Title: The Monster You Know 1/5
Summary: Cal and Niko lose each other. Again.
A/N: I wrote this SO long ago. I actually meant to put this out before the last book was released to this series but, then, I sort of never did. It kept getting put on the back burner and with the official release of the next book imminent, I decided to get this off my computer before I missed another opportunity. This takes place sometime after the third book, so minor spoilers for all of the first three. Beta's by geminigrl11 and sendintheclowns.
Disclaimer: Rob Thurman is the owner of these lovely characters.
It was all Niko's fault.
Just because Nik was older, just because Nik had protected him his entire life, just because Nik could beat the crap out of him with one hand behind his back--just because he was Niko, Cal was supposed to do every damn thing Niko said.
The fact that Niko was right was another issue entirely. Still didn't mean Cal had to like it.
It also didn't mean that Cal wouldn't cave to his older brother, nearly every time, without fail. He'd tried resisting from time to time, tried digging his feet in, but Nik had a five year head start on him, and even Cal's time in Auphe hell couldn't make up for that.
So when Niko said he had to get his suit dry-cleaned, Cal obliged. Not that he wanted to wear the suit--hell, not that he even wanted to own the thing. But Promise had picked it out and bought it for him, and Cal figure it was probably the most expensive thing he'd ever owned. And it was his own fault he'd gotten it dirty on their last job. His brother had told him it'd just be an evening of investigation at one of Promise's charity events, nothing more than that. Something about weird maulings uptown. How was he supposed to expect the damn revenants to show up at the place? He'd managed to kill two of them, but not without traipsing through the back alley first and ending up in a trash bin.
Niko had scowled at him, but Cal had felt good that at least he'd remembered not to draw his knife until he got outside the building. Nonetheless, his older brother hadn't even gotten a hair out of place, and had made him take a cab home since apparently rolling around in garbage made for a rather smelly date.
So maybe it wasn't Niko's fault, but it sure felt good to blame him. Though, really, it wasn't like Niko had it much better. Niko, after all, was saddled with Cal for a younger brother, and Cal sort of figured he'd spend the rest of his life trying to pay off that debt, even if it was a price that his brother would never dream of asking him pay. Not to mention that Cal's supernatural exploits and erratic chasing down of revenants through alleys undoubtedly just upped his big brother's anxiety. Cal could be twenty and experienced and yet Niko still worried over him like a first-time-mother hen.
Besides, Niko was his brother. They'd been through thick and thin. So picking up the dry cleaning? Wearing a suit? All came with the territory. It was better than having to pull Niko from the belly of a troll or watch his brother be nearly sacrificed to fulfill some freak's quest for power. In fact, when he thought about it like that, doing the mundane tasks felt good. So good that Cal figured maybe he'd do his own version of grocery shopping--picking up carry out.
The Chinese place Nik liked was only a few blocks from their apartment. Glancing at his watch, Cal could tell that it was the perfect time for dinner--not too early to catch Niko not hungry, but not too late that his older brother would have taken it upon himself to finish dinner. While Cal would prefer a pizza or a chilidog, he knew Niko preferred the Chinese--all the veggies and brown rice did a little health-conscious ninja good. Besides, Cal's desire to do good wasn't about satisfying his own taste buds. It was about Niko. Today, anyway.
Which meant choking down green cardboard drenched in sweet and sour sauce. He could just pick up a few crab rangoons to tide him over (until he could have some real food--like a double cheeseburger, extra onions and maybe a nice side of grease-soaked fries).
With his suit slung over his shoulder, he took the side streets, winding his way to the Chinese place. The evening was warm and pleasant, and damn it all if Cal didn't feel good. Niko was in school, things with Promise were going well, they were actually earning money now, and they hadn't seen an Auphe in nearly a month. As far as things went for the Leandros brothers, things were great.
He was practically whistling when he finally opened the door to the Chinese restaurant. The place was tiny, nothing more than a hole in the wall, but it was oddly clean, which was probably another reason Niko preferred the place. In fact, they'd been there often enough that Cal recognized the girl behind the counter, and she smiled when she saw him.
"Let me guess," she said, her accent heavy and a dimple crinkling her cheek. "Snow pea pods and water chestnuts with brown rice, and sweet and sour pork with fried rice. The usual."
Cal grinned despite himself. She was cute, and probably about his age. She'd been trying to flirt the best she could, but he wasn't looking for a girlfriend. There'd only been one girl he'd ever let close, and that had nearly ended with disaster. Still, a few smiles never hurt, especially when it got him a few extra fortune cookies on the house.
"Sounds about right," he said. "And throw in an order of crab rangoons."
She smiled, turning her attention to operating the archaic cash register. Just as she was adding in the crab rangoons, the bells on the door jingled.
Cal straightened and turned, almost surprised. In all his visits, he'd never actually seen another customer. It didn't seem the place did much business (but really, they served vegetarian Chinese food, so no real surprise there).
Cal had barely caught sight of the guy who walked in when he realized something was wrong. After a lifetime on the run, he'd learned to sense danger, almost inherently, and in one instant, he felt his light mood vanish into tension.
Then he got a good look at the guy. He was skinny--no, downright scrawny. His hair was overgrown and unkempt. The hair on his face was in a worse state, scraggly and patchy, only accentuating the pale pallor beneath. Underneath the baggy clothes, Cal could see the guy shaking, and his armpits were damp, his brow was slick with sweat.
Cal had lived in the city long enough to recognized an addict, especially an addict in need of a fix.
On top of all that, Cal could spot a robbery when he was in one. The gun, after all, was kind of a dead giveaway.
It took the girl behind the counter only a second longer than it did Cal to figure that out, and she screamed at the sight of the gun.
Cal cringed, watching the guy in the doorway shake harder and approach.
"Shut up!" the scraggly freak yelled, his voice hoarse and strained.
There was a blade in Cal's pocket, but he didn't dare move for it. The guy was twitchy, fingers all slick with sweat, and that wasn't a chance Cal could take. Not with the gun trained on the girl. His sense of self-preservation was high, but not so high as to condemn an innocent girl to death. Cal had no experience with negotiation (at least not the calm variety, he preferred the aggressive kind, himself--a nice right hook always set a good tone), but he didn't really see as he had much choice unless he wanted get the place a new ventilation system.
"Easy," Cal said, holding his arms out gently.
"Give me all the money!" the guy yelled, stepping closer, the gun bobbing and weaving.
This order seemed simple enough, and had it been Cal, he'd have already had it all out and ready to go. Unfortunately, the girl was sobbing now, nearly hyperventilating.
"Now!" the guy screamed now, charging forward, barely three feet away from the counter.
Cal suppressed an urge to curse. He glanced at the girl, crying and fumbling uselessly at the register. Then he looked again at the guy, desperate and strung out and ready to shoot.
Niko would never forgive him.
But Cal didn't have a choice. There wasn't time for the blade, there wasn't time to tackle the drugged out lunatic, there wasn't time for anything. Anything except throwing himself in front of the girl and hope like hell that blood scared the guy off.
There wasn't thought after that. Just action. The girl pounding the register, the guy pulling the trigger, and Cal moving.
A bullet cracked through the air, fast and loud, and it was all a blur of downward motion. He was falling, fast and hard, but he didn't feel himself hit the ground. In fact, he didn't feel much of anything for a moment--just the counter at his back, the tickle of his hair on his face.
He blinked. The world was hazy now, the clean interior of the restaurant suddenly blurred and dingy. All sound had vanished, and his vision was tunneling. As he watched the legs of the junkie walk away, he saw the only color there was.
Red. Bright red. Everywhere. All down the front of him, on the floor.
And then feeling came back, sharp and deep, soul-sucking.
The darkness was stronger now, deeper, as the pain grew to be too much, so much more than he'd expected, and he wondered if Niko could fix this, if there'd been this much blood before, if he had any blood left.
He thought of Niko, blonde hair, his katana, how clean he kept the apartment and the carton of wheatgrass juice that Cal found so ridiculous.
It didn't seem right to die here like this. The Auphe would be jealous. Hell, so would Abby.
But God, Niko would kill him. Niko would just kill him.
If he wasn't dead already.
Cal had many faults. As Cal's older brother, no one knew that better than Niko. He had, after all, basically raised Cal, and it had been Niko who had harped on every single one of those flaws.
For starters, Cal had no initiative. Getting Cal to undertake any project, was a project, one that required extensive force (or the threat of it, anyhow) or sheer bribery (often of the most nauseating variety considering his brother's penchant for greasy food and horrific TV). Getting out of bed, doing the laundry, taking a shower, getting a job--these were all things Niko was not entirely certain would occur were it not for his own interference. Cal simply preferred to whittle away his time, sleeping, eating, watching TV. Usually in that order.
Cal was also purposefully ignorant at times. Niko had crossed paths with many people who simply did not know any better. Oblivious in their daily lives and blind to the peril around them. To a certain extent, while Niko had no patience for such people, he could forgive them. They did not know what dangers they faced. He could surmise that if they did, they might behave accordingly.
Cal had no such excuse. Not that Cal was dangerously ignorant. On the contrary, few people in the world were as aware of danger as his younger brother. But Cal never saw the need to dig deeper in most things in life. To Cal, books were doorstops and coasters, not opportunities to grow, to learn. It wasn't just knowledge Niko sought in his studies; it was safety. It was preparedness. Cal seemed to be under the impression that as long as he was well-armed, he was as safe as he would get, and chose to leave most other things to a need-to-know basis.
It was all, Niko supposed, a factor of Cal's inherent laziness. The younger boy had never been as keen to respond to structure or discipline, no matter how hard Niko worked to ensure the contrary. Part of Niko presumed it was a self-defense tactic, Cal's only way of coping. He wasn't sure his younger brother could handle more intensity when it came to who he was and what was out there. The fact that he was half-monster was detrimental enough. Cal's way of fighting was at times to not fight at all.
Not that Niko agreed with that. But he could still understand it. His brother could be a directionless, ignorant sloth of a being, and there were many other negatives Niko could add to that list. One thing Cal was not, however, was habitually tardy.
In another life, maybe. Were they not continually hunted, constantly in danger, then Niko imagined that Cal's sense of timeliness would not be so keen. But the way they'd grown up, the constant vigilance, the perpetual fear--it made them value punctuality and open lines of communication. Because being late wasn't just staying for an extra beer or missing the subway. It could mean something much more sinister, and neither brother wanted to put the other through that kind of anxiety, not when they could help it.
Which made Niko worry. Because if Cal was late...
Then it probably meant that Cal couldn't make it on time.
Niko sighed, pacing off the distance between the kitchen and the living room again. It could be innocuous. Cal wasn't even that late. Fifteen minutes in the city was not exactly unheard of. There could be traffic, he could have gotten dinner, he might have ran into someone he knew.
Still, Cal said he'd be home at 5:30. Niko glanced again at his watch. It ticked as it toward 5:47.
Cal would have called.
Frustrated, Niko pulled his cell phone out, flipping it open. He'd already called Cal once, not to mention the number of times he'd checked for any missed calls or messages. Needless to say, his efforts had been fruitless.
Dialing Cal's number, he did not cease his pacing.
It was unlike him, this nervousness. Niko believed in calm, in staying cool-headed. But he was not cool-headed when it came to Cal. He'd seen his little brother be threatened too many times to even pretend he could remain that way.
The phone rang once, twice, three times, before slipping to voicemail.
Niko swore, tossing the phone savagely to the kitchen table.
Something was wrong. And Niko wasn't about to sit there and do nothing. Cal meant too much to him, and there was simply too much out there after his little brother for Niko to remain passive.
Scribbling out a note for Cal in case his brother should return, he checked the blades hidden on his body, donned his jacket to hide a few more for good measure, and set out to look for his brother.
There were voices, hazy and distant. They sounded loud--angry, maybe; it was a little hard to tell. They weren't mean, though they certainly weren't welcoming, either. Mostly, they were foreign, unfamiliar. Not Goodfellow, Promise, George. Not Niko.
There were hands, too, cold and unnatural, all over. It was like being molested by a giant centipede. He wanted to pull away, to stop them, to do something, but it was too hard. In fact, he realized he couldn't really feel his body at all. There was detached sensation, but nothing immediate, and his brain was simply too far away from his body to make any difference.
This wasn't good. If Niko had taught him anything, it was to always be in control of a situation, always be active, vigilant, always be...he couldn't remember. Why couldn't he remember? Niko would kick his ass for being so damn forgetful, for not applying himself, for being lazy.
If only Cal knew where he was, what was happening, why his body was so heavy, why the voices were so frantic. Lazy. Sleep sounded good. No matter what Nik said, sleep seemed like the best course of action.
Pain lanced through him suddenly, and his awareness jolted, ripped from detachment by the agony of it. Fire. Consuming him, starting in his chest, and it was like dying (as if he needed to try that again).
"He's feeling it," someone was saying and Cal wished he could scream at him, could see him, because oh, God, he just couldn't handle this.
"Sir? Sir? Can you hear me?" Another voice now, closer, too close, too loud, echoing in his ear.
Cal turned his head.
"Can you tell me your name? Sir? Is there anyone I can call?"
Niko. Niko should be here. Niko should always be here. Niko could make this better. Niko always made it better. Hell, Niko wouldn't even trust him to be in this kind of situation by himself.
What kind of situation was this anyway? Where was he? What had happened?
Panic gripped him and he wanted to move, but the hands were back, stronger now, restraining him, and he felt tears burn behind his eyelids.
"He's going out," one of the voices said, and Cal felt it wash over him with a sense of futility. He couldn't do this. He didn't know how. He didn't know anything.
The world was fading again, faster now, and his consciousness waned until it was gone.
It was dark when Niko finally allowed himself to panic.
There'd be no crying, no fretful moaning--nothing of that sort. Niko wasn't prone to that and he never would be. He was confident that he never would have survived as long as he had with Cal's parentage and his own riding heavily on his back if he was given to that kind of useless emotion.
No, panic for Niko meant itching to slice something up, desperate for someone to threaten--all based on an overwhelming fear that something had gone terribly, terribly wrong.
He'd been to the dry cleaners, who said Cal had showed up--the suit was indeed gone. He'd checked with some of Cal's favorite spots, though admittedly, they were few. There was a bar or two Cal sometimes visited, but no one had seen his dark-haired little brother. Not even the corner chili dog vendor could remember seeing Cal pass by.
Cal had, it seemed, just disappeared.
Which meant he was taken--by force, no doubt. All brotherly kidding aside, Niko knew Cal was well-trained; he made sure of it. There was little that could take Cal down, although Niko had to admit that his kid brother had probably not been well-armed. Of course, they both were always in possession of some form or weaponry, but for a trip to the dry cleaner, Cal would have had no cause to carry anything extensive.
Nor would he have been expecting an attack.
Pacing the block in front of their apartment building, Niko hated to admit that he was at a dead end. He'd scoured the various routes to and from the dry cleaner and come up with nothing. He could find no trace of his brother. Terror was mounting in his stomach, rippling through him, and he was struggling to control it. Living with Cal was a trial in and of itself; life without Cal left Niko powerless and stupefied.
Years ago, he would have walked the ground endlessly, hoping, waiting. He would have racked his mind for any clue, any hint. The panic would have driven him mad, just as it had when the Auphe had taken Cal back to Tumulus with them when Cal was fourteen.
But Niko's days of going it alone were over. He didn't have to do this alone, and he wouldn't. It wouldn't do him any good, and it certainly wouldn't help Cal.
Digging his phone out of his pocket yet again, he called the first number he could think of. He heard the other line ring once, twice, before a smooth voice answered. "Hello?"
"Promise," he said, surprised to find himself breathless. "It's Cal."
No other words would come. No other words were necessary.
There was a tight pause, then her voice came through, solid and unwavering. "I'll meet you at your apartment."
The call disconnected, but Niko couldn't bring himself to move. His fingers gripped the phone tightly, pressing it against his ear, wishing that there was more, that somehow all of this would bring Cal back.
He was still standing in front of his apartment building when Promise arrived. He did not notice how she arrived--he barely noticed her at all. But she was there, strong and quiet, taking him gently by the arm and pulling him inside. She had barely gotten him upstairs when Goodfellow followed behind them.
"Any word?" he asked, sounding flustered. He was wearing a green silk shirt and looked as though he'd come from work.
"Nothing yet," Promise answered quietly.
Niko allowed himself to sink to the couch, Promise's hand still on his shoulder. Such inaction wasn't like him, but he could not find the will to move. Cal was gone, and Niko had no idea why or how. It was so unexpected, so sudden--he simply did not know how to handle it.
Catatonia was a phase of his grieving process. After Cal had been taken to Tumulus, Niko had spent an hour screaming and tearing among the remains of the trailer before the inevitability of Cal's disappearance had shaken him. Then, he didn't move for the two days it took for Cal to return.
That time, Cal had fallen out of the sky and come back to him. Scared, helpless, and terrified, yes. But Cal had come back.
When Darkling had taken Cal, Niko's catatonia had been brief; a mere hour, maybe less. With Auphe body parts strewn around them, Niko had sunk to his knees, his katana tight in his hand as he'd stared out the broken window where Darkling had fled. It had been Robin who had shaken him out of it, asking him what he wanted to do, if he was okay.
He'd then proceeded to go on a one week rampage, shaking down everyone he could think of, anyone at all.
There'd been purpose then, something to follow up on.
This time Niko didn't know what to do. That helplessness shut him down.
"Is he okay?" Goodfellow's voice asked, quiet and tentative.
Promise's hand ran over Niko shoulder, rubbing his back. "I believe this is rather a shock to him," she replied.
"None that I am aware of," Promise said. "He hasn't told me what happened."
"Just that Cal's gone," Goodfellow concluded.
The couch sagged next to him, and Niko could smell Goodfellow's cologne.
These were his friends, his allies. They were here to help. But Niko didn't know how to open his mouth and explain it to them. Because Niko didn't have a clue what happened.
He'd always seen it before. He'd always been there. There'd always been a place to start.
This time, there were no starting points. Just Niko, two allies, and one missing little brother.
He sucked in a strangled breath, blinking, and turning his eyes towards Promise. She was looking down at him, compassion in her soft purple eyes. Her clothing was immaculate, as always, and in a different situation, Niko may have been aroused by the tight curves of fabric her on her small frame. "Can you tell us what happened?" she asked.
"Cal went out to pick up the dry cleaning," he said finally, surprised by the scratchiness of his own voice. "And he never came back."
She exchanged a glance with Goodfellow, his face darkening. "He didn't call?"
"No call, no message, no trace," Niko confirmed, looking down at his hands. He felt so useless, so at a loss. "Just nothing."
He told the story again, the same sparse details coming out. Promise listened intently, her eyes deep and probing. The puck sat to Niko's other side, equally absorbed in the perplexing tale.
"Perhaps our young Caliban found some type of female companionship?" Goodfellow suggested. "He has been more prone to that these days."
Two nights out hardly constituted a pattern. "He would have called."
Goodfellow nodded wearily, but seemed unable to give up so quickly. "He didn't go into work?"
"Ishiah has not seen him," Niko replied simply, unfazed by Goodfellow's questions. They were ones he'd asked himself hours ago. Ones that added up to the same answer. "He is simply gone."
"He does have enemies," Robin said with a sigh.
Enemies, yes. They all had enemies, vengeful and creative ones at that. "There has been no sign of the Auphe," Niko said. There were always signs with them; sightings, clues. They may seem to come out of nowhere, but usually not without some kind of foreshadowing.
The puck pushed himself to his feet. "Let me make some calls," he said. "Perhaps someone has heard something that can be of use to us."
Niko gave no indication that he'd heard Robin, but the puck didn't seem to need any. He disappeared out the door, shutting it quietly behind him.
Bowing his head, Niko tried to collect his thoughts. The hour was surely late, or perhaps, more accurately, very early, and his brain felt strained, pushed to its limits. How had an entire night passed with him still having no knowledge of what had happened to Cal?
His frustration swelled. "It makes no sense," he ground out through a tight throat.
"Try to relax," Promise said, sidling into the spot Goodfellow had vacated. Her silken voice was always soothing, but Niko could hear a measured quality about it now. "It is unlikely that Cal's disappearance is random. We merely need to figure out which one of your many enemies has a reason to act on their grudge now."
There was logic to that, a lot of logic, but Niko did not want to be swayed by it. Not when Cal was missing, not when he was just gone without a trace. Before, Niko had known why, there'd been trails, reasons, something to act on. Now...
Now there was just nothing.
He clenched his jaw, pulling in on himself. He did not want Promise's comfort. He did not want Goodfellow's assurances. He wanted Cal.
Promise, however, seemed unwilling to yield. "Niko, this is not your fault," she said finally.
His eyes flashed to her, surprised.
She was looking at him, steadfast and unwavering. "No matter what happened to Cal, it is not your fault."
They were words of comfort, but he refused them. He shook his head. "Cal is my brother."
"And he is a full-grown man," she insisted. "No matter how rarely he acts the part."
"But I know what's after him."
"And so does he," Promise finished for him. "Caliban is very aware of what he's up against. And, to be frank, the enemies are more his than yours."
"Which is exactly why he needs me."
She sighed a little, her eyes going soft. "Do you trust him that little?"
It was a low blow, but Niko would not be felled by it. "It's not about trust," he said. "I trust Cal with my life. Just like he trusts me with his. We never would have survived without each other."
Dropping her head, she seemed to be resigning herself to something. When she looked up, she was smiling sadly. "He wouldn't want you to blame yourself."
Niko's heart lodged in his throat. He knew Cal wouldn't want that. Cal had never blamed him for anything, but that didn't change Niko's duty, Niko's job. "Promise," he said, and he hated the way his voice wavered, "I don't protect Cal just because he needs it. I protect Cal because I need him. I need my brother. I have loved him since the day he was born. He has been the only thing worthwhile in my life, and if anything were ever to happen to him..." His voice trailed off, stifled by emotion. Steeling himself, he swallowed and looked up with watery eyes. "If anything ever happened to him, I wouldn't want to go on. It's that simple."
Promise said nothing, merely held his gaze, and neither of them seemed willing to break the eye contact. He needed her to understand this, to get it. Because if she was going to be part of his life, then she needed to see just what Cal meant to him. That between Cal and anything else, there was no contest. He'd pick Cal every time, without a shred of regret. That had never been in question before--there'd never been any need.
That was before Promise. Before he learned how to open himself up to other people. And he loved Promise. Her company was invigorating and refreshing, and he did not wish to lose her. If anything happened to her, his wrath would be fast and furious, but it wouldn't destroy him. Not like losing Cal.
She nodded. "We'll find him, Niko," she said, and her voice was resolute, if a little mournful. "But first, you need to sleep. You haven't slept since he's been missing, and it is nearly morning."
Niko opened his mouth to protest, but she held up her hand.
"There is no use arguing. Either you go willing to bed, or I will drag you there myself," she threatened, and somehow Niko knew she wasn't joking.
"How can I sleep when I don't know where he is?"
"How do you expect to find him when your mind is muddled from sleep?"
"I've gone on less."
She shrugged her shoulders minutely. "Yes, but you haven't gone on less after drinking two sleeping pills."
Niko's brow furrowed. "But I would never--"
"I know," she said simply. "That's why I took the liberty of doing it for you."
Betrayal flashed through him, and he pushed up from the couch. "How could you?" he demanded. "I need to be awake, I need to keep looking--"
She seemed nonplussed. "You need to be alert. You will be much more effective after you've slept. You can be angry with me if you wish. However, I think your time would be better spent sleeping so you are capable of focusing on how to find your brother. I will be here when you wake. I'll ask Goodfellow to bring food and any new leads he can think of, and we will resume the search promptly when you awaken."
Niko scowled. He hated being manipulated, and he hated even more that he hadn't seen it coming. He'd trusted Promise, had let her into his confidence, and she'd abused that trust. Worse, she had abused it by slipping him pills, something to dampen his body's alertness.
She was standing now, a hand around his waist. "Come," she said gently. "You need to rest."
Niko wanted to argue, to fight back, but he could feel the effect now, feel the pull toward sleep.
He was moving now, without his consent, toward the bedroom, he recognized dimly. Then he was sprawled up on it, careful hands running through his hair.
"I hope you'll forgive me," she whispered softly to him. "I hope you can see that I'll fight for you like you fight for Cal. I love you that much."
There was a gentle kiss upon his forehead, then nothing more.