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Crooked, Heartsick Crows

Chapter Text

Sesh-uyeh. Heartsick. That was the only way Kuwei could describe this anxious feeling, this twisting, turning, tumbling dragon that had taken over his stomach. I should just go to sleep. If he was wide-awake the next day, maybe he would be able to say something clever. The way Jesper does. With one word, the Zemeni boy could make Wylan blush, Matthias grunt, Inej grin, Kaz get the glint in his eye that had come to be known as “scheming face,” and Nina throw up her hands in exasperation, knowing that she had once again been out-flirted. He was the only chance for her to make a comeback, though he had no interest in girls. He couldn’t give Jesper an automatic win either—he was too good at hiding his feelings. At least, he always thought he was.
The text message Kaz had sent five minutes ago still glinted on his screen:
Kaz: I can tell you’ve got your eye on someone. Don’t worry, I won’t tell
Kuwei sighed, knowing that Kaz would use this against him later when he needed something done. Something Wylan could easily do if he wasn’t always watching Jesper, making sure he didn’t fall back on bad habits. The situation appeared to be lose-lose, but his father’s words echoed in his head: There’s always something you can learn.
Kuwei: How did you know?
Kaz: Let’s just say I have experience
Kuwei: ???
Kaz: It’s not my story to tell
Kuwei yawned. He knew Kaz wasn’t going to spill, and that was motivation enough to attempt to sleep. He yawned again, double-checking his alarm, then laid back down in bed.
This school year was certainly going to be interesting.

Chapter Text

“Come on! Let’s go to the band room!” Wylan tugged on Jesper’s arm, prepared to drag him all the way down the hall if needed.
Jesper shook his head. “Merchling, slow down—we’re not even all here yet!” He glanced behind them at the propped-open double-doors that separated the music hallway from the cafeteria. Inej was attempting to help Kaz, knowing that his bad leg liked to protest at the many steep inclines in the school’s maze of halls. Matthias still was still in the cafeteria, posture erect, as if he were standing guard. Counting heads, Jesper realized that Nina and Kuwei weren’t there. Matthias could insist otherwise, but the band room still seemed fun to Jesper.
“And here’s where I get to sit this year,” Wylan said proudly, pointing to what Jesper assumed was the first flute chair.
“Aww, someone impressed his teacher,” Jesper teased, chuckling lightly as Wylan’s face turned a light shade of pink.
Wylan shrugged. “He only told me I was the most acceptable of all the flautists.”
Jesper raised an eyebrow, though he was actually extremely proud of his boyfriend’s accomplishment.
“Well, don’t just brag about it, show us something,” Kaz said, having finally made it to the room.
Wylan shook his head, making his ruddy-gold hair flop all over in a way that was extremely irresistible. “I-we-we don’t play on the first day. Nobody brings their instruments.”
“I’m waiting,” Kaz replied, tapping his cane against the floor impatiently.
Glancing around the room with the eyes of a silk-eared puppy, Jesper could tell that his boyfriend was nervous, but his stride was steady as he walked over to the piano. Now it was Kaz’s turn to be impressed. “I see we’ve got a Jack of all trades.”
Wylan blushed even more furiously, taking a deep breath before laying his hands on the keys. The resulting melody wasn’t anything classical like Jesper had expected; instead, it was a fast-paced jazz piece. Judging by the smile on his face, Wylan was clearly having a good time.
“Matthias, you can’t—“ Nina quickly shut her mouth when she heard Wylan’s music. Matthias stood next to her, the two of them blocking the doorway until Kuwei pushed his way through. Laying eyes on the source of the music, he swaggered over to the piano bench and sat down, forcing Wylan to scoot over. He started pressing keys in what appeared to be a random pattern, but it actually sounded… quite nice, paired with Wylan’s melody.
Wylan glared at the other boy but continued on, changing the key. Kuwei raised his eyebrows and did the same. The two continued on like this until Wylan started messing with the foot pedals, which Jesper hadn’t even known existed before now. Kuwei reached one arm around Wylan to hit some of the really ear-piercing notes, forcing their two bodies closer together.
Jesper knew being that close to Wylan’s face would let you count every single freckle—he had tried before, failing when he fell asleep. While Kuwei’s actions didn’t make him jealous, he didn’t want Wylan to feel uncomfortable. He stepped forward, intending to push Kuwei away from his boyfriend, when he noticed the most curious thing: Kuwei wasn’t even looking at Wylan, yet the back of his neck was beet-red.
“Boys, boys, what are you doing?!” the band teacher exclaimed, emerging from his office. Wylan and Kuwei froze.
“Mr. Retvenko, they were just having a little fun,” a voice behind them said, causing everyone to turn. Dunyasha Lazareva stood in the back of the room, twirling her color guard flag in one hand while the other rested on her hip, pearly-white teeth flashing in an angelic grin.
“Ordinarily, that would be fine,” Mr. Retvenko began, “but all three of you know we have a section leaders’ meeting in five minutes.”
“Of course, Mr. Retvenko. That’s why I’m here.”
The teacher turned to the rest of them. “So you all need to go.”
As they filed out of the room, Jesper heard Kaz mutter under his breath, “her fake sweetness his going to make me go deaf.”
“Let’s not go in there ever again,” Matthias responded. For once, everyone could agree.
Jesper still had one question: What the hell was Kuwei doing in band?

Chapter Text

French was as easy as ever, just as Nina expected it to be. Sure, there was that one lovesick couple in the corner that she was pretty sure were making out, but the teacher, Ms. Van Houden (or “Tante,” as that stuck-up bitch Dunyasha liked to call her), really didn’t seem to care. About anything.
“Nina, darling,” Ms. Van Houden cooed as she approached Nina’s desk, “I don’t care if you spend the entire hour texting that boyfriend of yours, but if you receive even one tardy or have any late assignments or failed tests, I’ll make sure the office receives your phone every day, and that you spend all your free time with me. In detention.”
Okay, maybe this woman did care about one thing: ruining Nina’s life. She wasn’t surprised.
“Of course, Ms. Van Houden. Oh, and I love that diamond necklace—where did you get it?” she replied.
“Oh, why thank you, darling, but I’m afraid it’s from a store that’s much too… expensive for a teenager’s wages.”
Nina could feel at least one set of eyes glaring at her from across the room. Dunyasha Lazareva. And behind her, Principal Rollins. Dunyasha was saying something too quiet to hear, her lips forming a pout, but Nina could tell even before the blonde pointed at Nina that their conversation was about her. The principal nodded and made a brief response before walking over to Nina and Ms. Van Houden.
“Heleen,” he said, addressing the teacher, “Can you come out to the hall with me for a second? I’m sure your students will be fine by themselves,” he added when she looked as if she was about to protest. The two left, the classroom door slamming behind them, leaving Nina finally able to get back to her conversation with Kuwei.
Kuwei: Nina, I need your help with something
Nina: Ah, so you’re finally ready to make a move?
Kuwei: KAZ TOLD YOU DIDN’T HE
Nina: No, but it was obvious
Kuwei: How long have you known??
Nina: Can’t say, Van Houden’s coming over
Kuwei: Nina
Kuwei: NINA
Kuwei: NINA I’M GOING TO TEXT MATTHIAS IF YOU DON’T ANSWER ME RIGHT NOW
Nina: okay, calm down
Nina: and please don’t say that again
Nina: you know how much Matt loves engineering class
Kuwei: *rolls eyes*
Nina: but I think I made Dunyasha jealous
Kuwei: ?
Nina: she was glaring daggers at me the whole time Van Houden and I were talking
Kuwei: omg, you just intensified the marching band drama by more than you know
Kuwei: I’m so screwed
Nina: honey, you were already screwed
Nina: ;)
Kuwei: Nina do I need say that thing you told me not to say again?
Nina was about to respond when Van Houden and Rollins entered the room again and made a beeline for Nina’s desk.
“Ms. Zenik, your French teacher has made me aware of your… proficiency… in the language, and if you pass a simple test, we have a… special opportunity for you,” Principal Rollins said, looming over her desk.
Ms. Van Houden’s words from earlier echoed in Nina’s head. So this was what she had been referring to when she said Nina couldn’t fail any tests.
“Of course,” Nina replied. “When would you like me to take it?”
“Right now is fine,” Rollins said dryly, having already lost his amusement towards speaking with her.
“And I hope you don’t have any plans after school, because that’s when your special opportunity starts,” he added when she didn’t make a move to protest.
Nina gathered her things and stood to follow him. She’d have to finish her conversation with Kuwei later.

Chapter Text

Matthias was the image of the perfect student: notebook out, textbook read, attentive, and phone—
Ding!
Fuck.
Mr. Brum continued lecturing until a second shrill ding pierced through his monotone voice. “Whose was that?” he asked.
The class remained silent.
“Unless someone speaks now I’m going to do this the hard way. And that means checking your phones.”
The one girl in the class spoke up. "It was mine." Brum's eyes widened in surprise. “Then you are dismissed,” he said, regaining his composure. Fifteen pairs of eyes followed her out of the room while Brum droned on.
Matthias flipped the switch on his phone, turning it to silent. He’d have to figure out who she was later— he owed her.
Finally Brum stopped lecturing and spared the class from having an assignment on the first day. Matthias knew that meant the next day’s assignment would be twice as long, but that didn’t matter—tonight he had a date with Nina. He used the remaining class time to check the text messages that had piled up.
Kuwei: Nina isn’t answering her phone
Kuwei: She still isn’t
Kuwei: You’re probably really mad at me now for interrupting
Kuwei: I should have listened to her
Matthias It’s ok
Matthias Do you need something?
While he waited for Kuwei to reply, he sent a message to Inej, though he knew she probably wouldn’t get to it before the period ended.
Matthias: Hey, can you track someone down for me? She has engineering same time as I do… or did, before she took the fall for me and Brum kicked her out of class.
Then Kuwei replied.
Kuwei: Did Nina tell you?
Matthias: Tell me what?
Kuwei: Or Kaz?
Matthias: I still don’t know what you’re talking about
Kuwei: Not what. Who.
Matthias: So love advice
Kuwei: Yes
Matthias: Here’s what you do:
1. Acknowledge it
2. Figure out if you can live without acting on it
3. If you can, then wait—if you can’t, then make a plan
4. Reassess # 2 constantly
Kuwei: shit
Matthias: What?
Kuwei: He’s with someone else, but… I also like his boyfriend
Matthias: Oh.
Kuwei: Now what?

Chapter Text

Kaz didn’t really need to take computer science. It was just an excuse for him to pull up code on the school computers without it looking like he was doing anything wrong.
One glance at his phone told him he had a new message from Inej—a rare pleasure during class, since she always insisted on treating the school staff with respect.
Wraith: ID
Wraith: Current info: female, about our age, maybe a year younger, just got kicked out of engineering which she had this period so you’ll need to move quick
Kaz grinned—it was only the first day and already he had a job. While Mr. or Ms. whatever-their-name-was kept reading through the syllabus, Kaz broke into the school’s scheduling system to find the roster for engineering class.
Dirtyhands: Found her. Anika. Junior. Only one in the grade, so even though I couldn’t get a last name she should be easy enough to find.
Wraith: Kaz, why do you always do this to me?
Dirtyhands: You know the rules of my app—no real names. Do you want to get caught?
Kaz’s handiwork meant that no one—albeit the CIA or NSA or any other acronym organization—would ever be able to see their messages, and he kept a privacy screen over his phone in case anyone was looking over his shoulder. A custom job done by Kuwei Yul-Bo himself. Kaz hated to admit it, but sometimes he liked the new kid better than Wylan—having a lab in your own home had its perks. Besides, someone needed to keep an eye on Jesper, and assigning Wylan to the task made it more enjoyable for everyone. Except Kuwei. But once the new kid had proven himself, Kaz would divide up the work more evenly. He did need to perform a monstrous deed once in a while, for appearances’ sake. He got a glint in his eye—“scheming face,” as Inej and Jesper had named it—as he remembered he had a payment to collect.
Dirtyhands: Jes, time to pay up
Ace-of-All: how is that even a sentence
Dirtyhands: Explain.
Ace-of-All: you literally just called me by a pet name, then demanded payment
Dirtyhands: I didn’t realize grammar had a rule about that.
Ace-of-All: Fuck it, Kaz, what do you want?!
Dirtyhands: No real names in here
Ace-of-All: Now look who’s talking
Dirtyhands: You’re getting off-topic.
Ace-of-All: then what is the topic?
Dirtyhands: Now you’re talking
Dirtyhands: Meet me in the alley after school. Bring the Wraith.
Ace-of-All: why don’t you just tell your girlfriend yourself?
Dirtyhands: she’s. not. my. girlfriend.
Ace-of-All: ok then, whatever you say
“Mr. Brekker, would you care to explain how you’re able to type so efficiently while wearing leather gloves on a 90-degree day?”
Rollins. Just hearing his voice made Kaz’s blood boil.
“It’s only 89.”
“I see. I have other business to attend to now—please do try to stay out of detention for at least the first week, Mr. Brekker.”
Kaz rolled his eyes. Pekka Rollins had no idea what was coming for him.

Chapter Text

Wylan was glad when band got let out early—for once, the halls were quiet. Not that he minded when they were loud—it was just that their eternal buzz during passing time reminded him just a little too much of Jesper, and that brought on other worries. Did they even have their next class together? Wylan didn’t know and now realized he should’ve asked this morning. Before school started, he was too preoccupied with memorizing his own schedule down to a T to even think about anyone else’s.
Wylan tapped out the rhythm he had made up for his schedule, saying the words under his breath: “Band with Retvenko in 218, econ with Specht in 206, Art with—“ His concentration was broken by a glimmer of gold: the sun-shaped pendant that Kuwei always wore.
“What is it?” Wylan asked, slightly irritated. The other boy leaned closer to him. “One of Dunyasha’s friends—I think he plays trombone?—has his phone out. I think he’s recording.”
“Then why didn’t you say something sooner?”
Kuwei didn’t respond, instead walking away. Wylan really didn’t know what his problem was—he had always done little things that annoyed him, but lately Kuwei had started walking away from conversations that were just the two of them, without even a simple excuse. Wylan shook his head, checked to make sure the trombonist wasn’t anywhere near him, and sat down on a bench by the staircase. He pulled out his phone, surprised that no one had sent a message to the group chat during class. Talking as quietly as he could while still having his voice picked up by the phone’s microphone, he sent a message:
To: Kaz Brekker, Inej Ghafa, Nina Zenik, Matthias Helvar, Jesper Fahey
Wylan: Has anyone else noticed curry acting weird lately
Jesper: Here’d you find curry at?
Wylan: F you Siri I meant coo way
Jesper: lol you sure you didn’t mean crow-weigh?
Wylan: Okay you know what never mind I’ll talk about it later in con since my phone obviously doesn’t want to cooperate
Kaz: When were you going to tell us you were pulling a heist?
Wylan: No not that kind of con I meant economics the class I swear texting is going to kill me
Kaz: That’s what you get for doing it during school hours.
Inej: ^^Says the guy who was texting me for all of first period
Wylan: Stop using carrots Inej the janitor just walked past and gave me a very concerned look while Siri was reading that to me
Nina: WHY DID YOU START THE FOOD TALK WITHOUT ME
Wylan: No not that kind of carrot I meant a c a r e t carrot
Matthias: Wylan did you forget your earbuds at home?
Wylan: Yes
Matthias: I have econ next hour as well
Matthias: I’ll give you mine then
Wylan: Thank you
Nina: Can we go out for Indian food during lunch?
Nina: Y’all mde me hungry
Matthias: What lunch does everyone have
Wylan: A
Inej: B
Kaz: B; Inej and I have class together.
Nina: A
Jesper: B
Matthias: I have A as well
Matthias: So those of us in A will all go get food and bring some back for those of you who have B lunch
Nina: WAIT WE FORGOT ABOUT THE CHILD
Jesper: ?
Matthias: Nina Kuwei has class with us & Wylan so he’ll be coming with us
Matthias: Wait where is Kuwei?
Inej: He wasn’t included?
Nina: Fixed that!
Kuwei: I wondered why I wasn’t getting spammed
Wylan: You lay we already decided on Indian for lunch
Wylan: Fuck I hate this why can’t we all just have all our classes together
Kuwei: Either I’m not as much of a master of English as I thought or I’m missing something here
Kaz: No one’s a master of English
Kaz: No matter how long they’ve been speaking it
Inej: Unless they have a Master’s in English
Jesper: DID ANYONE NOTICE THAT KAZ BREKKER
Jesper: BASTARD OF THE BARREL
Jesper: did not use complete sentences
Wylan: No because Siri is dumb
Jesper: I think we’re all done with class now so how about we switch to facetime
Kuwei: No
Kuwei: Dumb flip phone, remember?
Wylan: You warrant included in the first place for a reason
Jesper: ^^^ sick burn
Kuwei: You aren’t the police, so I don’t know what the warrant’s for
Kaz: You should switch to crim with me—then you would know.
Wylan: Jesper no carrots
Nina: When’s lunch

Chapter Text

“This is horrible,” Matthias complained. “Why do the desks have to be grouped in sets of four?”
Kaz shrugged. “Are you convinced yet that all the teachers are out to get us?”
“No.” Teachers were doing their job because they wanted to, not because a group of rowdy teenagers secretly had it coming for them… right? Right now wasn’t the best time for pondering that question—they had to figure out who was going to sit where. The board read “sit where you’d like,” and already the other cliques were swarming on the groups of desks. He hated to admit it, but their group of friends certainly did act like a clique—just not in the conventional ways. And Brekker was definitely their leader, though Matthias still thought he was better.
A group of popular teacher’s pets—otherwise known as the Dime Lions—let out whoops and cheers as they descended upon one of the three remaining desk groups. The other two were on opposite sides of the room.
“Helvar, I’m sure you can guess what’s going through my head right now.” Matthias and Kaz locked eyes.
“You’re on.” Matthias grabbed Kuwei by the arm and the two ran to the other side of the room. Matthias slammed his backpack on top of the empty desk next to him, and Kuwei did the same. Kaz held up the hand not already occupied by his cane. “You win. Looks like I’m stuck with the lovebirds.”
The glimmer in Kaz’s eye said he had planned this all along. Matthias had no idea why, though he knew Brekker well enough to say that it couldn’t be for any good reason.
“Don’t worry,” Matthias whispered to Kuwei, who was seated across from him. “If the teacher lets us switch seats midway through the semester, I’ll tolerate Brekker long enough for you to make your move.”
“How does everyone know?” Kuwei responded through gritted teeth.
“When I met Nina, I acted the same way—blushing, wanting yet avoiding all physical contact, basically telling everyone while hoping that no one notices…” Matthias started counting on his fingers as he continued the list, Kuwei’s face sinking deeper and deeper into the palms of his hands. “But don’t worry—it’ll all be over as soon as you tell them.”
Kuwei’s head shot right back up. “Tell them?!”
Matthias tried and failed to suppress a grin. “Yes. Tell them. Did I neglect to mention sign number 342, the one where you avoid conversations with them as much as possible?”
“But how? Wylan hates me, and I’m pretty sure Jesper wouldn’t take it seriously. The two of them will just laugh like it’s nothing.” Kuwei collapsed into his hands once again, and were those muffled noises… sobs?
Matthias glanced around the room, but every other group was occupied with their own drama. Brekker, of course, was keeping an eye on them. Matthias wondered whether he preferred lovebirds or the lovesick. “You’re on,” Matthias mouthed once again as the final bell to get to class rang, the teacher walking in and slamming the door. Kaz raised his eyebrows in response, but Matthias couldn’t be bothered to drop a hint as to what, exactly, this competition was. Besides, he probably already knew. Matthias turned back to Kuwei. “First, we need to build your confidence.”
While the teacher went through the syllabus with the class, Matthias slid a sheet of paper across his desk towards Kuwei. He watched the other boy pick it up and read it.
So if you have any ideas right away, that would be helpful.
Kuwei scribbled his response and passed it back.
No, not really.
Matthias frowned. This was going to be a challenge, but he could do it. He had to.
Any hidden talents or anything? Preferably not something involving breaking into your dad’s lab.
Kuwei shook his head, passing the paper back. Matthias still had one last resort, but he wasn’t sure if Kuwei trusted him enough to go through with it.
Is there anything you’ve wanted to do but never felt brave enough to go through with it?
Yes, Kuwei scribbled, passing the paper back before taking out a sheet of his own.
That list must be quite lengthy, Matthias thought as he watched Kuwei’s pencil move. Finally, he passed over the list. Some of the tasks were easier than others, but Matthias could make this work.

Chapter Text

Most high schoolers didn’t sacrifice the first two hours of their day to an unpaid internship in the children’s ward of the local hospital. Inej Ghafa wasn’t most high schoolers. Orientation, which was held at the school, took most of the two hours, but there was enough time left at the end for them to cross the street, meet some of the kids, and get back to school in time for their next class. The small group had already been told about some of the kids—ones who were in and out of the hospital quite frequently or would be there for most of the semester—but Inej didn’t make a meticulous plan to visit all of them or skip out on the visit, as some of the group did. Her father’s words were in the forefront of her mind: The heart is an arrow. It demands aim to land true. Her heart would guide her.
Towards the end of the playroom, a small girl sat in a wheelchair, a bubble of tranquility amid the antics of the other children. She was where Inej’s heart had aimed.
“Hi, my name is Inej. Can you tell me yours?”
“Hanna Smeet. Why are you here?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why are you here, talking to me instead of one of the other children who could run around and play with you? Why me instead of someone who’s always praised for being happy in the face of everything?”
Inej knelt down so she was looking right into Hanna’s eyes. She was so small, looking as if she was only three, but Inej knew that a lot of these children appeared younger than they actually were. “I didn’t come here to play or be entertained. I came here to help people.”
Hanna turned her head away. “That’s what they all say—the doctors, the nurses, the volunteers. They all tried, but none of them could help me. What makes you any different?”
Inej had misaimed, but only slightly. She took a shaky breath, knowing she had heard those words—or something very similar-- before. From Wylan. “I have a friend who said almost the exact same thing to me once. Sometimes, when he’s really having trouble at school, or he’s being bothered by nightmares, he’ll almost say it again. He doesn’t, though. He has us—his friends. He has a mom and step-mom who are always there for him. He has a boyfriend who will always love him. And it all started when someone saw what he could do instead of what he couldn’t.”
Hanna’s eyes met hers again, but this time they shined. She held up a crinkled picture and pointed to one of the massive, wrinkly gray dogs. “That one’s Duke Addam Von Silverhaunch. He’s my favorite. He’ll let you stroke him, talk to him, and—and cry. And he still loves you.”
“He looks so sweet. Did you name him?”
“Yes. Da used to let me name all the dogs when we first got them as puppies.” Her face fell as she glanced down at her feet, which sat immobile on the chair’s footrest. “That was before this.”
Inej’s second arrow—aimed just as precisely as the first—landed in the exact same spot. Her heart splintered into tiny slivers—slivers that could either protect the recipients of her love or hurt those who tried to harm them. She took the girl’s hand. “I have to leave now, but I’ll be back tomorrow. I want you to show me what you can do.”
The girl’s somber expression transformed into the biggest grin Inej had ever seen.
“I can’t wait! Bye!”
“Bye!” Inej waved as she left the room. Tomorrow, she would start picking up the pieces of her broken arrow and teach Hanna to do the same.

Chapter Text

As they filed out of the classroom, Matthias tossed his earbuds towards Wylan, whose face lit up with glee as he caught them. Matthias glanced next to himself, where Kuwei had been standing, but he wasn’t there. Instead, he had started down the hall towards the stairs. Matthias rushed to catch up, barely pulling Kuwei aside before he reached the staircase. “Kuwei… why did you run?”
Kuwei shrugged. “I don’t know. I just… got nervous when I saw Wylan smile and left. I didn’t want him to catch me looking.”
“You mean you didn’t want him to catch you blushing while looking at him.”
“Uh, yes. I feel like we would just end up in a really dumb argument over nothing like we always do whenever we have any interaction. You were in that group chat this morning.”
Matthias sighed. Kuwei was right, but he could still make the situation better. “You, Wylan, and the food are all going to be smushed together in my backseat at lunch.”
“Why the food, though? Your truck’s backseat is already cramped enough.”
“If you want to eat anything, it’ll have to stay in the back with you guys, otherwise Nina will eat it all.” Matthias pulled Kuwei away from the wall and the two went downstairs. When they entered the room where they had pre-calc, they were greeted by a seating chart. Thankfully, Matthias was sitting a directly in front of Kuwei, but Kaz was sitting a couple rows over, where they couldn’t tell whether or not he had his scheming face on. Matthias assumed he did and decided that he and Kuwei needed a plan. He turned around in his desk so they were facing each other. “You need to at least start one of the things on your list tonight—after this, school’s only going to get busier, and you’ll have to face Wylan and Jesper every one of those days.”
“The second one. My dad said he’d be home to make supper.”
Matthias paused. This was an area he had no experience in, and he didn’t want to mess anything up for his friend. “Do you need help with it?”
“Yes... but didn’t you and Nina have a date?”
“Sure, but really, anything she does with anyone is a date. Besides, there’s plenty of time later for dates. Today’s about you.”
Kuwei let out a shaky breath. “Can you… and Nina, if she wants to come… just be with me? You can stay for supper—my dad’s a pretty good cook.”
Matthias nodded. “Of course. I’m sure Nina will be there as well—the food will be an added bonus for her.”
Their conversation was cut off by the bell and the start of an extremely boring review lecture.

Chapter Text

Kaz’s list of things he hated went something like this:
1. Fighting with Jordie.
2. Fighting with Jesper.
3. Fighting with Inej.
4. Fighting with literally anyone else.
5. Getting his time wasted.
The problem was, whenever one of those things he hated ended up happening, all the others came along with it. And number five had just gotten invoked by a young math teacher who, in Kaz’s opinion, had no idea what he was doing. He tried to pay attention to the lesson. He really did. Unfortunately for him, his brain was still upstairs in economics, trapped in the moment where Matthias had uttered the two words that could easily invoke the rest of the hate list: you’re on.
Kaz had spent that entire class period scheming until he found a plan that worked, would benefit him, and left just enough unaccounted for that luck would be satisfied. On the way to pre-calc, he had stopped at his locker to pick up an extra notebook he would need for phase one. Technically it wasn’t extra, but Target only had one black notebook left on the shelf, which he knew wouldn’t get him through the semester, so he had been forced to take a couple yellow ones as well. Not because he planned to use them—he had friends for a reason—but to prove to Jordie that he could make exactly one trip to Target and buy all the supplies he needed while staying within the budget his brother had set. That was the result of Things Kaz Brekker Hates, # 1 getting invoked.
Kaz pulled out his phone and started writing down his List of Ridiculous Questions, one per page. He had formed just enough to fill 49 of the 50 pages, leaving the very last one blank. That one got a non-ridiculous question, but it was one he shouldn’t have to be asking them. He fought to repress a grin as he double-checked his spelling and punctuation. This ritual was broken by the words of one Mr. Lantsov: “Now what have we here? A student who’s actually appreciative of my jokes?! Looks like you’re my new favorite, Mr.—“
“It’s on your seating chart,” Kaz said, hoping that this guy would get himself out of Kaz’s personal space within two seconds.
“The seating chart!” Mr. Lantsov gasped dramatically, clutching his hands to his chest. “Attendance! I forgot to take attendance!” He all-out sprinted to the front of the room, coattails flying behind him, while the class made a collective groan. This was followed by the teacher next door banging on the wall between the two rooms for some quiet. The rest of the class period quickly dissolved into chaos. No one would notice if Kaz slipped out now—in fact, a couple of the other students already had, caught only by his skilled perception. He moved to pack up his things when he noticed a text from Inej.
Wraith: My Lit teacher’s giving us a ton of homework and my house is going to be crazy. can I study at yours?
Dirtyhands: Yes.
Dirtyhands: Jesper was supposed to tell you to meet up with us after school, and we were going over to the Slat anyways.
Wraith: Why?
Dirtyhands: Wylan and Jesper need supervision.
Wraith: You know that’s not what I meant.
Dirtyhands: Sorry.
Wraith: Apology accepted. Do I want to know why I’m supervising them?
Dirtyhands: Probably not.
Dirtyhands: But don’t worry, you can study at the same time.
Wraith: Good.
Wraith: Looks like I’ll need it.
Wraith: There’s a quiz tomorrow.
Kaz slipped out of the room. The elevator was only a couple of rooms down, and while its unreliability usually made him brave the stairs, today it would be the perfect place to spend the rest of the hour. After unlocking it with the key he’d received from the nurse that morning, he unwrapped a piece of gum, popping the chewy stick into his mouth and half the wrapper into the keyhole. He would do the same upstairs, and then he’d be able to spend the rest of the hour in peace.

Chapter Text

It was just a song. Just a piece of music—but it wasn’t. It was power, strength, love. True love, not when his father said “I love you” but never showed it. Wylan had only recently learned what these things really were, with the help of his friends, his step-mom, his mom—even Kuwei when he brought Hamilton into their friend group. It was Eliza’s story that gave Wylan the courage to take his father to court. Just from that one song, Wylan knew the art teacher was going to be one of his favorites.
As he started his first project (“something that represents yourself”), his mind wandered. Him and Kuwei were indifferent to each other in the beginning—they both went to all the weekly sleepovers during the summer, but neither really spoke to the other when it wasn’t necessary. Then Wylan had to miss one to babysit Alys’ daughter, and everything went down the drain. He knew something must’ve happened there, but no one would tell him—even Jesper. Then Kuwei started acting annoying, and Wylan had had enough and took out his frustration on him. That didn’t make him any better than his father. Maybe—maybe he didn’t deserve to be here, among people who didn’t care if he couldn’t read. Maybe he just wasn’t meant to be born. Yes, that would fix everything, but it would also create more problems—who would stick with Jesper no matter what? Wylan was the only person qualified enough to do that. I can do enough. I can be enough. I am enough.
His drawing was more than just a drawing. It was, to put it blatantly, a metaphorical representation of everyone who had built him up and kept him going. He knew he wasn’t going to put this one into his portfolio—it would be his apology to Kuwei.

Chapter Text

“…and then I had to wait for five hours in complete agony while I waited for her to grade the test, only to find out that I got a B.” Nina pouted, making Inej laugh. Nina shook her head as she pulled out her phone to record the moment. After a brief deliberation, she decided not to post it to the group chat and instead sent it to Kaz privately, with the caption “Look what you missed out on.”
Inej rolled her eyes when she glanced at Nina’s phone. “That’s what he gets for not even attempting classes that he could certainly handle.” Was their Shakespearean Literature class a lot of work? Yes. Was it hard? Not if you had half a brain—otherwise no one would pass.
Nina’s eyebrows furrowed as she typed out a couple of texts.
“Something wrong?” Inej asked, her voice immediately growing serious.
Nina shook her head. “Not really—it’s just that I have to stay after school for this ‘special opportunity’ thing, and then I have to help Matthias with some project thingy that he told me not to tell you about in case you accidentally helped Kaz.”
“They’re going to get in big trouble one of these days if they keep being this competitive.”
“Are you sure? If you weren’t looking out for Kaz all the time, he would definitely be in trouble by now.”
Inej sighed. “I know, I can’t protect him from the world forever, especially once we’re eighteen.”
“You’re starting to sound a lot like his brother. Besides, are you really protecting him from the world, or the world from him?”
Inej scratched her head at that one. What role did she play in Kaz’s life? Sure, she was his girlfriend, but what else? The way Kaz operated, there must be something useful she’s doing for him.
Nina’s face lit up unexpectedly. “Birthdays! Inej, it’s Matthias’ birthday this weekend! We have to have a sleepover! And—“ Nina paused dramatically. “I have the best idea.”
“I thought the best idea was rigging the ‘what should we do now?’ hat so it only had things you wanted to do in it?”
Nina waved off the thought. “Nope, this one’s definitely better—it’s not just what I want to do, but it’s what we need to do—for the good of the group.”
Kaz’s most recent texts had given Inej a similar impression, but she stayed silent—when war was made, the two of them were enemy spies, trusted to not let anything slip. And this—this was certainly war. She grinned. “Then I can’t wait ‘till Friday to see what it is.”
Her phone buzzed a few seconds later.
To: Kaz Brekker, Inej Ghafa, Jesper Fahey, Wylan Van Eck, Kuwei Yul-Bo
Nina: Sleepover Friday
Nina: My place
Nina: It’s a surprise party for Matthias so don’t say anything
Jesper: Nina, were three separate texts really necessary? The monitor for study hall is glaring at me now and
“Looks like someone got caught red-handed—I hope he doesn’t get detention for that,” Inej said. Or if he did, hopefully Kaz’s plans were so terrible that Jesper would be doing him a favor by not being able to come.
Nina: And that’s why you shouldn’t talk back to Nina Zenik
Inej: I’m pretty sure only Kaz’s name works that way
Nina: Hey, where is everyone anyways?
Jesper: Wylan has art right now
Jesper: Yes, I’m alright, i only got a warning, thank you for asking
Nina: Drama Queen ™
Jesper: ^^says the actual drama queen
Jesper: Wylan whe you read this I’m so sorry please forgive me for those
Kaz: I don’t even know why I bother looking at any of these texts anymore
Jesper: Because you love us, Kaz
Inej: Because you need us, Kaz
Nina: Because you know we’re the best, Kaz
Kuwei: Because you miss us, Kaz
Jesper: Huh?
Kuwei: He ditched Matthias and I in precalc
Nina: Kuwei, that was perfect
Nina: And Kaz, why???
Kaz: *sigh*
Jesper: I’m waiting
Kuwei: For what?
Jesper: For everyone here to start begging for Wylan’s forgiveness
Nina: That includes you
Jesper: You got me there
Jesper: Wylan, I'm so sorry for using carrots, please forgivr me!
Kaz: Jesper, are you okay?
Jesper: Yeah, why?
Kaz: Your spelling is atrocious.
Jesper: Sorry that you don't think I'm mr perfect
Kuwei: Kaz, stop making me learn new words!
Kaz: I try.
Kaz: Also, Nina, it's pretty hard to blackmail people when you give them things they like voluntarily.
Kuwei: What was it?
Nina: I'll send it to you privately
Kuwei: I'm still confused
Inej: He likes my laugh
Kaz: Inej--
Kaz: You have betrayed me.
Jesper: I was waiting for him to say my love
Jesper: But I guess that's not happening
Inej: He hasn't even said it in person yet
Inej: Why would he say it here?
Kaz: You realize I'm still here, right?
Jesper: Oh shit
Inej: I guess I'll see you in our private chat
Kaz: Definitely
Kaz: You too, Jesper
Jesper: Wait
Jesper: Inej, I thought you meant that for me
Jesper: I'm wounded
Inej: I did, but I guess it'll work for both of you
Kaz: Jesper, do you really not have anything better to do?
Jesper: Than what? Hang out with my friends?
Kaz: I'm done.
Kaz: I'm just done.
Kuwei: Relatable
Jesper: Really? Why?
Kuwei: No reason
Nina: He means every reason
Kuwei: This is why

Chapter Text

Nina ushered Wylan out of the school building and to the parking lot, where Matthias and Kuwei were waiting. “Keys?” Matthias asked, though Nina was already dropping them into his hand.
“Uh… why do you have the keys when it’s Matthias’ vehicle?” Wylan asked.
“One time last year, Matthias needed to give a friend of his a ride home, and ended up leaving me at school for five hours,” Nina explained. “This way, he can’t leave without me.”
Matthias shook his head, his shoulder-length blonde hair falling into his face. “It was not five hours.”
“Oh? Then you tell me how long it was,” Nina replied, placing a hand on her hip.
“Two minutes and forty-three seconds.”
“It was five minutes at least.”
“Was not.”
“Was too!”
Kuwei coughed. Wylan had almost forgotten he was there. “We should probably leave soon if we want any time left to eat. Some of us want to get to class on time, you know.”
For once Wylan expressed his agreement. “Yeah, we should definitely—“
“Shotgun!” Nina called out, climbing into the front seat and slamming the passenger-side door.
Kuwei glanced at Wylan with a glint in his eye, making Wylan unsure of his intentions, before he opened the door. “After you,” he said, gesturing for Wylan to go first.
Was Kuwei actually being… not annoying? Wylan felt his cheeks redden. Fuck. I can’t even handle an inch of kindness without blushing. He scrambled into the far side of the backseat, pointedly facing away from where Kuwei had climbed in. Meanwhile, Nina and Matthias’ arguing from the front of the truck had grown so loud that he couldn’t help but overhear.
“Nina, are you sure you know what to get? What if someone has a food allergy and we forgot about it? Shit, I don’t think anyone does, but I’ve never planned anything food-related for us before….”
“Calm down, we’ll just get a little of everything and that way everyone will be fine.”
“Yeah, until ‘a little’ turns into ‘a lot.’ How much money do we even have? Nina, why do you never plan ahead of time?!”
Wylan could already tell where this one was headed. Bored, and a little bit curious, he glanced at Kuwei, who was perched on the edge of the seat, brows furrowed. Adorable.

Chapter Text

Jesper, Kaz, and Inej were already seated at a table outside their school when the rest of the group showed up. “Took you long enough,” Kaz commented. Jesper rolled his eyes and got up to help Wylan, who appeared to be struggling with the giant bag of food.
“Let me help,” Jesper said as he scooped the bag out of Wylan’s arms. The shorter boy threw both his arms onto Jesper’s shoulders, forcing him to bend down to Wylan’s height.
“Grab some food, then meet me at the rock pile,” Wylan whispered.
Jesper grinned. “What, you want to seduce me in private?”
Wylan shook his head, furiously blushing as he stepped away from Jesper to allow him to set the food on the table. That’s when Jesper noticed that everyone had been watching their exchange. Playing it off, he set the bag down, then spun Wylan around so he could kiss his boyfriend on the forehead before grabbing samosas, naan, and other foods for the both of them. Then they started towards the rock piles, also known as the after-school social hub, which meant they were a pretty quiet place during lunch hour. No one knew why they were there, other than they were left over from the school’s construction, which had been over twenty years ago. Their group had so ferociously defended their rock pile—the fifth one in, closest to the building—that no one dared to get close to it. Until today.
“Hey! Get out of here!” Wylan yelled at the person, who had their back turned.
“I’ll leave when you tell me why Retvenko was seen giving you the music that band is sight-reading tomorrow,” they said in a sickeningly-sweet voice. Dunyasha.
“That’s not your business. Now get out of here,” Jesper replied.
“Don’t worry, I will as soon as I get some answers. I wouldn’t want anyone to have an… unfair advantage.”
“Listen, princess, don’t bother us again or there’ll be worse consequences than simply having to move.”
“Oh, really? And who’s going to enforce them-- you? If anything were to happen, I think the principal would take my word over yours. You know he doesn’t like your merry little band of rebels.”
“So you want me to—“
“Jesper, quit it—we can’t be getting in trouble on the first day of school,” Kaz said from about ten feet behind them. The three turned, startled by his voice.
Inej poked her head out from behind a nearby rock pile. “I’m afraid your consequences have arrived.”
Dunyasha glared at the four of them. “Fine. You win for now, but I promise that next time it won’t just be me.” She turned and strode back towards the school entrance.
Once the Dunyasha was out of sight, Inej waved to Wylan and Jesper before joining Kaz, who had already started walking back to the rest of their friends. Jesper didn’t notice that Wylan was now focused on him until he heard his boyfriend say, “Houston, we have a problem,” in a mock-serious tone. He burst out laughing. This was why he loved Wylan.
“What is it? Anything I can help with?”
Wylan blushed further, making Jesper wonder how much longer he’d have to talk before Wylan’s freckles blended into his blush. “No, Jesper, not that kind of problem! And stop laughing already—this is actually serious.”
Jesper’s attention was drawn to where Wylan had entangled their hands. Running his other hand through his boyfriend’s hair, Jesper replied, “Okay. But whatever you say, I’m never going to stop loving you. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Wylan’s blush spread down his neck. “I—uh—y-you know, it’s k-kinda difficult to talk when I’m crying at the s-same time.”
“Then I’ll hold you and I’ll wait,” Jesper replied as he sat down on the edge of a rock, tugging on Wylan’s arm for him to join. The two shuffled around a bit. Wylan ended up half-sitting, half-laying on Jesper’s lap. Just as they had gotten comfortable, Jesper heard the dull buzz of the school bell, as well as the voices of their friends as they parted ways. “Wylan, you should really go—you’ve only got five minutes before class.”
Wylan snuggled up against Jesper’s chest. “Nah, I think I’ll pass.”
Jesper stared at his boyfriend in disbelief. “Who are you and what have you done with Wylan?!”
Wylan sat up further, leaning his head against Jesper’s shoulder. Saints, that felt good. “Meat cleaver to the head. I got symmetrical halves—those are very important.”
Jesper grinned, leaning back against one of the larger rocks in the pile. This was definitely his Wylan.
“So… uh… I’ve been thinking for a while, trying to figure out what’s going on between me and Kuwei, because something always felt a little different there, and… uh…”
Jesper waited for Wylan to get his thoughts together, resisting the urge to interject.
“…I think I have a crush on him.”
Jesper nodded, and when Wylan didn’t continue, he asked, “Anything else?”
“I… Jes, I love you, and… I want to date him too.”
Oh. Jesper could feel his heart racing within his chest, threatening to burst if he didn’t do or say something within the next five seconds. “How many hours did you spend looking that up?”
“I’m not sure—Mom kept interrupting me, so my time is probably off a little, but I think it was about five hours, thirteen minutes, and twenty-eight seconds.”
Jesper smiled even wider, his hands edging their way through Wylan’s hair. “You’re beautiful, you know.”
Wylan lifted his head so he could look Jesper in the eyes. “I know. And so are you.” He lifted up a hand and poked Jesper’s forehead. “Tell me what’s going on in there. Tell me everything.”
Jesper took a breath and began. “My heart’s pounding right now and I can’t control it. You’re part of that reason, you and all your freckles, and your soft hair, and your brains. I love that about you. I love you, and I can’t tell you how beautiful those words are, how they fit you perfectly. But that’s not the only reason why my heart’s beating this fast. I—I like Kuwei too. I think having him here would make this perfect thing even better. But only if that’s what you know you want.”
Wylan pulled himself into a more upright position, straddling Jesper’s right leg as their lips met. They pulled apart for a moment, in which he gave his answer: “Yes. I want that.”
Jesper nodded, then pulled Wylan in again. He felt like the luckiest man alive, but at the same time felt that luck had nothing to do with it. Neither of them missed their food, which had disappeared to who-knows-where.

Chapter Text

Kaz averted his eyes as Jesper and Wylan kissed one last time before parting ways. Public displays of affection (no, he was not about to use the abbreviation) always had this effect on him—the feeling of tiny little creatures trying to crawl out of his skin, twisting his stomach into knots and getting caught in his throat on their way there. There was no rhythm to their movements, but their silent whisperings stayed the same: Go, get away, this will never be a part of your life, you’ll always disappoint, you’ll never get to be happy. After awhile, if he didn’t get away, the whisperings converged, forming the voice of the girl who had hurt him the most. Who still hurt him.
No! Don’t think about her now. You’ve got too long before your brother gets home; too big of an audience. But any audience would be too large. She had made sure of that.
“Kaz.” He looked up. Had he looked down? He didn’t even remember. Inej peered at him through her long lashes. What did she see? His pale, sweat-streaked face, telling her that he might have an illness, like chicken pox or a cold? He wished. If fear left him with spots on his skin and a drippy nose, there would be a cure, or at least someone working to find one. If fear gave him a black eye or a stab wound, at least no one would doubt that it was real. All he had to prove its existence were his unsuccessful attempts to drive it away.
Quick footsteps coming towards him. Jesper. “Kaz, I’m so sorry, I wasn’t thinking, fuck, I know how you get—“
“Jes.” Kaz’s voice came out shakily. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Jes, I’m the one who should be sorry. You have something good, and you should be able to enjoy that without—without having to deal with people like me.” There. He said it. One of his fears—that eventually everyone would just give up and not want to deal with him anymore.
“Kaz…” He could see the tears blossoming in Inej’s chocolate eyes. He wished he could wipe them away, wished he could do something, anything, so she could have the love she deserved. She was so much stronger than him. If he could, he would give her the world. “Kaz, I really think you need help.”
“No. Not after last time.”
His two friends exchanged a look. Friends. Could he even call them that? He couldn’t shake the feeling that, one day, he would have no one. But no, he would always have his brother. Jordie would always stand by his side. Always.
“We should head to class.” Who had even said that? Him? How could he seem so calm, when his insides were… really, he didn’t even know what they were doing anymore.
Inej and Jesper walked on either side of him as the three entered the building.
Maybe everything would turn out okay. He hoped so.

Chapter Text

Kuwei had almost fallen asleep while waiting for the chemistry teacher to take attendance—almost. All eyes turned to the classroom door as a blushing, stammering Wylan stumbled in.
“You’re late,” the teacher observed. Way to state the obvious.
“I know,” Wylan said in such a low murmur that Kuwei almost didn’t hear him.
The teacher stared in shock. “Do you have a pass?” Wylan shook his head. “Well, I’m afraid I’ll have to mark you down as tardy. I’m sure you know the drill—three of those and you’ll get a detention. Do you understand, young man?” Wylan nodded and scrambled to sit down on the one empty chair. His face was completely red. I should walk over there and ask if he’s okay. No, wait, this teacher seems really strict—I would probably get in trouble for that. I guess that means texting’s out of the question, too. Wait, wasn’t he blushing a little already when he walked in? What if he was doing something outside with Jesper? They did walk away from everyone else at lunch. Kuwei felt his face heat up. I want that. I want to go wherever it is and want to be a part of their makeout session or whatever they’re doing. I don’t care what I have to do. I’m at least going to try. Hey, there’s a pencil sharpener over by Wylan’s desk… I could use that as an excuse to ask him if he’s okay or something. Okay, I’m going to do it. Nothing bad’s going to happen. Nothing.
Before he could even move to get up, Nina tapped him on the shoulder. “Matthias told me about tonight,” she whispered. “I’ve got a thing right after school, but afterwards I can come and help.” Kuwei nodded and gave her a thumbs-up, not wanting to risk talking. But for Wylan I will.
As quietly as he could, Kuwei scooted his chair back and reached for his pencil, only to push it off his desk. A clink confirmed its landing on the tile floor, but when he got off his chair and crouched down, it wasn’t there. Why can’t pencils be triangular or something? Then they wouldn’t roll as well. He glanced up, noticing Matthias pointing towards the side of the room where Wylan sat. Are you kidding me? Why did it have to roll all the way over there? That’s not how this was supposed to go! He frantically—but quietly—got up and made a run for his pencil, only to have Wylan pick it up seconds before he got there. Okay, okay, you’re fine. He probably already figured out that it’s yours and that’s why he picked it up.
Instead of handing the pencil back, Wylan remarked, “I don’t think you really need the pencil sharpener—you look pretty sharp already. The pencil, I mean. The pencil looks pretty sharp to me.”
“I didn’t know there was a price to get my pencil back.” Kuwei, what are you doing?! That doesn’t even make sense!
“Today it’s free. Tomorrow it won’t be.”
Kuwei stared at Wylan. I always thought flirting was more Jesper’s thing… wait, was that flirting?! He snatched his pencil out of Wylan’s hand, too confused to say anything other than, “I’m going back to my table now, bye,” in a tone of voice that was probably a bit rude. Well, there goes my chance.

Chapter Text

“Kaz, attendance!” Inej hissed as Mr. Dryden and the rest of the class stared at them.
“Here,” Kaz said dispassionately. I shouldn’t have brought him to class. I mean, yeah, he clearly didn’t want to go to the nurse, but I could’ve brought him home. It’s the first day; it’s not like we’re really doing anything anyways. Maybe I can find a way to get us out of here and we could go hide out in the library or something?
“Inej Ghafa?”
“Here!” she said with a little more enthusiasm than usual. A library pass should do the trick, but why would we need to go there on the first day? None of the teachers give out big projects that quickly… so maybe we need to help out the librarian? Yes, that will work. Now to pass the time before Kaz picks all the leather off his right glove….
“I’ve told you about the time I climbed up that big giant oak tree in my yard, right?”
“Of course,” Kaz replied. “Even Kuwei’s getting pretty tired of it.”
“You remember the geranium bushes around the bottom that padded my landing?”
“You mean your fall?”
“Okay, my fall, but—do you know which one of my parents planted and cared for them?”
Kaz rolled his eyes. “your father, of course—he runs a garden center, so he would be the best equipped to do that.”
“Nope.”
“Your mother, then.”
“Still wrong. Also, you know they’d be cringing if they heard you referring to them as ‘mother’ and ‘father.’”
“But you said which one, so that means—“
Inej was already out of her seat before Kaz had finished his argument. “Mr. Dryden, Kaz and I were asked if we could help Sturmhond in the library this period. Would that be okay with you?”
“O-of course.” Mr. Dryden replied with a dismissive gesture, knocking an untidy stack of papers off his desk.
“Here, I’ll help,” Inej said, picking up a couple of the papers.
“No, no, don’t worry about it,” Mr. Dryden replied, now scrambling to pick up the rest of them, while the students sitting in the first couple rows giggled.
“Well, if you insist,” Inej replied, shoving her hand into her pocket as she stood up and turned to go back to Kaz.
“Out, now,” she whispered. Thankfully he didn’t ask any questions until they were several feet down the hall and the door had slammed shut behind them.
“Alibi?”
“We’re helping Sturmhond in the library,” she replied, breaking into a grin.
“You’re kidding me,” Kaz mused.
“What?”
“I could’ve sworn the last time that cat was seen in these halls was three years ago.”
“Actually, it was two. Nina would’ve been absolutely devastated if it was freshman year.”
“True. Matthias would’ve used it as yet another reason why dogs are better than cats.”
“Yeah, what else was on that list? ‘You can go running with a dog, dogs are really nice, also they’re really big and furry like me…’”
“I don’t think that one was on his list. He was really self-conscious of his hair, remember?”
“Ah, yes, the dog-fur mullet, as I believe Jesper called it.”
“Inej, are we actually going somewhere?”
Inej paused for a moment. Her entire heart was set dead-center on Kaz; of course she wanted them to go somewhere—
“--Because the elevator isn’t going to help us.”
“What did you do, Kaz?”
“I stuffed half a gum wrapper in the lock.”
“And you didn’t think about how it’s not going to get fixed until after we’re out of here, which means if anyone slips on ice in the middle of winter and breaks a leg, we’re basically out of luck unless it’s Matthias.”
“You’re wrong. That would be his breaking point.”
Inej threw her arms up. “Where to, then?”
“The bench by the staircase?”
“I guess.”

Chapter Text

Physics. An odd class choice, considering that Nina wanted to be a doctor, not a scientist, but the crows all wanted to have a class together just this once, and physics was the best way to make that happen.
Everyone milled about the room until the bell rang, when the teacher entered. “Good afternoon, class. I’m Mr. Haskell. To prepare for the most difficult class offered at Ketterdam High, we’re going to do a little exercise called figuring out how to sit in alphabetical order.” The students immediately started moving towards the parts of the room where they figured they would end up sitting. Haskell raised his hand for silence. “—In one minute. Your time begins… now.”
Nina raced to the back of the room. Usually she ended up next to Kuwei, but him, Wylan, and a couple other students she wasn’t as familiar with had already filled their table of four. At least this will force them to talk to each other, she thought, sitting down at a table by herself. As Haskell called time, she tried to catch Matthias’ eye, but him, Jesper, and Inej, who all sat together, were looking at Kaz, who had ended up at the front of the room. He was running his hand through his hair, and though he was facing away from her, Nina could still tell that something was wrong. Something wrong? With Kaz Brekker? Now that’s something you don’t see every day.
She wasn’t too worried, though, since it appeared that Inej knew something was up, and her friend would tell her if Kaz miraculously needed her help.
“Alright, class,” Haskell said. “It seems you did a fair job with that, so your first assignment should be a piece of cake.” He pointed at his desk, which had several boxes on it. “In those are rocket kits. Before you ask, yes, they do come with instructions, yes, you can bring in paint, markers, stickers, or whatever other materials you have to decorate them with, and no, school rules prohibit you from modifying the rocket engines to make explosive devices, and you will most likely be expelled.” Nina rolled her eyes. Couldn’t this guy just talk in plain English? “Due to school budget cuts—“
The door opened, and in walked none other than Dunyasha Lazareva. “Mr. Haskell, I’m so sorry to interrupt, but I had a schedule change and now I’m in your class.”
He examined the slip she handed him and nodded. “Welcome. You can sit in the back, by—“ he glanced at the class roster. “—Nina Zenik.” Dunyasha grinned and made her way to the back of the room. Great. I’d rather sit by myself than with her.
“As I was saying, due to school budget cuts, the science department doesn’t have enough funding to provide a rocket for each of you, so you’ll be working in pairs with the person sitting next to you. Good luck.”
Dunyasha joined the mad dash to the front of the rom to get a rocket, dropping the bag in front of Nina when she got back before settling into her own chair. Nina stared as she pulled out her phone, snapping bubblegum in her mouth all the while. “Aren’t you going to start working?” Dunyasha asked when she finally looked up from her phone. “You build, I’ll decorate. That way, it’s fair. Oh, and if you complain to Haskell or any other teacher about anything at all, the rest of your ‘friends’ will be paying the price. And don’t even bother going to Rollins—he’s too busy chasing after his own rambunctious son to care about your meager woes.”
Nina sighed, opening the bag. She was too hungry to come up with a reply, and had a feeling that Dunyasha would take the opportunity to report her for eating food in a science classroom. She was broken out of her thoughts by her phone dinging.
Dad: Sorry it’s been so long. I’ve got a surprise for you: I’ll be back on Thursday! We can have some nice family time together on the weekend. Love you!
Thursday?! Guess that means Matthias’ party can’t be on Friday, and he usually has family stuff on Wednesday nights….
To: Inej Ghafa, Kaz Brekker, Jesper Fahey, Wylan Van Eck, Kuwei Yul-Bo
Nina: Inej, Jesper, make sure Matthias doesn’t see these
Nina: The party’s going to have to be tomorrow
Nina: Which means I’ll need help
Kaz: For once
Kuwei: We can run to the store tonight before heading to my place
Kuwei: I can distract Matthias while you get stuff?
Nina: Sounds good
Dunyasha glared at Nina. “Seriously, are you going to do something already, or will I have to resort to tattling?”
I’m pretty sure I didn’t sign up for any of this, but I’ll take what I can get.

Chapter Text

Kuwei couldn’t keep Wylan’s words from earlier out of his head. He definitely wasn’t flirting with me. He was just playing along with whatever I said because he didn’t want me to be embarrassed. So I guess that makes him… a friend?
“Kuwei…”
“Huh?”
“The instructions. They’re upsidedown, and if you keep holding onto them that tightly they’re going to rip.” Kuwei only stared at Wylan, trying and failing to comprehend, when Wylan added, “The numbers. They’re the wrong way, so I’m pretty sure the words are as well.”
Oh. Right. Their project. Kuwei flipped the instructions around and read a little bit. “Okay, first I think we should sand the fins, and then we can glue them onto the tube for the body.”
Wylan nodded, grabbing a piece of sandpaper and breaking off one of the wooden fins. Kuwei did the same, and they sat in awkward silence. Come on, think of something smart to say. Like… “What’s the price?” Wylan just looked at him, clearly confused. “If I drop my pencil again tomorrow, what’s the price I have to pay to get it back from you?”
Silence. “You’ll see,” Wylan finally replied.
They continued working, again without conversation. Kuwei finished his fin, then reached for the third one, his hand meeting Wylan’s. Why?! Get your hand out of there, now! He pulled his hand back abruptly, and before things could get more awkward, a rubber band landed on their table. Kuwei picked it up, realizing that it was actually the shock cord from someone else’s kit tied so it could be shot like a rubber band.
“Jesper, where did that go? We only have one of those, and you can bet Mr. Haskell isn’t going to give us another one,” Inej said a little too loudly.
“Jes, Inej, is this your shock cord?” Wylan asked, holding up the item he had somehow taken from Kuwei’s hand.
Jesper beamed. “That’s it!” he shouted, walking over to their table. After getting the shock cord from Wylan, Jesper took his hand and kissed it. “You’ve saved our grades,” he said, gesturing between him and Inej. Wylan rolled his eyes, though he was blushing slightly.
“And if we ever want that grade to get put in, we should get back to work,” Inej said while grinning.
Fine,” Jesper replied in mock exasperation, giving a slightly flirtatious wink and wave before following.
If you can manage to ask them out, you can have that, too. You’ve been waiting for how long, now?

Chapter Text

Jesper squeezed Wylan’s hand as they entered the oddly-stacked apartment building known as the Slat. The last (and only) time his boyfriend had entered the building, he’d almost fainted due to the heat, even though they’d propped open all the windows in Kaz’s apartment. Well, it wasn’t really Kaz’s, but Jesper and Inej were Kaz’s only friends who had met his brother.
Four sets of footsteps echoed through the stairwell until they reached the third floor. Kaz pulled out a key, unlocking the only door on the level. The small living space—which was really just a holey couch and a coat closet lining the hall leading into the kitchen—had three times more personality to it once they had dropped their backpacks on the floor.
“Inej, you can sit there to study,” Kaz said, gesturing towards the couch. “Jesper, Wylan, here’s your assignment.” He handed Jesper a bright yellow notebook. “That closet has barely anything in it, and there’s a light inside. You should have everything you need in there.”
“Kaz… why can’t we work in the kitchen or something?” Wylan asked. Jesper could feel extra sweat dripping off his palm and gave his boyfriend a concerned look.
“I don’t want you disturbing Inej,” he replied, his voice devoid of emotion.
“Kaz, I really don’t mind a little noise, it’s just my entire family at my house all at one that bothers me—“ Inej began to protest.
“Trust me, this will work better,” Kaz replied. “Besides, I’ve got cooking to do, so I’m going to need the entire kitchen anyways.”
The remaining three stared as he left the room before Jesper turned to Wylan and shrugged. “Ready, Van Sunshine?” he asked, hoping to alleviate the fear that clearly marked his eyes.
“Where’d that one come from?”
Jesper pointed at the notebook. “Sorry, couldn’t resist.”
A loud clang echoed from the kitchen. “Fuck!”
Inej glanced around the corner, concerned. “Kaz… he smashed his finger between a pot and its lid,” she reported, stifling her laugh. Wylan let a few giggles escape, and Jesper only shook his head.
Kaz poked his head around the corner. One of his gloves was off, and his hand looked wet, while his undercut was disheveled, as if he had been running a hand through it.
“Kaz, I promise your hand is okay, and no, don’t start telling me about your wounded pride. If you really think something’s wrong, I could call Nina over here… you know she wants some practical experience….” Jesper said. Suddenly, Inej burst out laughing, and Kaz’s expression switched from mild annoyance to a childlike curiosity. Then he caught Jesper watching him.
“Get back to work,” Kaz growled, shoving his glove back on before ducking around the corner once again.
“I guess that’s our queue,” Jesper responded with a sheepish laugh, cut short by the look of sheer terror on Wylan’s face. “Wy, what’s wrong?” he asked, facing his boyfriend. He didn’t answer. “Wylan?” he asked again, waving a hand in front of his blue eyes. Finally, Wylan blinked and threw his arms around Jesper’s waist, Jesper returning the embrace. “I love you,” he whispered into Wylan’s ear. He felt a couple hard sobs against his shoulder. “Wy?” he asked for the third time.
“Fa-fa-father,” Wylan gasped. “He-he—“
Something clicked in Jesper’s head. “Whatever Kaz wants us to do, we’re going to sit right here and do it, okay? And we’re definitely not going in that damn closet.” Wylan nodded, almost collapsing onto the floor and smooshing Jesper’s long limbs.
Jesper opened the notebook and read the question on the first page. “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? Really, Kaz?!” he almost shouted. Wylan’s sobs turned into small hiccups, and Inej finally put down her phone, her finger no longer hovering over the “Emergency Call” button.
Wylan scooched off Jesper’s lap, though they were still leaning against each other. “Say it again, but faster,” he said, his voice less shaky than before.
Jesper obliged. “Howmuchwoodcouldawoodchuckchuckifawoodchuckcouldchuckwood,” he said, the syllables eventually getting muddled up. Wylan grinned brightly, then laughed, and was soon joined by Jesper and Inej.
Kaz poked his head around the corner again, and when he laid eyes on Inej, he seemed… almost happy. Finally, he locked eyes with Jesper. “Carry on,” he said quietly. Did Kaz just… think about the fact that we were all at peace for a moment there, and not want to disturb it?
“Thank you,” Jesper mouthed, not sure what, exactly, he was thanking Kaz for. He turned to the next page, and, surprisingly, it contained another equally-hilarious question: “Fuzzy-wuzzy was a bear. Fuzzy-wuzzy had no hair. Fuzzy-wuzzy wasn’t very fuzzy, was he?” Wylan laughed harder, and was now crying again. Jesper wrapped his arm around his boyfriend, and the two quickly became a giggly, hiccup, sobbing mess. Once he had regained enough composure, Jesper flipped through the next few pages. Then his expression grew serious. “I think we’re going to die of laughter if we keep reading these.”
Inej, who was now perched intently on the edge of the couch, had her eyebrows furrowed in confusion. “Kaz, I thought you said you wanted me to supervise,” she called out.
“I did, Kaz replied as he stepped out of the kitchen, face hidden behind a cookbook.
Inej leaped off the couch and walked over to him. “Kaz, why does your voice sound funny?”
“Onion,” Kaz muttered, his voice jumping half an octave in the middle of the word.
“Kaz, were you… crying?” Jesper asked, pausing his mission of kissing every inch of Wylan’s head. Kaz slowly lowered the cookbook, revealing that his face was, in fact, red and tear-stained, though his eyes had turned to coffee-colored daggers, screaming to never tell a soul.
Jesper quickly glanced down again, flipping through the rest of the notebook. “Gee, you would’ve thought this was a joke book or some—“ Jesper cut off his remark when he reached the last page. He could feel every muscle in his body contracting while his breath grew more and more ragged, the joints in his knuckles popping as he clenched and unclenched a fist. His Ma’s words—her final words—rattled around inside his skull: “Now don’t be getting into a fight, little rabbit. If anything, just walk away. I know you’ll be fine.” He could barely hear the notebook hit the carpet as he dropped it, barely even registered the look of surprise on Wylan’s face as he got up, could only think in the rhythm of his feet hitting the carpet, then tile as he entered the bathroom. Shoving the door shut with his shoulder, he turned to the bathroom sink, clenching the edge with both hands. He forced himself to stare down his grey eyes in the mirror while tensing and relaxing every muscle in his body, as per his Ma’s advice flooding his mind. “There you go, see, doesn’t that feel better?” He tried to count backwards from fifty, but his heartbeat was too fast, too loud, too damn distracting.
“Don’t worry, little rabbit, you’ll be okay. Even if it doesn’t work this time, it might help the next.”
“But, Ma, what if I can’t control myself next time, and you’re not there to help me, so I get in trouble?”
“Don’t worry. I’ll always be right here. Jes, I love you very, very much.”
“Ma, I miss you,” Jesper whispered, a tear rolling down his cheek.
“Kaz, don’t you think we should check on him?” Inej’s muted voice asked.
“Don’t worry; he’ll be fine,” Kaz replied coldly.
Kaz. The last question in that damn notebook was blocking Jesper’s vision. That day—that was the last time he’d felt like this. Why did Kaz only ever bring up all the trouble Jesper had caused?
“Damnit, Kaz.”

Chapter Text

“You know why I had to stay after school?” Nina asked as her, Matthias, and Kuwei got into Matthias’ truck. Matthias pointedly ignored her as he fiddled with the air conditioning. She sighed and continued speaking. “And why I have to stay after school for probably the rest of the year?” He immediately froze, except for his pale blue eyes, which slowly moved up her body until they met her green ones. “I have to tutor some kid that’s in French 1. Every day. Even if it’s the day before a long weekend. And even if he’s not there, I still have to stay after to help Van Houden, and if she’s not there then I have to help Rollins. But anyways… who needs tutoring the day before Thanksgiving?! That day should be reserved for preparing to stuff your face with turkey, and stuffing, and cranberries, and pumpkin pie….”
“Actually, I study the day before Thanksgiving,” Kuwei interrupted. Nina turned in her seat to stare at him in shock, only to have to turn around when the truck lurched forward. “I study every day—even holidays—and for a lot less time than anyone I know.” She saw him shrug in the truck’s side mirror. “That way I don’t end up staying up late the night before a test to cram.”
Nina turned to Matthias, who wore a small grin. “Did you hear him?! Kuwei Yul-Bo has literally never crammed before a test! Ever! He’s missing out on a crucial life experience!”
Matthias just smiled wider and rolled his eyes. “Nina, you know you’ve always used cramming as an excuse to stay up late on a school night and eat junk food, right? How much studying do you even get done?”
“Matthias Benedik Helvar, you’ll know that I stay up late and eat decent food every night, none of that healthy junk, and cramming nights are reserved especially for studying. And don’t you dare accuse me, your loving, loyal, affectionate girlfriend of not studying when I say I am!”
“I can’t say what’s not true,” he replied with a smug grin she wished she could wipe off his face right then and there.
“Hey, Matthias, why don’t you come with me once we get to the store? I have a couple things I need to get for my dad, and if we split up into two groups we’ll be able to get our lists done faster. We can meet up with Nina at the checkouts after we’ve finished.”
“What, you think I’ll spend twenty minutes in the candy aisle? Or are you boys betting on the bakery this time?” Nina asked in mock offense.
“You wanna bet?” Kuwei replied, leaning forward.
“Only a… song choice,” Nina replied after glancing around the truck for something to bet on.
“Dear God, and I thought betting was only a Jesper thing,” Matthias grumbled.
“And I didn’t take you for the swearing kind, yet here we are.”
“What, you don’t want to date me now?”
“Nope.” Matthias stared at Nina, eyes wide and jaw open in shock. “Just kidding!” she finished, punching him lightly in the biceps.
“Watch it, you almost messed up my parking job.”
“I did not—if that light of a jab throws you off, then I have no idea how you handle anything hotter and heavier.” Matthias turned fiercely red at the comment, and Kuwei, still sitting in the backseat since the former hadn’t unlocked the doors yet, cleared his throat. “Well, we’ve got shopping to do and wagers to settle,” Nina finished with a slight wink before stealing the keys to unlock the doors and getting out.
“I’m fucked,” she heard Matthias say to Kuwei as the two walked behind her, going over their shopping list. She continued listening, making note of what they were buying and which order they were going in so she could make sure she stayed out of their way and still finish first.
Once they were safely inside the store, Nina pulled up her own list on her phone and grabbed a cart. Kuwei locked eyes with her. “Ready?” She nodded. “On your mark… get set…”

Chapter Text

No,” Inej said firmly, looking Kaz in the eyes. “Friends don’t just leave friends alone in the bathroom when something’s clearly wrong. I’m going in there.” She marched over to the bathroom door, not looking back to see if Kaz was following. After knocking a couple times, she got no response. Laying her hand over the doorknob, she said, “Jes? Jes, are you okay?” All she heard in response were a couple muffled sobs. “I’m coming in,” she said, opening the door a couple inches. Jesper pulled the door open the rest of the way from the inside. Immediately, she realized things were worse than she thought. In every part of him, normally full of personality and life, all she saw were empty crevices. She’d had to comfort him before, but she’d never been able to visibly tell the difference. Was he not there, every single time, and I didn’t notice? Like… like with Kaz? After everything, only her and Jesper knew that there was anything missing, anything different, anything wrong with him. Nina, Wylan, Matthias, Kuwei—they had only ever known Kaz as he was now. They didn’t know that before the crazy schemes, the lies, the cane and gloves, he had just been a boy. Young and innocent. And Inej and Jesper? They had done nothing. Could we have done something?
“Jes, what do you need?”
Jesper scratched the back of his neck, glancing around at the floor, the wall—anywhere but at her. “A—a hug? Maybe?”
Inej wrapped her arms around his chest, felt his muscles relax under her arms. They stood like that a few seconds before he reciprocated, his arms resting on her shoulders. She shifted slightly to accommodate the extra weight.
”I’m tired of this, Papa,” she had said after walking along the piece of tape on her bedroom floor for the umpteenth time. “When can I walk on a real balance beam?”
Her Papa chuckled. “Are you sure you want to be an acrobat? You’ll have to walk this line many, many times….”
”Yes! Of course! I’ll be the greatest performer, and nothing will stop me!”
”Not even when your heart stops beating?”
”No! Not even then!
He chuckled some more. “Well, then, you’d better learn balance, and strength, and how to keep going even when your training gets boring, knowing that one day you’ll be the most graceful performer of all. Your heart is a river, Inej. Learn to stay on its path, and it’ll carry you to the sea.”
“Jes,” she whispered, “We all care about you—your father, me, Kaz—even if he doesn’t know how to show it—Wylan—“
“Wylan!” Jesper suddenly moved away from her. “Fuck, I really messed up….”
She could tell by the change in his breathing, the size of his pupils, that he was about to start pacing and laid a hand on his arm. “Wylan is fine. Probably a little confused, but he’s fine. Please—let him help you, the way you helped him earlier.” The way I wish Kaz would let me help him.
Jesper finally met her eyes. His were the sky after a rainstorm, rimmed with tearstains. The promise of something beautiful. “Can we stay here a little longer?”
She nodded. “Do you want to talk about anything?”
“I…” Jesper sighed. “The last question in the notebook was about the sleepover.” He paused. “You know which one.”
“Oh.”
“At least you responded better than I did.”
“So what are you going to tell Wylan?”
“I don’t know.” His eyes begged for an answer, an easy solution to fix all his problems. The one thing she didn’t have.
The heart is an arrow. It demands aim to land true. “You know I can only do so much. I can’t tell you how long he’ll be mad at you for or how it’s going to change things between all of us, but… I think you should tell the truth.”
Jesper shook his head. “Inej, you don’t even know the half of it.”
“And Wylan still has no idea why you ran off like that. He knows absolutely nothing about what happened at best, or he has a bad feeling about that day at worst. You can’t deny that things have changed since then. It’s hard enough for me, and you saw how Kaz acted at lunch. Nina and Matthias don’t have every answer, so they’ve just been trying to do their best for—“
“Stop.” She obliged. Jesper picked up a bar of soap off the vanity and started fiddling with it, little pieces flaking off onto his hands. “I wish I didn’t have to do this.”
“I know, but secrets are the things that hurt us most. you can’t keep everything bottled up inside you. That’s what kills us.”
“That’s what you want.”
“Every day. I want Kaz to be able to come to me. If he would just share, with someone, then maybe it would help him. I have to help him.”
“But you don’t have to do it by yourself. What if… I go to Wylan, and you go to Kaz, and we each do our best. Then—when we need more—we can go to each other.”
“Deal,” she replied as they exited the room.

Chapter Text

“If we cut through this aisle, we’ll be able to get to the meat section faster,” Matthias said.
“No, I, uh—let’s get some ice cream! Then we can go around through the freezer section to get to the meat,” Kuwei replied, his eyes darting around nervously.
Something’s going on here—this is already the second time he’s redirected me….
“So you decided to splurge, as Nina would say, on ice cream?”
“Yep!” Kuwei replied as they passed the frozen yogurt.
“Favorite flavor?”
“Everything!”
He’s way too… enthusiastic about this. Even Nina doesn’t get this excited about sweets. Not even when we were freshmen and she got way too hyper over the simple mention of a Tootsie Roll!
They stopped in front of one of the freezers. Kuwei stood in front of it, and Matthias assumed he was analyzing all the flavors. “So?” He turned around suddenly at the sound of Matthias’ voice.
“Um, I can’t decide! You know what, how about you just choose something for me?!”
Complete enthusiasm to almost… anger? Something’s really wrong here.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes. I’m fine,” Kuwei responded, pulling out the largest container of vanilla ice cream in the freezer and brushing away Matthias’ outstretched hand. He shoved the container into the cart, causing it to roll a couple inches before Matthias reached out and grabbed the handle.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Matthias asked again, pushing the cart behind Kuwei, who had continued walking.
“I already said I’m fine,” Kuwei responded, looking at his phone. Matthias stopped walking. Kuwei took a few more steps before he must’ve noticed the missing rattle of the cart and turned around.
What would Nina say? She should be here instead of me; she’s good at getting people to open up.
“Kuwei, is this about tonight? You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to…”
“You can say the words, you know,” Kuwei replied, fiddling with the golden pendant he always wore. “That’s the entire point of this—me not having to hide anymore.”
Matthias stayed silent for a moment, processing what Kuwei had said. Remembering Nina’s big party two years ago. Well, it wasn’t that big—just their group, minus Kuwei—but it had felt like it. He’d known so little then, and everything was so… overwhelming. Especially her, and everything she knew about that he didn’t even realize existed. She had so many dreams, beyond being a simple housewife like his mother, and what his family expected of his sister. The day of the party, he had gone to Nina’s house—which was really more of a mansion-- early, and she had put him to the task of sorting all the rainbow marshmallows out of about five boxes of Lucky Charms. Once he started grumbling about it being sugar cereal, she’d shut him up quickly—no, not with a kiss, but with a speech he was completely unprepared for about how there were more than two genders and she was attracted to all of them. His mind had pretty much shattered, but when he went home that night, he was surprised to see just how closed-off his home life really was. Before Nina told me all of that… did she feel like she had to hide? From me? Yet she trusted me at that moment. She was brave—braver than I’ve ever been.
Finally, he spoke. “Remember tonight, when you’re coming out, that Nina and I are right there by your side. Always.”
Kuwei nodded. “Thank you.” Then he pulled his phone out of his pocket and glanced at it. “Nina just beat us.”

Chapter Text

Wylan had attempted to run after Jesper, but Kaz had led him to another room instead, somehow convincing Wylan that Jesper needed some time and space. He wasn’t sure how long it had been since then, but he’d heard Kaz and Inej fighting while he sat in the small bedroom that clearly wasn’t Kaz’s. It was too bright, too light, too… happy. Not to mention the fact that stuff was strewn all over the place—empty water bottles, some pieces of clothing, a couple of books… and was that a twenty-dollar bill poking out of the desk drawer? Kaz was hardly ever careless, especially not to that extent.
After getting up, Wylan walked cautiously over to the desk to shove the money back in the drawer. As he did so, he felt something round—no, cylindrical— with the tips of his toes. He picked up what turned out to be a jar and was about to set it on top of the desk when he felt someone watching him.
“It’s okay—I know you’re not trying to steal anything,” Kaz said from the doorway before crossing the room to stand next to him.
“S-sorry,” he stammered, setting the jar down a little too hard and surprising himself with the sound.
Kaz shrugged. “Look at it, if you want.”
Wylan picked it up again—more carefully this time—and examined its contents. The jar was filled with slips of paper, napkins, receipts, business cards, and even a handkerchief. They all had phone numbers, whether scrawled on with sharpie or written in cursive with what must have been a very nice fountain pen. He assumed the words accompanying the numbers must have been names, sometimes with a short message as well.
“They’re not mine.” Wylan had gotten so drawn into the jar’s contents he had almost forgotten Kaz standing behind him.
“Oh! Should I not have—“
“I offered. You only took it. Don’t worry; my brother won’t be back until late tonight. He won’t know.”
So that’s who had received all these. “All of these were for him?” Kaz nodded. “Wow. That’s… that’s impressive.”
“Easy for you to say-- I’ve been watching him come home with these every day since he turned sixteen and took a job at the shittiest restaurant in town.” Sten’s Stockpot. Wylan had never eaten there himself, but he’d heard all sorts of bad things, from inedible specials to the owner bribing the health inspectors.
Wylan shook his head. “At least it means no one’s been calling him a freak, a monster, and everything else.”
Oh, his father would’ve been proud if he’d been able to get a job, much less bring home numbers from any girls. As it stood, he couldn’t even fill out a paper application in a store or restaurant. Even for places that had ones online, how would he tell his potential employer that he couldn’t even read? No one would hire him if they knew, but they’d find out eventually, and he couldn’t always rely on his phone or other people for help. Your phone! You forgot to give Matthias he earbuds back! He’s going to hate you now—you can’t even do a simple thing like borrowing a pair of earbuds right. How did you even end up with friends? They must be doing this all out of pity. Jesper? He’s just using you. At this rate, how will Kuwei even want to date you? You know he hates you, and that’s never going to change….
“Wylan.” He turned and looked at Kaz, who wore an expression Wylan couldn’t place. He probably regrets letting you in here, into his life, letting you look at his brother’s precious stuff…
“Wylan,” Kaz said again, voice as steady as ever. “Believe me when I say this: the really bad monsters never look like monsters.”
Wylan’s mind went immediately to Duva—the little town in Nina’s stories where, yes, there were sick and twisted monsters, but at first glance they were only pieces of fiction—until you found them in reality. For about a year, the two of them spent every weekend at Nina’s place. Her dad was gone so much, Wylan wasn’t sure exactly what he knew about the situation, and his own father didn’t care as long as his grades stayed up. He’d asked to meet Nina once, of course, but she’d charmed him enough that the two of them could’ve done anything they’d pleased and he wouldn’t have cared. That? Him not caring, always wanted? He’s a monster. You know he’s a monster, always inside your head, always telling you the worst things about yourself. Yes, he’s a monster—but so are the characters in video games you can defeat so easily. That’s why you defeated him, why you banished him for good.
“Wylan? Are you okay?” Jesper asked as he entered the room.
“I-I think so,” Wylan replied, hugging his boyfriend as tight as possible.
“Wylan, I’m so, so sorry,” Jesper began before Wylan interrupted him.
“Can we just stay like this? Right here, and quiet, and together?”
“Of course,” Jesper replied, followed by what almost sounded like a sigh of relief.

Chapter Text

Kuwei fiddled with one of the straps on his backpack while Nina and Matthias bantered in the front seat. I just feel sick. I’m sure everything’s going to be fine, but I’ve always lived up to my dad’s expectations—and I’m sure he never expected this. I just don’t want to disappoint him.
“Kuwei?” Matthias asked. “Which house is yours?”
“That one,” Kuwei responded shakily, pointing to a tan house on the right-hand side of the street.
“Got it,” Matthias replied as he signaled and turned into the driveway.
Kuwei quickly bent over so he could reach the grocery bags on the floor, pulled out the carton of vanilla ice cream from his own bag, and put it into Nina’s. I’m glad Matthias is a really focused driver—for this, as well as my own safety, of course.
“Are you ready?” Nina asked him, turning around once Matthias had parked the truck.
“Yes—at least, as ready as I can be.” He grabbed his backpack and grocery bags and got out of the truck, followed by Nina and Matthias. When they reached the front door, his dad was waiting for them. “Hi, Dad. These are my friends—Nina and Matthias,” he said, gesturing towards his companions.
“It’s great to meet you,” Kuwei’s dad replied. “Dinner’s ready, so please come in and eat.”
Nina and Matthias followed the two of them into the house. After setting down his stuff inside, Kuwei led his friends into the dining room. He sat down next to his dad, who was seated at the head of the table, while Nina and Matthias sat across from himself. Before they began eating, Kuwei cleared his throat a couple times then said, “I, uh, I have something to tell you.” He glanced down at his hands in his lap, face flushed. Those words poured out of your mouth way too fast—no one understood you.
To his surprise, his dad nodded. “Okay.”
He looked up at his friends, frozen now that he only had a few more words to get out. Matthias gave him a thumbs-up, while Nina flashed him her biggest smile—one usually reserved for special occasions. I guess this is a special occasion. I mean, I’m coming out, and that can be a big deal. Plus, this is the one time in my life where I’ve actually felt this nervous—more than just a few butterflies in my stomach, like the first time I stepped foot in high school. He was hyper-aware of his heart beating in his ears, his chest—everywhere, really—while his muscles felt limp and uncontrollable. You’re okay. You’re okay. You’re okay. He breathed—in, out, and in again—and finally spoke. “Dad, I—I like boys. I could love one—or more than one—the same way that you and Mom loved each other. I’m gay.” He felt the blood rush throughout his body. I’ve never both loved and loathed epinephrine so much. He glanced down at the table, then up at his friends, and finally over to his dad, who was no longer sitting. He felt a tight embrace from behind.
“Kuwei, even if the sun, moon, and stars fell out of the sky one day, I’d never stop loving you. Whoever you end up with, I’ll be happy as long as they can say the same.”
“But they couldn’t just fall out of the sky,” Kuwei replied, grinning, “Unless you defined ‘falling out of the sky’ as moving rapidly towards Earth, which would happen assuming that the big bang theory is correct and a reverse of it occurs, but by that time humans will be extinct, so we still won’t have any problems there.” His dad laughed at the smart response, then Kuwei joined in, and eventually Nina and Matthias were also laughing. This is my place in the universe. Right here, right now— yet I feel so light, and free, and in control.

Chapter Text

Jordie: Kaz I’m almost home
Jordie: Kaz?
Jordie: You’d better not be ignoring me
Fuck. “Wylan, Jesper, I hate to break up this happy reunion, but you need to leave. Now. And Wylan, meet me after school tomorrow. I’ve got a job for you.” Kaz ushered the other two boys towards the door.
“But Nina’s party—“ Wylan protested.
“Don’t worry, you’ll still make it on time. And I’m sure Nina’ll understand if you can’t help set up.”
Once Wylan and Jesper were out the door, Kaz turned to Inej. “Kaz… is this about your brother?” she asked hesitantly.
He paused before answering, unsure of her reaction. “Yes.”
“You know you can tell me anything.”
“That’s what every teacher, counselor, and principal I’ve ever met has said.”
“Unlike them, I actually care, and I won’t try and help you unless you actually want it—which I’m sure you don’t.”
I wish I could tell you that I want your help, but I’m just not sure what you could do about it, or if you’d even want to help me once you know…. “Inej. There’s a reason why I’d never call you my girlfriend, under any circumstances.” He recoiled as soon as he said the words. “You don’t deserve that.”
“But Kaz—“
Inej, there’s more to those words that you can’t see, but I want you, too. “There’s so much more,” Kaz accidentally said out loud.
“So much more what?” Jordie answered, slamming the door shut as he entered the apartment. Then he spotted Inej. “Girls?”
Kaz winced at the noise. “I don’t think I was talking to you,” he answered. Then he turned to Inej. “Goodbye,” he said pointedly, hating how remorseful it sounded on his tongue. She gave him a final, questioning look, but he evaded her eyes. Don’t look at her. Don’t look at her. Then she’ll see how much you’re begging for her to stay.
“Kaz,” Jordie said, any hint of affection leaving his voice after Inej left. “Did you forget the terms of our deal?”
How could I forget, after everything? I’m the one who stooped so low as to beg you for that deal—and those, those were your demands I had to accept if I wanted my own personal hell to finally end. “I’m sorry,” he replied, looking for anything of interest besides Jordie’s face to land his eyes on. He failed.
“Then I shouldn’t see her here again. Did you make supper?”
“Yes. I won’t be here tomorrow night, though, so you’ll have to cook yourself.”
Jordie stared at Kaz in shock, then shook his head, his bangs falling into his eyes. “Just don’t do anything you’ll regret. I’ll manage myself somehow.”
You know I regret almost everything. “I’ll go set the table, then we can eat.”
“No, I’ll do it—you’ve done enough.”
He’s happy. Guess I know what’ll be happening here tomorrow night. Nina won’t mind if I sleep over—everyone will end up spending the night anyways. “By the way, the thing tomorrow night… is a sleepover.”
“Good! Have fun!” Jordie replied a little too enthusiastically.
Yep, I was right. The burnt pasta tasted even worse accompanied by that thought.

Chapter Text

“So how much homework do you have tonight?” Kuwei’s dad asked, eliciting a groan from his son.
“Dad, it’s the first day of school. None of the teachers give homework.”
“In that case… what time do you two need to be home by?” he asked, turning to Nina and Matthias.
“Seven on school nights,” Matthias replied.
“Same,” Nina added, skirting around the long explanation of why she didn’t actually have a curfew.
“Dad, can I show them the garage?” Kuwei asked, practically bouncing with excitement.
“Yes, just be careful—you know that if you break anything, you’re paying for it with your allowance money.”
“Thank you! Come on—it’s really cool, I promise!”
Kuwei led the two of them out to the garage, which only held one car but a shit-ton of electrical components, bottles of chemicals, and what looked like a variety of small magnifying glasses without handles. So this is what Kaz means when he talks about Kuwei having a home lab. Does his dad know what we use some of this stuff for?
After flicking on the lights—which were quite a bit more extensive than in the average garage—Kuwei pressed another button next to the light switch. All the lights slowly faded from bright white to red. “It’s quicker for your eyes to adjust between light and dark when you use red light instead of white,” he explained.
“Also adds to the creepiness factor,” Matthias added, glancing around warily.
“It’s like we’re in one of those extremely predictable scary movies!” Nina said.
“You mean, the ones where you always end up clinging to me by the end of them?”
“Come on, you have to admit that you like it when I do that.”
Kuwei walked over to a tall object with a sheet thrown over it. “Prepare to be amazed.” He pulled the sheet off, revealing a giant telescope.
“Oh, good, it’s just a telescope,” Matthias said, sighing in relief.
“What did you think it was?” Nina asked. “A wardrobe leading to Narnia?”
“No, I was thinking more of a giant beanstalk.”
“You giant oaf,” Nina said, laughing. “Beanstalks can’t go through ceilings, and if anyone’s the big, mean giant at the top, it’s you.” Matthias crossed his arms and rumbled incoherently. “See? You already know your part.”
“And I bet you end up as a flower or something.”
“On second thought, I’ll just be the seductive giant, and you’ll be a big, brooding yellow tulip down in the garden with the beanstalk.”
“Until you come down to Earth and step on me.”
“Aw, someone’s a little salty.”
“Kuwei, save me from the wrath of the seductive giant!”
“Or from getting squished and dying.”
“Or that.”
“So that makes me… Jack?” Kuwei asked. Nina nodded. “Then I’ll chop down the bean stock!”
“No!” Nina screamed in anguish. Kuwei and Matthias both stared at her. Whoops. I guess that was a little too loud. “Well, now that I’ve captured our hero’s attention, I’ll lure him up to my home in the sky with… with the promise of all the gold that money could buy! In egg form, of course.”
“Ah, but I’m not so easily convinced,” Kuwei replied. “Such a promise sounds too good to be true, so it probably is.”
“But wait! There’s more! All those eggs came from my magic goose! She lays one egg each day, which means that you and your family will never run out of money for as long as you live!”
Kuwei’s face fell. Shit! Nina, do something! “And, once in a blue moon, she’ll produce an egg of immortality.”
“The moon never turns blue,” Kuwei replied sullenly.
Matthias coughed. “I- uh- I think we need to get going.”
“Of course. My dad will probably want to say goodbye,” Kuwei responded before putting the sheet back over the telescope and leading the two of them back inside.

Chapter Text

“Well finally you’re home,” Colm Fahey said jokingly as his son entered the house. “I was beginning to think you’d decided to stay at Kaz’s or Wylan’s and didn’t tell me.”
“You know I wouldn’t do that,” Jesper replied in a similar manner as he set his backpack down by the table and joined his dad in the kitchen.
“I can think of a couple times where that didn’t happen,” Colm replied, handing Jesper a bowl and a couple eggs.
“It was only one time, and I forgot. Besides, Kaz’s brother wasn’t home, so it wasn’t like I didn’t have a bed to sleep in.”
Colm laughed. “Okay then, but I’m sure I would’ve gone over to his place and taken you home myself if his brother had been home.”
“There’s a thing called sharing a bed, you know.”
“Sharing a bed with the person you had a crush on?”
“Okay, maybe it wasn’t the best idea,” Jesper mumbled, cracking the eggs into the bowl and dropping the shells into the bin to go out to the compost heap.
“So how was school?”
“Same as always.”
“Letting you take physics with all your friends wasn’t a bad idea?”
“Nope, it was the best one. Inej and I get to build a rocket together.”
“Remember how you came home from your first day of kindergarten telling me all about your new best friend Inej?”
“Da, that was back in kindergarten-- of course I don’t remember it.”
Colm chuckled as he dumped the eggs into a pan. “You told me she had a hundred cousins but was an only child, then said that if you couldn’t have a sibling, you should at least be allowed to have a few cousins.”
“I still think I would’ve gotten into less trouble if I had someone to play with,” Jesper interjected, passing his dad the milk and cheese.
“Or you would’ve learned twice as many swear words at half the age. Besides, how would I keep up with two of you?”
“Easy—you’d give us more chores, since two people can do double the work.”
“Or those two people would distract their father so much that no one would get anything done.” The two laughed as Colm turned off the stove while Jesper got plates and silverware out of the cupboard. Then he stacked a couple glasses on top. “Be careful grabbing everything at once.”
“Oh, come on—I’ve only ever broken one glass, and I was washing it, not carrying it to the table!” And who knows, that’ll probably be the next mistake I make. Why do these things always happen to me?
“Just because you’ve only seen something done one way doesn’t mean there’s not another.” And Da even agrees.
“Were—were those some of Ma’s words?” Jesper asked. I should probably tell him about what happened earlier, but… sometimes it’s just really hard to talk about the serious things. But I talked seriously with Wylan at lunch… maybe I can do it again.
“No. You taught me that, Jes,” Colm replied as he scraped the eggs into a bowl and carried that over to the table with two pot holders.
I taught him something?
“Da, I kind of… freaked out earlier, when I was at Kaz’s,” Jesper confessed.
“Are you okay?”
“Maybe. Inej, Wylan… they understand. Kaz…” Jesper shrugged. “Sometimes I just don’t know.”
Colm paused at Jesper’s overly-serious tone. “This is about more than just Kaz, isn’t it?”
And this is why I don’t like talking about serious things. One just leads to another until you end up spilling everything, but… maybe this will help. “… Maybe.”
“You know I’m always here if you have something you want to get off your mind.” The two sat down to eat.
“Sleepovers… aren’t very good ideas.”
Colm raised an eyebrow. “You had them every week over the summer and it seemed like you always had a good time. Did something happen?”
“You know the one where you were surprised because I came home so early?”
“Yes. You told me you weren’t having as much fun because Wylan wasn’t there, but you seemed a lot more upset than I’d expect.”
“I was.” Come on. You can do this. You need to do this. Jesper took a breath. “That night, we played one of those dumb party games. Spin the Bottle.”
Colm tensed. “With kissing or drinking?”
“Kissing.”
“Just to make this clear, I’m not going to judge you for your decisions, but I am going to act like a father.”
How mad is he going to be? Well, there’s nothing I can do now, since we’re already on the subject… “Nina suggested it, and Inej said she would play as long as Kaz didn’t mind. He didn’t want to play and sat out, but was fine with her playing. Kuwei and Matthias also agreed. Matthias was a little grumbly about it, saying it was really childish and stuff. Nina went first and the bottle landed on Inej. They kissed and were really giggly afterwords. Then Matthias went, it landed on Inej again, and he just kissed her on the cheek. No one really cared, though. Then it was Kuwei’s turn to spin the bottle.” Breathe. “It landed on me, and—and I kissed back. He was the one who broke it off after what felt like forever and everyone just stared. I wondered why, then realized it was because Wylan wasn’t there. Everyone else had asked first… but I didn’t. I just didn’t think about it. And I really liked the kiss, too! It was so stupid, and I knew I made a mistake, Wylan still doesn’t know, and now I kinda have feelings for Kuwei, but then today at lunch Wylan told me he has feelings for Kuwei, too?! I want us all to date, but the truth would come out so easily then, and I really don’t want Wylan to be mad at me! How did my life get to be such a mess?!” Jesper abruptly got up from the table and went up to his room, slamming the door shut behind him. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and texted Inej while pacing, hoping she would respond.
Jesper: INEJ
Inej: I’m here
Jesper: Fuck my life’s such a mess and I think my dad hates me now
Inej: He’d never hate you.
The room just didn’t have enough room to contain Jesper’s energy. He opened the door to find his father standing outside it with an outstretched hand, about to knock.
“Jes,” he father said, engulfing his son in a hug, “You made a mistake. That’s what people do. But now you need to fix it… I think you know what you need to do.”
Jesper took a minute in his dad’s arms. “Thank you,” he said, breaking out of the hug. He walked back into his room and sat down on his bed, flipping his phone around in his hands. That was the first birthday present he’d received after his Ma passed. She’d want you to do this. She would tell you that you can do this.
Jesper: I’m telling Wy about that sleepover
Inej: Good luck
Inej: I’m always here for you
Inej: Tell me how it goes
To: Wylan Van Sunshine
Jesper: You there?
Wylan: Yeah
Jesper: I need to tell you something
Jesper: And it involves Kuwei
Wylan: Go on
Jesper: At that one sleepover over the summer you weren’t at
Jesper: We all played spin the bottle
Jesper: Except for Kaz
Jesper: Kuwei and I kissed probably more than we were supposed to
Jesper: I’m sorry I didn’t tell you
Wylan: Oh
Wylan: Does everything you said at lunch still stand?
Jesper: Yes
Jesper: I still love you
Jesper: And I did back then too
Jesper: But that was when I realized I like him too
Wylan: Honestly I think I would of as well
Wylan: Not on purpose but in the moment
Wylan: I’m not mad about it but I wish you would of told me sooner
Jesper: *Would’ve
Wylan: Thanks
Jesper: I’m glad you’re not mad about the kiss
Wylan: Did you think I would be
Jesper: I wasn’t sure
Jesper: How much does this change things?
Wylan: It does nut
Jesper: *Doesn’t
Wylan: Just tell me next time you end up kissing someone and I’m not there
Jesper: Deal
Wylan: I also want to hear the full story in person sometime
Wylan: Whether its from you or Kuwei
Jesper: Definitely
Wylan: I love you
Jesper: I love you too <3
Wylan:If your going to keep using heart emo gees then I need to get kazoo program the text to speech thing to actually read them properly
Jesper: That would be hilarious if Kaz was short for kazoo
Jesper: And I’ll refrain until Kaz can fix that

Chapter Text

Matthias and Nina sat in silence as he drove her home. She hasn’t even turned the radio on. Normally she’d have it on by now and be singing along to whatever shitty pop song was playing… but today wasn’t really normal. I’ve always seen her as a little piece of perfection. Even when she’s made mistakes, she’s always been able to fix them… she’s the one who’s good at getting people to open up, the one who can twist words any which way to get what she wants, but… it’s like she didn’t know what to do, didn’t know how to fix things. But she can still fix everything… right?
Eventually they pulled into Nina’s driveway. She opened the truck door and was about to step out when she turned back to Matthias and said, “You won’t need to bring me to school tomorrow… or take me home. But later… tomorrow night, you can come over. I’ll text you when.”
What?! I don’t understand what’s going on. I really don’t. “Nina—“ Matthias began,, but she’d already slammed the door shut and was halfway to her front door, carrying her share of the groceries. Maybe she just needs some space? I don’t know what’s happening right now, but I feel like something’s very wrong. Shaking his head, he backed out of the driveway and drove the familiar path to his house in yet more silence. As he parked the truck along the side of the road, his dog Trassel came flying out of the house, followed by his sister, who broke the silence.
“Matthias! I went to kindergarten today and all my teachers were really nice but there were a lot of rules and—“
“Grethe, what are you doing out here? You can talk more once we get back in the house. Does Mama know you’re out here?”
“No, but she said she needed a nap and not to dis-turb her,” Grethe replied, slowly pronouncing the unfamiliar word. Then she spotted the grocery bags in the back. “Ooh, can I help?”
Mom’s really been sleeping a lot lately… I hope she’s feeling alright. Hopefully Grethe doesn’t catch anything. “Here you go,” Matthias said, handing her the two bags. He grabbed his backpack and shut the truck door. “Come on, Trass.” The dog, who had sat himself by Matthias’ feet, jumped up and trotted by his side as the three of them made their way back to the house.
Once they were inside, Matthias went immediately to the kitchen to unpack the groceries, while Grethe continued to tell him about school. “My teacher said—“
“What’s your teacher’s name?” Matthias replied as he shooed Trass away from the groceries he had been sniffing.
Grethe shrugged. “I don’t remember. But she said we’re gonna learn how to read and write and stuff! Oh, and she gave us presents!”
Presents? On the first day of school? Please don’t let it be anything really big or expensive.
“Look!” she said, holding up a small, purple… blob. “I don’t remember what my teacher said it was, but I shall call him squishy and he shall be mine and he shall be my Squishy! Just like you and Trass!”
I hope her teacher doesn’t go crazy hearing her talk about Finding Dory all the time. “Can I see your Squishy?”
“Yes! Just be really careful with him!” Matthias took it carefully out of her hand. It had a hole through the middle as well as three indents of varying sizes, one of which had a star-shaped bump in it. Oh, good. It’s just a pencil grip.
“Do you want me to show you something you can do with this?”
“Yes!”
“Alright, but I’ll need a pencil first.” Grethe ran off to wherever she had put her backpack and came back with a pencil. He was about to stick the pencil through the hole when Grethe screamed. Their mother came running, looking almost like a ghost except for the dark circles around her eyes.
“What’s wrong?” she demanded, glancing between her two children.
Grethe spoke first. “Matthias was about to kill my Squishy!”
“It’s a pencil grip. I was showing her how to use it,” Matthias explained, leaving out the fact that it had been given to her by her teacher.
Their mother picked up Grethe. “Don’t worry; you Squishy is supposed to go around your pencil. And it’s time for you to get ready for bed.” She turned to Matthias. “Could you take her to and pick her up from school tomorrow?”
“Yes, that’s fine. Can I—maybe—go to Nina’s after supper tomorrow night?”
“As long as you have your homework done beforehand and call if you’re going to be home late or stay overnight,” she replied.
“It’ll be done, and I’ll call,” Matthias promised. His Mom turned around and carried Grethe up the stairs while Matthias and his sister blew kisses to one another. Once they were out of sight, Matthias stroked Trassel absentmindedly.
“Do you think she realized she just gave permission for me to stay overnight at my girlfriend’s house on a school night?” Matthias asked him. Trass made an affectionate noise and pushed Matthias into a sitting position, then sat down on his lap. Matthias laughed. “You haven’t done that to Grethe, have you? Mom would have a fit if that happened.” Trass rolled over, exposing his belly, and nudged Matthias’ hand with his snout. “Nope, you definitely haven’t, or Mom would be wondering when you got to be so affectionate.” Trassel had been the complete opposite of affectionate when Matthias had first rescued her, biting anyone who came near her. He’d thought that by saving the dog from the group of bullies beating him up that his parents would be proud of him, but instead they’d been adamant that Trassel wasn’t going to stay in their house until he learned some manners or Grethe was old enough to know how to act around the dog. That was when Matthias had first started losing faith in his parents, and instead set out on his own to try and figure out how to be a big brother that his sister would want to follow. “The water hears and understands. The ice does not forgive,” he murmured. Even now, with all the training he had done with Trassel, he knew his parents still didn’t fully trust him—with the dog or his sister.

Chapter Text

Wylan was very adept at pretending, at playing along even when he didn’t know what he was doing. At pretending he was fine even when he really wasn’t. Those were the lessons his father had forced him to learn. And even though he knew now that asking for help and telling the truth were the best ways to get what he needed, pretending was the thing he always fell back on when he didn’t know exactly what to do.
He’d almost forgotten he’d been sitting on the couch in the second-floor living room until his mom walked in and immediately took notice of her son’s mood. “Wylan, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Just… school and stuff,” he replied, quickly closing the messaging app and locking his phone, though he knew she’d never look at it without his permission.
She nodded sympathetically. “Taking a break from homework?”
“Yeah, but I should get back at it—we’re sight-reading one of the pieces for our first concert tomorrow in band, so Retvenko gave me the sheet music today.”
“Do you still have those colored highlighters, or…?”
“Yeah, I know where they’re at. I’d better get working.” He stood up and began to leave the room, then turned around. “Thanks, Mom.”
“You know I’m here for you. I like listening to your stories about school and your friends… I want to be a part of your life and make up for everything that I missed.”
“I’ll be right back.” Wylan went to his room and grabbed his flute, highlighters, pencil, music, and music stand, then went back to the living room. He was only two feet inside when he dropped everything.
“I could’ve helped,” his mom said, shaking her head as she picked up some of his supplies and set them on the nearby loveseat.
“Sorry, I just….”
“Didn’t want to burden me?” Wylan paused then nodded slowly, unsure of what the right answer was. She engulfed him in a hug. “I don’t care what it is—I’ll always try and help. Please, don’t worry that you’re giving me more than I can handle. You’re the one who shouldn’t have to handle everything by yourself.”
“You know Jesper?”
“Yes… he’s treating you well?”
“Yes, of course! But earlier, he, uh… he told me that he played spin the bottle at a sleepover with some of our friends over the summer that I wasn’t at, and he… he kissed someone else.”
“Wy, you know that’s not treating you—“
Wylan pulled out of their hug. “There’s more. The guy he kissed… we both really like him.”
“As in, you want to date him, or…?”
“Yes.”
“So you want to date him, and Jesper wants to date him… does that mean you broke up with Jesper?”
“No, we just want to date each other and both date him, all at the same time….”
“So… there would be three people in the relationship instead of two?”
“Yes.”
“I… okay. I think I’ve got it, but I’ll probably end up asking you a bunch more questions a different day once I’ve had time to process this more. Is there more?”
“Yeah… I don’t really know how to feel. I’m upset that no one told me about this sooner, and I’m happy that he got to kiss Kuwei, but…” He shrugged. “I don’t really know.”
“It’s okay. You’ll figure it out. Now, some flute?”
She always takes the time to talk to me, and she’s learned so much in so little time and been okay with it all. She even knows exactly what I need to do to help process things. “Of course.”

Chapter Text

Inej sat curled up in the hammock outside as she finished going through her notes for the test on Hamlet the next day. I think I’ll do okay… probably not an A, but I’m not going to fail, either. She checked her phone to see if Jesper had texted her back yet.
Inej: So?
Inej: How’d it go?
Jesper: Really well
Jesper: He just told me I should tell him sooner the next time I get some action
Jesper: But hes not super mad about the kissing part
Inej: Wow
Inej: I’m really happy for you
Jesper: Also
Jesper: Can you tell Kaz he need’s to fix Wy’s phone thingy soon?
Inej: You mean the text to speech app?
Jesper: Yes
Inej: Why can’t you tell him yourself?
Inej: Also I <3 the nickname
Jesper: Yes! I finally converted someone to emoji dom!
Inej: lol
Inej: But really,, it’s cute
Jesper: Wy <3 s it too
Jesper: Anyways,,
Jesper: Kaz isn’t answering my texts
Inej: Give him time
Jesper: I hope Wy never gets annoyed by my nicknames for him
Inej: You have more?
Inej: And you know who I mean
Jesper: Inej you literally don’t have a mean bone in your body
Inej: *meant
Jesper: And yes I have more
Jesper: Lots more
Inej: I’ll see if Kaz will answer me

To: Kaz Rietveld
Inej: Kaz
Inej: Are you there?
Inej: Jes said Wylan needs your help
Inej: With his phone thingy
Inej: Those are his words not mine btw
When Kaz didn’t answer immediately, she packed up her school stuff and headed inside since it was getting too dark out to read any of her notes or textbooks. Besides, I’ve really done all I can tonight. After going to her room and changing into pajamas, she sat on her bed and checked her phone again. Hmm… no reply. I thought I gave Kaz long enough….
Inej: Kaz are you ok?

To: Jesper Fahey
Inej: He isn’t answering me either
Jesper: That’s strange
Jesper: Meanwhile
Jesper: There’s this weird knocking sound on the side of the house
Inej: ??
Jesper: It’s been steadily going for 5 mins now
Inej: Steady like Wylan’s flute runs or steady like Matthias attempting to run?
Jesper: I take back my statement about you not having a mean bone in your body
Jesper: And steady like Wylan’s runs
Inej: Look out your window, I guess?
Jesper: Here goes…
Jesper: Oh shit
Inej: What?
She waited. And waited. Maybe I should see if Nina needs help studying for that test?
To: Queen of Hearts
Inej: How’s Hamlet going
Queen of Hearts: He’s either dead or saying a monologue
Inej: Lol
Inej: But really, have you studied?
Queen of Hearts: Um
Inej: Nina
Queen of Hearts: Whoops
Queen of Hearts Can you help me?
Queen of Hearts Please?
Inej: Fine
Inej: Just this once
Inej: Name one significant character who doesn’t die
Queen of Hearts The gravedigger?
Inej: I said significant
Queen of Hearts: But that guy’s really underappreciated!
Queen of Hearts: I thought you would understand my love for him!
Inej: I’ll give you a hint
Inej: Hamlet asks him to stick around and tell people what happened
Queen of Hearts: Didn’t our teacher say the test was gona be on quote analysis
Queen of Hearts: And not on the fates of random characters?
Inej: Yeah but you still need to know the basic plot to do plot analysis
Queen of Hearts: Hey, are you saying I’m not good at bs’ing analyses?
Inej: Of Mice and Men doesn’t count
Inej: Since we all got way better grades than we should’ve considering that no one wanted to do the reading since it was over winter break
Queen of Hearts: Name one time that’s caused you to doubt my abilities
Inej: Romeo & Juliet
Inej: You may as well have just changed the entire plot
Queen of Hearts: But we were freshmen!
Inej: Doesn’t matter
Inej: That English teacher babied us so much that you didn’t even need to read the play outside of class
Inej waited for a few minutes for a reply. Maybe she took a hint and decided to study? I should check on Jesper… I feel like something’s going on with that whole knocking thing.
To: Jesper Fahey
Inej: What is it?
I don’t want to disturb Nina now that she’s hopefully studying, but there’s party plans we need to make.
To: Kaz Rietveld, Queen of Hearts, Jesper Fahey, Wylan Van Eck, Kuwei Yul-Bo
Inej: Nina have you done any planning?
Queen of Hearts Nope
Inej: What have you done this evening?
Inej: Besides buy and eat food
Queen of Hearts I’ll tell you tomorrow in English after the test
Kuwei: Please don’t eat that entire carton of ice cream
Queen of Hearts: Why would I only have one carton?
Inej: Nina…
Queen of Hearts: Yes, my dearest Inej?
Inej: Nevermind
Inej: Do you need any of us to come over right away after school tomorrow?
Inej: I think Kaz and Wylan are busy, but…
Queen of Hearts I’m tempted to say no
Queen of Hearts But probably yes
Queen of Hearts: Thank you for always coming up with that one thing I forgot
Inej: You’re welcome
Inej: So I’ll be over… Kuwei? Jesper?
Kuwei: Sorry my dad said I need to go home + do homework first
Inej: That’s fine
Inej: I’m assuming Jes isn’t going to reply since he hasn’t responded to our private chat, but if you do read this, you’re welcome to come!
Inej: See you all at school tomorrow!
Queen of Hearts: <3
Inej: And there she is living up to her contact name (in my phone)
Kuwei: ?
Queen of Hearts Which is Queen of Hearts <3
Kuwei: Isn’t that like a Disney movie or something?
Inej: Alice in Wonderland
Kuwei: Oh
Queen of Hearts: I’ve got an idea for tomorrow…
Inej: Please study for the Hamlet test first
Queen of Hearts: Fine
That’s still strange that Jesper hasn’t replied yet….
From: Jesper Fahey
Jesper: Guess who showed up at my house
Inej: ?
Jesper: The one and only Kaz Brekker
Jesper: (whos also looking over my shoulder while im texting)
Inej: You almost gave me a heart attack not responding for so long
Jesper: Kaz I told you not responding was a bad idea
Inej: I meant that for both of you
Jesper: Oh
Read five minutes ago
How come everyone’s abruptly ending conversations with me tonight? Did I do something wrong and not realize it, or is something else up?

Chapter Text

Fuck. Inej is mad at both of us now—and it’s my fault.
Jesper turned to Kaz. “So… would you care to explain why you came knocking on the side of my house under my window at—“ he glanced at the clock. “—nine pm?”
“That’s none of your business,” Kaz replied.
“Kaz, you show up at my house, then say that the reason why is none of my business? I’m not putting up with you and your non-excuses anymore,” Jesper replied, anger flaring through his eyes.
I’ve used that one so many times… I should’ve known he wouldn’t buy it any longer. “I—“ Kaz stammered.
“I’m waiting. Choose your words carefully.”
“Jordan.”
“What about your brother?”
Fuck, I hate being interrupted. Kaz gulped. “Jordan and I fought.”
Jesper put his hands up. “You fought with your brother, so instead of, I don’t know, maybe fixing whatever the problem was, you ran away from it?! You know how many problems you make for me, how many damn excuses I have to make to my dad for why you always show up at odd hours of the day and night?! How many more problems are you going to cause, Kaz? And what about Inej?”
“What does Inej have to do with this?”
“You know, at first I thought all your jokes about how Inej wasn’t your girlfriend were just jokes, but I’m beginning to think you don’t realize what’s right in front of you!”
“And what’s that?” Kaz replied, quieter. Be very careful what you say, Jes.
“You like her!”
Oh, you have no idea.
“And what’d you do?!” Jesper continued. “You left her hanging for years! Years, Kaz! Do you even know what it’s like to like someone for that long, only to never have your feelings acknowledged?!”
If Jesper’s dad didn’t know I was here before, he certainly knows now. “Jesper, there are some things you have no idea about!”
“I think I do!”
“Then tell me one time where you felt that exact. Same. Thing.”
“You, Kaz. When I liked you.”
“I thought I made my feelings perfectly clear.”
“Well, you thought wrong.”
You’re right, Jes. I didn’t make anything clear. I was wrong. “Then maybe you should’ve asked what I felt.”
“And then what?! You would’ve just given me some cryptic answer, as usual! Just admit it, Kaz: you’re bad at feelings.”
“So what do you want me to do? Go up to her, ask her to be my girlfriend when I can barely stand the thought of kissing, then skip arm-in-arm with her down a magical, yellow brick road? Life isn’t a fairytale.”
“I never said it was!”
“Then what?! What do you want me to do?!”
“I can’t give you the answer to that, Kaz. Only you know what you have to do.”
“And you were the one complaining about cryptic answers!”
Jesper shrugged, though he was clearly still agitated. “I give what I can, Kaz. I thought you were all about cutting losses.”
“Jesper, you really have no idea, do you.”
“No. Why don’t you tell me, Kaz Rietveld?”
“Do. Not. Say. That. Name. Ever. Again.”
“Oh, you’re that ashamed of your brother, are you?”
“Leave my brother out of this!”
The door squeaked open, revealing Colm Fahey. Kaz would never admit it, but Jesper’s dad had helped him—a lot—with the loss of his own father. Jordie had never taken a liking to him, saying he was too strict with kids who weren’t his own. And now he’s mad. At me. “Okay, boys, that’s enough. I gave you the chance to work things out yourselves, but clearly that didn’t happen. Jes, stay here. Kaz, you’re coming downstairs with me.”

Chapter Text

Nina yawned as she shut her laptop. Spark Notes had told her enough about the plot of Hamlet, and she felt confident she would remember it all. Besides, there’s some toffee calling my name. She pulled a small box out from under her bed, ignored the words “For emergencies ONLY!!!” written in bright red Sharpie on top, took off the lid, and pulled out a piece of toffee. She unwrapped it and popped it into her mouth, chewing on it as she unlocked her phone. Her only unread message was from Matthias.
Matthias: Nina are you okay?
Nina: Yeah, why?
Matthias: I’m just worried, that’s all
Nina: About what?
Matthias: The way you brushed me off earlier
Oh. I didn’t realize he took my words that way… how do I respond without giving anything away about the party?
Matthias: Shit, maybe that was too abrasive
Matthias: I’m sorry
Matthias: Are you still there
Nina: Yeah
Matthias: Hey, it’s okay
Matthias: What happened earlier w/ Kuwei—it was just a misunderstanding, that’s all
Nina: Um
Nina: Yeah I guess I kinda felt odd after that
Matthias: Sorry
Nina: Nothing was your fault. I just didn’t connect the dots.
Nice save… hopefully he doesn’t ask about anything else.
Group Message: Wylan Van Eck, Nina Zenik, Kaz Brekker, Inej Ghafa, Jesper Fahey, Kuwei Yul-Bo
Wylan: Sorry I can’t come early tomorrow
Nina: Hey Wylan
Nina: That’s ok I think we can handle things
Nina: But you’ll be back for the party right??
Wylan: Of course
Inej: Oh Wylan I have something to ask you
Wylan: Yeah
Wylan: Question mark in parenthesis
Inej: Don’t worry we’re getting Kaz to fix that
Wylan Yay
Wylan Exclamation point
Inej: Could you and Jesper come with me to my volunteering thing tomorrow?
Inej: There’s a kid there that would really like to meet you two
Wylan: Definitely
Wylan: Ima sure Jess will want to come as well
Wylan: Kaz can you fabricate some late passes or excuse notes or something for us
Inej: Facepalm
Inej: Wow we really need to get that fixed
Inej: He’s probably not going to respond…
Inej: But if he doesn’t see this in time I’ll think of something
Wylan: Thanks
Wylan: Exclamation point
Wylan: And fixing this will definitely help save my voice
Inej: Great, see you tomorrow!
Wylan: See you
Nina: Now that we’ve covered the off-topic business
Nina: Does anyone have any objections to Matthias bringing his dog?
Wylan: Nope
Wylan: And Ima hundred percent sure Jesper will be fine with it too
Inej: Yeah that’s fine
Inej: And we know how fond Kaz is of animals
Kuwei sent a photo
Wylan: How did you get that without him catching you
Wylan: Every time I try to sneak isle take a picture he catches me and makes me delete it
Nina: Yeah even Inej gets caught
Nina: And she’s basically a spider
Nina: Being silent and all
Inej: <3
Nina: <3
Kuwei: ika how I just took out my phone and took it??
Kuwei: *idk
Kuwei: And actually while spiders don’t have vocal cords tarantulas and some others can make a hissing noise by rubbing their legs together
Nina: Well I guess that makes you a tarantula
Tarantula: ok then
Tarantula: Oh and Matthias bringing his dog is fine
Tarantula: I don’t think I’ve ever met it?
Nina: YOU’VE NEVER MET TRASSEL??
Tarantula: No?
Nina: HE’S LITERALLY THE SWEETEST DOG EVER
Wylan: At first I thought you were talking about Matthias but then I heard the word dog
Tarantula: Yeah that did sound pretty similar to the way you gush about him
Nina: Lol if you said that during freshman year I probably would’ve attempted to punch you in the face
Nina: Attempted because I have no experience punching people in the face, in case anyone was wondering
Wylan: That was so long ago
Wylan: To think that I actually got a decent amount of sleep back then
Tarantula: Speaking of sleep
Tarantula: I really need to remember to mute this next time
Inej: Oh, sorry!
Inej: Just had to go deal with one of my cousins… he left his DS here…
Tarantula: That just reminds me of how pathetic I was freshman year
Inej: I’m sure you weren’t
Tarantula: I literally didn’t talk to anyone and hid out in the corner during lunch and on the bus with my ds
Nina:
Nina: It’s 9:30
Tarantula: Yeah?
Nina: You get to bed that early
Tarantula: Um
Tarantula: It’s not my fault I don’t like coffee
From: Tarantula
Tarantula: Are you trying to embarrass me in front of Wylan?
Nina: I’m sorry I think you brought that one on yourself
Tarantula: Ugh I think tomorrow’s going to be really awkwared
Nina: Everything’ll be fine
Tarantula: You know how many movies have some dude say that before everything goes to shit?
Nina: well I’m not some dude so we’ll be fine
Nina: Sorry about earlier btw
Tarantula: Oh that’s not what I was referring to
Tarantula: And apology accepted
Nina: So what were you talking about?
Nina: Oh wait
Nina: I, Nina Zenik, the Queen of Hearts, promises not to plan anymore weird party or sleepover games.
Tarantula: Acceptable
Tarantula: So what are we going to do?
Nina: Kareoke
Nina: I’m the best singer
Nina: Especially when doing duets w/ Inej
Tarantula: ok then
Nina: You don’t believe me? :’(
Tarantula sent a video
Tarantula: ^^Proof
Nina: TESLKEJRES
Nina: WEHWLREE
Nina: WHAT
Nina: WHEN DID YOU TAKE THIS
Nina: ??????
Tarantula: Last March @ lunch
Nina: YOU HAD IT FOR THAT LONG?!?!?!?!?
Tarantula: ;)
Nina: I AM WOUNDED, KUWEI
Tarantula: What, I’m not tarantula anymore?
Nina: NOPE YOURE LIKE A NINJA OR SMTH NOW
Nina: but that’s too long of a name to put in my contacts, so back to your real one you go
Kuwei: :)

Chapter Text

Jesper pressed his ear against the door of his room, hoping to hear some tidbit of the conversation happening downstairs but getting nothing, meaning that Kaz was either listening and being completely reasonable or he was pulling his bullshit emotionless act again. Not that Kaz had been that loud in the first place. Jesper would’ve left his room and crouched down by the stairs like when he was a kid to try and hear more, but he knew he was too tall for that now. Then his phone started playing a tune he’d recognize anywhere, one that perfectly matched the fluttering of his heart when he picked up Wylan’s FaceTime call. The image of Wylan sitting on a chair in his room appeared on the phone screen.
“Hey, Wy!” Jesper greeted his boyfriend a little too enthusiastically, trying to cover up his state of emotional turmoil. “What’s up?”
“Is-is this a bad time?”
Well, he caught me. “It’s a weird and confusing time, but not a bad time—especially with you.”
Wylan blushed a little. “I was thinking about what we talked about earlier.”
“Yeah?”
“When should we ask Kuwei out?”
“I dunno… why?”
“Have you seen the group chat for the party?”
“Uh… no.”
“Just… go look at it and call me back.”
“On it,” Jesper said, Wylan beating him to hitting the disconnect button. He opened up the group chat and skimmed over the older messages, grinning at the antics of his friends. Then he saw the newer messages… specifically the pictures.
Nina: Inej, Kuwei found proof of our questionable singing skills!
Kuwei: *Produced proof
Inej: From when?
Kuwei: March
Kuwei: And I’m sorry, but you singing skills aren’t even in the questionable range. They’re just plain horrible.
Inej: YOU MEAN TO SAY YOU’VE BEEN CARRYING EVIDENCE AROUND FOR 6 MONTHS?!
Kuwei: For this, yes
Nina: You mean… you have evidence of other activities?
Kuwei sent a photo
Nina: So THAT’S who set off the Axe bomb in Rollins’ office during the V Day dance
Wylan: Kuwei I’m impressed
Wylan: Nina who else did you think it would be
Nina: You’re right…
Nina: Kuwei, I want more… how much stuff do you have??
Kuwei: A lot
Nina: So.. anything from today??
Kuwei: Are you sure you want to see that?
Nina: Y-E-S!!!!!!
Inej: Nina are you not slightly concerned about the fact that it’s only the first day of school yet we’re already spreading blackmail material???????
Nina: Blackmail, shmackmail… it’s wht we do
Nina: Now c-c-come on, post it already!
Kuwei: Wow I never realized how much of a gossip you were before
Nina: Did I stutter?
Kuwei: Actually, yes
Nina: fuck
Nina: Anyways…
Nina: Pretty please with a cherry on top?
Kuwei: I’ll ask you one more time: are you sure you want me to post it here?
Kuwei sent a photo
Inej: Um
Nina: Wow
Nina: I’m really impressed
Nina: That you didn’t get caught on that one
Wylan: I thought you were going to say that he had the audacity to post that in a group chat with Jesper and I in it
Nina: That too
Jesper: I have Like to say 5 things
Jesper: 1. I might be over right away after school tomorrow
Inej: Might?
Jesper: That may or may not have to do with why Kaz hasn’t read or replied to any of our messages
Jesper: 2. Yes, Matthias’ dog can come
Jesper: 3. Yeah, I can come with, if you can get an excuse that’s great but otherwise I’ll just skip
Jesper: 4. Lol looks like no one has any secrets now
Jesper: 5. Whoops I ran out of things
The flute tune played again and Jesper accepted the call.
“That’s from…”
“Today,” Jesper finished. “I guess he must’ve come over with Kaz and Inej and hid himself well enough that we didn’t see him after everyone else had gone back to the food?”
“I guess…” Wylan blushed. “… he probably heard everything we said.”
“Probably?” Jesper scoffed. “I’d say definitely.”
“Jesper!” His father called from downstairs.
“Fuck, I’ve gotta go, but I’ll text you later about making a plan? I think tomorrow we should really talk to him.”
“Definitely,” Wylan replied. His boyfriend’s smile was the last thing Jesper saw before he hung up.

Chapter Text

I thought you were going to say that he had the audacity to post that in a group chat with Jesper and I in it. Part of Kuwei wanted to add the two of them to a new chat and explain how he felt and everything. Another part of him just wanted to curl up into a ball and hide. I had the guts to post that, but then couldn’t follow through with the rest of my plan? What’s wrong with me? His thoughts were interrupted with a new message from Nina.
Nina: I’m sorry
Nina: Again
Kuwei: It’s ok
Nina: No, it’s really not
Nina: Shit, I basically forced you into that situation
Nina: That wasn’t just fine or okay
Nina: I acted horribly
Nina: But I’ll make it up to you
Kuwei: How?
Nina: Do you trust Inej and I?
Kuwei: Uh… yes
Nina: We’re gonna help you
Kuwei: How?
Nina: idk but we’ll make sure that kuwesper is a thing asap
Kuwei: Nina I think you just switched languages again
To: Kuwei Yul-Bo, Inej Ghafa
Nina: Operation kuwesper is a go!
Inej: YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Kuwei: I still don’t know what the heck you’re talking about
Kuwei: Or how you’re going to help me
Nina: Oh you know just putting together the intel of two enemies to make THE GREATEST PLAN EVER
Kuwei: ??????
Inej: Nina you’ve just confused him even more
Nina: Yeah you’re probably right
Nina: You explain the plan to him
Inej: So… at the party tomorrow night, Nina’s going to put on kareoke, right, and it’s going to be a love song, and then at the end you’ll be able to confess
Kuwei: And if it goes badly…?
Nina: It’ll go perfectly 99.9% guaranteed
Kuwei: One more problem
Inej: Yeah?
Kuwei: I don’t know any love songs
Nina: Yes you do
Kuwei: ???
Nina: Helpless… look into your eyes and the sky’s the limit, I’m… HELPLESS
Nina: (obv not talking about me there, but you get what I was going for)
Kuwei: Ok I guess I do know one….
Kuwei: But what about school tomorrow? I have to work w/ Wylan in physics, and if we go out and get food again…
Inej: Meet me befdore school tomorrow, I’ve got something Kaz’s been working on…
Inej: *before
Nina: *GASP* Inej, you stole something?!?!? This wasn’t part of the plan!!
Kuwei: I have to ask
Inej: ?
Kuwei: How did you two get a plan together so quickly?
Nina: Uhh..
Kuwei: How long have you been planning this for?
Inej: A little while…
Kuwei: As in…?
Nina: The V-day dance
Inej: We both saw the way you acted around wesper and it became a joke between us
Nina: Until it became reality
Kuwei: That’s a little… odd…
Kuwei: But what’s up with these random words??
Inej: They’re ship names
Kuwei: I didn’t know you were into boats
Inej: It’s a hidden interest
Nina: Inej, you're starting to sound like Kaz
Nina: I think that boy is a bad influence on you
Kuwei: Those are still some strange names, but okay then…
Nina: So Operation Kuwesper is a go then?
Kuwei: I guess

Chapter Text

Matthias sat on the edge of his bed, his bedroom door open a crack. He hated to admit it, but he was lonely. Usually someone would’ve texted him by now needing a homework assignment or class notes, and they’d end up exchanging jokes or stories late into the night.
Tonight wasn’t like that. Tonight he was truly alone. He hadn’t felt this way since before joining the rest of the Crows, back when he was on the football team and would’ve outright growled at the idea of hanging out with any of the people he now considered friends.
He’d been a moody freshman, obsessed with football. The one thing that made him different from his teammates was that he actually enjoyed school, spending his free time studying because he truly wanted to learn and understand the material. The other football players constantly invited him to parties, but he always turned them down, not wanting to get so high or wasted that he ruined his entire life. What kind of example would that have been for his sister? Unfortunately, his studiousness made him an outsider. The other boys on the team said he “wasn’t a real jock”. Now, it wasn't hard for Matthias to believe that one of those boys had gotten him in a fight-- and off the team.
***
“Helvar!” One of the other freshmen football players barked at him. Matthias turned around. He really didn’t have time for this—he needed to get to geography, which the two shared, though Matthias had an A and this boy was currently failing, disallowed from playing in games until he got his grades up.
“What?”
“Coach Brum says we should do some… bonding. To work better as a team.”
“I think he meant outside of school hours,” Matthias replied, wary of what his classmate considered “bonding”.
“You know, if you can’t work well with others, Coach will bench you.”
“Everyone knows that.”
“Then you’ll just have to spend more time with me.”
“We have other classmates on the bench, you know. I don’t need you.” His first mistake.
“What? You’re not man enough to skip? Oh, everybody’s gonna hear about this one.” The boy’s voice started to shake.
Matthias shrugged, now overly-confident. “I don’t need them, either.” His second.
“Oh, really?” The boy’s eyes flared with anger, his blond hair resembling ice more than the platinum color Matthias would’ve normally described it as.
Matthias laughed. “You’re afraid, aren’t you? You’re afraid ‘cause your friends aren’t here to back you up. Because you’re all alone. With me.His third.
The boy took a step forward. “Oh, you’re in for it now.” What was meant to be a threat sounded more like a mouse’s squeak.
Matthias scoffed. “I might be in for it now, but I in five years you’ll be the one who’s in for it then.” Don’t be afraid. Don’t let fear be in control.
“Good, ‘cause I’m nothing like you. I’m not a coward.” The boy punched first.
Don’t let fear control you. Do what’s right. Matthias winced. This was definitely worse than practice. He made a fist and shoved it towards the first available surface on the boy’s body—his torso. The boy easily dodged it.
“Book smarts don’t come in handy for everything, you idiot.”
Nobody called Matthias Helvar an idiot and got away with it. He drove his fist square into the boy’s face, not really caring where he hit.
“Fuck!” the boy shouted. By now, they’d attracted a large crowd—and someone had gotten a couple teachers to come break them up. An extremely muscular teacher dragged Matthias away from the other boy, while another obviously much weaker teacher attempted to drag the other boy away, though he accomplished nothing.
“Helvar, what were you thinking?!” It took Matthias a minute to identify the voice as Coach Brum’s. “… and you were looking good out there on the field, too.” Once they’d reached the office and it was clear that Matthias wasn’t going to run or punch anybody, Brum let him go. “You messed up. Big time.”
Arrogant. Cocky. Self-righteous. Matthias had seen those traits in the other boy, but he’d failed to see them in himself. For the rest of the year, he was no longer “Matthias Helvar, the rising football star.” He was “that one kid who punched some other kid in the face and got kicked off the football team.” The other boy had received a similar punishment, though that incident was only his first rule violation. By the end of the year, he’d been expelled for something-or-another. Matthias had no idea—he no longer had a social circle to accrue gossip from.
***
Trass nudged Matthias’ door open with his snout and entered the room, leaning against the door heavily to shut it the rest of the way. Then he trotted over to Matthias and pushed his snout against Matthias’ hand, knocking his phone out of it and onto the floor.
“Hey, I know you want your reward, but you didn’t have to be rude about it,” Matthias pretended to grumble, giving Trass his obligatory pats. Still not satisfied, the dog jumped up onto the bed, knocking Matthias over.
“Oh, you wanna wrestle?” he asked jokingly, joy sparking in his eyes. But he didn’t fight, instead stroking the dog gently until he rolled over for a belly rub, knocking Matthias down onto the floor. “Hey, there’s no belly rubs if you do that,” Matthias said, laughing, though be obliged to the dog’s whim anyways.

Chapter Text

Inej turned out her bedroom lights and pulled the covers over herself. She was pretty confident in Operation Kuwesper, and fond of the name Nina had come up with for it. Jesper had been her best friend since kindergarten—she knew with complete confidence that he would find the song cute rand fun, and Wylan would be thrilled just because it was Hamilton. She’d also overheard—or rather, spied on—their conversation earlier (at Kaz’s insistence, definitely not Nina’s need for gossip). She knew how they felt. And no, she hadn’t explicitly told anyone what she’d heard, instead just saying she “had a feeling” about Wylan’s and Jesper’s feelings towards Kuwei. Everyone believed her—after all, she’d been Jesper’s best friend since kindergarten. She’d seen him with a crush before.
***
Jesper sat down next to her with his lunch tray as she pulled her food out of her lunchbox. Middle school cafeteria food was the worst, but today Jesper didn’t make any jokes as he picked through his food, separating the inedible from the edible. His leg bounced under the table more agitatedly than usual.
“Jes,” Inej said, pressing her palm against her friend’s hand, which was currently sitting on the table holding a fork. He looked up at her. Then she realized that what they were doing could be considered hand-holding, and suddenly it felt like the whole cafeteria had their eyes on her. She let go of his hand. “Do you want to talk?”
He grabbed her hand back with his free one and nodded towards the next table over, where a boy with a very pensive expression sat by himself. “Kaz’s had that expression on his face since first period when I made a joke.”
“About?”
Jesper shrugged. “I don’t remember… probably something dumb.”
Inej rolled her eyes. He definitely remembered—he practically had a database with every little piece of information related to Kaz Rietveld. But she didn’t say that. “None of your jokes are dumb, Jes.”
Jesper made a dismissive wave with his fork-hand. “Kaz was being annoying again after words, so it must’ve been.”
“I still don’t understand how him ignoring you equals him being annoying.”
Jesper looked everywhere but at her—down at his food, up at the ceiling, over at the line for seconds. “I dunno,” he replied before stopping all movement and slowly letting go of Inej’s hand.
“What?”
“He’s looking over here,” Jesper whispered. Inej moved to turn around, but he grabbed her hand again and she turned back to face him. “Don’t look at him! Then it’ll be obvious we’re talking about him!”
“I thought you wanted him to not ignore you…?”
“I guess… kinda?” His voice jumped an octave, and Inej bit back a giggle.
“Jes, are you okay?” she asked, noting his out-of-place expression.
“I… guess?”
“Are you sure?”
“Okay, maybe not really. I don’t know; my stomach feels weird.”
“Do you need to go to the nurse?” Inej asked, concerned as he only sat in silence instead of joking about ow the cafeteria food had caused his sudden illness.
“N-no, I’m fine!”
He was obviously not fine. “Jesper, what’s the real problem?”
“…Kaz.”
Inej sighed. “And now we’re back to where we started.”
Jesper chuckled half-heartedly. “Yeah. I guess.”
“Okay, but seriously. What about Kaz?”
“He pays attention to me, then he doesn’t. I kinda want to talk to him, but when I try I always feel weird and end up making excuses to get away. Inej, what’s wrong with me?”
The lack of sarcasm in his question startled her. He actually needed help, and she had no idea how to gie it to him. “Have you talked to anyone else about this? Your dad?”
Jesper shook his head.
“Jes, I…”
“It’s fine. You’ve done enough, Inej. But… thanks for trying.”
For once, she was at a loss for words.
***
This was how she was going to make things up to him. He’d been her best friend since kindergarten. They’d always fight for each other—nothing would ever change that.

Chapter Text

Wylan stared at his phone, hoping that Jesper would text him back soon, that his boyfriend wouldn’t get into trouble with his dad and not be able to come to the party the next night, that they would be able to make a decent plan when planning wasn’t either of their strong suits. Apparently stealth wasn’t, either.
What if Kuwei figured out, even before today, about my crush on him, but didn’t say anything because he doesn’t like me back? Wylan’s eyes found the painting laid out on his desk that he’d started earlier for Kuwei. The black watercolor had dried into a navy-blue color, just like the sky at the beginning of that summer night.
***
Babysitting was okay and all, but Wylan really hated missing the Crows’ weekly sleepovers. Over the years, he’d grown to love Nina’s crazy ideas, Kaz’s scheming faces, Jesper’s enthusiasm, Matthias’ complaints, and Inej’s way of somehow balancing out all their personalities at once. But with Kuwei added to the group… things got weird sometimes. Once, Kaz had needed a flash bomb—one of Wylan’s specialties—for a plan. Both him and Kuwei announced immediately, “I’ll do it,” only to realize that the other had said the same thing.
“Well, I only need one, so Kuwei, you can make that. Wylan, you can go with Jesper to get what we need for the rest of the plan,” Kaz had said, starting the pattern of Kuwei-gets-to-do-something-actually-useful-while-Wylan-just-is-just-a-glorified-babysitter. Jesper tried to convince him otherwise, but a lot of times he still felt useless.
Wylan scowled at the memory as he reached out to grab the large brass knocker, only for the door to be opened by Nina on the other side first. “Wylan!” she screeched, encasing him in a hug and dragging him and his stuff inside while simultaneously shutting the door. No matter how many times she hugged him, he always forgot to take a big breath beforehand.
“Hey, Nina,” he said, unsure as usual of how to match such a greeting. “Where are we at today?”
“Out back on the deck,” she replied, taking his bag from him. “If there’s not anything in here you need right away, I can take this down to the basement while you go join everyone else.”
“Yeah, that’s fine,” he replied, seeing himself to the back. Nina had plugged in a strand of fairy lights that was wrapped around the deck’s railing, and on the middle of the deck she’d piled a bunch of pillows and blankets that everyone was currently snuggling in. Wylan rubbed his bare arm, realizing how cold it was.
“Didn’t dress for the weather?” Jesper teased from where he’d huddled under an argyle-printed blanket. Wylan blushed.
“Must’ve dressed for your flirting instead,” Kuwei muttered under his breath. Wylan didn’t notice any visible reaction from anyone else, and assumed he’d been the only one to hear Kuwei’s comment.
“C’mon, join us!” Nina said as she came back out, shutting the sliding door closed behind her. Wylan gave in to Jesper’s puppy eyes and sat down next to his boyfriend, who eagerly rearranged the blanket so it was wrapped around both of them.
Nina turned on a flashlight and tipped it so the light beamed upward, casting her face in eerie shadows. “And now, by the power vested in me, we shall begin… with the ghost stories!” she cackled. As if on cue, they saw a flash of lightning in the distance, followed closely by a boom of thunder.
“That was perfect!” Jesper exclaimed, laughing.
“Nina… did you forget to check the weather before planning an outdoor activity?” Matthias asked. Wylan had a feeling Matthias already knew the answer.
“Nina, that was great timing and all, but we should probably head inside before it starts raining,” Inej said.
“Or worse,” Kaz added. Wylan had almost forgotten about his foreboding presence, he was so used to it.
Matthias and Inej started gathering up pillows and blankets and moving to head inside. “Oh, come on, don’t be party poopers! It’s just a little thunderstorm, we’ll be—“ Wylan felt a drop of water land on his nose. “—fine,” Nina finished, noticing a couple more drops of rain falling from the sky. Everyone turned into a flurry of action as they each grabbed as much stuff as possible and made for the door that had unfortunately locked behind them.
Nina held up a set of keys. “Let’s go around to the front—I should be able to unlock that door.”
Everyone followed her, though without the glow of the fairy lights, navigating the slippery steps descending from the deck became difficult. “Nina, where’s that flashlight? I can’t see anything,” Wylan complained as he reached out for a stair rail that wasn’t there.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got you,” Jesper said, wrapping his arm around Wylan’s shoulders.
Wylan grinned, blushing profusely, though no one could see any of it. “Thanks, Jes,” he whispered.
Another bolt of lightning flashed just as Wylan’s eyes were adjusting to the dark, rendering him blind once again. A boom of thunder followed shortly after, just as Wylan had lifted his foot to step down again. It shook through his body, and time felt like it passed in slow motion as he felt his foot not quite make solid contact with the next step down. Not wanting to drag Jesper down with him, he reached out for the nearest thing—the shirt of someone in front of him. He meant to let go of their shirt, but didn’t, causing that person to fall as well as whoever else was in front of them. He felt the rough edges of the wooden steps as they hit various parts of his body; the press of warm, wet bodies and clothing against his own; the sting of raindrops that were now more than just a sprinkle; then pokey grass as he finally landed on the ground—along with everyone else. Jesper must’ve landed next to him—he could feel the rise and fall of his boyfriend’s chest against his own as he struggled to contain his laughter. The situation was pretty funny, and Wylan started giggling.
All laughter ended when Wylan felt a slap against his hand from someone below him. “You can stop holding onto me, you know. We’re not falling anymore,” Kuwei said in a slightly-annoyed tone.
“Give me a sec,” Wylan said, slightly annoyed at Kuwei’s impatience, as he let go and got up. A cold breeze tousled Wylan’s already cold and wet hair and left goose bumps on his freckled skin.
“Okay, everyone, get up,” Matthias barked. “It’s not that far now.”
“Oh, come on, we’re not in the army,” Nina replied. Wylan could almost feel her eye-roll. “We can rest for like two seconds and actually make sure everyone’s fine.”
“Yeah, we’re all fine, so let’s go!” Kuwei practically shouted. All Wylan could hear in the resulting silence was everyone’s steadying breathing. He’s mad because of you. You caused this.
“I-I’m sorry,” Wylan said in barely a whisper. He felt Jesper’s comforting hand on his shoulder as they all started walking again.
The rest of the way back to the inside of the house was uneventful. Wylan blinked as his eyes adjusted to the bright light of the house’s entryway. As he looked around at everyone—wringing out shirts, hanging up wet blankets, peeling off muddy shoes—he realized their attempts to not get wet had been in vain. Jesper caught him looking around and ruffled Wylan’s matted curls. Wylan laughed and shook his head in retaliation, splashing water all over—including on Kuwei.
“Hey! And I was just about dry, too!”
Wylan turned abruptly to face the other boy, shaking water off himself once more. Kuwei was probably the wettest out of all of them—clearly not anywhere close to dry. His hair was matted down and stuck to his head and face, and anywhere he’d tried to push it back it had half-fallen back down awkwardly. His tanned skin glistened from the rain, and though his lips were pouted angrily, in any other context Wylan would’ve found them perfectly kissable. But this was Kuwei, who was currently pissed at him.
“Sorry,” Wylan muttered. “Nina, do you have towels anywhere?”
“Yeah, there’s some in the hall closet, though you’re probably too wet to get them… but then again, we’re only going to get them wet anyways…” Nina replied, glancing around at the Crows, who were all somewhere in the range of extremely wet… except, miraculously, for Kaz.
“I can tell what your idea is, Zenik, though I can’t say I like it very much. I’ll get the towels, just hang on a minute,” Kaz said. He’d already taken off his coat and shoes, so all he had to do was find the closet and figure out how many towels they realistically needed, because one per person certainly wasn’t going to cut it. As he walked down the hallway away from them, Wylan noticed Jesper tense up next to him. Confused, Wylan glanced back at Kaz and noticed just how pronounced his limp was. Is he okay? Has this happened other times, and I didn’t notice? Am I a bad friend?
Any thought of Kaz quickly dissipated from Wylan’s mind, and for the rest of the night, he found his eyes following Kuwei around instead. Every time the other boy noticed, he’d only scowl in Wylan’s direction. Wylan had no idea if anyone else noticed their exchanges, but if they did, no one said anything. At least, not out loud.
***
Wylan sat down at his desk. He was sure he’d have time in class tomorrow, but he really felt like finishing his painting now. This way, he’d be able to use his art class as time to work on homework for his other classes, since he knew he wouldn’t be getting any done the next night. He hoped Kuwei would like the painting, and wracked his brain for a way to fit it into a plan for him and Jesper to confess.

Chapter Text

Nina walked around the house one last time before bed, checking to make sure all the lights were off and the doors and windows were locked. The eerie quiet of the house haunted her, reminded her of her lack of family. At anyone else’s place, there would’ve been at least be the movement of another person, but she had nothing. Usually she turned on some music as loud as possible to drown out the silence, but tonight she welcomed it. Tonight, she was the queen of mourning.
***
Matthias’ mom laughed at Nina’s joke as she pulled a pan of cookies out of the oven. “Now don’t eat them yet, Nina,” she said, “Or a witch might just eat you.” Nina joined in her laughter while Matthias scowled from the corner of the kitchen. At five, the two were mildly annoyed by each other. At ten, they wouldn’t be able to stand the other’s presence.
***
“Nina, should I call home and tell your folks you’ll be spending the night?” Jesper’s dad asked. Nina shook her head frantically. As soon as she’d entered middle school, she’d started avoiding the topics of “home” and “family” since hers was just too complicated to explain. Plus, she didn’t want another Matthias Helvar situation, where some other kid accused her of stealing their family. As if she’d do such a thing. But Mr. Fahey tempted her… he was more father-like than her own ever was when he was home, actually imposing rules and curfews instead of letting his child do whatever they wanted out of guilt.
***
“It’ll be pretty loud,” Inej warned before opening the door to her house. Nina thought she was prepared for loud, but it turned out she really wasn’t.
“Does it always sound like the cafeteria in here?” she asked, unsure of whether or not Inej could hear her.
Inej laughed. Kaz would be so jealous of me right now. “At night it’s more like the library.”
Nina wondered if that included all the testing of the librarian’s limits.
***
Nina mentally went through all the notes Wylan had given her about his dad. She had one shot to make a good impression posing as Wylan’s girlfriend. She knew how to lie—she’d done it enough times, convincing teachers and school administrators that her dad was sick or working late on some big project, knowing that they’d get suspicious if she always said he was out of town on a business trip. Yes, she knew how to lie, but Wylan’s dad had friends (and acquaintances) in high places, and that could easily spell out trouble for the both of them. Thankfully, her father didn’t know much about her friends—only that she had them—but she was still nervous about slipping up and saying the wrong thing. She knew that, one day, all her lies would find her way back to her, but for now she needed to keep telling them. Or maybe it wasn't that she needed to, rather she felt more comfortable within them.
***
Kaz never talked about his family. Nina knew from Jesper and Inej that he had a brother, but he’d never been at Kaz’s apartment the same time she’d been there. She wasn’t sure if the timing had been intentional on Kaz’s part or whether it was just coincidence, but it was always a fun game in her spare time to try to track down the other boy with the last name of Brekker. She’d been unsuccessful so far, but she’d get there one day.
***
And now she’d met Kuwei’s dad, who seemed like a wonderful person. She sighed as she found herself in front of her bedroom door once again. She wondered why she even bothered calling this room hers; there were plenty of others, ones that were much closer to the kitchen and the other main rooms of the house that would be much more convenient than this room off in one of the side wings. But at the same time, she knew why this one was hers. It had been her mother’s favorite. She wasn’t sure if it was because her mother had liked peace and quiet; or because the view out the windows was pretty; or if her mother had hand-chosen every fabric, carpet, wallpaper, and wood in it. Whatever the reason, it made Nina feel closer to the one person she didn’t dare to try and find anything about. The topic of her mother was off-limits with her father, and she didn’t know who had known the woman while she was around. But the real reason why she never tried looking? She was scared. She didn’t know what she’d find, what sort of thing had caused her mother’s disappearance from her life.
It can’t be that bad. That was what she’d always told herself. Maybe I’ll look for her. She stifled a yawn. Tomorrow.

Chapter Text

Last Valentine’s Day
Kuwei hadn’t been planning on going to the dance until Kaz showed up at his front door the night of with an extra ticket. The extra, he said, had been “for Inej”, but Nina had already gotten Inej a ticket. Kuwei didn’t buy Kaz’s excuse for a second—Nina was already going with Matthias, and Kuwei had overheard their argument on who was going to pay for what, with the end result being Matthias buying tickets and Nina paying for dinner beforehand. Nevertheless, Kuwei still ended up digging some nice clothing out of his closet—thankfully everything fit okay—and heading to the dance with Kaz.
His first impression of the dance was exactly as he expected—moving bodies crammed into the school cafeteria, lights so flashy they hurt his eyes, vibrations from the music giving everyone a constant energy. All of it was too much for him, and even Kaz looked a little… Kuwei wasn’t sure how to describe his jerky movements. He tapped on Kaz’s shoulder, attempting to get his attention. Kaz spun around and had an almost frantic look in his eyes before realizing it was just Kuwei trying to get his attention. “This—this is too much,” Kuwei said, hoping—no, knowing-- that Kaz would know what he meant.
Kaz nodded. “Follow me.”
The two pushed their way through the sea of teenagers until they reached the set of double doors separating the cafeteria from the rest of the school. A large sign was taped onto one of them with the words “DO NOT ENTER” printed on in red block letters. Kaz ignored the sign and opened the door—Kuwei was surprised that it was unlocked—and the two walked through into the quiet main hallway of the school. After the door slammed shut behind them, Kuwei felt a wave of silence hit him. He turned to Kaz, intending to thank him, but the other boy had somehow vanished with not even the clack of his cane against the tile floor to give Kuwei a hint of where he’d went off to. Then Kuwei heard two voices speaking in hushed whispers, clearly originating in Principal Rollins’ office.
“Is that Kaz?”
“Yeah.”
“Did he give the signal yet?”
“No, but he said to be ready.”
“I can’t believe he’s ruining our first Valentine’s like this.”
“Hey, Wy, there’ll be others, okay? Next year, I’m getting you whatever you want.”
“Like that two-hundred-dollar pen set at the craft store?”
Kuwei heard a sharp intake of breath, followed by muffled laughter. “Saints, Wy. And you’re the one that’s loaded, not me.”
“Not that I have access to any of my money.”
“Sorry… hey, Kaz said it’s time!”
“Finally. Then we can get out of here.”
Kuwei felt his heart hammer with every word they said. Did Jesper and Wylan know he was waiting right outside the door? He wasn’t stealthy like Inej, but he didn’t think either of them were as observant as Kaz, either.
“Ready? Five—“
Kuwei had no idea what they were doing. He took his phone out of his pocket and stood next to the partially-open door to the principal’s office.
“Four—“
One of them had turned on their phone’s flashlight and had propped up the device so it flooded their work area with light.
“Three—“
Kuwei snapped a picture before hearing the familiar sound of Kaz’s cane as he approached.
“Two—“
“I’d highly suggest we get out of here,” Kaz rasped. Kuwei nodded and followed him to a nearby exit to the outdoors he’d never noticed before.
A few minutes later, Kuwei stood next to Kaz behind one of the rock piles while partygoers flooded out of the school’s main entrance. “Did you plan that?” he asked before realizing he was already pretty sure of the answer.
Kaz nodded. “This is the kind of thing we do—for the right price, of course. Right now, Joost Van Poel has just heroically rescued the love of his life from the stench of Axe. I predict it’ll only be a matter of time before the rumor mill confirms they’re together.” He turned to look at Kuwei. “You could be of help. We’ll give you your fair share of the profits, of course, and you’d be free to associate with us if you so choose.”
“And if I don’t accept your offer?”
“I chose to approach you for a reason: you’re a quiet kid, and aren’t going to tell anyone about what we do even if you don’t accept. That being said, you’re a quiet kid who’s often alone, and Nina thinks you’d like some friends.”
Well, he’s right. What do I have to lose?
“I’ll do it.”
“I knew you would.” Kaz glanced at his watch, which Kuwei hadn’t noticed earlier. “Jesper, Wylan, and Inej should be back here anytime now.”
“What about Nina and Matthias?”
“They stayed for about five minutes. I think they went to Nina’s place.” Kaz’s voice turned harsh, as if there was some reason why Nina’s house was so bad. The arrival of Inej, Jesper, and Wylan interrupted their conversation before Kuwei had a chance to ask anything else.
***
The memories plagued Kuwei’s mind as he tried to get to sleep, knowing he wouldn’t get much—if any—the next night at Nina’s. Even though he trusted the other Crows whole-heartedly, there was still so much he didn’t know about all of them, especially Kaz. He appeared to do whatever he wanted without a reason, but only for the right price—a stipulation that had caused the group to turn down many job offers. He also still had no idea what Kaz thought was so bad about Nina’s, and of course doubts about Jesper and Wylan dominated his thoughts.
He had no idea how tomorrow would turn out, but hoped that he wouldn’t lose his friends over anything bad that did happen. They were the only friends he had, and he couldn’t lose them.

Chapter Text

Kaz didn’t tell a single bit of the truth to Mr. Fahey. Not that he ever did. The truth, he figured, was a story best left to his own mind, because the last time he tried to tell it, the person he trusted most hadn’t believed him.
***
“Jordie?” Fourteen-year-old Kaz asked, poking his head into his brother’s room.
“What is it, Kaz?” Jordie asked, not bothering to turn away from his desk to face his brother.
“It’s about that Lazareva girl….”
“Which one?”
Kaz entered his brother’s room and sat down on the bed. “You know the one, idiot.”
“I can’t help you unless you’re more specific than that.”
“The one in my grade.”
“Okay…” Jordie replied, not bothering to look up from… well, whatever he was doing. He’d say it was a job application, but Kaz had a suspicion that it wasn’t.
“She… she grabbed my cane out from under my hand during passing time today. Said I didn’t need it, that I was doing it for attention.”
Jordie shrugged. “I told you not to pick out something flashy.”
Kaz got up and walked over to the desk slowly, still not completely used to his cane. “Did you hear any of what I said?”
Jordie looked up at Kaz. “Yes I did, but clearly you’ve got it back, none the worse for wear, and you’re fine. There’s nothing more to discuss here.”
“Fine,” Kaz grumbled, heading towards the doorway.
“Oh, by the way, I’m going out on a date tonight,” Jordie added.
“With who?” Kaz asked, curiosity getting the better of him.
“You’d be mad if I told you.”
“No you wouldn’t!”
Jordie sighed. “I’ll give you a hint: there’s a reason why I asked which Lazareva girl you were talking about.” Kaz stared at his brother’s back in shock until he finally turned around to gauge Kaz’s reaction.
“Why?” Kaz finally spluttered.
Jordie picked up the latest edition of some business magazine off his desk and held it up. On the cover was a picture of Dunyasha Lazareva’s father. “They’re rich.”
“Oh, so this was your plan, huh? Your get-rich-quick-but-it’s-not-a-get-rich-quick-scheme?”
“Kaz…” Jordan warned.
“You’ve still got time, even if you’re meeting up for an early dinner before a seven o’clock movie. You can still call her and cancel!”
“Kaz. I can’t just cancel out of nowhere. It wouldn’t make sense.”
“And why not?”
“All those job interviews I’ve been going on?” Kaz tensed up, anticipating what his brother would say next. “They’ve been dates.”
“Oh, I see exactly where this is going. You’re going to go out and be a gold-digger, marry your rich wife, and leave your crippled little brother behind. You’ll be able to hire any lawyer you want to get out of being responsible for me.”
“Kaz, this is for both of us—“
Kaz shook his head. “No, no it’s not. If it were, you wouldn’t have lied to me.” He turned around and left: the building, his brother, every part of his life. He knew he’d have to be back before Jordie in order for the cops to not get called, but that was alright. He could live with that. For now.
He wandered down by some old railroad tracks, away from the allure of the casinos and pleasure houses. Feeling his leg ache, he found a rock and sat down. In front of him was a large tanker car with the words “Brekker Oil” painted on the side. I wonder what Jordan would say if I asked him to let me change my name to that rich guy’s. He chuckled a little to himself, but the gears were already turning in his head. No one really knows me that well at school anyways… would they even notice if I changed my name?
Kaz sat there scheming for a couple hours as light and shadows shifted. Near the railroad tracks was a garbage dump… not an official one, by any stretch of the imagination, but a dump nonetheless, which attracted quite the number of insects. Kaz was only pulled out of his thoughts when he heard two sets of footsteps and hushed voices drawing nearer. Not knowing exactly who they were, Kaz looked around for cover… the only nearby cover being inside a large tire, likely from some sort of construction vehicle, at the dump. Kaz hurried over and crawled in, wincing as he felt some sort of sticky, slimy… goop… on the edge of the tire. A slit along the side allowed him to see through. Two figures, holding hands, walked down to the train tracks to stand next to the tanker.
“Oooh, a place with a bad boy vibe… how romantic,” one said.
“I’d have to show you that side of me sometime, so why wait?” the other asked.
Of course Jordan had to take his date down to the tracks. After all, he’d been the one to first show Kaz the place they’d dubbed their own little hang-out… though it wasn’t their own anymore. Not that some rich girl like her would ever voluntarily come here unless Jordie was with her… and their separation could be arranged.
Jordan pulled his date closer and kissed her firmly on the lips. Kaz blushed a little at first, embarrassed to be watching, until he felt something crawling along his bare arm. Why’d you wear just a t-shirt out here? He ignored it for a few seconds until he felt more of the creepy-crawlies. Rolling over, he noticed a large group of insects gathered inside the tire, probably drawn in by Kaz’s body heat in the cold evening. But he couldn’t just leave—Jordie or his date would easily see him, and who else but Kaz Rietveld would be wandering around in a garbage dump in the middle of the night with a cane? He stayed still, hoping they would stop making out, hoping for the bugs to go away… really, if the Earth blew up, at least his corpse would’ve been happy.
None of those things happened for a good long while.

Chapter Text

Jesper entered the kitchen, accidentally brushing Kaz’s shoulder as they passed through the narrow doorway. Kaz flinched, even though his shoulder was covered by his coat, and presumably a shirt or two underneath that. Jesper glanced back at Kaz, but the other boy had already returned to a normal posture—well, not quite, as he was leaning heavily on his cane, but he didn’t seem to suffer any effects from the encounter.
Kaz closed the door, leaving Jesper and his dad alone in the room. Jesper sat down at the table, across from Colm.
“Jes… I know you’re worried about something,” he said, nodding his head towards Jesper’s rapidly-tapping foot. Jesper stopped the movement immediately—he hadn’t even realized he’d started it—and chewed on his lip instead, trying to think of what to say—what he could say—to his father.
“What’s going on?”
***
It was tradition for the eighth-graders to go on a field trip to the roller skating rink before winter break. A dumb one, in some of the students’ opinions, but Jesper and Inej were determined to make the most of it nonetheless. As the two fastened on their roller skates, Kaz walked by, alone as usual.
“Should we ask him to join us?” Inej asked. “It’s not like we have anyone else with us.”
“That’s because everyone thinks we’re dating.”
“Wait, we aren’t?” Inej asked sarcastically. They were both very aware that not many boys and girls were friends with each other, but neither cared—they’d been each other’s best friend for so long that something like a little teasing wasn’t going to change their friendship. Jesper laughed, Inej joining in a couple seconds later. They quieted immediately when they noticed that Kaz had stopped in his tracks to look at them. He turned away quickly, but not before Jesper realized who he’d been staring at.
“See? He was definitely watching you!” Jesper said, bumping Inej’s shoulder affectionately.
“I don’t know…” she replied warily, though she was blushing slightly. “He could just be some creep who randomly watches people. It would fit with his whole loner persona. Besides, how long was he glancing over here? A few seconds? How could you even tell in that little time?”
Jesper shook his head. “You’ve got me there… but I bet I’m still right.” He didn’t want to be, but he also didn’t want to throw away his best friend’s dreams.
Inej seemed to catch onto his train of thought and gave him a sympathetic smile. “How about we pass on asking him to join us and skate with just the two of us?”
Jesper nodded his agreement. He wasn’t sure he wanted to spend too much time with Kaz after their brief conversation on him.
***
A while later, they were out on the rink. The air buzzed with the chatter of students on top of the constant pulse of the music and lights. “I’m going to skate backwards!” Inej announced.
Jesper laughed, encouraging her, a little too caught up in the moment to remember the rules—one of which being that they weren’t supposed to skate backwards.
“Ready?” Inej said, the rink’s colored lights bringing out the daring glint in her eyes.
“And… go for it!” Jesper shouted, timing his words with the change of the music. Inej spun around to face backwards. “Yes! You did it!”
As the two high-fived each other, Inej’s face grew worried. “Something wrong?” Jesper asked.
“I feel like I’m going to run into someone…” she said, adjusting her posture so she could look over her shoulder. As she did so, she leaned backwards, and Jesper knew immediately that she was going to fall. He felt like the scene happened in slow motion as he yelled, or maybe just mouthed, her name. She hit the ground, face strained in pain. As other students skated around them, Jesper glanced around, torn between staying with his friend to make sure no one ran over her and looking for a teacher to come help get her off the rink.
“Hey, are you okay?”
Jesper turned to see Kaz skating up to them, though all his concern was clearly for Inej. She shook her head. Jesper wondered why she even bothered responding when it was obvious she was in pain. “Hey, Kaz, could you get a teacher or something? She needs to get off the rink, like, now.”
“I’ll stay here with her while you get a teacher.”
Jesper didn’t really like Kaz’s plan, but if staying with her was the only thing the other boy was willing to do, then he’d go with it. He skated halfway around the rink, over to the exit, and stepped off, looking around for a teacher to ask for help. Then he noticed a shift in the bodies behind him. Turning around, he saw Kaz cradling Inej in his arms, skating directly across the rink towards the exit, which had a noticeable step. Shit, he’s going to trip and end up dropping her or something when he has to step up.
Kaz was mouthing something, but Jesper couldn’t tell what he was saying or who it was directed towards. The side of the rink dissolved into chaos as everyone tried to get out of Kaz’s way at once, though he moved quite slowly, clearly struggling under Inej’s weight. Why isn’t anyone helping him? He’s going to drop her! As he approached the exit, Jesper moved forward, stretching his arms out so he could take Inej and help support her weight as the two boys got her to a teacher—assuming the teachers hadn’t already noticed the chaos on the rink. Instead, Kaz stepped off the rink perfectly, shoving past Jesper on his way.
“Where’s that teacher I told you to get?” Kaz snarled.
“I don’t know; you didn’t give me any time!” Then Jesper registered that Inej wasn’t moving, looking around, doing anything besides breathing. “Let me help you—“
“Get out of my way,” Kaz said, plunging into the maze of students, stray skates and shoes, and tables in an attempt to find someone who could help her. Well that explains a whole lot.
Jesper followed blindly, making sure to apologize to whoever Kaz had pushed through. This kid needs to learn some manners if he’s ever going to get past either of our fathers…. Eventually, he ended up by Kaz’s side. Someone was calling an ambulance, a couple other teachers blocked Inej from view, and a fourth told the two of them to get out of the way.
“Hold him,” Kaz whispered. Jesper didn’t quite know what he meant until Kaz nudged him towards the teacher who was still trying to push them away. He grabbed onto the teacher’s scrawny arm, surprising him and also causing him to stop his efforts at getting them away from Inej. Kaz punched the teacher in the eye—movements clean and precise, as if he were throwing a softball in gym class instead of throwing a fist—leaving him holding his face with one hand while struggling to get his other out of Jesper’s. The other teachers and students around them were in chaos, which was apparently what Kaz wanted as he closed the distance between himself and the teacher—Oomen, Jesper remembered his name as. Jesper could only make out the words Kaz whispered to the teacher because he was still restraining the man.
“Let us see her—Rollins isn’t here to protect you now.”
“He’ll kill me if I violate protocol.”
Jesper watched as Kaz almost laughed. “I’ve broken plenty of rules, and I’m not dead yet.”
Oh, Saints, he’s probably done this before… and maybe worse.
Kaz leaned closer, trapping Oomen between him and a table and allowing Jesper to let go, though he still stood near them. “Inej would counsel mercy, though I’m afraid she’s not available to plead your case.”
If he does anything worse, and anyone else says that I was involved… I’m going to be in big trouble.
Jesper set his hand on Kaz’s shoulder. “Let it go.”
Kaz glanced over at Jesper, then looked at Oomen once again, his features a little less filled with rage. “Let us in, and I’ll let you go.” Oomen nodded and complied, freeing their path to Inej. Before Jesper could rush to her side, Kaz stopped him.
“Here’s a ten; get me a hot dog. And while you’re at it, return these for me,” he added, peeling off his sweat-soaked roller skates.
Jesper looked at him in disgust. “Since when am I your valet?”
Kaz replied with his middle finger, to which Jesper rolled his eyes as he took the money and skates. He’d return his own while he was at it, and perhaps he’d get something with whatever was left over out of Kaz’s money. Valets were usually paid, right?
He glanced over Kaz’s shoulder at Inej, still lying on a table. No, he couldn’t be like Kaz, the heartless, emo, loner kid. He was Inej’s friend, and he would put aside everything for her. He threw Kaz’s things to the ground and pushed past the other boy to get to her. He could tell as Kaz approached behind him. “Brick by brick,” he said, laying a hand on Jesper’s shoulder.
***
Those words had come to represent the entire mystery of Kaz Riet-- Brekker.
“It’s a long story,” Jesper said, not knowing where to begin.
“Just start at the beginning,” his dad replied.

Chapter Text

“So what’s our plan going to be?” Wylan asked as him and Jesper walked through the halls of their school.
Jesper shrugged. “Sorry, I… I wasn’t really up to thinking about things last night.”
“Are you okay?” Wylan asked, concerned for his boyfriend.
“Yeah… I think so.”
“That’s good… if you’re not, you know you can always come find me, right?”
“Of course,” Jesper replied.
The two reached the same bench Wylan had sat on the day before. “Let’s sit for a minute, okay? I don’t have your constant energy, you know,” Wylan said teasingly.
Jesper laughed as they sat down. “Oh, so you don’t have energy for this?” he asked, briefly pressing a kiss to Wylan’s lips before pulling back.
Wylan blushed. “Well, kissing beats walking any day, so….” He kissed Jesper back for a little longer before reluctantly pulling away.
“Nina, we’re clearly interrupting something,” Matthias said as him and Nina approached.
“No, you’re fine,” Wylan said to the two after he realized Jesper had momentarily become too flustered to respond. “We’ll finish our little competition later,” he added to Jesper.
“Ooh, what’s this about?” Nina asked with a slightly flirtatious edge to her voice.
“Nina…” Matthias warned, his puppy-dog eyes begging her to not get them involved in something crazy.
An idea popped into Wylan’s head. If this whole thing started with a kiss, then perhaps….
“I don’t think I want to know what this is about,” Inej said, walking up to the group with an anxious-looking Kuwei in tow.
Guess the planning will have to wait.
“Inej!” Nina shrieked, launching herself at her friend. It was a miracle the two didn’t fall over, but they still caused a bit of chaos. A few startled-looking freshmen scurried out of the way as they collided into a hug. Kuwei looked a little frightened by Nina’s outburst, Matthias was profusely apologizing to the freshmen, and next to Wylan, Jesper was laughing so hard he was almost wheezing. Everything was normal, except….
“Where’s Kaz?” Wylan asked. Everyone stopped what they were doing and turned towards him. “He was supposed to fix my text-to-speech today, and considering I prepared myself to be separated from my phone….” He stopped talking when he noticed the look that passed between Inej and Jesper. Great… whatever Kaz’s problem is, it still hasn’t been resolved.
The warning bell saved them from an awkward conversation. “We should all head to class,” Matthias said. The others silently agreed and headed their separate ways. Eventually it was just Wylan and Kuwei heading towards the band room.
“Kuwei?” Wylan said, trying to start a conversation with him.
“Yeah?” Kuwei replied, apparently startled out of his thoughts.
“Thanks for that heads-up yesterday.”
“Oh—no problem.”
“You sound like you expected me to say something else.”
“Maybe I kind of did.”
“Well?”
“Well what?”
“What did you expect me to say?”
“That I—um—well….”
“Would it be easier to show me?” That was what Wylan’s mom always said when he couldn’t quite get words out.
They’d reached the music hallway. Kuwei glanced around, and Wylan wasn’t sure what he was looking for. Then Kuwei ran over to one of the practice rooms, practically dragging Wylan behind him.
“Where…?” Wylan asked as they entered the room.
Kuwei slammed the door shut behind them. His face is red… but we only ran a few feet…. All thought disappeared as Kuwei pressed a hesitant kiss to his lips. Wylan kissed him back. He felt so… alive, the way he did when he played flute or solved a difficult equation, but… even more intensely.
He was about to tell Kuwei all of this as they broke apart, ask the boy to talk with him and Jes about this during lunch, when Kuwei hurriedly turned towards the door, spouting a slew of words that Wylan deciphered as “I’ve got to talk to Retvenko before class” before practically running out.
I know Jesper would say there’s no good reason why Kuwei wouldn’t want to kiss me, so… he probably does need to talk to Retvenko.
The final bell rang, causing Wylan to wince. Guess my track record for tardies won’t be starting off too well this year.

Chapter Text

Second period. Jesper’s second-favorite class, if he judged his favorite classes by who he had them with. As he waited for Wylan to get to the classroom, he stared at Kaz’s vacant seat and wondered if he would show up or if he was going to skip school for the day.
Wylan ran into the room, face flushed, but went over to Matthias’ desk on the other side of the room first and handed him something. Then he walked back over to his own desk next to Jesper’s and sat down.
“So you brought a present for Matthias, but not me?” Jesper asked.
“I was just returning his earbuds I borrowed yesterday,” Wylan replied.
“Oh, so returning the gift, then.” The line didn’t get a laugh out of Wylan like Jesper expected, instead appearing to make him more annoyed. “…Wy? You okay?”
“Kuwei kissed me,” Wylan blurted out, blushing furiously.
Well that’s certainly not what I was expecting. “Looks like we’re even, then.”
Wylan grinned slightly. “Yeah, I guess. But listen—we need to talk with him… I was thinking at lunch, if we can get him a heads-up before then.”
Kuwei entered a few seconds before the bell. Still no Kaz. “Kaz… was supposed to get us out of class so that we could go with Inej to the hospital,” Jesper realized, feeling slightly panicked. Inej was counting on the two of them to show up; they couldn’t let her down like that.
“Hey, Jes, we’ll still get over there, okay?” Wylan said, laying a hand on Jesper’s shoulder. “Inej said she’d think of something if Kaz didn’t follow through.”
“Yeah… I’ll write a note to Kuwei and make a detour to the other side of the room to get it to him.”
Wylan nodded, mouth open like he was about to say something else when Specht started lecturing.
The classroom door squeaked open. A student office aide came in and handed two passes to Specht. He glanced at each one, then walked over to where Jesper and Wylan were sitting and gave the passes to the two of them. Jesper winked at Wylan before picking up the note to Kuwei, which he’d folded into a paper airplane, and tossing it across the room to where he trusted Matthias would catch it.
Once they were out of the classroom, Jesper pulled out his phone and texted Inej.
Jesper: We got the passes
Jesper: Where should we meet you?
Inej: Oh, good
Inej: Right outside the main entrance is fine
Jesper: See you there!
“We’re going to the main entrance,” Jesper said. Him and Wylan practically ran through the halls until they got outside. Inej was waiting, smiling when they approached.
“Ready?” she asked.
“Yep!” Jesper replied. Wylan nodded.
The two followed Inej across the street to the hospital and up to the floor the children’s ward was on. She led them into a room full of toys and children. “Inej!” A girl in a wheelchair called out.
Inej smiled and waved at her. “Hi, Hanna!” Jesper stood awkwardly slightly behind Inej, with Wylan next to him. “These are a couple of my friends—Jesper and Wylan.” She gestured for the two of them to come forwards.
“Hi,” she said, a little shyer than before. She held up a half-finished drawing. “Do you like it?”
“That dog’s really cute!” Jesper said, impressed that she could draw so well.
“Thanks! His name’s Duke Addam Von Silverhaunch. He’s my favorite of all my family’s dogs,” she said.
Wylan was busy unzipping his backpack. He pulled out his sketchbook and flipped it open to a drawing he’d done of Jesper. “I like drawing, too,” Wylan said, showing the drawing to Hanna.
She glanced between the drawing and Jesper, mouth agape as was common when Wylan showed his drawings to others. “Wow,” she said, clearly in awe. “I want to draw like that someday.”
“Keep practicing, and I bet you will,” Wylan said.

Chapter Text

As the three walked back to school, Inej mentally went through her notes for the Hamlet test. She didn’t notice when Wylan and Jesper suddenly stopped walking, and almost ran right into Kaz.
“Careful, Inej,” he said, laying a gloved hand on her arm to steady her.
“You know you don’t need to catch my fall—“ Wait, Inej? He usually ends that line with “Wraith” or “Ghafa”. “—Kaz,” she said, finishing the familiar line with his name instead of “Dirtyhands” or “Brekker”.
“Thanks for the passes, after… last night,” Jesper said nervously from behind them.
Kaz made a dismissive hand gesture, though the stammer in his voice made his true feelings apparent. “That was… my thanks.”
So something happened last night….
“Kaz, are you okay?” Wylan asked, as if he’d read Inej’s mind. “You weren’t in class earlier—well, we weren’t either, but—“
“I’m fine,” Kaz replied curtly.
“We need to get to class,” Inej said. “That includes you, Kaz.”
Kaz shrugged. Inej pulled out her phone.
To: Wylan Van Eck, Kaz Rietveld, Queen of Hearts, Matthias Helvar, Jesper Fahey, Kuwei Yul-Bo
Inej: Matthias, Kuwei, make sure Kaz goes to precalc
Matthias: I was wondering what was missing from my life… turns out it was this group chat
Kuwei: Well he’d better get to class since the one min bell just rang
Kaz: I don’t need a babysitter, Inej.
Jesper: Are you sure about that
Kaz: JESPER I SWEAR—
Inej: Please don’t ask what just happened
Queen of Hearts: What just happened?
Inej: This is Jesper. Change of plans—Kuwei, Matthias, hellp me get my phone back from Kaz
Matthias: Did everyone else here just ignore the fact that the bell rang?
Queen of Hearts: Yep
Queen of Hearts: Gtg bye
***
To: Queen of Hearts
Inej: Please don’t tell me you ate the whole entire carton of ice cream you got last night
Queen of Hearts: Nope!
Inej: So what did you do?
Queen of Hearts sent 3 photos
Queen of Hearts: Do you like them?
Inej: …is that supposed to be a wolf or Matthias’ dog
Queen of Hearts: Really either
Queen of Hearts: He likes both so I’ll let him decide
Inej: Okay then
Queen of Hearts: Are you not impressed with my decorating skills
Inej: Uh… blue and silver streamers look really nice together?
Queen of Hearts: That’s the spirit!
Inej: Ok, I’m pretty sure you said that to Kaz the first time you saw his businessman Halloween costume
Queen of Hearts: Speaking of Kaz…
Inej: He called the office to get passes for Wylan and Jesper but didn’t bother showing up himself until right before 3rd period
Queen of Hearts: Good for him
Queen of Hearts: But that’s not what I meant
Inej: ?
Queen of Hearts: *sigh*
Queen of Hearts: Set out to be just as tragic as Hamlet
Inej: ??
Queen of Hearts: Someone won’t admit he loves my dear Inej
Inej: That’s a bit of a strong word
Queen of Hearts: Well, did he ever ask you to be his girlfriend?
Inej: No…
Inej: It just felt like that
Queen of Hearts: And that’s your problem: you claim to be dating him but have never talked to him about dating him!
Inej: Nina…
Queen of Hearts: I’ll take your phone and text him myself if I have to
Inej: Fine
Queen of Hearts: Oh great you’re going to lock it first or something aren’t you
Inej: No, I meant fine as in I’ll talk to him tonight at the party after operation Kuwesper has been successful and you can provide us with a moment by ourselves, no interruptions
Queen of Hearts: Deal

Chapter Text

Matthias: Got Jesper’s phone
Matthias: Idk how I ended up with it after all that
Nina: What happened?
Matthias: Kuwei and I can tell the story at lunch
Kaz: Btw Wylan I should be able to get your phone fixed then
Wylan: :)))
Inej: I think if Jesper had his phone right now he’d be complementing you on your use of abbreviations, Kaz
Matthias: Speaking of Jesper’s phone, it’s very annoying having two sets of notifications going off every time one of you sends something
Nina: Aww, someone’s a little grumpy 
Nina: What should we do for lunch?
Kuwei: Well that was a quick subject change
Kaz: Something I can eat while working on Wylan’s phone.
Inej: So… a hamburger?
Kaz: Possibly.
Matthias: I can’t believe it’s the second day of school and we’re already resorting to McDonald’s
Nina: McDonald’s! McDonald’s! McDonald’s!
Inej: We have food at home
Kaz: *Pulls into the drive-thru, gets a black coffee, somehow drives away without paying*
Kuwei: Pretty sure that’s not how the meme goes
Inej: Or how McDonald’s works
Matthias: But definitely accurate
Nina: Jesper’s going to be mad he missed out on Kaz taking part in a meme
***
“… So then while Matthias distracted Kaz, I ran over and snatched the phone right out of his hand. Then he tried to chase me down, so I threw it to Matthias, and that’s how he ended up with it,” Kuwei explained.
“You’re gonna have to retell that story once we’re all eating,” Wylan said. “I’m sure he’d love to hear that you singlehandedly saved his social life.”
Nina leaned over to Matthias. “I think those boys are very in love,” she whispered.
Matthias didn’t say anything, but glancing back through the rearview mirror, he could tell that Wylan and Kuwei were voluntarily sitting closer than they had the day before, and that Wylan’s face blushed into a deeper shade of red every time some part of his body bumped against Kuwei’s.
“We’re here,” Matthias said as they pulled into the drive-through.
“Let’s get chocolate shakes!” Nina practically shouted.
“And chicken nuggets!” Wylan added.
“Kaz wanted a burger,” Kuwei reminded them.
“…We’ll take three large chocolate shakes, two 20-piece McNuggets, a large fry, and a hamburger,” Matthias said.
***
It took all three of them to carry the food from the pickup over to the picnic table where the others were waiting. They just barely managed without spilling anything out of the near-overflowing bags.
“Fries, nuggets, straws, shakes, napkins, and a burger just for you, Kaz,” Nina said.
Kaz mumbled a “thank you”, already engrossed in his work on Wylan’s phone. Or app. Or whatever it was he used.
“How are we splitting three shakes?” Jesper asked.
Nina, Kuwei, and Wylan looked to Matthias for an explanation. He’d ordered three shakes, one for each relationship in their group, but considering that Wylan, Jesper, and Kuwei weren’t all officially together yet…. “I just got three because it seemed like the right amount,” Matthias said, hoping his explanation was good enough.
They were all conveniently ordered around the table, starting with Kaz and Inej, then Nina and Matthias, and finally Jesper, Wylan, and Kuwei. Realizing this, Nina pushed the three chocolate shakes so they were sitting by the appropriate groupings. She divided out the seven straws as well, making it clear who was supposed to share which shake. “There we go… let the eating commence!”
Matthias passed Jesper’s phone back to him. “There’s a whole story as well, if you want,” he offered.
“Say yes,” Wylan whispered loudly to Jesper. “It’s very entertaining.”
“Let’s hear it,” Jesper said.
As Matthias started telling the story again—with a few interruptions from Kaz—he noticed that both Kuwei and Jesper had started scooting closer to Wylan on the bench in order to reach the shake better, until eventually the three boys were all pressed against one another. As Matthias finished the story, the three all moved to take a drink at the same time, nearly banging their heads together in the process. Matthias coughed loudly into his sleeve, trying to stifle a laugh. Inej giggled a little, and Nina spit out an entire mouthful of fries in her laughter. Kaz apparently didn’t notice what was going on until he got hit in the face with a fry. Meanwhile, Jesper, Wylan, and Kuwei had figured out how to maneuver themselves so they could all drink at the same time, and Matthias had the urge to aw at the cuteness.
“It’s like they’re married already,” Nina whispered into his ear, and he had to agree.

Chapter Text

Kuwei couldn’t decide whether the day had passed fast or slow… lunch had definitely passed too quickly, but the two other classes he had before physics had definitely been at least an hour and a half each.
When he sat down, Wylan was just pulling out some small brushes and jars of paint. “The drawings should show up better this way,” he explained.
Kuwei nodded and glanced around the room. There were only a few seconds until the bell rang, yet—
“Helvar, how nice of you to join us,” Haskell said as Matthias walked in a little out of breath.
“…Kuwei? I asked how much of the rocket you wanted to paint on,” Wylan said after getting his partner’s attention.
“I feel like you’d be better at the intricate stuff, so maybe I could just paint the fins some solid colors?” Kuwei asked.
“Yeah, that sounds good. You should probably paint those first so nothing drips on my designs.”
Kuwei nodded and started figuring out what colors he was going to paint the thing. Maybe something that would stand out more when they had to go find the rockets after launching them. He picked up the container of purple paint, but one look at Wylan’s face told him that purple might not be the best choice. There were other colors, though, and Kuwei settled on red, blue, and pink for the three fins. “What do you think of these?” he asked Wylan, who had already started sketching out the design he wanted to do on a sheet of paper.
Wylan looked up from his work and grinned. “Perfect… and I think they would look great with this,” he replied, pushing his paper over to Kuwei. It was covered with little doodles of suns, moons, and stars. Wylan must’ve noticed the look of confusion on Kuwei’s face, because he added a clarification: “They’re all things—and colors—found in the sky.”
“Oh,” Kuwei said. Damn, Wylan was on top of it. Kuwei was still a mess, to say the least, after kissing him that morning. He started painting the red fin when Wylan asked the inevitable.
“Question nineteen: why did you join band this year?”
Kuwei shrugged. There were a lot of reasons, and he didn’t feel like going into them all. Some of them involved Wylan.
“A shrug doesn’t count. Remember, I told you you’d have to pay if you dropped your pencil again in chem and I had to pick it up.”
Kuwei sighed. “I had a free class period and was debating about what to take. Then I overheard some of the band kids talking about how they needed another percussionist, and… I’d kind of been practicing for a while before that, not really sure what the reason was for that. Guess it was to be in band with you.”
Wylan blushed. Okay, so maybe he had been affected by that morning but had just been hiding it really well. And Wylan would’ve talked about this to Jesper, right? Inej was Jesper’s best friend, and she wouldn’t lie about something one of her friends was so invested in. Which meant… this all might work out right.

Chapter Text

To: Kuwei Yul-Bo
Nina: Are you ok
Kuwei: Yeah why?
Nina: ikd you just seemed really … nervous abt something since lunch
Nina: *idk
Kuwei: So before Wylan and Jesper left class 2nd period they threw me a note to meet up at lunch in private to talk, but by the time we all got done eating, and Kaz wanted Wylan to make sure everything was working ok w/ his phone
Nina: SO when are you going to talk
Kuwei: Later?
Nina: Very specific
Kuwei: I guess I don’t have that much homework and could convince my dad to let me go to your place early..
Nina: That sounds much better
Nina: I can make sure everyone else is thoroughly distracted so you can have privacy?
Kuwei: Thanks Nina
Nina: Don’t mention it
Kuwei: Has anyone ever told you how dramatic you are?
Nina: Everyday darling
Kuwei: lol no
Nina: Sorry
Kuwei: I didn’t expect you to say something that cringey
Nina: Hey! I’m not cringey!
Nina: Kuwei?
Kuwei sent a photo
Kuwei: Wylan’s so cute when he’s concentrating like this
Nina: You gusy’ rocket looks so cool
Nina: Dunyasha’s just painting ours solid gold, maybe some white or something, idk but it’s boring
Nina: *guys’
Kuwei: Is it too much to say I’m in love?
Nina: If you’re considering it and the word feels right then you probably are
Kuwei: I can’t tell if this is the worst feeling better or the best
Kuwei: *Ever
Nina: Ah, young love
Kuwei: We’re literally the same age
Nina: I meant the love is young, not you
To: Kuwei Yul-Bo, Inej Ghafa, Kaz Brekker, Matthias Helvar, Jesper Fahey, Wylan Van Eck
Kuwei: Nina’s now the mom friend
Matthias: Shit I just drew marker over my phone screen…
Kaz: Should wipe off unless it’s permanent, then use 1 pt isopropyl rubbing alcohol: 2 pt water
Jesper: I was going to say use black dry erase marker but go off I guess
Inej: Wow Kaz way to be a walking encyclopedia
Jesper: Inej I thought you were holding the rocket while it dried
Inej: Fuck
Nina: Well if I’m the mom friend then I guess I’ve gotta say
Nina: Inej watch your language!
Wylan: Is anyone else here wondering why Kaz and Jesper both know how to get Sharpie off a phone screen?
Inej: Kaz you’ve worked miracles here
Inej: Look at this glorious sentence!
Wylan: Yes thank you Kaz
Kaz: Np
Wylan: So you’re just going to ignore the question..
Kaz: That’s a story for tonight
Matthias: What’s tonight
Nina: Shit
Kuwei: Nevermind Nina’s no longer the mom friend

Chapter Text

Kaz pointed out a house on the other side of the fence him and Wylan were standing behind. “That’s where Pekka Rollins lives. It’s also where we’re going. Tonight he’s having a little… dinner party, and you’ll find that the guest list is quite interesting.”
“Wait… you mean Pekka Rollins, as in the principal?”
“I’m not familiar with anyone else named Pekka Rollins.”
“Okay, okay… so what’s the plan?”
“His security consists entirely of Schuyler locks, which are easy enough for me to crack. We’ll enter in on the second floor—“ Kaz pointed to a window that wasn’t clearly visible from the street or the front of the house—“Using a rope ladder I hid in the rose bushes this morning. We’ll exit the same way.”
“What if we run into someone when we’re inside, though? Do you know what room that window goes into?”
“That’s where you come in. I assume you have some explosives on you?”
“Yes, but I don’t think we should set those off inside a house--”
Kaz shook his head. “I’ll climb the rope ladder and pick the lock to get in. Once I give you the signal, you’ll set off the explosives. Anyone around who might stop us would probably be concerned about figuring out how to stop that. I’ll leave the rope ladder out so you can come in immediately after you set them off.”
“You’re lucky I’ve got some timed ones on me,” Wylan muttered, digging through his satchel.
“You’ll still have to be quick when you climb up.”
“You will too, considering you won’t have a distraction behind you.”
Kaz shrugged. “I’ve had plenty of practice. Are you ready?”
Wylan nodded and followed Kaz through a gate in the fence—secured by a Schuyler lock, of course—and over to a nearby rose bush. Kaz crawled under and pulled out the rope ladder. “Set up the explosives here,” he said. “I’m going up.”
He crossed the yard—which was more like a maze of gardens, each with a name more obscure than the last—until he was under the previously-identified window. Attached to the top of the rope ladder was a grappling hook which could be activated using a gun-like mechanism that Wylan and Jesper had designed together. Once Wylan, Jesper, and Kuwei had resolved their… tension, he figured the three of them would probably make some even more amazing things. He also attached his cane—not his signature cane, but a lighter-weight one he’d made out of some cheap plumbing materials for jobs like this one—using a lanyard he’d attached to the top of the rope ladder. He shot the grappling hook and ladder up to the windowsill, hearing a thump as the cane hit the house’s siding that could be mistaken for a misguided crow. He gave the ladder a sharp tug to make sure the hook had caught properly on the windowsill, then straightened out the ladder and began to climb. His leg complained a little when he first put his weight on it, not being used to extensive climbing, but he knew this kind of pain didn’t signal serious trouble.
Once he got to the top, Kaz pulled his hand out of his glove—and along with it, the set of lock picking tools he’d need for the house’s locks. He let the tools sit on the windowsill while he picked the lock single-handedly, then he put his glove back on and the tools back in before opening the window. After unfastening the cane from the lanyard, he climbed through the window and into the room, which was decked out in cartoonish lions.
“Roar! You’re not getting into my school!”
Kaz looked down at the sound of a small child’s voice. This… was not something he had planned for. If Wylan set off the explosives, the kid would likely scream, causing someone to come to the room to calm him. Kaz crouched down so he was at the same level as the kid.
“Are you the babysitter?” he asked with wide eyes. If this kid thought that Kaz was the babysitter, then he clearly didn’t have much experience with them. But at the same time, the fact that a babysitter was coming meant that Kaz and Wylan would have to act quickly, with one more person to avoid.
“No, I’m not the babysitter,” Kaz replied, “But we’re going to play a game, okay?”
“Okay!”
“I need you to cover your ears and close your eyes first.”
“Ooh! Is this like hide-and-seek?”
“Kind of. But you can only move your hands and look when you don’t hear anything, okay?”
“But if I have my hands over my ears, how am I going to hear anything?”
Children are so frustrating. “Covering your ears helps make sounds quieter, but it doesn’t get rid of the sounds completely.”
“Oh! Okay!”
“Good, so close your eyes and cover your ears for me.” Thankfully the child followed Kaz’s instructions. Kaz threw a dark blanket over his head for good measure. It made the kid giggle, but nobody would suspect anything from a giggle. Then Kaz got up and turned toward the window. Wylan was all set up near the rose bushes, and… were those two roses poking out of his satchel? Well, Kaz couldn’t do anything about those now. He flashed Wylan a thumbs-up, then moved over to the closed door to block it with his body in case anyone decided to come in and check on the kid after the explosion.
“What was that?” the kid asked in a muffled, fearful voice.
“It’s nothing to worry about, okay?”
Then Wylan pulled himself up and over the windowsill. “Kaz, why was the signal so—“ Wylan’s eyes found the form under the blanket. “You didn’t hide a kid under there, did you?”
“Of course I did—couldn’t have him screaming about your explosions and ratting us out.”
Wylan pulled the blanket off the kid’s head. “He could’ve died! Then we could be charged with breaking, entering, and murder!”
“Well, I suppose he could be useful….” Kaz didn’t have a strong opinion on children—sure, they needed a lot of care from very specific people or they’d scream up a storm, but they were also brutally honest and didn’t have the same preconceptions as adults. He knelt down in front of the kid, who was now looking between him and Wylan with widened eyes. “Who’s supposed to be babysitting you?”
“Daddy says the babysitter’s name is Dunyasha.”
Kaz and Wylan exchanged a glance. I should’ve been prepared for this.
Wylan knelt down to speak to the kid. “Have fun with her, and yell as loud as you can if she does anything you don’t like, okay? We’re just going to head to your daddy’s, uh….”
“Party,” Kaz supplied. “We’re going to your daddy’s party now, but we might see you later.”
“Bye!” the kid said brightly, waving as Kaz and Wylan got up and walked to the door. Kaz opened it and stepped out into the hall, then motioned for Wylan to follow. Wylan rummaged around in his satchel with one hand while holding it in a position where he could see inside with another, causing him to walk slowly.
“Ouch!” Wylan exclaimed suddenly, bringing a finger to his mouth.
“That’s why you should stick to the plan and not start picking flowers,” Kaz said.
“Who says I wasn’t sticking to the plan?”
“The plan’s architect.”
“And who says I was referring to your plan?”
Kaz glanced back at Wylan and raised an eyebrow. Wylan was still rummaging through his bag and didn’t notice Kaz’s expression. “You need to learn to find what you’re looking for by touch,” Kaz said. “It makes the job go a lot faster.”
“And you need to learn that this house isn’t your place in the world,” another voice said.
“Wylan, I hope you’ve got it now,” Kaz whispered. “Use it on my mark.”
“Kaz—“ Wylan protested, but it was too late for that now.
“What business?” Kaz asked loudly, eager to get this over with.
“The business of all that is honest and holy,” Dunyasha said, stepping out from around a corner.
Kaz focused on the space between them. He’d studied the history of Ketterdam closely and knew the exact dates of every important building’s construction. Rollins’ mansion just happened to be of enough historical significance that Kaz had been able to find some lengthy records of it online, including its floor plan.
“Too afraid to talk?” Dunyasha taunted. “Or are you too afraid of me?”
Wylan stepped forward. “We’re not afraid.”
Kaz positioned himself so he was standing next to Wylan.
“Oh, really? If you’re so fearless, then why are you standing there huddled together like the power of friendship will make everything better?”
Kaz slipped his hand into his pocket and pulled out a ring. The amber-colored gem caught the light, and Kaz watched as Dunyasha’s expression changed to one of shock. “Recognize this?” he asked. “It’s the reason why I choose my associates based on trustworthiness and skill, and not by charisma or charm.”
“That’s—that’s my sister’s!” Dunyasha said, rushing towards them.
“Turn back the other way, and you’ll be able to give it to her. Won’t be the person she wanted it from, but it should still catch a fair price—assuming that Kerch doesn’t legalize the ivory trade anytime soon, of course, though I wouldn’t know anything about that. I am just a part of a merry little band of rebels, after all.”
“She won’t want it after it’s touched your hands. Or gloves. But that’s beside the point. How did you even know—“
She was distracted, and in the best location for his plan to work out. He tapped Wylan’s hand.
One drop of auric acid hit the floor.
Two.
Three.
“Go,” Kaz mouthed, and Wylan tilted the vial fully so the rest came out. Smoke rose from the carpeted floor enough to catch Dunyasha’s attention and make her back right into a corner. Kaz lifted his cane and punched through the weakened floorboards, causing him and Wylan to fall through just in time for dinner to be served.
Rollins jumped up from his place at the end of the dinner table. “Someone call the police! The fire department! Catch them!”
Kaz met Wylan’s eye, mouthing the word “papers”, and the two jumped off the table, surrounded by a flurry of white pages. Every word on them detailed every incident of bullying and harassment that went unchecked, every dollar stolen from the high school under Rollins’ administration. Every secret that needed to be stated in order to right Rollins’ wrongs.
Rollins was the only one who ran after them. His guests-- all members of the school board, the superintendents’ office, or some other high administrative position in the school district—were too distracted by the commotion and papers. Hopefully they would read them thoroughly—after all, these were the people with the power to make or break Rollins’ career.
“Get—back—here!” Rollins shouted, hand brushing Kaz’s sleeve.
“I’d check to see that my son was safe if I were you,” Kaz said, watching as Rollins’ face paled even further than it usually was.
“You are a monster,” Rollins said before turning to run towards the stairs. He would reach the nursery and see that his son was in no bodily harm, though he may be screaming from all the racket.
“Head to the patio doors. Then we’ll be in the backyard again. Take the escape route we’d planned from there,” Kaz whispered to Wylan, who immediately ran ahead.
Someone threw a glass vase at Kaz in some bizarre attempt at self-defense, though they aimed horribly and it shattered against a rotting grandfather clock near the patio doors. Then Kaz noticed the flowers that had been in it—geraniums. If Wylan’s going to be stealing flowers, then I suppose I could, too.

Chapter Text

To: Wylan Van Sunshine
Jesper: Where r u
Jesper: Wylan
Jesper: WYLAN
Jesper: Please don’t tell me whatever plan Kaz had went completely wrong and now you’re in huge trouble
Wylan: We’re almost to Nina’s
Jesper: Oh good
Jesper: Kuwei was able to get here early
Wylan: Shit
Wylan: I knew we shouldn’t have stopped at my place after getting delayed, but Kaz insisted
Jesper: Why’d you do that?
Jesper: Also was that a minor hiccup in Kaz’s words or yours
Wylan: Had to do with the plan
Wylan: And Kaz’s words
Jesper: The police aren’t going to end up at Nina’s later for any non-party related reasons, are they?
Wylan: I don’t think they’ll even know where to look for us
Jesper: Thank god
***
Jesper had been a lot more jittery than usual ever since him and Kuwei had gotten fired from table-setting duty. Maybe he’s just nervous for… whatever conversation we’re going to have when Wylan gets here.
Then they heard the front door slam open.
“Kaz, how much do you have to see before you stop doing that without announcing your presence?” Kuwei heard Nina ask. “But now that you’re here, at least we can put you to work.”
A few seconds later, Wylan walked into the living room, where Jesper and Kuwei were waiting. He turned and closed the door behind himself, then opened up his satchel. “I—um… I got roses?”
Their mangled state had both the other boys concerned about what kind of job Kaz and Wylan had been on, but they were definitely roses. Two of them.
Which meant one was for Kuwei.
“We both want to date you,” Jesper said. Wylan nodded.
“And… I want to as well,” Kuwei replied, breaking into a smile. “But… Wylan, there’s something you should know… it’s about me and Jesper.”
“I already told Wylan about the kiss,” Jesper said. Then he noticed Wylan digging through his satchel. “Wylan…?”
“What I went back home for,” Wylan said, pulling out a rolled up piece of paper. “Open it,” he said, placing it in front of Kuwei.
Kuwei unrolled it gently, revealing a painting of the three of them in some sort of fantasy universe. Jesper held a piece of metal morphed into a shape that looked about halfway between a needle and a bullet, while Kuwei had a small fireball coming out of his palm. Wylan held his flute in one hand, and a paintbrush in the other.
“So Kuwei has fire power, I can bend metal, and Wylan…?” Jesper asked, just as confused as Kuwei felt.
“The paintbrush lets me paint a picture of a different time, then go backwards or forwards to it, and the flute helps strengthen you guys’ powers.”
“So you gave yourself two powers, while each of us only have one?” Jesper asked teasingly.
“Well, both of them depend on those objects, meaning without them I’m essentially useless—“
“Wylan,” Kuwei began, “You’re never useless. Not to me.” He stood up from where he’d been sitting on a couch and stepped closer to Wylan. “May I…?”
Jesper laughed from behind them, and Kuwei turned around, wondering what was so funny. “According to Wylan, you didn’t ask earlier.”
Kuwei blushed.
“Don’t worry,” Jesper continued, “I’m not mad or anything.”
“And yes, you may,” Wylan finally replied to Kuwei’s question.
Kuwei pressed his lips to Wylan’s—not hesitantly, like earlier, but with every ounce of determination in him, because this time he knew where they stood, with each other and with Jesper.
“Hey, don’t I get one, too?” Jesper asked, a fake pout on his lips. Kuwei and Wylan released each other before Kuwei turned back to Jesper and captured his lips. Yes, it was so much better once they’d had a conversation about everything.
“Wylan, Jesper, Kuwei! Matthias’ almost here, so you need to hide and we’re going to shout surprise once he comes in!”
“Well, I guess it’s time for the actual party to start,” Jesper said, breaking off the kiss. Something told Kuwei that the three of them would be continuing this later, once everyone else was in… a semi-asleep state, knowing Kaz’s sleeping habits.
***
Matthias walked up to Nina’s door, unsure of what to expect on the other side. Trassel trotted along the sidewalk alongside him, happy to explore the new place. “I would tell you to not live up to your name for once,” Matthias said, “But I have the feeling you’re not going to be the only troublemaker here tonight.” Trassel only looked up at Matthias innocently. “Well, here goes nothing,” Matthias muttered before opening the unlocked door. He stepped inside and set down his overnight bag before turning around to make sure Trass got up the slight step okay. His friends’ uncharacteristic silence struck him as odd. “Hello?” he called out, shutting the door behind him. No one answered. Well, I’ve practically got a guard dog with me, so I may as well venture into the kitchen. “Nina?” he asked, poking his head through the archway.
He heard some rustling noises.
“Inej? Jesper? Wylan? Kuwei?”
This time he got a few whispers and a shush.
Kaz?
Fuck.” That was definitely Kaz.
“Well, you’ve given us away now, so…”
“Surprise!” Everyone shouted, jumping out of various cupboards, out from under the table, and… Matthias was not going to ask why the trash can was tipped over.
Trassel started barking and running around to sniff and lick everyone, clearly a lot more excited about this than Matthias was.
Nina stepped up to Matthias and pulled him in for a kiss. “Happy birthday,” she whispered. A chorus of “happy birthday”s followed from the others after that, and then the festivities began.
***
Nina winked at Inej. Operation Kuwesper was successful, and Nina had orchestrated everything so Inej and Kaz could have some privacy—just like she’d promised. It wasn’t too hard—it was the end of the night, after all, and she had a feeling that all three of the relationships in their group wanted a little time to themselves.
***
“I-I got you this,” Kaz said, pulling a geranium from his sleeve with all the grace lacking in his words.
Inej carefully took it from his hand, hoping he would say more but expecting him to say nothing. She was correct in her expectation and broke the silence between them herself. “I’m sure you already knew this, but—I like you, and I want to share this feeling with you because I care about you, and I don’t want all the bridges we’ve built between us to crumble and fall because of my words. Kaz, I—I want to date you, and hold your hand, maybe kiss on the cheek sometimes, in private. I don’t want to push you past what you feel comfortable doing, but I do want to be right there with you when we’re both comfortable doing more.”
***
Kaz took a couple steps closer to Inej. She looked up at him, her unasked question glittering in her eyes. “Yes, Inej,” he answered, pushing away every voice in his head saying to run off and hide somewhere. “I would like all that as well. With you.” He reached out a hand towards her face. “May I?”
She nodded.
He reached out with a gloved hand and carefully placed a finger, then two, then four on her cheek and his thumb under her jaw. A new voice, one that sounded suspiciously like a much younger Kaz, rang through his head. She’s here. We’re here. Together. And Inej—she’ll never doubt you or leave you behind. Go for it, Kaz. This is your one chance. He moved his hand away, then leaned in and pecked her on the cheek. It lasted less than a second, but the smile it brought to her face was the biggest one he’d ever seen. This is the one day where every choice I’ve made felt like the right one.
***
Later that night, a man unlocked the door to the house and stepped inside. As he wandered through the halls, he smiled at a banner with “Happy birthday, Matthias” written on it in blue marker, and a little picture in the corner with the label “This is Trassel” next to it in different handwriting. He continued through the house, noting what appeared to be the remains of a party—extra clothes, cake crumbs, some empty ice cream bowls, pillows and blankets scattered about—until he reached the basement. There, he found seven sleeping teenagers and a dog, his daughter among them. He smiled to himself. This was the childhood he never had—late-night parties, spoiling his sweet tooth, laughing until his belly ached, having time to spend with friends who actually cared, causing mischief but doing the right thing in the end. This was what he’d wanted for Nina. What her mother would have wanted. He missed her every day—and his daughter, too, while he was away—but he could tell by the smile on her lips that she was content, at least in this moment.
Nina stirred in her sleep, rolled so that she was facing him, and blinked a few times. A furrow appeared in her brow.
“Yes, Nina, it’s me.”
“How? You weren’t supposed to be home yet….”
“I was able to get on an earlier flight home and… I have some good news for you, but it can wait until after school tomorrow.”
“Tell me now.”
“You’ll probably forget it, or think it was all a dream. Just get some sleep now—I should be getting to bed as well, seeing as I’ve somehow acquired six more children to get out the door.”
“Just like the crows you took Inej and I to feed that one time—remember?”
“Of course I do.”
Nina yawned. “Tell me your news already, before I fall back asleep.”
He gave in. “Of course.” She reminded him so much of her mother. “I’ve gotten a promotion. I’ll be staying here for a good long while, with limited travel.”
“What are we going to do with all the time we’ll have?”
He suppressed a laugh, wondering how the rest of the teens were still seemingly sound asleep. “We’ll get you through your senior year, for one. I’ll go to all your conferences, and to whatever else you’ve got going on. I want to meet your friends as well—I know you’ve got good judgement, but I still want to know them.”
“Can we feed the crows again?”
“Yes, Nina.”
“And bake cookies?”
“Of course, though I wonder how many will actually make it out of the oven alright.”
This time, it was Nina’s turn to suppress a laugh. “You should meet their families, too. They’ve done so much for me.”
He nodded. “Definitely. I need to thank all your friends’ parents for practically raising you in my absence. And, Nina—I don’t want this to happen again. I want to try and do better. Be better. Not just for your mother’s memory, but also for you.”
Nina yawned. “I love you, dad.”
“Love you too, my little red bird. Don’t fly too far.”
“I think you’re the one who needs to hear that more.”
“Of course I am; it was your mother who first said those words to me, the first time we met. She’d seen me around campus at college and had wanted to get to know me better, but every time she could get close to me, there was always a reason why I couldn’t be there. Or a terrible excuse to cover for my nerves, because I was never any good at handling those. I’d either talk too much—like I am now—or just run off and hide like I did for years with you. I’m sorry, Nina. For everything. I never wanted us to be like this—I wanted to be there with you every day, from your first breath of life to when we finally had to say goodbye. Maybe—maybe I failed at that because it was too great of a goal. I don’t know. Whatever the reason—I’m going to change that. I hope you never thought I’d stopped loving you, because now you’re the one love that I’m living for.”
Nina smiled. “I know all about that kind of love—I think we all do,” she said, gesturing around the room. “And I think we all know about the heartsickness that comes with it, when you don’t do it justice. When you know you’ve misstepped, but have no idea where that misstep took place, or why, or how you can even fix it.” She yawned again. “I never thought I’d be having this much of a philosophical discussion at—“ she picked up her phone, which was lying nearby, and glanced at it—“two o’clock in the morning. That was non-school-related. And with my father, of all people.”
He smiled and kissed her on the forehead. “Get some sleep. I don’t want to wake your friends.”
“And you didn’t. We hadn’t even really gotten to bed yet.”
“Well, then I suppose my words go for all of you. Get some sleep, because I’m not writing excuse notes for any of you.”