Wylan Van Eck wasn't much of a drinker. Or at least, not the kind of drinker the Barrel wanted.
A life spent swept up in the world of merches had given Wylan ample time to try all sorts of alcohol. From the fine wines of Ravka to the gins of the Wandering Isle and everything in between, Wylan was no stranger to drinking.
Even downtime at home was sometimes spent with a light beer. And although he had lived down here for a while now, Wylan wasn't quite sure he was quite ready for the drinking habits of the Barrel.
Barrel drinkers were rough and rowdy. They drank to get drunk, or they drank to die. And as the warm, potent liquid from downstairs slid down his throat, Wylan thought to himself, this is the stuff that stops hearts.
Still, he supposed he had grown accustomed to this kind of living. Wylan leaned into the couch, feeling the old fabric and thin cushion grind into his back. The roughly sanded wood of his beer cup scratched against his palms, but in a way, he found it oddly comforting.
"Really, merchling, we need to condition you if you're going to survive down here." Jesper's dark skin made him a ghost in the dim room. The gas lanterns still flickered, but they were lackluster with the hunger of being ignored. However, Wylan found that the weight of an arm draping over his shoulders made it very difficult to get up.
"Last time you said my bombs were what would keep me alive," Wylan said, glancing up as a small smile threatened his face. He took another swig and winced. He wasn't quite sure how he felt about hard beer yet. Most of his life had been spent sipping on the light stuff. The drink in his cup was strong and real, clouding brains as thickly as the froth on top.
Jesper glanced over at Wylan and smirked. His words were slightly slurred as they spilled past his full lips. "That only works so far, kid. You can't exactly bomb the Dregs. This is basically a rite of passage."
His finger reached up to Wylan's face in what was probably supposed to be a boop on the nose, but his finger trailed a little bit making it more of a swipe. His nimble touch brushed past Wylan's lip in such a careless and light fashion that something fluttered in Wylan's chest.
Normally, Wylan might get a bit flustered or think a bit more at what Jesper said, but tonight he couldn't help himself. Wylan looked down at his cup and bit his lip, releasing a small chuckle. Jesper was already a little drunk, but Wylan didn't mind. He had met unbearable drunks before who got creepy and aggressive after a couple of rounds. Jesper wasn't one of them.
Alcohol never changed Jesper; it simply amplified him. Wylan had heard stories of Jesper becoming more reckless and doing more stupid things down in bars, but Wylan had never taken to the pubs of Ketterdam.
The only drunk Jesper he was used to was the one lounging on the couch beside him, effortlessly flirting and taking less time to think about what he said, but more time to get it out.
Jesper glanced at Wylan. "Something tickling you?"
"Yeah, you," Wylan said, biting the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling too wide. His cheeks felt a little hotter, though he wasn't quite sure why.
Jesper's smirk got a bit wider. "Well, would you look at that! Seems a couple of drinks can't stop me from being a heartthrob," he announced, thrusting his cup out before taking another long swig.
Wylan's teeth loosened their grip on his cheeks, and he couldn't help chuckling again. "Are you sure the drinks aren't doing all the talking?"
Jesper gave a look that somehow managed to be both mischievous and pouty. "Come on now, you don't think so low of me? I've done this to you in my sleep." With the hand dangling off Wylan's shoulder, Jesper reached his slender fingers up to Wylan's neck, carefully drawing them down and brushing them on the side.
Wylan felt his breath catch in his lungs. Saints, he hated it when he did this, but he wasn't about to tell him to stop. Each touch felt light and flighty, like butterflies kissing his skin. It caused a spell of dizziness to sweep over his head, though that may also be in part to the beer.
However, he felt like if he let Jesper go on much longer, he wouldn't be able to hide the redness in his face. Reaching up, he tangled his short fingers with Jesper's long ones, focusing down on his cup. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to hide the smile that broke through his face.
Now it was Jesper's turn to laugh. "You just can't help yourself, can you," he drawled, looking at Wylan with playfully hooded eyes. A small hiccup was squeezed out of his chest.
Wylan couldn't help laughing. "Saints, you're drunk," he remarked—partly to change the subject, and partly because it was true.
Jesper shrugged, still smirking. "I might be. Though you're a little bit tipsy yourself," he said, beginning to toy with his neck again.
Wylan's head snapped up to Jesper, grabbing at the hand toying with his neck. "Am not!" He insisted.
Jesper only scoffed. "Please. Every time you have more than your fair share you get all giggly and blushy and what-not."
Wylan swallowed, biting his cheek again to hide the smile that was about to break loose. Glancing down at the cup, Wylan saw that there was a lot less in there than he thought there was. He wasn't sure if that was a little or a lot in terms of Barrel drinking, but he wasn't sure he wanted to ask.
"I'm more sober than you," he finally said. Or was it soberer? Wylan shook his head to clear it of the fuzz building up. "You drank more than me."
Jesper paused glancing up. Wylan watched as the skin around Jesper's mouth shifted as his tongue squirmed around his mouth as though tasting it for any residual alcohol. "You've got me there merchling," he admitted.
Out of nowhere, his gaze locked on Wylan. Wylan felt the crook of Jesper's arm bend at the base of his neck as he leaned just a little bit closer to him. Suddenly, Wylan was very light-headed.
"Would you like to share some of mine?"
And then everything began to blend as Wylan felt Jesper press himself onto him, lips meeting his. There was a brief moment in between it all where Wylan thought about what was happening, how he was here with Jesper and he had him all to himself, and how at least Jesper was more than a little bit drunk so they probably shouldn't. However, all those thoughts quickly fell away as he felt Jesper kissing him with lips on his, hands on his back and shoulders rolling on top of his.
After all this time, Wylan didn't think he was tired of the way Jesper kissed. He didn't think he would ever be. Jesper kissed like there was a fire blazing in his lips and gunshots all around them. He kissed with passion and intensity like every time was the last time. He always smelled like gunpowder and tonight he tasted like beer, strong and dizzying and electrifyingly captivating.
So Wylan didn't fight it when Jesper's lips slowly inched down from his mouth, down to his jaw, and began to suck on the sensitive spot under his ear. Wylan sucked in a surprised breath, his eyes going wide. "Saints, you're good at this," he managed to get out.
Jesper pulled away for a moment, smirking. "Of course I am; I've had lots of practice," he said, before pressing his lips back up against Wylan's. And Wylan closed his eyes, sinking into Jesper. He sank into his gunpowder smell and the taste of alcohol on his lips. He let his tongue poke into Jesper's mouth, sucking up every bit of him and letting his fingers grasp at his rolling shoulders and taut muscles.
And maybe he was a little tipsy, but he didn't care. All he could think was Jesper, filling his thoughts like his own special brand of alcohol. Jesper sent lightning down Wylan's throat and fog into his brain. He was rough and real and everything that Wylan wanted in the Barrel. He was nothing Wylan could have anywhere else. He was so easy to get drunk on and so tempting that it was impossible not to.
When Jesper bit down on Wylan's lip, Wylan felt the air yanked from his chest. He looked not at Jesper, but into him. He looked into his eyes without glancing away, and with a surprisingly husky voice, he huffed out an easy, "I love you."
He didn't expect to say it, but it spilled from him as easily as the breath that Jesper stole. The alcohol and Jesper clouded his brain so much that he didn't spare so much time thinking about it. All he knew was that it was true and that Jesper had to hear it.
And, for a brief, tantalizing moment, Jesper hesitated. He pulled away from Wylan for just the smaller portion of a second, staring back at Wylan with his smoky gray eyes. But before Wylan could fully register it, Jesper winced. "Saints, don't say that," he said loosely, before pressing himself back against Wylan.
Now it was Wylan's turn to hesitate. His own love life had been very limited up until this point, but he had enough sense to know that an I love you was usually followed up with an equal response. He opened his mouth to speak, but just as he did Jesper's tongue reached down his throat and the same electrifying dizziness took over.
For a moment, Wylan was compelled to forget about it and just keep kissing the most beautiful boy he had ever seen. It would be very easy to just give himself up to him, to let Jesper keep holding him and for him to keep tasting Jesper's lips and neck and everything he loved about him. But for whatever reason, Wylan forced himself to keep thinking about it. He was drunk, but he wasn't that drunk.
Wylan pulled himself from Jesper for a minute, his head cupped in Jesper's hands and his fists on Jesper's chest. "...What do you mean by that," he breathed, his brows knitted together.
Jesper blinked, his eyes glassy. "What do I mean by what?" The alcohol was still fresh on his breath.
"The uh...the whole don't say that thing. What do you mean by that?"
Jesper looked at Wylan, then smiled, and shook his head. "Just that if you say it, then I have to say it back, and it becomes this whole thing, and you know..." Jesper's voice trailed off as he began to lean back into Wylan.
But Wylan leaned back. "No, I don't know actually. Why, uh...wouldn't you say it back?" Saints, why did he drink so much? His thoughts felt like they were trudging through a thick sludge.
Jesper gave a long sigh. "Can't we do this later? You look amazing right now."
Wylan willed himself not to blush. "Jesper." He took Jesper's hands away from his face and grabbed his wrists, looking him in the eye. His wrists also helped him to keep himself steady. "Why don't you...why don't you just tell me you love me?"
Jesper groaned. "Because I'm nervous, and it's a lot, and I really just want to kiss you right now. Have I ever told you how pretty you are?"
That left Wylan stunned. He was pretty tipsy and felt slightly dizzy, so he wasn't quite sure he heard him right. "You're—you're what?"
"I said you look fantastic," Jesper said, beginning to lean back into Wylan.
Wylan shook his head, holding Jesper back again. He found it was becoming increasingly hard to resist him. He could feel himself smiling, then trying desperately to shove it back down because this was not a time to let alcohol talk. "You...you don't have to be scared of me, right? I'm not gonna bite."
Jesper sighed. "But Saints, you're so nice and good-looking, and smart...you're like, a genius, you know that? You're just, like, all this...this goodness wrapped up into this tiny body, and all that goodness can not want to be with me for long."
Wylan had started smiling but by the time Jesper finished, his smile had faltered a little bit. He felt like he had just received a punch to the chest. Was this really how Jesper felt? He...he wasn't sure how to take that. He blinked, trying to get his brain to focus right.
"Of course I would," Wylan finally insisted, still holding Jesper's hand. "Because you're really nice and good-looking and smart too. Plus you're really funny and really good with guns, and you know the Barrel a lot better than I do, and you know how to work people and you're just...amazing, you know that? I'm really lucky to be with you."
It wasn't as eloquent as he could have been, but the beer was making it hard to think and he didn't want to muddle things up right now. He just wanted to get what he was thinking out into the open for both of them.
Jesper looked at Wylan for a moment longer. He then let a drunken smile pass between his lips and shook his head. "That's what scares me, merchling." With that, Jesper finally pushed himself onto Wylan, and Wylan didn't hold back.
He knew that he should have. Deep down, he knew that this was a problem. But it was so late, and he could feel the alcohol and Jesper blocking up his judgment, and he wanted him so, so bad. He wanted him more than he had ever wanted anything before. He wanted Jesper more than he had wanted his father to love him, more than he had wanted to read, more than anything he had ever wanted before.
Because Jesper came without consequences. Jesper came without strings or ulterior motives or anything else that everything he wanted before came with. All he wanted was to love Jesper, and he knew that Jesper didn't want anything from him except his love.
But for the first time, Wylan was starting to wonder what Jesper wanted from himself.
The first thing Wylan noticed when he woke up was how awful he felt.
He drank before. He had done casual drinking in groups, and he sometimes had a drunk Jesper lounge beside him. But he wasn't quite used to the feeling of hangovers yet. His throat felt like sandpaper, and no amount of swallowing felt like he could fix it. He really, really wanted a glass of water right now. Or five.
The second thing he noticed was Jesper.
He didn't quite remember when, but apparently, they had both fallen asleep without bothering to go back to their beds. So somehow, he had fallen asleep with Jesper underneath him, his head on his chest and their arms entangled. Jesper's chest rose and fell beneath Wylan's ear, one of his arms wound up in his and the other draped over Wylan's back.
He wasn't completely awake, and he wasn't ready to be just yet. Instead, he laid there, letting his aching head be nursed against Jesper's soft chest, and enjoying the safety that came with having Jesper's arms against him.
It must have been a while later that Jesper woke up because it was bright outside when he felt the first stirrings.
"Ugh...Saints, what time is it," Jesper moaned, writhing a little bit.
Wylan shifted his head, glancing up at him. "Not sure. It's late, though. You're lucky we don't have a job today or you would be trying to shoot straight with a hangover."
Jesper managed to get in a small smile before he lifted his hand up from Wylan's back, pressing it to his forehead. Wylan would be lying if he said he wasn't disappointed, so instead, he clasped Jesper's free hand and laid his head back down on his chest.
Jesper groaned. "Did I break anything?"
"Not that I know of."
"If I go downstairs, is Kaz going to blow my brains out?"
"If he was, you would already be waking up with a black eye."
Again, Jesper chuckled, then released another groan. "Don't make me laugh, merchling. My head might explode, and I don't think you want to clean bits of me off the walls."
Wylan laughed against Jesper's chest. As cute as drunk Jesper was, Wylan certainly preferred regular Jesper any day. "So you...don't remember anything from last night?"
"Eh...bits and pieces. I do remember that merchlings are very good kissers," he murmured, reaching down and ruffling Wylan's hair with a wink.
Wylan felt the blood rush to his cheeks, and not for the first time he wished he wasn't so fair-skinned. Still, as the events of last night came back to him, Wylan huddled a little bit deeper into Jesper's chest.
What he heard last night wasn't just drunken ramblings. It had come from somewhere deep inside Jesper: somewhere that apparently he didn't want to show sober. He knew that Jesper had a few problems. He saw how hard he tried, how the little jabs people (specifically Kaz) threw at him would make his smile crumble. He knew that deep down he was sensitive.
But still, Wylan hadn't seen anything like he had last night. It was like seeing the cracks without any kind of paint to cover them up. No hiding behind flirty musings and promiscuous smirks. It was raw and sincere as anything Wylan had seen, and no matter what, he couldn't just brush it off.
"You know I care about you, right?"
Silence. Wylan laid there in the tense lull, balling up his fist in Jesper's hand.
Finally, he felt Jesper's hand back on him, the same flirtatious nature back in his voice. "Believe me, I know. People who don't like each other don't kiss like that."
Wylan huffed, propping himself up against Jesper's chest. He didn't want to brush off anything serious and move onto more flirting. They spent enough time flirting. Right now, he wanted to be serious and real. "No Jesper, I don't like you. I care about you. I think I care about you more than I've cared about anyone else before. You're like no other person I have ever met before."
"You're smart and powerful and every time I see you you make my breath hitch. And that happens because every time I see you, I think to myself, here he comes, the boy with guns in his hands that can make bullets fly from his lips and makes me feel like the most special thing in the world. You're so witty and bring passion into everything you do and the way you live life. You take everything you can by the reins and squeeze every possibility you can out of it until you're drunk on life and have done things that I can only dream of."
"You are the most beautiful, stunning person I have ever met, and every day that I am with you I think that maybe my father was right for believing in the Saints."
Wylan hadn't meant to say all that. At first, it was supposed to be something simple, like a quick message that could be easily put out there. But once he started, he couldn't stop. Things started spilling from him like a faucet: things that he wanted to say, but never quite found the time or place to bring to the surface.
But now, here he was. His heart was on his sleeve and his eyes were on Jesper, hoping that somewhere, deep down, he had struck something.
Whatever he had managed to do, Jesper was clearly stunned. He stared at Wylan, mouth slightly agape and brows raised high on his head. Then, his lips started moving, puttering like the words were getting clogged on the way to the world.
"I...you..." Jesper groaned. "Saints, I said something last night, didn't I?"
Wylan blushed. "Just a little bit."
"How bad was it?"
Wylan shook his head. "It wasn't bad at all Jesper, really." He grasped Jesper's hand a little bit tighter. "I just told you that I love you, and you got all nervous, and, uh..." his voice trailed off. He wasn't sure if she should tell Jesper all of it.
Jesper sighed. "Well, you've already started. You might as well get it all out in the open."
Wylan swallowed, then continued. "It's just...you kind of told me how much you cared about me, and I think how you were scared to care about me? And how you didn't think I could care about you. But I do, Jesper. Really."
Jesper was silent for a long time. Wylan didn't try to fill the silence with anything. He figured now was as good a time as any for thinking.
It was a while before Jesper said anything, but finally, Wylan felt Jesper's chest rise under his head, as though steeling himself up for something. "Its just...you might find this hard to believe, but I've never been in an actual relationship before you."
That Wylan did find surprising. He couldn't hide the shock that descended over his face, and apparently, it was severe enough to warrant a slap on the arm.
"Try and keep your eyes in your head," Jesper scoffed. He sighed again, and Wylan felt Jesper's leg bouncing underneath him. "But, uh...I don't know how good I am at this. At loving and being loved and all that."
He said it flippantly, as though he was just speaking about something that didn't really matter. But the words that reached Wylan's ears said otherwise. "But you know I—"
"Yes, I know, I know," Jesper broke in, as though he didn't want Wylan to finish. "I know you care about me and all that. But, uh...I guess the question is how long?"
At that, Wylan was silent. He felt he should say something, but Jesper kept talking.
"I've never had to have anything that's not casual. And I don't think anyone could love me anymore than casually. I mean, Saints, you've seen everyone else. It's all joking and fun-times, but…you know. 'I'm the irresponsible one! I'm the one that has to be watched gambling!' It's just..." He paused for a second biting his lip.
"Just...I don't want that with you. Wylan, I can't think straight when I'm with you. You...you make me want and feel things I haven't wanted or felt before. And I don't want to mess this up."
Wylan was stunned. "Jesper…" He scratched his brain for the right words, scrambling, and thinking. "Jesper, I care about you. We care about you. Inej and Kaz and everyone. You know this. You can't mess it up because you're just being you. "
"We care about you. I care about you, Jesper. A lot."
Jesper was silent. Then, finally, Wylan felt Jesper's hand on his back, and he heard him speak. This time, his voice was free of flirting or playfulness or anything Wylan was used to. Instead, his voice was just calm and soft.
"...I know, merchling. I know. Now let me get back to sleep; my head is killing me."
Wylan smiled, and finally fell quiet. He would let Jesper sleep. He couldn't fix him now, and probably not today or tomorrow or the day after. Because this wasn't the kind of problem you could fix with a few kind words. This was something that took time.
But today, Wylan had let Jesper know he cared. And maybe, for now, that was enough.