squeezing his shoulder gently.

Jean lapses into silence. You don’t bother distracting him with more conversation, because he seems genuinely relaxed now — rubbing the fabric of his pockets idly between his fingers, rather than clenching it in a white-knuckled grip.

You finish shaping up the sides of his hair and comb your fingers through it a few more times. You’ve left it long enough that it’s fuzzy rather than prickly, but short enough that it’s far out of Jean’s eyes. He has pretty eyes, you notice, as he watches you make your final adjustments. A deep, dark blue that you always misread as cold before you knew him. Before you understood anything.

After turning off the clippers, you brush some stray hair off Jean’s cheek — a gesture that doesn’t seem intimate until you do it and Jean goes a little pink. You retreat a couple steps and clear your throat. “See what you think,” you say, indicating the mirror.

Jean stands up and steps around you to examine his reflection. He skirts a palm across the top of his head. “It’s soft,” he marvels.

“Yeah,” you say, fingers already itching to touch it again. You shove your hands inside your pockets. “You like it?”

“Yes,” Jean says immediately, almost painfully sincere. He turns to face you, one hand still in his hair, the other clinging to his pocket at his side. For a horrible moment, it looks like he might cry. “Thank you,” he says unsteadily. “This is — I just — ”

“Hey, it’s okay,” you say, heart thudding at the sight of Jean Moreau so undone. “You’re fine.”

Jean shakes his head. “You don’t understand,” he says, the tremor in his voice getting worse. “No one’s ever — I don’t — ”

“It’s okay,” you say again, chest aching. “It’s okay, man. C’mere.”

Carefully, very carefully, you pull Jean into a hug. Beneath the towel, he’s tense and trembling.

"You're okay," you mumble, ignoring the low, broken noise that escapes the back of Jean's throat. "It's okay. I've got you." You rub one hand rhythmically across the towel while keeping your other hand firmly between Jean's shoulder blades, holding him steady as he relaxes into your arms and, eventually, brings his own arms up around you.

 

 

Don’t let him spend holidays alone.

Leaving Jean at school over Christmas was a mistake.

To be fair, your parents probably wouldn’t have let you invite a stranger along to visit your aging, ailing grandmother in Houston, and Jean definitely wouldn’t have wanted to come. But at the first practice after New Year, you glimpsed a pillow stuffed into Jean’s locker, and could just imagine him waking up on Christmas alone in a makeshift bed on the locker room floor to spend the holiday wearing himself out with drills.

You’re not about to let that happen over spring break, too.

“Come to Alvarez’s with us,” you say, when you find Jean relaxing in the common room with a book after his last midterm.

“No,” Jean says without looking up.

“How can you say no to a free weeklong stay at a beach house in Malibu?”

“Easily,” Jean says. “Watch me.” He looks you dead in the eye and points at his deadpan expression. “No.”

It’s weirdly comforting that Jean can be as much of an asshole as you always imagined he’d be, now that he’s comfortable being an asshole to you. Even weirder that you kind of like it.

“Why not?” you say.

“Practice.”

“You can take a week off.”

“That’s what the Foxes want you to think,” Jean says.

“Actually, what the Foxes want is a picture of you in a Hawaiian shirt drinking something out of a coconut,” says Laila from the couch, where you stationed her and Alvarez before entering, so that Jean wouldn’t feel cornered by all three of you approaching at once. “Neil Josten wins a hundred dollars if I can get one.” Laila holds up her phone to show Jean the messages on the Foxes’ Discord.

You lay a hand on Jean’s arm to reclaim his attention. “If anyone could stand to take a week off, it’s you.”

“If anyone could stand to spend a week in the sun, it’s you,” Alvarez says. “You’re like the poster child for vitamin D deficiency.”

“I don’t like the beach,” Jean tells you, ignoring Alvarez.

You frown. “Aren’t you from Marseilles?”

“Ah, yes, Marseilles,” Jean says, laying down his book in a way that tells you he’s about to lay down some absolutely devastating backstory. “I have many memories of visiting the beach there with my father. You know, the one who sold me to the mafia.”

Mierda,” Alvarez mutters. “That’s the most depressing thing you’ve ever said.”

“I don’t know,” Laila says thoughtfully. “What about — ”

“Come with us,” you interrupt, because if you start listing Jean’s chart-topping traumas, you’ll be here all afternoon. “Make new memories.”

Jean appears unmoved. But he does take interest when Alvarez says, “The whole rest of starting defense is going to be there. Perfect opportunity to workshop a few ideas I have for new drills.”

Jean twists in his chair to face her. “You didn’t tell me you were working on anything new.”

Alvarez shrugs coyly. “Guess you’ll have to come to my parents’ kick-ass beach house to see for yourself. Woe is you.”

“While keeping in mind that this vacation is supposed to be at least a little bit of a break from Exy,” you say.

“Sure,” Jean says, in a tone that is zero percent convincing. “When do we leave?”

By Jean’s standards, he actually does spend a fair amount of spring break doing things that don’t involve a racquet: playing his first round of minigolf, running on the beach with you, queuing up the Top 40 station while he helps Laila make pesto for dinner.

“You don’t look like you listen to pop music,” Maya tells Jean as Adele comes over the house speakers.

“What do I look like I listen to?” says Jean, grating parmesan cheese.

“Evanescence,” says Laila, at the same time Maya says, “Death Cab for Cutie,” and Alvarez says, “That guy on TikTok who raps Edgar Allan Poe poems.”

The final evening of vacation, you find Jean sitting in the hot tub, holding a Mai Tai that Penny made for him and wearing a pair of hot pink sunglasses that Laila lent him, and feel impossibly fond.

“Where is everyone?” you say, looking around for the girls, who were in the jacuzzi with Jean when you left to make your own drink.

“Walking on the beach,” Jean says, pulling in his long legs to make room for you to sit down across from him.

You let out a low, appreciative groan as the hot water swallows you up. “Can’t believe we go back to school tomorrow,” you say. “I’ll miss this.”

“Me too,” Jean says. “Thank you for convincing me to come.”

“Wouldn’t have been the same without you.”

Jean studies you from behind Laila’s enormous pink sunglasses. They make him look like a very fashionable bug. “You’ve always done that,” he muses. “Invite me places.”

“We’ve been over this,” you say, poking his shin with your big toe. “That’s what — ”

“Friends do,” Jean says, with the air of a child made to recite a rule from memory. “But even before that. Before you really knew me, you were always trying to include me in — things.”

“I was just doing what any good captain would do."

Jean doesn’t seem to agree, but he doesn’t argue. Instead he says, “I thought you were trying to sabotage me at first, by dragging me off the court.”

You choke a little on your drink. “What?” you cough. “Why would I do that?”

Jean gives an evasive half-shrug. “Riko used to do that, sometimes. Prevent me from practicing and then punish me for it later.”

Anger rises in you — anger at Riko, but some of it comes out directed at Jean when you say, “What ever made you think I would be anything like Riko?”

It’s hard to read Jean’s expression from behind those ridiculous sunglasses. “I had no idea what you would be like,” he says evenly.

“But you knew my reputation,” you say, because that’s the thing you never got. How Jean could have played against you and presumably seen you give interviews for years, and still be so afraid of you.

“Ah, yes,” Jean says. “The golden boy of the Golden State.”

You cringe at the cringiest line in an extremely cringey article that Exy magazine ran when you made captain your third year. But Jean’s crooked smile isn’t mean, only teasing.

“I didn’t put any stock in your reputation,” Jean says. “Kevin Day has every sports reporter in the world wrapped around his finger, and he’s one of the biggest assholes I’ve ever met.”

You’re helpless against a laugh at the fond disdain in Jean’s voice.

“Fair enough,” you say. “What changed your mind about me, then?”

Jean tilts his head to the side. “An accumulation of things,” he says. “Eventually, it became harder to believe you were too good to be true than it was to accept you really were just that good.”

Your whole body goes warm at that — or maybe it’s just the hot tub. “You could write for Exy magazine,” you tease.

“Please don’t insult me like that,” Jean says.

You laugh. “Well, if you’re going to go around exaggerating how awesome I am — ”

“I’m not,” Jean says, in a tone that brooks no argument. “You have no idea what you’ve done for me. I have no idea how I’ll ever repay you.”

“Hey.” You lean forward and pluck the sunglasses off Jean’s face so you can meet his eye. “Friendship is not a transaction.”

“How I’ll ever return the favor, then,” Jean says, dropping his gaze to the drink sweating in his hands.

“You don’t have to,” you say, casting around for some way to lighten this unexpectedly heavy conversation. Your eyes land on the frilly umbrella poking out of Jean’s glass. “…But if you want to be a pal, you could help me earn fifty bucks.”

Jean narrows his eyes at you. “How?”

“Neil Josten says he'll give me half his winnings if I convince you to take a photo in a Hawaiian shirt drinking out of a coconut.”

“And why," Jean says, "would I do anything that helps Neil Josten?"

“He’s betting against Kevin."

Jean twirls the little umbrella between his fingers. “Do you own a Hawaiian shirt?” he says. “Or do we have to go buy one?”

 

 

Do let him be gentle with you.

Whatever Jean says about wanting to “return the favor” of your friendship, he already does that all the time.

He’s the one you trust to lead practice when you’re sick, who brings you coffee when you’re pulling an all-nighter to finish an essay, who insists you help him select every new song he learns on the guitar, because if he’s going to be practicing it in your room for the next month, you had better like it too.

Jean may be inexperienced at friendship, but he practices it as diligently as Xbox or chess or any of the other new skills he’s picked up this year.

Like one week in May, which just sucks for a variety of reasons: The stress of upcoming Exy finals and school finals. Updates from your mom about trying to get your grandmother into assisted living. Waking up almost every night to Jean’s nightmares, which are getting more frequent as you approach the anniversary of his kidnap from Evermore.

After practice ends on Saturday afternoon, all you want to do is take a nap. Except you can’t, because campus maintenance is doing something loud and complicated to the HVAC unit in your room, so you and Jean have been banished to the common area. Jean sits beside you on the couch, looking up guitar tabs on his phone, while you stare vacantly at the Exy game on ESPN.

“This week sucks,” you announce, because it just needs to be said.

Jean looks up from his phone. “Am I listening or helping?” he says.

You slide a bemused look over at him. “What?”

“I heard Laila say that to Alvarez when she was complaining about doing all the work on that group coding project last week,” Jean says, shrugging. “It seemed like a good system.”

Some of your irritation gives way to affection. “Nothing you can help with,” you say, and smile even though you don’t really feel like it. “Nothing a nap won’t fix.”

Jean drums his fingers against the armrest of the couch. “You can sleep out here,” he says.

You look around the common room, which is devoid of chairs because Penny, Omar, and a couple of other Trojans dragged them all into someone’s room for a Doctor Who marathon. “I’m not going to make you sit on the floor,” you tell Jean.

“I’m not suggesting you do.” Jean fishes around on the floor for one of the pillows you tossed off the couch before sitting down. He puts it on his lap and looks expectantly up at you.

Your stomach somersaults. Since you started cutting Jean’s hair, it has gotten easier to be close to him and trust he won’t flinch. You can casually knock your knee against his while sitting on the bench, or put a hand on his shoulder when he’s at his desk to get his attention. Jean doesn’t hesitate to give you a light shove when you make a bad joke, or hug you after a hard-won game. But that glancing contact doesn’t come close to invading Jean’s personal space the way sleeping on his lap would.

“Are you sure?” you say, voice sounding strange to your own ears.

“Yes,” Jean says levelly, though the tips of his ears have gone pink. “Laila and Alvarez do it to you all the time.”

It’s true. Both of them are liable to pass out on your shoulder or lap without permission or a moment’s notice. But it’s different with Jean, because of course it is. Everything is.

That doesn’t mean you don’t want to do this. It just means you’re now more wide awake than you have been in days.

“I could sleep on the floor,” you offer, in case Jean’s just trying to be polite. It still means something to you, even if he is.

Jean’s brow pinches. “That sounds uncomfortable.”

“But if it would make you more comfortable…” you say.

“I would not be more comfortable,” Jean says, going formal in the way he sometimes does when feeling awkward, “knowing that you were uncomfortable.” Realization flickers across his face. “Unless you would be more comfortable on the floor — ”

“No,” you say quickly. “I wouldn’t.”

“Okay,” Jean says warily. “So…”

“So, I just wanted you to be sure,” you say, feeling yourself go red, the redder Jean’s ears get.

“I am sure,” Jean says.

“Okay,” you say warily. “So…”

“Jeremy.”

“Yeah?”

“Lay down.”

“Right.”

You lay on your side, facing the TV, so that you can bend your knees to fit your legs across the length of the couch — but mostly so that you don’t have to look at Jean.

“Do you want the sound off?” Jean says, holding up the TV remote.

“Maybe just turn it down?” You don’t think you’d be able to stand the silence.

Jean sets the volume low and goes back to browsing guitar tabs on his phone.

You fully expect to lie awake however long Jean lets you stay here, hyperaware of Jean’s breath through the minute motions of the pillow. It’s been a while since you’ve fallen asleep beside anyone, let alone like this. But eventually, Jean’s soft tapping on his phone, the muffled voices of the ESPN commentators, and the stress of the last week drag you off to sleep.

You awake sometime later to the click of a camera app and crack one eye in time to see Laila standing over the couch, snapping another photo of you.

“Adorable,” she says.

You raise a middle finger. Another click.

“What time is it?” you say, digging your knuckles into your eye.

“Just past seven.”

Seven?”

“Shh,” Laila says. “You’ll wake Jean.”

You look up, dislodging a hand from your hair, to find Jean asleep with his head tipped back on the couch. You sit up to get a better look. You’ve never seen Jean asleep in a public place before. Not even on late-night bus rides back from away games. But here Jean is, dead to the world, lips slightly parted and very quietly snoring.

You don’t often see Jean peacefully asleep. He goes to bed later than you do and wakes up earlier. When you’re awoken by his nightmares, Jean’s face is always tight with pain. Now, though, his brow is smooth, handsome features completely relaxed, soft and sleepy and — Laila’s right, there’s really no other word for it besides adorable.

“Should we wake him up?” Laila says. “Our dinner reservation is at seven-thirty.”

“No.” Pretty much the first thing you learned about rooming with Jean is never to wake him. Besides, he clearly needs the sleep. “I’ll stay here until he gets up.”

“Okay,” Laila says slowly, a curious expression crossing her face. “Alvarez and I will see you when we get back, then. Want anything from La Barca?”

“Beef fajitas for me,” you say. “Jean likes the chile verde.”

“You got it,” Laila says, snapping one more photo of Jean before she goes.

 

 

Don’t surprise him.

Speaking French to Jean seems, in theory, like an epic surprise.

You got the idea from watching footage of the Foxes in preparation for finals — Kevin shouting French to Neil Josten, and Josten shouting German to his defense. After taking French all four years of high school and freshman year at USC, you can already understand some of what Jean says when muttering to himself. There’s no reason you couldn’t get good enough at the language again to use it on the court.

Plus, Jean seems to talk to himself in French more often these days. You wonder whether he misses speaking it with someone else. And it’s such a pretty language — delicate in a way that Jean Moreau so often isn’t — that you wonder what it would be like to hear him speak it out loud more.

You keep your online summer French course a secret for about a month, because there’s a small (or not so small) part of you that wants to impress the guy who’s good at everything when you make your big reveal. Your opportunity comes when Alvarez swings by your room one night in early July to remind you about Laila’s birthday party down at O’Brien’s.

“Jean, full offense, but is that what you’re wearing?” Alvarez says, eyeing his worn-out joggers and bleached t-shirt.

Jean, sitting cross-legged in bed, raises his book in front of his face to intercept Alvarez’s judgmental gaze. The Woman in the Window. Maya must have roped Jean into that monthly book club she holds with her English major friends.

“I’m not going,” Jean says from behind his paperback.

“Sure, let’s pretend you have a choice,” Alvarez says, taking a seat on the edge of Jean’s bed. “Why don’t you want to go?”

Jean’s eyes appear over the top of the book. “It’s a party,” he says, the way someone else might say “shark-infested waters.” As much as Jean socializes with the rest of the team now, he doesn't really socialize with anyone else. “I already told Laila happy birthday.”

By “told Laila happy birthday,” he means emailing Laila a compilation video of all her best saves that he made himself from old game footage, with the subject line “happy birthday” — which you only learned when Laila barged into your room to wrap a deeply uncomfortable Jean in a hug about it.

“It would still mean a lot to her if you came,” Alvarez says.

“I’m sure Laila will not miss me while entertaining her many other guests,” Jean says.

“Tell you what,” Alvarez says. “You come to Laila’s party for at least half an hour, and I won’t spoil the ending for you.” She nods at the book.

“You wouldn’t,” Jean says.

“The murder was — ”

Jean slaps a hand over Alvarez’s mouth. “Fine,” he says, glowering at her. “I will come to your party for thirty minutes. Happy?”

Alvarez peels Jean’s fingers away to reveal a cheeky smile. “Delighted,” she says, hopping off the bed. “Now stop making that face. This is going to be fun.”

I'm not making a face,” Jean grumbles to himself in French after she’s gone. “This is just how my face is.

You don’t catch it all perfectly, but well enough to give an involuntary snort of laughter. Jean’s eyes snap over to you, and — well. This wasn’t exactly how you planned on telling him, but getting the gist of what he just said is probably more impressive than delivering some practiced announcement in French, anyway.

“Sorry, but you’re not fooling anyone with that anymore,” you say, slanting a teasing grin over at Jean. “If you didn’t want people to know you could smile, you shouldn’t have let Penny show you that BuzzFeed video of baby sloths wearing onesies.”

You kind of expect Jean to smile now — maybe that small, tentative one that steals across his face when he’s pleasantly surprised by something. But Jean doesn’t smile. He looks shocked.

Shocked and scared.

“You understand French?” he says, in barely more than a whisper.

Your heartbeat stutters. You’re not sure how you’ve gotten this wrong, but you’ve clearly gotten it very, very wrong.

“Not that well,” you say carefully. “I just picked it back up.”

Jean looks more unsettled than ever. “Why?”

“Uh,” you say, completely unsure how to navigate this conversational minefield, “because you speak French?”

That was apparently the wrong thing to say. Jean recoils as though slapped.

“Anything I have to say to you, I can say in English,” he snaps, with venom so unlike him that you sit up straight, placating palms out.

“Hey,” you say, heartbeat doing double-time. “Jean. Calm down. I didn’t mean anything by it. I just thought it would be fun to speak together, that’s all.”

Jean continues to watch you like a spooked cat from the farthest corner of his bed.

“I thought it would be useful on the court — against anyone other than the Foxes, obviously,” you continue, trying for levity even as every muscle in your body remains tense. “Or, you know, when Laila and Alvarez start talking about us in Spanish right in front of our faces.”

Jean takes several seconds to process this. “Oh,” he says quietly. “That’s — that’s all?”

“That’s all,” you say, heart still hammering.

“Oh,” Jean says again, and your adrenaline starts to ebb as he gradually relaxes from his spring-tight posture to slump against the wall. He releases a shuddery exhale. So do you.

Now that Jean no longer looks like a cornered animal ready to strike, you get out of bed and carefully tread over to his. “Can I sit?” you say.

Jean nods without looking up from his knees, temple resting against the wall.

You sit next to Jean’s feet. “Can you tell me what that was?”

You know it has something to do with Riko. It always does. You just don't know what.

Jean’s tongue darts out to wet his lips. He tugs anxiously at the hem of his pants. He still won’t look at you. “I thought,” he croaks, then clears his throat. “I thought maybe you didn’t like it — that you couldn’t understand me speaking French.”

“Riko didn’t like it when you spoke French,” you guess.

“He forbade it,” Jean says, one arm coming up around his stomach. Self-soothing, or instinctively covering an old wound, you aren’t sure.

Your jaw clenches, and you put some effort into tamping down your anger, because Jean doesn’t need that right now. “I’m sorry,” you say.

Jean grimaces at his knees. “It’s my fault. I don’t know why I reacted like that. I know you’re not  — I know you don’t — you don’t want to control me like that.”

Your stomach twists. “No, I don’t.”

“Because we’re friends,” Jean says, almost more to himself than you.

You nod anyway, feeling a little fractured by the fact that even after all this time, he still needs that confirmation. “Because we’re friends,” you say, because you’ll confirm it as many times as he needs. “And as your friend — well, I can’t unlearn French, but I understand if you don’t want to speak it around me anymore.”

Jean picks at a loose thread on his pants. “I don’t know,” he says after some thought. “It might be nice. Having someone to speak it with.”

“You don’t have to decide right now,” you say. “I know I kind of sprang this on you. I didn’t really mean to tell you like this.”

Jean hazards a curious glance up. “How were you going to do it?”

“I don’t know,” you say, and then switch to French. "Probably, ‘Hey, Jean, check out my awesome French skills.' And then I would do a tongue-twister in French, or something."

Jean does smile now, but he looks far from impressed. “Your accent is terrible,” he says, in a voice threatening laughter. “It’s like you’re speaking through a mouthful of marbles.”

You try to affect indignation, but it’s hard when you’re practically giddy with relief at the sight of Jean’s grin. “Excuse you, my high school French teacher said my accent was impeccable,” you say. “Although, she was originally from Knoxville…”

Mon dieu,” Jean mutters.

“You know what would probably help,” you say. “Conversations with a native speaker.”

“I don’t know if we can fix an accent like that,” Jean says.

“Well,” you say, “guess we’ll have to speak a ton of French and find out.”

 

 

Do speak French.

You speak a ton of French. Living with Jean is practically a private language immersion course, since he starts speaking to you almost exclusively in French at home. Except when the conversation is about Exy, which Jean deems “too important to be lost in translation.”

Jean is a surprisingly patient teacher. You should have expected that, after watching him work with the younger backliners at practice, but somehow didn’t. He never seems to tire of your “comment dit-on…?" ("how do you say...?") or waiting for you to stagger through some complex grammar.

He’s also surprisingly animated when he speaks French — more expressive than he is in English. “J’adore les frites frisées,” Jean tells you, when you drive through Jack in the Box after a team meeting one night. You stare at Jean as he bites into a curly fry, trying to remember whether he's ever told you he loves anything before.

It’s wild how much happier and more at home Jean seems speaking his native language, and your throat constricts with anger whenever you think about Riko taking this away from him.

“Have you spoken French with anyone since you left home?” you ask one Sunday morning, while you and Jean are playing pool in the student center.

Jean, leaning over the pool table to set up his next shot, flicks a brief look up at you before training his gaze back on the cue ball. “I taught Kevin,” he says, and takes his shot. The white ball knocks gently into one of Jean’s stripes, sending it neatly into a corner pocket. Jean stands up, rubbing the back of his neck and not looking at you. “We used to speak it when Riko wasn’t around, but…”

But then Kevin left.

New understanding settles like a heavy weight on your shoulders. “And you still agreed to teach me?”

Jean’s expression shutters into something more guarded. “Is this how you tell me you’re transferring to PSU?” he says, with the flattest attempt at humor you’ve ever heard.

“Not a chance,” you say. “Je ne vais nulle part.”

I'm not going anywhere.

Jean regards you seriously for a moment, before nodding. Taking your word for it.

That’s the most incredible thing about Jean Moreau, you think. How he could spend so much of his life hurt and betrayed and alone, and still learn to trust you — and keep choosing to trust you, even with Evermore's shadow still looming over him.

That’s actually where French ends up being most useful.

For over a year, you’ve abided by a strict policy of not waking Jean up from nightmares. Jean only had to give you one bloody nose, about a week after you moved in together, for you to devise another system: When you’re awoken by Jean mumbling into his pillow at night, you go to the bathroom and turn on the light and fan. Jean is a light enough sleeper that this usually wakes him up. If it doesn’t, you flush the toilet and close the cabinets until you hear his voice break off and know he’s awake.

Jean pretends to be asleep when you come back to bed, you pretend to have just gone to the bathroom, and Jean is able to look you in the eye the next day. It mostly works.

Until it doesn’t.

One night, you emerge from your bathroom routine to find Jean still pleading into the bedsheets fisted in front of his mouth. By the light spilling through the bathroom door, you can see tear tracks down his face. You hesitate, debating whether to just go back to bed, when Jean muffles a pained whine in his pillow that sends a stab of sympathy through your chest.

Fuck it, you think, and crouch down beside Jean’s pillow, so that he won’t wake to someone standing over him. “Jean,” you murmur. “Wake up, buddy.”

Jean lets out a sob, curling further in on himself, fist trembling in front of his face.

“Jean,” you say louder. “You’re safe. You gotta wake up. Come on.”

A small, strangled noise escapes Jean’s throat, and a fierce wave of protectiveness rolls through your stomach. Almost on instinct, you reach out to brush your fingers across the knuckles of his clenched hand.

Your touch is like an electrocution.

Jean launches himself upright and away from you so fast that he smacks his head against the wall behind him. You wince, but Jean barely seems to have noticed, curled into a shuddering ball and staring, unseeing, at your backlit silhouette.

“Jean — ” you say, but break off at Jean’s whimper of distress. You hold up your hands. “It’s okay. It was just a dream. Do you know where you are?”

Jean doesn’t answer, but the answer is obviously no, because his chest is heaving with short, aborted inhales as his feet try to push him further back against the wall.

The sight of it sends a lightning crack right through your center.

“Jean,” you say, and switch to French in case it sparks some recognition. “It's me, Jeremy. We're at home, at USC.

Jean’s feet falter in their frantic scramble against the sheets, and his eyes attempt to focus on yours.

You just had a nightmare,” you say, dredging the foreign vocabulary from your tired brain. “You're awake now. You're safe.

Jean’s feet still, although his hands continue to clench and unclench around his blankets.

You're safe,” you repeat, almost just to keep talking. “It was only a nightmare.”

At last, Jean gives a deep shudder and seems to resettle inside himself. “Jeremy?” he says, voice hoarse.

Yeah, it's me,” you say. “I'm right here.”

Jean digs the heels of his hands into his eyes, and his shoulders start to shake with new sobs.

Not sure it’s the right thing to do, but not sure what the hell else to do, you climb into bed beside him and cautiously reach an arm around Jean’s shoulders. He folds into you easily, hiding his face in your neck. With a soft grunt and some effort, given Jean’s lanky frame, you arrange him into a more comfortable position resting against your chest, keeping one arm around Jean’s shoulders and looping the other and his waist. “It was only a dream,” you murmur into his hair, still in French. “You're safe.”

Every time you think Jean's worn himself out, his sobs ratchet back up. You rest your cheek against his hair and drag your hand up and down his arm. Every so often, Jean emits these deep, horrible moans that seem torn from the very core of him, raising goosebumps on your arms. You hold him tighter. Talk a little louder. Wonder about the last time he cried like this — or the last time someone held him.

As Jean’s sobs die down, you hear him murmuring in French against your collarbone. “Please, please, please..."

You don’t know what he’s asking for — or even if Jean knows. So you keep up your own refrain of “you're safe” until the worst of his tears finally subside.

As Jean gradually relaxes, he draws closer to you, hand clinging to your shirt rather than the sheets. It’s a little awkward; Jean isn’t really built to fit on someone’s lap. And a small part of you worries that Jean will feel weird about this in the morning, or maybe you will. But it’s hard to worry that much when it’s clearly helping, at least a little. Suddenly, it seems insane that you’ve left Jean alone after every other nightmare before.

Eventually, Jean's fingers release the front of your shirt, and he pulls away slightly to wipe the back of his hand across his eyes. “Sorry,” he mumbles in English.

“It's fine,” you say, figuring it's safe to drop French if Jean is. 

Jean sniffs, and you brace for him to either start crying again or pull away completely. Instead, Jean rests his head against your shoulder and blows out a sigh of exhaustion.

"I hate this," he admits quietly into the dark. "It's like it's never actually over." 

You pillow your cheek in Jean's hair again, hand going numb and a little tingly as you continue rubbing it up and down his back. "What can I do?"

Jean suppresses a shudder. "This," he says, voice threaded with deep exhaustion that makes you suspect he might fall back asleep right here. "Just this. Please." 

You try to move as little as possible while reaching around Jean to grab your blanket and drag it over him, in case he actually is on the brink of sleep. "Don't worry," you say. "This I can do."

 

 

Don’t be surprised that Laila and Alvarez figure it out first.

It’s strange listening to the new freshmen talk about Jean.

Last year’s new recruits were wary of the ex-Raven wildcard who showed up on campus with extensive injuries and almost no explanation. But this year's freshmen only know Jean as the fifth-year vice-captain with the glowing profile in the June issue of Exy that called him the sport’s “dreamy dark horse.”

This, you maintain, is still not as bad as “the golden boy of the Golden State.” But it’s pretty damn bad. Jean went so red when Laila read that line aloud that you thought he might spontaneously combust. But apparently, now that the world of Exy has finally taken notice of Jean as anything more than Riko’s right-hand man, that’s the sort of reputation he has.

“Is he dating anyone?” you overhear one freshman, Rebecca, asking her friend Ruth while running laps at a mid-July practice.

“No idea,” Ruth says. “He’s so mysterious.”

“The definition of tall, dark, and handsome,” Rebecca says.

“Right?” Ruth says. “And those scars — ”

“Less talking, more jogging,” you say as you run past, taking some satisfaction in the way they both startle and blush.

Replaying their conversation in your head later, you find yourself getting irritated all over again. You don’t know why it bothers you so much. Maybe the way Ruth said “scars” so — reverently, like they were accessories, or badges of honor. Or her calling Jean “mysterious,” when what he really is, is a guy trying to conceal massive amounts of trauma and insecurity from everyone around him all the time.

You know it’s not fair to be annoyed. Ruth and Rebecca don’t know the real Jean. Of course they don’t. But part of you is still like, Yeah, everyone with eyes and a brain knows Jean is hot, but he’s so much more, you have no idea.

That’s what you’re thinking the following afternoon at the beach, as you watch Jean play volleyball with some other Trojans and a few USC cheerleaders who have tagged along. Specifically, watching a couple of giggly cheerleaders point out how much more comfortable Jean would be if he took off his shirt. Jean, as far as you can tell, is politely but firmly telling them to fuck off.

It’s not like Jean can't handle himself. He's dealt with dangers far worse than a couple of flirty cheerleaders. But watching someone bother Jean bothers you.

“What’s with the face?” Alvarez says as she drops onto the towel between yours and Laila’s.

“What face?” you say, even though you were totally making a face from behind (you thought) the privacy of your sunglasses.

“Cheerleaders flirting with Jean at twelve o’clock,” says Laila.

“Ah.” Alvarez pats your shoulder. “If it makes you feel any better, I’ve never seen him look twice at anyone but you,” she says, and starts putting in headphones like she didn’t just yank the proverbial rug right out from under you.

“Wait, what?”

Alvarez pauses with an AirPod halfway to her ear. “I’m just saying,” she says, “I don’t think your crush has any real competition.”

Your voice sticks in your throat. When you finally dislodge it, it comes out higher than normal. “What crush?”

Laila and Alvarez exchange a glance. Alvarez puts down her headphones. “Your crush,” she says slowly, “on Jean.”

You splutter. “What makes you think I have a crush on Jean?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Alvarez says. “Maybe the fact that you spend almost all your time with him.”

“And the rest of your time thinking of ways to make him happy,” Laila puts in.

“Or prevent him from being the tiniest bit unhappy,” Alvarez adds.

“While not dating or hooking up with anyone else for over a year,” Laila finishes.

“First of all,” you say, ticking off on your fingers. “I spend almost all my time with him because we’re roommates who have five hours of practice together almost every day. Second, I want to make all my friends happy. Third, I haven’t dated anyone recently because I’ve been busy with — ” Jean all the time " — the team. Not all of us are lucky enough to find a partner who can accommodate the insane schedule of Class One Exy.”

“Until Jean,” Alvarez notes.

“It’s not like that.”

“Babe,” Laila says gently. “You learned French for him.”

“As a friend!”

“I don’t see why you’re so embarrassed,” Alvarez says. “Jean is hot. I assume.” She looks to Laila for her professional bisexual opinion.

“Definitely,” Laila says, head bobbing.

You have the worst friends.

“It’s not that,” you say, and realize your mistake of implying it is something when Laila and Alvarez both lean forward. You sigh. “Even if I did like Jean, which I’m not saying I do, just — hypothetically. Nothing would happen.”

Alvarez furrows her brow. “Why not?”

“Because.” You pause, struggling to articulate the reason. The best you can come up with is, “He trusts me.”

“He trusts you not to have a crush on him?” Laila says.

“He trusts me to be his friend without an ulterior motive, or any fucked-up power imbalances.”

“I don’t think a crush counts as an ulterior motive, or — ” Alvarez adds heavy air quotes " — a 'fucked-up power imbalance.'"

You huff in frustration. “A complication, then. Jean deserves one simple, uncomplicated friendship for once in his life.” It’s taken long enough to convince Jean that he has that in you.

“I would argue,” Alvarez, with the kind of gentleness she usually reserves only for Laila, “Jean has many simple, uncomplicated friendships.” She gives an Exhibit A type of nod over at Jean playing volleyball.

It’s different with me, you think, but don’t say, because Laila and Alvarez would probably just take it as further evidence of your supposed crush. “I guess so,” you say vaguely, because it does warm you to watch Jean bump the volleyball to Omar, who smashes it over the net and gives Jean a high-five. Simple. Uncomplicated.

“I would further argue,” Laila says pointedly, “that in the unlikely event it turned out poorly, Jean Moreau has survived way worse than a boy catching feelings for him.”

That’s the thing, though. Jean may not have any obvious hang-ups about romantic relationships. He’s never mentioned being with Riko or anyone else like that. It’s honestly hard to picture Jean, or any Raven, dating someone. They’re like a religious order for Exy. But it’s equally hard to imagine someone who looks like Jean going through twenty-two years of his life single — and hard to imagine any aspect of life where Jean doesn’t carry heavy emotional baggage. He could very well have romantic trauma that’s just never come up. You’ve seen Jean shrug off flirting from waitresses and the guy who works the front desk at the library, but Jean is closed-off from basically everyone but the team. If someone Jean knew and trusted wanted to date him, how would he react?

In the end, it doesn’t matter, because you don’t have a crush. And besides, “I wouldn’t risk hurting him,” you say. That’s the most important thing.

Laila and Alvarez are both quiet, and for once, you think you’ve gotten the last word. Until Alvarez says, “Funny, how someone so obsessed with giving Jean a say in everything, down to what toilet bowl cleaner you buy, wouldn’t even consult him on this.”

You gape at Alvarez, then at Laila, who gives you a placid smile, and bury your head in your hands.

Seriously, the worst friends.

 

 

Do talk to Jean about it.

You weren’t lying to Laila and Alvarez. You really didn’t think you had a crush. Your friendship with Jean might be… unconventional. But you became friends under some pretty unconventional circumstances. It makes sense that you would be as close as you are.

But now that Laila and Alvarez have put the idea of a crush in your head, you can’t stop noticing — things.

Things like how you automatically seek Jean out in any room you enter, because you know you’re going to sit next to him. Things like the flock-of-birds feeling behind your sternum and the dumb smile on your face whenever he compliments your (slowly improving but no doubt still abysmal) French accent. Things like the fact that, once you imagine kissing Jean’s forehead as you hold him after a nightmare, you can’t stop imagining it every time after.

Can’t stop imagining kissing Jean in general, in fact.

“What?” Jean says one day in early August, frowning at you from across the coffee table in the common room.

“What?” you say, blinking rapidly.

“You were staring at me,” Jean says, a little color rising in his cheeks.

You were, in fact, watching Jean bite his lip while he worked on the jigsaw puzzle Penny left out on the table this morning.

“Oh,” you say, feeling warm. “Uh. You have a little…” You make a vague gesture at your cheek.

Jean rubs at the nonexistent spot on his own face. “Better?”

“Got it,” you say, and quickly make an excuse to leave.

So, maybe you have a crush. And maybe you’re having a minor crisis about it. Because one thing you told Laila and Alvarez on the beach is definitely still definitely true: You’re not about to risk your friendship with Jean on this. And as long as you can imagine Riko sticking his tongue down Jean’s throat as easily as you can imagine him holding a knife to Jean’s skin, you can’t help feeling guilty about even the idea of kissing Jean.

Eventually, you can’t stand not knowing.

“Have you ever been in a relationship with someone? Romantically.”

B minus execution at best, but at least it gets straight to the point. You saved the question for while you and Jean are sitting side by side on the couch, playing Smash Bros, so you don’t have to look him in the eye.

Jean’s Ice Climbers fling shards of ice from their perch on a high ledge while your Samus recovers from being nearly knocked off the edge of the stadium. (You used to think Jean’s choice of Ice Climbers was quaint. Amusing. But Jean is a fucking menace with Ice Climbers.)

“No,” Jean says, dodging your counterattack. “Riko wouldn’t have liked that.”

Your stomach knots up in anticipation of your next question. “Were you and Riko...”

“No,” Jean says, smashing Samus across the stadium. “Riko never showed interest in anyone like that, least of all me.”

The knot in your stomach loosens. “Was there ever anyone you wanted to — you know?”

Jean doesn’t answer right away. He uses Ice Climbers’ hammers to knock Samus out of the stadium, dancing out of the way when you respawn and start firing missiles.

“For a while, I thought… Kevin, maybe,” Jean says, sending a surprisingly sharp spike of jealousy through you. “But that never would have worked, for many reasons. Not least because Kevin only ever had eyes for Thea.”

You’re finding it harder and harder to focus on the game, and aren’t surprised when Ice Climbers manage to send Samus sailing off into the distance, Team Rocket style, less than a minute later.

“After Kevin left,” Jean continues eventually, “there was someone else. But we were never together."

"Why not?"

"Riko found out I was interested," Jean says, "and had him cut from the team.”

“Christ,” you mutter.

Salaud,” Jean agrees dully.

Jean quickly rids you of your last life. Back at the main menu, Jean reselects Ice Climbers and waits for you to choose which character you want to lose with next. You chew your lip, and decide there’s probably never going to be a better time to say this.

“If you wanted to date someone now,” you say carefully, “you could, you know.”

Jean looks at you with an unusually gentle expression. “I know you’re not like him.”

“I don’t just mean that,” you say. “I meant...” You cast around for a recent example. There seem to be so many. Ever since you started noticing yourself noticing Jean, you can’t seem to stop noticing other people noticing Jean. “Like, you know how that guy from Maya’s book club, Thomas, looks at you, right? Or the hostess at Ebaes?”

Jean raises his eyebrows. You determinedly hold his gaze, like this isn’t one of the most awkward conversations you’ve ever had, because you need him to know. Not just that you wouldn’t forcefully cut off his other options, but that those other options exist in the first place. Just because you were Jean's first friend in his new life, doesn't mean you have to be his first anything else.

“That’s very… flattering,” Jean says, stiff with awkwardness. “But even if that were true, Exy is my life. I can't imagine being with someone who didn't feel the same.”

Your heart thumps. “So you’d only ever date another Exy player?”

Jean shrugs. “Look at Laila and Alvarez. Kevin and Thea. Josten and Minyard.”

“Josten and — who?”

Jean cocks his head to the side. “You can’t tell?”

“No? What — no. We’ll come back to this,” you say. “What does that have to do with you?”

“I just think it would be better to have a partner who has the same priorities as I do,” Jean says.

“Yeah,” you say. "I get that."

You haven’t seriously dated anyone since high school. A short fling freshman year, a few hookups since. Nothing sustainable. Captaining the Trojans is a full-time job on top of school, and you’ve never found anyone you wanted to date enough to prioritize over the team. Never found anyone on the team you wanted to date.

Jean shifts slightly so that his arm is pressed against yours, and knocks his foot against yours on the coffee table. “For what it’s worth,” he says to the TV, setting up the next match, “you would have options, too, if you had the time.”

 

Don’t kiss him first.

Jean saying “you would have options” if you ever wanted to date is exactly the kind of could be nothing, could be everything moment that makes it impossible to tell whether you should kiss him.

On the one hand, it could be easy to convince yourself that Jean would kiss you back. Jean definitely smiles more at you than he does at anyone else. You’re the only person he’s ever allowed to fall asleep on his shoulder. You’re the first person he tells any good news.

But on the other hand, you could dismiss all that as Jean being a good friend. Maybe your best friend.

You thought learning Jean’s romantic history would be the deciding factor. But even if you’re not worried about potentially re-traumatizing him, there’s all the ordinary what if he doesn’t like me back bullshit to worry about. If Jean rejects you, you’re still teammates. You’re still roommates. You’re pretty sure you could survive the awkward aftermath, but what about Jean?

You vacillate daily — sometimes hourly — between resolving yourself to say something, and resigning yourself to continue low-key pining like a freshman girl for the rest of your life.

That is, until Jean plans a camping trip to Joshua Tree to watch the Perseids meteor shower in August.

Technically, Laila plans the trip, because Laila grew up in the mountains of Tennessee and has hiked parts of both the John Muir and Appalachian Trails, and Jean has never been camping a night in his life. But the trip is Jean’s idea. Stargazing with Maya really left an impression. He took an astronomy class in the spring, even though he’s majoring in history, and he’s signed up for planetary science in the fall.

It shows. Jean knows everything about the Perseids. He isn’t exactly the kind of person to info-dump, but he has answers to all of your questions — and you ask a lot of them. Partly because you know fuck-all about astronomy, and it’s cool to know what you’re actually seeing in the sky, and partly because you like the way Jean straightens up and lifts his chin whenever he explains something. It’s a professorly gesture that gives you the sense he’d be straightening his glasses, if he wore any.

Jean would look good in glasses.

This is the kind of superficial stuff running through your brain as you lie on a blanket under the desert sky beside Jean, who is probably having a moment with the universe or something.

It’s coming up on three in the morning. Laila and Alvarez have already retreated into their tent, leaving you and Jean alone to catch stray streaks of light among the stars and the occasional slow-panning satellite. Living under L.A.’s ceiling of light pollution, you often forget what a truly clear sky looks like. You nearly say something to that effect to Jean, but the silence between you has gone on so long that it almost feels like something you’ve built, and you don’t want to break it.

So much of your life comes at you fast and bright and hard-hitting, and this is so — not that. No one does profound silence like Jean Moreau.

But gradually, your mind goes fuzzy with tiredness. “I might fall asleep out here,” you warn, words distorted by a yawn.

Jean pulls out his phone, and the screen lights up red. A special setting, he explained, to keep his eyes adjusted to the dark.

“Two forty-five,” he says, pocketing his phone again. “I might stay out a while longer.”

You lace your fingers together over your chest. “You really like this stuff, huh.”

“Yes,” Jean says. He hesitates, then adds, “It makes me feel small, in a good way. If that makes sense.”

You blink up at the sky yawning wide above you, and feel a tired smile tug at your mouth. “Yeah,” you say. “That makes sense.”

In your peripheral vision, Jean angles his face toward yours. “Thank you for coming with me.”

“Wouldn’t miss it,” you say. “Same time next year?”

“That is how Earth’s orbit works.”

You grin. “Shut up.”

Next year, you think. Post-graduation. You and Jean likely heading off to different cities. But another night like this would make for a pretty awesome goodbye — and maybe that time, your fingers would be laced with his instead.

A wave of want so strong and so sudden crests inside you that you turn to face Jean and — holy shit are you guys close. You hear the same realization catch Jean’s breath as he turns to meet your gaze, inches away. Your heart jumps into the hollow of your throat, and your interlaced fingers start to sweat.

Jean’s face is cast mostly in shadow, but you catch the flutter of his eyelashes and the silent parting of his lips. It would be so easy, you think, to cup his jaw in your hand and brush your lips against his — sleepy and soft and probably a little clumsy. A thrill of anticipation zips through you, but —

But, but, but.

Que fais-tu?” Jean asks in a hushed voice. What are you doing?

He must be nervous.

“Not kissing you,” you say.

Jean swallows. “Pourquoi pas?”

Your heartbeat hiccups at the question. Not “why,” but “why not.”

“Because I’ve wanted to for a while,” you say, “but I’m not sure whether you want me to, and I don’t want you to feel like you have to let me.”

Jean rolls completely onto his side to face you, as though to shield your conversation from the rest of the world. “What if,” he says, “I don’t know whether I want you to?”

Disappointment twists your gut. You’re glad for the dark, in case any reaction sneaks across your face. “Then I’m not going to,” you say firmly.

“It’s not a no,” Jean says, quick to correct. “It’s just, I don’t know.”

“Then nothing is going to happen until you’re sure it’s a yes,” you say, “and nothing is going to change between us if it’s a no.”

Jean picks at the blanket between you. “Feels like it already has changed,” he says, in nearly a whisper.

You resist the urge to reach out and take his hand. “I would never make my feelings your problem,” you say. “If you want to wake up tomorrow and pretend this never happened, I — I can do that.”

“I don’t want that,” Jean says quietly, and your relief is sharp. “I just need time. Can you give me some time?”

“Of course,” you say. “And if you never want to bring it up again, we never have to bring it up again.”

 

Do kiss him back.

Jean doesn't bring it up for over a week. In that time, you're pretty proud of how normal things are. A slightly fragile, forced version of normal, but still. You could almost pretend like your three a.m. conversation with Jean never happened, except that you keep catching him watching you. Not checking you out, exactly. Just considering you. The possibility of you, maybe.

Laila and Alvarez notice, of course.

"What's up with you and Jean?" Laila says, watching Jean stretch with Omar and Penny across the court at practice. "You guys have been weird since the meteor shower."

"I told him I wanted to kiss him," you say, picking up one foot to stretch your quad, "and he said he had to think about it."

Alvarez sits up from her butterfly stretch to give you sympathetic eyes. "Sorry, bro."

"It's fine," you say, switching feet. "I'd rather he think about it than do something he might regret."

"I'm surprised he needs to think about it this much," Laila says, as Jean's eyes drift back over to you and quickly dart away. "Considering how he normally looks at you."

"How's that?"

"Like you're the sun his whole world revolves around," Alvarez says bluntly, making your face go pleasantly warm.

When Jean finally does bring up Joshua Tree, it's when you least expect it.

"Why did you want to kiss me?" he asks on the drive home from your annual physicals, the day before classes start.

Apparently, you're not the only one who likes saving the important questions for when sustained eye contact is impossible. But at least you don't ambush Jean like this when he's operating a moving motor vehicle.

Your hands tighten on the steering wheel. "You're kidding, right?"

A sideways look at Jean confirms his expression is very much not kidding.

"Dude," you say. "You're a smart, hot Exy player who plays guitar and speaks French. If we met on a dating app, I'd assume you were a catfish."

You don't have to look over to know how hard Jean is blushing. You can practically feel the heat of it emanating off him.

"You always do that," Jean says, almost in accusation.

"What?"

"Say such nice things like — like it's nothing."

Your heart twinges. "It's not hard to be kind to you, Jean."

In the corner of your eye, Jean props an elbow on the car door and looks out the window. "No one is kind to me like you are," he says, barely audible over the air conditioning. "It scares me, sometimes, how much I need that. How much I need you."

You pull up to a red light and take the opportunity to look over at him. "You think I don't need you too?" Because what was your life even like, before you had Jean "am I listening or helping" Moreau to hear you vent, or invite you to watch meteor showers or French movies that make you feel like you're stepping into some private other world, or to blow you away again and again with his seemingly superhuman resilience.

"It's not the same," Jean says.

"Isn't that a good thing? That we don't need the exact same things from each other?"

Jean stares out the window, lost in thought. The light turns green, and you pull forward.

"What if we break up?" Jean says eventually.

"It's a risk," you admit. "One I'm willing to take. But I can't make that decision for you."

Jean simply nods, like that's about what he expected, and lets the subject drop.

The fall semester and season starting up means that soon, you have a lot more to worry about than your love life. Most importantly: the Chicago Thunderbolt scouts coming to watch your first match against UC Berkeley. The seven-year-old version of you wearing a Thunderbolts jersey to bed every night would be excited as hell. The twenty-three-year-old version of you is just anxious as hell.

"Don't be nervous," Jean says right before first serve, even though he seemed plenty nervous for his meetings with recruiters from the St. Louis Comets and the Miami Warriors. "If you play even half the game you're capable of, they'll beg you to sign."

You clack your racquet against Jean's. "Thanks, man."

But it's not only your game that you have to worry about. As captain, you're at least partially responsible for the Trojans' overall strategy and performance, and you have no doubt the Thunderbolt reps will be taking that into account.

Which is why the first half does nothing to settle your nerves.

You're starting behind the eight ball, here, with Laila and Alvarez both on the bench, recovering from a throat infection that one of them certainly gave to the other. Normally, that wouldn't be a big deal. Alvarez is right; Exy is a weak-link sport, and no single player or set of players makes or breaks a team. But Berkeley has apparently adopted some of the Raven strategy to risk fouls to take opponents out of play, and after Jean lands wrong from a brutal bodycheck, he's on the bench to ice his ankle. Your usually unbreakable defense is compromised.

Meanwhile, offense has its own problems. Now that Trevor has graduated, Lisa is on deck for Omar. You've been pretty excited about bumping her up the lineup, because Lisa has more raw talent than any other underclassman you've seen in the last few years. But when Rheman puts her in tonight, she starts fumbling passes and missing shots like you've never seen. In the seven minutes before Rheman swaps her out for Khadijah, Berkeley has caught up two points to tie the game.

At halftime, you pull Lisa aside.

"I know," she says miserably before you can open your mouth. "I'm sorry."

"Just tell me what happened out there."

"I'm just so fucking nervous," she says, covering her eyes with her hands. "My parents drove all the way up from San Diego because I said there was a chance I might play, and I blew it."

"You didn't blow it," you say. "There's a whole second half."

Lisa scoffs. “Like Coach is going to put me back in after that.”

“He will, because I’ll tell him to.”

Lisa looks at you through her fingers. “Seriously?”

“Seriously,” you say. "You're smart, and you're fast, and I need that out there tonight. I need the Lisa who scored six points on Laila in practice yesterday."

Lisa looks pleased, despite herself. "It's not the goalies I'm worried about," she says. "All their backliners are just — terrifying."

Yeah. Berkeley likes their backliners built like brick walls.

"You play against Jean all the time," you say.

"But that's Jean," Lisa says, rolling her eyes. "Hard to be intimidated by someone who let Laila put a Hello Kitty decal on his phone."

"Sure," you say, unable to help a smile, "but you know how to handle backliners like him. You just have to — "

" — use their own momentum against them," Lisa says, repeating a line that Jean repeats to pretty much every younger striker the first time they face off against him.

"Yeah," you say. "So. Want to go help me win this thing?"

Lisa smiles, but it's more the fierce glint in her eye that reassures you. "Yeah," she says, knocking her stick against yours. "Let's do this."

Lisa follows the rest of the team out of the locker room, but you hang back to walk with Jean, slowed by the crutches that the team medics are forcing him to use.

"This is risky," he says, not bothering to pretend he didn't overhear. "Very risky."

"Borderline stupid," you confirm.

"Then why do it?" 

"Think of it this way. If it goes poorly, we have all the time in the season to make up for it,” you say. “If it goes well, USC has the makings of a deadly striker on its hands."

"The Trojans might have time to make up for it," Jean says. "But what about you?"

You’d be lying if you said there wasn't a part of you worried about the scouts. But you have a feeling that this might be a critical inflection point for Lisa. And the Trojans will need a striker with her potential after you're gone. "The team is my first priority," you say.

"But you're my first priority," Jean says.

You stop walking, and so does Jean. He turns to you with wide eyes that probably mirror the surprise on your own face, before his gaze skitters off to the side. "I mean — you know what I mean," he says, with the dismissiveness of a man whose ears are not steadily turning red.

The smile that breaks across your face is warm as sunshine. You place a hand on Jean's arm to make him look at you — and also to steady yourself, because you swear you could ride the second half to victory on this feeling alone. 

"I know what you mean," you say gently. "But whatever happens with Lisa, I'll be right out there with her. Do you trust me?"

Jean blinks in surprise. "Of course," he says without hesitation.

You glow. "Then trust me on this."

Rheman sends Khadijah and Omar on immediately after halftime to try to build up a point gap, but they only score once — followed quickly by another point to Berkeley — by the time you and Lisa come on for the final fifteen minutes.

Lisa plays a stronger game than she did the first half, but she mostly defaults to passing to you. Especially when her backliner mark, who has nearly a foot on her, gets too close.

You score twice. Berkeley scores once. With less than a minute left, Penny passes you the ball, but your Berkeley backliner is practically on top of you. The safe thing to do — arguably the smart thing to do — would be to toss the ball back to defense and try to run down the clock. But your eyes catch on Lisa, who's ducked around her backliner to get open, and — well. You're the one who told her she could do this. What kind of captain would you be, if you didn't even let her try?

"Momentum!" you yell, as you lob the ball in her direction. Lisa nabs the ball from the air with practiced ease but a nearly terrified expression, like she didn't actually expect you to pass it, before tearing off toward the goal. Her backliner mark bears down on her, but at the last moment, Lisa skids to a harsh stop, and when her backliner takes half a step too far, leans around him to hurl the ball into the goal — with so much force that you wince at the sound of it smashing into the plexiglass.

A flash of red light sends an eruption of noise through the stadium. Lisa, for her part, looks somewhat dazed when you jog over to clack racquets.

The game ends in a whirl: the final buzzer, the team rushing the court for hugs, you pushing Lisa away with Rheman for post-game interviews in your place. You don't really catch your breath until you sneak back to the locker room in search of Jean, who's probably been ordered to stay off his ankle.

"Jeremy."

Jean's voice catches you in the middle of the dark, empty tunnel out of the stadium beneath the stands. You turn to see him limp-jogging after you, heedless of his ankle or the pair of crutches he's carrying under one arm.

"Should you be using th — " you start, but get cut off by Jean taking your face in both hands and crashing his lips into yours.

Before you fully register what's happening, Jean pulls back just enough to say, "That was the stupidest, most Jeremy Knox way to win a game I've ever seen," and then he's kissing you again.

It's so ridiculous, you can't help ruining the kiss with a laugh. When Jean breaks away again, you grin up at him, heart wild in your chest. "Wait, this is because I let Lisa take that shot?"

"Only you," Jean says, half fond, half exasperated, still cradling your face in his hands, crutches forgotten at your feet.

You laugh again, giddiness fizzing up inside you. "Only you would kiss me for that."

"I wanted to kiss you when you did stuff like that last year, too," Jean admits. "But I didn't know you wanted to kiss me then."

You lift one hand to graze your knuckles against the ghost of a three on his cheek — all that remains of Riko's brand after several rounds of laser treatment this summer. "And you're sure about this," you say, because you need to be sure that he's sure.

"You said it was a risk you were willing to take," Jean says, "and I figured, you know." He gives a self-conscious shrug. "The risks you take tend to work out pretty well."

You link your hands behind Jean's neck and smirk up at him. "Considering the biggest risk I ever took was bringing you to California, hard to argue with that, sweetheart."

Jean's breath hitches sharply on the last word and oh, you think. This is going to be fun.

You spare Jean the trouble of responding by pulling him down for another kiss — this one slower, deeper, with your fingers threaded through the soft hair at the nape of his neck. Jean's mouth moves a little clumsily against yours, alternating between hurried and hesitant, his hands moving from your face to a grounding hold on your hips. You cup his jaw in one hand and make suggestions with your mouth, whole world winnowed down to the gentle pressure of your lips against his. As gentle as you always want to handle Jean Moreau.

Your lips part on an exhale, Jean's breath trembling against your mouth as he rests his forehead against yours. "I've never done that before," he says, which does far more pleasant things to the pit of your stomach than it has any right to.

"We'll practice a lot," you say. "If past experience is any indication, you'll be better than me in no time."

Jean's laugh is a soft gust of breath against your lips. "I would like that," he says, offering you one of his not-so-rare unguarded smiles.

You were right. Happiness is a very good look on Jean Moreau.