Title: Shoulder

Rating: PG (for language)

Author: Obi the Kid

Summary: Niko POV. Takes place after the events in 'Roadkill' (book 5). Niko flashes back to a memory of the past (Niko was 11, Cal was 7) while worrying about Cal after the changes that occurred during their recent road trip.

Italics indicate flashback.

Disclaimer: The characters of Cal and Niko, etc belong to the brilliant Rob Thurman. I make no profit from the writing or distribution of this story.

P.S. Don't forget to check out her new book "Chimera." If you enjoy the brotherly angst of the Cal series, you'll LOVE this new non-Cal release.

"Niko?"

"Yeah?"

"You're better now, right?"

"I'm getting there, Cal. Thanks to you. You did good getting me the medicines I needed."

"I didn't know what to do."

"But you did it anyway, and I feel better already."

"I thought you were gonna die."

"I can't. I've gotta protect you."

"Am I really a monster like Sophia always says? Am I like those things that stare in my window and say things to me?"

"No. You're not a monster, Cal. Don't ever say that. Don't listen to Sophia. You just listen to me, okay? I'm your big brother. I'll take care of you."

"But she says that one day they'll come and take me away with them or I'll turn into one of them."

"I won't let that happen."

"Can you stop them?"

"I don't know, but I'll try."

"Sophia says that's why my skin is so pale, because one of those monsters is my dad."

"Cal, you can't listen to her. You know she doesn't care about us."

"But she's our mom."

"No, she's not. She's just the person who started us on our way. After that, she's nothing. It's just you and me, Cal. That's all we need. We're brothers and always will be."

"And that's more important than having a mom?"

"For us, yes. We just have to stick together and we'll be okay. I promise."

"What if one day I do become a monster like she says?"

"You are not a monster, Cal. Don't say it again, okay? Monsters don't have big brothers to look after them and protect them. You do."

"Most of the kids at school who have brothers, they always talk mean about them. They say that their big brothers pick on them and push them around."

"Yeah, well, most big brothers don't have to raise their little brothers. They have parents for that. Parents that love and care about them. You and me, we have each other. But that's all we need. It's my job to teach you and to care about you."

"You scared me when you got so sick."

"I know I did. I'm sorry, Cal."

"If you died, I would have wanted to die too."

"Don't say that. You're too young to think that way."

"I'm too young to know that monsters are real."

"Yeah. But, just no, Cal. I won't get sick like that again. I'll do everything I can to stay healthy. For you, okay?"

"And please don't die."

"I promise not to die if you promise to stop calling yourself a monster. Deal?"

"Deal!"

"Good. And Cal, it doesn't matter what Sophia says to you, what bad things she tries to put in your head and make you think about…you have me and I love you no matter what. Understand?"

"Because we're brothers."

"Always."

"I think maybe I'm luckier than those kids at school who have a mom and a dad. They don't have a big brother like I have."

"You know it, little brother."

I sighed heavily standing in the doorway to Cal's bedroom.

Honestly I had no idea why that old memory was so clear at the moment. Maybe it had to do with the road trip from hell we'd been on recently. Or the enormous changes that had come because of that trip. Or maybe it was just me clinging to a memory of a much more innocent time when I only had to worry about monsters staring in windows. I didn't have to worry about my little brother mutating into one. I know it terrified him, losing himself to his Auphe side. That idea scared me just as much. But I knew that the human part of Cal was still strong and still good.

Not long ago, I'd spent time each night for six months watching him sleep. Having – needing – to make sure that he was safe from anything and everything that sought to hurt him. Now I had to make sure that he was safe from himself too.

And I would. I loved my brother from the moment I set eyes on him. Minutes after he was born, he was in my arms, screaming and crying. Sophia hadn't even taken a second to clean him off. From that time on, I had only one responsibility - my little brother. I vowed to raise him and teach him and love him. That vow still holds today. Of course, he's got over twenty years on him now, so maybe the raising part is over – or maybe not - but I'll never stop teaching him. And I'll never stop loving him, no matter what he becomes. If I have to ultimately make the final decision – should he ever become too Auphe…

That final act will be out of love for my brother, not hatred for what he could not control.

I took one final look at his resting form and turned for my own room.

His slurred, sleeping voice stopped me.

"Nik, what's wrong?"

The white glow of the full moon shone into his window, allowing me to see the tired concern on his face.

"Nothing, Cal. It's fine. I was just thinking of the past."

"By staring at me?"

"The time I was so sick when I was eleven. The talk we had after."

Cal remembered too. Certain moments from our childhood we remembered with such clarity, it was like they happened only yesterday.

"If you ever get that sick again, Nik, I'll kill you."

"You'll try."

He brushed his dark hair off his face, but made no effort to move his head from the pillow.

"I remember that. Scared the shit outta me. More so than the monsters at the time. I'd never seen anyone that sick. And…it was you."

"Scared me too. I thought I was going to die and leave you in the hands of Sophia."

"I was serious when I said I was ready to die if you did."

"I know you were."

"A seven year old contemplating suicide because the only person in his life who gave a crap about him was dying and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it. Good times."

"But you did do something."

"I got lucky."

"Or not. Doesn't matter, Cal. It's in the past."

"And we're still screwed, aren't we?"

"Probably more so."

"Could be worse, I guess."

"I guess."

"And you know I haven't changed my mind if..."

"I know that too."

"I'm glad you woke me up so we could reminisce about such inspiring thoughts of death and dying. Thanks, Nik. Are you finished staring at me?"

"For now."

Cal pushed out an impatient breath. "I'm okay, Nik. I swear."

"It's not you, Cal. It's me."

"You worry me when you get like that. Always carrying too much of my weight around. Those ninja shoulders of yours are only so strong, Nik. Just…get some rest, okay? We're still coming down from that damn road trip. That was...difficult. For both of us."

"It's fine. Okay, I'll stop staring. Don't forget, we're doing five miles at seven AM sharp. Goodnight, Cal."

"Yeah, sure, whatever."

I tried to sleep, but ended up floating in that same area of memories for the next hour. I surrendered the effort finally and landed in the kitchen table sipping on a drink. Not long after, Cal wandered in. His pillow clutched in his arms, I stared at his crooked, grumpy face and wayward hair.

"Nice look for you, little brother. What brings you from the world of the unconscious?"

"You, damn it."

"Me?"

"Yeah. You and your worrying."

"Ah, I see. Or, I don't really."

"You were nosing around my room because you're worried about me. And like I said, you worry me when you worry about worrying about me. So, your worry is keeping me up. Stop it."

"Only in your convoluted mind does that make any sense."

"It means…I am fine. Worry about other things, like having a life with Promise, or how to sharpen swords in your sleep, or learning tricks with duct tape that will keep Robin's mind and mouth from gallivanting us back in time with images of his Roman-age sexual exploits."

"Interesting. I have no need to worry about those things. They are what they are. You want a drink?"

"Sorry, my indulgence for wheatgrass and soy milk isn't what it used to be."

"It's tea, dumb ass."

"Tea? Just straight up tea?"

"Iced."

"Are you ill, Nik?"

"Do you want some or not?"

"Okay, sure."

I poured him a glass and he proceeded to spit it out all over the table, spraying half of it on my face. Although wet, I had enjoyed my subtle revenge.

"That is NOT tea. It's got rotting leaves in it and I think it burned a hole in my tongue."

"It's Oolong fire tea."

"What the hell is Oolong fire tea?"

"It's good for you."

"You are such a bastard sometimes."

"But I do enjoy myself. If you had stayed in bed, this wouldn't have happened."

"If you didn't worry about me so much, I wouldn't have had to come out here."

So here we were again.

"I do worry and I will continue to do so. It's my job."

"And it's my job to tell you that at some point you have to let go a little."

"I've let go more than you'll ever know."

"A little more, Nik. And not for me. For you. You bear too much sometimes. No, not sometimes. Every damn thing that happens to me, you shoulder it. It's not healthy for you to spend so much time concerned about me and my monster issues."

"And it's less healthy for me if you die."

He couldn't argue with me on that one. I know how much I had sacrificed for Cal in my lifetime. I would never regret one moment of that sacrifice. Cal knew that too. But it didn't stop him from trying to force me to live life for me once in a while. The effort was appreciated.

"Yeah, I know. So, how about we meet in the middle? I won't die and you just…hell, you just be you, Nik. I can't stop what you are. If I could, I'd have died a long time ago. Don't know why I try. You're more hard headed than I am."

"I don't think that's possible."

"Remember that time you were talking about before? About when we were kids and you were sick. One of the things I remember was telling you how lucky I was to have a big brother like you. Even if I didn't have parents like the other kids in school. Well, that's not true. I did have parents, but one wanted to eat me and the other wanted to feed me to the one who wanted to eat me. No nominations for Parents of the Year there. But I had you. And that turned out to be all I needed. What does all this mean? Essentially, we're both so royally screwed up that a Shrink would commit us in seconds. But, what the hell! So what if we've got seriously contorted codependency issues. So what if half of me appreciates the taste of extra-rare Bambi kebabs, and hopes to one day rule the world with mayhem and murder. So what if you can carve a tomato like a pumpkin with a machete while your eyes are closed and you're hanging from a ceiling fan. I think I've done rather well considering what I had as a kid and what I have now. I am damn certain of one thing in my life though. Things would have been a hell of a lot worse without that big brother that I was so lucky to have."

"Can't argue there. I was a cool big brother."

"Still are, Cyrano. Except now you've earned the label, kick-ass big brother. Just…try not to worry so much, okay?"

"For you, I will try."

"Good. Now, since I think it took an extra bit of stamina to keep my lazy ass out of bed this long at this godforsaken hour in order to have such a serious discussion with you, I think that's enough effort extended to get me out of running in the morning. I will see you about ten AM. Enjoy yourself."

Of course I grabbed him by his hair as he tried to get away and I turned him towards me in one quick flowing motion.

"I think not, little brother. Seven AM. Five miles. Any argument and I'll up it to ten miles. Understand? Good. Now you may return to bed."

He smirked at me and shuffled towards his room but not before looking back once more, his face suddenly deadly serious.

"Hey, big brother?"

"Yeah?"

"Thanks for worrying."

I snorted a breath and shook my head. Then, I hurled his forgotten pillow at his back, which, thanks to my constant and insistent training, he'd fully expected and he caught without looking back towards me.

I hadn't expected him to throw the thing back at me though, which he did. And it slammed into my head at full swatting pillow speed. Cal was lucky he was able to make it to his room and secure the door before I caught him.

"Seven AM, Cal. Seven AM. You are so mine."

The only response I heard was a snicker of laughter - rare for my brother - coming from the other side of the door. Then he mumbled something unintelligible and flopped onto the bed.

I unsecured the door and found him sprawled out and already sound asleep. That was all Cal.

He'd be fine for the rest of the night. I could pack away my worries for another time.

I did and wandered to my own bed. Instead of sleep, I once again found myself in the past. Good memories this time. Moments we'd had when it was okay to just be kids for a short while. To just be brothers. The moments never lasted long, but neither of us ever forgot them.

I lost track of time as I reminisced. Finally I glanced at the clock ticking away on my nightstand. It was ten minutes till seven. I dragged Cal out of his bed, after whacking him with the alarm clock and pouring ice water on his head. Sometimes being the big brother did have its privileges.

"Up and at 'em, my indolent and sleep-starved brother."

He cursed into his pillow as I dragged him by his legs through the living room and towards the door. He groaned and turned over onto his back. "Why couldn't I have had a big sister instead whose only worry in the morning was make-up and hair? Instead I got you dragging me on a butt-crack of dawn marathon through the polluted city, pushing me until I explode."

I ignored his rambling as he continued vocalizing his complaints and dressed. I slapped him on the back as we stepped outside the apartment building. "Look at the bright side, Cal."

"Which is what?"

"Not sure yet, but there has to be one, right?"

"I hate you right now, Cyrano. I really do."

Another slap to the back. "I know. Fun, isn't it? Let's go!"

We ran.

I pushed him because I had to.

I pushed him because he was my only family and I had no intention of losing him to himself or to any other creature.

And as I had now been elevated to 'kick-ass' big brother, losing him was just never going to happen.

But still, I shoulder the weight. And still, I worry.

END