?

Log in

No account? Create an account
do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Chimera fic: Into the Bolivian Sunset 2/15

July 4th, 2011 (08:29 am)

CHAPTER ONE

 

CHAPTER TWO

Saul was always a phone call away, ready with intel and quips. But getting him to come to South America was always a bit more trying. The other man had made the trip twice before, when he stumbled across particularly telling intel on the Institute, and according to Stefan's estimation, it was about time for another stamp in Saul's passport.

And all it took was the right dollar amount.

Two days later, Saul was travel weary, his silk shirt only marginally rumpled to show for his flight.

"I think it actually got hotter than the last time I was here," Saul whined, slapping at a mosquito on his neck. After Saul had gotten settled, Stefan had requested a meeting at Jorge's bar.

"No, I think you've just got whinier," Stefan said.

"Actually, we're moving into the cooler season soon, so it's probably just a perception issue," Michael explained helpfully. "It's in your head. Don't obsess over it, and you're less likely to feel it."

Saul's expression was vaguely perturbed. "Getting more talkative, I see," he mused.

Stefan snorted, slapping Saul on the back. "I thought you liked it here."

"I thought I liked the women here," Saul corrected. Then he looked around, nose wrinkled. "Of course, last time you took me to a place with a little more class." He shook his head. "Damn, Smirnoff, how do you have the money to pay me if these are the digs you're hanging out in?"

It was true on multiple levels. Stefan could afford more if he wanted to, and sometimes the thought crossed his mind. But the fact was even though he needed Anatoly's money to get them down here, he did not relish the thought of relying on his father for much more than that. The less he was indebted to his father, the better, and the less money he took from him, the fewer ties Stefan had to the family and all its facets.

Besides, Michael didn't care about the money. Michael just wanted a place to call home, and this did it. By picking one of the less tourist oriented parts of the city, they could keep their living expenses manageable and stay under the radar. It was a win-win as far as Stefan was concerned.

"You need a little more culture," Stefan said with an indifferent shrug.

Michael nodded solemnly. "He tells that to me all the time," he told Saul with an air of empathy. "It's a common method of self-justification that lets him make faulty choices but still feel good about himself."

Stefan glared at Michael, resisting the urge to whap the kid upside the head.

"Do you two need some alone time? Perhaps to commiserate and bond over the woes of your horrible, horrible lives. I mean, Michael, going to school, not paying a dime of tuition or rent, and still getting all the free sugar you can snort - how do you manage?" Stefan asked mockingly. "And Saul. Flying business class got your panties in a twist?"

Saul glowered. "You have no idea."

"Buck up," Stefan said. "If we get down to business, I'm sure you can find someone to help you with that."

The mere thought of sex was enough to make Michael's face brighten. Stefan figured that'd be a problem until he got laid, but between those two options, Stefan would take the juvenile interest.

Saul sighed, settling back. "We're at least getting drinks, aren't we?"

Stefan rolled his eyes, leaning back in his chair and making eye contact with Talia, the waitress on duty. He nodded at her once, enough for her to understand that two beers and one soda were in order, no matter how much Michael may try to talk her into more when Stefan wasn't looking.

"You know that legal drinking limits are entirely arbitrary," Michael informed Stefan helpfully. "Many other cultures around the world permit drinking at much younger ages which often results in much lower incidences of alcohol abuse."

Saul smothered a giggle.

Stefan didn't know who to glare at first. He chose Michael. "Legal or not, the last thing I need to know is if the increased biological makeup of a chimera makes them less prone to alcohol's effect or simply enhances it. You're hyper enough as it is, we don't need to throw inebriation into the mix, okay?"

And the last thing he needed was to field questions from Michael about the different ways in which alcohol had screwed with his own mind before while he was trying to talk Saul into risking life and limb.

Which was, not so coincidentally, why he was more than prepared to buy Saul as much alcohol as he could drink. Money was a powerful motivator, and playing the morality card had its moments, but a little extra alcohol in the system could only help Stefan's case.

Talia arrived, all smiles, as she put the drinks down. Her eyes passed over Saul, lingering on Michael, who seemed to soak up the attention. Hell, he was ogling her, practically undressing her with his eyes in a way that would make a modest woman running for cover.

Unfortunately, Talia was not a modest woman and Michael was a little horndog sometimes and if Stefan let this go on much longer, he wasn't sure what would happen: either Talia would throw Michael down on the table and get to business or the kid would squirrel away in total embarrassment at not knowing how to deal with his body's automatic physical responses.

Stefan opted for neither. Instead, he cleared his throat sharply.

Michael jumped a little, wrapping his hands around his drink and taking a gulp.

Talia looked vaguely disappointed, but scurried away.

Saul took a long drink, savoring the beer for whatever it was worth. Stefan took a meager sip of his, eyes on Saul as the other man put the bottle on the table with a sigh. "So," he said, as conversationally as he could pull off. "I take it you have something for me and that you didn't pay for me to come down here for purely social reasons."

Stefan glanced at Michael, who shrugged, indicating this was Stefan's show. Collecting a breath, Stefan knew there was no way around saying it. While leading Michael to the right conclusion was a roundabout process, talking to Saul was a straightforward comparison. Saul's emotions were much less complex, not nearly as couched in uncertainties and trauma. He could possibly trick Saul on some points, but if he was going to get Saul on board, getting to the point was the best bet.

"We want to go after the Institute," Stefan said with finality.

Saul raised an eyebrow. "Define, go after."

Stefan drew another breath. "Break in, overthrow the staff, and rescue the kids."

Saul's eyes widened. He nodded. "Oh." Then he eyed Stefan. "You do know that there are ways of going after something without initiating a suicide run, right?"

Stefan sighed. "It won't work any other way. With their ties and their financing, we have to strike and we have to strike hard. Get in, get it done. Put an end to it once and for all. If we can get past the guards and to the central security station, we should be able to lock it down pretty effectively."

Michael looked impassive, hands resting on the table, nodding in agreement with Stefan.

Saul glanced at Michael, then back to Stefan, almost as if he was watching for the got ya at the end of a joke. "You make it sound so easy," Saul said finally, when he realized no proclamation was coming. He sounded a little breathless at the idea of it.

"It is," Stefan said, stronger now. He leaned forward, lowering his voice. "They've been on the move. There's no telling when their next transition might be. They're the closest they'll probably ever be - luck and timing are on our side. We'd be idiots not to take advantage of it."

"So, let me get this straight," Saul said slowly, fingering his drink purposefully. "You two geniuses want to break back in to the Institute, a task which, if you may recall, nearly got us all killed. Only this time you want to do it while rescuing all of the kids, even though some of them may very well want to kill us instead of come."

Stefan nodded. He wouldn't have phrased it quite so negatively, but a year away from the mob had softened him a bit on the positive side of things. "Yeah, pretty much."

Saul stared a minute longer, before letting out a bark of laughter. "You two do realize that this really is a suicide mission you're planning, right?"

"I'm mostly convinced that two thirds of any successful plan is merely believing in it," Michael said simply, and Stefan tried not to smile. The kid had picked up a lot in the last year - good and bad - and sometimes it was all Stefan could do not to beam with pride.

"Well, kid, I think you're going to need more than spit and a prayer to get this one off the ground. I mean, tactically speaking, you're going to need weaponry, explosives, stealth gear, and some pretty strong stuff to subdue the kids and haul ass back out. It's one thing to sneak one runt out, if you'll recall, and a whole compound? Unless they're really good at playing follow the leader, you're going to need some serious backup to keep the guards entertained while you play the pied piper."

"Well, we weren't thinking of going in alone," Michael said plaintively.

Saul grunted, taking a drink. He put his glass primly on the table and laughed heartily. "And what kind of moron do you think is going to go with you on this little escapade?"

"Oh, I don't know," Stefan said thoughtfully. "Someone with diverse skills, a wealth of contacts. Someone who can get in and out with no one being the wiser. A smooth operator, who knows how not to turn down a big payday when he sees it."

Understanding dawned on Saul and he shook his head. "Oh, no, no, no," he protested. "You talked me into this crap once, my friend, and that was enough. You're fresh out of favors with me, and you know it."

Michael blinked, giving him a mildly forlorn look. Stefan had been trying to coach him on it, but his so-called instructors at the Institute were right about this much: the kid was a horrible actor.

Stefan tsked in his throat. "Oh, come on, Saul," he said. He flashed his most disarming smile. "You know you want to."

"No," Saul again, more insistently this time. "No way."

"All the excitement," Stefan pushed.

Saul scoffed. "Any excitement I need, I can find with a beautiful women and a pair of sheets," he said.

Michael perked up at that, clearly interested.

Stefan preempted any questions on that front. "Saul, it's for the kids," he said, with as much emotion as he could muster. "The kids."

That mattered. Even to a son of a bitch like Saul, who played fast and loose with morals when he saw fit. Saul could almost always be bought with a price, but underneath all the designer clothes and well groomed facade, the playboy wannabe had a heart. Strained, but still beating.

His mouth opened, as if to reply, but nothing came out. He sat like that for a moment, just staring at us.

Finally, he shut his mouth, shaking his head and picking up his drink. After downing it, he slammed it on the table, breathing out a curse. "You're going to be the death of me, Smirnoff. You and that punk kid of yours - more trouble than you're worth."

Michael's face broke into a grin. Stefan leaned over, clapping Saul congenially on the shoulder. "Let me buy you another drink," he said.

Saul snorted. "You're going to buy me a whole hell of a lot more than another drink," he said. "Try a drink every time we meet for the next year. The next two years. Hell, for the rest of your life."

Stefan nodded absently, lifting his arm and nodding at his waiter.

"In theory, then, you're making out pretty good from this deal," Michael observed, playing with the straw to his soda.

The waiter came, replacing their drinks with fresh ones. Saul smirked, taking a quick drink of his. "In theory, kid. It only pays off when you're alive to see it."

Michael seemed to consider that. "Then maybe you should make sure to see a lot of Stefan before we go," he said thoughtfully. Then, when he realized how morbid it sounded, he amended, "Just in case."

Saul didn't let the slip up go unnoticed. He laughed harshly, taking another drink. "Probably a good idea," he agreed. Then he turned his eyes to Stefan. "If I'm too sober, I'm bound to back out."

"Nah," Stefan said, with a sip of his own. "It's just a nice excuse for doing the right thing."

Saul didn't disagree. "So what else do you two geniuses need to pull this off? Obviously, my skills are a crucial addition, but what other things are we thinking of stockpiling here?"

Stefan sat back, with a shrug. "The expected artillery. We'll have to get some of the harder stuff in case we get into it rough, but I'd like to keep it to as few casualties as possible."

Saul's smile was snide. "Preferably, keeping ourselves off the list."

"The entire staff is trained, so we'll need weapons that work quickly and on a wide scale," Michael chimed in.

"I can cover that," Stefan said. It would require calling in some favors, but it was doable. One good thing about being the son of a crime boss was that it was always possible to procure certain illegal items without anyone thinking twice.

"I get how we're getting in," Saul said. "But what about an exit strategy? I mean, if these guys are as under the radar as they seem to be, it's going to be a neat trick to pull of a coup and maintain it before we're flushed out by the government - or worse, down here."

Stefan glanced at Michael, who shrugged. This was Stefan's game plan. "We don't really plan on sticking around to find out," he admitted. "The goal is to take control and duck out and let someone else handle the aftermath."

Saul frowned in consideration. "If you're serious, and you really want this to be over, you're going to need to take it public," Saul said, lips pursed.

It was a fact Stefan was already keenly aware of, though admittedly, it was his least favorite part of it all. Springing Michael had always been something he'd intended to keep on the down low, but breaking them all free? Shutting the whole operation down? They'd need the kind of backup that hired men and law enforcement couldn't provide: public opinion.

"We already considered that," Michael said for him.

Saul quirked an eyebrow. "Yeah? And what you'd come up with to solve that problem, boy wonder?"

"I'm Batman, he's Robin," Michael said without missing a beat, voice completely serious despite the fact that he was speaking out of his ass. He nodded toward Stefan. "Ask him."

Stefan stifled a snort. "We do the operation alone, just like we planned," he said, choosing to ignore the emasculating insults being hurled his way.

Saul shook his head. "So far I'm not seeing how this brilliant plan is an improvement over before."

"Well, before we were trying not to get noticed," Stefan said. "This time, we make a messy, obvious escape. In fact, I was thinking about calling the press to the whole thing, take some pictures and do it up right."

Saul gaped for a moment. Then he laughed. "The press?"

Stefan nodded with some satisfaction. "Get the story published as many places as we can before whoever it is can come in and try to play clean up. If it gets out far enough, they won't be able to pull it back."

Saul seemed to be considering it.

"It's really quite clever," Michael added in. "The press was my idea."

Stefan slugged him in the arm. "Your idea, really?"

Michael jutted out his chin. "More or less."

More or less, Stefan's ass. The kid had been opposed to risking any kind of outside involvement, though it was his smart-ass comment that had given Stefan the guts to really consider it.

Saul laughed again, taking a hard drink and slamming the glass on the table. He nodded to their waitress, shaking his head. He looked from Stefan to Michael in disbelieving bemusement. "I can't decide who's stupider," he mused. "Dumb and Dumber, in the flesh."

Stefan smirked. "And you're following us, so what does that make you?"

Michael cocked his head. "But would I be Jeff Daniels or Jim Carey?"

"As long as you're not the dead parakeet, we're all set," Stefan said, tousling Michael's hair.

Ducking away, Michael scowled. The waitress came up and replaced Saul's drink, offering them an absent smile before she slunk back into the crowd.

"So I'm to assume you have thought out some of the details of how we're going to get in," Saul said, once the girl was safely out of range.

"Well, it's a little rough," Stefan admitted.

"We haven't really thought about it at all," Michael answered plainly.

Saul took a long drink. "And why doesn't that surprise me?"

"Because you love us," Stefan reminded him with a congenial smile.

With a snort, Saul shook his head. "I love that you pay me," he said. "But at this point, I'd be better off cutting my losses and booking a flight home."

"And miss out all the fun?" Stefan asked.

Saul sighed, but it was mostly for show. Stefan had dug his hooks into Saul a long time ago and any protests were nothing more than posturing. In for a penny, in for a pound. Saul had already risked life and limb for this endeavor, and Stefan knew that even though few things touch Saul's heart, Michael and the plight of the other kids in the Institute certainly fit the bill.

Even playboys sometimes thought with their hearts and not their nether regions. Stefan was grateful for that in more ways than one.

Slinking in his seat, Saul set his face in a frumpy glare. "Breaking back in and alerting the press," he muttered.

"We've gone on less," Stefan reminded him.

"Ha," Saul said, but didn't disagree. He studied his drink for a minute, collecting a breath before glancing at Michael and settling his eyes on Stefan. Stefan knew what he was thinking. They'd gone on less and came out with more. Michael was living, breathing proof of that. Saul quirked his lips into a smile. "You think we can do this then?"

Michael was nodding and Stefan just grinned, feeling all the pieces start to fall into place. It wasn't cockiness but confidence, the knowledge that sometimes the greatest weapon was just believing that the end was worth it. That mindset had gotten him Michael; Stefan believed it could do anything.

Besides, getting Michael and Saul on board was the hard part. The rest? Just a piece of cake.

"I don't think we can," he said contentedly. "I know we can."

-o-

Good vibes and solidarity were a great morale booster, but they certainly didn't plan plans or get the job done. As confident as Stefan was that they would be successful, they still had some finer details to go over.

Like, how they were going to get in, break out kids who may or may not try to kill them, get out safely with minimal casualties while avoiding getting killed or caught before alerting the press.

Just the small stuff.

Fortunately, they made a good trio. Michael had the insight and mindset of the Institute to guide them, while Saul had amassed enough technical intel on the site to give them a starting point. Stefan could add some colorful illegal tactics for getting in and doing damage. Stefan kept Saul stocked with alcohol while Michael nursed a Coke, and they started to get the elements in place.

Still, the plan was rough. This compound was less accessible, probably because it wasn't as hard to blend in on South American soil as it was in an American suburb. Still, the place was oddly unmanned. The number of guards seemed smaller and there seemed to be rarely anyone coming or going. In fact, in Stefan's estimation, it had to be mostly self-sustained somehow.

That limited their possible ins, but as Michael pointed out, gave them the element of surprise. If the new Institute truly was a self-contained bubble, they wouldn't be as wary of outside threats. If they could circumvent the outer security protocols, they might get much further without being noticed than back in the States.

And considering that their goal was much broader this time, Stefan didn't actually think a calculated strike was the way to go. No, they wanted more than a simple in and out. They needed to effectively stage a coup.

Michael was skeptical on that. Downing the security and other staff would be a time consuming process, although Stefan was inclined to think that mere humans could be daunted by enough firepower and explosions. The other factor, of course, were the kids, some of whom may consider them tests that needed to be passed. Convincing them otherwise was possible, and some might even jump at the chance of freedom, but the trick was to get a word in edgewise before they ended you.

Saul smiled bitterly. It had been a long night of planning; productive, but they were passing that point quickly as Saul's level of inebriation rose and his inhibitions lowered. "Now that's just what I want to hear," he said, a slight slur to his words. "That the kids I'm trying to save are the ones who are most likely to kill me where I stand. That really makes me want to go through with this little suicide run."

Michael shrugged, somewhat indifferently. "They don't know any better," he said frankly, and there was a timber in his voice Stefan recognized from their early days together. "Everything is posed to them as hypotheticals. Killing is a means of advancement. There is no possibility of anything else. To think otherwise is almost inconceivable. They don't even know how to hope."

Saul's complaints fell silent to Michael's admission. Saul might have been working his way to getting a nice, strong buzz, but he still had a hint of class.

Which was good. Even Saul seemed to recognize just how raw the emotions were for Michael. In fact, it was as much as Stefan had ever heard the kid share to someone else. This mission was personal, and their cause was good. Whether or not the victims were killers, they were victims first. Stefan had to believe that, had to believe in them, just like he had to believe in Michael.

And as personal as it was for Stefan, it was more so for Michael. That was his biggest hesitation all of this - not getting caught, not even getting killed - but bringing up these memories for Michael. Stefan had worked hard to get Michael safe, and no matter how well adjusted Michael seemed most of the time, Stefan knew the hurt and confusion of his childhood was still there, just below the surface.

Which meant it was time for a break.

Pulling out his wallet, Stefan snagged a ten and tossed it at Michael. "Here, go get yourself something sweet to eat," he said.

Michael looked confused for a moment.

Stefan shrugged, leaning back as he shoved the wallet back in his pocket. "It's been almost three hours since you ate anything made of sugar or grease. I'm sure you're about to go into withdrawal if you don't act now. You can go ahead and meet me at home. I won't be long."

If Michael was skeptical, the thought quickly passed at the undeniable draw of sugar and other foods of no nutritional value. Like a moth to a flame, Michael took the ten and made his way to the bar.

Stefan watched him go, watching as he smiled at the bartender, a short girl probably Stefan's age. She was all smiles for him as Michael leaned against the counter, casual as can be. He got an order in a bag, flashed one more grin, and took it to go.

It was good to see the kid like that. Young and free and normal. If Stefan didn't know better, sometimes he might be easy to forget all that he'd endured and all that Stefan still had to protect him from.

"Hell of a kid," Saul mused.

Stefan turned his attention back to Saul, picking up his drink. He gave the bottle a look. "No kidding."

"Go through what he did," Saul said with a shake of his head. "That's some kind of resiliency. And I thought I was impressive."

Stefan swallowed a drink bitterly. "You're really making that reference?''

Saul's grin wasn't even sheepish. "It was the best parallel I had."

With a face of disgust, Stefan put his bottle back on the table. "Well, it's hard enough keeping us both sane, and I don't need your perverted imagery screwing with my mind."

Saul's smile faded, and he took a drink. When he swallowed, he looked at Stefan again, seriously and reserved. "Are you going to tell him?"

Stefan frowned. "Tell him what?"

"The truth," Saul replied. "That he's not your long lost brother."

Stefan's frown deepened into a scowl. "I told you, we don't talk about that. Not ever."

Saul held up a hand. "I know, I know," he said. "And it's not my secret to tell, not even if I were inclined. But I'm just wondering if you'd thought about it, is all."

Stefan had thought about it - a lot. Ever since he'd remembered the truth about Lukas' fate back at the beach house, it had been a whirlwind of emotions. The decision to maintain the illusion, though, had been surprisingly easy. Stefan needed a brother - that much was clear - and even if Michael wouldn't admit it, he needed one, too. Stefan wasn't about to take that away, not when Michael had finally come to believe in it himself.

"He's a bright kid," Saul continued. "He's bound to put it together someday."

The truth was, Michael's better sense already had put it together. It was why Michael had resisted Stefan's blind determination for so long. Michael wanted this lie. "He's been through too much," Stefan said. "He needs this to ground him, just for awhile."

"So you do plan on telling him?"

Stefan sighed, fingering his own drink. There would be a day when the lie wouldn't matter, when Michael was strong enough and secure enough to face it. But Michael's existence was still being tentatively forged, constructed on uncertain footing, grounded only by the idea that family was worth fighting for.

He took a drink, swallowing it hard. He put his glass down, nodding his head. "Someday," he said. Then he shook his head. "But not yet. He's not ready."

Saul nodded, looking back down at his own drink. When he looked up, his expression was open, more sincere than Stefan was used to. "You're doing right by that kid, you know," he said. "It's a hell of a thing for you to do, give up everything for him. And then risk it all, all over again."

Stefan scoffed, taking another drink. "It's nothing."

"It's something," Saul said. "You have a damn heart of gold under all that crappy clothes and poor upkeep. You're a genuine hero, Smirnoff."

Stefan just shook his head. "You know how I am about family," he said, and they were words he meant, down in his very core. The truest thing he'd ever known. "And Michael's more my family than anyone else in this world."

"Well," Saul said resolutely, raising his glass. "I can drink to that."

Stefan snickered, picking his bottle back up. "You'd drink to anything, Casanova."

Saul clanked his glass against the bottle of beer, a wide smile on his face. "Don't ruin the moment," he said before tipping his head back to down his drink.

Stefan followed suit, swallowing the rest of his beer in a large gulp.

Saul slammed his glass back on the table, taking a deep breath. "I think I'm going to need another round."

Stefan reached for his wallet. "Count me out," he said. "I can't leave the kid alone for too long. He keeps finding ways around the child lock on the TV. And now that I've let him get hyped up on sugar, there's no telling what he'll be in to."

"Aw, don't crap out on me now, Smirnoff," Saul said, almost whining. "You're forgetting that while the joys of familial love are getting you through this journey, you're asking me along with nothing but the promise of a payday that may or may not pan out. The least you can do is gird my loins a little bit to get me through the night."

Stefan made a face. "I'm not girding anything near your loins," he said, plunking a few bills on the table.

Saul snorted. "Another round," he said. "Just buy me one more round. I'm almost drunk enough to get some action going on. Normally I prefer women who don't go au-natural, but with a little more alcohol, certain compromises can be made."

Stefan pulled another wad of bills out of his pocket, tossing it at Saul with a look of disdain written over his features. "For the record, I'm paying you to shut up, not so you can get your kicks."

Saul flashed a supreme grin, white teeth glinting. "My kicks thank you."

Stefan rolled his eyes. "Just be sober for our planning meeting tomorrow. We still need a date and a getaway time and I could really do without listening to you moan while we hash it out."

Saul offered a mock salute. "Sober and ready to go, Smirnoff. And if things go well, extra peppy."

With another shake of his head, Stefan headed away. Saul was a big boy, and even though he didn't always show it, he was a professional. More than that, he understood the stakes, even if he didn't want to talk about them. He knew what this mean to Stefan; he knew what it meant to Michael. And he knew what it might mean to a handful of children in the Institute. Saul would be there and Saul would be ready. "Have fun," Stefan called over his shoulder.

Saul was already eyeballing one of the locals, young and buxom, tight skirt and a low cut shirt that didn't leave much to the imagination. "Don't worry," he called back, a twinkle in his eye. "I will."

There was a lot of room to doubt a lot of aspects of their farfetched plan, but Saul having a good time? Really not one of them.

But Stefan wouldn't begrudge him that, not even if he wanted to. Sure, it was fun to give the other man a hard time, and Saul certainly could use the ribbing to keep his massive ego in check. But Saul was helping them, and anyone who helped Michael was a friend, whether they wanted to admit it or not.

For Stefan, however, while getting buzzed was always pleasant, it wasn't what he really wanted to be doing. His life was simpler now, despite all the intrigue and plots he seemed to be coming up with. Really, his life seemed complete. With Michael in his life, the rest just seemed like background noise.

It was a good feeling. The best. Stefan hadn't felt this good - felt this happy in years. Since Lukas had died.

This lie wasn't just good for Michael. It was good for both of them, and Stefan knew it. Someday, there would be time for the details of the truth. But the only thing that mattered to Stefan now, was Michael. Keeping Michael happy, helping him finish growing up. And if that meant a few lies, if that meant a few missions to the Institute - then Stefan was all over it, no questions asked.

That was what brothers were all about, after all.

The thought made Stefan smile as he made his way out onto the street and back to the apartment. Hell, high water, crazy chimera doctors, pregnant outlaw teenagers who scammed them. As long as there was Michael, Stefan could handle just about any of it.

-o-

It was a solid plan.

Saul was good at thinking of contingencies. Stefan was skilled at coming up with solutions. If anyone could do it, they could.

They had done it before, after all. Michael could still recall his own escape and how unlikely that had been. Yet, against all odds, Stefan had got him out and kept him out, even after Jericho tracked them down. Stefan was capable of great feats in the name of family, and that mattered.

But Michael was too afraid to admit that he wasn't sure it was enough.

It wasn't something he could give voice to, even if he wanted to. Stefan's most stringent beliefs were extreme and reckless but so often right. They were powerful because they were contagious, even if they weren't always smart.

This plan wasn't smart.

Yes, Saul had found a route to the compound. A few back roads and a densely wooded area. It would provide appropriate cover and lead them to one of the back doors.

Stefan had an idea for the back door. Some high grade explosive, did their job on the lock without anything more than a muffled pop. He even had a rather useful way to disable the alarm. Apparently, blowing the thing out of the wall prevented it from sounding. At worst, it would register as a malfunction, giving them the time they needed to make inroads into the facility.

Stun guns and tear gas would be useful on security personnel, and instead of breaking the other children out, the goal was to take the security center, put all captives in a locked closet, then communicate with the children all at once.

This was Michael's idea. There was an element of hive mentality in the Institute, and the children were not likely to believe anyone in a one on one situation. If they could be given proof that the current leaders in the Institute were out of control, it was possible that they would be more amenable to change.

Once the personnel were secure and the children were safe, they could take off, call the authorities and the press and leave before anyone was wiser. To be safe, they would abandon their apartment in La Paz for now, and Stefan would arrange for alternative housing until things were safe enough to make another move.

It was a good plan. Saul and Stefan would be armed with real weaponry, just in case, and Michael was their ace in the hole, able to knock out the guards and other staff when other measures failed. The smartest option would be for Michael to take lead, to put them all out one at a time, but Michael knew Stefan didn't want to make him do that.

Despite knowing it was a weaker plan, Michael was still grateful for the reprieve.

And in all of it, Michael dreaded the plan still. He wanted to help the other children, he wanted to bring the people who did this to justice, but it scared him. The Institute had taken so much of his life, more than he had even imagined, and going back in was even harder to imagine. The very thought of it made him cold inside.

Swallowing hard, he shifted on the couch, feeling completely out of place. Stefan and Saul were enjoying the fruits of their labors, relishing in a plan well laid, a beer apiece to celebrate. Michael had been rewarded with a cold Dr. Pepper, one of his personal favorites, but it tasted bitter and flat in his mouth.

Suddenly, Michael's thoughts were interrupted when he was hit in the head with a pillow.

Leveling a glare at his brother, Michael tossed the pillow on the floor. "And I'm supposed to believe you can lead this expedition when you're still throwing pillows at my head?"

Stefan snickered. "I did have impeccable aim."

Michael remembered to take a sip of his drink. "I'm sure pillow tossing will be a very helpful skill when we're going against armed guards and crazed scientists."

Stefan shrugged. "Pillows, smoke bombs," he said. "They're all the same."

Michael had grown accustomed to Stefan's overblown delusions in the past year. Normally they were amusing, assuring, but they were cold comforts now. He could not help but think that while going back was the right thing to do, it might be the biggest mistake they ever made.

A year ago, risking his life on a whim would have seemed sufficient. He'd had nothing to lose.

It was different now. Now Michael had a life, friends, a brother. He had everything to lose and the thought of that was nearly paralyzing.

Saul pushed to his feet with a sigh, downing the last of his drink a single gulp. "I think I feel as good about this as I'm going to," he announced. He turned a critical eye to Stefan. "You have my paycheck?"

Stefan produced a check from his pocket, waving it at Saul with a grin. "Make sure you actually pick up some supplies instead of blowing it all on drinks."

Saul plucked the check from Stefan's hand, looking it over with a satisfied smile. "Some fatigues, ski masks, stun guns. Not a problem." He looked at Stefan again. "It's a pleasure doing business, Smirnoff."

Stefan snorted. "Just make sure you don't cash it in a traceable account," he said.

Saul rolled his eyes. "I'm greedy and beautiful, not stupid."

"Sorry, sometimes those three just go together in my mind," Stefan said with a smirk.

"Oh, you slay me," Saul mocked, folding the check into his pocket. "You've got the heavy artillery?"

"I've still got some contacts to get me the bombs and guns without raising any eyebrows," Stefan confirmed.

"And you've got a journalist?" Saul asked again.

It was clear that Saul was nervous. Calm demeanor aside, it was not like Saul to triple check the details like he was. Saul was an interesting contrast to his brother, and Michael was inclined to trust him based on his obvious relationship with Stefan. Friends of Stefan's were friends of his. That was the way it worked with family.

And still, sometimes he had to wonder how Saul pulled it off. Especially all the sex. If a man had that much sex, was he still going to function like a capable human being? Maybe that was what the drinking was for?

Michael planned on finding out, once Stefan let him drink alcohol and when he was able to stop blushing at the mere sight of a girl.

"You're worrying like a mother hen," Stefan chided. "I've got the journalist taken care of. Now go home, get some rest. You're not getting paid extra to sit around at my place and waste time."

Saul held up his hands, scooting toward the door. "Alright, alright." He paused, turning back with a smile at Michael. "Keep an eye on him, kid. That brother of yours, he needs all the help he can get."

Saul was out the door before the pillow Stefan threw at him bounced harmlessly off it.

"Ridiculous prick," Stefan muttered, but there was obvious affection in his voice.

"He's worried," Michael observed.

"No need to worry," Stefan said with a shrug. "We've got this one planned out down to the minute. Saul just needs to start using his balls for things besides sex, and we'd be set."

Michael tried to smile at the joke, but didn't quite make it. They lapsed into silence.

It was hard not to notice Stefan's eyes on him. Michael was used to that, Stefan's careful gaze. His brother had a tendency to keep him in sight when possible, even when he thought Michael didn't notice. Michael always noticed, but it didn't bother him. The security cameras at the Institute had been unnerving and invasive, but Stefan's watchful eye was a reminder that he never had to fight his battles alone. Not anymore.

"Misha, you don't have to worry either, you know," Stefan said, his voice lower now. Gentle.

Michael froze a little, embarrassed that it had been so readily apparent. He took a drink, forcing it down. "I'm fine," he lied.

"You don't even have to go," Stefan offered. "Saul and I, we can-"

But Michael's head jerked up, eyes wide, head shaking. "You're not going without me."

Stefan's face was sympathetic. "I know this is hard for you."

"This is my fight, too," he insisted, fighting past the lump in his throat.

"Yeah, but you don't have to fight it face to face," Stefan said. "Trust me, I know."

It would be easier that way. To let Stefan take care of it for him. And Stefan would, without question. There would be no teasing, no guilt. Stefan would do that for him in an instant.

But it was more than facing the Institute.

He shook his head again, more adamantly. "I need to go. I can't let you do it alone."

"I'm going to have Saul-"

"He can't protect you, not like I can," Michael said fiercely.

Stefan's eyebrows raised. "You know," he said slowly. "It's big brothers who are the protectors. Little brothers can just sit back and enjoy the ride."

Michael made a face. "That's stupid."

"That's just the way it is."

"Not for us," Michael said back harshly. Because his fears and doubts weren't things he could run from. They were things he had to embrace. Not for himself, but for Stefan. "If you're going back, I'm going with you. And we will walk out of there together."

The words almost hurt to say, straining his resolve, but strengthening it all the same. It was a solid plan, not a smart plan, but the best plan they had. And Michael knew no matter what weapons they collected, nothing would be as powerful as Michael and Stefan together.

Brothers.

The goal Michael held up as the prize at the end of the race, the crutch he used when things seemed to hard. Stefan was everything he needed, and for that Michael would give everything he had back.

That was what brothers did.

Stefan held his gaze, a flood of emotions passing through his eyes. They settled on something like pride. "Okay," he said slowly, nodding his head. "Then we do this together."

Michael nodded readily, steeling himself again. "Okay," he said with a shaky breath. "Together."

-o-

It wasn't easy to lie to Michael.

Well, that wasn't entirely true. In some ways, it was exceptionally easy to lie to Michael. Stefan would do anything to protect the kid and sometimes telling simple little white lies just sort of went with the territory.

And sometimes not so simple little white lies. Like this job in the Institute - Stefan knew Michael wanted to be a part of it. He knew it meant something to Michael to help end the organization that created him, that continued to destroy the lives of others like him. But it scared the kid - and with good reason. If anyone knew what the Institute was capable of, it was Michael. He had experienced their wrath and control every day for most of his life. While the thought of justice would definitely appeal to a kid like Michael, it would also freak him out.

So, yes, Stefan lied. Acted like it was no big deal, an in and out job. Nothing they couldn't handle. Because there was no way that Stefan was going to freak the kid out by spelling out all the many ways it could go wrong.

The lie was harmless. Necessary.

So why did he feel guilty?

With a sigh, Stefan hunched over, stirring his drink with his straw. He was on the clock now, so he was keeping it alcohol-free, pulling his final loose ends together. He'd already contacted an old friend about the remaining weapons and set up a rendezvous for later in the afternoon but he still had to square away the journalist to break their story.

It was the first time he'd been away from Michael since the kid expressed some trepidation after their meeting with Saul. It wasn't particularly like Michael. His younger brother liked to appear in control and normal. Moments where he let his guard down happened, but Stefan was gracious enough to offer the needed support and let them pass without another word. That was just what big brothers did.

Speaking of lies.

Stefan took a drink, swallowing hard. That lie was the easiest and hardest of them all. It made so much sense, to just let Michael believe they were brothers. Stefan knew that belief had changed Michael, had buoyed his faith and hope and allowed him to thrive. It was such an important and good thing for him, to have a family to build himself off of. Stefan would not deprive Michael of that for anything in this world.

And yet - there was a dark side to it. The way Michael looked at the pictures - pictures of Lukas and tried to recreate the memories. Michael had spent his childhood growing up with a false reality and sometimes Stefan couldn't help but wonder if he was giving him the same thing. His intentions were better, his focus much purer, but a lie was a lie and sometimes it was a bitter pill to swallow.

Which was why Michael couldn't know. Not so Stefan could save his own skin, but because Stefan did not want to see Michael suffer that way. To lose one's hope was a terrible thing. Stefan knew that. He had lived it for ten years after losing Lukas. He would spare Michael from that at any cost.

Any cost.

He put his glass back on the table, glancing at his watch. His contact was supposed to be there by now. The whole being tardy thing was not a good start. He needed someone reliable, because what he was going to trust them to do was pretty damn important.

Of course, finding the right journalist was a bit of a crap shoot. Of all of Stefan's contacts, none of them were of the journalistic bent, and since Stefan didn't spend his free time perusing the papers, he wasn't aware of any prominent names to look for or avoid. Eventually he'd decided against someone local anyway - he wanted better coverage. Someone international, with ties outside of Bolivia for maximum exposure.

Someone too high up and there'd be too many complications. Stefan knew from experience, the higher up someone got, the more attention they wanted for themselves, and Stefan needed this on the down low for as long as he could get it. He needed someone who wouldn't leverage his name and Michael's backstory for future success. He needed someone to straight up cover the facts, nothing more.

So when he found the list of AP representatives in South America, he'd picked one with moderate experience - not a veteran, but not a newbie. Someone who was published but not established.

All in all, Stefan had felt pretty good about Ava Leehey.

Until, of course, she turned out to be late. Even Michael managed to be on time. And Michael was an impossible once-would-be-assassin-turned-student-with-no-taste-and-a-sugar-fetish. If Michael could be on time, then surely a professional international journalist could be expected to uphold the same standards.

Maybe Stefan should have promised sugar. It seemed to work with Michael.

Shaking his head, Stefan took a drink. Only a year, and Michael had changed his life so completely. If only Sevastian could see him now - the jokes would never cease.

Stefan looked at his watch again, feeling his ire begin to rise. These things needed to run like clockwork. He was barely holding Michael's fears at bay as it was, and with this would-be journalist not quite living up to expectations, was doing nothing to bolster Stefan's own doubts.

And that made it hard to keep his the appearance for Michael.

Which, it was making him dislike Ava Leehey even more.

Giving the room a once over, Stefan was beginning to seriously consider blowing this joint. He couldn't wait forever. Wasn't going to wait forever.

There was a growing group of men at a table across the bar, raucous and jovial. A girl at the bar caught his eye, quirking her eyebrow suggestively.

Stefan reconsidered his decision to leave. Business may fall through, but there could still be pleasure.

But he wasn't Saul. Maybe the other man's excessive pheromones were rubbing off on him, More reason to book it.

With a bland smile, he nodded to the girl, digging in his pocket to take out his wallet. As he produced a few bills to pay for his drink, the girl got up, walking over to him with an appraising look.

"Leaving so soon?" she asked.

"Yeah," Stefan said. "Just waiting for someone, but I guess they're not coming."

"Oh," she said with a shrug. "Girlfriend?"

Stefan almost laughed at that. He shook his head. "No, just business."

She nodded, pulling out a card. "Ava Leehey," she said.

At that, Stefan looked up, surprised. "You're Ava Leehey?"

She glanced at the card, holding it out again. "That's what it says."

Stefan narrowed his eyes. "And so the reason you decided to sit at the bar instead of meeting me on time...?"

"I'm a journalist, Mr. Korsak," she said plaintively, her pretenses diminished. "I like to check out my sources before I trust them." She shrugged. "Nothing personal."

Stefan flicked the card. "Hell of a way to make a first impression," he said.

She seemed nonplussed. "You're the one who called in about some lead I couldn't pass up. Something of international relevance and possibly violating medical ethical standards and child endangerment laws. Heavy stuff. You'll have to forgive me for wanting to check it out first."

"Huh, and maybe the fact that I have a lead on all of that is why I don't feel so inclined to trust someone who stood me up."

"I was here the entire time," Ava assured him. "You're the one who didn't find me."

She had a point there, even if it wasn't quite fair. Her angle made sense, and if Stefan had been thinking, it might have been something he would have done. Scoping out Ms. Ava Leehey in advance might have saved him a headache.

Ava's expression softened a bit. "This is the only time I'll try to get the one up on you," she said. "We may not like to admit it, but journalists are at the mercy of their sources, and the best ones know it. I'm at your disposal. Should we sit?"

He was wary still - this was more than a story to Stefan. This was his brother's life. One player that wasn't up to par, and the whole thing could explode - and take Michael with it.

But there was something about her. Something about this girl he thought he could trust.

Or at least hear out. A few minutes of conversation could clear up a lot of worries. A thorough background check and having her tailed would certainly allay the rest.

Still eyeing her, Stefan sat down.

With a smile, Ava followed suit.

She wasn't beautiful in the drop dead gorgeous kind of way. She certainly wasn't anything Stefan would ever expect to see on a billboard or in a magazine. But there was still something attractive about her.

Her eyes were dark, deep and brown, but set a little too close together. Her brows were on the thick side, but still well kept behind her thick black-rimmed glasses. Her hair was short, a chalky sort of brown and from the cut and minimal styling, it was clear that she preferred a do that was easy to maintain.

Everything she did seemed to have a critical air about it, as if she were examining everything around her, processing it on a very fundamental level.

And, at the moment, her gaze was penetrating Stefan, a frown set on her flat lips, eyebrows knitted. Stefan knew that look, knew what she was doing. Most people tried to be more subtle, especially in his previous line of work, but he knew when he was being sized up, whether it was from a mob professional or a fledgling journalist.

"So," she said, pressing her lips together thoughtfully. "You think you have a lead for me."

Stefan nodded. "It's a good story."

She fiddled with her straw, stirring her drink with it. "You know, most stories that are dropped in a journalist's lap are crap," she said. "I have no interest in uncovering the long lost secret of your great grandfather's missing will. It might make a local human interest piece, but nothing that's going to be picked up by any outlet worth reading."

"No missing wills, I promise," Stefan said.

She still didn't believe him. "So what then?"

Stefan wet his lips, glancing around. This was a big step to take, telling someone new about the Institute. He'd kept it close to the vest for obvious reasons, and growing up in the family that he had, Stefan knew the value of secrets. And this wasn't just any secret. This was Michael's past - his life. Trusting some upstart journalist was a risk, but at this point, it was one he needed to take.

He sighed, leaning forward with his elbows on the table. "How about a government cover-up involving the genetic manufacturing of assassins."

Her frown deepened, eyes narrowing almost to slits. "Sounds like someone's been watching too many action movies. Life isn't like a Jason Bourne movie. Really."

Stefan scoffed. "No, you're right," he agreed. Then he leaned even closer, his face deadly serious. "Sometimes it's worse."

His certainty threw her and she leaned back in her chair, regarding him skeptically. "And I assume you have proof, then," she said. "I mean, you're not just some nut job carrying around Catcher in the Rye in his pocket, are you? Because it might have worked for Mel Gibson, but you haven't got his ass to pull it off."

Smirking, Stefan reached down, pulling out the manila envelope from his bag. He pushed it across to her, sitting back in his chair smugly.

She glanced at it, cautious, but then picked it up, lifting the flap. Carefully, she slid out the documents, glancing over them. Stefan had picked them carefully from the copies Saul had given him. It was just a fraction of the intel they'd amassed, and nothing too specific. Some overviews of the compound, a bit of background on the late Dr. Jericho. Just enough to make her believe him.

After taking in the research, she sat back in her chair. Her cocky confidence had given way to what Stefan could only assume was awe. Shaking her head, she gave a small laugh, almost disbelieving.

Stefan shrugged, and if he looked smug, it wasn't his fault. "You still think I'm full of crap?"

She looked at him again, eyes appraising him with new intensity. "Crap, no," she said. "Insane, yes." She sat up again, leafing through the papers. "I mean, do you know what you've got here? Really?"

Stefan nodded grimly. "I know it better than you do."

"Blowing the lid off this thing is going to be tough," she said. "We can't put anything in print until we get some concrete evidence from the inside. Without irrefutable proof, I'll just be the laughingstock of the journalism community."

"Don't worry about that," he assured her. "Write the piece and we'll get you the pictures and police reports you need."

Her face was genuinely surprised at that. "You have a man on the inside?"

"Not exactly," Stefan said. "But we plan to."

Her eyes narrowed. "Infiltrating a place like this - you're going to need some pretty solid references."

"Not if you go in the back door," Stefan pointed out.

She stared for a moment, then her mouth opened. She shook her head. "No," she said. "I was right. You are insane."

Her incredulity was to be expected, perhaps, but it did get wearisome having to explain his reasoning time and again. "It has to be done," Stefan said. "They've got kids in there. We can't just let it continue."

Ava's mouth closed in consideration. She sighed. "It's probably suicide."

"But it might not be," Stefan insisted.

Eyes rolling, Ava shook her head at him. "You are stupider than the average male," she said dismissively. Then she looked at him carefully. "I'm not sure I even want to know how you think you're going to do this, but I do want to know why."

"I told you, the kids-"

She shook her head. "No, I mean, that's a good reason, but how did you even find out about this place? And what have you got staked in this that makes you so damned set on outing them?"

It was in some ways a valid question, especially since Ava was a reporter. But this was where he had to tread lightly. He wanted to sell this story to the public, but he couldn't sell himself with it. Any mention of him would be a disaster - and any mention of Michael was simply unacceptable. He'd worked too hard to get Michael safe to put him at risk of the limelight.

Shifting in his seat, Stefan stiffened. "I have my reasons," he said. "And they stay mine. There's no mention of me or anyone else on my crew."

This piqued her interest. "So you do have a crew."

"I do have a crew," Stefan said in exasperation. "And they're not any of your business."

Ava worked her jaw, fingers tapping on the table absently. She fingered one of the papers, pulling it out from the rest. Looking at it, her eyes went from the paper to Stefan. "You're the reason it's on the move, aren't you?" she deduced. "I mean, it stays put for almost twenty years and then starts a tour of the lands south of the border? And you've got intel on it that predates its first move?"

Damn, she was good. The question was if she trustworthy or if Stefan was putting his eggs right into the fox's basket.

Leaning forward, he pushed the papers back together. "Some things are off the record," he said, his voice low. "You have to respect that, don't you?"

"Of course," she said. "But I still need to know or you're on your own. I don't cover a story unless I have the big picture."

He could tell her to walk right then and there. But she knew too much. She was already a part of this, whether Stefan wanted to admit it or not.

Swallowing, Stefan pulled his hand away, meeting her eyes warily. "A year ago, I broke into the Institute with a friend of mine. We extracted one of the kids."

Her eyes widened. "You have one of the kids? Do you know what kind of evidence this is? It can blow the story wide open-"

Stefan's shook his head tersely. "The kid is entirely off limits. You can see the intel. You can guess what they're doing to kids in there," he said and he saw her eyes dart to the pages, the bleak pictures of medical equipment and the details on genetic manipulation. "He's been through enough, and I will keep him safe. No matter what."

Her dark eyes flicked up to his, holding them for a moment. There was a moment of indecision, and he could see it in her face. She wanted to know more. She wanted to ask more. She wanted to take the story and run a friggin' marathon with it.

But then she nodded, lips drawn together. "Nothing on the kid," she said, voice carrying the hint of a promise. "But you'll get me my photos?"

Stefan snorted. "I'll get you a whole hell of a lot more than that," he said.

"I'm going to have more questions," she said almost in warning.

Stefan collected a breath, letting it out slowly. "Yeah, I imagine you will."

Ava's smile was wide, couched with excitement, and Stefan tried to remember that this was all part of the plan, whether he liked it or not.

NEXT

 

Comments

Posted by: sendintheclowns (sendintheklowns)
Posted at: July 5th, 2011 01:04 am (UTC)

Stefan continues to earn high marks from me due to his degree of protectiveness. Although it's lovely to see Michael feels the same toward Stefan.

The banter continues to dazzle.

Is Ava a help or a hindrance here? Can't wait for the next installment to find out what's going on!

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: July 6th, 2011 01:37 am (UTC)
tucker breathless

It's good that you haven't read this for so long so at least someone reads it!

Thanks :)

2 Read Comments