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Chimera Fic: Into the Bolivian Sunset 4/15

July 8th, 2011 (07:54 am)

Previous parts here.
 

CHAPTER FOUR

Michael.

He was standing, framed in the open door. He almost looked like a statute, eyes wide, face frozen. His posture was stiff, surreally poised, but there was the look of a jackrabbit in his expression, almost as if he were ready to bolt. It was a look Stefan recognized, but one he hadn't seen for a long time, not since he'd first broken Michael out of the Institute over a year ago.

His bicolored eyes darted quickly, from Stefan to Ava, and back again, and a muscle in his jaw twitched.

He'd heard.

That inevitable fact settled over Stefan with a horrible clarity. Michael had heard them talking. More than that, Michael knew what it meant. Michael knew.

"Michael," Stefan said, his regret heavy in his voice. He didn't need to ask how much Michael had heard. The expression on Michael's face said it all. Confusion, hurt, fear. Michael had heard everything.

Michael had heard everything.

"Michael, I know what you just heard, and I know it sounds hard," Stefan rambled, feeling desperate. He had good reasons, good intentions, and he couldn't find any of them. He couldn't find anything.

Michael flinched, Stefan's words almost like blows. His brow furrowed. "I don't understand."

"It's not what you think," Stefan said quickly.

Too quickly. Michael didn't buy it. He shook his head.

Ava glanced between them, her face flushed. The mortification in her voice was evident, and Stefan might have felt guilty if the expression on Michael's face wasn't breaking his heart. "I think I should go," she said, slipping toward the couch and picking up her purse.

Stefan couldn't say a word to stop her. Michael didn't even look at her, not even as she walked right by him with an apologetic look in her eyes.

"Michael, please," he said. "You have to let me explain."

Michael didn't want his explanations. "You told me we were brothers."

"We are brothers," Stefan said insistently.

Michael shook his head, his denial growing on his face. "You told me I was stolen from the beach when I was seven years old. That my name was Lukas."

It was that backstory that has brought Stefan to Michael, and when that had fallen apart, Stefan hadn't needed it anymore. Michael had, and it was something Stefan was willing to grant Michael as he tried to define himself outside the Institute.

It had seemed like a harmless lie, an innocent building block to bond them together, to give Michael a sense of self. As long as Michael believed it, it could give him the foundation he needed to move beyond how he'd been raised. Michael had never embraced it fully - insisted his name was Michael - but he'd slowly welcomed the idea of family, of belonging.

Stefan hadn't let himself consider what would happen if Michael found out the truth.

"Michael," Stefan tried again, looking for the words. "Just listen-"

"Listen?" Michael asked, his eyebrows rising in sudden, cutting surprise. "Listen to what? A lie?" His blinked, and looked far, far too young.

The broken innocence on Michael's face was heartbreaking. Michael had never seen it coming. Even though he'd doubted for so long, even though all the pieces had never added up, he had never seen it coming.

There was a flash of anger on his face, laden with hurt. "It was a lie, wasn't it?" he asked. "All of it."

It was a statement, not a question. Michael didn't need confirmation to believe it, but Stefan could feel by the tension in the younger boy's voice that his answer would determine just how badly this would go.

Stefan had no delusions that it would go badly. Michael had grown a lot since being broken out of the Institute, but he was still a teenager. More than that, he was a teenager who had been emotionally and physically tormented most of his life. The brainwashing at the Institute, the limited capacity in which he'd grown up, the things he'd been forced to do - they still haunted Michael, still influence who he was. Sometimes Stefan knew that the only thing keeping Michael sane was the promise of family to anchor him to another reality, a better reality.

The anchor was gone now and Michael was a keening ship in a restless sea. He couldn't know that nothing had changed, that the waters were just as they had always been, that Stefan was still there for him - would always be there for him.

There was just betrayal. Hurt and disappointment.

And it was all Stefan's fault. "Misha, please, you have to understand-"

"How long have you known?" he asked. "You would not have gotten me out if you didn't believe I was really Lukas. But you found out sometime. When did you find out?"

Stefan sighed, and faced the inevitable disclosure. "When Jericho found us at the beach house," he said. "When Anatoly saved us - he...helped me remember the truth."

Michael seemed to blanch. "The truth?"

Stefan had to duck his head, pressing his lips together to try to keep his emotions in. Resigned, he looked up again, shoulders slumped. "Lukas was accidentally killed when he was snatched," he admitted finally. It was a weird truth, one that hurt to say. "The shock of it all made me forget. I didn't want to remember. When I broke you out, I thought you were my brother."

Michael trembled a little, keeping himself rigid, as if on the defense. "And you didn't tell me when you figured it out?"

"Because it didn't change anything," Stefan said, almost pleading now. He held out one hand in placation. "You are my brother, just as much as Lukas was."

Shaking his head, Michael stepped away. "I'm not your brother," he said. "What other lies have you told?"

Stefan sighed, feeling his exasperation spike. "I haven't lied to you-"

"You lied about this," Michael countered pointedly.

"I just didn't want you to have to deal with it," Stefan said, hoping that Michael would see that everything had been done with the best intentions. There was no guide book for this kind of thing, no How To Care For Your Long Lost Brother Who Isn't Your Long Lost Brother. Stefan was making this up as he went, trusting his gut to keep Michael safe.

It was the wrong thing to say. Michael's face darkened. "You didn't trust me."

"I didn't say that."

"You also didn't say that I wasn't your brother," he said back. "Omissions can be just as telling."

Stefan ran a hand through his hair, trying to gain control of this. The ups and downs were hard on him, the ebb and flow of emotions leaving him shaky. One minute, he'd been ready to take it to the next level with Ava, the next he was fumbling to hold onto anything with Michael. "We just need to calm down, talk about this-"

"There isn't anything to talk about," Michael snapped back, retreating farther. "You are nothing to me, and I am nothing to you."

Stefan knew Michael was entitled some pissiness, all things considered, but that one hurt. After everything they'd been through - that one really hurt. "Come on, Misha, you can't mean that."

"My name is Michael," he said emphatically.

Stefan felt himself recoil, almost as if he'd been hit. It took all of Stefan's self-control to remember this wasn't Michael's fault. Stefan had some of this coming, and he knew that. The important thing was getting Michael to understand. Michael had to understand. "Michael," he parroted carefully. "I know this whole family thing is new to you, but it's not all about blood. It's not all about growing up together."

"So it's about lies?" Michael cut him off bitterly. "I believed you. I was willing to die for you. I let you convince me to do things I never should have. I don't owe you anything."

Stefan could see the wheels turning in Michael's head, slowly parsing through the facts. It was natural, he knew, but there had to be a way to slow him down, to make him see that this wasn't all about logic and biology. It was about something more than that, a connection Stefan couldn't explain but he knew he couldn't live without. "Maybe not, but I owe you everything," he said. He stepped forward cautiously. Michael flinched but didn't move. "Nothing has changed."

"Of course it hasn't," Michael said, his head cocked uncertainly to the side. "You always knew. You could use me to be the little brother you lost. It makes sense. Psychologically speaking. You deflected your grief over Lukas' death by investing yourself in another relationship. In that way, I was convenient."

Stefan inched a little closer still, keeping his voice even, his eyes locked on Michael. "You were never convenient," he said. He had to laugh. "You eat me out of house and home. Every time I turn around, I'm picking up candy wrappers and trying to keep you from picking up too many girls. And don't even get me started on the movies you keep lifting from the rental store. If I was in this for convenience, this wouldn't be the route I'd take."

It was supposed to be reassuring.

The results seemed anything but.

"Come on, Misha," Stefan said softly, close enough to touch him now. "You know we're family in all the ways that matter." He reached his hand out, letting it rest on Michael's arm. A familiar gesture, a brotherly one they often repeated.

Only this time, instead of comfort, Stefan felt pain. Hot and quick, sluicing through him with an intensity that doubled him over. It was all he could do to stay on his feet and he tasted copper in his mouth.

Michael. Michael was...hurting him.

Shocked, he looked up, meeting Michael's eyes with surprise. He'd known Michael was powerful - he'd seen what Michael could do - but he'd never thought...he'd never even imagined...

It exploded through it, starting in his stomach and working its way out, burning through his limbs, searing through his mind. It dimmed his vision and weakened his knees, and Stefan felt his consciousness waning before he even had a chance to make a plea for help.

This wasn't like Michael, not at all. He hated the abilities, hated what he was able to do. He used them sparingly, never in his own defense. Always in search of justice, and never once had Stefan been afraid that Michael might try them on him.

When it ratcheted up a notch, almost doubling him over, Stefan wondered briefly if he should have worried about it after all.

Michael startled, yelping inexplicably, nearly jumping out of his skin. Just like that, the pain stopped as abruptly as it began.

Stefan gasped, barely on his feet. Dark splotches lingered around the edges of his vision, and he kept himself kneeled over, taking in breaths desperately, fingers still clutched at his abdomen. "Misha," he said haltingly, craning to look into Michael's eyes. There was so much to say, but the only thing that came out was the question: "Why?"

Michael's face contorted, and for a second it looked like he might cry. But he pulled it together - barely - his entire body shaking. There was horror in his eyes, and terror on his face. He shook his head. "My name is Michael," he repeated, his voice almost cracking this time, almost as though he was trying to find some part of identity he could still hold on to. His eyes were filled with tears.

Pulling himself upright as best he could, Stefan felt the overwhelming urge to make it better. Michael was scared and hurt - and it was his fault. If Michael was this close to the edge, then it was Stefan's responsibility to bring him back.

The change in altitude was hard to stomach, and Stefan had to swallow hard to keep himself together. "Misha," he breathed.

But Michael shook his head, vehemently this time, a tear slipping free as he stepped back into the doorway. "My name is Michael," he said, almost desperately now, his voice hitching.

Stefan tried to move, tried to grab him, but Michael was faster - as usual. He darted out of the doorway, clamoring down the stairs at the end of the hall.

His instincts said to chase, but Stefan only made it a step before he keeled again. The onslaught was over, but the deep ache in his body was still there - pervasive and detrimental. It was impossible to say what Michael had done to him, but he had a hint of gratitude that it hadn't involved his private parts.

That was where Michael tended to attack when he wanted to take someone down. Sometimes he just shut down the flow to the brain, for a quick and easy impact. Whatever he'd done to Stefan now - it was something different. Something uncontrolled.

Which made sense. The horror on Michael's face hadn't just been about the lies. It had been about the power he'd let out. For as angry as Michael had been, he hadn't meant to hurt Stefan - Stefan knew that. Didn't even have to wonder, not even as he clutched his stomach, walking in a staggering gait to his window.

An accident. It had been an accident. Michael's emotions were all over the place. While he normally exhibited extreme self-control, Stefan knew that Michael still possessed great power. It had never slipped before, but then again, Michael had never been in this kind of position before.

In all, the kid was a mess. Hurt and betrayed, and now guilty and on the run. And worse - Stefan couldn't chase him - at least not until he got himself back under control.

But as it was, he still couldn't stand upright and moving was slow going.

Swallowing hard, Stefan tasted more blood, but not as much as before. He had to believe it was a short-term thing.

He approached the windowsill, collapsing against it in relief. If he could at least see which way Michael was headed, he might have a better chance tracking the kid.

But as he stood to look out, the pain spiked again, so intense that his vision dimmed around the edges and he sunk to his knees. He gasped for air, hacking a cough instead, and his consciousness ebbed into nothingness as he sank to the ground.

-o-

Coming out of unconsciousness was never one of Stefan's favorite things in the world. It was the weird feeling of disconnection, of vulnerability. Knowing something had happened, but not exactly what. Worse, knowing that something was wrong, but not having any power to fix it.

For someone who had lived and breathed with the mafia, that kind of vulnerability was especially dangerous. Even friends could be foes, and when coming to from an unexpected nap, Stefan always had to wonder if he'd wake up with a gun pointed at his head.

Most professionals, of course, would have no objection to killing him while he was out for the count. But there were the sick freaks who liked to see the fear and knowledge in the eyes the second before it all went dark.

So maybe it wasn't likely, but the point was, it was possible. Anything was possible, and when he'd been unconscious, Stefan had no way of knowing if the situation had improved or gone all to hell.

In this case, he wasn't really sure it could have gotten much worse.

After all, Michael had learned the truth and handled it poorly. So poorly that he'd lashed out with his freaky chimera powers, made Stefan keel over with pain and bleed, before taking off.

Oh, and just to top it all off nice and grim, Stefan didn't even catch a glimpse of which way he'd gone.

On the scale of zero to crap, things were already at a double f'ing crap, so really, what did he have to lose by coming to?

"Stefan," a voice was calling him. "Stefan."

The concrete connection with reality was jarring, yanking him uncomfortably from his floating and tethering him to awareness.

"This isn't nearly as much fun as you might think it is," Saul's voice was clearer now. "I'm completely adding an extra charge for unexpected bedside vigils in your final bill."

At that, Stefan scowled, blinking his eyes open to glare at Saul. "Count it under your excessive miscellaneous charges," he said.

Saul's face brightened, relief evident. "About time," he said. "The good doctor couldn't find any good reason for you to still be out. I was getting worried."

Stefan followed Saul's nod, looking at a pudgy man packing his bag in the corner of his room. He straightened, his almost obscenely floral shirt pitted out. "Esta bien, esta bien," he said with a wild gesture. "Lo digo, todo esta bien. Esta despierto, y todo esta bien."

"That's the doctor?" Stefan asked incredulously, wondering vaguely if he'd suffered brain damage in the process because even with his limited Spanish skills, the diagnosis didn't sound overly professional.

Saul stood, walking to the so-called doctor. They exchanged a few short words, a few small bills, and the doctor put on a straw hat, waving at Stefan with a wide smile. "Decansa, decansa, y todo esta bien."

Stefan made a face while Saul shuffled the other man out the door. "How did you find him?" he asked.

Saul turned back with a sigh, rubbing a hand absently over his mouth. "That's the only thing you can think to say?"

Stefan frowned. "How did you get in?"

Saul glared at him, plopping down heavily in a chair across from the couch. "You're fortunate that my many skills include lock picking."

"You broke in?"

Saul threw out an arm. "You weren't answering!"

"Maybe I was busy."

"Busy dying," Saul pointed out petulantly.

Stefan's mind was still having trouble catching up, getting lost in the wayward points. "Have you broken in before?"

Saul's face went blank for a moment, the anger draining. "I don't really think that's the point."

Impressive security Stefan had going here. He'd have to beef it up; if Saul could break in, then others could, too, and he needed to keep Michael better protected than that.

Of course, that could wait until after he found Michael again.

The argument came back to him with fresh intensity. The look of hurt and betrayal on Michael's face was etched into his memory, searing with the flash of pain in his stomach.

At that moment, he wasn't sure who'd been more shocked: him or Michael.

Stefan had never thought Michael could use the powers on him - and hell, the kid hadn't even touched him. Michael was powerful, but he'd never shown signs of being that powerful. Michael himself had said that only Wendy had been capable of that stuff. It was impossible that Michael had hurt him without even touching him.

Though, when it came to Michael, Stefan was quickly learning that impossible was a relative term.

"Alejandro thinks you'll be just fine, by the way," Saul assured him, settling back in the chair with his arms crossed over his chest. "Something about stomach cramps and avoiding local mushrooms. Just watch for continued blood in the stool, but he doesn't think there's any lasting damage"

Stefan made a face, somehow finding Alejandro's haphazard advice less than professional. "And Alejandro is a real doctor?"

Saul shrugged. "He was at one point," he said with as much assurance as he could muster. "Granted, he doesn't keep his licensure up to date, but in these tough economic times, who has the funds to keep it official?"

Stefan grunted, levering himself to a seated position. "I'm so glad that finding me unconscious and bleeding prompted such concern from you," he muttered.

Saul held up his hands in self-defense. "Hey, it was either Alejandro or the local vet. You're the one who chose this hell hole to hide out in, not me. I'm fresh out of contacts in La Paz."

Scowling, Stefan let it pass. Saul was right about that much; this had been his choice to come here. Well, his and Michael's. It had seemed like an apt decision. Out of the way, far from Stefan's former coworkers and off the grid from the Institute's stretching presence. And the idea of Bolivia had appealed to Michael, who, despite his cold ability to reason and rationalize, still seemed to hold onto something of modern day fairy tales. Not the kinds with princesses and princes, but Butch and Sundance, the great unknown before them and the promise of a heaven otherwise known as Bolivia.

Bolivia wasn't Heaven, but for the last few months, Stefan had hardly known the difference. With Michael, he had everything he needed.

Now Michael was gone.

"So," Saul said, clearly uncomfortable. He ran a hand over his face, regarding Stefan uncertainly. "Am I right in guessing that your little episode here wasn't brought on by a penchant for local produce?"

Stefan grimaced. "Gee, and I didn't have to even pay you extra for that astute observation."

Saul glared. "After everything, you're really going to make me play twenty questions here? I came in and found you passed out and bleeding. And your little buddy isn't even in sight. I know you're giving him room to grow, but I've never seen you two far apart for this long."

Saul was cocky, arrogant, and a pain in the ass, but he was smart as hell. There was a reason he was worth the high paycheck Stefan had to put out to keep him around.

With a sigh, Stefan shook his head. "He found out," he said, leaving it all out there. Saul knew most of it anyway, and even without client privileges, Stefan knew there were some secrets that were safe with Saul. He'd always had a soft spot for Michael and the plight the kid had gone through; Saul wouldn't jeopardize that. Not now, not ever. Not with his own Rosemary to remember.

Saul raised his eyebrows. "He found out?" he repeated slowly. "What, that there are food groups beyond sugar and grease? You're going to have to be a bit more specific here."

Stefan rolled his eyes. "He found out that he's not my brother."

Saul's face froze and as understanding settled in, his mouth opened. Then he swore. "And he didn't take it well, huh?"

"You only saw the end of it," Stefan said grimly, remembering all too clearly just how hurt Michael had looked. Confused, broken, and betrayed.

"I'd hate to think what he would have done if he'd stuck around to hash it out," Saul said.

Stefan narrowed his eyes. "It freaked him out. He didn't know what to do."

Saul held up his hands. "Hey, I'm not judging. The kid's already been through hell, given what we know about his upbringing. He's been trained to be a killer, not cope with the typical family dynamic."

"He was never supposed to know," Stefan said, running a hand through his hair. Gingerly, he got to his feet, one hand hovering over his stomach. "He's had too much crap to deal with."

"So you are going to go after him then?" Saul asked, a little hedgingly.

Stefan was surprised by the question. Any other course of action hadn't even occurred to him. "Of course I'm going after him," he said shortly. "He's my brother."

Saul nodded agreeably. "I'm just wondering if it's, you know, the smartest decision. Last time he saw you, he did try to rip your insides."

Stefan's face darkened. "That's not how it happened."

"Really?" Saul asked. "Because I seem to recall having to break the door down to find you unconscious and bleeding on the floor. All things considered, I'm not so sure the kid wants to be found by you."

"It wasn't like that," Stefan said, shaking his head in slow, purposeful motions. He liked Saul and he understood that Saul's point of view wasn't the same as his in this situation, but ultimately it didn't matter. Stefan's point of view was the only one that mattered and if Saul had an issue with that, then Stefan didn't need Saul at all. He wet his lips, locking his jaw, piercing the other man with a resolute stare. "He was scared. Confused."

Saul swallowed convulsively, keeping his composure with a visible effort. "I'm just saying that he might still be scared and confused," he said. "The kid may need some time."

Michael could have all the time he wanted - as long as Stefan knew where he was. He'd lost one brother, and he wasn't about to lose another. The ten years he'd spent searching for Lukas had been the hardest of his life, defined by obsession, loss, and loneliness. He did not doubt that losing Michael in this fashion would be just as bad - that his obsession to find his brother again would be just as strong.

And something he learned the hard way with Lukas was that the longer he waited, the harder it got. Michael had only fled hours before. The trail would still be there. If they were going to find a lead on the kid, it was going to be now.

Worse, if the kid really had used his powers without having to touch someone, that was bound to be wreaking havoc on his already tenuous sense of selfhood. Stefan needed to find him and fast, before Michael self-destructed completely.

He shook his head, more determined than ever. "That's a risk I'm willing to take," he said. "And if Misha wants time, he can tell me that to my face."

Saul sighed, clearly understanding his defeat in this argument. "Fine," he said. "You're the boss, boss."

Saul's acquiescence was a small show of solidarity, but after going it alone for so long, it was nice to think he didn't have to find Michael without backup. Saul was expendable to the overall goal, but that didn't mean that Stefan necessarily wanted the other man gone.

He let his gaze drop, containing a wince as he shifted on his feet. He was still sore, but it wasn't anything he couldn't deal with. Looking up, he met Saul's eyes. "Thanks."

Saul blew out a breath, getting to his feet. "Don't thank me, Smirnoff," he said nonchalantly. "Just be sure to pay me. Overtime for this one, because I'm working way outside of my comfort zone on this gig."

Stefan gave a short laugh. "I'll pay you triple overtime if you pick up a lead."

Saul raised his eyebrows. "Triple overtime? At that rate, I may be able to retire."

Stefan walked to the window, eyes scanning the street. It was life as normal out there, the typical crowd coming and going. Stefan recognized some of his neighbors, even a friend of Michael's from school. But no traces of Michael. He chewed his lip, considering the options. "Don't start planning your casino trips just yet, old timer," he said. "We need to find a trail, first."

Saul joined him, looking out over the street. "Any place you to start?"

Stefan sighed, turning away from the window. "For now, we start with a simple sweep. You head north, I'll go south. Ask shop keepers, vendors, anyone who may have been around for a few hours."

"So there's no one he may have gone to for help?" Saul asked, watching Stefan carefully.

Michael had friends, that was true, and even a few that were probably pretty good friends. But Michael was still shy in many respects, not overly inclined to opening up to people. More than that, if Michael was on the run, he wouldn't be stupid enough to hit up any contact that Stefan would be aware of. Michael was a kid, but he was a damn smart kid.

And more than any of that, the upswing in Michael's powers would send him as far away from people as possible.

He shook his head. "No," he said. "I think he'd go it alone, so our best bet is that someone may have caught a glimpse of him on his way out."

Saul sighed. "This is going to be a long afternoon, isn't it?" he said with certain dread

Stefan managed a small smile, slapping Saul on the shoulder. "Keep your search pattern uniform, basic grid formation."

"Basic grid formation, check," Saul said. Then he made a face. "I should have demanded double overtime."

"We'll take it out two miles. If no one's seen anything in that radius, we'll reconvene and consider our options," Stefan said, checking his watch. It hadn't been more than two hours, but Stefan had been on the run enough to know just how much of a head start that really was. They didn't have time to lose.

"It's a blonde geeky kid in La Paz," Saul said. "Someone's going to notice him."

Stefan sighed, looking out into the street once more. "I hope so," he murmured. He thought about Michael, if he was scared or angry. Maybe even hurt and alone. It made Stefan's heart want to break. "I really hope so."

-o-

Michael was trained to run. He was adept in stealth, well suited for sneaking away and evading authorities. That had been a big deal at the Institute, the ability to disappear, to hide. He had been taught to move quietly, walk lightly on the balls of his feet, keep his eyes trained, always ready, always alert.

He knew to keep to busy areas, that the best camouflage was unsuspecting groups of people. When the objective was to disappear, it was best to start in plain sight and work down from there.

Jericho would be proud that Michael had retained that much.

Who was Michael kidding? Jericho would be giddy at Michael's progress. Causing damage without a touch. Inflicting pain by the mere thought of it. It was right up there with Wendy.

It had never occurred to Michael that his powers could continue to grow. That perhaps parts of them were latent. That Jericho had been right when he told Michael again and again (and again) that he wasn't living up to his potential.

Michael was a killer. Plain and simple. Proof that destiny caught up with even the best of intentions, that Jericho was right about him all along. He should have taken Jericho's hand in the getaway van and saved all of them the trouble.

Michael shuddered at the thought, tears stinging at his eyes. He didn't want Jericho's pride. He didn't want any part of Jericho's legacy. But then again, here he was. On the run, slipping around with the skills he'd been instill with from Jericho's teaching, running away from the only person in the world who had actually cared about him.

Stefan.

Stefan had taught him to run, too. He had taught him that the trick was to always keep moving, go, go, go. Use contacts as necessary, keep things well funded. Stefan hadn't been as good at evasion as Jericho, but still, Stefan had shown him reality while Jericho had shown him a measured version, the parts he deemed prudent.

Michael never would have run from Jericho if it hadn't been for Stefan. Michael never would have existed without Stefan. Stefan had given him a chance at life. Stefan was his family.

Chest tight, it was all Michael could do not to cry. He was too old for this kind of thing, but it was hard to deny. He had never wanted a family - he had never even thought running was possible - but Stefan had changed that. Stefan had changed everything. When Michael had nothing else, he'd had Stefan.

He'd never really thought about it - just how much of his world was built upon Stefan. He'd never considered that it was dangerous to trust someone so completely. He'd never thought that Stefan could be another person controlling him, using him for his own ends.

Michael swallowed, pushing ahead. A pair of teen girls gawked at him, but Michael didn't slow down to let them get a good look. They were cute, but that didn't mean anything. Nothing meant anything. What could possibly mean anything?

He'd built a life outside the Institute, a life with a brother, and he'd thought it was for the better.

But it was a lie. People lied. They'd taught him that at the Institute. Trust no one.

They'd been right about that.

How could they have been right?

How could they be the ones who had never lied to him?

How could he make sense of this? If he'd never left, if he'd killed Stefan that night he broke in - he never would have felt like this, never would have felt like his heart was going to burst out of his chest. It would have been easier. So much easier.

But he couldn't take it back. He couldn't undo it. Michael had staked everything he had left on this family, and for what? He couldn't take it back, couldn't, couldn't, couldn't. Couldn't take back jumping in front of that bullet, couldn't take back getting on a plane to Bolivia, couldn't take back using his powers against Stefan.

He had used his powers. On Stefan.

He'd almost killed Stefan.

The reality of it turned his stomach, and Michael realized he was going to be sick.

Feeling the bile rise in his throat, Michael ducked off the street, searching blindly. It was an alley, dark and dingy, but it didn't matter. He crashed to his knees next to a dumpster and hurled.

He retched again, acid burning up his throat, through his nostrils. He curled over with it and heaved again, fingers flat on the gritty pavement.

Gasping, he was crying now, taking hiccuping breaths as he tried to get control again.

He could still see the look on Stefan's face. There'd been pain - lots of pain - and surprise. Stefan had never thought Michael would hurt him.

Michael hadn't even meant to hurt him - he hadn't. It had just happened. So much confusion, so much anger, and the next thing Michael had known, Stefan was keeling over. Michael didn't even know what he'd done, how he'd done it, if it'd been serious damage, if Stefan had bled out after he left.

The thought made him panic and he jerked his head up, looking back at the street. He could have left Stefan for dead. He could have killed the only person in his family-

Not his family.

The bitter truth crashed over him again and Michael shifted miserably onto his bottom, easing himself against the dumpster. He had no family. He was born a slave and even though he'd gotten away, his roots were undeniable. He was supposed to die a slave, alone and used. All the nights he'd dreamed of freedom as a child - they'd been fantasies, just like this past year.

But it wasn't true. It wasn't. It couldn't be. Nothing could take away what this last year had meant to him, everything he'd learned, the person he'd become.

Michael knew he wasn't normal, but he was still a person. Chimeras were people, and ever since Stefan had treated him like one, it was impossible to let go of it. Stefan wasn't family, but he was the only person who had ever taken a chance on Michael. The only person who had cared about who he was, not just what he could do. The only person who had ever bothered to love him.

Maybe that made the lies okay. Maybe lying was a part of family. Maybe they could have gotten through it. Maybe he didn't need a brother, but he knew he needed Stefan.

But he didn't deserve Stefan. Michael was no better than Wendy. No better than a rabid monkey in a cage.

Michael's head lolled against the metal and he looked bleakly at the sky. His logic didn't change anything. It was weak, it was wrong, but he needed Stefan. But how could he go back now? How could he go back after what he'd done? Maybe Stefan would have forgiven his brother - he might have forgiven Lukas everything.

But Michael was not Lukas. Michael was Michael. A killer.

He closed his eyes, resigned to his fate.

It was over. The illusion was gone. Michael had no family. Michael had no home. Whatever was left for him out there, he had to make for himself. Alone.

With one more steadying breath, Michael wiped his eyes. He got to his feet, smoothing out his clothes. He had a little cash in his pockets, and it would have to be enough to get him to the next town. There, maybe he could make some money, bulk up his funds. Then he'd have to find some other place to go, someplace far away from Stefan and all that Michael had tried to build here.

Emotions in check, Michael ducked back onto the street. One cursory glanced showed him no sign of anyone suspicious following him, and he disappeared into the flow of people once again.

NEXT