Good morning! Was browsing my files and found this one that's been patiently waiting in the wings for a very long time. Dusted it off, polished it up and decided today was a great day to post!
This is set about a year after Cal gets back from Tumulus. A little angst, a little humor, and a whole lotta brotherly love. :)
They say that most violent crimes are committed by people who are closest to the victim. There was truth to that saying.
I've had plenty of violent crimes committed against me in my lifetime and the vast majority of them had been committed by monsters of the supernatural or human variety. Right now, that was not the case.
Lying on my back on a concrete floor with blood running down my face and every single bone in my body smashed to powder, I glared up at the person who was closest to the victim.
I was the victim and Niko was the person closest to me. Literally and figuratively.
Choking on a mouthful of blood, I tilted my head and spit some of that blood right on Nik's left boot. Exactly where I'd been aiming. I sucked in a breath and managed to let loose an expressive and furious declaration of what I thought about my brother's actions.
No, in actuality, all I did was squeak pathetically and drip more blood onto the floor.
Nik knelt beside me in the space of the next heartbeat. He didn't seem to care about the blood. Well, he did. He always cared when my blood wasn't where it belonged but since this time it was all his fault, I kept glaring at him.
"Cal?" He sounded worried and maybe a little guilty which was exactly what he should have been feeling.
"What?" I snapped. Or moaned. Whatever.
"How...are you...what…" He didn't know where to start.
"I hate you." Another mouthful of blood landed on his black jeans.
"At this particular moment, I can understand why that might be the case." He used his sleeve to wipe at my lips, his free hand running over my head. "I didn't…"
"You didn't what? See me? Anticipate my move?" I snorted which sent more blood down my face. "Ninja boy admitting I'm faster than he is?"
"If you were faster, you wouldn't be on the ground bleeding."
"Admit it. You screwed up, Cyrano." It had been a long time since I'd called him that. It felt good to say and from his expression, it looked like it felt good to hear, too.
He didn't comment, though, just continued checking for injuries and admitting no such thing. Of course he didn't. And maybe, technically, he hadn't been the one to screw up. Ok, no technically about it. Fine. I'd been the one to screw up. As always. I was the screw up of the family. No two ways about that.
I closed my eyes and sighed. Everything might not actually be broken, but everything sure as hell hurt.
"Are you losing consciousness?" he asked, his fingers gentle on my arm.
"Yes. I'm losing consciousness and slipping into a coma so I can get at least a weekend of undisturbed sleep."
Wow, where did all of that sarcasm come from?
"It will not be undisturbed," Nik assured me.
I groaned a bit from the pain and a bit from the irritation that came from having a big brother who insisted on dragging my lazy ass out of bed on a Saturday in order to spend some quality brother-time beating up on each other in an abandoned warehouse.
He started blotting at my face, trying to stop the nosebleed. I didn't open my eyes and I didn't move.
"Nothing seems to be broken," Nik announced, tapping my hand. "Hold pressure on your nose."
"You broke it. You do it," I mumbled around the blood gathering in the back of my throat. There were no limits to my laziness.
"I just told you nothing seems to be broken. Other than, perhaps, your pride."
Pride be damned, my nose felt broken.
He shoved me to my side. I'm sure he was being exceedingly gentle, but it didn't feel that way. I coughed up a bit more blood and opened my eyes. Nik was staring at me with nothing less than ninja powered x-ray vision. As a kid, I'd one hundred percent believed he could see straight through me. Now, I knew better. Mostly.
If he said nothing was broken, he was probably right.
"Do you need a little more time to recover, or are you ready to get up yet?"
"I'm ready to go back to bed."
"We haven't even put in two hours."
He was serious. When wasn't he? Lay me out flat on the ground, seeing stars and my ears ringing and bleeding like a stuck pig, and he wasn't done torturing me even now.
"Go punch a wall," I said, curling up and closing my eyes again.
This time his hand settled gently on my head and some of the pain and tension seemed to be drawn out of my body at the contact. He didn't say anything for a minute and I knew he felt bad about what had happened.
Great. Now I felt bad that he felt bad. I pushed myself upright and he grabbed my shoulder when I wavered. The room did a slow dip and roll and the edges of my vision briefly went dim, but it didn't last long. He shifted a little, frowning at me now instead of x-raying me.
"Are you alright?"
I could gripe at him. Complain. Be my usual bitchy self. But he genuinely felt bad about what had happened. It wasn't unusual for me to wind up on the ground bleeding. Not unusual at all. It happened every single time we sparred, in fact. But usually I didn't go down quite this hard.
"I'm ok," I replied, pulling the cloth away from my nose to check. Still bleeding a little.
I expected him to pull me to my feet and then start training the heck out of me again, but he didn't. He did pull me to my feet, ensuring I wasn't going to keel over before he let go, then he turned and started picking up his scattered toys. He had a lot of sharp, pointy toys.
"What're you doing?" I asked, blotting at my nose and moving gingerly to see if everything still worked.
"Packing up. Do you want pancakes?"
I blinked at him. Of all the things I'd expected him to say, that wasn't even in the top fifty.
Nik raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps you are concussed, little brother."
I probably was concussed. Not shaking my head because it hurt enough already, I asked, "We're done?"
"For today, yes."
"Uh…" I was glad we were done, but still confused. "Why are we done?"
Nik motioned up and down with his katana. "You are a mess."
"I usually am."
"This is true, yes." He sheathed his blade and scrutinized me with even more scrutiny than usual which was saying something. "You didn't sleep well last night."
I never slept well so it didn't really seem noteworthy.
"You haven't been sleeping." It wasn't a question. He finished packing his toys and said, "Pancakes."
I wasn't going to argue with pancakes so I followed him, just limping a little. My ribs and every other part of me throbbed fiercely and the lack of sleep, now that it had been mentioned, weighed heavily on me. I was tired. I was always tired, but being dragged from bed on a Saturday was as good an excuse as any to complain.
"Pancakes and then I'm taking a nap and you can beat the shit outta a punching bag instead of me."
"You can nap in the car."
I hated those words and I'd heard them a lot in the past year. The nap part I was fine with. I liked sleeping - not that I had much success with it these days - as much as Nik liked his blades. I just hated the fact we were going to be on the move again. I hadn't even really thought about the fact that Nik had packed our meager belongings while I'd blearily pulled my clothes on this morning. I was rarely at my best and I certainly wasn't at my best anytime before one pm.
Following Nik to the car, I squinted even behind my dark sunglasses and kept my head down. It wasn't a sunny day, but the grey sky still made my head hurt. It didn't even have anything to do with the recent thump my skull had taken against a cement floor.
The thump and and beating was more than enough to make me queasy with every step I took, though. Refusing pancakes would only serve to worry Nik, so maybe I could choke a few bites down. Even on a good day (good being an extremely relative term), food was still a battle for me. I didn't have a lot of good (relatively) days in the first place and a week of poor sleep (not that I ever slept well; not since I had been taken anyway), was a guarantee I wouldn't be hitting a buffet anytime soon.
We reached the car and I saw the pillows and blankets neatly stacked in the back seat. I got in the front seat. I always did. Even the back seat was too far away from my brother for me to be comfortable. Eventually I would grab the pillows and blanket because no matter how high Nik turned the heat up, I was always cold.
Niko didn't explain why we were leaving now. Sometimes I knew because I'd seen them or felt them. Sometimes he just moved us because we'd been in one place too long. I hadn't questioned him any time before now and I wasn't questioning him now. Other than his disturbing love for early mornings and vegetables, I didn't question much of anything when it came to Nik. What he said was truth, what he did was wise, and what he told me to do, I did immediately and without question. Except for laundry. That he usually had to tell me to do a few times before I did it.
I slouched against the door as Nik started the car. He nudged me in the shoulder with a bottle of water. I took it and then the stack of fast food napkins he handed me. I poured some of the water on the napkins and did my best to wash my face. Bloody faces tended to get us turned down in polite society. Not that I gave a shit about society; polite or otherwise. But Niko did, so I tried to be respectable.
"Ice pack? Tylenol?" Nik asked, turning the heat up.
I shook my head before remembering why that was a stupid idea. Rubbing my forehead, I asked, "Where are we going?"
He didn't answer for a long moment. I got tired of the constant moving. The constant upheaval. It wasn't just me it wore on, though. Nik got tired, too, even if he liked to give the impression he was stronger than any mere mortal exhaustion. He got tired and it was all my fault. All of it.
"We'll head north. It's summer."
Which meant places that normally were under ten feet of snow would be warm enough for me to handle.
"We've never been to Michigan."
"What's in Michigan?" I leaned my head against the window and closed my eyes.
"Cherries, beaches, the five Great Lakes. Name them."
Everything was a learning opportunity in Nik's opinion.
"Lake Michigan." That one was easy. I always got that one right.
Niko held up one finger but didn't congratulate me on my incredible success. He was waiting for the other four.
"That's a continent."
"That's an ocean."
At least it was a large body of water. I was getting warmer. I was also getting sleepier.
"Atlantic's the other one, right?" I mumbled, crossing my arms over my chest. I didn't care. At all.
"Yes, the Atlantic is another ocean. We're discussing the Great Lakes."
"What's so great about them?"
Nik told me but I didn't listen. I was half asleep.
He fell asleep before he answered my question. He knew the Great Lakes. I'd covered them in what counted for his geography class. I'd even given him a passing grade. It had been a passing grade, but not one close to the letter A. The closest Cal had ever gotten to an A was a C.
I turned the car onto the highway then glanced at my brother.
He was sleeping for the moment, but it wouldn't last long. It never did. He'd mopped up most of the blood, but he was going to have two black eyes and a swollen nose. I honestly didn't know what had happened. Somehow he'd moved in the wrong direction at the wrong moment and his face had collided with my elbow and then he'd fallen hard.
We fought no holds barred, or close anyway. It had to be that way if we expected to survive. And I did expect to survive. We hadn't made it this far to die anytime soon. I'd got my brother back and damned if I'd let anything take him from me again.
I'd known he hadn't been sleeping well again. I'd known it and pushed him anyway. I had to. It was the only way he'd survive. But maybe I'd pushed too hard this time. He was just a kid. A kid who'd been through something absolutely, unspeakably horrific.
Sometimes, in trying to save his life, I failed to let him live it.
Michigan wasn't the answer to our problems any more than Florida had been or Carolina had been or Arizona or anywhere else we'd ever been was the answer. I didn't really think there was an answer, but I could never let Cal know that.
Michigan was just the next place we were going to try to start over. Again. Maybe we could watch a sunset from the shore of Lake Michigan. Maybe we could stay in one place for a week and find some peace. Maybe we could catch a break.
Maybe, maybe, maybe.
Every time we moved, I hoped. Hoped we would be safe. Hoped we could stay a step ahead of them. Hoped I was smart enough, fast enough, vigilant enough to protect him.
Hope and three hundred dollars was all I had.
Three hundred was more than we usually had thanks to a decently paying temporary job and spending a couple days in the cheapest motel I could find and a couple days in the car in a Walmart parking lot. Surviving took more than fighting skills and frequent moves. It took frugality and careful budgeting. We didn't spend a lot on food but that wasn't necessarily a good thing.
Things were better. They were. It had taken just over a year, but I could see improvement. Sometimes. Sometimes it felt like we went backwards faster than we went forward. But Cal was eating and he was talking and mouthing off about having to work out and pick up his laundry. He wasn't doing any of those things the way he used to. Before. But he was doing all of them more often than he had at first, so that was progress.
All I had was hope, three hundred dollars, and a brother I refused to give up on.
I kept to the busy highway, watching for good places to eat. At least places Cal would think were good. I preferred food that was less processed and more vegetable. But today I was going to compromise my standards.
There was no shortage of greasy places to eat, but I wasn't planning to stop until Cal woke up. If he was sleeping, I wasn't going to disturb him. He liked to complain about me dragging him out of bed early in the morning but the truth was the only thing I dragged him out of was nightmares.
This morning, regardless of what he would say, there had been no dragging involved. There'd been no need.
He'd been awake before me.
Nightmare or something else, I wasn't sure and hadn't asked. He'd been awake so I'd gotten us moving out the door to work on self-defense. It was easier to focus on what I could do - prepare him to fight for his life - then it was to focus on what I couldn't do - erase what he'd gone through when he'd been taken from me.
I drove for twenty minutes before he woke up. He didn't say anything. Just stared blankly as the scenery flashed by the windows. Lost in his thoughts wasn't necessarily the best place for him, but sometimes I had to let him be.
I let him be for ten miles.
"Good. You're awake. Let us finish the quiz." Quizzes, lectures, and physical exertion were all great ways to keep us both distracted from other things. "You have four Great Lakes left to name."
"Did you see one of them?" Cal asked quietly instead of answering the question.
"No." I wasn't lying. Would never lie about this.
He sighed, but didn't ask why we were on the move again. He usually didn't.
Sometimes we left because we had seen one of the monsters that always lurked too close for comfort. Sometimes we left because there was no easy money to be made in that particular town. Sometimes we left because I had a feeling...a premonition.
"I was ready for some new scenery," I said despite his not asking for a reason. I really was ready for a change. It wasn't the only reason, of course. I didn't like staying in one place for extended periods. Better to keep moving.
Cal didn't call me out on my flimsy excuse. We were both too smart to pretend scenery had anything to do with our frequent moves, but at the same time, coping mechanisms came in all shapes and forms. Denial might not be the healthiest thing in the world, but sometimes survival took more than sharp blades.
"Huron. Erie." Cal rubbed his forehead, leaving his hand over his eyes to further shade them from the sky. "Superior. Ontario."
Sometimes denial was all we had.
"Good job. I'd ask you to tell me which one is the deepest, but I don't want to cause undue stress to your brain."
"Your thoughtfulness exceeds expectations," he mumbled, hunching deeper into himself.
I started looking for a pancake place. There wasn't much I could do to make his life easier or more pleasant, but I would do whatever I could.
He was scared. I couldn't blame him and didn't think any less of him for the fear. I couldn't admit it, for his sake, but I was scared, too.
I just wanted to find a place where we could rest. Relax even. Unfortunately, no such place existed. Maybe we'd get lucky, though, and be able to spend a few days in one place and find some form of peace; no matter how temporary it would be.
The pancakes had tasted amazing.
The pancakes and the three hour nap I managed in the car afterwards had both gone a long way into putting me in a good mood. Or as close to a good mood as I was able to get these days. In all honesty, it really wasn't a good mood as much as it was a not horrible mood. I had horrible moods and I had bad moods so, in comparison, my bad moods were basically good moods.
I was making my headache worse by thinking so hard. Should have taken the painkiller that Niko had offered me earlier, but it just seemed like being a big baby to say anything about it now.
"What are you thinking about?" Niko interrupted my weird thoughts.
"Nothing." It wasn't unusual for me to be thinking about nothing. If I could do it, I would think about nothing all the time. Thinking about nothing was so much better than thinking about monsters with red eyes and needle teeth.
"No, you're actually thinking about something right now. I know what you look like when you're thinking about nothing," Niko said, and of course he did. It was my default look. "What are you thinking about?"
"Uh huh." He nudged me with the bottle of Tylenol. "You still have a headache."
Arguing took too much energy at the moment and I was nothing if not lazy. So I took the pills.
"What about geography has you so thoughtful?"
I hadn't been thinking about geography of course, but now I was.
Tall cliffs. Rock caves. Disturbed malevolent sky.
"Nothing in particular." I definitely didn't want to be thinking about geography. Pushing myself up a little, I glanced out the window at the passing scenery. "Where are we?"
He told me, but I wasn't listening. I really didn't care. We were somewhere going somewhere else and leaving yet another somewhere else behind us. It was the same thing we'd been doing for the past year. I hadn't liked a single place we'd stayed and I didn't think the chances were good that I would like any place we were going to stay.
I settled back in my seat and closed my eyes. Sleeping in the car was sometimes easier than sleeping anywhere else and I wasn't about to refuse myself any opportunity to sleep.
It wasn't long before a blanket settled over me and a gentle hand rested on my head for a few seconds.
I didn't deserve Nik and he definitely didn't deserve me. He'd been cursed with me at birth just as I'd been cursed even before my birth. Neither of us had been given a choice, but Nik kept choosing me and I should have questioned why. Sometimes I did, yes, it was inevitable. Mostly, though, I just counted my blessings that, for whatever reason, my brother loved me.
Sleep didn't come this time and somehow Nik knew despite the fact I kept my eyes closed and never moved. He talked softly as he drove. The politics of Feudal Germany interested me about as much as paint drying, but I listened. I wouldn't say I learned anything or would ever be able to repeat a single fact. A history lesson wasn't the purpose of his chat, though.
Distraction was the purpose and I was grateful.
About an hour later, Nik pulled off to get gas. I dragged myself out of my nest to head for a bathroom and Nik handed me a twenty as I walked by. Money was always tight, but snacks were in the budget. I shoved the bill in my pocket and stumbled toward the store while Nik pumped the gas.
It shouldn't have felt like such an achievement, walking into a convenience store, but it was. Even a few months ago, I wouldn't have been able to do it. Walk away from my brother to go even twenty steps on my own. Pathetic to think about so I tried not to. I was fifteen. Or seventeen, depending on how you looked at it. I should've been a whole lot more independent than I was.
Independent or not, I managed a bathroom trip and snack selection all by myself. I held up an apple, a bag of almonds, and a bottle of water. Nik nodded in approval as he passed me to take his own trip to the bathroom. I got back into the car and piled the healthy snack selection toward Nik's side.
On my side, I had a bottle of soda, a bag of chips, and a bag of chocolate. All of which was completely non-Niko approved. He didn't say too much about my dietary habits these days, though. As long as I was eating something, he was satisfied.
He was back before I'd had time to munch even half of the chips.
"Sodium and sugar," he said, settling behind the wheel and taking a glance at my stash. "You could have gotten yourself an apple, too, you know."
I shoved a handful of chocolate into my mouth and mumbled, "I had an apple. Last week."
"It was in a fast food abomination. It doesn't count."
"It was a pie. It counts."
Nik started the car and shook his head. I could tell he was debating whether this was a teachable moment or one he just had to accept as a fail. Apparently, he decided upon the latter because he took a bite of his apple and didn't pursue the topic further.
I relaxed in my seat and alternated between chips and chocolate. A bit of rest, a bit of junk food, and I was actually feeling pretty good. Perking up a little now that the caffeine was bringing me out of my post-nap lethargy, I asked, "Are we going to the beach?"
"Do you want to?" Nik raised an eyebrow.
"I'd have to shower in sunscreen." My pale skin and sunshine weren't exactly on good terms. I really didn't have any interest in swimming.
"True. We could get you one of those hats with an umbrella on top."
I snorted. Fun and colorful weren't adjectives anyone had ever used to describe me.
"We could go to the lake late in the evening if you wanted," he offered, handing me the bottle of water for me to take the cap off.
After twisting the cap off, I handed the bottle back to him and said, "I don't really care about the beach."
A beach seemed too exposed. Too open. One place was just as dangerous as the next, but I didn't like the idea of sitting out in the open.
Nik nodded, accepting both the water and my comment. If I didn't want to go, we wouldn't go. It was that simple. Feeling a twist of guilt, I said, "We can go if you want to."
"There are other things to do in Michigan."
There were things to do everywhere, but we seldom did any of them. I didn't like open spaces and I hated crowds. We'd tried a zoo once, but the animals hadn't liked me any more than I'd liked their stench. The trip had ended with a bunch of spooked animals and me throwing up off and on for the rest of the evening. Museums bored me to tears although Nik enjoyed himself which was worth suffering through endless halls of ancient junk.
I didn't ask what other things there were to do in Michigan because, as with most things, I didn't care. I put the visor down for all the good it didn't do and concentrated on my snacks. Nik didn't say anything more, but I could almost hear the wheels turning in his head. Planning, prioritizing, and always looking out for any threats of any sort.
The poor guy had a full time job that didn't pay squat.
"The new Batman movie is out now," Nik said after a few silent miles. "We could look for a place with an outdoor theater."
Along with the other thousand things I was no longer fond of, dark theaters with shadowed faces and black corners were a bit of an issue. I had made it through a movie or two in the past year, but both times the tension from the process had left me sick to my stomach and anxiety-ridden for a couple days afterward. Yet another way I sucked and made our lives miserable.
"What's an outdoor theater?" I crumpled the empty chip bag and tossed it in the backseat.
"You remember. We went to one a few years ago. Everyone drives their car up and parks in front of the screen."
It had been a long time ago, and a lot had happened since we'd gone to that movie, but I did fuzzily remember what he was talking about.
"Batman?" I asked, surprising myself with how excited I suddenly was.
"Yes." Nik glanced at me out of the corner of his eye. "Are you interested?"
Nik smiled. "When we stop again, we can look for a library and find a town with a theater."
We didn't have a computer or internet access apart from whatever visitors center or library we might come across during our travels.
"Can we get popcorn?"
"Popcorn is an absolute necessity at a movie theater."
"With butter?" I asked suspiciously.
He sighed, but said, "I think I can make an exception."
It was practically Christmas and my birthday all together.
The greasy, salty popcorn. The calorie laden candy bars. The sugary chemical soda. The mosquitoes eating me alive because the car didn't have air conditioning and I had to keep the windows down. The exorbitant amount of money I spent for the snacks and the movie tickets.
It was all worth it.
For the past four hours, we'd been able to escape reality. Escape our lives and everything we had to endure on a daily basis. I couldn't let my guard down. Not even for a second. So I watched the movies with only part of my attention and enjoyed it nonetheless.
I would have enjoyed it even if the movies had been the worst piece of cinema ever created.
I enjoyed it because Cal did. He stuffed his face with junk food and watched with wide eyes; completely lost in the experience. Four hours that he was able to be nothing but a normal teenager. Times like these were when I could most easily see the kid he really was. Trauma and terror might have brought him back to me a couple years older than he'd been when he'd been taken, but in all the ways that really counted, he was just fifteen to me.
Our tenuous finances took a hit from the evening, but I didn't regret it for one minute. Money wasn't easy to come by, but it was a lot easier to get money than it was to get Cal so content and relaxed. Anxiety was as common as breathing although he had gained an incredible level of control from where he'd been at first.
Cars slowly began creeping out of the parking lot after the movie ended and I started the engine. Cal was flicking unpopped kernels out the window with one hand, shoving trash off the seat with his other. The car wasn't anything fancy, but I would have preferred he use one of the plastic bags I saved from our shopping excursions. I kept them for a reason, but Cal was too lazy to be bothered to put his trash in a bag. It worked out fine in the end though, because cleaning the car and picking up all his trash was an excellent way to build character. I insisted he do his chore and he complained vehemently.
I ignored the messy disaster next to me and edged the car forward as traffic slowly moved forward.
"If we stay awhile," Cal said, resting his chin on the edge of the door and making faces at a ten year old in the car next to us, "I could get a job."
He was worrying about the money. I didn't doubt his physical abilities to work a job, although his seemingly unconquerable laziness would no doubt be an issue to the success of his career. I knew he could do whatever he set his mind to doing; I'd seen him come back to me from almost complete catatonia.
The only thing I doubted was whether it was time yet. Time for such a big step. The past year or so had consisted of many, many small steps forward, backward, then inching forward again. I didn't want to underestimate my brother, but nor did I want to do anything to compromise the incredible progress he'd made.
"What kind of job would you be interested in?" I asked, genuinely curious and careful not to discourage him from the thought.
He stuck his tongue out at the kid as the other car pulled away, then shrugged. Slumping back in his seat, he stared at the roof of the car and asked, "What's an easy job?"
I smiled. Industrious and motivated my brother was not nor ever had been. Some things never changed despite life-altering trauma. "Bagging items at a grocery store checkout might not overstrain you, little brother."
"Yes, people." He hated monsters, understandably, but he wasn't fond of people either. "Perhaps a job cleaning-"
"Because I'm such a neat guy."
"You could mow lawns."
"Too much work."
I couldn't disagree with him. I'd mowed lawns when we were younger to earn whatever I could. I didn't miss it.
Since I couldn't think of a perfect job for one of the laziest people ever born, I asked, "Why do you want a job?"
I knew the answer, of course, but in order for us to talk things through, I needed to hear him say it.
He sighed and flicked another popcorn kernel out the window. "You always have to work so hard. You have to make all the money and you have to spend it on me."
"I don't have to do anything, Cal. Did you have fun tonight?"
It took him a minute to respond. I watched him think through the question carefully, before saying, "Yeah. I did."
He sounded surprised about it and I wished for the billionth time I could have reached him before he'd been taken to another world. He shouldn't sound surprised about having fun. I resolved to put more effort into doing things he would enjoy while continuing to train him hard and keep him safe.
"Good. Then the money was well spent."
"Yeah, but- "
"The money was well spent." I flicked him in the ear. "Sit up and buckle your seatbelt."
"Did you have fun?" He asked, doing as I'd told him to do.
I caught a hint of a smile.
"The money was well spent," he echoed my words, then drained the last of his disgusting soda.
I'd opted for water and knew I'd be regretting allowing him to have caffeine so late in the day. Not that it would affect his sleep anymore than the everyday nightmares did. There was only so much I could do to instill healthy habits in someone whose every atom preferred junk food and laziness above all else.
I had to pick my battles and usually this wasn't one I picked.
"So. On to the nearest dump of a motel for the night?"
"Perhaps we can find one that is not actually a dump."
He snorted. "Yeah, I definitely need to get a job."
"We are not short for money. If you find a job you would like to try, I am not opposed to it. However, it will not get you out of training or school."
Cal groaned and crossed his arms over his chest. It would be interesting to see if he would pursue the topic in the coming days. He wanted to help, no doubt, and I knew he would gladly donate whatever he made. It wouldn't be the worst thing for him to get some work experience although I couldn't deny the thought worried me. I couldn't keep him away from everyone and everything indefinitely. Maybe it was time to begin loosening my grip and allow him to grow up.
"Thanks for tonight," Cal said, actually placing the empty bottle in the trash bag.
"You're welcome. I'm glad you had fun." I'm glad you could relax and forget about everything for awhile
"More fun than this morning." He touched his nose gently and the darkness didn't hide his glare.
"A lesson learned, perhaps."
"Can I sleep in tomorrow?"
"Nik." It was a whine. He would probably still be whining at me when he was in his fifties.
If he lives that long, a dark, fearful voice whispered in the back of my mind. I refused to follow that line of thinking. We'd made it this far. We'd survived so much that I refused to accept there could someday be something we wouldn't survive.
"Couldn't we just train a little bit later?" He was on to the bargaining stage. "Same amount of time and same stuff like usual, but just later?"
"How much later were you thinking?" I cut him off before he could answer the question. "Don't even think about saying after noon."
"Absolutely not." I scanned the signs along the road as I drove, looking for a motel.
"You're adorable." I smiled at him.
He scowled and punched me in the shoulder. "I've never been, nor will I ever be adorable."
He had been adorable, but he cut me off this time - before I could embarrass him with stories of exactly how adorable he'd been.
"Eight. My final offer." He said it like he was doing me a favor.
"Seven thirty and an extra mile," I countered, bumping the car over a rutted driveway of the local no tell motel.
"If I do seven, can we skip the extra mile?"
Parking the car in front of the office, I said, "Seven, not a minute later, and an extra half mile."
It wasn't what he wanted to hear, but he knew he wasn't winning this battle any more than I won the battle of his junk food addiction. So he nodded.
"Very well. I'll be right back." I headed inside to get us a room.
Twenty minutes later we were settled in and readying ourselves for bed.
It wasn't the cheapest room we'd ever stayed in, nor was it the filthiest. It wasn't great, but it also wasn't terrible which made it the closest thing to home for us.
"Yes?" I glanced up as Cal hovered in the bathroom doorway.
"Do you think we'll ever stay someplace for longer than a week?" Cal asked around his toothbrush. "Like get our own place?"
I pulled back the bedspread and said, "Maybe. I hope so."
We'd spent almost our entire lives in transit. Moving from one place to the next. It was strange to think about a permanent home, or even a semi-permanent home, but I liked it. I just wasn't sure it would be safe.
"Maybe we can try sometime?" After flipping off the light in the bathroom, Cal grabbed the tv remote. He flopped down on his stomach on the bed and immediately began flipping through the channels.
"We might try, yes."
"When you think it's safe."
"When I think it's safe," I said, pulling the covers up over myself.
"It won't ever be safe." Cal kept clicking the button rapid fire. He wasn't watching anything; just distracting himself. "Not with me around."
His tone was weary. Resigned. He looked exhausted and it was much more than the long day. I hated hearing him say stuff like that, but redirecting could be a delicate process. I decided to be the opposite of delicate this time.
"You are a hazard to my health with your affinity for processed foods," I said, settling back against my pillow. "I would never feel safe putting you in charge of purchasing our groceries unsupervised. I will fear for the safety of whatever home we eventually have because your inability to pick up your laundry or trash no doubt will result in our deaths from noxious odors."
Cal snickered and threw a pillow at my face with perfect accuracy and a great deal more power then I had anticipated. I deflected it with my right hand a split second before it could hit my nose. I tossed the pillow back at him, relieved that my diversionary tactic had been so successful.
"Turn the tv off before you have a seizure from your rapid scrolling," I said, more than ready to be asleep. "It's far past your bedtime."
"I don't have a bedtime." Cal settled on something with fighting and bullets and explosions galore.
Not a lullaby for most people, but it might just do the trick for him.
He turned the volume down so at least the gunshots and profanity wouldn't be heard in the next room, then dropped the remote next to him and rested his chin on his folded hands, staring up at the carnage on screen.
"You may not have a bedtime, but I hope you realize no matter how late you stay up, I will be dragging your slothful butt out of bed at seven AM sharp." I closed my eyes as he started griping. "No mercy, little brother, no mercy."
"You know that most violent crimes are committed by people close to the victim."
"I have heard that, yes." I didn't open my eyes. "Your point?"
"I could smother you in your sleep and then I could sleep in. That's my point."
"You could give it your best shot, but you would be sorely disappointed. You would also be running an extra ten miles for annoying me."
"Ugh. Why couldn't you get a normal hobby. Stamp collecting or something," he mumbled, halfway asleep. "Why's it gotta be running?"
I didn't comment on the fact that being physically fit was a good way to keep both of us alive. Rolling onto my side toward his bed, I merely said, "Good night, Cal."
"Yeah, good night, ninja boy."
Smiling, I opened my eyes just a little. He was already out cold, his face pillowed on his hands and his feet resting on the pillow at the head of the bed. Loathe to leave the beckoning comfort of my own bed, I slipped out of the blankets. Crossing between the beds, I turned the volume all the way down on the tv but left it on to provide some light. I flipped the blanket up over him as best as I could with him lying on top. He'd have the bed destroyed by morning so it didn't really matter. Always a restless sleeper, I wouldn't be surprised if the bedding was all on the floor when we woke up.
I rested my hand on his shoulder for a moment, watching him sleep. Maybe I could be lenient and give him the morning off. Let him sleep in as late as he could. If anyone deserved a break, he did. Tugging the blanket up higher over his shoulders, I shook my head.
He deserved all the breaks he could get, but it was my responsibility to keep him alive. To ensure he could defend himself. We had to be warriors to survive the life we'd been given. Turning back to my own bed, I made sure the alarm was set before getting under the covers.
I set it for eight am instead of seven.
Even warriors deserved to sleep in sometimes.
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed the brotherly fluff/angst/humor conglomeration. :)