AN - Sorry this was a long time coming. I broke my finger, graduated and moved house all in the space of a month, which really but a dampner on any writing time. This is, however, the last chapter. Cue the sad music. lol.
Thanks to everyone who has stuck with this fic, and who has taken the time to review. It means a helluva lot to both Beth and I. I always get completely whacked out about finishing a story, but I'm hoping this ending is ok. I think I've driven Beth to the edge with this story! Lol, sorry m'dear. :)
Thanks to Dani for the awesome beta job - especially considering you have exams and whatnot. Good luck with them by the way :) Any further mistakes are definitely all mine, because... well, I'm the tweak queen. The words i'f its not broken, don't fix it...' dont seem to apply to me. :)
By Ames449 and bb1028
I was soaring, flying high above the ground, the wind beneath me, caught in an updraft. It was dark, and getting darker with each moment that passed, but it didn't matter. I was content, tranquil. I was letting my body be dragged into the blackness, giving into the abyss that surrounded me.
My name drifted through time and space, drifted through the stars, drifted through the nothingness. I ignored it and continued to float.
This time it was followed by a sharp pain to my chest. Ok, that didn't feel good. In fact, that felt pretty goddamn shitty. My heart gave a tremulous twitch, like a car being jump-started, and my lungs shuddered, suddenly expanding to take a shaky breath.
"Time to wake up."
I complied – albeit it reluctantly.
Prising my eyes open was the hardest fucking thing I'd ever done. My lids felt like they were glued shut, and what I was seeing anyway was… well, I wasn't seeing a lot. It was like looking through a dirty window. I blinked, trying to clear the fuzz, my head throbbing angrily.
"That's it, buddy, just take it slowly."
Even through the fog that was clinging with grim determination to my brain, I recognised the voice. Focusing on his face was a little more difficult, and trying to make my mouth work was even harder.
"Ra…Raff?" I sounded hoarse, like I hadn't spoken in weeks, and my voice cracked and hitched. Swallowing cotton wool, I tried to moisten my dry mouth to little avail and instead settled for a racking cough that literally shook my ribcage.
"Yeah, Cal, it's me," the healer murmured, moving closer towards my face.
I shuttered my lids and after a few attempts the haze started to dissolve from my vision. Colours became sharper and Rafferty's face came into focus – as did the rest of my surroundings.
I recognised the room. It wasn't the worn surgery I'd been brought to after Niko had stabbed me – something that I was grateful as hell for. There wasn't an inch of green linoleum in sight, no battered medical equipment, no IVs. Raff didn't really need those things. When you could heal broken bodies the way he did, the best supplies on the market didn't count for shit.
I was lying on my back on a large double bed, an old blue blanket covering my legs, my chest bare. Stark white bandages were tightly wrapped around my ribs and my left arm was cradled against my torso in a cream coloured sling. The walls were a drab beige, but there were a handful of oil-paintings that seemed to brighten the bleak tones. It was Raff's own bedroom. Last time I'd stayed with the healer, I'd woken up in Catcher's room. I'd been bumped to first class apparently.
I returned my sluggish gaze back to the healer. Rafferty's expression was impassive, but I could see the barely veiled anxiety clearly lined around his eyes, his mouth pulled into a tight line. I wasn't dead… at least I didn't think I was. Closing my eyes again, I took another faltering breath.
"No, Cal, you're not dead," Rafferty replied slowly. "Although you probably should be."
I frowned, not realising I had spoken aloud. I hadn't meant to. Apparently my brain still wasn't connected to the rest of me just yet. Not that it was usually, but at least this time I had an excuse for splurging the shit that was rolling around my head.
"Nik…?" I rolled my head to the side, my eyes clouding momentarily. I didn't care. I needed to see my brother. I needed to know he had gotten out of this damn mess in one piece too.
"I'm here, Cal." Niko's voice sounded from the other side of the bed. I shifted my gaze towards my brother, and felt his warm hand circle my wrist. Warm… alive… my body relaxed with that knowledge because really, in the grand scheme of things, nothing else mattered.
I tried to sit up, pushing my unslung hand underneath me, but I was immediately assaulted with a wave of dizziness that instantly had me sinking back into the pillows behind my head. Moving was definitely off the cards. Nik placed firm, restraining hands on my shoulders.
"Stay still, little brother," he murmured softly.
I got the first proper look at my brother and frowned. He was blood stained still, much like he had been the last time I'd seen him. His free arm was curled around his ribs and he was hunched over, his shoulders tense. It was the most pained and the most scared I'd ever seen him look. Even after Darkling, my unfaltering big brother hadn't looked this bad.
"You…you ok?" I asked, trying to focus my gaze on him. Dancing? Hell, my vision was pirouetting like a kid with ADHD pre-Ritalin.
"I'm fine," Niko assured me, moving closer to the bed.
Nik could have been missing limbs and he would have still maintained he was ok. Complaining… it wasn't my brother's way. It would have ruined his ridiculously stoic, super-ninja reputation. After all, heroes don't whine, do they? Me…? I was all for whining. Christ, I did it with fervour.
"What the hell happened?" Coughing weakly, I glanced between my brother and Rafferty. I had no idea how I was still breathing, let alone how I had ended up here.
"Later," Niko said, squeezing my wrist, worry clouding his usually expressionless face, "rest now."
I frowned at him. I didn't want to rest. I wanted answers. The last thing I remembered was taking the hammer of doom to Loki. Nik had assured me my whole damn life that I wasn't a monster, but I had to wonder. The last twenty-four hours had seen some pretty monstrous events from me. Marna… Prymar… Loki… I even suspected my brother's own bloodshed was my doing. That thought twisted my insides into a knot.
Pulling out of Nik's grip, I tried to rise onto my one working elbow only to be restrained by both my brother and Rafferty this time. They were gentle, but their hands on my chest were strong enough to suggest me moving wasn't an option.
"Cal, take it easy," Raff said in a surprisingly soothing tone that I hadn't thought the man was capable of. "You've got to rest. You're still healing."
"Rest?" I snorted. I'd been ready to cash my chips in and walk away from the table the last time I'd been conscious. Now I was alive, in Raff's house, and confused as shit. "How the hell did you even get involved in this?" I demanded, finally acquiescing and sinking back into the pillows.
I didn't want to admit it but I was as weak as a newborn kitten. Rafferty alone could have laid my ass out flat if he chose to; my brother could have done worse. Hell, a six-year-old girl with pigtails probably could have wiped the floor with me at the moment.
"I called him," Niko admitted quietly, "as soon as you went missing from the park."
I raised a weary brow. "That was incredibly farsighted of you," I snapped. I wasn't angry really, well, I was, but I hated being treated like an ignorant kid.
Niko's own brow arched, his expression hard, but it was Raff who spoke.
"Don't make me regret bringing you back, buddy. I'd hate to have spent all that time sticking you back together just to have your brother strangle you."
"I saw what Fenrir did to you, Cal," Niko said softly, his eyes tightening slightly. "I knew it was too bad an injury to recover from. I knew you would need help - help I couldn't give you."
I saw the regret at that admission, saw the distress in every single line on Niko's face and suddenly felt like a bastard. It was amazing. My brother was a damn travel agent for guilt trips. He could make me feel like the lowest form of pond scum without speaking a frigging word. Asshole.
"Jesus, Cyrano," I muttered, brushing damp strands of dark hair off my face. I realised with icy clarity that they were wet with sweat; my sweat. Christ, how close a call had it been? I wasn't sure I wanted to know. I'd already pissed fate off enough as it was and I was counting my lucky stars that she'd let me come out of this alive. I didn't think my brother could have handled the alternative. Shit, if the shoe was on the other foot, I knew I couldn't.
"I see a second near-death experience hasn't improved your temperament, Caliban."
I shifted my gaze towards the familiar voice. Robin was leaning haphazardly against the door frame, his arms folded over his chest. He was wearing an unfamiliar pair of blue slacks, and a button down shirt that was oddly inconspicuous – and definitely not the pucks. Normally, I would have found it amusing that Loman was so dressed down, would have made some kind of juvenile comment about him looking one step up from a hobo, but I couldn't find it in myself to joke. He'd washed the blood off himself, but there was a weariness I'd never seen in the usually vibrant man. It was the weariness that came from being around me for any length of time. Trouble followed me like a fucking bloodhound. If Loman had had any goddamn sense, he would have ran for the goddamn hills after Darkling. I wouldn't blame him for taking off now. I almost wished he'd take my brother with him. Niko… he didn't deserve this shit. He didn't deserve to spend his entire life pulling me out of the fire, fixing my booboos, fighting my monsters – especially considering the monsters I had following me. Nik deserved a normal life. He deserved a chance to be happy. He'd never get that while I was around; the proverbial ball and chain around his ankle. Shit, I wished he'd just driven away after I came out of Tumulus. It would have saved a helluva lot of heart ache.
"Its done wonders for yours, Loman," I said, surprised by the hitch in my voice. Who knew I'd gotten so damn sensitive?
My thoughts were still on my brother though, and, try as I might, I couldn't ignore the irritatingly dry voice in the back of mind that was telling me over and over again that Nik would be a damn sight better off without me.
My emotions must have been splashed all over my face like some sleazy gossip magazine. Niko latched a firm hand onto my good shoulder and squeezed it. It was hard enough to hurt, but it also told me that my brother wasn't going anywhere, and – if I had a jot of sense left in my scrabbled brain – neither was I. Fixing him with a part grateful, part sad look, I sighed.
"Nik, you don't have to-"
What? Stay? Reassure me? I wasn't even sure what the hell I was going to say. I was almost thankful when Niko interrupted me.
"You even think about finishing that sentence, little brother," Niko warned me in a level voice, "and I will kick your ass so hard that you won't be able to sit down for a month."
And I tended to believe him. My brother… Jesus. He'd taken a lot of shit over the years – most of it because of me – but he'd never let me go, he'd never give up on me, he'd never leave me and he'd do it for the same reason I never left. Because we were all each other had. Even before the Auphe, it had always been just me and Nik. He'd practically raised me – hell, he had raised me. Sophia had been too damn busy screwing everything with a pulse… although she wasn't beyond screwing the undead too; I was living proof of that. Sophia wasn't exactly fussy. I didn't think 'standards' was a phrase she was familiar with. Money makes the world go around, and for Sophia that had been a personal mantra.
"Have you spoken to Promise?" Niko asked, turning his attention back to Goodfellow, his tone carefully neutral.
Robin's lips twisted grimly. "She'll be with us shortly."
Niko gave him a tight smile that barely even reached his lips, let alone his eyes.
Loman nodded and let it drop there. Me? I wasn't content to drop anything.
"What?" I questioned, my blood running cold at their grave expressions. I needed to know if my actions under the influence of the Mjolnir had caused any further damage to the people I actually gave a shit about. It was hard enough knowing I'd murdered three people already; I couldn't deal with thinking I'd done something to her too. She was the first woman my brother had actually come to care about in… well, forever.
Niko squeezed my good shoulder reassuringly. "She's fine, Cal," he said, as always able to see right through me like I was made of glass.
"She may be fine, Niko, but your girlfriend knows some very disreputable individuals." Robin shuddered visibly. "If I were you, I'd think about sleeping with one eye open from now on."
"I do," Niko replied without a hint of humour.
"Someone want to clue me in?" I demanded, feeling like a petulant five year old stomping his feet, but honestly, all this frigging secrecy was driving me crazy.
"She's arranging the clean up at Loki's hideout," my brother told me.
I winced, my eyes squeezing shut. Maybe ignorance really was bliss. Suddenly, the room felt too small, too full. I wanted everyone to leave; I wanted to run and hide; I wanted to crawl into a ball and sleep. I didn't want to face them. The clean up… for the mess I'd caused. The blood I'd spilt. Ok, so it was a self-pitying thought, but while I didn't remember taking the hammer to Marna and Prymar, I remembered Loki all too well. I remembered the rush of excitement as I'd pulled it back, remembered the feelings that raced through me. They weren't mine but they felt so strong that I couldn't discern them from my own abhorrence.
I hesitated briefly before finding the balls to speak. "Nik…? What the hell did I do?"
My brother frowned. He actually frowned. "You didn't do anything, Cal."
I gave him a level stare. "That's funny, 'cause I sure as hell remember taking the apocalyptic hammer of doom to Loki." I left out the part were I'd turned Marna and Prymar into mush.
Goodfellow moved into the room and hovered over the other side of the bed. "It wasn't you, Cal," the puck reiterated Nik's words. "I told you that the Mjolnir was a living thing. It merely… used you for its own purposes." He roved a scrutinizing eye over me. "Although, why the hell it chose you I don't know; there's bacteria with more ambition."
I would have normally come back with a witty reply, but I wasn't really finding this situation funny at all. My expression must have been pretty shitty because the smile slid of the pucks face.
"As far as I can tell, Cal, the Mjolnir used you to take out the people she considered a danger to her."
Used me… I wasn't sure if that made me feel better or worse. I'd danced like a puppet on a string to the Mjolnir's tune. Christ, did that make me a killer or victim? The lines were so blurred that trying to figure it out gave me a headache. I gave up and instead let my eyes briefly close.
"From what Promise has been able to dig up, it seems that Marna was indeed the High Priestess of Freyja," Niko picked up where Robin finished. "She betrayed the Goddess, intending to steal the arsenal for herself with Loki's help." His lips twisted. "Needless to say it didn't quite go according to plan."
Loman smiled fondly. "Freyja always was a clever bunny. There was this one time when Loki tried to-"
"So what happened?" I spoke over the puck, not wanting to get into a ten minute diversion. "Why didn't Marna just take the damn arsenal and leave us out of this frigging mess?"
Goodfellow let out a long suffering sigh as he gave me a reproachful glare. "I imagine Freyja knew her Priestess was working against her and that's why she sent the four pieces across the globe, as far from one another as she could. I'm guessing Marna came to take Thor's weaponry and when she found it gone she and Loki began searching for it."
And the two most potent pieces had just happened to end up in my possession. I would have rolled my eyes but I was too frigging tired. Nearly dying really took it out of you.
"So what the hell was with the whole 'Verndari' thing?"
Robin sucked thoughtfully on his bottom lip. "Honestly? I'm not sure. I think that Freyja put some kind of protection over the piece to make sure it couldn't be used by unfriendly hands; choosing a protector was assured to keep it safe."
Yet it had chosen me, the half monster. My family tree wasn't exactly filled with rainbows and unicorns. I pulled a face. Marna had said she thought it had chosen me because of Nik. My brother's protective streak had been the reason the hammer of doom had ended up in my pocket. It had been drawn to his willingness to sacrifice everything for me. Not that I was telling Niko that. My brother would never have forgiven himself.
I frowned as I took the information in. "Ok, so where the hell does Prymar fit into this?"
"Prymar…" Robin's expression turned dark. "That malaka has been trying to get his hands on Thor's weapons since they were made. It was probably nothing more than opportunism. Freyja hid the weapons for millennia. Once they were in the open, Prymar's creatures could track it. They would have gotten wind of it immediately."
"Yeah, well, I think he got a lot more than he bargained for." I shuddered as I thought about the blood, the lifeless stare. "The first time I used the -" At my brother's sharp glare, I rephrased and tried again, "The first time Mjolnir attacked, Marna and Prymar died straight away. Why didn't Loki?"
Goodfellow considered the question carefully before speaking.
"Marna is human; the force of the Mjolnir's power would have instantly killed her. As for Prymar… he's immortal – mostly. Not in the same way as Loki, mind, but he still has a degree of power. That makes him a bitch to kill, but it's still possible – with the right tools."
The Mjolnir had certainly been the right tool, I thought sourly. Christ, it had made murder look like child's play. I was guessing your average run-of-the-mill serial killer couldn't have done a better job with a tree shredder and a bucket-full of craziness.
Robin rubbed a hand over his chin. "I guess the Mjolnir didn't see Loki as a threat initially. Freyja knew the God well. She may not have suspected he was working against her."
I glanced at my bare arms. The gauntlets were no longer on me, but I could still feel the cold kiss of steel on my skin. I pulled a face. "So this shit…? It's over?"
The puck's lips tightened but my brother remained expressionless.
"What?" I demanded, glancing between the two. I didn't think I could deal with any more bad news, but it was better knowing than being in the dark.
Robin glanced at Niko uncertainly before speaking. I'd never known the puck to ask permission to open his damn mouth, and that was worrying in itself.
"As far as we can tell, Cal, you are still Verndari."
I arched an incredulous brow. "What?"
Goodfellow looked contrite as hell. "I don't think anyone short of Freyja herself can remove the title."
Great. Like I didn't have enough shit to deal with as it was.
"Ok, and how do we find her?"
Niko sighed wearily. "We're working on it, Cal."
Working on it? Jesus! I'd been saved from near death, but this shit still wasn't over. I was starting to think I was frigging cursed.
It had been three days since I'd been brought back from near death by Rafferty. Three long days. Everything about the Mjolnir seemed like a blur, a distant memory. Yeah, big surprise I'd repressed as much of it as I possibly could. Hey, I was an expert in not dealing with crap – god knows the Auphe had given me enough damn practice.
Raff had been kind enough to offer us a roof over our heads while I recuperated – and while we looked for another apartment. Loman said he knew someone in real estate so Niko was pretty confident we'd get something. I didn't care. I couldn't think that far ahead.
Despite the assurances of my brother and the puck that I hadn't caused any of this shit, that I hadn't killed anyone, I still felt guilty as hell. It ate at me constantly. Nik refused to see me as a monster – even after Darkling – but I had to wonder. Once was unfortunate. Twice was more than a coincidence.
I'd spent the last three days avoiding my brother as much as possible, and the rest of the time avoiding talking about the apocalyptic hammer of doom. I knew my brother would give me space for a while, but I also knew he wouldn't allow my brooding to continue relentlessly. When he collared me on the third day, I wasn't that surprised.
I was sat out the back of Raff's house, soaking in the environment. The largish house backed onto a reserve. Trees lined the back of the garden and it was tranquil as hell. I'd never admit it, but I relished the peace. I wasn't sure I could have dealt with George or even Promise at the moment. Hell, I was barely dealing with Goodfellow when he turned up out of the blue. As loathe as I was to admit it, I was scared that they'd see me differently. It was fucking stupid, it really was, but I'd come to like these people. Friends… Jesus… how the hell had it gotten to this point? There was a reason I'd spent most of my life alone with just my brother. This was one of them. Guilt… what a bitch that was.
Niko moved quietly, sinking down on the grass next to me. I heard him approach from behind me, and I was silently grateful that he had given me the heads up. It gave me a chance to collect my thoughts.
I shifted my legs. Both limbs were stretched out in front of me, my injured one held more stiffly than the other. It was scarred to shit, huge ugly purple welts were the wolf had bitten me, but it was fully healed –thanks to Raff. Cosmetic surgery wasn't his forte however. Not that I cared what it looked like. If anything it was a reminder of what I could become.
"You seem to be spending a lot of time out here, Cal. I wasn't aware nature interested you that much."
Nik's movements were still stiff, but thankfully he had come out of the whole ordeal with nothing more than a nasty gash to his head, and a couple of broken ribs. I'd later discovered that the blood coating him was a mixture of his own and Fenrir's. It was a small price to pay - all things considered. Raff had offered to heal him, but in true Niko fashion, he'd refused, preferring to let nature take its course. Stubborn asshole.
I snorted half-heartedly, but didn't say anything. I knew what was coming and nothing was going to stop my brother from speaking his mind. Sure enough, Nik complied.
"You are not a monster, little brother. The Mjolnir – it killed those people, not you." It was said seriously, so seriously I almost believed him – almost.
Brushing dark hair out of my face, I let out a low breath. "How many times does this have to happen before you stop making excuses for what I am?" I asked quietly.
My brother lost his temper there. Yeah, go figure. My stoic stalwart brother lost his rag completely. He whacked me on the back of the head hard enough to make my eyes roll in their sockets.
"It wasn't you, Cal! I don't know how many times I need to say it for it to get through that impenetrable skull of yours, but I'm sure I can think of a few ways to make it sink in."
Like smacking me around the head… My brother was definitely a more practical, hands-on kind of teacher. Although, I had to admit, sometimes I needed that. It didn't stop me from growling a curse, however.
"Shit, Nik," I snapped, rubbing the back of my skull which was now stinging.
Niko gave me a hard look. "Do I really need to keep hitting you? Or do you understand?"
Not wanting to get whacked again, I reluctantly agreed. More sober this time, I sighed. "I can't keep doing this."
My brother matched my sigh, his eyes settling on the woodland in front of us. "Being possessed by something evil doesn't make you evil, Cal," he told me firmly. "This situation was no different from Darkling. You were not in control then and you were not in control here either."
"Yeah, the lights were on but no one was home," I grunted. "I just… I don't want to…" I trailed off with a frown. Nik grabbed my shoulder and squeezed it.
"You aren't like them. You may have their DNA but you are not Auphe. You are Cal Leandros. You are my little brother, and that is all."
I picked absently at a clump of grass, unsure of how that made me feel. It was a long speech by Nik's standards, but I think it made me feel better. I couldn't feel any worse anyway. Clapping me on the back twice, he rose back to his feet, appraising me with unyielding eyes.
"Don't think a near fatal wound gets you out of apartment hunting," he told me firmly. "Goodfellow has made us an appointment to look at a place later today."
I rolled my eyes, but I was thankful for the conversation change. "Jesus, Cyrano, I'm so not the homemaking type. As long as it has a sofa and a TV I'd be happy in a box."
"Yes, I know. That is why I will be making the final decision on which place we choose."
Like I'd expected it to be any different. Nik always handled this shit. I was happy being ignorant. I couldn't care less were we lived. As long as we were together and alive anything else was a frigging bonus.
"Did Promise come up with anything yet on how to remove the Verndari status?"
The vampire had been looking into it for the last few days but so far had come up empty handed. She couldn't find any trace of Freyja either – which was vaguely worrying. I wanted this crap over so I could at least pretend to move on.
"She will," Niko reassured me. "In the meantime we simply keep the arsenal safe."
I scowled. "Great, so back to babysitting – only this time we've got four pieces instead of two." I hadn't known at the time, but Nik had picked the staff and girdle off Prymar when he'd been killed. The words 'look but don't touch' didn't seem to apply to my brother. "I don't know if you remember but we're not exactly great at babysitting, bro."
My brother slapped my arm but it was done gently. "I spent years babysitting your ungrateful ass, Cal."
I snorted. "Yeah, and look how I turned out."
My brother shrugged. "You turned out fine."
I was pretty sure I blushed, but I covered it with a grin. "Yeah, I'll remind you of that next time you're busting my balls for being a lazy son of a bitch."
Nik merely smiled. "Don't forget, little brother, I'm in charge of your physiotherapy schedule."
I could only groan in response. One thing I knew for sure... the next few weeks were going to suck. Niko would work me like a dog to get me back to full strength – our lives depended on me being able to fight; I couldn't do that if my leg wasn't working the way it should be. With that in mind, I couldn't find it in myself to complain too much. I hadn't expected to come out of this mess at all and so I could handle whatever the hell Nik threw at me. Not that I wouldn't put on a damn good show of moaning about the gruelling regime he was bound to put in place. This was me we were talking about, after all.