"Rise and shine, sleepyhead."
I turned over and buried my face in the pillow with an incoherent noise that meant something along the lines of "go away, I'm sleeping." Nik had no time for that kind of nonsense.
"Cal, wake up before I kick you out of bed."
"Jesus Christ, Cyrano," I muttered into my pillow before turning my head just enough to look at him with bleary eyes. "Get up on the wrong side of life this morning?"
Nik just gave me a smile that didn't particularly bode well for the morning. "Nope. It's your birthday, little brother."
I stopped moving. Hey, that was funny, wasn't it? It was my birthday. Seventeen – or nineteen, depending on how you counted. We were in Georgia and it was humid as hell; I already decided I didn't like it. And it was my birthday. I'd forgotten about that. Nik always insisted on celebrating them, though, for some reason. Who knows, maybe he thought I'd forget how old I was if he didn't remind me. I swear sometimes he thinks I'll forget my head if he doesn't check for it every time he sees me. "So, Cal, still got your head?" "Yeah Niko, hasn't tripped off yet." Ha ha ha.
"Can we skip the fanfare this time? Just birthday wishes and get moving?"
A grin. "Hell no. I'm not going to let my little brother's birthday pass by unremarked. Especially not his nineteenth birthday."
I offered some sarcastic jazz hands. "So I'm nineteen. Cool." Nik just looked at me with one of those expressions I didn't even dare trying to argue with until I put my hands up in surrender and rolled over to begin the laborious process of getting out of bed. The cheap mattress sagged when I put my hands on it, but it was better than some of the ones I'd slept on in the past few months. "Can I at least skip the workout, since it's my extra special day?"
"Not a chance. Come on, I'm making you breakfast."
"Please tell me it doesn't involve anything soy."
"Just for you, I'm making pancakes." Once he was sure I was up, he skipped – well, figuratively – out of the room. I swear, it's unholy how much energy Nik has in the mornings. I hate morning people. Especially when, like Nik, they expect everyone else to be as cheerful about being up at ungodly hours as they are. I can tell you this – if I had the chance, I wouldn't be up before noon any day of my life. I stumbled into the kitchen and flopped down at a chair, scanning the front page of the newspaper without interest before putting my head on my hands on the table and going back to sleep. Nik whacked my head promptly.
"Cal, sit up. No sleeping on the table."
"Yes, ma'am," I grumbled, but Niko's scolding whacks hurt. I'm not even sure he realizes how much force he can put behind those. Or maybe he does, and does it anyway. "I hope you're not planning to kick me through any walls today. I think the neighbors would be pissed."
"Since when have I kicked you through any walls?" He flipped over a pancake casually. They smelled startlingly good. I didn't know that my brother could make anything that didn't involve soy or vegetables, but I suppose even brothers can surprise you sometimes.
"That motel was awful. They deserved a hole in their wall."
I was exaggerating, of course. The hole was already there. It wasn't my fault – or Niko's, sad to say – that I landed in it during practice. I'm just glad we have a policy of paying in cash. The owner of that motel looked like the kind of man who keeps a shotgun behind the desk. Several shotguns.
Nik slapped two pancakes on my plate, then when I gave him a look, added a third before sitting down across from me. "So, Cal, it's your nineteenth birthday. What are you happy about?"
Oh, God. Not these. Nik seems to think that it's important to ask these questions, every time a birthday rolls around. From the time he could talk he was asking me on my birthday what I was happy about. And throwing me 'parties'. Not like Sophia ever remembered my birthday. I did my best for Niko, but when I nearly burned down the trailer trying to make a cake, Nik told me quite firmly that I was not going to make him anything for his birthday. Probably a wise choice. But the questions – they always make me wince. Somehow I always seem to hope he'll forget to ask. No dice. Wishful thinking, I guess.
"That I'm still alive?"
Another one of those whacks. "Don't be a smart-ass."
I gave him a cheeky grin. "It's in my nature." The look he gave me told me quite firmly that if I kept going on in that manner I was going to get my ass kicked even more than usual when we started practicing. "All right, all right," I said quickly, defensively. "Don't eat me. I'm happy that my brother is going to kick me through some furniture this morning and probably make me dinner this evening."
"Nope, taking you out."
I blinked, startled. "Do we have enough money for that?"
His tone brooked no questions. "I do."
Niko'd been working for years; since anyone would hire him. He saved most of it, what Sophia didn't take for booze, and that was mostly what we lived on – but there was some of it, that was just Nik's. That he used to buy weapons when he could. It was his, and we'd agreed that that was fair, since he earned it, he got to spend it how he chose. The thought of him using that money he'd earned to buy me some stupid birthday dinner just out of some idea of propriety made my stomach turn over with guilt. "Dammit, Nik, you don't have to go blow money on me-"
He gave me that look again. I shut up, but it doesn't make me feel any better.
I finished the rest of my pancakes in silence, and Niko let me, much to my relief. He vanished when I was clearing my dishes, only to come back with two familiar objects and a bag tucked under his arm. I groaned.
"Cyrano, we are not practicing with swords on my birthday. I suck with them. To put it nicely."
Nik's smile wasn't in the least reassuring. "Exactly why you need the practice. Come on. There's an empty lot down the street that looked good for practicing."
Oh, joy. Practice outside. Even more things to get slammed into when I fucked up. My favorite. But I followed Nik down the stairs and out onto the street, the heat slamming into me like a wave, without whining. Too much.
The heat was like a ton of bricks. "Jesus Christ, I hate this weather," I muttered. Niko ignored me thoroughly and kept forging ahead. It felt like slogging through mud, the humidity was so palpable. God damn Georgia.
We were turning a corner when it hit me and I stopped in my tracks. Niko noticed in a moment and turned back. "Cal?"
It was like a chill, like a sudden rush of sewage into a clear running stream. I hunched my shoulders and flinched, feeling cold even in the heat. "They're here."
Family reunions are hell. I've been avoiding mine for a year and a half now, or thereabouts. I don't want to know what'll happen if they catch me. Much less if they catch Niko. He didn't need to ask what they I meant – there's only one with us, and I didn't need a mirror for the expression on my face. Downright, shit-in-your-pants fear. I was ashamed of it, yeah. But there it was. I'd like to say I'm not scared of much, but my dear daddy's side of the family? First sign of them and I've hit the ground running before you can say 'Grendels.'
I realized I was shivering and tried to stop. Nik's hand closed around my wrist and tugged me back. "Come on. Time to go, little brother."
I didn't resist, feeling sick, nausea bubbling in the pit of my stomach. It'd been months since I'd smelled them. Months. I thought I'd gotten away, maybe for good. Stupid me. Nik just tugged me along, back toward the old beaten up car parked on the curb that we'd been driving since getting out of New York. "Nik?" I hated my voice. It sounded so goddamn scared.
"Easy, Cal. We're going to the West Coast. California. Remember how you always wanted to see California?"
I couldn't help a laugh, though it felt a little hysterical. "Yeah. Off to Disneyland."
He shoved me in the car and gave me a quick look. "Stay here. Just going to go grab our stuff." It wouldn't take long. We stayed packed, mostly, just in case something like this happened. Just never expected it to come. Wishful thinking, I guess.
Nik's back in a few moments, tossing our suitcases in the back seat, hopping into the front seat, starting the car. "Jesus Christ," I muttered, putting my face in my hands. "On my motherfucking birthday. 'Happy birthday, Caliban, have a lovely reminder that you're-"
Nik cut me off, reaching over to whack my head again. "Don't say it. And don't be an idiot. Your birthday's not over yet. And hey, weren't you just saying how you hate the weather in Georgia?"
I tried for a grin. It was harder than it should have been. The stink of the Grendels was still in my nose, like the smell of a Honey Bucket sticks with you for a while after you use one. It made me feel sick. "Yeah, that's right."
Nik reached over and turned on the radio. Nothing but static. He turned it off. "Hear the weather's great in California this time of year."
"Yeah," I said, feeling the road slide away as we pulled out of the city without looking back. "Yeah, sure."