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You Find Him Eating Paint

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The gymnasium had descended into general chaos.

Nines wasn't entirely sure as to what had occurred and how. One moment, he and Ashe were sitting in the bleachers watching Eve participate in volleyball tryouts. Next thing, he was on the ground to the alarm of every athlete, staff and onlooker.

"What the hell just happened?" He tugged on Ashe's sleeve.

Standing on the sidelines out of the way, Ashe looked fascinated by the commotion, which was as close to concern coming from her. "Someone took a bad stumble, Eve tried to catch him. Looks like he hit his head on the floor."

Aside from Eve's teammates kneeling around him, the coaches were discouraging people from crowding. Other staff directed them to file out now that tryouts were more-or-less canceled. A woman with long, straight red hair entered, a white cloth bag under one arm, and wiggled in through the throngs. The ID-tag clipped to her black cardigan identified her as being a part of health services.

With the gym mostly empty now, the two friends approached cautiously, keeping a respectable distance so as not to hover.

The woman shined a light into Eve's eye, who blinked dazedly in protest. Clicking off the light, she held a finger in front of him, waving it slowly back and forth while her other hand found her radio transceiver, speaking succinctly into it. A prompt response crackled through as she stood. 

"It doesn't seem like he's hurt bad," she announced. "We'll still be transferring him to the on-campus hospital to keep an eye on him overnight."

"Wait, but you said he wasn't hurt that badly," Nines spoke up.

"We can never be too careful with head injuries. It's better to have false positives than false negatives when it comes to injuries we can't see."

At the sound of Nines' voice, Eve finally caught sight of the two, an expression of pleasant surprise overcoming his features, greeting them with a clumsy wave. "Hey Nines, hey Ashe. What're you doing here?"

"Watching you play volleyball tryouts; you're the one who told us about it," replied Ashe with an incredulous raise of an eyebrow, as though the answer ought to be obvious. "You okay, man? It looked like you went down pretty hard."

"Where did I go down to?" Screwing shut his eyes, Eve shook his head in recognition of the stupid question. Instead of waiting for an answer, he complained, "It's really bright here."

Unwinding the gauze scarf from about her neck, Ashe re-positioned it over his eyes, tying it like a blindfold. "There. That better?"

"He's not going to be able to see where he's going," Nines pointed out.

"He's getting a gurney, it's not like he needs to be able to."

Aforementioned gurney arrived several minutes later, Eve assisted onto it before being rolled away. Ashe and Nines received permission to tag along, being his friends, potentially to help with contacting pertinent persons and keeping Eve calm by being familiar faces.

The on-campus hospital was linked to the medical wing of the university and formed a on-site health services; students undergoing practicums, residencies and clinical placements could apply their knowledge and start building their career paths here. Ironically, it was where Eve was expected to study in his later years, since he was learning "how to make the move do good" [sic]. It had taken a while for Nines to realize that Eve's field of study was kinesiology, although the latter could never seem to remember how to correctly say it. Who knew, maybe coming in as a patient could be an appropriate learning experience given the right mindset.

Which, obviously, Eve was not in the head-space to appreciate. That didn't stop him from gabbling about nothing in particular, changing subjects around twenty times by the time they arrived.

Once he was properly checked and confirmed that there was no particularly concerning cranial trauma, he was moved to a patient bed in general care. Thankfully, he was distracted by seemingly bottomless awe for the finger-clipped pulse oximeter the nurse put on him, allowing Nines and Ashe to deal with informing Adam.

"He's not picking up," Nines said after the third time he was directed to voice mail.

"Probably because it's you calling. Let me try." Slipping her phone out of her pocket, she selected a number from her contacts, shaking her hair away from her ear. Nines' brows knitted together.

"Why is he in your contacts?"

Ashe shushed him loudly, clicking speakerphone on, just as there was an answering crackle.

"Hello?"

Mischievous, she crowed, "What's up, lover-boy? Ready to get folded like a lawn chair?" 

There was a snort. "Ashe, please, must you always be so vulgar?"

"You know you love it, baby. But that's not why I'm calling today. It's about your sweet little brother."

"And what did Eve do this time?"

"Ate ass playing volleyball; hit his head pretty hard. He's at the hospital right now so the doctors can keep an eye on him but nothing serious."

As she gave him Eve's location, her gaze kept flicking to Nines. As his expression morphed to reflect consternation, her smile grew to contain more and more teeth.

"So that means we'll have lots of time to ourselves," she concluded. "See you tonight?"

Adam was entirely noncommittal. "Mm."

"Wait, what the fuck?" Nines leaned forward, voice a hiss like he was disputing a secret. "What the fuck? Are you seriously screwing Adam?"

There was some fumbling on the other end. "Ashe, is that Nils?" 

Never before had Nines heard Adam actually flustered. He turned towards the phone: "Adam, what the fuck?"

The line went dead. If they weren't in a hospital, Ashe would be full-on hyena-cackling right now. As it were, her conscientious conniptions were sending her out of her chair. She leaned on Nines for support, who shoved her away in bewildered disgust.

"Are you talking to my brother?" inquired Eve, apparently satisfied enough with the oximeter to let his attention outwards. Before anyone could respond, he grew visibly distraught. "Are you guys fighting? Please don't fight."

"Hey, hey, we weren't fighting." For once. "We were only letting him know where you are."

Rather than calming him, Nines' reassurance did the opposite. It looked like Eve was on the verge of tears now. On the trip over, the red-haired lady - named Pola - had interrogated the two of them about Eve's behaviours, leading her to conclude that he was experiencing some emotional dysregulation. A common, possible symptom that may result from a hit to the noggin. Pola had warned that, in the case of head injuries, symptoms often weren't directly indicative of severity, which was another reason why it was so important to be thorough. Seeing Eve so tearful made Nines feel uneasy, despite Eve's stable prognosis. 

:"Um, there there?" Ashe patted him awkwardly on the hand. "He wasn't angry with you, if that's what you're worried about."

"It wasn't that," Eve sniffled, sounding almost sulky.

When she tried to press him more details, he ignored her. For him to be so dour and tight-lipped, it was like interacting with a different person. Nines frowned at the strange, twisting something his heart had turned into. There was an urge but no action; he felt that he ought to do something but had no idea what.

They tried their best to keep him company, shooting the shit and watching videos, until Eve got doctor's permission to go to sleep a few hours later, since his condition hadn't changed. He immediately lay down, leaving Nines and Ashe to excuse themselves from the building.

Having missed class to stay with Eve, Nines had no other outstanding plans for today. He had no idea what Ashe's schedule was like but it looked she didn't have anywhere else to be. Together they took the long way back to student residences, not wanting to contend with the howling December chills and icy crosswalks.

"So, what're you up to now?" he asked at length.

"Winter party's tonight. You bet I'm going to crash it."

"Don't expect to use my dorm room as a hangover recovery clinic again."

"I don't expect, I know I will." She pinched his nose playfully, grinning at his offended expression. "Seriously though, loosen up. Eve's going to be fine, don't worry."

Nines was taken aback. "Who said I was worried?"

She rolled her eyes. "I can practically hear you thinking from here. You're not sly."

"Well... I guess I have been sort of worried." He rubbed at the back of his neck. Why was he so hung up on this? Eve got formally diagnosed and was under proper care. Maybe it was just paranoia from listening to Pola.

"Maybe you should come along?"

A moment of consideration. "You know what? Sure. Free food is always a plus."

****

Every winter  the student council arranged a festive party in the ground lobby of student residences. The strategy was threefold: one, it was intended as a way to lower stress before final exams; two, folks could have a lark with their friends before going home; and three, to lift the spirits of those with nowhere to go for the holidays.

Hospitality and culinary students presided over tables of snacks and drinks, both of the alcoholic and non-alcoholic kind. There were small games along the sides, wheels of chance and bean machines and air hockey tables, some of which offered prizes like pens or tote bags. At the center of it all was, of course, the floor for dancing.

As usual, Nines haunted the periphery, nursing his food and sneaking away prizes when no one was looking. Though he was a decently outgoing type, he didn't see much of a point to a party if his friends weren't also there. Niko, Tsuhito and Pascal weren't party-going types and Eve was in the hospital, leaving Ashe and Murou as the only attendees he recognized.

Ashe was kicking up a right ruckus on the dance floor which, even if Nines had any interest or skill in dancing, he didn't want any involvement in. Meanwhile, Murou was using the event as an opportunity to hunt for a date and he'd rather not get roped into playing wingman. Not for the first time, he wondered how she managed to hook up with anyone; for all that she was a romantic, she was also completely oblivious. A rock was better at taking hints than her.

He found himself wondering, if the day's events hadn't occurred and if he had the chance to ask, whether Eve would have accompanied them. Eve didn't seem like the type to feel comfortable at parties, but he tended to have an open mind. Maybe the party would be more fun if he were here.

As if on cue, Nines' phone buzzed in his pocket. He frowned as he registered Eve's name as the caller ID. Shouldn't the dude still be resting? Looking at a phone couldn't possibly be comfortable with a hurting head.

"Hey," he greeted.

Eve's voice was soft and a bit uneven. Looked like the emotional dysregulation was still in effect. "Hi Nines. Thanks for answering, I know it's late."

Was eight-o-clock at night considered late? Nines shrugged. "No biggie. Is something up?"

"No, I mean, not really. I just... I wanted to, like, tell you, I really like hanging out with you. Like, you're my bro. I really, really-" here Eve tried to emphasize but instead it came out slurred "-really like your company. Is that weird?"

"Not at all. It's normal to enjoy being around your friends. Why do you ask?" Nines added tentatively, tiptoeing around a potentially delicate emotional gasket.

"Adam doesn't like that I hang out with you. Says you're a bad influence."

"What does he think you are, a ten-year-old? You can make your own decisions. I mean, yeah, we'll meet some really shitty people and that sucks but that's not something you can protect other people from by dictating their social life." Then, with the previous edge in his tone gone, "If I am or ever am a shitty friend, you can tell me, you know."

"No, no, you're not a bad friend. You're my bro, bro. It's just, I don't know, when I think about it it's really harsh on my vibe."

"You can just ignore him."

"No, you don't understand," Eve replied with sudden intensity. "You're my bro but Adam's my brother. He's been my only friend since I've been born." "

Nines restrained his natural desire to break in with a witty riposte, something like sounds rough, buddy. From the subject matter to the quality of the voice coming through the line, it felt all too vulnerable. He might be a smart-ass but even he knew there was a time and a place.

"None of the other kids really wanted to deal with us. You're like, my first ever other friend." A pause. "Oh wait, oh no. That came out sounding guilt-trippy. You're not obligated to be my friend or anything. Like you said, make your own decisions and all that-"

"Eve," he interrupted, "I hang out with you because I like to, too. If I really didn't want to do something, do you think I'd do it? Without bitching the whole time?"

"...I guess."

"At any rate, it's not your fault. You guys aren't kids anymore and if Adam can't realize that, that's his problem. I know he's important to you but he can take his attitude and shove it up his ass."

There were a light laugh and a weight Nines hadn't known was present lifted slightly.

"Anyways, go back to sleep. You shouldn't be staring at a screen with a headache."

"M'kay. See you later?"

"You know it."

Slipping his phone back into his pocket, Nines turned back to the party. Was it just him or did the decorative lighting seem brighter and more sparkly than before?

Hm.

Against better judgement, he sought out Murou. He had to wait a while for her to detach from the group she was mixing with, catching her at the drinks table.

She greeted him gaily, her cocktail dress glittering as she moved. "Hey Nines, having fun?"

"Aren't you cold? Nevermind, I need to ask you something."

"What is it?"

Now how to phrase this without making it incriminating? Would the old 'asking for a friend' trick be too transparent even for Murou? Better make it specific but not too much.

"You know a thing or two about romance, right? A while back Niko was asking for advice." Not exactly a lie. If Murou was an oblivious romantic, Niko was her polar opposite in being acutely aware but without the charm.

Murou gasped, far too pleased. "Really? She's so silly. She knows she can just ask me, right?"

"You know she gets embarrassed easily."

"She so cute. But I digress: what may I help you with, O seeker of love?"

Don't chicken out, don't chicken out, oh god why was it suddenly so difficult to ask a simple question- "When do you know that you have a crush?"

"I think it's different for everyone. Some people get butterflies, heating of the face, racing of the heart and so on. Other people might not feel physically different. They could just be doing regular things and just realize "oh, this person is beautiful and I want to spend all my time with them" and that's all they need. Or a combination! Personally, I think I'm the second type."

"You think?"

Murou demurred. "It's hard to tell until you experience it, you know? I haven't found the right person yet."

God, she was so dense. "I... see. Thanks."

"Don't mention it! Let me know if you- oh sorry, Niko needs any more tips!"

She flounced back to her group, leaving Nines to mull over the information. It was like trying to self-diagnose an illness. Well, while he's tackling this line of logical reasoning, he may as well consult the internet for a second opinion too.

...Oh.

Oh no.