Basilisk (The Korsak Brothers #2)(7)

Plus, he’d told me, he had a bachelor’s degree in general studies from the University of Miami, which translated to “Do you want fries with that?” Then he’d explained why that was both funny and sad. I got the funny. Sad? I didn’t tell him it was one of the furthest things from sad there was. Stefan was living with a guilt he’d never be rid of thanks to my kidnapping. I wasn’t going to go prodding at it, especially as he didn’t deserve it, not any of it. It turned out that Stefan liked the work, which was good and he deserved good. He said it gave him a helluva lot more sense of satisfaction than beating up people for the Mafiya.

“Helluva.” That was one of the curse words I kept meaning to add to my vocabulary. I could add it to “fat-ass.” To fit in. Stefan liked his job and Stefan painted a helluva lot of gingerbread. Good. That sounded correct. It sounded like something a real person would say. A real boy . . . just like that old children’s cartoon, Pinocchio .

Except I wasn’t a boy. I was a man and I wasn’t real, thanks to the Institute. Not real, not quite yet, but Stefan was and always had been—more real than he should’ve been forced to be. Choosing real-life decisions in a life he wouldn’t have chosen at all if it hadn’t been for me. Being in the Mafiya had been Anatoly’s calling, not Stefan’s. When he ended up wearing cotton candy pink, sunshine yellow, or mint green paint on his jeans these days, I knew he didn’t mind. His masculinity would survive pastels, I’d pointed out helpfully, or it wasn’t much masculinity to begin with. He’d balled up his jeans and thrown them at me, and he’d laughed. I’d made him laugh. Stefan didn’t laugh much. I was proud of every laugh I’d been a part of.

And it was good work, what he did—the handyman job. Good, and except for tall ladders, mostly safe, and, better, he didn’t need a gun to paint the trim on a house. But he carried one anyway—there and everywhere else.

It made sense when we were on the run from the Russian Mafiya and another organization so secretive and grim that James Bond producers would’ve pissed themselves just reading the script—I knew that for a fact because I’d seen men piss themselves in fear in real life, and I liked James Bond movies. In any case, when you had all that chasing you, you wanted reassurance—as much as you could hope for. Oregon weather was good too for layering your shirts, and that in turn was good for covering up a discreet gun tucked into the back of a person’s jeans. As for me. . . .

I didn’t need a gun.

“You forgot your lunch,” I said, before repeating for the third time, “and I’m not a kid.” I’d had the bag in the car and had planned on driving it over to him at noon. Now it was an excuse for a few more minutes to stall and think how to go about this. He was only protecting me, or thought he was. I had to get him to see that he wasn’t. Not anymore, not by holding back vital information. It was time to treat me as an equal, not as a little brother.

He caught the bag I tossed up to him. I made him lunch every day. I’d considered writing his name on the side in marker, but my newfound sense of humor might get my hair ruffled with that one. And raised in the Institute or not, trained for an obedience and passivity that, in my case, never really took, I was not putting up with that at all.

Lunches were only part of it. I tried to take care of Stefan for all he’d done for me. He said I was an idiot and that it wasn’t necessary and something else after that, but I’d tuned him out by then. He was as overprotective of me, physically and emotionally, as he accused me of being of him. When it came to arguments over who didn’t owe anyone anything, I ignored him and did what I wanted—I gave him what he did deserve . . . or the best I could.

He could talk forever, but he wasn’t going to change my mind about that. Besides, it made me happy, and he liked his brother happy, so he huffed and let it go. I’d discovered peanut butter and Marshmallow Fluff sandwiches were the very best things in the world and that was what I made him every day—two of them in a brown paper bag. I didn’t think people carried their lunches in brown bags anymore, but I’d seen it once in an old movie at the Institute and the image had branded itself onto my brain as the ideal family moment—the handing over of the brown-paper-bag lunch before sending Junior on his way. That was the way it was done and that was the way I was going to do it.

Movies were how I learned a good deal about life in the Institute—where there was no peanut butter or marshmallow. Three years in the real world hadn’t changed movies or me as much as I’d thought it would. Stefan said there was nothing wrong with that. I liked movies and real life . . . though it wasn’t always one hundred percent likable. I didn’t blame myself for preferring the fake version once in a while. Stefan wasn’t actually thick. He was smarter than I was in a lot of ways.

He opened up the bag I’d tossed and caught the whiff of peanut butter and Fluff. I know, because I did too. The smell made me hungry. His lips twitched with a particular amusement I hadn’t quite figured out yet before he rolled the top back shut to wait for lunchtime. “Thanks, kiddo.”

“For the fourth time, I’m not a kid. I’m an adult.” I folded my arms and gave him a grim frown. “Nineteen. Almost twenty. A goddamn adult.”

“ ‘Goddamn,’ huh? We’re having a serious moment here. And legally maybe you are an adult, but you’re kind of scrawny.” He grinned. He always grinned or smiled or bumped my shoulder. He kidded about calling me a puppy, but you’d have thought he was the most harmless, puppylike grown man with matching puppy brown eyes if that was all you saw—him with me. When you saw him with other people, he was different—harder, cynical, not to be messed with. When you saw him with people who wanted to hurt us, he was lethal. Period. And his smiles then were nothing near puppyish. They were the smile of a wolf before its jaws closed on its prey, and those brown eyes went pure rapacious amber.

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