This story is set a few months after Cal's return from Tumulus. Niko's POV.
Homeschooling my little brother was not without its challenges.
Challenges that included a great deal of whining and complaining. Some days were better than others. Today was not one of those days. Today was the kind of day that made me question my decisions. Made me wonder if I was capable of doing what needed to be done to both educate and protect Cal.
Days like these made me wonder if I was doing anything right.
"I don't care if you don't like writing," I said, carefully modulating my voice to attempt to hide the strain. "I don't care if you don't want to write."
And I really didn't care. Not even in the slightest and he'd finally pushed me to the point of saying so. I placed the notebook down on the table in front of Cal.
"You could have had this done hours ago."
He sucked in a furious breath, his teeth gritted and his hands in fists against his knees. I ignored him and, with my very last ounce of patience, reached down to pick up the pencil he'd thrown on the floor after he'd pitched the notebook. I set the pencil on the notebook gently even though my patience was dangerously depleted. I could count on one hand, no, one finger, the number of times I'd been this angry with him since he'd come back.
There was a bravely optimistic part of me whispering that this was actually a good sign. It was unpleasant, but it was a sign of progress. He'd been so passive, so quiet, so not himself that I'd almost wanted to cheer every time he showed even the slightest sign of resistance or stubbornness. But it had been a long, trying morning and I was tired. We both were.
Last night hadn't been one of the worst - not by far - but it hadn't been a good one either. The cumulative stress and fatigue was wearing us both down in the same way a river shaped rocks with never-ending pressure. Canyons had been formed at the constant pressure of water. I wasn't sure what the pressure would eventually do to us, though.
My introspection was interrupted when the notebook went flying again. It hit the far wall at the same moment the pencil was snapped in half.
I took my thousandth calming breath of the day and automatically caught the back of the chair as it toppled sideways.
Cal was on his feet and headed toward his only refuge from me - the bathroom.
Fast as he moved, I was faster. I caught him by the arm as he bolted past me. He came around swinging. I leaned away from the blow.
"Cal. Stop." I didn't raise my voice at him often. Tried to avoid it and very seldom felt the need to do it. But today the stress had gotten to both of us. I wasn't yelling at him, but the tension was now very clear in my voice. "Stop."
He wrenched his arm free but didn't try to hit me again. I let my arm drop to my side and allowed him to take a step away from me. Breathing hard, he was staring at the carpet. His hands were still tightly clenched, but he was fighting to gain control.
Control was good, but the last thing I wanted was for him to shut down completely. Calm was the goal, but all too often calm was a quick slip straight back into quiet. Quiet was too close to absolute silence and he'd spent too much time locked in his own head since he'd returned.
"Cal," I said softly. "Talk to me."
Talking still wasn't easy for him. Even now there were too many times when he fell silent for hours at a time. When nothing I said or did was enough to bring him out of it. At least he finally seemed to be past the stage where he would shut down completely for days at a time. Progress.
He didn't respond and I didn't like it at all. School wasn't his favorite thing in the world. Never had been. But we'd reached an understanding and homeschooling him had been going fairly well of late. This sort of reaction to writing a paper seemed out of proportion.
Clearing my throat, I watched him carefully and gave him a few more seconds to gather his thoughts. When it didn't seem like he had any interest in responding to me, I tried again.
"Can you tell me what you're thinking about, little brother?"
My heart was beating at a more normal rate again and the frustration was replaced with pure concern. I wanted to move closer, but hesitated. It was hit or miss whether or not he'd be ok with close contact right now.
"I don't…" his voice was very quiet and slow, "...I don't want to."
"Don't want to?" I prompted.
He made brief eye contact. So brief I wasn't able to decipher his thoughts.
"I don't want to write a paper."
The halting sentence was painful to hear and had been painful for him to say. He swallowed hard like his throat hurt. Or maybe he was going to be sick. Not wanting to write a paper didn't seem like it should be this big of a deal, but even seemingly small or mundane things tended to result in an inordinate amount of stress for my brother.
The paper wasn't that important. I could tell him he didn't have to write it. But that wouldn't solve the deeper issue. It wouldn't help either of us in the long run if I let this slide without truly understanding what the actual problem was. The trick was finding the right balance. Push too hard and I'd never get an answer and potentially wind up damaging the trust between us.
I took a slow step toward the bed. No sudden moves at times like these. Cal tracked my movement; a good sign. He didn't startle or flinch. Another good sign. Sitting down, I patted the bed.
"Come sit with me."
Cal moved without hesitation. Relief began seeping through my body. We might make it through this situation without a major crisis. Once he'd slumped down next to me, I took another steadying breath before speaking.
"Can we talk about this?"
"Good. I want to understand what's going on, Cal." I waited a few seconds,
allowing him to process that. When he nodded again, I continued, "The paper really isn't that important. If you'd rather not write it, we can discuss that. I would like to understand why you're so upset, though. Can we talk about that?"
"Headache," he murmured. Hunched into himself, he was trembling ever so minutely and had his hands tucked into the pockets of his hoodie so I wouldn't see how badly they were no doubt shaking.
I considered his words.
A headache wasn't unusual. Most of the time, though, it wasn't strictly a physical issue as much as it was a physical symptom of a much deeper issue. Things were better than they'd been at the beginning, that was for sure, but Cal continued to wage a near constant battle with anxiety. He suffered from a lot of physical ailments stemming directly from the deeper psychological trauma.
"Is it just a headache?" I asked. A headache would explain his generally crabby mood all morning.
He shook his head, not needing me to clarify. He knew what I was asking and I knew I had been correct in assuming there was something else going on.
"Everything hurts." He shifted, staring down at the carpet. "Cold. Dizzy."
I gently tugged on his arm until he pulled his hand out of his pocket. He let me check his pulse. Racing, as I'd expected.
"When did you start feeling dizzy?"
I kept my fingers on his wrist and leaned a bit closer to him. His skin was ice cold and he was shaking. All clear signs of his anxiety spiraling out of control. I was furious; not at my suffering little brother, though. Furious at the cruelty he'd endured his entire life. Furious at myself for not having been able to spare him from more of the pain.
Furious for not having saved him before he'd been dragged to hell.
I could not afford to lose control or focus right now, so I pushed the fury and frustration to the back of my mind. The last thing I wanted was for him to experience a full blown panic attack. It had been almost a week - well, five days - since the last one. I'd never forgive myself if I caused one because of an idiotic paper I'd assigned him to write.
He shrugged against my shoulder.
"Can you tell me where we are?"
This time I was rewarded with a snort that held all the familiar sarcasm I knew and loved about my brother. He muttered, "Shit motel. Shit town."
Smiling a little, I said, "Watch your language or you'll be scrubbing the bathroom in this shit motel."
Cal's eyes widened and he met my gaze.
I enjoyed the knowledge that I could still surprise my brother from time to time. Taking advantage of the moment, I said, "I know you don't like school."
"It's stupid," he responded immediately. A little emotion came through this time. Emotion that wasn't despair or fear. Irritability wasn't my favorite emotion, but it was a lot better than the alternative.
"School is not stupid."
"Says the genius," Cal muttered, pulling his hand away. "What's the point?"
"Of school. Not like I'm going to college or gonna get some kind of important job."
"Why not?" I had a pretty good idea what he was thinking, but I wasn't going to say anything.
I'm not smart. I'm not human. I'm not right.
I'm a monster.
I waited for the words. I'd heard them all before. There were no secrets between us and he'd told me many times how he felt. After fourteen years of suffering from near-constant maternal verbal abuse, it was little wonder he was so hard on himself.
This time, though, he didn't say any of that. He rested his head against my shoulder and sighed.
"I'm tired, Nik."
"I know." It wasn't an avoidance technique; he was tired. Always. I asked, "Do you want to lie down for awhile?"
His hair tickled my jaw as he nodded.
"Ok." I patted his leg.
He turned around and crawled up the bed. On his stomach, he buried his face in the pillow. I pulled the blanket out from under him. Covering him up, I sat down next to him.
"Nik?" He tilted his head away from the pillow.
"Yes?" I rested my hand on the back of his neck and squeezed gently.
"I don't want to disappoint you."
"You never have, nor could you ever, disappoint me, Cal." I frowned, wondering where this was coming from. "Why are you worrying about something like that? Because you don't want to write a paper?"
He shook his head, not looking at me, but not burying his face in the pillow again. At least not yet.
"Tell me what you're thinking."
"Failed what?" As far as I'd seen he'd barely started the paper. I hadn't failed him yet.
"The paper." His voice was a whisper and his gaze was far away.
"What paper?" I kept my voice quiet to match his. To help ease the struggle hopefully.
Cal took a shaky breath and said, "I failed the paper. I didn't...I didn't want to tell you. You would have...I would have disappointed you and then...and then…"
His entire body shuddered.
I ran one hand over his head and squeezed his shoulder with the other. I didn't have all the pieces yet, but I was getting a decent idea. The more pressing issue, though, was trying to hold back the panic attack he was rapidly falling into.
"Cal, it's ok. We can get past this. You're safe. You're with me." I'd offered these reassurances more times than I could count in the long difficult months since his return. "I'm right here."
He nodded, harshly wiping a hand over his face to erase the inadvertent tears. The trembling wasn't stopping, but it also wasn't getting worse which was a positive sign.
"I hate this," he mumbled, his hand over his eyes.
"I do too but it's ok. It will get better."
"Will it?" He sounded so hopeless it broke my heart.
"Yes," I said firmly. It would get better. He would get better. I refused to entertain any other alternative.
"'Cuz you say so."
It was a statement, not a question. It was the quiet reassurance of a child reminding themselves of the love and protection of a parent. Or in this case, a big brother who would do whatever it took to make damn sure nothing would hurt him again.
"Because I say so," I echoed, rubbing his back.
Silence fell for several minutes. The tension was easing out of his shoulders and his breathing was steadying.
"What paper were you talking about, Cal?"
"The one I had to write for school. For history." He shifted so he could peer at me from beneath his dark bangs.
"Your history class that you were taking…"
"When you were in college."
I frowned, trying to sort out what he was talking about. And then it hit me. Brushing his hair out of his face, I said, "You failed a history paper back-"
"Before," he whispered.
There really was only one thing we meant when we said before.
Before he'd been taken.
"I didn't know you failed a paper."
He shrugged and said, "It didn't seem very important after."
After he'd returned to me.
"It's not important," I agreed, puzzling through the events of the morning. "So that's why you don't want to write a paper? Because you failed one a long time ago?"
He frowned, pushing himself up to lean against the headboard.
I moved back a little to give him space, then said, "It's not stupid."
"Well, it feels stupid." He scrubbed his hands over his face then clasped them behind his neck. Head lowered, he said, "I feel stupid. Everything's so hard, Nik."
"Life seldom is easy and ours has been more difficult than most."
Cal snorted and said, "No shit."
"What have I told you about cursing?"
"Not to." He didn't sound remorseful in the slightest.
I sighed. Some battles I simply wasn't going to win. The battle over his affinity for profanity seemed one I had already lost. Before I could say anything else, he spoke up again. Now his tone was tempered with a weight far too heavy for his young shoulders.
"I just started to write that paper...and it...it reminded me. Of that day. Of before."
Gently squeezing his knee, I said, "I'm sorry."
He nodded. "Not your fault."
We fell silent for a few minutes.
He was breathing hard like I'd forced him on a ten mile run. Trying to get himself back under control.
I needed to find a way to fix this. To salvage the day. I couldn't erase the trauma and I couldn't change the fact I'd assigned him a paper that brought all that trauma back. But I would find a way to get us past this moment.
Tapping his knee, I said, "The ability to write a paper is valuable in more than one way, but there are other forms of communication."
There was a hint of curiosity in his grey eyes which was a good sign.
"Perhaps it would be more appropriate if you gave me an oral book report rather than a written one this time."
"Yeah?" He brightened a little.
"Can I use colorful language? It was a war story. They swear a lot in those." He wasn't grinning - he didn't do that anymore - but he almost smiled.
I rolled my eyes because that was what he expected when what I really wanted to do was jump for joy and give him a huge hug because he seemed more like himself in this moment then he had in days. Reining myself in, I pushed myself off the bed and said, "Colorful language can be used only if appropriate and absolutely necessary."
"Deal." The enthusiasm faded to near panic as I walked away. His voice had a childlike squeak to it when he asked, "Hey, what are you doing?"
I should have explained before I got up. Regretting my lack of foresight, I said, "I'm getting you some medicine. First we deal with the headache and you get a little rest and then you can tell me about the book."
Cal nodded and took the pills I offered him. He swallowed them with a sip of water before settling down against the pillow. His gaze followed me as I rounded the bed. Anxiety under careful control, he was waiting to see what I was going to do.
After grabbing my own book - a primer on mythological creatures - I sat down next to him and leaned back against the headboard, then opened the book. It wasn't even a full minute later that Cal rolled onto his side and curled up close to me, his head pressed against my hip.
Flipping through the book, I rested my other hand on his head. He fell asleep almost immediately.
He wouldn't sleep long; he never did, but I'd make sure he felt safe for however long he managed. I hated that even so simple a thing as writing a paper could turn out to be a landmine in the field of his recovery. I couldn't anticipate what might trigger him and it made me angry. I was helpless. I could protect him against physical threats but how could I protect him from his own mind?
Instead of reading, I watched him sleep for awhile, wondering if I'd ever fully get my brother back.
And then he mumbled in his sleep.
Half-indecipherable, I caught enough to know he was muttering his sleepy book report. Laced with blush-inducing profanity that I'd slap the back of his head for if he was awake, I heard a few sentences recapping the Napoleonic conquests in the irritable way of a teenager being forced to do something they really didn't want to be doing.
I smiled, a knot of tension releasing behind my heart.
I already had my brother back.
Our life had been harder than most, but it was our life and it had made us who we were.
And I was damn proud of who we were.
Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed. :)