Let Me Breathe (the Smoke You Breathe)
Chapter 1: Maybe he’s shy?
Word count: 2951
Genre: College roommate AU
Synopsis: Thomas is enthusiastic but awkward; Guy-Manuel is guarded and ill-tempered. After a lukewarm first meeting, Thomas becomes convinced that they're destined to merely tolerate each other. Which is fine! Some people are not meant to be friends, and that is fine. Clearly, they'll never be anything other than roommates ... right?
“Did you move today?”
“Yeah. Just finished unpacking.”
“How’s your room?”
“It’s nice. Small but cozy. It has its own bathroom and kitchen.” Thomas adjusted his grip on the phone and licked his lips. “I don’t think my roommate likes me.”
Notes: A "thank you" to @malice-kingdom and @alldeadallbread for sharing their knowledge and helping make this fic better.
Also, ten "thank yous" to @krescendolls for inadvertently giving me the title for this fic, and for being not only my best friend but also the best, period <3
The room was cramped.
To the immediate right of the entrance was the bathroom. To the left: the kitchenette, complete with a sink and a stovetop, the fridge wedged underneath. Farthest in, in each corner: two beds. By the foot of each bed: a small desk and a closet. Between the beds: two nightstands and a low bookshelf, positioned underneath the only window in the room. Any of the furniture had little to no space between them. Or, well, there was a wide enough passage leading from the door to the window. Two, or maybe even three, regular-sized people could definitely stand shoulder to shoulder without their shins bumping into anything. But, otherwise, it was cramped, especially now as Thomas’ possessions took up every available patch of floor. The size didn’t matter, though. It was his room. His room. His parents were admittedly paying his rent, at least in the beginning, but he would be the one living there. It was he who’d sleep and study and clean and cook in there!
He walked farther in, stepping over bags and boxes with ease. There was so much to unbox and organize, his head spun a little at the thought. When he began packing at home – at his parents’ home – he didn’t think it’d end up being a lot. Just his clothes, his electronics, his films, music, books, toiletries, other utensils etcetera. etcetera. And now, here he stood, alone in a sea of stuff. Exactly how he wanted it. The “alone” part, to be precise. His parents had offered to help; he agreed for them to carry the things up the stairs with him, but after that had shooed them away. This was his space and his responsibility. Also, it just made more sense, since his parents would want to arrange everything their way, and then he’d have to either debate them, or let them have their way and reorganize once they left. In other words, he'd have to waste time. No, thank you. It’d be much better to do it himself.
But where to start? The largest thing was his suitcase of clothes, so maybe that? Or perhaps he should start by filling his shelves and desk with the small stuff. Or start in the kitchenette, with the kitchen utensils his mother insisted on getting for him, and then work his way in. Or he could start with whatever box was closest to the door and-
Someone hawked behind him. He whipped around, thumping against a box whose contents rattled. A girl- No, wait, a boy- No, actually, a man (because this was a student house and they were all adults) stood in the doorway, his back straight but head dipping. His attention swept over the mess in the room before landing on Thomas.
“I need to …”
He trailed off, glancing off to the side. Thomas followed his gaze to the furnished half of the room. The half belonging to the roommate Thomas had yet to think about. He pointed to it.
The man – Thomas’ roommate – nodded. Thomas’ face broke into a grin.
“O-of course! Come in! Is there enough space, or sh… sh-should I-”
“It’s fine,” his roommate said as he waded through the mess.
Thomas, too, moved closer to the middle of the room so that they’d meet halfway. Up close, it became clear how short the guy was: he at most reached Thomas’ chin. Furthermore, his small stature was made all the more obvious by his stocky build and the loose sweater he wore. His hair was dark and long and sort of stringy; it went far past his shoulders and wound into slight curls at the ends. His face was wide, with a dimple chin and pointed nose. Perhaps it was due to the height and the hair, but he had a feminine air about him. Even with his mouth clamped and with ice in his eyes, he looked … pretty, to be honest.
The guarded light blue eyes peered up at Thomas. Smiling, Thomas stuck his hand out; after a second’s hesitation, his roommate obliged with a quick but solid shake.
“I’m Thomas Bangalter. It’s nice to m-m-meet you!”
“Guy-Manuel,” his roommate said with a nod, then turned to rummage through the more contained mess on his desk.
Thomas rolled on the balls of his feet, his hands clasped behind his back.
“So, um, did y… you arrive early? Or did you m-move in last semester?”
“I’ve lived here a year.”
“Ah, right, makes sense,” Thomas said, sending a quick look at the brimming desk and made bed. “D… d-d-do you like it? Y… You know, are the o… o… are the others nice?”
“Um, yeah, they’re okay.”
“Oh, good! Sooo … what’re you studying?”
“Yeah? That’s cool! Where?”
“Cool! I’ll b… b… I’ll be studying film, at Nanterre,” Thomas said, and went from rolling on his feet to bouncing. “It’s a bit o… of a commute, although it is for you, too, but I d-don’t mind. I’m just happy I got a place. Y-you know?”
“Yeah.” Finding what he searched for – a power bank – Guy-Manuel retraced his steps out of the room. “I’ll leave you to it,” he said without turning around, and was gone before Thomas could reply.
It was, to be honest, not what Thomas had hoped their first meeting to be like. But, he couldn’t fault Guy-Manuel for it, could he? Their room was a mess, thanks to Thomas. Also, Guy-Manuel had clearly been in the middle of something before returning to their room. Preparations for the coming semester, perhaps? Or a personal project? Or he had simply set aside time to relax. To insist he’d stay and form acquaintance at this very moment would be rude. They would have plenty of time to become friends later!
After Thomas was done actually moving in.
It took a while, but the satisfaction of emptying and folding together boxes made it a worthwhile affair. Not to mention how exciting it was to get a closer look at Guy-Manuel’s things. That’s not to say Thomas snooped – he did not. It was just impossible not to catch glances of Guy-Manuel’s half of the room while he roamed around. Like of the very obvious acoustic guitar that hung above his bed, or the shelf next to its neck, full of textbooks about art and animation. Or his bedside table, which housed a thick notebook with loose papers shoved in between the pages, at least two different headphones with their cables in a disarray, and a pile of rings and bracelets. Next to the table, on the top of the bookshelf, stood a record player. Leaning in closer, Thomas read Here Today from behind the glass. He grinned. They had something in common – awesome! It also appeared that Thomas wouldn’t have to unpack his own record player. In the bookshelf, Guy-Manuel seemed to keep films, CDs, books, and more notebooks, neater-looking than the one by the bed. Most interestingly, on the lowermost shelf, was a box brimming with records. Thomas’ gaze flicked from it to The Beach Boys record in the phonograph and back again. He bet he’d love to flick through those records. In fact, his fingers itched to do it, now. However, he should probably wait a while before asking Guy-Manuel’s permission to browse them. Doing it before they really knew each other would be weird, wouldn’t it? Yeah, it would be. Such a shame; he had a feeling it was a great collection.
Soon, he told himself. After they’d become friends.
He saved his kitchenwares for last. Once he opened the cabinets, he realized his mother had been right to insist on buying him so much kitchenware, because Guy-Manuel didn’t seem to own any at all. A few lonely glasses and mugs, some cutlery, two bowls, and a single plate, and that was it. No pots or pans, no mixing bowls, no spatulas or whisks or ladles. The fridge and pantry were even emptier, only containing a packet of sliced turkey and a bag of carrots, and a loaf of bread and a box of teabags, respectively. Seemed like Guy-Manuel was the type to order out? Or- Oh! Thomas wanted to smack himself. It was still summer. Guy-Manuel had probably been home for the past months and only recently returned to the student house. Of course there wouldn’t be food in here yet! And as for the utter lack of utensils …
Guy-Manuel didn’t strike him as the kind of person who cooked a lot. Or ever. Maybe he was like Thomas, getting so into his own art that he forgot to eat, often awakening from a creative frenzy to discover it was in the middle of the night and the last meal consumed was breakfast.
Hopefully they would be able to look after each other, he thought as he puzzled together the crocks and skillets like he was playing Tetris in the cupboard.
One hour later, he sank onto his newly made bed, the floor around him clean. Everything was unpacked and positioned exactly where he wanted it. He had officially moved in! A giggle broke loose, but was swiftly smothered. He didn’t know how thin the walls were yet, and he would prefer to wait at least a few weeks before embarrassing himself in front of his neighbors. So, it was with a broad but silent smile that he threw himself back on the soft bed, arms spread wide.
The door slid open; Thomas shot back into a sitting position. Guy-Manuel came into his line of vision, a laptop and yet another notebook under his arm and a dozen or so pencils in his hand.
“Great timing!” Thomas said. “I just finished!”
Guy-Manuel nodded, then turned his back toward Thomas to unload his stuff onto his desk. Thomas waited patiently for him to be done, pulling his legs up to sit tailorwise. When Guy-Manuel finally turned back to him, Thomas’ beamed at him. Guy-Manuel smiled back, though his was tighter and somewhat forced. The sight punctured Thomas’ spirits slightly, and his pulse sped into a nervous thump.
“So!” he still said, putting as much cheer in that single word as he could.
Guy-Manuel hummed in reply, pulling his phone and power bank from his back pockets before taking a seat on his own bed. He looked at Thomas, and for the first time Thomas felt he had his undivided attention. His pulse kept at its erratic pace still.
“We sh… should probably set some rules. O-or, not rules, but establish b… b... b-boundaries? To m-make sure we’re both comfortable.”
A pause. Guy-Manuel blinked at him, expression unreadable, before replying with a curt: “Sure.”
Thomas cleared his throat, pulse gaining more speed. “And, like, sh-share our sch… sch… schedules, when we get them, so that we can, um, we can plan in accordance if we need to.”
“Uh-huh,” Guy-Manuel said, sounding bored already.
Thomas laughed, short and awkward. Okay, perhaps kicking off by mentioning rules wasn’t the best or coolest thing he could’ve done. But, that’s where he started, so he might as well continue, right? Maybe he could sell it if he tried.
“And, uh, also set up a cleaning sch… sch… sch… sch… a cleaning list. Make sure we’re both, um, d-d-doing our part.”
Fuck, he could not sell this. He trailed off, each word more insecure than the last, before quietening. He tried to keep his smile, even as his stomach churned and his posture hunched. Guy-Manuel’s cool blue eyes softened then. Thomas’ heart fluttered a little easier.
“Yeah, we can,” he said, and made a tossing motion with his head towards their door. “You might’ve seen it, but there’s a closet with cleaning supplies in the corridor. A vacuum, brooms, cleaning agents. You can’t book them or anything, but so far they’ve been available when I’ve needed them.”
“Oh, great!” Thomas perked up. Maybe this would work anyway, boring subject and all? “Then, uh, I guess we can agree on cleaning up o-our own messes? And then team up once each week for something m-more thorough?”
“Right, good! And, uh, about cooking ...”
Another pause, longer than the previous one. Guy-Manuel’s face reverted back to being unreadable. Thomas’ wiped his clammy hands on his bedspread as inconspicuously as he could.
“I don’t …” Guy-Manuel finally said, “… cook a lot.”
Thomas was becoming red in the face; he knew it – he could feel it. He tittered, hoping it didn’t sound as hysterical in Guy-Manuel’s ears as it did in his own.
“M… m-me neither, honestly. B-but I was planning on changing that. Anyway, um, I figured if we ever wanted to cooperate there, too, we could-”
“How about we take care of our meals individually, whenever we want, however we want?”
Thomas swallowed. “I- I guess we could, y-yeah … That’s okay with me.”
“Right.” Thomas squirmed where he sat. “And, uh, as for o-o-other rules-”
“Let’s cross those bridges when we come to them,” Guy-Manuel said. There was a chilly finality to his words, his tone daring Thomas to challenge him.
Thomas didn’t challenge him; he shrunk back.
“Okay,” he said, voice drowning under the heavy beating of his heart.
“Was that everything?”
And with that, Guy-Manuel grabbed a pair of his headphones, untangling them within seconds. Plugging them into his phone, he reclined on his bed and began to scroll without another glance in Thomas’ direction. Oh. It seemed that really was it, then. Fidgeting about, his thoughts as thin as the air, Thomas searched for something for himself to do. With some reluctance, he reached for his own phone, when his gaze landed on his pack of cigarettes on the bedside table. Yes! Swiping the pack and his lighter, he jumped to his feet and left, Guy-Manuel ignoring him all the while. It was possible Guy-Manuel wouldn’t have minded him smoking indoors, but Thomas would have to find out another time.
Out in the hallway, one of their neighbors had their door open, three people’s voices mingling inside. They didn’t acknowledge Thomas as he passed, and he didn’t stop to say hi. In the stairwell, his steps echoed. He matched his breathing to the sound of his feet, and hoped his heartbeat would soon follow suit. By the time he reached the entrance, his head was spinning. Bursting out onto the street, he drew a large lungful of delicious, fresh air.
That … could have gone better, he thought as he slumped against the building. His fingertips brushed his cheek – scorching. Perfect. He must’ve looked like a fool up there. Typical. Sighing at himself, he lit a cigarette. The first drag brought welcome rushes to his head and gut, settling them both. It was okay. He was okay.
He took his time, observing the quiet street and the nothings that happened on it as he smoked. Above, the sky shifted from burning orange to hot pink, the light reflected by hazy clouds. It was getting late; he should call his parents, like he’d promised. He brought his phone out and pulled forth his contact list. He would call his parents, but first …
Élodie’s voice chimed on the other end; he grinned.
“Hey, it’s me!”
“Hi, honey, how are you?”
“I’m fine. How’s California?”
“Still great! How’s Paris?”
She laughed. “Did you move today?”
“Yeah. Just finished unpacking.”
“How’s your room?”
“It’s nice. Small and cozy. It got its own bathroom and kitchen.” He adjusted his grip on the phone and licked his lips. “I don’t think my… that my roommate likes me.”
“Aw, why not?”
“Ah, you know. I didn’t make a great first impression. Started talking about rules and schedules, like some nerd.”
“But that’s important. If you’re going to live together, you need to make sure you can actually live together.”
“Yeah, well …” He shuffled his feet and shrugged, even though she couldn’t see him. “He seems like a cool guy, you know? Calm and collected. And he’s already lived here a year. So, all the things I need clarified are probably obvious to him. We’ve had two conversations, and both times I blathered while he stared.” He sighed and shook his head. “He probably thinks I’m some sort of jackass.”
“He barely said anything?”
Élodie made a contemplative noise. “Maybe he’s shy? And that’s why he didn’t talk.”
Frowning, he took another drag of his cigarette. Guy-Manuel – shy? Well, he supposed anything was possible …
“Maybe …” he breathed out with the smoke.
“This is the first time you met. It’s always a bit awkward then. I’m sure things will improve once you get to know each other.” She emitted a clipped laugh; he could see her shrugging one shoulder, the picture of confidence. “Just be yourself and give it time. You’ll be fine.”
“Yeah, maybe.” After one final puff, he snuffed out the butt against the brick wall behind him. “I’ll try to make it work.”
“And that’s all anyone will ask from you. Trying is enough.”
Thomas smiled and leaned his head back, eyes aimed towards the sky. It was all pink now, rich and bright. It looked pretty.
“Thanks, Élodie – you’re the best.”
Later, after he and Élodie finished their call and he’d made another to his parents, he returned to the room to find Guy-Manuel had moved from his bed to his desk. Based on his movements he was sketching, but Thomas neither stopped to watch nor to inquire about it. Guy-Manuel, likewise, neither looked up nor spoke as Thomas flopped onto his bed. But it was fine. They’d be fine.
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