Niko looked through his stack of applications again. "Have you seen my paperwork for the state college?" he asked Cal.
Cal had buried his nose in a magazine. "Nope."
Niko looked over at his 13 year old brother. Over-nonchalance, combined with hunched shoulders. Ah. He was about to ask a little more forcefully when their mother's bedroom door opened and Sophia came out. She sneered at Cal and ignored Niko, heading straight for the bottle she'd left on the coffee table last night. There was an inch remaining of the clear liquid. She took a pull on it as she headed for the bathroom. Cal waited for the shower to start before he got up and took his empty cereal bowl to the kitchen. He turned the hot water on full blast to rinse it out, and Sophia let loose a string of curses from the bathroom.
Niko reached past Cal and shut off the tap. "Get your coat. We're going for a walk."
Cal didn't argue, he just shrugged into the oversized hand-me-down coat that used to be Niko's. After Niko put on his own, he handed his brother a hat and gloves. Cal snorted and shook his head.
"Don't make me dress you like it's your first day of kindergarten."
Cal grimaced, but there was no arguing with Niko when he used that tone of voice. They walked out into one of those rare winter days of biting cold and utterly pure blue skies. There was brilliant white snow everywhere, and the only clouds to be seen were the small puffs of their breaths. They walked in silence for a while, Niko glancing over at his brother occasionally. Cal was just barely starting his growth, whereas Niko was on the finishing lap. This meant he was considerably taller than his little brother, and didn't Cal just hate that? The corner of his lip facing away twitched a little. Right now Cal's thin shoulders hunched up, either from the cold or defensiveness. Niko was guessing it was more of the latter.
"So. What happened to my application?"
His shoulders twitched. "I threw it out. That school wasn't good enough for you."
Niko's eyes narrowed. "Don't you think I should be the one who decides that?"
"You know you can get into any Ivy League university easy. There's no reason not to."
"I want to stay close to my family." They both knew he meant Cal, not Sophia.
"So it's my fault," Cal said bitterly. "It's not fair to you, Niko. You don't deserve to be held back."
"Cal," Niko said sternly, grabbing his arm.
"Caliban," he corrected, looking up with a defiant jut of his chin.
"Cal," Niko continued. "I want to be near enough so I can look out for you. I am not leaving you alone with Sophia."
"I can handle Sophia."
Niko snorted. "All you two do anymore is fight. Sophia can't keep anything like a stable home. If I leave, I'll be worried. I want you close by where I can keep an eye on you."
Cal finally dropped his gaze. "I just feel bad. You're doing this because of me."
Niko braced his little brother's shoulders. "I'm doing this for us. We stick together, right? I'll visit on weekends the first year, then pry you loose from Sophia. We'll get through this, and in a few years I can transfer and take you with me. I do have a strategy, little brother. Have some faith."
Cal sighed, and muttered, "Dumbass." But Niko felt the tension leave his shoulders.
Niko tugged Cal's stumpy black ponytail affectionately, then dumped a handful of snow down Cal's collar. Cal screeched, his changing voice cracking halfway through. He tackled Niko into a snow bank, using some language that would have impressed Sophia. They rolled around, and Niko let Cal get a couple of handfuls of snow under his coat. Cal was laughing, and Niko made a decision then and there not to tell him about Sophia's scheme to charge Niko for those visits. This day was too bright for shadows.