Ash lay on his back on his bed, a bag of frozen peas over his nose and eyes, dried blood sticking to the underside of his nostrils and tissues sticking out, making him look – all in all – not nearly as charming as he usually liked to appear. Augus paced their small room in frustration, hands in fists, wishing they were back at the pad, and knowing that Head of House wouldn’t let them go while Ash was in this state. He may have been far more lax than anyone realised about what Augus and Ash did with their time, but not while Ash looked like an abuse victim.
‘We’ve covered up a lot of things,’ Augus hissed. ‘Do you think murdering Gwyn could be one of them?’
‘It’s not even broken,’ Ash said from the bed. Though it sounded more like: Ib’d nod eben brogen.
‘After the way that Coach treated you when we saw him the other day, you should have set fire to his car. I would have helped!’
‘That’s saying something, coming from you.’
‘Shut up. Just…shut up. I know you, you dick, remember? I know how you gloat. Why’d you have to do it in front of the hulk? You know how he gets when he loses his temper.’
‘Normally he’s doing it on the mat! He doesn’t get involved in fights.’
‘He put his opponent in hospital in the last championships and he didn’t break any rules to do it!’
‘Urgh,’ Ash groaned, reaching behind him, grabbing his earphones and plugging them into his ears. A moment later, volume blasting, Augus could actually make out the sound of Taking Back Sunday playing through tinnily, mocking his rage. He stalked forwards and yanked them out of Ash’s ears. The headphones Ash had stolen. The phone he’d stolen. The clothes he’d stolen.
‘This is a big deal, you little twat,’ Augus hissed. ‘The Principal called me in and told me to keep a closer eye on you. You might be used to suspension and threats of expulsion, but it’s like you constantly forget that without this full scholarship, we’re back on the streets, living off food you filch every which way and me working jobs for shit pay. At least here things are a bit better, if you could just…’
‘What? Stop keying cars? Dude, didn’t you just say you’d help me to set fire to it? Come on, man. Give me a break. I didn’t know I was seen.’
‘You’re an idiot. He’s calling in the police. They’re going to dust the car for prints!’
‘Give me some credit,’ Ash groaned, nasal and sounding pained. ‘Haven’t been lifting cars for so long to leave some prints on the thing.’
‘With Gwyn ap Nudd as a witness, it won’t matter. That family has-’
‘Fuck Gwen and that fucking family. Fuck them all. And screw your lectures. Jesus, can you fucking knock it off? We’re fine! You’re fine! Your precious scholarship is fine, and you’re-’
‘Our scholarship,’ Augus snarled. ‘You’re living here too. You go to school here too. I may have done all the work on that application, but it applies to both of us.’
‘It’s all fine!’ Ash shouted, ripping the peas off his face and throwing them at Augus’ face so hard that Augus’ hands only came up in time because of years of fencing training. He clutched the bag between his fingers and saw the tears in Ash’s eyes, the quirk of his lips, realised with a shock of horror and disgust that Ash was dangerously close to crying. ‘It’s fine, isn’t it? I didn’t mean to get caught! I haven’t ruined it, have I? I can go straight and narrow for a few weeks. I promise. I promise, Augus.’
Augus raked a hand through his hair, forgot he was wearing a hair tie, and dragged that and several strands from his scalp, wincing as he did so. He shook the hair band to the floor and loosened the tie he wore – house colours of violet overlaying the black and dark blue of Academy. He folded the tie to give himself something to do, calming his breathing.
It wasn’t fair on Ash to take it out on him. He’d only spent his whole life getting by with theft, and even now that they had food and education and even shelter provided for them…
Well, a scholarship wasn’t clothing and footwear and smartphones and headphones and everything else they needed to not look like they were the lowest of the low in the school.
Augus made full use of his brother’s theft when it was convenient to him.
He sat down on his bed, opposite Ash, and rubbed the heel of his palm over his forehead.
‘I have essays due,’ Augus said tiredly. ‘I have to work this weekend. I’ve got assignments to write for the uni students that won’t write them themselves and pay through the nose for their sacred ‘non-plagiarised’ material. Ash, you just…’
Deep in his gut, a seething, twisting anger. Gwyn ap Nudd, again. He represented everything Augus hated about the stupid Academy. All the rich kids getting their privileged ride through the whole damned thing. Money falling out of their pockets and their wallets. Gwyn and his stupid cousin, Efnisien, wearing rage and cruelty on their sleeves and getting off every single charge pushed against them. Gwyn didn’t even get suspended for nearly breaking Ash’s nose.
It reminded him of a lifetime of looking at children with their birth parents, not in some shitty foster system, having no concept of what work or true independence or suffering was. Where their most pressing question was ‘What am I going to be when I grow up?’ and not ‘Can I get enough food to eat today?’
He tapped his fingers thoughtfully on the table, throwing the frozen peas back to Ash when he waggled his fingers for them.
Ash wasn’t the only one who did ‘terrible’ things.
He was just the one most likely to get caught.
Augus had his own games, his own pieces in play.
‘I could ruin him,’ Augus said quietly. ‘Something to do. Might be good to see one of them pushed off their pedestal.’
‘What?’ Ash said, pulling the peas off his nose again. He turned and faced Augus, and then groaned at what must have been a killer headache. ‘Don’t Augus. Don’t mess with that family. You can’t lecture me about it and then go after them yourself.’
‘The difference between you and I, brother, is that my methods are rather different.’
‘You can’t mind-fuck someone with no fucking mind. Go after Effles instead. Fucking monster.’
‘Gwyn’s had it out for you for some time,’ Augus mused, crossing his legs and leaning back against the wall, slumping so artfully that his lungs and sternum were practically crushed with the way his spine was curving. ‘If it wasn’t this, it would have been something else. People expect me to go after Efnisien, because he’s also Prefect. Efnisien’s also straight as a fucking board, which complicates things a tad.’
‘Augus, you can’t be serious,’ Ash said, and Augus couldn’t pick his tone – awe or disgust.
‘What?’ Augus said, smirking. ‘I’m bored. I could do with another project.’
‘Fuck that,’ Ash muttered. He reached for his headphones again, and soon the room was filled with tinny men screaming angrily about betrayal and bad relationships.
Augus ended up doing his essays in the common room; cheap black coffee making his stomach hurt and a packet of Pro Plus sitting next to pens and pencils and all other stationary that – if not provided by the school – had been thoughtfully provided by Ash’s thieving fingers.
The next morning he was woken by Ash amongst the bustle of other students walking past the door in the corridor to their classes. He swore quietly as he packed up all his papers, his laptop, shoved them all in his case and was sure that one day the laptop was just going to croak. Thank goodness for Dropbox and the external hard-drive that Ash had…well…
He hadn’t showered, though he’d done a fair amount of work and was ahead once more.
Ash handed him an apple, and Augus handed it back, wanting something savoury. But he’d made no sandwiches and couldn’t technically afford anything junky from the cafeteria.
Ash opened his rucksack and lifted out pre-made sandwiches, and winked a hazel eye at him.
‘You are a life saver,’ Augus said fervently.
He took in Ash’s face – two black eyes, though not as bad as some he’d sported in the past. Mostly just bruising in the bags beneath his eyes; he hadn’t slept well. Some delicate discolouration around the outsides of his nose. No more blood. His dark red hair was wet and springy, dripping onto his school jacket – not that he cared. His tie was askew, and if Augus went to fix it, Ash would slap his hands away and swear at him.
‘Augus,’ Mr. Prince said, leaning into the room. ‘Leaving it rather late again, aren’t you? Those all-nighters aren’t good for your training. I rather think you’re going to suffer for it today out on the piste.’
‘Fuck, is he not kidding,’ Ash said, as Mr. Prince walked away, prim steps stalking neatly from the room. ‘You’re gonna get thrashed, right?’
‘He’s angry,’ Augus said under his breath. ‘He doesn’t like it when I pull all-nighters, and I didn’t get the pills out of the way in time. He probably saw them, before. He wakes up before most of the other students.’
‘Raven Prince,’ Ash muttered, licking his lips nervously. ‘Raven Prince’ was the common nickname for the Head of Raven House. No one knew his first name. Augus had tried peeking at his mail before, and Mr. Prince had spotted him and sent him on his way, Augus’ heart skittering up in his throat and feeling far more nervous than usual.
Augus had most students and teachers wrapped around his little finger. But Mr. Prince was the opposite. He’d read far too much about law and war and strategy. He knew all of Augus’ games.
He probably even knew that Augus sold his essay-writing services to university students.
He might have a soft-spot for the brothers. But he wasn’t soft.
‘He makes me feel like a peasant,’ Augus griped, shoving sandwiches in his bag and yawning. No shower, coming off caffeine pills, more work to do.
They both looked up when Trow ran into the room. He was three years below them both, a math prodigy. He held printed papers in his hand.
‘I couldn’t find you!’ he said, his grey eyes wide with panic, pale mouse-brown hair spiked up every which way. ‘Here. For calc. I got your trig stuff coming, I promise! Don’t be mad.’
‘Why, I’m not mad,’ Augus said smoothly, ruffling Trow’s hair and taking the papers, looking over his shoulder to the corridor beyond. ‘Thank you for taking the time to find me. Now get along to your class.’
‘Yes, Sir! Prefect Augus!’
‘That’s a nice little racket you’ve got going,’ Ash grumbled, as Augus carefully folded the completed papers away.
‘We all know the importance of keeping up a grade point average,’ Augus said. ‘Besides, like I had time to attend most of my classes before we got here. Like you did.’
‘If he turns tail on you…’
‘He’s too scared to,’ Augus said quietly. ‘I know his mother has gotten almost three charges illegally overturned.’
Ash blinked at him.
Augus took out his phone, opened his app and scrolled through it hurriedly, and pressed play.
‘-totally. Oh yeah, no she totally got the Judge to do it. They were having an affair. It’s such shit. She should’ve gone to jail and maybe I wouldn’t have to put up with her anymore, I mean-’
Ash shook his head, a slow grin on his mouth, when Augus pressed stop and shoved his phone into his pocket.
‘It’s illegal to record people without their permission.’
‘Is it?’ Augus said, widening his eyes in mock innocence. ‘It hardly matters. Trow doesn’t know that. And he thinks hell on earth will rain down on him and his family if he doesn’t keep me in business.’
‘I thought you weren’t doing that anymore. Jesus, how many other students are you doing that to?’
‘Enough,’ Augus said, smiling. ‘And soon, one more.’
‘Don’t,’ Ash said, as Augus walked from the room. ‘Don’t fuck with that family, Augus! Seriously!’