Disclaimer: I do not own any miniscule part of the Cal Leandros books.
A/N: So, I was recently doing some research on Buddhist beliefs, and because the fanfic part of my brain is somehow connected with everything else, this oneshot is the result. It takes place after Tumulus and before New York City, when Niko and Cal are still on the run. I'd originally planned this to be a part of my "Homeschooled" series, but it became too long and didn't end up having much to do with homeschooling. :3
Anyway! Please enjoy!
An icy breath curled around the door when I opened it. It was cold outside.
But it was cold inside too, so what was the difference?
I heaved my piss-poor trash bag of belongings over one narrow shoulder and made my way down the dingy stairwell, away from the apartment. I'd walked down these stairs countless times since Nik and I had moved to this town, and never had it been so hard to move my damn feet. There were shackles around my ankles, hampering my movements and pulling me back, with the help of the trash bag. Everything was pushing me stubbornly back toward my room – unpack, put everything back, forget this – but I was stubborn too. Hell, I was just trying to do the right thing, for once in my life.
I was running away from Niko.
It had happened yesterday, in the library. It's where Niko had dropped me off before going to his work shift, forcibly pointing my head toward the History/Psychology/Philosophy/Boring area and away from the comic books. It would be a change of scene for me, he'd said. He'd come for me in 4 hours. Read something educational, or he'd know about it.
So I got busy, browsing. A picture book about the Italian Renaissance was the closest to porn I knew I'd be able to find in that hellhole of learning, so I spent a good twenty minutes looking at that. There was nothing else especially interesting in history, so I moved on to psychology, life-span development, trauma… skipped over that one… and finally, philosophy and religion. Honoring Niko's Buddhist beliefs, I made a reluctant grab for a textbook on Buddhism and found a place where I could sit and thumb through it.
Man, Buddhists had lists for everything, just like Nik. I shuddered. The three poisons, the twelve insights, the eight pursuits, the sixteen characteristics, the four noble truths…
The four noble truths.
But I was only interested in the first three.
1. Life is suffering
The trash bag got heavier as I pushed open the apartment building door and stepped out into the night. Yeah, like I didn't know that life was suffering. Like Nik and I hadn't suffered our fair share of hell, and more besides. I stood alone and looked up into the sky and didn't see a single star.
2. Suffering is caused by attachment
I moved on. I had to get my ass moving fast; Niko's shift wouldn't last forever, and when he finally came back and realized I was gone, I needed to be far away. Far enough away from him, so he couldn't catch me, because… because…
3. Freedom from attachment is the cure for suffering
It shouldn't have hit me so hard, sitting in the tiny library chair and trying to turn the pages quietly so the librarian wouldn't get mad and death-glare me. But it had. Right in the gut, hard and cold and truly terrifying to behold on that reputable white paper in that reputable textbook. I'd always had guilt complexes about Niko, no surprise. I'd always had thoughts that without me, Nik's life would've been better, monster-free, terror-free, traumatized-little-brother-free… but those were just thoughts. The book told me without hesitation or apology that it was truth. Noble truth.
So I had to leave.
And I was, making my way to the bus stop, with the only money I had to my name safe inside my jeans pocket. I also had weapons: a gun and the knife that Niko had given me. He'd been training me hard these past few months since Tumulus. Training me to defend myself from Grendels and others like them; training me to survive. But damn it, Niko shouldn't have had to survive. Niko deserved to live! No more sleepless nights talking me through my psychotic nightmares, no more crappy, underpaying jobs, no more leaving towns that just start to look appealing, just start to feel like home, no more running from monsters. No more suffering.
No more suffering.
The bus stop was empty all except for a scraggly-haired bum sitting on the bench and holding a wrinkled newspaper. I didn't sit down. My body was rebelling against me, and I started to feel nauseous. What was I doing? Holy shit. What was I doing, leaving Nik?
The bus drove up, but I couldn't really see it well. The night shadows blurred together and I reached up to wipe my eyes with the sleeve of my jacket. Damn baby. I could cry all I wanted, it wasn't going to change my mind. A few months ago, two years ago, whatever, when I was only fourteen, I'd considered refusing to go with Niko to college, and inevitably drag him down with the heavy weight that I was born with. Now it was a lifetime later, I was sixteen, screwed-up inside and out, and my albatross around his neck had swelled to twice its size. Now I wasn't just considering. I was sure. He'd tried all his life to end my suffering; why couldn't I step up to the plate for once? Freedom from attachment…
The bum left his newspaper on the bench and climbed into the bus. I gripped the slippery handle of my trash bag and went to follow him. My foot landed on the first step.
And a hand landed on my shoulder.
"And just where do you think you're going?" Niko's voice in my ear.
There was frustration, angry frustration, but when the world before me blurred once again, the tears were only from out-and-out relief. I hadn't wanted to go. I hadn't wanted to leave him.
My guilty foot retreated from the step and landed back on the ground, and I stood still, putting off the action of turning to face Nik, until the bus driver decided I wasn't worth waiting for and sped away, spraying left-over rainwater onto my jeans.
Niko's hand tightened on my shoulder and spun me around. And he was so pissed. I hadn't seen him this angry in a very long time. His mouth was a small slice in his face, and his eyes were scorching my face. Other than that he looked normal: his hair was neatly braided, and he was dressed in his work clothes. Except why wasn't the bastard at work?
"Why aren't –" my question was stopped by Niko's hand over my mouth.
He spoke for me. "What are you doing?" The same question I was asking myself moments ago, and resisting. "What in hell were you thinking?"
He didn't move his hand, so I guessed he didn't want an answer just yet. And that was just fine with me, because what the hell was I going to say? Every special, secret insight I'd ever given Niko into the guilt trip of my brain was always answered with stern and absolute refusal. Telling him I was leaving him so that his suffering would end would probably give him a brain aneurysm. He might even decide to boot me into the back of the bus – the bus that had already disappeared down the street. Yes, he could too do it.
"Cal," he leaned closer, desperation showing through the cracks in his anger. He took his hand off my mouth, grabbed both sides of my head, and shook it. "What?" This time I could tell he wanted an answer. He wanted it bad.
I dropped the trash bag onto the wet pavement and announced, voice rusty, "You're suffering, Nik."
His face hardened instantly. He was going to deny it, grill me for it, destroy the words that had dared to leave my mouth, but I interrupted him before he could start.
"Your life is suffering," I continued, gritting my teeth and looking anywhere but his face so I'd have the courage to go on. "Suffering is caused by attachment." A left-over tear decided to run down my face. "Freedom from attachment… is the cure for suffering."
I looked back and watched the understanding dawn in his eyes. His hands dropped onto my shoulders and he held me at arms' length for a moment, examining me and thinking. "You know," he finally said, more softly than before. He wiped my tear away with the sleeve of his coat. "That's not exactly what the four noble truths mean."
"It's what I understood them to mean," I countered, refusing to be put down.
"That's because," Niko stepped forward, a look of longsuffering affection crossing his face. "You have a whole lot of screwed-up ideas in here." He bumped his forehead against mine.
Screwed-up? I was screwed-up plenty upstairs, I knew, but not with this. This was the place where I stopped living in denial and Niko started. He was blind when it came to me, blind as a bat. I held the truth. I always had.
Even still, I felt ashamed of myself. Truth or no truth, I shouldn't have tried to run. I hadn't been betting on Niko catching me, which, when it came down to it, seemed like an awful dumb-ass thing not to bet on. Who was I kidding? Standing here now, I realized that even if I had gotten on the bus, had traveled to wherever it would take me and further, Niko would've caught up with me eventually.
And that reminded me. "Why aren't you at work?"
"I know when something's wrong with my brother," he said, a fresh look of annoyed displeasure kicking out the one of understanding. "I didn't go."
Damn. I hope it didn't cost him his whole job. "I'm sorry."
He shook his head, not interested in apologies. He had something else to say. "Listen closely, my little moron. You are not my 'attachment'. Is that clear? You are not my attachment." His grip on my shoulders hardened. "You are my whole fucking life."
He released me and stepped away. "Let that be our one noble truth."
It doesn't get clearer than that. I didn't know about the albatross around Niko's neck, but the albatross around mine just lost some of its weight. I nodded solemnly. "Yes, Nik."
"Good," he said shortly. He bent down and picked up my pathetic baggage, swinging it over his shoulder, and jerked his head away from the bus stop. "Home."
It wasn't home. It was just another crappy apartment, like many we'd seen and many we would see.
But we walked back to it together, so maybe it was home after all.