Author's Note

A giftfic for Ebony Lee, 'cause I've owed her a Mikhail ficlet for some time. Enjoy, and if you don't, please let me know why. Also, I've edited some things so that it is not so horrible to look at.

"You're behind in your payments, Mr. Lutefisk."

Mikhail's stance mirrored that of his employer—ramrod straight, arms behind back, eyes set in a firm glower. Nils' eyes were on Mikhail as he slowly gestured with his hands. The boy looked collected at first glance, but Mikhail knew better.

"Yeah, well…It's hard to get arrowheads these days. Dowsing rods are expensive, you know…"

Maloof shifted beside Mikhail, which meant it was time to square his shoulders. For a greater intimidation, of course.

"Two weeks is more than enough time to get a dowsing rod, which, I might add, is not necessary for obtaining ten arrowheads. Perhaps if you spent less time chasing skirts, you wouldn't be in this mess."

Mikhail bit back a snort, both at Nils' lapse in nerve in favor of indignity, and at Maloof's comment, which the whole camp and their mothers knew to be true. The girls in America paid a great deal of attention to making their looks noticeable; he'd give them that. But pretty faces and pretty hair meant nothing if there was no muscle to back it up. Mikhail had to wonder how America's population multiplied at the rate it did when there were so many skinny-limbed females.

"It's a calling, all right? You know what I mean, don't you?"

Mikhail didn't. He wasn't sure Maloof did, either, but his boss grew deathly calm beside him. Time to bring out the big guns—or more appropriately, the stick-thin ones beneath his T-shirt.

"Perhaps it is. I wouldn't doubt how well you cater to it, with that pretty face of yours."

Nils liked to think he was the Playboy of Whispering Rock, but as far as Mikhail saw, the boy was every centimeter the child's doll he resembled; he was as light as one in Mikhail's telekinetic fist, invisible from years of developing the skill.

Maloof waited until Nils was silent in his protests before adding, "It would be a shame if anything happened to it. Wouldn't you say, Nils?"

Said boy's eyes grew to the size of dinner plates above his pleasantly rounded, rosy cheeks. Mikhail had to wonder what Nils would do if something happened to make them misshapen, or his nose crooked, or that took one of his blue eyes. It would make chasing after horrendously weak females considerably tougher…

Maloof's gentle nudge of soft green energy instructed him not to make any of that a reality. Obediently, Mikhail set the shaken boy down to the ground.

"Consider this a warning. Next time my associate won't be so lenient." Employer and employee meant to leave, but before they did, Maloof added, "You have two days."

Money had drawn Mikhail's family to the United States. Before he went to Whispering Rock, money seemed to be what kept them there.

It was a necessary evil, his mother often chided him in that brisk but well-meaning way of hers. Mikhail and his brothers and sisters could now finally have the life they deserved, his father would add between drunken gestures with his empty vodka bottle. The reactions and feelings among his siblings had varied, but one by one, they grew to accept it.

Not Mikhail. He hated the prospect of coming to America from the very beginning. Having to learn a complicated new language and put it to use was just the beginning of it. Chaos increased tenfold as he and his family struggled to get everything packed and shipped; goodbyes had to be made to the people and places he knew for his whole eleven years of life; several days passed just making the journey to the country. Mikhail had never quite gotten used to the stares of his new peers, ranging from curious to condescending to cruel.

The fact that he could pick up on these thoughts as though they were his own made things even more complicated.

He would have been happy going through life keeping his gift to himself and his family, but unfortunately, the American government didn't see it that way. Mikhail was forced to sit through long periods of tall adults speaking to his mother in that boring way adults do, and of having his brain poked and prodded like a dead bear found by curious children.

Suddenly, the one thing that had never mattered much to him mattered most to everyone around him. True, they were other people who could read minds and lift things without using their hands like himself, but they were people who were interested in using them for petty reasons, or afraid of them.

Mikhail felt like he'd cheated. He decided to take care of this the way his brothers handled it when they came of age—find a bear to wrestle. It was an ancient tradition in their family—one that each male member looked to more than the last. Winning such a match warranted bragging rights, familial pride, and (as he understood it) an inner sense of accomplishment, of finding where one belonged in life, or at least of getting closer to it. In an unfamiliar place, surrounded by many a critical eye, and feeling as though he should be worthless, an inner sense of accomplishment was what Mikhail needed most.

Unfortunately, on top of all their other faults, the U.S. seemed to be relatively short on wild bears. Mikhail remembered that bears preferred tall trees and caves, not perfectly symmetrical fences, sidewalks and houses.

When the offer to go to Whispering Rock came up by one of his frequent brain-pokers, he immediately took it. Not because he wanted to 'be a hero' when he was a 'loner', but because of the tall trees in the brochure's pictures.

An escape from stifling civilization to wilderness. That was the reason he went to Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp. But only for his first year.

"You! New boy! Seen bear lurking in woods?"

The boy in the helmet blinked at him with large green eyes. It took him a moment to answer, "Nope."

Mikhail tried again. Perhaps the boy had not understood him? It seemed that many other people here didn't.

"Positive? Giant, hairless bear?" He hadn't meant to sound so hopeful, but he'd already been searching for over an hour, and it felt like he'd gone through all his options, and gone through them again.

The boy slowly shook his head. "Uhh, nope."

Mikhail lowered his head. "In Russia, bears much smaller. Also more hair. Less lurking. Always eager to wrestle." He looked back at the massive tree over his shoulder. "This one, hide and run." He could have sworn he'd seen the hulking, glistening mass of…something…dart behind the tree trunk. Almost as though it were afraid of being seen.

"I'll let you know if I see anything," Razputin finally said. Well, at least Mikhail had that.

"Cannot lurk forever, Bear," he warned; "Mikhail will find you."

Tormenting Benny had gotten old after about fifteen minutes. Maloof had told Mikhail to put the traumatized boy down, and the two of them had proceeded to psychic fish for the rest of their time there.

Maloof left to go post a notice of their uprising business on the bulletin board. Mikhail had every intention of following, but stopped when something caught the corner of his eye. Against his better judgment, he went to get a closer look at it. Just for a second, he told himself.

It was a bear claw. A black bear claw, poking from beneath the bush. And it was only a yard away.

Mikhail grinned. "Finished lurking, eh, Bear? Cannot wrestle now, but will do so later." Yet he found himself taking an eager, tentative step towards it, and kneeling with his arms outstretched.

The next thing he knew, something was sticking to his head, and pulling him up until he was far off the ground. He found himself looking into a pair of bulbous mismatched eyes, surrounded by sticky glittering scales, and completed with a gaping mouth full of sharp teeth. The thing roared at him, and he winced—its breath smelled like pond scum and rotten meat.

Before it swallowed him, one thought made itself known in his head: New Boy was right—bear is fish!

That was a year ago. Mikhail barely remembered the Incident, as it was affectionately referred to; whenever he tried, all he could grasp were dim lights, squeaky whimpers, cracked cackling, and the ever-present scent of pepper. Other children hadn't been seen or heard from again because their parents deemed the summer camp unsafe. Mikhail understood the reasoning behind it, but he held exactly the opposite view.

If America had the means to make its fish bigger and more wrestle-worthy than its bears, then it couldn't be an entirely horrible nation. Besides, Russia didn't have Maloof.

"All right, that settles that. Now let's see…Fir, Tripe, Lutefisk…Are we missing anyone else?"

Mikhail cracked his knuckles as a reflex. "No, but could be others wanting service. Might I suggest Boole? Or Foote, maybe?"

Maloof shook his head. "No…Foote won't respond to anything we threaten him with—he's already a threat to himself. And Boole's got that head exploding thing."

"Ah, yes," muttered Mikhail. He generally didn't admit his fears to people, even his employers or best friends, but even he was unnerved by Dogen's vacant, walleyed gaze.

Well, that was why Maloof was the brains of this operation.

"Anyone else?"

Mikhail wracked his brain. Hedgemouse took or left abuse no matter who dealt it, but that sort of thing tended to make bullies bored after a while. Besides, he had Love to protect him if anything ever did happen. Phage seemed mousy enough, but deceptively so; Bobby always made sure to stay away from her, anyway. Barge was the tiniest camper there, but she had Tiny Boss's bully to protect her these days. Which lead to…

"How about Fideleo?"

Maloof stopped short, and gave him an odd look. "Benny?"

Mikhail shrugged. "Why not? No longer has bully for protection; why not Mikhail?"

Maloof motioned almost violently to emphasize a protesting point, but stopped midway. A thoughtful look came into his large brown eyes, an expression soon completed by a finger beneath a pout.

"You know, Mikhail…I think you've actually got a point! All right, put him next on the list. And brace yourself; we're going to need to look especially persuasive."

Mikhail cracked his knuckles, and smiled for the first time in weeks. "Will do, Boss."

He didn't care what his brothers said. He'd accomplished plenty.