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Chimera fic: Into the Bolivian Sunset 1/15

July 1st, 2011 (08:31 am)

Title: Into the Bolivian Sunset 1/15

Disclaimer: Not mine.

A/N: So, I wrote this a long time ago based on the book Chimera by Rob Thurman. I figured since the sequel to Chimera is coming out soon, I should get this up before it's rendered totally AU. So, essentially this is a sequel to the first book. Much thanks to geminigrl11  for the beta, and remaining mistakes are because I'm a really sloppy writer and this fic is freakishly long.

Summary: Stefan and Michael have made a life for themselves away from the Institute, but that doesn't mean they can leave it all behind just yet.

 

-o-

Life was good.

Sure, that was over-simplifying it, but it was true. Life was good, and Stefan wasn't ashamed to admit it. He'd spent most of his life feeling trapped or lost, alone or guilty. His entire existence had seemed to be an odd collections of tragedies and lies, girded by violence and grief. A father in the mafia. A mother who died too young. A brother who disappeared from his life, but never his mind.

Sometimes, the first twenty-four years of Stefan's life seemed like a waste: a long, difficult prelude to the real show. That wasn't entirely true - he would never write off his brief time with Lukas as worthless - but it was still true that he'd been so tied down by family and remorse that he hadn't really let himself live.

Until Michael.

His Misha.

A part of Stefan had died when Lukas had died, lost on the beach of their childhood. But when Michael came into his life, he might as well been reborn. The world was new again. It was alive with possibilities. He and Michael, not quite invincible, but pretty damn close, up against the world.

That was how living felt to him now. Invigorating, tantalizing. The world was his again.

So, hell, yeah, life was good.

He had a job - and even if bartending wasn't a prestigious occupation, and it didn't exactly pay a lot, but didn't involve beating people senseless, which was a huge plus in Stefan's book.

He had a nice place to life. A simple, two-bedroom apartment. In Bolivia, no less. Bolivia. Far away from the mafia, far away from crime families, far away from Stefan's past and Michael's nightmares. The land of Butch and Sundance. True, that dynamic duo haad never actually made it there, but that just made his success with Misha even more sweet.

Their digs weren't in the nicest part of town, but good enough. With Anatoly's good graces, Stefan could have afforded more, but he didn't want more. He didn't want anything except Michael.

And Michael, he had.

And did he mention that life was freakin' good these days?

This year. It had been a year since he'd broken Michael out of the Institute. The journey had started tumultuously enough, with crazed doctors trying to hunt them down and kill them at every turn. And it had nearly all fallen apart back on the beach, back when Michael got the bright idea to embrace the self-sacrificial love of brotherhood at exactly the wrong time.

But they survived, and even if Stefan's leg still ached when it rained, Michael was no worse for wear. That was all Stefan could ever want.

Of course, his unsinkable mood might also be from the fact that tormenting Michael now made him more giddy than usual.

It perhaps didn't make him brother of the year, but the kid sometimes made such an easy mark.

"But I don't understand," Michael said, his voice almost a whine. He was slunk low on the couch, legs on the coffee table and arms tight across his chest.

"That's because you're the younger brother," Stefan told him with a smirk. He was sprawled out on a nearby chair, arms resting behind his head. "No matter how much they suped you up, you're still going to be genetically inferior to me."

The insult was only half of Michael's problem, and clearly not the most important half to him. His face was drawn in a petulant scowl now. "You said you wanted me to have a girlfriend."

Saying something and meaning it were entirely different things. Stefan encouraged Michael's bizarre and sometimes awkward attempts at individuality whenever he could. He let the kid dress like a freak and socialize with just about whoever he saw fit. And he was always ready to prod the kid into talking with a cute girl.

Still. Stefan scoffed. "In theory, I think it's good for you."

Michael rolled his eyes and huffed. "At this rate, it'll only ever be theory."

Stefan made a sympathetic sound in the back of his throat. "You're more than welcome to have a girlfriend," he said easily. "But all dates must be in this apartment - with your bedroom door open."

Michael's look was indignant. "That's not a date, that's having a babysitter."

With a shrug, Stefan amended his restrictions. "You're also welcome to take her to the bar while I'm on the clock."

"Gee, that's kind of you," Michael said glumly.

Spoken like a true teenager. And to think Stefan had almost missed out on this entirely. The trade off for giving up his entire life to serve the kid was worth it when he reaped so much entertainment from watching the kid experiment, succeed, and occasionally flounder.

And the kid did flounder with girls. They were all attracted to him, and Michael liked girls a lot. But his lack of interpersonal skills was never more apparent then when he was trying to take things from casual and friendly to something more.

In truth, Stefan would let Michael date if he thought the kid was ready. Sometimes he doubted if Michael was actually ready to get out of bed and join the normal world, given some of the outfits and hairdos he chose. Michael liked freedom - in theory. Sometimes the practical application scared the crap out of him, though, even if he didn't want to admit it.

So Stefan's cajoling, authoritative big brother act really was mostly an act. Though he did fear for the kid's safety if some girl did get her hooks in him. Michael might have faced down trained killers, but he was no match for the prowess of a woman who knew what she wanted.

"What brings this on anyway?" Stefan asked. He waggled an eyebrow suggestively. "Got a girl in mind suddenly? The cute one from your biology class?"

Michael made a face. "Elena has a boyfriend," he said.

"Bummer," Stefan said. "So is it the short one you tutored in French?"

"Short girls make me nervous," Michael admitted.

Stefan almost choked on a laugh.

"What?" Michael said defensively. "I'm a trained assassin. They seem delicate. Sort of like children or infants. And the thought of kissing them makes me feel different inside - restless and anxious."

It took more self-control than Stefan thought he had not to laugh at that. "Dude, you're not scared of her," he said. "You like her."

Michael's face went blank with surprise. Then he cocked his head thoughtfully. "That's what that means?"

It was Stefan's turn to roll his eyes. "You've got a thing for Cristina."

"But she's not as flirtatious as Elena," Michael said.

"And she probably doesn't sleep around as much either," Stefan added in.

Michael's mouth dropped open at that, then closed as a perplexed look came over his face. "I hadn't considered that."

"So you were thinking about Elena," Stefan concluded.

"No, I was thinking about Raquel, from the bar."

Stefan's eyes bugged at that. "Raquel?"

Michael nodded.

"Seriously?"

"Why not?"

Stefan gave him a disbelieving look. Not that he didn't understand the inherent attraction, because how could he not? Long brown hair, legs that never stopped, and a face perfect enough for a billboard was enough to give any guy a wet dream.

Problem was, Raquel knew it, too. And used it. To get tips, to get dates, to get an easy lay in the back room whenever she had the chance. For Michael be drawn to her - well, it was like a guppy having a fixation with a piranha. Michael might be able to reel Raquel in, but only to be devoured before he even knew what hit him. "She's a few years older than I am, and she's got the moves to prove it," Stefan said. "She'd eat you alive, buddy."

Michael looked vaguely crestfallen. The poor kid seemed to regard women as goddesses, incapable of deceit or maliciousness. The prettier they were, the more pure he seemed intent on believing them to be.

Sitting up, Stefan grinned. "Cristina is definitely a better place to start."

Brightening, Michael looked up at him again. "So I can date her?"

It had been a set up. The little craphead had set him up - brilliantly. Played up his insecurities, made a pitch for a girl he'd never get, and then like a dumb ass, Stefan had bolstered him with a sweet consolation prize.

He sighed crossly. "Maybe," he consented. "But you're going to have to work on making yourself more presentable if you're going to stand a chance."

Michael's brow furrowed and he looked at his shirt. "What's wrong with the way I look?"

"Well," Stefan said as a matter of fact. "To start with, your shirt looks like it belongs in a carnival. Seriously. I like the Beatles as much as the next guy, but their choice of album art is a bit too psychedelic to be stylish these days."

Michael looked at his shirt, a large reproduction of the Revolver album cover.

"Second, your hair, man. What are you doing with your hair?"

Michael lifted a hand to his blonde head, feeling it cautiously. The kid went through various styles, some of which required copious amounts of hair product and various colors of dye. For a while, he'd let it go brown to help avoid detection while crossing borders, but after a few months in Bolivia, he'd gone back to blonde, though he added highlights from time to time. He tried parting it, gelling it, spraying it. Sometimes it had volume, sometimes it was straight. Once, he'd even tried a mohawk until Stefan had refused to be seen in public with him.

"I like my hair," he said defensively.

With a derisive snort, Stefan got to his feet. "I like your hair, too, so I don't know why you insist on torturing it."

"I'm trying to find a style I like," Michael protested.

"Well, you've done a bang up job on finding a bunch that really don't work."

At that, Michael's face darkened. "And you think that I should just let it fall where it wants to, like yours?"

Stefan shrugged. "Who here has had a girlfriend before?"

Michael glared, but had no counter argument.

"Besides," Stefan said, nudging Michael forcibly off the couch. "Your roots are starting to show and the girls are going to find that a total turn off. We need to hit the store and pick up some stuff anyway, and we can work on that disaster you call hair."

Michael scowled but obeyed. Stefan would never have pushed the blonde hair back on the kid, not knowing what he knew now, but Michael had gravitated back to it almost naturally. Part of it was habit, but the other part was a comfort neither of them would acknowledge but both clung to. It was a solidifying choice that they both embraced - to remember how things were. It made them look like the family from the pictures, the one that Stefan had fought so hard to find again and the one that Michael had finally surrendered to.

The fact that it wasn't entirely true was just a detail Stefan would keep to himself.

Unspoken significance aside, it just wasn't Michael's style to do anything graciously or without commentary. If there was a nit to pick, Michael was all over it, usually with a flair of teenage sulking, just for good measure. "Fine," he muttered, crossing his arms over his chest, even as he followed Stefan toward the toward. "For the girls."

Stefan just rolled his eyes, snagging his keys off the table. "Right, Romeo," he said, shoving them into his pocket along with his phone. "For the girls."

-o-

Michael may have submitted to the dyeing with scowls and pouts, but he certainly reaped the benefits like it was his idea. That was just the way Michael was; he had a funny habit of taking anything in his life, be it good or bad, and using it to make things better. Sometimes his efforts were sincerely altruistic - maybe stopping a mugger with a quick cut of blood to the brain - but sometimes, Michael was all teenager.

And the blonde hair, while it made him match the pictures of Lukas in the house, also helped him attract the girls. Like any true teenager, Michael was thinking with his hormones.

Of course, the kid didn't realize that he really didn't have to try quite so hard. A face like that, a smile that lit up a room - he had half the girls in Bolivia falling all over themselves to just get a chance to talk to him.

And Michael ate it up. If Stefan had ever been worried about how Michael would adapt to their new life in the Southern Hemisphere, it was clearly misplaced. Michael was flourishing. He devoured everything in front of him - food, information, people. Michael read, he went out, he watched movies; in short, Michael lived. Lived with a voracity that Stefan could have never have imagined.

It was funny. In the ten years that Stefan had been searching, he'd been so preoccupied with finding Lukas, that he'd never really given much thought to the aftermath. The happy reunion had been all he had in mind, finally bringing his brother back home, making amends for the mistakes he'd made the night Lukas had vanished.

The homecoming hadn't been everything Stefan had planned, of course, considering that Michael wasn't actually his brother. But, by the time Stefan figured that out, it seemed like sort of a moot point. He was all in, for better and for worse, and Stefan had been faced with the reality that finding his brother wasn't the important thing. It was building a life with him that mattered, made him more complete than anything Stefan had ever known.

And it was good. Hell, it was great. Just him and Michael, an apartment in La Paz. Stefan had taken a job as a barkeeper, something easy and nondescript that gave him a little extra money so no one would start asking questions about how they afforded their place. It gave Stefan something to do, some order in his life, and it had extended his meager Spanish skills from pathetic to basic.

He'd considered sending Michael to one of the private high schools in the area, and although he told Michael that it was too much of a risk, he really just didn't think he could stand not being around the kid for eight hours stretches at a time. He'd offered to let Michael get a job, maybe as a waiter or in a store, but Michael had balked at not having any chances to learn.

In the end, they'd compromised, and Michael had enrolled as a freshmen at one of the local colleges. He signed up for classes from advanced calculus to ethics and aced them all. College was really the perfect fit, where Michael could not only learn what textbooks had to offer but also all the things that his Institute education had left out in terms of interpersonal relationships and being human.

Overall, it was working. They had an occasional bump or two - sometimes Michael would wake up from a nightmare he didn't want to talk about; other times, Stefan would get a vague sense of dread from a suspicious figure in the bar. But they passed, and life went on as they grew more comfortable in their roles.

Just like brothers, they laughed, they fought, they were. Michael never referred to himself as Lukas, but sometimes he was drawn to family photos. He never called Anatoly his father, not even in reference, but he kept the picture of Stefan and Lukas in his room, amongst his other items.

His many other items. Turned out, Michael was a pack rat. Psychologically, Stefan could understand that. At the Institute, he hadn't had possessions of his own. He hadn't had a life of his own. So Stefan was all for Michael's independence and sense of self.

Of course, it would have been easier to accept if it wasn't so ridiculous.

The Albert Einstein t-shirt back in the Connecticut mall had only been the tip of the iceberg. Michael had a penchant for all things tacky and he invested heavily in paraphernalia of the most absurd. Science posters with the periodic table, prints of artwork by Salvador Dali with drooping clocks and all, photographs of Rome, Paris, and inexplicably, the world's largest ball of twine. He hung the posters every which way, in an order Stefan could quite place. Some were layered, corners overlapping, and to top the visual menagerie off, Michael had tacked a poster of Kermit the Frog over his bed.

Stefan thought it was damn creepy; Michael said it helped him have good dreams.

And then there was the other stuff. Rocks from walks they went on, seashells from the beach house. Glass knickknacks from the local market and an ever-growing postcard collection from any place they even passed. His book collection included everything from technical texts to theoretical treatises to interpretative poetry. And his movies were even more varied, from a worn out copy of Casablanca to a favored DVD of Die Hard and even a copy of 101 Dalmations. Dubbed in Spanish, no less.

Michael was making his mark on the world, proving he existed, and if anyone ever doubted he had a life of his own, he would gladly show them his room and prove them irrevocably otherwise.

Stefan's life was far less colorful, but it was just as much his. Given his own upbringing, Stefan didn't have the same penchant for unusual like Michael did. Stefan still preferred to blend in to the crowd. Fortunately, cheap black clothing was as easy to find in La Paz as it was in Florida, so he was set. He kept his hair long, but took measures to keep his scar hidden - just in case. The last thing he needed was someone to ID him from the scar alone, and though the bar where he worked as a bit off the beaten path, it still sheltered its share of wayfarers.

Minimal precautions were in order. Michael's blonde hair, his plain brown contacts, Stefan's covered scar - small steps to ensure that their new life remained anonymous.

Rather, that their small life remained anonymous to the wrong people. Anonymity was an illusion in their current situation, since everyone in the neighborhood knew them, no doubt thanks to Michael's incessantly curious nature.

While that had its annoyances, Stefan had to admit, it also had its perks. It was nice going to work and having people know his name and greet him with a smile. The fact that they weren't all killers and thieves was a fringe benefit.

It also gave him a chance to keep an eye on Michael, which even if it didn't pay, was still his number one job. And Michael certainly gave him a run for his money. Talking to everyone, hitting on every girl. It had taken some arm wringing to convince the kid to keep his antics confined to the bar most of the time, and even then, it was sometimes hard to keep track of the kid.

This was another reason the blonde hair was helpful. Not only was it a beacon for every eligible girl within one hundred yards, it was also pretty easy to spot the kid as he weaved amongst the crowd. Stefan watched him more than he would ever admit, seeing how the kid experimented with new food dishes, how he tried new pickup lines, even how he was capable of reading when the place was alive with talking.

"Stefan, que haces?"

Stefan flinched at the voice, breaking from his reverie. The Spanish words were some of the few he actually knew without having to think about them. Probably because he was asked that quite often.

He had been watching as Michael cozied up to a pair of sisters who lived down the street. Carmen and Marta were both students with Michael at school and they seemed to perpetually be having trouble with homework in a way that only Michael could fix.

While his job afforded Stefan ample opportunity to watch as Michael relish such focused attention, it was not always easy to get away with. His boss, Jorge, was middle aged and mostly inept. His management skills were lacking and his hiring process was hit and miss, which was how Stefan had secured a job without too many checks on his forged background. Because of that, Stefan was indebted to Jorge, even if the man did make him wonder how the bar turned any profit at all.

Employees were often late and sometimes didn't show up at all. Everyone from the busboy to the cook was inclined to offer free rounds far too quickly, and the stock of peanuts was so old that Stefan refused to eat them, even when he was starving. Jorge paid his employees too much, offered too much time off, and never managed to stock the right drinks in the bar. The glasses were mismatched and cheap and the food was horrible.

Yet, the locals still came back and Stefan still got paid, even though Jorge was continually yelling at him to pay attention.

"I pay you to work, not watch," Jorge said with exasperation. He ran a hand through his hair, popping an antacid. The small man spoke passable English, still better than Stefan's makeshift attempts at Spanish. "I should fire you, yes?"

It was a common threat, made at least three times each shift.

Stefan grinned disarmingly. He no longer employed physical intimidation as he primary means of getting out of things, and he'd come to find that a little goodnatured banter could go a long way. "It's appealing, I'm sure," Stefan agreed cordially. "But then who would serve your drinks?"

"Who is serving them now?" Jorge asked pointedly. "People, lined up at the bar, and you, staring. Always with the staring. You Americans are very funny that way. Stare, stare, stare."

"You like Americans," Stefan pointed out helpfully.

"Tourists who pay double what they should and three times too much because they do not understand the exchange rate," Jorge groused. "You and your brother, I have no use for."

"Now come on," Stefan protested. "Michael's your best customer."

Jorge pointed wildly to Michael's table, where Marta and Carmen were bowing low over their textbooks. To Michael's credit, he was looking at the words and conveniently avoiding the nice view he should have had down the front of their shirts. Stefan wouldn't have noticed himself were the pair not being quite so flagrant in trying to help Michael catch their drift.

Sometimes Stefan wondered what was worse to have after Michael: the Institute or carnivorous Bolivians with a taste for young blondes.

"Yes, here all the time, but I never see him pay," Jorge said.

That was true. Employees got free food, and were given discretion in how to use it. Stefan was proud to say he barely stomached any of the food out of Jorge's not so fine establishment. Michael's less discerning tongue, however, devoured more than Stefan's share.

"But look at the crowd he attracts," Stefan said, nodding to the girls.

"I am lucky I hardly break even," Jorge said with a curt shake of his head. "So you, work. Or I cut off little brother, yes?"

"On it, boss," Stefan said with a smirk.

Jorge scowled, downing another antacid just for the heck of it. He muttered a string of Spanish, finishing his tirade with a few invectives that even Stefan recognized across the language barrier.

With that, Stefan turned his attention back to his work. He kept an eye on Michael while he mixed the drinks, but allowed himself to make small talk with the regulars. He was gathering a set of drinks for a trio of girls when a figure caught his attention.

Large and withdrawn, the bulking figure was seated at a table at the far end of the room. The light above his table was flickering, creating a barely discernible hazy glow.

They served all kinds at the bar - it was by no means a highbrow kind of place - and Stefan had detected his share of criminals and other unsavory characters during his time there.

But there was something about this one. Something in his hunched posture. Something in the way the drink at his table was untouched, collecting condensation under the tepid swirl of the ceiling fans.

He was donning a trench coat, gray and nondescript, and the man's thick dark hair hung low over his eyes.

But not so low that Stefan couldn't see where he was looking. No, that much was pretty clear. He was looking right at Michael.

It took Stefan's self-control not to freeze up, mixing two margaritas and a daiquiri, but as he served them, he kept his gaze careful. The man didn't flinch, didn't move, except when Michael stood up to feed money into the jukebox, the dark eyes followed his every move.

Coincidence - possibly. Hell, it could just be a pervert who was checking out some blonde eye candy. Michael attracted all sorts, much to Stefan's chagrin, even if the kid hardly seemed aware of half of it.

But then again, it could be something else. It could be something a whole lot worse.

Because sometimes this life made him soft. The surreal happiness, the peaceful day to day nature - Stefan needed to remind himself that a year ago, he'd been in the mafia. Michael had been in the Institute. This wasn't some fairy tale with a happily ever after tacked on at the end - this was two brothers on the run, probably for the rest of their lives. The illusion of safety Stefan worked to create for Michael was just that - an illusion. A comfort for Michael, but a risk for Stefan.

Whether it was Stefan's mob ties, his father's backlog of personal grudges, or the people from what was left of the Institute - they weren't completely safe.

And the guy in the trench coat? Could fit the bill for any one of them. Stefan couldn't be sure. What he could be sure of was that if the son of a bitch didn't stop staring at his brother, he was going to beat the hell out of him.

Michael had settled back in his seat, laughing as Marta fawned over him. Carmen was pointing to something in the book, looking at him earnestly, and Trench Coat's gaze followed every movement. Bobbed up and down as Michael tried to flip through the textbook to find the right page, went back and forth as Michael looked from one girl to the other, one to the other.

Heart throbbing, eyes narrowed, Stefan was not going to let this go on. Jorge would throw a fit, but Stefan could be fired for all he cared - he was not going to tolerate anyone checking out his brother like that. He had to eliminate the risk before it got any worse.

But before he could move, the figure stood. In the light, the man had a benign face, clean shaven and flabby. His pale blue eyes were decidedly American and his thick mane of hair had a growing bald spot on the top. Shuffling in his back pocket, the man produced a wallet, slapping down a few bills in a generous tip before he headed toward the door.

The man's gaze wandered the bar, flitting past Michael and locking with Stefan's. The man smiled, nodded his thanks, and disappeared out the door.

"Stefan!" Jorge called angrily. "Stefan, que haces!"

Numbly, Stefan got back to work, eyes still on Michael as he finished out his shift.

-o-

The rest of the night ended without incident. Marta and Carmen went home around eleven, and normally Stefan would have sent Michael along behind them (after giving the girls plenty of time to get home - Stefan was not quite ready to deal with the notion of his brother getting laid), but instead he had Michael stick around.

The kid had been curious at that, but happy to oblige. Michael was always looking for new things to do, and since Stefan usually tried to enforce a curfew of around eleven most nights, it was clear the kid was eager to see what happened after hours.

Of course, that kind of thing was only exciting in theory, and as the crowd got drunker, Michael pulled out a book, reading in the din until he got drowsy. Then, under Stefan's watchful eye, the younger boy drifted to sleep just after one, his head propped against the wall while the crowd thinned out for closing time.

When Stefan was done with his work for the night, he checked out with Jorge before hanging up his apron. Checking for his wallet and his phone in his back pocket, Stefan ran a hand through his hair before making his way back to Michael.

Michael was the only one left in the room. The main lights were off, the canned lights over the bar the only ones still on. There were still people on the streets - Stefan could hear a chorus of drunken singing somewhere not too far - but it was way past time for Michael to be home. Chimera or not, Michael was still a teenage boy who needed to sleep.

Moving deftly to Michael's table, he put the last of Michael's books in his backpack, slinging it over his shoulder. Michael snuffled, eyes fluttering. "Stefan?" he asked groggily.

Stefan snorted. Michael had a surreal ability to sleep anywhere and under any conditions. The fact that he was truly asleep through the closing time ritual was a testament to that. "Yeah, Misha," he said, bending over to pull Michael up by the arm.

Michael allowed himself to be maneuvered to his feet, didn't even protest when Stefan slipped one of shoulders under Michael's arm, anchoring the younger boy to his side. Instead, he looked at Stefan through half-lidded eyes, smiling. "I was having a good dream," he murmured.

"Let me guess, Carmen and Marta?" Stefan asked, navigating Michael away from the table.

Michael followed his lead instinctively, feet moving even as his voice drifted on dreamily. "No, not them," he said.

"Kermit?" Stefan asked, opening the front door and taking Michael through.

Michael sighed a little in the fresh nighttime air. His eyes slipped closed again and he shook his head. "The one about the horses," he said. "You and Harry. I was on Annie. Going bareback on the beach."

Stefan's chest tightened. That was one of the more inexplicable things. Michael had embraced Stefan's story, believed he was Lukas, contrary to all the overwhelming evidence. But even when the rest of the coincidences could be explained away, Michael's powerful dreams about the horses sometimes made Stefan forget that it was in fact a deception.

"Am I letting you win again?" Stefan prodded, carefully moving them down the curb and into the street.

Michael grunted. "I always win," he replied airily. "You don't need to let me."

On the other side of the street, Stefan helped Michael step up onto the sidewalk again. "That's why it's a dream, Misha," he joked. "No semblance of reality there."

Michael just smiled, his head lolling a bit against Stefan's shoulder, blonde hair splayed freely in the streetlights. "I like this dream," he said, his voice lilting on the air. "Feels happy. Feels safe."

Stefan swallowed hard, wishing more than anything he could make that dream come true. Not the horses, really, but that feeling. The way Michael looked when all his defenses were down. Half asleep on Stefan's shoulder, Michael was no more than a boy, young and eager and trusting. Stefan desperately wished that they lived in a world where that was all Michael ever had to be.

But that wasn't their world.

Stefan restrained a shudder, thinking back to the man in the bar. It was probably nothing - just Stefan's overzealous sense of protection working over time - but the threat that had him so on edge was still real.

It was time to face those threats, time to eliminate them once and for all. As long as the Institute was still out there, as long as Stefan was still on a hit list back in Florida, they would never be safe.

Michael deserved safe. He deserved a whole lot more than that, but it was a good place to start.

Carefully, Stefan led them inside. Their apartment was on the third floor, a quaint two bedroom that met their needs. Fortunately it had a working elevator, and Michael was quiet as Stefan got him the rest of the way upstairs.

Inside the apartment, Stefan locked the door behind him before leading Michael to his bedroom. The kid followed, clumsy legs not quite hitting Stefan's stride, and when Stefan eased him down onto the unmade bed, the younger boy curled up on his side and went still, breath evening out in sleep.

With a sigh, Stefan pulled off Michael's shoes, disentangling the sheet before draping it over the sleeping form. The window was open and let in light breeze, ruffling Michael's hair in the moonlight.

This was how it was supposed to be. This was what Stefan had to provide for Michael. Starting tomorrow, it was time to meet their demons head on and finally put the past to rest, once and for all.

-o-

Of course, getting rid of demons was a little easier said than done. Hell, even trying to clean skeletons out of the closet was messy and not without its risks. Stefan had known it would be hard, but in the stark morning sunlight, he was remembering why he'd put this off so long to begin with.

True to form, Michael was still crashed when Stefan woke up. Putting on some coffee, Stefan scrounged together some fruit and cereal for his breakfast, sitting down miserably at the table while his coffee finished. The bananas were over-ripe and the cereal was stale and it was just too sunny this morning.

How the hell was it supposed to be a cheerful day when Stefan was being faced head on with the fact that he was completely screwed?

He poured himself a cup of coffee before the pot was finished brewing, sipping the bitter substance disdainfully. He was going to need a whole lot more than caffeine to figure a way out of this mess.

To the point, he didn't even know where to start. As far as he could tell, they had two main problems to deal with: Stefan's former coworkers and the new Institute.

It was hard to gauge which organization was better connected and harder to penetrate. They both contained certain degrees of illegality and brutality, and neither was what Stefan might consider a soft target. Going after his former friends might actually be a bit easier if he could get a word in edgewise - his father might still have some ties that could help him mend the fences and go on his merry way.

Of course, they also might just kill him the moment they saw him, which would pretty much screw over the whole safety goal.

Worse than that, Stefan had no way to keep tabs on what they were doing. Anatoly might have been able to provide some intel, but getting in touch with him was easier said than done. Saul was good at digging things up, but even Saul avoided crossing wires with the mafia. They worked similar turf. Making those kinds of enemies wouldn't do Saul any good.

They did, however, have information on the Institute. Saul had found evidence of a makeshift compound in Texas a few months after he and Michael had moved to Bolivia. It had gone off the map, though, disappearing without a trace, until Saul managed to dig up signs that it was following most businesses in American economy and outsourcing.

Over the last few months, Saul had picked up intel that the Institute was still on the move, moving throughout the provinces of Mexico and several locations in Central America. Stefan could only theorize as to why they were moving around so much, which was a strike against going after the Institute first. It was impossible to say what the Institute's main goal was at the moment - and what it was they were exactly trying to do. In this regard, the mafia would always be an easier target. Stefan knew how their minds worked - money and revenge, and it didn't get much more complicated than that.

Still. Hitting back at Fyodor would raise bells and whistles once they crossed the border back into the States. An operation off American soil was their best bet to stay off the radar for longer.

Besides, Stefan thought, taking a sip of coffee, he still wanted to kill every one of those sons of bitches for what they'd done to Michael. And if they could save the other kids...

Sometimes it wasn't what was easiest or convenient. Sometimes it was a matter of priorities.

The decision was made. And he wasn't even done with his first cup of coffee. In all, Stefan was actually impressed with himself.

There was a groan and the sound of feet dragging on the floor. Michael was slinking into the kitchen. His clothes were still on from the night before, shirt untucked and rumpled. The freshly dye hair was a mess on top of his head, sticking out in some interesting directions. With a grunt, Michael scratched his stomach and sat down hard in the chair across from Stefan.

Nose wrinkled, he reached out, swiping the box of cereal. He opened it, peaked inside and made a face. "What happened to the other box?"

"You mean the box of sugar-loaded flakes?" Stefan asked with a raised eyebrow. "You finished them yesterday as an afternoon snack."

Michael scowled but didn't deny. He took a handful of the less sugary cereal and tossed it in his mouth. Between chews he asked, "Are you making anything for breakfast?"

Stefan scoffed. "I'm your brother, not your maid," he said. "Get up and find your own food."

Michael looked up at him, a plaintive plea on his face. "I thought you were supposed to take care of me. My long lost big brother. Think of all the years we weren't together. All the breakfasts you would have made me if I had not been trapped in an assassin boarding school."

The kid knew no mercy. And he would always win the who-had-it-worse game.

Aware he was beat, Stefan pushed away from the table with a frown. "Oh, shut up," he grumbled. Going to the stove, he pulled out a pan, clanking it on the burner. "You get eggs - scrambled. You want something extra fancy, you're on your own."

Michael's face brightened. "Four?"

Stefan made a face, pulling out the egg carton from the fridge. "At the rate you eat, you should be a five hundred pound hippo."

Michael blinked hopefully. "Maybe chimeras have increased metabolisms. It's probably not my fault."

Stefan smeared butter on the bottom of the pan, lighting the flame. He snorted. "Someday that excuse is going to get old."

Michael beamed a little. The little craphead was enjoying himself. "Perhaps," he said triumphantly. "But not today."

-o-

Michael may have had the morning victory, but it was the next battle that Stefan was really preparing to win. Giving in regarding making breakfast for the bottomless pit was a small sacrifice for the feat Stefan was hoping to achieve.

In the clarity of daylight, the task seemed all the more pressing.

And all the more daunting.

Getting Michael out the first time had been more luck than Stefan wanted to admit. And the scale of what Stefan hoped to accomplish was far larger than before - and the risks a lot more serious. Stefan was prepared to die for his brother - hands down, no questions about that one - but the idea of leaving him behind and vulnerable? Or worse, getting the kid hurt or killed in the process?

Most of all, he didn't really want to bring up the topic with Michael. The kid talked about the Institute and they even talked about a plan to go back after the other kids. But the truth of it was that Michael was always good to go - in theory.

Michael's world, no matter how confident he appeared, was still a fragile thing. It was funny to Stefan that Michael had been surprised by Stefan's mere human fragility. Because when Stefan looked at Michael, the emotional fragility of a boy who had spent his life in a cage was the scariest thing he'd ever had to deal with.

The Russian mob, crime lords, killing, blood, and guns - not a problem. Stefan could stomach it and still sleep at night.

But thinking about how much Michael had blossomed and how close they'd both come to never seeing it at all - was almost more than he could handle.

Michael would never admit to it, at least not in so many words, but Stefan knew it was true.

Stefan never wanted to do anything to cause Michael anxiety - he didn't - but keeping Michael safe was paramount. It was possible that Stefan's nerves were just getting the better of him, but the weird guy in the trench coat had been a wake up call. Bolivia was a dream come true, but it wasn't Heaven. Worse, it could be lost just as easily as a dream, slip away from them before Stefan even had a chance to stop it.

Except Stefan did have a chance to stop it. The trick was keeping the dream alive for Michael while saving it all the same.

The trick was all in the approach.

Michael was mostly a logical creature. At least, that was what the kid wanted people to think. His mind was always looking for reasons and justifications - it was just that sometimes he was rather creative when picking and choosing which ones to use to support his train of thought. Still, the kid could and would see reason, especially if it seemed like it had been his idea all along.

So Stefan had to pick the right moment. Work Michael into the conversation before he even realized where they were going with it. Preferably a time when Michael was content and distracted.

Such as when he was playing with Zilla, the pet from hell.

The god-forsaken rat had made the trip with them to Bolivia, and Michael spent more time cleaning the little devil's cage than he did tidying his own room. They had a disturbingly symbiotic relationship; Zilla would prance and fawn all over Michael, easing around his shoulders and his head, settling on his back when the kid was sprawled out on his stomach reading a book. In return for the warm resting place, Zilla took to collecting Michael's trash, raiding pieces into a dark cave under Michael's bed.

If they ever got evicted, Stefan would know why.

Still, the damn rat made Michael almost absurdly happy, and Stefan wasn't sure who got more contentment out of the belly stroking - the ferret or Michael. They both practically purred like damn kittens.

So when Michael curled up on the couch, Godzilla scampering to and fro up and down his chest, it seemed like as good of time as any to try to broach the topic.

"Are you sure that thing's safe?" Stefan asked, sitting down in a chair. He gave Michael a skeptical look.

Michael frowned at Stefan, hand automatically rubbing Zilla's furry little head. "I take him to the vet and feed him only the best food," he said. "He gets far less exposure to outside elements than you do, so I figure it's more likely for you to be carrying some unwelcome disease or parasite rather than he is."

Insults were the perfect lead off in any conversation with Michael. The kid seemed to pride himself on being able to defuse any criticism, no matter how petty or minor. Giving Michael a sense of security was exactly what Stefan was going for, even if the kid did have an annoyingly self-righteous air about the entire thing.

Stefan snorted. "Maybe the little rat gets it from the scum that grows under your bed."

Michael shrugged at that. "Many scientists believe that one of the greatest threats to human health is an obsession with cleanliness. If we eradicate bacteria too freely, we're more likely to create a resistant strain that could cripple human medicine."

"Ah, so you're doing us all a favor."

Michael smiled smugly. "I do what I can."

"If only Jericho had known he wasn't creating a race of killers, but the mightiest humanitarians on the planet," Stefan quipped.

Michael didn't flinch at the name. There was a time when he would have. But they had buried Jericho - literally and figuratively - and Michael was not one to cling to irrational fears. "You have no idea," he said. "All the power of a chimera, used for the greater good-" He shrugged, a sly twinkle in his eye. "You'd think you'd be more grateful."

"Hey, my life is your life," Stefan said, holding his hands up. "But I'm still not bowing down to the rat, no matter how awesome you think you are."

Michael picked up Zilla, looking the thing fondly in the face. "It's okay," he assured the ferret. "He is of a lesser intelligence. It's not his fault."

"You're defending me to the ferret?" Stefan asked incredulously.

Michael laid Zilla on his chest, where it nuzzled down. "You make him anxious."

And now that was something. The furry ass thing was nervous about him. Never mind that Stefan was the one who had to watch where he was walking or where he threw his shoes at night in case he should hit the thing.

But his barely controlled wrath against Zilla was not the point.

The point was still the Institute.

Clearing his throat, Stefan subtly switched tactics. "So have you thought any more about it?"

Michael made a face. "Any more about you causing Zilla anxiety?"

Stefan rolled his eyes. "About the other kids in the Institute. You still want to get them out?"

At that, Michael paused, a small hitch in his usually flawless comebacks. Finally, he nodded. "It's the right thing to do," he said with careful resolution. "Did you get more intel from Saul?"

Cautiously, Stefan shrugged. "Just been reviewing what he gave us last time," he said. "I'm thinking maybe we can pull it off soon."

Michael's face was blank. "Pull it off?"

"Yeah," Stefan said. "I mean, I don't know. We've tracked their movements this far. And now they're barely a country away. If we let them move again, there's a chance we won't find them."

"But we still don't know why they're moving," Michael countered.

"Who the hell cares why if we can stop them from doing it again?"

Michael shook his head. "Understanding the enemy is the key to taking them down. We will be going in out-manned and out-gunned. We need more than the element of surprise to make sure we can pull it off without suffering casualties."

It was pretty damn impressive to hear Michael talk strategy. He sounded as versed as an old army pro. Which was also what made it so disturbing as well out of the mouth of an eighteen-year-old kid.

"That's why we have you," Stefan said readily. "Face it, Misha, you've got all the insight we'll need into how the place works."

Michael shifted, obviously uncomfortable and Stefan almost regretted his words. But Michael shook his head, face dark. "My departure undoubtedly changed their method of operation, possibly even their end goal. The fact that they are on the move suggests a massive overhaul of the authoritative structure and command protocol." He stopped, shaking his head soberly. "I don't know as much as you think I do. Not anymore."

There was some truth to it; and there was some fear. Stefan had bowed to that before, but the risk of not taking action was too prominent in his mind. "We can't risk losing them again, Misha," he said quietly.

Michael's gaze skittered away. Wordlessly, he sat up, picking up Zilla and putting the ferret on the cushion next to him. "I know," he said. "We just...need a good plan. A flawless plan."

"I'm working on it," Stefan said. Then he hesitated, hedging his bets. "But I'm going to need help."

Michael nodded, and he sighed a little, almost in resignation. "We'll need to look again at the schematics. See if we can get an infrared scan to see where the majority of security is located and where the other kids are probably housed."

That was the insight Stefan needed - and he felt himself dare to hope that they might pull this off. "I'll ask Saul about it," he said. "I'm also going to see if we can put together a team-"

But Michael was shaking his head. "A team?"

"Yeah," Stefan said. "I mean, I plan on having us do most of the hard work, but we're not exactly above the law just yet. We can't stick around to clean up the mess without risking ourselves."

Michael's eyes were blazing, face set. "But we can't just risk other people in this. The idea is to save lives, not put more on the line. I can't do that. I won't."

"Misha," Stefan said, his voice softer. "It's going to be minimal risk. Babysitters."

Michael shook his head fiercely. "You don't understand what you're up against. They won't surrender neatly for you. They won't just sit there while we deal with them - the guards or the children."

"Well, we can't clean it up all on our own," Stefan snapped back.

Michael threw up his arms in melodramatic fashion. "Great, so why don't you just alert all the authorities when we go in? Call the press for that matter, let them get some good shots before it all goes to hell."

It was sarcasm, and pretty good sarcasm at that. Michael was picking up that kind of thing fast, thanks mostly to Stefan's apt tutelage. But there was something to that, something they hadn't considered...

"You're considering it," Michael said incredulously. "You're considering it."

"Think about it," Stefan said, the wheels turning in his head. "It's kind of ingenious."

"That's because I thought of it," Michael shot back, conveniently overlooking the part where he thought it was a horrible idea.

"Exactly, so how could we go wrong?" Stefan pushed, capitalizing on Michael's egotistical blunder.

Though he'd walked right into the trap, Michael still rolled his eyes. "These people aren't your common criminals," he reminded Stefan, as if he needed the history lesson. "They aren't even your Russian mafia. They function with a whole different set of rules. And we're talking about rescuing a group of children who may have no interest in being rescued."

The dire forecast was more than a bit of a downer. Stefan liked to keep it realistic when planning such things, but a shred of optimism was pretty important to actually pulling it off. "Geez, kid, then what's the point of going at all?"

Michael's face was pinched, his brow set darkly. "It's the right thing to do," he replied simply. He sighed. "I just...I've seen what I can do to others. I know what they tried to program me to do. I can't live up to that - not on any level. If innocent people get hurt because of me..."

He didn't finish his statement. He didn't have to.

That much made sense. Michael's sense of self-preservation wasn't really that strong; it was his inherent sense of justice that was overly equipped. He spared no mercy for bad people, but for those who were good and innocent, the kid was a total pushover. It was no wonder he wanted to help the other children back at the Institute, even if they might not know they need help. And it also wasn't much of a stretch to think Michael would want to risk as few people as possible in the pursuit. Throwing himself into the fray, probably made sense in the kid's warped logic. Granted, he had a bit of a tactical advantage, but there were still times when Michael's plaintive sense of invincibility worried him.

It was hard to be mad at the kid for that kind of thinking, even if it did make Stefan want to slap him senseless. All the hard work Stefan put into keeping the kid safe and he was more than willing to give it all up in the name of some greater good. Stefan was glad the kid had some kind of moral foundations - all things considered, it could have been much worse - but the thought of losing Michael again, no matter how good the cause, just wasn't acceptable.

Which was why Stefan's plan was better. There were more players in the game, which did mean more people were putting themselves on the line, but it improved the odds of all of them walking out alive. In Stefan's book, that was worth the risk.

He just had to convince Michael of that.

Stefan sighed, standing up. Moving to the couch, he settled into the cushion on the other side of Michael. He paused, gathering his words carefully. "Before I got you out of there, finding you was all I could think about. It...consumed me. It made me do things I wasn't proud of. All I could think about was finding you, at almost any cost."

Michael's face was tense, barely composed.

Stefan continued, head dropping for a moment. He looked back up with a self-deprecating smile. "I wasn't a very good person. At least not one I was very proud to be." He took a breath, smile widening. "But you changed that. Getting you out wasn't just the best thing I'd ever done for you, it was the best thing I'd ever done for me. We need to go back and do what's right, but I'm not risking who I've become either. I promise."

Michael's eyes were wide, almost childlike for a moment. It wasn't a look Stefan got often, not with Michael's guise of self-confidence. But even underneath all the layers of knowledge and capability, Michael was still a child. Even at the age of eighteen, Michael's childlike innocence was disarming and reassuring all at once.

But then, as quickly as it came, the look vanished as Michael's brows knit together. He nodded tightly. "Okay," he said.

"Okay?" Stefan repeated.

Michael collected a deep breath. "If we're going to do this, you'd better call Saul."

With a grin, Stefan said, "I'm on it."

Pushing himself to his feet, Stefan rumpled Michael's hair, eliciting a squawk from the younger boy as he went to his bedroom to make a phone call.

CHAPTER TWO

 

Comments

Posted by: harrigan (harrigan)
Posted at: July 1st, 2011 04:56 pm (UTC)

Any idea what your posting plans are? I don't read WIPs any more, but I'm intrigued... and it's always a good sign when a writer knows how many chapters it's going to be, instead of 1/? ...

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: July 1st, 2011 04:59 pm (UTC)

It's finished and my tentative plan is to post Monday/Wednesday/Friday so I can get it up in a timely fashion before the next book is due. But yeah, it's definitely done and I'd post it all at once except that'd take me an entire day to get it all up :)

Posted by: sendintheclowns (sendintheklowns)
Posted at: July 2nd, 2011 12:44 am (UTC)

I love how you capture the brotherly bond here. Stefan's protective streak is pure love. So is Michael's embracing of all things teen.

Fantastic start!

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: July 2nd, 2011 08:32 pm (UTC)
arthur smile

You know how hard I fell for Michael and Stefan, which is why I ended up writing a sequel to the novel that was almost 100,000 words. I am hopeless sometimes!

Thanks :)

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