The first thing Grantaire noticed when he sauntered out of the PE locker rooms was Jehan, zir head buried in zir hands. The poet looked thoroughly miserable, withdrawn and covering zirself with a towel. Zir shoulders were slumped, and zir dreadlocks were falling into zir face. It only took Grantaire one look to realize that today was not going to be a good day.
Hesitantly, he made his way over to the end of the bleachers where Jehan sat, and plopped down next to him. Jehan peeked through zir fingers at Grantaire and readjusted the towel around zir body. “Hey,” ze whispered, sounding vaguely ill.
“Hey,” Grantaire said back, trying to smile comfortingly. “Are you okay?”
Jehan let out a brittle bark of laughter and gestured at zir body. “It’s fine, R. I’ll be fine. I just…I hate the swim unit,” ze mumbled, covering zir face again.
By this point, the others had begun to emerge from their respective locker rooms and loiter around the pool until the teachers arrived; Combeferre and Joly made their way over to the two of them. Combeferre immediately went to sit on the other side of Jehan, placing a hand on zir towel-clad shoulder as she offered what support she could. Joly took longer to arrive, eyeing the oily film on the water with distaste, but upon seeing the three of them, he rushed over.
This was nothing new to any of them. Sometimes Jehan had good days, smiling and calm and content. And then there were days like today, filled with whispers and forced smiles and hunched shoulders. They did what they could, helped if they could, but dysphoria has no cure. It hurt Grantaire to see Jehan like this, a physical ache, and he felt useless that he could not relieve his friend’s hurt.
Joly opened his mouth to speak, but a whistle cut him off before he could begin. The other students began to form their lines for roll, leaving their belongings on the bleachers, and Jehan shot Grantaire a look of pure terror, zir eyes slightly panicked. It made his stomach clench with sympathy. Jehan took a deep breath, as if steeling zirself, and let the towel fall from zir shoulders. Beneath it, ze was wearing board shorts and a rash guard over a binder, but even so, the curve of zir hips and the size of zir hands betrayed zir.
Ze crossed the hot cement quickly, without a word to any of them. Jehan was alone now; the four of them each had different teachers. Ze walked with each of zir hands gripping the opposite shoulder, zir arms crossed. Jehan wore a steel mask that betrayed no expression as ze stood in roll call, but Grantaire could read the vulnerability in his posture. Grantaire longed to wrap zir in an embrace and chase the dysphoria away with words of the poetry that Jehan so enjoyed, but he knew it wasn’t so simple. If only it was.
A second whistle was blown, and following the roughly barked instructions, the students slipped into the pool. The four of them met up in a corner of the deep end, and Joly spoke to Jehan before anyone else could.
“Jehan, are you swimming in your binder? You won’t be able to breathe properly and I was doing research and you might get pneumonia or damage your ribs, and oh god, you’re not sleeping in that, are you?” He sounded incredibly worried.
Shrugging, Jehan said nothing. Ze was clinging to the edge of the pool with one hand, still covering zir chest with the other. “I’m careful,” ze mumbled. “But it’s worth it. For swim. But I don’t sleep in…I’m careful,” ze repeated.
Grantaire scooted closer to Jehan and pressed a quick kiss to zir nose, coaxing a smile from zir. “Just be careful, yeah? We,” Grantaire pointed to himself and the others, “just want you to be safe.”
But once again, they were interrupted by a whistle. “Boys to this side, girls to that one,” their teacher shouted. “Two laps, each stroke. Then free time. Go, go!”
As soon as the gender divide was made clear, Jehan tensed up, looking at the two options with equal panic. Grantaire could feel zir breath quicken and noticed the slight tremble in zir hands, and Combeferre took one of Jehan’s in her own.
Still holding zir hand, Combeferre pushed off of the wall and towards the girls’ side. “I’m sorry,” she told Jehan as they moved through the water. “I wish…” but she trailed off and didn’t finish. Jehan nodded, understanding the sentiment, but remaining quiet. There was little to say.
Grantaire hated to see Jehan like this. He exchanged concerned looks with Joly as they moved to their end.
“I worry about zir,” Joly admitted, and Grantaire nodded in agreement.
“Don’t we all?”
And then Grantaire was turning and beginning his laps, only eight of them. He loved the feel of the water against his skin, the silence of being beneath the surface, the sound muffled all around him even in turbulent waters. He found it peaceful. The water was almost too-cold, and when he raised his head to breathe, he choked, but he didn’t mind so much. He cut through the water swiftly, and just over ten minutes later, he was clinging to the wall again and panting.
Jehan finished next and so they moved to the shallow end, Combeferre and Joly joining them shortly. They struck up a conversation about their world history class; there had been an essay assigned on the Cold War, and Combeferre was endlessly frustrated by the inaccuracies of the media. Jehan nodded along, said the right words in the right places, but remained subdued.
“Hey,” Grantaire tapped zir shoulder. “You all right?”
“Yeah,” Jehan replied, even if his heart wasn’t in it.
Falling quiet, they looked at the kids already on the diving boards. Some did little flips or cannonballs, but one boy his the water with a loud smack, coming up and looking as if he was in great pain. Jehan’s lips quirked up at the belly flop, and without a second thought, Grantaire was scrambling out of the pool and making his way to the higher of the two boards. If the boy could make Jehan smile, then Grantaire could, too. He fell in line and glanced at Jehan, who mouthed a confused, What are you doing? to him. Grantaire replied with a thumbs-up, and then it was his turn, and he was climbing the steps.
The board was but a few feet above the water, bit it was the higher of the two, and it would be enough. He walked slowly to the end of it, the texture rough against his feet, and bounced once. Finding the give satisfactory, he walked back to the steps and called to Jehan, “Watch me!” He caught Jehan’s eye and winked once.
One, two, three, and he was bounding down the board and pushing up, launching forward and twisting in the air. One flip done, another started, and the world as a blur of people and water. It felt like flying, spinning, soaring, and then he hit the water back-first and sunk, kicking himself up as the breath left his lungs. Nearly three flips – not bad at all. He pulled himself to the edge and over, searching for Jehan in the pool.
Jehan was grinning at him, wide and genuine, and Grantaire grinned right back. This is what he does. He does front flips in swim and trick shots in dodgeball and ridiculous hits in volleyball, all for it to see Jehan smile.
Even when the dysphoria isn’t so bad, even when it’s a Good Day, zir smiles are stretched thin at the edges. But Grantaire treasures each and every one of them, treasures the way Jehan high-fives him and laughs when Grantaire jumps back into the water. Because even on the Good Days, Jehan’s unusual blue eyes are melancholy and there are worry lines deeply carved into zir dark skin, and it is so rare to see him truly happy.
Grantaire has seen the white lines on zir skin, he knows what they mean. And so if he can do anything at all to make Jean Prouvaire’s load just a little bit lighter, he will. And if Jehan breaks apart under the weight anyways, then Grantaire will not be alone in picking up the pieces.