Laura stopped in the communal kitchen on the way back to her room. The kettle clicked and bubbled and the steam huffed into the air. She leant against the sideboard fiddling with a sachet of hot chocolate powder. Her mouth cracked open in a huge yawn.
Maybe I should make one for John too. Spare mug, spare mug. Ah. I don't know who any of these belong to. And I left the rest of my mugs in my room. Oh well! No hot chocolate for John.
Laura split open her sachet, poured it into her mug then added the water from the kettle and milk. Her spoon tinkled loudly in the empty room as she stirred. She felt the steam warm her face as she took a sip. It was deliciously gratifying. She picked up the mug in both hands and carried it out, flicking the light switch with her elbow as she left.
Laura climbed the stairs, feet lightly scuffing against the floorboards as she went. She really was tired. The hot mug warmed through her fingers.
I'll drop straight into bed after finishing this. Sip, sip, sip. Nothing beats hot chocolate before bed. Sip.
She licked the excess from her lips.
And just as she was about to round the corner she stopped walking abruptly.
John? No, he's gone to bed already, surely...
Laura leant against the wall at the corner, holding her warm mug against her chest. Somehow, it didn't seem like a good idea to reveal herself to whoever it was. She heard a thud.
I'll hide. Hide and wait til they leave. But my hot chocolate will not stay hot forever...
She could hear voices from around the corner.
One of them sounded half dead. Or drunk. Really drunk. A male voice.
Thud, sharp intake of breath, a groan, another thud.
The voice was speaking very low, between a hiss and a whisper.
It did not sound like a friendly conversation.
"I'll gut you."
Not friendly at all.
"-gut you. ...-where I can find her-... -both dead-...."
Thud. A retch, coughing, gasping for breath.
"-find her and kill her-"
Thud. Thud. The soft sickening thud of fist on flesh.
" ...-gut you and kill her-..."
Then- "Fuck you."
And the sound of spitting.
Immediately Laura stepped out and moved down the corridor with calm, fast steps, all the while keeping her steaming hot chocolate level. Only a drop spilt.
"Stop." Her voice stilled the air. It was as if even the dust feared to settle and break the tension.
She saw him, the boy from before, the big one, the sneery-looking one, and John, bleeding from a new cut on his lip, reddish spittle at the corners of his mouth where he'd been hit. The boy had him by the front of his shirt, holding him against the wall with one hand, and pressing a kitchen knife to his face with the other. He looked horrible, really. His eyes were droopy from the drugs, and didn't seem to be focussing too well anyway. There was bandaging on his head, probably to do with his concussion, and the bruising from John's earlier punches was coming through nicely.
Come to think of it, he shouldn't have left the infirmary yet. He definitely ought to be sedated and lying down somewhere recuperating. So he's probably ignored doctor's orders, stolen that knife from somewhere and come straight here. Which means he won't be reasoned with and can be considered completely unstable. Probably.
Probably, but, I suppose I have to try.
His eyes met hers and showed surprise, then recognition. They twitched, the skin around the bridge of his nose furled up like too much sailcloth.
It's really like he's snarling at me.
"Hello, you wanted me?"
John's face was battered, but still managed to ask what are you doing? His eyes barely open, but still managed to say run away. Laura had a great propensity for staying calm under pressure, so she held her steaming hot chocolate in both hands and smiled lightly.
"I'd like to talk, what's your name?"
Her question and manner threw the big man completely. His eyes darted down to her hands, to her face, back down, and back up to her face. His mouth opened as if he were about to answer but his facial muscles quickly recontorted themselves in revolt.
He made no response.
"No names, ok. Then, what do you want with me?"
Laura cocked her head to the side. It was a stupid question. She looked ludicrous. Not only that: She looked genuinely curious.
He just stared blankly. He couldn't process fast enough the chain of events. Especially how inadequate, how out of place, and most importantly, how outside of his expectations they were.
She was making no sense.
"If you want a challenge, I'll be happy to accept."
That was a mistake though. The thought of a fight, of their fight, fired a camera in his head. Memories triggered one after the other; flash-bulb images. His defeat burst in his head. And he remembered why he was here.
"I'll kill you."
I wonder how many times he's rehearsed that line.
"You'll face expulsion and criminal charges if you don't adhere to proper etiquette."
A spasm crossed his face.
"I'm as good as out anyway. You saw to that."
"Your head will heal, you can get your friends to protect you while you're unfit to fight."
"No." His answer was quick. "No. They're weak. They can't protect me."
Laura's voice stayed level, she did not move in any direction. She just kept talking.
"Even if they're not individually strong-"
"Who do you fucking thing I am? They're weak! I am strong, I'm the best of all of them! They can't protect me!"
Ah. He's one of those.
"Don't talk to me about expulsion! They can't make me leave, no matter what I do! They can't!"
He's lost it. Well, I tried.
"Even if I kill you, if I kill you both! I'll kill you both!"
His eyeballs were bloodshot. Laura could see the capillaries like fiery webs in the whites of his eyes. The tendons in his neck stood out, all his muscles stretched to their limit. His body was maxed out on tension. On desperation. She heard it in the slightly hysterical quaver of his voice.
In the end, it just comes down to this, doesn't it.
There were roughly twelve feet between them. Laura made eye contact with him and stepped forwards.
He glared straight back into her eyes, there was no sanity in him any longer. You wouldn't even call him angry. He was all violence. Purely desperate violence. He stepped towards her, brandishing the kitchen knife like a machete.
Laura stopped looking at his eyes. She breathed out. In another half-step she would be within his range. She stepped forward a half step. And she threw her hot chocolate at him.
She pressed forwards and flew at him, snaking under his flailing arms as the steaming liquid scalded his eyes. His mouth opened in a feral screech of pain. She struck before he could finish his breath. Her hands whipped in faster than the eye could follow, his jaw snapped shut, joints shuddering. His head reeled. He felt a sharp pain in his ribs and pitched forwards but was immediately struck in the face by another hand. Unable to see, unable to react, he flung himself into an attack, slashing and stabbing manically with his knife.
Laura didn't parry his knife attacks, she just allowed her hand to rest on his knife-wielding arm. She had no hope of stopping him with strength, or slowing him by grabbing him. So she slid out of the way of the blade, keeping her hand in contact with his arm until the point he overreached. Then she just pulled. His whole body extended off balance at once. Laura gritted her teeth and closed her eyes. Then she hit him again. Once on his fully extended arm and once in the face. His elbow dislocated and she was sure she felt a shoulder separation in the socket as well. He dropped the knife. Her second strike dropped him straight into the floor.
Even as he passed out of consciousness she could see that fervid desperation in him. His eyes, his whole body contorted in panic. Even as he passed out, she felt sorry.
* * *
The patrol officers took the big man away fully sedated. They never did find out his name. John and Laura were taken to the infirmary for treatment. Though she hadn't actually been hurt at all, it was standard procedure in a non-official combat to check for damages. Besides, she had things to talk about with John, so she didn't mind that much.
They lay on their respective hospital-style beds. They had the place to themselves.
"How bad?" said Laura.
"Fractured a rib. Face is a mess. Lucky not to get a haemorrhage apparently. But not dead, I guess."
John was despondent. Or maybe it was the morphine. Either way he wasn't in good spirits.
"He was a fucking psychopath."
John was also feeling, understandably, a bit vindictive.
"No. Well, not in the way you think." Laura stared at the ceiling as she spoke. She heard John sit up at what she said.
"He lost a fight so he tried to kill us both, not even in proper challenges, purely for revenge, how is he not a psychopath?"
"I've seen his type before. He looks like one of those who just a combat-maniac on the surface, and there are lots of those around, but he wasn't the same."
Laura kept looking at the ceiling. The dimmed light strips glowed gently.
"He was afraid, not bloodthirsty. Afraid more than anything of being made to leave here. Did you see how he broke when I mentioned expulsion? I'd guess he's from a prestigious family, probably had an undefeated record, doesn't know how to deal with losing. And more than anything has the weight of his whole family legacy on his shoulders. He wasn't just crazy for fighting, he was terrified of losing and of not living up to expectations. You saw how strong he was, he's probably been in the gym since he was able to lift anything. And on the record, it says that he lost to you, the bottom of the Cambridge tree. It must have been like the end of the world to a spoilt boy who's never lost."
"Are you saying that that justifies attempted murder?"
"No. Not at all. But it makes me feel really sorry for him, more than hate him. He probably never wanted to fight under his own volition. It was just stamped into him. It used to be that families would put huge pressure on kids to study. Now, if it's easier than studying, they just make them fight. Suddenly studying doesn't seem that bad, now does it?"
"I don't get what you're saying. You want me to feel bad for him?"
"No. I'm just saying what I think. You don't have to agree with me."
"Fine whatever." A pause. "I do have a question though."
"What is it?"
"When you went to fight him, how did you know he wouldn't just stab me first?"
"Oh, that. That was because I pissed him off, and I made sure not once to mention you when I talked to him. I just used random everyday conversation to disarm him then make him mad at me so he forgot you entirely."
"You planned out what he would do just by talking to him? Well, how could you have known he wouldn't just kill me when you started going for him?"
"Oh, that's just things like keeping a little eye contact, the way you stand... Little things, it's hard to explain."
John rubbed his chin in thought.
"Where did you learn all this stuff? Not just the psychological bits, I'm not sure I believe that shit, but how you move and how you fight as well?"
Laura turned her head to the side and looked John in the eye. She held his gaze sharply for a second, then looked back to the ceiling.
"I learnt from my sister."
The silence filled up with questions.
Laura picked the most obvious one and answered it.
"No, I won't teach you."
He didn't show it on his face, but John was a little disappointed.
"At least, not now. Ask me again another time. I may give you some tips then."
Laura turned her body away from him as she said this. Even so, John had to suppress a smile. For some reason he was glad- more than he felt he should have been about such a thing.
Laura sighed inwardly.
Well, now I've done it, haven't I? Me, teaching. Honestly. Too many things are changing too fast. I hope the rest of the semester isn't like this.
Thinking so, Laura began to drift off to sleep.
Ahh, what a waste of hot chocolate.