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Behind the Arras

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Shion had worried about knocking over the books inside, and Nezumi had pointed out the possibility of unwelcome visitors outside, so they’ve come to a compromise. Their arena will be the rectangular stone-walled space, the foundations or the basement of whatever long-since-destroyed building Nezumi’s home is now under, a few metres deep into the lip of the hill. Here they’re hidden, and the only things to knock over are the smaller chunks of rubble scattered among the huge weathered concrete blocks piled high around the walls.

So they face each other, coats and scarves cast aside, Shion with his fists curled pre-emptively, amateurishly, at his sides, Nezumi staring at the boy opposite him like he’s not sure what he’s doing.

“I’m going to go easy on you, this time,” he says, projects it across to echo from the opposite wall, “but you have to remember that no one else will.”

“Yeah.”

“And that doesn’t mean I’m not gonna hurt you.”

“Yeah.”

“And that doesn’t mean I’m gonna stop when you start crying. Okay?”

“Yeah. So- ”

“So for starters,” he interrupts, and that’s part of this too, stepping forward smoothly with his hands clasped loosely behind his back, “look at yourself. You’re making it pretty obvious that you’ve got your guard up, aren’t you? I could see those clenched fists from miles away.”

Shion nods, tersely, and uncurls his fingers, and Nezumi stifles a snort; hell, the only difference now is that it looks more like Shion’s going to chop him in the windpipe rather than punch him in the face. That nervous tension is still painfully obvious in- everything, the line of Shion’s back, the set of his legs, the look on his face.

“And if I see you standing over there looking like you’re about to hit me any second,” and he continues strolling forwards, “it’s only sensible for me to hit you first, isn’t it, genius?” He doesn’t take his eyes off Shion’s face, because that way he can be certain Shion won’t be looking anywhere else either. “You’re nowhere near good enough yet to go into a fight looking like you’re actually planning on fighting.”

He allows himself a smirk; from where he is now he can see how Shion’s jutting his chin out, all the muscles in his neck straining, trembling under his skin.

“But if I act like nothing’s wrong, and I’m just making friendly conversation,” and there it is, the realisation dawning suddenly in Shion’s face, too late, “then I can fool him into letting me in before he even suspects I’m going to strike.”

Case in point. Shion’s not fast enough. Nezumi knew he wouldn’t be. He manages to shift sideways and raise his hand from his hip before Nezumi’s punch smacks him square in the jaw, leaves him staggering. Nezumi steps back, shoves his hands into his pockets, and watches Shion clamp a hand to his face and glare up from underneath it.

“That wasn’t-”

“Fair? Please. I’m giving up now if you think what’s fair comes into this.”

And he was going to leave it, go really easy and give Shion time to get back up and compose himself, but that remark is pissing him off. How damn long is it going to take- and he can feel Shion choke and splutter on his own breath as he kicks him in the stomach- for him to beat the naivety out of this kid?

“Don’t fall over,” he snaps, grabs Shion’s wrist enough to yank him upright from where he’s sagging sideways and then lets it go like it’s burning. “If you fall over you’re going to have a hell of a time getting up again.”

Shion stands doubled over and coughing spittle onto the flagstones until he’s got his breath back, and Nezumi lets him, because a beatdown isn’t going to help him learn. When he straightens up there’s a reddish bruise swelling on the side of his face, angrier than his scars.

“Evasion is going to have to be your tactic here,” Nezumi continues, like nothing’s happened. “You’re not strong enough to do damage by charging in, and I think we’ve just proven that if you get hit once things are gonna go badly pretty fast.”

The beginnings of the movement in Shion’s body are clear to Nezumi probably before Shion feels them; he bends his knees and shifts into that sloppily-thrown punch to deflect it with his left arm thrust out, bent at the elbow so it’s vertical and parallel to his torso.

“Copy that,” he snaps, “I’m not slowing down.”

And so he doesn’t, and so Shion does; Nezumi draws his fist back and drives it forward into Shion’s shoulder and Shion’s block knocks it aside, too slow to avoid contact but- better, this time. The kid’s a fast learner. Fast enough that before Nezumi’s darted out of range Shion’s leg is swinging out towards his ankles- he jumps over it, easy, but he hadn’t expected that sort of initiative. Maybe this lesson won’t be a total waste.

He’ll keep to his word, though- he spins on the toe of his left foot, pulling his right knee in close to his chest and snapping it outwards to slam Shion in the collarbone. The impact judders all the way up his leg, makes him shiver- it wasn’t hard enough to break bone, but if it had been Shion certainly wouldn’t have blocked it in time. “You’re too slow,” Nezumi growls, “you have to keep moving so you can dodge when-”

“Kick me again,” says Shion, abruptly, his voice a little higher than usual.

“What?”

“Kick me again. So I can dodge it.”

For a moment they stare at each other, all clenched fists and hair mussed by the wind and by exertion, Nezumi with his eyes narrowed and Shion with his widened, intense.

Fine, thinks Nezumi, in as much as he’s even allowing himself to think right now; fine, and now he jerks his hips round in almost a full circle, spins on one foot and when he’s facing Shion again snaps his other leg explosively outwards. Shion ducks and half-covers his face and stumbles sideways, and Nezumi supposes that could be construed as a dodge, even though it’s not enough to stop his heel knocking Shion’s shoulder aside in the process.

“Again.”

This time the kick lands in the empty space above Shion’s right ear, disturbing nothing but air and dust motes and Nezumi’s thoughts.

With blow after blow, and Shion’s stumbling dodges and sidestepping and shaky half-formed blocks, they’ve shifted position so that between them and the wall there’s a pile of crumbling concrete blocks, about a metre high. Shion’s nose is bleeding sluggishly, and the bruise on his cheek has turned a dirty purple-red. Nezumi figures Shion must be a mess under his clothes, too, but that’s probably not a train of thought it would be a great idea to follow right now-

--and because he’s not thinking, he doesn’t notice Shion’s hand until it’s fisted in the collar of his shirt. Shion’s curled knuckles brush the bones at the indent in Nezumi’s clavicle, and Nezumi finds himself staring fixated at Shion’s jutted-out chin again, at the curve of the scar rounding Shion’s throat, because he’s pretty sure he can’t bring himself to look into Shion’s eyes.

You left my hands free, is the first thing he manages to form into coherent thought, won’t dare verbalise it (he doesn’t trust his voice), idiot. His fist collides with Shion’s stomach harder than any punch he’s thrown all day, and since he’s not looking at Shion’s face he can see only the choking contraction of Shion’s throat as he doubles over.

He can feel- when he grabs Shion by the neck and pins him to the nearest block of stone with the fingers of that hand tenting around Shion’s throat, covering and pushing into the scar with his thumb and middle finger along the uneven skin, and his other hand splayed across the stone above Shion’s head- Shion struggling for breath.

“That’s why-” he begins, and his gaze flickers back up to Shion’s face and Shion’s staring at him, eyes wide, unreadable. Some of the blood from his nose has smeared across to stain the corner of his lips red; it looks like Nezumi’s makeup for acting madness.

He’s suddenly acutely aware of Shion’s pulse fluttering too fast under his hand, and snatches it away, pushes himself off the stone to back away and stand a few metres off, watching Shion coughing weakly and neglecting to wipe the blood off his face.

“That’s why I told you to evade, not attack.”

Shion looks up at Nezumi’s murmur- Nezumi can see it out of the corner of his eye- but he’s already turning, grabbing his scarf and wrapping it around his neck, slinging his jacket over his shoulder, shoving tightly clenched fists into his pockets and resisting the urge to shudder.

With some effort, he calls over his shoulder as he’s leaving, “Stay out here until sunset. I want you to get the hang of those blocks. Practice until it hurts and you feel like you can’t any more. I’ll be inside.”

The damp stone walls of the staircase down to the catacombs echo his words mockingly around his head, so he covers his ears with his hands, and all the muscles in his fingers are pulled taught and tense and trembling.