Win Some, Lose some
SPECIAL NOTE: Please, if you like our fic, do go and check out Rob's site and her books, which are available just about everywhere.
The werewolf was right; the place stank to high heaven.
I wrinkled my nose, thinking for a moment that life wasn't fair. Niko's more than generous beak wasn't picking up any signs of the Mole People, and me, thanks to Daddy dearest's bloodline, had the less than dubious pleasure of playing hound dog.
The urge to howl was cut short by the fact that I'd have to inhale deeply to do so. Anyway, the hard packed, low-ceilinged earthen tunnel we were walking through would have muffled the sound effect. Not worth choking for, in my humble opinion.
Niko's flashlight caught a flash of movement and for a split second, a large mouse was caught in its beam. It froze, staring at us, its nose quivering a mile a minute, almost like mine, until with a flick of its tail, it scurried right into the wall, as if it had gone through a gauzy curtain.
Niko was on his knees and fervently digging through the wall even before I could sing-song M-I-C, K-E-Y...
"Aw, come on. That's Mickey Mouse. You said we were hunting Mole People."
"We are. And if you'd done your homework, you'd know that was a volum and not one of the Mole People."
"I did do my homework," I announced smugly as I stood aside and watched Niko pull out armfuls of damp soil. I took another step back for safe measure, just to make sure he didn't spill any onto my new Nikes. "Mole People are an urban legend about structured societies filled with homeless people living underground in abandoned subway tunnels." I tamped the side of one foot against the other, trying to dislodge the accumulated mud from the sole.
"You're right. It's an urban legend, but created to cover the fact that the true Mole People live in underground tunnels like this one, which often intersect with abandoned subway lines and hence the sightings."
"So Mickey's not a mouse?"
"Mickey's a herd beast," Nik grunted as he finally broke through the tunnel, exposing another one right behind the one we were in. "Come on, make yourself useful." He glared at me as he shoved the loose soil to the side, making the hole big enough for us to crawl through.
I groaned out loud when the stench from the exposed hole hit me. It was twice as bad as this one. "Oh, look, you found a tunnel." My voice was high pitched as I tried talking without breathing.
Niko ignored me, studying the map he'd been drawing and adding a few more lines to it.
I adjusted the hard hat on my head, wondering how long I could hold my breath, because I really, really didn't want to have to inhale this shit. When the beam of my hat drifted across the left end of the tunnel, I froze as several dozen sets of eyes reflected back off it and my flashlight, staring back at me. "Um, Niko?"
The possibility of having to make a run for it had me breathing again. Funny, apart from making my eyes water, burning the inside of my nose and throat and making me want to puke, the smell wasn't so bad anymore.
"Herd beasts," he repeated. "They produce a type of honey, just like bees. The honey is the main source of food of the Mole People."
"And so these cute little honey-producing Mickey Mice are the ones terrorizing all the big, strong construction workers at the site?" I waved at the air in front of my face in case I could actually shift the stench aside.
Our current job – hired as exterminators on a construction site because something was terrorizing the workers – began to feel like we hadn't asked for enough money when our combined lights showed not dozens, but hundreds of members of the Mickey Mouse Club.
I caught Niko's eye roll in the light from my hardhat. Okay, so I hadn't bothered doing my homework; why should I? Niko was my personal walking and talking source of information. Anything I needed to know, he would tell me.
"They're not the ones attacking the workers."
"Oh. Then what is? The Mole People?"
"Nope." Niko took a cautious step into the herd. The volum scattered just enough to make a small path for him. They were tame, obviously, and used to people walking among them. "The Mole People are peaceful, although their herds aren't usually this close to the surface."
"Close to the surface? We're like, what, three stories underground already?"
With a sigh, I began walking. Of course, the moment I got close to them, the critters began scattering, as if they didn't want me near any of them. I guess they could smell my Auphe genes as much as I could smell them. They hugged the walls, climbing one on top of another in their desire to get away from me. They disappeared through the soil, only to reappear several feet behind us.
After wading through the herd for a few feet, I realized the stench seemed to wax and wane. After one particularly tough spot to breathe through, I made exaggerated gagging sounds.
"Don't you smell that?" I held my nose between my fingers, trying to breathe through my mouth.
"And it doesn't bother you?" I asked incredulously.
"Of course it does."
"Then why can't we go search some other tunnel, where, you know, it doesn't stink so much."
"What you smell is fresh honey." Niko stopped at a spot where the stench was almost impossible to stand, and stuck his index finger into the wall. Behind a thin layer of soil was a glistening mass of... gooey stuff. I made a wide berth around the exposed honeycomb as Niko kept on walking. Curious, I turned back and a couple of the volum climbed up the wall and began repairing the small tear Niko had made.
Hmm, Mickey obviously knew a few tricks.
"The hives are new; they're only beginning to build them up. They haven't been here for more than a month or two."
"If they live deeper underground, why'd they move?"
"I think we're about to find out." Nik pointed to the end of the tunnel. "Smell that?"
"You've got to be kidding. I don't think I'll ever be able to smell anything aga—" I paused, sniffed, and sighed. "Sewers."
There was a hole in the floor at the tunnel's end, and our flashlights illuminated another tunnel below us flooded with water.
Niko examined the ground around the sewer while I gathered a handful of rocks and began dropping them into the hole, listening to the various splashes.
"This is it."
"This is what?" I dropped two rocks together. Double splash. My hardhat light caught the spray clearly where the rocks landed.
"Where they came from."
"The Mole People?" Splash. Splash.
"No, the things terrorizing the construction workers." Niko grabbed my hand. "I wouldn't do that if I were you."
I twisted my wrist out of his hold and dropped three more in succession.
"With all the rain we've had over the past months, it probably flooded some of their tunnels, forcing them to higher ground."
Admittedly the fall had been pretty rainy; which made for quite a few unhappy, damp and smelly werewolves hanging around the bar.
"And...?" I dropped another rock, this time with a bit of force, trying to make the water splash a little higher. "What's different about it this time? We've had rainy autumns before."
"But the sewers never brought—" Something jumped out of the water and grabbed the rock I'd just dropped right out of mid air. I saw gleaming teeth that actually breeched the hole in the floor before it twisted, and landed in the water with a loud splash. "That."
"What was that?" I'd jumped backwards, while Niko had pulled his sword out and was holding it towards the hole.
"That's a sbek."
"Was it a crocodile?" I shuddered at the beady eyes that had actually rolled around in their sockets for an instant, as if it were looking at me and Nik. "You know how they live in the sewers and can get into toilets."
The sbek came back for a second look. Damn, it moved fast. As big as a medium-sized dog, it was all teeth and claws, shaped like a crocodile. Its sharp claws actually managed to gain purchase on the tunnel floor before Niko shoved me to the side.
The sbek spat bright green liquid, which thanks to Niko's quick move, splashed harmlessly against the earthen wall. A second later, Niko slashed its throat with his sword.
It wasn't a killing blow, his blade caught in what looked like scales - damn tough scales - under its throat. It was enough, however, to deter it, and it fell back into the hole with a loud splash, its tail flicking water upwards before it disappeared.
"What the hell was that?"
"Venom. The sbek use it to kill their prey. They usually go after the volum but they've been known to go after the Mole People occasionally. Or construction workers." Niko ignored me, kept his attention on the water below, sword held lightly at his side. "I do wish you'd read up before we go out on assignments."
I stared at the dripping goo with disgust. "Anything else I should know, since you're in teaching mode right now?"
I huffed impatiently. "What is it?"
"The sbek aren't the only ones terrorizing the construction site."
"You know, with the sbek, it all depends on whether the reproductive organs are on the inside or on the outside,"
"So if it has a dick and he bites me, I'm a goner."
"Actually, then the venom will just make you sick. If you're bitten by a female, then we worry. Then again, your Auphe blood might actually protect you from the worst of it."
"And you? What about you?"
"The good news is that the females rarely leave their nests. The males are the ones that go out hunting for food."
We'd given up staring down the hole in the ground and backtracked our way toward the herd. My light caught something; for a split second it looked like a tall, emaciated, white, naked and hairless man, and then it was gone.
"Shy, aren't they?"
"I guess if I walked around naked, I'd be sorta shy around strangers, too."
We walked through the herd and once again, they opened up a path for us when I took the lead. I couldn't help noticing that the spot where I saw the Mole Man was where we'd come through from the other tunnel, and that our hole, well, okay, Niko's hole, was pretty much gone, and in its stead was hard packed earth.
"Um, how will we get back?" I pointed to the nearly-finished repairs.
"We'll go through the same way."
"How'll we know where the tunnels intersect if they cover it up?"
Niko's single raised eyebrow was indication enough that it wouldn't be a problem. For him, maybe. For me, that might be a different matter.
"Maybe we could drop some breadcrumbs," I mumbled as I kicked a piece of rusty metal down the corridor before us, then swore when Niko smacked the back of my hardhat with his palm. "Hey."
"Your propensity to toss things around caught the attention of something I'd rather not go against in numbers. Try to restrain yourself until we get out here."
"What, you think this will bring the sbek here?" I kicked another piece of metal, noting at the same time that there was an exposed portion of a metal support beam in the wall. I gave it three knocks with my knuckles and the sound reverberated dully in the tunnel.
"I wouldn't trust your luck."
I grinned at my brother despite his words. The tunnel had changed; mixed with the soil were more bits of metal; the Mole People had evidently breached the lower levels of some building. But the reason I was grinning was because I'd left the honey-stench behind and all I could smell was rotting dirt and must.
A familiar rumbling quickly informed me where I was. "This is where they go into the subway tunnels?" I had to raise my voice over the noise but it didn't last long as the subway train sped by, somewhere close.
"Probably." We were now out of the earthen tunnels and in some sort of abandoned maintenance tunnel. "They bring the herds to feed—"
"Feed? What the hell do these things eat?"
"Probably that." Niko pointed his flashlight upwards and there, growing on upper walls and ceiling, were some kind of pasty white plants. "It's fast growing, and they use the nectar to make the honey—"
"And the big, bad, monsters live out here also, in the tunnels?"
"No." Niko stopped walking and turned around. "We'll need to look for another tunnel." He pulled out his map, his index finger following the line representing the tunnel we'd been following, stopping where it intersected with a subway line, and then back to where we'd come from. "Maybe over here." He circled an area back past where the herd and the honeycombs were, presumably where the sewers had flooded the tunnels.
"Aw, shit." I took several deep breaths, trying to make the most of clean, fresh air, hyperventilating almost to the point of dizziness before I hurried after Niko. Didn't do much good, because five steps inside the damned stench hit me smack in the face.
This time two of our shy and naked friends disappeared into the wall, two flashes of white, all but flickering out of existence just as our lights caught them. Kinda wondered about ghost stories; if I were in a haunted house, I'd certainly start doubting what I was seeing. Of course, unless you were part Auphe – then a simple ghost wouldn't worry you because your father was a demon. I guess everything was relative... no pun intended.
I kept my gaze intently on the area where they'd gone through the wall, wondering if maybe this would be the tunnel Niko was searching for. So when the Mickey Mouse Club once again separated at my approach like Moses parting the Red Sea, I didn't really pay attention to them until I heard a low growl coming from just behind me.
"Please tell me you just farted," I asked, even as I waved my light in the opposite direction. Red eyes reflected the beam of light; eyes that were at least two feet above all the little Mickeys scurrying around in a panic, clambering over one another up the wall, trying to dig their way through the dirt. Not that I blamed them because they probably knew they were about to become someone's supper.
"Careful." Niko had his sword out.
"The sbek?" My gun was in my hand in a flash. I took a step forward while Niko took a step back; a dance we'd practiced often so I wouldn't hamper his sword arm.
"The other bad guys? How bad are these guys? You never said." Considering we were standing between whatever creatures the eyes belonged to and their supper, I couldn't help hoping the growls belonged to Goofy.
"Think mountain lion, bear and wolf, all mixed in one, with the intelligence of a werewolf."
"Werewolf? That's not saying much." Oh great, a not-so-goofy Goofy with an attitude, and hungry to boot. Could this day get any worse?
Of course it could.
"Niko," I whispered, pointing behind us to a group of familiar, crocodile looking, ground hugging shadows that appeared out of nowhere. "Please tell me that we're not the main course in an all you can eat buffet?"
"Think ribs on the hoof, dear brother."
Great. It happened so fast that I didn't even have time to formulate a witty comeback. So fast, in fact, that I found myself in the midst of a pack of sbek which were attacking everything and anything that moved - volum, Niko, me.
I never got off a shot, which I know I'll berate myself for later. Gun and flashlight went flying as a sbek struck me from the back and tried to rip my arm apart.
Niko got the sbek that got me, and from that moment on, all hell broke loose.
The sbek were looking for food – namely, anything that moved. The growling Goofys were looking for the sbek and the volum as entrees. Whether they'd have wanted me or Niko as the main meal was moot because the first big, hairy, slobbering bear of a creature rushed past me for its share of supper. Despite its ursine appearance, it gambolled down the tunnel, chasing its supper like a kitten in a room full of marbles. The other two were happy, for the moment, to gobble up those sbeks that made it past Niko.
Maybe they preferred crocodile sushi to tainted Auphe.
I stood there for a moment, trying to assess the danger, blood dripping down my arm. The venom was already burning from my shoulder all the way down to my elbow. I didn't think the damage from the bites themselves was serious but my arm was already feeling numb and heavy.
I spotted my gun just a few feet away, but had to abort my dash to grab it when a second Goofy rushed by, chasing a couple of volum that were running and squeaking for their lives. I felt bad for the furry, stinky critters but hey, better them than me.
The way was clear, unless the third Goofy decided to join the main buffet table behind us. I crouched, reaching for the gun, not wanting Niko to be the only one to have all the fun, when I came face to face with a sbek that had gotten through Niko's defenses.
I missed the shot when something small and furry tackled it. Both crocodile and, from what I could glimpse was a baby Goofy, rolled end over end down the corridor. The baby, not much larger than the sbek, scrambled to its feet and, with a hiss and low-pitched growl in my direction, tackled the sbek again.
And if I thought things had gotten bad before? They just got worse because as Baby Goofy jumped on top of the sbek, the croc spat a mouthful of venom. Of course, it missed the baby, but it hit me full in the face. I yelled in pain and for a moment, I couldn't breathe, I couldn't see, I couldn't move.
Then the proverbial shit really hit the fan. Even as I cried out, something slammed me from the back with enough force to remind me of my stint with Boggle last summer, and I went flying into the dirt wall.
And I mean, flying, literally.
The wall gave way and I crashed onto a hard surface. And I was on that only long enough for it to break apart around me, and I fell.
Nothing like a crash and splash to get me moving - the chill of the water was like a slap in the face. I struggled to find the surface despite my horribly burning eyes, nose and mouth and nearly useless right arm.
Now would be a good time for me to open a portal, gate the hell away from here. All the other times I'd done that, I'd done it instinctually. This time the thought was front and center but nothing was happening. And the sooner, the better, because my lungs were fast running out of air and the current wasn't letting me out of its grip.
All I remember of that wild ride was pain and the fear that I was going to drown. At some point the water spat me out and I took a gasping breath, trying to tread water and keep my head above it. The flashlight attached to my hardhat had more or less survived the fall and the dunking, and its beam bounced dimly around in about a foot and a half of space between water and ceiling. I blinked water from my eyes which were burning horribly from the venom, searching frantically for an exit or a way out of the water.
The tunnel split, and the water carried me to the right. Sounds changed, the rushing water echoed in what seemed to be a much larger area. My light barely illuminated a foot in front of me, and it was dying fast, but I could tell the ceiling was higher, and the walls, wider. I caught sight of something sticking out of the wall and made a move for it. It was a large piece of metal wedged in against debris and a cement wall, about a foot above the water. I swam towards it, ignoring the pain in my shredded arm, fighting past debris that seemed just as determined to smack against me as the sbek were to eat me.
I caught the piece of metal just as the current tugged me past it. I tried to haul myself up and nearly lost my grip when something smashed into me. With a curse, I shoved at the large tree limb, shoving and kicking until it floated around me. With another curse, I got one leg up, and with every ounce of strength I possessed, I managed to clamber clear of the water.
And just in time because my light caught the reflection of a pair of eyes coming right for me.
Niko had always insisted I leave the house well prepared. While I preferred guns, I always brought a knife or three, just to make him happy. I pulled my hunting knife out of its sheath, and held it ready. I wouldn't have the reach Niko did with the sword, but then, there was just one.
I crouched on the metal, blinking what at first I thought was water from my burning eyes, and then realizing they were tears. With my free hand, I rubbed shakily at my eyes, trying not to be distracted from my blurred vision or the pain in that arm. I was trembling, either from the cold dunking or from the venom. Niko had said it would make me sick; I could only hope it wasn't fast-acting.
It was a sbek, all right, but riding on top of its body was the oddest sight. Goofy Junior - bedraggled and vocally unhappy, hissed at me as its personal sbek water-ski circled the piece of metal I had appropriated for my own. Its claws had dug deep into the sbek's skin. It was a miracle that the little thing hadn't drowned. I wondered why the sbek hadn't gone underwater until it sniffed loudly. I realized then that it had been hunting me. I tensed as its eyes rolled upwards, staring right at me.
The sbek's attack was fast and sudden. I managed to slam my knife into its open jaw, shoving it upwards at just the right moment, my knuckles grazing the sharp teeth but not breaking skin.
It reared back so quickly, I barely managed to snatch my hands out of harm's way. As it flailed backwards into the water in its death throes, I felt regret at the loss of my favorite knife.
I crouched there, shivering, my good arm clasping my injured one as I desperately searched the water for the little baby. Monster it might be, but it was still a baby with little chance of survival in the water.
My light was going fast. I leaned over the edge of the metal and peered underneath, and there it was, dog paddling for all its worth. I reached down, grabbed it by the scruff of its neck and pulled.
It might be as big as half-grown kitten, but it was all muscle. I nearly dropped it, only managing to get it out of the water by sheer luck. It rolled from the momentum of my lift, slammed against the concrete wall and scampered onto four feet, hissing and growling at me.
I ignored it and scanned the water while I still had light. I could only hope there was nothing else out there. Auphe-hunting season wasn't open yet and we probably tasted gamey this time of year. I was more worried for Niko; the sbek had called for open season on humans a few weeks ago.
I took off my hardhat and tried smacking the light, but it didn't help. It was a relief to have it off; I'd begrudgingly accepted to wear it only because Nik had insisted we'd be better off with our hands free of flashlights if need be. He'd been right – I guess neither of us had expected to go swimming.
I shoved the hat to the side, letting it illuminate my humble shelter while it could. My little sbek joy rider was huddled as far as it could from me; a dark mound of unhappy and wet fur.
"Nice day for a swim."
I got a snarl in reply.
"Although I wish I'd chosen the sauna instead," I said when I shuddered suddenly with cold.
My light faded completely as it hissed.
"Yeah, I know. Cheap crap – I told my brother he should've gone for the night goggles instead." I eased myself backward until my ass hit cement. With my left hand, I struggled to reach my second best knife, placed it next to me within easy reach, then brought my knees up towards my chest, huddling my injured arm between both knees and chest.
"A fine mess," I muttered between chattering teeth. "I guess I could just slip back into the water. The current's pretty strong; it'll eventually bring me outside somewhere." I listened a moment, heard what sounded like nails on metal and hoped that my bunkmate was staying on his side of the shelter. "But the water's damn cold. Hypothermia's a real danger." See? I listened to Niko. Sometimes – or was that knowledge about cold water and hypothermia something I'd seen while dozing through last week's Friday Night Movie of the Week?
"Arm's a bit of a problem – it's kinda numb and semi-useless right now." I paused, wondering if I should have admitted that to Goofy Junior. I flexed my fingers. I didn't think there was tendon or nerve damage; everything just felt... weird. Slow to respond; thick and clumsy; not to mention, extremely painful.
My head felt heavy, almost too much for my neck to support. I began to slide slowly onto my side and was rewarded by a warning growl. Was it my imagination, or did Junior sound closer? "Hey, chill."
The metal was cold and wet under my cheek so I tugged on my jacket, wiggling until I could pull enough loose material to lay my face against. Of course that left me with a cool spot against my now uncovered lower back.
I hated not seeing what was out there. Without a light, I was vulnerable. It wasn't lost on me that I hadn't been able to smell the sbek when it had come at me in the water. I sniffed and realized I really couldn't smell much of anything. Not the dankness, not the water, not Junior.
With a hand that was shaking more than I thought it should be, I ran fingers across my lips and cheek. My skin was tight and hot, like a bad sunburn.
"Damn crocs," I muttered as I tried looking into the dark. I hated this – I felt like I was straining to force my eyes into doing something that was impossible for them to do without light. If I kept this up, I'd probably be adding eyestrain to my list of injuries.
"Should'a gone with the night goggles," I repeated sulkily. "But did Niko listen to me? Noooo."
I stopped mumbling and listened. If only whatever warped destiny sitting over my head had given me super-Auphe hearing instead of a super-Auphe sniffer, I'd hear the enemy coming from miles away. Unfortunately, my all too human ears heard nothing but water rushing past, the dull thuds of debris smacking into the wall, the soft patter of footsteps—
"Wha—" I tensed when something brushed my cheek. I could hear breathing; quick, sharp inhalations that left me no doubt that Junior was sniffing me up. Damn, where was my knife. I'd lost track of it when I'd gone horizontal.
To my surprise, like an overly friendly cat, Junior dropped to the ground and nestled in the space between my abdomen and knees. Despite it being as sodden as I was, it's body heat was like a small furnace.
It was heaven.
Junior began to move rhythmically and it took me a moment to realize it was licking itself like a cat.
"Could this get any weirder?"
The movement stopped, Junior's body shifted slightly and the licking began again.
"Don't bother – we're just going to have to get wet again." The thought of slipping back into that cold wet was something I wasn't ready to contemplate yet. Bad enough when I had light. Now? In the dark? No way, Jose.
Then again, I could always open a gateway and go home.
Hot shower. Dry clothes. Hot drink. Morphine and a handful of aspirin. My bed, my pillow and quilts as well as Niko's. Any single one of these was almost worth the portal-induced headache and gut-wrenching hangover going home would entail.
I thought about it for a minute, and decided I wasn't desperate enough. Jumping into the freezing water sounded much more inviting and much less masochistic. I shuddered, this time not from cold but from the memory of that grayish silver light, the scent of a world not meant for humans where 'suffering' and 'agony' were words the denizens whispered to their young to lull them to sleep.
Anyway, Niko was out there looking for me and the first rule of thumb when one was lost was to stay put. So, I was staying put.
"Not like I have a choice, anyway," I stuttered, curling up a little more tightly around Junior. When Junior stood up suddenly, I thought I'd pressed my luck but he seemed to only be trying to make himself more comfortable, moving forward a few inches to curl up against my chest. I obligingly wrapped my body around him, holding my personal furnace close. I just wished I had another one of him to wrap around my back.
"He's fine," I told Junior. "He won't let a couple of crocodiles get the better of him." I thought a moment of the others who'd been in the midst of the fray. "I'm sure your folks are fine, too." I just hoped that none of them had turned on Nik – I'd hate to be the bearer of bad news.
And another flashlight. I wished I'd had time to at least check out my arm before the lamp had died. I slid my fingers along my injured arm, feeling the torn material of my jacket and the long-sleeved tee shirt. I tensed, probing the slashes carefully.
I hissed in pain when my fingers met torn skin. Now, from the pain radiating from my arm, I'd expected to find my arm torn right up to the bone, with jagged pieces of skin and tendons missing. But from the few pokes I managed to make before the pain made me want to scream, I found only a couple of shallow slashes which didn't even seem to be bleeding much anymore.
Junior nudged my injured arm with his snout, and I couldn't quite hold back a yelp of pain. I could hear him sniffing my arm and the idea of him licking my wounds was just too... eww. Not to mention that as cuddly as Junior was right now, he might not think it amiss to take a bite out of my arm if he was hungry. I'd seen the teeth on his parents; hell, despite his small size, he'd given one of the sbek a run for its money.
Pushing his snout away from my arm, I continued my examination. Two slashes, a couple of puncture wounds, and a pain like you wouldn't believe. It had been all I could do to touch the skin around the wounds, moving my arm or my hand was agony. I lay there panting and shivering, knowing that I had to find Niko. Needed to get help while I could still move.
"Niko, you had better be okay," I muttered.
Now, if it had just been me, I'd have simply convinced myself I'd been wanting to hear my brother's voice, weak and far away as it was. But I felt Junior stop licking himself and raise his head.
Niko's voice was closer this time. I didn't hesitate; I called out to him, trying to get to my knees, terrified that the current would sweep him past me without him finding me. Of course in my rush to move, I jarred my arm and I'm ashamed to admit that I ended up screaming in pain. Something I'd sworn I'd never let my brother hear again.
By the time I could pull in a breath without sounding like I was sobbing, Niko's voice was really close.
"Hold on, I'm coming up." I heard the sudden rush of water falling into water, and then something cold and wet brushed my cheek.
I jerked, hissed in pain, and then reached out blindly for my brother's hand.
"I'm here." Cold fingers clasped mine.
Junior growled from a position somewhere near my feet.
"Who's your friend?"
I heard Niko draw his sword and I squeezed his fingers in warning.
"Don't hurt him. He's just a baby."
"A very dangerous baby. Do you have any idea how much trouble I had getting away from his parents?"
"Did you hurt them?" Oh, come on, now wasn't the time to feel guilty about being partially responsible for making Junior an orphan.
"They didn't attack me. You, on the other hand, forgot how to duck."
I sighed. "I'm sure you won't let me forget that anytime soon."
"Count on it." Niko touched my injured arm and I hissed a warning. "Easy, I just want to see how bad it is."
"It's barely a scratch."
"It's the venom that I'm worried about. How does it feel?"
"Hurts like hell."
I suddenly thought of something. "How'd you find me?"
"By the time I fought my way clear of the sbek, the Mole People had already repaired the hole you made when you fell through. It took me a while to find the exact spot. When I realized you'd fallen into the water, I jumped in—"
"That was stupid—"
"Would you rather I stayed up there and spent my time pacing until you found a way out?"
Niko draped his jacket over my legs and while its weight was welcome, it was soaked through and didn't do much to help warm me up. "We can't stay here—"
"I know that."
"There's no way out."
"We can always jump back into the water—"
"No. Not that. While the tunnels are flooded, the water will take you directly to an underground river. That's why the current is so strong. We'd need to wait until the water levels go down and that could take—"
"But how'd you find me?" I'd barely spotted the ledge I was on; how Niko had done so in the dark was beyond me.
"I just told you."
"No. How'd you find me just now? In the water."
"I saw your light."
"Yeah, right. Try another one. My light died just after I got here."
There was silence. I couldn't even hear Niko breathing.
"Niko?" I asked after a long moment.
"How many fingers am I holding up?"
"Very funny. Next time we bring the night goggles and you can ask me that question."
"Cal." Niko's voice was so low it was barely distinguishable above the rushing water. "Your light's fine. Look." He took my uninjured hand and placed it on something hard and... warmish. I felt around with my fingers and realized it was the flashlight part of my hardhat. And the plastic protecting the light bulb was warm.
"Shit." I smacked my hand flat on the cold metal and turned my head from side to side, ignoring the pain of my brain sloshing back and forth inside my skull.
"Cal, let me see."
"Cal, stay still."
Niko grabbed my hand, which I'd been smacking hard with each expletive.
"Stop. I need to see what damage there is."
"Shit. Niko, I can't see." I turned my head towards his voice, barely holding onto my terror. Blind. I was blind.
"I know." Niko's voice was soft again as he grabbed my chin. "The blindness may be temporary if the venom was rinsed from your eyes fast enough. You were in the water, there's a good chance you got most of it out before it did much damage."
He touched my skin, his fingers cool and chilly against my fevered skin. I could hear him breathing as he presumably leaned over me, examining my face.
"Well?" I shuddered with cold, and, I admitted only to myself, with fear.
"I don't know. Your eyes are a little red but... I don't know."
"I could see for a while, until I got here. That's got to be a good sign, right?" I grabbed for his hand and he caught my fingers. Suddenly I didn't want him to let go. He was a tether to my sanity.
Who were we fooling? We both knew I was in deep doodoo.
"We need to get you out of here."
"How?" I laughed harshly. "We'll either starve to death or drown in a river that's never seen the light of day."
"You can get us out."
My stomach contracted, warning me that it didn't like what Niko was thinking. "A portal?"
"You've done it before."
"And you made me promise not to do it again."
"I guess I could make an exception just this once."
I swallowed; my mouth was dry, my tongue rasping against my palate. Something cold and wet that probably wasn't tainted with the sewers of the city would probably go a long way to help ease the burning in my mouth and back of my throat. Except the only way to get relief was to... I couldn't. Not now. "I can't."
"Cal, there's no other way."
I couldn't face the pain of the gateway. Not when I was already hurting so much. "I'm sorry." Knowing that he could see me, I turned my face away from him, wondering where Junior was. I missed his warmth.
"No, I'm sorry." There was a scuffing sound and I felt Niko move behind me. "Try to rest for a little while. You might feel up to it when you've rested."
We both knew that was a lie; I was feeling progressively worse with every passing minute. But I didn't resist when Niko stretched out behind me and rolled up against my back. His warmth felt good, so good that I started shivering so hard my teeth came dangerously close to chomping off the tip of my tongue.
A moment later, Junior came back to claim his earlier position.
Damp furball in front, Niko in back, and still I shuddered like I was going to break apart. And each quiver sent bolts of pain up and down my arm.
I forced my mind to concentrate on our situation. Maybe the water would start to recede soon; I mean, it couldn't keep raining every day until winter set in, could it? The old man in the nursery rhyme who'd bumped his head had to wake up eventually. Because otherwise, he'd've drowned.
Okay, not a good thought. What if the water level rose and we'd be forced off this bit of shelter? So not a good thought.
I didn't want wet and cold. I pictured the heat of Tumulus, how it had seeped through the gateway when I'd opened it. I hated the smell; sometimes it came to me in dreams. I knew I'd dreamed of my enforced stay there only because I'd wake up with the smell in my nostrils, the taste in my mouth.
My stomach lurched and for a second I thought I was going to get that portal open. But it slammed shut when the base of my skull felt like it was going to split open.
"I can't." The words came out almost as a sob.
Niko's arm around my shoulder squeezed gently. "It's all right."
"No, it's not. I don't want to die here." I didn't want Niko to die here, either.
"We're not going to die."
"I thought you were the realist in the family."
Niko sighed softly. "It'll be fine. You just need to recoup."
I wanted to kick him but it would have hurt too much. Instead I let myself roll back onto my brother, trusting him to catch me. What I hadn't expected was the hiss of pain, quickly muffled, when my shoulder hit his chest.
"That didn't sound like nothing." I tried to sit up, but the moment I raised my head, I couldn't tell up from down and I fell back against Nik, eliciting yet another pained gasp from him. "Niko, talk to me."
"It's really not that bad. I think the bleeding's slowed—"
"Bleeding?" I tried to sit up again but this time Niko's arm held me tight against him. "Cyrano..."
"There's no venom. It's not from the sbek. The baby's father realized it was missing and took a swipe at me when I got too close to it while I was searching for you."
Deep cut, blood loss, tainted water – all scenarios that were sure to get worse as time went on. This changed things, without a doubt.
"I thought you said it didn't attack you."
"It didn't. It was just being over-protective of the others."
When before the pain in my arm stopped me from focusing, now, it became my drive. I found that place inside me, legacy of my paternal bloodline, and drew deep into myself. I caught hold of Junior with my good hand, trusted that Niko's hold on me was solid, and shoved with mind. Head and stomach rebelled, there was a flash of light and I crashed painfully into the middle of the kitchen.
Niko's muffled curse let me know that he'd made it through alive and in one piece, something I wasn't sure could be said about me. Junior hadn't transitioned well to traveling via Caliban Express, and he was making gagging noises that wasn't helping my own portal-induced nausea.
Junior puked all over the hand that held him. Mine. And by the way it felt against my skin, I was damn glad I was blind, but that didn't make up for the feel of Junior's vomit on my hand.
I swallowed bile. "Think I'm going to—"
"No, you're not," Niko hissed.
And I was up and moving. Stumbling after Niko, who had a death grip on part of my shirt, dragging me along.
"Watch where you're going." I drew my left arm to my body after smacking it on a wall. Junior screeched at the impact, and immediately snuggled up to my body, smearing whatever he'd eaten for breakfast across the front of my shirt.
I was going to say 'gross' and a few other choice words but I was terrified if I opened my mouth it wasn't going to be words spewing forth. Niko stopped short and I rammed painfully into him, Junior registering his unhappiness to being the middle of a Leandros' sandwich with a loud squawk.
As of this morning, I was pretty damn sure that I knew every inch of our apartment, but right now, I couldn't tell you where the hell I was if my life depended on it. "Niko—"
"Quiet." The reply was terse and I could see – well, not really see 'cause I couldn't see anything but the inside of my eyelids - Niko's guarded expression. Olive skin taking in my paleness, nervous, worried, shushing me because my mere presence at the moment was a distraction.
Junior held onto my shirt for dear life, claws digging through the thin material as I was pushed up against a wall. The movement was hurried, yet gentle. "Stay put."
"Talk to me," I begged before swinging out with my good arm when all I got was silence. I batted out again and this time I got an answer, a low guttural grunt when I made contact with the part of Niko's body that had lost skin due to Junior's closest living relatives.
"Sorry. Sorry," I patted air, stepping forward and frantically searching for Niko. "Nik. Nik. Nik." My voice was already raised in teenage girl hysteria before he grabbed my hand.
"I'm right here."
"You're hurt." I reached out again, slower and way more cautiously, until my fingers met with shredded fabric.
I paused, stopped breathing and blinked. At least I think I blinked, I wouldn't know because the room stayed the same. Pitch black. "Niko?" My legs gave up the fight, folding up under me like an accordion but my brother, my ass protector and all around good guy, pinned me to the wall like a butterfly specimen.
"I got you," he whispered, pulling me up.
"I can't see."
"I know." Niko's voice was calm.
"I can't see." I wanted someone besides me to be in panic mode.
"I know." There wasn't even a damn waver in his voice.
"I. Can't. See." I said, increasing in volume with each word.
"Let's get you in the shower—"
"I'm blind," I screamed. Loud enough that the words echoed.
Niko held me against the wall with one hand and I could feel his weight shift. "I'm going to stick you in the shower. Clean you off. Assess."
"I'm blind. I can't see anything. My arm is useless and I have a very large sized kitten draped around my neck. What more do you want to assess?"
Note to self. Never ask Niko what else he needed to assess. I was stripped of my clothes, my dignity and Junior within seconds then stuck under the shower. Niko joined me. Poked. Prodded. Assessed. I paid him back by getting rid of this morning's breakfast, lunch and the package of Peanut M & M's that definitely tasted better going down than coming up.
Even under the hot water, I was shivering. "Are you done assessing?" The washcloth he'd gently swiped across my face had hurt, horribly, but I was good and lied. Told him it made me feel better because that was what he wanted to hear, not because it was the truth. I reached out, trying for a little not-so-visual assessment of my own and made contact with—a bare chest. Niko's bare chest. "You're naked? With me? In the shower?"
Junior didn't take too kindly to raised voices under the shower and he hissed and batted at—things that were not meant to be batted at.
I backed up away from inquisitive sharp things. Not one of my brightest ideas. A definite bad move, being of limited vision and all. I had no idea where I ended and the shower began. I literally hit a tiled wall and I lost my balance. Falling isn't something I like to do with all my faculties. Falling in the dark, in a tiny space occupied by two grown men and one furry creature was going to hurt at least one of us.
Niko was quick but not quick enough to think where he was going to grab me to make sure I didn't land on my ass. I think, though I can't be positive, that I did a great imitation of Fay Wray when he latched onto my injured arm just before I passed out.
I groaned myself into awareness, which is definitely more manly than shrieking yourself into a dead faint. Bed. My bed. My pillow. Niko. Junior and me.
"Welcome back to the land of the living," Niko said.
"Living is a matter of opinion." I hurt. Even body parts that had never been privy to a deluxe torture session with Niko ached.
A cool hand swiped across my forehead. "You have a fever."
"I have a headache."
"Is it a Tylenol, Motrin600, or something stronger type of headache?"
My brother was freely dispensing meds. Uh oh, not a good sign. Maybe it was time for a little bit of self examination. Head hurt. My throat was on fire and I could taste the way the tunnels had smelled. I didn't need a pair of working eyes to know Junior was curled up against me, creating a junior-sized blast furnace somewhere mid-waist. My own personal heating pad. Great. Wonder if the not so little guy would mind shifting in ten minute intervals to warm my entire body. And my arm, which was hopefully still attached to my body, was like a piece of throbbing dead wood.
"I'm fine." And I was, in a blind, feverish, headachy, nauseated sorta way. "You?" Blindly, and I snorted, finding a funny in a not so funny situation, blindly honestly was an oxymoron because was there any other way to describe how I did anything? My laughter might have been a tad on the hysterical side, because suddenly he moved closer into my personal space.
"Just a scratch."
"Yeah, you said that before." I knew Niko's scratches. I've treated them and most times they weren't the sort of scratches a band aid could be applied to make the booboo go away. Hell, I knew when we were out of our league. We had friends and I wasn't afraid to use them. "Time for reinforcements," I ordered, shifting, flexing the fingers of my good hand in the universal 'hand over the telephone' signal. Junior hissed in retribution and his warmth spread along my stomach as he moved, settling his snout across my belly.
"New best friend?"
Did I detect a note of jealously in Niko's voice? "Don't try to distract me. We need Robin. Promise—"
"We need a phone."
"We have a phone." I spoke slowly. "Two."
"Sewage, dirty water and Verizon phone systems aren't exactly compatible."
"So you see—"
"See? Newsflash, Cyrano, I don't see anything."
Damn. Obviously, I've perfected the fine art of knife turning. "Niko... I'm sorry. Didn't mean for it to come out that way. Everything will be okay." Wait, was that the pessimistic pot calling the optimistic kettle black?
There wasn't a hint of roughness as he cupped his hand against my cheek. There was gentleness and a touch of fear. I was the chink in my brother's armor. Me. And if he was afraid for me, then I'm thinking I better be fucking terrified.
"I have to go use a pay phone," he said softly.
"They still have those?"
"Yeah. The corner deli..."
"Make sure you wipe it down first, you never know what germs—"
"This is coming from someone who doesn't scrape the green off the bread before spreading the out-of-date peanut butter on it first?"
"You buy that health food stuff; I thought it was supposed to be green." I paused for effect. "You mean it's not?"
"I won't be gone long and your friend, here, will keep you company."
"Comforting." Right now I wished Junior would move down to my feet and warm them, or at least melt the blocks of ice encasing my ten little piggies.
"You want something before I go?"
My eyesight back? "No, I'm good." I paused. "Hurry back. Oh, and Nik..."
"Yeah?" He was further away, straddling between hallway and my bedroom.
"Any possibility of a getting me a chili dog from the—"
"A hot pretzel?"
"Chestnuts?" Not that I'd ever eat those things, but they were nuts and therefore some sort of vitamin could be leeched out of their grainy grossness.
Niko just sighed. "Stay put."
"Don't worry. Staying put. Me and Junior," my heat-seeking hand found the creature after only one fumbled attempt, "we're not moving."
"Ah, then it's business as usual."
I was still trying to formulate a witty response when I heard the front door close and lock. "Oh." The one words seemed to echo in my suddenly cavernous bedroom.
I sighed back and poked him, gently, prodding him to move and warm another part of my body.
He hissed, got up, dragged himself up my body and dropped heavily onto my chest.
"Easy," I ordered, jerking back suddenly when his wet nose burrowed under my chin. Damn, he was warm. His weight wasn't exactly comfortable but his body heat more than made up for this shortcoming and his breathing slowed, evened out. His heartbeat was fast and regular, beating out a strangely soothing staccato rhythm, lulling me against my will and definitely against my better judgment into a light slumber.
Holy crap, I was being smothered. I awoke with a start, swiping my hand across my chest, struggling with whatever was trying to crush the life out of me. I knocked it aside and there was a thump, crash and an eerily familiar hissing sound.
"Niko!" I screamed. Admittedly I'm not proud of the sound I produced, but reaction kicked in before common sense. Or my memory, which came flooding back when I tried to fling myself out of bed. I managed to do just that. Fling. I landed face first on the floor, my head meeting the corner of my night table on my way down, and for something that we'd rescued from the Salvation Army for a meager two bucks, the frigging flake board packed a damned hard punch.
I lay on the floor, embarrassed, blind, bleeding, and feeling like shit. Junior approached me, twittering and hissing, adding insult to my injury. "Shut up," I begged. Reaching out with my good arm, I used said weapon of mass destruction night table as support to gain a sitting position.
I grabbed the edge of my blanket and wiped up the blood dripping down the side of my face. This was probably considered disgusting, but since I couldn't actually see what I was doing or the mess I was leaving behind, it wouldn't matter. Right?
Junior climbed onto my lap, batted me in the stomach with his paw, gave one last final chitter and settled in. Suddenly the house was bathed in silence. It was quiet. Too quiet. Niko should've been home. I yelled his name two more times, disturbing only Junior.
Terror set in, taking residence and spreading outward, paralyzing every moveable part that I owned except my brain. Viciously wild scenarios ran freely through my brain, all of them involving Niko without a Disney happy ending in sight.
Two attempts later I was on my feet, Junior winding his way around me as I, with my one functioning arm directly in front of my body, cautiously made my way to... I stopped in the hallway. Where the Hell was I going? I needed Niko. Badly. It was dark. I was alone. And this apartment suddenly reminded me too much of Tumulus.
I tripped over Junior who squawked in protest and paid me back with a sharp nip just above my ankle, which totally did me in, offset my balance and landed me on my ass. I'm pretty damn sure my descent was a visual slapstick and had someone been around with a camera, it would shown up on YouTube with thousands of hits, but for now, it was the straw that broke the camel's back sorta thing,
If a monster falls in an apartment with no one around, does he make a sound?
Damn straight, he does.
Once I'd finished cursing, I assessed. Assessing was better than panicking. Panicking I would do right after I finished mentally poking and prodding myself.
Once more with feeling. I hurt. Head. Arm. Throat. I was freezing. Junior's bite was insignificant, falling to the bottom of the list, oh and yeah, I was still blind. With my left arm, I tapped the floor within my immediate vicinity and found something... small and round. I brought it up to my nose and sniffed. The sickening sweet smell of the lone Froot Loops, my usual breakfast of champions, cut right through my limited sniffing power and didn't make my stomach happy. I tossed it, positive Nik would rather clean up one lone piece of cereal rather than my vomit.
Niko had been gone a long time. Admittedly time is skewed when one is newly blind, I'm sure, but considering I'd slept, walked and fell, and the deli was across the street, he was taking too long. I swallowed. Across the street. What if Niko had gotten hurt crossing the street? A car. A mugger. What if—I took a deep breath and ignored the voice of reason that was hysterically laughing in the corner of my brain over the words 'Niko, hurt, crossing street'. Most accidents occur within twenty-five miles of one's home. The corner deli was mere feet.
Rolling, I attempted to find purchase with my left arm to pull myself upright and for all my struggling and hard work, the only accomplishment I managed was bringing down a kitchen chair across my lower legs. I tried to use my elbow to lever my body into a sitting position which I hoped would only be a step away from standing. That didn't work so well either. "Fuck."
I collapsed backwards, smacking my head against the linoleum. Junior came over to investigate, scaring me when he jumped onto my stomach. "Not now," I hissed through clenched teeth.
Junior listened as well as Niko when I voiced my opinion and dropped heavily onto my stomach. "Thanks," I grunted.
Enough time had passed that it was now officially panic time. I mean panic had set in before, but nothing like this. This was the holy shit, I can't breath, heart pounding out of my chest type of panic borne of fear and an overactive imagination, which right now I seemed to have an overabundance of.
A mind was a terrible thing to waste but this second, lying spread eagle, alone and blind on our kitchen floor, I wished my brain would become the virtual wasteland that Niko always claimed that it was.
Junior stretched, turned then yawned.
"Eww, mouthwash, buddy." I was going to add something else about dental hygiene until razor sharp talons began to knead my chest. I pushed him off, twisted my body, hoping Junior would get the hint. Once, twice, three times he slid off, but not the fourth. The fourth time he dug in, catching me through the shirt, making first contact with the skin of my chest. Eerily familiar talons dragged me right to the door of my nightmare of choice and rang the bell while these knifelike Auphe claws teasingly working their way up towards my neck, prepping to hijack me through the portal.
"No!" Furiously, I kicked out, bucked, and dislodged the Auphe. There was an indignant, furious screech. Score one for the half-breed.
My enthusiasm was short lived. Right here on my kitchen floor, I had an epiphany.
Primed for the picking for whomever or whatever wanted to do the picking - the torture or schedule a one way trip back home to see the relatives. Without Niko I was helpless, but even worse, when Niko returned, I'd be a burden. An albatross. Slowly suffocating my brother.
I would never allow that to happen, and I made my decision. Albatross or eternity in the land of my forefathers, both choices sucked. There was only one option, and I scrambled backwards, propelling myself along the kitchen floor towards the living room. My feet slipped, trying to find purchase, and I managed to make it to the doorway, the change between linoleum to carpeting a dead give away. Flipping on my side, I held onto the doorjamb, but my left arm was lacking the muscle strength to do much more than push me off and propel me another one or two inches. Stretching my arm over my head, I could feel the edge of couch, teasing me, letting me know I was closer to what I needed to complete my mission until sharp claws latched onto my pants, not trying to hold me back. Instead the Auphe was trying again, attempting to use my clothing as a ladder. Climbing up my body.
"What the hell— Don't you dare try and move that, Niko."
Movement brought a blast of cold air flowing over my body. I swallowed fire, shivered and hoped for death.
There was frustration in the voice. "Get that creature off him before it bites—" A shouted curse. "It bit me. Did you see it? Open the window, I'm going to..."
It was the cold hand on my face that jerked me into kicking and screaming awareness. I wasn't going down or through the portal without a fight.
"Get away from him, Promise."
Familiar voices. One harder. One softer. Both edged with worry. Their names were on the tip of tongue, synapses slowly firing and stretching to make the connection when not quite so cold fingers held my chin in place. "Listen to me, Cal. You may not be able to see, but I know you can hear me."
"Niko?" I turned my face in what I hoped was his direction. "You're back. I was getting—"
"I'm sorry." Niko's apology was spoken quietly.
I smacked him on the leg with a lethargic hand. "Worried." I seemed to be lacking in the righteous indignation department.
"Did you go looking for me?" Niko gently touched the spot where the nightstand had kissed my forehead.
I winced and attempted to slither away; gentle or not, it still hurt. "Ow."
"Okay, enough with the amenities, we're here. Promise, you take care of Niko and I'll handle the younger one. Though, when you get down to Niko's nakedness and you need a helping hand, feel free to call me."
I was back in my bedroom and I was pissed. Junior was pacing, brushing up against my thigh, picking up my agitation. "Where's Niko? Promise is taking too long."
"Hold still, Cal, and can you please get that damn thing off the bed?"
"Junior's not bothering anyone." I reached out my hand, barely managing to move it a few inches across the bed.
"He's bothering me. I'm trying to clean you up. And damn, now there's hair in these wounds. Don't you dare blame me if you get an infection. Can't you see—"
"I'm blind, Robin, I can't see."
"Oh. Yeah. Sorry about that, though I believe—"
I jerked. "That. Hurt."
"It wouldn't hurt if you were holding still."
"I am holding still, you're just—ow, what the hell was that?"
"A needle. An injection. Something to shut you up and make sure you hold still."
"I'll shut up right after you tell me where Niko is. I want... Oh." Being unable to see coupled with vertigo even while lying flat on my back wasn't a good thing. "What the heck did you give me?"
"I told you, something to shut you up, so I could examine you. Treat you and make sure... are you going to puke? You're green."
I nodded. Whatever had been in the syringe was definitely not agreeing with me and I began to gag.
"Don't you dare, do you know how much these pants cost me?" There was frantic rustling and a lot of cursing. "I can't believe you don't have a garbage pail—Got it."
Without ceremony, Robin grabbed me by the hair and shoved my face into the pail with only seconds to spare. I had already lost my breakfast, my lunch and I think more than a few other meals, but from the gagging sounds that Robin was making as I upchucked, I had the distinct impression my body was cleaning house.
The injection did more than make me shut up and puke, it made me sleep, though the more apropos words would be knock me out. I woke begrudgingly to Niko's insistent, repetitive, annoying calling of my name.
"What?" I groaned, pissed for being woken "Go. Away."
"It's time for your antibiotic."
"Wake me in four and give me double the dose."
"Ahh, such a morning person. Feeling better?"
"No. Not better." I stopped mid-whine. "You. Are you okay? Did Promise kiss your booboo and make it all better?" I opened my eyes to visually assess my brother. He had the ability to lie like a rug, but not from me, Niko couldn't hide anything from me. Oh. Shit. I growled in frustration, anger, stupidity. How does one forget that they're blind? "What the..." I bucked as Niko pinned my arms to my side.
"Don't touch your eyes."
I stopped immediately and tried to stare at him with sightless eyes. "Why?'
"They're still there. You still have two of them."
"I knew that," I lied. Yeah, right. Seeing is believing and since I couldn't see, that believing part wasn't really going to work without some sort of touchy feely assessment. "Can't I just touch... a little?"
"The skin around them is raw and irritated. Touching them will just increase your risk of infection."
"Who cares, it's not like I'm going to be able to see—" I interrupted myself. "You never answered me. Did Promise take care of you?" I relaxed, hoping he'd release his grip on my arms, 'cause holding me down was probably the last thing he should be doing with his injury.
"Where's Promise? I want to ask her. She'll tell me the truth. Pro—" I attempted to call out her name.
"Gone? As in left an injured person to care for someone who's blind? And you say she's your girlfriend? I'm thinking a little reassessment is in order. Oh, that's right. Robin's here?" I wasn't so ready to forgive Robin for that whole needle stick thing but I trusted him enough to fill in the Niko blanks. I turned on my side and Junior moved his body heat from my feet to the space my bent knees made. My own portable heating pad, I wonder if I could market the little guy.
"Robin's gone also."
Oh. Focus. I had to remember to focus. I took deep breaths and tried to remember where the conversation had been going. Ah, got it. "Okay. Let me get this straight, blind boy is left with injured boy?"
I didn't need the ability to see to hear the exasperation in my brother's voice. "I'm fine. Promise went to get food. Robin had plans and went to..."
I covered my one exposed ear. "I don't think I want to know where Robin went."
The bed shifted. I shifted. Junior shifted again and I panicked, thinking that Niko was leaving. Stupid, infantile and so not my modus operandi but hey, I was blind and figured I'd deserved some slack, based on that alone. So I went for the jugular. Not that it wasn't the truth, but hell, it was a low blow and one that was going to glue Niko to my side for a while. "Niko..." Some cheese with that whine would be nice.
"Yes?" Interest piqued.
Heavy sigh to drive home my point. Mind you, I wasn't lying; I was just laying it thick. "I really feel like crap."
"Yeah, that's to be expected."
"Expected?" Strangely enough, I'd thought there'd be a touch more sympathy? Empathy? Something? I mean, I know this is Niko, but hell, at least Junior was sharing his body heat. "Is there something that you need to say to me? As in, was I the topic of conversation between the Three Musketeers?" Sue me, no one likes to know that people are talking about them. Even monsters.
Niko cleared his throat.
Whoa, that was certainly a healthy dose of procrastination if ever I heard. Niko was procrastinating. My brother may be a lot of things, but procrastinator wasn't one of his strange traits. "Niko, what aren't you telling me?"
"The blindness is temporary."
Where's the cheering? "That's great news, but I'm thinking you left your enthusiasm at the door."
Okay, I was now officially weirded out. Niko always commented on my comments. I never get the last word. Ever. I was frustrated and struck out with my hand and hit... bed. Niko wasn't even close enough for me to punch. "Get back here, you coward." Maybe I should've made an attempt to sit up before speaking out loud, because I was shaking worse than George's grandpa. Obviously shaking so badly that Niko de Coward grabbed me by the biceps and pushed me back down on the bed.
"Don't be an idiot, you idiot."
Junior took offense to being trapped between my legs and the mattress and he complained loudly, wiggling out from his prison, up over my thigh and settled high on my chest. I trapped him there, holding him place, Tee shirt. Junior. Blanket. My left hand.
I jumped when Niko put his hands atop the fingers of my left hand and pried apart my death grip on the poor creature.
"Don't kill your new toy, okay?"
"Oh, you're talking to me now?"
"You're sulking. Blind or not, sulking isn't a great look for you, Cal."
"You didn't answer my question. I have every right to sulk."
"Your eyesight is going to come back."
"You mentioned that about five minutes ago with basically as much fanfare as you're giving to me now."
"Yeah, ya see, Niko? Right about here is where we're having communication difficulties. I'm supposed to ask a question. You're supposed to answer." I paused. "I'm waiting."
"The sbek's venom, the stuff I was supposed to read up on before and didn't. That venom?"
Ahh, drum roll. But based on the depth of the breath Niko took, he was going for the long-winded version. I headed him off at the pass. "Give me the Cliff Notes version, okay?" Short, sweet and to the point. "How about you make it a bedtime story? I haven't had a great day."
"Robin thinks the sbek that bit you was a female."
"You said they didn't leave their nests." My life expectancy came to a shrieking halt.
"Obviously this one did."
"How? I mean, how long—"
"The venom needs to burn itself out."
"Huh?" I was never one for intelligent conversation under duress. "As in, I'm going to do a Joan of Arc imitation?"
"Didn't I tell you not to be an idiot?"
I pulled the cover up even higher and hunkered down. "Have I ever listened to anything you've ever said?"
"Once. No, twice. Definitely twice. How about we go for the hat trick?"
"Was that a hockey analogy? Did you make a sport reference?"
"Focus, Cal. Can you focus?"
"Can you get from point A to point B without going around every block?"
Niko growled and spit out the answer I'd been looking for. "You're sick. You're going to get a lot sicker. High fever. Very high fever. And there's nothing that anyone can do. Nothing. No Tylenol. No medication. Fever has to burn the venom out. Got that, Cal? Do. You. Understand. That?"
Niko hated feeling helpless and that's just the position he was going to be. With me, when I began to cook. I reached out and connected with some body part of my brother's, hopefully it was his knee, and I squeezed gently. "It'll be okay. I promise. How bad can one fever be?"
I was lying in bed staring at the ceiling. Alright, maybe staring was the wrong word when you're visually impaired, but that's what I was doing, along with impatiently flicking Junior's tail back and forth like a metronome on Energizer batteries.
"Stop it," Niko hissed. He picked up Junior, who was tucked under my chin and moved him to my feet where he settled in nicely.
I bobbed my knee up and down, hoping to annoy Junior enough that he'd return back to the northern hemisphere of my body. "Hey, I can't reach him down there."
"That's the idea, leave the poor thing alone."
"I'm bored. When's this fever supposed to hit, because you know I'm done with the lying around waiting. I want to see. I wish I could—"
"Be careful what you wish for, Caliban."
Okay, that freaked me out more than the sightlessness and the approach of the fever of doom. Niko called me by my full name. So again, I went with the 'he's not telling me everything'. "This fever—"
"What do you want to know?"
Hmmm, his question was a little too defensive and quick on the draw - very unNiko-like. "Everything."
"Well, pretty much everything is speculation."
Great. The Puck was back. "Robin, are you taking up Yoda lessons, because I haven't a clue what the hell you're trying to say."
"I'm more the Hans Solo type. Though I'm a better dresser than—"
"Focus, Goodfellow," Niko said.
"Weren't you supposed to be somewhere other than here tonight?" Junior obviously was a glutton for punishment and meandered his way up. Little, though very well equipped in the claw department, feet walked up my body and I barely took a breath when he hesitated over body parts that I'd grown attached to.
"I wouldn't sneeze, Cal." Robin chucked at his own funny.
Neither did Niko.
"Forget it, I'd forgotten what party poopers the two of you are," Robin huffed.
"Just get to the point, Goodfellow," Niko hissed.
"There's a point? Oh, yeah... Ow... Do not hit the Puck, Niko. At least not in front of the children."
"Hello. Blind guy here who's at a serious disadvantage to your behind the scenes hand-holding."
"There's never been a human who's withstood poisoning by a female sbek. If the poison didn't kill them, the fever did."
This time I did laugh. "That's all?"
"What the hell do you mean, that's all?"
God, there's nothing I enjoy better than getting the upper hand on Niko. "I'm not human; this is going to be a piece of cake. Don't worry."
"Yeah, I'm sure that's exactly what Delilah said to Samson just before she cut off his hair with the scissors she had hidden behind her back."
Okay, my brother with the sports reference and now Robin with bible stories. Maybe this was bigger than sbek poisoning and fever. "Did you just make a biblical analogy, Goodfellow? I didn't take you as the holier than thou—"
"Analogy? Not at all. Samson was a good friend of mine until that bitch Delilah showed up."
Impossible as it sounded, Robin and Niko weren't brilliant conversationalists and they could bore wallpaper off the wall or lull a monster into slumber. Since my bedroom was void of a stitch of wallpaper, I'll give you one guess who ended up snoring and drooling. Yeah, exactly. And I slept, deeply, until Junior woke me, tugging on a handful of hair. "What the hell?" I pulled back, smacking my deadened arm on the wall, sending a marching band of electrical shocks from my shoulder to the tip of my fingers. "Crap." I dragged my right arm across my body with my left and hugged it to my chest.
"Let me look." Niko tried to pry my arms apart.
"No," I ordered through gritted teeth. "Give me a second."
"I'll give you ten." Niko began to count.
I exhaled slowly through pursed lips, feeling like an idiot. "Better."
"Good. Bad dream?"
I shook my head "Bad Junior." I squinted into the darkness. Not the darkness in my bedroom, because there could be every light in the world illuminating these four walls and I wouldn't have a clue, I meant the other darkness. Blindness darkness. My darkness. How I saw the world. "I'm not sick."
"Give it time."
"I can't live like this. You can't live like this—"
"I said give it time!"
"What if being a half breed stops me from getting a fever. Without the fever I'll never get my—"
"Don't say it," Niko warned.
And in those words, I heard fear from my brother and if Niko was afraid for me, I didn't stand a chance.
"I need to pee," I said suddenly, throwing back the blanket. Junior gave a squeal of protest, but tough shit. Peeing was easier than facing reality. Peeing was a natural thing. I did peeing. I could pee. I would pee. You peed even if you couldn't see. Aiming might be an issue, but the act of peeing didn't require anything but the need and desire, of which I had both.
I wanted to shake off Nik's helping hand, complaining and griping that I could do this by myself, but, contrary to Niko's opinion of me, I wasn't an idiot. I knew my limitations, and right now, I had plenty. One of which was getting to the bathroom, finding the toilet and making my way back to my bed. The only thing I could handle, no pun intended, of course, was peeing.
"A little to the left." Niko placed his hands on my shoulders and maneuvered me ever so gently two steps to the left. "You're good to go," he whispered in my ear.
"Very funny." My breath caught in my throat and I leaned to the right, reaching for the edge of the vanity I knew to be there. As I emptied my bladder, it felt like I was peeing molten lava. I was cooking from the inside out.
"I don't want to interrupt your concentration... Cal?"
Niko's hand was a block of ice on my neck and I tried to push away his touch with a swipe of my shoulder. "You're cold."
Somewhere, there should've been a quick answer to that statement but I couldn't see the forest through the fire. "I think—" I had no idea what I thought, because my legs at that moment decided they'd had enough of standing and slowly gave up the ghost, folding under me like a stack of cards.
"Where's Junior?" I stuttered through chattering teeth, clutching the blankets in a one-fisted grasp and pulling them up higher. Three blankets plus the ripped and tattered shawl from the back of the couch and I still wasn't able to leech an ounce of heat from the coverings.
"Promise? Where's Niko?"
"I'm right here." There was a sudden weight on my legs. "Here's Junior."
"Good," I huffed. "I have a fever."
"You lied. I can't see." I blinked. "I have a fever and I still can't see."
"I hate to inform you," Robin said with an uncharacteristic gentleness that made my skin crawl. "This is just the appetizer, kid, the main course hasn't even arrived yet."
"I don't want a drink," I complained loudly, and with enough whiney petulance that would give a two year old a run for their money. Turning my face, I warded off the glass with a sweep of my arm.
There was a crash and a curse in a language that was unfamiliar.
"It was an accident," Promised purred.
Robin was pissed and I was pleased. Served him right and I hoped whatever was in that glass stained whatever expensive thing he was wearing.
"Tuck your tail back into your pants, it's only water."
Go, Niko, for putting the puck in his place. Damn, I could've done more damage if I pissed on him.
Junior was protesting, but I think I was protesting louder. "He doesn't want to go."
"That's because you're not letting him go."
He was warm. My portable furnace which was a million times better than any quilt or blanket my Three Musketeers could dredge up and I wasn't giving Junior up so fast. "No." Weakly, I wrapped my good hand around his squirming body and shoved him under the blanket. "Can't have him."
Niko tried to appeal to me, cold hands against my cheek, trying to gain my attention. He did have my attention; he just wasn't getting my Junior.
Robin wasn't playing nicely. Not as nicely as Niko was or Promise, who was making shushing noises while patting my leg. Robin was mumbling under his breath, an annoying thrumming sound, bouncing off the walls of my aching head. Even Junior was annoyed at Robin and with only my left hand in working order, it was getting harder and harder to maintain a good grip on him.
"No more Mr. Nice Guy, as Alice Cooper once said..."
"Don't do it," Niko warned.
"Yeah," I added, unsure of what the hell Niko was referring to. Liked Robin. Loved Niko. Trusted my brother a bit more than the puck.
"For your own good." Robin said and without warning, he ripped off my layers of blanket.
I growled and bucked.
Junior slipped from my grasp and hissed. Louder than my growl.
"I've got... Shit, the damned thing bit me again!"
I didn't give a crap about the bite or if Robin was bleeding like a stuck pig, I moved my head in the direction that I hoped Niko was. "I'm cold."
"And I'm bleeding. See?"
"No," I answered smugly. "I don't see. I can't see."
And it hit me. Finally. I had been fed a line of bullshit. No matter what bill of goods I'd been sold, I'd been cheated. I was blind. B. L. I. N. D. With or without fever, this was for good. "Niko?" I reached out, hoping my brother could see what I couldn't. I was lost in the dark and I was losing it. I could feel it. "I'm fuckin' freezing and I can't see!" I screamed.
I was panicking. I don't panic. I never panic. I'd been to Tumulus and back and I hadn't panicked. Okay, maybe I had... a little. I'd been host to a Darkling. I'd died and hadn't panicked. So maybe that was a little bit more panic. But now? I was Panicking with a capital "P." And I was freezing. And I was blind. In the dark and surrounded by three people and an animal who had no idea what the fuck to do with me.
It was only a matter of time before I ended up back where I started. Tumulus was everything I hated and was unable to forget. The evilness of this place sucked every ounce of heat from my body. Sapped my strength and confused me.
My father's relatives waved and smiled, and I hope they'd understand if I didn't return their good wishes.
"Niko!" I did a three sixty, scanning the horizon as I spun. "No. No. No." Niko didn't belong here. Hell, I didn't belong here; I'd already done my time in this vacation resort already.
My eyesight blurred, I blinked and for the longest seconds of my life there was only darkness. I froze, rooted to the spot. Tumulus with all five senses intact was hard enough, but blind, Niko and I would become permanent residents.
Slowly, the drab colors of the landscape came into focus and I scrubbed at my eyes, testing my vision.
"I'm right here."
"Where?" I shouted. I pivoted in the shifting sand, shielding my eyes from the relentless sun. "Where are you? I can't see you."
My right arm erupted in fire, and I'm embarrassed to say that my paternal relatives received an excellent demonstration of how in touch I was with my feminine side. With a very girl-like screech, I fell to my knees, clutching the injured appendage to my chest.
"Sorry. I'm sorry. But I need you to listen to my voice."
"Where?" I was never very good at Follow the Leader.
"Niko." I hauled myself to a standing position. Swayed, but maintained my balance with only one good arm. "We can't stay here."
I pushed outward and felt the familiar, painful bubble of pain—
"Damn it, make him—
"Stop it. You have to stop it. Don't make me—"
Damn him. "We have to get out of here. The gate is the only—"
"There are other ways to leave this place, young one."
I tried to hold onto our escape route, but both the portal and I were unstable and it blinked out with little fanfare, leaving in its wake an echo of a headache that was in dire need of some heavy duty painkillers.
Weaponless. Injured. Gateless, I turned to face a member of my family tree.
Niko was kneeling, head bowed.
I growled. Leandros kneel before no one.
His captor laughed, drawing my attention and red eyes shifted to violet. I stepped back, confused as the vampire appeared to overlay the Auphe. "Promise?" The image disappeared at the mention of her name, but the eye color. The smile. That wasn't Grendel.
"It's not real. You have to believe me, Cal. Wherever you are, this isn't—
Sharp Auphe talons dug into Niko's neck.
"Stop. You're hurting him." The nails dug deeper and the trickles of blood turned into rivers, running down his neck, staining his shirt. "Let him go. Me. Take me." I threw my arms opened wide, the proverbial sacrificial monster.
"Don't you dare give up, Cal."
Defeated, I sank to my knees. "I have no choice."
Talons grabbed my chin, forcing my gaze upwards, but this time it was Promise's eyes that met mine. "There's always a choice, my little brother. You just need to make the right one."
The gate opened easily this time, perfectly placed behind Niko. I lunged forward, taking the two of us out of Hell, hopefully in the direction of home.
"Cal. You need to stay with us. Nothing's out there for you."
"Safety," I mumbled, opening my eyes to darkness. "Niko's safe?"
"Safe. I'm right here."
Icicles wrapped themselves around my hands and drew them upwards to his face. Cold or not I knew that touch, the planes of a face as familiar as my own. "You're safe." I sighed the words. "Saved you."
"Don't do that again," Niko warned.
"No promises. Where's Promise? Your Promise."
Even colder hands enveloped mine and I shivered so hard my teeth chattered. "Right here, Cal. Safe and sound."
"Me, too, even though no one even inquired about me. Safe. Sound."
"Hail. Hail," I mumbled then coughed. I was so damn dry, it hurt. Fucking Tumulus had drained every ounce of moisture from my body.
The sound of rushing water didn't help with my thirst. Damn. It was dark, not blind dark, but dark due to lack of lighting dark. "Niko? Promise? Robin?" Unlike Tumulus, there was no answer, no echoing response letting me know I wasn’t alone in the darkness. "Crap." I slid downward and when my ass connected with the cement, I connected the dots and I hugged my arm to my chest. This was where it had all begun, and if memory served me right, gate travel was the only way to get my ass home.
I leaned my head backwards. "Just give me a moment," I whispered into the darkness.
"Sleep. It's okay."
Great, I was hearing voices. "I wish." I may have wished for sleep, but what I really wished for was that the mental illness my father's side of the family brought into the gene pool would've picked another day or two before making itself known.
I was cold. Ill equipped for this place. Alone. And feeling damned sorry for myself. "Niko?" I shrugged. Didn't hurt to try again even if the response was a figment of my imagination.
"Liar," I chuckled. "You're not here."
"We can't wait, Niko. He can't wait."
"Can you guarantee it will work?"
I heard something skirting around the voices in my head. "Could you guys just shut up a minute?"
"It can't hurt, because honestly, Niko, we're just sitting here watching."
There it was again. The sound. Tiny, insistent, and I was trying to place what category it fell into. Fear. Anger. Terror. "Look, guys, I don't care who stays and who goes in this little party taking place in my mind, all I'm asking is that you shut the fuck up for one minute. Please."
"Did the kid just throw me out?"
"Shut up!" Using my good arm and the wall behind me, I struggled, but found purchase enough to get me upright. Slowly, I moved forward, one step at a time, scanning, my vision more accustomed to the darkness of my surroundings than when I first landed here. I used the sound as a beacon, treading slowly over the uneven terrain, trying to remember if it was like the first time I visited, then trying to remember to remain focused on the sound. "Junior?" I stupidly called his name like the creature could answer.
Oh. Oh shit. I could make out a dim shadow fighting to stay afloat in the water. "Damn." I lay down, trying not to think of what I was coming up close and personal with and slithered forward, digging the elbow of my left arm along the ground, pulling my upper body over the water. I closed my eyes for one second, prayed that the voices in my head would tell me to stop being an idiot and only worry about myself, and stuck out my arm, waggling my fingers at Junior. "Come on, Lassie. Come to Timmy." It would've worked. Honestly, it would've if a sbek who wore Robin's face didn't fly out of the water at that exact moment, intent on separating my arm from the rest of my body.
"Be careful, Robin, unconscious doesn't mean dead."
I pulled back, which should've worked, but it didn't, and I tumbled, head first into the water.
The fact that the water was cold was bad enough but add to the equation the factor that I had only one functioning arm and there was some sort of distorted sbek swimming around with access to way too many of my body parts, pushed me right over the edge. Figuratively and physically.
"Don't hold him down... Damn it, Cal."
Water slapped me in the face, ended up down my throat, and I shut my mouth, the thought of what I'd already swallowed enough to make me puke.
"I loved this shirt."
"It's only water. Now could you please..."
I tried to swim, fought against the current and reached for the side, but it was slippery and cold.
"And the shirt's only silk. And I know it might be beyond your comprehension that silk and water..."
"Shut up, Robin, because if you don't and Niko doesn't use this opportunity to kill you, I will."
Junior clung to me. His claws created tracks as he scrambled up my arm, trying to save his own skin while sacrificing mine. "Ow, you little SOB." And we went under, both of us, and the dark water closed in around us.
"What the Hell?"
I'm sorry, Niko. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.
There was a disturbance in the water, a presence. I struggled to bring Junior up to my chest to protect him from the inevitable.
"Don't let him hit his head, all he needs is a concussion. Damn it, just move aside. I'll..."
Something grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and pulled. I struggled. Fought. Battled for my life. And Junior's.
"He's not breathing."
... And won. My head broke the water and I coughed. Gasped and brought Junior up to for air.
"Good boy, Cal. Just keep doing that, okay? In. Out."
"He's still burning up, I thought you said—"
I swatted at the annoying beeping sound. "Go 'way."
"It has gone down. See?"
"One hundred three point six is down?"
"It was over hundred and five, Niko," Promise responded softly. "Oh. Hi, Cal."
I waved. I couldn't see either her or my fingers waggling. Or Niko, who I'm sure was sitting within arm's reach. "Nik?" At least that's what I was going for. It sort of sounded more like just an elongated 'n' sound.
"You sound like you could use a drink."
I nodded, the mere effort of keeping my eyes opened, sightless or not, was tiring. Wimp.
Niko stuck a straw between my lips. "Wimp is okay for now. I'll whip you back into shape in no time."
I'd said that out loud? Great. Two sips through the straw and I was done. Too much effort, not enough reward. "Soda?"
"You're lucky it's not green tea."
"No soda? Bubbles and fizz."
I stuck out my tongue.
"Give the poor kid soda."
"Least I can do, because you're going to owe me. Big time."
"Well, you see, silk and water don't go well together—"
"No, I don't see," I explained around a yawn. "Think I'm going to call it a night." I yawned again, relaxed enough that my headache was nothing more than just a headache.
"Make sure you stay here, okay?"
Even without sight, I knew it was Niko who moved into my space, sitting by the head of the bed. Strong, sure fingers, dexterously worked to pull my wet hair off my forehead. I sighed in appreciation as he leaned over and used the corner of the blanket to mop up the moisture. "You're a peach," I mumbled.
Niko gently smacked down the hand I'd raised to check out his handiwork. "And you're an asshole. Go to sleep."
"Don't let the bed bugs bite. Sweet dreams. Mr. Sandman—Anything I forgot, Cal?"
"Holy crap, the two of you sound like the damn Waltons. Now just go to sleep, John Boy, so the rest of us can close our eyes."
"Speak for yourself, Robin," Promise answered, her voice as rich as cream and just as smooth. "I don't need sleep."
I dreamed. I know I did. I mumbled, moaned, tossed in my sleep but there was always a helping hand. I was plied with all the amenities of the infirmed. Water. Washcloth to swipe across one's fevered brow. Blankets removed, adjusted and tucked anally in. Of course, there were the occasional puck grumblings, but it was him, more than the others, who provided background vocals of nonsense to bore me back into oblivion.
Whatever was tickling the edge of my nose was driving me nuts. I tried burying my face in the pillow, but the damn thing was insistent in its need to follow me. I played Luke Skywalker, channeled the Force, concentrated, reached out and grabbed. Hard.
That was an unfamiliar voice.
"It's attached, you know."
Okay, maybe not so unfamiliar. Just a voice that shouldn't ever have been in my bedroom, fantasies notwithstanding. I flipped onto my back and stared straight up. "George?"
She tugged on the hair I still held in my hand. "Can I have this back?"
"Sorry." I dropped the curl like a hot potato. "I just didn't expect to see..." I blinked. Her freckled face peered down at me anxiously. "I can see?"
Her fingers, so unlike Niko's but embarrassingly displaying the same affection, carded through the sweaty mess of my hair. "I don't know, Cal, can you see?"
Closing my eyes, I counted to ten. Sang a shortened rendition of Happy Birthday, then counted again to ten, just to make sure. Slowly, I peeked. "I can see."
Niko's face loomed over mine and I could seeevery second of sleep he'd missed because of me. I closed my eyes against that visual. Blindness had its advantages, it would seem.
"Don't you dare," Niko hissed. Painfully, he wrapped his fingers around my chin. "Open your eyes."
I did. Slowly. Tentatively. Trying to focus on anything but his face and the shadows under his eyes.
Niko patted my head and stepped back and from a distance of even two feet, I could deal. "You know, you look like shit, Cal."
I may have looked like shit but I was lying in bed with my head pillowed in George's lap, her fingers still caressing my hair. I could see and, I flexed the fingers of my injured hand, all my parts appeared to be in working order. "I'm good," I answered, trying to keep the joy from my voice. Experience had taught me that joy was usually a short-lived emotion for the Leandros brothers. "I'm hungry." I glanced up at George. "Did you bring ice cream?"
"That wasn't exactly high on my list of priorities when you called."
"I called?" Confused, my gaze slipped from Niko to the visual of George's upside down face as she peered into mine, the tiniest of smiles tugging at the corner of mouth.
She tapped my temple. "You called."
Shit. Note to self, scrub all George fantasies from my brain. "Guess I didn't mention anything about ice cream, did I?"
"Not a word."
"How does some—"
"Does it involve anything green and health food?" I tried to think of a way I could push myself into a sitting position without actually touching George in an inappropriate manner.
"Breakfast delivery!" Robin burst into the bedroom, a brown bag under each arm with Promise following in his wake, bearing a tray holding drinks of the hot and steamy variety.
Immediately, my mouth began to water. "I think I'm in love with you, Goodfellow."
"Isn't everyone?" he preened. Then he stopped and did the staring thing. "You can see?"
I fluttered my eyelashes at him.
"Well, thank god, we can leave this tin can of a room and go eat in the kitchen like humans—"
I laughed. "Humans?"
"Well, some of us are," he huffed. "The other, who shall remain nameless, smells more like something from the animal kingdom."
"Where the heck is Junior?" I quipped, lifting the blankets.
I showered because I couldn't stand myself. It was going to be quick, because, once again, there was just something wrong about showering under the watchful eye of your brother, waiting to pick up the pieces in case I hit the tub and went splat.
And I did. Well, I wouldn't have exactly called it a splat. It was more of an 'oh shit' moment followed by a thud. Niko's quick reflexes saved me from the splat of my head hitting the porcelain, but not the thud of my ass hitting tile.
"Told you so," Niko said with an annoyingly smug attitude as the two of us struggled to get me into an upright position.
Admittedly, he had told me so. Informed me, in no uncertain terms, that I was probably going to be dizzy and light-headed from being sick, yadda yadda yadda, blah blah blah. I'd felt perfectly fine on the walk from the bed to the bathroom. Not bad as I'd undressed, freaked out as he watched me do a slow strip tease, but dizzy? Nope. Nada. Hell, I wasn't even a tad light-headed when I stepped under the spitting water that passed for a shower. I managed to stay upright shampooing my hair, soaping down my body. Both done while keeping one eye on Niko. It was dropping the soap that did me in.
"Good catch," I said thankfully.
"Just watch where you're holding, 'k? I'm all for that brotherly love and everything, but..."
I found myself sitting on the closed toilet seat, a towel thrown over my shoulders and my head forced between my knees. I lifted my head. "Isn't this overkill?"
"My ass is cold."
This went on until Niko deemed me ready to play nice with the guests and by the time I sat down at the table, I was pissy, angry, annoyed, willing to eat anything and ready to kill Niko, shadows under his eyes or not, if he didn't give me breathing room.
Junior was keeping my chair warm for me and I made absolutely no comment, except to pick him when I slid into my seat. He sat on my lap, paws on the table, waiting expectantly for someone to feed him.
Goodfellow cleared his throat.
Junior and I growled.
"Down, boys," Promise said, looking over the pile of bagels, picking out what I believed was a multi-grain flat bread type of thing that didn't resemble a bagel at all.
"That better not be for me." I obviously was feeling good enough for that remark to earn a smack in the head. "Ow." Rubbing the spot, I glared at Niko.
"Behave yourself," he warned, leaning over me to grab the disgustingly healthy carbohydrate Promise was handing to him.
She accepted my apology with a smile. "Would you like a cinnamon raisin bagel?"
"Is there a French toast one?" I loved those. Lotsa butter or creamed cheese and I was a happy camper.
George snagged one and held it up like a prize. "Butter or creamed cheese?"
She got up before I could stop her and Niko flicked my ear before I could stop him. "What?" I turned fast enough that I had to stick out my hand to save Junior from taking a tumble onto the floor.
"You're being a brat."
He nodded. "You are."
"Don't I get some leeway for being sick?" I threw in a little whine for good measure.
"Nope," Goodfellow answered, lathering his bagel with creamed cheese and nauseatingly, a heaping serving of lox.
I put my hand out for the lox and the puck hesitated, holding onto it like it was gold, before he acquiesced and gave the plate to me. "Thanks." I tore a piece off and put it on the table in front of Junior, who sniffed it, then I swear looked up at me with tears in his eyes before devouring it. He purred as I reached to get him another piece. The movement was swift but I think if I hadn't just recently been close to dead, I probably would've intercepted the thrown knife that had imbedded itself in the table between my fingers and the plate of lox.
"Do you know how much that stuff is a pound?" Robin bellowed.
I tugged the knife out of the table. "Damn it, Goodfellow, you've scratched the good furniture."
Me, I ignored him and the evil gaze Niko was utilizing to burn a hole in my back, then used the knife to cut a bigger chunk of lox for Junior. "Here you go," I said innocently, handing the knife handle side to the recipient (like you're supposed to). "Oh, by the way,
"Nice shirt." I waved in his direction. "Is that tie dyed?"
Goodfellow stared at me, eyes huge in a red face, the handle of the knife gripped in his hand, the pointy part aimed right at me.
Niko's hand grew claws that he dug into my neck but I didn't miss the huff of choked laughter and Promise suddenly found the tier of bagels damn interesting.
"Anyone want to let me in on the joke?" I glanced at George as she put the plate down in front of me.
"Haven't a clue," she whispered.
"Niko? Promise? Good—"
"Eat your bagel, it's safer that way." Niko plopped the container of butter right in front of me then leaned over and forcibly removed the puck's fingers from around the knife's handle.
In theory, the bagels, the breakfast and the camaraderie was a great idea. In reality, Junior ended up eating half my bagel and I just wanted to go back to a horizontal position. Rude or not, I got up, tucked my overstuffed, mammalian heating pad under my arm and left the room.
My aloneness lasted about twenty seconds. Hell, I didn't even get to stretch out on the couch. George stood in my path. "I'll bring ice cream tomorrow when I come back."
Can I just say I was jealous of the behind the ear rub she was giving Junior.
"You don't have to."
"What? Return or bring ice cream?"
I paused, weighed my words, found what I was going to say wanting and mean, and settled on something completely different. "Can you bring back waffle cones with the ice cream?"
"I'll even bring sprinkles."
I sank down in the couch, feeling stupid and overwhelmed. Bagels. Lox. Creamed cheese. Ice cream. Friendship. Crap, I was so not good at this.
George knelt down in front of me. "This is where you say thank you."
"Thank you," I repeated woodenly.
"It gets easier in time, honest."
I sucked at friend stuff. Family stuff I was okay with if it was one on one and the one was Niko. But this? "Go home, Georgie."
"I kindly, and with more class than you, have kicked everyone's ass to the curb."
I nodded; words didn't seem to want to be my friend right now. I was stretched out on the couch, satiated and warm. Junior was lying between my legs, tucked up against my crotch.
"I take it that was your idea of 'thank you, Niko'?"
I nodded one more time for good measure. I really wanted to go into my room, shut the door and feign orphan status for an hour or two, but I truly didn't want to disturb Junior at the moment.
"Friends aren't the enemy, you know." Niko was behind me, arms folded along the back of the couch.
"I was blind."
"And now you're not. Over. Done. Water under the bridge. Or tunnels, as the case may be."
I wasn't in a ha ha mood.
"I'm not trying to be funny, Cal. I'm just trying to make a point."
"I'm a little slow today. Speak in short sentences and explain what that point might be."
"You're not blind anymore."
"But what if I was?"
"Just answer the question, Niko. Where would we be if I was still blind?"
"Always together. Did you think—"
"Yeah, a burden, that's what I thought."
"You're an asshole, Cal."
"I never said I wasn't, it's you that has faith in me." I closed my eyes to the mix of pity and confusion on Niko's face.
"I never would've left you," Niko said.
"That was my fear."
Niko's angry shout interrupted my second mid-afternoon snooze of the day. I raised my head lazily, contemplating ignoring my brother but then decided if he was mad enough to raise his voice and use my whole name, it probably was worth the trouble.
I dislodged Junior from his nest between my legs and stumbled down the hall, yawning and grumbling. Junior stretched lazily before trotting alongside me as we entered Niko's bedroom.
My brother was standing near his closet, glaring at something in the corner.
"Your friend has decided to use my bedroom as his litter box."
There were damp footprints on the old wooden floor and it took me a moment to realize that Niko had stepped, barefoot, into a puddle of urine.
"Well, what do you expect?" I wrinkled my nose at the growing smell. "It's just pee. It could be worse. He could have—"
"He did. In Robin's shoes."
I blinked. Damn, I must have slept through all that fun. "Well, that'll teach Robin not to leave his shoes lying around."
"Cal, he's gotta go back."
We both watched Junior walk to the puddle and with a fastidious look, attempt to bury his leavings with non-existent dirt.
"We should get him a litter box."
"Promise got him one. It got the same reception as..." He pointed to the little beast who had switched paws and was trying from another angle.
"Tonight, Cal. We'll bring him back tonight."
Apparently pleased with his efforts, Junior strutted out the door, tail held high.
It took less time for Niko to find the controls to turn off the security at the construction site, than it did for me to haul myself and Junior out of the car. I just prayed that we could get into the tunnels before Junior's caterwauls, hisses and growls caught the attention of the night guard. Werewolf and whatever the heck Junior's lineage was probably wasn't a good mix and this wasn't the time to introduce them.
"Good thing Robin was gracious enough to let us borrow one of his cars." Niko appeared suddenly at my shoulder while I was trying to get a grip on the carrier that was safe from the threatening claws which appeared each time I reached for the handle. "Stop that." He smacked the carrier sharply, and the sudden silence from within suddenly seemed more menacing.
I gingerly grabbed the handle, picked up the carrier, and started descending into the depths of the deep hole in the ground.
"Robin's gonna have a helluva time getting the stench out of there," Niko commented as he shut the door on the reek of urine.
I nodded, proud of the distance Junior had attained with his spray though the mesh doors of the cage. "With all his carrying on, someone would have reported me for transporting a dangerous, wild animal if we'd taken the subway." I picked my way carefully in the dark; my legs still felt unsteady and I didn't want to fall and drop Junior.
"You are transporting a dangerous, wild animal," Niko whispered.
"He's a pussycat," I crooned, and got a deep growl for my effort. An eye glared out at me balefully through one of the airholes.
I saved my breath for the next few minutes and didn't talk. I wasn't letting on how winded and exhausted I already was; but I'm pretty sure Niko had a good idea because he stopped twice on the excuse of reconnoitring, allowing me a chance to catch my breath. I played along, pretending to need to adjust my grip on the carrier, hating to admit my monster side wasn't healing me as quickly as I'd hoped it would. And I would be the last to admit that going back into those tunnels was something I wasn't looking forward to.
The moment we reached the tunnels, Niko turned his flashlight on while Junior began vocalizing his dissatisfaction once again.
"Let him out," Niko ordered after several minutes of this.
"But we haven't—" A sharp pain against one knuckle was more than enough to convince me. "Okay, okay, hold your horses." Junior pulled his paw back in and I swore I heard him lick away my blood from his claws.
Niko wouldn't let me open the cage door; it took several tries but he finally got the mechanism to unlatch using the tip of one of his swords. When the door opened, Junior exploded out of there as a mass of fury, growling, snapping, hissing at air, running down the tunnel until he was lost from sight.
I hadn't realized I'd started to go after him until Niko caught my arm. "Let him go. He's fine."
I stood there, numb, already missing the little guy. "Do you think he'll find his family?"
As if in answer, I heard a happy trill echo down the tunnel.
"I think so." Niko patted my shoulder. "Let's go home."
We left the cat carrier there, and were almost out of the tunnel when it hit me. "We didn't get paid for this job, did we?"
"What do you think?"
"You win some, you lose some." I stopped and looked back the way we'd come, wishing for a last glimpse of Junior.
"Winner. Definitely a winner this time." Niko's hand brushed my shoulder again. His face still carried vestiges of his worry but his eyes conveyed his feelings.
I started walking again, only to stop in surprise at the sight before me - Junior, sitting proudly in the middle of the tunnel with a dead sbek at his feet. He made a satisfied noise as he got up and rubbed against my feet, his purrs filling the tunnel.
"I think this is a thank you." Niko prodded the sbek with the point of his sword. Junior sniffed the sbek, blinked at us, and began to trot down the tunnel. Just before I lost sight of him, I caught a glimpse of something big and furry waiting for him.
"I'm gonna miss that little guy." I kicked a broken piece of brick as we stepped out of the tunnels. It slammed against the wall and echoed loudly around us.
"I'm not. Although I will admit the entertainment value between Junior and Goodfellow was good while it lasted."
"Damn, I missed all of that." We paused a moment outside, getting our bearings. I could hear the loud snores of the night watchman somewhere to my right. "I guess there's as much a chance of Junior coming back to visit me as me buying Robin a new silk shirt."
"Yeah. Things like that only happen in books with happy endings."
"And they all lived happily ever after," I mumbled sulkily.
I staggered when Niko slapped his arm around my shoulder. "Hey, don't knock it. There were times I thought I'd never be this happy, ever."
I nodded, trying to convince myself I wasn't envious of him and Promise.
"So, how about we go see if Georgina's come by with that ice cream yet?"
By now we'd made it to the top level of the construction site and all I needed to do was follow my nose to Robin's car. We'd left the windows down, and nobody had bothered to steal it while we were gone. Of course, the stench was a great deterrent against theft.
"Do you believe in fairy tales?" I asked as I slid into the car, trying to breathe through my mouth.
Niko simply rolled his eyes at me.
"Oh, right. Dumb question."
"You've got a fairy princess, Cal. You may not think you're that night in shining armor, but maybe to her, you are."
"Or rather the frog that turns into a prince with a kiss?" I pulled my head closer to the open window and tried to find fresh air. "No, make it the wolf in sheep's clothing."
My brother's answer was a swat the back of my head, which jarred my teeth together painfully. We sat in silence the rest of the way, and I started drifting, watching dispassionately as the street lights came and went.
Niko parked the car and again we didn't bother raising the windows. I got out, my fatigue making my steps slow and lethargic. We reached the door to our apartment building and Niko tapped my arm and pointed.
Georgina waved, nearly losing her grip on the large paper bag she was carrying as she hurried our way.
"Give it a chance," Niko whispered. "Fairy tales do happen."
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