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Chimera Fic: Into the Bolivian Sunset 5/15

July 11th, 2011 (07:46 am)

A/N: Thanks to those who are reading and reviewing :)  Previous parts here.

 

CHAPTER FIVE

Stefan had always liked nightfall in Bolivia. There was just something about it, something in the way the sun shown through the buildings, something in the soft sounds of wildlife buzzing even on the city streets. People wound down, streets thinned out, making way for foot traffic. At twilight, he could see why Butch and Sundance liked this for their would-be retirement.

But that night, twilight was the worst thing Stefan had ever seen. It meant daylight was fading, that his time was almost spent. The chances of tracking Michael by visual correspondence of witnesses was decently likely during the day when Michael's blonde head would definitely turn heads. At night, Michael would stand out less, fewer people would be paying attention, and Stefan's trail would go cold.

That would assume, of course, he had much of a trail to go on. Saul had come up empty, not one single sighting suggesting Michael was in the area. Stefan had had a bit more luck, a handful of shop keepers recognizing Michael's description. The timing of the sightings made sense but suggested an erratic path, making it hard to know where to turn next.

And with nighttime coming, Stefan had to resign to the inevitable: he wasn't going to find Michael that day.

It was a hard pill to swallow. In the time since breaking Michael out of the Institute, Stefan had been loathe to let the kid out of his sight. Even if he was vaguely okay with Michael attending classes, he had not just consented to actually being apart from Michael overnight - ever.

But the grid pattern searching wasn't going to get him where he needed to go tonight. Worse, it was becoming increasingly ineffective. Michael was making better time and Stefan was rapidly losing ground by searching one block after the next. For every sighting he might confirm, Michael was probably another mile away.

No, the professional in Stefan knew it was time to withdraw and reassess. That was the smart thing to do.

It just wasn't easy.

Still, working for Konstantin had hardened him more than he wanted to admit. He could do this. He would.

By the time he got back to the apartment, the daylight was nearly gone, fading distantly below the buildings of the city. Saul was already there, sitting wearily at Stefan's dining table. "Did you know," Saul asked, looking absently at the bottle of beer in front of him, "that there are exactly twenty-two bars within five miles of your fine establishment?"

Stefan didn't reply, just sat down, rubbing a hand over his face.

"Twenty-two," Saul repeated. "And your kid brother didn't have the sense to stop into any of them."

Stefan gave Saul a rueful look. "But I'm sure you did?"

Saul grunted, taking a drink and swallowing hard. "I wish," he said. "But I only stopped at those with open air portions. Never has going to bars been so unsatisfying. No alcohol, no kid."

"He's headed the other direction," Stefan said. He reached over, pulling open a kitchen drawer and digging out a phone book. He flipped it to a map, focusing in on the right part of town. "I got tags here, here, and here." Stefan pointed to the locations.

Saul frowned, looking at the indicated points. "That's not exactly a direct path."

"No," Stefan said. "Which means we know he didn't vanish into thin air."

"But he might as well have, considering how little we have to go on."

Stefan slumped in his chair. "Exactly."

Saul sighed, pushing his bottle over to Stefan. "You need this more than I do."

Stefan eyed it miserably, but then took a drink. He made a face. "You're drinking the cheap stuff?"

Saul shrugged. "It was all you had."

Surprised, Stefan looked at Saul again and realized that the other man wasn't just moping over a hard-spent afternoon. He was genuinely disappointed. He pushed the beer back. "If you're that desperate, I'm not going to deprive you."

It was a testament to how miserable Saul was that he accepted the sub-par beer back. "So what's the master plan now?"

And that was the question. It was one thing to know he needed to pull back and reassess. It was another actually having a viable course of action. Because at the present time, Stefan was coming up with nothing.

Then, there was a knock on the door.

Stefan straightened, surprised, looking to Saul.

The other man shrugged, equally dumbfounded. "You expecting company?"

Nerves heightened, Stefan stood up. He opened another drawer and pulled out a handgun.

"Geez, Smirnoff. Remind me not to go cooking in your apartment without permission," Saul hissed.

Stefan ignored him, checking the gun's ammo. Satisfied, he edged his way toward the door. Although he and Michael mixed and mingled with the locals, they kept their place off limits. For obvious security purposes. Visitors weren't common under normal circumstances, and these circumstances were most definitely not normal.

He wasn't sure who would be stupid enough to knock on their door with bad intentions, but at this point, Stefan wasn't willing to take anything for granted.

Behind the door, his eyes flicked to Saul in warning. On the internal count of one, two, and-

Stefan opened the door, pushing his gun out in front of him.

There was a terrified yelp.

Stefan lowered his aim, mouth opened. "Ava?"

"Stefan?" she asked.

Heart throbbing as his adrenaline waned, Stefan shoved the gun into his pants. "Geez, I'm sorry," he said. "I just...wasn't expecting anyone."

She was staring at him, jaw slack. "You point guns at visitors when you're not expecting someone?"'

Stefan was adequately chagrined. "It's been kind of a long day."

Her face crumpled at that and she burst into tears.

If Stefan was sometimes strained when it came to Michael's emotional needs, he was completely out of his element when it came to women. Crying was a problem he simply didn't have a solution for and he was almost positive he didn't have the emotional capacity to offer others the strong shoulder they needed when the sight of tears made him want to run as fast as he could in the other direction.

Fortunately, Ava stopped with a hiccuping breath, looking mournfully up at Stefan. Given her overall appearance, she felt as miserable as Stefan did. Her big eyes were rimmed red; this had clearly not been her only outburst of tears in recent hours. "Stefan, I'm sorry," she said. "You must think I'm horrible. I mean, I never should have asked. It wasn't my business."

There was some truth to that, but Stefan knew that wasn't the point. The mistake hadn't been letting Ava get close; the mistake had been in handling Michael. As if he should be handling his brother. He'd just thought it'd be better, it'd be easier. Stefan no longer believed that family was only blood, but in Michael's world of genetic truths and cold relationships, Stefan had just wanted to give him something warm and stable and sure. As tried and true as blood. He wanted Michael to believe that his DNA wasn't just designed for killing; it was meant to be part of a family.

Stefan had to sigh, letting his head dip forward. He looked at her again, resigned. He held out one arm in something of a welcoming gesture. "Come on in, Ava."

The look of pure misery on her face lit with a small hope. Swallowing, she nodded, slipping inside. Looking around, her eyes settled on Saul for a moment. Her gaze went back to Stefan, new concern blossoming. "Where's Michael?"

It was still so fresh, that the question actually hurt to hear. Stefan had to grit his teeth, steeling the remnants of his resolve. "He got a little spooked by the whole thing," he said. He shrugged stiffly. "He took off."

For a moment, she was silent. "Did he tell you where he was going?"

The innocent hope in her question made Stefan want to be sick. If only he had. He dropped his gaze.

"Stefan, I'm so sorry," she said again, with new vigor this time. She reached out, touching his arm.

Stefan looked up and met her warm eyes. They were soft, full of sympathy and regret.

"I can't even imagine how hard that is for both of you," she said. Her hand dropped and she sighed, shaking her head at the ceiling. "I can't believe I was so stupid-"

"Ava, it wasn't your fault," Stefan tried again, more wearily this time.

She looked at him again. "Have you found any leads yet?"

Stefan glanced toward Saul. "We've been out searching, picked up a few sightings," he said. "But not enough to go on."

Saul sauntered up, holding out his hand. "I'm Saul, by the way," he said. "I take it you must be the reporter friend that Stefan hired."

She nodded. "So you were in on the original plan?"

Saul gave a small shrug. To his credit, there was only a trace of flirtation in his tone and posture. Stefan figured it was a default. If he'd been trying, Ava would have been floored by pure testosterone, but even Saul knew better than to mix business and pleasure. "For what it's worth now," he replied blandly. "New focus is to find the kid."

Brow creased, Ava nodded, her attention shifting back to Stefan. "And how are you holding up?"

It was almost a surprise - to hear someone ask about him. So much of Stefan's life had been spent in the pursuit of Michael with such singleminded determination that he hadn't formed enough connections to make him on the receiving end of much resembling concern.

But looking at Ava, her grief was punctuated by honest concern. Heartfelt and genuine. Even if Saul had been laying it on thick, it probably wouldn't have made much difference. Ava only had eyes for him.

That would be overwhelming in the best of circumstances. For the moment, it wasn't even something Stefan knew how to deal with.

But still - the question was so innocently disarming that Stefan almost wanted to answer. Wanted to admit how scared he was, how terrified he felt. The guilt, the remorse, the fear. It was all so real, so palpable. It lodged in his throat, settled in his stomach, hard and painful.

He didn't have to say it, though. In her eyes, she already understood.

She smiled, small and tentative, reaching out and taking his hand, squeezing it gently. "We'll find him," she promised.

Saul clucked his tongue slightly, reminding Stefan that for as lovely and touching as the moment was, it was hardly private and it was hardly productive. "The trick will be, however, finding him," Saul reminded them. "You've both seen the kid. Hard to forget but pretty easy to miss when he wants it that way."

Stefan knew that was true. And he knew a lot of it was thanks to him. But there was a bright side. "Unless you know where to look," he said.

Saul sat back, shrugging his shoulders. "Okay, I'll bite, Smirnoff," he said. "You got some ideas?"

"When it comes to running, everything Michael knows, he learned from me," Stefan pointed out.

"So he's got your instincts," Saul concluded. But then doubt shadowed his expression. "No offense, but he's got some tactical know-how you don't normally exhibit."

Stefan let the insult pass. "If he stops to use it," he allowed. "We just need a step in the right direction. If we can find a trail, then we can weed it out from there."

"I have some contacts in the area," Ava offered. "Some sources that can probably keep their eyes open for a kid fitting Michael's description. It'll expand our search radius."

"It's worked before," Saul said. "Kid like Michael, if you're looking for him, you're probably going to find him if you've got enough people out there."

"But I don't want him tagged," Stefan said. "Michael still doesn't technically exist to the American government. If he gets picked up by anyone official, we might lose him - for good."

And that wasn't an option Stefan was willing to entertain. Ever.

"Not a problem," Ava said. "Trust me, my sources are far from official."

It was a plan, at least. Stefan wasn't above taking help from any place he could get it.

Satisfied, he nodded. "Make it happen," he said.

Ava stood hurriedly, pulling her phone out as she headed to the door.

"Ava," he called after her suddenly.

She stopped, turning back to face him. There was something startling beautiful about her in that moment, something in her innocent resolve, how she wanted to help. Like it was for Saul, this had all the pretenses of a job for her, but what she was offering Stefan was more than professional courtesy. Maybe it was guilt that motivated her, maybe it was because she liked Stefan, or maybe it was just what good people did in bad situations.

Stefan would hardly know. Growing up, loyalty could be bought at the right price. A good man made for an easy mark, and friends only lasted as long as a stack of money or a supply of bullets.

Stefan's throat was tight. As hard as this stuff was with Michael - these emotional vulnerabilities - it was so much harder with others.

Still, he owed Ava this much. She hadn't known the mess she was getting into when he first contacted her, and any sane person would have ducked out by now.

"Thanks," he said, and his voice sounded funny and strangled, but he hoped she could still see how much he meant it.

A smiled widened on her face, bittersweet and sorry. "It's the least I can do," she said. "You have my number and I'll be in touch the second I hear anything."

Stefan nodded, watching as she left. When the door closed behind her, Saul sighed.

Gathering himself, Stefan reminded himself that there was still work to be done. Getting in touch with his emotions, letting people see the real him - that was all well and good but it was still a secondary concern.

He looked at Saul again, who gave him a rueful smile. "I don't suppose our little do-good reporter's efforts are going to mean I get the night off, does it?"

It was sarcastic, but it lacked the heart of a real smart ass remark. Saul was tired - they were all tired - but that wasn't going to stop them.

"Ava's going to get some extra eyes in place, but we can still do it the old-fashioned way. This is our best chance to play catch up with him. Superhuman or not, he's still going to need to slow down, even if he doesn't let himself rest. We might be able to make up ground in our search grid."

Saul grimaced. "I should have packed my loafers."

"You should have packed your freakin' tennis shoes," Stefan sniped.

"You assume I own a pair."

Stefan fixed him with a no nonsense look. "With what I'm paying you, you can invest in a pair. Soon. Because I want to double our search radius, picking up where we left off before. We'll keep going the same direction and be more specific where we ask. He's going to need to stop to eat, and we're going to have to bank on the kid sticking to what he knows."

"Hit the candy shops then?"

Stefan barely acknowledged the joke. "He's going to stay in public places, avoid settling for a little while. He's not well funded, so he's not going to be able to put down much of a concrete trail, not even if he wanted to," Stefan said, walking through the process in his head. He could still remember their first flight, vivid as though it were yesterday. Michael had questioned him often, but when Stefan got him through from one point to the next, it was clear the kid trusted his methods, even if he did douse them with criticism whenever he got the chance.

"How do we know he's not going to hitch a ride out of town?"

It was a possibility, though not one Stefan particularly wanted to entertain. Traveling by car was by far the most efficient way to run, but while Michael had been complicit in illicit activities before, he wasn't inclined to them.

Stefan shook his head. "I don't think he'd steal a car - at least not until he gets a little more desperate."

"There's still public transport," Saul pointed out.

"If you run across a bus station or train terminal, ask around, but I don't think he'd want to close himself into anything like that." Michael knew a lot, but so much of it was still in theory. In theory, Michael could be a freakin' superhero. In reality, he was just a teenaged kid who was hurting and scared.

"Should I even ask when we're going to sleep?"

Stefan scoffed, getting to his feet. He shook his head, checking his watch. "Not if you're looking forward to some rest anytime soon."

Saul groaned, but got to his feet. "I've got to get out of the missing kid business," he muttered. "Nothing but trouble."

At that, Stefan almost laughed, but it was a grim humor twisting in his stomach. "Amen to that," he muttered. "Remember to check in. Every hour on the hour."

With a nod, Saul rolled his shoulders. "See you in the morning then, Smirnoff. Hopefully with the kid in tow."

"Yeah," Stefan said with a small smile. Even with all the bad things that had happened in his life, sometimes he still had to think that maybe luck was on his side after all. He had few other ways to attribute the fact that even if he'd lost Lukas, he'd find Michael. If that wasn't luck - fortune, blessing, or whatever - he didn't know what was. "That's the plan."

Unlikely, yes. But Stefan had always been one for unlikely plans. Delusions, optimism; tomato, tomahto. Michael was out there, alone in the city, and Stefan wouldn't rest until he came home.

That was his promise. That was his vow. That was just all there was.

-o-

Running. Michael was running.

He always found the term vaguely ironic. The type of running Stefan had taught him often had very little to do with moving his legs quickly. No, running according to Stefan was stealing cars, paying in cash, and keeping hidden in plain sight.

Not that Michael could really critique it too much. It had kept him mostly safe, a few mishaps notwithstanding. Running was easier when the person doing the chasing was a psychotic chimera doctor hellbent on creating enhanced versions of himself.

Fortunately, Jericho was dead. And though Stefan was good at running, he was not perfect at it. Therefore, Michael could assume that he wasn't perfect at chasing either, which could only work in Michael's favor, should Stefan decide to come after him.

Michael's stomach churned uneasily.

Stefan had no reason to come after him. Michael was a killer. A genetically engineered assassin. Any belief to the contrary was flawed.

Of course, Stefan might come after him to end him, put a stop to the threat Michael surely had to be to society at large. Stefan's moral grounding was strong, even if his will to act was not always so strongly motivated.

Still, Michael had to wonder if his desire to run was any less of an illusion that the so-called brotherhood he shared with Stefan. A happy dream. A wayward distraction. The things Jericho had kept from them all. Maybe for the best.

Head down, Michael shoved his hands into his jeans pockets. Not for the best. Nothing Jericho had done was in Michael's best interest. Stefan had been different, and Michael had ruined it. It was Michael who was flawed.

He wasn't running from Stefan. No, he was running from himself. He needed to make a new life, a new identity. Someone without contacts, without connections. He could live like the Institute trained him to, alone and anonymous. He didn't have to kill to practice the art of blending in so much that he could just disappear.

With that thought, Michael changed his course. Going straight too long would provide too simple of a trail. If he was going to find someplace new to go, he needed to follow the flow of traffic. Find a crowd, let it take him where it would. Where he ended up would be his next destination.

Not a home. Michael had no home. Michael had no family.

He swallowed bitterly, willing himself to believe it. Accept it. This was the choice he'd made when he'd used his powers on Stefan. It was better this way.

The street ahead was busier than the last, merchants along the sidewalks and open air cafes bustling with life. Michael's stomach panged with hunger, but he needed to conserve his money for now. Until he had a way to replenish his funds, some creative shopping would likely be in order, but not for a while yet. He was still too local to relax his guard.

With a quick glance, Michael discerned the area. The masses were vaguely familiar, but there was no face he recognized by name. Falling into step behind a pair of teenage girls a few years younger than him, he followed them, tracking them even as they entered the market.

Michael had always liked the market, often finding reasons to drag Stefan there. Michael liked all the people - the noises, the sights, the smells. It was alive, the epitome of freedom and individuality. Everyone was doing their own thing yet still joined by a common place, a common purpose.

It had seemed good to Michael, very human. Sometimes Michael had liked reminders of what that felt like.

Today, his stealth reminded him just how alien he was among these people. A single thought and he could kill any one of them. The old merchant selling watches - one blocked artery, and it'd be a catastrophic failure. The young couple at the nearby booth, a nicked vessel in the lungs and a long, slow bleed.

Even the teenage girls in front of them. Snipping their brain stems before they even had a chance to blink, three giggles cutting off simultaneously, falling in tandem.

The coldness of the thoughts unnerved him, and suddenly Michael wished he were anywhere else. His power was too real, and for the first time since he'd been broken out, he was starting to wonder if there was a reason Jericho had kept them so tightly secured. Maybe they were dangerous. Maybe Michael was better off on a leash.

No, better off dead.

The guilt was hard to handle, and Michael's regrets were not eased by those thoughts. It was a feeling of betrayal, too. To think of how much he had invested in Stefan's claim that he was his brother, and when it hadn't been true, Michael didn't know if anything had been true. If he wasn't a brother, was he even human? Was he anything more than the killing machine he was created to be?

Tears stung at his eyes, and Michael wiped at them viciously. This was not the time or place. Such weaknesses compromised him. He had to maintain composure, find somewhere to go, some way to get back on his feet until he could determine what the appropriate course of action he should take.

Suddenly, he wished it was a test. One of Jericho's scenarios. That it'd all be over and he'd get to go back to his room, put to bed like a good little boy.

But he didn't want that. He wanted Stefan. He wanted Stefan and the horrible purple coat. He wanted Stefan to call him Misha, to say they were still brothers.

Maybe, Michael thought. Maybe it was possible. Stefan had broken Michael out under the assumption he was Lukas, but he'd kept him around for an entire year knowing the truth. Maybe there was still room for him there, even after what he'd done.

But just as he was entertaining the idea of turning around, his legs buckled, his vision went dark, and he thought absolutely nothing at all.

-o-

It was a long night.

Stefan had had his share of long nights. The time after Lukas had died to start with, endless and formless nights, where he woke and slept in even, meaningless intervals. Nights had been equally cruel when he started working for Konstantin, the continual question of how much sacrifice was acceptable, how much he could give up of himself in the pursuit of his brother and still be the brother Lukas might remember. Even the first nights after finding Michael, of sleeping without closing his eyes, almost afraid to blink in case the beautiful illusion was shattered.

This one was longer.

It was not without its progress, which was the only good news he could muster. Picking up where he left off, Stefan had quickly found a few more witnesses, and he began to get a stronger sense of what direction his brother had gone. There was still no clear destination as far as Stefan could tell, and the meandering course smacked either of desperation or genius.

If Stefan had to guess, he would say it was probably a little of both.

Either way, he had to hope he was closing in.

That was the thought that kept him going, even as the night waned into morning. The party crowds surged, then dwindled, tapering off as the bars closed and the drunken patrons began their meandering treks home.

That made it hard to find someone who had seen anything. The crowds were too raucous to pay attention to wayward kids, even ones like Michael, and the few who may have seen something were too drunk to offer much in the way of intelligible advice. He hit up a few bartenders, but none of them claimed to have seen anything, which was probably true and not true. His own time behind a bar had shown Stefan that while he saw a lot, he actually took in very little.

Stefan sighed as he turned the corner. It had been nearly four blocks since he'd even gotten the slightest clue that Michael might have come this way - and that had been from a waitress on her way home, who reported possibly seeing Michael in the early afternoon.

That was hours ago.

The next street over was barren. There was a homeless man crashed in a doorway and a single bar owner locking up, shutting out his lights. Even the streetlights seemed to be flickering their goodnights.

Stefan refused to take the hint.

Determined, he walked down the street, intercepting the bar owner as he pulled on his jacket. "Perdoname," Stefan said, offering his best Spanish accent. "Estoy buscando un joven. Un hombre - tiene 18 anos y pelo blanco con-"

The man shook his head, nose scrunched.

"Por favor," Stefan tried again, stepping in front of the man to stop his path.

"Es tarde," the man told him crossly, before not so politely telling Stefan he needed to sleep some time this century, which was probably exactly what his young, blonde friend was up to.

With that, the man brushed coldly by Stefan.

The man's refusal to answer just meant that Stefan still had to keep looking. Find someone who did know something.

He had to keep going. It was adrenaline now, keeping his eyes open, keeping his legs moving. Almost on autopilot, the default setting to never give up - never.

Moving quickly down the street, Stefan came to the homeless man, sprawled on his stomach, turned toward a building. There was a cardboard box behind his head, and Stefan could smell the stench of alcohol and body odor before he got there.

"Perdoname," Stefan called. "Senor."

There was a muffled grunt, but nothing else.

Drunk or not, Stefan had to know if this man had seen anything. Homeless people were about the streets often. With no jobs and a focus on scrounging, it was possible.

In fact, it was more than possible, and this lug was just going to sleep while Michael was missing.

"Hey!" Stefan yelled this time. He lashed out with his foot, kicking the man in the legs. "Hey!"

The man startled at that, coming to with a gasp and a flail. His brown eyes were wild in the dark, mouth open as a string of Spanish expletives escaped his mouth.

"No, no," Stefan said, trying to calm him down. He needed him awake, not hysterical. "I just need to-"

But the man was on his feet, charging drunkenly at him.

Stefan cursed, barely sidestepping the lunge.

Undeterred, the man rounded widely, coming back at him muttering a string of gibberish that Stefan was pretty sure didn't make sense in any language.

The man missed again, almost going to his knees, but he recovered quickly, and when he was back on his feet, he had a knife in his hands.

It mostly just pissed Stefan off. That this man might have answers, and was trying to kill Stefan instead. For every good person in this world that Stefan managed to find, he also came across these, the ones who didn't care and didn't want to help. The ones who would turn a blind eye to a young man in peril, who would walk away when all Stefan wanted was a little help.

A little help, not a knife in the gut.

Stefan was armed, but breaking a gun out even in the middle of the night was probably not the smartest move ever. Still, he had to do something with this yahoo before one of them did get hurt.

The man was closer this time, and there was something of a sadistic glint in his eye. Some homeless were harmless. Others were too well entrenched in the streets to take any passing surprise idly.

Just Stefan's luck that he'd stumbled across the latter. Maybe he was wrong about his luck after all.

Heart pounding, Stefan dodged another blow, skirting out of the way quickly. Playing bodyguard was something he was good at - keeping idiots at bay had gone with the territory.

Fact was, he could end this quickly. Hell, he could end it permanently. Sometimes violence was the answer, and he'd never exactly refused to use it when push came to shove. But he wasn't violent by nature - he wasn't - and he certainly didn't pick fights with poor schmucks on the street.

Stefan knew he should just walk away. Disarm the guy and go on his merry way, but it was late, he was tired, and Michael was missing. All he wanted was a break - one lousy, damn break - and this idiot was coming at him with a knife.

And that was that.

One second Stefan was grappling with his self-control, and the next he was losing it completely. There was no one here to keep him in check, no younger brother to prove himself to. It was just him, his anger, and some moron who thought he was the enemy.

Well, if he wanted a fight, Stefan would give him a fight.

The man was rallying and Stefan kicked at him, catching him in the gut. The man gave an oof, doubling over and Stefan charge in, slamming him in the face with his face.

The force of the blow spun him and he went reeling. It was probably enough to incapacitate him, but the son of a bitch was still twitching, fingers still curved around the hilt of the knife.

And what the hell - if he was going to finish it, he was going to finish.

He charged, catching the man in the chest and flipping him to his back. With the man exposed, Stefan snarled as he landed kicks to his torso.

Then, Stefan was on his bottom. He hadn't seen it coming - the simplest defensive tactic in the book. The moron had had the presence of mind to sweep his legs out from under him.

Stefan was barely winded, but shocked enough to give the man a chance to pull to his knees, catching Stefan across the chin with a punch. It smarted and his vision went black around the edges, but it was just the incentive Stefan needed to take his anger and funnel it into rage.

Lashing out, Stefan preempted the next charge with a kick to the gut. Dazed, the man wavered and Stefan got to his feet, directed the man's head into direct contact with his knee.

The man made a strangled gasp, flailing backwards.

On his feet, Stefan's eyes narrowed. The man was bleeding, face bruised, and Stefan could finish it now. He would, but he'd let the son of a bitch work for it.

The man staggered to his feet, from his injuries or the alcohol, Stefan didn't know anymore. He lashed out and Stefan moved out the way, letting the man dip past him gracelessly. Stefan let him parry again, still looking for the best opening.

Then, he saw it. The next charge had real force behind it, and it was all Stefan needed. As the man came at him, Stefan danced around behind, using the man's own momentum to push him headlong into the doorway where he'd been sleeping.

Crude, but effective.

The man toppled quickly, falling silent to the street, face down and sprawled.

Standing there, looking at him, Stefan could barely tell a difference from when he first found him.

He was still standing. His jaw hurt a little and his backside would be sore in the morning, but he was no worse for wear. It was all good to go.

With a solidifying breath, Stefan took the man's knife, pocketing it, just in case. Drunk idiots on the street was one thing - when life was tough, life was tough - but he wasn't about to let this moron go around drinking himself into oblivion while carrying a knife.

Then, the reality of his situation hit him, harder than a fist, more like a stack of bricks, right in the gut.

What was he doing? It was almost 3 AM and he was picking fights in vacant streets. He was supposed to be looking for his brother, not beating up homeless men. Drunk and armed was a problem - yes - but the man had been sleeping when Stefan tried to talk to him. Sleeping, like normal people. But it was Stefan who was shaking down strangers in the street. And worse, he was acting like a thug, blindly forging ahead despite the mounting evidence that he was on a cold trail.

That there was no more trail.

That Michael was gone and Stefan didn't know where he was.

That Stefan had lost his brother.

Literally, maybe figuratively, and no matter how many people he asked, no matter how long he stayed awake, he was still screwed.

Just like that, Stefan's adrenaline went crashing, and the emotions hidden by the wave of energy swept over him with a new intensity. He could still see the look on Michael's face, the look of confusion and betrayal. Even if he found Michael, that wouldn't change that moment, wouldn't change how badly hurt Michael had been by Stefan's deception.

Suddenly exhausted, Stefan sank to the curb, dropping his head to his knees.

This was what it had felt like, all those years ago. The sense of loss when Lukas had died, so strong that he almost didn't know what to do with it. It threatened to overtake him, to pull him under into despair and it terrified him.

As a teenager, he'd buried the grief with denial. He'd let it warp him until the ends justified almost any means and Stefan nearly lost himself while trying to find his brother.

As an adult, he could not afford such a luxury. Because Michael wasn't Lukas. And Michael wasn't dead. If Stefan gave up himself in this search, if he became the kind of person he loathed, then he would be no good to Michael when he found him. Finding Michael was only half the struggle; rebuilding what his lies had undone was the hard part.

The part Stefan vowed he would do, with every ounce of strength he had.

But that meant he needed to start thinking, not just acting. The blind searching wasn't getting him anywhere. Maybe in the morning, leads would be easier to find. More sightings would be possible and likely. It would also give Ava's contacts a chance to start their looking, too.

Sighing, Stefan lifted his head, looking down the empty street once again. Stefan was no stranger to failure, but giving up was not something he was accustomed to. Turning in before the game was done went against every impulse he had. The thought of Michael out there - alone - slipping further and further away actually made him physically ache.

Numbly, Stefan pulled out his phone, dialing Saul's number. The other man answered promptly, sounding ragged. "Anything yet?"

Stefan swallowed hard. "We're calling it a night," he said. "Meet me back at the apartment."

There was a pause. "Smirnoff, are you okay?"

"We need to regroup," Stefan answered, tired, regretful, but honest.

"We can keep going," Saul offered, the mustered enthusiasm in his voice admirable.

But the day was over - long over - and Stefan had to admit that. He was too tired, too emotional - from Michael learning the truth, to the outburst of Michael's powers -

Stefan was beat. Literally, figuratively, in every way possible. It was time to admit that he could lose this battle and still win the war, but that didn't make it any easier to swallow. "In the morning," Stefan said, even when the words tasted bitter in his mouth.

"Seriously, Korsak-" Saul's voice was genuine, the use of Stefan's real name slipping in there easily, almost naturally.

Stefan closed his eyes and forced himself to say it: "This is your only chance to sleep and eat," he said. "So I'd take it when you have the chance."

That much was true, because the second Stefan had a lead, the moment there was anything promising, Stefan wouldn't stop to sleep or to eat or even to regret.

NEXT