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He’s landed a few good punches, to the jaw, to the gut, but Rythian finds himself thrown up against the wall anyway, just like all those times before. He can’t quite pull his arm back to angle from which he can deal much damage, but that’s always the way it goes, isn’t it. Lalna stops holding him at arm's length when he manages to boot him in the knee without losing balance, crowding Rythian until he’s almost up on his toes. A knee comes up between his thighs, and Lalna’s hips are pinning him in place, and Rythian thinks he’d rather just lose and be done with it.

“That wasn’t all that nice now, was it?” Lalna says with a smile. Rythian tries to shove his arms forward, but struggles to overpower Lalna’s grip on his wrists. He takes satisfaction seeing Lalna strain to keep hold of him anyway, watching his bottom lip turn white between his teeth.

“What—What the fuck was that,” Rythian growls. He twists his arms under Lalna’s hands.

“What was what, Ryth?”

“You know what I’m talking about, you sick fucker.”

 

 

Xephos hears the scuffling off somewhere down and to the left. He thinks it’s behind the humanities block, but people don’t tend to walk on the grass in the spring, especially not after it’s been raining. He takes another bite of his sandwich and balances his seventh tiny pebble on the toe of Zylus’ shoe, wondering if sitting on his blazer will mean it’ll be soaked through by the end of lunch. The steps down to the playing fields are old and made with bricks instead of concrete slabs, and so are still cold and damp and gritty, but he isn’t going to give up their favourite spot just because of some rain. Rarely anyone comes down past the backs of humanities and languages, except maybe to smoke a few in the passage between them, and Xephos likes that about it.

“There’s someone in the alley again,” Zylus says, indicating with his fork. Xephos shrugs, more interested in his food. Then comes a yelp and the indistinct sound material catching on brick, and both of them frown. Xephos nudges the stones off Zylus’ shoe and looks up at him.

“You think it’s them again?” He asks.

“Probably,” Zylus agrees. “He was a bit out of it this morning. I dunno why.”

Xephos puts his sandwich back into its tupperware box and gets up, brushing down the front and back of his trousers. He jogs down to the edge of the landing just behind the edge of the languages building and leans out to peek around the corner, hanging onto the rail. It is Lalna, and most likely Rythian too, up against the wall… But this looks much more interesting than usual. Nothing that really looks like he needs to interrupt, but he can’t quite see what’s happening…

“Xeph, mate, come back, you know what they’re like,” Zylus calls with exasperation. He puts a finger to his mouth to shush him and leans out a bit farther, clinging on with his left hand. Zylus huffs and the metal of his thermos clanks against the floor. “Well at least don’t lean out like that,” he hisses.

Xeph grins and flaps his free hand over his shoulder to get him to stay put. He can see Rythian now, and whatever he’s saying, he looks angry. Looking at the dumb amusement on Lalna’s face, Xephos is tempted to believe he’s done something incredibly stupid. It wouldn’t be the first time.

In an abrupt whirl of movement, Lalna releases Rythian’s hands and swiftly gets a fist to the jaw, but keeps him pinned with his hips and—oh. Oh my. Xephos’ eyes go wide, eyebrows looking to hide in his hair. His hands fly up to cover his grin, and before Zylus can even flinch, Xephos, quite predictably, pitches sideways down the next flight of steps.

“Shit, Xeph!” He hears Zylus shout from the top. He rolls off the last step to lie on his back at the bottom with a groan.

“Shit,” he grunts, pushing himself up on his elbows to check the scrapes on his hands. Zylus comes to kneel beside him and he lets himself drop back down, wincing at the thunk of his skull on concrete.

“I told you not to do that,” Zylus gripes, “you idiot .”

“Didn’t hit my head though,” He grins.

Xephos lets Zylus help him back up as Lalna comes dashing out of the passage. Xephos grimaces at the dirt and grit on his uniform. So much for keeping himself off the floor.

“Damnit, Xeph, you okay?” Lalna asks, a little out of breath as he skips half the staircase on his way down.

“Yeah, yeah, just gotta get this cleaned up.” He replies, scrunching his nose and picking at his sleeves. “You two, on the other hand, need to get yourselves seen to.” He continues, pointing an accusatory finger between Lal and Rythian, now coming down to join them.

“That’s all of us to the medical room then,” Zylus says, already heading up to pick up their stuff. Xephos follows, trudging up to shove his lunch back in his bag. Lalna shakes out his blazer for him and then throws it over his head. Xephos snorts and pulls it off, running a hand through his hair. They weave through the busy quad towards the main office, Rythian traipsing behind them disgruntled. Zoey comes flying out of nowhere and nearly barrels into them.

“What on Earth happened to all of you?” She demands, but turns on Rythian before any of them can answer. “And where the heck did you go, Rythian? You just dumped your stuff and dragged him off!” She flails an arm at Lalna. Xephos catches Lalna’s eye and wiggles his eyebrows at him, trying not to laugh. Hilariously, Lalna swallows and averts his eyes.

“Sorry, Zoey, I didn’t mean to leave you with my stuff.” Rythian says.

“Oh shush, it’s fine. Anyway, you need to get yourselves sorted. Let’s go!” She hooks her arm under Rythian’s and starts them off again. Zylus steps up to Xephos and pulls him in for a one-armed hug.

“You scared the shit out of me, damnit.” He says. Xephos hums.

“Sorry.”

“Nah, just maybe don’t do it again, yeah?”

The reception staff look absolutely overjoyed to see them again. They’re sent through to the back with barely a glance over, and someone goes to find the school nurse. Some people in the school think the nurse is something of a myth, because she’s rarely ever seen at all, but she knows Rythian and Lalna by name, and Zoey, too. The medical room is longer than it is wide, cut-through halfway to link to the reception and offices around it, and lined with blue padded chairs until the two reclining beds in the back corners. Parv and Strife are sitting on one of them, curled into the the corner out of the way. Parv grins beneath the bloody tissue held to his nose and waves to them.

“Get punched?” Lalna asks.

Strife growls, “No,” as Parv cracks up laughing. “He got another nosebleed in R.E.”

“When he got up to bring me here Ridge yelled out that he punched me and now he’s angry that everyone thinks he actually did,” Parv giggles. Lalna smirks and sits down behind the door.

“Ridge can get stuffed.” Strife sniffs derisively.

“It’s okay, Will, it’s kind of funny.” Parv decides that now is a good time to lie straight across Strife’s lap and hang his head upside down off his knee.

“Hey, careful you don’t get any blood on me,” Will gripes even as he reaches out to replace the bloodied tissue in one of Parv’s nostrils.

“I see,” Rythian says, letting his eyebrows jump in an unimpressed manner. He drops into a chair to the left of Xephos, scrunching his blazer on the one between them. He slouches down and watches the two idiots at the back, seemingly unaware of Lalna staring holes into him from the other side of the room. Zylus pilfers an open box for a couple of antiseptic wipes and a cotton ball, and is kneeling in front of Xephos to examine his hands when Fiona kicks the door open. She strides over to where Zoey’s stacked their things and deposits all of the bags she was carrying. After her follows the nurse, who is unsurprised to see her usual suspects. She looks past them for a second before turning to Xephos.

“Please make sure he doesn’t choke on anything, Mr. Strife. Now, are you two all right to clean yourselves up? Nothing urgent?”

“Only a couple of cuts, ma’am,” he says, because he assumes it’s the right thing to do.

“Nothing more painful? No aches, nothing you can’t move?” She asks.

“No, thank you. I’m fine.”

She nods to him then looks between Lalna and Rythian. “So, are you two finally civil enough to sit in the same room?”

Xephos lets Zylus turn his hands over and prod at them, then folds his sleeves back when Zylus undoes the cuffs for him. He scrunches his nose when the antiseptic stings, but he’s grateful there are no bleeding cuts to ruin his clothes. The nurse has Lalnatake off his shirt, so he stands in the middle of the room while she looks for broken skin, but other than the scratches on his palms and knuckles he’s fine.

“I can clean myself up, you know,” he murmurs, when Zylus wets the cotton with his water bottle, but his hands are knocked away with a small smile.

“I know you can.”

“Would you like to do this in the next room, Rythian?” He hears the nurse ask.

“Doesn’t really matter to me,” Rythian replies. Xephos assumes the rustling is him taking off his shirt.

Lalna swears. The nurse clears her throat pointedly, but he doesn’t sound chastised.

“You fight in that ? Rythian, do you fight wearing that? ” He asks. Xephos leans around Zylus, who’s now standing to face Rythian, to look at him. He has an ice pack in hand, currently useless, and gauze or cotton patches on his face. He looks shocked, and a little scared.

“What about it, Lalna —it’s just a binder. Doesn’t stop me doing anything.”

“Do you, d-do you not—” Lalna stumbles over himself. “Do you not know how dangerous that is? You could really get hurt, you know? Even without the likelihood I break your ribs!”

“Dear god Lalna, do you care all of a sudden now? Is that it? Or do you just not want the blame?”

“Lal, you’re only telling him what we’ve told him a million times,” Zoey says.

“Stubborn bastard won’t listen to what’s good for him,” Zylus mutters. Xephos groans and tips forward to rest his forehead on Zylus’ front. He hooks his fingers through Zylus’ belt loops to keep him where he is.

“Can’t you two just get over yourselves and stop throwing hands all the time? Then maybe we can all catch a break and you can stop with this ridiculous show.”

His suggestion is met by silence that stretches into the next minute, and the minute after that. With Zylus’ hands warm on his sides, Xephos is almost asleep when the nurse tells Rythian he can put his shirt back on.

“I must agree that this fighting is doing neither of you any good. It’d be much better if you could learn to grow up sometime soon.”

Strife, whom Xephos had forgotten was there, snorts.

“Absolutely roasted.” Parv hisses, and his grin is audible.

Xephos ignores them and tips his head up to look at Zylus. He brings his arms up to hug his middle. “Thanks, by the way,” he says. Zylus flicks his forehead.

“No problem.”

“William, Alex, I don’t think you still need to be in here,” says the nurse.

“This is where all the good gossip is today miss, just wanting to keep up to date,” Will answers. He shoves Parv out of his lap and onto the floor, and gives them all a lazy salute as they make their exit.

“Xephos, do you need any plasters?”

“No thanks, should be fine.”

“Right.” She turns back to the others, resignation set in the tilt of her frown. “Now, you two are mostly injury-free, which I’m glad for. When you leave this room, I want extra effort from you both to at least stop getting into physical fights. I hate to come back to this argument, Rythian, but Lalna is right about excessive movement when your chest is constricted…”

Xephos sighs and lolls his head to the side, tugging Zylus in between his knees. He doesn’t particularly want to stick around to hear their renewed quarreling, but neither does he want to move from his seat. His right shin and ankle are beginning to ache, and the antiseptic on his elbows still stings. Zylus is brushing his hair through with his fingers, which feels amazing. He waits out the next few minutes, assuming Lal and Ryth are becoming increasingly, embarrassingly oblivious with the rising level of their voices, with the good grace of a man who lets his friends dig their own graves before forcefully confiscating the shovel. Wholly unexpectedly, Zylus removes a hand from his hair to dig him in the ribs.

“Hands, Xeph,” he says, with no little exasperation. Grinning, Xephos looks up at him and slowly takes his hands out of his waistband, palms up in surrender, where he’d been digging his way beneath his shirt. After a second or two he snorts a laugh and shoves at Zylus’ hips.

“Spoilsport,” he complains. Zylus smiles and reaches back to tuck his shirt back in. Xephos leans back and glances between his other friends, whom he’s realised have gone quiet. Zoey winks at him, and Rythian looks to have been distracted mid-sentence, and is staring right at them. The nurse has apparently already made her retreat. A wise woman. Xephos inhales and tempers his smile to something more genial. “Are we done then?”

“Er,” is as much as Rythian appears to offer.

“Brilliant,” he says, clapping his hands together as though making a decision. “Does anyone know if Honeydew and Angor are still in science?”

“I saw them on the first floor earlier,” says Fiona, handing over his bag from the pile. “I think Sjin may be with them.”

“Thanks,” he says, immediately shoving it open to retrieve a scuffed black sketchbook. He hands it over to Zylus with a too-sweet smile. “Would you give this back to Mousie for me, please?”

Zylus scoffs at him.

“What did you do to it, then?” He asks, as if Xephos would make rude jokes in the back of her book. As if.

“Nothing! Really,” he tries, and is snorted at. “I’ll engineer you an excuse the next time you need to sneak away to make out with Daltos,” he offers instead.

“Xeph! We aren’t—!”

“Oh, yes yes, I’m sure, just as much as Rythian and Lalna aren’t. Anyway, I’ll see you by the benches this afternoon, Lal. Love you both!” He hooks the door open behind him with his foot, gives them all a wave and takes his leave, ignoring the lingering air of surprise and the two fingers from Lalna.