Upon entering the old abandoned warehouse, Wylan shivered. It was clear that no one had bothered with any upkeep. The air was stale and the whole place felt damp.
"We couldn't have done this at, I don't know, a nice pub or whatever?" He muttered.
"Sorry, merchling," Jesper's eye roll was almost audible. "But it ain't up to us to choose."
Wylan huffed but kept moving along through the maze of huge containers that filled the warehouse.
"You didn't have to come, you know." Jesper told him.
"Yes I did, Kaz told me to."
"I meant, you could have stayed outside. I'm pretty sure I can handle a simple information exchange on my own."
The attackers chose the very end of that sentence to jump them. Wylan couldn't put up much of a fight, but Jesper wouldn't go down easy. He managed to land a few punches before one of the assailants pulled out a dagger and jammed it in his direction. Jesper jerked away, but it still grazed the side of his waist. The guy then pointed the knife at Wylan.
"Stop fighting or your buddy gets it." He threatened. Jesper looked ready to attack him but decided to stand down.
"Alright, alright, we surrender."
Two other men grabbed Jesper and the two were dragged a bit further into the warehouse, in a clearing of sorts. Containers surrounded the area and in the middle stood Jesper's supposed-to-be informant.
"I assume we won't be getting any intel to relay to Kaz?"
"Brekker should keep his nose out of things that don't concern him." The guy snarled at them. He then motioned to his henchmen, who grabbed Jesper and Wylan again and shoved them inside one of the open containers. The door was slammed behind them and they were left in relative darkness. Muffled, they could hear the telltale rattle of a lock.
"Great!" Jesper crossed his arms. "I don't suppose you've got any handy explosives to get us out of here, merchling?"
Wylan shook his head and the other boy sighed. Soon, his nerves got the better of him and he started pacing around, holding a hand over his wound. Meanwhile, Wylan got to examining their prison.
"Ugh, I guess it's my fault for trusting some shady guy. Kaz is gonna kill me for screwing this up."
Wylan circled the small space while Jesper talked. When he reached the back, he ran his hands along the wall and a cold chill ran through him. Suddenly, he realised something very, very dangerous.
"Jesper," He called. "It's-"
"I should have realised, I know, but-"
"Forget about that, listen-"
"I mean, Kaz and the others have probably already realised something is wrong and-"
"Jesper!" Wylan shouted.
"This isn't just a container. It's a freezer. "
Back in The Slat, Kaz and Matthias were watching Nina pace a hole in the already worn floor.
"There's no way for any of them to be taking this long! I'm telling you, something must have gone wrong!" She repeated for about the tenth time. Kaz simply raised an unimpressed eyebrow.
"They only left twenty minutes ago, Nina," Matthias tried to calm her down. "I'm sure Inej will come back soon and Jesper and Wylan will follow right after."
His attempt at a soothing tone did nothing to ease Nina's nerves. She continued her pacing and he leaned back into his chair with a sigh. He was trying not to let her worry get to him, but she had a point. Inej only had to shadow a man from a bar to his home and make sure he didn't get killed, as he would be providing their eventual payment. This part of the mission was supposed to bring her back in ten minutes. Kaz, per usual, didn't seem bothered by this fact.
"Time doesn't matter right now," He stated. "As long as Jesper brings the info we need, we're ready to go whenever."
Nina was about to answer him but was interrupted by Inej's return.
"Sorry I took so long," She said. "He took his sweet time in that bar."
"I'm glad you're okay, I was getting a bit worried." Nina hugged her and Inej rolled her eyes.
"Of course I'm fine." She took a look around the room. "Are Jesper and Wylan still out? I thought they'd be back already."
"They're probably still talking to the informant." Matthias reassured her as she took a seat next to Kaz.
Only, when the clock marked an hour since Inej's return, the two still hadn't come back. Nina had resumed her pacing and Inej had started to throw worried glances at Kaz, who was growing more irritated by the minute. Eventually, he stood from his seat which caused Nina to stop and look at him.
"Alright," He addressed them. "It's relatively safe to assume at this point that something's up. Let's go find them and see what the hell is going on."
Wylan had to admit, Jesper's stamina was truly impressive. They'd been locked in the container for what seemed like hours, yet the boy had only stopped pacing to confirm for himself that it was actually a freezer. Meanwhile, Wylan had chosen to conserve his heat by curling up in one of the corners. From there, he watched his friend walk around, sometimes bang on the metal doors. Occasionally, he could hear Jesper muttering under his breath about how he would never be able to make it up to Kaz. Just watching him go made Wylan feel tired. Or maybe that was the cold. It was getting hard to tell.
"Can you stop blaming yourself for a second?" He eventually spoke up. Jesper looked at him like he had forgotten he was there.
"I'm planning for my future merchling." He stated in his usual cocky manner, but Wylan could tell it was just a front.
"Well maybe you should consider the present," He said. "You won't have much of a future if you freeze to death or die of hypothermia when we get out."
'If you get out.' His mind supplied.
"Stop worrying about me! You always do that!" Jesper snapped. "I'm not worth worrying about."
Wylan looked at him, but Jesper suddenly refused to meet his gaze.
"Whatever. Just keep yourself warm in your little corner and don't bother with me." Wylan considered not letting him get away with his self-deprecating comments, but he didn't want to start an argument.
"If you haven't noticed, I'm not exactly wearing a fur coat here." He said instead, trying to suppress a shiver. Jesper seemed relieved that he had dropped the previous subject. He had stopped pacing and he was now looking at Wylan thoughtfully. Suddenly, he took his own coat off and approached him in the corner. He crouched and draped the coat on his shoulders.
"What do you think you're doing?"
"Well," Jesper got up and shot him one of his trademark dazzling smiles. "It's not fur, but it ought to do the trick."
"Hush, merchling, you'll tire yourself out." He winked. Wylan's cheeks heated up, but that was clearly from the cold. He shrugged to himself and wrapped himself with Jesper's coat. He only hoped the other would tell him when he wanted it back.
Jesper, of course, did not do that. Wylan watched his steps grow slow and sluggish. He gave himself another minute before he intervened. Thankfully, he didn't need to. Jesper seemed to have reached a vital realisation - moving around was draining his energy. He sighed, his breath forming a cloud of steam in the cold freezer. He dragged himself to where Wylan was sitting and dropped down next to him.
"Here." Wylan passed him his coat back. Jesper looked like he was about to argue, but he quickly shot him down. "I can hear your teeth chattering, take your damn coat."
"No need to be so snappy, I'm just trying to be a gentleman."
"That's a first." Wylan snorted and Jesper looked at him offended.
"I'll have you know, I am a delight to be around."
"I never said you weren't." Wylan looked at him and grinned. Jesper huffed.
"For what it's worth," He said softly after a short silence. "I'm glad it's you I'm stuck in here with."
"I-" Wylan started and then stopped. "Thanks. I suppose I ought to return the sentiment, but to be perfectly honest, I would have preferred Inej."
Jesper rolled his eyes with a fondness that Wylan had started to notice more and more lately. He tried to shoo away all thoughts of their potential deaths. Instead, he summoned all his resolve and stood up, settling down again in Jesper's lap. The other boy simply raised an eyebrow at him.
"What are you doing?" He asked.
"In general, I'm trying to avoid freezing to death."
"Still, there's a time and a place for such forward actions." Jesper had the audacity to smirk at him. Wylan would have blushed, but it appeared he was much too cold for that to happen. He rolled his eyes instead.
"I'm attempting to preserve body heat.
"Oh. That's smart. Hold on." He adjusted their position so that he could wrap his arms around Wylan from behind. "Is this better?"
"Actually, yeah. Thank you."
"You're most welcome. You see? I am a gentleman." Wylan smiled and chose not to respond. They fell into a silence that was both comfortable and tense. The continuing lack of rescue filled them with growing dread.
"You know they'll come for us, right?" Jesper asked quietly after a few minutes. Wylan wasn't sure which one of them he was trying to convince.
"Of course they will," He reassured him, for both their sakes. "They always do."
They'd been silent for a while now. If not for his friend's occasional movements, Wylan would have assumed he'd fallen asleep. He felt himself grow more tired by the second, the cold of the freezer seeping through his body down to his bones.
'We're going to die.' He thought. It wasn't some crazy revelation, he'd been very aware of that thought, but stating it to himself felt like acceptance. There were so many things he wanted to do, to say, to experience. The fact that he would never be able to was jarring.
Suddenly he was very aware of Jesper's arms around him and the press of his chest against his back. The gears slowly began turning in his tired mind. If he had only these limited minutes of consciousness, shouldn't he spend them on something he wanted to do? He took a deep breath and let himself be brave.
"I'm in love with you." He stated. Jesper's whole body tensed behind him immediately, but he remained silent. Wylan wasn't sure if that was rejection or if the other boy was too tired to answer.
"If I don't, it'll be easier for you to pretend you never said that." Jesper spoke quietly.
"I've been pretending my whole life. I'm sick of it. I'd like to have my final moments be honest."
Jesper didn't respond to that, instead, he moved slowly and rested his head on top of Wylan's.
"This is your chance to back out and tell me you regret it." He said after a bit.
"I love you," Wylan repeated in his newfound confidence. "I do. I can keep saying it until you believe me."
There was silence again, but it wasn't uncomfortable.
"I'm so gonna kiss you when we get out of this shithole."
'We won't.' Wylan thought.
"Is that a promise?" He said out loud.
Wylan tucked himself even closer to Jesper and felt his arms tighten around him. He tried to hold on to hope, but he could feel his eyelids getting heavier and the cold slowing down his thoughts. Despite him trying to fight it, unconsciousness was taking over and he barely felt Jesper's head rest on top of his own.
They traced Wylan and Jesper's movements to an old warehouse full of industrial containers.
"There's some blood on the floor over here!" Matthias called out to the others. It wasn't much but it was certainly noticeable. Inej spotted footprints leading further inside and followed them. She reached an empty spot surrounded by a bunch of the containers and noticed the door of one was chained up. She called her friends.
"Do you think they're in there?" Matthias asked.
"Let's find out." Kaz said, taking out a lockpick from his pocket. Inej saw Nina close her eyes and then open them, panicked, a few seconds later.
"Go quicker," She urged Kaz. "There are two people in there, they're almost dead."
Inej was sure she would never forget the sight before them when they opened the old container. She'd known Jesper for years now and no matter what she tried to tell herself, he was like a brother to her. In all that time she had never seen him look so weak and vulnerable as he did now, huddled in the corner, clutching Wylan like a lifeline, face buried in his hair. Wylan himself looked like a corpse and if Nina hadn't confirmed they were both alive, Inej would have written him off.
"Let's get them and get the fuck out of here." Kaz said.
Matthias nodded and they went in. It constantly shocked him how attached he had become to these people, but the sight of Wylan and Jesper really hammered the point home. He carefully untangled their bodies and noticed the stab wound in Jesper's side. He picked him up and waited for Nina to pick up Wylan.
"Keep them alive until we get to the Slat." Kaz ordered her and then turned to Inej. "Go ahead and make sure we've got two empty beds."
The two girls nodded and Inej fled into the night.
Wylan woke up a day later and the first thing he felt was warmth. He opened his eyes and slowly sat up. He looked around the room and saw Jesper sleeping in another bed to his left.
'We made it. Holy shit.' He thought and relief took over him. He remembered their last conversation and his eyes widened. He turned to Jesper again, but in that moment Inej entered the room.
"Wylan! Thank the saints you're okay!" She smiled softly at him and he couldn't help but return it.
"Thanks for helping us out." His voice was hoarse and that got her moving. After a few minutes, he was drinking some water as she sat on the edge of his bed. Kaz, Nina and Mattias were sitting around the room too. He told them what happened and tactfully left out the last things he and Jesper had said to each other. The crowded room felt like it was trapping him, so he excused himself and went outside.
Jesper woke up only minutes after Wylan had left. He was confronted with Nina's worried face hovering over him. Upon seeing him open his eyes she grinned and carefully helped him sit up. His injury wasn't serious and he moved without too much pain.
"Welcome back," Kaz said simply and then turned to leave. "Next time you can just tell us where you're going, you know."
Jesper didn't bother to answer him, instead downing the cup of water he'd been given.
"Where's Wylan?" He asked after.
"He's outside, he said he-" Nina told him, but he was almost out the door before she'd been done talking. "Where the hell are you going?!"
"I have a promise to keep." Jesper smirked and headed down the stairs, causing Nina and Inej to share a confused look.
It was the early morning and the Barrel was uncharacteristically void of people. Wylan looked out to the empty street in front of the Slat and took a moment to breathe and appreciate the fact he was alive. He heard footsteps behind him and turned around, only to be met with Jesper's usual grin.
"Hey there." He said and Wylan pulled him into a hug. Jesper laughed and wrapped his arms around his waist. They held each other for a bit, after which Wylan pulled away slightly but did not let go.
"I'm glad you're alright, I was worried about you."
"I'm always fine, merchling," Jesper quipped. "Besides, I made you a promise, I couldn't just go ahead and die."
"Are you gonna keep it?" Wylan asked, smiling and Jesper's grin somehow grew bigger. He removed his hands from Wylan's waist and cupped his face, planting a soft kiss on his lips.
"Let's make a new promise." Wylan said.
"Sure, like what?"
"How about, next time we kiss we skip the near death."
"I think I'll take you up on that one." Jesper smiled and kissed him again.