I don't know what Nik thought when he came home from school and let himself in, looked around the kitchen, and saw the carnage. Smoke still rising lazily from the oven, flour sprayed all over the counter, butter in a little pat on the floor, dough in the sink – it can't have been very pretty. So I don't know what he was thinking, but judging by the expression on his face as he looked at me where I was frozen, crouched and trying to pick up the broken ceramic of a dropped plate as fast as I could, it wasn't anything complimentary.
"Cal, what on earth happened?" He demanded, though in a low voice. He knew as well as I did that Sophia was sleeping off another hangover through paper-thin walls, and what she'd do if we woke her up usually involved small amounts of pain. I shook my head quickly.
"You weren't supposed to get home so fast," I told him, stubbornly, lifting my chin. I wasn't going to let him get mad at me for this, not today.
"Well, I did. And looks like a good thing, too." Nik threw a not altogether inconspicuous glance at the smoking oven. I looked down guiltily. "At least you didn't set anything on fire."
I scowled. "I put it out."
Nik stared at me. Just stared. For the longest time. I thought he was going to stare his eyes right out of his head. Then he came over to me, took one look at my hands, and his face darkened. "For God's sake, Cal, why didn't you use a broom?"
I looked at my hands. They seemed to be bleeding in places. I hadn't even noticed. "There wasn't time. I needed to pick it up before you got home."
He looked at me again and I looked at the floor. He went over to the sink, pulled out the trash can, and brought it over to me, then turned my hands over so all the broken ceramics went into the trash before dragging me over to the sink. "Wash. I'll get you some Band-Aids after I sweep up this plate."
I shut my mouth and washed. I didn't dare to argue with Niko when he used That Tone. He'd never hurt me like Sophia did, but he'd give me an unhappy look and I didn't like it when he did that. So I let him sweep up the last bits of plate, throw them away, vanish for a moment, and return with Band-Aids, and even begin taping my hands back together before I fidgeted and blurted out, "Nik, you're not supposed to be working today."
Nik looked up at me, finished taping on the last Band-Aid, and asked, too mildly, "Why?" Before standing up and going over to the counter, sweeping up the spilled flour and dumping that in the garbage, too.
"It's your birthday."
Niko turned and stared at me, and I just stared right back. I knew I was right. I kept track of Niko's birthday more than I did Christmas.
"You're turning thirteen," I reminded him. "You're a teenager."
Nik blinked, then went back to cleaning the counters. I could tell he was avoiding looking at me, even if he pretended not to be. "What does that have to do with anything?"
I set my jaw and stuck out my chin and announced, stubbornly, "I'm not letting you not have a birthday. It's not okay." And Sophia's not going to give you one. It had to be me.
I didn't say that part.
Nik stopped cleaning the counter. He turned around and looked at me. I looked right back, even though he had his Niko-face on. Then he grabbed my arm and tugged me out the front door. "Come on, Cal."
"Sophia's going to be pissed if I leave a mess-"
"I'll tell her it was me."
I balked. "No!"
He shrugged and tugged me further with little effort. "Sophia'll be asleep for a long while. We'll get back before then. We're going to the park."
That meant we were going to talk. Whenever Nik took me to the park, it meant we were going to talk about something Serious. I started to get a little worried. "Nik, what's the matter?"
He swore, quietly, under his breath, sounding embarrassed. I blushed. It was weird, hearing Nik swear – he just didn't do it that often. Or ever. "What were you trying to make?"
I looked down at my feet as he strode along, trotting to keep up. "A birthday cake. It said 'happy birthday Niko' on it, too."
There was such a long silence I thought he wasn't going to talk to me anymore. Then he sighed. "And you set the stove on fire?"
"Only a little!"
Another sigh. "It's okay, Cal." He just kept walking. We reached the trees and he stopped. "Okay, sit down." I sat, and looked at my feet. I heard him sit, too. I could feel tears pricking at the corners of my eyes and I scowled, because I didn't want to cry, not even if I was upset that Niko hadn't liked my surprise.
"Cal…why were you making me a cake?"
I looked up, temper flaring stubbornly. "You always make me one! You always celebrate my birthday! Why can't I do something for you?"
I think that was the first time I ever saw Niko taken aback. Really, truly, surprised. He blinked once, and then he was Nik again, but I saw a little smile at the corners of his mouth. "Because you're not very good at making cakes. Why didn't you tell me you wanted to do something?"
I looked back at my feet, ashamed. "I wanted it to be a surprise." I hoped fervently that if I pretended they weren't there, the tears would stay in my eyes. It didn't work. "You're unhappy with me."
"No, Cal, I'm not unhappy with you." He sighed and held out his arms. "Come on. Give me a hug."
I obediently gave him a hug and he ruffled my hair. I scowled, trying to smooth it. It was a sort of ritual, with us. Everything was going to be okay. I swiped the bit of tears off my face and Nik pretended he didn't notice. "I want you to promise me something, though," he continued, solemnly.
I looked up at him with big wide eyes. "Okay." If Nik wanted me to promise, I'd promise. Niko wouldn't make me do anything bad the way other people would, never asked me to do stupid things just to show off. Nik always took care of me.
"If you want to make a cake for me, fine. But ask for my help."
"Then it won't be a surprise!" I protested, but he held up a hand.
"Otherwise, just find something else. We can come here and eat lunch or even go to a movie…"
"We'd have to use your money," I said, pained. Nik shook his head.
"Sophia wouldn't notice if we took a few dollars each for a movie."
I gaped at him. It sounded so…not like Niko. He looked back at me evenly and I shut my mouth, storing that away to think about for a while. I guess even brothers surprise you sometimes. "Just no cake?"
He grinned at me. "Right. Just no cake without asking for help from me."
I gave him another hug. People sometimes asked me why I was always so close to Niko, and I couldn't tell them that it was because around Nik, I felt safe. Safe and at home in a way I never did by myself. Nik was home. "Okay. I promise." I paused. "Happy birthday, Nik."
I could hear his smile. "Thanks, Cal."
"Caliban," I corrected him, automatically. He ignored me, as usual, ruffled my hair again, and squished me in a tight hug.
"You're my favorite little brother."
I scowled. "I'm your only little brother."
Nik just laughed, and I couldn't stay scowling. Nik didn't laugh often enough not to at least smile when he did. "Come on, Cal, we're going for a walk." He stood up, lifting me to my feet. He was a lot stronger than me – a lot stronger than anyone I knew. Once at school he got in trouble for breaking a kid's nose when he was teasing me about my name. I don't think Sophia even realized what she was taking Nik home for, but I knew, and even if I was mad that he got in trouble for me, I still remember getting the warm fuzzies for that.
"What about the kitchen?" I asked, though I was already trotting along after him. Walks with Niko were always fun. Maybe he'd even tell me a story today. Though really, I should tell him one, since it was his birthday and all.
He gave me a bit of a grin. "We'll clean it up later." I couldn't help but grin back.
After all, he was Niko. He was Nik, he was my brother.