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The last trickles of light as the sun set filtered through the heavily polluted Kerch skies and Jesper had just killed a man.

 

In his defence, the guy was a rival gang member and had been causing unnecessary trouble for the Dregs the past few weeks. So when Jesper returned to the Slat to tell Kaz that their most recent ‘problem’ had been taken care of, he wasn’t expecting the boy to ignore the blood on Jesper’s shirt and instead send him back out the door.

Jesper couldn’t complain; he may have taken a slight detour to place a couple of bets on the racing later today. And even if he was slightly late to his meeting, Jesper wasn’t worried.

 

In truth, Jesper wasn’t even aware Inej had been taking these regular trips up towards the Government District. But, then again, who knew what resources Inej used to collect her wealth of information on every bastard in Ketterdam.

 

But how Kaz was gaining information from inside a mercher’s house, Jesper could never work out. He couldn’t wait to see the poor servant Kaz had roped into Dregs business.

 

Jesper made his way through a back entrance into the Van Eck estate, maybe not as graceful as Inej but he was in. Following her instructions Kaz had passed on since she was away on another job, Jesper made his way to the stables. He was promised they would be empty excluding the horses and of course-

 

The young boy emerged from around the corner. The dim lamplight stroked his curls and accentuated his features. Features that were currently drawn into a scowl.

 

“You’re late.” His voice displayed frustration and anger but his eyebrows twitched and eyes darted about; he was worried. Damn, maybe Jesper shouldn’t have gotten distracted with his gambling.

 

As he walked closer, the kid finally, finally, made eye contact. And he froze. “You’re not Inej.” He breathed out.

 

Jesper couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow to the familiarity with which he used Inej’s name.

 

“No,” Jesper smirked, leaning against the wooden wall, “I’m certainly not.”

 

There was a pause. And Jesper saw the complete and utter fear flashing across the boy’s features, the rigidity in his body.

 

“But,” Jesper continued, “I am here for whatever you have to give me. Inej is busy so consider me a replacement. I’m Jesper.” A peace offering.

 

“Wylan.”

 

Wylan stared at him a moment longer, eyes of the purest blue scanning scanning scanning him, before-

 

“Alright.” He began to shuffle through the satchel he had brought and Jesper couldn’t help but notice the quality of leather and, now that the thought’s there, Wylan’s clothes looked like they would fetch a decent sum down the market.

 

Certainly not what you would expect from a servant.

 

Wylan handed a stack of papers to Jesper. He flicked through them, refusing to allow the other boy to know that he technically didn’t know what he was looking for. There were sketches mostly, room layouts, dotted with rough measurements, as well as some tables full of figures, supplies and investments. Not what he was expecting. These seemed, well, detailed.

 

Hardly the gossip he was used to. Servants talking about their bosses latest trip to the Barrel, whoever their most recent affair is with, all in a hope of getting something out of it, something better out of life.

 

“I’ve finished almost all of the sketches for Councilman Hoede’s house that I could do. The ground floor and garden are there but I’ll only be able to do some for the first and second floor and they’ll be ready for next time.”

 

Jesper looked up, surprised, just who was this kid. But Wylan seemed to take his silence as disappointment.

 

“They will be done, I promise. And I’ve copied most of Hoede’s recent purchases. He gave a good sum to the Council recently but I couldn’t find any other information about what it was he bought.”

 

Surely no servant would risk sneaking into Councilmen’s rooms. Nevermind losing a job, he could be imprisoned. Just how much was Kaz paying him. Unless-

 

“Wait. You’re a merchling?” Despite his time in the Barrel, Jesper couldn’t disguise the disbelief in this voice. “Wylan? Wylan Van Eck?”

 

The very estate he was in. Jesper let out a low whistle. Now Jesper wondered what dirt Kaz had on Wylan, just how much leverage was needed to persuade a merchling to help Barrel rats?

 

“Anyway,” Wylan was visibly uncomfortable, “another thing I thought you should let Kaz know is that Hoede was asking about Grisha indentures. He seemed, I don’t know, excited? There was something he wanted to share but couldn’t, at least not yet.”

 

Right, business. Wylan hadn’t appeared to have written any of this information down so Jesper would have to ensure he remembered it. Great.

 

“That all merchling?” Yes, Jesper was enjoying this far too much.

 

Wylan nodded and Jesper pushed off the wall, ready to leave the bizarre situation he had found himself in and to question Kaz as soon as he returned.

 

“Wait,” the word tore itself out of Wylan’s throat, “aren’t you going to, you know, pay?” Blood rose to his face. Cute.

 

Jesper, smirked, stepping in close to the shorter boy. “Well, I don’t have any money on me but I’m sure we can work out another form of payment-“

 

“No! No, I mean-“ Wylan paused, taking a step backwards, “Did Inej not- not explain?”

 

Confused and slightly intrigued, Jesper could only shake his head.

 

In a way Jesper didn’t realise was possible, Wylan’s face reddened further. He reached back into his satchel and brought out a-

 

Book.

 

Specifically a piece of literature, probably some old ‘classic’ which Jesper bet was gathering dust on the floor of his old room at the university.

 

“Inej has been reading for me, out loud. So I can- I can memorise it.”

 

Jesper took the book off Wylan, turning it over in his hands.

 

“What?” It was all he could say in his utter confusion. Sure, there were a number of guesses he could have made but this - this he never would have been able to dream of.

 

“Look, just- just don’t ask for details honestly. I’ve done my end of the bargain alright?” Wylan shifted awkwardly, refusing to make eye contact, until he seemed to take a deep breath, seemingly deciding something, raising his head and said - no pleaded - “Jesper, please .”

 

And all Jesper could see before him was a scared kid. So maybe that's why he just let out a soft “Sure” and sat down on the stable wall. Leaning against the wall, he vaguely worried about the dirt staining his fluorescent trousers. But his mind was focused on Wylan.

 

Wylan who paused, as if confused why Jesper hadn’t pressed for more answers, before sitting down next to Jesper, with a decent sized space between them. Jesper’s eyes returned to the book in front of him, opening up, and beginning to read:

 

“The servants called them malenchki , little ghosts…”

 

~~~

 

After that day, Jesper was sent to meet with Wylan more and more. It seemed that Kaz wanted Inej on more dangerous jobs but was unwilling to quite let go of his access to Wylan’s valuable information yet.

 

And fuck did the boy have a lot of valuable information. Over the last few months, Kaz and Inej had broken into one Councilman’s house and sent a few Dregs out to intercept a mercher’s trading ship. Wylan was very quickly becoming very profitable

 

So what if Jesper flirted with him a bit. Most of the time it was a game to see how much Wylan could blush, nothing more than that. Nope, nothing serious at all. Wylan was cute, that much Jesper knew. And while the merchling kept much of his life a secret, Jesper always knew one other thing about him:

 

He was never late.

 

But here was Jesper, waiting in the stables, with Wylan nowhere to be seen.

 

Probably busy with merchling business. Nothing more, nothing less. But no amount of weak reassurances would remove the restless energy inside Jesper. In his bones, his joints, his very being.

 

Maybe pacing back and forth the stable was a bad idea, it would only irritate the horses and eventually one of the stablehands would come to investigate and Jesper was not getting Wylan into trouble.

 

Should he leave? Should he try to look around to rest of the house? No, wait, that’s a stupid idea that’s bound to end in him shooting someone. Should he-

 

“Wylan!”

 

Jesper quickly walked towards the boy but stopped suddenly when he realised something was wrong. Wylan dragged himself through the door, head hanging low, arms crossed and shoulders hunched up in a defensive position. He was missing his usual satchel and his clothes were dishevelled.

 

“Wylan?” Jesper hesitated, “what’s happened?”

 

Wylan shifted slightly and Jesper couldn’t help but notice the way he favoured putting his weight on one side. Seconds crawled by slowly slowly slowly. Jesper didn’t know what to do, the atmosphere felt so dense like one wrong movement would set the world alight. Until Wylan raised his head, meeting Jesper’s eyes, and-

 

“Oh. Oh, Wy .” Jesper took gentle steps forward like he was approaching an injured animal. And he - softly so so slowly and softly - placed his hand on Wylan’s face.

 

The face that held eyes of clear blue that reminded him of Novyi Zem skies. The face with scattered freckles he could trace like constellations. The innocent face and delicate cheekbones. The, the, the-

 

The bruises. The ugly bruises. Several on one cheek. Another under his other eye. Dark blues and purples beginning to transition into greens and browns.

 

Jesper tore his eyes off Wylan’s face, scanning the rest of his body. The way he learnt to study Dregs coming back from jobs. Who’s taken a bullet where and what other injuries have been accumulated.

 

One sleeve was torn slightly showcasing the varying bruises on Wylan’s arm. His weight was balanced disproportionately, Wylan’s leg slightly limp. And some blood smeared across the cuff of his sleeve. Jesper’s eyes returned to Wylan’s face where there was still some dried blood on the edge of his lips. Using his free hand, he gently wiped the blood off, leaving the skin stained a light red.

 

“Wylan.”

 

He simply stared. His blue eyes, usually so sharp and shining, now dull. He looked so tired. A bone-deep weariness that indicated Wylan had given up.

 

“I think,” Wylan began and Jesper could feel his breath on his face, “I think you need to go.” He slipped out of Jesper’s touch. Stepping backwards to lean heavily against the wall.

 

“What? I’m not leaving you like this.”

 

Please. Please, Jes. You need to go.”

 

“I told you, I’m not-“

 

“It’ll only make things worse.”

 

“You can come with me, you know Kaz would-“

 

“I can’t.”

 

Jesper took one desperate step towards him but Wylan held his hand up for space. That one movement seemed to cost him.

 

“Why?” The word strangled him. He didn’t understand. Jesper didn’t understand.

 

“Do you trust me, Jes?” How was his voice so level, so toneless, so-

 

So empty.

 

Jesper nodded once, firmly, no room for uncertainty.

 

“Then you just have to believe me, I can’t. And-“ his voice hitched, “and you have to leave. Now.”

 

Jesper couldn’t force Wylan to come with him, as much as he wanted to. And he couldn’t storm up to that obnoxious house and shoot everyone he saw. There wasn’t anything he could do.

 

All he could do was trust Wylan.

 

The walk back to the Slat hurt . Every step that took him farther away from that house, from Wylan, was laced with pain. He could have been attacked by any number of gang members without noticing, could have easily been killed. It probably would hurt less than those moments where he had to turn around, turn his back to Wylan, and walk away.

 

Jesper didn’t give Kaz a choice, he simply told him that he would be the one to visit Wylan for their next scheduled meeting and that had been that.

 

For the past few days, Jesper has been unable to soothe his restless energy. He lost count of how many times he began to walk towards the Van Eck estate before his brain regained control of his feet; it would be too dangerous to go without arranging to meet, possibly worsening whatever the situation surrounding Wylan was.

 

And every goddamn time Jesper found his feet turning towards the nearest gambling hall.

 

But Wylan didn’t turn up to their meeting.

 

Or the next one.

 

Or the next one.

 

Or the next one.

 

~~~

 

Jesper was heading to a gambling hall to spend more money he didn’t have when he heard it. A small broken sound that had Jesper turning into a dark alleyway.

 

Wylan .

 

Jesper rushed forward, gathering the boy up in his arms. He was soaked through and his body looked on the verge of collapse.

 

Jes .” Wylan croaked into Jesper’s chest, the full weight of his body leaning into him, unable to hold himself up any longer.

 

“I’m here. I’m here.” Jesper’s arms tightened around him. “Wylan? Wylan, can you look at me?” Slowly the boy managed to lift his head up, “What do you need?”

 

“Sleep.” The first word that fell out of his mouth in pure desperation. His eyebrows furrowed for a second, thinking, before “Food.” Soon followed.

 

“Okay, okay I can do that. Right, I’ve got you. I’ve got you, here.” Jesper picked Wylan up and carried him towards the Slat not trusting him to be able to take another step on his own.

 

Wylan slumped in his arms, eyes drifting closed.

 

“Hey, hey Wy? Can you stay awake for me? Please?”

 

His eyes fluttered open, blinking blearily. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know where else to go.”

 

“Hey,” Jesper’s voice has never been this soft before, “none of that now. I’m glad you found me.”

 

Jesper took Wylan through the back entrance of the Slat, avoiding the Dregs, and up to his room. He gently sat him down on his bed.

 

Wylan watched Jesper as he grabbed some of his clothes and passed them to him.

 

“Do you want to put these on while I quickly go grab some food from downstairs? I won’t be long but you can’t stay in your wet clothes.”

 

Wylan nodded, confirmation he understood, and when Jesper returned he saw that Wylan had managed to change without falling asleep.

 

“Can you eat something before you fall asleep? As much as you can.”

 

Wylan took the food out of Jesper’s hand and began to eat. Jesper moved to sit next to Wylan on the bed. His eyes caught on the ring of bruises around his neck. They stood out from his previous injuries; they were new. His fist clenched in his lap, a need to grab his revolvers. But he couldn’t ask Wylan, not yet.

 

At some point, while Jesper was simmering in his anger, Wylan had left the half-eaten plate on the side table.

 

“Sleep now?” The sheer exhaustion in his voice made Jesper want to shoot someone, a very specific someone whose hands match the bruises on Wylan’s neck.

 

“Yes merchling, you can sleep.”

 

Wylan smiled gratefully and quickly manoeuvred himself so he was lying down on the bed. Jesper soon joined him and, while Wylan fell asleep before his head hit the pillow, Jesper spent a long time watching his face, scared he would disappear if he looked away.

 

Until eventually sleep claimed him.

 

~~~

 

When Jesper woke, he was surprised to find someone next to him. Until he saw Wylan sitting up in bed, hands folded in his lap, and he immediately remembered the events of the night prior. Wylan tilted his head, realising Jesper was awake.

 

“Hey,” he croaked out and that single syllable seemed to ache.

 

Jesper sat up, turning towards Wylan.

 

“Hey.”

 

“Thank you. Thank you.. for, well, all this.” Wylan gestured vaguely around.

 

Jesper could hide the touch of a frown to his eyebrows. “You don’t have to thank me.”

 

Wylan looked away and the silence blanketed the room; every breath was too loud and every movement was too ostentatious.

 

“Wy,” Jesper began, voice quiet, “what happened?”

 

Wylan’s shoulders shook as he took a ragged breath in. He lifted his hand, covered in Jesper’s shirt sleeve, and wiped roughly at his eyes. Jesper felt an ache, deep in his heart, a piece of him breaking off at the sight of Wylan in such pain. Yet, a part of Jesper couldn’t ignore the sight of Wylan in his too big clothes.

 

“I-“ Wylan’s voice broke off, he paused, as if preparing himself for a momentous task, “I can’t read.”

 

Jesper hesitated, waiting for more. “Is that it?”

 

Wylan’s head whipped around, “What do you mean ‘is that it’?”

 

“I mean so what? Who cares? I don’t.” Now that he knew, a lot of things made more sense.

 

“I do!” Wylan exclaimed. His eyes were red and he blinked furiously, refusing to let any more tears form. “My- my father does.”

 

A pause.

 

“I can’t be the Van Eck heir if I can’t even read a fucking stock report. My father-“ A pause. “He would get angry at me. For not being able to. And- and-“

 

“Was it him? Who hurt you the other night?”

 

Wylan paused then nodded.

 

And fuck if Wylan didn’t need him right now, Jesper would be storming into the Van Eck house with his revolvers through the front door, stadwatch be damned.

 

“He tried to have me killed.”

 

Jesper flinched. All thoughts of shooting Jan Van Eck in his smug face gone.

 

“For the last few months, with you and Inej reading to me, I’ve been, well, tricking him. He thought I was getting better. Things were the best they’ve been in that house for the last ten years. But- But he figured it out. I thought he was sending me away to Belendt since I couldn’t inherit the business. But the men who were supposed to escort me had actually been hired to, you know, kill me.”

 

“I’m so sorry.” Wylan stared at Jesper surprised. “I should never have left you there, in that house, alone.”

 

Wylan shook his head adamantly. “No. No, it’s not your fault.” Wylan took Jesper’s hand. “There’s nothing you could’ve done. I promise.”

 

“I really want to kill him.”

 

Wylan laughed a humourless laugh. “I think there’s a bit of a queue.”

 

“You can stay here.” Jesper insisted. “As long as you need. I can see if I can get you your own room if you like.”

 

“I don’t-“ Wylan took in a shaky breath. “I don’t think I want to be alone at the moment.”

 

Jesper nodded understandingly, “Stay here. Stay with me.” There was an edge of something in his voice, his slight breathlessness hinted to something that he wasn’t yet prepared to acknowledge.

 

“Kaz won’t want me around. I’m no use to him anymore.”

 

“I don’t care what Kaz thinks,” Jesper stated, no room for doubt in his voice but Wylan still looked unsure. “Besides you have a bunch of other, um, marketable skills. You’re good at chemistry, right? If really want to join the Dregs, we’re always looking for more people who can handle demolitions.”

 

Wylan titled his head up, to look Jesper straight in the eye. “Thank you.”

 

“I already said,” Jesper smiled slightly, “you don’t need to thank me.”

 

“No, really, thank you .” Wylan squeezed Jesper’s hand. He had forgotten that he was holding it. Jesper realised then how close they were.

 

“My pleasure, merchling.” Wylan chuckled at that. Jesper leaned in, unable to help it. He felt like his body was drawn to Wylan. Unable to escape his gravitational pull.

 

Wylan studied him, Jesper’s eyes, like he was one of his maths equations.

 

“Is-“ Jesper’s breath fanned across Wylan’s face. “Is this okay?”

 

In answer, Wylan closed the gap between them. Pushing his lips against Jesper’s. They slotted together like the last pieces of a puzzle fitting into place. Wylan cradled Jesper’s face while Jesper wrapped his arms around his waist, mindful of his injuries, and gently pulled Wylan closer, closer, closer.

 

Slowly they broke apart, Jesper reluctant to let Wylan go.

 

“I meant it earlier: stay. Stay here. Stay with me.”

 

Wylan looked up at him, eyes shining, face hopeful.

 

“Okay.”