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That Mask You Wear

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Wylan wanted to cry.

He stared at his hands, trying to stifle the shake in them. He had woken in the morning with his father's sneer in his mind, the sharp pain of a hit, the ache of every slur. To make everything worse, Kaz had sent Jesper and Nina off to a mission together—so there was no one to make him feel better. Matthias was sulking in his room, and Kaz and Inej were busy poring over some documents. 

Wylan tried to make himself useful, but he soon got the hint that he wasn't wanted, so he retreated and tried to busy himself on his own. But, as mich as he was bored, Wylan didn't feel like doing anything either. He was lonely with nothing to do, and that was the perfect opportunity for unwelcome thoughts to intrude. 

Wylan buried his face in his hands, trying to breathe through the frustration and anxiety that was creeping up on him with every memory of a failure, of an embarrassment which Father had only made worse. The room felt too stuffy, too quiet. He wanted Jesper.

"...Wylan?" 

Wylan sat up and hastily wiped his eyes, looking up to see Kaz standing in the doorway, leaning rather heavily on both his cane and the frame. 

Wylan sniffed, trying to hide the fact that he'd been so close to crying. "Kaz. I...I didn't see you there."

Kaz raised an eyebrow. "Obviously."

Wylan stammered for a second, then fell silent, feeling foolish and awkward. "What brings you here?" he asked at last. 

"I heard you crying," Kaz said, and Wylan flushed red. 

"Sorry," he said. 

Kaz watched him, his face inscrutable. At length, he said, "Did you sleep well, Wylan?" 

"Uh," Wylan said. "Yeah, I...I slept fine."

"You do know that I can tell when someone's lying to me, right?" Kaz asked, deadpan. 

Wylan blushed again. "Sorry," he said again, feeling like a broken record. 

After a second, Kaz sighed and limped to the table Wylan was sitting in front of, bad levered himself into a nearby chair. He was silent for a long minute, then finally said, "Bad day?"

Hesitantly, Wylan nodded. 

Kaz studied him, and Wylan tried not to look away. "Your father?" 

"Um," Wylan said, trying to hide his embarrassment. "...yeah."

Again, it was a while before Kaz finally spoke. "Your father isn't worth your tears, Wylan."

Wylan wiped at his eyes again. "I...I know."

"I see Jesper's absence has affected you," Kaz remarked, completely devoid of emotion. 

Wylan blushed again, but this time, a smile played at his lips. "I can't help but miss him," he said. "He cheers me up."

"Well, then," Kaz said. "Dry your tears, because he's back." 

Wylan perked up. "Really?" 

Kaz jerked his head towards the door, and Wylan heard Jesper say loudly, "NINA! WAFFLES!" 

Nina screamed and then they both burst into the kitchen. Wylan smiled fondly, then looked to Kaz. "Thanks, Kaz," he said. 

Kaz sighed. "Don't go all sappy on me," he said, then pushed to his feet and limped out of the room. Rolling his eyes, Wylan went after him and found Jesper practically inhaling waffles, laughing when Nina choked on hers. He noticed Wylan and smiled so bright it made Wylan feel all fuzzy inside. 

"Come, Van Sunshine," he said through a mouthful. "Let's see how many you can take."

Wylan laughed and sat down beside him. Jesper threw an arm around him and Wylan blurted, "I think you're handsome."

He and Jesper both froze. What? No. He did not just say that. Where had that come from? Totally random—nuh uh, he had not said that, he hadn't—

Then Nina started cackling, shrieking, "HE THINKS YOU'RE HADNSOME!!! OH, MY GOD!! THE SHIP HAS SAILED! FINALLY" She started jumping around in delight. "So cute! So cute!"

Wylan blushed as red as a tomato—wait, no tomato could possibly be this red. Mortified, he tried to hide his blush.

"I think you're cute too," Jesper then

 said to him, and Wylan went even redder. 

Nina screamed hysterically, and Jesper grinned. Wylan found that he didn't really mind Nina that much, as long as he had that smile to remember.

He sat by as Jesper and Nina resumes their waffle eating contest, occasionally taking a bite. With every second, his shoulders felt lighter, the memory of his father fading further and further.

Finaly, when he was stuffed with both waffles and happiness, he wandered away from the kitchen. Inej was talking with Anika, and Matthias sat reclining with his eyes closed, his face set in the usual scowl. Kaz was nowhere to be seen. 

"Hey, Inej," he said. "Where's Kaz?"

Inej shrugged. "Must be in his room." She looked at him quizzically. "What do you want from him?" 

"Nothing," Wylan said. "I was just wondering."

Inej nodded, then said quietly so that no-one else could hear, "Maybe pay him a visit? He's not having a very good day."

Surprised, Wylan said, "But he seemed fine." 

Inej raised an eyebrow, and Wylan realised how foolish that sounded. Of course Kaz seemed fine, he always seemed fine, but that didn't mean that he was fine. He was probably the best actor Wylan had ever seen, to the point where he had Wylan believing that he didn't even have bad days. He had everyone believing that, except perhaps Inej. 

"Okay," Wylan said. 

"But be careful," Inej warned. "He's in a bad mood." 

Wylan swallowed but nodded to Inej, then headed to Kaz's room. He knocked on the door, bracing himself for Kaz's irritated rasp. 

He wasn't disappointed. "What is it, Van Eck?"

What was it? Wylan couldn't just barge in: that was a good way of getting himself killed. He couldn't just say I know you're having a bad day so I'm here to cheer you up, either—that would definitely get him killed. 

"I need to talk to you," Wylan settles on saying, before the pause got too long. 

Kaz sighed audibly. "I'll give you a minute," he said. "Nothing more."

Wylan opened the door and stepped in. For a moment, he blinked; it was too dark inside to really see anything. Then his eyes focused and he was able to faintly pick out Kaz in the gloom; he sat on his desk, leaning back, arms crossed, a shark glare levelled at Wylan. 

He raised an eyebrow. "Well?"

Wylan took a deep breath. "I wanted to talk to you about a new experiment I want to try," he said, then balked. What experiment? He would just have to make something up. 

Kaz looked unimpressed. "What does it have to do with me?" 

Wylan shrugged, trying to make the movement seem casual. Even though Kaz didn't seem fooled in the slightest, he pressed on. "Everyone else is busy, and I wanted to talk to someone."

"And how did you come to the conclusion that I'm not busy?" 

Wylan floundered for a second, then asked sheepishly, "Well...are you?" 

He winced at the look that Kaz gave him. The boy narrowed his eyes at Wylan. "What do you really want, merchling?" 

For a moment, Wylan said nothing, simply studying Kaz. All of the crew had been exhausted lately, all except, it had seemed, Kaz Brekker. He was as active as ever, still scheming, still going on jobs, all of which were increasingly successful. But now Wylan saw his weariness in the lines of his body, in the dark bags under his eyes. He was as exhausted as everyone else, maybe even more. He's been hiding it well.

Then Wylan remembered how, in the morning, when Kaz had come to comfort him in the kitchen, he'd been leaning so heavily on his cane. He remembered all the instances he'd noticed subconsciously that Kaz's limp was worse, his voice rougher, his temper shorter. How Inej gave him concerned glances, but he always ignored them and went about his life as usual. 

Wylan was familiar with the technique. Push through your problems, bottle them up, ignore them till they gradually overflow and you have no choice but to break. 

He took a deep breath. "You look tired," he said boldly, wondering if these were the last moments of his life.

"You should look at yourself," Kaz retorted without missing a beat. "I've been too busy making sure you don't all land your your butts in trouble to sleep."

Wylan sighed. "Kaz—" 

"Your one minute is over," Kaz said, his gaze making it clear that he was aware of what Wylan had intended to say and that he didn't want to hear it. "Out, Van Eck." 

Wylan tried to protest, but it was clear that Kaz wouldn't budge. Defeated and frustrated, Wylan left him in his office, slinking down. He flounced down onto a sofa, and after a second, Inej left Anika and came to sit down beside him. 

"No luck?" she asked, though she knew the answer.

Wylan shook his head miserably. "How do you do this?" 

Inej sighed. "I think," she said at length, "that is he really worth it?" 

The question left Wylan shocked speechless. It sounded so like Father—is my worthless, illiterate excuse of a son really worth it?—that it was cruel. But then Wylan realised what Inej really meant. Caring for Kaz Brekker was a perilous, thankless journey which was more hard and taxing than rewarding. It was near impossible to get Kaz to admit to weakness—but Inej was asking if they were going to care anyway

Wylan nodded firmly. "Yes," he said. "He is."

Inej nodded. "Any ideas?" 

Wylan thought for a while. "His leg's worse, right? Maybe we could slip painkillers into his food? Pull him into activities and exhaust him so much that he can't stay awake at night?" 

"Good idea," Inej said. "Now how about we recruit all the others, too?"