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Ketterdam University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Jesper coughed, “That doesn’t matter.”

            “It does, and you know it.”

            “Kaz told you he was cute?”

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

            “Where are you?” Inej asked him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “What’s it mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

            Wylan’s eyebrow cocked, “Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Elaborate, young one.”

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

            Jesper nodded for him to continue.

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

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

            “How do you study?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            You’re welcome.

            Were feelings ever easy?

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “What’re you listening to?”

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

            “So, you’re an audio learner?”

            “I remember better when I listen, yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Please, don’t.”

            “What? He’s cute.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Can’t. Busy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Likewise!” Wylan said cheerily.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Have you gone grocery shopping?”

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

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

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

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

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

            “Allergies. I’ll be fine.”

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

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

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “You know what I mean.”

            “Should I be?”

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

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

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

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

            “Find a middle ground.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “It’s still not natural.”

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

             “Yeah,” Inej said.

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

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

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

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

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

            “Can I hear?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Jes!”

            “What? It’s true!”

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

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

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

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

            “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “I can cook!” Wylan exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Jesper,” he greeted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Tell me about Wylan,” he said.

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

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

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

            “I have my reasons.”

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

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

            Kaz blinked once, and Jesper felt his fist tighten.

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

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

 

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

 

            “You did what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Even more than Inej?”

            “No.”

            “Dang it.

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

            “I am not!” Nikolai protested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Has he now?” Jesper asked.

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

            Wylan did not hesitate to smack Nikolai upside the head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and realized it was the first time he had spoken since Jesper arrived.

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

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

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

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

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

            Wylan needed new friends.

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “The others?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Well?”

            Kaz nodded towards him. “Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Intel.”

            “On Wylan?”

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

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

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

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

            “But you will tell me?”

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

            “Alright.”

            “On one condition.”

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

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

            Kaz nodded, his face blank.

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

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

            “Okay.”

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

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

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

            “Jes?” he asked quietly.

            “Hm?”

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

           

            ************************

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Ah-ha!” Jesper exclaimed triumphantly.

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

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

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

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

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

            Why is he so set on talking about Kaz?

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

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

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

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

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

            “You were homeless?”

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

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

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

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

            “Oh yeah, he – what?!”

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

            “Honestly, I can’t.”

            “Kuwei, please – ”

            “No, no – ”

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

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

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

            “I can hear you!” Jesper exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “God bless you, Kuwei.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Like what?”

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

            “Do you not have garbage in Japan?”

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

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

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

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

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

            Jan Van Eck.

            Perfect. Just what he needed today.

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

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

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

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

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

            Nice try, he thought to himself.

            Likely story. 

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Darling Inej, you know me so well.”

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

 

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

 

             “Wylan, I’m concerned.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Have my papers been that bad?”

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

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

            Nailed it.

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

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

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

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

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

 

            **********************

 

            Can’t sleep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “I’m hungry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Wylan shrugged. “A little.”

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

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

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

            Wylan looked at Jesper and nodded. “Yeah.”

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

            “Are you?” he asked.

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

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

            “Not really.”

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

            “Wylan.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

            “I thought you already left,” Jesper said.

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

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

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

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

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

            “What?”

            “I didn’t know you wore makeup.”

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

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

            “Yeah, well, so are you.”

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

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

Chapter Text

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

 

            “Jes, call me.”

 

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

 

            “Jesper? Please call me.”

 

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

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

            “Hello?”

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

            “Jes? Is that you?”

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

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

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

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

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

            “Has everything been situated?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            To Kaz? he asked himself, Or to Wylan?

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

            “Jes? Are you still there?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “I shouldn’t have left.”

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

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

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

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

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

            Jesper really, really, really sucked.

 

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

           

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

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

            Why did Wylan agree to this?

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

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

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

            “I don’t have a cat.”

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

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

            “Tea to spill?”

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

            “No, no tea.”

            “Not even green?”

            “Not even water.”

            “It was worth the ask.”

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

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

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

            Wylan nodded, “He should be…why?”

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

            Lord have mercy.

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “What was that all about?”

            “What was what all about?”

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

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

            “Is he always like that?”

            “Like what?”

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

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

            “Only a few weeks,” Jesper said.

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

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

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

            “His dad?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “You’ve never heard Wylan say that?”

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

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

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

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

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

            Wylan nodded, “Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “You practically told him to get lost.”

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

            “So…what?”

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Nah, it wasn’t trouble.”

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

            “W-what do you mean?”

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

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

            Jesper paused. “Like what?”

            A shrug. “I dunno…school stuff.”

            “Teachers?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Jesper winked. “Sounds like a plan.”

Chapter Text

            “Wylan?”

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

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

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

            Wylan nodded and folded his hands in his lap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “What do you mean?”

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

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

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

            “Can I ask you something?”

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

            “Do you have dyslexia?”

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

            “How bad is it?”

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

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

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

            “Does anyone else know?”

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

            “Does Kaz know?”

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

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

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

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

            “For what?” asked Wylan, squeezing back.

            “For letting me in.”

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

            “You’re welcome.”

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “That’s to be expected.”

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

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

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

            “Okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

            So he didn’t. He just left.

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

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

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

            Inej nodded, “He’s doing great.”

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

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

            “Okay, cool.”

            Wylan grimaced. “Shoot.”

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

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

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

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

            Wylan went pale. “Sweet mercy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Which one is Nina?”

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

            “I’m in love.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

            The moment the booze came out was the moment Kuwei decided to up and leave the party. “I don’t want to start my weekend hung-over,” he told them as he gathered his things.

            “Well, how else are you supposed to start a weekend?” Nina said, pouring herself a glass of wine.

            Kuwei gave Wylan a quick hug and left with good intentions. Wylan secretly wanted to leave with him. He had never seen Jesper drunk and didn’t want to start now. Already, Jesper was suckling on a bottle of brandy like it was milk. Wylan cringed at the thought of his morning mood.

            “Slow down, Jes, you’re gonna kill yourself,” Wylan said, sitting back on the couch next to the sober Inej.

            “That’s the idea,” Jesper sang, plopping himself on the floor, already showing signs of recklessness. This wasn’t going to end well.

            Matthias was drinking, too, but it was just beer. Where the heck did I get all this alcohol? Wylan wondered, and then remembered Jesper got a big fat paycheck this week and stocked their kitchen shelves with whatever he pleased.

            “How do you even afford wine like this?” asked Inej, snatching the bottle out of Nina’s hand and reading the label.

            “With forty plus hours of work this week,” Jesper said numbly, finally putting the half empty bottle of brandy down.

            Nina choked on her drink. “Forty plus hours? Jesper, are you mad?”

            Wylan didn’t remember Jesper being absent from the apartment that often this week, but then again, he didn’t keep track of Jesper’s whereabouts when he had his own to deal with.

            “Nah, I’m drunk. Now, drink up. I didn’t spend half of my paycheck on groceries so my friends could waste precious hangover juice.”

            Inej ended up pouring herself a small glass of wine but failed to even finish it. Matthias somehow went through half of a six-pack of beer without even batting an eyelash. Nina didn’t seem much different drunk, just a bit louder, but much more put together than Jesper. He practically rocked back and forth while sitting, his words slurring together, and cackling at things that were only moderately funny.

            “Wylan, why don’t you have something?” Nina asked him, passing him the bottle of wine.

            Wylan set it on the coffee table. “No, thanks. I don’t drink.”

            Jesper’s eyes bulged out of his head. “What do you mean, ‘you don’t drink’?”

            “Meaning…I don’t drink.” Wylan desperately attempted to stifle his eye roll.

            “Like ever?”

            “I’m not a fan of alcohol…or the aftermath.”

            Jesper clicked his tongue sympathetically. “I’ll take you out to get wasted one day, just you wait.”

            “No, please don’t.”

            “It’s settled. We’ll all go.”

            “Leave me out of this, Fahey,” Matthias grumbled. “I’m not partaking in the tainting of young innocence.”

            Wylan flushed pink. “I’m not that young!” his voice squeaked. He tried again, lowering his tone. “I’m not innocent, either. I can handle alcohol, I just choose not to.”

            “That’s what all the weenies say. Prove it,” Jesper sneered, sliding the bottle of brandy towards Wylan’s feet.

            Inej placed a hand on Wylan’s shoulder. “Don’t do it if you don’t want to.”

            “Someone’s got to shut Jesper up,” Wylan groaned, twisting the cap off of the glass container. Taking a quick swig, he wondered if there was actually any natural substance in this drink, seeing as it burned like hellfire, coating the inside of his mouth and scalding his throat going all the way down. He could feel the tears welling up in his eyes, but forced the liquid into his stomach, and held in a violent cough that threatened to rip past his lips.

            “Oh, come on!” Jesper exclaimed a little too loudly. “That was nothing.”

            Nina smacked him on the shoulder. “Leave the poor kid alone. That stuff is strong,” she said. Wylan felt his cheeks heat as she used the word ‘kid’. “Not everyone can handle their liquid like you can.” Her voice was so sarcastic, it seemed to puncture through Jesper’s bleary, thick skull.

            “It’s good, though, right?” Jesper asked Wylan with a devious smile.

            Wylan’s throat flesh screamed in agony as he nodded. “Yeah, it’s fine.”

            Inej scowled. “Who even drinks brandy?” she snapped at Jesper, who didn’t seem fazed with her bitter tone. “What’re you, seventy years old?”

            “It’s a very dignified alcoholic beverage, thank you very much,” Jesper retorted, taking yet another drink from the bottle of amber poison.

            “How is this the first time I’ve ever seen you drunk?” Wylan mumbled, sitting back into the couch and crossing his arms. “You drink alcohol like it’s water.”

            “I’m not sure,” Jesper leaned forward and winked, “But babe, you can get me drunk anytime.”

            Wylan swallowed dryly and hoped that Jesper’s vision was just as warbled as his voice because the pink was spreading and Nina was holding in a giggle. Inej sighed and whispered to Wylan, “Ignore him. He flirts with everything that breathes. Especially when he’s drunk.”

            That did little to steady Wylan’s heartbeat, but by the state of his roommate, Jesper wouldn’t even remember half of the things that took place tonight. His eyes were foggy and his grin was a bit too wide to be anything but miles away from sober.

            After a while, Inej decided to leave and took the stumbling Nina and the somehow completely stable (but still drunk) Matthias home with her. Jesper walked them to their car, and after a few minutes, Wylan began to get nervous. In one way or another, Jesper could have gotten mugged, or hit by oncoming traffic, or simply just lost. But he crashed through the front door like he always did, scaring Wylan witless, and proceeded to vomit on the kitchen floor.

            Wylan, staying silent, managed to transfer Jesper safely to the couch, practically throwing him in a heap and got him a tall glass of water.

            “Drink,” he ordered sternly, and Jesper complied.

            If Jesper had been drinking on an empty stomach, the job would’ve been much easier to handle. But instead, there was a disgusting mix of pizza and brandy, sloshing all over the tile floor. On his hands and knees, Wylan wondered what he did to deserve such a punishment. How could the night sour so quickly once the alcohol came out?

            It took twenty minutes and every curse word in the book to get the mess cleaned up, and when he walked back to the couch, Jesper had taken barely two sips of his water. He was slumbering, snoring softly, one arm slung behind his neck and the other flopped over his stomach, mouth wide open.

            The casualness of it all was probably what fed Wylan up, or maybe it was the way Wylan reeked of throw up and booze, or the way no one cleaned up before they left, and the paper plates, pizza crusts, and red solo cups were strewn about the living room. Whatever it was, Wylan could feel his fury bubble up inside his throat, where the lingering brandy still burned. He picked up the glass of ice cold water and tossed its contents straight at Jesper’s face.

            The water hit its target, and Jesper awoke, sputtering. He shot Wylan an angry, almost frightening look. “What was that for?” he growled.

            “Get up.” Wylan kept his arms at his side, his fists balled up tensely.

            “Excuse you?” Jesper pressed.

            “No, excuse you, Jes. Get up. Now. You’re going to get yourself another drink of water, down it, and get yourself a shower. I want you to spend at least fifteen minutes in there, and yes, I will set a timer if I have to.”

            Jesper wiped his face with his shirt and furrowed his brow. “What is wrong with you?” he asked sincerely.

            “Jesper!” Wylan cried exasperatedly. “I’m literally dripping from your vomit, I smell worse than a skunk, the house is a wreck, my mouth is on fire, and I want to go to bed.” His voice was beyond shrill by the end of his sentence. He took a deep breath and started again. “Please…just go take a shower. And drink your friggin’ water.”

            Twenty minutes later, Jesper left the bathroom in a loose t-shirt and pajama pants, with a towel around his shoulders. Wylan was cleaning up the last of garbage, not even trying to think of all the dishes he was going to have to clean tomorrow. Jesper leaned against the railing, peering down at him from the second floor.

            “Wylan?”

            Wylan stuffed the last paper plate in the garbage bag and looked up at him. He had cooled down a bit and reverted from hot-headed to level-headed in less than ten minutes. “Yeah?”

            “I’m heading to bed.”

            “Did you drink your water?”

            “That and two more glasses.”

            “Alright, good night.”

            There was a pause, and when Wylan didn’t hear Jesper’s bedroom door close, he looked back up at the second floor and saw Jesper battling with himself.

            “Anything else?” he asked.

            Jesper bit his lip and tapped his fingers on the wooden beam. “Erm…thank you. For everything you did tonight.”

            Wylan held back a smile and ducked his head. “It’s fine, really.” He began to tie the bag, feeling relief spread through his chest. “Go to bed, you have work in the morning.”

            Jesper checked his watch. “Shoot, I forgot.” That’s when Wylan heard Jesper’s bedroom door close.

            Wylan, right before he headed off to bed, checked his phone. It was two in the morning and Nina had sent him a text.

            N: Everything okay on your end?

 

            W: Peachy. Jes threw up all over the floor but I got that cleaned up. Jesper’s showered and probably waterlogged.

 

            N: Sounds eventful, I’m impressed you got him awake at all. Sorry, we left a mess, we completely forgot. Matthias is passed out on the couch, he was way less sober than we thought.

 

            W: Don’t worry about it. Get some sleep, alright?

           

            N: Don’t mind if I do ;) Thanks so much for tonight. Sorry about the brandy.

 

             W: My mouth is still on fire

 

            N: It’s all downhill from here, darling.  

 

           

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

 

            Jesper woke up at seven in the morning to Wylan shoving his shoulder.

            “What-?” he said, not quite there yet, his voice muffled by his sheets that were much too comfortable.

            “Your alarm has been going off for the past hour. I’m pretty sure you have to leave in the next four minutes or you’re going to be late.” Wylan gave him one last shove and stood back with his arms folded.

            Jesper rolled over, his vision blurred from the bright lights. His head hurt, but it wasn’t throbbing. It should be throbbing; he drank half a bottle of brandy by himself, not to mention a few glasses of wine that he stole out of Nina’s hand. Speaking of recalling the past…he could actually somewhat remember the events of last night, though after Nina and Matthias left, everything was a bit foggy.

            “You okay?” Wylan asked. Jesper thought he already left.

            “Yeah…actually, I am.” He swung his legs over the side of the bed and his head didn’t churn like butter when he did. What a strange feeling.

            “Are you hungover?”

            “A little…but definitely not as bad as I should be.”

            Wylan nodded, a smirk playing over his lips.

            Jesper suddenly got scared. “What did you do to me?”

            “I made you drink water and you also threw up your brandy all over the kitchen floor.”

            Jesper felt embarrassment in the shade of red cover his face. “I’m sorry. I should’ve cleaned that up.”

            “You couldn’t have if you tried, and I wasn’t going to let it sit overnight.”

            “God, I’m going to be so late to work,” Jesper moaned, looking at his clock.

            “Just grab some breakfast. You took a shower last night.” Wylan turned to leave, and then called over his shoulder, “Breath mints are on the table.”

            Jesper scratched his head, wondering how on Earth such a little man could be so put-together. Did he take a shower last night? He smelled like coconut, so he guessed Wylan was telling the truth. How did Wylan get Drunken Jesper into a shower? He must’ve been terrifying.

            

Chapter Text

             After the brandy-vomit incident, things around the apartment seemed less tense. It wasn’t that bad before, just uncomfortable. Like the two roommates tip-toed around each other, being too nice, or not speaking to each other at all for days. Wylan kept Jesper on schedule, and Jesper made sure to pull his own weight at times, cleaning up his own messes and cooking meals occasionally. Wylan could be seen studying with a concentrated face, and Jesper was actually submitting homework somewhat on time.

            Things stayed in the groove for a couple of weeks. Time passed quickly as the two got deeper into their school year. Jesper clocked more hours, got his bills in on time, and even managed to stay general sober throughout most of it. Nina and Inej came over a couple of times a week, and even Matthias – who totally lied about not liking the apartment – joined them. Kaz and Jesper kept in touch and even met up twice in two weeks, despite the fact that Jesper didn’t know much more about Wylan. There didn’t seem to be any hidden layers to the boy, just a kid trying to get through college and paying bills on time. Speaking of which…

 

            “What do you do for money?” Jesper asked. Wylan was popping a frozen pizza in the oven, Jesper sitting on the table.

            “What do you mean?”

            “I mean you don’t go to work. How do you pay the bills so well? How did you afford this place?”

            Wylan had really hoped Jesper wouldn’t ask this question, but it was inevitable. Wylan didn’t have a job, this flat was nicer than most, and he never seemed to struggle with his utility bills either.

            “Oh, well,” Wylan tried to think of a way to make this sound as non-privileged as possible. “I’m applying for some jobs, but so far no luck. My dad…this is actually his apartment. I just live here. I’m trying to get less…dependent on him, because everything comes with a price.”

            Jesper’s face skewed and Wylan instantly knew he phrased everything wrong.

            “What do you mean he owns this flat? He bought it, or he pays the bills?”

            Shoot. “He…erm…owns this apartment complex.”

            Jesper’s eyebrows shot up. “He owns it? Is he made of money?”

            You really shouldn’t have said that.

            Wylan just shrugged.

            “Is he famous?”

            You shouldn’t have asked that, either. “I mean, he’s…rich, I guess. Yeah, really rich. He’d probably show up on Google if you tried.” He tried to sound as uninterested as possible. Little did he know Jesper was pulling out his phone then and there to look up his father.

            “Jesus Christ on a stick, Wylan,” Jesper breathed after a few minutes of scrolling. “Your dad’s got a finger in every pie, doesn’t he? I’ve never seen a man who owns this much business.”

            Wylan could feel his chest tightening. He didn’t need this right now. He had gotten his mind off of his father for a few days now and didn’t appreciate Jesper bringing up all up again.

            “How come you go to this crummy college? You could afford Harvard if you wanted to.”

            “I’m on scholarship, that’s why.” Imagine that, actually being literate enough to get into Harvard.

            “Scholarship? Why?”

            “Music, I’m in the music program. It just worked out.”

            “What do you play?”

            “The flute,” Wylan mumbled, scratching the back of his neck.

            “How come I’ve never seen you play?”

            Wylan was getting sick of all these questions. “Because I don’t practice here. I rehearse in the practice room in the music building. It’s just a hobby.”

            “Well, if it’s just a hobby to you, but a big deal to the college, I’d say you’re pretty fantastic at it.”

            “I’ve just been playing for a long time. It’s lame, anyway.”

            Jesper looked at him and grinned. “I don’t think so. I personally think it’s adorable. ”

            “I wasn’t really going for adorable,” Wylan muttered, letting his hair fall in front of his face.

            “Can I hear you play sometime?”

            Wylan shrugged. “Maybe. No solos though, I’m just in the orchestra.”

            “So, your dad is a billionaire and you’re a musical prodigy. Okay, cool.”

            “Okay, my dad’s only a millionaire, and I’m not a prodigy, I just practiced a lot when I was little! I had a lot of tutors that came and went.”

            It was true. He hardly saw his father most of the time. He was forced to befriend his tutors and staff, even the ones who did more harm than good. Wylan didn’t have much to do, didn’t have many friends, and often felt more alone than any child ever should. He remembered feeling ashamed for secretly wishing he was an orphan. That neglect and lack of nurture translated into free time, which he used for practicing his musical talents and compensating for his illiteracy through math and science.

            Jesper’s jaw dropped. “Dude I was kidding about the billionaire thing! Is he seriously a millionaire?”

            You shouldn’t have opened your fat mouth, Wylan told himself. “It doesn’t matter! Once I can afford to support myself, I won’t be getting a cent of his money.”

            “Why not?” Jesper seemed much more concerned than Wylan ever did for his own well-being.

            “Because when your dad controls your finances, he controls everything else!” Wylan yelled. He didn’t mean to raise his voice, really. He hated how everything Jesper said was a question, another prod at his past, things Wylan never intended to discuss with him.

            “Okay, geez,” Jesper said, half-smiling, half wondering what just went wrong.

            Wylan dragged his hands down his cheeks slowly. “I’m sorry; can we just…not talk about this? My dad is rotten from the inside out. That’s all you need to know.”

            “Yeah, yeah, okay.” Jesper’s forehead crinkled up and Wylan wished there was an easier way to tell someone to shut up.

            There were a few more minutes of silence that drove them both crazy, but there was nowhere else to go and the pizza was almost done.

            “What…what about your parents?” Wylan thought it was only right.

            “My mom died when I was seven, but she was the best. She would’ve loved you, though, I know that much.” The words flowed out of Jesper’s mouth like a river, but they hit Wylan square in the chest. How are you supposed to respond to that?  Especially when you’ve lost a mother as well; it’s not that easy to talk about it.

            Luckily, Jesper kept going. “My dad is still alive and kicking. He owns a farm a couple hundred miles away and runs it with his own staff. Definitely not a millionaire, but he’s great. I hope you get to meet him sometime if he ever comes to visit.”

            Wylan nodded quickly, “I would love to meet him, and he sounds great.”

            “I’m guessing you don’t want me to meet your dad?”

            “I seriously don’t think that’s a good idea.”

            Jesper laughed, taking note of the lightness of the conversation. “What about your mom? Or is that too personal?”

            Wylan ran a hand through his hair and opened the open. Staring into the heat so the welling in his eyes seemed natural, he said, “She’s not around anymore. She left when I was just a little kid, but I don’t remember a lot about her. She painted a lot and played the piano a bit, but that’s about it.”

            “Hey, I’m really sorry to hear about that.”

            “No, it’s fine. I’m fine.” Lies, but who cares anyways? He missed his mom. Maybe she left when she realized her son was an idiot. That was always Wylan’s worst fear; that the poison his father spat at him since he was a tot was true. That’s why she left, don’t you see? She abandoned you because you’re useless. I would’ve left first if she hadn’t beaten me to it, you twit. Go to your room, I can’t even look at you.

            The pizza was done, so there was no more to be said. Jesper cut it into quarters, which was heinous, but it didn’t make much of a difference.

            “It’s the same amount of pizza,” Jesper said with his mouth full.

            “It’s the fact that you can fit your Python jaws around that slice that bothers me, honestly,” Wylan quipped, cutting his slices in half.

            “Python? Honey, if you want to fit certain large things in here, you gotta stretch your jaw and throat. I’ve had loads of practice.”

            Wylan wasn’t sure if it was the heat from the oven or the hazardous amount of blood rushing to his neck and face, but he seriously needed some fresh air immediately.

           

 

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

 

            “Are you ever going to tell me what this is all about?” Jesper asked.

            Kaz looked up from his newspaper (because he still read newspapers like an elderly man). “What?”

            “All this crap about Wylan. Why are you having me spy on him? I feel rude prodding all the time. He’s getting uncomfortable.”

            “Well, don’t make it obvious, Jes,” Kaz said, annoyed. “He’ll suspect something.”

            “I’ll try to keep the interrogation to a minimum, sir. So why am I doing it?”

            Kaz sighed and Jesper braced himself for the worst.

            “I can’t tell you everything. Not yet, but you have to swear not to tell anyone. Got it?”

            Jesper felt a violent flutter in his chest and nodded quickly. “I swear.”

            “I mean it, Jesper. This can’t get out.”

            “Okay, okay, I got it. Lips: sealed.”

            Kaz put his newspaper down and faced him, setting his jaw. “I’m giving the intel to his dad.”  

            Jesper swallowed dryly. “Why?”

            His friend shrugged. “He asked me to. He’s paying me to.”

            “Paying you? And where’s my share?”

            “Would you actually accept money for gossiping about Wylan?”

            “I mean, yeah.” Liar. Jesper’s conscience would never allow him to do such a thing.

            “Well, I don’t do it for the money. I do it for the information.”

            “On Wylan? What could you possibly do with that?”

            “Not on Wylan,” Kaz said, crossing his arms. “On Van Eck.”

            “How do you get information on him? Aren’t you guys just sending emails?” Jesper ran his hands down the thighs of his jeans. Did he really want to know all of this? All of Kaz’s doings?

            “Yes, and every time he sends an email, or a payment, I’m one step closer to hacking him.”

            “Hacking? Jesus, what’re you doing, Kaz?”

            Kaz waved a dismissive hand. “Like I said, I can’t say much more.”

            More secrets. Excellent. This was the very thing Jesper was trying to get away from with Kaz. He hated how closed off Kaz was. He didn’t even know what he did for money, exactly. Kaz always told him he was a “journalist of sorts”, but with Kaz’s skills and range of talents, Jesper suspected there was much more to the story.

            “You’re a psychopath, you know that?” Jesper chuckled, trying to ease the tension that had somehow squeezed into the room.

            “The term is ‘sociopath’ actually, but sure, whatever you say. How’s your gambling addiction by the way?” Kaz retorted with a grin. Jesper

            Moments like these used to be normal and happened every day. The insults back and forth, the pushing of buttons, and laughs over nonsense. But now, Jesper felt as though he had to grasp each blithe moment with both hands. Each joke from Kaz was now a gift, and a single smile was a privilege.

            Because he felt Kaz slipping under, and he still wasn’t sure how to bring him back up. He wasn’t ready to let go yet. He wasn't ready to lose him. 

Chapter Text

            “So, you’re really getting settled then?” Nikolai asked, flipping through his textbook.

             Wylan flopped back onto his bed and nodded slowly, taking a satisfying deep breath. “Yeah. Yeah, I am.”

            “And how are you faring?”

            “I’m fine, Dad, everything is a-okay.”

            Nikolai looked up from the words Wylan couldn’t quite comprehend. His head cocked to the side. “That sounded like a lie.”

            “No, it didn’t.”

            “Wylan, I can practically see the green fibs seeping through your beautiful white teeth. What’s up?”

            Wylan shook his head. “Really, nothing’s wrong. I’m quite content at the moment.”

            Nikolai examined his friend’s face, eyes flitting over his features, his lie-detector in motion. “My god,” he muttered.

            “What?”

            “I think you’re actually telling the genuine truth.”

            He laughed. “Well, I would hope so.”

            “This is new! This is exciting!” Nikolai closed his book, his eyebrows darting up and down. “You’re happy! How does it feel?”

            Wylan scrunched up his nose. “Um…happy, I guess?”

            “Brilliantly put.”

            “Just trying to fend off those pesky moods that are threatening to cave in any day now.”

            Nikolai rolled his eyes. “The more you anticipate, the worse the moods get if they actually do show up. No nonsense from your father?”

            “I don’t know. I’ve been blocking his messages.”

            The blond boy scrambled up from his lying position. “Can you do that? You can’t do that, right? Do you forget completely what happened that last time that happened?”

            Hell on Earth. That’s when he forced himself to crash on Kaz Brekker’s couch, dehydrated, homeless, and practically starving. “I don’t care anymore. He doesn’t get to pull me around like that.”

            “Wylan, as much as I understand the whole my-father-is-a-scumbag experience, I think you’re ignoring that fact that he controls everything in your life. You’re putting yourself in grave danger mentally.”

            Wylan fiddled with the buttons of his shirt. “I just don’t know what I should do. I can’t read any more of his emails.”

            “Who says you have to read them?” Nikolai said.

            “He has his demands in each one. He’ll know if I don’t read them or not.”

            “I could read them for you,” his friend offers.

            “You…” Wylan looked at him, swallowing hard. “You would do that?”

            Nikolai’s eyes glowed with earnest. “Of course. I’ll just tell you what he wants; you don’t have to read the rest.”

            A wave of gratitude rushed over Wylan and he realized in horror that he was blinking back tears. “Thank you…honestly.”

            “I hate to see you in that sort of pain. Your dad is, quite simply, the worst.”

            Wylan didn’t know what to say, so he just nodded. Nikolai opened his book back up and they continued reading for a few minutes in peaceful silence. But of course, Wylan can’t have anything nice, and Nikolai has another question.

            “So, what’s the deal with you and Jesper?”

            Panic. “What?”

            “There is something there, love, you have to admit.”

            Blood rushed to Wylan’s cheeks. “No, there’s not. Where are you getting this from?”

            “He flirts with you every chance he gets.”

            “He also insults me every chance he gets. He flirts with everyone, including you.”

            Nikolai tapped his chin with a pencil, a dashing smile playing over his lips. “Perhaps, but with you, his flirting is more specific. More special.”

            Wylan threw his hands up. “Can two gay men not live in the same apartment without people assuming they’re together?”

            “He told you he’s gay?” Nikolai asked, his eyes widening with mischief.

            “Yeah. Well…no, I told him I knew. And he didn’t disagree with me.”

            “He’s so into you.”

            Wylan smacked Nikolai’s shoulder hard. “Quit it!” he said, annoyed. “He drives me nuts anyway.”

            “This is the beginning of a fantastic rom-com. ‘Vexed At First Sight’ coming to the theatre near you.”

            “Change the subject, Nikolai.”

            “Out on Blu-Ray and DVD soon.”

            “Nikolai.”

            “Free concessions?”

            “How’s your love life going?”

            Nikolai blinked, his cocky exterior shuddering for a split second. He swallowed shallowly, and Wylan winced as he realized he struck a nerve.

            “Everything okay with you and Alina?”

            The blond boy rubbed his hands together nervously, a movement Wylan had rarely experienced in his entire six years of knowing him. Nearly everything about Nikolai screamed confidence, almost as though he was overcompensating for the fact that he was not.

            “Things are going well.”

            Wylan believed him. But there was more. “But?”

            Nikolai took a breath. “Things are going well,” he repeated. “My parents are satisfied, as are hers. But…” he shook his head. “I don’t know. I thought there would be more…spark. It’s not as though we don’t love each other, but the fire is muddled. I don’t know how to explain it.”

            Wylan was sure he had never seen his friend quite as vulnerable as he was now, sober-wise, at least. “How long has that been going on?”

            “A couple of weeks, I guess. Maybe we’re just in a rut.”

            Wylan nodded. “That sounds about right. You guys have been together for four years, so don’t be alarmed with the excitement dies down at moments. You still love her?”

            Nikolai furrowed his brow, finally looking Wylan in the eye. “Of course.” He bit his lip. “More than anything, really.”

            “Then it’s definitely just a rut. Things are just becoming more comfortable and relaxed. Don’t get scared when the butterflies aren’t there anymore.”

            Nikolai cocked his head to the side and gave his patented sly-fox grin. “Since when did you get to be so good at relationship advice? You’ve been single your entire life.”

            Wylan flinched, blocking out the past instantly. Now is not the time, he told himself firmly. “I’ve been in relationships before,” he said, plastering on a goofy smile. “All in middle school though…and they were all girls…and they never lasted more than a few weeks.”

            The blond sniggered. “Right, right. Tiny closeted Wylan, I almost forgot. So where did this brilliant advice come from?”

            Wylan flushed red, hoping it played off as bashful instead of shame. “I guess I just know how a relationship is supposed to be like, taken from my failed ones. You’re welcome.”

            The rest of the day wore on, and the blocked memories filtered through his mental wall. It filled his chest with black ink, suffocating his lungs and tightening his fists. This wasn’t supposed to happen. He was supposed to forget. I ran away for nothing. It hurt too much to think. He remembered the bruises around his wrists, the discarded sheet music in the corner of the room, the drops of sweat above his brow. Once they started, they couldn’t stop.

           

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

 

            “Since when do you hang out with Kuwei without me?” Wylan asked from the coffee machine. Jesper turned his head, surprised at the sound of his flat mate’s voice. Wylan had been mostly quiet for the past few days, with a vacant look in his eye.

            “Define ‘hang out’,” Jesper replied, finishing the bow on his no-tread work shoes.

            “Kuwei said you two went to go see a movie yesterday.”

            “What, you jealous, sunshine?”
            “Why, do you want me to be?”

            Impressive, Jesper thought as he watched Wylan’s face break open in a smug grin. “Yeah, we went to see a movie. It was pretty fun, too.”

            “Glad to hear it.”

            Jesper laughed out loud, “Oh my god, you are jealous! What, you have a crush on Kuwei or something?”

            “Of course not. Have you met him?” Wylan seemed completely unbothered by the accusation. He must be telling the truth, Jesper thought, or he’s a very good liar.

            “I have, indeed. I think he’s very crush-worthy, though. Especially for someone as vulnerable as you.”

            “What on Earth is that supposed to mean?” Wylan scoffed.

            “He’s cute and funny, and likable. You’re the same, and I imagine you usually fall for people who have the same traits as you.”

            Wylan flushed brightly but shook his head. “You don’t know anything about me. Plus, just because we “have the same traits” doesn’t mean we’re compatible. And why do you think I want someone like me to date?”

            “You’re a total narcissist.”

            “Am not!”

            “Are too. You’re always checking yourself out in the mirror and stuff.”

            “That’s not narcissism, it’s called low self-esteem. Try it out, it’ll humble you.”

            “I’m perfectly humble, thank you very much.”

            Wylan came and sat at the table across from where Jesper was sitting, a cup of coffee in his small pale hands. “Is that why you take pictures of yourself shirtless in the mirror? Are you just boosting your own morale?”

            Jesper bit his lip playfully. “Those photos are just fodder for my audience, which includes you, I’m now realizing.”

            “Oh please, you practically shove them down everyone’s throats. Every reflective surface in this flat has been tainted.”

            “The word you’re looking for is ‘blessed’.”

            Wylan rapped his knuckles on the table several times, probably hoping that the conversation would come to a close. “Don’t you have work?”

            Crap. He was going to get chewed out by Diane so badly. He finished tying his shoes and adjusted his black V-neck, making sure to expose his midriff.

            Wylan’s eyes glanced over Jesper’s etched stomach and rolled his eyes, scoffing. “Get over yourself, Jes.”

            “You don’t seem to be complaining.”

            Wylan stood up and took a sip of his coffee. “Never said there was anything to complain about.”

 

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

 

            When Jesper got home, Wylan was nowhere to be found. He just assumed the redhead had practice or was hanging out with Nikolai. The flat was beautifully silent, and the sun was setting through the giant windows in the living room. It was calming, which is exactly what Jesper needed.

            Diane actually did end up chewing him out and threatened to let him go if he screwed up again. Someone spilled coffee all over his nice pants and new white shoes. A customer yelled at him for getting her order right. Today was not a good day.

            He could feel his stress building up in his stomach like a knot winding up in his stomach, impossible to untangle. His mind was darting from one place to another without effort. Jesper raked his fingernails up and down his arms to anchor his control, but nothing was working. The house suddenly became too peaceful, too quiet. He could feel his own pulse through his fingertips. He was just a big ball of movement and nerves. Jesper had to get out of the house.

            “Hey,” said a voice from behind. Jesper swiveled on his heel, his heart in his throat. Kuwei was walking through the front door, a pleasant look on his face.

            “Jesus,” Jesper gasped, catching his breath. “You scared the snot out of me, boy.”

            “Sorry,” Kuwei said sheepishly, holding up a single house key. “Wylan gave me a key a while back before you moved in. I thought you knew.”

            Jesper leaned against the counter and crossed his arms. “I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but Wylan’s out right now. It’s just me.”

            Kuwei walked towards the kitchen slowly, taking in the room. Jesper felt his fingers twitch at the sight, wondering how Kuwei could be so still and in motion at the same time.

            “I know,” Kuwei said, a dainty smile playing across his lips. He lingered in front of Jesper for a moment and then locked eyes. The room suddenly seemed very bright, and the hair on the back of Jesper’s neck stood up. “I was hoping that was the case.”

            Before Jesper could react, Kuwei leaned forward and pressed his lips to Jesper’s. The kiss was soft, gentle, but too short. Kuwei pulled back and mischief glinted in his golden eyes.

            “Well, hell,” Jesper muttered and took Kuwei’s face in his hands. This time, the kiss was deeper, more open. Jesper’s mind wandered as his hands did, from Kuwei’s neck to his elbows to his waist and down to his hips. Kuwei’s lips felt amazing under Jesper’s, the hunger inside of the boy growing stronger. He wasn’t sure what exactly he wanted out of this moment, he just knew he had to make sure it didn’t end for a while.

            He felt Kuwei’s fingertips play around Jesper’s waistband and then glided his hand under his shirt. Kuwei’s hands were warm and soft and Jesper needed more of them. He turned Kuwei around and backed him against the kitchen wall, holding tight to the hem of the boy’s shirt. Off the shirt came, and Jesper stared at him with wide eyes, pulling back.

            “No?” Kuwei asked, looking shy all of a sudden.

            Jesper kissed him again, this time letting his hands grab onto Kuwei’s dark hair, pulling his head back. Jesper’s mouth trailed down Kuwei’s chin to his neck, leaving heat in their wake. He allowed his tongue to slide over the pillow softness of Kuwei’s skin, as the boy moaned from underneath. Jesper felt as though he was a marionette, letting his body guide him wherever, like he was watching himself do it. But he didn’t care because he could feel the vibrations of Kuwei’s groans under his tongue, and Kuwei’s fingernails began to embed themselves into Jesper’s skin.

            How did I get here? He thought. This was wild. This was reckless. This was meaningless and stupid and most definitely going to end horribly for either or both of them. And he drank it up like water.

            Kuwei pushed against Jesper’s shoulders. “Upstairs?” he asked breathlessly.

            Jesper only nodded, kissing him again once and then pulling his arm to run up the spiral staircase, ascending into something that he was, most definitely, going to regret.

Chapter Text

            Jesper stared at the ceiling, eyes drooping, a single arm outstretched across the pillow beside him, where Kuwei laid. He didn’t quite regret his decision yet because the boy next to him was warm and comforting. They had only been cuddling for an hour after their hookup, but it was pitch black outside Jesper’s window. He wondered if Kuwei wanted to stay the night. Did he want Kuwei to stay the night? He couldn’t think of a reason why he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t mind having a human incubator to help him sleep. But before he could worry about hookup dynamics any longer, he drifted into a soft sleep.

            He wouldn’t have woken up as early as he did if Kuwei hadn’t shaken his shoulder gently.

            “Do you have work this morning?” he whispered. Jesper blinked several times, not even processing the words properly before answering “Yeah.”

            “We better get up then. Do you mind if I use your shower?” Kuwei swung his legs over the edge of the bed and slid his jeans over his briefs. Jesper squinted in the bright sunrise glow that filled his room.

            “Feel free,” Jesper said, surprised at the rough scratch of his voice. It was nearly Brekker-worthy. Stop thinking about Kaz, idiot. “Only if you don’t mind that I join you.”

            Kuwei laughed sweetly, his eyes crinkling around the edges. How did he look so good in the mornings? “Slow down, sailor. I’ll hog all of the water. You need to wake up first, anyway.”

            He walked to the door, shirt still slung over his shoulder, but he paused. Turning around, he crawled back onto the bed and pressed a lingering kiss to Jesper’s lips. Jesper dragged a lazy hand through the dark crop of Kuwei's hair

            “I had fun,” Kuwei murmured, and then kissed him again, running his tongue across Jesper's bottom lip. “But that’s all this is, right?”

            Jesper was wide awake now but played it off as casual and unbothered. “Sounds good to me. One time thing or - ?”

            “Oh, I don’t think so,” Kuwei said with a wicked grin. “One time wasn’t quite good enough for me.”

 

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

 

            Wylan’s morning started off pretty fantastic. It was starting calmly, with the morning luminescence that flickered through his window and played lightly on his features. He realized he didn’t have class on this particular morning and made the decision to dedicate the first half of his day to self-care. This consisted of wearing a facemask while watching Leverage and eating veggie straws until he couldn’t stomach them anymore. Luckily, Jesper had work that morning, so he could kick back without fear of judgment or mockery.

            It was seven in the morning when he began making coffee. Wylan could hear the shower running from upstairs. Looks like Jesper actually tried today.

            He really thought this day was going to go well. All of his assignments were submitted on time. No stress from his professors. No socializing for the rest of the day, if he could help it. What could go wrong?

            He really shouldn’t allow himself to be content.

            “Good morning,” Jesper groaned, walking down the stairs, looking like he dragged himself out of bed moments ago.

            “Morning,” Wylan replied. He might’ve been in a good mood, but that didn’t mean he was in an ultra-tolerant one. He was trying to get Jesper out of the house as soon as he could.

            “Can I have some of that coffee?” Jesper asked groggily.

            “Help yourself.” Wylan hoisted himself onto the counter and took a sip of his own drink. “You planning on wasting all the hot water?”

            Jesper looked at him, but it looked as if the words died on his lips. A strange look appeared in his eyes as they attempted to focus on Wylan. “Huh?” he said dimly.

            “Nevermind.” Wylan closed his eyes and leaned his head against the high cabinet doors. When he peaked his eyes open again, Jesper was staring at him once more.

            “Can I help you?” Wylan asked wearily, trying to fight the pink that threatened to overthrow his cheeks.

            “Nothing,” Jesper looked away quickly and glanced back. “It’s just – ”

            “It’s just what?”

            “Your hair glows in the morning.”

            Now it was Wylan’s turn to say, “Huh?”

            “I was just noticing that, um, your hair…in the light. It looks like it’s caught on fire.” Jesper sucked in his lips and swallowed. “In a good way.”

            Wylan had never heard Jesper fumble over his speech like this before, and he wasn’t sure he ever wanted to again. “Drink your coffee. You obviously need it.”

            And that’s when he noticed the shower upstairs wasn’t running anymore.

             But before he could ask, Kuwei, hair wet and towel slung over his shoulder, walked into the kitchen.

            Wylan watched in shock as Kuwei took a sip from Jesper’s cup of coffee and leaned into Jesper’s shoulder. “Mmm, tastes good,” he mumbled, breathing in Jesper’s scent.

            “Uh,” was all Wylan could think to say and he wasn’t even sure the sound made it past his lips. He wasn’t sure what was happening, but it was unpleasant to observe.

            “Off to work?” Jesper asked as Kuwei grabbed his keys from the key hooks and threw his towel across the back of a kitchen chair.

            “Yeah, and you should be, too.” Kuwei slipped his Vans on and tugged on the hem of Jesper’s shirt. Then he leaned over and kissed Jesper. Right on the lips.

            Wylan’s vision blurred for an odd moment as he attempted to process the scene unfolding in front of him. He was sure he would never get the memory of Kuwei swirling tongues with his roommate out of his head. It would haunt his nightmares for years to come.

            Soon enough, the kiss was over and Kuwei turned to leave. “Bye, Wy!” he called behind him.

            Wylan wasn’t fully aware of his facial expression (his face felt too numb to determine accurately), but he guessed it was something hysterically amusing the way Jesper split his seams laughing as soon as the front door closed.

            “You’re looking a little pale there, mate,” Jesper finally said, still bubbling out the last of his giggles.

            “When did that happen?” Wylan tried to sound as casual as possible, but a strange panic seized his throat.

            “Last night,” Jesper said. “In the kitchen, in the dining room, my room, and about where you’re sitting right now.”

            Wylan clutched his coffee mug and hopped off of the counter as quickly as possible. “Jesus,” he muttered, “Are you two dating now?” He wasn’t actually sure what he wanted the answer to be. Somehow, your roommate having a meaningless fling with one of your best friends is just as bad as them being in a romantic relationship, if not worse.

            Jesper shook his head. “Absolutely not.”

            “Friends with benefits, then?”

            A devilish grin crept across Jesper’s face, his lips quirking. “Yeah, yeah I like that.”

            Wylan had to force himself not to gag. “Well, alright then.”

            Jesper fell silent, scratching the back of his neck with his free hand. “Look, it’s nothing serious. And besides, you said I needed to find my own dynamic with him.”

            “No, I did not. I said you needed to come to terms with our dynamic, not make your own. Do you realize how weird this is for me?”

            “I honestly don’t see why.”

            Wylan rolled his eyes. “Of course you don’t. You probably do this all the time.”

            “Not my fault you’re still a virgin, dear. This is what normal people do in the real world.” Jesper chuckled, as if it was a joke, as if it was comedy gold, but Wylan’s cheeks burned red.

            If only he knew.

            “Just don’t go flaunting it around the flat, alright? And for the love of Christ, contain the fornication in your own bedroom. We eat food in here.”

Chapter Text

            At first, Wylan didn’t mind Kuwei around the house as often as he was. He usually stayed the night once a week, maybe twice if Jesper was really stressed out. Wylan never saw him come in, but he always saw him leave the flat in the early mornings, newly showered with a grin from here to Timbuktu. Both Jesper and Kuwei acted like there hadn’t been a life-changing shift between the flat dynamic, that them sleeping together didn’t completely change the environment and atmosphere. The less Wylan saw of Kuwei, the better his mood was. Somehow, waking up and knowing your friend and roommate are canoodling less than a hundred yards away can completely ruin your mood.

            After a few weeks, Wylan got irritated. Not at Jesper, not at Kuwei, but at everything. The littlest things set him off, like the coffee machine not making coffee enough, or the dishwasher not washing the dishes plenty through. He found himself digging his fingernails into the palm of his hands as he balled up his fists out of frustrations. So instead of lashing out at the two people making it worse, he directed his anger into his studies, which – surprisingly – worked. Inej made more appearances around the flat as she continued their study buddy dates. Having another person at the apartment made everything easier. The one thing he didn’t enjoy, however, was how she could see the honest truth written all over his face. He knew she was going to bring it up at some point. But did it have to be today of all days?

            This day was the worst compilation of bad things to happen in twenty-four hours since Jesper and Kuwei got together. He woke up late for class, and while he would normally call Kuwei to record their class for him so he didn’t miss anything, he realized Kuwei had slept in as well…right next to Jesper. Just great, he thought sourly to himself as he clamored around the kitchen angrily that morning.

            He decided to go to school anyway to practice by himself in the band room. But after several attempts and sips of mouth-drying water, the piece wasn’t falling together as it usually was. The chords sounded distorted and scattered, the ugly sound echoing off of the emptiness of the room.

            “God da – ” Wylan set the flute down too recklessly, and it tipped off of the table and clanged violently on the floor, the sound ringing in his ears. A silver key had somehow snagged loose off of the flute and flew across the room, disappearing into a mess of lined chairs.

            No, no, no, no, Wylan searched frantically for the shiny button-shaped piece around the legs of the metal chairs, but after ten minutes he gave up completely. He swore into the void of silence and packed his flute with shaking fingers. With a chilling shiver up his spine, he remembered the gentle but scolding voice of his past tutor. Now, what are you going to do with a broken flute, Wylan love? Once it’s broken, you can put it back together, but it will never be the same again. Your music will be thrown off kilter, the notes misplaced and struggling. And we don’t want that, now, do we, poppet? He could practically feel those cold fingertips grasping his chin and slinking down his neck.    

            In the car with the key in the ignition, he picked up his phone and saw a missed call from Nikolai. Even though he didn’t feel like it, he realized Nikolai would’ve shot a text if absolutely necessary, so he returned the call.

            “Hey, Nikki. What’s up?”

            “Hey.” Nikolai’s voice was somber, and the words fell like cold ice in Wylan’s stomach.

            “What’s wrong?”

            “Oh, ah, your dad emailed you a few minutes ago. I thought I should tell you what he said.”

            “Spare me the details. Just give me the gist.” Today was not the day for that.

            “Well, he wants your notes, of course. But he says he didn’t get enough this past month. He thinks you’re…um, slacking. He doesn’t think you’re as on top of your work as you’re telling him you are.”

            Wylan tried to swallow, but the aching feeling in his throat backed up any effort. “Okay. Thank you. For letting me know.”

            “Anytime. Are you going to be alright?”

            “No,” Wylan said. “But I gotta do what I gotta do. Thanks again.”

            “We should hang tomorrow. I’ll keep you company while you study.”

            “Better not? I’m not great to be around right now. Sorry.”

            Nikolai’s voice dripped with understanding. One of the reasons Wylan loved him so much. He never got hurt when Wylan didn’t want to be around him. Nikolai’s personality was something you had to prepare for. “That’s completely fine. Just let me know. Stay safe.”

            “You, too, Nikki. Thanks again.”

            Wylan hung up the phone, waited a beat, and then burst into inexplicable tears.

 

            When he got home, Inej was waiting patiently on his couch; her feet folded underneath her like a lazing kitten. Her hair was let from her usual braid and the ink-black locks cascaded down her shoulder.

            “Hey, where’s Jesper?” Wylan asked, trying his best to sound stable and cheery.

            “He hasn’t been home,” Inej replied. She was reading one of her textbooks and writing down notes in perfect cursive.

             “You…” Wylan set down his flute case. “How’d you get in?”

            When Inej looked at him, there was a glint in her eye that satisfied the question enough. Excellent, I’m friends with a genius acrobatic magician goddess. No big.

            The two of them got to work right away on Wylan’s homework; Inej taking the time to explain the portions of the chapter that Wylan highlighted when he couldn’t comprehend the words’ meaning; Wylan writing down key points to incorporate into future essays. Soon enough, Wylan was up to his eyeballs in sources and relevant information that he could actually understand. He was just surprised he was able to concentrate, given the dark cloud that seemed to be literally storming over his head every minute. He tried to not let it show, but you can’t really fake enthusiasm when you don’t even feel like talking. Then the inevitable was asked.

            “Penny for your thoughts?” she asked quietly, closing her notebook at long last.

            “Hm?” he mumbled, shoving his textbooks back into his backpack.

            “There’s something plaguing your mind. You can talk to me about it if you’d like.”

            “I don’t…” Wylan shook his head. “It’s complicated.”

            “I’m guessing it has something to do with Jesper’s newfound relationship with Kuwei.”

            “Yeah well, ‘relationship’ is a relative term. The correct word is “shacking up”, I believe.”

            “So, it does bother you.”

            Wylan threw his hands up. “How could it not? It’s like if my brother started sleeping with my cousin. It’s weird, and it makes me uncomfortable. Especially if they’re here together.”

            “Does it make you uncomfortable,” Inej asked thoughtfully, “or angry?”

            “I mean…” Wylan tried to put his thoughts in a box to organize and sort through, figuring out what was real and what was fabricated in his head. “It’s just…they’re not good for each other. I don’t know Jesper all that much, but I know this is going to end badly.”

            “Why do you think that?”

            “Because they’re so…similar. But in different ways. You know?”

            Inej shook her head. “I’m not sure I follow.”

            Wylan rubbed his face and dragged his fingers down his cheeks in frustration. “Look, Kuwei is…sensitive and emotional. He gets attached too quickly to people who don’t really care about him. Jesper is reckless…a-and wild, like a natural disaster. He doesn’t think about the things he does, and people end up getting hurt because of it.”

            “That pretty much sums him up,” Inej muttered admittedly.

            “Exactly. And with this…I feel like they’re just using each other as an excuse to exercise their bad habits. Kuwei is going to get attached to Jesper, and Jesper is going to break it off without a lick of remorse. And I’m going to have to hear about it from both sides like I wasn’t the one who called it in the first place.”

            “Why are you so sure Jesper doesn’t truly care about Kuwei?”

            Wylan blinked. The question stumped him. Or was he too embarrassed to think about the answer? Was he paying attention to his flatmate too much?

            “I dunno…” Wylan said slowly, testing the waters to how vulnerable Inej would allow him to be. A small, reassuring smile brushed across her lips and the barest dip of her chin gave him the courage to keep going.

            “When Jesper cares about something – or someone, he changes. Suddenly…he’s focused, and -  and still. He gets passionate, or moody, but never casual. Like…the way he feels about Kaz.”

            Inej sucked in a sharp breath, so quiet Wylan wouldn’t be able to tell if he hadn’t seen her chest stutter so. “Kaz and Jes are…” She smiles, “Complicated.”

            “It’s not that complicated,” Wylan told her. “Jesper was in love with Kaz. Kaz never – and probably will never – feel the same way. I don’t think he’s physically or emotionally capable to feel love at all.” He tried to sound sensitive, but Inej must have already known, surely. Anyone who knew Kaz would know he would scoff at the mere idea of affection, lest anyone mention it.

            “It’s a blessing for a businessman, a curse for a decent human being.” Inej’s eyes were sad, her thumb moving across her knuckles methodically.

            “Right. Anyhow, Jes is still stuck on him. That much is obvious. I’m afraid he’s using Kuwei as an excuse to drown out whatever mushy feelings he’s having.”

            “And what do you think he should do instead?”

            A thought flew into his head so fast, his counter-mind barely had enough time to bat it away. But he had nice mental reflexes, and away it went. So he just shrugged. “Probably see a therapist, honestly.”

            Inej laughed at the dryness of Wylan’s humor. “Oh, saints, he would hate that.”

            Wylan chuckled, too, feeling an immense weight be lifted from his shoulders. “Thank you, Inej. Again.”

            She only clicked her tongue affectionately and placed a gentle hand on his arm. “You can always come to me. For anything. You know that, don’t you?”

            Wylan nodded, feeling oddly teary. “I do. And…” he paused, wondering if he should add on. “And you can come to me, about whatever you’re feeling, and who you feel towards.” Even if that “who” was a cold, conniving con man who had the entire city of Ketterdam wrapped around his finger.

            He could tell the words landed squarely. “I appreciate that, Wylan. I really do.

Chapter Text

            Kuwei was fun.

            That was the most accurate description Jesper could bring himself to use for the boy. He never seemed to be in a bad mood around Kuwei, who was always laughing at his own jokes with the child-like giggle that Jesper had grown to love. He possessed a certain innocence to him that Jesper wished he saw in himself, a virtuous demeanor that made one think that he had not truly seen the horrors and blackened sins of the world like there was always something good happening somewhere. Jesper didn’t know where it came from, but he wished he had it as well.

            Kuwei had an air of pleasantness. Being around him made Jesper feel giddy and foolish, like a little schoolboy with a crush. It didn’t go deeper than that. Kuwei lacked…something, and Jesper couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Sure, being physical with him was the most indulgent thing he could think to do in a time of emotional crisis. It was nice to wake up next to someone – anyone, for that matter. It wasn’t that he was using Kuwei, per say, but there was something about making a person smile as soon as they awake from a slumber that could cover the dark hole in your heart for the rest of the day.

            The issue was Wylan, really. Or maybe the issue was the relationship itself and Jesper was looking for someone to blame other than himself for getting into this. Wylan avoided him nowadays; he could hardly hold proper eye contact without going white in the face. Jesper and Kuwei usually took their business to Kuwei’s apartment, but there were times where it was much more convenient to meet up in Jesper’s.

            Jesper desperately wanted to know what Wylan thought about the whole thing. Why? Lord knows, and Jesper sure didn’t. How would he bring it up without seeming like Wylan’s opinion had a genuine say in the matter? Did it? Eventually, Jesper started avoiding Wylan as well. He went the extra mile to figure out an outline of Wylan’s schedule, and make sure they wouldn’t cross paths when they were home at the same time.

            “What does it matter what Wylan thinks?” Nina asked Jesper, slinking through the rows and rows of clearance clothing, her arm practically bulging from the weight of outfits on her arm.

            “It doesn’t,” Jesper said, checking the price for a pair of lime green checkered slacks.

            “It doesn’t sound that way,” Nina sang, waving her finger knowingly. “I get it, though. Wylan’s your friend, his opinion is important to you.”

            “’Friend’ is a strong word. He’s just my flatmate.”

            Nina cocked an incredulous eyebrow, emitting a low whistle from her red-painted lips. “So that’s what you call it,” she muttered.

            “Call what?”

            “Will this fit me?” Nina held up a plush pastel sweater that was cinched in the waist.

            “Through sheer determination, yes, but I think you can swing it. Stop changing the subject. Wylan and I only hang with its convenient, when we’re both home and both bored. I wouldn’t call that friendship, exactly.”

            “Jesper, if I know anything about friendship, it’s that the idea is not based on how often you spend time together. How many times has Wylan covered your butt whenever you fall short?”

            Fall short. The words stung but if anyone knew more about how disappointing Jesper could be, it was Nina and his other close friends. “More times than I can count.”

            “And how many times have you had to suffer through Wylan’s insufferable grump moods?”

            “A lot, but I’m not sure that counts as going out of my way to be nice. I just ignore him. He does…a lot more for me than I do for him.”

            “Do you plan on changing that anytime soon?”

            “Why are you asking so many questions?”

            Nina sighed deeply, rolling her big brown eyes and placed her hands on her bodacious hips. “Because I already know the answers, you jackass. I just need you to hear them come out of your own mouth so you can wake up and smell the friggin roses.”

            “You’re trying to get me to give myself advice?”

            Nina gave a firm nod. “Exactly.” She punctuated every syllable. “Do you plan on changing anytime soon, for the sake of your ‘flatman-ship’ with Wylan? Is there room for improvement?”

            Jesper shrugged, his shoulders feeling taut and heavy. “I mean, yeah, always. We’re kind of side-stepping each other right now, now that I’m with Kuwei.”

            “Why do you think that is?”

            “Uh,” Jesper scrubbed the back of his tensing neck. “Probably because we really don’t feel like discussing the fact that I’m shanking up his best friend multiple times a week?”

            “That’s true. But I still don’t know why Wylan is upset about it. I mean…he doesn’t have a crush on Kuwei, does he?”

            Jesper opened his mouth to deny but abruptly shut it, his eyebrows pinching in the middle. “I…actually don’t know. They were always casual around each other, but they did spend a lot of time together. Maybe they had a thing once and Wylan’s now the jealous ex.”

            “I would ask if I were you. You have to make sure Wylan isn’t going to cut up your shirts or put itching powder in your underwear drawer. Now enough about your silly flatmate troubles, I need help picking out lingerie. Matthias is getting lucky tonight.”

           

            When Jesper got home later that evening, Wylan was on his perch in the kitchen, legs swinging over the side of the counter, a cup of noodles in his hand. His hair was muddled, his eyes drooping like he just woke up from a nap. He wore a fuzzy blue sweater, the sleeves far longer than his arms to give the illusion of kitten paws. 

            “Hey,” Jesper greeted, waltzing into the kitchen and rummaging for food in the cabinets. He pulled out a Debbie Cake and popped an entire Swiss Cake Roll in his mouth.

            Wylan only emitted a low grunt that Jesper could describe as miserable. Wylan wasn’t even eating his food, just letting the high-sodium steam drifted over his freckles.

            “How are we feeling today?” Jesper asked, his mouth full of chocolate and cream.

            “Fine,” Wylan murmured, shoving his fork into his cup and setting it down, giving up on it completely.

            Ouch. “Sorry.”

            Wylan only rolled his eyes, looking like a 3rd grader with his pout.

            Jesper finished off his snack cakes, sitting himself down at the table, working up the nerve to allow his words to leave the comfort of his own throat. Before he could think, Wylan shoved off the counter in a huff and started for the living room.

            “Wait,” Jesper said suddenly, his mind in a jumbled mess, unable to grasp a single coherent thought.

            Wylan turned sluggishly and gave him an impatient look. “Yeah?”

            “Why are you so pissed off at me?” Turns out, being blunt will get you far. Huh, who knew.

             Wylan’s skin paled and he scratched his arm. “What do you mean?”

            “Don’t pull that with me, kid. You know exactly what I’m talking about.”

            “I’m not pissed off at you.”

            Jesper examined Wylan’s face, his impossibly blue eyes darting back and forth, his lips opening and closing like a fish, words attempting to push forward, but said nothing.

            “Then who are you pissed off at?” Jesper asked him softly. “Kuwei?”

            “Should I be upset with Kuwei?”

            “I mean, you tell me, Wy. Why are you so hung up on the idea of us being a thing?”

            “You’re not a thing,” Wylan spat, and then looked like he immediately redacted that statement. “Sorry,” he stammered, rubbing his forefinger and thumb together. “It’s…nothing, honestly. I’m sorry for being a jerk.”

            He started to walk away.

            “Are you jealous?”

            Wylan turned back around, his face twisted into an expression Jesper couldn’t quite read. “Sorry?” he asked.

            “I said, are you jealous? Of me?”

            “Why would I be jealous of you?”

            “Do you have a thing for Kuwei? Because – honest to God – if you did, I would back off. Just say the word.”

            Wylan sputtered for a good five seconds before anything understandable came out. “That’s…so not what’s happening with me right now. Kuwei is…Kuwei, and I’m me. We would…never – ”

            “That’s what you said last time, so what is it? Did you two used to date or something?”

            Wylan shook his head frantically, waving his hands. “Please, stop. That’s not what this is.”

            Jesper’s eyes widened and he chose his next words slowly and carefully. “Are…are you jealous of Kuwei?”

            There was a light that flashed in Wylan’s eyes, something between defiance and raging frustration, but there was something…something else, flickering behind all of that. Unidentifiable, yet alluring. Then he said, “Are you serious?”

            Jesper’s cheeks flamed warmth. “Just…you’re not making any sense, I’m grasping at straws.

            “Well, don’t. It has nothing to do with you.” His eyesight faltered drastically. Another lie.

            “If you refuse to tell me, you better get over it quick. I miss Wylan. I want my flatmate back, y’know?”

            Guilt flooded Wylan’s features and he bit his lip. “I’m sorry. It’s just” Just. A buffer word Jesper knew all too well. The passive-aggressive’s way out. “It’s just personal stuff. My…dad and stuff. School.”

            Jesper nodded slowly. “Ah. Anything I can help with?”

            Wylan smiled, small and warm, and the room lit up. “Thanks, for…being concerned. It means a lot. I promise though, I just have to get out of this funk. I guess it’s something only I’ve had to live with.” He gave a shuddery sigh. “I didn’t know it bothered you that much. It’ll be over soon.”

            The words rung distorted in Jesper’s ears. Did Wylan have scheduled mental breakdowns twice a month? Was there a due date for his recovery? Jesper was at a loss.

            “I’ll just be happy to see you back to your normal self. You don’t look good when you’re grumpy.”

            Wylan’s lips quirked and for a moment, he nearly looked like himself. “I thought you said I looked cute when I was angry.”

            “Don’t blow my cover, kid, I’m trying to make a point.”

 

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

           

            Wylan’s mood changed.

            He wasn’t sure what messed up therapeutic crap Jesper pulled on him, but it worked. He started each day with a kick, and hardly even noticed whenever Kuwei snuck a kiss from Jesper in the mornings. He took more notes at his father’s request, Alina and Nikolai’s relationship stabilized which meant Nikolai was in a better mood, back to his old self, and Wylan got his flute repaired. Jesper still flirted and teased, Kuwei and Wylan began to hang out again, and Inej continued to help Wylan study. Things were going okay. Life was okay.

            It was around this time where things, once again like clockwork, began to sour.

Chapter Text

            The front door flew open and Jesper jumped a nearly, his spine straightening at the sound of the door bouncing off of the opposite wall. Water from the soapy sink splashed around the faucet as he recovered from the suddenness. Is this the nonsense that Wylan always had to put up with? He would think twice next time he came home from work.

            “Jesus,” Jesper gasped, eyeing the figure in the doorway. Kaz Brekker.

            Jes’s breath caught in his throat. He was not expecting Kaz today, a Sunday. God’s day.

He was also achingly aware of Kaz’s clothes, a disheveled dress shirt, sleeves rolled with suspenders, slacks, gloves. His dark hair was unkempt like he had done nothing but run his fingers through it moments before, wet from the downpour outside. Jesper’s eyes trained on Kaz’s lip, a new cut blossoming there. What did Kaz get into this time?

             “I’m close,” Kaz announced in his guttural voice. “I’m so very close, Jes.”

            Jesper dragged his hands out of the water and wiped them on a drying cloth. “Close to what? And can you please not barge in here? I have neighbors.”

            Kaz paid no heed to Jesper’s comment. He grasped a dining room chair and straddled it backward, his arms crossing over the top rail, his cane on the floor now. His eyes were fiery, excited and wild. Kaz Brekker was onto something.

            “Before I go on, is there anything you need to tell me about Wylan? His mood, his schedule?”

            Jesper rolled his eyes and took a seat across from Kaz. “He’s been better lately. When Kuwei and I got together, he was in a really bad place.” Kaz’s eyebrow cocked at Kuwei’s name but failed to make a comment. “But we talked about it, and he said it was mostly just issues with his dad. Why?”

            “Stop asking why. Just be patient.” Kaz cracked his knuckles, working his jaw. “He’s having more troubles with his dad?”

            “I guess so,” Jesper shrugged. “That’s what he told me.”

            “Hmm,” was all Kaz said for a long while.

            “For the love of Christ, will you tell me what you’re thinking right now so I don’t have to guess?”

            Kaz cut him a sharp killer look, but relented. “I’m in.”

            “’In’? In where?”

            “Van Eck. I’m on the inside.”

            “Jesus, Kaz, what the heck are you talking about?”

            “I’ve hacked him. His personal files, his billing accounts, his bank statements, his emails, his mobile devices, almost everything.”

            Hacked? Is that why Kaz had been asking Jesper for personal information on Wylan? To get into one of the biggest businessmen in the continent? This was bigger than just spying on a flatmate. Bigger than Kaz.

            “Kaz…” Jesper pinched the bridge of his nose briefly. “What’re you doing?”

            “I’m taking him down.”

            “By yourself?”

            “Of course not,” Kaz said like the mere proposition was tomfoolery. “I normally don’t work with teams, but there are people with me in on this. We’re so close, Jes.” And Kaz smiled. A child’s gleeful grin, like a seven-year-old stepped foot in a candy shop, eyes gleaming with mischief.

            “What…ehm, what do you intend to do, once you’ve hacked this man? What has he done wrong?” Jesper’s head was pounding. Who was Kaz Brekker? What exactly was he capable of? And why was he telling Jesper this? Jesper wondered how much information Kaz was actually going to share with him. Why did he drop a crazy-bomb like this on a Sunday? What did weekends ever do to him? There were too many questions, Jesper’s head throbbed and spun.

            “The questions what hasn’t he done wrong? This man did not get to the top because he was genuine and kosher. He’s an abuser, a con man. We believe he’s involved in arms dealing, as well as a major drug cartel off the coast.”

            Drugs? Artillery? This information was dangerous.

            “Why are you telling me this? You never tell me anything, what’s changed?”

            “I need your help.”

            “No.”

            Kaz blinked but was otherwise unfazed. “This could be huge, Jes. I don’t think you understand the magnitude.”

            “Oh, I understand plenty. But I don’t want in your business, Kaz. Not anymore. I’ve lost too much.”

            Kaz’s features darkened, the joyful light leaving his coffee-brown eyes. “What you’ve lost is not on me. That was your own lacking.”

            “Insulting me isn’t helping, Brekker.”

            “I just need your help with identifying these codes. I know you’re aware of everything there is to know about legal and illegal arms dealing, military or otherwise. You can help me crack this. The pay is…beyond anything you and I have ever come close to.”

            “I’m not about that life anymore. I…I have people, that I need to look out for. That I can’t let down. You know that.”

            Kaz leaned back, stretching out his bad leg. “Your father?”

            Jesper nodded grimly. “Among others.”

            “This isn’t like you.”

            “This isn’t like you, Kaz.”

            Kaz’s eyes scanned the linoleum. “It’s more me than you realize. Since when are you too good for us?”

            By “us”, Brekker meant the old gang. Specht, Pim, Keeg, Anika, the others. A ragtag team of hackers, thugs, hoodlums pulled from every crevice in the city, whose joint knowledge could raise an entire generation.

            “I can’t risk it anymore, man. There’s too much at stake.”

            “I know you, and I know you love a good wager more than anyone else I know.”

            Jesper’s fingers twitched. His cover had been blown right off; Kaz could read him like a book. His stomach lurched at the thought of taking this risk, putting his entire future on the line for something not so legal for Kaz. It felt almost too good to be true, and  Jesper knew that’s exactly what it was. The same reason Jesper lusted after it so much, his mouth practically watered.

            “Kaz…” Jesper’s voice came out strained as he physically restricted himself from agreeing. “You’re my vice.”

            The dark-eyed boy’s face stayed neutral, but Jesper could see the words bothered more than he let on. “How so?”

            “You’re…the human embodiment of every immoral bone I have in my body. I can’t…be around you without…”

            Kaz’s voice was quiet. “Without what?”

            Jesper refused to finish the thought. “I can’t…I truly can’t. Drop me if you want, but I’m…I can’t help you this time. I have a streak and there’s a lot riding on it.”

            “There’s no turning on this, you know. This is your final answer.” They both knew it was a lie. They both knew that two, three, four days from now, Jesper could call Kaz and give in, as simple as that, and he’d be on board.

            Take it, take it, take the friggin’ offer, Jesper’s mind screamed at him. The temptation was almost too good. A simple job, just decipher some codes, break some laws, get the money, and you’re home free.

            It’s never that simple, said a meek voice in the very back of Jesper’s head. The words were nearly silent, but they rang off the walls, gaining in sound.

            “I…” Jesper dragged a single hand down his mouth, rubbing his chin. His skin crawled with a million fire ants; his shirt was filled with itching powder. His body was a ticking time bomb, and Kaz was the red wire. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” Jesper choked. “Please.”

            Ka stood, leaning lightly on his cane. “You’re making a mistake.”

            Jesper rubbed his temples. “I know.”

            When the door closed behind Kaz, Jesper punched the table hard with his fist. “Godda-” Jesper grit his teeth so hard his jaw ached. His skin felt like it was peeling off.

            He called his father.

 

            Colm Fahey was overjoyed with the news: Jesper was coming home from Spring Break, a week and a half of the early morning haze, the breeze that flows through the jurda fields, the purest blue of the sky. Neither of them could contain their impatience. Getting out of work was going to be a pain in the neck, but Jesper figured he could swing it.

            He began packing immediately. He had to get out. As far away from Kaz and his offer as possible.

           

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

 

            “Jesper and Kuwei are still together?” Alina asked sourly.

            “Yeah, why?” Wylan propped his shin on his palm. The group had assembled at bakery café to study, but they had been separated for so long, all the textbooks and notes had stayed tucked in their backpacks the entire lunch.

            “Jesper is just an elaborate coping mechanism” Nikolai sang, taking a huge bite of his bread roll.

            Wylan chuckled. “You say it like Kuwei is mental. He’s probably going to fall for Jes and Jes is gonna dump him. That’s usually how friends with benefits end up.”

            “How would you know?” Wylan asked.

            “That’s what Mal and I were,” Alina explained. “But he wanted to date, and I didn’t.”

            Nikolai nodded. “Mal is an extremely sentimental person. I can’t blame him for falling for you.” He took Alina’s hand in his and pressed her knuckles to his lips.

            Wylan assumed their relationship troubles were over for the time being.

            “Oh, Wylan,” Nikolai frowned. “I thought I should tell you. Your father sent another email.”

            Wylan’s stomach plummeted. He gripped his fork tightly and gave his pasta a stab. “It hasn’t been two full weeks yet.”

            “He was…ehm, asking you if you were visiting for spring break.” Which meant he was telling Wylan to visit or else.

            “No, obviously,” Alina said simply, eyeing Wylan.

            Wylan shook his head. “Absolutely not.” I’ll think about it.

            “I thought you ought to respond yourself to the email yourself. I wouldn’t want him suspecting someone else was doing it.”

            That meant he was going to have to write an entire email. Right when things were starting to look up.

            “Why does he even want you there if you’re both going to be miserable the whole time?” Alina pouted.

            “Because he’s willing to suffer if it means I will as well.” Wylan bit his thumbnail. “Thank you for telling me, Nikki.”

            Nikolai looked as if there had been a death in the family. “Anytime.”

 

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

           

            Kuwei groaned, flopping his arm over his eyes. “I can’t believe you’re going to be gone for a whole two weeks.”

            Jesper leaned over and kissed Kuwei’s shoulder. “A week and a half, technically. And it won’t be that bad.”

            “I know,” Kuwei said. “I’m just going to be lonely.”

            “Yeah, me too. I’m worried about Wylan, too.”

            Kuwei cast him a hesitant eyebrow. “Why?”

            “I’m afraid he’s going to get moody when I’m gone and I’m going to come home to a goblin landfill because he didn’t clean up after himself.”

            “Oh well, I don’t know if you’re going to have to worry about that.”

            “Huh?”

            “Wylan usually goes over to his dad’s place every spring break.”

            Jesper attempted to sit up straight but the couch had already swallowed him. “He can’t do that, why would he go?”

            Kuwei shrugged. “He probably won’t this year. But Jan always seems to talk him into it.”

            “That can’t happen this year.”

            “Why not?”

            “Uh, maybe because his dad is the scum of the Earth?”

            “That’s true, but it’s ultimately Wylan’s decision.”

            A sour feeling started to rummage in Jesper’s gut. “So, you’d just let him go back?”

            “If Wylan thought it best, then yes.”

            “That’s messed up.” Jesper didn’t know much about crummy parents but he did know that the kid should avoid the toxic environment at all costs. This was dangerous.

 

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

 

            “Are you planning on going back to your dad’s house over break?”

            The mug of tea slipped out of Wylan’s hand and clattered onto the kitchen floor, thankfully not breaking, but splattering hot tea all over their ankles.

            “Mother- ” Jesper lunged at the towels on the drying rack and dropped onto his knees.

            “How…do you even know about that?” Wylan asked weakly.

            “Kuwei said you usually go every year.” Jesper grimaced as he mopped up the scalding hot liquid, the heat seeping to his skin.

            “I was thinking about it,” Wylan said defensively.

            “Well, don’t.” The mess was gone, so Jesper got to his feet.

            Wylan blinked. “What do you mean, ‘don’t’?

            “Meaning you shouldn’t go.”

            Wylan snatched the towel out of Jesper’s hand and threw it onto the counter. “That’s not for you to decide.”

            “What? So, you’re telling me everything you’ve told me about your father was a lie?”

            “No.” Wylan felt heat flicker across his cheeks. “But he’s still my dad.”

            Jesper shook his head. “Unbelievable.” He started to walk out of the kitchen.

            “Look,” Wylan called after him. “I don’t expect you to understand. My dad sucks, but he’s all I have.”

            “No, he’s not,” Jesper said hopelessly.

            “What?”

            For once, Jesper looked at a loss for words, like he wouldn’t be able to recall the last thing he said. “I just don’t think it’s a good idea.”

            Wylan had had it up to here with Jesper putting in his two cents. “I’m flattered that you’re “worried” enough to give unsolicited advice, but I’m an adult. I can handle myself.” And with that, he stormed up to his room and slammed the door.

 

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

 

            About an hour passed before Jesper gained the courage to knock on Wylan’s bedroom door. After a few beats, he heard a grunt that could be interpreted as a general “come in” noise. So he turned the knob silently and stepped in.

            Wylan was sprawled out, face-down on his bed, his frail arms wrapped around his pillow. His golden-red curls looked like a static mop on top of his head, shining in the afternoon sunlight that filtered through the window.

            “How ya doin’, sunshine?” Jesper asked, only half-joking.

            Wylan moaned as he rolled onto his back. His pure-blue eyes were trained on the ceiling. “Leave me alone to die,” he whimpered, only half-joking himself.

            Jesper set himself at Wylan’s socked feet. For a few moments, he busied himself with feeling the fabric of Wylan’s bed sheets, keeping quiet.

            “What do you want, Jesper,” Wylan said, his voice uncharacteristically monotone.

            “Oh, uh,” Jesper tugged nervously at the hem of Wylan’s jeans. “I wanted to apologize. About before.”

            “Oh.” At this, Wylan sat up, pushing his hair back.

            “It wasn’t…I had no right to tell you what to do. Sorry.”

            Wylan nodded. “Thanks. But I don’t blame you for not understanding.”

            Jesper thought of his father’s broad, freckled smile, his striking red sideburns, the crumpled hat in his meaty hands. “Yeah, I don’t.”

            “I don’t…” Wylan’s eyes grew sad. “I don’t like it any more than you do. But it’s just a week. And he’ll hardly even pay attention while I am there. I usually just end up walking around town, visiting old friends. I’ll manage.”

            “I’m just – ”

            “Worried, I know.” Wylan adjusted himself to where he was seated next to Jesper on the edge of the bed. “I haven’t even told Nikki and Alina because they will physically restrain me until spring break is over. They’ll tie me up and gag me, I swear.”

            “I dunno, that wouldn’t be so bad,” Jesper said smoothly, flicking one of Wylan’s curls. “I wouldn’t mind seeing you in a little bondage.”

            Wylan went as red as a beat as he shoved away from Jesper. “You heathen,” he choked out, laughing nervously as Jesper cackled. “Can’t you be serious for once?”

            “I can, I swear.” Jesper’s chest shuddered out the last chuckle. “I wish, though, that you could meet my dad. He’d love you.”

            Wylan was quiet for a moment, his fingertips brushing across his faint freckles. “I’d like to meet him, someday. He sounds great.”

            “He…He really is. You guys both have red hair, did you know that?”

            Wylan’s head snapped up from his lap. “Red hair? What?”

            Jesper looked at him curiously. “Yes. Red hair. You’re not a scientific miracle, Wy.”

            “No, I know…but…do…they usually…I mean…” Wylan grew red once more.

            “My dad’s not black if that’s what you’re wondering.”

            “Oh, so you’re - ”

            “Not adopted, no. I’m mixed, my mom was black. Don’t let my inky complexion confuse you.”

            Wylan chuckled, “Yeah, okay. I guess I should have asked at some point.”

            “Some people just enjoy the chocolatey goodness of my skin to be an enigma,” Jesper cooed, sliding a long finger down the bridge of Wylan’s nose and tapped the tip of it.

            “You’re such an idiot,” Wylan said, giving him a genuine smile that could power an entire city and Jesper nearly had to squint to look him straight in the face. Jesper was suddenly incredibly aware of the closeness of the two of them, their shoulders and thighs touching. Surely there was a vast amount of room on the bed. But Jesper didn’t mind. Not one bit. Jesper realized this was the closeness he craved so often. It had manifested inside of him so deep, half of the time he didn't realize it's why he was so irritated with Kaz at random times. It was something about the actual human contact that made Jesper feel whole. The room was light, but Jesper was filled with something lighter.  

Chapter Text

            Wylan felt like his whole body was on fire. Not necessarily a burning sensation, no. More like every nerve ending in his body was a writhing creature of pain, like those weird cheap fireworks at every Fourth of July festival that squeals and shrivel after they burst. The roaring of blood rushed in his ears at all times. He felt like a little kid at the dry cleaners, crouched in front of the washing machine, in awe of how so many things could tumble out of control, yet be compacted into such a small space. Yeah…this felt exactly like that.

            There was a new air around Jesper, which made Wylan even more nervous than what God had originally bestowed him with. Despite still being shag buddies with Kuwei, Jesper and his quips had been verging on the more flirty side of the spectrum on the scale of obnoxiousness. It was nice that he wasn’t insulting all the time, but Wylan wondered if all the blood in his body was rushing to rest right under his cheeks and neck rather than powering his organs like his lungs or his friggin’ heart. He felt as though he couldn’t take a breath without Jesper being right there, paying attention to him and asking how he was feeling on that particular day. Jesper was always there. Around the house, around Wylan’s head (for whatever reason). He was like...a machine, alive... Always cranking out words and movement and breath. It was like everyone else was a statue and Jesper was...

        Wylan wasn’t sure. He didn’t think about much when he was like this.

 

            On one fateful day that made everything far worse, Wylan was typing away on his laptop, trying to figure out the English alphabet for the fourteenth time in a single hour. His earbuds were in and classical music blasted in his ears. The cold was creeping through the house and into his room and the baby pink sweater he had on was not cutting it. Wylan tried to concentrate on reading one single sentence, but his eyes kept finding new threads in his comforter to pick at, and his hands were too pale and shakey to do anything. He could hear the shower turning off from across the hall and wondered if Jesper was in a good mood. A bone-rattling shiver ran down his spine. He decided he didn’t care.

             “Jes?” he called hesitantly, then tried again. “Jesper!”

        He heard footsteps approaching and stopping in his doorframe. Foolishly keeping his head down, Wylan began, “Hey, would you mind - ” but when he looked up, at last, all words fell to the ground and sunk through the floor.

        Jesper was standing in Wylan’s doorway, with nothing but a loose towel hung low on his hips. He was dripping wet from the shower and Wylan could literally see the steam rising off of his ebony skin. His skin was pulled tightly over his taut muscles, goosebumps forming over the top, probably because it was pretty freaking cold.

        Or...at least it was until Wylan felt his mind empty completely and he could only focus on the way Jesper’s abdominal muscles rippled as he chuckled, his shoulder muscles pulling and stretching even when he was still, and the etched lines on his hips that led down to...

        Wylan’s mouth suddenly went dry as he realized he was staring for too long. He tried desperately tried to remember what he wanted. Wasn’t he cold? Wylan certainly wasn’t now, he could feel the heat creeping up his chest and neck, and it was soon too warm to manage.

        “Could you....” Wylan tried again, then shook his head and closed his eyes. Out of sight, out of mind. “It’s freezing. Could you turn on the heat?”

        Jesper laughed out loud, and Wylan probably wouldn’t be able to speak for the next week, his throat was so dry. “I think I just did.”

        Wylan rolled his eyes and whined. “Pretty please? I’m a-shakin’ like a leaf in a hurricane.”

        Jesper hitched his towel up, which only made it slip further and Wylan was going to hell. “Of course, your majesty. How could I let my prince die of hypothermia? What kind of servant would I be?”

        Wylan smiled softly. “Thank you, my noble steed.”

        Things got a little better after that.

 

 

            Things like that occurred a bit more frequently and it confused Wylan. He was too nervous about his father to do anything or even think about it too hard. He worried it was going to be just as bad as he imagined it would be to be there again, or far worse. He had officially agreed to spend seven days in the Van Eck house for spring break. A horrible decision, really. But when you’re deciding on whether to shoot yourself in the head or to slowly bleed out for the rest of your miserable life (however long that may be), you’d want it to be over sooner than later.

            That’s garbage logic, Wylan thought to himself.

            It was almost a week until he flew to his father’s home and his nerves had capitulated into numbness. All the anxiety built up until it canceled out into nothingness.

            That is, until six days before he had to leave and his phone rang with an urgency that Wylan didn’t comprehend until he answered.

             Somewhere, in the back of his mind, the phone rang. And then Wylan Van Eck, Screw-Up Extraordinaire, managed to make four big mistakes in less than half a minute. The first problem was that he picked up the phone without looking. If he had looked, for even a peek, he would’ve seen that the caller ID was blocked. Without this historic slip-up, none of the other mistakes made down the line would have been made possible.

            “Heyo,” Wylan mumbled into the phone.

            “Wylan.”

            Wylan blinked. Then he blinked again, his hand tightening around the phone. He felt cold pooling into his stomach, like a liquid nitrogen leak.

            “Dad,” he choked. It wasn’t as much as an acknowledgment as it was a “please, God, tell me I’m wrong”, giving the caller their last chance to debunk this nightmare.

            But the caller didn’t. Instead, he said, “I’m sorry?” Strike one.

            “Sir,” Wylan corrected. Jan Van Eck never accepted casual authority.

            “I’m glad you picked up. Is now a bad time?”

            Despite the tone change in the last syllable, his father was not asking a question. He was ever-so-generously giving Wylan time to drop everything he was doing right at that moment.

            “No, it’s fine,” Wylan practically gagged out. His father was silent, but Wylan could hear the cold front drifting through the phone. “Sir,” he finished. Strike two.

            “I hope you’re all packed for your trip in three days,” his father said. Wylan felt his heart stop completely.

            “Excuse me?”

            “Excuse you?” Strike three. You’re out.

            Wylan knew the conversation was now officially in the hands of his father before the boy even had time to gather his wits about him. He felt like he should be cleaning up - like his father could send the clutter of his bedroom through the phone. He probably could.

            “Pardon, sir, but th-three days? I thought I left in a week?”

            “Surely four days difference will not be the end of the world. When do your classes end?” There was raw challenge in his voice.

            Wylan hung his head, shielding his eyes. Then he realized his father wasn’t even looking at him. “Three...three days,” he said.

 

            “As I foretold. Upon arrival,” his father continued, “Gustov will provide you with a daily itinerary of your week spent here. Do you understand?”

            There was that implication again. It sent the hairs on the back of Wylan’s neck straight up. I know what a freaking itinerary is, he wanted to say, but wouldn’t even dream of it. He needed to work on retraining his mouth to remember how to keep silent at all costs.

            “Yes.”

            “Yes?” There was a thick provocation in his tone.

            Wylan swallowed thickly, feeling his eyes burn. “Yes, sir.”

            “Thank you.” There was a tense pause. “And Wylan, dear,” said his father’s voice soft and smooth, like paint over wood. An illusion of comfort. “Do try and be on your best behavior. A lot is riding on your presentation. Don’t screw this up.” And he hung up without waiting for a reply, leaving Wylan with a horribly aching feeling in his chest.

            He set down the phone with a shaking hand, his fingers violently jerking to the point of genuine concern. He clasped his hands together tightly and shoved them into his lap, trying desperately to calm his rapid heartbeat.

            Jesper took it upon himself to come into the room at that very moment, bustling with his endless life and energy. Wylan ran his hands over his cheeks to get rid of any stray tears and forced his chest to still, hold my breath till I’m blue, he vowed.

            “Hey, what’s the haps?” Jesper crowed casually, plopping himself on the couch.

            Wylan mustered up the acting skills he had accumulated over the years. He smiled and stretched, “Ah, nothing. Procrastinating my packing until last minute.”

            Jesper grinned and kicked off his shoes. “Wanna play something? I’m free for the next hour until work.”

            Wylan was sure if he unclasped his hands, they would tremble right off his wrists and skitter away like spiders. But he stifled his panicked tears and nodded loosely. “Sure thing. What do you want to play?”

            Jesper got up and walked over the television, kneeling to pull out a disk from the TV stand drawer. “I think a good ol’ fashioned game of Super Mario Smash Bros.”

            Wylan groaned. “Oh, god, really? You just can’t help getting creamed, can you?”

            “Oh, that depends,” Jesper popped the disk in and tossed Wylan a controller and sat down next to him, a little too close. “What kinda “cream” we talkin’ here?”

            Wylan elbowed Jesper hard in the ribs and started the game, feeling the panic slowly diminish from his throat.

 

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

           

            Kuwei shivered on top of Jesper, pressing his lips fiercely against the latter’s. Jesper held the boy at his waist, slipping his hand under the fabric and feeling the goosebumps that lined Kuwei’s skin. He nudged Kuwei’s head up and went towards his neck, pressing his mouth and tongue into the velvet of his skin. Kuwei gasped softly and Jesper caught the dip in his throat with his lips, grazing his teeth ever-so-lightly.

            The movement was lazy and tired, early-morning makeout sessions that Jesper enjoyed so much (with anyone, really). He didn’t even focus on anything; he allowed his mind to wander as his body moved as it should and bringing Kuwei closer and closer until the space between them was nonexistent.

            All of that was instantly ripped away with Kuwei pulled back, crawling off of Jesper and cursing under his breath. His skin was still flushed and his cheeks popped cherry pink, his black hair tousled by Jesper’s own hands. He knelt on the bed in front of Jesper and covered his face with his hands.

            “Wha-what’s the matter?” Jesper asked, sitting up with his back against the headboard.

            Kuwei whimpered, his facial expression hesitant. “I can’t…” He struggled to find the words. “I want this too much.”

            “Oh?” Jesper sat up straighter. “I don’t have work until this afternoon, so – ”

            Kuwei gave a sad guffaw, so it came out more like a slight sob. “No, that’s…not what I meant.”

            “Did something happen?”

            “I just…” Kuwei whined. “I can’t do this anymore.”

            Jesper ran a hand down Kuwei’s forearm. “It’s okay, you can talk to me.”

            “This needs to end.”

            Swallowing the thickness in his throat, Jesper nodded. “Alright. Um…can I ask why?”

            Kuwei shook his head pitifully. “Because I’m an idiot, maybe?”

            “Hush, don’t say that. What’s up?”

            Kuwei flopped back onto his pillow and crossed his arm over his eyes. “I really messed up.”

            Jesper adjusted so he was propped on his elbows, facing Kuwei with concern. He waited patiently for him to go on.

            “I…” Kuwei swallowed and chuckled, “Chikushō! I really like you, alright?”

            Jesper had already guessed this was the case, but it still put a lump in his throat. “Okay.”

            “I’m sorry,” Kuwei said, pulling his fingers down his face. “I promised myself I wouldn’t catch feelings for you because I knew it was going to happen if we got involved in any way and – ”

            “Kuwei, it’s okay, you don’t…have to apologize. Honestly, I’m honored to hold your affection.” Jesper moved closer to him, allowing Kuwei to snuggle close to his chest.

            “I know,” Kuwei said quietly. “I just know you don’t feel the same way.”

            He sounded so tired that Jesper wished more than anything he didn’t have to say it out loud. But Kuwei didn’t deserve to be lied to. “I don’t,” Jesper confessed. “I’m sorry.”

            Kuwei smiled and playfully patted him. “Hey, if I’m not allowed to apologize, neither are you, dummy.”

            “I care about you, just not the way you want me to.”

            The boy sat up in search for his shirt. “You don’t have to explain, I get it.” He pulled his shirt on and turned back to Jesper. “But it’s best to take a step back from this, yes?”

            Jesper nodded, “It’s for the best. Still friends?”

            Kuwei gave him a mischievous look. “You can’t get rid of me that easily, pretty boy.” He turned to get out of bed, but before he could, Jesper gave a rough tug on the hem of his shirt and he turned back around.

            “It was nice,” admitted Jesper, looking him square in the eye. “While it lasted.”

            Kuwei nodded and gave him a small smile. Then he leaned over and pressed one more lingering kiss to Jesper’s lips.

            In hindsight, Jesper knew that what they had would never last for long. But he was going to miss the feeling that Kuwei gave him. He was something familiar, filling Jesper (no innuendo intended) with an emotion he didn’t know he needed until it was gone. He wondered what, or who would take that place once it was vacant.

            Kuwei left, but Jesper stayed in his bed for another half hour, puzzled over why he felt so lonely. He wondered if he had somehow developed feelings for Kuwei along the way, without realizing. If I did, Jesper finally decided, I would have asked him out by now.

             That logic certainly didn’t apply to everyone.

 

            When he gained the energy, at last, he walked into the kitchen with dehydrated marshmallows on his mind and began to rummage in the pantry for Marshmallow Mateys. When he closed the cabinet door, Wylan was suddenly there, appearing out of what seemed like thin air.

            “Saints, Wylan,” Jesper gasped. “You nearly killed me.”

            “Wimp,” Wylan chuckled. He was wearing his patented blue sweater that made his eyes seem out of this world. He was wearing his septum piercing and fuzzy socks, looking adorably warm. He also looked slightly different, but Jesper couldn’t tell how.

            “Kuwei told me,” Wylan said suddenly, handing Jesper a bowl. “I’m sorry.”

            Jesper shrugged, feeling itchy around his ears and shoulders. “It’s alright.” He should have left it at that but instead: “You all knew it was going to happen anyways, you don’t have to fake your sympathy.”

            It came out harsher than originally intended. And Wylan looked hurt.

            “We didn’t want it to happen, Jes,” he said quietly. When Jesper looked over at him, he looked exhausted, like he really wasn’t in the mood to argue. Of course, Jesper only realized this piece of information after the fact.

            “It’s rude to talk about people behind their backs.”

            Wylan’s face crumpled. “We weren’t…gossiping about you. It’s not a big deal.”

            “Well, I hope all of my friends are happy with the prophecy that’s been foretold. You can all go home now, the show is over.”

            Wylan kept his fists by his sides. “Don’t be a jackass, Jesper. Kuwei is my friend and so are you. I didn’t want to see either of you getting hurt.”

            Jesper frowned. “I’m not hurt.”

            “Then why are you stress-eating cereal and acting so butthurt all of a sudden?”

            Jesper wished he knew, but just looking at Wylan and his unrelenting sense of innocence and determination made him angry for some reason.

            “Do you want to be with Kuwei still?” Wylan asked delicately.

            “No.” The raw truth.

            “Then – ”

            “Because we shouldn’t have happened in the first place!” Jesper exclaimed.

            Wylan cocked his head to the side, an invitation to allow Jesper to elaborate.

             Jesper took a deep breath. “I just…I feel like if we never hooked up in the first place, it would have saved me and him a lot of trouble. I…didn’t want to hurt him.”

            Wylan walked a little closer to him. “You didn’t hurt him. Kuwei gets himself into situations where there’s no retreat, so in a way, he hurt himself. He can’t control who he likes, though.”

            “You seem to know him pretty well.”

            Wylan eyed him strangely, shrugging. “I mean, he’s my closest friend. I know him more than anyone else.”

            Jesper felt an unidentifiable flash of irritation again. “Maybe I’m upset we wasted each other’s time. We should have been focusing on different things.”

            “Like what?” Wylan looked at him with curious eyes.

            Jesper wondered if his silence was answer enough. He also wondered if Wylan’s expression was understanding or uncertainty, his eyebrows knitted slightly in the middle, his teeth toying with his bottom lip. Focusing on his face caused a realization to fly into his head.

            “Glasses,” he fathomed under his breath, shaking his head and feeling silly.

            “What?”

            “You’re wearing your glasses. I didn’t notice them before.” He smiled to himself. “You look cute.” He took his bowl of cereal up to his room, leaving Wylan in the dead quiet of the kitchen.

 

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

           

            A black BMW was parked in the front of the apartment complex, ominously like the Spirit of Death, awaiting Wylan’s surrender. Wylan had packed his bags, his secret easel and paints for when things got really stressful, and his flute. He tried to gain the courage to descend down the complex’s steps and get into that vessel of suffering. It was 4:03 pm, and Wylan knew that if he didn’t get down there in the next five minutes, Gustav would be obligated to call Van Eck and report his son’s tardiness.

            Jesper walked into the kitchen and set an object on the table. “You forgot these in the bathroom.”

            Wylan snapped out of his head and looked at the glasses Jesper had been holding. “Oh!” he fumbled with them and put them on, adjusting them with shaking hands. “Thanks.”

            Jesper waited for a beat. “You okay?”

            Wylan released a shuddered breath and flexed his hands. “Yep,” he chuckled sarcastically.

            “If it makes you this on edge, then – ”

            “No,” Wylan cut in, standing up. “I have to go. If I cancel now, my dad will send a sniper to kill us both.”

            Jesper cocked an eyebrow. “I don’t doubt that for a second.”

            Wylan shook his head, “Neither do I.”

            “Well,” Jesper looked around and clapped his hands absentmindedly. “I guess I won’t see you for a bit.”

            Wylan nodded solemnly. “I hope you have a great time with your dad. Only tell him the good stuff about me.”

            “That’s all there is,” Jesper quipped with a blinding smile. Then he frowned thoughtfully and said, “Look, if things get too bad, or if you just need someone to talk to, hit me up okay? I definitely won’t be busy for the next week. Okay?”

            Definitely not. “Absolutely.”

            “I’m in your corner, kid.” Jesper grabbed two of Wylan’s bags and winked. “Come on, I wanna meet your rich-man-Uber.”

            Twenty minutes later, Wylan was feeling the crisp leather of the car’s seating. Gustov sat in the front, driving perfectly on the highway. He was Wylan’s driver and escort, usually to aid Wylan in getting to one place or another without getting lost or hurt. He was a short man with a military air and an eye patch. Despite his stature, his shoulders were impossibly broad and built sturdily. Any person seeing him would be instantly intimidating, but Wylan knew he was just a sweetheart on the inside. He appeared much older than Wylan expected; salt-and-pepper hair slicked back and a driver’s cap on top, wrinkles around his mouth and forehead, and a wise twinkle in his brown eye. Had it really been that long?

            “How have things been at the university, Master Wylan?” he called from the wheel.

            Wylan stopped tinkering with his phone and looked at his friend through the rearview mirror. “Things have been okay. School is pretty intense, but I’ve been managing.”

            “That’s good to hear,” Gustov said with a broad smile.

            Wylan felt bad about lying. He used to tell his personal staff most things about his life, mostly because he had no other friends or parental figures to tell. But as he got older, he realized his father only pretended not to care about his life, while in reality, his father kept more tabs on him than deemed necessary.

            When they arrived at one of Van Eck several building branches, Wylan was escorted to the top of the building, where a running helicopter was waiting. Wylan had to squint and push his hair out of his face to navigate, air blowing dust and leaves every which way.

            Wylan didn’t remember much of the ride at all. His body had come under such an immense pressure that he felt displaced in reality. It felt like zoning out, except much more prominent, like he was filled with nothing but air. At some point, his soul clocked in for a moment and he found himself on the private jet his father had requested for him. Gustov sat in a seat across the aisle from him, accepting a flute of champagne from the attendant. The woman came over to Wylan and offered him the menu, but Wylan politely declined, knowing he wouldn’t be able to hold anything down for the rest of the week.

            He couldn’t recall falling asleep, but when he was awoken, Gustov showed him to the exit, where they were taken to another BMW, along with his luggage. Wylan felt like his head was crammed with rocks, worthless and yet so terribly achy. The panic had subsided into silent mayhem inside his chest, wreaking havoc on his lungs. Gustov tried to make conversation, but Wylan wasn’t sure what he was saying because the ringing in his ears was too loud.

            He heard gravel popping under the tires of the car and forced himself to look out the window instead of into his lap. There it was. Van Eck Manor.

            It was a huge mansion, with threatening black gates and a great fountain in the courtyard in front of the main house. The BMW curved beautifully around the fountain and right in front of the stone steps that led to the mahogany double doors. Wylan felt his chest clench for the millionth time that day, feeling a wave of nausea overwhelm his senses.

            “Here we are, Master Wylan,” the driver announced, opening the door for him. Wylan got out, and nearly keeled over. His knees were shaking so badly he could hardly walk.

            “Everything is going to be alright,” Gustov said quietly, putting a firm arm around Wylan to help him up. “Your father has been looking forward to this, no need to be nervous.”

            “Have you met Jan?” Wylan muttered bitterly. He never called him “father” to other people if he could help it. He usually used “Jan” or “my dad”, to distance himself as much as he could from the relation.

            Gustov only chuckled nervously. They walked up to the double doors and knocked on the door with the thick stone door-tapper. A moment later, Julian, the house manager, opened the door and a grin split over his face.

            “Master Wylan!” he exclaimed enthusiastically. “We’ve all be expecting you. Come in, come in. Raphael will be pleased to know you’re here.”

            “Thank you,” Wylan said politely, trying to grasp his luggage with exceptionally weak hands. Gustov chuckled at the sorry attempt and took it for him.

            Wylan stood in the middle of the entry room, feeling the overwhelming sensation of burning nostalgia seeping into his many cracks. The grand staircase leading up to the second floor was the same, the mezzanine gold-painted and flashy as always, the marble floors that kept anything from truly feeling like home. It was all like it had been solidified in amber, completely and utterly identical to how Wylan left it. He stood awkwardly in the extravagant room, absent-mindedly bouncing on the balls of his feet. His giddy nervousness was going to drive him mad if something didn’t happen soon.

            His phone vibrated in his back pocket. Pulling out to check the message, he smiled to himself. It was Jesper.

            J: How was the flight? Did you make it there okay?

            W: Physically or emotionally?

            J: Whichever matters most

            W: Well I feel like my heart is trying to escape through my jugular but other than that, the medical emergencies are standard.

            J: Sorry to hear it. Wish I was there

            Before Wylan could compose himself enough to type a response, Raphael came into the room from the dining room, on the left side of the entry hall.

            “Wylan, my boy!” he exclaimed heartily. Wylan grinned and tucked his phone away. Raphael beamed and embraced the redhead with strong arms.

             This was the man that Wylan had looked up to his entire life. His personal assistant, manager, and butler (for lack of a more distinguishable term). Fifteen years ago, a pale lonely little boy with ruddy, golden-ginger hair and sky-blue eyes would skip after a middle-aged man in a suit, all around the mansion, with scabs on his knees and grubby fingers, tugging relentlessly on the man’s trailing tailcoat. He would follow the man into the kitchens, the courtyard, the baths, anywhere, his freckles popped right off of his cheeks and his feet never grow tired. Anything was better than staying with his father. When the man realized the boy wasn’t following, he would venture into the kitchens, peaking in every cabinet for signs of him. Eventually, he would find him in a hidden closet or utility room, huddled in a corner with tears streaked down his face and a throbbing cheek. The man would lift the boy up, with his pale arms wrapped around his broad shoulders, and sing him to sleep in his bedroom.

            “Raphael,” Wylan breathed, hugging the man right back. “It’s so good to see you again.”

            Raphael laughed, deep and ebullient. “Ah, son, I’ve missed you so. Is your father coming to greet you?”

            Wylan glanced back up at the staircase nervously. “We were waiting for him, but it seems as though he’s a bit busy.”

            Raphael clapped Wylan on the back. “You know Jan,” he said, “Always working. Come, come!”

            The butler led Wylan through the dining room and into the back room where the kitchens were in full swing. Through the bustle and din, Wylan spotted a crop of curly blonde hair and felt his heart swell.

            “Glinda!” he called, grinning like an absolute fool.

            His cook and the closest thing he had ever had to a mother whipped her head up from the stove, where she had various sauces simmering. Her already-rosy cheeks brightened even further and her eyes lit up like stars. “Wylan!” she squealed.

            She pushed her way through the huge kitchen, exclaiming and shrieking with delight the whole way. Wylan felt a great laugh ripple through his entire body as she swept him up in her arms, despite the fact that she hardly reached five feet. She spun him around while Wylan flung his head back and let out a grand guffaw.

            “You’re back home!” she exclaimed, placing him on the floor and holding his face in her chubby hands. “You’re so beautiful.”

            “Ah, Glinda,” Wylan choked, blushing with the warmth of a thousand suns. “You’re gorgeous as well.” He held her out at arm’s length. “Look at you, you’re practically glowing!”

            She blushed, her cheeks reddening to the shade of ripe cherries. “Oh, Wylan, you charmer.”

            There were reunions all around the house, more laughter than Wylan had felt in weeks. A jittery feeling wormed its way into Wylan’s gut and stayed there, emerging as a seemingly constant giggle as old staff pinched his cheeks and tugged at his hair. It felt good, not being anxious. The nagging persistence had subsided, for the most part, that is -  until he was mentioned again.

            “Your father requests your greetings in his office, Master Wylan,” Raphael murmured in Wylan’s ear as he conversed with Hudson, the family handy-man.

            The familiar leaking-cold feeling returned and Wylan swallowed the lump in his throat. His knees wobbled slightly as he made his way up the staircase, white knuckles gripping the banister as if he was walking a tightrope. Down the hall, passing countless doors to rooms Wylan was never allowed into, he recognized the door at the end. It looked like the door in front of a house, with a door knocker and all. He stood in front, hands tightening into rock-hard fists, heaving oxygen like every inhale was his last breath.

            He squeezed his eyes shut and knocked on the door. Three times. It was like pulling his own trap door at a hanging.

            “Enter,” said the voice that carried thorns wherever it went.

            Wylan stepped into the office and closed the door slightly behind him as if any noise at all was a death sentence. He dared himself to turn around and face him. Him.

            Jan Van Eck was always him in Wylan’s mind. Giving him a name would give him honor. He was always just he. The very thought of him made Wylan want to spit venom, to kick dirt in his face, to punch a very unforgiving wall. And yet as Wylan stood before him, he was too terrified to make a single noise unprompted.

            The silence was prolonging and deafening. His father sat in his chair, fountain pen in hand, his mouth pulled at the seams in his signature sternness. He looked so much like Wylan, it made Wylan want to break his own face on a mirror, or to have a piano fall on his head, just so he could have reconstructive surgery. Everything but the red hair.

            “Aren’t you going to address your father?” Van Eck prompted after the longest silence in the history of mankind.

            Wylan cleared his throat, but it only seemed to make things worse. “Y-yes, sir. Hello.”

            Jan looked like he was doing everything he could to not roll his eyes into the back of his head with annoyance. “Yes, hello, Wylan. We’ve settled that. How was your trip?”

            Wylan nodded. Once, thrice, six times. Too many. “Fine. Good. Fine.”

            Van Eck sighed. “By God, you’re a mess. Have you gotten any sleep?”

            “Plenty, sir.”

            “Don’t lie to me, boy.” Even his feigned worry sounded like a threat.

            “Not as much as I could be getting, sir.”

            “That wasn’t so hard, was it?” He shuffled his papers and signed a couple of them. “I imagine the studying is what’s causing it, yes? “Cram sessions” as the youths like to call it.”

            “Most times, sir, yes.”

            Van Eck sat back in his chair and smiled as if he had already won, as if this discussion was a competition, a battle to the death. “Ah, most times, is it?”

            “I don’t…study every waking moment, sir.”

            “And if you did, I’m sure your grades wouldn’t improve an inch, would they?”

            The question seemed rhetorical, but Wylan couldn’t help and answer, “I imagine they would, sir.”

            “Interesting.” He focused back on his papers. “Well, now that you’re here I should tell you that on the night of your departure, I’m hosting a banquet that I couldn’t get out of.”

            “That’s fine. I’ll go into town.”

            “Actually, I would prefer you stay with me. Some of my old business partners are expecting to see the prodigal son in the flesh.”

            Every bone in Wylan’s body screamed at him to fight back, to throw some vicious retort that could shut his father up and then some, but fear clamped over his mouth like a sweaty palm. Everything about Van Eck rattled Wylan’s bones and knocked his knees. The way he sat, the curve of his spine, the tilt of his dastardly grin, all these things triggered his panic response something awful.

            “I look forward to it, sir.”

            His father was silent, signing off more papers and generally ignoring Wylan’s existence. Wylan shuffled his feet and wrung his hands behind his back, thanking the saints that his father’s vision was obscured by his desk.

            “Am I needed for anything else, sir?”

            Wrong move. His father slowly raised his head and placed his pen lightly on a document, crossing his arms, the left in front of the right. “I’m sorry,” he said, his voice drenched in poison, “Am I keeping you?”

            Wylan didn’t even need to answer. It was by sheer willpower that his head didn’t fall off of his shoulders in absolute terror. It showed, and his father was thus satisfied. He flicked his hand and looked down once more.

            “Well, don’t just stand there, you idiot. Leave.

            Wylan turned on his heel and practically back-handsprung out of the room.

 

 

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

 

            In the attempt to defeat the feeling of impending doom regarding his return home, Jesper Llewellyn Fahey only ensured the fact that he was, in fact, positively nerve-wracked.

            His hands gripped the steering wheel like iron-clad traps, energy rolling through his shoulders like thunder. He could practically see sparks of lightening flicking at his fingertips. The smooth highway asphalt had transitioned into a bone-rattling gravel-and-dirt road. This newly textured terrain only added to Jesper’s irrational worrying. What if he blew a tire? Da didn’t have a cell phone, and it was too early in the day for him to be inside the house to pick up the landline. He couldn’t call anyone else, no one was close.

            Without even thinking, he dialed a number and pressed his phone to his ear with his shoulder. He waited for the pick-up.

            “Jes?” said a concerned familiar voice. “Is everything okay?”

            “Hey, sunshine,” Jesper greeted. “Everything is fine.”

            Wylan sighed. “Oh.”

            “You almost sound disappointed. I can careen into a ditch if that’ll make you feel better.”

            Wylan laughed. It sounded a bit jittery, but Jesper assumed it was the dirt road. Even over the phone and with crappy cell service, it was a great sound. “Aw, you don’t have to do that for little ol’ me.”

            Jesper wished his nerves allowed him to laugh with him. “It was already on the agenda. I wouldn’t be going out of my way.”

            Wylan’s laughter died off. “Everything okay?”

            “You already asked that.”

            “And you lied.”

            “And how would you know that?”

            “Because you sound too laid back with you lie.”

            “What if I’m just a naturally laid back and honest person?”

            “Then you wouldn’t be lying right now, which you are.”

            “Huh. You’re good.”

            “So. What’s wrong? Is your dad okay?”

            “Well, I would assume so, but I wouldn’t know. I haven’t gotten there yet.” Jesper’s voice wavered on the last few syllables.

            “Jes…are you nervous?”

            Jesper laughed involuntarily. “Probably. My heart is racing too fast for me to figure it out.”

            “I didn’t think you got nervous.” Wylan almost sounded impressed.

            “I do have a confident air about me, don’t I?”

            “Confident is not the word I would use.”

            “What word, then?”

            “Cocky, self-assured, arrogant.”

            “You cheater, that was three words.”

            “You simply cannot be described in one word.”

            “I do what I can. How’s Ravka? The house?”

            “Big, empty, fancy. Like always.”

            Jesper shouldered his phone again to keep it from slipping into his lap. “You say it like that’s a bad thing.”

            “It is. My dad lives here.”

            “How bad is it?”

            “It’s pretty terrible, actually.”

            “Hey.” Jesper sat up straighter, worry lining the walls of his throat. He spoke in a low tone. “What’s been going on?”

            “Honestly, it’s nothing I can’t handle. I grew up with this, remember?”

            “Wylan.”

            There was a quick silence, an air of hesitation. “He just gets in my head, and I hate that he still has that effect on me.”

            “Do I need to drive down there and give him a proper sock in the schnozz?”

            Wylan laughed again. Jesper wanted to get drunk off of the sound. “As incredible as that would be to witness, I can sock my own dad in the schnozz, thank you.”

            “When you do, you have to tell me all about it. I’ll be waiting at home with a bowl of ice and a medic on sight.”

            “I’m pretty sure I can punch someone without shattering my knuckles,” Wylan grumbled.

            “Not with those flute-playing hands, you can’t. But hey, they might not be great for socking, but I bet they’re great for holding.”

            “Oh, wouldn’t you like to know.”

            “Dying to, really.”

            Jesper imagined this conversation in person. Wylan’s freckled face looking up at him from Jesper’s lap, Jesper running his hands through gingered-gold, his fingers catching on curls. The domestic bliss that he would never deserve.

            The suddenness of the image shocked him and he cleared his throat.

            “Do you have to go?” Wylan’s voice sounded soft.

            “I’m pulling up, yeah,” Jesper said, eyeing his childhood street sign.

            “Okay, well, tell your dad I said hi. Good luck.”

            “Thanks, and you, too. If it gets to be too bad, will you call me?”

            “I’ll call you regardless.”

            Jesper grinned, biting his lip. “Alright, talk to you later.”

            “Thanks for calling. This helped – a lot. Calmed my nerves.”

            “Pleasure to be a service.”

            When they hung up, Jesper held the phone over his heart and exhaled shakily. His chest still fluttered, but for a completely different reason now.

            Then everything on the road became abundantly familiar and sent Jesper’s nerves into a panic once more. He was a half mile away from Da, from home. He could see the windmill from the window, the weeping willow that was planted the day of his birth, even the rock in the road felt the same. Waves of nostalgia, good and bad, began to envelop Jesper. He gripped the wheel so tightly, his hands felt like reinforced steel.

            Before he could process his movements, he was pulling up to the farmhouse, Da already bumbling out onto the porch to greet him, the broadest of grins plastered on his burnished face. His blue eyes twinkled with eternal life and wisdom, his red hair frizzed and sweaty from the early morning farm labor.

            Jesper didn’t even remember parking, or opening the door, or even moving his legs, but in the blink of an eye he was swept up in Da’s bulking arms, held tight in the embrace. Jesper squeezed the tears out of his eyes, the anxiety melting off of his spine.

            “Saints, how I’ve missed your face,” Da whispered into Jesper’s shoulder.

            Now, why does he have to say things like that, Jesper thought, feeling his throat close up. Da pulled back, holding Jes out at arm’s length, taking him all in.

            “I swear you’ve grown a foot since the last time I saw you. What is it, six-two?”

            “Give or take a quarter inch,” Jesper said, grinning from ear to ear. “How’s the farm?”

            Da clapped a hand on his back, causing him to nearly fall flat on his face. “Come, see for yourself. Let’s get your luggage.”

            As Jesper pushed through the heavy red cedar door, his chest stuttered as he was once again in his childhood home. Some things had been altered, the furniture and fewer possessions than the last time he had been here, but it was still achingly home.

             Da helped him get settled in Jesper’s old room, which Jesper was convinced hadn’t been touched since he left. Then they walked outside to explore the farm.

            It was evening now, the sun getting ready to hide away between the valley’s slopes, the lazy amber rays illuminating the corn and wheat fields, painting the land gold. It was Jesper’s favorite time of day, where the animals were settling in their nests, the chores were completed, and the midnight chill began to rest itself on the atmosphere around Jesper’s skin.

            Da led him around the land, allowing Jesper to familiarize himself with his home once again. He talked excitedly about all the renovations that were taking place on the farm and ranch, and how hard he and Adam had been working.

            “And this is Bertha’s twins!” Da had been saying, peering into the barn to see his prized cow and her two growing calves. “They have been saints since the day they were born.”

            Jesper grinned from ear to ear, kneeling down and letting the calves nuzzle his hand hesitantly, their huge wet noses moistening his palm. The aching nostalgia was almost more than he could bear. After petting the mammals around the farm, he had tuckered himself out completely, and Da had worn himself out talking his son’s ear off with excitement.

            “Ah, look at that moon,” Da said breathlessly as they trekked back to the house. “She came all in one piece just for you, there, Jes.”

            Jesper craned his neck to look at the full moon on display in the inky black canvas of sky. The night and moonlight were so clear it made Jesper’s ebony skin haze a deep blue. He had missed this. He missed everything. The stars in multitude, the wisps of faint, forever-far galaxies and clouds, his skin with the navy tint. The spring crickets making their beautifully obnoxious sounds. Even the fireflies were coming out to greet him. He never wanted to leave. Saints, he never wanted to leave.

            How the hell was he going to go back to school?

Chapter Text

            Waking up in his own house, but not his own bed, was a bit jarring to Wylan at first. The morning sun was shining through the spotless windows of the guest room. Sleeping in the one room he was never allowed to even breathe near as a child was strange in of itself. The bed was too soft and too stiff at the same time, and the blankets were so numerous and sophisticated, Wylan felt as though he was drowning in sheets. The air was cool around him, which felt nice after a night of restless fidgeting and sweating in his swath of blankets. He had barely slept a wink, with the feelings of pine needles stabbing the contents of his stomach.

            He kicked his blankets onto the floor and lay in the empty bed with nothing but boxer briefs, allowing the cold air to envelop him. Wylan watched as his chest, the faint outline of his ribs visible, rise and fall slowly. Each breath filled his cheeks and he blew it out to swirl the sunlit dust particles floating above his head.

            He felt the same way he had felt when his father told him why he wasn’t able to put Wylan in his old bedroom. It was because it wasn’t his old bedroom any longer. The furniture; Wylan’s bed, his dresser, his rug, and trinkets; gone in the blink of an eye. Not that he was expecting his father to keep hold of the sentimental value of his run-away screw-up son. But there were five perfectly good guest rooms scattered throughout the house. Why couldn’t he have renovated one of them? Wylan knew exactly why.

            The morning was just like it always had been back when he was living there. He wrapped himself in a warm robe and shuffled out of his room with sleep still in his eyes. Wylan made his way to the kitchen, where only Glinda was working, preparing the meals for the day. It was strange, Glinda always seemed like she was cooking enough for an army, but with just Van Eck and his baby mama in the house, Wylan couldn’t imagine her being very swamped with orders. Nevertheless, she stood over the sink, washing vegetables and placing them in bowls.

            “Morning,” Wylan croaked, his voice still stiff from holding back tears from the night before. He walked over to the opposite counter and hoisted himself onto the surface, his legs being several feet off of the floor.

            Glinda turned around. “Guten morgen, Wylan,” she crowed. She always was so chipper in the mornings. It certainly beats being miserable.

            “What’s on the agenda today?” he asked her, rubbing his eyes.

            “Master Van Eck has been in the mood for all sorts of poultry this month. Goose, turkey, quail, pheasant, you name it. Even the damned peafowl has caught his interest.”

            Wylan focused on a specific spot on his left knee, where freckles were scattered about his pale skin and peach fuzz grew. He wasn’t used to talking about his father with other people. Being immersed in other topics for the past eleven months made him forget on how uncomfortable he got.

            “Does he eat it all himself?”

            Glinda hummed lightly. “He and that blessed child Alys. She often joins him for dinner. But he also has his business partners eat dinner with him.”

            “What’s Alys like?” Wylan wondered out loud. He had heard about her courtship with Van Eck, and that she was holding his child. But he also knew they had lied about their marriage, and that the papers were faked for the press. Alys wore the ring, held the child, but they hadn’t been officially wed. Wylan wondered why that was.

            “Ah, the poor girl,” Glinda tutted, shaking her head. “She’s hardly old enough to bear a child, let along raise one.”

            “Well, how old is she?”

            “Twenty-one, I believe.”

            Wylan had to swallow to keep his gag reflex from activating. Was she younger than he was? He wasn’t surprised his father went for someone who was barely old enough to give legal consent.

            “She sounds…nice.”

            “Oh, she’s a dear,” Glinda said. “Couldn’t be impolite if it saved her life, you know. She has a hefty appetite, though, now that she’s eating for two. Although if you ask me, I imagine the stress of this marriage business and her pregnancy and all those new hormones, it’s made her a bit…” Her voice trailed off.

            Wylan smirked. “A bit what?”

            Glinda raised her eyebrows suspiciously and twirled a finger in the direction of her temple. “Off her rocker.”

            Wylan laughed. He had missed his conversations with Glinda, early in the morning, when listening ears had not yet awoken. The staff at the mansion were the closest thing he had to resemble a family.

            He had managed to avoid contact with his father the entire day. The weather outside was simply beautiful, so he spent a lot of his time in the sun, re-familiarizing himself with the layout of the extravagant property. There was a freezing spring a ways behind the mansion, with a gorgeous stone outline, with a tangle of Camperdown elms and golden curls willow trees creating fantastic shadows on the grass.

            Around noon, Wylan slipped into a tank top and shorts with a pair of Keds and went to explore with his sketchpad. He sat at the edge of the spring, up to his ankles in the icy water, sketching the branches of the trees. Just lines, edges and curves, dark and rough. The branches made their way across the paper, dipping and cutting across, breaking off into smaller fractions. Wylan allowed his pencil to guide him wherever the movement took it. His mind went to a clear thoughtless trance, opening himself up to pure peace.

             Soon, the branches on his page reshaped themselves into shoulders and elbows, and broke off into fingers of ebony and callouses, finding their way into a torso of taut muscle underneath the dark smooth skin. He gripped his pencil tightly, realizing his new creation. He quietly placed the sketchpad beside his discarded Keds, took a deep breath, and rolled into the spring without a second thought.

            An hour later, he returned to the house, damp and shivering, with a blue tint in his lips but a flush of pink in his cheeks. Raphael fussed over Wylan’s state while Wylan ignored intentionally and went back up to his room to dry off and warm up completely. He spent a couple hours wondering if he should be stressing out over school, lying on his bed in a daze.

            It was around three o’clock when Wylan pulled out his phone for the first time that day. He was trying to stay off of social media to keep from feeling lonely and left out from his other sorta-not-really friends from the university, going on yacht parties with their rich-dad money and boozing it up with their friends. But the temptation grew too great for Wylan to bear, and he was extremely bored.

            But before he could open any life-sucking apps, he noticed he had two text notifications. One from Nikolai and one from Jesper.

            Nikki: Has he sacrificed any virgins yet?

           
            Jes: you okay, Wy?

 

            Wylan took a deep breath and replied.

 

            To Nikki: No, but I think he managed to impregnate one.

           

            To Jes: idk yet. You?

           Twenty minutes later, Jesper was calling him.

            Wylan’s heart stuttered in his chest as he picked up. “Hey,” he said. Too laid back, he sounded bored. “Hi.” Redundant. “How are you?”

            “Hey-hi,” Jesper replied. “I’m doing okay. What about you?”

            “Just okay?”

            “Alright, you caught me, Fun-Police. I’m doing more than okay. Things are…pretty great here.”

            “I’m guessing you’re not missing Uni much, then?”

            He heard Jesper chuckle, his voice low and rumbling. “There are a few things I miss,” he said. “But I guess I forgot how much I miss having my dad around.”

            Wylan swallowed thickly. He hadn’t seen his father since yesterday and it was the most content he had been in three days. He wondered what it would feel like to have a true father. “That’s good though! How much has changed?”

            “Not much, actually. There are some new animals on the farm, new developments, but the house is the same and Da is still as chipper as ever.”

            “Well, I’m glad. Have you and Kuwei talked at all?”

            “Uh, a bit but nothing beyond hi’s and what’s ups.” Wylan could feel Jesper’s lip curling into a sly smile. “Why do you ask, merchling?”

            “The hell is a merchling?”

            “It’s a name I made up. Just go with it, rich boy. Don’t change the subject.”

            “I was just asking because Kuwei hasn’t mentioned your name since you broke up, so I was wondering if you might have said something regrettable to him.”

            “I might say a lot, but none of it is regrettable.”

            “I politely disagree.”

            “Not so politely.”

             Jesper chuckled and Wylan smiled. “How are things at the manor?”

            Wylan looked out the window overlooking the courtyard. The wind was blowing through the trees that framed the cobblestone. “Quiet. I’ve only had one conversation with my dad, so that’s an unofficial success, I’d say.”

            “I second that. What are your plans for today?”

            “Well, I swam in the spring for a little bit, drew, just kinda hung out. Avoiding my dad if I can.”

            “Sounds peaceful. Looks like you’re getting a bit of relaxation. Good for you, Wylan, you deserve it.”

             “Thank you,” Wylan said, feeling his cheeks heat up. “What about you? What did you do today?”

            Wylan liked this. Conversing. Normally. Comfortably. Jesper made everything easier. Jesper made everything good. He made everything just –

            “Well, even though I’m the prized son, my dad had me up at the booty crack of dawn to help him with morning chores.”

            “Strenuous?”

            “Not exactly, but I’ve been so used to sleeping in that it felt like I was swimming in peanut butter.”

            “I know the feeling well.”

            “Not to be rude – ”

            “You’ve contradicted that already.”

            “But I really don’t think you would last a day on the farm.”

            Wylan laughed out loud. “I might just take you up on that, Fahey.”

            “Bring it on, city boy.”

            “You can’t just put a random noun slash adjective in front of my biological sex to make an insult, you know.”

            “Well, you just ruined all my ideas for future roastings.”

            “Oh my bad,” Wylan chuckled. He flexed his hands out on his knees, wishing to God they weren’t so empty. “How will I ever make it up to you?”

            Jesper grinned. Wylan could imagine his face splitting open, his blinding white teeth toying with his bottom lip. “Oh, I’ll figure something out.”

            Jesus.

 

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

 

            Wylan spent the rest of the day in town. A few things had changed – the vendors and buildings. But the bustle and energy were as raw and unapologetic as always. Wylan’s love for Ravka was muddled behind memories of backhands, broken conductor staffs, and the feeling of a wall pressed up against his own chest and cheek. But here, now, with the sun in the sky, the wind in his hair, and any other cliché he could think of, even the congested heat of a crowd was enough to lift his spirits a smidge.

            He even had a few twenties in his pockets to buy a trinket or two, and maybe a meal, if he thought it through. But there was so much to see, Wylan was nervous he would spend it all without even noticing.
            Until, of course, he caught sight of a stand with hundreds of differently sized wood carvings. It would have taken Wylan hours to fully appreciate the beautiful detail of each one. There were flowers, trees, fish, bears, dogs, birds, nature settings, all sorts. But the one that caught Wylan’s eye was a carving of a pair of hands. They seemed to move within themselves and he couldn’t take his eyes off of it. The dark wood was polished, smooth to the touch. He ran the tips of his fingers over the knobby knuckles and raised veins in the wrists. Wylan could practically feel the pulse in the thumbs. He knew it must have been outrageously expensive, but when he saw the price tag, it was only a couple. He purchased it quickly, earning a generous smile and a pinched cheek from the elderly wood carving woman. The hands felt heavy in the paper bag, but Wylan was too scared to drop it from his own hands to keep it anywhere else.

            He didn’t look at the other vendors much, nothing that piqued his interest. Wylan did, however, stop to buy some Ravkan fries potatoes that came in paper cones. They were fresh from the fryer, doused in delicious oils and seasonings. It burned his tongue but he hadn’t realized how hungry he was until the cone was empty and all of his taste buds were raw.

            Wylan fell asleep that night with the carved hands right beside his bed.

 

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

 

            It was the third day of Jesper’s trip, and they were eating a huge morning meal (a “farmer’s breakfast, as Da would call it). Homemade buttermilk biscuits, fresh eggs from morning chores, bacon from Da’s pork freezer, and marmalade that Dalia had made for them.

            “She still visits, you know,” Da had told him. “Brings me a gift basket every so often. Such a sweet girl. I just wish I could keep her on the job.”

            It only made Jesper feel guiltier.

            During breakfast, Jesper’s phone went off in his pocket and his heart did a little skip, but he wasn’t sure why. Da looked up from his plate and gave him a look that Jesper couldn’t even hope to forget. “You know my rule for phones at the table,” he said, half joking. But also half-not.

            Jesper pulled out his phone and laughed. “I don’t live here anymore, Da. Just give me a sec.”

            Kaz: hey.

           The message stunned Jesper so much he stared at his phone – even after the screen went dark - for a complete sixty seconds before he realized Da was trying to get his attention.

            “Huh?” Jesper said, widening his eyes to fake his awareness of anything other than the message he just received.

            Da just smiled amusedly and wiped his mouth with a cloth napkin. Standing up, he said, “I’m going to go work with the horses. I’ll be out in the barn if you need to holler.”

            Jesper couldn’t hide his disappointment. “Did we have any plans today?”

            “I’ll take you into town later today if you’d like,” Da said with a wink, “so you can reconnect with the locals.”

            Once his dad was gone, Jesper allowed his hands to tremble as he thought of a reply. Didn’t he come out here to avoid Kaz and his deals? But, when Kaz gave Jesper attention – which was rarer than the 29th of February – he gave it all. Kaz was probably still waiting for a reply.

            J: My answer is still no
           K: and my offer still stands.
           
K: stop acting like you’re better than this.

            J: You could find a million different militia experts you know
           
K: i don’t want an expert. i want someone i can trust.

           
            Jesper closed his eyes and pressed the corner of his phone between his eyebrows. I want you, Kaz was saying. Kind of. More or less. Was it enough?

            J: What’s in it for me?

            K: if this goes right, six figures. maybe more.

            “All Saints,” Jesper breathed. That was more than enough to pay off his debt and keep Da living comfortably for a long while. He saw Dalia getting her job back, Specht getting the raise he deserved, and never having to tell Da about the grave he dug for himself. Another notification popped up.

            K: it’s dangerous. we’re going to have to go into the field for this one.

            That made everything so much worse and it made Jesper want it all the more.

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

 

            Kaz stared at himself in the mirror, watching the three trails of blood trickle from his lips, his eye, and above his temple. Red clouded his left vision and his breath came out thin and hoarse. He leaned heavily on his cane, his leg twinging painfully from previous stress. His hair was darker than usual, probably from the soot, and combed back with wet fingers. He splashed some rubbing alcohol on a cloth, but Inej stopped him.

            “Here,” she said, quiet but assertive. “Let me.”

            Careful not to touch him directly, she blotted his lip and the cut above his eyebrow.

            “You can’t let this heal on its own,” she said, motioning towards his eye. “You’re going to have to see someone about it. You might go blind if you don’t.”

            She sounded like a mother hen, clucking over him like this. He would have blushed if his head has been screwed on straight if he felt embarrassed or shame over such a thing. But her voice anchored him, kept him still even though the voice in the back of his mind was screaming its alarm. Too close, too close, too close.

            He tried not to look at her face, with her worrying eyes and dark hair falling over her shoulders. She almost never wore it down – she usually had it in a braid to keep it out of her face. It made him want to tuck her locks behind her ears. It made his hands buzz.

            “I don’t know why you keep doing this to yourself,” she continued, pulling a roll of bandages out of his sink cabinet. “It doesn’t make you cool, you know.”

            “Agree to disagree,” Kaz said, trying to smirk but splitting his lip open again instead.

            Inej smiled. That smile. “Okay, maybe it does. But stop trying to be a smart aleck, you’re opening your scabs.”

            She reached up to wipe the blood under his eye but Kaz gently caught hold of her wrist in his hand. Inej’s pupils dilated and Kaz was falling in them. His gloved forefinger and thumb circled the base of her hand, feeling the weightlessness of her bones and the delicacy of her skin. Well, as much as he could. He liked to imagine what her skin felt like when he did this. There had been teasing throughout the years, the barest brushes and slightest grazes. It just made him want it more. He hated it.

            “I do worry, you know.” Inej’s voice was barely above a whisper.

            “It’s just a few cuts.”

            “That’s not – ” Inej looked at him as if to scold. “That’s not what I’m talking about.”

            Her neck was stiff, and she stared at the dip in his throat. He so desperately wanted to tilt her chin up. Look at me, he begged.

            “Don’t worry about me,” Kaz said. It wasn’t a reassurance, it was a command. He let go of her hand, his desire screaming at him to hold her in his arms completely, his logic telling him to get away as fast as he could.

            “You can’t tell me what to do,” Inej said, taking a full step back and straightening her back. Her steps were silent, her black ballet slippers absorbing the sound completely. “Or how to feel.”

            Kaz felt a flare of anger. At Inej or at himself, he didn’t know. “Consider this my desperate attempt.”

            Inej smiled, cold and unforgiving. “No one else is going to patch you up, don’t get angry at me yet.”

            Kaz wanted to fight with her. He just wanted to keep hearing her voice, no matter how harsh or brutal it came out. He wanted to keep her like this, proud and defiant and sure. He wanted to keep her. He wanted.

            Kaz held her gaze, his jaw set like stone,  as she stepped forward once more and began to bandage his eye. “You’re probably going to have to wear a patch,” she said calmly like nothing had happened. “Then you’ll really be as cool as your.”

            He almost smiled but he felt his back pocket buzz. He gingerly avoided her touch and pulled his phone out. This time he allowed the corners of his lips to curl.

            “Good news?”

            J: I’m in.

            Kaz nodded. “The best.”

 

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

 

            He made it to the third day of his stay without seeing him since the incident in his office. Van Eck came down the grand steps in a bathrobe right before noon, stretching and yawning like a lazing cat. He smiled at Wylan, who sat – dumbstruck – at the dining table with a biscuit stuck in his mouth. He quickly bit it off and swallowed it whole, trying not to tear up from the lacking of chewing. “Sir,” he greeted, bowing his head.

            “Wylan,” Van Eck replied, taking a seat across from where his son was sitting. He leaned back in his chair and propped his feet up on the table, showing off his lavish slippers. “Alys is going to be joining us for dinner tonight. She’s been out the past few days visiting family upstate. She’ll be returning later this evening. Please, try and make a good impression.”

            Wylan nodded, too afraid to bite into his food. He might choke. “Yes, sir.”

            Van Eck let out another yawn, fake this time. “Saints, boy, are you always this boring? Did I not teach you how to converse?”

            You didn’t teach me anything, Wylan thought bitterly. Instead, he said, “I guess I just don’t have much to say.”

            Van Eck shrugged, which was a rare gesture. “Make something up. Or tell me about what’s being learned in your classes.”

            “Um. Well. Okay. In my world literature class back at the university, we’re reading Oedipus the King.”

            An eyebrow shot up. “Really now? Who’s “we”?”

            Wylan swallowed. He should have seen this coming. “The class. It’s actually pretty interesting.”

            “Ah. I always found it a bore. Are you sure you’re reading it properly?” Did you actually read it, he was asking.

            “Yes, sir.” Now’s not the time to get defensive. “I find Oedipus to be a complex character.” Van Eck said nothing, so Wylan continued. “His entire life, all of these horrible things are happening to him, but he doesn’t know until it’s too late to keep any of it from happening.” At this point, Wylan was trying to talk for as long as he could without keeling over. He was sure that his heart has stopped completely.

            “He goes through all these misfortunes without even realizing how his life is slowly falling apart around him.” Come on, Wylan, get that word count up. “Once the truth comes out, he has no choice but to punish himself for being so ignorant and blind.”

            Van Eck nodded, like everything Wylan was saying was proving his point even further, whatever his point may be. “Fascinating,” he said with a mocking voice. Then he got up from his seat and left the room.

            Wylan didn’t open his mouth again – not once – until that night at dinner.

            He and Van Eck were seated as they were that morning, across from each other. Van Eck had the decency to wear proper dining wear and keep his slippers off of the mahogany. The elephant in the room – which was no prod at her maturation in her mid-region – was Alys Van Eck, eating merrily in the quiet of the room.

            Alys was young. Insanely young. She couldn’t have been older than Wylan by more than three years. She had long black hair and dark almond eyes. Her skin was fair with rosy cheeks, perhaps mixed Asian descent, if Wylan knew anything about physical attributes. She bopped her head happily to whatever music she was listening to in her head, chewing her quail. Glinda outdid herself with the meal, cooking Wylan’s favorites to put him in a good mood. She always was good with noticing when Wylan was having a bad day, and the gesture meant more to Wylan than he cared to quantify.

            There was honey-roasted quail, buttery parsley potatoes, glazed eggplant caviar, and even fresh figs tossed in sweet cream. There was an orange-blossom almond cake for after, but Wylan had already helped himself to a huge slab, hoping Van Eck would notice his impropriety. He did.

            Wylan had spent the day making a big decision, keeping his mouth shut but his mind reeling of the pros and cons. He had fourteen more days to endure here, and the fact that there was a major chance he was going to spend the entire time in absolute fear of pissing Van Eck off. If he waited until the last day to upset him, Van Eck was going to make the transition back to classes a living hell. So Wylan decided to make a show of it now and give the man time to cool off.

            “So, Alys,” Wylan said casually, still chewing his food. In the corner of his eye, he could see Van Eck’s head snap up, catch himself, and then look back down in the attempt to hide his surprise.

            “Mhm?” Alys looked up with a nervous-excited smile. Wylan could tell she was trying to make a good impression.

            “How far are you along?” Wylan asked. It was the kind of question you could ask at a baby shower, not a sophisticated supper. Of course, Alys wouldn’t mind it, but Wylan marveled at how red Van Eck’s face could go. Genetics were awful.

            Alys beamed. “Three and a half months,” she said.

            “Well, you look great. You’re practically glowing.” Wylan smiled charmingly, risking a glance at his father, who was focusing much too hard on his potatoes.

            “Oh, you’re so sweet!” Alys exclaimed, her cheeks getting even rosier. “Jan, you never said he was such a charmer.”

            Wylan grinned smugly, looking directly at “Jan” this time. Van Eck smiled, his mouth muscles drawn so tight that his face practically spasmed from the strain.

            “Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” Wylan said, flipping a flamboyant hand in the air. “Are you still in school?”

            “Oh, I never went to college,” Alys said, shrugging. “I couldn’t afford it, really. It is quite pricey.”

            “I’ll say,” Wylan chuckled. “But I’m sure my father could tell you about that – right, Jan?”

            Alys, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, looked expectedly at Van Eck, who halted mid-chew. He swallowed painfully and cleared his throat. “Uh, yes,” he said, nodding uncomfortably. “It’s expensive, but obviously nothing I can’t handle.” With stress on the last word, he gave Wylan a pressing look.

            Wylan only smiled. “It’s so, so worth it, though. Hey! Maybe once you two are married, Jan could pay for you to attend classes.”

            Van Eck choked on his flute of champagne. “Wylan, my dear boy,” he said, sickly-sweet. “Alys and I are already wed, you know that.” He glanced at Alys with an oh-you-know-children look, hoping to smooth over the wrinkles in his story.

            Alys nodded stupidly. “Of course.”

            “Oh, how idiotic of me,” Wylan said, popping the palm of his hand to his temple. “I’ve just been gone so long.”

            “And you certainly have been missed,” Van Eck said, with such a sincere tone that if Wylan hadn’t known him, he would have been fully convinced he’d meant it.

            Alys nodded her head, giving off the appearance of an adorable broken wind-up toy. “The staff here can’t seem to stop talking about you!”

            Van Eck couldn’t even bring himself to stifle his eye roll. “Oh, you’re just saying that,” Wylan cooed. “Look who’s talking, gorgeous. Everyone is a’bustle with Wylan 2.0 on his way.”

            Alys blushed, looking pleased, but Van Eck’s face pigment went from pink to stop sign in under half a second. Wylan imagined if the dining room table hadn’t been so long, his father would have kicked him underneath the table. But with a witness and a reputation to uphold (along with about six feet of distance), Wylan Van Eck was untouchable.

            The dinner continued, with Wylan dropping innuendos and indecent implications that flew right over poor, dense, Alys’s head. She was sweet, and Wylan never once had the intention to embarrass her. But holy hell, did Wylan enjoy tormenting his father. Van Eck was practically spitting nettles by the end of the night. Alys went up to her bedchambers to call it a night, but Jan wasn’t quite ready to go to bed.

            Wylan was clearing his own dishes from the table, a habit he had picked up from living alone when Van Eck got ahold of him. He snagged Wylan’s arm, cuffing his hand between Wylan’s elbow and shoulder, squeezing hard. Wylan fought to show no immediate pain, but his heart leaped into his throat when he felt his father’s breath on his neck once again.

            “You think you’re funny?” he hissed, speckling hatred onto Wylan’s nose. He had leaned in so close; Wylan could see the artificial gleam of his white teeth. “You think you can humiliate me?”

            Wylan swallowed, fighting his panic. He was losing. “No, sir,” he said slowly.

            “If you ever – and I mean, ever – act like that again, you will never leave this home. I will pull you from your classes and whatever scum friends you’ve seemed to have scavenged, and I will lock you up so tight, you could only ever hope to see sunlight touch that ragged red mop of hair. Do you understand me?”

            Wylan couldn’t even speak. He wasn’t sure he ever would again.

            Van Eck’s grip only tightened. “Don’t think I haven’t figured out your games, boy. You think I don’t know you haven’t been the one replying to my letters? You could only hope to sound so eloquent.”

            How did he know that? What kind of tabs had he been keeping on Wylan this entire time?

            Van Eck’s voice rasped and staked Wylan through the heart. “I don’t know what kind of meaningful friendship you’ve been carrying on with that lanky roommate of yours, but if you want to keep his pretty little head on his pillow every night, you will never step out of line like this again. If you so much as breathe incorrectly, you’ll be sorry.”

            And with a release of his iron hold, Van Eck stormed off. A ring of bruise had already started to develop, but that pain couldn’t come close to the hammering and aching in his chest.

            That night in his unfamiliar bed, Wylan cried for so long, and so hard, Glinda brought him up honey lemon tea for his raw throat. Van Eck never allowed staff to enter anyone’s bedrooms after hours, but Glinda had broken that rule a few times before. Wylan didn’t even try to hide his tear-streaked cheeks when she came into the room. She had seen him sob plenty of times before, his breath ragged and rough. She set the tray down on his bedside table, careful and silent. Sitting down briefly on the side of his bed, she ran her hand across his back. One, two, three comforting times. And then she was gone with a click of the door.

 

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

 

            Jesper forgot how much he loved spending time with animals. They taught him how to stay still, how to have patience – which was never easy to come by for him. It was only the third day of his vacation, and the sun was setting, bestowing a shimmer of gold on everything it touched. Wylan hadn’t contacted him at all, which made him nervous, but he tried not to think about it. Worrying over that boy took up a good amount of Jesper’s energy.

            Jesper ran a hand down his horse’s muzzle, feeling the warmth underneath the short hair. Zowa flicked his ears, twitching around the gnats. He nickered softly and bumped his head towards Jesper’s gentle hand. He was Jesper’s horse, gifted to him by his mother. She had been saving up for a foal since before Jesper was even conceived, finally having enough to afford one when Jesper was six. She taught him everything he needed to know about riding a horse, shooting a gun, cleaning fish, and any other talent he had acquired from being raised on a farm. He missed her so much it ached like a hollow bell in his chest. He had lived without her longer than he had lived with her, which was the worst part about it.

            Aditi Hilli was a goddess amongst mankind, who took joy with every spoonful of life and embraced every quirk and flaw she saw in herself and anyone else. Tall and elegant without trying, her skin so dark and smooth it was nearly purple. She had her hair always down, no matter what style it was in. “Sometimes,” she would tell him, “Some things aren’t meant to tame, but to be kept wild.”

            Looking at Zowa, his rich brown coat perfectly shined and clean, Jesper had never felt more lost. He missed his mother’s wisdom, her grace, and her independence. He needed it now more than ever. Tell me what to do, he would beg her, had she been here. She would place a beautiful hand on his knee and poked his chest where his heart would be. No, boy. Make the mistake, and learn from it.

            He had made plenty of mistakes; it was the learning part he still needed help with.

            “He’s grown so much since you’ve left,” Da’s voice said from behind him. Jesper jumped and turned to see his father in the barn doorway.

            “Christ, Da, you can’t sneak up on me.”

            Da only laughed, deep and rolling. He joined Jesper’s side and scratched Zowa behind the ears. “Deep in thought?” he asked quietly.

            Jesper nodded, swallowing dryly. “Thinking about her.”

            Da smiled sadly, the way he always did when Aditi was brought up. “I still see her around here. I see her in the tulips that grow by the road, and in the horses when they’re running free in their fields.” He chuckled low. “In my reflection, even.”

            Jesper laughed softly. “I see her, too. In mine.”

            “You look just like her, Jes,” Da said with a pressing tone.

            Jesper was horrified to find himself fighting tears. “Da…”

            His father shook his head as if shaking something out of his brain. “I’m sorry. I get emotional.”

            Jesper placed a hand on his dad’s shoulder. “We’re okay. She would be proud of you, you know, of this place and how it’s turning out.”

            Da shook his head once again. “You’re just being silly. Things are tight.”

            “You didn’t buy this farm to turn a profit, Da, you bought it for her. And she’s here like you said. The farm is going to be okay, no matter what happens.”

            Colm Fahey looked at him, with his dark blue eyes that Jesper’s mother said she fell in love with, a tear streaking down his cheek. “She would be so proud of you, Jes.”

            Like hell she would, Jesper said bitterly. “I know.”

 

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

 

            Wylan walked a very thin line for the rest of the week. He avoided his father at all cost and took every precaution to keep out of Van Eck’s path. He even found himself hiding in the kitchen during meal times, eating while standing in the walk-in freezer. There were some more conversations with Alys, who was much too nice and decent to even associate with Jan Van Eck. Wylan learned she came from a richer family that had been struggling financially for the past couple of years. Marrying off Alys to one of the wealthiest men of this generation would ensure her comfort, along with her children and their children as well. She was lonely in this big house, Wylan realized.

            In the quiet hours of the night, while Van Eck was out closing a deal, Wylan and Alys sat on her bed, practically whispering. She was just like any other young woman, with ambitions and dreams of her own. And scared. Hopelessly scared.

            “Has my father…” Wylan struggled to voice the words. “Has he ever hurt you?”

            Alys’s eyes grew wide with shock. “God, no. In fact, he hardly ever lays a hand on me. Except for when – ” She blushed and looked down at her stomach “You know.”

            Wylan desperately tried not to think about his father in bed with anyone ever.

            “So, he’s never said anything harmful to you at all?” Wylan continued. “He’s been good to you?”

            Alys thought for a moment. “He’s never said anything too alarming. He doesn’t let me have many relationships, though, especially with other men.”

            Possessive. He did the same with Wylan. “I’m sorry.”

            The girl only shrugged. “It just gets lonely in this big place.” She looked around the room and shivered. “It’s just so much, you know? And a baby?” She looked so frightened for a moment, Wylan was worried she might cry.

             “Maybe,” Wylan said slowly, “Maybe once this summer I can visit for a few weeks. To keep you company.”

            “You don’t have to do that!” she crowed, squeezing his hand.

            “I hate to think that you’re here all on your own, though.”

            “Wylan.” Alys’s face hardened for a quick moment. “You don’t have to come back here. Ever. If you don’t want to.”

            Wylan shook his head, feeling silly. “I really don’t.”

            Alys squeezed his hand again. “Then I’ll come visit you. I’d like to meet this roommate that you’re so fond of.”

            “What?” Wylan said, reddening instantly. “Jesper?”

            “You’re always texting him. And you’ve called him like four times since you got here. And if you’re not texting him, you’re re-reading through your messages with him.” Alys grinned like a fool, poking Wylan’s side.

            “Are you spying on me?” Wylan laughed.

            “Come on!” Alys bounced on the bed excitedly. “Spill the tea!”

            “I’m not talking to you about this,” Wylan said, attempting to sound stern. “Really, nothing is going on.”

            “Of course nothing is going on,” Alys droaned. “You guys are oblivious.”

            “You’re just like my friend Nikolai. He’s always trying to make something out of nothing. You two would get along swimmingly.”

            Alys only rolled her eyes. “It’s not something out of nothing, it’s something out of everything.”

 

            With Alys at the house, Wylan had an easier time adjusting. Van Eck couldn’t act up in front of her and neither could Wylan. It was like a cold war, or like two wild dogs circling each other, wondering who was going to make the first move. Except Wylan was more of a bushy-tailed defenseless mouse and Van Eck was a lion with a mouth full of machine guns.

            When the house was Van Eck-less, Wylan liked to walk the long halls, lost in his own head. It was about the only time of day when he let his defenses down and allowed himself to breathe. He missed home, Nikolai and Alina and their quick wit, Inej and her calmness and acceptance, Jesper with his excitement and boldness. He wanted to feel welcome again, safe. He certainly wasn’t getting that here in this Tartarus of sorts.

            Time passed ever so slowly, but finally, finally, it was the last night he was going to spend in Van Eck manor. Unfortunately, that meant it was the night of the gala his father was so keen on throwing.

            Wylan was tailored the day before and had a tuxedo ready for him merely hours before the party began. It fit like a glove and yet he felt as though it was suffocating him. It was a simple black and white suit with a black bow tie, which made his red-gold hair stand out even more.

            He felt ridiculous, but when he peered at himself in the full-length mirror in his room, he was a bit shocked of how charming he looked. Before he could change his mind and wuss out, he snapped a picture of himself with a stupidly dashing look on his face and sent it to Jesper with a caption.

            Wylan: all spiffed up for my last miserable night

            Jesper: knock ‘em dead, tiger. you got this

            W: I feel like I’m going to throw up

            J: that tuxedo probably costs more than my childhood home, and green isn’t a great color on you

            W: green is a great color on me, screw you

            J: whatever you say, love, but blue is better for you. It brings out those piercers of yours

            Jesper’s in a flirty mood, Wylan thought with a flustered smirk. But before he could type out a quip, there was a knock on the door.

            “Oh, come in!” Wylan called.

            Raphael peeked his head through the doorway. “You look splendid, Master Wylan,” he said, with a genuine bow of his head.

            Wylan pinked. “Thanks, Raph. You don’t look bad yourself.”

            “I’m always wearing a suit, sir,” the man said with a wink.

            “And you never seem to disappoint.” Wylan glanced in the mirror again and adjusted his bow tie self-consciously. “Is everything prepared downstairs?”

            Raphael nodded, “Quite nearly. But your father requests your presence.”

            “Tell him I’ll be down in a moment.”

            When Wylan descended to the bottom of the grand staircase, his father was waiting for him in a crimson and ivory colored silk tuxedo, like a white rose dipped in blood. Fitting, Wylan thought with a cold shiver down his back.

            “Saints, finally,” Van Eck said irritably. He guided Wylan into the ballroom, where the extended staff was setting up the last of the tables and dishes. From the giant archway, Wylan could see the banquet tables piled high with roasted pheasant, flaky rolls, plums in honey, black forest pudding, rum cakes thick with raisins and brown sugar, among other delicacies. The smell was enough to make his mouth water.

            “Now, Wylan,” Van Eck began. “This gala is of the utmost importance to me. Many business partners, old and new, will be here to celebrate our prosperity. Nothing more, and nothing less. You will greet them; shake hands and exchange pleasantries, and absolutely nothing else. No in-depth conversing of surpluses and consumerism, do you understand?”

            Wylan nodded, keeping his lips in a thin line. “Yes, sir,” he replied tightly.

            “If I hear from anyone about anything even remotely concerning coming from you, you and others will reap the consequences and you will sorely regret it. My business associates are expecting a brilliant Van Eck heir, visiting from his prestigious university, not a moronic child in a ridiculous bow tie. Try your best to illustrate this façade that I have attempted to build so intently.”

            The words flew in one ear and out the other. Wylan’s heartbeat was steady and his steps never once wavered. He had long prepared for this night. A gala he could handle. It was one of the only times where Van Eck wasn’t focused completely on Wylan for an entire night.

            As soon as the clock struck eight, the first guests began to arrive. That was one thing Wylan always noticed about galas and grand sophisticated parties. Personal drivers were paid to be on time, and the kiss-ups were usually the first to show up; the new and naïve business men who are trying to impress Van Eck out of his sponsorship and support. The older business came in later, with an air of valient debonair, with their spouses on their arm and diamonds practically trailing behind them. They always knew how to make an entrance and they always knew how to falsify their humility.

            The first dozen guests steered their way around Wylan, who stood by the live jazz band in the corner of the ballroom. Music calmed him more than anything else. It was always moving, and there was always more if you wanted to make it. A thousand solutions to no problems. It was strange that he loved numbers and music so much since they differed so vastly. Numbers were all facts, they made sense in sequence, they didn’t swirl around in Wylan’s head like letters did. There were laws for numbers and nature kept by them, unlike the human language. No exceptions and no bending the rules. With music, there was no law, no rules. It wasn’t just coloring outside the lines; it was drawing your own damn picture. You couldn’t think outside the box if there was no box in the first place.

            Once nine-thirty rolled around, the more familiar faces came into view. Wylan shook hands, bowed his head, and even embraced a few family friends. Van Eck would pop in every few minutes, standing by Wylan’s side with his hand on the small of Wylan’s back, a reminder to stand straight and act straighter.

            It wasn’t until around eleven where the toasts had all been made and the night had the potential of ending at any time, and yet momentum had kept the guests at bay. Wylan had had his fill of rum cake, feeling tipsy from the rum and flutes of champagne and enjoying the sensation of his worries momentarily falling off of his shoulders. Nothing had gone wrong that night, he had kept up his fake persona and perfectly B.S’d his way through a million and one conversations. 

            Wylan was surrounded by several men and women, sharing anecdotes about their college times. Wylan had already shared his vague take on Jesper’s drunken escapade, which earned belly laughter from the lot of them One of the women, in a glittering blue chiffon dress, was telling of the time she and her friend had snuck a full-sized wild hog in their competing sorority house in the middle of the night. Before Wylan heard the end of the story, Van Eck had approached him from behind.

            “Wylan, follow me,” he said with a broad grin made only to impress his peers. “There’s an old friend who wants to meet you.”

            Wylan smiled at the group and left them with a flawless bidding of adieu  and joined his father’s side, who led him to the other side of the large ballroom. Wylan’s head felt like it was full of pop rocks, but in the best way. Sure, he was in the home of the person who probably hated him more than any living creature on the planet and made it his life mission to make Wylan’s life as miserable as possible, but he was leaving in the morning. Back to Jesper, back to friends, back to home. Nothing could ruin his mood.

            Except for that quaff of chocolate-colored hair, the sickening sensual smell of cigarettes and scotch, and that single diamond earring.

            “Wylan,” Van Eck said with a dastardly grin. “I’m sure you remember Mr. Nikkolas Fitzgerald.”

            Wylan’s brain had stopped working thoroughly. His vision blurred so much he was sure he went cross-eyed.

            Nikkolas Fitzgerald gave a humble bow, a warm smile – that damned smile – fluttering across his lips. “Fitz is just fine,” he amended. “It’s good to see you, Wylan. You look good.”

            Wylan could only nod. His fingers had gone numb. Panic.

            “Son,” Van Eck practically hissed, “You’re being incredibly rude. Greet your old friend.” No.

            “It’s been a long night,” Wylan said, clearing his throat and scratching the back of his neck. “I zoned out for a moment. It’s nice to see you, Fitz.” Stop.

            “How has my prized student been fairing the college campus these days?” Fitz asked, taking a slight step closer to him. Fear.

            Van Eck clapped his hands softly and walked backwards. “I’ll leave you two to catch up.” No way out.

            He knows exactly what he’s done, Wylan thought, sweat breaking out on his forehead.

            Fitz smiled once more, his brown eyes glinting warmth, and Wylan could practically feel the fingers close around his windpipe. “We should go somewhere quieter to catch up,” Fitz murmured. “I’d love to know what you’ve been up to.”

            He needed to escape. He needed to go upstairs – right now – and pack his bags. Gustov could drive him to the airport on a proper commercial airline like a normal human being. He could be home in ten hours, easily. He could leave. He should leave.

            “Lead the way.”

            Fitz took him by the hand and led him out of the ballroom.

            There was a small corridor. The only corridor Wylan avoided at all costs. It was their spot. And now they were standing there. Together. Alone.

            “All that conversation was making me nauseated,” Fitz laughed. “How do you do this all the time?”

            Wylan shrugged. His shoulders were pulled tight. “You get used to it. Or you tune it out. I did both.”

            Fitz laughed again. God, that laugh. It haunted Wylan’s dreams. It filled his chest and bound his ribs together. “Oh, I’ve missed you.”

            It was hard to look at him again. He hadn’t changed at all in years. The same undercut with a quaff of perfect brown hair, a chisled jaw that was accentuated by a talentedly cut close-shaved beard. Broad shoulder, toned arms, classis build. An Irish roll in his voice.

            “How have you been faring?” Wylan inquired, backing himself against the wall, attempting to look casual but felt like an antsy cat trapped in a box.

            “Things have been slow, but it may just be the company I keep.” Fitz winked and Wylan felt the box close in on him. Whatamidoingherewhatamidoingherewhat-

            “I hear you’re quite the star pupil in your classes,” Fitz continued, leaning against his own wall and crossing one ankle over the other. “I hope you’re using the tricks I taught you.”

            Wylan chuckled, the ripples like acid in his throat, bubbling and hot. “How could I forget?” They’ve been etched into my memory with an ice pick, along with the smell of smoke and booze.

            “I’m sure there are other things I taught you that may have clouded your memories,” Fitz said, his voice dropping.

            Damn it. “Maybe.” Get out of there.

            All it took was one long, single stride across the hardwood floors and Fitz’s hand was tucked in the crook of Wylan’s neck, tilting his head back, already guiding his tongue against Wylan’s. Wylan didn’t even register that his mouth had been open. He didn’t do it himself. Everything within Wylan snapped and shattered as he breathed in the intoxicating scent of his former tutor. His lungs sputtered, then froze completely as Fitz pinned his arms at his sides.

            There was nothing inside of him that wanted this. There was nothing inside of him that could stop this. It felt as though there was nothing inside of him at all.

            Wylan felt the full press of Fitz’s body against his, Fitz’s hips holding him in place, his grip on Wylan’s thigh. Wylan felt something escape from his body, perhaps the last bit of his innocence. This sensation was all too familiar. This was the nightmare that followed him to bed at night.

            Wylan had fought back plenty of times. But Jesper was right about one thing. The only strenuous act Wylan ever had to endure was holding a flute up to his lips for hours, and that accounted for nothing when a man twice your size held his full weight against you. Wylan became tired, and he had given up completely.

            He squeezed the frightened tears out of his eyes as Fitz moaned quietly into his neck. These walls kept Wylan’s secrets a ghost, a mere memory.

            But he had a home to get to. He had to try. He had left his surrender here to die.

            “Fitz,” he whispered, his voice straining as it was. “I d-don’t want this.”    

            The grip below his hip only tightened.

            The lips on his neck were not the ones he wanted there. The hand seizing his hair was too pale.

            Wylan placed both hands on Fitz’s chest, loosening his tie and unbuttoning his shirt. As predicted, Fitz inched backwards, fixing to shrug his jacket off. Without warning – with an enormous lack of coherent thought - Wylan shoved out his arms as hard as any human being could have possibly shoved another object. Fitz didn’t move nearly as much as he had hoped, but it was enough, a whole foot of space between them because Wylan was already running. Run. Run. Run. Faster.

            The corridor seemed to get longer the harder he pumped his legs. He heard calls of protest behind him, but he clamped his eyes shut and ran. He found himself ascending the grand staircase, alarming a couple staff members with his speed. Sweat was soaking through the back of his silk white shirt by the time he threw his bedroom door open.

            His arms had gone numb from panic, but still he flung his suitcase on the bed, zipping it open and throwing in anything his fingers cared to snag. His lips burned from the scotch that had still lingered on Fitz’s lips and tongue.

            After ten minutes of reckless flinging and ragged breaths, he heard a knock on his door. Wylan froze. Would his father leave his party completely to punish him? Had Fitz discovered where he had slept?

            But it was Raphael’s voice that flowed through the wood work. “Master Wylan?” he asked quietly. “Are you all right in there?”

            “Come in,” Wylan whimpered.

            Raphael opened the door, but didn’t step completely through. “What are you doing?”

            “I’m leaving.”

            “Sorry? Is everything alright, sir?”

            Wylan swiveled to look at his caretaker, tears streaming down his face. “I’m leaving.”

            There was a pause, and Wylan turned back to his packing. After a long silence, he heard the soft click of his door finally close. He was truly alone. He allowed his sobs to tear through his throat, his shoulders jerking violently. Wylan couldn’t even explain why. Not completely.

            Soon enough, everything he needed was packed. He stood in the stillness of his room, feeling an overwhelming sense of lost.

            And then the door opened again.

            “Your car is waiting for you out in the back courtyard, Master Wylan,” Raphael announced.

            Wylan’s mouth fell agape as he turned to look at him. “I…”

            “A private jet is also prepared. Let me take your bags for you.”

            Wylan walked towards him, fresh tears brimming in his eyes. “I don’t know what to say.” I really don’t.

            Raphael smiled warmly and Wylan realized that look was the closest thing he had to a fatherly gaze. There was so much to say to him, and yet Wylan couldn’t find a single word that would accumulate the magnitude of how much he appreciated this man.

            “Thank you.” Wylan pulled him into an embrace.

            The butler laughed, patting Wylan’s back. “Don’t snot up my tuxedo, boy,” he joked. When Wylan pulled back, he winked and picked up his bags. “Better get a move on. Gustov doesn’t like waiting.”

            Wylan nodded, his nerves catching up to him. “Give Glinda my love.” He made his way to the door but stopped short.

            “Sir?”

            Wylan casted Raphael a meaningful glance. “Watch over Alys,” he said. “Keep her safe. Keep her young.”

            “You have my word. Now go.”

            They said their good-byes and Wylan was off. He snuck through the kitchen to the back courtyard, the sounds of the dimming party could still be heard, where Gustov was waiting in a sleek black BMW. In mere minutes, Wylan was once again in a car, feeling the black leather beneath his fingertips. His heartbeat was a drum, keeping time to his least favorite song.

            Wylan pulled out his phone, dialed a number, and held his breath as he heard it ring.

            “Hey, it’s late.”

            “Shoot, did I wake you?” Wylan checked his watch. It was well past midnight.

            He heard shuffling and a soft grunt. “Yeah, but I’m up. Is this a booty-call?”

            Wylan laughed and blushed. How could he possibly feel embarrassed at a time like this? “If it was, it would be the worst booty-call you’ve ever had.”

            “I doubt that,” Jesper chuckled. His voice was deep, gravelly from sleep. “Is everything okay?”

            “I’m coming home.”

            “Weren’t you supposed to leave tomorrow afternoon?”

            “I changed my mind.”

            “Wylan, what happened?” Concern streaked through Jesper’s tone.

            “It just became too much. But I’m okay.” Tell him.

            “Are you safe?”

            “I am. Are you home yet?”

            “Yeah, I got home this morning. What time should I expect you?”

            “I have to stay under the radar, so probably tomorrow night.”

            “Are you sure everything is okay?”

            Wylan rolled his eyes, feeling a smile creep across his face. “It is now. You should sleep. We’ll talk when I get home.”

 

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

 

            They served alcohol on the private jet, there was a whole mini bar. Wylan never liked alcohol. He didn’t like the way it burned, or the way it made your eyes water, or the fact that Wylan never knew where he was when he was drunk. Drunk Wylan had no recollection of his previous endevours and believed to be completely immune to emotional turmoil. Wylan hated it.

            It was three in the morning, and he had already finished a bottle of rum. Wiping his mouth with his head swimming, he reached for another.

           

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

 

            Jesper paced his bedroom floor. Did “night” mean evening, or did it mean night? Wylan hadn’t called, texted, or sent a carrier pigeon. It was already 7pm, and Wylan’s baggage had arrived with a note from a man named Raph. He had spent the whole day at working coming up with theories of what caused Wylan to come home early. He knew this was going to happen. Did Van Eck hurt him? And how? Was it Jesper’s place to worry?

            He worked his nerves into the kitchen, closing and shutting cabinets aimlessly. He ate a handful of peanuts, and then spit them out because he forgot to unshell them. It was like someone had taken him apart and put him together with all the wrong parts, his body twitching and tinkering like a glitching machine.

            Somehow he made it for another four hours, worrying his teeth down to nubs and watching six minutes of practically every television show episode in existence on Netflix. Then his phone rang. He grabbed it so fast he nearly dropped and shattered it.

            “Wylan?”

            There was noise in the background. Singing and clinking and shouting. A bar? But the caller said nothing.

            Jesper tried to fend off the fear in his throat. “Wylan, you there?”

            “Je-e-e-e-s-s-s-s-per!” sang a sweet voice, the voice of a near-child.

            Dear God. “Wylan, where are you?”

            “God only knows, sweetheart,” Wylan warbled. “Drink…drank…drunk place, bar-thing. I think.”

            Oh, good, Jesper thought, that narrows it down to every single block in Ketterdam. Which drunk-place-bar-thing, boy?”

            “You sound so scared, J-e-e-e-e-e-e-s, loosen up.” Wylan sounded like he was about to keel over, his voice changing pitch on every syllable.

            “I’m coming to get you,” Jesper said. He was already by the front door, clutching his keys. “Where are you?”

            “I just saaaaaaaid, Jessie-Jessie.”

            “Do you know the name of the bar?” It was like trying to talk to a newborn.

            “It’s…uh…it’s so loud.”

            Jesper was milliseconds away from reaching through the phone and throttling him. “What did the sign have on it? Where there any pretty pictures?”

            A long pause, a hiccup, and then – “Oh! There was a…duck, with a pipe. Or a horn. Or a flute.” Wylan giggled. “A duck with a flute. Classic.”

            O’Malley’s, Jesper realized with great triumph. “Twenty minutes, Wylan. Give me twenty minutes. Do not go anywhere, do you understand?”

            “Yes, sir, mister father sir,” Wylan murmured. He sounded like he was falling asleep. That meant he was immobile. Perfect.

            Jesper drove as fast as he could without risk of being pulled over. That was the last thing he needed tonight. Did Wylan even miss him, or the others? Why would he go out and get drunk? Was it that bad? He grasped his steering wheel tightly, his vision blurring slightly. He had to get him.

 

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

 

            Wylan’s head teetered from side to side on the sticky bar counter. Everything hurt and it felt so good. He felt like he was swimming through sound-proof Jell-O, watching but never seeing, hearing but never listening.

            The clicks of pool balls in the background, the clink of beer bottles, the ruckus and laughter. It was all heard through a thick veil of cotton. Wylan didn’t know how long he had been there, and he didn’t care because it felt like the air was filled with laughing gas and pixie dust and ground-up glass.

            A firm hand gripped his arm. It was dark, like wood. Like his carving. “Wylan,” said a voice lined with worry. Wylan laughed. It was all he remembered how to do.

            The hand tightened. “Come on, we’re leaving. You’re drunk.”

            “I know that, dummy,” Wylan chuckled. His voice was too high; he sounded like Calliou. “I got drunk.”

            Jesper pulled him to his feet. A mistake. The room swayed upside-down as Wylan’s knees buckled. Right before he could crack his head on the floor, Jesper caught him, hitching Wylan’s elbow around his neck and hoisting him up. “Adda-boy,” Jesper grunted, walking him out of the noise and into the night.

            Wylan’s head felt like it was oozing sparkling apple cidar. It was a mixture between burning and bubbling, like dry ice and sorbet. His vision dimmed, his sight flowing in and out of focus. All of a sudden, he was sitting and Jesper was snapping in his seat belt.

            “I can do that myself,” Wylan declared. His mouth wasn’t working. Why wasn’t it working? Did he forget to plug it in? The thought made him giggle again.

            Jesper slid into the driver’s seat and took a deep breath. “We’re going home.” He started the car.

            “I miss home,” Wylan said, feeling his bottom lip tremble.

            “I’m sure,” Jesper scoffed, pulling out of the parking lot. He sounded hurt. Why did he sound like that?

            Wylan placed a hand on Jesper’s knee, rubbing the cap with his thumb. “I missed you, okay? Okay-yeah?”

            Jesper rolled his eyes, suppressing a small smile. “I missed you, too, kid.”

            Wylan allowed himself to sit back and close his eyes. The car felt like it was going a million miles an hour through molasses. Peeking an eye open, he caught sight of Jesper’s profile, illuminated by the moonlight coming through the window.

            “You’re pretty,” Wylan murmured. “Really-really.”

            “Thanks, pal,” Jesper laughed. “You’re not bad-looking yourself.”

            Wylan’s mouth opened but he couldn’t control what he was going to say. He didn’t even plan it. How silly. “You’re not bad-looking yourself,” he repeated. “Pretty boy.”

            That’s when he noticed his hand was still on Jesper’s leg. It looked good there. He decided to keep it. Like a tree ornament, or a bow on a gift. It just made it better.

            Time jumped, and his car door was opening. “Whoopsy-daisy,” Jesper muttered, lifting Wylan again by his arm. “Just a couple of steps. Then we’re getting you into bed.”

            Wylan laughed, and he saw his breath tinted blue in the air. There were a whole sky of stars, there must have been trillions. But that might have been because Wylan’s eyes crossed.

            Somehow Jesper got him through the front door without dropping him or tripping. A man of many skills and talents. Wylan clasped his hands together to keep hold of Jesper’s neck and pulled him tighter.

            “Okay, big guy,” Jesper murmured, turning on the kitchen light. “Let’s get you to the couch.”

            Wylan felt his nose brush against the skin of Jesper’s neck. He could feel his pulse and it felt good. Steady and rhythmic and heated. Wylan could only snuggle closer.

            “Whatcha doing there, tiger?” Jesper said. He sounded nervous. Did Jesper ever get nervous? He shouldn’t. Not now. Now was a good thing. Now was a great thing.

            “You’re warm,” Wylan mumbled, his lips partially covered with Jesper’s skin. He didn’t know how cold he was until he felt the heat radiating off of his roommate, like waves of gold. Everything seemed to dim suddenly. And then went black completely.

           

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

 

            Jesper staggered to the living room couch with Wylan hanging like a chimp from his neck. Wylan’s face – which was freezing, by the way – was pressed into the crook of his neck, mumbling something completely unintelligible. Something about heat and waves and other nonsense. But he wasn’t swaying anymore or giggling hysterically so that was a good sign. Maybe he was sobering up. Maybe.

            He dropped Wylan on the couch, who moaned and complained about being cold. Jesper ignored threw an afghan over him and stomped to the kitchen to get him a tall glass of water. He forced him to drink it.
            “Now shut up until you can make some sense,” Jesper ordered him. Wylan looked at him with the wide blue eyes of a toddler. He almost looked hurt, like he was about to cry.

            Wylan downed the glass of water and held it out, silently asking for another. Once he finished his second glass, he sat back on the couch, closing his eyes, humming an aimless tune, and wrapping himself tighter in the afghan.

            Jesper watched him intently, noticing changes in his features, a furrow in his brow or a tick of his jaw. His dark eyelashes lay gently on his freckled cheeks, flushed from the booze. He looked like he was falling asleep, but after a few minutes he opened them again and looked at Jesper endearingly.

            Wylan smiled. “Thank you for picking me up.” His speech was still wobbly, but he wasn’t mumbling anymore. Progress.

            “Hey, you needed help. I’m glad you called me.”

            Wylan inched closer to him, wiggling like that of a worm. “I don’t know why I drank,” he admitted. “I hate alcohol.”

            “Did something happen while you were at your dad’s?”

            Wylan avoided his gaze, looking into his lap. Then he shook his head.

            Liar, Jesper thought irritably. “Wylan, you know you can talk to me about this stuff. You don’t have to hide things anymore.”

            “I know,” Wylan whispered.

            “I’m here for you.”

            Wylan looked at him again, eyes flitting over his face like he was cracking a code. “I know.” And then he leaned forward.

            And kissed Jesper full on the mouth.

            Jesper leaned back, putting a hand between them. “Wylan,” he gasped, feeling his mind reeling and his heart stuttering. “You’re drunk, what’re you doing?”

            “I know what I’m doing,” Wylan pouted, putting his hand over Jesper’s. He was whining. He wasn’t sober. He couldn’t possibly be sober. “You’re warm.”

            “Jesus, kid,” Jesper said, shaking his head. “We need to get you to bed.”

            “No, I’m not tired.” Wylan bit his lip, hesitated and then kissed Jesper again. This time, Jesper didn’t pull away for a solid two minutes. Wylan was warm, too.

            This was a bad idea. This could ruin everything. Everything he had worked so hard to create, to keep safe. This could destroy the last good thing he had here. Could, could, could. Jesper’s favorite word, and worst habit. Chance. Risk. Instability. All synonyms for a good gamble. And everyone knows how great Jesper is at gambling.

            Wylan’s movements were sure and unfailing. Was he sober? He still had a misty look in his eye, like he was looking at the wall behind Jesper instead of making eye contact. His tongue tasted like bottles of liquor. He had the faint smell of cigarettes in his hair. Did Wylan smoke?

            “Jes,” Wylan whispered into his mouth. Jesper pulled him into his lap by the waist, his hands roaming past Wylan’s shirt and feeling the baby-softness of his skin. Wasn’t this what he wanted for so long? The feeling of Wylan’s fingertips caressing his clothes, his neck, his jaw? Hadn’t he wanted to hear the faintest of moans in the back of Wylan’s throat?

            So why did he feel so filthy?

            “Jes,” Wylan said again. “Don’t stop.” That’s when he began unbuttoning Jesper’s shirt. Jesper didn’t even realize until his shirt was off that this was going in that direction. He was all for the drunken shitty one-night-stand, but this was Wylan. Pure, untainted, hopeful Wylan. Who Was too good, too innocent to have a douche of a roommate like Jesper. He could be a virgin for all Jes knew.

             No. No. Jesper wasn’t doing this. This was too much. He had reached his limit of human shittiness for one night.

            He gently pushed Wylan away, breathing heavy and reeking of second-hand grog. “Wylan,” he said softly, his voice breaking. “You need sleep. No more.”

            To his surprise, Wylan nodded slowly, blinking, like they had done nothing at all, despite his disheveled hair and swollen lip. “Okay.” He slid off of Jesper’s lap and rubbed his eyes.

            “I’m sorry.” But Jesper’s voice was so quiet; he doubted Wylan even heard him.

            Wylan turned to him before walking up the stairs, smiling faintly, dream-like. “Goodnight, Jesper.”

            Jesper heard Wylan’s bedroom door click and put his head in his hands.

            Fuck. What have I done?

Chapter Text

            Wylan woke up at three in the afternoon, head pounding something awful. His mouth was so dry he thought he was dying. Like…actually dying. When was the last time he drank water? When was the last time he blinked? He rubbed his eyes furiously, trying to massage some moisture into them. Mustering up every bit of energy he could possibly have, he rolled onto his back and groaned loudly, feeling the weight of impending death fall upon him.

            This. This was why he didn’t drink. He didn’t remember hardly anything after his plane ride. He wasn’t even sure how he got from the port to the bar. There was a faint memory of Jesper picking him up in his car, but after that, there was nothing. Wylan was sure there was nothing more frightening than living through something and having no physical recollection of the events that took place. He had fallen asleep and had a…quite exciting dream about dark hands tugging at his hair. But that wasn’t important.

            Wylan felt disconnected like his soul was attempting to rip free from his body. He laid in bed for another hour, his mind reeling and grasping at any memory, however faint. His brain wracking was interrupted with nausea and he staggered to the bathroom, violently emptying the contents of his stomach into the toilet, just barely making it.

            Finally, giving up on human function, he got up and tromped downstairs. He felt like someone filled his head with water, the pressure building and sloshing against the walls of his skull. Hoover Dam. The house was completely silent, so he assumed Jesper was out. Wylan found his baggage on the table with a note attached.

            Hope you got out safely. The manor misses you.

            Best of luck,

            Raph

            Wylan took a deep breath and lugged his bags up to his bedroom. He had no energy and his whole body felt like it was collapsing in on itself, like a dying star. He didn’t even think he could start any of the homework he failed to complete on his break. So, instead of facing his responsibilities, he called Nikolai.

            In half an hour, he was knocking on Wylan’s door.

             “Well, don’t you just look chipper as a tea kettle,” Nikolai lilted as soon as he walked through the doorway. Wylan tried to roll his eyes, but his head hurt too much. Sunlight burned.

             “I almost died last night,” Wylan explained, “I’ve thrown up four times since then.” He plopped on his couch and ignoring the ringing in his ears.

            Nikolai had with him a basket of various drinks and ingredients. He shuffled around in the kitchen, looking for dishes and cutlery.

            “Are those your hangover cures?” Wylan asked.

            “I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time,” Nikolai told him. “The day my first-born would experience his first day-after.”

            “There’s a better way of phrasing that.”

            “But no matter! I have brought you the finest of cures, remedies our ancestor’s ancestors have been using for centuries.”

            Wylan chuckled dryly. After ten minutes of intense preparation, Nikolai placed different items of food on the table.

            Amused, Wylan examined them. “Gatorade, oatmeal, chicken noodle soup, apple juice and…Saints. Is that pickle juice?”

            Nikolai sat next to Wylan and clapped excitedly. “All of these things have saved my life at one point or another.” He picked up the tall glass of apple juice. “Drink. Drink like it’s your last meal to be consumed.”

            “I feel like a stereotypical college student.”

            Nikolai laughed. “Hmm, a rich father who pays for tuition, messy flat, procrastinating every possible assignment, and regretting a massive hangover. Sorry to tell you, Wylan dearest, but you fit the profile.”

            “Awesome,” Wylan mumbled. He gulped down half a bottle of Gatorade and grimaced. His mouth had managed to suck every molecule of moisture out. “This isn’t working.”

            “It’s not magic,” Nikolai complained. “It’s science.”

            “You know I’m a slut for chemistry,” Wylan replied, “But are there any instant cures? I have to face other humans today.”

            “What am I, roadkill?”

            “You don’t count, you’ve seen me in worse conditions.”

            “Ohhh,” Nikolai realized knowingly, wiggling his eyebrows. “You mean you’re seeing another human today. Singular.”

            “I assume you mean Jesper?” Wylan asked dryly, deadpanning.

            “Who else could I possibly even care to mention?”

            “Well yeah, I live with him so I’m obviously going to see him. But I would prefer not to look slash feel like a friggin train wreck. He practically saved my life last night, the least I could do is not look like a corpse when he gets home.”

            “You have it bad, Wylan, you really do.”

            Wylan threw up his hands in exasperation. “So what if I do? The hell does it matter?”

            For a moment, he thought Nikolai would jump for joy and in triumph but there was a pause. Nikolai’s eyes widened slightly, a smile playing on his lips. “Really?”

            Wylan rolled his eyes. “Sure, really-really.”

            “I didn’t think you’d be so casual about it. This is new! This is exciting!”

            “This is over,” Wylan explained. “He doesn’t feel the same way. I would know by now if he did.”

            “How do you know?”

            Wylan sighed, his fatigue settling down around his shoulders like a shawl. “If Jesper really liked me, he’d show it in other ways other than teasing me and joking around. There’s a difference between wanting someone and wanting to be with someone. Jesper might like the way I look, but he’d show different signs if he liked me.”

            “You sound like you know all the facts - and yet here you sit, spitting utter nonsense.”

            Wylan wrung his hands, looking down into his lap. “What do you mean?”

            Nikolai groaned dramatically. “Do I have to explain everything?” He crossed one leg over the other, placing his hands on his knee like a doting grandfather lending some advice. “What if, and stop me if I’m wrong, but Jesper is afraid to show you any other affection than he shows everyone else? Do you treat him any differently than you would to another close friend?”

            Wylan thought about it and then shrugged. “I guess not.”

            “And why is that?”

            “Because I don’t want him to know, obvious-” Oh.

            Nikolai grinned deviously. “You understand now?”

            “But what if you’re wrong? What if he is just treating me the same because he thinks of me as a friend? And then I put myself out there and totally ruin everything ever and the world collapses like a supernova?”

            “Then you can say, “I told you so”, perhaps even burning me at the stake, if it tickles your fancy,” Nikolai replied dully. “But until then, you need to look your best. So eat the friggin’ oatmeal and stop whining.”

 

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

            Working at the café felt like slowly peeling away each and every fingernail with a pair of rusty pliers. It felt like the weight of a truck was resting on his chest as he took orders and made drinks. How the hell did he get himself into this mess? And how was he going to get himself out?

            Wylan was still asleep when he left the morning after his drunken incident. A never-ending loop of questions had been swirling in Jesper’s head since he went to bed that night. Would Wylan remember? Would Wylan regret it if he did? If Wylan regretted it, would it be considered sexual assault? Jesper’s stomach literally lurched at the thought.

            His nerves worked his gut into a million knots that would take days to unravel. His mind was reeling a mile a minute but he somehow projected his anxiety into productivity, earning himself an hour off early from his manager, which was a total backfire. It meant he had to face Wylan even earlier than he had anticipated.

            The whole drive home his vision focused in and out, panic clawing at his throat and chest. But when he opened the door to the apartment, he saw Wylan on the couch with Nikolai, watching What Not to Wear and eating food.

            Wylan glanced over and smiled warmly, “Hey Jes, how was work?”

            The smile didn’t look deceiving, but it could have been just because Nikolai was there. Jesper put his bag on the table and faked a grin as well. “It was alright. How’s your killer hangover?”

            “Better,” Wylan replied, laughing. “Nikolai here brought me some remedies that actually worked.”

            “Just call me Fairy Godmother,” Nikolai quipped.

            “Yeah? Looks like it worked.”

            “God, I hope so. I have class tomorrow.”

            Jesper flashed him one more smile and then walked up to his room. Closing his door silently behind him, he blew out the longest breath known to mankind. He opened his laptop with shaking hands and watched three Vine compilations back to back until he calmed down enough to focus on homework. About an hour later, he heard a faint tapping on his door.

            Oh God, Jesper panicked. He shut his laptop too loudly and croaked out a “Come on in.”

            Wylan timidly stepped into his room with his hands behind his back and smiled. “Hey,” he said.

            Jesper set his laptop on his bed and patted the spot next to him. Wylan smiled brighter and took a seat, his hands still hidden. “What’s up?” Jesper asked, his skin prickling.

            “When I was out of town, I found something that I thought you’d like,” Wylan explained, bringing his hands around to his lap. In his palms, he held a wooden sculpture, a pair of hands extending from a barky base, dark solid wood polished and shined to perfection. It was beautiful. Jesper didn’t deserve such a thing.

            “Oh,” was all Jesper could muster. He took the carving in his own hands and was stunned by the similarities between his fingers and the statue. “Gosh.”

            “Yeah,” Wylan said, his voice cracking slightly. “I just thought – you know – that you’d like it, just to go on your dresser or something. I dunno, it seemed like a good idea at the time.” He blushed and Jesper could hardly look him in the eye. He could only think of the way Wylan slipped his own fingertips underneath the hem of Jesper’s shirt, setting Jesper’s skin aflame, only just the night before.

            “Thank you,” Jesper replied, turning the carving in his hands. “It’s really nice.”

            “No problem,” Wylan said, then after a long, painfully awkward pause, “How was your trip? As a whole?”

            God, Jesper needed him out of his room right then and there. Or else he was going to do something stupid. Wylan was sitting so close. Perfect kissing distance. “It was nice. Refreshing.” He scratched the back of his neck and faked a yawn. “Could we talk about this later? I was going to take a nap to kick up my circadian rhythm.”

            Wylan nodded, the unmistakable look of disappointment etched across his face. “Yeah, sure,” he said. He waited for a single beat, looking at Jesper with his impossibly blue eyes, and then shuffled out of his room.

            Jesper lay in his bed for two hours, but he couldn’t even close his eyes.

 

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

            What did I do wrong?

            The thought had wound through Wylan’s head about forty times in the two hours that Jesper was lying down for a nap. He almost felt angry, he had spent good money on that carving, and Jesper didn’t even try to look like he wanted it. Then again, Wylan thought as he took his irritation out on the dishes, I was drunk off my gourd last night. He must have said some too-honest things to Jesper or vomited without remembering. At this point, Wylan was too afraid to ask. He milled around the apartment, cleaning and wiping down counters, sweeping and re-sweeping floors that never needed to be swept in the first place.

            Nikolai’s remedies seemed to have subsided his headaches and light sensitivity for the most part, but Wylan still felt nauseated for the remainder of the day. I’m never looking at alcohol again, he vowed.

            That evening, Jesper was up from his nap, cooking ramen up on the stove. Wylan was sitting on the couch, scrolling through Tumblr on his laptop, allowing the photos and posts to fly past his eyes with no consumption whatsoever.

            “Has your dad changed at all?” Wylan called to him.

            “Exactly the same, actually,” Jesper replied, coming into the living room with a bowl of steaming noodles. “Unwaveringly wholesome and unapologetically virtuous.”

            “Doesn’t sound like a bad guy.”

            Jesper chuckled to himself. “He’s not the one who’s bad. That’s the problem.”

            Wylan frowned, thinking hard for a moment. “Why do you do that?”

            “Do what?”

            “Sell yourself short like that?”

            “It’s called self-deprecating humor, Wyls. All the cool kids are using it nowadays.”

            “Yeah, but you’re not exactly joking all that much, are you?” Wylan tilted his laptop screen down and studied Jesper’s face. He looked irritated, on edge, like he was fighting a battle within himself.

            “Don’t get philosophical on me, darling. Did I say something wrong?”

            “No,” Wylan said, “I’ve just always wondered why you put yourself down all the time.”

            “Have you met me?” Jesper asked dryly.

            Wylan looked at him again, straight in his eyes this time, desperately trying to convey his point. “Yes. I have.”

            Jesper’s body seemed to squirm beneath his skin like something was trying to escape. “I’m…not always who you think I am, you know.”

            “Who do I think you are?”

            “Someone who’s…good. Honest.”

            God, take the damn hint, Wylan wanted to scream. “You are good.”

            “God, stop saying that.”

            “Why?”

            Jesper didn’t answer him. He stood up abruptly from the couch.

            Wylan took a deep breath and furrowed his brow. “Are you mad at me?”

            “For what?” He sounded mad.

            “For last night,” Wylan said quietly, fiddling with the hem of his shirt. Jesper’s eyes trained on Wylan’s hands, his jaw ticking rhythmically. “Are we going to talk about that?”

            Jesper shoved his hands into his pockets like he was smothering a grenade. “There’s nothing to talk about.”

            Wylan allowed the side of his mouth to tilt into a smirk. “I’m pretty sure that’s my line.”

            “I’m not mad at you for getting drunk.”

            “Well, you shouldn’t be. But I called you on the phone and said God knows what. You had to pick me up in the middle of the night, and I was a mess. I blacked out completely, so who knows what you’re mad at me for.”

            Jesper blinked slowly, taking his words in. “You blacked out?”

            “Yeah,” Wylan said, feeling his cheeks heat. “I don’t remember much past you picking me up at the bar.”

            “Oh,” Jesper nodded, taking his hands out of his pockets. His features seemed to soften in the slightest. “Well, no, I’m not mad at you.”

            “Jesper,” Wylan asked hesitantly, meeting his eyes. “What happened last night?”

            Jesper looked away, his jaw clenched once again. “I’m not mad at you.” In four simple strides, he was ascending to his bedroom, and he closed his door behind him.

           

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

 

            Jesper didn’t see Wylan for the next two days. Between classes and work, their schedules seemed to be going in opposite directions at all times. Getting back into the rhythm of studying and homework was difficult for him. His brain felt like it was spinning off its hamster wheel, unable to stop and barely hanging on. That Night’s memories were still buried inside of his body, ripping at his seams. Wylan didn’t remember. That meant Jesper could go on with his life; Wylan wouldn’t regain those memories any time soon.

            So then why did Jesper feel so dreadful?

           

            “I have to tell you something.”

            “What kind of something?”

            “A kind of something that happened a few nights ago.”

            Nina licked her fingers and brushed the remnants of her cookies off of the front of her blouse. “A good something or a bad something?”

            Jesper scrubbed the back of his neck with a nervous hand. Every part of him was nervous, really. “A bad something. Really bad.”

            Nina looked at him finally, a notch of concern engraved between her brows. “What’s wrong?”

            “You remember me telling you about how Wylan got out-of-his-head drunk the night he came home from his dad’s place?”

            Nina nodded. “Yeah, I keep wondering what caused that.”

            “Me, too,” Jesper admitted. “And you remember how I said I got drunk too, once we got home?”

            “Yeah, where are you going with this?”

            “When I picked him up he was already gone, muttering nonsense and clinging to me like a drowned rat.” He took in a shallow breath, his chest not wanting to accept oxygen just yet. His hands trembled and he slid them under his thighs. Nina’s living room suddenly seemed very bright.

            “Jes, spit it out. What happened?”

            Another breath. It hitched in his chest. “Wylan kissed me.”

            Nina’s eyes bugged out, a grin splitting her face wide open. “Oh. My. God. And you didn’t tell me immediately? What kind of best friend are you?”

            “Nina,” Jesper breathed. “He was drunk. Like, drunk drunk.”

            “Okay, so he doesn’t remember it. But he likes you and that’s the important thing.”

            “I kissed him back.”

            “Well, obviously.”

            “Nina,” Jesper tried again, his desperation building. “I kissed him back. Like, full-on make out. Like, he took my shirt off.”

            “I’m genuinely disappointed you guys didn’t go farther – ”

            “Nina,” Jesper pleaded, pressing his fingers into temples. “I…wasn’t drunk. I was sober. Completely.”

            She was quiet for a moment, her smile falling off of her lips, then swallowed dryly. “Oh.”

            “I really messed up.”

            “Maybe. So Wylan doesn’t remember?”

            “Not at all.”

            “And…Jes, you haven’t told him?”

            He threw his arms up in vexation. “How the hell am I supposed to bring up something like that? “Hey, bud, sorry to tell you this, but I made out with you when you had no conscious control over your body and completely took advantage of your inebriated state?”

            “It’s not supposed to be easy, hon.” Nina put her hand on his thigh. “So, why’d you do it?”

            “I just…” Jesper blew out a long breath and shrugged. “I really really wanted to.”

            “It looks like Wylan wanted to, too. You should tell him. Maybe it won’t be as bad as you think. Judging from his dad, Wylan seems like the guy who’d be very forgiving.”

            “You just put Van Eck and me in the same boat and its going unappreciated.”

            Nina laughed, patting Jesper’s leg again. “You’re going to be okay. And if things don’t go as planned, you can sleep on Matthias’ bed until Wylan cools off.”

            “I don’t want to sleep in this place,” Jesper joked, “Your walls are so thin, I think I might go deaf from all that moaning.”

            Nina threw one of her cookies at him. “You’re just mad because Matthias wants to sleep with me when he’s sober.”

            “That’s cold,” Jesper commented, barking out a laugh. It felt like something had eased a bit of the weight burdening his back.

            “It pays to be honest, bitch.”

 

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

 

            Wylan hated his classes. He hated sitting through them, he hated studying for them, he even hated turning in work and hated the satisfaction he got from it. None of it mattered. None at all. Because every moment he sat sitting at his desk, sitting on his bed, even while driving, he stared at his phone and waited for it to ring, displaying a blocked number. Van Eck had not tried to reach out to him since he made his escape. Raphael hadn’t contacted him either, not even a note or a friggin’ carrier pigeon. The anticipation only intensified as the days dragged on.

            Jesper was avoiding him as usual, leaving for work an hour early to keep from seeing Wylan in the morning, and staying out until late at night so Wylan was asleep before he came home. Ever since their painfully confusing conversation on the couch, he had given up wracking his brain to wonder what he did wrong. It was no use trying to conjure anything out of Jesper’s mouth, and his alcoholic memories weren’t returning either. Everything was still black no matter how hard he tried to remember. Jesper didn’t even bother to ask why Wylan got black-out drunk the day after he left his childhood home. The feeling of Fitz’s drunken lips on his neck was enough to make him gag, the seductive-turned-putrid smell of cigarettes and thick booze filling his nose and mouth. It made him want to replace his showerhead with a flamethrower and take a long nice shower.

            He didn’t know much about Jesper’s trip, either. The only stories he had heard were over the phone, Jesper’s grin filtering through the speakers. Wylan desperately wished to see him with his own eyes telling him about Colm Fahey and all that entails. Then again, Wylan wasn’t comfortable telling Jesper about his spring break as a whole. It wasn’t the same, though. Or was it?

            It was about a week and a half since the drunken mishap when Wylan found himself making dinner for one when Jesper came through the door, keys jingling.

            “Hey,” Wylan called to him, popping a Lean Cuisine in the microwave. “I didn’t think you’d be home from work until later tonight.”

            Jesper put his things on the table and groaned softly. “Nah, I got off this afternoon. I just left Nina’s apartment. Do we have anything for dinner?”

            “I stocked up on some TV dinners,” Wylan told him, training his eyes on his meal, going round and round in an automated deathray. He was probably going to get face cancer. He didn’t care. “Feel free to consume.”

            Jesper laughed, but there was no malice. “No one calls them TV dinners, sweetheart.”

            “What do they call them then?”

            “I dunno, not that.” Jesper laughed again. He seemed…lighter.

            “You seem chipper.”

            “I feel chipper.”

            Wylan spared him a quick glance. Jesper looked easy on his feet, his hands moving smoothly, not like hands on a clock, twitching and sudden. He swaggered into the kitchen and opened the freezer, pulling out another box of Lean Cuisine.

            Wylan and Jesper ate their matching dinners on the couch, watching My Fair Wedding in comfortable silence. Well, Wylan was sure that Jesper was comfortable, but it felt like crickets had burrowed themselves under Wylan’s shirt. They were halfway through the second episode when he couldn’t stand it anymore.

            “Jesper, you have to tell me what’s going on with you.”

            Jesper looked at him, startled. “What do you mean?”

            Wylan paused the television show and turned towards him. “You go a week avoiding me and then we argue and now everything is fine?”

            “I wasn’t avoiding you,” Jesper said.

            “You have a terrible poker face.”

            “I just…” Jesper ran his hand through his hair. “I didn’t know what to say, you know? After…what happened.”

            “The thing is, I don’t know what happened. I don’t remember. And you’re acting really strange and it’s bothering me.” Wylan wasn’t sure he had ever been this curt and honest with Jesper in his life. It felt good. Almost…normal. “So you need to tell me what happened, or what’s messing you up, because I want you back, Jes.”

            That last part kind of fell out of his mouth without stopping and Wylan felt his cheeks, ears, and neck burn as Jesper suppressed a smile. But then his face hardened and panic flickered in Wylan’s chest.

            “I…” Jesper blew out a long breath and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I made a mistake.”

            You’ve made loads, Wylan thought to himself in frustration. Be more specific. He waited silently.

            “When…when we got home, you…” Jesper squeezed his eyes shut and cursed under his breath. “Damn, this is harder than I thought.”

            “It’s okay,” Wylan said quietly, walls of fear closing in. Spit it out. “I’m listening.”

            “Did you know you’re really affectionate when you’re drunk?”

            Shit. “Oh, god,” Wylan groaned.

            “You were…incredibly close. You kept saying how I was – how I was warm and stuff. And then…” Jesper buried his face in his hands. “You kissed me.”

            The world’s ceiling crashed in around Wylan’s head. This was why Jesper was ignoring him. Wylan freaked him out, assaulted him while dead drunk and scared him away. He ruined everything.

            “I’m…so sorry,” Wylan stuttered, his mouth moving too fast for his own good. “I – I don’t really have any, like, any control over myself or w-what I was doing a-and everything had gone dark at that point and I – ”

            Jesper turned to look at him, a puzzled frown shaping his lips. “Wylan no,” he urged, lightly touching Wylan’s knee to stop him. “Just…” Another breath. “Just listen.”

            Wylan sat back, his heart pounding in his chest, his head, his hands. He had never seen Jesper so contrite or ashamed in his life. His hands were shaking, his knuckles ticking. Beads of sweat formed on his brow.

            “When…when you kissed me, I stopped you. I knew it was wrong, and that you weren’t in any state. But…” His hands rubbed over his eyes and there was a mournful snap in his voice. “But when you kissed me again, I didn’t do anything. No, in fact, I kissed you back. For a while. It got…god. It got pretty physical. It wasn’t until I was shirtless that I realized that it was a bad idea. A horrible, stupid, reckless idea. On my part.”

            Wylan was frozen in time. His mind slowed to a crawl, anticipating Jesper’s next words.

            “I am…so sorry.” His voice cracked completely, his eyes shining. “I took advantage of you, regardless of realizing it, and didn’t even think about how it could have affected you, had we gone farther. I was the aware one, the sober one, in the situation. I should have taken charge and been responsible, and instead, I majorly messed up. If…if you want me to move out, or to never even talk to me again, I completely understand.”

            The silence in the room bore upon Wylan’s back. Jesper’s pants began to sprout dark dots and his tears slid easily off of his cheek. Wylan didn’t care, however. He didn’t care about Jesper’s tears, or his nervousness, or his shame and remorse. He didn’t care about any of it.

            Wylan’s mouth refused to open. No form of language seemed to want to develop in his throat. The quiet stretched on for several minutes. Wylan was on fire.

            “Jesus,” Jesper breathed, standing up and stumbling to the stairs. “I’m so sorry,” he sobbed, covering his mouth with a hand and fleeing up to his room.

            When he heard the hushed sound of Jesper’s bedroom door clicking, a most familiar sound, Wylan allowed the first of the tears to glide gently down his burning cheeks.

 

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

 

            ShitshitshitshitshitshitsHIT

            Jesper closed the door behind him and choked back a violent hiccup. He brought the collar of his shirt up around his eyes and face to dry the multitude of tears that had collected there. He hadn’t expected to lose it so quickly, so intensely in front of Wylan. What an idiot, he thought to himself as he collapsed onto his bed. Crying like a fucking baby, get your act together.

            He did it, though. He told Wylan, despite his entire mentality screaming at him to keep it a secret for the rest of time. Now he could lose everything. His home, Wylan…Wylan’s care for him, his smile, the way his freckles would pop out on a sunny day, the playful rustle of his golden-red curls. Everything.

            He sat on his bed and wept shamelessly into his hands for a long while. The inevitable calming relief spread across his chest and shoulders once the tears ceased, his breath shuddering as he released the last of his sobs. Jesper efficiently dried his tears with his sleeve and lay on his back, staring at the ceiling, and let numbness unfurl inside of him.

            Then his bedroom door clicked open. By the time the hinges squeaked, Jesper was sitting up and practically gasping for breath.

            Wylan stood in his doorway, hands clasped in front like a child. His face was unreadable, no stress weighing on any of his delicate, beautiful features. His blue eyes looked slightly puffy and his ducts were moist. You made him cry, Jesper thought painfully.

            They said nothing. Jesper only motioned for him to come and sit. Wylan did, leaving no noise behind him. Inej would be proud.

            Jesper couldn’t bring himself to look Wylan in the eye. He had lost that privilege.

            “Do you want me to move out?” Jesper’s voice was raw and hoarse. “I can.”

            “Don’t leave,” Wylan whispered, his eyes cast towards his own lap. “Please.”

            “I shouldn’t be here,” Jesper admitted. “I don’t belong here.”

            “Neither of us do.” Wylan took a deep breath. His breath was taut and strained. “You made a mistake. And I forgive you.”

            Jesper had to look at him now. Wylan looked deadly serious, with his eyes piercing and his lips firm. “How can you say that?”

            “Because it’s true. You told me the truth, so you deserve it, too.”

            “How can you…” Jesper felt tears form again. Guilt was ripping his throat apart, peeling off his fingernails. “How can you even look at me?”

            “I don’t see a mistake, Jesper. You’re not a mistake. You’re human.”

             “Turns out you can be both.”

            Wylan placed his hand on Jesper’s and connected his eyes with Jesper’s sleet grey. “Don’t hurt yourself further over this. You need to learn how to forgive yourself.”

            Thoughts continued to hurl through Jesper’s mind and his hands quivered once more. “I had one good thing, Wylan. One. And that was you. And I-I managed to fuck it up. And I ruined everything.”

            Wylan took his hand from Jesper’s skin and placed it on Jesper’s chest, Wylan’s fingers brushed across his collarbone. “You didn’t ruin everything.” His eyes shone, impossible blue filled Jesper’s vision, and his heart stopped completely. “You didn’t ruin anything.”

            Their lips connected and Jesper’s mind shattered. This was different than the drunken kiss. Or any other kiss he had ever had. He felt like his entire body had gone up in flames, his skin floating away in flecks of amber light, caught in the wind and getting hopelessly lost in the ever-blue sky. His chest beat with the rhythm of a thousand drums, a stampede of excitement. Wylan’s lips carried him to far off lands to which he might never return. They were softer than anything he had ever felt. And when they parted to capture Jesper’s bottom lip, he felt something inside of his body melt entirely. Jesper’s hands slid into Wylan’s hair, to the base of his neck and cupping his jaw. But his movements were slow, meticulous, on purpose. There would be no recklessness tonight.

            Everything was as it should be.

            The kiss couldn’t have lasted longer than a minute, but it felt like the entire world had come and gone before they broke apart. Wylan’s mouth was pinked and slightly swollen and his cheeks flushed and glowing, with disheveled hair.

            Wylan kept his blessedly soft hand – everything about him was soft, really – on  Jesper’s face as they caught their breath, soothing wisps dancing off of each other’s cheeks.

            “Are you still sorry?” Wylan’s voice was hardly audible.

            “A bit.”

            Wylan kissed him one last time, then brushed his thumb across Jesper’s bottom lip. “I’m not.” He then stood and walked to the door.

             “Goodnight, Jes,” he said, and without a sound, closed the door.

            Jesper’s lips felt like a thousand fireworks were going off inside of them. He clutched his chest and forced out a simple breath. It felt like physical labor.

            How the hell was he supposed to sleep after that?

Chapter Text

            Staring at himself in the mirror, Wylan clutched his own stomach and examined the dark circles around his eyes. He looked like garbage, in all honesty. His eyes were reddened and sunken in, hair sticking out in all directions and matted in the back, lips dry and chapped. Lookin’ like a damn heroin addict, he thought to himself with a shake of his head.

            Wylan had spent the entire night alternating between crying from the built-up anxiety and sobbing because of his horrible decision to kiss Jesper on his bed. That was not the plan he formed walking up the stairs that night to forgive Jesper for his mistake. He had intended to say a big speech on how he gave second chances and that he was grateful that Jesper told him the truth, even if he waited out of fear. He never once thought that he should kiss him, or say sappy, cliché things that were drilled into his memory forever. But alas…here he was. Post-kiss and miserable.

            Wylan decided to take a nice long shower to see if he could boil the disgrace right off of his skin. When he looked at himself in the mirror again, he looked better, his hair tamer, but the dark circles still stayed. Thank god for eye makeup.

            Jesper had gone to work early that morning so Wylan didn’t get a chance to talk to him before he left. It might’ve been a good thing; he dodged the shitstorm of awkwardness that could have occurred. His brain felt like it had been scrambled and tossed like a goddamn omelette. Nothing made sense.

            And yet he couldn’t quite seem to suppress the impending fizzy feeling his stomach was providing. His head beat like a motherfucker, he dragged his feet everywhere, he wanted to rip out his own hair, and yet he found himself smiling. Smiling everywhere. Eating breakfast, studying, even washing dishes; he realized his cheeks hurt from smiling subconsciously all day. His teeth were sore and his jaw ached, yet he didn’t care one bit.

            He kissed Jesper on his bed.

            He tried to recreate the moment a thousand – nay, a million – times over in his head, trying to cling to the feeling that Jesper’s lips gave him in those fleeting moments.

            But the more he thought about the event, the more confused he got. Where do we go from here? he thought. He knew he wanted to be with Jesper, but were the feelings reciprocated?

            A few days went by, and somehow Wylan had only seen Jesper in mere glimpses, walking out the door to work when Wylan woke or coming home just as Wylan was planning on leaving. That and the millions of Jespers in Wylan’s head. Wylan wanted to talk, to just sit down and have a heart to heart, but he knew Jesper wasn’t good with that. What would he say? What if he didn’t want Wylan the way Wylan wanted him?

            Wylan sat down in Chem II and groaned as his back creaked like an old floorboard, putting his forehead on the desk. Kuwei was on his phone, but the sight of a Wylan in distress had him pouncing like a lion.

            “What’s up, buttercup?” he sang. It was too early in the morning to sing. Or be awake.

            Wylan groaned again in response, not looking up.

            “Bad day?”

            “It’s a long story.”

            “Then tell it,” Kuwei said, and Wylan felt an aggressive tug on his arm. Kuwei was already out of his seat, pulling Wylan towards the classroom door.

            Wylan yanked his arm back. “We can’t just leave. The professor will be here any minute!”

            Kuwei rolled his eyes. “And?”

            Wylan waited for a beat, pondered, then said, “Fair enough.” And off they went.

            The pair sat in the student cafeteria and tried desperately to ignore the ruckus around them. The student union had free wifi and about a billion electricity outlets; two resources that were greatly taken advantage of in the university. Gamers - who either didn’t have class, didn’t have many friends, or didn’t have anything else better to do – set up their gaming systems of every sort and the beeping and blasting sound effects, not to mention the shrieks and cuss-outs of the participants, echoed off the wall in a clashing riot that made you want to invest in earplugs. Or cyanide.

            Kuwei set his backpack down, leaned on his elbows, and sipped his Fresca flamboyantly. “Come on, Wyls, spill the tea.”

            Wylan eyed his friend warily. “It’s Jes-related,” he warned.

            “With you, what isn’t?” Wylan made a sour face and Kuwei waved his hands. “That was so three weeks ago. I’m beyond over it.”

            Wylan closed his eyes and buried his face in his hands and mustered up every last bit of his courage. “I kissed Jesper.”

            There was an uncomfortable silence. Wylan lifted his head and gauged Kuwei’s reaction. He didn’t look overjoyed, nor upset, or even shocked. If anything he looked…underwhelmed.

            “Oh,” he said. Like Wylan was updating him on the weather.

            “Oh?”

            “I mean,” Kuwei shrugged. “That’s why you’re all weird?”

            Wylan felt a surge of sudden defensiveness. “I mean, it’s a pretty big curve in our friendship.”

            “Ask any one of your friends that knows you and Jes and see if they’re surprised at this development. We all saw it a mile away.”

            Wylan shifted awkwardly in his chair. “Really?”

            Kuwei guffawed, his jaw hanging open. “Yes, you dummy. So why the distress?”

            “I…” Wylan shook his head. “It just changes everything.”

            “Well, I should hope so.”

            “And we haven’t talked about it yet.”

            Kuwei sat up a little straighter. “You mean, you kissed Jesper and no one has even mentioned it? How long ago was this?”

            “Almost…a week.”

            “Wylan.”
           
“I know, I know. We’ve both just been so busy with work and school and stuff, I guess.”

            “ ‘And stuff, I guess,’” Kuwei mocked in a high-pitched voice. “Sit that damn boy down. Converse, you animal.”

            Wylan sighed heavily. “But what…what if we start talking a-and we realize we want two different things?”

            “Like what?” Kuwei inquired with a curious eyebrow.”

            “Like, he wants something casual, like you and him – ”

            “ – And you want something serious,” Kuwei finished.

            Wylan nodded, feeling teary.

            “Do you?”

            Wylan nodded again, swallowing thickly, his throat suddenly tight. “I don’t want to lose him. If everything goes to shit, it’s not like I can avoid him. We live together.”

            Kuwei frowned thoughtfully. “And if it doesn’t go to shit?”

            “Then…I’d be the happiest person alive.”

            “Doesn’t that make it worth the risk?”

            Wylan groaned, rubbing his eyes.

            “You’re going to have to take that chance,” Kuwei said.

            “I know,” Wylan grumbled. “I just wish you weren’t always right.”

 

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

 

            Nina looked at Jesper long and hard. “Yeah, so?”

            “So?” Jesper choked out. “This is a huge deal!”

            “Jes, you’ve kissed practically everyone you’ve known for longer than half an hour. And I’ve seen you break that record. You’ve kissed Matthias, Inej, Aleksander. And you’ve kissed me on like, seven different occasions.”

            “What?” Matthias called from the bathroom.
            “Nothing, darling!” Nina replied.

            This was all true, and most people knew it. But Jesper’s stomach had not ceased its infernal churning since the night it occurred. His head spun constantly and his heart beat a mighty drum whenever he thought about it for too long. Or any amount of time at all, really.

            “But…” Nina started again, studying his face. “This is different, huh?”

            Jesper nodded, rubbing his thumb over his knuckles methodically. Every time he even caught a swift glance at Wylan since the kiss, no matter how brief, he felt like all of his words piled up in his throat, thick and dry like lint. Wylan’s eyes were always so round and blue, innocent and yet so wise. Were they always that way?

            Jesper smiled to himself. Yes. Yes, they were always that way.

            “Is this just a crush or…?” Nina asked delicately.

            “It’s more,” Jesper answered honestly. “I mean, he’s unlike anyone I’ve ever met. He makes me want to commit to something for the first time in my goddamn life.”

            “That’s good, Jes. That’s great.”

            “It is. He’s great.” The words came out too fast now. Words that had been hidden away for only Jesper to hear. “He’s smart, a-and sensitive, and thoughtful and so so sweet, and I like him so much, Nina. I really do. When he kissed me, I thought my heart was going to stop, honest. He’s perfect.”

            “And you don’t deserve him.”

            Jesper shot a sour and defiant look at Nina. “Um, ouch?”

            “You know it’s true.”

            He did.

            “He’s too good for you. He’s too good for all of us. But none of that matters because he kissed you. He saw something in you, and now you’re going to have to find out what you’re going to do about it.”

            “Uh, why do you think I’m coming to you for all this?”

            Nina thought for a moment, truly considering all odds. “I say go for it.”

            Jesper blinked. “That’s it?”

            “Things like this shouldn’t be complicated. Talk to him. Tonight. Lay it all out. No harm in being honest.”

            Jesper felt as though his skin was shrink-wrapping around him. “Say he wants a relationship, too. Say we’re both on the same page. The closer he gets to me, the more ‘me’ I become.” He felt the weight of his words digging a hole in his stomach. “And he’ll realize he wants nothing to do with me. What do I do then?”

            He looked desperately at his closest friend, his eyes pleading. She took a deep breath and laid a light hand on his own.

            “I can’t promise that that won’t happen. No one can. But what I can promise is that Wylan is a good person; smart, too. And I think he knows what he’s signing up for. But you’ll never know until you take that leap. Trust me. Trust him.”

            Jesper paused, then nodded. “You’re right.”

            Nina’s face split into a giddy grin. “Damn straight.”

 

            **************

            Nina departed after a heartfelt farewell and left Jesper sitting anxiously on the couch, awaiting Wylan’s arrival. His mind was going a mile a minute, thinking of all the things he could and should say to Wylan, and the millions of things Wylan could say in response. There were too many unknown outcomes to this scenario, most of them bad, for Jesper to be any less terrified. This was a situation he had never been in during his adult life. He was always the one to break off the “whatever-this-is” relationship when the other person developed romantic feelings for Jesper, inevitably.

             The thought of losing Wylan, or making Wylan hate him, was the most terrifying outcome by far. And most heartbreaking. Somehow, the idea of losing the light in Wylan’s eye whenever Jesper comes around made his chest feel like it was sinking in. Losing that damn smile when he –

            “Oh, hey.” Keys jangled as Wylan stumbled through the door clumsily and locked it behind him. “How was your day?”

            Jesper stood up from the couch, felt stupid, and then sat back down and rubbed the thighs of his jeans. “Good, though uneventful. Yours?”

            “Chem is kicking my ass,” Wylan groaned from the kitchen. “But it was alright.” He downed a glass of water and then made his way to the couch. He sat close enough to Jesper to make his arm hair stand at attention.

            Wylan cleared his throat. “I’m actually glad I caught you because it’s been a minute since we last talked.” Wylan’s eyes were sincere and wide, melting Jesper’s heart. He didn’t deserve those eyes. “I feel like we should talk.”

            Jesper, feigning confidence as his heart shit its pants, crossed his arms and smirked. “Anything particularly you’d like to talk about?”

            “Maybe when I laid one on you without warning and then stuck a pin in it?”

            Jesper stroked his chin playfully. “I don’t recall. Maybe you’ll have to remind me."

            A bubble of laughter burst from Wylan’s lips and Jesper was lost once again. That damned laugh. He had it bad. “You’re not getting off that easy.” His laughter died down as he set his lips in a firm line.

            “Uh-oh, Van Eck, don’t get all serious on me now.”

            “Jes,” Wylan said delicately, his eye’s searching Jesper’s. “I’m serious. We need to talk about it.”

            Jesper’s mouth suddenly went dry. He nodded. “I know.” He was getting dizzy.

            “So,” Wylan began slowly. “I like you.”

            “I assumed,” Jesper chuckled. Then he smiled. “I like you, too.”

            Wylan beamed and it seemed as though the fucking sun itself glowed green with envy.

            “I mean, obviously, yeah, I kissed you.” Wylan’s nerves were apparent. “But I also…I mean I don’t know…” He took a steady breath. “What I’m meaning to ask is – ”

            “Where do we go from here?” Jesper proposed, and Wylan nodded.

            This is it. Jesper thought of how perfect the relationship would be. Of being able to kiss Wylan senseless every morning, of holding his hands while they walked across campus, of cuddling while they watched movies, of sighing deep against Wylan’s neck as he moved on top of him, inside of him, in the silence of midnight. And then he thought of the break-up. It was bound to happen, statistically. He imagined tears streaming down Wylan’s face, his hands shaking from anger. He imagined the broken trust, the broken heart, all of it. Losing those red-gold curls, endless blue eyes, freckled cheeks, forever.

            Roll the dice, Jes. What are your chances?

            If Jesper was ever going to gamble again, ever in his life, if tonight was his last chance to take a chance, to take a leap of faith, he’d bet his life on Wylan.

            “I like you,” Jes began. He could feel his heart disassemble one piece at a time. “But...I’m not a relationship person.”

            Despite everything, Wylan’s eyes stayed wide, filled with hope and understanding, never changing.

            “I’m a heartbreaker. I usually float between people without commitment and...that system has saved me a lot of heartaches.” Jesper’s hands trembled. He gripped the hem of his shirt for stability, but Wylan took his hands into his own. It felt electric, spiking Jesper’s heart rate, and yet soothing him at the same time.

            “I get it,” Wylan said. “Being tied down isn’t your thing.”

            “I just don’t like sticking with one thing. I like keeping my options open, to keep things free and casual.”

            Wylan bit his lip and nodded.

            Jesper looked at him for a long time. “You make me want to change that.”

             

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

            A deep tremor rippled through Wylan. Jesper’s deep ashen eyes looked almost silver now; more honest than Wylan had ever seen them. There was no joking or playfulness, just the hard truth, and some fear, that set his sharp, dark jaw.

            “What?” Wylan blinked. Surely, he must have misheard. “What, really?”

            Jesper smiled, a bit of dimple hollowing his cheek. “Yeah, really. You’re somethin’ special, Van Eck.”

            Wylan weighed his words carefully. Was this real? Is this how it was supposed to go?

            Would this really work?

            “So,” Wylan murmured, holding Jesper’s hands tightly. “This is happening?”

            “Jesper’s teeth shone like polished ivory. “For real, babe.”

            “You’re really going to have to think of a more original pet name, Jes.”

            “What, Van Eck isn’t a total turn on for you?”

            “Never has been, never will.”

            Suddenly, Jesper’s lips were on his. It only lasted a moment, maybe not even that. As soon as Wylan felt it, Jesper was pulling back, looking as red as his dark skin could allow.

            “Guess I’m just going to have to get more creative.”

            Wylan felt breathless. “Maybe.”

 

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

 

                        Wylan wanted to believe things got easier, simpler, from then on out. That he and Jesper conquered all awkwardness and obstacles. That now they could work towards being the perfect couple, comfortable around each other, emotionally and physically, their clever and flirty banter ricocheting off the walls.

            But it wasn’t like that.

            Things became strange. Forced, almost.

            They saw more of each other, that much was true. Jesper began to coordinate his schedules more with Wylan. It was just a couple months until summer break and the homework began to pile up for the both of them. They studied together in Wylan’s room every night. Wylan was good at keeping Jesper focused, and Jesper was good at keeping Wylan relaxed.

            But it never felt like they were a couple, and Wylan couldn’t figure out if this was good or bad. Physical affection was practically non-existent between them, except for a few forehead kisses Jesper had provided graciously before dashing off to school or work. He knew that they wouldn’t magically become the world’s most perfect couple, but he couldn’t help but feel annoyed that they slept in separate beds every night.

            He wanted so much to kiss Jesper. To catch him off guard mid-sentence and just lay one on him. But, even more so, he wanted Jesper to do that to him.

            Jesper’s attitude was unnervingly consistent since they had gotten together. He flirted a bit more heavily and head-on, now that it was acceptable. But he never once lost his carefree and casual demeanour around Wylan. This could be all fine and dandy, but Wylan knew there was more beneath the surface. There had to be, right?

            Maybe he was being too sensitive, or he was expecting too much from a freshly budding relationship. Previously, Wylan prided himself on not purposefully engaging in romantic relationships throughout his life. He now regretted that constant status. How was anyone supposed to know when anything was supposed to happen?

            Nikolai’s advice was worthless, considering his unorthodox relationship with Alina. Insanely rich parents with aristocratic connections. A match made that left Nikolai and Alina way too close and hating each other’s guts for the sake of their parents' approval. And the moment Alina’s parents found her a new suitor, they both realized they were, in some weird twisted dynamic that left everyone confused as hell, made for each other.

            Wylan also discarded his advice because they were in a heterosexual relationship. That was a whole different ballpark.

            Inej managed to give some remarkable insight during one of their study sessions.

            “Talk to him,” she said, deadpanned.

            Wylan just groaned.

            The next morning, four days into their relationship, Jesper joined Wylan in the kitchen.

            “Whatcha cookin’, baby?” Jesper asked, sauntering over to Wylan’s side by the stove.

            “Just bacon and eggs, unless you want something more.”

            “I’m actually late for work, so I’ll pick something up on the way,” Jesper said, looking apologetic. “But thank you.”

            Wylan felt a prickle of irritation and looked at Jesper. Jesper was stooping down to kiss Wylan’s cheek and their lips met. On Wylan’s end, it was sweet and brief, but Jes pulled back in surprise, his eyes wide.

            “Er – sorry,” he said awkwardly, scratching the back of his neck.

            Wylan paused a moment, furrowing his brow. An uneasy feeling began to rise in his stomach but he quickly shoved it down. “Well, it wasn’t the first time, and I really hope it’s not the last.”

            Jesper laughed, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Yeah, right.” For a split second, it looked like he wanted to go in for another kiss, but instead rubbed his hand up and down Wylan’s arm and gave a simple smile. “I’ll see you later.”

            He turned and left, leaving Wylan with flushed cheeks and a sour taste in his mouth.

 

            Wylan went through his classes and focused as hard as he could. He hadn’t realized how far behind he had fallen until he truly began paying attention in his classes. Kuwei was noticeably absent, which surprisingly disappointed Wylan, who was secretly looking forward to his friend’s need for constant updates on Wylan’s private life.

            He was working diligently on his homework when Jesper came home from work.

            “Honey, I’m home,” he sang as he crashed through the front door.

            “Hey,” Wylan replied, keeping his eyes on his computer screen.

            Jesper went on a mile-long rant about his day at work and classes, sitting on the table right next to where Wylan’s laptop was. He complained about customers, classmates, and coworkers all in the same breath. Wylan could feel his ears retreating back into their shells.

            “This isn’t working,” Wylan blurted, closing his laptop.

            Jesper blinked, startled. “What, your computer?”

            Wylan sighed. He pushed his own chair out, stood up, and kissed Jesper hot on the mouth. A silent hand went up to Wylan’s chest immediately and pushed Wylan back. Jesper looked at him in shock.

            “That, right there,” Wylan said, gesturing to Jesper’s expression. “What is that?”

            Jesper instantly regulated his face, leaving no trace of the previous distress. “What is what?”

            “Don’t bullshit me, Jes. How come you’re avoiding me?”

            “Darling, if I was avoiding you, I wouldn’t be here right now. We live together.”

            Wylan shook his head. Breathe. “Why are you scared of me?”

            A flutter of fear. “What?”

            “You don’t…act differently or treat me any differently than you did before.”

            “How do you mean?”

            Wylan looked at the floor and felt his cheeks go pink. “You don’t act like you like me.”

            Jesper paused a moment and then laughed. Wylan felt his ears go hot. “It’s not funny.”

            “I’m not laughing at you, you’re just adorable when you’re insecure.”

            “I’m always insecure,”

            “You’re right, I’m not treating you differently. But it’s not because I don’t like you. It’s because I always have. But if you want me to amp things up a little, all you have to do is ask.”

            Wylan was verging on the edge of total humiliation now. He sat back down in his chair and took a breath. He was nowhere near satisfied with Jesper’s answer. The boy still hadn’t lost his smooth and confident demeanour. There was no vulnerability in his voice. Wylan needed more.

            “Why haven’t you kissed me?” he asked, quite pathetically.

            Jesper was quiet for this one. It was strange to see him word-stricken. And now Wylan was practically face-palming himself with every word. What was he even doing?

            “Oh,” Jesper murmured. That was the first time during their conversation that Jesper appeared genuine. Remorseful.

            “I mean, we’ve only been together a few days. I didn’t want to move too fast for you.”

            “For me?” Wylan inquired. “Or for you?”

            Jesper shuffled his feet. “I guess the second option.”

            There was a simple silence. Wylan looked at his hands and then snapped his head back up. Something wasn’t right.

            “You’re lying.”

            Jesper looked bewildered. “What? No, I’m not.”

            “Jes, you slept with Kuwei after knowing him for a couple of weeks. And the two of you barely knew anything about each other. I’m pretty sure you’re not the kind of person to ‘take things slow’.”

            “That was different,” Jesper protested.

            “Well, I should hope so. Just be honest with me, alright? I don’t like playing games.”

            “This is just a completely different situation, okay? Don’t pressure me.”

            Wylan could feel his patience slipping. “Pressure you? God forbid I ask that you don’t blatantly lie to me!”

            “It’s not a lie,” Jesper growled, his voice rising. “Kuwei and I were just friends, nothing more. You know that.”

            “And what sets us apart?” Wylan accused. “Because you and Kuwei were a lot more intimate than you and I.”

            “Wylan – ”

             “Do you even like me?”

            “Of course, I do! You already know that.”

            “Do I?” Wylan asked, feeling days’ worth of frustration welling up in his eyes. “Because you haven’t been showing many of the signs, that’s for sure.”

            “I can’t!” Jesper cried desperately, his eyes pleading.

            “Why not?”

            “Because…” Jesper’s voice lowered, wavered. “I can’t.”

            “Jes,” Wylan sighed, feeling his anger deplete. “You have to learn to be honest with me, or this can’t work.”

            Jesper was quiet for a long moment, and for a moment, Wylan feared he ruined everything in the span of seven minutes.

            “Because,” Jesper said slowly, his voice suddenly hoarse. “Because if I act like we’re together, we are, and it’s real.”

            Wylan waited patiently for him to finish. Jesper’s jaw worked vigorously as his hands fluttered nervously like a wounded butterfly in his lap.

            “And if it’s real…i-if it’s real, then it’s finite.”

            “Don’t be such a pessimist,” Wylan groaned, snapping Jesper out of his forlorn demeanour.

            “What?”

            “If you’re so worried about us being a thing of the past, why would you try and self-sabotage?”

            Jesper was, once again, without words.

            “You’re scared of losing me, right?”

            Jesper nodded, looking ashamed.

            “Then wouldn’t you at least try to make the most of it, and make it work?”

            Jesper’s shouldered sagged and he chuckled sarcastically. “Because I’m a garbage human being and not nearly as smart as you are.”

            “You’re damn right.”

            He took hold of Wylan’s hand. “I’m sorry,” he said sincerely.

            “Your idiocy is forgiven,” Wylan said with a roll of his eyes.

            A grin with a mischievous look in the eye. Before Wylan noticed, it was too late, and Jesper was pulling him by the shirt collar. His movements were slow and methodical, but Wylan was trapped in his gaze. There was no turning back.

            Jesper kissed him with an overwhelming sense of honesty that Wylan had failed to experience before. His strong hands on Wylan’s jaw and neck had a timid energy that he would never expect of him. The kiss was slow and soft, like a bashful blossom blooming in the warm summer sun. There was a gentle passion and Wylan drank it up like water.

            Jesper pulled back and smiled humbly. “Like that?”

            “It’s a good start.”

            Jesper laughed, his arm around Wylan’s waist. “You asshole,” he grinned with grit teeth and kissed Wylan again.

 

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

 

            Their first fight jolted Jesper aware from his distorted relity. He truly believed Wylan wouldn’t notice his hesitation for physical affection, or any other kind of affection that might come in. A hand-hold never lasted long, chaste cheek kisses, and general flirtation wasn’t enough for Wylan. And why would it? It wasn’t enough for Jesper and it pained him to hold back for even the few days he did. His attraction of Wylan grew ever since he first laid eyes on him. He yearned for Wylan’s touch every minute of every day. And now that he had him, his temptation had very little boundaries.

            Even the first hour of their fight changed them. They sat on the couch, watching Gossip Girl. Normally they sat side-by-side with their arms and legs barely touching, both facing forward. But now their bodies folding together like Tetris. Jesper sat sideways, his long legs measuring the length of the couch. Wylan sat between those legs, his own knees pulled up to his chest, his back to Jesper’s front, and his head leaning against Jesper’s collarbone. Jesper felt Wylan’s heat warm his chest and he pulled the redhead closer, lifting his head to rest his chin on Wylan’s cloud of curls. Occasionally, Jesper would lean over to plant a noisy kiss right on Wylan’s ear. He would shriek and shrug to cover the sides of his head.

            “What, I thought you wanted me to kiss you more,” Jesper mocked.

            “Too soon, asshole,” Wylan laughed, wiping the wetness off of his temple. “You’re disgusting and cruel.”

            “A kiss is only proper when it’s moist.” Jesper landed another oozy pop! on Wylan’s cheek.

            Wylan wiped the ring of saliva off with a horror-stricken expression. “That’s revolting!” he screeched, scooching away from Jesper.

            “Awh, you don’t want a proper kiss from your boyfriend?”

            In a panicked moment, Jesper desperately tried to catch the label that fell out of his mouth. His mind spiraled, wondering if this was too far, too fast.

            But Wylan just smiled, his cheeks turning a magnificent shade of bloom. “Of course I do,” he said sweetly, and kissed Jesper full on the lips.

            When he pulled back, Jesper nuzzled him back with his nose. “Not too soon? That didn't make you throw up a little in your mouth?” he asked quietly, wrinkling his nose.

            Wylan scoffed. “Screw timelines. Our pace now, yeah?”

            Jesper kissed him again. “Yes. Yes, definitely.”

Chapter Text

  Wylan was too much. He was more than Jesper was able to handle at once. It made Jesper wonder why in the fuckery they decided to wait so long to make a move.

  He learned new things about Wylan every day. He quickly realized that even though Wylan pretended to have an aversion to touching, specifically Jesper’s for comedic value, he truly craved physical affection at all hours of the day. Jesper was more than happy to satisfy his needs and he tried to make sure Wylan knew. Walking past him cooking in the kitchen with a soft hand across the small of his back, a long heated kiss before bed, before work, the playing with of hands while bantering. Wylan pretended not to notice but the very pigment of his skin blew his cover.

  Unfortunately, they had only been together two weeks before Jesper remembered that life moved on around them, especially for Jesper. His workload from the university just kept piling on, and he was lucky to complete a homework assignment once every three days if any. Work drained him more than anything nowadays when he was itching to get home to see Wylan.   

  Another looming inevitability was Kaz. Jesper still had minimal intel about the job, just that it was happening and soon. It had something to do with the stolen military militia, being sold illegally to the highest bidder. Kaz was mapping out routes and trying to track the seller down through connections in the Black Market.

  “You know, most twenty-something-year-olds are in college, or travelling, or selling shit on Etsy,” Jesper had complained. “Why can’t you be normal and cut the vigilante work for a couple years?”

  “I don’t get paid to be normal. Most twenty-something-year-olds are broke or going broke. I allow this crippling economy to benefit me.”

  “You’re sick,” Jesper chuckled.

  “Sick and rich, my friend. Sick and rich.”

  The more hints Kaz dropped about the job, the more restless Jesper became. Kaz was inviting him over more and more often the longer time went on, to discuss whatever vague information Kaz felt the need to share. They went over the weaponry in question. Highly advanced, insanely expensive, and wonderfully felonious.

  It was about a week later when Kaz dropped the bomb.

  He answered the door in his normal/unusual attire; a dress shirt and tie underneath a tailcoat and pocket watch. His hair was more ruddy than usual, even curling a little near the edges. His jaw was set and Jesper knew he meant business today.

  “Hey,” Kaz said in his deep, rolling accent.

  Jesper came into the always-perfect apartment and shed his coat. He turned to hang it on the coat rack (because Kaz was the only adult in the 21st century with a proper coat rack) and noticed a coat that certainly did not belong to Kaz, but one he recognized as Inej’s. A giddy laugh burst from his lips as he threw his jacket on one of the hooks. “I see you’ve been busy,” he said.

  Kaz grabbed the coat and looked uncharacteristically flustered. “I - ” His voice trailed off as Jesper’s eyebrows rose.

  “Shut up and sit down.”

  A moment later, Kaz held a few documents in his hands as he walked into the den. Jesper sat on the couch, lounging like this was a friendly catch-up.

  Kaz set a cup of coffee on the side table next to Jesper. Jesper picked it up and took a sip. “Thanks, babe. Hospitality is a good look on you.”

  “That’s not hospitality, that’s mine. And I take my coffee with seven shots of espresso. So enjoy.” Jesper swallowed the coffee bitterly. “Get your damn feet off of my coffee table, this isn’t a zoo.”

  Kaz took a breath and held the papers out for Jesper to see.

  “There are confidential emails and messages between the seller and buyer of the weapons. They call it Operation C.H.A.O.S.”

  Jesper rolled his eyes. “Could that name be any cheesier?”

  “These weapons are anything but cheesy,” Kaz said. “They aren’t for military use. This seller is desperate to get them out of his hands and into someone else’s. Probably doesn’t want to get caught with them. It might mean he’s willing to negotiate if we act fast.”

  Jesper’s eyebrows shot up. “We? I thought we were just catching them in the act, contacting the secret buyer, etcetera?”

  “That was never the plan.”

  “So, you lied to me?”

  “Obviously. Oh, don’t give me that look. Loose lips sink ships and you’re notorious for that; I’ve already lost a whole fleet of them. But…” Kaz suddenly seemed nervous, as much as his stone-like air allowed him to be. “Things are about to go down. So there’s information you need to know before I let you go any farther.”

  “Are you going to tell me the whole plan now, at long last?”

  “As much as I can. Remember - this is bigger than anything we’ve ever done before. It’s delicate.”

  Jesper took a deep breath and tried to compose any shred of compassion and understanding from this infuriating dickhead. “Okay, what’s the deal?”

  Kaz’s eyes glinted, hinting at a smile. “We’re the buyers.”

  “I kind of put that together.”

  “Congratulations. But we’re not the real buyers. Someone is paying us to pay the seller, and to get those guns if you could even call them that.”

  “And what’s up with these so-called chaotic guns?”

  Kaz shrugged. “Seller says they can fire up to nine thousand rounds per minute. Don’t know if it’s true, but the engineering checks out.”

  Jesper swallowed, feeling an icy chill spread of goosebumps down his arm. “That’s impossible.”

  “Not anymore.” Kaz leaned forward and set down a blueprint for Jesper to see. “New tech; stuff I don’t quite understand, which says a lot. The new terrorist era has officially begun. Which is why I need you.”

  “What, you need to see if it’s legit?”

  “No,” Kaz said with a sudden grin that made Jesper want to check his pockets. “We’re recreating the shit.”

 

  ***

 

  After going over as many details as Kaz was willing to disclose, Jesper left his friend’s flat shaken, feeling the weight of the world right there on his chest. It was dark out, a misty sky clouding over any evidence of constellations. Jesper’s head felt just as foggy, his eyes in such a haze that he was surprised he drove home and made it in one piece. His keys jangled noisily as the front door opened and he shuffled into the kitchen groggily. The sight of Wylan looking over at him from the couch broke him out of his delirious stupor.

  “Hey,” Wylan said slowly like he was hesitating on something. “You’re home late.”

  “Uhm, yeah.” Jesper rubbed his eyes and glanced at the clock over the stove. It was two in the morning? Jesper couldn’t believe he and Kaz were talking for three hours. Once Kaz brought out the scotch, he lost track of time easily. “Aw jeez, I didn’t realize how late it was. I’m sorry.”

  “It’s okay, I was just worried.” Wylan stood, groaning slightly in a sort of way that shattered Jesper’s focus for a moment. He walked into the kitchen and stood on his toes to plant a kiss on Jesper’s mouth. “You went to Kaz’s place?”

  “Yeah, we just lost track of time.”

  A look fluttered across Wylan’s face, an expression of doubt and insecurity. Then Jesper remembered Wylan was aware of his past infatuation with the Bastard of the Barrel. Could he really worry about such a thing?

  “You have nothing to be worried about,” Jesper said in a sweet, low voice. He kissed Wylan’s forehead and both cheeks.

  “You smell like booze.”

  “I’m always compelled to drink when I’m around him for longer than five minutes. I’m surprised my liver still functions.”

  Wylan punched Jesper’s chest with a playful fist and he couldn't help but grin. “Be serious.”

  “That’s the second time someone’s said that to me today. But in all honesty, I’m not drunk. Not even close.”

  Wylan hummed affirmatively and kissed Jesper again - this time with major open-mouthage. Jesper smiled into the kiss and slipped his hand under Wylan’s shirt, brushing the bare skin of his waist and delicate hipbone, hearing Wylan gasp softly.

  After a few delicious moments, Jesper pulled back. “Maybe I should come home late more often. Am I getting lucky tonight?”

  “Not a chance, buddy,” Wylan laughed.

“Is there anything I could do to...” Jesper dragged his nails from the base of Wylan’s spine around to the middle of his stomach, earning a quiet whine, “convince you?”

  “No,” Wylan laughed again but shuddered a bit more this time. He shoved Jesper’s hands away nervously. But then his expression changed. “Can we sleep in the same bed tonight?”

  Jesper had a distinct feeling that Wylan spent a lot of time worrying while Jesper was gone than he was letting on. He kissed Wylan. “Of course.”

   

  *********

 

  The idea of being physically intimate with Jesper frightened Wylan. Not just sex, but kissing for even a prolonged amount of time, or being in close quarters for longer than an hour. It reminded him too much of Fitz, of being pressed up against walls by strong hips, one hand in his hair, the other in his pants, a single tear squeezing out of the corner of his eye.

  He knew Jesper wasn’t Fitz. But the charming smile and devious winks were all too familiar and intrigued Wylan for nefarious reasons.

  When he met Fitz he was fourteen years old and could hardly read a single sentence without floundering. Fitz taught everything. Calculus, reading, writing, chemistry, and music to name a few. A former child prodigy, Fitz was a world-famous tutor, charging hundreds of dollars for a mere hour of his time. Fitz was twenty-one when Wylan first answered the door of his then-childhood home.

  “Hello,” Fitz said in a curious accent. He wore unusual bright clothing with a green cap (with a feather sticking out, to Wylan’s surprise) and a satchel that bulged with papers. “You must be the Wylan Van Eck I have heard so much about.”

  Nothing about that statement comforted Wylan. He was practically mute and awkward at this age, so he let Fitz in without a word.

  “Any way I could bother Mr. Van Eck for a moment?” Fitz asked, looking around the lobby.

  “No need,” said a hearty voice from above, and Wylan flinched at the sound of his father’s voice. Van Eck descended from the staircase with a beaming smile and open arms. “Well, my my my, Damien Fitzgerald, you’ve grown into quite the young man, haven’t you?” He laughed, clapping the stranger on the back.

  “Oh, I should only be so lucky,” Fitz said modestly. “It’s good to see you, old friend.”

  Van Eck looked down at Wylan, his expression changing from hospitable to general annoyance. “Say hello to the gentleman, boy.”

  Wylan swallowed tightly, and choked out in a meek voice, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Fitzgerald.”

  Damien Fitzgerald, his father explained, was a world-renowned tutor - the best of the best. For the next year and into the unforeseeable future, the man was going to be boarding here, teaching Wylan everything he knew to the very best of his ability. Van Eck emphasized that he was spending a great deal of money on this, Wylan, so actually try this time, if you please.

  Wylan, at the time, wondered why his father never told him about the tutor beforehand. His cheeks burned with embarrassment that someone yet again had to learn of every single failure and shortcoming that Wylan possessed in order to teach him.

  Professor Fitzgerald, Wylan.”

  “Professor Fitzgerald.”

  The young man smiled, his warm eyes sparkling. Wylan felt uneasy when he saw how soft and inviting those eyes were.

  Fitz started his lessons immediately, and the next morning, Wylan and the tutor met in the music room.

  “Why are we starting with reading? Or math, or something that qualifies me as a functioning human being?” Wylan had asked him.

Fitz only smiled, like he hadn’t heard the complaint at all. He placed a page of piano music, a simple song, on the grand piano’s music stand. “Do you know how to play?”

  Wylan turned up his nose with a sniff of mid-pubescent pride. “Yes, I do.”

  “And do you know how to read?” Fitz shuffled a few more pages and placed them under the piano bench.

  This time, Wylan’s nose dropped and he shifted uncomfortably. “No.”

  “Okay,” Fitz concluded like it made perfect sense. “Let’s start with music.”

  He started Wylan with a simple drill to warm up his fingers. Child’s play; it was something Wylan could have done when he was three. He complained about it endlessly, every day. They spent hours every single day over easy drills and played the same simple song. A week had passed, and Wylan had learned nothing.

  “Wait till my father finds out you’re a fraud,” Wylan grumbled as he sat on the bench on the eighth day of Fitz’s employment.

  Fitz chuckled. “Patience, greenie. Enjoy your ease while it lasts.”

  He had never been more right.

  Three days later, the notes on the new music were labelled with letters according to their notes.

  “W-what?” Wylan stammered. His eyes, at the mere sight of the alphabetic threat, shifted and tried to make sense of the music. He couldn’t. He couldn’t even recognize the song.

  “Play it,” Fitz ordered sternly. His voice was firm and steady and it scared Wylan.

  “I-I can’t,” Wylan said, “You know I can’t.

  “Yes, you can.” Fitz leaned down and murmured into Wylan’s ear. “It’s the same song you’ve been playing over and over, every day. You know the song. Trust me. Trust yourself.”

  That couldn’t be possible, Wylan thought, horror-struck. The page was completely foreign to him.

  The minuet was the world’s easiest song, anyone with fingers and half a brain could learn to play it in fifteen minutes. So why, with a few letters scribbled in the margins, was it Wylan’s defeat?

  Wylan took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and played.

  When he finished, with no mistakes, he opened his eyes and looked at his tutor with a smug grin.

  “No,” Fitz said, not easily fooled. “You didn’t play it right.” The words split Wylan’s heart in two. “Play it again.”

  So Wylan did, with his eyes open this time and played with his eyes slightly crossed, blurring the page completely, and hoping his muddled mind didn’t interfere with his muscle memory. There were a couple mistakes here and there, but it was better than Wylan expected.

  “Satisfied?”

  “Still not right,” Fitz said grimly.

  “Yeah, no shit,” Wylan complained. “You know I’m an idiot, right? These letters keep messing everything up!” He was standing now, slamming down the piano’s lid.

  “Think of the notes you know, that you’ve known for years. Start applying them, linking them to the letters I wrote.” Fitz said this all calmly, all while Wylan fumed.

  “I can’t!” he yelled, tears spilling out of his eyes. “I’m worthless and I know it, you don’t have to try and prove it to me. Why would you sabotage me like this? What, do you get some kind of sick kick out of it?” He threw the music on the ground and stormed off, leaving only the sound of a slamming door and fluttering pages.

  The next day, Wylan didn’t go to his lessons. He was, however, required to eat meals three times a day with his father - whilst he was in town, at least - and Fitz was required to do so as well. Wylan ate silently at breakfast, his eyes red and puffy from a full night’s weep. Fitz and Van Eck shared a full breakfast and conversation.

  “So, boy,” Van Eck started, startling Wylan. His heart raced and his hands began to feel clammy. It was like this every time Van Eck regarded him. It wasn’t nerves, no. It was raw, unfiltered terror. “How are your lessons faring?”

  Wylan coughed, his whole throat dry like it was covered in itchy wool. “They are faring well,” he answered, “I am enjoying them.”

  Van Eck said nothing, just shot Fitz a doubting glance. Fitz took a deep breath and put down his fork. Wylan’s pulse ceased immediately. I’m finished.

  “The process is slow, as I imagined,” Fitz began. “But I can see Wylan is full of potential. He is already improving cognitively through our exercises.”

  Van Eck was silent for a beat, then made an accepting noise, as if to say if you say so.

  Two days later, he finally decided to show up to his lessons again. Fitz was waiting by the piano, as he always was. His smile radiated across the room, and Wylan came to sit on the bench.

  “Thank you,” the tutor said to him.

Wylan said nothing. He still felt angry and humiliated because of Fitz’s joke. He still felt as though Fitz knew all of his weaknesses and made a mockery of them right in the boy’s face.

  He looked at the music and felt the familiar sting of shame as he recognized the scrawl of letters and notes. But this time, he pushed himself to focus and to not let his frustrations blind him. His mental distress only made his dyslexia worse.

He began to play. His fingers slipped, playing a wrong key every other beat, and the tempo was horribly off. It was hardly recognizable, but Wylan didn’t quit until the song was over. When it was, Fitz began to speak.

  “Don’t,” Wylan interrupted. “I’m going to get this right.”

  Fitz said nothing, only giving a soft smile. So Wylan tried again. Stumbling through the song dozens of times, knocking off his frequent mistakes one by one. Every time it felt as though his frustration would overtake him, he pushed down his tears and shook away his vertigo. An hour and a half passed, and the last ten attempts sounded exactly the same, with the same mistakes. Wylan’s hands shook from exhaustion and desperation.

  “Alright, stop,” Fitz said. His voice that was normally steady was edging on irritation. Wylan had failed him.

  “I can get this,” Wylan began, but Fitz pulled the piano’s lid down gently to stop him.

  “No, you’ve already got it.”

  “What? No, it needs to be perfect. I can get it perfect, just - ”

  “Wylan,” Fitz said, putting a hand on Wylan’s. “Every note you played was correct. You got it.”

  Wylan looked at the music, then at Fitz, then back to the paper. “I don’t...”

  “I put those mistakes in there. That’s how I knew when you were following the music and when you weren’t.”

  “But, the notes aren’t wrong. They look the same.”

  “I didn’t put the mistakes in the music,” Fitz said. “I put them in the letters.”

  Even if it wasn’t consciously, Wylan began linking his memory of the alphabet to the letters and applying them to the notes he knew in his head. Just like Fitz said he would. This meant that if Wylan could begin to truly recognize letters through the music, he could learn to read.

  Truthfully, things only went uphill from that breakthrough. Every day, Wylan produced blood, sweat, and tears through Fitz’s increasingly difficult tutoring lessons. There were times when Wylan would throw another fit, fueled with the rage of the inadequate, and storm off. He would hide for a few days, but Fitz never gave up on him, not once. He was always there, waiting by the piano when Wylan came back with red puffy eyes and swollen knuckles. He would be waiting with his warm eyes and swirly chocolate hair that Wylan depended on. And with a look in his eyes that told Wylan that Fitz was here to stay.

  Then things got worse.

 

  *****

 

  Jesper stood at the stove, stirring the spaghetti sauce with one hand and holding Wylan’s hand with the other. Wylan sat on the countertop, wearing denim shorts and a blue short-sleeved crop-top and swinging his bare feet. Blue was Jesper’s weakness. It made Wylan’s eyes seem endless. A comfortable silence lay over the pair.

  “I want to take you out,” Wylan announced suddenly.

  Jesper laughed. “I feel like I’m the one who takes you out in this relationship.”

  “What, because you’re taller?”

  “Why else? I’m clearly the alpha.”

  “Oh my God,” Wylan scoffed, his mouth tugging at the seams. “You’re so not, though.”

  “How come you’re so convinced?”

  “Because an alpha wouldn’t be so insecure that he would implement unrealistic concepts of toxic masculinity on not only himself but his partner?”

  “Fair enough. Continue.”

  “Perfect. What do you want to do?”

“I thought you were taking charge, Mister Alpha Male,” Jesper joked, poking Wylan’s cheek.

  “Shut up, I just want your input.”

  Jesper took hold of Wylan’s hand and kissed his palm. “How ‘bout just you and me?” he said quietly, sultry.

  Wylan’s face flushed a giddy pink. “Okay,” he said, verging on breathlessness. “Let’s go to the shore.”

  “The one with the bridge?” Wylan nodded. “Perfect.”

  Wylan’s smile broke through and Jesper’s heart skipped a beat. He still wasn’t used to it, unguarded and no longer hiding the adoration in his eyes. No, Jesper was never prepared and he wasn’t sure he ever wanted to be.

  Wylan hopped off the counter and bounded with excitement.

  “What, you want to go now?” Jesper asked.

  “Oh.” Disappointment trickled over Wylan’s face. “We don’t have to - ”

  Jesper smiled and motioned to the cabinet above Wylan’s head. “Hand me the Tupperware.”

 

  The sky low and rumbling when they arrived at the beach. Thunder sounded in the distance, and the dark freezing water gently lapped up onto the grainy shore. Wylan had put on a pastel pink sweater on with sleeves that reached past his fingertips to keep from shivering. Even so, he shuddered slightly as the water covered his bare feet and reached his calves.

  Jesper stayed a couple yards back and observed his soft boyfriend moving his feet through the waters. He kept his hands in his sweatshirt pockets and a smile on his face. He loved Wylan like this. Without a care in the world, free and excited about life and nature. He was beautiful.

  “Don’t go in too deep,” Jesper called to him, just as Wylan twirled gleefully and plopped into the damp sand just as the chilly tide came into, soaking him up to his waist.

  Wylan shrieked and struggled to get up as fast as he could, laughing like a maniac as he lost his balance and fell down again. Jesper took his sweatshirt and shoes off and rushed towards Wylan. He took the smaller boy’s hand to help him up, but Wylan smiled mischievously and yanked Jesper into the shallow water. Jesper gasped as the water sent frigid goosebumps up every inch of his skin.

  “You asshole!” he laughed. Wylan giggled maniacally and kissed Jesper hard.

 

  They found a level spot to spread their blanket and sat down. Jesper leaned back on his elbows and viewed the horizon. Wylan sat with a towel around his shoulders in the dry sand and kept his hand buried in the grains. Jesper could watch him all day. They sat on the shore, glad that the sun was coming out a little bit and warming them up.

  “I’m having a really good time. Thank you for doing this.”

  Wylan looked at Jesper and blushed. “I didn’t do anything.”

  “Baby, just take it.”

  Wylan flushed pinker and buried his hands deeper, looking down.

  “You’re cute,” Jesper said after a while. He didn’t know why he said it, he just felt Wylan ought to know.

  Wylan’s head snapped up. “What?”

  “You heard me,” Jesper grinned. “You’re…adorable.” He crawled over to Wylan and took his sand covered hands into his own. “Precious.” Wylan’s beam was uncontrolled. “Too good and pure for me.”

  Wylan’s smile faltered. “You know that’s not true.”

  Jesper silenced him with a passionate kiss. He slid his hands into Wylan’s ruddy damp curls as Wylan gripped his jaw. Quickly and all too soon, Wylan dropped his hands and frantically brushed them on his jeans. “Sorry, sorry, my hands are all sandy.”

  Jesper took Wylan’s chin and drew him close. Close enough to feel Wylan’s breath on his cheeks with a slight tremor.

  “I don’t give a damn,” he whispered. And he kissed him again.

  This time, Jesper’s touch ventured lower, sliding over the bare, soft skin of Wylan’s hipbone, feeling Wylan shiver against his mouth.

  Wylan pulled back again and Jesper felt his desire increase, his own hips needing to be firm against his boyfriend’s.

  “You’re precious, too, you know,” Wylan said shyly.

  “Oh, really?”

  “But less “cute” and more…” Wylan blushed. “Handsome. Sharp.” Wylan traced his finger against the under edge of Jesper’s jaw. “Stunning,” he whispered.

  Jesper tried to hide his yearning to taste the skin of Wylan’s neck. “Are you trying to butter me up?”

  Wylan’s ears burned red. “I’m saying way too much.”

  “I could never get tired of your voice.”

  “You’re a dork.”

  “Thank you. For this. Seriously.” Jesper didn’t like speaking to anyone earnestly. He liked telling jokes and lightening the mood. But with Wylan, he knew his boyfriend wouldn’t take him seriously if he didn’t look him dead in the eyes and tell him exactly what’s been on his mind.

  Wylan said nothing. He only kissed him. And kissed him and kissed him and kissed him.

 

Jesper drove home with a lifted sleeve, his shoulder peppered with kisses that Wylan laid. Wylan’s body was practically stretched over the width of the front seat so he could lay his cheek on Jesper’s bare shoulder, making love-eyes at him.

  “What do you want?” Jesper asked with a smirk. He felt a flutter in his chest as he glanced over at Wylan’s ever-blue eyes.

  “You,” Wylan murmured, his expression dreamy.

  Shit, Jesper thought as his heart melted and skipped a beat simultaneously. “Oh yeah?”

  Wylan snuggled closer. “Yeah.” They drove home in silence.

  When they arrived at the apartment, Jesper opened the front door and held it open for Wylan. Once they were both inside, Jesper dropped all his belongings on the table, grabbed Wylan by the face, and kissed him - hard.

  Wylan didn’t waste time to freeze up. He wrapped his arms around Jesper’s neck and pulled them both closer together in a deep kiss. Jesper gripped his waist tightly and ran his fingers under Wylan’s shirt, sending electricity across his skin. Jesper began to move and slammed Wylan’s back against the wall. If Wylan wasn’t pumped full of adrenaline and lust, maybe it would have hurt. But Jesper noticed Wylan didn’t even flinch at the sudden impact. Wylan just sighed into Jesper’s mouth, pulled him closer by the collar of his shirt, and pressed his hips hard against Jesper’s.

  Jesper had certainly had his fair share of hook-ups and one-night stands. He’s felt explosive sexual chemistry with people he’s barely even met. He has felt passion, intimacy, and even romance with the people he’s slept with.

  This was completely different. There was nothing about this moment that he was going to regret in any part of his future. Nothing in his life had felt more right, more fiery, more sensual than this. Jesper was drinking Wylan’s lust by the gallon.

  “I want you,” Wylan whispered as he kissed Jesper’s neck.

  “Fuck,” Jesper moaned. He didn’t mean to, it just slipped out. God, he needed this. More than anything before. “Your room - now.”

  Wylan grinned into Jesper’s deep kiss. “I’ll race you,” he said and dashed off.

  “What’re you, five?” Jesper called after him. But Wylan just laughed with joy and ran up the stairs. “You asshole,” Jesper muttered and followed quickly after him.

  He ran through his bedroom door and Wylan was there in his arms again. “You lose,” Wylan said playfully, running his fingers lightly across the area below Jesper’s belt.

  “You win,” Jesper said quietly and pushed Wylan onto the bedspread. Climbing on top of him, Jesper felt Wylan whine into his mouth. Reflexively, their hips ground together, feeling electric. Jesper had never felt this good. This was good.

  Wylan breathed heavily underneath Jesper, who straddled Wylan’s waist. Jesper sat up and removed his shirt, Wylan following suit. Damn. Wylan was pale underneath his shirt. For some reason Jesper imagined him all lines and edges, his collarbone sticking out. But Wylan was soft and plush, his chest splattered with freckles, curving gently over his bones. Jesper wanted to drink every inch of him, to keep this image of him. Wylan looked up at him with flushed cheeks and impossible eyes, his chest rising and dipping with anticipation.

  Jesper began to kiss his neck while he leaned back and sighed. Jesper trailed his tongue down Wylan’s chest, working slowly towards his stomach. Looking back up at him, Jesper smirked and began to undo Wylan’s belt.

  “Is this okay?” Jesper asked in a hushed voice.

  Wylan leaned his head back onto his pillow, blew out a heated breath, and looked back down at Jesper. “Yes, yes, more than okay.”

“You sure?”

  “Jesus, fuck, just do it.”

  Jesper laughed and slid Wylan’s pants down past his ankles and onto the floor. If he kept eyeing Wylan’s boxers and the way they hugged his hips and his…Well, let’s just say this scenario would be over all too soon, Jesper thought to himself.

  Wylan squirmed out from underneath Jesper and motioned for his boyfriend to lie down. “I want to be on top.”

  “Oh?” Jesper complied, his pants feeling a little too tight.

  Wylan straddled him quickly and started to undo his pants, tugging them off and dropping them to the ground. He leaned back down and kissed Jesper warmly, open-mouthed and hands in his hair. Jesper’s hands went to the small of Wylan’s back, arching it in the process. Jesper could feel the dimples at the end of his spine, endearing in its nature.

  Before he had time to physically prepare himself, Jesper felt Wylan slip his hand into his boxers. Jesper gasped and felt a burst of pleasure as Wylan gently stroked him.

  Fuck,” Jesper breathed, pulling Wylan closer. Wylan captured him into another kiss and Jesper could feel him smiling.

  Nothing Jesper had ever experience felt quite as good as this. Feeling Wylan’s soft hand around him alone was enough to get the job done. It took every fibre of Jesper’s being to not tip over the edge, but fuck, it felt good. He wanted to make Wylan feel that good.

  Wylan kissed the edge of Jesper’s jaw, right up to his ear. Pleasure rippled down Jesper’s spine and he moaned deeply. Feeling a wave of adrenaline, he gripped Wylan by the waist and flipped them both over, Jesper on top now. Wylan whined in protest but was quickly shut up as his lips were soon preoccupied. His hand still resided in Jesper’s pants and moved steadily up and down. Jesper buried his face in the crook of Wylan’s neck, kissing and biting and having no control whatsoever over his actions. He was pretty positive he was completely embarrassing himself. But it felt so good that he didn’t give a damn.

  Fuck, Wylan, you feel so good,” he rasped, his throat feeling mortifyingly dry.

  Wylan laughed and added pressure in his grip. Now that was too much. Jesper quickly gripped Wylan’s wrist and Wylan let go. “Not yet, baby,” Jesper said, “Not yet.”

Wylan grinned and gasped as Jesper slid his hand into Wylan’s boxers. Goosebumps broke out over Wylan’s skin and Jesper tried to ignore how hard Wylan was in his hand. Wylan threw his head back and whimpered. Jesper looked at him, his light eyelashes lying softly on his cheeks, his freckles popping under a sheen of glistening sweat, his hair damp from the heat radiating off of his body. He looked…Well, “delicious” was the only term Jesper could think of.

  “Fuck, Wy, you look so beautiful.”

  Jesper began to kiss Wylan’s chest, which was now shuddering harder than ever. He ran his hands down Wylan’s side and Wylan stiffened. Looking up, Jesper saw that Wylan had lost the rosy flush in his cheeks and his eyes were wide open.

  “Are you okay?” Jesper asked, feeling Wylan’s pulse quicken.

  Wylan said nothing, only stared at him, his eyes filled with panic.

“What’s wrong?” Jesper asked. He felt his throat tighten. Something was wrong.

  Wylan’s lips moved like he was beginning to say something, but nothing was coming out. His body grew rigid and white as a sheet. Jesper tried to sit him up, but the moment his hands came in contact with Wylan’s shoulders, Wylan put his hands up to Jesper’s chest and shoved him.

  The gesture caught Jesper so off guard that he nearly fell off the bed entirely.

  “Stop!” Wylan gasped, hugging himself tightly. “Please.”

“What did I do?” Jesper asked quietly, his head spinning. “Did I hurt you? Did I go too far?”

  “Just - ” Wylan shook his head like he was shutting out a loud noise. “I -”

  “What do you need?” Jesper asked him, inching toward Wylan again.

  “Don’t - don’t touch me, okay?”

  ….What?

  “Please…go. Leave.” Tears were pooling in Wylan’s eyes. “Go.”

  “Wylan…” Jesper couldn’t leave him. Not like this. It looked like he was shattered. It looked like something more was going on. And Jesper wasn’t going to abandon him.

  “Get out!” Wylan sobbed. His face grew red in anger.

“I - ” Jesper felt at a loss for words. Him being there on Wylan’s bed was against Wylan’s consent. Was he violating his privacy? What was going on?

  Jesper stood up and took a deep breath. “Wylan, do you want me to leave?”

Wylan looked at him, tear-streaked and pained. He looked hurt. Broken. “Yes. Please.” His voice was small…and scared.

  So Jesper left and closed the door behind him.

Chapter Text

Hiya papayas, 

I just thought I would write a short little life update for anyone who cares. 

So right now, I'm transitioning jobs from a nanny to a full-time Door Dasher (food delivery, kinda like UberEats). It's a painful transition because being a nanny is something I'm incredibly passionate about, but I barely make enough to pay for bills. $8.33/hr is not enough money for a nanny folks. You heard it here first. 

I am living with my partner currently; they just got their wisdom teeth taken out and their cute swollen face kills me every time. We're both broke as hell, but we make it work somehow. 
I am not in school currently. I skipped this semester because I can't pay for my classes. 
Mentally, not doing so hot, hence the lack of updates.
Finding a creative mindset is so rare nowadays, and when I do, it's usually when I'm working and when I don't have my laptop (which is superb fucking timing). I've been more stressed than I have in a long time.
I have a lot of physical stuff going on, like my legs and back have serious chronic pain that I can't fix because (can anyone guess??) I'm broke. I'm also losing my hearing and I have no idea why so that's really scary and also inconvenient because my partner hates repeating themself lmAOOOalaksksln

All in all, writing nowadays is very difficult. But I wrote this, didn't I? I also wrote for the first time in, like, two months the other day and it came out pretty good. For those of you who don't write, and for those of you who do and understand, writing something you're passionate about is really really fucking hard. The product is amazing, when you really put forth all of your energy, but when you're 18 and living on your own and live below the poverty line (yes, for real), you have no energy. 

But when I read all the fantastic fucking comments you guys leave on my fic, it literally makes me so happy. My partner has held me while I cried reading your comments because they honestly mean the absolute world to me. That you guys open my fic after reading it already and just leave a message of encouragement, to tell me that you love what I produce and you'll wait for as long as you need to for the next update. It just makes me so emotional and so grateful. It makes me feel like a real author. 

Anyhow, thanks for reading this. It means a lot. And this story is far from over. And until it's over, I'm never going to start writing it. That's an oath! 

Sincerely, 

Kaz. 

Chapter Text

Professor Fitz worked with Wylan day in and day out, perfecting his newfound ability to recognize letters by connecting his talent of memorizing specific notes. After two weeks of mastering his technique, Wylan soon realized there were more letters in the alphabet than there was on a music sheet. When he brought up this concern to his teacher, Fitz just winked. A gesture that ensured he had it all under control. Apart from the tedious but fruitful lessons that had Wylan going to bed every night exhausted and beaming, he realized he genuinely liked Fitz. He liked how Fitz genuinely wanted to help, not just to fix every flaw in Wylan’s body. He liked Fitz’s comfort and his constant praise. He liked his firmness and how he pushed Wylan far beyond his limits. He liked Fitz. Too young to be considered a father-figure, Fitz was more like Wylan’s big brother. Except it wasn’t exactly that, either.

  It wasn’t quite that either because Wylan often found himself breathing in the scent of Fitz’s lesson books because they smelled like him. Eyeing the chocolate swirl of Fitz’s hair and the lean but firm silhouette of his body. Feeling the tug below his belt whenever Fitz brushed his shoulder while Wylan sat at the piano. He was fourteen years old and never once had a crush. None of the girls he saw walking out and about looked pleasing to the eye. They were pretty, often enough, but to him, it felt the same as though he was perusing a furniture store. Fine to look at, but not much else. He remembered once, whilst staying in a winter cottage, he made friends with a neighborhood girl and her twin brother, Esme, and Elliot. Wylan found himself craving their presence every moment he wasn’t with them. He had never been happier in his young life than he had been with those two. Perhaps that was the closest thing he had had to a crush.

  The more he thought about it, lying awake at night with an uncomfortable tightness in his pants, the more he fought it. He squeezed the hot tears out of his tired eyes and told the thoughts to go away, to leave him alone before his father inevitably found out and killed him for it. Not to mention the embarrassment he would have to endure if, Saints forbid, Fitz found out. Unrequited feelings had no place in Wylan’s life. The stress would be too much.

  How was he supposed to act around Fitz now, without letting it show, or making a damn fool out of himself? Lessons now felt like days instead of hours with these new strange inklings and tingles. His mouth practically watered at the sight of Fitz pushing his hair back and biting his lip in thought as he listened intently to Wylan’s playing.

  “Why’d you stop?” Fitz asked suddenly, catching Wylan off guard. Wylan had stopped playing completely, caught in his whirlwind of desperation and humiliating examination of Fitz’s lips.

  Wylan could feel his ears just light up with heat as he looked away immediately and stared at his shaking hands. “I-I’m sorry, I, er, lost myself.”

  Fitz only smiled slightly and chuckled. “Keep concentrating. You’ve almost cracked this one.” He put his hands on Wylan’s shoulders and gently massaged them, straightening Wylan’s back and adjusting his posture. “You just have to relax. You’re in familiar company; this isn’t a recital.”

  The feeling of Fitz’s strong hands on Wylan’s bare neck made his skin break out in goosebumps. Wylan shrugged the kneading hands and spoke in a tremulous voice. “I’m fine, just give me a second.”

  He heard Fitz’s voice close by his ear and flinched. Fitz spoke quietly as if someone was trying to eavesdrop. “I know a place we can go to relax. But you mustn’t tell your father, yes?”

  A ways behind the mansion, there was a spring. This spring had been there longer than anything else on the land had been, flowing always, never drying up. A couple of decades before, the owner of the land outlined the gracious spring with a magnificent cobblestone, so that one might want to take a dip on a  sweltering summer day.

Wylan had spent his entire life here and he had never seen this before in his life. Then again, he never ventured past the front gates if he could help it. If he got dirty, soiled his clothes, perhaps tracked mud into the house, he would never hear or feel the end of it from Van Eck. So avoiding the outdoors altogether is the smarter option.

  Fitz led Wylan by the sleeve, tromping through meter-high grasses with the sun on his face. His skin glowed in the afternoon heat, his sharp cheekbones radiant. His golden-brown hair bounced in their curls and Wylan couldn’t stop staring. He felt hot in his clothes like his collar was choking him.

They continued their venture to the other side of the spring, where there were man-made steps leading into the water for easy access. Fitz grinned and immediately began to take off his shoes and socks. Without a warning, he was soon standing knee-deep in the pool with nothing but his underpants. His body looked like that of a professional gymnast. Lean but taut, with rippling - but not bulging - muscles right under his perfect skin. And from the looks of it, he was…well-hung.

  Wylan’s breath got caught in his chest and he sputtered and coughed to expel the thought. Fitz smirked knowingly. “Come in, pupil, the water is refreshing.”

  Wylan took a slight step back. “I don’t know if I should. Father might come looking for us.”

  Fitz waded farther into the water, the surface now reaching his chest. He chuckled and shook his head. “And when has the Great Van Eck ever checked on his son during lessons?”

  The logic was undoubtedly accurate. Van Eck never came around during his tutoring sessions, let alone asked about it, other than the times when he attempted to embarrass Wylan in front of a large group of peers. Wylan could be out in the spring for days before his father even bothered to take notice.

  But something about being in crystal-clear water half-naked with his professor made Wylan’s heartbeat out of his chest. He couldn’t tell if it was exhilaration or fear. Did it matter? Fitz was there, beaming and body paddling like he was a school-boy again. Wylan rarely ever had fun, he wasn’t allowed to have friends anymore. What could be the harm?

  Wylan removed his shirt and shorts and soon felt very self-conscious about the pair of underpants he decided to wear today. He reluctantly dipped his toes in the water and recoiled at the icy temperature. “Holy shit!” he exclaimed, and then immediately clapped his hand over his mouth. He didn’t curse often, and definitely not in front of adults.

  Fitz laughed so hard that Wylan could see his abdominal muscles flexing under the water. “I’ve heard you curse before, Golden Boy. I can hear you muttering under your breath whilst you’re playing. Don’t worry, this is a safe place, I’m not a snitch.”

  Wylan sighed and rolled his eyes. “Just jump in,” Fitz told him. “Let the water knock the wind out of you and then you’ll get used to it. That’s what every good thing in life will be like.”

  The student took a deep breath and composed his nerves. He took several steps back, plugged his nose, and jumped in.

  The water did indeed knock the wind out of him, but it took longer than expected to get used to it. He sat in the shallow end of the spring, his knees to his chest to conserve heat, with his teeth chattering so violently he thought they would break. “Y-y-y-you l-l-l-l-lied to m-m-m-me,” he whined. Fitz laughed, his eyes dancing with playfulness.

  “Don’t be a baby, Wylan,” he called to his student. “Come play with me, will you?”

  Something deep inside Wylan pulled his knees out of his iron grip and pushed him deeper into the water. “See?” Fitz said, “Come closer.”

  Wylan, still hugging his arms tightly, tread slowly towards Fitz. His heart was racing. Fitz had a look in his eye that made his stomach flip. His chocolate brown hair was wet, making it look dark. In the sunlight, Wylan could see that he had a lot of red mixed in with the brown. His bare chest was glistening, his abdomen rippling with laughter. His smile. His damn smile.

  Wylan stood in front of Fitz, looking up at him and squinting in the bright glare of light. He could barely see, as he was facing directly toward the sun, but he felt Fitz’s finger under his chin.

  “You’re so cute when you’re cold,” Fitz breathed, so quietly that Wylan barely caught it. The finger traced from his chin to his jaw all the way, slowly, slowly, slower, down his neck and circling his collarbone. Wylan’s body, which he already thought was under a great deal of stress, shuddered under Fitz’s light touch, his skin breaking into goosebumps. Suddenly he felt Fitz’s hands on his hips, pulling his hips closer, and Wylan didn’t know if his hips did that on their own or if his teacher moved them, and frankly he didn’t care because Fitz was looking at him with his hands on his hips and Wylan could feel his heartbeat in his face. Everything was silent. And then Fitz kissed him on the cheek and shoved him into the water.

  Wylan came back up sputtering and gasping for air as Fitz cackled like a maniac. “Shit!” Wylan cried, coughing up the rest of the water in his lungs. He glared at the man, “You’re an asshole.”

  A half-hour later, Wylan sat at the edge of the spring, his bare feet in the water. He was shirtless and drying in the warm sun, and Fitz was doing the same.

  “It’s so beautiful here. Why don’t you come out here more often?” Fitz asked.

  Wylan looked up from his lap and squinted at the clouds. “I’m not sure. I like the indoors.”

“Do you like indoors or do you like the safety?”

  Wylan rolled his eyes. “Don’t get philosophical. It’s just my dad.”

  Fitz pushed Wylan’s curls out of his eyes, neglecting his own obscured sight. “Why are you so afraid of your dad?” Fitz’s eyes, now that Wylan could finally see them, were lined with concern. “What has he done to you.”

  Wylan ducked out of Fitz’s reach and shrugged. “Nothing, he’s just a jerk sometimes.”

  “Being a jerk sometimes doesn’t make your child frightened of you.”

  “I’m not scared of him.”

  “Why are you lying?”

  “I’m not, leave it alone!”

  “Wylan, does he hurt you?”

  No, it’s - it’s just complicated.”

  “You’re not being honest.”

  “And what do you know about being honest?” Wylan cried. He stood up and brushed off his pants. “You’re so - so full of it, acting like you know me, acting like you care. Leave me alone.”

  Fitz scrambled to his feet. “Why don’t you trust me yet? Haven’t I gained at least a right to ask about it?”

  “You’re my teacher, Fitz, you’re not my friend.”

  Fitz grabbed Wylan’s wrist. “Can I not be both?”

  “No,” Wylan tried to yank his wrist out of Fitz’s grip but failed. “Let me go. Let me go!”

  “Let me care, Wylan. Can’t you see that I do?” Fitz’s stare was holding the boy tighter than his grip was.

  Tears began to stream down Wylan’s face as his chest tightened. Fitz’s hand felt exactly like his father’s. “Please let me go,” he pleaded. Fitz’s hold was iron-clad.

  “Let me care about you, Wylan. Let me take care of you.”

  Wylan lifted his gaze to meet Fitz’s eyes. They were earnest and intense.

  Fitz pulled Wylan closer until their chests met. He let go of Wylan at once, and in one swift movement, took hold of his chin and kissed him delicately on the mouth.

  Wylan’s mind went blank. No skip of the heartbeat, no butterfly wings in his digestive system. Just black. He swore up and down he was considered brain dead for about thirty solid seconds.

  He wasn’t sure when the kiss ended, but when he opened his eyes finally, Fitz was smiling softly down at him. “You alright?”

  Wylan blinked. Then he blinked again. And then forty-seven more times (he counted; it was the only thing his brain could focus on). “What was that about?” he asked. You fucking idiot.

  Fitz cocked his head to one side. “You didn’t like it?”

  “It was fine,” Wylan said. He wasn’t sure if his face or body was moving to his voice. He couldn’t feel either of them. Based off of sensations, he was floating ten feet in the air, watching himself.

His tutor threw his head back and laughed as though the air was being pulled straight from his chest. “It was fine? Do you have any constructive criticism?”

  “I’ve never been kissed before.”

  Fitz smiled and bit his lip. “Well…let it knock the wind out of you and then get used to it.” Then he kissed Wylan again. And kissed him and kissed him and kissed him.