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Chimera fic: Into the Bolivian Sunset 6/15

July 13th, 2011 (09:20 am)

Previous parts here.
 

CHAPTER SIX

It was morning when they got back, but the impending dawn meant little to Stefan. They still needed to rest, whether Stefan wanted to or not. Saul, for his part, crashed on the couch, asleep within seconds of getting inside.

At least one of them was keeping things according to plan, Stefan thought ruefully as he retreated to his bedroom.

Changing out of his clothes, he put on a clean black t-shirt, stripping down to his boxers. Throwing back the covers to his bed, he flopped down. There was a lump in his throat and a voice niggling the back of his mind, but he forced himself to ignore both, closing his eyes purposefully.

It wasn't a question of physical need. It was an emotional one. Stefan's body had spent ten years bending to meet the emotional demands he placed on it. He learned how to overcome fatigue to earn an extra buck. He figured out how to swallow remorse in order to do what he had to do. His job wasn't pretty sometimes, but he'd managed to pull in his conscience just enough to make it all parse. Sleep was something he took when he could, but he never craved it. He didn't quite have to resort to counting sheep some nights, but winding thoughts of Lukas had often been his lullaby.

For Stefan, those thoughts had been a curse and a blessing. They were meager, distant but vivid, like snapshots losing their clarity with too much use and love. But Stefan had replayed them often - still did - moments he remembered with Lukas. The games they played, the fights they had. The way Lukas' face lit up when Stefan got home from camp. The way Lukas had been so quiet after their mother had died.

Those moments had been his saving grace, the one thing that kept him tethered. Without them, sometimes Stefan often suspected he wouldn't have cared about anything. He would have just given up, let his life mean nothing. Lukas was the reason he got up in the morning.

But Lukas was also the reason he could never sleep peacefully at night. Because Lukas haunted his dreams. The small blonde head lolling in the water. A tiny limp hand dangling behind its abductor. The smear of blood garish on Lukas' head, the strained whining grunt from Harry as he died, the smell of the ocean as Lukas disappeared once and for always.

Stefan still had those thoughts, still dreamed those dreams. Remembering the truth did not lessen its veracity, didn't even always take the edge of the pain.

There was more than that now, though. More joy, more fear. More to hold on to, more to lose. Michael preoccupied most of his thoughts, and Stefan sometimes spent his nights cataloguing the ways in which his brother surprised him. Sometimes how he worried him.

He liked to remember his time with Michael, too. The plaintive look on Michael's face when he first rescued him. The way his hand squeezed Stefan's when the doctor was removing the tracking device. The soft breath of love on his cheek when Michael took a bullet for him at the beach house.

The good came with the bad - it was the story of Stefan's life. Maybe that was why his dreams were never simple; never happy, never sad. Just somewhere in between, bittersweet truths and hard realities.

His mind roamed freely now, and often included them both. Lukas and Michael. Two brothers, so similar and so different. Pure souls, pure light. Lukas laughed more. Michael made Stefan laugh more.

Stefan sank deeper, weighed under by the comparison, the same way he always was Because this was a story he knew, one he had lived twice. It was the same story of finding and losing, loving and grieving, holding on and letting go. Same stories, different endings. His unconscious mind explored all the possibilities he never let himself fully realize. Some nights he found happiness; some nights he didn't.

Tonight was not a good night. Bad days yielded bad nights and sometimes Stefan wondered if Michael had the right idea about Kermit.

But not even Kermit could do the trick now.

Zilla flitted throughout the apartment, and although Stefan usually shooed the little rat away when possible, tonight he let the furry thing curl up on the bed next to him because it seemed like they both needed the company.

Awareness was fleeting now, fading around the edges. His thoughts jumbled, running into each other and changing with the surreal passage of time. Yet, in the growing din, he was aware of what he was still looking for, what he was still missing.

His dreams were of searching. Searching and proving, always pushing to some indefinable point he hadn't reach, maybe never could.

But he still had to look. Even now, Stefan searched for answers, searched for truth, but the path was winding, unfurling through the streets. There were people everywhere and yet not a soul around. And Stefan would search and search and search until he found the beach.

It always came back to the beach. The beach of his childhood, warm and sandy. Hoof prints in the sand, galloping along the water's edge.

Stefan could see them now, both of them. Lukas on one, Michael on the other.

The same and different. Brothers.

There was the tension, pulling between them. To honor one without failing the other. It was a delicate balancing act, one of self-justifications and easy deceptions, but they both knew better, and so did Stefan. It was impossible to tell what they held against him - what was easy to forgive and what just cut too deeply, but Stefan wanted the time to make it right. He wanted the chance to save them both.

Stefan moved after them, feet slow in the sand, but they saw him coming. For Lukas, it was a game and before Stefan could catch him, Lukas had ridden out of sight, gone into the mist along the shore.

Michael was still there, almost waiting for him. He had the same blonde hair, the same bicolored eyes.

But when Stefan was close enough, Michael shook his head and pulled the horse's mane until she darted off into the darkness, leaving Stefan in the sand, crying, begging, hoping for them to come back.

With a gasp, Stefan woke up.

His heart was pounding and his eyes were wet. Shaking, he wet his lips, running a hand through his hair as he tried to sit up.

It had been a dream.

Blinking, he pressed his lips together, mustering whatever self-control he might have had to settle himself. So much for the idea of rest.

His heart rate was still elevated and his shirt was sweaty, sticking to his skin. Zilla was still sleeping next to him. Glancing at the clock, Stefan didn't know whether it was a good or bad thing that several hours had passed.

The day was bright outside. Through the open window, Stefan could hear the sounds of the street starting up, just like normal.

Except it wasn't normal. Normal was relative, he knew. There had been a time when going to work and bashing heads together was the norm, a period of his life that was thankfully passed. But waking up not knowing where Michael was - that could never be normal, just like it was never normal to think about Lukas' body buried next to their mother in a cemetery back in Florida.

Uneasy, Stefan got up. He was used to leaving Lukas in his dreams; leaving Michael there was a lot harder.

But Michael was out there - somewhere. The kid could be pissed as hell at him - that was okay - but Stefan could still find him. Would still find him. He'd make this right, even if it killed him.

It was that motivation that got him out of bed. Giving himself a sniff, he winced and slipped into the bathroom.

He made the shower hot, turning his skin red as he lathered up. He gave his hair a quick wash before turning off the water and toweling himself dry. The shower had woken him up a bit, washing away the remnants of the dream, but it did nothing for the growing sense of trepidation he felt.

After all, here Stefan was, taking showers, using fluffy towels. He'd slept in a comfortable bed last night and he could go into the kitchen and have a hearty breakfast.

He had no way of knowing if Michael had had any place at all to sleep last night, if his brother had curled up on the street like a homeless man, if he was going to have something to eat this morning. He didn't know if Michael was scared or confused or anything.

The good thing about nightmares was that they ended when he woke up.

Reality was something he couldn't escape from. Which was why he had to go out and face it.

Putting on a new outfit, Stefan ran a hand through his hair, taming it a little. He spared a minute to cover his scar - the last thing he needed was to get himself tagged while searching for Michael. It might screw them both.

Satisfied - or as close as he was going to get - Stefan headed out into the kitchen.

Saul was already at the table, nursing a cup of coffee as he flipped through a newspaper. He offered Stefan a smile as he approached. "I'd say good morning, Smirnoff, but I'm not sure it'd be true."

Stefan grunted a little, walking past Saul to the coffee maker. He poured himself a cup, taking a hot, bitter drink and letting it wash down his throat. Then he allowed himself to turn and face Saul again. "It'll be good when we find Michael," Stefan said.

If Saul thought to disagree with him, he didn't let on, and Stefan was grateful. Instead, Saul took a drink, pushing the paper aside. "I checked the paper just to see if anything suspicious popped up," he said. "Even called the local airport and train stations, just to see. I have a contact at the bus terminal who's going to keep an eye out in case he tries to skip town." He paused, jawing working carefully. His eyes darted away for a moment before he looked back, almost apologetically. "I put in a call to the hospital, too, but there's no sign of anyone matching Michael's description."

Stefan took the news for what it was. It was hard to imagine Michael in any of those places - getting away, being hurt. But it was the right thing to do, and again Stefan found himself grateful for Saul. It was nice to have someone to do the uncomfortable stuff every now and then, and even considering the idea that Michael might be physically hurt was pretty hard for Stefan to swallow.

Another worse...just wasn't possible, and Saul had had the good sense not to breach that unknown.

Nodding stiffly, Stefan took another drink. "His trail seems to have gone cold," he said.

"It got late," Saul said. "Work shifts change, people go home. People get drunk. It doesn't mean anything."

Saul had a point, but it was still a doubt Stefan couldn't shake. "I don't know," he said, moving over to the table. The phone book was still out, the possible sightings marked on it. Stefan had gone to bed without updating it, so he picked up a pen, straining to remember. "I got a few more sightings before I went to bed - they were pretty consistent."

Carefully, Stefan marked the map, adding small x's to the places where individuals thought they might have seen a blonde kid fitting Michael's description.

Saul leaned over, frowning at it. "How much farther out did you get in the search grid?"

Using the pen, Stefan boxed the extent of his search, drawing a line down the street where he'd gotten into the fight.

"Huh," Saul said. He borrowed the pen, drawing his own extended lines. "I made it a little farther out than you, but I started to lose possible sightings a little sooner."

Stefan studied the map, shaking his head. "It's like he stopped."

Saul gave a small shrug. "Maybe he got tired, went to sleep."

"But where?" Stefan asked. "These streets, they're not overly residential. This isn't a tourist area, so motels are going to be hard to come by."

"Kid wouldn't need a motel if he just squatted someplace for the night."

That was true, but it wasn't Michael's style. Even when they'd been on the run before, Stefan had always provided a roof over the kid's head - even if it was just a car. Michael was resourceful, but he did not enjoy breaking the law, especially not for himself.

Stefan shook his head again. "But the sightings stopped at twilight, not nighttime. Even if Michael did crash for the night, he wouldn't go to sleep at 8."

Saul tapped the table absently, trying to come up with an answer. "Do we know anything else about the area where we stopped getting tips?"

Stefan leaned closer, examining the surrounding streets. It wasn't an area he personally frequented, but it probably didn't help that Stefan didn't usually much prefer to go out. It seemed that in his old age, he was becoming quite the homebody. Though, not without reason. After working in the mafia, he was too aware that there were bad people out there, and he frankly didn't see the point in risking meeting any more of them then he already had.

Besides, with his job and Michael, his life was more or less complete.

But Michael enjoyed going out - he always seemed to be finding new places. There had been more than one Saturday when Michael had dragged him in that general vicinity, just to see what was out there.

Well, and to spend some of Stefan's money, of course. The stupider the item, the more Michael seemed to want it. Stefan always made a show about it, groaning and berating Michael's distinct lack of taste, but damn, if the kid would just come home, Stefan would take him on a shopping spree, no sarcastic commentary at all.

"It's mostly shopping and businesses," he said finally. He pointed to an open space on the map. "There's a market over here that Michael likes sometimes."

Saul blew out a breath, and sat back in his chair, rubbing a hand tiredly over his face. "You call the shots here, Smirnoff. I'm just following the money trail."

That was fair, even if not entirely accurate. However, this was Stefan situation to fix, and it was up to him to determine the next move.

The problem was, he didn't know what move to make.

Going back and canvassing the same area might be a place to start, but if Michael had slipped under the radar, they'd lose track of him quickly. But venturing onward with no clear idea of where Michael might be headed would get harder and harder the farther away they got. La Paz was a big city and Michael was just one kid - a proverbial needle in a haystack. Stefan knew from experience how hard that was to find, and he didn't plan on letting ten years pass before he got another solid lead.

There was a reason that most missing persons cases were solved in the first forty-eight hours. After that, leads were hard to come by. It hadn't been forty-eight hours yet, but Stefan could feel the seconds ticking by, reducing his odds of success with each passing moment.

Suddenly there was a knock at the door.

Startled, Stefan looked up. With a look to Saul, who shrugged, he moved to the door.

The knock sounded again. "Stefan, it's Ava!" a muffled voice came from the other side.

The urgency in her voice gave Stefan reason to fear and to hope, so he crossed the remaining distance in a few short strides, unlocking the knob and opening.

Ava rushed through, harried and rushed. Her eyes were wide, her short hair unkempt, and her clothes looked suspiciously similar to yesterday's.

Stefan hadn't thought it possible, but apparently someone had gotten less sleep than he had.

Before he could ask her how she was, she was talking though. "I got something," she said, sounding breathless.

Saul raised his eyebrows. "Did you run here?" The tone of incredulity was barely couched in politeness.

She looked at him blankly, and Stefan could see the sweat beaded on her forehead. "I thought you'd want to see what I had," she said in huffing words.

"Which is?" Stefan prompted.

Ava turned back to him, her chest still heaving. "I put out the feelers like I told you," she explained halting. She swallowed with effort. "All the contacts I've used locally, more than you might think. I was hoping we'd get lucky, and we did. I just didn't expect it quite this quickly."

Stefan was watching her, seeing her mouth move, hearing the words, but they weren't quite clicking. Maybe it was the lack of sleep, maybe it was just the sheer fact that she was saying they'd gotten lucky.

Her face split into a smile. "We got a lead," she said. "An honest to God lead."

Stefan's mouth was dry, his throat constricted.

It was Saul who stepped forward. "How can you be so sure?" he asked. "We picked up a few sightings all evening, but nothing concrete."

"How about video surveillance?" she asked.

Saul blinked.

Stefan gaped. "You're serious?"

She pulled a disc from her purse, holding it out. "It's why I ran all the way here. I got the tip early this morning from a guy I know who works down at the market. Some kind of merchant. It sounded promising - he had a clear description of Michael, so then I thought, that market is one of the busiest places in this part of town. They're going to have security set up to protect the vendors. So I followed up on the lead, and worked a favor with the security guard on duty and got to watch the feeds from the different cameras around the time of the sighting."

Stefan was still gaping and staring, and for a minute he wondered if his heart was beating at all.

She held it out further. "When I say we got lucky, I mean we got lucky," she said.

With shaking hands, Stefan reached out, taking the disc. Wetting his lips, he looked at it. It was so simple. A regular, unmarked disc. But if it was what Ava said it was, then it was just about the most valuable thing in the world to him.

This was a feeling Stefan remembered. The feeling he'd gotten the first time Saul picked up a clue on what they had thought was Lukas' whereabouts. The giddy hope, too precious to be ignored, but so precarious that it could not totally be trusted.

In some ways, it was easier to stay here there, to hold the disc, to hold onto hope while it was still there and not risk losing it forever.

But the hope was too pervasive, too powerful, and Stefan shut his mouth. "Let's watch a movie, then."

-o-

It was surprisingly decent quality for a surveillance video. Most surveillance cameras were mostly for show, the mere presence supposedly a deterrent to crime.

The footage was in black and white, but the clarity was better than Stefan had expected. It was easy enough to identify figures on the screen - a family with children, the wayward tourist, overzealous merchants.

Stefan was perched on the edge of the coffee table, as close to the TV as he could get without totally obscuring the view. He was only vaguely aware of Saul and Ava, both on the couch behind him.

The time in the corner started the footage in the late afternoon, and Stefan fast forwarded through the early part of the evening. Ava's source had spotted Michael right around dusk, which fit with the sighting path that Stefan had followed. Even less coincidentally, it was right about the time the sightings stopped popping up, making him more than somewhat anxious about what they were going to see.

Going to regular speed, Stefan kept his eyes alert. The viewing area wasn't all that large, but it was large enough that it was hard to focus on the entire flow of people at once.

But he would see Michael. He believed that, without a doubt. Michael was a part of him, and he could never miss him.

So when he caught sight of a blonde figure on the screen, Stefan was almost hesitant to believe it, thought it was perhaps nothing more than a manifestation of his confidence. But then the figure stopped, glancing around behind him and Stefan had no doubts.

Michael.

The eyes were intelligent, but the expression guarded. His hair looked somewhat in disarray, and he seemed to be moving mildly erratically. Nothing that would make him stand out to the crowd around him, but painfully obvious to Stefan's big brother eyes.

Michael was scared. He was hurting. If it were possible, Stefan would have reached through the frame and pulled the kid into a hug, no matter how much of a babushka it made him.

But Michael was alive. Better, Michael was okay. There was a relief in that Stefan couldn't even give voice to.

The relief, however, was short lived.

Michael was making his way across the screen, pace quick and light. Then, suddenly, with no warning, Michael's lanky frame went limp, sagging like a rag doll. But before the boy could collapse, he was neatly caught, hauled up close to the figure in the trench coat just to Michael's rear.

Stefan's heart dropped to his stomach, head going light, but he did not blink.

The figure didn't miss a beat, keeping Michael upright even as his head lolled uselessly against the figure's shoulder.

Easily keeping with the flow of foot traffic, the figure maneuvered Michael's inert body along for a few short paces before ducking toward an alleyway. Just before the figure disappeared from the camera's picture, Michael was swept off his feet, hauled into the figure's arms before vanishing entirely.

No one even did a double take.

And just like that, Michael was gone.

Saul swore. "No way that was just some coincidence," he said. "That was a planned hit if I ever saw one."

Paused on the last image of Michael, Stefan strained to examine the image. The man who took Michael was nondescript, obscured by the trench coat, but there was something about him. Something eerily familiar in the benign facade.

Stefan studied him, the bulky body, the dark, thick hair. The thinning spot just at the top.

His heart sank.

The man from the bar, the one who had been checking Michael out. Not a pervert, not even just some freak. "That guy," he said, pointing to the figure. "He cased us out no more than a week ago."

Saul squinted, leaning forward. "Yeah? You think he's from the Institute? I thought you said you got the son of a bitch who ran the place?"

"We did," Stefan said grimly, stopping the tape to rewind it. "But you know as well as I do that they've been rebuilding."

"You think they want Michael back?" Saul asked, looking at the screen again.

Stefan stopped it once more, putting it on pause as Michael entered the frame. "You got a better guess?"

"Well, I know you're not exactly the most popular guy around the block," Saul said. "I mean, I practice don't ask, don't tell with most of my clients, but I know your type. You sure whoever snatched him isn't looking for revenge on you? Maybe the kid isn't the real target."

Stefan started the scene again, this time on a slower speed. The thought had crossed his mind. That somehow his unfortunate timing in leaving Konstantin's service had caught up with him. It could even go as far up as Anatoly. After all, Lukas had been killed in a snatching gone wrong. If someone had gotten a trace on them to Bolivia, it wasn't out of the realm of possibility.

Which is why he needed more clues. Something more telling than the nondescript figure on the video. Stefan couldn't even tell what put Michael under - an injection or a gas or what?From what he could see, it looked like nothing. Michael had been fine one minute and then out the next.

It was the craziest thing. Just like when Michael had a wayward thought during a fight and got the bad guys out of play-

Stefan's chest clenched. It looked exactly like that. No warning, no impetus. If Michael looked like he'd been taken out by nothing more than a thought, then it was possible he had.

Sitting up, Stefan scanned with new focus, rewinding the tape again.

"You looking for something in particular?" Saul asked, clearly skeptical. "There's nothing there. The guy didn't face the camera, and if he didn't ring any bells with you before, I'm not sure he will now."

"We're not looking at the guy," Stefan said, starting the footage again in slow motion. "We're looking at the other people in the crowd."

"Okay," Saul said slowly. "You think it was a tag team effort?"

"Just a theory I've got," Stefan muttered. "Look for anything unusual, or someone familiar..."

A young couple, holding hands. A teenage boy with his hands shoved in his pockets. A gaggle of three girls, giggling and gossiping. A young girl, people watching-

Stefan abruptly hit pause, leaning closer.

He knew that girl. How could he ever forget her? It had been a brief encounter, but an important one. An angelic face, and an innocent pair of soft, pale eyes. He couldn't see their color on the video, but he didn't need to.

"Wendy," he breathed.

Saul sat closer. "What? Who?"

Stefan pointed at the girl, oddly still amongst all the movement. She was standing, arms at her sides, gaze fixed on Michael. "Wendy," he repeated. "The night we broke Michael out, she was the girl in the first room. I offered to help her, but she almost killed me."

"Whoa, you mean-"

Stefan nodded grimly. "The Institute brought Wendy to catch Michael."

Saul sat back, blowing out a low breath. "Damn," he said, shaking his head. "Kid didn't even see it coming."

"Well, there is one bit of good news in this," Stefan said, letting the footage play out one more time. He watched as Michael went limp, blonde hair flopping against his kidnapper's shoulder before he was whisked out of sight.

"And that is?" Saul asked.

Jaw clenched, Stefan steeled himself. "At least we know exactly who we need to go after."

More than that, Stefan knew exactly who he needed to kill to get Michael back. Once and for all.

-o-

It smelled wrong.

Cold and antiseptic. The harsh smell of bleach lingering in stale, recycled air.

It smelled familiar.

The smells of his childhood. A tinge of metal in the scent, and starched cotton close by.

It smelled like the Institute.

Not exactly the same. The air was slightly more moist, the space less subterranean.

There was light.

Lots of light.

Some artificial, some natural. Burning against the front of his eyelids with a sudden heat that made him flinch.

The movement revealed more sensations. Scratchy hospital sheets, a narrow gurney, sides up and locked. An IV embedded in the crook of his left elbow. No, two IVs, but he had no way of knowing what was in either bag.

He knew this. This was his life at the Institute. This was his life before Stefan. This was his life.

He squeezed his eyes further shut, desperate to slip back into oblivion. He had dreams from time to time, nightmares like these. But they went away. They went away when he woke up.

Frantic, Michael opened his eyes. The light almost blinded him and he flinched, trying to move his hands to block it out. But his arms were tethered to the bed rails, feet tied as well.

Panic swelled within him and he thrashed, but to no avail. His bonds were tight, unyielding.

With a gasping breath, Michael closed his eyes again, begging to wake up.

But he was awake. He was awake and he was tied to a gurney, hooked up to drugs, locked in a sterile room.

Michael's eyes opened again, searching it this time. It was different than he remembered, but the key points were still the same. Machines of all sizes. Tools and medicine vials.

The Institute. He was in the Institute.

It was a numb realization, too overwhelming to fully process. He remembered now, the futility of hope. Why he had never followed John on any of his attempts to leave.

The Institute kept him fettered and powerless. It was a world inside a world, where control was stripped from the individual, where genes were manipulated to both bolster potential and limit it. Here, Michael was a subject. A student. A slave.

Not a brother.

The loss of that sense of identity was profound. Tears stung at Michael's eyes and he swallowed hard, turning his head away from the glaring light as he tried in vain to stifle his sob.

To think it had been easier before, when he had not known about Stefan and what it meant to hope.

The absence of that, however, was his own fault. He'd reverted back to what he'd been created to do: harm, injure, kill.

Perhaps the last year had been a test, one he had finally passed.

"Ah, you're awake," a voice cut into his consciousness.

Michael startled, opening his eyes and trying to blink away his tears. One slipped free, but he had no way of hiding it.

A figured walked closer. Again, familiar, but not exactly who he had expected. Logically, Michael knew Jericho was dead, but this was his kingdom. These were his parlor games.

It was a man, older than Jericho. He was not as impressive, gray hair thin and wild. His glasses were dark rimmed and slipping down his nose. Michael did not remember him from the previous Institute, but the white lab coat and cold smile were the only identifying markers that mattered.

The man walked closer, pausing at Michael's bedside. His expression was curious as he gazed down. "Funny, you do not look nearly as impressive as when I first met you," he said. "Do you remember me?"

Michael's brow furrowed and his throat tightened. He had stopped looking at the workers at the Institute as people. He had stopped seeing them as individuals. Mindless white coats, drones with tasers, ushering him back and forth, back and forth in an endless cycle of futility.

The man's smile widened. "I was very nearly your undoing, Michael," he said, his tone almost friendly, but Michael could read the cruel intention in his eyes. "Though perhaps you have not learned that even the frail and dying can be your enemy. Sometimes the greatest threats are the ones you pity."

Michael blinked, mind scrambling. Back, past the last twenty-four hours. Back, before settling in Bolivia. Back, when he still thought that Stefan could be a crazy man.

Dr. Bellucci. Jericho's old friend. Michael had been so intent on what the older man had had to tell them, that he had not been attuned to the finer points of what he looked like. Even when he found out who had betrayed them, it had not seemed relevant to commit this man into memory. Michael had enough demons in his nightmares; he had not wanted to add another.

He had no choice now.

Dr. Bellucci nodded, clearly pleased. "So you do remember," he said. Then he turned to the equipment, checking something and pushing a few buttons. He moved swiftly to the IVs, changing the flow on one and changing the other out entirely. "And you may as well speak, nothing we've done to you has impaired you in that way. Wendy is quite precise."

Michael flinched at the name.

Dr. Bellucci smile, amused. "Yes, you remember Wendy," he mused. "Quite a girl, that one. Jericho believed he could get a most high price for her, but I see her as a more invaluable asset. What's the need for extra security details when I just need one of her to stop anyone - chimera or otherwise - with a blink of her eye?"

That made sense. It was logical. Wendy had grown in power, clearly, which meant they could train and hone their skills.

More than that, it explained how he got here - why he'd never seen it coming. Because he hadn't seen it coming. Not at all. One minute he'd been walking through the market, the next he'd been unconscious. No threat Michael was aware of could down him so efficiently except for someone with his own powers. "She captured me," he said, surprised at how dry his voice sounded. His throat was parched, dry and sticky.

The doctor seemed to wince at his words. "Yes," he said. "She made your reacquisition quite perfunctory."

Michael swallowed, trying to work some saliva into his mouth. "How long have I been here?" he asked, eyes wandering the room again. Before, he never would have asked such questions. But his natural curiosity was harder to suppress now. It was harder to accept that this was a fate he had to be resigned to.

The doctor shrugged, walking to a table and picking up a chart. He made a notation. "Just over a day," he said. "Wendy has gotten quite adept at managing just how long to keep someone impaired until I am ready to deal with them."

Over a day. Which meant they could have traveled a sizable distance. Especially since any transportation would not have been public. All things considered, it was likely that he was at the compound Saul had identified. The one they'd planned on breaking into and putting a stop to.

Michael had never liked Stefan's plan. If they'd only known getting in would be this easy.

Getting out, however, was the trick. This place didn't have escape routes. It had two ways out, and Michael didn't care what had happened, he would never be the product they wanted. Now more than ever. Death would be an acceptable release. Perhaps even just. Michael was not a good person. Good people did not harm those who tried to help them.

"You can't reintegrate me into the system," Michael blurted, his face flushing with the decision. It was tantamount to a suicide request, and he could not make it lightly.

Dr. Bellucci looked vaguely surprised, a bemused expression on his face as he put the chart down. Casually, he meandered to Michael's bedside. "I have no desire to reintegrate you into anything."

Michael stiffened. He had liked the notion that it had been his choice, but the end result was all that mattered. He nodded. "Then why am I still alive?"

Eyebrows raised, the doctor cocked his head. "You are of no value to me dead, Michael."

Michael's eyes narrowed. "I will never be ready for graduation. You can't use me like you do Wendy. What value am I to you?"

Dr. Bellucci's lips quirked into a smile. "I'm a scientist, Michael, not a business man. Don't forget that. My goal is not a single experiment, but the whole. Failures are part of the process. Each one can get me closer to success. This is where Jericho made a scientific oversight. He did not tolerate his failures. He destroyed them and by destroying them, he destroyed all chances he had to learn from them."

Michael's heart skipped a beat, his palms feeling clammy. Sweat broke out across his forehead. He had known how to fear before, when he had thought he had nothing to lose. Fear was palpable now, an acute feeling gnawing at the pit of his stomach. "What do you want with me?"

He had wanted the question to be strong, sure, but it sounded weak and meager, even to himself.

"Simple," the doctor said amicably. "I plan on studying you. Analyzing you in every way I can think of." The friendly tone took on a sinister undercurrent, the glint in his eyes turning malicious. "Take you apart, piece by piece, until I can see just where Jericho went wrong with you. There is a glitch somewhere, and I intend to find it and eradicate it by all means possible."

The words were spoken calmly. Factually. Almost in anticipation. Yet, it was a death sentence for Michael. More than that even; it was a promise of inevitable torture, of endless probing. If he had been a slave before, he was nothing but an object now. Devoid not only of rights, but of all humanity. He would not be granted the asylum of sleep or the right to move of his own volition. A lab rat, not even entitled to wander a maze until his death.

Dr. Bellucci smiled again, patting Michael benignly on the arm. "Don't worry, Michael," he said soothingly. "I'm sure it will hurt, but you can take solace in knowing that your suffering will help your brothers and sisters to be more prosperous. You will be helping us all. Now, please, rest. You will want to ready yourself before we begin."

With that, Dr. Bellucci left, the door shutting behind him with a forlorn click. There wasn't even a lock on the door - not even the simplest measure of security - and Michael was as trapped as he'd ever been. Because where could he go? What could he do? Even if he could find it in himself to kill the doctor (the way he'd hurt Stefan), he would get no farther than the door before Wendy took him out. Wendy was probably out there now, waiting for him, a whole compound full of children who would see him as a test they could pass to earn their graduation.

And there was no purpose in it. No meaning in escape. What life did he have? He was no one's brother. He wasn't even anyone's friend, because friends didn't try to kill each other with their minds.

Throat tight, Michael turned his head away. The room was cold and empty, and Michael stared with dry, blank eyes at the wall. He had never believed he could escape before. The long monotony of his life had been a quiet hell, a slow suicide he had not wanted to avoid.

He wanted to avoid it now. He missed his apartment on the third floor, its view of the bustling street. He missed his classes, the other people he'd met. He missed the food, the games, the movies. He missed finding things to decorate his room, he missed eating out at the bar with Stefan.

Stefan.

He missed Stefan.

Stefan wasn't coming. Michael had made sure of that. One of the problems with free will, he realized bitterly, was the right to take everything good and throw it all away. Stefan had not rejected him even when he wasn't his brother. But Michael had been too hurt to see it.

It was a scary thing, not just being locked up and helpless, but knowing the only hope he would have had for escape was the one he'd laid out bleeding on the floor.

Michael was sorry and Michael was hurt and Michael was scared.

He blinked, suppressing a shudder as he lay limp on the bed. It had been a fantasy. Michael couldn't go back to that, couldn't go back to the way things were, not even if he wanted to.

Michael closed his eyes, taking in a stuttering breath. It was a pointless debate, emotions that had no purpose or weight. Because Michael had made his choice, made it clear as pain in the gut and blood in the mouth. Hope could not exist where it was murdered, and Michael had to accept once and for all that he was alone.

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