Not for the first time, Wylan cursed his inability to read. He cursed his brain for not being able to do this ridiculously easy thing that most children could do from the age of four or five. His dyslexia had landed him in multiple awkward situations throughout the years, but mostly they just involved making excuses as to why he couldn’t read aloud in class or why he needed to ask others what a restaurant’s menu offered. This was infinitely worse.
Wylan Van Eck had signed up to be a nude model for a still life art class.
It had all started when Wylan had decided to broaden his horizons a little, branch out within the university and take up some new activities. All he had wanted to do was make a few more friends, spend some free time doing something enjoyable that wasn’t studying. Briefly, he had entertained the possibility that if he was lucky he might meet a cute guy who was also into art and music and science, and then who knew what might happen.
So, one bright but blustery afternoon, Wylan had donned a thick coat and his scarf and made his way from his dorm to the campus. There hadn’t been many people about since it was a Saturday, and most of the students at Ketterdam University made use of their weekends by spending time in the city centre with their friends. Perhaps once Wylan joined a club and made some friends of his own, he thought, he could also spend his weekends going to coffee shops and department stores and fast food places just for the sake of enjoying some time with the people he cared about.
He pushed open the door to the Student Centre and unwrapped his scarf, leaving it hanging loosely around his neck. It was a lot warmer inside than outside and he felt more than a little uncomfortable in his great big coat. Unbuttoning it, he hurried over to the Extracurricular Activities Board and scanned the dozens of sign-up sheets pinned to it.
This was where he made his mistake. He couldn’t read the vast majority of the words on all the sheets. They shifted and moved on the block colour backgrounds – after he’d been through all the dyslexia testing, Wylan had discovered that he found it easiest to read when the text was printed on yellow paper, but as luck would have it, none of the sign-up sheets used that colour. So, he focused on the clip-art pictures that were on each of the sheets, and finally he noticed a cartoon easel and a paint palette.
Wylan concentrated hard on the heading of that particular sign-up sheet, just to check that he hadn’t misunderstood the pictures and he was getting himself into something he actually wanted to do. Unfortunately, the sign-up sheet was blue, which was one of Wylan’s worst colours for reading. He thought he just about made out the words ‘life’ and ‘art’, which was good enough for him. He added his scruffy signature to the sheet.
He had never regretted anything quite so intensely.
A week later, when he’d shown up to the class, the art teacher beamed and said, “Hello, Wylan! I’m glad you could make it. I didn’t expect you to sign up to model for us, but it’s lucky you did, or we’d be out of things to paint.”
Wylan was utterly bewildered and utterly terrified. He knew immediately that something had gone wrong. His heart hammered as he reached hopelessly for a response. “I… but that’s not… I didn’t… What?”
“You were the only one who volunteered to model for our still life class,” the art teacher said, still smiling. She took Wylan by the wrist and attempted to lead him to a back room just off the classroom. “You can undress in here, Wylan, I’ve left a robe so you don’t have to come out fully naked immediately–”
“No!” The teacher let go of his wrist, looking stunned. He hadn’t meant to yell. Now the entire class was staring at him like he’d set a bomb off. “No, I’m sorry, there has been some sort of horrible misunderstanding. I must have misread the sheet, I wanted to sign up to be doing the painting, not being painted.”
She frowned. “I’d let you join the class, Wylan, but we’re at full capacity – we don’t have any more easels or canvases or paints. And even if I could let you paint, we wouldn’t have a model. You signed up. I’m afraid there’s no other option.”
Wylan’s mouth dropped open and again he tried to backtrack. “No, I can’t, I really can’t. I’ll have to leave.”
He turned on his heel and made to exit the dead silent classroom, feeling everyone’s eyes on him and the burning embarrassment in the pit of his stomach. There was no way he was going to make any friends now – anyone in that class would think he was the idiot who couldn’t read a sign-up sheet and wimped out of two hours of modelling. He’d be a laughingstock.
Just as he was about to open the door, there was a shout from somebody in the class. “Wait! I’ll switch with Wylan. I can model and he can take my easel. I don’t mind.”
Wylan turned back to the class, looking for who had made the offer. Right at the back of the room, five easels were set up away from the rest of the students in an uneven semicircle. In the very middle of the five seats, a girl was stood up, her hand in the air. Just looking at her, Wylan knew she’d make a better model than him; she had an elegantly curvy body, jewel green eyes, and her dark her hung in loose curls down her back.
“Nina!” exclaimed the boy sat next to her, a mortified expression on his face. He was a heavyset guy with a hard jawline and bright blond hair. “Surely you’re not serious?”
“What?” Nina said innocently. “I’ve always wanted to model, it looks fun. Remember our ‘fun lessons’? Think of this as revision.”
The other three of their friends sat around the semicircle started to laugh. The art teacher scrutinised Nina for a moment, nodded, and looked back to Wylan. “Is that alright with you?” she asked.
“I…” Wylan looked back at the group. He’d seen them around the campus before, and he thought he might have shared a lesson with the little bronze-skinned girl sat beside the blond boy, but he knew that most of the students in the school feared the five of them. Rumour had it they were part of a gang called the Dregs and they were dangerous people to get involved with. Wylan wondered what on Earth they were doing in a still life art class.
He had been about to say he’d just leave, not wanting to sit with the gang, but Nina gave him an encouraging smile and he caved. Maybe it would somehow still prove to be a good opportunity to make friends.
With a gang, he reminded himself. I’d be making friends with a gang.
“Okay,” he said eventually. “If you’re sure.”
Nina beamed and practically skipped away from the group to the back room the teacher had pointed out earlier. Wylan headed towards Nina’s friends, and she passed him on the way, giving him a gentle pat on the shoulder.
“Thank you,” he whispered to her.
“Any time,” she returned.
Steeling himself, Wylan kept walking towards the Dregs. The remaining four were staring at him and he felt extremely uncomfortable. Besides the blond giant and the dark-haired girl (whose name he now remembered was Inej, and they shared their history class) there were two other boys.
One of them needed no introduction. Kaz Brekker was glaring at Wylan as if he hoped to shoot lasers from his eyes and blow Wylan’s head up, which was unsettling. Wylan was also fairly sure that Kaz could actually do that if he really wanted to. He wouldn’t put anything past Kaz Brekker.
Wylan didn’t recognise the other boy. He was sat between Kaz and Nina’s empty seat, stretched out like a cat, his long limbs splayed every which way. He had dark skin and a gloriously handsome face, with a sharp jawline and piercing grey eyes. He was looking at Wylan with a smirk on his lips – and by God, they were the most perfect lips Wylan had ever seen.
This class was going to be the death of him.
He quietly stowed his bag under his chair, suddenly realising that he was flanked by two Dregs on either side, the blond and Inej on his left, the grey-eyed boy and Kaz on his right. It was more than a little nerve-racking. Wylan took Nina’s seat and remained silent, avoiding eye contact with any of the others around him. But it didn’t last long.
“How did you manage to screw up that badly?” the dark-skinned boy beside him said with a laugh.
Wylan blushed, embarrassed. “I guess I just didn’t read it properly,” he replied, not looking.
The blond boy was scowling. “You should have read it more carefully.” He violently mixed some colours on his palette, ruining the brush.
“Ignore Matthias,” the other boy instructed. “He gets cranky when Nina has fun.”
“I do not,” the blond – Matthias – said grumpily. “We just have different definitions of fun. I get cranky when she decides to get naked in front of a class of thirty people and a faculty member.”
The boy rolled his eyes, and stuck his hand out in front of Wylan. “My name’s Jesper,” he said.
“Wylan,” Wylan replied, although with all the commotion he’d caused minutes ago it probably wasn’t necessary to introduce himself.
“That’s Kaz,” Jesper continued, gesturing to Kaz who was scanning the room with his keen eyes. “Like I said, that’s Matthias, and that’s Inej.”
“Hi, Wylan,” Inej said with a little smile. “We have history together.”
“Oh?” said Jesper, looking and sounding curious.
Wylan smiled. “Not as in ‘we have history’, we’re just in the same history class. Hello, Inej.”
Jesper sighed. “That’s disappointing. I was hoping you’d have some deep dark secret that somehow involved Inej, maybe a high-speed car chase, and a kidnapping gone wrong.”
Wylan thought for a moment, and then, rather accidentally he said, “Well, I’ve got the car chase and the kidnapping, but none of it involves Inej.”
All four heads snapped in his direction at his words, and he realised what he’d said. He felt his face flush red and ducked his head. He didn’t make a habit of revealing things like that to total strangers, and telling four gang members was probably the worst thing he’d ever done, but they made him nervous and one of two things happened when Wylan was anxious – either he’d not talk for hours at a time, or he’d run his mouth and say things he didn’t intend to.
“Really?” asked Kaz. It was the first time Wylan had ever heard the other boy speak and for a moment he just blinked at Kaz, a little surprised by the gravelly harshness of his voice.
Wylan shrugged, and mixed some paints on his palette. Jesper opened his mouth to presumably ask a question the car chase or the kidnapping, but luckily at that moment Nina came out from the little back room, draped in a robe, and the teacher clapped to get the class’s attention.
“Alright,” she called. “In a moment, Miss Zenik is going to disrobe and position herself on the couch.” She gestured vaguely to the uncomfortable-looking futon set up on a makeshift stage. “I really want you to focus on the shape of her body today, and we’ll add colour next week. Now, a few pointers…”
The teacher ran into a long spiel about musculature, and Wylan tried his hardest to listen despite already knowing everything she said. He’d been painting and drawing for as long as he could remember – if there were any tips he didn’t know, he’d be surprised.
Listening was easier said than done. Wylan was usually a very attentive listener because he listened to most of his schoolwork, unable to take notes or read long passages in textbooks. But his attention was directed elsewhere as the teacher droned on and on about what type of pencil to use because Jesper was kicking him.
It wasn’t hard. It was actually very subtle. Just noticeable enough to be irritating. He let Jesper keep kicking him for a minute or two before the other boy started to get a little more violent. Soon, he was repeatedly kicking Wylan’s calf, and Wylan could see in his peripheral vision that Jesper was wearing a little smirk and looking down at his legs – he knew exactly what he was doing and how annoying it was.
“Stop kicking me,” Wylan muttered, not looking to Jesper.
Jesper kicked harder. “Sorry, I can’t hear you if you don’t make eye contact with me.”
Rolling his eyes, Wylan faced Jesper and gave him his best angry glare. He knew that he probably looked more like a mildly inconvenienced puppy, but it was the sentiment behind the glare that mattered, not the glare itself.
“Stop kicking me,” he repeated.
“No,” Jesper whined, “I want to talk to you.”
“Kicking and talking aren’t the same thing.”
Jesper rolled his eyes. “Well, obviously! I was kicking you to get your attention to talk to you.”
“Well now you’ve talked to me, so you can stop.”
Jesper looked like he was considering it for a moment, but then he grinned and shook his head. “Nah. I think I’ll carry on. It might make you keep talking to me.”
Wylan frowned and turned away with a huff. “It won’t.”
“Whatever you say,” Jesper returned.
The teacher had at last finished her speech and Nina was reclined on the futon, her modesty preserved by elegant (but almost certainly fake) red silk. Wylan cast a glance at Matthias who seemed to be having some sort of internal dilemma. From the look on his face, Wylan thought that he was either desperate to whisk Nina somewhere else and have his way with her, or jam a shirt over her head and get her a pair of jeans so that he could stop being embarrassed.
Wylan started sketching out the gorgeous curves of Nina’s body. He was still a little nervous – though his nerves had largely been replaced with annoyance as Jesper had moved on to kicking the leg of his chair – and his hand shook a little, making the lines wonky. He frowned and erased them, starting over.
“So,” Jesper said, breaking the silence that had settled over the group. “Where you serious about the car chase and kidnapping thing?”
Wylan didn’t reply. Yes, he had been serious, but he hadn’t meant to admit it to the Dregs and he wasn’t about to launch into the rather long-winded story that accompanied the facts. Besides, if he was going to get the angle of Nina’s body exactly right he really needed to focus.
“Hello?” Jesper said, prodding him with the wooden end of his paintbrush, dragging out the ‘o’ sound. Wylan felt his eyes flutter exasperatedly, and leaned forward towards his work.
He heard Jesper sigh dramatically and lean back in his chair.
“Leave it, Jesper,” Wylan heard Inej say. “If he doesn’t want to talk about it, he doesn’t want to talk about it.” Wylan gave her a small smile.
“Well he can’t just not talk at all,” Jesper complained, poking Wylan’s shoulder again. “Come on, Wylan… Wylan… Wylan Whatever-Your-Surname-Is! Talk to us!”
He would have. He would have spoken, he would have been glad to have a conversation, but there were a few things stopping him.
Number one was that Wylan had no idea what to talk about. His interests? Somehow the Dregs didn’t seem like the kind of people who appreciated Mozart, Monet, and Mendeleev. And he couldn’t talk about his family. And he didn’t have any friends they might know by coincidence.
Number two was that the Dregs were terrifying. It had taken a lot of willpower for Wylan to make himself go over to them and sit down. Between Kaz’s bitter staring and uncomfortable silence, Inej’s quiet talent for knowing everything about everyone, Matthias’s unnaturally tall and muscular frame, and Jesper’s constant chatter and kicking, they weren’t the sort of company Wylan thought he’d keep if he had the choice. He didn’t know what to say, what might set them off.
And number three was that he had very little practise talking to people who weren’t also the sons or daughters of rich businessmen and women, and he got the impression that the subjects of stock markets and company shares he was used to talking about with them would work as well with the Dregs. Well, maybe Kaz, but he wasn’t going to talk to the boy if he didn’t have to.
So Wylan stayed silent again.
Jesper groaned. “Fine, I’ll say things and you can answer. Deal?”
Wylan shrugged. “Deal.”
He could hear the smile on Jesper’s face as he said. “I grew up on a farm. Where did you grow up?”
Wylan’s eyes widened impossibly and he felt his face heat as he stammered for a response. How was he supposed to answer that without sounding like a spoiled brat? You couldn’t just tell somebody you’d known all of ten minutes that you grew up in a mansion surrounded by servants at your beck and call because your father was one of the richest men in the modern world?
Jesper cringed. “Sorry. Maybe I should have started smaller. I know childhoods aren’t always a cool subject to talk about.”
Wylan’s childhood in general was a whole other tale, one that he was most definitely not going to discuss with Jesper. Instead he offered a shy smile and said, “Yeah, you could say that.”
He looked up momentarily and saw Kaz’s eyes fixated on him. He didn’t like the calculating look in them or the way they were narrowed in suspicion. After a moment, Kaz’s eyes seemed to light with something – realisation? Wylan didn’t know – and he turned back to his easel, which was totally blank.
“Okay,” Jesper was saying, “let me think of something that can’t be a touchy subject… Um… Okay, what’s your favourite colour?”
“Yellow,” Wylan told him, glad he could finally answer a question. Jesper smiled.
And there it was again. Another question he couldn’t answer. It wasn’t anything much to do with the colour itself, it was mainly the fact that Wylan was better at reading from yellow paper. When he could string a sentence or two together, it made him feel a little less like a failure, all because of the colour of the paper. How was he supposed to put that into words without revealing he couldn’t read or sounding like a complete and utter weirdo?
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I just like the colour.”
Jesper seemed satisfied. “Well, my favourite colour is orange. That’s because on the farm where I grew up we grew jurda, which is this beautiful flower with orange blossoms that can be made into a stimulant. It’s come in useful a few times here when I’ve forgotten to start assignments until the night before.”
Kaz, Inej and Matthias all looked at Jesper with confusion and disbelief on their faces. “What?” he said bewilderedly.
“In all the time we’ve been here,” said Matthias, “you’ve never completed a single assignment.”
Jesper looked unimpressed.
“As far as I know, you’ve never even started one,” contributed Inej.
“Well, excuse me if I have better things to do with my time than write about why Macbeth was an idiot.”
Wylan snickered. “I get where you’re coming from with that,” he told Jesper, who made a face to the others that said See? Wylan agrees with me. “I’ve actually not turned in a single English assignment since the start of the year.”
“Damn,” said Jesper, sounding impressed. “How have you got away with that?”
Wylan shrugged. “I’m not sure.”
“His dad holds a lot of weight at the university,” Kaz supplied, not taking his eyes off his (still blank) easel. “None of the professors would dare admonish him.”
And again Wylan felt all of the Dregs’ eyes on him. He blushed and spluttered, searching desperately for a response. How was he supposed to respond to that? How did Kaz even know? What was he supposed to do? This wasn’t a situation he’d mentally prepared himself for: sitting with a gang and being quizzed about his grades and now his father? He desperately wanted to get out of here, but he couldn’t, not when he’d made Nina give up her space. He took a deep breath.
“What do you mean?” he said, trying to sound calm. He knew from the panic he’d let slip onto his face before that he had not achieved that, but it was worth a shot.
Kaz just frowned. “Your father, Jan Van Eck. He’s a prominent governor for the university, and he makes hefty donations yearly – presumably to ensure you get the best education possible, am I correct?”
Wylan shook his head. “No. Well, a little bit. He is my father but he couldn’t care less about my education. The donations he makes here are to make sure he has powerful links should anything go wrong.”
From the light in Kaz’s eyes he knew he had said too much. Luckily, Kaz didn’t say another word on the subject, and Inej – sensing the tension – changed the subject. Wylan tried to focus on his painting again, but he was more than a little distracted.
Jesper was kicking his chair again. “Can we carry on our game?” Jesper said quietly. “I won’t ask any questions about your father or anything. You just seem cool.”
Wylan snorted, hand shaking and scribbling a line down his canvas accidentally. “Me? Cool? You think the boy who accidentally signed up to be a nude model for an art class is cool? Sure.”
Jesper laughed. Was there any more beautiful sound?
“Well, when you put it that way. But seriously, I want to know more about you. Any interests?”
Wylan thought for a moment. “Well, art obviously. I like science, and music, too.”
“Music,” said Jesper, sounding interested. “Play any instruments?”
“Are you any good?”
“I’m alright,” he said with a shrug, face flushing.
Jesper shook his head. “Liar. I bet you’re amazing. You can show me how you blow your flute sometime. And if you’re good maybe I’ll let you blow something else.”
By the end, Jesper’s voice had quieted so that only Wylan could hear him, but it didn’t stop the cruel blush that spread across his cheeks. It had been a cheap line, barely something that could be considered flirting, and it wasn’t exactly imaginative. It was not something that Wylan needed to get flustered over, and yet there he was.
“Anyway,” Jesper was continuing. “I’ll tell you about my interests. I like shooting.”
“Shooting? Like with a gun?”
“No, shooting with a water pistol,” Jesper deadpanned. “Yes, with a gun. But I don’t shoot live targets or anything. There’s a cool little shooting range downtown. I could take you there sometime if you wanted.”
Wylan smiled. “Maybe.”
Jesper grinned triumphantly. “Yes! I knew I’d get there eventually. So I can have your number?”
Wylan had not been prepared for that question. And he didn’t know where Jesper had thought he’d got. But nevertheless he nodded and Jesper passed over his phone, into which Wylan typed his number.
They lapsed into a comfortable silence and continued their painting. Eventually, the class came to an end and everyone packed away their equipment. Nina dressed again and joined the group. Matthias refused to look at her, but she clung to his arm like a barnacle to a ship. Inej and Kaz were stood side by side which left Jesper stood beside Wylan, an arm slung casually around his shoulders.
“We’re having a games night,” Jesper told Wylan. “Do you want to join us?”
Somehow, he did. He really did. Desperately. But Wylan had agreed to have dinner with his father that night, despite his better judgement. Sadly, he shook his head.
“I’m sorry,” he told a crestfallen Jesper. “I can’t, I have plans. But definitely another time… well, if you still want me another time.”
“Of course we do!” Jesper exclaimed. “We’ll invite you next time, I’ll text you the details for it. And the details for our date at the shooting range. See you, Wylan.” He winked.
“Bye, Jesper,” he said, giving a wave to the other Dregs, all of whom except Kaz returned it.
It was only when Wylan had arrived back at his dorm, stowed away his painting equipment, and dressed in his best clothes to see his father that he realised what he had agreed to.
He had a date with Jesper at a shooting range.
How on Earth had that happened?