Only Human, by devra and JoaG, or - (No Place Like Home)

oooooooo

The car radio managed a tentative hold on only one station without any interfering, annoying, you-couldn't-hear-the-music static, but the heater more than made up for the radio's inadequacies. It worked well, but maybe that was because it was rarely used at all.

"I don't understand why I just can't..." Screw this. I reached forward, fiddled with the controls then sat back with a harrumph of satisfaction as a blast of heat smacked me in the face. I shifted in my seat, allowing the warmth to wash over the left side of my face and down my neck, giving me a perfect view of the masses outside.

The pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk was as bad as the vehicular traffic we were stuck in. Friday night in the city was bad enough. Friday night on the day before Christmas Eve was a gridlock alert day, but had Niko wanted to hear that piece of information before he dragged me out? No.

I'd been very vocal about vegging in front of the TV tonight. I was oddly tired, not really wanting to do much of anything. Niko, on the other hand, had taken offense to my obviously recalcitrant behavior. I've always had problems understanding why my older brother perceived my reluctance as an invitation for a sparring session.

I snorted, then rubbed my nose. Served Niko right that tonight's meeting had been a bust. Some disparaging remark about his younger brother's lineage had pissed him off to the point that the meet and greet had ended before it had even begun. I was more pissed that we weren't able to get our parking ticket validated than I was about any remarks about dear old dad.
I raised the temperature in the car to sauna level because I could, but to tell the truth, it was because I knew it would bother the shit out of Niko. Plus, I was sorta feeling the chill.

"I take it you're not too attached to that hand, are you?" Niko menaced as he lowered the heat, his long fingers pausing proprietarily on the knob. One minute. Two. Three minutes before his hand slid back to its rightful place on the steering wheel.

We crawled forward another two inches and I fought hard to batten down the litany of snotty remarks that were sitting right at the edge of my tongue. At this rate, I could jump out, grab a chilidog from the vendor on the corner and walk home. Or bring said dripping chilidog back into the car. I played out both scenarios in my head, trying to work out which one would be the more apropos payback.

I coughed, then ignored Niko's sideways assessment and waved bye bye to the vendor as traffic finally moved, only to stop at the corner when the light turned red. I busied myself drawing a smiley face on the mist I'd created on the window. My deft fingers traced fangs and eyebrows and then I huffed just a little more to give the poor guy a body.

"Are you having fun?"

I hummed a yes, added a bow tie for good measure then coughed one more time, and reached out to make the air in the car above freezing.

Niko grabbed my wrist just as my fingers touched the knob.

"Hey!" Indignantly, I tugged but Niko's grip tightened around my wrist. With my free hand I pointed upward through the front windshield. "You got the green light."

The cacophony of irate drivers behind our car agreed with me.

Niko ignored them. And me. "When are you going to say something?"

"Something?" There are times when a good offense is stupidity.

"Don't play stupid."

That is, unless, you're up against your older brother.

"Well?"

"The light's red now. Damn it, Niko. You missed a golden opportunity to get us home before sunrise."

oooooooo

Silence reigned supreme and it wasn't until the car was within a block from home that Niko graced me with a word. "Chinese?" Without waiting for an answer, he pulled in and parked in front of the local takeout.

I huffed, "Glad my opinion counts."

"Always."

He was out of the car before I managed to dig up a witty retort. "Damn him." Wickedly, I smiled in the darkness of the car, pulled out my cell phone and punched in Niko's number.

I watched through the passenger window as my brother plucked the phone from his pocket and checked out the caller ID. Slowly, he pivoted to stare at me through the large neon lit window.

"Lazier than usual, dearest Cal?"

"You left before I gave you my order."

"Don't worry. I've got it all under control."

"That's what I'm afraid of," I countered. "I'd like... ah, crap don't hang up, man." I banged the cell phone again the window in response to my brother's one-handed castanet closing of the phone. We had the damn family plan, what the hell was he so worried about?

oooooooo

Even inside the building it was colder. I zipped my leather coat up to my nose and hunched up my shoulders as I followed my brother up the three flights of stairs to our apartment.

"You're bleaker than normal." Niko was already a handful of steps above me and glanced backwards. "Something I should know about?"

"No." The list would have been too long anyway. I was cold. I was tired. My nose was itchy and the back of my throat felt weird and I wondered if there had been something in the air, because 'tis the season, you know. Tonight had been a bust and I was pretty damn sure that the overstuffed bag from the Chinese place Niko was carrying didn't contain the one thing that I wanted. "Thanks for your concern, though," I said sarcastically.

"Snot." In one fluid movement, Niko turned and began to walk up the steps backward.

"I'm impressed." I stopped and applauded.

Niko shook his head. "T'sk. T'sk. You're no fun tonight."

I gazed at him as if he'd gone off the deep end. "Remind me, when did we have fun tonight? I must've missed it." I stomped up the stairs, shouldering past him. "Move your ass, I'm sure there's nothing in the bag that I want to eat, but if you're forcing me to eat a vegetable, I would prefer it be hot."

"Bossy little kid." Niko moved past me, tugging on a strand of hair that had escaped from my ponytail.

oooooooo

"This looks like chicken noodle soup." I picked up the clear plastic container and examined it from all sides. I peered around it at my brother, who was smugly using a chopstick to pick broccoli out of the steamed vegetables.

"I don't want chicken soup." I slammed the container onto the table, my hand and the table bearing the brunt of my anger as a wave of soup slopped over the side.

Niko tapped the container with a chopstick. "Why am I getting the distinct impression that you don't want anything at all?"

I slumped in the chair. "Are you being cryptic for a reason?" I wouldn't admit it in a million years that Niko was one hundred percent correct. I didn't want anything tonight that didn't involve a pillow and blanket, TV and sweats. And sesame chicken.

Niko stabbed the chopsticks into the quart of vegetables, got up and I watched him as he rummaged through our kitchen medicine hutch.

"You're going to drug me? Tape my mouth shut?"

"The former. Though the latter is much more appealing." Niko placed two white pills on the table in front of me. "Maybe these are more to your liking."

I recognized them for what they were. Aspirin. In our lives, our survival sometimes depended on how well stocked medicinally they were. Painkillers. Muscle relaxants. Antibiotics. Store bought, over-the-counter bastard brand aspirin. I held them up to the light. "So what does the 'A' stands for? Antidepressants?"

"Asshole," Niko countered without skipping a beat.

"Well, if that's the case, do I want to know where I should put them? Let's call Robin, maybe he'll want to watch."

Niko slammed a glass of some piss-colored juice on the table.

My smart-alecky, always-had-to-have-the-last-word-behavior wilted in the face of Niko's inexplicable anger.

"Take the aspirin," he hissed.

"Why?"

"You're sick."

I snorted. "What? Besides being a superhero, you're now empathic?"

"Oh, big word, little brother. Been reading much?"

"No," I preened, leaning back in the kitchen chair and balancing it on the back two legs. "Star Trek. The original episodes with≈"

I never saw it coming. Niko fisted the front of my shirt, dragged me out of the chair and slammed me up against the wall as I squirmed like a baby seal caught in a trap. "I. Am. Not. Sick."

"No?" Fair-haired eyebrows crept up Niko's forehead. "Why not?"

"I don't get sick." Injured, stabbed, clawed at, stitched up. Hell, I'd even died. But sick? Nope. The only memory I ever had of being sick was vomiting on Niko when I was five. And that was a long time ago.

"You don't?" Niko asked softly, a minutely small, sad smile tugging at the corner of his lips.

"Monsters don't get sick."

"But humans do." Lightly, Niko slapped my cheek, the palm of his cold hand resting on my warm cheek for a second longer than necessary. Making sure I got the hint.

oooooooo

I flopped down on the couch, a roll of toilet paper tucked under my arm.

Niko glanced up from the book on his lap. "Do I even want to know?"

"Softer than paper towels." I tore off a few squares of the squeezably soft, absorbent stuff, and blew. "And we're out of tissues."

"And are we going to be out of toilet paper?"

"You eat health food. Your body just reabsorbs your crap."

"Thank you, Doctor Leandros."

"My pleasure," I croaked. I cleared my throat, then tried again. The second set of words sounded worse than the first set.

"Puberty?"

"Guess so." I shifted on the couch, wishing that maybe Niko would take the hint and move so I could stretch out. "I missed those formative years the first time around."

Niko's glare was a mixture of annoyance and sadness. Based on the strange quirk of his lips, I was pretty sure that annoyance was the winner. "You're funny, brother-mine; maybe you should take your show on the road."

"Ya think I could get Goodfellow as my manager?" I ignored Niko's look of tolerance. "Forget it," I grumbled, sliding further down on the couch.

"Forgotten." Niko closed the book, gently tapped me on the leg with the tome, then placed it on our newest Salvation Army coffee table. "Don't go anywhere."

I raised the roll of toilet paper in acknowledgement. "Ass is glued to the couch."

"Ahh, just another day in the life of Cal Leandros."

"Funny." I rolled onto my back, hugging the roll to my chest. Horizontal to me meant sleep. Or unconsciousness. Horizontal and relaxing wasn't something Niko ever allowed.

oooooooo

I didn't remember falling asleep. I didn't even remember Niko getting up and giving me sole ownership of the couch and damn straight, I didn't recall the blanket covering me or the pillow under my head.

I coughed once, winced at the pain in my throat when I swallowed saliva, rolled onto my side and shoved the entire roll of toilet paper under my dripping nose. Niko was in the kitchen, the one place in the world where my brother never moved silently. The teakettle whistled and in apprehension, I pulled the blanket over my head. The last thing I wanted was to be convinced that pea-colored, pissed-colored or vomit green-colored tea could possibly be beneficial to my health.

A spring from the middle cushion was digging into my side and I moved, trying to find a semi-comfortable position on the lumpy excuse of a couch. Bed. Bed would be nice but bed meant actually getting up and walking to it. Getting up also meant alerting Niko, which meant being force-fed tea. A few sprung springs were much easier to deal with than Niko's beverage of choice.

Robin's couch. Now there was a thing of beauty and right about now, I would sell a good portion of my soul just to be able to sleep on a couch of that quality.

My nose twitched and my stomach gave an almost nauseating roll in preparation of my brother's tea. Drinking it was bad enough, but smelling it as Niko allowed the leaves to lovingly steep was so unfair.

Slowly, my headache moved up a notch or two on the pain scale. Flipping to my other side, it was much easier to play the game of pretend we're on Robin's furniture if my face was buried in the cushions of the couch.

That luxury lasted all of two minutes, until I had to come up for air and to blow my nose. Eyes closed, I pulled out a string of toilet paper, blew, pulled out more of the stuff, blew again for good measure, and tossed the sticky spoils over my shoulder. I let myself fall back onto the couch and nestled in, trying again to capture the Robin's-comfy-couch groove.

It was working, and I couldn't help but amaze myself at how good my imagination was. If my head hadn't been aching so much, I would have pulled in a couple of buxomly blonds into my daydream. The sprung spring seemed to have given up the fight, for which my side was very thankful for. The cushions, lumpy they might be, seemed to have flattened out just enough that they supported my shoulder, hips and knees just so.

Even the nauseating aroma of steeping tea leaves was gone; replaced by the faint aroma of perfume, vague thanks to my quickly clogging shnoz.

The blanket, however, was the one thing that was keeping me from dozing off again.

I fiddled with it, trying to pull it over my shoulder where it had slid off, leaving the chill of the room ready and able to attack my poor, aching body. With a huff, I grabbed a handful of material and pulled it over my head, only to come up with more than just the threadbare, Walmart-version of a flannel blanket. I opened one eye, examining through the diluted light of the blanket, the lacy piece of underwear in my hand.

"Oh, Niko, have you been holding out on me?" I muttered as I examined the bra I was holding. Not exactly what I pictured Promise to ever wear≈ "Oh, shit, do not even go there."

But the damage was done; the flimsy lavender-colored lace I had in my hand made me picture Promise's bedroom. I couldn't help but wonder what other shades and styles the vampire adorned herself in whenever Niko went to visit.

I tossed the bra outside the cocoon of my blanket with a huff of annoyance. Normally the idea of what might have transpired on this very couch wouldn't have bothered me, considering some of the places I've worked, or even slept. But curiosity is a bitch and I couldn't help but stick my hand between the couch cushion and the back of the couch to investigate.

What I pulled out probably cost more than what I made in a week. Hell, make that a month. I squinted at the designer name on the label, and knew skivvies like these were way out of Niko's league. The only person I knew who could afford these and would actually know where to buy them was≈

As if my thoughts were enough to conjure him, I heard Robin Goodfellow's throaty laugh coming from another room, followed by a feminine murmur.

Ah shit. Not Robin, not here, and on our couch?

My words of disgust were temporarily interrupted by several successive sneezes. I heard the Puck call out, "Who's there?" just as the pain of those powerful explosions rocked my brain inside my skull. I saw spots floating before my eyes, until I realized I was seeing the table lamp through the worn areas of the blanket.

Shoving the blanket aside impatiently, I grabbed the quickly diminishing roll of toilet paper and made a loud and long process of clearing out my sinuses once again. I began the motion of tossing the tissue onto the floor when I heard Niko clear his throat. A glance his way showed him staring down his nose at something next to me. A quick peek over the edge of the couch, after shifting to accommodate the damned broken spring which had found me again, revealed the cracked plastic garbage can from the bathroom next to the couch.

"Don't litter," Niko said just before he lobbed another roll of toilet paper my way.

I fumbled the catch, tossed the soiled wad in the garbage can, and missed. My ensuing groan wasn't from my bad aim, but from the constant pounding of my head as well as the pain in my throat and nose. Then I groaned again when the spring dug into my lower back.

"Not feeling any better?" Was it my imagination or was Niko keeping his distance?

"People die from this, don't they?" I couldn't imagine being this sick each and every year. My monster side's immune system may have flown the coop and let the little viral suckers into my body, but damn it, did they have to make up for years of perfect health all at once?

"Not usually. Do you want to try the soup again? I can reheat it."

"Not really." Right now, food was the last thing I wanted. Just the thought of it and my stomach was threatening to redecorate the immediate vicinty.

The slight tightening of the skin between Niko's eyebrows was the only indication that he was concerned. Okay, so sue me. I don't usually refuse a meal, and if there's nothing else around, I'll even eat the healthy stuff Niko puts in front of me. Of course, I'll usually make an extra trip afterwards to the corner store to wash the taste from my mouth with potato chips or something equally satisfying.

"Tea's nearly ready." Niko turned away and I heard him go into the kitchen.

"Oh, joy. As if things couldn't get worse," I muttered, hating the sound of my pre-pubescent voice.

The only good thing about my nose being stuffed up like this, was that I couldn't smell or taste the tea. The bad thing about the tea? I emptied the roll of toilet paper and half of the second one by the time I drank it all down.

"So what was in there?" I asked as I tried to convince the spring that it should stay within the confines of the cushion seat. "Antibacterial antoxidants? Antihistames? Double dose of Acetylsalicylic Acid? Pain killers?" That last I added with heartfelt hope.

"Tea." Niko took the cup from where I'd left it on the coffee table. "Just plain tea, with soy milk and honey."

"Please tell me the antihistamines and good stuff was in the honey?"

Niko's eyebrows arched delicately.

"In the milk?" I whined, wondering if I'd downed the stuff for nothing as I snuggled into my pillow.

"Best thing for you is rest, liquids and aspirin. I gave you two of the three; you try and take care of the third."

I gave up fighting with the couch and sat up slowly, wrapping the blanket around my shoulders to ward off the chill of the room. "Did they shut off the heat in here?"

"No. The heating's fine."

I rolled my eyes towards Niko's short-sleeved tee shirt clad body≈amend that, I would've rolled my eyes if that hadn't made the pain in my head worse. "Showoff," I murmured under my breath.

Just as I started to stand, I saw it. A flash of black, partly stuck between two of the couch cushions, shoved there by my restlessness. Black, minus the lavender, which was nowhere in sight. Now, Niko could have been fast and grabbed Promise's bra from the floor, but he wasn't that fast.

Me, however, simply brushed the blanket backwards, reached for the skivvies, and tucked them under cover of my flannel cloak. The cold sweat suddenly dripping down my back had nothing to do with the fever I knew I had, and everything to do with the fact that the dream I thought I'd had was more like a waking nightmare.

Because I was pretty damned sure, that for a minute or two, my cold-infested body had actually been laying on the Puck's couch tonight.

oooooooo

I didn't walk so much as staggered to my bedroom. Opening a gate on a good day had been bad enough, opening a gate when I was half-dead rendered me, well, even half-deader. I collapsed onto the mattress and waited a moment to see if my head was actually going to explode like it was threatening to. When I was sure there'd be no grey matter leakage, I slid under the covers all the way, blanket and all. I shoved the underwear under my pillow, intending to dispose of it when I was up to it, and clasped my fast-diminishing roll of toilet paper to my chest like a favorite stuffed toy.

Now that I knew half of what was ailing me, I figured I'd fall asleep toot sweet. Maybe if I was lucky, I'd wake up from the sleepies when I'd licked this virus thing. Like maybe in a week's time. I curled up into a ball, and waited to pass out.

Ten minutes later, I was still waiting. My bed, for some reason, wasn't any more comfortable than the couch had been. Okay, so the springs were fine even though the bed itself sagged in the middle, but despite the tea and the aspirin I'd taken earlier, I still couldn't seem to find a comfortable enough position that would stop my nose from alternating between leaking like a faucet or stuffing up like a clogged toilet.

I lay there for a while, watching the blinking of the neon billboard across the street as its colors beat against my wall like a metronome. My brain tried its best to keep time with the beat, futilely attempting to jump out of my skull. Not to be outdone, based on what was leaking out of my face, my poor nose was joining in the torture session.

Then from far away, I heard the door close quietly, followed by Niko's soft footsteps. I guess I must have dozed off at some point because I never heard him go out. He came into the bedroom, carrying a plastic bag which I eyed suspiciously as he rummaged through it.

"Puffs," he announced, plunking a box of tissues on the lopsided nightstand by my bed.

"With lotion?" I croaked, snaking out a hand from beneath the mound of blankets I'd crawled under. Bless his heart, the moment I saw the added ingredient, I released my death grip on the toilet paper and plucked several of the tissues for my needy, reddened nose.

"Go easy on those; try and make them last through the night, at least."

"Oh wow, I can feel the love." I glared up at him just before I blew for the millionth time, and wiped my tender beak with the lotion-endowed bit of heaven.

"Be good, or else I won't give you this." He pulled out a box from the bag and removed a bottle of green stuff from it.

"What is it?" The pea-colored, pissed-colored or vomit green-colored tea suddenly seemed more appealing than what he was holding up.

"Nyquil."

I made a grab for the nighttime, sniffling, sneezing, coughing, aching, fever, best sleep you ever got with a cold medicine. See, I may never get sick, but I do pay attention to commercials.

"Hey. Gimme," I cried out when Niko pulled the bottle out of my reach.

"Hold on a second."

Patience was never one of my virtues and if I weren't feeling so damned awful, I'd have jumped Niko and wrestled the thing out of his grip. Instead I had to lie there and wait while he read the directions and poured the St. Patrick's Day wanna be colored liquid into the covering cap. Oh, nice, handy built-in measuring cup. Me, I'd just have guzzled the stuff straight from the bottle.

"Here."

He handed me the cap and I sniffed it cautiously before greedily drinking it down. Smacking my lips, I handed the now sticky cover back to Niko and sniffled experimentally to see if it was working.

What I ended up swallowing told me it wasn't. "It's not working."

"Patience, Grasshopper. Give it time to work."

"How long?"

"Thirty minutes?"

"Great. I can drown in my own fluids in that amount of time, you know."

"Quit whining. Why don't you try taking a shower or a bath? The steam might help with the..." He waggled his index finger at his own impressive, definitely not red around the edges, nose.

My response was to grab another handful of Puffs √ had I mentioned these things were heaven-sent? Niko left me to my devices, which was blowing yet again.

As I lay there, waiting for the best-sleep-ever-with-a-cold to come and get me, I began to think a shower sounded more and more tempting. That was, if the hot water was working tonight. Then it might actually help chase the chill from my aching bones.

Finally, amidst a lot of groans and moans and sniffling, punctuated by a few sneezes, I managed to untangle myself from the covers and hauled my flannel blanket-covered ass towards the bathroom.

"How come you never get sick?" I asked Niko, who obviously came to see what all the commotion was about. I walked slowly so my footsteps matched the drumbeats in my brain while trying to make it look like I wasn't trying to stop my head from falling off my neck and breaking apart on the floor like an overripe melon.

"Healthy lifestyle?"

There was nothing healthy about our lifestyle thanks to the myriad of inhuman life forms we'd dealt with over the years. But yeah, I knew he was referring to the crap he mistook for food.

"What's my excuse?" I turned into the bathroom, bent down to turn on the hot water and nearly puked all of the green stuff I'd guzzled down just a minute ago when my brain literally tried to roll over inside my skull. I recovered by leaning against the tiles and holding a hand under the water, waiting to see if it would warm up.

"My point exactly," he said over his shoulder as he left me alone in the bathroom. By the time the hot water made it up to our floor, Niko had come back, bearing a clean pair of sweats and a bath towel. He shut the door behind him as I dropped the blanket and began to strip.

I immediately regretted my action when my bare skin met the chill of the bathroom air. Moving as fast and as carefully as I could, I stepped into the tub, pulled the shower curtain shut and leaned into the trickle of hot water coming out of the showerhead. Not the best time to take a shower; too many people running water, using up all the water pressure in the building. I kept moving around under the weak stream; the parts under the water were nice and comfy, the parts that weren't chilled immediately.

Slowly the curtained off area began to mist from the steam. I leaned forward, bracing my feet in the tub and hands against tiles, and let the water fall onto my neck, down my back and legs. Niko was right, the steam was starting to help but damnit, I had no tissues so I sniffled and hawked and spat into the shower drain, until I could actually breathe through my nose.

Now, if only the showerhead was like the one Promise had. It was huge, over a foot in diameter, and had multiple settings - from a full water massage to a gentle spring rain. Yeah, I'd peeked when I'd used the bathroom √ curiosity isn't just a feline thingie.

I sneezed, and there went all of my hard-earned efforts to try and breathe through my nose. Well, actually, the fact that my nose was stuffed again was sort of a minor inconvenience thanks to the dialing up of my headache's pain-o-meter. I locked my knees, ignored the spots behind my tightly squeezed eyeballs and waited for things to go down a notch.

The warm, steamy air was gone and the tiles beneath my feet were decidedly cool and dry except where water dripped down from my body. But the bigger clue that I wasn't in Kansas anymore came when I slowly opened my eyes. There were shelves in the shower. Shelves lined with an array of definitely not Wal-Mart's bastard brand soap and shampoo. I'm sure all the contents smelled damn good but considering a boggle's body odor wouldn't be able to penetrate the Hoover Dam I now had where my nose used to be, I had to take it on visuals alone that those bottles were damn expensive and so not belonging to either Leandros brother.

No matter what Niko thinks of me, I'm not an idiot. Being sick and feverish hadn't stopped me from connecting the dots. Somehow, someway, I was in Promise's bathroom. Buck-ass naked in my brother's girlfriend's shower. Even for me, this was one for the record books.

I just wanted my own bed. I wanted my Puffs. My bed. My ass in my own shower. I scrunched my eyes shut, clicked my heels √ figuratively √ and began to think that on this one occasion, there was no place like home, until the squeak of the bathroom door interrupted my personal mantra.

The image of the person on the other side of the shower door was wavy and distorted. I used the opportunity to grab a palm-sized washcloth nestled next to the very expensive bottles. Important body parts now protected with a green-colored, monogrammed wash cloth, I again began my furtive mental mutterings in an attempt to return to my own humble abode.

Desperately, I tried to ignore the exponentially increasing headache pain of a much too slow to open gate. "Comeoncomeoncomeon."

And if didn't know it before, I knew it then, just as Promise opened the shower door, exactly why she and my brother had hooked up. There was barely a twitch, maybe a slight raise of an eyebrow √ only one, mind you √ when she caught me naked with only a washcloth for protection.

"Are you done?" She pointed over her shoulder, thankfully she didn't point to what I had behind the cloth. "Do you need anything? Clothes? Soap. Water?"

Dumbly, I shook my head. "Home," I squeaked.

"Home. I'll call Niko for you... I'm guessing you don't have your cell phone on you."

Feverish or not, there it was, a damn twinkle in her purple colored eyes.

"Ha. Funny≈" And then I sneezed, instinctually using the itsy, bitsy towelette to cover my germs, leaving me not only fully exposed, but standing in the dingy hallway right outside of our apartment. Great. What was it that I said about impeccable timing?

Honestly, could this get any worse? Wait, don't answer that, because I, for one, wouldn't want to tempt fate just thinking those thoughts.

Knowing Niko as well as I did, I wouldn't even bother testing to see if the door was unlocked. So the decision was≈do I pound on the door for a quicker response time from Niko and/or our neighbors, or just go with the gentle, persistent rap that would be quiet enough to be swallowed up by our neighbors' TVs and radios. Seeing as pretty much all of me was exposed, I went for door number two, the gentle yet persistent knocking on the door.

I plastered myself up against the door and knocked. A light, continuous, very urgent rapping of my knuckles against the wooden door. "Niko," I hissed, shoving my lips against the crack where the door met door frame. "It's me. Cal. Open the friggin≈"

I never heard Niko approach the door. Thankfully, my reflexes were still fairly responsive and I stayed upright when the door flung open.

"Cal?"

Lookie, I got two eyebrows raised. Niiiice.

"Niko." No eyebrows raised in my answer, I was too concerned about keeping my dignity and the towel exactly where they belonged.

"Do I even want to know?"

I shrugged and tried to do a quick step around him, but as always, he was quicker, blocking my path. "Is that Promise's washcloth?"

"This?" The towel twitched ever so slightly. "Yeah."

"I'm not too sure which question I should ask first."

I yawned. Hugely. Between the gates and the fever, I was ready to fall face first right where I was standing. The kitchen floor never had looked as appealing as it did right at this moment. "I'm going to bed."

Lightning-fast, Niko snagged my arm. "Talk."

"I feel like crap."

His hand skimmed my forehead and a look of worry flashed and then disappeared. "I meant, tell me something I don't already know."

"Oh." Coherency was slowly leaking from every orifice. "Promise has a nice bathroom." I wanted to say more. Something about Robin's couch and underwear, but I was interrupted by Niko's ringing cell phone. "That'll be Promise. Tell her I'll return the washcloth when I'm done with it."

"Go put some clothes on," he commanded, grabbing my strategically placed washcloth as I walked by. "Leave Promise's things alone, you have enough toys to play with."

I gave him my best Auphe snarl and received a flick of the towel on my ass in response. I hated when Niko didn't play fair.

oooooooo

I dressed for success in a pair of well-worn sweats, socks, put my cell phone in my pocket and tucked the Puffs under my right arm before crawling into bed. I wasn't taking any chances. Next time I went visiting, I wanted to be fully prepared.

The bed dipped under Niko's weight.

"I'm sleeping."

"Talking in your sleep?"

"New talent," I mumbled, trying to bury myself in my pillow.

"Like appearing naked in Promise's shower?"

"Wasn't naked, I was wearing a monogrammed towel."

"A towel with her monogram on it, Cal."

I grunted. Or at least I hope it came across as a grunt rather than the back of the throat tickle that it was.

"Look at me, Cal."

He got exactly one eye opened. "Yeah?" Sickness was hard enough, but this crap with the gating was so not something I wanted to talk about.

"Besides Promise, may I ask where else you've visited?"

"Today?"

Niko bared his teeth at me.

"That's really not a good look for you, Cyrano." I love my brother. I truly do. But not right now. I wanted him to go away. Like to the kitchen away. "Can I have some tea? Tylenol? More Nyquil?"

"After you answer my question."

Admittedly, Niko Leandros was nothing if not persistent. "What was your question?"

"This new trick of yours≈"

"Not new."

"I thought we'd agreed you weren't going to open a gate anywhere."

I considered lying, but knew Niko would see right through me. "It's not like I have a say in the matter at the moment."

"Care to elaborate≈"

I interrupted him with a cough. A down to your toes, coughing up your lung, burning the shit out of your throat, cough.

Niko sighed, pulled down the covers and tugged the box of Puffs from my grasp. He plucked one of the tissues out and stuck it under my nose. "Blow."

Never one to ignore my older brother, I did just as he demanded. I blew.

"I'll get you some tea," Niko sighed as I tossed the spent tissue onto the floor.

"Not tea," I croaked. "Ice cream." I could already taste the cold, creamy, goodness, imagining it sliding down my throat and putting out the fire that had spread from my nose to my chest.

"I'll get you some tea." He held out his hand, index finger at attention, when I opened my mouth to object. "Then I'll go and get you your ice cream."

"Chocolate chocolate chip?" I smacked my lips, already salivating. "Mocha chip? Chocolate peanut butter? Hey, if you're making a food run, a bag of potato chips and some caramel popcorn wouldn't be wasted." Not that I had any intention of eating any these right now but I'd finished off the last of the chips this morning with breakfast and I was never happy if we had no snacks in the house.

"Vanilla, only because chocolate is a bitch to wash out of the linens."

I didn't complain; right now I just wanted something cold and sweet. I buried my face in my pillow and shut my eyes.

Half-asleep, I listened to Niko as he prepared my tea. I started drifting as my brother talked to himself. I wasn't really paying much attention, more intent on finding oblivion and getting closer with each second, until I heard my name mentioned. Despite myself, my brain perked up and pulled me out of my almost-Nyquil-induced somnolence.

"I have no idea. I've never seen Cal get sick before. A pause. "Have there been any reports of illness among the non-humans?" Another pause. "The sprites? Are you sure?"

I pulled my pillow over my head, trying to shut out Niko's voice. I didn't want to be reminded of that hateful job. Hired by a sprite, we should have known better. Actually, Goodfellow's the one who should have known better. He'd made the arrangements. Little had we known we'd been hired to baby sit the sprite's brood. All two hundred and ninety-four of them.

A number I'll always remember because when Mama Sprite came home, two of her little angels were missing. And it took us another three hours to find the little brats.

A cross between a bird and a bat, two hundred and ninety-four mouse-sized, fleet of foot, quick of wing, sharp of baby teeth, far from being housebroken, and with voracious appetites had literally exhausted us in four hours. They'd clambered and flown out of the den mere minutes after Mama Sprite had left on her date. We'd spent the whole evening alternating between keeping them penned inside and luring the escapees back with food.

Definitely not worth the two hundred bucks she'd paid us. It took me two trips to the Laundromat to try and get the stink of baby sprite poo out of our clothes. Finally I'd given up and buried the stinkers in the bottom of a dumpster on my way home.

Now that I thought back, a couple dozen of the little critters had been more docile than the rest. After the initial break for freedom and ensuing madhouse, they'd curled up in a cat-sized mound and watched from the sidelines.

Just my luck; I was probably suffering from the monster version of the Bird-Flu.

oooooooo

This was torture. Worse than any training session Nik believed I deserved. Lying in bed, exhausted, I wanted nothing more than to fade into la la land. I knew how to sleep. I was damn good at achieving horizontal oblivion. According to my brother, it was the one thing in this world I excelled in.

I cleared my throat, slowly. Maybe the wad of gunk blocking my airway was constricting the amount of oxygen I needed to achieve a restful, healing sleep. Yeah, that didn't work so well. The mucus lodged in my throat had other ideas, like prohibiting any intake of air. I sat up so fast, it felt like I'd severed my skull.

But at least sitting up eased the feeling that I was choking. Not that it stopped the coughing or helped me breathe. Because my nose was so stuffed up, I had to inhale through my mouth whenever I wasn't hacking up a lung.

So much for the nighttime, sniffling, sneezing, coughing, aching, fever, best sleep you ever got with a cold medicine. I needed something wet. So... maybe I could convince Niko to pay a visit to George and bring me back a cherry chocolate ice cream soda. He'd promised me ice cream, hadn't he? I mean, he wouldn't deny his dying brother's last meal. Would he? I just needed to literally be able to breathe before I yelled my brother's name.

Step one, I finally managed to catch my breath, if you could call wheezing like a bellows, breathing. Step two, a couple of good hawks, some throat clearings followed by spitting the offending mess into a couple of Puffs and I was good to go. Though admittedly, my use of the Puffs was a waste √ the tissues never even came close to my poor, tender nostrils.

Funny how simple a thing like breathing can sort of distract you. Because I hadn't realized I'd opened a gate again, until I went to toss my damp Puffs onto the floor and heard George's stern whisper on my right.

"Don't you dare."

Then the light came on.

To say I fell out of George's bed would be an understatement. The only thing that saved me from landing flat on my back on the floor was the blown up air mattress pushed right next to the bed. I scrambled to my knees as best I could on the uneven surface and leaned against a bureau, staring in shock at George who, in Tweetie Bird flannel pajamas and fluffy white slippers, sat in a chair next to the lamp, wrapped in a blanket.

Of course she'd seen me coming. Had seen my ungraceful fall off her bed and had prepared a softer landing for my aching body. Slowly I gathered my somewhat crushed box of Puffs from the mattress and shoved the damper ones into my pocket.

"There's Tylenol and water next to you." When she pointed with her chin, a lock of red hair fell into her eyes which she pushed impatiently back.

"Nice poster," I croaked as I took the pills and guzzled half the bottle of water in one go. On the wall directly opposite her bed were four people: two men, two women, with both ladies packing guns half as big as themselves.

She turned to admire her poster with a smug smile.

"I didn't know you watched the Terminator series."

"You'd like it." Her smile became softer.

"Yeah." I pointed to the poster with the bottle of water. "Me, I like the original poster better. Summer Glau kicks ass." I pictured the poster I had on my bedroom wall; beautiful woman cut in half, metal guts leaking out of her abdomen. True visual poetry. My kind of girl.

"No one is ever safe," we both uttered simultaneously. George giggled, and despite my pounding head, I smiled.

"I like the eye candy." She winked at me and I felt my face turn red. I brought the water bottle back up to my lips and drained it, trying to look at everything except her. "You should call Niko."

"I, um... might be contagious." I glanced at the somewhat mussed bedspread. It was obvious that she'd never gone to bed; had she sat there waiting for me? "What time is it?"

"Nearly one. And don't worry, you're not contagious. At least, I won't catch your cold."

"You don't know that..." When she gave me that same, soft smile again, I remembered that she actually did know. My brain was a little fuzzy, and I wasn't sure if it was from the fever, the stuffiness or brain damage from lack of oxygen during that last coughing spree.

"You should call Niko," she repeated.

"Yeah." I felt in my pocket for my cell phone, took it out, and hit speed dial. I wasn't sure, but I don't think the phone actually finished the first ring.

"Where are you?"

"George's place." I twitched my nose at a growing tickle and pressure.

"Don't move. I'm coming to get you."

The phone disconnected just as fast.

"Nik's coming."

"I know." She stood, walked a few steps and stopped at the edge of the air mattress, obviously preferring terra firma to the air mattress where I was working hard to maintain my balance as well as my dignity. I glanced down, concentrating on her fluffy slippers making soft scuffing sound as she tapped them with maternal impatience. "Do you want to lie down?" George asked.

"No, I'm fi≈" I buried the sneeze in the crook of my arm and felt myself sliding sideways when my head nearly burst open again. "Okay, maybe just for a minute or two." I did the two-step shuffle to the side, arms out, working my way towards the bed. Her bed. A real bed. Cautiously, I climbed onto it and settled down on her Posturpedic with a grateful sigh of relief and relaxed the rest of the way. Closing my eyes in gratitude that the mattress remained firm and still, I felt, rather than saw, George's cool hands on my neck as she put a pillow under my head.

My own personal Florence Nightingale.

There was a soft touch to my check as the bed dipped under George's weight. As she pressed cool fingers against my forehead, all I could think of was here I was, in her bed, and that I couldn't even concentrate to affix this perfect moment in my head because all I could think of was my own misery and suffering.

My brain definitely wasn't firing on all cylinders because just as she tsk'd, I remembered the one thing about her gift. She couldn't see her own future.

I scrambled off the bed nearly as quickly as the first time, this time managing not to fall flat on my ass even though I tripped over the air mattress. "You shouldn't touch me." I tried to ignore the hurt on her face. "I don't want you catching this. You have to go wash your hands."

"I'll be fine≈"

"Please. Please. Do this for me. Go wash, now. No, wait, wash your hands, and come back with rubber gloves. You have to strip the bed, disinfect the room."

"Cal..."

"Then you have to take a shower."

"I won't catch your cold."

"You don't know that. Not for sure."

"Even if I do catch it, it's just a cold."

"It might not be. It could be a mutant virus."

"It's just a cold."

"I might be dying." While it sounded overdramatic, I sure as hell felt like I was dying. And I should know, because I'd, you know, died once already.

Her lips twitched into a smile. "You're not dying."

"Oh. You're sure?" Could people really and truly suffer this much and not die? There was a hell of a lot to say about the human race; they took their beatings and kept on living.

"I'm sure. You'll be fine in about a week."

"A week?" My voice broke, losing the last consonant. Another six days of this torture?

"Please. Just lie down. You really don't look that great." She tugged at my hand and led me back to the bed.

"I really don't feel that great," I admitted softly. I recovered my box of Puffs and held it close to my chest as I lay down again. I shivered, wishing I could pull the bedspread over me but that meant I'd have to get out of bed to get under it and it was just too much trouble.

Plus I think the air mattress had it in for me.

While George's bed was better than our couch, I'd rather be home. I felt guilty, knowing that with each breath, I was spreading more and more germs over everything. Teensy tiny mutant monster germs, floating in the air and squirming their way onto the surface of her pillow and bedspread, waiting to get the unsuspecting human the moment she lay down.

Where the hell was Niko? I was fading fast, running out of steam. If he didn't get here soon, he'd either have to carry me out, or the unsuspecting adults in George's life would have an unexpected house guest for the next twenty-four hours.

How many times had I opened a gate tonight? I wasn't sure, but it was definitely more than twice, and in less than twenty-four hours, no less. This was a personal best. Yay me.

"Cal?"

George's voice seemed to come from far away. "Georgie Porgie," I sighed just before my brain burst through my skull. Or at least it felt that way. I moaned, pressing my hands against my temples, waiting out the agony with panting breaths.

Something nearby buzzed, sending shards of agony into my head. I fumbled for my cell phone, barely able to move my lips as I moaned, "Niko?"

"Cal. Cal, where are you?"

I didn't have to open my eyes to answer that. I'd gated yet again, but even through my pain, I recognized the feel of the bed beneath me.

"Home."

"Stay there. Georgina just called me to say you'd disappeared. I'm on my way back." There was the sound of squealing breaks in the background.

"Can't stop it," I panted. "Help me." Yeah, I was that desperate. I'd worry about showing weakness later, like when I'd beat this thing and gotten the upper hand on Niko during a training session.

"Hold on. I'll be there in five minutes.

Five minutes was enough time for me to gate away again. "Hurry. I need you to knock me out."

"Cal..."

"Please."

"The Nyquil. Do you see it?

I wanted to say no, because that meant having to open my eyes. The bottle was a blurry green just a few inches away from my face.

"See it."

"I want you to drink two doses."

"Two? Trying to kill me?"

"Two won't hurt you √ if you can survive eating chili dogs, you'll survive anything. With any luck, the stuff'll knock you out for a couple of hours and if you're sleeping, you're not opening portals."

I turned on my side and reached for the bottle, having to make an effort to grasp it and bring it to me. I had to put the phone down to open it, and my hands were shaking when I poured. I managed to gulp down about half a capful, not trusting to fill it more than that. I repeated the process two more times, each successive time feeling more and more nauseated. I couldn't bear to drink more so I put the bottle down, tossed the cap in its direction and lay back down.

"S'awful," I mumbled into the phone, wishing I could get the taste out of my mouth.

"I'm nearly home." There was a whole lot of honking going on, punctuating his words.

"I'll be here." Making my mouth move was getting harder and harder, focusing on speaking was near impossible. As I let the phone slip from my grasp, I just hoped that I could keep my word.

Maybe it was the fact I was home again, maybe it was the cumulative effects of opening the portals finally hitting me. But I was never aware of Nik returning home.

At some point I began registering a soft noise occasionally, not enough to quite rouse me, just enough to let me know I wasn't alone. Light slowly penetrated my gummy eyelids. Eventually, I felt awake enough to crack one open.

Late afternoon sun peeked through my drawn shades. I knew it was late because the sunlight only hit my window just before the sun set these days. So it was just before four in the afternoon; I'd slept close to fourteen hours.

Oh look, my brain was working again... I could do the math.

I heard the noise again and saw Niko sitting on a kitchen chair, feet propped up on the foot of my bed, several of his tomes keeping my tootsies, as well as his, company. I noted the cup of tea balanced on top of one of the books as he reached for it.

My head still hurt, my nose was still clogged, my mouth and throat were dry from breathing through my mouth, I was desperately thirsty and my chest felt like a boggle was sitting on it. I moved one foot, trying to push a book aside to let Niko know I was awake. The book danced along the pile it was balanced on, dragging his attention away.

"How're you feeling?" He put the book he'd been reading down and hurriedly stood to lean over me. "You look like crap."

"You look like crap, too." I had one up on him, though, 'cause I also sounded like crap.

I felt a pang of guilt at the faint shadows under his eyes, testament to lost sleep. Because of me. Me - I'd slept the night and day away while Niko had probably watched me like a hawk so I didn't disappear on him again. He quirked his lips as he pressed a hand to my cheek.

"Nothing a few hours of sleep won't cure. Hmm, no fever. Thirsty?"

A water bottle appeared in his other hand and I reached for it eagerly. I was sucking on the bottle even as I tilted it into my mouth. But my eagerness was my downfall - moving too quickly, sucking too hard, or maybe it was just bad timing.

The water in my mouth sprayed everywhere as I began coughing. For a moment I truly thought this was it, I was either going to choke or drown in whatever my lungs were fighting to expel. The bottle disappeared from my hand just as quickly as it had appeared in Niko's, and then his arms were around me, tugging me up so that I was sitting, leaning against him.

The change in position helped me get air into my lungs. And it also reminded me of another pressing problem, aggravated with each pain-filled cough. Head and bladder were suffering mightily and if Niko didn't release me, I'd be dialing 1-800-MATTRES and leaving the last 'S' off for savings on Christmas Eve.

I shoved against him the moment the coughing eased up. Dizzy and weak, still hacking, I stumbled to the bathroom. Niko was my shadow, his hand on my back, making sure I stayed on my feet. I was grateful for his touch as I did the squeezed-bladder two-step as fast as I could.

"I can manage," I croaked, wishing I had enough coordination to give him the evil eye and shut the bathroom door in his face.

In response, Niko ignored me as he shoved the door open. Then I couldn't wait any longer, peeping Niko or not. For a second I swayed in front of the toilet, unable to go, and then it started and the relief was so great, I groaned orgasmically. With one hand braced against the wall, I hoped to God I didn't open a portal here and now, at least not until I finished peeing. That would be the ultimate embarrassment. A step below Promise and her monogrammed hand towel.

I hawked and spat several times, finally getting gunk out of my lungs. I was breathing easier before my bladder was.

I washed my hands and then bracing myself on the bathroom sink, I lowered my face to the open faucet and drank directly from the stream. I ignored the plastic cup Niko waved in front of my face and inhaled as much water as my stomach would take.

I absently brushed away the water dripping from my chin, then used both hands to splash water over my face.

"Is everything all right?"

Blinking water from my eyes, I raised my head to look at Promise, who was standing in the doorway.

"Yeah." I cleared my throat. "Just needed to pee." I glared pointedly at the door, which Niko had neglected to shut, and then at my brother. Okay, so Promise had seen everything I had to offer but, hell, you know, a man still should have some shred of dignity to hang onto in his own home.

"How are you feeling?" I didn't miss the glance of concern she exchanged with Niko after she spoke the words, before he turned his attention back to me.

How was feeling? The headache was better, more in line with a regular headache than a portal-induced one. The aches and pains were still there, though. The sore throat had eased, I couldn't breathe through my nose and my chest felt like it was flooded with water. And while I wasn't about to keel over any second, I definitely wanted off my feet. Sooner than later. Preferably horizontal.

"Crappy." I moved past her, intending to go back to bed, when something out of place in the living room caught my eye. I stopped, took a step backwards, and peered at the oversized, garishly decorated Christmas tree, blinking lights and all, which overpowered the room.

Next to the tree, wearing a long, elfin hat, surrounded by boxes and discarded strings of lights, stood Robin Goodfellow, beaming at me with pride.

Oh, shit. I blinked. Rubbed my eyes. Then blinked again. I was obviously in the throes of a Nyquil-induced psychotic episode.

"Aren't you going to even wish me Merry Christmas, Caliban?" The Robin illusion grabbed the end of the elf hat and jingled the bell at me.

The headache returned with sledgehammer intensity and I squeezed my eyes shut. "I'm going to bed." I swallowed bile. "Now," I croaked. Arms out in front, I blindly made my way to my room, not daring to open my eyes until my knees hit the side of my mattress.

Safe. I literally crawled up my bed, hugged my pillow to my chest and backed into the corner where bed met wall. My hand shot out, grabbed a tissue from the squished box of Puffs and shoved it under my nose. And there I sat for maybe all of ten seconds before Niko found me.

His eyebrows spoke volumes. 'What the hell's the matter'?

I shrugged in response then buried my face in the pillow tucked up against me. I don't do sociable even when I'm feeling my best and I definitely don't do Christmas sociable with a puck who's a figment of my imagination.

The two of us were such great communicators it was scary.

"You know you've hurt Robin's feelings."

I jerked my head up so fast, I impacted the wall with teeth rattling momentum. "Huh?" Which was followed quickly by an, "Ow."

Niko ignored the 'ow' because according to him, my head is the hardest known substance on planet Earth, and concentrated instead on my 'huh'. "I understand that you've been sick≈"

"Are sick. Still am sick." I coughed long and loud for good measure. "Feel like crap," which I could swear were my exact words to Promise before being sidetracked by the visual of Robin decked out in the latest Elfwear.

"... And that we don't usually celebrate Christmas."

Usually in Leandros' world translated as never, at least in the big tree, Christmas carols, wrapped present, yule log, dinner sorta way. I can recall the exchanging of weaponry on December twenty-fifth. Gifts sometimes wrapped in a holiday themed paper. Sometimes in a brown paper bag and other times an actual demonstration of how the weaponry was to be used. The latter being my least favorite.

Damn, my internal voice totally overrode whatever Niko was discussing. Too clogged and sick to attempt to play catch up, I went with the sympathy vote, and slid down until I was horizontal and buried a cough into the pillow I was still hugging to my chest.

"Robin's not going to leave until you make the appropriate fuss over the tree and the presents."

Oh crap. "You saw Goodfellow also?" Obviously, I had gated to some new type of Auphe Hell and dragged my poor, unsuspecting brother along for the ride.

Niko's laughter was rusty and unused.

"Don't do that," I commanded in a voice that any twelve year old would've died for.

My brother listened to me and stopped, but the corners of his mouth were lifted up in the strangest echo of a smile. Not pretty. "I know it's hard but come on out and play nicely with the puck."

I rubbed my nose in my pillow. "Why?"

"Because."

"Because why?" Okay, maturity was never one of my strongest points.

"There are presents."

"Presents?" Greed was right up there was maturity. I pushed myself back up to a sitting position, leaning against the wall. "So, Robin's really in our living room?"

Slowly, Niko nodded.

I coughed, cleared my throat and continued. "Wearing an elf's hat with a bell at the end?"

This time, Niko's nod was accompanied by a pained expression.

"So you're telling me that Goodfellow's in our living room. Wearing an elf's hat with a bell?" I repeated myself just to be sure Niko had understood me the first time.

"Yes. And there's a Christmas tree with presents."

"Why?"

"He's sorry," Promise said softly from the doorway. "The sprites made you sick..."

"Goodfellow's apologizing?" Holy shit, I truly was delusional. Robin apologizing was as foreign as... as... as Niko laughing. Then something hit me.

"Christmas?"

"Yeah."

"As in December twenty-fifth, Christmas?"

"Even during Leap Year."

"Not December twenty-fourth?"

The smirk was back when Nik realized I was doing the math.

"I slept for a day and a half?"

oooooooo

I should've stayed in bed with the pillow, preferably over my head. The puck's apologetic exuberance was like Auphe-sharpened talons digging into my poor brain. Goodfellow took my silence as encouragement for him to continue babbling about Christmas's past.

"I need..." I stood up and swayed as clogged brain matter slid downward and probably would've ended up taking down the tree in all its glory if it hadn't been for Niko's quick reflexes. Damn my brother.

"You need a present." Robin produced a nauseating, cheerfully wrapped present from under the tree. "That's what you need." He shoved it into my midsection with enough force that my ass ended up back on the couch and Niko was left holding air.

I glanced at Niko, unsure of gift giving etiquette. Whenever we've exchanged gifts, we sorta just threw them at each other without fanfare.

He shrugged.

Big help he was.

Robin stood over me. Waiting. Waiting for what, I wasn't too sure. I shook the box and that must've been a step in the right direction because he smiled at me. Great. Maybe if I gave him back the underwear I garnered from my first gate expedition, he'd go away and leave me alone. He tapped the box with his knee.

"Come on. Open it."

I really didn't want to. I didn't want to do anything but drown my sorrows in a cupful of Nyquil and wake up around New Years.

"Open it," Niko prodded out of desperation.

Even Promise stepped into the act, aggressively pulling the mass of red and green ribbons off the package.

"Thanks," I croaked.

"Impossible..." Robin leaned forward and ripped a jagged piece of wrapping paper off the package. "Haven't you ever..."

"No," was all Niko said, and that one word was definitely a conversation killer.

oooooooo

We ate dinner in the living room. Ambiance, Robin had said. The tree. The blinking lights. A scattering of ribbons. Chinese again. Nothing else was open on Christmas, except the hot dog stand two blocks down, but did anyone listen to me about that? Nope.

There was still no sesame chicken, but at least I was able to procure the really good noodles and I spent my time dipping them in the little cup of duck sauce, turning my nose up at everything else.

"You're a slob, Caliban." Robin grabbed a napkin and wiped off a spot of duck sauce from the middle of my brand new, two-sizes-too-big sweatshirt. "Do you know how much that sweatshirt cost?"

I feigned innocence. Finishing the last of the noodles, I dumped the empty cup on the table and wiped my nose with the sleeve. "It was expensive? Crap, you should've mentioned that before I put it on. I would've returned it and gotten the cash." I coughed into the crook of my arm. "Too late now."

Robin shuddered and looked towards Niko for support, who buried his attention in his plate of disgustingly healthy steamed crap. "How do you keep him around?"

"Because he can't find a no-kill shelter," I sneered. Present or not, I was sick. Sick people needed a bit more tender lovin' care. Niko obviously didn't agree, because he delivered a swift retributional kick in my direction. To know my brother is to understand that the only person in this world who can berate me is him. Even I'm not allowed to insult, denigrate or desecrate my character. I grumbled, pulled my legs onto the couch, rubbing the spot on my calf where his foot had made contact.

"You'll survive," Niko said, not even glancing in my direction but he leaned back, trapping my feet between his ass and the couch cushions. Held hostage, I knew I wasn't going anywhere soon and slid down on the couch, kneeing Niko in payback, under the pretense of trying to get comfortable.

Flapping the too large sleeve, I maneuvered my arms out and left the loose material dangling, empty. Under the sweatshirt, I wrapped my arms tightly around my middle.

"Why don't you just go to bed, Caliban?"

"No!" Niko said before I could even croak out a consonant.

Robin opened his mouth as if to object, then shook his head and settled instead on a steamed wonton.

I sneezed, coughed and used the armless sleeves of the sweatshirt to wipe away the snot.

Robin turned an interesting shade of green.

"Did I thank you for the sweatshirt?" My voice was an echo of its usual timbre.

"Every time you wiped your nose."

oooooooo

Maybe going to bed wouldn't be a bad idea. I more than understood why Niko didn't want to let me out of his sight, but horizontal on our lumpy couch wasn't horizontal on my bed. Turning with a purpose, I continually dug my knees into Niko's back. If he didn't send me to my room, maybe he'd at least kill me quickly and put an end to my suffering.

Great. I got my pillow. My blanket. All from Niko, all delivered with a nice, placating smile. Nice, comfy, and cozy, except I was still on the couch. The Three Musketeers were discussing a new job and Niko was leaning back, as relaxed as Niko can be, pinning me in position. Securing my ass to every single out-of-joint spring on this damn reject of a couch.

"I'm thirsty." I followed up the sentence with an exaggerated gagging sound, just in case Niko chose to ignore me, because there's nothing like a little auditory stimuli to add credence to the deception.

Without skipping a beat, Niko reached down, picked up a water bottle, popped the lid off with his thumb and handed it to me, all without make eye contact or missing a beat in the conversation.

I latched onto it and sucked it dry within seconds. But did I stop there? Of course I didn't. Not wishing to miss the perfect annoy-Niko opportunity, I inhaled the last of the air and it deflated. The plastic bottle made conversation-stopping crackling sounds as the sides turned inside out, meeting and kissing each other in the middle.

Niko moved with frightening, inhuman speed. One second the empty, deflated plastic bottle was in my hands, the next it was flying across the air, taking out two ornaments and a string of lights before coming to rest, wedged in the branches of the tree.

"I was drinking that," I protested.

"You were playing. You were done drinking," Niko said.

I'm not too sure what the hell language Goodfellow muttered, but he got up, plucked the water bottle from the tree, dislodging another ornament in the process. "Damn it," he yelled as the ornament fell out the tree like an egg from a bird's nest with exactly the same result as when it hit the ground.

Humpty Dumpty.

oooooooo

Let it never be said that Caliban Leandros had difficulty clearing a room. All that was left of our sad little holiday party was me, Niko and a pathetically naked Christmas tree with a bald spot due to missing ornaments and power outage along a string of blinking lights.

It being Christmas and everything, I did feel a smidge of guilt. "Sorry about that," I said softly, subconsciously petting my new sweatshirt.

Niko stared at me, eyebrows hovering around his hairline. "You're sick. You didn't need company."

"Don't make excuses. I behaved like a kid."

And Niko answered with silence.

Okay, he didn't really have to agree with me one hundred percent, I mean, I was sick and everything. I was headed more to sharing the guilty at least eighty/twenty. Not fifty/fifty.

"Can I go to bed now?" I struggled with the blanket, finally winning the battle, and tossed the cover aside. Sitting up, I grabbed Niko's hand and slapped it against my forehead. "See, no more fever."

oooooooo

Niko disappeared and returned with a glass of juice, two aspirin, a fresh roll of toilet paper and a plastic cup of the green poison. He tossed me the roll of Scotts and placed everything else on the table.

"Why?" I questioned as I shoved the entire roll under my dripping nose.

"For your non-fever."

It was Christmas. And Niko was left babysitting his sick, most likely dying brother so the least I could do was obey his command. The juice felt great going down and without complaint, Niko filled the glass twice before I even reached for the two white pills. I held my nose, and swallowed the OTC crap without too much whining.

Immediately, I yawned.

"Pee before you go to bed. I don't love you enough to change your sheets."

"But it's Christmas."

"Want to sleep in the wet spot?"

Guy had a point. I peed. Niko followed me, I'm sure to make certain I didn't take a header onto the tiles as opposed to me doing what he'd ordered. I washed my face, swayed, then felt two hands on my shoulders, guiding me into my bedroom.

"No place like home," I mumbled incoherently as I settled on the bed. "Though my pillow and blanket would be appreciated."

"Merry Christmas," Niko said as he dropped the pillow on my head and placed the blanket over my drugged body. A little tuck here. Smoothing the blanket there. A roll of toilet paper shoved under my lax right hand.

I was just drifting, hovering, when a loud sneeze erupted, scaring the shit out of me. Experimentally, I opened one eye and stared at my brother, who'd appropriated the kitchen chair again. "Niko? Did you just sneeze?"

He sneezed again in response.

"Want some Nyquil?"

oooooooo

Guilt plays wonders on a guy; and damn it, I don't do guilt very well. I sighed; Niko had gotten the end of the couch without the broken spring.

I anchored my sock-clad feet on the coffee table as I twisted, trying to gain purchase until I found a position where the spring wasn't quite attacking parts of my anatomy so fiercely.

My nose was still leaking so I reached for the box of Puffs sitting on the couch between us, only to have Niko beat me to it and steal the last two.

"Hey≈" My protest was short-lived when Niko sneezed several times in succession. Okay, granted, the poor guy needed them more than I did so I grudgingly ripped off a wad of quilted toilet paper for myself.

I sighed again and turned to watch the blinking lights on the tree. You know, with the overhead lights turned off, it was almost pretty, in a Charles Dickensesque kind of way. If you could ignore the string of lights that was dead, and the fact that the top of the tree had twice as many lights as the bottom, and≈

"Pass the aspirin?"

Without a word, I shoved the bottle on the coffee table with my foot until it was next to Nik's. He grumbled under his breath as he leaned forward and grabbed it.

"Did you say something?" I asked innocently as he dry swallowed two of the white pills.

"The lights are giving me a headache," he said nasally.

My guilt level rose another notch. "Sorry I didn't gift wrap my germs for Christmas."

Niko took the roll of toilet paper, tore off a wad and blew his nose again. "The gift is in the giving," he said when he came up for air.

"Wanna go someplace more comfortable?" I tried to keep the hopeful tone out of my voice. If he went to bed, then I could go to bed, too, and not spend Christmas night on the couch because Niko wanted to sit watch over me. This is where the guilt thing came in, because now that he was sick, how could I, in good conscience, enjoy my bed knowing how crappy he felt while he sat in a hard chair next to me? But hey, I hadn't opened a portal in hours; things were definitely looking up.

"Maybe later."

"I have it on good authority that Robin's couch is very comfortable. And George has a blowup bed ready and waiting for us. And I don't have to sing Promise's praises. You've been there √ done that √ even without a fever." I smiled innocently when Niko turned to give me a red-nosed glare.

I stared at my feet. Wiggling my big toe, I tried shoving the tip of my toe through a small hole in the sock.

"Nah, home is fine. Couch is fine," Niko answered after a moment.

"No place like home," I sighed. Couch was fine. Too bad I couldn't say the same thing about us. Maybe tomorrow≈ Niko gave a sneeze that had me grimacing in sympathy.

Okay, maybe not tomorrow. Maybe the next day.

Niko sneezed again.

Definitely by New Year's, we'd be up and about and ready to take on the new year by storm.

My sneeze took me by surprise. Okay, maybe not.