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Ketterdam University

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            “Do people normally get this restless over something like this?”

            “Just breathe; you’re going to be fine.”

            “Have you ever done this before? I only take advice from someone with experience, you know.”

            “Have I met another human being before? Why yes, Jesper, yes I have.” Jesper could practically see Nina’s stance over the phone, her hands on her hips, her lips flat with defiance.

            He couldn’t help but chuckle. “You know what I mean. Is Inej there? I need her wisdom.”

            “Do you not trust me? How dare.” But he could already hear Nina passing her phone.

            Inej’s voice came through clear and definite. “Stop being a baby.”

            “Hello to you too, Inej darling,” Jesper said.

            He could hear her sigh. “Just breathe; you’re going to be fine.”

            Jesper let out a long exhale. “Thank you, I needed that.”

            He heard Nina’s exasperated voice in the background. “That’s exactly what I said!”

            “It sounds better when I say it,” said Inej with a smile in her voice.

            “She’s right,” said a new voice.

            “Matthias? Am I on speaker phone? Are you all hanging out without me?”

            “We thought you could use the moral support,” Matthias said.

            Jesper methodically taped his thumb against the steering wheel, an uneasy feeling stirring in his gut. “You guys, I’m really nervous.”

            Nina cooed sympathetically. “Jesper, everything is going to be okay. Kaz wouldn’t sabotage you with an insufferable flat mate.”

            “Yes, he absolutely would,” Jesper said, feeling heat in his cheeks at the mention of Kaz’s name.

            “Maybe,” Nina admitted. “But I hear the flat mate is really cute.”

            Jesper coughed, “That doesn’t matter.”

            “It does, and you know it.”

            “Kaz told you he was cute?”

            “Christ, no, Jes. He sent me a picture from Instagram, but only because I asked for one.”

            “Where are you?” Inej asked him.

            “I’m on my way to the flat as we speak,” Jesper said.

            “Just be yourself…except hold off on the flirting until you warm up to each other, alright?” Nina advised.

            Jesper scoffed indignantly, “I do not flirt with just anyone.”

            Inej laughed, a nice and earthy sound. “You will hit on anything with a pulse, and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen you talk up a mannequin before.”

            He could hear Nina and Matthias’s laughter in the background. “Okay, first of all, that mannequin had a very lifelike face, and secondly, I’m gonna have to go, I’m pulling into the parking lot.”

            Nina made a loud disappointed noise. “Okay, babe, give us a play-by-play on how it goes.”

            Jesper grinned, “I will. Love you all, bye.”

            He hung up with a warm feeling in his chest, thankful for the small, but trustworthy group of friends.

            The apartment complex looked plain from the outside, but Jesper already knew the inside was much more interesting. 304 was the number he had scrawled on a piece of paper, the number of his new apartment, his new life. He parked as close as he could to the building, and walked up the concrete stairs that led up to his floor, feeling a flutter in his stomach. His eyes flitted over the numbered plaques outside of each door, his heart skipping a short beat when his eyes landed on the most familiar number combination.

            Good Lord, hold yourself together, he told himself. Three quick raps on the dark green door, and he could feel the anxiety crawling under his skin. His fingers ran over his short hair, his jaw, the back of his neck. He was just one big ball of nerves, wasn’t he?

            He heard quiet footsteps from inside, and he swallowed dryly. The door swung open and Jesper wasn’t quite prepared for the boy who stood before him.

            Well, he supposed Wylan Van Eck was actually a man, being twenty-two and all, but his appearance would make a bar look like a bouncy house. Wylan had fair skin, flecks of brown just on his nose and his cheeks, about five foot six, a lean body frame, ruddy red-gold curls, and possibly the bluest eyes Jesper had ever had the pleasure of seeing. Without even realizing, Jesper’s eyes trained on Wylan’s lips, shaped like a bow, naturally pinked, and looking fantastically dainty. He had a septum piercing, and was wearing a buttoned shirt underneath a soft grey sweater. Style, Jesper thought, I like it.

            Wylan smiled widely, and held the door open to let Jesper in. “Hey, it’s nice to finally meet you.” His voice was sweet, like butterscotch. He held out a small hand.

            Jesper shook it firmly, feeling the slightest bit of dizzy at the softness of the boy’s hand. “Likewise.”

            He stepped through the door, and his eyes grew wide in wonder. He didn’t know apartments could look this fascinating; he thought they were just a myth that hipster Tumblr bloggers made up to make everyone jealous. But alas, as he studied the room from ceiling to floor, he knew those apartments were very much real. It was a warehouse loft, which meant the kitchen, dining room, living room, and laundry were all in one big space, while the metal spiral staircase led you up to the bedrooms and bathrooms. None of the pieces of furniture looked like they came from the same set, but they went together. Pieces of bohemian style art and décor were placed graciously around the space, and the kitchen looked like something out of Southern Living Magazine.

            “Ho-ly cow,” Jesper breathed, and Wylan grinned.

            “I’m glad you like it,” he said, closing the door behind him and running his hands over the thighs of his jeans. “Do you need help with your things?”

            Jesper placed his keys on the wooden side-table next to the couch. “Yeah, I could use a hand.”

            It took only three trips to carry all of Jesper’s belongings up from his car to his room, and they set all of his boxes on the shiny darkwood floor next to his bed. His room had deep red walls, a writing desk, dresser, bookshelf, and the comfiest bed Jesper had ever seen.

            “The mattress is new,” Wylan explained, “but I imagine you brought your own bedspread, so I didn’t bother putting any on. I hope it’s okay for you.”

            “Oh it’s perfect, don’t worry,” and Jesper truthfully couldn’t help but wink, “I’ll be sure to put it to good use.”

            Wylan coughed like somehow a piece of dust had lodged itself in his throat, and Jesper wasn’t sure it was humanly possible to redden that quickly. Oh this will be fun.

            Wylan, after returning to his normal color, showed Jesper the rest of the house, though there wasn’t much to show after the first initial walk-in. He showed him how the dishwasher, washing machines, and shower worked, and gave him the wifi password.

            “It’s J-A-N-V-A-N-E-C-K and then a one,” he explained as he typed it into Jesper’s phone.

            “What’s it mean?”

            Wylan licked his lips and Jesper had to concentrate very hard to understand his words. “It’s my dad’s name; it used to be my password for everything so I guess it’s just a habit.”

            “So, I guess you and your dad are close?” Jesper asked, taking his phone back.

            Wylan laughed dryly, “Not exactly, but close enough.”

            Jesper decided not to pry any longer. Wylan cleared his throat and pointed to Jesper’s phone. “And you have my number, right? Just text me if you ever get locked out.”

            “Oh, don’t worry about that, I’m an excellent locksmith.”

            Wylan’s eyebrow cocked, “Really?”

            “No, I lose my keys faster than my patience. But yes, I do have your number. And I didn’t even have to buy you a drink.”

            Watching Wylan go pink could quite possibly one of Jesper’s favorite pastimes.

            **********************************

            There were many things that Wylan didn’t like about Jesper Fahey from the first three hours of living together. Firstly, Jesper was always in movement, never stilling, even for a conversation. His hands always grazed the closest things they could reach, whether it was fiddling with the buttons of his shirt, or tinkering with a piece of plastic. It drove Wylan insane seeing all of that anxiety in a single being; it made his own anxiety worse. Secondly, Jesper talked entirely too much, and for absolutely no reason whatsoever. He simply announced anything he was feeling, and as much as Wylan appreciated honesty, hearing Jesper’s inner monologue constantly was going to lead Wylan to his grave. Thirdly, he could tell that Jesper was most definitely a lover, not a fighter, and wasn’t afraid to express that vocally. Wylan was already insecure of how easily he could turn from cream to rose in less than three second at the drop of a hat, but Jesper’s slick innuendos and sweet talking certainly wasn’t helping.

            As he helped Jesper unpack and set his belongings in their proper place, he knew he could waste no time informing Jesper on the way Wylan worked.

            “So, I know we go to the same school, yeah?” Wylan started out, knowing good and well they went to the same university.

            “Yep, Ketterdam Uni,” Jesper replied, looking for an outlet for his MacBook.

            “It’s behind the desk. Yeah, so I am majoring in chemical engineering.”

            “Ah, so you’re a science nerd,” Jesper grinned, showing off his display of gleaming white teeth.

            “A bit of one, yes,” Wylan smirked. “Being in that field, there’s a lot of studying involved.” He spoke slowly as to not seem insensitive.

            Jesper rose a hand and nodded, “No, I get it. Don’t fret, poppet, I’ll stay out of your curls when you need me to.”

            Wylan couldn’t help but feel relief. “I do have a bit of a system though, when it comes to studying.”

            “Elaborate, young one.”

            “Sometimes I will hole myself up in my room, and that’s only because my room is soundproof. I can’t cram for an exam unless I have absolute silence. If you need me, just knock, because I won’t hear you calling my name.”

            Jesper nodded for him to continue.

            “When I’m not cramming, I can usually study anywhere, but I like to keep my stamina when it comes to that. Is that okay?”

            “I won’t bother you when you need to study, check.”

            “How do you study?”

            “Ah, I usually do it late at night when my mind is the clearest. I do my reading in the mornings when I just wake up, but you can bother me as much as you like.”

            Wylan locked eyes with Jesper who was smiling charmingly, and noticed for the first time the wispy grey of his eyes, and tried his darndest to keep his facial coloring at bay.

            “Yeah, I just thought I would let you know. I get kinda cranky during midterms and finals, so I apologize in advance for anything I say when I’m sleep deprived and running solely on Five Hour Energy.”

            For the first time of their meet, Jesper laughed. It wasn’t long, just a loud bark, and it nearly scared the pants off of Wylan with its suddenness, but made him smile as well.

            “I get what you mean, man. I’m a bit of an espresso addict, so that coffee machine in the kitchen is going to be put to good use.”

            “I’m glad someone will use it, I hate coffee.”

            “It looks expensive, why on Earth would you buy it?”

            “Kaz told me you’re obsessed with coffee. I thought it would be…nice.” Wylan’s voice trailed off as Jesper’s eyebrows slowly rose and his grin broadened.

            “Glad to know that Kaz is looking out for me.”

            “He seems to be.” He couldn’t help but notice the hint of timid in Jesper’s voice while discussing Kaz.

            The rest of the day went smoothly for the most part. Jesper, though he made noise wherever he went, kept mostly to himself, cleaned his dishes once he was done with them, and unpacked in a timely manner. Wylan could already tell that Jesper was not a tidy person, but appreciated the “ordered” in the ordered chaos that his new flat mate maintained.

            That night, after the two ate their separate dinners, Wylan could hear Jesper in his room, talking on the phone. He knew eavesdropping was wrong, but sitting at the table with a bowl of ramen wasn’t eavesdropping if he could hear Jesper’s voice from all the way downstairs.

            “The place is really great, Nina, you would love it. You should come see it tomorrow before class, bring Inej, too.” There was a pause. “Yeah, yeah, he is, I guess.” And then he laughed. “Shut up! You’ll just have to see for yourself.”

            Wylan felt an unsettling feeling in his stomach, and decided to put his earbuds in to keep from listening in on his roommate’s conversation. He easily lost himself in Cantabile et Presto, feeling the music sweeping him away.

 

            **************************************

 

            “Do you know if he has any, like, super gross habits?” Nina asked greedily.

            “Jesus, Nina, I’ve known the kid for five hours for crying out loud.”

            “I know, but are there any red flags so far?”

            “So far, he just likes studying in peace, which is natural for a human being. He’s tidy, which is gross, but I can fake it until the end of the year.”

             “Tidy people are insufferable,” Nina groaned, and Jesper could hear Matthias protesting in the background.

            “Tell me about it. He doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would yell at me for it, though.”

            He could practically hear Nina’s eyebrows shooting up, and he prepared to be bombarded with more questions. “Is he as cute as he is in the picture? How tall is he? Are his eyes really that blue, or is that because of the filter?”

            “I haven’t seen the picture, five six maybe? And his eyes are…incredibly blue.”

            “Jesper Fahey,” Nina breathed. “Is that a hint of…breathlessness in your voice?”

            Jesper rolled his eyes. “For the love of god, Nina, give it a rest. I’ve known him for five seconds.”

            “I’d just like to see you settle down with someone nice.”

            “I will, but I’m twenty three, I have a billion years to settle down. Right now, I’m just trying to make money and get through school.”

            Nina’s voice lowered into something more serious. “I know, Jes. Your dad would be so proud of you if he could see you right now.”

            “Stop talking about him like he’s beyond the grave,” Jesper chuckled. “I’ll give him a call once I get settled in, and maybe we can talk.”

            They both knew that was a lie, but neither of them had the balls to say it out loud.

            “It’s getting late,” Nina said through a long yawn. “I think I better tend to my man before I pass out.”

            “Nina, that’s gross, you don’t have to tell me that.”

            “I just thought you’d like to be updated on my s-”

            “Hanging up now!” Jesper exclaimed, and tapped the end call button, feeling a grin on his face that only Nina Zenik could bring.

            He bit his lip nervously, and then opened a new text message and addressed it to Kaz.

            Hey, it’s my first day here. Wylan seems like a good guy. Thanks for setting this up J

            He got a reply half an hour later, and felt his heart droop slightly.

            You’re welcome.

            Were feelings ever easy?

            ********************************

 

            “I didn’t know you wore glasses,” Jesper called to Wylan from the kitchen.

            Wylan glanced up from his laptop, breaking the eye-to-screen contact he had been keeping for hours, and pulled out an earphone. His wide-rimmed glasses glinted from the bright screen, shielding his eyes from sight. He looked dazed. “Hmm? Oh, yeah. Only for studying when I need to focus really hard. It helps my reading.”

            Jesper clattered around in the kitchen, looking desperately for his coffee mug that he swore he put with his bowls. “I like it. It gives your face more personality.”

            “I thought my personality gave me personality.” He put his earphone back in, and his eyes were glazed over once again, but there was a new sass in his voice.

            “Keep telling yourself that.” He made a triumphant noise as his hands blindly closed around the handle of his favorite cup and he pulled it out of the top cabinet. “Oh, and I’m having a friend come over and look at the place before we go to class, is that okay?”

            “Should be fine,” Wylan said in a monotone voice. Then, his eyes flitted up as if he was just now hearing Jesper. “Just one?”

            Jesper placed his cup under the espresso machine. “Well…she might bring a couple more people, but we’ll only be here for ten minutes before we have to bounce.”

            Wylan made a strange face, but didn’t protest. Jesper swore Wylan’s face was mere centimeters from his laptop screen.

            “Is this how you always study?” Jesper asked him.

            “It’s the only way I get things done.”

            “What’re you listening to?”

            “All of the lectures I recorded this week, and the audio version of the textbook.”

            “So, you’re an audio learner?”

            “I remember better when I listen, yeah.”

            “Alright, keep doing what you’re doing. We won’t bother you.”

            Jesper pulled out his phone and sent a quick text to Kaz, though he knew he was just digging himself a deeper hole. Nina and Inej are popping by the apartment in a few. Care to join? He knew Kaz lived no more than five minutes away from them; a quick stop-by wouldn’t kill him.

            A few minutes later, there was a loud knocking coming from the door, and Jesper’s heart leapt from excitement. He dashed to the front door and swung it open without even having to look through the peephole. Nina stood there with her arm linked with Inej, both wearing grins like fools. Nina wore her usual hipster wanna-be clothes; mom-jeans, a crop top, a beanie over her brown waves, and white Vans. Inej had her hair in an elaborate braid that slinked down her back, wore a sweatshirt that was four sizes too big, black skinny jeans, and her favorite pair of leather ballet slippers. Nina’s grin widened as she squealed between her teeth, and bounded inside, dragging Inej with her.

            “Wow!” she exclaimed immediately, her eyes growing big with wonder.

            Wylan looked up from his laptop and yanked the earbuds out of his ears, standing up from the table.

            Inej made eyes at Jesper as Nina made her way to where Wylan was sitting. She held out a hand. “I’m Nina, I’m sure Jesper goes on and on about me.”

            Wylan took her hand and smiled warmly, but there was a bit of tightness around the edges. “Oh, yeah, he doesn’t shut up about you two.” He shook hands with Inej as well.

            “Of course, we’re amazing.” Nina walked back towards Jesper, mouthing “WOW”, making Jesper go red.

            “Speaking of amazing,” Inej said in a kind voice, “This apartment is beautiful.”

            Wylan’s smile was timid. He pushed his glasses farther up his nose with the tips of his fingers. “Thank you.”

            Nina and Inej gave themselves a tour, with Jesper trailing behind them nervously, working his jaw. He didn’t know why he was anxious, but the feeling always lingered inside of his, sometimes deep within his chest, and often moving outwards, just beneath his skin.

            Nina flopped down on his bed, the mattress’s springs creaking. “This is legendary,” she moaned, her voice muffled by his comforter.

            Inej sat next to her and looked around his room. “This is really nice,” she told him, her eyes glittering.

            Jesper ducked his head. “It is. I honestly don’t know how I can possibly afford it.”

            Inej tilted her head. “More hours at the café?”

            “Way more hours. I’ll have to budget my time like crazy.”

            “I can help you with your schedule if you need to. You know I’m good with that.”

            Jesper couldn’t help but smile at his friends’ eagerness to help him. “That would be amazing, thank you.”

            Nina still had her face buried in his bed. “Uh, Nina, I think you’re suffocating yourself,” Jesper told her.

            “No, I’m making love to your sheets right now.”

            Jesper barked out a laugh. “That’s disgusting; get off of my bed, you heathen.”

            Nina giggled and sat up, bouncing excitedly. “So…” She cocked an eyebrow and Jesper immediately knew what she was going to say.

            “Please, don’t.”

            “What? He’s cute.”

            “Nina!” Jesper’s hands flew up in exasperation. “You know I’m not looking for anything serious right now, I can barely find time to bathe, let alone give someone else my undivided attention.”

            “Someone already has your undivided attention,” Nina mumbled.

            Inej’s mouth flew open. “What? Who?”

            Jesper glared at Nina, feeling embarrassment rise from his neck to his ears. “No one, Jesus. My mind is in a million places right now, I just don’t have the energy to have anyone taking away from that.”

            Inej nodded understandingly, but glanced conspicuously between Jesper and Nina, and Jesper knew that she realized something more was going on.

            Jesper’s text alert sounded, and with his heart stuttering, he pulled it out to see a reply from Kaz.

            Can’t. Busy.

            He should’ve known. Why should he be surprised? He locked his phone again and shoved it back into his pocket. “Yeah…no one.”

            “Damn, we’ve got to move out, class starts in ten.” Nina heaved herself off the bed with a grunt and they all headed down the stairs in silence.

            Wylan still sat at his laptop, eyes closed in concentrated quiet, rocking back and forth like a tiny wind-up toy. Inej leaned towards Jesper and whispered, “He’s like a toddler, isn’t he?”

            Jesper nodded and tapped the boy on the shoulder. Wylan looked up at him, slightly startled.

            “We’re heading out,” Jesper told him, and Wylan nodded in understanding.

            “It was nice to meet you!” Nina called as they headed out the door.

            “Likewise!” Wylan said cheerily.

            Nina shut the door behind them and scrunched up her nose. “He is so sweet, it’s sickening.”

            “If he’s so cute, why don’t you ask him out?” Inej asked her.

            “I am a truthful and loyal woman, I would never even think of such a thing.”

            “You’re such a bad liar. You’ve been with Matthias for a year and a half, for Christ’s sakes,” Jesper chuckled.

            “I know. Gross, right? Commitment is so boring.”

 

            *************************************

 

            Focus…Focus…Focus, damn it! Wylan slammed his fists on the table in frustration. The sound echoed off the wide walls of the apartment. He ripped his earbuds off, took off his glasses, and buried his face in his hands, rubbing furiously at the skin over his eyes.

            He had been trying to write the same paper for three days straight. It was just a weekly lab report, to keep his professor updated on all the ongoing experiments going down in the laboratory. He did it every other week, switching on and off with Kuwei, one of his classmate, never late in turning it in. It was due tonight at 11:59am, and Wylan could see the numbers ticking away behind his eyes.

            He used his phone for writing papers, to keep the vertigo away. He would use a voice recording to write all the words down, and pay one of his classmates to format it properly and check for any grammar mistakes. It was exhausting work, especially with multiple written assignments every week. Tests were nearly impossible to complete, but this semester, his professors had granted him accommodations, making the test more comprehensible and the time limit longer – a cruel joke Wylan’s father played on him, informing the college of his “learning disabilities” and requirement of “special needs”. He had been sitting in front of the computer for what seemed like days, trying to string together multiple sentences, but the letters swam across the page, incoherent symbols that Wylan couldn’t distinguish. His ability to read fluctuated several times a day, sometimes he could read a few paragraphs before they began to dance around and he would often be able to read a street sign with no trouble at all. But there were days like this, where a single word could spring the entire page into chaos. Suddenly, all vowels turned into a’s, and every consonant was a squiggle of insect legs. His vision blurred, and not just from the tears of frustration.

            Don’t be the boy your father thinks you are, he told himself firmly. Read. Prove him wrong. But he couldn’t, could he? No matter how hard Wylan studied, or how vigorous his work schedule was, his father would forever be disappointed by the sorry excuse for a son he had been cursed with. Jan Van Eck would never let his son live his existence down.

            As the first drops of tears slipped off of Wylan’s nose and onto his phone screen, the door banged open. Faster than light, Wylan used his sleeve to wipe the wetness from his eyes, and put his glasses back on. He thanked God that his chair was turned away from the front door.

            “He-e-e-e-llo, humble home,” sang Jesper, sauntering inside and practically slamming the door behind him. He was alone, so Wylan assumed Nina and Inej had gone to their own apartments.

            Wylan regulated his breath and swallowed thickly, hoping the redness in his eyes would be clouded the reflection in his lens. Jesper rounded the table and leaned on it, heaving an exaggerated breath. “What a day,” he said.

            “Difficult classes?” Wylan asked, typing aimlessly on the computer.

            “I’ll say. My professors are straight-up bonkers.” Jesper made his way to the kitchen, opening the fridge and peering inside. “Do we have any food?”

            “Have you gone grocery shopping?”

            “That’s a good point. Any idea how?”

            Wylan cocked an eyebrow, “You’ve never bought food for yourself?”

            “I was kidding, of course I have. I have time, I’ll go there now,” Jesper checked his watch. “Anything you need?”

            Any scrap of intelligence, Wylan thought immediately. But instead he said, “A couple of Five-Hour Energies, maybe. I’ll pay you back.”

            “That won’t be necessary. Should I get some eyedrops, too? Your eyes look kind of red.” Jesper squinted, attempting to look behind Wylan’s glasses.

            “Allergies. I’ll be fine.”

            Jesper looked at his watch. “In that case, I’ll head out now. I’ll be back in a few.” And then he was gone, taking all noise with him.

            Wylan breathed a sigh of relief, thankful that Jesper hadn’t thought anymore of his watery eyes, and ceased clattering around the kitchen. But as he sat, his palms digging into his eyes, a shuddery sob threatening to spill from his throat, Wylan craved company more than anything. Silence filled up the room like fog, deafening to the point of near-insanity. It burrowed inside of his chest and swelled into black, leaving a hole of dark that took more than energy drinks to fill.

Chapter Text

            “Thanks for coming with me, Inej.” Jesper leaned forward on the grocery cart, resting his elbows on the bar.

            Inej grazed her fingertips over the labels on the canned foods. “I can’t believe you haven’t done this by yourself.”

            Jesper coughed, feeling a flush of embarrassment. Only Inej could make him bashful with her calm demeanor and honest truths. “I have, but only when I was going back home to Da, and we would only ever get things like toilet paper and household cleaners. We grew all of our food, remember?”

            Inej nodded and smiled gently, walking ahead of him to examine some canned soup. “This looks good,” she said, facing the label towards him.

            Jesper scrunched his nose in disgust, “That’s all processed garbage. I need natural ingredients.”

            Inej put the can in the cart anyways. “You can’t afford natural ingredients. Your paycheck only covers artificial flavors and preservatives.”

            He sighed. She had a point. “Must be why Wylan doesn’t keep any junk food in the pantry.”

            Inej hummed and continued perusing the aisle. He could tell she wanted to say something, but it wasn’t her business. It was a look he always could sense; her eyes wandered but never focused, her spine stiffening in just the slightest, her chest stilling as if she was holding her breath.

            “Whatever you have to say, you can say to me,” he told her.

            She looked back at her, her dark eyes curious and kind. “Are you happy?”

            Jesper shrugged, “I mean, right at this moment, I’m pretty content.”

            “You know what I mean.”

            “Should I be?”

            Inej bit her bottom lip in thought. “That’s not for anyone to decide but you. Did you move out of the dorms for yourself, or because you thought Kaz would be impressed that you took his offer?”

            Jesper’s steps faltered and the cart squeaked. “Kaz has nothing to do with this,” he said, not meeting her eye.

            “Kaz does, and he knows it. You can’t let other people decide your fate for you. Not Kaz, not Nina, not even me. You have to trust yourself.”

            “I mean…” Jesper rubbed the back of his neck, feeling restlessness in his stomach. “What  am I supposed to do, Inej?” He sounded much more defeated than he had wished. “I can’t go back, but if I stay in the dorms, I’ll go insane. I’ve trusted myself a whole lot, and it’s only dug the hole deeper for me.”

            “Find a middle ground.”

            “I thought I already did, with this flat.”

            Inej nodded and a smile crept across her lips, “Good. You’re doing good, Jesper. Don’t doubt yourself.”

            “How can I not when you’re asking all these existential questions,” Jesper grumbled, and then grinned. Somehow, even if Inej’s talks were hard to listen to, she always made him feel surer of himself.

             Inej chuckled. She picked up a can of black beans and paired it with a bag of yellow rice, and tossed them into the cart. “Black beans and yellow rice, it’s something my mother would always make me when we didn’t have enough money for groceries. It’s better than ramen, cheaper than a home cooked meal, and it can feed you for a few days.”

            Jesper picked up the bag of rice and peered at it, feeling his eyes squint from the brightness of the packaging. “Rice isn’t supposed to be this color.”

            Inej’s eyes sparkled. “That’s all the season-y goodness inside the bag.”

            “It’s still not natural.”

            “Saints, you sound like Matthias. Hush up, and get stocking. I’m not having you starve on my watch.”

 

 

 

            Wylan got a text from Nikolai, informing him that they were all heading to the bar for drinks at nine, and he was welcome to join them. Though it had taken him three minutes to read the twenty-three worded message alone, Wylan didn’t bother texting him back; he just leaned forward into his arms and screamed, the sleeves of his sweater muffling his frustrated cries. He had just finished his report, but had another assignment that was due the next day. He knew if he put it off until the morning, he would never forgive himself. He had to get this done tonight, somehow, someway.

            Jesper crashed through the front door, startling Wylan with a jerk. This boy never just walked through the door. It was like a parade of horses came tromping in. His friend with the braid – what was her name again? – was behind him, holding a few grocery bags. Wylan’s stomach gave a near-silent rumble, and his head throbbed.

            “I come bearing gifts,” Jesper announced. Did he ever just talk? He set all the grocery bags on the counter, and began placing all the cold items in the fridge. “Inej is here, too.”

            Inej stood by the table, across from Wylan, scanning the room with her hands in her back pockets. Then she looked at him, and Wylan felt everything inside of him recoil. It was like she was seeing right inside of him.

            “Are you alright?” she asked quietly, not loud enough for Jesper to hear. Then again, he probably couldn’t even hear himself think amongst all the racket he was making in the kitchen.

            Wylan somehow knew that lying to her directly was going to be pointless. So he started small. “Tired,” he said, half smiling. It didn’t work; her eyes still searched him, probably peering right into his soul. “I’ll be fine,” he tried again. This time, Inej seemed somewhat satisfied with his answer, and went to join Jesper with the groceries. It was the truth; he was going to be fine, at some point in his miserable life. Just not right now.

            “Inej and I are going to be in my room for a bit,” Jesper told him, ascending the steps to the second floor with the girl in tow, “and then we’ll come down and make some dinner. Knock if you need anything.”

            Wylan couldn’t help but wonder if anything intimate was going on between the two of them as Jesper’s bedroom clicked closed. What does it matter? a voice asked him. It doesn’t, he thought firmly, and pushed the thought away almost immediately.

            He thought about Kaz, perhaps the only thing Jesper and he had in common. Kaz knew practically everyone in the city in one way or another, but only seemed to befriend a small group of somebodies, Wylan and Jesper included. When he found out Wylan was in need of someone to split the rent, he recommended Jesper Fahey, one of his “acquaintances” that needed a place to stay. They exchanged numbers, and set it up right then and there. Kaz was hardly ever even present in the whole ordeal. But, that’s how he usually was with his friends, just looking from a distance. Close enough to keep them by his side, but never close enough for them to actually be by his side.

            Kaz Brekker was possibly the most mysterious and manipulative person Wylan had ever known. His sharp, bitter eyes and rough voice were somehow enough to get you to do whatever he wanted, whether you knew it or not. Wylan wasn’t even sure why he was friends with him, why any of them were friends with him. Kaz would go out to drinks with everyone (when he found the time), but would seldom go out of his way to get closer, physically or emotionally, to any one of them. And yet, Kaz was the very first person Wylan confessed to about his shortcomings, every single one of them. His dyslexia, his father, his mental instability, all of it. Kaz hardly even batted an eyelash, and even though he did nothing to comfort Wylan, his lack of reaction was comfort enough.

            Wylan sat at his table, staring at the document he had opened and closed, and re-opened, and now his curser loomed over the exit button. Don’t do it, he told himself, just get it over with. He stared at the words. They looked like a single form, a blob of incomprehensible jibberish, a language he could never truly know. He saw the spaces, but every time he blinked, they changed. The words switched – or at least, they looked like they did. He couldn’t read them fast enough to tell. He closed the document.

            He heard soft, padded footsteps down the stairs, and Jesper and Inej came around the table.

            “We’re making dinner,” Jesper told Wylan, “Yellow rice and black beans. You want some?”

            Wylan had never ever heard of yellow rice, but he nodded regardless. His stomach was probably the thing keeping him from reading. He didn’t remember the last time he ate an honest meal.

            Jesper knocked the table three times excitedly and bounded into the kitchen, taking the ingredients from the kitchen. Inej lingered by the chairs, eyeing Wylan curiously, and Wylan got the strange urge to confess every sin he had committed in the past week. She ought to stop looking at him like that before he said something really stupid.

            “Have either of you talked to Kaz lately?” she asked suddenly.

            Wylan could’ve sworn Jesper bristled at the question, but it passed so quickly, he knew he must have imagined it. “A few days ago, yeah,” Jesper said flatly, putting a pot on the stove.

            “Not really, it’s been a while,” Wylan admitted. “Why?”

            Inej shrugged, but a hint of something else crossed her face. Wylan couldn’t put his finger on it. Disappointment?

            “He might be out of town,” Jesper suggested, “He’s been really busy the past few weeks.” His voice was uncharacteristically monotone.

             “Yeah,” Inej said.

            Jesus, what bone did they have to pick with Kaz? They both acted like he ran over their dog.

            Wylan pushed in his earbuds to keep from the awkward silence getting too awkward, and began to play some music, closing his eyes and sitting back in his chair. He felt movement to his right and looked to see Inej pulling out a chair. “Do you mind if I sit?” she asked cautiously, as if it was truly a yes or no question.

            “Of course,” Wylan said quickly. She smiled and sat. He wondered how she got her movements to be so graceful. She made sitting in a chair look like ballet.

            “What’re you listening to?” she asked, gesturing to his earphones.

            Wylan glanced at the song that was playing on his Spotify, but couldn’t read the title. “Classical music,” he said.

            “Can I hear?”

            Wylan pulled the earphones out of the laptop, and the fast-paced chords drifted out of his speakers. Inej closed her eyes and rocked to the rhythm of the music.

            “Quartet Number eleven in F minor, Allegro con brio,” she hummed.

            “Y-you know it?” Wylan sputtered. No one ever listened to classical music.

            She nodded, her eyes still closed, her black lashes resting on her caramel skin. “My parents use the suspense in the music during their act. It adds to the danger, I think.”

            Wylan looked at Jesper questioningly. He was pouring a can of what looked like black sludge into the pot and stirring it. “Inej’s family is in the trapeze business,” Jesper said simply, like he was calling out the time.

            Wylan stared her, his eyes widening. “You’re an acrobat?” he gaped.

            Inej smiled timidly, an action he didn’t know she possessed. She seemed incredibly sure of herself at all times. “Sort of, yeah.”

            “And by sort of, she means professionally,” Jesper said, turning towards them.

            Wylan whipped his head to look back at her. “Do you guys, like, travel?”

            She laughed, “Sometimes. We’ve gone on tour before, stopped in places like Disneyworld and festivals.”

            Wylan could hardly believe what he was hearing. “That’s…that’s so cool, Inej!” He turned to Jesper and pointed an accusing finger. “Why didn’t you tell me she was this cool?”

            Jesper held up his hands up in defense. “Hey, don’t look at me.”

            Inej blushed deeply and fanned her face dramatically, “Stop it, guys, you’re too much.”

            “That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard, Inej, really. What do you usually do in your act, or whatever?”

            “The high wire and I have a trapeze act with my partner. Sometimes I do some basic body conforming, but I’m not that flexible, so we try to stay away from that.”

            Jesper raised his eyebrows, “You should see her perform. It’s incredible.”

            “Jes!”

            “What? It’s true!”

            Wylan felt a sudden rush of excitement, a feeling he hadn’t felt in a very long time. “Can I see you perform?”

            Inej rolled her eyes and gave Jesper a pointed look, as if to say see what you’ve caused? “I’m actually taking a break for this semester, for school, but I’ll be working over the summer. You can come see me then.”

            Wylan nodded, “I will definitely be doing that.”

            Inej smiled once more, then her face fell suddenly, her brows furrowing.

            “What?”

            Inej sniffed the air, “Is something…burning?”

            Jesper swiveled around on his heel to face the stove. He cursed and lifted the small pot off of the burner, and turned the stove off. Inej jumped to her feet and before Wylan could even blink, she was taking the pot from Jesper and pushing him out of the kitchen.

            “And don’t come back until you can respect my heritage,” she said loudly, pushing her hand into the small of his back.

            Jesper yelped as she jabbed him with her finger, and hopped out of the kitchen like a frightened stork. “I’m sorry!” he cried, rubbing the spot where she poked him.

            Inej poured the beans into the bowl, shaking her head in disappointment. “You burned the bottom. You better be glad I’m here to save your sorry butts for dinner.”

            “How do you not know how to cook?” Wylan said through a fit of giggles.

            Jesper shot him an annoyed look. “I do. I was just distracted for a second, dang.”

            Inej rinsed out the pot, scraping the bottom, and washed the blackened beans into the garbage disposal. “Am I going to have to make two grown men dinner? For the love of all Saints, you two are hopeless.”

            “I can cook!” Wylan exclaimed.

            “Oh yeah?” Inej challenged. “Cook what?”

            Wylan’s chest deflated, realizing he couldn’t get out of answering this question. “Dishes like…caviar, and roasted quail.” His Swedish cook from home, Glinda, would teach him how to make all of her fancy dishes she would cook to impress his father’s guests at his dinners. Ever since he was old enough to use a stove (which was much too early, in his opinion), he had memorized every recipe she would teach him, so he no longer had to attempt to read it.

            “Roasted quail?” Jesper sputtered. “Who makes stuff like that?”

            “I do,” Wylan said indignantly. My cook, he should’ve said. But he didn’t. Who wanted an entitled rich prep as a roommate?

            Inej almost looked impressed. “Well, you enjoy your foul, Wylan. Meanwhile, I’ll try to salvage this meal that your roommate so graciously ruined.”

            “Are you ever going to let me live this down? I turn away from the stove for one second, and you assume I can’t cook? The service in this place is awful.”

 

            *************************************

 

            Working a double shift was the worst decision Jesper had ever made. Wait no – that wasn’t true. Asking for more hours was the worst decision Jesper had ever made. Or was it applying for this job in the first place? Many, many horrible decisions led Jesper to this moment.

            “I asked for a mocha caramel latte? And there’s no caramel,” said some annoying white girl. Jesper had written her name on the cup but the second the Sharpie left the cardboard, he had forgotten. He was sure that she had come to this specific café about a dozen times in the past two weeks, but every basic high school/college student that came through melded together into the same person. 

            “I’m so sorry, ma’am, let me fix that for you,” Jesper replied in his whitest voice he could muster. Speak professionally, his manager told him, no one likes a slacker.

             He knew there was caramel in there. He had put three pumps of caramel, just as she requested. There was even caramel drizzled dramatically on top. He had put a lot of effort into that drizzle, and the fact that she didn’t appreciate it sickened him. But instead of fighting, instead of speaking truth, he took the cup, smiled politely at her, and held eye contact as he added three more pumps of sugary caramel. Jesper was sure she would appreciate the extra thirty-six grams of sugar those pumps came with. That was a total of seventy-two grams of sugar. Oh, revenge was most certainly sweet.

            “Thank you,” she said bitterly, and turned to join the rest of her faceless friends.

            Jesper checked the clock for the millionth time that day. Four minutes until he was scotch free. And then, he would be anything but.

            The entrance doorbell twinkled, signaling the arrival of yet another customer in need of coffee. Jesper always liked to flash his winning smile at every person who walked into the café; it built trust and fondness during their near-future interaction. But as he turned to greet the new customer, his face plummeted.

            Kaz Brekker stood in front of the entrance, cane in hand, and his pale face was sharper than stone. Kaz didn’t drink coffee at cafes, and he most certainly didn’t snack on glazed pound cake. Which meant he came for Jesper. More important, he took time out of his day to seek out Jesper.

            Trying to keep his heart in his chest rather than his throat, Jesper quickly took the order of yet another Ugg-wearing, Instagram savvy white girl, got her the coffee, and clocked out. He hardly had enough time to remove his apron when Kaz approached him.

            “Jesper,” he greeted.

            “Hey whassup,” Jesper practically choked out. So much for nonchalant.

            Kaz tipped his head in the direction of a table for two in the corner of the coffeehouse. “Let’s talk.”

            Brekker was wearing his usual weekday get up. A black trench coat, dark pants, his leather gloves, and insanely well-polished dress shoes. For the love of God, we’re in a coffee shop; wear a shirt and jeans. His hair was darker than it usually was, nearly ink black, and shaved on the sides. Kaz led him to the table and gestured for Jesper to take a seat, like they were sitting down for an interview. Which is exactly what it felt like.

            Kaz sat and leaned his cane against the wall, stretching out his bad leg. He clasped his hands in front of him and leaned on his elbows. His movements looked so…rehearsed. Like he had practiced for hours beforehand to look precisely like a moving painting.

            Static crackled under Jesper’s skin, and he felt his heartbeat quicken. What on Earth was going on? Why was Kaz looking at Jesper like he was a business associate rather than his best friend?

            Kaz’s eyes flickered in the very slightest, and then he finally spoke. “How are you feeling, Jes?”

            “Let me stop you there,” Jesper held up a finger, and he could tell that Kaz did not enjoy being interrupted. “First of all, what’re you doing here. Second of all, what on Earth are you doing here?”

            Kaz tilted his head to the side in mock compassion. “What, I can’t visit my friend at work for a catch-up?”

            Jesper stifled an eye roll. “Considering you’ve never called me your friend once in your life, and are completely incapable of feeling human emotion? No, no you can’t.”

            “I truly want to know how you’re feeling.”

            “Cut the crap, Brekker. What do you want?” Jesper was starting to get angry.

            Kaz, for a split second, looked slightly taken aback from the fierceness of Jesper’s voice. But the moment passed, and he righted himself with a gleam in his eye.

            “Tell me about Wylan,” he said.

            Jesper furrowed his brow. “Dude, you were friends with him before I even met him. What would I know?”

            Kaz tapped his gloved fingertips on the rim of the table. “How does he seem? Have you two gotten along?” His voice was casual, as if this wasn’t a glorified interrogation.

            “Jesus, Kaz, I don’t know. He seems fine. A little shy, but who cares? Why’re you asking?”

            “I have my reasons.”

            It was at that moment that Jesper realized he had had it up to here with Kaz. He was, quite simply, completely fed up. Fed up with the distance, and the secrets, and the exploitation, along with the lack of interest and dedication.

            “You know what, Kaz?” Jesper laughed dryly, feeling all the pent up irritation bubble up inside of him. “No. No to whatever sick plan you’ve concocted. He’s just a kid, man. He doesn’t need your vigilante journalist type nonsense to deal with. He doesn’t deserve that.”

            Kaz blinked once, and Jesper felt his fist tighten.

            “And you know what else? Screw you. Comin’ in here, talking to me like we’re buddies, when in reality, you haven’t given me the time of day in months. What is wrong with you? I’m not going to be whipped for you anymore. Wylan Van Eck has shown more interest in me and my life than you have ever shown, our entire lives together. I’m done being used.” Jesper stood up and pushed his chair in. “No more, Kaz.”

            And without stopping to see Kaz’s reaction, Jesper walked past him, and pushed through the café door, the bell twinkling behind him.

 

             ******************************

 

            “You did what?”

            “I know! I don’t know where it came from. Once I started yapping, it just came out like word vomit.

            Nina laughed, “Oh my God, he’s probably going to give you so much crap for this.”

            Jesper set his phone up on his window sill, perching it up to get a good look at Nina’s face. “Yeah, or worse, he ices me out and I never see him again.”

            “Okay, okay, slow your roll,” Nina said, waving her mascara wand wildly. “What did you say exactly? You didn’t like, totally confess your undying love for him, did you?”

            Jesper really had wished they were only taking a voice call, rather than a Facetime date. He could regulate his voice easy as pie, but keeping a poker face was slightly harder. “God, no,” he said, already feeling his cheeks heat. “And it’s not undying love. It’s called an inconvenient infatuation.”

            Nina rubbed a dark purple lipstick on her lips in one swipe and pursed them out like a fish to admire herself in the mirror. “Call it whatever you want, hunty, you’ve had it since middle school.”

            “Shut up. That shade looks great on you. And no, I didn’t confess anything. But there was a “screw you” somewhere in there. It was your average ‘I’m done playing with your games’ kind of speech.”

            “A speech I’ve given many times in my day,” Nina said understandingly. She was applying contour now, right under her cheek bone, and it looked incredible. How did she do it? “Well, I wouldn’t worry about it too much, hon. If he is truly your friend, he’ll do something about it. If not, he’s the asshole we all knew he was, and it’ll just be toxic to keep him in your life. He’s just bringing you down if he’s not trying, Jes.”

            Jesper blew out a long breath. “Thanks, Nina. You, somehow, even when you’re applying bomb-looking eye shadow, know exactly what to say.”

            “Even more than Inej?”

            “No.”

            “Dang it.

 

            *************************************

 

            “What kind of name is Jesper, anyways? Sounds like a phony to me.”

            “What kind of name is Nikolai?” Alina shot back, the corners of her lips twitching up.

            Nikolai slumped forward with his chin resting on his arms and pouted. “That was uncalled for. I happen to like my name, thank you very much.”

            “Well,” Alina said, flipping a page of her textbook and jotting down a note. “Jesper might like his name, too. Don’t be a jerk just because you’re getting replaced.”

            “I am not!” Nikolai protested.

            Wylan made pointed glances at both of his closest friends. “No one is getting replaced,” he reassured Nikolai. “Jes is just my roommate, we’ve barely had a full conversation.”

            “Jes? Oh, so he’s Jes now?” Nikolai flopped onto his stomach and buried his face in the crook of his arm. “It’s all over now. I’m long forgotten.”

            Wylan laughed, used to his friend’s dramatic display of distress. “Fret not, poppet,” he slid off of the couch and set himself next to Nikolai. “You’ll always be my Sturmhond.” He bent over and gave Nikolai’s head an exaggerated kiss.

            There was a silent moment of decisiveness. Then, Nikolai groaned as he propped himself on his elbows and let his feet swing in the air. “You win this time, sunshine,” he said with a wink. “But please refrain from using my drunk name in front of me.”

            “Can you please not kiss my boyfriend in front of me?” Alina grumbled, not taking her eyes off of her notebook.

            Nikolai scoffed, “Why? You never kiss me anyways.”

            “That’s because you take frequency for granted.”

            His shoulders slumped. “She’s right,” he told Wylan. “I cherish each kiss like it’s a gift from God.”

            Wylan sniggered. “Man, you are so whipped.” His friend’s helpless expression was confirmation enough.

            “So, tell me more about this Jesper character,” Alina said, closing her textbook. “I need a study break.”

            Wylan was always down for a study break, despite the fact that he hadn’t studied at all that day, let alone gone to class today. He tried not to stress about it; he’d paid Kuwei to take his camcorder and record the lectures of the day and send them to him.

            “Jesper is pretty cool, I guess,” Wylan began. “I feel like he has the potential to be – ”

            “A boyfriend?” Nikolai and Alina said in sync.

            “No!” Wylan exclaimed, feeling the redness climb to his cheeks. “The potential to be impossible.”

            “Oh no,” Alina said, “What does he do?”

            Wylan didn’t know where to begin. “It’s not really what he does, initially. It’s just that he never stops. He’ll start humming, the same obnoxious tune, and he will never stop. He’ll keep bouncing his knee until kingdom come. He never stops talking. His voice isn’t annoying or anything, but it’s just always there. He’s so loud, too, like his noise follows him everywhere. He never stops moving, he’s always in motion and it just drives me in – ”

            Wylan’s rant was intercepted by the front door opening. Nikolai’s eyes glinted, and he and Alina were up in a flash, and already moving towards Jesper before he got through the door.

            “Jesper!” Nikolai greeted, and Wylan scrambled to his friend’s side, feeling panic rise in his throat. Please don’t say anything stupid, please, please, please.

            Jesper stood in the doorway and smiled. “Hey man,” he said, making a strange face at Wylan.

            “Just the man I wanted to see,” Nikolai continued, glancing at the redhead. “Wylan here has been going on and on about you.”

             Wylan all of a sudden felt very vulnerable, like he was standing there naked, and no words managed to escape his throat. I swear to God, if you say anything, you stupid son of a –

            “Has he now?” Jesper asked.

            “Oh yes, he just couldn’t shut up about you.”

            Wylan did not hesitate to smack Nikolai upside the head.

            “Ow!” he yelped, rubbing behind his ears.

            Jesper laughed heartily and closed the door behind him. “All good things, I hope.”

            “Oh yeah,” Alina said sincerely, and Wylan could kiss her for it. She held out her hand. “I’m Alina. The stupid one is Nikolai. Feel free to tune him out at any given time.”

            Jesper shook her hand. “Pleasure to meet you both. You’re friends of Wylan?”

            “One might use that term,” Nikolai said, slinging his arm around Wylan’s neck. “Or you could say…” He leaned in towards Wylan’s cheek.

            Jesper’s eyes shot up, his expression unreadable. The very second Nikolai’s lips met Wylan’s cheek, two pairs of hands slapped him in four different places.

            “I feel abused!” he wailed, finally distancing himself from Wylan.

            “I apologize for him,” Alina told Jesper, “He’s actually my boyfriend.”

            Jesper’s face relaxed and he grinned. “Hey, don’t worry about it.” He turned to Wylan. “I’m gonna head up to my room to study. Knock if you need anything.”

            As soon as he was out of earshot, Alina widened her eyes. “He’s cute,” she whispered harshly.

            “Oh, good Lord,” Wylan groaned, and realized it was the first time he had spoken since Jesper arrived.

            “Yes, a bit too cute for my liking,” Nikolai said, falsely assuming it was safe to open his mouth again. “This threat must be exterminated. You’re mine.”

            Sometimes, Wylan truly wondered what Nikolai would look like with missing teeth.

            “No,” Alina said firmly, linking her arm with Wylan’s arm. “He’s mine.”

            Wylan chuckled, “I don’t belong to anybody.”

            Alina cooed. “Oh, that’s the strong independent woman we all know you are.”

            Wylan needed new friends.

Chapter Text

Jesper couldn’t help but hopelessly stress about his outburst towards Kaz that occurred six days ago. Kaz hadn’t done anything to reach out to him in any way, which was normal by Kaz’s standards, but it still sat wrong with Jesper’s nerves.

            Nevertheless, he urged himself to busy himself with his job, studying, and playing first-person shooter games as best he could. For a few days, that’s all he did. He saw Wylan sometimes, inches away from his laptop screen on the table or the couch, or eating in the kitchen. They had their occasional squabbles from time to time, usually ending in one of Jesper’s sly innuendos and Wylan turning an unearthly shade of red. Jesper didn’t know why he was compelled to flirt with Wylan relentlessly. Probably because it drove Wylan up a wall, and it fed Jesper’s hunger for a reaction.

            Jesper was proud of himself for one thing, and that was the fact that he hadn’t visited a single bar or casino since moving in with Van Eck. The thought was always there, the need for adrenaline. But who needed thrill when anxiety and panic alone could shoot your heart rate through the roof?

            And that panic certainly didn’t get any better when Kaz Brekker showed up on his doorstep at nine o’clock at night.

            “Hey,” Kaz said, leaning on his cane. He didn’t look apologetic, but Jesper knew he never let himself express his emotions through his face.

            Kaz was wearing a winter coat and a red scarf, his hair less polished then it had been at the café. His face, which was usually pale, was rosy in the cheeks from the cold, the scar on his lip popping out more than normal.

            Jesper really wished Wylan was home – where was that kid, anyways? – so that he had an excuse to decline whatever Kaz wanted. He had more discipline when other people were around.

            “Kaz,” Jesper said stupidly. He made no movement to open the door any further.

            “That is my name,” Kaz confirmed. “Are…are you going to let me in or are you going to let me freeze out here.” Jesper realized it wasn’t a question.

            Every cell in his brain was screaming at him to slam the door in Kaz’s face, but before he could truly decide, his hospitable nature took over, and he gestured for Kaz to enter.

            Kaz rounded the kitchen table and took a seat, scanning the apartment with unreadable eyes.

            Jesper set himself on the edge of the table, knowing that if he sat himself directly across the table from Kaz, things would end up like they did at the café, or worse.

            “What do you want, Kaz?” Jesper asked.

            Kaz looked bored, like he had been sitting at the table for hours. He heaved in a tired breath and looked at Jesper square in the face. “I’m sorry.”

            Jesper waited. Surely that couldn’t be all that he had to say, not through all the strife he’s caused Jesper. Kaz looked completely satisfied with his words, and he leaned back in his chair, looking expectant.

            Jesper blinked and let out a dry laugh. “Am I supposed to be impressed?”

            Kaz’s lips set in a firm line. “Isn’t that what you wanted me to say?”

            Frustration flamed under Jesper’s skin. “I don’t want you to apologize to me, Kaz. I want you to realize all the crap you’ve put me and the others through, and do something about it. Words mean nothing at this point.”

            “The others?”

            “Me, Wylan, Nina, Inej?” He said her name with meaning, hoping it would land. Unfortunately, it only mad Kaz angry.

            “Don’t try to assume my relationships with your friends,” he said roughly. “I don’t want to know what you expect me to do; get on my knees and beg? Bring you a bouquet of flowers?”

            “Try! That’s all you have to do!” Jesper’s voice rose without him meaning to. “All you have to do is prove to us, all of us, that you care.”

            Kaz physically recoiled at the word “care”, and Jesper desperately wanted to smack him.

            “If I apologized for every time I wasn’t polite, I’d die of old age before I got anything done.” His voice was laced with anger; Jesper was getting to him.

            “I’m not asking you to be polite, Kaz; I know you’re incapable of such a mindset. What I want is for you to quit being a soulless jackass all the time. To me, at least.”

            Kaz sat there, his face nearly unreadable. Then, just slightly, he squinted his eyes, and the corners of his lips turned down. Oh, God, Jesper thought, he’s debating whether to cut me loose or not.

            Jesper sat in panicked anticipation for a whole minute before Kaz’s eyes cleared and he heaved in a breath.

            “Well.” Kaz stood up and leaned on his cane.

            “Well?”

            Kaz nodded towards him. “Okay.”

            “Okay?” Jesper really didn’t feel like playing copycat.

            Apparently, Kaz didn’t want to, either. “Okay, meaning I’ll try not to be a soulless jackass. To you.”

            Somehow, the waving of the white glad wasn’t nearly as triumphant as Jesper had hoped. “Okay.”

            They stood in silence for a moment, ten feet apart, even though it felt like miles, and Jesper tried to hold himself together because Kaz licked his lips and ran a hand through his hair and hooked a thumb through his belt loop and why did he have to move so much.

            “You didn’t come over just to apologize, did you?” Jesper tried to make it sound rhetoric, but it came out more curious and pathetic than anything.

            Kaz nodded. “There is another matter we must discuss.”

            Jesper stifled an eyeroll. “For the love of – what do you want?”

            “I don’t want it,” Kaz explained, “but I do need it.”

            It was just like Kaz to make amends just to get what he wanted. Jesper knew he should’ve said no right then and there, but instead his mouth said, “What do you need?”

            “Intel.”

            “On Wylan?”

            “Yes. I don’t need you to watch his every move, but if he ever updates you on his current affairs, it would be nice to know.”

            “Is that all?” Jesper had to take a deep breath to calm down. What did he ever see in Kaz?

            Kaz shrugged, “If he starts acting out of character, that would be important as well.”

            “Jesus, Kaz, I don’t even know when Wylan is in character. I’ve known him for two weeks.”

            “But you will tell me?”

            Another sigh. “To the best of my ability.” Why am I like this.

            “Alright.”

            “On one condition.”

            Kaz’s eyebrows shot up, and Jesper’s stomach leapt into his throat. “And what would that be, exactly?”

            “All of this ‘intel” and violation of privacy will not be given to you through text or email.”

            Kaz nodded, his face blank.

            “It will be discussed in person. No way else. Which means you have to make time out of your schedule to meet with me. Agreed?” Got him.

            Jesper’s heartbeat quickened as Kaz made the face again, his eyes slitted with a twitching frown. And then one corner of his mouth turned up.

            “Okay.”

            Jesper didn’t know which celestial being he got on the good side of, but he thanked them mercilessly as he and Kaz made plans for coffee that next week.

            “I have to go,” Kaz said, clicking his cane on the floor. “Next week.”

            “Next week.” Jesper walked him to the door and watched as Kaz made his way into the hall. But he paused, his back still to Jesper.

            “Jes?” he asked quietly.

            “Hm?”

            Kaz turned his jead, and Jesper, for the first time in years, saw sincerity and warmth in his dark brown eyes. “I really am sorry.” And then, with another click of his cane, he was gone.

           

            ************************

            “It’s February, why on Earth is it so cold outside?

            Wylan was home now, shaking snow out of his hair and putting down his satchel. Jesper was sitting on the couch with the palms of his hands pressed into his eyes, trying not to overthink the discussion he had with Kaz a few hours before.

            Wylan bustled about the kitchen, then came into the living room with a protein bar and a bottle of water.

            “Hey, you okay?” he asked, sitting down next to him.

            Jesper rubbed his eyes and sat back, blinking to get the blotches out of his vision. “Yeah, just tired.” He didn’t like lying, but talking about Kaz was the last thing he wanted to do.

            “Wasn’t your friend supposed to come over?” Wylan asked.

            “Nina? Yeah, but she has an exam tomorrow and didn’t study.”

            “Wow, a great work ethic for a med student.”

            Jesper laughed, “She’s actually brilliant. How did you know she’s med?”

            Wylan bit into his bar and shrugged. “Kaz told me.”

            “Ah.” Jesper really didn’t feel like talking about him.

            He pulled out his phone and messed around with some apps, but he realized he was double tapping on pictures he wasn’t even looking at, so he tucked the phone back into his pocket. He turned to Wylan, who was on his phone and eating, his cheeks rosy from the warmth of the apartment.

            “You wanna play something?” he asked, pointing towards the PS3 set on the TV shelf.

            Wylan looked up from his phone, looking a bit dazed. Then he smiled. “Yeah, sure.”

            They ended up playing Super Smash Bros Brawl, which Wylan claimed to dominate at. He was wrong.

            “Crap!” The screen changed to reveal that Jesper was the winner, for the fourth time in a row.

            “Ah-ha!” Jesper exclaimed triumphantly.

            Wylan pouted and crossed his arms over his chest in a humph. “No fair,” he whined, “How was I supposed to know you kicked butt as Kirby?”

            Jesper put his controller down, and took a swig of Wylan’s water. “Actually, I’m good as any character. Jeez, this is Fiji water? What’re you, made of solid gold?”

            “Fiji water is delicious. And that’s still not fair. Are your other friends this good?”

            “Inej is spectacular, but she’d never tell you that. Nina’s only good at racing games and Cooking Mama, and Matthias can barely play Pong without shoving his fist through the screen.”

            Wylan laughed, but it sounded more like a child’s giggle. “What about Kaz?”

            Why is he so set on talking about Kaz?

            Jesper sighed, “He was really good at them in high school, when he could come over and play them with me, but he doesn’t really do that anymore.”

            Wylan picked his controller back up and began a new round. “How did you two meet?”

            Jesper wanted to strangle him. “We met in middle school. I just started hanging around him and annoying him into being my friend. We’ve kind of been best friends ever since.” Before he could stop himself, his natural instincts took over and he said, “What about you?”

            “He took me in when I didn’t have a place to stay.”

            Jesper was compelled to look at him, but somehow Wylan had accumulated enough improvement in his skills to put up a fight during the game.

            “You were homeless?”

            “I would’ve been, if Kaz didn’t let me crash on his couch for a couple weeks. I just had to get my financial situation sorted out, figure out some family stuff, and he helped out a lot.”

            Jesper truly didn’t have a heart to tell him that Kaz probably used him for his own personal gain. It irked him that Kaz would exploit a homeless kid for his career, and was even more unnerved to know that he was exploiting Wylan, too.

            “Well, I’m glad,” Jesper said as cheerfully as he could. “I know Kaz helped me more times than I can count.” Wrong.

            “He seems like that kind of person.” Wrong.

            “Oh yeah, he – what?!”

            “Boo yah! You just got obliterated, my good man.”

            “That’s not fair! My hand cramped!”

            “No way. Admit it. I just kicked your butt as Kirby.”

 

            ******************************

 

            “I honestly can’t thank you enough for this, Kuwei.”

            Kuwei smiled shyly. “No problem,” he said, handing Wylan the camcorder. “It died halfway through the last lecture, but Professor Gordon always just takes it from the text, so you should be fine.”

            “Yeah, I’m not gonna worry about it.” Wylan held out a couple ten dollar bills.

            Kuwei blinked once, then shook his head. “No, please. It was a favor.”

            “C’mon, I already told you I would pay for it.”

            “Honestly, I can’t.”

            “Kuwei, please – ”

            “No, no – ”

            “Just take it,” Jesper called from the kitchen. “It’ll rest his conscious.”

            Kuwei cocked his head to the sound of Jesper’s voice. “New roommate?”

            “Yep,” Wylan said, “He likes to eavesdrop. He’s kind of rude.”

            “I can hear you!” Jesper exclaimed.

            “I know, that’s why I said it loud,” Wylan called back. He turned to Kuwei and shoved the money into his hand. “Please, take it.”

            Kuwei laughed, “He sounds nice.” And then he pocketed the bills.

            “Not bad-lookin’ either,” Jesper added, swaggering into the living room.

            “And he’s modest,” Kuwei quipped, earning a wide grin from Jesper.

            Wylan flipped through the footage on the camcorder. “What classes are these?”

            Kuwei took his eyes off Jesper and thought for a moment. “Psychology two, American History, and Humanities.”

            “God bless you, Kuwei.”

            Jesper’s eyes widened in revelation. “These are the lectures you record?” he asked.

            Wylan nodded. “Listening to them helps me remember the important things better.”

            “He used to have me record them, and then transcript them,” Kuwei said.

            Jesper raised an eyebrow. “Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of listening to them?”

            Wylan ducked his head and could feel the blood rush to his face. He wished they understood why he studied the way he did. Or maybe he didn’t. He most definitely did not wish they knew that his father requested handwritten notes from all of his classes to make sure Wylan was truly “getting better”. So Wylan had Kuwei transcribe the most important bits of information, and sent them in envelopes to his father, just barely scraping by in satisfying Van Eck’s need to control his son.

            “Yeah, but not anymore.” Wylan closed the camcorder and began to upload the footage to his laptop on the dining room table.

            “Are you two friends, or does Wylan just pay you to show up to class?” Jesper asked.

            “Well,” Wylan said, “I would hope we’re friends, or else this answer would be very awkward.”

            Kuwei shook his head, like he was shaking something off. “You people talk too fast.”

            Jesper looked at Wylan, looking unexplainably uncomfortable. Wylan rolled his eyes, wishing that his roommate’s head wasn’t so thick. “Kuwei is an exchange student from Japan, idiot.”

            Jesper’s mouth made an uppercase O. “That’s amazing!” he said, and then slowed down his speech. “How do you like America so far?”

            Kuwei groaned. “I can understand you fine. I just can’t tell words apart when you jumble them together the way you do.”

            Jesper looked slightly offended, and Wylan laughed. Kuwei smiled and continued. “America is okay. Lots of good things, lots of bad.”

            “Like what?”

            “The food here is amazing, especially the fast food. But the streets are dirty, and there are so much garbage. Why doesn’t anyone do anything about it?”

            “Do you not have garbage in Japan?”

            “We do, but we clean up after ourselves, because we aren’t animals.” Kuwei laughed.

            Jesper laughed along with him. “Your English is really good. You can roast Americans in both languages.”

            Wylan made a face. “We-e-e-ell, Kuwei actually speaks four different languages. Japanese, English, Portuguese, and Romanian.”

            Jesper’s mouth fell open. “That’s fantastic.” Wylan wasn’t used to Jesper handing out compliments like this. It made him uncomfortable.

            After going into detail of Kuwei’s travelling experiences, Wylan made up a stupid excuse to escape to his bedroom, not even bothering to ask Kuwei to leave. He and Jesper were still chattering merrily as Wylan ascended to his room. He closed the door behind him, and set his laptop on his desk, opening up his email to see if he had any messages from his teacher. There was only one new message, and it only took Wylan a millisecond to recognize the shapes of the letters.

            Jan Van Eck.

            Perfect. Just what he needed today.

            He found the email on his phone, highlighted it, and had his Siri read it out loud to him.

            “Dear Wylan, if you’re reading this, then you know how much I want you to succeed in your classes. Your special needs scholarship was a hard privilege to come by, you shan’t waste it. I still request that you send me notes from your courses, so that I know that you fully comprehend what my hard earned finances have provided you. Feel free to visit around the holidays or during any breaks, with notice, of course, so that I can get my affairs in order for your appearance. If you’re reading this, you know just how much you are welcome here. Jan Van Eck.”

            The recording cut off, and no tears had fallen. But Wylan could feel the burning of his cheeks and ears as he heard his father’s words spat into his ear. He knew that by “get my affairs in order”, his father meant to cancel all publicity and business meetings within two weeks of arrival and departure, to ensure no one was aware his only son was coming for a visit.

            If anyone read this email, they would’ve been touched by the kind words of a loving father. Wylan heard nothing but flame and vile, the voice of his insecurities and self-loathing. He heard the voice behind the conditioning, and the beatings, and the –

             Wylan flopped onto his bed, feeling his emotions blacken over, leaving an empty but satisfying hole in his chest. He could deal with this. He only needed a job - a nice paying job that could sustain him in a crippling economy, without the help of his wealthy father.  

            Nice try, he thought to himself.

            Likely story. 

Chapter Text

            Jesper tapped his pen on the wooden table, the rapid tick tick tick noise giving him some sort of twisted stability, the only stability he had in his life right at this moment. An empty sheet of paper sat before him, and he felt the crushing weight of the deadline leaning on his head. The ticking got faster.

            “Jesper,” Inej said softly. She sat across from him, leaning over her notebook, rhythmically writing down words like it was easy, like pouring water.

            The pen lifted from the table, and he tucked it behind his ear. “Sorry,” he said. Inej had the patience of the gods, but even Jesper’s restlessness distracted her.

            They returned to their previous silence, only this time, the rushing in Jesper’s ears was even louder than before. Six thousand words. Six thousand words. By next week. How was he supposed to do this?

            “You should’ve done it two weeks ago, when Professor Upton told you to,” Nina scolded him the day before.

            “You know I never do that,” Jesper told her.

            “Well, where has that gotten you, big guy?”

            He was a fool. A downright fool. Why did he always do this to himself – always depending on fate and pressure to get his work done for him? It only gave him more stress, more panic, and more chances of absolute demise. It was like he enjoyed watching his life teeter on the edge of failure, inching it further and further, and watching in mock horror as it falls down, and dashes itself on the jagged rocks. Well now, how could that happen? What a surprise. Maybe it was because it was like gambling. Spinning a wheel, hoping to God it falls on the right slot, and back in his mind, a little voice whispering, “But what would happen if you lose? Now that would be interesting.” Because losing meant he had an excuse to try again. Taking the risk. Taking chances he didn’t need.

            He did that with everything, really. Work – because what would happen if I didn’t go into work today? Would they fire me, or would they let me off the hook? Spin, spin, spin – school – if it’s a few days late, will they fail me? Roll the dice – relationships, even – get drunk, kiss a stranger, will it go farther, or will it mean nothing? Will I catch feelings, and get my heart broken? Open case 12, deal or no deal?

            It’s how he got himself into trouble to begin with, and what’s continuing to dig a deeper hole, a tomb twelve miles deep. He wished he could explain it, he wished he felt the apologies and excuses deeper than his own exterior. But every time the words “I’m sorry” and “I’ll do better” passed his lips, all he wanted to do was do it more. Was he ever sorry before he made the mistake? Did he ever truly want to stop before he screwed up once again?

            No, he only felt sorry when he was far past safety. He wasn’t good for much other than making other people suffer for the consequences he was supposed to be impacted from. His father, his friends, his professors – they all thought so high of him, they all thought he was trying his best. But in reality, he wanted nothing more than to convince himself he was winning, when he was really just throwing his dreams into the gutter.

            “What is this essay even about?” he wondered out loud, marking the date on the top of the paper.

            Inej looked up at him. “The evolution of gun rights in the United States.”

            Good Lord, he didn’t know the first thing about gun rights. Whose idea was this?

            “I’m so screwed,” he mumbled, burying his head in his hands.

            “Jes, you know everything about guns. This’ll be easy.”

            “No, I know everything about shooting guns. And that’s only for target practice; I don’t go shooting up schools. I know absolutely nothing about rights.”

            “But you know everything about bullcrapping your way through an essay. This assignment was made for you. Just look up as many facts as you can, paraphrase, and then make it sound as smart as possible.”

            “Darling Inej, you know me so well.”

            Two weeks later, when he got his grade, a big B+ staring at him, he nearly squealed like a schoolgirl. That brought his final grade up to a 94 in the class. Now he only had three more months to keep that grade above water. Spinning, spinning, spinning.

 

            *********************************

 

             “Wylan, I’m concerned.”

            Wylan’s heart stuttered. That was the sixth time he had heard those words from a teacher his entire life. The first time, he was only seven years old. That was the day his father discovered Wylan’s secret. That was the day Wylan got his first beating at his father’s hand.

            Wylan blinked. “What did I do wrong?” What assignment did I fail today?

            Professor Retvenko shook his head. “You haven’t done anything wrong, son.” Son. “It just appears that your grades in this particular class have been ailing since the beginning of the semester. I was curious to see if you wanted to talk about it.”

            “Talk about what?” Wylan hoped he could make the conversation drag out so Retvenko got bored.

            “Is there a problem with your comprehension in the class?” Retvenko clasped his hands in front of him.

            “Ehm…” Wylan bit his lip, looking frantically for an excuse as to why his grades had been slipping. It was English Lit, the most difficult class for Wylan. It was nothing but reading…reading and writing. The books Retvenko had assigned were short, more like pamphlets, but the sentences drawled, and no one in the 1800s had ever heard of a comma or structure. The print was miniscule, the chapters were long, and Wylan was near his very last nerve.

            “Have you been reading the material for the class?”

            “Yes!” Wylan blurted, knowing that he sounded like he, in fact, did not read the material.

            “Perhaps there are some websites I could steer you towards to help you?” Special need kids have special needs.

            “Have my papers been that bad?”

            “Oh no, Wylan,” Retvenko pulled out a sheet from his desk and held it in front of himself, “They’re acceptable. But I feel as though they’re very…” He thought for the word. “Vague.”

            Wylan flinched at the word. That was the very thing he was trying to avoid with his writing. “I’m sorry,” he said, fiddling with the hem of his shirt. “I’ve just been very…all over the place; I didn’t realize I was slipping.” Apologize, reasoning, self-awareness, now go in for the killer. “I would love to have those resources, though. I think they would really help.”

            Nailed it.

            Retvenko smiled and nodded, clearly satisfied with Wylan. “Alright.”

            When he got home that night, he knew it was a good time to get as much reading done before his mind went back to scrambled eggs. The apartment was silent, so he assumed Jesper wasn’t there. He placed his textbooks on the table, set his laptop up, and opened a document to start another English Lit assignment. It wasn’t due for another week and a half, but if he started out strong, maybe it would be easier. Quickly checking his grades, his eyes flitted over the numbers, feeling every bit of glee as he read them effortlessly, and the numbers were high, especially in Chemistry and Calculus. But his eyes landed on a number that made his throat clench, and he was sure he read it wrong. Maybe he was losing his edge.

            But no. The numbers were there and true. 43. 43?

            How did he get a 43 in American History? He quickly clicked on the teacher’s notes, but the words were jumbled together, he couldn’t read it, but maybe it was because his eyes were swimming in something other than letters. Panic started to rise in his chest.

            Suddenly, he wasn’t up to writing anything at all…for a very, very long time.

 

            **********************

 

            Can’t sleep.

            The urge was strong tonight. Jesper could feel it in his stomach, squeezing around his gut and tightening his lungs. He knew the feeling; it had been slowly nagging him since he moved into this apartment. The need for dice, the lust for the spinning, the yearning for some brandy; Jesper felt it all. All of that pent-up desire was coursing through his veins in the dead of night. He checked his phone. 2:18am. He was too restless to mess around on social media. He was too tired to have a conversation (though he was sure that Nina was up, too, cramming for her next exam). He was too tempted to leave the apartment. He knew that as soon as he left the building, his legs would lead him to a familiar hell-hole that smelled of sweat, vodka, and risk. And then he would have no reason to turn around.

            He groaned, rubbing his face, sitting up. His head swam for a moment, and then his stomach growled so intensely, he felt it in his throat. He remembered with disdain he didn’t eat at all the day before. It wasn’t on purpose, he just forgot.  

            Suddenly, he was going down the stairs, making sure to keep his footsteps soft. The last thing he wanted to do was have Wylan mad at him for waking him up in the butt crack of night.

            He turned the corner for the kitchen, bumping his thigh on the sharp edge of the dining room table. He winced. It was pitch black in the apartment, and he slowed his pace, praying that he didn’t hurt himself any further. The blood rushing in his ears was almost too much to handle; he could practically feel his heartbeat in his tongue, for Christ’s sake.

            Jesper scaled his hand across the wall, and his fingers caught on the light switch. Quickly preparing himself for the blaring light of the kitchen, he closed his eyes, flipped the switch, and saw the orange light through his lids. But when he opened his eyes slowly, the kitchen wasn’t quite as empty as he had hoped.

            Wylan stood in front of the stove, staring at a small pot of water, his hair sticking every which way. He was looking at Jesper with wide eyes, his face paler than ever. That’s when Jesper realized Wylan was naked.

            Well, not naked, but severely underdressed. He wore nothing but plaid boxers, which hung low over his thin hips.

            Jesper thanked God he decided to go to bed with a shirt and shorts. He rubbed his eyes, trying to act casual. “Couldn’t sleep?” Wylan asked in a tight voice.

            “I’m hungry.”

            “I was…uh, gonna make some pastaroni.”

            “Right up my alley.” Jesper had never heard of it, but it seemed easier than finding something to eat himself. Then he took some cautious steps forward, and turned the burner on. “Were you planning on doing that?” he asked with a smirk.

            Wylan swallowed, pinking in the slightest. “I guess I wasn’t thinking straight.”

            Jesper bumped him aside with his hip. “I’ll finish this for you. Go sit down, sleepyhead.” He picked up the box of noodles and read the directions.

            Wylan turned his back to the counter across from the stove, and hoisted himself onto the ledge, his legs kicking back and forth. He really did look like a toddler, with mannerisms like that. His ruddy curls fell in front of his eyes, and he pushed them back with his palm. Jesper noticed he wasn’t wearing his glasses.

            “Can you even see?” Jesper asked, cutting butter and sliding it into the pot.

            Wylan shrugged. “A little.”

            “I guess with all the lights off you don’t really need to see, huh?” Jesper laughed, but it was uneasy.

            An uncomfortable silence settled over them. Jesper kept his eyes on the water, the tiniest bubbles beginning to form at the bottom of the pot. They rose to the surface and broke apart.

            “Hey,” Jesper said gently, “You okay?”

            Wylan looked at Jesper and nodded. “Yeah.”

            The water was boiling. Jesper let the steam rise to his face, feeling the warmth and smelling the melted butter. He poured the pasta and seasonings in, and stirred.

            “Are you?” he asked.

            Wylan swallowed again, this time the knot in his throat dipping deeper. “I don’t know.”

            More stirring. The pasta smelled good. “Do you want to talk about it?”

            “Not really.”

            Jesper looked at him, studying his eyes. Wylan’s eye contact was steady, and Jesper was almost convinced, until there. His gaze wavered drastically. Jesper would’ve been an idiot not to see it.

            “Wylan.”

            Suddenly, Wylan’s eyes shimmered. His eyes dropped to his knees and he sniffed. “I really don’t want to talk about it.”

            Jesper immediately felt shame for pushing. “No, I’m sorry. That’s fine.”

            Wylan pushed himself off of the counter, landing silently, and went to get bowls for their meals. The silence in the kitchen was deafening, and Jesper wished his witty banter was natural enough for him to carry it out after-hours. But with Wylan in a mood, Jesper wasn’t sure if he wanted to be played with.

            He finished the noodles, which smelled almost too good to be true, and tasted even better. If this is what artificial flavoring and preservatives got you, Jesper certainly wouldn’t mind a few semesters of this. It was almost good enough to distract him from the fact that Wylan looked like he was having a mental breakdown inside his head. Jesper was leaned up against the table, one of his legs hitched on the corner for balance, and Wylan was back up on the counter, eating his noodles soundlessly.

            “I wanted to say,” Wylan began quietly, and Jesper breathed a sigh of relief, “that I really like your friends. I know that I act standoffish around them, but I really like it when they come around.”

            Jesper had no idea where this was coming from, but he appreciated it all the same. “Wow, um, thank you. Nina and Inej will both be glad to hear that. They really like you, too.”

            Wylan gave a small smile, and suddenly the room seemed all the brighter. “I really like your friends,” Jesper continued with a sly smile. “What’s up with you and Nikolai?”

            Wylan laughed out loud, and Jesper had the feeling that he had gotten this question many times before. “We’re just friends, I swear. Nikolai is very…flamboyant, and really enjoys showing off. Alina is his girlfriend.”

            Ah, Jesper thought. “That makes much more sense,” he said, and Wylan raised an eyebrow. “I just mean,” Jesper added quickly, “Nevermind. He seems fun, I’d like to see more of both of them.”

            “Noted.” Another smile. Jesper was nearly blind now. He wished Wylan was wearing his glasses.

           

Chapter Text

            I’m going to do this. You’re going to do this, Wylan thought to himself. He stared at himself in the mirror, fully dressed in a button up and cardigan, glasses, and his nice jeans. He looked…okay, not bad. His hair had decided to cooperate that morning after his shower, the curls staying nicely in place, rather than the tangle they usually reside in.

            He pushed back his hair and heaved a sigh. He was going to class for the first time in a week and a half, and the flutter of anxiety in his stomach was so relentless, he skipped breakfast from fear of retching it back up minutes after. He had plans to meet Kuwei for lunch after classes ended, but he was sure he would end up moving his meal around for appearances with his organs in shambles.

            The door opened suddenly, and Wylan jumped at the sound of the door banging off the wall from the force.

            “Jesus Christ,” he said, out of breath. Jesper stood in the doorway, looking at him in shock.

            “I thought you already left,” Jesper said.

            “Do you usually use my bathroom when I’m away?” Wylan leaned over the sink to apply concealer under his eyelids. He really needed to improve his sleep schedule; the bags under his eyes were terrible.

            Jesper squeezed past him and took a roll of toilet paper. “Nah, I just need this.”

            “There are refills in the laundry room, in the cabinet over the washing machine.”

            “Yeah, but your bathroom is closer than the laundry room and I’m lazy.”

            Wylan rolled his eyes and dabbed his sponge on his skin, smoothing out the product. Jesper turned to leave, but then doubled back around and watched Wylan for a long moment. The pink started to rise in Wylan’s cheeks as the seconds dragged on.

            “What?”

            “I didn’t know you wore makeup.”

            Wylan glanced back at him. “Not enough for people to take notice, but yeah, I wear it.”

            Jesper laughed, but there was no judgment in his voice. “Dude, that’s so gay.”

            “Yeah, well, so are you.”

            Jesper nearly choked on his laughter. “Is it that obvious?” he asked, a quirk in his lip.

            “Strikingly so, darling.” And then Wylan closed the door in Jesper's face, his own cheeks nearly catching aflame. 

Chapter Text

            “Jesper? It’s your father. I wanted to…I don’t know, just seeing what you’re up to. How are classes? Call me back.”

 

            “Jes, call me.”

 

            “It’s your father. Give me a call.”

 

            “Jesper? Please call me.”

 

            Jesper stared at his phone. The missed calls had evolved into purposeful, and the impending doom was beginning to loom over him every day. It had been a month and a half since he had had a conversation with his father, who was still laboring on the farm hundreds of miles away. Sometimes, he missed the yellow wide fields, the sky of endless blue, the little old farmhouse with a little old windmill out front. He missed making breakfast for Da, bacon and fresh eggs, milk in a pitcher, pancakes sizzling in too much butter, but he knew that’s just how Da liked it. He would pick a few wild flowers from the yard and put them in a crummy vase, but it didn’t matter how tattered the presentation of the breakfast table was, because it was all worth it when Da came in through the back door, flushed and sweaty from the morning chores, and seeing a grin break across his face, and his eyes would light up like stars. That’s what made it worth it. Who cared if the bacon was a little too crispy, or if the eggs were scorched?

            Jesper began to dial. Da doesn’t deserve this, he scolded himself, Da doesn’t deserve you. He held the phone up to his ear, and waited. Pick up, please pick up.

            “Hello?”

            He blew out a silent breath. “Da,” he said, breathless.

            “Jes? Is that you?”

            Jesper gripped the phone with both hands. “Yeah…yeah, Da, it’s Jes.”

            He could practically hear Da grin through the phone line. “It’s…so nice to hear your voice.”

            “It’s nice to hear you, too.”

            “So! Where have you been, why haven’t you been returning my calls?” There was no accusation in Da’s voice, but he did sound sad.

            “I-I’m sorry, things have just been so hectic for the past few weeks, ya know. Classes are insane, and the café has been giving me more and more hours, and the whole thing with the

 apar – dorm took forever.”

            “Has everything been situated?”

            Jesper took a glance around the kitchen. “Yeah, it’s worked out great.”

            “How are the people there? Professors? Have you made any friends?”

            The eagerness in his father’s voice made Jesper’s heart leap, and then darken with guilt. This was what he was avoiding? “Da, college students don’t make friends. We meet people, hang out for four plus years, and then drink the memories away.”

            “Oh, hush now, you know that’s not true.” Jesper was forever in awe of his father’s denial of how the world really worked.

            He shouldered his phone to his ear and began to bite his nails. “How’s the farm?”

            Da sighed. “As well as it can be. The summer really did a number on the crops, but they’re recovering. Those strawberries are finally growing; I honestly thought they never would. Oh and Big Bertha finally gave birth, you know, to her twins. Such a messy birth, you would’ve been a real big help in that area. Oh, and – ”

            Jesper couldn’t help but space out. He enjoyed listening to his father’s eager talk of the farm. That was the only life he had ever known, getting up at the butt crack of dawn, and never resting until every animal is properly catered to, and every plant is perfectly nurtured. The farm hands helped, but Da never let them do the job for him. Dalia helped with the milking and tending to the younger animals and chasing off infection, while Rotty was their shipment hand, who made sure every bag of feed, every carton of eggs, and every jar of jam was flawlessly administered. Adam was their oldest helper, and he had been working with the farm the longest. He practically helped raise Jesper once his mother passed away. Adam was Jesper’s godfather, and there was no one that Da trusted more. Da split the profit clean in half every month with him, and Adam was the manager of the farm.

            Jesper started thinking about his own finances, his job, and how many extra hours he was going to have to work every week to pay for his food, gas, debt, and somehow get rent and utility money to Wylan by the end of the month. He had a dreading feeling that Wylan wasn’t telling him the true cost of the apartment, and though Jesper’s bank account was grateful, he couldn’t help but despise the idea of it.

            With his father’s voice still in the background (and Jesper encouraging him with overeager yet absentminded comments and questions), he had the undeniable though that Kaz had money. Loads of it. He never flaunted it, didn’t even have a decent car, but Jesper had a sharpshooter’s eye. He noticed the clues hidden in plain sight. The solid gold cufflinks on his sleeves, the silver buckles on his shoes, the quality of his gloves. Perhaps the only evident sign was his crow’s head cane. An unorthodox walking stick that couldn’t help but call attention to itself, he brought it everywhere. Jesper had only asked once how Kaz injured his leg, but Kaz only shot him a glare that could rot fruit and said, “I broke it. It didn’t heal right. Anymore invasive questions?” So he never asked again.

            Jesper knew Kaz had much more money than he would ever let on. So why was Jesper giving him information about Wylan for free?

            The thought alone seemed to smack him across the face. How could he do such a thing?

            To Kaz? he asked himself, Or to Wylan?

            He didn’t know, and before he could figure it out, his father’s voice snapped him back into reality.

            “Jes? Are you still there?”

            “Oh – uh yeah, yeah I’m here.”

            Da sighed, and Jesper felt a sharp pang of guilt. His father hadn’t heard his voice in months, and the one time Jesper isn’t actively ignoring him, he can’t take the time to listen for more than a few minutes? Some kind of son you are, he scolded himself.

            “I was just saying I had to lay Dalia off this past week,” Da continued.

            Jesper’s heart sank. He really liked Dalia. She was bossy as all get out, and smacked his rump with a wooden spoon more times than he cared to recall, but her hugs were always the tightest, and her love was nothing less than remarkably genuine. She was the closest thing he had to a mother since his first one passed. “Dalia? Why?”

            He could hear his father try not to sound too upset. “Finances. We just couldn’t keep up. And let’s face it, I could do with a little more labor in my regimen.”

            “I’m really sorry, Da,” Jesper said. “What about Adam and Rotty?”

            “They’re still here, but I’m not sure for how much longer. I can’t afford to lose them, but at some point…if things don’t get better…I won’t be able to afford them staying either.”

            Jesper squeezed his eyes shut. Rotty was only a few years older than he was. He lived with his single mother and four little sisters. He was their only source of income. Da couldn’t lay him off. Not over this.

            “I shouldn’t have left.”

            “Don’t be ridiculous. You’re getting your education. That’s more important than anything right now.”

            “Da, you’re struggling. Let me come home, with the money I have now. I can come back next year, or whenever things get better. College can wait.” He didn’t quite think through his words, as much as he meant them. Coming home would mean explaining to his father why he was so far in debt, explain what awful choices he made to lead him in this pit of shame.

            “Absolutely not. Perhaps, after this semester, you can come home for a break. But you’re not dropping out now. That would just be foolish.”

            “Yeah…yeah you’re right. I’m still coming for the holidays, though, right? Christmas?”

            He could hear his father grin through the phone. It was the greatest sound. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

            Jesper really, really, really sucked.

 

            ****************************************

           

            Wylan couldn’t stand salad. Why did he get salad? He never eats salad. It just moved across his plate, back and forth, back and forth, until the sight of the dressing-soaked lettuce leaves made him physically sick, and he had to push his plate away.

            Kuwei was rambling. His words jumbled together and Wylan couldn’t make sense of them. Americans speak fast? Had Kuwei heard himself talk about isotopes? It didn’t help that he was talking in between bites of food, thankfully pausing his voice, but also his train of thought. As soon as he swallowed, his brain had already thought of another topic.

            Why did Wylan agree to this?

            “What’s wrong with you?” Kuwei asked casually, biting into his sandwich.

            Wylan’s head snapped up. “Hm?” Maybe if he acted like he hadn’t heard the question, Kuwei would leave it along.

            Wrong. “You’re acting like I ran over your cat.”

            “I don’t have a cat.”

            “You’re not even responding to analogies? Something’s wrong, I can tell. Yuck it up.”

            Wylan shrugged, which probably just made him seem moodier than he had intended. “I just have a lot on my mind.”

            “Tea to spill?”

            Wylan chuckled. Kuwei would deny the heck out of it, but he lived for the drama. He sucked in information like a vacuum. He never spat it back out, but he liked the adrenaline rush.

            “No, no tea.”

            “Not even green?”

            “Not even water.”

            “It was worth the ask.”

            “Do you want to go back to the apartment? This salad isn’t setting well with me.”

            Kuwei nodded and finished the rest of his meal in a single bite. “You haven’t eaten anything, but yeah, sure.”

            They got up to leave, leaving cash and a tip with Kuwei’s empty plate and Wylan’s untouched meal. Before they stepped through the door, Kuwei asked, “Is Jesper gonna be there?”

            Wylan nodded, “He should be…why?”

            His friend’s cheeks pinked. “No reason.”

            Lord have mercy.

Chapter Text

            The front door banged open and Jesper jumped at the sound. He had been staring at his phone for who knows how long at the kitchen table. Wylan and Kuwei made their way through the door and set their belongings on the counter. Kuwei was wearing a low-cut tank top and pastel shorts. No straight man could ever pull that outfit off, Jesper told himself, locking away that potentially vital piece of information. Kuwei was talking nonstop about some sciencey stuff that Jesper was simply too uninterested to ever understand.

            “Hey, Jes,” Kuwei greeted and made his way to the couch.

            Jesper murmured a response, somewhat distracted with Wylan’s current demeanor. He held his head low and was gnawing on his bottom lip, swollen and red.  He stood in the kitchen, eyes glazed over, facing the fridge. He swung his arm to catch on the handle and yanked the door open haphazardly and stared inside, showing no expression.

            Jesper glanced over to Kuwei, who was sipping from a cup they got from whatever restaurant they were at before. He looked completely undisturbed by Wylan’s state, just happily slurping down his Coke, twiddling his thumbs.

            The atmosphere seemed to change, and Jesper hopelessly tried not to notice. Everything was too quiet, and Wylan was moving too slowly. After a few minutes of suffocating silence, Wylan slowly slugged up the stairs and closed his bedroom door behind him.

            Jesper furrowed his brow and went to sit next to Kuwei on the couch, who was watching cable.

            “Hey,” Kuwei said, glancing at him and flipping through channels.

            “Hey,” Jesper replied quickly. “So…?”

            Kuwei cocked his head to the side. “So what?”

            “What was that all about?”

            “What was what all about?”

            “That.” He pointed to Wylan’s bedroom door.

            Kuwei just smiled curiously. “What do you mean? That’s just Wylan.”

            “Is he always like that?”

            “Like what?”

            Oh, for the love of God, Jesper ran a hand over his eyes, already feeling a minor headache coming on. “Like…mopey, and quiet.”

            “Well…yeah, kind of. How long have you known him?”

            “Only a few weeks,” Jesper said.

            Kuwei chuckled, “That’s why. Yeah, he gets this way sometimes. I used to get all butt hurt about it, but you just have to not take it personally.”

            Jesper shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “What causes it?”

            Kuwei shrugged, still staring at the television. “School, mostly. Social life, work, his dad…stuff like that.”

            “His dad?”

            Kuwei turned up the television’s volume. “It’s kind of personal. He’ll tell you about it eventually. Long story short, his dad is not all kittens and rainbows.”

            Interesting, Jesper told himself. Would Kaz be interested in such information? He probably already knows.

            “Ah,” was all he could say. They sat on the couch, absentmindedly watching the Food Channel. That is until Cutthroat Kitchen comes on the screen, and then there’s shouting and frustrated cries omitting from them both throughout the entire episode.

            “You’re making spaghetti and meatballs!” shrieks Kuwei. “How could you forget the beef?”

            “This is ridiculous,” Jesper groaned, hiding behind his hands. “How is she going to perfect her pasta with a friggin’ rubber chicken taped to both her hands?”

            “Alton Brown, you son of a gun,” Kuwei laughed, slapping his knee.

            Jesper chuckled at his choice of words. “Where on Earth did you hear that term?”

            “You’ve never heard Wylan say that?”

            “No, but now I’ve got to.”

            Jesper couldn’t help but notice, sitting next to him, that Kuwei was quite physical. Whenever something especially humorous happened to one of the contestants, Kuwei laughed out loud and tapped Jesper’s knee multiple times with his hand. When silence fell over the kitchen, and the anticipation was building to see who was to be voted off for this round, Kuwei, mouth agape, lightly put his hands on Jesper’s shoulder and made a squeaking sound. Jesper normally didn’t like being touched; it made his skin crawl more than normal. But he didn’t mind when Kuwei did it.

            After a few more episodes of a non-stop mixture of laughter and yelling, Jesper finally heard the faint click of a bedroom door opening and saw Wylan coming down the spiral steps. His hair was disheveled, his cheeks red and marked from the nap he must’ve been taking, and his eyes were still filled with sleep. He walked slowly and rubbed his eyes, yawning, like something out of a cartoon. Then he caught sight of Kuwei and Jesper sitting on the couch.

            “You’re still here?” he said flatly.

            Kuwei gave a smile, “Yes, but I can head out if I need to.”

            Wylan nodded, “Yeah.”

            Jesper furrowed his brow, taken aback by Wylan’s stern voice. Kuwei didn’t seem bothered, surprisingly, and hoisted himself off of the couch. He walked towards Wylan and gave a small tug on his chin. “Perk up, buttercup,” he said sweetly, and then he left.

            Wylan shuffled into the kitchen and began to root around for a snack.

            Jesper was unnerved. “What was that?” he asked Wylan, walking up behind him.

            Wylan didn’t look at him. “What?”

            “That? Why’re you being a jerk?”

            “All I did was ask if he was still here.”

            “You practically told him to get lost.”

            “Look,” Wylan said, finally turning around and sounding exhausted. “Kuwei and I have a certain dynamic. It works for both of us and no one gets hurt. If I don’t want him around, he’ll leave. If I begin to annoy him, he lets me know. That’s just how we work. I’m sorry you have a problem with it, but it looks like you’re developing your own dynamic with him, so…” His voice trailed off, and he was rooting again.

            “So…what?”

            “So! Leave me alone about it, okay?”

            Jesper wondered if Kaz would be interested in this change of mood. Was it significant or was it just a bad day?

            Jesper decided to leave Wylan for now, and get some homework done in his room. Before he closed his bedroom door, he caught a last glimpse of the boy, staring at the wall with no light in his eyes.

 

 

            ************************************************************************

 

            Wylan one hundred percent knew that Kuwei was still there when he came out from his room a few hours later. He had heard them howling and carrying on for much too long, and with his head already pounding in pain and self-loathing, he knew it was time to make Kuwei go home. He felt sort of bad, being so curt with him, but he knew Kuwei wouldn’t take offense. He would probably just text him later that day, wondering if Wylan was okay, in which Wylan would lie and tell him he was.

            He really needed to get out of this funk, for the sake of Jesper and himself. When he was upset, he was a miserable person to be around. He never tried to pick fights, but somehow unnecessary arguments seemed to follow him around like a dark cloud. He would boss whoever was around to command and spent too much time wallowing in his room. His homework would practically lay in the corner, untouched until Wylan’s mood picked back up. The funk had only been lasting a few days, ever since he got that American History grade, but it was such a heavy blow, Wylan wondered in agony how long his mood would drag him down.

            Jesper seemed to be the only one that was directly affected and was pissed off, which pissed off Wylan and that just made it all worse. When Jesper disappeared into his room, Wylan screamed at himself to apologize and reach out, but instead, he just stood there like an idiot, possibly damaging their relationship for a good while.

            That night, after Wylan spent a few hours stressing and finally giving up to rest on the couch, Jesper came down to make some dinner. Wylan kept quiet, hoping to God that Jesper wasn’t upset with him.

            Jesper heated up leftover some yellow rice and black beans he made the day before, and right as Wylan was getting up to get himself some food, Jesper placed a warm bowl of food in his lap and sat beside him.

            “Oh,” Wylan said stupidly. “You didn’t have to.”

            “Nah, it wasn’t trouble.”

            Jesper examined Wylan’s features, and Wylan could feel his cheeks heating up. Then, quietly, Jesper asked, “What’s been going on?”

            “W-what do you mean?”

            “C’mon Wylan, I’m not dumb. You’re grumpy. I don’t know you much, but I know it isn’t you.”

            Wylan was silent for a long moment, stirring his rice and beans together slowly and staring straight into his bowl. “I’ve just had…a lot going on.”

            Jesper paused. “Like what?”

            A shrug. “I dunno…school stuff.”

            “Teachers?”

            Wylan shook his head. “No, they’re fine,” he practically whispered.

            Jesper sat back and sighed. “Look…I don’t want to push, honest. But if we’re going to have a ‘certain dynamic’ like you and Kuwei, we have to work it out. You have to be honest with me, so I can work around that. That way, everyone is hunky-dory, you dig?”

            Wylan finally looked at him and found his gray eyes sparkling with earnest. He took a deep breath. “I just got a really bad grade that I worked hard for. It’s damaged my final grade, and I’ve just been upset about it.”

            Jesper nodded, his jaw working. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he said. “Do you need help with studying? I can’t help, but Inej is the person I go to when I need to stay on track. She would love to help you.”

            “That…that would be great, actually.” Wylan gave a small smile, at last feeling a glimmer of warmth in his heart.

            Jesper’s face broke out into a grin, his teeth glowing in a beam. “I’ll give her a call and she can come over tomorrow?”

            Wylan chuckled softly, suddenly feeling embarrassed and tearful. “Yeah…yeah. Sounds like a plan.” Then he forced himself to look straight into his eyes. “Thank you.”

            Jesper winked. “Sounds like a plan.”

Chapter Text

            “Wylan?”

            Wylan’s head snapped up. He seemed to be doing that a lot lately, getting lost in his anxiety and thoughts, too distracted to listen to the few people who would give him the light of day. H

            His blue eyes met with Inej’s warm brown ones. She held a pencil between her fingers and had pulled out a blank notebook. Wylan’s worst nightmare.

            “So, Jesper told me this is American history?” she confirmed in a light voice.

            Wylan nodded and folded his hands in his lap.

            “Do you have your textbook?” she asked, writing the date on the top of the page.

            Wylan quickly pulled up his e-book and showed it to her. She studied the page slowly, her eyes moving across the screen, completely enveloped in the words. Is this what true reading looks like? She looked so focused, like every letter made sense and stayed in its place. Wylan bit his lip.

            After a few minutes, Inej nodded and made a soft humming noise, writing a couple of words at the top of the page. The Red Scare.

            “So, this entire module is about communism, yeah?” she asked.

            Wylan nodded. Speak, you idiot. Give her something to work with. “Yeah. Especially in the 1940s and the 1950s.”

            Inej nodded and scribbled down a couple more words. “So, basically the Red Scare is the – ”  

            “I don’t mean to interrupt,” Wylan said quickly, absolutely meaning to interrupt, “But I already know the intro part. It’s just the…technical stuff I get confused on.”

            “What do you mean?”

            Why were words so hard? Wylan had never depended on them to get through anything, so why start now? Because someone actually cares enough to help your sorry behind.

            “I just…when it comes to politics, I have a hard time…comprehending, I guess? The stuff that I’m supposed to be reading. When it comes to stocks, and investments, and the economy, it’s all more understandable because it’s numbers. But…I dunno,” Wylan ran a hand through his hair and groaned. He was practically dragging words straight out of his throat with a hot pair of pliers. “It’s just hard to…read.”

            Inej nodded slowly, examining his face. She was using her physic superpowers, probably, and knew exactly what he was trying to say.

            “Can I ask you something?”

            The worst five words in the English dictionary. He felt a shiver slip down his spine and nodded.

            “Do you have dyslexia?”

            He breathed a sigh of relief. She doesn’t know the half of it. He forced a blush and shifted in his seat. “Um…yeah.”

            “How bad is it?”

            “Bad enough for me to struggle even though I’m a grown man.”

            Inej laughed, and it was a beautiful sound. Genuine and sweet like syrup. Others would take offense, but her eyes lit up like fireflies, so he didn’t mind one bit. “Have you tried tutoring?”

            Wylan smiled back at her. “I thought this was what I was doing right now.”

            “Does anyone else know?”

            “Some of my teachers…my dad…” He didn’t have to force the blush anymore. “But Jesper and Kuwei don’t know, and I don’t think it’d be a great idea to tell them.”

            “Does Kaz know?”

            An oddly specific question, but Wylan knew he couldn’t lie. “Yeah, he does. Somehow, against all nature, I trusted him enough to tell him.”

            Another laugh, lighter this time, but still pleasant. “We can work with this.”

            Two hours later, as both of them were knee deep into Wylan’s third assignment that they had to complete for today (which was more progress that Wylan could get done in a week on his own), Inej scooted closer to Wylan and placed her hand on top of his.

            Wylan looked at her, and she smiled. She squeezed his hand gently. “Thank you,” she said.

            “For what?” asked Wylan, squeezing back.

            “For letting me in.”

            Oh. Had he done that? Possibly. He realized he felt his most vulnerable around Inej, knowing good and well that she knew exactly what he was thinking at every moment. With the whole dyslexia ordeal, he supposed he allowed Inej into his heart. He held most people at arm’s length, letting them think they’re getting closer to him, pretending certain aspects about him were personal when they weren’t, making up secrets that weren’t near as awful as the ones he had locked up.

            “You’re welcome.”

 

 ***********************************************************

 

            Today was the day Kaz was meeting up with Jesper for their first discussion. Jesper tried to remember every detail about Wylan he had been collecting for the past couple of weeks so Kaz wouldn’t mutilate him for wasting his valuable time.

            “I’m clocking out, Jen,” Jesper called to his manager. She shot him two thumbs up, and he hung up his apron on his hook, but not before he made himself a caramel latte and snagged some biscotti. Right before he left, he debated whether he should get Kaz a black coffee. Looking back on the series of events that involved him, Jesper shook the notion out of his head.

            They were to meet at Kaz’s apartment, which was just as you would imagine it would be. Clean, precise, almost fake. The only part of the apartment that was out of order was his office, where he did his work and finances, papers piled higher than the Empire State Building, fancy pens shoved into anything that would hold them. Every other room had no sign of personal belongings, like pictures or trinkets. Jesper knew that if he looked hard enough, he would be able to find something, a deep, dark, hidden secret possession Kaz had, that showed the world that he had some sort of heart in his stone cold chest.

            Jesper knocked on the door and took a sip of his still-scorching coffee, in hopes that it would somehow set aflame to the knots in his stomach. Why did he always get this way around Kaz? Did Kaz terrify him? The answer was simple when the door opened and Jesper practically jumped out of his skin.

            Kaz looked at him, and for a fleeting second, surprise flashed in his eyes. But then his jaw set and he shifted off of his bad leg. “I forgot you were coming today.”

            Kaz forgot? That’s not like him at all. Jesper felt a pang of panic. “I can come back another time.”

            “No, it’s fine. I’m not busy for another hour and a half. Come in.”

            It was then that Jesper realized what Kaz was wearing, and he just about dropped his latte. A black V-neck and stone washed jeans.

            Jesper had never seen Kaz this exposed before, and felt a strange stirring in his chest. But he pushed any reaction he was planning on displaying and followed Kaz inside.

            The only signs of living were the mug of coffee on the kitchen counter and a remote on his couch, with the TV playing silently. But instead of sitting on the couch, Kaz steered him to the table, and they sat on either side.

            “I take it that you don’t have much information?” Kaz said.

            Jesper shook his head, “Not much, but a bit.”

            “That’s to be expected.”

            Jesper told him what little bit of information Wylan and Kuwei mentioned about Jan Van Eck and Wylan’s mental health. Jesper described what Wylan was like when he was in a mood; isolated, grumpy, eager to carry on an argument, lack of motivation.

            Kaz watched Jesper carefully, which made him nervous, but it showed he was actually paying attention for once in his life. Jesper tried to prolong the information for as long as possible, in fear of Kaz’s response.

            When he was finally finished, Kaz sat back in his chair and nodded, working his jaw. “Okay.”

            “Okay?”

            “That’s about all I need for right now, thank you.”

            Jesper didn’t know what he expected, but he should’ve seen this coming. “So I can leave?” He tried to make it seem like he had somewhere to be, but Kaz saw all.

            “That would be preferable if you’re finished.”

            Jesper stood up, hoping that Kaz couldn’t physically feel the heat radiating off of his face, blasting him like a furnace. “Have fun exploiting my roommate.”

            Without moving, Kaz rolled his eyes. “Don’t.”

            So he didn’t. He just left.

            When he got home, he sucked up any irritation and set his things on the table. Inej and Wylan were entirely engrossed in their work: Inej scribbling down notes just as fast as Wylan was talking. They looked like a well-oiled machine. Jesper tried to move past the table without calling too much attention to himself, but Wylan beamed at him anyway.

            “Hi!” he said happily. Jesper had rarely seen him in this good of a mood, and couldn’t help but grin back at him.

            “Hey, you,” he said, flicking a few of Wylan’s curls. “Getting lots done?”

            Inej nodded, “He’s doing great.”

            Jesper laughed as Wylan’s chest literally puffed up with pride. “Good to hear. Hey, Nina is coming to pick you up, right?” he asked Inej.

            “Yeah, but I think we’re gonna stay here a little longer. Neither of us has anything to do today.”

            “Okay, cool.”

            Wylan grimaced. “Shoot.”

            Jesper cocked an eyebrow. “What’s up?”

            “I forgot Kuwei is coming over, too. He has my camcorder again.”

            “Good Lord. All five of us in the same apartment…the world might just explode from the magnitude.”

            “Matthias might be coming, too,” Inej said quietly, suppressing a smile. “He still hasn’t seen the apartment.”

            Wylan went pale. “Sweet mercy.”

            When Nina did arrive, she did have a grumpy Matthias in tow. He had his longish dirty blonde hair in a man-bun that he could somehow pull off. Nina was wearing a red sundress and heels, which made her slightly taller than Matthias. But from the way Matthias couldn’t keep his eyes off of her, neither of them seemed to mind. They never really did.

            “Babe!” Nina exclaimed, walking towards the table. The three, Inej, Wylan, and Jesper, weren’t quite sure who she was addressing, so they made a joint greeting.

            “Matthias, isn’t this place great?” Nina asked, poking his arm.

            Matthias looked around, the edges of his mouth turning down. “It’s messy.”

            “I like to think of it as organized chaos,” Jesper said.

            “You guys have food?” Nina asked, and Jesper saw she was already standing in front of the fridge.

            “Not any snacks, but we can order a pizza if you guys are hungry,” Wylan offered.

            “I’ll keep that in mind,” Nina winked.

            ***********************************************************

            By the time Kuwei got there, the color drained out of his face as he saw them around the coffee table in the living room, howling in laughter with mouths of pizza. Wylan sprang up and approached Kuwei with a smile.

            “Hey man, come join us,” he said, taking the camcorder and replacing it with a ten dollar bill.

            Kuwei looked considerably hesitant. “So many people,” he said. “So many Americans.”

            “Actually, Nina speaks fluent Japanese,” Wylan told him.

            “Which one is Nina?”

            “The one attempting to put two slices of pizza in her mouth at the same time.”

            “I’m in love.”

            Kuwei and Nina hit it right off, having an unnaturally fast-paced conversation in Japanese, frequently murmuring something to each other and breaking into hysterical laughter. Matthias was growing increasingly agitated; probably convinced they were talking about him. Jesper and Wylan sat next to each other, them, Inej, and Kuwei all squished onto the main couch, and Nina and Matthias practically on top of each other in the love seat.

            Wylan felt, for the first time in a long time, pure, unadulterated glee in his heart. Inej reached out to him. He was among friends. His stomach was full of pizza and laughter. What could be better?

            Slowly but surely, his worries seemed to gather in the back of his mind, only to be unboxed at a later date. Instead, he focused on the present. Nina was absentmindedly braiding Matthias’s hair, Kuwei was talking excitedly to Jesper about the newest Japanese soap opera on Netflix, and Inej was pulling flowers from the vase on the table and sticking the blossoms in Matthias’s hair, laughing the whole time. The entire room seemed bright and alive, and Wylan had never felt such warmth in his heart. These people were keepers.

            “Matthias!” Jesper gasped, when Nina, practically shrieking with giggles, turned him around to show everyone his hair. “You look like a princess!”

            Matthias frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean? You mean a king can’t look like this?”

            “I’d have you rule my kingdom any day,” Kuwei said with a lip bite and a raised eyebrow.

            Wylan was pretty sure Nina and Inej stopped breathing entirely and focused solely on clutching their stomachs in hysterics.