So I'd been a brat. What else was new? It wasn't my fault that I couldn't do anything right in this damned body. It was too big. I mean, yeah, I was pleased as hell with the muscles that my 16 year old body had as opposed to what I'd had four weeks ago, when I was still 14, and I sure wasn't sad about the improvements on certain other parts, either. But still, I was too tall, and my hair was too long, and everything was just all wrong. And it was agitating me, and I wanted Nik to know that, and I was tired of his constant hovering. I'd been 'back' for about a month, and he was still treating me like I was going to disappear again any second. I knew that he was still pretty torn up about the whole thing—hell, who wouldn't be?—but I was pretty sure that I didn't need him to stand outside the bathroom door while I did my business. Of course, any time I told him this, he disregarded it with a sarcastic phrase and a smack upside the head. He wouldn't listen to me, damn it. Well, that's not entirely true. If I wanted to tell him about the nightmares I was having, or the lingering fear that an Auphe really would snatch me away again, then he was all ears (except for the nose, of course), but if I even hinted that I wanted some alone time, or that I could go grab a hot dog by myself, thank you very much, then he went deaf. I was pretty damn well sick of it by now, and I was expressing that by acting like a four-year-old while Niko tried to teach me how to do some weird-ass martial arts move. And that was the other thing—Nik had been giving me way too much slack. He'd have made a hat out of my ass by now under any other circumstances. It was driving me crazy. I couldn't even count on Niko to be the same.

He was getting irritated though, and I took a little bit of pleasure in that. He took me down for the thousandth time, because my defensive tactics apart from run-for-the-hills were sorely lacking, and instead of getting up, I crawled onto the couch and feigned sleep. I heard Nik's newly-purchased wooden practice sword fall to the ground, and I opened one eye half-way. We'd been at it for an hour, and the Sleeping Beauty routine was only the needle on the camel's back.

"Cal," Niko gritted out, his voice uncharacteristically betraying his frustration.

"Niko," I replied, just to be a smartass.

"That's it." Nik picked up the practice sword. "Get up."

"I'm sick of sparring, Nik."

"We're not going to spar. I said get up."

I glanced up at Nik's tone of voice. He wasn't playing around. "Nik…" I began, but he cut me off.

"Do not even start with me, Cal. I know what you've been doing, and I've had just about enough of it. Are you ready to stop acting like a child?"

Oh, sure, now he noticed, and he was being bossy as hell about it. Didn't I have the right to act like a kid? I was only fourteen! Well, in a matter of speaking, anyway.

I got off of the couch and headed for my room. "Leave me alone, Niko."

Niko waited a moment, then followed me. I wanted to slam the door in his face, but that would require getting up from the bed. Nik was still carrying that damn wooden sword, which was really more of a thin foot of wood with a horizontal piece to resemble a handle, but it had been cheap, and it was mostly effective, despite its size. He set it down on the bed next to him as he sat down.

"Cal," he began in a nicer voice than before, "what's going on?"

"What's going on is that everything's changing and my damn brother won't leave me the hell alone to deal with it!"

I saw a nerve in Niko's jaw twitch, and I knew that I'd hurt him. Misery does love its company, though, and I was really miserable, so I kept talking. I said awful things that I didn't mean in a million years, and Niko just sat there next to me and took it. I needed an outlet, and he was the only one available. I called him every name in the book, insulted him, and blamed him for everything that had happened, and damn it, he just sat there. I paused for breath, and glanced at him, and remembered that this was Niko. My big brother, who loved me. My misery went up about twelve notches, but I kept my mouth shut this time. Niko didn't deserve this—any of it. I could feel myself about to lose it, and instead of coping, I did what I do best: I ran. That is, I ran about seven steps before Niko caught me and dragged me back to the bed.

"I'm not going to let you do this. I am not going to let you do this." He grabbed hold of me again and pulled me over his lap. "Damn it, Cal."

I yelped in surprise when I felt something slam down onto my ass. It was the wooden practice sword, and it stung like hell. I thought about shoving Niko off of me, because I knew that he probably wouldn't stop me, but this pain was tangible, it was something I could understand, unlike everything else. It wasn't like Nik gave me much of a chance to get away anyway, because he was bringing that stupid sword down again before I'd even had time to entertain the thought.

"You are not going to run away from your problems, Cal," Niko said quietly. "And you're not going to run away from me." Niko emphasized this with another swat, and then another, and another, and another, and then he let me go.

During this, my misery morphed into anger, which I gladly welcomed. Anger hurt less. As soon as Nik released me, I scooted as far away from him as I could, and curled into a ball.

I felt a hand on my back, but I flinched away. "Don't touch me," I said. "Leave me alone."

I heard Niko sigh, but I knew that he wasn't going to push it just yet. He left, and I cried. It wasn't because he'd hurt me, because he really hadn't. A good smack upside the head generally had a more lasting effect than what he'd just done. But…still. I felt like I had an actual reason to cry now, so I did. A lot. It actually felt kind of good to have a release—it had been building up for awhile now. All of that frustration, and the confusion, and the new city, and the new apartment, and the new body—it was too much.

After what felt like forever, but was probably less than five minutes, I began to calm down. I sat up, and when I did, I saw that Niko was standing in the doorway. He looked as concerned and as guilty as I'd ever seen him, and I felt a burst of shame rise up in me, but I knew that I couldn't hide anymore. Instead, I slowly got up off of the bed and began to move toward my brother. He watched me as I came to a stop in front of him. We stood there like that, neither of us looking at the other, but both of us there, for almost a minute. Then he gently laid a hand on my back and led me back to my bed, where we both sat down. I was afraid to say anything because everything that I'd let get out of my mouth before now had been awful.

I was staring at my knees when Niko wrapped his arm around me, pulling me closer to him. Awkwardly, I returned the gesture, sliding my arm across his back. I wished I could erase that entire afternoon, but I couldn't. I snuck a glance up at Niko's face, and I saw that he was staring forward, wearing that mask that he puts on whenever he feels sad. It was my fault, I knew, and so it was me who needed to fix it. I did the only thing I could think of: I hugged him. I wrapped my other arm around him, and buried my face in his chest. Niko just sat there for a minute, not moving, and I squeezed tighter. After another second, I felt him hug me back.

We were taking our time, but when that step was over, Niko let go and pulled himself up to sit cross legged on the bed. I didn't want to, but I copied him so that we were facing each other. It wasn't usually this hard. Most of the time, I would screw up, and Niko would give me a lecture or something, and I would get defensive, and then he'd make a sarcastic remark, and I'd apologize, and he would make me clean the toilets. It was a good system. But this time, I'd gone way too far, and I couldn't think of any chore that would make it better.

I didn't take the easy way out. Everything was so completely screwed up that I knew I didn't deserve to. I met Niko's eyes for probably the first time all day. "Nik…" I began hoarsely. "I didn't mean what I said before." I took a breath. "I'm sorry."

Niko grasped my knee, and I was glad for the physical contact. He shook his head. "That's not what I was upset about. I was upset because I could see you self-destructing, and there wasn't anything I could do about it. I almost lost you Cal, do you understand that? I thought you were gone forever."

"But I came back."

"Yes, you came back, and ever since, I've been wondering who you were and what the Grendels did with my little brother. This isn't you, Cal. When was the last time that you annoyed me to the point of physical punishment?"

I looked down, but Niko's hand found my chin, and he lifted it back up, forcing me to look him in the eye again.

"And it's not okay for you to leave," Niko continued.

"Yeah, I got that," I said, glancing at the practice sword.

"Good. Because you're all I have, Cal, and I'm not going to let you take that away, no matter how noble you think you might be for leaving."

"But I said all of those things…"

"That doesn't give me a new little brother to kick around, does it?"

"No. But…"

"No 'but's. I mean it, Cal. You're not leaving again. Got it?"

I hesitated, and Niko's eyebrows went up dangerously. "Yes," I said quickly. "I got it."

"Good. One more thing—"

I interrupted with an exaggerated sigh before I could think about what I was doing. When I did, I could have hit myself. This wasn't a time for joking… But Niko smiled.

"There's my brother," he said, and I rolled my eyes.

"What's the other thing?" I asked.

Nik picked up the practice sword. I shifted away from him a little.

"Relax, Cal. The other thing is that you must take these sparring sessions seriously. The next time a Grendel comes, we're going to be ready to take it. Understand?"


"Okay. Feel better?"

I nodded, because I did. Nothing had changed from this morning, except that I felt incredibly lighter.

"Good," Nik said, and he pulled me to my feet. "You want to get a pizza?"

"Yeah," I said, and grinned for the first time in ages.