The waxing moon is bright enough to illuminate individual blades of grass and the jutting stone of the far-off, sprawling citadel. It glints off the still mirror of the large lake and is swallowed by the dense forest that rings the floating island it all sits on.
And yet somehow, it’s not bright enough for Nicholas to see if that clump of wet pebbles is his lost glasses or just a clump of pebbles.
A loud splash and Nicholas shrieks, whipping around so he takes the splatter of freezing cold water on his side. While most of it rebounds off his puffy black jacket, it instantly soaks through the school uniform, the light grey jumper and black slacks turning even darker.
“No, stop!” Nicholas cries at the next splash, staggering away and the small pebbles lining the lake crunch under his feet. “That’s not fair, I can’t even see right now!”
“Yeah, I know, your glasses are in my pocket!” Stavros cackles, crouched down at the water’s edge where he’d lured Nicholas. He has one sleeve of his white coat and the uniform underneath shoved up, shivering violently but looking like it’s worth the threat of frostbite. A wicked smirk splits Stavros’ face, stormy blue eyes half squinted from the force of it. His long golden curls are up in a messy bun and with the moonlight glinting off his back like a halo he’d look angelic if he wasn’t such an asshole.
Nicholas whirls the rest of the way around, eyes widening, but honestly, he should have known. “You – we just spent twenty minutes stomping around out here looking for them instead of being under the warm blanket, you dickhead!”
“I’m just saying, don’t give what you can’t take, bitch,” Stavros laughs and threateningly splashes a bit more water onto the pebbles at Nicholas’ feet.
“I splashed you once half an hour ago,” Nicholas scoffs but warily backs up some more, one hand running through fluffy black hair like shoving it off his forehead is going to help his trash eyesight. “Did you seriously spend all that time – give me my damned glasses!”
“Come and get them, Nicky,” Stavros coos with an arrogant tilt of his head.
Rafael stands up from his crouch a bit further away, dismissing the patch of grass that’s suspiciously glasses-like. “I don’t know why I bother with you two,” he mutters as he lopes off with long limbs and hunched shoulders. He’s wearing an extra, rather frumpy jumper that’s not quite big enough for him anymore, his bony ankles popping out from under his pants legs too.
“I didn’t start this,” Nicholas grumbles, folding his black jacket tighter around him. “You know what, Stavros? I’m going to go cuddle with Raffy and Adam, and you’re not welcome.”
Adam, the last of the teenagers, is still star gazing a couple of metres away. He’s lying on one edge of the enlarged picnic blanket and huddled under a huge quilt Nicholas transfigured, pretending the other three don’t exist so he doesn’t get dragged into it. “I think I see Scorpio.”
“The island is in the wrong hemisphere for that,” Rafael deadpans as he climbs into the blanket.
“It might be a drunk Leo,” Adam corrects easily.
“I don’t think Leo’s the one having a problem right now,” Nicholas laughs as he scrambles in on Rafael’s other side. He then rolls half on top of the lanky boy and shivers, trying desperately to leech body heat until he warms up under the blanket. It’s 3 am and ridiculously cold this far up in the atmosphere, but Nicholas will not be the one to crack first and use a warming charm.
Stavros walks around the blanket to their heads and flicks his wet fingers in their general direction, spraying light droplets everywhere. Rafael’s reflective gold eyes are particularly bright as he locks onto Stavros standing above them, the light of his blazing eyes peeking out just above Nicholas’ head.
“I’m positively shaking in fear,” Stavros scoffs at him and drops to a knee, grabbing his standard-issue apprentice wand from the random pile of four on the ground and flicking drying charms everywhere. “There, aren’t I a good friend?”
Nicholas grips the blanket for dear life when Stavros starts pulling at it. “I said you weren’t invited, Ross, get your own.”
“You aren’t going to win this fight, Nicky,” Rafael sighs, shoving his nose into one of the shaved sides of Nicholas’ head only for the boy to flinch away at the cold. “Just let Stavros in before he does something else.”
“I was considering dragging the entire blanket into the lake,” Stavros hums happily. When Nicholas still fights it, Stavros pulls the stolen glasses out of his pocket, makes a show of cleaning them on his jumper, and then puts them on Nicholas' face.
The glasses are large, squared-off aviators and rimmed in thin black wire which makes Nicholas' eyes even bigger as he stares warily. He grumbles but lets Stavros inside, then jerks away as Rafael’s nose comes back. “Stop,” he complains, rolling away into Stavros.
On the other side of Rafael, Adam sucks in a sharp breath when the motion pulls the edge of the blanket up from where he’d tucked it around him. The cold air hits his side and he quickly yanks it back down and shivers despite being fully dressed in warm clothes. “Eat him without moving so much.”
“Sorry,” Rafael mutters, doesn’t stop shoving his face into Nicholas’ neck to breathe him in. “I think I’m hungry.”
“Wow, that’s reassuring,” Nicholas scoffs up at the stars. “The last thing I’ll ever hear.”
Stavros laughs and reaches over Nicholas to shove Rafael’s head away. “You are too far from a full moon to be trying to lick Nicky.”
“I think it’s the honey soap you use,” Rafael guesses, shaking Stavros’ hand out of his hair. “Or the moon really is getting too close.”
“Your period is five days too early,” Stavros points out as if they can’t all see the swelling moon hanging overhead.
Rafael shows teeth and the fake growl is real enough to vibrate through Nicholas’ shoulder where they’re pressed together.
“I’m going to go lie next to Adam, who’s the only nice one here.” Nicholas huffs and grips the edge of the blanket but isn’t brave enough to pull it off. It’s cold enough for his nose to hurt.
Adam frowns questioningly up at the sky. “I think I need to piss.”
“Damn, so do I,” Nicholas realises.
There’s no movement for a long time.
Nicholas groans. “Come here, Adam, let me hold your dick.” And, just to make sure everyone is suffering, flips as much of the blanket off as possible.
Stavros shrieks at the burst of freezing cold after just getting warm, and Rafael scrambles for the blanket. Nicholas makes his escape, crawling up and almost stabbing himself on the pile of apprentice wands.
Rafael and Stavros roll together and pull the blanket tight over them to try and retain as much warmth as possible. Nicholas is shivering already as he edges around Rafael’s head. Adam jokingly holds up his hands but Nicholas isn’t one to let a dare pass by and grabs hold, quickly dragging Adam towards the dark forest that rings most of the massive floating island.
Adam squeaks when his back hits icy grass and flails. Nicholas laughs and starts running backwards as fast as he can while dragging another body. Adam leaves a long trail of dark grass where his poor jumper wipes off all the shining dew.
Only a few meters out, Adam kicks free and rolls to his feet. He brushes off the back of his now wet jumper and has to readjust it around his broad shoulders where it’s stretched awkwardly. “You sadist.”
“No one will ever believe you,” Nicholas scoffs, then turns to throw doe eyes at Adam with an innocent flutter of his eyelashes.
They reach the tree line where a curtain of darkness descends and stumble blindly through the undergrowth. The darkness is a minor inconvenience - the boys have spent the last four years running wild through these woods, and they know how to navigate it.
“I’ll go left, you go right,” Nicholas says.
“I’m not going deeper into the forest,” Adam complains half-heartedly. “Why don’t you go right?”
“I said it first.”
“Well, I said it second.”
They have a short stare-off.
Nicholas raises his eyebrows. “If I die, it’s on you, Adam.”
“I swear to you-” Adam begins.
“That there are no dangerous creatures this close to the citadel?”
“-that I’ll come charging out, and beat the shit out of anything trying to mess with you,” Adam finishes. “I’ll take on a unicorn for you, Nicholas. It won’t stand a chance. Full pro wrestler Adam - I’ll suplex a centaur.”
Nicholas cracks up laughing.
“I’ll get expelled,” Adam admits with a casual wave over his shoulder as he heads towards the left. “But I’ll do it.”
“Adam?” Nicholas calls.
Adam stops and turns to him with a smile.
“Are centaurs insects because they have six limbs?”
Adam gags a little in disgust and Nicholas giggles, running off.
The distant citadel fades from view entirely, and soon Nicholas can’t even see the flat, open grass or the lake just beyond. He trips, catches himself on a tree, and touches something gross and squishy. It’s probably just moss but still, he wipes it off on his pants with a grimace.
Nicholas pauses, bouncing a little on his feet because he really needs to go. He looks around for anything suspicious. Unbuttons his pants. Does another check.
“If there’s a scary monster out there,” Nicholas begins loudly. “I just want you to know, I’m underage with my dick out, and that means you’re a paedophile if you’re watching.”
Adam’s distant laughter can be heard.
Nicholas does another seven checks and then damn near breaks a world record with how fast he pisses. It really is impressive. He should have timed himself. He’ll tell Stavros about it later and probably get a high-five.
Nicholas weaves his way back to where he’s pretty sure the meeting point was and hops over a large bush. Adam is lying face down on the ground.
Nicholas laughs and jogs closer. “Aww, did you trip? What happened to suplexing centaurs for me?” Nicholas stops at Adam’s side and leans over with his hands on his knees. “Was it really that embarrassing? I promise I won’t tell…”
Adam’s face is half in the dirt, but with Nicholas leaning over this far he can see one open eye staring out sightlessly.
The smile falls from Nicholas’ face. He swallows, opens his mouth to call Adam’s name. It turns into a scream when he sees red light reflecting off the trees in his peripheral vision and a spell hits him in the back a split second later.
Rafael’s head snaps around.
Stavros starts to prop himself up on his elbows. “Did you hear something-?”
Rafael is ripping the blanket off, sprinting across the grass field towards the forest.
Stavros is rolling up onto his feet and barely has the mind to grab the pile of wands in hand before he’s tearing after Rafael. He’s already lost sight of the other boy by the time he hits the tree line and just follows the sound of Rafael’s roar that human vocal cords should not be able to make.
Stavros leaps over a large bush and skids to a stop next to Adam. He breathes in, breathes out. Drops to his knees, drops the other three wands, only finds his own through touch because he’s staring into Adam’s empty eyes and slack face.
Stavros’ spell is a simple emergency flare, but shoots out like fireworks, a blazing red that lights the trees, and burns the shadows until it speeds above the canopy and darkness descends again. It breaks with a deep crack that shakes the trees, as high as the tallest castle tower, paints the forest around them in red flares.
Stavros breathes in, breathes out. Turns and runs deeper, into the forest, wand at the ready. There’s the soft whoosh of teleportation, someone snapping out of existence just before he arrives.
But Rafael is there, holding a limp Nicholas around the waist with one arm, his other hand tight around Nicholas’ forearm that now hangs at a strange angle. Rafael turns to Stavros and there's something else looking out of his reflective eyes.
“Hey,” Stavros says and holds his hands out slowly. It’s just Stavros up now, he needs to be the one in control. “Come on. It’s me. Look – look at Nicholas, look at his arm. We need to get him back to – Adam.”
Rafael turns back to the forest and Stavros carefully steps in. He takes Nicholas whose eyes are closed – not dead. Maybe.
“Rafael,” Stavros says again, louder this time, angrier.
Nicholas drops fully into Stavros’ hold. Stavros casts something to keep the arm still, then a charm to wake him up. Nicholas gasps as he comes to, choking on a sob.
“They ported,” Stavros says as if that helps.
Stavros half drags Nicholas back out but as soon as Nicholas sees Adam he lurches forward and falls to his knees, grabs his wand, broken arm held to his stomach. Through his tears Nicholas tries three different spells to bring someone back to consciousness, four different ones to end a spell, and throws out a minor heal used for paper cuts like that can fix a dead body.
Stavros stands over the two, wand in hand. Rafael paces circles around them, watches the forest.
Mr Gilgal is the first teacher to arrive after the flare probably woke up half the citadel, skating over the ground with a speed charm. He throws out a light spell that splashes over the trees and sticks, sucks in a breath when he sees Adam.
Stavros breathes in, breathes out. It doesn’t work. Stavros laughs. He laughs and he laughs and he laughs.
“Rafael,” Mr Gilgal tries.
Rafael jerks his head. He can’t talk. Can’t think. Watches the forest for the next threat.
“Nicholas,” Mr Gilgal begs, dropping to a knee and putting a hand on the crying boy’s shoulder. “Nicholas, please, what happened?”
“P-ported,” Nicholas remembers, manages to choke it out even when the crying makes him stutter. “Back – I woke up n-near an open-eyed bush, st-straight in.”
Mr Gilgal casts something with his ring focus and all three of the students glow. A sheet forms over Adam. Mr Gilgal checks the next teacher running across the grounds is close enough and heads deeper into the trees, to where the wards end.
“No!” Nicholas screams and yanks the sheet off Adam with the arm that still works. “Adam needs to get to a hospital! Why – why is no one taking him-?”
Stavros sees this and he just laughs.