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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Chimera fic: Into the Bolivian Sunset 11/15

July 28th, 2011 (06:59 pm)

 A/N:  For various reasons, most italics have not come through but since like one person is reading this fic, I'm not too concerned :)  Previous parts here.


CHAPTER ELEVEN

There was solace in knowing it would be over soon. Meager though it was, Michael had to cling to that. This existence was fleeting. He healed quickly, but he was not indestructible. Whatever came beyond that, Michael could not be sure.

He was marginally well versed in the various religious beliefs about the afterlife. The concept of reincarnation. The age old belief of Heaven and Hell. Merging one’s essence with the earth, seeing one’s family once again.

Michael had studied a little bit of all of them, but was not decided on which he believed to be most plausible. There were scientific considerations, of course, but also certain philosophical reasonings to weigh.

Yet, poised so close to the end of his existence, he was forced to suddenly grapple with not only his demise, but his origins. What made a life real? What endowed the soul? Jericho could splice genes in a petri dish, but could he procure a soul in the process? Was Michael even a viable candidate for any afterlife? Or was there just nothing beyond this?

And how wrong was it that either way, it was still something he craved.

The ache in his limbs was pervasive now, the disuse and immobility taking its toll. Michael supposed that was a minor concern, but it bothered him nonetheless.

Just like Bellucci’s nonchalant preparations bothered him. He should have been used to it. Watching the doctor work had been one of his only pastimes during his stay in this room. The doctor was easy in his approach, methodical in his execution.

But this procedure--it was more intensive than the rest. No scalpels, no electrodes. But the doctor mixed his ingredients carefully, precise measurements made to a small tuned hummed under his breath.

It was not a song Michael recognized, but it would be the last one he ever heard. Too cheery for one’s last moments, but Michael had no say in such things.

The song cut off as the doctor pursed his lips, picking up a syringe and injecting it into his concoction. With care, he extracted some, the exact amount Michael could not be sure.

Lifting the syringe again, the doctor held it up to the light, tapping it gently with a satisfied noise in the back of his throat.

Then he smiled at Michael. “Just about ready here,” he said. “You have been quite patient, though. You are still welcome to express your feelings. I am curious, up until the very end.”

Curious. A wayward emotion Michael had once harbored. He’d been curious the day Stefan broke him out, and every day since, right up until the day he got home early and found Stefan alone with Ava in the apartment.

He’d believed curiosity was a saving grace. What made life worth living. It had worked for Curious George and the Man in the Yellow Hat, so why not? Why not?

Because not every answer was worth knowing. Not every question is worth asking.

If he could go back, he would. Stay out with his friends longer. Let Stefan explain before he reacted. Stayed in his room instead of going with Stefan that first night.

Choices. Curiosity. Selfhood.

Things Michael didn’t have anymore. Things maybe he never had.

“It is curious,” Dr. Bellucci said, slowly, the syringe still in his hand as he regarded Michael uncertainly. “That in everything I have done to you, you have made no efforts to defend yourself.”

Michael blinked, mouth too dry to even try to speak. It was a surreal revelation, the recollection that it was within his power to inflict harm. It had always been a last resort to him, ever since he first killed the man during one of Jericho’s tests. The surge of power always made him feel out of control, like his very DNA was throbbing against his cell walls, threatening to break loose. And to see the evidence of that power, to see human life crumble and fall apart, helpless and impotent--it was like ash in his mouth, twisting his gut and haunting his dreams.

The power to kill was a curse, not a tool. He could still see the man’s blue eyes the second before the light dimmed in them forever.

Never again, he’d promised. He’d used his powers to right wrongs, but not to kill. Not until Stefan...

Dr. Bellucci was wrong. Maybe not to punish Michael, but to continue the work. Michael should be destroyed, not studied. All traces of the chimera technology that Jericho developed had no place in a civilized world--in any world.

But killing Dr. Bellucci...it had simply never occurred to him. In the torture, he had longed for his own death, for any kind of release, but the thought of killing to achieve it had never been on on his mind.

“It is that weakness I have been working to pinpoint,” Dr. Bellucci continued. “My hope is that with additional gene therapy, I can potentially weed out your moral inhibitions and allow you to access your powers more freely. You are inhibiting yourself, Michael. Keeping yourself from the greatness Jericho intended for you.”

Greatness for Jericho, not for Michael. Victory in the name of science and the almighty dollar, not Michael’s well being.

Dr. Bellucci’s smile was banal as he held up the syringe again. “I’m afraid the testing process will be quite unorthodox,” he said, that same note of false apology in his voice. “I have never attempted genetic manipulation on a live patient before, so I can’t tell you what it will be like.”

The syringe was coming closer to him and Michael felt himself flinch. The urge to speak for mercy was still there, but Michael quashed it as the futile gesture that it would be. He had to accept his fate. He could not prevent it, and it was not his fault. No curiosity. No control. No soul.

He had to let go, let go, let go....

Or...

The thought flashed in his mind with a sudden clarity. One thought and it could end. Sever the brain stem. Stop the heart. Clot the blood.

Michael could see it. He could see the body parts, he could see them throbbing, so clear he could almost touch them. Touch and destroy. Just like he was trained to do.

It would be so easy.

He closed his eyes.

He couldn’t do it.

He wouldn’t do it.

The prick of the syringe was on his neck, pinching just for a moment before it was over. When Bellucci pulled it away, Michael squeezed his eyes shut and locking his jaw, holding back a sob. Whatever his fate would be, he would not kill to find it. Not while the choice was still his to make.

Then, a voice startled him from his efforts: “Stop.”

The order was plain and deadly, yielding argument. But still, it was familiar, warm--

“Just stop, right now,” the voice continued.

The hint of desperation in the tone was a dead giveaway. A voice Michael would never forget, no matter how much he wanted to.

Stefan.

Maybe this was another side effect, another round of hallucinations brought about by Dr. Belluccin’s latest experiment. Maybe this was how it ended, a slow insanity, a parade of failures in his mind, taunting him with what he’d had and what he’d thrown away.

“Step away from him or I’ll kill you now,” Stefan demanded now, and Michael could almost see him, the look on his face. Determined. Focused. The look on his face the night he’d first broken Michael free.

Maybe that was what this was. Not a hallucination: a vivid memory. A flashback of what might have been.

But that didn’t explain why Dr. Bellucci obeyed.

In slow movement, the doctor turned, hands still in front of him, syringe still lightly in his grasp. Something of a smile passed over his face. “I had wondered if you would find us before we had a chance to finish our little experiment here.”

“The experiment is over,” Stefan said.

Squinting, Michael looked past the doctor toward the door and he realized why Bellucci was participating in his memory. Because it wasn’t a memory.

In the memory, Stefan had a ski cap on. And the look of determination always faded into a hopeful surprise, like a child on Christmas morning who realized he’d gotten everything he’d ever wanted.

But Stefan still had his gun up, pointed, body so rigid it was practically shaking.

Which meant--

It couldn’t--

Could it?

The idea that Stefan had come for him, the notion that Stefan had risked everything to save Michael again, that Stefan still wanted him back despite what he’d done--

It was unfathomable. It was impossible, it was--

The thought was cut off but a sudden burst of blinding pain, starting in his head and exploding through every synapse of his body. His vision went white, his nerves tingling and his voice caught painfully in his throat as he tried to manage the intensity of the pain.

“It’s too late,” Dr. Bellucci’s voice was still clear, the amusement not hidden. “I’m afraid our specimen is already undergoing the last measures.”

“I don’t care,” Stefan seethed. “Step away.”

“He’s my project, I’m afraid,” Bellucci said. “Always has been. Jericho was so attached to his little John, but Michael was always my gamble. I’m here to figure out what went wrong with him.”

“There’s nothing wrong with him,” snapped Stefan.

“I beg to differ,” Dr. Bellucci said. “I know my own work better than you.”

“He’s more my brother than he’ll ever be yours.”

The words were strong, resounding and clear. The earnestness of them called to Michael even in his pain, pulling him back from the encompassing white until he was looking at Stefan again.

Stefan still stood, his gun out and poised. Ready to fire. Ready to do anything to get Michael free.

He meant was he said. Delusion or lie or truth, Stefan meant what he said.

The paradox hurt his head, made him want to cry. In all, he didn’t know what to do, not that there was anything he was capable of at the moment.

Dr. Bellucci cocked his head, almost in pity. “DNA does not lie, my boy. I’m afraid it’s not a choice.”

It wasn’t a choice. Michael was who he was created to be. Simple. No emotions could change that. Lies could only guise it. DNA would tell, and Michael proved himself a killer when it counted.

Stefan’s face contorted, though. “Screw DNA,” he said sharply. “It’s my choice until the day I die.”

They were words Michael had wanted to hear, the ones that had echoed in his mind, the taunting of a lost dream he had woken from. To be loved, to belong, to be.

Even if it was real, it was a tug of war he had no part of. Still an object to be claimed. Worth only what people would pay for him. Strapped to a table, Michael still wished he could die. Deny Dr. Bellucci the scientific curiosity he sought to satisfy. Spare Stefan from making another mistake with him.

Save the world from genetic engineering gone wrong.

He closed his eyes. The pain in his body was building, burning down into his very cells. He could almost see it in his mind’s eye, the double helix spinning out of control. It was ripping him apart from the inside out, his very physical makeup being his greatest downfall.

His greatest downfall, his only salvation. He could see it now, the answer that had eluded him. The escape he wanted was there, in the power of his own mind. Because he could see it now, the synapses of his brain, the ribbed pulsing of his heart. He could kill anything with a mere thought, including himself.

Stop the heart. Destroy the brain. He could think it, and it would happen. Michael’s curse was also his salvation.

“You cannot stop progress, son,” Dr. Bellucci was saying somewhere, but his voice was distant.

Michael zeroed in on his blood cells, watching as they flowed through his lungs, and into his heart. He watched as they passed through his veins, making their way to his brain.

“The hell I can’t,” Stefan replied.

But Michael was almost there now, in his brain, the cerebral cortex, the frontal lobe. Burst a vessel, make it end, make it--

His concentration was shattered by the sound of a gunshot ripping through the room.

Startled, Michael blinked blindly, gasping for air as he came back to awareness.

Dr. Bellucci was on the floor, white lab coat stained with thick and mottled red. His eyes were open, mouth gaping, medical tools splayed at his sides.

Dead.

Then Stefan. His face worriedly above him. “Misha?” he asked.

The nickname sounded distant, but still familiar.

Stefan was reaching for him, hands going to his face. “Misha.”

Michael flinched and Stefan paused, but only for a moment before his hand made contact, warm and callused on the plains of his cheek.

Terror spread over him. He was a killer, he could kill Stefan without even trying, without even meaning to--

But Stefan didn’t die. Stefan didn’t even jump back in pain. Instead, the hand smoothed his hair back, lacing fingers through the dirty strands.

The relief was so strong that Michael choked on it, shaking his head.

“Hey,” Stefan said, shushing him, his hand not leaving Michael’s head. “Just take it easy, okay. He’s dead now. He’s gone. You’re safe.”

Words he’d longed to hear, spoken with a love Michael had almost forgotten.

But he didn’t understand, it didn’t make sense.

The questions were surging in his mind, one after another, too fast to even process them.

Carefully, Stefan’s hands went to the bindings, undoing them one after another in fast, easy movements. Each one slipped off but Michael didn’t know how to move his limbs anymore. Didn’t know how to do anything.

Stefan didn’t seem to mind. He worked with a steady mantra of reassurances, his hands steady as he lifted Michael up, propping his heavy torso against Stefan’s shoulder, one arm wrapped securely around his shoulders. “I’ve got you,” Stefan murmured into his hair. “I’ve got you.”

It was a dream, a beautiful dream come true. The love Michael had forfeited, the family he had rejected. Lies or not, it was still there, and Michael was too weak to refuse it now, even though he should.

It made him want to cry, but the tears wouldn’t come. Nothing came except three words of total disbelief: “You came back.”

Stefan paused in his ministrations, looking at Michael critically. “Of course I came back,” he said.

Michael swallowed dryly. “But...I’m not...your...brother.”

Stefan’s face twisted in pain for a moment, but he shook his head. “We can talk about it later,” he said. He maneuvered Michael to the edge of the gurney. “Right now we’ve got to get you out of here. Do you think you can walk?”

They’d talk about it later. Michael wasn’t sure what that meant and could hardly understand how it was possible. How Stefan would come back for a mutant who had tried to kill him when they weren’t even family.

Stefan wasn’t asking what had happened. He didn’t demand to know why Michael had used his powers. He wasn’t afraid to touch Michael.

He just wanted to know if he could walk.

Stefan’s illogical traits had been both a source of comfort and confusion for the entire year Michael had known him, and for all that Michael had gone through in the last few days, that sense of familiarity was as close to home as Michael thought he might ever get.

He had not denied Dr. Bellucci. He would not deny Stefan.

Nodding tightly, Michael tried to move his legs. They responded numbly, but the effect was there.

“Good,” Stefan said, easing him to his feet. “Because we’ve got to book it--now.”

The urgency was veiled in patience, but Michael heard it all the same. He focused on his legs and willed the numbness away, taking a tentative step.

Stefan lingered by his side, his hand never leaving Michael. It was a comfort he craved, and he accepted out of his own weaknesses. But it was not one he deserved, not one his heightened genetic makeup warranted.

He wanted to understand, wanted to know what would push someone to pursue the person who had hurt them and let them down--

But there was no logic. This was another failed test. Another reason why Michael was expendable. He couldn’t put the pieces together, he couldn’t cut the ties even when they weren’t his to bind.

Michael could still end it. The thought lurked in the back of his mind even as Stefan led him one foot in front of another toward the door.

“You know,” Stefan said easily, his breathing only somewhat strained. “We really need to stop meeting this way.”

The words almost made Michael laugh, his eyes burning with tears that wouldn’t come. This didn’t make sense. None of it made sense.

But there they were. Michael leaning heavily on Stefan, Stefan staggered but not bowed under the weight. Walking together toward a future Michael could not clearly see.

Maybe later when his physical strength returned, he would have the emotional fortitude to do the right thing.

For now, it was all Michael could do to stay upright.

Stefan opened the door, holding it open as Michael limped through. His body felt funny--disconnected and surreal. The incision sites were partially healed, but sore, and Michael could feel the lack of food and drink creating a fog in his mind.

But it was something more, something building up inside of him, almost so strong that Michael wanted to scream at the intensity.

The changes. The genetic transformation. Michael had almost forgotten in the melee that Dr. Bellucci had had time to start them.

They were taking effect now--strong and powerful--and he could feel them pulsing through every cell of his body.

It wasn’t quite pain, but it was such a powerful feeling that it nearly doubled him, taking him to his knees, breath catching in his throat.

Stefan dropped with him, though, hands bracing Michael as he fell, a curse slipping from his lips.

“Come on,” Stefan cajoled. “We’ve got ourselves a getaway planned and you’ve got dibs on shotgun in the van.”

Michael tried to shake his head, to protest. Stefan didn’t know. How could Stefan know? If Michael was a monster before, he was an aberration now, and there was nothing to be done for it.

He was half in the hallway now, tile floor beneath his bare knees. It was still happening to him, a ripping apart at the seams. Dr. Bellucci had wanted to see what made him tick, and Michael was getting the view up close and personal.

The air was alive around him, and he could practically feel it as entered him, passing through his lungs. Not just the freshness of the corridor, but every particle, filtering through the alveoli, oxygenating blood.

Stefan’s grip tightened, and Michael felt that too. The hairs on his arm standing up with anxiety, the way his heart skipped a beat every time Michael faltered.

Michael could control it, if he wanted to. He could control it all. Not just biological matter, but all matter. Even space and time, it could be molded to his will.

It was almost beyond him, this power. It was almost too much--it threatened to swallow him whole. Michael’s consciousness ebbed, then waned, and he felt light.

But he didn’t fall.

He couldn’t fall.

Not with Stefan’s grip unyielding.

Michael blinked, trying to focus his eyes. The world was beyond the third dimension now, the planes of reality visible to him. It was disorienting and it was all he could do to focus on Stefan’s face at all.

“Misha,” he said, a strained smile on his lips. “You’re starting to scare me.”

Michael’s mouth hung open, but couldn’t make himself talk. But as the darkness pulled him under, he could only think that it was about time that Stefan was scared.

-o-

Stefan had mentally prepared himself for the possibility that Michael might not be in the best condition when they found him. It had seemed like a logical possibility and it was the worst Stefan would allow himself to consider, even though he knew that the Institute had a habit of terminating the children when they weren’t up to par.

Still, taking the time to nab Michael like they had and to hammer out an exchange with the CIA, Stefan had held out hope they wanted alive him and mostly in one piece.

He’d been right about the alive part, but as he held Michael in his arms in the doorway of the lab, it became clear to him that the one piece aspect was a little less certain.

When he’d first broken into the lab, he hadn’t spent much time considering anything than the fact that Michael was strapped to a gurney and, more importantly, he was alive.

Beyond that, there was a son of bitch trying to hurt him, and until he took care of that problem, there was nothing else he could do.

Killing Bellucci may have been overkill. But Stefan didn’t have time to regret it--hell, he couldn’t regret it, even if he wanted to. Bellucci had set them up the first time they met the man, lied through his teeth and brought Jericho to them. And this time, he’d snatched Michael when the kid was at his worst and, from the looks of things, had done nothing but torture him since he got him back.

In the name of science, maybe, but that didn’t make it any less heinous.

Michael was heavy in his arm, and under the bright glare of artificial lights, Stefan could see now just how bad the damage was. He was barely dressed--nothing but a modern day loin cloth--but his skin was still colorfully decorated with scars. Mostly healed, of course, thanks to Michael’s DNA, but they were still visible marks on the skin, telling a tale of torture that Stefan couldn’t even imagine, not even with his mob background. Torture in the mob was all about getting information. Break a few fingers, shoot a few kneecaps, get someone to roll over and spill their guts. Beyond that, they preferred bullets to the brain rather than pain for the sake of pain.

So cuts like that--countless, deliberate slices--it made Stefan wish he could go back inside and plug the bastard again, just on principle alone.

Still, Michael was a chimera and a damned impressive one at that. The scars indicated that Michael had been through something horrible, but they didn’t explain the unconsciousness.

Glancing down the hall, Stefan weighed his options. They were on a tight schedule here, and he needed to make sure that Saul and Ava were okay with their parts. Taking the control center wasn’t a task to scoff at, and trying to make sure there wasn’t a revolt from the kids they were trying to save hardly seemed fair for a girl like Ava.

Eyes on Michael again, Stefan knew the decision was already made. He had hoped Michael could walk out of here on his own two feet, but it didn’t matter. Stefan was getting the kid out of here one way or another, even if he had to carry him himself.

Gently, Stefan lowered Michael to the floor, maneuvering himself around for a better position. Then he reached for Michael’s arms, pulling him back into a sitting position and hoisting him as best he could over his shoulder.

It was awkward work, and Michael’s body was heavy and warm, dangled limp over his shoulders and back. Standing was a whole new trick, and Stefan went slow to compensate for his altered center of gravity.

Once on his feet, he adjusted his grip, one arm secure around Michael’s thigh and the other pulling his gun back out of his pants.

Wetting his lips, Stefan began to move, quickly and cautiously. He was pretty sure they’d down most of the guards and other staff and stowed them neatly in the storage closets, but he couldn’t be too safe in this situation. One wrong move, and it wasn’t just his life at stake, it was Michael’s.

One wrong move.

Or just one wrong turn.

Stefan didn’t even see it coming.

One minute he was running, Michael secure on his back, and the next he was falling, face first on the floor Michael sprawled in front of him.

His vision was slow and his ears were ringing--the impact with the floor had jarred him pretty hard. Spitting blood, he tried to breathe, only to find his nose clogged with a coppery scent.

He wasn’t sure how bad it was, but it wasn’t his primary concern. With effort, he got on all fours, crawling dazedly forward and reaching for Michael.

Stefan had just managed to pull Michael onto his back, where he lay limp but breathing, when he saw her.

The small pre-teen figure from the surveillance video.

The little moppet from his first infiltration of the Institute.

Wendy.

She had clearly aged significantly in the year since he’d seen her last, but there was still something childlike in her appearance. Her face was blossoming, though, the set of her eyes and the rosy color in her cheeks giving her a more mature look.

But the look in her eyes. Appraising and cold. It was the same, only this time touched with a newfound freedom that made Stefan go completely numb.

She didn’t move, barely even twitched. She just stood there, arms straight at her side, head tilted, bicolored eyes staring at Stefan with the detachment he’d only seen in thoroughly bred killers. Only she lacked the rage most of his ex-coworkers in the mob had harbored. For Wendy, the rush of the kill was the thing--the only thing--and she eyed Stefan like some might a piece of steak before cutting in and eating it piece by piece.

His first instinct was to run. Not the bravest choice in the world, but sometimes bravery was nothing more than an early grave. Stefan was willing to die, but he preferred not to--and besides, if he went down, Michael would be on his own and vulnerable. And seeing as Stefan didn’t want to off a little girl, running sounded as good as anything.

It was a sound plan, but as he scrambled to get to his feet, they promptly stopped working. No warning, nothing. One second he was pushing off the ground, the next he was flailing. He fell again, face first, barely getting his hands beneath him to prevent another hit to the head. His legs might as well have just been gone--they were useless to him, deadweights beneath his pelvis.

Shocked, Stefan reached out, grasping his thighs. There was no sensation. There was just nothing.

She’d crippled him.

In horror, he looked back at her, the realization of just how powerful she was sinking in with slow clarity. A single thought and she’d downed him. Another wayward thought and she’d taken his ability to run. He had no way of knowing it if was permanent, if she’d killed all the cells in his legs or just cut off the nerves that sent messages to his legs, but it was damn effective.

Worse, Stefan had a feeling it was only the tip of the iceberg. Wendy had been powerful the first time he met her, and she was clearly far beyond that now.

Running was not an option.

What was an option?

Begging. Offering her anything she wanted. She was insane, unhinged, but there still had be something of a girl in there. He’d reached Michael. Maybe he could reach Wendy.

“Wendy,” he said, almost pleadingly. “We can help you. Please--”

Her eyes narrowed infinitesimally and Stefan felt his voice cut off--gone. Gaping like a fish, he tried to produce sound, but nothing--not even a croak came out.

Stefan prided himself on not panicking even when things were looking bad, but there wasn’t much he could do but panic. Wendy was disabling him, one body part at a time. Why she didn’t just kill him--it was hard to say. She clearly had the ability, but Stefan could only reason that it would end the fun far too quickly for her sadistic tastes. After all, how often did she get free rein to torture a mere human at will?

With a desperate look at Michael, Stefan knew he had to use that to his advantage. He had to find some way to overcome her. She was a little girl--he couldn’t be taken out by a little girl. Not when she was the only thing standing between him and getting Michael to safety. He wasn’t a killer if he could help it, especially not of children, and as sick as the thought made him, if it was Michael or Wendy, he knew who he’d pick.

Assuming of course, he had a choice.

Stefan had to believe he had a choice. No legs, no voice, but he sure as hell had a choice, if he could just figure it out--

His gun. Hell, any gun. He had enough of them strapped to him. The one he’d been carrying was gone--lost when he fell. But if he could get another one out before she caught him, he might have a chance.

The one in his jacket pocket was the best bet, but the question was how to do it fast enough. He was pumped up on adrenaline, but his legs were gone and his voice was dead. This girl could stop him with nothing more than a whim, and he was a quick draw, but not that quick. He needed a distraction--something, anything.

Any movement was preempted, though, when his arms went numb, dead weights that dropped out from under him, sending him back to the tile with no way to stop himself.

So much for getting the gun.

It took work to lever himself to his side, flinging his body weight for all he was worth, and even when he got there, it wasn’t like it did him much good. He could see that Michael was still lying there--untouched but unmoving--but there was no way of helping him, of even finding out what was wrong.

But hey, at least he had a front row seat for Wendy as she moved in for the kill.

Assuming that was her intention, anyway.

She still stood there. Just stood there, something inquisitive in her eyes as she studied him with a unsettling stare. Chest heaving, he will himself to move--but it was useless. His limbs didn’t respond, didn’t even twitch, just fell heavily at his sides.

He was completely vulnerable--himself and Michael. No defenses. No way to even plead for mercy. Unless he managed to bludgeon her into submission with his log-like limbs, he was screwed.

Royally screwed. The injustice of it stuck painfully in his throat. All the hard work they’d put into this, how close he’d gotten. To find Michael but not save him, to get in but not get out--it didn’t seem right.

He wasn’t one for despair. It wasn’t something that he’d allowed himself. Despair hadn’t kept him looking for Lukas, even when everyone else stopped. Despair hadn’t helped him survive when working for Konstantin. Despair hadn’t kept him fighting even as Jericho kept closing in again and again.

Stefan couldn’t give up. Even if his limbs didn’t work, he couldn’t give up.

Maybe if he could stall, keep her distracted long enough, Saul would come looking, catch her off guard.

Distracted. How did he keep someone distracted when he could do anything but lay there?

In desperation, he heaved himself forward, flopping to the ground, but moving ahead. He flopped again, as graceless as a fish out of water. He wasn’t sure what he was doing, but he was doing something, because he couldn’t do nothing.

For a second, it seemed to be working. Wendy hadn’t moved and she hadn’t decided to do anything drastic like cut off the circulation to his balls of sever his spinal column just yet. Maybe this would work, maybe--

Maybe not.

A pain shot through his gut. That was the simple way of putting it, but it didn’t do it justice. Hell, it wasn’t even in the right ballpark. There was pain, and there was pain.

Nothing like he’d ever felt before. Worse than having his thigh bone explode. Worse than Michael’s accidental attack in the apartment. Worse than all of it combined.

Sharp, unyielding, eclipsing his entire body and his very awareness. Almost like something was ripping inside of him, tearing his stomach from the inside of his abdomen and trying to squeeze it through his intestines.

And all thoughts of planning went out the window. Hell, all thoughts of dignity and sanity went out the window, right there with composure and confidence and control.

Which left him with--just about nothing.

Gasping, Stefan curled in on himself, the only movement he had left, trying to breathe. Trying to think. Trying to do anything.

For all the good it did him.

Because there was no reprieve; the pain ratcheted up a notch, and his lungs hardened, almost as if they were incapable of moving the oxygen. Which, come to think of it, they just might have been.

It was a toss up now, which was worse: being eviscerated from the inside out or suffocating to death. The proverbial rock and a hard place, agony and torture.

He couldn’t see Wendy anymore. He couldn’t see much of anything. A glimpse of Michael’s skinny leg in front of him, a personal view of the bleached and sanitized tile, stained with blood from his still seeping nose. But he didn’t need to see Wendy, not to feel her as she twisted his insides again and again and--

The pain tore at his consciousness, stripping his awareness away in chunks at a time, and he felt himself fading--fast and furious--against his will. It would be gone--soon. Too soon. It was slipping through his fingers and all he had to do was close his limp fingers around it to save something, anything--

He had to fight. He was a sucker for impossible fights. Damn near quixotic. He’d found Michael--twice--he could do this. He would hold on.

Teeth clenched, he squeezed his eyes shut, rally whatever strength he could muster. He focused on the pain, holding onto it as it anchored him to his body, to life. He needed to stay awake. Stay awake for Michael.

Michael.

Straining, he forced his eyes open, looking for the kid. Michael was still prone on the ground, but seemingly unaffected by Wendy’s attack. It took effort, but he craned his neck enough to see Michael’s face, still slack in unconsciousness, skin pale, cheeks flushed, breathing fast and shallow.

There was hope in that. Maybe Wendy would spare him. They had been like siblings once; that had to carry some weight, assuming anything would.

Then the pain spiked again, and his body seized with it, desperate for oxygen it wasn’t getting. His chest felt like it might explode--literally--and he was practically convulsing with the vain effort to survive.

It was almost over. His senses were flaring in a last ditch attempt to fight the effect of Wendy’s clutches, and Stefan suddenly understood the term death throes in all of its visual morbidity.

Blackness settled over him, but his awareness clung stubbornly on. If he was going to die, he was going to know it, right up to the end. He just wished there was a way to let Michael know how sorry he was--for everything.

For not telling him the truth, for not making it better. For not saving him, for not being there when they did get out of here. For not being the brother he needed, for not being good enough--

Then--air.

Sudden and clear, it was in his lungs before he’d realized he’d taken a breath. It took him a minute to process it, and his body throbbed, a residual, lingering, phantom ache, even when the pain was gone.

The pain was gone. He could breathe.

His eyes were open.

Open and staring at a pathetic puddle of blood on the floor. His blood.

Why was he alive?

Somewhere, he heard the sound of voices. There was movement near his head. Then, something clear:

“No, you can’t hurt him,” Michael’s voice said, defiant and strong. “I won’t let you hurt him.”

The certainty of his brother’s voice buoyed him, and clung to it, looking beyond the floor and the blood to scene in front of him. There was sensation in his limbs again, hazy but there, though Stefan did not have the strength to try moving them just yet.

Michael was standing now. Too skinny but straight, ribs highlighted with every heaving breath he took. His fists were clenched at his sides and there was something unfamiliar and rigid in his stance.

It was good to see him up, but it was wrong to see him like that. Not broken, but barely held together. Not shattered, but practically falling apart. Michael did not confront people like that. Michael did not make threats.

Whatever Bellucci had done to Michael, its impact was more than physical--it was psychological as well.

Beyond Michael, Wendy cocked her head to the other side.

Michael did not flinch. “I will hurt you.”

The small smile on her face said it all: I’d like to see you try.

There was a day when Michael would have probably caved to that. When he would have taken a page out of Stefan’s book and hauled ass.

That day was not today.

Michael stood his ground, lowered his head and the battle began.

NEXT