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Chimera fic: Into the Bolivian Sunset 14/15

August 1st, 2011 (07:50 am)

A/N: I'm behind on review replies but wanted to stay on track. One more part to go after this :)  Previous parts here.

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

In Stefan's life, he'd learned the hard way that the best things are the ones worth waiting for - not just in theory, but in cold, hard reality. After all, Stefan had given up ten years in pursuit of a brother he'd lost and even after all the guilt, loss, and sacrifice, he'd found the best thing he hadn't known he needed: Michael.

And those first days on the road with his would-be brother - they'd been fast in some ways, but slow in others. Trying to stay off the radar had kept Stefan perpetually on his feet, ready to bolt at the first sign of trouble. In so many ways, the time had lapsed like a blink of an eye, but to Stefan, he could still remember every moment.

The joy of finding Michael. The slow process of trying to get him to remember.

Of course, at the time, Stefan had assumed Michael was Lukas. Trying to convince a stranger that they were family was bound to be a difficult task, and Stefan could still feel every disappointment when Michael talked about "your family."

That made it all the more important when Michael accepted it after all. Stefan's hard work paid off. His sacrifices were worthwhile. The slow and painful process ten years in the making was not without its cost but surely had its dividends.

Slow and steady really did win the race. It seemed like that should be a lesson learned for Stefan. But even with the scan showing an increase in brain activity, Stefan was having a hard time waiting.

After all, Michael's health was only one concern in all of this.

It was Stefan's primary objective - he still hadn't left the kid's side, except to take a leak and once to shower. Ava's rudimentary skills at reading and understanding medical devices was proving quite useful, but Stefan still had to take her at her word when she said all signs pointed to Michael regaining consciousness soon.

They'd dodged that bullet, and the relief changed Ava and Saul dramatically. Their conversations were light, buoyant. Sometimes he even heard the muted sounds of laughter from the basement.

Stefan wouldn't begrudge them that - he couldn't. Not with all they'd given to him and Michael. But Stefan couldn't join them - not while Michael was still unconscious. And even then, Stefan knew that his patience might not pay off quite as well as he wanted it to this time.

It was a grand sort of thing to think about - Stefan holding Michael's hand, squeezing it gently as Michael came to awareness. He liked the idea of being the first thing Michael saw - a reassuring reminder of home and safety. He wanted to laugh with the kid, hear Michael psychoanalyze something ridiculous. He wanted to joke about fashion and Kermit the Frog and which one of them had the more pathetic sex life (or complete lack thereof).

If that were all he was waiting for, then the whole bedside vigil thing would have been a snap.

But it was more than that. The closer Michael got to consciousness, the more Stefan was faced with the other issues still looming unresolved on the horizon. Questions about what had happened to Michael while under Bellucci's questionable care, discussions about Michael's surge in powers, uncertain contemplation of Wendy's fate, frank confessions about what family was and what family wasn't.

There was no guarantee on any of it. There was no promise that Michael would even want to see Stefan again when he woke up.

And that uncertainty was pretty hard to stomach. It made Stefan restless and fidgety, and he took to pacing across the space, stopping to look at Michael's things to distract him.

It was a nice room. Anatoly had impeccable taste, and even with the cushy exchange rate into dollars, Stefan imagined the place had cost a pretty penny, especially to equip it to guarantee privacy. They could be happy here - if Michael wanted to.

Stefan picked up a box of matchbooks, collected from all the restaurants they'd visited. It was a nice supply, but Michael hadn't used one. They were all still pristine, jumbled in a box.

It could have been a sign that Michael was a closet pyromaniac, but Stefan knew better. It was simply a collection that proved selfhood. Michael's way of making his life concrete.

Jaw rigid, Stefan set the box back down. With the reveal that Stefan wasn't his brother, Michael would need those things more than ever.

All of the stuff, Stefan thought, looking around the room. The posters, the books, the odd assortment of everything - they were equal to him now. Stefan was nothing more than one of these, something random picked up by happenstance. Coincidence. Even Zilla had a leg up on Stefan because the little rat had never lied.

Of course, Stefan also hadn't pooped in Michael's hair, but he wasn't sure that would count for much considering the lies he'd told.

Sighing, Stefan crashed back in the chair by Michael's bed. Waiting was a whole lot harder without some semblance of hope. The growing dread in the pit of Stefan's stomach was cold company as the hours wore on.

There was a small knock at the door, and Stefan looked up, almost relieved for the distraction. When he hadn't been certain of Michael's fate, he hadn't much cared for the company. As Michael's recovery looked more certain, Stefan had to admit that he was glad he wasn't facing this alone.

It was Saul, Ava not far behind. Leaned against the door frame, Saul smirked a little. "You're going to get stuck in that seat if you don't get up sometime," he said.

Stefan managed to find a grin. "I'll get out of here when Michael does."

Ava sighed, a small smile playing on her lips as she came in. "Spoken like a true hero."

"Well, Ava, I didn't know you felt that way," Stefan joked.

She snorted, pulling out the chair from Michael's desk and sitting in it. "You think it's a compliment? I told you before this started, there's no such thing as a Jason Bourne. Real heroes are just jackasses who are too stupid to think about themselves."

Saul winced on his behalf. "Good to know that all our time together has made you less blunt," he said.

Stefan just shook his head. "There a reason you two are here?"

"I get paid by the hour," Saul reminded him. "I've got your bill on a tab."

Ava rolled her eyes, holding out a paper. "We thought you might want to read this."

Skeptical, Stefan took the piece. He wasn't much of a reader, and he hadn't exactly been one to keep up with the news, especially while on the run. The news he was interested in wasn't usually printed in papers and books, anyhow.

But the headline caught his attention: Secret facility discovered; 24 arrested in connection on international charges.

His heart skipped a beat. He'd been so preoccupied with Michael that he hadn't let himself think on the other loose ends. He knew Bellucci was dead, that the Institute had been raided. But he'd half-feared all along that somehow the government would still clean it up, tuck it away, maybe even let it continue under a new name.

But this article spelled it out otherwise.

There was no official word on how the facility, as the reporter referred to it, got its funds, but the money trail implicated a number of high profile investors worldwide. All of the staff, from the lunch ladies to the researchers, had been detained and brought up on various charges, and every doctor and nurse named in the facility had been suspended from practicing medicine.

The data collected from the computer system indicated a staggering amount of research, dating back over twenty years. A number of other geneticists were being investigated in connection to the unethical research, and several hospitals and medical facilities were being implicated in corroborating with the study. Evidence of illegal genetic manipulation, money laundering, misappropriate of medical funds, improper possession of human tissue - the list went on and on and on.

The children were being cited as victims, currently being cared for in a temporary residence in the U.S. Embassy.

When he was done reading, Stefan just stared.

They'd done it.

They'd actually done it.

"You'll notice that's the USA Today," Ava pointed out, a trace of pride in her voice. "I can also show you copies of The Daily Telegraph and the Sydney Morning Herald. And a whole bunch in languages you can't read."

Stefan lifted his eyes, gaping a little. Then he laughed breathlessly.

"Speechless, huh?" Saul asked, grinning widely. He shook his head. "Never thought I'd see the day."

Ava's eyes were warm and she leaned in, reaching out and squeezing Stefan's shoulder. "I did," she said.

Stefan swallowed with effort, his eyes darting to Michael. As much as this meant to him, it would mean more to Michael.

"Hey," Ava said.

Stefan turned his gaze back to her.

She was looking at him intently now. "This is good news," she reminded him. "Just like Michael waking up. You need to let yourself believe that you did it."

"We did it," Stefan said hoarsely.

Saul made a noise in the back of his throat. "Smirnoff, the kid's only going to care about one person in all of this, and it sure isn't me."

"Or me," Ava added.

Stefan let his gaze linger on Michael once more. Maybe it was the fact that he'd been sitting in one spot for days. Maybe it was the emotional overload that the Institute was gone, maybe it was just that Saul and Ava had seen him through everything - but he felt his control weakening. His stoicism fading. "What if he never forgives me?" he asked, his voice no more than a whisper.

"You risked your life for his, what more could he want?" Saul asked.

A brother. A family. But Stefan's voice couldn't work anymore.

"You got him this far," Ava said, her voice gentle. "I think it's time to trust him to do a little of it now."

Stefan trusted Michael to recover. Stefan trusted in Michael's uncanny resiliency, his ability to adapt and rebound-

He just didn't know if he could trust him to forgive. Not with a betrayal that large, a mistake that encompassing.

Looking at Ava and Saul again, his smile was watering. "Thank you," he said. "For everything."

Saul stood upright, rolling his shoulders. "Don't thank me until you see my bill."

Ava laughed, standing. "And just being here is all the thanks I need."

With that, they left, and Stefan tried to let their encouragement take hold within him. Just a little hope - just the inkling of a possibility - it was more than he'd had before and all he had to tide him over as he waited for Michael to wake.

-o-

It was anticlimactic when it finally happened.

Stefan had been sitting for hours (days), running on nothing but sparse food and even sparser sleep. The days seemed exactly like the nights, with sunlight barely registering in his exhausted mind.

But Michael was waking up. That alone was motivation to stay with it. Michael was waking up, and Stefan clung so tirelessly to that fact that it kept him going even when his body wanted to forfeit the fight altogether.

As dedicated as he was to Michael's cause, he almost didn't believe it when Michael finally did wake up. There had been a slight shifting first, little twitches and varied moans. But when hours passed and they showed no sign of intensifying, Stefan had grown anxious. Like watching a pot of water, slowly coming to a boil, waiting and waiting and waiting until something finally changed.

But Stefan knew heated pots boiled.

And Michael woke up.

Stefan blinked.

Michael woke up.

The kid was on the bed still, but his eyes were open slits, looking blearily about the hazy bedroom.

Stefan stifled a curse, fumbling to sit up and move closer to the bed. "Michael?" he asked, hands on the bed to get a better look at the younger boy's face. "Can you hear me?"

There was a small flinch, but no clear sign of recognition. Michael's eyes seemed to be staring at nothing, fixated on some indefinable point, almost vacant.

Swallowing, Stefan hesitated to get closer, not sure how much contact Michael would want.

"Michael?" he tried again, as gently as he could, but his voice loud enough to be heard.

Michael still didn't move, expression only vaguely perplexed.

Stefan fought the urge to panic. He'd waited so long for this, pinned so much faith on this exact moment, that he hadn't let himself consider what it would be like. A joyous reunion. An explosive argument. Something, anything.

The notion of nothing had not quite been something he'd been able to consider. The idea that Michael might not be Michael, that he might not even recognize Stefan or where he was - it just hadn't been on his radar.

And it still couldn't be. Michael hadn't survived this to be a vegetable. Stefan was sure of it.

Moving even closer, Stefan ghosted a hand over Michael's blonde fringe, before resting it lightly on the pillow above Michael head. "Come on, Misha," he said. "You're safe. You can wake up now."

Maybe it was the touch, maybe it was the tone. Maybe the words themselves had power. Or maybe Michael was just ready.

The younger boy blinked, his bicolored eyes disappearing and then opening again, this time clearer and alive. The pupils dilated, clearly responding to the light, and Michael seemed to take a startled breath.

Then Michael blinked again, flinching a little, his eyes moving frantically around the room. Stefan had taken pains to have it be familiar, but it still wasn't exactly what Michael would have remembered. He could only hope it wouldn't jar Michael too much.

After a moment of searching, Michael's eyes settled on him, meeting his gaze with a terrified expression. There was a moment between them, and Stefan could see the emotions clearly in Michael's face.

Fear. Hurt. Uncertainty.

A little boy lost. He looked far younger than his eighteen years, younger than Stefan had almost ever seen him. It was all Stefan could do not to sweep him into a hug and hold him until the doubts passed and the fear eased.

But this was Michael's moment, not Stefan's. He was calling the shots, and Stefan had to respect that.

Still, Stefan smiled, the joy barely restrained. "Hey," he said.

Michael's jaw quivered, his eyes watering. For a moment, it seemed as if he would shrink away. His body seemed ready to curl in, as if this was just all too much for him.

But Stefan held his gaze, and Michael seemed to still. With a ragged breath, he said, "Stefan."

Stefan's grin widened. "Yeah Misha. It's me."

There was something reassuring about that, and it seemed to bolster Michael ever so slightly. He nodded, rolling his head toward Stefan until his forehead brushed Stefan's forearm. The invitation was implicit.

And Stefan did not fail to respond.

Heart swelling in his chest, he moved his hand, brushing it lightly against Michael's bangs. "It's going to be okay," he promised. "It's going to be okay now."

And it was true. There would be no more lies, couldn't be any lies, and Stefan would stake everything he had left to prove that to Michael once and for all.

For his part, Michael accepted the comfort for what it was, his eyes drooping, his consciousness ebbing into sleep.

When morning came, they would be like that still. Stefan bent over, hand on his brow; Michael sleeping in the reassuring embrace.

-o-

Like with most things, Michael's recovery was exceptional.

One hour he was fumbling with basic verb conjugation, the next he was critiquing Stefan's cooking skills with a vocabulary he'd only heard in college.

Motor skills weren't far behind, and by the end of the day, Michael was more or less back to himself. He still moved with guarded movements, but it was hard for Stefan to gauge how much of that was the damage to his brain and how much was from the argument that had sent Michael away in the first place.

True to their nature, though, they avoided the issue. Michael's recovery was still far too tentative, and Stefan wasn't eager to broach the topic. Michael was seemingly even less so, but Stefan knew it was on his mind. He could see it in the haunted corners of Michael's eyes, in the unsettled movements he made right before he tried to fall asleep.

But it was more than that now. The shock of finding out that they weren't brothers was hard enough, but now Michael was dealing with a whole new list of nightmares that Stefan wasn't even sure he wanted to imagine. In the time since he'd first broken Michael out of the first Institute, Stefan had learned more than he wanted to about just what they'd done to the younger boy. The tests, the experiments. The training, and the drugs. It was the kind of trauma that would have lesser people in therapy for years, and though Michael had rebounded remarkably, Stefan knew there were parts of it that would never leave Michael.

Yet, it had been manageable. Because they'd confronted it together. They'd built beyond it.

Now, it was like being back at square one. Stefan not only had to convince Michael that they were brothers all over again, but he had to unfurl just what the Institute had put him through, and he was getting a sinking feeling that it would be harder than before.

Though Michael tried, he was less confident, more reserved. His sarcasm was benign and his topics of conversation impersonal. It was up to Stefan to make it better.

Which was exactly what he'd been trying to do. The villa was a quiet, stable place, and the only people who Stefan allowed in were Saul and Ava. He kept Michael well fed and thoroughly distracted, with games and TVs and when Michael ordered porn, he even conveniently looked the other way.

Stefan knew from experience that this was the way to start, to build trust.

But he also knew that it wasn't everything.

They had to talk about it - all of it. From the secret Stefan had kept to the outburst of powers when Michael had found out.

But first, they had to talk about the Institute.

It was the last thing Stefan really wanted to talk about. The thought of that place having its grip on Michael again - the things they might have done to him-

Well, it made him wish that he hadn't killed the good doctor quite so quickly. Hearing the details about what Michael had endured would be hell all over again.

Still, it was readily apparent in Stefan's mind that for as bad as it would be for him, it would be worse for Michael. This was about Michael, in the end, and Stefan would do anything for him.

Anything.

Even starting this conversation.

The words were heavy on his tongue for the better part of the day, right there, waiting to be said. But the timing never seemed right and Stefan could never bring himself to shatter the tentative resolve between them.

But it was a false resolve, an illusion. Stefan had learned the hard way just how dangerous those could be. It wasn't a mistake he intended to make again.

And the only way to break the ice was to say it.

"So when are you going to tell me what happened to you in there?"

Michael was at the kitchen table, eating a bowl of sugar-coated cereal. That had been a compromise food; it had the nutrients Stefan figured a growing boy might need but enough sugar to satisfy Michael's incessant cravings.

Michael stopped mid bite, freezing. Slowly, he cast a sideways glance at Stefan, regarding him with skepticism and surprise.

Stefan simply stared at him, letting the question stand.

Deliberately, Michael finished his bite, chewing carefully and swallowing purposefully. When the sugary goodness was down, he frowned a bit. "I was considering never."

It wasn't much of a surprise. Michael liked to assert his independence in some of the most inconvenient ways. Sometimes saying no was a reflex, just because he could. And given what he'd been through, Stefan had to think they were due for an upswing of such behavior to compensate for the loss of selfhood Michael had just endured.

Still, another thing Stefan had learned about Michael was that being direct was the best policy. Michael was trained to defend himself and whatever secrets he deemed fit. Though Stefan had gained much trust in the last year, things were strained at the moment and it was a whole new ball game.

Stefan didn't let the show of modest obstinance faze him. Instead, he nodded. Direct questions were good, confronting issues was important, but the best way to make Michael feel safe was to start off with some vulnerability of his own.

"Freaked me out, you know," he said. "I mean, everything I'd done to get you out the first time, and they had you again." He stopped, shaking his head. "I never should have let that happen."

Michael's face hardened and his fingers tightened around his spoon. "Don't," he said, his tone carrying a warning.

Stefan frowned. "Don't?"

Michael's bicolored eyes flashed up, and there was a myriad of emotions there, clouded with anger and hurt. "Don't play the sharing and caring game," he said. "It's not going to work like you want it to."

It was an effort to keep a hold on his disappointment with that one. So Michael was more observant than he'd thought to give the kid credit for. That would make it harder, since Michael wasn't in the mood to let himself be cajoled. But that just made it all the more important.

Stefan nodded slowly, looking down at the table thoughtfully. Picking at a nick in the wood, he collected a steadying breath. "I get that you don't want to talk about it," he said. "I do."

Michael's spoon hit the bowl with a clang, milk splattering on the table. When Stefan looked up in surprise, Michael's eyes were blazing. "Do you?" he asked accusingly.

Stefan swallowed slowly. The mood swing was sudden and unexpected - Michael had been the essence of self-control after his first round with the Institute. But apparently self-control had not been part of Michael's lessons this time around. "I know it wasn't exactly a picnic," he said.

At that, Michael actually scoffed. "They were putting me through tests, picking me apart like a science experiment gone wrong," he ground out, his voice a grating hiss. "They treat cadavers better than they treated me. So no, it wasn't a picnic."

All things considered, the anger was well earned, especially since Stefan knew it wasn't really directed at him for the time being. Still, hearing the venom in Michael's voice, getting his first real insight into what they'd done to him - it almost made him physically sick. "I'm sorry," he tried.

Michael shook his head, more vehemently this time, and Stefan could almost see the defenses going up, one after another in Michael's head. "Sorry for what? Sorry that they cut me open while I was still awake? Sorry that they dosed me with more drugs than I could even keep track of? Sorry that they mutated my cells while they were still in my body?" Then his expression turned cold, his jaw set hard. "Or sorry that you lied to me?"

The last words were quiet, cutting Stefan deeply. He was sorry for all of it, every last piece of it. But this wasn't the time for apologies; there would be time for that later - lots of time. The apologies Stefan owed Michael were more than words. They were actions. Starting with this, starting with opening up the cage Michael was locking himself in. If Stefan had learned anything in his life, he knew that sometimes the best made prisons are the ones made by one's own mind.

That was a fate he'd resigned himself to for ten years. It wasn't one he would let Michael fester in.

"Sorry that I hurt you," Stefan said, as calmly as I could.

Michael's eyes flashed with pain, his brow furrowing. He pushed his chair out, standing abruptly. Shaking his head, he walked toward the window. "I'm not mad at you," Michael said tersely, not turning back around.

"Then who are you mad at?" Stefan asked. "Because something pissed you off enough to make you quit early on breakfast."

Michael turned back toward him, frustration evident on his face. "Maybe I'm not hungry."

It took some effort not to roll his eyes. "Misha-"

"Michael," he snapped and turned back to the window.

That one hurt more than Stefan expected. It wasn't unwarranted, but he had hoped that given Michael's openness when he first regained consciousness that they might be able to start off at least on friendly terms. But it was clear that beneath Michael's tentative exterior, there were a whole host of issues vying for attention. It was just hard to say which one was more problematic for the kid: Stefan's well-intentioned deception or Dr. Bellucci's sick games.

All things considered, the kid was doing remarkably well. Stefan needed to keep that in perspective and tread lightly. Michael had always had special emotional needs, and now his psyche was more delicate than ever.

"Michael," Stefan repeated easily, getting to his feet. "I'm sure this is confusing-"

Michael's eyebrows went up. "Confusing? What part of it is confusing? The part where some idiot breaks me out and then lies to me for a year or the part where a somewhat better educated freak kidnaps me and tries to dissect me like a frog?"

All of the above, but it hurt too much to even make the quip. "No matter what happened, I'm here to help you."

Denial was written plainly on Michael's face. "Who I am to you? Just some stranger? Someone you pity?" Michael asked, his voice hitching toward a scream, throwing his arms out. "I'm not your brother, and I don't need your pity."

It was the other issue Stefan had been skirting, but Michael wasn't avoiding it. And that was fair, and it hurt to hear, not really because it was true, but because it wasn't.

Emotions charged, Stefan stood still. "I don't pity you," he replied. "I could never pity you. Not someone who is as strong as you."

Michael's face contorted and he laughed grotesquely. "I don't need your condescension either. Save it for your real brother."

Stefan shook his head, his heart aching. "For as strong and smart as you are, you're really not picking this one up too quickly."

Michael remained stiff, lips twisted in a sneer. "Picking up what? That you're a liar?"

"That family isn't just in your DNA. We're not what our DNA says we are. We are who we choose to be, and you of all people, Misha, should know that."

That one hit close to home and Michael flinched, expression wavering. "So what, then, family is all about lies?" he asked roughly, but the anger was simmering and the hurt was plain.

Sometimes, it seemed like it. In Stefan's life, family had been a mess of lies and deception, even in the most simple things. But that wasn't what it was with Michael. They were stronger than that. "No," he said. "Family is moving to Bolivia and not needing anything but the other person. Family is breaking people out of top secret institutes and jumping in front of bullets." He swallowed, taking a step forward. He motioned to Michael. "Family is this. You and me, and we don't need family pictures and we don't need to share the same blood type, we just need each other."

Michael was trembling, his resolve crumbling. "But you lied to me."

"And I was wrong," Stefan said, taking another step until he was close enough to touch Michael. "Just like you'll be wrong if you throw all of this away because I made one mistake."

One mistake. One horrible mistake. But it wasn't everything. It didn't have to be everything.

"But - how?" he asked, with a shaking breath. The kid's voice was threatening to crack and Stefan could only figure sheer force of will was keeping him together.

"How what?" Stefan asked.

Michael wet his lips, lower jaw quiver. "How can you want anything to do with me after knowing what I can do," he said. He paused, taking another staggered breath. "After what I did to you."

Stefan had been prepared for the anger and the confusion. He'd been expecting the outburst at some point. But to hear the pain that girded it all - almost broke Stefan in to. That at the heart of the problem was not just the lies Stefan had told or the tests Bellucci had performed - but the harm Michael himself had accidentally inflicted when in emotional distress.

He should have seen it sooner. It made perfect sense. Michael would lash out in anger to cover the guilt and shame he didn't know what to do with. Michael had spent so much time trying to define himself as a person, not as a killer. For him to lose control - no matter what the circumstances - would be hard to deal with, especially considering the high standards the kid held himself to.

Which was why this was important. Which was why Stefan needed to get this right this time. Michael had all the appearance of a strong kid - hell, an invincible one. But he was more vulnerable than ever, and Stefan would do whatever it took to take care of him until he could take care of himself.

With a deep breath, Stefan stepped forward, holding Michael's gaze. "You had one moment of where you lost control," he said. "You'd just found out that the thing I'd told you the most often was a lie. Cut yourself some slack. It was an accident."

Michael seemed to stiffen at Stefan's proclamation. "I'm dangerous."

"And I'm a damn liar," was Stefan's easy reply. "Don't you get it? Family's not perfect. It never is."

Michael's expression was dark, uncertain. "Then what's the point?"

Stefan had to shrug, a million answers flitting through his head. But he only had to pick one. The right one: "Family is just better together. Flaws and mistakes and all."

Michael didn't flinch at that, didn't even move. His face was guarded, not quite impassive, but controlled. After a long moment, his eyes darted away, his expression puckering as he nodded. "Some flaws are hard to overcome," he said finally, his voice barely over a whisper.

"Not as hard as some mistakes," Stefan countered. "But if you let me, I'll try to make it up to you. You're my family, Michael. And no matter what you do or say, that will never change. I don't need your DNA to tell me that."

When Michael looked up, the emotions were barely held at bay. He looked inexplicably younger than usual, his entire stance withdrawn and needy. He nodded again. "I'm kind of tired," he said. "I think I'm going to go lay back down."

It was neither an acceptance or a rebuff. It was a tentative gesture, not of a quick fix, but of a willingness to try. Stefan could ask for nothing more.

With a small smile, Stefan nodded back. "That's probably a good idea," he said. "I feel like I could probably catch a few more z's myself."

Michael nodded uncertainly, a frown on his face. He hesitated for another moment. "I'll see you for lunch, though," he said.

The implicit request was as much a plea as it was a reassurance. A grin split over Stefan's face. "I'll even spring for a dessert."

Michael's attempt at a smile was weak, but there as he slipped past Stefan to his bedroom.

Watching him go, Stefan couldn't say that everything was going exactly according to plan, but Michael was still there, still with him, and as long as that was true, Stefan could hold out hope for the rest to fall into place.

-o-

While things with Michael were just beginning, Stefan could sense that other things were coming to a close. The Institute still made some headlines, updates on the dismantling process still holding some fascination with the public. But it would soon be old news, the compound gutted and the children hopefully relocated and rehabilitated. He suspected there'd be an upswing of interest if some of the charges ever went to trial, but Stefan also suspected that things would never get that far. The government may have had no choice but to shut it down, but Stefan highly doubted they wanted to parade the perpetrators before an international audience for fear of what might really come out.

Life was going on. Michael was starting to eat them out of house and home again, with Saul having to make nearly daily trips in to town just to keep them fully stocked. The other man was spending more time on the phone, and Stefan could hear him chatting up clients in the wee hours of the morning, no doubt trying to line up his next gig.

He hadn't gotten around to paying Saul just yet, but he owed Saul more than cash. He'd pony up the bills when Michael was completely mended, and he was sure that they would have to be in touch, all things considered.

Ava, however, was a different story. He didn't technically owe Ava anything, but the gratitude he felt for her role was undeniable. Sometimes when he saw her in the morning with her hair wet from showering, he was reminded of the feelings he'd felt for her before this started. She was still crazy, almost bipolar in her mood shifts, but the connection he'd felt with her had meant something.

Or could mean something.

With everything that had happened - the wild roller coaster ride they'd been on - there hadn't been time to dwell on it.

There was time now. But Stefan still didn't know what to make of it.

Sure, they had polite conversations. Even a few games of gin rummy before bed. But she always hesitated before she left a room and Stefan always looked for her in the doorway, just in case she was there.

That day, she was.

Standing in the open frame of his bedroom door, she was looking around, nodding. "I love what you've done with the place," she said.

Stefan glanced around absently. It was still mostly barren, decorated only with the pieces that had come with the place. He supposed it might even had some chic charm to it, but interior decorating had never been his thing. "Thank the prior owner," he said with a shrug. "They had great taste."

She grinned. "Between you and Michael, this place is going to turn out to be quite the bachelor pad."

Stefan feigned hurt. "You mean you don't think we'll be reeling in the ladies?"

Quirking an eyebrow, she said, "Between his everything goes eclecticism and your nothing is more minimalism, I think it's a recipe for keeping away any girl that's sane."

"You're here," Stefan pointed out.

Her eyes twinkled. "I never said I was sane."

"Then you'll fit right in," Stefan joked back readily.

But when her smile faltered at that and she fell silent for a moment, Stefan realized he'd said the wrong thing. This wasn't the typical back and forth; this wasn't going to be just another conversation. Whatever Ava had on her mind, it mattered somehow.

Stepping inside, Ava smoothed her hair absently, before wandering to the wall. She fingered one of the botanical paintings there before turning to look at Stefan abruptly. "I got the promotion I wanted," she said.

Stefan blinked. It hadn't been the news he'd expected. "Oh," he said, wracking his tired brain for something to say. "That's great."

She nodded seriously, pressing her lips together. She hesitated a moment before continuing. "They want me to start immediately," she said, almost as if in apology. "I'm leaving in the morning."

Stefan blinked again, and then he understood. This wasn't a celebratory visit. This wasn't even a social call. This was a goodbye.

"Right," he forced himself to say, unsure of what else he would be expected to say here. Goodbyes weren't his thing, mostly because he rarely let anyone stick around long enough to make it relevant. He and Ava hadn't been anything, not really, but it was still somehow hard to make the words come out.

It was Ava who broke the awkwardness, stepping forward with sudden intensity. Her eyes were wide and vulnerable. "I would have asked you, but I didn't...I didn't think..."

She didn't think Stefan would care. She didn't know where they stood. In everything, in the attraction, in the potential, they'd never had the chance to know what it was worth.

In Stefan's life, some people were worth the effort, were worth everything. He'd never given Ava that chance. The circumstances were against them from the beginning; she was a tool to him, and he'd been a stepping stone for her. The friendship had been understandable; anything more had never had a choice, not with their focuses set so much on other things as they were.

He smiled gently, reaching a hand out to touch her hair. "You shouldn't have thought," he said. "It's a great opportunity. Everything that you wanted."

There was a flicker of doubt in her eyes, but she didn't deny it. "And the Institute is gone. Michael's going to be okay," she said, holding his gaze. "It's everything you wanted, too."

It was the truth. Everything they wanted, but maybe not everything that they could have wanted.

In the bigger picture, though, neither of them had a right to regret it.

Ava smiled then, real and final. "You have my number," she said. "Just remember to update me from time to time." She shrugged, a hint of wistfulness still visible beneath her playful exterior. "In case you ever have a good story for me."

Stefan let himself laugh, nodding contentedly. "I'll be sure to do that."

She kept smiling, but looked away. When she looked up, there was a faraway glint in her eyes. "Then I guess I should go," she said. "Packing and all."

"Yeah," Stefan said. "Packing and all."

Ava collected herself, then stuck her hand out. "So this is goodbye then."

Stefan hesitated only a second before he took her hand, tucking the smaller fingers in his own. The spark was still there, just waiting for a breath of air that would never come.

He squeeze once, brief and firm, before letting it go. "Yeah," he agreed. "I guess this is goodbye."

And with that, she offered Stefan one last smile before she was out the door and gone.

-o-

There was much time to think.

In some ways, it reminded him of his time at the Institute. Much of his time had been filled with classes or instruction, but when there was no need for them, thinking had been the only recourse for entertainment.

But the thinking here was different. The thoughts flowed easier, had happier destinations and real potential for action. The room Stefan had prepared was almost better than the one back at the apartment, and Michael had spent some time rearranging the things to just the right level of discord for his enjoyment.

It was funny, how many things in that room had such powerful memories. The things he had amassed in a short year were impressive, and the concept of ownership was still intoxicating to him. He liked to think back on every object, what it meant, where he got it. He could remember the smell of the money as it changed hands, the snide comment Stefan had made when he saw each piece.

He liked that. It was solidifying. Grounding. Even though Dr. Bellucci was gone and Wendy was dead, sometimes Michael still needed to remember that it was really over.

That wasn't hard, at least not on a simple level. After all, Michael had a good memory and could easily account for most of the years of his life. Some of it had blurred together, lost in the sterile walls of the Institute, but the idea was clear enough. True, his origins were vague, but he remembered the plain white walls at the Institute. He remembered that his first room was the same as his last: bare, nondescript, and empty.

He had roommates, fellow prisoners. Some graduated. Some disappeared. He neither liked them nor felt connected to them. John was the only one who had made him feel anything, but John was gone.

Michael remembered that, but he didn't often choose to remember all the circumstances. Knowing that John had died, knowing that Peter after him had died, too, they were tragedies he didn't know how to comprehend. Wrongs he didn't know how to make sense of.

Still, Michael remembered. He remembered living, day after day. He remembered watching movies and walking through shopping malls only partially aware, like being a goldfish looking out through water and glass at a hazy version of reality. Enticing and fascinating, but he'd always somewhat assumed that he'd die if he ever left, dry up and shrivel, just like a fish out of water.

He remembered that Jericho used to talk to him in gentle, soothing tones. He used to praise Michael's progress, chide his faults. "We are family, you know," he used to remind Michael. "I am more your father than anyone else. You must trust me when I tell you that I am doing this for your own good."

And who was Michael to contradict? Jericho had created him, and the only examples he knew of family were on movies and brief exchanges in malls. Michael could only conclude that family was as meaningless as the rest of life, intended for others who were born free.

But Michael also remembered the night Stefan broke in. It had been perplexing and unnerving, and each time he thought it might be a test, Stefan surprised him. Surprised him by protecting him, feeding him, sheltering him, being willing to die for him.

That was why when Stefan told him they were family, even though Michael remembered the truth, he wanted to believe him anyway. His life had always been one of simple truths and certain inevitabilities. With Stefan, though, there were beautiful lies and awakening falsehoods. It seemed to be a logical contradiction that falsity could give way to truth, but as Michael lived and breathed free air, he was beginning to wonder if contradiction was more common than he had been led to believe.

Movies had happy endings. The Institute had simple procedures. Predictable outcomes. Apparent foreshadowing.

Life was not a movie. Reality was not a shopping mall. The Institute was not his home. Jericho had never been his family.

Before, he had rejected his memories and replaced them with a well-intentioned lie because he had believed it was necessary, that he could not hold the real memories of his past with the dream of family that Stefan promised.

He had been wrong.

It was a simple revelation, one that Michael took in by degrees during his recovery. Life was easy at the villa, free of expectations and confinements. There was fresh air, open spaces, privacy. He slept when he wanted. He showered at will. He could eat at any time of the day or night, and often did.

Stefan did not leave. He granted Michael space, but it was apparent to Michael that the other man was never far. A room away. Two at most. At the slightest inclination, Stefan would be there.

They shared no DNA, and it was true, Stefan had lied to him on one of the most important issues between them. And it changed everything.

Yet, it changed nothing.

It changed nothing.

Sometimes the simplest answer was right. Sometimes reality was nothing more than a string of contradicting ideas and feelings all coming together to tell him the exact same thing: Stefan was still his brother. He could trust Stefan by the lies he told him and he could prove that brotherhood by the DNA that didn't match. Because even with these factors, even with all that worked against them, they were still connected, completely and irrevocably, and there was nothing Michael could do to ever change that.

Assuming, of course, he ever wanted to try.

There were still things Michael didn't know, many things he hadn't figured out, but he knew this one thing beyond all else: he didn't want to try to change that. Not now. Not ever. And that was a truth Michael could hold to, even in his doubts and weaknesses, and trust that it would carry him through to the other side.

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