Author: Obi the Kid
Rating: PG (for language)
Summary: Niko POV. My take (feeding from the snippets we know in the books) on Cal's return from Tumulus.
Disclaimer: The characters of Cal and Niko belong to Rob Thurman. I make no money from the writing or distribution of this story.
"You are. I can see it in your eyes when I put the food on the table. They practically drool."
"Yeah, I know."
I still didn't have the heart to push too hard. I'd only had my little brother back seven days now. Seven days returned from Grendel hell. He'd been gone for two days in my reality. But Cal had aged at least two years. Time moved differently wherever he'd been taken and he'd come back - we guessed - as a sixteen year old. Only two years younger than me, whereas two days ago he was four years younger. His hair was longer and he'd grown several inches in height. He was bone thin, which scared the hell out of me. But it was his face that had changed the most. It flushed at a constant state of uncertainty and terror. His gray eyes were darker than I'd ever remembered.
Yet, he was still Cal. He was still my little brother.
I'd gotten him back and as quickly as I could, I moved us. My battered car was about all we had left. I'd put him into a set of my clothes and gotten him into the car despite his flinching from my touch. From there, I just drove not knowing what might be following us, but determined to get the hell out of dodge with my brother in one piece.
To say that the first week had been difficult would be too easy. It was ten times worse than that. Cal would spend most of his days curled in a ball, refusing to allow me any physical contact. Most of our time had been spent in the car, which didn't help matters and the few words he managed were hoarse and pained. I'd come to realize that his throat was sore. I couldn't be certain why, but I took a guess that it was from screaming at whatever torture had been forced on him. I did my best not to leave him alone, but there were times, a few minutes here and there, when I had no choice. I'd return and find him sitting up with his arms wrapped around his legs – his knife held in one hand and at the ready. He kept it with him constantly. And if it offered him even the tiniest of comforts, I wasn't about to take it away.
He knew me. He was comfortable enough with me. But he was terrified at the same time.
Into the second week of his return and a sign of small improvement. And it was Cal who initiated contact. He'd said my name after waking from a nightmare and reached his hand over to grasp my arm. I sat quietly then, waiting for him to decide which way his mind needed to go. When he said my name again, this time with a sob, I took a chance and reached back to him.
He accepted the embrace hesitantly at first, before clutching at me desperately, his arms bear-hugged tightly around me as his face buried in my chest.
"I'm here, Cal. Right here. You're safe now. I won't let them take you again. I promise, little brother."
He never did let go completely and eventually fell asleep at my side for a time.
Into our third week and although I hadn't believed it possible, Cal had lost even more weight. He had already been thin when I'd gotten him back. Now, because his eating habits had become so non-existent, he was barely taking enough in to sustain him, and it showed in his sunken face. It made our situation that much worse.
We were now in the third crap motel room we'd stayed in so far, I was doing my best to leave an impossible trail for the Grendel to follow. We skipped here and there, taking detours and paths off the beaten road. I hated to keep moving as it did nothing to help Cal find stability, but until I felt safe enough, we had no other choice. We were heading to visit the Vayash clan. Our mother's clan. We needed money. We needed help. We needed family if they would allow it. I had no idea if they knew what Sophia had done to produce Cal, though if the Vayash were aware that he wasn't completely human, they'd reject – or try to kill him – without hesitation. But I had to try.
My main concern at the moment however was that Cal wasn't eating. I'd convinced him to eat something, for me, enough to keep him upright, but not knowing what the hell he'd been through, I didn't think forcing the issue would be helpful. We'd reached the point though where I was beginning to think I might have to go that route.
It was enough that Cal was living his life in fear. Huddling into the jacket he wore – my jacket – with his knife never leaving his hand. He didn't remember what had happened to him, only the horror it brought with it. His mind and body had been conditioned to react in certain ways after two years of hell. Most of his days he spent curled up on top of the bed. At night, he'd retreat under the bed, sleeping – if one could call what he did sleeping – in a fetal ball with one hand clutching the knife. If the bed wasn't tall enough, he'd find a dark corner for the same purpose.
Thankfully, after that one breakthrough, he was now more accepting to physical contact. This last evening, I sat with him in his corner – he couldn't fit under the bed - his shoulder leaning heavily on mine until his eyes trembled shut.
It was another small step, but a step nonetheless.
Now as he sat hunched at the tiny table in the motel room, I had to convince him to eat. Absently, he pushed the noodles around the plate. At the very least, he drank the juice I'd poured into a plastic cup. I'd made the mistake of using glass the previous night – after finding several in the sink of our room - and in an angry rage, he hurled it across the kitchen, shattering it into hundreds of tiny pieces. Plastic was better. Safer for both of us.
I put a loosely constructed half-turkey sandwich on his plate next to the noodles. Very bland and very easy. Gray eyes lifted to mine and I saw the depth of the pain within them. I matched his stare, refusing to break it. I needed him to trust me completely. I needed for him to see that he was safe. I needed him to know that I never allow the Grendel to ever set another hand on him.
Cal saw all of that in my eyes and finally blinked.
"I do, Nik."
"Trust you. You...waited for me."
"I had to."
Cal swallowed roughly, his throat still scratchy and sore. This was the most he'd spoken since his return.
The desperate tone turned my worry on end. I reached a hand across the table and softly grasped his wrist. He didn't flinch at my touch.
"I'm here, Cal."
His fragile emotional state broke open and there was no strength to stop the tears that began. In my book, this was a positive sign. Cal was allowing his body to react to the trauma. He may not be a big fan of crying his eyes out, but it was good for him. And I let him know it as I got up and moved to stand behind him. Placing my hands on his shoulders, I massaged them gently and lowered my head next to his. "It's all right, little brother. You're safe with me now. I'll take care of you. I promise."
I saw his head bob up and down in a nod as he wrapped his arms around himself, rocked slightly in his chair and cried harder. Eventually I reached my arms around his shoulders, pulling him back towards me in a hug. My chin rested on the top of his head.
Between stuttering breaths, he managed to force out a sentence that made me smile.
"Don't like turkey."
True. Cal wasn't a turkey eater. There had never been a Thanksgiving feast in the Leandros household. Hell, we were lucky if we had bread and water. But I think Cal developed an unnatural hatred of turkey because while the other kids at school were stuffing themselves silly with it during and after big family Thanksgivings, Cal was trying not to be envious of what they had when they went home each afternoon. Loving mothers that didn't fall over drunk or sell themselves to the highest bidding creature of doom. Supportive fathers that didn't try to eat their children or haunt their dreams.
He took his frustrations out on the turkey.
"I know you don't, but I'm desperate here, Cal."
I released him from the embrace and pulled my chair alongside his, sitting close. Cal wiped at his eyes and then patted my hand that sat nearest him.
"Worry too much."
"Maybe. But I already lost you once. I won't lose you again. For me, Cal, please eat something."
"Anything you want. We'll find it. Just name your food."
An unusual request coming from the king of meat eaters, but I wouldn't question it.
"That's fine. You tell me, Cal. We'll go right now. We're leaving this place today anyway. We can stop on the way to our next motel."
Cal shook his head. "Running?"
"Yes and for as long as it takes to keep you safe, little brother."
Of course running took money. And I didn't have much of that laying around. Depending on the outcome of our meeting with the Vayash clan, if I could find a decent place where I thought we might be safe, I could make quick money with some temp work at dojo or something. At eighteen, I was more advanced in my martial arts than most black belt instructors. It should be easy enough. But if it meant leaving Cal alone for hours at a time - I wasn't ready to do that.
"I'll make you a deal. You start eating at least one solid meal a day, and I'll find us a place to crash for a bit where I can get out and make a little money at the same time. And we can stop running for a while."
I stifled a laugh. "I promise, no turkey."
His eyes glazed over. He was exhausted.
"We're moving out tonight. I want you to get cleaned up. A bath would do nice. You've only had a few since you came back. And honestly Cal, you stink." I had hoped for a smile, but didn't get one. "You can sleep in the car."
There was no resistance. No fight. Not like the old Cal would have brought to me. Now there was only a sad nod as he eased himself up from the table.
I watched him walk to the bathroom, staggering every few steps. I called after him. "Don't lock the door!" He heard me, but didn't respond. He even left the door open. I listened for the sounds. Water on. Tub filling. Filthy sixteen-year-old entering the water. Soap slipping and thumping onto the hard tub bottom. Shampoo bottle splashing down. Everything was fine until twenty minutes passed and I heard nothing.
I sprinted to the open doorway and found Cal curled up in one end of the tub, his arms clutched around his body. He trembled. The water had gone cold and had taken Cal with it.
I knelt down and touched his shoulder, bringing his faraway eyes back to focus on me.
His head turned suddenly and he let out a deep shuddering breath. "Nik?"
"Right here, little brother."
"I know. You let the water cool down."
I nodded, trying to understand, but not completely able to. Grendel hell must not have been a very warm place, as Cal had complained of being cold since he'd come back.
"Let's get you out of the water and into warm clothes. You can wear my blue sweats."
I got him out of the tub, dried and warmed up in a matter of minutes. I sat him on the bed while I packed our meager belongings and tossed them in the car. After this episode, I'd decided we were leaving sooner rather than later.
I put Cal into the passenger side. He was snuggly fitted into my sweats. They were a bit large for him, but fit better than his old clothes that dressed a fourteen, but not a sixteen-year-old Cal. Another reason we needed money. Cal needed clothes. The dwindling money I had wouldn't last forever. And I could only justify spending it on food, lodging and gas.
We drove for hours before finding a spot to grab a meal. "It's a pizza joint, Cal. And not even vegan. All the grease and cheese you want."
He didn't respond or move from his assumed fetal position. I parked the car.
"I'll be back in a few minutes. Keep the doors locked. If you need me, you yell as loud as you can."
There was an unsure nod from the passenger seat as Cal pulled his legs tighter to his chest, and covered himself with the blanket I'd given him. He held a death grip on his knife. When I got back with the food, he was in the same exact spot, all except his eyes. They were somewhere far away. I bounced him back to me and he unlocked the doors.
"I've got pizza. Ready to eat?"
He shook his head.
The word was as patient and soft as I could make it, but with more force than any amount of yelling could have done. Having raised Cal, I knew that he could not and would not refuse that type of order. So I put a slice of pizza on a paper plate and handed it to him. Slowly he unwrapped himself from his ball and held the warm plate in his hand.
The first bite was painful to watch. The second and third, not much better. He gagged violently after each one, but continued. Eventually his stomach overruled his mind and he realized how hungry he truly was. The first slice was gone in minutes. A second followed. Then a third. A great wave of relief washed through me. It must have been evident in my face because Cal commented on it.
"Very much so, yes.
"Don't want to burden anymore."
"Damn it Cal, stop it. If you were a burden, do you think I'd keep you around? Do you honestly think I'd continue to give a crap about you if I thought you a burden?"
He didn't respond. And he knew better than that. I'd do anything for Cal. Hell, I'd die for him if he asked me too. Even if he didn't ask me.
"I know, Nik."
"What?" He'd caught me off guard.
"You would die for me."
No, Cal couldn't read minds, but we'd spent our entire lives together. Do that with one person and you get a sense sometimes of what the other is thinking. My brother could read me almost as well I could read myself.
I handed him another slice of pizza.
"I would, Cal. In a second."
His voice became a whisper as he focused on his food. "I know."
And that was that. Another few bites and he curled back into his ball in the corner of the seat.
Now a month into our new lives, Cal was still progressing slowly. Our meeting with the Vayash hadn't gone well. They were all too aware of what Cal was. What Sophia had done to create him. They rejected him instantly and even offered to put him out of his misery. They would accept me if I ridded myself and the world of my brother. I turned away from them and never looked back. I may be one of them, but they weren't family. Cal was my only true family. I knew that for absolute certain now. As had been the case since I was four years old - all that Cal and I had was each other. And that would have to be enough.
After that encounter, my clunker of a car made it another hundred miles and to another broken down motel. This one, adjacent to a University town where there was surely money to be made. Perhaps this could be our home for a while. I left Cal secured in the car as I checked us in. The room was small and not very clean. A bathroom with a tub and shower. A kitchenette with a stove and microwave. A living/sleeping area with two single beds. The first thing I did was look at the height of the bed off the floor. Enough room for Cal to sleep under after I moved the bed and disinfected the entire room. This place would do.
That night, the floor clean, Cal took up his usual spot under the bed. His body curled into its defensive position. I was up for a time, reading a weapons book that had been a resident of my car trunk for a number of years. The light on the nightstand between the two beds, I kept on when I turned in. If Cal needed to find me in the middle of the night, I was going to make it as easy as possible for him.
And he did find me that night. Well it was more early morning. I hadn't opened my eyes, but felt him move from under the bed, into the bathroom, and then to the side of my bed. He sat on the floor, leaning against the side of my mattress. He wasn't after physical contact so much as just needing to be close. I didn't get up. He knew I was awake. Instead, I rolled from my stomach to my side and put a hand on Cal's shoulder, laying it there and feeling a bit of the tension run out of him. When I woke after five, my hand was in the same position. Although not sleeping, Cal was resting quietly, wrapped in a blanket.
A few minutes of decision making and I got up and dressed. Cal didn't move from his spot. I checked my wallet. Enough for breakfast. "Cal, there was a breakfast joint a mile down the road. What do you feel like?" He shrugged. "Eggs and waffles it is then. You okay for a few minutes?" He nodded absently and I knelt down beside him and touched his face. I tried to touch him as often as I could now, to let him know I was there. That he wasn't alone. Now he seemed to look for the contact and he closed his eyes to accept it. "I won't be long. Keep the door locked."
And I wasn't long. The food wasn't of my appreciative tastes, as I didn't much care for grease as a food group, but they did have a fruit dish that I could tolerate. I set the food on the small kitchenette table.
"Breakfast, Cal. Time to get up."
My brother didn't move. I'd have to prod him. Again I knelt beside, putting a hand on his shoulder. His eyes were red-rimmed and worried. I made no mention of the fact that he'd been crying while I was gone, but it about broke my heart and not for the first time, I wondered if Cal would ever be Cal again.
Silently, I cupped my hand around his neck and pulled him toward me for a moment. He spoke muffled words into my chest. "Grease for breakfast?"
I smiled. "Your favorite food."
He eased away from my hold and straightened. "You do love me." And there came the tiniest of lip twitches. Not a smile by any stretch of the imagination, but a sign that the old Cal was still in there somewhere. My hopes brightened a bit.
"You know I do little brother. We'll eat and then take a walk into town. You think you're up to it?"
A shrug answered my question. Well, we'd work on that.
To my surprise, Cal ate both waffles – after drowning them in six of those little plastic rectangle-shaped syrup packets. And he downed the eggs in a matter of minutes. It was enough to make big brother proud. "Good boy, Cal." He eyed my empty fruit bowl suspiciously. "I ate it. It was a day older than it should be, but tolerable."
I knew he what he was referring to. Safe. Or in other words, was it Grendel free?
"I've not seen a hair of them since you came back. Maybe we lost them. You'll be okay. Just stay with me. It'll do your legs good to stretch a little. And you can help me find a job. I want to get us a pair of cell phones. Just those prepaid things for now, so when I do have to leave you, you can find me. We've got enough money for that. I've paid through the week for the motel. If I don't have a job by then, we'll move on."
Cal pulled himself out of the chair and tossed his trash. It pained me to see how slow his movements were. How he was in a constant battle with exhaustion. His eyes seemed to be in a permanent half-shut position. There was some progress there though, and that's really all I needed to see. I didn't know how long it would take to move beyond the worst of this, if it ever happened. But giving up on Cal was not an option.
We drove the two miles to the University town. College-aged students abounded. Several parks marked the edges of the school property. Beyond, were many small shops and businesses. And beyond that were residential areas. Plenty of bodies. Crowds. To an extent, that meant safety from the Grendels. From what I'd figured about them, they weren't big fans of crowded areas. So for Cal and I, there was probably safety in numbers.
Cal sensed it too and managed better than I thought he would in what was really his first social outing since the nightmare. Wary and nervous, but he stayed at my side, one hand keeping touch with my jacket sleeve while the other rested on the hilt of the knife inside his jacket. I didn't want to, but I left him outside on a park bench near several bunches of students while I stepped inside a local martial arts center that held a posted help-wanted sign in the window. I was grinning when I exited the doors. Cal was immediately at my side.
"You're okay, Cal. You did fine." I knew the looks he probably had gotten. Not your typical teenager with his unkempt hair, gaunt and pale face and constant wariness of anything around him. The sunglasses I'd given him helped to hide some of the gauntness. They also helped with his sensitivity to sunlight. We'd surmised that Grendel hell had been a dark place and readjusting to sunlight was difficult. But he managed.
I told him the good news. "I got a job." I slowed my pace to match his as we walked unhurriedly around the park. I took note of every shop and every person around us. "Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Days. Tuesday and Thursday nights."
Cal stopped walking, his hand on my arm tightening. "Nights?"
I'd hated committing to nights for the job, but that was the offer. And it paid well. I couldn't turn it down. "It's all right. You'll come with me to work, nights and days."
There was a relieved nod as he slowed down his sudden panicked breathing. Days were difficult enough for Cal, but nights were scary as hell. . Either way, Cal wouldn't be alone for any extended period until he was ready.
We walked again. I kept talking.
"Pay is good. First week's pay will get you a couple pairs of pants and shirts. Can't afford anything more than the ratty motel we're in though. At least we can get a couple of things in your size. Maybe a new jacket."
He shook his head and clutched at the dark jacket he wore – my jacket. It had been a source of comfort for him since he'd come back.
"That's okay. You can keep mine." I rested a hand on the nape of Cal's neck as we walked; a quiet gesture of comfort to a terrified sixteen-year-old.
We spent a little more time in town, picked up some food - healthy and junk. I also spared a few dollars for a new bottle of shampoo and bar of soap. Only the necessities. If we had to pick up and run for our lives again, I didn't want anything foolish weighing us down. The one vital purchase I did make was that of two pre-paid cell phones. As long as we kept them charged, Cal would be able to reach me when we were separated.
We'd spent a good half day in town. Our ride back was quiet. Cal didn't talk as he stared out the passenger side window. Once inside our room, he picked up the remote control and flipped on the TV. I didn't press him to eat lunch. I'd save that battle for dinner. At the moment, he appeared to just want the time to himself. I took advantage of his mood to grab a shower and situate the bathroom to my taste.
Cal did eat some dinner; enough to please me. I turned in before he did. His fingers robotically rotated through the limited cable channels we had. Finally he settled on the weather station. It seemed hypnotic and safe.
My back was turned to him when I heard the first heavy breath. When I flipped over, I saw him still on the bed, but clutching his knees to his chest, rocking slightly. The remote in his right hand, slowly being destroyed in a single-handed and desperate vice-grip.
I was out of my bed in a second and to his side, gently prodding the cracking plastic from his hand. "Let it go, Cal."
He shook his head forcefully and rocked faster. I put a hand on the back of his neck with steady force. Sitting on the bed and leaning towards him, I pressed my forehead to the side of his head and lowered my voice to a bare whisper.
"It's over, Cal. They can't – they won't – hurt you again. It's over. I'm here."
The rocking, accompanied by some heavy hyper-ventilating, lessened as I sat with him. Rocking with him. Eventually he stilled but I didn't attempt to move from the contact, nor did he.
Short, panting breaths were replaced with slower, deeper ones. I felt him close his eyes and try and focus on my presence. It seemed to work.
He sat, now half in my embrace, until he found words.
I utilized the bathroom before turning in again. I heard Cal take his knife in his hand and crawl under the bed. By now I knew it took him about sixty seconds to get situated. This time at least he did take a pillow with him. I could only hope he'd find a few hours of terror-free rest.
That next morning, he surprised me by being up first. Or at least I thought he was up. Turned out he was upright, but not awake. Sitting at the kitchen table, his head bobbed around as he sat in the chair. Not wanting to startle him, I walked behind and carefully tugged at his black hair. It woke him immediately, though it took a minute for him to clear his foggy eyes.
"How'd you sleep?"
"Could have fooled me the way your head was bouncing around a minute ago."
No response. I took in the dark circles under his eyes. His complexion, already pale, was even more so, especially contrasted against his dark hair. Face sunken in. All the signs of extreme fatigue and low nutrition.
Pulling a few items I'd purchased yesterday from our small refrigerator, I scrambled up a few eggs and sat across from him until he emptied his plate and downed a full glass of orange juice. He may not sleep, but at least he was eating. Perhaps if he got enough in his system, it might satisfy his mind and body enough to sleep for a while.
"There's an office area where you can crash while I'm teaching. I'll just be in the other room. There's a window. You can see me at all times."
Cal sighed as he pushed away his empty plate.
"You know, it would be good for you to work out with me again. Remember how we used to do...before?"
I'd begun training Cal to defend himself as soon as he was physically capable. I think he'd been about seven. At twelve, I gave him his first knife and taught him how to handle it until it became an actual part of him. He'd been nervous with it at first, but I was a patient teacher and it wasn't long before he was more adept at working a knife than those who'd been using them all their lives. We had no one to lean on except each other, so weapons were a necessity.
As far as working out, he wasn't ready. It didn't take much to see that, but I wanted the idea in his head.
"You'll get there, little brother." I put a hand on his shoulder and led him towards the car.
We made a few stops on our ride. Several miles west of the motel, we landed in the most urban part of the city. The location was perfect for buying weapons. Questions would be few. Cash was the demand. The selection would be broader. As it was, we walked out with two swords, a beautifully sculpted katana for myself and a subtly powerful saber for Cal. I talked the owner down on the price of a titanium military combat knife with an eight inch blade. Needless to say I didn't tell him that my brother would be sleeping with the weapon pinned to his palm every night because his father's side of the family consisted of a bunch of pale, lava-eyed creatures with pointy metal teeth who had kidnapped and held him in their tortuous hell for two years. I figured that information was best left unsaid.
All in all, our trip cost more than I planned on spending, just about busting what was left in my pocket, but I'd get paid in a few days. We'd be fine.
It didn't take long for Cal to find the knife to his liking. The grip fit his hand perfectly,
as I knew it would, even without him trying it. The blade was good length, but not overburdening for its purpose. It would offer more security than the tiny army knife he'd been carrying. He turned it over and over in his hand, moving it from one to the other until he was completely comfortable with the blade. The weapon stilled as he glanced up at me, his eyes holding all his emotions.
"Keep it safe," was all I said as I patted him on the arm and we moved to our next stop.
Lunch we grabbed in a safer part of the city, closer to the school. A lard-laden hamburger for Cal and a soy yogurt/fruit combo for me. He ate slowly, but he ate every last crumb. Junk food or not, at this point he was eating and that's what mattered.
A run home was in order before my class that evening. I realized that I couldn't haul swords around with me near an open campus, so at some point I knew I would need to invest in a duster to hide my weapons. Tomorrow was another day though. For now, I'd keep them locked in the trunk or the hotel room. Cal could easily conceal his knife belted and hidden in his sheath on his waistband. His jacket would hide it.
"You want to grab a shower before class," I remarked as we entered our room.
No verbal response but he shook his head.
We were early to the class, which had been my goal. I didn't want Cal's ragged appearance raising any eyebrows with my students. If I put him in a Gi karate uniform and pulled his hair back, he'd pass without a problem, but he wasn't yet interested in playing martial arts with strangers. So he set up in the office and three hours later I found him on the floor, head leaning on the wall and dozing lightly. I scuffed around as quietly as I could, trying not to wake him as I wrapped up the first night's paperwork. When I'd finished, I found Cal's gray eyes looking up at me.
"You feel like a workout yet?"
He still wasn't much interested, but I knew he'd watched some of the class and I could see a little hunger in his eyes. A hunger to work harder and to do anything to put his missing two years behind him.
So the next day we started our very brief and very simple workouts in the motel room before class. Nothing more than stretches and katas and several simple defensive moves. He reacted slowly; too slowly. But with time and patience, he'd find his groove again. Mostly I just wanted him to have something to focus on besides the mind-numbing fear he was living with.
Of course, there was another side effect that I had been hoping for and it showed itself after our first two hour workout, seven days later. Sleep. Solid, uninterrupted sleep that lasted almost three hours. No it wasn't an entire night of sleep. No, it wasn't on top of the bed. And no it wasn't in a normal sleeping position. But for a time, he was out cold. It was almost a happy moment, until a nightmare brought him awake after midnight. He crawled out from under the bed though and I could have sworn those dark circles were the tiniest of shades lighter. Could have been my imagination, but I could see it in his face. For the first time since he'd returned from Grendel hell, he'd experienced the feeling of real sleep, however fleeting.
One a.m. in the morning though and he was winding through TV channels again. It was his pattern after a nightmare. I sat on the bed next to him and snatched the remote away.
"Nik nothing. It's bad for your brain to watch eight channels at once."
Cal shrugged and pushed himself into a sitting position, leaning on the headboard. His left shoulder leaning against my right.
"Even if I'm wrong, I'm right and you should listen to me."
He puzzled over that one for a minute before finding a deep breath. "Always listen to you."
I tried to sooth his rising anxiety.
"You're okay, Cal. No matter what they did to you or what they put you through, you're okay."
He nodded and settled into a pattern of deep breaths. Something I had taught him in these last couple of weeks – something that could help to calm his nerves.
"Oh I've got some good news for you."
The look that crossed his face as I watched him sideways was classic. Old Cal. He titled his head slightly and asked, "Home school?"
"You're only sixteen. Regular kids don't graduate until seventeen or eighteen. So there is lots of learning to do. It's another way I figured out how to keep you from focusing on the bad things. We'll work it around my job and your workouts. All the basics. Science. Math. Biology. History. Mythology. Weapons. Demon-chasing."
"The basics," he repeated doubtfully.
"I only torture you because I love you, little brother. Trust me when I say that."
Cal leaned heavily – and silently - against me. He couldn't verbally say what his actions said best. No matter what suffering I had put him through and would continue to put him through, he'd trust me. Before he'd vanished and since he'd returned, I was the one constant in his life. That would never change.
Four and a half months since his return, we packed up our things and left the motel and job behind. We'd gotten to comfortable there; too comfortable. I was afraid of us losing our edge. If we had to run for the rest of our lives, I was prepared. If it kept Cal alive and safe, I'd do anything I had to.
He'd been taken from me once. I would not allow him to be taken from me again.
I looked over at my brother as we drove. He dozed quietly in the front seat, legs curled under him. His face looked peaceful for the first time since he'd returned. We were turning a corner in his recovery.
One of many.
At some point we'd hit that final bend and the old Cal would be there, giving me hell and slobbing his way through life.
Until then – until Cal was completely Cal again - we'd do the best we could.
And until then, I'd do whatever it took to keep him safe from the monsters that had become all too real.