A/N: The end is near! Hold onto your seats.
I was up till about 4 in the morning writing this. I definitely need to incorporate some writing-time into my daily schedule – it would be much easier on my nights. Anyway, I hope that you all enjoy!
. . . .
. . . .
I was dying.
Slowly but surely.
At least, that was the constant thought that occupied my tired brain as I walked, monotonously, one foot placed automatically in front of the next, toward a public street. I was currently in a network of unmentionable alleys that belonged only to us, filled with a darkness that even a sheep could recognize, even if the exact source of the darkness was unknown. Did I say "sheep"? I meant human. Maybe I was wrong … maybe only half of me was dying, the sheep side, which of course was weaker.
Did I say "sheep"? I meant human.
Man, I was tired. I was reaching deep down me for a plan, a remnant of a plan … even the definition of a "plan" would've been helpful right now, but I was finding nothing. The bloodlust wasn't even screaming at me anymore, and yet it was the only thing keeping me on my feet right now. It was like how you feel late at night, when you're so exhausted you can't do anything but move mechanically in the direction of bed, because that's the one thing you want in the world.
The gash near my neck had stopped bleeding, but it was hanging open and shimmering fresh red, having lost far too much already. The wound in my stomach hurt, but the blood flow wasn't terrible and I'd managed to stop it some. I'd stripped a hoodie off one of the dead Wolves and cinched it tightly around my abdomen. Sloppy. But crudely effective – it would hold off the inevitable for a while. The rest of my wounds now seemed superficial – the slash in my left arm, the bloody marks across my left hand, the aches and pains in the general neck-down area. Again, sloppy. But who really gave a damn?
A vague realization wriggled in the back of my mind that said holy shit. Just one night and look at you. One night without Niko and I was fighting like a damn Auphe, thinking like a retard, and all but falling to pieces physically and mentally. Emotionally, I was fine. For now. But you never know when a complete breakdown is going to hit you, though. They're hiding all over the place, those breakdowns … those … damn …
Two things, I saw at once. First a public phone, then a taxi. I almost lifted my arm to hail the cab, but for some reason I let it drive by. I needed the phone first.
I had to make a call.
Robin picked up on the second ring, his voice a full gamut of tense emotion. Worry, anger, urgency, anticipation. "Who is it?"
"Um," I said, eloquently. I couldn't remember why I called, or if I even had a reason.
"Cal? Thank gods you're alright."
Oh yeah, the reason. I remembered now. It was that I was dying, I was going to go kill somebody and probably myself, and there was apparently enough human in me to want to thank someone for sticking around and, hell, trying. Even if it hadn't worked. "Thanks … Loman," I managed, words clumsy, "You've been … one … son-of-a-bitch …" I was slurring, and I think I'd missed the actual compliment that should've occurred right before the "son-of-a-bitch", but he got the idea. It was probably just as well, since this kind of sentimental talk was definitely going to strike me as embarrassing in the near future.
"Caliban, listen, I'm in a penthouse not far from Promise's … did you get my voicemail?" he slowed down a minute, as if my words just sunk in. "You are alright, aren't you?"
I was glad my words were sinking in, because his sure weren't. All I heard was Promise's name. In my head, over and over like a mantra. "I'm going to kill her, Robin," I slurred, the phone suddenly becoming heavy in my hand. It sank low, until all I could hear was Robin's urgent words blending together like one of Niko's heavy and puzzling health drinks. I think I said something else, but I couldn't remember. The next thing I knew the phone was back on the hook and I had driven my knife right through the base of the phone and was saying "damn it damn it damn it damn it damn it" over and over again. Niko's fucking health drinks.
I hid my knife, because I knew no cab driver wouldn't stop for me otherwise. It was still a near thing, and I had to wait there as several cabs completely bypassed my bedraggled appearance. It was dark enough so that the blood wasn't too visible, but I didn't need blood to look like a deranged psychopath escaped from the local ward. Finally one stopped, the driver (who didn't look all that reputable himself) eying me for a moment before reluctantly letting me in. I climbed into the backseat and gave him Promise's home address. And the moment the words rolled off my tongue, I felt good. I felt reeeeaaaal good.
. . . .
It wasn't quite so dark when my feet hit the pavement once again, in front of Promise's home. The sun seemed to be gaining on me.
The cab screeched away, but not before I reached into my pocket and gave the driver all the money that was inside it. Not sure why I did, but I'm fairly sure he thought it was a mistake on my part, because he grabbed the cash and took off like the devil was on his tail. I didn't watch him go. I was the devil too, and my knife was once again in my hand. No gun – but I'd take care of that in just a few minutes.
Promise was not expecting me. I knew that because the doorman let me right in, recognizing me, having been told nothing. No "Keep Caliban Leandros out of my penthouse" orders from Mrs. Nottinger. She'd seen me back at the Elysium, barely able to stand up, weak, weak like a human. She'd thought I would die. But she'd forgotten, I was only half-human.
Or maybe that wasn't it at all. Maybe she knew that other half of me so well, she was fully aware that no doorman would stop me.
Either way, I was in.
The elevator slid up, slowly. I stared down at my blood-stained shoes on the familiar rose-patterned rug. I'd stood on this rug hundreds of times, all the way back in the days when it was Nik's job to babysit wealthy chicks like Mrs. Nottinger. And of course, he sometimes needed help (aka 'me'). Did he split the pay with his reluctant assistant? Need I ask that question again? Money or no money, there were two pairs of boots on this rug back then.
Was not going to think about that.
The elevator doors slid open, and I slid out, leaving blood on the roses. Down the hall, in front of the thick oak-wood door, there were Promise's bodyguards. Not inside, of course … perish the thought. They could protect her well enough from outside.
Outside, inside, whatever, they were damn terrified of me. I was the one who smelled evil and wrong, the one who was supposed to be six feet under already, but was still marching around on two feet. I had survived this long through the night, and they knew that. It did not make for a very joyous reunion. At least, on their part. Auphe Cal was very pleased to see them, as a matter of fact, the reason very simply being that one of them was carrying a handgun. In moments it was mine and he was on the floor with a few painful presents I'd given him. Not that he hadn't given me some in return, but again, they were superficial. I barely felt a thing.
The remaining Wolves clambered in through the door, alerting her, yelling into the dimly-lit apartment. The lovebirds were still up, apparently. They couldn't have arrived here too far before me, after all.
Promise was pissed – but I could see the fear in her eyes as she appeared in the hallway across the foyer. She had a gun. For one brief fraction of a second she stood in the hallway facing me from across the room, shotgun in hand, regarding me as I regarded her. Brother and sister bonding time. Then we both simultaneously shot and dove out of the way. Her bullet missed; mine didn't. I was aiming for her weapon, and with a distorted clink of metal the gun bounced right out of her hand. And then I bolted across the foyer and leapt for her.
Too many things happened at once. I had Promise on the floor under me, my knife blade wedged underneath her chin. Niko appeared just a few feet away, bellowing with rage, black sweatpants, T-shirt, right arm bandaged but sword at the ready nonetheless – I saw everything but his face. I didn't look at his face. A quick glance told me the Wolves were still there as well, at my back, joined by a few more brothers and sisters that entered the penthouse with black hoods thrust over their faces. They most likely wanted nothing more to do with me, but that wasn't good enough. I aimed my gun over my shoulder, and in a moment the chain that had once dangled Promise's delicate chandelier over the foyer snapped and a tangle of lights and glass shattered between me and Promise's wolves.
The moment it hit, I saw Niko jerk toward me. Gripping the knife, I screamed – "Closer and she dies!" I still couldn't look at him.
This was it.
No one was coming near me, and Promise was merciless at my hands. I could do it – tickle a few veins, burst them, burst some more, or just slice them all at once and watch the blood flow sweet and stain those mocking pearls. I could have … except my damn traitorous human side sprang that elusive breakdown on me, at the worst possible moment.
I couldn't kill her. I couldn't kill Promise.
It was just as stark and as plain as the bloodlust had been only moments earlier. When Niko had found me in Nevah's Landing so long ago, I had been more innocent than he'd been since the age of four, and happier than he probably remembered me. But I hadn't known him. It had been total hell for Nik in those few days, trying to deal with me, resigning himself to the fact that I could no longer really be with him – but resign himself he did. He chose my happiness over his own, and if I did any less than that now I wasn't worth shit. I'd previously figured that after I killed Promise and then died myself, it would be over and done with – but that wasn't true. Nik would still be alive, and he would live life in torment after this night. Why?
Because he would've lost Promise.
Yeah, it hurt. But I would deal. That's what brothers did.
Which is why I was proud, not ashamed, to throw away my knife – clean of blood. Promise had taken me away from Niko because she loved him. Well, I was giving up, letting him have this woman, this monster – because I loved him more.
Violet eyes watched, shocked, as my knife skittered away and the gun dripped from my hand. I didn't realize until that moment how very tired I was, and how much I hurt. I barely stopped myself from groaning with the pain when I pushed myself off of her. I almost fell, but managed to stay on my knees, bloody hands pressed against the floor. That was where my false pride ended, and I did honest-to-God feel ashamed. All that talk about never going down without a fight, and here I was, giving myself up. Nothing would've ever made me bare myself to the sword like this … except if that sword was in Niko's hands.
Except I shouldn't have had to wait. That katana was too fast for waiting, those ninja reflexes too sharp. I shouldn't have even had time to push myself away. Why the hell wasn't I fucking dead yet?
I raised my head, and finally looked Niko in the face.
And my heart stopped.
He knew me.
His eyes were back, no longer cold and contemptuous, but real and familiar and … hell … back. They blinked, disoriented, as if coming out of a deep sleep, and then he looked at me like he hadn't seen me in a thousand years. It felt like longer.
There was a catch to this, there had to be –
And then suddenly, a voice at my back, "Don't move", and Robin Goodfellow moved next to me, glass crunching under his boots, and scooped my gun up off the floor. I watched numbly as he dragged Promise to her feet, held his sword to her throat and my gun in the direction of the remaining Wolves gathered near the door. "Get out," he bellowed, sounding like Hurricane Irene and then some, and you'd better believe they listened.
I didn't know what the hell was going on, but I didn't care.
Every moment that passed Nik was looking more like himself, making me feel more like myself. Realization was dawning in his face, and it hurt to see the horror that reflected in his eyes. His sword hand was shaking, and in a moment he let go completely and let the weapon fall with a silver clang. I might've taken him down in a flying tackle if I'd been able to so much as stand. He moved toward me, ignoring Robin, ignoring Promise, even though I knew he was remembering all that she had done. He fell to his knees in front of me and assessed all my wounds in one second-long visual sweep. "Cal," he said softly, devastated.
The name I thought he'd never say again.
Then I tackled him. He didn't move, certainly didn't fly backwards, so I guess it didn't qualify as a "flying tackle", but it was all the tackle I could muster and the spontaneity made my head feel like it wanted to explode, so it still counted. Nik grabbed me at the same moment, crushing me against his chest, pulverizing Auphe Cal into pasty oblivion. He was gentler than he could've been – sparing my wounds further irritation. I sure as hell couldn't have cared less. I buried my face in his shirt and for a moment just let myself stop thinking … because it was alright. Everything was going to be alright.
"Cal," Nik whispered in a low, ragged voice, squeezing a little tighter. His hand came up and rested on the back of my head. He said it again, "Cal," this time with an underlying anger. I wasn't going to fool myself into believing he was only pissed at Promise. I'd almost gotten myself killed multiple times tonight, and a moment ago I'd been willing to let him kill me himself – something that up until this moment had seemed so undeniably right. And maybe it had been, who knows, maybe it had been completely selfless of me – it didn't matter to Niko. He never wanted me to be selfless; he always had to have all the selflessness to himself, the bastard.
But the fact remained that he hadn't killed me, and I still didn't know what was going on. I didn't want to let go, but now that Human Cal was back, he wanted some answers and fast. But it turned out I wasn't going to get "fast" – trying to push gently away from Niko only resulted in subsequent irritation to my wounds. I gave in, for a few moments, before making another attempt to get free. He finally released me.
My answer was standing hunched by the door. The only Wolf that had not left at Robin's bidding, clothed in an over-sized black sweater with a hood that overcast its face. Now sleeve-covered hands reached up and pulled back the hood to reveal a face that definitely did not belong to a Wolf. Shriveled, twisted, with sagging lips and a hooked nose, and eyes like soulless pools of milky blue. Eyes that had forced my brother into this nightmare and then pulled him out again.
Robin was standing with his sword against Promise's throat, wearing a black hoodie of his own that had previously worked to shield his face. Robin in a hoodie. I had to laugh … but later. Right at this particular moment if the puck asked me to lie down on my belly and grovel at his feet, I would, cross my heart hope to die, grovel.
Niko seemed less interested in current events than I was. He was examining the wound near my neck, undoing the hoodie that was tied sloppily around the knife wound, and sliding off my jacket so he could look at the others. A lot of them were just superficial, like I said earlier, but there still were a damn lot of them. His eyes kept sailing back to the slash in my left arm, the wound he'd inflicted himself. I rested my own hand on his bandaged arm, the one I had shot in the woods outside Rafferty's house – to remind him that we were both guilty.
When he had finished the examination he turned his head to the side, toward where Promise was standing, but did not look at her. He was all but quaking with a rage so white, so blinding, it almost hurt to look at him. When he started to stand, I fisted his shirt and hitched a ride up.
"Pay," the riddler spat, breaking the silence with those piercing eyes directed at Goodfellow. Robin, carefully avoiding her gaze, ripped the pearls right off Promise's neck. "Down the hall, in her bedroom," said Robin, jerking his head toward the hallway. "There are many, many more."
The riddler, a cross – as I remembered – between a lion and a woman, shuffled by, her body tripping and jerking with subtle and awkward movements. She snatched the pearls from Robin in pointed teeth and continued down the hall to Promise's bedroom.
Niko watched her leave as well, his knowing eyes tracing that face and those movements. His hand rested on the back of my neck and squeezed. "A riddler," he said in a low voice.
"Yes," Goodfellow confirmed with a minute shudder of suppressed revulsion. His eyes moved to me. "I started to make some calls after we separated. I was in luck. A friend of a friend knew where this riddler lived." And after I'd called and told him in so many words what I was going to do, he'd met me here – bringing the sphinx-of-a-sorts with him. They'd come in with the Wolves, and the riddler had begun her work on Niko. Why was there no lingering scent of puck and sphinx? A few puffs of Robin's infamous cologne took care of that just fine.
He'd saved the day. The sun was beginning to come up, the room was brightening, and I wasn't dead. More importantly – I wasn't alone.
Promise was. The roiling hatred had left me, but that didn't mean I felt for her much. She was trying to look calm and composed, but her eyes were forsaken and her fingertips were trembling with fear. Slowly, Niko's eyes moved from the hall where the riddler had disappeared, and toward Promise – caressing her face with a look that said kill and nothing else. But I knew there was more to it than that. In every way, he had been betrayed so much more than I had been. Promise hadn't owed me anything, the little brother, the glitch in her schedule. It had been nothing like what she and Niko had shared.
"My little brother," Niko said, voice guttural and ice-cold.
Promise looked like she wanted to retaliate, a façade of stoniness springing to her face for a moment, before it all melted away again. Eyelids fluttered shut. "Kill me, Niko. Just do it, then."
Niko stepped away from me and curled his fingers over Robins', around the hilt of his sword, and with a silent nod Robin slipped back. Niko grabbed Promise's sensual waves of blond and brown and pulled back her head back so that her neck was bared and her face was to the ceiling. I thought I saw the sparkle of a tear, before fists clenched and she braced herself for the kill.
At that moment the riddler came lumbering back out of the hallway, literally covered in pearls. Her pockets and hood bulged with them, they decorated her hands and her neck in endless rows. I was not the only one who noticed her – Niko's narrowed eyes flicked back and forth from Promise to the sphinx.
Promise stared out the corner of her eye, and her lips parted. "No –"
"You," Niko barked at the riddler, jerking his head toward Promise. "You have one more job."
The riddler spat a glob of saliva at the floor in disdain, but turned to Promise nonetheless.
Niko tilted Promise's face toward the sphinx, the curve of a wicked smile touching his mouth as her body stiffened. "Erase these past four years," he told the riddler. "Before her husband's death. We'll let her wonder where he is."
"Don't do this, Niko," she whispered, voice filled with dread. "Cal, I beg you –"
"Don't you speak his name," Nik growled.
The riddler was already working – and it didn't take long. Promise's purple eyes glazed over, seemed to break out of a reverie, and then slid around the room in a murky haze, passing me by like the stranger I suddenly was. The reaction she gave Niko was provoked merely by the sword he held to her neck. She looked confused, while still regally indignant – and it made me sad to watch her this way, almost as if she were back again, the Promise I thought I'd known. "Who –?" she said indignantly. "Let me go –" At that moment Niko's quick fingers climbed up the back of her neck, pressed a few nerves, and she slumped unconscious onto the floor in a swish of faded silk.
Like she'd died, only worse somehow.
I shouldn't have felt anything at all for her, except I did – a little. And that was a lot, after what she'd done to me. I'd gone from feeling nothing at all to feeling way too much. It was all such a pain in the ass. Now … I just wanted to sleep. Call me a selfish bastard, but watching Promise keel over almost made me envious.
Niko stared down at her for a moment, and then looked up at Robin and me, conveying both relief and at the same time, all the weight in the world.
"Take me back." It was that annoying riddler again, her angry eyes boring into Goodfellow. "Our agreement. Take me back now." And she shuffled clumsily out the door.
"Alright, alright," Robin sighed like a martyr, taking his sword back from Niko. "I'll leave you two alone now. Hopefully I'll get the chance to catch at least an hour's sleep before noon, gamo that sun. Some of us have work to attend to tomorrow. And I will not be alone, either," he said, eying me. "It will give me great pleasure, Caliban, to see you scrubbing my Ferraris for an indefinite period of months. Possibly years. However long it takes you to repay me for every single possession of mine that was so irreverently destroyed tonight."
Well, I sure as hell wasn't hauling my ass out of bed before noon, but I could definitely see some Ferrari-scrubbing in my near future, and I didn't intend to complain – as painful as it sounded. I was too damn grateful. I almost delivered a replay of the mawkishly sentimental speech I'd given him earlier over the telephone, but he saw it coming and made his way immediately for the door, clapping my shoulder on the way out.
I watched the door hang open behind him, revealing a patch of wallpaper in the hallway, a patch of rug, and dead bodies. I didn't realize I was swaying until Niko's hand steadied me. I looked over at him, to see if all that weight had lifted off his features. It hadn't, not all of it, but we were getting there. Like everything in our life, it would be a process. "Nik," I croaked. "I missed you so much." It was the first thing I'd said to him since he came back, the first thing I'd said at all, I realized, and I could see a little of the tension go out of him.
"You," he said, grabbing my head and shoving it against his shoulder as he hugged me, hard. "Are a mess, little brother."
He released me, but kept a hand braced on my arm in case fatigue got the better of me. I looked down at myself and winced, then replied hopefully, "I think a bed will take care of that nicely."
"Eventually, yes," said Niko. "We have quite a bit of stitching to do before then."
And by 'stitching', I knew he didn't just mean stitching. Niko wanted to talk. Well, I was too tired to wait.
"I couldn't do it, Nik," I said, getting that out of the way once and for all. "I couldn't kill her. Not after everything…" I stopped, uncertain as to whether that was the right thing to say. Not that it mattered, because he knew where I was going. And didn't much care.
"You were going to let me kill you," he said, giving my shoulder a firm shake. The devastation was toned-down, but it was still there, giving gravity to his every word. "I was going to kill you, Cal."
I didn't have an answer to that. Well, that's not exactly true, I had several – but saying that it was hardly my fault and that he would've done it anyway even if I had killed Promise wasn't going to make things any better, so I just kept my mouth shut. I was only too happy to let him grill me. Only it seemed he wasn't grilling me after all, because his eyes fell to the floor, then met mine again as he said, "I am so sorry," with even more gravity than before. My brother is a very gravitational person, I know. And the pain behind his words was starting to make me hate Promise again. I didn't know why Niko was apologizing – he hadn't done a damn thing wrong. But then, Niko had never done anything wrong in his life, and yet he always carried the guilt.
Well, I was tired of it. He had enough on his plate without personally claiming the blame for everything that ever happened to us. "Don't you dare, you selfish bastard. You're not getting any of the guilt on this one, not if I have anything to say about it," I said with all the sternness I could muster. "Now go get your sword. We're leaving."
He leveled a look at me that was half-amused and half-not, so I ended up turning tail and retrieving his sword myself. I looked briefly at Promise as I passed her, only half her face visible under a tide of hair. She was the old Promise, the one we'd met years ago, and leaving her this way had to make it even worse for Niko. Part of me wondered if he'd handled it this way because he'd wanted to punish himself as well as punish Promise. Because if that were the case, I would gladly kill her now, if only to ease some of that weight. Only Nik seemed to be holding up okay – for now. So Promise would live – for now. I had no qualms about killing … since when have I had qualms about drawing blood?
I was just taking care of my brother. He deserved to be taken care of more than I did, and he sure as hell was going to get it, whether he liked it or not.
He accepted his sword from me, then placed a supportive hand against my back as we made our way around the sea of broken glass and toward the door that was hanging open, streaming sunlight from the hallway windows.
Neither of us looked back.